Dreaming of Lion’s Head Meatballs: The Tricks of Memory and the Foods of the World

I know. It’s ridiculous. I should be grading essays. But here I am, gazing at a nearly 50 year old cookbook that attempts to fit all of Chinese cuisine in a single slim volume. I now possess both the hardbound book and the recipe folio for the Time Life The Cooking of China. (Appropriately, as I write this, Spotify moves into Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing.”)

I told you a part of this story earlier. A million years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I knew a woman who was older than the rest of us. She lived with her physician husband in a wonderful old house up in Santa Monica Canyon. At the end of the term she invited our whole class over for dinner. I was dazzled by her sophistication. And she served, from this same book (!) Lion’s Head Meatballs. With ginger.

A few years later, married, a little sad and solitary, I think I attempted some version of these same meatballs, hoping to achieve a small flicker of sophistication and consolation. I fear I had no such luck. My children were babies–one a newborn an the other not yet three and therefore not inclined to pork and ginger, lion related or not. My then husband was gone. I actually don’t remember the meatballs, just the longing.

So when I first received this hardbound volume I immediately looked for the meatballs. They weren’t there.

Could I have mis-remembered? I knew that was quite possible, given how memory works, and yet those meatballs seemed so vivid. (But I’ve grown distrustful of nostalgia.)

So today I got the spiral edged recipe notebook. And guess what? The Lion’s Heads were there! Yes!

Admittedly the recipe, upon reflection, isn’t really that exciting. It’s basically pork, studded with minced ginger and chopped water chestnuts in a cornstarch thickened sweet and salty broth. The whole thing is served on a bed of cooked cabbage (the lion’s mane). It doesn’t thrill me. (I do think that I could come. up with a kind of nice plant based version though.)

Of all the volumes I’ve found so far (count them– 3) this one is the most dated. The author is an American who lived in pre-revolutionary China. Her references to Honk Kong, Taiwan, Formosa, and communism feel very sixties like. And the effort to discuss all of China from the Common Era to 1968 inevitably forces the treatment to be somewhat superficial, while the illustrations to my 2021/post Me Too/Post the summer of Black Lives Matter verge a little toward caricatures.

But there’s a sort of prescience too in author Emily Hahn’s discussion. She delicately urges her readers to give pressed bean curd (tofu!) a chance and discusses the difficulty in buying it. And there are recipes that I will definitely (alter and) try.

Ten Varieties of Vegetables sounds interesting and I’ll definitely fix Watercress Salad this summer. (If I can find fresh watercress.)

There’s something very brave about all of this. In a world of Bisquick (my own mother’s personal favorite), Tang, T.V. Dinners and Hamburger Helper these Time Life cookbooks ask people to look beyond their own habits and comfort zone. Emily Hahn talks in her introduction about being reared to just regard food as fuel, and to think of any sensate pleasure as sinful. China changed her, she tells the reader. And I like to think the same magic is worked on her readers (then and now): the unfamiliar can be good. We need this acceptance of other cultures now more than ever.

Regretfully I long ago lost touch with beautiful Rose, the woman who lived in Santa Monica Canyon. But the Lion’s Head Meatballs offer a vivid memory. In thinking about them, and maybe in cooking them, I can hold on to that thin and invisible connective tissue. Proust had his Madelines. I have this. I’ll let you know how the meatballs turn out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *