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One Day of Fame

I suppose I should blog about this before it becomes ancient history!  On Aug. 22, my blog was featured on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed.  It was a total surprise.  I confess that I didn’t even know what Freshly Pressed was.

I woke up to all these random comments filling my inbox.  At first, I thought my blog was being spammed.  Then I saw the note from the WordPress administrator that my blog post The Name Game had been selected for Freshly Pressed.  Within a 24 hour period, my blog got over 5000 views.  Wow.  On a day I post a new entry, I typically get maybe 60 or 70 views.

It’s a strange feeling to have so many complete strangers read my writing.  The 80+ comments I received were overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.  And even for those few comments that were lukewarm or even critical, I was still honored people cared enough to comment.  Part of me wishes I could have a conversation with everyone who commented.  I especially appreciated people sharing their stories.  Stories are always a gift.

I wish I could pinpoint exactly why my post was chosen for FP, but I really have no idea.  Blake thinks Milo’s photo helped.  It probably did.  Writing is such a lonely endeavor and I often feel like I’m sending my words out into a black hole.  For one day, it felt a little less lonely.

 

 

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It seems like New Englanders are pretty jaded when it comes to bad weather.  Last winter, there were no fewer than seven major snow storms that shut down schools and businesses.  But this time, it’s not the middle of winter.  It’s August, and the storm we’re waiting for is a hurricane.

Hurricane Irene is expected to pummel her way up the eastern seaboard over the weekend and reach New England by Sunday.  New Hampshire is expected to get a good dose of her Sunday afternoon and evening.  They tell us to expect a lot of strong winds and be prepared to lose power, perhaps for several days.

So we’re stocking up: water, batteries, a new flashlight, food, important documents.  We also got a delivery of propane today that should last us through the winter.  We expect the power to go out.  We don’t have a generator, though the neighborhood hums of generators during big snowstorms.  Instead, Blake hooks up an inverter to one of the car batteries and we’re able to run lights and computers.  This is how we got by for a year when we lived in a cabin in the Oregon woods.  That was, of course, pre-baby.  Baby complicates a few things.  It will the hard to go without running water for several days, for instance.  That would really suck.  But Blake seems to take great pleasure at preparing for long power outages.  He’s a pretty handy person to have around during a natural disaster.

Our (partial) shopping list:

4  2.5-gallon containers of water
2 4-packs size D batteries
1  Maglite LED flashlight
50 pounds ice
20′ x 25′ plastic sheeting
2 gallons milk
2 pounds salami
1 pound bologna
2 loaves sourdough bread
1 5-pound bag brown rice
1 jumbo bag tortillas
1 5-pack dried udon noodles (aka, ramen)
2 cans sardines
10 Luna bars
2 cans coconut milk
1 bag muesli
1 box steel cut oats
1 package burrito-sized flour tortillas
1 lb sliced mozzarella cheese
1 lb. brick monterey jack cheese
2 lbs. butter (for pie baking!)
1 lbs. bacon
1 package UHT milk
1 pack 7th Generation disposable diapers (b/c we won’t be cloth diapering during the storm)

I didn’t see too many people panicking, but the stores are running out of supplies.  New Englanders are a tough breed.  Since I still think of myself as a transplanted Californian, I’m probably over-preparing for disaster.  (California disasters tend to be earthquakes and, well, you can’t really predict those.)  Still, we like to think of ourselves as resourceful, and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to ride Irene relatively unscathed.

Just to be sure, I confirmed with our homeowners’ insurance that we were covered in case of hurricane.  There is a big tree that’s awfully close to the house.

Some of our hurricane purchases. Gotta love ramen.

 

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I met a new friend today, Dave Seah.  He’s Taiwanese-American, lives in New Hampshire, and he’s a writer–like me.  Plus, he’s my age, so we can feel old and curmudgeonly together.  But Dave is far from curmudgeonly.  He’s much more positive and hopeful than I am, so it was good to hang with him.  We talked for almost 3 hours.   He gave me the following advice:

“Think of your writing as a gift to put out into the world.  And think of it as a good gift.  A really good gift.  Not like a fish aquarium.”

I was following him until he said “fish aquarium.”

Dave had a friend who had just started dating a new girlfriend soon after he broke up with an old girlfriend.  The new girlfriend wanted to get her new boyfriend a present and she wanted to get him a fish aquarium.  She told this to Dave.  She said her boyfriend liked fish and she thought he would like a fish aquarium.

Dave did not think this was a good idea.  Knowing his friend, Dave thought he would be pretty particular about keeping fish and would probably not go for something his new girlfriend could find at Petco.  Essentially, Dave told her, she would be giving him a new set of chores to keep the aquarium clean.

She didn’t listen to Dave.  She bought the aquarium.

They broke up not too long afterward.

Dave said I could blog about this.  So I did.  Because my writing (and his story) is a gift to the world.

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Front Page News

On Monday, Milo and I went shopping at our local grocery store for a few supplies before the next snow storm came in. The guy at the fish counter said I looked familiar.  He said, “Did you do something with pies?”

“I did bake a pie,” I said.  “I won second at Mack’s apple pie contest on Saturday.”

“That’s it,” he said.  “You’re in the paper!”

“Really?”

“Yeah, hold on a sec.  I’ll get it for you.”

And there it was.  Front page news.  Me and Milo.  Told you he was photogenic.

I bought some extra salmon from the fish guy.

To read full article from New Hampshire Union Leader, click here.

Pelham resident Sabina Chen beamed with her son, Milo, while showing off her winning ribbon Saturday afternoon after earning second place for traditional pies in the 21st Mack’s Apple Pie Contest.

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The Pie Contest

Pie heaven!

Mack’s Apples is a venerable institution in Londonderry, New Hampshire, family-run since 1732.  There are sprawling orchards with well-groomed trails.  In the winter, the kids invade an impressive hill behind the farm stand for sledding.  I can see the sleds zooming down the hill as I pull into the parking lot with my pie.  Contest rules required all pies to be registered by 1:30 and judging to begin promptly at 2:00pm.  Milo was napping when I left around 1:00, so Daddy was to bring him later, while I went ahead with my pie.

The farm stand is a rustic, weathered building with brightly painted signs.  Bins of apples and pumpkins line one side, while the other side has shelves of local New Hampshire foodstuffs: maple syrup, apple butter, pancake mixes, candies.  Instead of shopping carts, there are big red-flyer wagons that Milo loves when we come here.

On the day of the pie contest, the farm stand is starting to fill up.  You can smell the warm cinnamon and sugar as you walk in. There were two categories for the pie contest: traditional and non-traditional apple pies.  Traditional pies were described as two-crust pies with an apple filling.  Non-traditional pies were any pies with predominantly apple filling, but could include other fruits, nuts, cream, etc.  My pie was a traditional pie.  I had wanted to limit the variables in my first pie contest, so I went with the traditional pie.

My pie was registered pie #9–a lucky number in Chinese culture.  A contest official took my pie and laid it on a long table along with the other pies.  There weren’t too many pies on the table yet and I thought, oh, maybe the competition wouldn’t be too bad.  But as the room filled up, the table filled up too.  By 1:45, there were 23 traditional pies on the table.  Wow.  That’s a lot of pie.

Lining up with the competition: 23 pies total.

I had taken a seat next to Lorraine, a lovely grandmotherly woman who sat in the middle of the long room and wore an apron.  Lorraine had entered the contest six times and always wore an apron.  Two years ago, she won the whole she-bang.  This year, she had submitted two pies, one traditional and one non-traditional.  She used the same pie recipe that had won two years ago.  She does so every year.  She said there were people came year after year and it was great to see the familiar faces.

With our new friend, Lorraine.

Judging sounded like a complicated process, but a well-oiled machine.  There were twelve judges, six for traditional and six for non-traditional.  During the first round, two judges taste each pie and award points: 3 points for appearance and 7 points for taste.  After those scores are tallied, the top 8 or 9 pies from each category are advanced to the final round.

Milo and Daddy joined us just in time for judging to start.  Milo was an instant hit, of course, but I couldn’t use him to influence the judges.  They were all too busy gobbling down pies to notice him.  He flirted with Lorraine and with others gathered around us.  He squirmed off my lap and took off down the room.  He got his photo taken over and over.  I was sure his picture was going to make the local paper.  Milo is a photogenic charmer and he knows it.

The first round of judging completed, they announced the pies that would advance.  “Pie number 1.” “Pie number 2.” There was a cheer as each pie was announced.  “Pie number 6.”  This was Lorraine’s pie.  She was pleased.

I tried to keep my hopes down.  There were so many pies, chances of winning were slim, especially among this bunch of very experienced bakers.  Though it would be nice if my pie made it to the final round, I thought.  It was slightly nerve-wracking.

“Pie number 9.”  That’s mine!

Nine out of 23 pies advanced to the finals.  I was happy.  It didn’t matter to me who won at that point.  It was nice to know my pie made the cut.  (ar.)

For the final round, the judges switched sides: traditional to non-traditional and vice versa.  For this round, all six judges per category taste all the pies and award points accordingly.  Sixty points total.

By this point, Milo had taken command of the room, freely wandering off into a crowd of strangers.  Blake and I had to tag team him to corral him, until he discovered the forklift parked in a back corner.  Thankfully, he had a grand old time with the forklift until it was time to announce the winners.

Second place, with a score of 54.5 points, Pie number 9!

I must say, I was stunned.  Out of 23 pies, I won second place.  And with a pie that I had yet to taste.  I had an inkling it was pretty good, but it must have been really good to stand out in that field.  It was the first time I had entered such a contest, the first time I had offered up something I had cooked to judgement other than that of my family and friends.  Apple pie.  I felt humbled and grateful.  And quite a sense of accomplishment.  More than I had felt in quite a while.

When I finally did get a taste of my pie–there were only a few bites left in the pan–I had to admit, it was pretty good.  The apples, which I had pre-cooked, were just the right tenderness, not too sweet, not too tart.  The crust was flaky and light, but not too dry.  Even Blake, who (ahem) doesn’t like apple pie, said the crust was really good.  So I guess I was on to something with my baking experiment.  Third pie’s a charm.

My new friend, Lorraine, said she would cut out all the articles she read about the contest and send them to me.  We promised to meet again next year, if not before.

For my recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Standing out in the crowd, with pie.

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Apple Pie!

On a whim, I decided to enter an apple pie baking contest at Mack’s Apples, a local orchard that has been in operation since 1732.  They’ve been hosting their apple pie contest for 21 years.  I thought, what the heck, I can bake a decent apple pie and this sounded like a fun community event.

The first apple pie I ever baked was in 1991, when I was living in China.  This was back when you couldn’t find many Western goods in China and if you wanted any American food, you had to make it yourself, from scratch.  So I learned to bake an apple pie for our small ex-pat Thanksgiving gathering that year.  It was quite a thrill when it came out of the tiny electric oven.  Nicely browned and bubbling apple goop out of the cut slits.  Since then, I’ve baked my fair share of pies and usually they come out pretty tasty.

For this contest, I thought I should test my pie first on some willing takers.  A week before the contest, we hosted a potluck for Milo’s playgroup and I foisted my first try on them.  For this pie, I used the Foolproof Pie Dough recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated.  I also tried to address the issue of too much liquid when the apples cook down in the pie.  I found this sometimes happens and makes the lower crust soggy.  I had read about a technique called maceration, which calls for the cut apples to be mixed with sugar and spices and to sit in a colander for an hour so that the juices can be collected before baking.  The juices are cooked down into a syrup, which is added back to the apples right before baking.  Sounded fancy.  A little complicated.  So I tried macerating the apples, boiled down the syrup, etc., and fed it to the playgroup potluck.  I thought the pie came out a little dry and the apples tasted a little bland.  It was the kind of pie that needed ice cream with it.  Not optimal.

A few days later, my parents hosted a small gathering because my brother was visiting and I foisted a pie on them.  This time, I used the same crust (which had come out nice and flaky the last time) and did not bother to macerate the apples.  I just mixed up the apples with sugar and cinnamon and a little bit of cornstarch and dumped it into the pie.  This pie came out juicier, but maybe a little too juicy.  If I had let it sit for any length of time, the bottom crust might have become soggy.  Not optimal.

The night before the the contest, I decided the best thing to do was to pre-cook the apples before putting them in the pie.  In my search for recipes, I came across a basic recipe that seemed like it would work, with a few adjustments.  I made my pie dough that evening and put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Milo tastes the apples. Mommy hasn't showered yet.

The recipe called for apple juice, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I substituted a dry white wine–a nice California chardonnay I had been saving.  The alcohol would cook out of the mixture and we would be left with a lovely tart acidity to counter the sweetness of the apples.  I also added spices and decreased the amount of sugar, as I don’t like my pies to be super sweet. Finally, I would top off the whole thing with more butter.  In my opinion, you can never have too much butter.

The next morning, I got up and started peeling and coring apples.  Milo kept me company part of the time and helped by taste testing the apples.  Most the time, Daddy took care of him so that I could concentrate on building my pie.  I used Golden Delicious and Mutsu apples (from Mack’s Apples, of course) and cooked them in the white wine, brown sugar, and butter.  It was sweet and fragrant as the apples cooked down to just tender.  I added spices, white sugar and a few tablespoons of cornstarch, and cooked the mixture a bit more until the juices started to thicken.  (This is the way I add cornstarch to my beef broccoli so that the juices thicken and are not too watery.  Beef broccoli and apple pie–hm.)

Topped with extra butter!

I let the apple mixture cool down until it stopped steaming. In the meantime, I rolled out my pie pastry.  The chilled pie pastry was pretty easy to roll out.  Once the apples had cooled down, I poured the mixture into the pie and dotted it with some extra butter.  (Again, you can never have too much butter.)  Then I topped the pie with the upper crust.  Unfortunately, I got a little too eager with cutting slits into my upper crust and my pie looked a little sad, like a bad slasher job.  So I cut out a few decorative leaves and tried to patch up the edges.  Voila!

This pie recipe calls for baking the pie at a lower temperature (350F) than usual pie temperature (425F).  I figured this was because the apples were pre-cooked, but I was still a little paranoid about the crust not browning well, so I compromised at 375.  I brushed the upper crust with egg white and sprinkled on some cinnamon sugar and popped it into the oven.  About an hour later, I had a lovely, golden brown apple pie.  The crust had risen a little more than usual and I attributed this to the lower temperature, but when I poked the crust a little and saw that it was flaky, I knew I had something good.

I whisked the warm pie off to Mack’s and submitted my entry.  It took a little bit of faith to submit a pie I hadn’t tasted yet, but I knew it couldn’t be too bad to be inedible.  Details of the apple pie contest to follow.

For my complete recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Warm apple pie. Yum!

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While I haven’t been posting here as often as I should, my fans (all 2 of you) will be happy to know that I have been writing.  I won a local mommy blog contest and am now one of the featured bloggers for the Merrimack Valley Moms Blog.  I’ll be posting twice a month on various topics.  My first two blog posts are already up.  Check it out:

A Toy Story
My thoughts about too much baby gear for the modern American consumer.

Empty Shoes
A tribute to a friend who recently passed away, one month after giving birth to twins.

It’s been great to meet people and build some community through the blog.  The deadlines are totally helpful to get me writing and I’ve enjoyed having this outlet to express some thoughts about motherhood.  While it’s true that being a mom takes a lot of time and I’m constantly tired, it’s also been good for my writing.

My goal, really, is to make Milo a local celebrity.

Our head shot for the Merrimack Valley Moms Blog

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When my dear friend Grace suggested throwing a baby shower for us, I was honored and delighted by her offer.  At the same time, I was sad because most of my community, people I would otherwise invite to help celebrate the birth of our child, were on the West Coast.  We don’t know that many people here in New England, so this shower would have to be a small affair.

Grace & Alonso

 

 

But size doesn’t really matter when it comes to joy and the guests who were able to come brought plenty with them.  Each guest came from a different stage of my life, none of whom I met in New England, and while nobody knew each other, they all came together to help us welcome our baby.  Friends included:

Michael & Emily Tso and their 4 kids, Francesca, Viviana, Dawson, and Garrison.  I’ve known Mike since I was 18, when we met in Taiwan the summer after my freshman year in college.  It’s funny how our paths keep crossing throughout our lives, how his wife has also become a dear friend and how I’ve watched their kids grow.  They now live in NH, about 40 minutes away from us.

 

Old college friend Lain and her daughter Callie

Lain Chroust Ehmann and her daughters, Kinsey & Callie.  Lain is an old friend from Stanford who was both a fellow campus tour guide and a sorority sister. (Yes, I was in a sorority, but as Lain said, it was the anti-sorority sorority!)  I had not seen Lain since college.  She and her family just recently moved from California to Lexington, MA, and I was delighted to reconnect with her.

 

Ellen Anderson Holt and her sweet 2-year old boy, William.  Ellen is a poet friend from graduate school at UC Davis.  She, too, just moved from California to Cambridge, MA, as her husband is enrolled in a year-long fellowship at Harvard.  It’s been about 10 years since I last saw Ellen and I simply fell in love with her little boy.

Irene Kang, a buddy from San Francisco, who moved to Boston about 8 years ago.  We used to stalk musicians from the SF Symphony together.  We’ve managed to keep in touch and she even made it out to our wedding in Portland a few years ago.

Grace Talusan and Alonso Nichols, gracious hosts and loyal amigos.  Grace and I met in 1998 at the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference, where we cornered Amy Tan and made her have dinner with us.  She has been a kindred spirit ever since.  Grace teaches at Tufts University and she and Alonso have been a saving grace to us, reaching out to us in our New Hampshire boondocks.

But the biggest hit of the party was the 3-ton pile of sand Hubby had delivered last week for his geo-thermal heating project.  Our side yard has temporarily been transformed into a big sandbox.  The kids had a hey day, a little bit of California brought to New Hampshire just for our party!

 

Little William, age 2, leaving a surprise in Mommy's shoe.

 

 

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Baby Registry

35 weeks and counting.  Several friends have inquired where we are registered for our baby.  Since most of our friends are on the West Coast, we have a few options online:

  • Target.com for baby gear.  We have inherited most of our essential baby gear, furniture, clothes, etc., thanks to enthusiastic first-time grandparents on both sides.  Whatever we haven’t inherited, we’ve registered for here.  Extra points for whoever gets us the “Tiny Democrat” onesie.
  • Amazon.com for children’s books.  In my opinion, you can never have too many books.  This list was put together with suggestions from friends who are parents, aunts, uncles, and writers.  I am looking forward to reading to our baby.
  • To help in our vision to raise our child as a world citizen, please consider a donation to Rebuild Sudan.  Last spring, Hubby traveled to Sudan with this organization and helped design a school for the region of Jalle, in Southern Sudan, where thousands of children have been displaced by 20+ years of civil war.  We think our kid can afford to share a little.  Click on the website to donate and check out Hubby’s school design: rebuildsudan.org.
Mural design courtesy of Nancy Hom

Mural design courtesy of Nancy Hom

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Yesterday, in the ongoing saga of getting settled in our new house, we hung my print of Bernice Bing’s Mayacamas No. 6.  It goes well in our bedroom, with our modern furniture and bright colored duvet cover.   As a gift to myself, I had it custom framed recently.  It was the first time Hubby had really looked at the print and he asked me about the artist.  I found myself somewhat moved telling him about Bernice Bing.

Bernice Bing is an artist you’ve probably never heard of.  She grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and came of age in the 1950’s, during the City’s Beat Generation.  She was a part of all that foment, hanging out with Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in North Beach cafes.  It was the men who got credit for the Beat movement, though.  None of the women really did, and certainly not a woman of color, as Bernice was.  She was a lesbian, no less, which undoubtedly marginalized her even more.  So although she was hailed as a peer to artists of her generation and exhibited widely in the Bay Area, she toiled in relative obscurity until her death in the 1991.  But through it all, through health difficulties and artist’s poverty, she kept producing her art.

I had heard about Bernice Bing in my work with the Asian Pacific American community in San Francisco.  Her name was tossed around a fair amount, but I had never seen her work.  She was one of the founders of Asian American Women’s Artists’ Association (AAWAA), which helped to nurture several artist friends of mine: Flo Oy Wong, Lenore Chinn, and Nancy Hom.  Hubby knows these women and knows that I hold them dear, as they have been like older sisters, mentors to me as I have endeavored to build my own community through art.  To think of Bernice Bing as a mentor to these women, well, it felt like she was related to me, like a great aunt I had never met.

Last year, at the Shifting Currents exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco (the first ever major survey exhibition of Asian American artists), I was drawn to this one particular painting.  It was an abstract expressionist landscape, reminiscent of Diebenkorn, whose work I greatly admire.  Bold strokes of color, undefined but determined.  There was power in this painting, like a quiet, but strong voice fighting to be heard.  It was a struggle with which I am all too familiar.  Then I saw that the painting, Mayacamas No. 6, was by Bernice Bing.  It made perfect sense.  Of course it spoke to me.  It was like a long lost relative reaching out through time and generation to say: “I know you.” 

This brings me back to my ongoing ponderings raised in my previous post, Questions for Womanhood.  Do women really need to be mothers in order to be fulfilled? Bernice Bing never had children of her own, but did produce her own “children” in her art.  And she definitely had influence on generations of artists.  Would she have been able to do so if she had been a mother?  Maybe, maybe not.  Alice Walker likes to say that women artists and writers should have one—and only one—child, in order to preserve their creative energy for their work.  Producing art is creative, spiritual act, not unlike producing a child.  It requires our full commitment and attention, not unlike raising a child.

To be frank, my own mother feels that my writing is complete waste of time and, like a good Chinese mother, worries endlessly about how I will make a living, despite all evidence proving that I am perfectly capable of doing so.  It’s fair to say that I would be lost with “mothers” like Bernice Bing, who—even in her absence—offers me a more simpatico ear in her art.  For Bernice, mothering her art was fulfillment, enough to feed and nourish her through a difficult life and give her hope beyond herself.  Did she “miss out” by not having her own children.  Maybe.  Would we “miss out” had she not produced her body of work?  Definitely.

Mayacamas No. 6, by Bernice Bing

Mayacamas No. 6, by Bernice Bing

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