Chinese egg crepes with scallion

May 14th, 2019  |  Published in Uncategorized, What we savor

A simple egg crepe. Photo: Ivy整嘢食 on xinshipu.com

On many mornings as a child, I woke up to the smell of breakfast. My grandpa worked the overnight shift at the pharmacy downstairs, and my aunt had already married and moved out by then, so it was often just the two of us, my grandma and me.  

Grandma woke up absurdly early. She was usually at the farmer’s market by 6 a.m. At night, feeling ambitious, I would promise her that tomorrow, tomorrow is the day I finally wake up early and go with her. But in all our years of living together, I can only think of a handful of times that I actually made it to the market, the temptation of a warm bed proving far greater than a hot bowl of soy milk at the food stall. 

Mostly I woke up to find grandma already back in the kitchen, a basket of the day’s groceries next to her. This was the 1990’s, and our area of Harbin, China did not yet have a supermarket. She’d shoo me away, but not before feeding me a bite of whatever she was cooking.

One of my favorite dishes was an egg crepe. The recipe is simple: whisk together a few eggs with some chopped scallions and a dash of salt, and cook in thin sheets on a hot pan. Eggs were no longer the luxury good that they were when my grandparents were farmers, but the golden yellow egg crepes felt like a treat whenever we had them. 

I lived with my grandparents until I was ten, when I moved to Long Island, New York to live with my parents, the first time in over seven years — they had immigrated to the United States when I was three, leaving their only child behind. My parents did not cook and the food was different. I had never had cheese before and didn’t understand why anyone would eat it. I gained ten pounds from a diet of chicken nuggets and ice cream sundaes, the only things I could keep down while my palate adjusted, out of necessity.

I was eighteen when my grandparents came to New York to attend my college graduation. My dad, as the eldest son, had the duty of taking care of his parents in old age, and so my grandparents never left. I’m sure the adjustment is even harder for them than it was for me. They do not speak any English and likely never will. They don’t drive. They didn’t know anyone here. My grandpa found refuge in reading Chinese newspapers. My grandma watched too many hours of Chinese TV shows, but her eyes started to hurt and she had to stop.  

I drove out to a poultry farm in the east side of Long Island and picked up three baby chicks. This was not for entirely selfless reasons — I was going through a stressful period at work and was searching for anything to make me happy. I also hoped that taking care of the chicks would give my grandparents something to occupy their days. We had three little hens: Penny was the pretty copper-colored one, Pepper was gray and black, and McNugget was white and the biggest. 

Grandma treasured the eggs that our hens laid,which were smaller than supermarket eggs, with bright orange yolks. She saved most of them for when I’d come visit, when she’d made egg crepes with scallions she and grandpa grew in the backyard. The hens rarely recognized me, but they ran up to grandpa whenever he set foot in the backyard. He built a coop for them from an old wooden wardrobe. Grandma fed them mostly leftovers. One day my dad announced that the hens had to go. He would no longer house them. Another day I came home and grandma told me that my dad ripped up their garden and planted other things instead. We don’t know why he did that. My dad was a first-generation college graduate, so maybe he just wanted to get away from the farm. I was indignant for my grandparents, but they had accepted this. After all, they still live under my dad’s roof.

I now visit my grandparents at a daytime senior center they go to that caters to elderly Chinese people, and we often think of our chickens. We gave them to a nice family in Long Island, who promised to integrate our three into their flock. Things are better now, with the senior center; my grandparents made friends and have a consistent structure to their week. We don’t need the chickens any more, but we miss them anyway.

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