The Big Picture

The Big Picture

I don't want perfect or curated photos anymore. I want to look at these photos and remember who we were in that moment. I want to see what someone else saw when we tumbled and stumbled in front of their camera, like our family always does. I want to feel love and pride for the many ways we came through another year of struggles and triumphs together.  

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Good Fortune: Life In A Chinese Family

A SNAPSHOT OF SOME OF MY COUSINS (I'M THIRD FROM THE RIGHT) 

A SNAPSHOT OF SOME OF MY COUSINS (I'M THIRD FROM THE RIGHT) 

At some point during my middle school years, I realized other families weren't like mine and that I was one of the lucky ones.

My mom comes from a really big family. Of her many siblings, five settled within driving distance of ours to raise their families. My sister and I had cousins for entertainment; and we had lots of them. When our families got together, I had extra brothers, sisters and parents and all of them shaped who I am today.

It was a time that TV shows were on specific days, the internet didn't exist, and paying for summer camps would be unheard of (and may I say ludicrous if you were from a Chinese family). We would travel into Toronto from our small town and then easily fill our days with bike rides, baseball games at the park, trips to the swimming pool, and marathon Commodore 64 competitions, like many other kids of that era. But being Chinese meant we also had late night mahjong sessions and spent afternoons making pork dumplings in my aunt's kitchen.

My family's many cultural traditions and quirks were what set my childhood apart from those of my friends, especially in our hometown: the six hour dinners in Chinese restaurants, where the kids served themselves endless cans of pop from cases tucked under the tables; the meandering trips through the Chinese grocery store with our head aunt (there's always a boss lady in a Chinese family), where upside down roasted ducks were like beautiful window decorations; the slurping of congee and noodles on plastic covered tables in Chinatown that trumped any fast food; the family celebrations during which we would kneel in front of our grandmother so she could bestow her best advice. 

This past month, two of my youngest cousins were married a week apart and there was a lot of excitement and feelings of nostalgia knowing I'd get that time with my cousins (and aunts and uncles, too).

The first wedding brought all the good stuff to the table: the 10-course traditional Chinese feast, the celebratory lion dance, the countless selfie stick photos, and the karaoke. It felt great to be together again.

The second wedding was grown ups only, which meant the "kids" had to travel out-of-town without our partners and children. That dynamic really cranked up the big Chinese family experience and compelled my sister to look at me during one of the chaotic family meals and mouth the words, You have GOT to write this stuff down.

There are some things you can be sure of when you go to a family get together with your extended Chinese family:

  • There will be a LOT (and I mean a LOT) of back and forth she-said/she-said conversations (because women run the families and Chinese moms still try to dictate what their grown up children will do). Many conversations will begin with Auntie says her kids are doing <insert whatever it is your mom wants YOU to do>. But now that we're older and wiser, a quick cousin-to-cousin text almost always results in an I never said that response and a knowing nod of our collective heads.

 

  • There will be a stream of photos sent back and forth of the moms in their outfits, so the kids can weigh in on who looks the skinniest. Note: it's best to choose your own mom. Also note: Chinese moms don't pay attention to clocks, so these texts will come at all hours of the day and night and an immediate reply will be expected. 

 

  • If word gets out there is an empty seat in any vehicle travelling to said family function, a quick flurry of exchanges (Chinese moms are high level texters and FaceTimers) will have that seatbelt occupied with a cousin in no time  — even before the driver themselves are asked, but see point number one. 

 

  • There will be height comparisons made every time you get together, even after all the "kids" have stopped growing. This banter will extend to which Chinese mom has shrunk most. Note: in this case, it's best not to choose your own mom. Also note: these family comparisons may also include bra size, waist size, and wrinkle counts, so it's best to wear your thickest skin.

 

  • You will be handed plastic bags filled with strange items you didn't ask for — you'll have to take them anyway. Often they are weird snacks or cast offs from your parents' last big clean up. Saying no is not an option. If you feel worried about our family wasting plastic bags, don't be. Every bag has been reused thoroughly and probably for years. 

 

  • When the food is served, you have to be ready. The chopsticks will be flying. And if there's a server carrying a tray of hors d'oeuvres, (s)he will get to know everyone from the Chinese side of the family very, very quickly. Also: food you didn't ask for will be thrown onto your plate if you're within arm's reach of your parents. If it's a deep-fried crab claw, you can consider yourself the favourite. Again, saying no isn't an option. 

 

  • When you're with your Chinese family, it will feel like no time has passed. You will still defer to your elders and make fun of the youngest kids on the family tree. Birth order is a really big deal in this culture. So you can grow up all you want, but it won't change the pecking order. It feels good to be around a bunch of grown ups who still treat you like a kid though, so you'll appreciate it even when you're rolling your eyes.   

When I was still living at home, my mom would find time every weekend (unless we were already with them in person) to call her sisters and catch up. I have vivid memories of her sitting sideways on a kitchen chair, phone cord dangling, and the rise and fall of her native tongue filling the space around us. I know she still does this with her sisters, though they've now moved onto FaceTime'ing the top thirds of their faces or competing with each other in online games to combat their insomnia. 

In the Chinese culture, there are symbols and meanings that represent good fortune. And it's believed that by filling your life with these lucky objects, you will increase your happiness and joy. All my life, they've been pointed out to me by my family. But it's only now that I'm grown that I realize the luckiest objects were the people who raised me. 

Because there are some other things you can sure of when you find yourself at a get together with your Chinese family: you will be reminded of your luck; you will realize your good fortune; and you will feel so much joy. 

 

New Year, New Traditions: Family Fondue

It's a new year and our family is a year older. When you are parenting young children, this growing up business can be really exciting. Moving past the cumbersome, workhorse days of babies and toddlers can feel like a liberation of sorts. For me, there's a mix of satisfaction (at getting through it) and sadness (at saying goodbye).

I can feel the magic of this time of year inching closer to an end. Sleepy faces wearing footed pajamas and poking us awake when it's still dark. Plates of cookies for Santa and wide-eyed wonder at the gifts he has left for us. The six of us rumbling around the house together in that quiet space between Christmas and the new year. I will miss all of it.

But having older kids means we can bring in new traditions. This year, I decided we would bravely and boldly try fondue for our new year's eve meal (I really know how to let my hair down these days). It hasn't been on my radar until now, because I couldn't imagine a meal made up of repeated safety warnings about boiling cheese and hot pots would feel very festive or relaxing. 

family-fondue-night

Most of the recipes I found for the cheese sauce had ingredients like dry mustard, garlic and Worcestershire sauce (which would probably be delicious, unless you're a kid), but I opted to keep it simple and plain-tasting and added a flavourful cheese to the cheddar instead.

  • 4 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup of shredded Gruyère cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • pinch of salt to flavour
  • 2 1/2 cups of milk (or to desired thickness)

Pre-mix the two cheeses and toss with the flour and salt, then set aside. Heat the milk on the stove until it's bubbling at the edges and then slowly add cheese while whisking constantly. Once all the cheese has melted, transfer to the fondue pot.

  • boiled mini potatoes
  • cubed ham
  • cured sausage chunks
  • sirloin steak cubes (pre-cooked)
  • steamed broccoli
  • red pepper strips
  • apple slices
  • pear slices
  • chunks of fresh bread
family-fondue

Anyone who feeds kids knows it's hit-and-miss when you try new food, but not this time — everyone liked it! Being able to choose which items to eat and which ones to dip was a big part of the enjoyment. 

And we didn't stop with cheese. I had a smaller, ceramic and candlelit fondue set for dessert. I melted a block of semi-sweet baker's chocolate in a pot on the stove and slowly added evaporated milk until it was a nice consistency. We dipped pineapple, strawberries, gigantic marshmallows and chunks of pound cake. A friend of mine has since suggested melting a giant Toblerone bar: brilliant. 

family-fondue

It ended up being a fantastic way for us to ring in the new year as a family. It was interactive, silly and different from the usual meals we have around the table. I only delivered warnings about the hot pot about 10 times before JB's sideways look told me I had reached maximum safety nut levels. 

Family rating for family fondue night: FIVE STARS. 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Giveaway: 100 Days of Real Food Fast & Fabulous

Photo provided by Lisa Leake

Photo provided by Lisa Leake

It's the most wonderful, hustle and bustle time of the year. 

Our family is feeling like we've barely had time to pack away our Halloween costumes, before donning our ugly Christmas sweaters to decorate the tree. 

It's all good, though. Holiday get togethers and doing our best to make the season more about giving than receiving means we'll be spending a lot more time in the kitchen in the coming weeks: making our own meals and preparing treats and food to share with others. This week there's a potluck and a girl on a mission to make something sweet for our neighbours penciled into the family calendar.

With four growing kids, the kitchen is already the highest traffic area in our home. If we don't look for ways to be efficient with shopping and meal planning, we start to slip into a pattern of cobbled together meals that don't fuel us the way we need to be fuelled to get through our hectic schedule. Oh, and we get on each other's nerves when all of us are bumbling around in the kitchen foraging for food!

During the week, I am the primary kitchen person. Most nights, it's just me and a couple of the kids at the table. Plates of dinner for the rest of the crew wait for their later arrival. And that was an important decision for our family. It can be all-too-easy to get into a fend for yourself groove when the whole family isn't able to eat together. It happened a lot when the kids were small and I was on my own for meal prep. Once they were older, and I could spend more time in the kitchen, I started to make some serious changes. The first thing to change was the mindset that I didn't need to prepare a family meal if we weren't eating together. Now that we have our routine of setting aside plates for latecomers, I'm more likely to prepare a well-rounded meal. On the weekends, my husband takes over in the kitchen and we do our very best to make sure all six of us are at the same table on one of those nights. 

I'm not going to pretend it comes easily. It's work to come up with ideas and to plan for pulling meals together around our schedule. I rely (heavily) on inspiration from others. And one of the cookbooks and blogs that really works for our family is 100 Days of Real Food and now the newest cookbook in the series 100 Days of Real Food Fast & Fabulous. I stumbled upon Lisa's Instagram feed last year, and I was hooked. 

These recipes meet all my requirements for family meals: quick, user-friendly, real ingredients (that are easy to find in the grocery store and are often already in my kitchen). 

The newest cookbook (which I'm working my way through) has 100 recipes and includes a lunch box section which has some great ideas for grown up and pint-sized lunches. She also provides gluten-free and nut-free options in the recipes. And did I mention easy? I was amazed by the five minute jars of overnight oats the kids could grab in the mornings. And the dinners really are fast and fabulous, I'm not exaggerating! 

EASY FISH TACOS. Photo provided by Lisa Leake

EASY FISH TACOS. Photo provided by Lisa Leake

Like I was saying, the kids are older now. I can spend more time in the kitchen while they're busy doing other things. But here's the kicker: they are also old enough to start pulling their own weight when it comes to feeding themselves and the rest of the family. My husband likes to remind me (often) that he was preparing dinner for his whole family at least once a week by the time he was 10, and I'm doing my best to let go of my need to control the kitchen. The recipes and ideas in this cookbook are completely tween and teen friendly, so no more excuses for any of us. There are going to be some more changes in the new year when it comes to meals. 

I'm so happy with this new cookbook that I'd like to give one away to a lucky reader, so you too can head into the busiest time of year with the best tools to feed your family (and anyone else who you happen to be spending time with over the holidays). 

If you are a Canadian resident, you can enter below. Thanks and good luck!

Disclosure: I was not paid to write this post, but I was generously gifted a copy of the new cookbook 100 Days of Real Food: Fast & Fabulous by Lisa. I love this book so much (and I think you will, too) that I bought another copy to give away to one of you!