“Water Snowflake Goes to Market”
Tobacco declined, and water snowflake went to market.
It was in the 2000s at the seafood stall in Chiayi that I first came across bird-catcher berries stir-fried with water snowflake, steamed with fish, and with fern leaves , knocking open a hole in my memory. I had never imagined that these pickled berries that looked like eyeballs, could do so much more than sitting still on a table of vegetarian dishes and stare back at my mother looking back toward them. And more puzzling still: how could the “water snowflake” that we hardly ate at all back home have left the village, changed its name, and flooded the market? In my perplexity, I picked up a pickled berry with my chopsticks, and let the astringent flavor I remembered from childhood roll around the base of my tongue until it slowly revealed its sweetness. I suppose it’s only after you’ve left home for a long time and suffered your share of bitterness that you can savor the taste of bird-catcher berries?
That taste drew me back home once again.
I return to when my mother would personally pick and prepare bird-catcher berries to lay out a small plate of them at every meal. What would she have been feeling then? I follow her out of the rice paddies after the first weeding, with a little wash basin tied to her apron filled with wild greens she had carefully picked from the ground. Tired, but not without letting slip a certain satisfaction. I understand now the bounty of the paddies, and will no longer be so reluctant to eat pondweed and gooseweed with soybean paste all week long. When the Ghost Festival comes, I sit quietly and watch her prepare the ingredients for taro root dumplings, and no longer wonder why they get thicker and more appetizing the fewer people are left at home — the better to call those who have gone out into the world to come back, and to bless them. On the afternoon before New Year’s eve, I can hardly hold back my excitement as the great big double-alloy stew pot is set up in the back yard, and I dutifully help kindle the fire underneath. Mother bustles back and forth around the stove, and my sisters quicken their movements to match, but not fast enough to avoid her scolding. This pot of sugarcane bottom braised stew in front of me means not only the best thing one could ever hope to eat, but also the hope of family togetherness, and an annual trial for the wife of the family’s eldest son. There’s no room for error — I have to feed the flames well and keep the heat steady!
In the course of making contacts for community development, I go to Ahlishan to pay my respects to the indigenous Zou people, and my hosts invite me to stay for lunch. The village head brings out a platter of what I mistake at first for an authentic Hakka-style pigeon pea stew. My ideas about which foods belong where are displaced, and I am reminded that I need to get beyond my own homesickness. I visit someone who has revived a local variety of soybean and I call on some friends who have come back to the village to open a tofu workshop. The unforgettable sound of the itinerant tofu guy calling his wares; the importance of vegetable-derived protein to the community; their advocacy for the preservation of local cultivars; these call to mind how my mother used to hang all kinds of seeds from the window-frames to dry. A few researchers of the indigenous culture of foraging break open the boundaries of how I had understood vegetables in the wild, and set bird berries free to wander the land. Meanwhile, friends from the Meinung People’s Association are calling for us to create a plan and seek out dialogue on how to shore up the resilience and sustainability of our foodways and culinary traditions. They are focused on a new era after tobacco, on the experience of farmers who have been looking to create alternative economies and crops, and on what it has meant locally for Meinung to produce water snowflake, and the promises or pitfalls that lie ahead on the global market.
The essential component of the character for food is “woman” 女, for they are the foragers, producers, preservers, and educators. But “face-towel noodles” are tied to my father. When test scores or tobacco harvests were high, it was he who would elatedly take us to celebrate at the rice-noodle stall. When the workers in the field were to be rewarded, he would have me bring them noodles. All of this gave me the feeling that “face-towel noodles” were the very best thing that can be made out of rice. When I moved to Chiayi to work, I had to try the famous turkey rice there, and observing how each stall specializing in this dish made their own special chicken schmaltz to drizzle over rice, I started to have the same impression.
When Sheng-xiang read the lyrics, he was reminded of Japan’s “Grade B cuisine” competitions in which the contestants were all sorts of non-mainstream and local specialties. If our food has a soundtrack, it would be local pop music; the advertising jingles and notifications to customers that their order is ready broadcast from portable food carts; the mingled Eastern and Western sounds of outdoor wedding parties along with Li Wengu’s raucous comedic skits; the opera tunes that ring in the birthdays of our gods at temple festivals and shrines, and the like. Sheng-Xiang calls all these kinds of sounds grade B-music.
Well then — please let our grade B-music transport you into the vagabond stories we sing here about food and about people.