Sunday, December 4, 2011

7-Up, Saltines & War Wonton Soup

Do you have vivid food memories associated with your childhood?

For me it’s grandma’s potato dumplings and cabbage with kielbasa on Christmas Eve, a homemade Polish tradition. There’s dad’s letter-shaped, weekend-morning pancakes poured carefully into the electric countertop griddle with the classic early 80s motif on the lid. And then there were the regular dinner rotations: taco night, beef stroganoff, chicken casserole... Always with a green salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots and bottles and bottles and bottles of half empty salad dressings to choose from, served from the same polished wooden salad bowl. And there were the months when mom was determined we each put a heaping tablespoon of ground wheat bran on top of our cold breakfast cereal. Talk about an effective way to ruin a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.

This past week I was reminded of a different kind of food memory from childhood: sick day food.

I never minded being sick as a kid. In our house, being sick meant a day of special attention (an extra story or an super secure tuck-in at night), maybe the tiny television from the kitchen temporarily perched on my dresser, but mostly it meant 7-Up, Saltine crackers and war wonton soup. I, gratefully, never suffered any serious ailments as a kid, so I saw my few sick days as sort of special

There was the 7-Up, the first line of defense again sick day woes. Sometimes it was ginger ale, or even Hansen’s Fruit Sodas, but there was always a straw. On occasion there was even a flexi-straw, bent at a kind ninety degree angle toward my mouth. No matter the ailment, this was always a soothing balm, although mostly reserved for upset stomachs and sore throats. We didn’t drink much soda as kids (they rot your teeth, did you hear?), and I have a vague memory we were only allowed ‘clear’ or orange sodas – but that’s beside the point. It was a treat, and those effervescent, sugary bubbles always managed to do bring a bit of peace.

The Saltines were reserved for upset tummies, the first solid food when ready and able to eat again. The perfect combination of salt, crunch, blandness and dissolve-in-your-mouth texture. I remember the Volvo station wagon would make special trips to the store if someone was under the weather and the house was empty of these miracle crackers. To this day, I only eat them when I’m recovering from a rough stomach.

Then there is the war wonton soup. This is harder to explain, although on second thought it’s the same as chicken noodle soup – just from another culture. The cure-all war wonton soup was picked up from Jade East, the ‘hole in the wall’ Chinese restaurant between mom’s Pasadena Freeway freeway off ramp and home, the final stretch. Not just the average sick day food, growing up war wonton soup seemed to be mom’s cure-all.

Takeout orders were presented from behind the counter in cut-down cardboard boxes, the sides just tall enough to prevent the white waxed cardboard boxes of rice with the thin metal handles and the plastic containers of soup from knocking over and spilling on the car ride home. I only remember picking up those boxes once or twice, and we never ate in. The restaurant had an odd layout, and I still have the image of four heat-from-above buffet trays casting an orange-red light from the middle of the room. What I remember most was the short-sided box sitting in mom’s trunk, and how the smell permeated the whole car.

It’s nearly impossible to find any thing nearly as good as the Jade East war wonton variety in Charlotte, New Haven, Jamaica Plain, Portland, Madison or any of the places where I’ve been in dire need of this remedy. The liquid broth was watery, but flavorful, and one serving would fill the special big bowls reserved for this purpose alone. The broth was swimming with ‘fresh’ snow peas, carrot coins, bean sprouts, hearts of palm, water chestnuts, baby corns, slivers of white onion, scallion rings and bok choy - not to mention the thin ‘pork’ slices, uniformly brown around the edge and pink in the middle. And then there were the wontons; my reasoning always involved eating all the vegetables first in order to save these gems for last. They were ghostlike characters floating in the remaining broth, the thinnest rice noodle wrapped around an undistinguishable yet delicious meatball of pork or chicken or shrimp and onions…almost melting in your mouth.

Undoubtedly unconventional, this tonic soothed my stomach, refreshed my appetite and made everything better. So this past week, when I was struck with an out-of-nowhere stomach bug and finally regained my appetite…there was one thing, and one thing only, I wanted…war wonton soup.

Ok, and maybe I wanted my mom to come tuck me into bed too.

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