George and Martha Washington’s Runaway Slave

Ona Judge slipped out of her master’s house as the family ate Saturday dinner and escaped bondage. She was 22 years old. That night, she boarded a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 400 miles to the north. It was 1796. Her master was George Washington. He was in his second term as president of the United States in the country’s capital, Philadelphia.

Washington advertised in local newspapers. They described the runaway as “a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair…of middle stature, but slender and delicately made.”

img_5944In Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave Ona Judge, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar tells of Ona Judge’s early life in Mt. Vernon among family, her involuntary move to Philadelphia as Martha Washington’s personal maid, her daring escape to New Hampshire and her life passing as a free person. She also tells of the Washingtons’ determined efforts to recapture her, including Washington’s use of the power of the federal government.

In telling one slave’s story, Dunbar casts light on the physical and emotional hardships that slavery inflicted on bonded persons regardless of the status of their owners or the nature of the slave’s work. In Washington’s home in Philadelphia, the slaves slept crowded in the attic, rooms that were coldest in winter and hottest in summer. Dunbar points out that Ona, as with most house slaves, lacked privacy and private time: her time was never her own. For all slaves, the threat of separation from family and friends due to being sold or moved was ever-present. Women were always alert to unwanted sexual advances, but often could not avoid assaults. Every slave was subject to the whim of the master, no matter how impractical, unjust or dangerous.

Life events in the master’s family – births, marriages, deaths, moves – were sources of consternation for slaves. A death could lead to the sale of slaves to raise money to pay debts. Parents often gave slaves to their children on their marriage or at the birth of a child. All these maneuvers resulted in slaves possibly never seeing their family again.

The event that precipitated Ona’s decision to escape was Martha Washington’s decision to give Ona to her granddaughter on her marriage. Eliza Custis was labile and stubborn, known for her “stormy reputation.” Moreover, the newlyweds planned to live in the new Federal City (Washington D.C.). Ona would again be torn from people familiar to her, the people she had been with for nearly seven years in Philadelphia.

Many factors came together to make Ona’s escape possible: the fact that she was in a

Philadelphia Presidential House

Northern city; Philadelphia’s free blacks who helped her; the abolitionist movement which gave her courage; and Ona’s relatively high status in the Washington household, which allowed her to slip out.

Ona’s grit was evident on the ship voyage. For five days, she had to remain calm and not give herself away to curious passengers. A young black woman traveling alone was most unusual. She settled in the Portsmouth and lived there the rest of her life. She was never really safe because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 gave slave owners the right to recover escaped slaves even in free states.

Life for free or fugitive black persons was harsh. Employment consisted of arduous physical work. For women, it would be lifting tubs of water for laundry, scrubbing clothes and floors, getting up before dawn to make breakfast for the employers’ family. Some men, like Ona’s husband, worked as seamen. At sea, they were safe from slave catchers. John Staines was a freeman, but slave captors did not always care whom they captured.

Ona and her husband had two daughters and possibly a son who died young. They lived on the edge of survival their whole lives. At the end of her days, Ona was so poor that she boarded with another family. Both her children and her husband predeceased Ona. In an interview with an abolitionist newspaper in 1845,when she was in her 80s, Ona had no regrets about the steep price she paid for her freedom. Unlike slaves, she was able to marry. She kept her family together. She learned to read and had found faith in God.


George Washington’s advertisement yielded no results. He found out about Ona’s whereabouts in Portsmouth through an acquaintance. Wanting to avoid publicity and afraid of anti-slavery sentiments, Washington sidestepped legal means to get Ona back. Instead, he asked his Secretary of the Treasury to contact his customs collector in Portsmouth. This man was instructed by Washington to capture Ona and “put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place – or to Alexandria, which I should like better.” The customs officer did not know how to refuse the president. To his credit, after speaking to Ona, he refused to manhandle her. George Washington could only fume.

Three years later in 1799, Washington, now out of office, tried again to recoup his human property. This time, he asked his nephew, a Virginia state senator, to go to New Hampshire. He found Ona home with her first baby. Her husband was at sea. This nephew plied her with lies. He told her she would be well-treated at Mount Vernon. He painted a picture of reunion with her relatives. (Dunbar speculates that Ona worried that her escape might have brought reprisals –harsh treatment or punishment –against her relatives in Mt. Vernon.) He told her that the Washingtons “would set her free when she arrived at Mount Vernon.” Ona did not believe him and escaped to a neighboring town before the nephew returned with a group of men to forcibly capture her.

Washington felt that he could not let Ona Judge’s escape go unanswered for a number of reasons. He and Martha together owned more than 300 slaves. The successful escape of one could lead to unrest and insubordination by all of them. And there was the financial consideration. It wasn’t just Ona’s worth — each of her children also increased the Washingtons’ wealth.

Washington and the other slave-owning Founding Fathers — Jefferson, Madison and 404Monroe – were men of the Enlightenment who intellectually believed that “All men are created equal.” They all had, at points in their lives, decried the conditions of slavery and the state of the institution. I believe that, in his heart of hearts, Washington sensed the hypocrisy between his beliefs and his slave-owning status. This is why he freed his slaves in his will. This is why the U.S. constitution banned the importation of slaves… but not until 1808. Ultimately, the Founding Fathers lacked the courage of their convictions and let their progeny deal with the slavery issue.

But the Washingtons couldn’t give up their lifestyle. Slavery was embedded in their personal and institutional life by habit and by law. Who would cook? Who would clean the boots? Who would curry the horses? Reap the crops? Tend to guests? Even manumission was a complicated procedure requiring the state assembly’s approval. Slave owners lacked the imagination to see or were willfully blind to the lives of suffering that slaves led.

A society built to keep one set of human beings as property to another must be brutal, convoluted in its reasoning and hypocritical. This led to George freeing his slaves upon Martha’s death, not his own, so that families who had intermarried wouldn’t be split up, as his freed slaves would have to leave Mt. Vernon on becoming free. Martha, however, freed George’s slaves a year after his death. She was uneasy, as Dunbar puts it, that “the only thing standing in the way of freedom of more than a hundred people was her life.”

Mount Vernon Slave Memorial (Mt.

Here we are today, more than 200 years later, and racial inequality continues. Dunbar has given us a visceral sense of what that inequality meant and what freedom was worth to Ona Judge and other slaves. Awareness is the first step to any change. This book has made me think about the institutional, social and implicit biases we continue to accept because it is convenient, helps our bottom line, or is just the social norm. Let us not leave it to our progeny to solve this injustic

Tell me: About what do you lack the courage of your convictions? As for me, it’s the environment.


The Pleasure of Detecting

“You are reading my favorite author,” said the white-haired hospital volunteer 916wb7vjlhlleading me to my bone density x-ray. I was holding Louise Penny’s latest mystery: Kingdom of the Blind.

Then we shared a knowing smile and spoke simultaneously: “You have to read them in order.” We both knew that Penny would incapacitate, even kill off, not just people we liked but also people who have been characters over several books. She is fearless.

In Kingdom of the Blind, Armand Gamache, the Head of the Surete for Quebec Province, needs to track down a hoard of carfentanil, a drug one hundred times more potent than fentanyl. He is also dealing with his superiors and provincial politicians who want to make him a scapegoat for the drug epidemic.

Gamache is late middle-aged with a wife and grown children. He has close friends at work and in his civilian life, but Gamache never demands loyalty from family, workers or friends. He knows that each human heart is driven by unique circumstance.

He is a risk-taker. He is willing to sacrifice his reputation, his job, even his life to defeat evil. He will promote a low-ranked misfit into police leadership if he believes in that person’s character. He trusts his subordinates to keep secrets and execute strategic plans.

Louise Penny takes risks as well. She writes like she can see into people’s souls. And you absolutely believe her. Gamache believes that telling a victim’s relatives that someone is dead is akin to murdering the loved ones too. “And then, as he spoke the fateful words, their faces changed. And he watched their world collapse. Pinning them under the rubble. Crushed under a grief so profound most never emerged. And those who did come out dazed into a world forever changed. The person they were before his arrival was dead. Gone.”

Another passage: “Clara had painted the demented old poet as the aging Virgin Mary. Forgotten. Embittered. A clawlike hand gripped a ragged blue shawl at her neck…. But. But. There. In her eyes. Was a glint, a gleam. With all the brushstrokes. All the detail. All the color, the painting, finally came down to one tiny dot…. In a bitter old woman’s near-blind eyes, Clara Morrow had painted hope.”

Penny evokes a visceral response in conveying the wisdom and great heart of Gamache and the soul-changing possibilities of art, all in just a few words.


I come to reading murder mysteries honestly. One of my mother’s favorite TV shows in the 1950s was a series called “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son. But she was familiar with this character even before the TV show, even before she came to America from China. She had a Chinese name for him: Faw-er-mos, a Shanghainese pronunciation of Holmes.


I read “The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle my freshman year in high school. That same year a family friend gave me a hardback book of works by Edgar Allan Poe. I had recently read a Poe story in English class – “The Cask of Amantillado.” But Auguste Dupin, who solved “The Murders on the Rue Morgue,” was a real detective. And the idea of hiding something in plain sight, as in the “Purloined Letter,” thrilled me with the genius of it. I knew then that murder mysteries were for me.

I suspect that my choice of which books to read had to do with availability and my stage of life. In high school, I devoured all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. A bit later, I discovered Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. These characters were thinkers, using “those little gray cells,” as Hercule called his brain, to solve crimes. This was the time in my life when I was learning to think and solve problems.

I discovered Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn at Washington University’s Olin Library. My horizons expanded in college through my classes, but also through the students and professors I met, the speakers and events I attended and because “the times, they were a-changin’” in the late 1960s. The mystery books widened my knowledge of the world as well, some of it pretty esoteric, like facts about church-bell change ringing in The Nine Tailors, by Sayers.

A good friend in college introduced me to Janwillem van de Wetering and his Zen 51+p1obsoaland jazz-minded Amsterdam detectives de Gier and Grijpstra and their boss, the commissaris. And because my friend lived in New York State, I started reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Nero’s general factotum Archie Goodwin would often go to places that my friend and I went to when I visited: the towns of New Paltz and Rhinebeck and the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River.

imagesAfter college, I went to Hong Kong with my first husband who was doing research for his history PhD. The center where we foreign students gathered had a pile of books that others had left behind. Someone had dumped a bunch of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. Travis lived on a boat called the Busted Flush in Fort Lauderdale. He was adventurous, gallant and ruggedly handsome. Who knew my second husband would be from Miami and is adventurous, gallant and handsome?

On returning to America, I decided to strike out on my own and to go to medical school. It was the time when many women burst into the workplace, including female private eyes: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone; Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski and Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle, a six-foot-one, red-headed Boston cabbie. Maybe it was my med school schedule, but it always felt like these gals needed more sleep. And it seemed pretty clear that I would become an internist – the doctors who, like detectives, put together symptoms, physical findings and lab and scanning results to come up with a diagnosis.

Did reading all those murder mysteries help me be a better doctor? That claim would be unfair to either expert diagnosticians or to clever mystery writers. I just have the kind of mind that enjoys building a coherent story out of available information. For example, rash + summer time + joint pain make me think of Lyme’s disease. Shortness of breath + swollen ankles + fatigue point to congestive heart failure.

During my mid-life years, I read mysteries to get respite from the challenges of work and child raising. The Tony Hillerman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Navajo series transported me to the red mesas and desert of the Southwest. Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco, starting with The Silver Pigs, took me to ancient Rome. Falco 61t5yj6ezhl._ac_us218_.had a great sense of humor and had an easy repartee with Helena, a senator’s daughter. Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters and Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne solved murders as members of medieval religious orders. Colin Dexter’s Morse tackled murders in modern day Oxford, England.

About ten years ago, my parents became debilitated. We took care of them in our home for about three years. During the stress of that situation, one series that grabbed my attention was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series with Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. I was so hooked that, one day, as I was taking Mom to Mass, I resurrected an old high school trick. I turned the book jacket inside out so you couldn’t see the cover and read it in church. Mea culpa.

Today, husband Bill brings mystery series into the house: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of the Edinburgh’s police; Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta; and Norwegian Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. A bit hard-boiled, but I read them.

I have flirted with many other mystery writers: Dick Francis; Alexander McColl Smith (I love that Mma, as in Mma Ramotswe, is also how I called my Mom in Shanghainese.); Qiu Xiaolong; Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling); and Ann Cleeves, among others. I recommend some wonderful one-offs: Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.

My two favorite series right now are Donna Leon’s Venetian cop Guido Brunetti (See my review of her latest book The Temptation of Forgiveness in my September 2018 blogpost) and Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache.

In looking back over the scores of mysteries series I’ve enjoyed over the past half century, I realize that I was witness to thousands, probably tens of thousands, of violent deaths. Oh, my! I wonder if I shouldn’t have gone into pathology.

Tell me: what series should I read next?

Back to the Present

Everyone knows the story of putting a frog in tepid water and heating it up. The idea is that the change is so gradual that the frog will not realize it is being boiled alive. I’m not a frog, but I see myself adjusting to the changes in my life over the past 50 years so gradually that I’ve forgotten what it was like: before children, career, computers and cellphones and so much more.

I thought of this when I read Henry D. Terrell’s novel Desert Discord about a small West Texas town in 1970. The town is called Duro in the book, but Terrell modeled it after Odessa, the oil town where he grew up. The book is available on Amazon.


The cast of characters in Desert Discord is large, in the “everybody knows everyone’s business in a small town” kind of way. The sprawling, yet surprisingly intimate, story revolves around violin prodigy Andy and his large, Hispanic family; the artsy, counter-culture-ish Piedmans and their three daughters; Andy’s music teacher; a few small-time crooks and an assortment of young men with varying degrees of prospect.

Two of Andy’s friends start a marijuana growing operation. Young thugs who took them for homosexuals beat up Andy and his friend Simon. Both Piedmans are going through mid-life crises. There is a kidnapping, a peeping Tom, a runaway and several shootings. Also, a dog, classical music, a flash flood and traumatic brain injury. The intertwined story lines weave in and out with panache and humor. I am reminded of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books, where unintended consequences always intrude.

In my head, I know–and you know–that a lot has changed since the ‘70s. But the differences didn’t feel so concrete until I read the world described in Desert Discord. For example in those days we all drove American cars. The cheap VW Beetle was the one foreign car in wide circulation.

After twenty-five years of driving Japanese cars, and snapping on seat belts, I had forgotten a time when Japanese, Korean, German and Swedish cars didn’t roam our streets. The cars on our streets and in our parking lots today actually look vastly different from those on the streets and in the parking lots fifty years ago. And much safer.

In the novel, Andy putters around in his red, clanky-valved Beetle. My first car was a blue VW Squareback. I had recurring nightmares that I would be flattened by a semi because that car had no acceleration. Simon’s fiancée had a Dodge Dart. My next car was a powder blue Dodge Dart Soft Top. The rear wheel drive was terrible in snow, which, I suppose, is not a problem in West Texas. Jerry De Ghetto, a not particularly adept businessman, tries to impress with an Oldsmobile 442 convertible, which Terrell describes as a “long land shark.” My dad also drove a long Oldsmobile, an Olds 98. There were no SUVs in those days but Andy’s dad has a Ford Ranch Wagon.

Terrell also captures the different ways we communicated with each other before cellphones and computers. Sometimes, essential communication takes longer. When Andy and Simon are mugged, Simon has to run to a store to ask the clerk to phone the police. When Apollo Piedman drives his Corvair into a rain-swollen river, his family has no inkling of his harrowing experience until he shows up at home wet and shoeless. His daughter asks, “My God, Daddy…What happened to you?”

“What happened to me is I lost my goddamn car and nearly drowned. But here I am. Yay, me.”

Other times in the story, slower communication is helpful. When a person wants to drop out of society, the lack of the Internet makes that a lot easier to accomplish. A gay teenager in trouble with the law takes a bus to Houston and is able to be “lost” in the big city. Janie Piedman just wants to get away from her family. She heads out for California, as some of my friends did. She doesn’t get far, also like my friends.

An important plot point in Desert Discord is the risk gay people have to take to find each other – cruising or meeting in parks at night. Besides the societal change in attitude, we now have phone apps for this!

Reading Desert Discord, I am drawn back to the less distracted pace of life in the days when people had one conversation at a time. These days, when I say “Hi” to my neighbors, I have ear buds on and a podcast going. When I’m eating dinner with my husband, I am also checking my email – and my blog post viewers. When I am talking to friends, I am distracted by the ping of a text message.

Most interesting to me are the social issues that are raised in Desert Discord. Reading about them now, I feel very little emotion, even though I was very passionate about some of them at the time. My boyfriend’s long hair was a flash point with his parents and mine, just as Andy’s hair, which “spilled over his collar and onto his shoulders like a cavalier in a Pre-Raphaelite painting” keeps him from being appointed first chair of the second violins in the Duro Symphony Orchestra. At one time, this scene would have infuriated me. So many years later, I feel an amused recognition. The orchestra leader explains, “We’re not in the vanguard here in West Texas. It’ just that. . .well. . .the symphony board is concerned about appearances … Some members were adamant that the length of your hair was unacceptable.”

As I am rubbing CBD, a hemp product, on my arthritic fingers, I can recall the fear of getting caught by the police for smoking pot. It was both the fear of legal consequences and terror at what my parents would say! One night, our commune was passing around a joint when there was a loud banging on our door. The voice claimed to be the fuzz. It turned out to be friends playing a joke on us. My mild, pleasant buzz morphed into a stomach churning dread in seconds, proving once and for all, that the mind and the body are intimately linked.

In Desert Discord, marijuana touches many lives. Andy’s mom has been drinking it in a tea for her arthritis for years. Andy’s friends go to great lengths to make growing it a business – stealing metered water, patrolling for deer and hiding their field from the authorities. Janie just wants to get stoned.

IMG_5229It’s interesting to me that, despite the legalization of marijuana in many states, our policy continues to be as confusing and conflicted as ever. People are still being hauled in for growing weed in some states while, on my last trip to Denver, I bought some chocolate-flavored “edibles” at a marijuana store called the Smoking Gun.

There were few Latinos in St. Louis when I was growing up. Not so in West Texas. Desert Discord treats the relationship between Hispanics and whites as a non-issue. As Hispanics and whites have lived along side each other for a long time in Texas, there was an easy interaction. The idea that hordes of them need to be physically barred from this space a la the border wall seems ludicrous.

I had no views on homosexuality fifty years ago. If I had an idea that the concept existed, it was a vague, theoretical construct. Certainly no one ever told me that they were gay. I remember my first year medical school class on human sexuality in 1976. A gay male couple talked about their relationship. I don’t think it was graphic. My memory was that I was touched by the degree of tenderness they held for each other. I imagine I always had gay friends and family members, but I know now.

Human nature has not changed even if the appearance of the scene and the big political and social issues of the day have. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, doing the best given the circumstance, making some good decisions and some stupid ones.

Desert Discord took me on a trip back to my own life, one that I had forgotten, via an IMG_5891entertaining story with endearing characters. For a little while, I was the cute, naive and earnest twenty-three year-old I was in 1970.

Tell me: What is one thing in your life that you do completely differently from ten years ago?

It’s My Pleasure!

My choice of books to talk about in this blog may seem a bit idiosyncratic. That’s one of the pleasures of having one’s own blog! I decide what books to review. I decide what it is about each book, as friend Mary Dee says, “sings to my soul.” The book I have chosen this time is nearest and dearest to me. I am one of its authors.

IMG_5872Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions, and Obsessions (really, we put a comma after Addictions?) was published in 2003. As the introduction explains, the authors (in alphabetical order, Sue Caba, Karen Hammer, J.M. Holwerda, Cathy Luh, Catherine Rankovic, Holly Silva, Patti Smith Jackson and Laurie Vincent) came together as a writing group in 2000. We had been meeting for a while when we thought it’d be fun for everyone to write on the same topic. And so, Guilty Pleasures was born.

Our idea was to write about “stuff we know we shouldn’t do, but we do it anyway just because it feels good at the time,” to quote myself from the book. It felt a little daring, a little risqué, and very much fun. However, the Library of Congress Card Catalog matter-of-factly described the contents of Guilty Pleasures this way:

  1.     Vices
  2.     Pleasure – Social aspects
  3.     Conduct of life – Case studies

Who wants to read about the desires and misdeeds of a bunch of middle-aged IMG_5871women living in the Midwest? That was one of the responses we received from a publishing house that rejected our manuscript. But Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City took a flyer on us, and they have my eternal gratitude.

As it turned out, some 5000 readers were interested enough to buy the book. Guilty Pleasures received positive reviews locally, nationally and abroad, including one in the Catalan language. Forbes put us on their book club list. It was even translated into IMG_5873Portuguese as Prazeres Inconfessaveis. Due to the wonder of internet commerce, Guilty Pleasures is still available at Amazon ( and Google books (

Rereading the three-dozen or so essays, some only one page long, I think the fact that all eight of us were in mid-life gave these essays richness and context. We were old enough to have “histories” and young enough to be hormone-driven. We were smack in the middle of work issues; love, sex and relational tangles and the usual crutches of alcohol, drugs (mostly legal), food and shopping; as well as some unexpected foibles like rifles, running from the law, a taste for doo rags and the need to be right.

Fifteen years later, I am surprised how frank we all were, especially in the sex-related stories. One reason we felt freer to expose our foibles was our pact not to reveal the specific author of each essay. The agreement was that you can admit to penning your own essay, but you can’t “out” anyone else. Still, I was shocked that I used my boyfriends’ real first names. What was I thinking?

At the time, I wrote because I was feeling the need to be heard. I got fired as a physician by unscrupulous people who ran a cut-throat practice that didn’t care about patients. I wasn’t even allowed to tell my patients that I was leaving. I did, anyway, and tried my best to find them new doctors I trusted. One patient in his 80s said to me, “I’d hoped you would see me through to the end.”

Writing was a balm. I was so lucky to find my writing partners through the St. Louis Writers’ Workshop and our teacher – and co-author – Catherine Rankovic. Most of us were in writing-related professions, such as speechwriting, journalism, advertising and teaching literature, but I was not the only “amateur.” What all of us had in common was a desire to write well. And did we! I am still impressed by how clever and well-chosen the phrasing, how beautiful the metaphors, how rich the language in our little book.

I discovered another reward from having written this book besides having my say. (No, I didn’t become rich or famous.) In many of my readings to publicize the book, I would read an essay or two, then pass out index cards and ask listeners to write down their guilty pleasures. The process was fun and enlightening. I never knew that husband Bill had a thing for writing pens, that Willow (I know better now than to use a real name) had a penchant for daytime sex, and that Pat couldn’t resist buying stemware.

In every session, friends I’ve known for years and total strangers happily shared a tiny piece of secret happiness with each other. It turned out that heartfelt communication with others was even more delicious than the straight reading of my stories. Now, THAT’s a pleasure!

Tell me: What are your guilty pleasures? (You knew I would ask.)

The Joyce Chen Cook Book or Mom, Tofu and Crappies

To us Chinese, there are only two kinds of food: good Chinese food and bad Chinese food. When I was a kid, wherever our family went — Chicago, New York, DC — we always ate at Chinese restaurants. Only after I grew up and realized that I wanted to try local food – BBQ in Kansas City, she-crab bisque in Charleston, SC, or bison burgers in Utah – did it dawn on me that there was something very Chinese in our food chauvinism.

Food is central to the Chinese identity. On special occasions such as New Year’s and weddings, we Chinese don’t go to church. We don’t dance or sing. We don’t dress up in fancy clothes. We eat!!

When my mom came to St. Louis in 1955, there was no question that our family would eat Chinese. It never occurred to any of us to change our diets – to eat steak and potatoes or hamburger and fries or stew. Never. But the obstacles to continue eating Chinese were huge.

       Mom as a young woman in China

It’s hard to imagine now the food landscape in the Midwest in the 1950s. Soy sauce was exotic. No one had heard of tofu. Seafood consisted of fish sticks. Chow mein noodles were crispy and came in cans. My mom had to explain to Americans that wontons were Chinese ravioli.

Mom faced another challenge to her determination to cook Chinese food besides the lack of ingredients. She never had to cook before. There had always been servants, even during the three years we lived in Hong Kong as political refugees from Communist China.  I have a faint memory of Shi Fa, my grandfather’s cook in Shanghai, apron over an undershirt and holding a ferocious cleaver.

Mom took some cooking lessons while in Hong Kong, preparing to take on this responsibility. But she could not have anticipated that so many things that she considered staples weren’t available in St. Louis: fresh bamboo shoots, ginger root, sesame oil, preserved mustard greens and preserved turnip greens, dried shrimp, dried Chinese mushroom and another dried fungus called wood ear, star anise, preserved duck eggs, thousand-year-old eggs and soy products including tofu, five-spice dried tofu, bean curd sticks and bean curd knots, dried and fresh soybeans (edamame.) Oh, yeah, and rice. To this day, I don’t know what Uncle Ben’s converted rice is.

At a store downtown called Asia Market, we shopped for rice, soy sauce, sesame oil, dried Chinese noodles and preserved vegetables in cans. Sometimes, fresh vegetables such as bean sprouts and bok choy were available. We also bought favorite Chinese snacks: hua mei, dried plums that taste sweet, salty and sour; salt-preserved cuttlefish and curry-flavored beef jerky. A special treat was taro, the potato-like vegetable that Hawaiians make into poi. Mom would bake the taro and we’d peel them and eat them straight, dipping each bite into sugar.

I remember how excited Mom was when the Joyce Chen Cook Book came out in 1962. By that time, Mom had seven years of on-the-job Chinese cooking training and had figured out a lot of work-arounds with American ingredients. (Also, her English had gotten good enough to read the book.) I think the Joyce Chen book made Mom feel less alone in America.  Someone else understood her issues, such as how to make the most tender Cold Cut Chicken — poach the chicken; the best proportion of broth and water for a soup base — one can chicken broth, three cups water and ¾ tsp salt; and some recipes for Northern Chinese and Sichuan dishes that were not in her Shanghai cooking repertoire – Peking Duck, Mooshi Pork and Chungking Beef Shreds, for instance.  And like with all cooks, she found it a pleasure to read recipes, even if she didn’t use them.

It was a curious thing. The longer we lived in America, the more American we became in most ways. We drove cars. We watched TV. We wore jeans. But not so with food. Mom spent her time, considerable energy and analytical mind to find better and better ways to approximate the tastes she knew in China.

My folks bought a meat grinder and made ground pork from pork shoulder to recreate everyday dishes that called for ground meat. They found something close to Chinese ham in Virginia ham. I remember it as a moldy, cloth-covered lump that they carved hard little pieces off of to flavor soup. Mom tried many different ways to cook cha xiu – the pieces of red barbeque pork one sees hanging in the windows of many Chinese restaurants today. It wasn’t enough for her that it tasted right. It had to be the exact shade of red.

Oh, my parents were creative in getting foodstuff not available in stores. Dad knew a guy who owned a farm in Mulberry Grove, Illinois. Dad asked him if he would grow soybeans for us. Toward summer’s end, our family all piled into the car, drove the one and a half hours to Mulberry Grove and harvested the soybeans. We’d strip each bush until we had a dozen or so shopping bags full. Flush with our treasure, we’d cook them in the pod in salt water and eat them for snacks. We’d shuck the rest and freeze them for later use. 

The swimming dock at Eagan’s Twin Coves at Lake of the Ozarks

All our family vacations were to the Lake of the Ozarks in south central Missouri. This kept our family in fish for the year. We caught mostly crappie. The limit was twenty crappies a day. We’d often catch our limit — eighty for the four of us. We established an assembly line for cleaning the fish, and then Mom wrapped them in foil and put them in the freezer. When we ran out of room in the freezer of the fishing cabin, we carried our silver packages to the cabin owner’s freezer. On each trip, and we’d do three of them a year, we’d return to St. Louis with one or two full-sized coolers of fish. At home, the fish were stored in our basement freezer. Being Catholic, on Fridays, Mom would steam the fish in soy sauce with green onion and ginger or sizzle-fry the small ones after marinating them in soy sauce and wine. 

 Cathy, aged 10, with crappies

Mom’s attempts to make tofu at home turned out to be a year-long chemistry experiment. You had to make soymilk by adding water to ground up beans. I don’t recall how my mom did the grinding – blender or by hand? Next, she’d cook up the soymilk. She determined that she needed gypsum to thicken the milk. Mom begged and bugged Chinese friends who worked at Monsanto Chemical Company to get gypsum for her. Then she squeezed the thickened liquid through cheesecloth.  After that, she put the semi-solid product into wooden molds that Dad had built.  To further squeeze liquid out, Mom put her cutting board on top of the tofu in the molds and then stacked volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica on top of her cutting board. She went through many pounds of soybeans before she got it right. There was a Goldilocks vibe to the process: too runny, too tough, too stringy, too sour, not white enough.

Mom became a great cook and was known for her cooking not just among the small St. Louis Chinese community but also among our American and Filipino friends. She taught me a trick or two, too. Every time I snap off the stem of an asparagus stalk, I think of her. I check the doneness of pasta by picking up a strand from the pot with my chopsticks.  If it breaks when I squeeze the two sticks tight, it’s ready. 

Mom, totally organized for one of her parties. Food all cut and ready to cook. And dressed already!

I have favorite recipes from the Joyce Chen Cook Book that I make regularly. Cauliflower – stir fry florets in oil with salt, then add water and cook on low until soft – is my go-to dish when I want to eat something filling but not caloric. I cook Meatballs and Bean Thread Soup when I want comfort food. And for a fast and tasty meal, I choose Peking Meat Sauce Noodles.

Mom took up cooking out of necessity, not for love or glory. But, once she started, she went all out because Chinese people really, really like Chinese food. She was truly thrilled when in 1972, nearly two decades after she arrived in America, a non-chop-suey, Shanghai style – Northern Chinese restaurant, the Lantern House, opened on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis.

Tell me: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

Tell Me A Story

“How can we convince people that we are right?” IMG_5794 copy

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a monumental book that takes us across the globe and across millennia of time, contains dozens of overlapping stories. Each of them is a gem. Each can change your mind and your heart.

On page 26 of this near-500 page book, I came across a story that gave me chills. Growing up in the Midwest where there were few Chinese people, I thought my family’s story would be lost in the mist of time… unless I told it. But there it was in The Overstory! Winston Ma, the dad of one of our heroes, Mimi, left Shanghai as a young man in 1948. He sailed on the American Presidents Line’s refitted troop transport ship, the USS General Meigs. He slept on a bunk and was seasick. He thought the food atrocious. He studied at Carnegie Tech and eventually settled in the Midwest. He married an American woman and had three daughters.

My dad, Andrew Luh, left Shanghai in 1948 on the USS General W.H.Gordon, a sister

USNS General W. H. Gordon (T-AP-117)

ship to the General Meigs. He also slept on a bunk. He was too seasick to eat on the two-week trip to San Francisco. When he arrived, he ate a hot dog that cost a nickel.

Dad eventually settled in St. Louis. I didn’t know any of these details of Dad’s coming-to-America experience until I asked him in 2005, when he was in his 80s and only three years before a devastating stroke left him unable to speak. Unlike the Ma family, my parents were married and had two children before Dad left for America. Mom, my sister and I joined Dad after a journey of our own to escape “Red China” as refugees.

LuhRedScrpbk - 081 B&W
Dad, circa 1950, somewhere in America

Some other aspects really hit home. One was Mimi’s complaint, “It’s all Mao’s fault…We’d be millionaires if it wasn’t for him.” I too experienced those spasms of bitterness from time to time over our family’s displacement.

Another uncanny similarity to my dad was Winston Ma’s love of fishing. In reading

LuhC - 65 B&W
Mom and me and Dad’s bass

about Mimi’s dad watching for “hatch – those simultaneous equations in multiple unknowns that one must solve to think like a fish,” I am transported back to our family’s fishing trips to the Lake of the Ozarks. Mom and the girls fished off the dock. But Dad, in his brown, hard-soled shoes, would walk on the pebbly, scrubby shore along the edge of the lake casting his artificial froggy lure, waiting for bass to strike.

One scene broke my heart. When Mimi was clearing out her parents’ effects, she came across a photo: “Her grandparents in Shanghai, in their Sunday finest, holding up the photo of American girls they would never meet.” Dad never saw his mom again after 1948. I never got to see her again after I left Shanghai in 1955 when I was five. (China and the US were closed to each other until the late 1970s after Nixon’s trip to China.)

Mimi’s mom Charlotte and my mom also had a commonality: dementia. On a road trip when the girls get into a fight in the back seat, “Charlotte gives up trying to control them. No one suspects yet, but she has already begun to slip into the long private place that each passing year will deepen.” I have often wondered just when Mom began to forget. Was it when she didn’t object to Bill and me being a couple without getting married? Was she already down that road when she didn’t tell me my uncle in China had died until six month later? It was obvious in 1997 when she started to loop the same stories.

Mimi Ma is one of nine main characters. All the characters have fully-formed personalities and surprising and detailed family backgrounds. In a way, these nine remind me of the superheroes of comic books: the X-Men or the Justice League of America. Like super heroes, each has an elaborate origin story. Like action heroes, Powers’ characters have a range of special talents, some in the realm of “super,” such as Olivia’s communications with the “emissaries of creation” after coming back from being dead. Others are more mundane, like Nick’s artistic talents or Ray’s expertise in patent law. And, like all heroes, each character has an obstinate, passionate belief in their vision of what is right and a determination to pursue it.

In the way that comic book heroes have logos (the bat, the spider, the lightening bolt for the Flash), each one of Powers’ protagonists is identified with a species of tree (chestnut, mulberry, maple, fig, maidenhair, and so on). The nine, singly and in intersecting groups, had all come to the decision that they needed to save trees from destruction due to mankind’s greed and laziness and ignorance. In our rampant quest for comfort, convenience and wealth, we are using up natural resources that were eons in the making. Doug concludes, “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary saving bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”

The tactics they use to save trees vary wildly: a series of self-renewing computer games like Sim City but a thousand times more creative; a book explaining how trees are sentient, not unlike Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World; a seed bank of every species of tree in existence; planting new seedlings on clear cut areas, Johnny Appleseed style. The protests include sit-ins, putting bodies in the path of bulldozers, living in the canopy of tall trees, and acts of eco-terrorism.

Ostensibly, they are saving trees. Of course, they are actually saving the world and everyone in it — the job of every super hero — because all living things depend on photosynthesis: “plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.” As Olivia, aka Maidenhair, says, “People and trees are in this together.”

Maidenhair Tree, aka Gingko, by Cathy Luh

The Overstory by Richard Powers is an epic novel. It is larger than life, at least human life, in every way. In addition to a marvelously interwoven story, Powers gives us a keen observation of nature and beautiful and evocative writing.

His descriptions of the world from the timeline and point of view of trees are at once grand and fantastical. Before the blight that started in 1904 killed every chestnut, they stretched from the Appalachians to the Gulf. “The chestnuts up North were majestic. But the southern trees are gods….By 1940, the fungus takes everything…. Four billion trees in the native range vanish into myth.”

Here is a description of the forest of the Cascades where Patty lives for a while. “Steep, steely streams scour through rickles of rock where salmon spawn –water cold enough to kill all pain. Falls flash over ridges turned jade by moss and tumbled with shed branches. In the scattered openings, shot here and there through the understory, sit secret congregations of salmonberry, elderberry, huckleberry, snowberry, devil’s club, ocean spray and kinnikinnick. Great straight conifer monoliths fifteen stories high and a car-length thick hold a roof above all. The air around her resounds with noise of life getting on with it. Cheebee of invisible winter wrens. Industrial pock from jackhammering woodpeckers. Warbler buzz. Thrush flutter. The scatterings of beeping grouse across the forest floor. At night, the cool hoot of owls chills her blood. And always, the tree frogs’ song of eternity.”

The Overstory tells of the wonders of the natural world in a way that changes how I view its resources. It offers an imaginative way for me –and you – to link our lives to our ancestors and to the world around us. Now, that’s a good story.

Tell me: What is your origin story?

This Too Solid Flesh

I have a lot of second thoughts about commenting on Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Here’s why. Roxane Gay is black, 6’3” tall and fat, weighing 577 pounds at one point. These are not incidental details. This is exactly what her book is about. Do I dare to comment on such emotional and intimate matters when I am not black, not tall and not fat?


My qualms aside, I found so much to relate to in Gay’s telling of her relationship with her body. Unbeknownst to most of my friends, my most consistent and longest point of unhappiness has been my body. Gay’s weight gain started after a horrific trauma. I ate too much for more mundane reasons: solace for loneliness and to compensate for the hardships of starting school in a new country and in new language. And the wonderful taste of American processed foods — canned corn beef hash, Chef Boyardee ravioli, Fig Newton bars and vanilla wafers with milk.

Those were the after-school snacks. A few hours later, I happily ate up all of the Chinese dinner Mom painstakingly prepared every day. In 1950s America, and certainly not among people from China, weight issues were not even on the horizon. Neither Mom nor I ever heard of a “calorie.”

In fact, my first awareness that I had a problem with fat came from watching the Mickey Mouse Club. One of the two grown-up Mouseketeers, Jimmy, mentioned that if you pinched the skin at the bottom of your ribs, it should be less than an inch. I pinched myself fully expecting to be normal. I was shocked when I grabbed a fistful of midriff.

Like Gay, I come from a loving family of educated immigrants –hers from Haiti, mine China. We were both raised Catholic. Gay and I both were keenly aware of our role: to be a good student, no, a stellar student, no, the best student, and to not cause trouble. We did not bring our troubles home. Instead, we escaped through food and through books.

A couple of years later, in eighth or ninth grade, I came upon a beauty tip book the title of which I’ve forgotten. The author talked about clothes, hair and weight. She talked about calories. It was then that, like Gay, “I realized that weight loss, thinness really, was social currency.”

Luckily for me and unlike Gay, I have always liked sports. I still play tennis. I golf and walk. It’s not just for my weight. I genuinely enjoy those activities. Interval training, not so much.

I’ve also been lucky on the medical front. As a physician, I have access to, in fact, can’t escape, the medical literature about nutrition, exercise, even surgical options. These recommendations have changed wildly over the years. I realize that these days, lack of information is not the main reason people eat too much or the “wrong” foods. Still, knowing is better than not knowing. In case you want to know, currently, I eat a lowish-carb diet. I walk or play tennis every day. I do “20 seconds on, two minutes off” intervals on an elliptical. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep.

Anyone looking at me today would see a five-foot tall, athletic but by no means thin or willowy, Asian woman. They would not realize that I have obsessed over this body for the last sixty years.

The hard part is not losing the weight. It’s not maintaining the weight. It’s dealing with the terror of gaining weight. After being on vacation, I have a moment of panic as I step on the scale. I feel unmoored. What if the number is way higher? A lot can happen in two weeks.

If I’ve gained two pounds over the holidays or on a cruise, I immediately do the mental math. Two pounds a month times 12 months, that’s 24 pounds a year! OMG—I will look like a sausage! None of my clothes will fit. No one will love me — a subliminal message from living in our culture. As Gay put it so elegantly, “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth.”

I am now 71 years old. (Gay is in her forties.) Even now, I am acutely aware of the thickness of the middle section of my body, my poochy abdomen, my side boobs. (No Lululemon spandex, halter-top tennis outfit for me!) Gay feels like everyone only sees her for her size. I sort of have the same, but also the opposite, problem. I am very small in comparison to most people. People will read this and pooh pooh my feelings. I am like the thin person in Kate’s self-help group in This Is Us. “You don’t have a problem,” 600-pound Kate yells at her. In a way, neither Gay’s feelings nor mine are taken seriously. (You are pooh poohing right now, aren’t you?)

Intellectually, I know this is stupid. If I lose any more weight, I’ll just look frail and rickety — like Nancy Reagan. Only now do I realize that it’s my shape (too round) that I still don’t like, not my weight. But, why should it matter? Who am I kidding? Again, Gay goes straight to the heart of the matter: “I am working toward abandoning the damaging cultural messages that tell me my worth is strictly tied up in my body.”

Gay’s book is a detailed, insightful chronicle of her thoughts on all aspects of her large body. It also gives a poignant description of the longings, hopes and feelings inside that body and that brain and that heart. She recounts her interactions with family, friends, teachers, lovers, abusers and bosses with honesty and no small amount of humor.

I love some of Gay’s description of specific episodes. She described her trauma without raw language but left me with the lasting horror and shame of it. She talked about how swinging her arms became a focus of a critical boyfriend. She told of getting painful bruises on her thighs from chairs with arms too narrow for her body. Once at a conference, she balanced on her quads for two hours over a flimsy chair for fear it would break if she put full weight on it. (She was pleased her quads were so strong!). She expressed the universal disconnect between our good intentions and our deeds: “Every morning, I wake up and have a few minutes where I am free from my body and my failings. During these moments, I think Today, I will make good choices. I will work out. I will eat small portions. I will take the stairs when possible. …But then I get out of bed.”

I am ashamed that I have done some of exactly what she described of the way people treat fat people. I have panicked when I saw a large person oozing onto my side of the coach airplane seat, the flimsy boundary that is the armrest already raised.

I have resented patients who were fat. It frustrated me that I couldn’t hear as well through the stethoscope and I couldn’t feel as well for lymph nodes or abdominal masses or an enlarged uterus through layers of fat. My fear of messing up overrode my compassion.

Roxane Gay has become a renowned author of essays, reviews and books of fiction and nonfiction. She has won many awards. She has found love (I think). She has reconciled with her family. She has a plethora of speaking gigs. Her relationship with her body continues to be a work in progress. I hope that she figures it out before she is seventy-one. I hope I figure it out before I’m seventy-two.

Tell me: Do you perceive some aspect of your body to be a problem?