Ever since COVID-19 landed, it’s become impossible for me to fly across the country to visit my mom and dad. On the one hand, my mom is always easy to connect with via regular text messages and calls. On the other, ever since my dad had a stroke he’s never been the same. We’re totally out of touch.
And because writing doesn’t come naturally to him — he left home when he was 13 to work and is functionally illiterate — it’s even harder to make a remote connection to him.
The way my father traditionally communicated with others around him was through his body. He spent his entire life as a physical laborer, and never spoke much. Every day he would work like a machine for our family:
- wake up between 1am and 3am
- start making tofu so that it would cool for transport by 8am
- work throughout the day, moving intricate or very heavy items from one place to another
- get home around 6pm
There were only slight variations in the day depending upon the weather, the temperature of tap water, and the kind of soybeans that he had sourced. You could say that his personality resembled the machine-like process in which he played a key part.
The job he left home for at 13 was to shine shoes on a merchant boat. Over time he rose to become a cook on that same ship. Hundreds of people needed to be fed, and thus his machine-like nature likely evolved from the many meals he produced from an early age. As I got older, I noticed that the only way my dad could show any visible evidence of love was through what he cooked for others. And if there was one thing that everyone loved about my dad, it was his fried chicken wings.
Since his stroke, dad has no longer been able to cook for himself, and so the communicative power of his physical labors are now gone. When I consider what a stroke can do to a person who is physically centered versus what a disease like Alzheimer’s can do to a mentally centered person, there are times when I perversely wished Alzheimer’s had afflicted my dad instead. Without the confident use of his body, it’s like he’s completely vanished. And with that, his ability to express his love. Yet these days I think that one of his algorithms still exists.
Since his stroke, dad has no longer been able to cook for himself, and so the communicative power of his physical labors are now gone.
A recipe is an algorithm. When created by a human that we care about, it has the ability to last well beyond its creator. Tasting the outcome can be what activates your connection to the originator. Or, the act of cooking the recipe can spark a connection by triggering memories of when you were first taught it. I’m well aware that people who code can strike a similar emotional connection to numerical recipes and such, but I personally believe that fried chicken wings easily trump anything nerdly.
Over the years I had often tried to recreate my father’s chicken, but I often failed. So a few years ago,I asked him to give me a step by step tutorial. Of course he was terrible at measuring anything and so his recipe is imprecise. But let me give you a few steps that might help you get there:
- Separate the chicken wing into its leg part versus wing part using a knife. This step will more easily help you cook the chicken all the way through.
- Soak the wings overnight in a mixture of soy sauce, cooking sake, and water with chopped scallions mixed in. The ratio should be about 1 : 1 : 2 for the liquids.
- Prepare a pan of dry cornstarch mixed with mochi rice flour in a ratio of about 1 : 2 to reduce cornstarch’s sticky nature when it gets wet. Coat the chicken wings and legs in the powder mix.
- Before you move to the frying phase, let the chicken sit for 30 minutes so it can come to room temperature and cook better.
- Get your frying oil ready and be sure there’s enough oil in the frying pan to fully submerge the chicken.
- You will know the oil is too hot if the chicken burns too quickly. And you’ll know it’s too cold if it doesn’t start the pop-crackle of frying immediately.
- Start frying the leg parts first because they will need more time to cook. Bring in the wings after the leg parts get going.
- Don’t turn the chicken over until it’s at least fried a little — otherwise the pieces will stick to each other. This is really tricky to get right.
- When the chicken floats to the top of the oil on its own, then you know it’s ready. Take the wings out first as they will burn the quickest.
- Place the chicken on a draining mat or paper towels to drain excess oil. Be sure to check that it’s cooked properly and isn’t pink inside.
A recipe is an algorithm. When created by a human that we care about, it has the ability to last well beyond its creator.
Keep in mind that the algorithm he’s provided is highly imprecise. I guess that’s why I like it so much: It’s definitely not him speaking like a machine. It’s my dad speaking human, even though he spent most of his life working every day like a machine. In a way it’s similar to my favorite secret Italian recipe from my friend Paola Antonelli at MoMA:
“Cook until cooked. Season it well.”
By making dad’s special chicken wings with this very similar “human” cooking algorithm, it’s great to stay connected to him. Each time I make it, the wings turns out a little different. And I guess that’s what keeps it all alive and meaningful to me.