[COOKING] East Meets South at a Delta Table
- East Meets South at a Delta Table
By JOAN NATHAN
The New York Times
CLARKSDALE, Miss. In this town in the Delta, home of the blues and
Muddy Waters, cooks are sizzling catfish and collards and crayfish
every day and night. But you don't expect to find those home chefs
stir-frying them or steaming them in a giant backyard wok.
But the Chow family, like the other hundred or so Chinese-Americans
here with Delta roots going back a century or more, use the
ingredients at hand and the techniques passed on for generations.
"What we eat connects us so that we know we are both Chinese and
Mississippi Delta folks," Gilroy Chow said in his thick Southern
drawl as he cooked crayfish Cantonese style in an outdoor wok.
Near the crayfish, an eight-pound catfish was cooking in another wok.
The fish, too big for a poacher, was a gift to the Chows from a
fellow member of the local Baptist church. He had caught it that
morning in the Mississippi, and now it was simmering in the giant
wok. Covered with aluminum foil and balanced on a large propane
burner, the wok is a family heirloom brought over from China.
The recipe is an heirloom from China as well, although with a couple
of adjustments. After the fish was cooked, it would be seasoned with
soy sauce, then garnished with garlic, ginger, scallions and crisply
sliced strips of bacon,
"The bacon is something that we have incorporated," Mr. Chow's wife,
Sally, said. "It's the same with our fried rice. I don't think many
Chinese would make fried rice with bacon, as we do."
The Chinese first came to the Delta during Reconstruction, when
plantation owners, looking for cheap labor and worried that black
workers were acting like free people rather than slaves, lured the
immigrants with promises of jobs, said James W. Loewen, author
of "The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White" (Waveland,
1988). "But the Chinese immediately found that they had been lied
to," Mr. Loewen said. "They could never make money and send any home
competing against America's lowest-paid work force, blacks in the
Mississippi Delta, so they opened grocery stores. Ninety-five percent
of the Chinese operated grocery stores, mostly for black clientele."
Most Chinese who came to the South settled in the Delta, Mr. Loewen
said. The 2000 census lists 689 in the Delta counties, but local
Chinese-Americans say there are more than twice that many.
The Chows came after the first wave. "My father settled in Cleveland,
Miss., in 1912," Mr. Chow, an engineer, said. "Later, he opened a
grocery store in Greenville."
Like many other Chinese in the South, the Chows lived above their
grocery store and grew Chinese vegetables in their backyard. In a
segregated society, they maintained distinctiveness from blacks and
whites, having their own schools and Chinese Baptist churches. Today
they are more integrated into society. The Chows are active in the
Oakhurst Baptist Church, the largest in Clarksdale, and Ms. Chow is
"We were all born in the Delta," said Mr. Chow, 62, one of six
children. "My father was an entrepreneur and was traveling, selling
meat throughout the South." After making commercial contacts in the
North, Mr. Chow's father moved the family to Forest Hills, Queens, in
1947. He exported cotton and tobacco to China and imported tea, silk
goods and Chinese figurines to the Delta. But two years later the
Communist Revolution put an end to that business, and he opened a
restaurant in Manhattan.
While his family stayed in Queens, Gilroy Chow studied engineering at
Mississippi State University, where he roomed with a cousin and met
his future wife, also named Chow, a common name among Chinese-
Americans in the Delta.
Ms. Chow's grandfather grew up in Marks, Miss., 20 miles from
Clarksdale. "In the rich alluvial soil of the Delta, he had a grocery
store and grew Chinese vegetables to send up to Chicago," Ms. Chow,
56, said. Family and friends would also share the bok choy, winter
melon, Chinese broccoli, mustard and radish, grown at home. These
days, the garden is tended by Ms. Chow's 90-year-old uncle, L. K.
Pang, who lives with them. He grows tomatoes, okra, beans, squash and
Chinese vegetables. The family also leases 1,000 acres of farmland
south of town, where it grows rice, cotton, soybeans and wheat.
Collards have become a Chow family favorite. They demonstrated their
version, stir-fried collards with oyster sauce and garlic, on the
National Mall at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington in
1997, after being selected by local folklorists.
The recipe was adapted by Ms. Chow from Yung Chow, a sister-in-law.
With no garden and unable to find local Chinese greens like bok choy
or Chinese broccoli, she substituted the Southern staple.
When the Chows' son, Bradley, was studying at Mississippi State
University in Starkville, he tasted the collards at his aunt's home
in nearby Columbus. Because he liked it so much, it has become a
family favorite. Now his wife, Jennifer, makes it for him at their
home in nearby Memphis.
As conversation in the South often does, the discussion of collards
turned to the difficult task of ridding greens of grit.
"My aunt puts turnip greens in the gentle cycle of the washing
machine," Ms. Chow said. Another guest said she did too, but also
used a little mesh bag.
Even though Chinese ingredients are much more available everywhere
nowadays, the Mississippi Chinese still like to blend the best of
America with their traditional Chinese cooking.
Back in China, the family would have made chicken wings or a whole
Peking duck. The Chows have adapted this recipe into a simple but
delicious whole roasted chicken caramelized with the hoisin. Instead
of displaying it whole on the table, like most of their neighbors
would do with a roast bird, they cut it into pieces.
On the other hand, memories of China season an asparagus stir-fry
with tofu and thinly sliced beef.
"When we got married 33 years ago, all Chinese staples came in from
California or New York," Mr. Chow said. "Twenty years ago we could go
to Dallas or Houston for Chinese groceries. Now we can go to Memphis,
where you can find lots of Chinese grocery stores." She listed baby
bok choy, tofu, five-spice powder, hoisin, chicken fat, hog maw and
tripe "things you wouldn't find at Kroger's." Once, they did buy
oyster sauce, a condiment often used in vegetable stir-fries, at
Kroger's, the grocery chain. "It tasted like cough syrup," Ms. Chow
said. "It wasn't anything like we get in the Chinese stores."
As they do almost every week, the extended Chow family Ms. Chow's
brothers are pharmacists here gathered at her home to cook. "We do
it on Mondays because we are so involved in our church on Sundays,"
Ms. Chow said, checking the catfish.
Ms. Chow, judging by her schedule, is involved throughout the week. A
teacher who mainstreams special education students into the regular
curriculum at Coahoma County High School, Ms. Chow is also known
locally for her little sideline, Chow Cakes, a special-occasion cake
business she and Alice Chow, another sister-in-law, run.
She was even a finalist in 1996 for the new image of Betty Crocker,
that great symbol of traditional America. She was nominated by her
husband in a contest sponsored by the company. Today, though, Ms.
Chow was relaxing with her family.
Three generations of Chows held hands around the table and said
grace. "When you're living day to day," Ms. Chow said, "routine can
blind you to your heritage. I think it's important to retain our
traditions and pass them on to our children."
And yet, the Chows are Southern.
"You hurry back," Ms. Chow said as I left after dinner. "Next time
we'll cook y'all some turnip greens and corn bread."