Her package arrived in New Jersey from England by Royal Mail. Inside the insulated wrapping, a yellow cardboard box said “Maltabella, The Malted Porridge.” The package showed a happy family gazing adoringly at a bowlful of something reddish-brown that looked like -- gao-liang!
Remember gao-liang? It grew tall in the fields beyond the barbed wire and those barrier walls. And, yes, we ate it -- boiled animal grain.
“Maltabella porridge has been a trusted favourite with South African families for over half a century,” said a notice on the newly-arrived package. It also said “tasty breakfast.”
It looked like -- gao-liang.
“ Maltabella brings home the good rich flavour of malted grain sorghum…” the package said.
I knew it! Gao-liang!
Bless my soul! Cooking instructions told me how to cook it the convenient way -- by microwave. No one made gaol-iang by microwave in Weihsien. Remember the giant metal guos heated over coal dust fires? And no one served it with milk and sugar -- the way I served myself today. But it flooded me with memories.
I remember marching with young girls from the Chefoo Lower School Dormitory into Kitchen Number One carrying my spoon and my white, chipped enamel bowl. I was one of the lucky ones. Lots of folks ate out of empty tin cans with the lid fashioned into a handle. I had a bowl. At the breakfast serving line, someone would ladle me a scoop of gao-liang gruel -- sometimes cooked smooth, sometimes cooked un-ground and rough.
I didn’t like gao-liang. But I liked hunger less. So while our Chefoo teachers were watching someone else at those wooden tables, I’d let a classmate spoon her gao-liang into my white enamel bowl. And I’d eat it -- just as I ate the green lu dou bean gruel -- which I hated even more.
At a very proper reception last month at our Weihsien celebration, I found myself sitting on a couch, side by side with the mayor of Weifang in a roomful of government dignitaries all dressed in very proper suits and ties. What do you talk about in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like that -- one American woman in a roomful of important Chinese leaders?
I said thank you, of course, for their exquisite generosity that had brought a whole group of us from around the world to Weifang as their guests. I talked of my wonder at the tiny, country town called Weihsien 60 years ago -- turned now into a thriving, beautifully-landscaped metropolis called Weifang. I talked about Chinese students competing successfully in American universities with the best-of-our-best. I talked of Chinese friends eating Thanksgiving dinner turkey at our house in New Jersey for more than twenty years and our eating a Chinese New Year’s feast at their house every year.
And I talked about -- gao-liang.
I put my hand on the sleeve of the Mayor. “Do people in Weifang still eat gao-liang”? I asked him. I had switched too quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous. He needed the translator to repeat my question.
I laughed as I told them the story of how watery gao-liang gruel helped keep us alive in Weihsien.
Do we eat gao-liang today? Well, not gao-liang like that, the Mayor replied. Today, people of Weifang eat gao-liang -- as dessert!
A few minutes later, I was ushered into our reunion’s opening banquet. Amidst all of the elegance of the tables and the exquisite bounty -- course after course of this sumptuous Chinese feast, I saw on a plate by each of our wine glasses an unfamiliar, cupcake-shaped, reddish-brown -- uh -- lump.
“Gao-liang,” my host said.
For my pleasure and to satisfy a childhood memory, they had rushed out and bought gao-liang -- the 2005 version. I felt overwhelmed with wonder -- as I did throughout our visit. What unexpected thoughtfulness!
And, my! How gao-liang has changed! In pure delight, I walked it around from table to table of former internees. It was my evening’s “show-and-tell.”
Try as I might to like that delicacy on the elegant China plate at that opening-night banquet just a month ago, and try as I might to like the steaming Maltabella porridge in my breakfast bowl today, my memories of long ago get in the way. Every bite is seasoned with memories of crowded wooden benches and wooden tables in Kitchen Number One and hungry children struggling to stomach -- gao-liang gruel. #