Some of my earliest memories are of my mother standing over the kitchen sink, parsing errant bones out of canned salmon. Our kitchen was the product of the 1990s–the house was born the same year I was–with pale pink countertops, linoleum flooring, and walls tessellated with squares of floral wallpaper. The stereo in the living room had broken with Billy Joel’s Storm Front in the tape deck, but I never remember my mother listening to music as she labored with the fish. This was the first step in creating a staple of holiday dinners: the salmon cake. (My father finally acquiesced to my mother’s constant nagging to renovate 15 years later, when they were preparing to split their assets.)
There was no inkling of culinary adventurousness in my childhood diet; nuance and novelty were the enemy. Therefore, in order to coax me to eat her salmon delicacies, my mother convinced me they were orange hamburgers. This was something I could get behind in an era before organic foods and sustainability, when a trip to McDonald’s was the norm on a week night.
I should not have needed the extra motivation. To get an idea of how good these things tasted, consider how they are made: chunks of juicy, salty fish are packed with fragrant herbs and sauteed carrots and onions and then deep-fried in pig fat until a golden-brown crust forms around the patty, sealing in the flavor with a satisfying crunch. The smell of hot lard wafted through the entire house, signaling the start of the high holidays; soon, all my aunts and uncles and cousins would pour in through the foyer and cram around the dining room table in a cacophony of yelling and laughter.
Over the ensuing years, the matriarch and patriarch of the family passed away. There was something of a diaspora from Baltimore to locations on the east coast with more temperate climates and tax codes to boot. My immediate family dissolved. I moved 8,000 miles away. Short of an expedition to the moon, there weren’t many ways I could get farther from home.
My mother is the definition of durable. She is the early-2000s Nokia phone model of mothers. She doesn’t do well with fragility, offering platitudes like, “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it now,” or, “You just have to pull yourself out of it” as emotional consolation in lieu protracted therapy sessions, though the woman is a trained social worker. However, she never failed to translate her empathy through food. Failed a test? Have a bagel. Got dumped? Here’s a brownie.
For better or for worse, I associated food with her own brand of comfort. (I also learned her language of conveying emotions. Cookies mean, “Sorry you’re sad”; a cake means, “Sorry I did that.”) And so, on a lonely day in Sheung Wan, I took to the supermarket for salmon cake ingredients. I never appreciated my mother’s diligence until I found myself hunched over the kitchen sink, my hands slicked in slime and fish debris as I sifted through the meat for stray bones. The scent of tin coalesced with that of preservatives used to process the salmon, like the faint rotting odor emanating from the fish market on a hot day in Hong Kong–a far cry from the aroma that flooded the house during my mom’s cooking.
Where my mother could work in silence, my millennial brain, accustomed to constant stimulation from dozens of sources simultaneously, required a radio podcast to dissociate from the tedium. I got through three episodes of Death, Sex, and Money before the sordid ordeal was done. It took hours before an albeit healthier version of my mother’s salmon cakes were sizzling on the skillet.
Only five patties made it to the serving plate; the sixth never had a chance, its fate sealed as collateral damage in my own battle of wills. I washed my hands and examined the disaster zone that was my kitchen: just a sink, a stove, and a toaster wedged into the back corner of my studio apartment, now cluttered with dirty dishes and rubbish. The sun shone through breaks in skyscrapers across the street and into my windows; I bit into a salmon cake, closed my eyes, and imagined I was home–a place that no longer exists, a concept whose relevance is fading from my purview.