“The last part of the trip to Auntie Yang’s always took forever,” recalls older sister Jinyi as her family drives from small-town Indiana to the outskirts of Chicago. But they made the journey often because Jinyi’s mother and Auntie Yang were the only two siblings (of many more) who were separated by war from the rest of their family back in China. “Mama said she wanted us cousins to grow up ‘as close as four soybeans in a soybean pod.’”
One September weekend out on a Sunday drive through endless corn farms, Auntie Yang happens to notice a field of … soybeans! Way, way, back in the day, soybeans were not the wondrous health food as they’re considered today; half-a-century-plus ago, only cows and pigs ate them. But Auntie Yang is thrilled to find one of China’s most versatile comfort foods and she convinces the farmer to share, laughing at his question, “‘Do you have a little pig at home?’”
So begins Auntie Yang’s annual soybean picnic: such a toothsome treat can hardly be kept secret and the family affair quickly grows to include six Chinese American families the next year, then 30 the following year, until it outgrows Auntie Yang’s backyard and moves to a city park to accommodate the growing Chinese American community … and their appetites!
Based on the real-life memories of two sisters growing up Chinese American in the Midwest – “There were very few Chinese families in the Midwest back then, so Mama and Auntie Yang made sure our families visited often” – Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic is definitely one of those heartwarming multi-generational family tales you’ll want to share again and again. Might I also suggest taking it along on road trips with the young ‘uns, to pull out every time someone asks, “Are we there yet?”
As entertaining as the story is – just adorable, for sure! – Picnic‘s uniqueness-factor belongs definitely to the whimsical, delightful art. Younger sister Beth Lo is a ceramic artist who created a series of handmade, hand-painted ceramic plates to illustrate her retired computer science professor Ginnie’s text! Her style, especially when depicting her characters, is somewhat reminiscent of Grandma Moses’ folksy, ‘naive’ charm, although Lo’s sense of perspective is far more advanced, especially given the rounded, circular surface she’s painting on!
I can almost imagine all the delicious foods piled high on these wondrous creations, and the magical reaction as the food disappears and the pictures are revealed … of course, I’d be a nervous wreck thinking about the potential damage to the art, but the bursting smiles of surprise just might be worth an occasional risk. Talk about a cultural dish! WOW!