I learned how to make stir fry from my college freshman-year roommate. Actually, Lisa was my second college freshman-year roommate. My first one and I didn’t much like each other. And I hated living on campus. I was two years older than most of the other freshmen, due to my high school chairman’s giving me an out-of-date financial aid form during my senior year of high school, and then my own inertia during my first year off when I should have been re-applying for financial aid, forcing me to defer a second year.
Finally, in 1982, I got to Reed and moved into one of the “cross-canyon” dorms, a bunch of identically cold, modern one-story buildings with linoleum floors and track lighting and soulless little bedrooms barely big enough for one person, let alone two strangers. After living and working in Europe for a year, and then another year living back at home with my mother and sister in upstate New York, working at a construction job, I found dorm life both too claustrophobic and too public. I hated the big cold communal unisex bathrooms as much as I hated having to share a room. And I loathed the food at Commons, the Reed dining room.
I petitioned to be allowed to break my room-and-board plan. Because of my quote-unquote “relative maturity,” the authorities let me. After my first winter break, I moved all of my things into a plain little apartment near campus to live with my friend Lisa, whose other roommate had just moved out. Rent was $125 a month for both of us, and in return we each got our own bedroom, plus a bathroom with a tub, a little balcony and an open kitchen-living room. It was nothing special, but I set up my record player, hung my Japanese parasol over the single bed, and set all my books on the little bookshelf. I found a lamp at a thrift store, and I was in business.
Lisa and I had, on the whole, an easy, warm, uncomplicated friendship, unlike my relationship with my first roommate, who frankly hated my guts (something to do with locking the door to have sex with my boyfriend and making her wait till we were done? something to do with my personality, which was earnest and perky and Pollyannaish in those days? both? other things? well, I didn’t like her much, either).
Here in my little box of a room with its cheap hollow door, thin walls, low ceiling, and sliding glass window, studying in my bed, leaning against my green corduroy “husband” pillow, listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash while incense burned on my nightstand, I felt I could breathe finally.
It was Lisa’s apartment, though. I moved in to an already-existing household. She had a certain way of doing things and certain expectations of me. I have always been a deeply private person. Lisa liked to come into my room in the evening and perch at the foot of my bed and have talks. To me, this was invasive; to her, it was cozy and congenial. She liked to fret about my current relationship and tell me what was what; I preferred to live and let live, no advice, no judgment, no noodging. I chafed sometimes under her big-sisterly clucking and wide-eyed admonishments. She was sensitive and could sense me chafing, and, hurt, she retreated. Things were a little chilly until I approached her to assuage her wounds.
“I’ve always been this way,” I told her with my usual earnest eagerness. “I am weird, I know that. I’m so private.”
“You are not weird! No no!” she told me, shaking her dark curly head and talking in a funny, high half-duck half-Japanese voice. “I just love you! I love to talk to you.”
One thing Lisa and I agreed on absolutely was food. When I moved in, she already had a well-established everyday menu, and, to keep things simple, I fell right into it. I loved the consistency, the lack of thought it required, the tastiness and healthiness of it. And it was cheap, and I always knew what was for dinner. And breakfast.
On Saturday mornings, Lisa and I walked up the hill to the Safeway on S.E. Woodstock and did the week’s shopping. Without discussion, we always bought a staggering heap of vegetables, including Chinese cabbage, bok choy (I can still hear her trilling “bok choy!” in that funny voice, cracking me up in the produce section as she flung a big bunch or two of it into our cart), and hot little Chinese red peppers. We bought baking potatoes, one each per night, as well as chicken breasts and ground beef (we both hated tofu), soy sauce, and sesame oil. Shopping for our everyday breakfast was even simpler, because every breakfast was the same: strong French roast coffee with half and half and sugar; English muffins with real butter and raspberry jam.
Every night, in our tiny galley kitchen, we pricked and oiled two huge russet baking potatoes and stuck them into a hot oven. Then we stood side by side, chopping everything we needed for that night’s meal, nice and small, a good assortment, a little more than we thought we’d need. We grated ginger and minced garlic, little heaps of both.
Lisa’s recipe went like this: Over high heat, sauté the meat first in soy sauce and sesame oil, a little of the garlic and ginger – cut-up chicken breasts or a wad of ground beef – then take out and set aside. In more sesame oil and soy sauce, sauté the rest of the ginger and garlic, the minced scallions and hot red pepper till just soft. Add the rest of the vegetables in this order, stirring for a minute or two in between: slant-cut carrots and celery first, then thinly sliced red or yellow Bell peppers, then zucchini and mushrooms, then broccoli florets, then the chopped greens. Stir the entire time. Add more oil or a little water if it starts to stick. Add the meat back in with its accumulated juices just before it’s all done and stir well and cover for a minute or two.
These stir fries were incredible, and I’ve never had a better one; 30 years later, I still make them according to Lisa’s recipe and still serve them over the scooped-out innards of enormous, well-baked russet potatoes. The fluffy white potato soaks up the sesame-soy-ginger-garlic-meat juice gravy. The vegetables, because they’re all cut small, meld together.
Into the crackling potato skins, Lisa taught me to put butter and salt and pepper and fold them together into madly delicious tacolike things.
With loaded plates, we sat at our little dinette with its gold-flecked Formica top, on matching chairs with padded seats, and feasted. Lisa didn’t drink, and neither did I in those days, or at least not much, so we didn’t have booze. We always ate with chopsticks. There were never any leftovers. The next night, we always started fresh.
it seems everybody learns how to make stir-fries from somebody–that is, it’s not something we puzzle out on our own. it’s a technique that requires a mentor. mine instructed me that the key to a good stir fry was all in the wrist and the hips…as are so many things, really.
have never served mine over baked potatoes. doing that.
What a lovely, evocative post. Except for 2 years when I lived abroad, I’ve always had roommates and have found that cooking meals together is the glue that binds the relationship, especially if there’s a routine.
And I agree with Nishta on the stir-fry mentorship. One of my roommates loved stir-fry, and it became our go-to detox dinner after weekends of drinking or tv nights with loads of candy and chips. She used tofu, but sort of caramelized it in the pan with this funny but utterly addictive teriyaki sauce called “Soy Vay.” Then came the broccoli, sweet peppers, cabbage and of course chiles. I’ve never been able to get it right myself, but this is when I learned to love the dish.
Oddly enough I found this by searching CSN lyrics, but read it because its about my neighborhood. I shop at that same Safeway.
I bet it was a little different 30 years ago.