janet wong: handful of this, pinch of that

#18 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2012.

Other

We notice each other right away.
We are the only two Asians in the room.
It does not matter that her hair is long.
It does not matter that I am fat.
I look at her like I look in a mirror,
recognizing my self in one quick glance.

Copyright © 1996 Janet S.Wong (A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems, Margaret K. McElderry Books)

In a recent interview at the Teaching Authors blog, April Halprin Wayland referred to Janet Wong as, “a force of nature in the world of children’s poetry.” Forever brimming with ideas, quick to encourage others, and tirelessly evangelizing the reading, writing and sharing of poetry in different forms and formats, Janet is truly beloved by her readers and an ongoing inspiration to her peers.

Often, when reading Janet’s poems, I have to stop for a fist pump, my inner child shouting, “YES!” It’s so good to feel understood, validated and simply human. I love when her humor surprises me, when she takes something small and ordinary and turns it on its side so I can see it from a fresh perspective, and I always appreciate the genuine, authentic voice that proves she really gets it, gets you.

I’ve lived the truth of “Other” countless times. Is it better to feel invisible, or to stick out like a sore thumb, when all you want is to belong and be proud of who you are?  I’m glad this poem is there for anyone who’s ever felt like the odd man out.

I’m happy that Janet chose to share another poem from A Suitcase of Seaweed today, since it’s my personal favorite of her poetry collections. With razor sharp perception, she examines some of the differences between Korean and Chinese customs and holds them up to the American way of life. I laughed at “Rice Cooker” because I did the very same thing, and I could just smell those sheets of seaweed and taste that “Beef Bone Soup.” See why I like this book so much?

For now, though, let’s imagine we all have a Chinese grandmother to bake us these cookies. I loved them as a child, but ours came from a Chinese bakery. Lucky Janet!

Janet:  Recently I asked readers at my Suitcase of Seaweed blog which poems from that collection were their favorites. Overwhelmingly “Grandmother’s Almond Cookies” was the top choice, with several readers writing and posting their own recipe poems. Here is that poem:

photo by Mary Jane Rants, Membership Director, Washington Organization for Reading Development

Grandmother’s Almond Cookies
by Janet Wong

No need cookbook, measuring cup.
Stand close. Watch me. No mess up.

One hand sugar, one hand lard
(cut in pieces when still hard),

two hands flour, more or less,
one pinch baking powder. Guess.

One hand almond, finely crushed.
Mix it with both hands. No rush.

Put two eggs. Brown in better.
Keep on mixing. Should be wetter.

Sprinkle water in it. Make
cookies round and flat. Now bake

one big sheet at three-seven-five.
When they done, they come alive.

(from A Suitcase of Seaweed, originally published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, copyright © 1996 by Janet S. Wong)

Janet's GongGong (grandfather)

My Chinese grandfather, my GongGong, was the cook in our family. He ruled his restaurant like a general; indeed, he had been a cook in the U.S Army in WWII (stationed in Belgium and France), and once had cooked for a general. GongGong learned his craft from his father, who had been the villagers’ chef for wedding banquets and the red egg and ginger parties of one-month-old babies. My great-grandfather had learned to cook from his father, and so on. Cooking was in their genes.

PoPo, Boss of Dessert

My Chinese grandmother, my PoPo, was mere sous-chef most of the time to GongGong; she was his assistant, washing and chopping vegetables and marinating meat. The exception: she was the boss of dessert. She was the one who steamed my favorite sweet egg cake, who fried donuts and gin dui sesame balls, who made mango pudding and baked almond cookies. No one could beat PoPo when it came to sweets.

Neither grandparent used measuring cups or followed written recipes. They both belonged to the “handful of this, pinch of that” school of cooking. Both of them insisted that I stand in the kitchen, watching them cook, so I could become a good cook myself one day. (That day hasn’t happened yet. When my son was in third grade and there was a bake sale the next day, he asked: “Mom, can you measure? Other moms measure.” One such other mom actually spit out one of my specialty cookies years later, during a fencing meet; I thought it was such a delicious and original recipe, but she was taken aback by the addition of chili powder to the chocolate chunk cookie dough.)

When A Suitcase of Seaweed was published in 1996, I baked batches of “Grandmother’s Almond Cookies” as gifts for booksellers and other helpful book people. I think they turned out pretty well, even though my hands are larger than my grandmother’s, and my pinches more clumsy. I hope you’ll try her recipe, too. Happy eating!

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Award-winning children’s author and poet Janet S. Wong has published over two dozen books for readers ranging in age from toddler to adult. One of the most distinctive things about her body of work is its variety: from picture books about family (THE TRIP BACK HOME, BUZZ) to poetry books about yoga and driving (TWIST and BEHIND THE WHEEL) to chapter books about friendship (ME AND ROLLY MALOO, MINN AND JAKE) to a “Meet the Author” book about writing (BEFORE IT WRIGGLES AWAY).

A self-proclaimed poetry evangelist, Janet is also widely known for her innovative eBooks, which make poetry more accessible and affordable. She’s published eBooks featuring her own poems (ONCE UPON A TIGER: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals, THE DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE: Poems for an Election Year), as well as several eAnthologies, compiled with children’s literature professor Sylvia Vardell (POETRY TAG TIME, P*TAG, GIFT TAG). 

Her many awards and honors include the Claremont Stone Center Recognition of Merit, IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, and a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Honor. She currently serves on the IRA Notable Books for a Global Society award committee.

When Janet Wong is not writing, speaking at teacher conferences, or sharing writing tips with children in schools, she spends most of her time trying to grow blueberries at her home in Princeton, NJ.

♥ Find Janet online at these websites and blogs:

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(sorry, Cornelius not included in prize)

ANOTHER SURPRISE DOOR PRIZE!

Janet has generously donated a signed copy of A Suitcase of Seaweed for one lucky blog reader. Comment at this post no later than noon (EDT) Saturday, April 28th, for a chance to win. Winner announced on Sunday, April 29th.

**This surprise door prize is in addition to 3 signed copies of The Declaration of Interdependence, which are also being offered as door prizes this week. ☺

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Previously: Menu/Giveaway/Door PrizesApril Pulley SayreMary QuattlebaumHelen FrostLinda AshmanGail Gerwin, Martha Calderaro, Kathi Appelt, Robyn Hood Black, Charles Waters, Adele Kenny, Linda Baie, Lesa Medley, Leslie Muir, Margarita Engle, Sondra Gash, Doraine Bennett.

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Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

52 thoughts on “janet wong: handful of this, pinch of that

    1. I love anything with almonds in it, and those cookies definitely sound good. Mary Jane Rants, who took the photo, did use Janet’s recipe poem to make those, proof that PoPo’s recipe really works.:)

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  1. I love the recognition in that poem.
    I, too, have often been the “only Other” in the room, and it can either make or break a potential friendship.

    I would NOT have spit out the chocolate and chili cookie; people’s tastebuds have no adventure in them.

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    1. Yes, you’re right, I’ve had both positive and negative experiences recognizing the other in the room.

      I was surprised to hear about that Mom spitting out the cookie! Combining chili with chocolate dates back to the Aztecs, doesn’t it? Sounds like she missed out on a flavorful adventure.

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  2. I’m going to have to agree with tadmack: It is sinful to spit out a chili chocolate cookie!!! The nerve.

    Love the rhythm of this poem and the warm feeling it leaves me with. Wish I had an almond cookie to go with a mug of hot black coffee right about now. Thanks, Janet and Jama.

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  3. I am so enjoying the flashbacks in time with these poets. I’ve long admired Janet’s work–the almond cookies poem reads like it was dictated by her grandmother, effortless. (In Chinese buffet-style restaurants, I ignore the cakes and fruit and grab a fistful of almond cookies.) The world needs more poetry evangelists–like Janet and you, Jama.

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  4. How rude to spit out food like that! My 13yo daughter has a brownie recipe with chili powder that we bring to potlucks. I can tell she feels proud when all the moms compliment her :)

    Loved the almond cookie poem! I can see and hear the scene…

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  5. I went right to the bookshelf and got out A Suitcase of Seaweed to read again as I await the arrival of my first classes. There are so many beautiful ones in the book but I truly love Quilt. Janet’s picture books are well liked here too. I have been enjoying her collaboration with Sylvia Vardell on the ebook collections. Thank you Janet and Jama for this post. I might need to do some baking this weekend.

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    1. Hi Margie!

      Quilt is indeed a lovely poem, a paean to families of all stripes.

      QUILT

      Our family
      is a quilt

      of odd remnants
      patched together

      in a strange
      pattern,

      threads fraying,
      fabric wearing thin —

      but made to keep
      its warmth

      even in bitter
      cold.

      Thanks for noshing with us today — I say YES to the baking this weekend:).

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  6. I have a niece and nephew adopted from Korea (grown now), but I will send them the poem “Other”. We have often spoken of the times they were the only one in a group, & being adopted, they hadn’t the family to look like either. Thank you Janet for saying it exactly right. I love the almond cookies recipe, especially “No need cookbook, measuring cup. /Stand close. Watch me. No mess up.” I have had the same experiences with a little of this & that. And, I’ve loved the pleasure of reading the tag books on my IPad when I’m out & have a bit of time, there’s another poem to enjoy! Thank you Janet for what you do, & Jama for this wonderful potluck today!

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    1. I’m sure your niece and nephew will relate to and appreciate Janet’s poem. She does say it exactly right!

      I have the Tag books on my Kindle and love to be able to nibble on a poem or two whenever I like. So often that little bit of inspiration, joy, or humor is just what you need to get through the day.

      Almond cookies have the BEST smell when they’re baking:).

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  7. Great family stories! Thanks for sharing these. One time I made garlic-cheese biscuits and someone (who didn’t realize I could hear) was appalled by the presence of garlic. Ah, well! We can’t please everybody.
    Janet is so generous to be giving away A Suitcase of Seaweed. I just received The Declaration of Interdependence from Elaine yesterday — I have been very lucky lately!

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    1. Garlic-cheese biscuits sound yummy. I imagine they would be great with scrambled eggs or soup.

      Your lucky stars are shining on you this month:). Janet has been more than generous with book donations, a true poetry evangelist!

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  8. I’ve been looking forward to this post – thank you, Jama and Janet, for a perfect poetic break today. And to both of you for ALL you do in the poetry world – you make poetry come alive, like those yummy almond cookies! Mmmmm….

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  9. Janet IS definitely a force of nature! She’s a little dynamo. She has the most wonderful sense of humor. I get such a kick out of her. She’s a gifted writer–and she has been a most helpful poetry adviser to me. Can’t wait to see her on Friday when she’ll be up here in Massachusetts.

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  10. I first encountered Janet 15-plus years ago when she was a last-minute replacement for one of the faculty at a UCLA workshop, and I was completely new to the business. Lucky for me! She was so down-to-earth, so funny, and so inspiring. I’m grateful we have such a lively and articulate talent beating the drum for poetry. Thanks, Jama and Janet (and hello, Elaine)!

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    1. I’m loving all these connections, and totally agree about how lucky we all are to have her “beating the drum for poetry.”:)

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  11. Re: the spitting out of the chocolate/chili cookie — are people upset about the actual expectoration of food which does not agree with one’s taste buds (surely a justifiable action — what reasonable person would demand that anyone choke down something that they don’t think tastes good?), or is it the distressing image of someone spewing out a gloppy mass of half-chewed cookie in front of the person who baked said treat? I don’t think any of us commenters were there (I know I wasn’t), and maybe the person who “spit out” the offending cookie did it discretely into a handy napkin. Who knows? But I think the spitter is being given — unfairly — short shrift here. I mean, I would like to try a chocolate/chili cookie… but I do think it sounds pretty weird — one of those things that could really go either way, from delightful to dreadful.

    But enough about sweet and spicy cookies — I actually had a question for you, Jama. In the last line of the poem, is it “my self” or “myself”? As I was reading it, I thought “myself” would fit better… but “my self” definitely holds an interesting, slightly different meaning. — PL

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    1. I think the general consensus was more the perceived rudeness/insensitivity of openly showing dislike for the cookie in front of the baker. Of course we’re all entitled to like or dislike whatever we please but a little more subtlety would have been better, maybe? “Spit out” doesn’t suggest discrete napkining. But we’re likely reading more into the whole thing — it could have very well been a funny incident, knowing how good natured Janet is.

      Just me, but if I didn’t like something, I’d swallow it anyway, and maybe make a funny face when the cook wasn’t looking:).

      The poem does indeed read, “my self.” Far more interesting and thought-provoking, IMHO, than “myself.” The split of self in two — half Korean, half Chinese — or the two Asians in the room, standing separately but melding in identity, one self.

      Thanks for weighing in, Peter!

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  12. Oh, perhaps I will get to see Janet in Chicago I hope to be early enough for her session. In Chicago she brought in a plate of some cheese cookies, I did not know. I am so new to the blogosphere!! She was lovely and generous, too with her Ptag book showing how we could get it on our phones. While I am a new fan I don’t know her books, I am so sorry to admit and will be trying to buy some soon. She is a warm and generous person and I am so happy she changed her career to poetry for children. Lucky children to be surrounded by her words.
    Janet Fagal
    Would that names could make you related!

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    1. Fellow Janet: we had fun at that NCTE session last Nov in Chicago, didn’t we? Next week I’ll do two programs at IRA in Chicago: the first one is on Sunday (an all-day preconference session on e-books led by Junko Yokota and Bill Teale; I’m speaking from 10:30-11:30am and will also show, step-by-step, how to create an e-book). Later in the conference I’m doing a session on how to be creative with an author’s school visit (from the point of view of both author and school); that’s on Tues morning at 9am with Vanderbilt children’s lit professor Ann Neely, Ohio State PhD student Bettie Parsons Barger, and 2nd grade teacher Kelly Finan. After I visited Kelly’s school, one of her 2nd graders said: “Janet Wong told us that you need three things to write a good poem: rhyme, rhythm, and REPUTATION.”

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    2. Janet F., so nice to have you drop by — I do hope you see Janet in Chicago next week at the IRA Conference. She’s an eBook maven, always on the cutting edge of technology. “Janet” is definitely a good name, but then I feel that way about all names beginning with “J”.😀

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    1. Thank you again for bringing your poem, cookies, story and photos to the Potluck! I think you’re underestimating your talents as a baker.:)

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  13. What a wonderful poem! I could just hear that Janet’s Grandma speaking it (so abrupt, a little uncomfortable with English, yet clear). The recipe sounds delish.

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  14. LOVED “Other”! I never felt that until I moved from CA (glad to be back). Thank you for introducing me to Janet Wong and her fabulous poetry. I’d of course heard of her, but this was my first time reading her work and I’m a fan!

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    1. Same with me — never truly felt that until I left Hawai’i! Some things you take for granted and then it’s quite an eye opener, isn’t it?

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  15. I love the poems, but I am not brave enough to attempt to bake cookies without a recipe with measurements! I love the bit of family history here, too. I love people’s family stories, especially about family and food.

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