Fried rice, central to Chinese carryout, was as foreign a food for Susanna Tam’s family in the village of Ma On Shan as it was for mine in the neighborhood of Old Brooklyn. Since moving to Cleveland in 1979, SPAM fried rice has become her calling card. More than a staple at home and her first pick for a potluck party, it’s a testament to her resourcefulness and creativity in the kitchen—a dish that’s enabled her to stretch the thinnest of budgets and close the widest gaps in culture, always rendering, in her own words, “more than enough, so there’s a little extra to share.”
“Fried rice was typically something served with roast pork or shrimp at wedding banquets, not on everyday occasions. I made up my recipe when we moved to Cleveland because back in 1979 SPAM was so cheap—like 79 cents a can,” Tam explained as we chatted online. She promised to have some waiting for me when I visited her home.
Friends online through a Facebook forum for food lovers, I first met Tam when she came to my aid with a meal train when my husband’s lung spontaneously collapsed without warning, precisely as we were rallying a few dozen guests around our son’s first birthday cake at home. The day after his emergency surgery at MetroHealth, she arrived on my doorstep with an infectious smile, a comforting embrace, and the fluffiest quiche I’d ever consumed.
From her online persona, I could see that Tam is a diehard Cleveland sports fan with a bustling schedule and an athletic physique that belie her years. Doting posts about her daughter’s two little girls in California and the occasional shot from a senior center event are the only evidence she’s old enough to be a grandmother. Recently retired along with her husband, Johnny, her days are spent shuffling between weekly zumba classes and trips to the farmers market, months punctuated by restaurant visits and road trips. And as it turned out that day, she had a lot more than rice to share with me.
It takes a moment or two for Susanna to answer the door when I arrive at her house. While I stand on the porch, her neighbors are leaving—Afghani refugees, I’ll soon learn. A flash of magenta draws my attention and I turn to see the tail of a little girl’s hijab dancing in the breeze. Behind her, a brother follows and, breaking protocol, locks eyes with me as we mirror each other’s smile. The screen door rattles and Susanna calls me in, insisting I leave my shoes on as I try to kick them off.
She takes me into her kitchen and calls me over to a nook where her sink is the centerpiece, overlooking a sunny, meticulously tended garden. She pulls a red box of tea, emblazoned with Chinese characters, from the cabinet and walks me through her brewing ritual. After leading me over to her kitchen table, she slices a mooncake into wedges revealing an egg yolk center and tells me it’s eaten for good luck on the Mid-Autumn Festival, then picks up a bulbous teapot and fills two matching cups. Raising the delicate and intricately hand-painted porcelain to her lips, she begins to retrace her steps from her coastal town off Hong Kong to Cleveland’s Near West Side.
Her family left Ma On Shan for New York in 1964 when she was 11. By age 14, she was working on summer breaks at a garment factory job arranged by her father, a shirt presser turned laundromat owner. “It was there where I learned to love three things: sewing, saving money, and drinking coffee,” she says with a grin recalling the addictive elixir delivered in trayfuls by her boss, who also owned a coffee shop in the building below. Her aptitude for sewing and love of art, fashion, and drawing led her to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in fashion illustration.
At 21, she met Johnny Tam at a mutual friend’s beach party and the two married just a few months later. As I page through a portfolio of her lifelike illustrations from FIT, she explains how a job offer in a foundry as a foreman was what brought the couple to Cleveland.
The former next-door neighbors were a Romanian family, and she bonded with the matriarch, Buna Paunescu, over Eastern European cuisine. “I used to cook Chinese food only: rice, wonton soup, stir fry,” she said. “Buna made donuts better than Jack Frost and mititei—a mix of pork, beef and lamb made into rolls.” With the candor that comes when communicating in a second language at a time that preceded political-correctness, Buna asked why the young couple was childless.
“I was born with a hearing impairment. My dad noticed that I didn’t talk at two years old, took me for check-up and found out that I had zero hearing in my right ear, some hearing in my left ear and I wear hearing aids,” she explained. “I told Buna I couldn’t have a baby. How would I take care of her?” To which she simply replied, “We’ll help you.”
A lifelong friendship began, and soon thereafter baby Abigail was born. The Paunescu kids became Abby’s godparents, and Tam became active in the women’s group at the Romanian Catholic church, sewing aprons for the Christmas festival fundraiser and teaching a class on how to prepare her ever-popular SPAM fried rice.
Her hearing impairment enhanced her experience as an eater and cook. “I think due to my hearing loss, I have a very good tongue that can taste sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, salty, and umami,” she mused. “I have very sensitive nose, too. Last week, I kept the front door open because it was hot inside and could smell marijuana flowing from a few doors down. Later, I began to smell their BBQ.”
As a new mother thrust into a Midwestern melting pot of unfamiliar ingredients, she began to try her hand at other types of fare. “Cooking taught me [that] creativity comes from making do with what you have. There was no electricity in Ma On Shan in the 1950s, so my first memories of food include going to the market where my mom bought vegetables, meat, and fish she prepared with a kerosene stove. We went every morning because with no electricity, there was no way to refrigerate our food. We had a papaya tree and ate fruit for dessert,” she said.
After moving to the U.S., both of her parents had to work long hours. “On his days off , my dad taught me how to use a rice cooker, cut vegetables and meat, and let me watch him making food. Cooking taught me how to read a recipe and follow it step-by-step.”
In her Cleveland kitchen, a rolling cart is packed to capacity with stacks of cookbooks ranging from Ruhlman’s Twenty to Thug Kitchen and a half-dozen Chinese titles spanning classic to contemporary.
Abby was active in the Near West Theatre growing up, and the family’s annual Chinese New Year celebration became an opportunity to entertain their extended group of colleagues and friends. Fried rice was always on hand to satiate the masses. The holiday parties came to a halt when her daughter left town to attend college, but Tam was tasked with feeding a throng of coeds when she visited her daughter at University of Southern California. “I cooked roasted pork, mac and cheese, and fried rice for Abby’s friends when I stayed at the house she rented off -campus—it turned out to be 20 kids.”
When her daughter gave birth, meals were yet again a vehicle for care and connectedness. “I did the same thing my mom did for me—cook good meals so she didn’t have to, so she could recover from giving birth. It is called 坐月子 or ‘sitting moon’—a month of rest in the postpartum period,” Tam said of her trips to Los Angeles.
Instead of requesting the traditional post-pregnancy Chinese dishes like ginger pig feet or chicken in wine broth, her daughter made a list of what she craved: lasagna, quiche, beef stew, meatloaf, and pea soup. Susanna and her son-in-law bonded over market trips as they gathered ingredients.
These days, a couple from Afghanistan is raising five children in Buna’s old house. A language barrier has prevented them from sharing meals, but small gestures have fostered friendliness between the neighbors. “I did give them a bag of mandarins,” she said, explaining that she empathizes with the challenge of creating a new life in an unfamiliar place. “The main reason I can’t cook my rice for them is because I don’t know if people from Afghanistan can eat pork. Also, they can’t speak English. All I can do is smile and wave.”
Uninhibited yet modest, she’s quick to clarify that her culinary charity isn’t an everyday occurrence, but her history confirms it is in fact, a way of life. “I cook for others because it is something I can do to help out. Even when I have a small budget, I can prepare a little extra for someone in need. To me, eating is for enjoyment and cooking is caring. Food is love.”