A Taste for Love: Chapter 2

Whoever said “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” was obviously thinking of Mom’s famous buns. Her steamed buns, that is. Every time our customers bite into the soft, white dough, their mouths sing her praise. Some like the savory ones filled with Chinese barbecue or vegetables and vermicelli. Others prefer the sweetness of red bean or custard cream. Even I can’t resist. I’m always getting caught sneaking a fresh bun off the oven tray.

Like today.

Aiya! How many times have I told you not to touch them when they’re hot?”

I can’t answer Mom. My mouth is already stuffed with red bean and dough, the flavor unmatched even by the buns from the bakery we used to live down the street from back in Taipei. It takes a second for my tongue to register the heat, and I’m forced to puff out my cheeks like a chipmunk until it stops burning.

She cocks an eyebrow. “I told you.”

“Sorry, Mom,” I mumble automatically. “I’ll remember next time.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, Liza. Now go help Tina out front.”

I stay in the back until the last bite of the bun makes its way down to join the others in my stomach. Then I wash my hands before stepping out to greet the customers.

I kind of wish I hadn’t promised to help out today. It’s Saturday morning, and we’ve already got a line out the door. When I woke up earlier, the moon was still flirting with the horizon. Two hours and endless batches of pastries later, the bakery brims with activity. Mom’s bustling about, answering this question and that while restocking the perpetually empty shelves. At least a dozen people browse the display cases, their shopping trays weighed down with buns and bread. Tina, our neighbor and two years younger than me, is busy bagging the latest batch of bo luo bread in cellophane sheets.

I walk over to the cash register and wait for the first purchase of the day. Soon, a woman in her forties steps up to the counter holding a tray laden with breakfast items.

I smile politely. “Are you ready to check out?”

She glances at the case of neatly decorated cakes and points to the chocolate cake with strawberry filling. Each slice is topped with a single berry, delicately carved so it fans out atop the airy brown frosting.

“Are the strawberries fresh?” she asks in Mandarin.

“Yes, they are,” I answer immediately.

“Then I’ll take one, please.”

I wrap it in a square paper box, the flaps on top twisting together to form a paper bow.

“Anything else?”

She shakes her head. I ring up each of her items and hand over the bag with her receipt.

“Thank you. We hope to see you back soon.”

The line for the register continues nonstop until lunch. By then, we’ve sold hundreds of dollars’ worth of pastries, and I’m ready to take a nap right there on the counter.

This is a far cry from when our family first immigrated to the States twelve years ago. Mom spoke very little English, so she’d sell her buns to our neighbors for spare cash. Word spread about how good they were, and soon, she had enough orders to start her own baking business. Right before my freshman year, Mom and Dad decided to open the bakery along with the restaurant. They found a spot tucked in the corner of a giant shopping plaza in Chinatown. It was half hidden behind a pillar holding up the second floor. You’d think that would make it easy to overlook, but her talent has kept our little shop constantly packed with hungry customers.

Mom taps me on the shoulder. “Liza, why don’t you go ask Dad to make us something to eat?”

“Okay.”

I remove my apron and walk into the Chinese restaurant connected to the bakery. Each has its own storefront, so customers are often startled to walk in and find one big room. Only our regulars know the truth. The two are actually halves of a whole, with Dad running the restaurant while Mom bakes.

My favorite part about the family business is the name—Yin and Yang Restaurant and Bakery. It sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it’s not. Mom bakes using secret Yin recipes passed down from her mother and grandmother. Dad, the oldest of the Yang clan, has never met a dish he can’t replicate and often puts his own spin on it. Therefore, Yin and Yang.

“That’s how I knew your father was the one,” Mom likes to joke. “Although I suppose I could have just married another Yang.”

The dining area is filled with wooden tables of various sizes and shapes, and the clamor of customers and plates fills my ears. I bypass the front counter as Danny takes down a phone order. A junior at Bellaire High School, he started working for Dad last summer. I nod hello and head toward the cloth curtain separating the kitchen from the front.

I duck through just as Dad tosses some sliced eggplant into the wok. Garlic perfumes the air as he throws a pinch of it into the mix. I take a deep breath and smile before moving over to stand quietly beside him. He works the fire like a bullfighter, the wok bobbing and weaving over the flames with each flick of his wrist. Dad then moves on to an order of pepper steak, followed by salt and pepper shrimp and mapo tofu. By the time he pours the last dish onto a plate, I’m drooling.

He pauses to look at me. “Is it lunchtime already?”

I nod. “It’s almost two o’clock.”

“You want anything special?”

My eyes drift over to the eggplant.

He laughs. “All right. One fried eggplant with chili salt for you, and one stir-fried with no salt for Mom. Anything else?”

I purse my lips. “Sesame chicken?”

“That’s too much fried food, Liza. I’ll make you some chicken with brown sauce instead.”

I sigh. Why ask me if he’s going to veto it anyway? I head back out to our usual table. Tina is already waiting, and she pats the seat beside her. The dining room has emptied out quite a bit, save for a table of businessmen having a late lunch. A few minutes later, Danny stops by to drop off the first of our dishes.

“I’ll be back,” he says.

An errant lock of black hair tumbles across his brow as he smiles at Tina. She flushes pink, her eyes never leaving him as he heads back inside. I suppress a grin. Mom better not catch her staring, though. She tried setting Danny up with me a few weeks ago after running out of the usual candidates. Thankfully, since I warned him this could happen, he lied and said he had a girlfriend.

Once he’s done cooking, Dad joins us in the dining room. He and Mom eat quickly, always with one eye pinned on the doors. Barely fifteen minutes later, they’ve scurried back to their respective kitchens. Tina, Danny, and I can take our time, as long as we tend to any customers who walk in.

As luck would have it, today’s stragglers all belong to the bakery, which means I’m the last one to finish and get stuck with cleaning duty. Not that it surprises me, of course. Dad’s cooking definitely packs a room, but it’s Mom’s savories and sweets that keep them coming back time after time. Those tempted away by the shiny new bakeries in Chinatown invariably return with their heads hung low. Some of our customers even swear her treats changed their lives.

“My children wouldn’t eat any vegetables until I brought your steamed veggie baozi home. One taste, and they were hooked. Now they eat everything!”

“Your egg tarts saved my marriage! My husband and I have never been happier!”

“Those multigrain mantou cured my stomach pain.”

“I brought your taro cream buns to my boss at work and got a raise the next day. You’re a miracle worker, Mrs. Yang!”

Yeah, right. I’ve eaten her buns for years, and I can say with complete certainty there’s nothing magical about them—unless you want a bigger butt. For her part, Mom just thanks them and offers up a taste of whatever recipe she’s working on.

With lunch finished, I tackle the huge to-do list Mom gave me this morning. I want to finish with time to get ready for Sarah’s birthday party, especially since Mom agreed to extend my curfew by two hours. That hasn’t happened since she forgot to spring the clocks forward for daylight saving, so I’m totally making the most of it.

I’m in the middle of printing fresh labels for the shelves when the bell connected to our front door jingles. I glance up and freeze. I know that face. It’s on the front page of our local Chinese newspaper.

“What is she doing here?”

There’s unbridled animosity in Mom’s voice, and it surprises me. This woman isn’t the first competitor to walk through the door, though she is the most well-known. One by one, our customers pause to stare at the local celebrity in their midst. They whisper among themselves, but it’s not hard to guess what they’re saying.

“Is that her? Teresa Lee?”

The Teresa Lee?”

Her face is unmistakable. Ever since Mrs. Lee announced plans to open the latest branch of her award-winning bakeries in Houston, every Chinese media outlet has been putting out stories about her. Even the American news channels did a feature on the owner of Mama Lee’s Bakery, including an interview with Mr. Lee and a tour of their headquarters. After all, she chose our city over Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Mrs. Lee’s hair curls softly around her face, the strands so black they glint blue under the fluorescent lights. Her eyes are framed with dark, winged liner, and her signature red lips play off her porcelain skin perfectly. I don’t know much about fashion, but everything she’s wearing oozes designer and expensive.

Though she likes to be neat, Mom’s never been overly concerned about her appearance. Today, graying strands of her shoulder-length hair have come loose from the hairnet she wears when baking. Her face is bare, and she’s dressed in one of the T-shirts I outgrew and a long linen skirt.

I catch Mom checking her reflection in the nearest display case. She surreptitiously fixes her hair and removes her apron as one of our customers approaches Mrs. Lee, speaking in a timid voice.

“Mrs. Lee, it’s a pleasure to meet you! You’re even more beautiful in person.”

“Thank you!” She presses a hand to her chest. “It means so much to me.”

Another customer steps forward. “How is Mr. Lee? Is your family well?”

“Everyone’s great. It’s so lovely of you to ask,” she answers.

An older man steps forward, his phone in his shaking hand.

“Mrs. Lee. May I take a picture with you?”

The request is followed by many more. The delights of our bakery are forgotten as everyone lines up for a selfie. Mom growls, the sound low in her throat as she glares at Mrs. Lee. I nudge her with my elbow. She shakes off what I suspect are rather murderous thoughts and arranges her lips into a welcoming smile. Mom then steps out from behind the counter.

“Mrs. Lee! What a pleasant surprise!” she greets, hand extended. “I had no idea you were going to grace us with your presence.”

Mrs. Lee smiles, but the gesture is strangely menacing. Maybe it’s the way her lips are pulled tight across her unnaturally white teeth. As the two women size each other up, I settle in for some entertainment.

“Ah, Mrs. . . . Yang, is it?”

(Translation: I think I’ve heard your name somewhere.)

“Yes,” Mom says, mimicking Mrs. Lee and pressing a hand to her chest. “I’m honored you know who I am.”

(Of course you know who I am. Everyone knows.)

Mrs. Lee gestures around the room. “It’s quite a cute shop you have here.”

(Unlike my incredibly stylish, museum-quality stores.)

“Well, thankfully my many customers don’t mind that it’s a bit small,” Mom answers with a dismissive wave. “They really come for the pastries.”

(Flash won’t make up for subpar baking, lady.)

“I’ll be thrilled if my new branch is half as successful as what you have here.”

(I’m going to drive over you with a truck filled with my famous breads.)

“Then I must make a trip out to see it.”

(More like criticize how your buns are bland and your breads are hard.)

Mrs. Lee flutters her lashes. “A little birdie told me you also run quite the local baking contest every year.”

(I’d never heard of it, so obviously it’s not that big a deal.)

“Yes, we’re heading into our fifth one. It grows bigger every year, especially since we offer a scholarship to the winner,” Mom replies, patting her hair. “It’s a lot to do by yourself, but there’s nothing more rewarding.”

(Unlike you, the face of an assembly line. I’ll bet you don’t even bake.)

I snicker at the last bit. Suddenly, they both turn my way. Mrs. Lee walks over and looks at me from head to toe. She peers over her shoulder at Mom.

“Is this your daughter?”

Mom moves to stand beside me and puts a hand on my arm.

“This is my youngest, Liza. She’ll be graduating high school in a couple of weeks.”

“How lovely.” Mrs. Lee meets my eye. “You’re as cute as this shop.”

I grit my teeth. Forget Mom; I’m going to kill her.

“My older daughter, Jeannie, is in New York.” Mom can’t resist boasting. “She’s a very successful runway model.”

Thanks. That makes me feel so much better.

“Is that right? Well, I hope I’ll have a chance to meet her too,” Mrs. Lee comments, baring her teeth again.

“You must be too busy to have a family of your own, I imagine,” Mom counters. “Juggling all these locations.”

Mrs. Lee rears back as if slapped. She’s quick to resume looking unaffected.

“Actually, my husband and I have a wonderful son together. He’s my little prince, although I suppose he’s not so little anymore. He is, however, handsome, smart, and very popular.”

I bet Prince Lee is just as conceited as she is. At least Mom won’t set me up with this particular Asian boy, a small but important victory.

“Is he in town?” Mom asks.

Or will she?

Mrs. Lee straightens. “Actually, he’s been busy with college and work, but I’m sure he’ll come down and visit once summer starts.”

She pans a smile across the shop to grace everyone inside. Even the dining room has fallen quiet, the restaurant customers listening closely to the exchange. They recognize good gossip when they hear it.

“Well, you’ll have to excuse me, Mrs. Yang. There’s still so much to do before the grand opening.” Mrs. Lee peers down her nose at Mom. “Be grateful you don’t have to deal with all those pesky permits and regulations. Ah, well. It’s all part of running such a big company.”

She pivots like a dancer, smirking right before giving Mom her back. With a practiced laugh, Mrs. Lee pauses for a few more selfies before sweeping out of the shop. Some of the customers follow her out, even though they came in to buy something. It’s the last straw for Mom. She stomps through the curtain into the back, cursing in Mandarin all the way.

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