A Taste for Love: Chapter 3

A couple of hours later, I cross the last thing off my list and get ready to head out. There’s just one more thing I need to do. With a deep breath, I poke my head into the back.

“Mom, would you mind if I use the kitchen after closing?”

She glances up from wrapping chicken and vegetable buns, but before she can offer a reply, the words tumble out of my mouth.

“It’s just for a few days, and I’ll clean everything up before I leave.”

In middle school, I helped out at the shop every weekend. I was obsessed with the magic of rising dough and the alchemy of blending flavors. Mom taught me so much during that time—the different kinds of flour she used, the techniques for making various pastries, and how to balance the bread-to-filling ratio. It was the one thing we could do together without getting into a screaming match.

Mom even encouraged me to enter several children’s baking competitions. She never looked prouder than when I took home first place. It wasn’t long before I had a shelf of trophies in my room to rival Jeannie’s many ribbons and awards. As I got older, I started experimenting with my own recipes. Some were unmitigated disasters, but others impressed Mom so much she added them to the bakery’s menu. The notebook I wrote them in still sits on a shelf in my room.

Mom arches a brow. “Why the sudden interest again?”

“I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking about it lately.”

It’s only half a lie. I never stopped thinking about it. Baking is such a part of me I’m positive cream runs in my veins. As soon as I hit high school, I even asked Mom and Dad if I could attend culinary school instead of college. I figured with both of them in the industry, they would understand. Instead, it went over about as well as a slap in the face.

“Why would you want to do that?” Mom demanded. “We didn’t sacrifice for this many years so you can pay someone else to learn what we can teach you at home.”

Dad nodded. “Mom’s right. Get a college degree first. Something useful. Don’t waste our money on English or communications. Then we’ll see.”

“But I’m really good—”

“So is everyone else,” he continued smoothly. “How about a degree in accounting? We need help working the numbers at Yin and Yang. It’s taking up too much of our time, and I need someone good with a computer.”

I tried several times to reason with them, but they refused to hear me out. It was decided last year that I’d attend Rice, close to home, next fall. I stopped baking soon after. What was the point? It was now a cruel reminder that my parents would only ever support Jeannie’s dreams. I never told Mom and Dad the reason I quit, no matter how many times they asked.

It’s only recently that my fingers started yearning for the feel of dough again. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last two weekends binge-watching every baking show on Netflix. There’s nothing quite like the high of a successful bake, after all.

“I do remember how much you used to love baking.”

Mom’s voice drags me back into the present. She inhales as if planning to say more but stops herself. I recognize the look in her eyes.

You used to love baking with me.

Again with the guilt. Still, I can’t deny we had a lot of fun together.

I smile. “It’s been a while since you added anything new to the menu. Maybe I can work on a few things while I’m here.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” she answers after stacking the last wrapped bun on a tray. “I’ve been thinking the same thing. I wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts.”

“Really?”

“Why not? Some of our customers’ favorite buns are your creations.”

My smile broadens. I’m glad she remembers. Maybe there’s hope for my dreams yet.

“Okay! Um, I’ll start working on some recipes.”

“Good, and don’t forget I want you home by ten,” she reminds me with a pointed look. “You promised to help out again tomorrow, remember?”

No, I didn’t remember, but I’m not about to risk her saying no to the party now.

I nod. “Yes, Mom.”

I skip out of the bakery with a smile and head to my car. As I slide into the driver’s seat, my phone buzzes, and I pull it out of my pocket. My heart sinks a little; it’s just Grace saying she’ll be a few minutes late. Brody still hasn’t replied to my text from this morning. I send him another message and drive out of the parking lot.

On my way to Sarah’s party, cotton candy clouds dot the summer sky, playing hide-and-seek through the trees. I drive past dark redbrick and white stucco houses before parking in her circular driveway. Sarah’s house is a blend of neutral-colored brick and tan exterior walls. The second-floor patio extends out over the garage, framed by three arches and a wrought-iron railing. I ring the bell.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” I hear Sarah shout.

Footsteps race toward me from the other side of the door. A second later, Sarah swings it open. Her auburn curls are pulled back into a ponytail, and she’s dressed in a cute floral pajama set. A smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks stands out against her creamy skin.

“Liza!”

She throws her arms around me before tugging me inside. “Where are your pajamas?”

I groan. “I totally forgot about that.”

There’s a glimmer of disappointment in her green eyes, but she blinks it away.

“It’s okay!” She waves a hand dismissively. “I’m just glad you’re here.”

I kick off my shoes as Sarah shuts the door behind us.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that!”

“It’s okay,” I say, setting them neatly by the wall. “I don’t mind.”

I follow her past the curved staircase and into the house. Soft yellow walls are covered in family photos and oil paintings. Tucked between a pair of floor-to-ceiling windows clad in heavy drapery, there’s a canvas print of Sarah from one of her local opera performances. In the living room, a flat-screen TV three times the size of ours at home hangs over the fireplace.

On the other end is a massive kitchen, where stainless steel appliances contrast with dark wood cabinets. Crystal bowls and pristine white plates sit laden with chips, wrapped candy, and various dips on the island. My mouth waters at the sight of all the forbidden food. Sarah hands me a plate.

“Mom said we could order whatever we wanted,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was going to get some pizza, unless you want something else.”

A chip freezes halfway to my mouth. “Is your mom not home?”

“Nope. She and Dad went out of town on vacation. They won’t be back until tomorrow night.”

Okay, definitely something Mom does not need to know.

The doorbell rings, and Sarah sprints to the door.

“Becca! Tiff!”

I poke my head out from around the corner. I don’t recognize either of the girls. They must be part of the same music program at school. Sarah inhales opera like I do baking. Becca and Tiff take turns staring at me while we exchange awkward greetings. As they grab their plates, I swear I hear one of them say Brody’s name. With no polite way to ask if they’re talking about my boyfriend, I shove another chip into the salsa.

Over the next hour, more and more guests arrive, until the once-spacious area feels uncomfortably cramped. Caught between the rise and fall of voices, I suddenly realize I’m the token Asian in the group. I snap a pic to text Grace, my best friend.

Please tell me you’re on your way.

A second later, my phone pings.

Sorry. Was looking for some cute PJs.

Of course she was. Grace never leaves the house without looking runway ready. It’s no surprise people always assumed she was Jeannie’s sister when we’d hang out together. I quickly tap on Brody’s name in my messages—still nothing. I sigh and tuck my phone back into my pocket just as Sarah waves me over.

I endure fifteen minutes of well-intentioned introductions and fake smiles. Thankfully, Grace arrives right before the pizza, and the tension in the room evaporates. After all, nothing bonds people together like cheese and bread—especially if you’re on team no-pineapple-on-pizza.

By the time we reach face mask heaven, I’ve nearly figured out which of the three Jennifers is which. That’s when the alarm on my phone blares. Seriously? It can’t be almost curfew. I squeeze my eyes shut and pray for some timey-wimey stuff to happen.

Sadly, the clock still reads nine thirty. I pick my way past the limbs spread across the floor. Sarah’s making a TikTok in her panda face mask, and she calls out to me.

“Do this one with me, Liza!”

“I can’t,” I groan. “I have to go home.”

Her face falls. “What? Why? The party’s just getting started!”

Because life isn’t about having fun. It’s about hard work and long hours and studying until you die.

“I promised to help my mom at the bakery tomorrow,” I say out loud.

Sarah pouts. “You really can’t stay?”

“I wish I could. Maybe next time,” I say, shoving my phone into my pocket. “Thanks for inviting me.”

She starts to get up to walk me out, but one of the Jennifers grabs her and pulls her onto the couch for a selfie. I head to the front to put my shoes back on.

Grace plops down next to me. “I’ll probably leave soon too. It’s kind of boring. They’re arguing over which celebrity Chris is the hottest.”

“Hemsworth, obviously,” I answer instantly.

She grins. “See? You’re not missing anything.”

She tugs me in for a quick hug before I open the door. Sarah pops her head up from a mound of pajama-clad girls like a gopher.

“Bye, Liza!”

I shut the door behind me and get in the car. With a final glance in my rearview, I drive off.


By the time I wake up the next morning, Mom’s already left for the bakery. I turn off the alarm on my phone and check the texts Grace sent me overnight. Ice cream, pedicures, a rom-com, and . . . karaoke?! No! I missed out on karaoke. What did I do to deserve this? I toss the phone onto my bed and trudge into the bathroom to get ready. Too bad I can’t scrub FOMO off my brain.

I arrive just as the sun crests over the skyline. From the outside, the shop looks empty, but I spy the thin sliver of light seeping past the drawn curtains. I relock the door after walking in and head straight to the kitchen. Mom’s standing by the stainless steel table nearest to the ovens. She never lifts her head to acknowledge me, focused on the list of bakes for today as she checks something in the leather-bound book beside her. It’s her most prized possession, containing all the recipes she’s created over the years. She misplaced it once for about thirty seconds, and I thought she was going to spontaneously combust.

As soon as I throw on an apron and roll up my sleeves, Mom starts calling out ingredients for me to pull from various drawers. Then, Mom removes some dough from the fridge and plops the giant ball in front of me.

“Red bean buns.”

It’s been years since I’ve stood beside her, but my hands instinctively know the rhythm. It isn’t long before I’m slicing the dough into smaller pieces to roll into balls. I place them on a baking tray and repeat this until there’s enough to cover with plastic wrap and proof a second time. After fifteen minutes, I set the oven to preheat and bring them back out to stuff. Each ball is flattened in my palm before receiving a scoop of red bean paste in its center. It then gets wrapped and returned to the tray. A final egg wash later, they’re ready for baking.

Meanwhile, Mom mixes flour, yeast, and sugar together before combining it with eggs, milk, and water for a second batch of dough. Cutting the whole thing into smaller, more manageable pieces, she begins to knead. This has always been one of my favorite things to do, and I slide one over to my area. I slam the mixture down onto the table.

This is for my ten o’clock curfew.

Dough strikes steel with a resounding thwack.

And this is for having to leave the party early.

I smash the innocent dough into submission.

And karaoke. I still can’t believe I missed karaoke!

The table trembles from the force of the smack, and Mom narrows her eyes.

I smile sheepishly. “Sorry. I got carried away.”

I resume pounding, though with more care than before. After about ten minutes, I stretch it out in the air to check for gluten. Satisfied, I add it to the fresh dough Mom’s prepared.

“What’s next?” I ask.

She goes to the fridge and pulls out two bowls of meat, one minced with chopped vegetables and one dark red and diced.

“Pork buns and char siu bao.”

She takes charge of the pork buns, while I try my hand at the char siu bao. The trickiest part is folding the buns correctly. I wiggle my fingers. Come on, muscle memory. My first one turns out too tight. Filling gushes out from the side before it makes it onto the tray. My second is too loose and leaves a big hole at the top. If I bake it like this, the meat will dry out. Mom side-eyes my efforts.

“Mistakes in the kitchen . . .”

“Perfection on the shelves,” I finish.

Some things never change. I put my practice buns aside to steam later. They’ll still taste good, even if they’re not pretty enough to go on a shelf. When my next bao comes out perfect, I raise it to the sky, triumphant. If only I had a dramatic sunrise and an African choir to serenade me . . .

“Stop fooling around, Liza,” Mom chides. “We’ve got more to do.”

The bao finds a spot on the tray beneath her withering gaze. I continue wrapping until I run out of filling, something that never fails to happen despite years of practice. One of these days, I’m going to figure out Mom’s secret. For now, the extra dough is wrapped in plastic and set aside while I grab a stack of steam baskets off the shelf. I bring them back to the table and line the bottoms of the baos with paper.

Within minutes, carefully arranged baos are ready for their steam bath, spaced in the baskets so they don’t stick. Mom has finished her pork buns and moved on to the brioche. The sweet aroma of red bean alerts me that the buns are ready even before the timer goes off. I pull the first batch out and place them on our metal cooling rack. Another set of trays goes into the oven before the golden-brown buns are ready for their clear plastic wrappers.

We continue baking like this for the next two hours, until the air is laden with delicious temptation. As I stock the shelves, I check out the line already forming outside. I remove my apron, dust the flour off my face, and unlock the door. Customers flood into every corner of the bakery to jockey for their personal favorites. Empty shelves and happy sighs are the only things left in their wake.

I start to upload a pic for the bakery’s Instagram, but pause when I see a comment on my post about Sarah’s party. It’s from Brody.

Next time save me some pizza. Pineapple free.

I grin and slip my phone back into my apron. I really should stop worrying over nothing. He’s just bad at texting.

Mom and I man the store for an hour. Then Tina arrives and takes over the wrapping and restocking. The day flies by, and before I know it, we’re ushering the last customer of the day out the door and turning off our neon open sign. I duck into the back and find Mom taking a quick break on a nearby chair. The day has been so hectic we haven’t had time to properly clean. I rinse off the dirty trays and utensils before loading the dishwasher. As I wipe down the tables, she shoots me a grateful smile.

“So, tell me what you’re thinking about for summer.”

I drop the towel into the laundry bag and lean against a nearby counter. “What about some of the snacks I’ve been telling you about? The ones all the teahouses are making.”

“I don’t know,” she replies. “I’m not a fan of trends. I’d rather have something we could add permanently to the menu if it does well.”

I take a deep breath. “I get that, but some of this stuff’s been around for years and is still popular. Like those Hong Kong egg waffles. My friends are obsessed with them.”

“You and your trendy foods,” Mom playfully chides. “I still remember how you always knew where the animal waffle cake was at the day market.”

For a second, I’m distracted by the memory of the noisy market in Taiwan Mom would take me to for the week’s groceries. Without fail, I’d always go in search of the soft, puffy pastries amid the throngs of impatient customers and stalls bursting with vegetables, fruits, and meats. Then there was the old man who made the most delicious fried chicken—

“Don’t they require special equipment?” Mom continues, interrupting my thoughts. “Plus, I’m shorthanded. And we have the junior baker contest to worry about when summer starts.”

“I bet you can rent those irons. And it’s easy enough to create a recipe for the batter,” I say, doing a quick search on my phone. “I could probably come up with something in a few hours.”

The words leave my mouth before I realize what I’ve done. How did I not see this coming? Baking for fun is one thing, but slaving away in a hot kitchen for free is another.

Mom, expectedly, grins like a Cheshire cat. “Okay. I’ll give these waffles a shot, but if they don’t sell, we stop. Got it?”

That’s it. I’m stuck. If I back out now, she’ll never let me forget it.

“All right, but I can’t start until finals. Plus, I have that trip to New York to see Jeannie after graduation.”

“Of course. School is the most important thing,” she says. “But you should start working on that recipe. We need to have it ready for summer.”

She won this round. I demand a rematch.

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