The Last Chinese Chef - By Nicole Mones


Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?

— LIAN G WEI, The Last Chinese Chef, pub. Peking, 1925

Maggie McElroy felt her soul spiral away from her in the year following her husband’s death; she felt strange wherever she was. She needed walls to hold her. She could not seem to find an apartment small enough. In the end, she moved to a boat.

First she sold their house. It was understandable. Her friends agreed it was the right thing to do. She scaled down to an apartment, and quickly found it too big; she needed a cell. She found an even smaller place and reduced her possessions further to move into it. Each cycle of obliteration vented a bit of her grief, but underneath she was propelled by the additional belief, springing not from knowledge but from stubborn instinct, that some part of her soul could be called back if she could only clear the way.

At last she found the little boat in its slip in the Marina. As soon as she stepped aboard she knew she wanted to stay there, below, watching the light change, finding peace in the clinking of the lines, ignoring the messages on her cell phone.

There was a purity to the vessel. When she wasn’t working she lay on the bunk. She watched the gangs of sneakered feet flutter by on the dock. She listened to the thrum of wind on canvas, the suck of water against the hulls. She slept on the boat, really slept for the first time since Matt died. She recognized that nothing was left. Looking back later, she saw that if she had not come to this point she would never have been ready for the change that was even then on its way. At the time, though, it seemed foregone, a thing she would have to accept: she would never be connected again.

She stayed by herself. Let’s have dinner. Join us at the movie. Come to this party. Even when she didn’t answer, people forgave her. Strange things were expected from the grieving. Allowances were made. When she did have to give an excuse, she said she was out of town, which was fine, for she often was. She was a food writer. She traveled each month to a different American community for her column. She loved her job, needed it, and had no intention of losing it. Everybody knew this, so she could say sorry, she was gone, goodbye, and then lie back down on her little bunk and continue remembering. People cared for her and she for them — that hadn’t changed. She just didn’t want to see them right now. Her life was different. She had gone away to a far-off country, one they didn’t know about, where all the work was the work of grieving. It was too hard to talk to them. So she stayed alone, her life shrunk to a pinpoint, and slowly, day by day, she found she felt better.

On the September evening that marked the beginning of these events, she was leaving the boat to go out and find a place to eat dinner. It was a few days after her fortieth birthday, which she’d slid past with careful avoidance. She found the parking lot empty, punctuated only by the cries of gulls. As she reached her car she heard her phone ringing.

The sound was muffled. It was deep in her bag. Living on the boat kept her bag overloaded — a small price to pay. She dug, following the green light that shimmered with each ring. She didn’t answer her phone that often, but she always checked it. There were some calls, from work, from her best friend, Sunny, from her mother, which she never failed to pick up.

When she looked at the screen she felt her brows draw together. This was not a caller she recognized. It was a long string of numbers. She clicked it. “Hello?”

“Maggie? This is Carey James, from Beijing. Do you remember me?”

“Yes.” She went slack with surprise. Matt’s law firm