I’ve been thinking about coincidences lately- those random things that happen that are in some way connected. A few days ago I was listening to a podcast about books where the topic was pet peeves about reading, and one of the hosts immediately said, “family sagas.” I thought, “I couldn’t disagree more,” having just read a few averaging a little over 500 pages each. Then I started reading this book. I was hooked from the first sentence, “In a single year, my father left us twice.” As I read on, there was more to love. The story is about three musicians who lived in Shanghai during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, so there are abundant musical references, starting (and ending) with Bach’s Sonata for Piano and Violin #4. There was a reference to David Copperfield which is on my list of books to read this year because of Will Schwalbe’s book Books for Living. There were even a couple of jokes, like this one: “What did the Buddhist say to the pizza maker? Make me one with everything.” And then the narrative slowed down a bit, and I had trouble keeping all of the characters straight in my mind, although the family tree at the front of the book was very helpful. There was so much violence and suffering, with people being publicly shamed and beaten, I began to think maybe I had read one too many family sagas. Ultimately, however, I got back into the story and enjoyed it all the way through to the end. As I was reflecting on the toll that the repressive Chinese society took on the musician’s lives, another coincidence occurred to me from last year’s reading of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes about Dmitri Shostakovich, a musician who suffered in another repressive society. The similarities between the two books are striking. A musician thinks in sound, and music constantly plays in his head. For a composer to be denied writing the kind of music that is his interpretation of his environment is literally taking away his voice. The mother of Sparrow, the composer in this book, reflects upon her son’s circumstances:
“Party cadres withheld his rations, demanded self-criticisms, scorned the way he held his head, his pencil, his hands, his silence. And her son had no choice but to accept it all. He let them pour all their words into him as if the life inside him had been burned away, as if his own two hands had knotted the rope around Zhuli. Yet Big Mother thought she understood. In this country, rage had no place to exist except deep inside turned against oneself. This is what had become of her son, he had used his anger to tear himself apart.”
A final note about the two covers above. I much prefer the one on the right, although I read the edition sporting the cover on the left. “Do not say we have nothing” is a line from the Chinese version of the left wing anthem “Internationale.” Sparrow, the composer, truly, had nothing, not even a shred of dignity. The graphic with the words inside the bird is a perfect expression of him, and this book.
When Marie, Kai’s daughter, passed a store selling DVD’s in Vancouver’s Chinatown, she recognized the music coming from inside as Bach’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4. A memory came to her of she and her father in the car, in the rain. She remembered the joy with which her father hummed to this piece of music, played by Glenn Gould, a Canadian pianist whom Kai admired, and American violinist, Yehudi Menuhin. At the end of the book, when Marie is in Shanghai in 2016, Professor Liu and Mrs. Wang and other musicians have gathered to play Sparrow’s Sonata for Piano and Violin for the first time. Before the concert began, Professor Liu’s sound engineer daughter called for a sound check. The musicians played the opening of Bach’s Sonata No. 4. I toyed with including Liang Liang’s interpretation instead of the Gould, but to be true to the story, it had to be this version, because Kai loved Glenn Gould.
Eleven year old Marie used her Chinese New Year’s money to take Ai-ming, Sparrow’s daughter to dinner at her father’s favorite restaurant in Vancouver, Mazurka, where they dined on pierogies and cabbage rolls. This was an opportunity for me to make pierogies again. They were delicious with carmelized onions and sour cream.
Makes: About 20
For the dough:
1 large egg
¼ C sour cream
¼ C plus 2 tablespoons water
2 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 C all-purpose flour
To make the dough:
In a bowl, whisk together the egg, sour cream, water, olive oil, and salt. Add the flour and stir to combine.
Dump the dough onto a floured work surface and gently knead just until the dough comes together. Do not overwork the dough. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 30 minutes.
For the filling:
10 oz cremini mushrooms, halved
½ large yellow onion, cut into chunks
2 large garlic clove, chopped
2 T unsalted butter
3 T dry sherry
1 T chopped parsley
1 tsp kosher salt
To make the filling:
Put the mushrooms, onion, and garlic into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. In a large frying pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the mushroom mixture and cook, stirring, until the mixture is dry, about 4 minutes.
Add the sherry and cook until the mixture is thick, tender, and dry, about 4 minutes longer. Stir in parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside to cool.
For onion topping:
1 lb. onion, chopped
½ stick of unsalted butter
To make the onion topping:
Cook onions in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.
For assembling and browning:
2 T unsalted butter
2 T olive oil
1 T parsley
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment and dust with flour. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough to -⅛ inch thick. (I used our pasta maker set at 1 and 2 to roll the dough.) Using a 3-inch biscuit or round cookie cutter, cut out as many rounds as possible. Press the scraps together, roll out the dough again, and repeat. You should get about 20 rounds.
Fill each pierogi with a scant 1 tablespoon of filling. Brush the edge of half the round lightly with water. Fold the round in half, pressing the edges together and crimping them with the tines of a fork to seal. Transfer to the flour-dusted baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining rounds.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pierogi in batches, and cook until tender and they float to the top, 12 to 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.
To serve, warm half the butter and half the olive oil together in a large frying pan over medium heat. Fry the pierogi in batches until golden brown on both sides, adding more butter and olive oil as needed. Garnish with parsley, carmelized onions and sour cream. Serve at once.
Filling can be made 2 days ahead and chilled, covered. Filled pierogies can be frozen up to 1 month. Freeze on a tray until firm, about 2 hours, then place in sealable plastic bags. Thaw before cooking.