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The Chinese Grandmother Carry-On

LOUIS VUITTON should create something called the Chinese Grandmother Carry-on (CGC). It would hold a couple changes of clothing, a hair dryer, and some paperbacks, and, in a refrigerated side compartment, provide space for two packages of Chinese spareribs and a quart of stewed tripe, Cantonese style. All this and it should still fit beneath the seat in front of you. The bag is not for Chinese grandmothers; it is for us Chinese granddaughters who would like to carry our grandmother-cooked booty home with dignity and taste - uh, style.

The need for refrigerated side compartments first arose when I went away to college. The end of every vacation at home would see me juggling awkwardly shaped packages as I boarded the plane. Sometimes it would be a whole roasted duck, sometimes two waxed cardboard cartons of my favorite riblets braised with chestnuts. Or a quart of the humble tripe.

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The possibility of rich gravy inundating my sweaters or Calvin Kleins precluded packing the goods in my checked baggage. Like the Tower of Pisa and ordained ministers, braised riblets and stewed tripe need to be kept upright. Their cartons, that is.

Of course, the special compartment can work round trip. Whenever I flew home from my East Coast college, my seafood-loving family would charge me to bring back fresh crabs or lobsters. This was some years back when fresh seafood was relatively difficult to buy in Minnesota. (Probably not even Garrison Keillor can explain how a family from coastal China wound up in Minnesota - but he's welcome to try.)

I was a neophyte plane traveler in those days. I used to wonder what the airline would do to me if the lobsters got loose in the cabin (``don't check them, they'll suffocate in the hold''). What if my Hefty bag of crabs fell out of the overhead compartment?

Before deregulation I believed airlines were more particular about their customers. Nowadays I suppose a savvy lobster could climb on a plane by itself so long as it had a ticket. I had visions of being banned from ever riding Northwest again. The CGC and the utterly reliable Vuitton craftsmanship would have taken care of those worries.

I later found out that my brother had had similar anxieties. He lived on the West Coast and hauled, not the Maryland bluefin, but Dungeness crabs. The horror of lively crustaceans demanding more legroom was the same, however.

Once, on a journey from St. Paul to Washington, I decided to stop in Chicago to visit a friend. Despite the fact that I was planning to stay in the Windy City for several days, my grandmother loaded me down with food.

``What am I going to do with all this stuff?''

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``Put it in your friend's refrigerator.''

Fortunately for me, this friend, like the average young man, had an empty refrigerator. Plenty of room to accommodate spareribs, roasted duck, and the Chinese version of tamales - wrapped not in cornhusks but bamboo leaves.

Of course, empty refrigerators exact a price. I felt obliged to share the goods, thereby losing half the duck and a carton of the ribs. Had a CGC been available, I could have returned to Washington with the goodies intact.

Occasionally, the grandmothers themselves travel. Then they, too, need the CGC. One year, my grandmother came to Washington. She stayed with one of my great-aunts, who lived in Bethesda. When the food carried from Minnesota had been consumed, they started cooking again. All week long, the two cooked and on weekends, they would descend on campus to cater lunches and dinners for my roommates and me.

In their zealousness to find the freshest ingredients, Grandmother and Great-aunt went foraging for chestnuts in Rock Creek Park. One afternoon, they were confronted by a Park Service employee who, mildly enough, suggested that they leave a few chestnuts for the squirrels.

My grandmother, who did not understand English, ignored him. My great-aunt, whose English was more than adequate, pretended not to understand. They giggled as he left. ``Those crazy Americans! Leave the chestnuts to the squirrels?!'' Not when there are thin granddaughters to fatten up.

Journeys from Bethesda to Georgetown, no matter how painfully slow the traffic, do not build a convincing case for a new Vuitton bag. But if the description of my anxiety-fraught trips between St. Paul and Washington isn't enough to instigate a market survey, the tale of my globe-trotting-cum-gourmet cartons on the train should convince even the most skeptical Vuitton executive.

On a trip to the Far East, I called yet another great-aunt and suggested that we go out to tea. (Of the 1 billion-plus Chinese in the world, fully a third of them must be great-aunts.) She came to my hotel with not only a cousin in tow but also a suitcase. The suitcase was full of dried black mushrooms, dessicated daylily buds, several pounds of roasted pork, a carefully wrapped, fully cooked chicken, Fukien style. And a dozen mangoes, quite fresh and concealed in a candy tin.

I rejected the mangoes out of hand. Gently but firmly I told her the story of the medfly - how the scourge had arrived on an innocent-looking crate of Italian peaches, destined, no doubt, for an innocent Italian grandmother. I felt the Department of Agriculture and Customs should jointly decorate me for spreading their gospel so eloquently.

I tried to reject the rest of the food, too, all 11 kilos of it, sans mangoes. No luck. I had no right. The food was not for me. It was for my grandmother, in America, where there was nothing to eat. (This great-aunt claimed to have lost a lot of weight on her American sojourn the previous year.) I protested that food supplies in America were ample. ``Nothing good to eat.'' I took the suitcase and flew on to San Francisco.

Stopping in St. Paul on my way back to Washington, I had to admit it was a pleasure to hear my grandmother exclaiming over the daylily buds. ``So long and so plump, so much better than those sold at the Asia Mart in Minneapolis!''

When it was time to go, however, the usual sinking feeling came over me.

``What are you putting in my carry-on?''

``Half of the Fukien chicken and some roasted pork. And that oyster sauce you like so much.''

``I have a ton of food in my freezer in Washington.''

``Nothing good.''

I flew on to Washington.

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