It was in 1960’s; my family house stood in a government housing neighborhood by the train station of the city of Chia-Yi, a small town in the south of Taiwan. The house was free for the employees of Taiwan Railway Administration, which Chiang Kai-Shek regime inherited from the Japanese government After WWII. The compound, I estimate now was probably built 50 years before that time. The neighborhood was kids’ playground. When we were not in school, bare-foot and rag-clothing boys roamed through the alleys that winding through black wooden Japanese houses. They were knights and villains, soldiers and rivals. They cursed loudly in obscene Taiwanese language while searching one another or fighting with sticks. Girls, who were naturally not welcome by boys, or self-excluded from the war zone, playing houses, sandbags, or Scotch Hopper under the shades of long beard big Banyan (Ficus) trees.

With the extended canopy of Banyan trees shading the black clay tile roof, summer was still like a grilling pan. Kids had no ways to reduce their heated body but let their sweat keep oozing out of their tan skins. The name of “the refrigerator (电冰箱)” in Chinese was not created yet, and we never saw real ice in any forms. We discovered popsicle (枝仔冰) the first time when we started to go to school and found a factory on the way.

No water bottles existed, but who needed it? We picked things around us to curb our thirst. The seed of Banyan tree covered all over the ground, but quickly we found out it tasted disgusting and heard that it had poison. So, we stomped on it, instead of sucking the juice out of it, and believing we were diminishing the public enemy. Then we plucked out good reputation hibiscus’ long and thick stigma. Their sweet nectar elated us. Now we spotted the berries on the wild Mulberry trees. Their black tart juice lessened our exhaustion playing the game of war or tag. We enjoyed plenty of natural resources and never were told that we were the competitors of birds and bees in the ecosystem.

Fruit seemed the best supply of sweetness and liquid at the time soda or bottled juice didn’t exist. However, they were scarce. Banana and pineapple were mass produced on the farm, but instead of for consuming, they were the main export goods. For adults, fruit were luxury items to offer; but for kids, they were handy as long as the ownerships were not a concern. The Dragon’s Eyes (龙眼), guava (芭樂), and green Mango (芒果) were on the tall trees at the alleys or over the fence. We grabbed them after climbing the branches, or knock them down with long sticks. Sweet and tart juice fulfilled our petite desire. We didn’t mind if the theft succeeded or failed because it was thrilling enough already.

Luckily, we had sugar cane. Those days in Taiwan, sugar cane was the second biggest farm produce next to rice. When we traveled to other cities by train visiting relatives, we would see tall sugar cane crowded in the field. In summer, farmers would cut down the stalks and pile them up for small trains to haul them into the sugar factories. The street vendors would gather a big bunch for sale. It became people’s daily snack. My parents often chose some long and thick stalks with shiny dark purple barks and long sections from a vendor in front of our house. Using his long heavy, sharp knife, the vendor would cut a small ditch on the stalk, then slashed the bark down through the end. The slashes might fail in the middle, but they would pick up the action immediately. It took 5 or 6 cuts and slashes, faster if the vendor was more skillful, to reveal its cream color flesh. They chopped the stalk into several foot-long sections for the customers to take home. The whole process was such a spectacular stunt for me that I was always a loyal audience who forgot the time.

There weren’t any refrigerators to store the purchase, so we would quickly consume all of it. Here is how we ate it. First, we had to have solid teeth. Young kids or old people often lost their teeth when biting it. Healthy teeth could separate apart the big piece into the small piece of flesh, then chewed on it until it was juiceless. Secondly, watch out what happened in our mouths carefully. Or, we would bite our tongues or lips and swallowed the juice with blood.

Images like this never faded out from my memory: my Mother kept chewing, then spit out the juice in a bowl. When the bowl was full, she fed it to my toddler siblings with a spoon. My little siblings were excited to taste the sweetness, but they had to suffer the wait. Because my Mother couldn’t chew fast enough to feed them, they groaned and cried. My mom had a solution for this: she chewed and saved the juice in a big bowl whenever she had time.

The older kids like my brothers and me held the sugar cane and ran away. We played game with it and stained it with our dirty fingerprints. Conveniently, many times we used it as our fighting weapons. At last, we spit out the bagasse on the ground without having the concept of littering.

Nowadays, this first real organic juice I consumed half century ago is rare in Los Angeles. I do see tall sugarcane stalks decorated in many San Gabriel Valley’s residential gardens in front of some Mediterranean or Spanish style mansions. Their owners, who I guess are mostly from Southern Asia, must be very homesick for all of the plant contains– the sweet juice, the land it rooted, and the stories that grew out of it!

1960 年代我們住在嘉義火車站旁的鐵路局宿舍園區。那是一大片日本宿舍,國民黨政府從日本接收過來的,在當時大概也已經有五十年的歷史了吧。我們孩子們就在黑木板牆,黑瓦屋頂的宿舍群裡玩耍。不上學的日子,赤腳破衫的男孩子就成群結隊地在窄小的巷弄間穿梭奔走。他們火熱地演著官兵捉強盜,好人追殺壞人這種勇士們的戲,他們無掛無礙得一邊嘶叫著台灣三字經,一邊棍棒交加。女孩們呢,當然不受男生的歡迎,再者也不屑於玩那種暴力的戰爭打鬥,就只占著樹蔭底下,玩跳房子啦,跳繩啦,丟沙包啦,扮家家酒啦等等專屬女孩的遊戲。

雖然大榕樹蔭遮蓋了大部份的黑瓦片屋頂,夏天還是像個熱爐煎鍋。孩子們沒法給他們火熱的身體降溫,只能讓汗水逕自地從黝黑的皮膚上不停地沁滲出來。那時候,還沒有「電冰箱」這個名詞,我們也從沒看過真正的冰塊。而「枝枒冰-冰棒」這東西,也是打從我們開始上小學了,才在上學的路上發現一個製造工廠而認識的。

那時候那有什麼「塑膠水瓶」?但誰又需要那玩意兒?要解渴,我們直接就地取才。榕樹子掉得滿地都是,拿來嚐嚐。可很快的我們就發現它的味道實在噁心,又還聽說它有毒,於是我們很聰明的改變了態度,看到就踩爛它們,把那滿地的樹子當成了人民公敵。還好,到處還有那美麗熱情又有好名聲的芙蓉花,摘下它又粗又長的花蕊,吸了那甜甜的花蜜,一點點的蜜糖就可以樂壞了我們。再有,那桑樹的果實叫桑椹的,也沒能逃過我們的厲眼。它們又黑又酸的果汁,也可以替這群玩著戰爭與和平的孩子們馬上消暑解渴。我們樂得享受這些大自然的資源,可卻從來沒有人提醒我們,說我們已經成為生態環境中蜜蜂和鳥兒們的競爭對手了。

在那個沒有瓶裝汽水與果汁的年代,水果應該是最好的甜食和飲料。然而,水果在當時也真正少得可憐。香蕉和鳳梨應該是當時台灣產量最多的水果,可是他們並不是給一般民眾食用的,而是以出口為主,用來賺外匯的農產品。買水果對大人來說算是太奢侈的負擔,但是,只要不管人家那主人樂不樂意,我們孩子可有辦法自己找到水果來解饞。那許多巷子裡,籬笆內,不就伸出了纍纍的芭樂,龍眼和青芒果嗎?我們爬上樹去採摘,或捎根竹竿去打落,總可以收穫良多。那又甜又酸的果汁,真的可以滿足我們這群飢渴的毛孩子。這種偷竊是否可以成功,我們其實並不在乎,因為執行這膽大非法的小偷行為,就已經夠刺激了!

還好,我們還有甘蔗這東西。那時候的台灣,甘蔗可能是次於稻米的第二大農產。我常常隨爸媽搭著火車去拜訪親戚,在火車上就瞧著那高過人身的蔗梗密密集集的,大片的甘蔗田,綿延不斷。到了採收時節,農人們彎腰砍斷它們,再成捆的堆在田路上,等著糖廠小火車來把他們運入工廠。街頭也開始有小販堆起大把站著的甘蔗,等著顧客上門。大家開始啃著它當零食,我爸媽常常在我們家門口那個小販的攤子上,挑出數根莖粗,節長,莖皮閃亮著深紫色的甘蔗,那是汁多味甜的保證。那小販是要免費為顧客削皮的,他用一枝長刀,在硬梆梆的莖上先一剁,砍出一個小口,再順道往下一劈劃,那蔗皮就被扯開一長條。如法炮製,一刀接一刀地劈劃下去,大約五,六刀就把乳黃色的蔗肉全部給現露出來。有時候一刀劃不到底,他馬上再來第二刀。有的人技術好,削得比別人順快得多。之後,他把甘蔗剁成五,六塊一尺長的節段,讓顧客帶回家。這削甘蔗的技術對我來說簡直像個精彩萬分的特技表演,我是個最忠實的觀眾,常常站著看他削了一根又一根,連回家也忘了。

在那沒有電冰箱的時代,我們得把食物快快吃掉。甘蔗的吃法是這樣的:首先,我們要具備堅實的牙齒。小孩子和年紀大些的人常常一咬牙齒就掉了,健康的牙齒可以把甘蔗從大塊咬成小塊,再慢慢齟嚼,直到把蔗汁吸盡。其次,我們得小心嘴巴裡的動作,否則,一不留神咬破了舌頭嘴唇,那就得把蔗汁和著鮮血一起吞下肚。

我的記憶裡有個永難抹滅的影像:媽媽一直咀嚼著甘蔗,再把果汁吐出來碗裡留著。碗裡盛滿了蔗汁,她就用調羹一匙匙喂著我的小弟妹。我的弟妹們可樂著媽媽這樣的餵著他們那甜蜜蜜的果汁,但媽媽的咀嚼太慢了,弟妹們等不及,便哇哇地哭了起來。媽媽最終還是有辦法應付的,她一有空,就忙著嚼甘蔗,留蔗汁。

我和哥哥年紀大些,就拿著甘蔗跑出門,邊吃邊玩,也不管乳白甘蔗上總印著烏黑的手印。這段甘蔗還有一個方便的作用,就是剛好充當我們打鬥的武器。最後,甘蔗渣全都被我們吐到地上了─ 我們還沒有學到不可亂丟垃圾的概念。

這種五十年前我享用過的最真材實料的有機果汁,現在在洛杉磯卻很少見。我確實在一些古色古香的地中海型或西班牙豪宅的花園裡,看到一小叢高聳的甘蔗梗。我猜它們的主人大部份都來自東南亞,主人們一定懷著濃濃的思鄉之情而種植了它們 ─ 為了它們那甜蜜的果汁,它們植根生長的土地,還有從它們身上長出來那些所有的故事!

 

Categories: Memoir

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