BEIJING — She's not a food industry whiz kid. She has no bachelor's in baking or PhD in pies. Until she arrived in China from rural Michigan after a 21-year marriage had gone sour, she cooked only for family.
Yet since 1999, Meredith McLeod-Dunton - aka "Grandma" - has been an inspiration and guiding force behind five new US home-cooking restaurants in China, a category that barely existed here until she helped bring it.
She bakes cookies with customers and is an ambassador in the Orient for US Southern dishes and desserts. If you want a peanut-butter pie or grits and gravy in Chengdu, you have to go to Grandma's or Peter's, a Tex-Mex restaurant started by her semiadopted son.
Ms. McLeod is a type of foreigner who's been coming to China for more than 100 years - to teach, volunteer, pitch in, or just share. Her own story after the divorce is partly rebirth, partly adventure - a journey from a small Texas college to the summer palace of the Dali Lama. In some ways, it might be scripted as "Fried green tomatoes comes to Tibet."
McLeod arrived in 1994 with the last group of US teachers allowed into Tibet. A year later they were kicked out. She moved to Sichuan, taught English, started "cooking American," and helped open a cafe. Since then she's taught many dozens of young Chinese about Western food preparation.
Ten years ago she became a mother to a 16-year-old son of a peasant couple, called him Peter, and taught him to cook using sign language. Now 25 and fluent in English, the young man just opened "Peter's" next to a swanky Beijing hotel.
"She's a special case, because she branched into business," says a Western diplomat who knows McLeod. "But there are many like her in China - those with an adventurous spirit who come to help. They are do-gooders, and I don't mean that pejoratively."
McLeod's homestyle food concept certainly took hold. Western fare is scarce here. Other than fast-food spots like the ubiquitous McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken, not much US comfort food is available. Thai, Indian, Italian, can be found. And French and German fare are works in progress. As for meatloaf, nachos, a Reuben, a Cobb salad, or nine-layer dip - forget it.
"Getting Chinese kids to learn how to make pancakes and grits in Chengdu, and deliver quality every day - well, that's pretty amazing," says a Western businesswoman who knew McLeod when there was only one "Grandma's" in China. "A lot can go wrong, there's not a culture of support for this food, but she's still setting standards."
McLeod works in a manner of mellow constant correction. At the end of a busy Tex-Mex lunch one hears a steady stream of low-frequency commentary: "Honey, you can't just let the sour cream sit like that. You need to stir it, cover it, and put it in the fridge." When a bulk order of cream cheese arrives in the kitchen frozen, she sends it back. If the taquitos don't have flavor at dinner, the staff hears about it. When her grandmotherly radar picks up a customer complaint that the fried ice cream isn't crunchy, she orders one from the floor, detects the problem, and visits the chef.
McLeod says her experience abroad amazes her: "A lot of it is just serendipity. Things happened one after another in a way I could not plan. It was a second opportunity, a new lease on life, and I didn't waste it."
Not that it was easy. After her divorce, McLeod went home to the family farm in east Texas. She felt something was waiting for her, but couldn't name it. She kept thinking of a place "filled with clouds," she says.
One day the college librarian told her of a company that sends English teachers abroad. She suddenly felt she should go to Tibet. It was the last group of US teachers allowed in.
Tibet seemed to McLeod like a time-travel trip to feudal Europe. She spent two years there, was then sent out, and wound up teaching high school in the States but felt disillusioned by US schools. "I couldn't take the problems American schools have now. I wouldn't do it. I wanted to go back to China," she says.
Back in Chendu she taught English but found herself more and more on call at a small diner. She and friends worked out a restaurant idea that would be "a little bit of home, and I would be the grandma. We made quite a stir," she says.
"People were talking about that Western lady who was dressing in a bonnet and making chocolate cake. It was fun, but stressful," she says.
She grabbed recipes from Texas fire-department cookouts, church circles, old recipe books - and wore out the pots and pans experimenting in her own kitchen.
"We had no help, we only had ourselves. No one knew anything about fixing Western food but me," she says. "Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, greens. In those days there was no menu. We just put signs on the wall every day."
Improvisation was crucial. There was an "almost Reuben sandwich," substituting sliced ham for corned beef. She cut designs into a coffee can lid to make a cake border pattern. Finding milk was a problem, and McLeod, who struggles with the Mandarin language, remembers running through the kitchen one day making mooing sounds until it was clear she needed milk.
She is passionate about desserts. One Thanksgiving in a city hotel she made such a fuss about a lack of pumpkin pie that she was invited into the kitchen to improvise one.
Sadly, there has been a falling out between McLeod and the the owners of her namesake restaurant, which she says is a result of unenforceable contracts in China and the success of the restaurant.
The bright side is that McLeod threw her energies into helping Lou Zong Hua, otherwise known as Peter. He met McLeod, or "Mom," while looking for a job. He knew no English. "Mom looked after me, paid my tuition for school.... I told myself I needed to grab this chance and hold tight. I needed to learn about food, and I needed to learn English. I treated English as if it was the boy who loves the girl. I would do anything to follow it."
Peter now runs a funky little establishment with drawings of Texas steers, cowboys, and Mexican sombreros. "I'd never had any encouragement before. Just helping people a little bit at the right time can change a person's life," he says.
Grandma isn't always happy with Americans that come to China in the name of benevolence. Too many don't take teaching or helping seriously, she feels. "I had one college-graduate teacher who always looked like he just woke up. It leaves a bad impression," she says. "I try to teach how important it is to put effort into things."