Monday, March 29, 2010

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. II

Maybe Your Baby Ate a Pigeon

Dinner in a foreign country with three gweilo kids isn’t nearly the adventure you think it would be.  There are some pretty standard things we can get pretty much everywhere that will keep the kids happy:  sweet and sour pork, for instance, or barbequed beef or chicken, though in Asia the latter’s usually steamed and sliced through the bone, making it kind of floppy and pink and bloody and gross all at the same time, not unlike Glenn Beck. 

The beauty of these standards is that they free Ellen and I up to explore a bit more.  Our one evening in Shanghai, for instance, we ask one of the bellhops at the hotel if he has a favorite restaurant in the neighborhood.  He sends us to a seafood place located maybe a mile’s walk from the hotel, down a poorly-lit street where we pass at least three houses of ill repute, if you can call a ground-floor barber shop with a plate glass window and 17 scantily-clad women sitting on sofas a “house.” 

Finally, though, we reach 324, the number the bellhop gave us, and are waved in by a Sikh in a gray turban.  We’re in art deco land again, which is just dandy, because it’s fast becoming my favorite design style (replacing urban frat boy).  An ornate pillar rises up from the ornate tiled floor to the ornate ceiling, trimmed in ornate gilded lilies and ornate lotus flowers (loti?).  Low divans with wooden trim and intricate brocade rest below a huge goldfish tank that’s been built into the front of the building, in lieu of a window.  Along the other wall, crab and grouper (groupi), mantis prawn and lobsters (lobi?) swim in open-topped tanks. 

The maitre d’ ushers us into an small elevator, where we’re shuttled to the second floor at probably half the speed it would have taken us to walk up, even lugging a three-year old and two surly sub-tweeners.

The restaurant itself occupies a huge room two stories high with a balcony around the upper level.  Long, opaque, cream-colored lights dangle from the ceiling and shell-shaped sconces line the wall.  The mirror near a dark-wood bar is decorated with stained glass.  Good-bye frat boy. 

The menu is in English, but nearly as big as the room and in tiny print designed specifically to tick off 44-year-old bald guys. 

“Okay?” the waitress, an ageless woman in a blue smock says to us after we’d poured over the thing for all of two minutes. 

“Um,” we say.  “Maybe just another minute?”

“Okay?” she says again, five minutes later. 

I point to a picture of what looked like a Rubik’s Cube coated in bread crumbs.  “What’s this?”

She taps it with a pen.  “This very good.  You want this?”

“Well.  Maybe.  What is it?”

She nods.  “Is very good.”

“Very good what?” 

She nods.  “Yes.”

Well, okay then.  So we order some of that—turns out to be stuffed crab legs, though we never found anything that looked even vaguely crabby, except our waitress after the 32nd time we asked her to come back because we needed more time. 

Finally, we end up just pointing to six or seven things that have an Ebert’s thumbs up next to them, hoping this symbol indicates a house specialty rather than sautéed digits. 

Next to music and sex, food is probably the most difficult thing to write about.  Back in grad school, I had the honor of being taught by Lee Abbott, one of the last true craftsmen in the short fiction genre.  Back in his 20s, Lee decided that writing literary fiction was for the birds—just no money in it.  So, ever the resourceful young man (an MFA will do that to you), Lee took to writing porn. 

He only lasted a week (so to speak).

“I got to page 29 and realized that I was out of ideas,” he told me once.  “Zippo. Zilch.  Not even a ‘nada’ left.  I used everything I had and couldn’t think of anything else.  There’s only so many ways to describe two people bumping uglies.”

The same goes for writing about food, albeit in a less (hopefully) sticky way.  I mean, when it comes to food, you’re working with a pretty limited range:  there’s salty, there’s sweet.  There’s heavy, there’s light.  And there’s chocolate.  What the hell else is left?

A lot, actually, but it’s late, and I’m tired, and I kind of lazy as a writer, so here’s all your gonna get:

That food was really good.

And this: 

Beats McDonalds any day. 

A few dishes deserve some detail:  the stuffed crab’s legs are essentially deep-fried bread crusts surrounding a steamy, tangy sauce.  They are crunchy, and warm, and so flavorful that even Will—a boy who likes his eggs boiled, with no salt—loves them.

There’s the eight-jewel dish, with duck and prawn and scallops and chicken and fried tofu three other things I can’t remember but that taste really good.  Lucy loves pigeon and kept eating dark chewy chunks of something out of this dish, so maybe pigeon. 

There’s chicken and shrimp dumplings, tchoy sum (greens cooked lightly in a broth), abalone in sticky rice, minced crab and cheese baked on the half shell.

Best of all, though, is the big, boiling pot of rice, chicken, and shrimp soup they bring to the table on a small wooden burner.  Steaming hot and rich and salty, Ellen and I eat six bowls of this, each.  It’s just that good.

Afterwards, as is not uncommon in China, a waitress brings plates of fruit to the table, on the house:  watermelon, Chinese apples (smaller, harder, and more oblong than the stuff Adam ate), fresh pineapple and cherry tomatoes.

If it sounds like this is a lot of food, it is.  If it sounds like it’s more than we got for the kids, who ate mostly steamed chicken, and picked through our fancy dishes—well, that’s true too.

And if it sounds like Ellen and I are big greedy pigs, well, I’d love to deny this, but my mouth is full of shrimp dumplings right now—so whatever. 


Maybe Your Baby Ate a Whole Pig

The next morning, we go down to the second floor for breakfast.  When we tell the woman our room, she scans through the sheet of paper in front of her. 

“What was the number again?” she asks. 

“511,” I say. 

“And 512,” Ellen kicks in. 

Again the scan through her lists.  One would think they’d put these things in numerical order, but apparently not.  Flipping the sheet over, she picks up another one and runs her pencil down it as well.  Then she looks up.

“Perhaps breakfast was not included?”

I look at Ellen, who frowns.  We book our hotels, like our flights, at the last minute, on the web, late at night, while sipping fruity vodka drinks.  “It could be,” she says.  “We used Expedia.”

I turn back to the maitre d’ess, or whatever you call them.  “How much is the breakfast?”


RMB.  That’s more than 20 dollars.

“A piece?” I ask.  She nods.

Ellen shifts Jamie on her hip.  “Is there a charge for kids?”

“Children under 1 meter are free.  Children under 1.4 meters are half-price.”

I look at Ellen again.  She’s as pale as I feel.  Jamie fits under the first measure, and Lucy more-or-less under the second one, depending on, literally, where they draw the line on the wall.  Even so, though, with Will and the two of us at full price, we were looking at almost $80 US.  For breakfast.   Don’t get me wrong:  we’re willing to pay 20-plus a head for dinner anytime, maybe even for lunch, but we draw the line at anything organized around toast and jam. 

“What about a la carte?” Ellen says.

The woman looks at her, not sure if she’s just been called a dirty name.

“The menu,” says Ellen.  “Can we just order off the menu?  You know:  one person get eggs, someone else gets ham.”

“Or cereal,” I say.  “Our kids usually just eat cereal.”

The woman frowns, considers for a minute.  “Let me go ask the chef,” she says.

“Oh,” says Ellen, realizing what’s happening, that what we’ve asked isn’t standard.  “No.  You don’t have to—“

But the woman is already gone.

She’s away for quite a while.  A line begins to form behind us, an Asian couple holding hands, maybe on their honeymoon (because who holds hands these days?), an older couple, east European, maybe, the woman in a colorful headscarf tied under her chin.  And behind them—

I do a double-take, then turn and have a good, long look, just to make sure I haven’t lost my mind. 

“Ola!” I say.

“Ola,” they nod back.

The mariachi band is dressed in white, from the tips of their pointy-toed boots to the rims of their sombreros.  Extravagant crème-colored brocade adorns their shoulders, their cumber bunds, the cuffs of their shirts.  Two or three of them are carrying slightly off-sized instrument cases, as though their guitars had developed acute cases of elephantiasis. 

They look—how shall I say this?—wonderfully, gorgeously, extravagantly, beautifully out of place.

The maitre d-amsel is back now, accompanied by a thin young man in a black tuxedo. 

“I’m sorry,” he says.  “What is the question?”

Ellen explains that we’d wanted to know about ordering off the menu, that we didn’t want a full buffet, that we weren’t sure why, but our rooms hadn’t come with breakfast included, but that, now that we know there’s no menu, there’s no problem and we’ll just figure something else out.

The man listens, watching her face, then glances at me.  Then he lowers his eyes and surveys our brood:  three blond-ish children in a country that fines couples for having more than one baby.  His eyes stay on them for a long, long moment, moving from head to head.  Then he looks up at the hostess.  “The children will count as one,” he says.

Ellen and I both begin to protest, but he holds up a hand.  So we herd the kids past, and into the dining room.  As we do so, I thank him.  “Don’t worry,” I say.  “Usually they just have cereal.  And maybe a pancake.”

Except today, of course, when we’re not even to the table before Lucy spots the bacon.

“Dad, look!” she says. 

I turn, glance at the row of heated silver serving trays.  Dim sum, tomatoes au gratin, ham, bacon, oatmeal, steamed buns.  One thing that’s great about traveling in Asia is the mix of people you’ll find:  Asians, yes, but also Europeans, Africans, and Australians, and North Americans.  And as opposed to say, France, where what you’ll get for breakfast is purely French fair (and I’m not complaining, mind you:  I can live with crusty bread and a bowl of chocolate big enough to stick my head into), every hotel we’ve been to in Asia has made an attempt to accommodate every population that graces their doors, at least with their breakfast buffet.  So you’ll find blue cheese and salami next to wasabi and sushi; stewed cabbage and corn beef next to kim chi.   That none of these are dishes I would want to eat for breakfast (where are the Cocoa Puffs?), is beside the point.  It’s still pretty cool.

Anyhow, what Lucy has spotted on the way to our table is the serving tray filled to the brim with greasy, fatty, English-style bacon, thick and floppy, more like ham than bacon.

Lucy loves this stuff.  Loves it. 

Which explains, of course, why when the manager strolls past our table, not ten minutes later, he does a double-take, all but stopping in his tracks and staring, horrified. 

Where he’d expected to see a bowl of cornflakes and maybe a pancake or two is Lucy’s plate, topped with a pile of bacon as big as her head.  

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