For almost three years, I had been a strict vegetarian, but when I arrived in China I knew I’d soon start eating meat again. I was there to teach college English for two years, and I vowed to myself that I would try to fit into Chinese culture by learning the language, practicing the customs, and eating the food. Since the Chinese consume much less meat than North Americans and do not practice the unhealthy and inhumane methods of “factory farming,” I felt that my desire to be as Chinese as possible should take precedence over my normal vegetarian strictures.
I quickly became used to the Chinese diet. I ate eel, duck, pork, beef, and seafood on a regular basis, often with great relish. My students frequently invited me to their homes and served me meals that made the fare of Chinese restaurants in the United States seem like poor imitations.
At the end of my second year of teaching, one student, a beautiful and outgoing woman in her mid-thirties, invited me to a farewell dinner at her house. As we sat at the table with a few mutual friends, eating from seven or eight wonderfully prepared dishes, someone commented on how delicious the frog legs were. My student looked at me and said, “Peter, I cooked these frogs because you are leaving our country. They are a special dish in China because they are expensive and difficult to find at the market.” When I asked why, she got out her Chinese-English dictionary and said, “The government does not want us to eat these frogs because they are —” Here she flipped through the dictionary. “They are — how to say? They are . . . endangered species.”
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I have seen her for the past two days along Highway 101, turning to shout things at the cars that drive past. When she comes in I seat her at table eight, which is small and close to the kitchen. She’s about my age, probably, with dirty, uncombed hair and rotten teeth. She puts her bags on the floor and asks for hot water. She has her own tea bag.
I ask if she wants a sandwich or soup, but she says she is a vegetarian.
She says, “I can’t have any dead things.”
“A nice cheese sandwich with tomato?”
She can have only soy cheese.
I work at a restaurant in Oregon, which can be complicated because it’s frequented by a number of hippies and ex-hippies who all have unique diet ideologies. It’s one of the best seafood restaurants on the coast, but people don’t just come in and order salmon or halibut. First they take you through their current dietary restrictions. Some can eat fish and chicken, some can eat fish but no chicken, or fish but no bottom fish, and some can eat neither fish nor chicken but can have milk or eggs. Others can have milk but no eggs, and some can have no chicken, no fish, no mammals, and no eggs or milk or cheese. They can have cheese but no milk. They have allergies to gluten or shellfish or nuts. They can have no alcohol. They have systemic yeast and can have no wine, soy sauce, bread, or mushrooms. Some can have no sugar, others no salt, and some want all the fat taken out: the fish poached, the vegetables steamed, skim milk for the coffee.
“Did you have enough to eat?” I ask the woman at table eight. She has cleaned her plate. “Do you like the bread?”
She is holding a piece of black German bread, made with no fats. “Usually I don’t eat bread, you know. I can’t have debris in my diet.”
The dessert tray is always another big issue: should they see it or not? They agonize, bargain, argue with and coax one another, confess how many desserts they’ve eaten recently, how many calories they’ve had, how fat they’ve gotten.
I want to tell them, If you’re going to say yes to something, say Yes! But instead I shrug. “You’re on vacation, right?”
When I bring out the tray, they moan and shield their eyes. They don’t want anything themselves, but they think their companion should get something and they’ll have just a bite.
I like the ones who know right away. “Would you like to see our dessert tray?” “Yes!”
If they’ve just finished a meal of cod poached in water and steamed vegetables, if they’ve had skim milk for their coffee and bread without butter, they’ll order mousse-in-the-bag every time: white chocolate mousse in a Belgian chocolate box with whipped cream on top.
Which only proves what Krishnamurti says about the ultimate futility of resistance to temptation. Whenever someone orders poached fish, goes through a big struggle, then asks for a mousse-in-the-bag, I want to mention Krishnamurti, but I know I’m not supposed to get personally involved like that.
I like the ones who drink wine and love it, who eat their dinner and exclaim, “It’s wonderful!” Who, if they want dessert, eat it with nothing but pleasure.
Two of my favorite customers are a husband and wife who sit at table eleven. They order steamers and halibut and salmon with blackberry sauce. They have a bottle of Clos du Bois and, for dessert, mousse-in-the-bag and a strawberry tart with sour cream and cream cheese. They eat their food in big mouthfuls and laugh the whole time.
“I married her because I love to watch her eat,” he tells me.
Meanwhile, my boss fixes a bag of food for the homeless woman at table eight. “Take this with you, honey,” she says, but the woman opens the bag and eats everything right away.
“Would you like more water for your tea bag?” I ask.
Usually she just eats fruit, she says. She is careful about her diet. She motions to her bags. She says raw blackberries are the best thing. She carries her own blender.
When I moved to Panajachel, Guatemala, and needed a place to live, my friends told me houses were hard to find. So I was surprised when right away I found an affordable small house at the end of a quiet street on the way out of town. I took it.
The first night I heard cows lowing loudly nearby. I knew little Spanish, so I couldn’t ask my neighbors about it, though the cows continued to wake me every night. I wondered if they had bad dreams.
Meanwhile I needed to learn the language, so I bought a Spanish-English dictionary and started studying. One day I was looking up a word in the R’s, and there on the page was the name of my street, El Rastro. Rastro, noun, masculine — the trail to the slaugterhouse.
It wasn’t long before I stopped eating meat.
One morning at four o’clock, a cow decided it didn’t want to be someone’s dinner and broke loose. In its mad dash to freedom, it smashed right through my garden wall. The cow’s momentum kept it flying across the patio toward my bedroom. When I heard my adobe wall crumbling I thought it was an earthquake and jumped out of bed. Then, in the dim morning light, I spotted a cow’s head mounted on the wall where there hadn’t been one the night before. As I dived under the bed, the cow realized its mistake and backed out, knocking down the rest of the garden wall, and proceeded to plow through my neighbor’s cane fence. As far as I know it never became anyone’s dinner.
My father liked to hold court at dinner, giving us children his opinion of national and international events. As we grew up and developed our own points of view, we would argue with him and tease him mercilessly when he overreacted. He did not take kindly to being hoist with his own petard.
Once he became so upset at a remark one of us had made that he picked up his baked potato and hurled it against the dining room wall. He was too proud to remove the mark it made, and we were careful not to.
In that house we learned to savor the power of our words — words that our father had made sure we learned in the good schools he sent us to at considerable expense. From time to time in later years, we would notice the mark on the wall, remember its origin, and even show it to certain of our friends who were unfamiliar with passion.
I dreaded these occasions — the special goodbye dinners for foreigners. Robert was leaving Pakistan in a few weeks, and though we weren’t married, I was always asked along with him. Saying no wasn’t an option, so there I sat, covered from head to toe, in the back seat of a four-door pickup.
Robert and the driver sat in front, talking casually, joking, just passing the time. We were going to the driver’s house. Robert had been his boss for three years, so it was quite an honor for the driver that Robert was visiting his home.
As the streets narrowed, I felt more and more self-conscious. Men peered at me through the windows. To them, my stares out into the night were an invitation. I felt defiant, but I stayed silent.
When we arrived at the driver’s house I was led to the women’s section; Robert was taken in a different direction. I felt lonely already, knowing that the conversation with the women of the house would leave me feeling hollow. How I wanted to be among the men, talking about politics, the future of the world, poetry, and God. Instead, among the women, clothes and weddings would be the only topics.
I was led to the room of one of the driver’s daughters-in-law, who had married his son only a month earlier. The room was decked out with china, pots and pans, special pictures, and a big double bed. I removed my sandals — I had been careful to wear nice ones and to paint my toenails, which the women would be sure to notice — and sat on the floor.
All the women of the house and surrounding houses had come to visit. They served me a cold drink, and I answered question upon question about my family, work, clothes, and wedding plans. How odd I must have seemed to them! Bold and fierce. The thought excited me, and I began to relax and enjoy myself.
One by one, the dishes were brought in and set down before me. There was lamb curry, spinach-and-potato curry, bread, roast chicken, rice, fruits, and desserts. I had been to many dinners like this one, but had never considered just how important they were to the women of these houses. How else would they live out their dreams of experiencing the wider world? In their section of the house, the only foreigners they would ever see would be ones like me.
As I ate with all the oldest women, I gabbed on about weddings and American fashions. In the middle of one story, the driver came in. We all fell silent. It was time to go. I stood up slowly, said goodbye, and put on my sandals. I covered my head and promised to come back soon. The driver led me out of the women’s quarters, and I followed him through the corridor, eyes the down.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
I am a spinster, so I eat most dinners alone. One evening while I was still eating, a couple I know stopped by to visit. I asked them whether they had been able to see me through the kitchen curtains when they pulled up. “Yes,” the husband said. “We could even see that you were reading.” About to say more, he stopped himself, but his expression said it for him: I don’t know how you can live like that. Which, for him, is probably true. His wife not only cooks and cleans, she mows the lawn and hangs the wallpaper.
My favorite at-home dinners are on Saturdays in August. In the morning I visit the farmer’s market to buy the high-summer vegetables I don’t grow myself, like Silver Queen corn and cauliflower. Afterward, weather permitting, I work outside. My yard ends at Cazenovia Creek, a thirty-foot-wide stream flowing past my unevenly mowed lawn toward Lake Erie. Because I love this place, I work here: dragging flagstones from the creek bed for an eventual patio, pulling ragweed from the steep embankment to make room for more cultivated flowers, tending the garden.
I work until the sun settles on the shoulders of the western hills. Then I pick the vegetables for dinner: fat red tomatoes, new green beans, and a handful of lettuce leaves. After I shower I feed my dog, Pippa, and then myself, setting my food on the plate and admiring it. Next I choose the book I’m going to read while I eat, usually a mystery. I sit at the beat-up oak table that comes from my childhood home. If I think of it, and if I’m in the mood, I say the prayer my father taught me: “Thank you, O Lord, for the wonderful day you have given us so far, for everything you have ever given us, and for this wonderful food we are about to eat now.”
Mary A. Durlak
West Falls, New York
Sometimes I treat myself to Chinese take-out and order my favorite luncheon special: ginger chicken with string beans, won-ton soup, and brown rice. I arrive at The Panda Garden early, just to sit and enjoy the familiar smells.
As I wait, I look around at the trendy mauve tablecloths and the new black lacquered chairs, remembering the starched white linens and red booths in the Chinese restaurants my family frequented in the fifties. How interesting it was then to look at the skin, eyes, and black, black hair of someone who had come here from far across an ocean that wasn’t the Atlantic. How nice it was to eat their food.
There was always a jolly-looking maitre d’, whose wide plastic smile managed to convey real warmth. Dragon paintings hung on the walls, and lanterns with shiny red tassels were strung from the ceiling.
Ordering was an exciting group effort, as we chose two entrees from column A and three from column B. When the food came, it was kept warm in metal serving trays with lids that looked like hats with little pompoms. I loved the lids because they kept each entree and how much was left a secret, so each time you lifted one it was a surprise.
Sometimes a Chinese family would occupy a large table by the kitchen, and I marveled at their chatter and their dexterous use of chopsticks, which always hung in my hands as if they were wounded. It made sense how they brought their bowls to their faces. I wasn’t allowed to do that, so I’d sometimes bring my face to my bowl, another practice my mother condemned. Invariably I’d have to resort to using a fork, and then, of course, the rice scattered around my plate, drops of grease spattered on the white tablecloth, and little orange blobs of duck sauce dripped between the sauce bowl and my lips.
And then there were the fortune cookies; crack them open, and there was your life.
“Ma,” I said once, “my fortune is for a man. It’s not fair.”
“Really?” My mother looked down at me. “What does it say?”
“The joyfulness of a man prolongeth his days.”
“Well, that’s for a girl too.” She picked up her fork and plunged it into her fried rice.
“What does prolongeth mean?”
“It means longer.”
“How can days be longer than they are?”
“Days means years, your whole life, how long you live.”
Back then I thought I would live forever. I believed the world was as orderly as the Chinese menu with its neat columns, dish after dish spelled out in long, delicious rows. I knew the world was all spread out before me, and all I had to do was find a way to get it to my mouth.
My family ate dinner in front of the television six nights a week, much to the chagrin of my mother. She said it was messy and bad manners, but I think she really just wanted the company of the family at the dinner table.
Sunday was the only day Mom was guaranteed our presence at the table for dinner, but my dad was the one who did the cooking that night. Dinner traditionally consisted of pot roast, potatoes, green beans, carrots, and biscuits. Every once in a while, when Dad was feeling a bit creative, he would make his mystery chili: chili pepper, ground beef, and whatever else he could find to throw in the pot. Half the time it was edible. When it wasn’t, my mother went into a tirade because now we’d have to eat TV dinners — in front of the TV.
We children are all grown now, and my father does most of the cooking for himself and my mother. He eats his dinner in front of the TV, and my mom eats alone at the table.
M. Kathryn Bartlett
Des Moines, Iowa
I work with people who have eating disorders, and I’ve heard many elaborate theories about why some people have trouble knowing when they’re hungry and when they’re full. My observation is that people who doubt their ability to know what they want in the kitchen often seem to doubt themselves in other contexts as well.
I think the medieval banquets — though flawed by some elements of gluttony — could be a healthier model for all of us. The image I have in mind is of a guy ripping the meat off a drumstick with his teeth and swigging down wine, then wiping his greasy mouth with the back of his hand and kissing a buxom woman. This guy really takes it all in, gives in to his appetites, celebrates the many flavors. He doesn’t weigh things first on a calorie scale. To me, talking with your mouth full is part of that same kind of zest for life: having so much you want to share that you couldn’t possibly wait until you’ve finished chewing.
I love the noise of our dinners. We have three small children who shriek with hysterical laughter when someone does something funny with food — sculpting it into shapes, nonchalantly sweeping it off the table for the dog waiting below, mashing it all together to create colors and concoctions even the dog won’t try. Each of our kids is a different kind of eater: one is incredibly picky, one cautiously experiments, and one is a real chow hound. In the interest of putting all eating-disorder specialists out of work by the year 2000, I leave my children alone at the dinner table.
For me, preparing meals is about creating tangible, edible proof of how much I care about people and want to nourish and sustain them, including myself. We should be allowed to take whatever we desire from many offerings — nibbling here, crunching there — and leave the rest, concentrating solely on filling ourselves with what we need. We should learn to trust our guts and savor the goodness the earth has offered, paying attention to how the foods came to us. Take spoonfuls of all kinds of good things and then pass them on.
“It’s hot, Jeanette! It’s too damned hot!” My father’s rage begins our meal, like the saying of grace. My mother runs for ice if Dad has released his anger with a spit-out mouthful of hot food. She runs for towels and a broom if he’s thrown the entire plate across the room. We sit motionless, breathless. When at last our father begins to eat, we all do, filling our mouths quickly. Too soon the litany is taken up again: “This food is tasteless! Why the hell can’t you learn to season this crap!” My mother passes pepper, salt, Tabasco sauce, getting up from the table countless times. Rarely does she speak back. When she does, one of my brothers taps his foot in rhythmic response. My other brother and I dip our heads and shovel our food in quickly, hoping she’ll be quiet. My youngest sister stops eating entirely, her eyes wide. My middle sister dramatically begs to be excused, clutching her stomach. As we join together in this quiet protest, my mother retreats into a deep silence.
One evening my father makes his usual request for more ice water: a wordless, steady pounding on the table with his glass. Suddenly, for the first time, we all begin to pound too, power moving through our arms and filling us as never before in our father’s presence. My mother, open-mouthed, stares at us, then runs from the room in tears. My father laughs and we, relieved, boldly join him, knowing we have chosen the winning side in this battle that is our lives.
It takes us years to break that alliance.
Each week, my mother would buy a fresh chicken from the Jennings Street Market. The butcher would pluck the feathers while we waited. “No chicken with blemishes,” my mother would say. She’d put the chicken in her shopping bag along with the fruits and vegetables.
At home she washed the chicken under running water, then plucked any extra black pinfeathers and dug inside the cavity with her hands to remove the giblets. If I was lucky, she also found small yellow eggs. These were my favorite.
The chicken went into a large pot and was covered with water and brought to a boil. Then my mother added salt, fresh dill and parsley, chunks of carrots, celery, an onion, and a quarter of a ripe red tomato. (“The tomato is the secret,” my mother said.) She lowered the temperature and let the chicken simmer for one hour.
I could hardly wait for the round yellow eggs, so juicy in my mouth. My mother put them on a plate just for me before our family sat down to dinner.
Now, forty years later, my son calls to tell me another of his friends has died of AIDS. “I want chicken soup,” he says.
The dining room table, which my mom used as her desk, was typically covered with stacks of computer paper, IBM cards, and instruction manuals. Usually my brothers and I ate our dinner around the kitchen table while my mother washed a few pots and pans, the phone cradled against her shoulder.
She used to complain that her worst problem was having to decide what to make for dinner night after night. I couldn’t understand why, since what she served was so predictable. My mother is not a simple woman, but she knew how to keep cooking to a minimum: tuna and egg salad one night, pot roast the next, TV dinners and potpies on her work days, with chicken and breaded fish the rest of the week. Vegetables were always frozen, tossed in boiling water. Condiments were ketchup, mustard, and salt. She had no use for sour cream, fried food, or butter. Dessert was always canned peaches or canned plums.
My dad wouldn’t come home from work until close to my bedtime. I always hung all over him while he ate his dinner, which was warmed up if he was lucky. Dad has a dry sense of humor, and when my mom would ask him what he wanted for dessert, he liked to quip, “Baked Alaska.” He loved sweets and ate them without guilt or regret. He’d often take to a quart of ice cream with a soup spoon and no bowl.
One night in late autumn the dining room table was cleared, and Dad came home in time for all of us to eat together. We probably ate hot dogs and hamburgers and baked beans from a can. I know we ate fast, as usual, the phone ringing constantly, my mother clearing our plates before we’d even finished. When the dishes were in the sink, she casually asked my father what he’d like for dessert. “I’ll take the plums,” he answered.
“I don’t think there are any left,” she said, disappearing into the kitchen. She stepped out smiling. My father’s eyes widened. She was carrying a baked Alaska.
It was many years after a stranger on the telephone said he wanted to eat me that I understood he wasn’t a cannibal. Enlightened at the age of forty-seven, I don’t know if I was taken aback more by the original offer or by the overwhelming depths of my naiveté.
That long-ago phone call lay buried in my memory until my third date with Bob. It had been a perfect evening: dinner and dancing, excellent wine. Out on the dance floor, he pressed his cheek to mine. His warm breath brushed my ear, and I could feel him smile. We drifted among the other couples, and then Bob started speaking in tongues. I understood some of the words — tits, belly, gorgeous legs — but not others. He talked about going down somewhere. I stepped back to look at him, because for a moment I wasn’t sure I was dancing with the same man who had invited me to dinner. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
We went back to our table. Over espresso he explained this “going down” business, demonstrating on a cannoli. All at once, the concept of eating took on new dimensions. “So that’s what he meant,” I whispered to myself.
“That’s what who meant?” asked Bob.