Because the current wife is some sort of voluntary pooh-bah on the Georgia State University Foundation Board, she has been invited to visit China this Spring, along with several other Board members (no expenses paid, mind you). Given that I am her lovely spouse and spouses were included in the invitation, I am going to China as arm candy.
A seasoned traveler, I know that visiting foreign lands for extended periods of time requires one to adapt to new and sometimes curious eating experiences. Thus, my main concern about this trip was food. To date, my only experience with authentic Chinese cuisine occurred in San Francisco’s China Town at an aptly-named eatery, Jackson’s Cafe. This restaurant is not a tourist haunt. It is up a flight of dimly-lit stairs, down an even more dimly lit hallway and eventually reveals itself as a slightly more florescent version of the dining hall at Alcatraz. There were no other tourists there on our visit.
The food came to our table via a rolling trolley. On each cart was an array of small portions of things that made me glad that they were small portions. Virtually nothing thus presented reminded me of actual food, at least not in the sense that I could say, “Oh look, fried chicken”, or “Try some of these little lamb lollypop doohickeys.” Our conversation was more muted and consisted of comments such as, “That looks like an eyeball in okra slime” or “I think this is a really, really soft poached egg. Wait, I think it’s crawling.”
One could dump all of these mysterious dim sum ingredients into a large pot and expect that three witches would show up, circle the bubbling caldron and start spouting Shakespeare. Suffice to say, I didn’t gorge myself because I spent most of my time in Jackson’s Cafe feeling nauseous. Given this experience plus the knowledge that China’s famously expensive Bird’s Nest soup’s primary ingredient is bird saliva, my Chinese eating worries had foundation in fact. A two-week trip is a long time to live on canned sardines and soda crackers.
A Reuters Press story early this week, however, has given me hope. It seems that a donkey meat purveyor for WalMart in China supplied the giant retailer some of its famous “Five Spice” donkey meat secretly tricked out with some fox meat. Clearly this is a P.R. black-eye for WalMart. I mean, if you can’t trust the good folks from Bentonville to sell you pure donkey meat, then nothing is sacred.
In the game of saving money on ingredients, padding out donkey meat with fox meat seems counter-intuitive. Are foxes easier to catch or shoot than raising docile donkeys? Are foxes chubbier? Is fox meat to donkey meat what bison is to beef? Is fox meat simply a cheap by-product of fur coats and neck wraps seen on China’s nouveau riche? There has to be a logical explanation. I intend to find out.
What, you may be wondering, is the information in this story that gives me hope regarding the food situation during my China trip? Simple…. donkey meat is one of my favorites, right up there with mule, burro and Shetland pony. What these meats have in common is texture. There’s a manly, rugged, sinewy, chewy, built-in dental flossy feel to every bite. “Mastication” isn’t a strong enough word to describe the process of eating donkey. A new word is needed. “Grindication”? “Annihilcation”?
The flavor of donkey meat is why the “Five Spice” version is, by far, the most popular.
Now that my eating worries have abated, I can concentrate on researching the many wonderful and wondrous wonders of China, modern and ancient, that interest me. For instance, 35 million Chinese currently live in caves. I want to see that. Chinese vending machines sell live crabs. If you put your money in and a dead crab comes out, they give you three live crabs free. It’s like sea food slot machines. Chinese babies traditionally don’t wear diapers, they wear “kaidangku” which translates to “open crotch pants”. This practice goes back hundreds of years. This is yet another reason to tread carefully in China’s public spaces and to wonder if there isn’t a Victoria’s Secrets designer who has some explaining to do.
I’m also hoping to visit the “Kingdom of Little People” a Chinese theme park populated with over 100 dwarfs, dozens of tiny dogs and hundreds of miniature plants. There is dwarf singing, dwarf dancing (both break and ballet) and dwarf acting. I’m hoping that they have dwarf bowling but that wasn’t mentioned in the marketing material.
China boasts the world’s tallest man, Bao Xishun. At 8’1″ and having a wingspan of 8’5″, Mr. Bao helps veterinarians retrieve dangerous plastic shards and glass from the stomachs of dolphins. I don’t know if this is his full-time job but I definitely want to see it. He would also be good at female whale pelvic exams but so far, they haven’t had any cooperative whales.
I’m sure that our guides will drag us around to all the touristy stuff: The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, The Terra-Cotta Army, giant Pandas and the grease spot in Tiananmen Square where the tank eventually ran over the protestor. Even so, I think that my list of Chinese wonders lends itself to more interesting conversation.
Finally, if you do contact WalMart and secure some untainted donkey meat, I suggest that you use a marinade that includes not only the five essential spices but also some battery acid.
Observoid of the Day: In China, if you are “one in a million”, there are 1,350 people exactly like you elsewhere in the country.