“Don’t ask, just eat” was the official mantra of the meals I had in China. My father delighted in turning to me in the back seat as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot to say that I would have to “trust the hostess.” The hostess, Shan Shan, a Beijinger, would look into her rearview mirror and smile. “It’s good. You don’t have to worry.” I was up for anything. I was game. I had already weathered KLM Airlines’ limp attempt at vegetarian fare.
When we sat at the round table, neither menu was placed before me. Shan Shan took care of the food, the drinks, and the tea. Our young female server looked intently at her over her notepad while she questioned different dishes, discussed the freshness of each type of fish, and whether they had Yangjin in the brown bottles or only in the green. The conversation became softer when they both nodded excitedly and agreed on the worthiness of the dish. It was louder at other times, exasperated when the waitress told Shan Shan that a particular green vegetable wasn’t looking good today. The whole process took about ten minutes.
One of the appetizers Shan Shan ordered was a bird. When our plates of goose’s foot in brown sauce arrived, she looked at me, lifted her eyebrows a couple of times and laughed. “That’s exactly what she did when I first came here,” my Dad said.
“You have to eat that thing quickly,” he said. “They just keep bringing plate after plate.”
“No, I know that. It’s not like I’m afraid of it.”
“Why would you be afraid of it? It’s a goose.”
“No, I said I wasn’t afraid of it.”
“There’s lots more food to come, so you should get eating.”
“I’m eating. I’m eating it right now.”
My start was inauspicious. The goose’s foot slipped back onto the plate and spattered the brown sauce onto my napkin. I took a firmer grip with my chopsticks and lowered my head.
“You can get right down into it,” my Dad said.
“I am getting right down into it.”
The outer layer felt soft and loose in my mouth, the exact texture I had imagined a piece of goose’s flesh would have each time I looked at flocks of them down in Bowen Park. The inside meat was almost as tender, soaked in rich brown sauce, which made it taste sweeter than chicken and gave it the consistency of softened tofu. The whole plate smelled like gravy made in a perfect Chinese culinary world.
When you’re down there, close to the plate, eating severed goose’s foot, what you’re looking at is the goose’s webbed toes, and if you move your mouth, your teeth, the bone, and the meat one way, the toes follow. I did this a few times and imagined I was a goose staring down at my feet while I waded through mud.
I had been down close to my plate for too long, so I raised my head. It was a different world up here. Our server stood to my left with a pot of jasmine tea, waiting to fill my full cup. When I turned to her, mid-chew, she lifted the pot and stared back like someone might regard a flesh-eater fresh from a particularly good meal, earlobe still dangling from his lip. I slurped whatever was left of the goose’s foot back into my mouth – which is fine, really. Everybody slurps in China. But I knew I had crossed a line in my Chinese etiquette. It’s Ok to talk about the meal; it’s Ok to be excited, but it’s not cool to flap a piece of goose’s foot around your mouth in front of the server. She smiled, and I smiled, and she smiled again.
Shan Shan asked me what I thought, and I turned from the server, nodded my head, and did this outrageous pantomime of ‘IT WAS GOOD’ involving two thumbs up that I seemed to pull out whenever I was in a restaurant with someone Chinese who could understand English.
“So, what did you think,” my Dad asked again.
“I thought it was great,” I said.
Shan Shan smiled sweetly – a compliment for the food was a compliment for the host – and began spooning a limp, green vegetable onto my plate.
“This is good. You will like this.”