Friday, December 26, 2003

 
How Much is that Doggy in the Window?
Matt Silverman, a friend of mine in Boulder who had been to China before I came passed on a sage observation shortly before I left: "I had the best and worst food of my life in China."
It has stuck with me throughout my stay but at no time did it become more salient than at last night's Boxing Day/Mao's Birthday staff outing.
Everything about it, including the setting, was surreal to a "white ghost" like me - though it was chow down-business as usual for my coworkers.
Imagine, if you will, a banquet menu inspired by a combination of A Christmas Carol and Apocolypse Now and you're beginning to get the idea.
The staff was giddy with anticipation shortly before we left the paper on Friday. If you didn't know better, it felt like the staff at any American paper getting ready to go out for a holiday get together on a Friday afternoon; if I closed my eyes I was almost back at the Rocky Mountain News circa 1987 as Mary, Bobby, Mary-Jane, Joe, Robin, Mark and Mark, Jackie, etc. wrapped up last minute year end stories and piled out the door for a nearby bar -- except, as I kept saying to myself, "We-didn't-go-to-eat-dog, we-didn't-go-to-eat-dog."
There were 14 of us, including Jennifer's 6-year-old daughter and our destination was about 40 minutes outside main SZ. We took a staff van and two private cars. I had been told several times that it was near a newly built, supposedly world class golf course called Mission Hills.
Sure enough, as we hit a toll booth, looming on three billboards above were enormous photos of golfers Jose Maria Olazaba, Annika Sorenstam and David Duval with their last names and Mission Hills in English and the rest in Chinese script. They apparently played the course, or at least that's what the billboards implied. But I don't think Jose, Annika and David took their 19th hole at the Doggie Diner, which was a good two or three fairways away and tucked in a drab, grey industrial park with Stanlist-era architecture factories, apartments and a mammoth furniture outlet.
You couldn't miss the Doggie Diner, however. It had a large sign over the entrance with painted pictures of the menu within. It looked like the world's weirdest pet store or one of those post-resurrection "Lion Lies Down with the Lamb" illustrations from a Jehova's Witness tract: A cobra cavorting with a lamb, pig, goose, swan, duck, cow, shark, eel, chicken and - yes, what appeared to be a Siberian huskie.
Mmmm, mmm good!
The wait for our feast was long and while the rest of the staff settled in a private room to play mah-jong and a card game involving three decks of western cards and rules that assigned different point systems to the face cards as well as the four different suits that I found incomphrensible, Jennifer and her daughter and I took a walk around the industrial neighborhood. We got her girl a cold can of coconut juice, watched some factory workers watch us as we watched them shoot pool outdoors and then returned for the spread.
First course: chicken soup, no problem. Except for John "Flame" Woo's lame, patronizing statement/question to me: "We call this 'chicken soup' in China. Do you have it in America?"
Second course, stir-fried tripe, from which I picked the vegetables and garlic, but left the intestines.
Third course: Fish heads. I took some from the cheeks and then stuck with the veggies.
Fourth course: Smoked duck. Savory, succulent and I began pigging out.
Sesame Fifth course: sesame fried eel. As it happens, I like eel and this was superb - very sweet with the sesame seed coating giving it a nice snap and crunch.
Sixth course: Tah-dah! A heaping platter of broiled Lassie!
All heads turned to see what I would do. I had told them about eating it in Korea, so they were appreciative when I picked a couple chunks out of the mix and gamely consumed them. It wasn't bad, actually. Very sweet, but the psychological factor was too strong and I was relieved when the roast goose arrived. This was the Christmas Carol touch. It was simply the best goose I've ever had, in fact very nearly the best fowl. Juicy with crackling skin and laced lightly with ginger and garlic, I tore in.
There was also corn. Fresh, sweet corn on the cob that, according to the ebullent restaurant owner with-no-bottom-teeth who kept joining us and urging me in Chinese to bring more foreigners next time, had just been picked. It tasted as such and I clogged my teeth mowing down two ears.
We weren't able to finish it all and that's when I began involuntarily laughing out loud. The waitress was collecting the leftovers to box them and put them -- including roasted Rin-Tin-Tin -- into doggy bags.
I explained to my coworkers why I was laughing and they seemed to appreciate it.
But I declined a dog doggy bag and accepted some leftover goose.
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