I don't remember ever eating at a Chinese restaurant growing up.
That's not strictly true, I guess. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a girl in high school. She and I dated for most of high school. So I might have been 15. Or 17. When does 'growing up' stop? I'm also not really sure why I remember that date in particular. I mean, we went to a Chinese restaurant in suburban Georgia in the late '80s. Which I guess is pretty memorable. But I don't remember it like "Oh, hey - I know! Let's go on a grand adventure and try some of that foreign food." In my memory, it was kind of an ordinary thing to do, which means I had probably done it before. Maybe it sticks out because it wasn't salmon cakes*.
*(for that to make sense, you'd have to know that every time I went over to that girl's house to have dinner with her family, her mom was making salmon cakes. Every. Single. Time. For three years. I couldn't explain it. I also can't eat salmon cakes to this day. I think I used up my lifetime quota while we were dating. And probably yours, too.) (You couldn't have known that before I told you that story. But now you do, see?)
I don't know what we ordered that night - probably something on the order of Sweet And Sour Fried Chunks Of A Familiar Domestic Animal With Pineapple Chunks. Because that would have been safe. I also don't remember what the name of the restaurant was. It didn't stand out. Most Chinese restaurant names in America come from the same standard formula. Pick a word from column A [Asia/Jade/Golden/Hunan/Bamboo/China] and add it to a word from column B [Palace/Wok/Panda/Dragon/Garden/Wall]. Boom. You've got yourself a Chinese restaurant.
I know that I must have gone out to Chinese later on, when I had entered college and was spending time with much more worldly friends in downtown Atlanta. I remember a giant lazy susan, pots of green tea and twelve or so of us trying to figure out if we could afford something more than a couple of plates of egg rolls. As worldly as we were, we probably still didn't venture too far from the aforementioned sweet-and-sour-pineapple-meat.
I do remember learning to make fried rice from my older brother at some point in my youth. Many years later, when I was staying for a weekend at a different girlfriend's apartment in San Francisco (the girl who would go on to become my beautiful Bride. Despite the story I am telling you now), I sought to impress her by making fried rice like my brother had taught me. Because I didn't know much. But I knew that chicks dig a guy who can cook. So I asked her if she had the ingredients handy.
Her: 'Probably. What do you need?'
Me: 'Uncle Ben's rice. One beef bouillon cube. And an egg."
Her: "... Uncl- ... what?! What the hell? No. Just... no."
Me: "This is San Francisco. It is the San Francisco treat. I've seen the commercials."
Her: That's Rice-a-roni. And still no."
Apparently sensing that intervention was necessary, we met a bunch of friends for dim sum at a Chinese restaurant near San Jose. It's possible that some of my family might read this, and still have never gone to a Chinese restaurant outside of suburban Georgia in the late '80s. So let me explain.
Dim sum is a style of Chinese food separate and different from all other Chinese foods. It's small, appetizer sized portions, typically dumplings, buns, or other small & conveniently shaped portions of delicious somethings served in a steamer basket or small bowl. They're like Chinese tapas**. It's a great weekend brunch kind of thing. In the really good places, you don't order off a menu. The dishes are brought out in stacks on wheelie carts - three or four different kinds on a cart. You just point and they put a basket of something steaming hot on the table and stamp your bill. Keep choosing til you're full.
**Which may not help much in explanation. I didn't try tapas until I was almost thirty.
I was never really a picky eater as a kid. I just was not adventurous. (Which I maintain is a different thing). I stuck to the things I knew, and was pretty happy. So when we went to this particular restaurant, I tried to figure out which mysterious basket held something that was sort of close to my comfort zone. I didn't expect to find anything in the Sweet and Sour food group, but I figured I could find something at least vaguely familiar.
I pointed at one of the baskets and asked the cart-pusher, "What's in this one?" She said something back to me in Chinese. Which may or may not have included the ingredients in that particular dish. I smiled and tried again. "What's in this basket?" She responded in Chinese again. Except louder, and more slowly. I shook my head shyly and waited for the next cart.
Unfortunately, that didn't prove to be enough time to improve my Mandarin much. The lady helpfully tipped back the lids of the baskets so I could see the choices, though. Which all looked like a sweaty wonton wrapper, squished around small chopped bits of various somethings. One basket contained something that looked an awful lot like boiled chickens feet. (Turns out, they were boiled chickens feet). This had definitely not been on the menu of the Jade Wok of Conyers, GA.
The pretty girl that had brought me smiled encouragingly between bites of ... whatever... she was eating, and offered me one out of one of the baskets she had chosen. I was hesitant, but I was also pretty desperate to not look like I was hesitant, and somewhat nervous that my earlier Uncle Ben's comment had not improved my chances of seeing this girl naked again. (Note to my children: only after we got married. By a priest. In a church. With our familys' blessing). So I took one.
It was delicious. I had no idea what was in it. Neither did she.
Suddenly, I figured out that was kind of the fun, and I started pointing at things, and baskets were dumped on our table. Sometimes, the cart lady would cut up the longer sweaty wantons. Sometimes, she would pour an equally mysterious sauce on my plate that I guessed was supposed to make the dish taste better. It worked. Sure, every once in a while, I would find one that I didn't care for, and I'd try and remember its particular shape so I didn't order it again (anything with taro root). (also. the chickens feet). But I still look back on that lunch as the moment that would've let me eat the two cups of live catepillar gumbo for a million bucks or whatever reality show I might end up on.
Fortunately, the Critter has never had an issue - she started out as an adventurous eater, and while she's got a couple of things that aren't really her bag (e.g. beans. Of all the things in the world), she'll try pretty much anything at least once.
The Boy, on the other hand, is pretty much just like I was. He'll eat anything, if it's covered in a decent amount of ketchup. But his instinct is to stick to what he knows. Chicken. Bread. Maybe some green beans. Anything that comes from a cereal box, with or without milk. And peanut butter. Probably not all together at once.
But one day, Boy. You're going to meet a girl who's going to take you to a Chinese restaurant. And you're going to have a choice.
I recommend anything but the chicken's feet.