In 1991 I traveled to China with my husband's family. My father-in-law had been assiduously courted by the Chinese Government and repeatedly invited to visit and meet with the Communist leaders, but for the rest of us, it was a first trip.
Our itinerary was dotted with exciting destinations: Beijing and Shanghai, Soochow and Xian among them; a lifetime's dream come true for me. Art, landscape, food, culture: I was ready to inhale all that and more, prepared for the all-inclusive experience.
And I was set for the humorous encounters an observant foreigner experiences when being just that: a foreigner. During my years in Tokyo I had kept a log of all the inventive ways the locals bent the English language and adapted it for marketing, advertising and selling. I was a fan of Creepy, the Japanese Coffee-Mate, and loved to pork a car in a Porking Place. I eagerly anticipated the same innocent fun while traveling through China.
I got what I asked for. And then some...
My father-in-law had impatiently awaited the pleasure of inviting friends and family to a Beijing restaurant that was once a splendid, princely residence, and accordingly he ordered a veritable feast, no expenses spared. He chose the most expensive dishes, showing the revolution-impoverished relatives that the patriarch of the Chen family sought to honor them, by giving them face, as the Chinese say.
The happy gathering began promptly at 11:30 a.m. around the biggest round table I had ever seen in my life. I sat next to my husband, as tradition dictates, and without delay showed my insider's knowledge of Chinese manners. I kept my husband's plate full -- and also that of my neighbor, Uncle George -- selecting the best morsels and delicately dropping them onto their plates with my chopsticks.
The food was exquisite. In 1991 it was still difficult to find restaurants that would serve high-level cuisine and, being the only waiguoren, or foreigner, in the group, I knew I was really lucky. We went through the usual hot and cold appetizers, tasted delicious fish and meat, the freshest vegetables and succulent dumplings. Halfway through the meal we were served a stew: red, tough and foul smelling.
I played gingerly with those dark bits of meat and tasted one. Not good. Curious, I listened to everyone's perplexed comments about that particular dish. Much debate ensued about its peculiar flavor and consistency. "It must be mutton..." commented an auntie. "Hmm, no, no... it's lamb," added a cousin. My husband, Kimball, vigorously argued for "just a tough old goat..." I continued to look suspiciously at the meat on my plate and then reverted to the age-old trick of hiding the food by spreading it around, hoping not to be seen.
Thankfully the dirty plates were finally cleaned from the table, replaced with other elegant cups and bowls, and the banquet continued with at least another 20 specialties, culminating with the tiniest sweet cakes filled with my favorite red bean paste.
The time came to pay the bill. Two tall, beautiful girls glided toward my father-in-law and bent over his chair. Resplendent in red-and-white uniforms, their faces caked with make-up and tottering on high heels, they smiled and presented him with a thin, elegant leather-bound book.
Casually he extracted the menu and scanned down to the total. "Dog?" I heard him mutter. "What dog?" he inquired of the waitresses.
I gasped and -- to tell the truth -- the entire table, including the Chinese relatives, froze, looking aghast. I felt like vomiting on the spot. Yes, I had read and heard about all sorts of animals being cooked and served as delicacies in China, but to think that I had toyed with dog meat and even eaten it was beyond my comprehension. I started shaking, thinking about my beloved Jack Russell, thankfully safe in Manhattan. It could have been her! And only my squeamishness had prevented me from finishing such a delicacy.
My husband quickly got hold of my hand (thank God for the Chinese tradition of seating married couples together). "Ever eaten rabbit in Italy?" he asked, urging me to calm down with a light pressure of his hand. I nodded. "Well," he pointed out, "for many people rabbits are pets..."
My father-in-law couldn't quite believe what he had read and drilled the restaurant manager, trying to discover how he had ended up offering that dish to his honorable guests.
"Ha, I see. I see. Ha..." he went on speaking softly. "City Lamb ... I see." I spotted a repressed smile behind his usual impassiveness. It turned out that a pedestrian dog had been transformed by some lyrical menu-writer into the much gentler 'city lamb.' My father-in-law had no clue, and took no responsibility either. Pragmatic as ever, he considered the case closed and we all got up to return to our hotel rooms or, in the case of the local family, to their individual homes.
Many years have gone by. China is now very different and it boasts extraordinary restaurants. Its cuisine is once again among the best in the world. But I still peruse the menus, making sure that I know what I'm eating. I may encounter amusing names, but at least they are above suspicion ...