It was our first date and I was craving something unusual. Tucked away in the dark alleys of downtown Boston is a scrappy cash-only restaurant with four tables, a legit local joint that you’d be hardpressed to find in New England. No General Tso’s or Crab Rangoons. No frills. Just good old country-style Chinese cooking.
They say to never take your first date out to a messy meal but the temptation was overwhelming. I ordered us a large plate of braised oxtails and frog casserole, all things that conjure nostalgic family gatherings for me. Sitting next to the kitchen, I could smell the sweet and musky evaporation wafting in the air even before the plates landed on our table.
I eagerly raised my chopsticks but paused when I saw the look on her face. She was in a confused trance. I explained the entrees to her and suggested that most people around the world have frogs and oxtails in their culinary repertoire. That in fact, Americans are denying themselves of an otherwise hedonic worldly experience by sticking to perfect clean cuts of chicken and steak.
That was our first and last date.
Admittedly, I’m guilty for trying to push a culture onto someone so soon. I felt a sense of unease, not because the date didn’t work out, but because I was confounded by my reaction to her mild disgust. A part of me felt the urge to stand up for Asian foodies everywhere. But a side of me was also secretly ashamed of the messy assortment I was brought up on.
My grandma was, by most standards, the perfect housewife. She was always vehemently ready to support her family, even when they were blatantly wrong. But beyond her unconditional love, she was also simply an amazing cook. Her specialty was duck braised with fermented rice wine (Bo Jiao Ag). It’s a long messy process to prepare but at the end, you’ll find yourself with a bowl of a perfectly aromatic concoction. In all her resourcefulness, you’ll find parts of a duck you never knew existed before.
At dinner, she’d save us the meatiest portion and worked on the unsavory leftovers herself. I once unscrupulously chewed on a jagged piece of bone so hard that it chipped my tooth and punctured my gum. I was 13 and tossed the biggest hissy fit I could muster, vowing to never eat her cooking again. In hindsight, I could tell she was hurt by those comments.
Food sits at the heart of most Fujianese families. Even as an adolescent, you’re taught to chew carefully through the complexity of these meals And if you’re successful, you’ll learn that the best part isn’t the bone, but the art of being resourceful and gritty.
That evening after the date, I ended up keeping the odds and ends of the oxtail. While it may be messy to eat, I’ve learned that it’s a quiet symbolism for the messiness of being a Fujianese immigrant. And that I think it’s worth keeping.