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The International Writers Magazine: What shall we eat?

Improbable Meals
•Walli F. Leff
The Great Wall, built to secure the nation against military incursions, was the climax of our trip to China. Sam and I labored up the uneven steps of the wall’s roadway and made it as far as the sixth bell tower without spotting any invaders.


Later, however, we came up against a contemporary Chinese defense system— the tourist industry’s protection of the nation’s cuisine.Our run-in was the result of something that had happened the evening before. We’d attended an unforgettable, red lantern-bedecked wedding— joyous spirits, superb singing, exquisite dancing, and a sumptuous banquet. A table-mate brandished a bottle of bai jiu, a distilled liquor roughly fifty per cent alcohol, traditionally served at Chinese celebrations. The drink is disdained by many westerners as undrinkable rotgut, but Barry, the groom, was Sam’s old college roommate and dear friend, and the guy with the bottle was Barry’s boss, so “what the hell,” Sam figured—“here’s to the happy couple,” “here’s to friendship,” and ”bottoms up.”
            Powerful stuff, bai jiu—decimated the cold Sam was battling. As we climbed the Great Wall’s steep stairs the next morning, he discovered it had also liquified the contents of his stomach.

Unfortunately, the Ming Dynasty had poured its resources into brick and stone defense fortifications, not sanitary facilities, and the restrooms of the tourist area were a l o o o ng way down. Near the fifth tower, unable to hold out any longer, he vaulted over the thick stone fence bordering the stairs and, equipped with tissues for the cold that now was no more, disappeared into the woods. A few minutes later he returned, relieved.
Now, when Sam’s digestion is on the outs he craves comfort food and to him that means pizza. Pizza was fine with me. We’d had Chinese food for lunch and dinner the entire trip and  much as I appreciated the chefs’ meticulous observance of our dietary restrictions—I’m gluten intolerant and neither of us eats red meat—every meal they’d conjured up had been the same:  a couple of vegetables, chicken with peanuts, white rice, and half a dozen little watermelon triangles for dessert. Not that we don’t like Chinese food—we do—we eat it all the time. But we’d had to beg for tofu. Come on!
We passed the third ring of Beijing’s massive road system and reached the car-truck-bike-motorcycle-pedicab-crowded, polluted streets of the city center. Plenty of foreign restaurants there. McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises—chains we hadn’t set foot in for over thirty years—dotted nearly every commercial block.
Our guide leaned back and announced, “We’re going for lunch now.”
“Take us to Pizza Hut,” said Sam.
The guide shook her head.
“Yes. That’s where we want to go. Pizza Hut.”
“Not part of your tour.”
“No problem. We’ll pay for it ourselves.”
“Impossible. We’re going to a Chinese restaurant.”
Loudly. “Pizza Hut!”
Tips were due. An animated discussion ensued between our guide and the driver. The Chinese government holds a trillion dollars of our debt, but it was powerless against Sam’s will.
Hut The Pizza Hut was big and its menu had pages of choices. There were no artisanal, Italian, thin-crust wood-burning-stove pizzas or galumphing, cheese-runneth-over New York slices to be had, but it did offer a perfectly acceptable pie with cheese, vegetable, and sauce a gluten-intolerant diner could scrape off the crust with a fork.

“You only ordered one dish,” exclaimed our puzzled guide when she showed up mid-meal to check on her inscrutable Western charges. We turned the tables on her and gave her a guided tour of an American-style lunch.           
Twenty-five years before, a meal in Mâcon we never saw coming broadened our understanding about a culture whose basic patterns we thought we already had down pretty well. We were about to go to France when a scruffy mutt, an airedale-shepherd mix who resembled Disney’s Tramp, unexpectedly entered our life. Didn’t faze us. We knew the French took their dogs everywhere—to work, to restaurants, to the beach. We’d even seen a dog on a motorcycle, standing on a little platform, paws on the driver’s shoulders, nose twitching at the various scents perfuming the air.
            “Tant mieux,” we told Pancho, “you’ll come, too,” and we bought him an airplane crate.
            Things went well from the start. The policeman in the baggage retrieval area who had shown us where the dogs arrived nodded in approval as we fed Pancho the main course we’d saved for him from our airline dinner and poured him a bowl of water. Pancho slept soundly in our friend’s apartment in Paris, her cat snuggled by his side as though American dogs regularly shared his sleeping quarters. The next day, after a leisurely morning and a nice walk to the Seine, we took to the road.
            The autoroute was crowded. We pressed on until jet lag got the better of us then exited and looked for a picturesque inn. Obviously we’d misjudged the ease of finding a room during high season. Every inn was “complet.”
            Just as we began to wonder whether we’d have to sleep in the car, a hotel with a vacancy turned up—modern and boxy, but clean. We settled in and came down to the dining room.
            The maître d’ presented menus and asked, “Would your charming dog also like some dinner?”
            We were game. “Yes, thank you.”
            The next thing he said was a total surprise. “I’ll bring the chef.”
             In minutes the chef, in his white toque, was before us, petting Pancho.
            “Does he like duck?”
             “Why, yes.” Safe bet, we figured, considering the way he gobbled up chicken scraps.
Dinnertime Our meal was delicious and Pancho’s looked divine. The excellent Burgundy sparked a lively conversation among the maître d’, the chef, and us. We paid a three dollar surcharge for having a dog in our hotel room (that never happened again in France), but when it came time to settle the bill, dinner was on the house. The French really like dogs.

            Fourteen years earlier, a meal served at an Alpine restaurant left us scratching our heads in disbelief. On a break from the anti-Vietnam War activities that consumed us, we’d gone to France and overindulged in rich cuisine. Our arteries demanded we evict the plaque. We promised them we’d do some serious hiking in Switzerland and headed for the village of Arosa.
            Up a mountain of enthralling beauty we trudged—green forest, delicate wild flowers, rushing streams, black squirrels, bees, butterflies, tweeting birds. Not many hikers, but every one wished us “Grüss Gott”—Alpine trails are friendly places.
            The going got tough when we reached the steep, narrow wind-up to the summit and even tougher on the return. Surefooted hikers descend in about half the time it takes to make the climb. People like me, scared of tumbling headlong, take short, firmly planted steps and on the really precipitous sections they merely inch down. It took us a long time to get back.
            We were well into the dinner hour by the time we neared Arosa. Having gone without lunch, we were ravenous, and the rustic restaurant on the outskirts of town that looked as though it had been feeding hungry wayfarers for centuries was irresistible. Broiled local brook trout—what could be better? We sat back with our carafe of wine, confident dinner would arrive shortly. After all, we were in the world center of the hospitality industry, planning and order were hallmarks of the national character, and timeliness was Switzerland’s personal calling card. Hundreds of watch stores displaying thousands of watches in every corner of the country attested to that.
            After half an hour we tried to flag down the waiter. Curiously, he avoided us. Afraid we wouldn’t find another restaurant open if we left, we stuck it out. After a long time, he made his way to our table again bearing a large platter. With a flourish and a beaming smile, he served us four large, beautifully prepared trout (we’d ordered only one each).
            “Sorry about the wait. We ran out of trout and had to get some more. We’ve given you a double order to make up for it.”  Apparently Switzerland’s hospitality honor rested on establishments’ fulfilling their orders to the letter, come hell or high water.         
The restaurant owner couldn’t just admit to the shortage and ask us to select something else; in his eyes that would have been a disgrace. Did he  fulfill his obligation by negotiating the horseshoe curves on the local roads, trying to hustle trout from other restaurateurs in other towns? Had he gone to the nearest stream with a lantern and fishing pole and caught the fish himself? We never did find out.

Carter We had our most improbable meal of all in Washington, D.C., during the Carter Administration. In those days writers had plenty to keep them busy—the energy crisis, the Camp David peace accords, Three Mile Island, the fifty-two American hostages in Iran. Amid all that seriousness, I scored an assignment about enchiladas. Yay! I love enchiladas! Coast-to-coast  taste-testing at Mexican restaurants. I was happy.

We sampled our way east to Washington, D.C., where a close friend had gotten a job in the White House. She generously invited us there for lunch.
            Improbable? After years spent battling the establishment, I hadn’t thought it possible we would one day set foot in a place even remotely attached to the government, never mind the most important center of power in the world. Yet there we were, welcome guests in the building that had been the source and symbol of all we’d been fighting against. What was more, values we’d cherished since childhood lived there again: President Carter had appointed women, African-American, and Hispanic judges to a federal bench that was more than ninety per cent white male when he took office. He had named a civil rights activist as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. He espoused the nation’s commitment to human rights both internationally and domestically. Breaking bread here would be a heady experience.
            The White House Mess, operated by the Navy, is in the basement, next door to the Situation Room. The dining room is classy—paintings of ships on the wood paneled walls, gracious round tables with comfortable chairs, fresh flowers, linen tablecloths, official White House china, and impeccable service.
            I sneaked a quick glance at National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, seated at the table next to ours, and turned to the menu. Standard American fare, nothing elaborate or pretentious. I was determined to choose something memorable on this memorable occasion, but what? Didn’t eat meat, didn’t feel like a salad. Fish? Maybe. I scanned the main dishes.
            What’s this? Enchiladas!
            This establishment was inclusive. It recognized the value of our nation’s diversity and had the red, white, and blue-plate special that proved it.
            The enchiladas were delicious. The nation had taken a meaningful step forward and I had a unique ending for my enchilada article.
© Walli F. Leff September 2012

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