May 14, 2003
Adventures in Food

ytd: 253.93

I was once accused of being an 'unadventurous eater.'

The remark came as I sat in a little French Quarter bistro, during Mardi Gras week, peering into a bowl of something thick and murky and crowded with weird suspicious ingredients I couldn't immediately identify. As I picked through my gumbo, hoping to find something I could actually eat -- a hunk of stewed tomato, maybe, or an onion, or a stray KFC Honey BBQ Wing -- I made a horrifying discovery: a chicken beak, fully intact, floating at the very top of the broth. I fished the beak out of the gumbo with my fingers and dumped it onto my bread plate, utterly revolted.

"Now can I order a hamburger?" I snapped.  

I'd been travelling for hours at that point, and I was half-mad with exhaustion and hunger. It was then that my dining companion made his dour observation, about me being "the most unadventurous eater he'd ever known." As insults go, it's not exactly the worst thing anybody has ever said to me. (Hell: it wasn't even the worst thing anybody said to me that week.) For some reason, though, the remark stuck in my craw -- it seemed symbolic, to me, of everything that was wrong with this particular relationship -- and I fumed and pouted and stewed and flounced and generally made the rest of the meal unpleasant for us both, even though I'd just flown two thousand miles, risking life and limb and marriage (his AND mine) in order to spend the weekend with this man.

And even though his observation was right on the money.

The fact is that I wasn't particularly adventurous about food in those days. I was a middle-aged white girl from the suburbs of Seattle, raised on fried hamburger patties and boiled potatoes with margarine and Lime Jell-O studded with canned pear halves. (That is, until somebody informed me that gelatin is made out of boiled steer carcasses, which pretty much ruined Jell-O for me forever.) My idea of "haute cuisine," growing up, was a Swanson Fried Chicken TV Dinner, eaten on a tray table at Grandma St. John's house while watching "Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land."  I assiduously avoided anything icky or weird or unfamiliar. When the time came, I raised my children within the same narrow culinary parameters. It wasn't until I moved to California, five years ago, that my food horizons began to broaden somewhat ... mostly thanks to David, who is sort of the Jacques Cousteau of adventurous eating. David is absolutely fearless when it comes to food. When I first moved in with him, he actually had a bag of squid tubes in his refrigerator freezer. Over the years, he's managed to coax me into trying any number of icky, weird, unfamiliar foods I ordinarily wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot stomach pump. Some of these experiments -- sushi, anyone? -- have been miserable failures. If I won't eat it battered, deep-fried and served beneath a buttload of tartar sauce, why on earth would I eat it raw and wrapped in pickled seaweed??  Some of the experiments, on the other hand -- Vietnamese food, anyone? -- have been permanently added to my personal culinary lexicon.

And all of these experiments have brought me a little closer to being the Adventurous Eater I never actually aspired to be ... but seem to be morphing into ANYWAY, almost in spite of myself. As a matter of fact, I've become so bold about food, in the past couple of years, that these days *I* am often the one to initiate the experiment.

Last week is a good example.

For months, David and I have wanted to try a new Chinese restaurant that opened here in the East Bay last year. Built in what was once an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Oakland's Chinatown, The Legendary Palace is now this marvelous showpiece of funky Oriental architecture, right down to the pagoda roof, the balcony latticework, the brightly-colored Chinese lanterns hanging everywhere. We drive past the restaurant every day on our way home from work, and every day we've looked at each other and said "Someday we'll have to eat there." So when we were trying to decide where to go for David's birthday dinner, last week, it was me who suggested The Legendary Palace.

"Perfect!" he said. "Make the reservations!"

Of course, I should point out that *my* idea of Chinese food and David's idea of Chinese food, like everything else we eat together, come from opposite ends of the food spectrum. I am a graduate of the South Seattle School of Chinese Cuisine: pork fried rice, greasy egg rolls, chicken subgum chow mein spooned over crunchy noodles, bland corporate fortune cookies. (You will be successful in any business endeavor you undertake.) David, on the other hand, grew up eating more authentic Chinese cuisine ... the kind served in dim aromatic little Chinatown restaurants, where the menus are written in Mandarin and the chopsticks aren't just for *show.* It took me a while to acclimate to all of this weird unfamiliar authenticity, I'll admit. I still experience the occasional secret craving for the salty canned Chun King Chow Mein and the limp Mary Pang egg rolls of my youth. But over the past five years or so, thanks to my husband, I've developed an appreciation for the real deal. These days, I can generally walk into any Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area -- Cantonese, Szechuan, Shanghainese, Ho Ho Express, you name it -- and find at least one edible chicken dish on the menu. Something with cashews or lemon or almonds or orange peel, usually.  Plus I always take at least one polite obligatory nibble of David's jellyfish or salt cod or duck feet in lemon grass sauce, just to maintain my status as a fledgling adventurous eater. Most of the time, this system works out pretty well for us both. Why should The Legendary Palace be any different?

I picked up the phone to make our dinner reservations.

My first clue that I might be in trouble: nobody I talked to on the phone on Friday morning spoke English. Obviously I was calling too early in the day -- no helpfully bilingual hostess on duty yet, booking dinner reservations for that evening -- but it was troubling nonetheless. If English isn't spoken at this restaurant, whispered my Inner Unadventurous Eater, how will you be able to read the menu? "I don't want to accidentally end up eating squid again," I told David worriedly, when I called him at his office to let him know that I hadn't been able to make reservations.

"Don't worry," he said reassuringly. "You'll have me there to translate."

He had a point.

We arrived at the restaurant straight from the office, just before six on a Friday evening. Reservations, as it turns out, were a non-issue: the dining room was nearly empty, save for a handful of people sitting at the bar, drinking ... a noisy group of businesswomen at a corner table shrieking over cocktails and potstickers ... a nice young Asian-American family, eating from a platter of crispy fried chicken. As the hostess led us past their table, an adorable toddler waved her chicken drumstick at me from her highchair, smiling engagingly. 

Charmed, I smiled and waved back at her. 

Once seated at our lovely window table, David and I took a moment to admire our surroundings. The interior of the Legendary Palace, we discovered, is as delightfully ostentatious as the exterior: lots of red velvet and gold trim and faux crystal chandeliers all over the place. A tuxedoed young waiter approached our table and handed us each a leather-bound menu the size of a world atlas. He took our drink orders -- two Pepsi Colas on ice -- and promised to return shortly to take our dinner orders. ("And a fork for the lady," David added.) As soon as the waiter was gone, I smiled at David, opened my menu ...

... and suddenly found myself looking at the frog page.

"FROG," it read across the top of the menu, in sky-high letters.

"Oh god," I said weakly.

I'm not talking about the odd frog entree here and there, interspersed between the chicken and the seafood ... but an entire FROG SECTION.  Sauteed Frog. Frog with Black Bean Sauce. Salt & Pepper Frog. Steamed Frog and Ham with Ginger Sauce. Frog, apparently, is very big at The Legendary Palace. Elsewhere on the menu, it shows up as an auxiliary ingredient in appetizers (Frogstickers) and soup (Medicated Herbs Stewed With Frog) and clay pot dishes (Sea Cucumber & Frog Feet w/Mushrooms.) There was even -- I swear to god I am not making this up -- something on the dessert page called "Frog Oil Tapioca." I had no idea what "Frog Oil" is ... nor what it might be doing in tapioca ... but I was pretty sure I didn't want to find out.

"I'll have the General Tso's," I said faintly. And I shut my menu and set it to one side. At the table next to me, the happy toddler waved her fried chicken drumstick at me, smiling from ear to ear.

Only now I could see that it wasn't a fried chicken drumstick.

"Oh god," I said again.

"Just focus on me," David said soothingly, sensing that I was slipping into accute culinary distress. "Don't think about anything else." And he quickly gave the young waiter our food orders: spring rolls and chicken for me, a crab claw appetizer and beef with scallions and ginger for himself. (No FROG for either one of us, obviously.) While we waited for our food, David distracted me by opening his birthday presents: Earthquake's Greatest Hits on CD from me, a card and gift certificate from Jaymi. I'd printed out all his birthday greetings from the *FootNotes* Guestbook, so we read through those. We talked about work. We talked about "Survivor: Amazon." We discussed our bike-riding plans for the weekend. After a while, I began to relax and enjoy myself. The food, when it was brought to our table, was very good. The spring rolls were light and crispy and bean-sprout-intensive; the General's Chicken, heavy on pepper pods, delivered a slow lovely afterburn. It was actually a very pleasant meal, all the way around ... as long as I didn't make eye contact with any of the other restaurant patrons.

And as long as I didn't look at their food.

When our meal was over and the busboy had whisked our empty plates from the table, our smiling waiter reappeared and plopped two bowls of something thick and warm and soupy in front of us. "This is on the house!" he announced grandly. "Please enjoy!" 

I peered dubiously into the bowl and saw what looked like runny pink oatmeal, dotted with flecks of tapioca.  Was I imagining things ... or did the liquid have a suspiciously oily sheen?

I looked at David. David looked at me. "Is this what I think it is?" I asked. 

He nodded. "Yes, I believe it probably is," he said gravely. 

I carefully considered the contents of my dessert bowl. I looked across the table at David, happily slurping up tapioca soup without a care in the world. And then I plunged my spoon into the phlegmy liquid ... said Oh whut the hell ... and took a big brave swallow of Frog Oil Tapioca.

At least it wasn't Lime Jell-O.

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