There’s a scene at the end of A Christmas Story–and stop reading now if you’ve never seen the film that plays on TV 24 hours a day leading up to December 25 because there will be spoilers–where the family’s Yuletide feast is ruined. Not to be defeated, the dad gathers everyone up and they head out to a Chinese restaurant, Chop Suey Palace, where they’re introduced to Peking duck. Unaccustomed to seeing their dinner “smile at them,” the restaurateur unceremoniously chops off the crispy bird’s head. Et voilà, dinner is served!
I fear birds–in flight, on sidewalks, and on my plate. But last night, after being invited to celebrate the winter solstice with my Chinese friend and her family at a North York restaurant with no website, I had to overcome it–especially when two Peking ducks arrived table-side to be carved, which included decapitation.
My friend prepared my first crepe, stuffed with duck breast, slivers of cucumber, carrot and scallions, and drizzled with hoisin. All eyes were on me as I lifted my fear to my lips. After the first bite, I moaned, close to ecstasy.
It’s a blur after that: dish after dish–carefully orchestrated by my friend’s Ma–were delivered to the table. There were bright green pea shoots with king mushrooms, green beans with ground pork, tender beef with sweet onions, and a dish made from the remaining bits of duck, plus vegetables and ginger that we scooped into crisp iceberg lettuce leaves.
Then some sort of deep-fried chicken stuffed with sticky rice arrived, followed by Chinese “meat pie,” which bore little resemblance to any pie I’d ever seen.
It was ground pork and water chestnuts held together with corn starch and topped with dried shrimp and scallop slivers. My friend’s husband, who was–along with me–one of the only white people in the dining room, said it looked like something you might find on the sidewalk on Queen Street at 2:00 a.m. Only this was delicious.
So this is Chinese food, I thought.
When a selection of desserts arrived, the younger members of the table declared that while the Chinese had mastered savoury cooking, they left something to be desired with their sweets. “Just don’t expect dessert,” my friend’s husband, who has been initiated into traditional Chinese feasting over the course of several years of marriage, explained, “expect another dinner dish and you’ll be okay.”
A bowl of red beans in a watery soup arrived. “It’s like a liquid burrito,” my friend said. Only with less seasoning.
The almond cookies were recognizable to my Western palate. I also enjoyed the delicately flavoured cubes of almond pudding, which were left almost untouched by the others.
It was a beautiful meal–the kind you want to relive over and over. I kept thinking how I’d love to take my mom there.
As memorable as the food was, the goodnight my friend’s Ma gave me will stay with me forever: “Bye Jesseeekaaa!” she shouted from outside the restaurant–even though I was still inside, well behind her, and barely within earshot.
I woke up this morning with a smile on face, still remembering the Chinese feast and ambitious to cross off the last chores from my Christmas list. Yesterday I finished my baking–gingerbreads, snickerdoodles, Swedish almond cakes, and ricciarelli, which collapsed in the oven (but I may try to repurpose them–a fusion pavlova, perhaps?) I finished wrapping presents. I even snuck out to buy myself some new Le Creuset and Staub ceramic ware for the steak and Guinness pie I’m preparing today for Christmas dinner at my mom’s tomorrow, along with the breakfast strada for Boxing Day breakfast. While I cook, I’m watching A Christmas Story.
The film’s ending is so damn beautiful: the idea that no matter what happens, a feast with those you love makes you feel like all is right in the world. Plus, multi-coloured tree lights–not the new, fancy kind–remind me of Christmas Eves when you could hardly sleep; when you begged your parents to get up in the morning; when you couldn’t understand why they needed to get a pot of coffee on before presents were opened; when all seemed right in the world.
The Beast, however, isn’t as filled with Christmas spirit. Like many people who work in retail, he simply hasn’t had time. He left for work early this morning and will head to his parents’ house–where I’ll meet him–at 5:00 p.m.
In years past, he’s planned out his Christmas Eve outfit days in advance: a navy crested blazer with brass buttons, for example–something that will be sure to elicit a laugh from his brothers. But this morning, he had no idea what he’d wear. He settled on a beautiful pair of vintage cashmere Hugo Boss pants that he purchased from Value Village for $5.50 and are held up with my Dior belt, his vintage camel hair Bill Blass jacket and a Lanvin scarf he says I bought him, although I have no recollection of doing so.
I’m still in my white cotton J. Peterman night shirt, with my oversized black cashmere Pringle turtleneck over top of that. I’m contemplating wearing it tonight to the Beast’s parents’ place where we’ll enjoy a turkey dinner together. With heels, it’s either very Comme des Garçons or very inappropriate.
But there are more important things to do besides playing dress-up. I have to tidy the coffee table in preparation for watching It’s a Wonderful Life when we get home tonight, and for Christmas morning cinnamon buns and coffee. Right now, it’s still piled with take-out containers from last night’s Chinese feast. My friend’s Ma insisted I take all the leftovers home for the Beast, since he couldn’t join us on account of working so late.
There are about a dozen empty fortune cookie wrappers. Fortune cookies, I learned last night, are not very Chinese. But the restaurant brought our table a pile of them–probably on account of me: the foreigner who might think dinner would be incomplete without them.
“If he doesn’t like the first fortune he reads,” my friends’ father told me as he dumped them into the white plastic bag to take home to the Beast, “tell him to just keep opening them until he find one he likes.”
Which, now that I think of it, is pretty much the only life lesson any of us ever needs.