DISASTROUS Dinners

A Banquet Fit for a Beijing Star

By

YOU couldn't describe this dinner as a disaster, exactly.

A disaster was the night my husband invited a colleague from southern India home for Thanksgiving dinner. ''You know, I think Ranga is a vegetarian,'' he said through the turkey smoke about an hour before the guest was to arrive. Even the crust of the apple pie was made with lard. I'd never eaten Indian food, but had a few books. Somehow rice with raisins in it, curried something, and a side dish called dal materialized.

''This is very interesting,'' said Ranga, setting down his knife. ''What is it?''

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''Why, that's dal,'' I said, beaming.

He paused, rather too long. ''You know, dal is liquid,'' he said.

I had violated a basic rule of cooking for others: Never tell them what it's supposed to be.

Another basic rule: Don't attempt a Chinese banquet for a Beijing Opera star.

Our small campus had been graced with an artist-in-residence from the Beijing Opera. Ancient arts lived in his every gesture and expression. ''Here is how an eagle stares,'' he said, turning his face from the audience at one performance. When he shot back a glance, we all felt talons.

I was sorry to learn from a fellow teacher, some months after his arrival, that he had yet to feel like an honored guest. A welcoming dinner had been prepared, but it had featured lasagna, and he'd felt that tomatoes were poison.

An idea began to form. Some weeks earlier, a friend had loaned me a book on ''authentic'' Chinese food. In it were pages of explanation on how to cook ''the great pot,'' a traditional banquet dish. You were to prepare three separate dishes, so the flavors blended properly: one with pounds of snow peas; one with shrimp and ginger; one with pork and scallions. Mix all together and cook gently for three days, stirring occasionally. (Recipe for feeling foolish: Set an alarm at intervals during the night to get up and stir occasionally.)

At the end of three days, you were to surround this dish -- now a gray mush that tasted remarkably wonderful -- with some 18 condiments, any one of which required phone calls and short trips in the car to locate. And that was just for one dish. There were many more.

Candles, flowers, chopsticks, and the kindest, most appreciative other guests to be found were also assembled. And I brought out, washed, and pressed my aged but never-used linen cloths and napkins with the brown lines down the middle.

The artist seemed pleased. Each course was greeted with enthusiasm and eaten to the last grain of rice. At the end, he offered a toast.

''Thank you, friends,'' he said. ''I have felt tonight like an honored guest.''

''And you know,'' he added. ''This food reminds me a little of Chinese food.''

Ah, yes.

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