I spent a *delightful* Saturday morning with my friends Nina and Grace, pals from the magazine, eating dim sum until our bellies were about to burst.
Ben Franklin (Patron Saint of Philadelphia) said, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." He was almost right. I'd argue dim sum is much better proof: it lasts longer on the palate, and I don't think anyone ever started a fight after dim sum. You're too sleepy. Plus it's freakin' delicious.
A quick primer for the uninitiated: dim sum is a traditional Chinese brunch usually eaten with several generations of family around a big table. Or if you're me, a motley crew of hearty foodies. It's the original tapas, the OG small plate. Many brusque, often pushy ladies wheel shiny metal carts to each table and lift the lids off little steamers to reveal every imaginable delight. You point to what you want and she plunks it on the table, then stamps your check (all the stamps are tallied when you're done to determine the bill). Then the cart zooms off with a zeal that makes NY taxi drivers seem like drugged turtles.
These ethereal morsels have every sort of wrapper and filling. If there were a poster dumpling for dim sum, it would be siu mai (pronounced shoo-my), which has a thin wonton wrapper filled with a mixture of ground pork and shrimp, and is open on top. There are also crispy fried delicacies, steamed buns, crunchy Chinese broccoli (like a non-bitter broccoli rabe), little pork spareribs... I'd estimate there are easily 50 or 60 different options floating around in different carts at any one moment. Each dish contains 2-4 items and everybody shares. It's easy to try something new; if you're only committing to half a little football-shaped rice puff stuffed with beef (an excellent choice, yum), why not be brave?
There are sometimes language barriers in this process. One cart has many choices; I only know the (Cantonese) Chinese name for a few of my favorites, and the ladies driving the carts speak very fast when describing each dish. They're tough cookies with little time for round eyes who don't speak Chinese.
This Saturday was different. I'd brought a little book with me, aptly titled Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide by Kit Shan Li. It's ideal: each page has a yummy photo of a dish, and underneath are the Chinese characters, a phonetic pronounciation, the English name and the ingredients. A picture book for hungry grown-ups.
Now Nina, Grace and I are consummate dim sum eaters. Heck, even Graciela's frijole-in-the-oven had been before. (A blessed child already.) But Nina started flipping through the book as our chopsticks slowed down, and a curious thing happened. One of the ladies with carts actually stopped. She pointed to the photo of the sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf and the characters written underneath it, and gave a smile. I, because I am fearless or foolish (depends on the day) made an attempt at the pronounciation. She glanced at me a little wide eyed and said it back. I grinned.
She motioned some other ladies over, and soon we had several carts parked at our table. The ladies waited while Nina turned the pages, occasionally pointing at the photos while murmuring to each other. They looked pleased, and I continued here and there with my best attempts at saying the names (I've been listening carefully for many years, it wasn't too bad). The first lady smiled and corrected me a couple times, and we all glanced at each other and laughed a little. Then the carts zipped away and we set the book down to finish eating. Grace, Nina and I went back to talking about writing and babies and my colorful love life.
It was a quick exchange, but I believe this is part of how we make the world a peaceful place, a little nudge of the scale towards the 'stop killing each other' end. In that moment we were all just people delighted by the same book, who giggled at my attempts to get the words right and the wise lady's corrections. We paused to look each other in the eye.
This is why I love food. We all eat, but when you're willing to do something as intimate as take another person's history and culture into your own body, it's also a political act. It's better than "tolerance" because it's literal acceptance. My parents have these neighbors who say rotten racist things about Mexicans; I can't picture them at an Oaxacan restaurant eating nuanced, earthy mole, even though it's so delicious it (also) proves God loves us. But I like to think if someone dragged them there, if they took a bite, maybe in their hearts they'd suspect they'd been horribly wrong.
I have this fantasy of opening a kosher, halal falafel stand in the Gaza Strip. I know fried chickpea patties alone can't fix things, but I want to keep nudging that scale towards the peaceful, loving end. Besides, we have to eat every day. How cool is it to use a basic need to connect with the rest of humanity? We can all sit down at that table.