By Sabrina Li-Chun Huang
Translated by Andrew Rule
When performing a food tasting, you must always cover every inch of the table with food. Even if you and your wife are the only ones there to eat it.
Like an old-fashioned apothecary tasting unfamiliar herbs for poison, his wife had insisted on ordering enough to inspect every facet of the chef’s abilities for weak points. Platters thronged the table in a dazzling display of colour. He was tempted to tease her: ‘Why order so many of our son’s favourite chicken dishes? Why not the sweet-and-sour pork ribs I like so much, or the crispy eight-treasure duck? What about the pineapple shrimp balls that you like? And fair enough, maybe the tastes of us old folks don’t matter too much, but what about the bride? Aiya, look out, you’re turning into a monster-in-law already.’ Just a little nudge, he thought. But even that might be enough to burst his wife like a bubble.
So he said nothing. Wedding banquets always had to have steamed sea bass. For one reason or another it was always brought out when food and drink were running low and the hosts and guests were beginning to flag. So, naturally, they had to try the fish. Just to make sure the restaurant’s seafood was fresh and they knew how to cook it properly, his wife said. An ordinary striped sea bass would be fine. The fish was brought out, plump and full of delicate bones. He swallowed his barbed words as he helped his wife pick bones out of the fish.
‘Hm, the fish isn’t bad,’ his wife said. ‘None of that muddy flavour. And they’ve really brought out the taste of the scallion oil, that’s not easy to do.’ She turned and motioned for the head waitress to come over. How many tables fit in this space? What banquet packages do you offer? How much for juice and alcohol? Do you handle flower arrangements? Are desserts and fruit platters included? What else... Do you have any dessert soups? And none of those cheap ingot pastries with rubbery dough and a hard little lump of pineapple in the centre, she added, because my son is a pastry chef, and I know the cheap ones are no good.
All the while he patiently picked the whole fish clean of bones. It was a big-tailed fish with no more than a few bites’ worth of bright white meat on it, served on a steel pan with a burner hissing underneath. But for the rest of the meal, until the burner had subsided into a tiny blue twist of flame, his wife didn’t so much as pick up her chopsticks again.
Of course, there was no way they could have eaten all the food on the table. Now, ma’am, the head waitress said. Wouldn’t you rather just make the reservation right away? If you reserve today, we’ll give you the banquet discount for all this food, twenty per cent off. You should have told us you’re here for a tasting, ma’am, we could’ve recommended some of our chef’s specialties. Will you be taking this to go? Let me pack it up for you, otherwise it’ll be such a waste. Won’t you make your reservation today?
‘We still have to think about it,’ he said. ‘There’s too much food here to take home. Just pack up the pork ribs, the salt-baked chicken, and the braised sea cucumber.’
His wife began to rub her face vigorously, stretching the slender folds between her nose and upper lip downward and pushing them back up with force. Then she smiled. ‘You can only tell if the food is good or bad when you come and order things like everyone else. There’s no point if we told you in advance. Is there a wedding banquet reservation form you can give me? I’ll take it home and look it over.’
His wife had become very interested in food tastings, probably because of a few weddings they had attended lately. They had all been extremely pedestrian affairs; he couldn’t remember a thing about any of them except for the size of the cash gifts he and his wife had given. Middle-class couples at their stage of life—who didn’t have a cousin or a nephew somewhere who was getting married? But then, perhaps his wife’s interest was piqued precisely because these weddings were more or less the same. It is always the things that make people ‘more or less the same’ that cut you to your core.
The same ostentatious set menus and main dishes; the same ostentatious honoured guests presiding over the ceremony; the same ostentatious light displays over the stage, the bride’s mother bathed in red, the groom’s mother in gold; the same ostentatious brides in their rented white gowns. These gowns, pressed into service for brides fat and thin, let out and taken in, worked harder than anyone else in attendance and had to be as ostentatious as the rest of it. Not to mention the three or five ostentatious outfits that the brides would change into over the course of the meal.
They had recently gone to a wedding that his wife’s cousin organised for her son. As they left the banquet and began the long drive home, a drizzle of raindrops pitter-pattered on the road ahead of them, dissolving in the headlights. His wife, suddenly in high spirits, began to chuckle in the passenger seat and said, ‘My cousin is just too much. The bride booked a session with a professional make-up artist, but she insisted on booking one too. The bride can choose whatever look she likes, but what business does a mother-in-law have wearing make-up like that? My cousin said this is the first time in her life that she’s worn a corset for a whole day. She said she has it even worse than a call girl, stuck in that hot, itchy thing. She said the first thing she’ll do when she gets home is pull off her qipao and scratch herself half to death, until she’s scratched the skin of her belly wide open. I said to her, Why don’t you go on a diet for a few months? I’ll even help you make a plan. Better than paying a fortune for a nutritionist who takes your measurements and makes you a menu that you’ll hate and not even follow. She said yes, yes, we all know you’re the skinny one, so what do you care if I’m fat? Look at my daughter-in-law over there. She’s even fatter than me and she’s still wearing a backless wedding dress. My son says he likes his bride fat, just like his mother. I scolded him for that, being in love with his mother—exactly what they call a mama’s boy on TV. We nearly died laughing, my cousin and I.’
After a moment his wife continued, ‘I heard about some restaurants that are supposed to be pretty good. Let’s try them out sometime, if we don’t have anything better to do—we can think of it as a taste test. We have to eat, after all. It could be useful later on, when we’re planning our son’s wedding.’
Then she spoke up again: ‘My cousin told me the places that serve good food at a good price take bookings far in advance. Even the restaurant today, it’s nothing special, but you have to book it at least six months ahead.’
And again: ‘I think when you’re hosting a banquet, it’s the quality of the food that matters most. When it comes to the marriage itself, besides the newlyweds and their parents—oh, and their romantic rivals—who really cares? People are just there to enjoy a good meal, drink a little wine, so why not give them the good stuff? At least that way they won’t say things about you behind your back when it’s over.’
‘If they want to say things, they’ll find something to say anyway,’ he said. ‘Weren’t you all talking about how fat Little Wu’s bride was? Trying out restaurants is well and good, but Lao Er is still too young for all that. Does he even have a girlfriend?’
‘Our oldest is well over thirty—how is that too young?’
‘Our oldest...’ He glanced at her.
‘Of course, our oldest. This is our turn, aren’t you going to take it?’
He wasn’t sure why, but that night, he didn’t give what his wife had said much thought. Maybe it was because they did have to eat, after all.
Last week’s leftover chicken soup was still in the fridge. It had been made over the course of several days in a massive vat half the height of a human being with dozens of whole chickens, a whole trussed ham, and a whole jar of minced dried scallops thrown in, then slow-cooked into a viscous broth. The soup was so thick with protein that he half expected it to start laying eggs, and so full of purine that it couldn’t be scooped into a pot without adhering firmly to the sides. He assumed his wife would disapprove.
But all she said was: ‘Would you look at that. There’s a layer of skin forming wherever it comes into contact with the air.’
‘Hope it doesn’t catch chicken pox,’ he almost responded, then chided himself for being so dull.
He put the pork ribs, salt-baked chicken, and sea cucumber into the fridge. Then he threw out the soup. In all likelihood the new leftovers wouldn’t get eaten either, but he still had to do his best.
As much as he enjoyed performing food tastings with his wife, he couldn’t help feeling complicit in burning some part of their prior life together to the ground. A couple in their later years going out for a nice meal seemed like such a small thing, but before this, his wife, a former nutritionist, had been adamantly opposed to it. For years they had eaten what amounted to little more than hospital fare: blanched sweet potato leaves tossed with salt, plain cubes of chicken with yam and onion, mixed multigrain rice and beans, and egg-drop soup. He went along with it, but he still remembered the one time, before his older son started middle school, when he took him out for KFC. His son had eaten a whole bucket, unable to stop once he started. At the dinner table that night, when they they had chided him to eat his boiled 'red-red radish, green-green broccoli, yellow-yellow bell pepper’, he had suddenly begun to wail—I want fried chicken! Fried chicken! Fried chicken! His wife had clasped her pregnant belly, big by then with their second son, and pretended not to hear. She refused to give him a single bite of food until dinner the next night.
And so, for better or for worse, he and his wife had hewn ever closer to the path of healthfulness. Even after he went bald, his wife remained as spry and upright as a cattail year in, year out. Sometimes he would lie on the bed, scrolling through the news on his iPad while his wife got dressed to go out, and he would notice that she hardly spent time in front of the mirror. He was taken back at the thought. If he were a woman like her, he’d certainly pay more attention to the way he looked.
So he really couldn’t say when or how this mania for appraising food came about. Sometimes he was tempted to crack a joke about it, using a pun he’d come up with: ‘How does a dieter like you know so much about food? Don’t tell me you’ve been cheating on me all these years?’ But all it took was to think this way for a moment and he’d feel even more disgusted with himself. Dull. Such a dull, dull half-pint old man. And bald to boot.
Once, while he was chewing on a bite of crispy rice and stir-fried shrimp, which his wife claimed had been overcured in borax, this none-too-wise wisecrack had come to mind. As though reading his thoughts, his wife suddenly said, ‘You know, it’s no easy thing, being an old couple like us.’
He didn’t think too hard about what she meant by ‘no easy thing’. No matter who you were, if your life was easy, you accepted it; if it wasn’t easy, you accepted it anyway. A few dozen years of that and it was all over. Aside from food, his wife had never been overbearing, and as for him, he wasn’t overbearing even when it came to food. The more peaceful life looks on the surface, the more blind turns and secret corners the heart contains. Even if they had made it this far together, it could only be because they had happened to stumble through each other’s twists and turns by some laughable quirk of chance, and no more. Their friends and family sometimes teased them for being such ‘well-behaved kids’, and sometimes the younger ones would earnestly ask him for his ‘secret to a happy marriage’. He would feel mischievous and think about responding, We’re just two people who nobody could find a better place to put, and for all these years we’ve been too lazy to look for happiness elsewhere. So you see, our secret is laziness. As long as you’re lazy, you’ll be fine.
But who said he had to be easygoing his whole life? Sometimes he would agree to preside over his younger colleagues’ wedding banquets. Each time, he would put on a big smile and remind the moony-eyed to be practical, the overly rigid to be romantic, the sharp-tongued to be sweet, and the soft-hearted to be pure and true. Even at the most awkward of these weddings, when a rumour had travelled from table to table that the bride had a habit of picking up the groom’s discarded condoms on the sly and squirting his sperm into herself to force his hand in marriage—even then, when the emcee called for ‘the esteemed gentleman and well-known veteran of a long and happy marriage to share a few words with the bride and groom’, he still turned to the family of the groom, whose faces by that point had taken on a delicate shade of asparagus green, and grandly announced with the greatest ostentation:
‘The way I see it, no matter what, everything comes down to destiny. I may not have any special expertise to share with the newlyweds, but just as the groom has always been a tireless go-getter in our office, I trust he’ll be a tireless go-getter in his marriage as well.’
He had stolen a glance at the stage toward the short-haired, big-bellied bride. She was due in just a month, and her face was already sallow and swollen, her breasts and hips pressed against the groom’s arm. He raised his eyebrows and looked away. He had seen his share of the world, but never had he seem a face so simultaneously smug and worn out.
‘Love the one you choose, and choose the one you love. Let us offer our sincerest wishes to him—ah, to them. Let us offer our sincerest wishes to them both.’
His wife started storing the banquet menus and reservation forms from the restaurants they had visited in an old binder. On Friday afternoon, he noticed her sorting the colourful pile of papers into three stacks, like a schoolteacher laying out report cards. Without asking he could tell that she was deciding which were good, which were average, and which were bad. The bad ones she threw out, the average she deposited in a cardstock folder, and the best of the bunch she slipped between the pages of their family photo albums. The little faces of their sons at three or five arranged next to a photo of Dongpo pork. Himself as a youth on a trip to the beach, bent over a pile of sand with his butt sticking out, overlain with a platter of live lobsters.
‘Why not just get a scrapbook? The kind with clear plastic sleeves instead of pages, so you can slip in a piece of paper and use both sides?’ He thought of the young people at work who would spread out a book of menus just like this every day at lunch and select whatever their hearts desired from the little shops nearby. The meal deliveries would flow into the office one by one, like an endless rotating banquet of takeout. His young colleagues never seemed to order anything more than noodle soups, dumplings, bento boxes, meat with rice, all drenched with MSG or shiny with splotches of oil, but they crowded around the table as though partaking in a Manchu-Han Imperial Feast. Once, he had given in to temptation and asked the secretary to order him a bowl of sour and spicy dumplings. They gave him indigestion and left him feeling sluggish for the rest of the day.
His wife shrugged. ‘I don’t want a scrapbook.’
He didn’t like her tone much—cool, collected. For his wife, cool and collected came in two varieties, and this kind was not very collected but very cool. He glanced at her from behind and realised she had gained weight. Thin rings of flesh squeezed out above and below the underwire of her bra. It excited him somehow, and he couldn’t help reaching out to touch. She emitted a snort of laughter. ‘Hey, that itches. What are you up to?’ ‘As if you don’t know,’ he said.
Their sex life was no worse than before. In the shower, he suddenly wondered if that was what she meant by ‘no easy thing’. It was true, that was no mean feat. Of course, that wasn’t to say they were particularly awash with desire... But the fact that they continued to regularly enjoy each other’s bodies was rather out of the ordinary. When he was younger, he had assumed that all the pleasures of the body would be behind him at this point in life.
The water was hot. He was getting sleepy. He wanted to say to his wife, Let’s not eat out tonight. I just weighed myself and I’m putting on weight, too. I’m already bald—could you bear to look at me if I grew a belly too? He wrapped a towel around himself and walked out of the bathroom, one foot dry, the other still wet, thinking how he would say to her, Why don’t we just heat up some leftovers? We’ve ordered so much more than we’ve eaten lately. We’ve even thrown out more than we’ve eaten. Just think how many calories of good food we must have loaded into the garbage truck. Don’t you think we’ve gone far enough?
But his wife was already dressed and waiting in the living room. She was wearing ivory-white shin-length pants and a duckling-yellow polo shirt. She didn’t raise her head or turn on the light when he came in, just sat there in the yellow-green light from the window, flipping rapidly through the binder, fwip-fwip-fwip, from front to back, then back to front, then front to back again. His heart hammered as he watched her. Suddenly he blurted out, ‘Hey, weren’t we going to do a tasting at some restaurant tonight? Can we get going?’
‘Alright, let’s go.’ She leapt to her feet, stepping into her shoes, and strode toward the door.
‘Hold on, hold on,’ he called out, cinching the towel tighter around his body. ‘What are you doing opening that door? Come on, close it, I’m not even dressed yet!’
Two meals a week. Three meals a week. Five meals a week. Tables crowded end to end with food, day in and day out. Eating like this—he couldn’t take it anymore.
They ate everywhere. He knew he lived in a good city for food, but this felt more like wandering through the world of an ancient almanac, stumbling into restaurants operated by fantastical creatures with strange and wondrous powers. He started to let his attention wander, watching the nearby diners and neurotically toying with old aphorisms in his head. If it takes ten years of good deeds to earn a single boat ride with your true love, how long did the two of us have to toil to share this pot of soup? I know not for whom you eat, but the bell, it eats for thee. This last bit of nonsense struck him as particularly inauspicious, and he quickly took a sip of the Buddha Jumps Over the Wall shark fin soup in front of him. Where there’s Buddha, there’s safety.
They were eating lunch in a soaring skyscraper downtown, facing each other with their meal combos laid out between them. Through the glass walls on all four sides they could see the city stretched out beneath them, coughing up fumes like an invalid. The view made this a popular spot for weddings. His wife was enchanted. ‘It’s supposed to rain this afternoon,’ she said, glancing out the window. ‘We could use some rain to clean out the air. Look how nice this view is. We should make sure to reserve an evening spot. The skyline must look even better at night.’
You couldn’t clean this city even if you scoured it with salt and vinegar, he thought. Also, if a fire or earthquake hit right around now, they’d die for sure.
His wife also liked to seek out little out-of-the-way places in side streets and alleys. Finally he spoke up: ‘How could you host a wedding banquet in this kind of place? You know you don’t want to do it here, so there’s no point in trying their food. We just can’t go on eating like this. It’s terrible for us. You know as well as I do that at our age, everything we eat turns straight into fat.’ He pinched his waist. ‘Look at this!’ He poked her chin. ‘Look at that!’ He wasn’t teasing her this time. His wife, who had gone through two pregnancies without losing her figure, had in a short span become distressingly heavy. ‘I shudder to think how high my blood pressure and cholesterol must be at this point.’
‘I think smaller shops have their own way of doing things. If the cooking staff have talent, we’ll just rent out a bigger space and hire them to cater, like they do abroad. Buffet-style. All our friends and family eating and chatting as they like.’ Her tone was bright as glass. ‘That could be nice. A better atmosphere than one big table with everyone shouting over each other, don’t you think?’
It was then that he knew for certain that she no longer had her feet on solid ground. He watched her strike up a conversation with the elderly waiter about the various merits of Fuzhou cuisine and felt something coil painfully in his stomach. She ordered the seafood rice noodles, braised lamb, golden breaded shrimp, pork ribs with abalone, sticky rice with mud crab, lamb marinated in red vinasse, salted mullet roe, jujube melons, yellow sea snails, stuffed frybread and deep-fried eel. The elderly waiter protested repeatedly. ‘That’s too much, ma’am, far too much. Even four dishes would be too much for the two of you. If you ordered all of this, it could feed even twelve people and they’d be able to eat so much they couldn’t move.’ The waiter looked at him again and again as though to say, How can you not hold her back? Are you two here to eat or to scare me to death?
‘Don’t worry about it. It’s out first time here, so we just want to give everything a try,’ he said with a wave of his hand. ‘Whatever we don’t finish, we’ll just take home.’
But he resolved that, from this day onward, he would never throw out the food in the fridge again. Up until now, his wife had always pretended the food in the fridge didn’t exist. Yes, this was a good idea. One day the fridge would overflow, one day they would be unable to fit in anything else. When they weren’t out at restaurants, his wife still went shopping from time to time for things like oatmeal, boiled pork belly, salad lettuce and steamed zucchini. Sometimes she would get up at night and pad across the dark house in her slippers to the stainless-steel double-door fridge that she always insisted was perfectly clean.
One night, standing in the light of the fridge and crunching on a stick of cucumber, she would realise they could eat no more. She would wake him up and say, ‘Keeping leftovers for more than a day is terribly unsanitary. Let’s clear it all out. How did we end up with so much food? How could the two of us have ever eaten so much on our own? There’s no room for all this fresh food I bought.’
‘It’s OK,’ he would say. ‘Go back to sleep. I’ll clear out the leftovers and wash the fridge while I’m at it.’
Several months had passed when his younger son, on an unexpected visit home from school, frowned at him in the kitchen. ‘How did this happen?’ He closed the door of the fridge with a thump. The odour was already unbearable. ‘Is everything OK here?’
All fine, he said. He felt sorry toward his son. How many fertile, luscious plants and animals had died and been loaded into shipping crates and delivery trucks, carted in batches large and small to restaurants and markets across the city; how many pairs of hands had passed them over how many cutting boards; how much bursting and churning and boiling, how much looking and smelling and listening and tasting and touching and intuiting, how much fuel, how much oil, how much salt and soy sauce and vinegar and tea—and all of it, now, crammed into his family’s refrigerator.
‘What are you doing keeping all this stuff in the fridge? It looks like it’s been kept for much too long. You’d better clean it out—Mum must hate this. I can’t imagine how she’s put up with it until now.’ He filled his cup with filtered water and gulped it down, then scratched his face absentmindedly. ‘You sure nothing’s wrong?’
He shook his head. His two sons had been eight years apart, the older one as placid as the younger was lively, unalike in every way since they were small. Who would have thought that the younger would grow up to be just like his brother had been in his twenties? The thought made him happy and a little distraught.
‘Have you eaten yet? Tonight,’—he hesitated—‘tonight your mother and I are going out for dinner. Will you still be here after? We’ll bring some food back. Lately your mother and I have been going out to eat quite a lot.’
‘Mm,’ his son said, dropping onto the sofa and pulling out his phone. He heard his iPad chime in the other room. His son must have updated his Facebook status to ‘at home’. ‘Just the two of you? I’ll join you. You guys are too much. The one time I come home, the two of you are off in your own world, eating out and not inviting me, and then telling me to eat your leftovers! Unless it’s your anniversary or something, in which case, never mind.’
‘No, no, it’s not... It’s not that we’re trying to make you eat our leftovers, it’s... I don’t know where to start.’ He truly didn’t know how to tell his son what was happening. Or how to tell his wife. All he could do was keep eating.
He had broken the news to his wife ten years earlier, rushed to her clinic and called her out of the nutrition wing. He had sat her down on a bench in the hallway and said, ‘Something’s happened to our son.’ He had squeezed her shoulder. At the time he told himself he had everything under control. It was only days later, as he dragged his wife into the bathroom to change her clothes and help her wash up, that he realised her shoulder blades were covered with the dark, bloody imprints of her fingernails. ‘Don’t do anything, don’t do anything. Go home and take care of our younger son. I’ll handle everything. Don’t do anything. The details are still unclear.’
How he wished his older son had been brilliant, one of those kids whose features sparkled with intelligence, heart turning endlessly on a pin, shedding pearls of blood. That way, at least, he would have something to say. But their Lao Da had been the most average, straight-C’s kind of boy; a poor performer at school, gentle and slow, a leftover sponge cake in the bakery of life. It wasn’t fair to his wife, he thought. The dead only had to die once; what rotten fortune was it for her that she had to learn of her son’s death twice?
He remembered how people had told them that the parents should beat the coffin with a stick the moment their oldest son is placed inside it. I won’t, his wife had said. I don’t blame my son. Why would I want to beat him? Yes, killing himself was unfilial, and he didn’t even tell us why. He didn’t want me as a mother. He didn’t want a mother. But I don’t blame him, and I won’t beat him.
‘Oh, you’re here.’ He and his son had been whispering, but now his wife was awake from her nap. ‘That’s good,’ she continued. ‘Go wash up. You’re coming to a food tasting with your father and me tonight.’
‘A food tasting? What do you mean?’
‘We’re trying out food to see where the best restaurants are. Think how old your brother is already. If someday he pops up and says out of the blue, Mum, I’m getting married, let’s reserve a banquet, I’ll be able to list the good options right on my fingers. Tonight we’re going to that five-star restaurant that just opened last month.’
‘Oh, I see. Alright, I’ll go wash up.’ He made a motion with his hand. ‘Dad, could you come talk to me for a second?’
He heard his wife turn on the TV in the living room. The sound of the news channel. Of a TV drama. Of pop music. The news again. The news again. Western movie. Western movie. Western movie. A Chinese dub. A Chinese dub. More news. More news. More news. More news.
His son walked out and sat next to his mother on the sofa. He turned off the TV.
‘Mum, I don’t think we should eat out tonight.’
‘Yes, we should. I made a reservation. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.’
‘No, I want to join, but you need to see a doctor. After you’ve seen a doctor, we can go straight to the restaurant.’
‘What do you mean, see a doctor? Silly boy. I don’t want to.’
‘Mum, you have to.’
‘I already went online and put your name on the list. It’s an old teacher of mine, he’s very nice.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘Yes, you are. Look at yourself, so fat you don’t even fit in your clothes. We can’t eat out tonight.’
At the word ‘fat’, his wife pursed her lips and fell silent, her nostrils flaring. They sat like this for a long, long time.
‘Then buy me some KFC for dinner.’
‘OK,’ said their son. ‘But only if you go to the doctor.’
A whole year had passed after their older son was gone before his wife stopped crying at night. In these ten long years, he had never let a hint of sadness show in front of his younger son, besides his habit of calling the boy three times a day when he was abroad for graduate school: once at breakfast, once at lunch, once at dinner. Only now did he realise that this child of his had picked up the phone three times a day for two whole years and never once expressed a moment of impatience.
That night, he took a big black trash bag and filled it with leftovers. With a squeeze of lemon juice and a cup of hot water, he scrubbed the whole fridge clean, inside and out. When he finally opened the kitchen door, took a shower and went to bed, all that was left inside the fridge was a carton of grapes, a head of cauliflower, five eggs and, left in a paper box from their dinner that evening, the last two pieces of KFC.