Dim sum is a brunch that's often served at Chinese restaurants on Sunday morning, when the Chinese, apparently, are hungover and in need of greasy, deep-fried animal parts. Usually, there are a number of small covered dishes on a wheeled cart, which the server keeps bringing to your table until you're either full, or have accidentally chosen the dish with animal feet.
You see, there's always an animal foot on the dim sum menu, but you can't tell which dish it is, because you don't speak Chinese. It's probably called the Yow Duck Toe or the Moo Goo Woof Woof. Who can tell? Look at the picture on the right. Which ones contain animal parts? Is it the Tai Ni Po Ni or the Stin Ki Pork?
I keep getting suckered into trying dim sum. (They call it dim sum because you have to be dim to try sum). Recently, it was with some friends of the family, a couple from Shanghai who moved to the U.S. about five years ago. I see them once a year or so, and while they are always very friendly, I still don't know how to pronounce either of their names. The husband is named Xiang, and the wife is named Tsing. Or maybe it's the other way around. Who can tell? It's like a truck full of consonants collided with a passenger bus full of vowels.
When Jade and I met up with them on a recent Sunday morning in Chinatown, they suggested we go out to dim sum. I resisted. "We've never had a good dim sum experience," I said.
"Ah!" exclaimed Xiang/Tsing. "You not order the right things. We order for you."
"You HAVE not ordered the right things," I corrected him. "We WILL order for you." I did this in my mind, so as not to offend him.
"We always end up ordering the chicken feet by accident," Jade said.
"Ha ha ha!" giggled Tsing/Xiang. One good thing about the Chinese: they laugh at anything. As a comedy writer, I should move to China, where I would also have the benefit of comically oversized eyes. "Ha ha ha!" she repeated. "Don't worry, we order for you. It's good. We take care of you!"
"We WILL take care of you," I corrected her (internally).
They took us to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where we were the only whiteys in the joint. The four of us squeezed into a narrow booth, and made awkward Chinglish small talk. A toothless Asian grandmother wheeled the dim sum cart to our table. She had a filthy polka-dot dishrag draped over her shoulder, and I pictured her drying our forks with it. Xstiang and Tshchiang conversed with her for a while, and soon the table was covered in buns, dumplings, and meat. It looked like we slaughtered the Pillsbury Doughboy.
"Try this!" said Xstschioang, passing me a fluffy dollop of dough. "You like it!"
"WILL I like it?" I asked. I made a mental note that if we had time after the meal, we could go shopping for verbs.
"Ha ha!" she said. "Yes! Yes!"
It was a pork dumpling of some kind. No problems there. After all, pork is "The Other White Meat," though I never understood why that tagline was supposed to make us want to eat more pork. We don't call hamburger "The Other Brown Meat," possibly because it would get confused with Dennis Rodman's genitals.
I ate a few more mystery dishes, and everything was going fine until I bit into the sweet and sour chicken fingers. As my teeth sank into bone, I realized that I was not eating chicken FINGERS, but chicken FEET. CURSE THIS HORROR KNOWN AS DIM SUM! CURSE THE CHINESE AND THEIR AMPUTATED POULTRY! Do they have any chickens that can still walk, or are they all hobbling around on crutches and wheelchairs? You know what we do with the chicken feet in America? WE THROW THEM AWAY! THEY'RE FEET, FOR GOD'S SAKE! THEY SPEND THEIR DAYS WALKING IN CHICKEN SHIT!
"I seem to have eaten the chicken feet again," I said, choking down the mouthful of footy goodness.
"They call them Phoenix Talons," said Xchsxcshoiaong-Dong.
"I thought that was an NBA team," I said.
I glanced over at Jade, who was having an equally difficult time: she had accidentally eaten the tripe. She was smiling, clearly to mask the pain, as she forced it down with a large gulp of water.
At work on Monday, I told one of my co-workers that I went to this restaurant over the weekend. "Oh NO!" he shouted. "You went THERE?!"
"Speaking as an Asian to a white guy, let me tell you: I saw one of the most disgusting things of my life at that place," he confided. "I was eating dim sum there one day, and this old guy walked into the restaurant. You know the cup full of toothpicks they keep at the counter? He grabbed the entire handful of toothpicks, lifted his arm, and scratched his armpit with them, like it was a giant comb. Then he put the toothpicks back in the cup." He shook his head sadly. "It's another generation. They just don't understand things like hygiene."
As far-fetched as his story was, you have to admit: it doesn't really matter. You hear a story like that, you can never visit that restaurant again. Possibly, you can never eat at another restaurant for the rest of your life.
But hey, I guess eating meals at home from now on will have one side benefit: I won't have to eat any more dim sum.
John Hargrave, the King of Dot Comedy, is an author, speaker, and performer fried and blended into a savory sauce with garlic flavoring, served in a sizzling hot pot