by Maria Schulz
Back in the long-ago dark ages called the 1970s, home-cooked meals were the norm. Most people I knew did not go out to eat at night. Instead, they stayed home and ate whatever their mothers put in front of them (whether you liked it or not). My mother could sling hash with the best of them, and she did just that on 6 out of 7 nights a week.
Like any child who didn’t appreciate anything our mothers or fathers did for us, I could not wait for the seventh night to come. Why, you ask? Because on the 7th night (usually after Saturday night mass), my parents treated us to take-out.
For a while, we were spotted at Kentucky Fried Chicken more times than Elvis is spotted in Las Vegas. We were The Colonel’s favorite customers, taking home bucket after bucket of golden fried chicken, enough mashed potatoes to feed our sorry crew, biscuits and gravy. After that, we befriended Ronald McDonald and ate a ton of Big Macs, had whoppers with the King at Burger King, became kings and queens of White Castle, and covered all the Italian food bases with Joe’s Pizza, VI Pizza, and The Gable Inn.
We would eat that particular restaurant’s offerings until we were absolutely sick of it, and then move on to the next take-out attraction. It all depended on how many coupons we had, how nice the staff was to us, and how much we enjoyed the food.
One of my favorite phases of all was our Chinese food phase. It started in the late 70s and continued for a good 20+ years. I remember the sheer joy my family experienced when a new Chinese restaurant opened off of 48th Ave. and Bell Blvd. We ran down to the new take-out window and took a handful of menus and coupons. We couldn’t wait to try it!
Chinese food became the new “it” food for us. We pored over the menu and ordered one of…well, everything. Egg rolls, shrimp rolls, lo mein, Singapore rice noodles, General Tso’s Chicken, Sesame Chicken, Moo Shoo Pork, spare ribs, steak and peppers, steamed dumplings. You name it; we probably ordered a quart of it.
Once the food came, we sat around our dining room table and we tried a little bit of everything. My parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, and whatever friends were joining us for dinner that night shared food and stories. Sometimes, our friend John would re-name the things we ordered, like calling the fried noodles “Chinese Pretzels,” which would then make my father really eager to try it.
It wasn’t always that way for me. As a young kid, I was afraid to try Chinese food. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the food; it’s just that I was scarred by an early, authentic Chinese food experience that included throwing living, running creatures into a pot of boiling water.
It all started one day while visiting with my neighbors, The Wongs. My friend, Linda, and I were playing in her living room when her father suddenly appeared with a brown paper bag that seemed curiously alive.
“Want to help us cook?” Linda said to me.
“Sure,” I said.
So, Mr. Wong handed her the large paper sack. It seemed like something out of a horror movie, because it was writhing and squirming. Linda clutched it by the top and handed me one of the corners. She called her Grandmother over and they had what seemed to be a heated conversation in Chinese.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said she wants to teach us how to cook. She will help us,” Linda replied.
So we climbed up on chairs and Grandma pulled off the lid.
“When I say ‘three,’ dump the bag into the pot!” Linda said. “One, two, three—“
We both let go of the bag at the same time, and I watched as tiny white crabs plunged into the water. That is, except for the 100 or so that escaped and made a break for the farthest reaches of the kitchen counter and floor. I guess when your choices are a pot of boiling water or freedom, you really are motivated to move fast.
Linda, Grandma, Mr. Wong and I ran around the kitchen, yelling, screaming, grabbing the little escapees and throwing them into the pot. Linda and I shrieked every time we had to touch one to throw it back in.
“Want to stay for dinner?” Linda said to me, when all of our creepy crawly friends were safely simmering on the stove..
“No thanks,” I replied. “My mom is making spaghetti and meatballs.”
There was no way I’d miss my mother’s meatballs. Plus, I wasn’t sure how I felt about food that was so fresh, I’d just spent a ½ hour tracking it down.
A couple of years later, my fear of Chinese food was inadvertently intensified when we drove my mother to a religious retreat in Manhattan.
I didn’t know where we were, but I was pretty sure we had been traveling for many, many hours. This was because I had fallen asleep after we dropped my mother off, when the sun was still shining.
When I woke up, it was dark and I had no idea if it was 5 AM or 12 midnight. Little six-year-old me imagined we had traveled to the farthest reaches of the earth, since I could tell we weren’t in Bayside anymore.
We rode into what I now know was Chinatown. But to my very young eyes, it looked like we had somehow driven to the other side of the planet. We were in a very congested area where cars honked their horns and lots of Chinese people dashed from store to store.
There were endless rows of restaurants and stores, and Chinese people with orange bags walking everywhere. All of the signs were in Chinese too. I could tell this because the signs looked like Grandma Wong’s handwriting.
Our car went BANG and then my father pulled over. “I think we have a flat,” he said. He got out of the car and started rifling around in the trunk.
“Where are we? Are we ever going home?” I asked my brothers. Chris looked as confused as I was, but surely Joey and Paul could tell me where we were. They were so much older and wiser!
Nine-year-old Joey put on his most serious face. He knew he could have some fun with me, and he went right to work. “We are in China,” he said to me. “And no, we will never go home again. This is our new home.”
“What?” I said. “I don’t want to move away to China!” I looked at Paul and Chris. Chris looked slightly alarmed; Paul nodded in agreement with Joey.
“What will we have to do here? Does Mom know we’ve moved to China?”
Joey and Paul shook their heads sadly. “No,” they replied in unison.
“Can we go home? Will Dad change his mind? What about the other guys? Why do they get to live with mom? What kinds of things do you do here in China?” I said.
“No, it’s just going to be the five of us now,” Joey said. “You will have to do all of our cooking, cleaning, and washing from now on. You’ll also have to start eating Chinese food and carrying orange bags with live animals in them that you’ll cook for us.”
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!” I yelled and started to cry. “I want to go home. I don’t want to live in China!”
“You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese too,” Joey said. “And it’s the hardest language of all!”
I was still crying hysterically when my father got back into the car. “It’s okay. The tire is fixed. That nice man helped us.” He said. My father looked into the back seat, where I was crying.
“Joey, calm your sister down,” he said.
“Okay,” Joey said brightly.
He started the car and we drove home. I was amazed that all we had to do in order to get back was drive through the Midtown Tunnel. I didn’t ask my father anything, though, just in case he changed his mind and I never got to see my mother and other brothers again.
So you see, I had some very powerful and completely illogical reasons for not wanting to try Chinese food. I was one of the most resistant people in the house. My mother finally brought me around by giving me a fortune cookie, and that was it. I was hooked. It probably helped that I was never asked to come down to the restaurant and help them cook our dinner.
I always got a kick out of opening the bag of fortune cookies and reading my fortune. We would break open our cookie and read our “prophecies,” and then someone would yell out: “in bed!” So if your fortune said, “you will meet a tall dark stranger,” it would become, “you will meet a tall dark stranger…in bed!”
What can I tell you? We were easily amused.
All these years later, my love affair with an occasional Chinese take-out meal goes on. So what’s my favorite part of that dinner? It’s still the fortune cookie.
That’s probably because I am always trying to get confirmation that God, the Universe, or sheer luck is trying to tell me something important. So, I look for meaning where there might not be any.
For decades, I have been trying to make the Fortune Cookie work for me. I don’t approach it like it’s just some random slip of paper that some poor copywriter/non-English-speaking, poorly paid worker had to come up with and stuff into that hard little cookie. It’s got meaning for me! Really.
Of course, my fortunes don’t always cooperate. Sometimes, they say things that I find inspiring, like “bide your time, for success is near,” but sometimes they say things like “man is what he believes.” Okay….
It made me wonder; if these are the fortune cookies that someone said, “Yes, yes! Let’s go with this!” what would the rejected fortune cookies look like? Here’s my list of possibilities:
- Give up! Life HAS passed you by.
- Your inner child is a moron.
- The key to true happiness belongs to someone far richer, smarter, and better looking than you.
- Who told you life is fair?
- It is better to be charming and thoughtful than your usual stupid self.
- Don’t forget these magic words: NO MSG.
- Bide your time, ‘cause you’ve got nothing better to do.
- Success may be elusive, but that’s only because no one likes you.
- Life is like a river. Slow, winding, and sometimes full of trash.
- May all your wishes come true, even if they are pointless and shallow.
- Life is like a box of chocolates, and you are the allergic kid with the EPI pen.
- It is better to be old and wise than old and decrepit.
- Teach a man how to fish, and you’ll get stuck listening to fish stories for the rest of your life.
- Your parents aren’t nearly as stupid as you are.
- If you were expecting pearls of wisdom, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Whether the fortune resonates with meaning or sounds like gibberish, I still feel compelled to break that cookie open and investigate. To quote Shakespeare, “I am fortune’s fool.” Especially when there’s a cookie involved.
In any event, I’m glad we went through our Chinese food phase. It was always the perfect combination of laughter, storytelling, and great food shared around the dining room table.
Now pass the fortune cookies, please.
Have you ever made your own fortune cookies? Here’s a recipe that looks easy and has people raving about it:
Want a tutorial? Check out this YouTube video:
So Hungry Lifers…what’s the best fortune you ever got? The worst one? Did your big brothers or sisters ever tell you something totally untrue that made you cry? Please leave a comment and let us all know about it. Thanks!