Caught in the Act

the scenean actor

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Now that the rampage of year-end feasting has subsided, I take time to consider the spectacular Chinese art of eating. Not of cooking, of eating.

First of all disabuse yourself of your mother’s admonition that what goes into your mouth is not intended to come out. Your mother was not Chinese. This dictum simply propagates the cheap swindle Western chefs have put over on their eating public for a couple hundred years. The codeword, of course, is “presentation”. Like a pin-up-girl, food colors and contours are intended to stimulate salivation, but preclude really moving on to serious wrangling. All the fun of dissecting the tasty from the inedible is usurped by the chef, but with a coarseness that leaves the real morsels at the interface to their fate in the garbage can. Chinese cooks do not dissect, they divide, indiscriminately, for the sole purpose of convenience in transfer with chopsticks from dish to mouth. To the exquisitely articulate tools of the oral cavity is left the pleasure of microdissection, with only an occasional assist from that next most articulate human appendage, the digit. With tongue and teeth and palate, one plies the soft tissues from the hard, and then passes judgement on whether the hard might not indeed be amenable to molar crushing, as are the delicate bones of a near-term chick embryo, or needs simply to be ejected whence it came.

We do not talk here of the pretty or presentable, but of pure, lingual pleasures. God meant us to eat with our mouths, not with our eyes. The Chinese are not given to this Western sacrilege.

Of course, this eating-act is a little messy, emitting the occasional odd sound or awkward mandibular posture, and re-ejection is not always so deft as the initial transfer. But it is an all-engaging act, which mostly renders one oblivious to the antics of the other actors around him. Though, I note, that almost as pleasurable as the act itself, is observing others engaged in the act. For a human, that is; to the hypothetical-Martian-observer it must seem very peculiar indeed.

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