I was in what I was assured was one of the very best Chinese restaurants in Perth. It had been booked out for the 21st birthday of a young woman in Michelle’s university medical laboratory science class, and she had invited the whole class, and their various assorted partners and plus-ones.
I was by now in my late twenties, at least on the outside, but inside, where it mattered, I was still a little kid who was worried about choking on the corn any moment now. Who was worried about making a scene, about vomiting.
As I grew up I learned that there were essentially three categories of food: category 1 was no-problem food, stuff that presented no difficulties, that you could eat all day, and that was often horribly bad for you; category 2 food was stuff that wasn’t super-yummy but then also didn’t make you vomit just from the smell of a saucepan of the stuff boiling on the stove, so most vegetables are in this group, and in fact most general food not otherwise included in categories 1 or 3 is in this group; and then in category 3 is what I think of as “non-food”.
Chinese cuisine, the go-to fast food cuisine of the entire world, the food that absolutely everyone loves, is very much category 3 for me. It is non-food.
It doesn’t smell like food. Though for context think about where and when I grew up, in suburban Perth in the 1970s, when Italian food was just starting to arrive. When meals at home featured meat and two veg more often than I can say. When food was conventional to the point of numbness. But as conventional as it was, it at least had the authentic smell and taste of food–to me.
Back to the restaurant. This evening was a special occasion for the birthday girl. The place was jammed, all the big round tables were full of happy friends and family. The conversational hubbub was lively and absolutely everyone else was having a terrific time. Not me, but you wouldn’t expect me to, would you? I subsisted through the evening, course after course, on coffee and polite smiles. So many courses!
The most challenging course was the Giant Fish, presented in its Giant Disgusting Entirety, on a platter the size of a continent, which was placed on the spinny thing in the centre of the table. I still remember the hot stinking fish aroma. I also remember the eyes. Then the people at the table began to spin it this way and that as they chose sections of the Leviathan for themselves, flensing out vast swathes of it. Around and around it went, first this way, then back that way, always somehow staring at me as it went by, “Not eating me, Adrian? I’m very tasty!” And the stench, my God, the stench! Back and forth, around and around, the demolition of the Great Beast proceeded, exposing ever more of the creature’s interior caverns and internal structures, frequently big enough for apartment/retail complexes. It was nightmarish. It never stopped. It was like those timelapse films of dead animals being devoured by ants, only the people around me were the very cheerful ants, completely unaware of the horror unfolding before me, how it was all I could do not to throw up just from the smell.
And yet, as bad as the Giant Fish was, it wasn’t the worst part of the night. That was still coming, and it came at the end. Things were wrapping up. There was speechifying. A consensus emerged among the speakers that Birthday Girl was a very fine young lady who would go far. There was applause and envelopes full of cash.
But suddenly, and I’m still not quite sure how this bit came about–it’s a sudden jump in the film, a missing reel and a bad splice–Birthday Girl is right in front of me, and she’s looking worried and imploring. There’s a Problem, a Serious Problem, it seems. There’s a matter of Luck, it seems. The fact that I haven’t eaten anything has become known, and this has caused Alarm, somehow. It seems I must eat Something in order for there to be Good Luck. I want there to be Good Luck, right? I wouldn’t wish Bad Luck on the Birthday Girl, would I?
Well, no, of course not. But I have what these days we call “food issues”. I understand about matters of Luck, but I also understand about matters of Vomit.
Next thing, a small white bowl of beef strips in some kind of sauce appears. To my great amazement, it’s actually quite tasty. The gods of Luck smile upon the proceedings, in more ways than one. Birthday Girl smiles upon me, and I on her. Lots of apologies and awkwardness. Inside I’m just about in tears at how my stupid bloody food bollocks nearly ruined someone’s special occasion, and the guilt is eating at me as we leave. Michelle doesn’t bring me to events like this again, and I am glad.