Growing up with twelve older siblings, I just assumed we were poor. We lived in a modest house large enough for us to sit collectively for a turkey dinner, and bunk beds in our basement providing space to sleep at least eight, uncomfortably, with or without the farts. Yet, being young and ignorant, witnessing people living in neighborhoods within close proximity bathing in their backyard pools, I believed we must be impoverished.
Now, let me be clear. We were never poor. Yet, even though mom and dad provided three square meals a day, when I’d see friends talk about their nightly adventures to Burger King or McDonald’s, I looked at them as the rich. Up until high school, I don’t remember ever sitting down for a Whopper or a Big Mac. It was tuna on toast every Friday night, fried burgers on Saturday night, and Sunday through Thursday, we ate potatoes and vegetables surrounded by some form of meat. How could they expect me to live in such poverty?
When I began maturing at the age of about ten, I started thinking we were far from poor when my father replaced his old car with a slightly newer one. (His former car was totaled by one of my older brothers.) He even took me to the used car dealership to help him pick it out. I then discerned the only reason we didn’t have a pool was because our father knew that six or seven of us might drown in it, even though he taught us how to swim at early ages. Then, with an exclamation point, he put a definitive end to my thoughts of being poor. He took the ones remaining in our house out to Chinese dinner. It was pay dirt for me, and I’ll never forget it.
Without any disrespect to our mother’s cooking, dining out, since it was so infrequent, was always a treat. It was actually a treat for our mother as well, always opting to remain at home for a dash of peace. Yet, until I was introduced to the Far East, a pizza parlor was as far down the culinary road we’d traveled thus far, which was just dandy with all of us.
Entering the foreign parking lot of just one of the ten million Chinese restaurants in Spokane, Washington, I have to admit, my stomach was a little apprehensive. Whether it be food or a baseball game, my dad always knew when I was nervous. I didn’t have to say a thing. As the youngest of thirteen, you never actually get a say in anything, but he looked at me with great confidence, and said, “Don’t worry.” That’s all I needed. Well, not really, but it was either I follow them into the restaurant or starve for the evening in the car.
Before being seated, I surveyed the atmosphere. Immediately making me feel at ease was the giant Buddha sitting behind one of the waitresses. I’d recognized him from pictures in a National Geographic. He was wearing a smile, and by the looks of him, I thought Chinese food must be divine. Shortly after being seated, several bowls of won ton soup were placed in front of us. Nothing special, but ok. I’d eaten better soup at home, but we lapped it up nevertheless. Without having time to read the menu, dad began ordering. First dish: Fried Won Tons. They looked harmless, but dad clearly pointed out the bowl of sweet and sour sauce to dip it in on the side. One dip, and I was hooked like a Mongolian on a grill. Holy Chinese Checkers! We’re eating dessert before dinner! I could have sat and drank that sauce like egg nog on Christmas or Thanksgiving. It was absolutely delightful. To this day, I have never met its equal. My father, when not stressed, always had the most pleased grin matching his smiling eyes when something made him happy. We were happy.
Next came the BBQ pork. Since birth, I don’t think I’ve ever turned anything down which was barbecued, so my excitement level remained on high. Although the pork’s presentation made it look as if its outer lining was painted with some phony candy coating, I didn’t care. Bring on the sweet with the meat. All of us reaching for a piece, my first instinct was to dip it in what was left of the sweet and sour sauce. Dad moved the sauce away quickly, and said, rather persuasively, “No, no, no. Try these other dips reserved for the pork.” So far, he was batting a thousand with the won tons, so I had no problem listening and paying attention to his calm order. He then told us to dip it in a sauce resembling ketchup, followed by what looked like standard mustard, although he referred to it as “special mustard”, and finish by submerging it in the sesame seeds. No problem. Just before concluding the process with the seeds, he waved at my hand and said, “You need more mustard than that. Your brothers are going to lap that good stuff up if you don’t eat it while it’s hot. Putting a healthy dose of mustard on my piece, then cramming it in my mouth, I thought it odd the mustard was actually cold. I didn’t know exactly what he meant my hot then, but I did within about three seconds after swallowing. With tears floating in my baby blue eyes, dad handed me a napkin as he and the others were laughing. The napkin wasn’t for my tears. Rather, it was for my nose which began to drip, and although the sting was quite a surprise, I hadn’t expected some strange eating euphoria to follow. It felt like a quick dose of sinus hell followed by heaven, or relief. I loved it. My brothers and father, when eating their pieces, all had similar whiplash responses as mine, but we were all laughing. My father loved to eat, entertain and be entertained. The pork and, hot as sweet hell mustard, was gone in seconds. “Really clears out your sinuses, huh?” our father barked with laughter.
Eating family style, he went on to order the usual gang of Americanized Chinese splendor: Chicken chow mein, pork fried rice, and sweet and sour prawns, which became my personal all time favorite. I didn’t know what a doggie bag was back then, and I didn’t learn that evening. I think we even devoured our fortunes in the cookies they brought us after the meal. That night in China was, indeed, a rich experience. Not remembering if he took us again as youngster, I just have to guess it was our trip to Spokane’s culinary Disneyland.
Returning home from college one year, keeping in shape with the standard mac and cheese, Top Ramen, and beer diet, I was assuming I’d arrive to a home cooked meal. Rather, I was greeted by three of mom and dad’s grandchildren at our door. They included one of my nephews and two of my nieces ranging from ages perhaps in the neighborhood of 7 to 11. (My oldest sister Mary’s three children.) It was a Friday night, and they were in no mood for tuna on toast. Dad came out to greet me, and quietly asked, “How about Chinese tonight?? Don’t tell these little shits. They think we’re going to McDonald’s.” I didn’t even have to answer. We drove to the exact same place he’d taken us years ago, and their look of fear made dad and I laugh. I used to keep my mouth shut proper back then, but they were a little more bold than I. One of them even yelled, “THIS ISN’T McDONALD’S!!!” Knowing their mother, there could have been some profanity amidst the panic.
Dad requested the same items, including the BBQ Pork with hot mustard. It was nice to be on the inside of that joke. They all winced in pain, made fun of, and laughed at one another. Dad and I each had a beer and enjoyed part of the food. With smiles all around the table, once again, there was no reason for a doggie bag.