Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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Well, the Big Meal is over. Today we served the faculty program participants a full day's meals - cereal, french toast, bacon and regular toast for "breakfast," chili, sandwiches, potato salad and cole slaw for "lunch," and spaghetti, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, and apple cobbler for "dinner." Everyone got a sample of each food, and everyone got an idea of how to eat out in America.

I started shopping for this meal last Thursday, and started cooking for it on Saturday night (when I made the meatloaf). Rob helped me yesterday and today; he made the cobbler and grated the cole slaw and peeled and chopped potatoes. We spent the whole time from 11:30-3:00 today cooking, and then he went to the classroom, where the other two teachers had spent an hour and a half discussing American restaurant menus and tipping and tax and such like that . . . and I finished up the last-minute items.

Tonight, as I was cleaning my way to my coffee cup (which is now rescued, so I can pause for a while), I thought about how I've been planning for this meal since I got here. We did a smaller version of it two years ago and I wanted to repeat it because it was such a hit. The students really loved the chance to eat genuine American food, and they were really, really appreciative that we cooked it for them. This year was much more elaborate, chiefly because I can shop so much better now. Last time, we spent about the same amount of money, but we went to the highest-priced western supermarket in the city and we still couldn't get half of what we needed. This year, I realized, I've been casing the place since I got here. I know how to buy ground beef now. I also know where to go to get cumin, and how to ask for it. This year, I could do the shopping without the help of a Chinese person (although I did need my compadres to help me carry stuff home from the store).

And the logistics of cooking a meal for sixty in a kitchen the size of a ship's galley, well . . . for some reason, it seems to amaze people that it can be done. (Even Rob, who really ought to know better by now.) I really enjoy the challenge, what can I say? All weekend, my fellow teachers kept saying things like, "How are you going to cook that?" and "Why are you working so hard?" and "You know, you don't need to cook that; we could just tell them about it" and other such nonsense.

But at last . . . when they took the toaster in, and the Chinese teachers gasped in amazement when the toast popped up (they don't use toasters much here) or when the student said, "Oh, my gosh, MEAT! I thought you were only making a few vegetables!" and when they kept asking for recipes and writing them down, and when they started to say, "Gee, maybe we should all make dumplings together!" - well, I think my colleagues started to get the point . . .

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go collapse in a heap. The kitchen isn't clean yet, but I'm deliriously happy and filled with a sense of accomplishment. And at least I know I can get to the coffee in the morning . . . which is a Good Thing, because I'm gonna need it.

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