Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Double Happiness: The Kids Are Chinese Restaurant-Ready

When I became the mother of twins, I learned of the Chinese expression Double Happiness.

When I took my kids to a Chinese restaurant for Sunday night dinner, I experienced it anew.

Like many of today's late blooming moms, I was born in the early 1960s. I grew up in a culturally Jewish, if mostly secular, family on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In families like mine, it was customary, on Sunday nights, to give mom a break with the cooking, and go out to eat Chinese food. I'm not sure how the tradition started, or just how widespread it was. But judging from the many Jewish families filling up the restaurants on Sundays (and always, always, on Christmas Day), we were far from alone.

I remember well those evenings at the now long-gone Great Shanghai, or the Harbin Inn, places where I had my first introduction to duck sauce and crispy noodles, egg rolls, chicken and snow peas, and wonton soup. Because my family was, as I mentioned, secular, we ate plenty of "traif" at these meals: shrimp in lobster sauce, mu-shu pork. We ate mountains of sticky white rice, and learned to use chopsticks. We over-sweetened our tea and loved drinking from the tea cups. We savored the crunchy sweet fortune cookies.

It wasn't all culinary delight. My brother and I ended most meals mixing a little of each dish in a water glass and daring each other -- or my father -- to drink it. No doubt we left the floor littered with red cloth napkins and spilled rice.

But we left with our childish palates made a little more adventurous.

In later years, when the Szechuan and Hunan restaurants replaced those that featured Mandarin and Cantonese, we enjoyed spicier fare: prawns in garlic sauce, General Tso's chicken (not exactly authentic Chinese -- like many of our favorite dishes, it was probably invented in the U.S. for Western palates). We developed a taste for peanut-ty cold sesame noodles. We spent our Sundays a little further uptown, in the West nineties, at the Hunan Balcony or the Empire Szechuan.

When I moved to Los Angeles, it took a long time for me to find Chinese food that tasted like what I remembered in New York. But eventually I did -- and knowing where to get it was one of the things that won me my future husband, another New York transplant.

Naturally, once we had children, I hoped to revive the Sunday night Jews-eat-Chinese-food family tradition. But our first attempt to do so, on a wildly overcrowded Christmas night at the Westside branch of an L.A. Chinatown institution, was an unmitigated disaster. The noise level was defeaning: every Jew on the Westside had apparently shown up to eat and schmooze. The service was agonizingly slow. I can't quite pin down the memory because I've clearly tried to block it out, so I'm not sure how old the kids were: about to turn one? Two? But I remember they started the meal in high chairs, then quickly insisted on sitting in parental laps. I know my brother, sister-in-law and niece were in town visiting, and witness to the horror. I have one vivid memory of trying to pick rice off Thing 1's hands, face, and the folds of his clothes. And I know for sure that most of the meal wound up at home with us in take-out containers, after a hasty exit and much wailing from both children, who were traumatized by the entire experience.

So we stayed away from Chinese restaurants, and I put aside hopes of reviving family custom.

Then, this past Sunday, after nap, inspiration hit me. At three-and-a-half, the kids might be ready for a re-introduction to Chinese cuisine. It wasn't Christmas, so the restaurants wouldn't likely be so packed. And the fortune cookie could be used as incentive to make the kids sit through an entire restaurant meal. Maybe it was time to try again.

So we piled into the car, prepping the kids by telling them we were going to have an adventure. We drove across L.A. to Chinatown, and parked right by the old Central Plaza, where as luck would have it, a free Shaolin self-defense demonstration was underway. The kids were mesmerized ... for about five minutes. But then it was off to see the lion statues, the pond with a waterfall and Buddhas, the coin-operated rides, the chotchke shops, the bakeries. The walk to the restaurant was full of unfamiliar but fascinating sights -- the Gold Line train station, pagoda-like rooftops, orange-red cooked ducks hanging in restaurant windows -- and new smells -- chicken and fish frying in savory/sweet sauces. The restaurant had a koi pond and live fish tanks brimming with crab, shrimp, cod, etc. The main dining room was huge, and decorated with a gilt golden Phoenix facing a gilt golden dragon. And there on the wall was that sign: the one for double happiness.

It was a good omen. The kids were fascinated with everything and though there was no pizza, no mac n' cheese, no pasta, nothing resembling a peanut butter sandwich, they actually ate. Thing 1 became a green bean and broccoli eating champ; Thing 2 slurped Chicken and corn soup, and both gobbled down the tender beef in the beef and broccoli. Lemon Chicken was a bit suspect, and we cringed every time they spilled water out of their teacups, but as expected, the fortune cookies went over big. Sure, the restaurant staff hovered over us as if we were going to break something precious, but we all got through it unscathed.

After the meal, we stopped on the steps of an old Chinese Benevolent Association, where the kids romped among the lion statues and columns, running off their energy in gleeful delight.

As I watched them I was transported back to the Upper West Side Sunday night Chinese dinners of my childhood ... and though I doubt we'll be having Chinese dinner every Sunday, we've established a beachhead.

My fortune that night told of a peaceful, happy future. But I was thinking about the past. Somewhere I bet mom and dad are smiling.


Anonymous said...

I love Chinatown, but have you also tried Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley? Restaurants in such cities as Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Alhambra, etc. give NY a healthy dose of competition. I've eaten in many New York Chinese restaurants (both in Chinatown and Flushing), and it doesn't beat LA's San Gabriel Valley.

You Mon Tsang said...

Hurray for Chinese people! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Brigs, I agree --
I'm a huge fan of Din Tai Fung in Arcada and I've eaten at a dim sum palace in Monterey Park -- just not yet with the kids.
Thanks for reading.

claudiocambon said...

Just lovely...

Anonymous said...

I love this piece, Holly. Brings back many memories of those dinners with my own family. My kids are, thankfully, addicted to "China food," particularly since we don't have a kitchen right now (long story). In any event, my favorite Chinese food anecdote is when I was ordering Chinese food about a year ago (when my twin girls had just turned 4) and asked them what they wanted to eat. I said, "should we get beef with broccoli again?" One of my daughters turned to me with a serious expression on her face and said, "no, just beef!"