Jane’s Marvelous Restaurant

Jane Hsu. <i>Jane's Marvelous Restaurant</i> (cover), marker on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Jane Hsu. Jane's Marvelous Restaurant (cover), marker on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

I was once the owner of my own restaurant. As an 8 year old, I created a complete restaurant menu of dishes I’d never eaten before. I would dog-ear my mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook and memorize each color photo. It was a window into a world of ham molds, pates and au gratin vegetables foreign to my Chinese taste buds. By that time, I had already consumed numerous secret family recipes, regional specialties and gourmet delicacies of Chinese cuisine—an experience that my chowhound.com friends would now kill to have for one night. It didn’t seem peculiar to me that I knew if the old pea shoots seemed too ready to please, or if the scallion rolls were unresponsive and skimpy on the sesame oil. Three times a day, I had the opportunity to watch how every handmade dish was brought from the market to the stove and the table. However, from my perspective as a first generation Chinese, I was trapped in the ancient cooking traditions of my culture.

Things were different and very mysterious in Nikki’s kitchen. She was my best friend, and she was like everybody else in Morristown, New Jersey except for me. Nikki Snyder was even born in Morristown Memorial Hospital. She hoped to fly to Florida someday to visit her grandparents, and understood how to balance soccer playing with maintaining a perfect B average. I knew her mother’s name before I even met the woman. At school, Nikki used to bring Irene’s colored notes with matching seals and handwriting only a cozy secretary could possess. These notes allowed me to take her daughter’s bus route home for sleepovers. The bus driver was always so charmed to break the pretty seals on the note. For me, the note was a culinary pass into their American kitchen.

The predictable routine was one of the most enjoyable things about eating with Nikki. The first order of business was to climb up the kitchen cupboards and grab the clear candy jar, which contained enough colors and textures to delight the most severe case of ADD. I would mentally calculate the justice of her candy collection to my weekly allotment of dried jujube flakes at home.

Dinnertime was a troublesome time for Nikki. She was picky and ate very little. I had no concern for her cloud of worries. I still do not understand a person who does not look forward to every meal. In fact, I called her the Golden Skinny Liar, or GSL, for short. She was my best friend, but as any good Jersey girl would know, best friends are also your worst enemies.

There was a consistent abundance of non-food fanfare at the dinner table. Depending on the season, the table would be decorated with placemats, gourds, candles and potpourri. No matter what was cooking, everything smelled like cinnamon and eucalyptus. I was delighted with the place settings, and I was always given more utensils than I needed. Maybe they thought I was mature enough to choose the appropriate one.

Our separate children’s mealtime and our own little portions of white spaghetti made me feel very important. A can of tomato sauce was simply opened and placed between our bowls. I was never allowed to eat from a can before (fancy). The brand of tomato sauce Irene used had a cheery illustration of the Italian countryside and a little anecdote about how the sauce came to be (double fancy). I would pretend to read the story for the first time every time they served spaghetti. I felt as privileged as the children on television who stared at cans and boxes while eating out of their bowls. Only Nikki’s persistence to leave the table would prevent me from lingering through the meal by using every utensil at least once and trying to remember all the foreign details. As we scurried away, Irene would ask us if we wanted popcorn or cookies later. Nikki would yell back that she didn’t care, and I would glare resentfully at her scrawny neck.

As the house got dark, the whole family moved, snacks and all, to the basement. Everyone was at ease except for me. I would stare at a single piece of popcorn, and turn it around in my fingers, letting the light from the Cheers episode illuminate each little puff. Just like every family in the roaring 80’s of suburban New Jersey, the Snyders had a bar in the back of the basement. Irene and Mr. Snyder would be mixing drinks behind the bar, and I would walk over and choose stirring sticks for the cocktails. It seemed like there was an endless supply of Snyder items used to decorate food. Nikki had a 15 year old sister, Katie, who always sat on her boyfriend’s lap during TV time and timed the perfect insults toward her little sister. I liked Katie—not only because she belittled my best friend, but she made me feel safe. Katie was so ready to bust out of her swimsuit at the town pool that I secretly used to stay close to her, using her as an emergency flotation device.

Just when I started taking the popcorn for granted, it was eight o’clock, and Nikki and I were put to bed. Katie and her boyfriend would disappear, the Cheers music would die down, and the couch would fold out into a bed. Nothing keeps you more awake than watching someone you were just speaking to fall asleep. The unfamiliar feeling of the couch springs and the Old Spice coming from my pillowcase didn’t help at all. I recalled the first time I slept over at Nikki’s house, I ran up to her parent’s bedroom and threw up hot dogs on their rug. Those were my first hot dogs! (Fancy!) I went to them complaining about the early bedtime. My pleas were ignored and I was sent back to bed.

After Nikki fell into a deep sleep, I would creep upstairs to Irene and Mr. Snyder’s room. They would be sitting up in bed, watching HBO. Irene wore her trademark dark pink terry robe and a faded tan from down the shore. Mr. Snyder was a little man with a stout hairy chest. They had their own private world—something I never saw with my parents. They emitted a homey warmth from their bedroom. With the heavy oak furniture and the worn carpeting, the room always reminded me of those shadowy restaurants along the Jersey roads.

The restaurants always intrigued me with their names: Bennigan’s, The Swiss Chalet, Publick House, O’Somethings. What happened inside of those places? From what I could see from the backseat of a car, their windows glowed goldenrod while burly people smelling like smoke and steak slowly oozed from the side doors into the parking lot. I would imagine that Irene and Mr. Snyder would sit down in one of these places and the food would come to their table in a slow daze. Everything would be a dark brown. There would be animal parts formerly used to grazing committed to a life of swallowing thickened glaze. A hollandaise sauce sporting a rubbery film and cabbage leaves tucked into a bubbling pool of cheese could be some complimentary side dishes. Regulars of the establishment would know to watch where they put their elbows for the occasional black olive and Thousand Island dressing runaway.

They wouldn’t start eating right away, and the aroma from the dishes could saturate their matching sweaters for weeks. He would hold her hand, and they would admire the table settings of a professional establishment with even more fanfare than they could stuff on their table at home. Perhaps there would be a small oil lamp flickering, lighting potatoes poking out from the pot roast and uniform squares of melting butter.

There were no commercial breaks on HBO. I would always hope that the sound of my stomach growling during a quiet scene in the movie would prompt Irene to find me in the basement. She would suddenly take on my mother’s Chinese habits on a late Friday night. It would be about eleven o’clock, and I would miss the activity in my never-nuclear family household. My mother would be making fried fish balls on a stick while stirring leftover hot congee over the stove. The grandparents would be watching their Chinese soap operas—antiquated reenactments of various royal dynasties mixed with kungfu and poorly dubbed dialogue. My father would be chatting with his grad school friends, who were all hunched at a kitchen table empty of decoration, but with plates full of marinated vegetables, leftover cold dumplings and hard-boiled eggs.

Jane Hsu. <i>Jane's Marvelous Restaurant</i> (inside), marker on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Jane Hsu. Jane's Marvelous Restaurant (inside), marker on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

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