Monday, January 24, 2005

Just Spit Out the Phalanges, My Wife Said....Oh, Not There

See the pretty chicken feet.

I ate me some chicken feet on Saturday. My wife and I went over to Oakland's Chinatown for a little dim sum.

Oakland's Chinatown is not a stage set like San Francisco's Chinatown. You don't have to spend a half hour looking in windows trying to find a restaurant that isn't half filled with white people clamoring for sweet and sour pork.

It's a culinary jewel. Shhh. Don't say I said so.

Anyway, I don't know why, but I get a little panicky at dim sum, like a hobo running for the first train he sees because he wants to get moving and doesn't much care where. I don't want to grab three out of the first four things off the first cart that rolls by, but I do. I'm hungry, naturally, but also I'm anxious. There's that sense that what I'm looking at now is the really good stuff and that I will never see it again if I let it pass.

But that's not why I grabbed the chicken feet. We already had several things on the table, when the cart girl showed us the chicken feet. You see, I was flattered. Sometimes if you're not Chinese they won't show you the traditional delicacies because they are afraid you will embarrass yourself, you and hundreds of years of imperialist Western culture, by screwing up your face and going Ewwwwwwwww.

At a Chinese restaurant I swear I will never go Ewwwwwwww. You show me a beating human heart on a stack of eyeballs and I will think for a moment before saying, "Didn't we have that yesterday?"

It seemed to me that I should honor the offer of the chicken feet by seriously considering them. (Them. There were four chicken feet. Four for three dollars, I think.) They were very delicious looking feet, not yellow and scaly, but nice and brown and soy saucy.

Yes, I nodded. Some of them feet, please. (Of course, I did not say some of them feet. Somehow the idea of chicken feet is plugging into my Southernness. How you, honey? Bless your heart.)

At first, I thought I would just pick the feet up and eat them as if they were chicken legs -- Southernness again -- but my wife and I looked around and saw that everyone else in eyeshot was using chopsticks. I tried that, but I kept dropping the feet on my plate. I got best results by lifting the feet -- foot actually; you don't eat them in bunches -- with the chopsticks and quickly biting off two or three toes at a time, then delicately rolling them around in my mouth, with a very gentle grinding of my teeth gradually removing the fat, the meat and the scales -- if I referred to chicken skin, my wife said no the feet are covered with scales call it what it is.

Then, I would spit out the little toe bones -- which my wife did refer to as phalanges.

The chicken feet were very flavorful. My main source of distress was that I did not know how to eat them correctly -- traditionally, if you find "correct" too normative. It's the same problem I have with lobster and crab. Back home in Appalachia, we didn't eat lobster and we didn't eat crab and we also didn't eat steak and we didn't go out to eat much to places where that comparatively upscale trio were offered. To this day, I am self-conscious about how to eat lobster and crab, though (embarrassingly) I've actually read up on how it's done. It's just not my heritage.

It's not even that I want to eat lobster and crab in the traditional way. I may choose to eat them with my feet or to crack them open with my shoe or to smash them against my head as if I were flattening a beer can. The point is I want to know what is proper so I have the option of knowing when I am being improper, to make it a choice.

This ignorance of the nuances of foot consumption dampened my pleasure in the chicken feet. If I knew the traditional way of eating them, I would have felt more comfortable choosing not to eat them in that way.

They were pretty good, though. I'm going to ask a Chinese friend of ours how she eats chicken feet, and I will get back to you. Oh yes, watch this space.

Just to summarize, I feel good about the whole experience. It honors the animal, don't you think, to start eating at the top and keep going all the way down to the ground?

We owe the chicken -- in this case the two chickens -- that much.

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