I am finishing my meal in the third most expensive Chinese restaurant in New York, and I am waiting for the chef to die. I took a long time to order, which no doubt delayed the inevitable, because I wanted to avoid cheap, Americanized dishes. Sweet and Sour Pork, for example: what is that? It’s breaded pork in a sugar sauce that no Mandarin emperor in his right mind would have let anywhere near the jade palace. No, give me the vegetables: the water chestnuts, the cabbage, the mushrooms, the bamboo roots. Those are authentic. I like them steamed and put over rice, which is, of course, the most authentic dish of all. A little brown sauce, which is common in the northern region of the country, and some beef, because I’m addicted to beef. I can’t help it. But I like it chopped up thin and placed carefully within the vegetables so that, at least, it doesn’t look like a steak.
This meal is quite good: the chef has done himself proud on his last night alive. It’s really too bad, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t know how it happens, but ever since July 13th, when the chef at the Mandarin Palace in New Jersey fell into a vat of boiling cooking oil just as I had finished my egg roll, I have never been able to eat at a Chinese restaurant without the chef dying sometime between the pre-meal wantons and the fortune cookie. It isn’t always cooking oil, of course: sometimes he impales himself on a ginsue knife, or sometimes he accidentally lights himself on fire when preparing a flaming duck. Once, and this only happened once, mind you, the duck was still alive and pecked his eyes out before he ignited. I couldn’t stop laughing for weeks: that duck was just so silly. Once a chef caught on fire for no reason at all, which caught me off guard. But, I have to admit, spontaneous combustion is an exception to the rule, and ranks a distant third behind heart attacks and brain tumors on the list of fatalities without an obvious cause. I find that these occur most often when I order the chicken.
The first time it happened I was upset just like everyone else, because of course I had no reason to think that I had anything to do with it. We are used to hearing about random acts of violence, and the very idea of “random” violence and death shelters us from the idea that we might somehow be responsible for creating a world in which this could happen. Certainly no one else in the crowd asked themselves, that first time, “Was it my fault? Did I ask for too much oil with my noodles? Could I have had the shrimp instead?” And, of course, no one bothered to wonder what would happen to his wife and children: whether the death of their husband and father would leave them impoverished and prone to commit more “random” acts of violence. Instead, most of us took advantage of the confusion to leave without paying, and went to an Italian restaurant.
Most of us waited a week or so before even thinking of going back to a Chinese restaurant again; but, of course, you can’t stay away from the good things in life, or the bad ones that are having a half-price sale. So I went to the Ming Seafood and Chinese Emporium, and ordered the cold lo-mein. And, of course, that was the give-away that I had something to do with the process, because a few minutes later the chef turned up strangled by them.
Now, what was I to think? Oh, I tried to justify myself: he might of choked to death on my lo-mein, but he had been walking past someone else’s table at the time. And I think he’d been wearing a white chef’s uniform: why didn’t the dry cleaner take responsibility? So many people passed the buck around so quickly, selectively editing their accounts of what happened to insure that their involvement was “coincidental.” I did the same, but deep down in my heart, I knew.
And when I phoned in an order of egg roles to The House of Han: Chinese caterers, and both the chef and the delivery boy perished in a freak explosion involving bean curd, I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t involved.
It is a terrible thing to admit responsibility. Our collective innocence, like ignorance, is bliss and once gone the world opens up with frightful possibilities. What, I suddenly wondered, would happen if I went to China? Would whole villages fall around me like dropping eggs? What would happen if I ate a dinner at a fish restaurant, but the chef happened to know a Mandarin dish for scallops? Acceptance of one’s influence in the world mandates a radical lifestyle change which is entirely inconsistent with casual dining. I spent many a month chewing my food carefully, wondering “Is this the bite that causes things to go horribly wrong?” For weeks I wondered how I did it. I studied philosophy, folklore, anthropology, criminology, to find out, but in the end it was physics, simple physics, that explained it to me. We are all connected, by gravity, by energy, by particles of matter so tiny that we would laugh if one came home and said he was marrying our daughter: every action taken by anyone on earth will forever alter the microscopic forces that tie us together. It’s ridiculous to expect that not to manifest itself somehow.
As for the chefs, I guess that’s their bad luck. I have long since stopped feeling guilty about the lethal nature of my dining experiences. I contemplated giving up Chinese food at first, of course. It seemed so inappropriate that someone had to die because I loved hot and sour soup, and I found that one of the most horrible of human experiences is to stare at death over mushu pork. There is a moment, after death has claimed his soul and stares at those around him, with empty eyes and a rigermortis grin, that you think he is going to ask for a bite. But I soon realized that death really heightens the aesthetics of a meal: he is, after all, an intimate companion of every piece of food prepared. Why should he not also have a place in its consumption? We may deny his role: we may avoid thinking that there is mortality in every plant harvested and fish caught, but he is still there. And through the strange machinations of fate, my eyes have been opened. I see the cosmic justice in the death of chefs, just as I acknowledge my own role in the cycle, which is more obvious, but no greater, than anyone’s. Now I marvel at the chaotic inventiveness of mother nature as she claims her own. And it feels good, good! to accept my role as a cause: to acknowledge that we are all more than by-standers.
In fact, I can’t remember how I ever managed to enjoy a meal before the deaths began. I hope this one goes soon: I’ve almost finished my coffee.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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