There’s More Than One Way To Peel a Shrimp

(Old American saying.)

Speaking of China (as we are these days), did you read that macabre story in the April 15 New York Times Book Review? It appeared in a review of Comfort Me With Apples, a volume of memoirs by Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic of the Times. The reviewer, a philosophy professor named Paul Mattick, said he thinks of Reichl as “an imaginary friend, like the ones children sometimes have.” He praised Reichl’s observation that, “It’s everything around food that makes it interesting. The sociology. The politics. The history.” He then recounted Reichl’s adventure on a trip to China.

[S]he makes surreptitious contact with the friend of a man she knows in New York. … He has sent a message through Reichl suggesting that his old friend come to America. The friend, a banquet chef who was “re-educated” during the Cultural Revolution by being made to dig a lake by hand, declines when Reichl tells him: “I don’t think that Americans are ready to appreciate your cooking. I’m not sure we would understand that shrimp peeled in ice water taste better.”

Horrible, no? Like the character in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust who is trapped forever reading Dickens to a mad hermit in the South American jungle, this man—who had a friend in America ready to help him escape—is condemned to spend the rest of his life in China, his arms plunged up to the elbows in ice water, staring at the lake they made him dig by hand. All because his friend entrusted the crucial message to someone who apparently thinks the important question is whether Americans are ready for his crustaceans.

What a story. The sociology! The politics! The history! Somebody option it quick. Glenn Close, of course, as the demented American foodie. We call it Imaginary Friends. (“With imaginary friends like this, who needs imaginary enemies?”) But that’s not how our reviewer sees it. To him, this story illustrates Reichl’s “sensitivity to social context.” It’s Julie Andrews leading a swarm of adorable Chinese children in The Icy Shrimp Song. (“I see shrimp, icy shrimp, something something …,” oh heck, forget it.) Actually, it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular example of no sensitivity at all to food’s social context than the notion that someone should prefer life in China over America on the basis of how we peel shrimp.

This couldn’t be right, I thought. The philosophy professor must be misrepresenting the episode for his own mysterious purposes, possibly involving a gang war among different philosophies of shrimp peeling. Of course, what counts most is that the Times Book Review presented this tale as both true and charming, with the participation or acquiescence of a reviewer and several editors. This says something about the “social context” of the Times Book Review whether the story is true or not.

But the reviewer did not misrepresent the book. Reichl’s version just adds lurid details. This trip occurred long ago, in 1980, when the oppressive nature of the Chinese government was perhaps worse than it is now. (Though, to be fair to Reichl, the general quality of American Chinese food was worse as well.) And her victim, Mr. Chen, despite his mastery of shrimp peeling, was not a celebrated chef in Beijing. No, he turned down America to peel away his days in a grim nowheresville landscape where, as Reichl portrays it, dissidents slip you a half-decent bowl of bean curd the way they pass along manifestos about freedom in places of more conventional oppression. And getting Mr. Chen to America was not just the whim of a distant friend. Mr. Chen had spent years learning English in preparation, before the shrimp scales fell from his eyes about the depraved nature of American society as it relates to the preparation of seafood.

“Thank you,” he said … “You have helped me. Please tell my old friend Chan that I will be staying. Tell him that life is better here.””Is it?” I asked. But I remembered that cool, dark kitchen with its view of the lake. And then I thought of Mr. Chan’s face behind the mountain of laundry in the hot streets of New York.

Easy choice. But I still couldn’t believe it. So I e-mailed Ruth Reichl: Was she sure it all happened this way? Does she have any second thoughts? She answered: “Did I remember it correctly? Probably not. It was 20 years ago and … I find I often kept notes about the wrong things. I found being in China so disorienting that by the time I got back to New York I found it hard to believe that any of these things had really happened.” So the whole thing could have been a dream. Or, to make the drama even more Shakespearean, it could have been a tragic misunderstanding. She says, “It certainly would have been presumptuous of me to offer him advice,” but he heard her comments as advice—and he took it.  

And boy, could she have advised him of a thing or two if she’d wanted. “I did not say that this is a deeply racist country. I did not tell him that our history with Asian immigration has been shameful. I merely told him how that was reflected in our attitudes about food.” Even 21 years later, she notes, “There is not, to my knowledge, a single truly great Chinese restaurant in America.”

Not a one. That really says it all, doesn’t it? I presume there are great American restaurants all over China. Maybe Mr. Chen will get, or got, a meal at one before he peels, or peeled, his last shrimp.