Traditions or Treasure Hunts? Food and Family in Modern Times

Pictured: Gluten-Free fried chicken from Bang Bang Bahn Mi... rice and turnip greens...with chopsticks
Pictured: Gluten-free fried chicken from Bang Bang Bahn Mi (Vietnamese) rice and turnip greens…with chopsticks

Wait… I thought everybody had Chinese on Christmas day! Is that really remarkable though? We didn’t always do big dinners on Christmas.

Frankly, Chinese food was our fall-back on Sundays or any special occasion when our fancy dinner cooking was not going to happen, and we needed a break. Keep in mind we cooked every day, several times a day, and so what either way? 🙂

Our first experience with Chinese was, if I’m not mistaken, Hunam on Main Street in Durham. I was about 5 or 6 at the time. I believe the Rainbow Chinese restaurant stands there now. It was always a splurge kind of thing for us to eat out anywhere, so that was quite an occasion with friends. I remember looking up in little-girl wonder at the golden ‘tinkly’ things with red strings that hung above our heads, and thinking it must be a very special place and I was glad I’d worn my best dress. Eggrolls were clearly my best friend. We were not allowed to eat with chopsticks lest we wore the food home.

Later, I don’t remember when we started it, but Asian-style food became highly featured in our food safaris. This is because they were open no matter what day it was, and it was a rare time that we could try anything we liked, with most items about the same price.

Actually, during the time we began home-schooling, we had certain assignments. It was our job to either cook something from another culture from scratch, every Friday, or we ate at a cultural restaurant and tried something we’d never had. It was during this period that our forays really blossomed, and my sense of culinary adventure became ravenous. We started eating at the now defunct Ginger Inn out NC Hwy 55, because it was no longer just a learning experience to go, but a fun place to eat in our dress-up togs. They were nice folks who were patient with us. That was where we really learned how to use chopsticks and I picked up a smattering of Chinese. Of course it was American-Chinese, but a girl has to start somewhere.

During that period, we took some friends of ours out and ended up back at Mandarin House. It had been at South Square but moved across 15-501 to where the Mayflower Seafood restaurant is now. I believe they changed the name after the move, but Frank and Lily Chao were the same owners. It became our spot, and we also became life-long friends with the family who introduced it to us. The Chaos were quite forbearing, and a bit tickled, when I started wearing mandarin-collared dresses and chopsticks in my hair. (I am sure they had hundreds of customers who gave them a smile or two over the years.) They later moved out of town and we were crestfallen, being left without a hangout. They came back and opened Eastern Lights on University Drive, which is now closed. Her brother opened China Express on NC Hwy 54.

Our fam was ‘liable to’ try anything on a given holiday though, and especially so if we were exhausted. Lord knows anything went if family or friends dropped in from out of town. Usually this ran toward a fried fish dinner blowout with homemade slaw and tater salad, or a NC barbecue smash sometime during the year. But not always. We have even on occasion had Arabic food, because once, the only thing open on Christmas in central Durham was International Delights Pizza on Ninth Street. Dad and the baby girl went off on a treasure hunt and came home with pizza, ridiculously tender subs drizzled with olive oil, a Middle Eastern platter, hummus, and our first baklava. This was much in keeping with his penchant for food abundance. I knew right then we were food friends for life. I shook his hand on it. “Nice going Papa.” Then I kissed him on the forehead, and bounced off with a slice of pizza almost bigger than me, only to come back and experience extreme baklava diving.

So yes, when it comes to special occasions, we can throw down with the best of them, with food hanging off the table, stacked on shelves, cornbread, dressing, (yes I said dressing, as in a whole pan of it,) and the next batch of yeast rolls proofing on top of the fridge. Or maybe we’ll get take-out. There is something to be said for equal opportunity eating. 😉 Enjoy everyone!

from Deelish!

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