Chow Fun

A few words in defense of eating out, family style.

Before I ever ate masaman curry at Bangkok Bistro, or chicken tikka masala at Baba, or dolsot bibimbap at Riverside Korean Restaurant, there was the Szechwan Wok—my introduction not just to Chinese food, or even to Asian food, but to pretty much all non-American food. For years and years, through the ’80s and ’90s, my parents and siblings and I piled into our minivan and drove to Silverton to feast on the Szechwan Wok’s sesame noodles and potstickers, their egg foo young, shrimp in black bean sauce, moo shu pork, and spicy eggplant. We’d pass the tropical fish tank on the left as we entered the red-accented dining room and sat at a booth, or, as our family expanded, at round tables with lazy Susans, the better to lunge toward the food. My father would order for all of us. He and my mother started with the hot and sour soup—which I still think of as the soup for adults—and my sister Tiernan and I would have the egg drop. Just as at Skyline you must sometimes restrain yourself from wolfing down all the oyster crackers before the arrival of your chili, at the Szechwan Wok it was necessary to exercise willpower with those delicious fried twigs—Crackers? Chips? I’m still not sure—meant to be sprinkled in the soup. If my beloved paternal grandmother was in town visiting us, she’d order a scotch, and the waiter would bring it to her with a brightly-colored paper umbrella.

I’ve often heard the national decline in in-home cooking blamed for the breakdown of the modern family, or perhaps for the breakdown of society itself, but to me these meals out were always a big treat—a time when (no offense to my mother) we ate food a little more delicious than usual and behaved ourselves a little better than usual and experienced the recurring delight of reading on the paper placemats which animals we were according to the Chinese zodiac. (Born in 1975, I was a rabbit. “Luckiest of all signs, you are also talented and articulate,” the placemat told me, which brought me almost as much pleasure as knowing my younger brother P.G. was a rat.)

Our meals ended, of course, with fortune cookies, and sometimes when I got a really good fortune, I’d save it and tack it to my bulletin board at home, though I’m not sure that any came true. The Szechwan Wok closed in 2007, when the lovely people who ran the restaurant retired, and by then I was long gone from Cincinnati myself. So in a way, I feel like I never got to say goodbye. But here’s a fortune that would have been exactly right if I’d ever pulled it from one of those sweet, broken cookies: You will remember these meals very fondly.

Fueled by potstickers and egg foo yung, Curtis Sittenfeld grew up in Walnut Hills. She’s the author of Prep, The Man of My Dreams, and American Wife (one of  Time’s Top 10 Fiction Books of 2008).

Originally published in the October 2011 issue.

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