Chinese buffet satisfies epicuriosity

by Brian Clarey

Food is life. Everybody’s gotta eat, after all, and the role food plays in human culture is sacrosanct. We eat special foods to mark certain occasions. We cook with ingredients indigenous to our communities. We pass down tastes and recipes like heirlooms to our children.

I’m thinking about all these things when I equip my rookie photographer with a point-and-shoot and take him to a Chinese buffet.

And when I say “rookie,” I mean it – this is his very first assignment, unless you count the shots he took for his science fair project last month. He’s halfway through the first grade. He’s also my first-born son. And by hiring him I’m breaking all kinds of rules about nepotism and child labor, not to mention giving the industry a slap in the face by using a shooter who will work for cookies.

But I want to instill in him a love of good food and a curiosity for the endless varieties of it. I want to nurture his taste buds and pique his culinary curiosity. And I want to know if he inherited the supertaster gene from his old man.

He’s no stranger to Chinese food – he’ll do spring rolls and those slices of chicken on sticks and he likes rice. But a Chinese buffet is like an intro-level course in the cuisine, allowing the student to sample a wide range of wares. And the Panda Inn at Friendly Center is as good an example of the species as any, with a long buffet line and plenty of options.

My photographer and I take a preliminary lap around the line to scope out the spread and then we take plates and start to fill them up. The photographer knows that he doesn’t have to eat anything he doesn’t like, but he does have to try something before banishing it from his plate.

He returns to the table with a small pile of broccoli and cauliflower, a scoop of shrimp and crabmeat with vegetables in sauce, a single fried scallop – at my behest – and a large pile of white rice.

I try to explain why one should never waste plate space on rice at a buffet. The logic is lost on him.

In between bites of rice he samples the crabmeat.

“I think it’s good,” he says.

Then he picks a whole mushroom out of the mix, one that looks like a Smurf could have lived in it. He pops it in his mouth and stretches the neckhole of his T-shirt as he chews it.

“It tastes good,” he says.

He picks the coating off the deep-fried scallop – “It’s like fried chicken,” he says – and then he unrolls the scallop, devouring it in tiny bites.

I slide some things on his plate, things I want him to try.

He picks apart a sesame ball, takes a nibble and makes a face.

“That doesn’t taste good!”

He lifts a mussel off its green shell and tears it apart.

“The inside is what you eat?’ he asks.

He puts a bit in his mouth. Chews. Chews. Knits his brow.

“It’s chewy.”

“Do you like it?”

He does not.

He likes the Chinese meatball. The pepper steak not so much.

“What’s this?” he asks, showing me something he got from the food line.

“It’s a doughnut with sugar on it.”

“It looks like real food with sugar on it.”

He takes a bit. Smiles.

“It tastes like bread,” he says. “Why do they have some dessert food in with the regular food?”

“Nobody knows.”

I give the young photographer an assignment: Walk to the buffet line and take a shot of his favorite thing. I’m proud as he makes his businesslike way to the line, camera in his hand, thinking about his shot. He comes back smiling and excited. He shows me what he got.

“Chinese doughnuts,” he says. “That’s my favorite thing.”

Our dessert is less adventurous – chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream for him and a dual portion of chocolate and banana pudding for me.

“I don’t understand why they think fruit is dessert,” he says.

And we have fortune cookies. He cracks his open and eats the cookie before reading the fortune and then showing it to me.

“You love challenge,” it says.

It makes him smile again.

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