The All American slurp

The All-American Slurp

Lensey Namioka

The first time our family was invited out to dinner in America, we disgraced ourselves while eating celery. We had emigrated to this country from China, and during our early days here we had a hard time with American table manners.

In China we never ate celery raw, or any other kind of vegetable raw. We always had to disinfect the vegetables in boiling water first. When we were presented with our first relish tray, the raw celery caught us unprepared.

We had been invited to dinner by our neighbors, the Gleasons. After arriving at the house, we shook hands with our hosts and packed ourselves into a sofa. As our family of four sat stiffly in a row, my younger brother and I stole glances at our parents for a clue as to what to do next.

Mrs. Gleason offered the relish tray to Mother. The tray looked pretty, with its tiny red radishes, curly sticks of carrots, and long, slender stalks of pale green celery. “Do try some of the celery, Mrs. Lin,” she said, “It’s from a local farmer, and it’s sweet.”

Mother picked up one of the green stalks, and Father followed suit. Then I picked up a stalk, and my brother did too. So there we sat, each with a stalk of celery in our right hand.

Mrs. Gleason kept smiling. “Would you like to try some of the dip, Mrs. Lin? It’s my own recipe: sour cream and onion flakes, with a dash of Tabasco sauce.

Most Chinese don’t care for dairy products, and in those days I wasn’t even ready to drink fresh milk. Sour cream sounded perfectly revolting. Our family shook our heads in unison.

Mrs. Gleason went off with the relish tray to the other guests, and we carefully watched to see what they did. Everyone seemed to eat the raw vegetables quite happily.

Mother took a bite of her celery. Crunch. “It’s not bad!” she whispered.

Father took a bite of his celery. Crunch. “Yes, it is good,” he said, looking surprised.

I took a bite, and then my brother. Cruch, crunch. It was more than good; it was delicious. Raw celery has a slight sparkle, a zingy taste that you don’t get in cooked celery. When Mrs. Gleason came around with the relish tray, we each took another stalk of celery, except my brother. He took two.

There was only one problem: long strings ran through the length of the stalk, and they got caught in my teeth. When I help my mother in the kitchen, I always pull the strings out before slicing celery.

I pulled the strings out of my stalk. Z-z-zip, z-z-zip. My brother followed suit. Z-z-zip, z-z-zip, z-z-zip. To my left, my parents were taking care of their own stalks. Z-z-zip, z-z-zip, z-z-zip.

Suddenly I realized that there was dead silence except for our zipping. Looking up, I saw that the eyes of everyone in the room were on our family. Mr. and Mrs. Gleason, their daughter Meg, who was my friend, and their neighbors the Badels-they were all staring at us as we busily pulled the strings of our celery.

That wasn’t the end of it. Mrs. Gleason announced that dinner was served and invited us to the dining table. It was lavishly covered with platters of food, but we couldn’t see any chairs around the table. So we helpfully carried over some dining chairs and sat down. All the other guests just stood there.

Mrs. Gleason bent down and whispered to us, “This is a buffet dinner. You help yourselves to some food and eat it in the living room.”

Our family beat a retreat back to the sofa as if chased by enemy soldiers. For the rest of the evening, too mortified to go back to the dining table, I nursed a bit of potato salad on my plate.

Next day Meg and I got on the school bus together. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about me after the spectacle our family made at the party. But she was just the same as usual, and the only reference she made to the party was, “Hope you and your folks got enough to eat last night. You certainly didn’t take very much. Mom never tries to figure out how much food to prepare. She just puts everything on the table and hopes for

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