About That Ox Tail…
It was December, 2005, our first Christmas in Shanghai. We and a few other families had been invited to a Dutch-style feast at the home of our fabulous new friends from Holland, the Kools.
“Come at 5! Tell me the dishes you will for bringing!” my friend, Chantal Kool, said in her booming, heavily accented English.
I knew exactly what I would contribute to the feast: 1) My famous Spinach Salad, one of the few things I made that people didn’t smile politely about and move around their plate. 2) Those Potatoes, a dish revered by my husband’s family that has never-ever-not-once failed to get rave reviews and recipe requests. (It’s basically butter, cheese and sour cream with half a thimble of potato bits and a flick of green onions, baked to golden bubbliciousness), and 3) Another Salatka family favorite, Oatmeal Carmelitas. This is a no-fail choice since it’s the best dessert bar I’ve had to date. Especially when someone else makes them, in an actual oven. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had one child at the time. She was three. Late on Christmas Eve, she spiked a fever. You know how it is when your first or only child spikes a fever. You want to climb on the roof and holler, Someone please stop the rotation of the Earth and snuff out the sun! MY CHILD JUST ROCKED THE MERCURY AT 99.4 AND MY INNER MATERNAL NUTJOB IS TELLING ME SHE’S NOT GONNA MAKE IT.
Needless to say, I was frazzled on that Christmas morning, because even though our child’s temperature had returned to normal and she was happily shredding her gifts, I figured her disease would return in moments, except WAY WORSE this time. Plus, I hadn’t slept much. This, however, was no excuse for the errors I had already made, errors that had started, or rather had not started, weeks before…
The shopping. Shopping in Shanghai was no treat on a regular day. After several years, I figured out a system to make it bearable. But that first year, shopping was high on my list of things to dread about life in Shanghai. Even shopping for rice and vegetables was painful because of the crowds, the in-your-face culture that was part of bargaining for food at the wet markets, and the smells, which regularly triggered my gag reflex. Also, we didn’t have a car. It rained a lot that December in Shanghai, meaning empty taxis were less common than land-roving spectrum narwhals, aka rainbow unicorns. But I was determined to bring our finest food traditions to Christmas at the Kools. And that might have gotten in the way of me being sensible.
After three grueling, wet, and stinky trips to neighborhood wet markets, I had purchased all of the ingredients for my recipes that locals also eat, like spinach, green onions, apples and potatoes. But I had searched every nook and cranny of five far-flung foreign food markets and I was still short a few key ingredients for my salad, namely mustard powder, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, and Major Grey’s chutney. If these items had ever graced the shelves of a Shanghai foreign foods market, they had already been purchased by wiley expat veterans who knew that last minute foreign food shopping was a fool’s errand.
What does a sensible person do when they can’t find the ingredients for the dishes they are hell-bent on making? I don’t know because that person is not me. I decided to use substitute ingredients, because really talented cooks make substitutions all the time! But that description also does not pertain to me.
I think I would have gotten away with most of my substitutions (Almond slivers for pine nuts! Rice vinegar for balsamic! A squirt of French’s for mustard powder!) But the mango chutney. Ugh. I couldn’t think of anything that matched the flavor of mango chutney. So I went with a substitution of texture. What feels like chutney? Strawberry jam does. Yes, strawberry jam feels a lot like chutney! I am certain it will bring the same depth of flavor to my salad dressing as an over-hyped British-Indian chutney would!
With that dish perfected, I went to work on my other two recipes, both of which required baking. A lot of people think that baking something means you need an oven. The thing is, families who live in local apartments in Shanghai might not have an oven, because in China, food is stir-fried, not baked. We, in fact, did not have an oven. But we did have this metal box thing that mostly operated like an oven. It was a sort of toaster oven that squatted on our tiny counter, except it was a little bigger than a toaster oven, ensuring we had zero counter space and thus prepared all foods on our doll-sized dining room table. Let’s call it a double-wide toaster oven. It made toast for us every morning, and it did a bang-up job of it. So it could certainly handle something as fundamental as potatoes and a simple dessert bar, this not being rocket surgery.
“I call for sharing of the great news!” my lovely friend, Chantal, hollered into the phone. “Grandmother, she comes today from Amsterdam! She will bring for the Christmas dinner an ox tail, especially in her suitcase! For the delicious soup!”
“I think we have a bad connection, Chantal,” I said. “Did you say your Grandmother is coming and something about soup?”
“Yes, I say this very clear for you!” Chantal yelled, “Grandma is to bringing SPECIAL OX TAIL IN SUITCASE FOR CHRISTMAS SOUP! It is really to be the Christmas now!”
After hanging up the phone, I relayed the information to Ed. “I, for one, will NOT be partaking of the Essence of Ox Butt, straight from a Dutch Samsonite. So I’m thinking we need a plan in order to not look rude. If I need to pretend I’m tasting the soup, you create a distraction, like start choking or something, and I’ll pour my soup into the house plants. Remember to make sure we sit near the corner, close to the plants!”
“Got it,” said Ed.
The potatoes didn’t brown and I burned the buh-jeejoe out of the carmelitas. We brought them to the Kools anyway, along with some wine, to aid in masking their unfortunate flavors.
“Gfhazuntnerfunken!” or however you say Merry Christmas in Dutch. This is what Grandma said as she hugged me. We were seated next to each other at the loveliest Christmas table, complete with place cards, and situated nowhere near a houseplant. First course was soup.
Grandma grabbed my bowl and the ladle. In what may have been her only English words, she said clearly, “You eat soup, please.” She was adorable, the quintessential Dutch grandma. Twinkling eyes, sweet smile. I could not offend this woman.
“Yes, please!” I said and looked at Ed who was seated on the opposite side of the table, three seats down. I held up my full spoon. Here goes nothin’, I communicated to him with anxious eyes. He looked away.
It was delicious. I couldn’t believe it. “Ed! Hey, Ed!” I hollered until he looked back at me, “Try the soup! It’s delicious!” he rolled his eyes, like I was messing with him. “No, seriously, it is amazing!”
He took a sip.
The two of us sat there for quite a while, oblivious to all else, guzzling several servings of liquid heaven. I was pretty full when I finally looked up and sighed. I had barely saved room for the other feast items, not even the Potato Plop, Sweet and Sour Spinach, and Caramel Crispitas. Such a shame.
As we strolled home, a light mist dusting our umbrella, child asleep in the stroller, I remember stopping to grab Ed by the shoulders. “I love love love our life here! I love walking home in the rain in a place that doesn’t know that today is Christmas. I love our great new friends from far off places where English is not the native tongue. I love hearing their Christmas stories and sharing ours with them. We are so different but still so much alike! And I really really love trying new foods that you could not have paid me to eat, and then having them taste so incredibly delicious! Isn’t this life great?” I shook him and hugged him. I might have had some wine.
Next time stick to one bowl, you light weights, Montezuma’s voice reverberated in my head as he took his revenge on my intestinal tract. It turns out, Le Nectar d’Ox Rump is mighty rich stuff and slightly more than Ed or I could accommodate. As we savagely fought for a turn in the bathroom, I gave thanks that my one hallowed offspring had not partaken in the soup course.
And the next day, when I was rehydrated, I gave thanks again, for great friends, delicious food, and amazing memories that I will cherish for a lifetime.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to friends near and far. May 2016 bring you new people, interesting experiences, and delicious foods you’ve never tried before. But, as with most things, don’t overdo it.