Whenever my husband and I happen to be back at the family home in rural Hangzhou, China, you can almost guarantee there’s fish for dinner, prepared just how my husband likes it. His mom stews the whole fish with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, hot chili peppers and Shaoxing wine, and finishes it with a sprinkle of fragrant green onion.
And if there’s fish on the table, you’ll also find something else next to my husband’s rice bowl – a neat little pile of fish bones. No, he didn’t pull the bones out first and then eat the fish. He sorted the meat from the bones with his mouth, something that amazes me to no end.
Of course, it’s not just fish with bones. I have a similar sense of awe for the way he deftly devours unshelled sunflower seeds. By the time I’ve clumsily cracked open one of them and spilled out the seed, he has easily consumed three or four of them.
I’ve also witnessed his mouth do other extraordinary things at the table, including removing the rough skin from Chinese jujube dates after chewing on them and separating the rough fibers from celery. Every time he does something like this, I’m filled with wonder, thinking, “How does he do it?”
But then again, I feel the same way about the rest of his family, whose dinner table socialization included a how-to on managing some challenging comestibles.
In the America I grew up in, the kind of fish my husband’s family serves up – from head to tail – was never on the menu. I wanted my fish batter fried and served with a heaping side of French fries and hush puppies, just like those greasy fast seafood dinners. No muss, no fuss and no bones. I was so picky on this point that I even shunned my dad’s favorite fish snack – kipper snacks – because of the bones.
This ethos – that food should be as convenient as possible – applied to much of what I ate. It wasn’t just bones I didn’t care for (which turned me off chicken wings and ribs). Unshelled seeds and nuts were a no-go as well. I even got fussy about fruit when it had seeds inside; I would rather pick the watermelon seeds out of my slice first, rather than burden my mouth with the task of spitting them out.
Looking back, though, I now wonder if I missed out on something critical. Would I have enjoyed food much more if someone had schooled me in the many ingenious ways for eating challenging things? Would I have been more adventurous as a child and more willing to try new things?
As an adult, I’ve been playing catch up on that score. I now happily devour watermelon and oranges with seeds. I’ve learned it’s not so hard to eat unshelled nuts and seeds with a little practice (and, sometimes, patience).
But as for bones, I’ll never have the chance to exercise my mouth in that regard. I’m a vegan after all. And as much as I’ll always admire my husband’s ability to process those bones in his mouth, a part of me is relieved I’m exempt. What can I say? I’m still a little picky at heart – and still don’t like bones. 😉