Kelley Spy Frumer ‘21
Waynflete School, Portland, Maine
For two years, I ate chicken nuggets for lunch every single day. Not just any nuggets – Bell & Evans brand – hand-fried by my dad. Growing up, I could not allow foods to touch on my plate. I kept my foods separate and the Wesson Oil Company in business.
This food mingling phobia grew with me, developing into full-blown nugget dependency by high school. Nuggets made lunches easy because if they were all I packed, I didn’t have to worry about cross-contamination. But while I was a 16-year-old girl who was afraid of foods touching on my plate, I had emerged as a fearless student. I took every challenging course offered, the most intriguing of which was Chinese. It quickly became apparent to me that there was only so much I could learn about China, its language, history, and culture, in a classroom. I was no longer satisfied with the standard, formulaic sentences from my workbooks; I needed to experience real Chinese slang, as used in the streets. I applied to School Year Abroad’s summer cultural immersion program.
My first time leaving North America, and my second time on a plane, I traveled to China. As I prepared to explore China, the phrases “Sorry, I won't eat this,” and “Please put it on the side,” played over and over in my head, Mandarin tones perfected. Exiting the plane, I tried to think only of the sounds and sights of Beijing marketplaces, not of the potentially fearful encounters with non-nugget based cuisine. In Beijing, skyscrapers, tall enough to be lost in the haze of pollution, replaced my clean Maine mountains and pines.
During the first meal at my host family’s home, I watched in despair as a ladle full of fish and deep brown sauce marred the perfect expanse of plain rice in my bowl. I scraped the fish to the side as quickly as possible and mentally bleached the rice white again.
The notion of exchanging partitioned plates and chicken nuggets for single-welled porcelain bowls full of various foods all thrown together did not sit well with my stomach.
The next day at school, I saw a boy scoop rice into the dregs of his chicken paw sauce. I watched with fascination as the yellowy sauce seeped into the rice. My neck tightened in anticipation as he drew the food to his mouth, chomped an immense bite, then smiled down at his food. I looked at my own bowl. Not a single grain of rice lay outside of the perfect mound I had formed in one quadrant, safely out of reach of the tarnishing chicken paw.
Timidly, I pushed my rice into the center of my bowl and peered at it as the sauce was absorbed. I forced myself to ignore the childish voice in my head telling me that the food was compromised. “When in Rome!” I thought to myself. I ate the rice.
Shockingly, it tasted just like rice.
At lunchtime the following day, I didn’t wince as the lunchman dripped sauce directly on my rice. I could have easily eaten plain rice, noodles, or even the readily available ‘Western’ food, but I made the decision to try everything that I was offered. I put all the new dishes in a single bowl, courses overlapping and piled high, flavors and textures melding together. Partially out of respect for the lunchman, and partially to prove something to myself, I threw out my rehearsed phrases and welcomed not only the broadening of my palate, but also the experiences that followed.
Six weeks later, when I returned home, I smiled to myself as I listened to my mom gasp as she watched me push the sauce from the side of my plate directly on top of my pasta. Unbeknownst to her, I had ventured far beyond chicken nuggets and had scoured Beijing’s hidden street markets in search of chicken feet.