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Essay

Gastroanthropology

Discovering the Family of Man, One Shrimp Dish at a Time

January 19, 2003|Nelson Handel | Nelson Handel is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

For Lisandro, it was a journey into the heart of dietary darkness. A highly sheltered 14-year-old Mexican American boy, he had never before ventured so far from the platos of home. Yet here we were, deep in the Asian enclave of Monterey Park, three short miles but many light years of experience from his East Los Angeles apartment, in the hands of the Dumpling Master.

I'd been Lisandro's mentor for just a few months, introduced through the Fulfillment Fund, an organization that identifies promising Los Angeles Unified School District students from disadvantaged backgrounds and provides them mentors to guide them through high school and into college. He was a genial kid, and his round, soft face and mestizo eyes betrayed a naivete I didn't expect in someone exposed to the worst this city has to offer. Our time together had been all fits and starts, awkward attempts to reach across the divides of age, class and experience that separated us. I needed to break through his shy suspicions, to see if we could become friends.

The Dumpling Master is the kind of obscurely ethnic ma-and-pa restaurant that makes L.A. a place worth living. The menu of northern Chinese dishes reads like a jigsaw puzzle in disarray: Hot Spicy with Shredded Pork, Wine Chicken Leg, Tree Sprout. It is food that resembles nothing but itself. Chinese pop music blares on the tinny stereo. Dissonant dialects swirl around the crowded dining room. Aromas waft heady and thick. This meal would be an exercise in trust.

Lisandro studied the menu with the patience of a scholar. "I don't see anything I like," he concluded.

You had to applaud his honesty. "Well, it's a pretty wild menu," I said, "but the food is terrific. And you know, food is not all that different from place to place. A chicken is a chicken in America, China or Peru." I was treading water as quickly as I could.

"What's your favorite food?" I asked.

"Camarones." Shrimp.

He returned to the menu, prompted by this small thought.

"I'll have the Scrambled Egg with Shrimp," he said, resolutely folding up his menu. We had crossed the first hurdle. I crossed my fingers.

The dish arrived looking more like a summer camp breakfast than a Chinese delicacy: yellow, lumpy and unrecognizable as food. To my surprise, after a tentative bite, Lisandro devoured it, pausing only briefly to taste the steamed pork dumpling I proffered and wash it all down with strong jasmine tea.

As he ate, he began to open up. We spoke more about the similarity of food from culture to culture; how a dumpling is a kreplach is a ravioli, a tortilla is a crepe is a blintz, and menudo is gefilte fish is haggis (this last less obvious: all things you must be born into to appreciate). Beneath the surface, we decided, one culture was not that different from another; each one took what was available and turned it into the stuff of life by boiling, frying and spicing it as best they could. Then we talked about religion, how, as a Jehovah's Witness and a Jew, our dissimilar theologies had grown from the same seed. And on and on.

It was a long and far-reaching conversation that would endure, in one form or another, for the next three years. Food became the bridge that spanned our differences, and Lisandro crossed it astride the noble shrimp. Simply put, Lisandro never met a shrimp he didn't like. It was the Ur-language that spoke to all that was esculent in the world. For his birthday we had them in a spicy Cajun broth and discussed how race and skin color can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on the context. Another night it was scampi and summer internships. A quick lunch brought them al diablo and how to keep mom from barging into your room without knocking.

Shrimp provided Lisandro with a taste of the world, but more than food, it provided a comfort zone within whatever unusual circumstances I thrust him. The sure-footedness he gained from each experience seemed to sustain him through the next. He grew more confident and outgoing, comfortable enough by the time of his senior year Mentor Awards banquet, for instance, to shake hands with then-L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and ask Jennifer Lopez for an autograph. And finally, secure enough to approach college recruiters with his questions about their schools.

Three years after the Dumpling Master, when writing his college application essay, Lisandro described his awakening: "I used to be very narrow in the foods I ate, and close-minded in trying things that were unfamiliar to me. In this simple dinner, I learned not to be afraid of trying different kinds of food, and maybe I didn't need to be afraid of trying other things that were unfamiliar to me as well."

When he left for Cal State Monterey Bay, the first member of his family to go away to university, we drove there together. After getting him settled, we had one last meal in a restaurant on a pier overlooking the bay. The sun glinted on the gently rolling Pacific. An otter twirled and played in the kelp beds below. I looked across the table at this young man, the thin shadow of a mustache dusting his upper lip, and couldn't suppress a swelling pride in all that he had accomplished. I chewed my grilled mahi-mahi sandwich with a silent smile. He had the shrimp.

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