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Eating Bridges

By Nelson Handel

"Part of the secret of a success in life is to eat what you like
and let the food fight it out inside."-Mark Twain

For Lisandro, it must have seemed like a journey into the heart of dietary darkness. As a 14-year-old boy from a highly sheltered Mexican-American family, he had never before ventured so far from the platos of home. Yet here we were, deep in an Asian enclave just 3 miles from his East LA apartment, paying visit to the Dumpling Master. It was my job to carry the light.

I'd been Lisandro's mentor for a little less than a year, introduced through an organization that identifies promising urban students from disadvantaged backgrounds and matches them with mentors to guide them through high school and into college. He was a genial enough kid, and his round, soft face and Mayan eyes betrayed an emotional immaturity uncommon in a kid exposed to the worst the city had 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 LA a city worth living in. The menu of northern Chinese regional dishes reads like a jigsaw puzzle in disarray: Hot Spicy with Shredded Pork, Wine Chicken Leg, Peanuts with Little Fish, Tree Sprout, Pickled Napa. If you do order something that sounds familiar, say, Pork Chop with Rice, you would get succulent sliced pork fried with a indescribable caramelized spice coating on a plate with pickled mustard greens and a hard-boiled egg whose white has turned muddy brown through-and-through from its two-day boil in a vat of ground pork and wild mushrooms. 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 brio.

"Well, it's a pretty wild menu," I gave him, "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 fast as I could.

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


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 hurtle. 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 with fervor, pausing only briefly to taste the steamed pork dumpling I proffered and wash it down with some strong jasmine tea.

And 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 crêpe is a blintz, and menudo is gefilte fish is haggis (this last less obvious: all things you must be born with to appreciate). Beneath the surface, we decided, one culture was not that different from another. Each took what they found growing around them and turned it into the stuff of life by boiling, frying, and spicing it as they could. Then we spoke about religion, how, as a Jehovah's Witness and a Jew, we had dissimilar theologies 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, growing and building on itself like the spices in a masala.

Food became the bridge that spanned our differences, and Lisandro crossed over munching the noble shrimp. For him, shrimp was the font of all flavor, the wellspring from which cuisine flowed. Simply put, Lisandro had never met a shrimp he didn't like. For his birthday we went to Killer Shrimp and had them semi-Cajuned in spicy broth. There we spoke about how race, and the color of your skin, can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on the context. At Palermo, it was scampi and summer internships. A bite at El Chavo brought camarones rancheros and how do you keep mom from barging into your room without knocking.

Shrimp provided Lisandro with a taste of the world, but more than food, it provided him a comfort zone within whatever unusual circumstances I thrust him. The success and surefootedness he gained from each experience sustained 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 the Mayor and ask Jennifer Lopez for an autograph. And finally, secure enough to approach college recruiters with his questions about their schools.

Three years later, when selecting a subject for his college application essay, Lisandro described unprompted his culinary awakening. "I used to be very narrow in the foods I ate," he wrote, "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."

We drove up together when he moved to college at Cal State Monterey Bay. He was the first member of his family to graduate high school and go away to university. Before I left him there, 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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