So it’s 7:30 AM on a Friday in Los Angeles as I write this. I’ve just driven across the country to help a friend move from Boston to California, I’m super exhausted from pulling days where I’ve driven for twelve hours at a stretch, and dear god, I think I’m fat now.
I had the best intentions. My friend Frank and I made a Diet Pact before we left Boston and filled our car with individually portioned nuts and dried fruit in 100-calorie packs, like some sort of yuppie chipmunks. It’s just that, as someone used to a “tiny portions/expensive plates” meal plan in New York, it became obvious that, as we drove west, plates suddenly got enormous as if by 1) magic, 2) me shrinking, 3) me actually being an ant that lived in an ant city and discovering that, say, in Ohio, real people eat plates this big:
I chalked that one up to generosity. We were staying with my friend’s aunt, after all, and his family has a reputation for gargantuan acts of kindness. After we left, we discovered not one, but three gift bags full of potato chips in our car. Diet Pact, we reminded each other. But as soon as we hit Iowa City the next night to visit my sister, a tiny little thing built like a stick insect, we decided to go out for dinner to Atlas, one of the finest establishments in a town where no building was over five stories tall. “Okay,” I told Tiffany, “how about we grab some soup and split an appetizer?”
“Ooh!” she said softly, pointing at this menu item: “Baked macaroni with Gruyère, fontina, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese, gratinéed with Mornay sauce, topped with marinated slow-roasted Roma tomatoes.”
“Let’s split that,” she suggested.
Our eyes went huge when a waiter dropped two of these beasts off at our table, cheerfully informing us that they’d taken the liberty to split it for us:
Not that it was a terrible dish at all, but after an appetizer and soup, my pretentiously tiny stomach could barely handle anything of respectable volume. Or so I thought, especially after picking through a salad in a bowl the size of a steering wheel at a Perkins in Denver, contemplating a massive burger poolside in Vegas (“What if I don’t eat one of the buns?” I actually said, then mentally slapped myself for being That Person), and, once, at a roadside Subway in the middle of a corn field in Nebraska, eating half of a six-inch sub, then stopping.
And then we hit Los Angeles and I, like a food brat, demanded that we go to Din Tai Fung immediately.
Founded in Taiwan and known for making traditional Shanghai soup dumplings, the kind that explode in the mouth with a burst of rich, hot broth and are possibly the best in the world (according to Eddie Huang and myself), Din Tai Fung has only two franchises in the U.S., one of which is in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia. I fell in love with the dumpling house in college (excellent whenever, perfect for hangovers), and was transported the moment my eyes fell on its glassy exterior.
“Frank,” I nearly screamed through the stupidly demented grin that wouldn’t leave my face. “WE ARE ORDERING AS MUCH AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE.”
And so it was that I ordered a vast quantity of small plates: towers of soup dumplings and shumai in steamer baskets, plates of green beans and bok choy, mounds of Shanghai rice cakes stir-fried with pork and cabbage, heaps of chicken fried rice. I may have tweeted some all-caps messages from the company account, showing off the tiny xiaolongbao with a boastful fervor. (“NONE OF Y’ALL HATERS CAN TAKE THIS XIAOLONGBAO OUT OF MA BOUCHE.”) And as I crammed the last bit of a steamed bun with red bean paste into my mouth, hoping it would find a nook in my stomach to be properly digested, I realized: this was the most food I’d eaten in one sitting during the trip.
So much for Diet Pact, I thought, in a post-feast haze as our car zipped through the Hollywood Hills. Was I just being an elitist in that Iowa restaurant? I mean, I’m always reading about how overeating — which leads to obesity and therefore sucks — can be influenced by the size of one’s plate. But that macaroni was just as good as a xiaolongbao, in its own way. And yet…that plate.
What’s the term for someone who goes against her publicly professed beliefs? Hypo…Hippocratic…hippopotamus…
That word I was searching for slipped through the food-lulled cracks of my brain. I fell asleep in the car, my stomach about to burst like a soup dumpling.
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