— by Elizabeth
There is a lot of food at Khmer weddings. Course after course of meat. But I’m not really a meat kind of girl. I’m really a carb kind of girl. Maybe it’s a holdover from my high school days. My formerly eating-disordered-self refused to eat anything but yogurt (the fat-free sugar-free type, yuck) and bagels (everything-bagels anyone?). True story. Just ask my mom, who had to buy all that tasteless yogurt and dozens upon dozens of bagels. Or ask the family I nannied for one summer, who asked me what they should stock their kitchen with (bagels and yogurt, duh).
Or just ask my husband, who knew me way back when I refused to eat hot dogs at our first youth retreat together, instead choosing peanut butter on a hot dog bun. (Can anyone say ick? Peanut butter on hot dog buns? I mean, peanut butter on just about anything is divine, but on hot dog buns? No thanks. Hot dog buns taste like cardboard.) Or ask him about that time when I disdained the consumption of donuts. On Donut Sunday no less. I mean, who doesn’t like donuts? And who makes fun of people who eat donuts, in front of people who are, at that very moment, eating donuts? Um, yes, that would be the formerly eating-disordered me. (And he still married me – evidence of the existence of True Love.)
Then again, my meat aversion could go all the way back to elementary school, when my entirely non-eating-disordered-self discovered that meat was . . . . muscle! (Insert childish gross-out factor and subsequent decades-long meat boycott here.)
Whatever the reason, when it comes to me and meat, I would still just rather pass. At a Khmer wedding, they usually serve 4 or 5 courses of chicken, fish, pork, squid, duck, beef, shrimp (you get the idea) before serving any carbs at all. I figured this out early on, that I have to wait several courses to get to the fried rice that I really want.
There is a catch, of course. The servers don’t bring out the next course until a table has eaten sufficiently enough of the last course. So I eat the broth from all those meat dishes while everyone else eats the meat. Now I really am a broth kind of girl. Remember that breakfast wedding soup? Well, I mostly ate the broth from it too. (And remember that yummy fried bread they serve with the soup? Well, it tastes suspiciously like an unsweetened donut – proof that even donut-haters can change their ways.) Plus, if you only eat the broth, you won’t accidentally eat the congealed pig’s blood that ends up in some curry dishes. Don’t ask me how I know that. Besides, can anyone tell me how to eat meat with only a spoon and two chopsticks for utensils? I haven’t figured it out yet. If you have, then by all means, enlighten me.
At this wedding, though, I finally asked my friend, why do they wait so long to bring out the food I love? I mean, who can stomach all that meat without a single bite of starchy goodness? It’s because rice is so filling, she told me. If they bring it out in the beginning, they would be telling their guests to fill up on rice. It would be sending the message that they’re stingy with the meat, the expensive part of the meal. It reminded me of the Bible story where Jesus turns water into wine, and everyone is so surprised when the hosts bring out the best wine last, because people usually serve the best stuff first.
So it seems that across millennia and across people groups, hosts show their good host-iness by serving the best stuff first. But if you happen to like the worst stuff best, then you just have to wait for the good stuff.