tremble clef

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kate and Anna McGarrigle/Rufus Wainwright featuring Dido, "I Eat Dinner (When The Hunger's Gone)" (1990/2004)

Chinese New Year in my family consists of -- no, is a series of intricate eating rituals. And I know you want nothing more than to get to know me and my family rituals better. So here is a cultural quiz for you to answer true/false to:

1. New Year's Eve
This is the day of the reunion meal. It's a little akin to Thanksgiving, with the common idea being that the family must come together to dine. We usually have steamboat, which is like fondue, except with drain water instead of cheese or chocolate. The reasons for steamboating are many. One: it saves my mom from too much cooking. Two: the act of everyone dipping their uncooked food into a pool of communal broth brings everyone closer together. Together via a case of salmonella, that is.

2. New Year's Day
The first meal, lunch, consists of a relatively spartan spread. Apparently it's best to start the year off on an austere note, the better not to anger the gods or something. We have vegetarian stew with precisely fourteen ingredients, which is the cosmic number for eternal happiness, as well as Chinese wax sausages. Important: everyone has to be sure to have a second bowl of rice. Failure to do so will definitely lead to poverty and starvation the rest of the year.

3. Second Day of the New Year
The biggest meal to "open the new year." Woo! Every life form is represented: fish, meat, shrimp, anguished dolphins (via shark's fin soup), abalone, vegetables. Fish is especially crucial, because that animal had the fortune to be named with a Chinese word that sounds exactly like "excess." Wait -- I think that should read "misfortune."

4. Third Day of the New Year
At dinner on this evening, the meal starts with a serving of monkfish, because it has connotations of both austerity and abundance. It's a oxymoron in animal form, and it's weird the universe hasn't imploded because of it. Twenty courses later, the meal ends, rather surprisingly, with a food fight, to symbolize your willingness to give as well as receive. Taking a monkfish smack in the face is considered especially auspicious.

5. Seventh Day of the New Year
The day is colloquially known as "human day" -- as in, everybody's birthday. This is why the eighth day is a nightmare for stores with a gift return policy. The correct meal for the day is raw fish salad: a big plate of seaweed, shredded carrots, crispy wanton skin, pomelo bits, and, if the restaurant is savvy, several slices of fish so sheer that that they might as well not exist. Each and every ingredient is pun-licious: the reddish carrots symbolize the flowers of fortune blooming forever, or something like that. Everyone has to gather around to toss the salad, which sounds dirty but isn't, all the while shrieking the phrase for "toss!" which happens to sound like "prosper." The Chinese are big on hononyms, obviously.

Let's check your answers.

1 = True. Well, except for the "drain water" part, which was a slight editorial comment. No, I don't especially enjoy steamboating. Could you tell?

2 = All true. Although by "all," I mean "except for that part about fourteeen being a cosmic number." We all know it's fifteen.

3 = True. You can't make this shit up.

4 = False. I made this shit up. Especially the part about the food fight. This ain't Animal House.

5 = Honest, guv, all true, although I guess we don't buy each other presents. Would be nice if we did, though.

Since I've been eating so many meals -- and each loaded not just with calories, but also with equally fattening symbolism -- it's only right that we have not one, but two versions of "I Eat Dinner" today. The first is the original version by Kate and Anna McGarrigle (though it's really only Kate's song), while the second is the cover by Kate's son and Anna's nephew, Rufus Wainwright, with an assist from Dido. From another perspective, it's not an appropriate song for the occasion. Chinese New Year meals are all about togetherness, but "I Eat Dinner" uses the metaphor of a lonely meal as a sign of the absence thereof.

What's absent, predominantly, is romance: in both, the central, heartbreaking lament is "No more candlelight/No more romance/No more smalltalk/When the hunger's gone." In Kate's version, she is eating leftovers "at the kitchen table/With [her] daughter who's thirteen." But far from assuaging her quiet grief, her daughter seems to emphasize it more. It's a courageous thing to admit to, the notion that, finally, her family, or what's left of it, isn't necessarily enough. Indeed, the spectre of the son (let alone the husband) who's not there is a reminder that, someday, that thirteen-year old daughter will grow up and also leave, and Kate will be even more alone.

In Rufus's rendition, the line about the daughter is omitted. Its poignance comes, therefore, from a slightly different place: midway through the song, Rufus, it seems, is no longer alone, as Dido takes over and sings a verse and a chorus. But it quickly becomes apparent, given how she sings the same lines, that they are not alone with each other. I don't know how the song is used in Bridget Jones' Diary (and I don't really care to), but if this was a play, the characters would be both on stage singing together but not share the same space, as if on split screens. The effect only compounds the tragedy: the song in this moment generalizes Rufus's condition, and he becomes one of many lonely souls.

At the end of both songs, a new line to the chorus: "No more candlelight/No more romance/No more small talk/When the plate is clean." The word "clean" echoes with devastating irony: what is usually a pure, pristine word here instead sounds cruelly stark; it ricochets and leaves in its wake only the cold reality of a meal you don't therefore want to finish.


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