One last meal of shengjian bao in my favorite (and Patricia’s favorite) restaurant. As I got off the phone with Patricia tonight (when we talked about her conversation with her hosts in Yangzhou who had asked what she wanted to eat for dinner, whereupon she told them about her love of shengjian), I was reminded about my past research on KFC in Beijing in the mid 1990s as part of Prof. James Watson’s food project at Harvard. One of the issues that we discussed is the changing nature of the concept of a meal, in Chinese culture and in other East Asian society. In traditional Chinese society, as Prof. Watson would remind us with nostalgia, people rarely went to eat out (and because of its cost would rarely eat meat as well); I’m also reminded of the scene in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (need to make a Pearl Buck plug while I’m here in Nanjing, which is she lived — I didn’t get a chance to find Pearl Buck’s old house which is on the Nanjing University campus) where the family is preparing food, and the best that they could do is put garlic cloves in their baozi (steamed bread) as a treat.
But in twenty-first century China, people crowd our favorite shengjian bao restaurant to pick up these fried (on one side) and steamed buns to bring back to their homes — most of the people who come to the restaurant take the food away. The area is full of these places that sell food ready to bring home, for the busy postsocialist families who don’t have time to cook because of work and school (sound familiar?). Many urban families now eat out quite often, especially with the relatively low prices for everyday dishes and snack food (xiaochi, 小吃); and many restaurants feature everyday, “home-style” dishes (家常菜) as an alternative to the fancy dishes in more upscale restaurants.
Different conceptions of a meal and foodways highlight the growing dichotomization of urban and rural Chinese society, as if they were two different cultures (but I would argue that in the end, the urban-rural boundary is very porous). When we lived in rural northern Guangdong in the mid 1990s, in a fairly prosperous village, our neighbors rarely ate out (although one of my neighbors, a single 20-something man who worked in the nearby county seat often would meet friends there for a meal and a night of fun); but families in the cities often do eat out, or have most of their meal already prepared by outsiders. In the cities, what was once considered a snack (like shengjian) is now a meal (as I can see from the diners who do eat in the restaurant). I should explore this more; I have an unpublished paper on the family meal that can be expanded to talk about this urban-rural divide — one that I would argue is most clearly seen, and crossed, in changing foodways and concept of the family meal.