With one swift tug of my arm, Elle’s blinds shoot up to the top of her large, wall-length window, releasing the morning sunshine from its patient hiding place and causing it to spill all over her bedroom floor. She giggles as she pulls the blanket over her head, feigning sleepiness even though we both know she’s been up for quite a while. I go through the motions, the daily morning wake-up routine. I ask her a number of predictable questions re: how she slept, what she dreamed about, what she wants to do today. Her corresponding answers are typically as follows: Great! … The cats Henry and Harley … I’d like to go to the park. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and gathering up the army of baby dolls and knickknacks that she’s amassed in her bed, Elle also begins to ask me her usual questions and I can almost always predict what they are going to be, the whole lot of them. She’ll ask about her little brother, she’ll ask about the day’s agenda, she’ll ask about the rain (whether it is visiting our house that day, or not). He’s still sleeping … we’re going to the store … it’s all sunshine and blue skies today.
But after the predictable pleasantries have subsided, our lines of questioning always tend to collide at the same point. What, we’ll both ask, are we going to have for breakfast today?
Click … click … click. Crash!
Click … click … click. Crash!
The woman who delivered the mail in my post-grad school office building pushed around a rickety old cart that always seemed to be missing a few screws. Wonky and loud, this cart would make her presence known long before she ever made it to your actual office. Its loose back wheel made it hard for her to adequately or accurately steer the thing and she often ran into walls and doors and sometimes even people, if they weren’t looking. Why she never traded it in for another is a mystery to me – one of the great unsolved questions of my life, to date. It always made me laugh, though. You could almost set your watch to the timing of it; the screeching, crashing sounds came and went each morning as reliably as the rising and setting sun. She never seemed to mind the disapproving looks and eye-rolls that she received from almost every person she passed on her delivery route. I liked that about her, her lack of caring. She was a quirky, delightfully eccentric person who did her job with a smile that made it seem at though she hadn’t a care in the world, in fact. Screeching cart? What cart? I’m just pleased as punch to be here …
I always looked forward to the small section of the morning when I would get to talk to her; the time between her comings and goings. She would stop just long enough to exchange a few pleasantries and compliment my outfit, even if it was undeserving. She’d always start, though, by asking me how I was doing “on this fine day” and then, with her right hand on her hip she’d ask me what I was going to have for lunch. It never failed.
Seated at a crowded, louder-than-you’d-like-it D.C. restaurant, I wait for the waitress to deliver my glass of Spanish wine as my husband parks the car outside. Without the intention of doing so, I overhear part of the conversation going on at the table to my right. Six people are seated there, politely noshing on small plates of Jamon Iberico, manchego cheese, and fruit. From what I gather, these people are all meeting each other for the first time: there is ample hand-shaking, quasi-canned small talk about the weather and much chatter about the restaurant at which we are all about to dine. And then I wait for it.
Wait for it …
Ah yes. There it is.
They call it the “second question.” There have been books written about it. It’s the thing you ask someone after all of the pleasantries have dried up – the “how do you do’s” and “how are you’s.” For most Washingtonians, this second question is most often “what do you do?” Perhaps this is because D.C. it is such a professional, power-driven city, where everyone seems to know, or know of, everyone else. So asking what someone does tends to be the logical next-step question when attempting to get to know someone new.
As you wander your way around the country, though, you’ll notice that the second questions change a bit depending on where you happen to be at any given time. Greenville, South Carolina’s second question is typically, “where do you go to church?” In Louisiana, it’s often “who is your mamma?” In St. Louis it is usually “where did you go to high school?” I experienced this question myself almost every time I met someone during the year I lived in that city, and often felt like I was disappointing them when I shared that I was not a local and that I attended high school in Virginia. Sorry guys, I’m not from around these parts …
I recently heard a story on NPR about this “second question” subject and all of its regional variations, and promptly turned up the dial. I realized that so many of our initial questions to others can have a way of being a bit invasive, or maybe a little presumptious. Asking someone what they do for a living – where they work – presumes that they have (or should have) a job. Asking someone where they go to church carries with it the assumption that they go (or should go) to church. Similarly, asking someone where they went to high school assumes that they are from the area. None of these questions are so terrible, no major offenders here, but what if we all took a page from my friendly mail carrier’s book – from my three-year-old daughter even – and asked people, quite simply:
What did you have for breakfast today?
Alright fine, this might be a strange place to take a conversation right out of the gate – to the land of food – but you can learn more about a person than you’d think just based off of their day-to-day food preferences.
Oatmeal? Oh you’ve really got it together, don’t you? Avocado toast? How trendy you are! Pop Tarts? Ah, you just never really made the jump to full-blown adulthood ….
I’m not being serious, to be clear. But I’d also be lying if I said that the food question didn’t immediately pop in my head when I listened to this piece on the radio. Purely for argument’s sake, assuming that a person is going to be eating that day is far less invasive than most other assumptions. Everyone’s gotta eat, after all. Seems like as good a talking point as any other if you ask me. But really, this is all just food for thought, I suppose.
My friendly mail carrier, in case you were wondering, almost always had noodles of some sort for lunch; Malaysian, typically. She was Malaysian herself, from Penang, and her name was Millie. Millie the Malaysian mail carrier … it all just had the most satisfying ring to it. The recipe in this week’s post is a nod to one of the most popular noodle-based street foods you’ll find in Penang: Penang Char Kway Teow, or Malaysian Noodles with Crab and Sausage. So good, in fact, that you’ll want to brag about it without even being asked.
Malaysian Noodles with Crab and Meatballs RECIPE
*this is an adaptation of a version I found in Sunset magazine. Chinese sausage is a pretty tough ingredient for most people to find, and unless you have a trusty Asian market that you frequent, you can almost always find an Asian-style meatball at your supermarket these days. I used a teriyaki and pineapple meatball in this recipe, for testing purposes, and it was fantastic. Traditional meatballs would work just fine as well, in a pinch.
Place the noodles in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let them sit for 5 to 8 minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Heat a large wok over medium heat. Add the oils and swirl to coat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the sambal; the mixture will probably spatter, so stand back after adding this ingredient.
Next, increase heat to medium-high and add the sausages (or meatballs). Cook, stirring occasionally, until sausages (or meatballs) are light golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the scallions and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften but are still very crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the softened noodles and soy sauce, stirring to coat.
Make a well in pan. Add the eggs. Scramble them gently in the well and then toss with the rest of the ingredients in the pan.
Season with the pepper, 1/4 cup water (or more, if needed), the bean sprouts, and crab. Cook, stirring, until the bean sprouts are tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Serve garnished with cilantro.