2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

A Microwaveable Feast

A Microwaveable Feast

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Spread in China

I don’t care how much you think you love Cap’n Crunch or bacon and eggs. When you move to a new country to live with strangers, you are focused on survival. The least of your worries is what you’ll have for breakfast. Luckily for me, my Beijing host family had their breakfast game ready to go.

My expectations for my morning meal that summer hovered somewhere between noodles and toast. A week of breakfasts at a Beijing hotel prior to my homestay consisted mainly of fried rice and watermelon juice. At a local bakery, I had tentatively sampled white bread rolls injected with a custard-like substance, a snack that resembled donuts (they sure didn’t taste like them). I was mostly fine with the idea of never seeing a drop of pancake syrup for three months.

While dinner with my host family was not a stressful affair, despite the fact I could barely speak Chinese to a family that could hardly speak English, breakfast threw me for a loop. My host sister, who doubled as a patient translator, went to school in the early hours of the morning, so I was left to fend for myself with a chatty stay-at-home mom and her parents. I struggled to construct sentences in another language when groggy from sleep and battling the too-early smells of incense and the stewing meats that the Li ladies were prepping for dinner. At these times, the emotional support I drew from a peanut-butter-and-chocolate spread was both unexpected and critical.

“Do you have this in America?” my host mom earnestly asked me the first time she plopped my Skippy savior on the table alongside a platter of pale lumps of mantou, a flavorless, dense, steamed bun that is a popular breakfast staple in northern China.

I sensed my host mom was eager to please and proud to present me with a Western condiment, so I assured her that it was delicious. How could I express my gratitude enough? Somehow, one of the stickiest spreads in the world of food made mantou slide down easy.

At some point during my stay, my host mom presented me with a prepackaged hamburger that had, prior to its questionable state on my plate, sat on the shelves of a 7-11. She had just finished zapping it in the microwave. “You have these in America,” she said matter-of-factly.

The microwave was something of a novelty in the house when it came to preparing “Western” food. Sometimes I wondered whether my host family bought it just for me. It was used to heat up the packets of Nescafe instant coffee that none of the Li family touched themselves. At that time, I wasn’t a coffee drinker either, and tried to express that I would have loved tea, but they gently insisted, convinced this was what I wanted. Now, thanks to the Li family, I am, in fact, a coffee drinker.

Most days the peanut butter, chocolate, and mantou combo was coupled with a smorgasbord of other dishes. It was not unusual to see tiny, hard- boiled quail eggs on the table alongside a cup of yogurt and glutinous rice dumplings. While I mostly happily consumed it all, there were times I had to put my foot down.

Mrs. Li tested the microwave’s limits one day that summer. It was used to heat up a mug of equal parts milk and cereal. She proudly presented the cup of lukewarm mush, and I struggled to mask my horror, desperately scanning the kitchen for peanut butter and chocolate spread with which to drown those soggy flakes.

“You have this in America, right?”

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