Article submitted on-spec for a magazine about Food on the theme “Rituals”, but was not published.
The nights we order in from the local Chinese have always been full of chaos, but at the same time, ceremonial.
The format has not changed since we were children. We kids have all grown up and moved out, but the family gets together on occasion, and the process is revived, with us playing our respective parts.
The first step is always the decision. You wouldn’t think there could be much chaos in such a menial task, but well, my family have their ways.
My Mum runs a working yard, tending to the needs of horses, both hers and others, on her feet all day long, come rain or shine. It’s hungry work and means sometimes she can go home ravenous for some carbs. At most, the idea to order in is formed just a few hours in advance. Sometimes, the call is made just minutes before she arrives home.
Next, we need a list of orders. There is no doubt which restaurant we will go to (Jades Palace), and no doubt what everyone wants, but we go through the same confirmation process every time.
My Dad will ring around the family, checking off what everyone is eating and relaying it to my Mum to write down.
Lauren will usually have chicken fried rice and Mongolian lamb. Hannah will have chicken chow-mein and some sort of rice. I will have plain boiled rice with Tofu in Black Bean Sauce and spring rolls, expressing every time that Mum will need to remind Ken, the manager, that I’m vegan. My Dad will have Duck in Orange Sauce and plain boiled rice. And finally, Mum will have special fried rice with sweet and sour chicken.
As I’m relaying my order to my Dad, I can hear the tone in his voice as if he knows what I am going to say. This dance is part of the process, so we carry on without acknowledging it.
Once everyone has placed their requests, my Mum will call the restaurant to chat with Ken. The smile widens on her face as she relays the familiar list of dishes. I’m sure Ken is predicting her order. She hangs up, thanking him extensively in true British fashion and announces to the room that it will be ready for collection in forty minutes.
For some reason, the whole dynamic of the house then changes. Everyone trickles in from their previous locations, but there is no urgency. Nobody will decide who will get the food until the absolute last moment. Mum will likely be watching Emmerdale, I’ll be chatting with my Dad and Lauren about our most recent hiking expedition, and Hannah will go upstairs to talk with her boyfriend.
The panic will start at the thirty-five-minute mark, and a heated discussion will decide who will drive the few minutes to collect our dinner. Occasionally, Mum will collect on her way home from work, but most of the time, Dad will take one of us sisters with him, so we can continue talking in the car.
Ken will always ask us why my Mum isn’t collecting the food, slip in two free cans of Chinese beer, and send us on our way with a red and blue patterned box folded in the shape of a house.
Back at home, nothing productive will happen until the car pulls into the driveway. One of my siblings will rush to get plates out, and a discussion will commence as to whether we clear the kitchen side or set it on the coffee table.
Striding in, holding the key to our hunger, my Dad will always say, ‘You could have got some plates out!’, referencing one time, years ago, that the system broke down, and the plates were not out before he walked in.
With everything lying on the kitchen side, we dig in, and rules go out the window. Everyone will have a bit of everything (except me since my dietary change), with all previous discussions going out the window.
I find the rhythm and familiarity of this routine comforting. I know precisely what to expect when I get that call;
‘Mum wants to order in..’