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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chicken Feet in Chinatown, San Francisco

Bags of raw chicken feet on a tray in downtown Chinatown, San Francisco

It was destined to happen one day. I'd made it to San Francisco on my own, determined to snack at as many small shops in Chinatown as possible before my trip was over. There were slices of crispy roast pig with unrendered pork fat still clinging to the underbelly of the skin. The meat was dark and light, chopped unbiased with a shining mallet and a fast hand.

I'd wanted to try the ear, but the language barrier and demanding pace of customers shoving cash across smeared glass counters meant I took what I could get. I was the odd-woman in, an American in the heart of deep Chinatown, a gawker. Had I been smart enough to find a guide - maybe it would have been different, but since I'd pounded the streets on my own, I was determined to make the most of the adventure.

A few blocks after the crispy pork, I spied a deli. There were circles and moons and ovals and squares filled with different edibles I couldn't name. I didn't know which were sweet and which were savory, but I didn't want to seem foolish. So I smiled and pointed at a palm-sized flaky pie of unknown origin while waving a five dollar bill in my right hand.

It sort of looked like an empanada, which was encouraging. The first bite told me all I'd needed to know. Puff pastry and I go way back, and the buttery-rich layers surrounding the soft, room-temperature curried beef center felt like a post card from home.

But - it wasn't great. It was just, okay. Where was the magic I'd seen Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain inhale? I was in Chintatown! I wanted to have the experience of all experiences. I kept walking through the maze of vegetable stalls and buckets of living, half cut open fish, mating frogs, swimming turtles and twangy nasal voices until I turned and looked inside the glass of a small shop serving a variety of hot foods.

The owner and chef, who didn't really know why I was taking his picture, smiled at me. That was all I needed. I saw the chicken feet behind me in the line, unrefrigerated, possibly fermenting in their own fleshy juices, and I knew they would be my resurrection.

I told the chef I wanted to eat chicken's feet, but didn't know how. He laughed at me.

"You no want eat that," he said.

"Yes, I really do," I replied.

He shook his head at me, maybe with frustration, maybe with confusion, and then pulled open a small take-out box.

"How many you like?" he asked.

"Two," I said. I wasn't even scared.

And there they were, sticky, blubbery, bony chicken feet in a tangy, hot and sour type sauce waiting for me to eat them.

A woman behind the counter offered me a plastic fork and then kept staring. I couldn't back down now.

"How do I eat them?" I asked. Sure, I may have sounded stupid, but I didn't want to look like an idiot while a crowd was gathering around me.

"Just put in mouth," the chef said.

"Even the bones?" I asked.

"Yes, spit them," he replied.

I turned to the gazing fork-giver and asked her to take my picture. After seven tries, she was able to get two shots with only minimal finger-blockage.

Yes, I ate them. The skin was soft like jelly, and underneath were tiny, easily shattered bones that slipped out of my lips like a slivered toothpick. The padding of the foot, the meaty wad that carried the chicken throughout his probably short life didn't taste like meat. Not poultry at least.

It too was fatty, but softer. Almost like a chicken-fat-paté stewed in a spicy ginger sauce with a hefty shot of soy.

The crowd broke apart soon after I swallowed my first bite. I think they were expecting a scowl, a look of disgust, but I bowed my head in appreciation for their offering.

After leaving the shop, I stood and took in the sights and smells of a city so unlike any other I'd been to before. The crisp San Francisco Bay air mingled with steaming woks full of stir-fried vegetables and bags of rotting produce piled high on sidewalks. For miles Chinese-Americans humbly carried their bags and roll-carts across blocks of vendors. People pushed and shoved, some cried and begged on short steps, most kept their heads down and toes forward.

It was then that I knew chicken-feet had not granted me initiation into their world. Chicken-feet in Chinatown was no more than tacos in Tijuana, than ribs in Kansas City, not a passport, and definitely not a badge.

Shoulders slumped, I made my way down the maze of crowded stalls, promising myself one day, I'd return, guided by someone who knows what the hell they are doing.


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