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David Richardson

Food Ethnography #1

Inconspicuously hidden in a plaza on the corner of Grand River and Hagadorn is a
restaurant called Everyday Restaurant (which I assumingly blamed the awkward name on a
direct translation from the Chinese name), serving Chinese food to order and in a buffet. I came
at about 11:45 in the morning, just fifteen minutes after opening, and the place was already
packed. A Chinese woman at the front desk (all visible employees were Chinese) called over
another man, with notably better English to seat me.
Out of hesitation and lack of a menu, I told the man seating me that I was getting the
buffet. As I began to look around however, I noticed that no one had menus. It was as if
everyone there either goes there enough to know their menu, or Chinese cuisine has a general
food base to choose from. Its probably worthwhile to mention the overwhelming percentage of
the customers that were Chinese. There was a segregation at the buffet, with all American
customers (the few that there were) eating at the buffet, and most all Chinese customers ordering
food from the kitchen. This observation of Chinese customers ordering food completely menu-
less is what led me to believe that Chinese foods must have a kind of commonality that is
expected to be available to order from.
Directly behind me were tanks filled with various animals; from clams, eels and
flounder, to king crabs and lobster. At first I assumed they were just for atmosphere, until
halfway through my meal someone from the kitchen came out with net in hand to fish out a crab.
That was perhaps the most striking part of my experience at Everyday Restaurant, seeing that the
seafood they prepared was cooked as fresh as it could get. Much different than a trip to an
American burger joint (can you imagine though?). While these tanks of various sea creatures
may have been for looks too, that was it, in terms of decoration, besides the ornamentals on the
David Richardson
Food Ethnography #1

buffet and tables. Lack of this outspoken atmosphere Im so used to was another thing that felt
different to my Americanized idea of a restaurant. Take Applebees, for example, perhaps the
most basic of restaurants. Local sports team mementoes, flat screen TVs, and other knick-knacks
cover more of the wall than they leave, supporting the popular sports bar feel. Atmosphere such
as in Applebees is something that many people zone into when entering a restaurant. After all,
who wants to eat in a boring four-cornered white walled room? Based on just observations from
Everyday Restaurant however, atmosphere may not be as important in Chinese culture.
As I got into my meal, I noticed something was missing: chopsticks. This was probably
my first visit to any kind of Asian restaurant where there wasnt at least one person using them.
It was even more surprising keeping in mind the large portion of Chinese customers there. It
made me question why this was the case. As I thought, I remembered back to the days of eating
in the cafeterias. There arent chopsticks readily available. If you go to the store, there may not
be a whole section dedicated to them. So maybe the Chinese customers using silverware are
doing so because of the time they have spent in America already as students (since most are
likely students given the close proximity to campus). Perhaps they eat with silverware because
thats what is available where they are now.
Chopsticks aside, I also found it odd that most all groups of people ate family style meals,
as compared to ordering their own meal, as is most common in American restaurants. From what
I could tell, when a table ordered from the kitchen, they simply ordered a few different dishes
and then shared them among the table. Even groups of friends that met for lunch gathered around
a round table and picked off of the public platter in the center of the table, much like my
family would for Thanksgiving or some kind of special gathering.
David Richardson
Food Ethnography #1

Finally, I get to the food itself. The most prominent taste that I found in the food I had
was spice. Even someone like me who enjoys spicy food, couldnt help but reach for a drink
after eating the General Tsos chicken or the rice and peppers. Second to all of the spicy taste
was tang. Sweet and sour chicken and crab rangoons topped the list of foods I ate there with a
tangy citrus taste. I tried not to make assumptions about Chinese foods and culture based on
these foods though, as I know that most of it is only common in American Chinese restaurants. I
can however, relate to the tastes of the foods themselves. Through the connections of some
Chinese friends, I discovered that taste is very different based on where in China you are from.
Provinces in western and southern China, as well as Hong Kong love spicy food, while many in
northern China prefer salty food. So taste preference depends on where you are from in China.
Alongside with taste, people can almost immediately pick up on the prominence of seafood in
Chinese cuisine. As if the fish tanks filled with alien sea creatures didnt give it away, then
perhaps the large amounts of different crab, octopus, and varying fish dishes did. As is probably
the case in China with so much coastal areas and commercial fishing activity, there was plenty of
seafood to go around at Everyday Restaurant.
Food is an important part of a culture. It says a lot about who the people are and how they
interact with each other. Just from visiting a Chinese restaurant smack dab in the middle of an
American city I discovered things about Chinese food and taste preferences, family style dining,
and atmosphere expectations. All of this was without asking questions and interrogating the
people that worked there. I can only imagine how much more I couldve discovered if I had.