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You’ve got to love teenage boys. When faced with a challenge, they take a long hard look at the problem, assess what needs to be done, and then choose the most complicated, messy and stressful way to achieve their goals. And then call in their mothers.
The problem of the moment was the latest Mandarin Project. The Wiggy One is lucky enough to have a fabulous Mandarin teacher who rises to the challenge of teaching a mob of reluctant teenagers a seemingly incomprehensible language with a serene smile and an endless supply of engaging teaching strategies. And while I am pitifully grateful to her skill in instilling a formidable array of Chinese words and characters into Wiggy’s somewhat distracted brain, the resultant enthusiasm sometimes backfires.
The latest project was the preparation, filming and sharing of a traditional Chinese dish with the rest of his class. As Wiggy is rather an expert at stir fries, I was gently relieved. And then the teenage talent for self sabotage and grade suicide kicked in as his group opted for a more challenging culinary route. Peking Duck. From scratch. For 30.
The Other Half may have DIY limitations, but he has the patience of a saint. His after-work activities for the next three days involved sourcing ingredients from obscure locations, scouring the neighborhood for a duck of appropriate lineage and 3 hours spent in a Chinese supermarket desperately trying to decipher the Mandarin character for pancakes wraps.
I was left with the task of transporting three bodies (human), a bicycle and copious amounts of video equipment home from school, whereupon my Mother, the Feisty One and I spent the rest of the evening locked outside in the yard while teenage boys laid waste to the kitchen.
It didn’t get off to a great start. It took them 30 minutes just to remove the plastic bag that the duck was packaged in, a further 10 to recover the giblets, and another 20 to clean up the resultant blood now dripping down the counters and spattering the walls. For a dead duck, it put up a hell of a fight.
Having finally freed the bird, they now turned to YouTube for guidance on further preparation, at which point the strident English tones of Delia Smith filled the kitchen. I was a fan of Delia before, but had never fully appreciated her commanding presence and the power of her teaching skills. Across time, space, cultures and the internet, she successfully instructed Mandarin II’s version of the Three Stooges in the lost art of spatchcocking a duck. The woman is a genius, and should be put in charge of fixing the global economy immediately.
We watched transfixed from our chilly vantage point outside the window as they poked, prodded and skewered, then attached some of Feisty’s lilac knitting wool under it’s now alarmingly protruding wings wings and suspended it from the saucepan rack to dry. The strategy was partly successful; the draughts of air set off a dynamic swinging movement and relocated the moisture from the skin of the duck to the doors of the kitchen cabinets.
It also relocated the previously forgotten giblets from inside the carcass to the conveniently located frying pan below, causing hyperventilation in the surrounding males, and me to sourly suggest they avoid viewing childbirth videos any time soon.
Watching duck skin dry is second only to watching paint in terms of boredom, so after a brisk steaming, the unfortunate bird was slapped onto a roasting tray and stuffed into the oven, along with a pan of glutinous, faintly brown liquid, whose purpose was never fully explained, but was, apparently, vital to authenticity.
Up until now, all the videoing had focused on the action, rather than the words, and so the running commentary from Grandma (still shivering out on the decking) were able to be ignored. Now, however, there were orders for silence and stillness while the serious on camera presentation began.
The thing about Grandmas is that they have learned to ignore the raised voices of children and to carry on regardless. This served us well through the teething, tantrums and tale-telling years, but in the face of videography, it is rather a handicap. No sooner had they got to the final sentence of their monologue, than a face would appear at the window and ask “Have you really learned all those words in class?” or “Are you sure the duck is alright?”, quickly followed by “ooh, ooohh, I am sorry”, and a Fawlty Towers-esque comedy tiptoe out of shot. It was funny the first time; by the fifth the Wiggy One was set to explode and even the dogs were cowering.
Thank God for editing, and the power of practice. By the seventh take, the pressure of impending elder arrival and the need for some dinner had compressed their communication into short, speedy authentic sounding sentences and a confidence with the subject matter that only practice, repetition and frequent consultations with Google translate can foster. The golden brown, roasted to perfection duck that eventually emerged from the oven was a triumph of cross cultural communication.
I’ll say this for them. If they ever get to China, they will be able to impart some very useful culinary tips in flawless Mandarin, and providing the recipients are happy to shop, clean and watch from a distance in utter silence, they will get a mighty nice meal.
The bad news? This was the prerecorded version. We get to do it all again this week..
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