The next dish didn't offer me any reprieve. The governor's wife informed me that it was boiled rabbit embryo, though I never would have guessed it from the writhing mass on the platter: Formless blobs with eyes, it resembled a predigested meal. Pierre and I exchanged looks, sharing the same thought: Eat or offend our hosts?
I was already nursing a stomach in revolt at the sight of some of these plates, but to not eat would have very insulting, so I popped a sparrow into my mouth and sucked off the coating, which proved to be a fiery paste made from chili peppers. Fighting back spice-induced tears, I spit the baby bird back into my napkin and looked around — nobody had noticed.
Saved by a Four-legged Friend
Dinner conversation was spirited and copious toasts of strong plum wine fueled the evening, so no one noticed I was not eating but simply moving food around on my plate in a desperate attempt not to be noticed, and moving it into my lap napkin when I was sure no one was watching. About halfway through the meal, I felt a tug on my pants and looked under the table to see a kitten sitting on my shoes. Feral cats are quite common throughout China, and this one was sent as my guardian angel.
Moving slowly, I passed my napkin down to the hungry animal. There was a loud crunch as my eager co-conspirator consumed the sparrow, bones and all. The cat appeared ravenous, and I assumed living on a military base where pets are prohibited, this skinny scavenger was more than used to fending for itself. I picked up one of the slippery embryos. It had the consistency of a jellyfish and I was careful not to let it slide off my fingers as I bent, as if to eat it, then slipped it to the kitten. Once again, my accomplice consumed everything, licking my fingers for good measure.
I continued to covertly pass it tiny wings, feet, and various other slimy body parts. The kitten did its best to vacuum up food as quickly as I could feed it, and our hosts, well lubricated by now with rice wine, appeared none the wiser about my secret helper.
Suddenly the cat let out a belch. Not a loud belch, but loud enough for those one either side of me to hear it and I slumped in my chair asking God to swallow me into the earth. With that the Governor stood up and lifted his glass to toast me. I did not know at the time that to burp loudly in China is a compliment to the meal and ones dining companions and since everyone thought I was the culprit, the cat had given me great face by doing so.
As the evening wound down, Pierre and I paid our respects, and in the car on our way back to the city, I had a spirited conversation with the governor's wife about the event. I truly felt I had pulled off a coup, having photographed Communist officials, inside a secure military base, and escaped with my head, all thanks to a homeless animal.
It was only then that I knew I had been made as she leaned close so the driver would not overhear and whispered, "I could not eat much of that stuff either. Would you like to stop and get a burger?"
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
The Great Divide of China by Megan Eaves
Eating a Personal Pig by Zora O'Neill
Breakfast in Bhutan by Michael Buckley
Chickens and Tea in Azerbaijan by Carla Seidl
See other Asia travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: