I am not the most social of people, in a social sort of way. Sociable, yeah, I'll wear that label but I don't go around trying to get my picture on the Society Page of the newspaper. In high school there was a definite group called the "Soshes" and I have no idea how a word like that would be spelled. It's was pronounced like SO-shez. Anyway, these folks were the ones who ran for student government and stuff like that. I'm sure they all got their pictures on the Society Page. Somewhere.
My group carried miniature slide rules in our pocket protectors, were very serious about what Plato had to say and occasionally snorted when we laughed. We never got our pictures on the Society Page, which as I mentioned earlier, was not a priority anyway.
How I found myself at a black tie dinner for the Chinese Delegation is a long, involved story the point of which is being at the dinner. So there I was surrounded by SO-shez of Eastern and Western variety and I might as well have been a zebra among a pride of lions. But, after a while I found the reception was going OK. The champagne helped.
My blueprint was to do the following:
A. Not spill the champagne. Looks bad and such a waste to boot.
B. Smile and nod. I had no idea what anybody was talking about.
C. Try to introduce the subject of tin production in Bolivia. I read somewhere this is a cool thing to do.
D. See A.
I actually got briefed on how to behave at the dinner. Basically, be seen and not heard. That was going to be a stretch from the git-go because I'm usually heard first. Just zip it for one night, Bill, and you'll get through OK. How big a deal could that be? After an hour at the reception I'm thought so far, so good and I began to imagine myself on the drive home. Mission accomplished!
The tinkle of a little bell signaled dinner and we started to file into the banquet hall. I am a huge fan of Chinese food and I was actually looking forward to this part of the evening. I was sure that we would be having more than Sesame Chicken and Egg Drop soup.
I was not disappointed, but I was surprised.
The first dish served was, well, let's see, hmmmm, what was it? It looked like a dumpling but it tasted like a squid and the stuff that squirted out all over the tablecloth might have been ink, except it was green. Anyway, I chewed it up quickly and swallowed hard.
The next dish was something fried, it was hard to tell what, but I think I crunched a beak and feet. Is there such a thing as soft shell sparrow? Everybody else was munching away so I did the same. Swallowed hard.
The next dish, I swear, was a sponge. It looked like a sponge. Smelled like a sponge. And, like a sponge, resisted all attempts to chew it. Finally, after much tongue action I managed to roll it into a compact ball and. Swallowed hard.
By this time I was ready for dessert and coffee, but nooooooo. Not yet. The Incredibly Squishy Thing appeared next. Again, I was at a loss to identify this delicacy and actually longing for Sesame Chicken, or Any Chicken, or something that Tasted Like Chicken. The Incredibly Squishy Thing resisted all attempts to pick it up with chopsticks. It just divided into smaller and smaller Incredibly Squishy Thing pieces. Finally, I looked around and most people were raising the bowl to their mouths and sucking it in or something. I did the same and the whole lot went down like a huge sinus drainage and once it started I couldn't stop so I...Swallowed hard.
The next dish brought tears to my eyes. A salad. An ordinary leaf salad. No beaks. No Squishy Thing. No thousand year old dressing. Just a salad. I never thought I'd be so grateful. That waiter has probably told his children the story of the guest who kissed his hand at a banquet. A lesson in the dangers of drinking too much champagne and watching too much MTV!
I savored the first lettuce leaf. Mmmm, lettuce, as Homer Simpson would say. I glanced down for my next acquisition and what did I see awaiting my chopsticks?
A live beetle.
Not a nicely cooked grub with a nutty taste, but a half-inch long, black, live 'n' kickin', June Bug lookin', ready to be chomped by my teeth...beetle.
I couldn't make a fuss because I was told to be seen and not heard. I musn't embarrass my hosts. At all costs. Even to the point of eating a live beetle, whom I assume wasn't consulted about his part in the dinner preparations.
That's when I drew the line. Now, I'm a self-proclaimed gourmet. I like fine food, I cook fine food, I own a Binford 3000 Titanium garlic defibulator, but, and this is a Big But, I draw the line at intentionally eating live insects. (Qagh, a Klingon dish best served live, is more like a worm than an insect or grub, however, and I can handle that.) Live bugs, no thanks.
So, what to do, what to do? Most people around me had finished their salads and I'm stuck with the bug. I decided to take the low road and with a deft flick of my chopsticks I grabbed the bug, the leaf below and inverted them. In the blink of an eye the bug went from top to bottom. Presto Change-o, all leaf, no bug.
It would have been the perfect crime except my waiter, (remember the hand kissing thing?), saw it all and proceeded to tell the Teacher. Within seconds I was surrounded by a frenzy of activity, waiters, head waiters, chefs, hosts, body guards confused about what was happening but they had their hands in their coats, the entire banquet hall looking at me.
Suddenly I was on the Society Page and I didn't like it one bit. Seen but not heard, without uttering a word I was the loudest person there.
And, now, the rest of the story.
Of all the "delicacies" on the menu, Mr. Ink, the beaks, Sponge Bob, the Squishy Thing and all that. Of all the unknown things I had Swallowed Hard, of all the stuff that had presented to me in my honor...
Of all that...
The beetle wasn't supposed to be there.
The beetle was a gate crasher.
And, because I deftly tried to hide the offending beetle underneath a lettuce leaf and, thus, save face for my hosts, who would have committed a grave breach of etiquette by serving a live beetle to an honored guest, I was the hero of the night.
They drank a toast to me. Yea, me. I smiled but gave no speech. Seen but not heard, you know.
The next day the Society Page featured pictures of the Chinese Delegation banquet. Everybody was there smiling and beaming and looking all social.
Everybody except me. Just as well.