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them the unhappy little morsel which I coveted. It is true that the master of the house came to the relief of my inexperience (by which he was much entertained), with his two instruments, the extremities of which, a few moments before, had touched a mouth, whence age, and the use of snuff and tobacco, had cruelly chased its good looks. I could very well have dispensed with such an auxiliary, for my stomach had already much ado to support the various ragouts, each one more surprising than another, which I had been obliged, nolens volens, to taste of. However, I contrived to eat with tolerable propriety a soup prepared with the famous birds'-nests, in which the Chinese are such epicures. The substance thus served up is reduced into very thin filaments, transparent as isinglass, and resembling vermicelli, with little or no taste*. At first I was much puzzled to find out how, with our chop-sticks, we should be able to taste of the various soups which composed the greater part of the dinner, and had already called to mind the fable of the fox and the stork, when our two Chinese entertainers, dipping at once into the bowls with the little saucer, placed at the side of each guest, showed us how to get rid of the difficulty.” We confess we were never witness to this slovenly manæuvre, as the Chinese tables are generally supplied with a species of spoon, of silver or porcelain, sufficiently convenient in shape.
“ To the younger guests, naturally lively, such a crowd of novelties presented an inexhaustible fund of pleasantry, and though unintelligible to the worthy Hong merchant and his brother, the jokes seemed to delight them not a bit the less. The wine in the mean while circulated freely, and the toasts followed
* It is generally accompanied with pigeons’ eggs, boiled hard, and eaten with soy.
each other in rapid succession. This liquor, which to my taste was by no means agreeable, is always taken hot; and in this state it approaches pretty nearly to Madeira in colour, as well as a little in taste; but it is not easy to get tipsy with it, for in spite of the necessity of frequently attending to the invitations of my host, this wine did not in the least affect my head. We drank it in little gilt cups, having the shape of an antique vase, with two handles of perfect workmanship, and kept constantly filled by attendants holding large silver vessels like coffee-pots. The Chinese mode of pledging is singular enough, but has at the same time some little resemblance to the English. The person who wishes to do this courtesy to one or more guests gives them notice by an attendant; then, taking the full cup with both hands, he lifts it to the level of his mouth, and after making a comical sign with his head, he drinks off the contents; he waits until the other party has done the same, and finally repeats the first nod of the head, holding the cup downwards before him, to show it is quite empty.
“ After all these good things, served one upon the other, and of which it gave me pleasure to see the last, succeeded the second course, which was preceded by a little ceremony, of which the object seemed to me to be a trial of the guests' appetites. Upon the edges of four bowls, arranged in a square, three others were placed filled with stews, and surmounted by an eighth, which thus formed the summit of a pyramid; and the custom is to touch none of these, although invited by the host. On the refusal of the party, the whole disappeared, and the table was covered with articles in pastry and sugar, in the midst of which was a salad composed of the tender shoots of the bamboo, and some watery preparations that exhaled a most disagreeable odour.
"Up to this point, the relishes, of which I first spoke, had been the sole accompaniments of all the successive ragouts; they still served to season the bowls of plain rice, which the attendants now* for the first time placed before each of the guests. I regarded with an air of considerable embarrassment the two little sticks, with which, notwithstanding the experience acquired since the commencement of the repast, it seemed very doubtful whether I should be able to eat my rice grain by grain, according to the belief of Europeans regarding the Chinese custom. I therefore waited until my host should begin to follow his example, foreseeing that, on this new occasion, some fresh discovery would serve to relieve us from the truly ludicrous embarrassment which we all displayed: in a word, our two Chinese, cleverly joining the ends of their chop-sticks, plunged them into the bowls of rice, held up to the mouth, which was opened to its full extent, and thus easily shovelled in the rice, not by grains, but by handfulls. Thus instructed, I might have followed their example; but I preferred making up with the other delicacies for the few attractions which, to my taste, had been displayed by the first course. The second lasted a much shorter time: the attendants cleared away every thing. Presently the table was strewed with flowers, which vied with each other in brilliancy; pretty baskets, filled with the same, were mixed with plates which contained a vast variety of delicious sweetmeats as well as cakes, of which the forms were as ingenious as they were varied. This display of the productions of nature and of art was equally agreeable to the eyes and the tastes of the guests: by the side of the yellow plantain was seen the litchi, of which the strong, rough, and bright crimson skin defends a
* It must be remembered that this was a formal dinner. Rice forms a much more integral part of an every day meal.
stone enveloped in a whitish pulp, which for its fine aromatic taste is superior to most of the tropical fruits. Indigenous to the provinces which border on the Chinese sea, the newly gathered litchi presents to the inhabitants a wholesome and delicious food* during the summer, and forms, when dried, an excellent provision for the winter. With these fruits of the warm climates were mingled those of the temperate zone, brought at some expense from the northern provinces; as walnuts, chesnuts (small and inferior to those of France), apples, grapes, and Peking pears, which last, though their lively colour and pleasant smell attracted the attention, proved to be tasteless, and even retained all the harshness of wild fruits. The conversation, frequently interrupted during the commencement of the repast, in order to do honour to the numerous pledges of our host, and to all the wonders of the Chinese kitchen assembled before us, became now general, and sufficiently noisy. My neighbour especially, little accustomed to such lively mirth, was quite enchanted, and displayed his satisfaction by loud laughs, to which was perpetually joined the sonorous accompaniment of his somewhat overloaded stomach. According to the received usages of Chinese fashion, I ought to have followed this example, in testimony of a more than satisfied appetite, but my wish to gratify our excellent amphitryon would not carry me quite so far. This custom, which in France would seem more than extraordinary was however nothing new to myself, for I had already remarked it in the best societies at Manilla. Need I then to be surprised on finding the Chinese so little nice in their convivial habits, when our near neighbours the Spaniards have not yet cast off this remnant of the grossness of the olden time?”
* This is a very heating fruit, and known to be dangerous if taken in large quantities.