by Max Sirak
Last fall, after a day spent hiking around the neighborhood, I ended up back on my porch with my buddy, Chef Mike. We were drinking beers and chatting about life.
We covered a lot of ground. Both in our walks and our talks that day. Mike was getting ready to move. He’d been in Colorado for five years and knew it wasn’t his “forever” home. As his name implies, he works in restaurants. One nice thing about that line of work is if you’re good, then you can peddle your wares anywhere. Oregon was his next stop.
At one point, when our conversation hit a lull, as conversations are wont to do, he turned to me and said…
*Chef Mike apologizes. It turns out he missed a word in this recording…
I was a pile of laughs before he even finished. “Dude?! What the hell?! What was that?!,” I managed to spurt out between giggles.
“It’s a Chinese tongue twister.”
To fully appreciate my response it might help to know a thing or two about Chef Mike. I was hoping to post a picture, those being worth the words they are, but he said he’d rather I didn’t. Instead he sent me his personal logo (featured above).
Mike’s in his thirties. He’s a good ol’ Italian boy from Chicago who’s built like a bear. Burly. 230 lbs. Six feet tall. Bearded. And, to the best of my knowledge in the course of our two-year friendship, Mike knew no Chinese.
“Wait, wait, wait. Slow it down, slow it down. Let me hear it again,” I said.
So he did. Then he told me the story of how he learned it and what it meant.
Summer Time and The Livin’s Easy
“I’m working at this bar on the outskirts of Chicago for the summer,” he starts. “Now when I say outskirts, I’m talking like pretty much the suburbs. The bar was in a strip mall sandwiched between a hair salon and restaurant.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Inside, the place was like an alley. It was long and dark. High tops (tables) and chairs on the right. Big, old wooden bar and stools to the left.”
“Got it,” I replied.
“I was working three different jobs at the place. Some nights I’d cook. Some shifts I tended bar. Sometimes I worked the door. Anywho, I’m working behind the bar one afternoon and it’s dead. I mean, like nothing. I think I maybe had three customers all day and I’d been there for hours. In walks this girl,” he says with a smile.
“Go on,” I said.
“She and I start talking. There’s a good vibe. You know how it is. I ask her what she’s doing in Chicago and how she found this place. She says she’s back in town for the summer. She grew up around the corner and is home visiting family. She’s been in China teaching English for the last four years.”
“At this point I’m intrigued. I mean, it’s not every day a pretty girl who’s spent some time in China walks into my bar on a day shift. ‘You fluent?’ I ask. She looks at me and goes, ‘<insert rapid phrase Mike could say we didn’t record>.’ She must have noticed the pack of smokes in my shirt pocket because when I asked her what it meant she said, ‘Wanna go outside for a smoke?’ So we do.”
“Alright, so she’s who taught you the tongue twister?”
“Yeah, eventually. I mean, it took me a while and it’s not like we started there. But every time we hung out she’d teach me a new word or phrase, you know? One night, maybe a couple weeks in, after I’d gotten some basics down, she turned to me and did what I just did to you.”
“So, she just looked at you and blurted it out?”
“Yeah, man,” said Mike with a laugh. “It was awesome. I had the same reaction as you. I laughed and told her there was no way I could learn that. ‘Sure you can,’ she said. ‘I’ll teach you.’ Then she slowed the tongue twister down, almost syllable by syllable. By the end of the summer, she was right. I learned it.”
“Man, y’all must have seen quite a bit of each other to learn all that,” I said.
Mike replied with a grin.
“So, does the tongue twister mean anything?” I asked.
“It means: Eat grapes but don’t spit the skins. But when you’re done eating grapes, spit the skins.”
This time I didn’t say anything. I was confused.
“In China there’s these heirloom grapes, right? They’re not like the grapes you and I can go buy at the store. They’re different. They’ve got real thick, leathery skins.”
“Okay,” I said, still not quite up to speed.
Chef Mike explained, “Um…okay think like…sunflower seeds. You know, you put a handful in your mouth, stuff most of them over in one cheek, and then use your teeth on the other side to crack the shell and eat the seed. Well, it’s like that. It’s the center of these grapes where all the good stuff is. The juice. The pulp.”
“Got it,” I said, because I did.
“Cool. But the thing this, the skins contain a ton of flavor once they get all hydrated. So people suck on them. Each time you pop a grape, you push the skin over to one side of your mouth, and eat the fruit on the other. By the time you’re done eating grapes, you have this delicious tasting wad of skins in your mouth adding amazing depth to the flavor.”
Nodding along, I said, “Okay. I’m with you.”
“That’s what it means. If you’re eating this particular type of grape you want to keep the skins in your mouth the whole time, because the skins add flavor. When you’re done eating grapes, that’s when you want to spit out all the skins.”
“So it’s advice on fruit?“ was my follow-up.
“Yes and no. I mean, it’s more than that right? It’s about getting most the out of everything in life before moving on, you know? Savor the moment you’re in, the experience you’re having. Eat all its grapes and keep all the skins you can in your mouth until it’s over. Then when it’s time to move on, spit out the skins. Just make sure not to spit the skins out before you’re done.”
I let the translation sink in.
“I like it,” I said. “Plus – how great is it you know a Chinese tongue twister? That’s awesome. I had no idea. Can I record you saying it? I’ll totally write a column about you.”
“Sure, man. If you want. I can say it all day,” he joked.
“Sweet! Thanks, Mike. You rock,” I said. As I stood up to go inside I asked, “By the way, whatever happened to her? Y’all keep in touch?”
“Oh,” he said, eyes twinkling. “She went back to China. She’d been able to save up enough money teaching that she was going to follow her dream of opening a boutique women’s shoe shop.”
“For real?” I said.
“Swear to god,” he said. “I haven’t heard a thing from her since she left. It’s cool. We spent all summer eating grapes together. It was great. Then she left. So it was time to spit out the skins.”
Max is a ghostwriter. In fact, he actually started his second book today.