In the summer of 2001 I found work as a camera man for a pilot episode of a reality television show. The producer was going for a format like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Though if I’m not mistaken, neither of those shows were even on the air yet, but the concept was described as a food and travel show with a comedic host.
Prepared Fresh staring Vic Passawelle could’ve been a household name. Unfortunately for Vic and the producer, we ran into a slight problem while out on the road.
The first segment went fine. We spent a few days driving through Amish country, making stops at all the back road markets. I’m talking about the places where outsiders seldom visit, where a button is as alien to them as a Martian would be to us, so imagine how they reacted to my Canon XL-1 camera.
The people were great, don’t get me wrong. They were friendly and helpful. Vic and I were invited to home-cooked dinners several times. I was even allowed to film at most of them. That’s really what the show was about. Vic’s goal was to meet unique people, and interact with them while they prepared a freshmeal. Prepared Fresh. Get it? Do ya get it? Okay, so I’m not a comedian. Vic was, not me.
Anyway, once we had the footage of the Amish meals, Vic decided to contrast that with some Asian customs. Sure, we could have gone up to China Town in New York, or China Town in California, or China Town in, well, anywhere. They were pretty much all the same. Every China Town in the United States was nothing except a carbon copied tourist attraction. No, Vic wanted something different, so Vic persuaded the producer to fly us out to the real China. — That was a mistake. A huge mistake. A nuclear mistake.
If I had to pinpoint exactly what got us into trouble, I’d say it was the language barrier. Unlike in the States where most Asian immigrants can comprehend the intricacies of the english language, the traditional Chinese speaking citizens standing around whichever third rate airport we landed had not mastered such skills. Why we didn’t land in Beijing, or Hong Kong, or any other major city where we would’ve found an english speaking guide is a question I would still like to have answered. If I ever find that producer… I swear, one way or another, I’m going to make him sorry he ever sent Vic and me on that trip.
So there we were, in China. Only God knows exactly where. It was in some small village which I couldn’t pronounce even if you told me the name, syllable by syllable. The taxi driver at the airport, or rather the shady looking guy in the rusted 1959 ford truck, dropped us off after Vic explained we were doing a TV show and we were seeking the best place around for prepared fresh food.
“Per Fesh?” the shady guy asked, disgusted.
“Yeah,” Vic said. “Can you take us?”
And so he took us.
The guy dropped us on the side of a pothole-riddled dirt road in the unpronounceable named town. Several people walked by us without so much as a nod, despite Vic’s charming personality and people skills. To them, we looked like a pair of pathetic yáng guǐzi, the Chinese slur for white tourists — it meansforeign devil — which, I guess we were.
Suddenly Vic jumped into the street and stopped this kid peddling around one of those carriages that looked like a bike in the front and a chariot in the back.
“Food,” Vic shouted at the kid. “Prepared Fresh! Can you help us?”
The poor kid stared at us with a look of utter confusion.
Vic rolled his eyes at me and slumped his shoulders. I shrugged. Apparently this wasn’t the secret location of top notch cuisine that the guy in the beat up F-350 led us to believe. I was about to call it quits when the kid decided he did know some english after all.
“No, no,” he said. “You no wan per fesh.”
“Yes.” Vic nodded. “Do want fresh.” Then he mock chewed on a carrot.
The kid said no again. He looked scared. Underneath the brim of his dirty Milwaukee Brewers cap I saw his eyes twitching. At the time, I though it was because of the way Vic spoke to him. Now I know better.
“Come on, kid,” Vic said, then fished out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket. After a moment of hesitation, the kid nodded, and he timidly reached for the money. Vic and I climbed in to the back of his carriage and off we went. The final location was a little more than two blocks away. The kid skidded to a stop and he pointed at an old shanty house to the left of us. Vic and I stepped out of our make-shift limo. As soon as we did, the kid took off down the dirt road.
“Hey!” Vic yelled and started to chase after him.
“Let him go,” I said, leaving out the part that we could see the exact spot at the bottom of the hill where the kid had picked us up. Vic relented and walked over to where I was standing. I looked at the rundown shack, wondering how badly the kid translated Vic’s request for fresh food. At first glance I thought it was a toolshed. At second glance I still thought it was a toolshed, and I’m sure you know that saying about what a duck looks and quacks like.
Just as I was about to tell Vic we should head home, the screen-less screen-door swung open, and a tiny, old women, with mostly missing or rotted teeth, materialized from the darkness of inside, and smiled at us. She was holding a steaming pot — thick fog floated over the edge of the container, making her appear to be a witch carrying a cauldron.
Neither Vic or I moved. She cocked her head to the side then called out to us. “Cummm, cummm! Tis way! Tis way!” Then she turned around and walked into the black void.
“Sammy,” Vic said, “I don’t know about this.”
“We can always go back to the airport if you want. Maybe find another segment to match up with the Amish intro footage.”
Vic shook his head. “No. We’re here. I just hope the food is cleaner than the kitchen.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, walking across the threshold.
The shack wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead of an extremely tiny living space, it was actually the entrance to an underground transit. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I saw the steps leading down. The old woman was standing at the bottom, looking up at us.
“Cummm, cummm, per fesh you et,” she said. “Tis way Tis way! Fesh. You like!”
Vic and I followed her down the steps and that’s when the odor hit me. It was, by far, the most mouthwatering scent that had ever graced my nose.
“You smell that?” I asked.
“Oh my god, yes,” Vic replied.
The scent emanated from the pot the old woman was carrying. I wish I could describe it, but that was Vic’s specialty, not mine. We followed her through a short tunnel and then took a set of stair back up into … an actual house?
“Way-et hair,” the old woman said.
“Wait here?” I asked.
“Ya, ya. You way-et hair for sit.”
“Thank you,” I said and bowed.
Two men came out from behind a curtain and motioned for us to follow them. I asked if I could film. Since they didn’t understand a word I said, I unslung my camera and raised it too my eye. The men led us past a steel door, into a small, candle lit six-tabled dining area. A man and a woman sat at one table to the right and three woman sat at a table to the left. The old woman came into the room from behind us and I heard the metallic clang of the door shutting.
“Sit! Sit!” she said.
Vic and I sat at the table furthest from the other guests. He reached out and tapped the old women on the arm. “Can we have some of whatever that is?” Vic asked while pointing at the pot.
The old woman looked at the camera in my hand and said, “No, no. Pic your an no et per fesh.”
“She wants me to turn it off,” I said to Vic. “What should we do?”
“Shut it down. Let’s see what happens.”
As soon as I put the camera away, the old woman took the top off of the pot and poured some of the broth into each one of our bowls. It smelled amazing and I looked for a spoon but discovered there wasn’t any utensils on the table. The old woman saw my confusion and said, “For dip, dip. Et fesh sooooon.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the three ladies at the other table get up from her chair and lay down on the floor. I turned to see if she was all right, or if she needed any help, but her two friends were already assisting.
“What’s going on?” Vic asked.
I focused my attention back on Vic. “I don’t know. I think she collapsed.”
“No,” Vic said. “I think she’s going into labour. Look!”
“What?” I whipped my head back around. The women on the floor had a bulging belly which I hadn’t noticed at first. Her legs were propped up on a chair, and she was moaning softly. I wanted to aid her, or at the very least get someone to call a doctor, but the look Vic gave me when I even hinted at interfering was enough to keep me sitting quietly in my seat. We watched as the woman’s water broke and her faint moans became agonizing screams. All the while, the couple from the other table looked as if this were the most normal thing in the world. They seemed bored even.
“Yiiiiiii!” the two women said to their pregnant friend each time she bared down with an animalistic grunt. “Yiiiiiii! Yiiiiiii! Yiiiiiii!” Suddenly the room echoed with the shrill cries of a newborn. The couple at the other table began to cheer along with the two men standing by the steel door. Vic and I clapped excitedly, smiling ear to ear while we watched one of the women hand the baby to the new mother. The other woman sat between the mother’s legs and collected all of the afterbirth.
The whole entire scene was strange to Vic and me, but who were we to judge the ways of a culture we knew very little about.
The old woman walked over to the table that the three women had been sitting. She smiled down at the baby boy, then reached in between her breasts and took out a bill fold. She fanned the money so everyone in the room could see. Still smiling, she laid the bills onto the table, one by one, until her hands were completely empty. Then her grin faded, and her face reshaped itself into a silent question directed at the new mother.
“What the hell is going on?” I whispered.
Vic heard me. “I don’t know, but we should leave.” He stood up. The two men by the door pointed at him threateningly. They shook their heads in unison. “Fuck,” Vic said, sitting back down. “Sammy, we have a problem.”
I heard him, but my attention was focused on the old woman and the mother. The old woman held out her arms to each side, palms up, as if to say: ‘Well?’ She stood there in that restless pose while the mother stared at her, unblinking. Then the mother gave the slightest of nods and the room exploded in cheering.
The mother held up her baby. The old woman took him from her, and then she slowly spun in a circle so everyone to see the child in her hands.
One of the mother’s friends helped the mother to her feet. They walked back to the table and began to count the money. The other woman, the one holding the placenta, she stood next to the old woman and then she quickly wrapped the umbilical cord around the infant’s neck and started to pull. Her eyes were wide, maniacal. The old woman grinned, and squeezed the baby tight while it tried its best to squirm away, unable to even scream.
The attack happened so fast. I felt as if I had left my body, like I was floating above the situation, unable to react. The baby boy’s face was already turning a deathly shade of blue, his little eyes were bulging in their sockets, and his mouth opened and closed in horrifying shivers, begging for a breath that would not come. My own jaw had dropped open, mimicking the dying child. In an effort to save my sanity, my mind focused on that small detail while the rest of my body was still paralyzed by fear. “STOP!” I heard Vic scream. He threw our table over and ran at the old woman. The two men were faster though. One of them dove at Vic, catching him by the leg, and then the other tackled him. I heard a sickening crunch as Vic’s head connected with the table that the other couple was sitting at. Neither of those two reacted. They still appeared as bored as ever.
The baby’s death throes ended and all of the people in the room shouted out again … even the mother this time.
The old woman dropped the small corpse on the table in front of the mother. It landed on the bills and a few of them fluttered to the ground. The mother’s friend, the one who helped her to the table, produced a knife from a sheath hidden under her dress. I turned away but I could still hear the sound of the blade sawing through bone.
I somehow maintained that surreal feeling which allows a person to analyze their surroundings with heightened awareness. I smelled the sweet, sweet aroma of the broth sitting in front of me, stronger than ever. I looked down at Vic. His body spasmed twice before going still. A pool of blood spread out from underneath his head. I didn’t need to get closer to know that it was fatal. I looked at the old woman. She nodded her approval, and hummed a little tune while the three women were busy separating organs from meat. I looked over to the couple. Their boredom was gone. They tapped their fingers on the table impatiently. Then I looked to the two men blocking the door. They shook their heads slowly and I nodded once to let them know I understood. And during it all, I listened to the drip, drip, drip, of the baby’s blood rolling over the edge and landing on the money which fell to the floor. Blood money.
My body was numb and my hands were tingling but I didn’t allow that to stop me from raising my index finger up into the air.
“Yes, what is it?” The old woman said in perfect english.
“Prepared Fresh?” I asked, certain I knew the answer.
She laughed. “Per fesh — Prepared fresh flesh.”
Yes, if I had to pinpoint exactly what got us into trouble, I’d say it was the language barrier. I swallowed down the bile rising in my throat. Everyone in the room was staring at me, waiting. I knew in that instant there was only one way I would get out of there alive. I took a deep breath and gritted my teeth to prepare myself for the next question I needed to ask, the one thing I could say that just might save my life…
I sat up straight, smiled, then asked: “So, when do we eat? I’m starving.”
Don’t worry folks, I’m not going to bore you with descriptions of how delicious the meat was. That was Vic’s job, not mine.