A Salute to Baijiu, Part Four: Representative Baijiu Experiences 3-5

3. Baijiu and seafood

Don’t mix. They really don’t. And that’s another interesting feature of most baijiu: there literally is nothing you can eat that compliments it. With any other kind of alcohol there are certain dishes that work better, but with baijiu, you could be eating $200-an-ounce beluga caviar or a handful of Skittles and the effect would be the same. In this case I was visiting a good friend of mine in Beijing, and for dinner his wife and parents-in-law cooked up a bunch of seafood. It was excellent in and of itself, and I thoroughly enjoyed every dish on the table. Xiwei (my friend) then pulled out a bottle of baijiu and asked if I wanted any. This would be another of those times when I went with a friendly impulse and instantly regretted it. It’s here, too, that I would like to introduce another iron-clad rule: no friendship is worth baijiu. If you have a friend who’s deeply offended you won’t drink baijiu with him, you need to seriously question that friendship. It’s tantamount to being deeply offended someone won’t eat raw chicken with you. Both are simply idiotic. The Chinese friend who demands you drink baijiu is also not the sort of person who will let you just drink one or two glasses and stop. In such a situation you have three options: 1. Categorically refuse to drink any baijiu, and offend your friend; 2. Drink a few glasses, then refuse to drink any more so that you don’t throw up your dinner, and offend your friend; 3. Drink the whole bottle and pray for death. No friendship is worth that. You’re almost better off knocking the bottle out of his hand, kicking him in the crotch, and storming out. At least that’s a clear, unequivocal rejection.

Similarly, if you want to show respect to a Chinese friend, do anything except agree to drink baijiu with him, even though it’s typically a very good way to show respect. Xiwei didn’t push any alcohol on me. He’s a true friend. It was my own stupidity that moved things in the wrong direction. I thought to myself, “You know, Xiwei is a good friend, and I’m eating with his family. It would be a really nice gesture if I drank some baijiu with him.” Which is true, of course, but the real trap with baijiu in this situation is that the impulse to honor your friend by drinking baijiu with him tends, weirdly, to strengthen with each glass. That would be how we drank the entire bottle. Two shot-glasses from the end, I remember thinking to myself, “You know, I’m really feeling pretty dizzy right now. I should probably stop.” It was then that one of my dumber impulses kicked in, and I followed up my earlier, more prudent thought by saying, “Well, we’re almost finished; might as well just help Xiwei polish off the bottle.” The classic “we’ve already done this, why not go a little further” impulse. I’ve used it to justify everything from eating an entire frozen pizza to finishing a movie I couldn’t stand. It’s never worked out well.

That night I threw up everything I’d ever eaten in my entire life. Everything. The egg-salad sandwiches I loved eating in third-grade, the lamb stew I make periodically in Tianjin, the Mexican food I eat whenever I’m in El Paso visiting my parents, EVERYTHING. I spent most of the night in the bathroom, trying to throw up as quietly as possible so as not to wake up my hosts. They’re fairly traditional, and would have assumed their food was making me sick, when in fact it was my own stupidity. I learned something fascinating about baijiu while bent over the toilet retching, however, and that is: there isn’t much difference between the taste of baijiu when you’re drinking it or puking it up. Some difference, but not much, just like there’s a difference between getting punched in the face and getting punched in the stomach, but only qualitatively. The flavors themselves aren’t altered at all by their interaction with stomach bile.

4. The worst bottle ever

There actually is a champion. A pretty clear champion, too. And oddly enough, it was purchased by one of my favorite professors. I say “oddly enough” simply because it tends to be the old guard in China that know their baijiu. The young, rich guard doesn’t drink baijiu, favoring Scotch and wine instead. It’s way easier to show off your wealth when you’re drinking an obviously expensive imported Scottish speyside than it is if you’re drinking a nondescript bottle of baijiu. And really, I should point out that Dr. Li’s alcohol connoisseurship was brought into question for me far earlier when, at an informal dinner, he brought out a bottle of wine he’d made himself. It was pretty foul stuff, though I didn’t say so. I was asked what I thought, of course, which is a custom I loathe. Has anyone ever, when asked their opinion about something homemade, answered, “Actually, this is revolting”? It could be a brick of rancid goat meat and you’d say it was wonderful, or at the very least interesting. I assured Dr. Li his wine was very good, despite the fact that it tasted like he’d poured a bottle of vinegar into a tub of grape Kool-Aid and let it ferment. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that the baijiu he’d brought along for our dinner was awful, as well.

For the sake of background, Scott and I had invited him and one of our classmates out for dinner, just to thank them for their help during our first semester. Dr. Li had told us he’d bring some baijiu, but Scott and I figured we could get around that by bringing a bottle of imported wine instead. That usually works, for the record. Saying you won’t drink anything turns some people off, but bringing a substitute beverage, especially if it’s imported and therefore exotic, is fine. However, in this case we drank the wine and then, without sounding us out on the subject, Dr. Li cracked open his libation. He poured us all a small glass, raised his, then drained it. Scott and I toasted him back, then drank ours, too.

I consider it a triumph of self-control that I didn’t throw up on the table. I can only describe the effect of Dr. Li’s baijiu by way of a short list of things I imagine might taste the same:

1. A pool-hall ashtray

2. A three-day old buzzard carcass

3. The floor of a movie theater

4. A smoothie made from old gym socks

5. A flask of New Delhi sewer water

As I wasn’t present during the manufacturing process for the bottle of baijiu Dr. Li bought, I can’t be sure it wasn’t in fact one of those things, though I didn’t get any major disease afterward, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. My mouth tasted filthy the rest of the evening, but by all indications, Dr. Li was thoroughly enjoying himself. Frightening.

 

5. Baijiu and Watermelon

Also don’t mix. But then nothing mixes with baijiu. Seriously: I challenge any of you reading this blog, if you have the means, to create a good cocktail with baijiu. I maintain it can’t be done. My friend Dan once created a cocktail that wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d look forward to ordering in a bar over, say, a good martini, and it also included adding enough peach juice concentrate to completely drown out the baijiu. Years ago, my friend Jon Osterman and I had a bottle of baijiu sitting around (it was a gift), and decided we’d just try to mix it with something random. Having had a few sips of this particular bottle before, and having thought we detected the slight taste of watermelon, we decided to mix it with. . .actual chunks of watermelon. Don’t ever do that. It didn’t make the baijiu any worse, of course, because that’s impossible; in all seriousness, I don’t think you could possibly do anything to baijiu to make it taste worse than it already is. The effect would be the same if you poured it over ice or Hormel chili. What happened in the watermelon concoction was simply that the baijiu mutilated the watermelon. It wasn’t even a fruit by the time we stirred it up. Only the presence of some seeds, and a grainy texture, bore witness to the presence of a non-baijiu substance.

If you live in China, you undoubtedly have your own stories. I have more, myself, but I’ll limit myself to five for now. And for the record, I haven’t had any baijiu problems since that seafood fiasco. I just decided that no matter what the social requirements, I wasn’t going to have more than one or two small glasses of baijiu. Probably should have stuck to that from the get-go.

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