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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Olympics Taste China

Posted By on Tue, Aug 19, 2008 at 11:47 AM

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By Meredith Brody

NBC’s Olympics coverage isn’t just swimming, gymnastics, and endless rounds of beach volleyball (question: just how many bikinis do these girls pack, anyway, and do men play beach volleyball?); they also insert cute, often clueless and casually racist filmed pieces about Chinese life: Hey, how about those crazy Chinese drivers!

Mary Carillo, a commentator I hadn’t run across before, has apparently been flown all over China, not just Beijing, on the culture-and-color beat for NBC. She’s cheerful, straightforward, and populist (a quick Google search elicits the info that she was a former women’s tennis player, from 1977 to 1980, ranked as high as #33, and won the French Open mixed doubles with partner and childhood friend John McEnroe). Her post-playing career has included reporting and commentating for CBS, HBO, and ESPN. Her no-nonsense style might be reminiscent of your favorite women’s gym teacher, but one blog addresses any rumors, including transgender (well, it’s a blog written by a cross-dresser), by stating “As far as I can tell, she is just a divorced mother or two..." So there!

In fact, when asked years earlier if Carillo thought that the transgender Renee Richards should be allowed to play on the women’s pro tem, she reportedly replied, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if she’s Jewish?” Another pert sound bite: after losing a round, she was asked why she’d lost, and said “I blame society.”

But while sitting with Bob Costas in his studio, chatting about what those whacky Chinese will eat, it seems that the wit has vanished. “There are things that people eat in this country that it would never occur to any of the rest of us to eat,” she says, making you wonder who she defines as “the rest of us.” “It’s frightening, actually,” Bob agrees, and they segue into the filmed piece, which starts with – oh my! – Peking duck.

“China is an ever-wondrous feast of the imagination. Here, as the saying goes, you can try anything that flies, short of an airplane, and anything with four legs short of a table.” The piece is titled Intrepid Diner, and, if the succulent-looking Peking duck as served at the 600-year-old (complete with neon sign reading ROAST DUCK) BianyiFang restaurant in Beijing looks too appetizing, they throw in a shot of what they call duck’s hand, or foot, but not web, as it actually is.

In the Li Jia Cai restaurant in Beijing, Mary tries a benign-looking vegetable stir fry. Too tame? Let’s cut to the popular Beijing snack street, where Mary gingerly pecks at a scorpion-on-a-stick. At the Ding Dong restaurant in Chongqing – “What have we here? Rabbit head and goose lips.” The hot pot at the Tanyingxiong Hot Pot restaurant in Chongqing suits Mary just fine until they shovel in some cow stomach, aka tripe. Yikes!

So the Intrepid Diner, who’s acted pretty trepid, as far as I can tell, makes a penultimate stop at what’s identified as Yummy Street, Cigikou where sesame peanut candy is being bashed into smaller pieces, and says “I finally found something that doesn’t involve head, heart, beaks, or entrails – this is fried sugar dough – I am so in.”

Even a soothing cup of tea at the Meilongzhen Tea House in Shanghai causes Mary to jump – since the bright-red teapot has a three-foot spout.

“When dining in China,” she sums up, "expect the unexpected,” after some nibbles that don’t scratch the surface of what Tony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern (the master of the sexual organs, searching the globe for pig’s testicles and bull penis) would gobble, while visiting the land of one of the world’s most exquisite and refined cuisines.

In fact, not even so much nibbling. “My boss and yours, Mr. Ebersol,” Mary confesses, “noticed that I wasn’t really eating any of the stuff,” just before she hands the reluctant Costas a scorpion on a stick. And the well-traveled, wordly Costas replies in kind: “You didn’t mention the fungus soup back at the hotel. Just like Mom used to make. When we come back – beach volleyball!”

Ah, the Olympics. Dedicated to spreading peace and understanding among nations, as they keep grim count of each other’s medals – not to mention exploring their inscrutable, incomprehensible cuisine.

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Janine Kahn


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