Frozen in time

Fe­bru­ary 1972: Nixon’s in China and wor­ried about more than chop­sticks

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS - WORDS Robert McCrum PHO­TO­GRAPH Bettmann Archive

Nixon in China is John Adams’s fa­mous opera, but it’s also a phrase, de­scrib­ing a clash of civil­i­sa­tions, loaded with po­lit­i­cal jeop­ardy – plus some bizarre su­per­power chow-downs. Food is cen­tral to the Chi­nese.

The ban­quet pic­tured here took place in Shang­hai in Fe­bru­ary 1972, and placed an awk­ward US Repub­li­can loner in the dragon’s mouth. Ev­ery­thing about this pic­ture screams, “Ex­ple­tive deleted!”

Nixon had al­ready strug­gled to find words for his his­toric Sino-Amer­i­can ini­tia­tive. On his visit to the Great Wall, he had ob­served, in a mo­ment of stun­ning bathos, “This is a great wall.” On a smaller scale, this scene is also rich in com­edy and drama.

Tricky Dick knows he’s on prime­time TV be­fore a home­town au­di­ence that’s al­ready wob­bly about this trip. Worse, he’s been told that it’s rude not to ex­press his ap­pre­ci­a­tion to his Chi­nese hosts. His ex­pres­sion says ev­ery­thing: “I can’t seem too en­thu­si­as­tic. What’s on the menu here? Is it bird’s nest or shark fin? Jeez – is it me? Next to these dudes, I can’t even work these god­dam chop­sticks.” (He and Henry Kissinger had been given lessons on the flight over.)

Trapped be­tween China’s first pre­mier Zhou En­lai and Shang­hai Com­mu­nist party leader Zhang Chun­qiao, Nixon is strug­gling with “chop­stick di­plo­macy”. Had he ever eaten Chi­nese food? Raised in church-go­ing, con­ser­va­tive Whit­tier, Cal­i­for­nia, he’s most at home with ketchup.

He was at one with Amer­ica there. In 1972, the riches of Chi­nese food were be­com­ing ghetto-ised in the Chi­na­towns of San Fran­cisco, Wash­ing­ton DC and New York. Chop­stick di­plo­macy had the un­in­tended con­se­quence of tempt­ing the na­tion’s taste­buds. Ever since Nixon’s meet­ing with Chair­man Mao, dim sum and peking duck have been high on the Amer­i­can menu. Not even a Trump trip to Bei­jing could wipe out this culi­nary div­i­dend.

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