Hell Is Other People...

I have a bit of a confession to make: to save time and avoid falling behind, I sometimes write portions of my posts in advance. I've written here before about how my practice of blogging about my life causes me to frame the events I experience in terms of the narratives I hope to tell about them, so I tend to write as much as possible about an event before it actually occurs, then fill in the details later. In some regards, this can be a good thing, as it causes me to view experiences in terms of the positive narrative I've already created in my mind, but it can also be a source of disappointment when things don't turn out the way I had anticipated. Tonight was one of those times.

At this point, we all know about my dumpling obsession, and I've unofficially deemed July the "Month of the Dumpling," because I've not only made concrete plans to finally make it to the Pierogi Festival this year, but I also ran across a Groupon a couple months back for a dumpling-making class through the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute in Chinatown. I'd been looking for a way to take another cooking class with Justin ever since we had such a fun, educational evening at the knife skills class I got him for Christmas, because another session at the Chopping Block is a little beyond our current budget. Given my love of dumplings and the reasonable price of $35 for two people, purchasing the Groupon seemed like a no-brainer.

However, after our two-hour experience this evening, I found myself apologizing to Justin for dragging him to the class, and questioning the value of the entire Groupon experience as a whole. Every time you purchase a Groupon (unless it's for a venue that you've already been to,) you're taking a risk on an unknown vendor, a risk that is somewhat moderated by receiving a discount. Most of my Groupon experiences so far have shown that you get what you pay for, however, and this one was no exception.

We should have realized we were in for our own personal recreation of Sartre's No Exit when we turned out to be the only couple in attendance who hadn't brought along a bottle of wine, but initially we were blinded by our excitement over the prospect of learning how to make Chinese dumplings. The class began when the earnest, but not particularly informative instructor (who turned out to be the director of the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, and not a trained culinary professional), gave us a lengthy overview of the CCCI's other offerings, which include tours, concerts, performances, and a monthly dinner club. Things immediately started going downhill when one particularly obnoxious woman kept interrupting and cutting off the instructor to either ask repetitive and shockingly ignorant questions, or offer up stories relating to her own personal experiences.

For example, when the teacher began to talk about his involvement in bringing Chinese artists to the U.S. as a cultural exchange, Ms. "My Life Is More Important" felt the need to share with us all that her teenage daughter might get to go on a trip to China next year for school. I couldn't have cared less about her or her life, and there was more than one time when I was torn between my impulse to whirl around and ask her point-blank to shut up and fantasizing about punching her in the face.

Eventually, the instructor got around to sharing some information about the festivities and traditions associated with Chinese New Year, but very little of the presentation had much to do with food. In fact, I think we learned far more about alcohol this evening than anything to do with Chinese culture, as another painfully obnoxious and overly talkative guest in the class worked as an sales rep for an alcohol distributor in the south suburbs, and the other guests felt compelled to constantly pick her brain about what the best brands of alcohol are, and what kind of mixers she would suggest for them. For some reason, the conversation kept drifting towards a new product she's currently hawking, cake-flavored vodka, which more or less sounds like the embodiment of everything that is wrong with America today.

When it came time to make the dumplings, the teacher sat down at the giant table with us and proceeded to fold two tiny dumplings while offering us some rather unclear verbal instructions. His main qualifications for teaching this class seemed to be that he was a) Chinese, and b) had made dumplings before with his family. There was no information about what kinds of filling go into dumplings (or, for that matter, what was in the filling we were going to use to make our own dumplings), no recipes, and only two different techniques for folding the dumplings when I know from my experience in eating dim-sum that there are many ways to fold and seal a dumpling. Cooking methods were also not discussed, other than the teacher's suggestion that his family usually boils theirs. It was actually less informative than most of the shows I've seen about dumpling making on television.

Justin folding a dumpling. Note the bottles of wine in the upper right hand corner that, to me at least, indicated that our fellow attendees were more interested in partying than learning.

After completing his brief demonstration, the instructor passed around some wet wipes and set us free to fold our own dumplings. It would have been helpful had he walked around the table, observed our progress, and given us some correction or at least helpful pointers to folding success, but instead, he was content to sit in one spot and watched us bemusedly, as the majority of the class laughingly fumbled their way through the task. I had no idea if the technique I'd extrapolated from his lesson was even remotely close to correct, and my dumplings were embarrassingly unattractive, though they looked better than the half-assed attempts made by the other students.

A waitress came by to take our dumplings off to the steamer, after which we were treated to the dinner that was included in the price of the class. We were presented with the "greatest hits" of Chinese-American food -- sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, walnut shrimp, eggrolls, egg drop soup, and other dishes that scarcely seemed authentic. Given that the dishes were selected by the head of the CCCI, I had expected them to be a bit more challenging and educational about traditional Chinese cuisine, but it was clear that he picked the dishes with which he thought an American audience would be most comfortable. The food was acceptable, but it certainly didn't inspire me to want to come back to the restaurant that had hosted the class.

As for our dumplings, they turned out to be fairly tasty, if nothing special. I couldn't help but feel that they would have been tastier as potstickers instead of merely steamed, but it ultimately didn't matter much how they tasted, since we had no idea what was in them and will be unable to recreate them.

The seemingly endless parade of dishes wore on interminably, as a pair of guests who turned out to be Groupon employees conducted an informal marketing survey on the instructor's experience with the company, as well as the other guests' experiences in using Groupons. I found myself checking my watch constantly, wondering when things would draw to a close, but as soon as we'd finished our fortune cookies, I leaned over to Justin and asked if he wanted to leave. His response? "God yes!"

Justin's facial expression in this post-dumpling dinner photo pretty much says it all.

Justin likened the experience to attending an awkward dinner party and paying for the privilege, but I would go further to say that it was like going to the dinner party of a new friend and discovering that all their other friends were assholes. Those were definitely not the kind of people we'd ever choose to socialize with, and I was kind of annoyed that I had paid to subject myself to them. However, even though I initially apologized to Justin for planning such a miserable evening, I'm actually kind of glad we went. If nothing else, the adversity brought us together and generated a whole new slew of inside jokes. "Cake vodka," we've agreed, will now be a new synonym for a heinous abomination.

Although I like the notion, in theory, of joining a supper club, meeting new people, and checking out a variety of new restaurants, this experience has put me off the idea for a while. For now, I'll be perfectly content to dine out with friends, the people whose stories I want to hear and actually find interesting. And next time I want to learn a new cooking technique, I'll suck it up and pay more, because at least people who are paying $75 per person to learn a new skill will be more serious about actually acquiring that knowledge. Lesson learned.

1 comment:

  1. I'm willing to sell you a groupon to the 'D. Phipps Dumpling Making Extravaganza'. Prices are good! Company even better!