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January 27, 2011

Earlier this week, as the mercury stalled around 15 degrees, I participated in my very first food crawl. We had shumai.

Earlier this week, as the mercury stalled around 15 degrees, I participated in my very first food crawl. We had shumai.

A food crawl is similar to a pub crawl, except with, well…food. Remember back in college, when you and your friends would occasionally don homemade shirts and make an oath to drink at every bar downtown, only to quit after four bars because someone passed out in a bush? Now imagine instead of beer, you’re furiously ingesting artisan scones. That pretty much sums up the food crawl.

A food crawl is a fundamentally weird experience, because though it is inspired by the pub crawl, the food crawl lacks one essential segment of the pub crawl: escalating intoxication. As a pub crawl progresses, it is increasingly fueled by the simple fact that the participants are becoming hammered; often the only reason people stay committed to crawling is because they’re drunk. But the food crawl isn’t that easy. Each stop makes you fuller and less in the mood to continue walking around eating. Therefore, commitment to the ideal of crawling is even more important in a food crawl, as a sense of obligation and pride are often the only motivation to keep going.

Thankfully, the food crawl in New York is serious business. The crawl I attended Monday Night for Don’t Mind the Maggots was hosted by the tremendously popular yet uncreatively named group, NYC Food Crawl. As per Facebook instructions, Maggots sidekick Amy and I met our fellow crawlers downtown, on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard St. We huddled around the entrance to Columbus Park, watching our breath trickle in the neon glow of Chinatown, twilight. The crawlers greeted one another with that silent “we are strangers about to have a shared experience, nice to meet you” head nod. There was a legitimate excitement bubbling as more people arrived, like sitting on the bus for a school field trip.

Amy and I made friends and formed a mini-unit. We spoke with veteran crawlers, who told us the turnout was unusually small, no doubt the fault of the nipple-hardening temperature. They spoke fondly of past crawls, such as the falafel or cannoli crawl, which to hear them tell it, had upwards of 27-thousand participants. We were limited to perhaps forty, but to first-time crawlers like me, that number seemed astounding.

NYC Food Crawl hosts a crawl a month, and on Monday we crawled for shumai. Shumai is a Chinese dumpling, traditionally filled with pork or shrimp, or less frequently, vegetables. It’s customarily served Dim Sum, meaning in small portions, like finger food. A vegetarian myself, I worried I would struggle to participate in the Shumai crawl, but for the most part, Amy (also a veg) and I managed just fine.

An organizer, a young woman, kicked off the crawl, climbing up the base of a light-pole with a handful of maps. From her perch she welcomed and praised those who braved the cold. She instructed us to spit into small groups and take a map, which detailed a route to five different shumai vendors. Each group received a different order of restaurants, to mitigate the chance of the entire crawl showing up at one closet-sized Chinese restaurant, demanding Dim Sum. All of this order gave the event a feeling of military procedure, like we had actually convened to storm a beach head. I can’t tell you how much this heightened my excitement. By the end of the introduction I felt noble, like my participation in the food crawl was stemming the spread of Communism. (Which, considering the origin of shumai, is slightly ironic.)

We formed a group and hit the road, first stop: Buddha Bodai on Mott Street. First stop, first failure. Buddha Bodai was fresh out of Shumai. BB claimed it was because Shumai was a breakfast delicacy, but in retrospect, I think they just claimed to be out because they were overwhelmed by two dozen people arriving in unison and ordering dumplings to go. Alas. On to restaurant number two: Dim Sum Go Go.

Clearly, Dim Sum Go Go is an f’n sweet name. I thought Dim Sum here would be served by scantily-clad waitresses dancing on the countertops. Walking to the Go Go, I fantasized about entering a world straight out of “Boogie Nights” and eating shumai with Rollergirl and Dirk Diggler.

No such luck in that regard, Dim Sum Go Go was an archetypical, featureless Chinese restaurant, the sort that spends upwards of 11 dollars on interior decorating. But no matter: unlike Buddha Bodai, the Go Go was loaded-up on shumai. There was one caveat, however: no vegetarian shumai on the menu. Amy and I settled on soy-bean dumplings, which from their exterior looked virtually indistinguishable from the actual shumai. We ate them on the road like proper food crawlers. They were delicious, like teensy, bite-sized stuffed shells.

The third stop was Jing Fong Restaurant on Elizabeth. Here we hit the Dim Sum Jackpot. We entered the Jing Fong and were ushered into an elevator by the hostess. The hostess didn’t speak; just chartered us upstairs. The elevator door adjacent to the one we entered through opened – something I’d never seen before – and we emerged into a cavernous function-hall style restaurant. It was like your high school cafeteria was invaded by Extreme Asian Makeover. At the far end, giant gold dragon statues festooned a bright red wall, bordered by indecipherable Chinese symbols, the kind that make up millions of tramp-stamp tattoos. Circular table after circular table speckled the room; a ubiquitous white table-cloth covered them all. Walls on wheels were scurried around the hall, creating little pockets of rooms for customers to dine.

The Jing Fong was the highlight of the night. There were vegetarian shumai options abound at the Jing Fong, in addition to complimentary tee and any number of gooey substances in which wecould dip our dumplings. We got a table and got to know one another. One of the hidden bonuses of the NYC Food Crawl is the camaraderie that develops within your team of crawlers, sort of like a sports team at the end of the season. Because I never psychologically matured beyond 6th grade, I couldn’t help but turn the event into a competition (which, believe me, is not in the spirit of the event.) I wanted our group to get to the restaurants first and our group to get the choicest shumai. I had to keep reminding myself we weren’t on a shumai scavenger hunt. If there were a golden-shumai trophy for best crawlers, I would have done anything to win it. I may still have Amy paper-mache a few and mail it to the whole group.

Feeling brave, the group diverted from the pre-determined shumai route and went to a place called Prosperity Dumplings. Here we were treated to ten dumplings for a dollar, which we ate outside in the suddenly relenting night chill. Did our groups share a kind-of-too-emotional goodbye and vow to reunite for future food crawls? You bet your ass we did.

Final Tally.

- Shumai/Dumplings: 10.5

- Restaurants: 4

-Times I asked the server if this was vegetarian and he said “yes”, and then, to be safe, asked if it had meat in it and he said “yes”: 2

- “Nicely-done-eating-that-shumai” fist bumps: 74

That’s three weeks into Don’t Mind the Maggots and there hasn’t been a letdown yet. If you’re interested in food crawling, check out NYC Foodcrawl at nycfoodcrawl.blogspot.com or on Facebook.