Dinner in China, 2006.

Yesterday afternoon I ate my weight in Chinese food, gorging on the greasy contents of those familiar little white take-out boxes until I began burping after every bite.

I felt guilty for about 5, 10 minutes. But for the most part, the overindulgent feast warmed my heart as much as it did my belly.

I don’t normally chow down on take-out food, and if and when I overeat, I usually fall into a depressed slump and berate myself for the next several hours, slapping my bloated belly like I’m a disgruntled Santa Claus. But yesterday was different: Several of my family members were gathered at my grandparents’ house, and just when everyone was about to leave, my grandmother, trying to keep people nearby for as long as possible, suggested going out to lunch. I shrugged OK; my sister had to run out for a few minutes but said she’d consider returning; and my parents turned down the offer and said they really needed to go.

That said, “lunch” started out as just me and my grandmother, sitting on the couch, deciding where to go to eat. Then my sister eventually returned, and we contemplated a “girls only” outing, just grandmom and her two granddaughters, leaving grandpop at home to watch the Army/Navy game. Soon after that, my mom called and said she was just about done with her errands and would be able to return for lunch. My sister suggested staying inside and ordering take-out instead; my grandfather, who just moments ago denied being hungry, chirped in that some beef and broccoli would be nice.

So, what started out as no one really wanting to hang around for lunch turned into my sister and I returning from the neighborhood Chinese restaurant with $60-something worth of food and a house full of salivating relatives.

In the few minutes we left to pick up the order, my grandmother had reconfigured the breakfast room table to fit everyone, setting the tabletop with Christmas-themed paper plates, napkins, and silverware. We unloaded the greasy brown paper bags, filling the center of the table with cartons stuffed with shrimp, broccoli, beef, rice, and lo mein. Everyone got a shrimp roll; a Chinese pizza–something I haven’t eaten in a long time–was passed around the table. My sister allowed others to taste her General Tso’s seitan, which everyone admitted really didn’t taste much different than chicken. My “I’m-not-hungry” grandfather devoured everything he spooned onto his plate. Midway through our feast my father entered the room, making a surprise return to the house. We pulled up a chair for him, and everyone began loading his plate with various carton contents, exclaiming how great everything tasted: “This garlic broccoli is amazing!” “The shrimp are really tasty!” “Here, take some of this lo mein!”

My family gathers for the holidays, but the impromptu and informal nature of yesterday’s at-home buffet gave this gathering a different feel. We weren’t dressed up in our nice Christmas clothes; the table was set with paper plates, not china. There were no champagne flutes or fancy wine glasses; we cracked open cans of soda at the table, and we jostled with the various boxes between us, trying to figure out which contained the shrimp and broccoli and which contained the broccoli alone with that really good garlic sauce. We snapped fortune cookies in half for dessert, reading our messages aloud and attempting to read the Chinese words on the back. Clean-up was easy, with no dishes to wash or silverware to soak. No one had slaved over the stove for hours; no one slunk into their seat exhausted after having been awake since 6 a.m. to baste a turkey. It reminded me a bit of that scene from Home Alone, the night before the family leaves for the airport. There is take-out food spread everyone over the table; everyone is digging in, chowing down, laughing. Good times. As my sister said earlier in the afternoon, “Let’s just get take-out. I don’t want to have to sit down at some restaurant and look nice. I just want to kick back and burp at the table, you know?”

Aside from some gas and indigestion, there was something else bubbling inside of me after I left my grandparents’ house: contentment. I walked the three miles back to my house, the chill of the December evening air giving me a bit of a buzz and the Chinese food lining my arteries keeping me relatively warm. There was a full moon that night, and when I began my trek home, it hung low in the sky, huge and golden. When I crossed over the creek, the moon shined directly above, its glow lighting up the ripples in the water like a spotlight. I couldn’t take my eyes off it! When I finally entered my neighborhood, I passed houses lit with reindeer, Santa Clauses, LED snowflakes. The smell of burning fireplaces complemented the Christmas visuals. When I arrived home–after popping a Tums–I found myself doing something I’ve longed to do for quite some time but had never actually got around to doing: napping under the Christmas tree. I pictured myself as a cat curling up in a warm spot; in reality, the configuration I worked myself into looked more like a burrito.

Secret snapshot of the sleeping burrito.

Burrito, Chinese…OK, so it wasn’t the healthiest of foods we indulged in that afternoon. But we don’t eat like that every day, and one afternoon of some take-out–and yes, some burping (and farting) at the table–may actually have done our hearts a little more good than harm.