Hibachi Etiquette: Strangers and Flying, Hot Food Commentator Andrei Codrescu stops into a family-style Japanese steak house in Springfield, Mo., and worries as the cook juggles hot items in the air. He points out the absurdities of the conversations among the group of people who would not normally dine together. It's a little exercise in the surrealism of everyday manners in the 21st century.
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Hibachi Etiquette: Strangers and Flying, Hot Food

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Hibachi Etiquette: Strangers and Flying, Hot Food

Hibachi Etiquette: Strangers and Flying, Hot Food

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From his birthplace in Romania's Carpathian Mountains to the bayous of Southern Louisiana, to the plains of the American Midwest, commentator Andrei Codrescu has made it his mission to linger, observe and report. Here's his latest dispatch.

ANDREI CODRESCU: We ate at a family-style Japanese steak house, where you sit with strangers around a square communal table with a grill in the middle. Most folks in the room are older, out for the early bird special. But our table has variety. There was a grumbling silver-haired grandma with a middle-aged daughter and an 8-year-old boy. Directly opposite sat a shy, young couple who looked distressed by the likelihood that they were eating with their parents or grandparents after having done or are about to do what they're thinking about doing.

Grandma couldn't figure out the menu and was worried about not getting enough to eat, so I reassured her. The kid had to go potty. So his unruffled mother took him to the bathroom. When the kid was reseated, he said - loud enough to be heard by everybody - there are dead people in England. The grandmother looked pained until she founds the proper answer. There are dead people everywhere, Tom. The mother was still unruffled. The couple froze a little more.

Then chef showed up. He was young and I felt slight terror when he started juggling the prongs and the spatula, which looked too much like a cleaver. He's chopping of vegetables wasn't all too steady either, as one end of the broccoli landed in the old lady's iced tea, and one mushroom wedged in my beer. Throwing and catching the egg was positively heart stopping. And I saw for a brief second the egg landing on one of the dating couple, making what is going to happen awkward, if not impossible, unless it had already happened, in which case, it was going to maybe help. The egg landed with a splat on the grill. Chef built a volcano of onion rings with passing skill and he lit a flame that fascinated Tom, but we knew that it's just supposed to be a volcano and there was no lava.

The steak and the shrimp are seared beautifully, and the full plates found their intended targets. The table settled into pleasant buzz as we merged in the act of chewing.

Here is the funny thing. The restaurant was in Springfield, Missouri, and the steak house was styled Japanese, but was, like any Midwestern steak house, about steak. And the people are just like people - awkward and alive.

To get to Nakato, which bills itself as the oldest but still the best Japanese steak house in Springfield, you'd have to drive for a piece on old Route 66, pass the solo paper cup factory, a building that explains why modern art set deep roots in the Midwest. American roadside driving culture is all about boxes and advertising, signs in cubes, with one egg rotating in mid-air.

SIEGEL: Commentator Andrei Codrescu, now a sometime resident of the Ozarks.

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