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“What’s all this?” he asks me. “I feel like it’s my birthday.”
“No,” I say. “It’s Liberation Day.”
Jack reaches across the table and ruffles up my hair. “You know your dad here is doing an excellent job. Setting up an entire operation in under nine months is nearly impossible. You should be proud of him.”
Mark is sucking the last of his juice through his straw, ignoring Jack as he opens up the gifts we carefully picked out.
Jack sets all his stuff on the chair next to him, as a waiter arrives with a covered silver platter. He sets it in the middle of the table and takes a step back.
“I don’t remember ordering yet,” Dad says.
“A gift from the chef,” the waiter explains, lifting the lid off a steaming plate of something I don’t recognize. “A special delicacy to help you celebrate.”
“What in the world is that?” Mom asks, leaning in to have a look.
“This is ortolan,” the waiter says. “It’s very nice.”
“But these look like baby birds,” Mom says.
“I think they are,” Dad says, poking one with his finger. “You know, I think I’ve heard of this. I think these are a big deal.”
I look at the tiny birds laid out on a bed of lettuce. They look small and thin, like they just fell out of a nest. Their bulging purple eyes are closed, and their beaks look as flimsy as a fingernail.
“But how are they cooked?” Mom asks.
“They look deep fried,” says Jack. “I thought this was a French thing. I thought this was banned.” He lifts one of the birds off the plate and pinches it between his fingers.
“Leave it to the Arabs to break all the rules,” Dad says.
“Poor little guys,” Mom says. “The damage is done. I guess we should give them a try.”
Dad reaches over and plucks two tiny birds off the plate, and passes them to me and Mark.
“What do you guys think?” he asks. “You up for this? It’s kind of like Fear Factor. You just pop them right in your mouth. It’s one bite.”
I look down at the tiny bird in my palm. Mark flinches as Dad plops one in his hand.
“So we eat the whole thing,” I say.
Mark is looking at Mom and Dad like he can’t believe we’re doing this. Dad thrusts his bird into the center of the table and says, “Cheers.”
Mom laughs and taps her little bird’s head gently against his. Jack does the same thing, and they all hold them there until Mark and I lean in with ours.
“Here we go,” Dad says, looking at me and Mark as he places the tiny bird in his mouth and chomps down. I watch Mom do the same thing. Jack is chewing thoughtfully, and brushing his hands together like he is getting rid of crumbs. I close my eyes, and shove the bird into my mouth, repeating the words: taste test, over and over in my head while I chew as fast as I can. The tiny bird bursts in my mouth, and I know that it’s all the insides that taste so good and creamy. I look over at Mark, to see if he’s as surprised as I am. He sits next to me with his lips tightly pressed together, cradling the bird in his palm like a heavy stone.