The professor was part of the forensics team that had studied the noodle’s crumbled remains. He tested the noodle dustand established it was made of millet, a substance more brittle than wheat. He spent months trying to plausibly justify howthe noodle was made and how it had held up for thousands of years. (That accounted for the discrepancy in the date of discovery in the Wikipedia entry—though the noodle had been found in 2002, it took until 2005, after testing, theorizing,and publicizing the results, before the news reached the pages of
.)The region where the noodle was found was famous for hand-pulled noodles, like the ones advertised at the corner shop.But that variety—long, thin, and chewy (again, my mouth watered at the thought of those strands)—required a gluten- based substance like wheat, which did not undergo mass cultivation until later in China’s history. Lu’s best guess was thatthis noodle had been pushed through a press. Yet there was no evidence of a press, and I still remained doubtful that anynoodle—made of millet, wheat, or anything else—could survive for so long.Lu agreed to show me what was left. We took an elevator to another floor and entered a small laboratory that held a safe.The safe contained a plastic bag. The bag contained a test tube. The tube contained a fleck of yellow.“You see, this is all we have,” he said regretfully. “It’s a very tiny thing. I can’t say for sure that the Chinese wereresponsible for bringing noodles to the West, but I can be very sure that no one will find a noodle that is older than this.”From Lu Houyan’s office in northern Beijing, I took a taxi to the city’s heart, where my husband and I kept an apartment.It was early in the summer of 2010, and Craig and I had just arrived back in the capital, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Northern Beijing—and the city as a whole—was not particularly pleasant. Gray smog often shrouded the sky, soopaque that you could only make out the faint outlines of buildings just blocks away. Cars clogged the wide, impersonalstreets and the highways ringing the city, with gridlock increasing by the day as thousands more vehicles were added tothe roads. Hundreds of characterless clusters of towers and weirdly shaped, twisting skyscrapers had sprouted up acrossthe city. Construction cranes rose over the rare vacant patches of land, reserving space for the frivolous pet projects of famous architects.Yet Craig and I had carved out a niche away from the development. We lived in the
, a small, human-scale patchthat urban planners had managed—so far, at least—to save from the bulldozers. The word
referred to the alleysthat ran through the oldest neighborhoods of the capital, so narrow that cars moving toward each other, in slow games of chicken, often got stuck. The alleys ran past gray-brick, single-story residences called
, or courtyards, referring tothe gardens enclosed by crumbling residences, once grand and occupied by imperial officials and the wealthy. Theneighborhoods were the oldest in Beijing, dating back seven hundred years to the Yuan Dynasty, when the Mongolianconqueror Genghis Khan had built a capital out of a desert basin and expanded his territory all the way to Eastern Europe.Craig and I took sunset walks around Houhai Lake, created several hundred years before for royalty. We often looped pastthe fifteenth-century Drum and Bell Towers, used as guard and signaling stations when important guests entered the gatedcity. We loved the intimacy of the
. Familiar faces greeted us everywhere: nosy Lady Wang loitered in our apartment complex courtyard, bouncing a feathered ball on a badminton racket and pestering us about when we wouldhave a baby. We exchanged hellos with the local cobbler, a middle-aged woman with rosy cheeks who sat in the alleywith her old sewing machine. We stopped for the latest gossip from the stocky, ageless Manchurian who stood outside hissmall teahouse.I could chart my whole history in Beijing through these lanes. After living in Shanghai for several years, I’d moved toBeijing’s
in 2004. The cooking school where I’d learned the basics of Chinese cooking was on an alley that juttednorth from Peace Boulevard, a large avenue that bisected the district. One of my cooking mentors, Chairman Wang, liveda short bicycle ride north, on Flower Garden Hutong. After I’d fallen in love with Craig, we’d moved to nearby LittleChrysanthemum Hutong, into a rare apartment building with several floors. In our home, I fell into my routines as awriter, working at a desk on the second-floor loft and taking breaks on our rooftop balcony that looked out on theneighborhood’s trees, birds, and the sloping gray-tiled courtyard roofs that repeated themselves like waves of an ocean.Just one lane south, in a courtyard home on Black Sesame Hutong, I founded a cooking school of my own.But Beijing was no longer home. Since 2008, Craig and I had been spending more time in the United States, for our wedding and honeymoon, and then for a fellowship he had been awarded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Before he left, we downsized from our duplex apartment to a tiny one around the corner. While Craig was in Boston, I’dspent the academic year bouncing between China and America, trying to figure out where I belonged.