Monday, March 22, 2010
[I owe My Darker Gray Friend, Michelle, some inspiration for this. See what she has to say about food!]
On Saturday, I went out to eat with some old friends. I can call them old, with no hard feelings, because I’m the oldest of them all. I’m 53, while the rest of the guys are 47 and 48, mere babes by comparison. They were – and, at least for a short while, will again be – bandmates. We had lots of laughs trading old war stories about our times on stage together, and via catching up on what’s transpired for each of us during the close to thirty intervening years. We also planned possible times and places to get together for some jamming. We’ll play like it’s 1980 again (except with less hair.)
Live Wire (later, Powerline) was the name of the band. I published a story about them not too long ago, and if you want some background, here it is. If you’d like to hear a sample of our playing, this will do. It’s an original tune called Flashback, performed during a studio session from 1981. In truth, I was never happy with the recordings from that session. Among other lacks, my bass was recorded thin; it has no body. I’m sure the other guys might have similar complaints concerning their parts in it. Nevertheless, as a representative sample of the type of music we wrote and played, it has merit. Aside from me on bass, it features Ronnie Bower and Ron Frattasio on guitars, Steve Giusti on drums, and Marty “Sucks” Murphy on vocals.
(Tomorrow, I’ll be posting some photos and other memorabilia contained in a scrapbook that Steve brought to our reunion. And, in future, as we get together to play, I’ll probably give you something good to listen to from the sessions. I hope so, anyway.)
The place where we got together to rehash old times was Tahiti, a Chinese restaurant just outside of Boston. It’s a real old-school place, specializing in American Chinese cuisine and serving the sort of drinks that, as a kid, you laughed about when you saw them on the menu. For instance, both Steve and I sampled the joys of a Suffering Bastard. I had never had one before, and with the first sip I understood where downing four or five of those concoctions might turn you into one the next morning. The main ingredients were supposedly various rums, but if I hadn’t known, I might have guessed turpentine.
It’s always interesting to see what folks will order when they get Chinese food. From my experience, people tend to order the same things over and over, getting very defensive about their choices. Some people will even go so far as to say "it isn’t really Chinese food unless you order [fill in the blank]"
For instance, My Dad never varied from the same four choices during my childhood. Whenever we went out to a Chinese restaurant, or ordered some take out, it was Sweet & Sour Chicken, Pork Fried Rice, Egg Rolls, and Pork Strips. Until I was ten years old, I had no idea that any other types of Chinese food existed. Then, one Saturday, after Stephen Murphy and I had attended a kiddy matinee at our local movie house (The Oriental, oddly enough), we found ourselves hungry and Stephen suggested we go to Cathay Village, which was just around the corner and which was also where our respective parents always bought our take out. On the way, we discussed what we might afford, as we each had about 75 cents. I figured that would be good enough for an egg roll, at least, but Stephen suggested we might be able to pool our money and get something called a Poo-Poo Platter. Well, of course, I laughed and laughed. Poo-Poo! There couldn’t possibly be something to eat that was named after poop! Stephen swore there was. And he was right, although I found out, from looking at the menu, that it was spelled Pu-Pu (and also that we couldn’t afford it, so we ended up ordering the "Businessman’s Special", which was Pork Fried Rice and an Egg Roll for 55 cents, and thus my palate was not yet truly expanded as that was basically half of what my father usually ordered for our family.)
(MY WIFE just now reminded me of a funny story concerning Chinese food and the ordering of the same thing every time. She worked with a fellow who always ordered from the ‘dinner specials’ section of the menu; you know, where there are plates containing three or four specific items, and you order by the number assigned to that plate? Well, anyway, without variation, this guy always ordered number 13 from the restaurant he frequented. One time, he found himself at a different restaurant, and – without looking at the menu - he ordered special number 13. When it arrived, he found himself staring at something totally unexpected and foreign to him. It seems he was under the impression that all of the numbered dishes were the same at every Chinese restaurant in the world. To top it off, not only was he disappointed to find he hadn’t received what he wanted, he also had no idea what exactly a number 13 at HIS restaurant was comprised of, and, in order to get what he enjoyed, he sheepishly had to ask his dining companion just what it was he had been eating all of those years.)
It wasn’t until I started smoking dope that I tried anything different at a Chinese restaurant. On an excursion into Boston’s Chinatown with my stoned buddies, they all ordered something called Beef & Broccoli. Not wanting to look weird, I ordered it, too. And, when it arrived, I ate it with great gusto and delight. I quickly found out, on various outings with other groups of friends, about such treats as Chicken Chow Mein, Lobster Sauce, and Egg Fu Yung (which, for some reason, my pals all laughingly referred to as ‘brains in gravy’, and that’s what I still think of every time I see it.) Ever since those days, I’ve been an avid aficionado - and defender of - low-rent Cantonese/Polynesian menus that are scoffed at by fans of Szechuan and other regional styles. And I’ve also cemented in my mind three items of the cuisine that I consider absolute must-haves for any Chinese meal: Lobster Sauce, Fried Rice, and Egg Rolls.
The toughest one to defend in the face of scorn is, of course, the lobster sauce. For one thing, it contains no lobster.
(I once ordered from a very high-end Chinese restaurant – The Golden Temple, in Brookline - for a get together with my good friend, Fast Freddy Goodman. The lobster sauce from that place is easily the best I have ever tasted, and Fred pretty much concurred with that assessment when he tried it. When I informed him that the menu stated the stuff was actually “lobster infused”, he – with the same lifetime of knowledge concerning lobster sauce as I have – said, "Yeah, right. The closest a lobster has been to this is when they held one over the pot and he pissed in it." Quick comeback, and that’s why he’s called Fast Freddy. However, he was probably close to the truth. I suspect they boil lobsters for other purposes, and then use some of that water for the prep of the lobster sauce. It is fantastic, in any case.)
(As a further aside, for those of you who may eat in Boston and environs someday, the place where the guys and I ate on Saturday, Tahiti, has the second-best lobster sauce on the planet. Rich, thick, dark, delightful.)
Anyway, when it came time to order, I suggested the lobster sauce and fried rice. Ron had already ordered a pu-pu platter for the table, so I knew I’d be getting my egg rolls, as well as spare ribs, chicken fingers, chicken wings, and beef teriyaki. One of the other guys requested chow mein, and another ordered crab rangoon (which, to my ear, always sounds like a really grouchy Asian wrestler.) We rounded out the meal with General Gau’s Chicken (which I’ve seen listed on other menus as General Zau’s Chicken and General Tsao’s Chicken, so it’s either a bogus name invented to fool Americans or, as I prefer to believe, so delicious that, during some time in ancient Chinese history, three generals actually shed blood for the honor of having the dish named after them.) Thus satisfied that we had all covered our various ‘must-have’ items, we sat back and awaited the food’s arrival, enjoying each other’s company tremendously while plotting a future assault upon the world’s eardrums.
As I said earlier, I’ll be posting some more stuff about the band tomorrow. In the meantime, however, I’d love to hear what YOUR ‘must-have’ items are when ordering Chinese food. Don’t feel constrained to limit yourself to Cantonese or American Chinese, if that’s not your favorite style. If your tastes run to the more exotic, I’d love to hear about them. And, if the things I’ve talked about are literally foreign to you, please expound about your particular region. I have no idea, for instance, whether you U.K. readers have ever encountered such a thing as lobster sauce. If you haven’t? You’re probably healthier, but definitely not happier.
Soon, with more better stuff (and less MSG.)