Thursday, September 13, 2018
stirring the pot
Sometimes, life's little threads actually pull together to form a tapestry.
Other times, they just trip us up.
Today's story is a tapestry tale -- complete with Altmanesque threads.
When I was a teenager, during the Punic Wars,* my neighborhood of suburban Portland was almost devoid of ethnic food. No pizza. No Italian restaurants. Not even a McDonald's. The state was so lacking in ethnic diversity that Robert Kennedy, when running for president, called Oregon "one giant suburb."
That changed when the parents of two of my classmates opened a Chinese restaurant. We thought we were so exotic when we ate there. Well, at least the rest of my family did.
I am willing to bet you recall the canned Chung King Chinese meals you could buy in a can in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe you still can. A gelatinous blob of vegetables to be warmed in a pot and then poured over crunchy chow mein noodles and topped with soy sauce from plastic packets. If you could get past the visual, the taste was even worse.
The thought of Chinese food that looked and tasted better than that was the draw for the restaurant. But it was soon shattered with the arrival of the first plate. It looked just like the canned Chung King dinner, but tasted marginally better.
On subsequent visits, I experimented. I finally settled on my favorite combination. A bowl of abalone soup and a plate of ginger beef. There was something about the beef dish that was different. The vegetables were crisp and had individual tastes. Somehow it managed to escape the gravitational pull of the limitations of Cantonese cuisine.
My perspective on Chinese food changed when a Szechuan restaurant opened near our house in what had been a Little Black Sambo's then a Sambo's then a Denny's. My girlfriend and I ate there often principally because we were fascinated that Chinese food could be spicy and creative. Cantonese was soon off the menu.
After the Air Force and law school period of my life were over, I started looking around for new ways to be creative. I had always enjoyed cooking. So, I started attending various cooking classes in the Portland area.
Some were one off presentations. Others were academically serious series (Indian cooking with Virgina Plainfield). The most interesting was my encounter with Linda Chan (not her real name).
Madame Chan, as she liked to be addressed (I suspected because it vaguely sounded like the then-much-admired Madame Chiang), was a restaurateur, cook book author, and master teacher of Chinese cuisine. Had cooking shows been more common at the time, she would have been a celebrity.
I knew her through cook books and what I had read in magazines. When I heard she was going to offer her "Essentials of Stir Fry" course in Portland, I signed up.
Thirteen weeks. Three evenings a week. Three hours each evening. That was more time than I spent in my college Russian class. But I thought it would be worth it. It was. Certainly for generating stories.
The class was small. Just nine of us. Two guys. Seven women. We met in a bright chrome classroom of one of Portland's new culinary schools. Each of us stood at a curved counter behind a cutting board and a set of knives that had been artfully set out for each of us. In front of us was a long preparation table with a mirror suspended over it to allow us to watch the master work.
But there was no one else in the room. No one checked us in, but we had received instructions to be at our places 15 minutes before the class began. We were all on time. And eager.Some overly-eager.
At 7, on the dot, the mournful sound of a Guzheng and the gentle thump of a Huagu wafted over the room's sound system. Within two bars, three young Chinese women entered, each wearing a different embroidered Diyi looking as if they were auditioning for the traveling company of a Chinese opera company.
I rolled my eyes. Four of the women students started clapping. But none of the young women looked like Linda Chan. We had all seen her photograph.
We didn't need to wait long. The music stopped. And in walked the star herself. Not dressed in traditional Chinese garb, but in a Chanel little black dress with a single strand of pearls and black Italian pumps. Classy, I thought.
I will remember her first words. "If you have come to learn traditional Chinese cooking, you can leave now. Cooking is not confined by time or country. If you pay attention, you will learn the art of the wok. You will use those techniques every day. You will be a better cook."
I was impressed. "Art of the wok." That was exactly why I was there.
Having finished her opening, she shot both hands high in the air and her assistants dropped their robes revealing traditional white kitchen jackets. They started setting out produce and meat on the preparation table and brought each of us a carrot.
Like any good teacher, she asked if we had any questions. A woman standing two places from me raised her hand. "Linda. I was curious --."
I did not hear the end of her sentence. With the first word, each of the assistants froze in place looking at the floor. It was like those movies where all of the action stops except for one actor. Our teacher had been looking at the other end of the table. Her head swiveled slowly. I swear I could feel heat lasering out of her eyes. If the questioner had disintegrated into a pile of ash, I would not have been surprised.
"You will address me as 'Madame Chan.'" And then I heard the rest of the question. "And, no. We will not be making chop suey. If that is why you came, you can get out of my class right now."
The incident set a certain tone for the next thirteen weeks. But we did not have to wait long for our second lesson. Picking up her cleaver, she showed us the basic technique for slicing a carrot into uniform pieces.
"Now, you try." As we began, she walked by each of us as if she were the last Manchu empress inspecting her troops, stopping in front of the other guy in the class.
"What are you doing?" He stopped. Perplexed.
"Start again." The moment he picked up his knife, she may as well have rapped his knuckles. "No! All wrong."
"Why is your finger on top of the blade? That is wrong. It is dangerous. Do not do it." I immediately slipped my finger to the hilt of the knife.
On her way back, his finger was once again on the top of the knife. "I warned you. That is dangerous to you. It is dangerous to other people around you. You are out of my class. Go now."
Gordon Ramsay had nothing on her. From that moment, we remaining seven called her Dragon Lady. It was not a compliment. One night, some wag (who fortunately was never identified) posted a note above the door. "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
Oh, the eighth student. That was the "chop suey" lady. She committed some infraction involving a chicken. She was gone. Along with the finger guy.
We survivors learned a lot over the thirteen weeks. How to choose a wok (flat bottoms and teflon were deemed to be the work of Satan; I have both in my kitchen). How to season, clean, and store it. How to choose meats and vegetables suitable for stir fry (high quality only). How to slice each in varying styles depending on how the flavors are to play off each other. What oils to use.
She pointed out that learning how to to fry is very much like learning to become a concert pianist. All of the stir fry techniques are like learning scales and etudes. Without them, you cannot be an able artist. But it is the last step where most cooks undermine everything else -- putting everything together in the wok.
She shared my detestation of most stir fry results. I have eaten stir fry in many homes where the result is on a par with those Chung King dinners. She pointed out that the reason is simple. Most cooks have no idea how to layer tastes and recognize when vegetables and meats have been cooked to their individual perfection. Always in mere seconds, not minutes. If done correctly, each vegetable should retain its own taste. And it cannot do that if it is overcooked. It must retain its crunch.
So, we experimented. Cutting slices thicker and thinner. Switching the order in which each was separately added to the wok. And, over those thirteen weeks (and the subsequent thirty years), I am now a competent stir fry cook, who still changes the order in which garlic is added to the wok..
Thanks to the Dragon Lady.
A few years my college-era friend Leo visited me here in Barra de Navidad. He convinced me that it would be wise for me to pay attention to my diet and my exercise. Not for my health (which was not a primary concern for me), but because I would never be younger than I was that day.
I completely altered my diet. Snack foods were exiled from the house. I ate more vegetables and fewer simple carbohydrates. And I walked. Multiple miles every day.
The result was a steady weight loss. I felt better. I ate better. Life was good.
That lasted almost two years. It ended when my family came to stay with me, and I reverted to my old diet. The reason was simple, my family purchased food I had stopped eating. But, because my character has a certain flaw, I returned to old habits because the food was there. And then I started showing off by cooking a lot of meals I like for my family. The food I had sopped eating.
But I retained some healthy food habits. Like stir fry. If you look at any healthy eating book, it will recommended a meal of 50% cooked or raw vegetables, 25% protein, and 25% healthy starch. That sounds exactly like basics of stir fry.
Sometimes, our best intentions are given a boost when crisis rolls over our mantra. That happened to me in early July.
The month of June was odd for me. For the entire month, I suffered recurring bouts of diarrhea that baffled each of the doctors I consulted. They tried various medications. Some relieved symptoms, but the bouts continued.
It turns out I would have been wiser to talk to my brother earlier. He knew exactly what was happening. I am fine now.
As part of the testing, I asked my doctor to test for certain indicators that have risen whenever I am ill. They are never related to the cause, but they are like the proverbial canary in the mind.
That is when I discovered that my DNA had caught up with me. I had been expecting the diagnosis for decades. But there it was in black and white.
Fortunately, I could deal with its consequences by simply reinstituting my Leo Plan -- more exercise, better food. And that is what I have been doing.
My daily goal is to walk 15 miles a day while fighting the tendency of my feet to blister. On that front, I am coping.
On the food front, I am thriving. My blogger pal, Felipe wrote yesterday about the Monotony of Mexican Meals. I concur with his opinion. If I had to eat in Mexican restaurants, I would weigh much more than I do save for the fact that my boredom with the cuisine would keep me thin.
Fortunately, the skills I leaned from Linda Chan will keep me healthy while tempting my palate. Mexican food may be monotonous, but Mexican produce, chicken, and pork are all first rate. With the exception of the beef and tomatoes. Or, as Felipe puts it: "What passes for tomatoes here should be court-martialed and executed."
One of the later lessons Madame Chan taught us was that stir fry is not merely for Chinese dishes. Any type of food can be cooked in a wok. After all, it is just a cooking technique to preserve the freshness and flavor of the meal.
In her class, we cooked paella; vodka pasta chicken; pasta primavera; wilted spinach salad; pork cutlets Normandy; the classic Italian pork with basil, pine nuts, and balsamic; ratatouille pork; moussaka; Lebanese lamb; mustard cream veal; beef stroganoff;apricot turkey; chicken marsala; chicken piccata; chili with duck sausage; orange duck; chicken Morocco; and several soups.
The point is that stir fry is not just chop suey. Excuse me. It is never chop suey. (She might read this.)
It is has been a long road from that Cantonese restaurant on McLaughlin Boulevard to me standing over a wok in Barra de Navidad. But it has turned out to be a fortuitous one.
My condition will not go away. But, with the help of some techniques I learned from the Dragon Lady, I am a rather good cook.
I am going to enjoy the rest of the ride.
* -- My nod to Edward Albee, a favorite of my youth, from one of my favorite plays and movies.