Monday, December 1, 2008

Another Chinatown story: The Happy Garden

First, thanks to all who responded to my first post. This week I've got another old Chinatown story, but this will be the last of those for a while.

We were stoned. God, were we stoned. We figured it was part of the job. Just out of college, full of intellectual beans and convinced that rock and roll music was a great art form and capable of becoming greater still, I was working at CBS, for Columbia Records, a nascent A&R Man. Artists and Repertoire Men were the guys who “signed” “talent” to “the label” and produced what the president of the company called “wrekkids.” There were three of us young guys who had won a big competition and gotten this inexpressibly great job. Our boss was based in Los Angeles, and was very ill, so in effect we had no boss except the president of the company, who was too busy and too grand to pay much attention to us. We had secretaries, and apparently unlimited expense accounts. We stayed up till all hours in clubs in the Village listening to rock and roll bands, smoking pot and scouting for talent to sign to the label, and it was uncool to get to the office before eleven.

I was still wearing what I’d worn in college, tweed jackets, khakis, bow ties, and clear-rimmed glasses, though I had grown a beard. My colleagues had long hair, tinted glasses, snakeskin boots. One of them would roll his first joint of the day—with one hand—before he got out of bed. He was nonetheless a fine banjo player. We would get together with his bluegrass buddies and “go for Chinese,” as he put it, usually to the Happy Garden, on the Bowery, because they served till four in the morning and we loved the knowing, ironic smile of our inveterate waiter, Mark.

We ordered the usual Sino-American crap: sweet-and-sour pork, moo goo gai pan, fried rice with ham and shrimp. Marijuana food. Mark taught us to use chopsticks. He told us to try salt-and-pepper shrimp, and to eat them shell and all except for the head. Delirious, we ordered a second portion.

“Next time,” he commanded, “you order in advance Peking duck.” We did as he said. It was bliss.

“You try whole fish with ginger and garlic. Sea bass.” My colleagues reeled at the sight, and we made a mess of the carcass. Mark came and picked out the many remaining good bits and distributed them among us.

“Combination seafood soup,” he announced, though we had not ordered it. He doled out bowlfuls of, oh, my God, what was that?

“Sea cucumber,” said Mark.

And that?


And that?

“No name in English.”

We learned anew, thanks to combination seafood soup, to chew.

“No use so much soy sauce,” he chided the banjo player, who always drenched his rice almost black. “Kill taste.”

We acquired a sort of boss, a guy a year or two older who never smiled and never told us to do or not to do anything. We took him to the Happy Garden. He wouldn’t touch the food. He went to sleep at the table. A junkie.

At the Singles Meeting, where the president presided over the release of that week’s hoped-to-be hits on 45-r.p.m disks, and the president either bobbed his head to the beat in approval—or shook it sadly, instant death for the song—the music was played at physically damaging volume over a pair of speakers each the size of a refrigerator. Anybody who was anybody in the company, or expected to be, was there. Heads of departments sat at the table, lesser lights behind along the wall. Our new boss sat at the table, as near as he could get to the president, but then one time he nodded out in the middle of a new wrekkid. He was gone the next day.


Louise and I were just married, and we shared a deepening passion for food. We learned to cook the hard way, following Julia Child to the letter. We walked the streets of New York’s neighborhoods in search of Turkish food, Cuban, Cuban-Chinese, Indian, and of course all sorts of Chinese. When Louise and I went to the Happy Garden, as we did often, we eschewed the sweet and glutinous hybrids that my stoned A&R compadres and I really did like. We also avoided Sunday nights, when the place was flooded with Jewish families following the New York post-sabbath tradition of indulging in the forbidden delights of shellfish and pork in a sufficiently foreign setting.

At ordinary dinnertimes, the Happy Garden was full of Chinese people gabbing merrily in Cantonese, mixing Seven-Up with Cognac, and feasting. Waiters loaded their lazy-susans with dozens of delicacies we had never seen, smelled, tasted, or imagined. Yellow banners taped high on the walls each bore a column of elegant Chinese calligraphy, and no English; these were the special dishes, for Chinese only.

We told Mark we wanted real Chinese food. “Like—that,” I said, nodding toward a table of twelve, three or four generations busily tucking into a dozen mysterious wonders.

He gave us a long, doubtful look. “American no like.”

No. We like (I hoped). I pointed to the banners. Would he compose a menu for us?

“What you like?”


He started us conservatively, with crisp-fried squid (people ate squid?), lacquered roast squab (served with the head, as authentication), fish-maw soup. But since we evidently would eat anything he put before us, it wasn’t long,before Mark began to exercise his prodigious creativity. Word had spread among our friends; our tables grew bigger, Mark’s menus more subtle and complex. He never forgot what we had had before.

“Last time you have black mushroom with fish ball, slice giant clam with sweet soy sauce, water spinach, Happy Garden steak.” The last was a chef’s specialty, its secret ingredient Worcestershire sauce. “Maybe tonight you try fresh frog with garlic.”

These were not the big ol’ bullfrog hind legs like the ones at the Whitehaven (Tennessee, where I grew up) Country Club. These were the limbs of much smaller frogs, not only the hind legs but the front ones, which looked exactly like tiny little human arms with tiny little human hands. “Fresh!” cried Mark. “Live ten minute ago.”


Mark led me (he did not invite the lady) through the kitchen into the black, stinking, rain-slimed back yard and bade me look into a dark wooden barrel. Hundreds of frogs’ eyes peered back.

1 comment:

nowherem said...

Tom, these are great stories.

Your Alice and CP just arrived here. I love it. I awoke to food in Paris in '67-68--slightly later than Alice, and I was not immersed in it as she was, but after returning to London I hunted down every bistro in town. After Indian, the French Bistro was the only food in town.

Apparently the British have become more passionate about food recently, a new international appreciation after the era of the squab and potato (not that there's anything wrong with that).