Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom, No Eat Bone

Some years ago I published a bunch of food memories in Saveur magazine, and I'm now gathering them together along with a large amount of new material for a book-length memoir. I'm starting this blog (this is my first-ever post) to try out some parts of the manuscript as I move along. I'm hoping for helpful advice and criticism. Here's one little segment to get started on:

Dick Ward and my old pal Dave Graves had a winery called Saintsbury, in the Carneros district of Napa County, California, where they made, and still make, some of the most delicious pinot noir and chardonnay in the world. True to the winery’s Burgundian ethos (“Beaune in the USA,” it said on the official Saintsbury t-shirt), they both liked to eat, and prided themselves on their willingness to eat anything. So did I.

So when Dick came to visit, adventurous eating was in order. After a half-bottle of some good Champagne, we walked from the Village down through Soho and Little Italy, stopping at Vincent’s Clam Bar for a couple of drafts and two dozen littlenecks, hoping, though failing, to see Mafiosi. Then we moseyed on down to Lan Hong Kok, a Hong Kong seafood joint on Division Street, in the clangorous shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, where Chinatown gets seriously funky.

The principal ornament of Lan Hong Kok’s décor was a large, humming refrigerator whose glass doors were perpetually smeared with the waiters’ fingerprints. Their short, frayed, grease-spotted gold jackets attested to Lan Hong Kok’s casual attitude toward hygiene. It was about nine o’clock when we arrived; the last Chinese customers were putting on their coats, and only a solo roundeye remained, a thin-haired old hippie scarfing down some brownish noodle thing. The staff, disturbed in their evening meal, showed no great gladness in seeing Dick and me, though I was a regular by then. As we studied the cracked-plastic-covered menu, I thought I saw from the corner of my eye a rat scurry past along the opposite wall. That sort of thing was to me a badge of honor in those days. One of my frequent luncheon companions and I used the city health department’s list of dining establishments found to be in violation of various cleanliness codes, published weekly in the Times, as a restaurant guide.

“That was a rat, wasn’t it?” said Dick.

“I think it was, yes,” said I.

Hey, you didn’t go to Lan Hong Kok for luxe, calme, or volupté. Sharing the insalubrious character of the refrigerator, a number of smeary-walled aquariums filled with living creatures lined the front windows—advertisements for connoisseurs like us. A few of the aquariums’ residents, it is true, like the gasping catfish with mold growing out of its gills, and the upside-down carp, had little time left before their leases expired, but the eels were swirling gaily beneath their fluorescent moon, and the shrimp were scooting hither and thither, and the softshell turtles looked no worse than resigned. Also my favorite waiter was there, whose name I did not yet know but who knew mine. (“Tom, where you wife?” “Out of town.” Though she had braved it a couple of times, L.H.K. wasn’t exactly Louise’s kind of place, and the waiter’s brief flicker of a smile suggested that he understood that.)

Dick had brought along a bottle each of his latest chardonnay and pinot noir, both of which easily surpassed Saintsbury’s stated objective, deliciousness. Dick and Dave made a big point of making wine to go with food, and we were spotting all kinds of weird stuff on the menu that Dick said would be well matched to the wines in hand.

Dick’s tastes turned out to be even more adventurous than mine. He promptly proposed the sautéed goose colon. “It’ll be perfect with the pinot,” he said, “because it’s got this, you know, barnyardy element.”

“And that would be?”

“Well, to be blunt, it smells like chicken shit.”

“And that’s good?”

“A lot of the best red Burgundies have the same barnyard characteristic, Tom.”

Lan Hong Kok’s wine glasses held only a few tablespoonfuls, but I swirled and sniffed as well as I could. I was trying to remember the last time I’d smelled chicken shit, and I wasn’t sure if I smelled it now. The wine did smell, distinctly, of grapes. I tasted it. Tasted like red Burgundy, sure enough, but beyond that I couldn’t really say.

Anyway, I found myself cravenly drawing the line at the goose colon. We compromised on a somewhat less menacing part of the goose, the feet, with oyster sauce. Now, this waiter knew my heedlessness well—knew that I would plunge with reckless abandon into any damn thing short of goose colon, and knew that I would have absolutely no idea how to approach a goose foot. He presented a perhaps sarcastically high-piled platter of pimpled webbing, knobbly knuckles, and hooked goose toenails, glossed with slimy sauce. Dick and I looked at it.

The waiter stepped back, leaned forward behind my shoulder, and murmured politely in my ear. “Tom,” he said, “no eat bone.”