Sunday, October 11, 2015

Memories of memorable meals...

The traditional, yet non-existent, happy Thanksgiving dinner
I have long thought about whether this blog should exclusively deal with food, fun and frivolity, since as most of you know, I’m all about the frivolity.   For some, sports have been the “toy store” of their lives, their outlet from the stress and daily grind.  For me, at various times of my life, it has been music performance, whether concert, jazz or “hoop” bands, or drum and bugle corps, whether a local corps (Sharpshooters of Framingham) or a Class A (the 27th Lancers of Revere, Massachusetts).  However, the constant diversion has been food, and not just consumption, but cooking.  At times, I have focused on baking breads, preparing stir-frys, or grilling, and as many of you faithful readers know, I smoke a lot of meat. 

My love of food, both preparing and eating, probably derives from my father, former proprietor of “B.J.’s Diner” in Framingham.  From working there, for him, I got a crash course on food prep, short-order cooking and profanity.  And I took those skills, mostly the profanity, to McDonalds, to my own kitchen, and to the kitchen at Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham.  Along the way, I really thought about what it meant to have a great meal.

Meals can mean a lot.  For some, a great meal is strictly quantity, and for others, it is a certain food that brings back memories of a different time.  In the dark recesses of my mind, I have a lot of great meal memories, a couple of which I’ve referenced before on these pages.  Here are three that standout: 

1)  My father, who likes both quantity and quality, but mostly quantity, once ate 19 lobsters at one meal, at Custy’s Rusty Scupper in Rhode Island.  Sure, they were likely only 1.25 lb lobsters, but they had both claws and the tail, and all the feelers and for a man that stood 5 feet, 6 inches, and only weighed about 150 pounds, it was impressive.  Being witness to my father’s systematic breakdown of these poor crustaceans was like watching Michael DeBakey perform heart surgery at Baylor…confident, expert and precise, leaving no piece of lobster flesh un-eaten (at least as far as my father is concerned-I don’t think DeBakey had the same appetite for organ meat).   All my father needed was a surgical gown and rubber gloves.

Of course, as my dad aged, his appetite waned, and with Alzheimer’s and dementia, he has very little interest in food.  Time has not been kind to him, or his voracious appetite, but the last time I took him to an all-you-can-keep-down Chinese buffet, those poor crawfish had no idea what hit them. 

2.  Taken, in part, from an earlier post:  “House of Roy” was THE Chinese restaurant of my childhood.  This was way before the days of Mandarin and Szechwan cuisine, when all Chinese food came swimming in a brown oyster-style sauce.  This place defined “craphole”; it was a few steps up literally, but several steps down, figuratively.  The floor was collapsing, so you were always leaning left when you walked in.  The bathroom floors weren’t much better, and if you’ve ever been in a bathroom in an old Chinatown building…well, you don’t need any further information. 

For years, we’d truck into Boston’s Chinatown at least twice a month, and dine at the “House”.  We were hooked; we were addicted to that place, like Drago to those injections from Bridgette Nielson.  Sometimes we’d meet other families, sometimes just us, but one thing never changed: the House of Roy Special, and boy, was this special.

Long before I avoided foods that were biblically not kosher (shellfish and pork, for you fans keeping score at home), the “Special” was the apex of gastronomical pleasures.  I only wish I had an old menu so I could explain everything in this bucket of food.  It was a mélange of beef, chicken, shrimp, peapods, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots tossed in the brown sauce.  Poured onto a platter, it was surrounded by fried wontons, and covered with pork strips.  Here me now and believe me later…this was an orgiastic feast for the senses.

My parents promised me that I could have my own Special, the week before my bar mitzvah, as my ticket to manhood.  My father put the gauntlet before me, by saying I could never finish it off, as it was really made for 14 people.  Well, determined to show him…I went deep into training.  I ate light that whole weekend, and didn’t eat at all on Sunday, preparing for Sunday night’s sumptuous repast.  Well, we ordered two, one for the rest of the table, and one for me. 

The anticipation was more than I could bear…I dug into that thing like John Henry, swinging his mighty hammer.  I ate, and ate, and ate some more, and I didn’t make a dent!  The thing was possessed; regenerating itself after every bite I took.  I vaguely recall my father taking the rest, after I passed out into my food coma.  I ate so much; I still think I have some left in me, over 35 years later.

When we left, I don’t think I made it 10 feet from the steps, but I’m sure Roy appreciated it when I decided to decorate the parking lot instead of his rest room.  It was immense, intense, and a fine “how do you do” into the landscape of bingeing, and apparently purging.  Unlike my father, who can consume and immense amount of food, and eat 19 lobsters, I was a mere amateur.  Don’t worry Joey Chestnut, your crown is safe from me.

3.  In November 1992, after a long academic push for both Elayne, and me, our professional licensure exams were in our rear-view mirror:  hers the CPA exam, and mine, the bar!  Our parents decided it would be time to celebrate these occasions; though she had been at Grant Thornton for over a year by then, slacking off, only working the mandated minimum, which back then, was 80 hours a week…in the slow season.  Elayne and I saw it as a chance to celebrate entering our careers, while we came to understand that our parents were really celebrating getting us off the family payroll!  An evening at Spinnaker Italia with a corner table overlooking the Charles on one side and downtown Boston on the other was booked, replete with wine, food and more wine (at least for some).  It was a fine night, with a fine meal…but ended with my mother disappearing for quite a while.  This was well before cell phones, and we had no idea where she went.  She came back, and when pressed for what happened, she merely said she had gone to the restroom, and bumped into someone on the way back.  As we completed our dessert, a young couple, not older than 22 or 23 came by, and could not stop thanking my mother.  It was as if she was the Queen of England and these people had just been granted an audience.  Our entire table exchanged “what the hell???” glances as the couple thanks her some more, and then left.  Now we needed answers.

My mother was not quite inclined to share details, but I have a certain amount of relentlessness in me (geez, is that where my kids get that???).  As the story goes, when my mother was coming back from the bathroom, she walked past that young couple.  They had come the restaurant to celebrate some special event, and had a gift certificate, but the certificate had expired.  Without money to pay, and without a valid gift certificate, they were stuck.  My mother approached a manger, without their knowledge, and paid the bill.  As they were leaving, the manager identified my mother to them, and they thanked her.  Somewhere out there, this story is part of their personal history (if they’re even still together), and if you happen to read this…hi.  Soooooo, our special dinner that night was also made special for them, by a stranger’s kindness, and probably some drunkenness as well.

I’d love to share other people’s stories too, so feel free, dear readers, to email me at criticialpalate at gmail dot com and if fit for human consumption, I’ll post them here to share.

Until next time America…