Sunday, February 18, 2007

Enter the Red Fire Boar!

The Year of the Red Fire Dog is past
Fancy origami depicts Chinese description of the Lunar New Year which began today (18 February 2007). In China and much of Southeast Asia this is a major festival celebrated with much visiting to family, friends, and bosses (whether political, economic, familial, tribal, societal or ideological). There is much cleaning of houses and finances. The small statues or pictures which represent the kitchen gods have their mouths smeared with fat so they will speak well of the family when they fly off to report to heaven at this time. Many foods prepared in traditional ways are served. Each region, each village, has its specialties and rituals that are similar to but not the same as those elsewhere on the continent. Festivities take ten days or more. What I report here is possibly apocryphal and not necessarily universal, but what I have been told. As no offense is intended, I willing apologize for any errors in advance.

Here at Dum Luks our celebration is less extensive. We use it as a good reason to make dim sum for a few friends.

My connection to things Chinese began when I was but a child. Earle, as part of his role as a manager, was active in a local businessman's group. It might have been the Chamber of Commerce, or it might have been something else. The group stood sponsor for a local Cantonese restaurateur's family with the INS. Earle approached this situation as a typically practical engineer would. Since the group was financially liable if the restaurant didn't succeed, he took his family to eat there. Often. It was no hardship as the food was excellent. I was maybe eight the first time we went.
We quickly learned that dishes were to be shared. Variety was better than a surfeit of one dish. We quickly developed favorites. Spring rolls we ignorantly called egg rolls and could not do without. No other spring rolls anywhere else have ever been quite as good as those first ones we ate at Kam Lan's. You will dispute that based on where you had your first spring roll. That will be your Michelin standard than which there is no than whicher. Another was pressed duck. But after these essentials were mentioned Earle would tell Charlie -- of course he was known as Charlie. This was the Midwest where the melting pot worked or we would know the reason why. "Charlie," Earle said, "Just bring us what you think we will like." And Charlie did just that. And we did like it.
We asked Charlie why he called his restaurant "Kam Lan's" He told us that Kam Lan was an ancient capital of China similar to King Arthur's Camelot. I have never found any other reference to this.
Charlie and Kam Lan's did flourish for many a year past my knowledge. Two or three years ago I found a web site for the restaurant. Alas it is not findable now. I suspect that Charlie's great grand children have moved well on from his early hard scrabble days in the land of the golden mountain.

During my several cross country treks as a student there were always two sub-quests to the main reason for traveling. First was finding a cafe that served real hash brows. Occasional successes were to be savored. "Real hash browns" means they started from an actual potato you could wash the dirt off of less than a day before. It meant that the potato was cut into quarter inch cubes and not miscellaneous gratings. It meant that the potato had never been frozen or dehydrated or reconstituted -- but I digress. The second sub-quest was to find a Chinese "greasy spoon" for dinner. To call them "greasy spoons" was a calumny of the first water. What we meant by that was, not to cast aspersions on the sanitation, but that the decor was unprepossessing. An absence of glitter and glitz was warrant to me that the food was good enough not to need distractions. Most of the time I was right. I remember one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that was significant because my trail mate and I had stopped in a haberdashery so I could buy my first (and last) Stetson just before we found it. Just off the main drag on a side street was a narrow store front with plate glass windows flanking a central glass paned door. The glass had that vaguely fuzzy look that comes of being cleaned for decades. It could no longer sparkle. But it wasn't dusty. To say it was dusty meant that you hadn't really looked. Inside the air was redolent of oriental herbs, peanut oil and ginger. Paper lanterns shrouded the bare bulbs that lit the tall ceiling and cast a dim hazy bistro light on the tables. Booths lined one wall and a half dozen tables of various sizes filled the other side. Each table had a white cloth that had seen the inside of the laundry tub and the starch bucket many times. The large menu bound in hazed plastic sealed with black tapes held a plethora of choices. The tantalizing promise of the menu was exceeded by the food.
Here I'll pause. As Mark Twain said, "It's a terrible death to be talked to death. So every now and again I pause to allow you to escape." But please return for more of China and Dum Luks and many New Years.
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