The trips to Manhattan became grew more infrequent as my Dad got older. He got tired of the drive, the traffic, and all of the frustrations of driving to the big city for stuff he couldn’t find elsewhere. When I was little the trips to Chinatown seemed to be every other week. Dad needed specific ingredients and Chinatown was the source for everything he needed. I didn’t mind the trips much at all. He would toss me a few bucks so I could go to the arcade and play Skee Ball while he shopped. Real Skee Ball with the old heavy wood balls, not the cheap plastic balls used in the arcade game nowadays.
Lunch was at one of Dad’s favorite places, the type of Chinatown restaurant that White People never ate at. I never liked authentic Chinese food. So while I didn’t mind the car trips I knew my lunch would be challenging. I also knew the house would smell bad when we got home and Dad started cooking authentic. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of eating (or attempting to eat) authentic Chinese food you know exactly what I mean.
There’s a giant Vietnamese grocery store in OKC called Super Cao Nguyen. The place is huge and was opened in 1979 by refugees from the war. They claim to be OKC’s oldest ethnic supermarket and I believe them. Over the years the store has gotten bigger and clearly has become more of an international grocery store rather than just Vietnamese. I bring this up only because of the way the store smells. The store smells like my childhood. The smells inside this store are not pleasant but they remind me of the trips I made to Manhattan as a kid. Of course it’s not the same but when you live in Oklahoma you can’t be too picky. I don’t shop at Super Cao often, but every now and then I need some decent soy sauce. I think the smells keep me away.
Dad was one hell of a good cook. Way back in my twenties I shared an apartment with a coworker and friend. Joe and I had the ultimate bachelor pad and I did a lot of the cooking. One day Joe paid me the highest compliment a home cook could get.
“You’re the best everyday cook I know.”
The best everyday cook I’ve known in my life was my Dad (when not making authentic mainland smelly dishes). To repeat, I’m not a big fan of authentic Chinese cuisine. But Dad made two dishes that I remain quite fond of. One dish was steamed sea bass with a soy dipping sauce. The fish was always fresh, flavorful and satisfying. When the family finished one side of the fish Dad would take his chopsticks and flip the fish over where a second substantial portion was waiting. As is the custom in many cultures Dad would let the family pick away at the best parts of the fish while eating less, allowing the rest of us to get our fill. There was always plenty of fish for everyone but Dad had this peculiar habit that the family all knew was coming but dreaded nonetheless. He would look around the table and then ask if we all had enough.
“Yeah Dad, I’m full.”
Then he did what he always did.
“Does anyone want the eyes?”
First the eyes were popped out of their sockets and eaten. Then he did what he always did after eating the eyes:
“Does anyone want the head?”
“Uh, no Dad. You can have the head.”
The fish head was then deftly severed from the rest of the skeleton. And with a quick flip of the chopsticks Dad placed the fish head in his mouth with the fish mouth facing all of us and began to suck out the fish brains. I’m somewhat surprised I still eat sea bass. I only wish we had cellphones back then so I could have taken a picture for posterity.
The other dish Dad made that I willingly ate was tofu. This is a food that sends shivers up most people’s spines. Most people don’t care for the texture which is somewhere between sponge and soft rubber. Others don’t care for the taste which baffles me because tofu has no taste. You have to fry it, dry it, press it, smother it in sauce and/or mix it up with a lot of vegetables and you’ll be fine. I love tofu.
According to my two offspring I have made only two dishes that were absolute inedible disasters. One was mustard chicken. The other was tofu tacos. I admit both dishes were bad and I never made them again. Unfortunately the bad memories persist and on occasion I would be reminded of my culinary mishaps.
Most tofu now comes packaged in small plastic tubs and water. In Chinatown the tofu squares of my youth were floating in a large wooden barrel. Somehow Dad turned these floating tofu boats into Fried Tofu with Broccoli. At least with this dish I didn’t have to watch anyone put an entire fish head in his mouth and suck out the brains.
If anyone ever wondered why I can’t eat crawfish in the traditional manner, now you know.