Food reviews are not my thing. I eat what’s in my bowl.
I do like food for the way it binds people together as reflected by civil rights activist Caesar Chavez:
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him. The people who give you their food give you their heart.”
And I recognize food is more than sustenance. It has so many meanings and associations — from survival to illness; from childhood memories to last meals.
Here are a couple of stories about the food in SoCal.
The Northwood’s Inn is meant to capture the flavor of northern California’s Goldrush days — the 1850’s saloon. The exterior is constructed of redwood logs and plastic snow to place it theatrically in the Sierra Nevadas. On the interior, the lights are low (think Tiffany lamps), the background music lively (think tinkling piano keys), and the wall hangings unique (think huge canvases of nude women). Sawdust on the floor, servings of peanuts to throw on top of the sawdust, and stuffed bears in the waiting area guarantees this to be a restaurant every kid (including me) adores.
My parents took me to Clearman’s on special occasions — when my realtor father sold a piece of property, when one of us celebrated a birthday — stuff of significance. It called to me that night of my reunion. So after an hour of hugs and memories, I slid out of the gathering, crossed the parking lot, and visited the iconic restaurant. My move was not just to see if anything changed (they moved the entrance to the other side of the bar) but to order a baked potato.
As I looked at the dinner plates of those served, I saw the portions remained gargantuan and still included red cabbage cole slaw, huge cuts of steaks, and cheese bread. And there, needing its own separate dinner plate sat the potato I remembered. I thought of my childhood — how did I eat a full meal plus a carbohydrate the size of a small rodent?
I didn’t want to know where foot-long starchy tubers grew or what made them consistently so bulky. Nor did I want to know what went into the cheesy butter sauce slathered from end to end at a depth of three inches. It couldn’t be healthy. It just couldn’t. But order it I did.
With aluminum paper-wrapped potato in a plastic carrying bag, I crossed back through the parking lot and snuck back into my reunion — not in any way missed by members of the class of 1972. While they concentrated on the stories of their school mates, I unwrapped the foil, clicked open the plastic container of cheesy butter sauce, and did my best to re-create the magnificence of the potato of yesteryear.
Sadly, my gargantuan potato with a cheesy butter spread failed me. No magical revelations because of the taste. No ability to transform the moment with its aroma. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Just a spud with sauce.
I finished scraping the meat from its skin with my wobbly white-plastic spoon, put the peel back in the delivery bag, and set it towards the center of the table amidst the empty beer glasses and plates of unfinished onion rings.
I surveyed the crowd of party-goers. Reinvigorated by my Solanum Tuberosum, I spent the rest of the evening hearing the stories of each of my cohort — the interactions and past memories far more satisfying than my Paul Bunyan-sized potato from the Northwoods Inn.
In Old-town Pasadena, it was past dinner time and I was hungry. The ShanDong Dumpling Restaurant called out to me as it appeared somewhat magically on a side street.
When I lived in SoCal in the 1980s, Old-town was the area no one went to — at least at night. Pawn shops, low-end bars, the Salvation Army fit in between storefronts long since abandoned. Over the last 20 years, the area has become hip, chic, cool. As I looked for a place to park, I passed a long line of diners waiting to get into a ramen shop. Restaurants serving poke, sat near Starbucks and high-end clothing stores. Eventually I slid my rental car into a slot and walked the two blocks to the ShanDong Dumpling Restaurant.
There in the window, two ladies made dumplings for the next day. On an industrial aluminum tray, they placed in neat rows perfectly-formed dumplings of many flavors — chicken with celery, pork with sour cabbage, beef with radish, and vegetarian.
I ordered the last and soon had a dozen of those half-moon shapes on a plate in front of me with the preferred vinegar, soy, and hot sauce. I practiced with my chopsticks — I was rusty.
I picked up the first and as soon as the combo of sauces, cooked dough, and vegetable filling hit my taste buds, it took me back to living in Washington DC with my father-in-law. His Chinese friends, Guilin and Sigang, make pot stickers. We prepared a dumpling fest — fried, boiled, and broiled — for my father-in-law who occasionally thought it appropriate to eat 50 or more gyoza at a single sitting.
My efforts to flatten the dough in a perfect round, spoon in the filling, and close up the sides with the characteristic twirl at the top proved less than successful. My dumplings looked lumpy. They had none of the freshness nor symmetry they should have, but Guilin and Sigang were generous in their praise. I learned making a proper-looking, let alone excellent-tasting, dumpling was no mean feat.
Thankfully, ShanDong knew that too, and I savored the remaining 11.
Traveling by air has many disadvantages — additional fares, lengthy security lines, and uncomfortable seats all add to an often, unpleasant, day-long experience. Yet, within the space of a few hours, we travel thousands of miles with little effort expended.
I avoid eating on short flights. It’s expensive and awkward. On a cross-country trip with its lengthy air time, there are not many options. On this particular journey, from Los Angeles to Chicago, I planned to eat on board, only to find that American Air discontinued its catering contract affecting that day’s schedule. We would be limited to beverages. I fell to my back-up plan of packaged tuna and a purchased croissant eaten in the waiting area of gate 47B. And because of the delay and my growing hunger, I opened a second package of tuna and ate that as well.
We boarded. I sat. My stomach growled. Our flight delayed. We sat some more. My stomach snarled more loudly.
The plane pushed back from the gate. Suddenly, I wanted to puke. My body became feverish and I grabbed the bag for motion sickness from the seat pocket in front of me. I thought about my options, but there were none — only a moment of embarrassment for me and yuckiness for my seat mates. I was resolved to see it through. The distasteful deed would be executed; I’d feel better.
As we climbed into the sky, my moment of potential vomiting passed. My fever switched to chills and I felt the aches of flu creep through my body. I put on my winter jacket, zipped it up, folded the paper bag, slipped it under my leg — in case I needed it later.
I reclined the seat and plugged in my headphones to listen to something both calm and distracting. Undiscriminating, I chose set of selections under the heading Opera 101.
In four hours and 19 minutes, we arrived 1,736 miles away from where we began. Once again, the amazingness of air travel took effect, moving us with little effort through time and space. We were none the worse for wear, except for my still-rumbling gastric juices.
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Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist who writes and travels and author of “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website,www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2017: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.