As I brushed my teeth this morning, I had a pang of longing to go to our favorite Chinese restaurant. We'd gone there since the very first week we moved here, eighteen years ago, but just a few months ago a friend had called and said, in the grief-laden, sepulchral tones reserved for what the Old Folks Down South call a "Death Message"---"The RUBY is closed!"
The Chinese Ruby was a wonderful place, of lovely aromas and flavors---a quiet, twilight-lit cocoon where you could snug yourself into a booth and talk quietly, despite the almost-always filled tables of diners. We'd walk in, the hostess would smile and take us to a booth, and all the servers remembered our order perfectly. The food was not exotic in the current sense---not many surprises in the lineup; the food was even in the same place in the same trays each time, like a well-remembered family assembled in their places at the table. The food was just good, well-prepared dishes we'd come to expect and anticipate, and they'd had the same chef for twenty-something years. And then they were gone.
And with them, my nostalgic favorite, which I haven't found in any other place in town. The one time we found it on a menu, it was not the still-crisp pile of bean sprouts, onion, and other thinly-shredded vegetables in a savory sauce with the delicate breath of licorice. We'd ordered it from a local takeout place, and I was disappointed when hunks of peppers and bamboo and chestnuts, in a feeble attempt at the anise flavor came tumbling from the little paper bucket.
All of you who grew up in cities or towns or at least NEAR somewhere which served something besides barbecue, hamburgers and chicken fried steak will probably not understand, but my first taste of Chinese food was when I was maybe ten years old. And it WAS Takeout, of a very special sort.
Scene was the prototype of a sleepy, dusty, Delta day; time was noon dinner. My Mom cooked a big hearty dinner every morning, Daddy walked home from work just a couple of blocks away, and stoked up on peas and cornbread and fried chicken and enough banana pudding and peach cobbler to serve the multitudes. I doubt that we had anything more in our spice cupboards than salt, pepper and cinnamon.
Food was baked, stewed or fried. Or jelled---Southern kitchens were big on Jello salads and all sorts of aspics; every cupboard boasted little yellow Knox boxes, serving dual purposes. Most of it went into aspics and salads and several popular pie recipes, my favorite being orange chiffon, which featured the juice and zest of several big juicy oranges, plus several cups of whipped cream, held into those proud high swirls in the crust by the stabilizing envelope of Knox. And quite a few packets were downed by young ladies in their morning juice, to assure the loveliness of their fingernails.
On this day, Daddy had said he was bringing us a surprise for lunch, so we set the table and awaited his arrival. I walked out back to look down the long green alley separating our row of houses from the ones on the other side of the block, and beheld my Dad, walking along under the shade, with his hands out in front of him on each side. I ran to meet him, and saw that he was bearing two "boilers" like the ones we cooked snap beans and other vegetables in. I know it had been a hard thing to carry those two heavy pots upright by the stickout handles, as they were steaming hot and really heavy.
We made our way to the kitchen, where he whisked off the lids to uncover almost a potful of tiny, gleaming, almost translucent rice grains, perfectly cooked and tender. They were nothing like our usual Mahatma rice, which my Mother swore by until she discovered the magical Uncle Ben's. This rice was sticky and soft and perfect, holding together in little clumps on the fork, and picking up a lovely sheen of the sauce poured upon it rather than drowning in it. The other pot lid revealed the mystery: A grayish, greenish mass of slices and slivers and long strands of strange vegetables enclosed in a gluey substance.
Mother's usual skepticism arose. She sniffed once, not at the food, but in disdain, then headed for the refrigerator for leftovers. I leaned into the vapors drifting from the pot and was imprinted for life. The aromas of garlic and greens and a hint of oil and the merest undertone of licorice were all there. They drew me in, those shreds of bamboo and bean sprouts, strands of thinnest-cut celery and wisps of onion, all velveted into the most luscious-smelling sauce I had ever encountered.
My Mother was persuaded to sit down, and we all helped our plates. He showed us to make a mound of rice, spread it a bit as the cook had showed him, and cover the top with the (a word first for me, but forever imprinted): CHOP SUEY. The first taste was amazing, salty and rich and garlicky and with all the flavours of the stir-fried vegetables. We always started stews and beans and other amalgams with a frying of some onion and bell pepper, but this stir-fry was quite different. I don't think I had ever tasted sauteed celery before, and the bamboo shoots and bean sprouts were as exotic to me as if they'd come from Madagascar that very hour.
Daddy had become friends with the Chinese family who owned one of the tiny grocery stores on the street where he worked, and had smelled the cooking coming from their quarters behind the store. He had asked them to make him a pot of it for us to try, and they had it ready when he got off work at noon.
The store was a smelly little place, with a few cans of vegetables, some smoked meats and maybe a dozen loaves of Wonder Bread on the shelves, some chips and a Coke case and maybe turnips and potatoes and onions in a couple of halved wooden barrels. She could have used the parings and the leftovers and the discards from the vegetable bins, for all I knew, (and I think today, that in those times and their level of subsistence, perhaps she did).
But her cooking skills transmuted a handful of green bits into a wonderful, delicious amalgam of flavors that still sets the standard in my mind for all Chinese cuisine. I still seek out restaurants which cook what I think of as "brown" food---the salty sauces and the grayish mixtures which are seasoned with garlic and onion and soy, rather than all of the sugary/peppery/sesame sauces so prevalent in all those "buffet" places.
We were fortunate to have the Ruby for such a long time; the exact dish was called Chow Mein, but I'd snug a spoonful into the center of my plate, ring it with small servings of Moo Goo and sauteed long beans, fill a little bowl with rice, and pick up my chopsticks. I don't think a Star Trek teleporter could have taken me anywhere better than that first bite---to a hot-South noonday, with my first taste of Chinese food from two battered, borrowed pots.