|Dangerspouse Rides Again|
Garage - Track
Feb. 16, 2013 - 10:51 a.m.
My wife. The pig.
One of these 2 animals has cherries for eyes. The other is possessed. You decide:
That's NewWifey(tm) and, um, me at the local hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurant we've been frequenting since 1999. It's a tiny place shoehorned between a large smelly laundromat and a small smelly liquor store in a strip mall off a busy highway. But they serve some of the best Cantonese cuisine this side of Mott Street, and last weekend we rang in the Year of the Snake at their annual New Year's Buffet.
I was almost killed there.
The buffet they set out for this fete every year is staggering, packed to the bilges with stuff they normally hide from us Gwailo the other 364. (Including that pig, which extended back a good four feet behind those maraschino eyes). I won't bore you with too many details...because I don't know them. Even though each dish had a little hand printed card in front of it, I don't think I recognized three quarters of the names. I mean, what the hell is "Five Dragon Smiling Pearl Nests"? And how is it different from the "Smiling Dragon Nested Pearls" right next to it? They looked completely different, and completely unidentifiable. The entire table was like that.
Well, most of the table was like that. It was hard to disguise things like an entire fish (either a large carp or a small shark) a whole duck (I knew it was a duck and not a chicken because they left the bill and webbed feet on) and that pig. Good thing too, because the cards in front of them were as mystifying as the rest. "Jade Terraced Happiness" was what they were calling the fish, for instance.
A few others I was able to parse out based on experience. "Thousand Year Old Eggs" is pretty standard (NewWifey(tm) wouldn't touch them), and skewers of whole lobster tails alternating with massive sea scallops was tough to mistake. NewWifey(tm) did get crossed up at dessert by some deep fried balls covered in sesame seeds, though. The card stated they were "Pearl Clouds of Happiness Dragon". But she was sure they were actually "Deep Fried Sesame Balls with Sweet Bean Paste" with a fancy name to justify the New Year's hoopla. When she bit into one though, she recoiled violently from the shrimp, hot chilli paste and salt cured radish that shot out. Not a good match with her almond cookie, I guess.
Now, about that whole duck....
I love duck. Love. I would marry a duck if I lived someplace like Arkansas where that's legal. I love duck.
NewWifey(tm) does not love duck. In fact, she hates duck.
Consequently, we never have duck.
But there, right there on the buffet table about 3 feet to the left of the pig in that picture, was an entire glazed, steaming, glistening, honeyed, fragrant, reddish, brownish, beckoning seductress of a whole duck. A Peking Duck, with a mounded pile of puffy homemade Peking Duck pancakes along with bowls heaped with shredded scallions, julienned cucumbers, and Hoisin sauce next to it. (The card in front of it said "Phoenix and Jade Pearl Happiness", btw.)
By the time I worked my way to that duck I already had a nearly full plate of "Jade Terraced Happiness" and various Pearl/Dragon iterations. But when I saw it I immediately set the whole thing down on the table behind me, no doubt surprising the couple sitting there, and reached across three people to grab a clean plate. I wanted duck. I didn't care if that was all I ate for my $25.99. I wanted duck.
However there was one problem. Lying there on the platter was the whole duck. The uncarved whole duck. The kind of duck that restaurants don't normally serve when you order "Peking Duck". Normally when you order "Peking Duck" at a Chinese restaurant they slice the meat off so you can make your own little stuffed pancakes without biting into things like bones or bills.
Not here. There was just one entire head-to-feet whole duck lying on the buffet table, unsliced. Was each person in line supposed to take an entire duck and butcher it at his or her table?
If so, I was perfectly willing to do that. As a one time hoity-toity French chef with the big hat and everything I could have had that thing deboned and plated for pick-up faster than you can read this sentence. But there was only one duck lying there, and - much as it went against my inner inclinations - I didn't want to take the last one and stiff the people behind me. People who might be armed. This is Jersey.
But I certainly wasn't going to just walk past that duck, either. This was my once a year shot.
I stood there looking around frantically and with increasing panic, figuring there had to be a platter of pre-sliced duck hidden somewhere. Maybe someone had moved it to the other side of the "Pearls of Dragon Phoenix", or under the (untouched) braised stuffed sea cucumbers ("Jade Pearls and Cloud Happiness"). But...nothing. Just that whole duck lying there, mocking me and my empty plate.
Then I saw it: the handle of a cleaver. It was just visible to the side of that pig with the maraschino eyes. The chef had come out to slice the pig but must have forgotten something in the kitchen and went back to get it. Laying the knife on the cutting board for a second while he did.
I only hesitated long enough to make sure the owner's wife, who was playing hostess for the evening, was nowhere to be seen. I vaulted over some octogenarian who was doddering along with a tiny bowl of tapioca pudding ("Silver Pearl Joy Clouds") and grabbed the cleaver.
I had a knife, but no fork. I needed one to hold that duck down while I cut into it. At home I just would have used my bare hand, but there in the middle of a crowded restaurant with others around me expecting to get some duck too, I didn't think that would go over too well.
Fortunately there was a pair of serving tongs in the bowl of shredded scallions, so I grabbed them. They were one of those cheap sets of tongs with the thick plastic ends that people who don't know how to use real tongs buy so they don't dig furrows into their non-stick cookware when turning a carrot. I hate them, but figured they could hold a duck down.
First of all, they were stupid half-sized appetizer tongs that could only open wide enough to grab one drumstick. And the stupid FUCKING plastic tong-ends were SO FUCKING SLIPPERY that when I grabbed the drumstick and touched the cleaver to the breast the entire thing spun like a propeller. This was a whole duck, remember, not a half-duck like they serve at some restaurants and are stable and easy to cut because there's a flat side stabilizing it. A whole duck is basically a 4 pound football of meat covered in greasy skin. And in the case of Peking Duck, slathered with honey or Karo syrup on top of that. Imagine a rugby ball filled with pudding and coated in 5/30 motor oil sitting on a plate.
Now imagine you have to carve that rugby ball. But you can only use one finger of one hand to hold it down while you cut with the other. That's what it was like trying to slice that duck with those STUPID FUCKING TONGS. No matter what I did it kept spinning and rolling in a maddening dance of evasion.
Speaking of "mad", that's exactly what the people behind me were getting. This little comedy with the spinning duck had only gone on for about 20 seconds or so, but 20 seconds or so of stopped traffic on a $24.99 buffet line is asking for trouble where I live. I started to hear low grumblings behind me, and I knew from experience they would go to loud grumblings, then physical violence, very quickly if I did not move it. I had to do something, and fast. (This whole time, I should mention, NewWifey(tm) was doggedly working her way through a plate full of food while remaining resolutely oblivious to the fiasco her husband was embroiled in not 10 feet away. As usual.)
Finally in desperation I let go of the tongs, raised the cleaver, and slammed the heel straight down onto the top of the duck. It punched a hole right through the breastbone and halfway down to the tail. One more shot and I'd have a clean half of a duck and as many pancakes as I could stuff in my pockets. I raised the cleaver again.
And the owner's wife came around the corner.
"HE GOT KNIFE!" she immediately yelled to the chef through the swinging kitchen doors, in absolute pitch-perfect 1970's stereotyped Chinese-American Engrish.
Of course what she meant was, "A customer got THE knife". As in, the knife that the chef left on the cutting board by mistake.
Of course what the other diners heard was, "HE GOT KNIFE!" As in, "OH MY GOD HE'S GOT A KNIFE!" As in, "OH MY GOD, HE'S GOT A KNIFE AND IT'S GONNA BE ANOTHER COLUMBINE AND SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL AND -"
And this wasn't gonna end well, I could tell.
At that point the best thing that could have happened, I suppose, did happen. The chef came out, and he was carrying an even bigger cleaver. It was one of those cleavers you see cartoon characters use to cut cars in half. Everybody in the place stepped back.
"YOU NO TOUCH KNIFE! YOU NO TOUCH DUCK! DISPLAY ONLY!" (He obviously attended the same ESL class as his wife.) He waved his own cleaver over his head in a wild display of gesticulation while he screamed at me. I put my knife down.
He pointed the tip of the cleaver at me, and still at full volume: "THAT DISPLAY ONLY! I CUT MORE DUCK NOW! YOU WANT DUCK YOU ASK WAITRESS! THAT DISPLAY ONLY!"
Then, just like that, he disappeared back into the kitchen. Nobody in the place moved. Not even the staff.
Or rather, nobody in the place except one moved. There was a persistent "click click click" coming from our table as NewWifey(tm), still pretending none of this was happening, continued picking at her pile of food with the plastic chopstics she was holding in a white knuckle grip.
Gradually, though, the place started to thaw. Once it was established that I wasn't some patriot intent on vigorously exerting my 2nd Amendment rights on them, it was back to the food. They'd all paid $24.99 for this spread, after all, and most of them hadn't even had a shrimp ball yet. They weren't going home without their fill of "Phoenix Pearls in Dragon Nest" if there was no actual danger of them being slaughtered.
Thankfully, amazingly really, 2 minutes later the chef came out with both a platter of perfectly sliced duck and a new whole "DISPLAY ONLY!" duck to replace the one that now had a gaping wound in its back. He looked at me the entire time to make sure I got the point. I did. But I was also first in line to get some of that duck when he left.
As I sat across from NewWifey(tm) stuffing pancake after pancake with duck meat, smearing them with Hoisin sauce and jamming them into my mouth, she said "Isn't there someplace else you can sit?"
"Nope. It's a full house. Just pretend I'm some guy who they couldn't put anywhere else and they stuck him with you. Like at our wedding."
"Seriously honey, do you always have to -"
"Ooooo! He's cutting the pig!!"
Directly behind NewWifey(tm) the chef who'd only moments ago was waving a cleaver at me was now using that cleaver to slice the giant porker. The other porker. This is always one of the high points of any New Year's feast, and they really play it up here. A waitress banged a giant brass gong and yelled "Gung Hay Fat Choy!", the lights were flipped off so it was pitch dark, and the owner's wife set off a string of indoor firecrackers that were just unbelievably loud in that long, narrow dining room. Then a spotlight flipped on illuminating the chef, who'd donned a gold silk ceremonial jacket for the occasion. He still looked pissed.
But pissed or not, or maybe because he was pissed, he made short work of that pig. In just about 5 minutes everything on one side of the animal, from jowels to trotters, was hacked into even pieces and stacked in 4 neat piles. It was something to watch.
NewWifey(tm) was pretty impressed too, although she declined to join me on line for a share of it. She was still trying to get the taste of that hot-shrimp-and-radish sesame ball out of her mouth, so she opted for more desserts instead. I sat across from her demolishing my pig while she worked her way through more pastries.
At the end everyone applauded, and the now less grumpy looking chef and his hostess wife waved at all of us from the far end of the room. I paid our check, helped NewWifey(tm) on with her coat, hoisted her bag, and walked us back to the car.
The drive home was dead silent. We were too stuffed to talk. It must have been painful for NewWifey(tm), because I know she wanted to let me have it for grabbing that cleaver.
We got back to Danger House, pulled into the garage and got out. NewWifey(tm) grabbed her bag - an oversized Vera Bradley embroidered monstrosity - from the back seat where I'd set it.
"Why does my bag feel so heavy?" she said. She opened the top, reached down, and pulled out what looked like a napkin covered football.
"You didn't!" she shrieked. "This DISPLAY ONLY! DISPLAY ONLY!!"
Using all my ninja skills, when the lights went dark in the restaurant and everyone was startled by the fireworks I made my move. No one suspected a thing, least of all Mr. "Angly Chef". Wrapping the purloined duck in a couple of napkins and sliding the whole thing into NewWifey(tm)'s cavern of a bag was a piece of cake.
Or rather, a piece of "Happy Cloud with Five Pearls".
The next morning I stuck it in a steamer basket, made a batch of those pancakes, and demolished the entire thing for breakfast. It was the best tasting display I'd ever had (and I've had several now, actually). NewWifey(tm), still miffed and still not liking duck, turned up her nose and toasted a bagel. Her loss.
All in all then, the Year of the Snake got off to about as good a start as I could have hoped for. I didn't get caught or killed by an angry Chinese chef, which is always a plus. And I got my fill of "Phoenix and Jade Pearl Happiness", something that rarely happens. True, NewWifey(tm)'s fancy Vera Bradley bag now smells like an Asian barbeque pit and has a few grease stains on the inside. But I'm sure she'll put the cleaver down and start talking to me again one of these days soon.
Of course, the first thing she'll say will be, "YOU NO TOUCH! THIS DISPLAY ONLY!"
But when the lights go off I'll employ my ninja skills again. It'll be like taking candy from a baby. Or "Dragon Phoenix Happy Clouds" from a baby, anyway.
(And if you're ever at the Peking House on Rt.23 in Butler NJ and see a sweaty Gwailo holding a cleaver, stop me and say hi. I'm not for display only.)