There’s a cherished memory I’ve told repeatedly in person but never before online. My army buddy Mike became a doctor and was interning in Manhattan. He had shelved his Hispanic wife, boarded over his sons by her, and was living with Sue, a woman of Shanghai culture. Mike and Sue invited Hilary and me to dine at the Say Eng Look, their favorite Chinese restaurant.
Mike can be a good host if a bit grandiose. He’s showing off his status in this restaurant where he and Sue have become regulars. Apparently she was mistreated there initially, the servers being opening hostile to one of their own whoring with a barbarian: but once they returned, repeatedly, she apparently none the worse for wear, the waiters and cashiers and so forth decided that they were OK and treated them like royalty. So Mike wants some of this adulation to spill over onto Hilary and me, so that we’ll be wowed too.
We were. Seated, on a snowy winters night, Mike orders us some bichu, and cans of Budweiser appear at our table: the point being that the Say Eng Look had no liquor license: Mike and party were getting served anyway: illegally!
Mike says, grandly, “Paul! What do you want for an appetizer?” And I say, no slower than a very quick beat, “Jelly fish!” “Jelly fish,” repeats Mike to the hovering waiter.
Now this was odd: the waiter disappeared into the kitchen. In a moment he reappeared, in an overcoat, with an absurdly long scarf like Allec Guiness in The Lady Killers, and flopping loudly in galoshes, his waiter whites showing around the open buckles of the boots, and goes out the door! We shrug and drink our bichu. A couple of mitues later the waiter is back, stamping slush from the galloshes, and carrying a little white pint-size Chinese take-out paper carton. A minute later he’s back out of the kitchen, stripped back down to his serving whites, and he places a platter of gorgeous looking delicately aromatic jelly fish in the midst of our table!
By golly, that’s service! The Say Eng Look had been out of jelly fish that evening, but didn’t want to admit it: especially not to a prized customer and his prized guests!
Aye, time has passed. I haven’t had jelly fish in so long now, haven’t been in NY, let alone China Town, let alone dined.
For those of you who don’t know this great dish: jelly fish is very crunchy. Like so many seafoods it’s a dense meat, but if you didn’t know what you were eating you could easily assume a crunchy veggie: like raw carrots: only here you’d say they were marinated.
NYC was not only the place where I could hear Bird, or Basie, or Billie, where I could see Fellini, Kurosawa, Chaplin, Griffith, but were I could order sheep’s brains in the skull, or a whale steak, snake, or bear. Here in Sebring, even in the Chinese restaurant, all they have is beef, port, chicken. If you want seafood, it’s shrimp, scallops, or shrimp.
Hey, and where else but on East Broadway, just off Chatham Square, could a Chinese kitchen without jelly fish find a quality alternate supply, within a two minute walk?!
PS Mike was an intern at St. Vincents. Sue was in intern, at St. Lukes. Or was she a resident? I think she’d been at it a year longer than he.