Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thanks, Henry!

Monday morning, I got up, ate breakfast, and started the coffee, after which I headed into my office to see what disasters had befallen the world since last night. I also checked the e-mail and, as usual, one of the mails was my daily news digest from the New York Times. And there, in the obits, was the headline:

Henry Chung, Who Helped Bring Hunan’s Flavors to America, Dies at 98

I looked at the coffee cup I'd grabbed. 

One side

The other side
After I got over the shock of the coincidence, I had one of those "I had no idea he was still alive" moments, but I knew the Hunan Restaurant still existed because I'd attempted to go there with a couple of friends a year or so back. It being Easter weekend, it was closed. My friends were a bit skeptical: they'd heard it wasn't as good as it had been. But that just made me want to go more: in the novelty-obsessed world of San Francisco (and elsewhere) foodie-ism, there's always a rush to find the newest, the latest, and the most authentic. The Hunan fulfilled only one of those slots in the 21st century. 

I read the obit with interest. I'd known Henry, but not known a lot about him. Of course, it was impossible to go to the restaurant without knowing Henry: he was as friendly and garrulous a man as ever walked the earth, and it was clear that the restaurant was a mission. I know, because I was an early convert. 

When the Hunan first opened, I was working at City, a magazine where a bunch of ex-Rolling Stoners were working, which was, I surmise from looking at the map, on Pacific just off of Columbus in the bit of San Francisco where Chinatown blends into North Beach. Of course, Broadway is the official boundary, but even back then it was getting blurrier, and the stretch of Kearny between Portsmouth Square and where Columbus crossed it was a bunch of nondescript businesses, as well as a couple of bars and restaurants nobody in their right mind would enter at any time of day. In other words, rent was cheap, just the thing for an ambitious Chinese restaurant startup. I think the only reason Michael Goodwin stopped in there was because it was a new place, not as obviously trashy as its neighbors. Michael was from New York, and he was Jewish, so the soul-food element may have figured in. Or maybe he was just on his way to a deli and passed the exhaust fan. 

In any event, he came into the office, raving. "Hey, check this out!" He had one of those classic cardboard takeout containers with the wire handle. And, when he opened it, an amazing odor came from within. "What is it?" "Smoked ham and vegetables from this new Chinese place." "Wow, where is it?" "That's the best part; it's just around the corner!" And so it was. 

I don't want to pretend that City's patronage at lunch established the Hunan as a hip place to eat, but I do think that the money we spent there was part of what made Henry able to make the rent at first. But only at first: Within a year, it became the first restaurant I'd ever seen that had a line in the street. It didn't hold many people: there were a number of tables ingeniously squidged into the irregular space and a much coveted counter where you could watch Henry and his family prepare the dishes. What you couldn't do was find out what some of the stuff he was using was. Michael innocently asked him one time what kind of wood he used to smoke his ham (and duck) and Henry threw back his head and laughed. "I'm not gonna tell you that!" he said. (Probably this was because he was doing it himself, illegally, if the tale he tells in his cookbook -- that he steamed American bacon or used Canadian bacon -- is to be credited: I know what those things taste like, and, well, no. And, of course, there was the duck.)

My friends and I were frequent enough visitors that he stopped warning us "That's hot" or "Lotta garlic in that one." We'd just say "GOOD" and he'd chuckle and get to work. I can't even remember all of the stuff I enjoyed there over the years. Scallion pancakes, for one. Wow, they were a revelation, although they're common enough these days. Dungeness crab, in season, treated far less politely than the garlic-butter-and-parsley treatment it got at Fisherman's Wharf, and spectacular for what Henry'd done to it. We had a protocol for dining there: if the line hadn't reached Washington by the time we arrived, we'd stand. Two people around the corner and it was too late. Four years after he opened, he'd acquired another property on Sansome, a cavernous place where there was never a problem getting a seat, which is not to say it was often very empty. Same good food, just a long line of woks to prepare it in. 

Shortly after opening the new joint, Henry, with the help of Tony Hiss, a journalist who specialized in China, put out a cookbook. 

My copy
I went down there right away and bought one. 

He got the tall part right
But, with California at my feet and Chinese markets just across the bridge from where I lived, I never made anything out of it. Why should I? Henry and his team did it better than I ever could. In fact, I never attempted any Chinese cooking when I lived in California. Again, why should I?

The reason came to me about a year later, when I packed up everything I owned (including Henry's cookbook) and moved to Austin, a true Chinese food desert. (It pretty much still is.) I may have tried my hand at Chinese, but I never really got it. I did, however, return to San Francisco in 1980 on a visit and I must've eaten at the Hunan, because I got the coffee cup. Somewhere in its peregrinations, it got chipped, as you can see, but the damage wasn't enough to toss it. Anyway, it brought back good memories. 

Another thing I may have picked up on that trip -- or a subsequent one -- was a jar of Henry's Hunanese chile paste. I still wasn't cooking Chinese food because Austin had only one store, on Airport Boulevard, that stocked the necessities and because none of the Chinese cookbooks I had seemed do-able. But I brought it back as a memory aid or something. At any rate, it was in my possession when the Austin Chronicle, to which I was contributing a food column as Petaluma Pete, ran an issue on picnics. I was asked to come up with a couple of recipes and wound up making one of the most inspired mistakes of my career when I made a potato salad out of The Vegetarian Epicure book and accidentally started one recipe and finished it with the recipe on the facing page, all made better by my using green New Mexican chiles. Boy, that was good! And, inspired, I then invented Chinese cole slaw, by taking Henry's "rich salad dressing" recipe and dumping it into the slaw mixture. Wow. 

I finally learned Chinese cooking in Berlin, driven by necessity and using a five-euro Ikea wok. They're not bad learners, although you burn through them soon enough. Eventually I acquired a spun-steel wok like you're supposed to use and got good with the help of cookbooks by Fuchsia Dunlop and the folks at the Big Bowl, a chain I've never even seen, but whose book wound up in my hands. Poor Henry, relegated to the never-used category. 

Nowadays, I almost never eat Chinese food at home: my diabetes flares up with rice and rice products  in a way it doesn't with wheat, although I don't eat much of that, either. Most East and Southeast Asian cuisines also use a lot of sugar. I tend to save my breaking of the diet with Chinese food for the incredible Cuisine Szechuan in Montreal. But Henry's passing sent me to the bookshelf for his book, and I see that a lot of the recipes in it don't call for sugar at all. Hmmm...

And I realize now that Henry Chung is one of my heroes. He was almost 60 that day he signed my cookbook, and he lived to be 98, making people happy and building a little empire of Henry's Hunans with his sons. Hell, he was in his late 50s before he even got started! If that's not something to aspire to I don't know what is. So I raise a glass (but, forgive me, not of one of those awful Chinese spirits) to Henry, and thank him for his life. And for you, I'll tell you how to make Chinese cole slaw:

Henry's Rich Hot & Sour Dressing 

2 Tablespoons sesame seed paste (or crunchy peanut butter)
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
4 Tablespoons vinegar (I'd use rice vinegar here)
1 Tablespoon hot red pepper oil
1 teaspoon hot red pepper powder (you could also use Hunanese chile paste if you can find it to    substitute for these two ingredients)
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 Tablespoon finely minced scallions
1 Tablespoon white wine (the book was written before Shao Shing became widely available, and I'd suggest that instead)
1 teaspoon hot mustard (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
1-2 cups chicken broth

Combine. Dump over slaw vegetables and let it sit a couple of hours, then mix before serving. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

When I'm 68 1/2

I don't get asked to do this sort of thing much anymore, which is fine with me, since for the most part I'd rather write about other things or work on my book, but someone was kind enough to send me the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper last week, and I decided to play it last night. Herewith, some thoughts. 

* * *

The weird thing is not that Sgt Pepper is fifty years old, it occurred to me this morning as I lay abed looking for a good reason to get up at the ungodly hour of 7:30. It's that I was only 18 ½ when it came out, and that I found it inevitable when it happened. I'd already gone to San Francisco, where the good folks at 1836 Pine, the people who'd started the Family Dog, took me in for a few days while I roamed around the fragile, doomed attempt at Utopia they were building. One night they'd left a tab of acid on the dining room table for me, because they trusted I could handle it, but I didn't take it. Not yet, I thought. That had been February, and I was supposed to bring back a report for Aspen, the magazine in a box. I'd dutifully interviewed Alan Cohen, one of the proprietors of Haight Street's Psychedelic Shop and one of the editors of the Oracle newspaper, who was articulate enough, while at the same time (although this bit didn't make it into the excerpt they ran) gently suggesting that the thing to do wasn't, as Scott McKenzie suggested in his about-to-become-a-hit "San Francisco (Flowers In Your Hair)", to come there, but to make it happen in your own home town. That advice certainly resonated with me, and when, a month or so later, I returned to college, I found, unsurprisingly, that a lot of my friends there were of the same mind. That's when I took the acid. 

I'd caught as much music as I could in my few days in California, most notably the "Second Annual Tribal Stomp" on either February 17th or 18th, headlined by Big Brother and the Holding Company, which I recorded on a remarkable new tape format called the cassette, a recording that was in high enough fidelity that it awaits a friend's attention and, presumably, the permission of the Joplin estate, to be publicly issued. 

I wuz dere!
I also got to see Country Joe & The Fish at the Old Cheese Factory (aka Finnish Hall) in Berkeley, another show at the Avalon with Lee Michaels and (visiting from L.A.) the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and, just around the corner from the Pine Street house, the Light Sound Dimension and the Orkestra, a psychedelic "multi-media" event (ie, a light show and some horrible music courtesy of future Manson murderer Bobby Beausoleil) that I remember walking out on.  

This kind of thing appealed to me more than the Beatles, although they'd caught my attention with Rubber Soul and even more with Revolver, but, in a way I didn't yet understand, things were different in England, no matter that George Harrison visited Haight Street a little after I did, after soaking up the Monterey Pop Festival. I liked music that jumped off a cliff, hoping for the best, because I knew it could be very good indeed when it took flight. Like most Americans, I didn't get pop music, which, as they were about to make perfectly clear, was the milieu the Beatles (and not the Rolling Stones, whom I preferred, of course) inhabited.

Still, there was no denying the power of this thing when it appeared a couple of months after I returned to school in March.  Everybody bought a copy, myself included, and it just as it was reported happened throughout the Haight-Ashbury, it poured out of dorm windows, open to the newly-hatched spring. Everybody was listening to it, all the time. I was. I don't even remember where I got my copy, but it was presumably in the campus bookstore like everyone else. (Not necessarily: I was also known to catch rides to Dayton, where a sort of hip record division of one of the big department stores stocked things like Kinks singles, which I couldn't live without). 

Of course, due to its ubiquity, Sgt Pepper became one of the first models of a problem all pop potentially has: being enjoyed to death. I'd kind of like to look at my copy of the thing again (it's nearby, buried in the bowels of the Barker Texas History Center in an archive where I donated all my vinyl many years ago) to see just how worn it was. I listened to it a lot, perhaps expecting more revelation than was actually in the grooves, which was a product not only of the times, but of my being a teenager. I know that there soon came a point when I no longer listened to it, and in fact, until the release of the complete Beatles catalog on CD a few years ago, I hadn't paid it any attention at all until I was obligated to for a Fresh Air piece

And so to last night, when I lugged the 5 lb. 14 oz. box (I just weighed it) onto the couch and opened up the facimile album cover with its six discs and figured I'd listen to the work-in-progress stuff as much as I could, and then onward to what was supposed to be Giles Martin's astounding new mix of the original. 

Image stolen from Rolling Stone
I was actually surprised. I got through three of the CDs: the two of studio snippets (including work on both "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields") and the stereo mix of the final product. The studio stuff was fun, and, in the case of George Harrison leading the Indian and Western string players through the instrumental track of "Within You, Without You," quite engaging, since I'd never realized that he actually had much knowledge of Indian musical vocabulary. (There's nothing particularly challenging about the track, but what he does is make sure the Indians adhere to his sense of time, which is different from the one in which they're used to operating). 

In a number of cases, the unfinished tracks have details that are in the finished product, but ones of which I'd been unaware and which the new mix -- every bit as spectacularly detailed as I'd read it was -- makes audible. The harp and string bits for "She's Leaving Home" are presented naked, which is fine with me: I remember hearing this and thinking "Jeez, 'Eleanor Rigby' but more mawkish!" And the sharp new sound re-emphasizes the Beatles' instrumental acumen even when the final product ("Good Morning," "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite") is less than interesing. Oh, and speaking of instrumental acumen, nobody who hears this will ever again accuse Ringo Starr of being a plodding dimwit. He and George can battle it out for the title of Most Virtuosic Beatle. 

The best part of not having listened to this record in at least eight years (that Fresh Air program is dated 2009, and I doubt I listened too hard then) is that I was able to take it in without nostalgia, as an event happening in May, 2017. I guess at some point I'll look at the little film on the making of the record, and for sure I'll read most of the hardback book that gives the package most of its heft, because it's not by the Usual Suspects, but people like Joe Boyd, whose take on the times (if his superb book White Bicycles is any indication) should be fresh and un-cliched. 

As for the fifty years that have passed since I first slipped this on to my record player, it's been full of surprises, some delightful, some not. When I was 64, there was no one to feed me (I can do that myself quite well), no kids (let alone grandkids), and (thank heaven) no holidays on the Isle of Wight -- and it's still that way. But I get by with a little help from my friends, and, as someone once said, tomorrow never knows. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Changes, Part 1

What, no posts since Christmas Eve? But that's what it says here, so it must be true.

The why is a combination of things. I was homeless -- technically -- for a couple more months after that last post, and having to move yourself back into a house that's not quite what it had been is, in some ways, worse than moving in for the first time. I'm still repairing damage the contractors did, and my landlord has kindly consented to repair other damage, like putting curtains back up and getting lights to work. It was several weeks after I moved back that the place was even slightly functional, and it still isn't: there's more shelving to buy and stuff to put onto the shelving. As a matter of fact, there's an uncompleted shelf here in the office that's just waiting for another pair of hands to get it started. Then, perhaps, I can put the books that are sitting in the middle of the floor up onto the unit and be able to walk across the room.

None of this made me want to write about it, though. I mean, you spend a day hauling boxes out of the garage, tossing books that have tufts of mold growing on them (the result of the idiot contractors not dealing with them correctly -- hundreds of dollars of books and CD box sets in the garbage), dealing with the mold's effects on your respiratory system, and you're just plain too tired to write, not to mention wondering who'd want to read it.

The other stereo speaker was in here somewhere. Took a month to find it, though.

The mess in the garage, early on

Then there's the fact that it seems a Sisyphean task, putting this all in order. But, like I said, I've mostly done it. Or made a big dent in it, anyway.

I used the opportunity of this change in my life to make some other changes. Anticipating the book advance for the second (and -- whew! -- final) volume of the rock and roll history, I went and bought a new car. Well, not new, exactly, but one with the new tech I'd admired in the Peugeot I'd rented last spring in France, and the old tech of a CD player. I've got a lot of CDs, a lot I haven't yet listened to. Having a car that'll take me as far as I want to go, assuming I keep it gassed up, I'll have that opportunity.

I've already made a couple of trips in it, because I've been promoting the first volume of the history: to Cactus Records in Houston, for instance, doing an in-store in a store where Hank Williams did an in-store (they have pictures on the wall).

Almost got writer's cramp
Also went for a couple of days in Galveston, since I don't enjoy swimming, but beach towns are cool in the winter. This particular one is a weird mixture of touristy and off-beat.

Architect here seems to have been a bit confused...
Anything to get out of that attic!

I also went to New York on a book project that didn't work out, and, of course, a quick trip to Montreal, which is always fun.

But inevitably, I had to come back and try to get back to work. I'm almost there, but, well, there are some changes.

First, I got some awful news: my book hadn't sold very well, and my advance for the next one would be halved. This hit me hard: being homeless had cost me several thousand dollars I'd rather not have spent (okay, including the trips). I should have seen it coming. Inexplicably, it didn't get reviewed a lot and only one of them was in a major newspaper. Fortunately, it was very good. But the New York Times didn't chime in. More seriously, the radio show for which I've labored for over 30 years, presenting rock and roll history in much the way I do in the book, refused to have me on to talk about it. This is a big deal: Fresh Air is one of the major media outlets for new books. And, on a personal level, two of its other contributors had books out last year, and they did get on. No reason was given for their shunning me. Believe me, I asked.

So I quit.

I quit because in my world, you don't treat people like that. To tell the truth, it felt good, although it means there'll be a little less money coming in (not much: this is NPR), but I'm working hard on replacing that exposure for my work and ideas. Stay tuned.

I also realized that I was going to be back to something I knew how to do: live frugally. The trip to Europe I'd planned for, well, right about now, had to go, although I'd really like the kind of spiritual rejuvenation these trips give me, but even though I know well how to do them inexpensively, I really couldn't do it at the moment. And by "spiritual," I don't mean the Romanesque churches I obessively seek out, but, rather, the luxury of being in a different, and, to me, more congenial society, where people are for the most part more civil towards each other and cooperation can edge out competition as a reason for doing things. To say the least, I am not living in that society at the moment.

In fact, I may be the only person I know who saw this alleged surprise of an election coming. I have not been very happy moving back to the States, and the State of Texas in particular, since outside the bubble of Austin there are some nasty people here. Two of them represent this state in the Senate, for instance. But Americans seem so addicted to spectacle, to what I've come to think of as the Entertainment Industrial Complex, that electing a reality TV star over a wealthy, unpopular, and subtle woman was a no-brainer. I suspect the country will survive, but I also think it's broken, and won't be even close to fixed for many decades to come.

Exactly what I'll do about this I can't say. Obviously, given what I do for a living, I can't make long-range plans, so, as I jokingly tell people, I live like the alcoholics: a day at a time, except I can have a couple of beers or some wine with dinner.

But it's time for some changes. The title of this blog, for instance, has come to mean something utterly different than when I jocularly started it with this name. I was moving to a city that, at least in its center, where I was living, actually was on a hill. (Well, according to geographers, three hills, but not so's you'd notice). Now, there are echoes of Ronald Reagan, invoked by today's elected extremists as an icon, although he'd likely be horrified at their behavior. I knew it had its origin in a Jonathan Edwards sermon, but, well, I'd like a different name for it, and a different look, perhaps.

And because my book pretty much vanished from public sight (I realized this when Chuck Berry died, and I didn't get a phone call to comment or do an article or anything), I need to use it to promote my book, my next book, and all my other projects as they come along. So I have to get back into that.  I need to post short bits of promotion instead of long posts like this most of the time, and I need to get more active because I'm an utter failure at Twitter and the rest of that (pretty good with Facebook, which may have sent some of you over here), but little bits of blog posts will be easy enough.

Reminder: Here's what it looks like, folks. Paperback coming later in the year, but why not buy a hard-cover now?
But right now, I need a new name for my blog that will better reflect my -- and our -- new reality.

No, hold on. Right now, I need to get out and take a walk. With Texas, you never know when the last day of the first half of the year will be, after which it'll be too hot to do that, and I find that an hour's walk brightens things up immeasurably. Not much else is gonna do it today while our elected government is condemning the poor to a slow, agonizing death, so since it's sunny, the birds are singing, and the temperature is temperate, I'm outta here.

See you in the future.
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