Last week I accompanied Veruca on a class trip to Chinatown (Philly). The Chinese teacher gave the students strict instructions to be respectful, walk no more than two astride, and absolutely “no frog on school bus.” I was given an itinerary with a list of students I was supervising (hey – I did NOT sign up for THAT) and we passed under the Friendship Gate – a beautifully painted arch that marks the entryway into Chinatown.
We split into 3 groups for shopping. The first store had knickknacks, books (particularly one on Chinese medicine, which I would like to explore again), dishes, some Bruce Lee Kung-Fu statues in various stages of combat, and beautiful CHOPSTICKS (which I bought). The second store was a Hello Kitty store – need I say more?
The last was a grocery – boxes of fruit lined up outside and large vinyl refrigerator flaps covering the entryway. I followed V and her friends inside where she snatched up a bag of these candies she’s always swiping from the nail salon. I wandered around, the funky “off” smell burning a hole in my sinuses, looking at the meat cases filled with normal everyday things and then some obscenely long pig legs with hooves still intact. I snapped some pictures of the fish display in the back, which was quite impressive, and no – I am not embarrassed. Someone said the fish area was disturbing but I still don’t know why, unless she was referring to the football-sized bloody fish head, its eyes facing the back wall. I wandered downstairs and bought chili sauce, sesame chili oil, and seaweed wraps.
Afterward, we walked around the block to a very small Asian bakery where we entered in waves. It was hotter than a South Street pizza shop in there, so I bought a butter cream bun and hightailed it back outside. V and friends bought Bubble Tea that resembled a pink smoothie with little black balls floating in the bottom that you’d suck up through the straw. They were oddly, simultaneously slimy and spongy and I was afraid to ask but I did. They’re tapioca balls.
Next stop – the Chinese restaurant that was booked for lunch. I googled this place the night before just to see what it looked like, what the menu was like, etc. and the first thing to come up was a series of Yelp reviews, which everyone knows is just a bitch-board because everyone’s a food critic. HOWEVER. One review pointed out the very real news that this restaurant was responsible for the largest food poisoning incident in recent Philadelphia history. Over 100 people in one day, in 2015. I googled the article and found more – as recent as last summer – meat stored at temps above 50 degrees and black mildew inside an ice machine, just two of TWENTY health code violations in a single visit. Who’s hungry now?
So we sit down. All I can think of is – what is the safest thing to eat that is least likely to lead to explosive diarrhea and vomiting? And – I’ll have water – NO ICE – thank you.
Anyway. The dishes were served family style – pork fried rice, lo mein, some sort of red meat on a stick (that V said was raw in the middle – I didn’t eat it), sweet and sour chicken, General Tso chicken with broccoli, orange wedges and fortune cookies. The two chicken dishes were good. Everything else? Nothing to blog about. Even my fortune – he who is shipwrecked the second time cannot lay blame on Neptune – what the heck am I supposed to take away from this? I’m safe to eat here this time, but don’t come back? Or perhaps a deeper message about watching for my ex’s other shoe?
I will say this – that peculiar smell from the grocery store followed me around the block and into the restaurant. It was also in the underground grocery we went to after lunch. In retrospect, although it isn’t a smell you want to encounter in a food establishment, it is a smell often encountered in city back streets that smell like wet garbage and rotting food.
The underground grocery is quite well-known but could easily be missed because it’s through a set of dirty glass doors and down a flight of gray concrete steps with fluorescent lighting reminiscent of old subway stairwells. There are live crabs and jellyfish, and FROGS in a Rubbermaid tote (presumably where last year’s student bought the live frog), and purple (black) packaged chickens that drew everyone’s attention. (They are Silkies, according to my birding friend Dave.) The kids bought a shit-ton of candy and I bought a 5lb bag of sushi rice.
In all, we had beautiful weather and no one got sick. I watched the folks who live and work in Chinatown, the tourists popping in and out of the stores, the men seated in the back of the bakery, looking like Asian Goodfellas and speaking in the hushed tones of their native language, and the boys in Veruca’s class all wearing those ridiculous Chinese straw hats (that screamed, tourist!) looking like they were headed to the rice fields. The boys – all of 13 or 14 years old and varying degrees of tall and short – the tallest boy seated at our table muttering about propaganda on the television and the shortest boy giggling like a chimpanzee.
***Trigger Warning: The following is NOT kosher but (I think) hilariously funny, and may also be offensive to those without a sense of humor.
Friday night was Seder. Todd and I drove down to Baltimore to his parents’ house. Just a couple of their friends, Aunt Marilyn and cousin, Michael. We went through the motions like a drive-thru version of Passover, and got to the eating. Someone started talking about pigs feet and Michael said the hind legs aren’t kosher. But the front legs are, because they’re split-hooved.
I leaned over and said to Todd, I bet all the pigs in Israel only have back legs. Father-in-law’s shoulders started shaking, and then Michael said, they have to put them in those little carts so they can get around. Which in turn made me burst into red-faced laughter. But he wasn’t done. Because he said, but then they’d get stuck in the mud… so they have to put them in all-terrain vehicles, and I had an instant picture of those big all-terrain tires they put on monster trucks, which is where Michael was going and now there are tears running out of my eyes. Aunt Marilyn and I are falling into each other and the whole thing was monstrously inappropriate but we’re a fun family and if you’re offended you don’t have to join us for dinner next time. Oh – and YES – I KNOW that Orthodox Jews don’t eat pork.