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Monday, June 29, 2009

In The Belly, Off the Balcony

When I was a young boy and I found out that there were people out there who got paid to go out, eat lavish dinners, and write about them, I thought that the world had finally just plain old gone mad.

And I seriously wanted in on it.

The life of a food critic-- there doesn't seem to be anything better than that, anywhere. I mean, I love to eat, and I love to write, so could there really be a better career choice for me? Trouble was, I had no idea how to get started. I suppose I could have eaten at a dozen restaurants on my own dime, written reviews about all the food, and shown them to a newspaper editor in the hopes he or she would have given me a shot-- but that takes effort and start-up capital, doesn't it?

The other thing is, I have a very bad memory for everything but dialogue. So I would have been able to expertly recreate, in exacting detail, all the witty reparte between me and the waiter, but, when it came time to actually writing the review, I would have completely forgotten which soup I ordered, or whether or not there were croutons on my salad.

Plus, I don't drink, so I would have to invite along a companion who enjoyed alcohol somewhat so I could make mention of the quality of the libations. And my wife doesn't drink either, so, um, there would have to be some inebriated third wheel joining us, and that would be, um, awkward.

So I didn't become a food critic, much to my dismay. It's okay, though. I'm not sure anybody actually reads published food critics like Craig Laban anymore. If we want the skinny on a particular restaurant, we go to websites with user-generated comments, even if the spelling is littered with errors and the prose doesn't flow like a fine cognac (see, I have no idea what I'm talking about).

I mean, seriously-- I just happened to read my first Laban food column in probably six years, and it was a review of KFC's Kentucky Grilled Chicken. He didn't like it. Shocking, I know.

I wanted to write about food this morning even though I know I'm not particularly qualified. Not that most food critics are particularly qualified either. In fact, I don't know what makes you qualified to write about food-- are you an English major or a culinary arts student? Should you be both? Probably ideally, and you should also know a thing or two about hotel/restaurant management as well.

I was a theatre major, does that count?

I've been thinking a lot about food recently. Yesterday, my wife took me out on a hot date to the HK Supermarket. "HK," in case you didn't know, stands for "Hong Kong," and what an experience that was. Now, it's true, certain locations inside the store smelled strongly of dead fish that had been left for weeks in an overflowing outhouse in the August heat, but other parts of the store were not as olafactorily offensive. In the produce section, amidst the regular old fruit and veg, there was a startling array of dildo-shaped vegetables, as well as fruit that looked like it should be growing on the moon. They also sold fronds of aloe as big as your torso.

There were probably four aisles devoted just to candy. If you're looking for a specific item, good luck, because it may appear four times in the store, in random places. You really have to have an eagle eye here, and if you don't have one, that's okay. I think they sell those, too. They also sell a wide variety of shrimp-flavored candy and chips, if you're into that. All the food has quaint, faintly bungled Japanese marketing slogans or instructions. "Noodles Make With Japanese Technology." "This Norin traditional is to hang outside the home make for status. Today, Norin is found for common families inside or out." My favorite was the Ramen-type noodle bowl with a picture of three Japanese men in white lab coats and name-tags, each holding up one, two or three fingers, presumably to make the claim that making this dish is as easy as "1, 2, 3!"

For those who like their food moving, there was plenty of that over at the seafood counter. There was a box of live crabs, one was burbling up air bubbles (I don't know if that's a good thing or not) and my vegetarian wife was pretty fascinated. There was a large, elderly black man who was criticizing the shape and fitness of some of the fish (that he was purchasing nevertheless) and he was surrounded by a mob of dour Asian fishmongers who stood around him with their arms folded in front of their chests. I thought it was going to be Sharks & Jets time, so I grabbed Mrs. Apron's arm and pulled her away.

The seafood wasn't the only unusual aspect of the market. At the butcher's section, there was very little read meat to be found. Oh, except for cow's feet. They were chopped up and ready to go. You have to do the walking, though. There were also frog's legs, quail and duck eggs (how those huge honkers come out of little ducky poochies I'll never know) and there were also blueish-looking plucked birds that were literally swimming in their own blood. At least, I hope it was their blood.

I come from a Jewish family of pretty uninspired, inept cooks. We don't, for instance, cook vegetables, we overcook them, killing them until they're beyond dead, making sure every ounce of flavor and nutrients is gone and that they're as flaccid as an octagenarian's weenis. My great-grandmother would make us blackened liverwurst burgers that my sister and I would pretend to eat and then throw off her 18th story balcony at unsuspecting passersby. My grandmother's speciality is baked beans and hot dog pieces. My mother, thankfully, is markedly better in the kitchen, but nowadays most of the cooking is done by my father anyway. Coming from this culinary world as I do, I walked the aisles of the HK Supermarket like a babe in the new world, wide eyed and filled with hope and wonder, even as my nostrils were filled with the abundant smells of oversalted haddock and shrimp chips.

I may never be a food critic, but I suppose being a blogger will just have to do, and it'll have to do nicely. And I have steamed pork buns for lunch today, and I'm a better man for it.


  1. Is this the new HK Supermarket on Mott?? If it's like the Hong Kong Supermarket that was on E. Broadway, and it sounds like it, it's definitely an eye boggling expereince. I love that stuff--except the meat section...

  2. It's up the Boulevard at Adams Ave. Maybe it's a chain? I just love that it's a full-scale market, not one of those small, specialty markets where they overprice everything and (gasp!) make sure there's English on the packages.

  3. hmmmmmmm pork buns.........

    if you thought that was a treat, go to an open air market in Mexico! They severed cow's head eyes follow you everywhere


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