I was once in a reasonably high-toned Chinese restaurant. Unusually for me, I ordered a fish dish (I usually reserve such for seafood restaurants). I don’t remember why, but I’d guess the description on the menu must have been particularly succulent.
The waiter took my order and left. However, he returned within a minute, and I assumed I was going to be told there was none left. It has happened before. However, he leaned closer and, in a low voice, informed me that the fish was served with its head attached. He asked if this would cause me any problems, as some customers had been troubled by the fact and complained. Although I was not used to this method, it was not a problem. I like trying different things. So, away he went.
I did seem to have to wait quite awhile, but this doesn’t bother me, either. I enjoy restaurants so much, the experience of the place is as interesting to me as going to a theatre. Thus I have toyed with owning a restaurant, but I do know how much work and headache it really is. So I am just as content to sit and watch.
And watch I did when I saw the waiter finally come in my direction. And I had some inkling as to why some previous customers might have felt discomfort.
The whole fish (I would say trout-sized if not a bit larger), head and all, was propped upright on a type of wooden trestle in the middle of a platter. The waiter carried it outstretched before him through the restaurant. It was shaped with a bit of a curve, as if swimming upstream. The trestle was on a bed of vegetables. The fish had a light, leafy garnish on it.
In my novel, China Lily, my main characters, Cepa Cannara and Matzerath, are on a year-long trading voyage from Italy to China on the good ship The Pegasus, thirty years before Marco Polo did the same. In this segment, they have a meal with their host, Lu-Hsing.
“You boys are in the Port of Zaitun.” Lu-Hsing speaks in an authoritative tone. “Fish a speciality.”
“There must be something else.” Matzerath points. “Look at all the cooks.”
“Trouble-making Round Eyes.” Lu-Hsing points to a wok near the end of the aisle and starts to walk. “We’ll try there.”
“What does he have?” Cepa falls into step behind Lu-Hsing, followed by Matzerath.
“Eggs?” asks Matzerath.
“As many as you want.”
“That will take a big pan.”
“He can use a high-sided wok.” Lu-Hsing pretends to whisk something in a wok. “Plop it right onto a plate.”
“We don’t have dishes.” Cepa suddenly realizes the fact. “We haven’t been back to The Pegasus all day.”
“Lu-Hsing share you his.” He barks an order at the cook, then turns back to Cepa. “Stay right here. I’ll get them from my table.”
Cepa and Matzerath stand and watch the cook. Cepa notes he is using wood and not the black rocks for his fire. Some oil is dropped onto the metal and immediately sizzles. The cook holds up his hand and extends his fingers; one, two, three, four, five.
“Will you want some?”
“God – yes.” Matzerath nods.
Cepa holds up five fingers and the cook grins. He takes an egg in each hand and hits them together. The upper shell is flipped off and they pour into the wok. He repeats the gesture and the eggs land on top of the others. The last egg is dispatched on the metal rim of the wok and added to the rest before a hint of cooking has begun. The cook then begins to whisk and slide the eggs along the side of the wok before Matzerath has time to make a comment.
“I’d like to see you do that on The Pegasus,” says Cepa.
“I break eggs all the time.”
“I know.” Cepa laughs. And we eat the shells to prove it.”
The cook now twists and shakes the wok by its two handles over the fire. The eggs slide up and along the sides, then settle more thickly near the bottom. With a grin and a twist of his hands, the cook turns the wok right over. The eggs start to slide out with a couple of drops hissing into the fire. Matzerath’s mouth falls open as the cook rights the wok so quickly that the eggs drop right back into it, now cooking on the other side. The cook puts the wok back on the fire.
“Bet you can’t do that,” says Cepa.
“Just once.” Matzerath laughs. “But the whole ship was heaving at the time.”
The cook begins to nudge the eggs together with a spatula. With his other hand he sprinkles a few drops of brown liquid. Then he adds some coarsely chopped shoots of a green onion.
“Hah!” Matzerath slaps Cepa on the shoulder.
After a quick swirl of these ingredients the cook plops in a bowl of small oysters. He takes his time with these, spacing them with deliberation over the quickly cooking eggs. Then – with a flourish – he scoops up a handful of flower blossoms and sprinkles them over the whole bubbling mixture.
“What are those?” Matzerath peers into the wok.
“We’re eating flowers?’
“When in Rome …”
The cook adds a further dash of the brown liquid and then folds the eggs neatly in half. He flips the whole omelette to the center of the wok and sprinkles a palm full of spring onion – this time finely chopped – over of the still-bubbling omelette. He presses the onion in place with his spatula then removes the wok from the fire.
“Timing is everything.”
The voice startles them both. They turn to see Lu-Hsing standing behind them, holding a large platter. He barks instructions to the cook, speaking too quickly for the two men to understand.
“Stick to ribs – make you happy.”
The cook divides the omelette in half and slides it onto the platter. He then takes the wicker top off a steamer and starts to add heaping ladles of red rice along the sides of the platter.
“What’s that?” Matzerath sounds suspicious.
“Hong qu mi.”
“You can see its rice,” hisses Cepa.
“But it’s red.”
“Fermented with yeast.” Lu-Hsing scoops some into his palm and eats it.’”Looks good. Tastes great.”
My friend, Google tells me that “over the transom” is still a viable term. In this case it refers to a manuscript accepted by an editor submitted cold – perhaps even from the dreaded slush pile.
At any rate, my manuscript for A Lost Tale was accepted “over the transom”, and I was asked to New York to meet the editor. Although I had experienced and appreciated Montréal, Toronto, London, Berlin and other large cities by that time, I had not been to New York. Many events of that trip are memorable, but none more than my “lunch” with the editor.
The editor took me to some dark and trendy place for a late lunch. There were not many people there and, restaurant fiend though I am, the food was not my top priority. Discussion of “the work” and proposed changes was more on the menu for me.
However, as I sit across the table from my editor, I can not help but notice a man seated by himself beside the wall. He is tieless and shirtless and, though the lighting is dim, what there is reflects from his naked skin. He sits with a beverage and seems to hum to himself. My editor is discussing both the menu and some confusion he perceives at the beginning of my novel. I note items on the menu unknown to me and am doubly confused.
The shirtless man at the other table increases the volume of his humming and eventually a waiter goes to him and has words. The shirtless man has words back, but they sound like gibberish. At my table the editor suggests something from the menu and I happily comply. There is wine.
Whilst I eat and listen to suggestions, the shirtless man is spoken to by two other waiters. As I (wisely) restrict myself to a second glass of wine, two uniformed policemen enter the restaurant and approach the shirtless man, whose gibberish had increased even more in volume. In the course of a few minutes three other uniformed police officers – one of them female – arrive on the scene. They are now ranged around the shirtless man and his table. I finally tell my editor what is happening behind him and why I am not concentrating fully upon his suggestions. He turns around.
Two of the officers remove the table from in front of the shirtless man. Two others, one on each side of him, haul him to his feet. It is then that we see his shirtless state continues all the way to his naked feet. The female officer takes the tablecloth from the table and drapes it around him. The four male officers form a circle around the naked, shrouded man uttering his gibberish, and hustle him from the restaurant. The female officer picks up what appears to be a pile of clothes from beneath the table, and a pair of roller skates, and follows them.
I say to my editor that I have never seen anything like that.
My editor concurs.