“Make sure your hotel room is on a lower floor and remember to carry a rope ladder in your suitcase. The Cape Fear Hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina, serves a terrific pot roast special on Wednesdays — but don’t waste your time looking for Egg Foo Yung because you won’t find many Chinese restaurants.”
~ Advice from the district manager to his replacement.
No Egg Foo Yung?
How could any human being survive without Chinese food at least twice a month?
It was the 1950s and this New York City boy was in culture shock. I was the replacement. The territory covered twenty-seven smallish to medium-sized cities in the “Old South.” God was surely testing me.
Like most Yankees, my knowledge of the South was based on bad Hollywood movies. In the Air Force, I encountered dozens of Southern lads who were the backbone of the enlisted corps, but, frankly, they were rural redneck types and only reinforced my bias.
By contrast, friends who served in the US Army met unwilling draftees — not volunteers — and discovered a cross-section of literate, young Southern men who had grace and breeding.
Remember, this was the Old South, post WWII. The Holiday Inn and other national motel chains were only beginning to compete with the downtown hotels. McDonald’s and Burger King were in the future and Won Ton soup was a treat experienced only by world travelers (folks who had been to Atlanta or New Orleans qualified).
Once culture shock was over and I established a routine, my attitude about the South changed — these folks were special. Never before, nor since have I experienced such cordiality, but I became uncomfortable accepting invitations to dine at people’s homes and finding good restaurant food remained an elusive and difficult exercise.
After a few repeat visits to one of my cities, I might discover a culinary treasure. In “dry” counties, it was often the bootlegger who would point me to a family-operated restaurant where the ingredients were fresh and the slant was decidedly Southern.
My favorite was a nameless restaurant on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky. It was located in a faded building that had once been a fine residence. The black chef introduced me to fare I had never experienced. Spectacular barbecue: succulent cuts of beef, pork, and chicken covered by mysterious piquant sauces, complemented by superb fried okra, leading to addictions I carry to this day.
But in most instances the weary traveler dined upon over-cooked food in the hotel’s dining room. And let me remind you: there were few Chinese restaurants.
During my six years in the Old South, it all began to change. Downtown was becoming shabby. Regional shopping centers were sprouting in the suburbs and as auto sales boomed, motels were attracting Americans as they sped along the new interstate highway systems. Even the seasoned business travelers — downtown hotel regulars — were tempted to try one of the flashy new motels.
Many of my Southern friends were troubled by the changes taking place—thanks to the federal highway program, federal school planning, and other unconstitutional interventions into the states — and they could not know of the disruption that was ahead in the 1960s. I never gave much thought to any of it, but by the time I was about to leave the South, Chinese restaurants could be found both downtown and in the suburbs in all of my cities.
The Chinese restaurant has universal appeal. From Kabul, Afghanistan, to Mombassa, Kenya, from Odessa in the Ukraine to Odessa in Texas to Zurich, Switzerland, satisfied diners savor Bird’s Nest soup and become adept with chopsticks.
How is it that Chinese cuisine successfully cuts across all borders and cultures? The answer is simple: Most Chinese restaurants maintain an unusually high standard and the food is generally cooked when ordered, ensuring freshness. Aside from providing simply delicious food, there are other reasons why Chinese restaurants flourish the world over.
- They are almost always open for business. Local holidays do not mean closing down. They remain a haven for hungry patrons.
- Customers are almost never turned away for failing to book an advance reservation. Occasionally an upscale Manhattan or Beverly Hills location refuses a customer, but this is not typical. If the house is full, the enterprising owner/manager -will set up a table in the kitchen, or squeeze one in the corridor near the Restrooms.
- The Chinese restaurateur gives totally balanced service to all his customers. (The only exception is what appears to be a special menu of exotic dishes for his Chinese clients. The Caucasian observing these feasts from an adjoining table never knows for sure).
- Chinese cuisine has zero tolerance for animal rights groups. The only qualification for what is prepared by the chef is that it fits in the wok and will taste good.
- Yet the Chinese chef demonstrates enormous tolerance when, for example, although perplexed by the vegetarian, he still manages to create magnificent dishes that satisfy even those idiosyncratic customers.
- In most places, Chinese food affords excellent value for the consumer’s money.
- And although it is not a prime consideration for the kitchen, Chinese food is nutritious and low in calories while delighting the taste buds with unique flavors.
- It remains a custom in many Chinese restaurants around the world that the patron examines the fish or fowl before it’s cooked thus, once again guaranteeing fresh fare.
- Almost every Chinese restaurant is family operated and this is particularly appealing to many consumers in this age of absentee and/or indifferent management.
Those years spent in the Old South had a significant influence on my value system and view of the world. I learned good manners, respect for tradition, and began to question, for the first time, the mythology presented as history in my government school education.
Oh, by the way, in case you’re puzzled by my predecessor’s admonition to make sure my hotel room was on a lower floor and to always travel with a rope ladder, he was referring to a custom handed down by travelling salesmen from an earlier time. The rope ladder allowed escape from a hotel engulfed in flames, but obviously could only be utilized from a lower floor. He was an old-fashioned fellow and for some unexplained reason, hated Chinese food.
* I call it the Old South to diffentiate that great region from what my fellow Northern Californians mean by the South: Los Angeles.