Ari Dane

Ari Dane

Ari Dane

Ari Dane

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WON TON

©Ari Dane 2010

OLD JOKE: A hooker approaches a senior citizen and inquires if he would be interested in super sex and the old guy thinks for a moment and then replies, "I'll take the soup!"       

It all started with my grandmother Bubbe's kreplachs.  God knows what the ingredients were.  I used to watch her prepare them and on occasion she would let me help her, but I honestly can't say what the combination was that she rolled into those little squares of dough, because every time I observed her it appeared to be a batch of different stuff, yet somehow it always came out tasting like hers and no one else’s. When she did stop to explain, she did so in Yiddish, of which I speak and understand but a bit, and the rest was lost in her brief rudimentary English phrases such as "a little bit of this and a little bit of that" and if you asked her, for instance, how much salt you should use, you would invariably get a response on the order of, "not too much".          

It reminded me of a song I learned in summer camp:                       

                        Oh, Dunderbeck, oh, Dunderbeck

                        How could you be so mean?

                        To ever have invented

                        The sausage meat machine

                        The pussycats, the dogs and rats

                        Will never more be seen, for

                        They've all been ground to sausage meat

                        In Dunderbeck’s machine.

Then she'd take the stuffed kreplachs and deep fry them in chicken schmaltz and fill up a plate to be doled out into a bowl of chicken soup and, yes, for a few moments it was heaven on earth, to be topped only by her deep dish apple cake that was covered with at least two inches of granulated sugar. No wonder people in my family died young. Happy, but young. Trust me, you eat enough of this stuff, you drop like a stone. God bless Bubbe. The words "bran flakes" never crossed her lips...

And so it came to pass in the Sixties, as I wandered the streets of Manhattan in search of fame and fortune in general and a low priced meal in specific, I discovered Sam Wo's, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked neatly away in Chinatown where, for the price of one dollar, I could purchase the largest tureen imaginable of won ton soup, chock filled with enough good stuff to see me through another bone chilling New York winter’s day.           

The aromatic warm broth of chicken and pork was enough to entice a dead man and yet it but set the culinary stage for the rest of the cast:

Slivers of Chinese barbequed roast pork swam through forests of deep green and ivory colored leaves of bok choy to join the flotilla of perfectly ringed scallions and, yes!  The large pink, succulent shrimp bobbing in place called my name and echoed off the straw mushrooms and occasional mountain top of squid.  Yet I say, these were but bit players, for the undisputed heavyweight champion and star of this magnificent creation was...the won ton:

Ground pork, diced shrimp, ginger root, water chestnuts, soy sauce, white  pepper, encased in a thin dough, dropped into boiling water, floated, removed, drained and lovingly placed in said soup and, presto chango, miracles do happen, voila...the Chinese answer to Bubbe's kreplach!          

Keep your minestrone! Keep your consomme! Keep your chowder, bouillabaisse, gumbo and gazpacho!  There is but WON!!!       

A decade later I was hooked. Four, five, maybe six bowls a week. I don't know, I lost count. All I can say is, it cost me a fortune, cookie...and now it was the mid-Seventies and I was married and we were living not in the city where I could jump on a subway any hour of the day or night and within a reasonable amount of time satisfy my burning desire, noooo...we were in the Catskills, and although won ton soup (granted not the primo stuff of Sam Wo but at least an acceptable facsimile thereof) was attainable at the Triangle Diner in Liberty, NY. 

Now, this attainment was not obtained without a considerable effort, which usually entailed driving through a blizzard on winding, treacherous, mountain roads, and on one such night about 1:00 a.m., as the won ton fever consumed my entire being along with the realization that it was just too damn cold and miserable to even contemplate stepping outside, I turned to my wife and said, “you've got to learn how to make won ton soup, that's all there is to it,” and she said, “I cook everything else, if you want it so bad, you make it!”  And I said, “O.K., I will...” 

So, after researching the recipe in a Chinese cookbook, I reconnoitered the few supermarkets in our remote area and was surprised to find out they actually carried this stuff with the lone exception of pre-packaged won ton wrappers but I figured, what the hell, I've got everything else and anyway there was also a recipe for making the wrappers from scratch in the book and how hard could that be and so finally I was ready for my grand experiment.           

It was perfect soup weather. The ground was covered with snow and the huge digital clock that blinked alternately time and temp in front of the bank in Monticello had not registered over fourteen degrees in the past month and a half.

I was damn near euphoric at the anticipation of honest-to-God, homemade-by-me won ton soup. So with cookbook and wok in hand, I kissed my wife goodbye who then paused as she headed for the door and her appointed rounds, and said, “I know you can make breakfast for yourself but this is real cooking.  Follow the directions EXACTLY!!”  To which I replied, “Hey!  No problemo!  It's in English.  I read English.  Just come back with a big appetite...”          

The dogs’ attention was riveted as I whirled through the kitchen in a culinary ballet and even the fish in the aquarium  seemed to be keeping their little fishy eyes on me and I felt good and had a sense of, at long last, being the master of my element and I was in control of the situation and I started to sing a really bad parody: You make sixteen TONS and whaddayaget...           

O.K., let's see now, I've chopped, diced, shredded, ground, pummeled and reduced to microscopic fibers every substance that goes into this concoction and the broth made from turkey, chicken, and the pork bone from the roast is simmering nicely and the filling for the won tons made of pork, ginger, shrimp, white pepper, garlic, salt, sugar, and soy sauce is marinating and the bok choy, scallions, whole shrimp, slivers of chicken, and barbequed pork are all ready to go and now the only thing I have to do is make the dough for the wrappers and...           

I placed the ball of dough upon the cutting board, picked up my trusty rolling pin and attacked with a vengeance, and the dough responded by ever so slightly flattening, spreading, and swallowing the little cutting board with no more effort than quicksand would devour a fallen antelope, and the flour was feeling its power and like Hitler with an eye on Poland advanced on the borders of the counter top and began to encroach on the citizens of the local population like the can opener and set of steak knives that disappeared into the black hole vortex that was ever growing and beginning to rumble as if it were expecting a sacrifice, and the dogs fled the room to leave their master to do battle with this Pillsbury Doughboy/demon from hell which, like the Blob, was growing bigger and more life-threatening by the moment and, Oh, NO! It was inching past the bottom drawers and about to launch into a slow motion cascade to the floor, and what could I do but dive headlong into its innermost depths and, with outstretched arms like one doomed to turn into a hot cross bun, I whirled in the air like a dervish clutching enough stretched dough that, if it were cloth, could be turned into a sail capable of powering a schooner in a regatta, and flopped with a plop upon the dining room table and the destruction was complete and total with every dog, fish, guitar case, knick knack, fireplace, crook, cranny, crevice, surface, and parakeet covered with varying density and viscosity of won ton wrapper flour and, yes, it was worth it because the soup was fantastic, but nevertheless Janet, upon observing this wake of destruction, exclaimed, “Why didn't you cut up the dough into smaller workable portions?”  And I replied, “Because you said, and I quote, ‘Follow the directions EXACTLY!’...and the directions said, ’Take THE ball of dough...’”

If there is a heaven, Bubbe is laughing her ass off.

 

 

 

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NO CHRISTMAS IN THIS HOUSE!

It was hot as hell and our little trailer  located on the grounds of the Green Acres Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. in the Catskill Mountains was sizzling in the August heat.

 

I had a long relationship with the owners of Green Acres, Cissie and Larry Blumberg, ever since I was a child and spent several summer vacations with my family at the resort, which was originally in Lake Huntington, N.Y. A fire leveled it and, hence, the new address. It was the early Seventies; Janet was employed as the head bookkeeper and I performed one show a week in exchange for our room and board, which was an equitable situation.

Equitable or not, it was hot as hell and my temper was not far below the surface when the TV started blaring, "Ronco! The perfect Christmas gift!!!" Are they fucking crazy or what? It’s three hundred million fucking degrees in here and some fucking asshole is trying to sell me some kind of fucking Christmas gift; get the fuck out of my face, I’m fucking melting here, no fucking way!!

I smashed my clenched fist down hard on the dining room table and hurled the nearest object at hand, which I think was the dog, at the TV and ranted and raved that under and I mean under no circumstance would I be sucked into this commercialization of a holiday that was so far away and that I really didn’t care too much about in the first place and, damn, it was hot and how dare anyone try to sell me anything when I’m about to melt and there would be no, and I mean no Christmas in this house!

Janet took this well, considering that I was depriving her of her last, most cherished childhood ritual.

It began one August. It was now Christmas Eve. We were seated at the "family table" in the spacious dining room of the resort. What with the candles, table wreath decorations, cutouts of Santa with elves and reindeer, and a beautiful tree, plus the snow falling gently on the tall pines outside the huge picture windows, the ambience was complete. The lights dimmed and, with a faint drum roll and a blast of trumpets, the dining room’s double doors parted and a candlelit procession of three hundred, elfin-cute, costumed senior citizen folk dancers filed by our table joyously singing a carol.

As I gazed over at my wife I observed that she was stoic, dispassionate, immovable...save for one small luminescent tear slowly coursing down her face.

So much for resolve. So much for logic. I took a deep breath, leaned over and whispered in Cissie’s ear to keep Janet busy for a while with a game of Scrabble and also to lend me the keys to her red Mustang as my car was in the shop.

It was a snowblown, icy, snaky seven mile stretch of mountain road to the crossroads in Liberty, N.Y. where the Triangle Diner (famous for its Chinese roast pork sandwiches), an Exxon station, Grossingers’ Hotel, and Sullivan’s department store converged. The snow was way past the gentle stage and was whipping up into a major storm...pretty, but dangerous. I remembered seeing Christmas trees at the Exxon. I hoped they hadn’t sold them all.

They still had some trees alright, but the smallest was about 18 feet tall and the largest looked more like a redwood. I hastily picked out and paid for one of the smaller ones and had the station manager, a real Don Knotts character, set it aside for me as I darted across the slippery highway and the holiday traffic to Sullivan’s.

I grabbed rope to secure the tree to the car, tinsel, lights, every decoration left on the shelves, a couple of presents...setting some sort of shopping record... paid the bill, returned to the storm and the highway and the traffic and retrieved my tree from the Don Knotts look-alike. I tied my tree to the top of the Mustang with all the skill I learned in the Boy Scouts, which I was soon to find out wasn’t much, and headed on back to Green Acres.

Those big, fat flakes were now coming down by the millions and, with the reflection of the headlights glancing off the white stuff, my visibility was about as good as Ray Charles’ in a closet. It would be some time before the plows got out and, especially because it wasn’t my car, I was taking those slick curves pretty slow.

I guess pretty slow wasn’t slow enough, for rounding the curve by the Brown’s Hotel, as the car turned left the tree made a break for it and took off to the right. With whatever joy I had been feeling rapidly evaporating, I edged the Mustang onto the shoulder of the highway as far as I dared without getting stuck.

The headlamps of a slow-moving approaching vehicle illuminated the immediate blackness. Peering through the swirling snowflakes revealed nothing but a few scattered green needles and twigs. Where the hell was my tree? It slowly dawned on me that the slow-moving approaching Cadillac was now stopped and the doors were being opened. Out stepped an old man bundled up in a scarf and overcoat and from the passenger side emerged a woman, obviously his wife, wearing enough exotic fur to qualify as a polar Eskimo.

The man was opening the hood of the Cadi. As I drew nearer I heard the sound of tortured metal cutting through the rush of the wind...a spluttering, gnashing, crunching, ripping sort of cacophony like a million dental bits gone crazy in an infected tooth. The poor guy was staring blankly into the remains of his more than expensive motor and yet all I could think was "hmm...so that’s where my tree is!" Anyway, most of it. Who would have believed that such a large tree could be crammed and jammed into such a small space, but there it was...bummer.

The old man was just standing there sort of trance-like with his mouth gone slack, and I imagine he might still be there today if his wife hadn’t whined, "Gee, Harry, you ruined the guy’s tree!"

Not knowing exactly how to react, I mumbled something about being sorry, produced my business card and ad-libbed something about not knowing specifically if my insurance covered just such an eventuality and retreated to the Mustang.

Shit! Now I needed another tree. The Don Knotts guy stared at me really weird as I bought another tree. The smaller ones having gone to a hopefully better fate than my last one, I was now in possession of a tree that would have satisfied the needs of Rockefeller Plaza. I stopped short of welding my new purchase to the roof of the Mustang, retraced my steps and made it back without further incident to Green Acres and our little trailer.

One small problem. The interior of the trailer from floor to ceiling measured 7½ feet. The tree was good for Jack & the Beanstalk. Undaunted, I grabbed my trusty saw and, though in the middle of a blizzard, worked up a sweat that Richard Simmons would have been proud of, then worked the tree through the door and placed it in its holder. "Boy, is she gonna be surprised," I chuckled.

Damn, that tree was big! It literally filled the living room with the effect being if you entered the trailer you entered the tree. I ditched the unused portion, scattered the telltale needles and made it down the snow-covered hill to the hotel.

Janet was finishing up her Scrabble game. With a wink and a grin, I slipped the Mustang keys back to Cissie. We said our goodbyes and trudged through the now knee-deep snow to our place.

I hung back just long enough for her to get to the door first. She opened it, stood for a moment in silence and then began to laugh...and laugh...and laugh!

O.K., so what do I know? I’m Jewish, we never had one. How was I supposed to know you don’t use the bottom half of the tree?!

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