©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.