Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day one thousand three hundred and fifty . . . Plate one.

I'm full.

Full of Chinese food, that is. Sushi, too.

I just came back from the Asian Buffet down on King Street. It's pretty good most of the time. The sushi is almost always decent. The Chinese food is hit or miss. Tonight, for me, it was a miss. I think I unfortunately just picked a bunch of stuff that was cold and/or dry. Jodi said her's was delicious. But if you compared the two of us and the type of plates we construct you would find two distinctly different (and some would say very representative) styles of eating.

She (the delicate, sensible one) takes a few things--some cold, some hot--and places them artfully on her plate leaving enough space between each item that one could--with a modicum of skill--roll a marble around between the salmon roll, dumpling, sweet potato tempura, seafood salad, and green beans. Said marble would more than likely have only a modest amount of soy sauce, wasabi and grease on it when finished.

Now me, on the other hand, I build a castle.

My plate (it's more of a serving tray, really) is a bastion of chicken fingers, pork and scallions, volcano roll, salmon roll, dragon roll, dumplings, fried rice, eggplant, bok choy, with a garden of lo mein noodles and a pond of dipping sauce.

If one dropped a marble on my plate it would surely, instantly disappear into the moat of starch and soy, hopefully to be disposed of when--as is customary and typically American--I purposely and deftly position my half-eaten plate to the right of my grease-splotched Chinese zodiac place mat as I look wistfully away, allowing for the very nice (and very trim) Asian waitress to come and remove it for me so as to free me from the over-sized booth to take it all again from the top grabbing another Oriental-detailed plate like a top hat from a vanity in some obscure Gene Kelly movie. She, the waitress, more than likely just shrugs her shoulders to the others in the back as she bangs the remains of plate one--little lost marble and all--into the trash can.

Any other meal one would call the first plate the appetizer. Here, at Sakura, it's "plate one."

So the way Jodi's plate works is that she gets a few things and doesn't overdo it. Nothing gets mashed together. Nothing commingles. And when she's done eating it is relatively mess-free. It's an exercise in common sense, taste, and modesty.

The way my plate works is that I pile as many things together as I can as quickly as possible. Thus, I can't really tell if one thing is good or bad. It's an average. It's how I work. It's an exercise in gluttony.

We don't do this often, but tonight was a special night.

We went to the Chinese buffet tonight in honor of my aunt, Lynda Jean Johnson, who passed away three years ago today.

And if there was one lady on this planet who could put the all-you-can-eat concept to the test it was her. She was a woman who constantly was on a diet except for four or five days out of the year. On these days we would go down to the Peeking Palace in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and get our feedbag on.

There was a ritual about it as there was with most events the Johnson's partook of in the realm of food.

We would walk in and be greeted by the familiar faces of the waitstaff.

They would show us our booth--there was no need to actually sit. When I say "show us our booth" I think it was more for the waitress to know where to expect us to land.

We would tell them we all wanted water. No lemon for the ladies; lemon for me.

And then we would pick up our plates march over to the 200 feet of steam tables and the Mongolian grill.

This was a big night out.

My mom would get the seafood salad and four kinds of shrimp: fried, butter, teriyaki, and sweet and sour. She'd also get five to ten pounds of crab legs. This was her bogie. She dug the fake seafood, the crabs and the shrimp. You could keep your rice and noodles. That stuff was for amateurs. My mom, Judy, knew what was up. And you can also keep whatever vegetables were mixed among the four different kinds of shrimp unless there was no way around it. A stray piece of bok choy or a baby corn may get past her decisive and skillful spoon and tong work but it was never intentional. Judy was a pro. And Judy didn't really like Chinese food.

We'd all joyfully eat "plate one" and then the two of them (or three if my Aunt Anne was around) would go up for "plate two." I was, of course, left behind to watch the purses during this trying time. Then, upon at least one person's return, I was let loose, once again, back on the food maze.

More often than not "plate three" was all me. But I had devised a way to make it look not so . . . so, piggish, I guess it would be called. You see, this third (and usually last) plate was where I'd show my altruistic side. It was the plate I'd add some "sharing" items. I'd get more of what I wanted for sure. But I would make sure to add on to what I liked a few items that I knew everyone else liked. Then I would offer them to the others at the table. Now, if they took them, fine. That was what I wanted to have happen anyway. But in the event that they were full, then guess what? Yep, all mine. How's that for working it all out? Pretty sweet if you ask me.

Now these meals would always--and I mean each and every time--end the same way.

My Aunt Lynda would go up for dessert.

Now this was a woman who was about 5'4" and usually pretty trim and fit. But when it came time for dessert at the Chinese restaurant she became a machine. Normally at these places they have a small bowl for the dessert. But my aunt went for the plates. Yes, the plates. She'd get a regular sized dinner plate and start scooping ice cream on it. Three, four, sometimes five scoops of ice cream and maybe a brownie or two to stop the melted stuff from getting too far away from the mountain in the middle. Top this all off with whipped cream and jimmies (don't ask me what kind of jimmies . . . there is only one kind of jimmies thank-you-very-much) and maybe a scoop of butterscotch pudding and she'd turn around and start walking back to the table.

I could hear the Spaghetti Western movie music as my aunt would approach the table to the sharp and ever-so-often judgmental eye of Judy, her big sister. I don't know why but my mom loved giving my aunt a hard time about how much ice cream she put on her plate. Each and every time she would say something about how maybe she should use a bowl next time or was she making some kind of ice cream birthday cake with it or . . . well, you get the picture.

My aunt would always just stare her in the eyes and say, "Judy, you leave me alone. You always do this to me. Just M.Y.O.B."

And my mom would laugh a little laugh and open her fortune cookie.

I'd enjoy the bottomless ice water until the check came and then I'd excuse myself to the bathroom like anyone would who is broke and out to dinner.

Then we'd go home in the same car, change into pajamas, and drift off to sleep.

And this is the end of my story today.

It's a happy story. It's a true story. It's one that always makes me smile.

I've written too many of these things that end with a box of tissues.

My aunt hated sad stories, violent movies, tales of distrust or hardship or anything else that was upsetting. She told me that she had no room for fictitious bad news, that she had more than enough in real life. This became more evident towards her end. In fact, during her last few weeks alive she watched the TV Land channel almost exclusively. I heard the theme songs to Leave It To Beaver, Green Acres, I Love Lucy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show among others almost daily. It was like she was climbing back into the world of the 1950's--a time when she was a kid and nothing could hurt her too badly.

It's hard to believe it's been three years without her. We were just getting started on a new path together. She had gotten the chance that my mom never did: she got to see me clean and sober.

I wish she could have met my Jodi.

I wish she could see the home we've made.

I wish she would send me an article from the newspaper about a new health risk/antidote that might just apply to my life.

I wish I could see her coming back to the booth with that big ol' plate of ice cream piled high as a shoe box.

I wish, I wish, I wish.

Strange, now that I think of it. We got the check tonight but they never gave us a fortune cookie.

First time, I think, that's ever happened.

I'll just guess what it would have said and call it apropos.

Thanks for reading,


Dedicated to Lynda Jean Johnson 12/15/41-9/7/08

I would be remiss if I did not dedicate at least a portion of this post to the late Peeking Palace, formerly of Huttleston Ave. Fairhaven, MA which was closed as of last week when Jodi and I were looking to use a long forgotten about gift certificate.

Thanks for the good times, Peeking Palace. You sure were special.