Friday, May 17, 2013

Nostalgia in a Bamboo Leaf

My parents were workaholic Taiwanese immigrants whom I was lucky to see at 8:00 at night. Most times, we grabbed fast food from Arby's or Sizzler's or some fish shack my mother liked, but occasionally, we would make a foray from the depths of Queens to Chinatown. This was before the Taiwanese community formed in Flushing, so Chinatown was where we got our dose of culture. One of the places that we regularly stopped at in Chinatown was May May on Pell Street. It was the only place in New York City you could find a decent zongzi (粽子) or bah zhang (肉粽), as they're known in Taiwan.

Bah zhang from a Taiwanese article about the Dragon Boat Festival.

The food you eat as a child has a certain nostalgia. I think this is because of the way babies and small children feast on everything so completely with all their senses and their entire bodies. The taste of your first foods seep into a deep visceral layer. It combines with the feeling of security you have as a child, with love, with feeling satiated, content and whole. I always wonder what is up with American children who only will eat plain spaghetti with butter. I can't imagine a child in Asia refusing to eat something put in front of them, or wanting colorless food with no taste.

For those who don't know what a zongzi is, it's been compared to a tamale. But instead of corn husks, it's wrapped in bamboo leaves. And instead of corn meal, it's glutinous rice. In China, bah zhang is traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, but in Taiwan, bah zhang is so iconic, it's almost synonymous with the place. It's like hot dogs and pizza to New York City. Or gumbo to New Orleans. There's even a sentimental song (烧肉粽 or "Hot Bah Zhang") that always cracks my mother up, about someone who graduated college but can't find a job so s/he's making a dismal living selling bah zhang on the street. It might be an Occupy Wall Street anthem if it weren't so syrupy. Click below for famed Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng singing the song, with subtitles in English. For the full effect of seeing this with my mom, I ought to include a high-pitched laugh track.

The bah zhang in Taiwan are studded with steamed peanuts, dried black mushrooms, and meat. Often, a roasted chestnut is included, which always seemed like an extra treat to me as a kid, like finding a gold coin in a cake. There's also a Cantonese version of bah zhang that has a dried powdery egg yolk in it. Cantonese people don't put such an emphasis on rice as Taiwanese people do and their version of bah zhang always seemed to me like pizza from some random town in the middle of America. Dry, dense, and mealy. But I know there are plenty of Cantonese people who prefer their version of bah zhang, which they call joong.

May May had about eight different kinds of Taiwanese-style bah zhang even though it was in the heart of Cantonese Chinatown. There were even three vegetarian kinds. You could smell the aroma of rice and bamboo halfway down the street. I used to buy a half dozen at a time to put in school lunches for my kid. It was perfect for the early morning slog of trying to rouse the child, get him dressed, cook breakfast, and prepare lunch - all I had to do was steam the bah zhang for 15 minutes and pop it into his lunch box. I didn't even need to wrap it in anything since it already was wrapped in bamboo.

So when May May closed in 2007 after 42 years of serving nostalgia in a bamboo leaf to hungry Nuyorasians, I was devastated. I looked for bah zhang everywhere but I either had to go all the way to Flushing or settle for those bleh Cantonese ones.

May May before it closed. 
Where May May used to be. 
Last week, after a panel at CUNY's Asian-American/Asian Research Institute, I happened to sit next to Antony Wong at dinner. Talk somehow turned to Chinatown and I lamented about May May closing. Antony told me that he had just learned that some people from May May went across the street to the old coffeeshop and they are now selling bah zhang there.

That old coffeeshop is a living authentic relic of good old Chinatown. I've passed by hundreds of times and noted its sign, which has the Chinese going from right to left, so it must date from the 1960s or before. The next morning, I finally went in, and sure enough, right at the door, I encountered a big pile of three different kinds of bah zhang for just $2.25, which is less than what May May used to charge. I bought one for lunch, and was happy to see that they're the Taiwanese-style ones. And they're really good; the only thing missing is the mushrooms. And the chestnut.

Finally, a place to find bah zhang in New York City! I've also just learned that this the place to go for roast pork buns. Mee Sum Cafe at 26 Pell. Pass it on.

Mee Sum Cafe on Pell Street.
Inside Mee Sum Cafe, old style NYC. 
The pile of bah zhang at Mee Sum Cafe. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Day in Beacon

The city blahs had me last week. I felt weighed down from too much asphalt and car exhaust. My blood vessels felt as constricted as the traffic by the Holland Tunnel. I was gasping for air. Sunlight. Green things. And it was my birthday, damn it. So even though I was broke and had a rehearsal to attend on Sunday night, I convinced Z to steal away with me and head upstate to Beacon.

I've been there before, but only to Dia: Beacon and the waterfront park. This time, I wanted to see the town. And I thought it would be nice to climb Mount Beacon. Except I didn't really have the proper shoes for that, but I figured, well the West was won with women wearing low heels, no?

Beacon was originally two small towns: Fishkill Landing, a busy port, and Matteawan, a manufacturing center. The area was "bought" from the Wappinger natives in 1683 by former New York City mayor Francis Rombout, who died shortly after and left the 85,000 acre estate to his four-year old daughter, Catheryna.  She single-handedly developed the area, carving out farmland, building a major grist mill on Fishkill Creek, and creating the first produce cooperative in the Hudson River highlands. Beacon was a stronghold for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and it became a major manufacturing center in the 1800s, with factories producing paper clips, biscuit wrappers, coats, air brakes, and especially hats and bricks. There were purportedly over 500 hat factories in Beacon at one time. Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building were built with bricks from Beacon. The town boomed until after World War II, when the factories began to close and it went into a sharp decline that only changed when Dia: Beacon opened in 2003. Since then, it's become known as an arts destination, but most people, like me, day trip it to the museum and never really get to know the town.

We set off from Grand Central Station and arrive at around 10:00 in the morning. Getting out at the Beacon Station, you cross the overpass, hike up the hill, and cut across the police station to get to Main Street. Beacon shows its history as a factory town. It's not as pretty as the Saugerties or even Cold Spring. I was reminded of the town of Catskill, which is also solidly working class. But there's a nice authenticity about the town. It's definitely not an artificial suburb. And I was surprised how multi-ethnic it is.
Beacon's Main Street with Mount Beacon in the distance. 

Pinoys in the town. 

Apparently there's a Muslim contingent too. 

Wait, I thought I left Chinatown...
Halfway down Main Street, antique stores became ubiquitous. Z and I prowled through most of them, although we couldn't really afford anything. But wow, prices are really fantastic.

Antique shops on Main Street. 

A 1950s bubble bath on Main. 

Gorgeous cupboard in basement of Studio Antiques for $265.

Lovely dresser from the 1800s for $225 at Studio Antiques.

Great display of antique bottles at Dickinson's Antiques.

Hoosier Cabinet at Dickinson's Antiques with tambour door and flour bin for $275. 
Then we made out way to Bob's General Store where the trail for Mount Beacon begins. It was actually called Fishkill Mountain until Beacon was incorporated in 1913. Interestingly, the original name of the town was Melzingah, after a local Indian tribe, but when New York City newspapers mocked the name, the townspeople chose the name Beacon instead, after the beacons that were lit on the mountain to warn the Continental Army of British troop movements during the Revolutionary War.

In 1902, the mountain became a tourist destination when an incline railway opened to take tourists up to a casino and hotel. Built by Otis Elevator, it was the steepest funicular railway in the world, going up 1,540 feet on a 74 percent grade. The railway ran until 1978, when it closed due to a financial difficulties. Then in 1983, a huge fire destroyed the railway from top to bottom. In 1996, a restoration society was founded to bring the railway back, but it still remains a steep climb to a marvelous ruin and a beautiful view.

Along the East side of Main.

Main Street railroad tracks.
The bottom of Mount Beacon - this is the remains of the old Station House where people would get on the funicular. 

After walking a couple hundred yards, a stairway up the mountain appears.

200 steps, then it's a steep climb along a rocky trail.
Nearly at the top!

Ruins of the old power house at the top of the mountain.

Z in front of the ruins of the power house.

The view at the top. Turkey buzzard wheeling in the sky.
The climb back down was harder for me in my utterly wrong shoes. It was pretty darn steep and I picked my way down carefully as Z in his flat sneakers took a few spills. We made it down in 40 minutes and had enough time to check out another antique store and stop for an ice tea before getting to the station to catch the 5:13 back to the city. But just as we arrived at the platform, I realized that I left my phone plugged into the wall at the coffeeshop. With Z's goading, we managed to race up the hill to Main Street and back with just a minute to spare.

We caught our breath as the train slid into the station, and this time, we made sure to sit on the water side of the train. It was gorgeous, especially seeing Bannerman Island gliding past us on our way back. I love islands and exploring an abandoned island with the ruins of a 19th century mansion and arsenal sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon. One day when we have more time and money, it would be great to kayak over there. We could also take a sail on the Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger's sloop. And visit Dia: Beacon again. And have dinner in one of the restaurants. With so much to do, one day in Beacon is just not enough.