HIDDEN TREASURE: THE LITTLE GREEN BOOK
“… just because one can guess the nature of a tale doesn’t make it any less worth the telling. One might even find a treasure they’ve missed before, or see a glimmer of true things therein …”
Chasing the Dragon
After twenty years, we have decided to sell our house. Imogene is nearing retirement and it just seems the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. The easy part for us was deciding to sell, the hard part is decluttering, sorting through and selectively pitching two decades of accumulated “stuff.”
So many memories that mean so much to us: but so little to anyone else.
Last week, I started cleaning out the drawers of my rolltop desk—purchased with my Vietnam service bonus provided by the state of Ohio—and (as you can imagine) it has been a trip down memory lane: old artwork, pictures of family and friends, assorted gifts and keepsakes, and snippets of writings long forgotten. But in one drawer, hidden underneath handfuls of foreign currency (coins and paper), I discovered a true hidden treasure: a little green notebook with a variety of handwritten entries from 1997.
Nuggets buried for twenty-three years.
Notes written from a time long before my hands started shaking with “family tremors.”
Among those nuggets was a two-page entry under the heading “My ten favorite eating experiences.” Others may keep book on people they meet, places they travel, love won and lost, fortunes earned and squandered; for me, however, most of my memorable life experiences are attached to food—especially steaks. I can still remember as a child my first restaurant T-bone steak during a family outing to Indian Lake, Ohio. I have been looking for a steak as good as that one ever since. So, in 1997, I scribbled down notes about my favorite ten lifetime eating experiences. Since then, I have been on a one-man quest to replace one of the ten listed places with a newer, better “feedbag” experience.
Quite honestly, this list probably says more about me than any other of my topical missives. For many years—and still today—the topic of food, as well as unique shared experiences with others while participating in that activity, forms the very core of my being. Only my personal walk with the Lord Jesus Christ and activities as a husband and father take precedence on my chain of personal priorities. Whenever I take a trip, or recall my experiences travelling abroad, the very first thing that comes to mind are the restaurants (or, in some cases, “dives”)
where I sampled the local food. I almost have a photographic memory when it comes to recalling those places: on every stretch of road, every country visited, there are special food-associated memories that pop into mind (no matter how many years have passed).
It is one of the few true “gifts” God has blessed me with …
So, without further ado, (and not trying to outdo David Letterman) let me present my list of top ten eating experiences (as of 1997).
Let’s start with one of the earliest. During my years at Cumberland College, 1966-1970, (now Cumberland University, then a small Baptist college located in Williamsburg, Kentucky), I had very little money. In fact, the only way I could pay for college was with a work-study grant (I spent two years sweeping every inch of campus sidewalks dressed in threadbare blue jeans and a t-shirt), as well as a generous scholarship from the local Lion’s Club chapter in the town where I was raised. My parents did what they could. My grandma Clara also would slip me a ten-dollar bill every time I came home to help me get by. Sigh. At any rate, there was one local lady who felt sorry for students like me. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember her name or how we first stumbled on her restaurant—actually a simple shack that posed as a truck stop along old route 25 on the way to Corbin, Kentucky. She would fix us a huge and delicious T-bone steak with all the “fixins” for a few paltry dollars. I’m sure she lost money on every such meal; she did it out of pure sympathy for me and other hard-pressed college students.
If there is any justice—and there is—she is now helping prepare a feast at the table of the King of Kings in the heavenly realm.
The second eating stop on our journey traces back to my years in Okinawa, Japan, where I was stationed at Kadena AFB for eighteen months during the waning years of the Vietnam War. As an enlisted airman in those days, I didn’t earn much money (you will notice a recurring theme here). So, going out to eat was a really big deal and typically reserved for major occasions; otherwise—if you were single—you ate every meal in the mess hall close to the barracks. I can still remember jumping in my pale green, standard shift, Datsun Bluebird (I had to carry a jug of water in the front seat because of a slow leak in the radiator) to drive down the coast to Naha—the biggest city on the island—for a meal at Sam’s Anchor Inn. The décor of the restaurant was designed to give the customer the impression they were dining inside an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, complete with wooden ribs, antique hanging lights and a huge cauldron as you entered (where you were greeted by the smell of corn chowder). I would blow a large part of my paycheck on the house specialty, Kobe beef cooked on a hibachi grill. The Okinawan cook would mix vegetables, potatoes, and bean sprouts with the meat. Our local Benihana’s prime rib—as much as I enjoy it—cannot hold a candle to my memories of that meal. Just thinking about it is almost making me drool.
My third food-related cluster of memories are associated with my time in graduate school at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, compliments of the G.I. bill. That time was a bittersweet experience for me. Perhaps one of these days I will feel comfortable enough to talk about it in a missive. But not now. Instead, I want to focus on two eating experiences that stand out above the others during that timeframe: the barbeque beef brisket at Angelo’s and early morning eating experiences at the Old South Pancake House.
During those years, it was hard to beat the mesquite-cooked brisket at Angelo’s, located close to the Trinity River. The smell-smoke spilling out of the outside cooker—where the Mexican family cooked huge slabs of beef brisket for hours using nearby piles of mesquite wood—assaulted your sense of smell as you arrived in the parking lot. The smells drifted inside as well, where the first-time customer was greeted with the sights and sounds of a seedy Texan bar-restaurant with a sawdust-covered floor. Customers were greeted at the door by a taxidermist’s dream: a hallway flanked by two menacing, moth-eaten grizzly bears, walls decorated with an assortment of bison heads and multi-pointed deer, mountain goats and elk antlers. Two large refrigerated units teemed with plastic bowls of potato salad and cold slaw, and behind the counter, family members (sporting meat and barbeque sauce splotched bibs) doled out generous portions of brisket for sandwiches or platters. Most ordered large, iced goblets of Lone Star beer to quash down the food. (During my last visit to Angelo’s, the Texas Department of Health had made the owners sweep out the sawdust, get rid of the stuffed animals, and put a fence around the cooker and woodpiles. Inside, the place was larger, the clientele more respectable, and the tables and floors more sterile than they used to be. But at a cost: Angelo’s forfeited much of its rustic charm).
My other food-related memory associated with Fort Worth is the Ol’ South Pancake House. In the old days, the Ol’ South was a small, intimate building located next to the railroad tracks. Many of my most memorable moments from those years took place there between two and three in the morning (when all the nighttime denizens emerge and, for us, after our frequent poker parties ended). At that time of morning, people willingly pour out their raw-nerve life experiences on anyone whom will listen: I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of forlorn love, careers squandered, and disastrous life decisions. Sigh. While I was living in Fort Worth, the Ol’ South moved to a larger, more modern place nearby. I first met Fred Mullinax there for my initial job interview for Alice Lloyd College. We have been friends ever since. (In my missive “The Future of Food” sent out several months ago, I described the wonderful night an Arab belly dancer surprised the Ol’ South’s regular patrons—in case you didn’t receive that particular writing, I’ll be glad to send it to you upon request. It is one of my favorites.)
My time teaching at Alice Lloyd College and as the first director of the June Buchanan School, provides the backdrop for the fourth food-related experience listed in my little green book. The specific outing was an evening at the Cattlemen’s Restaurant in the Stockyard District of Fort Worth, Texas. My good friend Larry Hanger, would be proud of the huge steak I demolished that evening; as Larry is fond of saying: “we didn’t climb our way to the top of the food chain to eat rabbit food.” (Of course, I read on-line in the news today that an Israeli company last week unveiled the first 3-D-printed rib-eye steak.)
On this occasion, I was travelling with Jim Bergman—former ALC Dean of Students—on a fund-raising trip to Texas. Jim was an amazing individual. Reader’s Digest used to have a section entitled “My Most Unforgettable Character,” a category tailor-made for people like Jim Bergman. A true southern gentleman-philosopher, erudite, personable, accomplished in several fields, and grounded in sound Christian doctrine, Jim made the long miles in the car between Kentucky and Texas melt away as we discussed a wide variety of personal, spiritual and geostrategic issues. I miss him and his intellect. I have lost track of the number of times in my travels, when the topic of Alice Lloyd College and Pippa Passes came up during the conversation, the other person would ask me “do you know Jim Bergman?” (It was also during that fundraising trip to Texas with Jim that I first met “Aunt Margaret”—a lady then in her mid-90s—who had carved out and built a ranch with her husband in the hill country near Lake Travis. Her politics were slightly to the right of Attila the Hun and she was as tough as a gnarled piece of mesquite wood. I pay tribute to this remarkable lady by including her as a character in my novel. I miss her dearly).
The fifth entry on my food list occurred during my first government TDY trip to Singapore in the early 90s. Our sister service in the city-state treated us to a fancy meal at a restaurant located near the Straits, the high-traffic waterway separating Singapore from the Indonesian islands. On the menu was delicious garlic and pepper crab and fish dishes of every description. As a “rite-of-passage” experience following the meal, our hosts arranged a table at the far corner of the property for us to try durian—the pungent, prickly fruit that many Asians treat as an aphrodisiac. The smell of ripe durian is so foul, for example, that you are prohibited from taking it on planes. One of my favorite books (Manila Bay) contains a vignette where a “durian terrorist” on a motorcycle drives between cars in the notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic in Manila (before the days of air conditioning) and tosses ripe durian “bombs” into the open windows. You have to smell durian (only once) to appreciate such a scenario. Needless to say, the durian (which tastes just like it smells) when combined with the local Tiger beer, made me a belching and farting volcano for at least two days.
Ah, but what an experience!
The sixth food site on my list was a dilapidated barn-type structure housing a Mexican restaurant located a short drive from Vandenberg AFB in Santa Barbara County, California. I was attending a missile-related course on base and asked the instructor where the best local steak house could be found. He directed me to a nearly deserted village in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant was the only building of note. Once inside, you could pick any size of steak you wanted (that was a first for me). Mine came out the size of a rump roast! I savored every bite.
The seventh entry on my list was the Coliseum Restaurant located in a large room attached to a former British colonial grand hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At the time, I was travelling throughout Southeast Asia with Tom Andahl (we recently exchanged memories of our eating experience there). We were seated in a dining room featuring the highest ceilings I have ever seen. Both of us immediately noticed several brown-rimmed circles arranged in concentric patterns overhead. A waiter—dressed impeccably in colonial fashion—tied a bib around our necks and asked if we wanted the house steak (the restaurant’s featured dish). We said “yes.” In a few minutes, the waiter returned with a steak worthy of Fred Flintstone and poured a healthy dose of house-specialty gravy on the simmering slab of meat. The result was a plume column of grease-smoke that ascended to the ceiling, adding to the collection above. No matter, the steak was delicious.
My green book’s eighth entry, comes from the amazing city of Bangkok, Thailand. As many of you know, several of my missives—from discussing spirit houses to Buddhist eschatological art—are located in the exotic backdrop of Bangkok, the “City of Angels.” A short cab drive from the western hotels along Wireless Road (or a short walk along the klongs), and the infamous Patpong red-light district, is Neil’s Tavern, a delightful western restaurant with a German-looking décor. The steaks are terrific. It remains my favorite dining experience in Bangkok. If you search for Neil’s on-line, they will tell you the restaurant began in 1969 and was named after American astronaut and moonwalker Neil Armstrong (who lived, coincidentally enough, across the street from my grandma Clara outside Lebanon, Ohio, while his farmhouse was being refurbished.) I like Neil’s so much that I placed one of my novel scenes inside the restaurant.
Over the years, dining experiences in Bangkok have intersected with my life journeys on several occasions. The first of many was during my Vietnam service days. Following a long, noisy, and teeth-rattling C-130 flight from Kadena AFB to U-Tapao, (accompanied by my good friend and co-Chinese linguist Gary Knott), we landed in Thailand for an R&R. We hired a local cab driver for a white-knuckle nighttime dash to Bangkok, including a close call with a water buffalo lumbering on the road. It was an incredible trip, full of good eating stops (read here steaks) and a host of amazing experiences. As a sampler of the trip, a driver took us to a wild nightclub where, after a loud gong sounded, the dance floor was cleared,
ropes for a “ring” set up and a kickboxing match ensued with the club patrons betting like crazy on their favorite fighter. The gong sounded again, the rope ring was disassembled, the music blared anew and the dancing continued. All this only to be interrupted—a couple hours later in the wee hours of morning—by the familiar sound of the gong and a real live cockfighting match. What an extraordinary evening! In those days, the Thais catered to throngs of young, testosterone-driven American GI’s (or rather, the greenbacks in their wallets): by the time of my last visit to Bangkok, however, (a time coinciding with the revolutionary street unrest of pro-Thaksin supporters), Thai business and brothel owners began catering to new Japanese and Chinese overlords (or rather, the yen and yuan in their wallets).
But the excellent taste of the steaks at Neil’s Tavern was exactly as I remembered. It is nice to know that some things never change.
A ninth entry in my little green book refers to a cluster of food-related events in the Philippines. During my first visit to Manila (on that same long TDY with Tom Andahl), we had dinner at a Cuban restaurant when the lights flickered and then went out. During the Ramos years, the Philippines was wracked by a constant string of brownouts, blackouts and electrical power failures. It became a way of life. Our waiter apologized, lit a candle, and the meal continued. (Many years later I was in the Philippines again, visiting the Angeles City area outside old Clark AFB—at one time, before the volcano, the most beautiful airbase in the world which we used as a typhoon evacuation location during my flying days in the Vietnam era—where I encountered an amazing group of American expats. They had purchased a local bar which served as a center for their motorcycle club and trained local mamasans to cook the food just like back home. I enjoyed a meal of southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits and green beans that was every bit as good as my grandma’s cooking.)
The final entry in my green book focuses on Australia. In the delightful capital city of Canberra, there is the Kingston Circle Hotel with an adjacent pub and cook-your-own steakhouse. The steak choices are fantastic. Moreover, you can play a game of pool while your steak sizzles. I love that place. In fact, I love the food in Australia period! Whether it is the prime steak and dessert at the Charcoal Grill in downtown Canberra, or the amazing assortment of meats—you can sample snake, gator, or camel—in the rotating restaurant high atop Sydney, or grain-fed kangaroo steaks in Alice Springs, Australia is a true haven for meat lovers.
There you have it! My green book’s big ten. Yet, as I write, I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface of a lifetime of truly wonderful dining experiences. (I can’t believe I’ve omitted the Jaya Pub experience in Jakarta). But, alas, I’ve reached my self-imposed page limit. So, Bon Appetit