Tuesday, May 21, 2024

In Search of Lost Flavors in Flushing

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When one bag was full, I began to fill another with a sampling of monk fruit, sour black plum, dried bayberries, nine-spiced tangerine peels, fig strips, licorice wampees, and black-vinegar ginger. It should be said that this was also how my mother had shopped, decades earlier, when she came to Flushing: chaotically frenzied, a doomsday devotee stockpiling for her bunker.

My buying spree momentarily cheered Lady Black Brows.

“Won’t some shiitake mushrooms interest you?” She began trailing after me. “How about some premium red ginseng?”

The total came to twenty-seven dollars. I paid and asked for a receipt. This is the point in the story at which things began going south for both the deranged toddler and the food journalist.

A long pause as the dark eyebrows met in the middle like storm clouds. “Receipt? Why do you need a receipt?”

“I’m a food writer,” I said. “I’m writing a piece about the variety of interesting food and snacks in Flushing—” As I spoke, I was also beginning to hate the person speaking. “Interesting food and snacks?” I imagined someone walking into the Chinese restaurant where my mother had worked as a hostess and uttering a similarly foolish line.

Still, too late now to backtrack. Mechanically, I continued. “I need the receipt for—”

It occurred to me then that I actually did not know how to say “corporate business office” in the kind of casual Chinese that wouldn’t make me sound like an uptight asshole. I went with “editor”—then, when that was met with a cynical stare, “boss.”

“It’s a lot of trouble to print out a receipt for a few bags of snacks.”

I suggested that she could perhaps write it for me on a piece of paper.

“Your boss will believe a piece of handwritten paper?” Lady Black Brows snapped. “If your boss will take that, wouldn’t the smart thing to do be to go home and scribble whatever number you want yourself?”

Perhaps in an attempt to dispose of me in the most expedient way possible, the proprietor began halfheartedly rifling through what looked like stacks of notepads, but fastidiously refused my suggestion that a page be torn out for the creation of a makeshift receipt.

“You are lucky we aren’t very busy here. You are making a lot of trouble for twenty-five dollars’ worth of merchandise,” she muttered. “Also, what kind of boss-boyfriend requires snack receipts for reimbursement anyway?”

“Just boss, not boyfriend,” I corrected, knowing that anything I said would make little difference to her perception of things at this point.

Then Lady Black Brows thrust out her final question, pointing to my bulging pouches of dried fish and fruit. “Can I just write it on one of the bags? Won’t it all be the same to your boyfriend?”

Fifteen minutes later, I met up with two friends, Alex and Simon, at the New World Mall food court, a teeming warren of stalls reputed to be one of the biggest Asian food courts in the Northeast. Simon, a Chengdu native who moved to the U.S. at the age of twenty-five (his first home for a few months was in Elmhurst), is a computer programmer. Alex, a hardware engineer who has been a Flushing resident more or less continuously since he emigrated from Shenyang, twenty-seven years ago, lives a fifteen-minute walk from Main Street. My friends had been waiting for me for some time, so we immediately got down to business. From a stall run by an enthusiastic thirty-year-old woman from Guilin, we ordered bowls of river-snail noodles. “If it doesn’t stink, it’s not fragrant! If it doesn’t make you believe it will taste bad, it won’t taste good!” she counselled us, sounding like someone tasked with managing the culinary subdivision of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Oceania.

Alex, Simon, and I make an unlikely trio. I like to think of us as a mashup of the Three Musketeers and the Three Stooges—though none of us is American enough to have seen a Three Stooges movie and only Simon has ever read “The Three Musketeers” (in Chinese). It is not so much justice we seek (except of the culinary variety—wok-fried string beans that cost seventeen dollars a plate must arrive with more than a dozen string beans, and sweet-and-sour pork ribs must be made with fat-marbled, rather than bony, ribs) as a full belly. Ours is a friendship forged through and powered by the consumption of Chinese food. Nine years ago, not long after I’d written an article about Abacus, a community bank in Chinatown, I received two tweets from an account with a Kandinsky painting for an icon. The first one—“read ur piece in the New Yorker & delighted to learn u were from chongqing, Very proud as a decade-long reader & Sichuanese”—was followed by another: “there r some Sichuanese having hot pot every Thursday. U r welcome to join us. Bankers, musicians, artists, but no writer yet.” Never would I have imagined that, after some dozen meals of wok-tossed pork artery, duck-blood stews, and spicy pig intestines, the tweeter, Simon, would be the person I would trust to look after my mother when I was away on reporting trips, or that Alex would become my mother’s digital troubleshooter, uploading a dozen Chinese dramas for her to watch in her hospital room. Or that even though they never talked about anything other than Chinese food—its prices, preparation, regional variations, and ingestion—with my mother, who couldn’t talk at all for the last eight years of her life except with sideways movements of her eyes, they would be the people with whom my mother felt most at ease in her final years.

To my disappointment, neither of them was especially fazed by my account of what had happened at the snack shop.

“Who asks for a receipt for dried fish and bingtang hulu?” Alex asked, between slurps of rice noodles that indeed smelled pungently like fermented feet but tasted like something I would gladly eat for dinner daily.

Simon, who is generally more diplomatic in his opinions, or at least in their delivery, said that the request probably confused the shopkeeper more than anything else.

“Look, you aren’t native,” Alex pronounced matter-of-factly.

“I am,” I protested. “I am natively Chinese.”

“You aren’t natively Flushing,” he replied.

After the snail noodles, I led us up Roosevelt Avenue. The last of the evening light had drained from the winter sky. Under the concrete L.I.R.R. overpass sat a masked granny, bundled in a gray fleece jacket, hawking packages of beef jerky, pickled duck tongues, and pickled duck feet. Sichuanese jerky is all about the tendon and the gristle. The pleasure is in the sinewy chew: gnawing through rubbery, meat-flavored resistance. In America, it is impossible to find legal China-made beef jerky, which has something to do with a U.S.D.A. policy that bans the importation of most meat products from China. Fair enough—but a Sichuanese jerkhead has her needs. Over the years, I have been known to be unscrupulously cavalier with customs declarations, happy to forgo clothes and toiletries in favor of cartel-worthy quantities of jerky in my checked luggage.

Prior to the pandemic, I thought I’d found a workaround by sending hundreds of dollars every few months to sketchy PayPal accounts that promised me contraband jerky. Thankfully, the goods always arrived, albeit many months later, presumably following lengthy voyages on industrial shipping containers. But, since 2022, the PayPal accounts have all but disappeared. Increasingly, I find myself beseeching friends on work trips or visiting family in China. “A few bags, will you please, just to tide me over,” I implore, like a fiendish junkie too far gone to be concerned with anything but the next fix.

The granny, who told me she was Henanese, did not have any spicy mala beef jerky, Sichuan’s signature mouth-numbing variety. But beggars can’t be choosers. I ended up buying about forty dollars’ worth of black-pepper jerky, duck tongue, and chicken gizzards. She was seventy-four, she said, and could be found at her little stool under the overpass from eight in the morning to eight in the evening, six to seven days a week. I knew better than to ask her for a receipt. But there were things I wanted to know, more as a fellow-immigrant than as a journalist. Where did she get the jerky? Did she have family here? Did they think it was safe for her to be sitting out here, alone, for so many hours of the day?

“All the meat must be smuggled!” Simon exclaimed loudly, almost giddily, in Chinese within earshot of the granny. “The police, do they ever come?” The granny didn’t make a sound. Her eyes remained impassive, the planes of her deeply lined face as blank as an untouched canvas. Afterward, I gently scolded Simon. “You don’t understand,” he hurried to explain. “To be able to smuggle so consistently is no small feat! It suggests she must be very capable!” Both Simon and Alex recollected the reverence they’d felt for those who could procure Western goods that had been smuggled into China in the eighties and nineties, when they were young adults living in the provincial capitals of Chengdu and Shenyang.

But I wasn’t sure a direct equivalence was so easy to draw. Those who could smuggle Western goods in those years were mostly the country’s powerful and well-connected élite. The privileged, or, at least, adventure-seeking, who could afford the risk of challenging Deng Xiaoping’s haphazardly implemented Reform and Opening policy. I did not know much about the Henanese granny, but her position, on a folding stool on that permanently dim stretch of Roosevelt, seemed a far more precarious one.

I remembered something Alex had said earlier. Why should the bingtang hulu proprietor indulge my request for a receipt when ninety-nine per cent of her customers made no such request? It isn’t just that Flushing residents are slow to trust outsiders. They are slow to trust one another. Few people in Flushing, the majority of whom are foreign-born, grew up together, and the solidarity of the neighborhood’s residents is fragile. Relationships necessarily begin tentatively, and most often in a transactional manner. It was logical, Alex explained. “Two outsiders living in the same geographic community aren’t automatically insiders to each other.”

The longer we walked, the clearer it became that the landscape affected the three of us differently. At an open-air produce mart, tropical fruits, some of which, with their scaly skins and bulbous exteriors, resembled prehistoric creatures, occupied most of the sidewalk. After almost three decades, the bustle—its chorus of pitches, its kaleidoscope of color—held no appeal for Alex. Poking at his phone while deftly sidestepping the makeshift stalls, he didn’t seem to see them at all.

I, on the other hand, could not resist stuffing my already full totes with Korean pears, Taiwanese guava, persimmon cakes, lychees, kumquats, and a package of satiny-smooth, oval-shaped fruits whose name I didn’t even know. (They turned out to be loquats.) As the young cashier rang up my haul, I noticed a bag of what I thought were large unripe grapes—presumably his own snack. “Are they good?” I asked. Wordlessly, he nudged the opened ziplock toward me. When I plopped the tiny green orb into my mouth, I discovered that it was hard and bitter—in other words, not a grape but a fresh olive. I had never eaten (or, for that matter, seen) a fresh olive but did not think I would ever be tempted to have another. Simon, however, bit into one with gusto. In Chengdu, he had grown up nibbling on them.

Next stop: duck necks. During the pandemic, when the three of us met for picnics in Central Park, Simon had brought grapes, seltzer, sometimes cheese, and Alex had contributed plastic containers of chili-glazed duck necks. Now he led us to the narrow counter, inside a tiny food court, where those duck necks had been chopped, stir-fried, and seasoned. I wandered over to another counter that offered “Old-Style Mutton Stewed Noodles” and bought us a bowl. The only other diners, sitting on some forlorn-looking wooden benches, were young men, slurping with iPhones propped against condiment bottles. When I went to borrow the vinegar from one of them (a few drops of black Zhejiang vinegar cut the mutton broth’s richness), I saw that he was watching one of my mother’s favorite dramas, about a patriotic Chinese spy with a heart of gold.

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