Wednesday, June 02, 2010

South Coast cuisine.

I've been away from Philadelphia since Pentecost Monday, enjoying visits to my family in Southeastern Massachusetts and to friends in Montreal. On Monday, I will return to Philly to begin a summer full of movement. First, I'll head to Milwaukee for tri-province days (the 'tri-' indicating the fact that, for the first time, the Wisconsin Province Jesuits will be joining with Chicago and Detroit for the event). After a week in Chicago, I'll fly back to Philadelphia and take a breather before driving down to Southern Maryland for my eight-day retreat. The day after I finish the retreat, I'll be flying to Austria for six weeks of German language study at the University of Innsbruck. Though I'm sure that I'll have to deal with my own fair share of fatigue, frustration and disorientation over the course of the summer, I take some comfort in the words of Father Jerónimo Nadal, an early Jesuit, who once wrote of the Society, "Nuestra casa es el mundo" - "The world is our house." This was true in Father Nadal's day, when the demands of the Society's universal mission pushed Jesuits to transcend national and cultural boundaries, and it's just as true of Jesuits today.

Though we are called to be men on the move, each Jesuit also remains rooted in the particular cultural and social context that helped to shape his personal identity. The days that I've spent visiting my family in Southeastern Massachusetts have given me an opportunity to reconnect with my own roots, which in part means that I've been visiting familiar places and enjoying local products that can't be easily obtained elsewhere. The edibles that I miss the most when I'm away from home include homemade dishes (my mother's kale soup, my father's American chop suey) and specialties commonly found in local restaurants (such as stuffed quahogs, crunchy brown-battered fish n' chips, and a variety of fried rice that, in my experience, is unique to New Bedford-area Chinese restaurants - it's darker, drier and not as greasy as run-of-the-mill fried rice). Then there are the name-brand products that I grew up with, including Gaspar's linguiça, Autocrat coffee syrup (used to produce coffee milk, another local delicacy) and Hoo-Mee Chow Mein; though all of these products are impossible to find in supermarkets outside of Southern New England, they are available to the South Coast diaspora thanks to Famous Foods, a New Bedford-based mail order company that specializes in New England comfort food.

Though many of the foods that I associate with my native region are made and consumed at home, there are certain local restaurants that I always enjoy returning to. One of these is Chuck's China Inn, a place my brother and I sometimes visit for lunch when I'm home. A fixture of the New Bedford dining scene for nearly half a century, Chuck's China Inn is a relic of a bygone era - a large sit-down Chinese restaurant with table service, notable for its imported Qing Dynasty decor (including elaborately-carved ceilings and wall-sculptures, lots of gold dragons and red brocade fabrics and an indoor coin fountain). Though the restaurant's original interior thankfully remains largely intact, my impression is that Chuck's currently does most of its business as a takeout place. Keeping up with changing times, the restaurant also offers free delivery within a five-mile radius and has experimented with drive-thru pickup. Holding on to popular menu items like its signature chow mein sandwich - a local staple in its own right - Chuck's also seeks to keep its menu fresh by offering unique new dishes (like its 'Portuguese' wontons, stuffed with ground linguiça) and surprising specials like poutine (an odd choice for a Chinese restaurant, perhaps, but also a shrewd nod to New Bedford's French Canadian heritage).

Another South Coast establishment that I try to visit whenever I can is Mattapoisett's Oxford Creamery. A cottage-sized eatery serving fresh seafood, ice cream and little else, Oxford Creamery provides superlative quality at generally fair prices. The fact that the Creamery is only open seasonally adds to its mystique: though open for limited hours in the spring, it's basically a summer place. If, at other times of the year, I sometimes find myself pining for the first lobster roll of the summer at Oxford Creamery, I do so with an awareness that what I'm pining for is precisely a summer experience. In other words, the peculiar temporality of the Oxford Creamery experience is a part of its appeal. The fact that Oxford Creamery isn't open year-round makes me particularly glad that I'm often able to get home at times when the place is open for business. More importantly, though, I'm grateful for the opportunity to return to my roots and to spend time with my family at the start of a busy summer. AMDG.


At 6/06/2010 8:06 PM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

I was looking forward to another posting soon. Glad to see you had a chance to re-connect with family and roots. I'm quite intrigued that you're headed off for some German language study! Will you be connecting with Austrian Jesuits? What is the main motivation for the study? Viel Glück! In my experience, German is more difficult than the Romance languages, strangely, because although it's more closely related, it has retained the original Germanic vocabulary where English uses Norman French roots, and tons of Latinate terms, imported in 1066 and later. (German-speaking countries are very emphatic on "nativization" as opposed to borrowing from "foreigners" for example Fernseher for Television, the latter of course being a Greek-Latin melange). If everything I said is old hat to you, I apologize. Have you taken German before?

I'm also fascinated by your re-encounter with roots; I'm always captivated with Americana harking from a bygone age, and it was intriguing to read and see your Coast's history, emblematic of a different America, both geographically and chronologically, than I am most familiar with.

Was Chuck a Chinese American or a Caucasian?

At 6/07/2010 11:02 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Yes, I'll be living with Austrian Jesuits... As for Chuck, he was a Chinese immigrant - I don't know what his real name was, but for a long time the restaurant was still being run by members of the original family (in fact, it may still be; I'm not sure). In my area, we actually had a number of Chinese restaurants that were opened in the 1950s and early '60s by families who had come from China in that era (often by way of Hong Kong or Taiwan, I think - these are people who had fled the mainland in 1949, then spent a few years in transit before making their way to the United States). Most of those restaurants are long gone, though Chuck's and a couple of others still survive. They're very different from most of the Chinese restaurants we see today - nowadays, Chinese places tend to be fast-food joints that mainly do take-out. Chuck's and other Chinese restaurants from that period were meant to be classy establishments - a refined menu (I recall they had some items that you were supposed to call in a day or two ahead of time, because they took longer to prepare), fancy decor with lots of Qing Dynasty artwork, attentive service, etc. High-end restaurants in American Chinatowns tend to have a similar feel, with the key difference being that those places cater to a heavily Chinese clientele while restaurants like Chuck's were going after an almost entirely Caucasian public looking for what was then an exotic and distinctly upscale dining experience.

As an aside, an interesting book could probably be written about Chinese restaurants like Chuck's and the people who ran them - what I think is interesting here is the way that Chinese food was introduced to the U.S. dining public in the 20th century, and especially the way that it happened in places that didn't have any kind of local Chinese community (my home area, for example). Partly by necessity, the families who ran restaurants like Chuck's were highly assimilated and Westernized - it would be interesting to know more about their experiences, both in this country and in China (I wonder whether, perhaps in contrast with more recent Chinese immigrants, these families would have already become somewhat Westernized in China, making it easier for them to transition to life in the U.S. in areas where they didn't have a Chinese community to support them). Interesting stuff, I think.


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