Some of my favorite restaurants have dead ducks in the window.
I didn’t always feel that way.
Growing up, I assumed that even Abel’s offering to God was covered in cellophane. My Pollyanna view of life didn’t include skinning, gutting or blood-letting.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has an “arise, kill and eat” motto. If there was a tentacle, appendage, or orifice that could be consumed, it was proudly roasted, toasted or stir-fried.
In 1988, our favorite duck diner was a “mom and pop” affair, down the street from our local grocer. At first, I not only avoided going in to the eatery but I also avoided looking at the window, fearing the glassy-eyed birds would make eye-contact with me.
But something about studying Mandarin eventually gave me the urge to bite someone’s head off and a dead bird seemed to be the safest bet. I decided I could overlook beaks, claws and other offensively obnoxious organs in order to work out my language aggression.
Entering the cafeteria put my every sense on alert. It seems that the dangling ducks weren’t the only things of interest in the restaurant. You see, a good Chinese meal is measured in decibels, not Michelin stars. The louder the commotion; the better the food.
From the sound of the vent-a-hood and the rowdy drinking game in the corner, this place was top-notch. Throw in the cook hacking the meat into serving pieces and the patrons sucking said meat out of their teeth and you had the makings of an excellent venue.
While a friend placed my order, I starred directly into the kitchen. A hubbub of activity, I was mesmerized by the two men who were responsible for chopping the fowl. Because the birds were roasted whole, there seemed to be necessity for an assembly-line process before piling it onto the individual bowls of rice.
The first man arranged the whole duck length-wise on his butcher block, then with about seven quick blows hacked it to pieces with a cleaver the size of Albuquerque. Obviously, accuracy wasn’t his forte and bits of meat flew furiously from his blade with every whack. My eyes couldn’t help but follow some of the pieces to the ground, where they landed atop his flip-flops. I suppose the grease was in fact very moisturizing between his toes.
Then, the second cook slid the cut pieces toward him and used a smaller knife to further pierce as far as the division of both joints and marrow. As evidenced by this second guy’s missing forefinger, he had not always been as adept in the sliding-over portion of his job as he was on this particular day. Hopefully, he’d changed his apron since then.
With a nudge, my friend motioned me out of my reverie, and we seated ourselves to wait on our food. Since there were no available tables, we pulled up to one already occupied by several Taiwanese businessmen on lunch break. As I watched the guys chopstick duck feet up to their mouths, I realized the importance of leaning over the sticky plastic tablecloth. After all, where else were the bones going to go once all the meat was sucked off? I learned quickly that although spitting unwanted cartilage onto the tablecloth was acceptable, picking your teeth with a toothpick was not.
Before I get to the point, (something which seems difficult for me), I would like to talk about picking your teeth in Asia. No concern was given to sneezing without covering your nose, coughing without covering your mouth, or standing on the toilet seat. There were all acceptable behavior. (As was burying a finger so deep in your nose you could touch the North Pole). But somehow, putting a toothpick into your mouth without concealing the exploit is a big cultural “no-no”. To this day, I still find myself hiding the flosser behind a cupped hand to do the job. Etiquette first, I always say.
Back to the restaurant, I had worked up quite an appetite by the time my meal arrived. Although the pickled bok choy took some getting used to, the duck was amazing. Maybe the Chinese were onto something by allowing the food to do their advertising. After all, a bird in the window is worth two between your teeth.
Mark and I frequented this little spot almost every week. Convenient and inexpensive, it became our go-to for a quick lunch or a takey-outey dinner.
One day after class, we noticed a cook seated outside the back entrance of the restaurant on an upturned bucket. He had kicked off his plastic, blue flip-flops and had one of his grimy feet in his hands. With all due diligence, he was carefully manicuring his thick toenails with a suspiciously familiar paring knife. Coincidence, you say? I think not.
I’m proud to tell you that this did not end our visits to our little restaurant. We not only continued our weekly patronage, we also became one of their best publicists. After all, it’s not everyone who was privy to the special, secret ingredient.
Mark, going local in 1988.