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TAKE A WOK

15 January 2002

How did people ever cook Chinese food before Tupperware?

You can cook a Chinese meal in about 10 minutes, but it takes a day to chop everything--and where do you put it all after you've chopped it? Tupperware.

I'm a pretty good Chinese cook. Or have been in my day. In the years before we moved to Davis, Martin Yan, before he became the darling of PBS, taught cooking classes for UC Davis. It cost a fortune to take the course, and it never even occurred to me to enroll. BUT, at the same time he was teaching the identical course through the Davis Adult School, for $20. (Shhhh...don't tell the university extension students!)

At that time, I was into taking classes through the Adult School. I learned cake decorating at two classes there and even made a huge appliqued quilt for Ned for Christmas one year in my quilting class (yes, I put a needle in my hands and actually stitched something).

But Martin's classes (I took two of them) were the most fun.

He was like he is now--horribly hyperactive, full of stories, and sayings, and he made learning Chinese cooking fun. I still have the cleaver he bought in China on one of his trips home to see his mother.  He took orders from people in the class and brought us all back special cleavers.  He collected aprons and each class always gave him one at the conclusion of the class.

When my advanced class finished, he took the adult school class and the university class out for a multi-course Chinese dinner, which he specially ordered. We went to Sacramento's Chinatown (which is really only one block square), and we bypassed the tall red and gold "tourist trap" Chinese restaurant and went down to a courtyard, to a little hole in the wall place you would never think of entering for gourmet Chinese.

But it was the very best Chinese food I've had--bar none. And I've had a lot of Chinese meals in my time. I don't remember now exactly what we had, but the thing that sticks with me is the mushroom dish, which was made with several different species of mushrooms, one of which, Martin confided, cost over $100 a pound. That dish was fantastic.

In the years after I finished Martin's class, I was working for an attorney. It's a good thing there wasn't such an emphasis on sexual harassment then or this guy would have been accused more than once. He was a dirty old man who enjoyed inviting his young secretaries into the "liberry" (he never did put the r in the middle of the word), where he would chase them around for awhile. I never qualified for the liberry romp, but one of his other tricks is that instead of giving you a bonus, he'd buy you an outfit. You just had to pick it out, come in and model it for him, and he'd give you a check to pay for it. He really was a piece of work, this guy.

But his son, by coincidence, was all involved with Martin and apparently instrumental in getting Martin his first TV show, through a Canadian television station.

I have lost contact with Martin, the attorney, and his son. But I remember those days.

I always liked cooking Chinese food for special occasions. I was never content to just fix a dish or two. It had to be a whole meal, at least 7 dishes. Everything from hors d’oeuvres to dessert. I almost always made a feast for the foreign students who stayed with us--at least in the early years.

But I hit my peak when a couple of guys asked me if I would come and cook a Chinese meal for some of our friends. It was to be a seven course meal.

Now these guys lived in a humongous flat in San Francisco. It was a two-story flat, with the top floor being a sumptuous bedroom with a couple of turrets which were nice for curling up in with a book. Downstairs there were large high-ceilinged rooms painted red and white and accented with gold. There were two large bay windows overlooking the street in the living room, with a grand piano in each window. The guest bedroom was called "The Lincoln Bedroom" and it was justly named.

There was a wonderful dining room, where ten of our friends gathered around to enjoy my feast.

But the terrible thing about this palacial flat was that it had the tiniest kitchen I've ever seen. Well, I have seen a kitchen in New York which is smaller, but not by much. And it had essentially NO counter space. If you put a toaster and a coffee pot on the counter, you had no room left over.

How do you cook a multi-course Chinese meal for 10 with absolutely no counter space?

Tupperware!!

It took me a whole day to get ready for this meal. I chopped and chopped and chopped. I julienned. I sliced. I rolled and folded. As I prepared a vegetable, whether in slices or strips or finely chopped, it would go into a Tupperware container. Each dish had a number of containers. Each container was numbered. And each recipe was on an index card. All I had to do was match the numbers on the card with the numbers on the containers and I could easily work with no counter space.

I didn't quite get all the ingredients in the right dishes, but since they all took pretty much the same ingredients, or since one could easily be added to a different dish, it all wokred out and nobody was any the wiser.

We had crispy food that was crispy, vegetables that were crunchy, meat dishes that were flavorful, and the whole event was an incredible success.

I don't think I've ever made a feast quite like that one (nor do I want to...I'm too old), but that sure stands out as one of my best achievements. I sure don't know how I ever could have done it without Tupperware, though!

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Created 1/13/02