Essential Meals

Fourteen Hills, Spring 2009, 15.2

After his early retirement was announced, Lin Ah Bing carried on as was expected. A.B. comforted the parade of men who wished him well and laid himself open to their prying eyes and forced cheer. He let his sales team chant his name and escort him out of Woo’s Dried Foods for the last time and steer him down the street to Hai Ba Wong, the self-proclaimed king of Taipei seafood restaurants. He even tried to look amused as his men dragged the red and gold throne from some obscure corner to their circular banquet table. He sat, confined between the gilded arms of his throne, and when the waitress appeared, he almost ordered the Home Style Six Course Dinner for his table of ten. But then he remembered that looking out for these men was no longer his role. A.B. had known this day was coming, had thought he was better prepared for it.

            Jack Chu, A.B.’s successor and the newly appointed manager of sales, ordered the Deluxe Ten Course Sea Treasure Feast—the most expensive of the banquet selections. Tonight was worthy of celebration for Jack, A.B. supposed, an efficient double celebration at their company’s expense.

            After half a dozen carafes of warm Shaoshing wine which A.B. let sit, Jack changed the order to Hennessey XO, the priciest cognac on the liquor list. He added a few more drops to A.B.’s already full wine cup, and the liquid tensed into a golden sheet across the rim. Jack appeared eager to help A.B. reach his self-imposed two-drink limit. A.B., too, dreaded the knees and elbows of a sober dinner, of his sobering self on this particular evening. He balanced the cup between two hands and took a sip.

            Jack turned to Little Su and asked what Tony Hsu made him eat last week. Head of purchasing at PARKnSHOP, one of Hong Kong’s largest grocery chains, Tony systematically sampled the priciest restaurants at their company’s expense. It would have been an ideal situation for anyone except Little Su who claimed to be allergic to foods outside the shades of beige.

            Little Su scrunched up his nose. “Shrimp that were still doing laps in rice wine. I told him it was against my personal beliefs,” he raised his voice and a finger, “my faith, to put crustaceous creatures in my mouth that were still kicking.”

            The men laughed. A.B. wanted to admonish Little Su—his inability to let clients save face would cost him one of these day—and thought better of it. He pushed a salt and peppered prawn around his plate, unsure if he wanted to peel it and dirty his fingers.

            “You useless thing,” ol’ Bull muttered before blanketing Little Su’s head with smoke. Ol’ Bull a.k.a. Lee Han-ko was the only one at the table A.B. did not hire. Forty years ago when Woo’s preserved fruits were sold by the gram out of open stoneware tubs, the two of them stomped Hong Kong mom-and-pop shops together. They sold red, white, and black plums whole and pitted, dried and preserved, sweet and salty, wrapped and unwrapped, in a dozen permutations of flavors. Their expense accounts afforded noodles at outdoor vending carts. “Good food and good wine are wasted on you. Drunken shrimp! Pfff! A.B. and I have put our lives on the line for this company.”

            “Hate to tell you, old man, going out drinking and singing karaoke with Yamamoto ‘til three in the morning—we don’t consider that a sacrifice,” Hairy Legs said.

            Over the years, Hairy Legs (Chen Min-li outside the office) had made his boss’ style, gestures, and authoritative voice his own. A.B. noticed right away when Chen failed to sit next to him. Gone were Chen’s jacket and tie—A.B.’s work uniform. Sleeves rolled and two shirt buttons undone, the man had remade himself in Jack’s image. Next to his new boss, Chen took possession of the cognac and replenished Jack’s wine cup at every turn. This evening, Chen was again living up to his nickname, derived from a folksy expression. His hairy legs revealed themselves at the most inopportune moments.

            Ol’ Bull blew out a small misshapen ring. “For your sake, we’ve put food in our mouths that could have killed us on the spot. Isn’t that right, A.B.?”

            A.B. pulled up the corners of his mouth for his old friend.

            Ol’ Bull continued, “Fugu. That’s what we’re talking about.”

            “Ah. He’s talking about the 15,000 yen per person kind of torture,” Hairy Legs said, poking at the air with the chunk of orange crab roe at the end of his chopstick. “Or was it 20,000?”

            “We ate fugu fins, fugu skin, fugu sashimi, fugu testes,” ol’ Bull said. “All for your greater good. Any single bite could have put us in our grave that night.”


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