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Sunday, February 19, 2006

If You're Gonna Ride, Ride The White Elephant.

When Debbie told us there was a White Elephant preview-sale in Oakland and it was being put on by the Oakland museum to raise funds, I immediately wondered why the good folks at the Oakland museum were suddenly dealing heroin to support the arts.

I took me a while to remember that heroin goes by the name "white horse", not white elephant. But with all of these weird new drugs coming and going, how the hell am I suppose to know and remember what's what?!

Can't everyone just go back to huffing glue?

Anyway, the White Elephant preview-sale is now going on and basically, for the next couple of weeks, it's the biggest thrift store in the bay area. We got into the sale because Debbie knows everyone including God, but if you wanted to go now you could just show up and donate stuff in exchange for a one-day pass.

We caravaned over to Oaktown with Debbie and Bill on board and with the threat of rain and cold not deterring us in the slightest. Once we got off the Fruitvale exit, it was but a short drive to the warehouse where the sale was being held.

Once inside, we huddled, made our plans of what time to meet, and hi-fived each other shouting "go team" after which we scattered to various points of the warehouse like a shop-hungry militia storming new territory.

I headed for the shoes and clothes (duh!), while Bruce typically headed towards the books, Debbie and Lisa off to furniture, and Bill towards electronics.

After finally landing in housewares and scouring over each and every item in whatever section that mattered, I came away with what I considered a score.

Take for instance these vintage saucers and bowl that I spent $1 each on:

Clockwise from top left: Silesia china saucer, Syracuse china bowl, Haviland France china saucer, and Lefton china saucer

Yet, the real deal came earlier when, by stroke of luck, I caught these out of the corner of my eye.

"Village People" salt and pepper shakers at $1 each. The only issue I had with buying them wasn't figuring out which one was the salt and which one was the pepper, but which one was the top and which one was "the wife". It would've been much easier to figure out had they been cowboys.

I guess I'll cross that mountain when I come to it.

I think my most special find was this old recipe card holder...with the original handwritten recipes still inside!

Yeah. It's kinda creepy in a way. It's like snooping through someone's sock drawer. Or like the photos of a 1950s Cuban kid's birthday party (that I have on my fridge) I bought at a rickety junk sale between St. Pete and Tampa. It's kind of sad in the same way you see someone's old wedding photos for sale at the bottom of a box of old photos in a second-hand store.

The recipes, which date from the mid-1960s to the late 80s are a who's who of standard American fare ranging from Sloppy Joes, Beef Stroganoff, Rice Cassaroles, and dishes containing, but you would never guess of containing, a can of "Cream Of Fill-in-the-Blank" and a touch of Kitchen Bouquet. Nevertheless, I am excited about this treasure chest, if only that it proves my suspicions were true. My suspicions being that, indeed, there was a worldwide conspiracy to overcook all vegetables and make Worchestershire sauce the number one ingredient. However, the good thing about treasure chests is that you can always bury them.

And really, isn't that what "donation" is all about?

Next, I stumbled into the book section, which was large and impressive but a major Caveat Emptor out the wazoo. I only scoured the cookbooks, but Bruce checked them all out. And while he found a few that he would've bought, they were moldy or the spine was broken.

The Cookbook Section

I also found some cookbooks that I would've bought, especially older and more unusual ones, but they were also tattered and moldy. Being tattered isn't so much a problem, but stick a book with mold spores next to your others and you're just asking for complete ruin.

I did find one, however.

It's the one my Chinese-American friend, Bill, would later excoriate me for being an "orientalist" for buying.

Uh, excuse me, but I don't know a damn thing about carpets, ok? I mean, really Bill. What beef can I truly have? I like the designs! Even the ones you can buy at Ikea!


Anyway, back to the chop suey stuff.

It's called From San Francisco's Chinatown - Eight Immortal Flavors: Secrets of Cantonese Cooking by Johnny Kan and Charles L. Leong published by Howell-North Books, Berkeley, CA, 1963.

Written when late-night slumming in Chinatown was new and glamorous, this cookbook no doubt ended up in the hands of many a late 50s/early 60s suburban Gweilo, whose drunken memories of half-naked girls and Ronald Reagan sitings on Grant inspired her or him to buy this book in a vain attempt to regain those few lost weekend moments between acting like a complete ass and puking in the toilet at Kan's, which incidentally, is still in operation and whose location and décor hasn't drastically changed since.

And, I suspect from the fact Sam Wo's is still in business, neither have the crowds.

Though seemingly a quaint relic of another time, the book is a living testament of the food of Chinatown then and, sometimes, now. Not only are the recipes authentic (there are substitutions for the non-Chinese housewife), but someone (likely Mr. Leong) painstakingly went to the trouble of documenting and translating into pinyin the names of chinese herbs, vegetables, condiments, dried ingredients, and dishes.

Could you resist such a debonair and suave gentleman as this? He had me at hello.

This book is not only a treasure of Chinese-American culture, Cantonese cuisine, mid-20th Century Chinatown, 50s and 60s pop culture, but also of San Francisco history.

So, Bill. Talk to the hand.

And when I finally make Dried Abalone with Oyster sauce, Lotus Root with Beef, Oxtail Peanut Soup, and Diced Chinese Long Beans with Barbecued Pork, you are totally welcome to come eat at my table.

Ok, then.

Lucky for you and me, the White Elephant preview-sale is still going on and is open only to those who've received passes and/or have donated items upon entry. It is officially open to the general public March 1st, which is when the place really becomes a madhouse.

There is still time to do an ugly amount of shopping, so I suggest you get on down there before all of the good deals are snatched up.


PS: Remember that Duck Confit I started a few weeks back? Well, Bruce, Bill, and I had it for lunch after the sale. All that was necessary was to fry it a little in a pan and then stick it in the oven on 350F for a few minutes. I then piled it on top of some garlic/shallot potatoes sauteed in duck fat and baby spinach lightly flavored with pear vinegar and orange peel-infused oil.

Bill, whom I live the high-fallutin restaurant-going life I never had through, seemed to enjoy it. Especially the sauteed duck skin/fat!


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