“There was once a young knight named Winston, who joined Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, Percival, Valiant and the others at King Arthur’s round table.” That’s how it began, one of the cascade of bedtime stories Dad told to my siblings and me when we were children.
Dad had a life-long love of the Arthurian stories, which began when as a youngster, when he read the Hal Foster comic strip and grew deeper when later he enjoyed books and movies depicting tales of the knights’ adventures. Long before my siblings and I arrived on the scene, Mom caught Dad’s infectious pleasure in the legend, and when they built the home in which they would raise us all, they dubbed their own castle “Camerick,” a combination of their names (Camille and Frederick), and a word play on Camelot. Coincidently, at the time Mom and Dad were building Camerick, there was Camelot in the White House.
Dad’s bedtime stories to us were of his own creation and more often than not, they were about Sir Winston who had many exhilarating adventures which I suspect were inspired by Dad’s real life escapades growing up in Chinatown as well those that occurred during the time he served in the Office of Strategic Services. Sir Winston became one of Dad’s monikers. Another was 007, but that’s a story for another column.
Although we grew out of having bedtime stories, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were still part of our lives. Dad’s car was his “trusty steed of steel,” and his favorite carving knife was dubbed “Excalibur.” And, yes, in many ways he was, and still is, my Knight in Shining Armor.
Speaking of knives and Excalibur, I’d like to share the story of a couple of Chinese cleavers this week. There was an ornate cleaver that hung on the Imperial Dynasty walls. Uncle Richard had placed the cleaver on a door of a cupboard that ran along the hallway in front of the Brocade banquet room. The hallway connected the Imperial Dynasty to the Chinese Pagoda. For as long as I can remember, when asked about the cleaver, Uncle Richard responded, “That was my father’s cleaver. He hand cut his noodles with it.”
When we closed the Imperial Dynasty in February of 2006, Uncle Richard’s personal art collection rightfully went to his home. But he also took Grandfather’s cleaver. I wasn’t happy about that, as I thought the utensil belonged to all of Grandfather’s children and more importantly, it was a legacy piece, something that belonged in the Taoist Temple Museum. I was somewhat vocal about my feelings, but when nothing changed I decided I could pay homage to Grandfather’s cleaver whenever I visited Auntie Mary.
Life and time moved on. This year, at the end of February, Dad died. A couple of weeks after his death, my cousin Ernie dropped by the Tea Room carrying a newspaper wrapped package. “You think that Uncle Richard took Grandfather’s cleaver,” he said as he handed me the package. “He didn’t, this is the real cleaver. When I was a kid in the 60s, I used to work in the Pagoda basement chopping onions. P. Chow told me this was my grandfather’s knife that he used to cut noodles.”
Since P. Chow (Howard P. Chow) was a cook in the Chinese Pagoda and the noodle maker, I knew he would know about this cleaver. I slowly unwrapped the package and found myself gazing at a very old, very used cleaver. “This is our grandfather’s knife,” Ernie continued. “It belongs hanging on the wall in the museum.”
Speechless, I could only nod my head in agreement.
After Ernie left, I took the cleaver in my hand and lifted it. A quick shiver went down my spine. I looked at Steve and said, “Excalibur!”
With the cleaver in hand I went out to the Alley. I stood in front of the Chinese Pagoda extended the cleaver in the manner Dad mimicked as he told us tales about King Arthur and his sword all those years ago. “Grandfather,” I whispered. “Your Excalibur has come home.”
I don’t know the story behind Uncle Richard’s ornate cleaver on the restaurant wall and now there’s no one left to ask. I do believe absolutely that my Grandfather’s true cleaver has been returned to its roots. Stalled entirely in terms of historical research for further information, I determined celebration was the best alternative. I decided to make a meal to commemorate old Chinese cleavers, legends and legacies and the return to the Alley a piece of Chinatown history. I had the strong sense of Dad’s long-distance approval. He didn’t raise me on tall tales, ghost stories and the yen for celebration without the sense of him lingering for me in all those things.
Because my personal history in Chinatown began with Great-grandfather’s noodles house and now there is Grandfather’s noodle cutting cleaver to be displayed (near Great-grandfather’s noodle house signage), I wanted the meal to be about noodles. Although I wasn’t in the mood to roll out and hand cut them, the noodles needed be the star of the show. There would be a sauce but it wouldn’t be saucy. Something home style. Something simple.
Although my original idea for the recipe began with the noodles as the only ingredient, I remembered that in the morning dear friends, Atsu and Maureen Fukuda, dropped off some freshly picked snow peas from their garden and in the afternoon their son, Todd, presented us with eight beautiful bouquets of various types of kale from his garden. Being that I’m always up to adding more greens and even more greens to my menu, I decided to incorporate the vegetables with the noodles. They would add some color and bite. Feel free to swap out the kale with another hearty green and the snow peas may be substituted with green beans or sugar snap peas. Add some tofu or leftover chicken if you are so inclined.
When the noodles had about a minute or so left to finish boiling, I dropped the vegetables into the pot. After the noodles and vegetables were drained and the sauce stirred in, I plated the dish, thinking how I was going to enjoy the leftovers for breakfast with a fried egg on top.
I took my bowl and sat down at Dad’s place at the round table in Camerick. I took my first bite. I knew Sir Winston approved.