Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween (Teng Chieh)

T. F. Gee
Known simply as "M
r. Gee" to thousands of Renoites, he was one of the most famous chefs in early Reno gaming history, and his name alone would guarantee business in a casino or restaurant. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Gee turned from engineering to cookery. He started his Reno career at the Dog House in 1937, and over the years he owned and/or worked at The Tropics, the Dog House, the Town House, the Monaco, and the Chinese Pagoda in Sparks and in Reno.
-Excerpt from The Rise of the Biggest Little City - An Encyclopedic History of Reno Gaming 1931-1981, by Dwayne Kling


Our family ate dinner out weekly, sometimes more, when Nel and I were kids. Even then Reno offered some great dining. One of our favorite places was the Chinese Pagoda in Sparks for several reasons, one of them being what greeted us at the front door. It was a huge -- and I mean giant, bigger than life-size, statute of Laughing Sitting Buddha. His fat belly was shiny from everyone rubbing it for good luck. The restaurant located in the old railroad district was small, dark, and aromatic. It had been a favorite dating spot for my mom and step-father prior to their marriage, but my mother knew Mr. Gee even before those days as one of her best customers at her blackjack table in Harold's Club. She was a favorite of Mr. Gee's and he showed enormous favoritism to our family when we were in the restaurant. Once the adults were served their cocktails Mr. Gee would come to our table to take Nel and me back into the kitchen. There we were awed by the pungent steamy air, sizzling pots, and cacophony of cooks and waitresses shouting over the hum of giant fans as we made our way to the place on the cutting board where Mr. Gee would slice off two thin strips of barbecued pork and present one to each of us. As I've been recalling that treat for this post I looked online for a recipe that sounded like what I remember. This recipe for Char Sui - Honey Roasted Pork (Chinese Barbecued Pork) has me convinced it would come close to Mr. Gee's tempting samples from long ago. Notice that the recipes says it is served either hot or cold. Our slices from the Pagoda kitchen were always cold. Since I gave up eating all meat except chicken and fish decades ago I won't be trying the recipe. Let me know if you do, and how you'd rate the recipe.

The barbecued pork morsels from the Pagoda were a bigger treat than any Halloween candy ever. And the best Halloween costumes we ever had were gifts to us from Mr. Gee after a trip he made to China. The silk was luscious. My red silk set was a bit large for me but not so much that it bothered me, and I think it's remarkable that Mr. Gee got the sizes so right and brought them back to us from his exotic journey. I remember another thing about the Chinese lounging set: the silk provided a natural warmth for trick-or-treating as I walked around our neighborhood in the chill of Halloween night. What a special gift from a dear man.

Years later Nel had her first job as a weekend hostess at the Pagoda after it had moved to Reno. Mr. Gee must have enjoyed having her there. I don't remember the last time I saw him, but I remember going to the Reno location a few times on dates. It was a large building, with a spacious, separate bar and a bank of windows looking out on the street. The air wasn't close and humid as it had been in the old Pagoda. The dining room wasn't dark like an opium den. Our mother and step-father had gone through a bitter divorce, and Nel and I were making our own lives as young women. The only constant was Laughing Sitting Buddha there at the entry. Of course I rubbed his belly for good luck.

This photo from tinypic.com looks much like the Buddha statue I remember at the Chinese Pagoda.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

To read about Halloween Around the World,
including the traditions in China, click here.


6 comments:

Jennifer said...

Great photos and costumes, with an interesting back story. Getting to go into the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant would have fascinated me as a kid, too.

Wayfaring Wanderer said...

How adorable!! Those are great costumes :o) I remember eating out a lot as a kid, too. Every day of the week was a certain restaurant because kids ate free, haha.

Buddha said...

That's a photoshop retouched picture. Actually I'm not that fat!
Happy Haloween to everybody!
Be Loved!

Lydia said...

Jennifer,
Thanks much. I like the term "back story." :)

Wayfaring Wanderer,
Aw, thanks. It's fun that you related to the dining out bit. We were required to be on our best behavior; were you?

Buddha,
I was really really hoping that you would stop by on Halloween to see the post about Laughing Buddha. Your comment was wonderful. :)

naomibloom said...

don't you think there's a book to be written--by you, of course--on american memories of chinese restaurants. aside from my own in childhood in various cities--new york, st. louis-- there are the children of owners of these places.

once had a conversation with the wonderful owner of my favorite local yarn store here in nyc. her family's chinese restaurant was in texas, a location that seems particularly exotic to me.

Lydia said...

Naomi,
What an idea, a book like the one you suggested actually could be really fascinating! I don't believe I'll take on the authorship, however.
Incidentally, the first dim sum I ever had was right there on Mott Street in NYC! I am NOT a fan of "chicken feet." :)

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