Noe Valley Voice March 2001

Florence's Family Album:
Come Back, Mr. Lee, Or, The Year of the Snake

By Florence Holub

This year at the end of January I received a birthday card from our good neighbors Marianne and Angus Pera, accompanied by a gift certificate for a dinner for two. How kind, how welcome this gift was, because we had been having trouble thinking of a place to go out to eat for my birthday that would be suited to our particular needs.

You see, my man Leo and I like to dine early because we fall asleep as soon as the sun goes down. Perhaps it's because the TV nightly news has become so boring we're lulled to sleep within minutes. Or maybe it's that we find our illegitimate leader to be so embarrassingly unpresidential we are forced to turn off the tube to quell our distemper.

In any case, we were thrilled to have the Peras make our choice for us. Their edible gift was redeemable at Alice's, a Chinese restaurant located on Sanchez Street, in a building that once housed the Noe Valley Community Store.

So at about 4 p.m. on a Thursday, off we flew to Alice's, where we actually found parking close to the restaurant's spacious dining room. As we entered the door, we were given exclusive, courteous attention, no doubt because we were the first and only dinner patrons! After we were seated, we admired the beautiful china and orchids encircling the room and clinked our glasses of Tsing Tao beer to wish each other Gung Hay Fat Choy, for it had just dawned on us that this was also the beginning of the Chinese New Year.

Our orders arrived and we shared them as usual--Leo's tasty salmon, a side order of fresh asparagus, and my favorite: spicy eggplant with bits of chicken, shrimp, and veggies in a tangy sauce. A saucer of fortune cookies completed our feast.

The atmosphere, the food, and the flowers all brought back memories of the many happy Chinese New Year celebrations we'd spent with James Tong Lee, the brilliant chef who worked for over 70 years for our dear friend Phoebe Brown, an architect who at one time was my husband's co-worker at the Planning Commission in San Francisco.

"Mr. Lee," as we knew him, was born in China, but immigrated with his father to the U.S. as a child. When still a young man, he began working as a "houseboy" (the term they used then) for Phoebe's father, Dr. Phillip King Brown. Eventually, he worked his way up to being in charge of the kitchen and the family's large home overlooking the ocean in Sea Cliff.

Over the years, Mr. Lee and Phoebe became completely devoted to one another. (In fact, he was with her when she died, in 1990 at the age of 86. Mr. Lee, who was also in his 80s, died six months later.)

When we got to know them as friends in the 1950s, we were delighted to be included in the family traditions. One was an annual excursion orchestrated entirely by Mr. Lee. Each Chinese New Year, he would invite us for a feast in Chinatown (or later, after Grant Avenue became so popular, we'd go to the Richmond District).

After strolling through the narrow streets, marveling at the busy stalls of flowers, fruits, and sweets, we would meet him at a restaurant of his choosing, and there we would be introduced to new and exciting tastes, elegantly prepared and presented. Mr. Lee seemed to know all the restaurant owners personally, so we would often get special treatment. And since he was an expert chef himself, he ordered all of the dishes for us.

Oh, the delicacies we savored! Mr. Lee's menus were sublime. My only regret was that I never got the hang of the chopsticks. Leo did fine, but the food I aimed for usually ended up in my lap. With a smile, Mr. Lee would kindly hand me a fork.

We also were invited to dinner at the Browns' house on many occasions. There James Tong Lee prepared his own five-star meals. His recipes were so remarkable, in fact, that Phoebe finally convinced him to collect them in a book. In the '80s, with the help of my printer son Eric, I illustrated and published the recipes in a small book with a gold jacket. My favorite recipe remains Bean Cake (Tofu) with Pork in Oyster Sauce (see recipe, this page).

As another small thank-you for all his kindnesses, each year I would make a calendar featuring the Chinese animal of the year, to hang on the wall of their dining room. Since this year, 2001, is the Year of the Snake, the illustration I am using for this column is the one I drew for the 1977 calendar, another "snake year" and the year 4675 on the Asian calendar. (Other snake years are 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, and 1989. Were you born in one?)

In case you're wondering where I found a boa constrictor to model for me, I will tell you that it lives in an exhibit behind glass, at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

During all those Chinese New Years we celebrated, I learned a lot about Chinese cuisine but very little about the animals we commemorated, the Chinese version of the zodiac. So this year I decided to dig up some information to share with those of you who may be as much in the dark as I am.

In ancient China, the early stargazers based their world view on a lunar cycle lasting 12 years. Each of the 12 years in the cycle was represented by a specific animal with specific features.

One of the stories that has been handed down to explain the system goes like this: The Buddha decided to summon all of the animals on the earth to come to him, promising that in return they would be rewarded. Of all the animals living upon the earth, only 12 came. And they were honored for all time, in the order in which they arrived, by having a year bearing their name. The 12 came in this order: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. In return, each of these animals contributed some of their traits to humans, so that people born in that year would also share the same characteristics. Knowledge of their inherent strengths and weaknesses, based on their birth-year animal and its relationship to the other animals, would help people cope with and direct their lives.

I was born on the cusp of two signs, so sometimes I am a horse, but more often a sheep. After reading the little red Chinese astrology book, I felt extremely sheepish. It said that people of the sheep are accomplished in the arts, but are poor salespersons because they are uncertain about life and puzzled about which direction they should take. Sad but true.

People like Leo, born in the year of the dragon, are lucky, for the dragon is one of the most beneficial influences of all, symbolizing life and growth, as well as a lot of other fine qualities. In the East, the ancient Chinese held the dragon sacred, as the "gatherer of the clouds," whose assistance was vital to a rich harvest.

As for this year--the year of the snake--it is said that snake people are determined to get what they aim for and usually succeed. They are clever and wily in money matters, so this year should be favorable for business...but we can only hope and pray that the snake-in-the-grass now in the White House will not give us the business!

Bean Cake with Pork

From the kitchen of James Tong Lee

Put oil in pan. Make hot. Put in roast pork, sliced thin. Then a bowl of bean cake (the cooking kind), sliced. Salt. Cook a little bit, then put in a little water. Cook 5 or 6 minutes. Then add gravy:

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 spoon white powder (MSG)

5 shakes (1 spoon) soy sauce

A little bit (1/4 spoon) sugar

A little water

Green onions, cut in long pieces

Also add oyster sauce, if you have it. Salt and pepper. One drop of sesame oil. Wonderful!