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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Why I love Craigslist and Taiwanese Hospitality...

A "hot pot soup" feast...

A good friend of mine from Portland just started law school, and as her most locally based crony, I feel it is my duty to help her get settled in the area. She recently found a posting on Craigslist.com, a posting that brought her instant and much needed relief.

After purchasing a new mattress from IKEA, with the very Swedish name of Fangebo (!), it had been lying sadly in the corner of her apartment with no boxspring to speak of. But Craigslist offered hope, and Craigslist sure delivered.

We planned to go on Friday night to pick up the goods, but little did we know that we would soon make some great friends through this sale.

In order to make the move, I borrowed my grandfather's old light blue Ford truck, the one he used to cart his construction materials around in back in the day, when he was a contractor. Vintage cars have always been a love of mine, so there was already magic in the air that night.

(Any locals who are interested should check out Adam's Donut Shop in Huntington Beach. If you arrive early on a Saturday morning, you will come upon a gathering of vintage car fiends/donut junkies. You'll get to feast your eyes upon some great rides, and also scarf down some donuts with a gathering of mostly local dudes who have a good old appreciation of good old vehicles. I recommend the Tigertail twists, in case you were wondering about the donut selection)

Anyway, back to the mattress sale. Like I said, there was magic in the air that night.

We set out to pick up the mattress, cruising the 22 freeway and cursing the construction that was adding more traffic during our journey.

After all of the typical confusion about where to park at the apartment complex, a young guy came out to direct us to the boxspring in question.

When we opened the door, we were immediately welcomed by a huge group of friendly faces, seated at a table with an elaborate feast arranged.

We were immediately welcomed to sit down and join in the feast, and after nervously chuckling in that "oh you must be joking" way, we realized they were serious about the invitation. Never ones to turn down a free and piping hot meal, my friend and I accepted.

Usually I am a bit wary of strangers, but these folks were just about the most nonthreatening, jolly people you might ever encounter. We were immediately at ease as they dished out some food to us and started up the conversation. We eventually learned that this group of friends (about 15 people? who could count with the feast distracting me?!) gathers every Friday night for huge, never- ending pots of Taiwanese soup, $5 poker games, and in the case of this night, some TV baseball.

Just about all of the folks gathered here hail originally from Taiwan, and most are here studying at graduate school at either UCI and USC for engineering. In addition to creating lovely feasts each Friday, they also find time to play on a co-ed softball team with one another. One cluster of the party sat in the family room enjoying a broadcast of that evening's baseball game. I couldn't tell you who was playing. Even though we see baseball as an American past time, I hear it is quite popular in Taiwan as well. Personally, I think the best part of the game involves throwing peanut shells, drinking beer, eating hot dogs and possibly seeing fireworks. While half of the room was intently focused on the game, the rest of us were seated at the dinner table, engaging in lively conversation about what exactly we were eating and whether we could handle eating with chopsticks (We could, indeed, handle them- to our hosts' surprise- but I had already dirtied the fork so I stuck with that. My friend switched to chopsticks-- to her credit, she is ever the law student trained to constantly prove a point). But utensils didn't matter here. I probably could have fashioned a spoon out of modeling clay and used that to eat directly out of their soup pot and it wouldn't have mattered-- they were such lovely people, and so good natured, that our interactions flowed on, effortlessly. Once strangers, we went from fidgety people with plans to stay for five minutes, to making fun of ourselves and each other, eating, and being merry for about two hours after that. We asked them about local markets to shop at for soup ingredients (they tipped us off to French 99), and they recommended their favorite Dim Sum restaurant, suggesting that we should all go sometime.

The soup we were eating was delicious-- we learned that the broth is made by placing only the bags of herbs, water, and meat in the pot. After this, additional ingredients are put in such as mushrooms, flavorful little balls of pork, fish cakes, rice cakes, meat, cabbage, and pure goodness!

Perhaps the most charming quality about this soup is the never- ending nature of it. This is the everlasting gobstopper of soups if there ever was one. After a few helpings are taken, dry ingredients continue to be placed in the pot, and after a waiting period, you continue to eat more soup. We tried to maintain an awareness of social cues, a recognition that there would be a point where we overstayed our welcome. But it never felt like this, as people just kept offering us soup, over and over again. How could we resist as they kept encouraging us to ladle more soup into our tiny bowls? It was heaven.

And this is why I love Craigslist, and why I adore Taiwanese hospitality, if such a thing even exists specifically. No matter what you want to call it, this was simply one of those good, downright random nights.

It was a really cool experience to be able to peek into another culture- and of course, it's always a highlight when I get to know good people over good food. The best part was being able to hear the stories of the once anonymous online boxpspring seller. Eve and Dale, the couple who live in the apartment (along with a friend) were recently married, and they had purchased a whole new bed set. After "Aww" and heartfelt "congratulations!" came my next natural reaction, as I was compelled to ask: "What kind of cake did you have at your wedding"? (Even in the presence of good soup, the bakery hunt continues).

They explained that they had no cake, since they celebrated with a very small ceremony, with one witness from the chapel. They said that it lasted only 15 minutes long, and I couldn't help but smile. My friends know that if I ever get married, my wedding cake will inevitably prove to be more important than the groom (I'm kidding...?). For years I have tried to coerce male friends into masquerading as future spouses so that I can go cake tasting and sample the very finest in matrimonial bakery goods with no strings attached, but unfortunately I can't find a cake enthusiast brave enough for the job. Despite the fact that I would be horrified if I didn't get a truly satisfying wedding cake, Eve and Dale made me appreciate the no frills approach to an event that seems to be more of an overblown headache and a chance for your friends to get drunk than a night to honor your vows. I can bakery hunt anytime, but I will only (technically?) get married once, if everything goes according to plan. And, if I don't get too greedy about wanting to try wedding cakes. I can always become a "crasher" if going through the divorce doesn't seem worth it.

I learned a lot that night in Garden Grove. I learned about making Taiwanese soup, which will forevermore be deemed "Everlasting Taiwanese Gobstopper Soup". I learned about the true love of two people, who were nice enough to give my friend a good deal on a boxspring, generous enough to share their meal with us, and lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who would at any time, happily get up from watching a baseball game to lug a boxspring out to the parking lot for a couple of random college graduates just starting out in life.

We got into my grandpa's old truck, and my friend flipped through the pictures of the soup we had taken with my cell phone. Dale made sure we got out of the parking space okay, and we rode away into the distance. Normally I always carry my digital camera just in case something like this happens-- in and around Los Angeles, one never knows when you will step into another culture, another network of completely amazing people, another impromptu feast, moments that you MUST capture on film. I had forgotten the camera tonight, but our hosts pulled through for us again, taking down our emails and promising to send additional pictures. When we asked for their Dim Sum recommendation at dinner, Dale searched through the Yellow Pages in a more dedicated way than I had ever seen anyone pursue a yellow page in my life. When he couldn't find it, he emailed it to us (You'll have to comment and leave your email if you really want to know where this Dim Sum is--I can't go giving away all my trade secrets just yet, and I'd like to hear from some of you).

I also learned that our new friends have a love for karaoke. Since karaoke, other than baked goods, serves as one of my defining passions, I would absolutely love nothing more than to go out for a night of karaoke with the softball crew! They were just about the nicest, most genuine people I have ever randomly met while picking up a mattress, or even just in general. We talked about the fact that we should get together again, and I truly hope that this happens someday-- we all exchanged "it was nice meeting you/eating with you" emails.

While at their apartment, I explained to them that since they gave us this wonderful soup, we would be friends for life. They probably thought I was joking, but anyone who knows me understands what it's all about in my life: good food, and good people.

Southern California is full of these beautiful moments of cultural collision, but those with food don't happen nearly enough. I guess next time I'm craving a feast, I should buy a mattress off of craigslist, but I highly doubt that every story is such a success. Not every boxspring trip transports you to another culture, and not every seller greets you with open arms and everlasting gobstopper soup. I think it was my grandpa's old Ford that made the night complete-- riding around in that old vintage truck, we couldn't have felt younger. We were free to eat gobstopper soup all night if we wanted to, and that's how it should be right now. Soon I will be starting a job, and my friend is already in the thick of it at law school, and though we're still young, we know our days are numbered. Granted, we have quite a few good years left in us-- but we know that eventually, we'll have to worry about more than just getting our mattresses off the floor in pursuit of a good night's sleep. We know the time will come, faster than we want it to, when our recent stories from college will become distant legends. Those days of college roommates, freedom, and garden grove friendships will fade, and we will grow in years, and hopefully in annual income too (especially if we're living in Orange County and desire shelters of some sort). We will try to pretend we can still be spontaneous enough for gobstopper soup. I hope we will be. Although I just graduated, I can already tell that I'll never have nearly enough of those nights with the windows down and the true spirit of youth and improvisation and new beginnings in the air. This one was a night to remember, so thank you Craigslist! And my compliments to the chef.

A picture with the Chef and his "everlasting gobstopper" soup!

Friends enjoying a good bowl of soup!

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