The little voice inside my head says, “Watch out, there’s trouble brewing.”
I’m in Denver. I call my brother, Kurt. He says, “I have an idea for some fun. In the mood?”
His “ideas” invariably include massive amounts of food and drink and, inevitably, our adventure gets the best of me.
Do I learn?
“Great,” I say. “I’m in the mood.”
“No, don’t,” says the little voice.
Do I listen?
“I’ve got it all mapped out,” Kurt says. “First, we go to the liquor store. I need to stock up and so do you.”
Well, yes, I do. Kathy doesn’t think so, but …
“Then,” says Kurt, “we’ll stop at the spice shop and, from there, it’s off to lunch. Later, we need to go to this artisanal cured meat shop where they’re having a tasting, then a friend of mine who owns a wine shop is having a tasting at his place. Sounds good, eh?”
Indeed it does.
The little voice says, “No, Karl, no… “ And, I ignore it.
I am doomed.
Kathy drops me off at Kurt’s house, promising to return in the late afternoon.
“Don’t do something stupid, OK?,” she says. “Don’t overdo the food and, for heaven’s sake, don’t drink. The two of you tend to go overboard.”
Her voice sounds suspiciously like the little voice in my head.
My performance during the stop at our favorite liquor store is subdued: Ooh, look, my favorite bourbon at three dollars off and, woo, look, a Chateau Lascaux red. Who can resist?
I am proud of my restraint — measured, of course, against the fact Kurt fills a shopping cart with bottles, then whistles a cheerful tune as we return to the car.
Next up, the spice shop.
We taste a bunch of exotic blends — chiles, curry powders, herbs, etc. My tongue feels like an emery board. I buy a pack of Piment d’Espelette at a price slightly higher than you’d pay for a similar amount of uncut Peruvian flake cocaine.
“Time for lunch, don’t you think?,” asks Kurt.
I’ve had many lunches with my brother, none less than interesting, quite a few spectacular. To not put myself in his hands would be silly, wouldn’t it?
The little voice is so distant I can’t understand what it is saying.
We motor to South Federal Boulevard, to a ratty shopette (a common setting for my brother’s lunch excursions).
“There she is.”
We step inside. It is a small space, containing two large, round tables in the center, perhaps eight smaller tables along the walls.
On the walls are large sheets of paper, each emblazoned with Chinese characters, followed by prices.
At the back of the space sits a long counter. At one end of the counter is a tall glass cubicle. From a pipe at the top of the well-lit cubicle hang the carcass of a roasted pig and five roasted ducks. Next to the cubicle, a small man clad in an apron stands before a chopping block, a huge cleaver in his hand. In front of the chopping block is a sheet of plexiglass — a splashguard of sorts.
The splashguard is there to protect the clientele from the shower of meat particles and fat produced by the man with the cleaver. He hacks away at one hunk of flesh after another, small bits of meat and showers of glistening fat coating his apron, his face, his hair.
“Great place, don’t you think?,” asks Kurt.
A lovely and not quite bilingual lady gives us menus. There are a few English phrases on the menu and we reconnoiter the offerings.
“Combination roast meat, one choice, two choice, three choice.”
“Sounds good,” says Kurt. “I say we get two choice, roast pork, barbecue duck.”
OK with me.
We order pan fried noodles with roast pork and spicy, twice-cooked pork with preserved vegetables.
At this point, the waitress looks at us with a worried expression on her face and says: “That all. No moh.”
The hacking behind the splashguard begins. Meat and grease flies in all directions. A mist of fat globules hangs in the air. The guy with the cleaver has enough grease on him that, if you put a wick on top of his head, you’d have a candle that would burn for a year.
Combination roast meat two choice arrives at the table. A large oval platter contains, at one end, two long hunks of pig (from what part of the pig, who knows?), hacked into three pieces each. At the other end of the platter, a major-league mound of duck, cleaved into bite-size pieces. Two bowls of dipping sauces accompany the meat.
The pork is excellent, all fatty good with crisp skin. The duck is the best duck I have ever eaten. We begin the process like gentlemen, attempting to use chopsticks to bring flesh to mouth. We jump strategy quickly and begin to eat with our hands. The fat flows down our fingers to our wrists. I look at my brother. His chin is slicked with grease; he is grinning like the village idiot. He goes to the counter and returns with two spoons. We devour the combined duck and pork fat that collects in the platter. It is ambrosial. We make happy carnivore sounds. I notice other customers staring at us.
The pan fried noodles with pork is put on the table — enough for four people. Likewise, the order of spicy pork with preserved vegetables. We eat until we can eat no more, and half the food remains.
“We could finish this, I know we could,” says Kurt, the lenses of his eyeglasses smeared with duck fat. “But we need to get on the road. The tasting at the meat plant is about to start.”
On the way to the car, we agree that, when I return in the summer, we will purchase two or three roasted ducks, take them home, hack them up, prepare some scallion pancakes, purchase some plum sauce, shred some veggies and have a ripping good time with the canard roll-ups.
As we leave the restaurant, I feel a bit dizzy. I am swollen to the point I need to extend the seatbelt a bit before I can snap it shut.
Next stop: a salumeria in a nondescript metal building located in a lower South Denver industrial area. In the “lobby,” a case containing the products of tender, artisanal effort. On a table at the side of the tiny space is an array of products – coppas, duck pastrami, pepperonis, all manner of cured meats, slices fanned out, toothpicks at the ready.
Don’t mind if I do.
The meats are outstanding, and after sampling each one (several of them two or three times) I purchase a pepperoni — a stiff baton of perfectly cured, zippy flesh.
“It’ll keep in the basement for three months, if you hang it up,” says Kurt just before popping another hunk of coppa into his mouth. “Grab a couple more bites, we gotta go. The wine tasting is starting.”
Off we fly to his friend’s wine shop.
A comely wine courtesan offers us the selections. She informs us she once taught grade school, quit to have two kids and does the wine tastings because she doesn’t have a life. She is vulnerable; my brother is smitten.
She proffers a tannic red, somewhat bitter. I try it. Maybe a bit more, if you please. It’s just as tannic on the second and third go-round, but the spit bucket remains dry.
Next, a slightly thin, white Bourgogne. “Citrus tones, don’t you think?” says Kurt as he works his magic on a third glass and on our hostess.
We wander the aisles and, there, as if delivered from a divine source, sits a magnum of Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone. At $16! For a magnum!
“My friend got a great deal on them, and he hasn’t been able to move them. I bought one last week. Good price, eh?”
We try a bit more of the red and we leave, me toting a magnum, Kurt waving at the hostess, promising to return to next Saturday’s tasting.
Back to Kurt’s house we speed. Our sister, Karen, is in town from Hawaii. It is, says Kurt, family cocktail time.
Kurt slides several large rocks glasses to me, along with a bottle of bourbon, a bottle of bitters and a bottle of sweet vermouth. Since the glasses are large, I know just what to do: find a bit of sugar, make very large Old Fashioneds.
Very large. I use three-quarters of a bottle of bourbon for five drinks.
Then, guess what?, its time for dinner!
“Noooo.” The little voice sounds like it is coming from inside a locked room, from under a pile of heavy blankets.
“We’re going to an Indian place in Cherry Creek,” says Kurt. We wend our woozy way to the restaurant. Thank god for designated drivers.
Pakoras, samosas, Indian beer, lamb vindaloo, chicken tikka, Indian beer, garlic naan, korma, dal, Indian beer, palak paneer, Indian beer, murgh mahkani, Indian beer.
Kathy has to help me to the car. She’s like an attendant tethered to a balloon in the Macy’s parade.
I gaze over to my brother’s car. His wife is at the wheel. Kurt is slumped forward like a crash test dummy.
Kathy and I bid everyone a fond farewell and drive to my sister-in-law’s house, where we’re spending the night.
“Guess what,” says Jo as we enter. “I made your favorite: coconut cream pie.”
The little voice returns. It is faint, but I hear, “No, Karl, don’t do it. There’s only so much a man can bear.”
Do I listen?
Jo makes the best coconut cream pie I have ever eaten, so who am I to say no?
The next thing I know, it is midnight. I am on my back, in bed.
There are strange and troublesome things taking place in my nether region.
I feel a strained pulse throbbing in my neck, as if a glob of arterial goo is making its nasty way brainward on a collision course with critical gray matter.
I am sweating.
I’m like a python that has eaten a Shetland pony.
I expect any second to feel a pain in the jaw that then radiates down the left arm. I know it’s coming — the elephant on the chest, the shortness of breath, the agony of heart muscle clenched like a tight fist.
I wonder if I should wake Kathy.
No, that would be worse than a heart attack.
Perhaps I’ll get my cell phone and dial 9-1 and wait to key the final 1 until things go Code Blue.
“See, says the little voice. “You have done it again. You don’t learn. You’re one step from a triple bypass and a drool cup … or worse. What do you have to say for yourself, now?”
I don’t have to think about my response.
“I wonder where I can get one of those giant cleavers. There’s duck to be hacked this summer.”
Perhaps, some day, I’ll listen.