Thursday, August 27, 2009

Boston: Durgin Park

This is a giant floor to ceiling picture of the staff back during the Civil War. "You know the big picture in the lobby?" my father asked me on this trip. "Well I think the blonde gal was still a waitress when we went there when you were kids." The blonde gal?

We went to Boston recently for a Dew Tour contest and some top secret International Skateboard Federation nonsense. Those stories will appear in the various skateboard publications I write for. The part that concerns us here, however, is the rest of the trip.

My father is from Boston, so we used to visit almost ever summer when I was a kid. Specifically we’d go to Martha’s Vineyard where my grandfather built a couple of houses in the 1930s. But since I turned into a punk rock, “I’m not going to clean my room,” snot nosed skateboarder, I haven’t been back there in almost 30 years. So this was kind of an exciting trip down memory lane.

One of my earliest memories, and a recurring story that tends to come up during Thanksgiving dinner, is the first time we ate at Durgin Park. Durgin Park is an old restaurant next to Quincy Market that specializes in Yankee cuisine. “Established before you were born,” it says outside of it. My brother and I were probably around ten years old so we don’t really remember this, but my parents remember the day vividly. They each remember it completely differently, of course. I think my mother’s version is closer to the truth.

Me at table. Me eat food.

It was a very hot and muggy day in Boston and the family was shopping in Quincy market. I have always hated shopping, so I can only imagine that my brother and I were miserable, horrible little shitheads. While my mother was trying to shop, my father raced ahead through the crowded market, heedless of what his wife was doing. (I have inherited the “walk as fast as you can without regard to the rest of your party” gene from my old man.) My brother and I kept up with dad, but my mom got stuck somewhere looking at a purse or something and ultimately was separated from the family. I’m not sure why we didn’t turn around and go look for her, but I wasn’t at an age to be making executive decisions, so I remain something of an innocent bystander in this case. My father, on the other hand, made the rather baffling decision to go get lunch. “Come on! Let’s go to Durgin Park!” I’m sure he said. Again, I’m not sure what was going through the man’s head because we were obviously missing a very important part of the family, his wife. Apparently it didn’t matter, or it never occurred to him that she would probably enjoy joining us for lunch, because we went upstairs and got a table in the communal dining room and enjoyed a nice, long meal. I remember the Boston baked beans and the Indian pudding, probably because my dad made such a big deal about them, but I remember it was a fine meal. We really enjoyed it.

Tania likes to make plates of the weirdest combinations of food she can. At a buffet she's not afraid to pile some Jello on spaghetti with a side of shrimp cocktail and a blueberry muffin. But our order at Durgin Park was even a little too weird for her. We started with a pitcher of beer and a plate of raw clams. I guess you can order them steamed, but I didn't know that. This is our first meal of the day, incidentally. I thought they were delicious, but Tania wasn't feeling it so early in the day. Note how she can barely keep her hands off the clams.

Meanwhile, my mother realized she had been ditched. My mother is a very sensible lady. She does everything very neatly and in order. So her logic told her, “Well, I don’t know where they are. So I should probably remain in the last place we were together.” She was hoping, of course, that her husband would retrace his steps. (This is before cell phones.) I don’t really remember the exact place she posted up, but basically it was a spot in the hot sun in the middle of the crowded market. There were some street performers near by and she said she saw them do their entire act at least three times.

Next up, we had a bowl of clam chowder. It was good chowder, but again, Tania wasn't feeling it. Something about Durgin Park makes the Carnie men insensitive to the needs of their women.

After what must have seemed like an eternity to her, my father, with my brother and I in tow, finally returned to the scene. My mother was furious. She hadn’t eaten, she couldn’t go get any water, and she was practically having a heat stroke. My dad, on the other hand, was oblivious to her suffering. I think he even bragged about how good the meal at Durgin Park was. “You should have come,” he said. Just then the street performers were starting up again. “Oh!” my dad said surprised, “let’s watch these guys!”

GRRRRRR! My mom pretty much lost it.

Somehow my father saw the glimmer of the problem and he dimly realized that he may be the source of what was upsetting our mother. So he did what any sensible man would do and offered her an olive branch in the form of a blank check to shop with. To spite him, my mother took the offer and bought the most expensive fur coat she could find. In the middle of the summer.

And we ended the meal with a bowl of Boston baked beans. Mmmm, a pitcher of beer with raw clams, chowder, and beans. Breakfast of champions. Below is Durgin Park's recipe for Boston Baked Beans. I don't plan on making them any time soon, but the story below is kind of funny.

Boston Baked Beans
2-quart bean pot
2/3cup molasses
2 pounds beans- California pea beans preferred of York State beans
4 teaspoons salt
1 pound salt pork
½ teaspoon pepper
8 tablespoons sugar
1 medium-sized onion

Soak beans overnight. In the morning parboil them for ten minutes with a teaspoon of baking soda. Then run cold water through the beans in a colander or strainer. Dice rind of salt pork in inch squares, cut in half. Put half on bottom of bean pot with whole onion. Put beans in pot. Put the rest of the pork on top. Mix other ingredients with hot water. Pour over beans. Put in 300-degree oven for six hours. This will make ten full portions. You can’t let the pot just set in the oven” explains Edward. “You’ve got to add water as necessary to keep the beans moist. And you can’t be impatient and add too much water at a time and flood the beans.” Edward produces his Boston baked beans under the watchful eye of Albert Savage who has been the head chef at Durgin-Park for the past 35 years. Albert is probably the world’s leading specialist in Yankee cookery. He himself is an old Yankee who was born in Lithuania. He has one assistant who is a Bulgarian Yankee and another who is a Polish Yankee. “The chief difference between Yankee cooking and most other kinds of cooking is that we make our food taste like what it’s supposed to be,” says Albert. In other kinds of cooking chefs seem determined to make the food taste like something else.” Albert prepares vast quantities of the traditional baked Indian pudding. In the course of a year, if you’re found of statistics, he makes enough to float the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and one small rowboat. The following recipe is sufficient to make one-half gallon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Great Wall Toboggan Ride

The Demon Sled at the top of the Slidway.

I once picked up a GQ magazine to check out what kind of an audience they were writing to. I had heard that GQ paid like $5/word or some shit. At those rates, all you have to do is write, “Beer,” and you got enough money for a six-pack. So I was flipping through the mag and the first article that caught my attention featured a picture of an alcoholic beverage of some sort.

“Booze!” I thought. “I can write for these guys.” But then I started reading the article.

“Next time you’re in Italy,” the author began, “you gotta try this drink I found at a little dive bar on a side street near the Colosseum.”

Next time I’m in Italy? Who the fuck reads this shit? Everything about the author’s tone presumed that the reader saw a short jaunt over to Italy for a cocktail as completely normal. I quickly realized I would not be writing for GQ. There is nothing I could possibly say to the readers of GQ. (It’s like, what do you get Bill Gates for his birthday?)

Until now. I have some information the GQ man might be interested in. Because this is how the first sentence of this article should have begun:

“Next time you’re in China…”

Yes, next time you’re in China. What a douche bag.

Next time you're in China, steal a hunk of the Great Wall.

Anyway, next time you’re in China, and you’re going to go visit the Great Wall, you should visit the Matianyu section of the Wall. Most people visit the Bada Bing section of the Wall when they visit (I think it’s actually called “Ba Da Ling,” but I prefer Bada Bing) because it’s closest to Beijing. Thus it’s more touristy, really crowded, and, from what I understand, it’s not even the real Wall. Fake Wall! Fuck that shit. Matianyu, on the other hand, is only slightly farther from Beijing than Bada Bing, but it offers an entirely more pleasurable experience. For one, it’s out in the middle of nowhere, so there are few tourists. It’s also a real section of the Great Wall. And, best of all, there is a toboggan ride at Matianyu.

While there were less tourists at Matianyu, these four douche bags somehow managed to make up for the throngs of tourists we were avoiding back at Bada Bing. Since I'm obviously unqualified to write for Vice, I'm not even going to try a Dos and Don'ts here, but I will say that taking off your Ed Hardy t-shirt at the Great Wall of China and sticking it up your butt in the back of a pair of matching Ed Hardy shorts is definitely a DO!

The strangest thing about the toboggan run is that no one, locals included, seemed to know what we were talking about. A friend of ours had told us about it before we left, and we even confirmed its existence with internet video. We eventually convinced a small group of fellow travelers, including pro skaters Matt Milligan and Chad Bartie, to visit the Matianyu section of the Wall with us.

After a few wrong turns, we eventually made it to Matianyu, and it does indeed have a toboggan ride. Or, as it was called on some of the Engrish signs, “The Slidway.” We took a gondola up to guard tower 14 on the Wall. Then we hiked down—mostly down, but there were some steep ascents in a couple places—to guard tower 6, which is where the Slidway starts.

Walking the Great Wall is very nice. It is exactly as you would imagine it. The views are breathtaking, the architecture is stunning, and the sheer brute force required to build the damn thing is absolutely astounding. (Naturally I stole a little hunk of the Wall as a souvenir.) No less astounding are the little Chinese merchants hanging out in the shade of every guard tower imploring you to buy something, anything, from them.

Milligan is trying to barter a beer from the Mule Lady. She didn't want his measly 5 Yuan until he started walking away with his measly 5 Yuan.

They sold snacks, and beverages, even beer. Which, of course, meant they had to lug all that crap up to the Wall, and then carry it all back down again at the end of the day. It’s hard enough to hike that thing without a few cases of beer on your back. But we showed our appreciation for their mule-like strength by buying a beer every few hundred yards or so. We could have gotten a good buzz going up there, but we had read a warning on a sign earlier that said “drunkard and people who are insane” are not allowed to ride the Slidway.

Hannah, Chad Bartie, and Matt Milligan say goodbye before they descend.

At guard tower 6, you descend to the start of the Slidway. The track itself looks like a bunch of oil drums cut in half and stacked end to end. A bored Chinese lady stood at the top of the run with a train of sleds. Milligan, Bartie, and his wife, Hannah, decided to go first. Hannah got cold feet, but after some prodding, we got her into a sled. She lifted the brake and slowly rolled down to the first turn. We could still hear her cursing the Slidway in her Australian accent even after she had disappeared into the forest. “SHEET! SHEET! SHEET!” she kept yelling.

Matt takes the first turn before disappearing into the forest on the hillside below the wall.

Next Tania and I slid into a sled, which is nothing more than a plastic seat atop some large rollerblade wheels, and a hand brake. The lady instructed us to push forward on the lever to go fast, pull back to brake. She also said we should “rean” into the turns. I pushed off first, and after testing the brake, I pushed down on the lever all the way. I’d been on a toboggan run in Vail when I was a kid with my uncle. He told me I was a pussy if I used the brake. I could hear his voice in my head as I began my descent and I promised him I wouldn’t touch the brake. For a minute, anyway. Because that thing hauled ass. In hindsight, I think it can be done without touching the brake. I refrained from using it as best I could, but not knowing what was around the turns forced me to employ it a couple of times. Plus there were crazy Chinamen all along the track waving their hands in my face and yelling, “SLOW DOWN!”

“NI HAO!” (“Hello!”) I’d yell back.

They were also the cause of some unnecessary brakeage. “Maybe they know something about this turn I don’t know?” I’d think. I swear I got a little too high on one turn and caught a grind.
One of the best things about the ride is it’s super long. You know how a rollercoaster ride is about a minute long in reality, but it feels like forever? This thing felt like it just went on and on and on.

I opted not to video and concentrate on just hauling ass... mostly because the youtube video (below) gives you a pretty good idea of what I saw... just imagine Vans at the front of the sled... but Tania decided to try and film a little (above). I'm not sure how because as you can see, she's hauling ass.

“It felt like it lasted ten minutes,” Chad Bartie said at the bottom. I think in reality it’s somewhere between three and four minutes. ZOOM! For three minutes? So fun. It was seriously one of the best parts of the trip to China. And I want one in my backyard. Although it’ll never compare to the one we rode through the forests on the hillsides below the Great Wall of China.

And now I want to end this article—which is supposed to be about food—in the same douchey manner it began:

So next time you’re in China and you ride the Slidway down from your hike along the Great Wall at Matianyu, make sure to stop into the little noodle shop in between the souvenir stalls. The lady in there makes the best plate of chicken fried rice, and it really hits the spot after a gnarly Slidway session.