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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

When I started working summers in New York City the subway was 35¢ cents. New Yorkers know that the price of a slice of pizza is tied to the cost of a token, and a 35¢ cent slice meant that my daily lunch budget was a buck-- two slices and a Coke. Sometimes I'd splurge, but three bucks was my outside limit, my payday treat to myself. The culinary offerings in those days were limited -- there were the Sabrett hotdog guys, and you could get a sketchy gyro, but that was mostly it. Then one day, in front of Federal Hall, a tall guy dressed in a coolie style straw hat appeared. He was pushing a cart with a sign on the side that read, "Kung Food Presents: Char Su Bau (Chinese Roast Pork Buns)". They were outside of my budget (were they a buck fifty? I can't recall.), but it was payday, and I was sick of pizza, so I bought one. The bau was about the size of my hand, and about the color of a hamburger bun, a sweetish roll with an ambrosial barbequed park filling. The sweetness of the bun beautifully balanced the salty complexity of the filling, and I wolfed it down. I have often thought about the Kung Foods guy since. He was not Asian-- he was a tall, thin white guy. Probably he bought the bao in Chinatown, probably he marked them up substantially, but maybe he made them himself. Was he an enterprising Asian Studies major? He was certainly ahead of his time-- nowadays a cart like that would be no big thing, but in 197X it was unique. Since my first encounter with Char Su Bau (which is how he spelled it) I have made a point of eating it whenever I can. Usually barbeque pork bau are steamed, and those are nice too, but I like baked ones best of all. Last week LCA found a recipe, and although it is a a several day process-- marinating, roasting, saucing, making the dough, filling and baking-- she was kind enough to undertake the project, and she nailed it. Her bau looked and tasted just like the bau I bought from Kung Foods on paydays. Wow.

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