Monday, 13 October 2008

Eat and Run and Just One More Game

Photo by Will Yakowicz

4. Eat and Run

I first found Ling Kee Beef Jerky in late August last summer. I was walking down Ludlow Street following a Chinese funeral procession. Thinking back, I don’t know what made me eat dried and smoked skin after observing a funeral; maybe it was a repressed cannibalistic tendency I have hidden deep inside me, or, maybe it was the sweet smell of marinade in the air and my weakness for delicious meat. Whoever’s funeral it was that day I was sorry. Watching the hearse and line of limousines and a full marching band playing, I sent my condolences silently standing on the corner of Ludlow and Canal streets. I looked up at the cloudless sky and walked through the open door into a room full of smoke, and in the time since, I’ve packed on a few pounds.

Three rickety chairs around a cluttered table remain vacant all day, but business is brisk at Ling Kee Beef Jerky. A broken bug-zapper hangs from the ceiling— but maybe the Buddha shrine on top of the refrigerator is warding off any unwanted creatures. The cramped space is a sizzling serenade of grilling meat, aromatic smoke, and hurried customers. They run in, rattle off their orders in Mandarin or Malaysian, grab their jerky and get on with their lives.

The storefront is on Canal and Division Streets, where most signs are in Mandarin and no tourist hordes go after deals on crappy counterfeit handbags. This part of eastern Chinatown caters to the locals, mostly new immigrants struggling to make a few bucks and to spend even fewer. Ling Yan bought the jerky business from her aunt about fifteen years ago, with her sister-in-law Mai Yan. Every day, seven days a week, the two women prepare and cook fresh jerky, an elaborate process. Ling hardly has time even for a courteous gesture. “I’d shake your hand,” she says to a friend, “but I got beef all over it.”

Jerky is an early form of food preservation in which meat is dried to delay the spoiling process and does not need to be refrigerated. Ling Kee’s jerky is different from nearly all the other varieties sold in the neighborhood. The recipe comes from Malaysia, where this delicacy is a little sweeter and juicier than the Hong-Kong-style version more commonly available in Chinatown. Their specialty is mild and spicy-flavored beef, pork or chicken jerky, which sell for $15-$16 per pound.

Drying meat is the oldest method of food preservation. Although the practice’s precise origins are unknown, there’s evidence to suggest that people in ancient Egypt, Asia, and North and South America, have all been making jerky for thousands of years. The name comes from the South American Quechua word “ch’arki” which means dried meat. Jerky preparation has been practiced in China since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). During that time the inhabitants of the mountains and valleys would catch native green peacocks, cows, pigs and deer and slice their flesh, marinate it (for three nights) and then dry it on a string in the eaves of a house. Now jerky is made in more controlled and sanitary environments, but most jerky connoisseurs declare that the quality of product isn’t what it used to be.

The sisters-in-law Yan, however, appear to be worthy heirs to the classic jerky tradition.

Ling, the master chef, says she’s been cooking jerky for 30 years. Gray hair inches from the roots of her reddish-brown bob and eyes bead around nervously, as she opens a back door that reveals a room awash in blood, bone and meat. A meat grinder fills a gray bin with red lean beef with each crank of its arm. A steel table is spattered with blood, and holds splayed-open legs of beef still on the bone. Most workdays, Ling wears a dark-red apron, sits in the back room, and skillfully slices through slabs of flesh with a 10-inch cleaver.

Ling explains her craft as she washes her hands. “Every day I make it and I taste it,” she says. “I re-do the recipe to try and perfect it. Every day it changes.”

The process is long and involved. Ling grinds the meat she carefully sliced and then marinates it for one day. She then presses and flattens the meat together into thin sheets and cuts them into squares. Ling points out that they don’t store much meat on the premises, except what they don’t use from the day. “We buy fresh 100 pounds meat every day,” she says, “and sell 50 or more pounds.” After Ling slow-cooks it for three or four hours, the rest of the job is given over to her partner, Mai.

Mai cooks the four-by-four-inch squares of meat on the coal grill. The squares regularly catch fire, the shooting flames releasing the aroma of the succulent meats. Mai, half-owner and half-smiling, flips square after square with her metal tongs as smoke curls through the air. After about 30 minutes, she places the squares in a colander to dry and then stacks the dried sheets in the display case.

Photo by Will Yakowicz

Photo by Will Yakowicz

The Yan family recipe is for gold-standard jerky, which tastes and looks more like a slice of steak than dried meat. The packaged Wild Bill’s or Pemmican jerky found at gas stations are virtually inedible compared with the traditional Malaysian-style version. The juicy sheets release a sweet and tangy taste with a touch of burnt, smoky flavor. Its consistency is delicate and slightly chewy. Jerky is the closest to 100 percent lean meat you can sink your teeth into. After many visits, I discovered that the beef is a little tougher and not as sweet as the pork. Beef is more traditional, but pork is definitely the customers’ favorite. Both Mai and Ling snack on their creation while sipping tea; pork is their favorite too.

For many patrons, this jerky signifies tradition and gives rise to fond memories. “When I was little, beef jerky was always a treat,” says 20-year-old Brooklynite Leila Liu. Her mom would bring her to Chinatown to do their grocery shopping, and the draw for Leila was always the jerky. Delicately biting into a thin sheet of lean meat, she says, “It’s delicious and addicting.”

Now that she’s grown up, it’s Leila’s turn to lure someone from Brooklyn to Chinatown: her boyfriend, Ivan Li. They trade bites of jerky as it pokes out of their wax paper bags. “This is my first time,” he says, “but I’m a big meat fan and I’ll be back.”

Most of Ling Kee’s customers have frequented her establishment for years. They waste no time gazing around the shop. A man in too much of a hurry to give his name buys a pound of spicy beef and brusquely stuffs his purchase inside his messenger bag. Practically outside the door, he calls over his shoulder: “I don’t buy from anybody else. This,” he taps his bag, “is genuine jerky.”

“Genuine” isn’t the sole draw here; other jerky specialty shops in the area (like New Beef King Corp. on Bayard Street) are also genuine. The secret here, regular customers say, is in the Malaysian style of spicing and cooking. Charlie Tang, who works in an electrical supply store next door, says, “The best jerky is juicy, Yan’s pork is the juiciest.”

Ling Kee is not a place to dine. Tina Tang, an English-speaking friend of Mai’s, says emphatically: “Jerky with red wine and family at home is the only way to eat jerky!” Ling Kee keeps her front door perpetually open, and those seats perpetually vacant. “People don’t stay here,” Tang sulkingly reminds a reporter who is asking too many questions and has clearly overstayed his welcome. “They take their jerky and leave.”

Ling Kee Beef Jerky, 42 Canal Street, open till 8 pm seven days a week.

5. Just One More Game…

Photo By Will Yakowicz

I walk down Cortlandt Alley every day. The metal shutters on the windows hang open like wrought iron eyelids. Graffiti stains the brick walls. Dead rats lie squished by truck tires on the street. When moviemakers are not using it for period flavor, it saves me a minute, to a minute and a half off my daily commute. The route twice counted saves me almost three minutes. In a year Cortlandt Alley spares me 1,092 minutes in and out of Chinatown. But for a certain type of person, down this alley is where time dilates— for the table tennis player, it is where time stops. The players that I’ve met there can spend hours of their lives entering and leaving this alley. In a basement room underneath the potholed street, they devote themselves to a game of back and forth, which sounds like the tick tock of a clock, except no one is keeping track of time.

Here, minutes routinely turn into hours. A nine-year-old Chinese kid hangs out with a middle-aged Frenchman and a Jamaican old enough to be his grandfather. The regulars — about 20 of them at any given time — frankly label themselves as “addicts.” Like classic addicts in search of their next fix, they can be ferocious. After scoring, they might be seen stumbling out of the alley, sweaty and shaky.

The New York Table Tennis Training Federation is the den of vice that breeds this behavior. It’s purportedly the biggest club of its kind in Manhattan, with nine tables arranged in 6,000 square feet of space. The orange balls fly and bounce swiftly across the blue tabletops. The pit-pit patter of balls on paddles sounds like a ticking clock. The constant oscillation seems to balloon time. “Just five more minutes, one more game” turns into an hour. An hour expands to two. Players in NYTTF sports shirt hike up their mesh shorts, take an athletic stance and prepare for approaching balls. Sweat drips, arms swing, and paddles slice the air with dizzying speed.

NYTTF is a serious place. Not much is heard above shouts (mostly in Mandarin), sneaker-squeaks, grunts, and game scores. Its patrons are usually immigrants from China, Vietnam, Ghana and even Brooklyn. There are students here, doctors, government employees, world-class table tennis players, retirees, and a model.

* * *

Mario Yee, a mailman and NYTTF volunteer who appoints players to coaches and assigns tables, plays table tennis every day after work. “You can’t make any money with Ping-Pong,” he says, “but we’re here to keep the tradition going.” Though the English invented table tennis in the late 1800’s, the Chinese adopted it as their national sport in the 1960s and have dominated the game since then — except in the 1988 Olympics when the Swedes won the title. At NYTTF most players are middle-aged Asian men who come after work to sweat and indulge in an obsession with friends. However, to some, table tennis is more than a tradition or addiction. It serves as an after school hobby, it maintains health, and helps achieve Zen.

* * *

His name is Alston Wang, but his coach calls him “Hidden Tiger,” because behind his always-present smile, says the coach, “is a killer.” With a paddle, of course. “I saw him kill 24 players,” said Robert Chen, Wang’s coach and director of NYTTF. “He killed 24 guys, not kids, but men!”

Alston is nine. His tender age can rile up opponents, especially when he beats them; in the October tournament, most of Wang’s two dozen opponents were ten to 20 years older. Said the sweaty nine-year-old, with an excited look: “Sometimes they say the ‘s’ word when they lose a point.”

Photo by Will Yakowicz

When Alston first came to Chen’s club, he played four hours straight. Then, Alston at a beginner’s level, “gave me the impression of a hard worker, with respect and discipline,” Chen says. Now, six months later, Alston’s ranking is 1,700, which, according to the USATT ranking system, is intermediate level. Alston is considered a unique player and a great student, gifted with sharp eye-hand-foot coordination. “His touch is amazing, he listens and learns exactly how I coach him,” Chen says. “Other kids have their own way of thinking, but he absorbs what I teach.” Chen says table tennis has helped Alston Wang “discover his genius,” but neither Alston nor his coach, can take all the credit. “His parents should be credited the most,” Chen states. “Without his parents, there’d be no Alston. Without parents we’d have no players.”

As talented as Alston is, he still says table tennis is only a hobby, “but it’s also a way to beat my father.” Alston and his family moved to Brooklyn from Hainan, China two years ago. While in China his father taught him how to play table tennis. Alston, wearing shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the NYTTF logo says, “The first time I played my dad I couldn’t beat him. I just swung the paddle.” He twirls his paddle in his hand and continues, “but now, I can beat him 11-0.”

His dream is to be a table tennis professional and go to the Olympics, but first, he says he wants to beat his coach. Chen shrugged in disapproval when he heard Alston boast about his ability to beat his father and take on his teacher, but did positively remark of his student’s skill: “He already started and is on his way to be a star. For him, it is a career.”

* * *

Leroy Smith returns the ball with ferocious speed and his 20-year-old opponent can’t reach the ball in time. “Come on! I’m an old man.” Smith yells, “you got to move your young legs. Let’s go! Let’s go!” Although Smith has a meeting to go to in ten minutes he cannot tear himself away from the table. After each game he compulsively pulls another ball from his pocket, saying, “This is the last one.”

Smith, the septuagenarian, has 38 table tennis trophies, was president of The Greater New York Table Tennis League, and plays five times a week with the vigor and intensity of youth. Forty years ago, Smith came to New York City from Jamaica with his wife and kids. He says he used table tennis to assimilate. When he started to play in the former downtown club at the old Firehouse on Lafayette Street (a block from this location) the group was like, “a little U.N.” He quickly bonded with the players—really all of them, Chinese and other ethnicities. “Once together in the club,” Leroy says, “we could never put the paddle down.”
While he eats shrimp fried rice, members surround him and ask about his day, his games and health, and claims to be the most recognized non-Chinese in Chinatown. They call him “Black-Chinese.”

Now, Smith plays for “survival.” He says: “I play not because I want to win, but because I know the damn benefits. It reduces my blood pressure; it’s an aerobic exercise. I’m 72 and I’m still jumping around.”

* * *

Sitting out a game, Jean Philippe Kadzinski, or J.P., stands up from his seat and glances at a player who forcefully slams the ball across the table. “Don’t hit it aggressively, it’s all wrong,” J.P. says. “You have to feel the ball.” He half-squats, whisks his hands in the air and his feet and hips move along in a balanced glide and says, “You have to be in Zen.” Unlike many players, he does not play with aggressive movements, but with the tranquility of meditation. “Ping-Pong is a kind of philosophy,” J.P. continues, “like Tai-Chi.” He stresses that a player must be in harmony and balance with the body to be successful.

J.P. has icy blue eyes, a strong jaw line, a James-Bond-style smirk and hair that never seems out of place. He is a 44-year-old French model and has appeared in L’Oreal commercials, on Harper’s Bazaar covers, and in campaigns for Burberry and Mercedes-Benz. Despite only three years of experience in the game, he claims to be the number-one server in NYTTF, with 25 of his own original serves. After his first game, he realized he was a natural; since then he has won 20 tournaments and placed first in the “NYTTF Open” last August. “It’s strange,” he says, smiling after winning another game. “I feel like I was born with a paddle in my hand.”

J.P. says table tennis is not about winning, but about the philosophy behind the sport. He barely moves during a game; he seems to control where his opponent returns the ball. With a ball pressed to his lips he comments about his technique, “It’s a finished touch, a balance.”

Although few at the club emulate his style, the better players appreciate it. Longtime player and member Phillip Barren breaks it down like this: “It takes what we call touch—a delicacy, a finesse—to reach out and touch the ball so it can drop in the corner [of the table] and no one can reach it…”

Even with his meditative style and finesse, J.P. plays with an addicts’ intensity. He describes a day of table tennis as an erotic encounter he must hide from his wife. “I can’t go home for an hour,” he whispers. “My hands, they are shaking. I must stretch and relax.” And then, that word again: “It’s like a drug… an addiction like smoking or drinking or gambling.”

As hooked as they all admit they are, most NYTTF players don’t consider the game a vice. Phillip Truong, a Vietnamese immigrant, says he used his table tennis obsession to quit his pack-a-day smoking habit.

To Leroy Smith, it’s a downright virtue. “It is my responsibility to stay healthy,” he declares. “I am addicted to it now. The addiction is the realization that the body needs help. It’s an addiction with a purpose, an educated addiction.”

New York Table Tennis Federation New York Table Tennis Training Center has two entrances 384 Cortlandt Alley between Canal and White Streets, or on 384 Broadway. For more information, visit the website: Open seven days a week, 11-a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Closes Sundays at 6:30. It is the biggest table tennis club in Manhattan, with nine tables in 6,000 square feet of space, a lounge area, concession and equipment stand, and restrooms. NYTTF has been open since June 26, 2004.

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