This is a story about food and friendship, or rather, how the former often begets the latter. As for the title of this post, there’s a reason for it. No, it doesn’t involve anything lascivious. I promise I’ll be back to my usual content soon.
Some background is in order. I met my friend Jules (not her real name) on my final day in Sydney in 2007. As has become my habit before departing the amazing continent that is Australia, I’d made a pit-stop in Chinatown en route to the airport.
At the risk of sounded jaded, in the 12 years I’ve been covering Australia as a journalist, I’ve developed an obsessive ritual. Upon arrival and departure in Sydney, I beeline to Chinese Noodle Restaurant and order the #4 pork noodle combo. I spend a good deal of time when I’m at home dreaming of #4, and scheming ways to get my fix. I’ve tried—and failed—to find a substitute. If only there were a methadone equivalent for #4.
As for why this particular dish is so special, it’s the noodles. Chef/owner Cin (just Cin…like Cher) is originally from Xinjiang Province in Northern China, where hand-pulled, dense, chewy wheat noodles are a regional delicacy. He makes them to order; a tiny window permits diners a view of the long, ropy strands being stretched in the kitchen. The boiled noodles are then covered in a savory, spicy. ground pork sauce, and accompanied by a quiver of julienned cucumber. It’s a magnificent dish; rustic and comforting, with a near-perfect combination of flavors, textures and aromatics. I could literally eat this every single day (and sometimes, when I’m in Sydney, I do).
I should also clarify that Chinese Noodle Restaurant, as its name might imply, is far from a temple of haute cuisine. It ranks a notch above “total dump” because the worn Formica tables are clean, and the ceiling is (or was; I haven’t been back since the 2010 remodel) festooned with garlands of plastic grapevines- evidence of the space’s former life as a tacky Italian joint. No matter. There’s always a line, and if you’re in a hurry, you’d better make damn sure you get there with time to spare.
So. Jules. If we were lesbians, I’d say it was a meet-cute worthy of a Hollywood movie. I was making a mad dash to CNR, which opens at 11 am, so I could get #4 to go for my 1:30 pm international flight. I arrived at precisely three minutes before the hour, out of breath. Like all junkies, I’m sure I had a deranged look in my eyes, and was sweating profusely.
Jules arrived concurrently. She had a similarly disheveled appearance, having sprinted to the restaurant. We looked at our respective watches, grimaced, and sat down on a concrete planter. I can’t recall who spoke first, but the conversation went something like this:
“Ugh. I was so afraid I’d get here and there’d be a line. I have a flight to catch.”
“Me too! I couldn’t take off without getting my fix.”
“I’m hopelessly addicted to this place. I have to eat here every time I leave town.”
“That’s so funny! I’m the same way. What do you order?”
At this point, I learned that Jules- a Sydneysider- is a frequent business traveler (not her real job, but an accurate description), and has a thing for CNR’s pork dumplings. To which I believe I responded, “THEY HAVE DUMPLINGS?”
I love dumplings. I could eat nothing but dumplings. But damned if I’ve ever glanced at the rest of CNR’s menu. I mean, why would you, when they have those noodles?
At this point, Jules and I had been chatting for about five minutes. Which was two minutes past opening time. We kept glancing at our watches, essentially behaving like a pair of Pavlovian dogs. At last, an Asian girl, doubtless used to seeing salivating round-eyes loitering outside the restaurant, flipped the “Closed” sign over, and called out, “You want to-go?”
Ten minutes later, Jules and I were on our way with our precious cargo. She had a bus to catch, while I had a shuttle. We prattled away until we reached her stop, and then we exchanged email addresses. “I’m so glad I met you!” one of us exclaimed, while the other cried, “I know! Me too!” We parted with a hug and promises to stay in touch.
Since then, Jules and I have been devoted, if often slack, pen-pals. We’ve supported one another through the various forms of bullshit life occasionally flings: serious illness, breakups, work problems, death of friends and relatives. We’ve also celebrated our accomplishments via email: a graduate degree, the publishing of a book; falling in love; moves, adopting backyard chickens in lieu of children. Through it all, Jules has always impressed me with her quick and vulgar wit, insatiable love of food and travel, compassion, and amazing ability to remain cheerful—or at least optimistic- in the direst of situations. She’s the most resilient person I know.
On my last visit to Australia in 2010, Jules and I met for the second time, but our friendship—with its attendant inside jokes and shared obsession with “our” restaurant- felt as comfortable as a tatty old Chuck Taylor. She and her man, R, accompanied me on a Darlinghurst bar-hopping assignment on one evening.
Another day, Jules and I walked the coastal trail that runs between Sydney’s beguiling eastern beaches. Afterward, we stopped for the world’s best cherry strudel (or, “scccchtruuuuudel” as Jules would say). The last night of my trip, Jules and R took me to their favorite sushi restaurant. They made me feel special, in a city that never fails to make me feel anything less than that.
It was with great shock and sadness that I received an email from Jules about 18 months ago. She’d tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation; both her mother and grandmother, as well as other maternal relatives, had died young from breast cancer. Now, it looked like Jules was going to face a similar fate unless she took prompt and drastic action.
In typical Jules fashion, that’s just what she did. No whinging, no pity party-by-email. She thoroughly researched her options and last winter underwent a Salpingo-Oophorectomy that kicked her into instant menopause.
As I write this, Jules is “in hospital” recovering from Thursday’s double mastectomy to remove her cancer-free breasts. Several days prior, she threw an “Ernbreast Hemingway: A Farewell to Boobs” party. That’s just the kind of person Jules is.
I emailed her the other day find out how the surgery went (without a hitch). From her starched-sheeted bed, Jules wrote, “I could go into the vomiting up all my food, the crushing feeling against my chest, the sheer, bloody discomfort, but I am alive, alive, alive! And I am loved, supported, and the first woman in my family in centuries who has actually had a choice. The value of that is immeasurable.”
Breast wishes for a speedy recovery, Jules; you’ve done National Breast Cancer Awareness Month proud. Love you lots.