Heavy breathing at the Good Earth

One summer about 20 years ago there appeared in town a fully-restored 1965 Ford Mustang.

It was a real beaut. The chrome was flawless, as was the paint job. Plus you could tell the engine was in perfect tune by its low-throated growl as it cruised the streets.

And on the trunk in flowing Raymond Loewy cursive was written:

The class of ’65

When food was slow

And cars were fast

Of course, fast cars are still with us, but slow food is pretty much a distant memory. Luckily, it’s a memory that’s still vivid to me.

Back then Saranac Lake was blessed with eateries galore. There were restaurants and diners of all sizes and fares. Beyond them, all the drug stores had lunch counters, as did Woolworth’s.

But there was one kind of restaurant we did not have — Chinese.

(Note: In the name of historical accuracy, there was one Chinese restaurant in my youth, but it lasted less than a year)

No Chinese restaurant? That seems impossible to us today, when if you throw half a brick in any hick town in America you’ll hit one Chinese restaurant, at least. But back in them days, Bunkie, a Chinese restaurant in the sticks was as rare as an avowed atheist or a member in good standing of The Free Love Party.

Did this mean I never had Chinese food till I left the confines of My Home Town? Blessedly, no. My parents came from New York City, so several times a year we went to the Big Rotten Apple, and when we did, our first night there we sprinted up the street to The Good Earth.

The Good Earth (named after the Pearl Buck novel) was a small Chinese restaurant a mere block from where we stayed. As I said, it was small, but it was a classy joint (at least to my tender country boy eyes). As you came in, there was a bar on the left and on the right, booths lined the wall. The place was spotless, the carpets were plush, the booths were comfortable. They had linen tablecloths and napkins, and the plates and tea service were classics: White, with a red design on them with pagodas, junks, peasants, and Chinese lettering galore. Just being in there made me feel as if I was starring in a Bogart flick.

But as exotic and richly-appointed as the decor was, the food was spectacular. We always ordered from the combination menu, and being the arch-conservative foodie I was, I had the same thing each time – chicken chow mein, with egg drop soup for appetizer, egg roll for side dish, and kumquats for dessert. And I washed it down with what seemed like gallons of tea.

Admittedly, I’m no kind of gourmet now, and was even less of one then, but I can say I never had food — any kind of food — as powerfully delicious as the Good Earth’s chow mein. And believe me, in the half-century since then, I’ve eaten beaucoup Chinese food, in beaucoup restaurants, over fully half the world.

Ah, the mystery!

Of course, having had Depression-era parents, when it came to food — any food — there was one unbreakable rule: If it was put in front of you, you ate all of it. And maybe we didn’t literally lick the platter clean, but you can bet anything left over couldn’t be detected with the naked eye.

I had only one problem eating at the Good Earth. Actually, it wasn’t a problem at the Good Earth, so much as a problem after eating there. Afterward, as if by clockwork, I started to feel out of sorts. I didn’t feel sick in any conventional sense, just weird, out-of-sorts, off my game. I wasn’t exactly dizzy, but I felt a strange lightheadedness. I sweated a bit, and my chest felt constricted, as if the Texaco Man Who Wore the Star filled me up from the air pump, to about 150 pounds pressure. If I had any of those symptoms now, not to mention all of them, I’d call 911 faster than you could say myocardial infarction, but as a kid it was no threat, just an inconvenience.

It didn’t happen to the rest of my family, so it was a mystery of sorts. The only possible cause we came up with was the tea. As I said, I drank huge amounts of the stuff. I did it because I thought I was supposed to. It was a Chinese restaurant, after all: Drinking tea was the Chinese experience, like eating hot dogs at a ball game was ours. “All the tea in China” was a phrase I’d heard repeatedly. Certainly, I never drank tea anywhere else, but if I was nothing else at that tender age, I was a keen admirer of cultural diversity.

Those symptoms were most vexing, a mystery whose solution eluded me for years — for decades, in fact. Finally, sometime in my 30s I found out what it was.

It was not the tea. What the hey, I could’ve drunk all the tea in China, so to speak, and the only discomfort I would’ve had would’ve been Godawful bladder pressue. Nope, not the tea at all.

The apparent villain was MSG — Monosodium Glutamate.

MSG is a flavor enhancer that’s been in use for over a century and is the prime ingredient in that good ole standby, Accent.

Note, I said MSG was the apparent villain. It was blamed for something that was called “Chinese

Food Syndrome.” Apparently, the Chinese restaurants dosed their food with the stuff and people claimed it caused headaches and shortness of breath — exactly the symptoms I had.

Ah, the mystery solved at last?

Well, only in a manner of speaking.

As with darn near everything else, there’s another side of this story, namely that MSG is also claimed to have no side effects, especially the ones I experienced. And the people who make this claim got their info from experiments with the stuff carried out by bona fide scientists. The savants claim there are lots of spices in Chinese food which are plant-based. And since people can be allergic to plants … You get the rest, I’m sure.

Still, the argument continues. In its wake, most Chinese restaurants quit using MSG. As a result, Chinese food has never tasted as delicious to me as it did in the Good Earth. On the other hand, (regardless of what the scientists claim), I no longer get dizzy or short of breath after eating it.

Like a lot of things in life, it’s just one more tradeoff.

And, frankly, given how I felt after each meal at the Good Earth, it’s a tradeoff I can easily live with.

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