Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fall River Chow Mein

If you grew up somewhere in the vicinity of Fall River or New Bedford, Massachusetts, odds are that you grew up with Fall River style chow mein. It's a really weird thing. I couldn't really explain the origins, or why it seems to only exist in a few small towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but it was a Friday night staple of my childhood. Friday nights, large chicken chow mein to go, and dinner was served. (Note: During Lent, to my chagrin, we changed our Friday night special to cheese pizza.) Chow mein was also a staple of my school days. Wednesday at Gardner School, if I recall correctly, was frequently chow mein sandwich day, only second in popularity to Thursday's chicken nugget day. Then there's the bingo night that I used to volunteer at during my high school years at Bishop Connolly in Fall River. Yes, I served the chow mein. "Chow mein? Sure. Would you like strained or unstrained." Those sassy seniors always chose strained.
Hoo-Mee Chow Mein box
I'm not entirely sure of the origins of this dish, except to say that the reason it still exists can be attributed to the Hoo-Mee Chow Mein Company. This factory produces the crunchy, approximately 2 inch in length, flat looking fried noodles. On top of the noodles, one pours a very savory, somewhat gloopy looking gravy: either "strained" with no vegetables and meat, or chock full of bean sprouts, onions, celery, and some sort of protein (unless vegetable chow mein). Most often, our family ordered out for chicken chow mein, which would feature shredded chicken throughout the sauce, but you also have options of sliced pork, ground pork, ground meat, or sliced meat. Hell, I've even seen lobster chow mein served up at a few of the clam shacks around Southern Mass. As soon as your sauce touches your noodles, the idea is to give them all a bit of a mix, and scarf down as much as possible before all the noodles turn to mush... though admittedly they're still pretty good mushy and some people like that sort of texture. 
But like I said, chow mein, as I know, it is not available anywhere in Boston or on the North Shore. So if one wants a plate of chow mein, you've got to turn back to previously mentioned Hoo-Mee Chow Mein Company. I neatly reserve a stack of these boxes in my pantry, stealing one away periodically throughout the year when I need a taste of home. 
Preparation, as with most shit that comes out of a box is pretty darn easy. But if you want to jazz it up a little bit, and make it taste more like it would when ordering take out, you may want to follow a few extra little steps.
Your ingredients
1. You'll need 1 chicken breast. Slice it up into smaller pieces, just to quicken cooking time. Place a frying pan on medium heat with about a tablespoon of canola oil, and stir fry your chicken until cooked. When a little cool, remove to a little plate and shred up the chicken with your hands.
2. Thinly slice 1 medium yellow onion, and chop three stalks of celery into 1/4" pieces. With your frying pan and oil still on medium heat, throw these items in and stir fry until softened a bit. Should take about five to ten minutes.
Packet of gravy powder mix
3. In the meantime, bring 3 cups of water in a large sauce pan to boil. You'll also want to dissolve that little manila folder packet of powdered gravy mix that comes in the box into a half cup of warm water.
4. When your water boils, pour in your vegetables, your chicken, and your half cup of gravy liquid. Bring everything up to a boil, and then immediately remove from heat.
The gravy
5. Time for the noodles. Set about two handfuls of noodles onto a plate, and create a little well in the middle for your sauce. Ladle on about two big scoops of sauce, and serve immediately.
Admittedly this stuff is not for everyone. My husband, despite spending a majority of his young years in Rhode Island, looks at me and my plate of chow mein with a grimace of horror, like I'm inhaling a mix of Miracle Whip and Nutella down my gob with a rubber garden hose. Still, to his credit, every December he makes a pilgrimage back to Fall River to purchase several boxes of Hoo-Mee, and they lie neatly wrapped beneath our tree until Christmas morn, always my favorite Christmas present. In 2009, if I recall correctly, he actually ventured down to Fall River, visiting store after store, only to find a solemnly empty space on every shelf where the yellow chow mein boxes might reside. He finally inquired with a worker as to the location of the Hoo-Mee. The response was, "Oh honey, the factory burned down." When he worked up the courage to break the news to me over the phone, I actually got a little choked up, thinking in anger, "Doesn't Fall River have enough problems?! Now, it's one sign of a sure thing, it's chow mein, too, has to be stolen away."
Chicken chow mein
Luckily, the resilient factory was up and running the following year. But you wouldn't believe the sadness that surrounded that event. I completely understand why people don't tend to swarm after this stuff if you didn't grow up with it. But I think that's why Fall River chow mein is so wonderful. You don't tend to like it, or look forward to it, or serve it to your kids unless you have a sentimental attachment to it from your own childhood. The sentimental attachment that people have to the most bizarre and not necessarily special of foods is exactly what makes these dishes so unique and perpetually looked forward to in generation after generation of those that grow up in a particular region, and perhaps why they survive and thrive only in a specific region. Chow mein is definitely one of those dishes that I will continue to delight in and share my delight in with all those that grew up in my home town. 

No comments:

Post a Comment