Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Proudest Small Town in Amercia Part I

The following is the beginning of a series of posts about my recent adventure in rural Ohio visiting relatives. There will be at least three more of these kind of posts with more pictures included!

The Arrival

Cadiz sits in Harrison County in the southeast part of Ohio near Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The area is rural, rolling, and rusting. I know little about the area, but what I do know probably trumps what the vast majority of people know about this small, aging coal town whose largest claim to fame is as the birthplace of Clark Gable.

Cadiz is the hometown of my mother and my grandfather. From their recollections the only reason Cadiz ever existed was because of coal and it was in between some other places that mattered. Today there are still miners, but no coal – the miners commute to where there is coal. Things also move faster so that which exists between places of some import are more prevalent and closer in time. Cadiz just is and that is all there is to it.

It may seem I am giving Cadiz a bad rap, but I am not…entirely. It is the type of place that is important in history, important to my childhood, and like many things that just are you cannot hold it against it. It is strangely scenic, and not just in the beautiful decay aesthetic. It is rural, it has farms, it has green fields broken by patches of trees, it has rolling hills and old ponds with graying wooden piers. It has a different culture, a culture which I only know from my mother, her father, and my step-grandmother. The last person from Cadiz that I met outside of the circle of my family was when I must have been in 8th or 9th grade – a decade ago. It truly is worlds apart from a Chicago, a New York City, a Los Angeles let alone a major foreign city. It may have more in common (the good and the bad) with a tiny, dying town somewhere else across the globe.


I am visiting Cadiz for the first time in a long time. It will be the last time I visit for another undetermined amount of time because I am leaving for Japan in August and will be there for at least a year, more likely two. It is time to visit the Mikesell(s, plural is pending on further deliberation), my mom’s side of the family.

My mother and I fly into the airport in Pittsburgh. With bags in hand we ride down an escalator and a poster overhead proudly proclaims – “Yesterday’s airport of the future”. Times must be tough if you have to advertise the fact you were once upon a time on the cusp of modernity. But recently just gave up.

We walk outside and I look to the right to see a figure that I guess is Leeanna, my step-grandmother, so I hesitantly walk her way. At first I am unsure, they must have got a new car and gotten rid of the boat of a Lincoln. Soon my doubt washes away as Leeanna becomes visibly excited waving at me, clad in a bright pink top and white pants that match her teased, short hair. Greetings are exchanged.

My grandfather recently had surgery on his eyes. Leeanna says they put lenses in his eyes. I am no expert on this process so I am not exactly sure the nuance of what happened, but the point is he is wearing giant sunglasses enveloping his normal glasses to keep out the harsh rays of the sun. I am sure everyone has seen these before, but it was nonetheless jarring to see these on my grandfather. 

As we drive away from Pittsburgh to eastern Ohio, Leeanna mentions there is a Japanese restaurant near Cadiz. I can hardly wait. Leeanna asks me about food like lo mein and kimchi (which, to my surprise, not only exists out here, but she says she enjoys) and asks me if lo mein is Japanese or there is something like it in Japan. I tread lightly. Leeanna then asks me what ‘Fujiyama’, the name of our dinner destination means in Japanese. This is a tricky question, but I guess it is Mt. Fuji (Fujisan...). So we are going to Fujiyama.

Fujiyama is a Japanese steak house. The idea of the Japanese steak house or hibachi grill is pretty much an American invention. Not to say Japanese people do not eat beef cooked over a hot plate or open flame, but is not steak, and it is not a steak house, rather a yakiniku or teppanyaki place. Hibachi is a Japanese word but is not used as a cooking word. A hibachi is a brazier where coals are kept for heating purposes. Hibachi in the US is nonetheless similar to teppanyaki in that you are cooking meat and other foods (or okonomiyaki) on a hot griddle. This whole genre of dining started in Japan to serve, ironically, Western style food. The theatrical style of cooking the food did start in Japan, but was more popular with foreigners than Japanese people and migrated to the US.

We walk into the restaurant, which was once a Hardees, and besides the differing signage looks the part. The waitress, who has dirty blonde hair with fading pink highlights, has to be in or just out of high school. “Do you want to sit on the hibachi side,” she asks. “Um, hibachi side is okay,” I tell her. That was beyond stupid of me. Personally I do not like the hibachi deal much at all, but I am also with my middle-aged mother, step-grandmother and 88 year old grandfather who still calls Japanese ‘Japs’, so I should be trying to keep things tame. The last situation I should be putting us in is a theatrical dining experience at a Japanese restaurant of questionable repute. I blame Leeanna.

The chef is at the table next to us and gives us a preview of what we are in for with the party of people who came in before us. He starts by igniting a fire ball on the grill. We can feel the heat from across the room. Remember how my grandfather has to wear those glasses because being in the sunlight is a tad bit too intense for him. I begin sweating slightly with anxiety. The anticipation builds further as he tosses food out to the other patrons coaxing them to catch it mid-air. Adding to my growing uneasiness is the liberal spraying of water and saké. I am not sure how we will all come out of this unscathed mentally and physically. What if my grandfather passes right before my eyes amidst dining?

Drink orders. Thank god there is some sort of alcohol list. My mom points out they have the usual Japanese beer assortment; I take a Yuengling. The chef wheels his cart of tricks out and recalls our orders to us. His English is not that great so I do my best to tell the rest of my party what he is saying (note: the server is not Japanese which is by no means odd to me, but mind-boggling to Leeanna).

 It starts exactly like the last time, my grandfather’s eyes light up in front of a fireball rising above the skillet a foot from our faces. I am about ready to die. I laugh nervously. He dances around with an egg before breaking it and beginning to cook it on the hibachi. Everything will be ok I tell myself until the chef begins coaxing us to catch pieces of egg that have been cooking on the skillet. I begin to wonder if the young, Asian chef thinks this as some sort of retribution for dealing with middle-America patrons in a dying town in West Virginia by tossing hot, runny egg in their general direction. One thing is for sure, he seems to not recognize that an 88 year old man who can hardly read the menu has no desire to “play with his food”. Intervention is the only option before my grandfather who is in the process of “tolerating it” from having runny egg thrown at him by some “Chinaman”.

I will sacrifice myself for my family. I make it apparent to the chef that I am his target, this is a showdown. All food and liquids that travel through the air will be directed at me. Hot egg flies above my head onto the floor (offending my grandfather’s Great Depression sensibilities), hits me in the eye and run down my cheek like a hot tear, and finally lands in my mouth. This must be some sadistic game. My mother is emboldened and after a few misses, one grazing through her hair, she is successful.

After a volley of water by some strange squeezey-toy of a little Asian boy with his pants down, and some cooking in between, out comes the saké. The saké is in a clear container that you would use to squirt different sauces. A cunning weapon. By this time any shame has gone out the window and the more I give in to my captor-gourmand the faster it will all be over. I close my eyes and open my mouth wide as he begins the spray of saké close and moves farther away. Saké makes it into my mouth, cheap, cheap saké. It also makes it in my nose, runs down my cheeks, and basically all over the rest of my face. The sexual innuendo is just off the charts. The session of culinary S&M draws to a close and my partner rolls his cart away to the kitchen.

I ordered the shrimp. It sucked. The food wasn’t even good.

Thus ends the first chapter of my Cadiz, Ohio adventure. We left Fujiyama satisfied (?), stronger and wiser people. I do not have a real pithy comment to add to the end of this, maybe the other anecdotes will, but what can I say about a massive collision of culture and generations in such an absurd setting that does not speak for itself.   

Oh yeah, this was the only part. Oh well. (12/11/2010)     

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