July 5th, 2003

caillebotte_the orangerie

Pink

The morning sky is brushed with pastel pink clouds. It is quiet. Everyone is out of town, or sleeping in after a night of dissipation. The exceptions are a few birds, one of them a blue jay who is screeching at the cats, who are the other exceptions. For some reason, every cat in the neighborhood has chosen to walk past my house this morning. Seven cats. If I were superstitious, I'd have to say that was a very good omen. As I am not superstitious, I'll just say it's incredibly cute. I'll probably dream about cats today.
bazille_summer scene

Fan Tan

It was a soft pink in color, and gave off a flowery fragrance. The flavor was flowery, too, and the first time I remember trying it, when I was no more than five years old, I recall thinking that it was like tasting perfume. It was called Fan Tan, and it was the most unusual chewing gum I had ever had. I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. I knew I didn't dislike it, but it had an exotic quality which I found both alluring, and slightly disturbing. Gum was Wrigley's Spearmint or Doublemint, or it was the hotter peppermint flavor made by Chiclets in little candy-coated, rounded squares. It could be the explosive sweetness of Juicy Fruit, not exactly the flavor of any actual fruit, but more a medley of all fruits put together. It might also be the intense cinnamon flavor of Dentyne, or the licorice of Black Jack. The only other flavor which I was unable to identify was that of Beeman's Pepsin, which reminded me a bit of sweet spices. But the flavor of Fan Tan was not something one would expect in a chewing gum. It was, as the package indicated (if I remember the right word after all these years,) indescribable. I believe the exact phrase was Indescribable Oriental Flavor, but it has been decades since I've seen a package of the stuff. Perhaps it was Mysterious Oriental Flavor, but the upshot was that they weren't telling. There was, of course, no specific flavor mentioned in the list of ingredients -- just the standard phrase "Natural and artificial flavorings." I recall wondering if the flavor was extracted from a rare Chinese fruit, or perhaps from the flowers it so strongly suggested.

The first piece I remember having was from a pack bought by my older sister. When I was old enough to begin buying my own gum, I would occasionally get a pack of Fan Tan, though it was not seen on the shelves as frequently as were the more common flavors. Each time I tasted it, I would try to figure out what the flavor actually was. Various friends tried it as well, but none of us were ever able to guess the secret of the mysterious Fan Tan flavor. The brand, never very popular, eventually vanished altogether. I don't think I've seen it since I was about fifteen or sixteen years old.

So, a number of years passed, and the bland suburb of Los Angeles in which I lived began its gradual transformation into an outlier of the east Asian communities of downtown, a process which would eventually culminate in the southwestern San Gabriel Valley having the largest concentration of Asians in the United States. The influx of this cosmopolitan population -- Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and people from a wide variety of Chinese provinces -- led to the transformation of the local business districts, with exotic shops and restaurants popping up on every block. Strange music would spill from the shops, restaurant windows featured tanks of live fish, markets displayed previously rare or unknown vegetables, and, most delightful to me, traditional Chinese pharmacies opened, and the marvelous assortment of fragrances of the various dried leaves and seed pods and flowers used in medicines would drift out into the air to mingle with the smell of Mongolian Barbecue and roasting garlic. I found no end of joy in the fact that my boring neighborhood had taken on the air of some teeming entrepot on the far shore of the Pacific, or one of those exotic cities which flourished along the silk route across central Asia in the middle ages. I felt a bit as Marco Polo must have -- though without having exposed myself to the dangers and hardships of a long journey -- exploring this new, ancient world which had inexplicably risen up at my doorstep.

When I would go to the new markets, I would sometimes look for Fan Tan gum. I asked the proprietor of a sweets shop which had opened on Garvey Avenue if she had ever heard of Fan Tan. She hadn't. Apparently, it had been an exclusively American brand. I contented myself with the unusual flavors of Chiclets imported from Mexico, which could sometimes be found in two-piece packs kept in baskets alongside the cash registers in Mexican restaurants. I particularly enjoyed the violet flavor, which had a bit of that flowery quality I remembered from Fan Tan. But it wasn't quite the same, and it wasn't a mystery, the flavor being specifically named on the package. I still wanted to know what flavor had been used in the exotic gum I remembered from long before.

One night, I went to a local Japanese restaurant with friends. A dessert was included in the price of the meal we ordered -- an unusual practice for Asian restaurants, where the closest thing to dessert was usually a single cookie. This restaurant served ice cream, and among the flavors the waitress named was green tea. It sounded interesting, so I tried it. The first bite gave me a strange sense of deja vu, but I couldn't quite place the flavor. After a couple more tastes, it struck me: the mysterious flavor of Fan Tan gum! It was green tea! I had, of course, tasted brewed green tea before, but I had never made the connection. In the gum, as in the ice cream, the flavor was greatly intensified. The brewed tea was much too subtle.

After this, I tried looking in the local Asian markets for green tea ice cream, but ice cream of any sort was not to be found. Dairy products, other than eggs, are not a big part of the east Asian diet, and people of east Asian ancestry have the highest rate of lactose intolerance of any group. The ice cream served in that Japanese restaurant was probably introduced for the benefit of their western customers, accustomed to having something sweet at the end of a meal. I discovered a few other Japanese restaurants which had begun serving ice cream, but those were the only places in the area where green tea ice cream was to be found.

In the last couple of years before I left Los Angeles, as the Asian population of my neighborhood rapidly expanded, many of the older, western business in the area closed, and their premises were converted to Asian shops or restaurants. The old Alpha Beta supermarket on Atlantic Boulevard was one of these. Against the bare brick wall that had faced its southern parking lot, a new building was added, with a dozen or so small shops arranged along a portico. Exploring this new complex one day, I discovered an actual ice cream parlor. Inside, I saw a number of Asian-American teenagers; girls wearing short skirts and with makeup in the style affected by Cyndi Lauper, and some with dyed streaks of green or orange in their hair; boys with spiked hair and parachute pants, looking as though they were members of an English synth-pop band. It was the most common style of the rapidly-westernizing children of the (undoubtedly scandalized) immigrants, as well as of the young descendants of the long-established Asian-American communities of Los Angeles. Not only were they adopting the latest fashions of western youth culture, but they were apparently intent on adapting to the western diet as well, as this shop featured a wide range of ice cream flavors. (I could imagine the young folk coming home, and their parents berating them for having the buttery smell of westerners.)

I went in and asked the young Chinese guy behind the counter (he was wearing a Cal State L.A. t-shirt) if he had any green tea ice cream. "Dude, of course!" he said, in a perfect Californian accent. I ordered a bowl, and sat at a table in the corner and ate it, while a group of girls at another table laughed and spoke in a mixture of English and Chinese, and sang along with a song by Blondie that came from the radio, accompanied by the rumble of the air conditioning that chilled the room. Although I now knew the source of the flavor which had so puzzled me for many years, I still had the sense that I was tasting perfume. It was one of those flavors which, like vanilla, hovers at the edge of fragrance, pleasantly confusing the senses in a way that is at once both exhilaratingly strange and comfortably familiar.

Throughout my final summer in Los Angeles, I frequently made my way to that ice cream parlor. From the wide variety they featured, I sampled a number of other flavors not usually associated with ice cream in America, including ginger (a bit too strong for my tastes, and too reminiscent of the commonplace ginger ale, gingerbread and ginger snaps of my childhood) and a flavor whose name I don't remember, but which was of Philippine origin and based on some relative of the sweet potato (a bit bland, and too much like part of dinner to be an adequate confection.) But I always returned to the green tea. Now, in the summer, is when I miss that place most. I miss those afternoons, feeling the chilly breeze of the air conditioned room, listening to the music from the radio, and the great variety of Asian speech of the other patrons, looking out at the people coming and going in this corner of my transformed city under the bright California sunshine, as I savored that exotic flavor/scent so redolent of my childhood and yet always new and strange, a curious mingling of times and places which never failed to stir my imagination and my memory. I can almost taste it now... or is that a fragrance I can almost smell?