Peking Duck

My 30th birthday took place at one of the threshold times in my life.  I had recently read The Spiral Dance, and was in the process of looking for a Wiccan group.  Six weeks later I would attend my first Wicca class/ritual, and my life would be forever changed.

That change hadn’t happened yet, but I was aware of the potential.  I wanted my 30th birthday party to reflect that sense of transition.  I was determined to do things I had never done before.

I’ve already mentioned one thing I did that was different: a two-city Star Wars RPG session over the phone.  But somehow, that wasn’t enough.

I’ve had a long-time love of Chinese food, but there was one item on the menu I’d never tried: Peking Duck. I had no clear idea of what it was or how it tasted, but it sounded exotic.  Almost every Chinese restaurant I’d even been to had a note next to Peking Duck in the menu: “This item must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance.”  What could it mean?  What exotic method of food preparation required a full day?  And why did it cost so much?

I did a little research (not enough, as will be seen, but these were the days before Google).  I found that the reason that Peking Duck took so long to prepare is that it involved some kind of slow-cooking process that allowed the fat to drain.  This whetted both my appetite and my curiosity.

I decided I was going to try Peking Duck for my birthday.  And if I was going to try it, why not let the party guests try it too?  Peking Duck for everyone!  At least, for everyone who wanted it.  Almost everyone was as ignorant and curious as I was and wanted to go along with the idea.

I made arrangements with a Chinese restaurant near where I lived, and with one in the area where my Chicago friends lived.  I arranged to pay for dinner at both restaurants.

The managers of both Chinese restaurants independently contacted me when they heard that I placed the orders for Peking Duck in advance.  They essentially both asked the same question: “Are you sure you want this?”  “Yes, I do,” I replied enthusiastically.  They were trying to warn me, but due to a combination of language difficulties and my eagerness for the project, I didn’t pick up on it.

The same thing happened at both the restaurant in New York and in Chicago: My friends all sat down, hungry after a long gaming session.  The waiters came out bearing mountains and mountains of duck.

You’re way, way ahead of me, aren’t you?  What I didn’t understand is that Peking Duck is an appetizer that’s meant to be shared among four people; that’s part of the reason why it costs so much.  I asked for one order of Peking Duck per person.  The result: More duck than even a bunch of gamers could comfortably consume.

I was eating leftover duck for two weeks afterwards.

For the amount it cost me, I could have flown out to Chicago and had a separate birthday party with that group of friends.

Oh, well.  I learned something.  Maybe

I haven’t had Peking Duck since.  It’s not that I’m afraid of it; it tasted good and it’s a pretty low-fat dish.  It’s that I haven’t been to a sit-down Chinese restaurant with three or more other diners who planned more than a day in advance to order it.

Say, want to try some Peking Duck?

Brownie balls and monster cakes

I said that I would tell this story, and here I keep that promise.

For my 20th birthday party, I held an all-day event at my house.  Good food, good games, good people (not in that order, of course).

I’m a workman-like cook.  I can’t come up with much that’s new or innovative, but I can follow a recipe.  As a meal planner, I’ve always had difficulties; I’ve described my problems with Passover Seders, and I wasn’t any better when I was 20.

Among the many dishes I served that day, I decided to offer both cheese fondue and chocolate fondue.  Some 30 years later, I know that’s a mistake.  Oh, I know that other people do it besides me; it sounds like a cool idea.  But the fact that many have done it doesn’t make it right.  The older me knows that part of a meal is balance, and having two dipping courses in a single day is not good balance.

The cheese fondue turned out all right, but let’s focus on the chocolate fondue.  Normally, one dips fruit or chunks of pound cake into the melted chocolate.  I didn’t like fruit (I don’t especially care for it now), but I thought that only offering pound cake would be boring (another mistake; nowadays I would have fruit available too).  So I decided to make chocolate balls to dip into the fondue (yet another mistake; good taste experiences usually involve contrast).

I made the chocolate balls from a brownie mix, baking them a day or two before my party.  I put them into a container and left them; I had plenty of other things to prepare for the big day.

We come to the day of the party, at the time I’m serving the dessert.  I bring out the chocolate fondue, the cut-up chunks of pound cake, and the brownie balls.  My friends are playing games in the living room, so I set up the food in the dining room.

If it had been a sitcom, it could not have been better directed.  Each of my guests came into the dining room one-by-one.  Those that were already there had had the experience, and kept quiet as they watched the newcomer go through it: the unsuspecting victim would stick the fondue fork into the brownie ball, they’d dip it into the chocolate fondue, maybe they’d blow on it to cool it down, and they’d stick it into their mouth whole.

The brownie balls had hardened into rocks while sitting for two days.  Each person found themselves with a hot chocolate-flavored golf ball in their mouth.  They’d tried to chew it, while the rest of the guests would laugh themselves silly, remembering that long-ago minute when they’d been the one to look like a fool.

Later (years later!) a more experienced friend figured that I’d let the brownie balls dry out.  It doesn’t matter; I’ll never repeat that experiment again.

As for the monster cake:

I’ve had a weight problem for most of my life.  As I was approaching 20, I decided I’d deal with it.  I exercised and dieted, and lost quite a bit of weight.  (Yes, I did it to impress a girl.  No, she wasn’t impressed.)

One of the guests at my party, who was also a player in my role-playing game, was a wholesale baker.  Even though I told no one to bring any food, because I had plenty, she decided to bring a birthday cake for me.  It was one of those huge sheet cakes, the kind that you get for a wedding for a hundred people, about 3×4 feet.   Some of the guests (those who weren’t satisfied by the brownie-ball experience) had a piece, but basically that entire cake was left over after the party.

Here’s the part of the story that’s difficult to believe: Over the course of the next two weeks, that cake leaped from the table and wrapped itself around my mid-section.  Eventually I threw it out (there was about a third left), but it was too late.  The monster cake had claimed a victim.

The successful attack of the monster cake had nothing to do with that girl not being impressed by my dieting.  Nothing at all.  I don’t know why you’d make that connection.  Let’s change the subject.

My tale of birthday food disasters did not end with my 20th birthday.  Next: the tale of the Peking duck.

Birthdays and decades

Last Wednesday was my birthday; I’m now 49. If you forgot, it’s OK; birthdays are my affectation, and I don’t expect everyone else to have the enthusiasm I do.

I spent the evening in the company of friends, playing Munchkin. Afterwards my best friend stayed for a while and we hung out. He did some measurements and sketches for my second tatoo. All in all, a pleasant and happy birthday.

I’m already thinking about my next birthday, my 50th. To understand why I’m planning my next birthday party year in advance, we have to set the Wayback Machine to 1979.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I started gaming in the early 1970’s and by 1979 I was an avid gamer, as were most of my friends. So on Dec 3, 1979, I had a gaming party at my home for my 20th birthday. I’d spent the previous week cooking special dishes for the party. On the day itself, we spent the day playing different board games; we were all into RPGs, but I knew I’d be spending too much time in the kitchen to participate in one. (I’ll save the story of the brownie balls and the monster cake for a future post.)

By 1989 I’d finished taking data for my thesis experiment at Fermilab in Chicago (though it would be another 7 years before my data analysis was over). I had gamer friends in both New York and Chicago. This time we held an two-city RPG, a Star Wars game. This was before the days of the Internet (it was also before West End Games ruined the Star Wars RPG rules), so we held the game over the phone. There was both a Chicago GM and a New York GM (me); some of the action was independent at both sites, while some was co-ordinated between the two groups. (I’ll save the story of the Peking Duck for a future post.)

In 1999, I was involved with LARPs. I got the folks from Mystic Realms to help me present the story. The idea was that people could come as a character from any idea they had in time, space, or fantasy. If they did, they would have a role in the story, with LARP-style abilities that reflected that character. I rented a hall, had lots of food (far too much!), and set out drugstore cameras so folks could take pictures. You can see the results on this web page.

What will I do for my 50th birthday party? The reason why I ponder this now is that, for my other decade parties, I knew what I wanted to do months in advance; for my 40th, I had the idea two years in advance. Right now I have no clear idea of what I want to do.

Here are the bits and pieces that I want to fit together:

  • I want it to be another gaming party. The only other group social activity in my life that’s more important than gaming is Wicca, and I am not going to hold a Wiccan ritual for my birthday. Aside from the fact that it would be using my religion out of pure hubris, I just don’t want to do it.
  • The earlier portions of my life were characterized by some big social changes. No one who attended my 20th birthday party also attended my 30th; I had lost touch with them by that time. Two people who attended my 30th birthday also attended my 40th (and one more called in).

    In contrast, almost everyone who attended my 40th birthday party is still in my life and will be invited to my 50th, along with a bunch of new friends.

    In my mind, this creates some sense of continuity. I know that almost none of those who attended the party nine years ago will remember that plot for next year’s party, but it would be nice to link the two somehow.

  • At my 20th and 30th birthday parties, all of the attendees were gamers. At my 40th, most of the attendees were not gamers. I’d say at most half got into the spirit of the story and game; the rest sort of tolerated it. They liked coming in costume; I think I can keep that concept.
  • If you take the time to read the plot of my 40th birthday party, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that there was too damn much.

    I wanted to give everyone something to talk about and something to do. Instead, I think it came off as confusing and opaque to anyone who wasn’t a gamer. I also put enormous effort into telling stories that most of them never heard.

  • One reason why many of them never heard a chunk of the story is that about a third of the people who said they were going to come did not show up. I don’t mean that some of my friends didn’t accept the invitation; of course, many did not and I did not expect them to. I mean that about a third planned to come, created characters, I crafted a place in the plot for them, and then they canceled at the last minute.

    What can you do? It’s a party, not a trial date. (Actually, if you read the plot, it was a trial date :-)!) But it meant that parts of the story didn’t work.

  • One thing that clearly “failed” at the 40th birthday party was bringing in the complex rules of a LARP to the event. The concepts of hit points, mana, spells, combat actions, etc., were just too much to absorb. I made sure that none of these things mattered to the plot, but they were there as background.

    I may get Mystic Realms involved again in helping me with the 50th birthday party, but it won’t be a full-fledged participatory LARP experience.

My thoughts at this point:

  • Keep it an (optional) costume party. If you come in costume, you can play as the character.
  • My original game design was based on the How to Host a Murder games, but I got too elaborate.

    Instead of a page or two of information for each character, write down “something you know” on a card, no more than a sentence or two. Hand out the cards during the party, with more cards handed out as time goes on. Keep it simple; keep it flowing.

What story do I tell? How do I tell it using “information cards”? How can I make it a mystery, or at least something to hold my friends’ interest?

Most important (at least to me), how can I do it in such a way that it’s their choice, not mine, as to how much they get involved in the telling of story?

You know, one event every decade is not often enough to playtest a concept!

Fake memory meme

From catbirdgirl :

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, (even if we don’t speak often or ever) please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL memory of you and me.

It can be anything you want – good or bad – BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.

When you’re finished, post this little paragraph in your LJ and see what your friends come up with.