“There are two times in the course of his life when a Southern man cries,” my friend Dave Shields pronounced some years past as we walked the grounds of the Citadel listening to the howls of upperclassmen humbling first year cadets on the opening night of a new academic year. A hint of autumn infused the evening breeze. “And,” I asked, “they are?” Dave stopped, turned, and pronounced, “When his dog dies and his team loses.” Now, I know this isn’t true. The third occasion arises when his favorite Chinese bun and dumpling stand closes its doors and the big steel and woven bamboo steamers are stored away. Max Huang is shuttering the Li Ming Dumpling Theater and I am bereft if not inconsolable. Sure, his thriving bun business in distant Charlotte will continue and flourish – but a grim culinary darkness shadows Durham and Chapel Hill.
Max Huang gave me the bitter news a couple of weeks back, gesturing unceremoniously to a chalkboard announcement, “We will close at the end of February.” “This year?” I asked; “This month,” he replied. “No!” “Yes.” Sigh. We changed topics: “I need some shrimp dumplings and few Chinese barbecue pork buns to keep me alive on a drive to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. And, maybe a red bean bun just to be on the safe side.” “What takes you there?” he queried. “Oysters,” I responded, “I grow oysters and it’s time to go fluff them up a bit, check on their general welfare, and eat a few to give a sense of meaning and panic to their rock-like lives.” “Oysters,” Max brightened, “I love oysters.” “I’ll bring you some,” I promised and headed for the door. I inhaled the first bun before the car made it out of the parking lot. The others, huddled in their Styrofoam box, weren’t far behind. I was really glad that red bean bun was in reserve.
Three days later and true to my word, I phoned Max from the road on the way back home and told him that I had his oysters. We met in the Li Ming parking lot and I handed him a sack of fifty that I’d gotten out of the icy creek that morning. A great deal of oyster gangstering goes on in parking lots – but then that’s another story that involves state troopers, shotguns, pouring rain, traffic stalled on a rural highway, and a school bus full of horrified vacation-bound students. In exchange, he offered a selection of buns on my next foray to the market. I was not slow to accept.
When I visited the market on Saturday, Max was there and provided us with a lovely array of Chinese barbecue pork buns, Vietnamese buns, shrimp dumplings, and shao mai. He then showed us a photograph of the pan-roasted Chinese oysters he’d made. I asked, “How did you become a bun maker?” And, the outline of a story emerged that placed the buns neatly arrayed in the bamboo steamers in a greater tide of twentieth-century events. Max Huang learned his art from his father, a master bun maker in Taiwan where the family settled in the wake of the Chinese out migrations associated with the communist rise to power. Max’s father acquired his skills from his father who hailed from the Shandong Peninsula in northeastern China across from the Koreas and who, prior to Chairman Mao’s Long March and the communist seizure of private industry, ran a family pharmaceutical concern. The family business forcibly forfeited to the state left Max Huang’s grandfather on his mother’s side in search of a new livelihood – and buns, a traditional and popular Shandong delicacy, offered the family, dispossessed and desperate, an option. In time, the family fled to Taiwan and then in the 1990s resettled in the United States, establishing themselves in North Carolina. Three generations on, Max Huang sculpts the descendants of those first buns at his take-away counter in Li Ming’s Global Mart. The buns, Max observes, are not those his grandfather and father made. They are fancier now, stuffed with sweet and savory fillings.
Max Huang’s narrative offers a genealogy in which each bun in the big bamboo steamers refers back to its ancestors in a lineage forged through repetition, terroir, and communion. Max rolls out the fine white dough, pressing it into uniform rounds. He places the filling in the center, folds in the perimeter, and then, with a deft turn of his hand, pinches and seals the top. The buns rise. Then, packed together, they steam, their fragrance luring shoppers to Max’s stand for a fresh barbecue pork, bean, or taro bun. But, now that I know something of their history, the buns make me think differently about the things I eat and what I think I know. Each of the buns that Max skillfully fashions remembers all the buns he has made and all the buns his father and grandfather have made in their long journey. The repetitive actions of mixing, kneading, rolling, stuffing, folding, twirling, rising, and steaming operate in an sequence that always refers back to origins and simultaneously looks forward to prospects. Terroir, the taste of place, maps a different territory in my appreciation of Max Huang’s bun bakery – historical time. Max Huang’s steamed buns and dumplings don’t taste of place in the classic sense of wine or cheese or oysters. They taste of great events experienced at the most personal level and that is their communion. When I eat one of those dumplings, I consume some small and intimate part of Max’s history and it becomes a part of me and I of it. I am reminded, indeed I am, in some measure, made a part of Max Huang’s family history. Huang’s buns recall deeper narratives of Southern loss and redemption, of awareness and reconciliation sometimes achieved too late, of how this place welcomes the displaced and makes them its own. Max Huang takes his last bao; tears drool down my cheeks. Maybe Charlotte is not so distant.