Nan Ling – In Memoriam

College is the time when vices are not only socially acceptable, but encouraged.  Binge drinking, promiscuity, drugs; all fine as long as the vice fades after graduation. But I didn’t do any of that. My vice was sketchy Chinese food. I grew out of it, but will always have a taste for it.

Flash back to fall of 1998. Berklee College of Music, known internationally for jazz and contemporary music instruction and less so for fine dining. While on the meal plan I would eat the ‘free’ meals daily without a complaint but would supplement this meal plan with my solo expeditions around Mass Ave in Boston after 9PM. More often than not I ended up at Nan Ling.

When one has a craving for McDonalds the only thing that would satisfy is McDonalds. It tastes kind of like a hamburger, but more than anything else, it tastes like McDonalds. If McDonalds was to try and make a stand-alone respectable hamburger it would fail, even if the hamburger was cooked at Bennigan’s and shipped hourly. The same can be said for Chinese food. When one walks into a mall, through China Town, or a hole-in-the-wall, there’s a certain expectation of cuisine based on the Chinese Food tier I just made up in order of culinary respect and quality.

  1. Mall Chinese Food
  2. Sketchy Chinese Food
  3. Regular/Family American Chinese Food
  4. China Town Chinese Food
  5. Restaurants in China serving traditional cuisine

Nan Ling found a comfortable home in tier 2. Clearly not in a mall so it had little risk of falling down to tier 1 and considering the rude staff and homeless clientele, there was a slim chance of a family arriving to bring it up a tier.

Now for a bit about Nan Ling as it exists only in my memory and not in my Flickr photostream. Fenway-green booths lined with mirrors created an aisle for viewing the sun-faded photos of sketchy Chinese Food options. Look to the left and you’re starring back at yourself in unflattering florescent lights but there’s no turning back now.  The aroma of chicken wings, PFR and MSG outweighs any self-loathing.

I assume you could order individual items but I never said more than a combination number and a coke. While at one time I planned to order sequentially and try all combination numbers over the course of a month or so, I typically resorted back to my standard order: Pork Fried Rice, Pepper Steak, Spare Ribs and a coke.  I was never concerned that they pulled the raw Spare Ribs from the same fridge that they retrieved my coke from.

Nan Ling was dirt-cheap. Daily specials were around $2.40 which brought in customers whose main source of income was spare change.  Staff was never thrilled when customers came in with handfuls of change to count on the counter. In fact, they were never happy with anything. They never smiled. I must have been their perfect customer paying in paper money that had made its way through a bank after its last criminal transaction. I still didn’t get a smile or a friendly greeting. They certainly wouldn’t allow me to make substitutions. Nobody got substitutions.

While I hadn’t been to Nan Ling in well over 10 years I can still envision the taste. A Nan Ling craving can only be filled with Nan Ling and even other sketchy Chinese foods don’t come close. As I drove by the closed Nan Ling last night, learning of it’s demise for the first time, my first emotion was sadness. But over the next few hours it turned to relief like a former smoker whose spouse had finally quit smoking as well.  The cravings would and will never go away, but the dealer has moved away.

I don’t know what caused it to close in the end. Maybe their Wi-Fi was slow or it was leaked that the crab in their Crab Rangoons were not grass-fed. Or, it may be that they tried to climb tiers and create a more palatable Chinese Food with mass appeal. See this exhibit:

“I ordered from Nan Ling because I was promised the worst food possible, but it’s just bad Chinese food” – Yelp Reviewer from July 2011.

Nan Ling has 1.5 stars on its now-morbid Yelp page, but maybe that was 1.5 stars too many. They excelled on making some of the most addictive sketchy Chinese food in the area. Customers walked in with this expectation, whether on a dare or an unquenchable hunger for for food with questionable origins. While I got over my college vice I can’t help but wonder if Nan Ling also grew up with me while isolating their customers who embraced the lifestyle of uniquely sketchy Chinese food.

Nan Ling is survived by Dumpling Palace. Opening soon.

Progressive Nation at Sea 2014: A Passenger’s Log

Anyone: “So where are you going again?”
Me: “A progressive rock cruise”
Anyone: “What’s progressive rock?”
Me: “Just a type of music I like”
Anyone: “Would I know any of the bands on the cruise?”
Me: “Do you know the band Yes?”
Anyone: “No”
Me: “Well, the lead singer of that band will be there”
Anyone: “O”

The idea of a cruise has never interested me and the Progressive Nation at Sea cruise was my first. I don’t relax well with nothing to do and prefer to stay busy on vacation. The idea of unlimited food, pools, beaches, casinos, alcohol and other amenities sounds nice as activities to do during down time from things I actually would go out and want to do myself. My first impression was that the cruise was a floating casino. Even without the actual (small) casino I’d feel this way. The carpets were colorful with wacky designs. Everything smelled like smoke, chlorine and other cleaning products. There was an emphasis on food and high-end shopping and a de-emphasis on knowing what time it was. It was littered with an international cavalry of staff and if I saw the same staffer twice I was otherwise unaware.

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Post Brunch — A One Act Play

(Sophia Junior, age 25, and her grandfather enter a trendy restaurant at 10AM on a Saturday morning. The year is 2065. Grandpa has ordered a baked-stuffed lobster and Sophia Junior [SJ] has ordered scrambled eggs with a side of chicken wings and cole slaw. They have just been served.)

Sophia Junior: That looks good Grandpa.

Grandpa: It does. Did you know that when I was your age you couldn’t order this meal at a restaurant, especially at 10 in the morning? Prior to the food riots of 2020 society in general was uncomfortable with certain food combinations at certain times.

SJ: Gramma mentioned this at breakfast yesterday when she was heating up our breakfast pizza. She mentioned that in her day it was only acceptable to eat cold pizza for breakfast. I didn’t really follow.

Grandpa: Society was slow to warm up to the idea of pizza for breakfast. By the 1980s it was acceptable to have cold pizza for breakfast and brunch moved the movement forward.

SJ: Brunch? A combination of brains and lunch? (giggles)

Grandpa: Hah, no, it was a combination of breakfast and lunch. My uncle and his husband loved it when I was a kid, but by the time I was your age it had grown in popularity tremendously.

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The Making of My Top Albums of 2013

I got the idea to record myself playing a bit of a song from each of my top 30 albums in late November of 2012. This gave me a little over a month to create the 2012 entry which was a rewarding challenge. In all, the idea was widely unsuccessful considering the time put into it. The 2012 edition received 4 likes on Facebook and only one of the four was from a non-family member. The 2013 edition received 7 likes. By comparison, a picture I took of bread and my daughter received 9 likes a day later.

It’s a pretentious and pointless effort, I understand, but it’s one that I’d like to do every year. It gives me a reason to focus on a specific music goal and practice for this end-of-year project. However, since I knew I would do this end-of-year project by early 2013 it did change how I listened to music. It was interesting enough to me to create a separate entry.

Influence on My Listening Behavior

Starting in January of 2013 I began listening to new music with this project in mind. I listened to each album and song with the question of “would this make a good solo piano arrangement?” in the back of my mind. The quality of the music came first, of course, but this project had influence on counts.

Some examples. The technical death-metal band “Revocation” released an album in 2013 that I purchased. I gave it a few listens and nothing really stuck. It wasn’t nearly as good as their Chaos of Forms from 2011 (which didn’t crack the top 30 that year either). I knew that their 2013 release wouldn’t make a good solo piano arrangement; at least not one that could be thrown together easily. If not for this project I may have gone back to this album once or twice throughout the year, but since I already dropped it as a contender for this project I found another listen pointless.

The new Queensryche album is an example of an album pushed towards the top of this list due to this project. It’s a good album and deserved the spot, but the choice of songs to play was not obvious as it was with many of the albums. Because of this I ended up listening to the album in full many times with idea of picking out the song to play. This tacked on additional play counts.

Without this project I don’t believe the top 30 would look considerably different. These are still my favorite 30 albums of the year, more or less.

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Jason McGorty