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Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Playing a little chicken


Here it comes, the eternal question . . .

Why did the gaijin cross the road?

Today's answer: To get to the yakitori bar. On the other side.

And if you're wondering about that other eternal question — which came first, the chicken or the beer? — the eternal answer is . . . beer.

"OK, here's the plan . . ." My first friend has a voice like Foghorn Leghorn. "I say boys, here's the plan. We open a chain of these yakitori places across the Midwest. Not New York, not L.A. I'm talking Akron, Peoria, Des Moines. Pretty soon 'chicken on a stick' will be the new food fad. We'll have people clucking like hens. And we'll make millions."

Foghorn rips chicken from a skewer with teeth like piano keys. Me, I pull my chicken free with chopsticks. Regardless, we both hand our denuded skewers to Egghead, our companion. Who is using them to build "Fort Chicken" on one corner of the table.

As we sit eating, drinking and crowing the night away over that simple-yet-wonderful Japanese pleasure — yakitori.

"To start," says Foghorn. "We'd have almost no overhead. All we need would be charcoal and a red lantern or two. Plus some beer. Anything else?"

"Skewers," belches Egghead. "Lots of skewers. A full forest of skewers. And that would be it."

Yet, I sense there's something else, some pesky detail, we've forgotten. Then it hits me.

"How about some chicken!?"

And so Foghorn summons the waitress and we order more. With the fresh skewers destined for Egghead's fort.

"And that's what we'll call it — our yakitori chain — Fort Chicken! With a Wild West motif. We'll have the staff dress like cavalry troops. And with the skewers shaped like little arrows." Foghorn backs him up. "And with chicken-head trophies mounted on the walls! And a chicken-head rug before the fireplace!"

We drink to that. We drink to anything.

"And vegetarians?" I ask.

"To vegetarians!" says Foghorn.

"Wait!" says Egghead. "Vegetarians? Let them get their own chain. Fort Tofu or whatever."

I argue back that, while Japan tends to be insensitive to vegetarian/vegan dining, much of the West is not. And then I offer a quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the one that I think won him the Nobel Prize for quipping.

"'I did not become a vegetarian for my health; I did it for the health of the chickens.' "

"Nonsense!" says Foghorn. "Did you know there are more chickens in the world than humans? That's a well-googled fact. I say it's time we evened the odds."

"Right," adds Egghead. "Just imagine all those billions of chickens. And all the tons of food they peck down every day. While hungry Americans are forced to subsist on potato chips and fries. It's not fair. Especially when your average fry is damned hard to skewer."

I refuse to drink to that. Because my glass is empty. We order another round. And there is nothing like beer to soften the heart — and heads — of would-be chicken haters.

"I got nothing against chickens, personally," says Foghorn. "It's not their fault they taste good."

Egghead adds, "And I suppose vegetarians can feast on skewered onions and baby tomatoes. Fort Chicken can always have a veggie corner."

A location he then points out in his mini-fort. "We'll put it here. Right across from the dessert corner."

Where, he says, customers will be served skewered Snickers bars and jellybeans.

"When it comes right down to it," he says. "What I really like are the skewers. We might not even need food."

But . . . should the skewers come salted? Or sauced? Talk about eternal questions. Such is the fundamental dilemma of a yakitori bar.

"Me?" says Foghorn. "I'm a sauce man. The sauce sticks to my moustache and travels home with me on the train. The ride back can be long and I enjoy that added value."

"Salt for me," says Egghead. "Salt, chicken, beer — it's a formula made in heaven. Add in some skewers and it's perfect."

So the vote is split. My friends lean my way and await my tiebreaker.

I glance from friend to friend, gulp, and announce . . . "I can't decide."

"Chicken!" says Egghead. And so Foghorn summons the waitress and we order more.

That's the thing about a yakitori bar or any Japanese pub. The food comes in such small portions that your tummy is tricked into thinking it's never full. You can eat all night. Rather than a full tummy, the time to call it quits is more often determined by an empty wallet.

We decide to drink to that. While we still have the money.

The waitress then sets our mugs on the table with too much oomph and Fort Chicken crumbles before our eyes.

"That would never happen with Fort Tofu," I say.

"Let's face it, boys," says Foghorn. "I say, let's face it. We're not entrepreneurs. Fort Chicken would never have made it."

Egghead agrees. "Too bad. We got skewered before we even started."

Yet all is not lost.

For we still have our beers.



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