Thanksgiving at the Pagoda

L4b77bf7ebf16aa15a52a4ad03b49010fike many college students that I teach today, when I was in college, not only was I a full-time student, but I also had two jobs. I worked as a secretary in the German department (I majored in English and German), but I also worked as a hostess and cashier at my friend’s parents’ Chinese restaurant–The Pagoda, where I received an education of a totally different sort, but equally as important, to me anyway.

The Pagoda was a truly American Chinese restaurant, built and owned for years by a Chinese-American family, then, after it was already an established and popular eatery, bought by my friend’s father, a Puerto Rican-American,.  The chefs were from Hong Kong primarily; the fry cooks, bussers, and dishwashers were mostly Puerto Rican. Some of them spoke English, but many of them did not. Then there was the wait staff, which included a myriad of varying ethnicities, including Japanese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Oklahomans,  and me–a little bitty, painfully shy girl from Alabama.


It was quite a place! Who would have thought, at a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I would have tasted such a rich variety of cultures and traditions but always with a distinctly American flavor? This true melting pot extended to the menu, where patrons could feast on traditional dishes like Moo Goo Gai Pan or Chicken Chop Suey, more Americanized fare like Garlic Chicken (garlic-flavored fried chicken) or Steak Kew (thick chunks of sirloin stir-fried with Chinese vegetables in a savory sauce), or all-out All-American eats, including hamburgers, French fries, and Chicken-Fried Steak with White Gravy. (One customer regularly came all the way from Fort Smith for that dish.)

When I first started working at Pagoda, I was so shy, so naive. My parents had moved us to Tulsa when I was still in high school–I graduated from Jenks High School in Jenks, Oklahoma–but I stayed in college at Oral Roberts University, living at home for my first three years in college. Then, about the time I started working at Pagoda, my parents moved back to Alabama, and I moved into the dormitory.

Before that time, I had relied mainly on my family members, my best friend, and her boyfriend for companionship, but now my family was gone, my best friend had moved to a college out of town, and her boyfriend worked a great deal, and I did too, especially at Pagoda.  But my bosses and fellow workers reached out to me, engaged me, joked with me, even protected me, as if they knew I was lost and lonely in a world where I didn’t always fit in.

pagoda-placemat-60-thumbOh, so many memories of that time–

  • The time the Japanese servers refused to work unless they could put a TV up in the waitresses’ alcove so they wouldn’t miss a single episode of Shogun
  • The old Chinese chef, who spoke little English but gave us all pet names off the menu–one friend was Fried Won Ton, another was BBQ Rib, and I was, to my consternation, Sweet and Sour Pork.
  • The huge strong chef, who looked like an Asian Mr. Clean, with his bald head and bulging biceps. One day he was tossing fried rice in a gigantic wok over a searing flame and called me over as I walked by. I motioned I was in a hurry, but he insisted, so I went over. He communicated to me that he wanted me to toss the rice. I looked at him, my eyes narrowing, suspecting a setup, but his was a face of stone. So I took hold of the massive spatulas, more like tiny shovels shoved into the mounds of rice, steeled myself and tried to lift them. They didn’t budge–I heard a tiny sputter from the big man. Tried again, nothing–he sputtered a bit louder–then at the third attempt, he could contain it no longer and burst out with a big-bellied laugh at my expense. Then, after he wiped his eyes, he started tossing the rice with an ease and abandon, laughing all the time. I laughed too–unashamedly.
  • There was the tiny Japanese waitress who had been married like four or five times, who came up to me almost every single time I came into work, looked me in the eye and said, “Smile if you got a little last night.”  Of course, I never got any and of course, I always laughed. Oh, how I loved her.
  • Giving a sweet Cambodian couple some English lessons. In thanks, they cooked me a huge turkey at Christmas time, such a generous gesture that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I lived in a dorm and had no place to put it. I can’t even tell you what I did with the thing, but I remember their kindness to me. I will never forget that.
  • Then there was the self-proclaimed Okie from Muskogee, who smoked like a chimney and spent her free time traveling to Vegas for gambling weekends with one of the other Japanese waitresses. She had lived a hard life, and nobody messed with that woman, but she had raised children too and knew when they needed to be loved. She cursed and complained about many things, but she never had a harsh word for me. Bless her, she knew I needed a little tenderness, so far away from my own mama.

I especially remember sitting down for special meals during holidays and other special occasions, especially Thanksgiving. Everyone celebrated it–all races, nationalities, and creeds. At Pagoda, Thanksgiving meals became times for friendly competition between the two major groups of cooking employees, so when the restaurant would close before Thanksgiving Day, we would have a spread, all the traditional fixin’s with a spicy twist, including two turkeys–one was cooked in a Chinese style, brined with the skin crisped on the outside and the other one in a spicy Puerto Rican style with adobo spices and oregano. (I’m guessing based on what I know now–I only knew the food was delicious back then.)

Both groups would try to get all of the diners, myself included, to declare their favorite, but I never did. I just smiled, laughed, said I had to get another helping before I could be any judge, and headed back to the table for seconds or thirds. I always tried to find my way back in a corner. I was young. I was shy. I didn’t speak their languages, but I ate their perfectly spiced food, watched them, listened, laughed when they did, and longed to understand them more.

Thus was born one of the key tenants of my educational philosophy.  So I tell my students–get out of the classroom. Put yourself in new and uncomfortable situations and listen for that song you’ve never heard before. Go into every situation with a mind open to learning about things and food and cultures and people you never dreamed you would. If you want to truly, deeply learn—then go out and live.



9 thoughts on “Thanksgiving at the Pagoda

  1. I loved reading your post as my grandmother worked there for many years, and I went there many times in the 90’s. Do you remember a lady with red hair named Corliss? I’d love to hear any memories of her if you do. 🙂

    • Oh, yes! Corliss was a mentor to me! She was tough, and I was so young, a little lost puppy really, but she helped me learn how to be a hostess. When we would work together, after or close to closing, she would order food, and we would sit down and eat together with the hum of servers in quiet conversation and the clatter of tableware as silverware was rolled for the next day’s use. When I was preparing to go on a college trip to Germany, several people at Pagoda gave me gifts, and Corliss gave me a tiny bottle of Cinnabar perfume by Estée Lauder. I loved the spicy exotic smell of that perfume that reminded of me of home while I was away for six weeks that summer of 82. I still wear Cinnabar perfume. I am delighted that you wrote to me. It brought back some wonderful memories.

      • Thank you so much for sharing this. She certainly loved her perfume! I will share this with the rest of my family. 🙂

    • I remember her. She was my favorite. My name is Alicia. I am Ben Torres’ granddaughter. Your grandmother took me under her wing. Although my grandparents owned Pagoda, I was still expected and treated to act like the others. I worked there during my teenage years.

  2. I really, really enjoyed reading your post. I have great memories of this wonderful place.

    The female members of my family on my mother’s side would all go here every time one of my aunt’s would come in from out of state to visit. My mom made rules for the ladies lunch. The first rule was we had to be at least 12 yrs old to go with the rest of the “ladies”. 2nd rule was that you only took a small serving of whatever you wanted from the buffet to TRY before actually getting a real portion. 3rd rule keep an open mind when trying the food. 4th rule always show everyone in this place respect as if they were me, your aunt or your grandma cuz they are someone’s.

    Their egg foo yung and sauce was the UNANIMOUS favorite of our family with many, many other dishes coming in as close second and third place. I NEVER tasted anything that was terrible in all of our years going to the Pagoda. I tasted things that I didn’t have the palate for at that age. NOW…….. bring it on.

    Thanks to my grandmother, aunts and mother for taking me to The Pagoda. It’s atmosphere and staff introduced me to Chinese food and culture and started my life-long love affair of all things Asian.

    My grandmother and two aunts have long since passed, but my mother and one of her sisters is still alive and talk about trying to find “GOOD” egg foo yung around, and of course that always leads to conversations, memories and tears of our ladies lunches at The Pagoda. My mother is 77 and her only living sister is 88 now, so they have been trying for quite awhile to find anything remotely close to the beloved taste of Pagoda.

    If anyone still had the recipe to their egg foo yung and sauce from the mid-80s to early 90s, I would LOVE a copy.

    Thanks, Gina Jackson

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