Before I get going on this subject with any actual intensity, I’m going to correct the few of you who I’ve made the agreeable mistake of calling friends: read this entire god damn thing before you start crying. I’m telling you this now because you’re a sensitive sort, at least in some respect, which is why you’re my friend to start with. I have a deficit you fill that isn’t my vagina.
Springfield, Missouri, for all of its places to be (few, actually) and people to meet (you get the point after you’ve met a few) is a kind place to live. It’s where you want you raise your kids, or if you’re not a fan of the torrential humidity of Florida, it’s place where you choose to die.
Springfield has four seasons and bipolar disorder, so in any given week, you get the year's worth of changes in weather. There’s no real danger in having your kids walk to school in any part of town, because the hardest gangsters represent a road on the south side, called Ingram Mill, which boasts a Price Cutter, IMAX movie theatre, and dental offices geared towards kids.
In terms to the worst of the worst, you will have to stand quietly in a line at the Kum & Go gas station behind or infront of, someone actively on meth. They will be attempting to do the same thing as you, which is buy cigarettes, or a soda, they just won’t be as good at it.
Sure, there are seedy parts of town, namely the north side, where I live. The neighbor to my right plays Dungeon’s and Dragon’s; to my left is a woman who claims to be a nurse with one of two of her dogs being particularly violent towards anyone at anytime. Across the street, I’ve got constant entertainment from a couple who can never seem to complete the simplest of tasks without arguing over that one time the woman sold all the copper wiring out of her boyfriends HVAC van. Meth, obviously. Next to them and the final house worth mentioning belongs to a senile Vietnam veteran who occasionally offers me moonshine, and other times harasses me for coming off gay. In both situations he assumes I served with him, and asks about my knee.
Without going into too much detail, I’m not from here. I’m not from anywhere specifically; but I live here and have lived here long enough to gripe and praise. I’ve learned a bunch about the types of people who live here with me, and after awhile, I realized they can be categorized much like anyone can. But Springfield’s people have one unique quality that I haven’t seen in my time around the country.
Springfield natives are naive, big-hearted*, family oriented**, religious, and dopey.
Imaging a mix of Homer Simpson and Clark Kent, sometimes sober, sometimes on meth. That's a native.
Boy, can they get defensive about it. Just recently, a tattoo shop run entirely by women that’s a block away from my house received a bit too much attention from TLC and decided to use it as a means to bring in more customers. Unfortunately, they aren’t all native Springfieldians and thusly by making statements similar to the one I just made, painted a target on themselves.
See the video here.
Locals lashed back in the typical Springfield way, not by harassing phone calls or spray paint or threats of death, but by simply going on Facebook and leaving a lake of 1-star reviews. Some of them even made up stories about how dirty the tattoo needles are. I had my fun reading through them, although I have to say, the only thing they really did wrong as present the truth in a bad way. You see, the people here are religious, but no, you're not considered a "nerd" if you go to college here. The real truth is if you're a woman in Springfield going to college, you're going to be in the medical field in some respect, and if you're a man, you're going for business, general education, or if they broke the mold, an English degree. I've literally never met a woman or man that's going to college in Springfield for another reason. Anyway, people who saw the promotion were pissed and I spent the same amount of time harassing friends on Facebook for being so buttmad.
The truth is, advertising and marketing that comes from Springfield embosses the fact that natives are a bit Clark Kent without the direction, and without ever becoming Superman. What makes this town safe for families is also what makes those families, and perpetuates Springfield's "if it ain't broke" mentalities. Coincidentally, it's also what gets me into nearly all my arguments.
Mexican Villa is a local restaurant that I've been to once. I didn't want to eat there, but a well-connected friend of mine told me they were craving for it. By well-connected, I mean she knows everyone in a very literal sense, and in my mind that has typically always meant that they also know the hot spots for outings or events. Having lived in Arizona for a number of years, I'm wary about eating Mexican food in areas noticeably absent of Mexicans.
We sat down at a table covered in that industrial plastic table covering, shaded sort of yellow but not white on purpose, and handed a basket of chips with accompanied salsa. Standard Mexican restaurant fare. Except the chips were machine-salted because they were out of a god damn bag, and the salsa, if you can call it that, had waterlogged chunks of long-dead tomato floating in a pinkish water, with flecks of some green vegetable, I hope. As a natural fatalist, there was no judgement on my behalf about if I should eat it or not, so I did. The room temperature salt chips did a nice job of replacing the flavor of what you could actually taste of the salsa, since it was so ice cold nothing in the flask had taste to it anyway. And of course it was so watery, you had to let your chips soak in the salsa before eating them, or you'd just be eating wet salt, which if I'm being honest, wasn't much different from the truth of it anyway.
This was about the time, after ordering our lunches from a 6-page menu that repeated dishes in different names, that I started to take in the decor. My eyes repeatedly drew towards a phrase stamped on every inch of the walls, and to my surprise an assortment of shirts. It read,
"Top plate is hot!"
I asked my lunch mate why the urgency, if there was a bad accident or maybe a murder that happened and she responded with all candor, "That's the catchphrase of Mexican Villa!" I hurriedly asked a slew of follow-up questions typical to finding another example of Springfield native marketing:
"Is this a local restaurant?"
"Do you know the owners?"
"How long has this place been here?"
"Is it popular?"
She gave me all the positive answers and look pleased about it, I was less so. I quickly asked her if she realized that all Mexican restaurants tell you the top plate is hot when they serve you. Oddly, she said yes, but it didn't seem to recognize what I was implying. The shirts proudly displaying their motto come in the local University colors.
Bear in mind that having an entire company motto like "Top plate is hot!" is like any normal restaurant having a motto that says, "Here's your check!"
Imagine it; you sit down at a diner, not unlike so many diners that dot the country of America. A waitress takes your order of french fries and a Coke, because you know what those should look and taste like. You're familiar with french fries. You're also aware of the taste of Coke. In your mind, there is no real way it can be messed up, except say, if you're in an "American diner" in Japan. You're feeling a little worried that the Japanese don't really know what their doing with your food--and when it arrives, your worries are confirmed. Before you sits a plate the size of a coaster, topped with a half-cup of stringy shoe strings that as you come to find out, are salt-licks swimming in old grease. Some are burnt the color of your Coke, which arrives lukewarm in a gallon jug that has "Coke" scribbled on it in indelible ink. It happens to actually be flat carbonated off-brand called simply "Cola".
This is what I was facing when I learned that Mexican Villa's legitimate business motto was "Top plate is hot!" and it wasn't even so much that there is a ton of pride about it. It's that their food was an imitation of what it was supposed to be. A very bad imitation that tasted like it was born from people who thought to themselves one night, "Hey. Yeah." and that's where it ended. Mexican Villa is a perfect example of native Springfield entrepreneurship, but it's not where I took issue entirely. My problem is that locals who have never tasted genuine Mexican food believe that places like Mexican Villa are representative of the culture's food. And it's perpetuated by other, more legitimate Mexican restaurants because to thrive in Springfield as a business, you must tailor tastes to the locals. It's not even specific to Mexican restaurants---there's an Indian place in Springfield that at one time, sold beef curry. If you don't see where that's wrong, you're part of the problem.
Now, this isn't quite the same as the general populace of America believing that Chinese food is supposed to be fried meats in greasy noodles. American-Chinese food places perpetuate that to the point where it's so tailored to our tastes that most American's can't tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Thai food. The first time I told one of my co-workers that real Chinese food wasn't just a #7 with extra Sweet & Sour, we ended up almost fighting. Which brings me to my last entry on this whole thing: Cashew Chicken.
Yes, I'm going there.
In 2006, I was sitting in a holding cell in Greene County, Missouri, with my hands cuffed behind my back and blood drying in my nose. I was sixteen, so they weren't going to put me in jail with the big girls. They were however, going to have a stern conversation with my mother. I had been in a fist fight with a 22 year old man, never got his name, downtown in Springfield's square. He was in big boy jail for wrestling with a minor, but worse than that, they waited to put him in with other men because he had very obviously lost the fight. What was it about?
The man said Cashew Chicken was made in Springfield, Missouri, and I said it wasn't.
Before I go on, remember how I said Mexican Villa makes an imitation of the culture food it's selling? This is the other side of the story. This is the story of how a business man realized the native nature of Springfieldians, and cashed in, creating a myth that will likely always get me into fist fights.
If you ask a local, they will tell you Cashew Chicken was created in Springfield, Missouri, by a "Chinese guy" and it's so popular that they have a festival for it every year. Everyone loves Cashew Chicken in Springfield, and it's even called "Dish of the City".
When I told this guy (and several people) through the years that cashew chicken was NOT invented in Springfield, he got super defensive and started pushing my buttons. The reason I say that is because before coming to Springfield, I had eaten cashew chicken and loved it. I'm not implying that the dish I ate wasn't a dish that had made its way west, I just knew that it was from immigrants on the East coast, and not an immigrant from the Midwest. So I always figured they were talking about something else.
Finally in 2017, I googled it, and after 11 years I can finally tell you people to go fuck yourself.
This is the Wikipedia official statement on Cashew Chicken:
"Cashew chicken (Chinese: 腰果雞丁) is a simple Chinese-American dish that combines chicken (usually stir-fried but occasionally deep-fried, depending on the variation), with cashews and either a light brown garlic sauce or a thick sauce made from chicken stock, soy sauce and oyster sauce."
"The traditional version of cashew chicken is stir-fried in a wok. Tender chunks of chicken are combined with crispy roasted cashews, vegetables and are tossed in a light sauce made from garlic, soy sauce and hoisin sauce, thinned with water."
Now here is SPRINGFIELD Cashew Chicken:
"Borrowing from the local love of fried chicken, Leong came up with a variation of the preexisting dish. Instead of stir-frying the chicken, as is normally done, he deep-fried the chicken chunks. He then covered them with the typical sauce made from chicken stock, soy sauce and oyster sauce, and added the handful of cashews. He also included chopped green onions as a twist and it became an immediate hit with the local crowd. As word spread about the dish, so did the recipe. Leong's Tea House closed its doors in 1997, but Springfield-style cashew chicken is still being served at over 70 Chinese restaurants, as well as many non-Chinese restaurants, in and around the Springfield metropolitan area, and elsewhere in Missouri and other states."
Yes, that's right. That's fucking right, you cunts. Smell that? That's vindication. Leong didn't invent Cashew Chicken. He did the right thing by Springfield business standards--by any business standard really--and tailored a pre-existing dish to the locals. Leong did what Mexican Villa didn't, and adapted a popular dish to the natives, in an extremely Springfield way. He deep fried the chicken and skipped thinning the sauce so it retained a gravy like texture and boldness. By tailoring this dish to the natives, Leong created a mythology that locals aggressively protect. If that isn't the most Springfield god damn thing you've read. Much like Clark Kent will keep his mythos and virtues, so do Springfield natives to their Cashew Chicken.
But from here on out, it's Springfield Cashew Chicken, or Springfield Chicken, and I'll fight the next fucker who wants to test me on it.
You people are the reason I drink.