If you drop by George Lou's Mott Street apartment for dinner, there's little chance you'll be under-dressed. When Lou greeted a guest at the door on a recent night, he wore nothing but a white tank top and denim shorts.
There's no apparent strategy here. Lou, a thirty-something Chinese-American videographer by way of Panama, is simply less interested in formalities than in the basic principle of dinnertime camaraderie.
“I always cook with the intention of (serving) more than just me," he says. "I love having friends over.”
The soundtrack on this Friday evening is the voice-over from the History Channel's "UFO Hunters" — Lou's obsession — along with the sizzling sound of patacones frying in the kitchen: crispy slices of plantain that will soon be smashed flat with the bottom of a glass.
Some call them tostones.
Also on the menu is a thickening stew of sancocho, made with an entire chicken (organs and all), yam and culantro leaf, an intensely fragrant cousin of cilantro. He's also chilling a home-made batch of avena, a Panamanian drink prepared with oatmeal, cinnamon and in this case, agave nectar.
Lou’s dining table is a round, black four-seater from Ikea. Much of its surface area is taken up by bottles – Latin seasonings like sazon, adobo and culantro powder.
These days, Lou works part-time at a gym, which is evidenced by the enormous container of protein powder surrounded by jars of creatine, amino acid, glucosamine chondroitin, fish oil and gingko biloba placed amid the spices on his kitchen table.
Lou was just 8 when his family left Panama for the U.S. His great-great-grandfather arrived in Panama from Canton province, in China — he's not sure when exactly, but at some point in the 19th century — and he still has family that he regularly visits.
He speaks fondly of growing up in Panama but those memories are enmeshed with the experience of being an outsider in Panama, subject to constant discrimination.
"You're a foreigner, you're a minority, you're different, and you're reminded of that literally every hour of every single day."
In 1985, his family moved to Edison, N.J, into the Hilltop apartment complex — "the mecca of Indian immigration in this country," he said.
“When I first came to this country I found it very amusing how early Americans would have dinner: around 6 or 7. That was ridiculously early to me. Second, it was funny what Americans would usually have for dinner. Eating pizza was considered dinner, and in my family, an Asian family, it has to be like a full-course dinner, virtually every single time you sit down for a dinner. That’s a real dinner. ”
The philosophy sticks to this day, even for a single guy, even when no one else shows up, as is the case tonight. George notes the irony that comes with being an Asian resident of Chinatown, as well-versed in Panamanian cuisine as he is with UFO conspiracy theories.
"Isn’t this what makes New York, New York?"
Make a mean meal at home? Invite us over! We’re seeking a diverse range of New York City households for our “Dinner with…” series. Contact @arunNYC for details.
Micropolis is WNYC’s ongoing series on street life and other corners of the city.
Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
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