The Universe of Hu

A simple trip to visit my daughter in New York City a few weeks ago involved a lot more than booking a ticket and packing a bag. I was grappling with hunger on a crude and very personal plane — Virgin America, to be exact.

“Can I just have half and half with my coffee?” I begged my allergist before the trip. I would never get through security with a baby bottle of almond milk.

“Out of the question,” Dr. Epstein answered. He didn’t pity me in the slightest. “Call when you get back and let me know how you did.”

After a lifetime of sneezing, swollen eyes, and monthly allergy shots, I have discovered, with Dr. Epstein’s help, that I have a whole host of food allergies. Since January I have been gluten-, dairy-, soy-, and largely allergy-free. Forget baker’s and brewer’s yeast or anything that tastes good. No more salads dressed with fancy vinegars, or any vinegar, for that matter. Who knew you could crave a sunflower seed?

How would I navigate five days and nights of New York City restaurants? You can manage when you work at home, retreating into homemade soups made with kosher chicken broth and finicky nut butters best consumed straight out of the jar. I pictured the old neighborhood near Union Square where I had lived with my husband for 12 years. I had booked a room at The Larchmont on 11th Street. Two blocks away from our old apartment, the quiet hotel represented the cozy, the known, and the leafy. Never mind the communal bathrooms. My greatest challenge would be foraging for something to eat. No deli would have me in my diminished state. I would have to trek up to Whole Foods for strange combination plates, eating them at odd hours in the little kitchenette down the hotel hallway.

“Calm down,” my daughter said when I began fretting about what to have for breakfast the next day. “There’s an organic place right next door to your old apartment. Try that.”

“The nail parlor’s gone?” I asked, incredulous.

“Other side.”

I gasped. East West Books had been an institution. I had taken a yoga class or two from them myself, and can still hear their earsplitting late-night drumming classes in a recurrent nightmare. East West and I shared a history, a history that was no more. What was an organic restaurant anyway? I turned on the air conditioner in my tiny room at the Larchmont and popped in earplugs, but I needn’t have. If there was a stampede to the bathrooms at the other end of the hall, I didn’t hear it, thanks to slippers provided by the hotel.

I believe in the universe and why shouldn’t I since I live in it? But I don’t believe the universe is all that interested in me. It is, I am, and we co-exist very nicely. All these innocent assumptions disappeared as I headed up Fifth Avenue for my first meal the next day — my daughter had failed to tell me that the new restaurant was called Hu Kitchen.

* * *

It came as no surprise that a recent Amazon search failed to turn up The Book of Hu, my Uncle John’s tome. I pulled my single copy from the shelf a long time ago to show my cousin, a man who had not seen his father in years.

“Holy crap,” he said, flipping pages and reading passages out loud. “Can I keep this?”

“All yours.”

Densely written and printed with infelicitous type, sentences ran for entire paragraphs without a single comma. The pages looked vaguely wet. My paternal uncle had a worldview for sure, but pinpointing which world that was would take some doing. His work was stunning in its own fashion, but way over my head.

My sun-loving uncle now resides in an ancient Coptic urn in a family mausoleum in Oklahoma. Who the heck was Hu and who, Uncle John, were you? The author claimed to have been Hu as well as Ptah, maker of the world and everything in it. His wife was renamed Mu. Those names have vanished along with my copy of the book. The opus may be in Cambodia with my cousin, but I doubt it. He has likely parked the book in a storage facility, as he travels light these days, focused as he is on saving the world one hungry child at a time.

Uncle John called me Lindy. He had three wives, but his last and most cheerful was an accordionist. His meticulously designed garden in Arizona was outfitted with gravel, and we suspected the children from this marriage were handed rakes and responsibilities early on. The merciless heat, the strain of being a child saddled with a tool twice one’s size — my brothers and I sat at our comfortable dinner table in Tulsa and wondered whether they would try to make a run for it. Scores of images surface when I try to imagine that garden, but my preferred vision suggests the desert fathers.

Gravel in a Zen garden

What, if anything, does a desert father’s fantasy have to do with Hu? Merriam-Webster defines the word as being an ancient Tatar people of northwest China, but I have a hunch my uncle’s nomenclature referred to the minor Egyptian god personifying the power of the spoken word. One tourism agency describes Hu as being the source of Divine Utterance. What if a modern mystic wants to reproduce that sound for his or herself? If you are a follower of Eckanar, a religion that claims to be “the most direct path home to God,” a mere five minutes spent making the sound Hu (pronounced hue) is enough to embody the sound and light of God. On one website the divine sound is accompanied by the vibration of a vuvuzela, the same plastic horn once widely deployed by crazed football fans in South Africa. The instrument is now banned from most international sporting events.

And what of Mu, Uncle John’s wife? James Churchward, a 19th century writer and adventurer, believed Mu to be a lost continent in the Pacific and home to a highly advanced civilization with 64,000,000 people. The great and groaning landmass was destroyed in a single shuddering quake 50,000 years before Churchward’s time. Was this legend her namesake? I will never know for sure.

You’d think one Hu in the family would be enough, but no. I phoned my mother to shed some light on the weird spelling of her brother’s name.

“His legal name is Hubert, right?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“Yes, but I don’t get why it’s spelled Hu instead of Hugh.”

“I’m not really sure. I’ve always spelled it that way.” My mother raised the volume on the television in the background, clearly bored by my inquiry. “Tell me what my grandchildren are up to.”

My maternal uncle Hu is a retiree surrounded by extended family in a small Illinois town. He was a farmer for much of his working life, but between the garden and endless volunteer hours with seniors in a local retirement home, life is busier than ever. Every Christmas one of his lovely handmade wooden decorations arrives in the mail. My uncles will never meet to swap creation stories, but the Noah’s Ark maternal Hu sent me a couple of years ago suggests their exchange would have been a doozy.

Noah's Ark

* * *

Hu Kitchen turned out to be a world of wonder. Everywhere I turned there was something I could eat and gladly would. No more sullen waiters who scowled at my request for no butter on my beans. Adieu to surly chefs sabotaging Dr. Epstein’s diet with a soupcon of vinegar in a poached egg, my last recourse for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I ordered a gluten-free blueberry muffin so delicious that it almost made me weep, and a decaf cappuccino with housemade almond milk that did.

“Are you sure I can drink that?” I asked the server, who cheerfully repeated the ingredients yet again. They were pure and so, by association, was I.

I studied other menu possibilities as she fixed my decaf. It was a gluten-free paradise. Chicken tenders dusted with almond meal. Dairy-free soups and rustic root vegetables. I floated up to the second floor with my breakfast and took a seat. Maybe I would stick around for lunch. Loud music didn’t sound so loud in the aerie that was my new universe.

The Hu Kitchen philosophy is built on eight pillars and I read them slowly to make breakfast last as long as possible. How wrong I’d been. The universe was speaking to me, via a vanished text too obscure to understand and a gluten-free credo that didn’t mince words. Count ingredients, not calories. Unprocess, sweeten wisely, and embrace fat. Yes, I could do those things and more. I marched back downstairs and bought candy bars with proprietary chocolate and no emulsifiers for the long day ahead. I charged down a familiar avenue where I no longer lived in boots sturdier than Goodyear tires, too happy to dismiss a connection between uncles past and present and an organic restaurant that makes a mean herbivore special. It could be that I am getting back to human, one uncle at a time.

Hu: Get Back to Human