He chopped the cabbage and celery. He seasoned and smoked the char siu pork. He poured them both into the meat grinder and cranked the handle. Then, for hours, Mar Fee “Yee” Moon dropped handful after handful into pre-made egg roll skins. He folded them. He sealed them with a brush of egg wash. He added them to the growing pile.
Most everyone who ate at China City got an eggroll.
Six days a week, 12 hours a day, for nearly 60 years, Mr. Moon worked in the sweltering kitchen at the restaurant he owned on St. Petersburg’s 4th Street North.
The heat, the hours, the cooking never bothered Mr. Moon. The restaurant was his second home, his customers were like family, and his children were among the staff who made the hard work worth it.
Mr. Moon died at 92 on March 2 of congestive heart failure.
Mr. Moon was born in rural China and, in his 20s, boarded an ocean liner for the United States. In Boston, he learned to cook Chinese food for Americans from fellow immigrant Jung Kwong. Mr. Moon followed his friend to Florida. Kwong opened a restaurant at what was Bell and Chick’s Fried Chicken in St. Petersburg in the late 1950s. They changed the neon red arrow above the building to read China City. Mr. Moon worked as the head chef.
Soon, the soft-spoken cook fell for a vivacious waitress named Dixie, whom he could watch through the round windows in the swinging doors as she flirted with customers to get his attention. They married and had 11 children.
Jim Moon, number five, remembers how his mom would load everyone into their van and pull into the restaurant’s back alley. She’d honk the horn until their dad came out for a quick chat. He’d always bring them fresh, hot food.
Weekend and summer mornings, he woke them up in the dark and took them fishing for sheepshead at the St. Pete Pier. Jim Moon really went for the ice cream his dad would give them afterward at the restaurant while he opened up. In 1975, Mr. Moon bought China City.
“He never measured anything,” said Lon Martin, number one. “There wasn’t a measuring cup back there. It was a handful of this or a splash of that. He just knew it. It was just part of who he was.”
From 1962 to 1984, a Moon child was born about every two years. When their mother died in 1997 of a brain aneurysm, four kids still lived at home. Mr. Moon worked less. They still went fishing, but also atomic bowling, said Treona Lovelady, number eight.
For most of their lives, China City wasn’t just their dad’s restaurant, but the place the family gathered - for rehearsal dinners and baby showers and birthdays. Mr. Moon, Pepa to his 10 grandchildren, retired from China City in 2005. For the next 10 years, he came back nearly every day to visit and cook. It sold in 2016. The iconic red neon arrow outside is gone now.
But his kids, and surely his former customers, remember Mr. Moon’s food. Especially those almond cookies.
In a giant pot, he mixed the eggs, flour, sugar and almond flavoring. He stirred them together until the consistency was just right. Then, for hours, Mr. Moon took out scoops of the dough, rolled it by hand, shaped them with his fingers, pressed an almond into the top and slid them into the oven.
“Those things were so good,” Martin said.
Maybe it was the hours he put into them or the recipe he kept in his head. And maybe it’s just the impossibility of living up to a memory, but so far, none of Mr. Moon’s children have had an almond cookie as good as the ones their dad made.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Mr. Moon? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way his oldest child will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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