Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Hot Bun Man - a story about food and generosity

We'll be going out to have some dim sum to celebrate Chinese New Year, so I thought I should post this story for SampleSunday. It was the first story I ever sold to a professional marketthe first I'd ever sold at all, actually. In it, an old street vendor and a rich man discover that generosity comes in many flavors.

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The Hot Bun Man
by Camille LaGuire

WITH THE rising of the sun, the food vendors came to the streets, and the Hot Bun Man was always among them. He shuffled quietly, slowly, like an old man, his back bent under the pole across his shoulders. From the ends of the poles hung a pair of buckets, on the left a stove, on the right, supplies.

He was dressed like the other vendors, in a ragged shirt and a woven sun hat, and a short pair of trousers which came to his knobby knees. His bare feet were flat and his calves sinewy from years of trudging, winter and summer, and the left foot displayed small round scars from the hot splattering oil. He advertised his coming by clicking his wooden tongs on the lid of the stove.

Every morning he went first to the wealthy district, for only they had the money to buy a quick breakfast from the vendors. Each morning it was the same. When they heard the clicking of tongs and lids and the cries, the housewives came to their doors, or sent their maids. They called to the vendors they wanted. Many waited for the Hot Bun Man, for though he looked no different from the others, they knew he could work wonders with food. They always wanted the meat-filled spice buns. They never asked for the other, and he never offered. The fried sweet onion buns, the Happiness Buns, as he called them, were reserved for the poor, and for children. They cost next to nothing, made from sweet wild onions gathered for free, and flour, and a little water too, and to be sure the oil for frying, but from these simple ingredients the Hot Bun Man could make a smile. The rich people did not know what they were missing. When he looked into their thoughtless faces, he was glad he did not tell them.

The woman at the corner always came to the door herself. She wanted to bargain with him, though she was his richest customer. She would not buy unless she thought she had a deal, so he was forced to raise his price at her door just to stay alive. She never let her children out to buy. When they clamored through the door for the other kind, she tossed her hand at them.

“Happiness?” she said. “What nonsense are you talking? I want a dozen Spice Buns.”

“A dozen Spite Buns?” he replied every morning. She did not seem to notice; she thought he could not speak well. Then she began to haggle, and sometimes she brought the price down too low, because by then he only wanted to get away.

By mid-day he started the fire under the oil and began to fry up the Happiness Buns for laborers and workmen. If he had had a good day with the rich people, he would give some fried bread free to the children and beggars. He kept a secret pot of salty dark vinegar which, splashed upon the hot buns, brought a thrill to the tongue. He brought it out for those who asked, or those who needed extra cheering. Every child and beggar knew he had it, and it was hard to keep on hand.

By late afternoon he would be tired, for he stayed out until all was sold, and he ate nothing himself during the day.

It was at such a time when a man, walking quickly by—as everyone seemed to do—paused. He was well dressed, in the finest cloth and latest cut, and he seemed busy, but something had drawn his attention to the street vendor, perhaps the inviting click of tongs. His heavy lidded eyes looked slowly down and up, and an expression of pity flitted through them. He reached for his purse and took brisk strides forward. The Hot Bun Man did not notice the coin extended toward him. Instead he saw the tightness of the hand that extended it, and the tightness of the face above it, the sharpness in manner, and the weary wretchedness in the eyes.

The Hot Bun Man bowed repeatedly and set down his stoves with a smile. He snatched up a sweet onion bun and slipped it into the oil before the man could say what he wanted.

“No, no,” said the man, impatiently. “I do not want anything.” He tried to force the coin into the old vendor’s hand.

“Only a moment,” said the Hot Bun Man, smiling and bowing again. The man waited in awkward silence until he pulled the bread from the sizzling oil with his tongs and offered it. Seeing it was hot, the man whipped out a white silk handkerchief and tried to offer the coin again, but now the old man had bent down. He drew forth his ladle and splashed his salty sauce on the bun, splattering the handkerchief, and the man’s sleeve as well. The man flinched, and heaved a heavy sigh. With a glance heavenward, he finally forced the coin into the vendor’s hand.

The Hot Bun Man bowed and smiled, and he watched the man march away. That man looked too businesslike to waste good food, even unwanted food, and sure enough he raised the bun to his mouth and bit. There was a hesitation in his stride. He stopped and tilted his head, then set out again at a slower pace while he ate.

The Hot Bun Man looked down at the coin in his hand. It was gold, and large, something he had never held before. He put it in his own little purse, hoping it would not be insulted to ride with common copper and bronze. He shouldered his pole and began again to click his tongs.


In the evenings the Hot Bun Man would come home to his family, for he did have one of his own. There was usually no meat, since it was expensive and he had to sell it all. The family had to make do with bread, but there were always the sweet onions, or if they were not in season, some other thing free for the gathering. They did not starve, and their father could work wonders with the simplest food. After dinner, they would all work to prepare for the next morning.

This particular next morning, however, when the sun came up and the vendors came out, the Hot Bun Man was not among them. The housewives, and the children, and the beggars waited, but for that one day, at least, he stayed home.

Now kings and emperors may spare no expense to feed themselves, but none have had a banquet to match the feast served in the Hot Bun Man’s house that day, for their chefs, with all the wealth, could never match what the Hot Bun Man could produce from a single gold coin.

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