10 April 2008
My Velveeta Confession
More than twenty years ago I had the good fortune to wander into a Thai restaurant in San Francisco on its first day in business. Eventually, Thep Phanom set a gastronomic standard for Thai food abroad, was celebrated in magazines on three continents and taught Zagat how to say "Pad Thai." The food was--and hopefully still is--simply stupendous.
I never missed Thep Phanom's March 24th anniversary until I left San Francisco for good. Over the years I probably spent more than ten thousand dollars there and became very good friends with the owners. As a member of their inner circle I was sometimes invited to participate in special occasions. The one I remember most was the day the durian arrived.
Durian is a luscious fruit native to Southeast Asia that has unfortunately smells like a decaying corpse. About the size of an American football, the soft fruit is protected by a hard shell covered with deadly spikes. Opening one can be a tricky and dangerous thing. Somehow another member of the Inner Circle had managed to smuggle a ripe durian into the U.S. For the Thai staff at the restaurant this was a cause for a joyous celebration. About fifteen people appeared after the restaurant closed one night to enjoy a taste of something rare and unusual from their homeland. Tears rolled down the cheeks of one woman as the fruit collapsed on her tongue. I just thought the stuff smelled bad. But what did I know?
If you ever find yourself far from home for a long period of time you will begin to long for the tastes and smells you grew up with and left behind. All foreigners living here in Thailand carry around an empty place in their souls that can only be filled by something simple from far away, like that durian. Early on in my tenure here it became clear to me that I was mourning the loss of Velveeta and corn tortillas. After another year my empty space grew to include salami and real (and not the Thai reinvention of) cheesecake. For the past six months I have been obsessed with the thought of sour pickles along side a hot pastrami on rye with Swiss cheese. When I learned of the closing of Katz's, the iconic kosher delicatessen in New York, I went into mourning.
A turning point for me was the day my friend Guy arrived in Bangkok from New York with a whole Junior's cheesecake. Not many months later another friend from California arrived carrying a wheel of Humboldt Fog, probably America's finest hand-made cheese. (Nut thought the cheese was smelly. But what did he know?)
Something clicked in my mind, of course. I could use my powers of persuasion to get customers to bring me food!
While this sounds like the kind of shocking public confession someone would make at a seven-step meeting for people with eating disorders, I have to admit that I have become fairly good at it. High on my list is Mexican food. I get a steady supply of corn tortillas that find their way into the corners of luggage coming from throughout the Western United States and even Mexico. Robert and Terry recently brought three dozen fabulous tamales and plenty of corn tortillas from Dallas. They will star in an upcoming Cinco de Mayo party. Several frequent visitors (particularly Jeff and Mark) have taken pity on me and no longer have to be asked to deliver groceries. And thank you, Perfidia, for the Lipton's Onion Soup mix. I will be dipping for many months to come.
Over the years people have brought sausages, giant bottles of aspirin, bags of nuts and Montreal Steak Seasoning from Costco, Mexican oregano, sweet pickle relish, fresh blackberries, all kinds of cheese, salami, Brillo pads, and even Idaho potatoes. One nutty customer who is a flight attendant even brought the Herman Miller chair where I spend half of my life. I am sure this sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now that I see this story on a page. However, if you have ever have ever tasted Thorton's toffee you will understand why nobody should ever have to be without it, no matter where they are in the world.
Several things still on my shopping list still elude me. I ran out of Germain-Robin, one of the world's best hand-made brandies, more than a year ago. Your first sip may turn out to be better than any orgasm you have ever had. It's made in my home town by two guys who brought grandpa's copper still from France. And if you happen to be near New York's Lower East Side, please pay a visit to The Pickle Guys. (I am exercising restraint where pastrami is concerned.) They make a "hot" sour pickle that could probably make the lame walk again.
And Velveeta? Twenty years ago I would not have admitted that I ate the stuff. Call me barbaric, but I love macaroni and cheese and Velveeta makes the gooey omelets that make your toes curl and your left aorta plead for mercy. My real confession is that I am nearly out of it and getting nervous. Do you think if I named my dog Velveeta those nice folks at Kraft would send me some? What do you think I could get if Nut changed his name to Velveeta?
What is all this nonsense about the "Olympic Spirit" and the world of sports resting atop some kind of pedestal that towers above less important things like basic human rights? Is jumping higher than someone else more important than the rape of neighboring nations, and the wanton slaughter of human beings because they are considered less important than material gain and political objectives? How can one person running faster than another be more important than entire families being starved or hacked to death by those who think they are the wrong kind of people? I'm talking about the Nazi Olympics in 1936, of course. Nothing like that ever happens nowadays.
And now that I am on my soap box aren't those Burma Campaign people strangely silent lately? We have received enough hate mail from their well-intentioned followers to paper one wall of our office. The keepers of the much- hyped "Dirty List" of companies doing business with Myanmar were the first and loudest to pass the collection plate when the junta there attacked peaceful demonstrations of Buddhist monks. Lately, however, we have seen other gatherings of peaceful monks being beaten and arrested for demonstrating in other countries. Is it just me or does it seem odd to you that the Burma Campaign folks seem awfully quiet about abuses in other parts of the world? I'll probably get a nasty letter from them about this, too. Darn.
If you plan to visit San Francisco and love Thai food, I hope you will try Thep Phanom, mentioned above. Although I am lucky enough to eat Thai food every day, I still dream about their tom kha gai (thick coconut milk soup with chicken and straw mushrooms), and their lusciously zippy gung kratiem. Hmmm. I wonder if they deliver to condos in Bangkok.
Most of the staff of one of Bangkok's prominent gay beauty salons have gone off on their own to open "Up2," their own shop on the second floor of Charn Issara Tower on Rama IV, not far from where they worked before. Their former work place was once a favorite haunt of foreigners who come for beauty treatments, the latest gossip, and the leisurely admiration of the salon's attractive and friendly staff. These guys are wonderfully talented and deserve both support and success, so I hope you remember them when you need a trim or a touch-up when you are in Bangkok. They even offer ear cleaning! Mention Purple Dragon if you happen to visit and I am promised you receive something special. Maybe even a kiss from Darika