27 April 2020
Meat Balls, Outlander, and a Pregnant Cat
How We Are Spending Our Pandemic "Staycation"
More than once over the last three months I have thought of La Grande Bouffe, one of the five or six best foodie films ever made. For the first time in years I have time to cook and an appreciative audience. As in the film, we are descending slowly into perilous gluttony as time passes during the Great Pandemic. Don't pray for us. We're enjoying ourselves.
Last Friday Veasna and I ended the twelfth week of our self-isolation at Villa Khursani in Siem Reap. Mine began with a slip-and-fall in a supermarket that resulted in broken bones and even more limited mobility than usual, so I was already geared up for a long stay at home. Veasna's fifteen-year-old brother failed school and is back on the farm, leaving just the two of us.
(Photo: Veasna enjoys good coffee and Melissa Clark's one-pan pound cake. I do, too. Ask me for the recipe.)
A surprising number of people have texted or emailed to ask how or what I am doing, just as I have asked friends in the US and Europe to acknowledge that they are not yet among the dead. I'm writing this to fill you in, in case you are interested.
The quiet in our colorful little town is almost surreal. Schools are closed, so Veasna can be neither a teacher, nor a graduate student. Cambodia has been almost completely sealed off from the rest of the world since the end of March. Land borders are closed. So are airports. Mail isn't even coming into the country, although I am expecting my second UPS package in two months tomorrow. Trapped tourists are either sticking things out here, or have returned to Europe on mercy flights.
On those rare occasions we have left the house (about once every three weeks) the streets have been practically deserted. Last Sunday we decided to go to the big plant nurseries on the road towards Phnom Penh and it became a tour of closed hotels. Most businesses here have been closed for weeks, and the tourism-dependent local economy is under a lot of stress. Veasna has gone to the school where he teaches a couple of times to give away bags of rice to the families of their students.
Behind the walls and barbed wire of the Villa, we are managing to stay busy and insulated from the madness outside, as long as we are not watching TV news. Veasna is binge-watching Outlander. I have already reached the end, except for new episodes most Mondays. We have about 400 movies in our video library, and I have given him a curated collection of films I think he should see. He has already screened Gandhi, Cleopatra, Troy, Seven Years in Tibet, Lawrence of Arabia, and Being There. He's working on Billy Elliott and has not yet started on Doctor Strangelove or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe. I will be moving him slowly towards things like Salò, Caligula, and the many wonders of John Waters.
While I am three times his age, Veasna and I are like an old married couple. We get along beautifully and I enjoy his company immensely. He is passionate about the garden and washes dishes and cleans floors without being asked. We enjoy cocktail hour together. He is very political, so we have plenty to talk about. He sings around the house and is a potential pop star because of his impressive voice, good looks, and self-confidence.
I do all of the cooking, sometimes on an industrial scale. I have about eight liters of marinara on the stove at the moment, and planning meals for the week. Chicken cacciatore tonight. Last night we had split pea soup with left-over feta-brined chicken that I had roasted in a wood oven. I have made from-scratch pollo en mole, with chocolate pods grown in Mondolikri (northeast Cambodia), and pesto from our own basil bushes, including the pine nuts (Costco). We always have home-made falafel and humus in the refrigerator.
Veasna especially likes carnitas (Mexican pulled pork), which I cook for about eight hours with gobs of onions and garlic, plus a can of Coke. Last week, after reading Melissa Clark's scandalous story in the New York Times about anointing meat balls with orange marmalade, we fell in love with meat balls all over again. I make jam and ice cream from the passion fruit we now have too much of, and we are growing herbs and chilies as well.
For the first time in my life I am living without a proper indoor oven. I bought a second hand toaster oven for $20, though, and with it I am making the best bread on my life. The photo above is of a loaf of sourdough rye with caraway seeds that came out of the oven an hour ago. Can someone please start a GoFundMe for a real oven? Cambodia needs chocolate chip cookies and honest biscotti.
Francesca, Principessa Maiale (Princess Pig--she responds to Italian and English equally) is accompanying us on this journey. I have never had a cat before and have never particularly liked them. There are strays in and out of the garden, and I shoo them away when I see them. One, a spotted grey and white female with bright green eyes, refused to be frightened away. One morning I found her asleep on the ledge outside the window next to my desk. I spoke to her very gently. She came back for several nights, had more gentle conversations, and she eventually decided to adopt me as her human. (I had no choice in the matter.) She lives in the house now, and drives the other cats away. Despite my efforts to preserve her virginity, she is very, very pregnant, perpetually hungry, and needy of affection.
By this time next week we are expecting what seem to be four kittens, three puppies and a bunny. She is now "Princess Double Wide." She is also an art lover, as you can see in her photo. She loved sleeping next to this piece, until Veasna finally hung it last week. I don't do ladders.
Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon are doing their shows from home with their kids and I thank my lucky stars that mine is 23. This self-isolation is not really such a bad thing at all. My blood pressure is way down, we are feeling safe, and have a big jar of martini olives and a garden. What could be more perfect? Today there are only five active coronavirus infections in the country. There have been more than 200 so far--virtually all foreigners. They have all recovered and returned home. Amazingly, there have been absolutely no deaths.
So that is the rather unremarkable story of our survival during the pandemic. We are prepared to endure it through July, if it comes to that. Many expats here are doing something similar. Restaurants are delivering free and offering discounts, which makes life even easier. Fortunately I can order groceries and libations online and they are left at the front door the next morning. We are hoping that soon Cambodia will no longer be in isolation and that you can come visit. I'll make scones.
Send me the list of your five favorite foodie films, most favorite first, and I will include your opinion in story in the next blog: [email protected]. My nominations: La Grande Bouffe, Tampopo, Julie and Julia, and Ratatouille.
We hope you are happy and safe, and that your loved ones are, too. Stay at home. Wash your hands. Be mindful of your safety. And please adopt one of La Principessa's kittens/puppies/bunny. Please.
Some Here Ignore Social Distancing
The Villa is kinda behind Jaya House River Park, the best hotel in Siem Reap. I can stand by that claim because Bhutan Boy and I spent several nights there shortly after they opened. It was the most flawless hotel experience I have ever had.
Most Siem Reap hotel people have returned to their villages to wait out the pandemic and a return to whatever "normal" will have become when it is over. But not Christian de Boer, the GM of Jaya House, and his staff. Christian has been around since I owned a restaurant here fifteen years ago, and I was fortunate to get to know him when he managed Hotel Shinta Mani. Christian and his staff are spending their pandemic time giving away food to many of the people who are suddenly destitute because there are no tourists here spending money. Christian has been a community leader for as long as I have known him, and helped to establish the plastic-free movement here. His current effort comes no surprise.
This morning he sent me photos of his team's food distribution at the local provincial hospital. I hope they inspire you.
Did you notice that I did not mention cheese, tomatoes, or Donald Trump once in this blog? I was tempted. Please subscribe below so you get a notice of the next episode. It is unlikely that the next blog will be as polite as this one.
Coming soon (translation: when I am not completely distracted or washing dishes): www.GayBhutanTravel.com. Bhutan is still my passion and I will make it yours, too.