Sunday, May 29, 2016

Desperately Seeking Fried Rice

Some days all you want to eat is simple food and you don’t want to cook it for yourself. Whether you call it diner food, bistro food, or street food, it’s all based on comfort. Why else would a grilled cheese sandwich prevail as a popular menu choice well into the 21st Century? Why is macaroni and cheese making a sudden resurgence in chicken and waffle joints across Seattle, if not the country?

When I lived in Thailand, an American friend and I would play a sad and masochistic little game called What Will You Eat First When You Go Back Home. Surrounded as we were by one of the world’s greatest cuisines that waited for us right outside any hour of any day, we had humble yearnings for our introductory meal. “Chicken fried steak,” was my friend’s usual answer while mine was “A meat loaf sandwich.”

Simple food can’t be confused with food that’s indifferently prepared. Nothing is more disgusting than a burnt grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese that’s soggy, except perhaps a meat loaf sandwich that’s been made with overly fat ground beef. Simple dishes are perhaps the most demanding of all food choices, because they rely on only a few ingredients without a lot of culinary flourishes.

Like most foreigners in Thailand, I found the gateway drugs to what became my lifelong street food addiction were dishes that were comforting, easy to find and to pronounce, and somehow familiar: wok-fried rice and noodles with chicken and soy sauce. Gradually my choices became more adventurous but these street food staples remained as two of my favorites. The stinging miasma of garlic and chile sizzling in a hot wok would lead me to the places that would give me what I wanted, where I knew I’d find my Bangkok version of simple, satisfying comfort.

It had been a long cold post-holiday season here in the Pacific Northwest and as we neared the end of January, I needed Thai fried rice. In Seattle, this isn’t an easy dish to find. The almost toxic cloud of garlic and chile frying at high heat would cause an entire restaurant to flee the premises and wok cookery isn’t just an art—it’s hard, hot, and painful work. Many other things are much easier to prepare than fried rice, and that’s what most people make: curries, grilled meat, and braised Sino-Thai dishes. I couldn’t blame them but nonetheless, in the same perverse and nostalgic spirit that prompted me to occasionally search in Bangkok for a hamburger that wasn’t a Big Mac, I wanted khao pat that would taste as though it had been made on a sidewalk in deepest Thonburi.

To find that, I needed to find a place with woks, and Thai Tom in the University district of Seattle came instantly to mind. The owner had found an old diner and kept it intact. Cooks worked behind the counter in full view of the customers who were seated nearby on stools. Woks were at center stage and when the place first opened, people crowded to the place, eager to watch the spectacle of open flames shooting menacingly above the guy who was making their food.

Now there’s more than one wok behind the counter and each one is smaller than the original that I remembered from twenty years ago. The joint is still hopping. I showed up well after the lunch rush and two cooks were still in motion, which was a good sign. I ordered my rice and watched and waited.

“How hot do you want it?” the waitress asked me and I said, “Normal. Just please bring me some fish sauce with chili and I’ll fix it myself.” She ladled what I’d asked for from a container behind the counter and handed me a little bowl. The chili was so finely diced that it looked almost like powder and the fish sauce smelled old. I braced myself.

The cook tossed a handful of sliced pork into the wok and let it sizzle, then added an egg and tossed it about for a while. Then he scooped out enough rice to feed several starving orphans and dumped it into the wok. There was a spurt of obligatory flame and then he turned his attention to someone speaking to him from the kitchen. Then he returned to a short burst of moving the rice around the wok and then it all went on a plate—my plate.

It wasn’t the worst fried rice I’ve ever had. That honor goes to Phnom Penh Noodle House, which once brought me a plate of it that had been scorched. It was however a plate of rice that had been heated, not fried. There were hunks of warm chicken, a slice or two of onion, and some basil leaves. I could, and have, done better myself at home, and I left most of it uneaten.

It took a while before I had the strength to resume my quest but at last a day dawned that was bright and sunny, daffodils and crocus decided to bloom, and my optimism returned. On a whim I stopped at Song Phang Kong on Jackson Street, the one place in Seattle that is so much like a Thai noodle shop that I always expect to see motorcycle taxis waiting outside it when I leave.

I’ve had good food here, sausage both Thai- and Lao-style, papaya salad with a generous dash of fermented fish, and chicken that had been grilled over charcoal. I knew that the lady who had presided over the kitchen had died but her husband was still in place. Although fried rice wasn’t on his menu, fried noodles were, so I asked if he could make me what I was longing for. “Yes,” he said.

Before disappearing into the kitchen, he made me a Thai iced tea that was almost sinful, tart with lemon and tamarind and topped off with a thick layer of half-and-half. Traditional? No. Delicious? Absobloodylutely. My hopes soared a little higher and were nourished by the view of one of his arms, visible through the kitchen doorway, moving in the St. Vitus dance of a seasoned wok user. My only reservation was the rice he had taken into the kitchen, scooped out from deep within a rice cooker. Perhaps, I told myself, it was rice that had been cooked the day before.

He brought me a plate that was heaped high with rice, chunks of chicken, sliced onion in profusion, and a generous helping of broccoli and carrots. That was fair. Although the green vegetable usually used in fried rice was sold right across the street at Viet Wah, he had no reason to have pak kana in his kitchen. I’d ordered off the menu, after all, and he’d obliged. When he showed up again to ask me how my food tasted, I told him it was delicious.

I lied. The rice was clumped together as if it had been meant for sushi. It was soggy and mushy and I couldn’t finish it. I ate enough to be polite and asked that the rest be put in a box, although I never intended to touch it again. But it was my fault, not his. I’d asked for fried rice and he had cooked fresh rice for the day to accompany the dishes he had on his menu. I told him I’d be back soon for his sausage and I certainly will be—but fried rice will never be my request again.

I was still hungry. Slowly and sadly I made my way up to the end of Broadway on Capitol Hill, where Rom Mai has been for decades. Full disclosure: I’ve known the owner for over twenty years; we became friends long before he opened his own restaurant. So when the waitress asked me what I wanted, I told her I wanted to ask her boss a question.

“Can you make me fried rice with pork? Not with broccoli but with pak kana, like Bangkok? The kind where the rice isn’t soggy?” I was almost in tears and his answer was swift and reassuring. “My wife takes the rice from the top of the cooker and she works out all of the lumps. And we give people whatever vegetables they want to eat. She’ll make you Bangkok khao pat moo.”

When the rice was put in front of me, it was spread out on the plate in almost individual grains. Each bite had the flavor of the garlic, onion, and pork with which the rice had been fried. It was succulent, without a trace of sogginess, accompanied by pak kana cut on the diagonal and pork that was thinly sliced but still flavorful. In a restaurant that is almost formal in its decoration, where dining is the word that comes to mind rather than diner, I had khao pat moo that was as good as any that I’ve eaten on a sidewalk from a pink plastic plate on a table that bears a holder filled with a roll of toilet paper. And for me there is no higher praise than that.

Rom Mai offers fried rice with crab as one of its specials. I’ll be back. Soon. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Alaska: Beyond the Palins and the NRA

Although every household in the small Alaskan community that I grew up in was equipped with a rifle, it was a tool of last resort, used to bring in food when supplies ran low. Although people traveled on foot and by dog sled, a rifle wasn’t usually what was carried on a pack-board. Between wild beast and mankind existed a form of peaceful coexistence, unless the animals were in rut, or with offspring, or needed on family dinner plates. Then all bets were off.

Scotty, a quiet, gentle family friend whom I adored, ran an eleven-mile trap line in the woods near his cabin outside of what was with some exaggeration called “town.” He was on the trail when a bull moose came out of nowhere and charged his team of four dogs. The dogs, three-year-old litter-mates and no pushovers, went for the moose, fangs bared, while Scotty, who carried only a hunting knife with him, grabbed a chain that he used in the traps and joined the dogs in their battle. The moose backed off and then came back in a second charge, kicking viciously at the dogs and leaving deep head gashes on two of them.

At this point the story takes on Paul Bunyanesque proportions. Scotty made a noose in the chain, managed to throw it over the moose’s head, pulled the makeshift lasso tight, and tied it to a tree. He drove his dogs a safe distance from the attack scene and went back to release his captive. He couldn’t reach the chain to untie it because the moose was in full panic mode, thrashing about in unsuccessful escape attempts.

With two of his dogs badly hurt, Scotty had to walk back to his nearest neighbors for assistance and four men returned with him to unchain the moose. A rifle wasn’t deemed necessary. One of the group lassoed a hind leg with an easily removed half-hitch knot while the others freed the moose from the tree and eased the chain over its neck. Once liberated, the moose charged the group again; they fought it off with the chain until it gave up and disappeared into the woods at last.

Scotty and his friends estimated the moose was around 900 pounds, full grown and uncharacteristically aggressive. It was “on the prod” because of the hard crust of ice that had formed on the snow and turned dagger-sharp when weight broke through it. With bleeding cuts from that crust, the moose was in a bad mood and Scotty and his dogs were the nearest target that it could find.

The dogs recovered from their wounds and Scotty decided perhaps carrying a rifle on the trail might be a good idea from now on. “You know,” he told a big city reporter from the Anchorage Times, “’that moose could have been a big bull.”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An Aching in My Belly, a Craving in My Head

For the first time in three weeks, my room is filled with the scent of coffee and with my first bitter sip my mind stretches, yawns, and agrees to wake up. It is my drug. Tea is too subtle for me; espresso is too fast. I need to swallow freshly ground beans bathed in boiling water to feel alive in the world and for all of my synapses to fire properly. After over half a century of drinking coffee, the grooves it has worn in my nervous system are too deep to sod over and reseed into a refined green tea landscape. I’m addicted as my mother was before me. I’m sure that coffee ran in my veins before I was born.

Dad thrust a cup of hot sweet milky coffee into my fifteen-year-old hands when I came home from a long, wet, chilly horseback ride to pick up mail and library books. I drank it as a sacramental rite of passage but my next cup was black, and so were all of the others after that. I drank it all night as a teenager and was delighted to find that by morning I had lost five pounds—legal speed.

In New York I was always amazed to find that in that city I didn’t need it. The rush of a Manhattan street woke me into life without caffeine, which was fortunate because the coffee in NYC was vile anywhere above 14th Street. Still I drank that battery acid from the depths of hell that was sold in diners because that was what fueled the city that had given me birth.

My father was the one who bought me my first cup of espresso, down on Mulberry Street, when children still played on the sidewalks with grandmothers in shapeless dresses sitting on stoops to guard them. I drank it with a shot of anisette in a neighborhood joint where nobody questioned my age. As I sipped and felt a tinge of sophistication long before my time, a car pulled up and a man got out wearing a black homburg and an expensive-looking black overcoat. He walked in with an aura of regality and everyone in the place paid him homage with their attention. “Good morning, Large Joseph,” the bartender greeted him as he took his place at the counter and even I, who had barely ever heard of the Mafia, was in awe. Ever since then I’ve associated the taste of espresso with power.

The machine that made that first espresso for me was large and made of gleaming copper; it looked as though it could fuel a small battleship. It took skill to operate, I learned, when I went to a place in Seattle that used a similar system to very bad effect. Before Starbucks, when espresso was still Italian and barista wasn’t a word applied to teenagers who pulled shots after school, what emerged from a well-operated machine could raise a heartbeat from death to hyperspeed in three minutes flat.

And that of course is where the danger lies. I love my little espresso pot with its ceremonial undertones and its chaste little white cups and saucers, but what it makes is not really my friend. Espresso isn’t meant to be sipped; it cools too quickly in those sweet little cups and I could down three of them in the space of writing a paragraph. I need my coffee in a mug that retains the heat, the way I learned to drink it in Alaska.

My parents and their friends drank coffee the way winos clutch bottles of cheap wine, killing a pot at a sitting, their maintenance doses. It was a socially sanctioned time to down tools and talk in long conversations that ranged from the price of chainsaw fuel to the state of the world. In another time and place I use it to fuel conversations with myself and it sparks thought in a way that never comes with the gentler infusion of caffeine in green tea.

This morning I was awake before six, knowing what was waiting for me in the kitchen, and that I know is the thrill of addiction. I’m sure my blood pressure is above sanctioned levels at this moment and I do not give a jolly damn. I have had my drug, and I will have it again tomorrow, and the world is a much less torpid place for me.

And without thinking very much about it, I’ve gone past my first page this morning and am more than happy to write more. The sun is up and so are both of the guys I live with and I am in my caffeine bubble, oblivious.

Thank heaven I never tried heroin.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Been a Long Time Since I Rock-and-Rolled

Watching All Things Must Pass last night before I went to bed has Tower on my mind this morning, close and familiar. Faces I knew and others who were always invoked but never seen, the toad-like face of Stan Gomen, bizarrely normal Bud Martin, squishy-featured Michael Solomon, the anointed one who failed his father, and of course Uncle Ross, a mixture of Kris Kringle and Mephistopheles, drinking Scotch in front of a great wall of books, not records, videos, or cds. Rudy Danziger, who was so proud of having a signing with Beverly Garland by the pool at a Sacramento Holiday Inn, not Norm whose last name I can’t remember but whom I spoke to over the phone every week, who told me “We’re going to get you to Sacramento, why should Seattle have you?” and had me shuddering with disgust, and Heidi Keller, who let Rudy go during the agonizing dismantling of an empire by saying, “Rudy, I want a divorce.” Later she knew the guillotine awaited her when Russ called and asked her to lunch, because in all the years she’d worked for him, he’d never done that before.

The shocker was photos of Heidi when she was young—the woman I knew as a harridan with cold eyes was shiny and really beautiful. “They told me to wear miniskirts to work and then they all looked up my skirt,” which was borne out by an earlier story told to me by one of the old reps. “I walked into Watt Avenue and there was a pair of long legs wearing a miniskirt on top of a ladder, pulling stock.” “Leopard skin underpants and a mini skirt,” the old Heidi vouchsafes in the movie, for all posterity to remember.

“They taught me to swear, to drink, and do drugs. I was one of the guys,” she said, and I winced. That was me, except for the drugs. I too learned to be as tough as any man I worked with but not as much as the redoubtable Ms. Keller, who said, “I went into labor twice at the register.” She didn’t say when, but I would bet it was during Christmas or the 30% off sale.

If she was like me, labor wouldn’t have kept her from either of those events. There was something weirdly exhilarating about facing a line of customers that extended the length of the store and getting them all out the door in minutes flat. There was no attention given at those times, just sheer crazed efficiency.

Two little girls used to come to Mercer and I would always ask them if they wanted their own little bags. They showed up in my line during the 30% off sale and stared at me with reproach at the end of the transaction. “We want our own little bags,” the biggest one said and I quickly apologized, bagged each book, and they let the line continue.

Open to Midnight, 365 Days a Year, was the boast but a customer wrote to us in outrage
once because he came to the store at 11:55 on December 31st and the doors were locked. That occasioned more outrage from upper management than the two times that we were robbed, once at gunpoint.

We made nothing, but our employee benefits were immense. There were Tower Building Blocks that we could cash in when we finally left the company if we stayed for a specified amount of time that I can no longer remember. I think I cashed mine for about 200 bucks after five years. We had employee charge accounts that we could put rep comps on for credit, we had sick leave of sorts and a decent number of vacation days. We had medical, dental, and vision insurance that was better than any employer-based policy that I’ve had since, and the annual parties were bacchanalian. Employee meetings were always at a restaurant that served booze; so were many of the sales calls. The tab from any of those meetings was equal to what any of us made in a month.

When The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death sentence, we kept the book front and center on the new release table, sold every copy we had, and then took special orders, which we put proudly and visibly on a shelf behind the counter. The only caveat we received was that we shouldn’t have the customer’s name also visible, on slips of paper tucked into each book that was waiting for pick-up.

“It wasn’t a job, “one former employee kept saying throughout the movie, “It was a way of life.” Tower Culture, I called it, and it absorbed almost all of us who had ever worked there. We worked and ate and drank together at Mercer, just one big dysfunctional family. Even after leaving by choice, I still dream about the store that is now a bank, vivid dreams where I walk in and try to make it the place it used to be.

There were people who made real money there, all of them in Sacramento. Everybody wanted to be a manager but not for the money, which was laughable even at that level. We wanted our own stores, and it was Russ Solomon’s peculiar genius that made us feel that the store we would manage would be ours.

I was given a 250 dollar bonus once for launching a reading program in several Seattle elementary schools. I could well have used the money but I was outraged. “They can’t give us raises but they hand me this for something that I couldn’t do without the support of this store?” I spent the money on an expensive Krupps coffee maker and a grinder for the beans which had a place of honor in the backroom until some idiot burned out the element.

The best part of the movie was in the outtakes, when Gomen told the story about an elephant they dyed pink and brought into the Watt Avenue store for a Big Pink promotion. He claimed the elephant peed on the floor and drenched the carpet. Russ’s version was when they put the elephant back in the truck to leave, it let loose and he watched a river of urine rush down the street toward the store. “That’s not what Stan said,” someone remarked off-camera, and Russ wheeled upon Gomen. “Well that’s what so-and-so told me had happened,” was his defense and Russ roared “You weren’t even there.” And then two old men were laughing their asses off on a street corner where a beginning of an empire once stood and reigned and went to hell.