(Photo by @SpecialKRB)
When the Popes lived in Avignon, they had a lot of visitors. That goes without saying, of course — what Pope doesn’t have a lot of visitors? And visitors who are visiting always expect dinner.
Well, the Pope couldn’t just have any old dinner. When he entertained various and assorted important people in his cavernous grand hall-slash-dining room the size of a private airplane hangar, diners could expect to spend the next 4-5 hours with their butts firmly planted in their seats, enjoying, on average, 24 courses a night.
What did they have for dinner? Well, first and foremost, the higher the food was from the ground, the closer it was to God. So there was a lot of this kind of food — fruit, lettuces and veggies that grew up out of the ground instead of those nasty, dirt-burrowing root vegetables. There was, obviously, meat, but it had to be roasted; none of this boiling business was allowed, because boiling was for peasants. The kitchen responsible for these 24-on-average courses is surprisingly small, considering: the size of a generous living room as opposed to, say, a hotel lobby. But there are three ovens set up — obviously, roasting was a big deal.
As I listened to the tour guide as she wended her way through the upper reaches of the Pope’s Avignon palace, I couldn’t help thinking — how? How could he do it? I struggle with two big meals a day — yes, the old stomach is not what it used to be. While I am not immune to obsessing over gray hairs or wrinkles or sagging jowls or the Great Beyond that awaits us all, the thing that I miss most is my incredibly efficient, ever-elastic digestive system. Where did it go? Especially now that floodwaters are breaching the gates, and supermarket lines are as congested as the expressways where everyone has parked their cars, and spicy lemongrass shrimp Mama is worth its weight in gold … I find stuffing my face does not hold the allure it once did. Where did the beautiful past go? (I ask this as I look down at my own supermarket cart, the contents of which are: avocados, squash, and Betty Crocker French onion dip mix. Everyone else may be equipped for the floodpocalypse, but I will have a much easier time making dip, yo!)
Times like these call for drastic measures. Times like these call for khao thom (rice porridge). Boiling some rice with water sounds like a pitiful meal, but to me, right now, it sounds heavenly: the straight, almost sweet taste of watery rice, the purity of white porridge, amenable to anything you wish to pair it with — fish, omelet, stir-fried leafy vegetable, and even you, strange pickled shredded turnip, or you, weirdly pink fermented tofu glob, yes. Even you. What better to fix what (sort of) ails you, this ennui of the stomach that no grilled rib-eye something-or-other or braised pork belly this-and-that can fix? What better to fortify you through this wait?
Good places for khao thom, if you can get to them:
1. Khao Thom Bowon — Across from the entrance to Wat Bowonniwet on Phra Sumen Road, this rice porridge shop is open from 4pm-late. They claim to be the originator of pad pak boong fai dang, or stir-fried morning glory with chilies.
2. Jay Suay — On Plang Nam Road, next to the famous shellfish omelets of Nai Mong Hoy Tod, this rice porridge shop is also open at night. It is especially known for its pork dishes; a personal favorite: pork meatballs in a clear soup flavored with pickled plums.
3. Khao Thom Polo — On the corner of Soi Polo and Wireless Road, this shop is almost perpetually packed for dinner. The dish that seems to get everyone fired up, despite the extreme spice factor, is their gaeng pa, or jungle curry.