What I’m always thankful for: nam ngiew in Chiang Rai

I’d been keeping a list for days. It detailed all the symptoms I’d been experiencing, but read like a litany of generalized misery. “Tingling spread from hands and feet to legs, arms and face (since Nov 4).” “Muscle twitching in legs and left arm (at night).” “Difficulty sleeping (since Sunday).” “Lightheadedness when standing (2 weeks).” “Frequent thirst (since Thursday).””Soreness in left index finger (Friday).” “Stiffness in right thumb (Sat).”

Like a third grader giving a book report, I would dutifully read my symptoms to my doctor, who would dutifully jot them down. Other doctors got involved. They got the same report. Such was their delicacy that it took me a full week to figure out that they all thought I was crazy.

Brains are tricky. They tick along with the occasional twinge, but usually pretend to be under our control. Until they stop. They coax twitches and pains out of nooks and crannies and bend your reality to the shapes of their own whims. Unable to pretend we are our own any longer, the things we once care about start to turn remote and fade away. I struggled to find things to read and listen to. I started to eat for convenience.

Perhaps this is unusual for a self-professed “food writer”, but I actually don’t read most food writing. A lot of it is clubby, insular, self-satisfied. It is so frequently smug. It is the writing equivalent of listening to Justin Bieber: pretending to some genuine feeling beyond supreme complacency, confident in the knowledge that our approbation, our acceptance, is inevitable. If you charge me with writing this out of envy, it is very true. I — who must now remind herself to be in the moment at all times, who must remember that she is surrounded by the people she loves — I envy these people and their ability to rest easily within themselves.

Jeffrey Steingarten was the reason why I wanted to write about food. His writing first introduced me to Japanese beef so tender it could be cut with a fork, what it would feel like to butcher your own pig, who Alain Ducasse was, many-coursed French meals that tested the boundaries of what could be accomplished in a kitchen. Sure, he could be pleased with himself once in a while. He wrote for Vogue, after all. But what set him apart was his charm, his restlessness, and the overarching curiosity that informed nearly everything he wrote. He had to know how everything worked, and the best way to do it, no matter what the cost. And he was rarely truly satisfied. I loved that about him. If you are a food writer, I don’t care if you are BFF with David Chang or the best cook in your apartment building. But the endless questing, the need to consume the knowledge as much as the food, that is different.

None of us asked to be here; burdened with this knowledge, we navigate our lives with varying degrees of ease. All of the people I admire are aware of this, and have the generosity of spirit to allow for how difficult it can be. We all have our strategies for how to make our way through the world, like living our lives for others, or immersing ourselves in our faith or our work, or, like Jeffrey Steingarten, searching for the perfect Everything. When we forget how to live our lives, we can only live by example.

So this year, I am thankful for Jeffrey Steingarten. I am thankful for my friends and family. I am thankful for the people I listen to and read. I am thankful for freshly baked biscuits slathered in homemade apple butter, and pie crust straight out of the oven, and bolting down a Northern Thai breakfast of thinly sliced eggplant flavored with the juice from pulverized black field crabs and many, many handfuls of sticky rice eaten so quickly that your throat hurts with the pain of it. Thank you, everyone, for being here. Thank you for whatever the future may bring.










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2 responses to “Thanksgiving

  1. Bert

    Your writing is always funny, insightful, and today sharp and thankful at the same time. I bought your book years ago and it is a faithful friend on my annual trips to Bangkok. I hope that the brain is fooling you into taking a rest, and nothing more. Stay well! all the best, Bert

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