I started cooking when I was 8 or 9. My parents had a copy of the “Good Housekeeping” cookbook, a fascinating tome that I would rifle through in my free time (I didn’t have many friends) featuring photos of dishes like “salmon in aspic”, “turkey tetrazzini”, and “perfection salad”. I would fantasize about the time when I would be old enough to have a house of my own and a kitchen in which I could whip up these exotic dishes. When that time came, I would have Listerine in my bathroom, but in a fancy crystal decanter, a short kimono robe I could lounge around in like Chrissie in “Three’s Company”, and Hamburger Helper in my pantry.
I started out cooking spaghetti marinara from the book, and gradually moved on to things like pound cake (a disaster), pesto (horribly salty), guacamole (ditto), and chicken fricassee (OK). If they were successes, I would eat them myself. If they were not, I would leave them on the stove for when a hungry Thai student from nearby Youngstown would inevitably pass by and dispatch of it. My parents were famously accommodating of the local Thai community and our house had a lot of Thai parties where my dad would bust out his version of som tum with grated carrots and grilled chicken marinated in beer. To my dismay, there was never any turkey tetrazzini or Hamburger Helper.
This might be a reason why I almost never cook Thai food, and when I do, it usually comes out pretty bad or at best mediocre. My tastebuds are just not right for it, and I lived in a place where I had easy access to great Thai food cooked to order. I have that “Good Housekeeping” cookbook to this day, even though it is now missing some pages in the soup section. I still cook from it. The last recipe I made were the brownies. But that was maybe a year ago. I don’t burn to cook anymore, not even now, when that is what you are supposed to be doing. I don’t feel like reading anymore either, even though that was something I could not stop doing before. I do a lot of yoga, and I watch a lot of TV.
I am realizing that, for me, the magic of the day lay in its unpredictability, and most of that unpredictability had to do with food. I miss going out of my house and chancing on things that I would mentally bookmark for a future meal with friends, or going in and trying immediately myself. Sometimes they were terrible experiences where a waiter charges you for an extra halo halo that you never ordered, but sometimes they were great. I miss learning about my town in that way. I miss eating places, and the bond that some of these experiences would create between people, even the bad ones. This was the role that dining out played for me, and I know I’m not the only one.
But don’t worry, I am still stuffing my face like Asian Jabba the Hutt. Don’t labor under the impression that I’m losing weight and not eating. I am, and eating well (too well). I even sometimes inflict my meager stabs at cooking on other people. Yesterday I made chili con carne (another dish in the “Good Housekeeping” cookbook. However, I base mine off of the recipe in the “Silver Palate” cookbook — the book I read during my free time in college, this time to the amusement of my roommate, who said I should be able to “think of these recipes on my own.” She never washed the dishes.)
All the same, there are some things that you can can’t properly make at home. For example, grilled river prawns. Now, you can source these babies on your own, probably (I haven’t tried), but they won’t be as delicious as when they are fresh from the river in a town like Ayutthaya and you are sitting on the water in a rickety shack staring at a plate like this:
There’s also sushi, of course, which I would never in a million years attempt myself. I don’t even order it home delivered, because I truly believe that, like som tum, one is supposed to eat that shit the second it passes out of the chef’s hands.
These are the things that keep me looking forward here, as I watch “Friends” for what may possibly be the 30th time. They may not serve Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff or salad suspended in jello, but here’s to eateries, the people who keep them going, and rebuilding bonds in them when we get back.