What Does It Mean to Cook Well?

Cooking well is what the little old woman in front of me does. She has approximately five teeth, one good eye, and two hands that orchestrate the movement of nearly sixty gargantuan shrimp on the grill in front of her. Her vocabulary and mine don’t overlap at all, but she knows what I want, and she smiles as I watch her work.

Those are not shrimp she’s grilling, actually, but river prawns plucked from the Chao Phraya River here in Bangkok. From left to right in front of her, the crustacean color spectrum goes from a raw, translucent blue to a charcoal-kissed coral. If the fire gets too low – below what is left of her eyebrows – she grabs a small bellows and blasts it back up. I laugh to myself when I compare her stature to that of the ogres I’ve seen work the grill station back home. And I practically giggle with delight when I taste what she’s made. Smoky, juicy, and plump on their own, the prawns are better still dunked in a fiery sauce that could not have been much more than just fish sauce, vinegar, and some bird’s eye chilies.

It’s a bittersweet moment, for she might not be back in this same spot tomorrow, and I know I won’t be. I’ll be on a plane back home, where the shrimp are a little smaller; the cooks, a little bigger; and the exhaust fumes from the cars and the grill smoke of the sidewalk food vendors might not mingle in the same, beautiful way. Continue reading

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Cesare al Casaletto

The first time I went to Italy was in 2007. I gained thirty pounds in nine weeks.

Quattordici chili,” a pudgy-cheeked version of me would boast, as if saying the words in Italian made them somehow meritorious. I dropped two pants sizes — first 30, then 32 — before the trip’s end. And I ate in my first Michelin three-starred restaurant in jeans, because slacks were by then an impossible dream. Moderation has always been a problem for me.

Over time I’ve learned that in Rome there is no moderating guanciale. Tonight at Cesare al Casaletto I encounter the first piece, thick like tree bark, leaned casually against a plump pile of tonnarelli like the bouncer at a nightclub door — the carbonara gatekeeper. I dodge it at first, not to avoid the precious pork but to skewer it last, with a swirl of noodles. A fine varnish of egg yolk, pecorino and pepper holds it together. The bite looks, I reckon, just about perfect. But it’s not for me — it’s for a girl back home. She loves carbonara. Continue reading

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Barley Swine

Do you care for any vodka with that?

Orange juice — I had asked the flight attendant for some orange juice. But despite the convincing case Kendrick Lamar made in my earbuds, I felt inclined not to drank. I was at cruising altitude, trekking 1,800 miles in order to feed myself.  And now I was thinking, about expectations and about managing them.

I saw the booze as a specious salve for the jittery nerves engendered by a delayed, overbooked flight. But for my neighbor — embittered towards American Airlines and pawing the arm rest like a caged tiger — alcohol was exactly the tranquilizer he needed. In fact, it was precisely what he expected. “Finally, some service around here,” he grumbled with a half-convincing smile. (For several more minutes, he continued to paw.) Continue reading

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