Tuesday, October 9, 2012

October 9th

Maybe it's the classic rock I'm listening to, or the fact that I'll be turning thirty five in a month or so, but I feel a kind of nostalgia for an earlier time, and something I'm not quite sure ever existed.

I know what it is; I cooked a Thai soup yesterday for lunch. I haven't had Thai food in forever, but I saw a recipe on line and thought, what the hell. I could do that. All I really need are coconut milk and red curry paste.

Miraculously, the next time I went shopping, I remembered to purchase these exotic items. Then they haunted me for the next few days, until I could get my courage up to speed.

Yesterday, when I found myself with a quiet afternoon, I decided it was time. I chopped butternut squash and sweet potatoes, blanched them and set them aside. I cut red peppers and set them aside. I boiled noodles, rinsed them and set those aside.

Then I got down to business. When I added the coconut milk to the red curry paste, a fragrant cloud of scent rose and up infused all my thoughts with a golden glow. I kept leaning over the pan and inhaling.

It smelled like autumn and rain streaked windows and the click of silverware. It smelled like comfort.

However, it tasted bland. I was deeply offended; bland is an appalling adjective for Thai cuisine.

A quick review of the recipe and an Internet search told me immediately what was missing: fish sauce. Naturally. Fish sauce is to Thailand what soy sauce is to Japan.

I don't know why the recipe neglected to include this ingredient, but I have a new recipe now. When I find a bottle of this salty sauce, I will purchase it. Shockingly, Walmart doesn't carry it.

In the meantime, I added soy sauce to the left over soup, and it's working okay, though my Thai friends from long ago would find this a poor substitute.

That's where the nostalgia is coming from; I used to eat Thai when I was much younger, when I was first figuring out how to be an adult.

There was a restaurant on the main street, with huge windows looking out over the sidewalk. All the tables had heavy white table cloths and pale green cloth napkins folded into a fan. It was quiet and clean.

They have a red curry dish that's made with winter melon, squash, pumpkin, zucchini and red peppers. I would crumble the beautifully sculpted ball of rice into the red-flecked golden curry sauce.

I ate there with my first husband. Eventually we met there to discuss the dividing up of all our worldly possessions, the bulk of which fit into the trunk of my pink Chevy Cavalier. By then, that restaurant was one of the few places I felt safe enough to meet with him.

After the divorce, I ate there with girlfriends, or alone. I learned to eat my curry with a spoon and later, when I was dating a member of the family, I learned to put my hands together, bow my head and murmur the polite Thai greeting.

I learned how to say, "Thank you so much but I'm full," out of self defense. I learned how to say, "I love you," out of a feeling of irrepressible optimism.

Eventually I wore a heavy gold engagement ring, but the edges were sharp and dug into the insides of my fingers. I had to keep moving it around to ease the discomfort.

After a while, I took it off for good. Now I don't remember how to say anything in Thai except for the formal greeting, which seems appropriate enough.

On Sunday we had guests over for dinner. I roasted squash with olive oil, salt and pepper. I pan fried bone-in pork chops with sage and sweet onions and then simmered it in honey barbecue sauce. I made a cheese sauce for the broccoli.

Later, I made pumpkin pie, with sticky sweet evaporated milk, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

When the men came tumbling in the house from the front yard, where they'd been playing a last game of corn hole in the fading light, the house was warm and rich with cooking smells. The table was set with paper towels, steak knives and salad fixings. Ketchup stood tall and proud at the center of the table.

"What did you make this time?" the gawky young man asked me, his eyes alight with anticipation.

He stood in the kitchen, waiting for his turn to wash the grease and dust off his hands; they'd been working on vehicles in the afternoon.

During dinner and satisfied with my labor, I sat back and half listened to the guys talk. In the back ground was the muted, urgent dialogue of a football game, which had been left on in the living room. Cool autumn air came flowing through the open door to the back yard.

When I was younger, I went out in larger and larger circles, searching for home. I went to Japan by way of Boston. I did small loops through South Korea, back to Japan, back to New England.

And all the while, home lay west, not east. Home, as it turns out, is a ketchup bottle on the kitchen table.