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In Northeast Thailand, a small clay stove was the answer to all your cooking needs, the back porch kitchen appliance everyone had to have. About the size of a large stock pot, it offered everything in one–an upper stove section to nurse a blaze in cheap charcoal until it was red hot, and a lower oven deck where embers dropping from the inferno above could roast such gastronomic delights as sweet potatoes or edible seeds. A trivet molded into the top and an opening for the oven came standard with all models.
A gas stove and electric fridge staffed our indoor kitchen, while the clay stove hunkered alone on the back patio unless it was cranking its heat for the daytime tasks assigned to it. Our house helper would squat next to it, applying flaming, shriveling wispy sticks to the mound of charcoal and blowing until the fire caught and held.
When I was a kid, the yearly calendar was a blur. I couldn’t predict when Christmas came, nor when mango season fell. Christmas arrived when my mom set out the plastic stable and snowman poster, and mango season was here when plates of fleshy ripe mangos appeared at our dinner table. My mom, all smiles, would point out her find and we would contemplate the fruit that were sometimes as long as my forearm.
A small orchard bordered our yard in town, a food source to which we’d given more thought to if we didn’t already have plenty to eat from the local open-air markets. As it was, we had a regular supply of fresh pork, chicken, and produce that made all the work of harvesting and preparing fruit unnecessary. Besides, the variety of mango from the trees that lined each side of our yard was not great for eating. When green, they were slightly sweet, meaning they weren’t the kind for slicing thin and plunging into fish sauce. I don’t remember them ripe, but if they had been as succulent as the market harvest during mango season, we would surely have gorged on them for weeks. The ones we brought from town, golden yellow and giving off a scent like warm honey, were the capstone to our evening meals.
Can you eat those? That was probably a question we asked often in Thailand when we came across yet another variety of fruit, nut, or berry. And usually, especially in the fenced perimeter of our town house, the answer was yes.
We took time to realize that certain items, to us merely features of our back yard, were actually edible. Take, for instance, the giant, blobby fruits. Adjacent to our swing set was a towering tree, a productive one. At certain times of year, it was laden with large, spiky growths that ranged from light green to shades of brown. By large, I mean two feet long–growing all the way up in the topmost branches. They must have averaged ten pounds each. We happily played under these ripening time bombs, and nobody thought a thing of it.
After I was excused from lunch one afternoon at boarding school, I stood out in the side yard whacking at the tether ball, trying to give it enough momentum to whip around the pole a few times. Solitude was time for a nine-year-old to do some thinking, and on my mind was this: What if I had been born somewhere else, like in the States? And just grew up ordinary, went to a regular school, didn’t get to travel and stuff? How boring would that be? I’m sure glad I’m me.
Boarding school is a controversial topic on the missionary kid (MK) Facebook group I’ve joined. One’s experience really depended on individual circumstances: how your parents handled challenges, who your dorm parents were, how old you were, how far away from family, and so on. MK’s often express that their years in boarding school were painful ones, that they were too young, felt misunderstood, and shaped by approaches to discipline that were often harsh. For me, in spite of some difficult semesters, the three years I spent at school were overall positive ones. They developed my mind in both expected and unlooked-for ways, providing exposure to American culture, time with peers, classroom experiences, and a long list of enrichments that included music and swimming lessons.
1.) My dad taught me that when you’re in the bathroom and someone knocks, the proper response is to heartily intone, “BUSY!” 2.) We learned from our mom that the apex of contentment was sitting on a bamboo couch in the evening with a book and a giant bowl of popcorn. Preview Open
In a previous post, I noted that I’d read only around half a dozen books in 2020. I always have something interesting going on my Kindle, so I was surprised to count 2020’s take and find it apparently took two months to finish each book. So to make myself feel better, I’ll say it’s not because I’m a slow reader. It’s that I savored these works, the way books should be consumed. Yeah, that’s it. At least I found satisfying items worth adding to your queue. Today I feature one written by a woman to whom I’m vaguely connected, a connection without which I might not have come across this story.
The Mountain Dreamer: (Published September 2020, by Rachel A. Steffen) This fictionalized account of the author’s real childhood in a remote mountain village in Thailand appealed to me on several levels. First, the writer’s parents preceded my parents’ cohort of missionaries to Thailand, working there since the ’60s. I had heard stories of how the country was less tame back then, that elephants figured into one’s travel plans, and I wanted to find out more about that life. Second, I knew the writer’s parents. They were classic figures of my growing up years–surely everyone in the world knew this couple, whom we called “Uncle” and “Aunt.” Occasionally, their pictures came up on Facebook, and they still looked the same. Encountering them in a book would be an experience, and fill in blanks for me about their early work and life. I had never known this oldest daughter of theirs; this story explains why she went back to the States at fourteen. Third, it was about an American child’s view of Thailand, something to which I could relate, having grown up there myself.
This account did not disappoint. The writer uses fiction to vividly tell a story of her childhood years in simple surroundings with much-loved village friends, and of the rustic means of doing everything from baking cookies to arranging a long ride on elephants’ backs to find medical care. I was pleasantly surprised at how the tool of fiction gave the story smoothness and momentum. It was a fitting choice for this narrative, even though I would not (probably could not) have done it myself. I learned a great deal about Uncle D. and Aunt J. and their work in that rugged region, enough to admire them even more. And I was surprised that although the author’s village was across the country from where I started life, many of our experiences were similar. We both went to school where the instruction was in standard Thai (although I never witnessed any beatings at mine). The lifestyle of the villagers, down to the basic clay stoves they used, sounded similar. And the candles and kerosene lamps at nighttime–yes. I spent evenings in their glow too, when I was little.
I’ve written before, in this series of posts, about my fondness for “hot stuff,” at least in the culinary sense. But I haven’t written much here, other than perhaps in a few comments, about my fondness for Thai food. That’s been a staple ever since my stepson Sam introduced me to it decades ago, and ever since I visited some of Pittsburgh’s Thai restaurants (Thai Me Up, on the South Side Flats, the Spice Island Tea House in Oakland (not CA, but PA), Pad Thai (was that where I enjoyed a delicious lunch with @jamesofengland a few years ago, or do I have that wrong?), and perhaps my favorite of local establishments for SE Asian food, The Golden Pig, just a few miles down the road from me, not far from where those icons of American music, Perry Como and Bobby Vinton, were born. (Funny, that.)
If I hadn’t come by my love of Thai food honestly over the years I’d have fallen for it hard during a visit to the country a couple of years ago, and most especially during the course of a day-long cooking school during which I concocted several authentic dishes with the assistance of an authentic Thai chef. Everything I made that day was delicious, aesthetically appealing, and winsome.
But that wasn’t the sum total of my experience of the country or the food. The tastes of the walk-through markets, the sai oua (northern Thai sausage), the green papaya salad, perhaps the most delicious dish I’ve ever eaten. The pineapples, the bananas, and the mangoes. (Lord. I used to pick mangoes off the trees in northern Nigeria when I was a child. I’d forgotten how absolutely delicious such things are when they come straight off the tree.)
Thirty-five years ago, before helmets were ubiquitous and when bicycle passengers were the norm, a summons from my mother to ride with her to the market brought my own agenda to an end. I could be languishing in the shade, in my cool summer togs laying brick pathways in the dirt behind the flower beds. Or, we were entertaining friends, racing around the cement slab out back and trying not to stub our toes on a harsh metal pipe emerging from the middle of the patio. I might be reading when the call came, lying on my stomach on a wooden bench, sheltered from the sun by the overhanging roof, and re-living a Narnia volume or one of the many cheap Scholastic books we owned.
But I would drop everything when I heard the call. I’d trot into the garage, where my petite mom steadied the bike so I could clamber up onto the cushioned bench behind the seat. Then a couple of steadying pushoffs with her foot, a moment of balancing, and we’d sail out of the garage and down our driveway, navigating an unpaved road flanked by cinder block walls.
I’m sitting behind my dad on the motorcycle at night, squeezing my eyes shut as we zoom through the dark and hoping, hoping, hoping. We’re approaching our little side road, our soi, and I’m willing the engine to accelerate, to not slow down and not swing right, in the direction of home and what was sure to be immediate bedtime. Yes! We keep going. When I’m chosen to go along on these evening jaunts, I never know where we’ll alight, which of my dad’s friends we’re going to visit, what movies will be playing on TV. Or even when we’ll arrive back home to settle in for the night. I don’t think my dad really knows, either.
We show up at a motorcyle shop, metal folding doors across its front pushed back enough for our Vietnamese friend to stand in the opening, chatting with my dad. Usually, I stand in the background tuning out the long conversation, looking around, studying the seat of the motorcycle. Tonight, we walk through the shop to living quarters upstairs, where family members are ranged on the floor around a color TV watching an American movie. And what a strange one it is. A repulsive little brown creature, with uncannily communicative big eyes, makes friends with a little boy. At the end, a space ship lands in the woods to pick up the creature. The dark, lonely wooded landscape and the swelling music add to the eeriness. Then the creature and the little boy hug in an emotional parting. A loud Eww! escapes me. My dad laughs.
Look at this picture for a minute. Why are these children spiffed up in dated clothes? Why are they lifting their feet? Maybe it’s a school event, but if so, why the clutter in the corner? Some pictures from your past are meaningful to a handful of folks whose life intersected with yours for a […]
You haven’t lived until you’ve boarded a bus at sunset and trundled through the night to arrive at your destination just after sunrise. Those hot towels the attendant distributes with tongs at 6 a.m. make it worth the long hours, the bleariness, and the cheap comedies played on the television up front.
No, really. These were special trips.
Quick & Easy Thai: 70 Everyday Recipes. This was less than two dollars on Kindle the other week, and not knowing what to expect, I started reading it at bedtime. This author and Thai food cook has won me over, not just with her writing skill, but also with her three years of living in […]
The bike I rode at our Chiang Mai, Thailand, boarding school was inherited from my older brother. He had received it it already well-used, and he and his buddy Steve had not exactly gone easy on it back when we lived in the village. So it was not much to look at: faded red, maybe pretty once, with worn front basket and backseat long gone. The wheel rims were rusted, I remember, because I used to stare at them and think about rust–what made it happen, how blighted it made the wheels look, and how odd that my brother could rub it off with some compound on a rag. It was like a toothless, blotchy, gaunt, yet sinewy older woman.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed that bike from the time I arrived at the dorm as an eight-year-old. It was serviceable for cruising around the network of side streets (soi is the Thai word for something like an alleyway) and perfectly good for trips to the corner store, where we bought cheap sweets for one baht. It was best, though, for joining the boys in the street in front of the dormitory. We rode back and forth and in circles, refining our stunts. Although it was no BMX, this bike of mine could be coaxed do wheelies. Next, I mastered the skill of riding around with my hands at my sides. I loved the joke, probably from our dorm’s old copies of Boys’ Life, where each time a kid pedals past his mom, he announces a new trick: “Look, Mom, no hands.” He progresses through his repertoire until he says, “Look, Mom, no teeth!” None of us thought of wearing helmets, but nobody seemed to get hurt.
I consider myself fortunate. Over the course of my now increasingly decrepit life (I’m 64, so winding down), I’ve met three people who were so incredibly special that I felt myself in the presence of the Divine when I was with them. One, I became acquainted with in 1981. One, in 2013. And one, less […]
A British fellow named Paul Barton lives in Thailand where his wife runs an animal sanctuary, Elephants World, for “old, sick, abused, retired or rescued elephants.” As their website says, “Most of our elephants have lived very hard lives and they come here to retire in peace.” Some years ago he began playing his piano to the elephants, some of whom were in chronic pain or blind or both.
Here’s Paul with Romsai, the nearly blind old bull elephant, playing Beethoven:
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America herald the divers successfully rescuing the young Thai soccer players trapped in the cave and pray everyone else can be brought to safety tomorrow. Greg rolls his eyes at reports that Hillary Clinton may be planning a 2020 presidential bid but Jim explains how a crowded field and the notion that history robbed her in 2016 could propel her to the nomination. And they get a kick out of the media pumping out conflicting reports about which of the final four Supreme Court possibilities will be chosen by President Trump today.
The orange Volkswagen van didn’t come with air-conditioning, which we could have used in humid Thailand. But I was too young to recognize that. It was a basic model, with bone-colored window cranks and door handles, and vinyl bench seats in the back that faced each other. We rumbled down roads of red dust when […]
Each year when drove to the resort town of Pattaya on the Gulf of Siam, my mom primed us for the swimming to come every afternoon for the next ten days. “We’re almost the-ere!” She’d announce from the front seat. “Who’s going to see the ocean first?” So we would look hard for that long ribbon of […]
We’ve watched this scenario twice. You’d think we would have learned the first time around. And here we are again. And it’s just as painful, if not more so, the second time. We have dear women friends in Thailand. M. and K. have been friends for many years; we befriended M. after she led a […]