The 'mango rains' - a fast deluge of wet in Thailand's otherwise dry winter - are thundering down outside. An old friend will soon take to the skies, and meet me in Bangkok. It's the weekend. And here's a silly picture. All perfectly good reasons to smile. Have fun out there.
A charcoal-fired rotisserie in Nong Khai, Isaan, taken last week. Delicious.
Like this plate of pad thai, a usually too-sweet-and-simplistic dish that I almost never order, but enjoyed immensely, on a recent assignment in the Dusit neighborhood of Bangkok:
If you head to Dusit's Sri Yan Market (Ttalaat Sri Yan), duck out the back door of the market, walk about 100m, pass the motorbike queue, and you'll find a pink, open-air restaurant. That's where you should eat this dish. Thanks to David and Dtong for a tasty afternoon in the hood.
"It is no accident that Momofuku sounds like motherfucker," writes Peter Meehan, who deftly captures David Chang's voice in the opening of the Momofuku cookbook. I've just ripped through the book, and can honestly say that I've never read a cookbook quite like it. It's original, inspiring, and real. It was nothing like my first meal at Momofuku. Let me explain.
I was in NYC to see friends in - I think - early 2005. Momofuku was a buzzword in the downtown food world. And then the New York Times wrote an article on the transformative properties of Chang's slow-poached eggs and the tiny place blew up like mashed potatoes in the microwave. "You've got to go!" people told me in emails. I went. I ate. I didn't get it.
And that's because, at that point, there wasn't much to get. Not for a food writer in Shanghai, which is a town with a very decent Japanese ramen and yakitori scene. I can remember the meal clearly: I had Momofuku Ramen with Berkshire pork and a poached egg, a dish of heirloom tomatoes and tofu, and a bottle of sake. It was lunchtime. The sake and the tomatoes tasted great. The ramen tasted like ramen - not a particularly memorable ramen, save for the very succulent pork - but it was good (though not $12 good). I figured that people in New York's culinary spin-cycle were new to Asian noodles, and wrote this off as a passing fad.
But Chang wasn't a passing fad. The roots of his genius weren't in the bowl of ramen but in that Berkshire pork, and those heirloom tomatoes, and the creativity that was starting to spring from a very ordinary idea (a noodle bar). The next time I was in New York, maybe a year and a half later, I ate at Momofuku Ssam, his next restaurant. And that time, he knocked my goddamn socks off.
I, for one, don't much care for Asian fusion (unless it's a deep-fried piece of cheese in an Izakaya). It's usually pretty stupid. But Chang had a knack for it that was more Japanese in execution than American. That is, he took universal comfort foods - cheese, ham, tofu, bacon, whatever - and presented them in a context that wasn't necessarily American, but wasn't really Asian. It was just good and fatty. Delicious like the best crossover Izakaya stuff is.
"Is it fucking dericious?" was the motto of the kitchen. Most everything I ate, from oysters to kimchi consomme to slices of Virginia ham (Virginia Ham?!?!) was fucking dericious. So much so that I approached Chang and tried to tell him how totally dericious it was, and how I wrote about food in Asia but hell I'd never experienced flavors like this, and he sort of scowled at me and walked away. A forgivable offense when you're that busy and that good. I guess.
The most amazing aspect of this cookbook, which everyone who cooks seriously should buy, is how it functions as a compelling coming-of-age story about America's most talked about chef. It's candid and it's funny. It's full of useful information and the sort of hard-edged kitchen wisdom that you encounter in only in the presence of professional cooks that you know well.
I stayed up late, ripping through the pages, unable to sleep because of the possibilities of cooking that this book captures in its pages. It made me want to thrown this laptop out the window, stop ruminating about food and telling other people's stories, and get in a kitchen and cook. And I might just do that.
After reading the first half, I ran to the market, bought a kilogram of chicken livers, and started picking them apart, smashing spices, infusing the chopped livers with Thai ingredients like lime leaves and lemongrass, fish sauce coriander root and bird's eye chilies, until I had a fragrant pate that made a very good banh mi. And that's just the beginning. The best part about cooking, unlike reading a riveting story, is that there is no end.
It's difficult trying to pitch stories to magazines that are struggling to pay their staff writers. When I do actually sell them, collecting the money for completed stories is even more challenging than it used to be. It was never easy - now it's embarrassing.
There aren't that many businesses as fucked up as this one (sorry, but there's no better word for it). Far-flung editors treat the people who write for them with little or no courtesy - failing to answer emails, never responding to queries, or failing to acknowledge that they've received a pitch or a commissioned piece.
Perhaps the most integral part of the machine that creates the product that sells the magazines (the writers and photographers) are basically expendable, and are treated as such. There will always be more writers and shooters in line, trying to slip into the fewer and fewer pages of print available out there. So who gives a shit if you pay them six months late?
Where there was once room for a 2,000-word spread there is now space for a 400-word blurb. That means that if you have any original ideas or narrative packed into a travel or food piece, it will be excised in the interest of utility and brevity. Such is today's writing climate.
As magazines cut more of those editors i mention above (and who are holding on as tightly as they can) I'm seeing more lapses of judgment, factual errors, and grammatical missteps in respectable publications. I've also seen a lot of smart people leave this business in the past two years. Much of the writing in today's travel mags is being done by recent college grads who don't travel, and are hiding in cubicles in Midtown Manhattan, or Sydney, or London, relying on google and instinct. It shows.
The other side of the equation is the new online media, that seemingly lets anyone willing to give their words away for free a little space. Free is the new paid; exposure is treated like currency.
Then there is the current crop of people in my specific (food writing) industry that have embraced the tweet or the personal blog. What you get is a lot of distorted journalism - full of vainglorious, vapid, empty details that function primarily as promotional tools. But what about when the promotion becomes the story (because, really, that's what's happening). Who cares what you ate for lunch, or who you're sitting next to?
I'm seeing writers tackle weighty subjects with the same casual approach - like a piece I read today on poverty and the underage sex trade - in 800 words or less. Throw in a single anecdote and very little in the way of actual research and serve. I wouldn't publish something like that for fear of being slaughtered by my peers; but now, it's written, posted and quickly forgotten.
For those of you on the outside who are wondering how bad the current state of print journalism is on the inside, I'll say this: It's more grim than you think. And it's about to get a lot worse for those of us that actually care about a well-crafted story or a studied approach to fact checking, and want to read a publication that they know and trust (because those are changing too...)
It's high time we all start paying for information again. It's ridiculous that we ever thought it could come free. Nothing does.
Maybe you were in charge of millions over a billion baht intended to help farmers plant rubber trees, but didn't really get much done, and then somebody sort of made you answer for it. That's always a pain. Or perhaps you've been slaving away in the editing room, piecing together a docu-drama that lifts the filthy lid on your country's preyed-upon citizens. You know, the ones who behave like jackasses while on vacation and occasionally get scammed or arrested in the process.
Whatever the case, it's been a long week. The kind of week that, when it's all over, calls for some celebration. Not just any reward though... I'm talking serious luxury. Like a slab of freshly ground beef, wearing a melted crown of processed cheddar, dribbled with heavy duty mayonnaise and slipped between two deep-fried donuts.
Oh, and don't forget the olives. I like my donut cheeseburgers dirty, no twist.
(If you'd really like to eat this, you can. It is served at the Le Fenix Hotel, on Sukhamvit Soi 11, in Bangkok. It wouldn't hurt to get really, really stoned first. Then call Bravo; that's probably a whole episode there.)