The Redemption of Thai food
As a boy, I was a bit of a hypochondriac. We all have a cross to bear. I was so skilled at convincing myself that I was sick that it usually took a full-blown fever to convince my mother that I was, in fact, dealing with a genuine illness. In this particular case, I was in high school and had been dealing with waves of dizziness for a few weeks. I had a low grade fever that would not break and I was missing class. I had given multiple blood samples to rule out the more exotic possibilities, but the doctors still did not know what was wrong with me. Finally, I was diagnosed. Pneumonia. Bacterial Pneumonia. Not especially life-threatening, but it had gone weeks undiagnosed and I was worn out. I was 6' 3" and down to 142 pounds.
My doctor prescribed an antibiotic that would kill the illness, “But,” he said, “it’s going to make you nauseous. You’re going to have to force yourself to drink fluid.” Easier said than done. Everything I put in or near my mouth, while on that antibiotic, made me want to throw-up.
I was at home, nursing the illness and burping incessantly when my aunt and uncle came for a visit from Virginia. My aunt had been taking cooking classes and wanted to show off her new Thai cuisine repertoire. (Today, this is known as cultural appropriation and should never be attempted by an American of European decent, as someone in Thailand, or more likely Berkley, might take offense) As I was a small-town boy, I did not know that peanuts were a staple in Thai cuisine. So, as the peanut sauce was being prepared, the smell of cooking peanuts wafted through the house and into my nauseated nostrils. The aroma must have permeated into the walls and brick of the house because I smelled it for days. Weeks even. I dry-heaved at the thought eating the food. And I became terribly dehydrated. I was gently scolded by my doctor for having lost so much fluid and he checked me into the hospital where I could receive medication — and equally important fluids — via IV. Three days later, I was released. I was cleared of the pneumonia, but had a positive mono test and would spend the next few months trying to recover from a series of illness that seemed to never end. For an extended period of time, I could smell peanut sauce in the air whenever I returned home after an absence of any length. I concluded a) that all Thai food consisted of peanut sauce and b) that I hated all of it.
Over the coming years, work and marriage would afford me the chance to interact with groups of people with widening interests. Once in a while, someone would say, “Hey, let’s go out for Thai.” “No thanks. I really don’t like Thai.” Once, in my mid-twenties, I had a chance to join a group for lunch at a Thai restaurant. They say that the sense of smell provides for the most powerful sense of recall. I sat there, during lunch, hoping to not get sick. I became instantly nauseated as soon as I walked in the place. I was relieved when we left and I really felt badly about the situation because I knew that it was not bad food. I had simply become hard wired to dislike it. The occasional cooking program on TV might showcase the preparation of Pad Thai, and the look of it would turn my stomach. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to eat, and I can eat a lot. I love exotic cuisines. I love asian cuisine. I don’t recall many meals that I didn’t love, but I had a terrible prejudice against peanut sauce that I couldn’t shake.
I seemed destined to live with the permanent condition of not wanting or liking Thai food.
About three years ago, Mandy and the boys and I took a trip to Coastal Oregon to visit family. The communities of North Bend and Coos Bay are right next to each other and there are some wonder shops and restaurants within walking distance of each other. Mid-day was approaching and someone (not me) said, “Hey, let’s stop for some Thai.” I was apprehensive, but I was fairly certain that I could handle a weak broth and then make my escape. We walked into the restaurant, and I was not assaulted by the smell of peanut sauce. I smelled chilis. We ordered drinks. I ordered a beer from a local brewery, Seven Devils. And then I ordered a second beer. I was feeling pretty good. The waitress came for our lunch orders. “What’ll you have?” I paused. “I’d like a bed of clear noodles with a lot of seafood on it at medium heat. I don’t know what that’s called.” She grinned and said, “I know exactly what you want” and then she retreated into the kitchen.
When our meals came out, they were distributed to their respective owners and we dug in. Oh my goodness. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever had. It is, by a wide margin, the best meal of my life. I was shoveling it down as though I had won the contract to dig the Panama Canal. I caught the occasional scent of peanuts in the air and did not become ill at the smell. It was delightful. We were with family. We were visiting. We were talking. We were laughing. We were moaning in ecstasy over the meal that we were enjoying. I was cured.
We have a favorite Thai restaurant at home now. We go on special occasions. Mandy and the boys all eat Pad Thai and my favorite is Pad Woon Sen — clear noodles. And I reflect back on that meal in Oregon, having learned a very valuable lesson that I would not learn until I was 40: Drink beer before dinner, and you might be in for the best meal of your life.