The Drunken Picnic at Thac Ba Lake

“Một! Hai! Ba!”

We chorused before draining our shot glasses together.

My father and I joined my mother and her coworkers’ picnic in Thac Ba Lake when we went to North Vietnam last November. On a cold Thursday morning, we piled into a boat and travelled to a little island in Thac Ba, where, hours later, we would all get tipsy from drinking too much rice wine. Continue reading

Why eating alone isn’t always ‘social suicide’

Once, a friend I barely knew texted me to go to the cafeteria because she had no one to eat with. I remember thinking how queer that particular text message was.

It was an SOS. To me it read “Help me, I’m alone, let’s eat together.”

So I went. I had nothing else to do since all my classes were done. But now I think the real reason I went to eat with her was I couldn’t refuse something that sounded scared and lonely.

I walked to the cafeteria, past people who had eaten their lunch and people who hadn’t.

When I found her in the crowded cafeteria, I knew she was telling the truth. The seat beside her was empty, and so were the seats facing her. I sat across my friend and made small talk while she picked at her lunch. She looked happy to me. I thought agreeing to sit with her while she ate was a thing people always did.

It was expected–I saw it in the movies. I saw it on TV. I saw it around me, at that moment.

And then I thought, “Few people like eating alone.”

So how come sometimes, I don’t do anything to turn my Eating Alone situation into an Eating Together situation?

This was the time when I went to a Burger King and the only person I knew was Thom Yorke. I felt a little less alone.

I know few people like eating alone because it’s considered a social faux pas. As far as I’m concerned, eating alone doesn’t violate any prissy table etiquette so I don’t think it’s too bad.

I read an essay written by a woman who thought eating alone was a weird experience. Out of the ordinary. Not what she’s used to. Because when you eat alone, how should you conduct yourself? What goes where? The hands feel awkward when they leave fork and spoon to gesticulate during a conversation. But an animated conversation is impossible if you are alone.

It’s just you and your plate on the table.

I consider eating alone as an exercise on solitude and self-contemplation. It’s something that we need from time to time.

Say you’re having lunch alone in a fast food place. You feel queasy and a little bit embarrassed because people who are not eating alone, who are eating together, are watching you smother your burger and slurp your soda. But you’re never sure, your feelings are doubts and nothing more because just when you tilt your head to bite your burger, you fail to catch the stares of the people eating together.

Could be it’s all in your head. Paranoia. Big Brother complex.

Could be you’re plagued by self-consciousness. Like Cady Heron locking herself inside a bathroom stall before she was popular.

The thing is, you’re not really afraid to eat alone. No one is. Man puts food in his mouth, eats it, digests it, shits it down a toilet. What man is afraid of is to be seen eating alone in a public space.

People who are afraid to be seen eating alone, do they ever marvel at how much food tastes better when they’re not eating with someone? Because when you are eating by yourself, nothing can distract you from savoring every morsel of your food. Your taste buds have sweet, salty, sour and spicy down to a science. You appreciate the process that went into creating the stuff you’re stuffing your face with.

When you eat alone, you become the walls. You think people are watching you but the truth is, with no one to distract you, you can sit comfortably on your red plastic chair and discreetly eye everyone around you:

Like the busboy wiping chewed up muck from the table. The mom swatting her kid’s hand for picking a french fry on the floor. The bearded guy wearing a suit who has barely touched his chicken from reading today’s paper. The college boy and the college girl arguing about Jesus in voices loud enough for the whole room to hear.

And everybody else sitting on red plastic chairs with trays of food in front of them.

As you’re watching everybody else while eating your burger, just sitting there on your own, you begin to think it’s okay not to have someone sitting on the opposite seat.

Because it’s nice and quiet and your food tastes good.

 

 

(Watched ‘Mean Girls’ last night and  remembered I have this is in my Drafts.)

Just Cook

This is what I did for my Creative Nonfiction class last sem when we were asked to write food essays. I really enjoyed writing this. I miss Ma’am Roldan and our class. 

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My teacher is a brown-skinned chef named Johnny. With a big smile, he presents me a cookbook that contains recipes of well-loved favorites across America. He tells me that I’m cooking a three-course meal today. The catch is, I have to finish cooking each dish within the shortest possible time.

The appetizer should be soup, I decide. A bowl of steaming broccoli soup topped with toasted almonds. It starts with a spear of broccoli and half a white onion. With a steel knife, I chop them as fast as I can until all that’s left on my chopping board is a green and white collage of tiny florets and glistening onion bits. In a saucepan, I mix minced garlic with the broccoli and the onion. After sautéing them, I pour a cup of water inside the pan. I let the broth simmer for a few minutes; add a dash of salt; and to keep the garlic from burning, mix it with a ladle from time to time.

I’m nervous that I might burn the almonds that will give the soup a distinct nutty flavor. From a distance, I see Johnny watching me, still smiling. I realize that he’s here as an observer, not a teacher. So, I cross my fingers and try my luck anyway. The almonds turn out fine. I sprinkle them in the saucepan; they look like golden-brown seashells floating on a green lake. My broccoli almond soup is done.

For the entree, I choose a smoked salmon roulade. It’s a fancy name for a simple dish. Making the roulade is like making sushi. Fill strips of salmon with slices of goat cheese and butter-sautéed shallots and asparagus. Fold the strips into rolls; then slice the rolls into round, bite-sized pieces.

My dessert, chocolate mousse, is easy to prepare like the roulade. I mix eggs, sugar, melted chocolate and a pinch of salt inside a bowl. I whip the light brown mixture until it becomes frothy. Dollops of the chilled chocolate mousse are served in dainty dessert glasses. For the sake of presentation, I top each glass with a maraschino cherry.

Pleased with my work, Johnny gives me four stars for my broccoli almond soup; five for my smoked salmon roulade; and four for my chocolate mousse.

I cooked a three-course meal in three minutes. I should be proud of myself.

 But of course, none of these is real.

The arrow hovers above the red X button. Click. The perpetually smiling Johnny disappears. My soup, salmon, and mousse are as good as gone, too. And I didn’t even have the chance to taste any of them, let alone smell the whiff of sautéing garlic in butter. Let alone lick the leftover chocolate batter from the egg beater.

The game is over and I’m wishing that cooking in real life is just as easy as a couple of clicks with my mouse.

The reason I don’t know how to cook is that I see food as something which is always already prepared on a plate for me. The only thing left to do with food, whether I’m eating at home or at a McDonalds’ or at a fancy restaurant, is to destroy it with my fork and spoon then gobble it up. Seven years of home economics did not inspire me to be the creator of food rather than its destroyer. Simply because eating is so much easier than cooking.

My culinary endeavors include spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast, pouring milk into a bowl of cornflakes, and boiling rice in a rice cooker. When I’m feeling adventurous, I would add powdered milk to a ten-peso cup of taho and call it dessert. Sometimes, I would bake cookies that deserve to be named after “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” You get the idea.

But seeing people cook amazing food on TV makes me feel like I’m missing out on a necessary life experience. One of these days, I have to face the fact that food won’t always appear on a plate in front of me.

Last summer, I asked my mother to teach me how to cook tinolang manok. With her guidance, I was able to come up with a pot of something that resembles and tastes like it—soft white chicken in a clear broth with chili leaves, ginger, and slices of green papaya. I was happy with my tinola; I thought I finally opened the gates to culinary heaven.

Sadly, making it didn’t spark in me the interest to keep cooking. My desire to eat trumped my curiosity to cook.

But not entirely.

How do I channel my frustration for cooking? By playing games like “Hot Dish: Cross Country Cook-Off.” In the virtual world, I get a taste of what it’s like to be a kitchen goddess who can whip up dishes with complicated names like ‘eggplant manicotti’ and ‘alouttes sans tetes’ in less than a minute. However, even if I don’t have to go to all the trouble of cleaning up afterwards, the thrill I get from playing cooking games only lasts as long as the time it takes me to prepare virtual dishes. They provide a temporary escape for frustrated, lazy wannabe cooks like me. But once you start playing cooking games, it’s difficult to stop.

It isn’t impossible though.

So, forget the soup. Forget the roulade. Forget the mousse.

Because the reality is, all the wonderful food you cook with pixelated people like Johnny are sheer reminders that what you really should be doing is head to your kitchen, turn on the light, face the damn stove, and start cooking.