Gas station boys wear their uniform pants low. They have frayed black Keds and ball caps with the gas station name on them: Shell, Chevron or Phillips 66. They have greasy forearms, pencils behind the ear.
This is how it works. Your mom pulls her Impala up to the pump and a gas station boy comes out and she says, “Fill it up with ethyl and can you check the oil?” He lopes over to the hood and props it open laconically, double-dipping the oil stick like the last thing he’s in is a hurry—he knows exactly how long it takes to fill the tank. He gets his reading, tucks the oil rag back in his rear pocket and comes round and leans in your mom’s window. He tells her the diagnosis and waits for her order—top it with another can or no.
On Sampeng Lane in Bangkok’s Chinatown, an impossible street of wholesale fabric sellers and vendors of Hello Kitty pens and the biggest bags of scrunchies you’ve ever seen and mini rubber bands in every color and you have to fight to get through and GUYS ON SCOOTERS ARE TRYNG TO GET BY and I’m tripping over pushcarts but no one seems to care when you bump them and Hey look!, there’s a corner soup stall with metal tables and a lady making real food for the vendors hunched over plastic bowls: pork hock and all kinds of pork bone soup that slashes your tongue with white pepper, bathing slips of tendon and fatty crisp-skin pork and rice noodle curls and stomach and liver and soy sauce egg and you forget for a minute that when you’ve sucked every last metal Chinese spoonful from the bowl and the lady impatiently standing behind you takes your stool that you’ll have to fight once again to get out of here.
David Thompson is a great chef working in Thai food—he’s cooked in Sydney and London, and has a restaurant, Nahm, that comes up as one of the best in Bangkok. He likes a market in the Thonburi section of Bangkok, west of the Chao Phraya river. “This is David Thompson’s favorite market,” James says; he’s looking at a Thompson interview online. “Should we go?”
Next morning the four of us are heading to the BTS skyway tram. We take it to the end of the western line, south of Thonburi. Still, we’re far. We pile into a cab, Eric and Manny and me crowded in the back. The driver tells us there’s nothing going on at Thompson’s market today (Monday)—shit!—but he says he’ll take us to another market, only it’s an hour drive from here. “An hour? Seriously?” James is talking to him in Thai.
The driver has a glossy laminated sheet of destinations—he points to pictures of a floating market where a blond girl is taking a picture. “This is a tourist trap,” I say. The driver’s insisting we want to go there, meanwhile he’s been driving, fast, down this busy road. “What should we do?” James says from the front seat. “Should we do it?”
“It’s a gamble,” I say, “a big investment in time and far, and it’s probably not going to be what we want anyway. “Can you tell the driver what we want?” We want a real produce market, bustling and chaotic, where real people shop. ‘I did,” says James. “He keeps saying we want to go to this place an hour away.”
I look out the widow, across Manny and Eric—we’re passing a market, vendors on the sidewalks selling snacks and through entrances down dark market stallways, best as I can in the fast-moving taxi, this looks pretty good. “What about here?” I say. “This is a market right here.” James asks the driver. “He says we should go to the other market an hour away. Should we stop here?”
“Let’s just stop,” I say. James makes the driver pull over. It’s chaotic; there are no blond girls, no tourists even. No foreigners. It’s pungent and chaotic and wraps around an old department store called the Wonder store. Ten minutes later James is taking pictures of mackerel in sweet soy sauce, heaps of shrimp paste from different regions of Thailand, huge bowls of curry pastes and fermenting fish. We spend more than an hour here, eat delicious khao mun gai with congealed chicken blood for lunch. (Later at the hotel, we look up the name, and it’s hard because no foreigners ever go here, but I find it: Bang Khae fresh market.)
We decide to walk back to the BTS station from here. It’s much, much farther than we thought—it takes us almost an hour in the baking heat—it didn’t seem nearly that far getting here. That taxi driver must have been moving fast, to try and get us to where the blond girl was.
Outside our hotel in Bangkok on Sukhumvit 31, a gray characterless artery under the concrete elevated tracks, with a Starbucks a block away. For breakfast, James and I set out to find the hipster coffee shop, a taste of modern Bangkok. He has directions from the website, only one block up and around the corner. The Starbucks is where we turn—on the corner, past a couple of sidewalk vendors, a guy frying Chinese-style crullers, pa thog ko, served with warm soy milk, a lady with her huge pot of breakfast rice porridge, jok. We turn down the road where the hipster coffee shop’s supposed to be: can’t see it. Further down, where the lady’s squatting on the curb cleaning fish, scoring the flesh, tossing them into a big plastic basket next to a grill with crispy, delicious-looking specimens. (James says one of them’s speaking Lao, the other’s answering in Thai.) Now we’re at sleazy massage places, bars for tourists—still no hipster coffee place. We dip into a hotel lobby where a sign on the registration counter reminds guests that stinky durian fruit is definitely not allowed in the rooms. Has the clerk heard of the coffee place? He thinks so—we have to go back up the road, the place we came from. Did we just miss it? We must have. We backtrack, past the massage places, the fish lady, peering down alleys—mini sois—to make sure we haven’t passed it. Back at the main road, there’s nothing—was he pointing us back to the Starbucks? Probably.
Two minutes later we’re seated at a little metal table outside on the curb, at the two street vendors we passed when we started out, a bag of hot crullers between us, sipping hot soymilk out of plastic bags, with tapioca and red beans at the bottom. The jok arrives—it’s got fried shallots mixed in, a soft egg with a bright orange yolk, slices of pork and liver, little strips of fresh, crisp ginger. Why were we looking for a hipster coffee place? “Hard to believe there’s a Starbucks right there,” James says, looking across the road.
Art Yuvaboon is amiable, business polite, wearing a white polo with the resort’s logo, a goldfish woven out of bamboo leaves, on the chest. He’ll inherit this place where we’re sitting at a picnic table, next to the Ta Chine river in Nakhom Pathom Province, northwest of Bangkok. Green clumps of water hyacinth are rushing by on the current, heading for the Thai megalopolis 30 miles away, and on to the Gulf of Thailand, if they make it that far, where the salinity of the ocean will make them wither and die.
In 1962, Art’s grandparents established what’s now called the Sampran Riverside resort here. They made it famous for its rose gardens—well-off people from Bangkok would come to walk in the sprawling gardens on this 70-acre property. Now it’s been rebranded as an “eco-cultural destination,” with an emphasis on organic farming and Thai crafts. There’s a 120-room hotel here, too.
Sampran holds a farmer’s market on Saturdays (it’s open to the road outside)—small growers in the local area, plus things harvested on the property, plus the usual Thai market vendors, makers of iced Ovaltine (made with sweetened condensed milk) and street food.
Art Yuvaboon sounds optimistic about the future for his patch of green straddling the river. He seems to have hit on a winning formula—half of the guests who come are Thais; foreign tourists make up the rest. They have wedding packages, and corporate team-building retreats and meetings are an important source of business.
And the farm, across the river from where we’re talking, is booming. They recently planted a variety of rice that was grown along the river for hundreds of years, but was thought to have been extinct, squeezed out by higher-yielding rice varieties raised with the aid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A few farmers in the area still had enough heirloom seed; Sampran’s farm manager planted it in an organic paddy. It should be ready to harvest in December.
“Just in time,” Art says, “for Thai Father’s Day. If it works out, we’ll have a big celebration here.” He’s hoping that chefs at high-end restaurants in Bangkok will want the rice, and the expanding yields of organic vegetables and fruits from here.
But Bangkok, city of 6.3 million and rapidly increasing, is encroaching. The land around here, farms and empty tracts, is being swallowed up by developers, speculators buying up in advance of Bangkok commuter rail’s expansion to the province. Technically there are protections for green space, but deals happen under the table, and enforcement of zoning laws isn’t particularly robust.
Later he takes us to see. We life-jacket up and step into an old dug-out canoe, once used for transporting rice from farms to market down-river. A man paddles us across the Ta Chine’s stiff currents. We climb out at a wooden pier, and walk on a raised berm that helps keep the river from away from the fields—ocean rise and increased rainfall (Art attributes it to climate change) has left this area vulnerable to flooding in recent years.
We walk through old groves of betel trees, no longer harvested, and guavas, each ripening fruit protected from insects by a little newspaper cap. We pass raised beds of wing beans, herbs—holy basil, cilantro, and garlic chives, all interplanted—pandan at the margins, cucumbers and buap liyam, i.e., ridged gourd.
We pass under a canopy where a primitive still—a big aluminum pot with a wok for a lid and a seal of pleated fabric, over bamboo charcoal made on the farm—producing pandan essence, and there it is: a very serene little rice paddy, with a little raised hut under a rice-thatch roof in the center, a watery island of hope in a narrative that seems likely to end in hopelessness.
James turns to me; he’s walking ahead. “Is there anything you wanted to try?”
We’re in an enormous parking lot, transformed into a night market: unbroken long rows of food stalls, a few CD sellers at the margins, filling up with people. We’re in Nakhom Pathom, a city north of Bangkok in Central Thailand. It’s still daylight—the sun is dipping low over the trees but the brightness hasn’t vanished, not at all. It’s warm and sticky.
Towering over the market is the huge stupa of a Buddhist temple, Phra Pathommachedi, tallest in Thailand. It looks like an upside-down golden chalice with the base broken off, tapering to a dangerous point. It’s an idyllic, low-rise setting in the brightness of a late-summer evening, but it’s spoiled by the voice of a wiry, white-haired gentleman at the temple’s booth, delivering Buddhist lessons over loudspeakers that have to be cranked as high as they go. It’s so loud, a bass-heavy, croaky thrum that vibrates in your skull.
Our driver took us here—we’re staying at the Sampran river resort and organic farm, 15 miles southeast. On the ride up, on a dusty arterial fronted with small factories, open-air bars, and uniformed school kids spilling out on the sidewalk, I noticed how the Latin alphabet disappeared from road signs and shop signs—it’s all Thai script where we are. Here at the market, I think I’m the only non-Asian.
Not the only farang—foreigner—though: I’m with James, his cousin Eric from Fremont, and James’s chef de cuisine at Hawker Fare, Manuel. This is the work of our trip: looking around, figuring out what to eat. It helps to have a driver and an 11-seater van, provided by the Singha beer people.
We’ve already been up and down the stalls once. Eric’s already bought a stick of khao lam, sticky rice sweetened with coconut syrup, studded with red beans, wrapped and stuffed into bamboo logs and roasted over coals. The vendor lady pulled out the upright log she uses as a cutting board and took machete to the bamboo, splitting it in three or four places before prying out the pudding. It was warm, farinaceous in the way that comforts, sticky, all four of us pinching off hunks as we strolled.
Manuel and Eric hit up the chicken lady: a skewer of grilled chicken tails, rubbery, slick, and chewy, with a taste of charcoal so strong I scrambled to take a breath. A skewer of hearts, still blood-pink at the center, chewy in a more yielding way than the tails.
Then James’s question: Was there anything I wanted to try?
“The mussels pancake guy.” The guy making hoi tod.
We’d passed him, stopped to look at his setup: a huge round iron slab, on a cart, standing on a platform in front of a huge basket of bean sprouts. He was working two long-handled metal spatulas, one in each hand, but still h could grab a ladle, spoon some tapioca-flour batter on the slab, flip others. Another guy (his son?) stood next to him, dumping raw shucked mussels on top, cracking and slinging an orange-yolked raw egg onto approximately the center of each pancake, throwing on a handful of mung bean sprouts.
We order two, a girl shows us to a rickety metal table and four stools. When they get to us—on plastic plates, with empty plastic dipping bowls to fill with sweet chile and garlic sauce from bottles on the table—they’re hot and very crisp, the mussels tender. I use a fork and spoon to skive off pieces, try to dip it in the dish but half of it falls in. Manuel dunks sauce all over his piece; I copy him.
By now it’s the golden hour, the sun is almost at its lowest point, throwing intense amber light on the chalice stupa of Phra Pathommachedi. I say, “This is older than restaurants, people eating outside next to stalls somewhere, probably next to a temple.” I’m kind of making this up, but it sounds convincing. James says, “The sound of that guy”—the old guy grinding his creaky Buddhist sutras over the PA in a monotone—“is giving me a headache. We have to get out of here.”
Those people from the time before restaurants, crouching next to temples, didn’t have to put up with loudspakers. But then, they couldn’t vanish in the over-air-conditioned comfort of an 11-seater van.
CANCUN 1997 We’re on our honeymoon. Perry and I got married last month at an art gallery in Chicago; we had a Southeast Asian theme and served lemongrass Kamikazes and Singhas and everyone got drunk. Perry said, “Let’s go to Mexico.” Neither of us had ever been. We bought the all-inclusive plan at Caribbean Village, maybe the homeliest hotel on Boulevard Kukulkan, Cancun’s zona gringo. It’s cheap. There’s a swim-up bar and a cluster of country boys with the jug-eared look of U.S. military.
My grandma was a really terrible cook but she could bake. She made angel cake with chocolate glaze that tasted the way playground bark smells, only sweet. And she made lemon cookies that were tangy and had white icing that dripped a little off the edges and while it was thick it also looked gauzy. I asked her for the recipe and she wrote it out for me on the white pad she kept near the phone.
I didn’t see her write it but I recognized the paper, with the red gummy edge on top where it attached. Her writing went uphill. It was in blue Bic and had the squashed loops of the hand I knew from birthday cards and Christmas tags. Iced Lemon Cookies, underlined a couple of times in blue, on the upslope.
Oh hey, I talked to The Dinner Party Download about San Francisco’s $4 toast, which in fact costs $3.75, but who ever let a quarter get in the way of misplaced outrage? Anyway enjoy that toast, slathered with a thick layer of tech-class hatred.
I was ten in 1970, a shy kid growing up in a scrub-oak suburb south of San Francisco. Our house was pitched on stilts sunk in a steep hillside, looking out onto a little arroyo and into the house of two men I loved like uncles (and more deeply than some of the uncles whose DNA I shared).
But besides me and my older brother, Walter, my mom, and my dad, everybody on our street despised Pat and Lou. At a time when it was still a crime in California for one man to give another man a blowjob, the neighbors hated them because they shared the same enormous bed, draped in a regal turquoise coverlet. Hated them because Lou stayed home like moms did, trolling Safeway for steaks and stuffed potatoes to fix for Pat when he got home from the office.
(Why didn’t my parents share the general loathing for Pat and Lou, a disgust expressed through passive avoidance, active shunning, and the occasional high-pitched catcall? I discovered later that my mom, bless her, is a total fag hag. And my dad always hated bullies—it trumped his ambivalence about the gay thing.)
Pat and Lou did cocktail hour nightly from a pair of velour bucket chairs, in their beam-ceilinged, ranch-style canyon house overlooking masses of scarlet and purple irises under the oaks. They put on matching poplin jumpsuits and corduroy house moccasins to sip Gibsons, tossing nuts to Kurt, their sleek miniature schnauzer, from fingers studded with big-jeweled cocktail rings. On nights when my parents would go to the Iron Gate restaurant for shrimp scampi and saltimbocca, they dropped us boys off at Pat and Lou’s for babysitting.
On those nights, Lou would cook us crazy shit our mom never fixed, food so rich no adult should ever serve it to a ten-year-old. There were casseroles that used Monterey Jack as a suspension medium for olives, ground veal, and button mushrooms from a can. And there were Lou’s famous burgers, so rich and salty, so crusted with a mixture of caramelized onions, Roquefort crumbles, and Grey Poupon—a thick impasto gilded beneath the electric broiler element—I could only ever eat half before feeling sick. I loved every bite.
Looking back, I recognize in Lou’s burgers my first taste of food that didn’t give a fuck about nutrition or the drab strictures of home economics. They were calibrated for adult pleasure, acutely expressive of a formalized richness— exactly the type of thing James Beard taught Americans to eat (for all I know, Lou’s recipe was straight out of Beard). I see them now, those burgers, as unflinchingly, unapologetically, magnificently queer.