Thai Cafe by Steven Wang

Go Your Own Way

I’ve eaten and adored more piles of pad thai than I can count, starting with a first tentative (and screamingly spicy!) bite the first time I went to Chicago (thanks, db!), escalating into a more-than-weekly habit when I lived in Brooklyn. I’ve watched the line cooks at Thai Cafe in Greenpoint throw the ingredients into the hot wok by handfuls, let the flames shoot up everywhere, and deftly turn out a beautiful pile of noodles for me to devour.

But I’ve never made pad thai. Never even tried to make it. It just seemed too— what? Far from what I knew how to cook? Full of ingredients I knew intimately by taste but not by name? When I did look for recipes, they all seemed full of conflicting ingredient lists and directions, each with their streak of insistence that theirs was the pure way, the real pad thai.

Tonight I made pad thai. I finally found a demystifying recipe from a cook I trust (Deb at Smitten Kitchen), realized I had most of the ingredients and knew how to find the others, and I just gave it a whack. I shook something loose. And it was good. There were tastes in there I recognized from Brooklyn, and now I’m breaking them down and thinking about how to re-jigger the recipe to more closely match my memory of the blissful, fresh, light version in my memory. And I’m going to make it again and again, I know I am, and different every time. And sometimes I’m going to throw snow peas in there, and sometimes cabbage, or pickled radishes because nobody’s looking over my shoulder and I’m not a purist, and I’m going to follow what tastes good. I’m going to improvise.

It’s taken me a long time to be alright with improvising in the kitchen. I’d always tinker with recipes, but never tromp too far afield for fear of wasting food or making something not so hot (umm, that’s why god made smoothies and microwave popcorn, Lori). It’s taking me even longer to be okay with improvising a life. Lately I look at my “career,” a patchwork of things that I do, an assortment of hats I put on and take off: writer, campaigner, project manager, interviewer, editor, violin mom, pre-pubescent advisor, wife, gardener, adjudicator of Band-Aid worthiness, social media planner, fundraiser, communications strategist, listening ear, cook. And I think I felt like there must be something wrong with having all those hats. What am I really? Shouldn’t I be able to say?

But I’m all those things and more besides, and some I haven’t even started to be yet. An evolving list of ingredients, sometimes successful and sometimes, meh. I lose my mojo somewhere for awhile and then some days I wake up and, like the deft scrape and scoop of the line cook, I’m in the zone, and it comes out right. I’m not going to stop making it.


Pad Thai for Now

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

You’re gonna make 2 servings at a time in your wok, because that’s about how much fits in a nice big wok. If you don’t have a nice big wok, use any large saute pan that can take super high heat (not a nonstick pan or enameled cast iron). This recipe makes 4 humongous servings.

  • Soak in warm water to cover for at least 10 minutes and up to 15:
    • 1 lb rice sticks (dried rice noodles about linguine width)
  • Prep your tofu:
    • Either drain, press, and cube 1 lb of tofu, then fry in hot oil in the wok, drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and chili
      OR use a pre-baked tofu cut into small cubes (I like the kind from Trader Joe’s).
  • Stir together this sauce that I’ve extrapolated for myself. Yours will evolve, I’m sure. This is enough for 4 servings:
    • 4 T tamarind sauce/concentrate (this one I think is pretty essential, and it was at my local Asian market, so it’s probably at yours)
    • 1 T worcestershire sauce (you can sue me, but I’m not big on fish sauce, and pad thai I love is very light on it)
    • 1 T rice vinegar
    • 1 T low-sodium tamari or other soy sauce
    • 2 T dark brown or demerara sugar
  • Prep the rest of your setup:
    • 1 large bunch of scallions, chopped, white and green parts in separate bowls
    • 6 cloves garlic OR 2 small shallots, chopped
    • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten in a small bowl
    • Thai chili flakes or Sriracha sauce
    • Canola, grapeseed or other neutral, high-heat cooking oil
    • 3-5 cups bean sprouts
  • For the last stage, have ready:
    • lime wedges
    • chopped salted peanuts
    • ideally, chopped cilantro and Thai basil

 

Then it goes like this—about half of your ingredients from each of your prepped stashes as you cook 2 servings at a time.

  1. Drain your noodles and get your wok really screaming hot.
  2. Add: about 2 T oil
    Garlic or shallot plus white parts of scallions
    Stir-fry till they just start to take on color
  3. Add noodles (1/3 to 1/2 of the whole pound that you soaked)
    And the sauce (just half of it)
    Stir-fry until the noodles have absorbed the sauce and look mostly cooked
  4. Push your pile of noodles to the side of the wok
    Put 1/2 of your eggs in the blank spot and let this sit for a sec
    Throw your tofu, chili flakes, a small handful of bean sprouts, and a small handful of scallion greens on your noodle pile while you’re waiting for the eggs to get half-cooked.
  5. Scrambled the eggs and everything else into your noodles.
  6. Turn this out onto a plate, top with another small handful each of bean sprouts and scallions.
    Sprinkle generously with cilantro, basil, and peanuts, and squeeze lime over.
  7. Be happy with yourself, even as you chew over how you might change it up the next time.
    Hey, we’re alive here. We’re growing.
    xo
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Chicken and Egg

“You’ve gotta stop reading those mommy blogs. That’ll go a long way towards making you feel better.”

Kev and I were walking on the bike path, and although he’s the one with terminal cancer, I was the one complaining how rotten I felt. I wasn’t writing enough, achieving enough, making enough money. And worst of all, I’d gained weight. The horror! Kev wasn’t totally off-base in invoking “mommy blogs” as manufacturers of discontent. The culture of keeping up with the Joneses is ever more elevated by the cult of Pinterest-perfection, poisonous clickbait, and curating our “Fakebook” lives. He was telling me I cared too much what other people thought. And he was right.

The culture of “mommy blogging” (tho let’s acknowledge how poor that term is) does give us a few things that are truly valuable, one of which is that the space of caregiving is seen and the voices of caregivers are heard. At a birthday party last weekend, a grandmother who is raising her preschool-aged granddaughter had me bristling when she said she “couldn’t understand” parents who “say bad things about their children” on Facebook. What things, I wanted to know. You know, like posting pictures of terrible messes they’d made, or saying how frustrated you were with them. They were going to grow up and see all that negative stuff about themselves, she said. “We need to think about the children,” she said. And sure, she’s part right too.

But we’re always thinking about the children.

We need a place where we can vent, kvetch, engage in a collective eyeroll, and also take down the notion that if your life’s a mess, you’re doing it wrong. Facebook has been a place for us to do that. We don’t live in the Bronx of Grace Paley’s day, where the kids could roam the streets, grab a snack from anyone’s kitchen, and a mother needing a cup of tea from a compassionate neighbor could find one down the hall. I’m living far from my parents and sisters, and my college and graduate school pals are dispersed around the country. The demands of two-income families mean I don’t even see my marvelous  tribe of local mothers very often. Hence Facebook. I can’t yet cede that space to some future need for my offspring. I need that space. I need the benefit of the doubt, the acknowledgement of imperfection and messiness and difficulty of parenting and thinking and art-making and living. Being seen is a great gift we can give to each other. So I’ll cross my fingers and hope later that delete really means delete.

The dog pulled me along the path ahead of Kev, chasing a chipmunk. I wanted to explain my restlessness, my urgency to make changes in my life. “I just want to feel like I’m making progress,” I whined to Kev.

“Progress toward what? How can you make progress if you don’t know what you’re trying to move towards?” he countered.

I thought then about the needs I was bouncing between: self-acceptance and self-improvement. We want to feel better and we want to be better. But which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Some Personal Truths:

  1. I have accomplished some things.
  2. The things I’ve accomplished have been tremendously collaborative and not the sort of things that give a person much of a public profile.
  3. Not that I want that anyway. I think.
  4. I am eating a cookie right now.
  5. I believe in making the unseen work of caregiving seen and appreciated, in having collaborative work acknowledged and celebrated.
  6. This would be a largely self-serving glorification, since most of what I do seems to fall into that space.
  7. I haven’t reached my potential.
  8. Yet.

I didn’t always thirst for change. We had a hard couple of years when J was in cancer treatment, Stella was a sleepless newborn, and J had a scary period of unemployment. Last night on our date night J reminded me of a particular weekend four years ago:  Kev collapsed onstage at their rock show. J resuscitated Kev, stayed much of the night with him at the ER, then got up at 6 the next morning, took his last chemotherapy dose (hopefully his last ever, knock wood), and worked an all-day event for his job. I was stunned even by the retelling of these feats of stamina. “I think I’ve compartmentalized a lot of that,” I said to J. He nodded. People contort themselves into all kinds of positions for their many roles, and for many kinds of love.

When things finally stabilized after all that turmoil, we were so thankful to still be clinging to the life raft that there wasn’t a chance in hell we would rock it.  When change came to me a year ago in the form of job loss, I was terrified at first. But as I moved forward into it (this time, it must be said, with a financial safety net–let’s not pretend that doesn’t make a huge difference), I found joy both in picking up old threads and in launching myself into learning new things. Change was enlivening. But it’s life, now, isn’t it? Fits and starts. Weather.

As Kev and I were talking and walking along the path I saw a large robin’s egg shell and picked it up. It was an amazingly well-preserved, uncracked piece, a smooth, blue, beautiful thing. I thought of the girls immediately and wanted to share it with them. I put it gently into my jacket pocket. Later I forgot, and shoved my phone in there, smashing it to bits. Nothing to show.