Monday, February 14, 2011

Pad Thai, chicken, hot

The custody arrangement I grew up with was the school year with my mom, and every other weekend plus the summer with my dad. As any child of divorce knows, this process is akin to visiting a foreign country - there are new laws, varying customs, and all the people in charge have different names.

My dad was remarried, my brothers lived with him, and he had a house with a yard; my mom remained single, my sister lived with her, and we lived in an apartment. My dad was convivial, my mom melancholy; my dad liked to go out, my mom was a homebody.

The biggest difference, however, was food.

My mom tried to cook. Really, she did. She got better - we still ask her to make her pork chops - but that was after. When I was a kid, I'd watch her fix too-dry oven steak, or soup from a packet, or McCormick chili; one time she just said "Fuck it" and poured a can of black beans on top of Doritos.
Eating was nourishment, end of line.

At my dad's house, eating was an event;  in fact, eating was the event. Dinner was my dad's Mass, and the store his Church; on Sunday we'd go to Sam's Club, taking the communion of vendors on holy toothpicks. I was a bulk retail altar boy, ferrying additional samples to him with steps as sure as any crucifer.

The man loved to cook, and he could cook well: chili, steak, ham, bean soup, roast. It was cosmically unfair to my mom that he made the same things she did.

Cooking wasn't a idle hobby he picked up, either - despite being the middle of his two brothers, he was the one who kept house when the adults were away. My grandfather was a long haul truck driver who took his wife with him, so they were gone most of the time.

On the farm, there were times of scarcity. My dad remembers trying to stretch a few ingredients to make a full meal for his brothers, and occasionally going to bed hungry so they'd have something to eat.

This had a profound affect on him, even after the family moved to the city. My dad started his own business, which he worked to make successful. As money began to flow in, he vowed, "I'll never eat poor again, and my kids sure as hell won't."

What this meant for us was that we could eat anything we wanted; literally anything

If we wanted him to make his country style green beans, with ham hocks, or jowl bacon, he would; if we wanted Alaskan king crab legs, we'd have them; if we wanted filet mignon, it was ours.

He'd send my stepmom to three, four different restaurants so we could all have the exact dinner we wanted. Between the ages of six and sixteen, I ate better at his house than most adults do in their entire lives; taking the long view, I ate better than most adults have in the history of civilization.

Over the last decade, I've been steadily trying to forget all that; I don't have the money my dad did, and probably never will. I'd eat myself into poverty if I tried to keep up.

...but sometimes, I still get cravings.

One day, I wanted Thai food; specifically, I wanted Pad Thai, chicken, hot. It was nothing we ever ate as kids, but as an adult I love ethnic food. I fought the craving that day, and the next one, and then for almost a week. I was already over my restaurant budget for January, but my stomach didn't care. Every meal was bargain basement leavings compared to my imagined Pad Thai, chicken, hot.

My resolve crumbled at the worst possible time.

That night, my city received a record snowfall, and the municipal government lacked the money to salt the roads, or even plow them. Every thoroughfare had the consistency of pudding, with ice underneath. It was well below freezing, with a negative wind chill.

Still - I wanted Pad Thai, chicken, hot.

I called the order in like a death row inmate making his last request, put my shoes on, and started brushing the car off. When my neighbor saw what I was doing, she came outside with her house guest, worried. Surely something was wrong; that's the only reason to leave the house in the middle of a winter hellstorm, right?

When I told them I was only going to pick up Thai food, they tried to stop me. I don't know if they saw the mad gleam in my eyes, but they backed off when I stated my goal with resolve: "I want Pad Thai, chicken, hot." I might have said that exact phrase a few too many times.

Cresting the first hill took twenty minutes. I had my car in first gear, the traction control system lighting up the dashboard like I was taking incoming fire. My tires spun, I slipped sideways, and repeatedly slid backwards. I finally disabled the traction control system, popped my car in full drive, and hit the gas on that bitch.

I shot forward like an arrow, totally out of control...but I was making it!

I turned my CD player on in a mad rush, and Ryan Adams's new album (III-IV) came on, playing the first song, Breakdown into the Resolve. I slid down the steep hill that leads out of my subdivision, braking, cutting the wheel, dropping gears, all while listening to Ryan Adams sing, furiously backed by wailing electric guitars:

Its pitiful what I hold dear, I throw away
And so, it still comes and goes
It's better now, that I get these bad ideas
I get my dreams confused....wishes
bad ideas, bad ideas to lie me down and get into the resolve

At the bottom I maneuvered between the stalled cars, the cars in ditches, and the men getting out to help push. I swerved around another dead car as I surmounted the last hill, and pumped my fist in triumph - I was finally on my way to Pad Thai, chicken, hot!

My tires kicked up a wake of slush, and it sounded like I was driving on gravel, or bones. I later found out there were over a hundred reported accidents that night. I wondered how many people slammed into a parked car, or a moving car, and kept on moving themselves?

I switched CDs, and the bass beat of Kanye West's new album kept me company in the dimly lit snow globe my city had become. I agreed that I too was a motherfucking monster.

At the shopping center, an entire force of snowblowers, men with shovels, and small carts with scoops attached had amassed to battle the snow, all in the name of the next day's profit margins. I wished them well as I slid by, myself a man on a mission.

I arrived at the restaurant - itself called Pad Thai - safely. And, to be honest, a little reverently. Old habits die hard.

The restaurant was deserted, and the proprietors were so happy to have a customer they gave me six unasked for fortune cookies. I thanked them profusely, and answered their questions about how bad the roads were. I told them about the retail army as well, to buoy their spirits.

In my hands I finally had my Pad Thai, chicken, hot.

The return trip was uneventful. I took the back way into my subdivision, skipping the big hill - I'm good, but no one's that good. I shut the door behind me, tore off my snow soaked clothes, cracked a beer, and sat down with my Pad Thai, chicken, hot. I made myself use chopsticks, to savor it.

Was it worth the risk? Was it everything I wanted? Would I do it again?

Do you even have to ask?


  1. that place does have some excellent pad thai, I always liked asking for extra peanut sauce.

  2. damn it, James! Now I am craving Tom Yum Noodle Soup, tofu, hot. ;-)