Freedom of Choice
On a recent trip to southern California, I found myself in a large Vietnamese neighborhood only a few miles from Disneyland. I stopped in at a shopping center restaurant that offered special pork vitals
soup (Chad Long), eel hot pot (Lau Long), goat with curried onion and coconut milk (De Xao Lan), salted pickled plum drink (Xi Muoi), and pennyworth leaves drink (Rau Ma). I tried one of the goat curries,
which was excellent, a grilled eel dish that was heavy on bones and light on meat, one of the traditional pho soups, which was highly aromatic and delicious, and the salted plum drink, evidently an acquired taste.
After lunch, I drove across the street (in southern California you cannot walk across the street without ending up as roadkill) to a huge Vietnamese supermarket. The produce display was prodigious, including chayoky squash (a small, round squash), Vietnamese celery (very thin and delicate), five kinds of mint, seven kinds of basil, galangal (a gingerlike root), fresh turmeric, panai leaves, white bittermelon, and miniature Thai eggplant. In the meat and fish department, shoppers were snapping up pork snouts, skate wings, fish balls of varying colors, jumbo prawns, belt fish, goby fish, Taiwan milk fish, apple snails, live stone crab, and frozen mud fish. I also found ten brands of coconut milk, salted duck eggs, pickled young grape in jars, and young tamarind leaf. It was like dying and going to heaven-- the ultimate gourmet supermarket.
But the exhilaration of new foods was accompanied by profound culture shock. I felt like a recent Russian immigrant in Queens, suddenly confronted with a thousand choices. Where to live? What car to drive? Whether to subscribe to The New York Times or Daily News? Would I cook mud fish or German carp? Should I buy bittermelon or miniature Thai eggplant? As I grow older, I find abundance problematic. There is something intimate about making do with what is available, finding yet another way to prepare kidney beans, cook a chicken, or expand on my August repertoire of corn soup, corn fritters, corn relish, corn muffins, and corn pudding. Yet, the lure of a shop with ten types of fresh fish is as strong as the lure of Disney World to my seven-year-old.
I often wonder if choice and happiness are good companions. As Chris Schlesinger, co-author of The Thrill of the Grill, says, you can't like both Texas and North Carolina barbecue. If you mention a tomato-based sauce east of Raleigh, you'll need to do some quick explaining. And I was thrilled to read Silicon Snake Oil, in which a pioneering computer hacker describes why he has given up the endless choices available on the Internet for a more circumscribed existence based in the real world. Another friend of mine, a doctor in the Ayurvedic tradition of India, offers his own theory of modern life. We are living in a time of Vata imbalance, he says, a period in which we are aggravated by a flood of choices, which leads to a loss of vitality.
In the kitchen, we also have to make choices. Perhaps over time, chayoky squash or miniature eggplant will creep into my repertoire, but, for now, I am suspicious of the benefits of the culinary superhighway. That's why I don't care much for tasting menus when I eat out, preferring to choose one dish rather than flitting from one bite to the next. That's also why my wife and I have turned off our home computer and unplugged the television. The kids read books, run around the house, fight, get bored, play games, and make too much noise. There are evenings when we feel like Homer and Marge Simpson, a frightening admission, but there is something oddly endearing about that family because their cartoon existence is chaotic, absurd, and entirely banal-- that is, comfortably familiar.
At the end of my trip, I had dinner with Marion Cunningham, a friend and cookbook author. We always eat at the same restaurant, sit at the same table, and order roast chicken with potatoes and baked custard for dessert. Like old friends, we find deep satisfaction in the familiar. Although open to change, Marion, like all great home cooks, has made choices, spending time wisely in the kitchen, cooking what suits her. For each of us, there is a type of cooking that has a deep connection with our view of ourselves. It may be goat curry or may be pot roast, but good cooks know that, sooner or later, they have to limit their repertoire. Are we disappointed that Julia Child isn't teaching Thai cooking or that Marcella Hazan isn't an expert on beaten biscuits? Of course not.
Yet the memory of that Vietnamese supermarket is difficult to erase. The mint. The jumbo prawns. The stone crab. I am tempted to join the culinary revolution and leave behind what could be considered the relatively parochial cooking of New England. But perhaps making the right choice is more important than having many choices. And for me, that choice is to be loyal to the traditions, the people, and the foods of my childhood.