Yes, I spent hours looking at the sea otters and glowing tropical fish at the Seattle Aquarium. I bought books at so many bookstores that I had to borrow a bag from a friend to take them all home. I enjoyed the below-70-degree weather and the downtown aromas and the men slinging fish at each other in Pike Place Market. I stumbled, slackjawed, through Portland’s Japanese Garden. I even found Bruce and Brandon Lee’s flower-laden gravestones in Volunteer Park. But, mostly, I ate. At least, it seems that way. Here are some victual vignettes from a week of gastronomical excess. Goddamn, my friends have great taste in food.
9 October (Seattle): Five of us are crammed into Thai Tom, a restaurant in the University District. The place can’t seat more than twenty or so at a time, and we’re seated at the bar overlooking the cooking space. We’re almost close enough to be licked by flames from the gas stoves. A whip-thin Thai man tends to his multiple pots and pans. All are simmering, sizzling, or boiling. He moves as if he’s slinging himself out of a rubber ladle, dipping and undulating as he adds a pinch of chili pepper here, a spoonful of peanut oil there. There are never less than three bubbling pots going at once—it’s a popular place. A teenage boy to the left of him preps rice and fresh vegetables. Slightly further back, an old man washes dishes quickly, with occasional head snaps to the two waitresses. Five people—that’s the whole operation. They execute the most precise dance I’ve seen in months, and yet they’re still finding time to crack jokes. My dish is called Swimming Rama—chicken, fresh spinach leaves, bell peppers, mushrooms, and mung bean sprouts, all drenched in a thick, creamy peanut sauce and sprinkled with peanut crumbs—and I can pick it apart from the other cooking dishes only because it smells even more seductive than what I’ve been smelling for the last twenty minutes. I refuse to describe how wonderful my meal tastes to me—that one’s just for me.
9 October (later the same day): Lae-Lae’s making dinner crepes for what turns out to be a small house party. She started around 6 p.m.; it’s now after eight, and the natives are getting restless. The oily spices and soothing cheese aroma—of feta, mozzarella, and cheddar—are enticing us. Our stomachs do somersaults. We hover around the stove. We cling to the kitchen walls, drinking our wine and hoping against hope that Lae-Lae will give us a taste before she’s done. No chance. Finally, she’s ready to use her homemade crepe batter. We make our own, dipping from bowls of fresh spinach, cheese, sautéed and chopped red bell pepper and garlic, and caramelized onions. Lae-Lae folds over the crepes and sticks them in the oven. By now, we’re becoming unbearable. The first bite nearly makes me collapse onto the floor. Several people say variants of “holy fucking shit.” Derek laments that his wife decided not to attend the party: “She’s an idiot.” Well, it’s only a half-lament; after all, no wife means more crepes for him. Lae-Lae admits that this is the first time she’s ever made this dish. I decide to believe her until I chew on the first, gooey bite of the dessert crepe. The banana slices are so warm and bittersweet, and blend perfectly with the nutty, chocolately Nutella. She has to be lying. This can’t be beginner’s luck.
10 October: Ernesto and I are having a quiet breakfast at Charlie’s, on Broadway. For me, it’s chicken-fried steak covered in a surprisingly light gravy sprinkled with parsley, along with scrambled eggs and salsa, bacon, and whole wheat toast with seedy, tangy strawberry preserves. Ernesto’s got the Skillet—a big omelette with toasted ham chunks, bell peppers, onions, cheddar cheese, and other vegetables. The waitress has a smirking smile, dyed black hair, and eyebrows that arch above her façade of innocence. Even in her starched white shirt and black slacks, I’m absolutely convinced that she fronts a goth-metal band in her spare time, and that it’s sexy as hell. She’s the only element of Charlie’s that couldn’t have come from 1942. The food is defiantly fattening and rich. The décor is even more old-school: big velvety, maroon-colored chairs, wooden tables, four-foot-tall mirrors with ornate framework, fine prints of Dr. Pepper ads from the 1930s and opera posters, and Tiffany lamps. Even the colorful overhead light fixture looks like an Art Deco design. I could spend all day watching the sunlight here.
12 October (Portland): Jorge has taken me to the Delta, a place he swears has the best down-home Cajun country food west of Louisiana. That’s like saying a restaurant’s got the best Tex-Mex north of the Mason-Dixon line—it doesn’t amount to much. When Jorge mentions that they make their own flavored vodkas, and that the flavors include cucumber, dill, and hazelnut, I get even more nervous. I relax as soon as I step inside. The Delta’s walls are decked out in purple and gold, the chairs are ratty, and the tables are wobbly. The lighting is dim. The black-eyed pea/corn fritters win me over. The blackened red snapper knocks me down. The spicy, just barely wet ribs lift me up. The collard greens, doused with pork fat, make me do a little jig in my chair. Only the red beans and rice disappoint—not enough sausage, and the elements aren’t mixed together or spiced well. Otherwise, I could be in a dive in New Orleans. And I decide, what the hell, I’ll order that most symbolic of Southern beverages. It’s tall, filled with fresh mint leaves, and is almost (but not quite) sweet. I’ve lived in Mississippi for a decade, but I’ve drinking my very first, and very tasty, mint julep in a fantastic restaurant in Portland freaking Oregon. I can’t do anything else but giggle.
15 October (back in Seattle): Ernesto and Lae-Lae throw me a birthday party, complete with Tex-Mex food and lots of the couple’s friends. Ernesto grew up with me in Dallas, so he knows from Mexican food, but Lae-Lae (the cook) was raised in Colorado. And she’s a vegetarian. Tonight’s tacos will be filled with fake meat. I would worry more, but I’ve had Lae-Lae’s crepes—we’ll be fine. We are. Most people make chalupas, an authentic Taco Bell dish, with their ingredients. Basically, you slather refried beans on a flour tortilla, and fold it around a crisp taco shell brimming with fake meat, onions, lettuce, cheese, and peppers. Lae-Lae has relented and uses genuine Velveeta for her queso dip. She adds black olives and black beans to the dip; we don’t complain. The guacamole, always my favorite dip, is superb. Most Northerners assume that guacamole is nothing more than mashed-up avocado. Lae-Lae knows better. Mix the avocado with diced onions, diced tomatoes, a dab of sour cream, a copious helping of lime juice, cayenne pepper, and a dash of salt—now that’s guacamole. We celebrate with tequila shots and dance music.
How crazy is this? I’m in the Pacific Northwest for a full week, I only eat one seafood meal, and that doesn’t bother me at all.
*With apologies to M.F.K. Fisher.