It is Sunday night in the city. December. The world smells like a urine harvest. A fallen hair on a curb gazes up at you, quivering. You are cold. Your coat is cold. Your heart is cold. You want nothing more than a noodle. A wide avenue of noodle on which to lay your weary soul. And then, through the darkness, you see them. The sans serif letters of a — yes, oh yes, here in the city — a Thai. A tiny sign, floating in the wind. You breathe. Your olfactory bulb knows what to do. You swim in the smell of the basil, the fish sauce, the lemongrass, the love.
When I first came to New York, I ate Thai nearly five times a week. I practically masturbated to Thai. I had no job, no friends, no furniture. On most days, I woke up naked and stared at a brick wall like a little Gloomy Gus. But there was a restaurant, a dimly lit shoebox and a hostess with deep cleavage who would take me in on Saturday nights and serve me green balls of tenderness and hope, which she insisted on calling “vegetable dumplings.”
Noodles cut with God’s teeth. Sauce like angel sperm. Bowls of curry that contained souls, whole souls, swimming in the coconut cream.
I’d walk home, my belly full of sesame and soy, smiling up at the moon.
For my parents, it was Chinese. My mother can wax rhapsodic about the sensuality of the button mushrooms in Moo Goo Gai Pan. My father can tell you about the first time he felt the dulcet skin of a lo mein noodle between his lips.
And for my parents’ parents, Jews from Ukraine, it’s Italian. My grandmother still gets orgasm-eyed when I whisper the word “manicotti.” And my grandfather can tell you about the first time he bit into a slice of pizza, in Philadelphia with his friends – World War II vets – who had eaten it during their days of homesickness and boredom in Sicily, after the Allied invasion.
Why do we fetishize these agglomerations of spices and colors, smells and shapes? I know what you’re thinking, dear reader: Go read some Edward Said, you rube, because I can already taste the Orientalism in this essay. OK, yes. But maybe that’s my point.
Because look. Picking up my Thai food last night (at a new restaurant, far from the vegetable dumplings of yore), a man in a raj pattern jacket told me that I would have to wait fifteen minutes for my order. So I stood there as he folded pieces of cardboard to make shallow little takeout boxes.
He approached the front of house manager. Asked about a price: Cuanto es?
And he looked at me. In the eye. And he flinched. Flinched. When we made eye contact, he flinched. Why? Because he knew. He knew I knew. That there are men from Honduras and Ecuador and Puerto Rico impersonating Thai men in our Thai restaurants, and that this is America, and this is 2013, and the humans who immigrated here, in some cases breaking laws to do so, have to dress as Thai government officials from the 19th century just to get by.
So yes, of course, this is fifty shades of postcolonial. But you already knew that. My desire for Thai has somehow induced contrition within Latino men when they speak Spanish at work. Not ideal. But, hey, we all play a part at work. It’s just that sometimes those parts tend toward overt cultural cliché.
And, the coup de grâce: we like it. We like food that makes us feel like we are breaking the rules. Propriety, patriotism, political correctness. General Tso: a nineteenth-century military leader, symbol of nationalism and virility, who we fry, cover in cornstarch, and swallow. Pizza: circles of mozzarella and tomato pulp, white-red badges of Fascism for Grandfather Sockel and his amigos in 1947.
We can’t help it. We can’t control our hunger, no matter how hard we try.
And here is where the essay stops and the rhapsody begins. Because can I tell you what I did when the disconcerted man in the raj pattern jacket gave me my meal?
I fucking ate it. I ate all of it. I ate it like Niagara Falls. These noodles that emerged from a kind of barely disguised theatre, fried up by an actor in a tiny Manhattan kitchen.
Call me imperialist. Call me a white man with a hard-on for soy. Do it. But I will never stop lathering my soul in the sweet tang of a Pad See Ew. My parents will never stop serenading the chop suey they ate the night before they first had sex. And my grandmother will never stop her knees from shaking when she thinks about the tumescent plume of ricotta in a freshly baked cylinder of manicotti.
And as for me, when I get engaged I will propose to my lover with Thai. I will say to them: “All I want is to sleep with you inside a vegetable dumpling.” We will cover ourselves in coconut milk before we make love. We will fellate the holy basil. We will bathe our children in chili. They will grow up big and strong, with galangal in their bones and palm sugar in their hearts.