Steve and Jemjahn go to Thailand, 2003
I don’t care what I eat when I’m hungry. All I ask is that it’s edible and that it’s quick. Give me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a can of sardines, or Campbell’s soup, and I'm a happy camper.
Yet I'm also the one who, the past 35 years, always comes home to a delicious, hot, home cooked meal. My Jemjahn loves to cook, and brings up unearthly delights without apparent effort. She's a woman who sees it as a personal affront to her wifely duties if her husband comes home and dinner isn’t steaming and ready for him on the table.
So I don’t care what I eat. Because I know it will be good. Hate to admit, I don’t even much look at what I eat. I like to read while eating, or feel the meal wasn't a good use of time. (Please see my Deserted Island Books site.)
Jem, on the other hand, takes eating seriously. Coming home from work tired and hungry, she'll sometimes grab leftovers from the fridge. More often, though, she’ll take a half hour to prepare herself a feast made entirely from scratch. Then she’ll sit down and eat two servings of it. She won’t read while she’s eating, either. She’ll concentrate on her meal, not even pretending to want to talk with me. It’s a concept I can’t grasp, but it works for her.
It might have something to do with the abject poverty she endured as a child. If not for an aunt she affectionately calls Half-Fish, pictured at left, who would share even her last fish with Jem's family, there were many days when nothing was on the table but what had been found in the fields. For the past few years, Jem has been supporting Half-Fish in her old age, and will continue until she dies.
On Jem’s previous trips to Thailand, when she went without me, she’d always come back having lost about ten pounds in just two weeks. I’d ask what happened, and she’d say, with mock anger, “They made me walk!”
Was it all the walking I did, or was it eating all my meals outdoors in the screened area under the house, but meals were a highlight of the day.
Or was it the cooks who vied to feed the farang from America?
Breakfast was usually light, sometimes just a can of sardines brought from home, with bread and coffee. Sometimes it was scrambled eggs that tasted awfully good (fresh duck eggs, Jem said), sometimes just some coffee and sweet bananas.
When I was around the house for lunch, we often brought food down from the noodle shop up the street. A large, hot bowl of noodles with chicken or pork cost only fifty cents. It was delicious and filling.
Dinner was when the sisters went all out. I’d always thought Jem was the world's best cook, but her sister Jang temporarily captured the title. When I told her that – yes, in Jem’s presence – she grinned. Later, Jem told me Jang wouldn't stop talking about it.
It actually got to where I was looking forward to dinner. What new feast would I find tonight?
The first few days, my plate came to the table with more than I should eat. But, brought up not to leave any food, I’d finish it all.
Jem, on the other hand, often leaves food on her plate at the end of a meal. It’s always bothered me, especially considering that there were long periods as a child when she actually starved. But she says it’s a Thai custom not to finish everything, maybe because it shows you’re not poor and starving and can afford to be wasteful with food.
Jang was confused when she saw my dishes coming back completely clean. Was her farang brother-in-law really poor? Did he have to borrow money to come to Thailand?
Jem explained my thinking to her, that food shouldn’t be discarded when the cook put so much effort into the meal and, more important, while people in the world are hungry. Jang thought that sensible and stopped wondering about my clean plates.
Social customs often start by example from the rich, which to the villagers I surely was. Maybe my habit of not wasting food will be adopted by Jem’s family, then by all the families in the village, then by all of Thailand. Wouldn’t that be great.
In the 17 days we spent in Thailand, sometimes eating at various noodle shops in the village and in Bangkok, I never once had diarrhea. Two days after returning home, I did.
next: Jem's Family