Monday, April 29, 2013

Anxious to close

JP's Blue Plate Special

JP's jagacita, of Cape Verdean and Puerto Rican descent, is rice studded with shell beans and sausage, the equivalent of jambalaya or Bahamian pigeon peas and rice. The secret ingredient is ketchup, as in Thai street fried rice—the world's perfect condiment. A blend of three of the Thai five flavors—sweet, salty, sour. The other two being spicy and bitter, although bitterness is just my word for the fifth-flavor approximation. The bitterness of coffee or cress or or kale or burnt garlic, although maybe all of those are merely the Japanese fifth flavor, umami, after all.

My brother's Thai friend, who cooked for us duck curry and savory fried omelets filled with ground pork, said they made it that way for us because we were farangs, Americans, foreigners, and farangs want everything with ketchup. It is perhaps true. I use it in my fried rice, just a tablespoon, and on my potatoes, and JP uses it in jag. It comes from Indonesia by way of India and the British raj, according to one story, where it's a syrupy black soy concoction, with fermented anchovy and tamarind and tomato, closer to Worcestershire sauce than anything.

All of our food comes from afar, is an amalgam of history that our genes themselves are. The definitive jag also calls for Stewart's shelled beans, a kind I'd never heard of before moving to New England, a pale pink moist bean. Evidently Scottish, it has a Stewart plaid on the label and is canned in West Paris, Maine. Just the thing for Puerto Rican food.

And also then linguica, the Portugese sausage inherited in Massachusetts from Cape Verde, red and garlicky and chunked with cubes of fat, a sausage that should by rights be at least as famous as bratwurst or kielbasa. But you can't even buy it outside New England. I tried, in Chicago, when I wanted to make Portugese kale soup, the perfect vehicle for greens. The only essential ingredients are kale, kidney beans, potatoes, and—linguica. Even the artisanal boutique saucisseries in Boystown didn't carry it.

I always want to travel everywhere, and when I get there, I am the most enthusiastic locavore—wanting to eat whatever is the local-est, whether beer, fast food, street noodles, or sausage, and I still look at the life I'm living now with an outsider's eyes. Aroostookisms, here, New England specialties retain the exciting frisson of a tourist's gaze: poutain (deep-fried potatoes drenched in beef gravy and melted cheese), coffee milk, frappes, and fried clams are still more exotic to me that guiteau nam and plah sahm roht and unripe papaya salad. Maybe it's the gift that my parents gave me. I am an eternal traveler passing through, and I will remain so even if I live here for the rest of my life.

Whatever I see, I read as an anthropologist. I snap shots as a journalist. I'm a food critic and a travel writer, even in my hometown, because it is not, of course, my hometown. I'd come to Detroit, the city of my birth, with the same existentialist terror with which I approach locals in almost any context, even my own neighbors.

Shortly before midnight, last night, I stood in my kitchen watching “boat television,” the hypnotic shuffle of nine years of photographs from my life with K—starting from the Appalachian Trail—overlaid with my iTunes library, always on shuffle. I have written before about my attraction to randomness. It is something I love, like God is speaking directly. He spoke last night, showing us a photo of the front yard in summer. The sky is blue and cloudless. The front yard and garden and ring of pines green. The beaver pond, fringed with water plants and cattails. It looks like Acadia, a mythical perfect paradise. It is Acadia. It is perfect. It is heaven.

K cracks: “But it doesn't show the mosquitoes.”

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