At that certain special moment in art history graduate school, I faced the prospect of studying for my oral exams. At my program, if you were a modernist, this entailed sitting in a darkened room with three professors who would flash up slides on the screen for you to identify (artist, title, date) and discuss; the pictures could be anything produced in Europe or North America from 1760 to present, and one of the examiners in particular was notorious for having seen (or discovered in an attic) pretty much every painting ever produced in the western world. Previous generations of students had produced a bibliography from which to study, which was handed down to everyone who went through the ritual of cramming for the test. By the time I inherited it, it was about twenty-five pages, 9-point type, single-spaced, mostly full-length books. Perhaps three or four hundred books, and another half that amount in articles. (There may be some "I walked five miles to school in eight feet of snow" revisionism going on here, but I don't think so.) Everything you wanted to know to teach the history of western art from the eighteenth century forward, but were afraid to ask.
Most students at the time took five or six months to study for orals; because I had spent the summer in France with my boyfriend and possessed an overconfidence (read: embarrassing-in-retrospect arrogance) about my own abilities, I planned on taking three. What I lacked in pleasantness of character I made up in discipline; I would wake up at an early hour, walk through Central Park to get to the library, install myself at a table with today's stack of books piled up, and mow through the pages for nine hours every day, without fail, six days a week. Today it would be Biedermeier painting, tomorrow it would be Daumier, then three days of Courbet, then a half day of Fontainbleau landscape. I filled a series of notebooks with beautiful, precise writing, lines and lines of notes on what I had read. I would expend myself completely, and relished the numbness I felt when I finally packed up my things, and often I couldn't remember how I got home, and when I got home I would go through the motions of being a girlfriend to my boyfriend so that I could finally crawl into bed and pretend to sleep, my only refuge from words in my long day. It didn't matter that I hardly slept; at least there was silence, and blankness.
A week before my exams, my father had a heart attack. I flew back to western Canada to see him in the ICU, weak and hooked up to machines. I told him funny stories to cheer him up -- about the Mafia family suing Rudy Giuliani for ethnic bias because he shut down their stall at the Fulton Fish Market, about Doris Duke's butler who was charged with embezzling money from her foundation so that he could buy a quarter of a million dollar's worth of cubic zirconium jewellery -- but when I saw how he winced when he laughed I stopped doing that. After consulting with the doctors my parents told me to return to New York and take my exam, and then fly back the next morning to Alberta to be there for dad's open heart surgery.
The exam was fine -- probably better than fine, because I was on autopilot, not paying too much attention to what was on the screen and not second guessing my answers. I'm always at my best when my brain isn't around to get in the way. And so I was brilliant and then it was over and then the next morning I was on a plane back to Calgary where my dad was weak and terrified and my mother and sister were freaking out and I was physically, mentally, and psychically exhausted and we all fought (not my dad) and when I was brought in to see dad post-op hooked up to all the tubes and machines I fainted and then after a few days we drove him back to our town in hellishly cold weather where he collapsed in the bathroom one day with blood gushing out of his femoral artery and only my mother was home to stanch the flow and none of us knew how to deal with what we had gone through in the past months, weeks, days so we couldn't figure out how to support each other and we all felt lost and scared and tired and stressed and relieved, so relieved.
When I went back to New York after a few weeks, I started cooking. I suddenly had the intense urge to learn Thai cuisine, so I bought a book (no pictures, oddly) and started researching the ingredients and methods and flavors and history of this food. I would go, practically every day, on the 45-minute subway trip down to Chinatown to pick up the provisions I needed -- smooth, pink shallots, bunches of cilantro with its roots attached, galangal (fragrant baby ginger), lime leaves, shrimp paste, garlic, spicy bundles of holy basil, rice noodles, stalks of lemongrass, and a variety of ingredients with names I couldn't decipher because they were in Thai -- and make my way back up to the apartment to pound together curry pastes or make aromatic stocks for lemony soups or steam rice till it was sticky enough to roll into a ball. Inevitably I would forget one important thing, necessitating a trip back to Chinatown the next day. Every evening my boyfriend -- eventually my husband, and then after that my ex -- would come home to find some elaborate and complex meal waiting for him, but by and by his greediness for the food turned into concern for my state of being, and he urged me to get to work on my dissertation proposal and research and work at the museum. There was so much to do. And yet, there I was. Stuck in the kitchen.
I told this story to a friend recently, and he wondered whether my propensity to lock myself in the kitchen when I need to work through difficult feelings was a sign that cooking is what I should be doing with my life; it took me about five seconds to chew on that question before answering "No." It's exactly because cooking wants nothing from me (perfection, devotion, attention) and I want nothing from it (material comfort, validation, success) that makes it my perfect refuge, my solace, my rest cure. So I turn off my mind while I busy my hands, my senses, my curiosity, and I find my way out of the harder parts of my life. It's pretty simple, in the end.
Red Curry with Vegetables
Since my foray into "authentic" Thai cooking, in which I pounded out my curry pastes from scratch, I have turned to a much easier method (recommended to me by my Thai friends): using premade pastes. Don't buy "Taste of Thai" products which are readily available in grocery stores; they do not Taste of Thai. Instead, look for curry pastes in little tins or tubs like the ones pictured; Mae Ploy brand is pretty widely available. I always keep a tub of red paste on hand, and a few tins of green curry and massamman curry paste in the pantry, too. Chaokoah coconut milk is my brand of choice, and is also found widely; chill the can in the fridge for about 30 minutes before you start to cook to let the cream rise to the top of the can and harden, if you'd like, although it's not always necessary. I use Squid brand fish sauce -- a Thai version, identifiable by the big ugly squid on the label. Believe it or not, with these things on hand this is an incredibly fast meal to make.
3-4 TB red curry paste
1/2 c julienned bamboo shoots, drained and rinsed
2 TB Thai fish sauce
juice of 1 small lime
1 tsp packed brown sugar
1/2 c cashew nuts
a handful of Thai or Italian basil or cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Any combination of the following vegetables:
1 sliced red onion
a handful of green beans, cut into 1" pieces
1 large carrot, cut into batonnets (strips)
1/2 sliced red pepper
2 c winter squash, such as butternut, cut into 1" chunks
1/2 small zucchini, cut into batonnets
6 asparagus spears, ends snapped off and the rest cut into 2" picees
1. In a saucepan, place the about 2 TB of the solid cream from the top of a can of coconut milk, along with the curry paste, over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the coconut cream melts and melds with the paste, and the whole concoction bubbles and turns color.
2. To this, add your vegetables. Sauté for a minute.
3. Add the remaining coconut milk from the can you opened, along with one can full of water, and let cook on a simmer until the vegetables are tender but not soft. Add bamboo shoots. Heat through.
4. Add fish sauce, lime juice, and brown sugar; taste to make sure that the salty, tart, and sweet flavors are balanced to your liking, although keep in mind that it's meant to be tarter than perhaps you think it should be.
5. Stir in cashew nuts and the herbs. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.
¾ lb flat rice noodles, around fettucini width
3 TB fish sauce
3 TB ketchup
2 TB rice vinegar
1.5 TB packed brown sugar
¼ tsp ground cayenne pepper, or more to taste
3 eggs, beaten
2 tsp plus 2 TB canola oil
8 garlic cloves, minced
4 small shallots, minced
¾ lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 scallions, halved lengthwise and cut into 1” pieces
¾ c water
¼ c dry-roasted peanuts, crushed
¼ c cilantro leaves, chopped
lime wedges for serving
1. Soak rice noodles in cold water for about 30-40 minutes, until pliable.
2. In a bowl, combine fish sauce, ketchup, rice vinegar, brown sugar, and cayenne pepper.
3. In a large frying pan, scramble eggs in 2 tsp canola oil, and remove to a bowl.
4. Wipe out skillet and heat 2 TB canola oil over high heat until smoking. Add garlic and shallots and sauté until fragrant and golden. Add shrimp and sauté for 1-2 minutes or until cooked through. Add the sauce, drained noodles, scallions, and water, and use cooking tongs to lift the noodles and combine the ingredients. Cook 3-5 minutes until the noodles are tender and excess water is absorbed, stirring and lifting the noodles with tongs to ensure everything is cooked evenly and well-mixed. (Add more water if necessary so the noodles are tender.) Add eggs and toss well.
5. Garnish with peanuts and cilantro, and serve with lime wedges on the side.
Thai Chicken with Basil
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 TB canola oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 small red or green chilies, minced
¼ c chicken broth or water
1 TB Thai fish sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
¼ tsp black pepper
1.5 c holy basil or Italian basil leaves
2 TB freshly-squeezed lime juice
1. Freeze chicken breast for 30 minutes to make slicing easier. Cut chicken lengthwise into 1/4" slices; cut the slices lengthwise into 1/4" strips. Cut strips crosswise into 2" pieces.
2. In a small bowl, make the sauce: combine chilies, broth, fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce, and black pepper.
2. Heat canola oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add garlic. When fragrant, add chicken and cook until opaque, about 3-4 minutes. Add the sauce, and stir-fry until combined.
3. Add basil leaves, and stir until wilted. Stir in lime juice. Serve hot with steamed jasmine rice.
Green Mango Salad with Thai Dressing
1 head Boston (butter) lettuce (or the lettuce of your choice)
¼ c freshly-squeezed lime juice
2.5 TB loosely-packed cilantro stems
1 TB Thai fish sauce
6 cloves garlic
2-3 small Thai chilies, sliced into thin rings or 1 serrano chili, minced (seeded if you prefer to keep the heat manageable)
1 TB light brown sugar
1 large, unripe (green) mango
5 TB shallots, finely sliced
1 c loosely packed mint leaves
¼ c whole sprigs of cilantro
1. Separate the lettuce leaves, leaving them whole. Wash and dry. Line a platter with the lettuce (you may not need the whole head).
2. Make the dressing: In a small food processor or blender, combine lime juice, cilantro stems, fish sauce, garlic, chilies, and sugar. Blend until smooth.
3. Julienne the flesh of the peeled mango. Place in a bowl shallots and mint leaves. Toss with the dressing.
4. Transfer contents of bowl to the platter, and garnish the whole with sprigs of cilantro.