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Let's wing it

Before I say anything else, I want to thank you for your kindness about my aunt.  I was very nervous when I put up that post, but I felt much better for having written it, and I hoped that meant something.  Thank you for reading, and for saying what you did, and mostly, for understanding.

There is no smooth transition to be made from talking about death to discussing Thai food.  Let’s wing it.

I don’t know why that fried egg looks like it has no yolk. It definitely had one, because before I took this picture, I punctured it with that spoon. I think this is my punishment for not taking a proper photograph: my iPhone ate the yolk. Anyway, please imagine that it’s there. And while you’re at it, imagine that I’m totally, totally, 100% prepared to have a baby. Go on.

I found out a few weeks ago that I’m anemic, which at least partly explained why I had nearly dozed off at a stoplight a couple of times and once cried when I couldn’t get a kitchen drawer to open.  My doctor prescribed iron supplements and plenty of beef.  The good, grass-fed kind, he said. Its a very nice thing to be ordered by one’s physician to eat more meat, and I was excited about it - except that, because I was busy dozing off at stoplights, I couldn’t think of what to eat.  A person can only go so far with hamburgers and steak.  That was when I called up Matthew, and he told me to make a Thai dish: stir-fried ground beef with chiles and basil, served on a bed of rice, with a fried egg.

I’ve made it four times since, and one of those times was in Oklahoma, for my mother and cousins, so they can vouch for it.  In fact, maybe this will tell you something.  It
’s thunderstorm season in Oklahoma, an annual event that I spent my entire childhood dreading, and a giant hailstorm hit that night, as we were finishing our meal.  The windows along the back of the house began to shatter, and as we ran to the closets for cover, you could hear the wind screaming through the rooms. But the Thai beef was tasty enough that, after we had come out of hiding, my cousin Jason hovered over the wok, tempted to dip in for seconds, even though the leftovers shimmered with tiny shards of glass.  It’s a very good recipe.

The original version of it comes from David Thompson
’s excellent book Thai Street Food, and as Thai street foods go, he says, it’s fairly new - maybe only fifty years old.  He recommends using as many chiles as you can handle, because the dish is meant to be spicy. As he explains, the "supple richness" of the fried egg is meant to offset the heat.  What I like about it, other than the fact that it’s fragrant and bright and hot, is that it’s nearly instant.  You can make it in less than ten minutes, with ingredients that you might well have lying around.  The original recipe calls for holy basil, but I used regular basil.  I used beef, but Matthew likes pork.  And if you can’t find Thai chiles, you could easily substitute serranos.  The important part is hard to mess up, and that’s chewy, saucy union of rice, egg yolk, and beef.

Stir-fried Minced Beef with Chiles and Basil
Adapted from Matthew-Amster Burton and Thai Street Food, by David Thompson

In Thailand, the eggs would be fried in the wok, either before or after cooking the rest of the dish. But Matthew claims that he always breaks the yolk when he does it that way, and he’s ten times better at stir-frying than I am, so I cook the eggs separately, in a skillet.

As for the chiles, the number that you use is up to you. I used five chiles the first time I made this, and it was pleasantly fiery. The second time I made it, I was eating solo and decided to go a little milder, so I used only three chiles. (You can always remove some of the seeds, too.)  Oh, and if you have an exhaust fan over your stove, turn it on. I always forget until the chiles hit the hot wok and I have a coughing fit.

Also note: this dish comes together very, very quickly, so be sure that you’ve measured out and prepped your ingredients and have them close at hand.

3 to 4 large garlic cloves, chopped
4 to 10 Thai (also called bird’s eye) chiles, sliced
A pinch of salt
2 Tbsp. peanut oil, divided
6 oz. (170 grams) ground beef
1 Tbsp. fish sauce, or more to taste
A pinch of sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) chicken stock or water
2 large handfuls of basil leaves
Hot cooked jasmine rice
2 large eggs
2 lime wedges

Stir together the garlic, chiles, and salt. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat, add 1 tablespoon oil, and add the garlic, chiles, and salt. Stir-fry for a few seconds until fragrant, then add the beef. Continue to cook, stirring, until the beef is cooked through and just starting to brown. Add 1 tablespoon fish sauce and the sugar. Add the basil and stock or water, and stir just until the basil is wilted. Remove from the heat. 

Meanwhile, warm the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a separate skillet, and fry the eggs. The proper fried egg for this dish, Matthew says, has a runny yolk but a browned and crispy underside.

Scoop the rice into bowls, and then divide the beef and its juices over the top. Crown with the fried eggs. Serve immediately, with a good squeeze of lime.

Yield: 2 servings


She felt like cheering

I have three half-siblings.  I know I’ve told you that before, probably lots of times. My half-siblings are a decent bit older than me, so growing up, they often seemed more like uncles and an aunt.  I was an only child, mostly.  But my mother came from a big family, and she had an identical twin sister named Tina. Though Tina lived in California and we lived in Oklahoma, she and my mother did their best to make sure that their children, my cousins Sarah and Katie and I, would feel close as we grew up.  I fell in love with the West Coast  - and, I’m sure, wound up living here - because of trips we took to visit Tina and her family when I was a kid.

In the mornings, when it’s still cool outside, Tina’s neighborhood smells like eucalyptus.  In the afternoons, Katie and I would walk through the backyard to old convenience store across the street, where we would buy beef jerky from a plastic tub.  There’s now a fancy grocery store where the convenience store used to be, but a little further down the street is a mall that still looks pretty much the same, a outdoor mall, something we didn’t have in Oklahoma.  It was at that mall that Sarah and I, then pre-teens, went on my first and only shoplifting spree.  We got a paper shopping bag at a department store, put my denim jacket in it, and then proceeded to hit a few other stores, hiding our loot under the jacket.  Our primary target was a Hallmark shop, where I scored a few calligraphy pens and a tiny carpenter’s bubble level on a keychain, the kind with yellow liquid in a clear tube.  I had no idea what a level was, but it looked awesome, and I was too scared of being caught to spend a lot of time puzzling over it before I shoved it into the bag.  Our mothers didn’t catch us, but back at Tina’s house, with our booty stashed safely in the closet, I was still terrified.  I was not cut out for a life in crime.  I don’t know if Tina ever found out about what we did, but I remember that closet so clearly.  I remember her house so clearly, the way it smells, the way it slopes slightly toward the street, so that every door needs a doorstop. When I’m falling asleep, I sometimes picture myself there.

That’s my mother on the left in both of the pictures, and Tina on the right.  They didn’t always dress alike, but they weren’t opposed to it.  Actually, the older they got, the more often they did.  They even wore their hair the same way: a couple of inches below the shoulder, usually pulled back into a ponytail. There’s a set of elderly twins who are famous around San Francisco, Marian and Vivian Brown, and we ran into them once in Union Square, both impeccably dressed.  My twins are not the type to pencil in their eyebrows or go for animal-skin cowboy hats, but I always pictured them getting old together the way the Brown twins have, making a scene, making trouble.

In early February, Tina was diagnosed suddenly with pancreatic cancer. She went to my mother’s house in Oklahoma to stay for a while and receive treatment.  My cousins and I took turns flying in to help, and we tried our best not to spend too much time Googling pancreatic cancer, because that kind of thing will scare the crap out of you. But it was hard to ignore the fact that, as all the literature says, the illness moves quickly.  Tina passed away at home, my mother’s home, on May 29, with five of us around her.

The Internet is an awkward place to write about death.  It doesn’t have the right weight.  I don’t like it. But I’ve been trying to figure out what to write here instead, and nothing else came.  Over the past few months, whenever I’ve told someone about Tina, it’s been hard to explain why it should feel so difficult to lose an aunt, as opposed to, say, a parent.  For me, Tina was somewhere between the two. In high school biology, when I learned about genes and DNA, I remember being thrilled by the thought that my mother and Tina had identical DNA, and that, maybe, on some level that an actual scientist would probably scoff at, it meant that Katie and Sarah were my half-sisters.  I loved that idea. Maybe, on that same questionable level, it meant that Tina was more than my aunt.

She was the only person in the world who called me Margaret, my legal name.  She sort of sang it, actually, Maaaaar-GRIT, her voice rising as she went.  When I was in college, I lived with her during the summers.  She introduced me to Dungeness crab and to the giant chocolate-covered coconut macaroons at Max’s.  She was the first person I knew who really loved the place where she lived.  It doesn’t sound like much to say, but it had never occurred to me that a person could fall in love with a city and actually get to live there, not just visit.  I didn’t dislike Oklahoma City, but I didn’t love it, and my parents didn’t, either.  I didn’t know what it might be like to feel another way.  But Tina and I were once driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I remember her saying that she never got tired of it, of that drive, even after forty years in the Bay Area, and that she each time she crossed the bridge, she felt like cheering, I LIVE HERE!  I didn’t know then that Seattle would make me feel that way, that it would be my place. But now, whenever I catch myself silently cheering, I think of her.

I also think of Tina when I cook in my cast-iron skillets, because the summer that I was twenty and living at her house, I once used a cast-iron skillet and then left it overnight, rinsed but still dirty, in her white kitchen sink.  The next morning, when she found it there, she also found beneath it a dark, angry ring of rust that hung on for months.  I am now a champ at the prompt cleaning and drying of cast-iron skillets.

I don’t know who took this picture, but I found it on Tina’s desk last weekend.  It must have been taken in the 80s, because this was her hairstyle then.  I love the lens flare, how relaxed she looks, how pretty she was.  She looked very different when I last saw her, but she was still beautiful.

About a month ago, when the author Maurice Sendak died, NPR re-released a number of interviews that he did over the years with Terry Gross of Fresh Air.  I listened to all of them, and I listened twice to the last one. (It starts about 27 minutes in.)  I hope I can someday feel the way he did about aging and dying. I’ve known so many people who, like Tina, didn’t really get a chance to get old. There was something he said that I keep thinking about: "I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again." Most days, I don’t believe in an afterlife, either, but I hope for my mother, and for all of us, that Mr. Sendak was right.