Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My life in food: College

Nota Bene:  My absence from this blog was inadvertent -- this past Christmas shall forever be known as "The Christmas of the Flu from Hell", because it blasted through me and most of the people I knew right in time for the holidays.  This year -- let's try something different.

I was 19 before I realized that what I had considered the daily chore of eating dinner was actually a communal ritual.  When I moved out of my folks' house the first time, I was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  I had planned on attending college as a commuter student, but I during Freshman year I landed a job that, broken into chunks and done between classes,  kept me on campus twelve hours a day, and I was also subject to wild attacks of academic ambition* that progressively began to keep me on campus even longer than that. I've never liked driving very much anyway, so it was easy to decide that living on campus was a much better option for me.

After I unpacked my little red Malibu and furnished my side of the dorm room with the essentials - little white TV/VCR (this was in 2001), big bulky computer, Andy Warhol drawing of a cat, a spider plant - I went to the communal bathroom down the hall and threw up. 

My roommate arrived later.  She came in the room with her best friend and boyfriend, all speaking rapid Vietnamese and bearing mysterious parcels.  I could smell barbecued meat wafting from the quad, and I decided they needed privacy, so after I introduced myself I hurried out of the room in search of salad with a quick, tight smile. 

There was no salad, and I didn't think to bring snacks with me to school, so I decided to just be hungry.  I went back to my dorm... to discover an entire illegal kitchen set up! I had visions of the room burning down around us, but I almost didn't care.  It smelled so good -- spicy and sharp.  My stomach growled, but I didn't feel like going out in search of more food.  I sat down at my desk and prepared to distract myself from hunger by reading the newest Buffy review on Television Without Pity. 

I heard a voice behind me.  "Mary," said my room mate, "would you like to try some Vietnamese food?" She handed me a bowl of congee laced with thick streaks of pepper.  It was the best bowl of rice I'd ever tasted. 

That year, I learned to eat.  Vietnamese food, with its Buddhist roots, is exceptionally kind to vegetarians.  I learned just how good a bowl of steaming lemongrass pho tastes in the middle of an interminable New England winter.  I also learned about the delights of curried tofu, cucumbers pickled in hot pepper sauce and served  on rice, and the value of a good boiled duck egg after a long day of being an admin assistant.  I started to cultivate resteraunts:  the Viet Thai near the library was good for avocado shakes, the best tofu curry was at Pho Da Lat, the Battambang Market had the best deals on fresh veggies and little treats like almond Pocky and lychee jellies.  

That was the first year I'd ever celebrated Lunar New Year, sitting on the floor listening to Vietnamese oldies and eating oranges and playing mah jong.  I've made quite a few Asian friends since then, and I've had some pretty fun Lunar New Years (including a particularly crazy one spent at a Lez Zeppelin concert), but I think that first one remains my favorite.  

I also learned about the thrill of minor rule-breaking:  how to cook noodle and bok choy on a hot plate, how to angle the fan so the food smells went out the window, how to wash a rice cooker in a tiny dorm sink.  Hey, some roommates share the thrill of drinking under age, but even when I'm a badass I'm just trying to learn.

My roommate and her friend changed so much about the way I see and think about food:  the careful preperation beforehand, the friendly rituals of chopping and dicing, sharing one's day while working to provide food for a group.  My mom is a spectacular cook, but she used cooking to relax after a stressful day of teaching.  It was her alone time, and more power to her because she didn't really have all that much. However, it wasn't until I became a partner-in-hotplating that I realized what cooking meant to other people: something that could be shared and bonded over.  I think that was the true legacy of my year of eating Vietnamese food.  

*I was extremely prone to taking subjects I had a lot of interest in but very little natural ability for, such as physics and Japanese. I expanded my horizons, and tended to lose ten pounds a semester in sheer anxiety. 

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