Some 36 years ago I was let go from a position as husband, and for several years I found myself with quite a bit of free time on my hands. I spent some of it in non-constructive pursuits that don’t need discussion in these pages, but one good idea that I had was to learn how to improve my cooking skills. My first action, and you might have predicted this, was to go out and buy a complete new set of pots and pans. Nothing too exotic, just sturdy Revere Ware which is still going strong. I also purchased a handful of recipe books to replace those that my former employer had taken with her when she departed, and away I went.
(In the past I might have mentioned here some of my kitchen misadventures where the cherry pie never set up, the pineapple upside-down cake refused to be turned over, and the unleavened bread never rose even though I followed Moses’ original recipe to the letter.)
With these failures solidly behind me, I decided to branch out into Asian cooking, and made a trip to Sioux City IA, where there was a good-sized Asian food market. In that store I walked past a thousand eyes in the freezer windows, eyes of various fishes who were all regretting the carelessness that brought them to a cooler in Sioux City, I am sure. I picked up two excellent meat cleavers for a song, and on one shelf I found large bottles of something called “fish sauce.” Those two words were the only ones on the label that were not in Chinese, but hey, this was an adventure so why not try it? I grabbed a bottle and headed for the checkout.
The woman running the cash register was Asian, tiny, and spoke halting English. She picked up the tall bottle (of whatever fish sauce was – I had no clue) and began to interrogate me.
You sure want this?
Why, yes, I do.
Is very strong … very strong! You still want?
More than you can imagine, my good woman.
You sure? Can’t bring back.
Why, dear lady, would I ever want to return it? I feel my kitchen fortunes are about to change, and it is this murky substance that is going to be the catalyst. So ring it up if you please, hand me my cleavers, and I’ll be off.
When I returned home it turned out that I could not find a single recipe that called for fish sauce as an ingredient in any book that I had on hand, so I began adding it willy-nilly in what turned out to be unwise quantities to a few dishes, all of which had to be discarded as inedible. The smell of the brown liquid was pungent enough to revive the dead and the taste could be described as a product born of the union of a bottle of soy sauce and a rag taken from the floor of an auto service bay.
I eventually tossed it out as a bad investment, and didn’t look back.
Flash-forward 33 years, and I am looking for a recipe for green chili sauce to make at home. The local bottled varieties had been disappointing so far, and I had as my lodestar the memory of a wonderful such sauce that I was served on a hamburger in a Montrosian restaurant which had unfortunately gone bottoms up. I found a recipe on the web, cooked it, loved it, and it is now one of my go-to condiments. And if you look carefully at the recipe it calls for a spoonful or two of asian fish sauce as an ingredient.
Today I find that I add fish sauce to many dishes, but in more conservative amounts than on my first go-round. It is a bracing addition to soups and stews and stir-fries, especially. The genie in this bottle swings an interesting umami bat at the plate. Yesterday I brewed up a big pot of minestrone that was anemic in character until I added just one teaspoonful of Red Boat to the cauldron. That made an amazing difference.
I also did some shopping around to get the good stuff, and have settled on this particular brand which is not sold here in Paradise, but is easily available on the web. It does not have that decidedly nasty taste that my previous bottle from at the market in Sioux City did. Red Boat is not inexpensive, but that first bottle lasted me three years.
What is fish sauce, actually? Don’t ask.
(Awright, if you insist – it consists of salted and fermented anchovies … I told you not to ask.)
While we are on the topics of divorce and fish sauce, I will tell you that I didn’t care for the experience much. Divorce, that is. In my case, I could only describe it as what I imagine having open-chest surgery without anesthesia might be like. There is a verse in Paul Simon’s song Graceland that fits well.
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.”
Those last lines … everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow … I so remember that feeling. Of being rootless and directionless as dandelion fluff on the wind.
Back then I coped by going to work, listening to a lot of music, sampling many fermented or distilled beverages, and writing poetry (some not bad, some not so hot). I walled myself up in my home/castle, and was considering having a moat dug around it when Robin burst through my door on a Sunday morning with donuts in her hand and a sparkle in her beautiful blue eyes. She offered to rehire me without the need for references and that, my friends, was the start of a whole ‘nother story, which has been nearly thirty years in the telling and is not done yet.
A Dick Guindon cartoon
As my first marriage was coming apart in all of its seams, I sought guidance in the office of a counselor, a woman whose advice was a godsend for me at the time. She had an ability to cut through my verbiage and get to the heart of any number of posers that I tossed her way. One day, when I had said something particularly egregious, she cut me off, drew herself up, and said in the sternest of voices: “Jon, I want you to think of what I am about to say as coming directly from God! Don’t do that!“
I had no way of knowing it, but at that time there was another poor dumpee (in divorce-land you are either a dumper or a dumpee) being gently led through this same particularly confusing forest by the same guide. Time went by and one day my counselor told me that she thought that this client and I might profit by talking with one another, since we shared many experiences and were close to the same age.
So without thinking much about it, I agreed to see him, phone numbers were exchanged, and that is how I met the guy who was to become my BFF. A the time we were two lost souls who had each been dumped by their former wives, wandering about the planet unmoored and mildly to moderately insane (at least I was). It turned out that sharing having been tossed onto a heap of marital rejects was a potent bonding agent, and together we explored the fringes of religion (bizarre), divorce support groups (scary), fast motorcycles (excellent!), and other things too numerous to recount. Out of this randomly assembled and slow-cooked stew came healing for both of us.
Looking back, I always wondered if perhaps my counselor had reached the point where she dreaded listening to my endless whining and tales of woe, and to escape from this fresh hell tried to steer me elsewhere, hoping that I might not find my way back to her office. Whether that was her plan or not, it is what happened and I couldn’t be more grateful that she succeeded.
Bravo to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell for telling Spotify adios as their protest against that music service doing nothing about the misinformation being promulgated by a fellow named Joe Rogan on his Spotify podcasts. We are surrounded by untruths being broadcast every minute of every day with most of it being fairly harmless claptrap. But when the public health is at risk we have now entered one of those shouting fire in a crowded theater arenas, and there is a need to find ways of holding guilty feet to the fire when their lies contribute to unnecessary suffering.
The first amendment to our Constitution is a grand thing, one of the stars in our national crown. So let the Rogans of the world spout their distortions hoping to profit from it, then let them find out that that same amendment doesn’t say anything about possible consequences. Tell enough falsehoods and you may suffer for it. This is as true for millionaire performers as it is for you and I.
We live in hard and uncertain times … there is a need to call out and walk away from those who attempt to make them more difficult or dangerous than they already are.
Good News Department
Robin has finished her long stretch of physical therapy appointments and graduated summa cum patella. She still has work to do but the Physical Therapy staff are confident that she can reach her goals from here on in by working at home with her personal trainer and nurse.**
Here is Robin on the day of graduation wearing her PT uniform. It consists of stockings that squeeze the bejesus out of one’s legs, a t-shirt that says “Ask me about joint replacement” on the back, and a pair of shorts made extra loose-fitting so that the therapist can do whatever they need to do without impediment.
** I have to say that no one on the staff asked the personal trainer/nurse if he felt up to the task. Nor did they ask Robin, who has her own set of misgivings about my skills. After all, you don’t hang around with a bumbler for thirty years without forming an opinion or two.