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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

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With new friends, I had the opportunity Saturday to visit Central Falls, a small impoverished city in Rhode Island that made national news last year when the school superintendent fired the entire teaching and administrative staff of its abysmal high school.  Last summer, the city, which had been in receivership, filed for bankruptcy. All the way through town, I looked curiously out of the window of P.’s Volvo station-wagon.  I knew vaguely what a failed nation-state could look like; would a failed city look different than its neighbors?  Apparently not.  The empty storefronts, auto-repair shops and businesses catering to low-income immigrant populations looked just like any other New England city whose fortunes had fled with nineteenth-century industries.

The raison d’être of our trip to Central Falls was to take a cruise on the Blackstone River, the lifeblood of the mills that originally built the city.  Although the river is still so polluted that fishing and swimming are prohibited, the sunset cruise, with admirable optimism, advertised the opportunity to view wildlife in a setting of natural beauty.  To be sure, we spotted blue herons, deer, and cormorants,  while studiously averting our eyes from the traffic cones, bumpers, and old tires that occasionally dotted the humble river banks.  (“A native species of tire,” muttered P., “It holds its treads all-year round.”) A few tiny fish broke the surface occasionally, and the cool, damp breeze bore only a scent of water-treatment detergents.  Our cheerful guide, Mrs. Dianne, pressed cider, cookies, and bottles of water upon us, assured us that trees falling into the water was a natural process, and told us stories of the town’s founder and of King Philip’s War.  A wide, man-made pond was inhibited by a pack of vicious swans, with the spires of Holy Trinity Church visible beyond it.  Mrs. Dianne opined that the combination of church and swans looked like Europe.  It looked to me like a larger, post-industrial version of the Missouri creek in which I played as a child, but the Blackstone’s placid water, the quiet barge engine, and the cloudy, fading light made for a strangely tranquilizing experience.

For dinner, we’d planned on using a gift certificate that S. had won at an auction to Taqueria Lupita on Dexter Street, one of the main drags through town.  Although its sign was promisingly lurid, Taqueria Lupita was resolutely, inexplicably closed.  We were momentarily stymied, having no particular desire to drive further south to Providence or back north to Worcester, and even less desire to explore Central Falls by foot.  The sidewalks of Dexter Street at night are poorly lit and inhabited entirely by young men.  The exception was an emaciated, heavily-made up young woman who opened her plywood door, looked down at us, and closed it again.  The other restaurants and bakeries had either tinted black glass or drapes in their windows, concealing their clientele and any food they might have been eating from view.  We retreated to the car, drew no inspiration from Urbanspoon, and drove on another few blocks until we spotted a classic diner chrome sign advertising Stanley’s Famous Hamburgers.

We had stumbled upon a restaurant established in 1932, and whose reputation, apparently, was already known to everyone in Rhode Island.  The establishment was blindingly lit on the darkness of Dexter Street and immaculately white in every sense of the word.  As if to make up for the economic and social uncertainties outside, our delightful waitress, Nancy, was very intent that we have no surprises on our plates.  She informed us that the homemade chili had not only beans but green peppers–“some people don’t like them”–that all hamburgers, unless otherwise specified, had grilled onions and pickles, and that a double burger was not, in fact, two patties cooked separately but rather two patties squished together and then grilled.  While the fries–also available “dirty” (with vaguely Cajun spices), or as Quebecois poutine–were hand-cut on the premises, I should have passed on them and had two burgers instead.  The patties were loosely packed and flavorful, with a tender bun soaking up their juices, and they more than justified all the “Best Of” awards splashed loudly across the walls.  These hamburgers would be worth a detour into far riskier neighborhoods than those offered by Central Falls.

As she cleared our plates, Nancy casually mentioned that they had fresh Grape-Nuts pudding that day.  “Grape-Nuts pudding!” P. exclaimed, “I haven’t had that in years.” As a newcomer to New England, I’d never heard of this lovely dessert, which is something like a rice pudding, heavy on the nutmeg, and served in individual glass sundae dishes with whipped cream.  It, too, was white, and very reassuring.

Stanley’s Famous Hamburgers, 535 Dexter Street, Central Falls, RI (401.724.2200)

Blackstone Valley Explorer Boat Rides, 45 Maedeira Avenue, Central Falls, RI (401.724.2200)

On our birthdays, my sister and I could each choose one friend to join us for a celebration family dinner at the Robota of Japan, in a northwestern suburb of St. Louis County.  The entrance of Robota of Japan (now Kobe of Japan, but it matters not), was reached by riding an outside glass elevator to the twelfth floor of the building, and then entering its samurai-painted doors.

Robata of Japan, and its better-known Benihana cousins, is a classic “Japanese steakhouse,” with its teppanyaki tables ruled by rowdy, joke-telling, egg-spinning chefs who use knife blades and shakers of salt as percussion instruments, and create mini-volcanoes out of onion slices, cooking oil, and soy sauce.  They aim pieces of shrimp into the open mouths of diners, and make jokes about fingers lost to meat cleavers that occasionally terrify small children.

Photo courtesy of Eric Kayne, who did not catch a shrimp, either.

Japanese steakhouses are the inscrutable East made scrutable.  Most fashionable in the age when sophisticated Japanese electronics and automobiles had taken over American markets, these steakhouses offer a comfortingly accessible Japanese experience. The most authentic and adventuresome ingredient in their line-up is fresh ginger in the house salad dressing (and ranch is available, if you prefer). The entrees are all high-status protein: beef tenderloin, shrimp, scallops.  An iceberg lettuce salad adorned with chow mein noodles, a broth of nothing but MSG and scallion slices, and a side of sautéed zucchini and onions have remained consistent over decades, coast to coast. Like McDonald’s, it’s exactly the same wherever you are.

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Old Sturbridge Village is one of Massachusetts’ premiere historical destinations: a picture-perfect recreation of a 1830s New England village, inhabited by costumed interpreters, who explain the tasks that occupy them in speech free from contemporary usage like “hello” as a greeting (“good day” is historically accurate).  In 1830s buildings moved to Sturbridge from all over New England, the tin-smith punches out his wall-sconces, the blacksmith forges nails, and the farmer splits rails to pen in his animals, pigs and chickens and oxen bred to resemble their nineteenth-century ancestors.  In summer, the fields and farms and the mill-dam host groups of day-campers, also dressed in 1830s garb, who spend five days amusing themselves with games of ring-toss, picnics out of wicker baskets, and fishing with an iron hook and balls of stale bread.

Some of the older girls at day camp were set to working in the kitchen, recreating “receipts” for garden produce.  Visitors, especially children, were encouraged to help them shell fresh peas, which would be mixed with pale green leaves of Bibb lettuce and the bulbs of onion grass (the onions themselves not yet harvested), and stewed in milk for a few hours over a blazing fire.  The resulting dish would be served with white bread and butter.

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Burmese Salads

One rarely hears much about Burmese food.  It’s usually overshadowed by the glories of its Chinese, Thai, and Indian neighbors, and generations of war and poverty have done a great deal to dampen the spirits and capacities of its cooks.  Sure, a few Burmese restaurants straggle along in American cities here and there, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find something on their menu you couldn’t eat in one of Burma’s neighboring countries.

Except, that is, for Burma’s salads, which I have never, ever seen on a Thai menu.  Here are three salads served at one of the dingiest and most depressing restaurants I’ve patronized in Chiang Mai.  Its walls are covered with outdated posters from NGOs that work on the Thai-Burmese border and a huge image of Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi.  A fine layer of grime covers everything that’s not on the table.  But I return as often as possible and avert my eyes so that I may eat these salads. 

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Every afternoon, snack vendors assemble their carts and stands outside the gates of the Chiang Mai International School, and turn the street into one long market for after-school snacks and treats.  The CMIS kids are only a small part of their clientele.  The vast majority of their customers come from the Prince Royale’s College next door, girls who come down on motorbikes from Dara Academy, a single-sex Christian Thai school, and a few brave country boys in their orange robes who are getting their education down at Wat Chetupon.

The snacks are endless at these twenty-some stalls, as are the fat and sugar in them.  There is no “healthy option” here. 

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My friend Jeff Ordower came out to meet me in Hà Nội for ten days of travel in Vietnam, where Ken and I lived between 1999 and 2001. Here are the Seven Things I Learned During My Trip To Vietnam (seven being a most auspicious number).  Warning: if you object to exotic meats, judgmental opinions, or state-sanctioned sin, consider not reading further.

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The prospect of keeping the children entertained during their week-long fall break in Chiang Mai put fear into our hearts, and we thought we’d take them to two of the places we enjoyed most ten years ago: the tiny city of Melaka, also known as Malacca, in Malaysia, and Singapore.  Malaysia strikes us both as a dull nation mostly made up of palm-oil plantations, office parks, and legislated racism, but Melaka is a joy, more welcoming and cosmopolitan than any other place we’d been in that country. 

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