At Kenny Rodger's
Immediately the perfume of down-home cooking paralyzed me like nerve gas. A restaurant? I didn’t even know Kenny cooked. But I knew the smell was real. I struggled to place it.
BOOM I had it: my cousin’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day. Succulent turkey, oozing gravy, creamy mashed potatoes with butter and sprinkled with pepper. I smelled gravy. I swallowed. I licked my lips.
I had been in Asia just over two months—something like ten weeks, or if you’re counting days, about seventy days. Of course, if you’re counting meals, like I was, think about two hundred and ten. Add iodine-purified water, a permanent layer of dust on my tongue, and let’s just say I couldn’t always hold down what I did eat. Food was becoming my meaning, my passion, my existence. I dreamt up meals in my head: leafy salads, steak, anything without rice and noodles. Sure, rice and noodles are great, but try them for seventy days, three meals a day—try anything for that long. I wanted food from home. Besides, just before coming to Asia, I’d spent six months in Africa eating things that were beige, bland, and beaten. Oh yes, Asian food had sounded exotic and adventurous, but at this point given a choice between a baked potato and the Great Wall of China … pass the sour cream.
Every day it was the same—or maybe the same with a side dish of more same: rice, noodles, rice and noodles, rice or noodles, fried, fried with egg, with fish sauce, curry sauce, tomato sauce, with vegetable oil, peanut oil, just plain yellow oil, with beef, chicken, pork, “You need fork?”
“I’ll have the non-rice-non-noodle dish, please.”
It didn’t matter what was listed on the menu, you were going to get rice. Noodle soup, rice wine, rice whiskey. You didn’t even need to be in a restaurant, you could be anywhere. Rice was everywhere.
“You like tour today, mistah?”
“Uhh … ”
“To rice paddies!”
It was a conspiracy.
I stood just inside the Kenny Rogers’ place and felt a little faint, the taste of gravy on the tip of my tongue. My mind left the scene without permission “No don’t go!” and returned to the Africa of some months ago …
In southern Africa, Malawi specialized in a leafy vegetable called cassava that was a hybrid of cabbage and papier-mâché. Great for vegetarians with broken bones, make a little salad and pack the rest around your fractured elbow, sit out in the sun to dry.
In a remote hilltop village I sat on the verandah of my colonial-style guesthouse and watched the sunset after a day’s hike up the mountain. The owner asked me if I would like to eat, I said I would. She had the courtesy to get right to the point—all they had was rice and cassava. They were the only place in the village. I had rice and cassava for the next four days—and nights.
I finally got my hands on some chicken in a nearby town called Chitimba. Tough, dry, and muscular, characteristics worthy of a bodyguard, not a chicken. I took a peek at the chicken coroner’s report: Cause of death? Old age.
There was a picture on the wall of a woman who was probably Kenny Rogers’ wife. In front of me, people waited with trays behind a glass counter. Steam rose from different areas and I moved in closer. I had a strange feeling in my mouth, pasty and dry, and I licked my lips slowly.
I shuffled a few steps as if chains kept my ankles from moving too far apart and then I was in front of the glass counter. I rubbed my eyes like a child. It had been too long; I just didn’t believe it anymore. Sure, maybe emails about food from home, maybe way-too-vivid dreams, but not the real thing, not right in front of me. I closed my eyes and prayed. I shivered. I couldn’t focus, my thoughts drifted …
Of course there were a few other choices back in Africa, but it was the whole ‘real traveler’ thing—when in Rome and doing as the Romans and all. I had been doing as the goddamn Romans for so long that the Italian government should have awarded me an honorary passport. I’d have happily been ‘doing as the Romans’: lasagna, pesto, cute little butterfly pastas dripping in a creamy white sauce, an Italian waitress with long, dark hair in a tight white T-shirt and jeans and sandals, maybe fresh bread, maybe melted butter, maybe I should stop traveling. Oh, fresh bread. I could almost taste the butter on my tongue, warm and tangy, slippery and oily, the waitress might smile at me, might give me extra butter, might ask me if I needed more. “I do.”
I opened my eyes and looked through the plate glass and saw baked potatoes snuggled next to each other under hot lamps, soaking up the warm rays. Real baked potatoes right in front of me. My eyes drifted to the right: bins of shiny green peas, sauces creamy white, thick and brown gravy, red and luscious tomato sauce. Gravy. Thoughts were flying through my head, visions of passionate and even violent eating that was like nothing human, nothing of my own doing. Ears of corn lay nestled together in a liquid bed of warm butter, snuggled next to each other cozy and sweet; they looked so peaceful. I felt something on my chin and instinctively wiped it with the back of my hand. Drool.
For six months in Africa I stared into plates of a pasty mashed-potato-looking substance called sadza. Actually, comparing it to mashed potatoes was giving it too much credit as mashed potatoes actually have taste. Sadza was more of a tool. The locals scooped up a bit in their hands and then used it as a sort of Velcro napkin to pick up other items on their plate and then ate the item and the napkin. Actually, a napkin was probably closer in taste.
Against my will, I was fading back and forth from reality to nightmare culinary flashbacks. I was hungry and tired, sunburned and dehydrated. Maybe eight months was too long on the road, maybe I did need to go home, visit my parents, have mom cook that lasagna, with garlic bread and a Caesar salad, or maybe that Chile Verde she did … Maybe I needed to eat what I grew up eating, I needed a home-cooked meal cooked in a home on a far-away continent: my home continent. Maybe my body had a medical need for food from home. Maybe someone had done a study on that.
I took a deep breath and looked down.
Waves of mashed potatoes whipped up high like a stormy sea, little tide pools of butter shimmered in delight, and finely chopped chives waited innocently next to the storm. Soft clouds of snow white sour cream floated in a cool tin bin. I swayed in my sandals, I struggled to swallow. I heard a strange smacking sound, but soon realized that it came from my own mouth—I was licking my lips like a lion. My body was doing things that I only noticed after some time. I was losing control. I closed my eyes again, attempting to calm down. Oh no, the flashbacks …
Some five months earlier on the northern border of Malawi near Tanzania, after a long day on trains, buses, and mini-vans, I spotted a small restaurant called Mexico. My hopes and dreams skyrocketed as images of tacos, enchiladas, and fresh corn tortillas rushed the stage of my mind like rock concert fans. I chatted with the owner as I looked over the menu on the wall. I didn’t really recognize anything Mexican. I asked him why he named his restaurant Mexico. He beamed a huge friendly African smile and said in a thick accent and in all honesty, “I don’t know!” In fact, there was nothing even remotely Mexican about the place. I ordered fried rice and chicken. The friendly waitress scurried off to the kitchen only to quickly return to tell me that there wasn’t any chicken tonight. I looked up and down the long menu, full of yummy-sounding dishes, and made another selection. She scurried away, returned. Nope, sorry. I chose again, she came back. I looked up at the menu and calculated that this could only happen another seven times, but I decided to make the bold move and asked, “What DO you have?” “Rice and cassava.” Welcome to Africa.
Fear suddenly came over me: maybe Kenny Rogers’ restaurant was all an overly cruel and terribly realistic Larium dream, my friendly hallucinogenic anti-malaria drug. I had all the symptoms: I saw geckos on my pillow at night, snakes under the bed, and burgers and fries on the nightstand. I envisioned myself trapped behind the glass plate, bulletproof no less, handcuffed to barrels of rice and noodles while naked nymphs licked creamy sauces from the valleys of each other’s navels, tore at succulent spare ribs with the violence of hyenas, sauce dripping from their lips like blood, then slow sly smiles of passion towards me.
“I give up!” I yelled to them, “take me, ravish me, just let me have a taste.”
Did I say that out loud? Here at Kenny’s? I spoke to myself, maybe silently, maybe not.
“Get a grip, man,” I thought. “Sure, it’s been months without quattro formagio sauce and fresh bread, weeks without even a kiss on the lips … don’t dwell on it! Concentrate, get money from my pocket, order something, breathe deeply, eat.” Talking to myself seemed the least of my worries. My eyes wandered below.
Apple pie. There was true-to-life apple pie. I reached out to touch it, but my hand hit the glass. Under heat lamps of their own, triangles of flaking golden pleasure relaxed side by side, elegant ladies getting a bit of sun. They called out for me to join them.
“Don’t you want to come in and play?” they giggled.
“I’ll be right there!”
I rubbed my hand down my face like a drunk, felt the back of my neck. I was dripping sweat. I stared at the lovely apple pies and words came out of my mouth without my command, I whispered to them, “I love you.” My eyelids fell slowly, my head was falling back, I was going to pass out.
“Hey mistah,” voices came from somewhere else and I looked over to the bubbling brown broth of barbeque sauce and rising slowly out was a stunning rack of baby back ribs. They rose up and twisted and curved and came to life in front of my own eyes—a woman. The sticky sauce dripped from her so slowly that even time stopped to watch. She was juicy and tangy and wanted me, needed my fingers to rub in the sauce, to massage her, to feel her. I needed her right now, in my mouth, on my tongue, dripping from my lips. The wet, brown delight opened her mouth. “Hey mistah,” she said with a wink, a breathless, dreamy voice. “Did you miss me?”
Oh yeah I did.
I started to understand the hyenas in Tanzania, their thirst for blood, their heightened concentration, their lust for warm, raw flesh. I was an animal, a focused, hungry animal with only one thing on its mind. Well, maybe two things.
More voices bounced through the air, talking to me, whispering to me, and I looked around and finally found them. Lined up next to each other, posing under the hot spotlights, golden chicken glistened in juices: legs, wings, thighs, breasts. Poultry supermodels, tanning blond goddesses soaking up the warm rays of sun, chatting casually with the ears of golden corn, whispering nonchalantly to the sauces—playing hard to get. But one particular succulent blonde was eyeing me like a hooker on a street corner. She was plump and luscious, her skin was lightly tanned, wet and glistening. I could almost taste the salty sweat of her thighs. I swallowed hard. I was two bus stops past delirium. I watched her roll around in her bath and I didn’t know whether to hug her, kiss her, eat her, or take her to the chapel and marry her, but we were going to have a long-term, meaningful relationship. She was speaking directly to me, but I couldn’t hear it right, it worried me deeply that it was a dream so I went in closer. A soft, low roar of a voice, a 50’s pin-up girl, a deep whisper, the entire south east Asian continent went silent so that I could hear what she was going to say, two words I had to lean over to hear.
I stopped breathing.
In the distance, I heard more and more voices. I couldn’t make them out, but they kept repeating. I looked up and saw Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, reincarnated as a Malaysian teenager dressed in a Kenny Rogers’ uniform with a nametag that said ‘Koh.’ He was looking in my direction and finally the words sank in.
“Mistah? Hey mistah!” he said over and over—I didn’t want to know since when—but he was real. He was real.
“Hey mistah, you OK? You going to eat now, mistah?”