Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pad Thai, Meatloaf, and Learning to Write

Today I made Pad Thai for dinner. If you've eaten this dish at a Thai restaurant, you probably wouldn't recognize mine. Usually, it's made with wide or medium rice noodles, scrambled eggs, bean sprouts and chicken, with a sprinkling of chopped peanuts. I use brown rice spaghetti (Tinkyada, if you want specifics), onion, carrot, baked tofu, and a bunch of bok choy from a friend's garden. Not a peanut in sight, although I did use canned sauce.

I learned to make Pad Thai from Sunanta, a Thai exchange student whom we hosted some years back. Her mother, perhaps skeptical about American food in general and those crazy vegetarians in particular, used to send her care packages that included the dry rice noodles and packages of dry seasoning (which were undoubtedly mostly sugar and salt, although as I don't read Thai, I can't say for sure). Sue would cook and I would watch and learn. She made hers with nappa cabbage, carrots, and shrimp. (The packages had sesame seeds to sprinkle on top.)

What I learned was this: Pad Thai is like meatloaf. Every family has their own recipe and the best way to learn is to watch mom and then try it yourself. Chance are, you won't be able to duplicate the exact recipe anyway, and once you've figured out your own taste, you won't want to. You'll make it your own.

It strikes me that learning to write is a bit like this. It's been said that writing cannot be taught but it can be learned. One way we learn is by observation. Watching mom at the stove. Reading the best literature we can find. Then, into the kitchen with us! We try to follow the recipe, only to find out that sweet basil isn't the same as Thai basil, and what the heck is asafoetida, anyway, and we can't get that other ingredient. And we have so much of this other stuff fresh out of the garden, or the farmer's market, or this other stuff has been frozen for 6 months and has to be eaten, and besides kid/spouse/guest won't/can't eat this other thing... We try something. And something else. We see what happens. We curse and we sweat and we try again; we ask, "What do you think? Is it the real thing?" (The reactions of our fellow writers does not usually involve projectile vomiting, but can be just as distressing.)

And then we arrive at that magical dinner when the Pad Thai or the meatloaf is completely and utterly itself...and we realize it isn't like any other meatloaf or noodle/vegetable/sauce dish. It's something that's never happened before. It's ours.

Bon appetit!


  1. You take me back to that first moment when I realized that what I was writing did not sound like anyone else I'd ever read before. It was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

    Sound like I need to try Pad Thai -- I thought it was always shellfish, and the shelled beasties and I are not friends!

  2. @Katharine -- "Simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying" sounds about right. I've been thinking of this process of making our writing truly our own, especially in reference to the Austen derivatives debate. It doesn't matter where we start, only our dedication to bringing forth our own authentic voices and visions.

    I think Pad Thai is basically some sort of noodle, whatever veggies look good, maybe some protein (which could be egg or tofu or chicken, as well as shrimp) and the sauce. Check the bottled sauce label as it may have ordinary (with wheat) soy sauce; it definitely has anchovies. You might have to make your own from tamarind paste and garlic.