Pizza, Chicken, Chizza

Before anything else: this is not going to be a food review, or a PR piece.

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In an 1843 diary, Alexandre Dumas – novelist, traveler, foodista – wrote quite fondly about the pizzas he encountered in the streets of Naples. Back then, pizza was simple fare sold from big copper tins, and would probably wouldn’t cost more than a few coins. Toppings were also simple: Dumas spoke of pizzas topped with oil, lard, cheese, tomatoes, and anchovies. These are things that many of us continue to see in modern pizza.

But there’s that last bit: “modern pizza.”

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On Offal

1.

Whenever I go home to Baguio and my father’s around, I would often ask him to prepare a favorite dish: the intestines of a pig, blanched and softened, stir-fried in soy sauce and cornstarch and a bit of leek thrown in. That one simple dish of “silet,” best consumed with cold rice and copious amounts of Coca-Cola, is a reminder of home. And somehow, a reminder of being.

2.

I think it was Roland Barthes who once said that to eat a steak rare represents “both a nature and a mortality:” in many ways, it’s a full-blooded experience. The steak is powerful: bloody, primal, “flows to the very blood of man.”

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For the lack of steak – unless I’m in the mood for chops – I turn to that other primal thing in an animal. That other thing that flows to the very blood: that other thing that speaks to both nature and mortality. There’s nothing more natural and mortal than the primal, animal thing that is almost always an acquired taste. Unlike steaks or meaty stews, there is no mistaking what offal is and where it came from. It is, for all intents and purposes, the very fiber of the animal.

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The Lunch Lady of Saigon

Saigon: a tide of motorcycles, tourists, and lately, American culture. Where East met West, both in war and peace. Where Old meets New, both in love and trepidation. Where Viet Cong hats and rubber-tire sandals meet iPhones and Louis Vuitton bags. This is where a Subway sandwich shop can coexist alongside a banh mi stand, where a Heineken is held at the same regard as the 333. This is where Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen, and Nguyen Binh Khiem are venerated alongside Uncle Ho, Quang Duc, and Ronald McDonald.

In Ho Chi Minh’s city, the world’s sharpest contrasts mingle together. It shows in the roads, the tourist destinations, and the food.

You spend a few minutes at the improvised cinema at the Cu Chi Tunnels listening to documentary/propaganda films about “American Killer Heroes,” and come back a few hours later to the densely-populated districts of Ho Chi Minh City dotted with Burger Kings and KFCs and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens. Here’s a country that swells with pride over its sound defeat of American forces in the Vietnam War, and swells with joy over the opening of McDonald’s branches.

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And then there’s the Lunch Lady, almost always preceded by the travels of Anthony Bourdain. He spoke of it in superlatives: the broth that the gods suckled from. Whether it’s in the crowded backpacker hostels of Pham Ngu Lao or the gentrified establishments of Ngo Duc Ke, tourists speak of Saigon’s best-kept secret with a certain veneration. For Bourdain: the Ibn Battuta of our generation. And for the Lunch Lady herself, Nguyen Thi Thanh: the unassuming lady whose pots and bowls have simmered more than one blog post – likely from intrepid foreign foodies – about Southern Vietnamese beef noodles.

I’m pretty sure that for every Lunch Lady recommendation, there would be a few more that would attest to the “best pho in Vietnam” (using the word “pho” loosely). The in-flight magazine suggested Pho Thin in Hanoi. Still others have told me not to wander far from Pham Ngu Lao, if all I ever wanted were beef noodles. And pho – beef noodles – aren’t too hard to find in a city that has been sustained by it through thick and thin. But the girlfriend – the biggest Anthony Bourdain fan I know – insisted on the Lunch Lady.

So off we went, braving the tide of motorcycles and tourists and American restaurants standing side-by-side with the ubiquitous coffee kiosks, in search for the Lunch Lady.

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The Serving Suggestion

The bakeries only have it at set hours of the day, at limited quantities.  The race for “authentic ramen” is one for getting everything right, with at least one shop perfectly happy saying it gets it “Wrong.”  And then there’s the humble breaded pork chop/canteen kitchen attempts at “Japanese-style cordon bleu,” making waves all over the restaurant scene alongside unlimited cabbage offerings and “shoyu” being the order of the day.

Sociologists and cultural theorists have taken pains to describe these new patterns of consumption.  One referred to “McDonaldization” as a reference to an over-rationalized society.  Another coined “conspicuous consumption,” debunking the whole idea of “new” and ascribing these patterns to the lifestyles of savages and barbarians.  Still another looked at the “affluent society” and sees a private sector basking in the light of wealth, but a public sector that remains dark and dank and stagnated.

(Ritzer, Veblen, Galbraith, in that order.)

I have nothing but contempt for the cronut – if only because I don’t get it and I don’t like sweet stuff in general – but that feeling does not translate to ramen or tonkatsu.  Pork bone soup is to die for, and there’s nothing like a feed of panko-breaded pork loin.  But I can’t help to feel that affluence is somehow satirized by these three things.

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