Everything in my garden is dead. The tomatoes are crispy dead with a side of wilt. The pumpkin plants shriveled up and their lovely umbrella leaves melted away last week. This makes me really sad, because one of the only reasons to live in Kansas in the summer is eating our garden treasures. Our pug dog Lulu lives for tomato season, waiting for the blooms and little hard green tomatoes, which she harvests before they are ripe. We plant one grape tomato plant just for her. Olive, our other pug, will knock down corn plants and inch her body along the stalk to nibble the ears.
Real Chinese food is nearly impossible to find anywhere in the central United States. There is plenty of Americanized Chinese food around, most of it deep-fried, oily, and swimming in sticky sauce. Superbuffets overflowing with deep-fried meaty bits in sweet red sauce, weirdly soft beef bits in brown salty sauce, unidentifiable pork bits in clear salty goo, or broccoli, peas and carrots with tofu in spicy sweet-sour sauce sort of sum it up around here. No wonder the food police are out to get Chinese food—all that fried greasy saltiness is just irresistible to Americans.
Lots of people I know are texturally sensitive eaters. They won’t eat anything slimy, bouncy, gummy, gelatinous, or spongy. Even the idea of tapioca pudding gives them the shivers. I once shared a meal with a friend who, on encountering a piece of sticky, chewy beef tendon in the soup, spat it out and spent the rest of the meal miserably shuddering while I ate the remainder of her pho.
Our growing season in Kansas is brief and violent. One month we have nothing but lettuce and radishes poking up through the snow and the next we are leaving giant baby-sized zucchini on the neighbor’s porch under cover of night. Eating seasonally in this area is challenging, since for eight months we have nothing at all and for four months we have too much of everything. Summer in Kansas is a tomato-basil-cucumber-pepper avalanche. It’s fantastic for salsa lovers.
For as long as I have known how to read, I have been obsessed with cookbooks. I read them everywhere, on the plane, in bed, and of course, by the stove. My best cookbooks are dog-eared, splashed with sauce, and broken of spine. They have a scratch-and-sniff quality that I find comforting. Here are a few of the books that inspire and teach me about cooking to this day.
This is the time of the year when my thoughts turn to gardening. It’s all about what I want to eat…not so much about the actual work of planting, weeding, tending, and harvest. I pore over seed catalogs, plan, order, and fantasize. It’s really mainly about the fantasizing. I am definitely not thinking about weeding when I place my orders!
I have mentioned many times my passionate love for all Vietnamese cuisine. I love pho, banh mi, fresh spring rolls, everything. I could eat Vietnamese food every day and be perfectly happy. Whenever I need comfort food I heat to one of many favorite places and immediately feel better. I have found lately that I go to one particular place more often than any other: Little Saigon.
Garlic! It’s hard for me to imagine cooking without it. I can eat so much of it that my skin smells of it, it leaks from my pores, and I am asked to sleep on the couch. Most people nowadays will tell you that they love garlic, too, and use it liberally when they cook. There is even a festival named after it where you can eat crazy things like garlic ice cream (which is actually kind of addictive) and they crown a Garlic Queen. I think I might try to have a shot at that title some day.
To me, there is nothing as sensually delightful as Asian grocery stores. They have their own character and are as organic and wild as Western groceries are sterile and packaged. As soon as you walk in to one you know you are no longer in the sanitized world of Dillon’s. Asian groceries can smell funky, spicy, and a little fermented. If they sell fresh seafood or meat you can smell that, too, a bass note of blood and sea to remind you that death and eating are vitally connected. Fruits of all sorts in varying stages of ripeness are jumbled all together, some softer and sweeter than othe
I am often asked what my favorite restaurant in town is. It’s an impossible question to answer. There are too many excellent places to eat here and what I think is wonderful in a restaurant might be a total turnoff to someone else. I have a penchant for dives, messy food, sketchy neighborhoods, unpronounceable names, and I don’t care a bit about décor if the food makes me drool. For me, it’s all about the food and the love I feel from the people who make it. If the love’s not there, the food’s not good.