A serious contretemps occurred last week at Baan Joom, as I call the little love nest I am renting for my Thai fiancé. It contains, among other things, a nice pond chock full of tilapia. My soul reverberates with the plinking and plonking of the fish as they rise for a fallen bug and then dart back into the murky depths; life seems very simple and placid when I am sitting there in the shade of a jackfruit tree. I have even grown to tolerate the fermented fish paste that Joom makes out of all the fish we catch – I would prefer something whole, grilled and sprinkled with pepper & lemon – but why cavil?
But last week Joom, a true daughter of Northeastern Thailand, decided to go crayfish hunting in our pond. She made some clever traps out of plastic soda bottles and baited them with dried dog food. Her harvest was hundreds of tiny, transparent, crayfish that jumped about like grasshoppers. Joom immediately washed them off and mixed them, alive and kicking, with salt, sugar, and chilies. She then set the table for two, handed me a ball of sticky rice, and invited me to dig in. I gave her my best Edward Everett Horton sneer and refused to commit gustatory hari-kari. The ensuing battle was not pretty, and no one came out of it covered with glory. (I wound up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with very stale bread.)
I consider myself a broad-minded gourmand when it comes to Thai food, but there are limits . . .
Which brings me to the subject of those mysterious and fascinating free lunches you often get when you are a farang teacher at a Thai school. I have eaten my fair share of them, and wish to comment on them – now that I am a safe distance from any school cafeteria.
Of course, school lunches, no matter where – in Chiang Rai, Poughkeepsie, or Timbuktu – are a byword for tasteless, unappetizing, muck. Lives there a man with soul so dead that he wouldn’t want a Big Mac instead? In the West a teacher can always make a decent sandwich at home and bring it to school. But here in Thailand a sandwich left out for even a few hours invites a convention of ants and other evil vermin – plus the price of even chopped ham is truly outrageous. So when your school magnanimously offers you the same lunch the students get, for free, you are inclined to take it. And like it. Or lump it.
My first teaching job in Bangkok I took the free lunch and dug into my rice and chicken gristle curry with great goodwill and gusto. At least my teeth were getting a good workout. But then I noticed that many of the students didn’t eat the school lunch – they brought in those round metal cylinders, stacked with rice, homemade curry, and salted vegetables. Or they walked across the street to the little shop that sold candy, pop, and a thin, watery, noodle soup.
I had it in mind to go awol for lunch, but by then the school administrator had become truly impressed with my dogged ingestion of his school’s miserable fare, and he would come up to me every lunch hour, beaming like a bodhisattva, to nod at me and chuckle. I felt I couldn’t let the man down, so I continued to work my way around chicken bones and unidentified twigs and leaves for several months until my alimentary canal rose up like Spartacus and set fire to my innards. I had to take a few days off and go see a doctor, who prescribed no more school curry and lots of milk of magnesia. My school administrator took it rather personally – at lunch I would sit and nibble disconsolately on a banana with a small bowl of plain boiled rice on the side, and he would sidle up and scowl at me as if I had egged his car.
My contract was not renewed for the next school year.
But I don’t want you to think that all school lunches in Thailand are crypto-poisons. Not by a long shot. I briefly worked at an international school in Nonthaburi, and I must say their student cafeteria could give the Ritz Carleton a run for its money as far as rich and luxurious food goes. Teachers didn’t get to eat there for free (nothing was free around that place – I think the paperclips were solid gold, and stored in a safe overnight) but the price was just 25 baht for all you could eat. And, boy, could I eat a lot! One suffocating noon I overdid it on the sticky rice with mango and sweet coconut cream. As I made my way back to my classroom I felt distinctly logy. I had my students open their textbooks, then leaned back in my chair, and promptly fell asleep for ten minutes, until the guffaws of my erstwhile scholars woke me up. Some tattletale took the story back to the administration and I was mildly chastised. When a permanent teaching position opened up there and I was interviewing for it I was asked what one feature I most appreciated about the school. Without hesitation I replied that the food made everything else bearable.
To this day I wonder why I never got that job . . .