Food and Culture at FAE Hospital
Thailand has become an ultimate tourist destination not necessarily for the environment, which can be found through out south east Asia, but the Thai have a passion for pleasing, and passion is at its’ peak here at FAE hospital.
I grew up on an island of South Carolina with five sisters and a southern mother, and a kitchen that belonged to them. My brother and I, a 220 lb mastiff, Sampson, learned from our father to stay outside until dinner was ready, and wonder away after before getting sucked into the dishwashing dance party, which I cant lie, I’m down! Of course I love to eat as we all do, but I never really was a “foodie”. When I left my little island and went to college in Australia, my days belonged to raising lion cubs and my nights to lectures and school papers. I lived off of the snacks donated to the animals at the zoo from local markets, and simply ate for energy. In NYC, breakfast turned into coffee, lunch was a bag of skittles from a subway vender, the perfect sugar high I needed to boost my personality but not affect my waist size for fittings. And as for dinner, well, when slinging cocktails its more like, “quick, take a few bites of something so I don’t vomit up the patron shot the customer just bought me.” In Los Angeles, I could afford to live near the beach if I sacrificed having a kitchen, sold! After my long hours working television production, I did start to cherish grabbing dinner with a friend, but even then it was more like “I’ll have a margarita on the rocks with chips and salsa por favor.”
But I am learning a lot about myself and constantly changing, and I have seemed to develop a special love for mealtime here with my Thai family. I never know what the actual time is here through out my day, or ever really. I’m more of a cuffs and bracelets then a watch kind of guy. But I do know that shortly after sunrise, when the Elephants are fed, we all seem to instinctively make our way to reunite in the kitchen, like a wave of water sucking us up individually scattered around, and dumping us all on the same fallen coconut tree. The early morning is a time for me to write, so occasionally I will get caught in the moment. If so, it is always gladly interrupted by a whistle, the sound of Lamae, getting my attention through the trees. Pi (go) be my friend!
Breakfast is usually quick and quiet, yet the half smirk have smiles across the table seem essential. I feel like a pride of lions, securing our reason for waking and assuring each other that we are here together. I skipped breakfast once, only because I didn’t feel like tasting such intense flavors so early that morning, but that was the last time. Juran, FAE’s head mahout/ our wrangler, sent to find me. Apparently skipping meals is not ok here; but where I came from, it’s almost encouraged, interesting. It has been our differences that have created my fascination in humans lately, not just animals anymore.
Other than the realities of the outside world that role in FAE hospital on the bodies of Elephants, the people here remain unspoiled, despite their exposure and proximity to the cities. It’s not that they are sheltered from it all and just don’t know, but they have figured out that this is a better life. Skin lighteners and diet pills must seem so ridiculous to them when they get a different kind of thrill from being natural and work so hard to nourish their bodies. We live off the land here, with the help of our rice supply from town and occasionally a buffalo or hog shows up, truly satisfying us all.
A few people from back in the U.S. have mentioned to me that I should take a cooking class while I am here in Thailand, a popular tourist amenity. I just smile, If they only knew.
There are three parts to dinner; the food, the scene, and the people who create the scene. And when you love all three, it’s a recipe for happiness.
It all starts exactly where it should, the blessing and thankfulness for our life and the bountiful jungle. There are two little temples here on FAE grounds, both recognized first thing in the morning, and through out the day by delivering symbols of the good things in life; such as rice, milk, accompanied by Elephant statues. One afternoon, Lamae and I were cutting and collecting grass for Bobo, as we were casually wandering back, stopping to investigate anything that moved or that was an odd shape, Juran steered us into the right direction. Next thing I knew we were kicking off our sandals, ducking underneath overgrown flowers and on our knees in front of three pig heads. I always give thanks by myself before I feast, but this moment put so much of life into perspective. I hope I can hold on to it forever.
Juran is like an older brother to us all, teaching us the skills to be successful here while poolen (joking) around at the same time. When I moved my way in here almost like a stray dog looking for a home, it was unclear to the mahouts what my purpose was, mixed with a little confusion of why I came to Thailand when I live in the dream world, California. I immediately recognized Juran’s hierarchy and was determined to show him that I am not here to just walk around with a camera, so just dare to assign me the grimiest of the jobs, and go ahead and test my carnivore instincts, because ill do or eat anything. If you trust it, I trust it. So for what seems like forever, like a brother, every time he asks something of me I say Mia Mi Panha, (no problem). That started the first time I jumped in the back of the pick up truck as it was leaving to go cut grass in the jungle for Elephant food. He stopped the truck, got out and was staring at my shoes as I was clinching my toes against my flip-flops trying to disguise them as sturdy. I knew what he was thinking, so I just looked at him hopefully and said Mia Mi Panha. Every one laughed and it officially stuck, my name might as well have been Mia Mi Panha for the first week of this life. It’s still used in every conversation I have with him along with the throwing our arms out body gesture. Little does he know though it’s usually the only word I get out of entire conversation, but I do understand what he is showing me.
I owe this vision to Juran and his love for sharing and providing, but I give credit to Palahdee, the biggest foodie I know. Sometimes I dread hanging out with him because he knows and I know I have to eat anything he munches on because I’m curious. My time with him is usually fueled by a craving, or a realization that I haven’t tried something new all day, so I find him. He is a tiny guy, one of those who is constantly eating and never gaining an ounce. His love for picking and tasting is admirable, when usually gross at that point. I have learned that if I show up with sunflower seeds it will distract him long enough so I can hang out with him with out having to watch something be dissected and shared. Although when we’re not, I miss it. The guy loves pig guts like a fat kid loves cake, and his smile while he eats it is crazy contagious. He is a special one, which is probably why he is Mosha’s mahout. He has learned from the elders here, and is a living example of traditions being passed down; I feel relief and hope for the future when I think of him.
Dawn is arriving as we make our rounds, treating the Elephants one by one, a very fulfilling part of our day. I am no mahout or vet, so I find my way to help. In this case, I assist to control the elephant by tossing around bananas in front of them to distract their trunk. Once Dr. Kay is satisfied with the treatment, it is time to “go to cooking.”
The feeling I get as we walk down the hill to the kitchen is so familiar to me, but when I think about it, the only thing that compares is the rush I get entering my favorite raver club in LA. Yes its bizarre but in my mind, I am aware I get to spend the next couple hours in a fantasy world.
The outdoor and totally masculine kitchen is purposely next to a lagoon, the big beautifully funky recycling work of nature. It’s a perfect relationship, providing us with fresh Pa (fish), snails, and water plants while we provide it with scraps. Kuan and I one eve were cleaning fish on the bank, throwing some of the heads back in the lagoon but keeping some for flavor. We started laughing when the lucky ones of the day appeared at the surface, nibbling on their friends. “Feed fish, fish” is all he could get out, but it was enough said to make me laugh inside and smile outside, every time I see the lagoon.
Every one works to keep the food flowing, to keep us strong. Some tend to always make sure the trusty red cooler is filled with sticky rice, our staple. Some, usually Palahdee of course but also one of the fearless girls, tend to play butcher. I skip over those as I am sure to mess that up with out supervision, or take days by actually trimming off some fat. I prefer wandering around the lagoon or climbing trees up in the forest collecting fruits, herbs, banana flowers, and baby bamboo shoots. My favorite plant has thorns, but they soften when cooked. One other job, essential for sparking the scene, is to keep the music going. Basically, it’s the same four theme songs of FAE on repeat, mostly intense passionate love songs that we all know by heart. They enhance our urge for a lover while in isolation, one of those good hurts in life that make us feel so alive.
Back in the kitchen, I take on smashing heaps of dried chilies while the guys around me are chopping away at herbs and veggies that together let out a scent that wets your appetite. One by one we proudly throw our brilliantly colored veggies into the bowl. Sometimes I wish we would stop there and savor, but no. Before I would ever have time to say that out loud even if I wanted to, the chopped liver is dropping into the mix. Oh well, anything’s is tasty with spicy sauce.
Here at FAE, there’s really no such saying as “make your plate,” or even “grab silverware.” Everything you want is with in someone’s fingers reach, therefore doomed to your stomach. Sticky rice is endemic to Northern Thailand, totally created for the purpose of sharing I’m convinced. There are always a few people who load up a banana leaf of it, the rest can’t be bothered. And why would they, when it’s so easy to just steel a chunk from them. Hands twiddle to form perfect rice balls while waiting their turn to dip in the bowl. Constant chewing and huffing to take on the spice, that seems just mental sometimes, like a form of torture we are addicted to. Occasionally for them and almost always for me, bites are followed by a refreshing plant, that has literally just been picked and tossed on the table.
A few of the guys have gotten into the habit of wanting English lessons over dinner from me, but I don’t think any of it actually sticks. They just like to show me what they are about to stuff in their mouth and ask, “my name in America?” I pretty much have less than a second to figure it out before it disappears, and the plants we eat here simply don’t exist in America, so I wouldn’t call this a lesson but who cares. One time we found a bunch of eggs inside a fish, apparently a delicacy here too, so we all bankon (share) the wealth. They asked me “my name in America?” I couldn’t remember at that moment so I told them, calamari. I didn’t think anything of it because they usually just move on, but of course the one time I lied, it stuck in their heads like they developed some sort of fancy infatuation for the word. Whatever, I’m pretty sure they’ve messed with me the same way, and it gives me yet another laugh through out my day.
As our bellies fill one by one, the guys scatter from the table to go check on their Elephant, eventually forming clicks all around campus. Some watch cheesy comedy soap operas that I swear are funnier to me. I don’t know what they say, but the babbling I hear and the expressions are priceless, like they were all taught from the same mad acting teacher. The quieter and curious ones read or listen to their radio, as the others hang around together sharing seats and cracking jokes while accompanying their Elephants. I tend to make my way around and visit all, but I like going on walk -abouts in the jungle, or making sling shots and looking at Nat Geo photos with Lamae most. We learn a lot from each other everyday, he is whom I will miss most.
No matter where you are in this world, the kitchen can be a place you can go not only if you are hungry, but when your happy and feeling playful, or sad and feeling lonely. The kitchen here at FAE hospital is straight up magical.