Sunday, April 10, 2005

Street Fare

I just spent 15 minutes looking through crusty old documents for something I might fling up here under the pretense of a new post. But the blog is such a New Medium, it will brook no recycling. Well, it might brook a little recycling, but not today.

The more I talk about the blog, the less inclined I am to write in it. (I know, this is an intensely dull topic. Hang in there -- it's almost over.) Perhaps it's the displacement of allegedly creative energy, and perhaps it's the growing awareness of an audience. Kind of the opposite of Henry Darger's problem. He knew he had no audience. Of course, he was also mad as a hatter, but that didn't stop him from writing a 15,000-page novel. And painting hundreds of little girls engaged in all manner of martial postures. And other postures. Hey, don't look at me -- I haven't even seen the movie yet. (1)

Speaking of postures, I found myself kneeling before a low stage and six saffron-clad Buddhist monks this afternoon at the Thai New Year Festival in North Hollywood. I knelt because standing seemed like not the done thing inside the temple. The faithful, ranged before us and kneeling and bowing far more convincingly, had secured small metal pitchers from which they poured water into smaller metal bowls. An older man crabwalking along before the monks collected the water from the small bowls into a really big metal bowl. Very mysterious.

At one point in the afternoon, about 200 people of all ages formed a procession and marched calmly and cheerily through the fair, their path swept free of lollygaggers by half a dozen civilians playing soldier in fatigues. It looked like police state overkill, but they meant well. Two women kept spirits high by yodeling every thirty seconds through megaphones. Parade fluffers in sensible shoes. A couple of glum teenagers had to drag the beauty queen's two-wheeled wagon everywhere. The ladies-in-waiting were way hotter, I thought, but what do I know from Buddhist beauty queens? One well-fed, well-coiffed older woman laughed and laughed as she flung cups of water onto bystanders. Kind of an anti-fluffer. Dozens of older processionists carried neat bundles of saffron fabric, so the whole shebang may have been a clothing drive for the monks.

Hollywood is rife with Thai shops and restaurants, but real estate there has become prohibitively expensive on the eve of that golden quadrant's umpteenth promised renaissance. That's a likely reason the center of L.A.'s Thai world has relocated to a less than picturesque corner of the Valley -- Roscoe and Coldwater Canyon. Picturesque or no, they got some good eats out there.

Confronted by half a dozen stands serving the same array of fried, grilled, or julienned eats, however, it can be hard to decide which promises the best green papaya salad. But happily, my self-decribed chowhound pal P lucked into a perfect one, not too sweet and studded with dense green beans and gamy, crunchy chunks of blue crab. Even so, har mok, a complexly flavored seafood custard steamed and served in a small banana leaf basket, was unquestionably the most impressive dish I found. Sadly, I was so intrigued by the hot sauce, a chewy variety I'd never encountered, that I wrecked the har mok's delicate flavor balances. Easy on the paint thinner, skipper!

Finally, a word on durian. I'm not sure I'd count it among the best of the eats, but it's not nearly as bad as folks make it out to be. Yes, the texture of the edible pulp is like rotting liver, and yes, it is cloyingly sweet, and yes, one does detect a strong whiff of, well, rottenness once again, but all in all, it's not so bad. Honest. It's a very labor-intensive fruit, though, and you have to wonder who was brave or desperate enough to eat the first one. A durian is about the size of a volleyball though not as spherical, with a spiky green hide that gives it a fierce medieval look; keelhauled onto the end of a pole it would be helpful in a street fight. Once you cut through the skin and the fibrous hull and use the side of a knife to tease out the only edible part, the pulp envelopes that surround the huge pits, you stand a fair chance of enjoying yourself.

People love durian and, rumor has it, will kill for it. Foreigners! In L.A., you can just pay for it at Thai markets in Hollywood and at the Vietnamese market in Echo Park (on Sunset). If you're going there, make sure you also take home at least a pint each of pickled greens, bean sprouts in a light fresh vinegar, brined baby eggplants, and the least fetid kim chee ever.

Or get a pizza and watch TV. Whatever.

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(1) To learn more about the most successful outsider artist since Grandma Moses, read my pal's piece in Forbes. Beware: is an unwieldy, bloated, annoying piece of work, but if you can slog through the ads, the story is almost worth the trouble.


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