Friday, April 17, 2009


It's been forever since I did a movie review here. I'm not doing one now, either. But I made time to watch a movie last night after Sunshine went to bed. I finished in the gym early so I'd be left the leeway. It's not usually this much fuss, but I wanted to watch There Will Be Blood,* which is long enough to require some planning ahead. So shortly after two, I made a half-sandwich and a bowl of cereal, plugged my earphones in so I wouldn't disturb my neighbors, and spun a DVD we'd borrowed from one of Sunshine's coworkers. The first thing I noticed: this movie was shockingly well filmed. I am not a fan of Paul Anderson's usually cruddy emo formalism--ugly is the new beauty!--but here the tone was naturalistic, even nostalgic, all golden sun and epic sweep. Attention to incidental details was obsessive, but throwaway. Far from being driven by a host of Anderson types--mores sleep in an environment where everybody sucks--the movie tracks the rise of an obsessive but direct gentleman who actually works to achieve his brutal success in the early oil trade, doing battle with hucksters and taking responsibility for his actions. ...oh hell, I don't know what all he does. After being unpredictably Merchant-Ivory--I didn't know Mr. Anderson had it in him--the probably pirated disc puttered-out, leaving me hanging only five hours into the movie. I imagine the denouement of There Will Be Blood, what with there having been very little blood up till then, throws the proceeding into a rather different light. Who knows? Will I sit through the whole thing again someday? Will I go to my grave never guessing what happens after the ham-fisted transition that heralds the movie's final act? [Cavin]

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Let me put this out there right up front: currently, my life is pretty cushy. I live in a country where eating out every single night is actually cheaper than buying groceries back where I grew up. I live in an apartment that comes staffed with a full-time housekeeping crew. Since all of this actually saves us money--we don't even buy dish-washing detergent, we don't even own a broom--it means we can even afford to hire an incredibly cool woman to cook for us once a week. Frankly, we save a lot of money when she buys our groceries, too. There is still a little distasteful, but completely sanctioned, nationalist inequality going on around here. I would feel ridiculous snarking about any of this, so it is important that you understand that snarking is not what I'm doing here. I'm just talking. About how the cook's been making some pretty oddball food, lately. Here one recent two-course example: one rich and wonderful Italian or Creole type of soup, with spicy beans and a rich tomato base, that was served right beside a platter of wok-seared salt-and-pepper Asian squid, with nước mắm and lemon, that was supposed to be wrapped in lettuce and basil leaves. Both of these dishes were excellent, but they made a rather weird combination. This week she made us a wonderful clarified cracked pepper soup with vermicelli beside a heaping plate of hot, garlicky gnocchi glued into a mozzarella and tomato sauce mass--if I've made this sound a lot like a heaping plate of cheese tots, well, that wouldn't be incorrect. There have been times when Tuesday nights were a delight of restaurant-quality food served up on our very own coffee table. Lately they've been more of a delight of oddball cultural apophenia. [Cavin]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


This is another side to yesterday's post. These are some things I'll not really miss about Vietnam (volume two) when it comes to restaurants. One: the excellent food occasionally comes with the addition of flavor-enhancing scoops of monosodium glutamate. While I'm convinced that the western demonization of MSG is completely based upon a slight allergic reaction suffered by a slim margin of the US population, it's hard to convince myself that I have not been poisoned with Borax whenever I eat phở or bún or some other bowlful of food brimming with this traditional chemical. About halfway through the meal, the skin on the back of my next starts heating up. Soon, the outer layers of my body seem to be rising off my musculature like Marilyn's white dress. Twenty minutes later it's over. Two: there is something about southeast Asian beer that gives me a headache. It's too bad. Nobody is about to confuse the local brands--Saigon, Tiger, 333--of being award winners, but I prefer them to most Mexican beers. They are light, drinkable, and surprisingly good with food. But every time I drink even one of these beers, within half an hour, my head feels like it's been blown full of cold talcum powder. This is not necessarily isolated to Asia. There are beers at home that do the same thing: Miller products, for example, most beers proclaiming themselves "cold filtered." But back home most beers do not give me a headache; and even here the situation is slowly improving. Sometime around this latest Tết, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began allowing the importation and sale of American Budweiser beer, one brand I have no trouble drinking. But it's weird when the universally accepted and costly premium quality ideal is Bud in a can. [Cavin]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


After talking about Mexican food yesterday, it's time for more of what I'll miss about Vietnam (volume three): restaurant food. It's perfectly reasonable to suppose that I cannot get better Vietnamese food anywhere on Earth than I can right here in Hồ Chí Minh City. It's never been my favorite kind of food, actually. At home I liked Vietnamese okay, but I preferred more Indo-Asian traditions like Thai food to the Sino-Asian likes of China and Vietnam. Not that I have minded being trapped here with the best Vietnamese food in the world, of course. Not one bit. When I do eat Vietnamese, it's always impressive as hell and I get things I'd never even heard of back in North Carolina: crispy fried turmeric pancakes packed with seafood and onions, grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane, salt and pepper squids resting in a delicate web of white noodles ladled with acute fish sauce, spicy grated salads with boiled quail eggs. But it's important to point out that I don't eat Vietnamese food even every week here. The fact is, all the local restaurants are very good. It's a great food city. The same care and attention, the same high quality ingredients and impeccable cooking expertise, is evident in any old place. The Vietnamese are known for industrialized repetition. Sadly, this can mean the shifty handicrafts practices: thousands of hands trained to perfectly replicate the same lacquered bowl or marble statue over and over again. This makes for pretty crappy cookie-cutter souvenirs, but a very stable garment industry and a whoppingly impressive series of impeccable kitchens. So the Italian and the Mediterranean and the Spanish food here is great. And since the proper eastern ingredients are on hand, the Indian and Thai and Japanese and Korean food is exquisite. [Cavin]

Monday, April 13, 2009


Saturday the CDC threw a Burrito Night party. This sounds like a story that should really end with a punch line, but no. Everything went exceptionally well considering the difficulty finding Mexican staples here. No black beans, no chilis arbol, no jack cheese. Vietnamese Mexican food isn't right: often so laden with chopped mangoes it smacks of a luau. But given these odds, the CDC party was mighty successful. I was immediately strong-armed into making the margaritas. There's no triple sec here, so I had to experiment. It turned out okay, I guess. I certainly drank a bunch of margaritas, even if nobody else did. Here's the recipe I lit upon: pour six ounces of tequila for every two ounces of fresh lime juice and one oddly-shaped spoonful of sugar into a blender. Splash in orange juice like last time. Toss in some ice cubes just to cut it. Blend till it stops rattling. Pour over ice and make a face when you drink it. Mmm. I walked out of there upright, but I totally blew the nightcap. We'd been invited to stick around for gin and tonics. All the tequila was gone already. I made the drinks. I poured escalating amounts of gin into each glass, over ice. Then I added a little of the remaining lime juice to each. Perfectly. Then I was asked a question I've totally forgotten now, which I answered. Then I topped each glass off with gin and gave 'em a stir. I thankfully realized what I'd done before serving them, none of these drinks being at all fizzy. Hopefully no one else noticed, but a lot of gin went surreptitiously down the drain in fixing it. Nobody complained. I wonder if the CDC will ever invite me to another party? Rimshot. [Cavin]