to pho or not to pho?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My list of foods never to consume in the company of a person I might hope to see again is short. Some might say alarmingly so. Besides ribs, everything else is pretty much fair game.

That list doubled last weekend with the addition of rice noodle soups.  Here’s the story.

It had been awhile since I’d had a bowl of pho, but it’d been even longer since I’d gone on a first date. The day started late and lazily, but even so, it was the sort of day that called for a nap. A big, warming bowl of noodles steeped in savory broth for dinner sounded like a bulls-eye. Also, I miss cilantro like I miss a mammoth slice of thin crust pizza. In other words, pho on a first date was my idea. (I should add that I didn’t exactly realize it was a first date until the day after it happened. Good thing, because I would have been more nervous by epic proportions). I sent him a message and told him of my idea. I asked if he’d like to join me. He did, and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in unfamiliar territory, and I didn’t know what to do about it. So, I talked. I drank two beers. When dinner was over, I looked down at the table to survey our damage. My bowl was almost full with noodles and totally void of broth. His, a shallow pool of beef stock in the bottom of an otherwise empty bowl.

In my mind, the experience is always the same. A cart is wheeled over and a hot bowl is set in front of me. I lean in and let the steam hit my face first. Inhale deeply. Add the bean sprouts and sliced jalapeños and stir to soften. A bit of cilantro, but not all at once. I like to eat it fresh and while it’s still green. Drop dots of chili sauce evenly around the bowl. Gingerly dip a spoon into the bowl of broth and taste it for heat. Add more chili sauce sometimes, sometimes not. Pluck the right amount of slippery noodles from the bowl, bring them forward and nibble off one clean line with the grace of a gazelle. I should say, this is how I used to imagine it. In reality, after last weekend I discovered the difference between the way I eat pho alone and the way I eat it with someone sitting across from me, especially if the person happens to be quite attractive and a regular chopstick virtuoso. In my exaggerated reality, if it’s just me, I’m less of a graceful gazelle and more of a caged chimpanzee eating a banana for the first time in weeks.

The next night, I went back to the same restaurant for what had become a sure-fire method of personal restoration a long time ago. And as it usually went whenever I’d gone out for pho in the past, I was alone.

The cart was wheeled over and the bowl set down in front of me. I inhaled, and I started to picture the absurd. Bean sprouts sticking from both corners of my mouth. Noodles hanging like a swinging curtain from my front teeth. Chopsticks catapulting involuntarily from my hands to the other side of the room. Was that really what I was afraid of? How did I know that I was about to enjoy that bowl of pho so much more than the one I’d attempted to eat the night before? I can’t think of a better way to catch up or to get to know someone than to eat together. When I realized that a food I love to eat regularly is one I’d rather eat alone, it made me think about what exactly it does for me that my favorite pastime of breaking bread with friends or strangers cannot.

Five years ago, I had never eaten alone outside of my apartment or an airport. Now, I’ve developed a ritual that I look forward to with no one’s company but my own. And that could very well change. For now, I think I’ll keep it just for me.