On death and dining

Phnom Penh
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le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS When he talks, his whole face participates, but especially his forehead, which snakes into road maps of thought, and I get lost. When he listens, he listens. This guy went to medical school, completed his residency, and then went, Naw, I reckon I'd rather work in publishing. And for this my new friend Maze is a kind of a hero to me.

A hero and a proofreader.

Phenomenon's new favorite restaurant is Phnom Penh, a friendly little Cambodian wonderland on the edge of Oakland's Chinatown. Phenomenon swears by the barbecued chicken, but I ate with the Maze.

And I don't remember where we were going after, but I guarantee you we were late. I've always been a slow eater. Now I'm that plus a chatterbox.

Maze asks about chickens. You almost have to, to be polite. (And then, an hour later, you start to wonder if politeness is perhaps overrated.) I talk about chickens as pets, chickens as dinner, chickens as funny little philosophers, escape artists, workhorses, lessons in vulnerability, art....

I describe in detail how beautiful it looks inside a hen when you butcher her: the bright colors; the next day's egg, a culinary prize, fully formed; then maybe a soft-shell one; then a full-size yolk; and a winding, twisty twirl of progressively smaller bright yellow globes circling back to the fictional future — which, it turns out, is a clustered galaxy of distinctly astounding yellow dots. I cried the first time I saw it because I didn't have a camera.

"So in med school when you were dissecting human cadavers and shit," I said, "did it change the way you felt about death?"

The Maze's brow did what it does when he fixes to speak. He worries about words and sentences them with care. That's why I really like talking with this guy. "No," he said, finally, thoughtfully. It made him more concretely aware of the fact of mortality and perhaps a little leery of old age — but he was already those things.

He speaks of the smell of formaldehyde, the auxiliary presence of a "prosected" cadaver (in case you can't find some parts or accidentally mash them or something), and the necessity for keeping things moist, lest "everything starts to look like jerky." And while he is speaking (of these things) ... I eat.

Squid salad. Duck curry. Shrimp soup. White rice. Everything was great! Everything was moist! Nothing was missing or mashed or jerkied. Although ... never mind.

The squid salad, the squid ... There weren't any tentacles, and that's my favorite part. The lip ticklers. And the parts that there were seemed almost too nice, too white, and not quite as slimy or chewy or fishy as I like. Which most people would probably see as a plus, I know.

The duck curry had potatoes and string beans and was very mild, maybe coconut milky. And the duck pieces were big and tender and juicy. Delicious!

But the soup had more zing. It was a little bit like canh chua, that Vietnamese hot-and-sour stuff I love, with pineapple and tomatoes. And the shrimp and the zing, but the similarities stop there. This was a different zing, more lemony, more ... I don't know, Cambodian.

Well, I like jerky. I don't know about cadaver jerky. But beef jerky, turkey jerky, elk jerky. All of these things I have had and enjoyed immensely. Especially on road trips.

But how did I get here? And, more importantly, are we there yet?

No. We are still at Phnom Penh, talking, eating, and being late. There's a scene of a city or town. I don't know how to describe this. There must be a word. There is wainscoting, and then above that a kind of continuous strip of low buildings and cool trees and walkways. Not painted or pictured, but protruding, in 3-D or kind of 2 1/2–D. Relief?

All one color.

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