One Thanksgiving I spent in jail. I was young, and therefore brash and rash, and so thought myself immortal, impervious. Didn’t think then, there in stir, about doing serious prison time, which is what I was facing. Just had to wait for the holiday weekend to pass, I figured, then the lawyer could tease the bail down to a Sane level. Which is what happened. The serious grinding over the prison time, that came later.
Thanksgiving was my third or fourth day in the place. I occupied alone a single-cell, which I belatedly learned was supposed to be a sort of punishment. I could smoke in there—can’t do that no more, in the jails here—and I could think and plan and wonder and reflect. There were tolerable volumes from the jail library with which I could pass the time. Nobody bothered me. I could talk to the folks—though yes I couldn’t see them—in the cells on either side of me. But I could choose not to, too.
This was 25 years or so ago, when they still fed you decently in the jails around here. And so on Thanksgiving they shoved through the bars a fair approximation of a traditional American Thanksgiving repast: turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce, yams, etc. I ate all of it. Yams I hadn’t much eaten before, and I haven’t eaten them since. But I had already discovered, there a monkey confined to a cage, that I’d eat just about anything the keepers slid my way. You do tend to get hungry, in every way, when your life is caged.
After Thanksgiving dinner the screws punched a video into the TV/VCR combo that sat on a low metal table rolled about on casters in the hall outside the cells occupied by we “serious felons.” I absolutely could not believe it: the film was The Black Stallion, one of my favorite movies, a tone poem completely about freedom, but one that I figured these cynical magpies in the “serious felon” row would hoot down and away, dismissing it as a “children’s flick.” How wrong I was. They, as it developed, had been on this row much longer than I; they had seen this film several times before, and they valued it. They got it as only people who don’t have it could get it.
Because it was Thanksgiving, that night we got a double feature. The second film was a ninja thing. As soon as it was punched in, we heard a groan from the guy in the cell to the far right.
“What bullshit,” he groused in his gravelly voice. “This is the one with the guy who takes more bullets and lives than even the guy in Scarface. What bullshit.”
And it was true. The ninja hero at one point was riddled with what looked like 20 or 30 bullets, mostly to the head and chest . . . but still, he kept on coming. As this nonsense approached its zenith, the guy in the cell at the far right kept muttering variations on “bullshit” and “check out this shit” and “no way.”
My unseen jailbird companion to my left at one point whispered to me: “That dude at the end, the reason why he’s pissed at this stupid shit: he’s in here on murder. He knows what it takes to kill a person. And it ain’t much.”
Several years later I spent Thanksgiving at Denny’s. I didn’t have to be there; I could have been other places, with other people. But Denny’s is where that Thanksgiving I chose to be. Even at the time, I knew that my Thanksgiving in Denny’s was worse than the Thanksgiving I’d spent in jail. Because then, in jail, somebody else had locked me up. But in dining at Denny’s, I had entered a jail of my own making.
Usually, these days, I don’t associate Thanksgiving with jail. But this year it came back at me. Because the day before Thanksgiving, here in 2010, a jury out of Texas decided that Tom DeLay, former majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, had committed enough crimes to stash him away in a cage for the rest of his life.
DeLay is a person who is not hard to fathom. Like many among us, he is wedded to his own private personal phantasmagorical version of The Way We Were. In DeLay’s particular phantasmagorical world, there exists a Golden Age when all was Good and Decent, before Negroes got uppity, and women burned their bras, and homos flaunted theyselves before all and sundry, and no-account po’ folk commenced the St. Vitus Dance about how these iz jist No Reason, far as they kin see, why they shouldn’t get doctors jist as good as those who attentively pore over the aging flesh and paling blood of an American aristocrat like Barbara Bush.
And so DeLay roared out of Texas, and into Washington DC, determined there to reverse the course of the world, return it to that place where he imagined it once was and should forever be.
As a true believer, DeLay presumed, like all true believers, that any and all weapons at his disposal were righteous for him to wield.
“If thy laws offend thee,” Delay borrowed from Matthew 5:29, “pluck them out.”
And so DeLay, for the Greater Good of more GOoPers in Congress, which he perceived as Absolutely Necessary in order to turn back the clock and return us all to The Way We Were, pulled down his drawers and shat upon the laws governing wheeling-dealing finan-cial contributions to politicos He Happened To Like.
The prosecution alleged that Mr. DeLay skirted the state ban on direct corporate donations to candidates using a sort of shell game. Corporate donations to Mr. DeLay’s political action committee were transferred to an arm of the Republican National Committee; the same amount of cash, raised by the RNC from individual donors, was then donated to the candidates.
Those campaign dollars were credited with helping more Republicans win seats in the Texas House; they used their power to redraw congressional districts that favored Republicans, prosecutors argued.
The redistricting plan, which was engineered by Mr. DeLay, was later enacted by the Legislature. A number of longtime Democrats subsequently lost their congressional seats, increasing Mr. DeLay’s own power and prestige.
It was a kind of political money-laundering operation that had very important consequences. With the help of those six victories, Republicans took back control of the Texas legislature for the first time since the end of slavery. But most important was this: that same legislature was later in charge of a deeply controversial redrawing of constituency boundaries in the state that helped DeLay significantly to reduce the number of Democrats sent by the Lone Star state to the US Congress in Washington.
The Texas jury condemned DeLay as a money-launderer—akin to a drug-dealer, or a Mafia capo—and returned verdicts on counts that could lock him away as a convicted felon for up to 99 years.
“Law” as we know it hasn’t really been around all that long.
Back in the day, white Europeans settled serious disputes via “trial by combat.” That is, I’d send out a “champion,” and you’d send out a “champion,” and whomsoever physically prevailed in a brute-force tangle would establish, via “might,” who was “right.”
Eventually it came to be understood that this was Ridiculous and Embarrassing. And so scribblers were set to work codifying Rules. So, henceforth, if, say, you brazenly stole my cow, instead of me slipping coin to some beefy mercenary to take on your beefy mercenary, or simply tramping over to your place to steal one of your cows, I’d go to something called a “court,” and there I would obtain “justice,” by way of a “remedy.”
The “remedy” was intended as a way to fairly recompense a loss. In the case of a stolen cow, the remedy was simple: if it was found that you indeed stole my cow, you returned that cow, or another cow, or something of equal worth. The court meanwhile denounced you from the bench as a form of rat bastard, for stealing my cow, and the community commenced to shun you, for some appropriate period of time.
Unfortunately, not everything is as simple and straight-forward as cow theft. And so white Europeans, in formulating this “law” business, soon flapped completely out of control. If you stole an apple from a market—hey, cut off the dude’s hand. You steal shit with your hand, so, if we lop the thing off, you won’t steal shit no more. Too, hanging’s good: if you die, you sure as shit can’t commit no more crimes. By Charles Dickens’ time, the English were hanging people—including children—for all sorts of no-account offenses. Solves the problem. A little muss. Not much fuss.
Here in the USA, in 2010, still blindly stumbling behind our forebears, we don’t much lop off hands, or hang ’em high, anymore . . . though we do bubble up into the veins of The Accursed sufficient poisons to kill ’em, and meanwhile lash into any foul cage any old miscreant we can lay our paws on.
It is hard to determine what sort of “remedy” best serves as punishment for Tom DeLay. It is clear that the guy flouted the nation’s laws in order to subvert the government of the United States. But there is no precedent for simply stomping into the halls of Congress to grab by the neck those who, via DeLayed illegalities, had come to be seated there, and rudely depositing them in the street. The cause and effect, under our laws, is too attenuated.
So we are, instead, faced with the reductionist notion of confining DeLay to a cage.
I’ve been in a cage. Three times. And I am here to tell you that a cage is not a place that any human being wants to confine another human being, without extremely just cause. Like, you’re pretty darn sure that, if the person is not immed-iately confined to a cage, sometime in the next 24 hours s/he will unaccountably run amok, and, for No Reason, bite someone in the neck.
Tom DeLay—Wrong as he is—is not that sort of person. He’s just a has-been sadsack, who once was somebody. Who, torn down off his throne and thrown in with the pretty-much nobodies, today may run his mouth, may run, at best, a PAC or two. But who can no longer be feared as someone capable of subverting the government of the United States.
For decades in this gene pool Thanksgiving was a family affair, where we’d all gather for a week or so at the beach; but that died away a couple years ago, felled by greed. So no gene-meet, for Thanksgiving, this year.
Too, a couple years ago I peaked in my will and desire to prepare traditional Thanksgiving fare, when I devoted about 496 hours to an aged French recipe involving turkey stuffed with chestnuts. Never again. No more of that sort of thing, thank you very much. Not interested, any longer, in any of that “let us prey” food they shoved through the bars, 25 or so Thanksgivings ago.
The final problem is that I am no longer much interested in anything that I know how to cook. None of it seems to me to taste as good as it used to, the only exceptions being dishes so stunningly simple they can be successfully accomplished by a monkey, or maybe even a rhino.
So, these days, pacing my cage, I’m reduced to inventing soups.
As Thanksgiving approached, I wanted something with potato and a little beef. But the beef-and-potato soup recipes in the books to survive the great purge, and available on the intertubes, involved bland and fatty Northern European fare that instantly erased all interest, the moment I scanned the ingredients. So I decided to just go my own way: heave some beef and potatoes in a pot, with some Asian spices and such, and hope for the best.
I’ve made this soup three times now, and, as Freddy Sykes says: “Ain’t like it used to be. But it’ll do.” I call the thing “Moon-Eye Jook.” It’s not really a jook, in the cooking sense, because there is no rice, and it’s a soup, not a porridge. But so what? I invented the thing, so I can call it what I want.
Be warned that the dish won’t work at all unless you procure true Thai Death Paste. The farang versions of Thai red chili paste—like Thai Kitchen’s—just won’t do the job. You need to go into an authentic Asian grocery and ask for the hottest Thai fried chili paste available. You’ll know you have the right stuff when back home you find you have to put it on a coaster, because the stuff slowly, mysteriously, bleeds through the jar, and will on your standard counter leave an ineradicable stain. Try to find something like that shown here. Know that this fire-paste is immortal: refrigeration is not necessary, it will never spoil, it can probably survive on other worlds and even in the vacuum of space. Just two teaspoons of this stuff to kick off the dish, and you get a nice wide-awake bite with each spoonful of soup.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 heaping tablespoons diced ginger
2 heaping tablespoons diced garlic
2 generous teaspoons true Thai fried chili paste
10 cups homemade chicken stock
3 generous cups diced unskinned white potato
.75 pound sirloin, sliced in very thin 1-inch lengths
.5 teaspoon ground turmeric
.5 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon amontillado
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch in .25 cup cold water
.75 cup chopped green onion
.33 cup chopped cilantro
whites from three hard-boiled eggs, chopped
Go to the link and make the chicken stock.
Slice the beef and marinate it, unrefrigerated, in the turmeric, white pepper, amontillado, and 1 teaspoon cornstarch.
Dice the potatoes. Dice the ginger and garlic. Chop the green onions and the cilantro and the egg whites.
Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, pour in the 1 tablespoon olive oil. When that’s hot, dump in the garlic, ginger, and true Thai fried chili paste. Stir for about 30 seconds, until the kitchen is unbearably—in a heavenly sort of way—fragrant.
Add the 10 cups homemade chicken stock. Bring to a boil.
Add the diced potato. Bring to a simmer, and keep it there for about 15 minutes, until the potato is cooked but not mushy.
Add the beef and the soy sauce. Simmer for about 2-3 minutes, until beef is cooked through. Add 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in .25 cup cold water, and stir for about a minute, to thicken. Add the green onion, cilantro, and egg whites. Eat.