I woke to a pounding, though from my head or the door I couldn’t be sure. My eyes pressed painfully into the back of my eyelids, threatening to burst open and leave me sprawled like a fucked-up jack-o-lantern on my bed. The inside of my mouth was ash. Laced with the fractal imprints of an entire pack of cigarettes. Eventually I was able to open my eyes, causing my pupils to slam shut with rare temper while the murky image of the ceiling came into gradual focus. I was in the right hotel room at least. I wasn’t sure how I got there, but I was naked and alone. Slightly disappointed. There was another wave of pounding and this time I was sure it came from the door.
It took a few seconds of mental preparations, a quick sit-up, and a closed fist to the mouth to block my stomach’s rebuttal to the motion. But eventually I was up. My clothes were scattered and I grabbed my outfit from the night before off the foot of my bed. A dirty striped tank top and shorts that hung too loose on my hips. The whole ensemble smelt of spilled beer, smoke, and sin. The knocking continued.
It was Phúc, one of my students. Shit. I had agreed to get lunch with him today. I only went out the night before because I usually never sleep in past nine. I suppose going to bed at six poses problems for that pattern. What time was it?
As far as English ability goes, Phúc was the closest to being conversational. He preferred to go by Eric to make the guests feel less alienated, as if the four-star resort we worked at was some kind of Imperialist bastion against the evils of Southeast Asia. Or maybe he just feared the obvious mispronunciation – his Facebook lists his name as “Lucky Luck.” A man of many pseudonyms.
“Hello, Colin!” His thick baritone stretched thin the “i” and turned my name into its own female equivalent. Appropriate, given how emasculated this hangover made me feel. As I swung the door open all the way, he stuck a checkered bike helmet into my chest. “Ready to go?” he asked.
I managed a nauseated nod.
Driving in Hoi An is similar to driving in Manila. There are fewer cars, but the bikes all power through intersections with the swaggering confidence you’d expect from a drunk Superman playing Russian Roulette. They simply go forward and hope people react in time. Maybe give them a heads up with the horn. Horns in America almost exclusively say, “fuck you, cocksucker,” but in Vietnam, they suggest, “hey! I’m here! Notice me!” Bikers lay down the sound like their life depends on it. I guess it sort of does.
Normally this is all fine and dandy. If I’m walking along the street and a bus feels the need to emit a thunderclap just to let the world know that it does, in fact, exist, then more power to it. My only reaction is the brief pity I feel for the bus’ self-esteem issues. You’re a bus, we can all see you there, buddy. Though I may jump if it surprises me.
On the back of Eric’s bike, though, it was murder. The constant squawking melded together in my muddled mind until it became a constant drone, mixing with other ambient tones. I could feel it pressing a wet drill bit into my eardrum. It was 11:30 AM by then and the sun was shining at a harsh high angle, just barely bounding over the tint of my Ray-Bans. I wished I could close my eyes, but every time I did, I lost my sense of attachment to the world around me. The motorcycle’s vibrations gave an odd floating sensation and the whole Universe would start to spin around me until I risked falling off at speed. The checkered helmet I wore was old. The interior lining slid along my head until the actual helmet was hanging from my neck. So I kept my eyes open, groaning the whole way.
“Where are we going for lunch?” I asked him.
“Where are you taking me?”
“My house Colin!”
That wasn’t too odd. Eric mentioned when he invited me that he wanted to show me some authentic Vietnamese food I hadn’t tried yet, and there’s not much more authentic than homecooked. So I sat back on the bike and let my arms catch the wind, hoping it would blow the toxins from my pores.
We eventually pulled into a driveway, uncannily full. Ten motorcycles leaned against each other in a space the size of a large closet, the path to the open door a labyrinth of handlebars and rusted hurdles. We were not alone in that suburban domicile. That’s when I noticed Eric’s dress – a collared shirt and dress pants, far too dressed up for a quick bite to eat with a coworker, let alone with a half-wasted degenerate in clothes that smelled like piss.
“Is something going on?”
“Oh yes, sorry. I forgot to mention. You meet my family today!”
A beat. “What?”
Eric casually motioned for me to slide off the bike as he maneuvered it into the landfill of mounts. The only space available was a small gap between a wall and a bush, and Eric guided the machine straight in, sending a cascade of dried leaves and dirt onto his pristine shirt. He brushed them off as he emerged.
“It’s the one year since my grandmother’s passing,” he said, “you will eat with us while we remember. We have a big feast ready, only waiting for you to arrive.”
Against all initial primal urges, I didn’t exclaim anything in protest. If Eric knew what kind of shape I was in, if he could smell it seeping from my skin, he hadn’t said anything. Protesting now would only blow my already tenuous cover. I could feel eyes on me through the wall. The window was open, and in the unlit room people stirred to get a better look at the dirty stranger intruding on their most hallowed of days.
The kitchen was dark, but I was hesitant to take off my sunglasses. The horrors of last night were still burnt into my retinas, and the smudged Ray-Bans were the only things keeping the world at large from seeing how my eyes sagged in my skull, desperate to commit some kind of optic harikiri. But etiquette is etiquette. As I lifted the lenses from my face, my eyes met with the woman I assumed must be Eric’s mother or aunt. Her white hair pulled back her face like a natural surgery, but a lifetime of experience remained etched into the immovable lines of her face. The Vietnam War in her forehead, Agent Orange children in her cheeks. If the lesson sticks, this will be the last time I describe in depth a hangover. As our eyes locked, she gave a toothless smile, and I returned it to the best of my ability before Eric led me to another table. I would be sitting with the younger guys. Thank God.
Now, this article is called Snacking Strange. I give this long background only to tell what I found to be a funny situation, sitting in on a deeply personal meal in an unintentionally irreverent condition. And, let’s be honest, it’s a partially masturbatory attempt to use grandiose words to sound cool. This article is, and was meant to be, about the food I ate. For being a hungover fool, I did okay with my interactions.
The table was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. A shared collection of plates so numerous they were stacked on top of each other. Strips of bacon, plates of rice and noodles, stir-fried vegetables and biscuits spreading their crumbs over the collection. The juices and oils dripped into the absorbent foods, creating a tender mush that melted in the mouth. Eric offered me a beer – I took one sip of it and gagged. Which for my condition would have happened even if the beer hadn’t been warm and flat. I asked for some tea instead.
That’s when everything paused. The clatter of plates and silverware, the quiet murmur of conversation faded out. Eric stood up.
“We prepared a special plate for you, Colin.”
He walked into the kitchen with one of the women, pulling a tray from the oven. Dirty and grey, it looked a bit like a used dog bowl. Inside was some kind of quiche-type meal. A layer of yellow – is that cheese? – tinged by small brown spots where it had bubbled. Green onions crafted an aroma not unlike Spring and Summer holding hands in a breezy mountain pond. Bits of peppers flecked surface as well, a rainbow of flavors and smells that made my cotton mouth water.
I dug in with the spoon. The yellow crust offered a little resistance, but after the initial penetration my utensil dropped easily into the depths of the bowl, like the surface merely hid the true meal. Something under here was amiss. I was dealing with gastronomic subterfuge. I carved a hole into the surface and pulled a chunk out.
The yellow crust, so scrumptious, so deceiving. Underneath it was a layer of gray that jiggled ever so softly with the vibrations of my unsteady hand. Everybody looked at me in earnest. Waiting to see my reaction. I put the spoon in my mouth.
I was right about the crust. It was delicious. The cheese was mixed with crumbs of some kind of biscuit, giving the whole thing a satisfying crunch. The peppers bumped along the sides of my tongue and cheeks, leaving emanating waves of spice like a rock skipping along the water in El Nido, and the green onions followed with a gentle apology, soothing my mouth with a freshness quickly swallowed once again by the smokiness of the cheese.
Had the crust been all I ate, I would have left that house very satisfied.
The problem was the grey matter jiggling around underneath it. It chased the flavor of the crust like a spectre, lurking in the shadows to put out the light whenever it had the audacity to ignite. The actual taste wasn’t bad; in fact, it hardly tasted like anything at all. Maybe a vague saltiness, like the taste of your own saliva. The problem was the texture. Biting into it was like eating a slightly firmer jello mold, just soft enough to trick your teeth into wondering whether they had bitten anything at all. The heat of my tongue made the material sweat a sour substance, breaking it down further so that it rolled over the crisp chunks of crust, instantly silencing any taste buds the good flavors managed to activate. With the vaguely familiar taste, I felt like I had a wad of snot hanging in the back of my throat (eating boogers may be a theme of this segment).
I managed to swallow, then looked down. The bowl had roughly 20-25 more bites like that in store.
“Eric,” I asked, “what is this?”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s… interesting. I’ve never tasted anything like it before. What is it?”
“Baked pig’s brain!”
Oh. Good. It was too much for my hungover brain to comprehend immediately, so I didn’t bother. I took another bite, this one just as bad as the last. I chewed and swallowed as the onlookers lost interest and turned back to their own meals. They may have been expecting me to vomit, or at least gag. What a way to honor grandma. I guess laughter really is the best medicine.
So I was eating a pig’s brain. At least they weren’t wasting any part of the pork.
Eventually, I was desensitized to the taste. The empty pit that was my stomach began clamoring for tribute lest it spew its wrath across the room, so I choked down every last bite. I even scraped my spoon along the sides of the bowl, ensuring that every last bit of the brain found its way to my mouth. As the last wriggling wrinkle of neurons slid down my throat, I dropped my head in utter resignation to the day. There was no going uphill from this. The last comforting fingers of my guardian angel of inebriation were sliding away from my mind, revealing a migraine of reality.
Eric drove me home soon after. As I stared blankly into infinity, I imagined acquiring the memories and skills of a pig, and decided that zombies have very poor taste.
The instant I was in my room, I fell on the bed and went to sleep.