Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I Thought I'd Escaped Afghanistan

You have probably read three times as many books as I have since we last met. That's because you probably don't fall asleep every time you sit down to read a chapter. What's up with this extreme nappiness?

But anyway . . .

First up we have The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. Theroux has my dream job: go places, then write about them. There's probably a catch though, like going places I wouldn't want to visit. Theroux took a regular patchwork of trains all across Asia. You might think Asia would be a memorable and scenic place to visit. But our author doesn't sugarcoat things at all.

Here's what we know, thanks to his troubles on all those trains:

Great swaths of this planet are not very exciting to look at. Turkey comes to mind, as does Siberia. And Afghanistan where, Theroux reports, there is "not a single mile of railroad track." (And here I thought I'd escaped Afghanistan by tossing aside Rory Stewart's book.) He got across the world's least fortunate country some other way, I don't remember how.

Then again, some spots on earth are quite lovely: Thailand, Vietnam.

So if the scenery outside the train window is often dull as dishwater, what does the travel writer write about?

Well, his fellow riders provided rich material: The Russians packed odd train picnics for themselves. The Japanese acted like automatons. The Vietnamese, their lives disrupted by years of war (Railway Bazaar was written in the mid '70s) found the most resourceful ways to carry on with life. And the Turkish are still wearing clothes from the '30s, because that's when their leader brought the country into modernity, adopting Western clothing and habits. They just got stuck there, that's all. (Maybe Theroux's follow-up book will catch them wearing denim and tube tops. I'll let you know when it comes up to the top of my reading list.)

As for the Ceylonese, they were starving when Theroux visited. But many came to his literature lectures (he gave a few along the journey). And why would they care about literature, when they had life-and-death matters on their hands?

They came because every lecture included a dinner. They came and gorged themselves silly.

The book includes quite a few cow patties as Theroux passed through Thailand and Japan. Theroux approaches them partly as a married man far from home, and partly as a social observer, commenting on the national character.

Next up, Howard's End by E. M. Forster, is a drama of English class boundaries. The cast of characters includes the Schlegel sisters, independent girls who come from old money and a bit of German blood landed in England; the Wilcox family, up-and-comers who constantly strive to hang on to their relatively new wealth; and Leonard Bast, who stands in for the rest of us. He's a working man, but decisions made by the other two classes could, at any moment, topple him into ruin.

Mr. Wilcox kicks off the story by giving Mr. Bast some advice. What I found fascinating is Forster's study of each class's awareness. Mr. Bast tries to push in to the upper classes, but the penny-pinching habits so necessary in his life give him away. On the other hand, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels have no idea what the stakes are for those who must work for a living.

As for your recipe, I have learned that my mom's stacked enchiladas, which are not anything like the rolled ones you see in stores or restaurants, are actually genuinely Honduran! That's right. Mercy used to eat them stacked. But she never knew the recipe. And my mom never wrote hers down either, not to mention that her enchiladas included something called "chili brick," which doesn't exist anymore.

I remember enchilada night as a night of gorging. When you like something that much, you figure out a way to make it. Judge for yourself, but I think I've come up with something that comes pretty close:


1 lb. ground beef
1 pkt (1.75 oz) chili seasoning mix
1 can (46 oz.) tomato juice
3 TB cornstarch
1/2 c. cold water
Vegetable oil
2 pkgs. (10 each) corn tortillas
1 lb. cheddar cheese, shredded

1. Fry ground beef; drain. Add chili seasoning and small amount of tomato juice.
2. Heat tomato juice in saucepan. Add burger mixture. Mix cornstarch and water, add to tomato juice. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cooking and stirring until slightly thickened.
3 Heat small amount of oil in large skillet. Fry each tortilla a few seconds on both sides. Drain or blot excess oil, then place on dinner plate. Sprinkle with cheese, top with sauce. Add more layers as desired and serve. Continue until no one can eat anymore.

Calories come to about 258 per layer.


  1. Confession time: I'm pretty sure I'd like mom's enchiladas now, but as a kid even the smell of the frying grease sickened my stomach. One time, in a flash of super-naughty, I spit in the middle of a plate of mom's prepared enchiladas, waiting on the table. I know, grisly, huh. I was in SO MUCH trouble then. Sure hope that wasn't your plate. :o(

  2. I hope it wasn't either. Maybe you overcame naughtiness by the time I graduated to solid food.