I think he might be taking me to where he took Sue, Michelle and Pam - a ban xeo place I haven't tried but that he believes is #1 in Saigon. It's a dish that is not ubiquitous and therefore is a treat for me. So I am surprised that we drive all the way back to the neighborhood, right across the alley from the Bum Bum to get it. A woman and her daughter sit in a doorway cooking over a brick grill which sits on top of a large can. I see them often in the market, but they must be newcomers to the ban xeo business; usually, vegetables are sold at this spot in the morning.
"Number One," says Nam, and he goes about the business of ordering everything exactly how I like it. He's really proud to tell her that I don't especially care for bean sprouts, and that I like my shrimp peeled (they usually leave the crunchy shell on, believe it or not) and that I do want the mung beans added. He gets so much satisfaction from telling people what to do - pointing this way and that - what a pity he got me for a customer this year instead of some really nice person who allows him the simple pleasure of being Da Nam all the time. I only allow it in food situations, except in how to peel it or how to hold it. And I certainly do not allow it in shoe - choosing situations. The problem is that he will never understand these rules. The bright side to this problem, however, is that he always makes up for messing up by introducing me to new number ones.
So he hovers over the preparation phase of the neighborhood ban xeo, which takes a while because the wok is HOT HOT HOT and the crepe batter sits over the flame for quite some time - she must tilt the wok at several different angles to cook it evenly (when Thuy and Thanh made it for us, it had to sit for even longer on our lower-heat gas burner). As soon as he is sure that the crepe is cooked properly, his overseer's job is done. After I take my first bite and agree with his enthusiastic "number one," he goes on his way down the alley to visit his mother (who isn't getting better, he says).
The verdict: neighborhood ban xeo is delicious. It's not too taco-crispy, and it's not too soggy oily - both unfortunate textures I have encountered. The dipping sauce for after you wrap everything up in greens is just the right amount of spicy, too. My mother is right; once again, he has excelled in his most important role: My Food Introducer and Screener.
Which leads me to this topic:
This relationship I have with my xe-om driver is definitely one of the strangest relationships I have ever experienced, which is perfectly demonstrated by the corn event followed by the ban xeo event: he is impossible and infuriating, he is indispensable...he is opinionated and rude, he is extremely sweet and thoughtful... everything he says makes me cringe, some of his actions are so very touching. As you know, I call him my mother as do most of my friends ("Marjie can't go next door for a beer, her mother is coming to pick her up") but sometimes I feel I am in a committed yet bothersome marriage.
So, for quite some time I have been playing this little amusing game while being shuttled the ten or fifteen minute ride to or from school. Without the luxury of a car stereo or the possibility of books-on-tape to distract me, and possibly because of my current saturation with "Dorothy and the King of Darkness," I have begun imagining our year-long strange, funny relationship into a stage musical. In it, the story of our year is played out in songs, always performed by Nam, always sung in perfect English. Many of the songs are country because of his "cowboy" self-identity and swagger, but he also sings R and B as well as a little bit of pop. In some scenes, he will ring the castle doorbell, come inside and sing as he climbs the staircase, bringing the song to its climax and end on the Romeo and Juliet balcony. Other times, he will stop the motorbike, dismount and begin to sing in the middle of Saigon traffic. Sometimes, scenes require him to sing a song while reclining on his bike at "his spot" where I find him in the morning. Of course, he also breaks into song over food. Choreographed dances also accompany each song.
The fun part is choosing the right songs for scenes. For example, when he takes me to have lunch with his table-o-friends and they are all adding brandy to my drink and we are toasting "One, two, three, YO!" - he stands and sings Garth Brooks' "I've Got Friends in Low Places." When he hears the news that I often hire Mr. Seven on the weekends, he stands from his reclining position at his spot and sings Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." When I turn the corner after the "how to peel corn" lesson and don't really interact with him for a week is the scene where he rings the castle doorbell to sing the Hall and Oates version of "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling." Aretha Franklin's "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream" fits at the part where he is on the floor moaning about never seeing me again and losing the job of driving all of my friends around (before I tell him I am coming back for another year). Weird Al Yankovic's "Eat It" - the parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" goes so well with the scene where he wants me to eat the ball of fat dipped in tomato sauce with my soup. And I'm not sure where this fits in yet, but Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is a must with his Man in Black Cowboy Hat.
Please feel free to add song to scenes, past, present, or future to help me piece together this musical if you need something to think about on your way to and from work.
If you have a good car stereo, however, or a good book on tape, I would suggest one of those as a distraction instead.