Food With Famous People

The culinary genius of Christine Ha.

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I wasn’t a fan of reality television until this summer. That’s because it wasn’t until June that my colleague Christine Ha was featured on MasterChef. In case you haven’t seen the show, it’s a contest in which amateur chefs from around the country ply their skills in heated competition before a panel of frightening judges that includes Gordon Ramsay. (Without television, I didn’t even know who Gordon Ramsay was, but now I do, and now I am afraid of the man, even in my own kitchen where he can’t see me.)

What makes Christine stand out on the show, aside from her stellar cooking skills, is that she’s blind. What makes me give her rides around town, aside from our friendship, is also that she’s blind. Christine’s blindness is a heavy burden, of course, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone – perhaps her least of all – but it seems to come with unexpected upsides, at least for me, since it means that we can spend more time hanging out.

The most recent ride I gave her, we were heading to a friend’s house for dinner, and Christine had prepared a giant, sloshing pan of chicken tikka masala. It smelled delicious, but the pan was made of foil and, without support, would sag and sway and crumple. Add to this the fact that the chicken was still practically broiling from the stove, and it becomes hardly short of miraculous that we somehow, by our combined efforts, got it into the trunk of my car.

I drove slowly. My fear was that if I rounded a corner too quick or bounced down and up through a pothole, tidal waves of chicken tikka masala would slop up out of the pan and into the vehicle proper. The pan was covered, but still.

Upon arrival at our destination, and despite my best efforts, I had failed to prevent such a spill. No chicken had escaped per se, but sauce had leaked out into a pattern that resembled an outline of the Iberian Peninsula. I wiped this up as best I could with paper towels, but a stain remained.

“I’ll get it later,” I said. We were late already.

And then, again, by some hidden agility that neither of us knew we had, Christine and I hefted the pan up a flight of stairs and through two doors and into a narrow kitchen, where we set it on the countertop. (Did I mention she can’t see?)

The pan was empty by the time we finished dinner. In fact, the pan was empty almost by the time we started dinner. The party had been a pot-luck affair, but Christine’s chicken was the best dish cooking, and we all let her know about it by stuffing it into our mouths.

Later, in our gluttonous stupor, getting the pan back into the car was easy, but by now the Iberian stain had set and roasted into place for a while in the evening Texas sun, and so I drove Christine back home with the ghost-aroma of chicken tikka masala recycling through the A/C.

When I got back to my own place, I sprayed it down with vinegar and tried again to wipe it out, but while the smell of spices could be rubbed away, the stain itself could not. Even today, it spreads there like a map – a map of Spain, perhaps, but also of experience. And now, when friends come over, I sometimes like to open the trunk of my car and show them the image, emblazoned in permanent orange.

“That’s chicken tikka masala,” I say.

My friends wince at this and turn away.

“But you know who made it? Christine Ha.”

At this, I swear, they swoon and reach to touch the thing with their own hands.

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