Born in California, Diana Khoi Nguyen is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review, PEN America, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere.
Here, she talks about the pleasures of cooking a perfect meal, late-night egg-in-hole, and cheap pizza with milk.
On her all-time favorite meal:
I’ve had so many life-affirming, memorable and eye-closing meals, but the one that I think of with value is the dinner I made for my thirtieth birthday while I was at a writing residency in the south of France just last year. (I know, my life is just filled with trauma and gloom. How it is that I’ve been lucky in gustatory and writerly ways, I’m not sure, but I am absolutely grateful for the opportunities conferred to me. It is such a gift to be alive.)
Before I describe this meal, I must first state that I’m not big on birthdays, but I do designate the unremarkable measurable for solitude, champagne, and cake. And all of the above in large quantities. My thirtieth birthday was to be no different, except this time I had the bounty of both the Provence and Mediterranean at my disposal.
On that fateful day, I woke up early, grabbed my woven basket and arrived at the biweekly farmer’s market in the town center. I went to my meat monsieur, a man in a butcher-shop-converted-traveling-van complete with display and chopping block counters. Never have I studied French, so I pointed at the skinned rabbit hanging from a hook (complete with both eyes intact) and said, “Lapin, s’il vous plaît.” He held up the naked creature. I nodded my head. Then I made the motion of chopping with my hands in the universal language that expressed: Please hack that bunny into pieces for me.
Next, I filled a weighing basket with verdant haricot verts, squash blossoms, and fragrant lemons from my preferred produce stand.
I always saved my favorite stop for last: the cheese and egg station. Here, my favorite fromage—brillat-savarin, some creme fraiche, recently churned butter, and eggs with yolks deeply orange.
While my palate is not new to rabbit, I had never cooked the critter. But I did find a recipe and used regional ingredients in the preparation and cooking of it. The creme fraiche marinade infused a rich moisture to the meat; I grilled it stovetop. Everything shone through: the garlic, dijon, herbes de provence—and highlighted the flavor of the protein. It was tremendous.
With the lapin, I also seared some haricot verts with slivered garlic and mint, and deep fried squash blossoms stuffed with fresh herbed ricotta and goat cheese, and finished the meal with a bright tarte au citron.
Somehow, everything turned out well seasoned, unburnt, and wildly delicious. I ate each course at a table by the open window in my apartment, looking out at the lighthouse, harbor, the rouge sunset over Cap Canaille. I thought about my life at that moment, the simplicity of it, the sheer joy of being alive, alone—and thought also about the absences. I had done myself a gift I never give—care and attention to my own happiness, and I reveled in the moment, and have striven to sustain that moment ever since.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
It is indirect, but bright, filtered leaf- and branch-light. Like the middle of a morning, or of an afternoon, when the world is flush from dreams or play. I think lunch universally has to be my favorite meal of the day, in any place.
On snacking while writing:
Never! I can’t eat and write, or multitask my bodily functions in this way. Also, I don’t know how to snack (a deficiency I attribute to lax snacking laws as a child in which I was permitted to eat anything, in any amount, any time of the day, so long as I had the urge. Which may or may not explain my monstrous appetite most of the time). Because of this, I do not keep snackables inside the home, mostly because they’d be consumed in the minutes after entering my home.
But in rare luxurious moments, I would snack on a sumptuous plate of cheese and cured meats, pickled items, honeycomb, pear/plum jam or fresh figs, thin crackers (or a crusty baguette or Tartine Bakery walnut levain slice), and perfectly ripe honey crisp apple slices.
On her go-to late-night snack:
An egg-in-hole with the bread toasted stove-top in a generous amount of perfectly salted butter. I could eat these in infinite amounts. Hole and all.
On her food quirks:
I grew up with a mother who dipped day-old baguettes into glasses of whole milk. Which then morphed into my preference of eating cheap pizza with milk. Which usually renders faces of disgust in those with whom I share this habit.
On her final meal request:
This is the worst question for someone who loves to eat! How could I choose one meal, let alone a last meal! I can answer it in this way: I always crave Sichuan cuisine, especially dishes like Chengdu Taste’s boiled fish with green pepper sauce, or really, any of the dishes from Mission Chinese Food—but just last week I had a new favorite: crisp fried intestines with celery, jalapeños and peppers. I always want to eat these spicy, mouth-numbing dishes. Heat to carry me through the end of times.
I would want to eat this meal with the few whom I love who also love to eat offal and fire. They know who they are.