I’m lucky to already have a lot of interesting stories at my age. It’s no small feat to have a repertoire of occurrences like mine by the age of 30. But that pales in comparison to my family, and in this case, my grandma, Vivian. Stories deserve to be shared, so I hope you won’t mind me sharing this one. This is the story of when her and two other women cooked dinner for the King and Queen of Thailand and their entourage of 34 people.
Here’s the scene. In 1953, my grandpa Preach Pennington accepted a job in Thailand working for the Thai government as a heavy equipment specialist. He brought along my grandmother, my father (conveniently also named Dan) and my uncle Ron. Unfortunately, they found out they would be living 180 miles north in a small village called Chainot where the dam was being built. So for the next two years, that’s where my West Virginia-born and raised grandparents went to live. What they found was a village deep in the jungle, with a house that was 14 feet up off the ground because of annual floods and a home to a 15-foot king cobra. At the age of 30 with two kids (aged six and one-and-a-half years old) she set to figuring out how her new life would be. Her “new kitchen” had a sink that hung out the back window and drained to the ground below and no stove top or oven, though it did have three charcoal braziers. Thankfully, there was another American family, a German engineer, three British families, and of course Thai engineers and their families also living on site.
With no proper grocery stores for hundreds of miles, she relied on feeding the family via her local farmers’ market, with open air stalls and local produce to work with. This included a butcher’s stall, where they could buy fresh water buffalo as well as stalls with arrays of new spices to try. My dad was just beginning to speak and he was learning Thai as fast (or faster) than he was learning English so he would act as a translator between my grandmother and Sart, the cook. Grandma would take her cookbook to the village and point to the cuts of meat she wanted, and the butcher would pull that particular beast from the hook, and off she’d go with the freshest meat she’d ever find, wrapped in banana leaves of course.
My grandpa made her an oven from sheet metal and gauges from Caterpillar tractors that she could place above the braziers to regulate heat for baking. Using her cookbooks and the homemade oven, she taught Sart to bake all her traditional favorites. Condiments were made from scratch. Cinnamon came from a footlong piece of cinnamon bark, ground by hand. Her determination helped her fall in love with Thailand, allowing them to extend their stay for another year and the completion of the dam and its dedication. During that time my Aunt Anong was born–she was given a Thai name.
None of this has mentioned the King, but I feel the scene needs to be set to understand just how impressive what she pulled off was. The King of Thailand (Bhumibol Adulyadej), his Queen (Sirikit Kitiyakara) and their entourage were coming to review the completed dam site and dedicate the dam and asked that a dinner be prepared. A cousin of the king who had attended school in the States recommended chicken pot pie. And so it came to be that three women from Albuquerque—Laura Newcomer, Mary Yates and Vivian Pennington—were set to make a down home feast fit for a King. Thankfully, my grandmother was very good at making chicken pot pie. They were cooked in the hand-made ovens, as well as creating a hand-churned ice cream rendition of the red, white and blue-striped Thai flag crafted for the occasion. The freezer that was holding the ice cream unfortunately broke down as dinner started, so the group had purple milkshakes for dessert instead.
How did they like it? In what was arguably a scene straight out of a video game, all three women were individually rewarded with a bag of gold-dipped coins, and the Queen told Vivian that she thought the pot pie was very good. This has been an enduring memory for my grandmother throughout her 96 years of life that she stills talks about to this day. My grandparents continued traveling the world before finally returning to their adopted hometown of Albuquerque. Maybe if they had come back to Albuquerque and started Thai Pies, I'd be reviewing that.