Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writers: Don't Be The Tuesday Chef

I am a great fan of real authentic Chinese food. I taught myself to read a smattering of Chinese so that I could read the good specials on the wall of some grungy little dive. The good stuff is inevitably written only in Chinese, and nobody will translate for you.

I live in the midwest, in a small city -- not big enough or old enough to sustain a real Chinatown. However, the college nearby has a famous "Asian Studies" program, so we have a large transient population, which is almost as good as a real Chinatown: we do get some real Chinese food here. So, I took the trouble to learn to read as many food-related Chinese characters as I can, and a few years ago it paid off when I saw the characters for "Sichuan Food" newly painted on the side of an old American style restaurant.

Sichuan is known for its extreme flavors, especially when it comes to spicy. The Chinese have two main words for spicy hot: La, which means the kind of hot you get from red peppers -- the kind we're used to. This is the kind of hot which will blow the top of your head off and make you breathe fire. But Sichuan in particular is known for another kind of hot: Ma. Ma means "numbing." You might get a little bit of this sensation from black peppercorns, but Sichuan peppercorns can literally make your whole mouth go completely numb. Like novocaine. It actually has a substance which can be used as a topical anesthetic.

But the peppercorns also have an amazing flavor and aroma, which when mixed with the flavors of toasted garlic, ginger, and hot bean paste, can send you straight to heaven. For instance, most Ma Po Tofu is boring and bland, at least in Americanized restaurants. The first time I had some REAL Ma Po Tofu, I commented that it was "better than Xanax." It could cure the world's ills all by itself.

But one Tuesday we discovered the problem with too much ma. The chef that day just piled on the peppercorns. When you get blasted with too much red pepper (la), and you can adjust for it. Eat a little more rice, order the right kind of beverage, etc. But you can't adjust for too much numbness. One taste of that overwhelmed dish, and we could not taste anything else. It wasn't painful, or even unpleasant directly. It's just that our tastebuds were completely dead. Even the water tasted really really weird.

And, of course, being the only "round-eyes" in a restaurant makes you wonder: are you just too wimpy to handle what Chinese people really like? But we noticed was that this only happened on Tuesdays. As a matter of fact it happened EVERY Tuesday. And the restaurant wasn't exactly crowded with Chinese people on Tuesdays, either. But it was always crowded at the end of the week, when the top staff were working, and the food was not overly numbing.

We figured that the excess of peppercorns was the work of a particular chef who worked on Tuesdays. And thereafter, just to be sure, we only went to the place on Fridays and Saturdays.

Sometime a little later a new real Sichuan restaurant opened up. (Turns out that a chef had defected from the first.) The food was even spicier than the first restaurant and so we were a little worried, but we tried them out anyway. By golly, even though everything was more intense than ever, the ma of the Sichuan peppercorns is never so strong as to take out your tastebuds for the meal. Even on a Tuesday. The food might be far beyond regular western tastes (you seldom see westerners in there) but the restaurant/chef isn't about being macho. That chef is about the flavor, and the food.

How does this relate to writers?

When it comes to experimenting and being edgy, both cooks and writers tend to take on a little machismo when they learn/try something new. New things can be uncomfortable at first, and then, once you get the hang of it, you're proud to be a member of the initiated. "Chicken feet -- they're tasty!" (They are, just hard to eat and squicky to look at.) "Octopus in firey hot sauce, bring her on!" "Sichuan peppercorns, ha! The more the merrier!"

We writers -- all creative people -- do the same thing. We need to. This bravado leads us to expand our horizons and invent new things. We play with poetic forms, and present tense and telling stories in second person, and head hopping and stream of consciousness, and non-chronological storytelling. And that kind of experimenting and risk-taking leads to heavenly Ma Po Tofu and Spicy Dumplings. Life would be boring without this grand glorious risk.

But, as with the Tuesday chef, we have to watch out for that moment when our own machismo gets in the way of our art. Just recently I was in a debate about a certain experimental technique, and someone declared that she couldn't stand reading anything which didn't use this experimental technique -- which basically cut out nearly all fiction in the history of literature.

That attitude is something we are all prey to when we first fall in love with something. The more the better! Write EVERY book in second person present tense! Put peppercorns in your cupcakes!

Most artists, and most chefs, will get past this point quickly. They'll put a pound of peppercorns in something and look at the result and think "uh, maybe I shouldn't have done that. Let's try a little less." But some will just do it and keep doing it, and when a customer complains, they'll say, "How dare you suggest I can't use all the peppercorns I want! If you can't taste anything after eating this, that's because there's something wrong with you!"

Folks, don't be a Tuesday Chef. Do experiment, do go too far once in a while. But don't let bravado and ego (or resentment and laziness) get in the way of doing a wonderful job. Being tougher and more extreme than anyone else doesn't make you good.It might help you get there, but only actually being good makes you good.

Glory exists in the fact that Sichuan peppercorns open up the flavors of the toasted garlic and ginger and hot bean paste, not in blowing those other flavors completely out of the dish.

Am I arguing for moderation in all things? No. You can't make pickles without way too much salt, even if that same amount of salt would make another dish inedible. I'm not saying to moderate yourself. I'm saying to pay attention. Consider the effect. Remember what you're doing it for.

See you in the funny papers.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Such a good point, Camille. It's important to experiment, but also to listen to feedback and shift direction if needed!