What About Us?
Upside-Down Toilets, Home Theater, and My Pseudo-Matrix
You’ve made it to Newsletter #2! I set up a loose schedule for myself of once-a-month posts, but you never know when inspiration will strike, and let’s just say I was STRUCK this weekend. Barfed out the below last night and this morning, and I hope you enjoy. If you found yourself here sans subscription somehow, consider striking subscribe so that when my next inspiration hits, you’ll get a wee taste!
For two months, there was a detached toilet sitting on the sidewalk at the end of my apartment block, and every time I decided to take a quarantine-mandated stroll, I would find myself face to face with this absurdity. And without fail, that toilet, sometimes shining in the sun, sometimes covered in fresh snow, would bring me back to sophomore year of college sitting in the back of the lecture hall learning about Marcel Duchamp’s inverted toilet-turned-drinking-fountain, and my itching desire to flip over the table or chuck my laptop across the room à la Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. I remember thinking, this is art? It’s just an idea – find a toilet, flip said toilet, call it a fountain, voilà! It felt to me like some big con, both ridiculously low brow and somehow simultaneously so pretentious.
On Friday, I decided to watch a few episodes of Chef’s Table (I know, I’m incredibly late to the party, but I promise this thought will make sense in a bit). It was the episode profiling Grant Achatz - chef of Alinea in Chicago known for creating magical and mysterious food experiences - and the first commentator alluded to hearsay that the restaurant’s pairing of surprise scents with a meal was “incredibly pretentious.” Cut to a slow zoom on Beans, many garnishes, pillow of nutmeg air and the food critic recounting that cutting into the dish and getting little puffs of spice was “magic” - I swear a shiver shot up my spine.
I mean, what are we really saying when we call something pretentious? Perhaps it is reserved for something valued for the sake of being difficult to understand, something that has built up walls and a moat and shoots fireworks from inside the castle, gestures you to come inside, and then doesn’t quite amount to much. I think pretention is a gimmick or when you overcomplicate and underexplain with the subtle sinister intention of keeping people out. It makes us narrow our eyes, but I also wonder if we are quick to slap the label on things that are novel or different or subversive. Sometimes we might be the ones erecting the walls and closing ourselves off from the treasures beyond. In the case of the pillow of smell, Chef Achatz took a regular dish and then blasted it with unexpected memories, and thus, magic. I don’t think that’s putting up barriers or assuming people won’t understand and turning them away – it’s actually allowing us to consider, or even reconsider, the makings of a meal and our fundamental, emotional tie to food.
This episode was about the potential of elevated dining to expand our idea of what a food experience can be. It’s someone turning over a rock in front of us, pulling the rabbit out of the hat; it’s Duchamp inverting a toilet and then asking us what we choose to accept. Really, it’s this idea that sparks the revolution inside us because then the parameters of what we know are shattered. The pillow of air was insane, and yes, maybe a tad pretentious, but it confuses and delights and presents a novel sensory moment, where “we treat the emotional part of cooking as an ingredient – you add salt, you add sugar, you add vinegar… you add nostalgia.” I certainly know what it feels like to taste something and smell something different than what you expect. I also know what it feels like to love something and then start over.
I was already crying at the beauty of this chef’s story and food, but the waterworks really began when it was revealed that he had stage IV cancer, and that the radiation treatment destroyed his tastebuds. When you lose a sense, it sort of feels like something is stolen from you, and that the person stealing it is yourself; like your body has failed to uphold something that should come naturally. But as Grant’s treatment progresses, he describes his taste returning in waves, and in an inspiring moment, claims that it was this loss that sharpened his voice as a chef – getting to relearn flavors with the novelty of a child but the perception of an adult changed the game. I, too, had to retrain myself, and learning to taste again was learning to trust my actual experience and not my perception of what was weird or unpalatable or my previous preference. Ironically, I came to trust my senses in a time when my experience was supposedly limited.
Spreading rainbows of California market produce out on my counter this summer, I discovered that purple peppers could be fresh like grass, heirloom tomatoes were perfectly acidic, figs like brown sugar. In some ways, I think I taste better now that I don’t have the distraction of smell - Michael Pollen once described mindfully eating a McDonald’s burger and realizing that beyond the enticing aroma, what he was chewing didn’t taste much like meat at all. Even though flavors were muted and different than before, I was able to hone in on the most essential parts of what I was eating; maybe it’s a superpower. At the very least, it was an invitation – a call to action really – for me to take everything as both a risk and a reward, intrigue and discovery. It wasn’t exactly Chef’s Table, but my kitchen corner was constantly reorienting.
My favorite part of the episode is when the chef gets restless with repetition and asks for a new menu to the surprise of his partners, who retort that all of the guests coming in that night were new anyway. Grant replies, “But, yeah, what about us?” It struck me that a successful chef, one steeped in the mission of searching and searching, doesn’t cook theatrically only to provide a momentary gimmick for a diner, but to embody that risk and reward for oneself. It reminds me of my philosophy in music as a classical flutist and teacher. I tell my students to approach surprises very similarly: don’t give it away, and you need to surprise yourself. And I mean it. How do you wow yourself; how can you make something you’ve done a thousand times before feel like a risk? Because, isn’t that why we do this, looking for that feeling? When there’s a subito or sudden 180-degree turn in a score, I like to think of it as waiting until you reach the precipice, until the moment when you don’t actually even know whether you will come in, and then suddenly, a corner turned, a little burst of intrigue.
In this time, I really do think the question is, what about us? What can we do to surprise ourselves when we cook 2-3 meals a day, largely without pretense and for many, just for one? Grant’s story might feel beyond our means, but I think a key is to leave that sliver of room, to make a home theater in which you can experiment, surprise yourself, and have opening night every night. Chef Achatz asks, what if a strawberry tasted like a tomato, and a tomato was a strawberry? Think about it – because for me, these types of mismatches actually happened, and I don’t think it was fully because my senses were rewired, but rather, that I gave myself permission to accept newness. I invite you to think about what you are eating as if you are meeting it for the first time today; let it surprise you and lead you to new corners.
While there are days when I’m crunched for time, I find that I open the fridge with a loose set of personal guidelines, and I am able to pull flavors that are unexpected cousins. I guess I built this up from scratch by following a few recipes from start to finish in the summer once a week over the weekends, and then five times a week, and soon just reading through variations on a dish, and then doing my own things. Now, I have my own matrix of sorts that helps me feel like I have some sort of guiding principles as I futz around; it gives me that risk/reward balance and upholds this philosophy of invention each day. At the bottom of this newsletter, I’ve made a general representation of my pseudo-matrix and a sample weekly menu in hopes that it’ll spark some inspiration for you to find out what your rules are, and then turn them around, again and again.
The toilet on my block has since disappeared, and I’d like to think that even as it’s sitting in some landfill, that it’s found its way to the top of a pile and that the dirt in the bowl has somehow mixed with snowfall and sunshine and sprouted something completely unexpected.
Have at least 1-2 of each of these categories and you’ll be good to go to mix and match with some possibility of failure but 100% possibility of fun. Use a hearty/heavy veg base with a leavy veg, or, a grain base with a leafy garnish or dank sauce friend – so many combos! No outfit repeats!
Leafy/Salad Veg something you can eat raw as a salad base or garnish/cook with as a helper - i.e. kale, large spinach, arugula
Hearty/Heavy Veg something that can be your produce star and actually be heavy enough for a meal - i.e. sweet potato, beets, daikon, rutabaga
Fresh Aromatics I have a windowsill garden of herbs and I would recommend that – I live in NYC so anything is possible, and I also grow microgreens – and then have about 2 others- i.e. garlic, red onion, shallots, green onion, ginger, yellow onion, pearl onion
Dank Sauce Friends fermenty goodness that is my personal key to yumminess – i.e. vinegars, miso, pickled things you can make yourself, soy sauces, hoisin, black bean garlic sauce, tomato ‘njuda or specialty sauces, tamarind paste, seeded mustard, LaoGanMa, anchovies, gochujang, sesame oil (my fav and I consider this dank)
Non-Produce Proteins something that can be a meal base when I’m not feeling like a hearty veg - i.e. eggs, yogurt, cheese, firm tofu, chickpeas, butter beans, black beans
Fruit Including Citrus fruit is a great snack and topping for salads and breakfast bowls; get something seasonal and flavorful and it’ll speak for itself! Citrus is particularly lovely now and also has so many uses
Grains/Bases/Dried Goods these make up the foundation of lots of my meals – i.e. bread frozen in the freezer, grits/polenta, oats, rice, pasta, noodles, mung beans, azuki beans, frozen rice cakes, dried shiitakes, chia seeds, and various nuts and seeds and dried flowers
*HonDashi non-negotiable sprinkle into everything I eat – check out this post from my dad
A Sample Haul!
Note that I have all the grain bases and dank sauces and window herbs already, so all haul additions are the weekly fresh things, and don’t include a few leftovers – make sure you eat produce on a timescale too!
apple grab bag
blood oranges (2)
half a cabbage leftover from last week
tofu boxes both firm and silky
bread, sliced and frozen
bee pollen was my fancy pantry addition
*ginger and shallots and sage leftover from the previous week
This Past Week of Meals
You can see that most of these are just various combinations of the haul goods within my general matrix of rules and combining a grain/hearty veg base, and then various toppings/sauces/etc. I can go more in depth later, but this is just to get some thoughts flowing! You can of course check Instagram too for my incessant flow of daily posts and to put some photos to these dish names (shoutout to everyone who told me that 4 posts a day is not a problem).
Basic Breakfasts (5-10 min):
skyr with bee pollen, olive oil, coarse salt, currants, rose petals, pistachios, and honey
peanut butter and honey goji jam on polenta toast
baked cinnamon apple halves with egg white scramble, Greek yogurt, toasted hazelnuts, polenta breadcrumbs, and honey
ginger DouHua (silken tofu with ginger syrup)
blood orange and coconut skyr on polenta toast with fresh mint, pepper, coarse salt, maple syrup, and zest
sesame soy somen with nori strips and folded steamed egg
pumpkin spice skyr with bee pollen, apple, and cashews
Fancy Breakfasts/Goodies (more minutes):
coconut oil and rum ramekin DanTa (egg tart)
spiced ginger parsnip cake with ginger frosting, cashews, and bee pollen
tahini cardamom granola with maple syrup, rose petals, currants, sesame, and salted pumpkin seeds
creamy mustard fennel salad with apples, fronds, and bread crumbs
sesame soy tofu scramble with egg, garlic slices, kale, scallions, and sunflower shoots
apple rosemary parsnip soup
maple-seeded mustard-sesame oil kale salad with green apples, cashews, and bee pollen
hiyayakko (Japanese chilled tofu) with hoisin-soy-shiitake dressing, dashi, scallions, spicy sesame, pork sung, and LaoGanMa
creamy fennel stalk salad with fronds, cashews, currants, honey, rosemary salt, olive oil, greek yogurt, and splash of natural wine
kale-anchovy-shallot rice cakes
roasted cabbage with olive-red wine-spicy tomato sauce on crisped shallots, butter beans, Chinese sausage, and sage
miso soup with slow cooked cabbage, rutabaga, and rice cakes
rutabaga gnocchi with anchovy browned shallot sauce, cheese, and kale
cabbage wraps with sesame hoisin shiitakes, tofu, fennel stalk, shallot, ginger, and gojis
double decker roasted rutabaga steak and tomato sauce toast with fennel, cheese, and kale
tri-colored pasta: gochujang-tomato-shallot-shiitake broth sauce pasta with blitzed maple silken tofu and raw garlic-kale-balsamic pesto
Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments what content you like most or is most lovely to get in your inbox - more musings? More matrices? More menus? Food puns??? I may or may not take your suggestions because this is really for me but also it brings me deep joy that people read this.