Fried rice (“Cooking became more fun when…”)

I wanted to find a nice image for you here, but fried rice isn’t the most photogenic dish. Restaurants can garnish fried rice with basil or cucumbers or even flower-cut carrots, but really, garnishes aren’t the point with fried rice. Which is part of my point here.

When Shauna asked us to fill in the title sentence on Twitter, I first thought of this: “Cooking became more fun when I realized that recipes (for cooking, not baking) were suggestions.” I think that’s still true of my cooking now. I’ll substitute carrots for red peppers, delete the fennel, revise the asparagus roasting time, add mirin or olive oil or brown sugar where necessary. But I didn’t have a specific moment, or month, or even year to attach to that philosophy.

My next response, which I didn’t post, was “when I learned to trust my nose and my palate.” And the moment came, complete with a dish: fried rice.

As a college student, my friend C came to visit me in my second post-dorm apartment: a two-bedroom apartment on Arch Street in Berkeley. The apartment, come to think of it, reminds me a lot of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, and, probably not so coincidentally, of my house now. All of these spaces have white walls with wood-rimmed windows, and hardwood floors. My apartment was a 1940s converted townhouse. A huge plus: it was half a block from campus, on the quieter north side. A huge minus: it had a radiator that clanked in the morning like a drunken prisoner. But it had a lot of natural light, and a galley kitchen.

In that kitchen, my dear friend M and I made dozens of cookies and batches of mochi, usually after midnight Safeway runs. Late night beer runs? Not so much. Brown sugar and chocolate chip emergencies? You bet. And I made a lot of fried rice.

The fried rice I remember making when my friend C came to visit is no version of “authentic” fried rice that I can think of. (Then again, I’m not sure that fried rice has an authentic history or one specific ethnicity. Chinese? Thai? Filipino? Malaysian? I’ve found fried rice at all of these restaurants. Surely, someone’s done a culinary history of fried rice. If not, I call dibs on writing one.) Anyway, I remember buy albuterol adding the following ingredients to the skillet:

  • Half a roughly chopped onion
  • A fresh garlic clove, minced
  • Canola oil
  • Leftover cooked white rice
  • Half a package of frozen mixed vegetables
  • Leftover chicken sausage, chopped up
  • Italian seasoning
  • Paprika
  • Salt
  • Finely grated cheese, maybe Asiago or Parmesan

I was a bit nervous talking to this friend, I remember, so I kept looking in the fridge and pantry, adding more things. The paprika I remember adding towards the end, a random note of inspiration to sweeten the rice a bit and enhance the browning.

As I kept adding things to the skillet, the conversation loosened up, or maybe I loosened up. I wasn’t sure how the rice, or the conversation, or even the friendship, was going to turn out. But I remember turning away from the stove, wooden spoon in hand, for minutes at a time, so I could talk to my friend.

When I came back from these minutes, I’d stir. Each time, a bit more of the rice had developed that crunchy crust which makes the best fried rice. The Spanish call it socarrat; the Japanese call it okoge. The rice, and the vegetables, and even the onions and sausage, had caramelized a bit. I’d stir the rice, turn around and talk, come back and stir. It took a long time for fried rice, maybe even half an hour. But the rice, and the conversation, and the visit, were eventually pretty good. Both the friend and the rice were forgiving.

Most importantly, I became more comfortable in the kitchen that day. I began with one of the most familiar acts of cooking I knew and revered. I used vibrant ingredients that I already had in my pantry. I played with one of the ingredients central to my cooking soul. I wasn’t worried about how the rice would look when I dished it up. I wasn’t following anyone’s recipe. I was just tasting the dish in my head: trusting my palate and offering the results to someone else.

Not a bad way to cook, or write, or even live.

P.S. This is another community blog post; you can check Shauna’s roundup post for other online responses in the next day or two. If you’re on Twitter, you can search for #cookingbecamefun.

P.P.S. This week on the blog: more about the book project, and, by request (!), farmer’s markets.

Do I dare?

When I teach American literature, I always try to teach T.S. Eliot’s famous dramatic monologue, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a form of self-introduction on Prufrock Day, I ask my students to quote a set of lines that best describes them. Some of the greatest hits as we go around the room:

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

“I grow old…I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” (usually a favorite in the Pacific Northwest, many of the sleep-deprived heads nodding in agreement)

“Prufrock” is one of those quintessential English-major poems, one that my college friends and I used to quote to each other endlessly. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I studied Modernist Poetry with the now-deceased British poet Thom Gunn. Ah, Thom Gunn. He delivered eloquent, beautiful lectures from behind the lab counter in 1 LeConte Hall. Once in a while, he would step away from the counter and slouch genially against the blackboard, usually wearing faded black jeans and a worn black leather jacket.

(I still remember my one shining moment of in-class participation, perhaps in all my 4.5 years at Berkeley: “Do you mean ‘wanting’ as in desiring, and ‘wanting’ as in lacking?” “Exactly,” he nodded. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” My friend M and I practically squealed. Maybe we high-fived under our desks. We thought he was beyond cool.)

Anyway, in Modernist Poetry, Thom Gunn read Eliot’s poem out loud. And we swooned, all hundred thirty-something of us, in that lecture hall. We adored  Prufrock’s melancholy,  his world-weary angst, even (perhaps especially) his stunningly adolescent self-absorption and insecurities. We could relate to his passionate love affair—not with the “you” of the first line, but with indecision itself. We didn’t know what we were going to do with our lives, much less our majors in English! order ventolin inhaler online Prufrock captivated us—no, Prufrock got us. Prufrock was us.

But on our Prufrock Day, Thom Gunn’s fierce gaze pierced the room’s collective marshmallow adoration: “If you don’t think that this poem is funny,” he declared, “you don’t get this poem.”

I’ll always remember that moment, because I have used it over and over to teach the poem. It makes for great conversation: many of my students protest. Understandably, they feel sorry for Prufrock, even when I point out that only Prufrock, lovable Prufrock, could write a “love song” that begins as a pastoral ballad: “Let us go then, you and I” and just after, invite the object of his love to an evening “like a patient etherized upon a table.” (Really? What kind of evening is that? What kind of woman responds to this as a pickup line?) But remembering my own college marshmallow love, vaster than empires, we work through the poem together.

I am thinking about Prufrock today because I have been thinking about my last post. “In a minute there is time,” Prufrock says, “[for] decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” What would I say to this creative writing teacher now? Why didn’t I become a professional writer?

I could answer with a number of reasons, including the undervaluing of creativity in American society, especially creativity as a form of intellectual activity; our lack of support and infrastructure for artists; the tunnel vision of graduate programs which insist that the tenure-track job at a research university is the only prize worth having.

To be clear, I don’t regret getting my doctorate, and I am still proud that I’m the first PhD in my Japanese American/Filipina American family.

But looking at my path in a certain Prufrockian light, I return to these lines:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”