Li Bai wrote about a grand “me” -- how I am, what I am like, what I said and did. The world scarcely matters at all, except as a prop to hang his headband on. His was a poetry of self-creation: while the meditative poet might define the self by introspection, Li Bai defined the self by individuating acts, by gestures that separated him from others.
-- Stephen Owen, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang
A refrigerator put me in a good mood, so last Friday night I decided to cook mapo doufu.
I’ll explain about the refrigerator later. The important part of this story is that during my cooking process Friday night I stumbled into what seemed to be a new insight into garlic and ginger and the nature of existence. This surprised me. As readers of this newsletter should be aware, I have devoted vast amounts of research to the topics of garlic and ginger and mapo doufu. The potential discovery of fresh nuance in tapped-out mine-shafts sent the klaxons blaring: All hands to typing stations! Repeat! All hands to typing stations!
So let’s set the mise-en-scene. My ingredients are in immaculate order. My cleaver is in hand. I’m listening to Spotify’s Release Radar playlist, which serves up a selection of new songs by artists that Spotify’s algorithm knows I am already favorably disposed towards. I have just smoked a bowl of “Durban Poison,” described to me by the pot store guy as a “top shelf” product of Humboldt County. I have marinated the ground pork with chopped scallions, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. I have started the rice cooker.
I am ready for the most laborious step of the process; the mincing together of roughly three inches of ginger and eight cloves of garlic into what Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook describes as “the consistency of a thick paste.”
Mrs. Chiang’s co-author, Ellen Schrecker, adds an important parenthetical at this juncture: “(This may take several minutes, but Mrs. Chiang insists that the finer you chop the garlic and ginger the more interesting the finished dish will be.)”
How many, many, many times have I have contemplated the vagaries of space and time that reside inside that single sentence.
Who would not want their mapo doufu to be the most interesting mapo doufu it could possibly be!? But how does one know when one has achieved the finest possible mincing? Finer... more interesting... these are words that reek of asymptotic frustration. We can approach, but never get all the way there.
As I have noted before, the great attraction and revelation, for me, of Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook was how specific and algorithmically precise her instructions are. Even the most inexperienced novice can follow them blindly forward and achieve the sublime execution of classic Sichuan cuisine. One need not depend on judgment calls or flashes of intuition. But here, in this parenthetical, lurked the quicksand of ambiguity. How fine could I go? Xeno would likely argue that there is always another chop to be made. But in real life, there are constraints.
Like, first of all, boredom. I am by nature an assiduous chopper but even I have my limits. I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m bored; let’s get on with it. And then, second, the tragic paucity of time enough for chopping. Standard mapo practice requires starting the rice cooker immediately after marinating the pork and then swiftly prepping all the other ingredients: the garlic/ginger, the water chestnuts, the tree ears, the doufu. Ideally, by the time all the chopping is complete, one can start stir-frying and everything will be ready to eat at exactly the moment when the rice is done. There is no room for infinite chopping!
But as I began prepping the garlic and ginger on this particular Friday night, it occurred to me that the only significant variable in this entire process was just how willing I was to seek transcendent interestingness via the finest possible mincing. Despite everything I believed about Mrs. Chiang’s step-by-step approach, here was exactly that call for judgment that I used to shy away from. Here was the crossroads that separated the stumbling newbie from the suave veteran, the instruction-following drone from the spontaneously-acting-according-to-the-contours-of the-moment Daoist sage. Here was the key to everything!
It was at this point in the evening that I noticed three things, more or less simultaneously.
1) I had forgotten to turn on the rice cooker.
2) The music was annoying me.
3) The marijuana was, in fact, “top shelf.”
I do find it useful to be automatically introduced to new songs by artists that I already like. Release Radar is smart algorithmic voodoo. And yes, I did enjoy Olivia Rodrigo’s breakthough album Sour, and I did select her song Brutal to kick off a prospective summer party playlist. But that does not mean that I am the right audience for every new Rodrigo song spun off from her Disney Network star vehicle, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Such songs do not make for an appropriate soundtrack to a celebratory Friday Night invocation of mapo doufu.
This is why artificial intelligence poses no threat to humanity.
I laughed out loud when I recalled that last summer, while writing my newsletter post about garlic and ginger, I made a playlist titled Garlic & Ginger! What kind of imbecile doesn’t play his garlic and ginger playlist when getting high and making mapo doufu on a Friday night?
This is why humans are doomed to be replaced by smart machines.
I pulled myself together. I changed the mix. I started the rice cooker. I picked up the cleaver. I returned to my contemplation of the logical and mathematical impossibility of ever reaching that perfect state of the most finely chopped garlic and ginger. I realized that the moment I was currently experiencing was ideal grist for a newsletter post. Life froze in ecstatic catharsis. I was chopping garlic and ginger while listening to garlic and ginger while thinking about writing, AGAIN, about garlic and ginger. Does it get better than that? Had I solved the meaning of life?
And yes, it did also occur to me as the rhythm of my chopping matched the glorious propulsion of Nick Cave and Neko Case’s cover of The Zombies She’s Not There, that there was more than a fifty-percent chance that my Friday Night mapo doufu euphoria was the kind of sativa-induced delusion that tends to feel less than compelling in the cold light of the following morning. Many a rueful smile has greeted the perusal of some dashed off note that was intended to ensure I did not forget my brilliant inspiration, but only served to prove, once again, that genius is an illusion.
I mean, this is what I discovered on my laptop on Saturday morning. It’s not confidence-inducing.
“There is special interdiminacy to Mrs Chiang’s mapa doufu recipe in her insturctions for chopping garlic and ginger”
Yikes. People, before you go to bed, hydrate and spell-check!
But that came later. Let’s fend off tomorrow’s sobriety and stay in the moment. Let’s focus on the job in front of us: the chopping. Happily, due to my rice cooker forgetfulness, there was extra time for chopping than I normally allot myself. Maybe not quite enough to plumb the unknowable depths of infinity, but certainly more than enough to achieve a really, really fine paste.
And isn’t that all that was really necessary? Isn’t wisdom inherent in the eschewal of the goal of most interesting, and the acceptance of the relative satisfaction of more interesting? I had the right music, the right cleaver, the right state-of-mind. I wasn’t bored. I gave myself up to the cutting board. I submerged in the flow. Time lost all meaning.
And then, suddenly, I beheld the garlic and ginger paste and knew it to be fine. Way more fine, in fact, than I had achieved in many a moon. I had to laugh again. There was no mystery here. I had imagined myself in the pocket of a celestial pipeline, surfing the azure heavens like one of Li Bai’s immortals. But all I really was doing was applying the necessary elbow grease.
Chop more. Get finer. Be more interesting.
So yeah that mapo doufu was pretty tasty. Good stuff. Will apply more elbow grease in the future, you betcha.
But at this point you may be wondering about the refrigerator.
Two years ago, in late July, I was the first person awake after a riotous summer party. I trudged into the kitchen to survey the wreckage, start the coffee, and begin the cleanup process. I discovered a sheet of notepaper on the counter near the coffee maker. On it were a series of notations, mostly written in my sister’s handwriting, but including a few scrawls from other hands. Stainless steel baking pans. Dish towels. Garbage disposal. Basement refrigerator.
After pondering it for a few minutes, I realized it was a wish list of items that my party co-hosts had deemed necessary to make up for gaping holes in my infrastructure. It was, in fact, a preliminary to-do list for the next party. I heartily approve of all to-do lists, and heaven knows I always need more stainless steel pans and dish towels, so I was at first pleased at this evidence of forward-thinking frontal lobe activity by my community. But come on: a second refrigerator? No way. Extravagant, expensive, and energy-wasteful. And if I needed more dish towels? Best to just rip some old sheets into new rags. That’s what a Sichuan peasant would do.
But this wasn’t about me. This was about my sister, who flies across the country every year to help me throw my summer party. She orchestrates a vast number of dishes, and for her my single refrigerator was a frustrating bottleneck, a constraint that obstreperously complicated the task of feeding 150-200 people. This was about my sister thinking about the people’s greater good.
There was no party last year, for obvious reasons. But just last Wednesday, my sister emailed me a link to a Craigslist ad for a thirty-year-old Whirlpool refrigerator, reputed to be in perfect working order and available for the very non-extravagant price of $100. She said the owner was willing to deliver it and she’d buy it for me for my birthday. I acceded to her wishes. It was easy. The price was right and I want her to be happy. And I would only plug it in during the month of July, so how much energy would I really be wasting?
A series of tripartite emails and texts between my sister, the refrigerator’s owner and me followed, and in very short order -- in fact, that very same day! -- it all came together. The owner lived just a few blocks away. His father borrowed a dolly from Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library (YAY TOOL LENDING LIBRARIES!) and the two of them then walked the refrigerator over to my house! We were able to get it through my basement door without, literally, an eighth of an inch to spare, which seemed like a beneficent gesture from an unexpectedly tolerant universe. Best of all, the owner of the refrigerator, whose day job was working as an adviser to local governments on various renewable energy and sustainable transportation policies, listed the refrigerator on Craigslist for a nominal price because he felt it ecologically unseemly to consign it to a landfill. He was delighted when I told him that the refrigerator would only be plugged in a few weeks a year in the service of community frolicking.
He waived the delivery fee. I invited him to the party. We stood in my backyard without masks on, strangers able to see each other’s smiles. It was refreshing. Some people bring communities together to build barns. In Berkeley, we do it by finding the right spot to offload a thirty-year old fridge.
Or at least we should. Of late, it’s been tough to build community. For most of the last year, I’ve felt the ties that bind my community together fray rather than be renewed.
But now summer is here, vaccination rates in Berkeley are sky-high, and worn-out refrigerators are causes for joy. The well-springs of new connection are burgeoning. That puts me in a good mood. And when I’m in a good mood, the mapo doufu gets more interesting. And that’s all I really need to get by.