Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a prolific Spanish writer and epicure, declared: “To begin cooking duck at one in the morning is one of the finest acts of madness that can be undertaken by a human being who is not mad.” Pondering on the manner in which writing permeates life, my thoughts are drawn to culinary things and the similarity between the literary craft and gastronomic endeavor.
The pervading culture today often seems to be one of onward-haste, with convenient shortcuts provided for those who are not inclined towards stove-top labor: frozen meals, just-add-water monstrosities, as well as all things prepackaged, prewashed, and precut that have severed our connection to the greens as well as the earth from which they have sprung. I receive a weekly organic food-box and routinely shake plumply satisfied grubs from dirt-garnished roots. The vegetables are raw not only literally, but figuratively; they emerge from the soil refreshingly unabashed with blemishes on proud display. There is none of the homogeneous perfection of their neatly-arrayed supermarket cousins, sleek and pristine in their waxy spit and polish; the organic heirloom tomatoes are often hideously swollen and corpulent beneath their multi-hued skin. Our literary works are also fiercely independent products of our own particular mental soil.
This trend towards culinary convenience and the eclipse of genuine cooking produces dishes that are not only lamentably lacking in taste and nutrition, but often conceal an alarming admixture of chemical compounds and flavor injectors that none would selectively choose to consume. A dedicated writer, like the vigilant cook, eschews expediency that exists at the expense of quality. In order to fashion a masterpiece, whether it be kitchen-derived or of the literary kind, the instigator must commit themselves to the process regardless of the required duration; one must take their time, move with deliberate intent, and savor the journey.
A few years ago I acquired a wok. Due to the rapid stir-fry process that suffers no delay once begun, the wok-chef, like the novelist, must be utterly organized before commencing. The vegetables and meats must be julienned, diced, or trimmed, and assembled with the precision of a military operation. The garlic, ginger, and onion form the vanguard and are situated wok-side for imminent deployment. The vegetables comprise the main body of the infantry, the meat stews in marinade, and the combination of sauces: oyster, sherry and otherwise, are poised to bring up the rear.
The culinary quest, for the wok-chef, is the pursuit of wok hei, or the 'breath of the wok', the much-coveted but elusive and particular piquancy that infuses dishes stir-fried in a wok. Like any consummation devoutly to be wished, one must invest the requisite time and effort. It begins with patina, and an obsession with its accumulation; this essentially is the darkly-mottled tarnish that forms in the wok itself, the by-product of residual oils, the richly-savory reward for culinary perseverance which, with each subsequent cooking, augments and enhances the flavor of the resultant dish. The patina-burnished wok, wickedly hot, infuses the quick-tossed food with vital energy, a tantalizing aroma, and ultimately the succulent deliciousness that characterizes wok hei. The consumer of stir-fry, as well as the reader of novels, relies upon the deft hand and sustained dedication of the chef and writer to their respective tasks. The novelist seeks to similarly tantalize the reader, to lure them with the 'breath of the novel', the promise of something...to engage their senses and satisfy their linguistic appetite.
While the wok-chef must proceed swiftly once the stir-fry begins, the novelist has more time. The literary wok hei can essentially be defined as the confluence of necessary things in the production of a particular fictional work: invested time, a dedication to craft and an ever self-critical eye to narrative-improvement. It is obtained through a dogged, indefatigable refusal to surrender, having burned the white flag in preference to waving it. Like the much-relished meal, it is a product of labor, of determined deliberate intent, of time squeezed from the tightness of daily routine, and a vigilant appreciation of the fundamental sensation of things. I have not, as of yet, risen in the small hours to prepare duck as Montalbán suggests but can readily imagine myself doing so. For the writer who seeks the hard-won endorsement of literary wok hei must rub sleep from the eye and rise to the task. For could one not equally say that the labor of years, the fabrication of an alternative landscape peopled with imagined characters, the manuscript, the story, is also a fine act of madness?