Sunday, November 18, 2012

Acts of Literary Madness: Thinking Outside the Wok


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?



16 comments:

  1. PJ, I'm amazed once again at your unique talent. Who would've thought to compare writing to fresh vegetables, or, cooking with a wok. If you saw Julie & Julia I feel like that part where Julia takes a bite of fish that's so good she's speechless.

    Signed: A humble fan who doesn't mind pulling out a dictionary to read anything you've written.

    P.S. I may not be an, intellegent, writer, but I do let my thoughts marinate sometimes to the point where they have nearly driven me mad. Now that's an exhilarating experince.

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    1. Kathleen - thank you so very much for your exceptionally kind words. I find that I use a thesaurus constantly and utilize specific words often for the way they sound rather than the way they read necessarily...and yes - the thought marinating process can be a maddening one! Sometimes I find threads of things that run around and around in my head until I can barely make sense of them...thank you again for your kind commendation!

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  2. Ditto here, PJ - a fresh (literally!) and intriguing perspective on writing!! Thank you!

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    1. Thank you Sarah - so pleased you enjoyed it!

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  3. Yes, I have risen in the wee hours of the morning to write those images that must be recorded with pen on paper before they are lost; and yes, this is probably a fine act of madness; but who cares. What is important, as Montalban alludes to and as you rightly state, PJ, is "to engage their senses and satisfy their linguistic appetite." I always walk away satisfied after those late night/early morning writing sessions. Thanks for sharing this feast of an article! Great writing, PJ!

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    1. Yes - perhaps the mind is clearer then, in the wee hours, uncluttered by clamor and distraction. Thank you so much for your kind words and thoughtful contribution. All the best, PJ

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  4. wonderful and fun images of the wok and patina and 1am madnesses so similar to writing binges....

    love your work, truly.

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    1. Thank you Cam for visiting and for your kind words, All the best, PJ

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  5. I really enjoy this blog. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Thank you Craig, for your kind words, and for popping in for a visit! So lovely to 'see' you here!

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  6. I awakened this morning, to find these offerings scribbled on my note pad, the apparent reason for a restless night. I cannot trust those wee hours as they play tricks on me, I have no ideas where these words came from.

    "He saw the rosebud she was, but awaited her full bloom before picking her" poetically speaking.

    "Aware of the rosebud she was, he awaited picking her until she was in full bloom"

    Where or where is that tiny voice, that keeps me awake at night?

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    1. Blackhorse, I know just what you mean! At least you had the presence of mind to scribble them down - well done you! Then of course you just have to figure out their specific relevance... Perhaps the muse is simply craving attention and is suitably satisfied once they are written down to allow you a better night's slumber! Thank you for your intriguing contribution!

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  7. I meant to include....Writing and cooking, who could want more? I love reading this site. Thank you PJ, great as usual.

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    1. Thank you Blackhorse for visiting - if these random musings were just sent out into the dark ether of cyberspace they would seem rather pedantically self-indulgent and presumptuous, but to know that someone other than myself enjoys the reading of them every now and then - well, that is something special indeed! So thank you for taking the time to read and leave such lovely commentaries.

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  8. Excellent post! I love the comparison here between styles of cooking and styles of writing. The military line-up description of wok ingredients and condiments was brilliant.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment and for dropping in for a visit! Thrilled that the post was of interest.

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