Foreward: I read this tonight at a poetry reading at a friend's bar. I have admired from afar the bravery of others at this occasion, and enjoy how this night feels warm like stories do when told around a fire. My hands shook a lot. Don't think I've ever read my work in front of an audience. It was strangely scary for my limbs, nice for my brain. The topic was (science/fiction). And so it goes...
I struggled with the topic here tonight – because I usually write non-fiction, and more specifically about food. And two nights ago I sat up in bed, very late, reading an article by a writer named Todd Kliman. The piece was called The Problem of Authenticity. And somewhere in the article, as he picks apart the ideal of authentic food, he quoted another writer, Wright Morris, who wrote something more profound than I’m ever likely to. Morris wrote: “Anything processed by memory, is fiction.”
And my mind started to spin. There is no word in the English language, in the realm of food writing, that I despise so much as Authenticity. Because it says more and means less than any other word. And so, in the spirit of Morris, I begin.
“Anything Processed By Memory, is Fiction.”
I remember a meal I ate, once, on the coast of Spain, in Cadaques.
There was a light blue breeze rolling off a sweep of sea, and I sat on a stone wall and ate cheese that was runny and smelled like wet sheep.
The wine I drank from the bottle dripped down the side and on to my pants. And I marveled at how authentic this was; the sea, that special air, the church bells and the stinky cheese and the wine stain that slowly spread across my white pants like a memory.
I saved the label of the cheese, and weeks later, in my apartment in Shanghai, I unfurled it. It read, Made in France.
Once, in Chengdu, I stopped at a hotpot shop after many bottles of beer.
Food was one mao a stick, so cheap you could eat for hours and pay pocket change, I mean change that was really in your pocket, coins made of metal, and the meat was cut from strange parts of cows and pigs and ducks.
The meat looked like creatures from the deep sea that had somehow swum into a skewer. And as I chewed through boiled flesh I bathed in the authenticity of it all, like enlightened sunshine on a drunken night. Yet I never saw another hotpot shop in Chengdu quite like that one.
Across the street from my restaurant, two blocks away, a woman wakes up early each morning and cooks khao mok gai, a sort of Thai biryani, in her head scarf.
She adds turmeric, ginger, onions and chicken stock and slowly simmers the rice, then she makes a sweet sauce with little wisps of coriander and mint which you are supposed to drizzle over the rice and really you should.
At the very end, in between the rice and the spice and the sweet sauce and the salty soup there are raisins. They’re everywhere in there. And no one asks her why, because they know why when they taste it. Goddamnit, it’s the most authentic tasting Thai Malay Indian rice dish with raisins that I have ever tasted.
Recently, I read about a woman in Bozeman Montana named Florence Dunkel. She makes chocolate chip cookies and studies bugs at a university.
In her free time, Florence creams butter and sugar together, adds some vanilla extract, eggs and flour and chocolate chips, and as she does that she roasts a tray of crickets in the oven.
The crickets emerge crisp and smelling of toasted walnuts and she folds the insects into her mix, forming little cookies on her baking tray where feet poke out. Because Florence is going for authenticity, isn’t she?
When did pizza become more than just bread?
When did soup become stew?
When did words become verse?
When did sandals become shoes?
When my grandmother’s mind began to slip and skip beats, as Alzheimers set in in her seventies, the dishes she cooked for me in my childhood began to change.
She forgot to soak the beans before she braised them with ham hocks, and so we ate hard, chewy bean soup and made faces at the table.
One night, as we sat beside each other on the sofa, she offered me a taste of her dessert.
“This is the most delicious ice cream, Jarrett” she said, handing me her bowl like a secret. “It’s the kind your grandfather and I used to eat, down the shore, in summertime.”
I took a spoonful of ice cream, and it stuck to my tongue like an oiled cloth.
My Nana was eating a bowl full of soft, salted butter.
But that’s not how she remembered it.