Writing and wonton soup

I’ve been fooling around with this post since 11 August 2011. It’s given me a headache because it’s about comparing wonton soup to writing–what I thought was an oh-so-brilliant thing in mid- to late August. Then school started and my life became a whirlwind of writing, teaching, administration, and a deep-down-pipe-dream wish to manage my beloved scholarly projects in better ways. I’m really doing the pipe-dreaming thing, aren’t I?

I had this lovely experience eating soup while writing and thinking and trying to find a moment of peace while the pre-semester was making me nuts (there’s nothing about scheduling college composition classes that is okay, right, or easy). And August was hot, hot, hot. And finally I’ve gotten to early September, in more or less decent shape, and it’s raining and cool. Thank you.

I can’t really post the below without some introduction now because it’s not August anymore, and it’s not so hot or humid (well, 100% humid now but cool). I hated to lose the soup/writing connection, so here I am forcing a Procrustean ideal perhaps, that of  process being everywhere a metaphor in anything; forcing something I’ve done to fit into a something else.  (If I had footnotes in this blog, I would insert one here to say that for many years now I have consistently been mixing up Proteus and Procrustes, both sons of Poseidon in some mythologies. However, only one really has applied to my examples: Procrustes. I have meant this: “A Procrustean bed/couch is an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.” But I think I have always referred to Proteus rather than Procrustes. And I thought I was so mythologically hip.)

I’ll set the scene for you: It was a hot, August afternoon in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a long and distressing day of WPAing in which nearly everything I did was a semi-disaster. It was drippingly miserable. School was going to start in a matter of days and all classes had not been staffed nor scheduled (people’s lives change and that change can include major league impact on my working life). Let us pick up, then, Dear Reader, from the point I began/ended and see what happens:

Who needs a large steaming hot bowl of wonton soup on a Thursday afternoon at 4:30 in August when it’s 100 degrees outside and 90% humidity?  Me.

My drive home is a perfect arc that includes a wine/steak shop and a glorious Chinese restaurant, East China. They make many fine dishes at East China, such as orange chicken (among the best I’ve ever eaten), but they are unmatched in soup making. It might be hard to understand the desire for hot soup in the midst of summer, but the reality is that this wonton soup is wondrous. It’s the best chicken broth ever–salty, chickeny, pale golden in color, not perfectly clear, but perfectly right–with what I think are nearly always perfect wontons. If they don’t make the broth and wontons in-house, then it’s the best available stock and wontons available for purchase from a restaurant vendor, but I can’t believe this soup is anything but crafted by the artisans in the kitchen (however, I would never ask–see the below importance of mystery).

On this particular day, I’m alone in the restaurant–the only customer. It’s quiet except for the non-stop chopping from the kitchen so all will be ready for the dinner crowd. The phone rings for a few pick-up orders; I hear sizzling; cupboards and doors open/close; voices shout and sing in English and in languages I don’t know (which always comforts me–it’s human contact, but I don’t have to know what’s going on–I appreciate that immensely); pans and spoons bang and ring; faucets are turned on/off; brown paper bags crinkle and crunch as food is bagged for customers soon to arrive…

The soup is hot and the wontons are large. LARGE.

One Cooked Wonton (photo by "Oldie" 2005)

I struggle with the wontons. They are really too much for one bite (if you are into Emily Post), but if you don’t mind taking huge bites and looking like a cow, they are just right. I find these wontons to be a downright unwieldy food. If you try to cut them with a spoon, they can skitter around in the bowl and avoid the most determined plans for bifurcation (using an eating utensil that is curved and not meant to cut is not a great idea, but using a knife and fork for soup seems like it might be a violation of some etiquette rules, if etiquette rules exist for this particular food).

This soup is like spaghetti–I’d never want to order it on a first date or at a job interview meal, as I’d likely slop it around in the bowl, splashing broth about (and on me), and I truly would risk shooting a wonton across the room–memorable but perhaps not the right impression. (I let one fly down the dining room table in July, smacking into the far wall, so I know both loft and speed are possible with just the right angle.) But I can’t argue with it being the greatest comfort food available to me at the moment–chicken broth, green onions, BBQ pork julienne cut–and the wontons are, at the same time, done and al dente regardless of whether the wonton skin winds tightly around the stuffing or the edges wave about in the broth. This level of cooking balance is an achievement.

Anyone who has dabbled with stuffed pasta knows that the outer edges can become overdone if one allows the stuffed part to become fully cooked or heated through. It’s a minor miracle to get the noodle and the stuff in the noodle to a perfect state at the same time. I know. I am a pasta guru. I claim several skills in the kitchen and out–but pasta might be my strongest claim to guruness. It’s the first thing I learned to make and cook and still my favorite meal. And sauce–oh heavens–I love to make sauces. But we’re not on sauces today–we’re all about me claiming to know a good wonton, a great wonton, a remarkable wonton, when I see one. So that is what I claim.

East China handles the wonton wrapping elegantly, but what of the stuffing? On its own, it might not be spectacular, but with the BBQ pork influence, onions and broth, the stuffing takes on a particularly bright series of flavors: there are echoes of the BBQ of the pork, ginger, garlic; the content is smoothly ground, but it also includes some crunch like watercress or cabbage; there is a hint of shrimp. Frankly, I don’t want to know everything that goes into the wonton. Mystery is frequently underrated. Give me mystery.

As I sip and wrestle with my soup, I begin to think: writing is like this soup.

Why would I think such a thing? Why travel such a path? Because I’m a metaphor junkie. I have to have metaphors to work, to think, to engage with the world. I am rarely logical. I do not see logic very often, even if it’s inherent to a thing or a circumstance, I might miss it completely. It’s happened. But metaphors? I see these suckers everywhere. It’s how I think; I think it’s who I am. I, my very self, might just be a metaphor (for what, who knows?), but just saying this feels rightish.

Writing for me is like this soup: comfortable, complicated, uncomfortable, incredible, satisfying, and hot. And I mean hot like Paris Hilton mean hot when she said, “that’s hot.”

Like comfort food, I crave writing. Sometimes I can’t keep myself from writing. I will draft 7 things at once, only really finishing 2 of the 7… or sometimes, I’ll draft 7 things and finish them all at once (so it may seem). I don’t exactly binge write, since I consistently write–every single day, always–but I don’t always finish a piece I begin or necessarily share it (sometimes sharing is not okay). Occasionally, “publishing” is not necessary–like craving Sweet-tarts. I really just need a few cherry Sweet-tarts, and then I’m fine. Same with writing. I just need to write. It might never go anywhere, but it’s one more thing out of my head.

I write for a lot of reasons, just like wonton soup can be apropos anytime of the year. I write at the request of friends who have ideas they want me to articulate or fool with. I write for my students because I want to write with them–they need to see me working at it. I write because I have an ax to grind. I write to think. I write to find a solution to a problem. I write because I’m haunted by an idea or a memory, and confronting all that with words–better than other options. I write to metaphorize something–I write about one thing but really mean something else. I write zig, but I really mean zag.

Like the joy of eating this particular wonton soup, I’m so happy when I get to write. I’m content and peaceful and yet feel starved until I get those first words down, taste my first spoonful of broth. The visual of the soup triggers my desperation to eat it. It’s an intemperate reaction, and I know that, and acknowledge it, so I’m stronger than the reaction, right? So I say, and this could well be something like the 10th level of metasoupliness. The comfort lasts at least as long as the soup lasts–and I think about it while I’m eating it. Metasoupliness. Just like I said. (One of the delights of writing is playing with words. Mom said, “Don’t play with your food, child.” So I grew up to play with my words.)

Writing is comfortable for me–I rarely have writer’s block or fear of writing. What does happen is that I’m so completely tired that I cannot think so I only write notes, rather than longer pieces, or I revert to haiku. Haiku is extremely comfortable for me–even uplifting me sometimes. Or the notes move me to the longer essay later on. That happens a lot.

Writing and wonton soup–same, same. Really? Really. I compare the difficulty and ease with which I tackle the soup with the ease and difficulty with which I approach writing: sipping broth is a breeze, eating the wonton is way hard. The onions and pork are delicious in the soup lending both flavor a variety of texture. The broth is smooth but not a consommé–the soup is a series of taste sensations, and the multiple textures are pops of excitement in the mouth: silky, rough, smooth, reedy, stringy, bumpy, tender, strong.

Writing includes multiple ingredients. It’s a process and a product. It’s the parts and the whole. It’s the dish and the spices. I’m not the first to equate writing and food as processes–but I wanted to particularly draw attention to this soup and writing because it is both such a pleasure and a pain to eat; it is both a vehicle that brings me comfort and makes me think I must look particularly unattractive eating it; it is how I feel about my writing: I wish I didn’t write some things I have, but how could I pass up wonton soup?

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