Szechuan Tofu

When I was in college, I lived with several housemates right off of Aurora Avenue North, a strip of highway notorious for seedy motels, drugs, and prostitution. Around the corner was a video store called The Voyeur, a pizza joint staffed entirely by Russian guys, a dingy pet store that sold puppy mill puppies, and a Chinese restaurant called the Szechuan Bean Flower.

The restaurant was nondescript. Housed in a strip mall, with the confrontational fluorescent lighting, torn leatherette booths, and smudged linoleum typical of the genre, there was nothing in its appearance that hinted at the wonders at greatness. I’d never been particularly inclined to eat there. I’ve always been an avid home cook, and with access to the incomparable HT Market (for a glorious time, my neighborhood grocery store) and a top-notch kitchen (the area’s undesirability meant that we got to live in a really nice house with a gas stove) there was little reason to take a chance on a dodgy looking strip-mall restaurant.

At some point, I ended up there anyway. My roommates had developed a mania for hot pot and I quickly caught on. Submerging tender napa cabbage, toothsome rice noodles, and cold slabs of tofu (I skipped the pork and the “beef honeycomb”) into a seething oily broth, then dipping the morsels in a spicy peanut sauce, represented an acme of enjoyment for us broke, food-driven college kids who weren’t yet old enough to drink in bars.

The hot pot was really, really good. But the true revelation came when I finally ordered from the regular menu.

I can’t remember if I was a vegetarian at the time. It’s possible. But even during the meatiest periods of my culinary life, I’ve been a tofu lover. It’s always what I order at Asian restaurants. Plus, I love spice. So I gravitated to the Szechuan tofu. Once I tasted the first bite – crispy fried tofu, alive with the beguiling heat of Szechuan peppercorns, strewn with verdant stalks of cilantro – I was addicted.

This Szechuan tofu was the perfect dish. Texturally, visually, aromatically. It had never before occurred to me to use cilantro as a vegetable; I was an uninspired simpleton. I craved this tofu weekly (or more) and ate it as frequently as I could. Until, one day, I visited the Szechuan Bean Flower with some family who were visiting from Germany. They were true appreciators of food, and vegetarians who adored spicy tofu dishes. I couldn’t wait to turn them on to my life-changing discovery. It’s hard to overstate the confusion and disappointment I felt when my “Szechuan tofu” arrived at the table. Instead of an assertively fragrant red and green pile of fiery tofu and tender cilantro, it was just another tofu dish: spongy yellow cubes languished in an insipid gravy, flanked by carrots and celery and bell peppers. I was crushed.

It turned out that the restaurant had changed owners; although the kept the menu intact, the recipes had changed.

Over the years, I’ve attempted on a few occasions to fill the Szechuan tofu-shaped void in my heart/stomach by making my own. The first couple times, I ended up with a pleasing, spicy tofu dish with lots of cilantro. Idiotically, I failed to include Szechuan peppercorns in these renditions. More recently, I bought extra-firm tofu, which I pressed overnight, and proceeded to fry into leathery dry chunks: the tofu was too dry, and too small. The flavor was good enough, though, so that the friend I’d made it for surprised me a few weeks later by requesting that I make it again. This time, I wasn’t going to mess it up.

We made a trip to the venerable HT Market, where we bought tofu from the excellent Thanh Son, plus a whole lot of cilantro and an assortment of weird gelatinous and sweet and salty and artificially colored and entirely unnecessary snack foods (my pantry was already stocked with Szechuan peppercorns from World Spice Merchants).

This time, I didn’t press the tofu; it was late, and we were ravenous. As it turned out, this was a good choice (Thanh Son’s tofu is firm and meaty, and, being really fresh, not packed in water). I also cut it into decidedly bigger chunks. I fried the tofu in a couple of inches of canola oil; it came out crisp and golden, while retaining its internal heft and moisture. Next, I stir-fried it in a big aluminum stock-pot (I don’t have a wok anymore – it probably got lost in one of my many moves) with plenty of Szechuan peppercorns (lovingly hand-ground in my trusty suribachi), a few japones chilies, a splash of soy sauce, and some Sriracha. Then I tossed in two bunches of coarsely chopped cilantro. My friend stir-fried choy sum with ginger to add green-leafy virtue to the meal.

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The result? Really, really good. I’m intensely self-critical when it comes to food (okay, to everything). But I thought my rendition of Szechuan tofu was pretty great. The tofu could have been crispier; maybe I should have dredged it in corn starch or something?

Admittedly, it’s been years since I’ve experienced the real thing. I don’t know if my version was actually that close. But a google search told me there’s a Szechuan Bean Flower in Issaquah – quite likely the very same one?! – and a pilgrimage is in the works.

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Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen

A little after 8 on a Wednesday morning. My teeth hurt from a night spent clenching them. My body hasn’t yet registered that it’s well-rested. This black tea with cream and sugar tastes oddly of nori.

In a back-issue of the New Yorker, in the “Talk of the Town” section, in a short piece about the wigs of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, a fragment that disrupts my cozy morning and brings a painful spasm of inspiration: “Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen.” It’s the descriptive moniker of one of the wigs in the show, and its evocative power stops me dead.

Why?

I read with envious hunger, glimpsing in everything from editorials in the Economist to the fiction of Alice Munro the ways in which I have failed to live up to the promise of my youth. I have not made my mark in a particular academic discipline or artistic field. I have not published anything of note. Each day I feel this incredible tension, between the pleasurable absorption in everyday tasks that also feels like laziness, and my longing for the kind of recognizable achievement that takes work and discipline.

Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen exists outside of this tension. Her being stirs up an inchoate yearning, parallel to, and in some cases at odds with, the other longing.

Midwest: real America, bland and cheerful, expansive fields and unspeakable winters.

Midnight: solitude, the eerie confluence of waking and dreaming.

Checkout: sickly fluorescent light, tabloid covers’ aggressive banality.

Queen: haughty pride, beauty both a product of her milieu and a rejection of it.

Of course, the heart of “Hedwig” is this particular strain of pathos: the desire to rise above ordinariness and obscurity to become someone else, anyone else. The transcendence represented by Hedwig’s shape-shifting obviates the mundane and makes the Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen a symbol of the authentic self’s triumph over daily struggle.

An Equivocation

I have a complicated relationship with authority. Growing up with the unforgiving boot of the British school system on my neck, I learned to respect and fear those in power. Coming to the U.S., aged ten, the sudden absence of dictatorial cruelty from adults was confusing. I became uncontrollable, convinced that the freedoms of adulthood were my due, contemptuous towards anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. Still, for many years, even the gentlest reprimand from someone in a position of authority would reduce me to tears.

A shameful admission: at times I’ve thought about working for the federal government. I’ve contemplated joining the Foreign Service, the FBI. I’ve even flirted with notions of joining the military. Why?

It was my desire, as I put it then, not just to work for the Man, but to be the Man. To embody a system of moral rigidity that allows no room for ambiguity, instead upholding supposedly timeless ideals of honor, order, tradition, control. This insidious conservative bent within me is probably also the source of my deep love for country music and Western culture (as well as my ever-so-clichéd boner for military men). But my academic discipline (cultural anthropology), and my politics (liberal), are firmly relativistic. Reality indeed has a liberal bias, because reality is complex and fraught with ambiguity. My attraction to the certainty represented by intuitions of authority is a suffering soul’s desire to return to the blissful ignorance of infancy.

Even as I marched on Sunday night, chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police!” I felt a little sheepish about speaking against the orderly ranks of men and women who surrounded us. I was impressed by the smooth decisiveness of their movements, their unity and discipline, which stood in stark contrast to the disorganization of our group. I love a uniform. I love the pageantry of restraint and control. But the outward show – the uniforms, the solemn oaths, the fictions of honor and uprightness and discipline, are simply that: fictions, stories, constructions designed to fend off the chaos that is the ultimate condition of our world, to corral the nuance and subtlety that complicate simplistic narratives of right and wrong.

When I went to work yesterday, I mentioned to a coworker (male, black, politically active) that I’d been to a protest, that there were some “punk-ass white kids” in attendance who just wanted to yell at the cops. (What was I thinking? I guess I was trying to shore up my “knowing, hip white person” cred, to reinforce my own legitimacy through ironic self-awareness. Embarrassing!) In a measured, diplomatic tone, he reminded me of the assault of a “little fifteen-year-old white girl” in police custody several years ago, and told me “it’s all coming home to roost.”

I realized, then, that my distinction between my own mature, well-reasoned desire to “fight systemic racism” and the “punk-ass white kids” who just wanted to rage against authority wasn’t as clear as I’d thought. For one thing, I, too was once a punk-ass suburban white kid. My thinly-veiled scorn for the “cute” sixteen-year-old blond girl’s “attention-grabby” actions probably represented, more than anything, a deep ambivalence about my own identity as a white person with many layers of privilege, and uncertainty about my own role in movements for social justice. I saw in her echoes of myself.

Can a cry of rage against systemic injustice be separated from anger towards those whose job it is to perpetuate an unjust system? There are good cops. Cops who really did get into the profession to “protect and serve.” At the same time, American policing is corrupt to the very bone. Our entire criminal “justice” system is rotten, veined with racism and capitalist greed. Are individual cops guilty by association for joining a force that often does more harm than good?

I’ve been a beneficiary of white privilege for my entire life. I’ve never had to fear the police; our system exists to preserve the privilege of those who look like me. I can’t in good conscience advocate respect for this system, which encompasses the increasing militarization of the police, a War on Drugs and for-profit prison system that gobbles up black lives, leaving in its wake broken families, decimated communities, and the despair of entrenched inequality.

The fact that some of the protesters undoubtedly had motives that were a jumble of genuine social concern and teenage angst and rebellious impulses and a desire for attention doesn’t obviate the validity of their concerns: There is something inherently sick in the impetus to exert homogenizing control over thinking, feeling, irreducibly complex individuals. There is something inherently anti-humanistic, corrupt, and twisted – inherently wrong – in our systems of authority.

Protest

My fatalism helps me to stay sane. In a world where unspeakable violence is commonplace, inequality is endemic, and rapacious greed is steadily rendering our planet uninhabitable, acceptance that we are, as a species, pretty much screwed, is often the only thing between me and debilitating depression. My fatalism isn’t nihilistic; I still believe that our individual actions matter. I think that changing one person’s life for the better – even if only for a moment – is worthwhile. But my hope for lasting, systemic change – and thus my political involvement – is minimal

Sometimes, though, an event is so outrageous, so sickening, that I am unable to remain detached, even if I have little faith that my actions will have any effect. Such was the case with the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, three unarmed black males (one of them a 12-year-old child) by police. As of this writing, grand juries have acquitted the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner of any wrongdoing.

These are, of course, not the only instances of police brutality and inappropriate use of force against unarmed people of color in America. This shit happens all the time, every day. But the high-profile nature of the recent cases penetrated my apathy and made me feel the need to do something.

So I went to a protest.

We met at Westlake center; there were maybe seventy people present. We marched through downtown, chanted, held several “speak-outs” and “die-ins,” during which we lay down in intersections for four and a half minutes, in remembrance of Michael Brown (whose body lay in the street for four and a half ­hours after he was gunned down by a police).

photo courtesy of Heidi Groover @ The Stranger

photo courtesy of Heidi Groover @ The Stranger

During the speak-outs, the person who wanted to talk would yell “mic check!” with the crowd echoing their words so that everyone could hear them. Among the moving exhortations and cogent points, there were more than a few off-topic rants and rambling soliloquies. There were lots of young people, a few anarchists, and some revolutionary communists. I was there to protest racially biased policing practices and the deeply entrenched racism that lets murderous cops walk free. But there were a few people there who sought nothing less than the complete overthrow of the U.S. government.

For the duration of the protest, we were surrounded by cops – mostly on bicycles, though there were some officers on foot and on motorcycles, and police vehicles circled the periphery of the march.

A 2011 Department of Justice investigation found that the Seattle Police Department regularly engaged in unconstitutional use of force and biased policing practices. However, the cops last night demonstrated restraint and professionalism. At one point, a young white guy screamed in an officer’s face, demanding his name and badge number. Although I certainly agree that police are not above the law, that they are obliged to display their name and badge number in accordance with policy, screaming directly into a cop’s ear struck me as counterproductive and at odds with the spirit of peaceful protest.

During one speak-out, another young white man yelled, “I am not afraid of the police!” Neither, apparently, was the guy yelling at the bike cop. The irony of this was apparently lost on them: because they are white, they have the luxury of acting out their juvenile rebellion against authority by intentionally provoking the cops. It made me intensely uncomfortable to see an officer being confronted and yelled at; he was just doing his job, and made an admirable effort to retain his composure. Doubly uncomfortable, though, was the realization that, had the kid been black, the interaction probably would have ended very differently.

photo courtesy of Heidi Groover @ The Stranger

photo courtesy of Heidi Groover @ The Stranger

During the march, one person was arrested: a petite sixteen-year-old white girl with a cute face and long blond hair. She’d been trying to get people to surge past the police lines and take over the sidewalks. As the police pinned her to the ground and cuffed her, one protester (another young white guy) yelled, “She’s a hero!”

Sorry?

It’s necessary and legitimate for white people to speak out against systemic racism and injustice; that’s why I was there. But, intermingled with protesters who were genuinely concerned with police accountability in the cases at hand, there seemed to be a few white kids who were mostly interested in testing authority and trash-talking the cops. I’m sure the girl who was arrested meant well; but from my perspective, her actions seemed superfluous and attention-grabby.

At the end of the protest, when all but about twenty of us had peeled off, a guy started singing “Jesus loves me;” the march’s communist organizer shook his head in disgust, saying, “Oh HELL no!”

I was left with a vague feeling of unease. I was glad to have participated, to have lent my voice to a collective outcry of rage and grief. And yet… there were some unsettling aspects. The lack of organization and seemingly divergent aims of the participants. The troubling nature of some of the slogans: I felt really weird chanting “I can’t breathe!” At first, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” seemed like a poignant reminder of the fact that so many people of color wantonly shot by the police are unarmed. But, as discussed here, it is also a gesture of defeat, in stark contrast to the defiant power of a raised fist.

I believe that public protests are worthwhile – and necessary. I believe in exercising my right to speak out against injustice. Non-violent protest can be a driver of profound and meaningful change. But I have to admit that last night didn’t exactly deal a blow to my fatalism…

Sometimes I Wish I’d Been Born a Boy in the Ancient World

Reading Mary Renault is dangerous.

Immersing myself in antiquity as brought to life by Renault’s coruscating prose stirs up a nearly unbearable longing for another world.

Renault’s protagonists are noble youths whose sense of honor is matched only by their beauty.

I want to be like them.

Lovely of form, righteous of mind, susceptible to human passions, but without meanness or cowardice or greed. They do what is right, even when circumstances would seem to render a correct choice impossible.

Bagoas, the narrator and titular character of The Persian Boy (in which I’m currently immersed as in a torrid love affair), is stolen and gelded at the age of ten, but not before witnessing his father’s brutal murder, his mother’s suicide, and the rape of his sisters. During the early years of his captivity, he must contend with the loss of his incipient manhood and his family, as well as abuse and degradation at the hands of his master’s friends. And yet, through it all, he is animated by an unrelenting pride that allows him to become the consort of kings.

He regrets that he will never be a warrior, never produce sons to continue his family line. But he recognizes that his destiny has shifted, and all that is left to him is to fulfill the duties of his station to his utmost ability.

There is something very attractive in rigidly prescribed social roles.

Sometimes the freedom of contemporary life is oppressive; the imperative to make something of oneself, to construct a suitably remarkable identity, to attain a sense of meaning and direction all one’s own, a burden.

I’m aware of my good fortune in living in this time and place. Because of material abundance and good nutrition and relative gender parity, I’m healthy and robust and well-educated and have access to pleasures unimaginable in much of the world.

And yet…

Sometimes…

I pine for old-time values and ideals, for a grounding tradition, for an assurance of my place in an interdependent web of meaning, for a sense of honor and duty, for freedom from the crushing permissiveness of a modernity that recognizes no gods, holds nothing sacred, and offers no guidance.

I romanticize a world which, in reality, had vicissitudes and trials all its own. Even beauty and honor can’t inoculate you against suffering and death.

I Actually Wrote This a While Ago

At the end of the day
I’ll get up, and be a person who stands
Recognize I’m essentially a piglet
Wrapped in pink skin, avid for play.
Eventually I’ll go out, see the stars and feel cold
Marvel at sensations that feeling brings to body
Opening to be swept up, just as it’s brought low.
A lark. At night you see
Farther, closer, wanting more
As you want less.

Too Many Thoughts Syndrome

Sins accrue in the body
Wearing us inside out
Portending demise
Certain, triumphant.

The sun is coming.

It will reach me soon
Warmth bringing succor
As deep and real, lasting
As long as love.

My fingers are a mess.

Skin frays and blooms
With welling blood,
Rising to reveal reason’s
Just a passing jest.

Too many thoughts.

Words are the friend
You want desperately
To delineate meaning,
But garbles it instead.

tmt