This is the first thing I’ve written for my MFA that I consider a finished, standalone piece. When I started this program, I expected to write so many finished, solid stories. And I am writing so, so much for this program, but I find myself completing something that fits the assignment, but doesn’t fully express what I want to share, or I find myself hitting my deadline with something that needs a rewrite or ten before I feel really good about sharing it.
Anyway, this assignment was to write about food, brands and taste memories for a narrative nonfiction class.
In my second year in China, in my first apartment in Beijing, I was overcome by my dislike of Chinese food. The endless peanut oil and five-spice made everything taste the same to me, and with that came the worry that my unsophisticated palate was unsuitable for a traveler.
Expat expeditions to Jenny Lu’s or Auchon’s worked sometimes, but my foreign teacher salary couldn’t keep up with regular purchases of imported cheese. The vegetable market near my house was more suited to my salary, and I could recognize most of the produce. The tomatoes and potatoes were all just a little bit off from my supermarket expectations, slightly the wrong shade or shape or size, but I was determined to cook Western meals for us, to counteract my daily repetition of choosing the least-unpalatable food options.
Garlic or caramelized onions can give a Western flavor to a simple meal. Real butter helps, or meat fat rendered and saved in a drippings can. The harsh red wine works better for cooking than sipping. You can make a pretty respectable pico with red Sichuan chilis in place of jalapenos. It was enough not to taste peanut oil and five spice on every bite of every meal.
But it was the yellow packet of Bell’s Seasoning that makes food taste like home. It works on mushrooms, stuffed with overcooked and toasted rice instead of breadcrumbs, and then “baked” over the gas ring. It works on a polenta, but only sometimes because the really good cornmeal came from a migrant vendor who occasionally set up shop outside my complex’s gates. It works on the slightly-too-red tomatoes and the lavender aubergines.
It’s great to have an unsophisticated palate.