For much of my life, I’ve been an absolutely crap cook. I could burn anything. Once, I put a frozen hamburger patty in my skillet and in three minutes had an almost thoroughly burnt disk of meat—there was one area that was raw and still frozen. They don’t teach that in culinary classes—that requires talent!
Lately, I’ve been participating in the preparation of meals for the people with whom I am staying. I’ve developed some sensitivity and patience in the kitchen. They actually like my cooking. My hostess ate my fruit omelette and enjoyed it. Others to whom I have offered this culinary adventure have paled and declined. My hosts have also eaten my beef kebab, enjoyed something with shrimp and rice, and consumed a few other gustatory treats I’ll share with you for tons of money—I prefer Euros in multiples of 100.
With these successes under my belt, if you’ll pardon the expression, I recall a couple of accidental kitchen triumphs when I was at university, long ago. I worked in the Foreign Student Office, and many of my friends were from Asia. I learnt some simple recipes, including wonton soup and something my friend called Vietnamese Chicken Salad.
My girlfriend’s mother invited me to the family estate to prepare wonton soup, and provided all the ingredients. Mom had bought a large quantity of pork sausage meat, which is already spiced and herbed and was unsuitable for this recipe. She was a little hurt when I asked as diplomatically as possible, ‘Are you nuts?’ but covered her discomfort well: ‘Nuts? Was I supposed to get those?’
A year later, I trotted out the Vietnamese Chicken Salad for my parents. The ingredients are simple—shredded roast chicken, a salted head of cabbage and an onion, chopped and mixed well, then topped with a fish sauce mixture and peanuts. My father was allergic to fish and couldn’t have the sauce, so he decided to spice up his plate with cheddar cheese. Horrible! East is East, West is West, and they have no business meeting on his dinner plate!
My current hosts eat my cooking with enjoyment, but some of their embellishments occasionally raise an eyebrow. Peanuts instead of sunflower kernels, for example (sunflower seeds have a more subtle flavour). Cole slaw is limited in its suitability, but in the Southern US, I am apparently a minority. (I have also learnt that in southern culture, if they don’t say ‘this is good’ more than twice, they hate it.)
As an artist, I once sent a pair of paintings to a dentist in Japan. One was of his pet rabbit, the other of a cat. He liked the rabbit painting and gave it pride of place in his house. The cat painting he used to cover a water stain in his mother-in-law’s hallway. Other paintings have received arcane interpretations, discussing imagery and significances I swear are not there. My poetry has been interpreted by people who are apparently from other planets. Some people make a living doing this—they are called ‘critics’, people who can neither do nor teach.
I was dining at a very popular Japanese restaurant when three men, seated at the table next to mine, ordered miso soup as their appetizer. Miso soup is a little salty because it is made from soy beans, and has a pleasant, delicate flavour. Without tasting it first, they salted and peppered their (salty) miso soup, then added soy sauce (also salty), and solemnly enjoyed their ‘good food.’ It was enough to make you weep (more salt—tears).
I have learnt that you can do your best, offering your finest work, but you cannot make people appreciate what you have done. You cannot control what people do with/to your creations. The work we do often is a vehicle or mechanism from which someone else will build. The question is, will they do so with judgement and wisdom? If the answer is ‘no’, do you serve them again without offending your creative integrity?
Dita von Teese, the Queen of Burlesque, once said: You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.
And I, who dance not at all, add: No matter what you do or how well you do it, there will always be someone to use or enjoy your work in ways you never intended, considered, or wanted. That’s their choice. You’ve done your job.
What do you make of that?
Paul TN Chapman
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