People talk about all the familiar wonders of Thanksgiving: the turkey, the dressing (stuffing, whatever), candied yams (sweet potatoes, whatever), green bean casserole, mashed potatoes (which apparently are basically full-proof, apparently), the pies, the gravy (you can poor it on everything, it’s so good, right?) And the best part of all of it: no where, ever, ever will you find a scant piece, a dash, a chiffonade of cilantro.
Is this a coincidence I ask you? Well, of course it is, strictly speaking, but it is interesting that America’s favorite meal of the year, the one we all can get totally behind is the cilantro hater’s favorite meal too. There are some places, some meals, some traditions just too sacred, just too refined to be bastardized by the presence of that nasty, can’t even compete with sage, rosemary and thyme herb…
when what you’re really thinking about is, as Roth and many great “meta,” if you will, or don’t, that’s an obnoxious ivory tower term, or write about writing writers will tend to make you do, the place of the writer, the vanity of the question itself, the inherent narcissism of it all, the writing’s relationship to other people in the writer’s life, the question of its meaning other than to perk readers to say “that’s good,” “I get it,” “that’s funny” or be entertained. These are questions others have mused on, successfully – notably, Joyce, Hollingshurst and Roth himself. I’ll leave that discourse where it lies, dynamic and totally unanswerable.
What strikes me is something I would imagine affects everyone who writes, produces art, performs any job, really: that sometimes there are more important things going on than what you’re doing. (Sure, sure, this is a young liberal idea, I get that, but we don’t want to stop wanting to be important, or rather, to do important things, right?) Food writers, when they talk about their form, tend to take one of two positions: they write entertainment (maybe infotainment) or the work is very important because everyone eats and food matters to our cultures and our histories and connects people and so on (Ms. MFK Fisher is the incontrovertible paradigm here). I agree with both positions, and I really honestly sometimes totally agree with the second one, it’s just that damn sanctimonious tone always used to defend it.
Nate Zucherman, the great protagonist of many of Roth’s novels, including The Ghost Writer, talks with his mentor, the secluded (I’m thinking Pynchon-esque) EI Lonoff, who describes his own long days of writing as essentially creating a sentence, rearranging it, eating lunch, writing another sentence, moving it around, going for a walk, throwing away all the sentences, then starting over. Bumped into my lit.-loving friend Wells in Ohio who talked about David Foster Wallace’s description of writing as setting up a 9-hour day, 1 hour of writing, 8 hours of hating himself for not being able to write anything: indeed, poor bastards.
It’s a funny occupation and people who do it love to complain about it. But they all seem drawn to it as if to some kind of duty, but a duty to self, which gets complicated. Kind of reminds me of other professions, notably chefs, who are only allowed to complain on their own time, lest they get fired, stabbed, hated or, worse, never promoted. Complain they will, but love it, need it — absolutely.
It seems to me, at the end of the day, it’s all about pleasure. People write because they’re gifted and very often privileged enough to do so and they love the sweet agony of producing something good. People read for the same reasons (yes to learn, but people that really like to learn do it for pleasure, right?) Chefs cook for their own pleasure and for that of their diners. David Kamp talks about this in his United States of Arugula, that dining, above all else, should be pleasurable.
And back to Thanksgiving, which is one of the more pleasurable meals most of us will eat in a given year. Those crazy folks we call our families we often haven’t seen in awhile, the food that never wavers, and if it does can and should be a source of hot contention, the cheesy but awesome spirit of thankfulness, or, as I like to thank of it, luckiness. The pleasure the day’s chef gets from cooking the meal: basting the turkey, sweating the onions, seeing the smiling faces of everyone eating it, not doing the dishes. Then everyone sits back and does exactly as they would like to do: take a nap, watch the game, drink a little too much and zing your family, what have you. It’s all permissible. Anything goes.
Thanksgiving is a great day and a great meal because people find pleasure in doing what they want to do and feel basically thankful for the whole situation. The same pleasure can come from writing. When you get to write about food, you get to double up on your own pleasure, and, if you can share that somehow (like my Grandpa’s tried and true every year corn pudding), well, maybe that is something important enough, at least for a day’s work.
Also, I hate cilantro.