My second day back in the United States after spending a year in China, I found myself looking into the front window of the Madison Coffee Shop, craving ordinary food. I walked in self-consciously, as if I had turned Chinese over my year in Sichuan. The physical space between people, and the sense of polite distance, lent the whole town a feeling of sparseness, of silence, which only increased my sense of self-consciousness. At first look it was thickly treed and moving with people, but in fact it was a social desert, of nervous ants occasionally rubbing antenna and hurrying on. I entered and inwardly shied away at the teenage girl’s noisy – but timid – approach. “Hi howya doin’?” she asked, but her eyes only darted to meet mine for a moment, then fled. I studied the simple menu a long time, turning over all the possibilities, tasting the corned beef hash, the club sandwiches, the hamburgers – tasting them with my mind, trying to imagine each one there in my mouth. Like most Americans, my eating started out as a mental speculation.
“Yeah, can I get the tuna salad sandwich and onion rings?” I said finally.
“What bread would you like with that?” she asked. Damn, I had forgotten about all this choosing you have to do in this country. After I had ordered I felt the regret of all the things I had not ordered – suddenly I noticed someone else biting into a hotdog, or a piece of chicken. It is the little voice of the greedy consumer self. It is the tortured never-satisfaction of eating with the mind!
Five days later I am not done craving ordinary food, but the craving is cooling down slowly. It seems like over the past year I have gotten more demanding about taste. I was about to say I had turned into a food snob, but I don’t think that is quite right, because I know a good hot dog can taste as good as a raspberry-chutney braised salmon. I think what happened in China was I got used to eating with my mouth. The American habit of eating with my mind, my eyes, my sense of anticipation and psychological need – did not die. But a new habit partly took over. My last night in China, my old friend Mrs. Chen said, “Americans eat with their mind, and Japanese with their eyes. But Chinese eat with the mouth. Taste is everything for us.”
I came to New York when I was over my jet-lag, slathering with the memory of all my old favorites. The lasagna, the tacos, the pizza and hamburgers all had the exciting smell, look and aura of good food. The first moment biting down into them was bliss – the sense of fulfillment after long absence. But as I chewed this feeling faded away. The Mexican place was packed with Americans lured by the scented smoke and fever of the little place. But I can assure you, it would have been empty in Mexico. The carne pastor looked good, and smelled good, but lacked that oomph of flavor I had tasted many times in Mexico. The lasagna was very fresh and creamy, but it too lacked that punch. Its mushrooms lay there, forlornly bland. And I do not mean the lasagna was not spicy, though this might be inferred from the fact I had spent a year in Sichuan. But it was not that. I know because the tuna sandwich I ate that first day in the coffee shop was heavenly, even with the bread untoasted.
The food I ate was on the whole not unlike a beautiful woman (or man, if you like) who bores. The food I ate was exactly like the people chosen by network television to star in reality shows: if one took a subway car of 57 New Yorkers, the networks would inevitably choose the two most attractive people with the least to say. Like it or not, I have started eating with my mouth. China ruined me. That slice of pizza I ate last night looked and felt right, with crispy thin crust and soft warm cheese. But shake whatever I could onto it – garlic powder, peppers, more cheese – I could not shoehorn any flavor into it. It was not delicious; it was pleasant, inoffensive. Yeah, that is the right word for most of these disappointments: pleasant. Like many American people, who project great vitality and health, with combed hair and teeth scrubbed bright – they are bland as sin, with hardly an unorthodox thought in them. You are what you eat, I guess.
Sichuan trained my tongue. I came back super thin, but I ate well every day over there.
The fact that Americans tend to emphasize “atmosphere” in dining out is revealing. This focus on atmosphere means that one wants a feeling, a fantasy of a different setting or culture – an imaginatively different environment of which the food is a (symbolic) part. In such cases of “eating with the mind,” the food only needs to be different in some way from other foods, it only needs to fit the exotic scenery. It is mental data that lets one sit back and think, “how interesting!” It lets one sink back into the state of suspended disbelief and feel the satisfaction of “eating Thai.”
Eating with the mind is closely related to language. Eating with the mind is a mental anticipation built around two elements: luscious images and a caption which frames and enhances them. Last night I consumed a chicken breast stuffed with seafood. The photograph on the box showed the (frozen) white meat bursting with rich, glistening scallops and lobster, and the words sold the photograph as chicken breast with “succulent lobster and scallop stuffing.” The anticipated idea of seafood overwhelmed the reality that it was a frozen product (the least flavorful meat on the bird) pumped with additives. Chinese believe that freezing, and even refrigerating, tends to kill the vitality of food. This seafood-stuffed chicken breast went in my mouth with anticipation. But it was dead food, lifeless, embalmed in a factory.
Chinese care little for atmosphere in restaurants, except as a marker of status. They don’t care much about variety. They only care about taste. Inasmuch as some Chinese people are paying more attention to atmosphere, to novelty, and to service, it is an outgrowth of economic reforms and rising incomes for some. The “experience” of going out to eat is acquiring its own independent value apart from taste. So nicer Chinese restaurant menus are beginning to resemble American menus, with lots of adjectives and unusual combinations. But I cannot say the food at such places tastes better than the hole in the wall for students at Luzhou Medical College. The elaborate dishes are an accessory to the excitement of being rich and raising toasts to one’s friends. They are a sidenote, an expensive decoration.
In this country, expensive restaurants and dedicated hobbyists at home produce two exceptions to the overall blandness of food cooked for the mind.
Recent Chinese interest in restaurant décor and service are aimed, not so much at one’s individual imagination, as at the collective social ritual and status that goes with it. Hence many nicer Chinese places are aesthetically bombastic and magnificent, with far less interest in the intimacy, dimness, and rough edges of US establishments, which aim at a sleepy contemplativeness – a serene, soothing cover for the nervous individual crouched in the unfriendly headlights of the market. Chinese restaurants are for shouting, toasting, laughing: for a heady celebration of the violence of the market and the way people with the wealth to feast have managed to ride it to their own benefit. There is a triumphalism of a gilded age.