Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lucky Peach (Or: How I Learned To Be Myself and Eat)

Back when I was eighteen and becoming myself, I got a job at a Cool Restaurant. Or, what passes for a Cool Restaurant in a small town, and to a teenager, and to a person who has mostly read about Cool Things rather than experiencing them in person. It was a watershed moment, a summer of hangovers and weird sex, secret cigarettes and making five hundred tax-free dollars a week with no real expenses other than magazines and fun clothes. It was the last hurrah of high school and the first wobbly steps into adulthood, a summer where a Cool Job meant getting invited places I had no business going, and being too emotionally uncoordinated to know I didn't belong. 

It was a hole-in-the-wall joint that served eight or so dishes, not including daily specials, all of Asian extraction, cooked and served by white people who had read Hot Sour Salty Sweet and who were offering a bit of that Thai/Vietnamese/Japanese profile in our small Ontario town. When I say it was small, I meant it: six tables of two outside on the sidewalk, bar seating for six more inside. The walls were orange and green, the bathrooms decorated with a former server's photos from a trip through Southeast Asia. There was a big bottle of fermenting kimchi on the counter; in my protozoan foodie state, I avoided it assiduously. I waited tables, made smoothies, peeled carrots for fresh juices, ran the dishwasher, took takeout orders, and handled money. It wasn't my first job, but it was the first where I made real bank, where I could wear whatever I wanted, where I could name-drop it and people would say, I love that place!

Working at a Cool Restaurant had its perks. I was able to keep tabs on some of the most exciting boys from high school, who otherwise would have been distant figures at basement shows, house parties to which I was only peripherally invited, and 'zine launches. I started talking to adult men—the ones who worked in the kitchen and who dated the other late-teen and early-twenties girls who worked with me—and discovered that they were fuck-ups, nice guys, and destroying angels. They were more assured of themselves than the guys I had gone to school with, more confident in their opinions, but still underneath it all, they were the same basic animal as the boys I already knew. One wore wool socks and Chelsea boots and soft twill cargo shorts and cooked with his flames spiking to the ceiling; one listened to punk music and work black baseball caps and was kind and unbelievably handsome; one was skinny and slithery and funny and mean. They all invited their friends to come visit them at work, so there was a hall of mirrors of guys like them, but a little different. I don't know if I was too awkward, too young, or not pretty enough—all three might be true—but I was able to eavesdrop while they drank beer and listened to hip-hop music and scrubbed the grill, and I mopped the floor and cha-chinged the final count of sales. On a good day, fifteen years ago, we could move a thousand bucks worth of noodles in a night, and everyone would get a Tiger beer on the house.

My boss lent me his copy of Kitchen Confidential. I read it, and understood that the fuck-you spirit of Anthony Bourdain skittered off the page into everything those guys did. My small town has a prestigious cooking school; we have more than our fair share of swish restaurants and mid-20s guys who know about mother sauces and who wear foam shoes and drink too much. There is romance in cooking—at least, there is if you're a man, not some schlumpy home-cook woman—and what Bourdain taught me was that there's a yang to that yin. Cooking school dropouts and self-styled renegades can open restaurants too. With his travel book, A Cook's Tour, I learned that everywhere has a Cool Restaurant, but sometimes it's a better choice to eat in the shitty-looking diner, or the ma-and-pa pho joint, or the restaurant in the city's revolving tower. Cool can be on the move. Cool can be Formica tables and chipped bowls, or perfect soft-and-crunchy salad rolls from some unassuming local chain, or the fucking "sharing plates" at the hip new place in town. (Side note: a pox on sharing plates. Just serve me an appetizer or a main, not some five-bite platter that satisfies nothing and no one.)

Since moving to the big city fifteen years ago,  I've eaten in a number of nice restaurants and a bunch of Cool Restaurants, and they've ranged from fine to outstanding. But there's a certain punk spirit that's MIA, a middle finger that's quietly folded down. I think it has to do with where your weird comes from.

In a city, you can tap into a vein of weirdness, no matter what weirdness you're after. Get yourself to the right city, and you can find your people: goth sparklebunnies, jockey standup comedians, gay ballerinos, anarchotrans youth, whatever. Activists, artists, cooks, writers, musicians, fashionistas—the subcultures that make a city pennies compared to, say, its banking sector, but that indelibly flavour a place's broth. In a city, it's simmering along, ready for folks to find it. In a small town, you have to cook that scene up from scratch. You have to fill in some blanks—read about it and then muddle your way through a DIY version, watch a video on the internet, make do with whatever weirdos and losers you find along the way. You learn it from cookbooks, from travelogues, from homemade darkrooms, from crystalline tarot-card hippie girls, from drug dealers, from the nerds in your class who have taught themselves how to clone a Moog on their laptop, the beautiful girls who are comfortable with muse status, the sneaky ones who eavesdrop and write about it fifteen years later.

All of this is to say that when I found out that Lucky Peach, the culinary magazine, was closing down, I got to thinking about Cool Jobs in Cool Restaurants and how much that particular Cool Job impressed on me about food. I ration each issue of Lucky Peach; if I don't, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content (fuck, there are so many words in each issue!), and I'm overwhelmed by so many foodie feelings. I don't cook for a living—I never have, and I probably never will—but I like thinking about food. Lucky Peach takes food seriously, but also makes fun of it a little. They give the recipes but also the stories: inspirations, context, emotion. The magazine gives the strip-mall restaurant, the home cook, and the Cool Job place equal credit: good food can come from anywhere, be anything.

Food, along with fashion, is, I think, one of the great self-definers we can make for ourselves. The type of food we get nostalgic for, that we challenge ourselves with, that we reach for in moments of celebration or grief, the type of food we travel around the world to eat? There are a million ways food defines a life—the feeling of being in your parent's kitchen late at night, the food you ate at your wedding, the first meal after you gave birth, the only things that tasted good to your dying mother, the restaurant where your partner proposed, the snacks you pack in your carry-on luggage, the things you drank on patios in your twenties and in your sixties, the things you taught yourself how to cook, the flavours you love, the things you hate, the millions of bites that you took over a lifetime—it's all just as much who you are as your job or your clothes, your family or your hometown.

I have no idea where any of the folks who worked with me are now. I have heard that one went to prison and then rehab; I have heard that one married the owner of the local sex shop; I have heard that one went on tour with his band (and I have a vague memory of running into him at a sweaty basement punk show not so long ago). I don't know if any of them remember me—I doubt it, there was a rotating cast of pretty, mouthy young things behind the counter, and I was neither the mouthiest or the prettiest. I grew up with parents who had traveled extensively in Asia, and who could cook tonkatsu at home, or roll up maki on a Saturday night. I grew up with the same food as my Cool Job served, and then I got to serve it myself, and now when I'm nostalgic for that summer, or my childhood, or myself, I eat that food. I miss those weirdos, and my old, half-formed self, and the feeling of possibility that comes from the unending summer, the unopened magazine, the freshly cooked plate. I hope something comes up to replace Lucky Peach; we need that awestruck, educated, madly-in-love approach to food, refreshed quarterly.