Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I'd love an onion for you

I have been a bachelorette for a long time. I could live for a month on nothing but coffee, bagels, Nutella and dill pickles, and be quite content about it. In this house, coffee, chocolate and pickles each count as a vegetable. (Look it up: coffee and chocolate come from beans, and beans, in my world, are a vegetable.)

But when I have guests coming over, I get a little crazy. I don't know what normal people eat! I do assume they can't last on tasteless astronauts' food-paste as long as I can, so they must have a widely varied diet, with things like...oh, I don't know, meat, vegetables, grains and flavour. I also assume they eat multiple dishes with a wide variety of mixed-up ingredients at every meal.

So I go overboard.

Tonight, for example, I'm trying "Lady Butcher's Stew" with a lemon-beef stir fry. In preparation, I bought half a Chinese food supply store and dirtied every pot in the house. Then I fussed. Carrots, beets and parsnips to boil; beef cubes to marinate; things to chop, dice and grate; barley to rinse and soak and boil...

And for the first time ever, I'm cooking with my long-time enemy: onions. Why? Because normal people (and Tobin) like onions. In the company of others, I mimic normalcy; therefore, tonight, I cook with onions as if I know what I'm doing.

And then I think...what if I go to all this effort, and she doesn't like it? She's Congolese, and she's only been here for a couple of years. What if she prefers African food to the exclusion of everything else? (Don't laugh, I have an African friend who flees from soup - beet or otherwise - and he hates sweets.)

So, I decided to make a lemon-beef stir fry, just in case she hates beets (though why anyone (Tobin) would hate beets enough to slander them in public (Tobin), I'll never understand).

On the other hand, if she's a vegetarian, she can skip the stir fry and dive into the soup.

But what if she doesn't like beets or the stir fry? What if she likes this type of food, but hates the way I cook?

So I've bought bread, cookies, watermelon, juice - heck, I am prepared to make mac and cheese, if all else fails. And now what have I got? A tower of dirty dishes and no space in the fridge for the inevitable leftovers, with no guarantee that either of us will enjoy tonight's dinner.

And then I began to think: isn't that a little how we write sometimes?

We're so concerned that our readers don't like something about our story or our style that we dilute the manuscript with extra ingredients. Superfluous research, details ad nauseam, extraneous romantic entanglements, gratuitous back story, and side plots that don't add to the story - or worse, cause complications and contradictions.

So how do we purify the flavour of our stories?

First (naturally): simplify.

I've found that a dish is even better if you have only three or four key ingredients - freshly cracked pepper, lemon slices, some onion, and beef cubes, for example.

If you add to that recipe garlic, ginger, lime juice, salt, cloves, etc., then you'll end up with ingredients that effectively cancel each other out; or worse, you end up with a swamp in the pot.

But I want to try beef with garlic, ginger, lime juice, salt and cloves! So why not leave that combination for another meal?

Or, for the writer: if the back story is longer than a couple of paragraphs, can you cut it out and write it in isolation (if not for the purposes of publication, at least for the joy of exploration)?

There is genius in simplicity.

Secondly, experiment. If you're unpublished, you're the luckiest of writers. You're not tied down by your own "brand", you have no avid fan base to appease, no marketing department to frown upon you, zero expectations; you can be whoever you want to be, and you can write whatever captures your own imagination. Make good use of that freedom now, before publication.

I tried Lady Butcher Stew already, so I know it's edible, if not palatable. I'm ready to move on to phase two of the experiment - human testing. I'm also comfortable enough to add an ingredient or two, to change the formula to see if it can be made even better. That means, I'm confident enough to add parsnips onions.

But I've never cooked with parsnips or onions before, so I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I don't know if either of us are going to enjoy dinner tonight, but it's exciting to think, if this really is good, that only she and I would have ever tried it before.

In other words, my writer-friend, it's okay to let go of your personal preferences and try something new. You might just surprise yourself, doing something you thought you'd hate.

Thirdly, relax. Not everybody in the world likes beets. Some people disapprove so loudly that they will compare beets to vomit. I know, because Tobin has done so at least twice tonight on my Facebook profile. But a lot of people do like beets. Even my Aunt Sandra used to hate beets, but now she likes them!

People are going to have different tastes. Once, I went to a sprawling African wedding feast and came home hungry, because most of the meals defined the very meaning "it needs an acquired taste." And last week, I had dinner (mămăligă and ciorbă de legume) with a Romanian friend. She told me how disgusting is sushi - while eating the meat off a baked trout's head. As they say, à chacun son goût.

The same thing is going to happen with your writing. I happen to dislike Harry Potter and Twilight; which is, I think, the equivalent of saying "I hate ice cream and Jello." On the other hand, I happen to like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alexander McCall Smith - both of whom may be perceived as sexist.

The point is, there will be people who don't like your work. They may even compare it to vomit. But there is an equal likelihood that some people will really, really like your work.

And, lastly: as with learning how to cook, you're not going to know if others think it's any good until you invite them to share in what you've created. Find observant and supportive first readers, and treasure them.

I'm indebted to those few guinea pigs who read my work, and I'm honoured when they critique it. When they push me past my accustomed barricades and encourage me to try things they like, I learn, I grow, and I progress. I still might not like the same things they do, but at least I would have kept an open mind, and tried something new.

And who knows, after tonight, I may discover that after all these years, I like onions.

<-- I made this.

And this dish, which does not look like vomit. Brains and blood, maybe, but not vomit. -->

P.S. She liked dinner. Not a big fan of soup in general, but really liked the stir fry.

P.P.S. I told her about the fish heads vs. sushi debate. She asked me, "Don't you eat the skin, too?" I said, "I don't eat the skin of a cow. Why should I eat the skin of a fish? Ew!" She laughed.

P.P.P.S. Too much lemon juice. Not enough onions.

1 comment:

  1. Wow...who IS this Tobin guy? He's sounds incredibly intelligent and highly sophisticated!

    And that one on the right? What vomit looks like after you've been crazy enough to eat beets.

    Stir fry looks awesome.

    And, while I may not always enjoy your culinary (beets) experiments...I always love your writing, girl!