Cooking with David Chang’s Momofuku Cookbook, or Exercises in Innovation and Convention
For Christmas, I received David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. It’s a beautiful object in its own right, with its clean cover and nice heft, its great photos, and the book’s packed with incredible and inventive recipes and cooking tips. It also contains a compelling narrative, a memoir-ish, manifesto-esque meditation on craft and ambition, on tradition and innovation, and David Chang projects an ethos of unpretentious dedication to making relentlessly tasty food. What he says about his take on ramen could be a mantra for the book: “the most important thing is that you make it delicious, not that you make it exact.”
I could transpose William Carlos Williams’s dictum—“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”—into the question: “If it ain’t delicious, why are you making it?” What connects the best crepe I ever ate, the savory Cuban at the Flip Happy Crepes Airstream trailer in Austin, and the best meal I ever ate, one at Grant Achatz’s Alinea? They were both ridiculously delicious. I rarely visit New York, but last year on a brief trip (like 36-hours brief), I ate at David Chang’s Má Pêche, and the food didn’t have to sacrifice tastiness to be inventive. I’ve spent the last month hoping I’ll be infused with some of that inspired cooking by experimenting with the Momofuku cookbook.
I can’t claim to have the attention span to work from cookbooks or to strictly follow recipes. Usually, I just use them for hints about technique and handling ingredients or for flavor combinations, but I don’t go off script because I think I’m exercising my right to be creative, à la Billy Madison drawing a blue duck because he’s never seen a blue duck. There are the more practical impediments of not having all of the necessary equipment or ingredients that come with the amateur home-cook’s kitchen and pantry. To get anything done, you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to react to what you have. Or as David Chang reminds us, “Be resourceful.”
There’s a challenge in that, and that challenge is actually the source of innovation and creativity for me. This is much the same for poems as it is for cooking. The challenge can be local to the circumstances of preparing a specific meal or working with a particular bit of language; however, it may be more global, such as the tension between the new and the old, innovation and tradition.
Of course, a very immediate reason for innovation is novelty. We hate being bored. Surprise and whimsy are valuable for enjoyment, for being reawakened to the substance, the fact of something, whether it’s food or language. Roman Jakobson said of literary language that it is “organized violence committed on ordinary speech,” which is not because poets are sadists. Rather, literary uses of language can rejuvenate language’s meaning-making potential. To arrive at that requires that you challenge your and your readers’ assumptions.
David Chang is not afraid to question his assumptions. I love what he says about his transformation of traditional dashi—a broth infused with katsuo-bushi (dried fish flakes) and konbu (kelp)—into bacon dashi, which substitutes smokey bacon for the smokey fish flakes. Chang writes, “We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints and everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions—about how we cook and why we cook with what we do—is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens.” He didn’t have to completely reinvent the notion of dashi, but he did question the purpose and composition of it. The result of that willingness to question himself is this versatile and flavorful iteration of dashi. According to Chang’s narrative, it was a lack of available katsuo-bushi that led him to his innovation, but the solution is one that makes sense not only for him but for the American kitchen where bacon holds a consistent if not fanatical place. Bacon dashi seems so spontaneous but inevitable.
This kind of innovation holds sympathies with my thinking about the creative process in general. The appearance of something new and exciting in poetry doesn’t appear from nothing and doesn’t have to be completely unrecognizable when it arrives. I wouldn’t question my assumptions about what makes a poem a poem by presenting you with a toaster. The following Kenneth Burke quote has been helpful to me in thinking about innovation. He had this to say about John Dewey’s ideas on novelty in art and philosophical pragmatism: “The artist says, in substance: ‘I make the exhortation in the terms of what has already been accepted. Once these terms are accepted, I can go a little beyond them. But I shall argue only for my addition, and assume the rest. If people believe eight, I can recommend nine; I can do so by the manipulation of their eightish assumptions; I need not justify my nine by arguing for one.’” David Chang’s bacon dashi seems to me like a good example of manipulating some eightish assumptions.
Yet, when innovating, food still needs to be delicious, and a poem still needs to move you.