Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mental gourmandizing

(Robert Adam Mayer)
Opening a cornucopia of a book like Eat, Memory (subtitled "Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times"), I head straight for the people I know are funny. Like Patricia Marx ("When I was a kid, my diet consisted of American cheese slices that I would not eat unless they had been cut into pretty shapes. On my birthday, I was allowed to skip dinner.") Although not a big eater, she is talked into hosting a surprise dinner party, with risible results ("I'm against surprise parties. To my way of thinking, the only word that should follow "surprise" is "attack.")

Culture clashes are a big theme in this anthology, with Manil Suri rustling up a French dinner for his dubious Indian family ("It smells even worse than it looks" his mother said of the camembert) and Gary Shteyngart (left) begging the universe for the taste of garlic to mitigate his Russian immigrant regimen of buckwheat groats for breakfast, a plate of farmers cheese for lunch, and for dinner "a piece of boiled meat and some kind of wan vegetable beaten into submission."
Tucker Carlson's inside story of working in a baked bean cannery has some scary moments (like exploding cans and giant containers of liquid hickory flavoring, a.k.a. toxic chemicals), but the payoff is the recipe for homemade Boston baked beans, which I can't wait to try. You might think you'd never get sick of ice cream, but Colson Whitehead developed an aversion to it—and to all other sweets—after a summer of working in an ice cream shop and adopting a diet consisting solely of chocolate concoctions.
I particularly enjoyed Yiyun Li's "Orange Crush." Here's an excerpt:
"The year I turned 16, a new product caught my eye. Fruit Treasure, as Tang was named for the Chinese market, instantly won everyone's heart. Imagine real oranges condensed into a fine powder! Equally seductive was the TV commercial, which gave us a glimpse of a life that most families, including mine, could hardly afford. The kitchen was spacious and brightly lighted, whereas ours was a small cube - but at least we had one; half the people we knew cooked in the hallways of their apartment buildings, where every family's dinner was on display and their financial states assessed by the number of meals with meat they ate every week. The family on TV was beautiful, all three of them with healthy complexions and toothy, carefree smiles....

The drink itself, steaming hot in an expensive-looking mug that was held between the child's mittened hands, was a vivid orange. The mother talked to the audience as if she were our best friend: "During the cold winter, we need to pay more attention to the health of our family," she said. "That's why I give my husband and my child hot Fruit Treasure for extra warmth and vitamins." The drink's temperature was the only Chinese aspect of the commercial; iced drinks were considered unhealthful and believed to induce stomach disease.
As if the images were not persuasive enough, near the end of the ad an authoritative voice informed us that Tang was the only fruit drink used by NASA for its astronauts - the exact information my father needed to prove his theory that all orange-flavored drinks other than our orange-peel water were made of suspicious chemicals.

Even though Tang was the most expensive fruit drink available, its sales soared. A simple bottle cost 17 yuan, a month's worth of lunch money. A boxed set of two became a status hostess gift. Even the sturdy glass containers that the powder came in were coveted. People used them as tea mugs, the orange label still on, a sign that you could afford the modern American drink. Even my mother had an empty Tang bottle with a snug orange nylon net over it, a present from one of her fellow schoolteachers. She carried it from the office to the classroom and back again as if our family had also consumed a full bottle.
The truth was, our family had never tasted Tang. Just think of how many oranges we could buy with the money spent on a bottle, my father reasoned. His resistance sent me into a long adolescent melancholy. I was ashamed by our lack of style and our life, with its taste of orange-peel water. I could not wait until I grew up and could have my own Tang-filled life.
To add to my agony, our neighbor's son brought over his first girlfriend, for whom he had just bought a bottle of Tang. He was five years older and a college sophomore; we had nothing in common and had not spoken more than 10 sentences. But this didn't stop me from having a painful crush on him. The beautiful girlfriend opened the Tang in our flat and insisted that we all try it. When it was my turn to scoop some into a glass of water, the fine orange powder almost choked me to tears. It was the first time I had drunk Tang, and the taste was not like real oranges but stronger, as if it were made of the essence of all the oranges I had ever eaten. This would be the love I would seek, a boy unlike my father, a boy who would not blink to buy a bottle of Tang for me. I looked at the beautiful girlfriend and wished to replace her.
My agony and jealousy did not last long, however. Two months later the beautiful girlfriend left the boy for an older and richer man. Soon after, the boy's mother came to visit and was still outraged about the Tang. "What a waste of money on someone who didn't become his wife!" she said.
"That's how it goes with young people," my mother said. "Once he has a wife, he'll have a better brain and won't throw his money away."
"True. He's just like his father. When he courted me, he once invited me to an expensive restaurant and ordered two fish for me. After we were married, he wouldn't even allow two fish for the whole family for one meal!"
That was the end of my desire for a Tangy life. I realized that every dream ended with this bland, ordinary existence, where a prince would one day become a man who boiled orange peels for his family. I had not thought about the boy much until I moved to America 10 years later and discovered Tang in a grocery store. It was just how I remembered it - fine powder in a sturdy bottle - but its glamour had lost its gloss because, alas, it was neither expensive nor trendy. To think that all the dreams of my youth were once contained in this commercial drink! I picked up a bottle and then returned it to the shelf.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the Tang story! Like all good fables, it ends with a truth. You could substitute Mercedes-Benz for Tang and it would work in America. Ms. Li deftly skewers the visual manipulations that the Tang ads use to create an appetite for an artificial good. Viewers beware!

  2. Very interesting stuff... It's amazing what jogs your memory, but I remember how "exotic" Orange Julius sounded when I was a child. We never got to the mall much and, in my 20's, I finally got one. It was a strangely bittersweet experience. Alas, another myth debunked:(

  3. Growing up I became obsessed for a hot minute with the drink Orbitz, which was this clear retched drink with colorful flavor balls floating in it. I mean this beverage was so cool, like a drinkable lava lamp, but the taste was terrible and frightening, so I ended up with a bunch a full bottles of it I would display on my vanity, with some sort of dumb preteen pride.

  4. Oh, Penny, that is so delightfully gross! I had a strange addiction to Campbell's Tomato Bisque Soup--couldn't get enough of it until one day, I ate way too much. Not pretty. Cured me, though. Can't even look at a can today.
    About the Tang piece--it has much to savor. Cultural differences (wouldn't hot Tang taste like TheraFlu?) and cultural similarities ("Men always change after you marry them," said Zsa Zsa Gabor, who ought to know.) From experience, I know there are some Chinese who fit the description Prince Philip made of their eating habits. (Anything that flies except a plane; anything that swims except a boat; anything on four legs, except a chair...they'll eat.) But the weirder the choice, the more they will call it "gourmet."

  5. "Hot tang" sounds almost lascivious. I must admit, I've never even tried it. I imagined it would taste artificial, but maybe not.
    My nephew has married a Chinese woman, and when my sister and parents went for the wedding, they ate all kinds of truly weird things. You are absolutely right in your supposition ... if it has protein, they'll figure out a way to fix it1

  6. Unfortunately, this tendency results in many with mental illnesses to be punished or discriminated against for no fault of theirs.