Spices of Life

Tim Lane

The last time my lover and I visited New York, we ate at a Japanese restaurant near TriBeCa called Nobu. This is a place as renowned for its $500 lunches as for its fusion sashimi, so I went with some trepidation. We were seated in the warmly lit annex--Nobu Next Door. The waiter sported a fine rockabilly quiff. Our friend Jill, a Nobu veteran (on someone else's expense account), pitched for a particular sake and two appetizers. Dave and I demanded cold soba noodles, having never tasted the 100 percent buckwheat variety. Will argued for uni. Each of us ordered our favorite sushi. We fell to it.

The first plate offered eight thin slabs of raw yellowfin tuna, perched in a lemon-soy sauce. One transparent slice of jalapeño pepper peered up from each sashimi, like a clear green eye. The tongue said: tangy-rich-hot, together, like a sinuous minor chord. The second plate brought a mound of gently battered and crisped rock shrimp, topped with an awesomely light, spicy cream sauce. I nabbed three. The waiter then presented the soba, tangled and blue-gray in my memory like Medusa's snake hair. Square-cut and chewy, it spoke at once of sea and earth, as if it had just crept up from the foam. We waved for more sake. My anago sushi, or sea eel, was smoky and complex. We got out for $40 bucks each, purely satisfied.

I'm not sure when it happened, but I've stopped craving main dishes. I eat them still--the grilled salmon, the heaping bowl of pasta--but I like them less. I've become a side-dish specialist, a connoisseur of canapés. I appreciate their quick intensity: a few taut, dense, or sour bites, and they're done. You don't have to keep plowing through, summoning interest in another forkful of what you just swallowed--simply because of some old idea about what eating should entail. You can sample a little of this, a little of that; and if this and that don't go so good together, so what? Continuity is overrated.

DaCapo just rereleased artist and critic Manny Farber's far-from-dated 1971 essay collection Negative Space. In the rambling, curmudgeonly 1962 piece "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," the punctuation-impatient Farber argues: "The three sins of white elephant art (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prize-worthy creativity." He pities the poor avant-garde artist: inspired with a wee smart vision, yet still compelled to fill the entire canvas with paint, as if every corner must be brightened, as if there must be corners.

Farber advocates instead for "termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art...[that] goes always forward eating its own boundaries," leaving "nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." I think of stacks of petite plates, littered with the crumbs of odd taste combinations. I see how eating piecemeal topples the notion that a real supper builds and fades like the three-act drama, or an orgasm. Why is it that so many Western pleasures share that form, so that we are mostly anticipating the main course or coming down from it? Why are we so rarely squirrel-like, nibbling distinct starbursts of flavor?

It's thrilling, for instance, when Radio K's (770 AM) DJs shove punk next to African pop and rap next to the twee-est indie rock, and little music peaks keep coming--bang! bang! bang! Indeed, I now appreciate what I used to despise about radio: It plays the hits (relatively speaking, in K's case), the songs in which the beloved qualities of the artist are most concentrated. I don't want to hear an entire album by Built to Spill or Ricky Martin, but I will adore one song bubbling up in the playlist--insta-heaven!--for a month or so. Who needs albums? Who needs rock careerists?

I'm fat from needless starch filler (in meals, on albums, in films and books), weary of the worn-out story forms and frames still trying to make my life--and my pleasures--appear contained and explicable. I have a friend, stuck in a dead-end routine, who is waiting for a sign to direct her to the next level, a server to arrive with the satiating main course. But I don't think life submits to that narrative arc anymore, if it ever did. It seems, increasingly, to pop open in discrete bursts of sensation and awareness, one irregularly following another like a series of small, ardent dishes, or songs. If you keep expecting an increasingly fatter payoff--ba-Ba-BANG!--you miss those little bangs. Freed from the dream of coherence, I taste and savor, love and let go.

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