Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Cambridge After sojourning in Tuscany and Karachi for the summer, we have returned to the East Coast, to Cambridge, for the fall. Upon arrival, we spent the afternoon under the pigeon infested trees outside Au Bon Pain, leafing through the Boston Phoenix and the Weekly Dig. We overheard a woman in a white summer hat remark, “If the weather were always like this, Boston would the most popular city in the world.” Although her premise is tenuous, on days like these, there’s a sense of occasion here, an almost pagan celebration of nature. Lucid, incandescent skies had brought the denizens of Cambridge out in their Sunday best. We observed pale, lanky limbed academics in revealing skirts; teenage punks in torn leather and grimy boots; and fresh-of-the-boat families sporting tight pants and fanny packs, gawking at the spectacle: old men playing chess for money, bold panhandlers soliciting funds, the jazz band strumming “Take Five” in the Pit.

Although we participated in the festivity, come evening our vigor waned and we felt hungry. We realized, however, that our options were limited: Harvard Square may be a melting pot but it offers lackluster ethnic dining, whether Chinese, Indonesian, Italian, Indian or Arab. (To be fair, there are two exceptions: Smile Café’s chicken larb is excellent and the menu of the Tibetan place in Central Square features this delicious minced meat and turnip dish.) And suddenly, we felt pangs of nostalgia – nostalgia for nihari, for Karachi.

In Ha Jin’s next novel, the protagonist is a poet, a Chinese immigrant to America. In one of his poems, he writes about the handful of the dirt from his backyard that he carries around with him in his portmanteau. In a way, the poem and sentiment is a response to Cavafy’s “The City”:

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore;
Find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
And my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look, I see the black ruins of my life, here,
Where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
The city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old In the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll end up in the city.
Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
You’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Home might mean a few hundred circumscribed square yards to many; dirt. It might mean a bed to others – a threadbare chair, a red wheelbarrow; it might have to do with family and nation and tradition, with shared history, collective memory; it might be an idea; or it just might be a filet. Indeed, there is substance to the adage, “You are what you eat.” We may not carry dirt around but when traveling from Pakistan, we do carry carefully wrapped cellophane packets of various powdered spices in our suitcase. Wherever we are in the world, then, we can feed and nourish our self; wherever we are in the world, we can feel at home.

In It Must be Something I Ate, Vogue’s food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten maintains that “In all of Nature’s Kingdom, only mammals, female mammals, nourish their young by giving up part of their bodies. For us, food is not just dinner. Our attitude toward food mirrors our feelings about mothers and nurturing, about giving and sharing, about tradition and community…” We agree. Being Pakistani, we associate savian with Eid, korma with weddings, mangoes with summer. Furthermore, those who fancy themselves cosmopolitan, boulvadiers, men of the world, associate dining with culture, even civilization. They have sushi at Nobu, truffles at Da Silvano, lamb chops at the Grammercy Tavern.

CarlitoSimply put, food defines us as we define food. The Guardian’s Lisa Hamilton avers, “Frankly, I’ve never had good sex with a vegetarian. I like men who eat properly, who like their steak bloody, their eggs Benedict runny. Fastidiousness is as unappealing in the kitchen as it is in the bedroom; there’s something emasculated about a man who let’s himself be faced down by escargot. Logically, someone as obsessed b the food/sex correlation as I am would select lovers accordingly; but as with crème brulee, I never quite had the discipline to resist what I knew would turn out badly (hence the vegetarian. He had little round glasses and did yoga. Really.) However, experience did prove that whether or not a man knows his artichoke from his elbow, when it comes to cooking, if not to sex, the clichés of national stereotypes hold true.” We’re not sure if Ms. Hamilton ever got it on with a Pakistani. Rest assured, we are carnivores. We make meat.

The following is a proprietary recipe for a dish we call (and have presently coined) Killer Karahi Masala:

Ingredients (and other materials)
1 chicken (or a packet of drumsticks and filets)
2 large onions, chopped
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
10 dried red chili peppers
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of red chili powder
1 teaspoon of garam masala (available at any Pakistani grocery store)
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/2 teaspoons of garlic paste
1/2 teaspoons of ginger paste
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 thing of ginger, chopped
One of those plastic lemon things with lemon juice inside it
1 Corona
1 Dunhill
Carlito’s Way” Soundtrack (not the original score)

Close your eyes. Summon primal hunger. (You cook better when hungry.) Play first track on CD, Rozalla’s “I Love Music.” Pour oil into a casserole with diced onions and dried red chili peppers and turn up the heat. Strip and wash chicken. When onions become translucent, add chicken. (Wash your hands.) This should be around the time of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I like It.” Add salt, red chili powder, coriander powder, garam masala, garlic and ginger paste. Throw in a diced tomato. Stir together and cook for half an hour on medium heat. Keep stirring. Then add chopped garlic and ginger. Have Dunhill, drink Corona; celebrate, you’re almost done. Fifteen minutes later, add the second diced tomato and squeeze the lemon thing over the dish as a sort of garnish. Serve hot (with tortillas as chapati proxies). “You Are So Beautiful” should be winding down in the background.

In our depleted state, however, we couldn’t venture to Broadway Market for groceries. We didn’t have it in us to make Killer Karahi Masala, or even a runny eggs Benedict. We somnambulated to Pinocchio’s for a steak-and-cheese and then, in this small corner, slept, full but incomplete.

Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan

The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
Live 8 at Sandspit
Chianti and History