Posted on November 24th, 2012
Some people are comforted by a cigarette. I’d heard the stories about the healing properties of warm milk. I was feeling sorry for myself, and I chose the headless duck.
Who knows what I was feeling sorry about—I was 23, and didn’t really need a reason. Maybe it was one of those days where I’d sat on the upturned milk crate behind the coffee shop that I was working at, furiously scribbling in my notebook about how undignified it was that I had to serve lattes to my former professors, when I was pretty sure I was supposed to be writing a novel instead. Maybe it was the time I’d had so many gallons of espresso that I’d sweated my way into heart palpitations and had all but vibrated my way home to the dark apartment. It was probably winter. Hormones might’ve been involved. What I do remember, quite clearly, is that all of these imagined ills were cured by knives.
Or, more specifically, by the knives wielded by the patriarch of the female nuclear family in “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman”. My roommate had recommended the film. I’d never seen it. How had she known? Known that, as I sat there alone in a darkened room, the precision of someone else turning mountains of raw ingredients into innumerable jewel-like dishes would be exactly what I needed to see?
I’ve spoken about it before, but, to my mind, there are few things more pleasurable than watching someone skilled with knives cut things. Any old thing. Julienning, brunoise, dicing, de-boning a chicken, skinning a salmon—it doesn’t matter. The camera’s loving pass over each of these careful and simultaneously careless acts of culinary grace was like so much opium blown into my waiting face. It was an intimacy that titillated even as it soothed. What was I looking at? Was that pork belly? I didn’t even care. I only knew that I wanted to watch it assembled, slivered, and slid from a bowl over and over again, in an infinite loop of deft precision. The duck whose neck is blown into, as though the animal were an instrument, so that the skin can be rendered crisp by a following cascade of hot oil ladled across its goose-pimpled surface? Seductive magic. The large cleaver turned small and nimble in this man’s hand. I felt my hand clenching unconsciously, wondering how to mimic the motion that would separate the near-invisible sliver of skin from the flesh of a pepper in a fluid sideways stroke.
I’ve never been able to cotton to the schadenfreude that others find in films like “Meet The Parents”, where the hapless hero is always one ill-fitting Speedo away from public humiliation. I bury my head in a pillow, and wait for it to be over. There’s no charm for me in incompetence, captured forever on film, immortalized so as to make the rest of us feel a bit better about our own small spheres of capability. No. For me, the bone-deep satisfaction lies within the confines of the first five or ten minutes of this quiet film—one man’s hands, first tearing down, and then rebuilding, the whole animal, the entire daikon, the swimming fish, into more than the sum of their parts. I don’t want to be transported by a well-timed speech, or struck sideways by an apocalypse-honed muscle. I want to be wooed. One perfect slice at a time.