Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Writing About Food: Stinky Tofu Sells

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote “Ode to Salt,” “Ode to Onion,” and “Ode to Tomatoes.” Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dr. Seuss made breakfast fare famous with Green Eggs and Ham. E. J. Levy’s essay, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” made it into the 2005 edition of The Best American Essays, and in the May 2007 issue of Women’s Health magazine, Monica Gullon wrote about the glory of sprouts and Vietnamese spring rolls. By the time you finish reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s current bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, you’ll be more than ready to move to Italy and dive headfirst into a bowl of fresh pasta.

Or…like all of these writers, you’ll be ready to write about food. And why not? We humans are compelled by it. We love to eat it, talk about it, cook it, grow it, watch TV shows about it, and read about it. Food is a universal necessity that crosses the boundaries of race, class, religion, and country. Food makes us feel. It conjures up memories and connects us to one another. And yes, as is evidenced by the list above, it inspires great writing. No matter what you write—poetry, children’s books, literary essays, magazine articles, or books—food sells.

“But,” you stutter, “I’m not a chef. Hell, I don’t know the difference between rosemary and thyme.”

“Bah!” I say. “You don’t need to. Remember the time you accidentally baked the tuna casserole with plastic wrap still on it? Write about it. Remember the time your dog crawled onto the dining room table and ate an entire batch of chocolate drop cookies (and survived)? Write about it. Remember that perfect crème brulée you shared at that gorgeous restaurant in New York City during a blizzard with your husband on your first anniversary? Write about it.”

The truth is, we’re all passionate about food, be it burgers or osso bucco. Here in Shanghai, I’m obsessed with stinky tofu…a block of tofu soaked in a fermented brine for a really long time. I’m not obsessed with eating it, mind you. I haven’t dared to venture that far yet (and doubt I ever will). But every time I’m slapped by its horrific odor when I’m walking down the street, I wonder; and when something makes me wonder more than once, I know I need to write about it.

Eventually I’ll write about the first time I smelled stinky tofu during the 2006 May week-long festival at the Longhua Temple, and about the fact that the odor is worse than the stench of the most rancid baby poop, and about the fact that street stalls that sell it have actually been fined for breaking air pollution laws, and about the fact that last year on an airplane, a man’s bag of stinky tofu tore open and the majority of people on the plane, overcome by the odor, puked for the rest of the trip. Perhaps by writing about it, I’ll figure out why so many people in China love it so.

So put your fork down and set your chopsticks aside. Choose your dish, pick up your pen, and start writing.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe moved to Shanghai, China, in April 2006 and has been writing about this incredible country ever since. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) in Shanghai and garners the attention of readers all around the world. Her essays about the China experience can be found in The Baltimore Review and To Shanghai With Love (forthcoming). As a respected writing instructor, she has taught hundreds of writers over the past fourteen years and is currently teaching both fiction and nonfiction writing in Shanghai.

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