Cooking, on the Condition of Now

HomeConnie Yu

In Index Cards, a book of collected essays and video transcriptions that often take pause, photographer and video artist Moyra Davey begins from New York in the wake of September 11th. She reads and writes from other writers, and this intertextuality is like snacking, or making circuits around a house: put phone down, open fridge, soak rice, go to bathroom, take out trash, find phone, weather the porch, go back for drink.

From Vivian Gornick, for instance, Davey collects that there may be solace in the starkness of the present, in a lack of nostalgia. From Svetlana Boym, that nostalgia is better utopian (or “reflective”) than place-based (or “restorative”) — better to have a fiction to return to in lieu of “home, [which] can easily become a breeding ground for oppressive and intolerant nationalisms” (6). During the continuing crises of police brutality and power, forced evictions of houseless people, and the COVID-19 pandemic, stark is everything. And yet, in Philadelphia, the streets are filling up again, and Center City, where I go to work, is staked out with extended patios for outdoor dining.

When I borrow Davey’s prompt on reflective nostalgia, I think first of the Year of the Pig with FORTUNE. A print collective I tend to with Andrienne Palchick and Heidi Ratanavanich, FORTUNE produced monthly zines by and for queer and trans Asians, and released them locally by way of gathering — for potlucks, karaoke, performances, parlor games. There, the making of print was coextensive with the making of food, in that both were intimate collaborations drawn from shared reference, and both due celebration. FORTUNE’s gatherings will never quite get “home,” not only because their realization resisted Boym’s “oppressive and intolerant nationalisms,” but also because in the diasporic spaces we had gathered, home is as contested as it is plenty — this, too, is a shared reference. Now, much of writing and cooking and community-feeling is at odds with what these meant before months of quarantine, and the nostalgia that Davey names is what preserves the binary of then and now: that any modality of making is just not the same. I believe what I am writing from is anachronism, placing present desires into histories that aren’t suited for them, or indulging freedoms past in the framework of now. I believe that reference is a way of anachronism, too; sometimes this liberates past texts and their moments, sometimes this speaks to yours.

“Use can also be a sign of life being lived, which is to say use involves coming into contact with things,” Sara Ahmed writes in What’s the Use?: “use could be described as a contact zone” (40). In June, a few Asian friends had formed a chat to discuss ways to support the movement for Black and Black trans lives, and against the militarized and carceral state. One initiative that came quickly was to make large batches of prepackaged food to distribute at actions. Because distribution happens on weekends, when I work, I have instead been prepping and making one of several portions of food to be distributed by my teammates. We remind each other to observe safe food preparation measures, and we package spring rolls individually. In both these senses, the food I help make will transmit nothing but itself, and I will not see or touch the people who receive it. This usefulness, or aspiration toward usefulness, has not been a contact zone in the sense that I know food to be — taking another’s touch, trusting their handling, witnessing something like immediate feeling, or, the opposite of anachronism.

These were driving sensibilities for each of FORTUNE’s monthly gatherings in 2019, which emphasized the IRL, the hand-to-hand exchange of print, the meeting around the kitchen table to fold dumplings, the collective momentum of cleaning up. In reconceptualizing our work now, there is not much we can do, not much we can make, that is without each other: logistically, we can no longer work on the same machine. When the machine breaks, as it does, we have fewer options. In terms of exchange, we must stay in fixed distance and meet each other online, to talk about what care within community looks like, and what extends from there.

Now, making work is only time-based:

While collating pages for a printing job, I listen to Time to Say Goodbye, a podcast about Asia and Asian Americans that started during the pandemic. In its July 7th episode, reporter Tammy Kim proposes an alternate historiography of Asian Americans that is based not on the particular racial work of the Civil Rights movement, but rather on labor and war as reasons for displacement, migration, and intercultural encounter. For dinner, massaman curry with lotus root, potato, yu choy; and the applicability of Kim’s structure hits me while we watch a Zoom program hosted by the Museum of Food and Design, wherein Tao Leigh Goffe of Cornell’s Afro-Asia Group describes the permutations of chop suey, an invented dish of diaspora, clever marketing, and, for the laborers that cooked it, nostalgia. I need to be careful: to amplify solidarities between Black and Asian diasporas in cuisine, in liberation movements, in labor struggles, can feel alienating too in 2020, because amplifying similarity during the Black Lives Matter movement has that taint of reflective nostalgia — something is being fictionalized.

I exchange video texts with my mom, in conversation about race, political upbringing, and how to talk about these with each other. She does not show her face, but rather a static, close-up image of a surface. A photo, a book cover, a movie still. I think of this as a move away from both the emotionality and the practicality of our usual interactions. In response, I send a video with my camera facing the photo on the cover of Ahmed’s book. “What’s the Use? / Birds Nesting:” I like that whatever is shown communicates a device at rest.

Jackie Wang writes in “Against Innocence” that the liberal paradigm of racism depends still on crime and punishment, on the separation of classes and their presumed values — rather than an overhaul that demands violence — because, she draws from Frantz Fanon, “removing all elements of risk and danger reinforces a politics of reformism that just reproduces the existing social order.” Wang doesn’t say so in this essay, but part of the existing social order is (still) the model minority myth: the social comeuppance afforded an (East) Asian middle class so as to delimit and delegitimize the social welfare of Black, brown, and indigenous people. That myth is, too, redolent with the nostalgia of someone we know — for an immigrant faith in the American ruse of meritocracy, and ultimately, for the core of white viewership — “bodies that can be displaced for the sake of providing analogies to amplify white suffering.”

Ahmed again: “Queer uses, when things are used for purposes other than the ones for which they were intended, still reference the qualities of things; queer uses may linger on those qualities, rendering them all the more lively” (26). These days, this promise of queer use sounds more like corporate cooption of liberation movements than the object-oriented and suggestively anticapitalist use Ahmed holds space for. On June 30th, Heidi and I go to the Red Cross on 22nd and Chestnut to give blood, with the tip that they will test all blood for COVID-19 antibodies. I fill out the RapidPass on my phone, dismayed but scrolling mechanically through questions that make criminal: “Have you had sex in the past 3 months with a male who had sex with another male in the past 3 months?” “In the past 3 months, have you used needles to take drugs, steroids, or anything not prescribed by your doctor?” When I get to the foldout table as one of the final three donors of the day, I feel at once cared for by all Black and brown and Asian women in the room, and aware of the length and trial of their day. I let them misgender me, because that’s not what we’re here for. It happens that my blood runs too slow and I will time out, and I am not involved in the discourse about how to troubleshoot. When I sit up, someone tells me it’s OK, that I still gave something. I feel useless, having expected to be used. The question I do not ask is if my blood, since insufficient in quantity, will still be tested for antibodies, if I can fulfill at least the queerness of that use.

Mom responds to my initial email, which I write on an anniversary of Six-Four, or the Tiananmen Square Massacre, with three brief videos of mostly audio, saying she had distributed to bail funds and is glad to have had my recommendations, that she and dad had watched the news and talk about the state of things often. On prompt, she notes where and when they were during Six-Four, an addendum detailing the social histories of her parents, their relationship to democracy and communism. There is a lot I feel wary about — that this speaks to their continued nationalism, and that what I learn will complicate our relationship, if anachronistically — but today, I feel glad to have received these, and glad, too, that mom is being so intentional with her communication: thinking about form, and language, and timing.

So much of Moyra Davey’s writing practice is in reading; she may be the first to admit it, and does throughout Index Cards. She remembers her friend Pradeep Dalal’s artist talk, wherein he suggests not to measure experience and media toward the ends of production — toward making or writing or “cannibalizing yourself,” as Davey writes at least three times — but to take them as sustenance and in patience, something like a practice (124).

At work, I tune in to a Wing On Wo & Co. Zoom seminar on Traditional Chinese Medicine with Donna Mah. What stays with me is that Mandarin is not Mah’s native tongue, and though she learns from practitioners for whom it is, her relation to TCM is one that could be mine, too. That is, intergenerational and diasporic, rather than attached to a nation-state and its sanctioned traditions. During the Q&A, we learn that the lung and large intestine are of the same system, in the way that an earthworm’s respiratory and digestive tracts are one, and this system is associated with the element of metal. Both organs are regulated by rhythm — of breath, of the passage of food. Both, too, a participant raises, can be associated with emotionality — here, with grief. In the Zoom, we are thinking of COVID, and of George Floyd breathing and then made to not breathe. Mah says, then, to regulate, or balance the emotion, we do what we would the lung-large-intestine system, which is to make rhythmic. I think of chanting and feeding during actions. To breathe and to eat and to grieve regularly. I think of these as the fall is coming, making body differently vulnerable.

This week, I am the point person for making zongzi, bundles of marinated sticky rice and nuts and mushrooms wrapped in bamboo leaves, for food distribution at the Black Trans Assembly near Independence Hall. We eat zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival, drive out pestilence from our homes, and by some lore, celebrate the poet Qu Yuan, grieve his death. I divide up the ingredients for three cooks plus me, and give heads up about the duration of the project: almost everything will be soaked overnight. The last time I made zongzi was at the start of quarantine, stacking trays of soaking things atop each other, then atop chairs; delivering two savory and one sweet to neighbors, then further neighbors. The time before that, Oki came over and we spent hours on this hot porch waiting for the rice to soften. They spoke what was a revelation to me but not to them, that many things, as child, in home, can rewire certain measures of future planning. Already, I have forgotten most Mandarin, and this was not planned. Already, I am measuring the hours of Thursday eve for soaktime, but I’m far from ready for tomorrow’s workday.

FORTUNE’s practice has been sensitive to time, in ways that become clearer in the long now. We had set our sights on publishing regular content between two Lunar New Years; that timeline was in speculation of our working capacity, and of the spaciousness of work other than ours. In this Year of the Rat, we’ve been working toward an archive of our past publications, and of the printing and woodworking skills we’ve learned along the way. When we say archive, we think of Gidra and Rice Paper, and other queer and Asian print histories we don’t yet know. At the top of August, pausing other commitments necessarily, we held a fundraiser with Clay Kitchen Studio and Confetti, for Camp Teddy and Bunnyhop. On my porch in West Philadelphia, Andra, Miki, and Heidi wrapped onigiri on their corresponding card tables on the porch, and M grilled teriyaki chicken skewers that Blanche sheathed individually in foil. This was one time that mediation in contact meant additional care; take this to-go.

There is something I thought about briefly today, while marinating chicken for a tikka masala, that I don’t need to write down, and now forget. This frees a bit of the future, as I wash the raw meat slickness from my hands, then the cleaver, the cutting board, the sink, the counter. I am getting into marinating meat, I write to a friend, and some tenderizers I have relied on: onion water (from Refika), citrus, yogurt or buttermilk (from Samin), baking soda (from Leela), olive brine, cooking wine (from mom).

Ahmed, Sara. What’s the Use?: On the Uses of Use (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).
Davey, Moyra. Index Cards (New York: New Directions Books, 2020).
Wang, Jackie. “Against Innocence: Race, Innocence, and the Politics of Safety,” LIES Journal, vol. 1. October 15, 2012.