eat: beef rolls @ Mama Lu’s Dumplings
Friends, I’ve been stuttering a bit through the aftermath of AWP. For those of you who haven’t attended this writing conference, let me just say: For me, the AWP experience is the metaphorical equivalent of being stuff-fed, maybe even force-fed. Like a poor goose destined for foie gras.
Every year, for one long weekend, I cram every possible free moment with old friends I can’t possibly learn enough about between panels; I actually attend as many panels as my brain can handle, scribbling pages of notes I’ll never be able to decipher later (What is this? An interpretation of a poem? A game of hangman?). I buy so many awesome new books that my “to-read” stack now reaches my pelvis when I hover over it, wondering anxiously where to begin and whether or not the whole thing will fall like a Jenga tower when I finally make my decision. I collect sightings of first-year attendees like sweet little charms— glowing memories for later, all those bright-eyes on their way to get some real advice on publishing their fiction manuscript, or else to swoon over Maggie Nelson. I am all of these awkward interactions incarnate (Sorry, Sarah Vap. Did I accidentally spit on you as I introduced myself? Sorry, Rose McClarney. I actually love your poems too much to attempt interacting with you as a human).
And then there’s the actual food—lots of it, along with a seemingly never-ending happy hour (although in LA happy hour is not so much happy as expensive). I ate:
Leaving downtown LA Sunday morning, I felt the same way I usually feel after AWP: strangely bummed. As if I had so many new ideas it was harder for me to access a single one of them. As if I was supposed to have had a breakthrough on how to begin a new poetry collection, or maybe solve a moral quandary or something, and instead I was too stuffed to sit up and get to work.
All this to say: I’ve been thinking for awhile now about how to blog about my trip, since the whole extravaganza was somewhat like an infinite buffet of Things I Should Really Know More About. While I’ve been stalling, I’ve also been reflecting on Timothy Yu’s essay about a recent poem published in The New Yorker: “White People Want Chinese Chinese Culture Without Chinese People.” Yu offers important insight into both poetic and “foodie” traditions in the US, noting that Americans have historically sought cultural exchange of ideas/things while excluding the very people whose ideas/things they’re lauding. Of Trillin’s poem, he writes:
whatever its satirical intent, [it] extends this tradition into a contemporary moment where it is now possible to be a connoisseur of Chinese food, which for so long has been seen by white Americans as alien and disgusting or, at best, unsophisticated. For many Asian Americans, who grew up being mocked for what they ate, there is a biting irony in the “columbusing” of Asian food. But Trillin’s poem keeps the tradition I’ve described intact; the provinces he lists are places that dishes, not people, come from. It is a China without the Chinese.
This essay, along with Bani Amor’s entry on how not to do travel writing, will stay on my desk as I try to better present my own travel experiences for what they are: Personal experiences that are small in scope. Tiny steps toward my larger goal to learn more about people, the real lives of actual people, wherever my reading or travel takes me.
And I mention it here, specifically, because the dish I’m recommending is a Chinese dish, and I know very little about Chinese food. At ASU, though, I teach international students, and many of them are Chinese. They write on food and travel (because these are the things I’m obsessed with, obviously), and even while they’re struggling with the inevitable complexities of studying abroad and in English, I’m wowed by how passionately they can write in their second language about food from their hometown– about, for instance, dishes they learned to make with their grandmother. [I have no idea how to make my Granny’s chicken and dumplings in Spanish.] In their papers, they offer me the briefest glimpses into a long history and culture I cannot begin to truly understand. Similarly, no matter how hard I try, I will never know what it’s like for them to be here, in Tempe, in Arizona, in the US. But I’d like to continue with the trying.
One thing I do know from reading hundreds of student papers on food and authenticity? Most of my Chinese students prefer Chinese restaurants in LA to Chinese restaurants in Arizona (I know: that’s a real shocker, eh?). Needless to say, I wanted to see what they had been talking about in so many hundreds of MLA-formatted pages. I wanted the hot pot and the dumplings they have described to me in painstakingly delicious details. Like the dork that I am, I literally made a list of their favorite dishes so I could know a bit more about what to order.
Without any further ado (and thanks for following my maze-like train of thoughts!), here is the dish from LA I’d like to talk about, because 1) It was the best thing I ate that weekend; 2) We had left our rental in Chinatown to accidentally stumble upon Monterey Park, California; 3) At this restaurant, I could at least partially clear the lump in my throat that (white) LA somehow markets its own diversity to visiting white folk like myself; and 4) It’s one of my only experiences outside the Downtown Convention-Center Radius, where I believe my suspicion in reason #3 would most likely turn out to be true.
On our way out of the city, my friend David found Mama Lu’s on Yelp and navigated us there, since I was feeling (as I mentioned) much like this. We parked in one of those strange, underground LA-style garages and ascended into the sweet, sweet smell of dumplings. Inside, we were given a number (2!) and left to wait as we eye-balled the heaping dishes of deliciousness that passed by us, one after another, with an alarming speed. When they called our name over the Karaoke-style loud speaker, we ran to our seats with our three little hangovers, barely able to contain ourselves. We ordered basically everything on the first page because we could not bear to get past the first page without doing so. When the server then took away our menus away, we were a bit droopy-eyed about it— But, but, what if we also want everything on the second page, too?
When the First Page arrived, we knew she had done us a favor. Of everything—crispy, savory Chinese pancakes; shrimp & pork dumplings with chili oil—, the beef wrap was my favorite. It tasted, to my naive pallet, somewhat like a Vietnamese sandwich within a savory pastry (much like the Chinese pancake we had ordered in addition to these rolls). Inside that perfectly crunchy-slash-chewy pancake was a generous portion of cilantro and a savory, spicy, stew-like beef. Two perfect half-rounds of cucumber balanced the spice. I was with two men who can eat a bit more than me in one sitting, but they had to fight me over these. I noticed that many of the other patrons, who had some better sense than we did, had ordered the beef rolls alongside clam soup, garlicky-looking vegetables, even the Ma-Po Tofu I had intended to try.
This, my friends, is the perfect anecdote to wrap up my AWP experience and the furiously-paced thoughts I’ve been having since. At AWP, I tend to want so much of everything that I go about seeking those things with a frantic energy. I want to spend more time reading books. I want the writers I admire to get the recognition they deserve. I want the work of VIDA and Kundiman and Cave Canem and Canto Mundo to have a serious, long-overdue impact on the publishing industry. I want to learn from Claudia Rankine’s Keynote. I want to be a better teacher of writing, a better writer– to learn from Rankine and Yu and my husband and my friends, all the time, every day. I want to write new poems! I want to keep in real touch with my writer friends who, on top of being artists I admire, make my life fuller and better. I want to publish my book of poems! I want to show the generous teachers I’ve had how well they’ve done. I want, want, want with an Edna-St.-Vincent-Millay-kind-of-desire.
When I travel, I can sometimes bring the same kind of frantic desires with me in my carry-on. But as an astute philosopher* once told me in the bathroom of a local Tempe haunt: “You can have everything you want. Just not all at the same time.” Alright, so the mantra is flawed, but I think there’s definitely something to be said about pacing yourself. About not getting so intimidated by all of the important books and amazing food in the world (and by *always, always* the incredible people innovating and writing and making those things) that you don’t start looking for them in the first place.
I did end up leaving Mama Lu’s— and LA— a little happier, even if I was filled to the brim with dumplings. Next week, I will write about a few of the many, many books I picked up in LA. Because I’m going to follow my own advice and stop being intimidated by this:
for further eating and reading on eating, see:
- Otium, because I had a meal here so delicious my senses blurred.
- MaMa Lu’s Dumplings in Monterey Park, California
- “How LA Became a Powerhouse for Chinese Food,” Christina Wei @ FirstWeFeast
- “Behind Chihuo.org” @ LAWeekly profiles Amy Duan, the editor and founder of the Chinese-language LA-based foodie blog Chihuo.org (Which I’d be reading right now if I could!)
- “Wokking the Subbarbs: Monterey Park, California, and the Rise of the Suburban Chinatown,” Hua Hsu @ Lucky Peach