Grumpy snakes encountered on breezy hot May afternoons offer surprises. At marsh’s edge, I discovered a svelte three-footer, an eastern black racer, wedged in eel cage mesh where it slithered to shed its old skin in too tight a compass. Exhausted from the exertions of sloughing two skins, eel pot and dermis, in one go, it hung slack while I worked its soft body, frayed with bits of its old self, through the wire until with listless hiss it dropped into the wrack of dried reeds and shatters. A second – this an irritable banded king snake – confronted me hauling the offending cage back to the barn. Stand-off. Encoiled, encurled, feigning aggression for the easily fooled, it relinquished no ground nor would it strike. Detour. On dockward return, no grumpy snakes appeared, the light trace of their passing invisible – only the track of the meditation they occasion remains. I like snakes well enough, but then I always wash my hands after a liberating moment.
A single sheet of ruled notebook paper wrenched from its spiral binding, dewy wet and rock weighted, sags pinned atop a fieldstone wall. Each of three columns, arrayed side by side, begins with a key word – and underneath a register of single word associations. On the left “heart” superintends love, brave, empathy, conscience. “Broken” elicits bones and pain and stress and anger. The anchoring stone, shedding dirt and finest shreds of composted leaves, occludes the organizing word that heads the rightmost column. I cannot move the one-rock avalanche that walls these words; I can only guess at the congruity of sleepy paired with energetic or the abstraction of positive in a triangle with healthy and complete. This hidden word under its moraine of recent making poses a seductive mystery. Better to leave it alone and wonder than lift the weight to dulling light.
The lower registers of the buckled page are numbered out of sequence. “3. Because in the definition of metaphor it says something is not literally applicable.” “2. Our hearts are broken and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.” “7. The speaker is attempting to say our hearts are broken by this sudden tragedy…” What tragedy? “4.?” “6? Heart.” Is this a test, a manifestation of the Conet Project gleaning random numbers counted out by well-spoken spies in late night shortwave radio transmissions?
What else is there to say about an artifact rescued from the pavement? More soiled by its present perch than pedestrians’ feet. The words readily legible in what experience suggests is the craft of a looping feminine hand. Rounded letters as if the swell and bounce of O, the bulbous nose of P, or Q’s bubble of a derriere were all that mattered. No jaggedness here, no haste – just a sense of unfinished reflection and missing information. The evident care in its salvation draws a distinction between loss and discard with pointed ambiguity. Stopping to read this scrap of paper I wonder how it came to be in this place. Some instinct transformed a passerby into a Samaritan who thought the page lost, imagining the returning steps of another, head down, eyes to the undulant brick walk scanning for this lost bit of memory, this bit of unsettled and unsettling business.
Sweet pork and taro root and red bean buns nestle prettily in their condensation slick bamboo steaming baskets arrayed in orderly progression along the cash-only take-out line at Li Ming’s Global Mart. The pillowy white dough swells magically around an anticipated sweet and savory interior. These buns are the edible essence of temptation, seduction, desire. And, they are the stars in what I now think of as Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.
Phase 1: When Li Ming’s opened its doors in the barely converted cavern of a failed Circuit City store in a largely empty Durham, North Carolina, strip mall, jubilation filled my very being. Like so many things of merit in my world, it was Becky who discovered the global mart and carried me there as a surprise. Ecstasy! Walking through the door the very first time, my eye turned to the iconic glassed Peking duck cabinet – and to the side a stand of double-tiered commercial kitchen steamers, each aluminum tray packed with fresh buns and dumplings. Standing behind his wares, the dumpling counterman smiled, answered questions on the relative merits of each variety, and then plucked the chosen few from their steam-wreathed incubators.
Phase 2: Not too many weeks later, dumplings were on my mind (somewhere between musings on Eastern Shore of Virginia Shooting Point oysters and Cane Creek Ossabaw pig chorizo). Entering Li Ming’s, my first realization was of changes instituted at the dumpling counter. Bamboo steamers replaced the first aluminum containers; neatly typed placards identified buns and dumplings by type and ingredients. New buns had debuted, most notably a Vietnamese pork bun with a hard boiled egg inside. The familiar face of the counterman smiled; the buns met every expectation of delectation. What I failed to recognize, though, was that a grander transformation was in progress and those bamboo steamers were the harbingers of the emergence of Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.
Phase 3: Less than a year after I first stepped through the doors of Li Ming’s Global Mart, the bun and dumpling counter evolved into theater. The walls painted bright orange provided a backdrop that threw every object, person, and action into vividly staggering high relief. This was an orange so aggressive that every detail of every gesture and thing in front of that background appeared digitally etched to the point of special effects. A black plastic rimmed flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall rotated images of artfully posed, tastefully modeled selections available in the bamboo steamers. Between the bank of steamers and the orange wall, the counterman, now clearly remade as dumpling master, presided over a steel table covered with trays of ingredients.
This was stage and cast, theater came next. The dumpling master in his red shirt reached to his right, and peeled up a four-inch round of risen bun dough. Evidence that the dough was mixed and risen on the stage was clearly evident in the stainless steel mixer and glass-doored rising chambers off to the left. Cradling the bun round in one surgically-gloved hand, the dumpling master (creating the Vietnamese buns that debuted only weeks earlier), scooped fresh pork sausage into the center. Then he added the hardboiled egg and a bit of cured Chinese sausage. Gently twirling the bun in his left hand, the dumpling master brought the sides to a teardrop point, delicately pinching the gathering closed in a flourish of balletic grace. I was stunned! There was no mystery here! This was a dramatic and clinical moment when the dumpling master formed the heart of the bun. These buns were the real deal, the authentic thing – not because they were any different or better, but because the dumpling theater invited witness. These were buns of legend and spectacle.
And, that is the problem, bearing witness to the forensics of authenticity. The dumpling master’s buns remain a triumph in my culinary imagination, and yet it seemed in that moment as if too much had been revealed, as if I could make claims to a different kind of ownership premised not on delight but information. Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater in its orange splendor and culinary performance overwhelmed the imagination with spectacle. Still, I purchased my dumplings, and standing discretely in the frozen food aisle took one out of its Styrofoam box and chomped down, happily. A single tear wet my cheek. That’s the problem with authenticity.
Retro animal aesthetics return; the dirigible pig is back. Bricks of Neese’s Extra Sage, Hot, and Country Pork Sausage, packed in the supermarket cooler trumpet the family brand in a large red banner above the legend “Southern Style.” The pig engraved on the label balances on impossibly short legs – legs so dainty that they drive thoughts of ham from the imagination. The Neese’s pig is a pig that is all about body – a mountain of culinary possibilities – with no regard for porcine intellect or mobility. The Neese’s pig portrait hearkens back to the rural fairs and agricultural competitions of the 1800s when the ideal hog on the trotter challenged the limits of even the most extreme Reubenesque body beautiful. These were pigs that couldn’t be and never were – and yet they persist, visualized standing stiff legged, proud snouted, anticipating the butcher’s knife and culinary resurrection. These are sturdy, thoughtful pigs, corn-fed to the brink of corporeal fantasy. The question: “Why this pig now?” Desire (perhaps lust) of a certain sort I suspect as I reach for a brick of Extra Sage.
Agricultural newspapers circulated with tornadic ferocity throughout the rural America of the 1800s. Correspondents submitted passionate meditations on rutabagas, manure, hay rakes, and horses. Recipes for ink made from figs appeared alongside columns on the judging standards for sweet potatoes. Engravings of seasonal cornucopia marked the months; plans for houses promised efficiency and convenience. Swine were a favored subject, depicted with an erotic yet tasteful fascination for fat and flesh. These were a lover’s pigs, round and roly-poly, zaftig and seductive. “There are two purposes for which pigs may be fattened,” wrote one farmer in 1845, “The one is to yield pork, which may be used either fresh, salted, or pickled, and the other is to produce bacon, which is prepared by salting and drying the flesh.” What of sausage? Or, liver mush or scrapple (labeled by one contemporary as “the apotheosis of the pig.”
The Neese’s pig descends from a long pictorial genealogy that seeks to visualize the “tender, juicy, and lean” through images of the happy, portly, and docile. There was, of course, the bad pig! Wretched, wracked, and malevolent, the primitive “other” threatened, a rangy, mean-spirited swine dangerous, defiant, beyond the reach farmyard civility. Ill bred creatures named Alligator and Landpike with “long peaked snouts, coarse heads, thin chests and narrow shoulders, sharp backs, slab sides, steep rumps, and meager diminutive hams, big legs, clumped feet, with the hide of a rhinoceros, and the hair and bristles of a porcupine, and as thick and shaggy as a bear’s.” These were not the pigs of the kitchen-as-boudoir, but creatures of arguably wild and satanic disposition – and not particularly tasty. And, their tails were not curly!
The German-language edition of the American Agriculturalistestimated in 1868 that there were at least thirty-four million pigs in the United States – a number just about equal to the human population. The most prized and coveted of the porcine nation look pretty much the same as the Neese’s “Southern Style” Country Sausage mascot. These were pigs content with their lot or perhaps just oblivious to fate or maybe simply resigned to an entrée afterlife. In their graphic stillness they pose puffed and plump, emblems of gastronomic erotica – some seemingly smile come hither; others sneer with disdain. Contemplating the Neese’s sausage brick, frost misted deep in its refrigerated display, I hunger for the greater truths in advertising – longing for the beautiful, impossible pig rendered on the label, sizzling, mottled pink and white in an iron skillet, then browned and crispy and gone.