P'u

By | Saturday, February 19, 2011 Leave a Comment



P'u, often translated as "the uncarved block," is a Taoist idea of simpleness. It refers, in a sense, to the calm, still, empty mind, unfettered by the judgments that come along with knowledge. The uncarved block has not yet been carved. It can become anything. There are no lines, cuts, or grooves, to guide or inhibit the carver’s hand. P’u isn't something I am – it is more like a state I aspire to and occasionally obtain. If I had been P'u when making my first batch of bacon (see http://andrewsigal.blogspot.com/2011/02/bacon.html,) I wouldn't have screwed up Alton Brown's bacon brine recipe. Without the existence of vinegar in my mind, I would not have been able to mix up "cider" and "cider vinegar."

But I do like to ask naïve questions. My whole entrée into the field of culinary history was based on a set of naïve questions I asked myself several years ago while traveling. First I asked, "why aren’t Chinese food and Mexican food the same?" By which I meant: Chinese people and Mexican people are each Homo Sapiens. They have approximately the same taste buds. They have approximately the same digestive systems. They have aproximately the same nutritional needs. Why would they eat different things? 
My next questions were: "Are chimichangas and eggs roll the same things?" Then, “are pierogi and calzones the same things?" And what about Chinese hum bao? Does the idea of wrapping meats and vegetables in dough travel with the dough, or does it arise independently in each place where dough is invented?

A decade later the #1 thing I have learned is the naïveté of those questions. "Chinese food" isn't one thing. Neither is Mexican food. Furthermore, all of these questions ignore the time element: one must not ask merely "which ‘Chinese food,’” but also “at what time in history?" When looking at Mexican food, are we considering food of one region or another? Are we talking about pre- or post-Columbian cuisine? How about cuisine from before or after the Mexican-American war and the annexation of Texas? And so on. Worse yet, a chimichanga (probably) isn’t even a Mexican dish – it is generally thought to have originated in Arizona in the second half of the 20th century. The “egg roll” that I had in mind when I asked my question is also an Americanized food. It has its roots in a variety of Asian wrapped rolls, but it is not Chinese per se. When I asked "is a chimichanga and an egg roll the same thing," I intended to ask a question about the relationship between Mexican and Chinese cuisines. Instead, it turned out that I was asking a question about how Americans have adopted, co-opted, and modified immigrant cuisines and ingredients.

So these questions were in a sense the "wrong" questions. On the other hand, they sprang from a simplicity, from a state of P’u, that allowed me to wonder about such things and started me down a very interesting road. Had I already been aware of the errors underlying the questions themselves, I might never have been inspired to start trying to find the answers, and more importantly to find the right questions.

So here's to P’u, and Pooh too! [With special thanks to Benjamin Hoff.]
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