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(post, Eden Bainter)
My bookshelf moans with each cookbook and food memoir I add to it. Not to mention fiction and politics. I have enough books on my “to read” list to constitute their own book. So I couldn’t really explain it – even to myself – when I honed in on an (expensive) new hardback copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, "Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour memoir of eating in China." There were all sorts of alarm bells. Vivid sentences like: “A whole puppy, roasted crisp, splayed out on a plate after having been attacked with a cleaver, so its skull is split in half, an eye and a nostril on each side, served with an elegant garnish of coriander, and flowers made from pink radish…” For a life-long vegetarian like me, that amounts to the beginnings of a scary story on par with reading Stephan King after the electricity goes out. And I can safely say that the few times she didn’t happily munch her exotic meals – that it felt taboo to her and she questioned the ethics of it all, well…the blush and guilt that ensued on my end, reading it on the bus or in the park, was equal to hers, endangered turtle for turtle. So why subject my strictly veggie self to such a wild, gory adventure? I asked myself this nearly every page. Because – truly – I wanted to figure it out. And eventually, I did. Dunlop’s memoir, and indeed her food ethics, was vastly different from my own. She headed into China with a personal promise to eat whatever was put on a plate in front of her. But throughout the book, though stalwart to her mission, she finds herself hitting walls, questioning the limits of her resolve, negotiating her ethics and personal identity. For a while she even turns vegetarian (sadly, it didn’t last). But I respected her choices all the while. I kept reading because I saw the kind of eater I was in Dunlop. Not in what she consumed, but in how she negotiated the borders of eating in an unfamiliar (and sometimes disagreeable) culture. How she remained receptive to any and all opportunities that came her way. So, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper was a bit of a scary story. But ultimately, it was a story of embracing a world of change and ambiguities. And it’s also the reason that my bookshelf is about to crack any day from all those cookbooks and food memoirs: there’s nothing quite as satisfying as committing yourself to keep learning, keep questioning, and keep negotiating your culinary and cultural borders. That’s the joy of eating, cooking and living – and it just might require another shelf or two to get there.