Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Category: Social Commentary

Things I’ve Never Done

by lyzpfister

spaghetti carbonara

I don’t think of myself as a particularly brave person. I don’t have stories about skydiving in New Zealand or bungee-jumping off bridges. I’ve never lived in a third-world village or gone on a solo trip through some really high mountains in a country whose language I do not speak.

I was having dinner with a friend a while ago, and he asked me, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?”

I said, “I… don’t know.”

And I honestly couldn’t think of anything, with the exception of a few stupid stunts I’d pulled in college. And those were stories which, though funny then, would make me seem like that person now. So – no.

My life is lame, I thought. I should pack up my bags and go to Nepal or live with the Massai for a year or go ice fishing with the Inuits. And learn Yupik. Probably I should learn Yupik. Or something.

But is that what it means for me to live an interesting life, a brave life? Is living bravery on a smaller scale still as brave? Is it relative?

People tell me I’m brave for having moved to New York, for then having moved to Berlin, without knowing (in various combinations for each place) whether I’d find a job, an apartment, friends… But I don’t think of these moves as being brave things. They were just things I had to do. So I did them.

If I don’t feel compelled to go skydiving, does that mean it’s cowardice not to go?

I’ve been thinking about these questions as my life in Berlin settles into place. I’m getting comfortable. Comfortable in my routine, in the way I understand myself and who I am here. But I’m happy. And the feeling I felt before I left New York, that anxious, twitching itch like a circus troupe stuck in my gut – I don’t feel that now.

Berlin

I don’t want to believe that living a brave life is dependent on where you are – and how exotic it sounds. I want to believe that the daily practice of bravery can sometimes be simple and small and that only we can rate its worth.

My version of bravery is this: asking for enough money for my work , standing up for the things I need, allowing myself to fall in love.

spaghetti carbonara

I could add eating raw eggs to the list – though I’m sure my mother would say that this isn’t bravery, jut a bad idea.

I want to talk about spaghetti carbonara, which until recently, was something I’d never done before. Partly because my mother has instilled in me a pure terror of eating raw eggs and partly because the idea of having to quickly transfer hot noodles into raw eggs and mix in some other stuff with just the right rhythm before the eggs curdle and you’re left with nasty pasta egg stuff kind of scared me.

Spaghetti carbonara is simple – it’s pasta, eggs, ham, cheese, and pepper. The only thing that makes it slightly complicated is the technique – the order in which you put it together, the quick wrist flicks that turn raw eggs into silky, rich sauce.

spaghetti carbonara

As I stood at the stove, however, separating egg yolks from white and listening to the sizzle of fatty pancetta cubes crisping up, I wondered what I’d been afraid of. There was nothing to it but a little prep and a little confidence.

Is this bravery? I wondered. Can bravery be so little as to cook something you’ve never cooked before – something which you were afraid of, though in the scale of fears it was a small fear?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But for right now, the circus troupe is still. I don’t want to go swimming with sharks and no, I don’t want to learn Yupik and live with the Inuits. I like my life. I like where I am and what I’m doing. So for now, spaghetti carbonara and other small braveries will have to do.

spaghetti carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara

(for 2)

Set a pot of salted water to boil. In the meantime, heat ½ cup cubed pancetta in a slip of olive oil on medium-high heat. When the pancetta has crisped up and slightly browned, remove from heat. Drain the drippings from the meat and reserve. Set the pancetta aside and allow to cool slightly. In a bowl, whisk together 3 egg yolks and 1 whole egg. When your water is boiling, add pasta – enough for two people – and cook according to package instructions. Prepare: ½ cup grated pecorino cheese and 1 ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper. When the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking water. Add pancetta to eggs, then add pasta and cooking water to egg mixture. Using two forks, toss the pasta to coat. Gradually add pecorino, tossing pasta until everything is one beautifully luxurious melted cheese, egg mess. Add pepper and salt to taste and give it one last, loving toss.

*A side note on semantics: I realize it’s a bit of a bold move to conflate “a brave life” with “an interesting life.” I look at it in this sense: an interesting life is one in which an individual makes brave choices on a daily basis. And yet, when I think of an interesting life, I tend to think of something more glamorous than what I’m doing, and therefore much harder than what I’m doing, and therefore requiring more bravery than what I’m giving. So really, the semantics are personal and wide open for debate. Discuss.

spaghetti carbonara

Digits

by lyzpfister

Here is a true thing: food tastes better stuffed into your mouth with your hands. I decided this definitively at Cucina Casalinga. Drew was visiting. Emboldened by the presence of another American, I scorned the German habit of slicing pizza (pizza!) into bite-sized pieces with a knife and fork and instead shoveled triangles from tip to crust into my hungry little mouth.

I took a few experimental bites with a knife and fork. They didn’t taste as good.

It’s common knowledge that before the wheel was invented, our bushy and laconic ancestors developed the spoon.* Primitive priorities. The wheel was only practical. Sure, it got you from point A to point B a little faster – but the spoon – the spoon had the capacity to distinguish between the classed and the uncouth. Urklk still eating wolly mammoth with his fingers? For shame.

Humans have always loved to make distinctions.

Which is why, sitting in this pizzeria along the canal, surrounded by beautiful people (why are there so many beautiful people in Berlin?), I feel like I should feel ashamed to be greasing up my fingers with hot chili oil and melted mozzarella. For shame, for shame, I hear in the metallic clink of slicing knives, the screech of a fork against a plate.

But what of it? My pizza belongs to me. If I want to dissect it with my hands in public, well, who will be hurt? Society? Propriety? My neighbor’s refined aesthetic?

Is it an American thing to love finger foods? Think of all the wonderful things we eat with our hands: hamburgers, barbeque ribs, pigs in a blanket, corn on the cob. Not only do we revere these foods, we seem to revel in the mess they cause. Say… sloppy Joe’s?

All I can say is that the Europeans are missing out. If it’s habit, fine. Though I can’t quite sympathize, I can, at least, understand. But distinction? No. There’s too much tactile pleasure in the shape of a grilled cheese sandwich, too much joy in licking a line of watermelon juice slipping down your arm. When we eat with our hands, we throw decorum out the window. And maybe this is why the Americans love finger food so much – we have a history of flaunting how little we care about what we should do.

So Let Urklk eat with his hands. You know you want to, too.

*This may or may not be a wholly invented fact.

The Not All At Once Approach

by lyzpfister

I’m not good at change. Anyone who’s ever asked me to make a decision quickly knows this.

It takes me time to think things through. Not necessarily to weigh the pros and cons of a new course of action – but just to get used to the idea of something different.

As a human, I am a huge proponent of the not all at once approach.

Tell me something new, but don’t tell me all at once.

This is also the way I cook. I believe ingredients need time to understand themselves as they melt into a hot skillet – an onion doesn’t want an eggplant until it’s ready. And when they meet, they need time to get to know each other. To feel comfortable as a unit before tomato comes along.

Cooking like this takes longer. But it makes sense to me. One at a time, piece by piece until the composition of the pan has changed. Until it is a full pan, not an empty one.

Pasta with Tomatoes and Arugula

This recipe is about not rushing. It’s very easy and doesn’t take long to make – but it needs a gentle hand. Finely chop 1 yellow onion and sauté with 1 tsp olive oil and 1 tsp brown sugar in a skillet until onion is translucent. Add 1 finely chopped sweet red pepper (I prefer the mildness of a Hungarian pepper) and cook until softened. Add 3 chopped sundried tomatoes with a splash of the oil they were in (or more olive oil if you’re using dry tomatoes) and a healthy pinch of salt. Stir for a few minutes. Add 5 coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes and cook until softened. Add 1 finely chopped green onion and a chopped clove of garlic. Lastly, add a generous handful of arugula and a few leaves of chopped basil until the greens have wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. In the meantime, have set a large pot of salted water to boil, and cook as much pasta as you (& others – though this recipe was ideal for 2) plan to eat. When the pasta has cooked, drain it, then add it to the skillet of vegetables with 1 tbsp butter and ¼ cup heavy whipping cream. Toss the pasta with the sauce and cream until coated and the cream has cooked up a bit. You can use any sort of pasta with this recipe – and add other vegetables as you see fit, but I like the simplicity of just tomatoes and greens.

Cook Like No One’s Watching

by lyzpfister

I suffer from performance anxiety. It’s not a big deal, really. It just means that I often cook better when I’m by myself than when I’m cooking for other people. When I’m home alone, there’s no need to prove myself, to live up to having a food blog, to make something so delicious that whoever I’m cooking for never wants to eat anywhere else. I guess that’s what performance anxiety means.

While we’re getting it all out into the open, let me go ahead and admit this now. I’ve never been good at group projects. I like to be either completely in charge or completely the opposite. I take direction well and I lead well, but that nebulous middle ground where everyone’s got a good opinion and we’re all trying to self-moderate – I don’t do that.

It’s not that I was that kid who always got “does not play well with others” on her report card. In fact, I played so well with others that I sunk into the background, becoming an un-player, or a non-entity, a completely forgettable figure. For most of my childhood and young adult life, I’m pretty sure none of my classmates thought I had a personality. If they even knew who I was.

No one believes me now when I tell them I’m shy. Usually, I no longer believe myself. But ask my parents, my grade school teachers, my hometown best friend, who I made cry by refusing to remove myself from the folds of my mother’s skirt the day we met.

I’m not sure if I could pinpoint when it was that I grew into myself, my idiosyncrasies, my strangenesses. Perhaps it wasn’t one moment, but a process of growing. It appears mine is a soul that dislikes stagnancy in temperament as much as location.

The dislike of group projects, on the other hand, is something I haven’t outgrown. I had always ascribed it to being a symptom of shyness, but unlike the shyness I’ve left behind, this dislike of working together with other people – especially on creative projects – has stuck. Perhaps it’s just a palimpsest of qualities, whether good or bad, that I possess. My stubbornness, my unwillingness to be wrong, my dislike of being made to share. When I create something I want it to be mine. I want to possess it. I want all of the glory – or all of the defeat.

At least I will also take all of the credit for a defeat.

But what am I talking about. You want to hear about the food.

So I have performance anxiety. Right. That’s how we started. Last Friday, in the quick snap between work and going to the launch party for Issue 5 of SAND (the literary journal I’ve been working on here in Berlin, for those of you who didn’t know…), I didn’t check my watch (the very same watch I proceeded to lose at said launch party) to see how much time I really had before I had to leave again.

When I came home from work, I threw some zucchini, eggplant, onions, and garlic into the oven on a low roast, cleaned the kitchen, and took a leisurely shower, only realizing as I stepped out that there were scant forty-five minutes to dress myself, make my face presentable, and cook dinner. A quick assessment of the situation revealed that I wouldn’t have nearly enough time to fry up the potatoes I meant to use as a base for the roast vegetables anyway, so I opted to spend most of my time getting dressed, stress-lessed and listening to music. Dinner was improvised. Two slices of toast, goat cheese with chives, topped with the roast vegetables which had melted together in the oven. Perfect and soft, redolent of garlic and onion sweetness. I had to photograph it, even though I didn’t really have the time to get my camera out and snap the shots.

I sat in my kitchen being self-congratulatory, eating my toasts with cheese and roast vegetables. Thinking about how even haphazard meals can be surprisingly stellar.

What I want to say about this is that I love cooking and I love when food and people are together. There’s very little I love more. (Especially if it is grilling outside. Especially if there are craft brews.) But somehow all this loving makes me nervous. It’s got an element of group project to it.

When I cook with other people, I doubt myself. I overcompensate or recede into a background of deferential good opinions. I burn the crepes. I over-salt the rice. By myself, I risk more – which results in both stunning successes and also miserable defeats. And there are defeats.

For that, though, the successes taste so much better because they surprise me. Because they were created with a fearlessness, almost recklessness. An inventive energy I find when I work alone. Without someone looking over my shoulder to read a pre-edited version of a thing. Also, I’m a perfectionist – add it to the list.

So the question is, how to cook for other people like I do when no one’s watching? Blinders? Blindfolds? Boxing up my guests?

Clearly these are not the answers. Maybe the answer to this, like growing out of shyness, is time. It is possible that even now, my brain is coming up with a new body algorithm in which I am better at sharing ideas, better at working with other people, better at being ok with differences of opinion. Better at being imperfect.

Plans

by lyzpfister

I was thinking, as I rode my bike rather recklessly the other day, about how much we rely upon the reactions of other people. As I sped down the hill at Hallesches Tor, I skimmed past a man weaving his way along. He was whistling, his step in lazed anti-tune to the sound. And I, too, was feeling the spring breeze in Berlin, letting the bike, brakeless, coast. We were close as I passed. I heard his tune; he surely felt my speed ruffle it out of place.

We expect someone in a straight line to continue in a straight line, without thinking that perhaps their plan had been, all along, to veer suddenly to the left. We continue on our way, taking for granted that the other person’s path runs smoothly within our plans. So we plan and we plan and paths snake along in perpendiculars until one day, they don’t. The man on the sidewalk veers to the left. You crash into him on your bike. It wasn’t the plan.

I don’t want to write a metaphor for happenstance. I just want to observe that we are constantly assuming the outcomes of others’ reactions, when those other people are planners themselves, planning our reactions back at us. It’s dangerous to do too much planning at fast speeds. Dangerous not to allow the veer its own possibility of chance.

We are natural planners – and it is good so – otherwise, how would we build cities, invent, bring our creations into being. We plan our lives, our futures, and these things are good. Still, we can plan and plan and plan and still plan a reaction wrong.

We’ll never drive less recklessly down the hill past Hallesches Tor. We’ll always assume the man to the left will walk in a straight line. We’ll plan for him, just as he plans that we’ll drive by. Until one day, we don’t.

Spontaneous Soup

Coarsely chop 5-7 medium carrots, 1/2 sweet potato, and 3 Jerusalem artichokes and set aside. In a soup pot, heat 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter. Sautee 1 chopped yellow onion until translucent. Add other chopped vegetables, a pinch of cumin and curry powder, salt, loads of cracked black pepper, and cayenne pepper, and cook until vegetables are softened. Cover vegetables with water and add 1 bouillon cube. When water reaches a low boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes. Blend soup either with an immersion blender or by transferring to a blender. Return to pot, add 1/2 cup heavy cream and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Garnish with parsley.

Icon

by lyzpfister

This spoon was a spoon that my grandmother held. She stirred soups with it, melted butter into noodles, nudged vegetables in a pan. All that’s left of it now is the wood that’s worn smooth and what was once a cupped surface that looks as if it’s been licked too many times. The handle is polished with palms and bent, warped from the heat of a skillet. My grandmother has been gone for years. I barely remember her. Although if I close my eyes I can still hear a laugh that I think belonged to her. I have nothing of hers except my name, and that too is shared with my other grandmother. But now I have this spoon. It was probably once longer, and straighter, and more useful to use. And yet, this is how a wooden spoon should be – well worn, paced, serving until it disappears piece by piece into the dishes it stirs, and these hereditary splinters connect us.

We Have to Finish the Sausages or Else It Will Rain

by lyzpfister

I learned a new saying today. Apparently, the Germans instill in their children a fear that if they don’t finish all the sausages, the next day’s weather will be rainy. Clearly, in Berlin, the children have been slacking.

Let It Rise

by lyzpfister

There’s been a lot of yeast dough in my life lately. First there were Fasnet’s cakes, then I made donuts. Ok. So there were two instances of yeast dough in my life. But two yeast doughs within weeks of each other is more yeast dough than usually makes an appearance.

There’s something incredibly soothing about yeast dough. It takes time. And I think we spend far too little time taking time. What I mean is, I read this book called Momo, by Michael Ende (yes, yes, the very same Neverending Story mastermind) when I was living in New York, spending a lot of time regularly hyperventilating about how there wasn’t enough time.

Momo is a book about time and how humans construct it cleverly disguised as a children’s story. The sweeper tells Momo, “it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept. And then you start to hurry. You work faster and faster and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop – and still the street stretches away in front of you.”

I read that and I thought, Oh my God. Momo knows my life.

There’s this moment in the book where the grey men, bankers of time, visit each of the townspeople and convince them to put their spare time in a savings account. And when the people wonder how to save time, the grey men tell them, you know how to save time – spend 15 minutes less on each haircut you give or don’t drive all the way to the nursing home to eat with your mother –

I read that and I thought, My life is full of grey men.

I began to see them everywhere – they’d been invisible before, but now I felt them tapping against my elbow as I angrily stormed along the subway platform when I missed my train. I smelled the acrid smoke from their perpetually burning cigars as I stressed myself around a sales floor. I felt their cold hands on my chest as I started ten different projects without being able to sit still and finish any one. They whispered, Save time, save time, save time.

Like the people in the town, it seemed as though the more time I saved, the less I seemed to have.

I started kneading around this time. Rolling into dough required time. Although I had begun to cease thinking about time as a rule. Kneading dough is like breathing with your fingers. Your body slows to the tempo of your hands, and your breaths slow your beating heart. The dough demands you.

We ate a lot of bread those months. A lot of pizza and pasta and naan. I don’t know if it was the dough that cured me. The dough or the Momo or the yoga I started doing around then as well. But all three things taught me pliability and presence. That you must be where you are and yet flexible enough to change where you thought you’d be.

Every time I knead dough now, I think of that time, then, when I couldn’t let time be, but tried to mold it – the one thing you shouldn’t try to shape. Yes, time is fluid – but we don’t shape time by trying to control it. Time shifts when we are fully present in it. “Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it.”

Sweet Yeast Dough

500 g flour
20 g fresh yeast
¼ L milk
80-100 g butter
50-80 g sugar
1-2 eggs
pinch of salt

I’m sorry for the lack of specifics. But you should know me well enough by now to know that I’m not good at that sort of thing. This recipe was scrawled on a piece of paper by my aunt, who had gotten the recipe from another aunt, and who probably changed things around as she made the dough. So here goes: Make a well in the center of the flour, pour in half the milk, the yeast, and a bit of sugar, and stir into a rough dough. Cover with a towel and let rise for half an hour. Add the rest of the ingredients and knead into a smooth dough. Place in a clean bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Your dough is now ready to use – to make the Fasnet’s cakes I talked about in my last post, briefly knead the dough again and roll out on a lightly floured surface. Cut into diamonds and fry in a pan of hot oil (about 1 inch deep – you can test for “hotness” by sticking a wooden spoon into the oil – if the oil bubbles, it’s hot enough), about 25 seconds per side. This is a highly subjective number – you might need far less or more, depending on the thickness of your dough. Rule of thumb – when it starts turning brown, flip it – it will brown more as it cools. To make donuts, check out this recipe: hot pink donuts (the one I used…), and to find a less vague recipe for yeast dough: search the internet.

In Berlin, They Call Berliners Pancakes

by lyzpfister

Well, it’s edible, says my grandfather, as he pops a hot beignet into his mouth and then quickly shakes the heat of it from his fingers. This means that it is actually very good. My grandfather is Schwabisch, where the phrase nichts g’sagt ist Lob g’nug, meaning nothing said is praise enough, is, in fact, nearly the highest form of praise. As far as I can tell, the most generous expression of delight is: Man kann’s essen, which means, you can eat it.

My brother and my grandfather and I are standing in the kitchen, deep-frying Fasnet’s cakes, the south-German name for beignets. We’ve developed an assembly-line of sorts – I’m rolling out dough and cutting it into diamonds, my grandfather is manning the deep-fryer, and my brother is dusting the cakes, blistering with hot oil, in powdered sugar. We’ve developed an unhurried camaraderie, mock-criticizing each others’ methods, telling old jokes, jostling against each other with batches of dough, making faces, taking pictures. The kitchen is warm and smells sweet.

This picture freezes in my mind. My grandfather grins at me in a half-laugh and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, Well, what do you think about that? His eyes are wrinkled into crescents, his eyebrows lifted like a mischievous child’s as he swings a bottle of Oettinger Pils up to his mouth. And then his back is to me as he flips the Fasnet cakes in the deep-fryer. My brother catches the hot cakes on a plate of sugar and the powdered sugar he dusts onto them melts.

Fasnet (aka Fasnacht, aka Carnival) is mainly celebrated in the southern, Catholic parts of Germany. In Berlin, there were a handful of people who looked at me with confusion. They’d never heard of it.

In Burladingen, however, people belong to Fasnet clubs (called Vereins) which supposedly exist solely to march in the parades and plan parties during the two weeks or so that Fasnet is celebrated. However, upon further inquiry, it turns out that the clubs meet at least once a month or so throughout the year to talk about next year’s plans, or reminisce about the last year’s Fasnet, or drink beer.

Each club has a traditional costume which members spend vast sums to purchase and which they are only allowed to wear during the parades. In the weeks ambling up to Fat Tuesday, a loose affiliation of neighboring towns hosts these parades, sometimes a parade a day, especially as the specter of Lent looms nearer. The costumes are elaborate, hand-sewn with hand-carved masks of wood, specially suited to each individual’s face. When you join a Verein, you’re in for life. I guess this means people don’t move from town to town very often, I tell my cousin. She looks at me with mock horror, Don’t even suggest it!

Hidden behind their masks, the paraders dive into the bystanders. Witches with apple-red cheeks and stringy black hair made from horse tails hurl themselves at attractive young women and bind their feet together with those plastic ties that get tighter as you squirm and can only be removed with a pair of scissors. They fling the girls over their shoulders and run a good portion of the parade route with them before letting them go. We later learned that most of the witches are actually teenage boys, the girls they “kidnap,” their classmates, and the Fasnet parade a coy ritual of flirtation.

Marching bands playing purposefully off-key trumpet down the street. The cats from Gammerdingen hop and the bells across their chests jingle in beat. A rogue bear grabs a bystander by the foot and won’t let go. A tree grabs my aunt and kisses her.

Every time a new group walks past, they shout Nari! to us and we answer back, Naro! The snow, which had fallen that morning, is still piled along the sidewalks. The witches flick it at us with their brooms.

My grandfather doesn’t go to the parades anymore. While we stand out in the cold, watching the devilment unfold, he works in the church. He is home by the time we come back, shivering and laughing, candy in our pockets. Most of my family has come down for the parade, and so we set up the living room table for coffee. People have brought cakes, my brother and I place our beignets from the night before on the table.

So you made the cakes after all, my aunt says as she slips a beignet from the stack. When did you have time?

Last night, I say, after you left.

Last night! She exclaims, and my brother and grandfather and I laugh. Because we’re remembering how we’d said goodnight to my aunt and an uncle late at night after an evening spent cooking pizza together, watching a few rounds of ice crushing, and learning to knit. We were tired and full and ready for bed. But the dough we’d made earlier in the day and forgotten about was still sitting out on the counter. These have to be made tonight, my grandfather said as he tried to send my brother and I to bed. To bed! We laughed – We’d never let you stay up to make these all yourself.

So we three stayed up, cracked open another round of Oettigners, and set to work rolling out dough, heating up oil, dusting with sugar.

The Appropriate Emoticon for a Butchered Chicken is :o

by lyzpfister

Cutting up a whole chicken always seems to involve dangling it by some appendage. Grip the chicken firmly by the leg and lift it in the air as you slice your knife into the jointGrab the wing and pull it away from the body… Holding the chicken by one leg, place the tip of your knife…

It makes me sad for the chickens – not that they’re dead, but that in death, they must weather the ignominy of me ungraciously hefting them into the air by their prickled-skinned legs and hacking away as their naked little chicken bodies twirl away from the tip of my knife…

I will admit: I am an ungainly chicken partitioner. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I dig out the lower piece of breast with my fingers because I can’t figure out how to get a knife into that strange curved dip of bone. I can never remember where the drumstick ends and the thigh begins or whether there’s a better way to cut along the ribs. And then there’s all that dangling.

I try to do my butchering in secret, so that no one else must see the shame of what is really all that the connotation of the word butchering implies. I like to have my guests walk into the kitchen with the pan of Nepali chicken curry contentedly bubbling like the La Brea Tar Pits on the stove. The dinosaur extinction scene is just too painful to watch.

Speaking of pain, I’ve been thinking about emoticons recently, and how I think they’re a necessary function of modern communication. For a long time, I was resistant to using them, and I think I’m still a bit of a prude. My faces never sport noses, or stick their tongue out, and though I sometimes use the winky-face, I find it vaguely pornographic…

I had placed emoticons in the same category as “LOL” or “OMG” or “ROFLMAO” (I mean, OMG, what a string of letters – it takes me longer to work out what that means than to dissect a chicken) without thinking about the function they play in communication. Two important factors in modern communication (primarily text, chat, and some emails) are speed and truncation. You need to get the point across as quickly and succinctly as possible. With one parenthetical flourish, an emoticon imparts an emotional tenor which would otherwise have to be expressed in a sentence or two. For instance, Can’t make it tonight, I have the flu, the cats have attached themselves to my upper thigh, and Gregor Samsa just turned into a giant cockroach, but I really really love you and we should definitely hang out later this week becomes Can’t make it tonight : (

You might say, it’s just lazy, not to explain how Gregor Samsa ended up in your living room. Partly, it’s a matter of phone bills. Mostly, it’s a matter of medium. A text is not a letter. A text is a means to make plans, convey brief bursts of emotion, find each other in a crowd. A chat is quick communication – you don’t have hours to formulate your thoughts, nor do you have a person in front of you whose facial expressions you can read or whose vocal intonation you can hear. Without the ability to analyze a person, emoticons become necessary in order to quickly convey sarcasm, sadness, glee, humor, etc. without losing the conversation’s thread.

Using emoticons is not lazy, but a skill. It takes finesse to know which pieces of speech are necessary and which can be replaced. In fractions of seconds, we take entire sentences, dissect them, and reassemble them so that they fit within a character-limited space. Of course, I doubt many people think about this process, especially many of the generation born with a cell phone stuck in their little baby fists. I can see how on some level, if you’ve never learned to communicate in complete sentences in the first place, there’s nothing behind an emoticon but a vapid, blank space.

I’ve been told my conversations are discursive. As I sit here wondering how I’m going to get from emoticons back to chopped up chickens, I’m wondering if this habit of mine might need to be curtailed.

But listen. Communication, whether written or spoken, involves arrangement and rearrangement. Our brains are processing how to say what we end up saying all the time – and depending on the medium we choose, recombining the same message in different ways.

Think of a whole chicken as a segment of meaning. Your medium is Nepali chicken curry and your limitation is the size of a frying pan. So you cut the whole chicken apart into pieces and reassemble it so it fits snugly in the pan. It might have lost something (it’s dignity at the tip of my knife…) along the way, but its all still chicken – though in a format suited to the purpose. And emoticons in this analogy? I suppose you could say that’s the human touch – the way you puzzle the chicken pieces together, tucking wings under thighs, filling in the gaps so that the chicken still feels whole.

TTYL : )