Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Metaphor of the Pot Lid

I'm in the middle of a week's vacation I took to clean my house. Yep, a vacation to clean house not a vacation from cleaning house. I've gotten a considerable amount completed and the list of of the lost-then-found items continues to grow (the most important being a watch my dad gave to me before he died). But there's a moment in every room where I start to panic because I've just made the situation a whole lot worse...by pulling every single item out of every single drawer, cupboard, and closet...kind of like this:

It has to get worse before it can get better, right?
So what prompted this sudden outburst of uncharacteristic domesticity?

  1. I volunteered my house for a photo shoot (a boudoir photo shoot, no less, because the interior of my home is so damned romantic that my 12-inch skillet ran off with my pair of pinking shears. I found the skillet in the oven and the shears under the bed; I'm afraid to ask them what happened or if I should be expecting the pitter-patter of...the feet of something I'm pretty sure I never want to see). 
  2. The Metaphor of the Pot Lid happened (which is way cooler than the Allegory of the Cave because I made it up). 

"So what is this metaphor?" I know you're asking yourself that.

Well, I watch a lot of Korean TV. (That might be an understatement: At this point, my Korean is passable enough to get me around Seoul, and I've never been to Korea nor taken a single Korean course in my life. And I'm not even remotely joking. I can hail a cab, order soju, ask for the restroom, and give directions to Gangnam...because that's what's really important, right? )

One of my favorite series is Boys Over Flowers (Kim Hyung Joon is so pretty I want to kiss him all over the face, which I'm sure he'd find appalling, given the 20-year age difference). In one scene, the main character, Jan Di, has moved to a rooftop apartment with her younger brother in order to stay in the private school she has won a scholarship to attend while her parents take off for the coast to make money in the fishing trade to support their two children. The first night, she and her brother sit down to a pot of ramen, and Jan Di does something so remarkable it changed my entire life.

She ate her portion of ramen from the pot lid.

Yeah, you heard me.

I nearly wept.

Rooftop apartments (which have nothing in common with penthouses, in case that's the image you have in your mind) kind of sprang up as an afterthought among apartment owners looking for extra cash. Many of them are single-roomed, ramshackle, four-story walk-ups that look cold and dreary, but they do have a certain appeal: no neighbors except for those downstairs; a terrace with a view (it may or may not be an awesome view; it's still a view); an outdoor furniture item that looks like a dais but functions as a table, summer bed, and bench (I suppose you could soliloquize from it if you wanted to...it seems to be relatively versatile); clotheslines; and plenty of sunshine. The drawback is that the apartments are tiny.

Also, if Korean TV is to be believed, they come with nosy, unforgiving landladies, but that's beside the point.

If you live in a Korean rooftop apartment, you are on intimate terms with your floor because space is at a premium and you use the floor for everything you do: reading, watching TV, writing, eating, and sleeping. In fact, the dining table, which is basically an over-sized lap table that can accommodate four people, is put up after each meal, and the "bed" is "folded up" every morning. (It's actually called a "yo," and is basically a very thick blanket.) This is the reason why street shoes come off at the front door: no one sleeping on a yo wants to find her nose in contact with a floor covered in dog-poop dust. And that's probably the least offensive thing your shoes track in.

On the rooftop, ramen is common (tee hee) because it can be cooked quickly without a lot of fuss. And eating it out of the pot lid, an awesome innovation, makes it even less fussy because...one less dish to clean!

And that's the reason tears welled up in my eyes.

Iced-tea maker, ramen pot, rice cooker, steamer. Comes with handy-dandy bowl/plate/lid and insulated handle to keep fingers and  counter tops from getting burned. Guaranteed to last the rest of your life. Never goes out of fashion.
So, I took on the task of perfecting my ramen-serving technique, and I learned that the Metaphor of the Pot Lid could be applied to other areas of my life.

First the technique:

  1. Add water to the pot (it really doesn't matter how much, though I don't like to dilute the flavor and sometimes reserve the broth for other things...okay, I always reserve the broth for other things...rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, millet...you can get a lot of mileage out of that stuff, plus you eliminate a lot of the sodium content by not actually drinking the sodium content).
  2. Empty the packet contents into the water, bring to a boil, turn off the heat. 
  3. Place whole noodle knot into the broth (unless you truly enjoy chasing short noodles around with your chopsticks, don't break the noodle knot). 
  4. Empty crunchy noodle leftovers into mouth, enjoy; throw package into trash. Or make bracelets out of it or something equally useful/sustainable...I'm advocating a "waste not, want not" approach to life in this post, after all. 
  5. Turn the noodle knot over (after crunching down the short noodle bits but before making bracelets). 
  6. Cover. 
  7. Wait five minutes. 
  8. Serve noodles in pot lid. 
  9. To clean, empty broth, add water to the pot, turn on heat, cover, boil, then rinse. No dish pan hands!
And now for the lessons learned. 

Let's think about the word "stuff." It has a number of connotations; one is "to stuff oneself," meaning "to eat to the point of being uncomfortable." It's also a vague sort of catch-all term for all the things we possess, and I don't think these meanings are coincidental. We are consumed by our consumption, and it's ubiquitous. On my counter, I could have (as the photo caption states) the following "stuff": an iced-tea maker, rice cooker, and steamer, and in my cupboard I could have a ramen pot. Four appliances/cooking vessels. Or I could simply have the ramen pot, which I'm going to have anyway and in which I can conduct many cooking acts. I could also have a food processor, mixer, and blender. Or I could simply have a bowl, spoon, sharp knife and mandoline, which I'm going to have anyway and which I could use for many cooking acts. So what's up with the space- and electricity-hogging appliances? 

I'll tell you, but, first, a question: Have you ever seen a commercial for a simple pot? No, because it's simple, and it's something you're going to have anyway, like I said. No one needs to sell you the need for a pot. But you do see plenty of commercials for panini presses (really? a little butter in a skillet and hardcore pressure on the spatula will net you the same thing...without artificial grill marks, but does that actually change the taste?), iced-tea makers, popcorn poppers, espresso machines. Interestingly, you are never sold the thing-in-itself. Instead, you are sold promises: having this will make your life easier, you will look cooler, it will save you time, it will save you money, it will take a shower for you so you don't have to. And just like that very last promise, the things you are sold cannot do what they claim. In fact, quite the opposite. 

I'm a little teapot...actually, I'm a cappuccino maker, coffee maker, and espresso machine. I'm also a mind reader: Sans is thinking, "Hmm, matcha green tea espresso!" This will be a fail, but she'll try it anyway. I run on propane, butane, natural gas, white gas, alcohol, wood, and a tiny amount of elbow grease. I do not come with an electric cord. I consider this a plus.
I have owned the pot in the first photo for over 20 years. It doesn't have a single dent, the lid fits as tightly as ever, it has never stained, and both handles are firmly in place. I can reasonably expect that pot to last another 20+ years, and it can fit in a cupboard...out of my way. Maybe a very expensive food processor will last as long as the pot, but I'll have to take it apart every time I use it and wash the pieces, wiping down the processor because it can't go in the dishwater (notice, dishWATER not dishWASHER) or be boiled clean (unless, of course, I want a piece of unusable melted plastic on my hands). 

The food processor actually makes my life more difficult. It takes up more time and money than it's manual relations because it and its many parts require more washing time. No one sees it, so it doesn't make me look cooler. It takes up space and psychic energy by being in my line of sight every time I walk into the kitchen. And at the end of the day, it really only does one thing well. (And I'm not going to tell you what that is because it's one of my three secrets to making dumplings so pillow soft you could take a nap on them. So I won't be getting rid of it, but its friends Mixer and Blender have got to go because they've been a bad influence). 

So what it boils down to (in keeping with our metaphor) is this. The pot lid now does double duty: It saves energy and time by concentrating heat in a small space, and it saves energy and time by acting as a plate/bowl. I think I should expect the same thing from all the other "stuff" in my house. If it doesn't chop, slice, dice, and so much more, I don't want it. If it has to be maintained, repaired, and handled with kid gloves, I don't want it. Unfortunately, I've spent the last three years, The Time of Troubles, engaging in retail therapy. So I find myself with a lot of one-trick ponies that have fled to the far fields in need of rooting out and then retiring (from me and onto someone else with the best sales pitch of all time: "ABSOLUTELY FREE!"). And not just in the kitchen but everywhere else. The vanity in the bedroom will learn tricks from the ramen pot, or I'm kicking it to the curb because I do not even use it to put on makeup. 

And before you go all Norman-Rockwell nostalgic on me, remember that in the scene I described earlier, a sister and brother shared a humble meal, and she generously gave him the bowl to eat out of. While that is fiction, it's so much more true and meaningful than a huge family gathering with all the china, silverware, and serving dishes that are used, at most, three times a year and need to be washed before and after the big event. You know, those events where you'd like to crawl across the table and choke your mother-in-law? The ones where you excuse yourself to mix a vodka martini in the bathroom, pouring it into a Nalgene container and declaring that your New Year's resolution is drinking more water? Where you watch everyone sleeping to the rhythms of American football and wish you were in a hot lava field? Yeah, Norman-freaking-Rockwell moments. 

Also, no matter how Zen someone tries to convince me the washing o' the dishes is...I'm sorry, it just isn't. My meditation on washing the dishes goes like this: "I hate washing dishes. Who dirtied this cup? Oh, The Hubs. Two sandwich plates? Where did those come from? Oh, The Hubs. Did I use all these forks? Oh, no. The Hubs. You know what I'd like to be doing instead of washing the dishes right now? Killing The Hubs." And The Hubs will laugh at this because I know he's thinking the same thing about me every time he washes the dishes. So let's do ourselves a favor. Let's find clever ways to avoid dishwashing. Let's save lives and eat out of the pot lid! 

Post Script: The Watch. I know you're thinking it does only does one thing. Actually, it doesn't even do that. I took out the battery and set it to the time of my father's death, preferring my phone for telling the time. Yet the watch serves two very important purposes: 1) It exists to be beautiful, and 2) It exists to remind me, like the Metaphor of the Pot Lid, that time is fleeting. I really don't want to spend it washing dishes. 



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