"Three wild Alaska lobsters, one for each." Amy announced the dinner plan,
admiring the giant rosy crustaceans snugged in plastic and foam as she laid them
out on the counter.
"You can have mine." came Bill's underwhelming answer from the other end of the
kitchen island. He was lunching on some steamed purple sweet potatoes.
It has been a typical exchange between them and if one replaces "Alaska
lobsters" with "King salmon filets" or "whole California dungeness crabs," one
gets another dialogue the two had at some other time. Often, he couldn't help
following up with an ad-hoc lecture, "Crave not for the precious and the rare
or, in Chinese, 不貴難得之貨," e.g., which only makes him more annoying.
In his late 40s, Bill started to delude himself. The future no longer held him
spell-bound anymore and he suspected that he had already experienced some of the
best life had to offer and only that he didn't realize at the time.
Take, for example, the soy sauce when he was in elementary school.
Everytime mom gave him 20 cents and the empty one-jin bottle, he would stroll
to the store two blocks down the street, present them to the shop keeper,
who would take the money, go to the corner, draw one ladle of the dark salty
liquid from an earthenware jar as tall as the boy, pour it through a wooden
funnel, and cork and give the bottle back to Bill.
Some years later and it might be when he was in college and unaware, the good
old one-stop soy sauce quietly died out. When he was reacquainted with the
essential condiments as he joined the workforce and started to cook his own
meals, he faced two kinds: light and dark (生抽 and 老抽, respectively), one
for salads and the other for braise and stir-fry. A designated bottle was no
longer needed as the liquid came in its own container. Everyone seemed to play
along. They didn't have to pretend the old had not existed; they just never
brought it up anymore. In the beginning, these changes felt innovative, upscale,
and maybe even one step forward in the process of civilization.
Soon, however, something felt missing: he had to keep track of two things
instead of one. It seemed trivial if occasionally annoying, e.g., in the middle
of cooking, he found out that the dish called for one soy sauce but he had only
the other on hand. He thought about mixing the two, just to keep things simple,
and even tried a couple of times to re-create his childhood flavor. It was a
classic Don Quixote move, the scoffers won in the end and he aborted the
These days, products from the soy sauce bloc, the eastern Asian countries, flood
store shelves, sea-fresh, organic, umami, etc., etc., and would silence the
finickest chef. The varieties are mind-boggling and the quest for the best, or
the fittest, could fry brains. It is hard to imagine what a mixture of all of
them would taste like. When he decides on one, Bill sometimes feels missed out on
the others: I wonder if I have made the right choice.
Over the years, Bill has become an avid bottle-collector. He could not bring
himself to throw away many well-made containers. "I'll reuse them." he would
explain to Amy who, suprisingly, agrees with him on this. They end up with a big
collection but rarely have the chance to reuse any.
Slowly, he detected a deep-seated hypocrisy in himself. He wanted the abundance,
but once he came into it he started to crave scarcity, or simplicity, as he
insisted. His dilemma with soy sauce appeared to be but one symptom. In the
freezing winter of Beijing, he used to dream about sunny California. But after
living in the golden state for many years, he fell addicted to videos from the
snow-bound northeast China. He was not as upset as he used to be, however, upon
finding himself inconsistent. The opposite of true is false, as some physicist*
mused, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
* Niels Bohr