In Bryan Washington’s acclaimed debut novel, Memorial, Benson and Mike, a couple living in Houston, are going through a rocky patch in their relationship. Mike leaves to take care of his sick father in Osaka, just as his mother comes from Osaka to visit — which leaves her stuck with Benson instead. Each character’s personal progression unfolds alongside their changing approaches to food and cooking. But like a recipe that keeps evolving, the story resists simple answers. In this episode, Bryan explains why he finds food such a useful literary tool, and how its role in his characters’ lives mimics its role in his own. He also reads from two of his non-fiction essays from The New Yorker: “Bread Pudding and the Comforts of Queer Baking” and “An Adopted Obsession with Soondubu Jjigae, Korean Silken-Tofu Stew.”
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Star Shooting Light" by Hayley Briasco
- "Sugar and Spice" by Hayley Briasco
- "Feel Real Good" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Dance Hall" by Hans Erickson
- "Rooftop" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Dailey Hubbard.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
Dan Pashman: You’ve said that in high school, you preferred reading cookbooks over acclaimed literature. Why?
Bryan Washington: Because the narrative portions in cookbooks were significantly shorter, at least in the ones I was reading.
Dan Pashman: This is writer Bryan Washington. His debut novel, Memorial, was named one of Time Magazine’s Must Read Books of 2020. He often uses food to show you what’s happening between characters. It’s sort of an unspoken language. And while he hasn’t written any cookbooks, he’s always taken inspiration from them.
Bryan Washington: So, we had a lot of cookbooks on hand at home. And I would just make my way through those because you could just be in and out and you’d make your way through the entirety of a narrative arc in 800-1200 words, which I think is like the peak of technical achievement to take a reader, take your audience through a myriad of emotions in that short of a timespan.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. It’s that time of year. I want to hear your New Year’s Food Resolutions. How has the pandemic affected what you want to eat in the new year? What’s the first thing you’re gonna eat when things get closer to normal, which will hopefully be some time next year? Or maybe it’s just the recipe you’ve been meaning to cook. Here’s what you do: Record a voice memo. Tell me your name and where you’re from, then tell me: What food do you resolve to eat more of in the new year, and why? Send me the voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could hear yourself in our year end spectacular. OK, let’s get into the show.
Dan Pashman: Bryan Washington has written fiction and non-fiction for a wide range of outlets, from The New Yorker and The Paris Review, to BuzzFeed and Bon Appetit. He’s 27. Last year, he was a National Book Award 5 Under 35 honoree. A big chunk of his work focuses on Black, queer stories and what it means to live in a place, like Houston, where Bryan’s from, or Osaka, Japan, where he’s traveled extensively. But there’s another common thread throughout a lot of his writing, food. Now, Bryan didn’t set out with that plan. But he clearly loves to eat. He tracked a week of meals around Houston for Grub Street and he’s clearly the type of person that you could drop him in any neighborhood and he’d be like, “Oh there’s a great spot right over here.”
Dan Pashman: He grew up cooking out of necessity. He was a latchkey kid. But he also cooked for pleasure and comfort, for himself and the people closest to him. Food was a way to connect. When he started writing, it became a tool.
Bryan Washington: I think that there's an intentionality and the character's preparing a meal. Right? If you're cooking, then there is an outcome that you're cooking toward. Regardless of whether it's a Kaiseki meal, whether it's like a grilled cheese sandwich, like there is a desired end point that you're reaching toward. And there's an arc from just the inception of thought of wanting to cook a meal and to preparing it and to ultimately sharing it or not sharing it. Right? Like that is the entire arc. And there's like a narrative within that arc and as a device for telling stories I don't know that I have found something as just structurally useful, as the cooking of meals and as the sharing of meals to tell many different tiny stories within the sort of larger thing that I'm trying to play with the sort of larger question that I'm trying to answer. Even just thinking of like the architecture of like the setting of a story, like there are only so many rooms where people share space that every character passes through it at some point in the day. Right? Like a kitchen is one of those spaces. At some point, like every character, every person in that particular unit is going to pass through the kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Bryan Washington: And the question of like why and who they're with and how is a story.
Dan Pashman: Now rather than tell you any more about Bryan or his work, I want to show you, in depth. So in this episode, he’ll read several extended passages from his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and we’ll chat in between. So let’s start with an excerpt from one of Bryan’s personal essays from The New Yorker. It’s entitled, Bread Pudding and the Comforts of Queer Baking.
The American South is indisputably a bread pudding capital. On my block, no one had any real money, but for bread pudding, you didn't need it. Everyone kept bread in her pantry. It didn't need to be fresh. Even better if it wasn't. Stale bread sopped up more batter giving the pudding a forgiving crunch. Some cream, a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon, and a handful of basic utensils, and you've orchestrated a minor symphony of sweetness. It's comforting to know that you can take an armful of leftovers and create something that'll change your whole fucking day. But I honestly couldn't tell you the first time I made bread pudding on my own. I know that the first rounds were a gooey, lumpy mishmash. The filling wasn't nearly as sweet as it needed to be. My parents accepted their kid’s new ambition as a half-assed baker, and their friends accepted it, too. At cookouts and watch parties where they nursed Red Stripes and Shiner's. None of us had a lexicon for the queerness that I was already by then well aware would come to define me. We stayed silent on that front, filling the void with damn near anything else: football, school, driving lessons. But it didn't cost anything emotionally to take a bite of pudding. So I kept baking for the rest of my years at home, until I moved out to find my own. And the dish became creamier or sumptuous, preferably laced with white chocolate and doused with a sauce of condensed milk. Bread pudding was the first thing that I baked after I came out to my parents. One batch for myself because holy fuck. And later one for my mother, scalding and soaked in coconut milk, splashed with rum. A few weeks after that, I made another for my father, sans the alcohol, but with an extra sprinkling of sugar. That same evening, I baked one for my boyfriend, an older dude, and we ate it in bed, sick to our stomachs, grinning and with sticky fingers. There's something to be said about the role of queer bakers. We often end up providing comfort to those who may not have given it to us. Bread pudding was a dessert that I cooked a few months back for family members whom I hadn't seen in ages. And it made sense that we'd seek the certainty, given the tentative relationships we were wading through, but before they'd even drop their jackets, we were already cutting slices, dribbling sauce into each bowl.
Dan Pashman: First off, Bryan, I mean, I love bread pudding. I love your description of it. I feel like there are not that many desserts out there where there's such a wide range of, of course, there's different flavors. But even beyond the flavors and the seasonings and the preparations, like to what degree it's going to be bread versus pudding? Even that's an open question. So what do you think is the ideal texture of bread pudding?
Bryan Washington: That's a really good question. It really depends on who I'm cooking it for. I mean, if I'm cooking it for myself, then I don't mind eating it fairly immediately out of the oven. But as of late, if I'm cooking it for friends, which I've been doing lately, just cooking desserts and pastries and just sort of like dropping them off, like, I'll cook it the evening before and I'll allow it to solidify overnight.
Dan Pashman: I feel like I want it mostly soft and creamy, but I do want some texture. I want some bits in there.
Bryan Washington: Yeah, I definitely want some texture. I mean, as of late I've been working with coffee flavor, still trying to figure out how much of it you can have before it really overpowers like the chocolate...
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Bryan Washington: Or like it overpowers like the actual dessert.
Dan Pashman: Oh, my God. This is making me really want bread pudding.
Bryan Washington: It's good.
Dan Pashman: I got the impression from from one interview that you did that you maybe didn't really intend to write so much about food. It's not like you chose and set out to it, but it kind of ended up that way. I'm curious, why do you think it ended up that way? What does it say about your relationship with food, that it ended up being a significant part of your work?
Bryan Washington: I think that when I started cooking in middle school, it was just something that I did because I could do it. And it was something that brought, you know, even a little bit of pleasure to the folks around me and folks that I cared about. But very early on in, you know, my sort of hodgepodge writing tenure, I had opportunities to write about food. And it served as a vehicle for me to write about other things. So I think it's really rare to have, like, a thing that you don't quite mind returning to and has a sort of elasticity that you're able to talk about other themes, talk about other subjects while still returning to that foundation.
Dan Pashman: Bryan’s first book, Lot, was a collection of short stories. Last month he released his first novel, Memorial, and it’s getting a lot of attention. The book follows the story of two men, Benson and Mike, in a relationship that’s falling apart. The guys are living together, fighting all the time, on the verge of a break up. Then two things happen, Mike’s mother arrives from Japan to visit. And at the same time, Mike leaves. He finds out his estranged father in Japan is dying, so he flies there to be with him. This leaves Mike’s Japanese mother, Mitsuko, in Houston with his Black maybe soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Benson, for who knows how long. Most of the story proceeds on these two parallel tracks. Benson and Mitsuko in Houston, Mike and his father in Osaka. Let’s hear Bryan read an excerpt from the story, written from Benson’s perspective. Again, Benson is now in this weird situation where he has to look after his boyfriend’s mother, Mitsuko.
Mitsuko's chewing vitamins when I make it back to the apartment and I'm ducking toward the bedroom when she calls my name. Can you cook a chicken, she says. You mean boil it, I said. I meant what I said. Like frying wings? Absolutely not, says Mitsuko. Come here. She's more comfortable in Mike's kitchen than I've ever been. He'd arranged everything to his liking, but Mitsuko's reorganized all of it, everything in the drawers, all of the ladles and spatulas and sticks. The bowls were a certain way and now they are not. It's entirely disorienting, but for once I can actually settle in. Mitsuko grabs a chicken by one leg, balancing the other with a cleaver. In one fluid motion, she slices it entirely in half. Jesus fuck, I say. Quiet, says Mitsuko. She proceeds to break down the carcass bone by bone, stuffing the remains in a pot on the stove for stock. When she's finished clipping the fat, Mitsuko shakes each limb with a flick of her wrist. Her seasonings are lined up, she dowses the meat in what looks like a pool of salt. But she doesn't say shit about it, and eventually she pirouettes to the side, flinging the chicken into a pan. It sizzles like a sheet of rain. If I were at home, I would have marinated this, says Mitsuko. But I'm not at home. Once she's finished and the meat’s cooked Mitsuko sets two bowls on the table, which is new. I sit across from her. We eat mostly in silence. Did you get that? Says Mitsuko. Well, I say, bits and pieces. She looks me over, a little cooly. That's all right, she says. But you're going to learn. You have to, she adds.
Dan Pashman: That was great. Thank you. What exactly do you think Mitsuko is hoping Bensen will learn?
Bryan Washington: That's a really good question. I think there are a couple of arcs for Mike and Ben throughout the book. And for Ben specifically, I think that he's ultimately someone who learns to speak up for himself and to quantify what he wants and Mitsuko like sees that this is something that he can do and something that he perhaps wants to do, even if he—Bensen can't or won't articulate it that way. Each of the characters had their—something that I was pretty intentional about, was giving each character like a cooking arc, specifically for what characters were cooking and when they cooked it and why they cooked it, because I wanted it to have—every meal that they shared with one another and every meal that they prepared for one another, I wanted it to have a point. And for Benson, his arc was from someone who is a bit mystified at the fact of scrambled eggs, that someone can not only crack and egg but cook it to someone who by the end of the novel is cooking in tandem with his partner. Where they're cooking croquettes with one another. And in a book that in a lot of ways it's really punctuated by the silence that is shared between characters, as much as what they're saying. Also, like what they're not saying. It was important to me to find different ways that characters could fill those silences, whether it was through texting, whether it was they're sending one an other other pictures, but particularly through cooking. So as the book progresses and as Ben's culinary repertoire grows, it's another language that he's able to utilize to say what he wants or how he feels or how he would like the folks around him to feel, to make them feel better, to give them warmth, to give them comfort. And I think that that's not something that he has at the beginning of the book. But I think it's something that Mitsuko sees could be useful to him and for him in a lasting way. And that is something that she gives him, frankly, even if neither of them would say it or articulate it as such.
Dan Pashman: You talked about how every character you wanted them to have sort of a food arc within the story, and you said that you were even—when you read in this book, you cooked just about every meal that any character cooks. Why was it important for you to do that?
Bryan Washington: It was essential in a lot of ways purely because there are so many unspoken actions and unspoken movements in the text between characters and their respective interactions. Like I needed to know if it was possible for someone at various skill levels to cook something and also sometimes to have a conversation like can you cook and be thinking and trying to figure out, given their respective technical skill levels, what can they do with that language, like what can they actually say. Right? So Mitsuko was able to say a number of things through the food that she cooks in the comfort that she's providing, whereas Benson is learning not only what he wants to say through cuisine and through the meals he's creating, but also like how to say it. Like he just doesn't know, but he learns. Whereas Mike is someone who's someone who is learning how to listen. Right? And learning how to intuit what the folks around him need and want, in particular when they haven’t expressed that or if perhaps they don’t see it themselves. So, his arc in a lot of ways is parallel to Ben’s.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we’ll hear more about the role of food in Benson and Mike’s relationship. And Bryan tells us about the stew that hijacked his taste buds. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Hey, if you’re not hungry now, you're gonna be after you listen to last week’s episode. OK? I talk with Jose Ralat, who is the taco editor of Texas Monthly magazine. Yes, taco editor. This fall they’re dropping their special taco issue, which only comes out once every five years. Jose takes us on the road with him as he travels the state looking for tacos worthy of inclusion
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): We are driving to Valentina's Tex-Mex BBQ. [Siri talking in the background] There is Siri! Anyway, we're coming to grab some of the best BBQ breakfast tacos available.
Dan Pashman: That taco hunt is one of Jose’s missions. But as you’ll hear, he has another, bigger one: To show the world that Tex-Mex is as legit as any Mexican food, and that tacos in America deserve respect
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): I would put up that barbacoa taco against any other analogous taco across the state.
Dan Pashman: As we say in the episode, tacos didn’t cross the border. The border crossed tacos. That one's up now, check it out. OK, back to my conversation with writer Bryan Washington, whose debut novel Memorial came out last month. As I said for most of the story the two main characters, Benson and Mike, are apart. Ben is at home in Houston with Mike’s mother. Mike is in Osaka with his dying father. The story exposes a lot of conflict, often unspoken. But there’s kindness in the way the characters share meals. Bryan says that’s something he’s felt when eating in both places where the story is set, Houston and Osaka.
Bryan Washington: There is a warmth and a generosity that I have experienced personally in both of those cities that I thought was really interesting to parse through. And I think it's like any time you experience, you know, the generosity of other folks, it's a bit remarkable. And it's a gift that, like, no one really owes you anything yet for them to give you not only their time, but their kindness seems like a very significant thing. And Houston and Osaka, like in a lot of ways, couldn't be more different as far as cities are concerned but that warmth and generosity connected them.
Dan Pashman: Benson and Mike move through the novel separately, in these two cities. But their back story together, and the issues in their relationship, are filled in through flashbacks. Here’s Bryan reading an excerpt, heads up that this contains some graphic material and explicit language. It’s written from Benson’s perspective.
One day, Mike cooked me a meal and I told him I hated it. I said that just to say it. Just to see what would happen. We’d fought that afternoon about nothing, about money. He told me I couldn't understand because I'd grown up with, because my parents had. We lived in a box, said Mike. Slapped with fucking roaches on our fucking faces. We didn't fucking dine out on fucking Elgin. My folks couldn't be fucking frivolous. You don't know what you're talking about, I said, although really he did. And that conversation ended that the only way that it could have. With fucking, hastily, half clothed on the counter, because we just didn't have the words. He'd cooked a pork stew. You could smell it from around the block. I took one sip and sort of frowned and told him it wasn't for me. In the end, we both stood bare by the kitchen counter. Mike smiled, real wide, like he was going to cry. I couldn't help but apologize.
Dan Pashman: You know, so we talked, Bryan, about the idea that often in your work, there are people who are struggling to communicate, express themselves through words, and so they do it through food. This seems to be one of the few moments I could find where the expression is a rejection of food. Was that intentional? And like, why is this moment different from the other moments where food is used for the opposite effect?
Bryan Washington: It was deeply intentional, and I think that it felt important to me to have, even if it's only a handful, a handful of instances in which that transaction didn't quite work or it didn't quite play out the way either party intended.
Dan Pashman: And by it, you mean using food to help communicate feelings?
Bryan Washington: Yeah. Because I mean, I think it's an open ended question. And while, you know, the novel may lean predominantly on the side of like. "Yes, like this is a way to bring folks together," I don't think that it's a "yes" without qualifications or like a "yes" without like eight different asterisks, depending on the context in which the transaction is taking place. And I felt important to include.
Dan Pashman: I think now you have a good sense of how Bryan uses food in Memorial, and in a lot of his other work. Now I want to turn from his fictional characters, back to his personal essays, like the bread pudding piece. The things he’s written about himself. Let’s hear him read another essay, this one’s longer, so get comfortable. But I think it’ll help tie together a lot of the themes we’ve covered. It’s called An Adopted Obsession with Soondubu Jjigae, Korean Silken-Tofu Stew.
I first tasted gochugaru because of a boy. We were in a busted strip mall just west of Houston's I-610 loop. A lot of things are changing in my life and I hadn't been home—home, home in a minute. And we were too broke to go most places. But in the Korean restaurants across Bellaire Boulevard, we could afford to eat and to eat well. So we did that gluttonously, unapologetically posting up around Chimney Rock Road and Dashwood and 5th street and occasionally farther north on Bissonnet, scarfing pajeon and kakdugi and sambap and hae-jang guk—scallion pancakes, radish kimchi, lettuce wraps, and hangover soup. But the soondubu jjigae did something singular to me. It’s a stew of soft tofu, served in a spicy anchovy broth and sometimes embellished with meat or seafood. The gochugaru is the thing: bright-red fermented chile flakes, tangy and scalding and sweet all at once. It hijacked my taste buds. But, when I asked my dude about it, he just shrugged. He’s Korean. He’d grown up with this. It was whatever. I knew I’d reacted similarly when I’d introduced him to the city’s one acceptable Jamaican jerk spot: Yo, that’s just how it tastes. You jerk the chicken. You end up with jerk chicken. But now, standing on the other side, the nonchalance seemed absurd. How could anyone not be excited about soondubu jjigae? The heat echoed the flavors that I’d grown up with and contorted them.My guy cooked it himself from time to time, cracking an egg into steaming liquid, watching as it settled into solidity. Eventually, after we split—blah, blah—I started bugging him for the recipe. But he told me that his process changed every time. Depended on his mood. I was a decent home cook. But this seemed entirely over my head.So I started frequenting those same Korean diners on my own, a little fanatically, and the women who worked there just sort of cocked their heads at me. Their strip-mall restaurants weren’t exactly inundated with black dudes dining solo. Then again, my presence wasn’t totally fucking weird. We lived in Houston, where everyone eats everything. Once, a restaurant owner stood by me while I ate her stew, just watching and smiling. At home, using books like Sohui Kim’s Korean Home Cooking, I cooked stews, minced garlic. Read about blending the flavors, combining chilies and anchovies until the spice bloomed the way that I liked, simmering until the heat of the red pepper was present without screaming. It was a privilege, I guess, growing to care so deeply about something that had nothing to do with my life. Only now it did. I was overdue for a visit home, and I got it into my head to make a spread for my family. I went home. Hugged everyone. To minimal fanfare, I prepared my meal, starting with a stir-fry of fish cakes and serrano chilies, and ending with the tofu stew. While my family members watched college football, my mother took a moment to process the scene. Her wayward, weirdo son, first shacking up with other mothers’ sons, now cooking dishes from an ocean away. But again, it’s Houston. Her features softened as she watched me cook. We talked about the recipes. Our time apart collapsed. Grievances receded. We were just in the kitchen, the two of us, and, when my mother finally took a bite of the soondubu jjigae, she told me she’d have to learn to make it, too. She asked how I’d learned, and I started to explain, but I couldn’t tell her. The same way no one could really tell me. I’d at least learned that much. So I told my mother that I’d show her sometime. We’d try to figure it out.
Dan Pashman: So we've talked a bit about the role of food and kind of bridging divides or communicating unspoken feelings in your fiction. It's hard not to see food playing a similar role in these personal essays that are more autobiographical. Is it fair to say that there's something—that there's an autobiographical dynamic there?
Bryan Washington: It's not unfair to say. You know, I think that that is probably the most tangible connection between the sort of memoir pieces that I've written and the fiction itself in that while there's very little one to one correlation between myself and the characters that I write about. Although every time I say that, someone I know fucking like points to something. They'd be like, "Actually, you worked at an aftercare place too. Like, you're basically Benson," and I'm like, "No, I’m not." But in a lot of ways, the fiction that I've been lucky to get to write is another way of really prodding why it matters so much to me to spend time in these cuisines and these particular spaces. And also to play with that sort of question of like, what does that do to you as a person? And also like what does it do for you as a person? And if perhaps I'm not able to contextualize it for myself, I can do that through fiction and see the different ways it unfolds for various characters.
Dan Pashman: So Bryan continues to explore connections to food, in his fiction and in his most personal work. He says he likes the fact that both cooking and writing are opportunities for continual growth. You can always make changes, always improve or modify depending on the situation. It’s not about arriving at a definitive end point.
Bryan Washington: I don't know that the market is particularly rewarding for narratives that are operating outside of binaries or that are perhaps not terribly prescriptive or definitive about people, places and things, but that is not what I'm interested in doing.
Dan Pashman: Right. I mean, that's one of the things that I like about your work, is it's clear that you...yeah. You don't want simple characters and neat and tidy endings.
Bryan Washington: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Even though I know those things are easier in an elevator pitch.
Bryan Washington: It would be significantly easier. You say that, OK, it's a love story and they end up together at the end. You know?
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. Right. Right. They ate this chicken and then everything was solved.
Bryan Washington: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. And then they saw that, you know, they belong together forever. Like this Thanksgiving dinner, Hallmark movie, which is lovely to watch and to experience but...
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. And then it reminded me of my parents that I made up with them and everyone lived happily ever after.
Bryan Washington: Yeah. Yeah. We're all like cool now, because of this Thanksgiving dinner.
Dan Pashman: That’s Bryan Washington. His new novel is called Memorial. It's out now. Next week on the show I talk with the one and only, Levar Burton, of Reading Rainbow fame. He will read recipes written in poem form because everything he reads sounds amazing. By the way, you see what we’re doing here? Last week we did Texas tacos. We followed the Texas connection this week to Houstonian Bryan Washington, a writer. Next week, we keep it literary with LeVar Burton. This is like some freeform jazz level shit here, people. Anyway, get psyched for next week, I promise afterwards you’ll know LeVar Burton much better than you do now. In the meantime, there are three things I’d like you to do:
- Please send me your new year’s food resolutions! Record a voice memo on your cell phone. Tell me your name, where you’re from, then tell me what food you resolves to eat more of in the new year and why. Send it to me at email@example.com.
- Listen to last week’s episode with Texas Monthly taco editor José Ralat. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn a ton about tacos, and you’ll get really hungry.
- Have a Happy Thanksgiving.
I know this Holiday it weird and different. You may not be with the people you want to be with but I hope that you have good food and good company, whether in real life or virtually. So Happy Thanksgiving.