We asked for your stories about broken dishes, and you delivered. This week, we wonder why everyone seems to be breaking so much stuff. Dan's math says it's not just that we're home more, so it might be because we're using our homes in different ways. Right now, your kitchen might also be your office or a classroom for your kids. We also hear the personal stories behind some of your most treasured items. Cartoonist Liana Finck, whose work you might have seen in The New Yorker or on Instagram, tells us about the special significance of two items that were recently broken in her home. She even drew the cartoon that's featured above!
Plus, listener Karen Jones shares a story about a teacup that she broke and then repaired with a Japanese technique called kintsugi:
Then, Mandy Lee of the "angry food blog" Lady and Pups joins us to discuss her mad scientist approach in the kitchen (Mexican bibimbap? Marshmallow scallion popovers?) and her new cookbook, The Art of Escapism Cooking. Are some foods better for distracting yourself during tough times? Mandy has the answers, because she spent years rarely leaving her home in Beijing, using cooking as a way to channel her anger and frustration. It helped her get through a difficult period in her life, but she also realized that her obsession with cooking became unhealthy.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Mars Casino" by Jake Luck and Collin Weiland
-"Sun So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
-"Mouse Song Light" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
-"Dilly Dally" by Black Label Productions
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
-"Shake and Bake" by Hayley Briasco
Illustration courtesy of Liana Finck. Photos courtesy of Karen Jones and Mandy Lee.
CLIP (RENEE COHEN): My name is Renee. I moved in with my aunt, uncle and two cousins in our family home on the Jersey Shore
CLIP (LEANA COHEN): My name is Leana. Renee is my cousin.
CLIP (RENEE COHEN): Since I`ve into this home with my aunt and uncle, I think we've broken four crystal drinking glasses, a coffee pot, a pyrex measuring cup and a wall hanging.
CLIP (RENEE COHEN): Since the beginning of us quarantining together, maybe the first or second week, me, Leana and my uncle were in the kitchen. And my uncle noticed that our water cooler was dripping water and so he was shouting for someone to come over to give him something for him to fill and patch the leak in. And he started shouting, "The coffee pot! Get the coffee pot!" Leana goes to get the coffee pot and it's one of those classic office pots and it's glass.
CLIP (LEANA COHEN): And when he turned around from the hand off to then start bailing out the top of the water cooler, it just shattered kind of like in a spray of water as glass.
CLIP (LEANA COHEN):We just froze, completely. Water was still running out, like glass was everywhere. The router was on the ground next to the water...
CLIP (RENEE COHEN): Which was my number one concern because our router is our only lifeline to the world right now. And so I was shouting, "Move the router! Move the router! Put it somewhere else." And my uncle was like, "The coffee pot! The coffee pot!" And then finally, my uncle, I thought he was going to get something to clean up the glass or clean up the water but he's actually just frantically looking through cabinets and like trying if we have another coffee machine that he could make coffee with. So I tip toe over, move the router to the top of the window sill, and the glass is still shattered on the ground. My uncle finally finds an old coffee percolator and is like hugging it.
CLIP (LEANA COHEN): Oh my God.
CLIP (RENEE COHEN): "Coffee, we have coffee." And finally, we cleaned up the glass, cleaned up the water. I was like, "Okay, we care about our coffee first, our wifi second, and I guess health and safety. Yeah.
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. Now, later in the show I'm gonna talk with food blogger and cookbook author Mandy Lee about the art of escapism cooking, which is something I think a lot of us are doing right now. But first, I hope you’re doing okay out there and staying safe. Things on my end are going really as well as possible.
Dan Pashman: I cannot complain but I have noticed some collateral damage during this pandemic, that’s not being talked about: broken dishes. I have been breaking so much stuff. I broke two bowls while washing them, they were just slippery with soap and flew out of my hands. Pretty standard, I guess. But I broke a metal spoon in half trying to dig some very frozen ice cream out of a pint. It was a Tony the Tiger souvenir spoon, I think it was actually plastic in the center, but still I must have been digging very hard. The craziest one was that I snapped the handle off a coffee mug just holding it. Broke it apart in my hands like I’m the Incredible Hulk. Now, before you stats nerds start emailing me and telling me, well it's just because I'm home more, I have crunched the numbers. I would say that I am breaking one thing per week on average. And I would also estimate that I'm eating twice as many meals at home as I normally would. So, if the only explanation was just that I'm just home more, then that would mean that in normal times I would break one thing every other week. And that is not the case. I break probably one thing, I would estimate, every six to eight weeks. So I don’t think the fact that I’m cooking and eating at home more fully accounts for the spike in breakage. And I wanted to know if I’m the only one with this issue. I put out the call, and as it turns out, I’m not.
CLIP (CATHERINE): Hey Sporkful. My name is Catherine, I'm calling from Napa Valley, California about how I keep breaking my plates.
CLIP (ELLEN): My name is Ellen. I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee.
CLIP (LAURA): This is Laura in New Jersey.
CLIP (ANDREW): 04:10 Hi, it's Andrew from Toronto and I broke a dish.
CLIP (MICKEY): Hi, this is Mickey and I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I feel like I'm dropping things constantly.
CLIP (ANDREW): I had finished frying some eggs, picked up the pan, wasn't paying attention and I put my plate down on the hot stove and it shattered.
CLIP (LAURA): My husband tried to make kombucha and pour boiling tea mixture into a glass serving pitcher that immediately cracked.
CLIP (ELLEN): My husband has broken two coffee pots within a week, even though I'm the only one who actually drinks coffee in our house.
CLIP (CATHERINE): I've had the set of Ikea dishware for five years now and I've never broken a dish. But in the past week, I've broken two different dishes. Two of them by dropping something from a great height on top of them.
CLIP (MICKEY): I smashed a glass pyrex bowl, two of those boden lined coffee cups have cracked and died me. Am I tired? Distracted? Frustrated? Punchy? Hangry?
CLIP (CATHERINE): I'm first, I don't know. It's a weird time to be alive, you guys.
CLIP (LAURA): I think pretty soon, we're heading for paper plates. and paper cups.
CLIP (PERSON): I haven't broken any dishes but last week I did find a block of cheese in the napkin drawer.
Dan Pashman: So what’s going on here? Well, Reesa, a listener in Baltimore, Maryland, is a child psychotherapist. She says, maybe we all just have a lot on our minds now. When we’re more absent-minded, we’re more likely to break things. Which, yeah, I mean I'm already absent minded but I left my wallet on the passenger seat of my car, parked on the street in front of my house for four days. You know what I left sitting there next to my wallet? The keys to the car. Another theory on the broken dishes, we’re all on edge. Right? Our bodies are tensed up. I have a permanent sore spot in my neck, like I slept funny, but it doesn’t go away. So maybe I’ve been gripping dishes tighter. Maggie, a listener in Napa, California, wrote in. She’s a rock climber. She says that when you’re on a long climb and you get higher and higher up, your primal fear kicks in. One result of that, is that you unconsciously grip the rocks tighter and tighter. It’s called overgripping. And You have to fight that instinct or you’ll wear yourself out before you get to the top. Maggie started doing exercises, tensing her hands and releasing them to help her learn to relax her grip. So maybe we all need to do grip workouts before we start a marathon dishwashing session.
Dan Pashman: One more possibility? There was a study years ago that showed that there are more traffic accidents on Election Day. And one theory about why is that you have a lot of people driving new routes, breaking their routines. It’s not just that we’re in our kitchens more. Our kitchens are now our offices, or our kids’ classrooms. We’re out of our grooves. So what do we do about all these broken dishes? Karen Jones is a listener in Portland, OR. She’s a food and prop stylist, so at photo and video shoots, she makes sure the food looks beautiful.
Karen Jones: I like to say that it’s makeup and wardrobe for food talent.
Dan Pashman: Right, exactly. That makes sense. Yeah, for sure.
Karen Jones: Yeah, so over the years I've collected plates, bowls, dishes, all kinds of things. I have a large assortment.
Dan Pashman: Karen estimates she has more than a hundred sets of dishware, all different styles for all kinds of photo and video shoots. She likes collecting them. She recently visited Hawaii, where she’s from. She brought back a vintage Japanese teacup from her trip.
Karen Jones: And almost as soon as I got it here, I dropped it and broke it. So I was not happy about that. And I had been looking forward to using it.
Dan Pashman: Karen says she also dropped a couple of plates during quarantine. Each time she broke something, she piled the pieces on her kitchen counter. After a few days of this, she decided to do something with those pieces.
Karen Jones: My mother's family is from Japan. And there's this Japanese tradition of repairing broken ceramics, that's called kintsugi and it means, golden repair. And bring fresh out of gold dust and lacquer, which are the traditional means of repairing these broken ceramics, I used this glue called Sugru and I put the tea cup and plates back together. And so they're not broken anymore. Maybe they're not perfect, maybe they're not the same as they were but they are put together and they have a whole different kind of beauty in themselves.
Dan Pashman: Alright, I like that. You're making me wish that I put back together the mug that broke.
Karen Jones: Yeah. [laughs]
Dan Pashman: We’ll post a photo of Karen’s repaired teacup at sporkful.com. I do kinda wish I had put my mug back together, I don’t know why that didn’t even occur to me. The mug was from a radio show I produced early in my career called Morning Sedition. It was a comedic news show. This was like 15 years ago, it was my first real job in radio. I made a lot of friends working on that show. I learned a lot. Now the mug was all faded, you could barely see the logo on it anymore. So on one hand, I feel like the mug was on it's last leg and I still have my memories from that time. I still have my friends. That's what matters, right? The mug breaking doesn’t change that. But holding a thing from your past in your hand, knowing it was there with you back then, it’s a connection to a time or place or person. When that thing breaks, it feels like that connection is lost. I guess it’s time to get a new mug.
Dan Pashman: When I started talking about broken dishes, I got an email from cartoonist Liana Finck. You might have seen her drawings in The New Yorker or on Instagram, where she recently had a drawing of a figure that to me looks a bit like one of the ghosts from Pac Man. And it's saying, “Maybe I hate you. Or maybe I’m just not answering your emails. You’ll never know!” Well, I did answer Liana’s email because I don’t hate her, and we set up a time to chat.
Dan Pashman: Hey Liana.
Liana Finck: Hey Dan.
Dan Pashman: So you've been breaking some dishes?
Liana Finck: Been breaking some dishes. Always breaks some dishes but I've been breaking so many dishes that I was actually worried that I had some kind of brain disease. I was glad to hear that you are also breaking dishes.
Dan Pashman: Unless, we both have the same disease.
Liana Finck: Could be.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about some of the things you've broken?
Liana Finck: The dish that's incredibly important to me, I have four of them. They are dishes I grew up with. They're very pretty and brightly colored. I'd been cooking with my boyfriend and I think he was seasoning something and I was plating the food and also washing the dishes. And we were kind of dancing around each other and I turn around and I see the dish with food on it, mid-air, and I knocked it off. I had it balanced on the stove, cause there was nowhere else to leave it and it had flown into the air and it fell and broke.
Dan Pashman: So, do you remember what was going through your head at the moment that the plate was mid air, before it hit the ground? What was your instant first thought?
Liana Finck: Yeah. My thought was, "I'm not going to be able to catch that," and I didn't try. But maybe I could have? Maybe if I was more of an optimist and hopeful person, I would have tried and would have caught it.
Dan Pashman: I know that you said you grew up with this plate. Do you have a more specific association? Do you connect it with something specific from your childhood that makes it especially meaningful?
Liana Finck: My parents got it just as they were getting married. I lived alone in Manhattan for a while, after college in a small apartment. And I used these. And then later, I lived with roommates and I hid these plates in a box because I didn't want my roommates to break them, ironically. And I kept wondering where they were. Now that I live alone again and I've been looking for them for years and I found them in my basement. They were in a box of my old art and I was so happy to have found them. I found them, probably three months ago or 6 months ago. And I wish I hadn't because I broke one.
Dan Pashman: Yes. I mean I'm sorry to hear that you broke one. But I also feel like also, you know, the idea of saving something that was designed to be used...
Liana Finck: Yeah...
Dan Pashman: And not using it because you don't want it to break—like if it's in a box somewhere and you're getting any pleasure from it.
Liana Finck: I wish I just saved it until I had—because now I've broken about like ten things in the past month. And I have had an intervention. Things are going to change. I wish I had saved them until after the intervention, until I got a lot more careful with plates.
Dan Pashman: I bought this bottle of Cherry Marnier, which is like Grand Marnier but cherry flavored. A neighbor of mine, who I didn't even know, died and they had an estate sale. And I found a bottle of Cherry Marnier that the bottle—the outside of the bottle is entirely covered in red velvet.
Liana Finck: Wow.
Dan Pashman: I thought that it was so cool. The bottle was so cool. I looked it up online, it's probably from the 60's or 70s. This person died with a full bottle of liquor in their house, that they had been sitting on for 50 years. That just felt so sad to me.
Liana Finck: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Like think of all the fun times that could have come out of that bottle that you kept sealed.
Liana Finck: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And for what? Now you're dead.
Liana Finck: Maybe it's the last one? Maybe they had 80 and they drank 79 of them?
Dan Pashman: Right, and then died.
Liana Finck: You have to always leave one.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, yeah.
Liana Finck: Are you going to drink it?
Dan Pashman: Well, so here we are in quarantine and it's been sitting on my liquor cabinet. And I've been saying, "I'm gonna save it for a special occasion. I'm gonna save it for a special occasion." You know? And then, with other night, we're just like having Zoom cocktails with a couple friends and I was like, "You know what? Screw it. What am I waiting for?". I'm opening the Cherry Marnier. It gave my wife a real stomach ache.
Liana Finck: Oh God.
Dan Pashman: But I mixed it with tequila and La Croix...and I thought it was good. Did it blow my mind? No. I mean, you can buy fresh Cherry Marnier today. It just doesn't come in a velvet bottle. I don't know that liquor inside is really all that special. It's probably not even healthy to drink it at this point. I just was happy for the feeling of being like, I'm not gonna postpone joy. You know?
Liana Finck: Did you save the bottle?
Dan Pashman: Oh yeah. Oh, the bottle, I'm saving forever. I'll put some flowers in it or something. What else have you broken?
Liana Finck: I have these lovely Russel Wright plates and I chipped one of them washing plates. I have my grandma's plates, mostly now, and I chipped one.
Dan Pashman: I mean, obviously, you're home more. So you're using your dishes more but do you feel like there's another reason also why you're breaking more?
Liana Finck: My new theory is that I'm using rubbing alcohol a lot to clean my phone and other things. And my hands have a new consistency to them. They're kind of numb. They're kind of slippery dry? We usually stick a little but to the glass and we're not doing that anymore.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense. So Liana, when we were first emailing, you also said you broke a plate from an ex-boyfriend?
Liana Finck: Yeah. The one Christmas I ever did as a Jew, who most of my relationships have ended by me refusing to celebrate Christmas with, mind you, another Jew or a Hindu. I, finally, dated an actual Christian and I thought, "You deserve a Christmas. I will celebrate Christmas with you." And we gave each other gifts and I gave him a bottle of bourbon. Then he gave me a small gift with a lot of heart, which was a small plate with an owl on it. It was a great size. It was a little bitter than like a tiny snack plate but definitely smaller than a dinner plate and I ate my snacks on it, usually. It was one of those random things that could be throw away or could be nice and it was nice.
Dan Pashman: Is your current boyfriend aware that that was a plate that you got from your previous boyfriend?
Liana Finck: Yeah, but I think he knows. My current boyfriend knows that he's the ultimate boyfriend and he also broke something that he'd had with an ex-girlfriend. He broke a Gumby mug.
Dan Pashman: Do you see any significance in this, Liana, that you each broke something from an ex?
Liana Finck: I think we both see significance in it. It's kind of like, he'd been planning to move in here and he's now here a little bit sooner than planned. But we'd been planning to merge our plates and our cups and you need to get rid of some things in order to make room for new things.
Dan Pashman: Do you want to ask Scott if he sees the same significance in the breakage of the boyfriend plate and the Gumby cup?
Liana Finck: Yeah, can I put him on?
Dan Pashman: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
Liana Finck: Okay, one second. I'll ask him....Scott, do you want to be on a podcast?
Dan Pashman: Hi, nice to meet you.
Scott: Nice to meet you.
Dan Pashman: Scott, do you see significance in the fact that Liana broke a plate from an ex-boyfriend and you broke a mug from an ex-girlfriend, both around the same time.
Scott: Yeah, but I'm not sure how much of that is just because I'm kind of a nut. I held onto this mug because it was a mug that was symbolic of that time and place that was I was living. And when I dropped it—I don't ever break dishes but I broke that and I thought, "Well, this is just one of the things that I actually have to remind myself of this period, Should I glue it back together?", but I thought, "That would just be too weird because it would be like holding on to something that's over and why do that?"
Liana Finck: But I think part of why I didn't try to glue together my owl plate is that Scott had thrown away his Gumby mug, rather than trying to glue it back together. And it just didn't seem fair that one of us should hold on to an ex and the other one shouldn't.
Dan Pashman: So that does feel significant to me. Can I make a suggestion? When you're able, when life returns to some normalcy, Scott, you should buy Liana a plate. A small plate that's just the right size for snacking. And Liana, I think you should buy Scott a new mug.
Liana Finck: Okay, until that day, I think we're gonna have to make each other a plate and a mug of mud or something.
Dan Pashman: That’s cartoonist Liana Finck, her book of her drawings from Instagram is called Excuse Me. You should also follow her on Instagram, @lianafinck. That's F-I-N-C-K. And check this out! Liana did a special cartoon about broken dishes for this episode. Find it on my Instagram, @thesporkful. Coming up, the spike in broken dishes isn’t the only kitchen quarantine trend these days. A lot of people are turning to cooking for an escape, taking on the ambitious projects they didn’t have time for before. Well, food blogger Mandy Lee has been calling herself an escapist cook since way before Instagram got overrun with everyone’s sourdough starters. So what types of recipes are best for stress relief? I'll ask her. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. I got an email the other day from a listener named Laird who said, "I love your show, I thought signing up for your email newsletter would be overkill, but thank goodness I did because I just bought several of the books you recommended." You see in every newsletter all of us who work on the show tell you what we’re eating and reading. My latest recommendation is a piece in The Atlantic by a woman who works at a grocery store named Karleigh Brogan. It’s entitled, "Calling Me A Hero Only Makes You Feel Better". It really put words to a lot of things I had been thinking. My favorite quote:
"Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits."
Dan Pashman: Yup. Now not everything in the newsletter is so serious, we really run the gamut. You get recipes, links, lots of good stuff. So please, sign up now at sporkful.com/newsletter. Now back to the show and please note that there is some explicit language here in the second half. Alright, let's do it.
Dan Pashman: Mandy, you are clearly a person with strong opinions.
Mandy Lee: Oh yeah. Yeah, consider yourself warned. That's what I—I always put a disclaimer out there just to be like, "Unsolicited opinions, you asked for it."
Dan Pashman: Or didn't ask for it.
Mandy Lee: Or didn't ask for it but I'm gonna put it out there anyways. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: This is Mandy Lee. She has a new cookbook out called The Art Of Escapism Cooking. It’s based on her food blog, Lady and Pups. Pups, as in her dogs. Mandy’s book and blog have no shortage of strong opinions.
Dan Pashman: You oppose stacking pancakes. Why?
Mandy Lee: I think they're certain foods in certain cultures that people love just because they grew up with it but in a logical and rational sense, it doesn't make any sense. Everyone who cooks knows that if you achieve some kind of a crispy surface, you don't laminate it with another surface and then the steam will come out and then you lose the crispness. Right? But then again, if you don't stack them, you're gonna lay them all in one layer. Then it's gonna take a huge ass plate. So none of it makes any sense. So it's just like, why? Why? Why? Why? And like...
Dan Pashman: And I agree with you on this, Mandy. I agree with you and I think it's also nostalgia is a part of it but it's also kind of form over function. You also oppose banh mi sandwiches.
Mandy Lee: Banh mi, is a huge giant ass French style—it's not quite like baguette because it's airier than baguette and then there's like a very very thin layer of Vietnamese pate in the middle and then lots and lots of pickle. I'm talking about the authentic banh mi. I'm not talking about rich country banh mi, where you stuff a pound of pork belly in there. So to me, it's just the ratio between the carbs and the stuffing. Again, the math doesn't work.
Dan Pashman: I'm gonna—this one, I'll disagree with you because I feel like it has a little bit of meat. It's got a lot of great flavors that come together and you get a lot of crunch. There's a freshness to it. When the bread is good and on point, as long as you understand that it's a veg-forward sandwich, to me that's still a great sandwich.
Mandy Lee: Yeah...I'm not a big veggie person. That's where we part ways.
Dan Pashman: That's where we differ.
Mandy Lee: I'm not sure. I don't get a lot of satisfaction from biting into a big handful of pickles. So like, I never bite into a banh mi and be like, "Ugh, it's good to be alive," like you know?
Dan Pashman: Mandy was born in Taiwan. When she was 11, she moved with her family to Vancouver. She spent most of her 20’s in New York, then moved to Hong Kong, with her husband for his job. After a year and a half there, they moved to Beijing. Now, as we’ve heard, Mandy is not shy with her opinions, but those opinions go way beyond pancakes into politics and the environment. So for her, Beijing was a tough place to live. There was the pervasive air pollution, the way people talked badly about Taiwan, where she and her family are from, and the general feeling that you always had to watch what you say.
Mandy Lee: I'm quite an angry person to begin with. So I'm always quite critical about what's happening around me. So after moving to Beijing, I didn't really know what it feels like to lose freedom until it was taken away. You can't say certain things in certain situations or you can't express certain opinions. The suffocation of—because I grew up not in that environment. To me, being able to speak my mind is a birthright and the idea that someone can tell me what I'm allowed to say or watch or listen is just—I couldn't deal with it.
Dan Pashman: Adding to Mandy’s feeling of isolation, well first, she was caring for her very sick dogs, which kept her from going outside much. And then there were the political attitudes of many of the expats she met there.
Mandy Lee: It was hard for me but for a lot of people, it wasn't. So that's another problem too. Like a lot of people who go to China, they are there to make a living. Okay? They are there for opportunity. So they don't really care what the political environment is. So to them, it's just like, "What is that going to do with me?" So for me, I couldn't really separate that. That was very very difficult for me to live with and a question that I ask myself all the time, "Why did it bother me so much and it didn't bother other people?"
Dan Pashman: When you see something no one else around you wants to see, when you feel a way, that no one around you feels, it can kind of drive you crazy. In Mandy’s case, it also drove her to the kitchen. Here she is reading from an essay she wrote for Bon Appetit, about starting to make her own homemade pasta. She became obsessed:
Mandy Lee: "After a staggering number of dough casualties, I finally emerged from the kitchen bearing a bowl of perfect, fresh tonnarelli. The quintessence of casual E pepi. It was the first time in my almost twenty years of cooking and three plus decades, as a quitter of most things I didn't immediately succeed at, that I had refined a recipe to perfection. Something exactly as I wanted it to be. I had become what now what I would like to call an escapist cook.
Dan Pashman: In 2012, Mandy started what she called “an angry food blog” to share her escapist cooking and her feelings about life in Beijing. She had to use a VPN to circumvent China’s internet firewall. She refers to her blog as her “misery outlet.”, but she didn’t feel great about starting it.
Mandy Lee: I've always kind of thought bloggers are just losers. I'm sorry. I've apologized in my book to my people—I call them my people, now like you know? But at the time, I didn't read blogs. I don't read blogs. I don't have Instagram. I don't follow anybody on social media. I didn't really care what other people are doing. So to me...
Dan Pashman: That's how you were when you started your blog.
Mandy Lee: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Mandy Lee: So to me, starting a blog is kind of like waving the wife flag. Yeah, like forgetting about having a...
Dan Pashman: Like giving up on life.
Mandy Lee: Yeah, forget about having a real life. I'm just gonna be a fucking blogger. So it was kind of just like, "Okay, cool. I'm a loser. This is my life now."
Dan Pashman: You start developing all these recipes for your blog. There's a certain like mad scientist quality to a lot of these recipes.
Mandy Lee: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, like John Bing, Chinese breakfast wraps that you add potato chips. You make carbonara with ramen noodles.
Mandy Lee: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You have a Mexican bibimbap with minced beef mole.
Mandy Lee: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: There's even one on your blog, you have a recipe for scallion popovers and then you add marshmallows and turn them into s'mores?
Mandy Lee: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And insist it's amazing.
Mandy Lee: It is.
Dan Pashman: I don't doubt you, Mandy. I think that I can absolutely envision a world in which onion desserts become a thing.
Mandy Lee: It's really—it doesn't make any sense when you say it out loud but when you eat it, you're like, "Oh, okay." It's one of those.
Dan Pashman: So what's your process for developing these recipes?
Mandy Lee: I always start a recipe because I have a question, like something I don't understand about this recipe or something I don't understand about this process. And after that I have answered that question, I rarely go back and cook that recipe twice. In the book, I also have a pizza, a margherita pizza, with Thai tom yum soup flavoring to it. And I just, in my mind, I wonder what that's gonna taste like.
Dan Pashman: If someone feels like they want to engage in escapist cooking, are some types of recipes or foods better for escaping? Like for instance, right now, a ton people are making their own bread. You got into bread.
Mandy Lee: Right.
Dan Pashman: You make your own pasta. I don't know if it's something about actually physically working with dough that makes it a good release when you want to escape.
Mandy Lee: I think it's because bread is completely unpredictable. And I think bread is a good place to start because you don't want something that is reliable.
Dan Pashman: Why is cooking something unreliable better for escapism?
Mandy Lee: Because then that draws you to ask questions. Like, why did it turn out better last time than this time? What did I do different? Was that the moisture in the air? Was that the temperature? Did the hand feel...did the dough feel different? It sort of invites you to be curious.
Dan Pashman: At one point in the book you describe booking—you compare it to an addiction for you.
Mandy Lee: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Is that really how you feel?
Mandy Lee: I think—during the time I was living in Beijing, it did feel like that. I don't think I feel like that anymore. But when I was in Beijing, it took my mind off of something that I don't want to look at. And every time I have free time on my hand I will go pick at the scab. So if I didn't cook for a day, I just get jitters. I just get like, I must find the next thing. What is the next thing? And I would just keep throwing questions at myself like, "Okay, what about this? How about that?" So to me, it was not even healthy at a point and I knew that it was not healthy. But I was just like, "Okay, this is not what normal people do."
Dan Pashman: I'd like to ask you to read an excerpt from your blog when you were announcing the publication of this new book of yours.
Mandy Lee: Okay.
"This book is a self-reflective examination of how I retreated to my kitchen as a place to evade from my unpleasant realities. It's honest but also contradictory. Opinionated but nonetheless a personal truth, an internal monologue despicably self-serving and personal, almost to a fault because, for me, this is more than a cookbook. It's therapy. It's closure. It's my attempt to draw a conclusion to what was a very difficult time of my life. You may find it funny. You may find it bitter. You may even find it obnoxious at times but it was what I had to say in the way that I had to say it. Screaming and kicking, uncensored, crude, to boil my emotions down to something better than the ingredients of its making. A consommé of the nasty bits of my experience.
Dan Pashman: In 2016, after six years in Beijing, Mandy and her husband moved back to Hong Kong, where they live now. She said she's found more of a community there.
Dan Pashman: Do you feel like making this food blog, doing this cookbook has given you the closure that you wanted?
Mandy Lee: If nothing came out of this experience—because I feel like I've lost a lot to the six years that I spent Beijing. And if nothing came out this lost, I think I would have been in a much more bitter place. But something did come out of it. So at least this way I can look at it in a book that I have to my future self. Things happen for a reason is not the dumbest delusion to work with because at least now I can tell myself this lie. You know? I can tell myself this bullshit, "Things happen for a reason." Yeah, whatever but you know...So I guess in that sense, it does bring me closure. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: That’s Mandy Lee. Her new cookbook is The Art of Escapism Cooking: A Survival Story, With Intensely Good Flavors, it’s out now. And if you want to win a copy? Subscribe to our newsletter! Yes, the same newsletter I told you about earlier. Sign up by May 22nd for your chance to win Mandy’s book. If you’re already on the list you’re automatically entered into this and all of our giveaways. A few weeks ago Lisa in Richmond got one of those Tom Cruise coconut cakes we talked about in the Fortune Feimster episode because we picked her name off the list. So sign up now at sporkful.com/newsletter. Next week on the show, we have a deep dive into the most beloved food in New Jersey.
CLIP (PERSON 1): You can't put what name into your Webster did not make enough words.
CLIP (PERSON 2): It's just this weird thing that New Jersey has and wants to hold on to with the jaws of life.
Dan Pashman: But New Jersey-ians can’t agree on what to call this food. Is it pork roll, or Taylor ham? Comedian and Jersey native Chris Gethard joins me to dig into this debate, which has its roots in a 150-year-old blood feud.
CLIP (CHRIS GETHARD): Those are clearly two of the people in the world who will care about Taylor Ham most and they can't get along. Right? There I grow up.
Dan Pashman: That’s next week.