first person

A Recipe Gets You Only So Far

Chasing intangible feelings, in and out of the kitchen.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

For better or worse, potato korokke was the catalyst: a mound of mashed potatoes, rolled with ground pork and covered in flour before the spheres were rolled in egg yolk and tempura, fried to a crisp, and drizzled with a bit of salt, hot to the touch, comforting and demanding at the exact same time. I’m still, frankly, inevitably, entirely mystified by the alchemy of it. 

I used to eat korokke at this diner just outside of the neighborhood. I had gotten in the habit of biking there in junior high — after school, typical latch-key-kid fare — because it was a place to go that wasn’t the Blockbuster or the Kroger or some bayou. The restaurant was Japanese moonlighting as a Pan-Asian suburban Texas option. Wasn’t huge at all. Donned a fairly roomy lobby. While I was there, I didn’t have to think too much. And when the staff wasn’t swamped, they would ask me about my life and tell me about theirs and maybe slip me an extra something in the bag of crab wontons I consistently splurged a few dollars a week for.

But the main thing was the potato korokke: The first time a host handed me a croquette wrapped in a flimsy paper sleeve, the fucking thing was scalding; I said whoa, and the waitresses laughed. From time to time, one of the chefs would pop out from the back, laughing at the funny Black kid eating his food, and he’d say, “Hey, maybe you can bring your wife here someday,” and then I’d laugh, and I’d get on my bike and ride back home feeling foolish and full.

Between growing up at home and leaving it, a lot of shit for me was in flux, all of it banal in one way or another: education prospects, job prospects, the queerness that had body-slammed its way into full visibility. But being in the kitchen, for me, wasn’t ever a contentious thing — it just was. I felt comfortable there. I started cooking after the folks at the restaurant up the road interrogated me about what I made at home, swearing that, if I could figure out the basics of their cuisine’s flavor profile, I wouldn’t have to spend so much fucking money on takeout.

So I rolled thousands of omelettes. I simmered dashi. I baked so many puddings and pies and cakes and pastries that friends passing through my home simply came to expect them. And my family was happy to see the queerness molded into a manageable, acceptable (to them) form, however short lived. But behind every cooking fuckup, trying to wrap my head around the essentials of a cuisine, were those fucking croquettes. I’d fry a batch and they were too crisp. Or they were too soft. Or they were too flimsy. One batch I fried immediately disintegrated in my hands; then there was a batch where everything was too fucking burnt. And once, still figuring out the recipe, I cooked a few for a friend, and after her first bite she looked up and made a face that made me want to lock myself in a basement.

I knew I was missing something. There were recipes, of course. But those went only so far: Every iteration of the croquette that I made was chasing after a memory. Or the hint of one. I wanted to re-create the moment of the first bite and the sensations that followed. I didn’t know the measurements for that, wasn’t sure what temperature to bring the heat to.

Writing a novel, for me, was not altogether different from trying to recapture the croquettes. It started, and it stopped. I put it down. Picked it back up. For five years, I taught ESL in Houston during the school year. Then I’d spend most of what I had saved up to fly out to Narita in the summers, taking the bullet train to Kansai, where I picked up the novel again, expanding and contorting it. One year passed and then another. Neither practice seemed to be making any progress. Nothing was really happening on either front.

And then it did. The notes I had became a narrative. The narrative became a set of lives on the page. My friends in Doyama had paired up, and some of them had kids, and I watched the toddlers run in circles across their apartment floors, and the lives I’d been fucking around with on the page became a running joke between us, like, How are your kids, how are Ben and Mike?

And eventually, luckily, the book started looking like something that could be done, maybe, even if I still didn’t know how to stick the tiny landings littered throughout.

After many mornings spent smoking out of a window and willing the book’s interior into shape last summer, I watched my friend K’s kid walk in circles in front of us by a park around Umeda. K read the new pages, and I smoked beside him, then he laid them on the grass and whistled. He said it was a love story, for sure, but what was the ending? Where did the couple end up?

“Do you need to know?” I asked.

“Of course I want to know,” he said.

“But do you need to?”

K whistled again. Then he laughed. We watched his kid run back to us, and the three of us picked through our convenience-store lunch, an assortment of sandwiches and bentos and teas.

Over time, the croquettes took a more solid shape in my hands even if they weren’t where I wanted them just yet: I would get the fry time down, but the batter wouldn’t be crisp enough. Or the batter would pack a crunch, but the filling still sat a little too lightly on the tongue. I would make batches for one ex, and they never came out the way I wanted them to, leaving us opting for takeout instead and shooting the spent paper bags into trash cans. Then I tried frying them for another man a few years later, who called my preoccupation maybe just a little bit ridiculous. We found pleasure in other ways, and it didn’t feel wasted, even if only for a little while, even if it wasn’t the one I was looking for.

About a month ago, in the midst of packing for a move, navigating from my old place, while my boyfriend and I carried the couch and the rug and the PS4 and the dog crate, to the new one, I looked in my fridge — a mostly empty thing — took stock, and set out to make potato croquettes.

My potato masher was already at the new place. I didn’t have nearly enough flour. And then I added a little too much to the bowl. And then I added one egg too many. I used too much salt and not enough pepper. I added too much tempura and not enough oil — and of course I’d run out of plastic gloves, with a single set of fingers clinging to the pack, so my hands dribbled crumbs all over the counter I had only just finished wiping down. Once the oil came to temperature, I realized I didn’t, in fact, have a thermometer. So I eyeballed the mounds as they fried lightly, flipping them when it felt right, guesstimating when just enough time felt like it had passed.

In a lot of ways, every recipe is a love story. You deconstruct the thing. You work through the context. You accept what can be done by you in relation to it. You take note of the limit of the scope of your abilities. You fail to re-create it and then you fail again. You fail a third time, and you turn to the folks who have successfully done the thing. And in doing that, you see they aren’t looking to re-create anything in particular as much as create it on their own. Writing the fucking novel felt like feeling out what those intangible impulses were and wading toward them. Smoothing them out until the shapes revealed themselves. Scrambling to get them down before they disappeared entirely.

And finally, the croquettes were, improbably or maybe inevitably, the exact iteration I’d been looking for. They tasted exactly like what I wanted. It only took five fucking years. So I sat there eating one, and then two. And then, before I even really thought about it, I had chewed through the last one. I wondered if I would need to write down what I’d done or if I just knew now — if it had been in my hands all along, gradually coming to a head, finished all the same, until next time. Which is all any of us can really ever hope for.

Bryan Washington is the author of the novel Memorial and the short-story collection Lot.

A Recipe Gets You Only So Far