This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing. (Virginia Woolf)
Despite my recent melancholy, I go about my day to day activities very much as Mrs. Dalloway describes – perfectly upright and stoical. We all do – it is what’s socially acceptable. To do otherwise would disrupt social order and would only encourage derision (or so we think). Or worse, we could be like Septimus, prone to tears and clinically diagnosed as “emotionally unstable.” This social construct is what forces us to cry only in private, in the comforts of our rooms, on the comforts of our lone pillows. It forces my very close childhood friend to swallow the pain of a father’s death in solitude, and bury the fact for years. It forces our hard working mothers and loving fathers to continually labor away, free of complaint or sorrow or resentment, hands and minds calloused from rough treatment. We each carry our crosses and our wells of tears become deeper; and yet, we do not cry out. Instead, we bare the world our teeth and feign a smile. And in private, the wells of tears flood.
This last week, I cavorted across Manhattan, filling my time with trivial activities like grocery shopping, and shoe hunting, and book searching. I filled my schedule with dinner dates and happy hours, and lunch time rendezvous. And when I was home, I flurried around the kitchen, making panna cotta and poppy seed cake and earl grey shortbread and katsu. But these actions did not dismiss the fact that my nights were filled with unease, restlessness, tears – and when sleep did come, it was a false blessing, plaguing me with nightmares and cold sweat and constant dread of my daytime demons. And then when dawn breaks, I have to put on my stoical and perfectly upright mask again.
Like Clarissa Dalloway, I hosted a few dinners this week – the details of which gave me something to preoccupy my thoughts with – a welcomed diversion. Most recently, I threw together a fun dish for dinner called Okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake comprised of shredded cabbage and a variety of other meats (usually pork) and veggies. With the help of an old classmate, I discovered okonomiyaki while visiting Japan in 2009. It’s quite a common street food, but is also unique to a specific Tokyo neighborhood called Tsukishima. Okonomiyaki is really simple to make, and (surprisingly) packs a punch of flavors. The word “okonomiyaki” literally means ‘grill what you like’, making it versatile and customizable. In my version, the sweet onion, crunchy cabbage, and Chinese sausage batter are pan fried until golden brown, then topped with tangy Okonomiyaki sauce, creamy mayonnaise, salty bonito fish flakes, thinly sliced scallions, and hot Sriracha. Sure, it’s not the most authentic approach, but what bold flavors!
1c all purpose flour
2/3c dashi or water
1/2 head cabbage, very finely shredded
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 links Chinese sausage, diced, cooked, fat drained
2 stalks green onion, thinly sliced
okonomiyaki sauce (Katsu sauce works in a pinch)
neutral cooking oil
In a large bowl, whisk flour, water (or dashi) and eggs together until completely combined. Add shredded cabbage, diced yellow onion, and diced Chinese sausage, and mix until ingredients evenly distributed. Note that the pancake will hold better if the cabbage is shredded real thin. Also, there should be just barely enough batter to hold all the cabbage together.
Heat a skillet or frying pan on medium heat and add just enough cooking oil to coat surface. Add about 1 cup of the cabbage batter to the hot pan and use a spatula to flatten the pancake to about 3/4″ thick, as the pancake cooks. Once the bottom side of the pancake is firm and brown, flip over to cook the other side until firm and browned. This whole process should take between 5-7 minutes on medium heat. Do NOT use high heat as the pancake exterior will burn before the interior is fully cooked. Once browned on both sides, remove to plate, and spread okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise over the top. Sprinkle with green onion and bonito flakes, and extra Chinese sausage (totally optional), or aonori (really finely shredded seaweed).
This dish is a great way to use up excess cabbage and other veggies in the fridge. I make it a few times every year, and each time it ends up different depending on what ingredients I have on hand. Sometimes it’s pork belly or even link sausages instead of Chinese sausage. Other times, I use red cabbage and red onion for color. Sometimes bonito flakes, sometimes aonori – sometimes neither. It’s completely up to you. Enjoy!
All this diversion made me realize that no matter how much I ate or drank or shopped, the core issues would never go away. They would remain until resolved, and only I could resolve them. I guess that’s how we all have to deal with the sorrow and hardships in our lives. Only we can force ourselves to get back up, dust off those shoes, and get back in that rough game of life. But it helps to have a pillar to lean on, someone to say “I’m here for you”, a bucket to unleash that well of tears, a shoulder to cry on – even if that shoulder is 3000 miles away.