I have never written a cookbook or even a cooking blog, so it’s impossible for me to say with complete authority that cooking writers have more fabulous lives than other people. Some of them say the trial-and-error process is filled with more error than success and that there are times when they don’t feel like cooking and that their lives amount to nothing more than barely-controlled chaos, but none of this comes through in the finished product. It’s all beautifully composed shots and adorable children and bucolic wildlife.
It’s true that Mandy Lee’s new cookbook, The Art of Escapism Cooking, is also full of beautifully composed shots that made me hungry even after I’d just finished eating dinner, because, honestly, her Buffalo Fried Chicken Ramen looked better than anything I will eat this month. But the wonderful and refreshing thing about the book is its overwhelming negativity.
Escapism cooking, Lee explains in her introduction, is not about nurturing others or even merely putting dinner on the table. “This book is written for those who share the same perverse tendency to engage in cooking as a loner spends time with his Xbox or a teenager with porn—ultimately as a delicious evasion of unpalatable realities.”
In Lee’s case, the unpalatable reality was the city of Beijing, where she moved in 2010 with her husband, Jason, and their dog, Dumpling. Lee, whose family comes from Taiwan and who grew up in Vancouver, did not like Beijing. She disliked it so much, she couldn’t bear to say its name, so she refers to it as “Richard” (which comes from a proto-Germanic root that means “authoritarian ruler”). “For lack of a better way to put it,” she writes, “a dick is a dick.” There was the pollution, there was the lack of friends, and most of all, there was the authoritarian Chinese government, and the self-loathing arising from Lee’s feeling that she was compromising her principles by continuing to live there.
So she cooked. She cooked obsessively. Eventually, in 2012, she started a blog, Lady and Pups. (Out of spite, she produced it on WordPress using a VPN because WordPress was banned in China.) And now it is a book, The Art of Escapism Cooking.
The Art of Escapism Cooking is the kind of cookbook in which every recipe contains three or four subrecipes, some of which take several days to complete and require ingredients that can only be purchased online. I began reading from the beginning, and before I got through the Pantry chapter, I had vowed that I would not prepare any of the recipes in the book, not just because I lack the skill or the supplies, but because, as a person with a full-time job and a lengthy commute, I don’t have the time.
But you don’t necessarily read cookbooks to cook. You read them to imagine. At least I do. And some of those meals you imagine from cookbooks taste much better than they would if you made them yourself. This goes very well with my own personal favorite method of escapism, which happens to be reading.
At least that’s what I tell myself, because Lee’s ramen sounds absolutely amazing, but there’s no way I’m going to spend a full day babysitting a stockpot of chicken parts, which is what you have to do to make the broth, plus another few hours cutting the noodles by hand because I don’t happen to own an electric pasta machine.
It turns out that Lee front-loaded the book with all the more complicated and time-consuming recipes, and the some of the ones near the end, especially in the chapter called “Shit I Eat When I’m By Myself,” seem almost doable if you are, like me, the sort of person who only starts to think about making dinner when she realizes she’s hungry. The final chapter, which is recipes for dogs, seemed downright manageable.
But by that point, I was completely absorbed in Escapism Cooking and in awe of the sort of mind that can come up with Buffalo Fried Chicken Ramen or Kori-Mex Bibimbap With Minced Beef Mole (which contains 30 ingredients, plus six more recommendations and three subrecipes for banchan). It’s the same sort of awe I feel when I’m reading a poem that manages to twist language in a way I’d never considered before or when I go to an art exhibit and feel reality start to melt away. I also enjoyed Lee’s crankiness and her honestly and bad humor. But really, is it fair that one person can cook and write and take beautiful photographs, too?
In the end, I gave in and made the Crackling Pancake, although I didn’t have the patience for the “caramel-clustered blueberries” or balsamic honey that went with it. Lee’s recipe is for only one large pancake because she firmly believes that stacked pancakes are a waste of time and also stupid because they end up “compressed to death by the sheer weight of one fucker sitting on top of another.” This single pancake was big and fluffy. (It actually looked like a regular pancake that had suffered some sort of science fiction affliction that made it grow 10 times its usual size.) Making it was no less labor-intensive than placidly standing in front of a stove flipping individual pancakes, but it was a novel experience, and it tasted good, and I will probably make it again. I will also make the Cheese Cookies for my dog, because while I am happy to eat popcorn for dinner, nothing is too good for her. But mostly, I think I’ll go back to this cookbook again to look at the photos and read about Lee’s abusive relationship with Richard and marvel at the human capacity to get through life by turning the most mundane things into a series of complicated tasks.