Poets Watching TV: David Chang's "Ratatouille Moment" Helps Us Rethink Relatability in Art

Ugly Delicious Opens a Portal to the Past

You’re reading Poets Watching TV, a semi-regular feature at PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. You can learn more about it here. Check out the archive to see other TV shows, movies, and films whose intersections with poetry I’ve covered. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, subscribe so you won’t miss a post!

Process television—shows that involve someone making something—are full of material for writers and creatives of all stripes. Just turn on a show like The Great British Bake Off, Full Bloom, Lego Masters, or any documentary where a creative person is speaking, and just pretend that they’re talking about your art form. This is what I call The Poetry Game, but that’s because poetry is my major art form. For you, this might be better termed The Creative Nonfiction Game, or The Painting Game, or The Haunted Dollhouse Game. You might also just enjoy thinking about creativity for its own sake.

It’s surprising what incredible insights you might be able to glean by forcing yourself, in the moment, to think about what a creative person’s comments can teach you about your work and yourself.

The primality and universality of food make food media, in particular, ripe for use in such exercises. I wrote about the Alinea menu-planning meeting video that helped give birth to the Poets Watching TV idea before, but actual food TV can serve up creativity content well-worth investigating as well.

Home Cooking, “Ugly Delicious” Food, and Memory

If you haven’t watched both seasons of chef David Chang’s brilliant Ugly Delicious on Netflix, I highly recommend it. The show was written and directed by Chang, who also stars. In the show, the genius founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire talks about his culinary upbringing, theories of gastronomy, and more. It’s some of the best food TV I’ve ever watched.

Chang is not only an incredible chef but also a deep thinker and citizen of the world. I love listening to him talk about food, life, and creativity because he embodies what he preaches: a blend of disarming simplicity and chewy, inviting complexity. Listening to Chang feels like having a rap sesh with your coolest, oldest friend.

One particular scene from Season 1 Episode 3 of Ugly Delicious contains a remarkable and straightforward discussion of food, creativity, and art more broadly. Since I first saw this scene, whose episode is titled “Home Cooking” and gives the show its name, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

It’s lovely to hear a chef reference classical music and visual art and film in order to discuss his own gastronomical theories. This kind of interdisciplinarity between art forms makes my heart sing: it’s what we need as both practitioners and patrons of art in every form.

The simplest distillation of Chang’s wisdom comes about in the last sentence he utters in the above scene. In essence, for Chang, cooking is about tapping into memory—not his own memory, but someone else’s:

When you eat a dish that’s not even like roast chicken, but reminds you of a dish of roast chicken cooked by your mom… that’s where you want to be at in cooking.

Chang expounds on this idea further, and discusses how his own theories of food and flavor were inspired by philosophy and logic courses he took many years ago, in a 2016 article he wrote for Wired:

I’m making this all sound like a very intellectual exercise. And creating this food can be just that, but eating it shouldn’t be. These dishes should taste seamless; they shouldn’t feel like math equations. In fact, the more obviously conceptual a dish is, the less powerful it will be…

Now, most diners probably aren’t consciously drawing connections between what they’re eating and the favorite meals of their youth. They probably don’t fully understand why they’re enjoying it so much. But I think deep down, whether they realize it or not, they’re having that Ratatouille moment, tasting one of those underlying base patterns and feeling that interplay between the exotic and the familiar.

The video above cuts away to the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille, in which a restaurant critic is so strongly reminded of his childhood when eating the titular dish that his pen clatters to the floor after his first bite. Here, I admire not only the idea of creating a powerful response in a reader, but in creating something that arises from my own subjectivity that helps someone else tap into their own.

The entire Wired article is well worth the read—sometimes The Poetry Game requires that we stretch our imagination in order to glean insights about writing or other art forms, but not this one. Chang actually talks about form right there on the surface. There’s a lot to admire, here: “I’m a big believer that creativity comes from working within constraints,” is both something Chang wrote in this article and something I say to my creative writing students constantly.

But Chang’s “theory of deliciousness” requires that we think a bit about the dreaded R-word: relatability.

The R-Word: Relatability

Chang’s discussion of what food can do requires that we think about what it means to create art that people can identify with or relate to, even if the mechanism of identification is unexpected (e.g., a dish that is not roast chicken making you think of your mom’s roast chicken).

When I’ve written about the potential pitfalls of “relatability” in art before, and I think it’s critically important to revisit it again and again and ask the question: relatable to whom?

We tend to value relatability a bit more than we should: just look at meme culture, or examine your relationship (or the relationship that younger folks have) to the word “same.” We’ve built a cathedral of rhetorical shorthand that screams I FEEL THE SAME WAY AS YOU DO. But what about food or art you can’t relate to?

What about, for example, the time that a young white man in my creative writing class told a black female classmate that her essay about her hair was “not relatable”? That right there is the dark side of relatability culture. Relatability is not nor should it be the end-goal of all writing. Writing can hold space for voices that have been historically marginalized, and just because someone doesn’t “relate to” your story, dish, or macramé doesn’t mean it isn’t good or doesn’t have meaning.

Writing can help us understand those who are different from us, and writing can also help us understand ourselves. But whether a writer intends to accomplish one or both of the goals, speaking in abstract, watered-down, cliched language doesn’t foster real understanding.

Specific > General, But Not for the Reasons You’d Imagine

The first impulse of beginning creative writers, and poets in particular, I think, is to speak generally. The writer wants to reach people in a broad sense and so says to herself, I shall speak broadly, then. But sadly, the result of broad language creates a shallow reading experience. Notice the extreme generality of this excerpt from a poem that appears in Courtney Peppernell’s Pillow Thoughts:

We should kiss.
Not because you passed my way by chance
but because you stopped
and I haven’t been the same since.

This is the Hallmark card version of poetry. Whenever I’m trying to describe to creative writing students how specificity paradoxically creates identification rather than broad generalities, I end up referencing David Chang’s comment about roast chicken and his own reference to the “Ratatouille moment.” It’s only by creating something with a specific point of view that a diner or reader can identify with it themselves, even if they’ve never tasted or read it before. It’s a paradox, but it’s a stable one.

Take, for example, this poem by the brilliant Monica Sok:

Because there are handwritten signs that say Strawberries 4 Sale,

Love, I will stop along the road and buy us little hearts to eat.
And if, while driving on Snake Hill Road, there are Fresh Cut
Flowers and Strawberries (again) it will only take a moment
To gather a centerpiece for our table. (We’ll even eat shortcake).
Look, I see CUTE BUNNIES 4 SALE so I’ll stop here too
To get you the cutest one, a little cottontail to feed a carrot to
Every day, unless she too likes strawberries. Everywhere,
Strawberries 4 Sale. Along Windy Tor and Forest Hill Road,
Where summers we visit my parents, only twice we’ve stepped
Foot at an Amish stand. Twice. But lately, I wonder
What it feels like to fly down the long winding road
In a buggy, and waving to the blonde boy in his father’s lap,
He must be wondering the same about us speeding down
The lane, passing him, our faces sweet and sticky and brown.

This poem is detailed and evocative. I have never been down Snake Hill Road, and as a reader, it doesn’t make me think of the precise place or experience that Sok had—it helps me tap into my own, flying down the little back roads of the rural Michigan towns my partner and I frequently travel through on our way up north.

As a creative person, you’re not always trying to impose your subjectivity onto another person merely so that they can understand you; you’re creating an environment in which another person can better understand themselves.

As a creative person, you’re not always trying to impose your subjectivity onto another person merely so that they can understand you; you’re creating an environment in which another person can better understand themselves.

That’s the lesson that Chang is trying to impart to us through his food language. And what a stunning lesson it is: simple and complex at once, like the best meals almost always are.

P. S.


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