From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (37)—Stinking Drunk (beancurd/chicken)

[a] Inebriation RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.
This is another in a series of stream-of-memory fieldnotes I wrote in a three-hour period in early February 1986. As anyone who has done fieldwork knows, we often find ourselves in situations that demand a little bit of "catch-up." It is the rare (I would say chimerical) fieldworker who spends two or three hours every night "writing up" the activity from the day before. Life—and fieldnote work—is punctuated. Some days are full of activity and others are full of writing. Finding a balance is impossible, really. The best we can do is try to keep things going enough to have material that will recall things we might use in future drafts. 

That was more or less how things went with this little flurry of disparate materials. There are a few things I would probably not even notice today (such as the challenges of eating around bones with chopsticks. This does not mean that I shouldn't notice them today. In fact, that little reminder of how hard such things were for me back then gave me a whole new perspective on staying aware of my audience as I write. While condescension or writing about banalities is something to guard against, the greater danger usually lies in assuming too much. Push them with the analysis, I always tell myself. Tell a story with the details.

[c] Paired RF
These matters (texture, method, smell, and taste) all come wafting out of this rather mediocre fieldnote. If you have been reading this series of posts, you certainly know they are no great literary monument. What strikes me as significant (and worth repeating endlessly) is that it's not the point. The only good fieldnote is a written one; the only good fieldnotes (plural) are those that call to mind material for the next bout of ethnography.

"Drunken chicken" (醉雞).
"Stinky beancurd" (臭豆腐). 
Hatton, North Dakota 
Even the silly final references here probably got me thinking about neural pathways and cultural decision-making in ways that would prove useful down the road.

2 February 1986
Following our visit to the temple we went downtown to eat Peking Duck. The meal began with an appetizer of “drunk chicken”, which is prepared in wine, and is very hard to eat with chopsticks because there are so many bones. While I have become quite adept at handling chopsticks, there are certain things "natives" can do—like chew all the meat off a bone while holding it with chopsticks—that will take me at least this year to master. Probably longer.

While we waited for the duck (it takes thirty minutes to prepare) we tasted dishes of eel, cabbage in cream,  and “stinky beancurd.” The latter is very popular here, like lefse and lutefisk are in Hatton, North Dakota. Some people can’t get enough of it. It is sold on most street corners throughout the city, and the fermentation is palpable. Again, for the non-native (and I am one who in my "native" land eats codfish soaked in lye), it is almost impossible to get a chunk past my nose. The olfactory advance guardsmen scream to stop, and I have only begun to learn how to re-route their signals. 

I have eaten goat’s stomach, eggs with lead in them, and, now, fermented beancurd. What have I learned? That smell and taste are often in mortal culinary battle...and often for no particularly good reason.
[d] Fermentation RF


  1. I'm thrilled to see this early reference to lutefisk. All good themes grow better with time, and apparently this one has been fermenting for awhile.