October on Bayard Street tastes sharp like radish and blue zinc; Chinese mothers carrying cucumbers and mackerel quicken their step, bundled in black cloaks against the cold; schoolboys slurp hot and milky tea in Taiwanese snack shops; the rare tourist pauses and studies his subway map in confusion, for he has wandered far from Canal Street and needs a woman, clutched like a chicken foot, to guide him West. Against the current of the crowd sweeping over the sidewalk, flowing between lampposts and parked bicycles, pushing from Mott to Mulberry, head buried and burrowing on, a fruit stand is set. Its lights shine on tangerines and the season’s last grapes, shrunken and timid and priceless. Swimming against the mob I grab a jackfruit for dear life and poke my head above water, breathing in the light before surrendering myself to another block before dinner.
Inside Xi’an Famous Foods, I ordered spicy and tingly lamb face salad at the cash register. The morning had been a matter of anticipation, the afternoon an exercise in agonizing delay. Lunch: peanut butter and jelly on English muffins. Milquetoast fare for cubicle living. At long last, I had found the center of my office maze and escaped the gray and white and leapt free from plate glass up, out, over Midtown, across Hell’s Kitchen (sneaking peeks into ramen noodle houses and peep shows), down the West Side Highway and East, due East, into Chinatown. After changing my twenty and taking a seat, I listened to the call, “28, order 28,” and then “29,” and then, mercifully passing over the next number, “31, lamb face salad.”
I am watching Anthony Bourdain eat off my plate, fending off his pernicious fingers with a pair of chopsticks. The salad is a small mound of cilantro, bean sprouts, lamb cheek, tongue, and eyeball, and Bourdain is bogarting my meat. Here’s a darting grab for a swiveling eye, there’s a dash for a flapping tip of the tongue. Hand slick with chili oil, Bourdain slips. With a chopstick twist learned from manhandling chow mein, I parry, I thrust, I disarm! And there is Bourdain, wounded and pouting, crawling back into the flat screen t.v. from whence he came, bony tail drawn between his legs, a sulfurous whiff of stinky tofu following behind.
Of course, Bourdain has reported extensively on the marvels of lamb face salad; he has tasted lamb tendon and licked his lips without reservation. The world knows of Xi’an Famous Foods. It is, even as New York restaurants go, excessively documented. Honored beyond its peers, it owns a kind of celebrity. Everyone knows of Xi’an, and so it is futile and presumptuous, even arrogant, to utter anything claiming originality. The joy of discovery has been stolen; the new world is irrevocably and irrecoverably old. There is nowhere to go but around and around the globe, retracing the footsteps of our more moneyed, learned, and experienced hosts. If it is so, that the world of cooking holds no secret stones left for the turning, then I at least wish to taste my pre-digested food without interference. Yet, hunkered down over my tray of lamb, I must withstand Bourdain’s simultaneous description. On the wall behind me, his show about Xi’an plays forever. Bourdain narrates the meal even as we eat. My dinner is known only as a spectacle; I oscillate between my lived experience and its representation; the food jumps from my plate to the television; I eat according to a known script; in fact, I am in Xi’an only because I have read about it on the Internet; in fact, my life is nothing more than a negotiation between reality and media; in fact, I am rehearsing what I am told is the world; in fact, media infects reality, replacing its chromosomes with viral material, transforming life into media; and all life becomes cannibalistic.
I have sold my soul to Mephistopheles for lamb face salad.
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist.
Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud[s],
That, when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven!
‘Cakes, 15 for $1.’ On Canal Street, I am walking with the crowd back to the station, and there is another stand, this one selling Chinese cakes. They are puffy nuggets of dough. I drift past, hurl a dollar bill through the foggy window, grab a paper bag. But it has already been written, already done, already catalogued in paperless encyclopedias—the world is exhausted of objects for words.
My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!—Ah, Mephistophilis!
I have burnt my books, and still, Mephistopheles cannot be held by television screens.