Friday, February 19, 2010

Little White Lies

I promised there would be homemade pork buns. The occasion was a cocktail party in Brooklyn to celebrate and send off a good friend to Stockholm. All that was asked of me was to bring some sort of hors d’ouevre that I thought the guest of honor would enjoy. Knowing my Swedophile friend’s palate pretty well, I deemed the pillowy-white, slightly-sweet meat buns to be the most appropriate snack to bring to the party.

The day of the party came a little too quick and Monday morning found me in the kitchen with my laptop scouring the internet for the best recipe. One written by Japanese food blogger Makiko Itoh on seemed the most fitting and I immediately made a shopping list and went to work.

Not realizing that Chinese-style roasted pork (char siu) needs a lot of time to marinate, I made the not-so-proud decision to jump on a train to Chinatown to buy some prepared roast pork from a busy meat market on Grand Street. I asked for two pounds, received the usual pat on the back for being a white guy that speaks Chinese, and rushed back to my kitchen to begin making the dough.

The preparation went smoothly. Requiring quite a bit of flour and yeast, the dough was easy to work with and quick to rise. I chopped up the pork and tossed it in a wok with fresh ginger, scallions, and shiitake mushrooms. Adding flour and corn starch to the mixture seemed to meld the flavors together to make a cohesive, spicy filling for the buns. The process of stuffing the dough with the pork filling and pinching a seam to close each pastry was time-consuming but enjoyable in a Zen-like sort of way.

After I was finished I had rows and rows of little soft buns ready to be thrown into a pot to be steamed before being served to the guests. Nobody had to know that the pork concealed in each cloud-like pastry was not prepared in my kitchen. It was my secret.

Upon arrival, the buns became an interesting conversation piece. Curious guests poked at them, asked about what was inside, and ate them once they were properly steamed.

And then my moment of (un)truth arrived.

One of the guests politely inquired as to how the pork was prepared. And almost automatically, with false confidence, I explained how I started the night before, marinating the pork in honey and spice before slow-roasting the succulent meat for hours in my oven. Another pat on the back followed, though undeserved, and the party continued eating the buns with romantic visions of a home-cook carefully and patiently completing every step of the pork bun process by hand.

Why did I lie? Well, it’s complicated. Aside from more selfish reasons, my main reason for lying is the same reason parents lie about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s also the same reason little bits of information are fabricated by schoolteachers, politicians, and celebrities: people love a good story.

Had I told the guests I had cheated a bit in my preparation of the pork buns, they may have enjoyed them less. So I told them exactly what I thought they wanted to hear. I didn’t want to let them down.

As small and insignificant as this untruth may seem, this situation got me thinking. I’ve always thought of myself as a realist. I never planned to make my children believe that Santa Claus is an actual living person that delivers gifts via the living room fireplace. If I do carry on that Christmas tradition, I want them to know that Santa is just a fun story and that I am actually the one leaving them the gifts. I want my children to also question the motivations of highly-worshipped historical figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Rosa Parks.

But this pork bun lie has proved that maybe, when put in the position of a storyteller with open-eared and wide-eyed listeners aching for a good narrative, I may just give in to the urge to suspend reality in favor of a good story.

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