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the joys of self-assembly


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the joys of self-assembly

Thi N. | Apr 28, 2009 07:27 PM

I was just thinking about the joys of self assembly - possibly because, in one of the fish taco threads, somebody was complaining that there was something essentially wrong about having to finish and top your fish taco yourself. I think they said something like: when they go to Spago's or something, they want to have it *precisely as the master chef intended it*, and that it was somehow wrong to have to finish it yourself.

This I thought was really interesting, because it explains how hard it is for me to get certain people, from certain backgrounds, to add anything to their pho or Korean oxbone soup or any of that stuff. Pho is *intended* for stuff to be added to it - the lime, the herbs. It's not *finished* until you add stuff to it. Korean oxbone soup *come* undersalted, with no chile spicing, and in desperate need of scallions, and you *have* to add it. Maybe it's a cultural divide or something.

But mostly I was thinking about the joys of self-assembly because the other day, when I was tired and strung out and sad and my friend expressed a deep desire for brisket, or maybe lox and bagels, I took her to Langers and we split a gloriously lox and whitefish platter and it was the perfect thing. I was thinking about how absolutely satisfying it was to assemble each bite yourself - just the amount of cream cheese you want, maybe you have onions this time, maybe you don't, maybe a cucumber, and then just the amount of fish you want - proportions and amounts and ingredients varying from bite to bite precisely as the mood strikes you. Maybe this is why a smoked fish *platter* is so much more satisfying then just getting a smoked fish bagel *sandwich* - the latter, you give up control, each bite is pretty much the same. Maybe it's because sometimes everything is stressful and awful because everything is spinning completely out of control and you have to compromise and sacrifice and fail, and then, for one brief lunch, you can have this smoked fish platter which is like a little oasis of the complete control over and indulgence in each little whim. Want a bite that's a mass of cream cheese? Go ahead. Want a stack of lox? Go for it. Want a little of each thing, in perfect balance, with a bit of onion bite? Go for it. Slow, luxurious decision and assembly between each bite.

I can see that there's a cultural divide here - some folks want it exactly as the chef intended it. They've expressed this to me over pho, when they refuse to add any herbs, and I have to say, "The chef intends you to add herbs," and they say, "But how much does the chef intend me to add?" and I say, "It's not determined - the chef intends for you to *decide for yourself*." I can see how somebody could think of this as somehow less high and aesthetic - there's this big thing of getting authorial intent right that floats around - but maybe a truly glorious platter for self-assembly is an art-form too, a different one. A hard one. An interactive one. Like great genius boardgame design, or great interactive interface user design, or maybe little improvisational audience-participatory theater, it's a hard task to give the user an experience they have control over, but also make it so that it's pleasurable and satisfying, instead of just an onerous task.

So I guess my question is: if I wanted to explore the idea and experience of self-assembly in food, where should I go in LA?

There's definite self-assembly aspects to a lot of Asian soup - pho, oxbone soup, soontofu, etc. - but it's sort of a one-time thing. You add your stuff, and you're done. The soup is set - you can add more spices and herbs, but you can't modulate each bite effectively. You don't get to construct each little bite as an independent entity, like with the lox platter.

I guess the closest is Korean BBQ. Especially once you're *rolling* the meat - making one roll with lettuce and a little rice and a lot of meat, and maybe a strand of onion banchan, and then making the next roll with some dduk and rice and meat, and maybe a little miso paste, and then the next one... Also, I suppose Mongolian hot pot is like this, though it's rather simple. You pretty much eat each boiled bit independently - you don't stack or roll. There's not the aspect of construction, with all its attendant contemplation and creativity.

(In Vietnamese hot pot, you end up making little spring rolls with what you boil.)

But I guess the major difference between Korean BBQ and hot pot type stuff, and the smoked fish platter, is that cooking it yourself is, well, a lot of work sometimes. The smoked fish bagel platter is the ultimate in self-indulgent laziness - leaning back in a booth on a Saturday afternoon, no more effort required than a flick of the knife and yoinking a bit of fish off the plate. (Ever read Calvin Trillin's beautiful essay, Ben's Dairy? It's about the pleasures of spending a Sunday morning running around town, pulling together the perfect ingredients for a smoked fish platter - the perfect bagels, the perfect creamed cheese, the perfect smoked fish - and then sitting down with a newspaper and slowly noshing it for a long, lazy afternoon.)

(I suddenly had the image of a person sitting in front of a korean BBQ set up - raw meat, charcoals, piles of banchan, herb platter, and demanding, "But how did the chef *intend* that I eat this?")

Anyway: sorry for all this rambling. My question is: what other forms of self-assembly food can I get in LA?

Last note: on the Langer's platter. Bagels are pretty cruddy. Cream cheese is pretty good. Smoked fish is surprisingly great - especially the whitefish.


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