We are not always ready for the things we buy. Some are better suited to a lifestyle, income or body that is beyond our means to acquire. Others require more skill to use or capacity to enjoy than we can muster. It’s almost as if they were bought by or for someone else. And in a way they were. They were bought for the person we want to become: the polo shirt with the banded cuff that is supposed to fit snugly around a meaty bicep but just dangles on my arm; a German book of essays on photography that even though entitled Introduction to the Theory of Photography is hopelessly opaque to all but other theorists of photography; my woks.
But we soon know how unsuited we are for them, and they for us. They are like a first date you quickly surmise will go nowhere.
They are often the things we buy with the least foresight and the most enthusiasm. There must be some diabolical rule of acquisitions that says that the decay of value—whether it is the utility of the object or simply the pleasure in using it—declines exponentially in proportion to the power we have invested in it to change our life. Because it almost never does.
There are lemons, of course, the odd defect, the gadget that doesn’t work as promised (think mp3 player for swimming) or is simply a scam (think balance bracelet). But most things are basically what they’re supposed to be and do what they’re supposed to do from a functional point of view (not necessarily what the packaging and ad suggests they could do). Exactly like my woks.
I have two in my kitchen, a big one and a little one. They sit in a small, ill-lit niche above a kitchen cabinet in a space that was leftover after the cooling ducts on the one side were encased in their plasterboard housing and the wall for the kitchen chimney on the other side was built. You have to be sitting in the south-side seat around the kitchen table to notice them. Big wok and little wok are like watchmen in an inconspicuous tower.
The big work is a large professional hand-hammered carbon steel wok, the little one a stick-handled, flat-bottomed pan. Matthew and I brought the big wok back from New York on our first trip together to the States. It was the least likely of souvenirs, not only because of the cumbersome size but mostly because of Matthew’s disastrous day in Chinatown that preceded the purchase.
My brother had invited us along with a few friends of his to a dim sum breakfast. They met us at the restaurant before they were to go to work. My brother designed furniture and household objects for a very avant-garde firm, chairs you couldn’t comfortably sit in, impossibly tall vases you couldn’t fill with water, stuff like that, and his friends worked at places like the Whitney and the Brooklyn Academy of Music and an ad firm whose name escapes me, admittedly as glorified gophers and entry-level graphic designers and copywriters, but they were so refreshingly enthusiastic about the city and the art and music that was happening in it. I remember he and his friends were all wearing black sweaters and jeans, but I may be confounding memories here. I do, however, distinctly remember what we ate, mostly because Matthew couldn’t or wouldn’t eat.
The waiter served us tea and others glided to our table pushing dollies with trays of steaming bamboo baskets. My brother and his friends asked for this or that dish, most of which often turned out to be dumplings, these glistening translucent pouches that looked like diaphanous string purses filled with jewels. Except that one of the jewels was often shrimp, which Matthew was violently allergic to. He wouldn’t trust any of the other dumplings, either, because he said they might have bits of dried shrimp. Which left Matthew with the barbecued pork and a squid dish he wouldn’t even look at. (This was a man whose breakfast was ordinarily coffee and cigarettes).
The teapot wound up by Matthew, who did the honors of serving. My brother tapped his finger on the table when Matthew would refill his cup. “Well, that was certainly rude,” he whispered to me. And then my brother’s friends did it, too, this tapping on the table. Matthew just stopped serving tea.
“I’m leaving New York tomorrow if you don’t get me to a place where I can have an espresso and smoke a cigarette,” he said when we finally left the restaurant. He didn’t say where he’d go but luckily it was summer and I could take him to the Village and we could sit outside at the Café Berio and he could smoke.
However much Matthew suffered at the restaurant, he was fascinated with Chinatown and wanted to go back on another day, without dim sum and after we had had a lunch that included bread. Of course, he wanted to shop. He could spend hours browsing through stores and peering into shop windows, trying on clothes he wouldn’t buy and engaging shop assistants in detailed conversations about fabric, stitch and cut. So we went back, and in the course of the afternoon bought an assortment of porcelain soup bowls and a wok. The big one.
The bowls were Matthew’s choice, the wok mine. I didn’t even think how I’d haul it back to Athens. I just wanted to bring back a bit of my brother’s like in New York with me, a life perhaps similar to the one I could have had if I had stayed in the States.
I had vaguely suspected that the wok wouldn’t really work on the electric stove we had bought after moving from Matthew’s tiny studio apartment, but I hadn’t known how badly it worked. There was only one tiny hot spot on the entire wok, which was the point at which the rounded bottom of the wok touched the burner. We had to get a propane camping stove—just like the one we had gotten rid of when we got our new stove—to use the wok, but that wasn’t much of an improvement, since the wok was huge and would slide off the ring of the burner if you weren’t holding the wok carefully.
It was actually too dangerous to cook with, and I soon gave up using it. It remained, along with the bowls, a simple memory of a trip we had taken, one that faded with disuse. It changed nothing.
On one of our last anniversaries a friend gave us the small flat-bottomed wok. In the meantime, we had gotten a new gas stove (so we didn’t need the flat bottom) and in any event Matthew had been diagnosed with hypertension so we had more or less stopped eating Chinese entirely. I used the gift wok a few times but it was too small to really stir-fry in; the contents would fly out of the wok like runaway swings on an out-of-control spinning carousel. But it’s fine I guess for a gentle sauté, the kind that my friend Natalie makes. I’ll keep big wok for a while longer, but I’ll give her the little wok for her country house.
Perhaps the greater lessons in this project are to be learned not in what I throw away but in what I am learning not to buy.