Water chestnuts, throughout most of the American Midwest, usually come in cans. They appear as one of the many “vegetable” items in certain Asian dishes and, to the untrained palate, seem to offer little more than extra crunch to any given entree.
I like crunch, thus I like water chestnuts. To my way of thinking and in the context of Asian cuisine, water chestnuts have always been relatively mild cousins to the likes of canned bamboo shoots—positively crunchy and fairly innocuous in terms of taste.
A friend of mine tells a story from his childhood, not about canned water chestnuts but about canned peas. At the home of a relative, the hostess was in the process of serving up a side of peas (another non-vegetable vegetable) for him when he declared quite diplomatically, “I am not a pea fan.”
This simple statement, from the perspective of a child, underscores the fact that canned peas are a distant and somewhat challenged cousin—in terms of flavor and texture—to both flash frozen peas or the Vanderbilt of legumes fresh peas.
Fresh, flash frozen or canned? My own relationship with water chestnuts changed radically one year, after our family moved to a Big-Ten-University town. This university’s extensive Asian population supported not one Asian specialty supermarket—but four large, dedicated Asian grocers, where water chestnuts were flown-in regularly and could be purchased fresh.
Fresh water chestnuts are a completely different animal, as the expression goes, when compared to their canned cousins. Fresh water chestnuts are incredibly nutty, with a delightful depth of flavor that is not replicated in any other “vegetable” I know. And, they are crisp and ungrainy—like some of the very best fall, apple varieties. I fell in love. Who knew that an issue of processing could so radically change the nature of a simple “vegetable”—water chestnut or pea?
In thinking about this issue of changed states with processing—whether meeting a food item for the first time or, in a cataclysmic mental leap, acquainting ourselves with the personality of an individual for the first time—I wonder about what we are actually experiencing when we encounter something or someone who is not in their most authentic state of Being—not fresh.
It could be that the person we are encountering for the first time has been flash frozen by life circumstances. Flash frozen is close to fresh, but it is not fresh. And, life processing is going to change the metaphorical flavor, texture, appearance and nutritive value of any sentient being.
Or, what if—after ten years of being “canned” in the pressure cooker of her parents’ home—the hardened child has had the natural vibrancy drained from her character and/or her contributory capacities compromised to the extent that she causes problems in a classroom?
I bring this up because, when we come to encounter that person on the street who makes us want to turn away, we must behave like we know that that person is relating to the world in a processed state. Each of us should be wondering or at least curious about what another person (or we) might be like, if he (we) were able to return to an unprocessed, fresh state.
A canned water chestnut or pea can never turn back into a fresh version of itself. And, yet, the miraculous thing about people is that there are opportunities in every one of our lives to do just that—to become fresh, authentic, true. But that journey of reverse processing, if you will, in order to return to one’s freshest state is sometimes a long, challenging or seemingly impossible.
So, we need to be here for one another—with patience, kindness, good listening skills and compassion. Each one of us is in possession of a depth and breadth and set of gifts, our unique flavors, which would benefit us all, if only they could be tasted and shared.