Monday, January 30, 2017

Breaking Eggs & Rules with Nicole Walker

Since Nicole's beat for this column, aside from eggs, is breaking the rules, in which she asks other cool kids about how they break the rules, and since she has a new book, Egg, coming out from Object Lessons (Bloomsbury) in March, I thought I'd, uh, like, break the rules and grill her instead. (Also really trying to avoid kitcheny puns.) (Also: can you grill eggs? I am guessing not.) --Ander


Ander Monson: Like with your Micrograms, the one New Michigan Press published last year, this is a small book in size, if not ambition. Is the appeal of little essays and that of little books like that of little eggs? Or eggs? I'm wondering how this strand of your work feels against the longer form stuff (long essays, memoir, etc) you do. (Or if this is kind of the fork of your work that your poetry used to occupy?)

Nicole Walker:

On Tiny Things: An Essay

I do think the mini essays began with the microcosm project and the tiny essays from that project that became Micrograms. Those essays were pointedly small, little bits of evidence that the tiny makes an impact on the large. The tiny essays interrupt the longer ways, causing trouble. I'd say the mini-essays are trouble makers. Not really occupying the space of poetry, since my poems start from a different place, but little irreverent bubbles that pop in the slow heave of the longer essays. In writing Egg, that idea metastasized. Matryoshka dolls became an organizing principle. One idea inside the other.

Ander: I think I mentioned to you in an email that one of the things I really like about this work (and your work in general) is the sense of movement, by which I mean the velocity of sideways (or as Athena calls it, "sideward," since "forward" and "backward") movement. That's usually thought of, I guess, as associative or lyric, that flicking from one gear to another. I mean, you can look at most of the essays and just find a paragraph like on 13:
When Rebecca paints, she paints with oil, not egg tempera. She paints in her studio, while in her kitchen she makes a lemon cake into which she has folded four binding eggs. She plans to share the cake. She takes the cake to the gallery owner. The gallery owner offers the prospective buyer a piece of cake. Rebecca doesn’t tell her about her eggs, the number of them or how many she has cracked. She doesn’t mention her kids. No one needs an artist who also has a brood. It’s no one’s business what we do with our eggs; that’s why their shells are opaque. No one is allowed to look in. No one’s looking back. But everyone is thinking, inside, inside, inside. That’s where the art lives. There’s a whole lot of potential in that egg. Everyone wants to hold it. Everyone loves the beginning of something even if they don’t know where the beginning will go. Eggs are the beginning because they are air and because they are glue, which is how we’ve kept it together, off and on, for so long. Alternating currents. Silence and speech. Uterus full and uterus empty. Potential potential potential. Chicken.
and we're just flying from one thing to another. We're shifting grammatically, in location, in subject, from narrative to associative to expository to metaphorical then just back to the stinger of "Chicken." I mean to say you do a lot of work in a small--egglike, perhaps--space. I'm not sure if there's a question buried in this comment except to ask you to talk a bit about how you think of your essays as moving things.

On Speed

These Object Lessons titles are so diverse: Hood, Driver's License, Tree, Earth. Earth! How are you going to fit a book about Earth in 130 pages? This is why I feel like Object Lessons is a great form for me. I love the constriction--like iambic pentameter but used like Gerard Manley Hopkins. A kind of sprung Object. I couldn't fit all there was to say about egg but I could take a number of themes about egg and try to tie them together. That theming and tying happens pretty fast, like threads of egg in egg drop soup. You want them to come together but to retain some of their individual strands. Right temperature and whisking are required.

Ander: Seems to me that this book expands the palette of the series quite a bit. In its methodologies, for sure. How did you understand the assignment of the Object Lessons series and this book's role within it? I'm wondering what kind of permission that gave you (or how you wrote against how you thought of how the books in the series work)?


On Trying To Be Someone Else and Failing

I like to break the rules. At some point even, I was mad at the rules. How was I supposed to write the history of the egg from the beginning of time, which is how I understood the project at first. The first OL I read, Golf Ball, really did go into the deep history of golf. I'm not a historian! I'm like an egg-drop-soup-making-interrupter. After banging my head against the wall for some reasonable amount of time, I realized I could only write the Egg book I could write. The cool thing about the OL series is that they have literature scholars, artists, and regular writers writing these. The idea behind the OL series is that who holds the object shapes it. I got the egg. I tried not to break it.

Ander: Can we discuss frittatas? I've never understood why anyone would knowingly make or eat a frittata when you could have an omelet. I've sent back "omelets" that I've ordered that showed up as frittatas because frittatas always seemed to me like half-assed omelets. They lack the apparent care and contrast between wrapper and wrapped, and that pleasing feeling of secret reveal that you get with an omelet when you get inside. Instead they just become a jumble, which seems somehow to me graceless. (Though I admit I am an enthusiast for hashes, which I recognize might seem counterintuitive, but then as you know my tastes in food are not always all that consistent.) You, though, who should know better (and possibly do), seem to prefer the frittata to the omelet, or at least you write more about cooking them. So: why frittatas? Is the benefit of the frittata just convenience, that you can feed a group much more easily or quickly with the frittata? That it's less fussy? That it wears its chaos better? But then what about constraint? Are we still talking about egg dishes or the book?


On Frittatas

One of the first things I cooked for Erik when we first started dating was a frittata. Or a fake frittata in that I used leftover pasta, like broccoli and sausage linguini, added a couple of eggs, added the mixture to a pan, flipped it (tricky!) and then took it with us camping. Erik sat at the picnic table, the one time in our relationship where we had a picnic table while camping, and took a bite and asked, "where is the sauce?"
     The next frittata of our relationship was in Venice Beach at a restaurant where they roasted fifteen kinds of vegetables, including your most favorite mushrooms. They cooked the veggies with eggs in the pan. Flipped it (tricky!) and served it. Erik shared it with me. Never once did he suggest it needed sauce.
     The most recent frittata I made I just whisked up some eggs and cooked them too fast in a pan. I flipped the egg mixture. It wasn't tricky because the eggs had dried out over the too-high heat. The texture was more shell than albumen and yolk. I should have found some sauce. Erik would have used ketchup.

Ander: I'm going out of order now, but it doesn't feel right to just interject new questions in among the old. I hear what you're saying about constraint, though. One thing I really like about this book is how relatively uncooked-seeming some of the parts of it are, not normally an aspiration for the book, but you include big chunks of people's stories—Margot's and Tanya's, just to name a couple obvious ones—as quotations. In this way a lot of the people in your life show up here in the book in citation or in narrative (I see I make a brief appearance too). I recognize lots of stories in here that I've heard in various conversations with you before, which is a cool insider effect for me personally and I'm sure many other people in your life. Is there something in your approach to nonfiction--or just to Egg--or to eggs or cooking that for you is essentially collaborative or social?


On Using People's Stories Verbatim in a Book You're Supposedly Writing

I had three reasons why I wanted to use other people's stories in the book. 1) The eggs are a metaphor for story and internationality. Eggs are glue. Stories are glue. Eggs are international. Stories are international. 2) I only know so much about eggs. I wanted to know what other people knew about them. How they figured culturally in their lives. How eggs described their families. Once I got those stories, I wondered why would I change them. They're little gifts, perfectly packaged already: like eggs. And 3) This book is about friendship and how you make it, lose it, if you're lucky, get it back. I thought that the stories people shared with me solidified, like a wood-smoked-veggie frittata, our friendship. Oh, and 4, if I can have a fourth reason, sometimes, I get tired of hearing myself make eggy metaphors and looking for cliches that feature the breakiness of eggs.

Ander: I should also admit here that though you've instructed me many times how not to ruin scrambled eggs by cooking them too quickly over too-hot heat, I don't think I've ever once had the patience to do it that way, so I feel like I'm missing out on something for sure. What's wrong with me? I did, however, internalize and now use a little lesson that Heather Price-Wright gave me from her dad about making omelets, how you don't actually need to use milk in the mix, how actually a couple tablespoons or two of water, mixed vigorously, actually does better. I'm not sure it actually does better for me but I no longer use milk making omelets. God damn these questions are getting me hungry.


On What Should We Eat for Lunch

Last night, after we bought a new car, which I regret (only because I hate buying anything, except groceries), we came home from our friends' house. Erik cleaned out the garage to make room for the new car, which I regret buying (because it barely fits in the garage. Truck.) and I prepared the batter for a Dutch Baby (4 eggs, 1.5 cups flour, 1.5 cups milk, pinch of sugar, splash of vanilla, tiny bit of salt) which I would make in the morning for the two kids extra we had since apparently on the  Saturday after regretful purchases, one hosts a sleepovers. I thought I'd read in some cookbook that making the batter the night before would lead to better babies but maybe that was crepes because the Dutch Baby didn't puff as it was supposed to. Flat as a pancake, it came out of the cast iron pan. We ate it with lemon and powdered sugar and my daughter Zoe said it was delicious anyway. "It tastes like lemon squares," she said.  But now I'm out of eggs and there are still 4 kids here, 1 garage-cleaning husband, and me to feed lunch. I think I'll make quesadillas.

Thanks for breaking the rules, Ander Monson. I hope you also noticed that never once did I use the word "Eggcellent" or "Eggstatic" or "Eggsquisite" in the book. I'm grateful too for your restraint.


Nicole Walker is a professional eggcentric, eggsayist, and eggalitarian. She's a reggular columnist on this site and a mustache aficionado. She's 93 letters deep in her Letters to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey series. You can read em at her blog or in Ducey's official mail.

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