Tuesday, May 19th, 2009
“A memoirist friend of mine told me that good memoirs are written not just to tell a story, but to work something out in your own life, something that’s as yet unresolved.”
Andy Raskin’s new book would best be called “unique.” Consider: How many memoirs have you recently read in which the author attempts to control a crippling tendency toward serial infidelity by embarking on a vision quest to seek the counsel of Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles? Not so many, I’d dare to guess.
The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life (read an excerpt) is indeed a tale rife with extreme behavior: Raskin bounces from bed to bed like a latter-day Wilt Chamberlain. More than once, he flies to Japan on a moment’s notice in hopes of ambushing his way into a meeting with one of Japan’s most famous and wealthiest businessmen. He routinely frequents Japanese eateries whose chefs insist on strict adherence to codes—and culinary rites of passage—so severe as to seem abusive.
I am, myself, no stranger to extreme and mystifying habits. It would be a conservative estimate to say that I’ve eaten about five bricks of instant ramen noodles a week, on an average, for the past 20 years—and not, mind you, out of budgetary need, but as something of a lifestyle choice. For this reason, the SMITH editors apparently considered me a perfect interview pairing for Raskin. At the very least, I figured, we could bond over a shared love of saturated fats.
Ty Wenger: This is a book about ramen noodles, but on most levels it’s really not about ramen noodles at all. It is, as you write, a book about how we become slaves to our desires. How would you define the desire that was enslaving you?
Andy Raskin: I’d say if you traced it back to its roots, it was the desire to be something more than who I was, someone different.
And would it be right to say that the person you wanted to be was someone who slept with a lot of women?
No. The core desire I’m talking about was born when I was very young. I think we all at some point experience some shame about who we are, what we want. It can start with something as seemingly insignificant as being told we were wrong for wanting something, like a toy. For me, that kind of shame got really strong, and later in life I found I could numb out to it, at least for a while, through relationships. The fact that I was cheating was so repugnant to me that it often made me sick to my stomach, and most of the time I lived in utter denial about it.
Would you call what you were in the grip of a sex addiction?
I think the term addiction might fit, though I don’t think for me it was sex per se. It was more about getting a kind of attention hit from just engaging with someone new. And then when that person got too close and stopped working as a “shame number,” I’d look for someone else. And, by the way, I meant “numb-er”—as in one that numbs.
I ask because I think, for a lot of guys, we’re so hard-wired toward sexual conquest—evolution’s little legacy and all—that it’s hard not to feel, I don’t know, impressed by all the conquests; like, gosh, that doesn’t sound so bad. But it sounds like this was not fun for you at all. Did you struggle with capturing that in the writing, in making sure that the reader knew you weren’t boasting about all the women you’d slept with, but rather, I guess…apologizing?
Absolutely. That was the hardest part about writing this book. I’m not even sure if I succeeded at that. For the most part, people—especially women—tell me that I did succeed, that it feels like I’m just laying it all out in an honest way so that I can get to the root of it. The few times I’ve heard that it sounds like boasting, it’s usually been from (heterosexual) men. I wonder if that is because of something they bring to it, or if they’re seeing something that’s really there.
Well, I’m sure that at least a part of it is what they’re bringing to it. I mean, speaking on behalf of myself, I’m reading about you going from this beautiful woman in Japan to these gorgeous women in San Francisco, from this hotel room to that bedroom, and, as a guy, there’s definitely part of me that’s thinking, “Awesome!” But…and you raised this, so I’ll ask: Is there still any part of you that looks back on that part of your life and thinks, “Awesome!” Or is it all just shame and guilt and regret?
No doubt—those things were fun as they were happening. But all addictions—OK, let’s use that word—are pretty fun while you’re on the drug. Of course, the truth is that my relationships were far more complex than I portrayed them in the book—I wouldn’t say that I was simply using all the women I was with. I’d say over time, though, that my inability to get close led me to a place of despair, and that wasn’t fun. And I carry around a lot of regret, sadness over that stuff. But there is plenty of other stuff I’ve done in my life that I think was pretty awesome.
OK, shifting gears here—do you ever have a hard time explaining to people how, exactly, the inventor of instant ramen noodles ties into all of this?
Readers tell me that one of the fun parts of the book is when it’s revealed exactly how I came to be writing letters to him about my love life, so I won’t spoil that completely. But I’ll say that I was asked to write the letters to God, and when I said I wasn’t sure if I believed in God, I was asked to pick a kind of stand-in. I had just read a magazine article about Momofuku Ando, so I said, “How about this guy?”
Yeah, it seems completely implausible at first, and then, eventually it doesn’t seem implausible at all, and then, of course, it ends up being almost eerily prescient. But I won’t ruin that, either. The universe does seem to work in mysterious ways, though—at least your universe.
I like stories where it seems like you are focusing on something seemingly insignificant, but then there turns out to be something important in it. The NPR reporter Corey Flintoff once proposed that my stories constitute a genre he called “follow-through journalism,” where I start with something I should probably give up on, but I don’t. Well, there are probably others who do that, too. The problem is that I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m at a dead end, waiting for something to happen, questioning myself. And I don’t know how long I might have to wait. I was in that place for around two years with this book, and then Ando died, and then some other things happened, and only then did it start making sense as a story.
One of the things that I most admire about what you did here is your absolute commitment. I mean, there were several points in this narrative where I thought to myself, “A sane man would give up, go home.” But you don’t. And that pays off mightily for you in many ways. Was your complete commitment to this at all an act of desperation? Was there a part of you that needed to overcome this behavior so much that you were willing to, say, fly halfway around the world, several times, with little or no sense of what you would do when you got there, completely ill-prepared for what awaited you? Was that desperation? Or something else?
Momofuku Ando said that when he decided, at age 47, to build a shack in his backyard and invent instant noodles, he could do nothing “but follow in the direction of the dim light ahead.” He failed over and over, for nearly a year, to produce a dried noodle that would reconstitute in hot water. “I thought so hard about how to do it right, I began to piss blood,” he said. And that kind of sums up my experience working on this book. Commitment was part of it, but the thing that stopped me from giving up was more like faith. If you had told me five years ago that I was going to write a book about faith, I would never have believed it, but I think that’s what I’ve done.
And, in a way, do you think that it might be that ability to commit to an experience—no matter how surreal it may be—that draws you to Japanese culture? I’m thinking here of the more ridiculous (if that’s not jingoistic of me to say) aspects of Japanese food culture: the whole authoritarian thing with the restaurants with the crazy rules, and the rites of passage, and the blackballing; the whole triple-dog-dare thing. I mean, you end up in the hospital after one particularly ridiculous eating challenge. You lost an organ over a bowl of ramen! What would make a person do that?
Perhaps. Though that aspect of Japanese culture gets on my nerves, too. When I was in Tokyo doing a year of Japanese language study, I played in the student jazz ensemble, but I also went on hikes with the mountain climbing club. And this was seen as an act of betrayal by my fellow musicians. I liked growing up in a country where you’re encouraged to be well rounded, to do a lot of different things. That said, I think my family is a little obsessive about stuff, especially food. I did a This American Life piece about a fight between my parents over a soup recipe, and you can just hear how seriously they take it, how the details are so important to them. So maybe I resonate with that a bit.
Speaking of commitment, you mentioned that this book covers a fairly long time period, and involves a fairly epic quest, which makes me wonder: When in your mind did this become a book? Was there a point in which this went from being something you were doing for yourself to something you were doing for a book? And was there ever a risk of that prospect somehow clouding the organic nature of the experience—or your life?
In January ‘06, I attended the Neiman Conference at Harvard. They had all kinds of crazy-famous writers, like Jamaica Kincaid, Phillip Lopate, and a whole bunch of New Yorker staffers. Anyway, they also had a panel of agents, and one of the agents, Stuart Krichevsky, invited anyone at the conference to enter his agency’s “first pages” competition by submitting the first page of their book or book proposal. The winner got a consultation with him on developing the idea. So I wrote 250 words in the next few days, and sent it in, and he gave me the consultation. So that was the start of it. (And that page became the book’s prologue.)
As for the second part of your question, I think you’re asking if writing the book got in the way of the book, or in the way of living my life (which was the book), etc. A memoirist friend of mine told me that good memoirs are written not just to tell a story, but to work something out in your own life, something that’s as yet unresolved. And that was the case with me. A lot of my growth and the resolution had not happened when I started writing. But that all became part of it. Sometimes when talking with my therapist, she would say, “Book or life?” to make distinctions between the story I was writing and the one I was living.
OK, now, something I have to ask you, and this is definitely the 60 Minutes Harry Reasoner moment in the interview, so begin summarily squirming in your chair: Do you, sir, actually like instant ramen noodles? Because, curiously, you don’t really seem to eat them much in the narrative of your adult life (after a bit of “experimentation” in college). I ask because, as you know, one of the reasons I’m doing this interview is my rather ridiculous and, in certain circles, somewhat legendary Top Ramen habit. And I was expecting to read about a kindred soul, but it seems that you may not have consumed, say, the roughly 5,000 bricks of instant ramen that I have consumed over the past 20 years (and yes, I did the math right before the interview). Which, of course, would make you much smarter than I. I mean, I’ve obviously consumed enough MSG to kill a dozen horses.
I don’t know if I’m smarter than you, though my risk of heart disease may be lower. I’d say I’m your typical ate-it-in-college kind of guy, though there is some instant ramen that does excite me. For instance, for the 50th anniversary of Ando’s invention, Nissin introduced the “double egg pocket”—basically a well in the noodle “brick” that holds a raw egg in place so they yolk remains unbroken and in the center. And Indomie ramen from Indonesia, which often comes with five flavor packets. As my friend says in the book, “This is not instant ramen. This is theater.” By the way, do you have a favorite?
Sure, but none of that fancy stuff for me, my friend. I have, in fact, eaten the exact same dish—I rather inventively call it “tuna-ramen”—repeatedly, several times a week, ever since the day in college 20 years ago when a roommate showed me how to make it: tuna, mixed with mayonnaise, mixed with shrimp-flavored Top Ramen. And that’s VERY important, the shrimp flavoring—as the shrimp flavor combines with the tuna to make an extremely poor man’s, call it a homeless man’s, seafood casserole. Come to think of it, you may not be the only one in this interview with an unhealthy addiction.
Speaking of “addiction”—artless segue—I have a personal question: Now that the book is done, are you a practicing monogamist? Do you fall off the wagon? That would feel like something that would normally fall under the header of “none of my business,” but given the nature of the book, well, maybe it’s OK to ask….
I’m lucky not to have any substance addictions (OK, maybe Ben and Jerry’s), but there’s a philosophy in AA where you never stop saying your an alcoholic, even if you don’t drink. And I think there is something to that, because it’s not just the awareness of your problem, but adopting a life of using tools to keep you in a safe place.
The book ends with me being intimate—in a real way—with a woman for what might be the first time. That relationship has only gotten deeper, since then, and yes, I’ve been monogamous with her. One of the things I learned through all this was that my behavior with women was very much a result of some failures to have good friendships with men—my father, but also others. So the thing I’m equally proud of is that I’ve developed some great male friendships in recent years. I did a launch reading the other night in San Francisco, and there were so many male friends there. That, to me, was one of the biggest signs of my progress.
How would you compare your life now to what it was during the period the book covers. Are you happier now than you were then? Or just different…?
I’d say that I still get happy and I still get sad, and the critical voice in my head can still do a number on me. But there is a sense of peace that was missing before. Peace that comes—yes—from turning my life over to the inventor of instant ramen. So fucking weird, I know.
One last question: what’s your six-word memoir?
Ate, prayed and loved, but differently.
READ an excerpt from The Ramen King and I
WATCH Andy Raskin interview people about the influence of ramen on his love life
VISIT his website and buy a copy of the book