Dream Assignment

Two years ago, I pitched an idea for food column to the Portland Press Herald, our standard old newspaper here in Maine. Of course I felt the idea was fantastic. Perfect. A shoe-in. Brilliant! (This, dear reader, is not gross ego. As my fellow writers can contest, it's a common passing phase in the writing process.)

Here was the idea: I would shadow immigrants cooking their favorite foods from their homelands and write stories about the adventures. Oh, what culinary tricks I would uncover: the world's anthropological treasures, humanity's evolutionary brilliance, creativity, and ingenuity, passed down through the hands of relatives and friends in kitchens all over the world and arriving here, each in a mysterious singular way, to a kitchen in Maine.

While immigrants would leave their very families behind--children, parents, sisters and brothers, friends, grandparents--they would not leave this food. They would take it, or whatever version of it they could, with them. The rigors of immigration itself naturally edit a subject which would be too massive on its own -- world food -- down to a size we can comprehend: a collection of special foods, one per month, from different countries that a person can cook in the United States. These are foods that have survived the trip and the cultural deluge imposed upon it upon arriving. This food, immigrants have insisted by the simple act of choosing to prepare it for me, is really good. More than that, it means something, and something important, at least as important as family.

Even though word on the street was that the Herald at the very time of my pitch was trying to rejuvenate the newspaper's content and appeal to a younger audience; even though I happened to be the the exact demographic of the audience they were trying to lure, they rejected the idea. Of course I have no idea why. I can guess. (Internal office politics? No one willing to let another columnist go? No money to hire anyone? To do anything? All people really want is another lobster recipe? More of the same?) Ah, the writer's life. Such grasping at nothing.

Rejection, without any lesson to be gleaned, hurts. It doesn't feel good for you. It doesn't feel like it's teaching you anything. It feels unfair, nonsensical, purposeless. But the more rejections I trudge through and the more successes I later find, I realize that rejections are inevitable steps toward realizations. Rejections carve away at something that is emerging. They inevitably cause you to refine an idea in your mind. Twist it around. Look at it in new ways. Carve parts off. As in Michaelangelo's block of marble, the shape of your realized idea emerges eventually out of what it is not.

Turns out, the thing that needed to be shaved off my idea was the old stodgy newspaper part.

I've changed my file name for rejected material from "Rejections" to "Redirections" because that's simply more accurate to what happens to the material. You hold on to something good, knowing that at some point (unpredictable when, but indeed at some point) that square hole in the world suddenly before your eyes turns round, and you slip through, into a new, better reality, including you doing want you want, which is presumably something cool.

So six months after the Herald's thanks-anyway letter, I happen to be in a bar chatting with someone who turns out to be Jeff Inglis, the editor of the Portland Phoenix, our city's alternative newsweekly. He had just lost a food writer. I was a professional writer? I'd actually cooked professionally? I have an idea? Great! Let's hear it.

He agreed with me! There's more to Maine than lobster rolls. We're not all white. We're not all yacht owners. We're not necessarily French Canadian, or Puritan, or descendants from textbook Pilgrims or fisherman. We are not cliches. We're people. In a way, we're all immigrants, each one of us unique, living out incredible stories, leaving places and arriving at new ones, forever searching for our identities.

I'm grateful to Jeff Inglis and the Portland Phoenix for the ongoing assignments, for the deadlines that force me to introduce myself to such wonderful strangers, for the flexibility to write something different than a boring old restaurant review, and for the opportunity to show a side of Maine that is real, vigorous and new. Here are the first eighteen adventures.