Rice porridge is a weapon

Almost every culture has their own version of a hot, blandish dish that brings immeasurable emotional comfort. Oatmeal, porridge, potage, risotto, arroz caldo, daal—that thick bowl of something is there for cold days, sad days or when you need a bit of a hug.

For me, that dish is congee. Also called jook, or a variety of other names, it’s a creamy-tasting savoury Chinese rice porridge. It’s also the most amazing food you will ever, and I mean ever, eat.

Congee is one of my earliest food memories and still one of my favourites. Here in Toronto, I get it from King’s Noodle, a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown I’ve been going to for years. When you go, order it with youtiao (fried doughnuts) for dipping.

Taking a congee to a knife fight

I knew that King’s Noodle was going to make an appearance in Masked Desire, and it all came together when Michaela met Ivy and her parents for brunch. Because she’s a nice woman, of course Michaela would bring the others back something to eat. And because I love congee, at least one of my characters was going to love it as well (Eric was the lucky one).

The idea of using congee as a weapon came after I burnt the living hell out of my mouth. Fair warning, they serve it straight from the stove, so it’s always piping hot. Once I had Michaela walking with that boiling congee in a container and an attacker came along—yeah. He was going to get it in the face.

That was a great scene to write. But poor Eric never got that congee.

My plain congee recipe

  • Take a handful of white long-grain rice. No other rice. Not brown, not basmati. This is important.
  • Put it in a pot with 1/3 a chicken bouillon cube (I use Knorr because that’s what my mother used) and about 1.5 cups of water.
  • Add a minced garlic clove
  • Add ½ teaspoon finely minced ginger. Use fresh ginger.
  • Three drops sesame seed oil. Too much will overwhelm the congee.
  • Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, until you have a fragrant bowl of mushy rice. This does not sound appealing, but I swear it is.
  • Optional: top with soy sauce or chives.

You can go online for more recipes but really, congee is a personal preference thing. Some people like it more liquid and some prefer it thicker. Play around! You can add any protein you want, as well. Happy eating.

Podcasts are like potato chips

Or: regaining the power of silence

When I got into podcasts, I got into podcasts hard. They were my constant friend on my commute to work, doing chores, on the treadmill. Walking for more than twenty seconds meant an ongoing soundtrack of stories and news.

I loved it. It made all of the tedious parts of my day more fun. The moment I was bored, I could jam on a podcast and all was good.

So you can imagine my dismay when I picked up a book on a whim and realized that all of the concentration and creativity issues I’ve been experiencing could be due to podcast overload.

Bored and Brilliant, a podcast series (ironic, I know), book and challenge by Note to Self’s Manoush Zomorodi posits that access to constant media has dulled our ability to be bored, and with that, for our minds to dawdle and stretch. It made so much sense. The hours that I was now spending with podcasts jammed in my ears had been previously spent being…bored. Walking down the street, I’d watch people and make up stories in my head about why they were in a store buying a single fork. I had conversations with myself about scenarios that never existed. I used my imagination.

This didn’t happen when I was listening to a podcast because I was focused on the story in my ears. It was like walking with my nose buried in a book.

My creativity suffered because my concentration was on the story being told to me, not the stories I was telling myself. You might as well have put a bag over my head for the amount I was noticing in the world around me. Without that drifting time (I calculated I was losing more than 50 hours a month just with commuting and housework), writing became more difficult and I had trouble concentrating on reading more than an online article.

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I needed to take action. I decided podcasts, like potato chips, were best considered a “sometimes” treat. I would limit myself to a podcast episode a day commuting and then unlimited while exercising (where I need all the distraction I can get). If I got behind in a series it wasn’t the end of the world. Not having heard of a podcast didn’t mean I was lacking as a human being and wallowing in utter ignorance. Life wasn’t a competition for who could recognize the most podcasts, after all.

It’s been two weeks now and I do feel better. It was hard to see the notifications of the wonderful new episodes so I turned them off. When people give me recommendations, I now write them down instead of downloading a season immediately.

It’s exactly like taking a single chip instead of downing the bag.*

*Or so I imagine, since I have never attempted this. The only time this would happen for me is if someone physically removed the bag from my presence and shot it into orbit.

Why writers should read advice columns

Advice columns are my catnip. It doesn’t matter what the advice is on—could be love (it’s often love), work, relationships—I’ll read it.

Much maligned as the realm reigned over by drama queens (and kings) and agony aunts, advice columns offer a fascinating slice into the lives of people you’ve never met, who anonymously pour their innermost worries out for a global audience. Curious about how a man would deal with a reluctant step-child, or a woman on the brink of getting fired because of her attitude to her ex-husband’s mistress? It’s all right there.

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The most thoughtful section is often the comments, where readers provide insight from their own lives. What happened when they tried a similar tactic? How did they cope? Or did they deal with a completely unrelated problem they’re dying to talk about?

There’s undoubtedly an element of the voyeur but advice columns also have the potential to take us out of our own world and sympathize with what others are enduring; even gain a sense of community. Whatever problem you have—from the common to the surreal—someone’s dealing with something similar.

For writers, advice columns can be an invaluable resource. They highlight people’s selfishness, greed, grudges and prejudice, as well as generosity, understanding and support. It’s everything a writer needs to build conflict and look at the many avenues there are to resolve it.

Here are my go-tos, but tell me if there are ones you love!

  1. Ask A Manager. Although geared to work and career advice, Alison Green and her commenters often veer into the delightfully strange. Want to know what to do if you discover a sex club at work? Find out here. Comments are respectful, and Alison is quick to step in to moderate out any nastiness. Some profanity.
  2. Captain Awkward. Covering the gamut of life issues, the Captain and her Awkward army are incredibly inclusive. Her advice, lovingly given, is usually along the lines of, yes this is weird and no, you do not have to deal with it as you are worth more. Profanity.
  3. Carolyn Hax. The grand dame of the Washington Post advice world, Hax’s advice is straightforward and seems more geared to middle America. Think: my husband won’t stand up to my mother-in-law. Comments get hilariously off topic, but are flagged as OT. You need a subscription, though.
  4. Chump Lady. A supportive forum for people coping with infidelity, with open discussion of abusive behaviours and how to cope. Profanity.
  5. The Guardian. As if reading my mind, The Guardian went straight to crowdsourcing the advice and bypasses an actual advice giver in their Private Lives series. It’s all comments.

I recommend every writer do scan a few columns on a regular basis. Like everyone, writers can get stuck in an echo chamber—advice columns offer that diversity of thought that can be so hard to access in our everyday lives.