Mira doesn't see just coiled white noodles and a tin foil "flavor" pouch when he looks at a package of Top Ramen. He sees exotic dishes made with the finest vegetables and meats. He sees a ramen vase, or perhaps a lovely centerpiece. But most importantly, he sees people connecting, talking, joyously laughing, all connected through the spirit of ramen.
It was this vision that led Mira to post an ad on Craigslist. A seventeen-year-old student who just goes by his glamorous last name -- please don't call him Andrew -- he attends what is now called the California College of the Arts -- please don't call it Arts and Crafts. When given a class assignment to create a project that would "connect with people," Mira thought of ramen.
"I really liked the idea of ramen and thought that it would be something people could relate to," Mira said in a soft voice as he ran his hands through his spiky dark hair. "So I decided to have a contest on the best ways to use ramen."
Just to clear up any confusion, the contest was for dried ramen only, not the good stuff they serve at authentic noodle bars. You know, the dried noodles that cost about 25 cents per package, or even less if you buy it in bulk. If you have ever been so poor you've had to forage under the couch cushions for change, chances are you're also familiar with the bland charms of Top Ramen.
The standard ramen flavors are beef, chicken, pork, and shrimp. But the ramen companies have been catering to foodies lately by adding exotic flavors such as Cajun Chicken. Of course, no matter what the flavor, the overpowering taste -- the nose, if you will -- is that of sodium and monosodium glutamate.
Like government cheese, ramen has long been seen as a kind of punishment food. The boiling ramen water murmurs accusingly: "Broke loser." But unlike government cheese, which never attained respectability, ramen transforms itself into comfort food when one chooses to eat it instead of being forced to do so. Then the boiling water approvingly murmurs: "You could have bought that can of Wolfgang Puck Basil and Tomato Soup, but instead you chose me."
For an interview to discuss ramen's nonthreatening allure, Mira chose the Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe, a tony College Avenue joint just a few blocks away from his home at the CCA campus. It was a Saturday afternoon in early December and the little café was filled with the usual gang of College Avenue holiday types: forty-something moms pushing strollers and shoppers carrying bags containing vintage Christmas ornaments that cost eight dollars apiece. People sipped hot chocolate that cost enough to buy more than a dozen packets of noodles. It was hard to imagine any of these customers ever living a life where they needed to scrounge up enough change to be able to afford a package of ramen noodles. Mira seemed to know this. He lowered his voice when he uttered the words "Top Ramen."
Mira ran his Craigslist ad for about two weeks in mid-November and received nine contest entries. All the contestants hoped to win the $50 grand prize, but perhaps they also hoped to attain the fame that comes from inventing a kick-ass ramen recipe that will be posted on Mira's Web site.
It was difficult to pick a winner. "There was a woman who had an e-mail address from Wells Fargo who came up with an idea to use Top Ramen as a kind of sifter -- like a tool instead of just a food recipe -- and I liked her creativity. But then there was the guy who was in prison for six years, and he had an interesting life, so I decided to choose him."
Mira, who is majoring in fashion design, had hoped that people would also come up with innovative ideas for using ramen as an art form. Unfortunately, aside from the inventor of the ramen sifter, most of the other contestants had limited artistic vision.
He believes the potential uses of ramen in food and art are endless. One idea he has is that instead of using a sponge, he would like to use ramen to paint with. "It would make a more ornate pattern than a sponge," he said, his brown eyes dreamily wandering off as he perhaps imagines a room with a ramen print.
In the end, Mira learned only paltry details about his winner. For instance, he didn't even know the prisoner's name or crime. All he really knew about was the recipe. "He used mayonnaise and a teaspoon of mustard in the recipe," he said. "He also said that he added lunch meat." Mira grimaced when saying "lunch meat."
Mira thinks his ramen infatuation began while he was growing up in Cambria, near Santa Barbara. Being alone after school forced him to learn how to cook, or at least how to boil water. "Sometimes, I'd just microwave a piece of cheese on a plate," he remembers fondly.
Then he had his epiphany. "I learned how to make ramen." Gradually, he began adding other things to the boiled noodles, such as cabbage, eggs, or carrots.
Mira said he once wrote an essay about ramen for English class. "It was called 'Religion and Ramen,'" he said, only half joking. "I wrote about how I contemplated the nature of relationships over a bowl or ramen."
Shortly thereafter, that day's contemplation of ramen had come to an end. The conversation has touched upon art, the realm of the spirit, and people's inventiveness using only the barest ingredients. Mira rose for a hug. He'd better get an "A."
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