Nachos of Desperation
Dipping into the heat, the sweet, and the funk of the creative process
There is salsa from a jar that’s poured over late-night nachos, the instant kind made from microwaving ripped-up cheese slices on the last broken chips in the bag, assembled while in a fit of chaos. And then there is salsa that blooms on your tongue, where the flavors build in waves and linger aggressively, daring you to dip again. The heat taunts pleasure and whispers punishment. I consume both with equal gusto. They serve different purposes in life, and in all forms, salsa is the perfect food—a balance of salt, acid, heat, and the occasional sweet.
But the latter kind requires intention and patience and has no place on my nachos of desperation. I learned how to make such a salsa in a cooking class I took in Mexico several years ago. All my previous attempts at “salsa” were always pico de gallo-style roughly chopped vegetables with salt and lots of lime, thrown together as the quickest way to get to dipping. In this class, we not only chopped, but we charred and cooked the vegetables, softening them up before blending them. To me, it looked ready to eat—and I was ready to eat—but what surprised me was the second round of heat required in the recipe. Once smooth and incorporated, the mixture returned to the stove to simmer for longer, brought to the point where bubbles would slowly rise, laboriously pop, and leave soft craters on the surface. At this point, my eyes watered from the aftermath of chopping onions and the capsaicin released from the peppers, but from the aromas I knew this would be something worth crying over. As it simmered, the heat deepened the taste, releasing more of its potential. In the final step, we let it cool for the flavors to bind, for the texture to settle, for the salsa to rest.
Last Saturday, something my friend said yanked me back to this memory of me tending to a bubbling pot of habanero magma. We were catching up with each other and she asked me how writing was going. Something about the process of writing and making that salsa clicked in my head—but put that on the back burner for now.
I think about creativity a lot and how I can hack my lifestyle to optimize my creative output, especially when I’m feeling stuck, tired, or uninspired. I’m always curious to know how others approach their creative process in order to learn how I can enhance my own. But at the end of the day, all insights, advice, and philosophies boil down to one thing—just do it. Just do it! Just f*#%ing do it! I tell myself this and I do ‘do it,’ but the projects that I feel forced to finish sometimes lack a certain spark. I’m most proud of the projects I feel connected to during the process. I’m not sure if the audience perceives the difference—but I know. So really, it’s ‘just do it’ and also, ‘just enjoy it,’ but how do you hit the right balance?
I told my friend Emily over dinner last weekend how I’ve been feeling more anxious about writing and how that manifests into a weekly cadence of spiraling out. She smiles thoughtfully and acknowledges this by referring to the slew of texts I send her (and other supportive friends) mid-week that range from distracted to lethargic to panicked.
Exhibit A: Being annoying
Exhibit B: Feeling burned out
Exhibit C: “UGHGGHGUGHGHG”
Then she hits me with:
“But it seems like you have to reach this boiling point, it’s kind of part of your process.”
Damn! Jump cut to the salsa memory and I realize what my weekly meltdowns are really about. It’s the second round of heat, the extra, surprise step that releases deeper flavors, ideas, and emotions. I’ll be honest, it drives me nuts—but the final work ends up being that much more satisfying when I let myself reach this boiling point. I’m learning to embrace it as part of the recipe.
I know I’m not alone when I talk about feeling the anxiety that comes with not only writing, but all creative work—worrying about what people think, squirming about putting yourself out there, stressing out about deadlines, fearing the work isn’t good enough, being drained of ideas, etc. I also know that in reality, I am imposing most of that pressure onto myself and can take agency back once I A. get over myself and B. get some perspective. The ‘just do it’ attitude helps me to get started on a project, but it’s not a sustainable mantra throughout the process. The ‘doing’ is not just about the actual production or execution—it’s also in the ways you learn how to release and enhance the flavors. I don’t mean this as advice since understanding what works best for you is a personal experiment, but I do think leaning into the tensions reveal a lot. (Nachos of desperation also unlock many things.)
The idea of ‘second heat’ is relatively new to me. I love spicy food but I didn’t grow up eating a lot of it. The food my mom raised my sister and me on centered on umami and the combinations of dashi and marinades that give meals a subtle but complex, indescribable (in English) flavor. Umami is understood as ‘the fifth taste’ in Western culture—it’s earthy like mushrooms and sun-ripened tomatoes, savory like seaweed and dried fish. You can create most of Japanese cuisine’s flavor profile with a handful of ingredients: tsuyu, soy sauce, mirin, sake, kōji, kombu, katsuobushi, miso, and a little bit of sugar. There is a specific word for this in Japanese: kakushizato—the sugar you add to brighten the salt and mellow the acidity. Like the second heat of the salsa, kakushizato also deepens the flavor; a little bit balances the palate against the strong brine, soy, and salt. “Kakusu” means hidden, and “sato” means sugar, so it literally means the hidden sugar in a dish—not to be confused as the added sugar found in processed foods. It’s a reminder that sweetness also adds depth and unifies the whole experience.
I’m finding this to work in my own creative process. Embracing anxiety (the heat) means seeking joy for balance (the sweet), letting the work cool by connecting outside of myself (the rest). What this looks like in practice, is taking a break from writing when I’m getting too into my head and shifting into the sweet part of the process—going for a walk, talking with a friend, making
nachos dinner, etc. I used to consider these things as ways I procrastinate, but really, they bring a needed focus and perspective when I return to the work. Even if I’m not actually writing, it’s still very a generative time.
Emily and I continue talking about this salsa memory-turned-metaphor and Japanese food also because we’re sharing a plate of musubi between us while reminiscing about the days we lived in Japan together. She works in the wine industry and going tasting with her always expands my understanding and appreciation for new ways to describe tastes, smells, and textures.
She added more to these ideas about deepening flavors:
“You know, wine too becomes a complex experience only through the transformative process of fermentation.”
Later in a text she explains to me how fermentation “unlocks the natural aromas and flavors, which otherwise exist only as neutral compounds found in the skin and flesh of ripened grapes to evolve it beyond grape juice.”
I love thinking about this too, how ideas, like flavors, require time to reach their peak funk. It can take years for them to mature, as if you need to live more of your life for them to be ready for the world. Funk is usually worth the wait. I think about how I had an idea for a project about hip hop and art history over a decade ago, but didn’t know how exactly I would produce it, or if I even should! I remember all the concerts and museums I went to in that time; the classes, lesson plans, and art projects that cross-referenced music, art, and culture; the conversations analyzing albums with friends; the books, the podcasts, the documentaries I consumed—I think I needed to live all those experiences before I could really write about them. For some projects, letting ideas marinate for a short time is enough, but for others, they need to ferment. How else would they effervesce? The pressure to produce will always exist, but for the work you create for yourself—you own the process and the timeline. Just do it, just enjoy it, just honor it.
The heat. The sweet. The funk. And the balance.
After last week’s creative spiral, I needed to write this for myself. And surprisingly, I haven’t felt as anxious. I hope there’s something in here that resonates with you too, if you also get caught up in the process.
Thanks for reading, thanks for indulging me.
ありがとう Mom & Emily