Sunday, April 30, 2006

Experiences in Translation. (Pushkin).

At the Burning Word poetry festival yesterday, there were workshops running all throughout the day. We went to one given by Ilya Kaminsky in the afternoon, having already heard his amazing reading in the morning. At the end Ilya gave an assignment, where you could make up a poem from different lines of other poems he had given us in a handout, or a new translation of one of two poems (one by Blok, another by Akhmatova) based on several different translations he included. The experience of reading various translations (and comparing them against the original Russian) brought me back to a poem that is often at the back of my mind, that I have never been able to translate myself, yet I have never found a translation that satisfied me. Lately I have been thinking about it again, of how to rewrite it in English in a way that strikes to the heart of everything that I love most about it.

By Alexander Pushkin, it begins "I loved you once;" or, in Russian, "Ya vas lyubil." It is difficult to convey, at least for me, in English, the cold finality of the Russian. The 'vas' is the formal "You," not the familiar "tebya" you would use with a lover, as in "Ya tebya lyubliu," "I love you." As in, I loved you, past tense, but no longer, I no longer see you as the woman I loved...once. That I once, in some distant or not-so-distant past spoke to intimately as "tyi."

I don't remember how Ilya put it, but he said something how poetry worked in any language, that translation didn't change the meaning of the poem. Perhaps that's not quite what he said; certainly he said it more eloquently than I could ever hope to. But it is an idea that I have always struggled with. Ya vas lyubil can be about the end of love, the end of an affair, but ultimately it speaks to everything I love most about Russian as a language. It has my favorite words, byt' (to be), mozhet (perhaps), and my most favorite word of all (surpassed only perhaps by morozhnoe, ice-cream), beznadezhno, hopelessly. If I can seperate my love for Russian as a language, the rythm of the words, the feeling as they form in my mouth, against my tongue, dive straight into my heart, from the beautiful sadness, the tenderness of letting go of a former love, then maybe I can translate this poem into English in a way that is not sentimental, that moves me the way the original does.
Eating. Cupcakes. (Columbia City Bakery, part 2).

I must confess to a debilitating weakness for cupcakes. Little tender rounds of cake, wrapped in their paper cups, piled high with frosting. There's nothing worse than a cupcake without enough icing. Actually, it's the icing I love most. Any flavor. Vanilla, chocolate, cream cheese, fluffy sweet clouds tickling my tongue. Any time I see a tray of cupcakes at a bakery I have to fight the temptation to buy one. Usually I give in.

This morning I went to the Columbia City Bakery. This is the third time this week, and I have a feeling that this is getting to be a dangerous habit. I was trying to decide on what to eat for breakfast, when my eye landed on a tray of little cupcakes. How could I resist? (There were other things I couldn't resist either, another croissant, a loaf of bread, some shortbread with cocoa nibs - the bakery isn't open on Monday or Tuesday, and I needed enough to tide me over until Wednesday). I managed to wait until after dinner to break open the box and dive in. It was heavenly, a little carrot cake spicy with ginger and a mountain of icing. Practically equal amounts cake and frosting. The cupcake was moist and the icing was perfect, smooth, creamy, airy, and not too sweet. I've only just finished eating it and I already want another one.
Cooking. Cook's Illustrated. (chicken teriyaki).

I discovered Cook's Illustrated from reading Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte. She described it as having text as dull as dishwasher instructions. Certainly, it has few pictures and extremely straightforward writing. Personally, I find it hilarious, in that unexpected, unintentional way that people who are very dry can be. And the recipes always work. There is something to be said for a recipe that has been exhaustively tested with every variation possible to find the perfect ingredient, perfect combination, perfect method for a dish. Everything I've tried has turned out perfectly (more or less). Biscuits come out high and flaky, lasagne comes together quickly and easily, cakes are moist and tender.

My favorite recipe is the one for chicken teriyaki, which I make often. (Tonight, for example). It requires boning chicken thighs, which is boring and tedious although not difficult, but you need the skin (boneless thighs come skinless, and chicken breasts dry out easily and tend to blandness. The writers at Cook's Illustrated aren't kidding when they say they've tried everything, so there's a reason they call for bone-in thighs, deboned). The crisp skin makes a contrast to the juicy meat, the sauce is perfect, slightly sweet, with hints of garlic and ginger. I always serve it with steamed broccoli and rice, and it's the perfect meal.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Something new. Kaminsky.

The exact details are all a blur to me, but somehow I wound up at Burning Word, an all-day poetry fest on Whidbey Island. It was a random sequence of events, a chance mention from a friend, and there I was. With great difficulty I staggered out of bed at 6:30 on a Saturday morning (agony!) and into the shower, dressed and had breakfast at the Columbia City Bakery (savory croissant with squash and feta; brilliant and delicious), woke my friend when (so he told me) his cell phone vibrated off the table and onto the floor, and hit the road. I'd never been to Whidbey Island on my own; naturally, I got lost somewhere south of Mukilteo and took a few minutes (or ten) to get back on the right track. A quick ferry ride and a short drive to the Greenbank Farm, and I was there.

The main event was a series of readings in a converted barn, which began at 10 am and went on all day, at times hilarious, heartbreaking, beautiful, and excruciating. And then there was Ilya Kaminsky. I must admit that I have little experience with modern, or I should say contemporary, poets. This experience of hearing people read their own was entirely new to me. Until now.

I spent my late teens to early twenties, obsessed with Russian, or I should say, Soviet literature and poetry of the twentieth century, Akhmatova to Zamyatin and pretty much everything in between (as I said in an earlier post, this all seems part of another, distant time). Kaminsky is new; he is young, not too much older than I, and in some works he looks to the past but burns so brightly with the passion of his own, present time. On the page, his words are captivating; on the stage, Ilya is electrifying. What I remember best is his reading of Musica Humana [an elegy for Osip Mandelstam]. His voice booms out, a rolling mixture of his native accent (and I would give anything to hear him read his poetry in Russian, even if I can't understand it all) and the slightly dissonant voice of a man who has been deaf since the age of four but is unafraid to speak out. An uncontrollable, alive, crescendoing river of words. It is a beautiful poem, the story of Mandelstam, the poet who suffered imprisonment and exile in Soviet Russia and who died in Stalin's gulag, and his wife Nadezhda, who memorized his poems because on paper they could be destroyed. Whereas in memory they remained as words of flame, immortal and indestructible, passed down for generations to reach us in the present.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Reading. Tsvetaeva.

I had read a lot of Russian poetry during a time when I spoke Russian, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and later, Yevtushenko (all of this seems to belong to another, distant life), but strangely I had never read anything by Marina Tsvetaeva. I had been looking for something else (as so often happens), and came across a slim volume of selected poems. The cover has a photograph of the poet; intense eyes gazing straight at you, through you, from beneath black, uncompromising bangs cut straight across just above those dark wings of eyebrows. A long, straight nose, rouged lips, pale skin. Her poetry, her words are as starkly beautiful as her face. Love, parting, poetry, all matters of life, bloom on the page like dark flowers, intoxicating and enticing and terrifying all at once.

It feels strange to read poetry in translation; I always feel like something is lost. What I love most about poetry is how words and language and passion and ideas merge, collide, intertwine like the seperate melodies of a Bach sinfonia that come together, distinct yet inseperable. I feel I need to go back and read Tsvetaeva in her original Russian, because part of what I love about Russian poetry is the language itself. The letters, the sound each word makes in my mouth, the weight of it.

Either love is
--A shrine?
or else a scar.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Eating. Salumi/Columbia City Bakery.

I've been hearing about Salumi for a couple of years now. It's now a Seattle legend, how Armandino Batali, a retired Boeing engineer, set up shop in Seattle's Pioneer Square to sell hand-cured Italian meats, how at lunchtime the lines snake out the door and down the block, how the aforementioned Boeing engineer just happens to be the father of New York restauranteur/Food Network star/Iron Chef Mario Batali. Way too many Seattle restaurants proudly proclaim that they carry various Salumi products; I find it exasperating. I've driven by the tiny storefront, late at night on my way home from the symphony. Yet somehow I've never made it there. I think all this will change now.

The idea of standing in line for a sandwich has never appealed to me. First of all, I hate driving to Pioneer Square. I hate driving anywhere I have to find parking, and I hate finding parking in Pioneer Square more than any other neighborhood of Seattle. And I'm too impatient to stand in line for anything, even food. But as it turns out, you can call ahead and order something, and then you can skip to the head of the line. I don't know if this works for individual sandwiches, but my boss held a lunch for a client, and she decided to try Salumi, which she had heard so much about. It was then I found out you could call ahead (a day or two in advance for large orders) and we wound up with various hot and cold meats. It was sublime. I have a deep fondness for offal, and the pork cheeks braised with herbs, tender and spicy, were everything I could hope for. The meatballs were huge, juicy and nearly as large as a fist. There was something I think is called porchetta, thick slices of what looked like sausage, but even better. And various kinds of salamis, something that looked like tongue but probably wasn't, and cubes of cheese, some kind of provolone, if memory serves. I may have to consider braving the hell of parking in Pioneer Square for this kind of food. But I'll still call ahead.

All of this needed bread. I had also been hearing about the Columbia City Bakery, not too far from my house, and we have been meaning to try it. As there was no way I could be up and out of the house by 7 (when the bakery opens), my boss headed over (well before 7am, apparently, and wound up waiting impatiently on the sidewalk outside) and came back with loaves of bread still warm, and then she presented me with a ham-and-cheese croissant. It was piping hot from the oven, and absolutely heavenly. I am always searching for the perfect croissant, and I think that I have found it (aside from my own home-made ones, but that's another story). The crust is crisp, with the incredible flavor of browned butter, shedding a few flaky crumbs as you bite into it, and gives way to a tender, elastic interior that stretches as you eat it. Barely awake and eyes half-open, I could only eat and moan with happiness all the way to work. The bread was excellent, but the croissant is what will keep me going back for more.

All you need for a fantastic meal is some really good salami and fresh bread. Salad, fresh fruit, and ice cream later...ultimately, it is the simplest things in life that are the best.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It's all about the timing. (cooking).

I'm having steak and mashed potatoes for dinner tonight. I've timed things precisely, so the pan was on one burner pre-heating for the steak while the water came to a boil for the potatoes on the other side of the stove. This morning, before I left for work, I marinated the beef in a little olive oil, smashed garlic, and soy sauce. The potatoes were peeled and sliced and left soaking in water. When I get home, dinner is ready in about 20 or 30 minutes. The steak cooks in a heavy cast-iron skillet; it rests quietly on a plate so the juices have a chance to settle while I finish boiling and mashing the potatoes.

Cooking is all about timing. Not just knowing when the meat is done, or the vegetables are just tender but still crisp, but timing all the other dishes so that everything is ready at the same time. It took me years to learn how to get dinner together for my family, and I still don't always have it down. Sometimes the vegetables overcook while I'm wrestling the chicken into and out of the oven. Or they're done too soon and grow cold on the table. If I were more organized I would take notes on how to time things correctly; some things I've done so many times I don't need to. One of my favorite dishes, pasta with steak and mushrooms, I've got timed perfectly. The water comes to a boil while I chop vegetables and slice steak. The pasta cooks while the beef is quickly seared on all sides, the onions browned, the mushrooms sautéed just until cooked, everything simmered in a splash of red wine and beef broth (if I've got some on hand). The wine thickens, reduces, and the pasta is just shy of al dente. Everything is tossed together, dished out in bowls; dinner is ready and it's time to eat. When there are more people, and more dishes, it's harder. It takes practice. An extra oven set to low heat helps, too.

Dinner was perfect, by the way, the steak crusty and medium-rare, the potatoes buttery and smooth. Everything cooked at the right time, still hot on the plate in front of me. Happiness, I think, is a good steak, with mashed potatoes on the side.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It's all about the timing. (literature).

"Love is all a matter of timing," says Chow Mo-Wan in the movie 2046, "it's no good meeting the right person too soon or too late." I'm not sure which woman he is referring to, Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung, from the previous movie, In the Mood for Love), the second Su Li Zhen (Gong Li), or Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi). Maybe he meant all of them, that they were all the right woman at the wrong time.

Books are like people. You have to find them at the right time to love them. Almost every single book (or writer) that I have loved, I had previously disliked, or ignored. For some writers, when I discovered them, I was at the time distracted by another writer. Some time had to pass before I could return and be enthralled by them in turn. Sometimes I was just too young to appreciate or understand. Maybe you have to be at the right point in your life to catch hold of a certain way of thinking, of expressing thoughts and emotions in a way that you couldn't before. Maybe it is another writer that leads you back to the first one, the way Bukowski led me back to Ferlinghetti, or Eco back to Borges.

But unlike people, you can always return to books. They will always be waiting for you in their shelves, across time and space, waiting for the moment when you will come back, pick them up, lose yourself in their pages. Not like people, with whom there are rarely second chances. Who move on, and then the moment slips by and is lost forever. Literature is eternal, the chances for love endless. I think this is what I love most about literature, this mysterious garden of forking paths, that circle around and intersect with themselves unto infinity. Each book a different path that leads to the next, and then if you do not love it then, you move on until a chance leads you back to your beginning. But something has changed you, and you are once again open to the work in a way you hadn't been before, open to the mysterious ways of love and life and perhaps a new way of thinking...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand: Italy.

I have a friend who takes notes when he goes out to dinner, jotting down every course and the wines served in a little notebook. I'm not that organized. Lately, however, when I travel, I describe the meals I've had in my journal so I'll remember them later. Of course, when I get home, the notebook gets lost somewhere in the depths of my room, and months pass before I find it again. And then I find it, and read it, and suddenly I am back in Tuscany on a cool summer evening, eating dinner on the terrace of our hotel, looking out at rolling hills covered in vineyards as far as the eye could see.

I spent two weeks in Italy last summer, the end of July and the beginning of August. There were wonderful meals, from the simplest prosciutto panino at a roadside café to a dinner that spanned several courses over three hours. I managed to eat prosciutto at least twice a day, gelato once a day, and tomatoes at practically every meal, if not every dish. Here are the three meals that stand out most clearly in my journal (the fact that they were also the three most expensive meals of the trip is completely irrelevant):

1) Firenze. Alle Murate. Some restaurants we found in guidebooks, but this one we found by chance. Wandering through the narrow streets of Florence, past cathedrals, through squares, over the rough cobblestones of one of my favorite cities in the world, we passed a glass store-front, strikingly modern against the classical architecture surrounding it. Through the windows we looked into a smallish front room with banquettes along the walls, so starkly furnished that at first I didn't realize this was a restaurant. It looked more like one of those luxurious modern furniture stores that requires an appointment just to walk in, rather than a place to eat. Then you stepped back and realized that you could just see the feet of the dining tables and chairs on the mezzanine level, above our heads. There were women moving around inside, one polishing the endless expanse of glass windows. She told us that they didn't open until 7:30, but we were welcome to make a reservation. An hour or two passed while we wandered around the city, and then it was time for dinner. We were the first customers of the evening. An older woman came out, and seated us in the banquettes in the front room. Apparently you first sat down in the front room, drank a glass of sparkling wine, and looked over the menu. You were not seated at your table in the inner dining room (or upstairs) until after you'd ordered your meal. While we pored over our menus, they served perfectly round crostini with precisely trimmed layers of tomato and mozzarella cheese, each layer the same size (small) and thickness (thin). It was delicious, sweet (tomato), creamy (mozzarella), and crispy (toasted bread). A promise of good things to come. And then the real dinner began. First came a carrot soup, intensely sweet and smooth. Then came a dish of cuttlefish cooked with peppers, the flavors mingling surpisingly in the mouth. Next came tortelli filled with eggplant, light as pillows. A delicate souffle of green beens followed, with the sweetest caramelized cherry tomatoes on the side, not the sweetness of sugar but the purest sweetness of tomatoes at the absolute peak of ripeness, roasted until the flesh and skin began to brown, almost blacken. The main course came next, and it was a revelation. Later I learned that this was the signature dish of the restaurant, beef braised for seven hours in Brunello di Montalcino until unbelievably tender, infused with the flavor of the wine, mellowed and deepened by the slow cooking. On the side were mashed potatoes, the kind that seem to be equal parts butter and potatoes. Finally, my dessert turned out to be a yogurt tart, airy and creamy, not dense like a cheesecake. It was one of the best meals of my life, elegant and refined, but utterly unfussy, uncomplicated, unpretentious.

2) Porto Venere. Le Bocche. Another restaurant we found by chance, in the town of Porto Venere, just south of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre. The restaurant was right by the water, in the shadow of the ancient fort that guarded the mouth of the harbor. We ate outside, under giant canvas umbrellas. It was a beautifully simple meal. I had a carpaccio of sea bass to start. Thin, translucent, white slices of fish draped over the plate, barely dressed with lemon and olive oil, with a handful of chopped arugula in the middle and pine nuts sprinkled over everything. Incredible. It was a play of contrasts, the sweetness of fresh raw fish, the bitterness of arugula, the earthy smooth feel of olive oil, the bright tartness of lemon juice, and the nutty aroma of pine nuts. Then I had bavette, a flat spaghetti, with spiny lobster, and a tomato sauce that had just enough hot pepper to give it warmth without spiciness. Absolutely wonderful. This is the kind of food I come to Italy for, simple, unadorned seafood at the height of freshness and uncluttered with uneccessary flourishes.

3) Rome. La Rosetta. We found this restaurant in the guidebook, and it just so happened to be the last night before it closed for the August holidays. It was just my mother and I, having left my father behind in Pisa. Or perhaps it was Lucca; I can't remember. Apparently La Rosetta was famed for its seafood; there were so many choices it was hard to decide. I started with red snapper, encrusted with vermicelli and surrounded by vegetables. My mother had squid with potatoes, a dish she ordered at every opportunity (several months later, she would do the same across Portugal and Spain, but I will save that story for another time); this version came with a cool, minty sauce. Then came linguine with Meditteranean lobster (a different creature from the spiny lobster the week before) and tomato sauce. Finally, I had bass cooked with mussels, shrimps, cherry tomatoes, olives, and potatoes. It was beautiful, a symphony of seafood. At last, it was time for dessert, the most amazing tiramisu I have ever had. (I remember with perfect clarity the first time I had tiramisu, at the house of a friend in Formia, not far from Naples, in 1994; this was even more extraordinary). A layer of espresso-soaked savoiardi, an ethereal mascarpone cream, powdered chocolate, a scoop of the best coffe granita I've ever tasted, all topped with a snowy drift of whipped cream. It was the perfect end to the perfect meal. A plate of jewel-like petit fours followed, chocolate and lemon and all sorts of different flavors, but we were so full that all we could do was stagger back to the hotel and save them for later. A long time later. Like the meal at Alle Murate in Florence, it was simple and elegant and completely, absolutely perfect.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Reading: On literature and Umberto Eco.

I find Umberto Eco's fiction incredibly difficult. It took me several years to finish Foucalt's Pendulum (which, I must confess, I never quite understood), and I have the rather uneasy feeling that I have never actually finished The Name of the Rose. I have read nearly all the novels, if not all the way through, and they always leave me feeling completely and utterly lost. Perhaps it would be easier in Italian. But it is his essays in which I find myself time and time again, falling down the rabbit-hole of his thoughts on literature and other aspects of modern life. I have never understood semiotics, nor do I wish to, so I avoid some of his more theoretical works (which leave me dizzy and confused), but what I love most (aside from the hilarious essays of How to Travel with a Salmon, which I read aloud to anyone who will listen, and the dissertation on blue jeans in Travels in Hyperreality) is the works which explore everything he loves most about literature and brings me, the reader, deeper into the heart of the matter of why we should read. When I die, what I want people to say of me (aside from remembering my mostly excellent cooking and notoriously distracted driving) is that I was literate. Ferociously, passionately, obsessively, literate. In Eco, I find this incredible mind that makes me want to read even more, who makes me almost understand what my role is as a reader. His words take me on endless journeys into the depths of every work he mentions, referencing everything from his own books to The Three Musketeers, and everything and anything imaginable in between. When I read Eco on literature, I feel like I am beginning to understand myself and my relationship with literature more clearly. He seems to take everything I love most about books and writers and words and puts them so beautifully and eloquently, more intelligently and coherently than I could ever hope to. Perhaps I should have studied semiotics, after all.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Cooking: Lasagne.

It's late but I'm making a lasagne, for a party tomorrow. A white one, with sautéed mushrooms and zucchini layered with mozzarella cheese, noodles, and a béchamel sauce. All topped with grated parmesan cheese and baked until bubbly and golden on top. This time I borrowed a Cuisinart, because last time it took me over an hour to finely chop two pounds of mushrooms, two zucchinis, and an onion. I wanted to stab myself through the heart before I was half done, like Vatel, only with my Henckels chef's knife instead of a sword.

I think lasagne was one of the first things I learned how to cook. I must have been in middle school; this would be the one of the first real things I made, from a recipe, using the oven (previously forbidden territory, for, ahem, safety reasons). First we tried a recipe from the back of the noodle box. Your basic ground beef, tomato sauce, noodles, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. It was good, and we made it for scores of parties. Later, my friends and I invented (in our own way) a vegetarian lasagne, a medley of vegetables, tomato sauce, ricotta cheese, tons of spinach, and a vast quantity of cheese. In the past few years we've always made the lasagne from America's Test Kitchen, a PBS cooking show that is as unintentionally hilarious as the magazine published by its producers, Cook's Illustrated. Although usually we substitute spicy Italian sausage for the ground meat in the sauce and sprinkle a little extra cheese on top. I think, for me, lasagne has always been the quintessential comfort food. Something to lift the mood, make everything cozy. It's a project for a rainy afternoon with a few hours to kill, time-consuming, from chopping vegetables to browning meat to letting the sauce simmer, then layering everything in a big dish, then the endless wait as it bakes, and then the final few minutes of impatiently sniffing at the rich, comforting aroma rising from the table until at last, it's ready to cut and you can dive in. If you don't let it cool once out of the oven, it collapses on the plate, a muddle of sauce and noodles and oozing cheese. But still delicious. I have never had a bad lasagne, at least not a bad homemade one. There have been béchamel sauces that burned (I think once we melted the plastic coating on the whisk), sauces that were too runny and caused the whole dish to sink in the middle and erupt around the edges, failure to buy enough cheese, foil that stuck to the top layer and left bare patches of tomato sauce peering glumly through islands of parmesan...and yet the end result is always good. Even if I don't follow the recipe to the letter, lasagne has never let me down. There are so many kinds, just waiting for me to try them all. I can't wait.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Listening: Modest Mouse.

Today was a beautiful spring day here in Seattle, sunny and cool, flowers blooming everywhere. I got to leave work early and do my favorite thing to do in this city - drive along the lake while listening to Modest Mouse. I took a winding road that twists and turns along Lake Washington, my favorite route, heading south, with a view of the water and Mt. Rainier in the distance. It was a good drive. I only had to swerve around two bicyclists. I learned to drive on this road. I know every bump and curve, how to time the music so that my favorite song ends just as I pull into my garage. Whenever I'm on this road, I know I'm going home. Soon, I'll be moving. My life is about change. When I move I won't be going home along this road anymore, so now I take this route whenever it's a beautiful day out...

I have to say that I care more about literature than I do music, that I fall in love with literature in a way that I never do with music. That is not to say that I don't like music; I do, but it has never made me feel the way books do. Modest Mouse is the exception. I first heard them on this road, in a friend's car, weaving through the darkness. It was something new. I bought the cd. It took time to fall in love, as it always does for me. I listened to it whenever I was in the car, and I was always driving. Then I bought another cd. I didn't like it at first. Again, it took time. Months. Then it replaced the first cd. Two other cds have replaced the first two, but I think I will go back to them again. Or perhaps take a longer road trip and listen to them all. It's hard to say what it is I love about Modest Mouse. The closest thing I can describe is that when I listen to their music I feel the way I do when I read Bukowski. The same shiver against the skin. That feeling of drunken, dizzying, happiness. The feeling that I get when I drive along that long, twisting, winding road that twines around the lake...That feeling of feeling absolutely free and at the same time held in a long embrace by someone you love. Of going home.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Reading: Bukowski. (Fiction).

I'm not sure how it happened, but it all started with Post Office. Somehow I was scanning the shelves at the bookstore for something to read on a trip to Italy, and it caught my eye. For years my glance had slipped past Bukowski, searching for something by Bulgakov (conveniently, alphabetically to the right) and ignoring the many, weirdly titled books to my left (what on earth could a book called Notes of a Dirty Old Man be about?). It was time for something new. I slipped the book in the bottom of my suitcase, beneath layers of t-shirts and balled-up socks and tubes of sunscreen, and forgot about it for the first ten days of my trip. I saved it for Rome.

In Rome I lay on my bed in our hotel room and fell into the world of Henry Chinaski, a world of drinking and smoking and writing and sex. And the endless drudgery of a post-office job punctuated only by drinking and smoking and writing and sex. It was funny. I liked it. I laughed out loud, sprawled across the bed in a room overlooking the rooftops of nearby Roman apartment buildings, with their tv antennas and lines of laundry, and when my mother asked me what I was reading and would she like it too, I told her she wouldn't. There was something so relaxed, easy, natural, if that's the right word, about his writing. The texture of his words. I was falling into something new, a totally different world. But I wasn't in love, not yet. That comes later.

I came home, and headed back to the bookstore. There were more novels about Henry Chinaski. Post Office was just the beginning. I had to read more. Women came next. I read it sitting in a booth at my favorite pub, by the window. It was a bright September day. I remember reading the conversation between Chinaski and Dee Dee, the part where he tells her not to love him, and so she replies, "All right, I won't love you, I'll almost love you. Will that be all right?" And feeling that moment when you find that connection with a book, or a person, or a work of art that you hadn't felt before. The beginning of love, or the beginning of the realization that you are in love. But it was a passage later on, several chapters (and women) later (and I have to say, I was constantly confusing all the women in the novel. When I read this book again, I will take detailed notes to keep track of all the women coming in and out of Henry Chinaski's life. I don't know why I was surprised. The book is called Women, after all), that stopped me dead. He's waiting at the airport for a woman he calls Katherine, and describes himself as "225 pounds, perpetually lost and confused, short legs, ape-like upper body, all chest, no neck, head too large, blurred eyes, hair uncombed, 6 feet of geek, waiting for her." It was at the "6 feet of geek" when I fell in love with Bukowski.

Reading Bukowski is a bit like falling in love with the last person on earth you ever thought you would love. Like being hit by a train that you didn't see coming because you were looking in the other direction. But then you wonder how you could not have loved him before, seen him before. And that now you feel things in a way that you never thought you could have in that other, previous life.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Eating: Snacks.

Every few months, my parents come back from Taipei bearing a suitcase filled with various snacks. They range, as is typical of Taiwanese food, from being absolutely delicious to being slightly horrifying. Usually the treats include pineapple cake, dense little squares with a thin, slightly crumbly layer of cake encasing a thick, sweet pineapple jam, practically a pineapple fudge. You eat one and you're full for hours. Another favorite is thin sesame wafers, black or white sesame, that crunch between your teeth and melt away on the tongue. Best of all are the cookies, rolled up with a peanut or sesame filling and then sliced into oval rounds. They crumble as you eat them, sweet and very slightly gritty, fragrant with the nutty aroma of sesame seeds or peanuts. Sometimes there are mochi balls, a shell of sticky rice paste filled with sweet bean paste (everything comes filled with sweet bean paste, red or green, or sesame paste, white or black, or peanuts or lotus-seed paste, or some unidentifiable goo that I can't figure out because I can't read Chinese).

This most recent trip brought a new treat I had never seen before. It was a little weird, sort of do-it-yourself. A beautifully wrapped box revealed individually wrapped packages nested in a plastic tray (all of these treats come this way, resting in a little tray that is sealed within an extremely difficult to open package, nestling alongside all the other little packages, on a plastic tray divided so they stay precisely arranged in rows, within a elaborately printed and decorated box, the whole thing wrapped in pretty paper, or sometimes layers of contrasting papers, and tied with ribbons). Opening one of these packages revealed another little package with two pieces of wafer cookie, and yet another squishy package filled with, what else, red-bean paste. You were supposed to squeeze the red-bean paste from its wrapper into one half of the wafer cookie, stick the other half on top, and then eat it. It was an awful lot of trouble to take for a little dessert, especially since I couldn't even get the packet of red-bean paste open. When I finally got it open, it just came out in gobs, hardly appetizing, not to mention difficult to mold into the cookie. I had to use a knife to spread it on the wafer. In theory, packaging the the cookie and the filling seperately means that the wafer doesn't get soggy and therefore makes a light and crispy contrast to the rich, sweet filling. In practice, it is a pain in the ass. But a delicious one.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Reading: Ferlinghetti. (Poetry).

It is so strange to look back and see the path you took to fall in love with someone, twisting and curving behind you, a trail of smoke and memories. I can vaguely remember reading a Ferlinghetti poem for an art history class, but I remember nothing else about it save that he was the author. The way I might fall in love with a guy that I only vaguely remember meeting months before, and I can only remember that I met him, nothing more. With Ferlinghetti it would take seven years before I picked up A Coney Island of the Mind (how that came to pass is another story, for another time) and gradually fell into the rhythm of his words. It was the title that called to me, and the poems themselves, Autobiography in particular, that drew me in deeper into this "circus of the soul." That was the beginning. Then I found European Poems and Transitions: Over all the Obscene Boundaries. I read it, late one night, and I dreamed of Paris, where I've never been. I was lost in his words, wandering through the cities of the poems in my dreams, gently drifting into that slow, endless free-fall that is love.

And then came A Far Rockaway of the Heart. Written some forty years after A Coney Island of the Mind, it feels like an echo, not a faint memory, but a deeper, richer, more emotionally reverberating sound than the previous book. I have been reading it and re-reading it; my favorite poems are so beautiful I feel my heart cracking wide open as the words seem to rise from the page and embrace me. Every night before I sleep I have to read about his parents falling in love or the young people in the Piazza della Rotunda who are deaf to everything except "the distant roaring of their futures." And when I read these poems I hear the distant roaring of my own future, and dream of the life and love that I hope is waiting ahead.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Kitchen Disasters: Fire.

I'm notorious for setting things on fire. Usually it's because I put the steak or a rack of lamb too close to the broiler element. A typical conversation between my father and I goes like this:

dad - "You've put the meat too close to the broiler. It's going to catch on fire."
me - "No it won't."
dad - "Yes it will."
me - "No it wo..." whoosh.

He runs to the oven to grab the flaming meat, I run to the kitchen door to open it so he can carry the roasting pan outside. A few minutes in the cold air and the flames die away. Our ovens have little windows in them, so you can see whatever you're cooking; when the food catches on fire it's like having one of those little fireplaces that have fake logs and gas flames. It looks cool until the panic hits you and you run to save your dinner (and to, you know, prevent the house from burning down).

But my most impressive achievement came one day when I was alone in the kitchen and there were no witnesses. This is the moment I like to call the Great Flaming Whiskey Disaster of 2005.

I had been experimenting with different ways of cooking steak. Lately I'd been searing my steaks over a medium flame, in a heavy enameled cast-iron skillet made by Le Creuset. "Pour some whiskey over your steak," said D., my co-worker, "it'll taste better that way." You can see where this is heading. So I seared my steak for a few minutes on both sides, until crusty and approaching medium-rare. There was a bottle of whiskey standing nearby, ready for pouring. I took the pan off the flame and carried it over to the table, poured what I thought was a modest amount of whiskey over the steak, set the pan back on the stove, and turned away to screw the cap back onto the bottle. As I turned back towards the stove, I heard a muffled whoooomp. In my peripheral vision, a blue flash of light blinded me, sending me reeling for a brief moment, and when I could see again there was a column of orange fire shooting straight up from the pan. Three feet in the air. The flames reached up to the exhaust hood over my stove, licking at the fluorescent light inside the hood. It felt like forever until all the whiskey burned off and the flames died, but it was probably only a minute or so. All I could do was stand there, horrified, while visions of my house burning down around me danced in my head. The steak was fine, perfectly charred around the edges, juicy and tender within. But it will be a long time before I attempt this particular trick again.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Reading: Gadda.

Several years ago, I started reading That Awful Mess on Via Merulina, by Carlo Emilio Gadda, and I have to say that this is the most difficult book I have ever tried to read. I felt like I was floundering in a net, bound by the snarled knots of Gadda's impenetrable language, fighting against the current of his dialects and the unraveling threads of sentences. After a time I gave up and went back to Umberto Eco; now, eight years later, I have plunged back in and I find myself again lost in the sea of words...Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium (the chapter entitled Multiplicity) gives a little insight, but otherwise I will have to slowly pick apart this awful (and I mean awful in the most beautiful sense) mess of a novel and absorb it word by word. It may take me another eight years to get through it all.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Tasting: Chocolate.

My boss loves chocolate. She eats it all the time, everywhere, and keeps stashes hidden in dark corners. A few weeks ago she broke out a special bar as a reward during a piano lesson and got chocolate-y fingerprints all over her piano teacher's beautiful, impeccable antique piano. I doubt either the piano or the teacher will ever recover. She only likes the darkest, bitterest kinds, and we are forever searching for new ones. So far the top favorites are the truffles from La Maison du Chocolat, sent to us by my generous mother after a trip to Paris, and the bittersweet 85% cacao bars from Recchiuti in San Francisco. The latter are the smoothest, richest tasting plain chocolate bars I've ever tried, pure and dark, neither too sweet nor too bitter, a difficult balance to strike. Tonight we went to Trader Joe's after work and came home with armloads of orchids and chocolate. The boss sat in the backseat surrounded by plants and passed me different chocolates to try on the drive home; the Valrhona 85% was tonight's winner. (The Recchiuti remains unbeaten).

A few weeks ago, the boss presented me with a bar of Scharffen Berger 99% cacao unsweetened chocolate. I used it to make chocolate pudding and the pure intensity of it left me practically vibrating for hours afterwards. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Reading: Ginsberg.

I have a terrible habit of reading several books at once. Last week I was reading The Poem that Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later. I last read Howl when I was in high school; my mind was on other writers at that time and the impact of Ginsberg's poem did not hit me until now. Now it hits me with the explosive force of a bomb, something that changes everything I ever thought I knew, everything I've ever felt about language and literature and poetry. Every once in a while something comes along that totally, completely shatters everything you thought you knew about love or life or literature or yourself and you have to build yourself up again from the beginning. Howl is one of those things.
Recipe experiment: Beef and Guinness stew.

It all started when I absent-mindedly purchased several pints of Guinness at Whole Foods without really considering the fact that I might have to drink it. The problem with shopping at Whole Foods is that you are frequently seduced into buying foods you don't know how to cook (I think I have some sweetbreads in my freezer that have been there for at least a year, maybe two, but that's another story) or beers that you don't drink. So what to do except cook with it? I had made a beef carbonnade a few years back that had not been entirely successful; this time I would use short ribs and oxtails. It would be a Sunday afternoon experiment.

I started with heating a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy, 5 1/2 quart dutch oven. I had dusted my oxtails (four or five meaty joints) and beef short ribs with flour; I browned the pieces of meat in the hot, barely smoking oil until browned on all sides, a few pieces at a time so as not to crowd the pot. The browned meat went into a bowl to rest while I browned the onions. One or two onions, halved crosswise and sliced thinly, sautéed in the hot oil until translucent and brown around the edges, but not burned. The beef went on top of the onions. I cracked open a can of Guinness and poured it into the pot. Immediately a wave of foam soared upwards and threatened to overflow. Memories of the flaming whiskey disaster of 2005 flashed through my mind. Fortunately, the foam subsided. Turned the heat down, covered the pot, and let the stew simmer for a few hours. I had chopped several carrots into one-inch chunks; now I threw them into the pot and let them simmer briefly. I wasn't planning to eat the stew right away, and didn't want the carrots to turn into mush, so once everything had cooled I put the pot into the refrigerator.

A few days passed. It was time to see how the braised beef in Guinness actually tasted. After a soup or stew or braise has chilled overnight in the fridge, any fat rises to the top and hardens in a layer that you can just pick off and discard, a handy trick for de-fatting things. I brought it to a gentle simmer over a low flame as I made some mashed potatoes. The beer had reduced and intensified into a luscious sauce. The beef was tender and tasted of that magic combination of Guinness mellowed with the sweetness of caramelized onions and carrots. I put a layer of mashed potatoes on a shallow dish, made a dent in it, nestled a few pieces of oxtail and short rib in the middle, and poured rivers of that incredible gravy that was nothing but Guinness underscored with the essences of beef and onion, thickened with the flour I had used in the initial browning phase. It was heavenly. I will definitely be cooking this again.
Apparently I started this blog almost three years ago, posted once, and then completely forgot about it. A lot of time has passed; many unforgettable meals have been eaten. Where should I begin?