Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reading. Akhmatova.

I first read Akhmatova in high school. I had just begun reading Bulgakov, and was slowly making my way through the Soviet writers and poets of the 1920's-1940's (and onwards). It has been nearly a decade now. At the bookstore the other day I happened upon a volume, selected poems of Akhmatova, published with the original Russian verse on one page, and the English translation facing it. It was time to come back to Akhmatova.

This is going to drive me crazy - I vaguely remember reading somewhere, someone writing something about how Russian poetry is about language, or something like that - and I cannot remember where I read it or who it was that said it. I think it was Czeslaw Milosz, but I am not sure. Because it ties so closely to my own thoughts, I wonder if perhaps I hallucinated it. But I jumped for joy (not literally; no need to scare the other bookstore patrons around me, even though it was late at night and there were few people around) when I found the bilingual edition of Akhmatova's works, because it allowed me the illusion that I can still read Russian while giving me a translation to act as a crutch, of sorts.

The interesting thing is to read first the Russian, which has a spare, elegant, starkness to it, language stripped to its barest bones, like a beautiful skeleton bleached white by the sun and wind, and then the English, which attempts to mirror that same minimalism. Therefore not literally translated, but still capturing the essence of her words.

Here is one of the shorter poems which caught my attention:

Он любил три вещи на свете:
За вечерней пенье, белых павлинов
И стертые карты Америки,
Не любил, когда плачут дети,
Не любил чая c малиной
И женской истерики.
…А я была его женой.

And then in English:

Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
...And he was tied to me.*

However, in the translation, in order to maintain the rhyme and structure of the poem, there is a certain glibness that makes the English translation almost a parody of the original Russian, which I find frustrating. The first line, "Он любил три вещи на свете," translates literally as "He loved three things in the world." A more literal translation would give it too much weight, drag it down, but this version, I feel, gives it too much lightness. How, then, does one strike a balance?

*Kunitz, Stanley and Hayward, Max, trans. Poems of Akhmatova. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. pp 46-47.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Stop and think. (on reading and writing).

For a while I took a break from reading. I think I was exhausted and burnt out and drowning in words, and I needed to come up for air. Which is not to say I didn't read anything, I did - mysteries and romances and fashion magazines and food magazines. Nothing sustaining, nothing lasting. This state of affairs lasted more than a year, maybe two. And then one day, I'm not sure when or how, I started reading again. I had just turned twenty-five. It started slowly, with Bukowski's Post Office, and just sort of went on from there. Gradually my visits to the bookstore increased (as did my midnight internet book-shopping binges), and after I had flipped through that week's People and Us Weekly I would wander around looking for books I had always meant to read, and finding new ones I had never heard of. I fell in love with new writers, came back to old friends. And then I started to write.

I have been writing in this blog for almost two months now, at least one post a day. I find I cannot stop, any more than I can stop buying books and reading them. I am surprised by how easily the words come, how easy it is to stop and think about what I have read, to write about what I have read, recently or in years past, to stop myself and realize why I am reading, how I am moved by what I read, to dive into the heart of my thoughts on literature, to understand more about everything I love most. Originally I was going to focus more on cooking and eating. Somehow it didn't quite work out that way, and then I suddenly realized that literature matters more to me than food does, which I didn't think was possible. (It is, however, a very slim margin).

What drives me to keep writing is the fact that I keep reading, that I keep finding new books that help me return and rediscover old ones. That when I sit (or lie) down to type I suddenly find a way to sort through my thoughts and feelings on the words I have just read, ideas begin to take shape, become clearer. A few people have been kind enough to leave comments, which taught me that there are at least some people who have stumbled upon this page, however that came about, and that there are people who seem to understand my jumbled and tangled and incoherent thoughts, and it means more to me than words can say. I mean to continue wandering through this eternal, endless garden of interlocking paths that is literature, and writing about the adventures I find there...
Reading. de Saint-Exupéry.

When I was a child, I would finish my own books and wander over to my father's study and rummage through his books. In this way many of my parents' books migrated over to my room, disappearing under the bed, behind other books on their shelves, under the desk or in various drawers. Some were eventually returned (or rather, a rescue operation would be launched to retrieve them from the dark depths of chaos that is my bedroom), others have stayed over the years.

One book that has followed me for some twenty years now (perhaps not quite that long) is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince). The cover has faded, the pages yellowing. It must be older than I am. I cannot remember when I first read it, or even if I understood it. Perhaps I do not understand it even now. A plane-wrecked explorer falls into the desert, and there, he meets a little prince, who himself has come from his distant home, a far-off star...

Whilst in the desert the explorer hears the little prince's stories about his planet, his precious rose, all the planets he visited and the people he met on his way to earth. What is unusual and beautiful about this book is how it explores that most mysterious of all relationships, that between adults and children, who interact in a way that is completely different from the way grown-ups are with other grown-ups, or children with children. There is a different language, a different vocabulary. I read it first as a child, learning how to navigate that world of grownups who bent their heads to talk to me, overjoyed to fall into the words of writer who seemed to understand that children see everything more clearly than adults think they do. And now I am a grownup who leans down to kiss the head of my best friend's nine-year-old sister (perhaps I was her age when I first discovered The Little Prince) as she throws her arms around my waist in greeting or farewell...

There is a handful of books that I first read when I was quite small and which I return to again and again. As the years pass there are some things which stay with me. What I remember most about The Little Prince is the conversations between the little prince and the snake who promises to send him home to his far-off planet, and the lesson the fox gives the little prince, the present of a secret...

Here is the secret that the fox tells the little prince, the secret which I have carried with me for all this time, and which I will remember forever, even if I forget everything else...

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur; le essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

(Here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye).

Monday, May 29, 2006

On literature.

One idea that I have come back to again and again is the idea of how literature works for me. For me, a really extraordinary work is one that comes into my consciousness like a bomb. It explodes, shattters me completely, so that I have to rebuild myself, and I have to take a closer look at everything I know about myself, everything I know about my world, everything I believe. I have to confront everything I am, good or bad. Literature is both a mirror in which I see myself, and a lens through which I view the world around me; each book I read alters the way I see both completely, forever. I suppose it is like love, if only you are lucky enough to find a person who makes you challenge everything about yourself, everything you know so that you might see it all more clearly.

All the books I have loved most have completely changed me. Again and again, as I come back to them, I have been changed by other books which, in turn, make me view the previous one in a completely new way. I will not come back to something I first read at sixteen and see it the same way; at twenty-six I am not the same person, it will not be the same story. The truths remain eternal, but certain subtleties, ideas, take shape, form in ways you weren't capable of recognizing before. Like a series of lenses, refracting, changing the lights and shadows that flicker across my mind. Think of what happens when you look into a kaleidescope (as I come back to something I wrote last night), the way the patterns shift and change as you turn the tube against your eye. One movement and the previous bright pattern is changed forever, gone forever, replaced by a new one that is, in turn, replaced by the next one.
Cooking. memory. (college).

In college I lived with a group of girls who were from Hong Kong, which meant that, like me, they liked to eat. They cared about food. It mattered. School vacations meant that they would bring back cans of baked beans, which we ate on toast, or various snacks and cookies, teas, and the latest pop albums and movies. And we cooked. All the time.

Which is not to say we didn't eat in the school cafeteria. Dry slices of roast turkey and instant mashed potatoes drowing in bland gravy. Wrap of tortillas encasing limp salads and tired chicken in ersatz caesar dressing. Decent sandwiches, overcooked pasta. But we tried to cook in the communal kitchen on our floor. Once a week a bus went to the mall, to the supermarket, to Walmart or Kmart. We would load up with groceries, come back, try to fit everything into the tiny refrigerator. Buy cans of soup, instant noodles, juice, loading up on things that happened to be on sale that week. We were college students on tight budgets, trying to get the most out of our money. I had never had a supermarket club card before, and it was impressive how much you could save by shopping carefully. It is amazing what you can do with little storage space, few utensils, and the most basic of kitchens.

It was a lesson in minimalism, in making do. Simplicity ruled. Sometimes dinner was cream of mushroom soup, jazzed up with chopped onions and mushrooms, sometimes chicken, sauteed in butter before the soup was stirred in, everything poured over freshly cooked rice. Sort of like a fake risotto. We had a rice cooker, a microwave, a toaster oven, and an electric kettle for hot water (for tea and instant noodles). A 20-lb bag of rice leaned against the refrigerator in the hallway. For weeks one spring my roomate and I bought premade cookie dough, baked cookies in the toaster oven, and had hot cookies and milk almost every night. Aside from toasted cheese sandwiches I roasted poussins, toasted marshmallows, baked biscuits in that little toaster oven with the broken handle. I made borsch in a saucepan, chopping the beets instead of grating or processing them (as I would at home). Every week, we bought eggs, scallions, bacon or ham, frozen peas, which would be become fried rice or savory golden frittatas. Spaghetti with jarred pasta sauce. We marinated chicken wings in ziploc bags, broiled them in the communal kitchen oven. Often we had curry, bought sauce mix that came in blocks that dissolved as you cooked it. Another frequent dish was pork chops, briefly marinated in soy sauce and wine, pan-fried, and sliced over rice. My last year I had a car, which meant trips to the bigger supermarket some fifteen minutes away, or over to the Chinese grocery store that had frozen dumplings and noodles you couldn't find at the supermarket.

I can't remember what else we cooked, but what mattered is that we were eating real food. Or at least, trying to. Those dinners taught me that it didn't take a lot of effort, or require a battery of equipment, or even a decent kitchen to make a good meal to share with your friends. It was worth the effort to eat well, and to do it together. What mattered was that we weren't eating dorm food, and that we were together.

There is a memory of that time that I will carry with me forever. It is late at night, and I can't sleep, and I'm hungry. I scare the crap out of my roomate by leaping out of bed (she thought I had fallen asleep) and declaring that I was starving. The pizza place is no longer delivering; it's after 1 am. No worries. We have bacon, scallions, eggs, and cold leftover rice. Within minutes, certainly in less time than it would take to order pizza, we are sitting on the floor in our shoebox of a room, hunched over steaming bowls of fried rice. I don't think a bowl of fried rice has ever tasted that good, or ever will again, because it is not just about the food but about that brief moment in time that is long past and will never happen again.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reading. Milosz.

The books I read can be divided strictly into two categories: those I am looking for, and those I have stumbled upon, accidentally, attracted by a title or a beautifully designed cover. (I am a sucker for a beautifully designed cover). In such a way I absent-mindedly came home with Milosz's ABC's, by the poet Czeslaw Milosz. I had not read his work before, and my attention had been attracted by the charming woodblock print on the front, the bold font of the title with its curly flourishes, black against the pale yellowy-green of the paper cover.

It is my perverse nature that brings me to prefer non-fiction written by famous novelists, or novels written by poets, or books of essays by either. I don't know why that happens. Perhaps I feel that their own soul, their true thoughts come through to me more clearly. So here I am, going through all the people central to Milosz's life, places, things, ideas, all organized alphabetically, a seemingly endless series of short essays, some too short to even be essays. Memories. He moves between Poland and America, across Europe, commenting on everything and everyone imaginable. In alphabetical order. It breaks up the continuity, the context of things, in a way that is almost disorienting. His writing is so clear and pure and sharply piercing that I wonder what his poetry must be like. I think I will come back to this book again and again, as I look for some writers he mentions and reread others that I have long loved or loathed, reviewing and reflecting and re-seeing them through his eyes, the lens of his words. Sometimes one work of literature has the kaleidescopic ability to alter your view on another one, a certain idea, so you see a pattern, a truth, that was never revealed to you before and will never be the same again.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reading. Bulgakov.

I have been reading Bulgakov for ten years now, off and on. Even when I am distracted by other writers, other languages, other books, I always come back to him. His writing can be satirical, sharp, passionate, despairing, bleak, tragic, funny, hopeful, and tender (and The Master and Margarita is all of those). Some time in my early years of reading his work I tried to find all of his books (an obsession of mine, to read everything by an author I've discovered). The result was several novels and a volume of short stories that have followed me across time, across continents. I have not read most of them in ages, save for one short story I come back to again and again.

Perhaps my favorite of Bulgakov's works (aside from, obviously, The Master and Margarita) is the short story Psalm. A little boy visits his neighbor, who makes tea and tells him a bedtime story, about Slavka (the little boy), who misbehaves, but in the end repents and as a reward is given a bicycle (which the little boy wants). When reading it I can see the cone of light falling across the page of a book, the steam rising from the kettle, the way the light "peeks through the worn sateen cover like a thousand eyes." Imagine living in the crowded apartment buildings, the gossip of neighbors. The taste of sweet hot tea. It is just a brief glimpse into a life, this lonely man and a little boy, whose mother is waiting for her husband to return, even though he never will. I think that it is written so beautifully and tenderly that when I read it before bedtime I hold my pillow a little tighter and sleep more deeply.

It's all right, somehow we'll have a beautiful life.

(From Diaboliad and Other Stories, Ardis, 1993).

Friday, May 26, 2006

Cooking. borsch.

One of my favorite soups is borsch. The sweetness of beets, balanced with a squeeze of lemon juice, rounded out with onions and cabbage and potatoes, made rich with beef broth and the cool tang of sour cream. I used to order it at this little Russian restaurant near the Pike Place Market (now it is a French café that makes the best onion soup I've ever had, but that's another story). Now I make my own when I have a craving, simmer some bones for broth the night before, roast the beets in a foil pouch in the oven, let them cool as I chop vegetables and throw them into the pot with the broth, slip the skins off the beets, chop them or shred them. Usually I wind up with lurid pink stains on my hands, bright pink fingerprints on my white countertops. I like to put mushrooms in my borsch, sometimes leeks or celery, whatever vegetables I have on hand. As with most soups, you don't need a recipe. I have made it with canned beef broth, homemade beef broth (made from beef soup bones), chicken stock (made from the leftover carcasses of roast chickens past), vegetable broth made from bouillon cubes (Marigold brand), or just plain water. I have even made it with canned beets. They have all been good. It's hard to make a bad borsch.

In winter I like to make borsch with beef short ribs, or oxtails, or both, the meat braising slowly during the long gentle simmering, falling off the bone in tender chunks, making a rich, beefy borsch, a hearty meal in a bowl. With some bread on the side it makes a comforting winter dinner. Chop some dill, sprinkle it over your steaming bowl, add a dollop of cool sour cream. In the summer I use vegetable broth or plain water, leave out the meat so I can eat the borsch cold, on nights when it is too hot to bother with the stove, an icy drink at my side. I love the taste of it, the beets, sweet and tender, the vegetables, every flavor concentrated, brought together by the sharp acidity of the lemon juice I've squeezed over everything, stirred in. And I love the clear, deep fuschia of the soup.

Tonight's pot of soup has onions, mushrooms, cabbage, beets, and broth made from a leftover prime rib bone. It smells heavenly, and it will taste even better tomorrow night at dinner. The perfect end to a long day.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sweet Thursday. eating. (cheeseburgers).

Thursday is my favorite day of the week. I leave work early and have time to cook dinner for myself, stop at the grocery store, wander around to see if anything interesting catches my eye. If I'm too tired to make an effort and I am home alone I make cheeseburgers. (It's not a meal I would inflict on anyone else; like pancakes for dinner or grilled cheese or bacon sandwiches it is a solitary sort of meal). I buy organic ground beef from the local co-op, aged cheddar, English muffins instead of buns. A splash of Worcestershire sauce, or soy sauce, a sprinkle of ground black pepper. I love the cold sticky feel of the meat between my fingers, as I gently mix the seasonings in, mold the patties between my palms, press them flat against squares of waxed paper. Cook the burgers in a heavy cast-iron skillet, toast the muffins. Slice some of the cheese, flip the burgers, place the cheese on the cooked side so it will melt as the patties finish. Dinner's ready.

There is, of course, no substitute for a properly grilled hamburger. The taste of beef licked by flame, faintly striped with charred lines from the grill, a lightly toasted bun, cheese melting over tomatoes and lettuce and ketchup or some mysterious sauce. It calls to mind summer barbecues with family and friends, under the sun, eating together at wooden picnic tables that gouged you with splinters if you weren't careful. Or winter nights in your favorite pub with friends, drinking beer and eating fries. It might seem silly to order a burger at a restaurant, but sometimes you just want a really good burger that you didn't have to make yourself. There's no point in wasting stomach space on fast-food ones, soggy and uninteresting (unless you are on a road trip, or desperate. Somehow when you eat one it tastes good in the moment but five minutes later you regret it).

As it seems ridiculous to haul out the barbecue just for me (not to mention too cold), I use an enamelled cast-iron pan on the stove for my burgers. The black-enameled interior gives everything cooked inside a beautifully crusty exterior. Set the heat to medium, turn on the fan, open a window. The result is two perfectly cooked little burgers, juicy and beefy and cheesy, which together with a gently foaming, cool glass of beer make the perfect dinner for tonight.

Thursday really is my favorite night of the week.

(Sweet Thursday is a novel by John Steinbeck, his sequel to Cannery Row, a return to the old characters and their new lives after the war. I have not read it in a long time. Perhaps next Thursday).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reading. Bukowski.

On my nightstand is an ever-changing pile of books. During the week, the pile becomes more and more precarious as I keep adding on whatever I'm reading at the moment, often sending books tumbling onto the bed or down to the floor. On Thursdays, the cleaning lady comes in and puts most of them away (usually somewhere where I can't find them), and tidies the remaining books into a neat pile, organized by size. One of the few books that has managed to remain at my bedside for months now is Love is a Dog From Hell.

As I have said before, I am not one for poetry, most of the time. There are, of course, exceptions. Bukowski is one of them. If I were to be honest I have to say that it is the titles of his books that first caught my attention, pulled me to where the rushing waters of his words closed over my head, carried me away. Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame. The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire. When I look at the titles I feel that quick flare of excitement beneath my heart, that shiver beneath the skin. But Love is a Dog From Hell is my favorite. (I am nearly tempted to have those words tattooed somewhere on my body, except for the fact that I have a profound fear of a) needles and b) permanence. I will settle for marrying a man who will have those words engraved inside our wedding rings, if that day ever comes. Because I am very slightly more likely to overcome my fear of permanence than I am my fear of needles).

When I read it I wonder if maybe if love really is a dog from hell. Whatever that means. It certainly makes more sense than anything else I've been told about love. The poems are about writing and drinking and women and sex and love (and how those last three don't always go together) and music and beer and gambling and god knows what else but when I start reading I can't stop and when I stop reading I fall asleep and dream dreams, Bukowski dreams and then I wake up and wonder when my life became this kind of life where I drank beer and read Bukowski in baths with bubbles threatening to cascade onto the floor and a bottle of scotch on the mat next to the tub. (I don't usually do that last thing, just that one time when the power went out and I was reading by candlelight with a drink balanced on the rim of the tub next to my shoulder). I can't find my favorite poem just now, which is always what happens, you can't find the one thing you want right when you want it, it finds you when you least expect it. But in the process of looking I may stumble upon something I love even more.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Memory. Colwin.

I'm not sure when or how it all began. I was probably in middle school when my mother started subscribing to Gourmet. It was here I discovered Laurie Colwin. I have read and reread her columns so many times that I forget which one was the first, the one that started it all, caught my attention. She wrote about making soup, cooking for her young daughter, gingerbread, baking bread. Her writing was funny and warm and made me want to cook, home cooking, brownies and cake and stews simmering all day over a flame tamer instead of elaborate mille-feuilles and stuffed breast of veal. It was like coming home to a warm kitchen smelling of baking, or diving into the clear waters of the Mediterranean off Minorca, as she had described in the essay about picnics. You didn't need fancy equipment, or expensive ingredients, but everything was simple and easy and made with vegetables from the farmer's market or meat from the organic butcher.

Then, suddenly, she died. There was a little note in Gourmet at the end of 1992 explaining that Laurie Colwin had passed away, but had left behind another year's worth of essays that would continue to run throughout the next year. It was a small consolation. I felt as though I had lost someone dear to me, someone I had gotten to know through her own words, with each monthly column. When the last column ran in December of 1993 I felt that sense of loss all over again. It took me years to find out what happened, that she had simply died suddenly, of heart failure, in her sleep. The only things I knew were that Colwin loved stripes (for all these years I have carried in my mind that smiling woman, hair wildly curly and streaked with gray, wearing a striped sweater, or perhaps it was a t-shirt), that she left behind a husband and a small daughter five years younger than I, and several books, fiction and non-fiction, all of which have remained continuously in print, even now, and that she loved food. Not restaurant food, with little fiddly bits decorating stacks of trendy ingredients teetering over a pool of luridly colored sauces, but home cooking. The cookbooks she mentioned had titles like Good Things or English Bread and Yeast Cookery; her recipes were the sort of recipes invented by the kind of cooks who don't follow recipes. A handful of this, a pound or two of that, throw two cups of almonds in the blender, skin and all. For several years I saved back issues of Gourmet, reading her articles again and again.

In college I found the first volume of her food writing, Home Cooking, and it was like coming home all over again. Dorm life meant miserable cafeteria food, or instant noodles, or microwaved frozen dinners. I consoled myself with Colwin, Alice B. Toklas, Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher, and later, Jeffrey Steingarten. Here was a writer who loved cooking at home. Who cooked for the people she loved, with love, had the kind of life I secretly longed for. Who knew what she loved about food and cooking and wanted it share it with you, wanted you to feel the way she did, understand why food matters. And when you read her books, you did.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Reading. Steingarten. (how it all began).

I remember clearly the first article I ever read by Jeffrey Steingarten. It was in Vogue magazine, which I thought was a strange place for a man to be writing about food. There was something unusual about a guy writing about food in a magazine filled with impossibly perfect images of women who didn't appear to eat anything at all. I continued to read Vogue month after month, following his outrageous explorations of food (the search for the perfect bread or croissant, at the height of the Atkins-craze, fishing for toro, making his own Turkducken, a coq-au-vin which takes three days to complete, lobster rolls), each article accompanied by a ruthlessly spare, elegantly minimalist still-life by Irving Penn involving whatever the theme of that article was. Coral shards of lobster shells, luminous smears of caviar, perfectly ripe, voluptuous fruit, a handful of dried beans scattered carelessly, artistically across the blank whiteness of the background.

The first article I read (it has been nearly a decade now) recounted the story of how, while on a flight to (or maybe it was from) Tokyo, Mr. Steingarten and his wife were assaulted by a taro leaf. That is, they unwittingly consumed bits of the toxic leaf that had been used as a garnish in their pseudo-Black Forest ham appetizer. I believe a sharp, tingling, burning sensation is involved. It was hilarious. I had to read more. I began to buy Vogue every month, less for its extravagant fashions (which I could not afford), more for Steingarten's sharply witty commentary on food and his never-ending obsessions and culinary quests. I had been reading cookbooks and food magazines for years, with certain writers I looked forward to in each month's Gourmet. This was something entirely different. Steingarten was funny. But behind the humor and rapier-wit was this incredible, overwhelming passion for food, an obsession even. If I could only live the way he did, care as deeply about food as he does.

It was with great pleasure that I discovered the first of Steingarten's books, The Man Who Ate Everything, when I was in college. I read it huddled in my dorm room over bowls of instant noodles and frozen pizzas. I cannot find my copy; it is buried somewhere in the avalanche of books that covers every surface of my room. It contains articles from Vogue during the late 80's and early 90's. And it is only a taste. When It Must've Been Something I Ate was published a few years ago, I practically exploded with joy. Steingarten gets to the heart of why food matters to him, why it should matter to us all, why we should care about the pleasures of taste. And he does it in a way that is so funny and smart that you cannot help but understand why you should care.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dinner. lamb.

Tonight we had rack of lamb for dinner. This time I did not set it on fire. Roasted at a high temperature, it was redolent of herbs, rosemary and a dash of herbes-de-Provence, rubbed with salt and pepper and fragrant with lemon juice. The fat melted, crisped at the edges. When sliced the faintly charred exterior gave way to rosy, slightly rare meat inside, tender and juicy and succulent. We have this nearly every time my father is in town. It is one of my favorite dishes, no less because it is one of the easiest to make. Scatter on herbs, salt, pepper, squeeze a lemon over. Stick it in the oven on full whack for six minutes, flip it over, and roast it for another six minutes. Dead easy. On the side, we had asparagus. Blanched briefly - bring the water to a boil, drop the asparagus in, take them out just as the water comes to a boil again. Rice is keeping warm in the cooker, dinner's ready to go. Easy, easy, easy. The perfect spring dinner. The perfect anytime dinner. I lick my fingers, the pile of crumpled napkins grows higher. Bits of rosemary are scattered around the tablecloth. I can still smell the lemon on my hands. Dishes in the sink, I'll come back to them later. I have a book waiting for me.
Reading. Eco.

I went to the bookstore the other day, wandered the aisles, restlessly, searching for something. Whenever the cashier asks me if I have found everything I was looking for I am always tempted to say "No." I think I would die if there ever came a time when there were no more books to discover, nothing new to look for. So I continue to search. Begin at the A's, move back and forth, waiting for something new to catch my eye. I have Ferlinghetti's Americus, Book I in one hand and a banana-coconut frappé in the other. The book I will save for later, the drink I am noisily slurping through a straw. And then, there it is. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco. I have been waiting for it to come out in paperback, and here it is.

There is no greater excitement, anticipation, (except for perhaps when I am about to taste a dish that I know will be delicious) than when I buy a book at the store. Examine the artwork that decorates the cover, scan the summary on the back cover, begin reading the first few sentences. The barest taste of the pleasure to come. Eager to go home and settle in with the book, I rush off to pay. At the cashier, we converse about the weather, I wonder to myself whether to pay with cash, or with a credit card. Refuse the offer of a carrier bag, the receipt tucked inside the book. And then the anticipation of the drive home.

In this story, Yambo wakes up after a coma and cannot remember anything, except for everything he has ever read. He cannot recognize his own wife, his daughters, his grandchildren, but he remembers characters from stories and their words. In trying to speak, he instead comes out with quotes from great works of literature. Yambo is entangled between the worlds of books, which he remembers, and the world he lives in, which he does not remember, and all the while his wife tells him about how he lived. Can you imagine losing your memory? I forget things all the time. A conversation from the morning is forgotten by the afternoon. A telephone number must be written down, otherwise I will have to look it up again even before I have taken two steps to the phone. But literature I remember, long passages from The English Patient which I read out loud to my friends in high school, poems I studied because I had to or because I loved them, words from The Master and Margarita that are indelibly imprinted on my brain, nearly all of A Room with a View. Even if I forget everything else, I must remember the books I loved most.

I have not gotten very far, but already I feel the words sliding around me, trapping me in their embrace. Strangely, this does not feel like Eco's other novels, but like his essays on literature and memory, which is why I already love it. I am reminded a little of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. That headlong descent into everything I love most about literature. That gently reckless free-fall.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Eating. hot dogs.

American junk food was always something forbidden to me when I was a child. A rare treat. It was a big deal for me to have McDonald's. I still remember spending the night at a friend's house when I was eight, and being served baked beans with frankfurters. I had never eaten that before (nor have I since), but I remember thinking that this was, like, the awesomest thing ever. The soft beans in their syrupy, sweet sauce, chunks of salty frankfurter like surprises hidden in every other spoonful.

My list of favorite foods is probably a mile long, but I can say with absolute certainty that hot dogs are somewhere on the list. In moments of desperate craving, they can be nuked in the microwave, grilled in a pan on the stove, broiled in the toaster oven, served on a lightly toasted bun from the supermarket. I must admit that this happens more often than I would like, particularly since hot dogs come eight to a package and therefore must all be eaten, by me. So usually I try to ignore the cravings. But once in a while, the urge is overwhelming and I must give in to my desire. The salty taste of the hot dog, browned in spots, the bun soft and slightly sweet, the taste of ketchup over everything.

The absolute best place to enjoy a hot dog is, of course, at a baseball game. A beer in one hand (or a Coke), the bun squished in its foil wrapper, the hot dog with mustard and relish and onion and ketchup. It's not just about the dog, but the whole atmosphere of the game and the food together. The taste of the food, the excitement of the game, the comraderie of everyone together. Baseball games and hot dogs were just made for each other.

The second best is at a barbecue. Dad (yours, or someone else's) is manning the grill; mom (again, yours, or someone else's) is inside marinating chicken, throwing together salads, ordering the older kids to help out while the younger ones run around screaming. You got your hamburgers, your chicken wings, maybe some steaks, or salmon, and for the kids, hot dogs. Everything gets slightly charred, striped from the grill, tasting faintly of smoke. It's summer, and if you're lucky it didn't rain this time (this is Seattle, after all). There are coolers of beer and sodas; dessert is slurpy slices of watermelon and s'mores. Maybe you're on a camping trip, or it's a party at someone's house. SeaFair, or the 4th of July. It's time for a hot dog.

Tonight I went to The Frankfurter with my dad, and suddenly I was a little kid again. (The Center House at the Seattle Center is a lot smaller than I remember...when did that happen?). In the 80's my father worked at the original Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center building, near Swedish Medical Center. We used to go to The Frankfurter for lunch. (It's gone now, replaced by a sub shop that I will probably never set foot into). One original hot dog, a freshly-squeezed lemonade, perhaps a bag of potato chips. The perfect meal from my childhood. I had it again for dinner tonight, and for a brief moment, felt myself slip backwards in time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Reading/thinking/drinking. beer. (Bukowski).

It's Friday night, after a long week at work. The weather has been sunny and hot, but today everything turned gray, began to rain. There's a baseball game on tv, and my father is in town. The perfect time for a cold beer, a bowl of potato chips from a newly opened bag (somehow chips are only good the first day you open them, no matter how well you seal the bag afterwards), and a few hours of watching the game while cooking and eating dinner. The bottle is cool and green against my hand, I pour some beer into a glass as I stir something in the pan. Foam rises, subsides as I drink it down. The air is hot over the stove; I've got two burners going at full blast, and the beer is cold down my throat.

I never drank beer when I was younger. I thought it was disgusting, completely unappealing in both taste and aroma. Maybe once in a while, on a hot summer night, I would swipe cool sips of pilsner from my father's glass, but otherwise, no. In college, on the rare occasions when we drank, we stuck to...other things. Vodka, during the time I spoke Russian and hung out with other people who spoke Russian, or foofy, girly drinks with my friends. Red wine at home with my parents and their friends. Beer I avoided.

That all changed after I turned 25. What else did I start doing when I turned 25? I began reading Bukowski. Fiction was where it all started, Post Office. I've written about this part before. Reading Bukowski made me thirsty. (It did not, however, induce a desire to sleep with practically every man I met. And I did not take up smoking cigarettes and betting on horses. Or writing poetry, for that matter. I swear). It was around this time that I starting drinking beer. Occasionally. Lagers, like Harp. Chimay ales, increasing in intensity and...potency, until my face flushed pink and my lips turned red. Guinness, which I liked a lot more this time around than when I had first tried it. Something had changed. My palate for one, but it was something more than that. I began to enjoy the taste. The feeling you get when you drink a beer on a hot day, a bowl of chips at your elbow and a book in your hand...

One night, before going to sleep, I stretched an arm out, absent-mindedly grabbed a book off the pile that has taken over the nightstand. Opened it at random. The title of the poem said it all. beer. Somehow everything always comes back to Bukowski.

rivers and seas of beer
beer beer beer
the radio singing love songs
as the phone remains silent
and the walls stand
straight up and down
and beer is all there is.

(From Love is a Dog from Hell, the last stanza of the poem beer).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Addiction. bookstores.

I try to go to the bookstore every week. Often I come home with at least one or two new books (my car is full of carrier bags and receipts), but mostly, I admit, I go there to read trashy celebrity magazines, curled up in a big, comfy armchair with a pile of magazines and a hot chocolate (winter) or iced tea (summer). Trying not to laugh at other people's conversations, trying not to catch their eye as they discuss intimate details of their life that I'd rather not hear. (When people are having a long conversation in a language they don't think you understand, what do you do? Pretend that you don't speak whatever language it is? Correct their grammar or provide a vocabulary word they don't know?).

I prowl up and down the aisles, looking for books I've always meant to read but never got around to, or just look for something to catch my eye, stop me in my tracks. I started doing this at the library when I was in high school, wandering slowly from the A's all the way through the Z's. In four years I read almost all the fiction they had. It was how I discovered new things, writers whose words I would slowly fall into, fall in love with. Now I buy books instead of borrowing them, which is financially ruinous, but as far as addictions go more beneficial than harmful. Usually I'm there for hours. Once I somehow spent five hours at the bookstore. When I left, the parking-lot attendant looked at me quizzically. I got here before you did, I said. I don't have a ticket. His eyebrow goes up. You were here for five hours? What were you doing? Buying books, I said. He laughed and waved me through. Now he says hello when I arrive, turning to greet me when he hears my music blasting through the open window.

My favorite bookstore in the world is Eslite, in Taipei. The original one. I spend hours there whenever I'm in town. There are always people sitting on steps, in aisles, leaning against shelves, blocking your path as you reach for a book, browsing, reading for hours. It is big but not huge, with a fantastically edited selection of English-language books. Nearly all of my favorite books were discovered there. Literature is not divided by fiction/non-fiction, but by nationality - American/British writers in one section, European writers organized by country. I found Calvino there, Kundera. I fell into essays that I would have otherwise passed by. Eco, whose fiction confused me, I discovered wrote so beautifully and clearly about literature and life I could only fall hopelessly in love.

I love libraries, but bookstores are different. On the one hand, libraries are free, and in a bookstore you have to, you know, actually buy the books. But on the other hand, you've bought it, it's yours. I have the insatiable need to own books. When I find I writer I love, I have to acquire everything he or she has written. Which is why books have taken over nearly every surface of my bedroom, my bathroom, and have made serious enroachments upon the kitchen. Some of them are brand-new, never read, just waiting for the right time for me to crack them open and dive in. Others are old, well-loved, falling apart, worn spots on the covers from being squashed in suitcases or at the bottom of a backpack. Sometimes I buy used books, with other people's names and notes, drawings inside. One even has an inscription and a little sketch, from 1937. But now they are mine.
Thinking. Mandelstam.

It started so innocently. A brief epigraph in Burgess' Honey for Bears. But I have been thinking of those two lines from Mandelstam's poem all day. We shall meet again in Petersburg/As though there we had buried the sun. I have been haunted by those words since I read them. It has been seven years since I last saw Petersburg. It was June, at the height of the White Nights, when the sun never goes down, never buries itself below the horizon, when night never falls like a black curtain. At midnight light still lingered in the sky, bright enough to read without turning on a lamp. I look back at the month I spent there and I wonder if it was all a dream. The endless day gave the city an even more surreal quality, with its candy-colored palaces like elaborate wedding-cakes fringed with white frosting, endless boulevards, avenues of trees, interlocking canals criss-crossed with bridges, the scent of lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley wafting down the escalators into the subterranean metro stations. It felt unreal, a stage set against which modern Russia simulateously merges and clashes with the past. Long-legged girls in short skirts getting in and out of a never-ending stream of Mercedes-Benzes idling at the curb. Apartment buildings like blocks of concrete raised above the silt of the city. (St. Petersburg isn't a city, it's a swamp). It was born as St. Petersburg, then became Leningrad, and now it is St. Petersburg again. The endless length of Nevsky Prospekt like the spine of the city. They say of Nevsky Prospekt (as they do of any major street of any city, I suppose) that if you stand there long enough, you will meet everyone you know. Who might I meet again in Petersburg, after a lifetime of a few years has passed? The myself I found there in 1999 was not the one I was six years before. Who knows how I might find myself there now?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Reading. Burgess.

I must confess that I have never read A Clockwork Orange, not all the way through. I started reading it, more than once, but I never got very far. The language confused me, even after I learned Russian. Which helped. But the dizzying whirl of Burgess' words left me disoriented, confused. I put the book away.

I was looking for something else when I came across Honey for Bears. Flipping through the pages I first saw the epigraph. It comes from a poem by Osip Mandelstam, the first two lines, first in Russian, and then the translation: We shall meet again in Petersburg, as though there we had buried the sun. I felt a shiver up my spine. I had been reading Mandelstam just the other day; here he was calling to me again. Bought the book, thought about it on the ride home (it was a long drive for someone with nothing to think about...), opened it, slid into the words...The words fly by, send me reeling. I am falling into a different world again. I will have to take this one slowly, think about what Burgess meant by referencing We shall meet again in Petersburg...that whisper across the decades.
Eating/Cooking. mushrooms.

The other day, my father bought a few handfuls of morels at the farmer's market. I cooked them for dinner tonight, washed them, sliced each one in half, sauteed them in a heavy cast-iron skillet filmed with olive oil. Sprinkled them with salt, turned them out onto a plate. They were faintly chewy, oozing their own juices, their ruffly texture tickling the tongue, earthy and intensely flavored.

In theory, mushrooms are disgusting. They're fungi. They grow in dirt. They're the color of dirt. When you buy them, they come caked in...dirt. Or possibly something else that I would rather not think about. If undercooked, they can taste like styrofoam. If overcooked, they can be squishy and slimy and otherwise...unappetizing. You have to time things right. But when cooked right...they are perfection.

At one dinner at my favorite restaurant, each course contained a different mushroom. I believe I remember chanterelles, king boleti, morels, even matsutake mushrooms, and something else I can't remember. It was late August or early September, and the mushroom season was just beginning. Mushrooms make me think of autumn. Wandering through the farmer's market. Sifting through piles of golden chanterelles, looking for the most perfect ones, taking them home, brushing off the pine needles, sauteeing them briefly in a hot pan. Autumn on a plate.

It's hard to say which kind of mushroom is my favorite. They all are, I suppose. Portabellos, thick and juicy. Chanterelles, delicately perfumed. Matsutakes, with a heady fragrance that permeates everything it touches. Morels, woodsy and dark. Shiitakes, with their tough stems that have to be trimmed before cooking. Wood ears, slippery and chewy, the bane of my childhood. Porcinis, simply sliced, brushed with olive oil, broiled, and sprinkled with sea salt. In Italy I had a dish of ravioli filled with Pecorino, covered in shavings of black truffles and gratineed until the cheese was browned in spots and the truffles crunched against the tender pasta. Extraordinary, all of them. I could not live without mushrooms.

Monday, May 15, 2006

How it all began. Restaurants.

I have been eating in restaurants for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of eating out is a plate of smoked salmon on brown bread at the Russian Tea Room in New York City when I was four or five. The salty coolness of the smoked salmon, the bright sourness of capers, the biting crunch of onion, the earthy brown taste of dark bread. We sat in a booth near the back of the room, against the wall. On another trip there I made such a mess that before the waiter served me my Creme Russe, which we always had for dessert, he unfurled another napkin across the tablecloth in front of me. The Russian Tea Room is what I remember from my childhood, when my grandfather lived in New York City and we visited him frequently. It is where memory begins.

But the meal I remember most, above all others, comes over a decade later. I was sixteen. A former student of my father's was in town, visiting from his native Sweden with his girlfriend. We went to Rover's Restaurant, a French restaurant in Seattle. The restaurant is small, in a little house tucked away in the heart of Madison Valley. The chef/owner is a charming, witty, fedora-wearing Frenchman who comes and chats with you before dinner if he has time. He always remembers my father. Everyone does. It was my first meal there, and I remember everything I ate. Everything. A white burgundy to start, a red one to follow. A bottle of Evian on the table. Crusty loaves of bread, sweet butter.

The first course was a tian of tuna sashimi, tiny, jewel-like squares of fish, molded on top of a layer of cucumber, precisely cut into cubes, pale green flesh against jade skin. The dish was cool and sweet and tasted faintly of sesame oil. It was a sign of good things to come, delicate, simple, refined. I am a little confused about the order of the next two dishes, but one of them was a perfectly seared scallop, just caramelized around the edges, smooth and tender, on a bed of fava beans cooked with little shreds of foie gras. Fava beans and liver. I felt like Hannibal Lecter, but it was excellent. Then came a piece of sea bass, cooked so gently it softly fell apart on the tongue, in a lobster nage. A creamy, lobster-infused sauce that I practically wanted to bathe in. Then came the palate cleanser, wine flavored with herbs, fennel, I think. Refreshing and slightly dizzying all at once. At last came the main course, duck breast roasted and sliced, a wine-reduction sauce, smooth and intense, a puree of potatoes. The chef had come out to talk with us a little before the meal began, and my father mentioned how much he liked foie gras. So another little dish came out, perfectly seared foie gras, a slightly crackling crust that gave away to the melting interior. I was in heaven. And then came dessert. Mine was a passionfruit bavarian, creamy and not too sweet, fragrant and tart, floating in a pool of vanilla-scented sauce. I had never eaten a meal like this before, course after course, and it was a revelation. It was incredible. We were there for over four hours. In time I would eat many such meals, in different restaurants all over the world. A year later I would pace myself through ten courses at Lespinasse in New York. But this was the first.

I have eaten many meals at Rover's in the past ten years now. Every one has been excellent, sometimes extraordinary. When I eat there I know everything will be perfect. Sometimes we are lucky and the chef creates something different, just for us. (One time, I gave him a challenge. We will eat any part of any animal you can imagine, I told him. The results were mind-blowing. I will tell that story another time). But the first meal stands out the most clearly in my mind. I think it was the first time that I realized food could be like this. And I had never had so many courses. It was a night that I'll never forget.
Intersections. (reading).

I have always loved how one writer will send me sliding towards another one. A mention, a reference, sending me in search of something new. An epigraph pushing me in a circle back to whence I came. My eye slid down the bookcase of poems, from Bukowski on the top shelf to Ferlinghetti a shelf or two below. A single title squished in between two larger books. A Coney Island of the Mind. The title caught my attention, held it, set off the avalanche that becomes love. Then I noticed the author's note inside. The title comes from Henry Miller's Into the Night Life. Henry Miller who I had first read after reading Anais Nin, almost a decade ago in another country. Who I now returned to, rediscovered essays, something new to capture my mind. The non-fiction slid more easily into my mind, into my heart, than the fiction, which I have always found difficult.

A few weeks ago I had discovered (thanks to a friend, whom I will have to love forever because of this) the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky. His Musica Humana brought me back to Osip Mandelstam, whose poetry I had read years before, in another time. I had read the memoir written by his widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, one of the shattering, heartbreaking legacies left behind by the widows of Soviet writers. I read many of them at that time. There were so many. So I came back to Mandelstam. And then today, during my weekly bookstore raid, my eye slid down from Bukowski (I always look to see what they have that I don't, which is a lot. Prolific old bastard), and was caught by Burgess. Who I have never quite finished reading. I found a book, opened it. The epigraph came from Mandelstam. A sign? Perhaps. Another intersection.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Reading. Burroughs.

Strangely, I've never read Naked Lunch. Somehow I'd always skipped by it, my eye slipping past to other writers on the bookshelf. I suppose some day I'll get to it. But not just yet. I started with something else.

I came across Junky late one night during my weekly bookstore prowl. I think the original title was Junk, but then it was published under another title (and a pseudonym). Personally I prefer the original Junk, and my copy (the 50th anniversary edition) makes an interesting choice for the cover - the letters J U N across the top, and then the K underneath the N, followed by the author's name in small letters, and then the final Y at the bottom. At first glance it seems to say JUNK, in keeping with the writer's original title while technically retaining the title imposed by the publisher. I have to admit it was the cover that caught my eye, the foolishly, quirkily, cartoonish drawing of a needle, the face of the writer/addict, the title in big letters.

Growing up in America in the late 80's and early 90's we were educated from third grade onwards that DRUGS! ARE! BAD! In sixth grade I found Go Ask Alice in the library and was permanently put off drugs for life. (Later I found that the book was a fake, not actually the real-life journal of a teenage runaway, and I was so mad. Think of all the drugs I could have taken, the wildly promiscuous anonymous, unprotected sex I could have had. Or not). I have been around people who drank, who smoked, who did drugs (not in front of me). None of it ever interested me. Literature was my drug, my wine, my addiction. Words were enough to intoxicate me, make me high, make me feel things in a way I can't begin to explain. But maybe I think this only because I've never done drugs.

If Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych gives you an understanding of what it means to die, then Junk gives you an understanding of what it means to be an addict. How innocently it all begins. Once, twice, a few times a day. But you're not an addict. Then suddenly you can't live without the junk, you are always searching for the next fix, making contacts with dealers, becoming a dealer, doing whatever you have to do to score another gram. It was a bright sunny day today when I read this book, and it made the air around me go cold and gray. Burroughs makes you see what his life was like, what it was like to be addicted to heroin at that time. It is a novel, but a novel so autobiographical that when you read it you feel that surreal blurring feeling, when fiction and reality merge into one indistiguishable whole. His writing is so clear and unflinching and bare that when I put the book down I feel like his words are my drug and I am in withdrawal.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand. Spain.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent two weeks this winter driving around Portugal and Spain with three members of my family. In a minivan. It was one of the craziest trips I have ever taken in my entire life. We ate (and drove) our way up Portugal, heading north from Lisbon, with many culinary and scenic detours along the way. On the fifth day, we arrived in Spain, staying at a Parador in Baiona. We would stay at a different Parador for each of the six nights we spent in Spain. Similar to the Pousadas in Portugal, the Paradores are a chain of government-run hotels, housed in former castles, fortresses, monasteries, medieval houses, and in one memorable place, a 15th-century Royal Hospital that served the pilgrims who came to worship at Santiago de Compostela. I think there is even a Parador on the grounds of the Alhambra (it is the most expensive of them all). They range from three to five stars, and like the Pousadas serve excellent regional cuisine in their restaurants. However, a slight miscommunication at dinner (that first night in Baiona) led to my being served a salad with a cold terrine of octopus (most excellent, very simple), and then, a dish of octopus cooked with potatoes (which I had most definitely NOT ordered). The octopus was chewy, the potatoes mushy, the entire dish completely without flavor. There was no way I could eat that much octopus, and after struggling vainly with a few (maybe several) mouthfuls, I gave up. I don't think I have been able to eat octopus since.

As with the time spent in Portugal, there is no one meal that stands out clearly in my mind from our journey through Spain. We ate a lot of jamón, because a certain member of our party who shall remain nameless insisted on ordering it at nearly every meal. It was addictive, those dark-pink slices of ham rimmed with a sliver of white fat, salty and intense, with a faint sweetness, sliced a little thicker than prosciutto is in Italy. One night we couldn't face an actual dinner, so we ordered bread and two different kinds of ham, some other sausages, and other little things I can't remember in the hotel's tapas bar. After a week of traveling and eating endless meals my soul cries out for the simplest sandwich, a few slices of ham and/or sausage, some crusty bread. A glass of wine, maybe a piece of cake afterwards.

The most excruciating thing about traveling in Spain is that people don't eat dinner until late, perhaps around 10 pm. Restaurants don't even open until 9, maybe 8:30 at the earliest. We were further discombobulated by the fact that Spain is an hour ahead of Portugal, which none of us realized until the second or third night. (Whoops). We found a workable routine - eating a leisurely (and extravagant) breakfast around 8 or 9 (always featuring plenty of cafe con leche, and, of course, plates of jamón), and then lunch at 1, followed by a light dinner at the tapas bar around 7 (often involving a few more plates of jamón and other small dishes, although one night involved some fantastically juicy fried frog's legs). A few nights did end with dinner at 8:30, with our party being the first to arrive in the empty dining room. My notes describe a roasted shoulder of lamb, with crispily fried potatoes one night, and a intensely beefy tenderloin sprinkled with sea salt that crunched between my teeth the next night.

I have mentioned before a long-standing obsession with crêpes in their simplest form, plainly drizzled with lemon juice and powdered sugar. But in Santiago de Compostela (at the basement restaurant of the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos) I had the most exquisite dessert, my favorite of the entire trip. Crêpes were layered with applesauce and pastry cream, each layer of filling barely thicker than the crêpe, the top layer sprinkled with sugar and caramelized. The caramel topping cracked beneath my fork, everything hot and sweet and tender with the contrast of burnt sugar crunching against the flavors of apple and cream. It was absolute heaven.
Cooking. Roast Chicken.

I think roast chicken is one of my favorite foods. I love the crispy shards of skin, the juicy tender breast meat, the deeply flavored, succulent dark meat. Coming home to the smell of roasting chicken is one of the best things I can remember. I have probably made hundreds of them in the past ten years. It started in high school. "KAIRU!!!!" came the yell from upstairs. "CAN YOU STICK THE CHICKEN IN THE OVEN FOR ME????" "HOW!? I'VE NEVER ROASTED A CHICKEN BEFORE!!!" "FIGURE IT OUT!!" First came the unwrapping, pulling the raw chicken from its plastic wrapper, rinsing it, excavating the neck and various unidentifiable organs from the body cavity, pulling off any extraneous fat. Wiping everything dry with fistfuls of paper towels, placing the chicken on a rack in the roasting pan, sprinkling it with salt and pepper. Consulting Julia Child for roasting temperatures and times. I figured it out.

Nervousness led to several slightly overdone chickens, a little on the dry side but still good. Sometimes overconfidence would lead to chicken still pink at the joints, oozing just a little blood, which meant a return trip to the oven. Various experiments and modifications followed. Salting just before roasting, brining, roasting breast-side down, breast-side up, rubbed with butter, anointed with oil, stuffed with lemons or onions or garlic or rosemary. Never trussed. I always felt like trussing the chicken was a completely pointless endeavor, a waste of time that led to symmetrical presentation at the cost of even roasting.

Last year I found a cookbook by Thomas Keller, Bouchon (after his Yountville bistro), full of simple (yet incredibly complicated) recipes from his restaurant (everything takes two days and a battalion of equipment). His brine involves salt, garlic, rosemary, honey, lemon, and parsley (which I always forget to buy), among other things. Brining the chicken for several hours left the flesh moist, juicy, tender, flavored with all the ingredients from the brine. Yet somehow I felt that the essential flavor of the chicken was lacking. Masked by the lemon, herbs, aromatics, the real taste of the chicken felt muted. And combining all those ingredients, simmering them, letting the mixture cool (preferably overnight) was tedious. I always got honey all over the place, peppercorns skittering across the counter and bouncing off to crunch beneath my feet. There had to be a better way.

Now I prepare my chicken (always free-range, sometimes organic) in the morning before I leave for work. Sprinkle it with kosher salt inside and out, place it in the roasting pan on a rack, and stick it in the fridge to rest all day. When I get home, I preheat the oven, let the chicken come to room temperature. Sometimes I put a couple of sliced onions in the pan. Add a little water, or wine, so the juices don't burn. I roast the bird breast down for half an hour at high temperature (about 425), and then breast up for another half hour so the skin browns and becomes crisp, and then turn the heat down for the remaining roasting time. The chicken is perfect.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Leaving/Arriving. (Salzman/Aksyonov).

I was born in China in 1980; I arrived in America a few years later. The more than twenty years between then and now have been spent looking at both countries as a foreigner, an outsider, speaking the language (more or less; when it comes to Chinese, it's oftentimes less) but at the same time not entirely belonging. I have therefore long been fascinated by two books which have followed me for many years, one reminding me of a life I - escaped is the wrong word; perhaps I will merely say the life I was not meant to live - and the other showing me the country I call home from the viewpoint of someone newly arrived to the life I was given.

The writer Mark Salzman arrived in China in 1982 and taught English at a medical college in Changsha for two years. He arrived just as I was leaving; the country he saw is the one I might have grown up in had fate not intervened. The book Iron and Silk is about those two years he spent in China and all the experiences he had and the people he met. There is a sort of innocence to his stories, something almost surreal about these adventures of a tall, handsome, blond-and-blue-eyed American in China, like an alien feeling his way through a completely different culture and its ways, a life a million miles away from his life in the United States. I feel the faintest whisper of loss when I read this book, a reminder that when I am in China I am just as much a foreigner as Salzman was. An alien on another planet.

The year I was born, 1980, was the year Vassily Aksyonov emigrated to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union. Actually, I believe he was booted out by the government, and stripped of his citizenship, for rebelling against the Writer's Union and the censorship of the time. In high school, I came across his book In Search of Melancholy Baby (this was during the height of my fascination with Soviet literature, the first wave of it, anyway). It is a madcap dash across the world, into a new country, the writer's wide-eyed introduction to a foreign land as he simultaneously looks forward into the new life while looking back at the old one left behind. The America he writes about is the America I found when I arrived in the early 80's. Not that I remember the early 80's at all; my first clear memory of the world around me (that is, outside of my house, the neighbour's dog who brought us a live, baby rabbit, and my preschool) doesn't come until the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. Yet I feel as though the America Aksyonov describes is something familiar, a landscape I remember. There is something comforting about his stories of the road trips he takes with his wife, Maya, criss-crossing the great expanses of this vast country, the tales of adapting to this new, strange, American life, the simultaneous terror and elation of the émigré experience, how even in a foreign country you still manage to surround yourself with the people from that previous, other life, so the old and new collide. And how different it was to be a citizen instead of merely a visitor.

The books are like time-capsules that capture a moment, a long bygone era, so clearly and vividly that I can see the life I did not live. The life I was about to live. I read them again and again, always together, and I feel as though I am falling backwards into the past.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why cook?

Friends of my parents often look at me in astonishment when I tell them I cook for myself. "My child only knows how to make instant noodles." "I don't even cook when my husband is out of town...I just boil some dumplings." I admit to days when all I can manage is a bowl of instant noodles. (Even then I have to make my own modifications - throw out the freeze-dried vegetables, ugh, rinse the noodles with hot water so they're not as salty, add a beaten egg). Sometimes I make pancakes or french toast - when I was in high school and my parents were out to dinner, I'd make these rare treats, drowning everything in a sea of maple syrup. But usually I make some effort. Rice, some kind of vegetable, sauteed or roasted or stir-fried, a piece of fish or steak or chicken, pork braised with soy sauce, wine, vinegar, sugar, a little garlic and ginger. Sometimes pasta, tossed together with stir-fried vegetable or layered in small casseroles and baked. It only takes a little time and effort. Leftovers are for lunch the next day, or dinner, so I only need to cook every other day. Co-workers look at me incredulously. "You make your own chicken teriyaki?" "It's no trouble," I say. "You get the hang of de-boning the chicken thighs." I get a snort of disbelief in reply. Some things I have cooked so many times I don't need a recipe, measure ingredients, follow directions. Or I make things up as I go.

Things taste better when you cook them yourself. You can adjust things to how you like them, add extra cheese, cut back on sugar. Experiment with whatever takes your fancy. I love finding recipes, from books, magazines, on the internet. When I cook alone I can try things before making them for other people, test things that no one else will eat. I love restaurants, but there is something about starting with a pile of ingredients, a run around the grocery store with a list a mile long, or just finding something interesting at the farmer's market, and creating a dish, either of your own invention or a recipe you've always wanted to try.

Food has been an important part of my life for longer than I can remember. It makes a difference that both my parents appreciate food, and will eat almost anything (aside from a few allergies). I was made to at least try everything on the table, even if I couldn't bring myself to finish it. My cousin likes to tell me how I, when I was five, struggled to eat a bowl of soup that contained wood ears, a kind of mushroom, before I was allowed to have a piece of candy (strictly rationed by my parents). Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I turned to her with a face full of misery and said, "It's just not worth it." I have other phobias, too, but they are few and far between, thanks to parents who made me eat everything. If you try everything at least once, you may surprise yourself by actually liking it. And we cook together. All the time. It is something we do, as a family, gather together at the kitchen table for dinner, no matter how busy we are. In middle school my friends and I often cooked together (see the post about crêpes), and even though the friends have changed, we still do. Cooking was something you did with love, for the people you love, with the people you love. Food is love, for me. It is how I express my feelings for the people I care about. I don't say, "I love you," I say, "Have you eaten yet?" or "Have some more."

My reality is that it is important to cook, even when it's just for me. I love the tactile pleasure of it, the rythm of chopping ingredients, the feel of the knife in my hand as it slides through vegetables, the anticipation of things cooking, flavors coming together. I love the sounds of cooking, the snick-snick-snick of the gas burners, the sizzle of food hitting hot oil, and the smell of food filling the air. I love having people come in the door, sniffing in anticipation. "I could smell the turkey from the sidewalk," they tell me. "Smells good," my friends say as they walk in, shedding coats and shoes, into the kitchen filled with the spicy warmth of lasagne, mingled with the perfume of chocolate as the brownies finish baking. My family lives in another country, and we see each other only every few months at most. But when they are here, we cook together. That dance around the kitchen as we pass ingredients, trade utensils, move aside so someone can have their chance at the cutting board, checking on pots simmering on the stove or things baking in the oven, tasting as we go. Everyone's home again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Memory. Konigsberg. (reading).

I have been reading the works of E. L. Konigsberg since I was a child. It started with The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which has long remained one of my favorite books. Two children, a brother and sister, run away from home. They hide out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, one of my favorite places in the world. As they deal with their own issues, as siblings, as the oldest child, as the middle child, as they cope with day-to-day living in the museum, dodging security guards and scraping together money for food and laundry, they uncover a mystery about a statue on display and try to solve it. Finally, they meet the reclusive Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and all the clues fall into place. They come away changed, both in what they learn about themselves and their relationship with each other.

There are so many books by Konigsberg that I love. They are mostly about children who are smart, curious, sometimes alienated, sometimes searching for something. In those preteen years when you are no longer a child but not yet a teenager; childhood is ending but adolescence is still just out of reach. Often they are outsiders uninterested in being part of the crowd, or a group of outsiders who find themselves in each other. Many of the stories involve unraveling a mystery that reveals more about the character than the answers they are seeking. Sometimes they are learning about love, the pain and exhilaration of still being a child and just beginning to see what it might be like to become an adult. Frequently they are finding out about what is right or what is fair and how out in the world unprotected by the people who love you some things are neither right nor fair. They are set in the pale dawn of that world that marks the beginning of the end of innocence.

When I am burned out by the disillusionment and despair and darkness in long bleak novels by writers with unpronouncable names I come back to these stories from childhood. The tales of children discovering who they are and what they believe and how they learn what is right and fair even if the world sometimes is neither. And that feeling when you are young and discovering an innocent love. That raw newness. They make me wish that I was smarter, that I read more, that I was more curious about the world I live in. I don't want to travel back in time when I was young and saw the world through twelve-year-old eyes. When I read Konigsberg I find myself looking back with nostalgia untouched by longing.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cookware. Le Creuset. (obsessions).

I first acquired a Le Creuset enameled cast-iron french oven a few years ago. It was on sale, but I still trembled a little as I paid for it. Quickly it became my favorite pot for making soups, stews, and braises. It became an obsession. Someone gave me a larger one. I use that one for making stock. A friend gave me a skillet, with a black enamel interior, that sears my steak perfectly each time. A trip to the outlet mall yielded a rectangular baking dish; another trip scored a grill pan, perfect for making grilled sandwiches or cooking bacon. Each piece is cherry-red, brightening my kitchen every time I use it, which is often. Sometimes I use several pots at once.

Of course all this enameled cast-iron weighs a bloody ton, even when empty. A pot of stew is extremely difficult to handle, especially when piping hot. If you haven't got any upper-body strength, you quickly gain some. And it's expensive. If you can afford a full set of it, good for you. My collection has slowly been culled together from kitchenware shop sales, outlet malls, gifts from generous friends and family. And I use it all. The pots are fantastic for making soups, because the heavy cast-iron keeps everything at a barely bubbling simmer on low heat and the equally heavy lid prevents evaporation; the chicken soup I make in the round french (dutch) oven is the best I have ever tasted, clear, golden, intense. (An ordinary pot of stainless steel comes to a boil too quickly; it's harder to control the heat and maintain a slow simmer). I have written at great length about the beef braised in Guinness in that same pot. My steak forms a deep brown, savory crust when cooked in the lightly oiled skillet. The grilled cheese sandwiches are perfectly striped, toasted bread oozing molten cheese. I bake lasagnes until bubbly around the edges and roast chickens in my baking dish. When I look at my cherry-red cookware stacked neatly in cupboards, lounging insouciantly on countertops (when I am too lazy to put them away) I keep thinking about all the good things I will make in them, the ingredients that will fill the pale beige-enameled interiors, sear and simmer in their weighty cast-iron embrace.
How it all began. (cooking). (part 1).

One of my earliest memories is of being in the kitchen. Standing on a stepladder at the kitchen sink, washing mushrooms. Carefully rubbing away all the dirt under running water, until each mushroom was gleaming white, perfect. I cannot have been more than four years old. That is where it all began. Washing vegetables was the first thing I learned to do in the kitchen. Then came learning how to measure the ingredients, waiting for my mother's hands to crack the eggs so I could stir packets of mix together into a batter. Next came permission to use the oven. Cakes, brownies, and cookies were the first things I learned how to make. Waiting for the timer to go off, the kitchen filling with the smell of baking, impatiently waiting as things cooled on wire racks. I can't remember which came next, being allowed to use knives or the stove. As I got older I did more prep work for my mother, washing things, chopping vegetables, ("the scallions need to be sliced finer than that," "I said STRIPS, not CHUNKS, pay attention next time!"), cooking rice in the rice machine.

In her book Home Cooking, or maybe it is the sequel More Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin says something about how in order to learn how to cook, you had to either have the good fortune to have been born Chinese or be able to afford help. I was lucky to be born Chinese. It comes with a) the ability to eat almost anything, no matter how disgusting, and b) the habit of thinking about (or better yet, plannning) your next meal even before you've finished eating the previous one.

Cooking is a pleasure. There are times when it is a burden, when I stagger home late after work and wind up eating a bowl of cereal and drinking a beer, or having a banana and a bowl of ice cream. It happens more often than I would like to admit. But most of the time, I will cook for myself, the foods of my childhood or the American foods I never ate as a child (macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes). I learned to cook from my parents. It started with doing the prep work, chopping things and putting them in bowls before my mom came downstairs to cook, then one dish at dinner, which would be critiqued ("Not so much soy sauce next time." "The garlic is a little burned." "I think you should have taken the chicken out of the oven five minutes sooner."). As I got older I sometimes made the entire meal, at least three or four dishes, using several pots, two or three burners (on some occasions, all four), and the oven all at the same time. Then more criticism ("You need to work on the timing." "The vegetables have gone cold."). And I learned, dish by dish. Getting better at cooking was its own reward.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Reading. Ferlinghetti. (poetry). (part 2).

I must confess that have not read much poetry in my time. It has always been something I have fallen into, accidentally, for a class, or for the sheer pleasure of language during times I have been learning other languages besides my own. Something apart from the literature which mostly consumes me. I have always felt, as someone who needs words in order to live, that poetry did not contain enough words for me, that I preferred the long meandering of novels, the space into which I could fall into the endless depths of a story, into another world outside my own. It has not been until the past several months that I have been reading more and more poetry. Which all started with Bukowski, and then onto Ferlinghetti. Whom I love more than anything. No, that's not true. I love him differently than, say, Bukowski. The latter caught me off-guard; what I felt for him was a surprise, almost a physical shock. Ferlinghetti was like...falling in love with your best friend, someone you've known and loved forever but you haven't really seen them until one day, you realize that what you've always wanted is right there in front of you. That feeling of something exciting and new and yet somehow something that makes you feel safe.

My favorite poem is from A Far Rockaway of the Heart. It's simply called, #2, the second poem in that volume. (On the page the poem looks different; the way Ferlinghetti arranges his sentences, cantilevered words veering off into space).

Driving a cardboard automobile without a license
at the turn of the century
my father ran into my mother
on a fun-ride at Coney Island
having spied each other eating
in a French boarding-house nearby
And having decided right there and then
that she was for him entirely
he followed her into
the playland of that evening
where the headlong meeting
of their ephemeral flesh on wheels
hurtled them together forever

And I now in the backseat
of their eternity
reaching out to embrace them

Reading it aloud seems to carry me along in this breathless rush, this certainty of love, I almost feel like I can't breathe when I read it. I love the part where he says "And having decided right there and then/that she was for him entirely." That absoluteness of it grips me around the heart, stops me headlong, sends me reeling.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand. Portugal. (Part 2). (Bacalhau and beyond).

I wrote earlier about how I managed to eat inhumane amounts of cod while in Portugal. Probably twice a day. (I was lucky not to have it at breakfast, I suppose). Each time it was cooked differently. There must be millions of recipes for bacalhau, the dried and salted codfish that is a staple of Portuguese cuisine. My most favorite dish was the cakes of mashed potato and cod, fried until crisp on the outside (which I had twice, in Guimarães, and Monte de Santa Luzia). But I also had cod wrapped in phyllo (Guimarães), braised with onions and tomatoes (Bom Jesus), topped with tomatoes and mayonnaise and baked (Monte de Santa Luzia), roasted with potatoes (Crato), in a soup with beans and spinach (Beja). And on and on. Cod is a strange fish, bland and plain, falling apart in thick white flakes. It takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with, and takes beautifully to almost any cooking method or seasoning.

Another thing that I really liked was the chorizo. In Monte de Santa Luzia we ate at a Pousada perched high above the city, with the view of the harbor and the ocean below. As an appetizer I had chorizo grilled until the skin was so crisp that the sausage broke apart and spilled the spicy-sweet, loosely packed filling all over the plate. It was fantastic. And everywhere we went my mother ordered octopus, which was nearly always served with boiled potato, hot or cold. After an unfortunate incident in Spain (which I will describe later), I was unable to eat octopus again for the remainder of the trip.

However, Portuguese desserts remained a mystery to me. Excruciatingly sweet, they all had the violent yellow color of egg yolks, and indeed, tended to be made entirely of egg yolks and sugar. There was usually a wide array of weird puddings and sticky, fruit/nut/cream-laden cakes. I spent a lot of time looking at the dessert table with a confused expression on my face. Fortunately, we were usually too full for dessert (except for one member of our party, who will remain nameless, but was not me, nearly always demanded some ice cream), although in Beja we had an intensely orange-flavored cake, and a moist and sticky walnut cake. In Bélem, I had a plate of incredibly ripe, sweet, mango, sliced and covered with passionfruit seeds, tart and unbelievably fragrant. Sometimes all you need is the freshest, ripest fruit you can find.
Reading. (it's all a coincidence).

My life, my literary one, is full of coincidences, chance meetings, things suddenly remembered that come back from the distant past. I wrote last night about The Master and Margarita, but I didn't mention how I started reading it. If I remember correctly, my high school put out a little pamphlet of book recommendations submitted by students and teachers every year, and it had been amongst the entries. After I had been reading it for a while, it occurred to me that a classmate had mumbled something about how, if I was interested in Russian literature (we had been talking about Solzhenitsyn, I think, who I had discovered the year before), I should read Bulgakov. Only I didn't understand him, and I didn't know who Bulgakov was, and I was too shy to ask him to repeat the name. (I may have had a bit of a crush on him). And then I found a letter from three years before, from a Russian friend, who mentioned how her favorite novel was The Master and Margarita and she had used it as her text for her Literature final exam and how it had been censored and never translated. (She was wrong about it not being translated. It has been, and there are at least three or four different translations out there). It hadn't registered with me before. It is so strange to look back and find these coincidences, things that might have been different had you been aware of them at the time.

Last weekend I was at the Burning Word poetry festival, where I was introduced to the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky. I was there at the recommendation of a friend, who I think had found Ilya's writing through another friend. When I came back I could not resist the temptation to find out more about him (where would we be without Google?). And here I found a surprise. When Ilya and his family emigrated to the United States in 1993, they went to Rochester, New York, where there is a significant Russian (and I'm assuming, Ukrainian) émigré population. He studied as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, as did I, a few years behind (how long ago this all seems). There is no way of knowing whether our paths crossed or not, but they could have. How strange that we have this shared connection, but at the same time it is not so strange, given my long-standing passion for Russian literature and poetry, which started even before I was at university, and the large Russian community in Rochester, where Ilya arrived over a decade ago. And yet I found him through a chance remark from a friend. Several years and three thousand miles from where we both began. Everything is all a matter of timing. And fate.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Memory (Reading). The Master and Margarita.

I first read The Master and Margarita ten years ago. It was springtime. That is, I read the first chapter, got completely confused, put it down, and didn't come back to it until a couple of months later. I had trouble following the characters, the conversations, the intricacy of Bulgakov's writing. I didn't know Vanya was short for Ivan, or about Pontius Pilate. Or the significance of various people and events that appeared throughout the story, the culture of repression, Stalinism, and paranoia of the time. That all came later. So I waited. August came, and I went on a week-long hiking trip. I only had space for one book, so I brought it along. On the long drive out to the mountains, at night by flashlight, during various breaks I waded slowly through, again, and the interweaving stories of The Master and Margarita began to take on more coherence for me, fall into place. I was getting the hang of all the names, the characters, the switching back and forth between modern-day (that is, 1930's) Moscow and its various inhabitants and the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

I have said before that it takes me time to fall in love with something. This all started with The Master and Margarita. I learned Russian in order to read it in the original Russian (as a mysterious Russian man in a movie theater once suggested I do). It was the only promise I have ever kept. In this novel I found words taking shape, ideas presented to me in such a beautiful, extraordinary way that when I read it I slowly felt my heart shattering into a million pieces and my mind begin to catch on fire...I come back to it again and again, and each time I fall in love even more, I discover something new, both about the book and myself. I have always loved to read, since I was a child, but with this novel something entirely different began to happen with the way I read, with the way I think about literature. It changed everything. Later, other writers (Eco, Calvino, Kundera) would focus and clarify my thoughts on literature, why I read, what I love most about it, but for the better part of the past decade this has been my greatest literary obsession, my deepest love.

It is my beginning, and my end.
The Wandering Gourmand. Portugal. (Part 1).

Somehow I wound up spending two weeks in January and February driving around Portugal and Spain with three members of my family. It was insane. Essentially we were eating our way around the two countries, starting from Lisbon, heading north up the coast, over the border into Spain, and then back into Portugal. Much presunto (Portugal) and jamon (Spain) was consumed, darkly rosy slices of ham, slightly thicker than the tissue-thin prosciutto of Italy, salty-sweet, intense, and totally addictive. Inhuman (or perhaps I mean inhumane) amounts of cod were eaten, prepared in more ways than I thought possible.

I am not very familiar with Spanish cuisine, and Portuguese cuisine is even more of a mystery. As far as I could tell the latter involved huge amounts of beans, kale, chorizo, and seafood (mainly the inveitable bacalhau). In Portugal we ate at various Pousadas along the way. Pousadas are a chain of forty or so hotels all over Portugal, organized into several categories - historical, charm, nature, and, I think, architecture, and they all have restaurants that serve dishes of that particular region, so that while all the Pousadas have menus that are somewhat similar, each of them vary according to the local cuisine. The historical Pousadas are the most interesting, as they are housed in historical monuments - monastaries, convents, castles, that have been remodeled into hotels. The cooking was unfailingly elegant, refined, and absolutely delicious.

Looking over my notes from those two weeks, it is hard to find a single meal that stands out particularly clearly. I see only an endless parade of delicious things (and, again, an inhumane amount of bacalhau), with only the occasional slightly indifferent stew or rice dish. It was a completely different kind of cooking from anything I had experienced before. Portuguese cooking is earthy, hearty, simple, even when done lightly and elegantly. A combination of flavors and textures totally new to me. I cannot wait to go back.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Once again, from the beginning.

I promised myself that I would not talk about my personal life on this blog. People would be identified by initials, or by their role in my life (the boss, the co-worker,the friend). No names. I didn't want people to find my blog by Googling themselves, or something. This brings me to a conversation I had a few months back, with a co-worker. She had mentioned reading about some Christmas party at our house one year on someone's blog. When pressed for details, K. (my co-worker) couldn't remember what happened, but there was something regarding a gift exchange at the party, how this guy was deeply disappointed that he was not allowed to keep his gift because it was too girly. Although being gay, he had no problem with the girly gift and kept thinking of it (a pair of bracelets, I later found out) longingly. I kept asking K. how she had found the blog to begin with, and it turned out that K. had tried to find my phone number by Googling me, which yielded nothing, and my parents. Apparently, when you Google my father (try this, if you happen to know his name), you get several hundred articles involving his work, his area of research, various papers and seminars, and his two labs. And then, several pages in, there's the blog of a former lab technician. I'll refer to him as J. It was hilarious, and over the year or two that he worked for my (often-absent) father the blog mentioned various work-related incidents involving people I knew, including, obviously, my own father. Which led me to a second conversation.

Me: Hey dad, do you remember J.?
dad: Who?
Me: J. He used to be one of your lab technicians.
dad: Oh, J.....he's gay.
Me (thinking to myself...please let that not be the only thing you remember about him): I know he's gay. Did you know he had a blog that mentions you and the lab?
dad: Yes, I found that ages ago. How did you find it?
Me: I Googled you. Or rather, K. Googled you. How did YOU find it?
dad: Oh, I Googled myself. (At which point I started laughing hysterically and had to hang up).

All this reminded me that, when I started my own blog, I would leave out people's names. I would make my pathetic little blog as difficult to find as possible, and I would try to focus only on two things important to me: food and literature, nothing else, not things that make me crazy at work, not relationships, not the neighbors, not the remodel of my new place or my ability to get lost anywhere. I'm not entirely sure what I hoped to accomplish with this blog but I wanted to put down my thoughts on food and literature, things that I have loved for as long as I can remember and have remained important all my life. A journal of sorts. Maybe people will read and enjoy what I've written, maybe they won't. (I have the sneaking suspicion I'm the only one reading this). It doesn't matter. What matters is that I am writing again, after a long drought, and writing because I love the feel of putting words down, of sifting through experiences and memories, the feel of the keys beneath my fingers. Not because I have to write 2000 words on a novel I hated or a work of art I didn't understand. It's just me. And a blank white space waiting to be filled.