Monday, July 31, 2006

Dinner out. Lark.

The best thing about having my parents home for the summer is that their friends keep wanting to go out to dinner. For me this means a) often hilarious conversation with extremely smart, cultured, funny people and b) wonderful food (and wine). Some people may find it strange that I would be willing to go out with my parents and their friends, but it is never boring and the food is always good, whether in a restaurant or in someone’s home. Last night we were out with two of the best cooks I know (actually three, including my mother), the husband of one, and another friend who is also apparently a very good cook.

In the past few years there have been a number of new restaurants that emphasize artisanal products, seasonal produce, naturally-raised meats, etc. Another trend has been the concept of shared small plates, like tapas. (A third new trend was mocked by a local magazine, regarding restaurants having one-word, one-syllable names). Lark is all of the above.

It is not a large restaurant – perhaps fifteen tables. A small house, converted to a restaurant. Above us is a timbered wooden ceiling; booths of dark wood line the walls, and four or five tables run down the center of the room, with gauzy curtains on a snaking rod giving a vague sense of privacy. We are tucked away in the corner, where I can watch as the bartender deftly mixes two mojitos behind the tiny bar. After stirring the icy mixture with a plastic straw, he quickly sucks the last drops caught at the end of the straw before tossing it out and straining the drinks into waiting glasses. For a minute he looks like a little boy who has been given the spoon to lick while his mother scrapes out the bowl of cookie dough.

There is a plate of meltingly creamy mozzarella burrata to start, with crostini heaped with caramelized onions. A bright salad of roasted baby beets of different colors, deep magenta and gold, sparkling with orange oil, sweet and tender, comes to the table. An airy chicken liver mousse, smoother and lighter than the usual pâté, is served in a glass, with some toast and a little dish of preserved Rainier cherries. A platter of rosy-dark slices of smoked prosciutto arrives, smudged with mostarda di uva, a sort of Italian grape chutney (for lack of a better description). The chef himself comes by with a plate covered with two different kinds of lomo, a smoked pork tenderloin, both in the traditional style (round slices) and then more prosciutto-like (slightly irregular long slices). I prefer the more traditional style, the texture and milder flavor of it.

Next came a little cocotte of sweetbreads, tender and crusty little bites of meat, with the mild but unmistakable flavor of lamb. The sweetbreads are on a bed of slippery pale green fava beans, tiny fat baby carrots, cloves of garlic braised in a tart verjus. And they are all mine. (Usually we order several things and share, but not this time). I do manage to steal a slice of my mother's roasted pork belly, which while excellent I feel lacks the unctuous texture of braised pork belly, the more traditional Chinese way of cooking it. You are more aware of the fat of it. A. spoons some farro onto my plate, chewy grains contrasting with the soft slippery golden chanterelles.

I remember that last time S. had an incredible tarte tatin (apple, or perhaps some other winter fruit) and I regretted ordering whatever I had chosen, so this time I have the fig tarte tatin, with crisp, buttery pastry, sweet dark figs, and a chévre ice cream melting over everything. It is heaven.

There is a small group of restaurants that I have loved for many years, because the food served is interesting and exciting, not to mention delicious, but most of all because they are relaxed and unpretentious and consistently on top of their game. I want to feel at ease, to feel that I know when I go there I will eat something wonderful, to have waiters who are friendly and unsnobby and know (and most importantly, love) food. I think I may have to add Lark to this list.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Eating. blood.

In the mid-90's, I spent a summer volunteering on a political campaign as an intern. I answered phones and transferred calls (occasionally misdirecting calls or, even better, accidentally hanging up on irate Republicans), licked envelopes (thousands of them), created spreadsheets of people who had contributed to the campaign, and just ran around trying to be helpful (or at least look like I was trying). Never mind that at sixteen I was not old enough to vote, nor did I have any interest in politics. Most of the people on the campaign were young (by young I mean in their 20's or 30's, which of course to me seemed absolutely ancient), or experienced (code for extremely ancient, forty or so), and there was a tremendous amount of energy in the air, excitement and expectation, the feeling that we were part of something important. The campaign headquarters were in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood, just off the freeway. For lunch I'd bring something from home, or head next door to Taco del Mar. Or I would go to the Polish delicatessen a few blocks up Madison. It was there I discovered something incredible - a sandwich of cold blood-and-tongue sausage, sliced thin, piled high on dark bread, succulent and savory with that indescribable tang of...blood. Turkey and ham seemed so ordinary after that. I took a sadistic pleasure in describing my lunch to people and watching them turn green.

When I was growing up and we often went out to Chinese restaurants of varying quality, my parents would sometimes order a dish that involved cubes of blood custard, among other things, floating in a hot broth. They had the texture of soft tofu, but they squeaked between the teeth and left a faintly metallic taste on the tongue. It gave me some primal, animal feeling to eat something made of blood. (Pig's blood). Like eating the source of life itself. (The only experience that might be more intense is when you take some marrow from a cracked, roasted bone and spread it on a slice of toasted bread, but I will tell that story another time). In my house, tongue was something bought at an Asian supermarket, looking all too apparently, loathsomely in its plastic-wrapped state like what it must look like when attached to a live animal. Unlike, perhaps, a steak, or ground hamburger, far removed from its original appearance. It would be red-braised in soy sauce and spices, cooled, and sliced thin when cold. Somehow the flavor was more intense, the meat more tender than any other cut of meat. That blood-and-tongue sausage from that tiny Polish deli brought together those two foods from my childhood in an entirely new way, the flavors mingling, sharpened by a smear of mustard, the earthy taste of pumpernickel bread. But then I discovered something else.

Years ago at the Harvest Vine I had a dish of pan-roasted blood sausage; it was my second visit there and as two young college students my friend and I had ordered carefully. (Such a polite word, when I mean that we ordered as little as possible. At the Harvest Vine it is easy to get carried away). The food there arrives on a pristine white plate, a still life, almost too perfect to disturb with a knife and fork. A single grilled sardine adorned with one minimalist, curving twist of a lemon slice. Bright green spinach, sautéed and molded into an abbreviated cone. The blood sausage arrived, two or three slices, black with blood and crisp on both sides, and it came with little cakes of mashed potatoes, but oh, what mashed potatoes they were. They were creamy and shot through with bits of scallions, and they had been fried on one side so that a crust formed, echoing the texture of the accompanying sausage. (They had been presented fried-side down, so the sudden crunch was an unexpected, delightful surprise). Both were immediately addictive, and had I had the budget for it, I would have ordered more.

That memory stayed with me for a long time, and I thought of it again when I ordered a dinner of blood sausage, bacon, and eggs in the basement restaurant of our hotel-parador in Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, one of the most luxurious in the group. It was everything I thought it would be, and more, the sausage hot and crusty, the blood almost black; the bacon was thickly sliced and shattered when I bore down on it with my knife, and the yolks oozed a bright yellow-orange as I speared it with a fork. When I went to the Harvest Vine again last week, for the first time since the year it opened, I failed to order the blood sausage, and I have regretted it since. I suppose I will have to go back soon, particularly since I have just re-read Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on boudin noir, and I feel an overwhelming craving for blood all over again, that vampiric lust, that unbearable longing.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Eating. Tiramisu.

I tasted tiramisu for the first time in Italy. It was summer, just before I turned fourteen, and we were visiting a friend, A., not far from Naples. I remember squid stuffed with..something, and cooked in its own ink, some kind of pasta, and...tiramisu. I was in heaven. Coffee, chocolate, a whisper of liqueur, tender savoiardi, creamy mascarpone filling. I don't remember if I managed to score another serving, but I remember having another piece for breakfast, along with a huge bowl of milky coffee. Tiramisu means pick-me-up, and pick-me-up it did.

There have been many tiramisus since then, most of them very good. Some time after that first taste, A. and her mother were visiting Seattle, and they offered to teach me how to make it, the authentic Italian way. I went to their friend's house, into the smallish kitchen, helped A.'s mother seperate eggs, beat them with sugar using a wooden spoon, until pale golden and creamy. She didn't use a measuring cup for the sugar, only an ordinary tablespoon. Fifteen or twenty spoonfuls. Then the mascarpone was beaten in until everything was smooth. On the stove was one of those Moka coffee pots, a bottom reservoir holding water that, when it boils, is drawn through a middle section which holds the ground coffee in a filter, up into a top reservoir. As the coffee fills the upper pot, it sputters enticingly, maddeningly, and impatient, A. tries to peek. Lascia, says her mother, slapping her hand away. Mothers are the same in any language, at any age.

The savoiardi are briefly dipped in the coffee, just long enough to dampen them without making them soggy, arranged in a dish, and covered with the mascarpone filling and cocoa powder. It is everything I remember it to be. I have had others, some more like cakes, made with slices of sponge cake instead of ladyfingers, some spooned out of casseroles like the original version. Later, nervous about raw eggs, I would make tiramisu with whipped cream and mascarpone. It was my party dish, until I discovered bread pudding years afterwards. It is homely and simple, easy, and delicious.

And then last summer I had dinner at La Rosetta in Rome. I've described it before. We ate dinner outside in the falling light of a Roman August. The tiramisu came in an elegant stemmed glass, layers of espresso-moistened cake, creamy mascarpone, incredibly light, with a dollop of intense granita di caffé, all covered with a drift of whipped cream that was so airy it seemed to float. It was perfectly refined, delicate, another creature entirely from the homely one I had eaten all those years ago. Perfection.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Reading. Miller.

It began with Cricket magazine, as so many early literary discoveries did. It was the story of a young girl, meeting the writer Henry Miller and his beautiful dancer wife, at a home (I forget whose) on the Big Sur. I remember a description of a terrace in the sunlight, flowers and a view, twirling around, dancing for Henry Miller. I was in middle school, and I was years away from the dollar-per-page erotica I would discover much later. I didn't know that he was a famous writer, author of Tropic of Cancer and other books. In the story he was an old man in the twilight of his life, being kind to a shy little girl who danced before him for a little while.

Later, when I was in my teens, I happened across something by Anaïs Nin. Little Birds. It was erotica, but it was so beautiful I had to read more. (Like so many other writers I found her in my favorite bookstore in the world). I kept reading, discovered that she had been the lover of Henry Miller, and I turned to his works. (I like to read writers who are connected to each other somehow, as lovers, friends, rivals, together). I have to say that they made little impression on me, and I moved on to different worlds. Another decade would pass before I came back to him again, and it would be yet another writer who led me there.

Some time at the end of last year I began reading the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I came across A Coney Island of the Mind, and I was well on my way in love. A note inside said simply that the title came, out of context, from Miller’s Into the Night Life. It haunted me. While searching for Miller's book I found two others, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. It took a little while to find Into the Night Life; it turned out to be part of a collection called Black Spring. When I found it I was swept into a dizzying whirl; it was less a story and more a stream of words that rocketed my mind from place to place, left me drunkenly reeling.

I read Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch on a long flight, from Seattle to London. It was late January. Stand Still Like the Hummingbird had been read the week before, in the bath. The cover of Big Sur has figures from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch superimposed over a photograph of the Big Sur; the Bosch figures reminded me of a Ferlinghetti poem I had read years earlier. (Always these two writers sending me back and forth between each other). Curious glances kept coming my way; I have gotten less attention while reading Playboy in mid-flight. Finally, my neighbor leaned over and said, I'm sorry, but I just had to ask. WHAT are you reading? And then, of course, the inevitable What's it about, then?, which is my least favorite question, impossible to answer coherently, particularly when you've just gotten through the first few chapters and have as yet no idea what's going to happen. (My other least favorite question, to paraphrase Umberto Eco, is when people ask, What a lot of books! Have you really read them all?).

By now I have read quite a lot of Miller, and I am old enough to not be shocked by anything. (We are a long ways away from Cricket magazine). But Big Sur is the one I love most, a different Miller, yet underneath the same Miller of Tropic of Cancer and that Into the Night Life which had sent Ferlinghetti off towards his "circus of the soul." It is about love and friendship and writing, about being a writer and husband and father and friend, and his love of what was still an Eden, that stretch of California coast, the hills above the ocean. It captures that moment when you discover a place before everyone else does, when the streams of people in search of a different life come pouring in to change everything into a replica of the life they left behind. The Big Sur of Miller's time no longer exists, except in books and memories. But when I read it I found I could close my eyes and hear the waves against rocks, wind through tall grasses. There is a gentleness to his words, a beautiful tenderness; it is like a slow embrace, a twirling dance on a sunlight terrace.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Little plates in search of a meal. tapas.

Supposedly, tapas are what you eat a few hours before your actual dinner. It is essentially bar food. This is especially appropriate in Spain, where tapas originated, because around six or seven o’clock, you start getting a little hungry, and dinner isn’t until ten or eleven. (Personally, I find that insane). So you go to a tapas bar around what the rest of us consider dinnertime, have a glass of wine, some olives marinated with herbs and garlic, or a twist of lemon peel, some jamon Serrano, slices of sausage, or fried anchovies, a little bread and cheese, or perhaps you might order a slice of torta, that Spanish onion-and-potato frittata, baked in a frying pan, unmolded onto a plate, and sliced to order, served at room temperature. Or maybe some empanadas. If you are a starving tourist who considers dinner after 8:30 barbaric, you can make a meal of this (I speak from experience).

At some point in recent years, tapas bars became rather trendy in America. A number of places calling themselves tapas bars, or serving tapas-style dishes, sprang up all over the place. They are not what I consider real tapas, traditional Spanish tapas, but instead they borrow the concept of small plates meant to be shared, two or three (at least) per person making up a meal. Slightly more traditional is The Harvest Vine.

We went to The Harvest Vine a few times when it first opened several years ago, but at that time it was simply a counter and three tables, no reservations, and always jam-packed with people. The restaurant is in a converted garage; in summertime the garage door is raised and extra tables spill outside, underneath a bamboo awning. Even the crisply roasted blood sausage with mashed-potato cakes, crusty and speckled with scallions, was not enough to entice me there, as I have an aversion to both a) waiting in line and b) struggling to find street parking. Now they have expanded to the basement wine cellar, and accept reservations (although sadly, you still have to find street parking. Did I mention I’m terrible at parallel parking?).

Last night we started with some sautéed mushrooms, piping hot and fragrant with garlic and parsley and a little sherry. Then came spinach with pine nuts and raisins, with the minerally tang of spinach mellowed by the sweetness of golden raisins, the crunch of pine nuts. Pork cheeks braised with sherry and sprinkled with almonds followed, tender and juicy and incredibly delicious. Half an eggplant, spread with tomato sauce and cheese and then roasted arrived at the table. A filet of salmon was seared until crusty on both sides, slightly rare in the middle, with sweet cherry tomatoes that tasted of summer. Then there was a grilled sardine, lemony and sweet. To complete the trio of seafood was a plate of pan-roasted mackerel, crisp-skinned, with woodsy chanterelles accented by the sweetness of currant jam. As a nod to nostalgia, I asked for a plate of jamón Serrano, salty-sweet and intense. Finally, in need of more vegetables, we ordered a cool lentil salad, shot with the sweetness of onion confit and bright sparks of vinegar, and perfectly fried baby green peppers, salty and mildly spicy. Still, there was room for an intense chocolate crème with espilette pepper, a creamy coconut flan, and an olive-oil wine cake with poached peaches.

In all, it was a very good dinner. But it was not tapas the way I remember tapas, and I almost longed for merely some crusty bread, a plate of jamón serrano and lomo, perhaps something hot like spicy rounds of grilled blood sausage, a bowl of olives and a glass of wine.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ingredients in search of a meal. Part 2.

Somehow the various ingredients I bought at the market yesterday came together for three separate dishes at dinner. The easiest were the salmon and halibut collars, angular lengths of bone just barely covered in rich, tender meat. The salmon was seasoned with salt and sprinkled with dill and parsley; I left the halibut plain, adding just salt, before letting them broil for ten minutes or so, until the skin became blistered and blackened. Fish collars are trickier to eat, relatively little meat for more work; you have to pick out the pockets of remaining flesh from the expanse of bone. But it’s worth the trouble; the meat is tastier, moister, it has more fat and is therefore easier to cook (that is, harder to overcook). A squeeze of lemon brings out the intense flavor, the sharp acidity cutting through the oily richness of the fish.

A co-worker had given me some zucchinis from her garden, and I sliced them into jade-skinned half-moons, along with the bright yellow pattypan squash, tiny and round, with frilled edges, and then some crisp green sugar snap peas. Rooting around in the fridge yields an onion, which I chop finely and sauté in some olive oil until it just begins to brown. When the onion is translucent and starting to caramelize slightly, I throw in the zucchini and squash and let them cook for a while, as the linguine boils away on the next burner. (It’s not dinner unless I’ve got three burners and the oven going. Bonus points for using four burners and two ovens, but that usually only happens at Thanksgiving).

Meanwhile, I’ve got a handful of prosciutto slivers warming in a small pool of olive oil. As the pan heats up the fat begins to melt and render out, and the shavings of ham begin to cook in the hot oil. I throw in the asparagus spears, stirring them occasionally, until they are nearly cooked, before adding sliced morels. The prosciutto fat has infused the olive oil, and permeates the morels and asparagus with its flavor. Everything is coming together; I’ve timed it just about right. (Timing is everything). I rescue the fish just before it starts to burn, the linguine is al dente, the squash and zucchini are tender. The asparagus with morels is turned out into a plate; the pasta is tossed with the other vegetables. I add a thin stream of pale greeny-gold olive oil, a faint whisper of white truffle oil that I found lurking in the fridge.

This is a very relaxed sort of dinner. I've made things I've cooked before; usually I add cubes of steak to the pasta, along with mushrooms, but since my mom doesn't eat a lot of meat and it's her birthday, I use as many kinds of vegetables as I can. The prosciutto added to asparagus and morels is new, but I often add prosciutto or bacon to peas or brussels sprouts so this has the same feeling to it. I love morels with asparagus; I was going to do it with peas, but asparagus is easier and it's something I've tried before. The fish I can just whack in the oven and forget about; the pasta needs an occasional stir, and the seperate pans of vegetables need a close eye. But I know my kitchen, and I know my ingredients, so it is easy decide when to add pasta to boiling water, vegetables to hot oil, fish into the oven. I've done this before. Some nights, you try something new, and because you're cooking for family they won't mind if chaos erupts or things take longer than you expect so dinner is at 8. But tonight I wanted to cook something that was familiar to me, and when I told them dinner would be in an hour, I was not off by more than five minutes.

It’s not perfect. The morels are the last of the season, so they do not have the intensity of flavor that you see at their peak, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I did not quite wash all the grit from them. I meant to slice the prosciutto more carefully, so they were more like very fine matchsticks, tiny shreds rather than shavings, but I was in a hurry. I could have added parsley (which I always forget to buy), perhaps some garlic, maybe a dash of hot pepper to add life to the pasta. But it is all very good, and I have not cooked like this for a while. We sit around, my parents and I, and eat as they gently critique this night’s dinner. This is how I learned to cook when I was growing up; I would make dinner, and they would point out all the things I did right and all the things I could have done differently. I have missed this. They are home for the rest of the summer, and my world is whole again. For a while.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ingredients in search of a meal. Part 1.

I have been going to the Pike Place Market for some twenty years now, and there are memories in every corner of its sprawling corridors and maze of shops. We used to take school trips there; I bought invisible ink and whoopie cushions in the magic shop downstairs and crystals at a stall nearby. My family would frequently have weekend brunch in one of the many restaurants in and around the market when I was growing up; later, when I was learning to drive, I would drive to the Arboretum with my parents, go for a walk, and then head to the market for lunch. Now I am living on my own and they are rarely in town; my visits to the market have sadly become few and far between.

Tonight is my mother’s birthday*; I went to the market after work yesterday afternoon to see what I could possibly throw together for dinner. The first stop is the produce stall we always go to, and I buy a handful of morels, the last of the season, a bundle of asparagus, some tiny yellow squash, bright green snap peas. As I scoop up bright golden Rainier cherries, I lean dangerously close to the raspberries in front of me; two women yell, YOU’RE SQUISHING MY RASPBERRIES! I refrain from pointing out that they could have put the fragile berries in a safer spot; they are in the first row of the fruit section and everyone has to lean over them to reach for other fruits, but I am afraid that they might get even madder so I just apologize and head over to pay. I squeeze my way past hordes of camera-wielding tourists, struggle towards the nearby fish counter. A few minutes and I am on my way with some salmon collars. Next is DeLaurenti, but I am not inspired by anything and leave with only a package of pasta and a piece of prosciutto.

The final stop is Le Panier Bakery, for breakfast croissants, chocolate éclairs, some petit fours, a loaf of bread, and a reviving glass of iced tea. By now I am laden with bags, which bang into the legs of unsuspecting tourists who linger too long in the middle of the market taking pictures, oblivious to the shoppers around them. I hate this part about shopping in the Pike Place Market; it always makes me feel like a salmon swimming upstream when I am in a hurry to get to my next destination and have to dodge cameras and baby strollers. I have one last thing to buy – three stems of white lilies, their buds still tightly closed. I am hoping they will bloom in the next few days. At this point I have spent all the cash on me (another reason why I rarely shop at the market; it is always a blur of food and money, ending with a mysteriously empty wallet, unlike swiping a credit card at the supermarket), with just enough left to pay for parking. Progess towards the car is slightly hindered by the different things I am juggling, but I make it there and deposit everything safely in the backseat, accidentally leaving my iced tea on the roof of my car. Miraculously it stays put until I reach the parking attendant, who gallantly rescues it for me.

And now it is 3am and I still have absolutely no clue as to what I will cook for dinner tonight. I have a fridge full of ingredients in search of a meal, and I will probably spend the entire day waiting for inspiration to strike. I can only hope something will come to mind in the next fifteen hours.

*Actually, tonight is my mother's birthday according to the Chinese Lunar calendar. Tomorrow is her birthday according to the Western calendar, and we are going out for dinner. Phew. One less thing to worry about.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Reading. Wodehouse.

I was very young when I discovered P. G. Wodehouse, perhaps ten years old, and my love of British writing and comedy came out of that early discovery. In those days my tv-watching was mostly limited to PBS and the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, not to mention 60 Minutes, which we watched religiously every Sunday night. I think I saw the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster (which introduced me to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the funniest men in Britain, who I have loved fervently since) and then discovered the books, but it could have been the other way around.

The world of Wodehouse is one of a vanished time, a Britain that no longer exists. People fall in and out of love, get accidentally engaged and then dis-engaged, moving between London flats and stately country homes. Secretaries, governesses, housemaids, gardeners, livestock-minders, and butlers keep popping in and out of drawing rooms. Those were the days when cultured pearls may as well have come from Woolworth’s, people wore tweeds as a matter of course and always dressed for dinner. The characters have names like Bertie or Pongo, Hermione or Honoria, and the American girl is always named Sally. Old prep-school classmates meet again after years and years of holding grudges, usually given as an excuse for curmudgeonly behavior.

Most of the Wodehouse novels center around the (mis)adventures of Bertie Wooster, a fatuous fool whose life revolves around partying, and Jeeves, his brilliant, unflappable butler who never fails to get him out of whatever mess Bertie has gotten into. He is always getting engaged to the wrong girl, and spends the rest of the story trying to get out of it, which always turns out fine as the girl in question really is in love with someone else. There is always some complication, like a stolen necklace, or a fake statue, or compromising letters, or a lost bet that must be paid. Throw in a soupçon of blackmail, and you have an exciting ride through the bucolic countryside. Wodehouse' writing is light and frothy, as effervescent as a coupé of champagne, as bracing as one of those gin-and-tonics or a whisky-and-sodas that his characters are always drinking.

My favorite Wodehouse novel, though, is Uncle Dynamite, which doesn't involve Bertie Wooster or Jeeves. The Earl of Twickenham is the aforementioned uncle, and he certainly bursts into the lives of all those around him with the verve and unpredictability of a lighted stick of dynamite. I read it again last night and felt myself laugh as delightedly as I had when I first read it all those years ago.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Hot-weather dining. Nishino.

What was that I said the other day, about how in Seattle the seasons blur together, how the changes in weather are so mild I wear the same clothing all year-round? Lies, all lies. This week it has been so hot that the air is stifling in my house, without even the slightest of breezes for relief. I staggered home from the air-conditioned comfort at work, the heat slamming into me as I walk out the door. I cannot bear even the thought of trying to eat dinner in our kitchen, let alone cooking anything. Let’s go out for dinner, my mom says. Where to?

Nishino is one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle. We have been eating there since its previous incarnation as an Italian restaurant, when it was called Trattoria Carmine (I think) and there were few customers. In 1995 it became a Japanese restaurant, and in recent years it has been so busy that we frequently have trouble getting a table. I have had simple bowls of udon noodles, and I have had elaborate omakase (chef's choice) dinners, in addition to our usual variety of appetizers and a vast array of sushi. They have all been perfect. One night a few years ago, my friend S.’s mother took me there, and our omakase dinner lasted for some two or three hours, just the two of us and an endless parade of dishes. I think there were ten courses, but it is all a blur. Some dishes involved two or more kinds of seafood; I remember only that there were four kinds of tuna and at least two kinds of salmon.

The menu is a mix of traditional Japanese dishes – all excellent – and modern, what I suppose you could call fusion cuisine. You could order sushi and sashimi and tempura and bowls of noodles. There is even teriyaki available. But you would be missing out. The food is tremendously inventive and consistently superb, which is why this is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Saturday night, my mother and I drove the familiar road along the lake towards Madison Park (not coincidentally home to two of my other favorite restaurants), and managed to snag two seats at the sushi counter. The owner is behind the counter; he (and his wife, who greeted us as we came in) remembers my mother, asks after my father, who is still in Taipei. It is rare for my mother and I to go out to dinner together, just the two of us; the last time she was in town I was too busy, she was too jet-lagged, and her visit was too brief for anything more than thrown-together dinners at home. It has been nearly a year since we went out to a restaurant together, not since Rome, last August, and this is our chance to catch up. Settled in at the sushi bar, I tell her about the movies I saw during the recent film festival, my blog, my day at work, and we order our dinner.

There is some fried smelt marinated in sweet vinegar, cool and tangy, and then hamachi sashimi in some kind of sauce, adorned with paper-thin slices of what appears to be jalapeño pepper and fried garlic, the former giving a sharp bite to the sweet fish, the latter in crisp contrast to the soft texture of the sashimi, like a potato chip in a tuna-fish sandwich, only a thousand times more so; rolled up and eaten in one bite, it is a explosion of flavors in the mouth. Then comes toro, a slice of fatty tuna belly, pale and luminous atop a hand-formed oval ball of rice; it floods the senses with the richness of sweet, luxurious tuna…fat. A soft-shell crab roll appears before us on the counter; the deep-fried crab crunches against the translucent celadon slices of cucumber wrapped around the sushi. We had seen a plate handed over to the couple sitting next to us; my mother pointed to it and ordered the same without even asking what it was. It turns out to be a tangle of geoduck and wild mushrooms and asparagus, intensely flavored, tasting of the sea and of the woods all at the same time. (This is an example of Nishino’s untraditional cuisine, one of the frequently-changing specials). A bowl of somen arrives in a glass bowl of ice, sweating profusely onto the wooden counter. (Later the waitress mops up the puddles as my mother laughs at me; I suppose nothing has changed since 1985 and a waiter had to spread a fresh napkin over the mess I made all over the tablecloth at the Russian Tea Room). I stir grated ginger and finely sliced scallions into the savory dipping sauce, and the cold noodles are the perfect antidote to a hot summer evening.

All around us people are chatting with the affable sushi chef/owner, a smiling man in brightly-patterned chef's trousers. It seems that most customers tonight are regulars, gossiping with him the way only someone who eats there all the time can. A man leans over, says, I was at Matsuhisa last month; he is not even close to being as inventive as you are. The chef smiles, laughs. I have never eaten at Matsuhisa, so I will have to take his word for it. There is just enough room for one more piece of toro, like foie gras one of my favorite foods in the world. It is rich and sweet and melts gently on the tongue; I barely even have to chew. The only complaint I have is that due to the hot weather, my toro is ever so slightly headed towards room temperature, which makes it seem even fattier and more unctuous than usual, almost too much so. Still, it is the best toro I have ever eaten. (I said that last time I ate toro at Nishino). Every time I come here, I order toro, and it is unfailingly excellent, and I promise myself that I will return as soon as possible to eat more. But it never happens, and I can only wait, with longing, until the chance comes again.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Favorite food. croissants. (Part 6).

Many croissants, probably hundreds, if not thousands, have been sacrificed to my search of the perfect one. In It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, Jeffrey Steingarten lays forth the numerous criteria for the perfect croissant. They should be: extremely flaky on the outside; very light in the hand; possessing a perfect balance in flavor between the sweet, the salty, and the acidic; easy to break in half cleanly, without destroying the croissant; moist inside, yet with all the internal layers visible; and preternaturally delectable.*

It is not difficult to find a decent croissant. Even Costco has perfectly acceptable ones, at least once they have been reheated in the toaster oven. They come in flats of a dozen, and I keep them in the freezer to toast as desired. Very good, even delicious croissants abound in bakeries wherever you go, so long as they are warm (a cold croissant is a very sad thing). But to find a truly sublime one, one that fits all of Steingarten’s (and mine) rules, is, as constant eating has proven, considerably harder to accomplish. In order to find the gold standard I would have to make my own.

I know it sounds insane, but I discovered quickly that making croissants is not difficult, but merely time-consuming. I found the recipe in Gourmet magazine, and I had to try it. It took all evening to prepare the dough, and then it had to rest overnight in the fridge before the croissants could be rolled out and formed. I rather seem to remember that after the croissants were shaped, they had to rest and rise for another hour or so before baking. There was also a complicated maneuver involving a spray bottle and misting the croissants just after they had been placed in the oven. That burst of moisture gave the dough one final rise before they baked to a crisp golden brown. I used whole milk and cultured European-style butter (both from Organic Valley), King Arthur flour, and a fresh pack of yeast.

A friend and I watched The Fellowship of the Ring, the extended version, with cast commentary, in between rounds of rolling out dough, folding it over a sheet of butter that had been beaten with a rolling pin until it was as malleable as clay, letting it rest in the fridge for an hour before rolling it out and folding it over again. The recipe promised that by the time I was done I would have a cool, flat rectangle composed of hundreds of alternating, paper-thin layers of dough and butter. When baked the butter would melt and caramelize between the layers of dough, and the croissants would blossom in the heat of the oven.

The results were incredible. Extremely flaky, check. Perfectly balanced between sweet, salty, and acidic, check. Moist inside but with visible layers, check. Preternaturally delectable, check check CHECK! Their only flaw was that some of the (two dozen) croissants were not perfectly shaped and a few had even begun to unravel. But they were better than anything else I had ever eaten, crunchy and tender all at once, with that indescribable taste of pure, fresh butter, a faintly tangy bite from the cultured butter, and a deeper, more complex flavor that (I feel) comes from using organic dairy products. When I bit into one, a shower of flaky golden crumbs scattered everywhere, revealing a creamy, tender, almost molten (though still clearly layered) core that actually streeeetched as I ate it. This is the standard to which all other croissants have been held against, and only a few have come close.

*Steingarten, Jeffrey. It Must’ve Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything. Knopf, 2002. p. 124.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Interlude. poetry.

Last night I went to hear a poet friend of a poet friend give a reading. It was held at the Richard Hugo House, a vast Victorian house on Capitol Hill, surrounded by a garden, across the street from the neighborhood playfield. I could hear the shouts of people playing outside, a low thrum beneath the voices inside. What I remember from my experience at the Burning Word festival some months ago is that hearing poetry read aloud is an entirely different experience from reading it on the page. I regret to say that I do not remember any of the poems I heard last night, but I remember how they made me feel.

I had met B. at the poetry festival, but I had not heard his work before, and I was completely unprepared for how it made me feel. Perhaps that is the point, for someone’s words to catch you off guard, to stop your heart, stop you. He read a series of poems about death, about his time in Africa, about love, and then again about death. (To put it like that does not even begin to describe how beautiful they were). When he read the poems about death, (I believe they were connected to the end of his mother's life, and the aftermath) I was reminded of something I had written a long time ago, about Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, and how reading that story was the closest I had ever come to understanding how it might feel to die. Last night that same feeling came all over me again.

In The Fact and Fictions of Minna Pratt, which I read as a child many years ago, Minna describes how music played in the cavernous performance hall sounded different from how it did in the practice room; how the notes seemed to lift up into the darkness, hang there for a moment, and disappear into nothingness. When I hear music I forget the melodies, but I will remember the feel of it, almost like a touch against my skin. Poetry read aloud is like music, in that way, the words reverberating in the mind, in the heart, for just a moment, before they vanish into the air and are lost. (Particularly if you are like me, who never remembers anything).

Whereas poetry on the page bites into the flesh as starkly as black words on white paper, read aloud (particularly by the poet) it becomes a living creature, takes on the reader's breath, nuance, the words taking on the texture of his voice. Slides along your skin, and then slips away with barely a trace, leaving behind only the faintest of memories.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reading. McCall Smith.

I began reading Alexander McCall Smith some years ago, when I heard his latest book mentioned on the radio. In those days I listened to NPR when I drove the winding road from the university towards home, through the park and along the lake. He had written a few books about a woman detective in Botswana (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series); there are now six books, and I have read five of them. But then I discovered his Scottish books while on holiday last summer, and here was something else entirely. They were written in the same gentle way as the Botswana mysteries, but these books were set in Edinburgh, as unfamiliar a world to me as the sun-burnt earth of Botswana.

Espresso Tales is the continuation of 44 Scotland Street; both are serial novels written by McCall Smith for The Scotsman, stories about the lives of the various inhabitants of a Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh, converted into flats. Reading them is like being given a bar of the most perfect chocolate and cautioned that it can only be consumed in the tiniest of bites. I can only imagine what it must have been like to read it slowly, chapter by chapter in the newspaper. I would have gone mad wondering if Bruce would finally get his comeuppance, if Pat and Matthew could authenticate the painting, if Bertie would ever get to play rugby. In Espresso Tales the various threads begun in the first book wind towards their resolution.

The world of these books is one where boys wear crushed-strawberry dungarees, sophisticated women with interesting past lives (that is, lives before they moved back to Edinburgh and lived in converted Georgian townhouses) drive custard-colored Mercedes-Benzes, and arrogant young men cut their hair en brosse. It is all completely foreign to me, and therefore completely fascinating. (And I am still not quite sure what en brosse means). And all the while these interwoven lives are played out against this city which McCall Smith describes with a fondness, a bone-deep love, an absolute tenderness matched only by the way he writes about Botswana. The rhythm of the city gets under your skin and straight to the heart.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On taste. the best cook I know.

Oh, it was nothing, just something I threw together, is the most maddening phrase known to man. Usually it is accompanied by a wave of the hand as I am presented with a beautifully arranged platter of some delicious thing. I know I am guilty of this, but when I say oh, it was nothing, I am likely holding a bowl of fried rice or a plate of macaroni and cheese. Not the lightest cheesecake I have ever tasted or perfectly sliced duck breast stir-fried with slivers of orange zest. Hearing those words is like sitting across from the most beautiful woman in the world and having her tell you that she uses only soap and water and wears no makeup save for a slick of lip balm and a swish of mascara.

The three people I consider the best cooks I know all have distinctly different styles. One is a close friend of my mother’s, J., who designs jewelry (usually at her dinner parties each woman is wearing something she made, delicate earrings or a dramatic necklace) and is an incredible cook. It is not enough for something to taste good, but it must be beautifully presented (usually on platters made by a potter friend) as well; red-braised pork belly is sliced into precise cubes, arranged in a perfect square, and wreathed in baby bok choy like jade-green flowers. Other courses are adorned with sprigs of cilantro, brightened with cheerful red slivers of bell peppers. It is Shanghainese cuisine, and it is home cooking, the best kind of home cooking, elegant and unpretentious, elevated to something sublime. When someone expressed surprise that I would go have dinner with my parents’ friends without them (they were out of town), I said that J. was the best cook I know and when she invited me to dinner I never thought twice about accepting. She has a stable of classics which we look forward to each time, but once in a while something new will appear. Old dogs can learn new tricks, she tells us.

Another friend of my mother's, A., whose lemon cheesecake I wrote about yesterday, tends towards more Western-style cooking, although she sometimes makes Chinese food as well. I remember on one occasion being served a gigantic bowl of pasta, a tangle of flat noodles and porcini mushrooms faintly slicked with olive oil, followed by an intensely flavored steak roasted in the oven. The ingredients had all come from the Pike Place Market, just blocks away, and everything was fresh and simple and vibrant. I cannot remember anything I have eaten in her airy downtown apartment that has not been absolutely wonderful. She used to be a caterer, and moves confidently around her open kitchen, wielding knives and pots with ease. A.'s cooking is always relaxed, even when it is a complicated dish (such as paella), and every meal is different.

And then there is my mother, who makes Shanghainese and Taiwanese-inflected dishes, some learned from her Shanghainese mother, some influenced by other friends or things she’s seen on tv or eaten in restaurants. (Iron-Chef-inspired mushroom-stuffed fungus, anyone?). One of my recent favorites is a dish of peas tossed with shreds of prosciutto and bound together with beaten raw egg (which cooks as it is stirred into the hot peas), served in boats of endive leaves, which she first had at a restaurant in Taipei and then adapted herself. The emulsified egg lightly coats the peas, much like a pasta carbonara, and it is a play of contrasts – sweet peas, salty prosciutto, creamy egg, crisp and slightly bitter endive. Her cooking is, on the whole, mostly vegetarian (although she does make meat dishes for the rest of us carnivores) cooking at its most refined, simple, and elegant. The key word is refined.

And then I realize that it is no accident that three of the best cooks I know are also three of the most elegant women I know, the kind of women who wear caftans or t-shirts and fleece as easily as they wear designer fashions. Taste and style are inextricably intertwined. Three completely different styles of cooking, but each is subtle, refined, and elegant, simple but with inventive flourishes, unexpected flavours and accents adding life to a dish the way a piece of jewelry or an unusual jacket transforms a look. And they make it all seem effortless, as if a meal or an outfit came together of its own will, as if everything they touch takes on something of their personality. Food is life. It is about taste in all things, style in all things; the way you eat and cook reflects everything about you, everything you do, and the way you live, everything you are. That is why food matters to me, why it should matter to us all.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eating. cheesecake.

When I think of cheesecake, I think of New York, and when I think of New York cheesecake, I think of the Stage Deli. I remember eating dinner there (it has been nearly twenty years now), and being served an immense pale triangle of cake that dwarfed its small plate. It must have been a good four inches high. You can't POSSIBLY eat that all! cried my mother. I probably didn't. But I will always remember the creamy, smooth taste of it, the crunch of the crust, the cheese filling that was somehow rich without being too dense. I have spent the years since trying to recapture that lost memory, but it is gone forever. That New York cheesecake belongs to that moment, that time, to the distant shores of childhood, and it cannot be regained.

There have been many other cheesecakes since, some made by me, or by friends. We have all experimented with different kinds of crusts, made from graham crackers, chocolate wafers, vanilla wafers, or amaretti cookies, some with nuts, others without. I have had cheesecake flavored with orange zest and Grand Marnier, with coffee, with Key limes, with dark chocolate, white chocolate (my friend J.'s specialty, topped with crushed chocolate wafers and curls of shaved chocolate), plain and topped with berries, or just plain. I have loved them all. I even liked the gummy little triangles of cheesecake from my school cafeteria, with noxiously lurid red canned cherries in a sludgily toxic syrup that glowed like radioactive waste (then again, I pretty much liked all cafeteria food, those forbidden American foods I never ate at home).

I have a co-worker, K., who will make any kind of cheesecake you desire for your birthday (each person at my workplace gets a potluck lunch party during the month of their birthday; they choose whatever dishes they want and everyone cooks for them). She has made chocolate ones, pumpkin cheesecake with pecans, orange-poppyseed, and they have all been delicious. Today is my party, and I chose a Chocolate-and-Kahlua cheesecake. I wait all year for the chance to dictate which kind of cheesecake I would like, and I can hardly wait to taste this one.

Possibly the best cheesecake I have ever had (besides the Stage Deli one I remember from childhood) was a lemon cheesecake made by a friend of my mother's, A. She is one of the best chefs I know, and her cooking is relaxed and unfussy and seemingly effortless; everything comes from the market and is of the highest quality, carefully cooked and arranged and unfailingly, incredibly good. For my mother's birthday one year she made a lemon ricotta tart (so...not technically a cheesecake), with a creamy, fluffy, intensely flavored ricotta filling squished between two perfectly scored rounds of shortbread. It was rich but not dense; the tartness and airiness of the filling perfectly contrasted with the creaminess of the ricotta and the buttery sandiness of shortbread. Absolutely spectacular.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Reading. Rushdie.

I vaguely remember reading Salman Rushdie in the early 1990’s, when he was still mostly underground due to a fatwa issued for his execution after the publication of The Satanic Verses, which I had read but not understood. I would also read and not understand Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Perhaps I was too young then. Later I would see his photographs in British fashion magazines, standing around at glamorous parties with beautiful women. He looked like an owl clad in bespoke suits, fathomless, heavy-lidded eyes gazing at the camera. I would think of him almost as a caricature, an icon perhaps; so recognizable (in spite of being 'in hiding' during the fatwa years) that he would have a cameo role as himself in some romantic comedy movie, the punchline to a joke (I think it was Bridget Jones' Diary). But I was not ready to return to his writing. Until now.

I was drawn to Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 by the title, which seemed to beckon me across a line into something new. It was a dare. What else could I do except give in? The essays span a decade of non-fiction writing, 1992-2002, and covers subjects ranging from his Bombay childhood, his identity as an Indian writer, life in Swinging 60's and 70's London, and post-9/11 America. Unlike his fiction (or perhaps like his fiction; I cannot remember), Rushdie's nonfiction is incredibly funny and sharp and hit me in a way that I had been unable to comprehend all those years ago.

And here I began to understand what it is I love so much about nonfiction writing. Fiction is someone else's imagination, their creation of another world. There is a barrier you have to cross, the magic mirror that is the gateway from our world to the world of another time, another place. There is a sense of a suspension of disbelief. But nonfiction is something else entirely. It is sliding into someone else's skin, into their mind, their memory, their soul, to see the world as they see it, as it exists for them. There is an immediacy to it, an intimacy that I can't describe, that doesn't happen with fiction. And it sets my brain on fire.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Reading. Calvino.

I discovered Calvino in 1997, while browsing through the stacks of the Eslite bookstore in Taipei, my favorite bookstore in the world. I had been struggling with Umberto Eco, whose fiction I found incredibly confusing, so my eye turned to his compatriot Calvino, on the shelf above. Six Memos for the Next Millenium was the first book I read (holding true to my pattern of reading non-fiction by novelists before I read anything else). There are actually only five memos, a series of lectures Calvino was to give; he died before he wrote the last one. (Later Umberto Eco would be invited to give that same series, the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University; in homage his is called Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). It was the first book which brought to the surface everything I loved about literature, which made me begin to realize how much I loved literature and why, referencing books I already knew and loved and turning me towards other writers yet to be discovered. A year later I would study Italian; there have been two writers for whom I have learned languages, and Calvino is one of them. But the real adventure was yet to come.

Soon afterwards I came across If on a winter's night a traveler. If anything it is a novel within a novel, or rather a novel about the reader and book he is trying to read, If on a winter's night a traveler. The novel as you, the reader, experiences it is the two parallel stories of the reader in the novel struggling to read his If on a winter's night a traveler, as each chapter he reads seems like a completely different first chapter of another book entirely. You are thrown into the reader's pursuit of the real story as well as into the maelstrom of wildly different stories that make up his novel (and consequently, the novel you are holding in your hands). The entire experience was dizzying, electrifying, and I was completely enchanted by it all as my mind was catapulted between the intertwining stories.

At the end, the reader in the novel becomes embroiled in conversation with other readers in a bookstore while trying to figure out this mystery of a story that never ends, but only begins again and again as another story. One of the other readers interrupts him in his confusion: "Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could only end in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitablity of death." I felt my mind explode when I read this, and it has stayed with me in all the years since. Later, one of my teachers asked us, during a combined History/English course I took my senior year of high school, what was the meaning of literature. He was one of my favorite teachers, and the previous year, when I was in his Physics class (and failing miserably), we would discuss Kundera and Bulgakov before class began. The next day, during a break, I read him that passage from If on a winter's night a traveler, and he looked at me for a long moment, and said, "You think too much." And smiled.

There is a small handful of books which I have loved for many years, which have exploded into my life like a bomb and completely changed the way I think about literature and myself and the world around me. This is one of them.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

On collecting. books.

I am trying to organize my books for the first time in over a year, a Sisyphean task given the reckless way I have been buying books for the past several months. I am reminded of what Marion Cunningham said to Ruth Reichl in Tender at the Bone, that when she was an alcoholic "[she] worried that the people who made gin would stop making it, and that [she] would be left with nothing to drink. To guard against that [she] hid gin all over the house. Just knowing it was there made [her] feel a little bit better." As words are my inebriate of choice, I understand how she felt; in order to guard against my fear that I will someday be left with nothing to read, I keeping buying books and leaving them all over the place.

There are books all over the floor, tumbling from bookshelves, in piles after being rescued from the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room. Yesterday I found books in my car that I have no memory of buying. It is like a treasure hunt, buying books that you don't read right away, and forget about, until one day, perhaps even years later, you come across this book, and think, oh, something new. And then you open it, are swept away, regret that you had not read it earlier, but exhilarated by having discovered it at all.

In theory everything is organized by author, and by publisher, and oftentimes in chronological order. The reality is that nothing gets put away after it has been read, and winds up instead under the bed, or on the desk, and I can never find the book I want when I want it, which means it took me a week to realize that The Fall of America was actually on the shelf next to Howl, where it should be and where I should have found it days ago, instead of everywhere else I looked. Books pile up on my bed, on the floor next to my bed, and I trip over them as I stumble, half-awake, to the door in the morning, and instead of picking them up I leave them as they fell. I am, in short, a complete slob.

The more I sort through the books, the more books appear, as if they are secretly multiplying in the dark. I know this is my own fault, that I wander through the bookstore and later find myself at home again, looking at a bag of books in my hand with surprise. It is my weakness, although like any addict I do not consider my obsession with books a weakness. The covers call to me, the titles whisper to me, take me home with you, read me, love me. I will enchant you, set your mind on fire, and if I break your heart it is only so that I can make you whole again. So I do, and they do.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Reading. Lee.

Childhood is fleeting, an all-too-brief moment that flashes by and which you look back on across all the long years afterwards and wonder, did it happen at all? Did it all really happen the way I remember it, or did I imagine those moments when everything changed? Can you remember the day you learned that people can be prejudiced, that racism exists, that you are loved by the people around you? That while the people who love you will do everything in their power to protect you, they can't protect you from everything?

At least once a year I have to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it is time I come back to it again. Each time I discover something new, something I did not understand when I first read it. That is the way of books you have loved since childhood; they change, or perhaps more correctly, your perception of them changes, your perception of the truths laid before you has altered, grown past the innocence that kept you safe when you were little. You begin with the child's point of view, seeing the world through Scout's eyes, learning about justice and fairness and the difference between right and wrong, leaping into those petty rebellions against the things your parents tell you not to do. And then years later you look at it from Atticus' point of view, how he struggles to fight for what he believes is right, and how he is torn between the desire to teach his children about the world and the desire to protect them from it.

One of the (many) things I love most about literature is that it puts into words the ideas that have begun to take shape in my mind, and brings them into focus, into sharp relief. I will read something that makes me think, aha! this is just what I have believed all along, only this writer has said it better than I ever could have. It is both humbling and exhilarating, and it strikes deep into the heart of what literature is about, for me; the eternal truths of life brought to the surface of my mind.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Eating. watermelon.

In Seattle the seasons blur together like watercolor paints on wet paper, running together until one color is almost indistinguishable from the next. Spring becomes summer and summer turns to fall, and so forth, all so gently that I seem to wear the same clothes (cashmere sweaters and all). I have been so busy lately that the days slip by quickly, and I forget which month it is. It was with a shock that I realized July is half over; if it weren't for my birthday I would still think it was May. And then yesterday D. handed me a bowl heaped with chunks of watermelon, cool and sweet, and it hit me. It’s summer.

Nothing else says summer to me (except perhaps Rainier cherries) like watermelon. Every year I wait for the time those great mountains of green-striped melons appear in supermarkets. I look for the ones that have a yellow spot near the stem, thump on the rind to test for ripeness. There is no point in buying watermelon out of season; I have to resist the temptation to buy those pale, anemic melon halves wrapped in plastic, flown in from god knows where in the dead of winter. Wait patiently, until summer comes.

By all rights I should hate it thanks to a childhood trauma when my family laughed at me for using the wrong Chinese word for watermelon (it has been nearly twenty years, but the humiliation still rankles, and I have been unable to speak Chinese to my parents since), but I can’t. It’s too good. A slice of watermelon is the perfect thing on a hot summer day, the gustatory equivalent of a cold shower, and even when it is a cold and rainy July day, it seems to bring the feeling of summer with each bite.

The best part of the watermelon is the heart of it. The part near the rind is paler, less flavorful. Even the texture is bland on the tongue in comparison to the crisp, red core that explodes with juice in your mouth. I dream about it all year until it is summer again and I can sit down on a hot summer night with a bowl of icy cold watermelon and feel the coolness of it run down my throat and send a shiver all over my body.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Kitchen adventures. vegetarian cooking.

A few years ago, my mother was a vegetarian for about six months. I believe a trip to Montreal caused this complete lack of interest in animal flesh, as she ate so much over the course of a week (I seem to recall a story involving half of a roast duck) that it was quite some time before she could eat anything at all. This period of time coincided with the time when I had not yet found a job and was living at home. In lieu of rent I did all the grocery shopping, the meal planning, the cooking, and most of the cleaning up. I like to refer to that time as the Dark Days, because adding to the confusion was the fact that my father is the kind of guy who feels that a meal without meat is not a meal. It was like being caught between a rock and a hard place. On the other hand, my mom didn't mind eating things that had been cooked with meat, and was still eating soups made with chicken or pork broth, which was a lot easier than having to cook two completely different meals every night. She was not so much a vegetarian as someone who just didn't eat meat.

At that time, dinner generally consisted of a) rice, b) a meat dish, c) a vegetable, and d) something involving tofu. Usually there would be soup, chicken with tofu, or pork with daikon. There were too many nights that featured eggs scrambled with tomatoes, my fallback vegetarian option. Another frequent dish was corn stir-fried with toasted pine nuts. The worst part was that I worried constantly about getting enough protein and other nutrients into my mom, although she was supplementing her meals with Dove triple-chocolate ice cream bars. It was interesting to note that when she didn't eat meat, she was constantly snacking between meals, which leads me to believe that vegetarians are often hungry.

Tofu became my ally, my best friend. I would stand in the tofu aisle at Uwajimaya looking lost and confused (to be fair, I always look lost and confused, even when I know where I'm going and what I want). There were so many different kinds, and I bought them all. The soft white tofu was cut into cubes and tossed into soup, or gently simmered with shiitake mushrooms and homemade chicken broth, and served on a bed of baby bok choy. Pillows of dried tofu were simply sliced and fanned across a plate, sprinkled with scallions and drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil. Flat squares of seasoned, dried tofu, chewy and savory, were chopped and stir-fried with Chinese long beans and a splash of soy sauce; I would make two versions, one with ground pork, the other without. Or I would slice them and stir-fry them with equal-sized sticks of celery. Fried tofu puffs were braised with pork ribs in wine, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. The puffs would soak up the intensely flavored juices and go limp, and my mother would eat them all.

It was an interesting time, which ended after my mother took another trip (Spain, I think, where she ate a lot of ham) and discovered meat again. Later, I had a job and less time for cooking. Then my parents moved to Taiwan, and I was alone in the kitchen, left to my own devices. I have not eaten tofu for months now, since the last time my mother visited. I found, during those days when I was trying to cook for two people with wildly different eating habits, that desperation is the mother of invention. It was a challenge, an exercise in creativity, and it taught me how to cook for other people. It was also excellent training for when, perhaps fifteen or twenty years from now, I have a thirteen-year-old daughter going through a vegetarian phase. Something tells me that if that's the only thing I have to deal with I will consider myself very lucky indeed.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Kitchen adventures. hearts of darkness.

One summer night, a few years ago, we had dinner at Rover’s, one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle. I had asked the chef to do something a little different for us, but I was unprepared for how gleefully he rose to the challenge. (Let me just say that Thierry Rautureau, the chef/owner of Rover's, is extremely funny and charming, but more than that, he is the person I would ask to cook my last meal on earth). I will spare you all the gruesome details, but essentially, I had said that our party would eat any part of any animal he could imagine, and he totally went for it.

After a series of dishes that I won't describe, our main course arrived, various, er, parts of lamb arranged gracefully on the plate. There were some slices of lamb loin, incredibly tender and juicy, but what I remember most is the little heap of sliced lamb hearts, slightly chewy, intensely flavored without being tough or gamy. I particularly recall this part of the dish because I remember seeing that gleam in my father’s eye and having the sinking realization that he was already thinking about how to recreate such a dish at home.

The difference between my parents can be illustrated thusly: my mother will experiment with vegetables and tofu in ways that you can't even begin to imagine. She will watch Iron Chef (the original Japanese one) and be inspired by some sort of edible, tube-shaped fungus (which came dried and which you soaked in water until it was pliable; it looked a bit like a vegetarian sausage casing), recreating what can only be described as mushroom sausage. (The tube-shaped mushroom was stuffed with a mixture of shiitake and enoki mushrooms, along with tofu and various other things I can't remember, and gently braised in chicken stock). My father, on the other hand, will experiment with whatever meats (that is to say, animal parts) he can find at the butcher, inspired by dishes he's had in various restaurants. Or rather, he will bring it home for me to experiment with.

Some time later, my father came home with an innocent-looking little package wrapped in brown paper, from the butcher in the Pike Place Market. Here, he said, let's try this. Uh-oh. Here we go. I have never come in close contact with a human heart before, but a lamb heart does not look all that different from what I imagine a human heart looks like. The hearts emerged from the butcher paper, dark and shaped like small, curled fists, dripping ominously into the sink, and I felt like a murderer as I quickly sliced them. It was some of the fastest knifework I've ever done, and when I put down my knife my hands were shaking.

The sliced hearts were sautéed with slivers of ginger and scallion, a drizzle of soy sauce, and a sprinkling of sesame oil, and they were delicious. But I felt as though I had passed over to the dark side.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Favorite foods. crème brûlée. (Part 5).

I remember the first time I ate crème brûlée as if it had just happened, instead of almost fifteen years ago. We were vactioning on the Oregon coast, spending our days running around on the rocky beaches. After dinner one night, my father ordered crème brûlée. It came in a white soufflé dish, fluted around the sides. He cracked the golden crust of burnt sugar and handed me a spoon for a taste. Beneath the crunchy shards of caramel there was a luscious, creamy custard fragrant with vanilla, smooth and unctuous, the two elements in sharp contrast. I rather think I managed to eat almost the entire dish, leaving my father with only a few meagre spoonfuls.

With that first bite I was completely addicted. It would replace that other favorite dessert of my childhood, chocolate mousse, which has never quite regained its hold on my heart (and palate). I could never get enough. For years afterwards I would order crème brûlée every chance I got. I know what you're going to order, my mother would say knowingly as the waiter handed us dessert menus. It was a relentless, ongoing pursuit of perfection, a worldwide search for the holy grail. Sometimes they would come in shallow, oval dishes, which had a higher crust-to-custard ratio than the ones that came in deeper, round ramekins. Some restaurants would adorn the plates with a sprig of mint, a scattering of raspberries.

The perfect crème brûlée has an intense, not-too-sweet custard, creamy and flavored with vanilla (and sometimes Grand Marnier). I have had ones flavored with chocolate, coffee, mocha, various fruits and whatever else was trendy at the time, but it is my personal feeling that crème brûlée should only be flavored with vanilla (and maybe a little Grand Marnier if you're feeling naughty). Anything else is just missing the point. And then there is the crust. It has to be just thick enough to shatter satisfyingly as you smash your spoon into it, but not so thick that your spoon bounces off the impenetrable surface. On the other hand, a pale, anemic crust that barely covers the surface of the custard is pitiful.

I must have eaten hundreds of crème brûlées over the years. And then the unthinkable happened. I learned how to make my own. A friend gave me a mini propane torch for Christmas. Crème brûlée was no longer a rare treat. I could have it whenever I wanted. It was easy, cream, sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks blended together with a splash of Grand Marnier and baked in a bain-marie in the oven. Once the custards had set and cooled, a spoonful of sugar was sprinkled on top, and caramelized with the blue flame of my torch. And I could eat as much as I wanted. And the heartbreak hit me.

Something of the magic was gone.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Reading. Milosz.

I was at the bookstore yesterday, browsing around for something to read, when I saw a new volume of selected poems by Czeslaw Milosz. Some months ago, I had briefly scanned his poetry, I had read his ABC's, and his writing had sent me off towards other poets, first Levertov, and then Brodsky, both of whom I loved with a sudden fierceness which surprised me. (Or perhaps it didn't). So I came back to Milosz, flipped through the pages, stopped at the very last poem. As I read it I felt my heart break apart, and then the tears began to fall.

It must sometimes be a lonely existence as the wife of an artist, a poet, someone whose work is all-consuming, as necessary to the artist as breathing, not something that can be locked in a briefcase or left behind in the office at 5 o'clock each day. Milosz saw that, wrote that "Lyric poets/Usually have - as he knew - cold hearts./It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art/Is given in exchange for such an affliction." His Orpheus and Eurydice is that ancient myth reimagined as an elegy for his wife, who had died suddenly and too young, leaving Milosz alone in the twilight of his life.

Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope, had a gift with music which enchanted all those who heard it, all living things, all the gods. When his dryad wife Eurydice died, he was inconsolable. He descended to the underworld and pleaded with the goddess Persephone to bring her back. Milosz could not bring back his wife, but he could acknowledge that "Only her love warmed him, humanized him./When he was with her, he thought differently about himself./He could not fail her, when she was dead." (It was at this point I began to cry). In the end, there is art, and love, and when the love has been taken away, the art remains. And memory.

Sun. And sky. And in the sky white clouds.
Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will I live without you, my consoling one!
But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

Milosz, Czeslaw.
Second Space: New Poems. Ecco, 2005. pp 99-102.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Nabokov Project. how it begins.

I feel that my year begins on my birthday, instead of on the 1st of January. My 25th year was amazing, the best year of my life so far. All sorts of interesting things happened, all kinds of people and places, and most of all, writers, were discovered and loved. I can only look forward to what extraordinary adventures might occur in my 26th year which has only just begun. And I have an idea for a new project.

In my teens I began reading Nabokov, and I remember learning that he had taught at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940's and 1950's. It left me with the regret that I had been born some fifty years too late. I quickly read many of his novels, but it was his memoir, Speak, Memory, which I loved the most. (This should come as no surprise to anyone). Then years passed before I read anything more by Nabokov. It was not until recently that I began returning to the writers I loved ten years ago so that I might fall in love with them all over again.

I was wandering through the stacks of literature at the bookstore when I stumbled upon Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature. There is a companion volume, Lectures on Literature, but it was the Russian Literature volume which attracted me. I had studied 19th century Russian literature some five or six years ago, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoevski and Chekhov. Here was a series of lectures given by Nabokov on Gogol, Turgenev (whom I did not study, but whose work I had read years ago), Dostoevsky, Tolstoy (whose War and Peace I had studied the semester before), Chekhov, and Gorki (whom I've never actually read).

A new idea bloomed in my mind. Why not read Lectures on Literature in conjunction with the books discussed by Nabokov? So. This will be my project for the next year, my 26th year. In between whatever else I am reading, eating, cooking, I will go through each of the works mentioned in the lectures, and write about my experience with the books and with Nabokov's thoughts on them. The first one will be Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. I can't wait to begin.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Reading. Brodsky.

I love the mysterious ways in which one writer can send you off in search of another. It can be a casual, fleeting reference, or a lengthy paean to another artist's words. Somehow, something will strike a chord, light a flame of curiosity in my mind, point me in a direction I had never imagined before. It was Czeslaw Milosz who had slid me down towards Brodsky, but as usual, I began with his non-poetry writing (as it is with virtually any poet whom I have ever loved). I followed him into the labryinth of Venice and of memory (in Watermark), and I was in love. I had to read more.

On my birthday several books I had ordered arrived suddenly, earlier than I had expected, as if UPS had known it was my birthday and had exerted themselves to come a day early. I danced for joy in my front hall when I saw them. Nativity Poems I will save for later, for Christmas. That leaves me with Collected Poems in English, a vast volume of poems either translated with the help of or by Brodsky himself.

I have never been able to let go of the feeling that poetry in translation loses something of its original self, no matter who translates it. Of course if the writer himself does the translating, or works together with the translator, it is as close as you can get to the original feeling of the words. But since I feel poetry is almost as much about language as it is anything else, then in my mind it cannot exist in any other language other than the one it was first written in. I will always feel as though something of the soul will always have been left behind.

No matter how many languages you know, how well you know them, even if you can breathe them as though they were a second skin, you are not the same person in your second, or third, or more language as you are in your first one. Breath, rythm, meter, words. All are different, all are reached for in vain hope that you can at least capture something of the emotion that first burst forth from your mind, from your heart, the bottom of your soul. I suppose it is enough to come close.

And so I opened the book at random, wandered through the pages, stopped whenever when something caught my eye, a word, a phrase. I think this is how love begins.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Eating. sweetbreads.

I am not sure when I first ate sweetbreads but I am quite certain that it was at a restaurant called Reiner's, most likely in the early 1990's (it is now called Geneva, but I have not been there since the change). It would be another fifteen years before offal became trendy and things like sweetbreads, kidneys, cheeks, and other parts of animals not normally considered a delicacy (at least not in America) began showing up regularly on menus and in magazine articles. Later the sweetbreads would disappear off the menu (this is still long before they were trendy and therefore I rather think we were the only customers who ever ordered them), but you could ask for the chef to make them for you.

Sweetbreads, for the uninitiated, are the thymus gland and pancreas. I have no idea who thought that these two organs were similar enough in, er, texture and flavor to group together in a dish, but I raise my glass to him. I always think of Hannibal Lecter when I eat them, because (in the book, at least), he murmurs something about how he ate the sweetbreads of a census-taker (or some other hapless fool who crossed his path) with a nice Amarone. Or some other Italian wine I can't remember. (The movie's line about liver and Chianti, of course, is more famous, but personally I prefer the book's version).

At Reiner's the sweetbreads were dusted in flour and fried whole, served with a little salad of bitter lettuces (I think) and drizzled with a gastrique. The lightly acidic sauce beautifully contrasted with the crunch of the exterior, the soft, faintly chewy interior, the rich flavor of the meat. It was a perfectly balanced dish. Much later I would attempt my own version. You could buy sweetbreads, frozen, at Whole Foods. They had to be soaked in water for a day or two to remove the transparent outer membrane, which slipped off easily. The trick is to fry them just until a crisp crust forms, but not so long the interior overcooks and becomes tough. I would swirl a little wine in the pan juices, scraping up the fond that had stuck to the bottom of the pan, pour the sauce over the nuggets of sweetbreads.

At a tapas bar in Spain and at the restaurant Lark here in Seattle, I had lamb sweetbreads that had been diced and sautéed, all slippery texture and tender meat, the gentle flavor of lamb underscored by that unique tang of...well, organ meat. But on the whole I prefer my sweetbreads lightly fried, with a crust that shatters under my fork, revealing the pale flesh within. Last night at Lola I had such a dish, perfectly crusted sweetbreads, crisp and creamy all at once. Magic.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Reading. Shakespeare.

I was introduced to Shakespeare in the sixth grade when our class put on three or four different productions of (much-edited) plays. Our Macbeth was a very tall basketball player who got to wear his mother's tights and run around bellowing his lines. I believe he is now a rap star/producer. I was Lady Macduff, and I got to stand there and look terrified before screaming very loudly off-stage while being murdered. It was probably the last time I did any acting at all.

In high school we studied the plays in their entirety. I remember performing a scene from Romeo and Juliet with a friend, using Indonesian-style shadow-puppets which we had made ourselves. The next year we would be watching the Polanski film version of Macbeth, entranced by the gruesome seductiveness of it, trying to remember the 'tomorrow' monologue for the weekly quiz. In Ashland at the Shakespeare Festival we saw King Lear and one of the Henrys (I can't remember which Henry, alas). And then I entered another era of literature and left Shakespeare behind. It would be years before I returned.

What I loved most about Shakespeare is the poetry of it, the brilliant dialogue between characters, which in verse burns brightly in your mind on the page. But what made my mind explode was the interpretation, when I saw it on stage, when the actor gave breath to word and the scene bloomed before my eyes. It is always more than you could have imagined it to be. On film it is a little different, because the electricity between actor and audience is gone, separated by the distance of filmmaking and editing and actors more famous for their beauty or tabloid relationships than their acting ability. Part of the connection is lost, the synergy between viewer and actor.

I'm headed to a performance of Richard III tonight, so it was time for a little...homework. I was, of course, immediately confused by the family tree and the cast of characters, so I put plot aside and fell into the poetry of the dialogue. Into the seductiveness of evil.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Reading. Ferlinghetti.

I had thought to begin my 4th of July by reading Ginsburg's The Fall of America. It seemed appropriate. But I can't find it. Of course. It will probably reappear in a week or two, when I am trying to find something else. So I turned to another book that happened to be lying nearby. Ferlinghetti's Americus, Book 1. I had bought it absent-mindedly and set it aside for another day.

Reading Ferlinghetti is always rather like falling down Alice's rabbit-hole into the wonderland of history and poetry and words words words, past and future and present intertwined until they are one indistinguishable whole. Americus is about America, Ferlinghetti's America, about memory, but it is about more than that, it is about poetry itself.

In Americus I find memories of Ferlinghetti's earlier poems, fragments that I think come either from A Coney Island of the Mind or perhaps from A Far Rockaway of the Heart. References to Pound, to Whitman, to earlier eras, to past wars, words of other writers weaving in and out of Ferlinghetti's own. An invisible thread connects his verses across the decades, echoing in the mind. It feels like his previous thoughts have been reimagined to burn brightly, in an entirely new way, to light up our present time.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Reading. Tsvetaeva.

I wonder how political art (by art I mean in all its forms, literature, poetry, visual arts) sustains itself across time and space. I remember reading all these poems featuring cockroaches, which in reality symbolized Stalin (with his mustaches) and which landed their writers in prison; how do they stand up to the passage of time? Does the political element fade away and only the art remain? Does the art obscure the message, or vice versa?

Every child knows the story of what is best known as the Pied Piper of Hamlin, or some variation of it. One of the older versions comes from the Brothers Grimm, whereupon the town of Hamlin (in German, Hameln) was overrun by rats. The mayor (or burgomaster) promises a large sum of money (or his daughter's hand in marriage, I'm not sure which) to anyone who can get rid of the rats. The Piper (otherwise known as The Ratcatcher) comes along, and lures the rats away with his music, drawing them to the river where they drown. But then the mayor reneges on his promise of a reward, and refuses to give the money (or the hand of his daughter). In revenge, the Piper lures away all the children of the village (including the mayor's daughter) and leads them to the river where they all drown, as the rats did.

Some time in the mid-1920's Marina Tsvetaeva wrote The Ratcatcher, based on the story of the Ratcatcher of Hamlin (the Pied Piper comes from later, English versions of the legend), reimagined as a satirical commentary on the Bolsheviks. It is the battle between Art (the Ratcatcher) and Philistinism (the people of the town). It is a withering, brutal, sarcastic commentary on the times, against materialism, against bourgeois philistinism. And it is like music, as is all poetry that transcends its political undercurrents. As though Tsvetaeva's previous work led to this explosion of words that sweeps you up, carries you along in its torrents. I have only just begun and already my heart is racing.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Eating. blini.

A few months ago I wrote at great length about crêpes, and how when we were young my friends and I would get together and devour dozens of them. We filled them with sweet things, and ate until we could eat no more and the kitchen was covered in drops of batter and scatterings of flour and powdered sugar. I thought crêpes were the most delicious things I had ever eaten. And then I discovered blini.

Several years ago, I spent a month in St. Petersburg studying Russian and wandering around the city. It was here in Petersburg that I ate blini in a cafeteria on Nevskii Prospekt, a shiny, clean little place with plastic chairs, tables, brightly colored trays, that served blini with about twenty or so different fillings. With sour cream. With cheese. With jam. Anything you could imagine. A perfect lunch consisted of a ham-and-cheese-filled blini, and a jam-filled blini for dessert. The blini were made with a yeast batter that yielded a light, yet more substantial pancake with a rich tang from the yeast and a deeper flavor from the buckwheat flour that made an ordinary French crêpe seem pale and uninteresting.

In college (how long ago this all seems now) I had become friends with two sisters, Americans who were nonetheless Russian Orthodox and followed the fasting rules. Which meant at least three days a week (maybe four, my memory is a little fuzzy) they were not allowed meat, dairy, etc. I remember eating bowls of pelmeni with sour cream (preceded by a shot or two of ice-cold vodka, which they kept in the freezer at all times) just after midnight in order to get around the fast. Pelmeni are those little Siberian meat dumplings, a bit like ravioli, which, by the way, soak up vodka remarkably well. Anyway, the fast days continued all year round, but just before Lent comes Maslennitsa, or Butterweek, which as far as I recall involves eating vast quantities of butter-and-sour-cream-laden blini and knocking down the occasional shot of iced vodka. Happiness is a few icy shots of black-currant vodka and a plate of blini or pelmeni.

I believe we did not restrict our blini-making activities to Maslennitsa; they were too delicious to save for only a brief time once a year. It was mere child's play to whisk up some batter and set it aside to rise (as I type this, I am waiting for a batch of buckwheat blini batter to rise on the countertop - oh! look! it has already risen to the top of the measuring jug that I use to prepare my batter) before frying up the blini in a pan of sizzling butter. I suppose you could roll your blini up with all sorts of fillings, and they are very delicious indeed, but all I need is a smear of sour cream or jam, or a drizzle of sweet melted butter, and I am in heaven.

(At the moment my blini batter is foaming away; twice I have stirred it so that it subsides a little. The buckwheat flour has given it the color of swamp mud and the way it bubbles and heaves ominously makes it seem as though something is alive under there. I know yeast is a living organism but I have never seen it be so alive before).

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Reading. Stoppard.

When I was in high school, the students had one week each winter, around February, I think, after some holiday, where we didn't have classes but instead did projects. You could work on your chosen art discipline (trying different things you didn't have time for during ordinary classes), work on a Habitat for Humanity project, go rock-climbing in Colorado, take cooking classes, stuff like that. For two years in a row I was lucky enough to go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A dozen students and two teachers would drive down in a van and spend three or four days in Ashland. We would read the three plays that were chosen for us to see, lounge around in cafés to discuss them, wander around the town, and generally just hang out. Our program included one Shakespeare work and two other ones; the first year I went we saw King Lear, an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and Arcadia.

The first trip I took to OSF introduced me to Stoppard. For several years my family had held season tickets to Intiman and ACT in Seattle, and I was deeply in love with the theater. But Stoppard was something completely new. Arcadia was about sex and mathematics and poetry, and it was sharply intelligent and incredibly funny, and somehow romantic, with that ending scene of Septimus and Thomasina waltzing around the stage. That year it was unexpectedly cold in Ashland, and as we stepped outside we discovered that it was snowing. I was still trembling from the romanticism of that last scene, and the streets that night were so beautiful I wanted to twirl around in the gently falling snow forever. Even all this time later I can still remember that night, how alive and happy I felt in the cold night air, in the snow, my mind afire with Stoppard's words. Since then Arcadia has been one of my favorite plays, which I have been lucky enough to see twice (in totally different productions), and I can only hope I get the chance to see it again.

I found my copy, from years ago, ten years it has been now, and there are many passages underlined, some merely because they were funny, and some because they sank into my mind and took hold. One scene that has always remained etched on my memory is the part where Thomasina, the young girl, furiously rants about how she hates Cleopatra because "everything is turned to love with her" and her actions (in the name of love) had led to the burning of the library of Alexandria and the lost works of Aeschuylus, Sophocles, Euripides, the poems and plays gone forever. In the margins, I have pencilled in the words "Manuscripts don't burn," from The Master and Margarita, because Septimus, Thomasina's tutor, then goes on to elaborate on the idea that Bulgakov set forth some fifty years before Stoppard (again proving, after all, that manuscripts don't burn, and illustrating Septimus' point).

- can you bear it? (cries Thomasina)
- By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew? I have no doubt that the improved steam-driven heat-engine which puts Mr. Noakes into an ecstasy that he and it and the modern age should all coincide, was described on papyrus.*

It sends a shiver up my spine whenever I read these lines, and has for the last decade. I must apologize for bringing up Bulgakov again, but when the different things I am reading, different ideas that spring off the page, coincide like this, intersect from across time and space and language, my mind begins to blow apart. It is the reason above all others why I read.

*Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. Faber and Faber, 1993. p. 38.