Thursday, August 31, 2006

On composing a library.

There is a chapter in How to Travel with a Salmon (the one titled How to Justify a Private Library), where Umberto Eco writes about two singularly banal comments that others persistently annoy him with: the first, when people try to make clever puns with his name (which always fails), and the second, when people visit, and upon seeing his vast collection of books, immediately exclaim, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" He mentions three different ripostes; "I haven't read any of them; otherwise why would I keep them here?," or what he believes is the most devastating answer; "And more, dear sir, many more." Finally, he falls back on "No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office."

It was not until I began packing up all my belongings that I realized how many books I had. Many had been hidden in the closet or in the bathroom or, my favorite place, under the bed. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them. As the shelves emptied of their burdens a canyon of heavy cartons grew higher and higher in the hall outside my bedroom. It became nearly impossible to get in and out, and on my way to bed I would inevitably trip over an open case of books and stumble over a pile I had left carelessly lying about. As the covers flew by my weary eyes, sneezing from dust and exhausted from hauling all those boxes around, I realized that, in fact, I had not read all of my books. Some weren't even mine. Others were brand new, spines uncreased, pages untouched by chocolate-smudged hands.

The truth, the terrible truth is, I cannot stop buying books yet I cannot bear to part with any of them. Therefore I have all these books from childhood, the Beverly Clearys, the Konigsburgs. There are poetry and fiction anthologies from high school English classes, dry volumes of past wars and invasions, Russian textbooks from college. Who knows when I might need to refresh my grammar? Even worse, I must have all the books by every author I love. Sometimes I collect them slowly, over time; sometimes I come across a whole lot of them in a used bookstore and scoop everything up in one fell swoop. Then I move onto another writer, and those earlier titles sit forlornly on the shelf, gathering dust.

This library of mine is some twenty years' work. Gifts from other people. Passing mentions from loved ones that sent me in a direction I never dreamed my heart could wander. Things I picked up in bookstores, thought, this looks interesting. Put away for a later time. It is as much about where I am heading as it is about where I have been. My whole life, past-present-future, lined up in boxes by author or publisher or size, sealed tightly with tape. I am already thinking of how I will arrange them in my new home, for my new life.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Suspended animation.

I'm in the process of moving, packing up a life after twenty years in one house and going on to another, new place that will be entirely my own (although much smaller). For now my life is in chaos. All my books are taped up in boxes; meals are brief snatches in between work and endless hours sorting through whatever flotsam and jetsam has gathered on the shores of my existence. I will return with my usual posts soon. Meanwhile, catch up on old posts if you are new to my writings, or welcome the break from my incoherent ramblings.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Dinner out. Nishino.

My family is in town, which means many dinners out over the past several weeks. It is exhausting and debilitating to my digestive system, not to mention my waistline. (Or lack thereof). The other day my grandfather arrived, and the first thing he did upon arriving in Vancouver (BC) was to demand that my uncle take him to the restaurant they always go to for King crab. I am not sure what else followed, perhaps Japanese food somewhere on Robson street and dim sum at the place below my uncle's Burnaby home. And then they came to Seattle. The phone call, last night. I want to go to Nishino. There are two restaurant phone numbers I know by heart: Nishino, and Rover's, and only once have I mixed them up.

As I've said before, Nishino is one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle; certainly my favorite Japanese restaurant. We do what we always do, order a number of hot dishes, plus an array of sushi. I stifle a protest as my dad asks for two orders each of o-toro and white tuna; any person can see that this means four pieces of nigiri for five people. I seethe. My grandfather demands unagi, his favorite (and mine). He thinks the unagi at Nishino is the best anywhere (at least outside of Japan, but the last time I was in Japan I was five years old, so I don't know how to compare), and I would not disagree.

The hot dishes arrive first: tempura of some kind of mushroom, parsley, and sweet Walla Walla onion. The mushrooms are slightly chewy beneath the crisp tempura batter; the parsley has a clean, cool taste, and the onions are, well, sweet, but sliced too thickly to be manageable. Black cod is marinated in miso and broiled; it is sweet and salty, all at once; the skin peels away from the flesh in a crisp black ribbon. There are halibut cheeks, dusted with curry, with some kind of green mayonnaise, all over a bed of wild mushrooms. They are good, but not as good as the hamachi collars, which are rich and meaty and tender and served with a sort of cabbage slaw that is tossed with a slightly creamy dressing.

And then a miracle happens. The waitress misunderstood my father, and thought he ordered four orders of o-toro and white tuna. We order toro every time we come here, and it is always different, although consistently better than any toro I've ever eaten in any other restaurant. Generally it ranges from nearly perfect to absolutely sublime. Last time the toro was pale and luminous and melting; tonight it is flushed pink but still rich and sweet and incredibly....well, fatty. Unfortunately it makes the white tuna pale in comparison, although the latter is still very good, in fact, better than very good. And then there is the unagi. Ah, the unagi. Crisp around the edges, a little sweet but not too sweet, full of the true, clear flavor of the eel. My grandfather ate four pieces. I was personally a little distracted by the toro, of which I managed to snag two pieces.

There are too many different kinds of absolute, transcendental, gastronomical bliss. One is the prime rib of last night. Another is a dinner like tonight's. How on earth could I even begin to compare the two?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Eating. prime rib. (Daniel's Broiler).

My father and I, along with our friend L., have this long-standing tradition. Whenever their wives (my mother and her friend J.) were out of town, we three would go out for steak. We used to head off to the Union Square Grill, which served the Baked Alaska that L. was so fond of. (Now they have remodeled and revamped the menu so it is no longer a steakhouse, and I have not yet gone back). Sometimes we would try other steakhouses around Seattle; the Metropolitan Grill (overrated and stuffy), El Gaucho (excellent appetizers and steak, but uninteresting side dishes), and Morton's (pretty good). And there is Daniel's Broiler, which is consistently good on all points - appetizers, check, side dishes, check, desserts, check (particularly their fruit tarts), and juicy, aged, perfectly grilled steak, check, check, CHECK.

While over the past decade or so Seattle has refined its own cuisine - seasonal local produce, fresh seafood, artisanal ingredients, etc., all trends that have swept the country lately - at its heart there remains a shadow of the Ye Olde Frontier Towne it once was. Which means clubby steakhouses with leather-lined booths and forest-green carpets and huntin'n'fishin' prints on the walls, gigantic floral arrangements and huge bottles of wine strewn about. And correspondingly huge cuts of steak. Maybe it's just that the times have swung back to the desire for beef, but these steakhouses are always bustling, full of casually-dressed Seattleites or suit-and-tie-ed business guys, out for a meal that seems to include an entire side of beef. (Plus sides).

My usual has always been a New York strip steak, richly marbled and crusted from the searing heat, juicy and medium-rare. Lately, though, it's been prime rib. Particularly the prime rib at Daniel's Broiler. It arrives, a gigantic, thick slice of beef, bone-in, perfectly medium rare throughout, and even though I order almost every time I come here, I am always shocked by the size. It's the size of...well, words fail me. I think it is larger than my copy of War and Peace. The beef is crusted with salt and cracked black pepper, and needs nothing else, perhaps a smear of horseradish. The meat is tender and deeply flavorful; the salt and pepper crunches in my teeth. It really doesn't get any better than this.

Tonight I am late to dinner, and as I sit down J. leans over to tell me that they'd reserved an order of prime rib for me. (There's never enough to go around, so you have to ask for it as soon as you are seated). Excellent. There is some calamari, and slices of seared tuna; fresh bread hot out of the oven. There is no need for soup or salad. Just beef, perhaps a few bites of perfect mashed potatoes, an asparagus spear, a few grilled mushrooms. Later there will be a peach tart with flaky, buttery pastry that stays crisp beneath the melting fruit and ice cream, the gooey caramel sauce. But it is the prime rib that I go there for, rich and juicy and filling my senses with the absolute, complete taste of beef.

Tomorrow there are leftovers for lunch.

(Edited 8.28.06: I did share the mashed potatoes with S. at lunch, but the beef was all mine. MINE!).

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Intermission. Shaw.

My first experience with George Bernard Shaw (aside from knowing that he wrote Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based) was seeing a production of Smash, a play adapted from his novel The Unsocial Socialist. Of course I had to read the novel immediately afterwards, which led to an exploration of Marx and Engels that preceded my discovery of Solzhenitsyn a year afterwards (and everything exploded, intellectually speaking, after that). I can't find my copy at present (what with all of my books packed up in boxes), but what I remember besides the politics was that it was a viciously hilarious, explosive battle between the sexes, a theme I would see reoccur in Shaw's other works, namely in Heartbreak House. Written some twenty-six years after The Unsocial Socialist and first performed in 1920, it finished its run at the Intiman Theater last night. Besides the thread of politics (and his Socialist beliefs) that run through his plays there remains a scathing critique on the society of that time, on the fading leisure class that was blindly poised on the brink of war, and on the Colonialism that was, unbeknownst to these people who were living in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, about to come to an end. The first World War would be the beginning of the end, the falling twilight; the second one would call forth the last rites of the Empire.

I remember writing a paper my freshman year of college about Howards End, about the question that Forster had posed regarding who would inherit England. The novel predates Heartbreak House by nearly a decade but brings to the fore a similar idea of who England's future belonged to - the lower-class represented by the poverty-stricken Basts, the middle-class Schlegels, and the wealthy, upper-class Wilcoxes. In the end, the future lay with neither the upper nor the lower classes, but with the middle-class, who would inherit England (as represented by Howards End, the Wilcox family house). With Heartbreak House the future is unclear; the capitalist Boss Mangan is blown up by dynamite, so clearly he is not the one who will save England from itself. But then, who? Not the ineffectual, narcissistic Hushabyes, not the colonialist Lady Utterwood and her governer husband, not the idealistic Mazzini Dunn, not the aging Captain Shotover. Will it be Ellie, the young girl, heartbroken and determined?

When I heard that several of my most favorite theater actors were in the Intiman Theater production of Heartbreak House, I knew I had to go. And it was electric. Everyone was in top form, each playing the sort of role that they always play so well: Lawrence Ballard (the slightly sleazy capitalist), Michael Winters (the grumpy old captain), R. Hamilton Wright (the inept bumbling lovesick fool), Suzanne Bouchard (the seductive femme fatale). It reminded me again of what I love most about Seattle theater; you come to know these actors, look forward to seeing them again, watch them over the years. I was on the edge of the seat during the scene between Winters and Ballard, thinking back to their performance of Lonely Planet (written for them by Steven Dietz). Watching Bouchard and Wright, thinking back to the very first play I saw at ACT, The Revenger’s Comedies. Bouchard has always been good at the dramatic exit up stage, throwing the French doors open as she storms out. I laughed so hard (even harder than I did at the Seattle Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte last Spring) that the elderly couple on my left and the middle-aged couple on my right clearly thought I was completely insane.

Part of the pleasure was seeing these actors who I have seen again and again on various Seattle stages, whom I have loved since I was ten or eleven years old and who continue to completely captivate me now. And part of the pleasure was in Shaw's immortal words, which resonate even now, almost one hundred years later.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

In praise of the pig. tout est bon, dans le cochon.

The French have a saying that goes tout est bon, dans le cochon. (This is according to Jeffrey Steingarten, who also claims that it also goes dans le cochon, tout est bon, but I am not sure about this as neither my French nor my memory is particularly strong). Pretty much every other culture in existence holds this same line of thought, with the glaring exception of America (although now virtually every restaurant I've been to in the last year has offered pork belly in some form). The idea is that every part of the pig is good to eat (except perhaps the eyeballs). Waste not, want not.

I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books when I was little; there is a description of a pig killing in Little House in the Big Woods that always fascinated me. Pa would slaughter the pig, carving it up into hams and ribs and bacon; Ma would make headcheese out of, well, the head, and sausage out of everything else, which would be rolled up into balls and left in the attic to freeze. Laura and her sisters would get to eat the pig's tail, roasted over a fire. It's not something I've ever seen on any menu, but I can imagine how it would taste, all crisp skin and fatty meat.

When I was growing up, we'd eat pig's ears, sliced thin, with the chewy skin against crunchy cartilage, sprinkled with chopped scallions and drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil. There were braised pig's feet in soy sauce and rice wine (in Mexico on a school trip, G. and I would eat pickled pig's feet in Guadalajara, the specialty of the region, tender and tangy with vinegar, while our other seventh-and-eighth-grade classmates gagged with horror). In Chinese cooking pork is often cooked with ginger and soy sauce and wine, sometimes with spices like star anise.

You could have chops and ribs and bacon (ah, bacon...I'll save that for another time), but there is so much more to the pig. What about cheeks, juicy and tender and gelatinous, spicy with black pepper and fragrant with herbs (the Italian way), or gently braised in sherry until unctuously, intensely flavored (the Spanish way). Or pork belly, Shanghainese-style, in a glossy salty-sweet, syrupy dark sauce that had the deep flavor of soy sauce and wine and the dark caramel flavor from that yellow rock sugar you find in Chinese kitchens. Pretty much any part of the animal can be braised until rich and tender, falling apart on the plate; knuckles, shanks, feet, shoulders, ribs.

I remember eating, a long time ago, deep-fried pig intestines sliced into rings, almost like calamari. (It should come as no surprise that this was in a Chinese restaurant). The slices were arranged in parallel lines across an oval platter on a bed of shredded cabbage, and as you bit down on a piece the crisp exterior would give way to the rich layer of fat inside. Crrrrruunch. How anyone could bypass any part of the pig is beyond me.

C'est vrai. Tout est bon, dans le cochon.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Kitchen adventures. marrow.

It all started with a pot of broth. (This was years ago). I had taken some beef and veal bones and simmered them in plain water on low heat, walked away for a while. Came back to poke at the bones with a pair of chopsticks as they bobbed about in the scummy liquid. Hello, I thought, what's this? Something was oozing out of the cut end of the bone, a pale, amorphous blob. What on earth could it be? Marrow.

With the tip of a butter knife I nudged that blob of marrow. It gently detached itself from the bony hollow which had cradled it, and fell into the broth with a plop. Eeeeeew, I thought. I'm not sure what happened after that, but my next memory is of taking a piece of toast, hot from the toaster, and spreading that lump of poached marrow on top.

Further experimentation led to various refinements. I would roast the bones in the toaster oven so they would brown and color the broth, and the marrow would crisp around the edges. Or I would simmer the bones for a little while and then stick them under a broiler until the marrow turned golden brown and slipped easily from the bone. Spread on hot toast the marrow would melt into the bread, the crusty bits filling the mouth with the flavor of roasted meat and something deeper, richer, the taste of the marrow itself.

The taste of marrow is indescribable. It melts like butter, but the taste makes butter seem pale and unsubstantial. It is full of fat, but something more than that, something dark and primal, like blood without the bitter minerally tang. I feel rather like a cannibal as I suck the bones dry, gouge the tender melting marrow from the hollows of bone, lavish them onto pieces of toast that soak up the marrow, that source of all life.

Later I came across an article about a writer's experience with discovering the seductive pleasures of marrow on toast in Gourmet. Still later I found a recipe for preparing marrow bones in Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must've Been Something I Ate, but somehow I have never gotten around to trying it. The joy came from accidentally stumbling upon something new and delicious, as I did that first time when I set a pot of bones on the stove to simmer into a broth...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Memory. Cambodia.

There are places I love because of the rolling landscape, the food, the literature, the people, the architecture. I have written about them at great length. But then there are places I love for reasons that I can't begin to define, can't begin to understand. I only know that when I was there I felt the damp heat seep deep through my skin and straight into my bones, felt the ancient stones scrape against my heart the way they chafed the palm of my hand as I touched them. And the food is only a part of it, not the definition of what I feel but buried beneath the root of it. Cambodia is such a place.

We went there in 2000. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season. We flew into Bangkok, spent a few days under the burning sun, walking amongst the royal temples bright with gold leaf, past the enormous gilded Buddha, reclining on his side, his smiling face the size of a movie screen. And then from the bustling streets of Bangkok we found ourself in Siem Reap. I remember looking out the window of the airplane; below us I could see vast fields, clumps of jungle growth, here and there the ancient temple complexes. Those fields were once pocked with landmines. (At the entrances to the temples there would be beggars with twisted, mangled limbs, scarred reminders of the country's past).

Our first night was spent in a cheap, dimly lit hotel that reminded me of hotels I had stayed in when visiting Russia in 1993, or those you find in most of China; with a vague pretense to cleanliness, and a stark bareness as to décor (or lack thereof). In the morning we ate a forgettable breakfast in the empty hotel restaurant and decided to move to another hotel not far away. The second place was two or three times as expensive (that is, about $100 US a night, for three people), and considerably more comfortable. The hotel was comprised of a complex of thatched huts, most with glass windows and air-conditioning, all connected by a series of wooden decks and pathways. We stayed in the two-storied hut, the lower floor with air-conditioning, the upper floor with ceiling fans and louvred shutters. Even in the heat and humidity, it remained cool inside.

Our days fell into a pattern. Awake early, have breakfast, drive out to the temples with our hired driver, spend a few hours wandering around, return to the hotel for lunch, nap or read until the midday rains stopped, go out again to explore some more, and then return for dinner. And then to bed. Our hotel was run by a Frenchman, and each day's menu was written in French on a chalkboard posted on one of the supports that held up the roof of the dining pavilion. The space was open on all sides, and at one end was the outdoor kitchen. (At night the bugs would hover over our tables; tiny lizards would slither across the floor near our feet). I would glance at the handwritten words every day, vaguely translate each meal for my parents. Some kind of soup...with fish....and...a, I think...vegetables...rice. To be truthful, I cannot really recall what we ate. I remember clear fish soups, unexpectedly spicy, desserts of sticky rice with meltingly sweet slices of mango, but little of what came in between. (My mother is allergic to mangoes and my father cannot eat sticky rice, so I always ate more than my share). Most of all, I remember the breakfast.

At home, breakfast is tea with milk, if I have time. If I am particularly hungry, perhaps there will be some leftover cold pizza in the fridge, or a brownie. Once every so often I am organized enough to manage some cereal, and if I am spectacularly on top of things there will be berries or bananas to toss in with the cereal. Usually breakfast is forgotten in the rush to shower and work and I remain hungry all morning until it's time for lunch. When I travel it is another story. And the breakfast I remember from our hotel in Siem Reap in those Cambodian mornings will stay with me forever. It was simple, and it was perfect. At breakfast, platters of enormous crêpes would arrive, several inches in diameter. (Remember, the hotel was run by a Frenchman). They would be dusted with powdered sugar and folded into quarters, fragile and tender and light. There would be tea and coffee and different kinds of juice (pineapple, guava, orange) and plates of sliced papaya or mango or watermelon. That was all, and that was all you needed, or ever could want.

The reason why I cannot remember exactly what I ate was because a) I am unfamiliar with Cambodian cuisine, b) this was before I started taking notes on this sort of thing, and I have a terrible memory, and c) what I ate was not important. The sensations of the food are what I remember, and what matters to me, because they are part of the entirety of that experience. The prickle of spicy fish soup, with a sour tang that left you feeling cool all over. The creamy hotness of curry made with coconut milk. The sticky rice that was the perfect foil to sweet, ripe fruit. And the feeling of eating in that open pavilion, a faint breeze weaving through the stillness, the suddenly rush of midday rain, the light gleaming on the lizards darting across the tile floor. That part I will remember.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading. Mandelstam. (Nadezhda).

One of my favorite words in Russian is надежда, which means hope. Like любовь (love), it is used as a feminine first name. As in Надежда Яковлевна Мандельштам. Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam. (I come back to these two again and again, partly because I love them, and partly because most of my books have been packed away and I have nothing to read save for two volumes of his poetry and one volume of her memoirs). It thus gives her first memoir's title, Hope Against Hope (and the second one, Hope Abandoned) a double meaning.

In his obituary that begins my copy of Hope Against Hope, Brodsky describes Mandelstam (N) as "a remnant of fire, like a small ember." As though she was all that remained of those twin blazes, the great burning fires of Mandelstam (O) and Akhmatova, one her husband, the other her life-long friend. As though her memories set forth in these twin volumes (I am not sure if I have read Hope Abandoned before) anchor the legacies of those two poets. I see her as a bright, shining bead suspended on a string between two hands, sliding back and forth but holding her own thoughts. I seem to think of them, the three of them together, Osip, Nadezhda, Anna. I read their words together, skipping from poetry to prose and back again, each shifting light and shadow onto each other, each changing how I read and then perceive the others.

I had forgotten how difficult it was to read such a bare, unflinching eyewitness account of all that happened to the Mandelstams and their friends at that time. The routine of arrests. How the secret police would knock on the door late at night, how they might stay all night going through papers and asking questions or merely sweep all the papers up (as well as the person they had come to arrest) and be gone in twenty minutes. And those few happy moments that passed so fleetingly, and which are even more devastating because you know that those brief golden moments will be overtaken by sadness. But Mandelstam (N) is not a writer, not a poet, and there is not the fluid beauty to her words that I have found elsewhere, with Brodsky and Milosz and other poets whose non-poetry works set fire to my heart in ways I can't describe (because I'm not a poet). There is only heartbreak, and words that fall into my skin like shards of ice, like blades that draw tears of blood.

For almost one-quarter of her long life Nadezhda Mandelstam was a wife, and for just over half of it she was a widow, and it was the latter which would come to define her. For better or for worse. It must be a strange feeling, to have your role as guardian of memory, of your husband's works, supercede your identity as a person, or how you must struggle to balance both. For all time Mandelstam's life is inextricably intertwined (I have the uneasy feeling I have said these words before) with her husband's. Standing guard over his verses, each one committed to memory. How much would we have lost without her.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Eating. pizza. (Via Tribunali).

It was just past 7 o'clock when C. and I staggered out of work, starving and exhausted. Let's just walk towards my place, I said, and see if anything looks interesting. (I am so eager to get out of there and find something to eat that I leave my cell phone behind). If all else fails, we can always order pizza. The neighborhood is full of restaurants and bars, and there is no end of choices. If anything, there are too many choices, and it is impossible to decide.

We walk down Pike Street, lined with funky boutiques and bars and restaurants, ooh and ah at brightly patterned handbags and messenger bags in store windows. Past the pub where I go for burgers. Past the Mexican place that's supposed to be good. (Nah, not in the mood for that tonight). Past dark coffeehouses and people lounging on the sidewalk smoking. And then a sign catches my eye, and I screech to a halt. Via Tribunali.

There are a number of pizza places springing up around Seattle that boast thin-crust pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens with any number of toppings. San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, prosciutto, herbed mushrooms, salami - no pepperoni and bagged cheese here. I live in Mt. Baker, which has Mioposto (opened earlier this year), and the nearby Columbia City standby Tutta Bella, so I have never ventured towards Via Tribunali. Supposedly there's always a long wait, and I don't have that kind of patience (which is also why I never go to Tutta Bella; it's always packed). But tonight we just happened to be there, and there are two seats open at the bar.

Via Tribunali is a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with glass doors opening onto the street. There are a few tables, some booths lining one wall, and a long bar with woven-seated stools. A round wood-fired oven roars near the bar. Everything is made of dark, polished wood, and it is noisy in the narrow, high-ceilinged space. It has only been around for a year or two, I think, but it has the patina of a place that has been there for decades. I feel as though I were in Europe as we climb onto our stools at the far end of the bar.

I like eating at bars. Sitting high up on a stool, watching the bartenders moving swiftly around, pouring drinks, making espresso at the behemoth of an espresso machine. Light gleams on the glass bottles of liquor; in the mirror behind them I can also watch other diners in the booths. Next to C. are some bottles of Brunello di Montalcino, and if I hadn't been so tired I would have ordered a glass. On the counter in front of me is a bowl of heirloom tomatoes, different colors, all bumpy and misshapen. At my elbow is a hulking prosciutto-slicer, gleaming and dangerous-looking, holding a baby-sized piece of prosciutto. One end has two metal rivets clamped to the skin, stamped with a number. This is one serious ham. I almost expect to see the name of the cow from which the prosciutto comes as well. The machine blocks my view of the oven, but I can just see the pizzas being slid onto the hot stones from a wooden peel. A tall, bearded man tosses salads with his bare hands, lays translucent slices of prosciutto across plates and arranges antipasti.

We've ordered the house salad, a pizza with prosciutto and mushrooms. The salad has mixed wild greens, arugula, I think, something faintly bitter. There are chunks of mozzarella, the creamy kind that comes apart in ropy shreds, fine slices of ham (what they call prosciutto cotto, I think), sweet cherry tomatoes, tart little olives. A dish of sharp contrasts - sweet bitter creamy salty juicy - barely slicked with olive oil and a faint whisper of vinegar. And then the pizza arrives, the crust thin and chewy and crisp and dotted with barely burnt spots. The toppings are scattered with a light hand, the prosciutto so thinly sliced it seems to melt into the cheese and disappear into the crust. Which is as it should be.

The perfect end to the day.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Reading. Brodsky. (on Mandelstam). (Nadezhda).

I think I first read Hope Against Hope in high school. I must have been sixteen or seventeen years old. Back then I was in love with Bulgakov (and remain so to this day) and was feverishly reading all his writings, the novels, short stories, plays. Slowly I began reading about the other doomed writers of his era, and the stories told by their widows and the others who were left behind. There was a book I found in my school's library, called The Widows of Russia, written by the late Carl Proffer, who with his wife Ellendea had founded the publishing company Ardis and who had been instrumental in translating and bringing many Soviet writers to American readers. (For this they were, if memory serves, kicked out of the Soviet Union). Proffer's book led me to Nadezhda Mandelstam, who led me to the poetry of her husband Osip.

Somewhere - I forget where - I came across one of the letters written by Nadezhda to Osip, the last letter she wrote to him. Reading it is like being torn apart by the raging furies of despair, of love, of bitter tears. I wept and wept when I first read it; I weep now even just thinking of it. A chill goes through me when I realize that all we have of Osip Mandelstam, all his poems that might have been lost forever, are left to us because Nadezhda committed them to memory. (Most astonishing to me because I can barely remember the shortest of poems, let alone enough to fill several volumes). Beyond that bond, that love between husband and wife, burned the even more immortal fire of the guardian and the works she saved for the generations to come.

It is with some sense of shame that I admit to not reading Joseph Brodsky until this year. I can only say that once I began reading I immediately fell hopelessly, irrevocably in love, and the more I read the deeper I fell. It was with a sense of shock and fate that I opened Hope Against Hope for the first time in nearly a decade, only to find that the foreward that I had slipped past all those years ago was by Brodsky. It is rather like meeting someone in passing at a party when you were in love with someone else and noticed only that he was tall and had dark hair, and years later when you meet again and fall in love you wish you had paid more attention the first time around and not wasted all those years in between. (Didn't I say this before, about Ferlinghetti?). I wish I had known then what I know now, what I would feel now, but it is fate that that keeps me turning around again and again in circles, only not in circles, because I never entirely come back to the point where I began. Or rather that I come back to the same point where I began but I have changed so much that I can no longer see it all the same way I had before. Now I return to the Mandelstams and find that how I view them, their works, their lives, is filtered through the lens of Brodsky's words, which give clarity, throw light into the shadows.

In his foreward to Hope Against Hope Brodsky writes about the last time he saw Nadezhda, smoking in a dark corner of her apartment, how she looked "like a remnant of a huge fire, like a small ember that burns if you touch it." I felt that burn when I first read her words long ago, and I feel it again now...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dinner with friends. lamb.

The phone rings as I am trying to pack up 20 years of books and papers and random things accumulated over all this time. It is my mother, calling from a friend's house. I had declined to join them for dinner, unsure whether I had been invited and overwhelmed by the work I still had to do. You were invited to dinner! Are you sure you don't want to join us? I'm exhausted. I've worked all weekend, and I'm trying to get all my stuff ready to move by the end of the week. A. gets on the phone. I've made rack of lamb! Just come over, eat, and go home! Normally I wouldn't hesitate for a second, but I haven't been able to see my bedroom floor for days. I've been having nightmares about shelves for weeks. On the other hand, as A. pointed out, I still have to eat dinner. I may as well join them.

A. lives in the heart of downtown, in a beautiful old building that was converted into luxury condominiums several years ago. It is perfect for the dinner parties she frequently hosts. The front door opens into a sort of little hallway that opens straight into the living space; first the open-plan kitchen on the right, then the long dining table, and then finally the sitting area. The space is defined by the arrangement of furniture and a few columns, anchored by the kitchen island that houses the sink on the kitchen side and a curved eating bar (set higher to hide kitchen clutter) on the dining side. It is modern without being cold (and in contrast to the carved-stone exterior), bright from all the windows looking over downtown, airy and warm and welcoming and incredibly inviting. I have eaten many a fantastic meal here, and when an invitation comes I leap at the chance to go.

I am late, and everyone is already eating when I get there. A narrow table perpendicular to the dining table acts as a buffet, with a plate of what look like whole potatoes, a deep pot of mashed potatoes, sauerbraten (beef marinated in vinegar and spices and roasted), a pile of slightly bitter fresh greens, and roasted vegetables. Everyone calls out greetings and suggestions; make sure to put sauce on the beef, put the roasted vegetables on top of the greens and eat them together. The beef is slightly overdone, the sauce is a little sweet, but it is still good. I can't figure out what A. did to the potatoes to make them so tender and creamy; they seem to be holding themselves together by force of will. The mashed potatoes are incredible, too. The roasted vegetables are sweet and tangy and perfect with the faintly bitter, crisp lettuce.

And then comes the rack of lamb. It's Giada's recipe!, says A. (We both like the Food Network, and experiment with the recipes we find there). The rack of lamb was roasted and then slathered with a bright pesto of mint and basil. She has substituted pine nuts for walnuts, and Asiago for Parmesan. That is the mark of a seasoned chef, who uses whatever is to hand, making changes with confidence and ease. And it works. The lamb is perfectly medium-rare, tender and juicy, not overwhelmingly lamb-y but with a subtle flavor. (A. goes to the butcher in the market, the Turkish one who once provided my dad with those lamb hearts I wrote about a few months back). Now I am glad that I jumped in my car and drove over, circling around before finding parking across the street. It was worth it, as I knew it would be.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reading. Zamyatin.

The other day a friend asked me if I had ever read Zamyatin's We. (It was during one of those random conversations that we always seem to have early in the morning before I am even fully awake). Of course I had. But I am ashamed to admit that I cannot remember anything about it, except that it was electrifying, science fiction but beyond that a searing look at both the past and the imagined future...I came home tonight and stood in the hall wondering in which of the boxes stacked all over my room was hiding my copy. It so happened that it was at the top of the first box I opened. An omen. And then a second thing happened. I was flipping through the accordian file that held some of the papers I had written in college, and the first one I found was on We. Clearly it is time to come back to this story...

It has been more than six years since I read We (the date on my paper is 18 April, 2000) in a course on Russian literature between the revolutions. I was nineteen. I spoke Russian. The title of my paper was Love and the Homos sovieticus. (I am not sure how I came up with such a title). It is a terrible paper, unfocused and scatterbrained and written in Courier, the font of students desperate to make their papers look as long as possible, although my professor still gave me an A-. (The minus was for, I inferred, being "a little uneven and associative in its organization"). I can only hope that six years from now I will not read everything I wrote here in this present time and cringe from the pretentiousness of it all. In my paper I wrote about love the way only a nineteen-year-old could write about it, that is, idiotically, and without the faintest clue as to what it might mean. (Certainly I cannot pretend to understand love any better now, and I probably never will).

At that time I was reading a lot of Kundera along with all the Soviet writers I had been studying, and in my paper I was struggling to make a parallel between something Kundera wrote (in the foreward to his play Jacques and His Master, written shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets) about a incident in which a Russian soldier had told him that they, the Russians, loved the Czechs, and the turmoil raging through the country was merely a misunderstanding (invasion, arrest, hell of a misunderstanding, I would say). The conclusion I drew, all those years ago, was that the love spoken of in the One State of Zamyatin's novel was that same kind of love which Kundera wrote about, love that tried to excuse the brutality of force wielded in the name of love. Which in my mind was no kind of love at all.

After that era passed I had forgotten all about We, about the chill that ran up my spine as I read about how mathematics replaced imagination and booklets of pink tickets replaced love, how precise straight lines replaced the curves of life. From that beginning chapter when the narrator compares his building of the Integral, a machine, with the image of life burgeoning forth in a woman's body, Zamyatin's words are like a stinging shock to the senses. It is completely of his moment in time. I wonder what he would have made of ours.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Memory. Prague.

I don't know if I've ever loved a city as much as I loved Prague. I love the cobblestone streets winding around old buildings, the bridges guarded by statues of angels. The cool green shade of tree-lined avenues. It was an entirely different world that I knew nothing about until I found myself there one beautiful summer. I was just shy of eighteen. In a few months I would be off to college; it would be the last trip of my childhood. (There have been other family trips since, but this one seemed to mark the end of something I could not quite define). The restaurants had mysterious names that seemed out of fairy tales; they were housed in cellars or centuries-old former pubs or carriage-houses or theaters upholstered in red velvet that seemed barely changed from their original guises. It was like traveling back in time.

My parents drank pale golden Pilsner as we ate rather stodgy meals of roast meat and potatoes and slightly drooping vegetables. (It drove my mother crazy. Traveling through Eastern Europe is very hard on people who eat little or no meat). Every meal came with pickled red cabbage, bright magenta against the white plates, and I could not get enough of it. It was sweet and sour and completely addictive. There are places you love because of the food, and there are places you love despite the food. And there are places where you love the food because you love the place, because it is part of the entire experience. Prague is one of those places.

And then we came home. I turned eighteen, and for my birthday three girlfriends and I (along with my parents, who sat at another table) went to Labuznik for dinner. That restaurant is now gone, but for some twenty years it was one of the best restaurants in Seattle. In the eighties or early nineties Jeffrey Steingarten referred to the food of the Pacific Northwest as "ingredients in search of a cuisine." Labuznik was different. The chef-owner was Czech, and he served things like roast duck or lamb or beef (the menu was a carnivore's delight) with side dishes of tender spinach and glazed carrots and pickled cabbage. (I went to school with the chef's son, who came up to me after class one day and said "Your dad didn't eat his carrots!" It took my father years to convince me that he didn't actually hate carrots).

That night I had Tournedos Rossini, tender rounds of filet mignon topped with slices of pâté. P., the chef, came by the table as we were eating to chat with us. He explained that Rossini liked to top his steaks with foie gras, but he used pâté because it would melt from the heat of the meat and become like a luxurious sauce. (The Italian composer Giacomo Rossini was a famed gourmand; I read that he told one of the legendary sopranos of his day that he had only cried twice in his life. Once, when he heard her sing, and again, when he dropped a truffled wing of chicken into Lake Como. I can relate, because when my cousin ate all the chocolate eclairs I sobbed for what seemed like hours, and was inconsolable until my grandfather drove out to the Pike Place Market to buy more). There were little plates of spinach and sweet-sour glazed carrots, and that pickled red cabbage that had so seduced me in that magical city halfway around the world. Yet it was an altogether more refined, delicate kind of cooking compared to the vast, earthy platters that we faced in Prague. P. had breathed life and light and air and elegance into the food from the country of his birth.

Labuznik was housed in a beautiful old building near the Pike Place Market. Glass doors opened onto the street; in the summer tables and chairs were placed outside. It was a long room of comfortable chairs and white-clothed tables, all presided over by the chef's wife. S. was tall and beautiful and blond and because I was friends with their son I had once made spaghetti out of blue play-doh, using a garlic press, in their kitchen. (We were five). At dinner the night of my eighteenth birthday S. walked down the length of the room bearing a fruit-filled pavlova lit with a sparkling candle. (I remember how it flickered as she came towards me, and after my friends sang to me I could hear my parents applauding from several tables away). A pavlova is a crisp meringue shell filled with fruit (in this case, berries) and whipped cream, and it is light and crunchy and creamy and tart and sweet, all at the same time. Perfect.

Not long after that night the restaurant closed. P. was fortunate enough to own the building that was anchored on the ground floor by his restaurant; it allowed him the freedom to retire (another chef whose restaurant we frequented used to sigh with envy, as he rented the space that was his restaurant). At that time people were becoming more and more health-conscious and eating less meat; some years would pass before the Atkins craze would swing the pendulum back again. Now Seattle has its own distinct cuisine, and it is no longer the city Steingarten described all those years ago. My favorite restaurants are mostly informal, wood-lined, table-cloth-less places that serve locally grown produce and free-roaming meats and line-caught fish; things like sweetbreads and pork belly have become commonplace. A trail of fava beans snakes around the city like the path of a ravenous garden snail. Labuznik is only a memory, like the view of Prague from the highest point in the city, the tower atop the cathedral that guards the immortal stones below, burned in my brain for all time.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Favorite food. soufflé.

I nearly always make a soufflé shortly after making bread pudding. The bread pudding uses eight egg yolks, and I just so happen to have a recipe for chocolate soufflé that requires eight egg whites. (What else am I going to do, make an egg-white omelet? How boring). I found the recipe on the internet, the only one that didn't require egg yolks or the effort of a custard base. It is just egg whites, sugar, chocolate, and lemon juice. The soufflé emerges from the oven, rising a good two inches above the fluted edge of my gratin dish, all chocolate and air, looking quite a bit like the toque worn by a chef, if only chefs wore toques the color of bittersweet chocolate.

Soufflés are one of my favorite foods. Few restaurants serve them, and when I see discreet words at the bottom of the menu suggesting that you pre-order your soufflé (or when the waiter mentions it as he takes your order), I have to order one. Usually there are two options: chocolate, or Grand Marnier. I always feel a bit deflated (pardon the pun) when the waiter pierces the crest of my soufflé with a spoon and pours in the sauce. It is a travesty, as if someone had already cracked the burnt sugar of my crême brulée before serving it. I am always tempted to snatch the spoon away as it is poised over the virgin expanse of crisp crust. That moment before you plunge into the shell of your soufflé is like that moment when you wake up on a winter morning to find piles of snow just waiting for your footsteps to mark its pristine white surface. That thrill of anticipation.

Usually chocolate desserts are rich and heavy; warm molten chocolate cakes that ooze their own insides to flood the senses with a sudden rush of chocolate, dense tortes that fall like stones into your stomach. It is a delicious form of torture. A chocolate soufflé is all darkness made as light as air, a balancing act between lightness and weight. The perfect one is equal parts of both, and when you eat it you feel as though you could never get enough. I am torn between the weightless, bittersweet darkness of a chocolate soufflé and the intoxicating brightness of a Grand Marnier one. The latter is fragrant with the heady scent of orange liqueur, and it is what I always order when I find it in restaurants. I save my chocolate soufflés for when I am home, with a bowl of egg whites in one hand and a bar of the darkest chocolate I can find in the other. It is my secret, for me alone. (Sometimes a friend, too).

Last time, having no lemons on hand, I scraped the zest from one lime into the melting chocolate before squeezing in the juice. As we cut into the hot soufflé the aroma of lime rose over the table and seemed to hang before us in a palpable cloud. There was not so much the taste of lime but rather the sensation of the scent of lime, and it was incredible. I must try it again.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Memory. Petersburg.

I fell asleep thinking of all the places I love most in the world, and I dreamed of St. Petersburg. Of standing on the top of St. Peter's Cathedral and looking down at the city sprawled beneath us, a mosaic of canals and candy-colored palaces. In the distance great apartment blocks of concrete loomed like guardians over a vault of precious jewels. You are so far north that at times it feels like you are at the edge of the world. I dreamt of walking down Nevsky Prospekt, that main thoroughfare which on maps seems to bisect the city like a spine, a bundle of cords branching out into the explosion of nerves that form the city's streets. And I dreamt of the food.

My first experience with Russian food came in the mid-eighties at the Russian Tea Room, which was not particularly Russian (as far as I recall) save for the decor and the caviar they offered. For dessert I would always have their Creme Russe, which is more French than Russian, but then the food of the Russian aristocrats was created by French chefs imported from Paris. In the nineties we would go to the Russian restaurant near the Pike Place Market (now it is a little French café, one of my favorite places in Seattle) for homey foods like borsch and kotlety (rather like large oblong meatballs) or stuffed cabbage rolls, or beef stroganoff over kasha. Now when I have a craving for borsch I make it myself, huge pots of magenta soup thick with vegetables and rich with the flavor of beef. Sometimes I flip through my cookbooks to ease the longing for those lost times and as I read the recipes I can almost taste the foods they describe.

In 1993 I found myself in Moscow in the summer haze of August. There was home cooking, which was delightful (breakfasts of oatmeal and pastries and yogurts and coffee, which I was not allowed at home, lunches that began with soup and ended with jello made with fresh fruit, and simple dinners; on my last night my host family served roast duck with apples, a beautiful dish which I have not had since). Aside from that there was the somewhat dismal food we found in restaurants and hotels, unappetizing meat, bland rice, and the inevitable cucumber-and-tomato salad. I grew to hate tomatoes and cucumbers. There was a depressing monotony to the meals eaten during our various excursions. But aside from the lovely cooking at home (and the many, many Mars ice cream bars we consumed) I remember eating cabbage piroshky on the night train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and buying shashlyk from a stall in the park. I think it was beef, but we were never quite sure. (It is all a distant memory now).

Years passed, and I found myself in Petersburg during the White Nights of June, when the sun never quite goes down. We were housed in homestays, which provided breakfast and dinner (eggs and sausage, oatmeal, fried potatoes for breakfast, some kind of meat and more fried potatoes, or kasha, a tomato-and-cucumber salad for dinner. One memorable day I managed to have fried potatoes at every single meal), but we were responsible for our own lunch and other snacks. We would go have blini at that cafeteria on Nevsky, or cross the street to that café that had little marble-topped tables and eat buterbrod, open-faced sandwiches of smoked salmon on dark slices of bread spread with butter. We went there to drink cappucino and nibble on ice cream cones in the afternoons. At the dusty grocery stores presided over by grim-faced babushkas (those be-kerchiefed elderly ladies who guarded museums and shops and market stalls) we would buy crackers and bottled water and boxes of cherry juice which stained our lips and tongues bright red. (I have not tasted cherry juice since. Some things belong to a time and place that cannot be regained).

Some days M. and I would eat in the university cafeteria - borsch, stuffed cabbage, kasha (it was cheap and reasonably good, or at least, not terrible), or we would buy piroshki at the cart which sold bottled water and gum - yeasty rolls stuffed with mushrooms or cabbage. At that time it was 26 rubles to the dollar, and a piroshky cost 3 rubles (according to the meticulous notes I made of my daily expenses). Two made an excellent lunch. We would walk to a park and eat in the grass, watching all the young people around us, the old women strolling along. M. was from one of the Carolinas (North or South, I forget which), beautiful and intelligent and grown-up and with a warm Southern drawl. I was not yet nineteen, and she was the same age I am today, twenty-six. There is a photograph I took of her during one of our afternoons in the park. The light falls gently across her face as she gazes at something I can't see. I wonder where she is now.

Later, back home, I would buy piroshki from a little place near the University of Washington and eat it, reading a book, leaning against one of the many trees on campus. They are the perfect picnic food, meat or vegetables (sometimes with cheese) neatly wrapped in a soft dough and baked. I love piroshky partly because they are so good, but also because when I eat them I think about my Russian days, as I also do when I listen to techno music, or the techno-y Russian pop music we played nonstop. I will not be that person again, but the memories remain.

I dreamt that I was in Petersburg again. We lay on the sun-dappled grass under the trees in the park and talked for hours in the wavering golden afternoon light.

In Petersburg we'll meet again... (so begins the poem by Mandelstam).

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Cooking. croissant bread pudding.

A conversation, last week. One of our clients calls, and when business is done he says, Hey, when are you going to make me a whiskey bread pudding again? I laugh. (I use rum). Whenever you like. Ask the boss. He rings off. The rest of the afternoon passes, I tell my boss about the conversation. She hangs up to call him. Then the phone rings again. Lunch, next Tuesday. Make bread pudding, says the boss. We all do a victory dance around the lab, because everyone loves bread pudding. My bread pudding. This is due partly to the fact that, as my supervisor says, I have a generous hand with the booze.

I first had this at a friend’s house. It quickly became a favorite, a constant at every party. (If tiramisu was my dessert of the nineties, then bread pudding is my dessert of the noughties). By now I can make it with my eyes closed, and since I often make it in the early morning, half-awake before work, I practically do. The croissants soak up the luscious creamy custard, melding into one indistinguishable whole, and the raisins are like hidden secrets, layered between the croissants. It is served warm, a soft pudding below, a crisp golden crust on top. Sometimes we have it with ice cream, cold against the hot pudding, melting into a sauce. Great food is about contrast, cold-warm-crisp-creamy. And then there is the rum.

The recipe is from one of Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. She suggests serving the pudding with rum-flavored whipped cream on the side. I say to hell with that and soak the raisins in rum overnight, if not longer. Dark Meyer's rum. About one cup altogether, perhaps more. To soften the impact of the alcohol I simmer the raisins in the rum until only a little syrupy liquid is left at the bottom of the saucepan, and then I add a little more fresh rum for just a bit of a kick. When I can find them, I use huge flame raisins, and K. said they are like giant rum bombs in the pudding.

I've made this so many times that I can do it all without thinking. I've made changes to it, in terms of ingredients (cutting back on the sugar, adding rum to the raisins) and method (I sandwich the raisins between each sliced croissant, instead of laying down the bottom halves of the croissants, sprinkling the raisins on top, and then placing the top layer over them). I always use croissants from Costco (because they fit perfectly in the baking dish, and they're cheap besides), and the biggest raisins I can find. If I'm making this for a lunch party, I mix up the custard the night before, stick it in the fridge overnight, leave the croissants on the counter to go stale. In the morning I slice and assemble the croissants and raisins in a deep oval baking dish, strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve, let it soak, and bake it, covered, for 45 minutes. It will finish baking (uncovered) while we eat our lunch and emerge puffy and beautiful from the oven, the tops of the croissants rising in a perfect, burnished golden dome.

This bread pudding is rather like a chain letter (but one you would hope to receive). A., who lives in Portland, made it for the other A., who demanded that J. make it for the next dinner, where I had it, and I in turn demanded the recipe so I could make it myself. J. and I have made it together many times, but I frequently make it for other friends, who in turn ask me for the recipe. I like to think that everyone I give the recipe to makes it for their friends, who then ask for the recipe and serve it to their friends...I imagine a vast and spreading network of people across the country, all eating the same croissant bread pudding stuffed with rum raisins. It is such a lovely thought.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Eating. chicken wings.

At present my library is rapidly dwindling as I pack away all my books in preparation for moving across town. For a while my writing will be more and more about food and memory, until I can open these carefully taped boxes and dive back into literature again.

Chicken wings are a childhood food. I don't remember when they became a vital part of our diet; I suspect it was during the time my two cousins lived with us. One girl (me) was manageable; add two growing boys to the mix and suddenly we were like a ravenous pack of wolverines. Gallons of milk vanished every week. Piles of frozen pizza were microwaved and devoured. Endless bowls of udon noodles were consumed in that twilight hour between coming home from school and dinnertime. Chicken wings came from Costco, in a giant plastic-wrapped styrofoam tray. They would be marinated in a mix of soy sauce, wine, garlic, and scallions, perhaps a little swish of sugar, and broiled until they were shiny, the skins burnished like polished mahagony. The boys could eat twenty or more of them at one sitting. Each.

One of my earliest kitchen tasks was marinating the wings. There's no recipe for it. I take several stalks of scallions, slice them into two-inch lengths, at an angle. Smash a handful of cloves of garlic with the flat side of a cleaver or chef's knife. Throw everything together in a gallon-size zip-top bag. (You can buy the middle wing segments, or buy whole wings and cut through the joints yourself). Splash in some soy sauce, a healthy amount of white wine or Chinese cooking wine. You could even use beer. Or apple juice. Sugar will make the skin caramelize even more, make the wings more teriyaki-ish, but you could leave it out. Leave the bag in the fridge for a couple of hours, a day, maybe a few days. Anything goes. They're always good.

In my last years of high school, my older cousin was away at college. Every now and then he would send me an email, and the food he seemed to miss most was the chicken wings. Later I joined him at the same university, and for the one year we were both there he would call me every ten days (it was always ten days, not a week, or two weeks, I don't know why) to make sure that I was still alive and to take me shopping. (I don't know why he was worried about me; it was more like me worrying about him). Show me how to make those chicken wings, he said. By then he knew how to cook eggs scrambled with tomatoes, fried potatoes, beef with onions. But it was the chicken wings he longed for, and which I made for him in his dim little kitchen decorated with empty Heineken bottles. (I had lined my dorm suite hallway with green bottles, too, but mine were Perrier, bought at the corner store with my dining flex-account).

When I am alone it seems sad just to have chicken wings for one. It needs abundance, a whole pile of wings just burned around the edges, the skin crisp from the high heat, the meat still moist and juicy. So when my family is here we always have them at least once, like tonight. I come home and my mom has marinated the wings, chopped long beans and dried tofu for me to stir-fry while the chicken is broiling. It is like falling into the past. Stripping the meat away from the bone with my teeth, biting through the cartilage at the joints. I love the middle section of the wing best, two bones joined at the ends, just the right proportion of meat to skin. I fail to pick the bones clean enough to satisfy my mother, and she chastises me as though I were eight years old again.

Last year, or perhaps it was the year before, my cousin came to visit for a short while. His first request was for chicken wings. Are they as good as you remember? Yes.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Reading. on memory and childhood.

I have been dwelling more and more on my childhood lately, and it was only the other day that I realized why. My parents are in town, and we are a family again, the three of us together, one perfect, isoceles triangle. At times I am at its apex, the attention focused (happily or unhappily) on me; at other times I am at the bottom looking up at the continuing dialogue between my parents that I have always been excluded from (which is as it should be). (One time, during a long conversation between my parents and their friends at the dinner table, I turned to my non-Chinese speaking friend and said, "I understand what they are saying, but I have no idea what they are talking about." Words without context are meaningless). And then I realize that I have been looking into the past so often lately because at present we are packing up all the bits and pieces of my childhood home, some of which will follow my parents to Taipei, where they now live, and others which will follow me to my new home, a space in a high-rise building which at night seems to be floating amongst the glittering lights of the city and not anchored in the earth and surrounded by a garden.

Truth is always more shattering than fiction could ever hope to be. I have thought this for a long time, but never more clearly than when I found Dream Me Home Safely the other day. (I had a coupon, and wandered the bookstore shelves for hours, searching for something new. It was the title that caught my eye). It is a collection of essays by different writers about growing up in America, whether immigrants or native-born, Southern and black, white-trash and poor and haunted by tragedy, from all across the spectrum that makes up the American experience. I read it and began to weep.

Some of these writers I remember well for their novels about growing up in America; their own reminisces about their childhood strikes more closely to the bone, deeper into the heart, than their other words. As if actual memories burn more brightly than invented stories. On the other hand, the recording of an actual event renders it into something beyond truth; nothing ever happened as truely as you remember it. Words take on a different shape, nuance, fogged over by the clouding nature of memory. Does anything really happen the way you remember it? Or do we remember things only as we imagined them to be? What was that Minna Pratt said, in The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt? Her mother tells her about the time when she asks her daughter if she was telling the truth. It's one of the truths, mama! Memory is one of the truths.

I had thought to avoid talking about childhood. I remember thinking - or writing - these words: If I spend too long looking backwards, I fear that I would forget how to look forwards, and live. But when I read Dream Me Home Safely I began to understand that the past is something to treasure, to hold on to; that no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, it is where everything began.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

On eating. in situ. (Conroy).

Somehow there is nothing more seductive than a novelist writing about food; it is like reading something a poet wrote about his beloved. I have never read much Pat Conroy, except for The Prince of Tides (and of which I remember nothing except for a scene in which the main character threatens to drop another man's priceless violin out the window), but something in my heart rejoices when I find his words in the pages of Gourmet magazine. The other night I found Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet, and it had one of his essays that I had dimly remembered reading years before.

Conroy and his new wife, the beautiful woman with a voice 'sugared with her deep Alabama accent,' have embarked on what Samuel Johnson called 'the triumph of hope over experience,' the second (or third or fourth) marriage. A honeymoon in Italy. It has a ring to it, southern boy, his wife says to him, having never traveled to that country, where Conroy lived in the 80's, after which he felt that his 'own heart [was] shaped like a boot since [he] lived in the city of Rome for three years.' So the two of them head to Umbria. On the way, he is filled with self-doubt, wondering aloud why he did not take her to Venice or Rome or Florence or Siena or Lake Como, until he relaxes and puts his 'trust in the simple mystery that Italy has never let [him] down, never refused to lay its dazzling treasures at [his] feet.'

I have never been to Umbria, but my own heart has been shaped like a boot since I was fourteen years old and visited Italy for the first time. (Actually, I think it goes back farther than that, to when I first read A Room With a View and Enchanted April, watched old Fellini movies and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday). There are few places on earth that I love as much as I love the sunbaked earth of Italy, criss-crossed with endless rows of grapevines and gnarled olive trees over rolling hills. I went back again last summer and found myself even more deeply in love than I ever thought possible. The Florence of my memory intoxicated me all over again; new places like the wild Abruzzi and the windswept Cinque Terre were discovered and loved. I will go back again and again and know that, as for Conroy, this country will never let me down, will never cease to dazzle me.

It was Italy that taught me that cuisine is part of the place that it comes from and therefore must be consumed in situ to have meaning. (Likewise it took me years to make my parents understand that it wasn't Chinese food I didn't like, but Chinese food in America). That zuppe di pesce at a restaurant on Capri will never be as good anywhere else; it is part of a lost time and can only remain a distant, brilliant memory, fresh sweet fish in a tomato broth scented with saffron and served with crisp garlic-rubbed croutons. Last July in a tiny town whose name I cannot remember, in a tiny restaurant where there were few other customers (there certainly were no other foreign tourists), we ate fresh ricotta spread on slices of crusty bread. I have not tried this at home, because I know it will not be the same, cannot be.

The other night at dinner my father mentioned how he was always searching for the perfect spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti in white clam sauce. I have only had one that fit that description. It was a summer evening, our last evening in Italy (the first time); we were in the town of Formia, where our friend's mother lived. We had dinner outside on the terrace of a restaurant that A. and her family knew well, under a canopy of twinkling lights. I remember the pasta with clams that tasted of the sea, a cool white wine that was like drinking the sunlight of a summer day. We took a bottle back home with us, opened it on another summer night. But the magic was gone, and it was now merely an ordinary white wine, although a very good one; what made it special was the atmosphere, the feel of that summer evening in Italy under the stars, a moment that will never be recreated...

Friday, August 11, 2006

Memory. Taipei. (eating).

Last night I had dinner with the three best cooks I know, another who is apparently also a very good cook, and the husbands of three of them (my parents being one of the three couples). At one point the conversation the conversation turned to various restaurants in Taipei, where my parents and several of their friends spend most of their time. T. leaned over the table and asked why, with all the wonderful food there was to be found in Taipei, didn't I want to go back to visit (and eat). I was going to, I said, but when I told my mom I was coming, she told me that they were going to be in Japan! There was no way to reply to that except to laugh.

Childhood holidays were divided between New York and Taipei and the occasional jaunt to Hong Kong; in those years my grandfather spent time in all three cities. New York meant avenues of trees twined with twinkling lights; it was a fairyland. (And where does Santa live? MACY'S! In my defense, I was only five). Taipei meant winter rains and sweltering summer heat. It meant those thin-skinned oranges, juicier and sweeter than anything you could find back home, that were only available during the winter months. In the summer there would be litchees, bumpy brown skin covering translucent fruit hiding a shiny dark seed inside. Or starfruit, a football-shaped yellow fruit with five pointed lobes that would fall into perfect stars when you sliced it. After every meal there would be triangular slices of watermelon skewered with wooden picks.

When I think about the Taipei of my childhood I think of ripe fruits and steamed buns from the carts on the corner near the apartment. Of ham-and-egg sandwiches from 7-Eleven. (Sandwiches are different over there. I think it's the bread, which is always white and square, or the fact that they are not so stuffed with filling that they explode in your hands, like those bigger-is-better American sandwiches. There is just one or two slices of ham, one thin sheet of fried egg). Breakfast was a bowl of soy milk and a fried cruller, or congee. Lunch would be soup noodles with beef or shredded pork with pickled vegetables. Of dinner I remember only endless meals in restaurants where I would make origami cranes out of paper chopstick wrappers and doodle away with the pen my father always kept in his shirt pocket (he still does, only now I borrow it to write down what wine we drank with dinner, instead of drawing on paper tablecloths).

Now I go back for xiao lung bao, Japanese food, and Taiwanese cooking. The food critic Alan Richman writes that the "prosperous, sophisticated Taiwanese consider their cuisine rarefied and elegant. [He considers] it worrisome, because dried squid and similar subspecies are always appearing in their dishes." I think he exaggerates. The palate (and palette) is different, it's true. (Many visiting Taiwanese complain that there is nothing worth eating in Seattle, which makes me crazy). Even Western cuisines are reimagined for local tastes; Italian food in Taipei is a different creature from Italian food in America (although neither is like Italian food in Italy, for that matter). My last trip involved dinner at a restaurant called Ziga Zaga, but the reader will be unsurprised that I can't remember what I ate. I do remember a bowl of huge green mussels in a clear tomato broth; as you ate the sweet mussels your mouth felt the faint prickle of hot peppers, a gentle sensation of warmth rather than a burn. A year later I would have bavette with spiny lobster somewhere in the Cinque Terre and remember that I had seen hot peppers used this way before, just barely enough so you could feel them but not taste them; they gave warmth but not spiciness.

There was also a meal at a Japanese restaurant, where dinner was composed of an endless series of beautifully arranged plates, some delicious, and some weird (for my tastes). I only remember a boat-shaped dish of staggeringly fresh sashimi, and the best steak I have ever had (I also remember thinking that dessert was a bit weird, but then I have never quite gotten the hang of Japanese desserts). The steak was sliced into cubes and served on a wire rack placed over a glowing brazier that had been sprinkled with, I think, pine needles. The beef was crusty and juicy and incredibly tender, with the taste of smoke and pine lingering behind. You were only given three or four (perhaps I managed to snag five) perfect bites of rich, yet delicately flavored meat. It made the gargantuan slabs of American steakhouses seem grossly overwhelming, completely unecessary. A taste is all you need.

It is all a long ways away from the foods I remember from my childhood.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The International Gourmand Club. Crush.

I realized long ago that Chinese people have a peculiar habit of discussing past and future meals at the dinner table. Before the appetizer arrives, they are already talking about how the atmosphere of the current restaurant is so completely different from the one we ate at last week, or where they should go next time. Bonus points if the next meal they are planning will take place in another country. Even my mom, who pretends not to be interested in food, can wax rhapsodic over a tiny new restaurant in Taipei or debate over whether the menu is more inventive at Lark or the Harvest Vine. In this way some of the best meals of my life have taken place in the company of my parents and their friends. They are a sort of international gourmand club, eating their way around the world (although not always together).

Tonight, we went to Crush, which none of us have tried before and which has apparently been noted as one of the top new restaurants in the region, or maybe in the country, or something like that. Personally, I have a profound fear and distrust for anything that is so effusively hyped, which I believe is a typical Seattle/Pacific Northwest trait, along with socks-and-sandals and fleece-vests-over-t-shirts (in winter). When I walk in, my fears are confirmed, as the female staff all have trendy haircuts, slim, tanned bodies, and chic outfits. (Still, this being Seattle, they are all very nice). Luckily, the black-clad waiters range from adorable to extremely good-looking. I am early, the first to arrive, so they make me wait at the bar, which looks into the open kitchen.

From my perch on a high stool I watch people come in for dinner; mostly expensively blonded women, tan and thin and of that indeterminate age that could be anywhere between thirty-five and fifty-five. Watching the action in the kitchen is more interesting, so I focus my attention there. Beyond the bar, there is a prep station where people chop things and assemble plates, and beyond that, the massive stove, one of those gas-fired behemoths that people with too much money install in their cavernous home kitchens in an effort to appear as if they knew anything about cooking. I spy a pile of seasoned lamb chops on a plate near the stove. In a corner giant heirloom tomatoes are stacked on a shelf. The chef is doing something to what looks like a giant piece of...some kind of meat, in a deep stainless-steel skillet. The waiters stand around peeling fava beens between ferrying plates and drinks to the diners. It all bodes well for an excellent dinner.

Crush is located in a rapidly-gentrifying part of Seattle. There used to be drug dealers hanging out outside the nearby mini-marts; now a fancy new Safeway and a big apartment complex has been built over what used to be a Planned Parenthood. A few blocks west and you have a Trader Joe's, a Madison Market, and more new apartment complexes. There is a neighborhood farmer's market on Fridays. As you head east towards Lake Washington you reach the Madison Park neighborhood, where blonde women wearing diamonds and color-coordinated jogging suits do the soccer-mom thing; some of the best restaurants in Seattle are here. Crush is at the halfway point between the Capitol Hill scene and the affluence that increases as you near the water.

The restaurant covers two floors of an old house; it is beautifully preserved outside but when you step inside, old meets new. The floors and staircase are dark wood and the windows have small panes; the bathroom fixtures have a retro look (that is, they probably aren't original, but they look as though they are trying to be). But the bar is a sinous curve of white corian; the chairs are Starck minimalism. The corian tables and molded plastic chairs (and the battalion of unusually shaped tableware, made by Villeroy & Boch) is all white; the walls are some pale indeterminate color. Upstairs, the eight of us are at a table set against a white leather banquette; it is like a cocoon of cream. It is not pretentious, exactly, but it is not as laid-back as most Seattle restaurants tend to be.

We start with a cool white wine, a Chablis, clear and sweet, with a faintly flinty echo as you swallow. We've ordered foie gras, rich and fruity with a blackberry sauce, veal sweetbreads, grilled octopus over a bed of beans, a salad of tomatoes, and another of beets. They are all wonderful, although I hesitate to call the foie gras 'the best in Seattle,' as the waiter claims. Everyone's main courses arrive except for mine, and I steal a slice of my mother's roast duck, a little of her perfect creamed corn. Someone passes me a bite of perfectly roasted pork tenderloin, and I have a taste of A.'s sweet black cod. And then my short ribs arrive, faintly perfumed with the seductive aroma of white truffles. They are so luscious and intense that the meat overwhelms the wine, a perfectly good Bandol that nevertheless is not quite up to holding its own against the rich beef. There is a buttery potato puree, and the most adorable baby carrots, not fat little ones as at Lark, but slender ones like tiny icicles. The entire dish is dusted with fresh parsley, bright green sparks against the weight of it all.

As I eat the raspberry tart, A. and I talk about Ruth Reichl's latest book, how the raspberries in the tartlets at Le Cirque actually became three times bigger when the restaurant realized a critic was in their midst. All throughout dinner, the conversation returns again and again to food, in-between temporary distractions of movies and politics and sports. This is how it is when you are at dinner with people who are serious about food, or rather, who are not serious, but who deeply care about food, who know what good food is, and why it is worth seeking out. My friend S. and I are the next generation; we talk about how to cook pork belly and debate over which restaurant has the best sweetbreads. I think it is time for our own International Gourmand Club.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Reading. Sebold. (On Nabokov).

Reading one writer on another can be one of the purest literary experiences there is. It is one person's words seen through the eyes of someone else, so that you might understand both writers more clearly (and perhaps yourself as well). It alters your own perception of the original work, of the second writer's work, and even your own mind, and as in a kaleidescope all the colors and patterns become something new and entirely different; you come away feeling as if you had learned some new secret. A new idea.

I have been unable to sneak away to the bookstore for some weeks now, and it was not until the other night when I was able to make a furtive trip, returning home with a new Agatha Christie, and Campo Santo, by W. G. Sebold. I had not read anything by Sebold before, but now I think I must. When I got to the cashier, we made small talk about breaking $100 bills (my way of controlling my monthly spending), until she noticed the book I was buying and said ooh! I had to read one of his novels for some German History class I was taking. He's good. She couldn't remember the title, but I will find it somehow. As usual I started with the essays.

It is rare that a title alone catches my attention, but somehow Campo Santo drew my eye. It made me think of Italy, of Pisa, where there is a cemetary in the shape of an oblong cloister, which lies in the shadow of the leaning tower. (It's quiet there. Few tourists come to wander through the carved marble sarcophogi). But the sacred ground Sebold refers to is Corsica, where I have never been, and for now I will skip over those chapters. And head instead for the chapter entitled Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov. (You must have seen this one coming).

I think of Speak, Memory as my own campo santo. I come back to it again and again as though when reading about someone else's childhood, memory, history, I might find some clues to my own. (The title of my blog comes from Nabokov's original title for his memoir, Conclusive Evidence, conclusive evidence that he had existed. All the words here are conclusive evidence that I existed, that I read, ate, loved, all the things I will someday forget). Here Sebold distills Nabokov's words into a treatise on memory and loss; on ghosts. It is rather like bicycling along a road in the falling twilight, when suddenly the streetlights go on and illuminate the winding path before you.

When reading Sebold I feel this strange sensation of lightness, as though I had been tethered to the earth by some mass of confusion, and with every word I feel each rope cut loose so that my mind can float away. It is as though he has given Nabokov a sense of weightlessness, and by extension, me, the reader. When reading Speak, Memory in one gulp you are burdened by the ghosts of Nabokov's life, the themes that would be revisited again and again in his novels, but here they are released so that all that is left is the beautiful sensation of memory.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Favorite food. crème caramel. (I've lost count; how many is this?).

I had my new place painted a color called crème caramel, and to my surprise (although I shouldn't have been surprised; those paint people know what they're talking about) stepping into the sunlight living room actually feels like falling into a plate of crème caramel. It is a delicious feeling. The walls are a creamy pale color, which gives a sensation of warmth and brightness and happiness. Like eating a dish of crème caramel. (I promise you, I did not choose my paint color based solely on the name).

Flan, crème caramel, caramel custard, crème renversée, whatever you want to call it, has long been one of my favorite foods, and I have ordered it almost every time I’ve seen it on the menu. It is different from crème brulée, where part of the satisfaction comes from that sharp contrast of crunchy burnt sugar on top and creamy custard below. Crème caramel is something else entirely. The pale custard is all smooth silkiness and flowing caramel syrup, that faintly burnt sweetness of the sauce against the crème.

I think flan is simpler than crème brulée; no need for flaming torches here. It is made with eggs and sugar and evaporated milk (Alice B. Toklas gives such a recipe; she expresses surprise that the French cook who gave her the recipe felt that American tinned evaporated milk was better than fresh milk, the only time anyone had recommended such a thing). The only slightly tricky part is making the caramel syrup; it has to turn deep golden brown but not burn. As caramel cools, it hardens; as the custard cooks it melts into a luscious sauce that runs down the sides and pools around the pudding as you reverse it onto a plate (it makes a pppffftt-thump sound as it plops out). You have to balance just the right amount of the ever-so-slightly-bitter syrup to flavor the crème without drowning it.

It is a childhood food, the way puddings and flans and soft things scooped tenderly with a spoon bring you back to being a child, no matter how old you are. Restaurants like to serve it on stark white plates adorned with things like mint leaves or candied orange zest, but nothing can disguise the homely way it slouches in front of you, as if it is burdened by its own weight. A friend used to make it for parties in a giant stainless steel mixing bowl, the caramel syrup lurking at the bottom like a dark secret. It is not a sophisticated sweet, nor should it be; it is a mother's kiss, a long embrace, a homecoming.

There have been crème caramels flavored with coconut, with orange, with chocolate, with coffee, just about anything you can imagine. (The original is still the best, perhaps with a hint of vanilla). Made from a mix, with evaporated milk, with plain milk, with cream; at fancy restaurants, roadside cafés, at the home of friends, in my own kitchen (furtively, late at night, sitting on the counter).

Somehow it is always good.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Reading. Gibbons.

I was fifteen or sixteen when I first read Cold Comfort Farm. It is one of those books whose movie I saw first and loved, and then discovered the novel, which I loved equally if not more. We were in high school, and we were all in love with Rufus Sewell. (Who we had first fallen in love with in Middlemarch). He was spectacularly sexy as Seth, the smouldering young farmer who seduces all the local girls and breaks his mother's heart, and sweeps off to be a movie star when a Hollywood producer comes to Cold Comfort Farm. L. had the movie on videotape, and we would all get together and watch it every so often (usually after eating piles and piles of crêpes).

Orphaned at the tender age of nineteen, the young Flora Poste goes to Cold Comfort Farm to stay with her cousins, the Starkadders, against the protests of her dear friend Mrs. Smiling. (Whenever I think of the Starkadders I think of what P. G. Wodehouse referred to as the "sons of toil buried beneath tons of soil." Try saying that three times fast. Without giggling). Left only with an expensive education and a small income, she is resolved to live off her relatives, tidying up (because, like Jane Austen, she cannot endure a mess) and improving their lives to suit her, and gathering material for her novel, which she planned to write at the age of 53, and which she hoped would be at least as good as Persuasion. (Although to be sure, Flora is rather more like Austen's Emma than she is Anne Elliot).

At the decaying old family farm Flora immediately sets about changing the lives of all those around her (and sometimes I rather wish I had a Flora in my life to change mine), marrying her young cousin Elfine to the son of the local gentry, arranging for Seth to become a movie star, convincing Amos to leave the farm to preach his beliefs in a Ford van. Finally, she persuades Aunt Ada Doom to leave for Paris, just after Elfine's wedding. Having nothing left to do, Flora calls for Charles to come take her away in his aeroplane, the perfectly named Speed Cop II, as he had promised to do at the novel's beginning. And so it ends, everyone's life having been improved immeasurably by Flora's interference, as she flies off to find happiness with Charles. Meanwhile, the mystery of what exactly that something nasty in the woodshed seen by Aunt Ada was is never solved, much to both Flora's and the reader's dismay.

I think what I love most about this novel is Stella Gibbons' effortless prose, which slips lightly through the fingers, weightless and unadorned like the snow-white silk of Elphine's evening gown. Her writing is so funny and charming that I find myself returning to these pages year after year. It is like drinking tea and eating hot buttered toast on a cold day, or having a sweet, ripe orange on a hot day, and sometimes that is all you need to ask of literature. I never eat my oranges with a spoon, as Flora does, but oftentimes I think of her as I peel the skin away from the flesh, revealing the bright, juicy segments of fruit within....

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Reading. Lowry.

I wonder how my mother chose books for me to read when I was young. Did she just randomly choose things off the shelf? Hand them to me, say, here, I thought you would like this? Did I pick my own books out? My love of reading must have begun somewhere, with someone else’s help, but I can’t remember how it all began.

In a few weeks I will be moving out of my childhood home, into a new place that will be completely mine, which means I have spent two days organizing and boxing up all my books. I think so far I have gotten at least two-thirds of them into boxes. While sorting the books by author and publisher and size, I came across Anastasia Krupnik, a book by Lois Lowry that I first read when I was probably about eight. (The danger of boxing up books is that you always find yourself sitting down and reading half of them).

Anastasia is ten years old. She wears owlish glasses (long before Harry Potter came on the scene) and has hair the color of Hubbard squash. (I never figured out what Hubbard squash was, or what color it is). She is always making lists of things she loves and hates, and writing poems. Her mother is a painter who goes around barefoot and daubed in paint and her father is a poet/English professor, bearded and balding and who wears eyeglasses, just like his daughter. (There are other, later books, but this was the first of them, and the first one I read).

I have never given much thought to Wordsworth, before or even after reading this book, but there is a moment, when Anastasia and her father are discussing the poem "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud," (which I have never read), and that line which goes, "The inward eye which is the bliss of solitude," and that has stayed with me all my life. I read it now and think about Anastasia's grandmother, alone in her old age, lost in the solitude of memory, and how this book is about being ten years old and learning about things like love and death and birth for the first time, when your eyes are new to it all.

It is strange how your perception of the books you loved when you were a child changes when you revisit them years later. When I was ten I wanted to be like Anastasia, writing lists (but not poetry), having crushes on older (by older I mean sixth-grade) guys. Somehow after all this time I find myself thinking about what it might be like to be like her mother, Katherine. Married to a poet/professor. Having long debates with my husband about first loves and telling my precocious young daughter about why I married her father. Not now. Perhaps in another sixteen years I will come back to this book and see how my own life has changed. How will I read it then?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Reading. Mandelstam.

I read the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam before I read her husband's poetry, and my perception of the latter would always be filtered through her words, her grief and anguish and despair and through it all, hope. (In Russian, Nadezhda, Надежда, means Hope). It was hard to separate the two, as it is always hard to separate the works and thoughts of two people whose lives have been inextricably intertwined, bound together for all time as if they were two strands of rope knotted together and fixed in fire. Their words in print make them immortal together. (What was it Bulgakov said? He meant it ironically, but he was wrong, manuscripts don't burn).

When I began reading Bulgakov all those years ago (not to beat an idea to death here, or anything, but everything begins with him) I found that it was impossible to separate his life from his work, particularly as the struggles he was undergoing in real life appeared in the pages of his writings. It was the same with all the other writers of his time, who lived (or died) through the paranoia and xenophobia of that time, under the threat of censorship and arrest and exile and death, shadowed by the knowledge that their work could not be published in their lifetime, and the only hope could be that it would survive beyond death. Art is one of the only forms of immortality we can hope to achieve.

In his introduction Brodsky begins by saying that "the expression 'death of a poet' always sounds somewhat more concrete than 'life of a poet'...a work of art...runs to the finale which makes for its form and denies resurrection...So when we read a poet, we particiate in his or his works' death." With Osip Mandelstam, Brodsky says, "we participate in both." Indeed, reading Mandelstam is like dying a thousand times over, each sentence a kind of death. There is a weight to his words, a finality that feels as though the writer, the poet, was looking towards not to the past or present or future, but to a fixed point that no one else could see, and that was the end. His end. And his words are left as testament to all those thoughts that ran through his mind as his body raced towards the end of his Time; they are all that is left of what Nabokov called "a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

I was drawn back to Mandelstam after an absence of many years by (aside from the work of a poet of my own present time, Ilya Kaminsky) the first two sentences of a poem that forms the epigraph for Anthony Burgess' Honey for Bears. In the Burgess novel they are translated as We shall meet again in Petersburg,/As though there we had buried the sun. The Meares translation (in Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems) reads thusly (and therefore changing the rhythm of the words, their impact on my soul): In Petersburg we'll meet again/As though it was there we'd laid the sun to rest. And it runs on to the finale, those last words that mark the end, the death of the poem, simply, But the nocturnal sun won't be seen by you.