Saturday, September 30, 2006

Up early on a Saturday morning. Uwajimaya.

I like to do my grocery shopping early in the morning or late at night, because I hate crowds. I haven't been to Uwajimaya for a while, that Japanese supermarket on the edge of Seattle's International District. The original one was a few blocks north, smaller and a little bit dingier. There was a café at one end, and a bookstore upstairs; I would go up there and read comics while my mom went shopping. Sometimes, if I was lucky, my mom would buy me Pocky crackers, sweet pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate, or strawberry frosting, or bags of White Rabbit candy, chewy milk-flavored candy wrapped in translucent rice-paper, which dissolved on the tongue as you ate it.

Later Uwajimaya moved to a much bigger, new building, with apartments upstairs and a parking garage below. Now there is a food court with sushi, Korean barbecue, Chinese noodles, different stalls selling whatever you might be craving. Everything is bright and gleaming under the high ceiling, from the fresh fish at the seafood counter to the plastic-wrapped meats in their refrigerated cases. There is a hair salon, a shop for trendy eyeglasses, a separate bookstore, an enticing housewares department with dozens of different kinds of rice cookers and a dazzling display of glazed ceramic bowls.

As you enter you see the bank of cash registers ahead and to the right. To your left is the produce section, piles and piles of fruits and vegetables. You could get your ordinary carrots and onions and mushrooms and zucchini, but why would you when there are jade-leafed baby Shanghai bok choy, shiny dark slender Japanese and Chinese eggplants, crisp little cucumbers. I buy some bok choy and cucumbers (which will be sliced and marinated with soy sauce and vinegar and sesame oil) and scallions (of which I am almost never without) and a white limb of daikon radish.

And then I need some pork (for soup) and cornish game hens (also, for soup). I've promised C. homemade wontons, so I get some ground pork for my filling. Wander towards the tofu aisle. There is soft tofu (which I need for my wontons) and firm tofu (for soup) and dried soy-marinated tofu (for...whatever). I haven't cooked like this for a while, and it is like slipping into something old and comfortable. I find some wide wheat noodles (for soup); a small bottle of sesame oil finds its way into the cart. Perhaps I will slice the dried tofu into strips, sprinkle them with finely chopped scallions, and drizzle everything with soy sauce and sesame oil. There is some sashimi, pale slices of white tuna. Hamachi collars will be sprinkled with salt and broiled until the skin becomes crispy. I need chopsticks; I need to liberate the rice cooker from my mother's kitchen. It's time to cook like this again, the way I used to.

On my way to the cash register I spy a gigantic pile of strawberry Pocky, which I can never resist. I am so elated that it is not until I am home unloading the groceries when it hits me. I have forgotten the wonton skins.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Reading. the silver spoon.

The shelf next to my bed is reserved for cookbooks, which I take to bed with me and pore over for hours, dreaming of dinners with friends, dinners of roast meats or braised stews, of pastas and potatoes, of chocolate cakes oozing on the plate or puddings like a warm hug. Each one is an old friend, either one I cook from all the time, or one I've never tried, only dreaming about the recipes within. Pages are marked with post-its. Some of these books have been discovered randomly, or recommended by a friend, or seen in the pages of a magazine.

The Silver Spoon is the bible of Italian cooking, with over 2,000 recipes. It is to Italy what The Joy of Cooking is to America, and has been a classic for some fifty years. Last year it was translated into English, and now it is mine. When it was mentioned in one magazine, I noticed. When yet another magazine burbled on about its extensive repertoire of recipes, I remembered it. When I came across it a third time, I knew I had to have it. There are cookbooks which have loads of pictures showing you each step, so you know the proper way to debone a chicken, stuff it with pâté, and tie it with string so it looks like a melon. There are cookbooks where the writer chummily expounds on how her daughter loves pink frosting on her cupcakes or her sister made her salads with this dressing. The Silver Spoon is neither of these.

There are few pictures, color photographs of the finished dish, or little pen-and-ink drawings of ingredients, the former seductive in their simplicity, the latter adorably amusing. There are recipes for things I've never heard of, such as buck's horn plaintain (a 'uniquely Italian vegetable...not a common vegetable in other countries and is difficult to obtain outside of Italy'), and vegetables that I wouldn't recognize if one bit me in the ass (cardoons), even if I've heard of them. Each recipe is a brief paragraph or two, organized by genre and then again by ingredient. There are eight recipes for sweetbreads, nine recipes for brains, not to mention recipes for hearts, livers, and what are translated as 'lights' - lungs. I can hardly wait to try them all.

Everything looks simple and mouth-wateringly enticing, a deadly combination. It reminds me of what I love most about Italian food, that at its best it is about the ingredients, without anything to distract from the purity of the main ingredient. It is unfussy, uncomplicated, and still refined. The writing is clear, and occasionally funny, in the way that things translated from another language often are. (The chapter on globe artichokes makes the point that their considerable fiber content makes them useful for the digestive system). I cannot wait to try the artichoke clafoutis, or the mozzarella pumpkin sandwich, or perhaps a braised beef with Barolo, and what would life be without a tiramisu or a chestnut cake?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reading. Brodsky. (on Platonov).

In preparation for reading The Foundation Pit, I began with Joseph Brodsky's brief preface. Reading a writer you already love writing about another writer new to you gives a new dimension to your understanding of this new writer, and in turn reflects something new about the first one. It was some three months ago that I started reading Brodsky, fell in love with him; his words are to me what Venice is to him, a labryinth of disovery, an emotion that goes deeper than love. I discovered Platonov a few weeks ago, drawn to The Fierce and Beautiful World by its title and pulled into the stories by Platonov's use of words. There are writers who use language in such a way they almost seem to be reimagining it in an entirely new way, to make you see and feel in a way you never thought you could before, and Platonov is one of them. In his preface for The Foundation Pit, Brodsky shows you why.

(to be continued).

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Favorite food. the club sandwich.

In Seattle there is a club at the top of the tallest skyscraper in the city, a private club where members can go for lunch or drinks or dinner. It has incredible views of the entire city from every window, including the ladies' bathroom, where each stall has its own sink and window. (The men's room, alas, has no windows and no view, but if the ladies' room is unoccupied a waiter might sneak you in for a peek at the view). When I was young, my babysitter once took me there for lunch (her aunt and uncle are members). It was so exciting to get dressed up and ride up the endless elevator - so endless that you got off one elevator mid-way up to the top and went to another bank of elevators for the rest of the journey - and arrive at the front desk, from where you would be led to your table, hopefully one by the window. I've been there many times since, and somehow it is always a beautiful day, and I can see the whole city spread out before me, the Sound on one side, the lake on the other, and mountains in the distance. As the sun goes down the lights of the city go on and by dessert everything is a glittering carpet against black velvet.

What else is there to order at the club but a club sandwich? Three slices of white toast, spread with mayonnaise, layered with slices of turkey and bacon and lettuce and tomato, neatly quartered into triangles. Speared with frilled toothpicks (a necessity to hold it all together), served with french fries on the side. (Later, there would be berries and cream in a crisp almond tuile cup). Inevitably the sandwich falls apart as you eat it, meat sliding off one side, lettuce and tomato falling out the other. There must be some secret to eating a club sandwich gracefully and without making a mess, but I confess in all my years of eating club sandwiches at every opportunity I have never mastered it.

I cannot live without sandwiches, and it is impossible to say which kind is my favorite. The club sandwich has a bit of an edge over the others, because it has bacon, and bacon makes everything better. The bread is always toasted, and there are three slices instead of the usual two, and it adds heft to the contrasting salty crunch of bacon, smooth turkey breast, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato, and the toast which has been softened by a smear of mayonnaise, which melds all the different flavors and textures together. Sometimes there might be a fried egg, or avocado slices, which add an extra richness to the whole thing. I love the club sandwiches you find in cafés or hotels in Hong Kong or Taipei or Shanghai; the white bread is different from the kind you find here, as it is sweeter and has a finer grain than American bread.

Around the corner from where I live is a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch. It is big and sunny and slightly shabby and full of business people, or scrub-wearing employees from the hospital across the street, or patients of said hospital and their families. There are dozens of sandwiches and burgers and even breakfast (which is served until closing) and I can't decide until I see they have a club sandwich and of course that's what I order. On whole-wheat toast, because somehow I deceive myself that the, er, wholesomeness of wheat bread will counteract the bacon. It comes sliced into squares, instead of triangles; the turkey is freshly roasted, the bacon is thickly sliced, the vegetables are fresh, and it is a most excellent lunch. Perfect.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reading. Osborne.

I remember clearly my first glass of wine. A muscat, a sweet dessert wine. Dinner, at the home of friends. J. poured me a very small glass (I was very young, but I don't remember how old) and sent me upstairs to pore through his vast collection of photography books. I rather think my love of photography and wine began then. The muscat was sweet and a little syrupy, golden in the dim light of the upstairs landing. It tasted of warmth and sunlight, left me feeling as though I was wrapped in one of those fuzzy blankets my hosts always kept on the couch. Whenever I came over for dinner I was always sent upstairs after dessert, where I would lay on my stomach on the carpet and flip through the books, or curl up with a blanket and watch tv, or take a few books downstairs to the living room, where there were more leather couches and cozy blankets, until the grown-ups finished talking in the dining room and it was time to go home.

There have been many wines and dinners at that house, but the other one that stands out in my memory is the Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, 1969, which we drank one night when I was in high school. Sixteen or seventeen. I love Cabernet Sauvignon, the weight of it, the texture of it. There has never been anything like it before, or since, although I have drunk many a glass in searching. It is impossible to say what I have loved best. There have been cool white wines in Italy, Burgundies at Rover's in Seattle (because they have an extraordinarily good selection), the occasional Bordeaux. I think there is a bottle of Château Margaux lurking somewhere in the cellar, if we haven't drunk it already. In Montalcino we drank the extraordinary local Brunello di Montalcino, and, of course, my father has amassed a fairly serious amount of Washington state wines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, perhaps some Merlot thrown in there.

I came across The Accidental Connoisseur, well, accidentally. I'm not sure when I bought it, but I was flipping through it recently and immediately realized that this is the one book on wine that I have been waiting to read. I find most people who write or talk about wine to be extremely tiresome. There is no point in standing around pontificating about what wine is better than the other, about France versus America, about oak and berry and flint and woodsy and flowery flavors and taste indexes and scores and whatnot. It's boring. Wine is wine. Good wine is good, and you should drink more of it. Bad wine is not worth drinking. The rest is bullshit. Osborne is not bullshit. He writes beautifully and clearly about wine in a way that I (as someone who only cares about wine in the sense that I like to drink it) can understand and even love. And then he gets into the heart of what I feel about wine.

Wine is about the moment, the way food is about a moment in time that cannot be recaptured. It isn't just about what you are eating and drinking, it is about the people you are with, where you are, what you are feeling at the time. If you are miserable, eating disgusting food with people you hate, even a 1982 Château Margaux may as well be grape juice. Unless you drink enough of it, in which case perhaps even dog food will taste like filet mignon and your dinner partner from hell will become Sharon Stone. That 1969 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon is not just about the wine, it is about an evening spent with my parents and their friends, some grilled steak, much laughter; in that same way that cool nameless white wine is part of the memory of a dinner under the stars, somewhere south of the Cinque Terre, eating seafood and talking with my parents into the warm summer night. Those are moments of time, encaptured and enraptured by memory, and cannot be regained, although there will be new wines and new memories in the future.

Osborne observes that when Gerald Asher writes about memorable wines, he has to dip back into memory and not call forth, say, a Petrus '61 or a Lafite '29, but instead recalls a vino rosso he had at the Simplon Pass in 1962 or 1963. Asher says that he has searched for that wine for thirty years and never found anything remotely like it, before admitting that perhaps it was he who "created" it in the first place. "But the pleasure in any wine is subjective: we each bring something to what is there in the glass and interpret the result differently." What Osborne sees, and this is what I have come to believe after a decade of drinking wine, is that place itself is twofold: on the one hand, it is terroir; on the other, it is what is going on around you as you are drinking. The first is geological, the second psychological. And taste is presumably a high-wire act balancing itself precariously between the two. And this is why I drink wine, in search of that balance, that mysterious alchemy between my mind and my surroundings and my tastebuds.

Osborne, Lawrence. The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World. North Point Press, New York, NY, 2005. pp 89-91.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Eating. oxtails.

Years ago, at a friend's house for dinner (one of many; they usually consisted of barbecued steak, steamed Chinese broccoli, rice, and various other side dishes), my dad looked down at the platter of grilled steaks and exclaimed, "Wow! We never have meat like this at home!" (This was greeted with much laughter and the look of death administered as only my mother can give it). I doubt my mother has ever forgiven him, and with good reason. For someone who has long been an almost-vegetarian, my mother certainly knows her way around various cuts of beef, pork, and chicken. Growing up, particularly during the years my cousins lived with us, there were piles of chicken wings, mounds of fried pork chops, beef short ribs or oxtails braised with tomatoes and onions. I loved those oxtails, those gelatinous links of bone encased by rich, tender meat. They would simmer for hours, cooking gently, the tomatoes giving a sweet acidity to the sauce, which would be soaked up by the steamed white rice we ate with every meal. It is one of those dishes that always reminds me of childhood.

Later I would read Nigella Lawson's description of oxtails braised in stout (from How to Eat), which at the time was unobtainable in Britain due to mad-cow disease. It was a grown-up version of what I remembered from when I was young - my mother's version had celery and onions and carrots and tomatoes, perhaps a few bay leaves; I think it was all cooked in water. Here Lawson had used Mackeson stout, which "has a creamy roundness that suits the fatly honeyed flesh from the oxtails." (Her writing is so seductive that you always immediately want to cook every dish in her books). There is another recipe for beef braised in beer, later on, but it uses lean steak (for stewing), as it is part of her "low-fat" chapter, and if I'm going to be poncing about with a few pounds of beef and a pint of beer I want the real thing, none of that low-fat bullshit. There were the same onions and celery and tomatoes and carrots, with a few other herbs and spices thrown in. I would try this someday, I thought.

Some years after that I was temporarily on my own and came across a recipe for beef carbonnade in the New York Times magazine. Suffice it to say, it was not a success. Oh, it was edible, but not the culinary nirvana I had hoped for. I gave up. Months went by, and it was time to try again. This time around, I was winging it, and was met with howling success. I didn't use the various herbs and spices and aromatics that Nigella Lawson specified, because, well, I'm lazy. I didn't sear the meat, bring everything to a boil, and then put the covered pot into the oven because, have you tried carrying a fully-loaded Le Creuset french oven from the stovetop to the oven? Even empty, motherfucker is heavy, never mind piping-hot and filled with meat, vegetables, and broth (or beer). So I sear the meat and vegetables, pour the beer in, and leave it barely burbling away on the lowest heat possible. On the stove.

Because it worked so well the first time around I went for it again, beef short ribs and oxtails, dusted with flour, browned, simmered with caramelized onions and carrots in Guinness; this time I added mushrooms because they happened to be in the fridge. I made mashed potatoes because I don't have a rice cooker, although I don't really need an excuse to make mashed potatoes, with milk and lots of butter. It is everything I remember, the tender meat, the unctuous sauce, the sweet onions and carrots, the creamy mashed potatoes. And I am home.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Reading. Tolstoy.

When I was in college my life was defined by holidays, trips home, as though at school I was in suspended animation and when I was home life started again. Christmas, spring break, summer vacation, Thanksgiving. A friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer just after I had returned to school in January; I remember sitting on my bed in shock after hanging up the phone, I remember instant-messaging the news to my cousin in Taipei. At Spring break our friend was pale and thin from the chemotherapy; in the summer he began to look a little better, even though his cancer was very advanced. My last conversation with him was in August, just before I went back for the new school year. I walked him home as he told me about how his wife's cousin had been his college roomate, which is how they met. And he died the day before I went back to school after Thanksgiving. I remember hearing the phone ringing; it woke me up. I didn't need my mother to tell me what happened, I just knew, and I cried for most of the flight back to Rochester. While clearing out my desk a few weeks ago I found the letter our friend had written the year after her husband died. She described the months of his illness, his last days, his last breaths, in such detail that when I read it I began to understand what it would feel like to die.

I have never loved Tolstoy. I loathed Anna Karenina (which I have never finished) as a teenager, and in college I spent a semester studying War and Peace, which was fascinating in its intensity and enormity, the loose and baggy monster, someone once called it, although I had great difficulty in keeping all the characters straight. But it is The Death of Ivan Ilych which I have come back to again and again. It has always given me that curious feeling, that fleeting understanding, of what passes through our minds as we are preparing to die. We read it in high school, and it sent a chill through me; when I came across it again some years later it left me only with a sense of peace.

There is something incredibly simple about this story of Ivan Ilych, yet so detailed and complex; it might as well be called 'The Life and Death of Ivan Ilych," except for the beautiful finality. It begins with the announcement of his death, and how those around him, family, friends, colleagues, can still only think of themselves. And then you are taken backwards in time, into his childhood and youth, how he rose through the ranks of his career, how he married and had a family. And then, the slow passage of his last days, his illness, all the thoughts that flickered through his mind as he consulted doctor after doctor, as he watched his family and servants around him, concerned about their own needs and lives. He looks back to his childhood and all his previous notions about death, how his own life which he always thought of as comfortable and pleasant has actually been senseless and horrible, until, at last, there is no pain and no death, and then...

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Favorite food. mushroom soup.

There is a moment in From Russia With Love (the book, not the movie) where Ian Fleming describes the soup that Tatiana Romanova is having for dinner, just before she is summoned to a meeting with Rosa Klebb and ordered to seduce Bond. Fleming describes every detail of every scene in such minute detail that you are drawn into his world, from the opening description of the assassin's golden body sunbathing by the pool of his villa to the hot soup that Tatiana is planning to eat, made with dried mushrooms, and a few shreds of meat as a special treat. (I hope I've remembered this correctly, since I can't find my copy of the book). Whenever I have cream of mushroom soup I think of Ian Fleming.

Cream of mushroom soup is a childhood food. It came in a can, sliding out with a thump, a quivering, ridged, solid cylinder of condensed soup that you broke up with a spoon, added milk or water, and heated over a low flame. (It sounds disgusting when I describe it like that). I would stand over the stove, stirring the lumpy mixture with a spoon or a whisk until it dissolved into the smooth, creamy soup, pale beige interrupted by the occasional chunk of mushroom. We would sprinkle in a little more salt, a scattering of black pepper. It was what my mother made for me when I was home sick, warm and soothing. Because it came from a can, it always tasted the same, which is part of its charm. It was a staple in the school cafeteria, dipped up from a deep stainless-steel vat, getting thicker as you got closer to the bottom. The soup came in thick white cups; I would crumble packets of saltine crackers into it.

In college we ate cream of mushroom soup all the time. (For variety sometimes it would be cream of celery, or cream of chicken). We would add chopped mushrooms and onions and diced chicken breasts, all cooked in butter, pour the soup over rice, stir it together into a faux risotto. Comfort food. When condensed soup was four cans for $3 or something ridiculously cheap like that we would buy a dozen. Now I realize it has been years since I have made cream of mushroom soup from a can, although I've recently made it myself with chicken stock and mushrooms and onions sautéed in butter and olive oil, pureed in the blender. Without cream, it is lighter and more intensely flavored.

Restaurants serve it in wide-rimmed soup plates, rich with cream, sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with sherry or drops of some flavored oil. If you are lucky there might be croutons fried in butter. Nearly every time I see mushroom soup on the menu I have to order it. Today was one of those days. Lunch, at Palomino. They make their mushroom soup with Portabella mushrooms, serve it in little round gratin dishes. It is velvety and creamy and made bright with sherry and flavored with little bits of onions, and for a moment I am completely happy.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Reading. Gide.

Every spring my school would put out a book recommendation list. Students and teachers would submit their favorite books, with a brief synopsis, and a little booklet would be distributed in the library. Some books were familiar to me, other unknown ones were discovered on those pages. It was here I found The Master and Margarita, one of my greatest and enduring loves. But what I remember most clearly is how one of the teachers - she was not my teacher, but I knew her well; she was tall and beautiful and English, and I adored her - wrote about Gide. Try to read it in French, if you can, she said, because the language is so beautiful. La Porte ètroite, or Strait is the Gate, by André Gide. I took note of the title, the author, thought it sounded beautiful and mysterious, the way French novels always do, and promised myself that I would wait and learn French before I read it.

A year, perhaps two, went by, and I was in college. Instead of learning French and reading Camus and Gide and Sartre in their original language I found myself learning Russian and reading Bulgakov and Lermontov and Pushkin in their original language. I found myself wandering along the canals of St. Petersburg instead of the boulevards of Paris. But rather suddenly I found I could read French fairly well (after years of Spanish and some Italian, now all forgotten, not to mention a longtime love of French cinema), a little more than menu French but not quite enough to tackle Gide. Saint-Exupéry, perhaps, but not Gide. Never mind. It was time to begin. In those days I would buy piles of books I meant to read on the internet, from used bookshops. It gave me a thrill to see a package slip in my mailbox, walk across the snowy campus with my brown cardboard box in hand, eager to rip it open in the warmth of my dorm room.

Quite soon I found myself with a whole pile of books by Gide, which I made my way through slowly. (Hindered by the fact that my dad would borrow them and not return them, in which case I had to mount a rescue mission, but then I was always doing the same with his books). Strait is the Gate is possibly the most well-known of Gide's works, and it was the one recommended so long ago by my teacher, so it was there I began. I have two copies, nearly identical except for one appears to have been nibbled away by a rat in one corner, and the other is rather more yellowed around the edges, its spine more worn. I think they date from the 1950's, a time when paperback novels cost $1.10 (copy one) or perhaps $1.25 (copy two).

Gide is like music, very French music. It whispers in my ears and sends a shiver down my spine; each word is cool on my skin, like a kiss.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Eating. steak.

Once in a while I will think about going vegetarian, feeling guilty about savoring the grilled carcasses of dead animals, instead getting creative with vegetables and tofu with its myriad forms and infinite possibilities. And then the moment passes, and the craving for steak takes over me again. Perhaps, if I am lucky, I will go out to a steakhouse with my father and order a gigantic rib-eye or New York steak, a huge slab of expensively marbled beef, grilled until crusty and perfectly medium-rare. Perhaps there will be a mountain of garlic-scented mashed potatoes, or a simple baked potato, some green vegetables on the side. Burning-hot plates arrive, heavy white china gleaming in the light, and for a moment there is silence as we dig in.

However, dinner at a steakhouse is a rare occurrence, which is probably a good thing. Usually when I crave beef I take matters into my own hands. I've tried different cuts - New York strip, Spencer steak, onglet, skirt steak, rib-eye. We've experimented with different methods - under the broiler (somehow I always manage to set it on fire), on the stove, a combination of stovetop/oven. There have been different pans - a nonstick frying pan, a cast-iron grill pan, and a cast-iron skillet. Now I use the cast-iron skillet, barely filmed with olive oil and gently heated until smoking.

At Whole Foods the other day I bought a gigantic steak. Seriously, it was huge. I will eat half the first night and then save the second half for the next night, sliced thin and sautéed with vegetables. (In theory). Early this morning before breakfast I crushed several cloves of garlic and threw them into a ziploc bag with the steak. I poured in some olive oil, added a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a few sloshes of soy sauce. Left it in the fridge to marinate all day. This is a new conceit, totally unnecessary, but I love the flavor and fragrance of garlic, and the Worcestershire and soy sauces lend a certain depth to the taste of the beef, so I always marinate my steaks now.

I am not used to my new kitchen yet. It's smaller, with less counter space, but with a surprising amount of storage. I miss my gas stove at the old house, the comforting snick-snick-snick as the blue flame ignited and held. The old electric range at the new place is almost as old as I am. The largest burner has a tendency to tilt, pooling the oil at one side of my pan, but so far it has not seriously impaired my cooking. The exhaust fan is pitifully anemic compared to the behemoth of the old kitchen, but it seems to do well enough. The aged coils heat quickly and evenly, and in just a few minutes the lightly oiled cast-iron skillet (my faithful Le Creuset, a birthday present a few years ago) is smoking hot.

The sizzle of steak on the pan is like music to my ears. I leave it there to sear properly, putter around putting things away, taking out the garbage. I can hear the ssssssssss all the way out by the elevator (my door's open; I don't have the key. I can just envision myself getting locked out and rushing down to the concierge for the spare key while the steak burns to a cinder). I don't have chopsticks yet, so I use a silicone spatula and the back of a fork to flip the meat carefully. Another few minutes pass. It's done, and I let the steak rest on a plate, leave it for another few minutes before it's ready to eat. And it is perfect.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Reading. Bukowski. (then and now).

It all started with that Modest Mouse song. Woke up this morning and it seemed to me/that every night turns out to be/A little more like Bukowski/And yeah, I know he's a pretty good read/But God who'd wanna be?/God who'd wanna be such an asshole? I listened to it in the car all the time, singing aloud at the top of my lungs even if I didn't quite know the words. Then I started reading Bukowski. It took a while. And then with a suddenness that caught me off guard, left me breathless, flat on my face (I think I've said this before), I was in love. That was almost exactly a year ago.

When I read Bukowski now I don't feel the same way I did a year ago. I can't. I'm not the same person. There is a handful of writers who changed me so completely that I would never be the same after I encountered their work, and Bukowski is the beginning of what happened between last September and this one. That time belongs to that moment when I was twenty-five and my world was about to change, and I cannot go back to it, nor would I want to. I started reading again last fall and I have not stopped since, have not been able to stop. I took a break from Bukowski some time during the Spring and Summer (with a brief return for Factotum when the film came out) and wandered through other writers and other worlds, fell in love with someone else's words. That is another story. But occasionally I would find another Bukowski I didn't have, add it to my collection, save it for another day. Like today.

Beyond the drinking and the women and the gambling one theme that comes up again and again (and I think this is part of what I love most about Bukowski) is his belief that writing is everything. That if you are a writer you have to write and write and write (and he certainly took this to heart; prolific old bastard, his posthumous work is almost equal to his life work), and I have held this close to me since I began writing six months ago. Has it really been six months? I can't stop now, any more than I can stop eating or reading or breathing. Part of it is knowing that there are people who actually read this (all three of you) and your comments mean more to me than I can possibly say; they tell me, ok, you have to keep writing, because it means something. Mostly it is the exercise of getting up every day and finding something to write about. I thought it would be hard, and sometimes it is. But somehow more often than not the words just come. It takes time. I will walk away and come back, write something and think about it and then come back. But I will always come back.

there's nothing like being young and starving,/living in a roominghouse and/pretending to be a/writer/while other men are occupied with their professions and/their possessions....stretched out on the bed/in the dark,/smoking a rolled/cigarette/and working on the/last bottle of/wine,/the sheets of your/writing strewn across the/floor./you have walked on and across/them,/your masterpieces, and/either/they'll be read in/hell,/or perhaps/gnawed at by the/curious/mice.

(From Bone Palace Ballet: New Poems).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Take the day off. Whole Foods.

I don't have to work today, so after a morning spent lounging about, reading and writing, I head off to Whole Foods. Whole Paycheck, they like to call it, with good reason. Somehow I always spend more than I expected to. Usually when I go grocery shopping I make a list, otherwise I come home with a million things I don't need but have somehow forgotten the three ingredients I meant to buy for dinner that night. Today I just wander through the aisles aimlessly and arrive home forty-five minutes later with three extremely heavy bags, enough food to feed myself and possibly the occasional guest for at least a week, if not two.

The first thing I encounter as I enter the store is a giant pyramid of heirloom tomatoes, orange-and-red, or rust-and-green. The vast pile is adorned with fragrant bunches of basil, and as I walk around I see that they have enticingly arranged two buckets of ice, filled with tubs of fresh mozzarella. All the makings of a caprese salad. (Those sneaky bastards). I scoop up a few tomatoes and some mozzarella for dinner, and keep going, making my way through the produce section. Everywhere are brightly colored fruits and vegetables, perfect and unblemished and stacked in neat rows. It is late morning; yuppies on their lunch break rush around in suits holding latté cups. Affluent mothers swish by with their toddlers. It's quieter and less child-infested than weekend mornings, no four-year-olds running into my knees with their child-size carts. I get some figs, whose dark purple skins will reveal pink, seeded flesh, a few zucchini the color of dark jade, a handful of mushrooms, some eggplant. Yellow onions in their papery skins, a sack of gold-fleshed potatoes. I'm not sure what I'll do with all this but something will come to me.

Just past the produce section is the seafood counter, fresh fish gleaming against a snowy bed of crushed ice. Should I have crab cakes for dinner, or save that for another time? I don't have a frying pan yet, and I have my mind on other things, so I keep going. Next is the meat counter, with its rows of sausages, bright red, richly marbled steaks. I buy a thick, huge New York steak, because it is on sale, and some short ribs, which I will braise with oxtails. (A story for another time). I'm not in the mood for chicken, so I walk past the poultry counter and head towards the deli counter on the other side of the store. I buy pâté, smooth and peppery and topped with a dark amber aspic, some prosciutto (domestic, because Whole Foods won't carry the imported stuff anymore, something about Italian pigs not being antibiotic-free. Alas). In the bakery I snag a loaf of bread from the Macrina bakery, my favorite bread. Usually they run out, because I do my grocery shopping late at night. Run back for milk, juice, Guinness. (I'll tell you about the Guinness later).

Who knows what adventures await?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Reading. Babel. (part 2).

I had to read Babel's 1920 Diary before I went back to the Red Calvary cycle. The truth before the fiction. His diary is shattering in its swiftness, its look at the brutality of war, experienced as Babel experienced it; you are pulled into the flickering landscape with him. The stories are different. They are completely heartbreaking in their details of the casualties of war. It is fiction as a weapon, an exposé.

to be continued.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Reading. Babel.

I first (and last) read Babel in college. I remember nothing of what I read, only that he had been one of those writers lost to us too young, a ghost of that reign of terror that swallowed up so many bright lights and cast a long shadow across the lives of those who somehow managed to survive. Arrested in 1939, he was imprisoned in the Lubyanka, where he was executed in 1940. The Lubyanka still dominates the square of the same name, its Neo-Baroque façade concealing the prison where inmates were held, interrogated, tortured, shot, or sentenced to an eternity in the vast expanse of darkness that was the gulag. Across the street is Detsky Mir, or Children's World, which has been for some fifty years the largest children's store in the country. There is a little something of the ridiculous in the juxtaposition of the two.

While unpacking my library I came across his Collected Stories, and it seemed time again to return to Babel. During my recent book-buying binge (which led to an avalanche of cardboard boxes; for a week my bemused concierge would hand another one to me every day as I came home from work) I acquired Babel's 1920 Diary and his Red Calvary. Actually, the diary is included in Red Calvary, but the translations and notes are different. The diary formed the basis for the stories that make up the Red Calvary cycle, and it was there I began again.

In 1920 Babel was a correspondent with the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish war. He was just twenty-six years old, but already an accomplished writer and journalist. The diary that he kept during this time was hidden for several decades after his death; as with many of the writers lost in Stalin's purges there is only, as Babel's daughter Nathalie put it, a mere half shelf of writing left to us. (What was that scene in Arcadia, when Thomasina asks Septimus how he can bear the burning of the library of Alexandria? By counting our stock...You should no more grieve for the rest than...for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. When I read all that is left of these lost writers, even just a handful of stories and journals, I think of Stoppard's words).

The first fifty-four pages are lost, but what remains are Babel's quick words slipping past, like the landscape falling behind outside the window of the train, brief impressions of the towns passing by and the people he meets here and there, asides and observations on everything and everyone. I am the same age he is when this was written and I wish I had his ease with words, his ability to see everything about him and write about it so clearly. There is confidence, and doubt, and reflections on himself and his identity, as a writer, as a Russian, as a Jew, as a Soviet...

I'm tired. And suddenly I'm lonely, life flows past me, and what does it mean.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reading. Lawson.

Laurie Colwin once wrote about how the food in novels (such as Anna Karenina, and the books of Barbara Pym, although personally I don't remember anything about the food in either) was fantastic, but cookbooks were even better, because they leave out all the other stuff, like family relationships. I don't quite agree, because the best cookbooks have all the personal stuff. It's more than just about the food - it is about the writer's own life, a glimpse into the way they live, the way they think about food, what they love about cooking and why you should feel the same way.

In college I would spend cold winter afternoons curled up under the comforter with a pile of cookbooks (actually, I do this now, and it is no accident that all my cookbooks are next to the bed) and dream of the meals I would cook when I had a kitchen again and time to go to the market for ingredients and time for leisurely Sunday lunches with my family (not that we ever really did Sunday lunch). I had grown up reading Julia Child and Martha Stewart and the Silver Palate cookbooks that my mom had used since the 80's. But now it was the late nineties/early noughties and the Brits were invading America. In a few years reality tv would be on every channel and Gordon Ramsay would be terrorizing young American wannabe-chefs, but back then it was just Jamie Oliver (aka The Naked Chef) poncing about his kitchen on the Food Network every night. And then there was Nigella Lawson.

Before Nigella, cooking was about feeding your family and friends in thirty minutes or impressing your guests with complex creations that took days of preparation. It could be low-key and simple or exhaustingly elaborate. But she made cooking sexy. If food was the new porn, Nigella was Jenna Jameson. She was gorgeous (I seem to recall her being somewhere among the top 5 World's Most Beautiful Women according to some British newspaper or magazine), raven-haired, doe-eyed, and voluptuous, with that plummy, posh accent that made me (as a straight woman) go weak at the knees. And the cozy, forthright manner of her writing took me into that rarefied world she and her family inhabited. (Later I read that when she made dinner for Salman Rushdie, her hair caught on fire as she took the lamb out of the oven, whereupon he smothered the flames with his jacket).

Curled up in my flannel-sheeted bed I would dream about Sunday lunches of roast beef or goose with bread sauce (whatever that is), Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes and brussels sprouts with chestnuts, or stews of oxtail in beer or venison in white wine, and desserts (puddings, the Brits like to say) with magical names like 'quince syllabub' and almond-and-orange-blossom cake, or Bakewell tart or treacle tart, none of which I have ever tasted. It has always been commonplace to sneer at British cuisine, but to me the foods Lawson described so lavishly and lovingly seemed heavenly. It was about warmth and abundance and freshness; simplicity and luxury and the best available ingredients.

Somehow I've never actually made anything from How to Eat (Lawson's first book), namely because I've got the British edition and all the measurements are metric, and I am too lazy to convert them. But aside from that I found that it was less about learning to cook than being inspired to cook; about taking inspiration from something you ate last week at your favorite restaurant or something your mother used to make or something you saw at the butcher or market. About the pleasures of simple things. Which is what life is all about, really.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Kitchen adventures. dinner for two.

Usually I only try out new things when I am alone in the kitchen, but then there is the danger of being stuck with something truly horrendous for three nights in a row. The obvious solution, then, is to ask a brave friend who will eat anything, no questions asked, over for dinner whenever you want to try something new and aren't sure how it will turn out. In this way K. has fed me squid-ink pasta drizzled with white truffle oil and tossed with parmesan cheese (weird but delicious) and a pudding made with avocado and Kahlua (again, weird but delicious, although it was a disturbing shade of green). (In return I made a chocolate soufflé perfumed with lime). For some reason these experiments usually work. (Usually).

It is 7:30 by the time we leave work tonight and I am starving. I have half a box of orecchiette (leftover from a long-ago experiment), a head of escarole, two sausages (leftover from Monday's lasagne), some grated parmesan (ditto), and a giant tomato. My underequipped kitchen has no colander and I have doubts about the cleanliness of my sink, so the escarole is sliced and thrown into a pan of cold water to rinse, and then dried on paper towels spread across the counter. While C. puts water onto boil for the pasta, I chopped up the tomato. When I first cut into it, the flesh reveals itself as a mottled bright orange-and-red mosaic; it looks like one of those millefiori paperweights you find in Venice.

I'm in my groove now. The unoccupied front burner is too small to heat my deep sauté pan, so I move the boiling water to the smaller burner and put the sauté pan on the largest burner, pour in some olive oil. I throw some Maldon sea salt (it's all I have) into the boiling water and toss in the pasta. The oil is shimmering; I add the sausages (casings removed), and they sizzle in the hot oil. Once they've browned, I break them up with my spatula, and in goes the escarole. When the greens have wilted, the tomatoes are added. The juices from the tomatoes cook down, thickening slightly, and everything melds into a sauce. I have forgotten the onion (I would have cooked them with the sausages until golden and caramelized around the edges), but never mind. On the next burner, the orecchiette are boiling madly, bobbing about in their pot.

The timing's the thing, and I'm spot on. The pasta is al dente just as the sauce comes to the right consistency; I drag C. away from her magazine to hold a mesh strainer over the sink so I can drain the orecchiette. Dump the pasta into the pan of sauce, throw a handful of grated parmesan cheese over it all, and toss it until everything is mixed together. We sit down to eat, and just half an hour has passed since we walked in the door. It looks like a garden, with the red-and-orange tomatoes like flowers, the bits of greens like little leaves. The chunks of sausage are a little spicy, the escarole is tender and just faintly bitter, the tomatoes are sweet, and the cheese melts into the pasta, adding saltiness (since I don't have any salt) and a little complexity, all the different flavors contrasting and coming together into one whole dish. Perfect.

The great thing about experimentation is that when you are confident enough to know that something will work no matter what, you can think about how to change things just a little next time, refine your ideas. I will use more sausage, the spicier the better, next time I make this, add some garlic and onion, perhaps some mushrooms. Maybe I will try those canned San Marzano tomatoes, or halved grape tomatoes. Kale could be substituted for the escarole, or broccolini, or some other bitter green. The possibilities are endless.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reading. Auden.

My first introduction to Auden came from the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The poem that Matthew reads at the funeral of his lover Gareth comes from Twelve Songs, the one that begins Stop all the clocks, and I always cry during that scene, partly because it is so sad, and partly because the words are so beautiful (and, well, John Hannah does have a lovely accent). I was thirteen then, completely uninterested in poetry, but I have seen this film so many times that I nearly have this poem memorized. It is the second half of the poem that shatters me, the part that has stayed with me all this time. For some thirteen years it would be all that I knew of Auden's work.

Years went by, and I somehow never returned to Auden, except for this dimly remembered poem that lingered on the fringes of my consciousness. And then one day (as it so often happens), I was browsing through the bookstore and thought perhaps it was time to come back to him. There were two volumes, Selected Poems, and Collected Poems. The latter, I thought. It was a fat volume of all the poems that the writer had approved and preserved across the expanse of his time. I fell asleep holding it last night, the faintly textured paper cover cool under my cheek, wondering where and how to begin.

When I am faced with the vast collection of a poet's works, from youth to old age, I never know where to begin. Start at the beginning, follow his evolution across the years, his changes in style and theme changing with time and place? Or pick a point at random, flip back to see where he came from or ahead to see where he was going? Do I run my gaze through the titles and skip to the ones that catch my eye, or do I search for the poems I know, begin with the familiar, or explore new worlds? Or all of the above? Sometimes I begin at the end and travel backwards in time, and it is like watching smouldering embers slowly rekindle themselves and burst into flame.

I tell J. about my recent book-buying binge, about the ones I have begun reading and the others I have put away for another day. The talk turns to Auden, whom I confess I have never really read. He tells me that his favorite poem is In Memory of W. B. Yeats, but when I come home I first flip to Stop all the Clocks, which is everything I remember it being. Then I turn to the Yeats poem, read it aloud to myself, each word like a touch, a benediction, a good-night caress. On the internet (bless the internet) I find a recorded clip of Auden reading the Yeats poem, listen to that high, quavering Edwardian voice creaking from out of the past. The Queen of England has this kind of voice; she is the last of her kind. I cannot listen to it for too long, for it is more than I can bear.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thinking. tomatoes.

I am driving up the street towards my parents' house when I spy a familiar figure up ahead. It is my boss, K., and from the bounce in her step I can tell that she is pleased about something. (Funny how you can recognize the people you love or know well - not always the same thing - from a distance, just by the way they move or even by the way they stand). I wonder about the backpack she has slung over her shoulders and the crate she holds in her hands, but I am not long in the dark. It is Wednesday, the day of the Columbia City farmer's market, and she has made a magnificent haul of heirloom tomatoes.

My coworker S., she of the organic garden and the gigantic infant-sized zucchini, has valiantly tried to keep K. supplied with home-grown tomatoes, but she is insatiable, a veritable Tomato Monster, and descends on the farmer's market every week in search of more. Look! I got the BIGGEST tomatoes! I run over to see, and cannot help but let out a shriek. HOLY SHIT! I say. Loudly. My curse echoes up and down the street. The couple out walking their dogs give me a funny look as they walk by. Here, she says, take the biggest one. It is huge. Streaked with orange, it looks rather like a small pumpkin, and K. must have bought at least a dozen of these behemoths. It weighs at LEAST a pound, she says. I take it inside, go into the kitchen to say hello to my grandfather. What is THAT!?, he asks, raising an eyebrow. A tomato, I say. The other eyebrow shoots up as he takes a long drag from his skinny little cigarette, the kind that are about the length and circumference of cocktail straws.

Fall is nearly here, and the tomato season is drawing to a close. I think summer when I think tomatoes; I think of Italy and of July days in the Tuscan countryside, where tomatoes taste how tomatoes should taste, firm and ripe and sweeter than anything you could imagine. I think of Laurie Colwin, who wrote that a "world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins," unimaginable. She wrote about how her daughter had a book about a dog who spent all winter dreaming about the place in the country where he got to spend his summers, dreaming about where he had hidden his bone, and how she spent her winters dreaming about which bowl she would make her first summer tomato salad in and how she will be remorseless in buying the last two bags of tomatoes at the organic farm stand. And when winter comes I know I will dream about eating grape tomatoes like candy, about the dripping chunks of heirloom tomatoes that K. has tossed in her most expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar, the kind that coats your tongue like syrup and tastes like summer midnights under the stars, dark and intense and sweet, about insalata caprese made with fresh creamy sweet mozzarella layered with tomatoes and bright green basil leaves all drizzled with olive oil like liquid gold.

But winter is months away, and I have the tomato to end all tomatoes waiting for me, huge and orange like a ball of fire. I will slice it and sprinkle it with giant flakes of Maldon salt and anoint it with drops of balsamic vinegar - a present from K., naturally - and it will be like the last days of summer concentrated on my plate. Tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Reading. Platonov.

I had never read anything by Andrei Platonov until I was looking for something by Brodsky and the search engine came up with The Fierce and Beautiful World. The direct and terrible beauty of the title captured my attention, drew me to it, and I could not resist, did not want to resist. For a while I had turned away from Russian literature, followed my heart down a different path, wound up in another, distant garden. Sometime last spring I found myself realizing that it was time to return, and the labryinth of memory that is literature brought me back to where I began all those years ago.

I fell in love with Russian literature some ten years ago; I fell in love with the language a few years afterwards. They have remained inextricably intertwined in my mind and heart all this time since. I think it was Bulgakov who first enraptured me with the beauty and mystery and poetry and musicality of his words, the way he used language. (It was for Bulgakov that I learned Russian; I have learned languages for pleasure or for love or out of necessity, but Russian I learned for literature). It was something new to me then, and now I find Platonov is another thing entirely, completely different from anything I have read before.

The foreward by Tatyana Tolstoya gives an inkling of what is to come when she quotes Brodsky's statement, "Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated," bringing to the fore the question of how to translate what is untranslatable, his "dislocations of meaning," the way he uses the Russian language in all its subtleties of meaning. And then she brings into the open what she considers the central theme of Platonov's work, "the happiness of the mind and the happiness of the heart in their complex interaction; he studies what happiness really is, why and how it appears, where it goes, how to find and hold on to it."

I have only gotten a little ways into the first short story of this collection, Dzhan, but its very first words tell me that I have found something extraordinary, something that will grip me about the heart and not let go. Nazar Chagatayev, a young man, not a Russian, walked into the courtyard of the Moscow Institute of Economics. It is not, perhaps, a particularly arresting opening sentence, but something tells me that my world is about to change. Again. There is a simplicity to his words that is so beautiful it feels as though my heart is cracking wide open, not breaking but splitting itself in order to grow greater.

There are so many moments that make me pause, like when you have fallen in love and the person you love is so often saying or doing all these little things that draw you in deeper. A woman's body is described as smelling good and warm, like bread; when Chagatayev is with her he forgets himself, he feels that ease and happiness poured out of this strange woman whom he would probably never meet again; this is how bliss often exists unnoticed right next to us. Perhaps this is what happiness is, these passing moments with complete strangers who will always remain as a single, brief memory, that moment when you come across a line in a new book and feel your heart catch on fire.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Eating. booze'n'chocolate.

(For KH).

When I was quite young, my uncle would keep bags of Kahlua-filled chocolates in his refrigerator. Whenever I went over to visit, I would sneak a few of them. (Perhaps I was not quite that young. Early teens). They were shaped like bottles, wrapped in foil printed to look like Kahlua bottles. Really, they were adorable. I would either carefully bite off their tops, suck out the liqueur, then eat the chocolate shells, or I would pop the entire chocolate in my mouth and savor the explosion.

Many years passed, and I would be in college before I was able to enjoy the sensation of liqueur-filled chocolate again. Occasionally someone would have those cherry-filled chocolates, with a burst of kirsch-flavored syrup inside, but it wasn't quite the same. The physical sensation of hard chocolate shell breaking apart to release liquid filling was there, but then you were missing that faint burn at the back of your throat, the heady perfume of Kahlua or Grand Marnier or cognac or whatever.

And then I was nearly nineteen years old and flying from Helsinki to New York with a group of classmates, part of a longer journey that began in St. Petersburg and ended in Seattle. There was an endless layover in Helsinki, which I spent reading British fashion magazines while others explored the wonders of duty-free. I had arrived in St. Petersburg with about $1000 in my pocket and had miraculously left (one! month! later!) with $900. (This would change after twenty hours spent in New York). This is because a) I don't drink (much) and b) I don't smoke, and c) I had no interest in collecting souvenirs which would wind up collecting dust on the floor of someone's closet. Unlike several of my traveling companions.

My reticent (some would say boring) nature did not, however, prevent me from accepting several cute little blue chocolates from M., who was sitting across the aisle (along with a copy of Playboy, which I accepted gratefully because by then I was completely out of reading material). Upon closer inspection, these little chocolates turned out to be shaped like bottles of Skyy vodka, which is why it came as no surprise that they were also filled with Skyy vodka. I looked over at M., and by that point he had eaten about half a bag of these, ahem, chocolates, and was clearly, happily, inebriated. I was not nearly as euphoric, but I found that the sweet chocolate followed by the cool burn of vodka was a happy sensation.

Which brings me to yesterday, when K. and I came into work to be greeted by our supervisor (the other K.) bearing a pile of liqueur-filled chocolates thoughtfully purchased at the Canadian duty-free during her vacation. There was a wide assortment, filled with Kahlua or raspberry-flavored vodka or cognac or whiskey or bourbon. After an enormous lunch, the hours spent peering into the microscope (bobbing along to the early 90's techno booming on my ipod) were broken up by occasional forays towards the enticing array of bottle-shaped chocolates. Which was a lovely way to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon at work, floating on a cloud of liqueur-filled chocolate-induced euphoria.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Eating. schnitzel.

My first trip to Europe (in 1992) is remembered only as a blur of rolling green hills, cathedrals in city squares, endless palaces, bratwurst, elaborate buffet breakfasts (a revelation to me), and fluffy down comforters (another revelation) in every hotel we stayed in. And wiener schnitzel. It was everywhere, across the Bavarian countryside, through Austria, into Switzerland (excepting a brief interruption of goulash in Hungary). A huge veal (or pork) chop, pounded into twice its original size, breaded and be-crumbed and fried until golden brown. It usually came on a large white plate, with some boiled or steamed potatoes on the side, or noodles. A sprig of parsley was the only adornment, perhaps a wedge of lemon.

Other nations have their own versions. The Japanese tonkatsu (served over rice with that Worcestershire-ish sauce on the side), which I grew up eating at home, or the Italian scaloppine, in a Marsala sauce over buttery pasta, which I would order at the restaurant near my grandfather's apartment. But for me it is all about the wiener schnitzel. Maybe it's that song from The Sound of Music, cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles. I could do without the girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, or even the brown paper packages tied up with string, but I could not do without schnitzel with noodles.

On the Sundays I have to go into work, I reward myself with lunch at the nearby pub, probably one of my favorite places to eat in this city. (The beer is fantastic, too, but there is no way I could concentrate on work after a pint of stout). There are sandwiches and burgers and soft tacos filled with pulled pork or fish or steak. I go in with my thoughts on a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, am momentarily distracted by the rib-eye steak sandwich, but then I see schnitzel with noodles and I know immediately that this is what I will be having for lunch.

In a booth by the window I can watch people walk by on their way to or from yoga class, curl up with the book I bought last night, absorb myself in Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh and its inhabitants while drinking ice-cold Coke and waiting for my lunch. In less time than I expect it arrives, a vast round of pork tenderloin, pounded thin, breaded and fried crisp. It is resting on a bed of egg noodles, lavished with a sauce of beer and mushrooms and capers, which add little sparks of contrast with their briny acidity, cutting through the rich sauce and fried pork, everything showered with fresh chopped parsley, faintly, sweetly fragrant. There is some bread from the Macrina bakery, (I know it is from this bakery because when I walk past early in the morning there is a bundle of plastic-wrapped baguettes hanging from the handle of the front doors, with a delivery order stapled to the clear plastic) but it is superfluous.

Everything is perfect. The crusty outsides of the pork have remained crunchy beneath the unctuous sauce, which melds deliciously with the soft, herb-flecked noodles. The pork is firm, well-cooked without being over-cooked; it yields easily to my knife. I take a bite, trying to spear a piece of pork, a chunk of mushroom, and some noodles all at once; it is an explosion of contrasting tastes and textures in my mouth, and I am happy.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Reading. MacLachlan.

I played the piano for some twelve years, all the way from kindergarten through high school. I hated to practice, and I would find ways of sneaking mystery novels onto the music stand, held open by my music books, sliding them over to cover my Agatha Christies whenever my mother came downstairs to check on me. In order to do this successfully, you have to memorize the music and learn to play without looking at the keys, following the intricate clues to the murder while your fingers ran through the smooth arpeggios and fluttering trills. Still, I kept playing because I loved it, because it was a part of me and I could not bear to stop.

There are so many things about The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt that I love, so much that even now, nearly twenty years after I first read it, I come back to it again and again. It is a children's book, about first love and music and learning to see yourself and the world around you. I love how Minna's brother understands that even though she hates to practice she plays the cello because she loves it. I felt the same way. I loved the way the Bach inventions twisted around me like tangled vines, the intertwining melodies capturing my soul, enrapturing my heart. (Even as I did everything to avoid practicing). Those clear notes, each separate and distinct and yet coming together in one fluid motion, like an unraveling bolt of silk sliding across the floor.

I love how MacLachlan describes how Minna falls in love, how she "eases into love as she eases into a Bach cello suite, slowly and carefully, frowning all the while." I have felt that way, felt love welling up around me like the cool notes of Bach composition, like sliding into clear water. Now I look back and wonder if I understood that then, if I could see myself and my feelings as clearly as Minna does. Or even if I do now. I wonder if I knew then that even though sometimes I felt as though the people who loved me didn't see me, didn't hear me, didn't understand me at all, I would come to realize that they knew me more completely than I could imagine.

When I read these books from my childhood, I feel safe and innocent and protected, if only for a moment. And I wonder, what did I know then, understand then, that I have since forgotten? How facts and fictions are different truths. How slipping into love is like playing a Bach cello suite. I am listening to one now (the music coming from my laptop makes the keyboard vibrate beneath my fingers), and I feel the notes vibrating in my heart the way MacLachlan's words do when I read them. That beautiful sound of the cello, smooth and round and clear, pure in the way only Bach is. Pure the way only literature written for children can be.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Eating. french dip.

We staggered out of work shortly after nine p.m. after a day which had begun (for me) with rising at 6 and arriving at the lab around 6:45. I had only one thing on my mind. French dip. We drove straight down Madison towards the water, to the diner that is never very busy (unlike the Tex-Mex place a few doors away that always has at least a forty-five minute wait, even on a Tuesday). They have a wide array of burgers, all excellent, but it is the prime rib sandwich that I usually order. It comes on a toasted, square ciabatta roll and a pile of french fries on an oval platter, with a soup cup of au jus to dip the sandwich in.

Supposedly the french dip sandwich was invented (by accident, as many culinary creations seem to have) in a Los Angeles coffee shop when the proprieter inadvertently dropped half a french roll into the pan drippings while making a roast beef sandwich. Somehow it became a hit as more and more customers requested their sandwiches dipped in what they now call au jus. I don't know if this is the real story; I only know that this is one of my favorite sandwiches of all time and nearly every time I see it on the menu I have to order it.

Sometimes it is called a french dip, sometimes they call it a prime rib sandwich. Thinly sliced beef (steak, roast beef, prime rib) is layered on toasted bread - a french roll, or baguette, or some other kind of hard roll, always sliced at an angle to facilitate dipping. Sometimes the bread is buttered; other times, not. It has to be toasted; you need that crunch softened by the dip in au jus. Perhaps there might be some cheese melted on top, or grilled onions, or both, even though roast beef needs neither.

One time I had a tremendous craving for a french dip, and decided to have a go at making my own. I bought a baguette, a piece of steak. Caramelized some onions and added a leftover prime rib bone, simmered it to make an au jus for dipping. I froze the beef just until it was firm enough to slice thinly, and sautéed the paper-thin shreds of steak until just cooked. Toasted the halved baguette, draped the meat over it, cut it across on the diagonal. The sandwich was delicious, but I have somehow never gotten around to making it again.

Tonight my sandwich is perfect. The bread is toasted and buttered, crunchy and soft all at once. The prime rib is medium-rare, rosy pink throughout. I dip everything into the au jus, one bite at a time, ignoring the fries, which C. eats. As I eat the rest of the day fades away, it is just C. and I and our dinner and the easy conversation flowing between us. I love this restaurant, with its red booths and walls decorated with framed Interview magazine covers. It was a good way to end the day.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Reading. de Pomiane.

Laurie Colwin led me to Elizabeth David, and Elizabeth David led me to Edouard de Pomiane. This is how literature works for me, a chain reaction of chance introductions that lead to something more. Colwin wrote about home cooking, about puddings and cakes and homey things like casseroles and roasted chickens and the cuisine of the refined slob and fresh produce and meat from the greenmarket and the butcher, respectively, home-baked bread. David wrote about how the English were bastardizing the great dishes of French and Italian cuisines and how it really ought to be done. There was a sense of simplicity in the way they talked and thought about food, and it continues with de Pomiane, who lived and cooked and wrote several decades before.

De Pomiane was a doctor and a research scientest at the Pasteur Institute. Somehow he wrote a cookbook and became a cooking teacher and food scientist, with a radio show in the 1930's. He was actually Polish by birth, and de Pomiane was the name his family assumed when they emigrated to France. I wonder what the French must have thought of him, of his assertion that a meal needed only one main dish, that it was ridiculous and unnecessary to follow a fish course with a meat course, of his modifications of traditional dishes. That is not to say he didn't believe in tradition; he did. In his introduction to Cooking with Pomiane he writes that it represents a momentary pause in the course of toil...the memory of happy moments...and their ephemeral return to life. Without tradition the past would be dead. Tradition brings back to life those whom we have loved, those to whom we owe the present and by consequence, the future. The trick was to reimagine traditional things in a new way, to make them lighter and quicker and modern.

I have not yet tried any of these recipes, but I have flipped through the pages of Cooking with Pomiane and the highly entertaining French Cooking in Ten Minutes and dreamed of dishes such as a cherry tart made with bread dough or filet steaks Dauphinois, or perhaps an omelet flambé (one of his ten-minute desserts). Most dishes give suggestions for which other dishes to serve alongside and which wine (usually red; either a rough red wine or perhaps a Côtes du Rhone or a good Burgundy, if you have it). His writing is clear and witty and offhandedly amusing. He remarks of a boiled leg of lamb, that it will look gray and a little sad, but when it is cut, the slices are rosy and running with delicious juice. He is constantly reassuring the reader/cook that even if something looks rather unprepossessing or even grotesque as it comes out of the oven, it will taste wonderful, and you believe him.

The premise that de Pomiane sets forth is that good food should be simple, easy to prepare, delicious, and not expensive, relying on the freshest of ingredients. He is a scientist, and writes in scientific terms (much is made of albumins coagulating in meats and fishes and eggs), but his writing is beautiful, almost poetic as he describes a dish of champignons à la crème as exquisite and velvety, a caress for your palate. His words are a caress of the palate as well.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Favorite food. bacon.

A terrible thing happened Sunday morning. I threw open my bedroom window, and immediately the smell of bacon came wafting in. There is a restaurant in the shopping plaza down below, and apparently Sundays involve superhuman quantities of bacon being consumed by ravenous customers. (They serve breakfast every day, but on no other day of the week am I so assaulted by the enticing scent of frying bacon). I begin to drool. There was nothing to do except head out for a bacon cheeseburger. It came topped with thick slices of grilled pepper bacon, salty and crisp and intense.

There are times when I go for days without eating meat. I won't miss it. And then one day (particularly if my house is filled with the smell of bacon) I find a sudden urge to have some bacon, one of my favorite foods. How could anyone not love bacon? Crunchy strips of fat-streaked salty-sweet-smoking pork? Grilled or fried or baked or nuked in the microwave. With toast or eggs or in sandwiches or stirred into a pot of fried rice. Or just eaten out of hand. (Who was it that said that bacon was like the candy of meats? How true it is).

In college I would go for days living on bacon sandwiches, really just slices of microwaved bacon between whole-wheat bread (no lettuce, tomato, avocado, or anything), with endless glasses of orange juice. I would eat them propped up in bed reading or surfing the internet, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was quick and easy and infinitely satisfying, and because I made my sandwiches with whole-wheat or multi-grain bread and drank orange juice I convinced myself I was eating a reasonably balanced, healthy meal. I don't do this very often anymore.

Now I might slice some bacon into lardons to flavor brussels sprouts or asparagus spears or toss them into a pasta dish. There is regular old thick-sliced American bacon or the spiced, unsmoked Italian pancetta, made from the pig's belly, or guanciale, which is made from the pork cheek or jowls. Lately unsmoked bacon has been appearing on restaurant menus as pork belly, braised or roasted, sliced like very thick bacon or into chunks. I myself love it Shanghainese-style, braised in soy sauce and wine with spices, the sauce thick and slightly sweet with rock sugar, with some greens on the side, served over rice.

Bacon bacon bacon. I could never do without it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Eating. ice cream.

I think the first ice cream I remember eating was mint chocolate chip. I remember watching my mother scoop it out of its carton in our bright kitchen. (Probably now that kitchen would seem very small to me, but at that time I was very small myself and my world was contained by the boundaries of our house and its garden). Bright green ice cream, swirled with chocolate chips that were not shaped like those you find in a cookie, but flat chips like pumpkin seeds. All other mint chocolate chip ice creams I have eaten since have had chocolate chips like chunks, and now I wonder if I imagined those thin, flat seeds of dark chocolate.

Or perhaps that first ice cream was Rocky Road, chocolate ice cream swirled with marshmallows and nuts. Whenever I have it now I feel very young again, remember how I used to stir my ice cream with a spoon until it melted into a soup, how I would eat the nuts and marshmallows one by one. Even now I love it, the crunch of almonds, the fluffy sweet marshmallows, although I no longer make soup of my ice cream. Sometimes I would reach for the strawberry ice cream, pale pink and studded with strawberries, frozen hard until the ice cream began to melt and they would become slushy.

When I was very young and we went to New York for our holidays, we would have dinner in Italian restaurants with my grandfather (who loves Italian food) and for dessert there was always spumoni. I would eat each flavor one by one, precisely dividing that slice of ice cream into its three different flavors. When I was older tiramisu would replace spumoni as my dessert of choice and it has been years since I've had it.

Later there would be elaborate confections with amusing names, courtesy of the folks at Ben & Jerry's. My father loves Cherry Garcia, and we nearly always had some in our freezer. Vanilla with sweet dark cherries and hunks of chocolate. Or Phish Food, with the chocolate fish and ribbons of marshmallow. Or the Vanilla Heath bar crunch. There are too many to name, and I love them all.

In college I discovered gelato. That is to say, I discovered nocciola gelato. Parmalat makes a hazelnut gelato with pieces of baci in it, those hazelnut-and-chocolate sweets. It was complete addictive. We drove to the mall a good half-hour away from school (a considerable distance considering it took less than ten minutes to get anywhere else in our city) nearly every weekend for gelato and shopping. I was shattered when Parmalat closed their store at the mall. I haven't had that flavor of gelato since. It belongs to a different time.

The other night C. opens my refrigerator in search of something to drink; I've just moved and there is only milk, lemonade, seltzer, bottled coffee, and nothing else. Oh, and ice cream. I see you have all the necessary essentials, she says, reaching past the unopened carton of Mint Chocolate Chip for ice. I laugh. Later, I curl up on my bed with a mug of ice cream (I still have no bowls), savor that clean taste of mint, the sweet dark chocolate. Perfect.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Reading. David.

It was Gourmet magazine which brought me to Laurie Colwin, and it was Colwin who introduced me to Elizabeth David. Colwin was always writing about other writers who she said were never as well-known in America as they should have been. David is virtually unknown here, but I have loved her writing ever since I discovered it several years ago. I must confess I have only tried a few of her recipes, but it is her writing that I love, her dry wit and offhand way with words, her criticism of the stodgy English food of post-war Britain. To compare her to M. F. K. Fisher would diminish the individualism of either writer, although they are of the same time and they both had a profound effect on their respective countries.

While I have a few of Elizabeth David's cookbooks, it is her collection of essays, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (and to a lesser extent, Is There a Nutmeg in the House?) to which I return time and time again. I had read Fisher and David together when I was in college and for some reason I felt more at home with the latter. There is something relaxed about her writing, something unpretentious and characteristically English in a way I'm not sure how to define. There was an assurance and a sense of amusement; lightness, but not lightweight. She had spent time in Egypt during the war years, and in the Mediterranean, and the bleakness that was English cuisine in the post-war years made those wartime sojourns in other places bountiful in comparison.

What I remember most clearly is her criticism of ersatz food, of imitations of classic French or Italian foods made with shoddy ingredients and fake food - a so-called quiche made with a pre-fabricated pie shell filled with evaporated milk and synthetic cheese, or pizza that was nothing more than a piece of bread slathered in tinned tomato sauce and covered with that same synthetic cheese. Such a cruel fate awaits the cuisine of other countries as reinvented by the English. David describes a simple meal she had in a village inn somewhere in France: a tomato salad, local black olives, home-made pâté, a gratin of courgettes (what we would call zucchini, I think) and rice, a daube of beef, and a jam made of green melons for dessert. Everything simply and perfectly cooked, the flavors clear and true. And then she describes how it would be changed for English tastes at a so-called French restaurant - one of those English-fied French restaurants so popular at the time (1961). Little unecessary bits added here and there, overwhelming flavors obscuring the true nature of the dish, heavy sauces over what was supposed to be a simple and unadorned beef daube.

She believed in simplicity, of the true flavor of things, of Mediterranean cooking with its seasonal produce and olive oil and fresh seafood. It is said that David brought olive oil to England; after her, pasta and aubergines (eggplants) and saffron began to appear in markets. Aside from her native England she had lived in Greece, France, Italy, India, and Egypt, and her experiences there colored her idea of what food could be, what food was, what it should be. And her writing is clear and forthright and alive. When I read her words I feel as though I am sitting at the table eating an omelette and a glass of wine. As though I need nothing else to feel completely satisfied.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Favorite food. cheeseburgers. (Palomino).

One day in our conversational Russian class our professor asked us girls if we would prefer our boyfriends to bring us flowers or cheeseburgers (or maybe it was hamburgers; I can't remember). All the other girls immediately said they would prefer bouquets of flowers (preferably roses), while I, the lone holdout, said that of course I would rather have a cheeseburger. All the girls looked at me as if I had completely betrayed our sex. All the guys were like, now THAT'S what I'm talking about. I shrugged. I love cheeseburgers, I said. (In Russian). Anyone who loved me would know to bring me one when I was hungry. You can't eat flowers.

I must confess, cheeseburgers are one of my favorite foods, whether I make my own, head to McDonalds (which I regret five minutes after eating my Quarter Pounder with Cheese), or go to my favorite pub, where they pile beer-braised onions on the burgers. Soft white bun, toasted or untoasted, sprinkled with sesame seeds (or not), layered with melting cheddar (or American) cheese, sharp slices of onion (or not), with (or without) crisp lettuce and oozing with tomatoes (which fall out with every bite), slathered with ketchup, or some mysterious mayonnaise-based sauce. Sometimes I order them with bacon, other times not. Life would be so sad without cheeseburgers.

On weekends I like to go to Palomino for lunch, either alone or with family and friends. It is a chain restaurant, with outposts in several cities, and the menu is solidly Euro-American fare; salads and sandwiches and pizzas and pastas and hearty meat or seafood dishes. They're consistent, and the food is always good. It used to be crowded all the time; the opening of a bigger, fancier mall a few short blocks away drew a lot of business elsewhere and now the atmosphere is quieter, more relaxed. During the week it is full of business people having business lunches or drinks or dinner; on weekends there are shoppers laden with bags. There's no wait today, and almost no other customers. Everyone's out of town, says the waiter, as he seats me at a table overlooking the three-stories-high atrium. Usually I have soup, and pasta. It's Sunday, and only the bar menu is available, so I order a cheeseburger with a salad, and iced tea, and settle back in my chair with a book.

Instead of bread and butter they bring rosemary-studded focaccia with a sort of chunky fresh tomato sauce, with bits of olives and some kind of cheese. The salad arrives, crisp romaine lettuce, creamy, garlic-spiked dressing, fried anchovies, crunchy croutons. And then the cheeseburger lands before me, alone on the plate. It is huge. The waitress has thoughtfully provided a steak knife with which to slice this behemoth of a burger into more manageable halves. There are thick slices of pepper bacon, which crunch delightfully with every bite; the lettuce and tomatoes and onion keep falling out, so I ignore them. The sauce is slightly sweet, faintly tangy, soaking into the bun, which is valiantly struggling to hold everything together. It is perfect.

Really all I need is a cheeseburger to make me happy.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Reading. Brodsky.

There is a moment in The Shipping News (by E. Annie Proulx) where Billy Pretty tells Quoyle about something his father used to say, how there were different women in a man's life. The Demon Lover, the Stout-hearted Woman, the Maid in the Meadow, the Tall and Quiet Woman. Later he realizes that he has all these women in his life, his former wife, his aunt, his daughters, his new love. For me it is like that with writers. The first love. (Forster). The master. (Bulgakov). The poet. (Ferlinghetti). The wild sage. (Levertov). The professor. (Eco). The unexpected lover. (Bukowski). The dreamers. (Calvino and Borges). The heartbreaker. (Milosz). Others, too many to name. And then there is Brodsky, who in a brief period of time I have come to love completely and absolutely in a way I can't even begin to define. The mind-reader, perhaps I shall call him, as his words seem to anticipate and mirror my own thoughts.

When sorting through various papers I came across one I had written several years about the concept of homeland for Russian writers, particularly Soviet ones, and how despite censorship and exile the writers I mentioned (there are references to Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and I think Babel) could not imagine an existence outside of their homeland. It was not until recently that I began to understand that this attachment one's homeland is at the root of everything I love most about Russian literature, and it was not until I began reading Brodsky that it became clear to me that in the words of Russian writers I could find what I was searching for in myself.

You were born without a country, my mother said. I don't remember how old I was, but I was old enough to understand what she meant, and to understand that she was right. Years later I would hear her rage against a friend who accused her of not being Taiwanese. I wished I had that same connection to a country, that complete assurance of belonging; instead I never felt that I belonged to the one where I was born, the one of my parents, or the one where I was raised and educated. I think now if someone were to tell me again that I was born without a country I would tell them that I am my own country.

This sense of isolation and general uncertainty about my own identity that has been with me all my life seemed to disappear as I fell into the words of writers who believed in their own sense of identity as Russian writers so strongly that even when swallowed up by the vast archipelago of the gulag the falling darkness could not obscure them, could not erase them. As though even fire could not burn out their thoughts even if the paper they were written on was left as ashes. It was as though their own absolute sense of self gave me something of my own.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Drinking. scotch.

I remember my first encounter with Scotch. Macallan. It was older than I was, but then, I was 22 years old and already accustomed to drinking wine older than I. That was the summer I spent several weeks in China, ending with two weeks with my grandfather in Shanghai. Those days in Shanghai involved sleeping in until noon, shopping all afternoon, going out to the pub every other night, and drinking beer. And scotch. Which I then thought tasted the way benzine smelled. It was made palatable with lots of ice and soda water, which is a terrible thing to do to expensive scotch, as I would later learn.

There is a book by Peter Mayle about how to enjoy the finer things in life, called Acquired Tastes. I think it is a collection of articles he wrote for a men's magazine, probably GQ, about such things as caviar and champagne, bespoke suits and shirts, three-ply cashmere sweaters, and most amusingly, keeping a mistress, the most expensive luxury of all. There is a chapter devoted to the single-malt scotch, and this is where my education began. He mentions Glenfiddich as being an excellent malt for beginners, and this is what I drank when I started drinking scotch. It is not cheap, but it is not expensive, either, considering how slowly I drink it. It is light and gentle and pleasant to drink, particularly after a long day at work. I would sip at my glass while puttering around the kitchen, throwing together a simple dinner.

After about a year of drinking Glenfiddich, it was time for something new. Time to take off the training wheels. I was not prepared to spend over $100. A bottle of Lagavulin 16-year beckoned. It was not so expensive as to make my wallet shudder convulsively, but expensive enough so that I would prefer not to share it with anyone. Excellent choice, said the clerk as I handed over the Lagavulin and my credit card. You'll like it. A line began to form behind me as he began to expound effusively on its rich flavor, its smoky taste. I can hardly wait, I said. That was yesterday.

I came home to my new place today. Naked beds, empty shelves, boxes heaped in mountains, bedding wrapped in black plastic garbage bags. The week had been a whirl of packing, frantic last-minute shoving things into scrounged-up cartons that once held reams of copier paper and latex gloves. This morning had been spent running around after the movers, directing them around my empty new space that was rapidly filling up with bits of furniture. It is no longer empty; I'm home. Time for a drink.

Fortunately, one of the many things in the moving truck was a case of glassware. I have no dishes, no silverware, no pots and pans or cooking utensils. But I have glasses, chic, octagonal ones, heavy in my hand, perfect for a sip of whisky before bed. In the cold fluorescent glare of the kitchen the scotch glows deep amber. It smells of smoke and peat and warmth, and it tastes the way it smells. It is everything the clerk promised me. I curl up with my computer (I have no phone, no lamps, no tv, none of the aforementioned kitchen supplies, but I have internet) and my drink. Welcome home.