Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thinking. Halloween.

I am at my parents' house for the evening, my childhood home. I grew up in this neighborhood, went trick-or-treating on this street in my ghostly sheets and witch's hats. (One year I was a crayon, with a pointed hat, bright yellow). It always rained, and I always wore long underwear and turtlenecks underneath my costume. Some houses were dangerous, set high over the street, and climbing to the front door meant a treacherous journey up steep, slippery steps, in the dark, lighted only by shakily held flashlights bobbing in cold hands.

Tonight is Halloween, and I am back here again, running back and forth between the kitchen and the front door, slip-sliding recklessly down the polished wood hallway that stretches in-between. Some twenty years' experience of listening for my father's step on the front stoop alerts me to the presence of wildly costumed young children, standing in awe of my four glowing pumpkins placed like sentinels on the corners of the front porch. Once I was one of these children, now I am one of the grown-ups dispensing candy and a cheery "Happy Halloween!", a terrifying realization. When did I grow up, and why didn't I see it coming?

For the neighborhood kids I have Skittles, and Reese's peanut butter cups, plain M&Ms, peanut M&Ms, and KitKat bars. I rarely buy these during the rest of the year; they belong to Halloween, one of the rare times I was allowed to eat candy when I was growing up. I remember coming home after a night out trick-or-treating, spilling my bounty across the living room floor. Fruit-flavored lollipops with their core of bubble gum, chocolatey, chewy Tootsie rolls, coconut-flavored Mounds bars, boxes of Junior Mints or malt balls, Nestlé Crunch bars, Butterfingers that melted in the mouth, Sweetarts that dissolved on the tongue. Dividing everything into piles, save for myself, give away, eat tonight. I can see myself across the years, cross-legged on the floor in my pajamas as the dog wandered around sniffing at the night's grand haul. Flash forward to tonight, piles of candy by the front door, ready for the marauding hordes. I don't live here anymore; it is a place for ghosts.

The day before yesterday I carved four pumpkins, grinning jack'o'lanterns that are now leering from the darkness outside. When I was a child we would carve pumpkins together as a family; now my family is far away and it is just me, four pumpkins, and a battalion of sharp, thin-bladed knives. The seeds from the pumpkins were washed (tiresome exercise) endlessly, tossed with olive oil and salt, and roasted until golden brown and crisp. As I wait for the kids to arrive I eat handfuls of them in between stirring together a pan of macaroni and cheese. (I don't recommend making anything that involves a bèchamel sauce on Halloween; I have to take the pan off the stove everytime the doorbell rings). It is strange to be alone tonight; in my later teen years we would go out on Halloween night to avoid trick-or-treaters, but now I come back to open the door to dozens of be-costumed children, from the babies dressed as pumpkins or dogs and carried by eager parents, to the teenagers who tower over me, a surreal feeling. It is Halloween, a night to look back into childhood and feel the memories flood back.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Eating. smoked salmon.

My earliest memory of smoked salmon comes from a visit to New York. A plate of lox, at the Russian Tea Room, thin sunset-pink slices fanned out over a plate, dotted with the sharp briny tang of capers, the crisp bite of red onion, the dark softness of pumpernickel bread. I would have been about five years old. (There would have been a crème russe for dessert, as there always was). On those New York trips, breakfast would be a bagel with cream cheese and lox from the deli downstairs, onion or poppyseed or sesame or garlic or plain. Or all of the above. (Once, when it was just my grandfather and I, he had them put smoked salmon and cream cheese on a buttered blueberry bagel. It was surprisingly good, but weird, characteristic of nearly everything I ate when I visited my grandfather, including the spaghetti tossed with soy sauce and olive oil). The smoked salmon was imported from the Scandinavian countries, or from the waters off the Atlantic coast, sliced by hand off the long sides of fish that gleamed behind glass counters. Soon after, we moved west from our St. Louis home and landed on the opposite coast, home to another, entirely different school of fish. So to speak.

On the East coast, the salmon in the morning bagel was pale pink, the color that florists mean when they suggest salmon-colored roses for your bridesmaids' bouquets. On the West coast, the Pacific salmon, the wild sockeyes and kings caught in those local waters or up in Alaska, a brighter orange instead of soft pink, a more intense color and flavor. And there is kippered salmon, smoked and preserved, not the silky slices of lox that drape like heavy fabric over thin squares of pumpernickel; it is firmer and drier and saltier. When sliced the flesh flakes apart beneath the pressure of your fork. This is how the Indians (sorry, Native Americans) of the Pacific Northwest preserved their salmon, or so we learned during elementary school field trips to the salmon hatcheries (where we learned about the mating and migration habits of salmon) and natural history museums (with their dioramas of native life and recreations of log cabins). The wild salmon, cleaned and split and tied to a cedar plank with leather thongs and smoked over fires built in the longhouses built of cedar logs. Or something like that.

It is hard to say which kind I like better, lox or kippered. The former I sandwich between toasted English muffins or bagels slathered with cream cheese or mascarpone; the latter I eat as is, sliced into thick chunks, salty and smoky and absolutely addictive. Smoked salmon makes me think of Sunday brunch, of scrambled eggs and toasted bagels and plates of smoked salmon and tubs of cream cheese and glasses of orange juice. It is something of a special treat, more common than, say, caviar or foie gras, but less ordinary than ham or bacon. I think of it as a cheap luxury, like a tube of expensive hand cream that is nevertheless cheaper than the face cream which costs as much as a handbag. An affordable luxury, then. Not for every day, but rather something to look forward to once a week.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reading. Thirkell.

The first book I read by Angela Thirkell was The Headmistress, or perhaps it was Growing Up, about life during the war in the English countryside. Rations, blackouts, petrol shortages, loved ones away from home in the distant war; themes that run as the background to the relationships that form the story. (In those days I made my way slowly through the fiction section of my school library alphabetically, but I cannot recall when I finally made it to the T's). They are part of a long-running series of novels set in the imaginary British county of Barsetshire, before, during, and after World War II. The different stories involve interwoven families and their lives, through births, deaths, marriages; everyone is connected somehow by birth or marriage or life-long friendships.

There are deaf elderly men, headstrong young girls, sweet mothers, caring fathers, tyrannical ex-nannies who bully their old charges, cranky old retainers, prep-school boys (and former prep-school boys who become prep-school teachers), retired Oxford dons, women writers, and Mixo-Lydian refugees, dukes and duchesses, dowagers and lords and ladies (I can never get the titles straight). Old families live in the ancestral homes, burdened by taxes and death duties and dwindling families; during the war years they retreat to servant's wings or smaller quarters as the big houses are taken over by hospitals or schools or War Offices. Fathers worry about how they are going to keep the family estate running, mothers worry about their children marrying the right (or wrong) sort of person, sigh with relief when their child finds some nice person they've known all their life or has the right county background or lots of money or something.

The thing about reading a long-running series is that if you start in the middle, you don't know all the characters and their past histories. You have to go back, to see them as they were as schoolgirls or young men, go forward to see them as mothers and fathers. Central characters in one novel become secondary ones in another, or fleeting figures passing through on their way to visit someone else. It is rather like being included in a circle of friends who have known each other forever, who have their own shorthand and language and understandings, and you come to know them, one by one.

The world of Thirkell and her Barsetshire is a tranquil one, even during the war years and the uncertainties of life afterwards. Her words bring everything to life with such detail that I can almost imagine each scene unfolding in my mind's eye, the ghastly monstrosities of grand houses that were the mad creations of earlier generations, the tea parties, the faded drawing rooms and libraries and dining rooms where the dramas unfold, the ruins of old summerhouses on the vast estates where our heroes and heroines played as children. There is something comforting to her stories, like a cup of hot tea by the fire, a bath drawn by a bullying former nannie who has known you since the day you were born. It is all part of a lost world, even if it is imaginary; it seems almost as this kind of world once existed, a faded print on a library wall.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Eating. peas.

One of my earliest memories (as usual, involving food) is of eating peapods off the vine in the kitchen garden of my grandfather's factory, somewhere outside of Taipei, where we spent many of our holidays. (These holidays are divided between New York and Taipei and consequently most of my food memories take place in these two cities). I remember peering through the windows of the kitchen, in awe of the gigantic wok, big enough to bathe a small child in, the huge rice cooker that fed everyone who worked there. In the garden were rows of pea vines held up by slim bamboo rods tied together with string, the curling tendrils and tender leaves of pale green concealing the sweet, crunchy pods.

I cannot live without peas. Like broccoli or brussels sprouts or spinach (and all the other vegetables we are supposed to hate), I love peas, and am seldom without a bag or two in the freezer (unless I ate them all the night before). Supposedly frozen ones are better than fresh, something to do with the sugars turning into starch right after the pods are picked from the vine, or something. Of course, there are sugar-snap peas, crisp in their pods and plump with a row of fat little peas, or snow peas, translucent pods barely bulging with their secret bounty, perfect for stir-frying with other vegetables or meats. I would snap the ends off, pull off the strings running lengthwise along the pod.

Fried rice seems austere without the sweet juiciness of a handful (or two) of peas tossed in with the finely chopped scallions and shreds of scrambled egg; add a little ham or bacon and it is a meal, if your idea of a meal is a flexible one (that is, not required a slab of meat or something). Sometimes my mother would stir-fry the peas with cuttlefish balls, chewy white cuttlefish-flavored nuggets (which sounds disgusting, I know, but honestly, I don't know how they are made and I'd like to keep things that way). When it was my turn to cook I would slip in a little butter (since butter makes everything better), or heat some chopped scallions in the oil before adding the peas; the scallions would flavor the hot oil and infuse the peas with their scent. Over rice, with some chicken or braised pork or broiled fish. Dinner, at home. For more glamorous dinners, lately, my mother has taken to tossing petit pois with slivers of prosciutto and stirring a beaten raw egg in, off the heat, just to heat it through, before spooning the peas into endive boats. They are sweet and salty and bitter, hot and cold all at once.

Tonight there is a bowl of macaroni, tossed with petit pois and butter and a fluffy mountain of grated parmegiano-reggiano. In college I would make this with farfalline, tiny bow-tie pasta the size of my pinky fingernail, throw in some flaky Maldon sea salt which would crunch as I ate it. The addition of parmegiano-reggiano is a new conceit, bringing life to the dish with its nutty intensity. The macaroni is perfectly al dente, the peas are sweet, the butter makes everything a little bit creamy, melding with the cheese to make the barest slick of sauce over everything. The perfect dinner for a lazy night, alone. Really, all you need is a bag of peas, the little black dress of the freezer section.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Reading. Hesser.

I first began reading Amanda Hesser's articles in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She was funny and smart and I wondered about the guy in her life she referred to as "Mr. Latte." There had to be a story behind it, and I was longing to learn what it was. Soon afterwards, her book, Cooking for Mr. Latte appeared in the bookstores. Of course I had to buy it, if only to learn more about Mr. Latte. The book was subtitled A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes, and it begins at the first blind date, all the way through to the wedding day. Mr. Latte was in fact the writer Tad Friend (himself a very funny and smart writer), who had a terrible habit of ordering a latte after dinner whenever they went out. I think Hesser eventually broke him of this habit.

I never read this book without wanting to cook every recipe in it - my copy is bristling with post-it notes on every chapter. Everything I've made has turned out perfectly; rigatoni in a white bolognese, oven-fried chicken, a caesar salad, meatloaf, and an intensely fragrant vanilla poundcake, made with vanilla sugar, vanilla extract, and vanilla beans. Some recipes are complicated, others are simple (scrambled eggs with truffle oil, hazelnut ice cream doused with espresso), but they all have a sort of luxuriousness to them, a generosity, even if it is as simple as a fried egg sandwich, the kind her father (long dead) used to make. This is food to share - with the people you love, with the people who love you - the kind of food that even at the end of a long day you find yourself making the time to put it all together. Hesser's voice is gentle and warm; she is like the best friend you always wanted to be, not inspiring envy so much as admiration and love.

In Hesser I found someone whose life is about food. She, as a food writer, is someone who cooks constantly, who breathes food the way the rest of us breathe air. And yet acknowledges that the effort it takes to cook can be a struggle; sometimes you are tired, or bored, or unhappy, or alone with no one else to cook for. And then, you find yourself in front of the stove, stirring scrambled eggs in melting butter, or at the greenmarket thinking about cherry tomatoes which become a salad when mixed with corn and peppers. I want to be the kind of person who finds Meyer lemons in season and turns them into a lemony pasta dish, borrows and adapts recipes from my friends, or is inspired by dishes I've had in restaurants.

If you read Hesser it must be apparent by now (as she says about one of her own friends) that I have long wished to model my life after hers. I think of her when I reach into the oven to flip browning oven-fried chicken thighs, toss a garlicky Caesar salad, slice into a dense, pebbly (as she describes it) poundcake that drowns me in a wave of vanilla. This is my life, even if these flights of culinary fancy take place like far-flung islands in the sea of frozen potstickers and hastily-thrown together dinners that is my ordinary existence. But I slip into the pages of her book and dream of the infinite possibilities within...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reading. Mayle.

I regret that I have never been to France, never fallen in love with dizzying glamour and history of Paris, never sat on the hills looking over the sun-washed countryside. French was a language I learned inadvertantly, from reading Paris Match and watching movies (sometimes with subtitles in languages I didn't know, which forced me to learn French), which I never thought would come in handy until we got lost in some hillside town in Portugal and a lovely Portuguese woman who spoke beautifully clear French pointed me back in the right direction. It is a country I have only seen through film and art, literature, and of course, food. I grew up drinking French wine and eating French food and reading French novels (mostly in translation), but what I have come to love most is the France as seen by Peter Mayle.

Strangely, I don't think I've ever read A Year in Provence, but Mayle's fiction and non-fiction has wandered in and out of my life for quite some time now. The novels are populated by rumpled Englishmen; you know they are the heroes because of their rumpled-ness and English-ness. The bad guys are smooth and suave and perfectly groomed and polished, the sort of men who wear custom-made Charvet shirts and always have an ex-model girlfriend hanging about. The women are always young and leggy and lithe and prone to wearing dresses and skirts the size of a handkerchief, tanned and toned and tall and gleaming with health. All the Americans are obsessed with hygiene and have perfectly straight, white teeth. And the food, oh the food. Truffles the size of baseballs, topped with foie gras. A civet of wild boar, dark with wine and thick with blood. Dinners that go on for hours and leave the guest comatose. And there is the wine and champagne and cognac and marc, aperitifs and digestifs and everything in-between. It's a wonder anyone has a liver at all.

As surreal as Mayle's fiction is, his non-fiction is even more so, because it's real. Festivals celebrating the frog and the snail and the poulet de Bresse, a marathon through the vineyards of Bordeaux, with stops at various châteaux along the way. The friend with the private jet who flies down to Nice and stocks up on oils and olives and jams and preserves. The lunch at Club 55 on the beach at St. Tropez, where women, both young and of-a-certain-age, waft about wearing, well, skirts and dresses hardly larger than a handkerchief, women who are tanned and toned and leggy and lithe and gleaming with health. No white-teethed Americans, though. It is a rarefied world, but Mayle makes you believe that if you chucked it all and left your mundane, everyday life and moved to France, this, too, could be your life. It is a fantasy, but one that almost seems within your grasp, and when I read his words I feel the Provençal sun slip its light through the grey gloom of an October morning and touch my face with its warmth.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Eating. fried chicken.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (to paraphrase Jane Austen) that any food with the word "fried" in its description will automatically be delicious (so long as it is fried properly). Equally true is the fact that it will, as it is with nearly anything delicious, be absolutely terrible for you. So. Alas. I must limit the amount and frequency of fried foods in my diet (as I try to limit all unhealthy things); all good things in moderation. One of these good things I cannot go for long without is fried chicken. Sometimes I make oven-fried chicken, and it is all very well and good, made with free-range organic chicken thighs, brined and seasoned with sea salt, herbs, pepper, and a dash of paprika, but it is not fried. It lacks something. But I have a fear of deep-frying things in my own kitchen, given my unholy ability to set things on fire. There are certain lengths I will go to in the name of culinary arts; burning down my house is not one of them.

When we growing up, it was an unusual treat for us to have fried chicken and hot wings from Kentucky Fried Chicken. I looked forward to the crispy-skinned chicken, the spicy, crunchy wings, the smooth mashed potatoes with gravy (a foreign entity at our table), baked beans (ditto), and the fluffy, cottony biscuits that stuck to the roof of my mouth. I would think about the scene in Dear Mr. Henshaw where Lee and his mother go to the beach and sit in the car in the rain, eating fried chicken from the cardboard bucket and using the bones to scoop up the mashed potatoes because they forgot the forks. Sporks, actually, are what they provide to spear your chicken and spoon up the mashed potatoes. (Ah, the spork, the great cutlery invention. Where would we be without it?). Besides KFC (so renamed during the time where Americans paradoxically feared fat yet managed to grow fatter than ever) there was the fried chicken joint not too far away, an even rarer treat, the best place in town. And then there would be platters of fried chicken with mashed potatoes (always mashed potatoes) at roadside diners and truck stops during cross-country road trips.

I have been thinking about fried chicken all day, so we have dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, the place I always go to for fried chicken when I am in the mood. I have not been here in years, and as we sit down I flash back to another time, another friend sitting across from me, with whom I will share the hot berry cobbler that always burns my tongue with the first bite. Flash forward and it is someone else but the food is the same, a disorienting sensation. And then I am in the present again, as we talk about our day and other things, place our orders and look around at the wild artwork on the walls. The chicken comes drizzled with honey, which I always feel tastes wild and untamed beneath the sweetness, like sunlight and wildflowers. There are smashed potatoes and brussels sprouts with bacon, which make me jump a little in glee, because I love brussels sprouts with bacon more than the usual medley of green beans and zucchini. And I burn my tongue on the blackberry cobbler, as I knew I would.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Eating. chocolate chip cookies.

The day did not begin well. The sky was grey and moody and raining when I opened my bleary eyes (ten minutes after the alarm went off). When leaving for work I forgot my keys, locking myself out of my apartment, which, of course, I only realized as soon as I left the building (thank goodness for concierges with spare keys). Some four blocks from my destination, I stepped in a puddle. A deep puddle. Ordinarily, my clogs would laugh at such a thing and I would leap onwards, perhaps slightly damp but none the worse for wear. But no. An icy deluge of rainwater washed over the mesh insteps of my sneakers, instantly drenching my right foot and leaving me cold and squelchy for the remainder of my journey. It felt like forever. And that was the highlight of the day. By the time I arrived at work I was cold and wet and exasperated and entirely not yet awake, and things were about to get worse. A day like this needed something to look forward to at the end of the day. Cookies.

As a child, the first things I learned how to cook (aside from cakes from a mix) came from the back of the box - lasagnes made from the recipe on the noodle box, brownies from the tin of cocoa powder. The gold standard for chocolate chip cookies comes from the back of the Nestlé bag; it is easy and quick, and it is always the same. Sometimes I would use a different brand (and therefore a slightly different recipe); the end result was always gooey, chocolatey goodness, washed down with glasses of cold milk. And there are always modifications to be made. I have tinkered with varying amounts of sugar, different ratios of brown to white, resulting in a deeper caramel taste (which I prefer). I have played with using chopped bits of good bittersweet chocolate instead of semi-sweet chocolate chips, resulting in an almost dizzyingly rich cookie. Sometimes there have been nuts; oftentimes, not. Then there are cookies made from premixed dough, bought at the supermarket from the refrigerator case. In college my roomate and I would buy premade cookie dough at the campus corner store, bake the cookies in the toaster oven, and have warm cookies with milk before bedtime, or as a study break. In other, snobbier, times, I would disdain these bought cookie doughs, but now, as an occasional shortcut, I can only think ooh! warm cookies!

There are variations on the chocolate chip cookie - chocolate chocolate cookies, with a chocolate cookie dough mixed with chocolate chips, white chocolate chip cookies with macadamia nuts, cookies made with M&Ms or other candies, none of which compare to the simplicity of the original, plain (but far from plain) chocolate chip cookie invented, by mistake, at the Toll House Inn in 1937. It's hard to beat the Real Thing. But tonight I have triple chocolate cookies (chocolate cookie with semi-sweet and white chocolate chips) and white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies, fresh from the oven (made, alas, with bought cookie dough), and a tall glass of milk, in the quiet peace of my living room. The day is over.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Reading. Ginsberg.

When I began to read Ginsberg again (it has been several months now), after a distance of almost a decade, I suddenly felt as though I had encountered someone whose words would change everything. It was not love, but rather something beyond love, a reexamining and reimagining of everything I thought I knew about myself, about what I believed about literature, about how a writer could use words in such a way that it would break me apart and put me back together again. Have you ever met someone, at a party perhaps, where you thought a boring evening lay ahead, but suddenly found yourself in a conversation that changed you completely? Gave you a new window onto the world around you, a view you never might have imagined? In literature I look for that moment, that sensation, in everything I read.

It was the title that caught me, hooked me, drew me in, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, and there was no way I could resist. A promise, perhaps, of what was to come. Enclosed between the covers are the early journals and poems of Allen Ginsberg, from his childhood in the late 1930's to his days at Columbia College throughout the 1940's and early 1950's. What is extraordinary about this collection of journals and early poems is that it follows the trajectory of the poet's mind from where he began, towards the burning light of his words that would change American poetry, challenge mind and language, forever.

I do not pretend to be any sort of writer, and I will never be any kind of poet whatsoever, but as I now go over some things I wrote nearly a decade ago (how long ago it all seems now), I can see a pattern, a sense of the way I use words, language, a certain rhythm that has stayed with me in all the time since, and will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It is my voice, my thoughts, part of the way I see the world, and though new feelings and emotions and ideas have grown in my mind, that voice remains clear to me, remains indisputably mine. I will never let go of it, and it cannot be taken away from me.

When I read these earlier words of Ginsberg I have that same sense of recognition, that sense of his voice that would always be his. It is as though in these journal entries I find the lines that will burst forth in his later works that made him famous, that would lead other poets of other countries and languages to realize that here was something which, as Andrei Codrescu put it, would break [them] into pieces, and when [they] put themselves together, [they] were no longer the same. (When I read Howl again some eight years after the first time I realized that I would never be the same again). The river of words that is Howl had its genesis here; you might imagine that already there is a glimmer of the future brilliant fire. As I dive into The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice I feel as I though I am watching a tree sprout from a seed planted deep into the dark earth, blooming before my eyes.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Eating. bread.

At the beginning of the Atkins craze (this was the late 90's), I had a roomate who had been on the diet for a year or two and had lost a tremendous amount of weight. I would sit in the cafeteria and watch her unwrap her sub sandwiches, remove the meat and vegetables inside, and rewrap the bread to throw away later. Or she would eat the hamburger patty and leave behind the bun, naked and bereft on the plate. I tried it for one day, and lasted only until sunset, when I realized that I could never give up bread.

I once saw, in a magazine, a photograph by Helmut Newton (I think) of a hunk of dark bread and a glass of water against a blank background, perhaps a few crumbs for adornment. In my mind I could imagine the smell of that bread, deep and complex and mysterious, like red wine, the taste of it, like life itself. The simplicity of the image underlined the simplicity of the basic essentials - bread, for nourishment, and water, for refreshment. What else do you need? That moment when your teeth bite down through the crackling crust, fighting their way into the soft depths within, the elasticity of the tender dough, the scent of grain and yeast or the tang of naturally leavened bread, the trail of crumbs that sprays across your shirtfront.

There are breads thick with seeds, poppy and sesame and grains that promise to clear out your digestive system whether you like it or not. There are breads fragrant with herbs or studded with nuts or olives or raisins or other fruits. Or there is plain bread, which is not plain at all, which tastes pure and sweet and natural. It seems a travesty to sully the stark perfection of good bread with butter or olive oil, although there is a certain joy to fresh bread spread with sweet butter or dipped into a pool of fragrant green-gold olive oil (with or without a swirl of balsamic vinegar, a sprinkling of herbs). Life without the oil-drizzled foccacia, the slender, finely-crumbed baguette, the thick-crusted pain de campagne, the tweedily-textured multigrain, would feel empty indeed. And that is just the beginning.

For breakfast there is a plate of sausage, sliced and grilled, a glass of juice, and some bread. The bread is dark brown and studded with walnuts, their fatty richness enlivening the reassuring plainness of the bread. This bread comes from the Columbia City bakery, one of my favorite places in the city. K. handed me a small bag with several slices yesterday, said, here, take this for your breakfast tomorrow. I can see her bouncing down the hill, along the road to the bakery (as I have walked with her along those streets before), standing eagerly at the counter, choosing all sorts of pastries and breads for her family, who are coming to lunch. I see her walking swiftly home with her bounty, which she will share with us all, strudels and cinnamon rolls and croissants and pains de chocolat. But all I need now is some crusty bread, some hot, fragrant sausage, and it is enough. More than enough. Perfect, simple, happiness.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reading. Donne.

There are two lines from a meditation by John Donne that have trickled through the centuries and embedded themselves in our cultural consciousness, repeated again in by other, lesser mortals. The first is the immortal No man is an island, entire of itself; the other is the haunting never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee, which never fails to send a shiver up my back. Of the rest of his poetry I knew very little, save for these two fragments that every schoolchild comes across at one time or another and remembers vaguely for the rest of their lives.

On this morning I am on my own little island of an apartment, floating in the air, surrounded by the neighboring buildings, everything blanketed in a deep fog. To accompany the words of Donne I have the songs of John Dowland, as reinterpreted by Sting, accompanied by lute music, playing in the background. The poems and songs are of much the same time, and it is fitting that I enjoy them together as the sun comes out and the fog rises. It's going to be a beautiful day.

(to be continued).

Friday, October 20, 2006

Eating. apples.

When I think of apples, I think of fall, and childhood, and school. I remember that when I was young I would buy a Red Delicious apple to eat after lunch, that I would think of Snow White and her poisoned apple which would send her off into a deep, deathlike sleep from which a prince's kiss would awaken her. Some days in the cafeteria there would be shallow dishes of applesauce, bland and comforting mounds of pale beige mush. (Once, in a childish attempt to make apple cider, I boiled the peeled apples stuck with cloves for so long they fell apart and dissolved into applesauce; delicious, to be sure, but not what I had hoped for).

In my soda-deprived home there would be dark green glass bottles of sparkling apple cider, saved for special occasions, or juice in a round bottle shaped like an apple, the clear glass imprinted with veined leaves. Much later there would be plastic jugs of organic apple juice, thick and unpasteurized, that left a trace of sludge at the bottom of the glass. From the Japanese supermarket there would be Fuji apples; from the farmer's market came pink-flushed heirloom apples. In our backyard forgotten fruits would fall from the tree, plip plop, to rot amongst the autumn leaves and fading grass.

Once I ate roast goose stuffed with apples in a cozy Moscow kitchen on the eve of my departure, the sweet acidity of the fruit cutting through the richness of the meat. In another country, another life, there was applesauce on pork chops in someone else's cozy kitchen. A chic, French-inflected restaurant served cubes of apples tossed with root vegetables, a bed for the melting fat of foie gras. There have been apple pies, à la mode with ice cream or drifts of whipped cream, apple tarts with buttery puff pastry crusts. Often there is a river of caramel across the perfectly arranged slices of apples. Apples are made for caramel, their crunchy sweetness tinged with a faint tartness, intensified by luscious caramel. At lunch last week, C. sliced crisp fall apples and set out a tub of caramel sauce; I could not stop eating them, until the apple slices were all gone and I resorted to dipping sweet dark grapes into the caramel.

As delightful as all the above-mentioned things are, there is nothing like an apple in its natural state, raw and crisp and sweet. When they flood the supermarkets and farmer's markets with their perfect pyramids of glossy fruit, in all colors, shades of red and gold and green, in all sizes, I know that fall is here. Summer has ended and autumn has flung its burning colors across the landscape. When I sit on the floor with my plate of apple slices, I see in my mind's eye my father's hands in the light of the kitchen, his hands holding the knife that peels the skin from an apple in one long, winding, endless spiral...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Reading. Woolf.

It is possibly one of my favorite first sentences of all time, from one of my favorite novels. Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself. It is like waking up on a beautiful morning and throwing the windows wide open onto a glorious view. What a lark! What a plunge! And you are thrown into a single day of the life of Clarissa Dalloway, from the opening moments when Clarissa walks out to buy the flowers for her party and thinks back to the mornings of her girlhood at home and to the friends of her youth, to the end of her evening party and the meeting of old friends. All throughout the day she returns again and again, in her mind, to those long-ago days, to those past memories.

From the beginning lines you are drawn into the landscape of Mrs. Dalloway's London on this June day, this midsummer morning that brought back other, previous midsummer days with Peter Walsh, who loved her, and Sally, her dear friend. I see her in my mind, walking along Piccadilly, through the park, up Bond street, past shops and memories that lurk in every corner, images made bright with fire by Woolf's words, words that slip past and touch me, bring up the feeling of that moment when you fling open the doors and the morning air rushes against your skin, call forth the scents of earth and garden in a flower shop.

As Mrs. Dalloway wanders through the streets of London and memory, her story intersects with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran haunted by his past. His tragedy is the counterpoint to Clarissa's comfortable serenity, the balance, the weight; without him the story would be insubstantial, insignificant. What does Mrs. Dalloway's party matter? All through this day Mrs. Dalloway is preoccupied with her flowers and her party and her memories of youth, completely oblivious to the demons that Septimus wrestles with as their paths cross. What was that line from The Hours, where someone says that someone has to die in the novel, so that others might live? In order for Clarissa to live, to understand life, to appreciate her days ahead and past, Septimus has to live in horror of his own immediate past, and then, die.

If the opening line is one of my favorite lines of all time, then the closing sentences are my favorite ending of all time, the moment where Sally, now Lady Rosseter, gets up from her seat besides Peter Walsh, where they have been reminiscing about their youth. What does the brain matter, compared with the heart?, she says. And as Peter continues to sit for a moment, he thinks to himself, What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa.
For there she was.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reading. Trifonov.

Years ago, I was in Moscow, walking along the river past the recently rebuilt monstrosity of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, when my professor pointed out a house on the embankment. That is the house from Yuri Trifonov's Дом Набережной, she said. I had never heard of this writer, or this novel, but I was caught by the title. Did I mention how my favorite words have the letter "Ж" in them? (It makes a zhhhhh sound in my mouth). Морожное. (Ice cream). Жизнь. (Life). Надежда. (Hope). The Russians use Набережная (embankment) as they would улица (street) or проспект (avenue), and I love how it sounds, a curl of music in my throat. Later I would begin to read Дом Набережной (The House on the Embankment) and Другая Жизнь (Another Life). But all this belongs to another, previous life.

Trifonov is one of those writers that I had to leave behind before I could come back and fall in love with them. He was lost amongst the all the other voices of his time, but now I see clearly his writing is something different (but then I say this about all writers). It must be something in the way he uses words, how his characters are not clearly right or wrong, hero or villain, but as human nature ultimately is, a muddle of everything. When I returned to Trifonov I came upon The Exchange, and found myself drawn into the story in a way I might not have been in that other life.

I have noticed an obsession about real estate in Russian writing of the post-Revolution era, not surprising given the unbearable housing shortages that made space a premium in overcrowded cities, with several families sharing cramped apartments and communal kitchens and bathrooms. They became the breeding ground for petty arguments and jealousies and resentments that inspired moments in the literature of the time. The notion of trading space and rooms in exchange for an extra bit of space comes up again and again, and here is the root of Trifonov's story.

(to be continued).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Favorite food. potstickers/sui jiao.

When I was growing up, we were almost never without a bag of jiao zi - dumplings - in the freezer. On nights when there wasn't time to cook, we would boil dozens of them, drain them, and eat them dipped in a soy-based sauce. I would make the sauce while the dumplings cooked - it was one of my first kitchen tasks - usually slicing some scallions (which I never could slice thinly enough to please my mother) and mincing some garlic, stirring them into a bowl of soy sauce and sesame oil. You could add hot sauce and/or vinegar, the black Chinese vinegar or cheap Balsamic, or just plain red or white vinegar, whatever you have on hand. It is the ultimate fast food for lazy nights.

In China and Taiwan they can be bought from street vendors, the perfect cheap eat, scooped out from deep vats of boiling water with huge wire ladles. The summer I was seventeen I spent six weeks in Taipei attending summer school, and some nights we would slip away from the awful cafeteria food and head to a dumpling stall some blocks away. I forgot how much they cost, but it was something like a few dollars for ten or twelve sui jiao, tossed in a takeout box with a sprinkling of soy sauce and sesame oil and perhaps a little vinegar, eaten in the darkness, sitting on a bench in the park, with a pair of disposable bamboo chopsticks that came wrapped in filmy translucent plastic.

Several years and a lifetime later I found myself in Xi'an for the first time in over fifteen years. For dinner one night we went to a restaurant that only served jiao zi. It was a huge, sprawling open space overlooking a bare concrete plaza full of young people hanging out and enjoying the summer evening. The tables were bare plastic, the seats were hard benches. Young, uniformed waitresses ran around with oval platters piled high with steaming dumplings, ignoring us until my mother completely lost all patience and slammed her (empty) teacup on the table and said XIAO JIE! (MISS!) in her most terrifying-voice-that-is-more-effective-than-a-yell. The waitress who was unlucky enough to be standing closest to our table actually jumped, her pigtails vibrating with shock and terror. After that someone came by every two minutes to make sure we had enough dumplings and tea and bowls of dipping sauce.

The dumplings my mother bought at home were usually made of pork, with chopped chives (which I hated) or napa cabbage. They came in clear plastic bags (labelled in Chinese, which I couldn't read) from the Chinese grocery store. Now I buy ones made with chicken and vegetables from Costco, and I fry them, which makes them (technically) potstickers, which I love even more than the plain boiled sui jiao. The former has a crisp crust along the bottom from prolonged contact with a lightly oiled pan; I love the contrast between the soft skin of the dumpling and the crunch of that stripe of crust. Potstickers were the only thing I liked to eat at Chinese restaurants, and after I outgrew the age where I was allowed to order them when we went out to eat (because they were for little kids who didn't know better) they became a rarity in my life. Until I was old enough to be living on my own and could eat whatever I wanted (not necessarily the best thing, given that some nights I have some yogurt and a bag of M&Ms for dinner).

Now that I have my supply of dumplings in the freezer (next to the ice cream, frozen peas, and vodka), whenever I want to I can sit back with my plate of potstickers, settled in to watch tv and eat my steaming hot dumplings, with the crisp bottom crust, in a slightly sweet-salty-sour-hot sauce, soothing and comforting and the perfect dinner.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dinner out. Palomino.

It is nearly seven o'clock when we stumble out of work, and there are only three things on my mind: food, shopping, and a mojito. Not necessarily in that order. There is only one hour before the stores close, but it only takes an hour to find all manner of adorable things that I cannot live without. Pale cream stoneware mugs, sprinkled with dabs of color, for coffee or juice or milk. There is a little cup shaped like an owl for pencils or toothbrushes or cotton swabs and hairpins; I've found tiny bowls for nuts or condiments or sipping jasmine-scented tea after dinner. My kitchen cupboards are filling up slowly with little finds like these; it is a little more like a home now.

With a sense of elation and excitement I leave the shop and head to dinner a block away, at Palomino. The restaurant is on the third floor of a shopping mall; it is part of chain, with outposts in various cities. It is soulless and corporate and sprawling and noisy, without the cosy intimacy or inventiveness of small restaurants that serve seasonal ingredients in ever-changing menus. But I love it. The menu is always the same, which is part of the appeal. The food is consistently good, the waitstaff are all extremely nice, and they give you free parking, which is rare in downtown Seattle.

The vast restaurant is bustling when we arrive, and instead of waiting for a table C. and I head to the bar, where you can order the full menu. I need a mojito. It was a really long day. My drink comes in a tall glass, icy and beaded with condensation, minty and cool and exactly what I needed. The day fades away as I drink it, as we chat and muse over the menu. I order grilled salmon instead of my usual pasta; I feel like something extravagant tonight. Some bread arrives, rosemary-scented focaccia served with a tomato salsa studded with bits of cheese and olives, sweet and salty at the same time.

Our dinner arrives, piping hot and enticing. My salmon is crisp around the edges and moist inside, with a smooth tartar sauce crunchy with artichokes. There are mashed potatoes and a salad with some sort of vinaigrette and crumbled bits of creamy gorgonzola. It is all immensely satisfying, the tender fish and crisp salad and comforting potatoes. C. slides a bite of her veal short ribs over; they are rich and slightly sweet and fatty and totally addictive. I return to my fish, which soon disappears, and reflect on why I like this restaurant so much, even if it is part of a corporate and soulless chain (not that there's anything wrong with a chain restaurant). Eating here is rather a little like shopping at Banana Republic; it's not cheap, but it's not too expensive, either; it's not particularly interesting or exciting, but I always walk in knowing that I'll find something that will make me happy.

Dessert arrives, a plum cobbler, hot and sweet and full of ripe fruit. There is a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into a cool sauce. We are full and happy as we stumble off of our stools (at least, I stumble) and head home. The day is over.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lunch. the birthday party.

I work for a small, tightly-knit company, and for each employee's birthday we have a potluck lunch. The birthday girl (we're all women) tells everyone else what she wants them to bring, and they cook her favorite dishes. It is an excuse for us to all take a break from the craziness of the day, sit down together (which wouldn't happen otherwise), eat, relax, enjoy ourselves. There are main dishes and side dishes and hors d'oeurves and desserts and bowls of fruit and salads and rice and bread. The lazy-susan spinning slowly in the middle of the huge table is nearly invisible beneath the platters and dishes and bowls covering its surface.

Everyone has their own specialties. We look to one woman for her desserts, cheesecakes of every flavor, chocolate layer cakes, pies, anything you can imagine. I might make a lasagne, or a rum-soaked croissant bread pudding filled with raisins, depending on the whim of the birthday girl. One person usually brings a meat dish, grilled flank steak or chicken stew or on occasion, a prime rib. Another coworker brings noodles, yet another brings some kind of vegetable dish. Others bring salads and breads and dips and beautiful fruit. Most of us love to cook; certainly all of us love to eat. Cooking for each other is a way to experiment, or have a chance to eat something you would never make yourself. (I wait all year to demand a Kahlua chocolate cheesecake for my own birthday).

I've made lasagne this time. I woke up early to put it together, layering the sauce I made the night before with noodles and ricotta cheese mixed with egg and parmeggiano-reggiano and shreds of basil, and grated mozzarella cheese. It takes half an hour, and the unbaked dish will sit in our fully-equipped kitchen (did I mention that we love to eat?) until about an hour before lunch. I've got the timing down, the result of much practice. It is better this time, more richly flavored; the sauce seems thicker and more cohesive, perhaps the result of using a different brand of canned tomatoes. The cheese is creamier; the grated Parmeggiano-reggiano sprinkled over the top has baked to a crisp golden crust.

Besides lasagne there is a chicken stew, heady with white wine, sweet with dried prunes and carrots, sharpened with briny olives and the tang of tomatoes. Pale sweet taro mingles with chicken; thick noodles nestle in a deep dish, twined with vegetables. There are thick slices of crusty bread and artichoke dip, and chewy, salty-sweet pieces of roast pork. The co-worker with the organic garden has arranged slices of home-grown tomatoes with white coins of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves; adorned with more herbs and flowers it is like a bit of summer in the middle of October. And when we cannot eat any more, there is dessert, a Kahlua chocolate cheesecake and a pumpkin chiffon pie. And we start talking about the next birthday party, in November.

I love cooking for the people I care about, and I love other people cooking for me. Sure, we could go out, drink too many margaritas, eat overpriced food in noisy restaurants, and go home regretting that last margarita or that one extra piece of calamari. But this is better.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Experiments and variations on the same old thing.

I rather feel like cooking today. Last night I went to the grocery store and stocked up on all manner of good things. There is a lasagne to make for tomorrow's lunch, and a chicken to roast for my own dinner tonight. There are vegetables to toss with olive and sea salt, and a loaf of crusty sourdough bread. For the lasagne I have bought spicy Italian sausages, smooth whole-milk ricotta, a firm round ball of mozzarella that I will have to grate by hand. I want to try the imported San Marzano tomatoes, just to see if they are any different from the canned tomatoes I usually buy. I am making the same old thing, but with variations.

In the morning I prepare the chicken for roasting, sprinkling it inside and out with kosher salt. I'm too lazy to bother with a brine; besides, I don't have a bowl big enough to fit a bird in its salty bath. This will do. The salt will draw out extra moisture, which the flesh will reabsorb, making it tender and juicy as it roasts. I've probably roasted hundreds of birds by now, trying all sorts of different ways. This is the simplest. When I come home after work, I shake some black pepper over everything. I don't have a rack, or a roasting pan, but there is an enameled cast-iron baking dish. A layer of thinly sliced onion in the bottom of the dish will keep the chicken from sticking and tearing the skin, which is what happened last time (I learn from my mistakes, usually).

Usually I roast the beets whole, wrapped in foil, before slicing them and throwing them in with the carrots, but I want to try something different. I peel them and slice them into wedges, and do the same with the carrots. They are drizzled with olive oil and tossed with salt and roasted until tender. They are not quite done when I check on them, but I feel they need something else, and pour in some balsamic vinegar and honey, stirring the vegetables so everything is faintly slicked with the sour-sweet glaze of vinegar and honey. It's perfect. Something new.

While the chicken and vegetables are roasting I get the sauce for the lasagne ready. I've made this so often, like the roast chicken, I can do it without thinking. Some chopped onion goes into a deep dutch oven filmed with olive oil. While that cooks I grate some garlic into another bowl and slip the casings off the sausages. The garlic is stirred into the translucent onions; in a few moments everything is fragrant and pale gold, and the sausages are thrown in. When they are just browned and crumbled into bits I pour in the drained diced tomatoes, the chunky crushed tomatoes, and stir everything together. As I eat my dinner the sauce will simmer gently and then be put away to cool, and in the morning it will take hardly any time at all to put the lasagne together.

The roast chicken is moist and juicy, the skin crackling and paper-thin; the flavor of caramelized onion has seeped into the flesh. The scent of sauce fills the air, a promise of good things to come. It's been a good day.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Reading. Kingsolver.

The Bean Trees has been one of my favorite books for some fifteen years now, the literary equivalent of a mug of hot cocoa piled high with whipped cream, a warm hug. There have been other books by Kingsolver since, more complicated, more heartbreaking, (certainly longer), but this was the first one. The first one I loved. I have read it so many times that its language has seeped beneath my skin and become part of me. When I first read it I was over a decade younger than Taylor, and now I am older. (When did that happen?). Year after year I come back to the intertwining stories of Taylor and Lou Ann and the people who come into their lives and change it forever.

From the first sentence, I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign, I was unable to stop reading until I had followed Taylor Greer out of the only kind of future she might have had in her hometown (not much of one), across states, into accidental motherhood of a small silent child with her own haunted past, into friendships with unlikely people, into love. (And I have been afraid of putting air into anything, forget a tractor tire). The language was unlike anything I had experienced before; smart and funny, with the imagined echo of Kingsolver's Kentucky twang.

Everything she describes blooms as vividly in my mind as the night-blooming cereus did on Virgie Mae and Edna's porch. Years after I first read The Bean Trees we had our own night-blooming cereus in the corner of the living room, "flattened and spiny and frankly extremely homely." One night it bloomed in the darkness and filled the entire house with its fragrance. When I went to look, I found that homely plant burdened with flowers, each one hanging from its scrawny branch like "a magic mirror...made of some nearly transparent material that looked as though it would shrivel and bruise if you touched it. The petals stood out in starry rays, and in the center of each flower there was a complicated construction of silvery threads shaped like a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight. A fairy boat, ready to be launched into the darkness."

When I read that passage time and time again I feel myself sitting on the living room floor in the darkness, surrounded by the faintly lemony, haunting scent of the night-blooming cereus, the memory lingering like a touch. The book itself is a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight, launching laughter and friendship and love and motherhood into the bright sunshine of day, into a distant future happiness.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Saturday morning. breakfast. (Columbia City Bakery).

When I was quite small my baby-sitter would take me berry-picking during blackberry season, in the dog days of August. The back alleys of our neighborhood were filled with the wild fountains of prickly vines. R. and I took buckets and bowls and spent hours teasing ripe berries from their stems; the ripest ones would fall gently into our hands at the merest touch. Once she made a pie, black and oozing purple juice, but usually I would just eat them out of hand, or with ice cream. It's been years since I went hunting for blackberries. The wild vines at the edge of our backyard have been replaced with a forest of bamboo. I've moved away from my childhood home. But today I'm back for just a little while.

K. and I walk to to the Columbia City bakery for breakfast. Down our street, past the school nestled at the curve of the steep hill that takes us towards the now-bustling Columbia City neighborhood. Across the street from the school we find a tangle of blackberries. Even in October there are still berries lingering, ripe and sweet and juicy, and we pause to pick a few. As I eat the blackberries I am transported back into my childhood again. That moment passes, and then we walk on, eager for breakfast.

It's busy inside the bakery. There are families with babies everywhere you look. The eating area is full of light and pale wood; the glassed-in counter is piled with all manner of baked goods. Beyond the counter you can see the kitchen, with people moving around between tables of dough and ovens and whatever equipment they use to create magic. K. buys loaves of bread, one white country loaf, the other dark bread studded with walnuts. There are flaky strudels, one with berries, another filled with almond-scented cream and slices of pear. A handful of chocolate madeleines frosted with cocoa nibs goes into a paper bag for later. For breakfast I have a savory croissant, and hot chocolate.

Tables at the bakery are few and hard to come by on weekend mornings. I'm lucky to sneak over and snag one while K. pays for our bounty. Behind me is a case filled with trays of cupcakes and pumpkin tarts and slices of a deadly-looking chocolate cake. And then I'm sitting down and biting into the buttery flakiness of a croissant filled with a curl of ham and a sprinkling of cheese, and I am completely happy. The hot chocolate arrives, a heavy white cup and saucer, a swirling leaf drawn in its cap of foam, rich and creamy and chocolatey. K. rips into the bread, handing over pieces for me to try - the darkly nutty walnut bread, the pure taste of the thick-crusted plain loaf. I see E., an old high-school classmate that I have not seen in eight years. YOU! She points in my direction. I've met you before! I can tell she can't remember my name, though.

Sated and happy we head towards home. I pass E. and her friends on the street. I couldn't remember your name earlier but I know it now, she says. My past is everywhere today.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Reading. Lipman.

When I first read Then She Found Me I was in high school, years ago. It was funny and gentle and I loved it immediately. It is at once about how mothers and daughters, and about finding love. About how things happen when you least expect them to, how love may come slowly and unexpectedly, how happiness can bloom so quietly that you hardly notice that it has begun to change you, change your life. How someone who bursts into your life like a force of nature (a newly discovered birth mother, a boss who lives in a fantastical house on the beach) can push you beyond what you feel are your own limits, even if it only a brighter lipstick or a different haircut. Or in the direction of an entirely new life entirely.

There have been other books by Lipman, others which I have loved as well or not quite as well as the first one. There is something endearing about her heroines, women of all ages, growing up through childhood and young womanhood (in The Inn at Lake Devine), verging on the beginning of middle-age (And Then She Found Me), later in middle-age (The Ladies' Man). They nearly all have a sense of being a little bit lost, as though they are all in search of something, sometimes without even knowing that they are in search of it. A sense of themselves. Or love. There are relationships, too, between friends, between mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, how they can be complicated or complicating but are always there. Her voice is clear and bright and witty (and sometimes acerbic) and the words spring lightly, weightlessly off the page and into the heart. The endings never feel like endings; there are no goodbyes, just a pause as though the story continues on beyond the last page. They are like life.

When I am feeling down or alone or in need of solace, I return to Then She Found Me and find myself comforted. I turn to the part where April and Dwight run off to Provincetown, and at dinner she tells him that this was the high point of her romantic life so far, and this is the part that never fails to lift some part of me, make some part of my soul happy, when he says to her, "Six months is not a long time in the great scheme of things...it's a short time to feel the way I feel...I had accepted things about my life and didn't think it would happen, didn't think anyone would bring out the things in me that someone might actually find...compelling. And then this unbelievable thing happened. This dream, actually." And then I look at this story of two people, in their thirties, who had settled into a life that they thought was comfortable and familiar, until it is shaken up a little, and then they find each other, and I wonder if perhaps I might sometime find myself falling into this same kind of dream, someday.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

On guilt and food. McDonalds.

At the drive-thru there is nearly always a car with small children ahead of me, small bodies visible through the back window bouncing around in anticipation for their Happy Meals with some chokeable-part-filled plastic toy, the paperboard box with the M-shaped handle, the chicken nuggets that aren't made of chicken, the milkshakes that probably don't contain any dairy products whatsoever. It sends a chill through me. And then I reach out my car window for my own paper sack containing french fries and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a medium 7up, and the guilt washes over me in a wave. Set a plate of foie gras in front of me, a plate of crème brûlée with its heavy-cream-based custard, a thick steak and a mound of buttery mashed potatoes. I will dive in without the faintest quiver of a qualm. But standing in line for my Egg McMuffin and hash browns under the blinding fluorescent lights and gleaming tile, I gaze at the shiny plastic tables and chairs all around me, and I am sick with a sense of shame and failure.

We are inundated with facts about how disgustingly bad fast food is for you. It has been the norm - for educated people above a certain income level - to look down on the hormone-laden, fat-soaked junk that permeates American culture and is spreading like a disease around the world. For those of us who have a some amount of disposable income and read Gourmet and shop at Whole Foods and watch the Food Network there are somehow more options available. I have become one of those people who make cheeseburgers with organic beef and aged Cheddar. I have fried chicken fingers made with free-range chicken and imported Parmiggiano-reggiano (in olive oil). I am a snob in Prada flats and a gas-guzzling SUV. I should be the kind of person who, like Gwyneth Paltrow, would never eat at McDonalds. But I cannot help myself. And why should I?

The thing is - however good organic burgers and free-range chicken fingers are - some nights I am too tired to bother. Most nights I try to bother. I want to evade that nagging sense of guilt when I think about the crap that I put in my body, those extra fifteen or twenty pounds that could have been avoided had I resisted the M&M's on the counter, the Doritos my coworker brings to work (and perhaps, you know, excercised once in a while). I want to remind myself that even a simple omelet or a bowl of the homemade wontons I keep in the freezer is ten times better than a Super Value meal from the McDonalds a block from where I live. But then, every once in a while, I find myself craving a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, soft, sesame-sprinkled bun, American cheese with the texture of melted plastic, thin patty of beef that is most definitely not organic and probably full of hormones and pesticides, tangy with ketchup, crunchy with onions and pickles, along with a cardboard cup of soggy-crisp fries, a cold soft drink at my side. It is five minutes of heaven, perhaps ten. And then the guilt washes over me, but I nudge it away. I'll be good tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reading. Lewis.

I discovered Michael Lewis in the late 90's, when my pop-culture-trained brain recognized him more for being the husband of MTV news-anchor Tabitha Soren and less for being the author of Liar's Poker. I read a series of essays that he had written about living in Paris with his wife and baby daughter for Slate magazine, another one about the birth of his second daughter (by now they were living in Berkeley), and a third about a trip he and his family took along the Mark Twain trail. At some point I remember reading a hilarious essay in Gourmet magazine involving his parents visiting them in Paris and the enormous amount of work involved in making a cassoulet. He was funny and self-mocking and witty and hilarious, particularly when his wife clearly has the upper hand over him in all matters, most of all intellectually, and his writing was completely addictive. Of course I had to read more.

When I first read Liar's Poker I was a college student studying Art History. By way of introduction Michael Lewis talks about how he went from Princeton, where he, too, had studied Art History, onto the London School of Economics, and then onto Wall Street. I saw no such future for myself, but I found his work incredibly interesting; he made economics and the completely foreign world of finance intriguing. Alas, I was not destined for a career in finance, and I soon forgot about Liar's Poker, but occasionally I would come across another article by Lewis and be drawn into worlds I had no previous interest in. Which brings me to Moneyball.

A few weeks ago an excerpt from Lewis' new book (The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game; I am waiting for the paperback before I read the whole thing) appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, a story about how several people managed to turn a teenager, who had basically no education, living on the streets, no family, nothing, into a top college left defensive tackle with a potentially brilliant football career ahead of him. (I think left tackle is the right term, but what I know about football is...absolutely nothing. What is this mysterious thing you call a field goal?). To say that I found the story moving undermines how deeply it affected me; what became clear to me by the end of the story was that Lewis had made a subject I knew nothing about, cared nothing about - football - and turned into something that I not only understood but found myself caring about. I wanted to know what happened to this boy whose life was completely changed by a series of interconnected people, I cheered these determined people on. And then I turned to Moneyball.

My earliest memory, besides food, is of watching baseball on the little tv in the kitchen. That is, I gazed blankly at the Cardinals playing against whatever team they were playing against (this was during our St. Louis years) while my father sat, transfixed. I will say that little has changed in the past twenty-odd years. But Moneyball is different. From the first page I was captivated. And this is the magic of Lewis, the magic of a really good non-fiction writer, the ability to take a subject, something, anything, and be so completely enamored of it, so completely immersed in it, and then - this is the difficult part - be able to express it in such a way that you, the reader, are transported into a place where you begin to understand, begin to care in a way you hadn't thought possible.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Dinner for one. matsutake mushrooms.

Fall is here, and it is time for mushrooms, probably my favorite vegetable. I might broil giant portabello mushrooms until they ooze black juice or sauté creminis (baby portabello mushrooms) with onions, toss them into pasta or stir them into beef stroganoff. But the wild ones are different. Simpler is better, all you need a touch of oil, a scattering of salt to bring out the flavor.

At Uwajimaya I find matsutake mushrooms, which are also called pine mushrooms. They grow nestled in the roots of pine trees, and when I buy them they are crusted with dirt and sprinkled with pine needles. The ones whose caps have unfurled like white umbrellas have less flavor and fragrance than the ones that are still tightly curled into themselves. At home I trim away the crusty bits, wash them until they are gleaming pale white. I have had them simmered in soup, chicken broth made heady with the scent of the mushrooms. Or drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and then broiled in the toaster oven. But there is another way, my favorite way.

There is a pot of chicken broth in the refrigerator. I slice the matsutake mushrooms, not too thinly, but not too thickly either. They are firm and white and fragrant. I've washed some rice, drained away all the water, arranging the slices of mushroom across the top. I pour in the chicken broth. You need chicken broth, homemade broth, to bring out the flavor of the matsutake, which will simmer and steam as the rice cooks. It is worth the trouble to make the broth, because how much trouble can it be to throw some chicken into a pot with some water, leave it to simmer while I putter around the house?

While the rice steams I slice some dried seasoned tofu, arrange the slim batons neatly in two rows on a plate. Finely chopped scallions are scattered on top, shades of green against pale creamy brown tofu. I pour thin streams of soy sauce and sesame oil over it all. The tofu is chewy and salty, with the sharp crunch of scallions and the heady intensity of sesame oil. I almost want to dive into that oil, but I only need a little to make me dizzy with its fragrance. When I am alone this is all I need for a meal, some matsutake mushroom rice and tofu.

The rice is perfect. I knew it would be. It is infused with the flavor of the matsutake mushrooms, which have a delicate, elusive aroma that I can't begin to describe. Not overwhelming, the way white truffles can be, but intoxicating all the same. The chicken broth gives just enough contrast to ground the lightness of the mushroom, and I cannot get enough. I dream about this all year until the season comes back again, and I can sit back and read as the scent of matsutake rice fills the air, until I can sit at the table and hold a bowl of golden rice in my hands.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Dinner with friends. (a drama in four courses).

hors d'oeurves. A. called Saturday to invite me to dinner the next night, and since she is one of the best cooks I know I eagerly accept. I arrive to find everyone waiting for L., who has gone out to the car and is taking an unusually long time to return, and an array of cold appetizers on a narrow table set perpendicular to the dining table. There is a sort of salad of finely chopped dried tofu, cilantro, and pine nuts, a coolly fragrant study of contrasts, the savory, chewy tofu, the crunchy pine nuts, the astringent, clean taste of cilantro (which I usually hate, but tonight find addictive). There are slices of - I think - beef tendon, translucent and spicy, and a platter of smoked chicken. L. returns, agitated - he cannot find his car and worries that it has been towed away.

first course. There are pots on the stove, plates of various ingredients arranged around A.'s gleaming, open kitchen. It is always a pleasure to watch her cook; everything is in readiness for its moment at the stove or simply waiting for its finishing touches before arriving at the table. While L. paces around, phoning various towing companies in search of his car, A. eases coils of wide egg noodles into boiling water. The noodles are tossed with beef braised with tomatoes and fresh arugula, which promptly wilts from the heat of the pasta and sauce. The beef is tender, intensly flavored, rich and savory in contrast to the slightly bitter greens. The conversation runs around in circles - where is the car? did it get towed? are you SURE you remember where you parked it? J. will drive L. to the towing yard to get the car, if only they can find it. L. is inconsolable. It is his birthday, and his car has disappeared.

main course(s). Finally L. can stand it no longer and goes off to look for his car. His wife, J., insists on accompanying him, leaving me, V. (a young German girl staying with J. and L.), and another couple, M. and J., along with our hostess. The conversation continues on the same theme....where's the car? Meanwhile we eat chanterelle mushrooms, with their light and earthy scent, sautéed with slices of pork (I think), sweet and savory all at once. There is shrimp stir-fried with tofu, slippery and soft and chewy, and a plate of Chinese greens, providing the same bitter contrast as the arugula did with the pasta. Sweet black cod is marinated in sake lees, the white fish made tender and intoxicating. We wonder if J. and L. will ever find their car. A half an hour has passed. V., being a visitor, does not know downtown Seattle and has no idea where the car might be, but she has a vague recollection of various landmarks nearby. Finally, stuffed to the gills and unable to bear the suspense, we head off into the night to look for the car on our own. A. wails in the background as two more guests slip out.

intermission. V. and I head outside, I asking her questions about what she remembers, she pointing out landmarks that they passed. One block north, two blocks west, one block south. And we find it. The car is two blocks away from A.'s apartment. It has taken us five minutes. Triumphant, we clap each other on the back, call everyone, and head back, secure in the knowledge that we have truly earned our dessert.

dessert. The rest of dinner is spent gently teasing L. about losing his car, or rather, losing his memory. There is cake, chocolate, layered with cherries and cream, and there are little steamed buns shaped and tinted like peaches (for longevity, they are a Chinese birthday tradition), filled with a sweet bean paste. And there is laughter, and love.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Favorite food. won ton soup.

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin writes about how she once had lunch cooked by a girl whose mother never cooked but was able to afford expensive Chinese help, and therefore concluded that everyone "should either have the good fortune either to be Chinese or to be rich. Either way, you can end up learning how to make homemade wontons and duck stuffed with cherries and fresh lichee nuts." I did have the good fortune to be Chinese but I never did learn how to make duck stuffed with cherries and fresh lichee nuts. (In my opinion it is a crime to do anything with a fresh lichee nut except eat it, the cool, sweet, translucent flesh bursting with juice in the mouth). And one of my earliest memories in the kitchen is of making wontons at the kitchen table with my mother.

There would be a bowl of filling in front of me, a pile of flour-dusted wonton skins next to it, a bowl of water at its side. With a pair of chopsticks I would dab a little knob of filling right smack into the middle of the square wrapper, fold it in half to make a triangle, and twist the far corners together and seal them with a little water, applied with a fingertip and squished tight between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. They looked like little heads wrapped in kerchiefs. We would fill trays and trays with these little dumplings, and freeze them. It only took a moment to boil some water, heat some broth, cook the wontons for a few minutes, float them in the hot broth, and there you were.

It is comfort food. There is soup, usually chicken, and there are the little dumplings, the wontons. As they cooked the skins would crumple and shrink tight around the meat filling. The filling was usually ground pork, mixed with spinach and tofu and seasoned with soy sauce. The skins became soft in the boiling water, like sheets of noodles. If you put too much filling in the wonton the wrapper falls off during cooking; too little and the balance of meat-to-noodle is all wrong. But it is worth the trouble of making them yourself, as it is with most foods. You could by premade ones, I suppose, and they are fine. But the pleasure of food lies partly in its creation, in the rhythm of chopping and stirring and the monotony of wrapping dozens of little dumplings with a few deft twists of your hands.

I have promised C. wonton soup, so here I am. The filling has a base of ground pork; I have sliced some soft tofu into cubes, drained them, and mashed them in with a fork until you cannot tell where the pork leaves off and the tofu begins. I swirl in the soy sauce, grate in some ginger. I've forgotten the spinach. No matter. There is a pot of broth simmering on the stove for the next night, or the night after. And then I realize, I can watch a movie and shape my dumplings at the same time, my ingredients and trays and bowls spread across the living room floor. The minutes speed by as I go through the motions - dab, fold, twist, dab, press. There are ninety little wontons lined up neatly by the time I am halfway through my movie. Splendid.