Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reading. Ondaatje.

In high school I would read aloud to my friends during our lunch breaks, from my favorite books, the ones I have loved for so long their language has become mine, entire passages burned into my memory. I would carry them around, a stack of books, open them and read parts at random, return to my favorite chapters. The English Patient was one of these books. I have never loved anything else by Ondaatje save for this novel, although I have never found adultery romantic or compelling, but then the affair between the English Patient and the woman he loves is only one thread of the story. It is the language that I love most about this book, the words Ondaatje uses to describe the desert or an abandoned Italian garden, the gesture one person makes towards another, the delicate, swift dance of dismantling a bomb.

In those days I marked my favorite pages of my favorite books on a slip of paper and left them inside, the key to a code, the code of my heart and my mind; each marked page is criss-crossed with faintly pencilled lines. X marks the spot. Or a place in memory. I have not read this book for many years, so sliding between the pages now is like falling backwards into deep water. I remember now that I had always loved art but it was around that time I began to study art history, that back then I loved the dark chiaroscuro that characterizes the paintings of Caravaggio, who gives his name to a character in The English Patient, the former thief, one of the four damaged people whose stories intersect across time and place. (Besides Caravaggio there is Hana, the nurse, whose body had been in a war and, as in love, it had used every part of itself. There is Kip, the sapper, who moves through the ruins of war to dismantle mines and bombs left behind. And there is the English patient, whose memories of love and the desert are the spine of the story). I loved saying his name aloud, Car-a-vag-gio, drawing it out into a long, ragged caress.

She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water, says Almásy about the differences between himself and his lover, Katherine. It was not until I read these words that realized I have always felt this way. I have come to realize that all the writers I have loved most have affected the way I use language, the way I write, the way I think, perhaps even the way I speak.

This is the part I remember most (from Almásy's journal, which Hana comes across and reads to herself):
There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared to our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.
A love story is not about those who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing - not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. Vintage International, 1993. pp 81, 238, 97.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Drinking. tea.

There is a beautiful book by Allen Say (Tea with Milk, a children's picture book) where he writes about his mother, how she grew up in California drinking tea with milk, until her parents moved back to Japan, where tea is a bitter green froth with a cloud of powder at the bottom of the cup, not milky and sweet. It was one of the things that made her feel like a foreigner in a strange land, until she met his father in a department store elevator, another stranger in a foreign land, and married him. (Perhaps they moved back to California to start their life together, but I can't remember). I think of this girl, feeling lost in a new country, where she blended in (being Japanese) but never quite felt at home (being American), every time I drink my tea with milk.

When I was in high school I would come downstairs in the morning to find my father puttering around the kitchen with the espresso machine, a mediaeval torture device of gleaming stainless steel, to the accompaniment of the wild roar of the coffee grinder, the hissing squeal of the steaming hot water that let you know the machine was ready. I would make myself tea, and then there would be that dance you do around each other as you both reach for mugs (in the cupboard at one end of the kitchen), the pot of sugar (at the other end of the kitchen). At the table I would stir milk and sugar into my tea, read the newspaper, as my father would snort derisively. How can you put milk in your tea!? And sugar! he would say. You're Chinese! You don't drink tea with milk! It's not Chinese tea, I would protest. It's English tea! Which of course only drew another snort of derision from the other end of the table, from behind that morning's newspaper.

In Taiwan I would drink tea scented with jasmine (always a disappointment somehow, the fragrance more beguiling than the taste), or with the faintly dusty perfume of chrysansthemum blossoms, countless different kinds with magical names of distant places. It came in tiny cups, refreshed constantly, at every meal, endless cups of tea, clear dark amber with a few twiggy leaves at the bottom, all without milk. Sometimes, when I am feeling nostalgic I drink black currant tea and dream of the time I spent in Russia. And then there is, of course, the English afternoon tea, which as far as I am concerned is merely an excuse to eat hot scones with jam and Devonshire cream. Once I had afternoon tea with a friend in one of those posh London hotels, in a long room like a grand jewel box with soft lighting and fountains of flowers, with plates of sandwiches and cakes and cups of tea in translucent white cups.

But today it's cold outside, and I am not quite awake as I write hunched over a little tray-table on my living room floor. But there is tea, rounded out with the wild sweetness of honey, creamy with milk, hot and fragrant, to send me out into the day. Outside is all cold and gray and fringed with snow, but inside I am warm, and there is tea, with milk. Hello, world. It's nice to see you.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eating. soup. (Reading. Colwin).

Do you remember the childhood fable of Stone Soup? A wanderer comes to a town, proclaiming that he can make soup from a stone. I forget how the tale unfolds, but what I remember is each person, drawn to this traveler by curiosity and disbelief, brings a different ingredient, beginning with water from someone's well - and then onions, carrots, salt, herbs, perhaps a few bones. Each item is added to the pot simmering over a fire in the town square, and by the end of the story a wonderful scent fills the air, the mouth-watering aroma of soup. Soup that begin with a single stone. I think of this story every year, when my co-workers and I make soup the Monday after Thanksgiving. One person always saves the carcass from her family's turkey, and everyone brings vegetables - celery and onions and carrots and yams or sweet potatoes and ginger. The fragrance fills the entire lab as it burbles away on the kitchen stove.

It is different from the leftover turkey soup of my childhood. The night after Thanksgiving, after the dishes had been cleared away and all the pots and pans washed, the leftovers packaged in plastic boxes and piled in the refrigerator, the carcass would go into deep soup pot to simmer away. There would be chunks of onion and celery and carrots and tomatoes, perhaps the springs of parsley used as a garnish, and sweet corn. As the days went by the soup would get murkier (and more flavorful) as it was reheated again and again. Part of the pleasure of Thanksgiving is those bowls of soup, with plates of turkey sandwiches and stuffing on the side, until the monotony becomes unbearable and you need another year before you can face turkey again.

There is nothing like soup, writes Laurie Colwin. It is by nature eccentric: no two are ever alike, unless of course you get your soup from a can. (There is, of course, a kind of reassurance to soup from a can that always tastes the same; chicken noodle, short on both chicken and noodle, long on golden broth and bits of carrots, or cream of tomato, bland and comforting and the perfect accompaniment to grilled cheese sandwiches). She describes the best soup she ever ate as one made from a friend's leftover Christmas pheasant...Not so long ago [she] bought a that [she] could try to replicate it. But that soup, like most leftover soups, is a kind of lost chord and no one will ever find it again.

I thought of her words the other day as I ate a bowl of soup made from the remains of a roast chicken. I had roasted it with chunks of carrots and onions spread beneath the bird to catch the drippings; it gave the soup a caramelized intensity, a deeper richness and sweetness that I had never found before. I had slipped crushed cloves of garlic beneath the skin before roasting and the faint prickle of garlic still remained, a whisper of memory. Perhaps it is a lost chord, but one I hope to find again.

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. p. 116.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Reading. Milosz.

I first came across Czeslaw Milosz some months ago. The essays came first, in his ABC's, which lead to other poets, in whose woods of verses I lost myself, and then I returned to Milosz and his poetry. (I've written about this part before). Opened the pages at random, as I always do with poetry, began reading, felt my heart crack wide open, and then I started to weep. (I hate to cry in public places, like bookstores, especially when I don't have any tissues with me). I've never felt this way before, about anything, anyone. I have gone back and forth between the early poems and the later ones, and all the ones in between, but it is the poems of his last twilight years that I come back to again and again.

Now I see him as a traveler resting on a distant shore, an old man standing at its broken edge, gazing at the great expansive emptiness of the ocean, this "second space." He has come to face the end which draws nearer; those close to him, wives, friends, colleagues, all have passed before him, and he writes that "as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,/I felt a door opening in me and I entered/the clarity of early morning./One after another my former lives were departing,/like ships, together with their sorrow."

In Venice he remembers Brodsky and Pound, those gone before; in Eurydice he imagines his late wife, himself Orpheus descending into the underworld in one last attempt to bring her back. But the fire of words still burns clearly, brightly, even though his eyes have grown dim, the mind is as sharp as it must have been in his youth. I am haunted by his words, by the opening poem, Second Space, from which this last volume of poems takes its title, to the final poem, Orpheus and Eurydice, which is the first poem I read by Milosz and from which all others pale besides, the one I love the most.

But this is the first poem, Second Space:

How spacious the heavenly halls are!
Approach them on aerial stairs.
Above white clouds, there are the hanging gardens of paradise.

A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers that there is an up.
And there is a down.

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?

Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss,
Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.

Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second space.

Milosz, Czeslaw.
Second Space. Ecco, 2005. p. 3.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Eating. eggs.

As a beginning photography student at my high school, one of my first assignments was to photograph eggs. You could use any background, as long as it was white, and any prop, as long as it was clear or white. Sounds impossible, right? White on white. But it was a lesson in creating contrast with light and shadow, with taking something as basic and simple as a white egg, and making it the focus of your picture. I still have one of the photographs from that assignment, an arrangement of eggs and clear blown-glass cognac glasses against a checked white tablecloth, all light and shadow and texture; I remember balancing the glasses and the eggs and arranging lights to cast the perfect shadow. Then I ate the eggs.

I love a boiled egg, either hard-boiled, peeled and eaten with a sprinkling of salt, or soft-boiled until the yolk is still bright and liquid, perfect for dipping your toast. In Patricia Wentworth's mysteries, Miss Silver is always telling horror-stricken young women to sit down and have some tea and toast, and perhaps a boiled egg. I love the smooth hardness of the shell in my hand, the way it cracks and peels away to reveal the firm white beneath, the yolk hidden within. I used to feed the yolks to my dog, who loved them, too, mashed up and sprinkled over her food. Julia Child taught me to place the eggs in a saucepan with cold water to cover, bring to a boil, and then take them off the heat, covered, so they wouldn't overcook, and to peel them under cold running water if the shell stuck stubbornly to the white.

There are, of course, many things you can do with a boiled egg. When I was old enough to stay home while my parents went out to dinner I would make egg-and-pasta salad, spicy with curry or fragrant with dill. Or my mother would make tea-cooked eggs, boiled eggs whose shells were cracked and then simmered in tea seasoned with soy sauce and star anise. The whites take on the look of veined marble, or that effect called craqueleure, the tea and soy sauce staining the eggs a darker color where the shell had cracked. They are a little salty and smoky and fragrant; I would eat them for breakfast, or with rice and sliced tofu for lunch.

At the small supermarket near my parents' home they sell deviled eggs, nestled in a plastic dish with shallow indentations to hold each egg securely, like those plates they sell for broiling escargot. The egg yolks are mashed with mayonnaise and perhaps a touch of mustard, piped into the hollow white halves with a flourish, and dusted with paprika. Today I cannot resist them, and when I eat them I think about that party I went to, ages ago, when R. topped each deviled egg with a dollop of caviar. The egg is a simple thing that with just a little something - a little butter, some caviar, or perhaps a few shavings of white or black truffle - can be made into something luxurious.

But what I love is just a boiled egg, perhaps with a sprinkling of salt, because I love things that are plain - bread, eggs, a bowl of rice. The taste of them, alone, without anything else to overwhelm or overshadow them. Just perfection.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Reading. Kingsolver.

I come back to Animal Dreams again and again, so many times now that I must know it by heart. It is about loss and memory (and loss of memory) and belonging, even in a place where you thought you never belonged. The two intertwining stories as told by Homero and Cosima Noline, the father living in his memories of the past even as Alzheimer's shreds them until past and present are blurred. And Cosima, his older daughter, who left this town of Grace as soon as could and has only now returned to care for her father, who has forgotten all the people in this town, all her memories of this town, even though they remember everything about her, until the memories come flooding back as she puts the pieces of her family's past together.

As soon as I read the opening pages I feel the prickle of tears behind my eyes, as Homero gazes at his two daughters, "curled together like animals whose habit is to sleep underground, in the smallest space possible." I used to sleep that way, coiled tightly into a small corner of the bed, and when I read these words I flash back to my own childhood. But I never had a sister, never had the feeling of being so tied to someone else emotionally that it was like having a a twin "attached at the back of the mind." Hallie is the sister who left, who went off to Nicaragua to fight for something she believed fiercely in, and Codi (Cosima) is the one who came home to teach Biology to high-schoolers, students that she sees as reflections of the teenager she was.

I have written before how the words of Barbara Kingsolver make me weep, how they twist my heart until I can barely see the page for tears. The one part that of Animal Dreams that has stayed with me clearly for all this time is the conversation that Codi has with her father, where they discuss heartbreak. "Why do you suppose the poets talk about hearts? When they discuss emotional damage? The tissue of hearts is tough as a shoe," says Homero, "The seat of human emotion should be the liver...that would be an appropriate metaphor: we don't hold love in our hearts, we hold it in our livers." Since the first time I read these words I have always thought of a broken heart more as a broken liver, a wounded liver, "an organ with the consistency of layer upon layer of wet Kleenex. Every attempt at repair just opens new holes that tear and bleed. You try to close the wound with fresh wounds, and you try and you try and you don't give up until there's nothing left."

And yet against the pain and loss and memories of the past there is hope for happiness, of reconnecting with old friends from childhood, of finding love the second time around. Most of all, there is the realization that after feeling like an outsider for all her life she is as much a part of Grace as anyone else. And that it is home.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The day after. (Thanksgiving, Part II).

It always feels slightly disconcerting to eat a meal that I didn't help prepare in any way. Particularly when it is Thanksgiving, and instead of being in our own kitchen creating a meal out of chaos (and twenty-five pounds of turkey) we are in someone else's cavernous kitchen, all sorts of dishes spread across the dark granite countertops. There is turkey, of course, brined according to Alton Brown's recipe, moist and juicy and incredibly flavorful. There is a spiral-sliced ham, sweetly glazed and adorned with pineapple. And there are lamb chops, pan-seared over a roaring gas flame on the giant stove that anchors the great expanse of this kitchen which is nearly as large as my entire apartment. The stuffing is sweet with raisins and savory with herbs and are those bits of sausage in there? And mashed potatoes, enough mashed potatoes to fill a rowboat.

The thing about Thanksgiving and other holidays that you celebrate year after year is that they come haunted with memories. Last night there was a candied-yam casserole, honey-sweet mashed yams topped with mini-marshmallows and broiled until the marshmallows turned golden brown and caramelized. It was like a buttery sweet bomb of sunset-orange pudding. I have not had such a dish since the late 80's, one of the rare times we had Thanksgiving at someone else's house - the home of an old colleague and friend of my father's. We children performed a skit where a giant evil turkey (played by me, since I was the only girl not wearing a skirt) terrorized a village (the other kids) until they managed to kill me with a stick of dynamite, or something like that. I remember nothing else except the sweater I wore - it was black and patterned with colors, like a stained-glass window - and that M. and I looked up from our intense discussion of the film Au Revoir, les Enfants (remember, I was about nine and she was two or three years older) to realize that all the grownups were watching these two kids discuss an incredibly depressing French film about World War II.

Most of the Thanksgivings past blur together, save for a few that stand out clearly. One year we all went to my uncle's cabin in the woods, and the power went out, so dinner was late. As there were two teenage boys present, all the turkey was gone by the next morning. Another year, my first year of college, I met up with my parents in New York City and instead of a turkey we attempted to roast a duck in the oven of my grandfather's apartment, an oven that had never been used, and which managed to let out a few puffs of vague warmth before extinguishing entirely. Let me tell you, it is not impossible to roast a duck in a toaster oven. And then there was the last Thanksgiving my parents and I had together as a family, where we invited several friends, with the grownups in the dining room and the kids in the kitchen, a marathon of a meal that had three parts: part one, prepared by my mother, composed of the gentle, refined Chinese cooking that is her signature, part two, a gigantic paella prepared by my father, and part three, turkey with all the appropriate trimmings, prepared by me. I kid you not.

Perhaps my family and I will be together again for future Thanksgivings. Perhaps there will be new memories, new traditions, grounded in the old ones, the old memories. Or I will have to create my own.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving.

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving belonged to my father and I. My mother would retreat upstairs while he and I did all the cooking. Actually, he did most of the cooking, as I ran around helping. Stirring pots on the stove. Chopping vegetables. Making stuffing and potatoes au gratin from Julia Child's recipe. We would debate over whether to have cranberry sauce (usually not) or giblets in the gravy (yes) or oysters in the stuffing (sometimes my dad won - yes to the oysters - and other times I did - no oysters). The turkey and gravy was his job, until the year he was diagnosed with cancer. It was the week before Veteran's Day, which meant his surgery was scheduled for the day after the holiday, an operation that took several hours and involved sawing open his sternum and removing a tumor the size of a softball (it was much later that they told me this part) that was wrapped around his thymus gland. The weeks of recovery meant that by Thanksgiving he was still unable to lift anything larger than a paperback novel, let alone a turkey. So now it was my turn. I was sixteen, and I was terrified.

I think of all holidays Thanksgiving is my favorite, because it is all about food. Halloween is about children and lots and lots of candy, which I love, and Christmas has its added strains of gift-giving and decorating on top of the usual family battles. All I have to worry about is the turkey. The year I was sixteen Thanksgiving was my domain entirely; I got to choose the menu, shop for the ingredients, time everything, create absolute chaos in the kitchen. There was help if I needed it, but it was going to be done my way. And everything turned out brilliantly. What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is the one day a year we had American food, that we had a meal that included some kind of meat - turkey - accompanied by vegetables - usually green beans and/or brussels sprouts - and a starch - mashed potatoes or gratinéed potatoes or sweet potatoes and, of course, stuffing, completely different from the variations on Chinese home cooking that we ate virtually every other night of the year. There was never pie, because my parents don't like pie (some years ago, a friend's mother was so horrified by the idea that I'd never had pie for Thanksgiving she made me three miniature pies for me, and I was eating pie for a week).

Now my parents live in another country. Once, in their absence, I cooked dinner for five friends, with turkey and cranberry sauce and cornbread stuffing and various vegetable dishes (I seem to recall brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon and chanterelles) and mashed potatoes, ending with a pumpkin tart (from my favorite bakery) and baked Alaska (the specialty of one of my guests). But more often I join some close family friends at their house, with their own traditions and expansive, extended family. I love them, and I love the meals I have shared with them, but I dream of a future time when I once again have my own traditions at my table and the people I love around me. Someday.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Go forth and eat until you can't move.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reading. Fante.

There are few writers that I love so completely that just thinking about them makes my heart beat faster and my spirits lift. John Fante is one of them, with the easy way his words flow past me in a stream, making everything around me brighter, as if the sun shone out of the pages. Ask the Dust was the first of his works that I encountered, and I love it as much for his writing as I do for the introduction by Charles Bukowski, who, if you've been reading this blog from the beginning, you all know I love beyond any kind of reason. Fante is different, an altogether different kind of love, and Ask the Dust is like a long drive on a sunny day with someone you love, when you have all the time in the world to talk about anything and everything, and you do. And I was in love. So I kept reading.

Months went by, months where I went back to other writers I have loved and new writers that I would love, but sometimes when I'm in a bookstore and I have money burning a hole in my pocket, or I am up late wandering the internet and I have a coupon in my email I buy something new from a favorite writer. Which is how I wound up with another book by John Fante, Wait Until Spring, Bandini. You are sent back in time, away from the sunlight streets of Los Angeles and the dreams of the struggling young writer Arturo Bandini seen in Ask the Dust. Here we see Arturo as a child, with his brothers Federico and August, his parents Svevo and Maria. It begins with Svevo Bandini walking along in the cold of winter in Rocklin, Colorado, bitterly cursing the white snow and dreaming of the California sun. Cursing his gentle, pious wife, who spends all her time praying and fingering her rosary, its beads as white as the snow outside, cursing his sons and his lack of money.

The stories of each person's struggle are intertwined, Arturo dreaming of the girl in his class, Rosa, his first love, Maria praying for her husband and her children, coping with the bitter shame of being poor, and Svevo momentarily wooed away from his wife and family by a wealthy widow who hires him to work on her house, seduced by the warmth and comfort of soft beds and good wine and heated rooms. I have loved the way Fante uses words from the opening words of Ask the Dust and it has stayed with me all this time, and will continue to do so as long as I have memory at my disposal; if I forget everything else I will remember the rhythm of his words, the feel of them against my mind like the cold wind against my cheek, remember a man and his son walking home together, thinking aloud of the spring that is just ahead, around the corner, as soon as the winter snows melt away...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Reading. Slater.

This is the saddest book I have ever read.

Many chefs and food writers have written about their childhood memories, how their mother once gave everyone at a party food poisoning, or how their father made them fried-egg sandwiches. It is a glimpse into their past, to see what shaped their ideas and feelings and thoughts about food, something that would stay with them all their lives, influence the paths they took (or did not take). Some have mothers who were wonderful cooks who loved food, who inspired their children; others had mothers who could barely make toast and hated to cook, who had no interest in food except as a necessary fuel.

I had discovered Nigel Slater after reading Nigella Lawson's cookbooks some five or six years ago; the food movement in Britain had moved towards the idea of fresh, natural, good ingredients, a certain minimalism contradicted by expansive, luxurious, seductive generosity. Simplicity and a minimum of fuss and ingredients belied by a desire for comfort, for taking just a little time to produce something to make the people around you feel loved, cared for. Slater's cookbooks have titles like Appetite and Real Good Food, and his writing is as enticing as Nigella Lawson's, except, well, manlier. But his autobiography Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger is the saddest book I have ever read.

His memories begin with his mother in the kitchen, burning toast. She could never make toast without burning, he tells us, and he has never seen butter without black bits of crumbs in it. The memories are of candy bars and plastic-wrapped cake and bread-and-butter for tea. Of making Christmas cake with his mother, how the top always sank like a canyon that had to be filled with marzipan, of spreading jam on tartlets before baking them in the oven. There are disasters like spaghetti with tinned sauce and disgusting grated Parmesan cheese from a cardboard tube that tastes of vomit or Slater's first experience of Indian food, which I think is to the British what Chinese takeout is to us Americans. Or at least it was then.

When his mother died just before Christmas (Slater was nine) he is left without the anchor of her comforting presence, it is just himself and his father (and an older brother who no longer lives at home), a father who certainly couldn't cook at all. I cannot see the pages for tears as he describes living on packaged chips and chocolate and trying to make kippers for his father's tea (a humiliating failure), and the unbearable sadness of losing a parent when you are just a child. Shortly before his mother's death Nigel describes marshmallows as a mother's kiss, and afterwards his father leaves two marshmallows on his bedside table every night for two years. A poor substitute.

Later, there would be a stepmother who he never quite got along with. Later there would be kitchen jobs that took Slater out of his childhood and towards what would make him a celebrated food writer and columnist and television presenter. Later there would be fumblings of sex and love and food, real food. But this is how it all began, the saddest story I have ever read, all the sadder because it is real.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Eating/thinking. wild honey.

There is a song that goes something like you can go there if you please, wild honey, and if you go there, go with me, wild honey, and whenever I drizzle honey over my toast or into my tea I think of this song, sing it softly to myself as I lick the dribbles of honey from my spoon. When we were in the market yesterday I saw a stall selling jars labelled Bee Spit, with a cartoon of a smiling bee holding up the letters; it made me laugh. In this very market as a child I would buy straws filled with honey, different flavors, bite one end and suck out the honey until I was dizzy with the sweetness. When I was little honey came (and still does) in a plastic squeeze bottle shaped like a bear. Honey is Winnie-the-Pooh, childhood, tea and toast or honey-kissed Cheerios for breakfast, or graham crackers around campfires. It makes me think of the Agatha Christie novel where one of the suspects is poisoned while having afternoon tea, eating hot scones with honey. The king was in his counting-house, counting out his money; the queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey.

Wild honey is something else. Its sweetness has something untamed and dark to its taste, something more complicated than the sharp shock of sugar, it is the gentle sting of the bee, almost a kiss, the taste of sunlight and wildflowers, the feeling of running through fields of tall grasses and meadowflowers with the wind in your hair. In a small shop on a cobbled street in a tiny hilltop town in Tuscany, I found shelves and shelves of wild honey, lavender or millefiori or clover or thyme or perhaps rosemary. A clear gold, it is as though all the sunlight on a hot summer day, that shimmering light which hovers over the distant landscape like a pale haze, is distilled and concentrated and captured in each small, octagonal jar. I take two jars home, and when I look at them I feel as if I have brought something of the bright Tuscan sun back with me; I open the jar and the heady scent of wild honey and lavender fills the kitchen with its warmth.

When I am sick I squeeze lemon juice into a mug of hot water, hold a spoonful of honey aloft, tilt it so that it pours down in a thin golden stream, stir it all together; it will warm me, soothe me, make me dream of sunny days ahead. For breakfast I might butter a slice of toast, draw a gleaming spiral across the roughly browned surface, breathe in the buttery sweetness. In the days when we were swinging from the trees, I was a monkey, stealing honey from a swarm of bees...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sunday at the market.

The Pike Place Market is one of my favorite places in the world, even on a rainy day that is gloomy and wet and grey. We used to come here all the time, but now my visits are rare. I must make time to come here, I think to myself, but somehow I never do. My dad is more perservering, so after breakfast we head out to the market. Because of the rain there are fewer tourists, although someone (as usual) is posing by the bronze statue of a pig that marks one corner of the market. Young people with digital cameras take pictures of the different products on display. There are a few changes - one stand that used to sell produce now has rows of fresh pasta arranged neatly in wooden bins, the crêperie where I used to buy giant crêpes dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with lemon juice is gone.

We walk past the Chukar Cherries stall, with its gleaming tins and clear plastic bags of chocolate-covered cherries and nuts and dried berries. Past the produce stand where we always buy vegetables. Should we buy our vegetables now or come back? asks my dad. The guy who works there asks if we need any help. We'll be back! I call, over my shoulder, as we head towards the other end of the market. Past the restaurant that was featured in Sleepless In Seattle, the sausage shop that has the best sausages, the fish stalls with their perfectly arranged fish and shellfish on pristine beds of ice. The smell of donuts fills the air as I open the door and walk into DeLaurenti, the Italian food market that has been there for as long as I can remember.

Whenever I come to DeLaurenti I stand there indecisively, dizzy from the array of chocolate bars from different countries and of varying cocoa content, of olive oils (a whole wall of gleaming bottles filled with liquid gold) and balsamic vinegar (another wall of glass bottles, this time filled with black gold), of pasta in all shapes and sizes. Once my father sent me there for some cheese and I stood there in front of the glass case with such a look of confusion the clerk behind the counter took pity on me and walked me through my selection. (They're good at that). There are salamis and patés and different kinds of prosciutto and vats of olives and pickled vegetables. And we haven't even ventured up to the floor where the wine is displayed. I could spend hours here, and I have. But onwards.

Across the street there are more produce stands, shops selling ethnic jewelry, another fish market, little restaurants tucked away in corners, a kitchenware shop crammed floor-to-(very tall)-ceiling with all kinds of cookware and bakeware and dishes and gadgets and cookbooks and anything you might need. You have to squeeze in sideways if someone else happens to be looking at something in one of the narrow little aisles between canyons of wire shelving. And we emerge, blinking, from the other side of the shop (it has doors at both ends) to head towards Le Panier, my favorite bakery, where we go for croissants and chocolate éclairs.

By the time we return to the produce stand and gather some escarole and green beans and "little green balls of death" (as they call brussels sprouts) and onions and a few carrots, I have all sorts of bags in my hands. There is a sandwich from Michou, a little shop selling hot baked pastas and all kinds of salads and other side dishes as well as sandwiches, for lunch, after we take all of this bounty home. It is still raining, but I have all sorts of nice things in my bags and I can't wait to go home to open all these packages and put the good things away for later. But not too much later.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Eating out. Palomino/Nishino.

My dad's in town for the week. The other night, S. said to me, it's great to have your parents visiting; they take you out to eat, buy you stuff. But it's only great for four or five days, maybe a week. So far I have been chastised for my eating habits (do you always put so much butter on your toast?), my spending habits (the less said on that subject, the better), and the state of my apartment (it looks like a college dormitory! you should put your recyclables IN the recycling bin, your shoes in the closet, and don't put your tv on the floor - you can afford a tv stand). It's only been twenty-four hours. I need lunch. At Palomino.

Palomino, as I've said before, is one of my favorite restaurants. It's always good, the service is friendly, and it's consistent. (The fact that Barneys is downstairs is entirely irrelevant). The meal starts with rosemary foccacia and a fresh tomato salsa, as it always does, and I order the mushroom soup, as I always do. I always get the linguine with clams, my dad says, should I try something different? He doesn't. The mushroom soup is the same as I remember it; I've had the Dungeness crab sandwich before, an open-faced sandwich of crab salad topped with a slice of tomato and cheese, and then grilled, like a crab cake, only better. My father always finishes his linguine and then regrets it, the clams settling like bits of rubber tire (only more delicious) in his stomach.

Even when my parents are in town, they have work to do or errands to run or jetlag to recover from; I have my job and friends and hours I spend on the phone or on the internet or off reading the books that I will then spend more time writing about. Mealtimes are a way to reconnect, to catch up in a way we can't during phone calls snatched in between work or sleep or plane flights; for most of the year we are sixteen hours apart and half a world away from each other. It feels strange to be without them, but even stranger to have these few days together.

Dinner is at Nishino, again one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, and as before it is consistently good, the service friendly, only this is an independent restaurant nestled in an affluent neighborhood, not the soulless corporate anonymity of Palomino. Everyone at the sushi bar seems to be a regular; the owner greets my father as we walk in, and his wife stops by to chat later on. Next to me are two boys and their father, a boy's night out (their mother is not in the mood for sushi, apparently); the boy sitting next to me keeps elbowing me in the ribs as he shares a plate of tempura with his brother. But there is toro, perfectly marbled pink and rich and fatty as only toro can be, rounds of uni like a sunset-orange custard atop the seaweed-collared ball of sticky rice, if you had a custard that tasted of the sea and sweet water, and the best unagi I have ever had, still warm, not too sweet, not too sticky with sauce, but with just the right amount of sauce trickling into the rice that is warmed by the fish. This is happiness.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Eating. salmon.

Until we moved to Seattle in the mid-eighties, the salmon I knew was smoked, the peachy-pink, shiny slices of lox that were sandwiched between cream-cheese-smeared bagel halves. I was lucky to grow up here, in the Pacific Northwest, with all kinds of fresh seafood available, from Dungeness crabs which we steamed and ate dipped in saucers of ginger-spiked Chinese vinegar, to oysters which were carefully cracked open, seasoned and floured and then fried in a smoking-hot pan, to silver-skinned fish filleted and steamed with scallions and ginger and soy sauce and wine. And salmon. Lots of salmon. In Seattle, salmon is King (pun very much intended).

In school we would often go on field trips to salmon hatcheries to see how the eggs were fertilized (and later I would often eat sushi topped with salmon eggs - little round eggs a little smaller than a pea, clear and bright orange, they burst open in your mouth as you ate them, like caviar, only more exciting because the eggs were so much bigger). We learned about how salmon were born in freshwater streams, struggled upstream all the way to the ocean to live, and then returned back to where they were born to spawn, thus continuing the life cycle. I seem to recall watching nature films in science class, complete with sped-up footage of a salmon egg being fertilized and then emerging as a baby salmon. (While shopping at the Pike Place Market when it was filled with tourists in weather-inappropriate clothing, I have felt rather like a salmon swimming upstream as I elbow my way through the crowds heading the opposite direction).

At home there is only one way to cook salmon, according to my father - seasoned with salt and pepper, sprinkled with dill and parsley and fresh lemon juice, and broiled until the flesh has gone from bright orange to a paler, pinkish orange, like a sunset in reverse. In college, away from disapproving parental eyes, I would buy small fillets of salmon, glaze them with a little honey and soy sauce, and sear them in a frying pan until the skin was crisp and the fish was just cooked through, a variation on the salmon teriyaki I sometimes ordered at the fairly good Japanese restaurants near my university. Heresy, my father would say, a travesty to do something like that to a nice piece of fish. I may as well buy farmed stuff. (Once, I had accidentally bought farmed salmon instead of wild, and from the reaction I got you might think I had tried to poison my family). But back home I revert to the herb-crusted salmon of my childhood. If I am alone I might toss the leftover salmon with pasta and sautéed slices of fennel and onion and mushrooms, showering everything with finely grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese (if I have any lying around) and more lemon juice.

My father is here for the holiday week, and jet-lag notwithstanding he has gone out to buy some salmon, a piece of wild white King salmon steak, sprinkled with salt and pepper (WHY is there no salt in the house!? he asks, indignantly) and dried herbs and fresh lemon juice. There are broiled portabello mushrooms, and shrimp steamed with ginger and scallions and white wine, and boiled sweet corn. Welcome home.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reading. Chocolat.

You could rent the movie, of course, and a very lovely movie it is indeed, but something is lacking, a touch of magic that only words can express, perhaps. The images that Joanne Harris' words conjure up in your mind, with each intoxicating description of Vianne's chocolate shop and the creations within, are beyond anything that could be recorded on film. You are left to imagine the taste of hot chocolate sparked with the slow fire of Kahlua, or doused with the cool sweetness of a crème Chantilly and the crunch of chocolate curls. Imagine her shop with its rows of boxes and little bags and cornets tied with long curls of ribbon, heaping piles of chocolates and sweets under glass bells, held aloft in their dishes, proffered up like so much gleaming treasure. It makes me hungry. (Fortunately, I have a bag of chocolate-covered honey pecans at my side, each sweet covered in powdered sugar that scatters white dust wherever I go).

From the opening pages and the description of Vianne and Anouk's arrival to the town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday, with the carnival bringing the "hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hot plate right there by the roadside," I can almost smell the melting butter and that warm, sweet perfume of browning batter and see the mad joy of the carnival against the drabness of this tiny town, "no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux." With the way Harris uses words to describe everything she lays before us, the daughter whose hair is a cotton-candy tangle in the wind, whose eyes are the blue-green of the earth seen from a great height, everything seems more real than anything real, something I could reach out and touch with my hand.

There is more to the story than chocolate, of course; there are the battles between the shopkeeper, Vianne, whose sweets tempt the villagers from their Lenten fasts, and the curé Reynaud, who would remind them that they should abstain, between the villagers and the wandering gypsies docked by the river on their boats, led by the stubborn Roux, between Josephine and her loutish husband, until at last Josephine breaks free. Between the elderly free-spirit Armande and her uptight daughter Caroline. Between Vianne and the memory of her mother, and her mother's wandering spirit which led Vianne all over the world, never growing roots, never standing still. In the future, will Vianne and Anouk have that same battle, or has Vianne at last found something enduring in this little blip of a town?

In her shop Vianne sells dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crash-crash-crashing among the hazels and nougatines...And when I read her story I dream of these small comforts and sweet harmless temptations, I dream of reaching my hand out to the small bag of chocolates on the nightstand, the taste and dark rush of chocolate that goes to my head the way words slide around in my mind and make it spin, I dream of walking into a shop whose shelves are filled with sweets, presided over by a beautiful witch-woman whose hair blows loose around her shoulders, who whispers to me, I know which ones are your favorites. And I wake, and they are beside me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Eating. sushi.

A few blocks from my home is a Japanese restaurant that opened quite recently. Before that it was an Italian restaurant, a phenomenon I have seen before. Although perhaps it is no accident that Italian and Japanese are two of my favorite cuisines. I had been meaning to try that intriguing little Osteria del Spiga every time I walked past, perused the menu with longing, until one day I noticed it was now called Vi Bacchus (a peculiar name for a Japanese restaurant) and had an extensive sake menu and an assortment of sushi. Alas. I had waited too long. But something different awaited.

Last time we ate here it was late on a Saturday night, and completely empty, never a good sign in a sushi restaurant. So we had beef udon noodles (C.), and broiled salmon marinated in miso (me). A mug of miso soup arrived, and a small bowl of salad with a gingery dressing. Then came a plate of broiled salmon, with another plate of rice on the side. Comfort food. It is simple and delicious and I promise myself that I will eat here as often as possible. I wondered if perhaps the furniture and some of the dishes were left over from the Osteria days, tables inlaid with painted tiles; ceramic plates with a design that definitely did not look Japanese. It is quiet here, dimly lit and filled with dark wood against tiled floors.

Tonight I want sushi. I walk the three or four blocks to the restaurant, where C. is waiting, and we order a variety of sushi rolls, and miso soup, which arrives in rough earthenware mugs; the waitress remembers us from Saturday night and waves across the room. There is tea, clear green, with a powdery residue at the bottom of the cup that catches at my throat. The sushi arrives, a tuna roll, spicy and cool, an unagi roll, with the rich unagi set off by the crispness of cucumber, a salmon skin roll, crispy and salty against the rice, and a caterpillar roll with layers of avocado and unagi wrapped around rice and a heart of tempura shrimp. Italian opera is playing in the background. (Another reminder of the restaurant that stood here before?).

I have always wanted to have a favorite neighborhood restaurant, one that I could walk to whenever I wanted, one where they knew me by name because I had become a regular. I am not quite there yet. But perhaps I have found what I was looking for.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reading. Yoshimoto.

I first began reading the works of Banana Yoshimoto when I was in high school, drawn to her funny name (this is before Gwyneth named her daughter Apple and Hollywood celebrities scattered the gossip pages with ridiculous baby names) and pulled deep into the beautiful sadness of Kitchen, the first of two novellas that launched Yoshimoto onto the literary scene. It is about loss and the kindness of strangers, about love and memory, and about cooking. I may forget what I had for breakfast this morning, or the conversation I had with a colleague two hours ago, but I will remember for the rest of my life her description of a bowl of katsudon, remember how she describes the light in the kitchen going ting! ting! against the gleaming tiles.

There is a luminous quality to her writing, to the way she uses words, in such a way that even in moments of sadness you feel as though you are looking out into a landscape washed clean by the rain, a spring rain, that falls heavily but with warmth. As though the sun has not yet flooded the scene before you, but you can sense the possibility of sunlight, the possibility of happiness ahead. Even with the weight of sorrow there is such a feeling of lightness as you read, faster and faster, eager to see what will come next, what will happen on the next page. Kitchen was the first book I read by Yoshimoto, and there have been others since, but I have not loved anything with the same fierce intensity until now, now that I have come across Goodbye Tsugumi, which I found late one night while browsing the internet (as so often happens).

For one last summer Maria returns to the family inn where she spent her childhood, with her cousins Tsugumi and Yoko, the former at times cruel and petty and spoiled, at other times as close as her own skin, the way sisters are, the way your cousins become a part of you when you grow up together. Maria has moved to Tokyo, and the family inn is to be sold; that part of her life is soon to come to an end, so this last summer is a final goodbye to the place where she grew up, and perhaps a goodbye to Tsugumi as well, who has always been frail and ill and perpetually on the verge of death (a fact which she always used to get her own way).

It is a peculiar feeling - and I speak from experience - to have the solitude of being an only child, that sense of being part of something isolated, just your parents and you, the three of you, a solid, perfect, triangle - and yet have it periodically interrupted by your cousins who become like siblings, as close as siblings. I think this story resonates so clearly with me because it calls forth echoes of my own childhood with my cousins, who are like my brothers, and vacations by the seaside. Always the seaside, with the endless horizon stretching before you, as though you are standing at the edge of the world, where everything and anything is possible, where grief can fling itself into those endless depths of the sea and be washed away by the tide...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Eating. salad.

I have a deep and profound fear of raw vegetables. I love all manner of cooked vegetables, but a salad rarely fills me with joy. I tend to view it as something dark and evil. I think it may be a cultural thing, because I grew up Chinese, (more or less), and the only thing raw on a Chinese table was the occasional lettuce cup cradling a heaping spoonful of minced pork stir-fried with tofu and bits of crunchy vermicelli. Oh, sure, there were celery sticks in my lunch bag (filled with peanut butter), and vegetable trays filled with carrots and celery and broccoli and cauliflower florets, with some kind of creamy dressing as a dip, but then, the former is just an excuse to eat peanut butter and the latter is just an excuse to eat lots of dip. Salad, in my home, was completely unheard of, unless you count tuna fish sandwiches and potato salad from a plastic tub. Which I don't.

Of course, I grew up in the late 80's (limp, watery iceberg tossed with sad little tomatoes) and the 90's (mixed greens with walnuts and goat cheese). Culinary ventures into worlds where salad infested the menu like an overgrown meadow were rare, and as far as I can remember I never ordered salad if I could help it at all. (And would you like soup or salad with your meal? Soup). Although I must admit that I cannot resist anything that comes with a warm bacon vinaigrette or sautéed chicken livers (or both).

The only great salad I remember eating was at a small café in the Pike Place Market, Café Campagne. We often went there on weekends for brunch, for omelettes and terrines of pâté served with crusty bread and locally-made sausages. They made a perfect quiche - the crust flaky and crisp, the custard filling creamy and eggy and silky, spiked with chunks of onion and bacon. A slice of quiche appeared on a pristine white plate with a pile of what appeared to the naked eye to be a pile of undressed greens. No goopy dressings, no nuts, no cheese, no wayward lardons or crumbly bits of cheese. Just a heap of delicate mixed greens, mâche, perhaps, arugula, frisée, pale green and sweet and tender and just barely caressed with a touch of oil, a whisper of vinegar or lemon, to bring out the bright flavor of the salad itself. It changed my mind about salad, which was a great pity, because in all the years since I have not had one that came close.

My exception to this great fear of raw vegetables and salad, is, of course, Caesar salad. Torn romaine leaves (although these days it is trendy for restaurants to leave the leaves whole, and to shave the Parmeggiano-Reggiano into frail chips, which is the wrong way to do it; the cheese needs to be grated so it will stick to the dressing and thicken everything) tossed with a creamy, garlicky dressing (with or without anchovies). Sometimes I make this at home, with a coddled egg and good light olive oil and homemade croutons. But tonight, it is pizza time, and soon some young punk is going to show up at my door with pizza topped with all sorts of interesting things, and a Caesar salad, cool and crisp and perfuming the air with a cloud of garlic. I plan to steal most of the croutons, which absorb the dressing and manage to be soggy and crunchy all at once, the perfect end to the evening.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reading. James. (P.D.).

It has been cold and rainy as the days slide into November and head towards the heart of winter, perfect weather to curl up on the cushions, under a blanket, with a murder mystery in one hand and a chocolate bar (left over from Halloween) in the other. The shelves in my room are crammed full of mystery novels, collected over the past decade, enough to last me all through the winter; I am like a bear storing food for the long, cold months ahead, my apartment like a dark cave (there are no lamps in the living room, only overhead lights positioned awkwardly in relation to the shape of the room, the placement of furniture).

I am not sure how long I have been reading P. D. James; certainly not very long, and most certainly out of order. It is disconcerting to move back and forth in time, in and out of the lives of Detective Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, the poet-policeman, and the younger members of his elite crime squad. Their personal relationships and heartbreaks and loves bloom against the shadows of murder that is their life's work. Dalgliesh is the heart of the story, the poet-policeman whose work is occasionally referenced (nearly everyone who speaks of his poetry comments that, unlike most modern poetry, it is not merely prose rearranged on the page) as a counterpoint to the crimes that otherwise occupy his thoughts.

The world of the crimes that Dalgliesh finds himself and his team thrown into is populated by the wealthy and privileged upper classes. The victims are doctors and professors and Archdeacons and society girls and barristers. The murderers are their friends and family and rivals and colleagues and lovers. Sometimes the murder is one of revenge, held close to the heart for long decades of bitter grief; sometimes it is done for the sake of someone else, even if that someone else had no idea that murder was being committed in their name. The woman are tall and beautiful, or not-beautiful-but-with-that-bone-structure-that-is-beyond-beauty, with hair falling loosely around the shoulders or pulled straight back off the face (all the better to emphasize all that bone structure); they wear perfectly cut skirts or trousers with polo-neck (that's turtleneck for us Americans) jumpers (that's sweaters to us) or cardigans with pearls, or they wear no jewelry because upper-class people don't need jewelry to show us how wealthy they are.

To draw us into the landscape that is about to be blown apart by sudden, violent, death, James describes everything with such beautiful tranquility that you can see in your mind's eye the grand houses that have become a publishing house or a small museum, or the windswept coast of an isolated island, or the sculpted-sand cliffs where a young man fell to his death. You feel the wind against your cheek, in your hair, the smell of the sea, and then everything is turned upside down by greed or revenge or random, senseless murder. It is an escape from the ordinariness of your own life, to which you return with a sense of loss, and relief.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reading. Hiassen.

It all started with a conversation with K., who reads all the same mystery novels that I do. She was reading something by a writer I'd never read, but she wasn't sure about the title. A wealthy woman is shoved off a cruise ship by her lame-ass husband, but she survives, rescued by a) a floating bale of marijuana, and b) an ex-cop who lives on a isolated island with only a dog for company. The rest of the story is about how they figure out why he did it, and how she gets revenge. And revenge is what they get, first haunting the asshole husband, and then framing him for her murder. (Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiassen). It was funny and unexpectedly romantic, completely different from my usual British mysteries, and of course I had to read more. How I wound up reading the book that the great cinematic masterpiece starring Demi Moore (and a spectacular pair of breasts that looked as rigid and unyielding as tupperware bowls), Striptease, is based on, is unclear.

The books of Carl Hiassen are set in the murky swamps, the brightly gleaming cities of Florida, the former polluted by crooked politicians and land developers, the latter tacky with neon lights and badly-dressed tourists. Murder and accidental death by crocodile or snake or some other wild animal abounds; no one can shoot straight, injuring and annoying their victim instead of killing them, and a hitman is killed by his intended target, speared with the needle-sharp fin of a stuffed marlin. There are explosions and dismemberments and accidents involving dental instruments and endless coverups as panicked villians screw things up even more. People are out for justice, and they don't care about how they get it. Usually without entirely legal means. And then I found that Hiassen wrote children's books.

Hiassen's children's books are set in that same Florida as his other ones, but they are about children fighting for a cause - usually involving the environment - without regard to rules and laws. There are parents and school bullies and local law-enforcement personnel and The Bad Guys to dodge. There are owls to save (Hoot) and a casino-boat-owner to stop from dumping raw sewage into the formerly pristine Florida waters (Flush). And there is more than that. We (through our characters' eyes) learn that parents are human, that some things are worth fighting for, breaking the rules for. That even if all the forces seem aligned against you, there are allies to be found, and you have to try. And they win. The bad guys get whatever justice is coming to them, the schoolyard bullies get their comeuppance, the owls are saved. Another day in the Florida sun.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Eating. udon.

When we were young my cousins and I would come home after school and snack our way through the kitchen like a pack of ravenous wolves. Most often it was frozen pizza, bought by the dozen at Costco and zapped in the microwave, or tv dinners. I have a vague memory of creamy chicken fettuccine, and sausage-and-egg-and-English-muffin sandwiches, also bought frozen and heated in the microwave. Other times we would make pots of udon noodles, simmered on the stove with frothy beaten eggs stirred in, perhaps with a handful of chopped scallions thrown in as well. As the only girl I was always the one voted to do the cooking (or microwaving, as the case may be. I was also always the one who called Domino's whenever we ordered pizza). The udon noodles came in shrink-wrapped plastic packages, cold and white and kinked together in flat squares; dropped into boiling soup they would soften and disentangle themselves, take on the rich flavor of the broth.

There are few things in life better than a bowl of noodle soup. Every culture has its infinite offerings; to claim a favorite is an impossible task. Sometimes I need the slippery, thick, chewiness of udon, made with white flour, the noodles slide through my chopsticks as I slurp away noisily. The broth tastes of the sea, fish underscored with the dark complexity of soy sauce, not the ordinariness of chicken or the sameness of beef. Sometimes I make it at home, with those same cold white noodles from the supermarket wrapped in plastic that we ate as children; other times I order it at one of my favorite Japanese restaurants, with a plate of tempura next to me, crisply-battered vegetables and giant shrimp to dip in the hot soup. It is for cold nights when the rain hisses against the windows (on hot days I turn instead to cold soba or somen, coiled in a bowl of ice, with a bowl of sauce on the side), when darkness falls silently and suddenly in the late afternoon without the dusklight hours.

I have staggered all through the day with a cold and a voice that is rapidly shredding like torn silk, and all I want is a bowl of noodles and my bed. Udon noodles are all I can think of, all day long. It takes only a brief detour to the nearby supermarket for packets of noodles and a carton of lemonade, which I lug the remaining three blocks home. A small pot of water comes swiftly to a boil on the electric coils of my stove, and in less time than it takes to blow my nose (well, perhaps to blow my nose three times) I am sitting crosslegged on the floor in the dark cave of my living room, watching tv and slurping down hot udon noodles in a savory broth, and I am comforted. It is a warm blanket and a soft pillow in a bowl.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading. Didion.

Some time ago (not long after I turned twenty-five) I found myself buying books with a feverish hunger that most people reserve for recreational drugs or alcohol or inappropriate members of the opposite sex (or the same sex, for that matter). It became alarming only when I realized that I was spending nearly as much on books as I was on food, quite a feat considering that I often shop at Whole Foods, otherwise known as Whole Paycheck. Many of these books I read immediately, and they have been written about on these pages. Many were put away, hidden behind other, better-loved books on shelves or in dark corners or under the bed. It was not until I moved to my new home a few months ago and gained more much-needed shelf space, where my entire collection could be arranged by genre or by author or by publisher, exposed to all those who stood before them.

It is rather like an Easter egg hunt, a scavenger hunt for hidden treasure, finding books you didn't know you owned or that you vaguely remember buying but can't remember where or when or why. I found Vintage Didion shelved with the other Didions, between William Golding and Joseph Brodsky (there is logic to this, but I haven't found it yet), slid it out from between its neighbors. The writer stares back at me, a smile playing across her face, a scarf around her neck. A broad white stripe bearing the title of the book slices across the lower-middle section of the cover, separating her torso from her white-stockinged legs, ending in Mary-Janed feet. I have always considered Joan Didion to be one of the great beauties of her time, but it is her writing that lacerates my soul in a way no one else ever has.

The first chapter (one of a collection of essays gathered from across Didion's expansive career) of Vintage Didion is entitled Girl of the Golden West and it reminds me immediately of the Puccini opera La fanciulla del West, but is about Patricia Campbell Hearst, more commonly known as Patty Hearst. It is about how this California Golden Girl went from heiress and Berkeley college student to a member of the group that had kidnapped her. Didion's writing is, as always, clear and effortless and direct; she begins with a description of the domestic details, how Hearst wrapped herself in a blue robe and made chicken noodle soup from a can and tuna salad sandwiches for herself and her fiancé, and suddenly you are plunged into her abduction and all the mayhem that followed. And the more I read the more I feel clearly that it is Didion herself who is the Girl of the Golden West, this California girl whose writing is tied to her home state as though it was a part of her, bone deep and true to every word.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Reading. Donne.

Last night I opened a volume of Donne at random, and my eye fell upon possibly the best opening line of any poem I have ever read:

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids
Those tears to issue which swell my eye-lids

It goes on, but those first words are what caused me to laugh so hard I had to turn off my tv and concentrate all my attention on the poem. This is what I love most about Donne, the sharp incisiveness of his words, whether it is about love or pity or religious beliefs.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Eating. Cactus!.

I have never gotten the hang of Mexican food. There are vague memories of tacos and chimichangas in the school cafeteria, the occasional tostada at a Mexican restaurant with friends. There was that school trip to Mazatlán back in seventh grade, of which I remember only quesadillas at dinner, fajitas at some roadside stand (wrapped in handmade tortillas cooked on a vast griddle; there is a sketch somewhere in some long-lost journal), pickled pig's feet in Guadalajara, and strawberry daiquiris at Señor Frog's. (I have never had another daiquiri since that trip).

Other than those random and far-flung experiences, Mexican food remained a mystery to me, described in magazines and movies and books such as Like Water for Chocolate (a story for another time) but outside the realm of my own tastes, my own life. Much later, when I was in college, I would work for an artist who would take me out to lunch every now and then, usually to the Mexican place in a funky little mall near the museum. I never knew what to order, and now I can't remember what I did wind up ordering. It was good, but it was never anything I loved or had any great feeling for. Until now.

Occasionally J. would mention a place near the university where she went for Mexican food with her friends. We should try that sometime, I'd say, but it never happened. Until one day at work when we ordered massive amounts of burritos and chips and salsa and guacamole and sat around the huge round table in the kitchen, with bottles of beer and mojitos (it was Cinco de Mayo, if I remember correctly). I remember sitting down with my heavily-laden plate, my drink, cool and minty, and thinking, wow, this is really something. I will never love Mexican food the way I do, say, Italian or French or Japanese, something I eat almost weekly, that I cook at home or go out to nearby restaurants with friends and family.

But tonight I want Mexican food. We head to Cactus, down in the Madison park neighborhood near the water. Farther up the hill are some of my favorite restaurants, Rover's and Harvest Vine and Nishino; down here the vibe is even more casual. There is the diner we usually go to when Cactus is full - which it usually is - and a pub. A little farther down the block is an Italian place where I vaguely remember having lunch outside on the sidewalk, many years ago. But tonight is a weeknight, and it is early. Cactus is mostly empty, and for the first time we have our pick of tables instead of a long line and a forty-five minute wait.

We sit down, and a basket of tortilla chips arrives, with a bowl of salsa and another of guacamole. The chips are thinner and lighter than any I have seen before, crisp and weightless; the salsa is fresh and sweet with tomatoes and bright with chilies and the sharpness of onion, the guacamole chunky and rich and cool. A promise of more good things to come. There is grilled skirt steak, bright with lime and coriander, smoky with the red mole sauce, over garlicky mashed potatoes, piled high with spicy, finely sliced onion rings. It is not traditional in any sense of the word, but it is better than delicious, and the miseries of the day melt away and disappear.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reading. Wentworth.

In high school I would occasionally try to distract my piano teacher from noticing that I hadn't practiced by starting long conversations about art (she was a docent at the museum, and I was about to head off to college to study art history) and whatever mystery novel I was reading at the moment. After every lesson she would lend me a new one, which I would return the next week. I was envious of her library, one wall lined with floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves, filled with books on art and mystery novels and all sorts of other books, a collection built over many years, with cozy chairs and reading lamps scattered about. Someday I would have a library like that, I promised myself. (I'm not quite there yet, although I have several mis-matched bookcases filled in my bedroom).

I had been, by that time, a longtime reader of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Patricia Wentworth was a newer discovery, and my piano teacher had all of them. Wentworth's detective was the always proper Miss Maud Silver, a former governess who had turned to private detection in order to make a living that would provide her with a comfortable retirement (unlike, as she was wont to remind the reader, the life of a governess, which lead to a retirement of shabby and genteel poverty due to poor pay and less-than-ideal living conditions). She was forever knitting socks or cardigans or onesies for the children of various nieces and former (now happily-married) clients, forever quoting Tennyson, forever speaking British French to her friend, detective Frank Abbott, when they were on the phone and she didn't want to be overheard.

There is a certain sameness to the mysteries; often there is a couple - a beautiful or not-so-beautiful-but-striking young woman and her husband or fiancé - separated by misunderstanding or some foolish quarrel or a domineering relative. There is nearly always a domineering relative - a mother or aunt or stepmother, and a kindly uncle or distant relation hovering around. There is always jealousy and greed and blackmail and murder (of course). Love always triumphs (even if years pass before the parted lovers find their way back to each other, even if it takes a murder to draw them together), justice always triumphs, and the novel ends with an inspiring quote (by Tennyson, naturally) spoken by Miss Silver to the adoring Frank as she pours him a cup of tea in her living room.

Against the horrors of murder and suspicion the calm ordinariness of this fussy little woman who looks exactly like the ex-governess she is, with her Alexandra fringe and mousy hair and colorless skin, her dark, old-fashioned clothes and fantastical hats adorned with feathers or bunches of flowers, her bog-wood brooches carved in the shape of a rose, with a pearl at its heart, her sensible shoes and fur tippet (so cozy, in the unpredictably heated - or unheated - rooms of English country homes where these mysteries unfold) stands out as something almost unreal. But it is this unreal ordinariness, this calm, this insistence on hot tea and boiled eggs and toast when sudden death and fear shrouds the lives of Miss Silver's clients, that gives them a sort of reassurance, that the murderer will be caught, that life will return to normal.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Reading. Eager.

In my middle-school library, hardcover novels were shelved in tall bookcases along one long wall; paperbacks were housed in spinning racks tucked away in various corners. During free periods I would browse these selections for new books, read them in the car on the way home from school, or while eating an afternoon snack, or in bed before going to sleep. Return them the next day and take home something new. There are so many writers I discovered here, so many writers that I came to love, still love, still read, even now I am grown up, writers I plan to read aloud to my children in that far-off distant future. Edward Eager is one of them.

The books of Edward Eager are about magic. The children in his stories are taken from their own ordinary world into the magic world, with the help of a coin that gave you half of whatever you asked for (Half Magic), a lake that granted your wishes (Magic By the Lake), an old figure of a knight that led your imaginary battles of toy soldiers into a world where they became real (Knight's Castle), or a garden overrun with thyme (The Time Garden) (there are other stories, but these are the ones I loved best). Their secret fantasies come to life, their real lives change through a widowed mother finding new love, or a father's illness casting a shadow over their youthful innocence. (Whenever I read the part of Knight's Castle where Roger and Ann's father tells them that he is ill and must go to the hospital for an operation, I remember all over again the night my father told me he had cancer, remember the wave of misery that swept over me at his words, the reassurances that he would be all right - and he was - not at all reassuring).

While in these stories the children get to live their dreams of fighting pirates on deserted islands, or helping Ivanhoe escape from the dungeon, or travel to the time of Elizabeth I, or have your adventure cross paths with those of your parents when they were children, they are grounded by the realities of life - the prospect of a new stepfather, the illness of a father, the everyday battles between brothers and sisters, the petty squabbles, the trials and unfairness of being the oldest or the youngest or the middle child or the only boy. When I read them now I find myself drawn back into childhood, if only for a moment, the sweetness and innocence of being young again. I would not wish to be back in that time, not for anything, but it is a gentle pleasure to find myself read of others having their own magical adventures in that distant past of youth.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Eating. brunch.

I love brunch. It brings to mind long, leisurely late morning-early afternoon hours at the table, in cozy little restaurants with bare wooden tables, or restaurant dining rooms with white tablecloths and miles of buffets. When I was growing up we would often go out to brunch on Sundays. Saturdays belonged to Chinese school and tennis lessons and piano lessons; Sundays meant lounging around in my pajamas reading the comic strips in the Sunday paper, eggs or pancakes and bacon or bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, or crossaints from the French bakery in the market. When I was learning to drive, on weekends, we would drive (with me at the wheel) along the winding road by the lake to the Arboretum, where we would go for a walk, before heading off to lunch and shopping. Usually we went to the Pike Place Market, stopping at one of our favorite restaurants for steamed mussels or eggs Benedict or quiche and a salad, and then browse among the stalls for local produce, bread, flowers.

Today we head to the Fairmont Olympic hotel, formerly the Four Seasons, an imposing edifice that fills a square block and is one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Elegant and traditional and perhaps a little stuffy, not sleek and modern like the other hotels that have sprung up more recently, spiffy young upstarts challenging the grande dame. A. pulls up swiftly to the entrance where liveried doorman usher us inside out of the rain; an escalator carries us up to the grand lobby. Past cozy groupings of chairs and little tables (for afternoon tea, or drinks), up a few steps, and we are in the Georgian Room, a high, vast, square room painted a pale yellow that creates its own aura of sunlight and warmth. White moldings curl around the walls like lace; four towering square planters sprouting palm trees anchors the space. Across the room, a huge group of giggling young women are having a baby shower, passing presents around and ooh-ing and aah-ing, waving champagne flutes. Other people are having afternoon tea already, silver cake stands piled with pastries and sandwiches towering over pots and cups and saucers. But we are here for brunch.

The service is polite but glacial, that is, glacially slow. A plate arrives with my lunch neatly arranged on its pristine white surface. A small bowl of bean soup, with crisp lardons, a bright romaine salad tossed with shavings of cheese, and a toasted bagel with a slice of smoked salmon and egg salad. (Brunch should by law include smoked salmon, eggs, and bagels, and bonus points for getting them all together at once). The egg salad has bits of truffle and perhaps some truffle oil as well, giving it a moody intensity against the creamy egg and salty salmon. A. passes me a piece of her giant shrimp, wrapped in prosciutto and grilled. (It is my firm belief that wrapping something in prosciutto immediately raises it to another level of culinary nirvana). They have forgotten to bring bread, and it doesn't arrive until our plates have been cleared. And the bread is the best part of the meal, fresh and light and airy, with a dense, crisp crust, perfect for breaking apart and spreading with sweet butter. I love brunch; it is like eating breakfast, but only better.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Reading. Burroughs.

I still haven't read Naked Lunch. I'm beginning to wonder if I ever will. I started with Junky, and now I've turned to Queer. With the former I fell down Burroughs' rabbit-hole into the abyss of drug addiction; what was I going to find in the latter? I saw it on the bookshelf, picked it up, found in it the continuation of the story that sent shivers down my spine, the sequel to Junky. I remember reading that earlier book and feeling a sense of despair, a cold desperation; there was a rawness to his words that seemed to grate against my soul the way a fall on concrete might leave your hands scraped and bleeding.

The story trails off into nothingness (as memory serves), into, as Burroughs writes in the foreward to his sequel, a dead end; "Lee has reached the end of his line, an end implicit in the beginning." It felt incomplete, perhaps it was meant to, and I was surprised to find that the story continued on in another novel. I wasn't sure what I would find with Queer. We are back in Mexico City, Lee coming off the junk and into the inescapable longing for the young Allerton, who has not realized that he is the object of desire for this strange man who has somehow become his friend. The hunger, the longing for something unattainable - or is it? I have not yet finished the story - insinuates itself into the brain, shudders along the skin like a touch. Who needs drugs when there is love, or at least the hunger for someone else?

In Burroughs I found, as with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, someone whose words shredded everything I believed into bits of confetti that I would have to put together into something new. The way he uses words, the way he describes the Mexico City of his wanderings, the way he describes Lee's feelings for Allerton, the easy way he slips through the pages as his characters slip through the city streets in search of drugs, drink, love...

to be continued...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Eating. potato chips.

What was that advertising hook that Lays used way back when? Bet you can't eat just one. More like you can't eat just one bag. I was at Costco the other day; when we were a family of three it was ridiculous to come home with a giant carton of grapes and a three-pound chunk of cheddar cheese. Now I am alone it is even more ludicrous to come home with a year's supply of paper towels and enough juice for two weeks (especially when I drink my juice fizzed up with sparkling water). And a giant bag of potato chips. Lays' Ruffles. They have Ridges; how could I resist them? These are the chips of school lunches in the cafeteria, in their little single-serving bags, amongst the corn chips and pretzels laid out enticingly next to the cash register. At home, preparing to carve my pumpkins at the worn kitchen table that has been there for twenty years, I pour out a bowl and childhood comes flooding back to me.

In a house that was mostly free of junk food (aside from ice cream), there was nearly always a bag of potato chips lying around. My dad would sit munching a bowl of them, drinking a glass of wine and watching the game on tv while we cooked dinner. At parties there would always be a cut-glass bowl full of chips, next to dishes of candies and nuts and platters of pâté and cheese; after the party was over the leftovers would be poured into ziploc bags, to disappear over the following days. I have always been criticized for my sweet tooth, but that has made a convenient smokescreen for my secret lust for salty things like chips and olives and nuts.

There are sour-cream-and-onion chips, leaving a malodorous powder all over your fingers (but not as bad as the cheese puffs that leave radioactive orange residue all over the place). Barbecue-flavored ones, smoky and dark red. Salt-and-vinegar chips, which shrivel your tongue and dessicate the roof of your mouth. There are upmarket chips, which you can tell are fancier because the bag comes in solid, dark colors with lettering that seems carved from bark, or shows scenes from Pacific Northwest life, or something. And the chips are more wrinkled and misshapen, darker in spots to show that they have been hand-stirred in open kettles and so forth. It's like how heirloom tomatoes are uglier than hothouse ones, but taste so much better (not to mention cost five times more).

After all those kettle-cooked potatoes made with olive oil and sprinkled lightly with sea salt, deformed and broken in their bag, it was time to come back to the relative uniformity of Ruffles. Crunchy and salty and completely addictive, I can't stop with just one. One bowl turns into two, in between scooping out pumpkin seeds and washing orange pumpkin gunk off my hands. Maybe three; after four hours of carving pumpkins, I've lost count. I eye the bag thoughtfully; with restraint and self-control, these should last two weeks, maybe three. Maybe.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Eating. curry.

It's fall, and each day is colder than the one before. Time for something comforting. Curry, its rivers of sauce, warm and spicy, soaking into a plate of hot white rice. I have chunks of chicken, diced onions, halved mushrooms, cubes of potatoes, and baby carrots; the curry sauce comes in bricks of dense paste that dissolve in boiling water and thicken into the sauce that stains everything it touches a brilliant gold. This is a Japanese curry sauce, the kind we always made when we were in college, my roomates and I chopping vegetables and meat in the inadequate kitchen, cooking everything together in a deep, lidded sauté pan (sometimes called a chicken fryer), while the rice cooker steamed furiously on its little table in our living room.

When I was growing up my mom often made curry with beef short ribs in a soupy broth, with carrots and mushrooms and potatoes (I may be imagining the mushrooms, because I put them in everything). Everything was simmered until the meat fell off the bone and the vegetables melted into the sauce. I rarely ate more than half a bowl of rice at dinner, but when it was curry I would eat more than usual, the clean white taste of the rice blunting the fire of the curry. Once in a while we would make curried beef turnovers, a bit like empanadas. Biscuit dough (the kind that pops out in perfectly formed circles from a cardboard tube that exploded as you unwrapped it, always fun) was rolled out and stuffed with sautéed beef and onions seasoned with curry powder. (You could make these with puff pastry, or pie dough, but those Pillsbury biscuits work just fine).

There have been Indian curries in restaurants that left you reeking of spices, served over fluffy rice that almost seemed to float from the plate, each long, fragrant grain weightless and separate from its neighbor, unlike the sticky medium-grain rice we ate at home, piles of puffy naan bread to dip in the golden sauce. Southeast Asian curries, Thai and Indonesian and so forth, hot and red, hot and green, or hot and sweet and creamy with coconut milk, all over that jasmine-scented rice that was, again, completely different from what we had at home. When I am tired, or down, or in need of comfort that cannot be given by mashed potatoes and gravy, I turn to curry, which is the Asian equivalent of meatloaf and vegetables and mashed potatoes and gravy, now that I think of it. There is meat - diced chicken or beef or lamb or fish - there are vegetables - onions and carrots and potatoes and perhaps cauliflower or mushrooms, whatever you can think of - there is sauce - which is like gravy, and there is rice, which sops up the sauce much as mashed potatoes soak up gravy. What could be better?

Fall is here and winter is fast approaching. The weather is perfect for curling up with a plate of rice lavished with a pile of chicken curry, steaming hot and spicy, the smell hanging softly in the air like the memory of past meals shared with friends.