Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reading. Harrison.

In the days after I left university and before I acquired a full-time job, I would go to bookstores and spend hours reading. Walk along the aisles and aisles of books in search of new writers, or old writers who I had read long ago and forgotten. I would stare at the cookbook section, scanning over the gastronomy section with a deep hunger fed by years of reading Gourmet, of reading Laurie Colwin and Elizabeth David and Jeffrey Steingarten. I know I said that I discovered Calvin Trillin in the pages of Gourmet, but now I rather think I found him by browsing through the collections of food essays.

I know for sure this is how I found Jim Harrison, whose Legends of the Fall I had flipped through as a teenager, but it is his food writing that I love most about him. The cover of The Raw and the Cooked shows the author, a man seated at a table bearing plates of meat and beans and grits and what must be collard greens (or some other long-cooked green vegetable) and baskets of cornbread and what might be a bowl of mashed potatoes, a glass of iced tea which is no doubt sweet enough to make your teeth hurt, and a bottle of red wine, a glass of which rests companionably in his hand. In short, my kind of man.

I remember fondly a ten-course meal at the now-vanished Lespinasse in New York City that ended with boxes of petit fours arranged like jewels in a casket, and one of my favorite restaurants in the world is a tiny French restaurant in Seattle where dinner lasts for hours and each course is a mere four or five bites, exquisitely arranged with dots and swirls of complicated sauces and adorned with wisps of fried potatoes. There is a time and place for that kind of food. But reading about that sort of haute cuisine is not fun; it does not make the pulse quicken and the blood heat as slowly as a pot of oxtails braising in Guinness with some sliced onions and a few handfuls of carrot chunks. For that you need Jim Harrison.

I'd like to think, writes Harrison, that my eating and drinking comprise a strenuous search for the genuine, that I am a voyager, an explorer, an adventurer in the ordinary activity of what we do every day: eat and drink...eating well, however simply, is a part of a life fully lived...Eating in America is a grand puzzle of thousands of pieces, with the final picture a diorama of our history led by economic considerations and ethnic influences. This diorama can be as confusing and surreal as sex in our nontraditional society...

I would like to believe that in reading Harrison and others like him, Trillin and Colwin and Steingarten, the pieces of the puzzle will come together in my mind, give me a greater understanding of what it means to eat, and to eat well, and how it pertains to my life and identity as a whole.

Harrison, Jim. The Raw and the Cooked. Grove Press, 2001. p 1.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reading. Trillin.

When I was young, I used to call my mom and say, "Hi mom, it's me. Kairu," to which she would reply, "I know who you are. Who else would call me mom?," at which point I stopped after the "it's me." Which is why, a dozen or so pages into Tepper Isn't Going Out, I came to the part where Tepper looks to the left of his parked car and sees a red Volvo next to him, driven by his daughter, and when she says "Daddy, it's me - Linda," and his response is "I recognized you. One of the advantages of having only one daughter is that remembering her name and what she looks like is not difficult," I had to lay my book down because I was laughing so hard.

Street parking in Manhattan is notoriously scarce. So when Tepper finds a spot, he isn't going to leave it. He sits in his dark blue Chevrolet Malibu parked on "the uptown side of Forty-third street, between Fifth and Sixth," reading his New York Post and watching a young man argue with a fruit peddler (who spoke with an accent that Tepper couldn't place "even by continent") over the price of a banana. It is a May evening, with enough light in the sky by which to read the newspaper, and Murray Tepper sits there reading and wagging a finger at all the people who pull up next to him to ask if he's moving out, which he is not.

His daughter pulls up, and they talk about how, when she was a child, he would circle the blocks of Manhattan's Upper West Side, searching for a spot that would adhere to New York's draconian alternate-side parking rules and allow him to leave the car there until the next morning. Now he parks his car in a garage, and spends the time he might otherwise waste on finding parking on other pastimes. Finding parking is a pleasure, sitting in the car foiling other hopeful drivers and reading the New York Post is a pleasure. Sitting outside Russ & Daughters on a Sunday morning, reading about various City Hall shenanigans, is a pleasure. Perhaps it is also a way of bringing memories alive again.

Like the works of Laurie Colwin, the fiction and non-fiction of Calvin Trillin blur together, and this is what I love most about both of them. Tepper moves around New York much the way I imagine Trillin does; his conversations with Linda are much like the conversations we see between Trillin and his own daughters in Feeding a Yen. I have never been to Russ & Daughters for herring salad and whitefish and lox; I probably never will. But I read Trillin's words, and I can taste my memories of childhood visits to Manhattan, of circling around Mid-Town Manhattan, searching for parking, of eating dark pumpernickel bagels with lox. Reading Trillin, for me, is like Tepper parking his car near the diamond district where he bought his wife's engagement ring, like Trillin writing about the store where he took his daughters to buy smoked fish. A way of slipping into the past.

Trillin, Calvin. Tepper Isn't Going Out. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003. pp 4, 14.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Reading. Cook's Illustrated.

It began a few years ago with Amanda Hesser and her Cooking for Mr. Latte. A friend of her future in-laws' was a superb cook, and whenever they praised a dish, she would say "oh, it was from Cook's Illustrated," as if she had no part in it. Elizabeth (Hesser's mother-in-law), had never heard of Cook's Illustrated, a "curiously lovable food magazine with no photographs and text as dull as a washing-machine manual," so Hesser sent her a subscription. Unfortunately, the magazine is only about thirty pages long and comes swathed in advertisements for their cookbooks. It looks like junk mail, and for months Elizabeth had been throwing the magazines out. (I feel her pain, because my own mother has done the same; fortunately I managed to rescue the plastic-shrouded magazines from the recycling bin).

Cook's Illustrated is a different creature from the glossy pages of Gourmet and Bon Appétit, which are a kind of lifestyle porn, like fashion magazines for the kitchen and table. It isn't just about the food, but about the setting, the hand-painted china and pastel linens or rustic earthenware pottery on bare tables. There are reviews of restaurants where a meal costs about as much as I spend on groceries in a week, vacations in places I'll never visit, knives that cost as much as a handbag. I look at Ruth Reichl's weekend home kitchen and sigh over a life I will never have. Cook's Illustrated is about real life. It tells me which knife to buy, which food processor works the best, not to waste my money on a $200 pan when a $50 pan will do just as well if not better. It is about dinner for your family on a weeknight, how to eat real food and not processed junk thrown together in the name of convenience. And the recipes are for things I want to cook, and do, again and again. It has no advertisements, no glossy color pictures, only black-and-white drawings and occasional photograph of the finished product. The lure is in the description, the reassurance that if you follow the recipe the result will be perfection. And it is.

When you make something...writes Hesser, - a cake, a cocktail, a salad dressing - you are putting all of your trust in the recipe and putting distance between you and the flavor of a dish. You cannot take responsibility for a lack of salt or too much butter, because it tells you precisely how much. When I try something from Cook's Illustrated - a simple lasagne which I have made so many times I can do it in my sleep, or drop biscuits that rise flaky and golden - I can do it with the assurance that it will not fail me. Hesser and her then-fiancé Tad's mother, Elizabeth, stand there counting One Mississippi, Two Mississippi while making the crust for a pear tart, pulsing the butter and flour in a food processor for twenty one-second pulses, as the recipe suggests. At the end, it has come together with "the nubby texture of coarse meal," exactly the way the recipe said it would. I can see the test chefs at Cook's Illustrated methodically counting away until the dough comes together in a way that will yield the most perfect crust for the most perfect tart, and I trust that what they tell me will work.

Hesser, Amanda. Cooking for Mr. Latte. W. W. Norton, 2003. pp 305-6, 122, 307.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reading. Trillin.

I am not sure how I discovered Calvin Trillin, but it was probably in the pages of Gourmet. I remember that he was rhapsodizing about the virtues of pain bagnat, or maybe it was fish tacos (it seems that there have been two different articles, but I cannot remember which came first), neither of which I have ever tried. He has a great fondness, a reverence, for the kind of local food that can only be consumed in situ and loses its meaning away from its birthplace. The pain bagnat I remember as a sort of salade niçoise re-imagined as a sandwich; the fish taco was simply fried fish minimally dressed and wrapped in a tortilla without too much other filling to distract from the perfection of the fish. But I remember thinking that here was someone who knew food, who was funny and interesting and didn't give a damn about the latest new restaurant that served tiny portions of weird food with competing flavors clashing with every bite when he could go somewhere and eat fish tacos. In short, my kind of guy.

I had the great fortune to grow up with a grandfather who not only lived in New York City most of the time, but lived in an apartment conveniently located right about a subway station and even more conveniently located next to a bagel shop. I have said this before, about other foods, but there is nothing I love more than a bagel. A good one, chewy and substantial without being doughy or bready or fluffy, with the crunch of poppyseeds or the tang of onion. Maybe a smear of cream cheese and a slice of smoked salmon, or a little sweet butter. But a real bagel doesn't need anything at all. I haven't had one in a long time but I hadn't realized how long it has been until I read the first chapter of Feeding a Yen and Calvin Trillin begins talking about how he tried to entice his daughters back to New York (one was in San Francisco, the other in Los Angeles; serious eaters both) with bagels.

As a child, one daughter would always go to Chinatown with a bagel, "just in case." The other once asked her father (while eating a bagel that was, as Trillin remarked, "an honest effort that had simply fallen short of the mark"), "Daddy, how come in Kansas City the bagels just taste like round bread?" Still, as little girls tend to do, his daughters had grown up and moved across the country and while it was unlikely the pumpernickel bagel of their childhood would entice them to move back, Trillin figured it wouldn't hurt to look for them. He didn't find them, of course, and his daughter was still on the other side of the country. But the more I read Feeding a Yen the more I think about my own relationship with my parents, how they fed my own yen for bagels and foie gras and salmon and tofu and xiao lung bao (it was my mother who taught me, in a crowded restaurant in Flushing, Queens, how to eat a xiao lung bao properly, without leaking soup all over my plate) and how food is as much a part of our relationship as everything else.

Trillin, Calvin. Feeding a Yen. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004. pp 4-5.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Eating. vegetables.

My parents are in town, so my diet has changed somewhat. The drawers of my formerly barren refrigerator are bursting with vegetables and bags of tofu (which seem to multiply as I look at them; I think that as I cook one type of tofu my mother comes home with two more) instead of abandoned hunks of plastic-wrapped cheese and packets of clam chowder. Oh, the vegetables. I have eaten more vegetables since my mother came home last week than I have in the four or five months since I last saw her. Or so it seems. There is Napa cabbage, to be shredded into soup or sautéed in a pan, eggplant to slice and steam in the microwave I didn't know how to use after four months of living here. This is a fun story.

When I bought my place the original kitchen counters had been replaced with thick slabs of white Corian (which, combined with the fluorescent lights, gives my kitchen the general ambiance of an operating room), and the refrigerator appeared to be relatively new, but the range and dishwasher and microwave all seem to date from about the same time, which is to say, 1981. The stove with its tilting coil (inconveniently, the largest burner) was not difficult to figure out, and the dishwasher only required the pushing of a button or two, a twist of the dial, but the microwave completely flummoxed me. It was not until my outraged father declared that not having a functioning microwave was completely unacceptable (in much the same tone as he told me failing algebra was unacceptable) that I pushed a few buttons that I hadn't known the function of, and lo and behold, I did possess a functioning microwave.

Anyway, here are the vegetables of my childhood, the baby bok choy with their pale celadon stalks sprouting deep jade leaves, with tiny buds at their hearts, which I trim and slice in half to stir-fry, the pale white limb of daikon radish (in Chinese, someone who has stocky legs is rudely referred to as having legs like daikon radishes), which I peel until I reach translucent flesh, slice it into half-moons and leave to simmer in the juices left over from pork braised with wine and soy sauce. I might slice the eggplant into quarters, lengthwise, and steam them in the newly discovered microwave. Usually I chop them into irregular chunks, sauté them with finely minced garlic and season it all with soy sauce before covering the pan to steam its seared contents.

My parents watch tv and read in the living room as I toss bean sprouts and matchstick-cut strands of dried tofu into a hot pan; I'm glad they're here, glad to be eating like a normal person and not a deranged singleton scarfing down M&Ms and a glass of milk for dinner (which has happened, not more than twice). No, that's not true; when I'm alone I make an effort more often than not. But this is a different kind of cooking, and a different way of life. I miss it, and I'm glad to have this brief time to go back to it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Eating. rice.

Memory begins with the smell of rice cooking, the taste of it. The feel of my hand cupped around a bowl, a pair of chopsticks in the other hand. It is the first memory, before fruit-leather roll-ups, before mint-chocolate chip ice cream and smoked salmon and pâté from a tin spread on melba toast from a box. It goes back to the high-chair, watching the St. Louis Cardinals on the little tv in the kitchen, hearing the rice bubble away in the electric cooker, the lid doing a little jig as the steam builds up, filling the kitchen with the smell of cooking rice. Later, it would be one of my first kitchen tasks, scooping cupfuls of rice into the bowl of the rice cooker, filling it with water, swirling the white grains with my hands until the water turned milky with the starch that coated each grain, pouring it away, washing the rice again and again until the water ran clear.

At school rice managed to be fluffy and soggy and dry, all at the same time, a feat accomplished by the use of instant rice. That is not rice. Rice is Japanese medium-grain rice, not as sticky as sushi rice (which needs to be sticky so your nigiri and your sushi rolls don't fall apart as you eat them), but just sticky enough to hold together as you convey a mouthful from bowl to mouth with a pair of chopsticks without dropping it in your lap. At dinner it would be mounded into small bowls with a plastic or bamboo paddle; if you didn't finish it you would be told about all the starving children in China or that some horrible fate would befall you and your face would be covered in pock-marks, one for each grain of rice you failed to eat. (I have just one, barely visible, a faint reminder of the chicken-pox I had when I was three). Rice was inhaled as a sort of edible plate for stir-fried vegetables, for meats braised in sauces deeply flavored with wine and soy sauce and spiked with garlic or ginger or scallions (or all three). But I liked the taste of plain rice, fresh from the cooker, hot and fragrant with its own undefinable scent, untouched by dribbles of soy sauce or vegetable juices.

And then there are zhong zhi, triangular packets of glutinuous rice, filled with pork or peanuts or vegetables or red bean paste, wrapped in giant bamboo leaves and steamed. (My first year of college my mother would overnight frozen ones, homemade by her, which I would share with the one roomate - she was from Hong Kong - who was not repulsed by what the others considered weird food). The kind my mother makes are in the Shanghainese style, the rice seasoned with soy sauce, and filled with red-braised pork belly, and they are my favorite. But memory is all about white rice, the slightly-sticky rice that I ate nearly every single night for dinner from the time I was old enough to chew until I went to college. When my mother began rummaging through my cupboards as we began cooking dinner the other night I realized that I have not eaten rice since my father was here in November. It is time to go back again.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Reading. Lewis.

I don't remember which came first, the play Shadowlands, which is one of the first plays I saw at A Contemporary Theater (at once one of the funniest and saddest plays I have ever seen), or the Chronicle of Narnia books which even now, years later, I find myself reading again and again. But what I remember is the story of C. S. Lewis, who found love late, and then lost it, and who found that his faith could not conquer death. I thought of that when I came across Till We Have Faces, his reimagining of an ancient myth. It is dedicated to Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis.

The myth of Eros and Psyche is probably my favorite of all the ancient myths. A daughter is born to a king and his queen, the youngest of three sisters. Her beauty is so great that all those around her praise her as being even more beautiful than the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love. To hear a mere mortal praised in such a way angers the goddess, who brings despair upon the kingdom. (I am not sure I have gotten the story straight). The elders (or perhaps it is the two elder sisters, jealous of their younger sister's beauty) convince the king that it is his youngest daughter who is the cause of their trouble, because she has angered the goddess, and therefore she must be sacrificed.

But in her anger the goddess has sent her son, Eros, or Cupid, who shoots us humans with poisoned arrows of Love, to pierce the heart of this mortal who dares to compare herself to Aphrodite. He, in turn, is so overcome by her beauty that he pierces his own hand with his own weapon, and falls in love. When Psyche is abandoned by her family, she is spirited away by Eros to his home, where she is cautioned to never lay eyes on him. Time passes, and Psyche longs for her family. She visits her sisters, who are again jealous of her life, and incite her to look upon her husband while he sleeps. But alas! He is awakened (I forget how), and flies away from his beloved, heartbroken by her betrayal.

In despair Psyche turns to the goddess whom she had so angered with her beauty, who in turn sets forth several impossible tasks - I cannot remember what they are - all of which she manages to accomplish (with help from sympthatic creatures). Until, at last, she is sent down into the Underworld to retrieve a golden box from Persephone (but that is another story). With coins for the ferryman who will take her across the river into Hell, and biscuits for the dog that guards the gates, she makes her way safely to the goddess of the Underworld, who gives her the box which she is seeking, with the caution that she is not to open it, which, of course, she does, and then falls into a deathlike sleep. At last, Zeus takes pity on her and she is reunited with Eros, and becomes immortal, one of the gods...

Till We Have Faces tells the story from the eyes of the eldest sister, a tale of love and jealousy and longing. The myth comes alive, it has humanity in it. It sends a chill up my spine.

Love is too young to know what conscience is.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Reading. Leibowitz/Sontag.

Part II.

When you are an artist, your public and private lives, work and play, are closely intertwined, almost indistinguishable. As a writer you examine everything close to you, from your innermost thoughts to everyone who has ever touched you, and lay them bare for the world to see, hoping they will understand you. As a photographer you are constantly looking at everything and everyone around you, capturing a moment, an expression, the play of light across a landscape, the flicker of shadows, so that others will see what you saw when you held the camera up to your eye. When you record your memories, in words or images, it becomes a physical memory, something to examine, something to bring the past alive again, to bring back to life something or someone you have loved and lost. Conclusive evidence.

In the introduction to A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, Annie Leibowitz writes that Going through my pictures was like being on an archaeological dig...I considered doing a book made up completely of personal work...and concluded that the personal work on its own wasn't a true view of the last fifteen years...This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it. Therefore the images collected in A Photographer's Life span the long relationship between Susan Sontag and Annie Leibowitz, with images from Leibowitz's work for magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone, and personal photographs of her family, Sontag, her daughters. There is a photograph, spread across two pages, of a sculpture of a reclining nude woman draped in cloth in the Cimitero Monumentale, in Milan. It is immediately followed by three photographs of Susan sprawled across a rumpled bed in her New York bedroom, her pose a reflection of the preceding image.

Between holidays in Italy and assignments in Jordan, Berlin, Sarajevo, there are photographs of Sontag, post-surgery and during chemo, when she was diagnosed with uterine sarcoma in 1998; her trademark mane of hair, dark with a bold streak of silver, is still intact until it is shorn away for the chemotherapy. There is a portrait of her, afterwards, with closely-cropped hair that is pure silver. Leibowitz wrote that she did not photograph Sontag during the last illness until the very end, pale and bloated in her hospital bed (the same hospital I knew so well), her face etched with pain and sadness, then her body clad in Fortuny-inspired pleats and Venetian scarves and strings of beads on her funeral bier. The intimacy of it is heartbreaking, like David Rieff's description of his mother's last days, her last breaths.

Six weeks after Susan's death, Leibowitz's father died, at home, in his sleep. There are photographs of his last days, too, surrounded by family. The act of putting this book together, gathering images together from a fifteen-year span, both intimate family photographs and famous celebrity portraits that I remember from magazines, was for Leibowitz an integral part of the grieving process. The images form an arc encompassing the years of Leibowitz and Sontag’s relationship, Sontag and Leibowitz’s father’s death, their burials, and the birth of Liebowitz’s daughters, circling back again to the earlier years of Leibowitz and Sontag’s life together. In the introduction Leibowitz wrote that they would go to museums and Susan would want her to see exactly what she was seeing, standing in the exact same spot, the way her writing made you see and understand the world the way she saw and understood it. Such is art, and such is the way of artists, to give you a view through their own eyes so you might see everything anew. Grief, love, death, life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Reading. Sontag/Rieff.

Part I.

A little over a year ago there was an essay in The New York Times Magazine about Susan Sontag's last illness and death by her son, the writer David Rieff. At the age of 71 she had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, which is considered pre-leukemia and in some cases can progress into acute myeloid leukemia, an advanced, aggressive cancer of the white blood cells. Sontag had been given a bone marrow transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center, where my own father had been treated for cancer several years before. The tears streamed down my face as I read of her reaction to the news that the transplant had not worked, as she realized that this cancer could not be beaten as she had beaten it twice before. I thought about the divide in our American medical system, which allows people who have money, a very small percentage of the population - who can afford to spend something like over a quarter of a million dollars to pay for a bone-marrow transplant - to undergo whatever care they choose, while people who must rely on insurance companies or Medicare (neither of whom would pay for Sontag's transplant) are at the mercy of public healthcare and private bureaucracy. I thought about how Sontag, with money and determination and sheer will, could fight the inevitable, but in the end be unable to escape it. And I wept.

Later I would read her Illness As Metaphor, written after her first battle with cancer in the 1970's. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had written about her experiences as a cancer patient, as well as our society's views on cancer patients, drawing parallels between tuberculosis in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th. I thought of her undergoing treatment at the University of Washington three decades later, of that bone marrow transplant which did not work, of her son's words after her death. It took me back to my own father's illness, of riding the elevator up to his hospital room with my grandfather, who taught me to punch elevator buttons with my knuckles, "to avoid germs." I hate hospitals, the smell, the sterility. I remember holding my father's hand, that evening after his surgery - later he would tell me that he had no memory of those days - and I remember curling up in a chair next to him while he slept, doing my homework, looking out the window towards the University of Washington campus, or staring, hypnotized, at his urine collecting in a bag next to the bed.

As a writer your life is intimately intertwined with your work, the private thoughts made visible. I have held on to this increasingly tattered copy of The New York Times Magazine, read David Rieff's words so many times I nearly know them by heart. The knowledge that she was getting the best treatment available, wrote Rieff,...strengthened her will to fight, the will to live...[which] would have been impossible had she not had the money to in effect defy her insurer's verdict...I shall always be thankful beyond words for the treatment she received, and believe that she and her doctors made the right choice, [but] I cannot honestly say that there was anything fair about it. It is at once a son's grief and a writer's journey into "the outer reaches of medical oncology," an exploration of the rapidly forming reality that the healthcare available in this day and age is at odds with the potential treatments that might save or prolong our lives. I think about Susan all the time, wrote Sontag's primary doctor, Stephen Nimer, not long after her death. So do I.

(to be continued).

Monday, January 22, 2007

Eating. tofu.

I opened my fridge before making dinner tonight and found at least four types of tofu staring back at me. This is how you know that my mother is back in town. There were bags and bags of tofu, blocks of soft white tofu, triangular puffs of fried tofu, fat pillows of dried tofu that is firmer and chewier and saltier than soft tofu, and thinner squares of dried tofu that were even firmer and chewier and saltier than the aformentioned pillow-shaped tofu squares. The question was, what was I going to do with all of them?

There are some pork ribs in the freezer; defrosted, they go into a pot with the fried tofu puffs, left to simmer in a little water and soy sauce, the puffs will soak up the flavor of the pork and its sauce. The ginger is weeks past its prime, and I used the last of the garlic a few days before, so I will have to make do with only a few withered scallions. I have no Chinese cooking wine on hand, but there is a bottle of scotch lurking in the back of a cupboard; I splash some in when my mother's back is turned. It feels strange to have her here; this is the first time we have cooked together in this kitchen, the first time she has stayed in my new home. She pads around the narrow space in her slippers, swathed in my favorite cashmere cardigan, slicing the dried squares of tofu, bringing rice to a boil on the stove.

The slices of dried tofu piled on the cutting board remind me of those Lincoln logs I used to play with when I was little, or of making log cabins with tongue-depressors for school projects. I filch a few pieces, savor the chewiness, the flavor of it. It is so addictive I could eat it cold, straight from the bag. Usually it is drizzled with thinly sliced scallions and sesame oil and soy sauce, but often we stir-fry it with shreds of pork, or batons of celery. Tonight the dried tofu will be cooked with soy beans and pickled Chinese broccoli, finely chopped; a brief toss in a hot pan brings all the flavors together.

Because it is not dinner unless there is three kinds of tofu on the table, a small pot of soup burbles away on the smallest burner. The soft white tofu is almost like a custard, gently flavored with scallions and sesame oil, the tastes of my childhood. My parents are in town, staying with me in the new apartment that has been my domain for several months now. The remains of our old house are being packed up; most of the belongings of the twenty years we spent there have already been moved. Here, the plates and bowls and chopsticks are new, but the food is the same, and we are all together again.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Reading. Ashbery.

I saw some wood-framed convex mirrors hanging on the wall in a shop the other day, and stared at my bulbous-nosed reflection peering anxiously back at me. I remembered the scene in Ramona and Her Father where Ramona, unhappy that her mother wasn't able to make her a proper sheep costume, stares at her miserable face reflected in a Christmas ornament before finding the courage to go onstage. Then reached out with my hand, remembered the image of a painting at the back of my memory, thought of John Ashbery's words. (There was a little interview with Ashbery in a magazine a little while ago, which is why he was in my thoughts). He was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927, and more than seventy years later I would find myself in that same city reading a poem aloud in a classroom overlooking the trees and grass of my university campus.

The painting (which I can see vividly in my mind as soon as I close my eyes) is by Parmigianino, a self-portrait done in a convex mirror. He had seen himself reflected in a barber's mirror, and the young painter had taken a sphere of wood, sawed it in half, and sought to replicate that reflected image in paint. It is a beautiful face, framed by a smooth sweep of hair, a ruffled collar that repeats itself in a frilled cuff, all under a coat trimmed with fur. The hand seems almost larger than the head; such is the optical illusion created by the convex mirror and replicated by the artist, the pale hand emerging from the white sea-foam of the shirt-cuff, adorned by a gleaming ring.

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslim, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose...

It rambles on for pages and pages, a long, unwieldy poem, but the opening words run into my mind whenever I think of that portrait, that beautiful face framed by the pleated collar, the curve of the chin echoed by the curve of that swooping hand.

...The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much further
Than your look as it intercepts the picture...
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long

It is true. I cannot look at that clear-eyed gaze of the young Parmigianino for too long. It knows too much, sees too much, and I have to turn away, as I turn away from Ashbery's words, words that pierce as cleanly as a gaze.

Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Penguin Books, 1976. pp 68-69.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(one last time).

When you see a book called Crazy Cock in the dusty neighborhood used bookstore, with fathers reading aloud to their small children while sitting hunched over on brightly-colored plastic chairs not meant for anyone over the age of five, you grab it and run (of course stopping to pay). I feel vaguely as though I should hide it inside my jacket as I slouch towards the cashier, and distract the gray-haired, bespectacled lady at the cash register from my motley assortment of books by mentioning that I found a copy of The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller mis-shelved over in the Young Reader's section. She is aghast that someone had thought that Henry James wrote children's books, but does not turn a hair at my choice of reading material.

Posthumous works are tricky. I always feel a pang of mistrust when I open one, but then I am lost to the words and forget everything but the story. The author has no control over how his previously unpublished works will be presented, edited, received by their readers. Sometimes it is a lost manuscript, written and shuffled aside, left and forgotten in some trunk gathering dust in an attic. Perhaps not even meant to published. Crazy Cock was written during Miller's marriage to June Smith, whom he had met in a dance hall while still entangled in his first, unhappy marriage. She would appear in his other novels, for all his characters come from his own life, including himself. In this forgotten manuscript, he seems to be working through the despair that befell him when his wife and her lesbian lover (the original title of this novel was Lovely Lesbians; its changed title returned the story's focus on the writer himself) abandoned him. They had been living together, all three of them, in an increasingly emotionally difficult and complicated ménage, until the two women left for Europe, leaving Henry to move back with his parents at the age of thirty-six.

In a way this story unfolds as a curious muddle. I am distracted from the twisted triangle of Tony and Hildred and Vanya, the walking shades of the real Henry, June, Jean. Such is the danger of the autobiographical novel, of all of Miller's works, where the lines between truth and fiction blur until they merge and become indistinguishable. What moves you beyond the confusion is Miller's gift for monologue, the way he uses words, language; I have come to see that this is what I love him most in him. It seems that while each of his works is based on himself and those close to him, each story is a little different, another skin that he has shed, although that voice that is so clearly, uniquely his remains the same, his identity as a writer unaltered (so he wrote in the foreward to Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, which I revisited a few nights ago). Crazy Cock would pre-figure his later works, both the Tropic novels and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy; it is a glimpse of something yet to come.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(almost finished, now).

I came across a funny little book in the used bookstore a while ago (one of several that somehow found themselves in my hands). I had been collecting the lesser-known works of Henry Miller (at least, lesser-known to me) for some time now, and found A Smile at the Foot of the Ladder squished between two larger books. My only excuse for this obsessive, constant acquisition of books is that this one only cost three dollars. About the price of a latté, rather less than a pack of cigarettes, and I neither drink coffee nor smoke. It is a curious book, written for the artist Fernand Léger and meant "to accompany a series of forty illustrations on clowns and circuses." Why Léger had decided to draw forty pictures of clowns and circuses remains a mystery, but in the end this artist whose Cubist odalisques I remember from my art history classes declined to publish the story that Miller had written, and instead wrote his own little book to accompany those prints (it is called Le Cirque, and I have yet to track it down. It would probably cost a fortune). In the end Miller collaborated with the artist Norman LaLiberté instead and I have my little book of strange and fantastical pictures and Miller's curious story.

The clown is a lonely creature. He hides behind a mask, to make people laugh with his painted smile that mock his painted tears. He is separated from the world by laughter...a silent, what we call a mirthless, laughter. The clown teaches us to laugh at ourselves. And this laughter of ours is born of tears. In the circus we are able to lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss...we come out of it in a daze, saddened and horrified by the everyday face of the word. The clown of Miller's story, Auguste, is not a character from the writer's own life, like all his other characters, he "came from the blue," but then, what is this blue which surrounds and envelopes us if not reality itself? We invent nothing, truly. We borrow and recreate. We uncover and discover. All has been given, as the mystics say. We have only to open our eyes and hearts, to become one with that which is. The story here grew out of the artists that Miller adored, Miro and Léger, Chagall and Rouault and Seurat.

The circus as described by Miller is like a painting by those painters he so adored, was so inspired by, words as vivid as colors as he describes Auguste's wistful smile, the empty spaces in the audience which the spotlight "licked with the avidity of a tongue in search of a missing tooth." He leaves the circus and wanders, anonymous without his greasepaint, until he finds himself again with a troupe of circus performers. There is a sadness behind that smiling, painted mask, the grin which hides a mournfully downturned mouth. Now when I see a clown I will think of Miller's sad little story.

Miller, Henry. The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. Hallmark Editions, 1971.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(Here we are again).

It became clear to me, many years ago, that as an accidental American I was drawn to American writers examining their own identity and their own country in order that I might understand my own identity more clearly. In order to understand America, one has to see it, and the best way is to do it from the road. In 1960 John Steinbeck chronicled his journey across the United States in Travels with Charley; some twenty years earlier Henry Miller did the same with The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The idea of exploring his own home country came to him while he was living in Paris; I suppose that when you are home you dream of being abroad, and when you have at last made it to your dream destination you think of your own bed, the high water-pressure in your shower, the thick, soft white toilet paper that makes all other toilet paper feel like sandpaper. But I digress.

I felt the need to effect a reconciliation with my native land, wrote Miller, I was returning not with the intention of remaining in the bosom of the family but of wandering forth again, perhaps never to return. I wanted to have a last look at my country and leave it with a good taste in my mouth. I didn't want to run away from it...I wanted to embrace it...and set out for the unknown with a blessing on my lips. (Of course, some years later, he would return to the Big Sur he had discovered on that earlier odyssey, and would live there for several years, chronicled in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch).

His return to America begins disappointingly with the arrival at Boston, the American coast "bleak and uninviting." The architecture of the American house had something cold, austere, something barren and chill...[but] it was home, for all the ugly, evil, sinister connotations which the word contains for a restless soul. New York looms like a rat trap filled with bad memories and old friends that were part of the bad memories. Miller has arrived as he had left, without money, and his father is dying. But the idea of a trip across the country still holds steady in his mind, and along with the artist Abe Rattner, sets off on a journey in an automobile which he only has a vague idea of how to drive.

With a little money (promptly spent) and a book contract signed, the trip begins with Miller (having only been through the Holland Tunnel once before - in a taxi) unable to get out of Newark. The wheel is surrendered over to his traveling companion, they are out of the city and in the open country, and the real journey has its auspicious beginning in the town of New Hope. And all of America awaits.

Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New Directions, 1970. pp 9- 11.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(A continuation of yesterday's topic).

It is just about a year now, since I returned to Henry Miller and discovered a different writer than the one I remember from the one of Tropic of Cancer. I had returned to him because I had been reading the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (I've said this before) and had felt my heart constrict as I read his note on the inside cover of A Coney Island of the Mind, the title of which he tells us comes from Miller's Into the Night Life, which he chose because he thought of his poems, taken together, as being a kind of Coney Island of the mind, a kind of circus of the soul. Because I could not find Into the Night Life at the bookstore and had to order it, I instead read Stand Still Like the Hummingbird while waiting for it to arrive. I read it curled into the warmth of a lavender-scented bath and thought of the chain of events that had brought me back to him.

The essays collected together in Stand Still Like the Hummingbird span some twenty-five years, although not in chronological order. Still, Miller realizes that it is apparent, nevertheless, that though one may shed his skin again and again one never loses his identity. (Something that came to me with absolute clarity when I found a letter R. wrote to me some ten years ago and realized that any person might say the same things about me now, I hope). I had not realized until I began reading that Miller is one of the most American of American writers, that even while living abroad he saw himself completely as an American writer. Of these essays here he writes that the tenor...though strongly critical of our way of life, is nevertheless strictly kosher. America is seen through the eyes of an American, not a Hottentot. And Europe, which is often favorably contrasted with America, is a Europe which only an American might have eyes for...Un-American? It won't fit, I'm afraid. I'm even more American than you, only against the grain.

(The hummingbird, of course, beats its wings furiously in order to suspend itself in space, even though it appears to be standing still).

I write now because I enjoy it; it gives me pleasure. I'm an addict, a happy addict. I no longer have any illusions about the importance of words...Words, like waste matter, eventually drift down the drain. Acts live on...You fling your body around - here, there, everywhere - but you remain the same. You might as well have stood still. (Like the hummingbird). Miller continues on - If what must happen, what must be learned, doesn't occur in this life, it will the next time around, or the third or the fourth time. We have all time on our hands. What we need to discover is eternity. The only life is the eternal life.

Sometimes you find something that so clearly echoes what you are thinking somewhere in the back of your mind that it sends a shiver up your spine.

Miller, Henry. Stand Still Like the Hummingbird. New Directions, 1962. pp vii, viii, 82.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(Somehow I managed to amass a large collection of Henry Miller's lesser-known works. It is time to make my way through them all).

What I remember most about Greece is the light. The pure blinding brightness of it, the intensity of white-washed buildings against rough cliffs, suspended high over the ever-changing blue-green of the ocean. That blue-green color which Joanne Harris referred to as the color of the earth as seen from a great height. White buildings, terra-cotta roofs, brilliant fuschia bougainvilla sprouting like fountains of blossoms. It was August, I remember. In those days I never wore sunscreen, didn't own a pair of sunglasses or a hat. In photographs my eyes are narrowed against the glare, my skin and hair burnished by the sun. There is a photograph of me, from our last night, on a hilltop with the Acropolis in the distance. I look very serious, which I always do when not smiling, and I am fifteen years old.

In The Colossus of Maroussi Henry Miller begins with the words I would never have gone to Greece had it not been for a girl named Betty Ryan who...began to talk of her experiences in roaming about the world. I always listened to her with great attention, not only because her experiences were strange but because when she talked about her wanderings she seemed to paint them: everything she described remained in my head like finished canvases by a master...And then suddenly she was all alone, walking beside a river, and the light was intense and I was following her as best I could in the blinding sun but she got lost and I found myself wandering about in a strange land listening to a language I had never heard before...nobody had ever given me the ambiance of a place so thoroughly as she did Greece. Between the stories of this girl and the letters of Lawrence Durrell (whose mother had moved their family to Corfu in the years before the second World War) Miller finds himself drawn to this world of light such as I had never dreamed of and never hoped to see.

The writing of The Colossus of Maroussi is everything I love most about Henry Miller, the wanderer, the American abroad, the man who talks to everyone he meets in order to learn something new about himself by understanding someone else, an understanding that crosses all language barriers, all cultures and beliefs. He writes about the experience of meeting the friend of a friend, Katsimbalis, how this new acquaintance was made for the monologue...I like the monologue even more than the duet, says Miller, It's like watching a man write a book expressly for you: he writes it, reads it aloud, acts it, revises it, savours it, enjoys it, enjoys your enjoyment of it, and then tears it up and throws it to the winds. And I feel more and more that Miller himself is the master of the monologue, that his writing is written expressly for me, each word savoured and enjoyed by the writer. After many years in France he finds, in Greece, a different kind of people, a new language, and most of all, the unwavering light that I see so clearly, dazzlingly, when I read his words and then close my eyes.

Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi. New Directions, 1941. pp 3, 4, 28.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Reading. Szczypiorski.

Twilight is my favorite time of day, l'heure bleu, the French call it, that mysterious hour between the dying sunlight of afternoon and the falling night which blots out all but the stars and the cool glow of the moon. It is as though night is holding itself back, waiting for something to happen before it dares to release the cloaking darkness. It is the witching hour, when anything can happen. In the spring and summer the twilight hours are when the fragrance of blooming flowers is at its most intense, in the fall it is the dusty scent of fallen leaves, and in the winter it is the smell of cold air and someone's slowly cooking dinner as you walk homewards in the waning light. When winter days are gray from morning to noon to night the twilight comes so gradually it almost seems not to exist.

I stumbled upon The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman in the bookstore yesterday, drawn to it by the fuschia spine of the paperback, the unpronouncable name of its author (Andzrej Szczypiorski. Say that three times fast). The opening paragraph begins in twilight, my favorite time of day, in a room that was in twilight because the judge was a lover of twilight. He didn't like it when his usually unfinished and hazy thoughts fell into the trap of light. Everything on earth is dark and unclear, and the judge loved to plumb the depths of the world. It is the years of the war, and the judge is selling a painting of a faun seated on a cask of wine, to the tailor Kujawski, who has on him more money that the old judge might see in one year; once he was the patron, the benefactor, and now he is the one who has come down in the world by the ravages of war.

I was a small child when I stumbled upon the literature of the second World War. There are so many stories of the genocide brought about by Hitler and his followers, written to teach small children that people can do terrible things to each other and that people can survive through the greatest of all obstacles. They are an army of ghosts, a silent army that acts their lives before us on an invisible stage, living a history that becomes alive in a way that dry textbooks and chalk-wielding teachers never can. We turn to historical literature to give history a human face, emotions that touch something in our minds and hearts.

Some years into the war, the beautiful Mrs. Seidenman is turned over to the Nazis by a Jewish informer. Widowed since before the war, she had hoped to live invisibly, continuing with the work that her late husband had left behind, and to survive her city's occupation. Yet she still had the conviction that she would one day be exposed and meet the fate of all the other Jews who were vanishing from the streets of Warsaw. And so she is discovered, and captured, and the threads of all the intersecting lives in this story come together - the judge, the tailor Kujawski, Pawalek, who works for Kujawski and has loved Irma Seidenman from afar since he was a child, and her neighbor Dr. Korda, who cannot imagine that this slender, blonde, blue-eyed beauty is a Jew. Together all these connected people begin to work to free her, and perhaps she will be the key to their own survival.

Szczypiorski, Andrzej. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman. Vintage, 1991. p 3.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Eating. down at the diner.

In college there was an all-night diner a short drive away (in Rochester, NY, everything was a short drive away, even the airport, a bare seven minutes - depending on how fast you drive - from campus). Sometimes we would go there in the middle of the night for hot chocolate and coffee and milkshakes and french toast or waffles or burgers and fries. Near the door there was a revolving glass case of pies and cakes; at one side glass doors seperated the main diner from the smoking section. We would sit under the fluorescent glare of the lights and talk about anything and everything. The neon signs in the window cast a strange glow inside the diner, but it was good to be with friends and know that at any hour there was someplace to go for hot food and conversation. It wasn't about the food - which was mediocre - but about companionship, the fulfilling of a hunger that was about more than food.

The diner seems quintessentially American, like baseball and apple pie. I am not sure what gave me this impression, probably Hollywood movies about teenagers on dates. The soda counter of the last century is gone, but the diner still remains. I know diner food was something outside of my everyday life, milkshakes and plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and gravy and bowls of chicken noodle soup or Reuben sandwiches on rye. Some time in the not-too-distant past everything old became new again, and the diner and diner food was reinvented. I think we were all looking for comfort, and turned to comforting foods served in new ways.

It was with considerable interest that I noted the opening of Geraldine's Counter in my old neighborhood. It is not the diner of my college days or those seen on road trips or in movies, cracked vinyl booths and formica-topped tables patterned in colored loops like rubber bands, lit by the glare of fluorescent bulbs and neon signs. Instead it has walls of pale lime and orange and raw brick, clean-lined booths made from sheets of plywood, and spare, wire-legged chairs that float like butterflies over the floor. The male waitstaff wear navy-blue t-shirts emblazoned with the diner's name; the female staff wear black tops and aprons. The bright mugs, each a different color, are different from the usual thick white porcelain. This being a neighborhood kind of place, the seats are filled with families and young children who run around screaming. I haven't heard this much noise since I was at a rock concert held in a smoky dark club over a year ago.

I can't remember when I first discovered biscuits with gravy, but I know it was later than I would have wanted - my early twenties, I think - and so to make up for this late discovery, I order biscuits with gravy nearly every time I see them on the menu. (I have made them at home, too, but it is messy and time consuming). The biscuits here are fluffy inside and crisp outside, the gravy smooth and peppered with bits of sausage. There are hashbrowns (my favorite food) and scrambled eggs, and there is strong coffee, and somebody has carelessly left the Sunday paper on the counter. Many customers are clearly frequent visitors as the waitstaff and proprieter linger to chat, and the din of small children is incredible. As is the food.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Reading. von Arnim.

I woke to find that it had snowed in the night and that even now flakes are falling softly. The temptation is to spend the day inside curled up on the sofa, but I need lunch and I have a present to buy, so I find myself driving cautiously down the hill towards downtown. At lunch the light seems dimmer; the warm glow of the lamps is not quite enough to dispel the chill greyness of the streets outside. But from my seat overlooking the atrium I can see the twinkling lights that are twisted through the bare branches of the trees outside, and there is warm soup, a hot sandwich. And The Enchanted April.

In the darkness of winter I always turn to The Enchanted April as the promise of spring to come. On a dismal February day, wet and cold and gray, Lottie Wilkins comes across an advertisment in The Times which ran thusly: To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let...The lure of wistaria and sunshine leads her to lean towards another woman sitting nearby, and to ask if she had read that advertisment as well. It is only the promise of a holiday in the warmth and sunshine of a faraway place, away from the cold misery of a London winter, but what happens is beyond what either of them could ever have imagined.

The four women who gather at the mediaeval castle of San Salvatore are all escaping their London lives - Lottie overshadowed by her brilliant, popular husband Mellersh, Rose withdrawn from her flamboyant husband Frederick, burying herself in her work with the local poor, Mrs. Fisher alone with her memories of the famous writers of her long-ago youth, and Lady Caroline surrounded by those who flock to her for her beauty and wealth, never seeing the real person beneath. In the golden light of San Salvatore, amongst the gardens filled with flowers, they are all transformed. And it all begins by chance, by a chance glimpse of a newspaper advertisement, by an impulsive question asked of a near stranger.

In the seductive beauty of an Italian spring Lottie is joined by her husband Mellersh, who is as much transformed by his surroundings as his wife, Rose and Frederick find their way back to each other, Mrs. Fisher learns to open herself to her new friends, and Caroline finally discovers what it really feels like to love and be loved, for more than her surface beauty and her family's wealth and social position, when she meets Mr. Briggs, the owner of San Salvatore. In one short month all their lives change as the days slip by and the blossoms fall from the trees.

I have never spent a month in Italy, but reading The Enchanted April is almost as good as being there, almost as wonderful as lounging in the shade of cypresses with the scent of flowers all around you and the view of a bay and distant mountains spread before your feet. In the darkness of winter it is a moment of spring, bringing all the color and warmth around you like a soft shawl.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Reading. Sterne.

Somewhere in the convoluted depths of my mind there is a list of books I've somehow never read, but by virtue of being one of the classics of literature have always meant to read. One of these is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. But it was not until I saw a funny little movie called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story that I found myself wanting to read the book that was "number 8 in the top one hundred films of all time." (It was a chronological list, retorts the interviewer). The film was about the impossibility of making a film adaptation of a novel that is essentially unfilmable, which of course meant I had to read it immediately.

Eighteenth-century English novels tend not to be funny, but this one begins with: I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon when they were then doing; - that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind...Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,-I am verily persuaded I should have made quite a different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. It is rare to come across a book which makes me laugh out loud from the first words; what remains to be seen is whether it goes on as well as it begins.

It is a convoluted story, if you could call it a story. Rather more along the lines of a rambling narrative about the life and thoughts of Tristram Shandy, beginning with the circumstances of his own conception and his subsequent birth. His life, it is Tristram's belief, has been a series of mishaps and missed chances from the moment he was conceived. But the story progresses slowly, as he writes that he has write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other. But the pleasure of this novel is more than the story, it is the languages, Sterne's language, which is like nothing I have experienced before. It must be unwound, the intricate twists and unfamiliar words becoming familiar rhythms, as familiar as the relationship between Shandy and the reader grows as you learn his story. As you proceed further with me, says our narrator, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us in fault, will terminate in friendship. I think that friendship has already begun, but I cannot wait to see how it will continue.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Penguin Books, 2003. pp 5, 11.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

On food and memory.

There is a scene in an Agatha Christie novel (The Mirror Crack'd) where the inspector tells Miss Marple of how he connects jam-roll pudding with his mother's death, how he was eating it in the nursery when he heard that there had been an accident and she had been killed, and how even years later seeing a plate of the pudding caused a wave of misery and despair to wash over him. I don't really know what jam-roll pudding is, but I have always imagined as being like a jam-roll cake, a thin sheet of spongecake spread with jam and rolled up, revealing itself as golden cake spiraled with a thin line of red jam. I have never had it with jam, but rather filled with cream or buttercream, and when I eat it now I see in my mind's eye the one time my mother made it, I remember watching her spread the mocha buttercream frosting across the thin sheet of génoise, carefully rolling it into a fat log, slicing it when the guests gathered for dessert.

More than anything else it is food that is linked to memory for me, food and literature. I can remember who I was and where I was when I tasted something, read something, which either changed my life or was part of a time in my life when everything was changing. I read The Master and Margarita by flashlight under the trees that marched up and down the slopes of a mountain, I read Bukowski in a booth by the window of my favorite pub. I first ate pâté perched on the counter of the narrow galley kitchen in my grandfather's Manhattan apartment. And when I sit in front of a bowl of chicken noodle soup I remember the confusion and strain and fear of those months when my father was ill, now ten years ago last November (he has been in remission since then). Not the chicken noodle soup of cafeterias and diners, crowded with short flat noodles and carrots and onion and celery and chunks of chicken, but my mother's chicken soup, made from leftover roast chicken or whole Cornish game hens. (Much later I would recreate this myself, with poussins and a handful of scallions and bundles of noodles from the tiny Chinese grocery store, the only one in our college town).

Everything happened very quickly. (Life changes in an instant, writes Joan Didion). This much I remember: My father was on a business trip on the East coast, DC or Maryland, when he felt a little funny. X-rays at a local hospital (which happend to be Johns Hopkins, as I recall) revealed something in his chest, a mass. Further tests back in Seattle revealed a tumor wrapped around his thymus gland (I think of this every time I devour a plate of sweetbreads). Within a week he was undergoing surgery at the University of Washington medical center, the operation delayed a day because of Veteran's day. It was a Tuesday when they sawed open the sternal plate to remove the tumor; much later I would be told that it had been the size of a softball. I remember visiting him after school, and how shocking it was to see my father, of all people, so pale and still in his hospital bed. I remember holding his hand and trying not to cry. And I remember the long convalescence at home, how my mother made pots and pots of chicken soup with noodles and carried bowls of noodle soup upstairs.

Now when I make a bowl of chicken noodle soup with the same flat, wide noodles that my mother used all those years ago, I think of that time, of how scared I was, of the scar on my father's chest that is still visible even now, of the black marks just below the base of his throat that were used to guide the radiation treatment that followed his recovery from the surgery. And I think of Inspector Dermot Craddock's words from The Mirror Crack'd, of how he felt every time he looked at a plate of jam-roll pudding. I forget things all the time, phone numbers and small tasks I was supposed to do days ago, but this I cannot forget.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Eye of newt and toe of frog. on the eating of disgusting things.

In Chinese, the word for 'frog' translates literally into something like 'field chicken.' (Much like 'tomatoes' in French is something like 'love apples,' only the former is gruesome and the latter is romantic. I think this illustrates the difference between Chinese and French rather well). So if you are in a restaurant and are offered something called 'field chicken,' know that what you are eating is not, in fact, chicken, but another creature altogether. I first ate frog's legs some time around 1985; I remember gripping each leg by the...I suppose you could say the ankle, stripping the flesh away from the fine bones with my teeth, much like eating chicken wings. In Chinese restaurants they come fried (in the tapas bar of our hotel somewhere in Spain last year, we ate platters of fried frog's legs and lamb sweetbreads), the meat sweeter and more tender than chicken, the batter-coated toes crisp between your teeth.

So far I have covered the eating of disgusting things, what with talking about things made with blood or with hearts, or sweetbreads, but there is no limit to the sorts of strange and revolting things I have eaten over the past twenty-six years. But my idea of revolting is green peppers, whereas what other people consider revolting seems perfectly normal to me. There is probably nothing I have not or would not eat. There has not been any eye of newt, but certainly fish eyeballs have appeared on dinner tables (as fish in Chinese restaurants are cooked and served with their heads on). And there has been many a toe of frog.

In China some four or five years ago we found ourselves in a small town deep in the countryside. At dinner we were led into a private dining room, a group of ten or fifteen people, at a round table with a lazy-susan bearing dishes of peanuts and hot sauce and bottles of soy sauce and pots of tea. And a large bowl of deep-fried bugs, black - I forget what kind of insect they were - and crisp, each one the size of my thumbnail. It was like eating popcorn, all crunch and salt, all of us popping them in our mouths like teenagers having an M&M-tossing contest. But the craziest dinner I have ever had came at the hands of one of my favorite chefs.

Rover's is one of my favorite restaurants, and its chef-owner, Thierry Rautureau is very charming, funny, witty, and kind, not to mention being a fantastically inventive chef. I challenged him to come up with a menu that would accomodate the fact that we would eat any part of any animal he could think of, and he presented me with a dinner that involved lamb testicles, rabbit kidneys, and lamb hearts. (Not on the same plate). The lamb testicles were peculiar, yet strangely delicious, with the faint taste of lamb and a texture rather like softly scrambled eggs. The kidneys had been sliced and sautéed and the sauce seemed to have an aura of sesame and ginger and perhaps soy sauce, which was not so different from the way my own mother prepares kidneys.

It is fun to gross people out by telling them about the weird things you ate for dinner the night before. (I have a not-too-deeply hidden sadistic streak in me). But it is only part of the pleasure of food. There is also the pleasure of taking something that looks unappealing, perhaps even smells disgusting, but as you taste it the flavor reveals itself as something extraordinary. When you push yourself beyond the limit of what you might otherwise imagine, who knows what sort of (culinary and otherwise) adventure waits?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Eating. cake.

Did I mention how much I love frosting? Because I don't think I can emphasize too much how much I love frosting. I think part of it is because when I was a child, my mother rarely baked and frosted cakes; we made bundt cakes from mixes and drizzled them with the accompanying packets of chocolate glaze, or sifted powdered sugar over the tops of cakes. I remember piping whipped cream in swags and rosettes, and once, just once, there was a flat sheet of genoise cake spread with mocha buttercream and rolled into a fat log that fell in spiraling slices. I still think of that cake with longing, and I still love those roll cakes for their high frosting-to-cake ratio. While eating my afternoon snack after school I would read The Cake Bible, with all its descriptions of lavishly frosted and decorated cakes, glossy photographs of elaborate wedding-cake confections.

But in our house dessert (at parties) was usually something else, brownies and cookies and cheesecake and later tiramisu and still later bread pudding (made by me), or flaky tarts from our favorite French bakery, or dense espresso chocolate cake from Fran's, cloaked in a glossy skin of ganache and decorated with chocolate-covered espresso beans. When I was older I did most of the baking and somehow I never learned to bake cakes with confidence, make buttercreams and frostings like frothing clouds of snow. Instead I made cupcakes filled with cream cheese and chocolate chips, marbled shortbread spread with melted dark chocolate and swirled with lines of white chocolate, and, of course, brownies.

A frosted cake became a rare thing, perhaps at someone else's birthday party. For many years there was a woman in my father's lab who was legendary for her cakes (I remember with a certain longing, one chocolate cake filled with fresh cherries and whipped cream, decorated with rosettes of cream and shavings of chocolate). Perhaps there might be a slice of cake from the bakery in Chinatown, white cake with layers of whipped cream and fruit - cantaloupe and honeydew and strawberries - with more fruit decorating the scalloped edges of the cake.

Years later, in college, we sometimes went to a so-called European-style bakery for dessert, or for whole cakes for someone's birthday. To us students it seemed incredibly expensive, a luxury, but here in the glass-fronted cases were the cakes of all my dreams, Black Forest cake with cherries and whipped cream, chocolate cake with mocha frosting, chocolate-raspberry torte, fluffy white coconut cake like a pile of freshly fallen snow, and some kind of otherworldly creation of meringue and strawberries and whipped cream interrupted by layers of cake which almost seemed like an afterthought. They were fantastical, beautiful things, four inches high at least, iced with as much frosting as my heart could possibly desire. All of that belongs to another time, long since gone. I have not thought of it again until now.

But today is a co-worker's birthday, and there is cake, the chocolate sheet cake of K.'s childhood, frosted with her sour-cream frosting, the kind that ever-so-slightly hardens as it sits on the counter, so you feel that slight give as your teeth bite through the creamy frosting, into the dark, moist depths of the cake below. It is someone else's childhood memory, the cake her mother used to make for family picnics along with oven-fried chicken and potato salad, and for a brief moment, I almost wish it had been mine.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Reading. Strand.

Over the past year I have discovered so many writers, loved so many writers, that I feel that my heart will at any moment split wide open, that my skin is not enough to contain all the thoughts and feelings that crowd through my brain, my body. Most of these writers I have happened upon by chance, or having found one, have found myself led to another, and another. The books on my shelves have multiplied until all the shelves are full and another bookcase has appeared in the living room. If I continue as I have been going on I will need shelves running between floor and ceiling, against all the walls of my room until it seems that I am surrounded on all sides by the words of writers past and present who haunt my sleeping dreams and waking life, words which seep through my skin and brand themselves into my bones.

I had begun going to the theater again, because I had begun reading Shakespeare again. That same theater sent me an advertisement for a series of poetry readings to be given over the next months, and because I have been reading poetry feverishly for over a year now I take note of the names on the cover, open it to find excerpts from these four poets whose words I am unfamiliar with but am about to discover. This is how I found the poet Mark Strand, and these are the words that drew me to him, lit a desire for more:

Sometimes there would be a fire and I would walk into it
and come out unharmed and continue on my way,
and for me it was just another thing to have done.
As for putting out the fire, I left that to others
who would rush into the billowing smoke with brooms
and blankets to smother the flames. When they were through
they would huddle together to talk of what they had seen -
how lucky they were to have witnessed the lusters of heat,
the hushing effect of ashes, but even more to have known the fragrance
of burning paper, the sound of words breathing their last.

(Fire, from Man and Camel).

I dreamt of a man who walked through fire unharmed and of words that burnt to ashes and came back as words of flame. (Bulgakov tells us, manuscripts don't burn). I wake to find a clear day, and given a day off from work find myself in the bookstore, staring at a wall of poetry that stretches to the ceiling. (Other loves have been found here). Open Man and Camel, slide into the pages and into Strand's words, into the loneliness of a king who has lost all desire to rule (in "The King," the first poem), into the loneliness of Death who is waiting for Strand to join him (in "2002"). There is a sense of distance and of longing in these poems, of something fading away into nothingness, a moment, a desire. I am curled into a chair, at a long black table piled with other books abandoned by other readers. I have drawn my world around me like a cloak of invisibility, silent except for the scratch of pen against paper, glancing up at an elderly woman sitting nearby, waiting for her companion (she wears a perfect little hat, with a flower and a feather at one side), ignoring the laughter of the man sitting to my right. I am not sure where Strand's words will take me but it will be somewhere entirely different from any place I have known before. Such is literature, such is poetry, such is life.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Reading. Süsskind.

I once had a mad crush on a boy who smelled of lemon soap and clean laundry. I remember standing close to him, our heads bent over a photograph, and inhaling that scent, lemon and fresh laundry, such a clean smell, like the fragrance of the night-blooming cereus. I wanted to lean into him and breathe in deeply, but instead focused my attention on whatever we were discussing at the moment. In those days (about ten years ago) high-school boys smelled of Polo Ralph Lauren, or Calvin Klein (or horror of all horrors, Drakkar Noir). They would enter a room and a cloud of cologne would rise over the classroom, set loose by the heat of bodies and hissing radiators in winter. But not him.

In Perfume, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with no smell. The wet-nurse hired to nurse him (for his fish-wife mother is hanged for trying to let him die as all her previous babies died) refuses to continue nursing him because he feeds so voraciously that she has no more milk for other babies, and because she is frightened by the fact that he does not smell like other babies, or in fact, does not smell of anything at all. Babies should smell like warm stone, or curds, or butter, or a griddle cake, the crown of their heads like caramel, the nurse tells Father Terrier.

For all this lack of smell the infant Grenouille has an incredible sense of smell, so keen that it seems to be an extra sense, one that can tell who or what is missing from a room, or hidden under a floorboard, like x-ray vision or sonar hearing. There is something disquieting about this baby, later a child, who seems to smell things the way the rest of us look at things. Later it would lead him to create fantastical things, perfumes, for an aging perfumer, inventing new scents from all the individual oils and essences and ingredients in his shop.

But one day, Grenouille catches a whiff of a scent so beautiful that he will kill to possess it, a smell that unwinds before him like a ribbon, which he follows through all the other noisome smells of the city streets, the odors of other people, following that unbearable, ethereal, indescribable scent until he finds its source, a young girl pitting plums, whose scent he breathes in until he has absorbed every last bit of it, this master scent.

I have never read anything that was so much concerned with smell. Of the five senses it seems the least explored, at least to me. The reek of the streets of Paris comes to life as clearly as the perfumes created by Grenouille, the manure in the streets and urine in the courtyards, spoiled cabbage and moldering wood and people who stank of sweat and rotting teeth, of human decay. The only thing beautiful is the perfumes created to mask the stench of everyday life, a perfume that conjures up an evening in a Neapolitan garden, of the woods, of blossoms growing at the edge of a park in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Smell conjures up memories in a flash-flood that drowns all the senses. It has been years since I thought of that boy who smelled of lemon soap and clean laundry. I wonder, if I met him again, would he still have that clean smell about him, and would I recognize it, or him?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Eating out. dining alone.

I remember reading, many years ago, an essay by Mary Cantwell about the pleasures of dining alone. She describes walking through the streets of New York and entering a Japanese restaurant, ordering sushi and a scotch-on-the-rocks, and realizing as she eats her maki and watches the chef at work and listens to the diners around her, that she is happy. Somehow this story has stayed with me all these years, as she writes about eating in a London restaurant before her husband has arrived, or in other restaurants in other cities. I think of her when I have lunch at Palomino or the pub down the street, reading a book, which she says never to do.

But tonight I reward myself with dinner at La Spiga, after work, and I am alone, without a book to hide behind. I think of her, how she wrote about standing up very straight when she went into a very nice restaurant wearing casual clothes, I ask for a table, chin up, shoulders back, not minding that I can't actually remember whether I brushed my hair or not this morning. After a moment's pause, as the hostess studies the reservations book and wonders where to put me, I am led to one of the booths near the bar, at the front of the restaurant.

Encased in a booth of dark wood and leather the color of bitter chocolate, I can see the bar to my left - a wrought-iron railing seperating it from the rest of the room, gleaming bottles and glasses suspended overhead - and the front door, through which floods of diners stream past. Leaning back, I order a glass of wine, and my dinner. But I cannot see behind me, and my waiter moves so silently (he is impossibly tall and slim, like an Erté drawing, gliding along the floor to some rhythm I can't feel) that first a bundle of silverware, then a glass of water and a goblet of wine, and finally, the food appear on my table, without warning, only the clink of china against wood signalling its presence. I feel like a traveler in a fairy tale, who has stumbled upon a magician's castle, and finds himself seated, all alone, at the head of a table upon which elaborate dishes quietly materialize as if by magic.

I have ordered tortelli, thin sheets of dough filled with mashed potatoes and pancetta, draped with slices of prosciutto and other cured meats so fine that they seem to float. The tortelli are a bit like pasta, and a bit like bread, and I fold them over into sandwiches as I eat them. There is a plate of grilled endive, slick with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, charred around the edges, a little bitter, a little salty, with the fruitiness of the oil binding the flavors together. To finish, I have the smoothest panna cotta I have ever eaten, tasting of pure cream, in a pool of deep orange syrup, slices of fruit contrasting gently with the pudding. I am flushed with wine and food and happiness, and the six blocks home are over in a flash.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Reading. Steinbeck.

I found myself eating biscuits with gravy and hashbrowns for breakfast, which reminds me of being on road-trips and eating things like biscuits with gravy and hashbrowns in roadside diners, things that do not belong to my ordinary life. It seems only appropriate to continue reading Travels with Charley while eating these things and thinking of the open road. Suddenly all kinds of memories come flooding back as he writes about seeing the language of signs change as he crosses state lines, as I remember being a small child and driving from New York City to Agawam, Massachusetts. I remember gazing out the window at the forests flashing by, the bare trees stripped of foliage or flaming orange in fall, so unlike the endless darkness of our evergreen forests at home.

How strange Steinbeck would have found America now; he writes of how unusual it felt to be able to telephone across distance after the age of the telegram before. I wonder what he would have made of cell phones and lightning-fast internet connections and instant-messenger. In his day already there are the soulless "superhighways" that are meant for trafficking goods across the country but unnerving for the traveler who wants to actually see and experience the land that he is passing through. I wonder what he would have made of the endless billboards advertising casinos and restaurants and the latest films against the landscape, of signs that say "MCDONALD'S NEXT TWO EXITS" or "SUPERMALL 1 MILE."

In the summer of 2001 three generations (I have mentioned this part before) packed themselves into the car that was to be mine and headed east on I-90, that "wide gash of super-highway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation's goods." On that highway Steinbeck (some forty years before I did) found himself driving at a minimum speed greater than any he had ever driven before (as I would forty years later). He comments that these "great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car behind and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders....When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."

There is a sense of sadness in the realization that all this has come to pass. My own memories of that trip across the country is a blur of fields and towns flashing by at seventy miles per hour. There would be stretches of scenic detours, getting out of the car and gazing at mountains and rivers and lakes. Of taking two-lane back roads, listening to NPR and enjoying the breeze pouring in through the window. I must confess I slept much of the time, to my uncle's (and grandfather's) disgust. But I would do it all again, and think of Steinbeck's words as I drive across state lines and through mountain gorges.

Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley. Penguin Books, 1962. p 89-90.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Eating. french toast.

When I was old enough to be left home alone while my parents went out to dinner I usually made French toast for dinner. As a child it was a rare thing, like pancakes and bacon, relegated to weekend breakfasts or brunch. To have it for dinner gave me a thrill of something forbidden, or if not exactly forbidden, somewhat frowned upon. I would slice the bread into quarters, soak them in beaten egg and milk, heat butter in a skillet over a medium flame, watch it foam and begin to brown before arranging the squares of soggy bread, jump a little with glee at the hiss of batter against the hot pan. It wasn't always perfect; sometimes the bread would not get completely soaked with the egg mixture, or the crusts would get too brown before the middle was fully cooked through.

On trips with family, eating breakfast in restaurants, either hotels with white tableclothes and gleaming silverware or diners with heavy mugs and little plastic tubs of creamer on the tables, French toast came as puffy golden-brown triangles neatly arranged on white plates, adorned with twisted orange slices or fanned-out strawberries. A dusting of powdered sugar would be sifted over everything, a virgin landscape waiting for rivers of syrup. Ah, syrup. The real good maple syrup, or the fake stuff, made with corn syrup and colored with caramel extract and flavored with chemicals whose names I cannot remember, it didn't matter. Only the taste of buttery, eggy, fried bread, the sweet stickiness of syrup, mattered.

In college (and afterwards, when I was living alone), I often made French toast for dinner. There was always bread and butter and eggs and milk; I kept a bottle of good maple syrup in my room, next to the tea and packets of oatmeal (which I drizzled syrup over) and instant noodles. These days it has become rarer and rarer; I have grown up, grown past the time when I needed French toast for dinner to remind myself that I was on my own and could do things like eat breakfast for dinner if I wanted to, without anyone telling me that I should eat a proper dinner.

In earlier times French toast was made with whole-wheat sandwich bread. Now I make it with leftover rustic loaves, hard as a rock, almost impossible to slice; the bread knife slips as I try to dig in, and I just manage to avoid slicing my finger open. Flakes of crust fly all over, scatter across the floor. The toast is an irregular oval instead of the neat squares of my childhood. I leave the slices of bread to soak while I putter around, putting books away, washing dishes that have lain around neglected, heat some butter in a pan. There is maple syrup, dark molten amber, brought back from Vermont by a friend. It reminds me, as maple syrup always does, of that scene in Farmer Boy when the young Almanzo Wilder helps his father tap maple trees with wooden spouts, how they spend hours boiling down the sap into the syrup which I am now pouring lavishly over my toast.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Eating. mon petit choux.

The French term of endearment, mon petit choux, has always struck me as peculiar. I love cabbage as much as the next person, but to refer to your loved one as 'my little cabbage' has always seemed a little strange. Or perhaps not strange, because if love is being unable to live without something or someone, then I know I could never live without cabbage. (Except for coleslaw. I hate coleslaw, but then, if you've been paying attention, you know I have a deep-seated fear and loathing of raw vegetables).

I have often read of that Irish dish they call colcannon, mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage all mixed together with chopped spring onions, but I have never tasted it. Perhaps it is better this way. I don't think it could live up to my imagining, the way I have never tried to make the pickled red cabbage that I became addicted to in Prague, glowing deep red against the plate, a little tangy, a little sweet, because it would never match my memory of it. Sometimes I stand in front of a neatly arranged bank of red cabbage heads at the grocery store, gleaming from periodic sprays of water, and think about the science experiments we made with red cabbage juice in fifth grade, testing the acidity and alkalinity of various things.

One August I spent a month in Moscow on a school exchange; just before sending me off on a short excursion to St. Petersburg, my host mother handed me a small package wrapped in plastic wrap, a round golden pastry. The train rumbled away all through the night as we sat in our bunks and talked for hours, and in the morning as the train pulled into the station I unwrapped my little package to find a piroshky, the pastry buttery and flaky, filled with chopped cabbage and bits of hard-boiled egg. I have eaten many cabbage piroshky since, but none has taste so good as the one I ate in the early morning that long-ago August.

At home cabbage was Napa cabbage, elongated white heads with ruffly green leaves, sliced across in two-inch sections, braising in its own juices, sprinkled with those tiny dried shrimp that were revived in boiling water before they were added to the cabbage, salty and chewy. Or it would be simmered in chicken broth with chunks of soft tofu. Perhaps there would be regular green cabbage, the smooth green head sliced open to reveal kinked leaves tightly entangled that would loosen and fall apart as you cooked them. The neatly split head of cabbage always made me think of illustrations of the cross-section of a human brain in my science book.

And there are Brussels sprouts, which look even more like tiny green brains. Little green balls of death, my favorite produce purveyor in the Pike Place market calls them. I remember standing at the sink, trimming the stems and marking an X in the clean flat space left by my paring knife; they would be steamed until just tender. Now I am lazy and merely trim the sprouts and slice them in half, sauté them in olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Like tonight. There is a steak, juicy and perfectly medium-rare and crusty on both sides, there is bread from my favorite bakery. And there are Brussels sprouts, golden-brown around the edges, sautéed briefly and then left to steam for a little bit, with bits of bacon mixed in. Dinner for one, mon petit choux.