Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Eating out. Serious pie.

I have been meaning to try Serious pie., the new Tom Douglas restaurant, for quite some time, but the opportunity has not presented itself until tonight. Never mind that we just ate pizza for lunch a few days ago, or that it is nearly impossible to find street parking around the neighborhood (the number one reason why I do not eat at Palace Kitchen, a few blocks away, as often as I would like to). The Tom Douglas empire is centered around a refurbished brick building dominating one street corner just north of the heart of downtown, in the shadow of the Monorail. Dahlia Lounge anchors the complex, with the Dahlia Bakery tucked away on one side (on 4th) and Serious pie. (don't ask me why, but the period is part of the name, apparently) on the other (on Virginia).

Serious pie. is narrow and dim, full of polished wood and wrought-iron chandeliers; one long window looks into the bakery that produces (I assume) all the bread for the Tom Douglas restaurants, with endless gleaming counters and walls of ovens. At dinnertime the bakery is still and empty, but the tiny Serious pie. (seriously, that's how they write it, on the sign and on the menu and on the t-shirts worn by everyone who works there) kitchen is bright and crowded as the cooks stretch out pizza dough, scatter on any number of toppings, and shovel them into the roaring ovens. The communal tables that run down both sides of the room are counter-height, with comfortable high stools placed far too closely together so that I am in serious danger of elbowing my neighbor in the side with every bite, and it is impossible not to lose track of my own conversation as I get entangled with our neighbor's discussion of his son's recent trip to Los Angeles, and an upcoming trip to France.

The menu is brief, but I still want everything on it. We order a salad of slivered endive tossed with sliced figs simmered in marsala, which comes with a row of translucent slices of prosciutto twisted into rosettes; like all good things it is a study of contrasts, sweet-salty-bitter-crunchy-chewy-soft. Then our pizzas arrive, crusty oblongs placed on wooden boards, mine with pancetta and caramelized leeks and smoked mozzarella over a creamy tomato sauce. My dad's has clams and lemon thyme, showered with finely grated parmesan, tasting of the sea and of country gardens at dusk, when the smells of the earth and the growing plants seem more intense. It is different from the pizzas at Tutta Bella; the dough is more substantial, without being too thick, and there is not the, ahem, wetness that I associate with Neapolitan-style pizza. Is it better? Hard to say. I will need to eat more before I decide.

But before I embark on another pizza-eating odyssey, it's time for dessert, in our case a rhubarb-filled crostata. It is sweet and a little tangy, with a lemony zabaglione that seems to float above the crisp crust. The boy sitting next to us has a pizza covered in thin slices of potato, fragrant with rosemary, the scent of which wafts over as I finish the last crumbs of the crostata, and it is so enticing I almost want to try it, even though I am full. This is some Serious pie.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Reading. Tolstoy.

I was thirteen or fourteen the first time I read Anna Karenina; I quickly became impatient with all the characters and their tangled and (to my mind) boring and pointless lives, and never finished the novel. Occasionally I would make the attempt to return to its pages, but I found Tolstoy dusty and dull; I turned instead towards Chekhov and Pushkin, and eventually towards Bulgakov, one of the great loves of my life. I left the 18th and 19th century behind as the writers of the 20th century blazed fiercely in my mind. Later in college I would find myself studying Russian, and one entire semester was spent studying War and Peace (a suprisingly exhilarating experience). But back when I was still in high school I promised my favorite teacher, the one I used to discuss Kundera and Bulgakov with before class, the one who once told me that I think too much, that one day I would come back to Anna Karenina, and that day has come.

In the intervening years a new translation came out, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a husband-and-wife team who have translated several Russian classics. I had been underwhelmed by their translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (having fallen in love with the Diana Burgin/Katherine Tiernan O'Connor version so many years before), so it was with some apprehension that I reached for their version of Anna Karenina. And was reassured as soon as I opened to the first pages and fell into the story. More than ten years have passed, and instead of fading the words seem brighter, clearer, sharper than before, more compelling than I remembered. I've changed. It isn't so much the translation, or perhaps it is, but my heart has changed, my eyes are seeing things differently now.

How alive this world seems, this world of grand houses and grand families who are all related somehow by birth or marriage or some other mysterious connection, of aristocrats who speak French and English and German to one another instead of Russian, who drink and dine and dance the night away. How alive I feel when I slip into the whirl of their lives! It's strange, now I can look upon the hapless Obolensky with something like pity as his wife at first refuses to forgive him for his infidelity and reconcile, now I can read the description of Anna Arkadyevna as we first see her emerging from the Countess Vronsky's carriage and see how it is that everyone is drawn to her, with her beauty and elegance and modest grace, her expression gentle and tender, with a "restrained animation that played over her if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed herself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile." She brings her shamed brother, Obolensky, and his wife back together, the beautiful young Kitty is in love with her, "as young girls are capable of being in love with older married ladies."

But then the story becomes a tangle of emotions, as Kitty falls in love with Vronsky, who falls in love with Anna, who is married to a man she does not love; meanwhile Levin is in love with Kitty, proposes, and is refused. The sadness I felt when I first ventured into these pages all those years ago is still there, the disillusionment, disenchantment with people who fall into and out of love as swiftly as a handkerchief slips from one's sleeve and drifts to the floor. I remember now why I stopped reading this novel, but the beauty of Tolstoy's words - for they are beautiful - draw me back in to this story of doomed love.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Penguin Books, 2000. pp 61, 71.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Eating out. Palace Kitchen.

One of my favorite restaurants is Palace Kitchen, one of Tom Douglas' four or five restaurants. Lola is Greek-inspired cooking, excellent in its own way, but you have to be in the mood for it. Dahlia Lounge is his flagship; I find it pretentious and over-hyped. Etta's Seafood is simpler and homier; near the Pike Place Market, it used to be one of our Sunday brunch destinations. I would order their tuna-sashimi salad, which was drizzled with a soy vinaigrette and came with wedges of green-onion pancakes, or perhaps the corned beef hash, which was somehow always a little disappointing. (The newest Douglas restaurant is Serious Pie; I haven't been there yet). Palace Kitchen is my favorite above all of them. I have been eating there since I was in high school, and it has never let me down.

My father is leaving Seattle, dismantling the lab which he has run for some twenty years. He is taking the remaining students - post-doctorate fellows, graduate students, college students - out to dinner to say good-bye. The Yao lab, as one former member put it, is all about food. My father would pile everyone in one of a series of vans - the present one is an electric-blue Volkswagen Eurovan - and they would go out for lunch or dinner together. Or there would be lab parties at our house, potlucks in winter, barbecues in summer. All of that is finished now.

I am early, the first one there, and settle in at the table to peruse the menu and look around the room, dominated by the huge bar in the middle of the room and the open kitchen at the back. Everyone arrives, and we confer about appetizers and drinks and what we want for our main course. R. orders steak tartare, others order salads and soups, and I cannot resist the smoked beef tongue. My father orders the chicken wings, which we always have, spicy hot, the skins blistered from the heat of the grill. The beef tongue is tender and flavorful against a bed of lentils, which fall off my fork and roll around my plate. I steal a bite of R.'s steak tartare, savor my smoked beef, dip some bread into a pool of olive oil.

Several of us have ordered the flank steak, grilled and sliced, drizzled with foie gras butter, and served over braised greens and mashed potatoes. James has been coaxed into ordering the whole grilled trout; he looks rather nervous about contending with the bones, and when his dish arrives he gazes at it with a sort of apprehensive desire, like a cat trying to lap up a pool of spilled milk without getting any on his whiskers. The waitress comes back with another plate, and a knife and fork which she deftly uses to debone the fish for him, at which he gives an audible sigh of relief and digs in. I do this all the time, she tells us, saving his ego. James, I say, when he asks for any advice as to how to eat it, if you feel any bones on your tongue, DON'T swallow. Fortunately, he manages to escape unscathed.

I feel as though I've eaten an entire cow, but dessert beckons. There is a small glass of blood-orange granita, cold and slushy and slightly artificial tasting, which is strange. It takes serious talent to make completely natural ingredients taste like cough syrup. Then there is a piece of chocolate-covered peanut brittle, crunchy-sweet and addictive, but there is just enough to leave me wanting more. I save the maple éclair for last, light and creamy and perfect, again just enough to leave me wanting more. Every time I come here I wonder why I don't eat here more often, and I promise myself that I will try.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Eating out. Maximillian's.

During our early years in Seattle, we would go to Maximillian's for brunch whenever we went to the Pike Place Market on weekends. It was like a hidden treasure, tucked away at the end of a winding corridor. Touch the gleaming bronze statue of a pig as you walk into the shelter of the market, watch the fishmongers throw fresh fish at each other while tourists laugh and take pictures. A very tiny, very expensive flower shop sells perfect roses and lilies and luridly dyed carnations to your left; if you keep going you pass stalls selling fresh donuts and magazines and newspapers, or you could walk into DeLaurenti, and lose yourself amongst the aisles of imported chocolates and olive oils and pastas, stand transfixed before the glass counters with cheeses and hams and salamis.

Past the shop selling spices, which smells of herbs and spices and teas from all corners of the world, a heady sensation, the shelves behind the counter piled high with glass jars, then there was that narrow hallway with a painted hand directing to towards Maxmillian's. When I was very small I would run ahead, slip through the glass door, bounce impatiently until the grownups finally joined me. There would be baguettes with sweet butter and jam, glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, hot coffee for the parents. And there would be omelets and eggs Benedict and bowls of steamed mussels.

Later we would try other restaurants for brunch, Etta's Seafood, for, well, seafood, just past the end of the market. Or perhaps we would go to Café Campagne, opening off an alleyway beneath the Inn at the Market, for scrambled eggs and sausages and the most perfect quiche and the best salad I have ever eaten. Sometimes we would head up to First Avenue, to a narrow little French café called Le Pichet, for hot onion soup and open-faced sandwiches. It has been a long time since we went to Maxmillian's, with its mirrored walls and tiny bud vases and views of the water. But we are here again, just my father and I - my mother has left again for Taipei - and the time slides away.

The menu is a little different, but otherwise the restaurant doesn't look any different from what I remember. Or perhaps it just looks like a place that has looked the same for the past hundred years, like any little café in a small provincial town in the French countryside. (Not that I've every been to a little café in a small provincial town in the French countryside). I order orange juice and eat my bread and butter; my father orders moules marinières, as he has done for the past twenty years, joking a little to the waiter as he does so. The waiter is French, and therefore humorless, so my father's conversation fails to engage him. My crêpes arrive, filled with fruit and drizzled with chocolate sauce, and the moules are as we remember them, garlicky and buttery and heady with white wine and parsley. A week from now my father will have gone back to Taipei, and my life will return to normal. But for now there is bread and butter and moules marinière, and Sunday lunch at the market.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eating out. Tutta Bella.

The pizzas of Naples, writes the food critic Alan Richman, emerge from ancient wood-burning ovens smoky, charred, and puffy around the edges. Although thin, the crusts are supple and chewy, not cracker-crisp like those on the thin-crust pizzas of America. However, the Neapolitan pizzas have one serious flaw, in his mind - they are extremely wet, ranging from medium-wet to "fatally gooey," to the point where he "would not have been surprised to see small children with tiny boats floating them across their pizzas, reenacting Columbus sailing toward the edge of the world."

This is what I remember of my first experience with Neapolitan pizza, more than ten years ago - a vast circle of dough, thin enough to be pliable, thick enough to be chewy, the edges bubbly and charred from the wood fire. And yes, gooey and wet in the middle, with the juices from the tomatoes and the moisture from the fresh mozzarella di bufala and a fair amount of olive oil to finish things off. There was a pizza Margherita, named for a queen of Italy, lightly sauced with tomatoes, dotted with slices of mozzarella, scattered with bright green basil leaves. There were others - I vaguely recall one with seafood, which made my parents exclaim with joy as they recalled their New Haven days (before I was born) eating pizza at such places as the legendary Frank Pepe's - but it was the pizza Margherita that I remember most clearly, the simplicity of it, completely different from the American pizzas I was used to, thick dough swimming with sauce and overburdened with toppings and cheese.

We came home, and returned to American-style pizza from takeout places, or thin, crisp-crusted pizzas at Italian restaurants that pretended authenticity yet had none, with trendy ingredients like rotisserie-roasted chicken and goat cheese and the ubiquitous sun-dried tomato. Years passed, and then Tutta Bella came along, with its San Marzano tomatoes and roaring wood-fired oven, its certificate of authenticity from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an international association based in Naples which has the authority to recognize a pizzeria which follows a certain set of guidelines (ingredients, methods, use of San Marzano tomatoes and a wood-burning oven) that produce what they proclaim to be the true Neapolitan pizza. Tutta Bella is the first pizzeria in Seattle to gain this accredition, and it is in the neighborhood where I used to live. I don't live there anymore, but I try to eat there every month or so, at Tutta Bella or Geraldine's Counter, my favorite diner, or to buy bread at the Columbia City Bakery.

But today is a drizzly grey day, and my father and I (with the help of two of his students) have spent the morning moving things from our old house into a storage space. It is early afternoon by the time we manage to have lunch. I'm in the mood for pizza, so we head to Tutta Bella, which is airy and open and full of light despite the weather. I can't resist a café cioccolato, which comes with its cap of foam swirled into a delicate pattern of curving leaves, creamy and hot, with the nutty chocolate taste of Nutella smoothing out the kick of espresso. There is a salad of chopped romaine, crisp and green, with the faint sweet anise flavor of finely shaved fennel, bright cherry tomatoes that burst in your mouth, and little balls of fresh mozzarella, soft and creamy. And there is pizza, dusty with flour and just blackened in spots, the cheese just melted enough, the crust with just enough heft to balance the light scattering of toppings, the middle of the pizza just puddly enough to necessitate folding each slice in half before eating it. Perfection is in the flaws.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Reading. Richman.

I'm not sure how I found Alan Richman, but I probably came across Fork It Over while browsing around Barnes and Noble, hoping some Ruth Reichl memoir had finally made its way into paperback, glanced through it, tossed into the pile. I saw that he wrote for GQ, and I knew from experience that food writers that write for men's magazines are unfailingly amusing (Peter Mayle also wrote for GQ, as well as Esquire, if I remember correctly, and I had first encountered him in the pages of those magazines, which I always read on international flights when I had exhausted all the books in my luggage, and was down to GQ or Golf, and I would watch Waterworld before I read Golf).

Richman is not a food writer the way Jeffrey Steingarten is a food writer - the latter may review various restaurants occasionally, but he is as much interested in the cooking - and how many different ingredients his assistant can compile from the far reaches of Manhattan - as he is in the eating. Whereas Richman is a food critic, a restaurant critic who, it seems, rarely boils an egg let alone spends hours deboning various types of poultry in an ultimately successful attempt to make Turkducken. His life as a restaurant critic came after a childhood of his mother's Jewish home cooking, college years spent in Philadelphia in the 60's eating cheese steaks, a stint in the army stationed in the Domican Republic and Vietnam, and then the years spent as a sportswriter in Montreal and Boston before joining GQ, and later, being asked to write a food column for the magazine.

I find hard to explain what it is I love about Alan Richman and his food writing. He is funny, and he loves food as only someone whose mother cooked well and often can. He writes about his parents, his mother, who at 94 can no longer cook but who "spent her adult life cooking for her family...all Jewish mothers are expected to be kitchen enthusiasts, but [she] was defined by her cooking...the people in her building greet her warmly, the sort of recognition André Soltner must get when he walks down Fiftieth Street near Lutéce." The head of the team overseeing his parents' care tells Richman that his mother "remains a luminary among residents, acclaimed for her beef brisket and her rolled cabbage...[they] remember the taste of her food, and they still talk about it."

This beginning chapter colors everything that comes afterward, makes it possible to understand how Richman writes about a coffe-shop breakfast in Montréal of a mishmash omelette and a smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwich made with a toasted sesame-seed bagel with the same fervor as he describes eating at the Hôtel de Paris, home of Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV, where he is served sea scallops smothered in black truffles and a selection of thirty-five petit fours (after a dessert of baba au rhum, which is served with your choice of vintage rum). Perhaps is this what I love about him, how between the extremes what is clear is the desire of good food in all its myriad forms, whether served on a paper plate with plastic forks or on gold-painted Limoges china.

Food is life, writes Richman. The rest is parsley.

Richman, Alan. Fork It Over. HarperPerennial, 2005. pp 18-19, 9.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reading. Ungaretti.

I have been going over I Fiumi (The Rivers) again and again in my mind. Those words haunted me when I first caught a glimpse of a few short sentences in the epigraph of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's These Are My Rivers (I have revisited/the ages/of my life/these are/my rivers...). It became something else when I found the poem in its entirety, as I turned the words over and over in my head, as Ungaretti's Isonzo turns over the pebbles in its riverbed. In the trenches of wartime, on the Italian front, he thought of the rivers in his life that led to the moment where he found himself surrounded by war.

On the banks of the Isonzo, as the soldier-poet Ungaretti faces the daily battle against an enemy who was positioned higher than us and who was a hundred times better armed, he thinks of the Nile, which saw him born and raised/and burn with unawareness/on the sweeping flatlands. He thinks of the Serchio, where his ancestors and his own parents drew their water, he remembers the Seine, along whose banks he came to know himself. I turn his words over in my head and think of his rivers, and I come to see that the writers I love most, of which Ungaretti is one, are my own rivers, that some made me, some saved me, all of whom in whose words, as Ungaretti put it (though he was talking about the Seine and the years he spent in Paris, before the war) I was mixed again/and came to know myself.

The poems in the first part of Selected Poems are from his first collection, L'Allegria (Joy), written while he was a soldier in the Italian army during World War I, and in some way, it is these poems I find most compelling, as he reconciles his feelings as a poet and a soldier, his thoughts on life and death. I have never held/so hard/to life, he writes in Vigil, and yet he says, in Italy, that in this your/soldier's uniform/I am at peace/as if it were my father's/cradle. His words give me a feeling of peace, of serenity in the midst of death and destruction; it is almost a surreal sensation.

I was in the presence of death, writes Ungaretti, in the presence of nature, of a nature that I learned to know in a new, terrible way. From the moment I became a man who makes war, it wasn't the idea of killing or being killed that tormented me: I was a man who wanted nothing for himself but a relationship with the absolute, the absolute that was represented by death, not by danger, that was represented by the tragedy that brought man to meet himself in massacre. In my poetry there is no trace of hatred for the enemy, nor for anyone: there is the grip of consciousness of the human condition, of the fraternity of mankind in suffering, of the extreme precariousness of its condition.

Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Selected Poems. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002. pp 35-39, 264, 17, 51.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reading. Mahy.

One of the writers I found by absently wandering the shelves of my high school library was Margaret Mahy; as is always the case, when I had read one book I had to read the others (although I was limited by the library's selection). I only remember two titles, Memory, which I can no longer find anywhere, and The Catalogue of the Universe, which I recently found again after a decade's absence, wanting to return to Mahy and her sense of mystery and beauty. I don't remember the story of Memory, but I have a vague sense that it was about a yearning, a search for something, a search for belonging, or family. I could be wrong. The Catalogue of the Universe has that same sense of longing, of Angela's longing for a father, of Tycho's longing for Angela.

Angela May is tall and lovely and distracting, with hair that seems to be (in Tycho's eyes) the color of sunset, and Tycho Potter has been her best friend since they were five years old and started school on the same day. She lives in a ramshackle cottage - two ramshackle cottages, in fact, linked together by a verandah scavenged from a grander house, with a lean-to bathroom and a little path leading to the outhouse - on the part of Dry Creek Road where it twisted and turned up the hills outside the (unnamed) city and was no longer a smoothly paved road but rather more of a steep track. A rambling cottage that she will never let her boyfriend, Robin, visit, her boyfriend who doesn't know about the outhouse and the scrabbled-together excuse for a house, who hasn't properly met her free-spirited mother, Dido.

And yet it is Tycho Angela always turns to, confides in, Tycho who is short and smart and has fine blond hair that reminds her of Christopher Robin, the youngest son of a family whose attention is nearly always swallowed up by his tempestuous elder sister, Africa, off-stage somewhere with her husband and their tumultuous relationship and young baby son. It is Tycho who waits outside as she confronts the man she believes is her father, Roland Chase, the father who left Dido before Angela was born, who didn't want a child then and doesn't want one now. And it is Tycho who Angela comes back to after a raging fight with her mother, Tycho with whom Angela finds herself in love with, in the end.

Everything happens quickly, as it does in life, in the space of a few short days. There are two relationships that form the main thread of this story - the one between Tycho and Angela, and the one between Angela and her mother - two relationships which reach a turning point and change forever. And it's strange, now that I am older and returning to something I first read over a decade ago, it is the relationship between Dido and Angela that I find more interesting, more compelling, almost as if I see the story from Dido's point of view instead of Angela's, that I think more about her story and the choices she made instead of about Tycho and Angela falling in love, or rather, Angela falling in love with Tycho, since he has probably been in love since they were five and he offered to share his felt pens.

I find - although I am a long way away from being a mother - that when I re-read the stories I read when I was growing up, I think about the parents, who worry about their children, who wonder if they have made the right choices but deep down know what they want for themselves, as Dido fiercely wanted a child, taking the money offered by Roland's mother for an abortion and spending it instead on a bottle of wine and baby clothes, and who struggled to make a life for the two of them in that dilapidated cottage high in the hills above the city. Who wanted to protect Angela from the truth about her father, that he didn't want to be a part of their lives, but finds that you can't protect your children from everything, you can't smooth away the hurts and lie to make a happy ending. I hope I remember this, when the time comes.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Reading. Konigsberg.

I used to hang out in the children's section of Barnes and Noble, in the days before I had a job, sitting on the benches by the window, basking in the air-conditioning and drinking iced lattés, warding off the advances of two-year-olds wanting to climb into my lap, reading stacks of magazines and mysteries. I would go back to the writers I used to read when I was growing up, Roald Dahl, Katherine Paterson, E. L. Konigsberg, both the old favorites, and the newer books. I have been reading E. L. Konigsberg for as long as I have known how to read, and I come back to her every so often when I want to be reminded of all the things I used to know but have since forgotten.

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place reminds me a little of T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit (which I had read more than a decade earlier), in that it is about a young girl caught up in something unexpected, something that teaches her about how to fight for what you find important, even if you don't win, even if you find life is not fair and it doesn't always matter if you're right. What matters is that you cared enough to try, that you cared enough to fight, that even if you are only twelve years old you can do something, whether it is to march in protest or chain yourself to the towers which your uncles have spent over four decades building and which the city is about to pull down.

In The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler, the twelve-year-old Margaret Rose Kane's world is about to change. Her parents have left for a holiday without her; what she doesn't know is that their family is about to split apart. Instead of staying with her mother's uncles, as would ordinarily happen, she is sent to summer camp. Bright and articulate and uninterested in the typical activities that make up the summer camp experience, Margaret's sojourn at Camp Talequa is an unqualified disaster. Her bunkmates make her the butt and scapegoat of all their mischief, using her clothes to clog the shower, blaming a pool of vomit on her, generally making her life miserable until her great-uncle arrives with his dog, Tartufo, to rescue her.

But back at her uncles' home, Margaret Rose finds another tragedy waiting there. The three towers in the back garden which her uncles have constructed out of scraps of metal and ceramic and glass, dangling with ornaments of all kinds, have been scheduled for demolition by the city. (When I imagine the towers, I think of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles). Unable to bear the thought of her beloved towers being dismantled, Margaret goes into action, aided by Jake, the son of the woman who runs Camp Talequa, who has watched her humiliation at the hands of her bunkmates and her defiance of his mother.

Ultimately, the towers are saved, bought by a telecom company and moved to another part of the town. A neighborhood will spring up around these towers, a neighborhood to which the people who wanted the towers destroyed will move, the neighborhood where Margaret Rose's father will raise his family with his second wife. It is not quite the ending she hoped for, nor does her family come back to where it was before the summer began. Something we all learn too early, that the happy ending you have is not the happy end you imagined.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Reading. Cleary.

Somewhere in a box of old books I found a copy of Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary. It is different from her other books - the Ramona stories, the gentle teen romances like The Luckiest Girl and Fifteen. I have probably read it hundreds of times, but it was not until I read it again recently that a new chord was struck, a new thought emerging from the words that I had missed all those other times before. On the surface it is about a boy working through the loneliness of being a new student in a new town, of working through the sadness of his parents' divorce, of waiting for phone calls that never come, of having to live in a ramshackle shed-turned-cottage because it is all they can afford on one parent's small salary and the other's unpredictable support checks.

Leigh Botts is in the second grade when he writes his first letter to Boyd Henshaw, three sentences, mispelling "liked" and "friend" as "licked" and "freind." By the time he is in third grade, he has learned how to spell "friend" but not "touch" (tutch). A few more (properly spelled) letters later, Leigh is "the sixth grade in a new school in a different town," working on a school assignment where each student has to do an author report in order to improve their writing skills. Leigh sends a list of ten questions to Mr. Henshaw, who responds with ten questions of his own, which he is nagged into answering by his mother.

Between the worrying about his father on the road hauling goods cross-country and why people who love each other still get divorced and just exactly who has been stealing the good stuff out of his lunch bag and how to stop them Leigh is learning how to become a writer, just by writing. Writing about the things that bother him and the things that make him unexpectedly happy, like eating fried chicken in the car with his mother, watching the rain through the car windshield. Or being allowed to raise the flag in front of the schoolyard because he is early to school, or having dinner at his friend's comfortable home, overrun with little girls who sit at the table giggling. Or finally figuring out how to rig up an alarm for his lunchbox which does not manage to catch the thief who has been taking his deviled eggs and bacon-wrapped chestnut-chicken livers and little cheesecakes but instead goes off in the middle of the cafeteria as Lee tries to extricate his lunch.

Somehow in telling Mr. Henshaw about his life and continuing to write in his diary (at the suggestion of Mr. Henshaw), Leigh has, almost without knowing it, become a writer. While trying to come up with a story about a truck-driver made of wax, he becomes stuck, and instead writes about a day he spent with his father, riding along when his dad had to haul a load of grapes to a winery. It wins him an honorable mention in the school's Young Writers Yearbook, which leads to lunch with another children's author who not only remembers which story he had written, but tells him that she like it "because it was written by a boy who wrote honestly about something he knew and had strong feelings wrote like you...This is one mark of a good writer."

Twenty years before I learned the same thing from Charles Bukowski, Beverly Cleary (in the guise of Mr. Henshaw) taught me that the way to get to be an author was to write. (In the book that last word is underlined twice). It took me that twenty years to begin.

Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Dell Publishing Co., 1983. pp 1-2, 119-20, 31.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Eating. Chinese New Year.

When I was growing up, Chinese New Year meant red-and-gold paper envelopes would be tucked beneath my pillow as I slept, a crisp bill tucked inside. How my parents did this without waking me, I'll never know, but I remember that thrill of excitement when I peeked beneath my pillow in the morning. In the living room there would be bowls of candy - White Rabbit candy, which tasted of sugar and milk and came encased in a sheet of edible rice paper, and little strawberry-flavored hard candies whose red-and-gold (the colors of good fortune, luck, happiness) wrappers crackled invitingly when you reached for one. Or two. I rarely tasted them the rest of the year; they belonged to those January or February days (the Chinese New Year follows the Chinese Lunar calendar and therefore is on a different day each year).

It is hard to remember how we celebrated Chinese New Year when I was growing up; I think I remember dinners at the kitchen table, steamed fish, perhaps, or hot pot. Hot pot is rather like fondue; a pot of broth boils away (either in an electric hot-pot or in a clay soup pot placed on a small butane stove in the middle of the table) as you dip paper-thin slices of beef or pork, or fish and tofu and a wide array of vegetables. The cooked food was fished out of the soup with wire nets and dipped in whatever sauce you wanted, or raw egg (delicious, I promise you) beaten with soy sauce and sesame paste and a scattering of finely chopped green onions. At the end of the meal, the broth had turned into a savory soup.

And then there would be nian gao, a new year's cake, made of sticky rice paste, sweet and chewy. It came in a round foil pan; for breakfast or lunch my mother would slice it, dip the pieces in egg, and fry it. I remember waking up to that savory-sweet smell of frying, sitting down at the table to eat breakfast, burning my tongue a little on the first piece. We haven't really had a new year together as a family since I was in high school; during my college years I would be on the other side of the country and now my parents live an ocean away. Last year we were careening around winding roads across Spain and Portugal during Chinese New Year's; I can't remember what happened the year before.

Now I spend most of my holidays at a friend's house, Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's and the 4th of July. Probably Memorial day and Labor day and the occasional St. Patrick's day as well, come to think of it. Their house is big and cozy and always full of family and there is always tons of food, enough for an army. The kids are in the formal dining room, the grownups in the kitchen (conveniently closer to the food), and as soon as you clear your plate someone always tells you to eat more. Chinese New Year is no different; they have their own traditions, different from ours, with deep dishes of braised pork cooked with a curly black, um, fungus that looks disturbingly like hair. There are plates of roast pork, Chinese sausages, blanched green vegetables (I forget what they are called; it will come back to me in a minute), rice and chicken and later, bowls of syrupy soup, hot with fresh ginger, with balls of sticky rice that ooze a black sesame paste, sweet and chewy.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eating. Nishino.

It is Chinese New Year's Eve, and some friends are in town. I remember how I met them, three siblings younger than I. Our families went to brunch at a fancy hotel downtown; it was Mother's day and we made uncomfortable small talk across a table that could seat twenty or so people, cocooned in a small private dining room off the Georgian Room at what was then the Four Seasons Olympic hotel. (This is the place I once described as having white moldings that curled around the pale yellow walls like lace). I remember awkwardly toying with my smoked salmon frittata and giving monosyllabic answers to the sort of questions strangers ask when they are trying to get to know you.

Later, the shyness fading, we bonded over the Taiwanese pop music I had started listening to in college; it was a Thanksgiving dinner at my house and we turned the music up so loud the ceiling shook. We only see each other when our lives intersect - when their parents and mine are in the same city at the same time - a rare occurrence. But tonight we are all in the same city at the same time, and we head for dinner at Nishino, one of my favorite restaurants in this city. It is the night before the Chinese New Year, the night you go out for dinner to welcome the coming year.

Tonight instead of ordering sushi and various specialties off the menu we have asked the chef to prepare an omakase dinner, where the chef chooses an array of dishes for you. I did this once with a friend; it took three hours and ten kinds of seafood. This time it is a little different, served family-style, and a little less delicate and refined. Some of the dishes are familiar - hamachi sashimi with slivers of hot peppers, grilled octopus over a salad of mixed baby greens, a variety of sushi that I can't identify, except for the toro, which is as perfect as ever.

The four of us 'kids' have one end of the long table, the parents conversing animatedly at the other end; their conversation a background hum to ours as we talk about my ineptitude at video games, about whatever has taken place in our lives since we last met. There is a platter of taro chips arranged around tuna sashimi chopped into small cubes and tossed with cilantro and other seasonings, a fine sheet of omelet rolled around tempura shrimp and bright vegetables. And then comes a heavy iron kettle, steam rising gently from the soup within. There are pieces of black cod, sweet and tender, slippery cubes of tofu, shards of seaweed; the broth is clear and intense and for the first time I understand what the Japanese mean by umami, that mysterious sense of taste.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Eating. oranges.

Earlier, while I was sitting at the computer, typing away, K. handed me a large orange, bright as a burning round sun. It was cold in my hands as I immediately peeled and devoured it, the sharp oils in the thick, gleaming skin staining my fingers as I dug my nails into the smooth rind around the pleated navel at one end, peeling it away, piece by piece, to reveal the white pith that conceals the flesh beneath. It was a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, bursting with juice, dribbling all over the place as I ate it.

Oranges remind me of winter. When I was young we spent most of our Christmas holidays in Taipei, where you could get a kind of orange, about the size of a tangerine, the skin almost loose and a little baggy, thin and easily peeled away. They were sweeter than any other kind of orange I had ever eaten, before or since, only available locally and in the winter. I had some again a few years ago, after over a decade's absence. They were not the same, but then, I didn't think it would. Nothing ever tastes as good as you remember it being, particularly something you loved as a child.

Here in Seattle you can get Satsuma oranges, smaller than those that I remember from my Taiwanese holidays, but with that same baggy, loose skin that peels away so easily you can make one long spiral of the peel. They come with a few leaves still attached, which become dry and brittle as the days go by and they sit heaped on the counter. But of course they never last that long, as I can eat several of them at once. I wait for them all year long and when I see them in stores I know that winter has come again.

And then there are Clementines, packed in crates made of thin wooden slats or cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic mesh, each orange tiny and perfect, with thin, tight skins that, like Satsumas, peel away easily in a single spiral. I find that I always eat three or four of them at a time, leaving a trail of skins behind me like Hansel and Gretel placing white stones behind them to mark a path home. Piles of the abandoned peels gather on every available surface, coiled like empty snakeskins, much to the annoyance of everyone around me.

Navel oranges are a litle different, with their thick skins and acidic sweetness. Chinese restaurants serve them after every meal, sliced into wedges; I would strip the flesh from the skins with my teeth, all the way down to the bitter pith. They always remind me of interminable banquets ending with bowls of sweet red-bean soup, or soccer games where each week a different parent would bring bags and bags of orange slices. They make me think of school cafeterias where the oranges would be piled in wicker baskets alongside red apples and yellow bananas, a study in primary colors next to the cash registers.

Spring is around the corner, but scent of oranges burnt into my skin reminds me that winter is still here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dinner. Barolo.

The review did not bode well. "Consistently inconsistent" are not words I like to hear regarding the restaurant where I am about to eat dinner, a restaurant where someone (not me) is about to spend some forty dollars, or more, per person. A restaurant that is deafeningly loud, rather louder than a momentarily unsupervised kindergarten class and slightly less loud than a club where a grungily unknown garage band is trying to capture your attention by screaming and strumming recklessly away. There are high ceilings and minimalist (meaning uncomfortable) chairs and somewhat camp chandeliers that, while elaborate with dangly bits and twisty arms, have the soft glow of plastic rather than the cold glitter of crystal. Candles sputter around the room, held aloft by aluminum candlesticks; lurid oil paintings of wine casks leer from their gilded frames. Did I mention that it was loud?

Despite the ominous review, Barolo, located on the ground floor of some yuppie apartment building, is crammed full of people. The bar is three-deep with waiting diners; every table is occupied, and it is already past 7 pm. We are slightly shielded from the rest of the long, L-shaped dining room, in a nook hung with diaphanous curtains and floor-to-ceiling open shelves of wine, but not shielded from the unceasing din. Carafes of ice water stand on the table, faintly flavored with slices of cucumber and lemon. The bread reminds me of Italy, with a pale crust that is thick and crunchy, without the golden crispness of a French baguette, and with a finer crumb, and instead of sweet butter or luscious pools of green-gold olive oil, there is a bowl of caponata, salty and with that faintly bitter tang of black olives.

The appetizers arrive, a composed salad of grilled eggplant, a stack of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. My father is disappointed with his calamari, with is sweet and garlicky and slightly chewy and not particularly exciting. The osso buco which follows is not any better. There is not even any gremolata, which I find strange. And yet my fettucine is wonderful, a tangle of hand-cut noodles, tossed with tender slices of rabbit and porcini mushrooms and herbs and lightly dusted with a sneeze of finely grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano. There is the sweetness of carrots and celery, and the piny fragrance of rosemary. The herbs give it the taste of twilight in the woods, of wind-swept fields; it has the taste of something wild, without being gamy, which is what I love about rabbit meat.

The less said about my not-very-soufflé cold chocolate soufflé, the better. The review was right; it was a consistently inconsistent meal. There were a few bright spots - my rabbit fettucine, A.'s pasta with lamb ragú, my mother's risotto, which was perfectly al dente - and a few low points, or at least, mediocre ones - the appetizers, the osso buco, the perfectly adequate but not particularly stunning desserts. It is a good enough dinner, made good by one great dish, by the riotous company, and by the conversation that crosses continents and encompasses meals past and present, restaurants that we have been going to for twenty years and that we mean to try in the future, of the embonpoint of opera singers and how it destroys the poetic illusion of the music, of the state of healthcare in America, and back again to the one thing we always talk about at the table - food.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reading. Ungaretti.

It began with Ferlinghetti, his poems collected in These Are My Rivers. That title comes from a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti, I Fiumi, part of which goes I have revisted the ages of my life/These are my rivers, and which is mentioned in Ferlinghetti's epigraph. Those brief phrases haunted me, pulled me in, and I felt that tiny burn at the back of my brain that tells me I am about to fall in love. But I put those thoughts back into some distant corner of my mind and let it alone, for a while. And then I came across a volume of interviews given by Primo Levi, whose own history I was about to fall into, when he references Ungaretti and Montale and Quasimodo as being the three giants of Italian poetry, which was all the encouragement I needed to come back to Ungaretti.

The poet Giuseppe Ungaretti was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where he grew up, and then left for Paris, where he spent a few years before returning to his Italian roots. Upon being drafted into the Italian army, he finds himself at war, the first world war, in the north of Italy, and it is during this time that his early poems, collected in L'Allegria (Joy), were written. He was then not much older than myself, in his "grimy battle clothes," and I feel my heart twist a little as I read his words. Some of the poems are marked with the date and place they were written, a few words laid forth to express all those secret thoughts that must have crowded in his mind.

This, then, is the poem that first drew me to Giuseppe Ungaretti, the words for which I will always love him:

I fiumi (The Rivers) (Cotici, August 16, 1916).

I hang on to this mangled tree
abandoned in this sinkhole
that is listless
as a circus
before or after the show
and watch
the quiet passage
of clouds across the moon

This morning I stretched out
in an urn of water
and rested
like a relic

The flowing Isonzo
smoothed me
like one of its stones

I hoisted up
my sack of bones
and got out of there
like an acrobat
over the water

I crouched
beside my grimy
battle clothes
and like a Bedouin
bent to greet
the sun

This is the Isonzo
and here I recognized myself
more clearly
as a pliant fiber
of the universe

My affliction
is when
I don't believe myself
in harmony

But those hidden
that knead me
freely give
the uncommon

I went back over
the ages
of my life

These are
my rivers

This is the Serchio
where maybe
two millenia of my farming people
and my father and mother
drew their water

This is the Nile
that saw me
born and raised
and burn with unawareness
on the sweeping flatlands

This is the Seine
whithin whose roiling waters
I was mixed again
and came to know myself

These are my rivers
reckoned in the Isonzo

This is my longing for home
that in each one
shines through me
now that it's night
that my life seems
a corolla
of darkness

(The Isonzo river now lies in present-day Slovenia. During the first world war, it ran just inside the Austrian border with Italy. Many battles were fought along this river as the Italian army struggled to cross over and push back the Austro-Hungarian forces; many lives were lost).

Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Selected Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. pp 35-39.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cooking. the holy trinity.

Now that my mother is here I come home after work and open the fridge to see what she has brought home from the grocery store. I stand there in the chilly, fluorescent-bulb-lit draft and wonder about how to compose the various ingredients into something resembling a meal; there has to be a vegetable, a tofu dish, and meat or fish. There are clear plastic bags of tofu and bunches of leafy green vegetables and a profusion of mysterious dried ingredients that I can't identify. And there is a package of skate wings in the meat compartment, slabs of pale fish shot through with thick bones that fan out like bird's wings in their blue styrofoam tray. I'm not sure what to do with the fish, but there is a knob of fresh ginger, a bunch of scallions, and thank heavens, some white wine in one of the cupboards. The holy trinity.

In cooking, everything starts with three things. Fried rice only needs rice, eggs, and scallions; a basic batter is only flour, eggs, and milk. I marinate chicken wings with scallions, garlic, and soy sauce in gallon-size plastic zip-top bags; pork is braised in wine and soy sauce and rock sugar that melds into a syrupy sauce. And fish is steamed with slivers of scallion, slices of ginger, and a slosh of white wine. (Same goes for shrimp, stir-fried in a wok until just cooked through). This is one of my earliest memories, some white fish - bass, perhaps - laid flat in a Pyrex pie plate, covered with the scallions and ginger and white wine, the entire dish wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and then microwaved. I can remember how the plastic wrap would balloon out from the steam and then collapse against the fish, pulled taut from the vacumn created by the heat; I remember how my mother taught me to peel away the plastic so the steam would escape away from me and not burn my hand. It was my mother who taught me how to cook, who gave me my repertoire of dishes seasoned with different holy trinities.

I like this part of cooking, slicing the scallions at an angle, so they fall in pale and dark green wisps. Then the ginger, which I am too lazy to peel; each slice is so thin it is almost invisible in my hand. I scatter some of the aromatics across the bottom of a glass dish, lay the fish across the top, and pile on the remainder of the scallions and ginger, before sprinkling on salt and pepper and pouring white wine over everything. Pull off a piece of plastic wrap, stretch it tightly over the pan, stick it in the microwave that I didn't even know worked. (The night he arrived, my father stood in the kitchen with his hands on his hips, and told me that I had better figure out how the microwave worked because it was impossible to exist without it). The minutes tick by, and the fish emerges white and fragrant and shrink-wrapped like the fish of my childhood. All these weeks my parents are in town I find myself cooking the sorts of things I remember when I was young, things I watched my mother make, that I am now making for her. It is a strange feeling.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Reading. Austen.

I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was quite young, the first novel I ever read by Jane Austen (my first copy had illustrations of key scenes in the story), and have probably read it once every year since. It was not until much later that I came across Persuasion. It is difficult to say which story I love more, because they are so different, the former with a wider cast of characters, intricate plot lines weaving in and out like the complicated steps of the dances performed at the grand balls; different stories must come to their conclusion before our hero and heroine can be united. The latter is like a slow waltz between two people, a story of love lost and then regained, love constant and not erased by time and distance. There is the possibility of a second chance at happiness, when all hope is gone; it was not in vain that your heart still loved.

At nineteen Anne Elliott was in love with young captain Frederick Wentworth, then without fortune and with only confidence in himself and his abilities to recommend him. Her father is against the match, her friend and advisor Lady Russell advises against it, and so she refuses him. Eight years pass, and he is back in her life, his sister and brother-in-law having rented the Elliott home, Kellynch Hall, while Sir Walter Elliott and his eldest daughter Elizabeth depart for Bath. In these intervening years Captain Wentworth has made his fortune at sea, and Sir Walter has had to rent out his family home as his fortune declines and there is no son to inherit the estate. As he and his eldest daughter have moved to Bath, Anne goes to visit her younger sister Mary, now Mrs. Charles Musgrove, and it is there that she and Captain Wentworth find their lives intersecting once more.

When they meet again, it seems that all love has died between them, or at least on Captain Wentworth's part; he tells her sister that Anne has "so altered that he should not have known her again." He has returned to dry land, now rich, with the goal of finding a wife, anyone except for the woman he once loved, for he has not forgiven her for the earlier refusal. At first they are almost worse than strangers, in the way that only people who have loved each other once can be awkward with one another. There are obstacles - he might fall in love with the two young sisters of Anne's brother-in-law; Anne is courted by her cousin, the heir presumptive to the Elliott estate - but in the end they find themselves once again together, only without anyone to prevent their being together.

Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever, writes Captain Wentworth to Anne, after eavesdropping on her conversation with his friend Captain Harville. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. All the anger and resentment and disappointment at the previously thwarted love falls away, and the lovers are reunited.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Reading. Child.

I used to come home after school every day and have a snack while sitting at the kitchen table, before reluctantly practicing the piano for an hour, monitored by my mother from her upstairs study. (Eventually I learned how to practice while reading the latest issue of Gourmet magazine, hiding the open magazine between books of piano music. Larger trade paperback novels could also be held open in this manner; smaller mass market ones were trickier). In order to extend my precious snack time, I would read cookbooks while eating, making my way through the various Silver Palate cookbooks and other 80's classics that my mother had collected over the years. There was a whole series by some publisher with different volumes devoted to cocktail nibbles, sweets and petit fours, cookies, and sandwiches. And there was Julia Child, the pages of The Way to Cook marked with post-its, various recipes scribbled with notes in my mother's loopy handwriting.

The most fascinating cookbook, to me, was Julia Child's Menu Cookbook. Each menu centered around a theme - a birthday dinner, a casual buffet (that involved deboning a chicken and stuffing the poor creature with homemade pâté), dinner for the boss (or other VIP), cassoulet for a crowd, even a "low-cal banquet." The menus came with wine suggestions, perhaps a cocktail, an appetizer, main course, side dishes, and a dessert, along with alternate menu substitutions and suggestions for dealing with leftovers. It was hard to imagine a dinner of roast duck accompanied by a parsnip purée carefully piped into zucchini boats, using a piping bag with a fluted tip, or carefully molding a deboned and stuffed chicken into a neat sphere and tying it with string so that the finished product would look like a perfect melon. Nobody I know cooks like this, or even aspires to. Julia Child's menus belong to a time when women worked and raised children and still somehow managed to roast a rack of lamb (with frilly paper hats on the end of each bone) and stuff tomatoes for their husband's boss. (Or did they? Did anyone ever actually make these menus that required hours of boning and stitching and stuffing and carving and piping?).

Now they tell us to buy a simple first course - some cheese and good bread, or a smooth pâté and fancy crackers - and a dessert from our favorite bakery, make some yummy main course that cooks itself without us having to watch it, toss together a gentle salad of delicate lettuces and herbs. The bigger and fancier our kitchens are, the less we cook. And nobody eats things like roast duck with cracklings or Cornish game hens sitting in fried-potato nests. But with her unexpectly funny, dry writing, Julia Child makes us long for those kinds of dinners, makes us laugh at the idea of her "subduing" the roast duck in the privacy of her kitchen, makes us want a husband who, like Paul Child, mixes lethal drinks in the same poisonous green hue as the Emerald-Eyed Buddha of some legend and builds handy wooden frames to contain ice for the cocktail party raw bar. Maybe some day.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Reading. Levi.

There is not a whole lot I knew about Primo Levi, other than he was Italian, a writer, and a Holocaust survivor. I had not read his novels or his memoirs, but I came across The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987 in the bargain section of the bookstore, and thought, what the hell, let's see where this takes me. And then I realized that while reading these interviews gives a clear idea of this writer's voice, his thoughts, his ideas about memory and literature and life, at first it is like blindly feeling my way through a strange room filled with foreign objects when I have not yet read the works referenced in these interviews - If This is a Man, or The Drowned and the Saved, or If Not Now, When?, for example. Reading Levi as interviewed by Germaine Greer and Philip Roth, among others, is like having the background of a painting gently brushed in without knowning where the traced lines of the landscape will be; I am left without a point of reference and must find my own way.

Born and raised in Turin, Levi was trained as a chemist, but was arrested as an anti-Fascist in 1943 and eventually deported and sent to a German concentration camp in 1944, from which he was liberated in 1945, one of the twenty or so Italian Jews to survive (out of some six or seven hundred who had been imprisoned there). It was after his return that he began the second era of his life, as a writer, a memoirist, a survivor and witness. I am a centaur, he said, that mythical creature who was half man, half horse. His identity is cleaved into two - I am an amphibian, a centaur [...] I am split into two. One half of me is the factory, the technician and the chemist. The other half is quite separate from the first [...] and inhabits the world of writing, giving interviews, working on my past and present experiences. They are two halves of my brain. I live with this paranoiac split. It was his training as a chemist, he tells us, that saved him from extermination in the Monowitz camp, and it was his survival that gave birth to that second half of himself, his second life as a writer.

With Levi the line between memory and literature becomes blurred; the two are one complete, indistinguishable whole. He invokes the memory of 'Ulysses spending the night recounting his odyssey to Alcinous.' Probably there is another motivation here, he tells us, perhaps that almost banal need to testify to the facts, to make another understand that I am different from you, that I have seen things you have never seen, thus I am at a level above you. I think that many believe Levi died a suicide, having, as Benjamin put it, let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of history. It puts me in mind of Odysseus (Ulysses), who returned from the Trojan war and made his way through all obstacles to his own kingdom, who at long last died having lived through all manner of things that the rest of us can barely imagine. I think he, too, died a suicide. When I think of Levi I will think of those words.

Levi, Primo. The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987. The New Press, 2001. pp xx, xix, xxv.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Reading. Voltaire.

I can't remember the first time I read Candide, but I remember reading my older brother's paperback copy (he had to read it for high school English) and giggling over the illustrations. (Of course, I don't remember the story at all). Years passed, more than a decade, and I would not think of Voltaire until a new copy of Candide caught my eye in the bookstore. Yes, I am that shallow, easily caught by something beautiful and brightly colored and shiny with gilt curlicues twining around titles boldly standing out in black letters. Penguin has seduced me with their deluxe editions of classic novels with new covers illustrated by famous graphic artists such as Frank Miller (Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow), Art Spiegelman (Paul Auster's New York Trilogy). You want to collect them all, and it is impossible not to try.

Candide has a cover by Chris Ware, with little stick figures (actually, figures of two circles - for face and body - and sticks for arms, legs, and neck, except for the female figures, who wear skirts) enacting scenes from the story. The inside flap of the cover has a handy illustrated cast of major characters (in period costume), with a brief description. Candide: A sweetly disposed boy whose face is a reflection of his soul. Cunégonde: The beautiful daughter of the baron, who nonetheless ends up ugly. Old Woman: Who was once nonetheless a beautiful princess. Now she's ugly. (My father, looking over my shoulder: How are you supposed to read that? The print is too tiny). The funny illustrations and tiny, hilarious captions are more than enough to entice me to buy a book I already own, to revisit a story that I have not thought about since I was a teenager.

Once upon a time, the story begins, like every fairy tale since the beginning of time, in the castle of Monsieur the Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh, there lived a young boy on whom nature had bestowed the gentlest of dispositions. His countenance expressed his soul...with complete openness of mind; which is the reason, I believe, that he was called Candide. But alas, his idyllic life spent taking lessons from the tutor Dr. Pangloss, who taught metaphysic-theologico-cosmo-nigology, and gazing upon the beautiful daughter of the Baron, Cunégonde, is brought to an end when Candide and the aforementioned Cunégonde are caught doing...something behind a screen by her father. The hapless youth is banished from the castle grounds, left penniless and alone in the world. And then the adventures begin.

I had forgotten how funny Candide is, and how quickly the events of our hero's life come to pass. He is born (supposedly the illegitimate nephew of the Baron), raised and educated, kicked out of Paradise, swept into the Bulgar army, nearly executed for innocently taking a walk, given a pardon by the King, manages to escape the army, and is reunited with his old tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who informs him that Cunégonde was raped and disembowelled by Bulgar soldiers, her family likewise murdered. And this is just in the first ten pages. I cannot wait to see what will happen next.

Voltaire. Candide, or Optimism. Penguin Books, 2005 (Deluxe Edition). p. 3.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reading. Proulx.

What I love most about The Shipping News is the way the story unwinds itself as slowly and carefully as a man's fingers tease apart a snarled string, until the hard knots unkink themselves and uncoil into an untangled length. Secrets are revealed, stories are told, realizations dawn on the characters so that they might see their lives in a new way, the possibilities that are before them. It begins with Quoyle, a mess of a man, a sloppy tangled coil (pardon the pun) of a man, a clumsy bear who never got anything right, not work, not life, not love. Stumbled into a job as a newspaperman, was a miserable failure as always. Fell into love with Petal, who gave him two daughters and then left him with a broken heart, another miserable failure. Petal, who ran away and died in a fiery car crash with her lover, leaving Quoyle shattered and numb.

And then his aunt Agnis arrives, sweeping him away from his grief, taking him back to their family home near the town with the strange name of Killick-Claw, a fresh start, she tells him, a chance to begin all over again. There is nothing left for him in Mockingburg. So Quoyle finds himself, with his aunt and daughters Sunshine and Bunny, and the aunt's dog, Warren, driving across New York and through Vermont and up up up into Maine and past that frontier, across that stretch of Canada until at last they arrive at the ferry which will take Quoyle and his daughters across the wind-tossed waves towards Newfoundland, into a new life, and the aunt into her past. To where Quoyle, afraid of water his entire life, unable to swim, must learn how to navigate the rocky waters of the bay in a "wallowing cock-eyed bastard" of a boat.

It is in this remote, bleak village that Quoyle finds a new life, new friends in Dennis and Beety and fellow newspaperman Nutbeem and his boss Jack Buggit. And there is Wavey Prowse, the tall woman with the long graceful stride, the widow with the young child who clings to the memory of her unfaithful husband the way Quoyle clung to the demon-eyed ghost of Petal, who mocked his clumsy hands and stuttering protestations of love. But as these two stumble towards each other into the strange and new sensation of happiness they find that, after all, it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

The language of Proulx has something startling to its quickness. I am someone who strings words into wandering, meandering sentences that seem to last forever, and I love other writers who do the same. Proulx flicks words at the reader as quickly as an expert thrower skips stones across a pond. It is the saddest and most exhilarating of experiences.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reading. Trillin.

The dedication to Tepper Isn't Going Out simply reads: I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice. (Whenever I read those words I want to cry). Things I know about Alice Trillin: She died on September 11, 2001, of heart failure. She had undergone radiation treatment for cancer some twenty-five years before and it had damaged her heart permanently. She had "a weird predilection for limiting [their] family to three meals a day," a reputation as a fabulous cook, and a sense of humor. Most of all, she had the ability to make fun of her husband while making it clear that she adored him, and it was equally clear that the feeling was mutual.

In his writing - the columns for magazines, the books about food and travel - Trillin writes about himself and his wife (and their two daughters) so vividly that you feel that you know them. You want to know them. You wish that they lived next door, that the girl who never went to Chinatown without a bagel was your best friend, that her father would take you to Russ & Daughters for smoked fish, that her mother would invite you in for dinner and do something with "cheese-in-the-basket, strawberries and Grand Marnier" that might lead a lucky guest to ask if the Trillins would adopt him.

But the Alice of all those stories which made her sound like "a dietician in sensible shoes" was not the real Alice, who was beautiful and blonde and wore shoes "that looked like they cost about the amount of money required in some places to tide a family of four over for a year or two." The Alice of About Alice is the one in expensive shoes, the one who is wearing a pale turtleneck and a plaid skirt, the matching coat slung casually over her shoulders, holding her new husband's hand (it is their wedding day) in the photo on the back of the book jacket. She has dimples and gleaming blonde hair and a sort of beret (which matches her turtleneck) slouching, becomingly, tilted to the side of her head. The man holding her hand as they walk down the street towards the photographer, towards their life together (she is wearing beautiful pumps that seem to be made of some exotic leather), and he looks as though he cannot believe that this woman next to him is now his wife. It seems that for all those years they were married Calvin Trillin never quite lost that feeling of disbelief.

They may not have known her, writes Trillin, but they knew how I felt about her...I got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, "But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?" But I think if I wrote to Mr. Trillin I would tell him that I could tell how much he loved his wife from his words, and that I hoped that, not that I would be loved as much as he loved Alice, but that I would love as much as he did. That I would meet someone who would tell me that I would never be as funny as I would the night we fell in love, that I would want to write for him as I have never written for anyone else before, not even myself.

But for now, this is for Alice, and Calvin.

Trillin, Calvin. About Alice. Random House, 2006. p. 6.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Eating. doughnuts.

I was in college before I succumbed to the lure of doughnuts. For all those years before I had turned down offers of donut holes dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, glazed donuts plain or filled with jam or custard, frosted with chocolate, or maple bars that sent a zing of sugar straight to your bloodstream. This is not to say that I was immune to the pleasures of fried dough; I spent childhood summers in Taipei eating breakfasts of fried crullers, sticks of dough eaten plain or wrapped in a sort of sesame biscuit, accompanied by bowls of hot, sweet soy milk (it came plain, or savory, which is how my parents drank it, or sweet, which is how I preferred it).

Later, in Spanish class we would make churros. Their fluted lengths came frozen, wrapped in plastic. We crowded into the small kitchen overlooking the gym (why our middle school had a little kitchen at the end of the upstairs main hallway - the library was at the other end - remains a mystery to me), baked them in the oven until they were crisp, and then rolled the hot pastry in a pan of sugar. I can see Señora Blat pouring cascades of white sugar into a shallow baking dish, throwing the churros in with her bare hands. (Some months ago I bought a churro at Costco. It cost about a dollar and was sweet and spicy with cinnamon sugar and I was twelve years old again. It was a strange feeling).

But it wasn't until a Krispy Kreme opened up in Rochester, New York (where I went to college) and I acquired a car that I turned to doughnuts. It was open all night! They gave away free doughnuts! They had a drive-through window! It was so exciting to stand behind the glass windows inside the store and watch rows of doughnuts traveling down the conveyor belt, being flipped into the hot oil and turned over, golden all over, sent through a curtain of the liquid glaze and emerging on the other side, perfectly frosted and waiting to be handed over in paper envelopes. We would buy a box, plain glazed or filled with chocolate or cream or jelly, no frosting or chocolate frosting or sprinkles. Drive home and gather in our living room. Outside there would be three feet of snow and biting winds but inside we had doughnuts and milk and each other.

Now that era has passed, and there is no one left from that time. Now Krispy Kreme doughnuts seem sweet and puffy and bland, like marshmallows, without heft, without depth (although, like marshmallows, sometimes you just need one). But D. calls from Starbucks to see if anyone wants coffee, and I remember that they have doughnuts from Top Pot, the local doughnut place. Their doughnuts are more cake-like, without the stretch of a yeast dough. I can feel my teeth breaking through the frail crust of the glaze, like the barest lace of ice across a pond. There is a mug of hot tea at my elbow, and I think about Laura Ingalls Wilder writing about her husband as a little boy, watching his mother twisting doughnuts and frying them, declaring that the then "new-fangled" round doughnuts were ridiculous because she didn't have time to stand around turning them over, whereas the twisted ones rolled over and turned themselves. In a corner of my mind I can see her standing there over a pot of hot oil, twists of doughnuts turning over and over in the roiling oil as they turn golden and are lifted out to drain. And I eat my so-called "old-fashioned" doughnut that tastes like rich cake and boiled sugar, and I am happy.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reading. Trillin.

Sometimes I think I was lucky to be born late enough not to remember most of the eighties, culinarily speaking. Certainly I don't remember eating out in the years we lived in St. Louis. (What I remember is New York, with its bagels and meals at the Russian Tea Room, and Taipei, with breakfasts of fried crullers and steamed buns and bowls of hot soy milk). Dinner out meant Chinese restaurants where I got to eat potstickers and steamed fish, or Italian joints with spaghetti and meatballs, red-and-white checked tablecloths covered with white paper, which I would draw on with the black Uniball pens my father always kept in his shirt pocket. (He still does). I was born in 1980, which means I came of age in the 90's, and I happened to grow up in Seattle, with its wealth of seafood and an emergence of a cuisine that would begin to take shape in the nineties and come to fruition, so to speak, in the noughties.

Most of what I know about American cuisine before I was old enough to remember it (that is, up to the late 80's), comes from either my parents, who have a distinct prejudice against it, or from Calvin Trillin, who looks with disdain upon what he referred to as La Maison de la Casa House, that dismal Continental cuisine which brings to my mind the sort of food served on cruise ships by white-jacketed waiters hoping for a generous tip at the end of a week, reasonably attractively arranged, moderately tasty. By the time I was grown-up enough to dine out with my parents at restaurants with luxuriously starched napery and battalions of crystal stemware and silverware, the landscape had changed; I missed nouvelle cuisine and cut my teeth on the faintly Asian-inflected French-trained style of cooking that ran rampant through the 90's. But I digress.

When I read Trillin, I feel like I am at dinner with one of my best friends, or my parents' friends, one of those witty and educated people who can talk about anything, but most of all they talk about food. It is like being drawn into a conversation that will go on all night. He writes about things I have no knowledge of - chili in a Cincinnati chili parlor - I had no idea that places like this existed - or things I love, like fried chicken, eaten in towns I'll never visit. But then it comes to me, when he describes the pleasure of food, that he reminds me of my father, and his wife Alice, his constant companion and voice in his ear, is like my mother, particularly with her "weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day." (Actually, I think my mother believes two meals are all that any person needs, perhaps with a small snack to tide you over the gap). I would follow the Trillins anywhere on their gustatory adventures, and in Trillin's writing, I can.

Trillin, Calvin. The Tummy Trilogy. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1994. p 117.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Eating. Super Bowl Sunday.

I have never watched football. Ever. But it is Super Bowl Sunday, and if I were to be watching the Super Bowl (which I am not), this is the sort of thing I would be eating:

Dip. In my opinion, potato chips exist solely (much as cupcakes exist solely as a mean by which to consume lots and lots of frosting) to convey dip from the bowl to your mouth. A co-worker frequently brings such magical things as onion dip (made from a mix you combine with sour cream), garlic dip (ditto, except this one also contains mayonnaise), bacon dip (which, I believe, contains fake bacon bits, which I would not ordinarily consume except in this case when they are mixed with, again, sour cream and mayonnaise), and various other dips flavored with peppers, herbs, and sundry indescribable things, to our parties at work, and when she does, I have trouble eating anything else.

And then there are tortilla chips and salsa and guacamole. I dimly remember my mother once concocting something for a party called a 'seven-layer dip,' which I had never experienced before and have never encountered since, although they sell giant tubs of it at Costco. It is the quintessential party food, with layers of guacamole and salsa and sour cream and probably scallions and peppers and sliced black olives. Possibly there were some beans involved. But usually there is salsa and guacamole, and I must confess I prefer the green creaminess of guacamole to the cool heat of salsa, but there you have it.

Wings. I spent my college years in Rochester, New York, notable for its long, cold winters buried beneath many feet of snow. And for its proximity to Buffalo, where buffalo wings were invented one night in 1964 by Teressa Bellissimo at the Anchor Bar & Restaurant. Now, I grew up eating chicken wings, but the chicken wings of my childhood were marinated in soy sauce and garlic and a few stalks of green onions smashed with the flat blade of my knife. Buffalo wings were something else, deep-fried and doused in a hot sauce that glowed a radioactive red-orange under the neon lights of the bar. They came piled on oval platters, with celery sticks and tubs of blue-cheese sauce. Dip the wings in the creamy sauce that muted their fiery spiciness. Dip the crunchy celery sticks into the coolness of blue cheese. I haven't eaten Buffalo wings since I threw four years' worth of belongings into the back of my car and drove three thousand miles west. The sun was in my eyes all the way home.

So it is Super Bowl Sunday, and I won't be watching the game. But I can imagine lounging back on a couch, watching a bunch of men run around with a ball, crashing into each other, out under the falling night and the pouring rain. And I can imagine eating all those sorts of things people eat while watching a bunch of men running around in the rain, and I raise my (imaginary) beer and reach for a handful of (imaginary) chips.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Kitchen disasters.

The most terrible thing happened a few weeks ago, on the morning of a co-worker's birthday party. I was making macaroni and cheese, at her request, a recipe that I have made many times before. It began with boiling macaroni on one burner while making a béchamel sauce on another. I have made terrible béchamel sauces before, burning the flour, overboiling the milk. Once, while using a plastic-coated whisk, we managed to melt the plastic coating, which stuck to the pan and burned. The sauce, of course, was ruined. On this fateful morning, however, all had seemed well. The butter was swiftly and evenly melted over low heat, the flour was lightly browned, the milk whisked in. An egg was lightly beaten and then tempered into the hot sauce (sometimes a tricky step). And then disaster struck. I began stirring the cheese into the sauce, when I noticed that something was terribly wrong. The sauce was beginning to curdle. Oh, I thought, I'll just whisk faster. But the faster I whisked, the more the sauce curdled, and it began to separate into a watery, scrambled mess before my horrified eyes. Fortunately, time was on my side, and in an hour I had run the three blocks to the grocery store and back, whipped up a new batch, and was on my way to work. (The second macaroni and cheese was, alas, not quite up to my usual standards, but it was acceptable).

As someone prone to kitchen disasters, it is reassuring to know that even the pros are not immune to them. Nigella Lawson once set her hair on fire while roasting lamb (fortunately, Salman Rushdie was on hand to smother the flames with his jacket); Amanda Hesser tried to save a little money by using dried morels (I think it was morels) instead of fresh, and she described the resulting dish as "tasting like dirt." She also made the mistake - as many people have - of trying to mash potatoes in a food processor, which yielded a gummy puree instead of a silky-smooth, buttery mash. (Jeffrey Steingarten has explained, at great length, that this happens because the blades pop the cells of the boiled potato, releasing all the starch and leaving you with a gummily-textured mess). Usually my disasters involve setting things on fire or over-salting things or over-cooking things (out of fear of salmonella) or not washing the greens thoroughly enough, leaving my family with the joy of ingesting a little grit along with their fiber. Which they are only to happy to point out to me.

Awful things happen in the kitchen all the time, writes Laurie Colwin, even to the most experienced cooks, but when it happens to you it is not comforting to know that you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, especially when you contemplate the lurid-looking mess in front of you. She adds that my own greatest disasters have been the result of inexperience, overreaching, intimidation and self-absorption. I thought of her words when I made molten chocolate cakes for my mother's friends, which were supposed to rise like pudding-like soufflés and release a flood of molten chocolate as you ate them. To say I failed in my objective is like saying Alaska is a bit chilly right now. They were not inedible, merely unimpressive, soggy, dense chocolate pudding-like cakes that had risen half-heartedly in their dishes and then collapsed as if overcome by their own failure. The truly disastrous has yet to happen, but I feel the day will come when I create something that, like Colwin's baked red snapper, emerges looking "like Hieronymous Bosch's vision of hell." I can only hope that the people at my table will love me enough to forgive me, and then send out for pizza.

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. pp 140, 142.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Eating. dinner with friends.

A. has invited us to dinner, and it is with a sense of anticipation that I walk to her apartment. I am the first to arrive, with a bottle of wine bulging unglamorously from my bag. There are pots on the stove, lids hiding their contents from my eyes; two racks of lamb are resting on the counter, carpeted with breadcrumbs and herbs. On the narrow table set perpendicular to the dining table are some cold dishes: roasted portabello mushrooms, a piece of smoked salmon, a leafy salad, roasted vegetables tossed with olive oil and left to rest at room temperature. I watch A. slice loaves of bread that have been warming in the oven as we wait for the others to arrive, one by one. It is a meeting of the three best cooks I know (plus another who is reputed to be an excellent cook), and as usual the talk is all about food.

J. makes the point that she, although one of the best cooks I know, is not particularly interested in eating. She is like my mother (although in recent years I have come to feel that my mother cares more about food than she likes to admit, and at least twice I have seen her eat more than me, even though I must outweigh her by a good forty pounds), who knows good food and is an extraordinary cook, but a somewhat indifferent eater, with certain prejudices and restrictions. A. is different; she has no restrictions, no prejudices in the kitchen. She is more than twice my age, more skilled in the kitchen, with more taste, experience, and certainly a more profound appreciation for the mysteries of the kitchen, but I like to believe that we are two of a kind, with our imported sea salt and frequent use of recipes from the Food Network.

At the table we graze through the cold dishes as the lamb roasts, and A. puts the final touches on the osso buco, sprinkling the tender veal with a gremolata that will add a crisp brightness to the dish, with the tastes of orange and fresh parsley (she has left out the garlic, because J. doesn't like it). A pot of mashed potatoes has been keeping warm; they are perfect for soaking up the luscious wine sauce from the osso buco, which disguises the fact that the mashed potatoes have been made with soy milk (surprisingly good). A cautious poke with a metal pick, and two perfect rounds of marrow pop out from the bone, and I am in heaven. There is much joking around about the merits of domestic lamb versus lamb imported from New Zealand or Australia; we all declare that there must be further tasting before we can come to any decision.

A. is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up, if I didn't have my mother's example to follow. She, like the other two master cooks, knows how to prepare a meal, whether for four people or fourteen. There are dishes that can be made ahead, a day or two or perhaps even three, like the cold roasted vegetables, the osso buco which needs time to develop its flavor anyway, the roasted portabello mushrooms that are sliced and left to cool in their own juices. Some courses can be bought, like the smoked salmon and the dessert - there is no shame in a bought cake, and for years my mother has brought home tarts from Le Panier and intense chocolate tortes from Fran's. One or two things may need last-minute cooking, or a gentle reheating, but the guests are happy to talk to each other as they eat the first course.

There is tiramisu from Whole Foods, and a hilarious discussion about various subjects such as a disastrous wagon-dinner during a school-reunion trip and the difficulty of taking extremely conservative people to any movie that involves nudity. This is the life, I tell you; good food, good friends, good wine, and laughter.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Reading. Keene.

The first mysteries I ever read (aside from those written for beginning readers, like The Fourth Floor Twins series) were the Nancy Drew books. I found a whole cache of them while clearing out my parents' basement last week, going through boxes and boxes of books I had forgotten all about. In the end I only managed to come up with two or three boxes to give away; everything else followed me home. Now there are books crammed into six or seven bookcases, and in boxes under the bed, in the closet, and in my storage locker some four floors below my apartment. (At least a third of these hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, are mysteries). As I remember it, my mother had bought me a collection of the first six Nancy Drew books when I was eight or nine, and for the first time in years I have them all together again.

The teenage sleuth is always breathlessly described as slender and attractive and tremendously clever (and also described as blonde, blonde with reddish gold glints, titian blonde, or titian-haired, depending on the writer's whim). Often her best friends, Bess and George (cousins), or other school chums join her on various adventures, along with new friends met while being rescued from a stormy lake or in the course of solving some mystery or other. There were elderly people in need of help, young damsels in distress, and Nancy always came along to save the day (with some help from her friends, of course). There is the faithful housekeeper, Hannah, who always has dinner waiting, and Nancy's handsome, widowed father, the dashing lawyer Carson Drew, who always discusses his current cases with his only daughter over dinner.

The mysteries are all about secrets and hidden treasures, stolen jewels and money or wills made in favor of the more deserving. The villians are smugglers and blackmailers and thieves and kidnappers. Nancy and her father and other friends are always getting captured or kidnapped by the evil-doers; threatening phone calls and anonymous notes abound. A soupçon of danger adds a thrill to diamonds hidden aboard a sunken cruiser, or a chest of gold hearts lost for decades; Nancy is always getting rewarded with gratitude and jewelry, and a new adventure is always just around the corner.

And then, as Laurie Colwin once said, "Nancy and her chums, wearing their sport frocks, would jump into Nancy's roadster and...stop at a tea room and eat chicken salad and homemade rolls with iced tea." (Don't you know by now that with me it's always about the food?). I don't remember a chicken salad, but I remember a chocolate cake covered in swirls of frosting and decorated with walnuts, dinners of steak and baked potatoes and tossed salad, and chocolate-nut sundaes at the lunchroom of a roadside filling station. Wouldn't a little kidnapping and danger be worth the joys of coming back to a home-cooked dinner with freshly made hot rolls, and pie afterwards?

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. p. 156.