Monday, April 30, 2007

Eating out. Harvest Vine.

The best thing about there always being some new, hot, of-the-moment restaurant that doesn't take reservations and therefore is impossible to get into, is that everyone is always standing in line at that new place, leaving the previous impossible-to-get-into restaurant wiiiiiiiiiiide open. Or if not wide open, at least slowed down sufficiently to make it marginally easier to snag a table. For example, Harvest Vine, which when it opened several years ago, was always packed in the tiny, three-table-one-counter former-garage space. Lines would form down the block. Now they have expanded into a more spacious room downstairs, with a wine bar and several more tables, and even better, they take reservations. When I call them at 6:45, miracle of miracles, they are willing to hold a table for the three of us if I hustle down there pronto. Let's go! I tell my mother, and we're off.

First comes a plate of jamón serrano, which looks like a giant, faded, crumpled rose against the white plate, the dark pink meat bordered with a wide ribbon of white fat. The Spanish jamón is every-so-slightly-thicker than the Italian prosciutto; it is a little softer and sweeter. Some sliced bread arrives; it is different from the paler, denser, finely-crusted bread I remember from Spain, but instead the same thick-crusted, airy-textured artisanal loaf you see all over Seattle (most likely from the bakery down the street). A salad of thinly-sliced beets is arranged like a rose window of deep red and gold stained glass, deep red against clear gold. The sweet beets are gently dressed with a tart vinegar tempered with the slickness of olive oil and the soft bite of finely minced garlic. Sautéed spinach is molded into a small cylinder that we break apart with a spoon; the faintly ferrous taste of the greens is balanced by the headiness of sherry, the sweetness of golden raisins and pine nuts. There are tiny mushrooms, sliced thin and quickly sautéed, garlicky in their brothy sauce. I reach for more bread, steal a sip of my mother's wine, which comes, like the water, in those French pressed-glass tumblers you see in tiny cafés tucked away on narrow cobblestone streets across Europe.

The fish arrives, a small piece of striped sea bass, with a strange green sauce of spinach and prawns on the side - my mother is allergic to prawns - which tastes of, well, green fields and the sea, an unusually arresting sensation. There is a small plate - or rather a small portion arranged on a large plate - of roast suckling pig, which my uncle insisted on ordering at every opportunity across Spain, the meat rich and soft, with crisp bits of crackling, salty and addictive. And then there is a long narrow plate of octopus. I think I first experienced octopus-and-potato-salad in Italy; my mother would order it at least once a day (or so it seemed) in Italy, and then several months later, in Spain and Portugal as well. I came to loathe even the thought of octopus and potatoes. But here it is again, and this time the octopus is silky and tender, dusted with a smoky paprika that leaves a trail of burnt-red powder across my lips.

I regret ordering the saffron-scented flan; it is incredibly rich and creamy and smooth, and the taste of saffron lingers all night, but I rather wish I had chosen the chocolate roulade or the lemon tart with quince paste. I will have to go back.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Eating. wild mushrooms.

Sunday means brunch, and we head to Volterra, in the Ballard neighborhood. I have come to think of my city as a series of linked villages, each with its own core of restaurants and shops and Sunday farmer's markets. I am familiar with the newly-revitalised Columbia City; it is close to where I used to live. Queen Anne is part of my childhood, when we spent more time at the Seattle Center. Madison Park is home to some of my favorite restaurants, and Capitol Hill is where I work and live and where I now spend most of my time. Downtown is my playground, down to the Pike Place Market and over to the Belltown neighborhood that I know well and yet rarely venture into. Ballard is foreign territory, a new place. I don't quite know how to get there, I don't know my way around. But here we are, on the brick streets lined with trees and funky shops (every neighborhood has funky shops) and cafés and restaurants (again, every neighborhood has its local coffee shop and hot restaurants).

For brunch I momentarily consider pasta, but it is only 10 o'clock in the morning, too early for that earthy wildness of wild boar ragú. I order Eggs Benedict, which comes with wild mushrooms and a Hollandaise sauce faintly touched with truffle oil. It is soft and fragrant and irresistably savory, just enough to leave me wanting more. I distract myself with a bite of my mother's sun-dried tomato frittata, a taste of A.'s chestnut pancakes, and return to my own creamy eggs, the smooth truffle-scented softness of poached egg against the crunch of toasted English muffin. I love the wild mushrooms, the faint muskiness of truffle oil, just enough to meld the flavors of egg, mushrooms, Hollandaise, without drowning each seperate ingredient. But there are more wild mushrooms ahead, because it is not yet noon.

Dinnertime comes, and we head to Nishino, which, if you've been playing close attention, you will know is one of my favorite restaurants. Without my father to guide us I find myself ordering dishes with reckless abandon, to the consternation of my mother, who murmers quietly in my ear that I have ordered too much. We start with baby squid sautéed with green asparagus and morels; the morels are garlicky and intense against the sweetness of the asparagus, roughly textured against the slippery tenderness of the squid. It seems a waste that there is no bread to sop up the buttery juices, I think. I wonder if the staff would notice if I brought my own baguette with me next time. There is a heavy metal pot filled with a savory broth, pieces of sweet black cod and soft white tofu, some kind of wild-tasting green wilting in the heat of the soup, and some kind of unfamiliar mushroom, frilly and pale. And at last comes the Dynamite, a dish of sliced geoduck sautéed with tiny sliced mushrooms (they are so perfect they seem to have come from a can - although they taste fresh) and perhaps some finely diced onions; some mayonnaise has been spread on top and the entire dish run under the broiler until the top is browned and bubbly.

There is sushi, which is as always, excellent, and endless cups of green tea, but all I can think about is the wild mushrooms that have appeared again and again, in all forms, all day...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reading. Jerome.

Going on a trip with your friends is fraught with peril. You find yourself quarreling over every little detail, over which route to take, where to eat for dinner, how much to spend every day on such things as lodging and entertainment, who gets the bed closest to the window, whose toiletries are occupying too much of the bathroom counter, what time we should get up in the morning for breakfast. I must confess at this point that I have actually never tried to go on a trip with my friends, mainly because I know it would only be a disaster. Travelling with my family is one thing - they might temporarily disown me, but I know they will eventually forgive me for a) my nonexistent navigational skills, b) how much time I spend in the bathroom, and c) my inability to agree that 9 am is actually the middle of the day. But I feared that Spring Break in Cancun, or Paris, or Los Angeles would be the end of many beautiful friendships, and when I read Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), I knew that I had been right.

Four friends find each other feeling a bit seedy, particularly our narrator (presumably the writer, Jerome, himself), who feels that his liver is out of order, having just read "a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order," and concluding that he had them all. He was a bit of a hypochondriac, our narrator, and when he went to the doctor to tell him of all his symptoms and various diseases that he had acquired he received this prescription:

"1 lb beefsteak, with
1 pint bitter beer
every 6 hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
And don't stuff up your head with things you don't understand."

(Sound advice, I would say).

At any rate, the four friends toy with the idea of getting away for a complete rest and change of scenery. A sea voyage is proposed, to which Jerome comes up with all the reasons why a sea voyage is a perfectly terrible idea. You start on Monday, he tells us, with the idea implanted in your bosom that you are going to enjoy yourself...On Tuesday, you wish you hadn't come. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, you wish you were dead. On Saturday, you are able to swallow a little beef tea, and to sit up on deck...on Sunday, you begin to walk about again, and take solid food. And on Monday morning, as, with your bag in umbrella in your hand, you stand by the gunwale, waiting to step ashore, you begin to thoroughly like it. So a trip up the river is indicated, with three of the friends all mad keen on the idea, except for Montmorency, who refuses to go, calling the trip "bally foolishness." Maps are consulted, the questions regarding camping versus staying in inns, necessary provisions, what to do if it rains, are all ruminated over by the three men.

Originally published in 1889, Jerome's description of the foul hell that is camping in the rain (as I grew up in Seattle, I am well familiar with this scenario) rings hilariously true over a hundred years later. Any time I get the insane notion to go camping and boating with my friends, I will turn to this book until the madness passes and I am calm again. Better to be inside in the cozy warmth chuckling at the misfortunes of these travelers (and one dog) than to be out in the wilderness suffering as they did a century ago.

Jerome, Jerome K. Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog). Dover Publications, 2006. pp 1, 3, 5, 8.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Eating out. Sitka & Spruce.

I have a deep and profound fear of restaurants that do not take reservations, and yet are so popular that there is always a line and a long wait, unless you eat dinner at 5:30. Which frankly I find a barbaric hour to dine. But I have always wanted to try Sitka & Spruce, and tonight I am off work early enough to make it there and grab one of the first open tables. Traffic is light, a good omen, and I find a parking spot in the tiny strip-mall parking lot, another good omen. It is almost exactly 5:30, but there are already several people standing outside Sitka and Spruce, which occupies a small store-front squeezed in between a Subway and a Teriyaki place. I panic a little until I realize that the restaurant isn't quite open yet, and that there will be plenty of room for us as well as the diners in front of me. Finally three or four bandana-and-plaid-wearing guys come trooping by bearing coffee cups. The kitchen staff. The door opens, and we are all ushered in. Time to begin.

I am given the end of a long table - it seats six - to share with another couple as I wait for my mother and her friend. No matter, there's plenty of room. The chartreuse-painted dining room feels open and spacious, even though there are only twenty-two seats at five tables. A narrow bar juts across the far end of the room, open to the kitchen beyond, but I am too busy reading the menu - handwritten on a large chalkboard that dominates one wall - to watch the action. The other diners seem to be familiar with the restaurant and its menu; they order quickly, discussing the different selections available. I try to imagine what my mother might choose, how to combine our different tastes and desires into a meal to share. They are late, and I ask for the chicken liver pâté, which comes in a smooth pink slab sprinkled with coarse grains of sea salt. There are slices of toast, a handful of sticky-sweet-sour prunes, some pickled fiddleheads and red onions that contrast sharply with the creamy smoothness of the pâté with their acidity. I've also ordered some grilled asparagus, which arrives at the same time as my mother. The slightly charred green stalks are topped with a fried egg, with some creamy dollops of sheep's-milk (or perhaps it was goat's-milk) ricotta, and we munch on these first dishes while trying to decide on the next one.

A salad of wild greens - and by wild I mean they looked like they were picked at the side of the road, and the only resemblance to any sort of lettuce I can imagine is that they are green - floats on top of some grilled oyster mushrooms, which like the asparagus that preceded them are faintly striped and charred from the grill. A confit duck leg looks less like a leg of duck and more like a leg of a duck who had eaten several other ducks. The flesh falls apart at a touch; the skin has been crisped before serving, and there is nothing I like better than crispy duck skin, unless it's duck fat, which, by the way, is melting gently into the rich meat. The confit comes with Corona beans, the biggest beans I have ever seen, the kind of beans Jack-the-Giant-Killer must have planted in his garden, and the entire dish is faintly perfumed with fresh oranges. Slowly-simmered beef cheeks arrive with some kind of braised green - they look like watercress stems - and polenta, the kind that is formed into a cake and fried until crispy around the edges.

I cannot possibly eat any more, but then, as they say, I have another stomach for dessert, which is rhubarb shortcake. I love shortcake. The biscuits are sweet and buttery and scattered with coarse sugar crystals, the soft, glowing red rhubarb is topped with Angelica-flavored gelato, which tastes a little like licorice. There are people standing at the bar waiting for tables. Every now and then, some hopeful diner will peek in the door, and walk away, saddened. Yet I want to stay forever, and eat more, even though one more bite would probably leave me comatose on the floor. I can only promise myself that I will come back, and hope that I can keep this promise. Even though they don't take reservations.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

how to justify a private library. (after Eco).

The other day I told a friend that I have spent approximately...well, in the event that one or both of my parents comes across this blog, I will leave out the exact amount, let us just say that it was a significant amount of money, on books in the last six months. He gave me such an expression of horror (and took a step backwards towards the door) that you would have thought I had told him his car (parked outside) was on fire. In my defense, this is the friend who is extraordinarily cheap, to the point where he won't even pay for basic cable.

But then I came home, and looked at the three large bookcases, the smaller one, the two media units filled with mass market paperbacks in my bedroom, the bookcase in the second bedroom, the bookcase in the living room, the boxes in the closet, the overflow piled on my windowsill, and realized that my other friend C. had a point when she walked in to my apartment after a few months' absence and said, I think you have a problem. Although my apartment is large and airy and full of blank walls the color of caramel custard and large windows that let in floods of light, even when the sky is overcast, there is still somehow the impression that there are books everywhere. That is because I am always reading, and because I never put anything away.

Umberto Eco once complained of the banality of those who entered his home and, upon noticing his rather sizable library (actually, he tells us, it takes up the whole place), exclaim, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" At first, he says, I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children's encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion...who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.

My own library is a working tool, and it is something more than that. I think it is an extension of my brain, my heart, my soul. There are the books from childhood that I still return to, reading them in the bath, or curled up in bed before falling asleep. There are the books I read as a student, all the way from middle school through my university years. And there are the books that I read now, that I read for the pleasure of learning about new things. They are organized by country, by genre, by publisher, at random, the writers I love most at eye level or just below. It keeps growing because I keep discovering new writers, new ways of thinking, of seeing the world. It is as much about the places I have been, the person I was, as it is about the person I have become, and even more the person I hope to be.

Eco, Umberto. How to Travel With a Salmon. Harcourt Brace, a Harvest Book, 1995. pp 116-117.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

memory. China.

What I remember most clearly is the darkness. I had not been in China for sixteen years and I was unprepared for how dark it would be, how dim the lightbulbs would seem after the brightness of America, or even Hong Kong with its glittering nightlife and neon signs, where my mother and I had spent three days before flying into Guizhou. Even the lights along the highway seemed dimmer as we drove away from the provincial capitol where we'd arrived by plane. A long ride in a chartered bus, and we arrived in a smaller city where we would spend the night before heading closer to our destination; the hotel seemed grand, but the hallways felt narrow and dark. And the next day, and the day after - it's all a blur - would take us deeper into the countryside, deeper and darker than the days before.

Nearly five years ago, just before I turned twenty-two - actually my birthday would fall somewhere during our trip, in one of the small towns we passed through on our way to X'ian and then onto Dunhuang - my mother and I went to China to visit some schools that were helped by a scholarship program run by some friends of hers. Later my mother would become more involved with the program, but at the time we were there to observe as a documentary filmmaker worked on a film for...well, I can't remember what the film was for. I was there because I hadn't been to China since I was six years old, and it was time to return. We arrived at the small village during the day; our group would stay in a sort of guesthouse below the school. It was a two-storied building made of wood, barely lit by a few low-wattage lightbulbs. A long gallery ran along the front of the building; we slept in sleeping bags on bare mattresses, several of us sharing a room. (Perhaps I'm remembering this all wrong).

I had not really thought about our trip for a while now, until tonight when my mother handed me another documentary that she had brought back from her most recent trip. The music began; green hills terraced with rice paddies and dotted with dark wooden houses flickered across the tv screen, and the memories came back. As a man began talking about his family and the house he was trying to build for them I remembered sitting on those low stools - simply made, probably without nails, they hovered about six inches off the ground - in the dimly lit rooms of those wooden houses. Every meal took place sitting on those tiny stools, the seats not more than a foot long and less than six inches wide (or so they seemed to me), around a correspondingly low, round table.

In the poverty of the countryside chickens and eggs were luxuries, things we ordinarily take for granted. As honored guests we were lavished with eggs at every meal. (This is one of the few things I remember, which should not come as a surprise to anyone). Breakfast consisted of bowls of fine noodles in some kind of broth, topped with a fried egg and whatever seasonings you might want to add. It was unnerving to watch the cook slip the raw egg into what seemed like an unnecessary amount of oil that boiled away in the deep wok. The edges would turn lacy and golden in the hot oil, and the egg would be carefully lifted out onto the noodles. Lunch and dinner were always the same, dishes of green vegetables, eggs (probably scrambled with tomatoes, although I can't quite remember), some kind of meat dish, usually fat pork. The rice was different from the sticky white Japanese rice we have at home. Everything was different. I was halfway around the world, and it felt like another planet. Especially when night fell, and you were left with the darkness.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eating. congee.

I came home to find a pot of chicken congee bubbling away on the stove. I can smell the scallions, their sharpness softened by the long simmering, and the tingle of ginger, a knob of which bobs about in the thick whiteness of the congee. Congee, or as they call it in Cantonese, jook, is, in its simplest form, a sort of gruel made by cooking rice in water or broth - more than you would use to make steamed rice - until the grains begin to dissolve into a watery porridge. When we were sick we would eat plain congee until our stomachs settled and we could eat solid food again. On weekends we would have it with breakfast; there would be a saucepan of the white congee on the stove, plates of sliced, dried tofu sprinkled with sesame oil, soy sauce, and finely chopped scallions, bowls of dried shredded pork. I loved congee with dried shredded pork, which came in plastic tubs, a bit like chewy, salty-sweet cotton candy.

And then there would be a plate of thousand-year-old eggs. They're not really a thousand years old. The eggs have been coated in a preservative paste (the ingredients of which I'd rather not think about) and left to cure, almost rather like pickling them, for something like a hundred days. The shells become a powdery greyish color, and crumble as you peel them away; the egg yolk turns a dark gray-green with a lighter ring around the edge, like the iris of an eye around the pupil. The liquid white turns a clear dark brown, almost like a deep layer of aspic around the salty yolk. I cannot begin to describe the flavor, only that it has a certain intensity to it, like aged cheese, a savory ripeness. It sounds disgusting, and when I was a child I thought they were horrible. Thousand-year-old eggs are an acquired taste, and in order to acquire that taste you have to either be Chinese or extremely adventurous.

It took me years, but now I sometimes find myself craving congee with cubes of roast pork and thousand-year-old eggs from the noodle shop in Chinatown. In dim sum restaurants the congee comes with golden strips of deep-fried wonton skins, and the full bowl before you is full of sharp contrasts - bland, soupy rice, chewy pork, gelatinous egg, sharp scallions, crunchy wonton skins. Perhaps I might buy the eggs myself, slice them, sprinkle them with little bits of scallions and a few drops of sesame oil and eat them with a bowl of congee. But tonight there is congee with chicken and scallions and ginger; I have stir-fried some garlicky green beans with a little soy sauce. The beans drip into my congee as I eat them, as we sit and talk about the day past and the day to come, as the sun slips down and the tv blares away in the other room. I am unaccustomed to eating at the dining table now, but it feels good to be at the table with my mother again, eating the food of my childhood as the night falls.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Eating. piroshky.

Yesterday I stood at the window of the house that is no longer ours, looking down at the garden and the swimming pool (which I haven't used since I was in high school) and the sports court beyond that (which I haven't used since...well, ever; it was the domain of my two brothers), and the waving tall bamboo forest that ran along the edge of the court before the rest of our land slid down in a steep slope to the street below. The lilacs were blooming. I remember when it was a tiny, spindly bush with a few piddly flowers. Now it is tall and luxuriant with blossoms. It is the last time I will see those lilacs bloom in this garden, the garden of my childhood, and I feel the tears threaten to fall.

The smell of lilacs remind me of St. Petersburg, that golden month I spent there, in June when the night never falls. (They call it the "White Nights;" the city conjured up in its gilded splendor over a swamp - like Venice, it is sinking - is so far north that in the early summer the sun never seems to set). Old women with their bright kerchiefs sold bunches of lilacs and bouquets of lilies-of-the-valley wrapped in green leaves, among the markets that sprang up around the entrances to the metro stations. There would be stalls selling clothes and fruits and vegetables and bottled water and ice cream, and those old women with their baskets of flowers. The smell of flowers would float into the air and down the escalators, into the subterranean metro stations; you would leave the crowded cars with the reek of human bodies and emerge into the faint breath of lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley, the smell of spring.

Today is so warm and sunny that it almost reminds me of those far-off June days, when I would buy piroshky from a stall near the university cafeteria - it was cheaper than the cafeteria lunch and even cheaper than a meal in a restaurant - and eat in the park. The piroshky were made from a soft dough, rather like a brioche dough, formed into neat ovals, bisected by a crimped seam. The dough would have a fine golden crust, with a soft white interior yielding into the savory filling. I loved the ones filled with mushrooms and potatoes the most. I bought one for lunch today, at a small bakery near my apartment. The man behind the counter slips my potato-mushroom piroshky in the microwave to warm it up, slides it into a paper bag, hands it over. I head back to the office at a brisk trot, but cannot resist taking a bite or two when waiting at a stoplight.

Time falls away like the cherry blossoms whose petals drift to the ground with every gust of wind. There seem to be lilacs in bloom wherever you look, and I have a warm potato-mushroom piroshky in my hand. Work is waiting for me, but for a minute I can stand on a street corner and let the memories slide across my face like sunlight.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

a damsel in distress.

(and now for something a little different).

Earlier tonight I spent an hour shuffling heavy cartons around my storage unit, dismembering useless cardboard boxes, pouring styrofoam peanuts into plastic bags. I had those damn packing peanuts in my hair, stuck to my pants, drifting into the hallway. As soon as I closed my hand around the escaping ones, more floated away. I got hotter and more exhausted with every minute, peeling off my jacket, pausing to catch my breath. But at last I was done. Bags of trash were lined up next to the door; a giant cardboard box was filled with other giant cardboard boxes. I could only think of one thing - haul everything away and return to my apartment to finish cleaning up before my mother arrived in...fifteen hours. And then disaster struck.

Blindly I shoved everything that needed to be thrown away out of the storage locker, closed the door, clicked the padlock closed, and then....wait for it....realized that my jacket was hanging on the folding chairs that were leaning insouciantly against the wall behind the door. With my keys inside. The keys that enable me to a) get into remote-controlled entrance from the parking lot to the elevator, b) get into the secure, locked storage room, c) into my storage locker inside said secure, locked storage room, and finally, d) my apartment. It only takes minutes to sprint to the front desk, frantically beg the doorman to give me a) the spare key to my apartment, and b) his own personal set of keys which will get me back into the storage room. But things get worse. I can't find the second key for the padlock anywhere in my apartment.

And here a lifetime of self-training kicked in. I grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries, where the scheming villain was always locking poor Nancy in closets or down in cellars or trapping her on sinking boats. She always managed to get out with the help of a handy broom or hairpin or buttonhook or something. Later, I would read the Mrs. Pollifax novels, by Dorothy Gilman, about an elderly woman who volunteered to be a CIA agent. Her first endeavor (The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) involved her being kidnapped in Mexico City and transported to an Albanian prison, where somehow she managed to escape with a stolen gun and two companions, one of whom had a broken leg and a bullet wound (from which she had removed the bullet, using a borrowed penknife and some brandy). Whereas I had never so much as managed to unlock a door with a credit card, I always felt that if I found myself in any situation where I had to crash a car into the mountainside and break the rear window to get out (The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax) I would know exactly what to do.

But meanwhile, there is a set of keys behind a padlocked door, and I have to get them out and finish cleaning my apartment, preferably tonight. What would Nancy Drew do?, I think to myself. If I had something long and thin perhaps I could snag the sleeve of my jacket, pull it off the chair, slide it close enough to the wire netting of that little cubicle I use to store old books and cd players that don't work and most of the contents of my mother's kitchen cabinets so that I can grab my keys from the pocket. A hanger made of a single piece of wire refuses to unkink itself in my hands; another one that has a tube of cardboard to drape your trousers over obligingly pops apart. I run back downstairs, back into the creepy silence of the storage room, which, frankly, freaks me out a little, shiver with anticipation as I slide the unbent wire through a crack to poke at my hapless jacket. I feel it give a little, tug harder, and then BOOM! the chair crashes to the concrete floor.

I am glad that there are no witnesses to my insanity. One sleeve is caught beneath the fallen chair; I have to slide the wire hanger under the door and pull, pull, pull until finally it is free and I can slide it over to the stretch of fencing that encloses my little unit. I am so close - but the sleeve defies my efforts to capture it until, at last! I catch one corner of my jacket and pull it closer, closer still, until finally I touch warm fleece, work my way around the pockets, and the keys fall into my hands. The night still stretches before me - there are beds to be made, dishes to wash, pots to scrub, books to put away. But I have succeeded in this one thing. Thanks to Nancy Drew.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

on bread.

I have never been much for baking my own bread, although I have a vague memory of some recipe for a whole-wheat batter bread found in Cricket magazine. It turned out damp and yeasty, reasonably tasty yet uninteresting. My mother rarely made bread, either. When I was cleaning out the kitchen earlier today I found a baguette pan in one drawer; another cupboard yielded dark non-stick loaf pans, so surely she must have attempted it at some point. In the pantry there was a bread machine, a gleaming white thing with buttons for rapid-rise, quick bread, dough only, regular bread, timers, all sorts of bells and whistles. I remember when she bought it. It was during that phase when she took calligraphy lessons and spent hours at her table making perfect black strokes up and down sheets and sheets of paper, as well as pottery lessons, which filled our house with earthenware pots glazed in textured earth tones.

The bread machine turned out crusty rectangular loaves with a neat hole and a slash in the bottom from the blade of the machine, which mixed and kneaded the dough as you slept, then waking you with a beep-beep and the smell of fresh bread that filled the house. Our friend K. was the first to get one; dinner at her house usually involved steak (expertly barbecued by her husband, J.) and freshly baked bread, and wine from their extensive, perfectly chosen cellar. One night she not only forgot to press the start button on the rice cooker, but had also forgotten to put yeast in the bread machine. B., her brother-in-law, was dispatched to buy rice at a nearby Chinese restaurant, J. opened another bottle of wine, and K. laughed at her own folly and sat down to dinner.

For a short time we made bread in the bread machine often enough so that the gleaming white machine lived permanently in the dining room. Sometimes we merely mixed the dough and turned it out onto the countertops to shape into rustic loaves that were slid onto cornmeal-dusted baking sheets preheating in the oven. Somehow we never progressed to buying wooden peels and baking stones or covering the bottom rack of the oven with unglazed tiles. Then artisanal-style bread became popular and widely available, one of those trends that started in New York and Los Angeles (or San Francisco, or whatever) and slowly trickled to other cities. Crusty round loaves speckled with olives or rosemary or plain oval loaves appeared in their brown paper bags on supermarket shelves; new boutique bakeries sprang up everywhere you looked.

I have been reading Jeffrey Steingarten fervently for some ten years now, and every time he writes about pain au levain (which the late Lionel Poilâne brought back to life and a new popularity in the 80's) or the Roman pizza bianca and pane Genzanese, I have the urge to leap into the kitchen and whip up a natural starter. I want to buy unglazed tiles to line my oven and wooden peels for sliding the neatly formed loaves onto the hot stones and organic wheat-bran flakes to strew across the aforementioned hot stones before sliding the loaves in. And all of this has yet to happen. I have made biscuits (leaving a trail of flour around the house) and croissants (leaving a trail of buttery streaks) and scallion bread (leaving a trail of sesame seeds and chopped scallions) and cornbread (leaving a trail of cornmeal). But this, the rustic bread I buy every week from the grocery store or from my favorite bakery-of-the-moment, eludes me still.

Maybe someday.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reading. Oneal.

I found In Summer Light at the bottom of a box of old books. It is one of those "young adult" books I vaguely remember reading when I was in high school, but it appears to have made little impression on me. I come back to it now and find myself haunted by what I find there. No, haunted is the wrong word. Perhaps I should say that it has struck a chord that I missed all those years ago, which surprises me a little.

Seventeen-year-old Kate, recovering from a bout of mononucleosis (we used to call it "the kissing disease" in sixth grade), is forced to spend the summer with her family, her younger sister, her former artist mother, and her famous painter father, Marcus. She has not gotten along with her father for many years, as people who are struggling in the shadow of a famous parent sometimes do. I have always thought it would be hard to be the child of someone famous, a genius, someone for whom everyone always makes allowances, like Prospero in The Tempest. In a way Kate sees her father as Prospero, someone who expects the world to revolve around him, and it does. He is quietly contemptuous of his own wife's efforts as a painter - which she gave up after marrying him - and even more so of his daughter, who stopped painting after she won an award at school, after he merely looked at her first-prize painting and says, "it's a nice little picture."

I feel now - perhaps I understood this then and can't remember - that when he saw that "nice little picture" Marcus had that feeling of mortality, of the possibility of his own limelight slipping away. Of growing older, nearing the end of his life, the end of his career, and seeing his fourteen-year-old daughter, with the promise of youth, and the possibility of eclipsing his own fame. He is not meaning to put down his daughter's talent, at least not consciously, but now she is no longer a small child messing about with paints on the floor of his studio but a young artist, and some part of him feels threatened.

As the summer continues, Kate begins to paint again, encouraged by her mother, and a graduate student, Ian, who has come to the island to catalogue her father's works. And suddenly she sees that her father has grown old, and like Prospero in The Tempest, old and tired and asking to be set free, she has to forgive him, and reclaim her art for herself and no one else. And then comes the part that will stay with me forever now, when a rude young painter comes to dinner and makes comments about movements in art, and being outside the mainstream. Painting, Kate tells him, has to do with knocking yourself out day after day trying to get what you want to down on the canvas. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't, but every day you try. That's what painting is.

I never painted - I was never any good at it - but it came to me rather suddenly that this is how I feel about writing, that it is something I have to knock myself out doing every day, trying to get something down, trying to express something I think or feel, about whatever matters to me. And sometimes it works and often it doesn't, but I have to try.

Oneal, Zibby. In Summer Light. Bantam Books, 1986. pp 24, 68, 146, 149.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Eating. run rabbit run!

Eating rabbit has always put me in mind of the tale of Peter Rabbit being chased through Mr. McGregor's garden. (Particularly as it is often served with carrots). What happened to him? I seem to remember him catching a bit of his jacket on the fence as he scampered through, or catching cold and being put to bed with a pot of chamomile tea, with the promise of berries and cream later. Or else it reminds me of books I used to read, about courageous boys stranded on mountains with only a pocketknife and two matches, who built lean-tos out of tree branches and strips of sod and fish-hooks from pull-tabs scavenged from pop cans and trapped game with snares made of twigs and bits of wire and string.

Much later after the time when I read all the Beatrix Potter books (to be truthful, The Tailor of Gloucestor was my favorite) I came across a recipe in one of the Julia Child cookbooks for a rabbit pot pie (with an herbed biscuit crust). Her recipes came with photographs of the raw ingredients arranged invitingly on butcher-block cutting boards, as well as the dish in progress; the skinned rabbit (easily obtained, she tells us, from the freezer at your supermarket or butcher) surrounded by a lavish cornucopia of vegetables looked alarmingly like, well...a rabbit. How could I eat Peter Rabbit? Or the rabbits we kept in our school science room, fed on lettuce and carrots in their nests of clean-smelling wood shavings? The very idea was disgusting, like eating Bambi's mother. It made me feel cruel and heartless.

Years went by. I found another recipe in Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, for a "Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor's Salad." The rabbit - here it comes in boned portions at the supermarket - was marinated with herbs and spices, seared and then roasted, served on lettuce leaves with baby radishes and the "smallest carrots possible" and a mustardy vinaigrette. It sounded delicious, and I knew I had passed over to the dark side. Not long after that, my parents returned from Palace Kitchen (my favorite restaurant) with some leftover rabbit they'd ordered, which I reheated for lunch the next day. It was tender and richly flavored and left me, as the best things always do, wanting more. The next time I saw rabbit on the menu, I promised myself, I would order it straightaway. That was at Lola, where it came in a soupy broth, with some flat, wide noodles, plump summer peas, and morels. More recently, there was fettucine with rabbit ragú, the bright spot in a dinner riddled with inconsistencies.

I thought of Peter Rabbit again tonight, sitting awkwardly - I am always awkward on bar stools, which is why I try to avoid them - at the bar of La Spiga, my other favorite restaurant, where I eat as often as I can on nights when I am too tired to cook and it is all to easy to stumble in on the way home. I've ordered pappardelle al coniglio, which comes swiftly, arriving before I have even drunk half of my aranciata. (Which is just a fancy - that is, Italian - way of saying fizzy water with orange juice). There were bright little bits of carrot, sweet against the savory tenderness of the rabbit, little flecks of prosciutto adding intensity to the brothy sauce, and shreds of sage bringing the tastes of the earth. The slippery, ruffly-edged pappardelle holds up well to the richness of the sauce, yet there is a lightness to it. The cares of the day are gone; I forget how tired I am or how I have to prepare the sauce and filling for a lasagne before I go to bed (for tomorrow's party at work). I spare a passing thought for poor little Peter Rabbit, and then think longingly of home and bed, but not before eating the smooth, creamy espresso panna cotta sitting on the bar in front of me. And so to home, and the day to come.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

favorite food. mashed potatoes.

I am not sure where or when I first tasted mashed potatoes. (I do remember a friend telling me that she first had them at the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle; she had never seen mashed potatoes before and thought they were ice-cream). Probably it was some cafeteria where mashed potatoes came from a box and were served in an ice-cream-scoop-shaped mound, with a dent in the middle creating a well for a dipperful of gravy made from a mix. (I have to admit for a secret fondness for these instant mashed potatoes with instant gravy. In college I would eat bowls and bowls of instant mashed potatoes, made with whole milk and lots of butter and lashings of cheese, heated up in the microwave, seasoned with salt and pepper, all mixed together in my latte-bowl mug. It sounds disgusting. Probably now I would think they were disgusting). They were part of the school lunch, served up with slices of drab turkey and lukewarm soggy piles of stuffing. I thought it was heaven.

Since that first taste of mashed potatoes, I have nearly always ordered anything that comes with mashed potatoes whenever we ate in restaurants, even if I am not in the mood for the main dish. In steakhouses the potatoes were fragrant with garlic; in French restaurants they were smooth purées that seemed to be equal parts potato and butter (and in the late nineties/early noughties they came in little black Staub cast-iron cocottes, equal parts pretension and cuteness). I ordered mashed potatoes at every opportunity available because we never made them at home. I can remember only one occasion - I could be wrong; it could've happened more than once - that we had mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. (Our tradition was to make the potato gratin Dauphinois from Julia Child's The Way to Cook). I never owned a potato masher until I was in my early twenties and finally broke down and bought one (made by Oxo, it has a cushy rubber handle).

And now I make them all the time, experimenting with different methods - boiling potatoes whole and unpeeled, then peeling them (ow! hot!) and mashing, or peeling and quartering the potatoes before boiling them - but always with lashings of butter and milk, a sprinkling of salt, sometimes regular old table salt, sometimes with the flaky shards of Maldon salt that surprise me with their crunch. Sometimes I use the floury white russet potatoes which yield a fluffier, smoother mash; most often I turn to Yukon Gold potatoes, which give a creamier, more textured mash. After reading an article by Jeffrey Steingarten I peel and slice my potatoes before cooking them, and I usually do this in the morning before going to work, leaving the sliced potatoes in a bowl of water in the fridge. At the end of the day when I stagger through the door (as I did tonight), all I have to do is boil the potatoes, beat in the butter and milk and salt, and dinner is ready. (Often there will be a steak marinating, as there was tonight, all ready to slip into a hot pan, but that is another story).

I am not sure what I would choose for my last meal on earth, but I am sure mashed potatoes will be on the menu.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eating. sausages.

I remember once, at a dinner party, J. was laughingly telling of how when L., her husband, was growing up in Germany, he always loved the smell of grilling sausages at the stands he passed on his way home from school. We all chortled joyously at the idea of him as a young schoolboy, sniffing ecstatically at the air scented with bratwurst and bockwurst and weisswurst and whatever kind of sausage they had. I can sympathize, though, because the summer I turned twelve I went to Europe for the first time, and one of the things I discovered (along with down comforters, buffet breakfasts, and wiener schnitzel, as well as that fiery Hungarian concoction known as goulash, which I have not had since) was bratwurst, which was as unlike the American hot-dog as foie gras is compared to the still-thawing liver that falls out of your chicken as you attempt to wrestle it into the pan. I never liked mustard until I encountered it served alongside a pale length of what must have been weisswurst (I can't remember for sure), and a hot-dog never tasted the same to me again (although I still love hot dogs, which is another story in itself).

Back home, sausage was for breakfast, fat little links that sizzled away on Sunday mornings, or came as one of three options with your eggs-any-way at the diner you would ordinarily never eat at unless we were on vacation somewhere exotic, like Disneyland. Ham, bacon, or sausages? Pig, pig, or pig? Outside the home sausages came in round, flat patties, which reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie books (Little House in the Big Woods, with its extensive descriptions of hog-killing time, and Farmer Boy, with its extensive descriptions of, well, every food imaginable). I swear I never bought a chub of sausage - my mom bought those about as often as she made buttercream frosting, that is, almost never - until I was in college, or even just a few years ago when I first discovered the joys of biscuits with sausage gravy. (But, again, that is another story).

Later, in college, I discovered Italian sausages, split and grilled and smothered in sautéed peppers and onions, served on a roll. Like Buffalo wings and potato skins, they belong to that time. I would not eat them now. Now I can go to the market or the supermarket and be bowled over by the choices - chorizo and Italian sausages and wurst of every kind imaginable, seasoned with anything and everything under the sun. Most often I buy spicy Italian sausages from Whole Foods that will go in an easy lasagne or sautéed with onions and mushrooms and finely shredded escarole, tossed with orecchiette or farfalle and loads of grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano. Or, like tonight, I fry some sausages up in a pan - my favorite little frying pan which is just the perfect size for two big sausages, or a small omelet, make some toast, pour myself a glass of juice. I have bought 20-grain bread by mistake. It feels as though I have swallowed a loofah sponge. But the sausages are crispy on the outside, spicy within, and I am grateful to the butcher who convinced me to try the chicken sausages. It is an experiment, as dinners alone usually are. What will I try next?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Reading. Ishiguro.

The Remains of the Day has always been one of my favorite books, and my favorite of Ishiguro's novels. It reminds me of twilight, that part of the day when the sun has set, leaving you with the memory of the day before. Switch the lamps on, watch the darkness fall. I used to think it was the saddest book that I have ever read. I come back to it every few years, and like every book you know well and have revisited again and again over a long stretch of time, we both are always a little different each time. I always see something new that I hadn't noticed before, or feel a little differently about the people than I did before. And it is still the saddest story I have ever read.

There is always something heartbreaking about a story that looks back over the course of one's life, about the missed chances that never come again. Stevens has spent over thirty years by his role as the perfect butler, the perfect servant, and now his old employer has died, the grand house purchased by an American who has no understanding of how things are done, and he is a little lost in the great dust-sheeted house with its staff of four where once a staff of dozens bustled through the corridors. (It reminds me of that moment in the film Gosford Park, when Mrs. Wilson tells Mary, I am the perfect servant; I have no life). He has no life. The chance for change, for love, for a world outside the narrow confines of his domain, have all passed him by.

I have always seen Stevens as being paralyzed by duty, paralyzed by fear, paralyzed by the absolute belief that he is always right and the right way is the way things have always been done. It is almost frightening to see how locked he is in his own beliefs, as Lord Darlington was locked into his own belief that he had been doing the right thing during the war. And the end Darlington died an empty shell of his former self, a laughingstock, a defeated man. Without him and the old way of life, Stevens finds himself feeling, as he tells a fellow traveler, that he has given everything he had to Lord Darlington, and there is nothing left except the feeling that his whole life has been spent blindly following someone else, and not even the mistakes he has made were of his own choosing.

It always leaves me completely shattered when Stevens tells the man he meets on a pier that Lord Darlington at least "had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes...he chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least...I cannot even claim that." But then the stranger tells him, and I always feel a sense of lightness when I read this part, a relief, "You've got to enjoy yourself. The evening's the best part of the day. You've done your day's work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it...Ask anybody, they'll all tell you. The evening's the best part of the day."

I hope that when I, some thirty or forty years from now, look back to all the years before, I will not regret the choices and mistakes that I have made. I know at least that they were of my own choosing, and that I can put my feet up and enjoy my twilight, the remains of my day.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Vintage, 1993. pp 243-244.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reading. Woolf.

Before going to dinner at my favorite diner last night I wandered into the used bookstore nearby, as I always do. I like old books with their vintage cover art, their worn corners and yellowed pages. I love new books, too, with their smooth white pages and sharp corners, their clean smell. (For those I go to the brightly-lit, great barn of a chain bookstore, with its comfy chairs, filled with the scent of cookies and expensive coffee). But the used bookstore is something different, smelling of dust and old paper. Classical music plays softly in the background as I glance through the tightly-packed shelves. Somehow, as it always happens, I can't find the book I was looking for, but find myself with a pile of eight or so books that I didn't know I wanted. Two of them are by Virginia Woolf, one fiction, the other non-fiction. (I also had two other books by Kurt Vonnegut. Everyone's been buying his books lately, the clerk tells me. It's because he's dead, I say. He stares at me, nonplussed. Yeah, he just died last week. He looks shocked. I didn't know that!).

In my booth down at the diner (while waiting for my Beef Stroganoff) I flip through Three Guineas, which I had not heard of before, with its funny 1960's cover (as it turns out, the cover design is by Ellen Raskin, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Westing Game). I have been reading Virginia Woolf off and on for over a decade now, and Mrs. Dalloway has long been one of my favorite books. There is something cool and precise about her words that make me think of the deliberateness of her suicide. I can imagine her slipping rocks from her garden into her pockets and walking into the river with a purposeful stride, each step taking her deeper into the water until the roiling current closes over her head. I think of that moment, that ending of her life, every time I return to her writing, every time the cold waters of her words close over my own head.

There are three parts to Three Guineas; the first addresses (in the form of an essay-turned-letter, or rather, a letter-turned essay) the inequality between a man's education and a woman's education in a way that paralleled the inequality between men and women of the time. The writer-explorer Mary Kingsley, Woolf tells us, wrote that "being allowed to learn German was all the paid-for education I ever had. Two thousand pounds was spent on my brother's, I still hope not in vain." Woolf tells the prosperous gentleman she addresses - the British man who began his education at "one of the great public schools and finished it at the university," that your education was not merely in book-learning; games educated your body; friends taught you more than books or games...In the holidays you traveled; acquired a taste for art...and then, before you could earn your own living, your father made you an allowance upon which it was possible for you to live while you learn the profession which now entitles you to add the letters K. C. to your name. All this, at the expense of one's sisters, Woolf goes on to add. (With the exception of a profession that adds the letters K. C. to my name, I was privileged enough to, some half a century after these words were written, have that same kind of education that went beyond "book-learning." I, too, hope that it was not in vain).

Woolf goes on to discuss these fundamental differences between the education of men and that of women (or lack thereof) and the consequences of a different outlook on life in general, and most importantly, war. It cuts to the heart.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Harbinger Books, 1963. pp 4-5.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Reading. Vonnegut.

You were born without a country, my mother told me once. Perhaps I imagined those words, said in her quiet way, for she is immensely soft-spoken (unless angry or excited, whereupon volume increases in direct proportion to the intensity of her exasperation). I don't remember what we were discussing, but those words - if they were indeed spoken - have stayed with me for all the years since. Now I feel that despite my American passport and education and my Taiwanese parents (who have returned to the country where they were born and raised after a distance of thirty years), I have no country of my own except that piece of the planet that is my body, or even smaller, the size of a fist, like my own heart. I am my own country.

Not too long ago I came across A Man Without a Country, by Kurt Vonnegut, who died this past week at the age of 84. It was the title that caught my eye and made my heart jump. I have not read Vonnegut since high school, in those days when I would make my way alphabetically through nearly every book in the fiction section of our library. (It is quite possible I began at the beginning and end, and worked my way to the middle, but I can't remember for sure). I had read Vonnegut and Joseph Heller at the same time, those Americans who wrote about war and what it makes us become, writers whose words embedded themselves in our culture. After that I found I was still searching for something, restlessly moving away from the American and British literature that shaped my mind in the beginning of the time I was aware that literature meant everything to me. I have crossed continents and learned languages and while those continents and languages will always be part of me, now I find myself returning to the beginning.

Let me tell you, Vonnegut is a lot funnier than I remember, even as he writes about how we our leaders are "power-drunk chimpazees," how we are "all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial" and in the name of advanced technology we "have squandered our planet's resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn't going to be one." By now (at the time of writing) he is no longer the kid who came back from war (having miraculously survived the bombing of Dresden), but a grumpy old man deriding the state of his country, who fears that we have begun to live "as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough," without thought for the generations to come. But there is humor to his words, and irony, a tenderness, and I feel a sense that that his disappointment and disenchantment with the modern world and his country and our future - or what is left of it - is born out of love, and a connection to the country that the title says he is without, and which indeed he is not.

This may be the first post I have ever written without using semi-colons. This is in honor of Vonnegut, who tells us not to use them because semi-colons are "transvestite hermaphrodites representing nothing." I myself love semi-colons and use them profusely. But I will refrain for once, because Vonnegut tells me to.

Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without A Country. Seven Stories Press, 2005. pp 72, 42, 44-45, 71, 23.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Eating out. La Spiga. (again).

C. and I have taken to occasionally going out to dinner on nights we both work late. Sometimes it's someplace nearby we can walk to - the lab is on Capitol Hill and there are tons of restaurants within walking distance - and other times we hop in the car and drive downtown or over to Madison Park. But yesterday morning I walked past La Spiga on my way in to work - as I do every morning - and looked in the window at the empty restaurant, all the lights turned off, a broom leaning against the bar, the flowers on the narrow little table next to the door drooping a little in their vase, and thought, maybe I'll have dinner here tonight. (When I walk past the empty quiet restaurant, I think of that line from Ungaretti's I Fiumi, where he describes the sinkhole that is listless/as a circus/before or after the show).

All day long yesterday I thought about the quiet cavern of that restaurant which would no longer be quiet by dinnertime; it would be like the circus during the show, not listless as it is before or after. When the day finally ended it was past seven, and I had been at work for over ten hours. I needed food, and a drink, and off we went, turning the lights off and the alarm on, walking briskly towards our destination. Of course the tables are all full, of course there are no seats open at the bar. But there is a waiting area in the middle of the restaurant, with upholstered sofas and a low coffee table (there are also other chairs and benches by the door, but they are all occupied), and just enough space for the two of us to sit down and wait for a table.

On the recommendation of our waitress I ordered a basilico, a drink that combines lemon vodka and fresh basil and...something else, I can't remember what. It is cool and clean-tasting, like falling into a hidden spring, and as I drink it the weight of the day seems to float away. A table opens, one of the leather-cushioned booths I love so much. Paper-thin slices of prosciutto come arranged like rumpled sheets of rosy silk on a piece of waxed paper spread across one of those wooden peels bakers use to slide pizzas into the oven. I drape a slice of prosciutto over a wedge of grilled flatbread, savor my drink. I've ordered pork tenderloin braised in milk (or perhaps it is marinated in milk, or something), with a sauce fragrant with porcini mushrooms. The sauce melts into the pale meat, worlds apart from the slightly dried-out leftover grilled pork chop (an experiment gone awry from a few nights ago) I had for lunch. It is moist and tender and savory and contrasts perfectly with the translucent wedges of fennel on the side, with their sweet anise flavor. I want more, but at the same time I feel that I have had just enough.

And then it is time for dessert. I zero in immediately on the chocolate grappa cake, which I ordered the first time I ate here. The cake is warm against the cool drift of whipped cream that floats on top, leaving a tiny burn of grappa with each bite. I steal a little of C.'s gelato; she has asked for one scoop of pistachio and one of chocolate-hazelnut, and they are sweet and airy and nutty. We talk about Italy, the meals we had in Rome (at different times; C. studied abroad there some years back and I was there with my mother a few summers ago), the way people talk about meals past during meals present.

*Updates are happening, randomly. New posts are here and here

Thursday, April 12, 2007

in defence of English food.

I woke up this morning and regretted my rude words about British cooking yesterday, particularly as Laurie Colwin (aside from disparaging the packaged pork pie) also describes raised pies of veal and ham and egg and cottage pies, mysterious words that inspire some kind of longing, a hunger. The truth is, despite everything I have been told, there is a secret spot deep in my heart for English cooking, which is "a much plainer and more forthright variety than that of does not have the sun-drenched style of, say, Italian food, but it has pleasures all its own."

I have never had the kind of life that involved "the institution of English Sunday lunch: roast meat, potatoes, two vegetables, and a sweet," the sort of meal found (with any number of variations - lamb, beef, fowl, etc.) in Nigella Lawson's cookbook, How To Eat. I used to read How To Eat curled up in bed with a bowl of instant noodles or a cup of hot chocolate, much as I used to read children's books like the Mary Poppins series and The Railway Children, with their descriptions of picnics and afternoons with cakes and sandwiches and scones. It became a sort of dream, a fantasy. Italian food conjures up summer holidays, golden afternoons walking across cities of ancient stone. English food is something else, cozy winter days, and that is, as Colwin tells us, its inherent charm. I would say cuisines like Chinese or Japanese or Italian food conjure up memories of my own reality; there is something concrete and real about going down to my local Italian restaurant for a plate of pasta that recalls something I ate in some old town tucked away in the stony hills of the Abruzzi. English food is different, a fantasy, a dream, something I read about and imagine but has no place in my life as it is.

But then there is one memory. Some ten years ago I wound up in London for an all-too-brief winter holiday. It was just after Christmas, and there were still decorations up everywhere, twinkling lights and green wreaths twined with red and gold ribbons. It was freezing cold and gray, snowing lightly at night. R. and I stayed at a little B&B which was really two extra bedrooms in a rambling yet cosy flat on the top floor of an elegant converted townhouse just off Cadogan Square. We wandered through the packed food halls at Harrods, gazing in awe at the heaps of tinned pâtés and jams and jellies and all sorts of foods behind gleaming glass counters. I remember a lunch in the basement restaurant of Nicole Farhi's Bond Street shop, crackling roast squab (for me) and perfectly seared calf's liver (for R.). One day we had a luxurious tea at the Dorchester, seated on tufted chairs in a long, high-ceilinged room with elaborate floral arrangements everywhere; I felt rather grubby in my cord trousers and baggy sweater amidst all this elegance, as we ate delicate pastries and neatly trimmed sandwiches and hot scones with jam and Devonshire cream. I have dreamed of those scones with jam and Devonshire cream for all these years since.

No, I take back all the disparaging remarks I made about British food.

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. pp 121-122.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Eating. buns.

Every culture has its own version of a savory filled pie (or indeed, a sweet pie), some kind of pastry folded around meat, or fruit (hopefully not at the same time). Not long ago I had a sweet rhubarb-filled crostata at an Italian restaurant that looked like the turnovers described in children's books, only this one had coarse sugar crystals sprinkled across the golden crust; they glistened in the dim light. In Russia there are any number of piroshky to be found, filled with cabbage or potatoes or mushrooms or ham and cheese; the British have their pasties (which always makes me think of strippers, not particularly conducive to one's appetite, to be sure) and raised pies. I have never eaten a Cornish pasty or any other sort of British pie, and probably never will, particularly after reading that Laurie Colwin felt that the only truly awful thing she ate in England (having previously dined on haggis and mashed turnips, which she thought was wonderful) was a packaged pork pie. I'm not even sure what a packaged pork pie is.

And then there are empanadas. I studied Spanish in middle school, which meant that we baked churros (which came frozen) and rolled the hot strands of pastry in white sugar which crunched grittily as you ate it, and we learned how to make empanadas. The class would crowd into the tiny kitchen that was inexplicably located over the gymnasium (I think at one time our school actually had Home Ec courses), watching as our teacher sautéed onions and browned ground beef in a skillet, demonstrating how to mound the filling on rounds of (store-bought) puff-pastry, folding them in half and crimping the edges tightly, cutting vents so steam could escape. I confess I cannot remember, but I am sure our empanadas were slightly misshapen, imperfect crescents of pastry. (Years went by, and it was not until I found myself driving across Spain and Portugal that I had them again, in the basement tapas bar of our hotel. They were better in my memory).

But because I am Chinese, I grew up buying pastries from the bakery in Chinatown, the one which sold cakes filled and covered with whipped cream, decorated with slices of strawberries and, inexplicably, honeydew and cantaloupe, with perhaps a few maraschino cherries here and there. The round pastries were filled with creamed chicken; they made me think of old-fashioned novels about young girls in far-off times, who were always being taken to lunch and served creamed chicken in puff-pastry shells as a special treat. Chicken à la king, it's called. The half-moon shaped pastries were filled with beef, like empanadas, only this had curry powder, which stained the edges of the pastries a deep gold. Sometimes my mother would make these at home, using biscuits from a cardboard tube that popped open as you peeled away the paper; I loved the way it exploded in my hands, making me jump. In college I would try to recreate them, carefully rolling out the biscuits, crimping the edges closed, baking them in the toaster oven.

The other night my uncle came by and left half-a-dozen of those curried-beef buns that he had bought in Chinatown. They come in a pink cardboard box. I've been eating them for breakfast, with a mug of tea with milk and sugar. The years fall away and I am a child again; it is a strange sensation. Maybe I'll make some empanadas, using puff pastry from the freezer section of the supermarket, ground beef and onions. You can't go back in time, but you can recapture lost memories on a plate.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Reading. Konigsberg.

The intertwining stories of A View From Saturday are like the complicated movements of a fugue, or the pieces of an intricate puzzle that come apart to reveal a secret at its heart before coming back together. Four children - Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian - come together to form the sixth grade Academic Bowl team for Mrs. Olinski's class, defeating the other sixth-grade homeroom teams, the seventh grade teams, the eight grade teams, the district teams, all the way to the state championship bowl. This final championship match forms the spine of the story, the frame for the seperate stories that takes us into the past and shows how these four children came together to become what they call The Souls.

The first question asked at the championship bowl is what is the meaning of the word calligraphy and from what language does it derive? Noah is the one who presses the buzzer, and his is the first story we are told, of how he went down to Florida to visit his grandparents while his parents went on a cruise. It was there a friend taught him that calligraphy meant beautiful writing in Greek and that the first steps in preparing to write - filling a pen properly with ink from a bottle instead of using a ball-point pen - were not preparation for the beginning but the beginning itself. I think of those words whenever I find myself arranging my ingredients for a meal or in the lab as I lay pipets and bottles of media out in readiness.

The next question takes us to Nadia's story, who goes down to Florida to visit her recently divorced father and newly re-married grandfather (whose wedding story is told in Noah's chapter). Angry at her parents for being divorced, angry at her grandfather and new step-grandmother, angry that she now has to divide her life between Epiphany, New York, where her mother grew up and has returned to live, and Florida, where her father remains, it takes a night of rescuing sea turtle hatchlings from a storm to realize that, like the turtles, she will have to commute up and down the coast, but there will always be someone to give her a lift between switches.

It is during Ethan's story that the four Souls come together, and it is because of Julian, newly arrived in Epiphany. Julian, whose father opens a B&B where the four children meet for tea, Julian who was born on the high seas and educated in England, who says that he is not American as apple pie, but American as pizza pie, for he did not originate there, but he is here to stay. (I, like Julian, did not originate here, either, and I am here to stay, so we are two of a kind). Together the Four Souls win each step that leads them to the final Academic Bowl, answer each question with an absolute certainty, a confidence that is shared by their teacher Mrs. Olinski, who does not understand why she chose these four children as her team but comes to understand that she had made the right decision.

Whenever I read this I feel as though I see a little part of myself in each of the children, that I am following them on each of their journeys, that I take what they have learned with me. That like Mrs. Olinski I have been put together again, in a way that all the king's horses and all the king's men could not do for Humpty Dumpty.

Konigsberg, E. L. The View From Saturday. Aladdin, 1998. pp 4, 10, 85, 159.

Monday, April 09, 2007

happy anniversary.

This blog (in its present form) began exactly one year ago, on April 9th, 2006. I can't believe that it lasted this long, or that it would be easier to write every day (except for the past two months which have been spent playing catch-up, and I'm not there yet) than I thought possible. But then over the past year the act of writing turned out to be something familiar and necessary to my existence. Writing used to be a chore, a torture, a reluctant exercise in putting down 2,000 words on fourteenth century Chinese painting or nineteenth century Russian literature. But all that is in some distant past, on one of the far shores of my life that I have left behind in order to cross to another one. This is something different.

I have always been a reader, shy and quiet and forever buried in some book, eyes fathomless behind thick glasses (now I wear contact lenses), lost in other worlds. It has been a constant in my life, the urge to turn to literature in order to make some sense of the universe. I have always been eager to throw myself into the river of someone else's words so that I might be mixed again (to paraphrase Ungaretti) and come to know myself. For Ungaretti it was the Seine in which he came to know himself; for me it is literature itself.

For a while that desire to read went away; I felt something in me crack and break apart, went for a year or more without reading anything new or interesting. It was though I was sleepwalking through my life. Certainly I wasn't writing, only lurking about on internet message boards and mocking celebrities and their lives. And then I turned twenty-five. (I've told this story before). I discovered Bukowski, which lead to other writers, which lead to others still. Those parts of my mind which had split apart began to knit themselves back together; it was time to start writing, but I didn't know where to began. So I turned back to the constant things in my life - food, and books. The desire to write fed my desire to cook and eat and read, which in turn fed my writing, a perfect, complete circle turning back on itself again and again.

I like to think of all the writers I loved most Bulgakov made me, made me understand that I needed words, needed literature as a flame needs oxygen to burn. Then the flame began to die, exhausted and smothered with - what? Fear, perhaps. It was Bukowski that saved me, lifted whatever it was that threatened to extinguish the part of me that needed to read. When I began to read again, for the pleasure of it, for the need of it, it gave me the courage to write, to cast my words out. It doesn't matter if anyone else reads them but me, it doesn't matter if it is good or bad, it only matters that I write. I can't believe a year has slipped by already, a year of posts about everything and anything that crosses my mind (in terms of literature and food, to stay on topic, of course), past and future and present all intertwining in the complete whole that is my life.

I can't wait to see what the next year brings.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


My early childhood memories of Easter are of hunting plastic eggs filled with chocolate, of pastel-colored baskets and slippery fake grass made of clear cellophane that came massed in plastic bags like tinsel. Someone always gave us a chocolate rabbit - I don't know why, we never celebrated Easter - and I always ate the ears first while reading the Sunday morning comics, somewhat disappointed that the body of the rabbit was hollow. I remember dying eggs, dropping those tablets of dye that fizzed like Alka-Seltzer into cups of water and white vinegar - we only ever used white vinegar for this, once a year - slipping the hard-boiled eggs into the brightly-colored dye. Sometimes I would experiment with crayons or strings or rubber bands. And then all the eggs would have to be eaten, for breakfast or slipped into a lunch bag, which was not nearly as fun.

One year, I think I was in third or fourth grade, our class made Ukranian pysansky, drawing designs on our eggs with melted wax and dipping them in a series of colors. I think we even pierced the ends of our eggs and blew out the raw egg first, but I am not sure if I am imagining this first. My mother bought me a book about Ukranian Easter eggs, with pages of history and anecdotes about the history and the symbolism of the eggs, as well as other traditions of the Orthodox Easter. There were pictures and diagrams of fantastically elaborate designs, with flowers and ears of wheat and other patterns, far beyond anything my eight-year-old hands could produce. I think my later fascination with all things Russian had its first seeds planted here (along with music, and the ballet); it would stay with me, and probably will for the rest of my life.

Later, in college - by now I was studying Russian - I became friends with two girls, the middle of four sisters, whose family was American but whose parents had converted into Russian Orthodoxy in the 1970's or thereabouts. Actually their father was an Orthodox priest (and a truck driver when he wasn't being a priest, apparently). We ate borsch and pelmeni together, tossed back shots of icy-cold black-currant vodka in their living room, listened to Russian techno music together. Just before Lent came Maslennitsa, or Butterweek, which as I recall involved eating as many blini as humanly possible, each round, golden pancake dripping with butter and sour cream, a last bacchanalia before the Lenten fast to come. Because I wasn't Orthodox I was given the task of tasting the pashka (forbidden to those observing Lent) that would be served with the kulich, in order to make sure there was enough sugar or the texture was smooth and free of lumps; the former is a sort of creamy pudding, like cheesecake without the crust, made with Russian-style farmer's pot cheese (like a cross between ricotta and cream cheese) and almonds, raisins, and candied citrus peel. It was molded in a clean flowerpot lined with cheesecloth and accompanied by the kulich, which is rather like the Italian pannetone, also with raisins or currants and candied citrus peel, baked in a clean coffee can.

Now those eras have passed. Now on Easter I curl up with a few of those Cadbury creme eggs, filled with a tooth-jarring sugar paste that send a shock of sweetness through my senses. But I think of those earlier times, of dyed eggs and blini, of the creamy pashka spread on golden slices of currant-studded cake. Maybe the time for that will return, someday.

Happy Easter.

(I decided to work on my updates backwards. Maybe it will help me catch up faster. Maybe).

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Drinking. soda (pop).

As a child, sweets and soft drinks were strictly prohibited, particularly Coca-Cola. The one exception was when I was about six years old, and we spent part of the summer in China. I can't remember the name of the town, only that there was a pebbly beach from which I collected rocks to take home, and we slept in beds tented with mosquito-netting, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. I seem to remember that we took our meals in the university cafeteria - my father was lecturing there or something - and since the only other beverage offered was hot tea, I was allowed to drink as much Coke as I wanted, or at least, at every meal. In those days it came in curvy glass bottles; now when I see Coke in glass bottles I think back to that summer.

Back home only Sprite or 7-Up were allowed on the rare occasions I was permitted to drink soda. Or pop. Whatever the hell you want to call it. That only happened at rare intervals, at fast-food restaurants alongside cheeseburgers wrapped in plastic-coated paper, chicken nuggets in their paper-board boxes. At the potluck parties we were always going to, or various birthday parties, there would be the inevitable punch-bowl with scoops of pastel sherbert floating in 7-Up. Even now the sight of a punch bowl filled with scoops of pale sherbert fizzing away gives me a secret thrill. I suppose I could do it for myself, but it wouldn't be the same.

In seventh grade our advisor - the class was divided into groups of eight or so students that met with their advisor every morning before classes started - would occasionally order pizza for us. He would also bring root beer, the kind that came in bottles that looked like beer bottles. Root beer from cans or plastic bottles never tasted the same again. We would eat in the computer lab - our advisor ran the lab and taught the computer classes - which was a thrill in itself as food and drink were strictly forbidden in the lab. High school was the time I drank endless amounts of Mountain Dew for the caffeine. I haven't had any since then.

Now I drink Coke when I need caffeine, or when I am somewhere hot and humid and the only thing that will cut across the heat that seems to seep into the deepest part of my bones is a $3 Coke from the hotel minibar. Or I buy the same root beer that comes in dark brown glass bottles which we drank with our pizza as seventh-graders. My parents' training has held; I still order Sprite or 7-Up at the drive-thru along with my cheeseburgers and fries and chicken nuggets with sweet-and-sour sauce. It goes deeper than I realized; even when I have the chance to drink soda every day I find myself still reaching for juice and milk and mineral water. Until yesterday, when I find myself staging a raid on the drugstore downstairs, the one that has freezers full of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and shelves of potato chips, coming home with a box of Cadbury creme eggs and a two-liter bottle of Sprite. I don't think I've ever drunk as much Sprite as I have in the past two days, or ever will again. But all the same it gives me the brief flickering sense of some illicit pleasure, a fulfillment of some secret longing.