Tuesday, December 22, 2009
In traditional celebrations, St. Lucia is a flaxen lady proffering lights and treats. Families are supposed to stay up all night in order to ward off Lucifer. When dawn breaks, the youngest girl in the household serves hot drinks and sweet, flat, yeastless cookies, like Stroop Waffles. She is wearing a white gown or braids. Sometimes a mass is held wherein all of the children, girls and boys, dress up as Christ to dispense gifts to the congregation. Since this is clearly a pagan rite turned Christian saint-day, it's more likely than not Lucia was meant to be celebrated on the solstice, which is today: the coldest and shortest of all days. It doesn't carry the weight that it does in Scandinavia, where at the end of the winter they actually go journeying for the sun to make sure its still there.
In Baltimore, we honored St. Lucia by celebrating traditionally, which is to say conflating traditions. Lily's good vegetables (did she mention the crusty, hot garbonzo beans? The shallots as tender and white as poached eggs?), Chelsea's generous fritatta in a cast-iron skillet the size of my backyard, as well as her blueberry flaxseed pancakes. I baked a quick gingerbread loaf (Lily grated a knob of ginger), and there were also apples, tangerines, smoked gouda, amaretto cookies topped with pine nuts, and a hundred French pressings of coffee. We sat calmly, in the warm hollow of Lily's apartment. We drank mimosas and watched Home for the Holidays and stayed up only half of the night, until three at least. Chanelle awoke at dawn and walked into the refrigerator in half-sleep, which we assumed was a gesture that protected us from Lucifer. She's blond, too, like all the Christ children, blue-eyed and careful-handed, Lithuanian. The hallways were bare and open, and she lit them, Lily and I nested in her iron bed. Lily was calm, and her house was light, her cabinets high. I gave tarot readings. It was a weekend of heart-ache, and throwing Lucia to the devil (after all, does she seem any more than a sacrifice?). We made ornaments the next day. The sunset was pink and underlit from her father's studio in the city and he said, "Baltimore is known for beautiful sunsets."The comment was ironic, even I knew that, but still I believed him.
It's balmy and mild in Portland, where I'm visiting. Now the real solstice has come to an end. I woke up this morning in an old friend's new bed. It was raining, "unrelentingly," she said, and I was reminded of something about her which is that she has always used words correctly. She took me to Random Order and showed me the pies. Two cups of Stumptown coffee and a slice of apple-blackberry with walnut crust. We were glad to have shared a bottle of white wine the night before as opposed to red, because we had woken feeling light instead of filmy. You are what you eat. She left to go to work, and I sat at the window seat, the unrelenting rain. A young, bearded man took the stool next to mine, reading a tattoo magazine. I read a book about the tarot. We sat there for an hour or two sharing, as far as I could tell, the solstice, and when I left I almost said as much. Happy first day of winter, happy last dark noon.
The night ended in Happy Hour with my mother, ginger-sake mussels and chicken pate and another piece of pie on the opposite side of town. And not only that, the table upon which we ate was inscribed with a quote about pie being intrinsically American, and any pie-eating nation being indestructible. Or it ended in an Eliza Barchus Victorian, on the street I grew up on, with an old neighbor who brought out rose-infused vodka she's had bottled since 1998. Her ceilings were so high and peeling. The wallpaper hasn't been changed since 1926.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Writing your favorite story
He was a good vendor because he'd sell cheap what was about to spoil, give advice with bananas. Chanelle had a cousin that could have been my brother, and the air was so dry for a cold day, we sat on a hillside talking about the moment in our lives when we had family, or had family bad. We met like most people do; in New York. I remembered longingly a mango I'd dropped in the dirt a few weeks earlier--which I had rinsed off in a drinking fountain, and seemed to hold for me all the water in the world. I had met Adrian in New York too, but more routinely since we went to school together. And it’s not to say that either of them were ever late for anything, but that they had the good sense to avoid rigidity when they needed.
It was not with surprise, then, that I received a phone call from Chanelle saying they’d be late coming to Baltimore—between the plan and the bus there had been a hard night, she explained. At the stove, it wasn’t until I inventoried what I had yet to cook that I realized I’d been allotting extra time all along. The kale softly steamed with vinegar, mushrooms brown with wine, sweet zucchini, thick artichokes, and eggplant in the bottom of the salad were done. The vegetable juice was cooling on the front burner. I had used all the butter in the house, and a little bit of sugar (from another house, since I never bought it) and had only taken care of the vegetables. I had begun with one recipe—for two pounds of caramelized shallots—and in a rare occurrence, hadn’t had to consult a cookbook for anything since. There’s the alchemy, I noted: when you cook selfishly. How sex is born—from knowing what feels good. Righteous food assembled from your organism, from what you'd like to smell.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Today we've got something a little new. A comrade-across-the-table has graciously written a guest post for What I Ate Where. Melissa Weinberg is an artist who farms, or a farmer who arts, currently living in Baltimore, MD. She notes that this piece was begun in fall, but you can still find beets in farmer's markets for the next few weeks, and good prose is year-round.
punctuation: birthday cake.
"The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies."
-Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
i once held a deer's heart in my hand. i was working on a farm in new york state. a farm where eggs are shades of brown and blaring yellow yolks slosh and glisten inside.
these days i make eggs on weekend mornings. after acquiring my ingredients for the week from the bustle of the farmers market. too many familiar faces. retreat back to my kitchen. crack eggs. chop vegetables. i lose my breathe at least once a day in these leaf showers. when things are constantly falling from the sky. ideas. leaves. dreams of snow. love. dust. daylight. a kind of protracted intuitive movement, this handling of eggs. delicate and heavy as eyeballs, reminding me of my own fertility and expiration.
there were several native apple trees on the farm. one day, two friends went to collect apples from those trees, some deep in the woods. it got dark and started to rain. they still hadn't returned. we talked about going to find them, but eventually they stumbled out of the woods, sacks of apples in hand. kisses evaporated. leaking clothes. and made cider. peeled, cut, and stored apples for days.
the fall is fat. it is plump and pulsating.
its days hinge on the urgency that comes with the expectation of colder darker days ahead.
its vegetables hide underground, feverishly storing sugars. the flesh of its fruits wait patiently inside hard weathered shells.
it is secretive.
it is a season of beets.
the crew on the farm consisted of about six twenty-somethings, most with artistic, idealistic, adventurous and earth-loving inclinations that lead them to desire the experience of long days of hard physical labor producing vegetables. with all the side effects that entailed: the opportunity for solitude and remove from cities, an unexpected sense of camaraderie among coworkers, health benefits of eating fresh food and working til you think you might drop, the possibilities of personal growth through unfamiliar experiences.
the farmer, a rough around the edges and kind-hearted kiwi, almost a characature of himself, was a man with survival skills and instincts to rival a lion's. he was a connoisseur of guns and knives as well as a man with extensive knowledge of plants and animals.
aware of his butchering skills and distain for wasting, neighbors would sometimes call and let him know of a deer that had just been hit by a car within the past few hours and was still on the side of those country roads. he would drive out with another farmhand, manage it in the back of his truck and bring it back to the farm.
standing in the woods on one such day with the boys from the crew, who were all overeager to learn how to hunt and butcher, i watched as the farmer sliced into the animal and pulled back its skin. the smell was overwhelming as we all leaned in to examine, like medical students hunched over our first cadaver. avoiding flies.
the farmer let the stomach of the animal and all of its contents fall out of its frame. coils of intestines followed. a few slices with a sharpened blade and the deer's heart was in the farmer's bloody hands.
you never think of an animal's heart as an object on its own. severed from its veins and arteries and fluid relationships with other organs, the heart is a fat sack of muscle and blood. a perfect combination of the world of metaphors and language and the world of the corporeal. what sustained life just hours before sat meaty and languid in my hand.
the boys butchered the rest of the deer that afternoon. there were pots of blood and water out on the porch. in plastics bags the flesh of that animal got packed into our freezer, with a little left out for dinner.
i chewed slowly that night. gratefully. my tongue as alert as it's ever been with a slightly metallic lingering taste.
i had a dream about carrots (ripping them up from my garden to find them huge and healthy and smelling like soil). i had a dream about the word "galvanize." i had a dream about snow (cold moisture on skin. constellations on pavement. dissolving. dissolved. resolving. resolved). but snow is still a dream and autumn is in full swing. my arms hang and sway from the sides of my heart cage. it is a season for walking. the season i was born. the season i gasp and gasp and gasp.
it is a season of beets. those firey hearts that narrowly escape frost. dense. neatly containing the earth's blood. persistent; they stain hands, counter tops, cutting boards.
beet's thoughts go something like this:
"what are you going to be like when you're old?"
"what are you smiling at?"
"i get a recurring thrill from exposing myself"
"it's ok to be alone and surrounded by soil."
when my birthday rolled around, another worker on the farm made me a chocolate beet cake. i was getting older, the leaves were falling all around us, the end of tomatoes was near. so we ate beets.
this is what beets remind me:
that food is about ritual. a lining of the heart. a repeated turning of a bike wheel. a passage around the sun. that there are visceral ways to punctuate time. a steady knife and a steady slice, deep and submerged into the orb of a crisp apple. hands stained and sore from all the work they've done and all the thoughts they've tried to put to rest.
that there is nothing about food that doesn't echo the body.
that plants are not products. they are body parts. they are disorderly and unsettling. they are limbs and pulsating organs of our little earth. and they have an origin.
(when you taste something of whose origin you are aware, you have held its heart).
that there are certain memories that come gracefully and gratefully back to me and are spurred on solely by subtle changes in the weather. if you are paying attention, this shift of seasons is deafening. terrifying. devoid of gravity. the whole world is suspended.
i am crinkling a leaf between my fingers. i am walking down the street with my eyes closed. i am wishing myself a happy birthday.
i am holding my breathe and when i breath out, everything is falling from the sky.
Beet Chocolate Cake with Banana-Peanut Sauce
1 large beet
unsweetened apple sauce
2 tbsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Peel and dice one large beet. Make sure to get as much of the beet juice on your hands as possible so they will be stained and you can remember this experience for the next few days. Place the pieces in a saucepan with water to cover and boil until soft. (You can also used canned beets if you don't have much time, but the red hands are sort of important.) Allow the beets to cool, and then drain them, reserving the red water for another purpose. Put the drained beets into the food processor with 1/4 cup (clear) water, and process until pureed.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil or spray your cooking pan(s).
Put the pureed beets into a 2-cup measure. Add enough apple sauce to reach the 2-cup line. This is a very satisfying step if you do it artfully and slowly because of the extreme contrast of the beet puree and the apple sauce. You can make a design or just create an eye of apple sauce in the center of the beet pool.
Add the 2 tablespoons water, vanilla extract, and apple cider to the beets and mix well.
Mix the dry ingredients together; then add the beet mixture and stir until well-combined. Stir for a long time. Stare at one spot in your kitchen while you do it. Think about the last time you kissed someone. Think about the last time you went for a bike ride. Think about the last apple you ate. Make a promise to yourself to do something that you will feel good about. It can be anything.
Bake for 35-60 minutes, depending on the size of pan you use: more for small, deep pans and less for a 9X13 pan. (I used a 9X13 pan, and it took 35 minutes.) Test by inserting a toothpick into the center; it's done when the toothpick comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely before cutting and serving.
1/2 of a 12-ounce package lite, firm silken tofu
2 tbsp. natural peanut butter
1/4-1/3 cup agave nectar, to taste
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. As you add each ingredient, take a small taste. Remember those individual tastes when you eat the sauce later. (This is where you can mix in some of the beet juice to give the sauce a pink color.)
Refrigerate until needed. The sauce will thicken in the fridge, so it's best to give it time to chill if you plan to sandwich it between layers of cake. Serve over cake.
Makes 8 servings.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
The day before Thanksgiving, my boss at The Karrot put a sign on the door which he'd scrawled in permanent marker: "Traditionally, this is a time to celebrate the harvest, and express gratitude in general. Sorry, we close Thursday. Enjoy your dinner." Both "dinner" and "Thursday" were underlined with yellow highlighter. I didn't see the sign until Saturday, when I found it stashed behind the register. It had been torn at the top from being taken down. He couldn't have said it more purely. For instance, by saying "traditionally," he wasn't being sentimental about the American myth but rather pointing out that a holiday has been put in place by the forces-that-be in spite of the initial event having ever taken place (a customer at The Karrot recently told me that Thanksgiving was invented by the tobacco leg of the West Indian Trading Company.) The point is that it is there. Tobacco companies or not, a day to be observed, governed by the principal Thanks A Lot. Standing behind the register with the sign in my hands, I wondered if I had spent enough time in gratitude.
When I arrived in Seattle, my grandmother had just finished sifting through each volume of Gourmet from the past ten years and put the ones aside for me she thought I'd like. "They've replaced my subscription with Bon Apetit. It doesn't even come close." She had a hard time moving about the house, but had made a spicy meat sauce and fusilli for dinner, with "bread salad". She poured us cold, white wine. My sister's train arrived, and there she was in her black Converse, even taller than the last time, in high school now. She was wearing a t-shirt that said, "Obama is the new black." My grandfather described the shape of the city to me ("...an hourglass"). We fought uproariously about the differences betweens yams and sweet potatoes: my grandfather and grandmother stating their cases over and over, simultaneously ignoring and becoming enraged by the other. He insisted we eat the Nutella even though it expired in 2002, and so we did, my sister the only one bold enough to say it tasted like Play-Doh.
Olivia and I slept in the little room with the big bed that overlooked the reservoir, and in the morning I had a long cup of coffee with my grandmother. The light was good and gray. Before I headed to West Seattle, my grandfather insisted on taking me out to the garden (using both his canes) so I could pick his herbs and garlic for the feast.
My mother and I walked up California Avenue that night, talking about the past few weeks. We passed a bar and she gasped and said, "Let's get a glass of wine!" But I didn't have my ID. We passed another bar and she said, "Should we try anyway?" But we knew we shouldn't. Olivia had set up the dining room so that the Cascades were visible from the seats. John had cleaned the carpets, was still cleaning the carpets at midnight. We all shared a box of dough nuts in the morning, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television, after my mother and I walked slowly around the grocery store for a while, picking things up, smelling them, putting them in the cart.
I am not from Seattle, but much of my family is there. And I never go home for Thanksgiving, but a number of things led me to believe that I should this year so I told everyone who wasn't already in Washington to meet me there, and I promised that I'd cook. My mother and I watched sad, sad, beautiful World War II movies on PBS from the kitchen in our aprons. John scrubbed the moss from the balcony. Olivia lit candles in the fire place. She got grumpy, moaning around the house at about two, so I insisted she drink some red raspberry leaf tea. I boiled a pot, and finally she sat down and had some. I asked her how she felt now, and she said airily, as she wandered into the next room, "Well, I don't feel like hurting someone anymore."
We cooked two five-pound-chickens, and stuffed them with lemon and lime wedges, rosemary. I put butter, sage, and garlic under the skin, and lined the baking pan with carrots and herbs. Salmon cakes (made with fish my grandfather caught). Mashed russets with lots of butter and rosemary (Olivia's idea.) Mashed sweet potatoes/yams (we never reached an agreement) with garlic, cayenne, and thick bacon. Green beans and brussel sprouts sauteed with fresh mint and chili flakes. Spinach salad with walnuts and goat cheese, slivers of avocado, soy sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Stuffing made with bread from a French bakery my grandparents dumpster dive at, plus a heap of onions, celery, sage, chicken stock and bacon fat. Anjou pears, peasant bread, and nuts on little plates. Everyone else brought pies, cranberry chutney, my uncle -- a ham. Everyone served and all of a sudden the meal was over. That was it! I thought we'd be picking our teeth by the candlelit spread for hours, but no: people disbanded to other corners of the room, the lights came on, the pie came out, the conversations be came exclusive -- and I was still left wondering who all of these strange, interesting people were. Thankful and bewildered and very full. It is quite marked, this shift from childhood to adulthood, when family transforms from something simply to be experienced into something to be figured out.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I have no patience for the "tossed green salad." In fact, I'm beginning to find it offensive--not unlike the way I feel about vegetarian restaurants that rely on their atmosphere instead of delivering fine fare. Meat, cheese, or nothing of the sort accompanying them, vegetables should be treated with respect, which is to say they should be lusty, spicy, and basted as preciously as a roast. I want a salad of a dozen tiny artichokes, three Roma tomatoes, green beans so fresh you can hear them crack from across the room, heavy cream, and a handful of California walnuts. "A dozen rosy potatoes... carrots sliced as thin as hairs," MFK Fisher says. "What in peacetime prevents us from such play?"
Not that we're in a "peacetime" of any sort, but maybe a politically-correct-time, a time of hyper-health, or some other condition that at times makes eating vegetables a crude, somber task. Go wild. Roast a bulb of garlic, mash it with a boiled beet or two. A shepherds pie, with rhubarb, peas, squash, and nasturtiums. Like a gourmet burger, try fetishizing broccoli: imagine, battered or baked, it's floret crusted in cumin, arranged on your plate like a Smurf forest.
Asheley and I went to the Vinegar Hill House down by the Con Ed station a couple of weeks ago. "Hill of the wood of the berries." She is a fine dining companion, no more a purist than a sybarite, and though she eats meat, does not prepare it at home because it freaks her out to handle "an isolated part of something, rather than the whole thing." I found her sitting at the bar over a gin and tonic (no gluten, either) and I ordered a Jameson. She was wearing a '40s butterfly-coat, her long blond hair hanging like a cape. We sat at the bar until they insisted we take take our seats. When the server came Asheley asked for the trout ravioli, and then laughed when he panicked.
"There is no trout ravioli! I made it up," she said. "I've always wanted to do that."
She got grilled chicken served in a cast iron pot, and a twice-baked butternut squash. I got foie gras, lentils, pickled onions. And all of it was enjoyed on a level plane, tit for tat, thigh for stalk.
I made twice-baked butternut squash at home a few days ago, and a leg of lamb. The squash is as easy as it sounds: bake at HI-heat until soft, scoop flesh into a bowl and mix with herbs, breadcrumbs, butter, sour cream, coconut milk, whatever. Then spoon it back into the squash rinds (they'll keep their shape) and bake a little longer.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I went tumbling into the truck cab just beyond the California border. The driver was blond and gaunt, and he was firm about getting us in quick. Robby hoisted me from behind and Sweeney grabbed my arms, bracing himself against the dashboard. The momentum from the extra weight of my backpack sent me sailing over the trash that covered the floor, into the raised bed behind the seats. The driver reached over Robby, and slammed the door, took out an American Spirit Light, and smoked it quickly. "I'm Wayne," he said. "I can take you as far as Fresno."
For several miles, everything was silent except for What a Long Strange Trip It's Been which seemed to be issuing from all corners of the cab. Wayne explained that we were going to have to hunker down in the bed when he drove through weigh stations, and as he spoke, I realized that the cab floor was virtually covered in fruit rinds: apple cores, orange peels, shredded lemon halves, whole coconuts with the tops sawed off, avocado peels with fork-marks through its green flesh. There was none of the usual truck driver garbage, no chip bags or candy wrappers or soda cans. In an unaffected tone, Wayne asked where we were from. We could have said the moon, and he wouldn't have been surprised. We tried to explain where we were going, but realized pretty soon that we weren't exactly sure. "Wayne," I said, over the roar of the truck, "you sure eat a lot of fruit."
"That's because I recently started a raw foods diet." He enunciated the last part, as though in quotes, to keep from seeming pretentious.
"Sure," I said. "That's great. Do you feel better because of it?"
"I'm getting fuckin' sick of fruits and vegetables--but yeah, I do."
When I asked what he ate, he said, rather darkly, "Salads." But then: "Lots of kim chee and sauerkraut, too (which he provided a comprehensible recipe for) and fish, too--I let it marinate in citrus for four hours, so that it kills the bacteria but protects the enzyme. And also, cured meats, like salami. All of that's raw. But I make my own beer. That's one thing I can't give up."
As Wayne elaborated, I thought about the dissolution of socio-economic distinctions--in a lot of ways Wayne was this totally blue-collar, chain-smoking, gruff, guy who grew up in the poor town in Michigan. We had just come from a solidly middle class, new-age wedding in Mendocino, and here he was talking about the same stuff they were: the importance of digestion, of keeping the natural enzymes in the food so that the body has more energy for everything else. "Some people use fifty-percent of their energy for digestion," he said, taking out another cigarette. "By the way, will you change the cheesecloth on my sprouts?"
Sweeney and I were crouched on the bed, and realized that amongst all the other debris, were two large pallets holding Mason jars full of sprouts. Wayne directed us as we fished through bags and boxes which were splayed everywhere, until we found a roll of cheesecloth and a pair of scissors. We cut the cloth into strips, and then unscrewed the lids of all the sprouts, and replaced the old strips--bouncing with the truck all the way. Wayne, still smoking a cigarette, one hand on the wheel, took each jar and dumped the excess water out the window: one by one.
At a truck stop near Redding, he straightened out his cab, threw away the trash, and a soft silence fell between the four of us. Sheepishly, we brought out rations from our backpacks, much of which were leftovers from the wedding, and shared with Wayne. He cracked open the crown of a coconut and handed us three straws. We took the straws and froze. "Well," he said, and we put the straws in and drank. It was sweet, cold and not filmy the way it is in supermarkets. We gave him some hummus, bread, and pesto, all of which weren't raw, but OK, he said, "because at least the bread was sprouted." He took out a cooler, and drew a couple of jars of homemade kim chee, which he shared with us. It was a warm day, angling toward late afternoon. Back on the road, I sat against the back of the cab, spooning the flesh out of the coconut and listening to Wayne's story:
"This shit's hard on your body. I've been trucking for five years, now. A lot of guys come out of it with serious body problems. Rail workers, by the end of their career, all have sciatica. It's when this nerve running from your hip down to your feet gets all fucked up from the bumping of the cars. They get paid for the rest of their lives because of how much damage engineering entails, er, incurs...
"I like to pick hitchhikers up. I used to be homeless. I was homeless in Berkeley for nine years, more or less of my own choice. I mean, in Berkeley, you can eat three meals a day year around if you're homeless. I used to hitchhike a lot, then... but then, Carmen got pregnant. Carmen's my baby-mama. We'd only been seeing each other for a few months, and she was working at this daycare in a church. Since she conceived out of wedlock and all, they fired her, and so, well, we had to get a house... we have three kids now. I was just home for my daughter's 6th birthday... I love me kids. And I love Carmen. I just never wanted to marry her...
"There's a lot of folklore surrounding Mount Shasta."
"There is? Like what?"
"Well, supposedly there's this guy, Saint Germaine, who roams around the base of the mountain, sometimes stopping into towns. He's a prophet, a mystic-guy. And then, there's supposedly a race of aliens--so, yeah. I guess those are the only stories..."
Head of cabbage (chopped in strips)
Finely chopped carrots, radish, broccoli, garlic, pepper, etc...
Put ingredients into a jar, and pack down with water or miso so that the liquid is just a little higher than the vegetables. Keep the lid loosely, but fully covering the opening. Let sit three to four days.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
-Christopher Kimball, "Gourmet to All That", NY Times Op-Ed
Last Friday evening, for the first time in history as parent-child, my mother ordered us a bottle of wine at Chez Lola's after arriving from Portland for a visit. It was a cold night. Chez Lola's is this psuedo-French restaurant on Myrtle Avenue, which I hadn't been to since the brunch, two winters ago, when Sweeney and I finally decided to be together--on the sidewalk, afterward, we'd found a box of sticker rolls: rainbows, bears, hot air balloons, Israeli flags. Beyond all else, my mother was excited to see that I was carrying a bicycle helmet when I walked in. "My girl," arms open, then, "--a helmet!" I ordered duck ravioli, and a woman who may as well also be my mother, Cindy Maze, ordered a broiled chicken that came with creamy, white, mashed polenta and peas. Like potatoes, but with a higher note, a sweet taste at the back of your throat. We drank the wine, talked about New York. About naughty Sam Adams, the Portland mayor, letting your kids grow up etc... After all, here we are. We ordered a thick slice of red velvet cake, baked on restaurant's premises. I didn't know this until the moment it was served, but traditionally, the reason for the 'red' is beet juice. Beet juice! It was rich and wet. Most bakers substitute it these days for red-dye. No wonder most red velvet cakes available taste like dust.
All the boys helped out (shredding, setting) when my mother came over to my apartment for dinner. I got frantic towards her arrival--I don't know, wiping dust off the sideboards?--but when she walked in the door, the artichokes were ready. Greg was visiting from Harvard for the weekend, and he helped me serve (what I would have done if he hadn't been visiting, God only knows): eight steamed artichokes with a bowl of lemon juice. A spinach salad with shredded carrots, soy sauce, and goat cheese. Salmon cakes with onions, walnuts, dill, fresh sage (from my herb garden!) and Greek yogurt, and Greg's Superhero Mashed Sweet Potatoes:
6 to 8 large sweet potatoes
More butter and some milk
A lot of garlic (we're talking, 10-plus cloves, a whole bulb, whatever)
Some pancetta or bacon, diced
Enough cayenne pepper to make you nervous
Boil. Mash with butter, milk, and garlic. Fry the pancetta/bacon, but with haste, and not to the point where it loses it's chew. Stir into the mash, along with the cayenne pepper. Serve hot. It'll keep you from catching an autumn cold.
We all squeezed around the kitchen table, which we moved into the living room to accommodate everyone: Cindy and Nadine were there, too, along with all the boys, some from the cellar. We ate and bellowed, Nadine told us about narcissistic musicians she slept with in the 70s, and Cindy and I talked about the Trinity Alps, the women we share in our lives from home, the mysteriousness of girls-grown-up. Robert's roommates recently moved out because the woman was pregnant, and she left several boxes of pregnancy tea behind which Robert gave to me. So after dinner we all, including the boys, drank Yogi Tea's Mother-to-Be, eating colorful, tasteless cookies from an Italian bakery my mom stopped at earlier that day.
The day that Robert gave me the pregnancy tea (in addition to other abandoned food, like a strange Ukranian grain, elbow maccaroni, flaxseed etc...) we were sitting in his 12th-floor apartment on a sunny morning after breakfast, and he said, "Sometimes it amazes me that I am able to live on my own--like, that I haven't accidentally killed myself yet. And what's even more amazing is that I, you know, scrub the shower without anyone asking me to, and sweep. Stuff like that." I agreed. After all, it's things like not putting furniture next to the radiator that you don't learn until after your first house has burned down. How have we not made more mistakes? I suppose there's time. Having two crones visit me for the weekend--two women who I draw a very specific wisdom from, who at some point became women I looked to--emphasizes this miracle, this phenomenon: how do we do it without them? If we are in such amazement, how much doubt must they have had, letting us leave? If I'm astounded every time I pay for electricity, they must experience a constant bewilderment: three-thousand miles apart, and suspending all worry. My mother said it's about a willingness to suffer, to let your child suffer, and suffer with them.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Friday, October 2, 2009
At this point in the season, yellow squash is one of the only remaining vegetables from summer that hasn't been forked over the border for growing. The very last of them are still being picked close by. (For instance, at the Red Hook farms, which I visited the other week.) Now is the time to cook your final, true-to-the-season yellow squash, and glean that last bit of summer zing to bring with you into the cold months. The only squash you'll be getting come a fortnight or so, are the big, often frightful winter variety, who's taste resembles potato. They can be tasty, if done right and cooked long enough, but they do not beat a forkful of that squeaky, hot September gourd of yore.
(With help from Mark Bittman's, How to Cook Everything.)
1 to 2 lbs of firm yellow squash, with big middles
3 tbs of butter or ghee* (easier to digest in the winter)
2 tbsp of local honey**
Minced fresh mint leaves
Salt, pepper, paprika
Wooden spoon (for gentle stirring)
Cut the squash into 1/4-inch rounds. Plop the butter on a large skillet and turn heat to HI. When the foam staves, dump in the squash and turn heat to MED. Add salt. Stir gently for ten to fifteen minutes, or until the squash begins to brown. Flip often, but allow to cook unevenly. When some of the rounds have become translucent, add the honey, minced mint, and other spices. Turn heat off completely and give it one last toss in the heat of the cooling skillet. Serve quick.
*Ghee is clarified butter, popular in auyervedic nutrition. Due to its lack of lactose, it has recently become more widely available to mainstream consumers concerned with food allergies/intolerances.
**Organic honey from bee farms in your particular region is great for the immune system. The bees are making the honey from local flora, thus providing you with important antibodies specific to your environment.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
In emergence, October
“How might we be able to see which foods were selected by taste and which by necessity?”
--Alan P. Outram, Food: The History of Taste
The night I cooked all the plants in our house and drank white wine. Chickpeas, crisp roadside romaine, a pale tomato, a half-pepper, tough white onions. All of it in olive oil and paprika and black pepper, with shredded carrot on top beginning to rot. It wasn’t my wine, it was Chelsea’s, and it wasn’t my pepper but my father’s, and I paused every other bite to wonder—if my brother who had already been to jail would now go to prison, if just having a pineapple was enough to constitute dessert, or if I needed to actually cut it up. The food, so clean it was almost bland, and the wine could have been anything. I had just spent one hundred dollars on a good knife, which was the exact price I had decided a good knife would be, and it was so close to winter I was ready to mince the ends of the table, my bedsheets, more onions.
I had been in the habit of eating alone, which means not really eating but feeding while doing something to neglect how human one is. Like crying all over the table, if that embarrasses you. Usually I read. First I had tried with a cookbook: scanning vegan po’ boy recipes for new flavors, or love, or trochees. Then some book I had long associated with the autumn—about orphans and apples and how many life spans can outlast one author if they’re really trying. Then I couldn’t read, couldn’t even eat really, which was rare for dinner and I was no closer to full. Chelsea ate from rust-colored pottery in the next room, and shifted around piles of laundry, and at the plate said, “This is good,” even though it wasn’t, but she was right.
If I were going to ever be full I would have moved to it by now. The glass of wine was low and moist, and I gnawed at the end of a carrot-head. I hadn’t made love in so long that I slept with my windows shut and my own body barely a novelty. I was eating, and so would survive. I was eating, and so knew as little as I could about survival. Later, I would be hungry again, rouse my bed and make a fuss about almonds and women, the seasoned cast-iron, the fence that feeds us all with a good view of our neighbor’s yard. Yes, this will be green grass. Yes my bed deep and metal, and the function of bread far away. Yes how we dream.
The fall had been winter not long before, and I had hardly noticed when it birthed and birthed. But here was squash to the table, and new pumpkin, and my mother again, grim, again bailing water from my brother’s boat. On a pile of work clothes and straight dialogue and work, pancakes. If there were chickpeas to tell if I was coming out of pleasure or need. If there were chickpeas and there were.
Friday, September 25, 2009
It was Sunday, almost a year ago now, when Greg showed up for dinner. Sweeney and I were busy erecting fly traps around the apartment with a combination of sugar water and resin. The flies had seemingly moved in permanently, and thirty of them sat slurping the water with their proboscuises on our kitchen counter. I abandoned the task to take out the trash, but as I made my way toward the dumpster, a box-edge from inside the sack tore into my leg, mid-step. I left a trail of blood to our front door, and panting, said, "I don't know what happened." Sweeney ran to the store to get Band-Aids and I was sure he'd get Raid, too, though I was still banking on the sugar water. Flies buzzed around me in the silence of the empty apartment. The season was just beginning to cool, and I stood on the patio, letting my wound air. Then I remembered the laundry: it was soaking wet in a washing machine, and the laundr-o-mat closed at four o'clock on Sundays. So bleeding, ran across the street and started shoveling the wet laundry into a basket. "Your shit was done a long time ago," the laundress said, closing up shop. "I know," I said. "I'm sorry." A few other ladies in there who had been laughing before I walked in, were solemn now, scowling at me. "I'm sorry," I said again, using my bloody leg to open the door.
By the time Greg arrived, I had propped a large two-by-four between the walls sandwiching our patio, and was hanging the wet clothes over it. It was cold, but the mosquitoes were still out, and I was getting bitten like crazy. Greg's face in the gate: "Hey!" he said. "What are you doing?" I let him in and eventually Sweeney returned and my leg stopped bleeding. We sat at our table drinking tea, talking about Thoreau, and a number of domestic things I can't remember: a plan to make pumpkin soup, an oyster night. Greg had baked a loaf of bread that day, had been doing so in fact every Sunday since July (it was October) whether there was an occasion or not. We ate his round, brown bread in slices with butter. Without telling them I went quietly inside to make dinner.
Whole grain rotini cooked in lentil stew, cayenne and black peppers, so that the pasta was heavy, sloppy, brown. Red and yellow bell peppers, onions, sauteed, HI heat. Fried yellow squash, and jar of cold pumpkin butter to finish up the bread with.
Dark was really beginning to settle. My leg wound would definitely scar. I brought the pots and bowls of food outside, and though the men were surprised, we ate as casually as siblings. Halloween was approaching, and we'd hung cobweb on our gate the day before. Ray Ray, another neighborhood friend, came by on his bicycle, tooting it's horn. He saw us eating, fingered the cob web: "This place sure has gotten old..." We let him in, and he stayed for a while, telling us about his enormous mangoes from the farmers market, how he won't drink tea if its too hot to cold the cup. A Commedia dell'Arte clown, who's as much of a purist as he is a jester. Eventually he left, howling and caroling away on his bike. Darkness was complete.
Sweeney, Greg, and I decided we would do this every Sunday until the end of spring. We would imagine a meal. Merge our ingredients. Greg would make bread. It would still be warm from the oven. We would eat outside until it got too cold. In this way we would somehow avoid the winter, but of course we did not.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
How eating an onion you become unreadable: A skin ensconcing
sea, and once done, back to the sky--
Your mouth a meeting-place,
and the hot chemicals of your mind.
You were eating
when we met, and so untreatable
in the usual ways. By my hand,
I counted three hearts in the room
where you, and I, and the onion
One, that all living things
are in love, two, that they don't wish
to escape, three
That accepting this, they dine.
So now it is the steel moon
and refusal to starve
and all its following stars for you,
shrouded by your own body
on an alone porch, with your feet
swung high above the garden.
"Some people," you say
"are still eating in twos," so
with an onion you become unmistakeable.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
“BREAKFAST is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same traditionalized reverence that most people associate with lunch and dinner. I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every twenty-four hours… the food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruit, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chiles, a Spanish omelet or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice ofkey lime pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert… Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, two telephones, two notebooks for planning the next twenty-four house and at least one source of good music…”
- Hunter S. Thompson
There is a common bond between egg and potato. Indeed, their fates are divided, as it is possible that one would someday walk if incubation weren’t interrupted, while the other, left alone, would only continue brooding in the dark, its eyes pressed to the mulch. But if not for their shape, then their secrecy, does their union become apparent. “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken,” says M.F.K. Fisher in Alphabet for Gourmets. And the potato, equally pallid and blank, requires an unearthing as violent as the cracking of a shell, and a reluctance just as innocent. They deserve to share a plate, then, especially in the service of breakfast. Not for health, as coupled they lack most nutritional tenets, but for the secrets they relinquish in digestion. And the secrets are many, and so are the mornings: so this is how Lily and I first ate.
In Bed-Stuy there was only one good cup of coffee, a café called Choice on Lafayette and Grand, where you had to stand in a long noisy line, only to have your order pitched at you by the angry Francophones behind the register. I caught Lily leaving Choice one day with a hot cup in her hand. Deeply-browed, shaved head, great posture; we’d hardly spoken before, but her taste in establishments was enough. And she, or I, insisted we dine there together the following Saturday, and we did: displayed behind glass while we waited to place our orders were little, glossy tarts, pastel-blue macaroons, chocolate twists, filbert-and-crumb crusted salmon cobbler, platters of cooked vegetables tossed in a cool, vinegar salad, and plump, orangey croissants. Lily ordered the quiche-of-the-day (let’s say broccoli, mushroom and Swiss) and I, the spinach omelet with sweet cream and spiced potatoes, served atop hydroponic lettuce in a pastry box. We got an Americano each and ate from our laps on a bench outside. “Oh, God,” I said, taking a bite and again, “Oh, God.” Lily chewed graciously and we needed not mince words. This was every Saturday thereafter, and maybe the first time either of us had truly eaten since moving to the city.
There was a small, gray room at the end of our residence hall that smelled like the inside of a State Park bathroom, equipped with four electric burners and a filmy basin. It looked out onto a parking lot, from which we viewed a number of apartment fires over the year. We only ever had enough money to buy the same things when we made dinner together, which we began doing after that first Saturday: quinoa, a bag of spinach or a can of Indian spiced Saag, a carton of curried lentil broth, garlic, some bread, egg-in-a-hole, and the same canister of table salt we used through the first year and applied by pouring directly into our palms and rubbing the grains into the hot pan. Sometimes we had a pat of butter, and later my mother sent me a box of spices by post but she forgot the turmeric which was the most important one. It was not that we were poor—we were two floors apart in student housing—we sat on the floor and ate from our bowls because we wanted to. On weekday mornings, we’d make oatmeal the way my boss at the organic grocery up the street had instructed:
Radhames’ Special Oatmeal
1 Cup water
½ Cup whole milk 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Cup rolled oats 1 tsp. vanilla extract, salt
Bring water to boil in a small sauce pan. Add salt, 1 tsp. cinnamon, and vanilla extract. Stir gently. Add more if you want. The man himself would insist,“It’s all about the timing.” When bubbles start to form, pour in milk. Bring to boil again. Stir, slowly now. Add oats, turn heat to Lo and let sit for 5 minutes with a tight lid. Add rest of cinnamon at the end, and any nuts or dried fruit (just a raisin, a walnut or two), dislodge with a fork, twirl around and salt to taste. It should be rich and seeped with flavor. It should be obvious that it was cooked in a broth of love.
The morning after Lily quit smoking, as a consolation prize, we got up early to by tamales from a woman who sold them out of a shopping cart on Myrtle Avenue. It was drizzling, but a poncho had been fastened over the steaming husks, and we bought three. When fall came, there were the apple cider doughnuts at the farmers markets, the splurge on a fresh, brown egg or two; the weekend we visitedBaltimoreand D.C. and ate nothing but fancy Italian antipasti. Plus theice cream place on St. Marks with flavors like sesame and corn (we both ordered pistachio); and the innumerable faces outside the common kitchen, with our meager ingredients; and all of us studying literature. One night, Lily and I ran into the two quietest girls in our class on the street, and the four of us decided to get drinks. The quiet girls and I shared a pitcher of Bud, but for Lily, glass after glass of Jameson, and we grew louder. We shared a window sill that faced the table, and were carried off be each other, the girls in our wake. We laughed all the way back to her room and watched Shirley Templemovies and woke up in the morning—the most beautiful, rich November morning streaming through the thermal windows and I woke up in her bed and asked if she’d go on a walk with me. Arm in arm she read to me from Diane DiPrima’s Dinners and Nightmares, which she’d been carrying around in her coat pocket since I met her, and we knew something about food, and feeding, and the written instruction and seduction of such, and we knew something about New York City, the toasted alleys and gutted charms, and by the blessing of being nineteen, holding the conviction, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, that nothing quite like this had ever happened to anyone else.
M.F.K Fisher says she writes about food because “like everyone else, she is hungry,” but also because at the center of all physical hungers are the psychic ones, too, and thus, necessarily, the consummation of them. It does not create the tension, but sharpens both personal and historical tension where it already exists. And it is a lens that Lily and I are looking through often. Lily the potato, and I, the egg.