Monday, November 30, 2009

Lily Eats

Our blessed feet

My grandmother, like so many others, has a physical aversion to peacefully resting in a chair for more than thirty seconds, or two bites of her meal, whichever comes first.  One eye on the clock and you'll see--it's never longer than this before someone needs another soda, a serving dish is empty and can be washed, coffee needs to be brewed.  For more than two decades, Thanksgiving has been an affair at her house--Antoinette, the matriarch, Mee Ma, constantly giving away housecoats she only wore once.  This year was the first time that my uncle Al's advancing Lou Gehrig's discouraged (if not prevented) him from leaving the house for the occasion.  A family never maudlin, brave and tragic without fail, undeniably Italian--we moved the dinner to Al's house.

Having recently relinquished some of the finer points of veganism, I still went into the first hurrah of the holiday season with the notion that it'd be hard out there for an herbivore.  This being the case, I wanted to contribute to the family spread.  It's probably at this point that I should mention a fact of cutting relevance--that since the inception of the Bundt pan, more than 50 million have sold.  49,999,999 of those pans could be anywhere now--could be paperweights, or birdbaths, or armor for child soldiers--but fifty mil is Antoinette Herman, and it has housed a cake for every birth, death, mitzvah, and bank holiday since she got her hands on it.   Devil's food bundt cake with buttercream glaze.  Vanilla cake with chocolate frosting.  "Sock-it-to-me Cake," with a ribbon of cinnamon and walnuts baked into the center.  "Hey Lil, that's Sock-it-to-me Cake," my uncle yells across crowded living rooms.  Since I started carrying a spiral notebook with me everywhere I went, my uncle takes the trouble to sift through every family gathering for the noteworthy stuff on my behalf.  Hunched over, ice cream sliding around our paper plates, engaged in something as basic and sacred as eating dessert.  "Lil, where's your journal?  Write that down.  Sock-it-to-me Cake." 

It was with all of this in mind that I set out cooking for Thanksgiving.  A slow curry--coconut milk, cubed sweet potatoes, chickpeas.  A head of cauliflower in, the whole apartment becoming porous.  Holidays are as temperamental as some people--their flavor is something to be prescribed, not accepted.  I started another pan going, simmering quinoa and crimini mushrooms in vegetable stock.  When everything in a kitchen swells and reaches a certain temperature, it suddenly doesn't matter--that your family might be dying, might not eat chana masala, might have deep-fried the turkey.  

Dizzy at this half-familiar, half-novel altitude, I started to bake a swirl cake.  In my tiny, galley-style kitchen, I assembled the vanilla batter.  Having exhausted my supplies of both counter space and mixing bowls, I put the batter to rest in the corner of the floor in which I was least likely to step on it, and began combining the ingredients for the spice cake batter in an oversized tupperware container.  It was at the point of swirling the batters in the Bundt pan (without mixing them.  Never mixing them,) that the notion of batter rising temporarily escaped me.  Having filled the pan to its rim, I began baking, and returned to my tinkering at the stovetop.  

To dissolve this band of wandering cake demons, minstrels threatening to tell at any moment, I take myself down: half the cake burned and half remained a kind of cake pudding, and the whole thing cleaved into coarse crumbs when I tried to take it out of the pan.  There are moments in every little life which don't just allow for, but induce, a kind of functioning heartbreak.  The kind of heartbreak you can take still standing.  Thankfully, there were no less than eight pies that had been bought or baked or won at the race track.   Isn't this the season, thick-skulled on the cooling rack?  Thankfully.  Thankfully, while our grandmothers are alive none of us are too responsible for cake.  Even in November, with the world starting to move in, this keeps us on our feet.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Adrian Eats

Expressing Gratitude in General

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 (" 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

"the shopping for thanksgiving was very lovely and it was cold out.  i took my shopping cart and arthur who lived next door i mean in the next apartment and we went to all these stores on the east side.  there was at that time a vegetable market on east houston street, more expensive than the other east side vegetable markets, but very good, with everything very fresh, and i bought yams and mushrooms and fennel and millions of salad things and avocados and chestnuts to cook with everything.  already i had the turkey and sausage and all the italian goodies, the olives, alici, and the spices my forty eight of them in test tubes in test tube racks marshalled at home.  then arthur and i squeezed into the tiniest cheese store it had two other costumers and it was overcrowded, i have noticed more cheese stores are like that are tiny like that, cheese stores and bread stores and no other kind of store.  we bought fromage de brie and very good crumbly provolone and something new to me called kashkaval, cause the man said taste it and i did and it was marvelous.  and then did i have enough apples and pears for the cheese so we went back to the vegetable store and bought more apples and pears.  the man was taking in mushrooms as big as a fist, baskets of them from his car, but he wouldn't sell them he said they were for himself for his own thanksgiving.  then we bought the wine, some of it, some was coming with people tomorrow and huge loaves of italian bread because the man in the bread store said no he wouldn't open tomorrow and i wondered all the way home how to keep it fresh.  

and i used my icebox and michael's icebox upstairs and arthur's next door because there was so much stuff.  there was really a lot of stuff, o much more than i've said.  and boiled the chestnuts in wine and cooked sausage in spices and left it all standing together for overnight, it would all stuff the turkey.  and the next morning early sara came over with many things among them fresh dill and we made three salads and i baked asparagus and made all the antipastos we used to have at home and finally it was three o'clock and people began to come.

the whole of the living room which was a bedroom became a diningroom with extra tables and there was running back and forth to all the iceboxes and soon we started eating and we ate as i said for nine hours altogether.  grapefruit antipastos turkey mushrooms-and-sour-cream baked-asparagus-with-wine-and-cheese all three salads and yes of course candied yams and cranberry sauce though you weren't supposed to that year the newspapers said, they said the cranberry sauce was sprayed with poison, but then we figured so was everything else and so were we, we ate four cans of cranberry sauce with the turkey.

and sam fell asleep on my bed.  people kept falling asleep and waking up and eating and it got darker and darker and very late.  and a painter came in a girl i used to know a girl i hadn't seen for two years with her child and ate too and i ate so much i remember for the first time in months not feeling cold.  and al who had a show to light got ther finally and said somebody at the theatre stole the walnuts and figs, he was brining the walnuts and figs, and i said thank goodness we'd never eat them anyway.  and we started him off from the first eating everything, eating all the things we had eaten until he caught up.  and then we all got to the pastries and coffee and brandy and panforte and fruit and cheese.

and hugh came in with seth and said martin was sick so we made up a special package with pastries and all kind of goodies to send back to him, and hugh ate some and so did seth and there were three or four conversations going on at once.  seth talked about jail, hugh talked about going to peru, al and rody and sam talked theatre shop.  i kept stopping everybody to tell them to eat more things and tom warner kept trying to put in words about turkey, the country he meant, and nobody listened but he looked very happy.  the baby took off her clothes and sang happy birthday and told us it was a party and we told her yes.  when hugh was leaving we gave him a flower for martin."

--Diane di Prima, Dinners and Nightmares

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Adrian Eats

Procure a Vegetable Love

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

Lily Eats


The same hillside in Brooklyn is not so much unless you remember: it was Chanelle's tree (not that she planted it or owned it or did anything to lay claim to it, but this is unclouded in your mind, inescapable, Chanelle's tree) and the same stretch of land where Robby lost his phone, but was better off without it, and so serendipitous, the same where Sweeney told you--casually, like lighting a fire--that the fallen soldiers from the Battle of Brooklyn were entombed in the park.  Below the steps, an imitation, playing at a hillside.  

So, What We Ate There happened under the trees, the first real opportunity for face-to-face conversation in eight months.  I had called Adrian as soon as I got into town, visited her at the Karrot, overheating in my winter coat, telling her emphatically, "I started smoking again! And I'm no longer a vegan."  (Because don't you know, Lily, I'll respect anyone's decision, as long as they're bold, as long as they're behind it--) Every time I write to her, I've taken up some positive new eating or living habit, and every time I see her, I've regressed to some old bad one.  To the point where maybe my good health (and skaal! to it, and to yours) is just a myth for Adrian to hear about when we live in different cities.

It's cold in Brooklyn.  Not the kind of cold that makes you reluctant to go outside, but the kind that gives you a big, unadventurous pause when you consider lingering out there.  And we are brave: and we had made up our minds to have a shot of whiskey at Alibi before going to the park, in preparation for sitting.  Slow down now, and you can see a kind of meditation.  But we don't need to be so brave, can be a little afraid, and the bar wasn't yet open at three-thirty in the afternoon.  Instead, we stopped at a coffee shop so acknowledged on DeKalb it is easily ignored.  We ordered tea and almond biscotti and I thought of a time I'd been in the same cafe, a time when I'd realized I was falling in love and so spilled my drink, and apologized to the girl behind the counter who told me (world-weary, now) "It happens all the time."  

And so to the hillside--ginger lemony tea, and Lina driving her bicycle up the hill to meet us.  The three of us ground our backs into the tree-roots, collecting dirt, talking about what makes us tick and what makes us gain weight, stubbing cigarettes out into acorn caps.  The biscotti were mild, cut from a bread that would have been fine, a bread to be content with, even if it hadn't become dessert--they tasted like amaretto bones.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lily Eats

Last fact about Gandhi in a long series, 1996


he walked into the sea

to carry the salt out.

Like it was some limp

child, blue or starving, 

or he the layman's Jesus,

or like it wasn't planning

to come ashore, anyway.