Saturday, January 30, 2010

Adrian Eats

The Strawberry Cake

The hostess brought out a strawberry cake for reasons I didn’t understand. Everyone climbed out of the pool to circle around the patio table, on which she’d set a stack of plates. The cake gleamed in the mid-afternoon sun. It was thickly frosted and double-layered, sitting in a skirt of yellow cream, collared with berries no bigger than my thumbs. Up until that moment, I had been patting my hair dry, waiting for a moment to leave, but I couldn’t now. I wanted the cake. The hostess tore the tab from a roll of thin chocolate cookies she’d tucked under her arm and passed those around. The pool water heaved from the sudden abandon of bodies. I ate my cookie and waited. But soon the boys slouched back to the hammock, picking at their skin in the sun. Girls flattened on concrete, turning out their bathing suits for a better tan. I sat down, listening only for the word gateaux, but it never came. I watched the cake disappear under evening shadow, untouched

At night I’d wake to the house shuddering from thunderclaps and have to peel the bed sheets from my sunburn, and get up to shut the window. Daybreaks outside Bordeaux were hot and dry. I would wake up sweating last night’s dinner, and feel sunlight, listen to the father pulling away over gravel in their old Saab on his way to work, murmuring to their black lab. I never would have known the storms from dreams if the sister hadn’t mentioned it when she offered me Coco Puffs that first morning. Coup de foud. She pressed her lips together not knowing what else to say, kissed both my cheeks, and left me on the veranda without a spoon.

A day before, the entire family met me at the Bruges train station, each offering to carry one of my things. I turned to the mother and tried to say “I’ve been awake for forty-eight hours” but I used the verb “to wake-up” instead, and she gave me a curved smile. Their house was cool inside, and from their kitchen table I could see stars rising in the still-blue sky out the front window. They stood around me while I clutched the baguette and the strange, gray butter they’d offered as a sandwich. “In America, bread is sliced,” I said. They looked concerned. I couldn’t remember the word for slice, and we volleyed words, growing louder and louder until the father said, Tranche! and the brother reached out, chopped my baguette in two, spread the mousse, and showed me to my room.

Even in the earliest moments of waking, there were formal greetings and departures—whether we were hung over or foul smelling, bonjour, bon nuit, a kiss on each cheek. The mother was stark and darkly featured. She looked like the Mona Lisa, and I froze up in her presence, as I imagined one would by the painting. (The painting, I eventually saw in Paris: a tiny canvas under a high ceiling, blocked by the digital camera flashes of a thousand Japanese tourists. I did not freeze up.) Grocery shopping with the mother one day, I froze in the produce aisle, remembering only the word for “avocado” after she’d asked me a question. J’aime des avocats.

Geraniums sat in clay pots on the windowsills of each stucco prefab in Bruges. Walls were rarely painted or varnished, and kitchen floors were often bare concrete. We had dinner at the aunt’s house outside of Saint- Émilion, and ate enormous pepper quarters sopping with olive oil, pork loin, and watercress. All the framework and beams were exposed except for the bedroom where the grandmother slept: is it your mother, or your husband’s? I kept asking. Every time she told me, she rolled her eyes thinking I didn’t understand for her accent (Pardon?), but I really just didn’t understand.

The mothers, in general, were toned, had firm skin and hair, and were very tense, with the exception of feeding times, when they became radiant: radishes with pats of unsalted butter, blocks of sweet, brownish pâté (usually duck), roasts under thin gravies, pasta with bacon, cubes of raw beef skewered for thirty seconds in a fondue pot of boiling water. Most produce came from a farmers market the father took me to on Wednesdays. A ladybug landed on my arm while we were picking out lettuce, and he told me they were called “beetles of God.”

Before I’d left home, I had practiced eating slower under the impression that the French ate at great leisure, disgusted by the way American’s inhaled food, to which end I was always the last to finish, while the family drummed fingers on their cleaned plates. Half of the dinners were served on the veranda, while the other half were served by the television which sat on a lazy-Susan on top of the fridge: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny and a Belgian soap opera were standard fare, and sometimes, on these nights, we had dinners of fries, hot dogs, and beer.

For parties, the parents would buy us a case of Rickard, make reservations for dinner in town, and then come home at dawn asking if we’d had a nice night. Only the Americans would get drunk and the French kids would mock them. The young men were sexless, bare-shouldered and they left their laundry on the stairs for their mothers to do. The girls my age were coy, and often wary when speaking to me alone. They invited me to movies, and took walks around the artificial boat lake in their neighborhood. There were house spiders the size of teacups which caused the daughters to scream, and the fathers to spring forward on their sinewy legs, an auto magazine rolled in their grip. The fathers loved patting their daughters’ hands or hair, saying, Ma fille, to which the daughters would respond darkly, Oui papa, ton fille.

The mother gardened in her underwear, and when the flashfloods came, hundreds of tiny snails flushed from the gutters and all family members ran outdoors, shrieking, to collect them in plastic vats. Plupluplu, the mother said, noticing my confusion. She made a gesture like running water. “What?” I said. Plupluplu. Inside they boiled the snails from their shells, while, lawn chairs and parasols tossed about the lawn in the storm.

was not divided in grids, but nebulous, and the sidewalks were cobblestone. The only way to navigate was to have been born there, which I was not. At dinner parties, family friends spoke at great lengths about their regional history, and which vineyard each wine came from, and which region each cheese was found when the plate au fromage was served. On weekdays, everyone left work or school and two hours for lunch together. Afterwards we sipped tiny cups of Turkish coffee around some table, eating chocolates or wax-coated canellas.

We spent my last night in their neighbor’s backyard over the grill (the other teenagers were watching a dubbed Jaws III inside) and when the parents asked me what I would remember most from my time in France, I listed a few things, and then raised my glass high and said, “And the wine!” because I knew it would make them laugh, and it did. Contrary to myth, they were a warm people, but sometimes they couldn’t understand a thing I said, or I them, and we’d just gape and wince and I’d feel no warmth at all.

It was the day before that I’d been sitting by the pool, waiting for someone to cut the strawberry cake. The effects of my longing could still be felt, baffled as to why no one had served it. This strong, sensual desire blocked by an inability to communicate was the moment that exemplified my experience of France. Though I never felt such a strong desire to eat something ever again, it fashioned my relationship to food, deepening one of my senses by having lost access to another.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lily Eats


I had woken up early to give Nick a ride to work, but he had decided to walk. Wanting to avoid the idle feeling of a girl just playing records in some man's apartment while he's at work, I felt my way to the kitchen (it was light out already, but early, and I am young). It was nine o'clock, and I knew Ian wouldn't wake up for some time. About an hour, I guessed, judging by the mornings when he'd stumble into Nick's room, mountain hair and cigarette, and we'd three prepare for our different days, sunlight from 25th Street ringing against the turrets.

So there was time. I started with coffee, brought as a gift from my job, finely ground, the bean to convince me that coffees lighter than French roast could be worth a damn. We don't always want to hear that there are worlds beyond mud or water. I threw the old filter out with immediate renewal. As with all percolators different from my own, I walked blindly and purposefully into the measurements, probably adding more coffee and less water than I should. But you know the song: How you hit the START button and the scent is in the air at once. Like it's already brewed and been waiting for you to catch up.

I began a survey of the larder. I knew it would have to be almost all protein to start the morning; I had reached a point of no-oats-no-more. But the eggs would have to come last, they'd cook almost instantly, and there was so much time. So, with half audacity, half leisure, I picked up the odds and ends of breakfast where I felt like it. From a blue box, I found a block of cheese with mold sprouting on the north side, and grated a zealous amount onto the cutting board. I scrubbed out several pans that had seen better days and would probably see worse. The avocado appeared unredeemable, but what's brown is not necessarily bad, and I salvaged a fair pile of it, once bits of the rotting pit were separated. I couldn't tell if the brush was to scrub vegetables or dishes, so I washed three potatoes in the balls of my hands, palming away the dirt and setting them to drain beside the sink with plates.

I had made my peace that a sweet onion and can of diced tomatoes were to serve as seasoning. It wasn't ideal, but sometimes we all go to war with no shoes. And I reasoned there was plenty of pepper and our waking taste buds to improve what was lacking. But searching for a bowl to begin scrambling eggs in, and wondering whether or not I should fry bread, there appeared to me a whole shelf of faded spices. Cayenne that had lost its kick. Rosemary at the bottom of the jar. Grocery-store basil, which always means basil that smells like a pizzeria and not an herb. And an unsealed baggie of oregano, which I revived by crushing it between my fingers. This is how you settle an argument, I thought, sprinkling it over the potatoes while they drank up olive oil faster than I could pour.

Ian stumbled in around then, surprised at the meal nearly awaiting him, and I said, Sure, I'd love a cigarette. We talked for a while over the chilling coffee, about how the perfect housewife cooks and swears, and the liquid from the cheese that wasn't going to cook off the eggs no matter how long I let them go. That didn't taste so bad once you accepted it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Claire Eats

We're pleased to announce another guest post today. A true out-of-towner (for our purposes, someone who doesn't live in Brooklyn or Baltimore), world traverser and tea aficionado Claire Phelan has contributed a piece to What I Ate Where. She usually keeps her own court at but we've happily procured one of her stories.

My life, before we all dispersed for winter break, was quite the introduction to slovenly living. With an emptier fridge and fewer bookshelves, we could have been bohemians, evenings beginning with the usual rummaging through spare sheets, gold sneakers, rolls of paper towels, for my old black heels, since forgotten in the early hours of New Years Day in some Brooklyn dive. Old-money-now-no-money, weary glamour eating bits of bean slop out of cups in the backs of classrooms, dreaming of sushi and champagne.

With the end of the semester, inevitably, came sleeplessness, frozen fingers, a feet-deep swamp of belongings my boy and I had to wade through to make it to our mattress, and the deep-rooted, fuck-all frustration that comes from the severe lack of real, hearty meals. Against everyone's better judgment, it was out of this pure, raw need that I planned a dinner party in the midst of finals. I wanted to gather together a group of favorites and feed them, fill them with the fresh and heavy, leave them feeling fat and happy. The menu was grilled asparagus, shake-and-bake chicken, hasselback potatoes and Mezgaldi onions.

It was a disaster from the beginning: we'd double-booked the dorm kitchen and the stove top with some club's ethnic dinner, a crowd of girls drunkenly deep-frying pork chops in a vat of sizzling oil and Jack Daniels, who drowned out our jazz and banter with hip-hop and screaming. My friend Dan said it best, as we waited quietly beside our prepped ingredients for an hour for the counter to free up, looking ruefully at our platter piled high with breasts, "Raw beef looks GOOD, raw chicken just...I don't want to sink my teeth into that."

In the hassle over sharing the oven, the potatoes came out undercooked, the onions too sweet, and the asparagus cooled thirty minutes before I completed the rest of the dinner. The chicken was the fall-back savior- rolled in beaten egg, rubbed with flour, paprika and chipotle, and gently simmered in butter, it came out gorgeously tender, flavorful, juicy. A dish, that, for all its name, is neither shaken nor baked, is easy, cheap, and without fail a wowzer, as any spices in the flour turn out equally delicious. But we were a harried group, hurried, bored and hungry for too long, and I was left with the need for a gluttonous, rich meal still unsatisfied.

But I'm a brothel madam, a matron in an apron, a beefy-armed boarding house mistress with two sinks worth of dirty dishes and half a handle of vodka under the desk. My countertops are continuously covered in wine glasses, coffee mugs, a huge tray of baklava that draws people in like flies, and I'd one night left to entertain.

Pepperoni rolls are cheap, easy lovers, sleazy greaseballs slicked with charm and butter, hiding heart attacks in their back pockets. The recipe promised me a real crowd pleaser, the-bang-for-ya-buck where the kids wouldn’t know what hit ‘em. On our worn kitchen counter, one long stretch of bread dough rolled out with a dented can of pork & beans, rubbing it down with buttery fingers, the sprinkling of the elusively named “Italian seasoning”, and then layers of pepperoni and shredded mozzarella, both straight from the packet. Apart from the butter, spread liberally from my imagination, this felt like blasphemy, but it baked slowly, the dough rising, the however-manufactured cheese oozing out of browning corners until I forgot, and waited with a crowd of watering mouths behind me, to tear off a piece of melting cheese and meat. I sliced thinly and served the pieces up hot with a smile and a cup of warm marinara sauce. They don't call me Grandma Claire for nothing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Adrian Eats

Your Slobbering Heart

In almost every scene from the film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn coffee is being served. Whenever the insurance man comes to collect dimes or the father is drunk or the children, on cold days, have just arrived from school, cups are being filled. It is the children in fact, who in the Christmas scene when the percolator is brought to the table, are first in line like slobbering animals, overjoyed to drink the dark caffeinated sludge that must have been coffee in 1910. While Johnny and his daughter are mourning the dead tree from their window, he says, "I wonder what they did before coffee was invented."Though someone now could list a few alternatives, the question remains: for Johnny, in his third-floor walk-up, would anything other than coffee do?

The thing is, different times and places have respective gastronomical needs. Nutrition is not a stock list of healthy ingredients, but rather a subjective guide for what you must do to keep the flame going. Whether it's coffee for children or kale by the heap or whiskey Wednesdays. Eating your way through winter on the East coast is different than on the West, and by no means whatsoever can one be appropriated to the other. Cloud-cover, temperature, cultural history, and the ghosts of a place are all factors that create these needs. The plain and unique nutrients your body craves is another (maybe you're hot-bodied, phlegmy, inflamed, cool-livered &c.) I'm only thinking about Elia Kazan's 1945 movie because I was in Portland recently and my mother put a VHS of it in my stocking, and it was only after I returned to New York, alone in my apartment and unable to sleep, that I watched it. Among other things the story indicated this flame, the wick of it shortening in this fast place, and the drinking of coffee -- briny, gritty, cowboy-black -- appeared as a regional antidote.

But who knows. It varies from bod to bod. Soy gives Americans hormonal problems, but the Japanese have been using it for centuries with no side effects. I know two people who are allergic to fresh fruit! When I lived in the Northwest, a piece of cake and ice cream made me feel hung over in the morning, but in New York it goes right on through. Sometimes your Eastern European or West Indies genes will surface, but Lo and behold! you were born in Missouri where the land and the produce make no sense to your constitution. Then what? Eat things that fill whatever you're lacking. Get hotter, colder, calmer, wilder. If you need to eat two hamburgers or all of the broccoli you cooked (even though you wanted to save some for lunch), do it: vegetables have significantly fewer nutrients than they did thirty years ago, and maybe you need to eat twice as many to successfully photosynthesize. My friend Cait used to say, "Let your appetite do its thing." Pregnant and menstruating women are our finest models for this. Ten pickles, a tire iron, red clay, six almond pastries from the Hassidic bakery! It's not about gluttony, it's about listening to your slobbering heart!

I was paused at a light the other day, and Ray Ray and David Bernstein rode up next to me. We said hello, each of us on errands, and then they invited me to dinner. An hour later, I met up with them at David's co-op holding a container of garlic-stuffed green olives. We made coos coos with chopped pecans, cashews, raisins and dates. The three of us sat on stools and boxes, stirring pots, talking, adding ingredients: bok choy, mushrooms, onions, carrots, and a single egg. I talked about my interest in writing about the implications of the BQE, and David talked about his secret spaces project, wherein he tracks down and activates unused nooks around the city. Turmeric, mustard, soy sauce. "Should I add lentils?" he asked.

"Lentils take a long time," I said.

"Yeah, but I need lentils. So I'm going to add them."

And he did. The perfect anchor for a cold night.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lily Eats

More Cream

I was to be in the city to meet Ian at nine. But for all of our pragmatism, it is still cold in January. Flesh-cold, like the coins to pay the boatman cooling in our eyes. Like every corner and socket and animal in Baltimore is so cold, accosted, cold. It had been a day of missed connections--my shift at the coffeehouse shortened, cancelled plans, a day that demanded adjustment to the point of surrender. By the time eight o'clock saw me I was deep into a little dinner with my father, roasted vegetables from a shallow bowl--dense, layerful brussel sprouts, red potatoes and red onions; sweet, resilient turnips. Slow-roasted because he couldn't find a lid for the roasting dish. We talked a little, and ate from our laps watching television, like any family who reads sometimes wants to do. I remember thinking how my stomach was an endless and unsettle-able world, a frontier to remain wild, the olive oil pooling in our plates. He gave me a broiler pan, "I bought it for meat but I never used it," that I could use to crisp up the soft skin of bread loaves--throw a cup of water into the broiler, shut the door quickly, and let something as peasant as steam do your work for you.

Locked into this kind of tranquility, it's hard to imagine starting a car, frozen like water to the driveway--unnatural to enter the coldest world at night, you should be staying put. But remembering just how long winter will drag without friends, and to break the cycle of disrupted plans, I went. To meet Ian, and we to another friend's apartment, and Ian left, all the boys talking business and hating the finicky neighbors, and lesbians who are in love with them, my picture on an old friend's wall--I turned to Nick and said, "I am going to get a milkshake," with enough deliberation to affect a statement and an invitation all at once.

So back to Ian's to scoop him up, thankful to be just blocks from the Sunday all-night January shakest milkshake in the city, and not have to question. A kind of diner, but with no whisper of the customary red-white-black color scheme. With wooden tables, decorated in mannequins and matchbox cars and all manner of standard-issue kitsch. For this, and for the homemade whipped cream. A generous, thick-necked waitress came to take our order. All of this had started in my head after all, and not without a clear picture. It was not about a milkshake, it was about a strawberry milkshake.

"We're out of chocolate ice cream," she told the two undaunted boys, one of whom I knew to hate the stuff without exception, and I can't remember which one asked excitedly if the strawberry and vanilla flavors could be swirled, but a rush of comfort seemed to come with her response. A robust, even egging, "Why not?" and immediately, both ordered it. There was a second where I didn't want to be thought of as missing out, and almost changed my order to a round for the table, but I stayed silent, she deftly snapped up our menus, and as though my companions had asked, I said something about being a purist or a Puritan, and meant it happily.

The red cups came out on our matron's tray, just thin enough to eke through a straw instead of a spoon, frozen strawberries that had to be shoveled quickly to your moth if they were to make it at all. And the whip on top some kind of daydream--porous, weighty, and more cream than sugar. We drank and conversed equally, kicking each other with incidental abandon under the table, eyes bright with what would have been sadness if we hadn't made it giddiness, with what would have been the months we are lost for if we hadn't beat the weather at its own game. Like reptiles or children, absorbing the heat we found until it was our own. Knowing we had kept our own table, the flash of some grown guardian for our foray into the world. Saying, Here, before that, hold this to you first, it has worked before.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lily Eats

Petticoats and Petticoats

There are things which don't begin to be true until we know them.
First, rules. Like a voice telling your Italian family you don't need meats or cheeses will never be heard above skinny hips. Never throw out the runoff from any pan. MFK's sacrosanct footnote that coffee is good with cream at dawn and black at dusk.

Then your equipment, which is another way of saying instincts. Suddenly a mortar and pestle makes sense next to the olive oil, you know that the cutting board doesn't need to be scrubbed so much as brushed clean, one sweeping motion over the trash can: Here's where the secrets are. If you are eating your best--which is to say, hopeful where you can be and truthful where you cannot--this trash can will not be trash at all, but an unmet opportunity to begin composting. Not papers and foils but seeds, stalks, partly-zested rinds. It will be a testament to your craftiness if it's clear you tried to boil every part of the beast before calling it unusable.

Next your observations. At the inception of this new world, the lipstick and grit, your entrance of the kitchen, it quickly becomes clear that what matters is not what you know, but what you notice. A friend off-handedly mentions cardamom in a letter about her mother's illness. A glance past a lover finds her herb garden, the soft marvel that, it being December, you are all still alive. A bite of a cookie becomes a wonder at the differences between mace and nutmeg, the scents from two dry jars.

Finally, your questions. Can it be the same, to eat yourself and to feed others. To eat and to think about eating. The days off the calendar mark with surety that we know something real happens here, but after all this time do we have no name for it. At our inarticulate best, we recognize it as a shape-shifter. One moment, peppermint tea, then the cloudy day we chose for baking bread, then the specter of some retired warrior we resuscitated in time for seasoning: with bravery here, cayenne pepper. Questions like where do we get our power and where can we buy the best onions. Why is all soup better the second day. Is anyone thinking this through.

As an aside, which comes easier than an answer. For those nervous: Dismay your mother-in-law by trying chocolate and bananas in the same cake. For those frightened they will drift off the ground, a tin of muffins will serve as anchor at a party thrown by any decent former love. For those unplanned, the hotter curry powder is best. Seats without backrests will keep you all upright, and in rich, good behavior. And conversation, conversion will come.