29 October 2006

Fiction: Magical thinking

Leah needs some attention. She thinks she knows where to find the right kind for her right now. She's feeling lucky today and wants to see whether she can prove it's for real and not just all in her mind.

A six on the table and an ace in her hand, she ponders her knowledge of the situation. Ol' Texan over here in the big hat has already doubled down on his pair of queens when he sees the dealer's five showing. Leah thinks about that dealer's five and knows he'll have to hit it once. At least. She knows she should simply stand, but she could no more stand than sprout wings and fly up above the table. So she asked for the Dealer's next card, which turned out to be a three. She stood pat then.

With an inner sigh, she thinks that nineteen will probably get her back on track this time. Only it isn't. The dealer turns up a six, against all odds with her six right there, but then adds on a 10 and takes all the money at the table. Which amounts to the tenth time in a row this has happened -- or a variant of it that has ended in her losing another bet backed on promises of money to people just a little too glad to have that hold on her.

Stubbornly, as when she'd drawn that three to her sixteen, she tosses her cards into the slush pile at the same time she tosses another handful of chips into the betting circle. She will have to keep looking for victory until she gets a lot richer or all the money's gone. Then she will have gotten rid of it once and for all, or she'll know she's destined to have it.

17 October 2006

Finding Flaubert

I went to the Trident Booksellers the other day looking for a copy of Madame Bovary. I was drawing a blank when I tried to remember the author's name, so I went up to the counter and asked about it. I almost burst out laughing when he said, "It's Flaubert," rhyming the name with "Robert."

13 October 2006

What's So Great About Good Food? Part II

Here's something I'll have to post about on chowhound:

I have a theory about Chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson at Frasca Food and Wine. It goes like this:

With his uses of cured and pickled foods, Lachlan is tapping into people's wartime and depression-era memories of having to put things up for the winter, having to use everything you produce (especially when you can't eat all you harvest), and having to introduce variety in winter months with foods preserved from the summer months.

Sure, the folks at Frasca have cryovac machines and good freezers. You know they could probably find a way to serve you watermelon in January if they wanted to, but Lachlan works at this preservation aspect honestly, perhaps like his grandmother before him, and hers before her, in the new country and in the old.

And now some of Lachlan's grandma's peers are well-heeled folks who dine at Frasca, perhaps not only for the unforgettable combinations of ingredients (is it the clove in the shaved pork with cherries that makes it so memorable?) but also for a little history alongside an exploration of northern Italian cooking. And this history comes with a side of echoes of their own pasts through red pepper jelly and pickled green tomatoes from his family's repertoire. For the forward-looking, Lachlan takes ideas like this one and stretches them, pickling cauliflower and shallots for dressings, for example. It is the absence of gimmics or trickery and the deep respect for old ways that appeals to me here.

Lachlan may well be deliberately trying to attract the people who remember life during wartime or grew up in the long shadow of the depression, which adds up to a lot of people (although I suppose many of these are folks who wouldn't dream of spending $100-$150 on food and wine per person in an evening, if a perfectly adequate meal could be found for $20 or $30). Lachlan has something for everyone: He gives the people who are part of the Slow Food movement and who are nostalgic for another way of life (e.g., witness the hoops Bill Buford jumps in Heat) an opportunity to go back in time and yet be on the cutting edge of their own era all in one evening.

11 October 2006

All I Want Is My Duct Tape, Paper Clips, WD-40...

We've been e-mailing for years and all the time more people start sending emails, so those urban legends and jokes that people started sending to one another when e-mail became more ubiquitous never died. There are good ones about how to resist telephone scams, and there's the hoax one about the kidnapping scam in Wal-Mart. Some of them take me back to those terrifying tales my aunt and her pals used to tell each other and me when I was little about girls killed in dramatic scenarios ("...and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was her favorite song!"). Urban myths and legends, some cautionary and true, some not, always seem to surface in one medium or another.

That said, I'm not even sure if it fits the same category as an e-mail chestnut but I just opened the WD-40 e-mail, which calls out some of the cures and problems for which people have used it: removing old tape, stripping dried bugs off the front of your car, attracting fish (for some reason this was the paragraph called out in red in the e-mail that came to me). Removing tarnish from silver, keeping pigeons off the balcony ("they hate the smell"), and cleaning shower doors. It's amazing.

Someone sent me an e-mail a couple of weeks ago that listed a bunch of miracle uses for different products. My hackles went up, though, when the list spelled out specific brands for every product. I'm cynical enough to believe if you traced all the products up the conglomerate tree, you'd probably find one behemoth corporation at the root of it and some brilliant PR wiz kid who came up with the notion of writing and disseminating it. (It wouldn't take so much effort to come up with one unusual use each for several different products.) Yet there's something more organic about the WD-40 one, more mythical. It has the ring of a cliche we all know because it's true.

WD-40 is, after all, a very cool product. It was named for the formula created to displace water (its name stands for "Water Displacement perfected on the 40th try"). Its uses are myriad, tested, and widely accepted. People use it, however, for more than anyone ever intended. Even the WD-40 Web site acknowledges that this product has fans far beyond the expected mechanics and do-it-yourselfers everywhere.

There are enough promises in the WD-40 mythology to incite that tingly, snake-oil salespitch or gold-rush itch, enough to make you wonder: "What if it were really that easy? What if really could help me with all those things -- catching more fish, keeping my shower doors clean, eliminating my arthritis?" Like some magic lantern, we want to ask and ask again, "How much more can you do for me? What would that world look like if you could really do all that?"

The truly magical part about this: All you have to do to find out is go out to your garage or if you don't have one, go buy yourself a can of WD-40, available practically anywhere. Let me know whether you find any truth in the rumors.

04 October 2006

What's So Wonderful About Fancy Food?

I don't know when I started feeling this way, but I love to hear all the latest food news about restaurants in my town and even others farther away. When people go to interesting places, I'm as curious about what and how they ate as I am in the other things they did there. When I go on a trip, I remember it better if I keep a record of what we ate.

It is in part about scents anchoring memories: Dining of course involves the nose and tongue, the chief olfactory organs. Then there's the wonderful world of flavor, with its myriad combinations done and never before done (my happiest summer discovery was a salad of watermelon, feta, avocado, and vinaigrette, those basic notes of sweet and tart all balanced in entirely new proportions). In The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I've just begun reading, Michael Pollan says our desire for new foods has increased our brain size, which has in turn incited us to experiment with more foods and preparations. We have grown a big brain so we can not just eat but eat well.

In my world, food options are plentiful and rich. We happen to live comfortably enough to shop at Whole Foods once a week for our meats and fish. I have a long list of best places to find things by price and quality filed away in my head when I set about my weekly errands. (Vitamin Cottage for veggies, nuts, and flours - everything's fresh, organic, and there are just a few things too outrageously priced to buy there, like mushrooms. Lucky's for very good $5.99/pound coffee, and King Soopers for orange juice and some produce and pantry staples, cereals and canned things. We get our two weekly gallons of hormone-free local cows' milk delivered every Thursday morning, which makes shopping much easier -- and the milk is excellent. And the occasional trip to the farmer's market or India's Market or the Asian Deli for something new and different.)

One of the highlights of our life together has always been dining out. It was something we did when we became friends, hanging out with our pals in cafes after school and in the summer. We went out as students, and when we first got married, went on the big European trip, and came home and settled into life in San Francisco, for a while, anyway.

I was lucky in the places we happened to live, too. In Berkeley we lived around the corner from Chez Panisse and exactly one block from Peet's, on the Northside. It was lovely. Our roommate had gotten this lady to rent out her house five blocks from the campus and it was in a location that just got better and better while we lived there. We could see the Coop (pronounced Co-op) and the traffic on Shattuck but it was relatively quiet on our corner. I frequented Peet's and the little Juice Bar Collective for amazing lunches. Now the neighborhood is known as Berkeley's "gourmet ghetto."

While we lived there, I worked for a guy who had his psychoanalysis practice on a boat in the Berkeley Marina. (He had really low overhead and got to write off a lot of his boat expenses.) I was transcribing his autobiography and doing his accounts. That was the first time I realized that you could really get into wine; his weekly wine expenses were in the $75-100 range, not counting dining out. When it was time for me to move on, my employer took me to lunch upstairs at the Chez Panisse Cafe. I don't remember what I had, but I do remember it being wonderfully fresh and simple. We went across the Bay with our roommates for one memorable splurge at Stars, Jeremiah Tower's glitzy restaurant. There was a revelation of a dessert that included basil and black pepper.

In San Francisco, when the dot-com boom was just getting underway and no one had yet been paid cash for any of those stock options, we lived in a neighborhood at the edge of a foodie destination all its own: My father would bring me there as a child for the lengua and intestine burritos (the latter were very salty, which I loved then). When we moved there, established Peruvian seafood restaurants shared blocks with Chinese takeout joints and tacquerias and crepe cafes. A few blocks down from our apartment were Lucca Deli and then The Flying Saucer. New coffeehouses were springing up all over. The neighborhood was blossoming. Once we had both moved up a little from our beginning salaries, we could splurge on a dinner at Chez Panisse, downstairs this time. It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten.

We then moved to Germany and I learned a few cooking tricks from our lovely host family there; six months later we moved back to our hometown. We wanted to make pesto, one of the new tricks we'd picked up in California, so we searched for basil (it was May), but were repeatedly directed to the dried spices aisle. Now it's at every store throughout the year.

And our town has become a place where you can always get excellent food. I like many of the same things I always have: a good burrito, a good burger, a good pizza. I used to be a nut for breakfast: it was my favorite meal. Now, not so much. But I also enjoy the times my husband and I go out for a nice dinner; we've had peak moments and made some of our best decisions over meals. Our daughter knows that going out is a treat, too.

And when we go to fine restaurants, there's something wonderful about setting aside that time just to appreciate the subtle arts of eating, drinking, and conversation. When we went to Italy for a week, I kept that feeling of relaxing over meals with me for a long time after we returned home, like a shawl I could wrap around my shoulders. I can still summon that feeling if I try, and our nights on the town help me keep that in perspective. There's nothing like eating together, and eating something totally unique and unusual amplifies each occasion.

It also allows you to celebrate the basics: Instead of just eating a sandwich, chips, and a soda in front of the TV set, you can revel in being able to taste. You can experience the careful balancing of texture, aroma, and color that a great chef can bring to a meal. Is seeing a meal for being more than just fuel learned behavior, I wonder, like perceiving an abstract painting as an expression of something seen and felt rather than just a random collection of strokes on a canvas?

When I cook for my family, I love to make something that celebrates the goodness of food. Roasted and caramelized vegetables. Pan-toasted oatmeal with cranberries. It's busywork, sure, but it's always a pleasure to feed my people food I love.

The converse makes life tricky; it's getting harder for me to eat what I think of as bad food. It's a difficult line to walk with family and friends who don't share the same standards. I asked my mother-in-law once why she doesn't ever cook with organic produce or other products and she said, "I don't usually want to take the extra time." And she meant in the ingredient preparation: I think she thinks everything organic must be washed and trimmed and cut up. But the other factor she didn't say out loud was cost: It's more expensive. She both prizes frugality as a primary virtue and she has more faith in big business i this country. They buy their food at Wal-Mart.

But our bodies are our temples, and I do believe we have an opportunity to either drain resources or contribute to a sustainable culture with each food choice we make. And so I support and celebrate and set money aside to enjoy what can be done with great ingredients, especially when the chefs are working closely with local organic farmers and ranchers. It's not just what you put into your body that counts, but also what you put back into the community. That's why I try to buy things at Whole Foods that I can't find elsewhere. While Whole Foods does pretty well, they are still competing with major grocery chains and like them, shipping produce from all over the world; I'd rather invest more of our dollars in the local produce industry.

Enough for now. I've made myself hungry.