30 January 2007

"Debbie or something"

I just wrote to the Westword food writer about my experience visiting an Indian restaurant he reviewed recently where the owner said to me, dripping with disdain, "You probably named her Debbie or something," and how despite the food being great I don't go there so much.

I feel the same way about returning to that grocery store way the hell down in Little India, in Artesia, in south L.A., where I've gone when visiting my mom. This stout fellow with thinning, greasy hair stopped me when I was with my daughter and said so where did you get her? "I adopted her from India, from Calcutta," I said, pronouncing it the Indian way. "Oh, so you bought her? How much she cost?" I had read about this question in our preparations for adopting a child, but I had never actually fielded it until then. Of course I just insisted that we adopted her and there were adoption fees. This fellow was not interested in the vagaries of nonprofits and international adoption laws, however; and I found I really didn't want to invest too much mental energy in someone who thought white people could just buy brown people and who wanted to know exactly how much buying a tiny brown person would cost.

16 January 2007

On Molecular Gastronomy and Coke

One of the most astonishing things I read about chefs and food in the past year was when one famous New York chef (Ripert or Boulud?) said how much he admires things he can't create. He said something to the effect of, I can figure out how to recreate most things myself, but I love Coca-Cola because I don't know how to do that!

And I'm sure lots of other people are writing about this, but I find it interesting that large industrial food-processing tools are being turned to by chefs and probably even home cooks, given the way cooking trends are spreading these days (which is probably three percent due to Alice Waters and the remaining 97 percent due to the increasing prevalence of shows on the Food Network and PBS. Mark my words: the Food Network is going to be like MTV soon with countless spinoffs: FN-Chef, FN-Home Cook, FN-Cutting-edge cooking, etc.) .

So it's not necessarily the desire to create something new but to recreate something that exists, like getting something to be the texture of Cool Whip without all that high-fructose corn syrup. Go Google "twinkies recipe" and you will be astonished at the number of recipes you will find if you start investigating. And is the ultimate goal to astound and stymie your friends and customers (if you are a cutting-edge chef like Adria at El Bulli, Wylie Dufresne at WD-50, or Grant Achatz at Alinea), or are you more motivated by creating or deconstructing and reconstructing dishes, or are you equally motivated by recreating the Tater-Tots or the Nehi Sodas or the Twinkies of your childhood? On Homaro Cantu's menu at Moto in Chicago a dish involving "pellets of Kentucky Fried Chicken Ice Cream and sliced rutabaga," which was "a dish that just couldn't work, [yet] did work magnificently," said someone who posted about his dining experience at Moto. According to another writer, Cantu's Doughnut Soup "tastes exactly like the inside of a Krispy Kreme doughnut, chemical aftertaste and all."

I find it interesting how many chefs are experimenting with not just food but what cooking is. Where does cooking end and showing off begin? Where does cooking end and not cooking begin? When we go to a restaurant, what do we expect, and how are these chefs toying with that?

Subjects like molecular gastronomy are fascinating because they bring out such differing reactions. On the Chowhound message boards, for instance, there's a thread called "Molecular gastronomy - Die fiend!" Food purists, the ones most likely to hew to Alice Waters' world view, are appalled. I know people with sensitive digestive tracts who have no interest in pushing the limits; they'd rather know what to expect from their food, not have to put quotation marks around everything and wonder what each thing is really made of and how. I find it fascinating and only a little off-putting that people want to do this to food (as one post on the Chicago dining forum said, "Many bright ten-year olds receive chemistry sets, but one must be cautious when they ask to serve breakfast in bed."). Me, I love a good joke. Bring it on.

12 January 2007

Tiny blessings

I was telling my daughter what to do, as I sometimes think I must do (whether this is true is a matter for another conversation entirely), and she retorted quickly and certainly, "Mama, this is my house, too, and I am sitting up here on this spot," which of course was the place I had just told her not to sit.

And far from being angry I just grinned. I am grateful every day that this child feels so secure in her house, and so secure with us that she can say what she believes and needs. Nor is she as fragile as I tend to think, too. And why not let her sit up on that perch? No one else is using it, for heaven's sake! The rest of us are all busy wearing out the same old spots on the couches and chairs.

10 January 2007

Listening to Amy

I do so like to keep my ear to the ground, in a rather literal way. I like to listen to new stuff. I have a much higher threshold for trying out new music than most people I know and love. But I can't imagine not hearing and passing along new sounds and sights. I can't help listening for things. Last night I fell asleep in front of the TV watching the film Ronin, yet when I was awake I could hear and see how well the score matched the action.

The newest, biggest thing on my list right now is this video on You Tube by Amy Winehouse (which was posted by someone cool on the Gomez message boards in the What are you listening to right now? discussion). Amy is the British equivalent of a Jersey Girl in style and body and hair, channeling a cross between Yma Sumac and Southern Culture on the Skids (and yet there's also something else, something very man-in-drag about her, too -- she's got my gaydar going whoop, whoop!). She's the woman I want Sarah Silverman to be. Whatever she is, she's creative, talented, and inspiring, lucky for me.

I am in awe of people like this, people who are bent on expressing themselves in their own ways, and so what I am doing is writing about them in my novel. I keep asking myself, What do I like most? And adding that stuff in. And the amazing part is that no one is telling me not to, lightning isn't striking, and life is going on as normal, except...

...except I feel just a little clearer, more honest, more true to myself and therefore with energy for those around me. It's like exercise making you feel better. (Ooh, and speaking of exercise, I skied for about twenty minutes total yesterday and am looking forward to more exercise today. Heck, I could even go skiing still. It's nice and warm and calm again. Take the bus and write on the laptop on the way up at least, if not back. Hmmm....)

...except I feel more sure of my own path and timetable. It will all come to pass as it is supposed to.

...except I feel more motivated to go out and learn new tricks, like Bollywood dance (one of my e-mail tasks this morning has turned out to be a really nice surprise: the teacher of the Bollywood dance class at my daughter's heritage camp gave me such a high compliment about the dance some other mothers and I performed at the closing performance. She's coming to my town to teach a class, breaking down Bollywood movie routines into routines.)

Another way I see these folks who inspire me, the Amys and Sia and Gomez and Bollywood dancers and a zillion more musicians and performers, is as if you all have fabulous clothes I can borrow if I need to, so I can have a little of your juju when I'm feeling low on my own. Amy has made herself into an interesting piece of work, if you ask me, and something about that more and more feels to me like a challenge, or a dare. So I always have to ask myself what I'm so inspired to do about it, which sets off its own adventure.

So that's how and why I keep listening and learning, to find great clothes, or attitude, to borrow. What could be more fun? And more helpful?

09 January 2007

The Snow Job

I tried my new ski boots today, at last!

When I left the store with the boots, a few weeks ago, I had felt taken care of. I felt I had bought the best boot for me. But up on the mountain today when I tried to slide my foot into my boot wearing my medium-weight wool sock, I remembered the original transaction differently.

"My feet are falling asleep," I'd say.

"Oh, that will stop as you break them in."

And I believed him! And then went on to believe him when he said, "What you're looking for is a firm handshake."

Now my foot was in less of a handshake than the boot's death grip, until I (brilliant one that I am) slipped on the cheap, thin, nylon knee-high socks from Target and slid my feet into those boots one at a time, like everyone with two legs does.


And when I had finally slid my feet into these cast-like vessels, the New Boots, did I feel good? Hmm, good if you agree that a formica-coated bench at a Woolworth's could feel good when all you want is a Blue Plate Special.

I wasn't feeling snug or coddled or cushioned the way some of the other boots had made me feel, no. These were a plain-Jane environment for my feet, designed to leave little interference between the feet and the outer surface of the boot.

I felt my feet fall asleep again, in their new "firm handshake," which by now felt more like a death grip, especially in that spot where that bone sticks up on top of my right foot (the bone on my left foot felt okay).

So I skied a few runs, and then sat for twenty minutes. By then the boots were warming up. I felt they might be my boots after all with a little more training on both sides, for the boot and the foot.

And yet I couldn't help feeling rueful, a little disillusioned about all that stuff that happened to make me feel good in the ski shop and how drastically different everything seemed up on the mountain. What happened to all of that goodness? Next time I'll keep my boots inside the house overnight before we go up. That might help, too.

And if I do keep suffering with that bone, I will have them grind the boot to fit me.

When Bad Weather Happens

It was with a sinking feeling that we saw it go from yesterday's 50 degrees, which had a nice melting effect on the heaps of snow that have piled up around us since the third week of December, when we started getting these weekly poundings, and we listened to the TV meterorologist tell us we're about to get another 6-8 inches or so, just before the weekend. What the heck is going on here? I hear the cherry blossoms and crocuses are springing forth in profusion on parts of the Eastern U.S. There was also the story a couple of days ago in the New York Times about this forlorn snow measuring station, which hasn't had any snow around it to measure for a couple of years.

And I kept thinking of the parallel: if it's springtime weather on the East Coast of the U.S. (and heaven knows where else -- feel free to comment on the weather in your locale now or whenever you read this), these are certainly spring conditions here as well. We don't usually get these repeated big snows this early in the season. Usually we're hoping for an inch or two of snow by Christmas, and everything is just brown, dormant, and dry. This is March and April, even May snow, these foot-at-a-time storms. Storms we can't keep up with in terms of snow clearing and removal, especially when we keep getting hammered by more bouts of bad weather.

This winter, the joke is on us: Like people on the many great days in Seattle, we can often be found throughout the winters smugly talking amongst ourselves about the 300 days of sunshine every year, the snowstorms followed by 50- or 60-degree days that melt off any accumulation almost instantaneously. Not for us Rochester or Boston or Buffalo's banks of dirty snow and slabs of ice for months -- at least not until this year. Suddenly we get what it's like to live in Minnesota. Now I see why my granddad had to work hard to afford a live-in gardener and a maid -- it would be impossible to keep up with the shoveling alone for his big manse on a Minneapolis lake without help, even for someone as fit and able as he was then. He probably had his gardener drive a snowplow in the winter and a riding mower in the summer -- that place was huge.

And why don't the ladies of my grandparents' generation shovel? I suppose they do if they're on their own. But to my living (step)grandmother and my deceased grandmothers, shoveling is strictly the man's job. My neighbor doesn't shovel because of her back, and there are times when I can't either. But usually I shovel as much as anyone around here -- it's great exercise. Gets right at those lovely core muscles.

Here, every day we hear new stories about where and how people got stuck and dug out. My daughter's teacher told us about getting stuck on her own un-plowed street. My best friend came over to bake brownies for the six people who dug (and provided kitty litter and rugs, etc.) her out when she got stuck on her coworker's cul-de-sac.

Every day the storms' collected remnants evolve. We are seeing heaped black snow at the sides of the roads now, from the bases of which treacherous ice seeps. At the playground this morning, the kindergarteners were all over a tower of what had been snow but was rapidly melting and compressing into a hard block of ice. Every day my daughter comes home saying she slipped and fell on the ice on the playground. We're not used to all of these hazards all the time.

It's funny, because if we find the world frozen and icy up in the mountains, we've chosen to go up for a reason (skiing, most likely) and therefore everything is good, part of the experience. We've skied on days when you couldn't see for all the snow falling and the quiet was the sweetest, softest thing in the world, and on days when the sun was melting the snow as fast as we could ski it (and that melty spring snow is fast!). And of course now we've brought all our cold-weather gear and are wearing windproof fabrics and shoes with lots of tread on them. When I was a kid, the good stuff was good when you had it: down always, wool yes, cotton: well, that was all we knew. we didn't know yet about wicking, so that was usually the underlayer, whether turtleneck or undies or jeans or all of those. I love being warm in bad conditions. It makes me feel lucky to be alive now.

The thing that mystifies me these days -- and perhaps marks me as a fogy -- is seeing people walking around downtown in flip-flops when there's slush and sleet everywhere. Or little mules, shoes that leave the heels free. Or strappy sandals. Why wouldn't you want your feet covered up on a cold night? That's what tall, sexy boots are made for, if you must be impractical. I just go ahead and wear my big ugly shoes a lot in the winter -- they're comfortable and I know I can do anything in them. My grandmother would be horrified that I let myself be seen in such ugly shoes. I have her to thank for not being able to succumb to the crocs trend that has swept my town. I can't do it on these lugs. My mom loves uggs, speaking of big ugly shoes, and I haven't quite been able to go there with my big feet, but I swear by my shoes. Last time I went to London, I didn't pack any extra shoes. I wore a pair of Merrells, everywhere. (And they're more and more stylish than they were when I bought my first pair -- my latest pair has colorful dots at the ends of the shoes -- they're pretty. Now I have my eye on a pair of brown or black leather ones that look like clogs.)

For now, I have to earn some money, get that flow happening again. Time to go to work and stop yammering about the weather and shoes.

06 January 2007

On My Bad Guy, Albert

Ugh. So I hate this Albert Falconer. Ridiculous name, and he's mean mean mean. Bad news. The only way he can be interesting to me is as a Maxwell-Bright character: someone who actually can and does change (see if you ever get a chance the film The Civilization of Maxwell Bright, which I felt lucky to catch at a festival in 2006). Maxwell Bright's is the story of a craven individual who only looks at how he can get something out of the people he meets every day and meet one of his many – and voracious – needs, but circumstances bring him to recognize at last the grace and good in people, and perhaps in himself.

My creation, Albert, thinks he already is that enlightened manly-man, at peace with being on top of the food chain. But I think something will have to happen that makes him question his own judgment and forces him to depend on the kindness of strangers, who pull him through, wrap their roots around him and pull him up to the surface again when he’s been sucked into the vortex of fate that befalls us all.

And how does a guy like Albert get what’s coming to him? How’s Lennon’s line go? “Instant karma’s gonna get you, baby!” What is Albert’s version of instant karma? A totaled new car, or a girlfriend who starts rumors that are believed by many – and that shrink his dating pool rapidly, regardless of the untruth of the rumors. And there’s this habit that will be the old Albert’s undoing: he always tries to use every bit of leverage he can find over someone he sees as weaker. We love to hate this person when we recognize his inability to resist an opportunity to scheme for an advantage. But there has to be something potentially redeeming about him or he can’t be in my story. So there.

05 January 2007

Another foot, another thousand shovels of snow

Speaking of my backyard, I can see in the next yard a man who has just descended a ladder, having climbed it and done something up there with the power or cable lines. Huh. It's all happening most likely because there's another foot of snow on the ground today, and the wet, heavy snow we're getting makes the cables and lines sag and stretch. The world is again buried. I haven't been hanging as much laundry out as I would normally in this season, I'll tell you that! And I haven't been to the gym in a while; I keep getting workouts shoveling my walkways and driveway.

Just last night my daughter and I carried our shovels over to a neighbor's house and shoveled their walk as far as we could before it got dark and we got cold. So we've had our share of digging of late, I say. And the people in the house behind us are selling, so they're not around to shovel, which is a pain when there's this much snow. So I shoveled half of their walk today. Sometimes I think the entire neighborhood should just invest in a little tiny bobcat they can use to push snow off all the walks at once (or drill holes or backhoe gardens or ...).

This snowstorm was predicted to bring 1-3 inches of snow, but instead has dropped another foot, the third foot we've had in a week. I just sent my mother home yesterday, luckily, because her travel days happened to dodge all three storms. Two happened while she was here, but that was fine because we could all just hole up, which we did. We did all our shopping in one five-hour sprint around town the minute things opened back up again, which was great (but took it out of my ma for the next couple of days); then I made tons of stuff for people and stumbled across more great stuff that was fun to give. It was a good holiday, and now that we're in for this storm (my sweetie is going to do work he must do at the office and I wished him luck out there), I can do more making of good stuff. I have a blanket to quilt, and it's all pinned up and ready to stitch.

So it's play date central around here, and we'll be hosting movie afternoon, with all the kids coming over to watch Mary Poppins. We'll make cookies and popcorn, and ask the kids to bring what they like to drink. So again, all our plans are being called on account of weather; we must adjust and recalibrate our rhythms to those of the weather. And it's still snowing.

Funny: just three weeks ago I was reading about how it was an El Nino year so we were likely to have a mild, dry winter. Ummm, no. But what a good year to have a ski pass, as long as you can get up to the mountains and back. Yippee!