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Monday, December 27, 2004
The dad and the Dom
On Christmas Eve, I woke up extra early (8 a.m.! I know, pity me), loaded up my trusty car Ricky, and began to drive in a southerly direction. My first stop was San Francisco, where I met my friends Rachael and Rodrigo for breakfast. They offered me a large, bulbous chocolate truffle from their fridge, a gift from overly friendly neighbors that had the (probably) unintended effect of plunging Rachael into a blind holiday panic that has yet to let up. I accepted and stuffed it into my purse for later, because that’s the kind of classy gal I am. To my mind I was doing them a favor; I think the mere sight of the poor little truffle was making Rachael feel guilty at her inability to reciprocate this unexpected gift in a timely manner.
We walked over to Haight Street and Rodrigo suggested that we dine at Squat and Gobble Café 2. Despite the fact that I had previously made a silent vow to myself never to patronize a restaurant with such an appalling name, I went along with the decision, because hey, try everything once. I tried to suppress the mental image of all my fellow customers squatting as they gobbled, but it was hard. The food was fine, although they advertised my crepe as containing fresh strawberries and it didn’t, a fact which they tried to obscure under a thick blanket of Whippy-Shit (my family’s term for canned whipped cream). Shame on you, Squat and Gobble Café 2!
Soon after, I hit the road. I was heading to Santa Barbara to spend Christmas with my dad and half-sister Lori. The drive took about six and a half hours. By the time I neared my exit I was starving, so Rachael’s guilt-inducing truffle came in handy and had no deleterious effects on my own holiday psyche, thank you very much.
The first thing I noticed upon arriving at my dad’s house was the tree. His girlfriend Sabina had decorated it with tiny logs of cheese, little tubes of summer sausage and one particularly weird pastel green rectangle that claimed to be a “Crème de Menthe Torte”. Shudder. The tree was hilarious and quite fitting, given that the next few days would only serve as more evidence of my California family’s dedication to gross excess when it comes to holiday cooking and eating.
Dad had made dinner reservations for us at one of his favorite restaurants, Quantum. I haven’t engaged in much fine dining lately (outside of the Ramekins kitchen, at least), what with living alone and earning $8 an hour and all, so this was quite exciting for me. Apparently, on a previous night my dad and his friend had mistakenly given Ed the Quantum Waiter a hefty double-sized tip, so on the return trip we received some serious rock star treatment.
We decided to both get the five-course small plate dinner and a bottle of Kunin Paso Robles Zinfandel (can’t remember the year), and had taken only a few sips of the wine when Ed the Waiter presented us with two brimming glasses of Dom Perignon (again, don’t know the year or anything else about it). I’m not sure that I have ever had Dom Perignon before; maybe once at Charlie Trotter’s. The glasses were full almost to the point of overflowing, which impaired my ability to taste the champagne but did convey a sense of luxurious excess that was definitely enjoyable.
I might as well just list out the menu as best I can remember it; after the Dom started flowing, my memories of the food grow hazier and hazier. Food Critic’s Lesson Number One: Lay off the sauce when reviewing a restaurant.
1) Ahi tuna tartare with shaved coconut, sesame oil and dried currants
2) Eight perfect oysters with a mignonette that involved fresh parsley
3) Seared foie gras served alongside grilled guavas topped with butternut squash and chile pepper sorbet, and accompanied by a tiny round of bread that had been toasted in the pan next to the foie gras, and as such was divinely rich and crispy. This was my favorite dish of the entire night. I don’t think I had had just a plain hunk of foie gras before this. Oh my god. I’m a convert. I know it’s un-P.C. and abusive, but it tastes sooooo good. And the squash/chile sorbet tasted sweet and spicy just like a mango/chile paleta. Sublime.
4) Petrale sole with port wine reduction and duxelle (?) of rutabaga and celery (I’m really, really foggy on this one)
5) Seared ahi tuna with roasted garlic sauce
6) Quail stuffed with andouille sausage atop a bed of dirty rice
7) Miniature root beer floats made with homemade vanilla ice cream
8) Miniature chocolate-filled beignets accompanied by a darling tiny pitcher of warm chocolate sauce. Some of the chocolate dribbled seductively down the spout of the pitcher and I remember proclaiming that it looked “pornographically good”. Again, that was the Dom and the Kunin talking. I think I just like saying Dom.
After dinner, Dad did not allow me to return home and beach myself on the couch as I so longed to do. Instead, he insisted that I accompany him on a “Santa Mission” in which he would attempt to deliver bags of gifts in the dark to the houses of five friends whose addresses he did not know. It was about as fun as it sounds, especially when we drove around a housing development in which every building looked the same and I was instructed to “find the one with the slate stoop”. In the pitch black. At midnight. After an overflowing glass of Dom.
Somehow, he eventually managed to get everything delivered and I was finally allowed to crawl into bed.
On Christmas morning we picked a bunch of tangelos from my dad’s tree and made juice, but it was pretty puckery. A large dose of sugar helped, but I was worried about provoking a massive acid-induced stomachache when there was so much more eating to be done in the near future. We headed over to my sister’s house and watched as the living room grew increasingly buried under an explosion of wrapping paper, ribbon and assorted Christmas detritus. I received about 15 books relating to food and food writing, a crème brulee torch, and a Williams-Sonoma gift certificate. My sister also gave me my very own cookie scoop, and a note: “You’re one of us now!” Scary, but true.
We returned back to my dad’s house to begin cooking for the enormous feast that was planned for later on in the afternoon. Dad got to work preparing three prime ribs with his housemate, Nick, while I pretended to assist them for about five minutes, and then stumbled back into bed for a long nap. I still blame the Dom.
When I awoke, I was informed that my presence was required at the stable of my niece’s horse, Flash, but not until I had cracked thirty eggs for eggnog. My dad insisted on using the recipe from our family cookbook, which was originally devised by one in a long line of drunken relatives. We know this because my mom and stepdad once unwittingly prepared this concoction for a church social and wound up severely inebriating many innocent and upstanding Congregationalists.
After my egg duties were over and I was pretty repulsed at the idea of imbibing anything containing such a large quantity of them, I joined my brother-in-law Jim and his daughter Brittany for a jaunt out to the horse farm. Or whatever you call it. I don’t really care for horses, but it was cute to see Brittany wrapping Flash’s legs in little horse leg warmers and then letting him out of his stable to gallop gleefully around the corral. And I learned something of culinary interest: horses like to drink Mountain Dew and other kinds of soda straight from the can, and love chomping on a good Starlight Mint. Case in point:
Flash with his favorite food.
Isn’t that picture rad?
A few hours later, dinner was served. Sixteen people were present, but there was easily enough food for fifty. The menu included:
Three smoked prime ribs
1 huge honeybaked ham
1 vat of wilted spinach with garlic
1 vat of green beans with bacon (really good; I will get the recipe and post it)
1 huge container of spinach salad with bacon and hardboiled eggs
1 vat of mashed potatoes
1 vat of cubed potatoes and sweet potatoes with garlic and rosemary
Cranberry nut bread
Guacamole (don’t ask me where this fits in, but it was good)
Four pumpkin pies
Two apple pies
Vanilla ice cream
A huge quantity of eggnog
As I list this, I am reminded of a medieval dinner commemorating a king’s birthday or a courtly marriage. Where are the twelve lamb shoulders, the eighty songbirds, and the hundreds of jugs of mead? On the way home, I noticed that my stomach hurt from all the stretching it had to do to accommodate such quantities of food. I don’t just mean that I felt nauseous from overeating; my stomach actually ached, like a leg muscle aches after jogging.
The next morning, I awoke to a light breakfast of English muffins, almond cake, sausage, coffee and orange juice. I got most of it down, but my eating endurance was starting to deteriorate. I took a shower, and then it was apparently time to eat again.
We all packed into two cars and headed over to Bellyboards, a burger joint. At Bellyboards you can throw your peanut shells on the floor at the same time that you’re popping the cork on a bottle of …you guessed it, Dom Perignon, for $129.99. I can only interpret this menu option as a kind of California cutesiness that I don’t entirely understand. Most of us ordered a plate of four tiny hamburgers that resemble White Castle Sliders, but are instead called by another “S” name that I have already forgotten. Slackers? Sneakers? Whatever. They were pretty good, but at this point my stomach was in full-scale revolt and I could only finish two.
It was time for me to head back to San Francisco. I said my goodbyes, eased my gluttonous self into my car, and got back on 101 North. For the duration of the drive, I shifted uncomfortably around in the seat as the Slithers or whatever they were lurched seismically within my abdomen. My now-manatee-shaped midsection demanded accommodation, and I was forced to unbutton my jeans and loosen the seatbelt. Perhaps now that I am home, the good people of Fairfax can direct me to some kind of power cleansing diet.
Sunday, December 26, 2004
The mysterious turducken
I have fallen a bit behind on the blog postings. Where to begin?
Last Saturday I had a date to go out with my friend Marc, who just graduated from the California Culinary Academy and now works at Jardiniere. This gives him airs, but I love him anyway. He offered me the choice of attending a party filled with young, attractive, politically active intellectuals at a mansion in Tiburon, or helping him make a turducken. I guess I don’t even need to tell you what my decision was.
An hour later, I arrived at his Bernal Heights house and met Marc’s hacker roommates and ill-behaved kitten, Hmoob. We picked up dinner around the corner at Zante’s, an Indian place that specializes in pizza. For $3, you get a massive slice that has been reinterpreted to include a naan crust, tandoori chicken topping, and lots of fresh cilantro. It was shockingly good, I have to say. As we ate, we lurched down the street to a San Fran institution called Mitchell’s for dessert. I was still stuffing Indian pizza in my maw as I croaked out my ice cream order to the counter guy, who appeared unimpressed with my advanced multitasking abilities. Marc got a mango and coconut hot fudge sundae, and I chose Mexican chocolate and a flavor called Cinnamon Snap, which was amazing. The preponderance of enormous chunks of ginger cookies in my cup put Ben & Jerry’s to shame. We sat on the bench in the chilly evening air and gorged. It was delightful.
Then we headed to the first of three markets in order to purchase the tur-, the duck, and the –en, plus most of the ingredients for stuffing. By now it was getting on 10 p.m. I wish I could tell you that I had the endurance to stay up all night helping Marc make three kinds of stuffing and assembling a magical turducken, but I am not that cool.
In fact, I am really, really lame, and had to call it quits at 1 a.m. By this point I had managed to make a huge tub of brine, but could not contribute much else, because Marc had still not finished boning the birds. The (semi-vegan) roommates and I hovered around him, watching with horror and fascination as his t-shirt grew ever more spattered with raw bird flesh, blood and guts. These procedures moved at a glacial pace, since he insisted on providing a creepy narrative of each step for our benefit (“Now I’m popping out the pelvic bone, and I’m going to strip it of all the tendons…”). I was informed that I was lucky to be receiving a free butchery lesson from a recent culinary school grad; however, I’m not sure how trustworthy these instructions really were, as they included reference to both the “arms” of the chicken and the kneecaps of the duck. Maybe ducks really do have kneecaps. I don't know. But I must ask, what place do they have in a turducken?
Anyway, I had to drag myself home to Marin and never saw anything remotely close to the finished product. Marc phoned the next day to trumpet his success. Alas, the turducken remains an enigma to me, forever slightly beyond my culinary grasp.
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
The disconnection from the life force
Lately I’ve started to wonder what would happen if I choked on a fishbone and keeled over in my little studio. Most likely, nobody would find me for a few days. If I didn’t show up to work, they would probably write it off as youthful irresponsibility at first. My sister might try to call, and then would eventually stop by after a few panicked calls from my mom, but I’m betting that it would be at least four to five days before the authorities discovered my lifeless body. Possibly longer, because I’m a pretty independent person, and disappearing out of contact for short spells is not entirely unusual for me.
When I drive around the Bay Area looking at potential long-term housing options, I always think to myself, “This place out in the vineyards sure is nice, but it would be months before anybody noticed I had disappeared.” To that end, I instructed my college friend Rachael, who lives in San Francisco, to call me back approximately two hours after we spoke on the phone the other night. I was having chest pains, and I was rather concerned that I might collapse onto my moss green carpet, drifting in and out of consciousness, until my spirit finally departed the earthly realm. We agreed that if I failed to answer the phone, she would dispatch an ambulance to my apartment.
As soon as I hung up, the chest pains disappeared, but I forgot to call Rachael back to tell her to forget about checking up on me. Luckily, she in turn forgot to check up on me after the agreed-upon two hours. She awoke in a panic at three in the morning, guilt-ridden over her forgetfulness, and sent an email. I finally remembered our agreement the next morning in the shower, and wondered vaguely whether there was an urgent message waiting for me on my cell phone. But because no ambulance had arrived, I concluded that Rachael had understood my instructions to be in jest. We later spoke on the phone and were mutually apologetic.
I’m not sure why I feel compelled to share this anecdote gleaned from the bizarre succession of circumstances that is my particular life, except to demonstrate how neurotic and hypochondriacal I can be. It also is a nice depiction of the Loneliness That Defines Modern Existence, don’t you think? All of us are sitting alone in our respective apartments, wondering whether the postman will finally notice the stench of our putrid corpses two weeks after a cookie went down the wrong pipe.
The fragility of existence aside, I have spent the past few days patronizing various shops in Fairfax to finish off my Christmas shopping. Fairfax only grows more endearing every time I head into town. Over the weekend, I popped into Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods for a drink. In the name of cultural assimilation, I ordered something called a “Green Power”. I can’t remember exactly what was in it, but it included doses of spirulina and wheat grass. It was shockingly green, and tasted like a mixture of apple juice and catnip.
I also visited a small crafts shop across the street that was, to put it bluntly, absolutely rad. It was stuffed with obscure and funky fabrics, weird spangles and buttons, neat project ideas, origami supplies and about a million other fun things. I purchased a few things to make a wreath out of feathers (don’t ask), and the clerk praised me for “putting my energy onto the feathers” even though they were now “disconnected from the life force”. Exactly!
I also love Book Beat, the main bookstore in town, which boasts a robust selection of works dealing with “unexplained phenomena” and new age spirituality, but not a whole lot else. Regardless, they will special-order anything. I went in this morning to retrieve an order I had placed, and noticed that my book was sandwiched on the shelf between works by Ralph Nader and Starhawk. Fairfax is like Oberlin for grownups.
The art of pouring ice water
I probably shouldn’t have left you all with such a cliffhanger at the end of my last post. Now I’ve set expectations too high, and you’re waiting to hear that I’ve been offered a job as the San Francisco Chronicle food critic. Sadly, that is not the case. Not even close.
Here’s what happened: last week, I was working as usual in the gift shop when the kitchen manager came in, freaking out slightly because they were missing a server for the next morning’s class. I offered to do it, my boss agreed to let me out of my retail shift, and Bob, the culinary manager at Ramekins, took me out in the back courtyard with 8 glasses of water and helped me learn the basics of carrying a tray. That night as I was leaving, my sister mentioned that they were also short one server for the class that was currently in progress (Jay Harlow’s Dungeness Crab Party, in case you care). I offered to pitch in.
So that evening and the next morning I got a crash course in what is essentially low-level waitressing. I set up the bar area in the demonstration kitchen, served people water, tea and coffee, brought them their dishes and cleared their plates. I guess my initial elation at being “promoted” to the position of server (albeit temporarily) only serves as more evidence of just how boring it is to work in the shop. Now I’m kind of embarrassed that I was so excited to learn serving; a few of you who I’ve spoken with have pointed out that it is patently ridiculous and pathetic that I should be so overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a server. And you are absolutely right, and I thank you, because I need to maintain perspective on my long-term goals and my potential, and not content myself with something other than what I am angling to achieve out here.
But, on the other hand, serving in that capacity was kind of fun. It was much, much busier than working retail, and I actually felt like I was contributing to the success of a cooking class.* I liked meeting people, gaining exposure to the lessons offered in the class itself, and because I’ve managed to avoid waitressing my entire life, it provided me with a feeling that I can only describe as the thrill of the dilettante. If you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, you will be familiar with the episode in which Larry David decides to spend a few days selling cars at a Toyota dealership. Sometimes I get that feeling in the shop, too, as if I’m a little kid playing with a plastic cash register and a wad of fake money. Except it’s, you know, real and stuff.
By employing that analogy, I by no means wish to imply that I am somehow above being a server, or that I am "slumming it" by trying out this position. Far from it. I am way too whiny and out of shape to make a good waitress. Being on your feet all day is damn hard. I have always had respect for waitpeople, mostly because I think I would make a terrible server and also because it is my belief that people generally act evil to those who work in such positions. This experience has only increased my awe of anyone that boasts tray-carrying abilities, and given me a taste of just how hard it is to work in these types of jobs.
My favorite part of serving last week was meeting a few ancient ladies that came to the Soups, Stews and Chowders class on Wednesday. They all sat in the front row, clucking approvingly whenever I offered them samples, and were having such a good time chatting with one another that people nearby complained because they couldn’t hear the teacher. One of these old biddies wore enormous, round black-rimmed glasses, and another was sucking down black coffee like it was going out of style.
I think I got through this experience successfully in large part because I traded heavily on my (perceived) status as a young, wide-eyed innocent. These classes are comprised mainly of older people, so I think they enjoy being served by someone who reminds them of their granddaughters. At least, I hope that’s what they were thinking about, and not nervously wondering whether I was likely to pitch piping hot seafood chowder down their blouses thanks to my sweaty, shaking hands and clattering tray.
Now that a week has passed, my initial elation at being allowed to serve people has dissipated.
Let’s just take a moment to review how preposterous that sentence is. I don't think anybody, ever, should be elated at the prospect of serving someone else. But that's just me.
Ok. Moving on.
* Although, I have to say that the class itself was pretty painful, and no amount of iced tea could fix it. It went on for hours and hours into the night, and the participants were left hungry after being served only a few very small crab-related dishes. The worst was doling out the stir-fried crab. Some people only received a tiny little leg, and no way to access the meat inside. It was kind of heartbreaking, in a Dickensian-gruel sort of way.
Sunday, December 19, 2004
Thursday, December 16, 2004
The trip to Denver
I left for Denver on Sunday. The purpose of my trip was threefold: to visit my friends Carrie and Ryan, who just got engaged; to snowboard; and to gain enough miles on United to ensure that I will maintain my Premier member status in 2005. I realize that this last one is a hopelessly retarded reason to take a trip, but I am a Fearful (yet extremely Frequent) Flyer, and am profoundly neurotic about obtaining a spacious Economy Plus aisle seat near the front of the plane. Without my precious Premier status, there is no guarantee that I will not wedged in a middle seat in the back next to a morbidly obese person who oozes over the armrest. I figure anything I can do to achieve a sense of calm while trapped in a claustrophobic and germ-ridden metal tube hurtling through the air with 500 other individuals who will certainly try to trample me in their attempts to escape the burning fuselage after we have been forced to make an crash landing in the mountains or the Salt Flats after one of the engines blows up or splinters apart …what was I talking about?
Oh yes, the benefits of Premier status provide me with a sense of control over my airplane experience, which calms me. And yes, I see the irony – I must fly more in order to become a Premier person. But somehow, in my warped mind, it is worth it.
To a fearful flyer, any prospective flight represents certain death. And after the flight concludes safely, the fearful flyer heaves a sigh of relief, profoundly grateful that she has narrowly cheated death once again. And so, miraculously, the plane arrived in Denver without incident.
Carrie and I headed off to Boulder for the day, where we took a short uphill hike which left me gasping (probably thanks to a combination of high elevation and too many slices of chocolate cake at work), and then drank fancy tea at the gorgeous Boulder Dushanbe Tea House. The cafe is comprised entirely of beautiful hand-carvings done by the talented people of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which is Boulder’s sister city. Carrie and I speculated as to what exactly Boulder sent to them in return. Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be as good. The tea-house’s décor reminded me of the elaborately tiled walls and ceilings I loved on my trip to Morocco seven years ago, and made me think once again about the atrocities of utilitarian American architecture and interior design – how we wind up living and working in these absolutely dull, banal spaces that are seemingly intended to offend the least number of people possible by being entirely bland and sterile. How sad for us.
Later we headed over to Trilogy Wine Bar, where Carrie came face to face with her dream deal: The Bottomless Glass of Wine. This is available for $5 from 5-7 p.m. and comes in red and white. I don’t need to get any more specific than that, because anybody that finds The Bottomless Glass of Wine attractive certainly can’t afford to get too picky. I’m a lightweight, so I stuck with one glass of Whitehall Lane Sauvignon Blanc, which was mighty tasty, while Carrie soldiered on through three Bottomless Glasses. We also ate dinner there, but it was unmemorable.
Carrie struggling to reach the bottom of the Bottomless Glass of Wine.
On Monday, Ryan and I went snowboarding at Arapahoe Basin. He pushed me to try harder runs featuring moguls, which resulted in me falling face-first down the mountain and getting snow in my underpants. I think I forgive him.
That night we went to Cielo in Denver for some nouveau Mexican/Southwestern. Didn’t I just mention in a previous post how I am always underwhelmed by Southwestern? The place was almost entirely empty, but did have very cool video screens scattered around that were playing a loop of clouds forming and breaking apart in blue sky. Rather Lost in Translation of them. I can’t remember what Carrie and Ryan ordered, because by that point I was in a near-coma from snowboarding fatigue, but I had a pomegranate margarita that tasted like Hawaiian Punch for $7.50, and some sticky-sweet chipotle-glazed pork ribs for $16.95. Eh.
On the plane ride home the next day, I opened up my new issue of Dwell Magazine to see a full-page ad starring none other than Mark Miller, pictured hard at work in his top-of-the-line GE Monogram home kitchen. My sister told me earlier that she too had had a long talk with him while he was teaching at Ramekins last week, and that he offered her some advice on turning one’s cooking skills into lots of cold, hard cash through corporate consultancy gigs and so forth. Apparently appearing in ads for GE appliances is also part of his strategy. Happily, the ad encouraged me to ponder this recent brush with semi-celebrity, and diverted my attention from my impending aviation-related death for a pleasant thirty or forty seconds of the flight.
More on exciting new developments at work in the next post. No, I'm not kidding, entirely.
Saturday, December 11, 2004
Photo: Self-portrait with stringy cheese
Not the most sophisticated of dinners, but grilled cheese and tomato soup is always comforting. It was extra good tonight because I made the sandwich with Kerrygold Irish Cheddar, bought at a great price from Trader Joe's. Hmm, that sounded suspiciously like ad copy. I just finished Molly O'Neill's essay on food porn, and now I'm all paranoid that I will become, as she puts it, "an arm of the food industry's marketing machine." More on that later. For now, I must force myself to sleep, because I fly to Denver early tomorrow.
Monday, December 06, 2004
Click to see scary quantities of cookies.
The way-too-short weekend
Tonight is the end of my pseudo-weekend. Soon it’s back to work, and I’m trying not to think too much about it. Yesterday I was not able to go wine-tasting, because my derelict friends were already too hung-over from their big Saturday night out on the town to face the prospect of ingesting any more alcohol. Left to my own devices, I decided that this was probably a blessing in disguise because it meant that I would finally be able to get my grad school applications finished. I didn’t leave my apartment, I didn’t get dressed or take a shower, and I ate a variety of canned goods throughout the day as I cranked out the forms for the remaining three schools. By 8 p.m. I was done, and rewarded myself by watching the movie Frida. I know that’s kind of a lame reward, but whatever. It was better than I thought, but also made me realize that my life is not nearly as interesting as it could be. She sure had a lot going on, that Frida.
Today I mailed off all the applications, and then headed west to Point Reyes Seashore for a little hike. At the Fairfax post office, and later at Trader Joe’s, I was once again stumped by what I perceive to be the enormous number of people in Marin Country who are somehow free to shop and enjoy themselves in the middle of a weekday, and at the same time appear to be benefiting from sizable salaries. How are they doing this? They can’t all be trust-funders. Are they successful authors? Professors? Artists? The post office line was filled with no less than four almost-identical older, hippy-ish men wearing scruffy Polarfleece and Tevas with socks. Who are these guys? And Trader Joe’s! My god, the crowd at Trader Joe’s was of proportions the likes of which I’ve never seen before, at 3 p.m. on a Monday. Someone please email me and tell me how all these people can afford $800,000 homes in Marin, and yet be free enough to pop into TJ’s for a few bottles of wine in the middle of the day. However they are doing it, I want in.
In other news, I think I crossed a big threshold of nerdiness today by choosing a hike at Point Reyes with the specific intention of watching birds. I don’t own binoculars, so most of the birds appeared before me in the form of little specks off in the distance, but that doesn’t change the fact that I stopped into the Visitor Center only so that I could find out where they all congregate in the park. Those of you who know me well and have witnessed my obsession with my parrot firsthand are probably unsurprised by the fact that birdwatching may soon become one of my hobbies. You probably figured it was only a matter of time. And sadly, you were right.
Nothing much of culinary interest happened today.
Saturday, December 04, 2004
The raw pork and the opium, plus the beatified Strawberry
I was just slogging through revisions on a paper I wrote last year about Keats and his love of food and wine, when I came across this quote from one of his letters:
"Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine - good god how fine - It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy - all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry."
Is anybody else mildly grossed out by that, or am I just being a philistine? At least Byron's on my side; he wrote to a friend,
"Mr Keats, whose poetry you enquire after, appears to me what I have already said: such writing is a sort of mental masturbation - frigging his Imagination. I don't mean he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state, which is neither Poetry nor any thing else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium ..."
If anybody else wants to start a blog called Raw Pork and Opium with me, please step up.
The nice little slice of ham
Today I feel like death. My cold keeps returning in waves and at inconvenient times. I’m hoping a nice frosty Hoegaarden will help assuage the pain. I keep thinking of this section of MFK Fisher’s A Cordiall Water, when she talks about how the French always say that a “little slice of ham” is a good remedy for almost anything, from hangovers to renal cancer. I’m assuming that one is supposed to eat it, and not lay flat on a bed with a big slice of pig stretched across the torso or something, but I could be wrong. I don’t have any ham in my half-fridge. I have two-day-old tofu, marinated in Kikkoman teriyaki, and a gross hunk of week-old turkey. This probably won’t suffice.
Work was draining, and boring, and frustrating as usual. Highlights included lunch, which was Mark Miller’s pork and dried chile posole, served with red chile sauce and radishes, and dessert, which was some kind of unimpressive, dry chocolate cake rolled with chocolate-orange ganache. It’s pretty sad when the best part of your day is wolfing down a piece of mediocre cake off a paper towel while filing in a back room.
One of my coworkers is driving me absolutely bonkers. She is really, really, REALLY not bright. REALLY. Yet she maintains this attitude of haughty disbelief towards anyone that asks her a question, including customers and superiors. I almost pity her because she must have had a difficult life unknowingly projecting this incredible rudeness to everyone that approaches her. It is interesting to watch, because every situation escalates to a confrontation when the other person assumes she is being deliberately spiteful to them. This haughtiness, combined with the laughable ineptitude, is pretty much intolerable, but I take every opportunity to kiss her ass because I’m stuck in a room the size of a small broom closet with her each day. I think that’s the attitude most people on the staff have adopted, because they are all at such close quarters with each other that there is no other option. There are few other things that she does that drive me batty. Here is a compendium:
1) She doesn’t say culinary. She says cue-linary. I fucking hate that.
2) She employs the phrases “For crying out soft!” and “By jiminy” approximately 15 times a day. The first one really gets me.
3) She makes little flourishes with her hands while writing and when handing a customer’s credit card back to them.
4) She stares at me blankly for about four seconds when I first arrive each morning, because her pea-brain is somehow unable to register my presence, remember my name or recognize my face with any immediacy, despite the fact that I have been working with her for over a month, and we just saw each other twelve hours ago.
I’m done. I promise I won’t drone on and on about my boring coworkers. I will try to focus on the fabulous cue-linary aspects of my job. Today I got to type up another set of Mark Miller’s recipes. He digresses at length about various anthropological topics (I think he has a Ph.D.), and has this difficult habit of veering off into esoteric topics for minutes at a stretch while his eyes dart all around, almost as if the eyeballs are physically reaching into the corners of his brain to extract the information that is stored there. Unlike my coworker, Mark Miller is very smart. He has a professorial way about him in that he assumes a level of familiarity in his audience that is probably extremely optimistic. But it doesn’t really matter, because he talks for long periods of time about obscure things and all you are expected to do is listen, I think. I don’t mind this.
Anyway, he scrawled off a batch of recipes for tomorrow’s class, and it was my job to decipher them and type them up. They were classic chef’s recipes in that they specified very vague quantities, assumed the existence of mise en place, and featured very minimal directions. His poor class. Tomorrow they are going to get a packet to take home that instructs them to “Combine all ingredients in a big pot. Cook until soft. Blend and sieve.” He was, however, very specific about certain aspects of these recipes; he requested with some urgency that a certain word in the middle of a sentence be both underlined! and followed by an exclamation point. I choked back the horror of the unappreciated English major and complied.
Tomorrow will feature wine tasting in Napa with Alison and Nathan. Thank god! This week has been so grim, I might have to do a Sideways maneuver (which you should see if you haven't yet) and pour the spit bucket over my head or run off into the hills while guzzling an entire bottle.
Friday, December 03, 2004
The night I met the father of southwestern cuisine
The depths of my despair yesterday caused me to forget to mention that I saw a huge pack of turkey vultures crowding around some carnage as I drove through the Sonoma Valley on my way to work. I think the drive out every morning might just be the highlight of my day, because I get to see loads of hawks stalking the mice out in the vineyards, as well as an assortment of other neat animals. The hills are lush and green right now, the vines are a beautiful burnt orange, and the rains haven’t started yet. Every time I make the trip, I’m thankful that I’m not stuck in some slow-moving stream of vehicles on a massive interstate lined with anonymous office buildings outside Chicago. Instead I get to drive past the Cline Winery (who just put their Christmas lights up!), the Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, and thousands of rows of grapevines. There is something a little sad about grapevines, though – they always remind me of a crucifixion, tightly strung up to their wire fencing as they are. They could be all gnarly and beautifully irregular if treated more gently, but instead they are forced to conform to harsh, constrictive rows of wire. I guess it’s probably good for them, but it looks painful.
Work today receives a mixed review. I did some filing and rang up a few gift certificates, and then was assigned to type up many pages of recipes to prepare the packets for Mark Miller’s Coyote Café classes that are scheduled for tomorrow and Sunday. I had never heard of Mark Miller before, but I guess I own one of his cookbooks – Red Sage – because I remember seeing its cowprint pattern on my shelf. Apparently he Introduced The World to the Cuisine of the American Southwest. I’m trying to muster up some enthusiasm for this, because his classes sell out lightning fast and everybody seems to adore his food, but I can’t say that Southwestern has ever ranked very highly in my own personal food hierarchy.
And honestly, some of the recipes didn’t do much to change my mind. There was a particular dessert – Rhubarb Anise Crisp with Mexican Crema – that did not sound appealing at all to me. It sounds, frankly, rather nasty. But who am I to criticize? Mark Miller worked for Chez Panisse, and his Coyote Café has been open for 19 years. All I do is type up his recipes.
And type I did, for about three hours. Today marked yet another day in the history of my professional career in which I fielded numerous laudatory comments about the speed of my typing. Perhaps when I was 16 this was flattering; now being marked as the resident “typing whiz” is just depressing. Beware, because whenever a group of your coworkers gathers round your computer to feign enthusiasm and amazement at your typing ability, it means you will certainly be assigned to a succession of dull projects while the rest of the office takes a smoke break or plays basketball in the parking lot.
However, because the rest of my day at this particular job is filled with so little, the typing assignment was actually a somewhat pleasant change. Mark Miller is apparently a “high-maintenance” chef, which means that he fails to submit all the recipes on time, and likes to change things around at the last minute, causing the kitchen managers to tear their hair out trying to locate rhubarb in the middle of winter, or a specific brand of expensive aged tequila half an hour before the class is set to begin. I can see why he doesn’t have time to get all his shit together in advance, though – we had a nice little chat while he autographed books, and he regaled us with tales of his travel schedule. He flies to Asia once a month, was in Bangkok a week ago, and in the past two months has been to China, India, London, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. After this weekend he’ll head to Santa Fe, then Phoenix and Tucson and on from there. I wonder if he has a home.
I had ample time to ponder the difficulties that a cooking school must have in situations like this when the chef fails to get everything ready in advance; on the one hand, the chefs are their bread-and-butter, and the school needs to try to please them as much as possible so they’ll return and sell out more classes. On the other hand, they have to stay organized and please their customers by providing basics (like a recipe packet, for example), so that people will want to return. Plus, prominent chefs must have insane schedules, yet I assume most of them don’t make enough money to have personal assistants or secretaries to organize their responsibilities for them. Case in point: Mark Miller, the Father of Southwestern Cuisine, arrived in a rented subcompact and promptly locked his keys inside the car.
Anyway, we were still missing the recipes for Wild Mushroom Pasilla Sauce, Ultima Margaritas, Roasted Red Pepper Soup and Cinnamon Wild Rice by the time I left. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.
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