Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: A Second Birth

Book Review: Ru by Kim Thuy Translated by Sheila Fischman (Bloomsbury Press, 2012)

When winter comes, I find myself drawn to books with a strong authorial voice that matches my inward thoughts: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust; To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf; The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, to name just a few. Joining these is Kim Thuy’s Ru, a recently translated novel that tells the story of a young girl growing up in a fractured Saigon, eventually forced to run with her family all the way to Canada.

Ru, the title of Kim Thuy’s new novel, means lullaby in Vietnamese, the author’s native language, and in Quebec, the author’s second home, the word refers to a small stream, The double-lull of the title quickly becomes a thousand shreds of firecrackers that “coloured the ground red, like the petals of cherry blossoms, or like the blood of the two million soldiers,” as our introduction to our 10-year-old narrator, Nguyen An Tinh, is underway. We’re told it is the Year of the Monkey and, more importantly, the year of the Tet Offensive.

Read the rest of the review, originally published on The Brooklyn Rail.

Book Review: A Fork by Any Other Name

Book Review: Consider the Fork, A History of How We Cook and Eat

“There are fork cultures and there are chopstick cultures; but all the peoples of the world use spoons.” And so, after an introduction on the usefulness of wooden spoons, we dive into Consider the Fork, A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. In this book, Wilson, a food critic and historian, tackles what she calls the technology of the kitchen; namely why we use what we use to prepare, cook, and eat, and how that has evolved both our cultures and our diet over the past centuries.

 But before we talk spoons, let’s dish about knives. I had never given much thought to the utilitarian utensil before reading this book, but knives are inherently dangerous. In fact, as Wilson points out, they are tools of violence. In medieval and Renaissance Europe you carried your knife on your body at all times. Wilson tells us, “Almost everyone had a personal eating knife in a sheath dangling from a belt.” These knives could be used to eat as well as, perhaps, pin someone against a wall. Yet times began to change, knives got duller, which both altered social skills (no picking food out of your teeth with your dagger) as well as the food (the duller the knife, the softer the food). What were these knives made of? Metal, of course. However, most metals have adverse reactions to certain foods, namely fish. This wasn’t resolved until the advent of stainless steel, in the twentieth century, which Wilson calls “another step towards domesticating the knife.”

Read the rest of the review, originally published on the Inquisitive Eater.

Book Review: Ye Olde Guidebook

Book Review: The Epicure’s Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London

Your dream, if you’re a book out of print, is that some benevolent author discovers you and brings you back to life. Epicure’s Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London is just that book. And Janet Ing Freeman is just that fairy god author. As an example of some of the earliest guidebooks from its time, The Epicure’s Almanack (yelp before it was yelp) was first published in 1815.

Ralph Rylance, the author of this guidebook, was working as a freelance reader, translator, indexer and editor, when he was contacted by a local publisher who had just produced a popular guidebook, The Picture of London, which aimed at the curiosities in and near London. Rylance was engaged to produce a companion piece to The Picturethat focused solely on food, drink and lodging.

It took Rylance almost two years to finish the book and when it finally came out, the publisher spent thirty guineas to advertise its arrival. Despite the financial support, the book was deemed a failure when, after almost two years, it had sold fewer than three hundred copies. The remaining print run was pulped and Rylance went back to freelancing. Flash forward almost two hundred years and you can now read an early example of dining reviews.

Read the rest of the review, originally published on the Inquisitive Eater.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Q & A with author Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic

I "sat down" last week (aka sent questions via email) to author Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic about her most recent book,  Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Read her answers to my nitpicky questions below.

LZ: What was the moment when it struck you to write a book about your history of being a picky eater?

SL: It wasn’t so much my moment as it was my husband’s. We were eating at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants (NOPA in San Francisco), and I commented that, since there was a time I despised cooked vegetables, I couldn’t believe I was getting so much pure joy and comfort out of the amazing brothy vegetable soup I ordered. “Let’s talk seriously about you writing a book,” was Mark’s response.

LZ: Are there still foods you steer clear of?

SL: Most certainly, and here’s my list from the book: succotash, raisins, bananas, oatmeal, cream of wheat, grits, polenta, the skin of tomatoes, caviar, offal, innards, feet, ears, flan, tofu, red peppers, yellow peppers, cooked green peppers, string beans, some fish, figs, dates, most melon, stews, braises, gelatinous desserts, things with heads, rabbit, veal, dill, black licorice, tarragon, lemongrass, coleslaw, mozzarella cheese, mayonnaise, rice pudding, some leafy greens, cooked cherries, and more.

If I had to, I’d be able to eat those foods. I just prefer not to.

LZ: As a past picky eating child, and now a mother, do you push your son to eat a wide range of foods?

SL: I don’t push him, but I introduce him to foods. If he’s not interested, fine. I try very hard not to make it an issue, but I also don’t decide to never offer that food again. It will show up on another day. I’ll usually fill his plate with 3-4 things, one of which I know he’ll like, the others being more of a crapshoot.

But with kids, it’s so up and down. For instance, just last night he finished his entire serving of roasted broccoli (the recipe is in the book). What you should know is that I’ve made this for him multiple times, and he’s taken one bite, two bites, and left the rest. He’s also had nights where he hasn’t taken any bites. For him to finish every last smoked paprika-drenched floret on his plate was unprecedented and I was thrilled. However, I know there will still be nights when he doesn’t do that. Kids have moods and they’re largely not in control of choosing what they get to eat.

LZ: In the book we learn of several possible reasons for children (and adults) picky-ness, and you say at the end that you don't know why you were picky. Now that you've had some distance from writing the book, do you have any further thoughts on your picky eating provenance?

SL: I really don’t. As I said in the book, I know that my picky eating came from a variety of factors and that there wasn’t just once source alone. I do think my dislike of vegetables was heavily influenced by eating mostly frozen vegetables. However, frozen vegetables are what was available back then and no amount of butter or salt can mask that blandness. I firmly believe that having access and knowing the best ways to cook fresh, in-season vegetables has made a huge difference in my life.

I remember the one time my mother was able to coax a few tomatoes out of our Minnesota garden. I ate them sliced with salt and though I thought I hated tomatoes, those straight-from-the-garden specimens were the best things I ever tasted.

LZ: Now that your picky eating secret is out, do your friends treat you differently at dinner parties?

SL: Some have teased me about serving a raisin-filled dinner and needing to check their bookshelves after I leave.

LZ: Have you heard from any famous picky eaters?

SL: Gosh, I can’t even think of any famous picky eaters except Anderson Cooper, though I’m sure they’re out there! But no, I haven’t heard from Anderson Cooper directly, though I did make an appeal to him in a column I wrote for CNN where I told him I could help him rewire his neural pathways which could help him like more vegetables.

I also heard through the San Francisco foodie grapevine that Dave Eggers is known to be a picky eater, but he hasn’t come to me with any secret confessions.

LZ: What are you working on now?

SL: Preparing my son for pre-school and enjoying the hell out of not having a looming 60,000-word deadline! 

Q & A originally published on The Inquisitive Eater.

Book Review: Suffering Succotash

Until I read Stephanie Lucianovic new book, Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, I didn’t quite realize the range in picky eating. I had often referred to myself as a picky eater, the kind of person that only likes good food. Of course I qualified the word good by saying things like healthy, local, organic, or even just tasty. In Stephanie Lucianovic’s book she attempts to determine why kids, and “finicky eating” adults, decide not to eat foods based on looks, taste or feel. Why do we have strong aversions to certain foods and, while we’re at it, what is succotash?

Simpler than I imagined, succotash is a mixture of sautéed lima beans, tomatoes and corn. It actually sounded pretty good, but I’m not twelve. Lucianovic grew up as one of those “three more bites and you’re done” kind of kids. She tells us she complained about things touching on her plate, steered clear of any food with a skin and more, subsisting on a narrow list of approved items from the four food groups. Just the cherry from the fruit cup please. Lucianovic had ways to manage the bad foods on her plate; she had places to hide them (try the books in the living room) and physical techniques to swallow them (deep breaths and lots of water). She was a food vanishing magician.

In addition to sharing her own funny stories, like when she was forced to eat “squishy and maple-syruped and gross” squash before she could leave the table, Lucianovic interviews friends and colleagues who were also picky. Like her chef friend Julie, who wouldn’t eat anything that she thought was “’wet,’ like a condiment,” or her friend Jeff, who “has a complex relationship with tomatoes”:

Chunks of tomatoes, like in salsa, are fine, but a quarter of a tomato is too much. What about slices of tomatoes? “I won’t eat them sliced,” Jeff tells me. “In fact, I just pulled one out of my hamburger and threw it out the window on my way home this morning.” 

Read the entire review, originally published on The Inquisitive Eater.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Guggenheim transforms NYC into stillspots

The concept of peace and quiet, while living in any one of the five New York boroughs, can be pretty short-lived. That is, until you stumble on stillspotting, the Guggenheim Museums’ two-year multidisciplinary project that takes their Architecture and Urban Studies programming out into the streets and transforms them into places to sit, listen and watch. Last Saturday I found myself travelling to Staten Island to experience one of their latest installations, Telettrofono. Created by sound artist Justin Bennett and poet Matthea Harvey, the audio walking tour braided history with fantasy around the waterfront and residential areas of Staten Island.

I stepped into the temporary headquarters in the St. George ferry terminal ready to be inspired. Greeted with smiles, the volunteers in blue stillspotting shirts got us all set up; I gave them my ID, they gave me headphones and an iPod. Shirley, she looked in charge, handed me a map and said with a smile, “Maybe you’ll see a mermaid.”


Exiting out to the waterfront park I looked at my friend, we nodded the go-ahead, and pressed play, beginning our journey back to 1860. Voices came on through the headphones, instructing us to turn off all 21st century gadgets (you know who you are), and to follow the path closest to the water. Then the voices stopped and the sounds came in: a turning radio knob, static and water, lapping at my ears like gentle waves. It was a bright, hot day and I moved slowly, taking in my surroundings, both real and imagined.

Read the entire piece, originally published on Untapped Cities.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Minetta Brook: A Lost River Under the Streets of Manhattan

The irony of searching for a lost stream in Manhattan on a blazing hot day was not lost on those of us who took the recent Atlas Obscura tour with Undercity’s Steve Duncan, a “guerrilla” historian and urban explorer. The tour followed the 1.5 mile route of the now buried Minetta Brook, which originally ran above ground in Greenwich Village. The stream flowed through the western section of Washington Square Park, which was then just a marsh and ran out to the Hudson River at what is now Charlton Street.

Steve arrived wearing an orange mesh vest, a well-worn cap and nice leather shoes, ringed with bits of dried mud. The twenty of us stood at the Union Square Forever 21, listening to his introduction of the world under our feet. Rushing rivers under Union Square? Hard to imagine, we thought. Steve continued with an enthusiasm that wouldn’t flag over the course of three hours on the black tar streets of Manhattan.

Our first stop was a Subway sandwich shop. Too late for lunch, I wondered what the deal was. We paused long enough for Steve to point out the first of dozens of manhole covers he would point to throughout the day. It was in the middle of the street, partially under a parked car, partially under a big MTA bus rumbling by.

At our next stop we paused, at the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue to notice the designs engraved in the various covers sprinkled throughout the intersection. Was there a diamond pattern, squares, or grates? They all meant something and in all cases spoke to which municipal department needed it: electrical, sewage, water supply, runoff, subway, you name it. This one was easy. It said WSNY, which stands for Water Supply New York. The stop was brief and our motley crew of city dwellers wandered south along 5th Avenue, making a right on 12th Street, and pausing in front of the First Presbyterian Church. Standing in the shadow of the Gothic revival building dedicated in 1846, just after the stream was covered up, it became clear why the river was forced underground. One word: expansion.

Read the entire piece, originally published on Untapped Cities: New York.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: How to Get Into the Twin Palms

If you’re drawn to this book, like I was, because of its cover–crimson daggers plunging through skulls–thinking you’ll get a drug lord tale à la Breaking Bad, turn back. How To Get Into The Twin Palms, the first novel by Karolina Waclawiak, is the slack tale of immigrant Los Angeles. Within the stucco backbone of apartment buildings lining the palm tree blocks found on the west side, Waclawiak builds an outsider’s story, a narrator in search of a different life, or sometimes just a change in hair color.

We first meet our narrator, Anya–a twenty-something alien attempting to shed her Polish feathers in exchange for a Russian sable coat­–on her balcony, hiding behind a ficus, watching a man and woman fuck against a car outside the Twin Palms nightclub. So begins Anya’s quest to become Russian, to gain access to the Twin Palms, and to discover a place in the world that feels tolerable. Much of the book takes place in Anya’s apartment, a squat building in the Russian populated neighborhood of Fairfax. Her inherited apartment is “vertical blinds, beige carpets, bare off-white walls, and small things” left behind by previous tenants. And here we learn that Anya is a cataloger of stuff: bobby pins, hairballs, and ramen.

Waclawiak’s prose of clipped, vibrant sentences moves the story forward in a way that suits our narrator, whose English isn’t quite perfect, but who clearly misses her homeland. Even as Anya is rejecting Los Angeles, she isn’t considering going anywhere else:

My dark hair makes my eyes more cat-like and brighter in hue. More Eastern European. Less American. I am starting to make sense to them. I am taking off all my American skin. Killing my ability to pass for the Middle American and quiet and from here. Instead I am from the bloki again. Soviet-built and dooming.

When Anya’s not sizing up the men at the Twin Palms, she’s driving her car, occasionally to her job, most often with no clear destination in mind. Enveloped in her steel universe we’re along for the ride, going anywhere but here:

I took the 170 to the 101 and headed back to Hollywood. Past the car dealerships and the mosque, the deaf children’s school. Nothing made sense anymore. The giant neon cross on the hill was leaning down toward me. I opened the window and breathed in the air. It was blowing in my face and it felt fresh and I felt like I was flying. I accelerated and when I saw red taillights in front of me I quickly pulled off the freeway onto an exit, careful not to lose my stride.

The author is funniest when she pushes Anya into scenes with Mary, an older woman she befriended at her bingo job. When Anya gives her a ride home, Mary tells her about her dead husband, saying, “I’ll show you my wedding photos. You’re pretty but I was beautiful.” Anya shakes her head: she can’t even compete with an 82-year-old. The author is saddest when she pulls Lev into Anya’s life, a man she says, “ When I see him I know it’s going to be him,” but later in the book, once she knows his flaws, numerous that they are, she begins to change her mind, “We drove back in silence. I didn’t know if he wanted to sleep over and I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to. I didn’t want his sweat to spoil my bare mattress.” Losers and loners alike, we want to push these people away, even as we keep turning the pages.

Much of our narrator’s world lies in the unknown cracks of Los Angeles: calling bingo at the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church; sitting beside a cheap motel’s ash-covered pool talking to a stranger; hiding on the porch, taking note of men coming and going; and chasing down a fire that is raging in the mountains. In the end the existential grind of the city drives our narrator to irrevocable action. She heads to Griffith Observatory. Climbing high above the valley she tries to purge herself of the city, and her current boyfriend, a Russian gangster who’s already married. In the end all she is left with are charred remains: “Los Angeles wasn’t leaving and I couldn’t make it go away.” 

Waclawiaks’ mix of sad, dark humor is compelling and creates an other-ness that’s hard to shake. In the end, taking the bus along with Anya–now car-less–we feel, like our narrator, a little singed and covered in ash. But heck, maybe that’s not a bad way to start over?

First published on The Rumpus, July 17, 2012.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Fear of Food

In Harvey Levenstein’s new book, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat, we spend a great deal of time wallowing in the early 1900’s. As a Jewish girl from Los Angeles, I felt like I was being followed down the grocery aisle by my mother. Scratch that, my grandmother.

When I read the title of the book, I had high hopes. I anticipated getting a better understanding of my own food issues. To put it plainly: I’m a picky eater. I avoid bread (bad, bad, evil carbs), I don’t eat processed foods (most of the time), I try to buy organic and, when possible, I eat local. Did this book explain any of my “issues” to me? No. Well, mostly no.

Levenstein, a professor emeritus of history, sets forth in his preface to “uncover the forces that have lead to Americans inability to enjoy eating.” He goes on to say that he will regard his book as a success “if he can help lessen even a few people’s anxieties and increase the pleasure they get from eating.”

Read the entire piece, originally published on The Inquisitive Eater.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Carriage House in Manhattan: The Mount Vernon Museum & Garden

The Mount Vernon Museum & Garden you must first head east, along 61st Street, past 3rd, 2nd and 1st Avenue. When you see the giant Bed, Bath & Beyond you’re close. Almost under the heavy metal cantilever of the Queensboro bridge, just a stone’s throw before the East River, and you’ll know you’ve arrived. Now walk up the brick stairs, shrug off the 21st century and go back in time. All the way to the late 1700s.

The Mount Vernon Hotel, built in 1799, began its career as a carriage house and, if you poke around the gardens at the end of the tour, you’ll see the second floor driveway used for just that purpose. It didn’t last long as a carriage house; we won’t talk about the dreadful fire that did away with the Manor House across the way. Its new owner, Joseph Coleman Hart, benefitting from said unsaid fire–perhaps an overturned candle–turned it into a full-fledged hotel in 1826. It was mainly a day hotel, used by the upper middle class neighbors (who lived below 14th Street) for a day in the “country”. It was occasionally used as a hotel by foreigners travelling by on boat, but its main use was a weekend getaway for locals.

Read the entire piece, originally published on Untapped Cities, New York.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Skee-ball, the next Olympic sport?

Last Sunday Joey Mucha, a twenty-five year old web marketer from San Francisco, started the morning at a downtown Manhattan hotel with his parents, and a breakfast buffet: scrambled eggs, two sausages, a Belgium waffle, and a little fruit. When they finished they headed back to their room to watch a few inspirational sports videos on YouTube and, with the time left, Joey took a short nap. When he woke, he donned his custom made game outfit of brown, spotted, fake fur pants and matching vest, an orange T-shirt and black skateboarding shoes. Then they hailed a cab for Brooklyn.

Read the entire piece, originally published on Untapped Cities.

New fangled Mexican in the East Village

Until recently, Mexican food wasn't ever on my New York to-do list. I mean, why try to match what I've had in southern Mexico, Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco? But after hearing reports from friends and reading the NY Times review, I decided it was time to change my mind.

Last week, with a friend from California in tow, I made my way through the East Village over to Empellon Cocina. Leaving our west coast suspicions at the door, we enjoyed a vibrant meal, plus a few good cocktails. For anyone who wants just the short story: it was 4-star good (maybe actually a very high 3.5). Some of the meal was incredible. Some was hmm.

And now for the longer story. We started with the almost obligatory guacamole. This appetizer is so good you could easily make a meal of it (along with a drink of course). It's spicy, chunky and has whole pistachios wandering around it. It comes with flatbread crisp (Empellon's take on tortilla chips) that, if you can focus long enough, are delicious even on their own.

Our first dish, roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt and watercress was different, interesting, unusual and good. The mole poblano came in small spicy sheets. The carrots were whole pieces of small carrots, tender to the bite. The carrots were spicy, offset nicely by the yogurt. More watercress would have been nice and, while the dish was served in a bowl, I think I might have preferred it on a plate so I could see the ingredients better and get a little bit of everything in one bite.

After the carrots we had melted tetilla cheese with lobster tomato frito and kol. This dish was really good, as long as you had lobster with your bite, when you didn't it was just cheese (and melted cheese on it's own is only good at a ballgame, on nachos). In a perfect world I probably wouldn't have had this dish. Too much cheese, too much oil dripping from the cheese onto my hand. I wanted more lobster, less cheese. To offset how rich it was we ordered the tomatillo salsa, which was incredible and helped cut the fat of the dish. But we shouldn't have to order something extra to make a dish work better.

Next was squid with potatoes, chorizo mayo and black molé. An incredibly tasty dish with a somewhat messy presentation. It might be that I like my food a little cleaner looking. Less Jackson Pollack more Frank Kelly. But, disregarding the visual, it was spicy and cold, with varying textures. I took bits of the dish, plunked it in a torn off piece of tortilla, added one of the salsas and gobbled it up.

No Mexican restaurant would be complete without clear alcohol and salt. Empellon's bar menu is dense with this and more. Many of the ingredients were entirely new to me, which is fun, but with a cocktail, also scary. I stayed on the safe edges and stuck to the classic margarita, a reposado with a twist: a spicy serrano tincture. So tangy and good I had two, easily downed along with too many chips.

A perfect restaurant has three things in equal amounts: food, service and atmosphere. I'm always sad to see good food come with bad decor. The bar at Empellon Cocina felt like an outdoor pool scene in Miami, a half circle like you see in those swim-up bars. The booths were pleasant but the largest seating area was almost virtually in the dark. It might be that I'm on the border of young and old (and so I shouldn't complain), but really, it was too dark. From the bar, looking towards the back of the space, you can spy the kitchen, bright and clinical, as if it were a lab. The brightness just accentuated the darkness, your iris going big then small. But, if that's my biggest complaint, well...I'll probably still make my way back one day. There's still quite a bit on the menu to try, so I look forward to going back. Maybe brunch?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Snap, Crackle, Pop: the new menu at WD-50.

You know your life is not that hard, or that bad, when your biggest decision of the evening is five-courses or twelve. As I sat across from Melissa Sunday night we both shrugged, "I don't know, what do you want to do?" we said, and then quickly moved along to discussing the pros and cons of each route. "The five-course is shorter, probably less food, but it's nothing new," I said, even though I had never dined at WD-50. "The new menu," I said, which had been announced on the front-page of the food section in the New York Times a few weeks prior, "has only been out for a little more than a week." I'd taken time at home to read Yelp, to no avail, so I had very little to go on. After about five minutes of back and forth we decided it seemed silly to opt for old standards when the unknown was so close.

And so began a twelve-course journey into the heart and soul of chef Wylie DuFresne. Our first course was mackerel nigiri, which looked like sushi, had fish on top like sushi, but tasted like no sushi I had ever had. Firm rice was replaced with a rooty, vegetable mash made of salsify. Roe eggs on top were replaced with beads of colorful vegetables. It was a slight of hand, a fake to the left. Popping it into my mouth I was greeted with an entirely unfamiliar bite. There was so much in my mouth at one time that I had a very hard time distilling the tastes. Mostly the bite was overwhelmed by the root mash. I'll admit, I'm not sure sushi is meant to be set atop salsify. The best I can say for the dish is: beautiful to look at, soso to eat.

Our second course was a lobster roe pasta with bites of lobster, green grapes, lemon and coriander. The pasta, a bright pinkish, coral color, was described to us by a server as being made completely out of blended lobster roe, then spread out in a pan to dry and finally cut into narrow pasta ribbons. Pretend pasta (another fake out). The taste was the most intense, wonderful shellfish bite you'll ever eat. In it's current size I was happy to savor each salty, sea breamy bite, wishing for more, but content with what I had.

Next on our culinary adventure was a stunt double to Vietnamese pho noodle soup, called Pho Gras. It was a mock up of the traditional spicy, clear-brothed soup, with the addition of a round slice of light and airy foie gras, which was, a little reluctantly, the best part of the dish. WD-50's version of pho just didn't come together for me. The broth was rich and meaty but it was lukewarm. Was this on purpose? If it was, it didn't work. The soup wasn't spicy either. The beauty of this dish, at the hole-in-the-wall spots I frequent, is the push pull between hot and spicy. This dish doesn't have that. I was happy eating the foie but I left behind many of the other components.

I guess if you've got your own restaurant you can do pretty much anything you want. Want to serve peas and carrots as part of a lengthy meal that costs well over $100 per person? Go for it. Of course, if you're Defresne it means you'll do them any ole way you want. Which brings me to number four, a dish as tasty as it was visually stunning. Hands down it was one of our favorites. The course arrived with an egg yolk brined in amaro, along with chicken confit, carrot gratings and, rolling around and placed delicately atop, several slightly larger than standard faux peas. These green marbles were actually bits of carrot that were rolled around in dehydrated pea dust. They tasted just like you remember from childhood: slightly overcooked and soft, like frozen veggies that have just come out of the microwave. But different, interesting. They were perfect. The carrot peels covered the egg yolk, wrapping it up like a little dairy present. Each bite was soft, with crunch from the carrots and was deftly flavored–nothing too strong. It was a whimsical dish I'd eat again.

Our high from the fourth course continued into five as we were served paper-thin, sliced, veal brisket with plums, dehydrated mustard chunks, and a spice mixture called Za'atar. It was with this dish that I realized the theme of the meal, and here's the connection to my title. Every dish had some form of snap, crackle or pop. They each had an element of unexpected surprise. In this course it was the mustard. Not content with the usual form of mustard, Defresne combined the ball-game condiment with meringue, turning it into uneven, chalky chunks; dehydrated, inch-long pieces of intense mustard flavor. Realizing what it was I quickly made sure to eat a a small piece of meat, along with a bite of green bean, a sliver of plum and finally, with kid like delight, the mustard wedge. It was the consistency of Pez meets brittle. I could see myself buying it at Dean & Deluca.

I have yet to mention what I was drinking and, since I'm still on my white kick, that's what I drank with most of my meal. I chose a white from Greece, from the town of Larissa to be exact. It tasted like a crisp, young Albarino, but this was from '05 and had a deeper complexity that I enjoyed. Good enough to track down and drink again. Now, where were we? Ah yes, we're halfway there. For our sixth course we were served crab toast with saffron, kaffir and arare. Arare sounds like some crazy middle eastern spice, but it's not. Arare is the base of those funny seasoned rice crackers you buy at the drugstore. For this version they're, of course, a step above. The round little granules (see photo below), were tasteless for the most part, lacking the salty, soy sauce taste of the usual crackers. Set on top of the dish they added a nice crunch to the crab and the toast. Three distinct textures in your mouth that worked very well together: crab meat, crunchy toast and granular ping. I'm also a big fan of kaffir, so this dish was another bite I would bite again.

The seventh course was missable, at least for me: sole with licorice, fried green tomato and fennel. The fish was boring. The licorice, while interesting and something I like, was not something I really wanted with fish. The ingredients in this dish stood apart rather then melding together. Let's move on, to red wine–a North Coast Pinot–as well as our eighth course: lamb sweet breads, nasturtium buttermilk, zucchini and pistachio. The lamb looked and tasted like a deep, smoky meatball. The two highlights for me were the nasturtium leaves, which tasted like a spicy cousin to arugula and the pistachio tuile, which, no surprise, I wanted more of. An inventive dish, it was fun to poke around and put together different tastes.

Still with me? For our ninth course we had the savory caboose: root beer ribs, rye spaetzle and an apricot relish. This dish was just ok. The meat had the consistency of corned beef, stringy, somewhat dry meat I didn't really enjoy. I'm actually wondering why we need meat to be the last dish. Because it's the richest and most savory? I'd argue for a different ending. I left most of this dish uneaten, saving myself for the dessert(s).

I feel cliché admitting this but, I loved the desserts. Is it so wrong to be more tickled with the sweet side of life? Sad but true, I'm a sucker for dessert. Maybe it's because I seldom order it. Maybe it's just who I am. Embracing my inner child I ate every last bit of every sweet thing they placed in front of me. First was a mix between a bowl of ice cream and a crazy science invention. A mostly lime green bowl of  jasmine foam, cucumber niblets, honeydew ice, chartreuse (I don't know where this tucked, maybe in the ice?), topped with cashew nougatine. Crazy good, you had to break through the top glass, like an ice skating rink, it was tart and sweet, strangely compelling when you grabbed a bit of foam, a dash of the cashews, a few cucumber bits and hmm, there was something else down below the ice, perhaps a fifth secret ingredient? It was like nothing I've ever eaten. As fun to think about as it was to eat.

The next sweet was a yuzu milk foam–which tasted and felt like a soft, fluffy, homemade marshmallow–with hazelnut sprinkles, rhubarb compote and black currants. I'm sure there were ten more ingredients in this, but that's all I could pull out. The overall dish looked like an impressionist painting. Maybe Dufrense spends his free time at The Met? (If he has any free time.)

Our final course was a showstopping take on the campside classic of s'mores. In this version you could even eat the stick (made out of bitter cocoa and beer)! Another marshmallow lookalike, but not actually a marshmallow, this was meringue with an ice cream center surrounded by a constellation of chocolate and graham bits and pieces and dollops. There were so many different consistencies and textures to the dish that were fun to savor, I'm not sure it could get any better, but maybe. Maybe it still needs more of a twist.

But wait, it's not over, not yet. Almost. Our totally last bite was a white chocolate truffle ball coated in freeze-dried raspberries and filled with an unusual goat cheese called gjetost. Yes, I even made room for this. It sounded weird but tasted great; crunchy, tart on the outside from the fruit and savory, sweet goat on the inside. If these were for sale in a shop I would buy one. Or two.

OK. So we sat and ate for almost three hours, and if you count up the dishes I enjoyed versus the ones that were a little dull, there were far more that I liked, than those that I didn't. Not a bad track record for a brand new menu. Would I do it again? I have to admit, I love firsts, so now that I've been I'll have to wait awhile before I go back. I do want to plug that you can sit at the bar and get any two dishes from the menu for only $25, an insane bargain, in my humble opinion, I imagine I'll go back to do this.

My last word on WD-50 is that the decor is so outdated it's hard not to notice how wrong it all looks. Our quickie redesign thoughts: paint the walls (lose the bright colors that are out of date), change the awful hanging lights (they remind me of the Chihuly ceiling at the Bellagio), re-upholster the banquets and, speaking of lighting, improve the lighting overall, especially over the booth area. I'd love to see this place lose the retro bowling ball vibe, bring in some of the history of the building and include more cohesion with the neighborhood. Think art from the Met meets brick buildings and bodegas of the Lower East Side.

By the way, thanks to my dinner companion, Melissa W. for taking the photos (mine are good, but hers are better) and sitting across from me for three whole hours.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Kajitsu: 7-Courses of Perfect Veggies

@ Kajitsu

There are a handful of restaurants in New York that I have on what I call, Open Table rotation. Every once in a while I hop on the site and try to score a table. Kajitsu, a vegetarian, japanese restaurant in the East Village, is one of that handful. So, one day when I was trolling the site, I spotted a reservation for Saturday at 6:15pm. I clicked.

Walking down 9th Avenue, a cute block of shops and restaurants between 1st Avenue and A, I was both hungry and excited.There were several reasons for my excitement: Kajitsu is vegetarian (no meat and no fish) and it specializes in kaiseki, which is the Japanese version of haute cuisine. Kasieki is based on shojin cuisine, whose origin is in Zen Buddhism. In its present form kaiseki is a multi-course meal where each component of seasonal ingredients are prepared in ways that enhance the flavor, with the finished dishes beautifully arranged on site-specific pottery. Kajitsu changes its menu every month based on the seasons. I love good, clean food and I love the art of presentation so I went with a good friend and high hopes for a gorgeous meal.

Walking down the small staircase we entered the serene garden-level restaurant and were immediately greeted and ushered into a back room, replete with muted tones of grays and browns, with almost no decoration save for a lone vase on a wall, with one pink-budding branch. There were only three other tables in our room. How novel. Of course, now I know why it took me so long to get a reservation. There are two options on the Kajitsu menu, a four-course or a seven-course menu. Thankfully Blyth, ever the easy going dinner companion, said whichever one you want. Why yes, I said to the Williamsburgy bespectacled waitress, we'll do the seven-course menu–with the sake pairing!

Our waitress, never setting down more than one plate, bowl or sake glass at a time, slowly went over the details of the first course (photo below): spring vegetable sushi with crispy cherry leaf, ginger petal, salted cherry blossom. She went on to tell us that it signified the coming of spring and that the crispy cherry leaf covered the vegetables underneath like a jacket. The vegetables below the "jacket" were crunchy and tangy. The sushi rice was perfect, so perfect it felt like the grains had been seasoned one-by-one. Taking small bites of the crispy leaf on top was a great fatty compliment to the crunchy vegetables. The next course was a grated-cauliflower soup with Rikyu-Fu (wheat protein). The soup was light with nice flecks of cauliflower. I liked that it wasn't whipped or heavy with butter or cream. It stuck to its broth best. The protein in it tasted a bit like a hunk of pumpernickel bread that had sat in the soup long enough for it to be soft but not mushy–it had a nice tug as you bit into it. The next two dishes were interesting and unique, but I'm going to skip ahead to the fifth course (photo above): grilled fennel with yuba and english pea sauce, sugar snap peas, and shiso flower. The dish came in a shallow porcelain plate along with a small golden utensil that looked like small ladle. It also looked like something that belonged on a wall in the Met. The sauce, light enough to be a soup, was light and grassy and the fennel broke apart easily when prodded with the golden spoon. Yuba, the protein in the dish, is the name for the thin skin that forms on the surface of soy milk when it is heated in preparation for making tofu. These ‘skins’ are lifted off as they form and then set out to dry. The yuba in our soup was composed of several layers rolled up tightly to make a chewy, soft bite. Did you know that yuba is so nutritious that it is considered the richest source of protein known (over 52 per cent)? I didn't either.

Between courses we had time to finish off our sake pairings, all individually different. The sake seemed a better accompaniment to the food then wine. Sadly I have no notes on what we drank. We also had time to check out the other tables. There was a couple to my left, he looked like a scientist or an accountant. She was a very pretty asian woman, on first glance I assumed it was an early date (their conversation was meager), but then I realized they were married. These kind of couples really intrigue me, I wondered how they met, what their home life was like, if she cooked for him while he sat silently reading the paper. The other table, behind us, had four japanese woman laughing and having fun. The table to our right was empty for half our meal. Empty! Again, now I know why it's so hard to make reservations.

Back to the food. Our sixth course was house-made mochi with butterbur (something herbal–a food dictionary would have been handy to have) and scallion mitsuba ankake sauce with nori and ginger. The dish came in a narrow, deep dark stone bowl. Once in front of us we added broth from a stone pitcher and then small squares of seaweed. The dish was warm and hearty and full of so many different textures and tastes. It always impresses me, how japanese cuisine can be so simple yet complex.

Dessert was gomadofu (made from sesame paste, water and kuzu powder) with azuki beans and vegetable chips (two pieces of lotus root and one tiny kumquat). The crunch and taste of the kumquat was so good, I definitely wanted more. The gomadofu–which tastes like a soft tofu and sweet red bean paste combined– was delicious. The portion was a few small bites, just enough to tell your palate you'd had dessert and it was time to go. But wait, there's one more course: tea.

The matcha tea was greener than the greenest grass and tasted like the freshly mown bits that come out of a lawnmower. It had a little froth on top. Alongside it they served three small, rice candies by kyoto kagizen-yoshifus. I discovered that if you placed the rice candy in your mouth and then took a sip of the tea you could invent a new hybrid, and thus sweeter, version in your mouth. A nice little ending to a perfectly complex meal.

Finally made it to Kajitsu. Michelin starred vegetarian Japanese restaurant.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dinner at Isa in Williamsburg.

Tartare at Isa with @tarasuan. Fancy & delicious!

I had wanted to dine at Isa in south Williamsburg since reading the story in The New York Times about the restaurant designer, Taavo Somer. Granted much of my desire was rooted in decor, but I also felt confident that the food would be just as unique.

Walking into the restaurant, through bright crochet'd curtains that seemed purchased off Etsy, I was greeted in every direction with warm wood notes. Every chair was wood, every table, the floor, the walls, there were even wood logs fit into triangular shelves. The stage in the main room is the open kitchen, complete with Carrera marble countertop. It's gorgeous. The side room, to the right, features a long, comfortable bar and more tables. We didn't get to sit near the kitchen, but I would have enjoyed being close to the commotion.

While waiting for my friend I perused the drink menu, settling on a cocktail named Yoga Tuesdays, a drink made with gin, beet juice, mint, lime and limoncello. The drink arrived in a shallow champagne glass, bright pink with a lime wedge. It was, interesting. I don't think I like limoncello, lesson learned. When my friend arrived we settled in to our wood table. A waiter came by and handed us color xeroxes, rather like we were getting a band flyer on the street. "Let me know if you have any questions," he said.

Reviewing the flyer one first had to decipher how the information was laid out, nothing was noted as an appetizer, a main or a dessert. The menu items leapt out like a shopping list for the grocery store. There was Ham for $10. Oysters & Ice for $16. Bread for $5. Beets & Granola for $14. Reading through the items one is forced to think first about what ingredients one likes. And then to flag down the waiter for help. Thankfully our very tall waiter was very helpful and when he walked away we had enough details to make some ordering decisions. Maybe next time we can just use darts?

We shared three appetizers: steak tartare (shown above), beet "salad", and daikon pickles. The tartare was finely chopped and placed alongside a creamy sunchoke puree, a circular pile of crunchy flax seeds and a light poof of pepper. The dish was wonderful, inventive and tasty, if a wee salty for my liking. The pickled daikon was good, but again, too salty (yes, I know they're pickles). The gently curled beet salad, which came with yogurt and granola, was wonderful. The five-dollar bread, which comes with herbed butter is worth every penny, but considering that the prices are already rather UP there, I think paying for bread seems a bit gauche.

For dinner I had the mackerel along with a red blend from a California grower called Coturri. I would definitely track down this wine so I could drink it again. The mackerel was large, a dish that we easily could have split (note to waiter). The fish, reaching both ends of the plate, was hidden by overlaying circles of carrots, radishes and beets, all with a light al dente crunch. It was so pretty I spent a few moments trying to get a photo of it. My date had the pork loin, which just seemed too rich for an entire main dish. The mackerel was light, rich, delicate. It was the star of the meal.

By now we were both stuffed, so we skipped what I'm sure would have been further inventive culinary creations, this time with a dash of sugar. I'd love to go again, perhaps when someone else is picking up the bill.

The Centerpiece of War Horse: The Puppets.

Seeing horses act on stage? Totally amazing! War Horse @ Lincoln Center.

I recently ventured up to Lincoln Center for the theatrical production of War Horse, which tells the story of how horses were used to fight in WWI. I had avoided seeing the big budget Spielberg movie, which wasn't really my thing, despite its Oscar nod. I had heard a great deal about the prodcution and was excited to see the performance.

To talk about War Horse without talking about the centerpiece horses would be like talking about Tom & Jerry without talking about the mice. The horses were created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company and is something they refer to as "adult puppet theatre." The horses are the stars of the show in my opinion, and are far from being simple felt faces with a hand stuck in its body. Watching the puppets leap and run on stage had me riveted in my seat for the two and half hour show.

The actual horse puppets are life size. One man stood in front, outside the horse, with one hand on the horses head and one holding a stick, that seemed to move bone structure–perhaps conveying the breathing of the horse, for I could feel it whinny, even from my seat in row O. This man always had his eyes cast downward, the creators say this allows the performer to disappear from the audience's perception. In addition to the man in the front, outside the horse, there were two more men within the horse, one moving the front two legs and one moving the back. While I was aware of the men in the horse they did at times blend in and become one living breathing unit. The three performers worked as one, a feat of amazing grace and agility.

One of my favorite scenes, which I felt brought together all the elements of the play: the staging, the set, the actors and the puppets was during a climax of the war scenes, about midway through the play. Music is at a crescendo, there are military men rushing around and the horses are attempting to leap over barbed wire and cannons. The horses gallop to the front of the stage, in the midst of crashing and burning and leap up, as if they are about to jump directly into the audiences lap. The lights flash and everything seems to go simultaneously black & white and in slow motion. And then everything freezes. And it's intermission.


The second half was less dramatic but it ties up the threads of the story well. I don't often want to see a play or movie more than once, but this one left me considering a second viewing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Bit Untitled: Cindy Sherman at MoMA

Starting my Monday with Cindy Sherman at the MOMA.

Last Monday I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Cindy Sherman exhibit. As you float diagonally up the escalator to the sixth floor you are greeted by her newest work: towering color images pasted to the walls, wedged into corners and fanning over the entryways. They show Cindy, the model, in fable like costumes. She's a ballerina, an archer, a clown. I wonder, what does Cindy look like when she's not her model. Would I recognize her on the street?

The museum refers to the show as both a retrospective and a survey. Unfortunately it doesn't really do a complete job of either. It's neither a full blown review of her thirty year career or a broad enough survey to allow me to walk away feeling like I completely know what she's about as an artist. Superficially I know Sherman is a photographer exploring the meaning of identity, using herself as her model, but on a deeper level I had many questions. The show has little text to reflect on and Sherman herself has left every image named simply: "Untitled".

The show is undeniably interesting, it's hard for towering color photos not to be impressive and, the gaze of Sherman as model, is a hard gaze to turn away from. Included in this show is her Untitled Film Stills, a series of black and white seemingly real but fake movie stills that show Sherman in various states of cinematic female whodunit. I enjoyed these the most but could have appreciated them more if they were on their own and allowed to fully take over a room, rather then squeezed into a corner. Nobody puts Baby in the corner.

There were just a few small nods to Sherman's early career, cut out dolls overlapping each other, that give just the barest hint at where she started, but the majority of the work seemed focused on the middle and later part of her career. I left with many questions. And, so, I'm going to pretend a little here, if we could ask Cindy Sherman three questions, what would they be?

Here's mine:

1. Are you tired of using yourself as your model?
2. Have you ever wanted to change medium?
3. If you could do any other job what would it be?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Dreamer

I told him I liked how he smelled. He said it was called The Dreamer and then he laughed–embarrassed to be caught wearing a scent with such an insipid name–and then went on to tell me that he didn’t travel with it, since he didn’t have a travel size. I loved the name; it was the first close thing he shared with me to date. I liked him so much, yet knew so little. We were in bed, I don’t recall if it was morning or night or if it was our first time sleeping together or our third. He was an architect. Is one. Or rather now a teacher of architects. Future architects. A careful, methodical man, he doled his time out to me in the barest of measurements–one evening, never more than one, even if he was in town for longer–never giving me more than a centimeter of his time. I’d spend the week prior to his arrival relishing the knowing of what was to come, my mind preoccupied with thoughts of him, becoming forgetful of anything else I might need to do that week. That temporary place in between, of knowing I would see him and of seeing him, was a drug I couldn’t get enough of. Then, for every minute we were together, I would hope for that minute to be replaced with another minute, our time together never clocking out. I’d try not to hope for more–more time, more conversation, more him–but when I did I was disappointed. Or maybe I wasn’t disappointed. In the morning, after one last draw in of his skin, he’d lean down and kiss me goodbye, maybe I was in bed, maybe he was just towering over me in the hall, he’d say goodbye with no mention of the next time. The hardest part was when he was still in my city–knowing he was out there on my streets but not with me, how could he be on my streets and not be with me? I’d walk my city, seven by seven miles, following strangers, anyone over six feet, anyone with silver hair, a confidant stride. Only when they turned and I saw their eyes would I know it wasn’t him. I never saw him unless he planned it. I couldn’t control him or the progression of our relationship–an incredibly compelling feeling–not to be in control; even when it was so painful.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Walk.

Should I set out on my walk? Using my feet I suppose being the first thing I can think of to embark on a walk but perhaps there are other ways I can walk and that these other methods might be the best way to move forward.  Or, does the very word walking necessitate that I use my feet? I would like to think that I could walk by crawling on my knees–that seems a fair substitute for feet when walking. Maybe I can walk on my hands, if that were something I were adept at, my not being very adept at it however will have to leave this possibility for a future trial. Before I start to walk I must weigh these prospects before I choose exactly the right one, my analytical mind craving extended bouts of contemplation before determining exactly the right pursuit. I will admit that in the past I have most often walked using my feet, not anyone else’s if you were wondering, but that’s not to say that I can’t decide, based on careful consideration–that the feet are a truly poor substitute for knees, or even hands–and therefore, starting today I hereby will solely use my knees. This new method I have devised will subsequently lead me to deliberate on the proper attire for such a drastic change in modes. I would presume that the status of using ones knees would require a much heavier cloth to enable movement, let alone the higher needs one has for comfort. Much like shoes I would need to fashion supports for my knees. These supports would need to be affixed to my legs with great care that they don’t wiggle or shift during activity, and then, I’ve just realized, what happens when I stand up? Should these new supports remain covering my knees or would I want them off, stowing them, for example, in a carrier, which I would also have to fashion or maybe I must make them small enough to fit in my front pockets. All of this talk of supports and the need to fabricate and measure and research, all of this discussion leads me to think I cannot set out on my walk today. Perhaps I will go tomorrow.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Midtown Gallery Going.

A cold, wet and rainy day is the perfect backdrop to seeing art. Especially when you're planning an all B&W day. My friend Craig, a new New York friend, but also an old friend from my college days, joined me for three stops: the Howard Greenberg Gallery, the Robert Anderson Gallery and the International Center for Photography.

Taking the subway up to 53rd Street was a bit atypical. Most of my previous gallery going was constrained to a few inviting blocks near the water in Chelsea, but today I'd planned a different sort of day, a Midtown kind of day. Our first stop was the Howard Greenberg Gallery at 41 East 57th Street. Walking into the art deco building I realized I didn't know what floor to go to. The security guard helped me with that little problem and I stepped into an elevator bound for the 14th floor, where I was joined by several delivery men, one wafting a cloud of cologne along with his walkie-talkie and wet poncho.

I had read about the Vivian Maier show in the latest New Yorker and was intrigued by its premise. As the press release says: A nanny by trade, Vivian Maier's street and travel photography was discovered by John Maloof in 2007 at a local auction house in Chicago. Always with a Rolleiflex around her neck, she managed to amass more than 2,000 rolls of films, 3,000 prints and more than 100,000 negative which were shared with virtually no one in her lifetime. The black and white photographs–mostly from the 50s and 60s–have been re-printed for us by John Maloof along with a small amount of prints found in the archive. The photos and the story of Maier evoke a woman on the periphery, always looking but never included. Her photos take you back in time, they all feel "of the past". There is a competing show at the Stephen Kasher gallery in Chelsea. This show features Maier's prints from a different collection–apparently the two men have both been acquiring her negatives–but aren't working together. It seems strange to be fighting over, and benefitting from, a dead woman's photo library.

The next stop on our gallery hopping was to 24 West 57th Street. We popped into two places. At the first gallery they were hanging a new show of paintings. The collection was very textured and sculpted work, 2D paintings but with noses and hands and clothing that jumped into 3D. We didn't stay long since they weren't done setting up–and because we were photo focused. From there we moved on to the Robert Anderson gallery to see an exhibit of photographer Barbara Mensch. Ms. Mensch has been photographing her neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge, for the past thirty plus years. The photos in the show are all current but they evoke a past shrouded in the elements: misty, cloudy, murky, dewy, fuzzy. All the y's. The gallerist was a charmer and walked us slowly through the show, telling us where each photo had been taken, along with details about Ms. Mensch. The show is up through March 3rd, it's nicely curated and would be a perfect lunch break.

We ended the day at the International Center for Photography to see The Loving Story, a group of photos by Grey Villet who was a LIFE magazine photographer. The Lovings, an interracial couple banned from their state because of their union, were fighting Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws–and all race based marriage bans. They were successful, but only after a tenacious legal battle. The exhibit is small but worth stopping by. A documentary about their story will be appearing on HBO on February 14th. Valentine's Day, an overly cute coincidence.

There are two other interesting shows at ICP: Weegee, Murder Is My Business and Magnum: Contact Sheets. The Magnum exhibit walks you through roughly a dozen contact sheets from Magnum photographers, showing how they have captured and edited their best shots from the 1930s to the present. There is a laugh-out-loud contact sheet from the infamous Salvador Dali picture, the one with the jumping artist, flying cats and a stream of water. That bit alone is worth the stop. The show is a compelling look at an almost forgotten bit of photographic history. I can't help but mourn the loss of contact sheets. The accompanying book seems almost coffee table in size, which was a shame,  I wanted to buy it but couldn't bare to lug it home.

What is it about red lipstick?

An essay of mine was featured on the homepage of salon.com on Saturday, January 28th. Very exciting. You can read it here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Seven Second Delay.

307 West 26th Street. The UCB Theatre sits dark and forgotten next to the brightly lit mega (their word not mine) Gristedes grocery store–it's as if it had been picked up by a tornado, somewhere from the East Village maybe, and then re-plunked here, on this unexpected block. It doesn't fit in. But it doesn't stick out either.

Walking down the stairs I wonder if I'm going back in time, or rather down in time. In a way I am–I've arrived at the UCB Theatre to see a live taping of the radio show Seven Second Delay which airs at 6pm on 91.1 WFMU. Actually I've come to see AND hear. It isn't often we get to see the voices behind the radio speaker, so when my friend Laura, the producer of the show, invited me, I jumped. I quickly found her walking around, looking busy and important but carrying a beer. She evokes the show Portlandia, by way of Brooklyn.

There are only a few people scattered about, seated amongst the narrow rows of aging red velvet chairs. I pick a seat three rows back and get settled in for the show. It takes me a few moments to get comfortable, the springs in the seat circling their way up to my backside, ensuring I don't fall asleep (as I am known to do anytime the lights go out). Laura had warned me to be on time for the start of the show, and, as promised, it did, with fan fair from the squirrelly-haired keyboardist running his fingers up and down the keys to get the audience in the mood.

The mood adequately set, Ken and Andy, the two hosts, walked out to our applause and began the show with an announcement that they were having a contest to see who could hold their bladder longer, or maybe who could drink more water, or just who could avoid leaving the stage first. They'd each had one liter of water before the show and downed one more in the first ten minutes. There was talk of urethra's and ways to hold your bladder, Andy threw out his idea of cheating which was to just put "a little dab of crazy glue" to keep it in. Andy was the one sitting behind the desk, so he also pointed out that he could basically pee at any time and we wouldn't know it. Ken doubted he could keep it so silent. The bet was for $40.

The guest list was short (three) and comprised of two bloggers and a Brooklyn-based band called Hospitality. Julieanne Smolinski, the first blogger was amusing. She bantered and joked with the two fifty plus radio hosts with ease. Her 15-minutes of fame currently surrounds her recent coup in getting Will Shortz, the puzzle master for The New York Times to kinda, sorta admit that one of his clues was maybe wrong-ish. His incorrect clue was: Wack, (in Hip Hop) and the answer was: Illin'. Julieanne begged to differ. She also handed out his email address, which is wshortz at aol.com. I love meeting "older" people with aol.com email addresses, it's almost as if I can hear the modem dialing.

The next blogger almost put me to sleep, so let's skip him. The hosts then did some speed interviewing of audience members which proved fascinating and funny. And then the band came on, the singer, the only girl, was shy and jittery. They were adorable and I liked their music–a little raspy, a little unfinished. Their album comes out on January 31st on Merge records and on February 3rd they have a CD release party at Glasslands. I hope I can make it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Flying.

January 17th, 2012. I am flying from Hailey, Idaho to New York. Via Los Angeles. Yes, I'm going a little backwards. I board the plane by doll-sized stairs at the back. One can also enter from doll-sized stairs in the front. It's about 7 degrees out. I take the window seat which isn't so great for legroom because the airplane is so curved that your left foot has no place to step, and has to move over into the space of your right foot. The man sitting next to me is about 60 years old–give or take a few. After stowing items above, taking items out, pushing items below, he sits and takes out the in-flight magazine. We're flying Horizon Air, not that it matters. As we take off I read a book, Joan Didion's essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The pages flip by with a speed that comes from focus and an incredible lack of distractions. (I have no window to look out of–which is usually the reason I even take the window seat–this seat should be called something else.) Windowless and uninterested in talking I read, yet, as I read I manage to take in all the details of my seat mate. He has hair the texture of dried shrubs. It's the color of sun-aged tracks in mud. His glasses are standard issue men-over-fifty, gold-framed bifocals. He wears a Sun Valley sweatshirt.

At the beginning of the flight I noticed a little more: the personal pillow on the back of the seat, The North Face backpack stowed under the seat in front, two protein bars–strangely without any branding, stuffed into the seat back in front of him. He took out a Ziploc baggie holding half a piece of bread, banana probably. The last thing I noticed was his book. Worn at every corner, curled at the edges–it looked thumbed through by generations of thumbs.

We exchanged a few "airplane" sentences–about the weather, the flight, meaningless words not to be bothered with here. Before we took off he ate the banana bread.

As we flew, and as he read the in-flight magazine, his eyes darted everywhere: through the slice of space between the seats in front of us, down the aisle, across the aisle, towards the back but never, or so it seemed, towards me. I thought to myself he definitely has some kind of attention disorder. The darting unsettled me. The flight attendant came by with drinks & snacks. She handed me a tiny package of biscotti. I asked for pretzels, in fact I said, "Do you have anything salty?" The man looked over at me during this exchange. On second thought I think I said,"Do you have anything that's not sweet?" and then I probably said the salty line. The plane lady did have something but she didn't look happy about giving it to me. It: a tiny bag, big enough for three bites. She then turned to the man and remarked how she had seen him a week or so ago, and then she walked off. The man ate the biscotti, then turned to me and said, "Yes, these are sweet." He said this with a bit of surprise. I decided not to point out that they were cookies, which are intrinsically sweet. He then ate his un-branded protein bar. As he ate it he smoothed down the wrapper in order to review the ingredients.

At this point he moved from the in-flight magazine to his book. Opening it up I noticed the headings–the book seemed like a combination bible and self-help book. The bold headings said things like, How To Talk To Your Children, followed by a short paragraph. It was at this point I recalled that the man had been on my flight eight days ago, from LA to Sun Valley. Reading the same book. He had sat across the aisle from me and while I couldn't read the words, I recognized the format. Do you ever notice the same people on a flight, you notice them on your outbound and then recall them on the inbound? I do. I'm both amazed it happens and impressed my memory captures their faces long enough to categorize them and to pull them back up when seen again (man on plane, January 9th). It's as if my brain is one of those microfiche machines, less controlled but always impressive when the data is returned.

When we finally land at LAX he stands up and pulls his things out from the overhead bin: a pair of white sneakers, a cane, and a plastic bag that says the Virgin Islands. "Have a nice trip home," he says. As I thank him, and, as I write this now, I wonder at my minds ability to see (visual) and to read (verbal) simultaneously. I wondered what to do with the useless information I had just catalogued on our two-hour flight. Now that it's down here maybe I'll have room for other things. Boarding my flight to JFK, I find my seat,  open my book and look to my right. Well, hello seat 19J...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Great for the Plane

I've decided there should be a new category of films. Along with Thrillers, Romantic Comedies, Action & Adventure, Drama, Chick Flicks, Bromances and the like, I think we need a new category called Great For The Plane. I just watched a film tonight called Morning Glory. Utterly basic in its premise and storyline but you know what, it totally made me happy through and through. Can I recommend it to friends? Well, I'm not sure. If it had it's own category, something that says Yes, It's Good But.

But, it's not Oscar good or art house good or Sundance good or date good or anything like that good. It's just a wonderful way to spend two hours with a smile on your face. Who wouldn't want to pass two hours on a plane (or late at night) with relative ease? I can think of a few other films to include in this category: About A Boy, Sliding Doors, No Reservations, Hitch, Friends With Benefits and Lucky Seven. Do you have some you can add to the category? Leave a comment if you do. Maybe if we get enough Netflix will add the category.

UPDATE: I just flew to NYC from Los Angeles on American Airlines and while I have dreamed up this new movie category I'd like to go on the record and say that many airlines are doing a terrible job with their own category. The movie shown on my flight was Footloose. Not the original starring Kevin Bacon but a remake. A Remake! How many times have you been on a flight where the movie featured is something you can't bare to watch?

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Look Back At 2011.

When the new year hits we always seem to look ahead but then I thought, why not take a second to look back at 2011 and review what the heck I actually accomplished. It's my own little top 10 list that doesn't involve films, books or movies.

Top 10 Things I Did in 2011

10. Learned to skate ski in Idaho. (February 2011)
9. Attended my first SXSW with Derek and ALV. (March 2011)
8. Registered for Grad School. (April 2011)
7. Helped lead my first class at 18 Reasons. (April 2011)
6. Road Alpine Dam (aka Seven Sisters), a ride I had always wanted to do, but been afraid to do, with Bill and Yannis. (June 2011)
5. Packed, moved out and rented my San Francisco apartment. (June 2011)
4. Moved to NYC (July 2011)
3. Found an apartment in NYC (August 2011)
2. Found an even better apartment in NYC (November 2011)
1. Finished my first semester in my MFA program. (December 2011)

I can't wait to see what happens in 2012.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Didn't I Take A Cab.

My stairs are steep. They are narrow. I am wearing boots with a two-inch heel. As I pull my bags out the front door I eyeball them, and then I glance down those steep stairs. I wonder for just a moment if I can manage all three bags: the colossal duffel, the dense shoulder bag and the small lunch sack. No surprise that I am running late to the airport. No time to doubt my abilities, no sherpa to assist me, I shoulder the three bags and wobble slowly down the mountain. A neighbor on the second floor comes out her front door, looks up at me and says nothing. Ok, so maybe it's early, but she doesn't offer any help, doesn't offer a grimace to commiserate with me, if only to share in the pain by a turn of her lips. She just heads down the stairs, leading the way like a helpless guide. Continuing my downward spiral, just a little behind the nameless neighbor, I get down to the ground floor and make my way through the narrow hall towards the two front doors I must maneuver next. The first door you have to turn a handle and pull towards you. The second door, once you've made it through the first, has a large red button you must push (which then emits a warning buzz, which I've never quite understood) and then you pull the door in. The neighbor has made it through both doors, without a single glance back.

Exiting the complicated 2-door entry I stop on the street, confronted by the frigid air. The cold slices through me despite the heat I've just generated from the journey out the building. I decide not to put my gloves or hat on–the effort out the building already has me huffing and I think the heat is enough to take care of my extremities. Leaning down I pick up the handle to the giant duffel bag and begin the four block journey. As I pull it along I am slightly ashamed at the largeness of it, like it shouts to everyone that I don't know how to pack light. Three minutes later, proven dramatically wrong about heat spreading, I stop to put on my gloves and hat. The three minute exposure to the early morning wind is already too much; my hands are pink and stinging.

Walking again I can feel my torso throwing off more heat. I want to unzip my jacket. Again: foolish thought. As I near the station entrance, I mentally count off the steps remaining to boarding the train: down one flight of stairs, through the turnstile, wait on platform. Three more to go. I make it down the stairs without sideswiping any humans. Approaching the turnstile I realize there's no way we can all fit through. I drop the bag that feels as heavy as a dead horse, should I have ever felt the weight of a dead horse, and I ask the subway attendant what to do. She looks at me like I'm an idiot and says, "Swipe your card at any turnstile over there (pointing left), then walk through that gate over there (pointing right)." I do exactly as she instructs and make it to the platform just in time for an M train to pull up–it's not the train I need so I stand there and try to compose myself. I am sweating profusely and I feel weak.

As the M-train pulls away I look across the tracks to the other direction to see a J-train pulling up. That's when I realize I am on the wrong side of the tracks. Not only am I missing the train I need but I have unanticipated stairs ahead of me. I heft my bags up and onto my shoulders, move down a long flight of stairs, walk over to the other side and tread (slowly) up the final two flights of stairs to the correct platform. I throw my bags down, I rip off my leather jacket and I wonder to myself for the hundredth time: why didn't I take a cab?