Sunday, September 30, 2012

Art Prize : Grand Rapids and Stealing Buddha's Dinner (kinda)

As I walked down the street, ready to be bombarded with bottle cap art and giant Gerald Ford heads, I passed a stripping mall style Buddhist temple of worship that blended in with coffee shops and the like.  I tried to keep Stealing Buddha's Dinner separate from my head, but I kept looking for familiar street names, for traits of the city described in the book.  Instead I saw Wealth SE (since when does SE come after a street name?) and a cast of a man dangling between two buildings with a "look up and vote!" sign next to a number on the sidewalk below my feet.  There was a point where I descended into a building riddled with giant humanoid yo-yos hanging from the beams of the ceiling of the Bob, and I uttered a "too many white Caucasians" to myself, uncomfortable, and praised something when I noted a man who appeared to be of Indian origin.  While walking down the street I ordered a bratwurst, which came with no seasonings but the sausage itself, and the very thick white-bread bun it came on.  It made me miss my Mom's German Brats, simmered in beer brine and with love and sauerkraut.  Towards the end of the day, our little K group muscled our way through people past giant sculptures of birds made out of spoons and a giant junk-art music box and traveling bus with multiple canvases slung on it's side while a band played organic metal to spur on the painter (is bigger better, or is Grand Rapids trying to compensate for something?).  I disengaged, and went to buy a small cup of sorbet.  It reminded me of my Father's, where we'd get Luigi's Italian Ice.  I walk up and note a man whose heritage seems to be hispanic asking how hot the item I'm planning to order is.  Before the girl can answer, before I can be deterred, I boldy say "Raspberry with Ghost Pepper please."  As she slides it over, the man says, "Can I ask you something?"  I nod preparing for some question about my daring tastebuds.  "You are very beautiful."  I probably turned the color of the food in my hand.  I mumble a thank-you, my sass meter not high enough for me to think to say, "that's not a question" until I'm at the other end of the crowd, and I then check all my pockets and my purse to see if his compliment was a distracting ruse to pick-pocket me.
Grand Rapids surprised me.  Not really sure how else to put it.  In some ways it reminded me of Tony, the way he carried certain expectations for the places he visited, and was surprised when something equally out there or just plain out-of-the-blue occurred.  As we drove home, and there finally wasn't any more raspberry to temper the ghost pepper, I enjoyed the bite on my breath, reminded of the time my Dad used homegrown peppers in a shrimp dish, and wished for some salt.  Then I took the wish back, and let it ruminate.

Playing With Chickens ~ A Memoir - Rough Draft

Chicken Marsala on Cous Cous with Caprese Salad
My dad knows three dishes and one breakfast really well.  Chicken Tikki, Chicken Normandy, Chicken Marsala, and Belgium Pancakes.  The rest of the time he grills or pretends, even after 5 years in NYC before marriage, and then 12 in Westchester of doing extra shifts as a caterer to make ends meet.  Chicken.  Always chicken.  It's part of that whole ends meet thing, or in this case, emphasis on the meat.  My Dad pursued a life of what he loves, which is creative work involving theater and trumpet and interior design and writing and whatever other things he manages to excel at.  He currently spends most of his career hours designing sets and lights for Off-Broadway and Highschool theaters, but he also picks up other odds and ends.  This "starving artist" lifestyle lead to a period of time before my time where my father (who was already lactose intolerant) couldn't afford red meat anymore, and one day found his system couldn't either.  Hence, chicken.  It became a central joke to whenever I was visiting my Dad in New York.  Back in Michigan my Mom would ask me, "What would you like for your last dinner before you go?" and I'd always reply "anything but chicken!" before we burst into a fit of giggles.  That was how it went.  The jokes, the jibes, dancing around the fact that these were separate households, separate food cultures.  There was my Stepfather who almost always wanted red meat, and my Dad who wanted chicken
I was always a good eater as a child, pre and post divorce.  This was most likely because my baby food consisted of my parent's blendered dinners, so I was predisposed to trying more than just Gerber's applesauce.  Although Mom claims that the baby food isn't that bad, considering during her poor phase an an actress far before me she was teased for and bought Gerber in bulk for herself because it was cheaper.  I think Prune was her favorite.  Growing up, chicken was a staple, although fish would occasionally meander in.  My mom's creativity, German and Bohemian roots, and her mother and Grandmother's upbringing of her in a farm town in Wisconsin always brought delicious comfort food with the occasional harder meat snuck in to our table.  She always swore he was making a bigger deal out of his digestion problems then was actually the case.  Thus was the nature of their bickering.  I can honestly say I don't know which one is more accurate, but I can tell you when bacon would grace our plates in my father's Sleepy Hollow apartment, he would later being trumpet out his ass as skillfully as he did through the actual instrument itself.
My father never taught me how to grill.  The first dish he taught me was Chicken Normandy, in his third house in Sleepy Hollow, NY.  It had a view of the Tappen Zee bridge on it's front porch, and a pleasant backyard.  There was grass, and a tree that he nailed chairs going up it.  "A racoon did climb the tree...  But a woodchuck lived under it. (and Briar Rabbit said...)," as my Dad joked.  There was a small dart board I failed at and a vegetable plot that mainly housed peppers which my dad would mix into dishes like shrimp salad and burn our mouths with - but that's another story.  Chicken Normandy can involve chicken breasts and thighs, but we wanted hearts and gizzards.  As someone who at the time couldn't find it in her heart to like liver (although I tried), I was amazed to find an adoration in the texture and flavors of chicken hearts.  Who knows, maybe you are what you eat.  We'd make it in a red wine sauce and let it simmer inside of my Dad's clay cookery made by gourmet-topf, with his super secret seasoned flour recipe crisping everything up just right.  After letting it steep for hours in a way much more potent than tea, we'd pour it over a bed of mashed potatoes and plop it on t.v. trays and watch multiple episodes of Buffy before switching to personal conversations at 2am, after which his Housemate (who I called my younger brother) would finally stumble in from work or whatever he was up to.  For dessert I'd breathe in second hand smoke wiffs with John as we caught up the 4 or so months I had been gone as he smoked a cigarette on the stoop of their place in Sleepy Hollow.
Another meal I learned in that two story rickity yellow house was Belgium Pancakes with lemon and powdered sugar, although I never make it myself.  I blame not having a cast iron skillet, but really I'm just too chicken to.  The previous night I had come in and Dad had a gig, so I stayed home, claiming I could feed myself while enjoying a night curled under a blanket watching The Mentalist.  When it got to be around dinner time I went downstairs to the kitchen (on the same floor as John's room, Upstair's being Dad's domain), and decided crepes would be easy.  So I hunt for flower, and the only thing I can find that isn't an empty container or dead-bug infested is a package of whole-wheat-multi-grain crap without an expiration date, which I mean to take it must be fine.  Then I look for butter.  Fuck.  But there's eggs!  Hope.  Milk?  No way.  My dad's lactose intolerant, remember?  So with olive oil as a substitute for butter, whole wheat dust for flour, almond/dribbles of soy milk for milk's substitute, and beautiful and perfectly oval eggs, I attempt to make a batch of crepes, excited to return to my episode upstairs about Red John the Serial Murder.  Somehow one of my crepes (unappetizing as it looks) manages to look like a mark quite similar to the one I saw opening the episode, as Red John's mark.  I felt a little bit like a chicken then and there.  It was justified, alright? So I take this stack of yuck upstairs, and eat it slowly, not to enjoy it, but to get a bite down and then drink a lot of liquid to cover up the taste.  The next morning, Dad makes promises of Belgium pancakes, these delightfully fluffy poofed up confections of delicious that you drizzle lemon and powdered sugar on, which he'd accompany with an entire pot or two of coffee in a mug while wearing his black, green, and purple striped terrycloth robe from my childhood.   I was so excited.  As we went downstairs John came out.  "I was robbed last night,"  he said, his voice somewhat angry and sad.  After accusing Dad of not locking the front door a few times, and then them figuring out that it was probably the roofer who knew the back lock was out, we created a timeline.  That stack of crepes probably saved my life.  His cash was gone, electronics too, and his hunting knife was laying on the bed, as if the perpetrator had taken it out for protection.  If I had gone downstairs to make myself a second helping, I wouldn't have gotten to learn how to make Belgium Pancakes at the very least.  I still can't make a crepe to this day without checking for burn marks in the Red John pattern, just in case it's a sign, and I still leave the Pancakes to my father.  I stick to his chicken recipes.
The pattern of houses after I moved to Michigan went so:  There was the apartment in Queens where I was practically in a closet with a giant cartoon vulture on the wall protecting me, where he was poor enough that I discovered I loved having ice cubes wrapped in paper towel for dessert; The sounds of Jazz, ambulances, and occasional loud shouts, maybe even gun shots from past the graffiti infested walls of the park across the street from his second apartment were my lullaby, the train here still bringing me a soothing sense of home.  I have fond memories of painting with him on the fire escape, and discovering I had a loft constructed by my techie father, like a treehouse.  We started a mural of a lake with cattails which staid unfinished and was painted over when he had to move again;  The switch out of the city ended up in the highest level in an old Victorian Home in Sleepy Hollow with fun slanted ceilings and walls and mirrors that reflected back show posters like Porgy and Bess and accent walls of bright rust colors;  then the next place where I had my dream room that was the four poster bed inhabiting it.  There were narrow ceiling high shelves cramped next to it with cloth and swords and skulls and old books for decorations; then there was the third house previously mentioned and then there was the shift to the house shared in Suffren with work friends Louis and Courtney and their dogs.  Even the human-wary animals remembered me from Queens days where they lived on the first floor. I was at that house once.  Dad and I finished my Brown RISD dual application with 30 minutes to spare on New Years Eve and then proceeded to swing dance knocking over chairs in his flat space also known as the basement where we ate takeout Chinese instead of the Japanese that was tradition, and then there was the final transition to his current house in Nyack which I have been to for a day and a half, because we technically stayed in his ex Girlfriend's for my last visit.
This is where I learned Chicken Marsala, which is now my go-to dish.  It involves chicken (as always), flour, salt, pepper, oregano, mushrooms (optional), butter, olive oil, and Marsala and sherry (both can be either the alcoholic or cooking type, depending on who's going grocery shopping).  At the time, I was getting ready to start college, and we both knew that meant that our 4 month intervals was going to become longer, such as the 9 months since I've seen him last.  Hence him not teaching me Chicken Tiki (his new favorite) yet.  He guised this meal under "you just got out of a bad relationship, so I'm going to teach you a dish that's a test run for a good relationship." I test ran this recipe with someone who I wanted to know if a friendship would work out.  We sat on his apartment tiled floor, using the back of a frying pan and paper towel for lack of a cutting board or clean/stable counter, laughing in such a way that I knew if we could get through that with classiness and joy while I barked orders for "more pounding!" or "FLIP FLIP IT NOW" we would be fine.  How the meal is cooked is you first heat the pan.  The way to tell if the pan is hot enough is if the "water dances".  If when you flick water accusingly at the pot and it beads and runs around, then it's ready.  While you're waiting for the pan, you flatten chicken, preferably with a meat flattener on a cutting board with a rim that will cut the juice, although substitues will do.  This is also a recipe I use for when I'm stressed, for obviously implicated reasons.  Then you get your hands comfortably coated, dipping the chicken in the mix of flour, oregano, and seasonings, as if making a sand castle.  Then you carefully plop it into the pan, which you've already put butter and olive oil in.  Then let it become golden like marshmellow's are supposed to, adding the mushrooms in on the flip, then rinsing it all into a larger pot (or the same pot depending) with Marsala and sherry, putting a top on it, and letting it simmer either in the oven or on the countertop.  Then put over a startch, grab a green, and enjoy.
Recipes with my father are memories, with chicken being the national meat.  Maybe it has something to do with us having such short intervals of time to establish our own miniature complicated culture of father daughter.  It feels like home.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Class 09/27 - Exploration of Cook's Tour

"The ability to look at one thing and only one thing is something totally and wonderfully alien to me, but it's something I most admire and appreciate about the Japanese."  Season 4, Tokyo, No Reservations

I started to watch No Reservations on Netflix, and found myself unable to stop.  I was so inspired by the Tokyo Redux chapter, and therefore watched the episode that related to it.  When I was young one of the Aupairs I had was from Japan.  She appreciated all the little things, and always had a solution.  If I couldn't use chopsticks she would roll up the paper packaging it had come in, tie a hairband x style so the chopsticks would function like a spring.  Everything was quality instead of quantity to her, ranging from Origami to the relationships she formed with our family.  Dinner was always the greatest.  I can fondly look back on learning how to sip, slurp, and guide soba noodles into my mouth using the chopstick contraction.  There's something about mealtime that can't be replaced.  I have to admit that when I found out class was canceled for today, I went and ate a 30 minute meal instead of picking the 10 minute sandwich up from Stacks/Jazzman's/RichardsonRoom/DeluxEsto.  It was so much more rewarding.  Such was the way of life with Aya, and I assume, Japan.
In the episode, when cocktails are made, Tony comments on how the Japanese "wait for quality"  such as garnish art like lemons cut to look like stars, one of the drinks having pepper sprinkled in for a surprising taste.  It's the little details, the dab of this or that, both in food and culture.  He marveled how a rock, or a rice ball, could have such a large impact.  In such a bustling culture, and yet such an emphasis on details.  Kendo is an excellent example of this as a detailed exploration of inner discipline is such a busy urban lifestyle.  It is described as "mastery of the human character".  An Australian training there explains how, "Whether you win or whether you loose is quite irrelevant.  It's how you hold yourself and how you're able to deal with any situation you're confronted with.  So even if you win, you never show it.  And even if you loose, you never show it.  Just looking at the beauty of the simple thing in front of you is something that's common in all japanese art, be it calligraphy or be it painting or be it Kendo."
This reminds me of our food versus art conversation.  The same way Colin finds connection to Music through food, maybe someone would do the same with Kendo, or Dance, or Painting.  Personally, if someone told me to paint a taste it would be a stupendous challenge.  I'm not sure where I'd start, but I'm sure I'd find it challenging and entertaining.  Capturing any other art form can be difficult.  Drawing a dance will never fully emulate the original subject, nor does painting an apple describe an apple fully. But maybe with the right backgrounds, brushstrokes, you could indicate its juiciness, or its crispness.  I suppose describing taste is like describing color to a blind person.  You do what you can and let the imagination fill in the blanks.

Monday, September 24, 2012

RR: Eve remembered the texture of that apple, just as much as the taste and the dietary effects afterwards...

“Not every meal is just food”  Chase Sapphire Card Advertisement

A meal I fondly made with a friend on a visit home - Note the strawberries
When I ate a Peach for breakfast this morning, I savored it as it dribbled down my wrist.  Even though the juice threatened to permanently stain my clothes, I took my leisurely time letting my tongue catch the tributaries mimicking my veins.  Compared to caf bananas (which I freeze so they don’t feel so smushy), and underripe oranges, the peach was peaceful.  Centering.  Sating instead of stressful.  It was exactly what my body needed emotionally and physically to feel better.
The way our bodies interact with food tells just as much of a story.   Tony looking back can see the juxtaposition between food and his father’s body;  “Eating saucission a l’ail between crusty French bread, sipping vin ordinaire in his white terry-cloth shirt and boxer-style swimming trunks, wiggling his toes in the sand, he always looked most completely at ease.”  [43]  Food can define body language, the same way I’m sure someone could have traced the worry lines receding in my face as I ate the peach.  In Saigon, Tony remembers in the marketplace after gleefully sampling from many vendors how “Another woman beckons me over and offers me a slice of jackfruit.  I accept and offer her money.  She declines, simply watches, smiling as I eat.  I am loving this.  I am really really loving this.”  [58]  This gesture, to me, spoke of her enjoyment of watching his glee in food.  Reveling with him, she wished to share in that bodily metamorphosis he was experiencing.
“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” [6]  When Tony thinks of oysters, he thinks of the “Big, scary, ugly shell in my neighbor’s knobby hand” [41] of his childhood.  There were passages that cued my own ‘truly great meals’, but for me it was moments.  I hardly ever see the entirety of the meal, but taste, a moment within it.  I associated with his section that mimicked a slide projector, such as “A few beads of caviar licked off a nipple” [10].  My own reel started clicking, and I remembered the first time I used honey to sweeten besides tea, or how well chocolate sauce does not work, and how well truffles do.  Little helpful details, like the extra bite of peppermint Burt’s Bees Chapstick, ice cubes used as desserts with my poor dad or desserts with a not-so-poor boyfriend, and the use of ginger ale bubbles.  My mind would then expand out of the gutter into the mint jelly that came with Lamb at my Grandma’s Birthday, and how I still prefer my Mom’s lamb shanks, inspiring me to call her to just say hi.  I remember the first time I tried a salmon roe roll, and loved the way it popped, and tried an Unagi (a different type of fish egg), and always let Mom have it as her dessert.  Whether it was chives stolen from the garden, even with the wolf piss on it to keep deer away, or the jam my grandmother makes from scratch, there are certain instances which cue me.  Maybe it has something to do with my sensitized tastebuds, or the way I categorize my thoughts in the first place.
At the same time, our bodies also remember the bad experiences.  I know people who were too brazen with Vodka at one time and still to this day can’t touch orange juice.  I can look back and remembering eating one too many cupcakes at a Preschool function that always helps stay my hand from just-one-more-brownie-can’t-hurt.  Or there’s the time when my need to try everything new and rich (in this case turtle) also reintroduced me to what rich food tastes like after bubbling in acidic bile in your stomach and rewinding through your throat.  I’d still try it again, just keep the other rich food count down.  You learn, same way Tony kicks himself for having the bad tete de veau, and then following it with his beloved foie gras.  Our bodies know.
Besides the literal knowledge that our bodies have, there are cultural beliefs as well.  In Saigon, eating a soft-boiled duck embryo leads to a man smiling and saying “Make you strong!” [63], as if Tony could now procreate better.  Spiritual connection between what you eat isn’t a culture phenomena exclusive to tribes on the Discovery channel who believe eating the heart of the hunt would help strengthen the warrior.  As a side note some studies now show that eating raw hearts can be very nutritious much like a liver or kidney, (parasites excluded), so maybe cultural beliefs are well founded.  Either way, this connection between what goes in, how it interacts with us physically, and the memories we associate with both scenarios are one of the major threads stitching our memory quilt together.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

RR: Stealing Buddha's Dinner ~ Pringles and Pomegranates

The first time I tasted a detail of India was when I received an unfinished half of a pomegranate and had to coax the flesh out of the fruit's caverns.  I used my fingers, swollen from airplane travel, to chunk off the rough skin to nestled rubies clinging together like fish eggs in coral.  Their color and sweetness was inviting, yet entombed bitter seeds.  I came to find my impression of India the same.  Upon pulling back rough expectations, sweet flesh was exposed, but there was bitter crunch as well.  It is the details that define a place, and any food.

"The commercials held our interest as much as any show, for they let us know what we should be eating, playing, and wearing.  They let us know how we should be." ~ Bich Minh Nguyen

When first going to India, I was overwhelmed.  We had been traveling for the equivalent of three days with virtually no sleep, had left 90 degree weather back in Chicago for 125 and humid, and immediately experienced first hand what a monsoon does to traffic on our way back to Nirman's campus.  For humans, it huddles them under cubicle-like store fronts, or hitches up ankle long pants and saris and silk chemises to mid-thigh to avoid the infested calf-deep water.  For autos and motorbikes, it brings them to a standstill or turns the smaller ones into figurative jetskis.  As a human huddled in an auto, I was assaulted with ads like the red and white of "Airtel" and the blue haired Amul girl with her dairy products.  These labels and colors sought my attention, much like Pringles did for Bich and her sister Anh when they interacted with the Heidengas.  They focused on local companies like Ford and Amway to settle in their roots, and fell in love with Purple Cow ice cream and other brightly colored and recognized brands.  I looked for coca cola advertisements in Hindi.   Bich experienced firsthand the power of labels and their comforting nature, or lack thereof, such as in clothing brands, or how kids in their neighborhood would boast about going to McDonalds 3 times in one week.  I myself went to McDonalds while in India, just to see how it would be different.  Even I recognized McDonalds as an American symbol all these years later.  I ordered a number 4, a paneer burger with a sealed off far too watery orange juice on the side; it was better than combatting the fear of unfiltered water.  The most evident difference was that McDonalds was considered one of the more classy and dignified places to dine in India, and that paneer is something I enjoy eating, but do not think of as a substitute for the burger I enjoy back at home.

Bich wanted to savor new food, different food, white food.  I wanted to savor new food, different food,  food that I was used to being produced at restaurants like Saffron or Shalimar.  I expected what I had found at Americanized Indian institutions full of curry and spices and familiar tastes with a new spin on them.  Instead, we were given authentic food.  Luckily, I quickly embraced the self-washed tin trays whose compartments would hold naan, rice, and sauces full of spices.  Every meal, although functioning the same, had its own uniqueness to it.  One time I sat in the kitchen to watch the cooks boil the Chai Tea, where they dumped old leaves, milk, water, and sugar in the same pot, and I was fascinated by their use of everything.  We couldn't speak much to each other with our limited vocabularies, but we were able to speak through food.  Thank you was not a common phrase in India.  You showed your appreciation, and ate with your fingers and tongue to catch every last dribble, the same way food was prepared, using everything.

For Bich, the combination of Vietnam's ancient matrilineal roots, Confucianism, and Western influences made for a modern-day balance of control and deference in every household.  For me, India was a balance between its ancient history, western influences from where I came from, and a general consensus in kindness and welcome.  I saw echoes of what I knew and loved and hated; the combination of advertisements and buildings balanced precariously with bamboo scaffolding echoed the New York City I hold close; the bright saris and clothing that always looks black-tie ready reminded me of rummaging in my mother's dresses as a child;  the field of trash heaps that the cow crossed the street to reach to hunt for grass.  It was the details, the moments and gestures, like the stall keeper who placed a bracelet made of plastic nut-seeds and red string used on children's toys onto my wrist, tightening the string with the hushed, "So shiva will protect you".  It was the man who gruffly scrunched his nose at me like a predator when I looked at him for too long during stopped traffic, and how I still wonder if it was an angry challenge or a misread expression.  It was the moment where I realized that the mountains of trash were more biodegradable and earth friendly than any trash can or recycle bin that I had grown accustomed to in America.  It was these details that pulled me away from the cliff bars bought at REI and introduced me to the experience of fighting a pomegranate for both its bitter and sweet moments, because every flavor was worth it.