Thursday, April 30, 2009

Looking West from Morningside Heights

Although I live in the heart of the Upper West Side, I spend a great deal of time in Morningside Heights, which is my other favorite neighborhood. As I've noted previously, my favorite used bookstore is Book Culture on 112th Street, and on the occasions when I attend church, I head right down the block to St. John the Divine, which the medievalist in me loves for its memorial to St. Guthlac. I had my first off-the-reservation crazy New Yorker encounter at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and most people who know me well are aware of my unflagging devotion to Nussbaum's black and white cookies. My very first criterium was the Grant's Tomb race in 2006, and the first time I drove and parked a car in New York City was by Morningside Park (I subsequently emptied my car of everything that might attract attention, including my ratty old ice scraper). My sister and several of my closest friends have lived in this neighborhood, and I once ran into an old friend on Broadway and 115th Street who I hadn't seen since playing Capture the Flag in the summer of 2000 at Harrah's casino in Stateline, Nevada.

However, Morningside Heights has an additional, special significance for me--my great-grandfather was a graduate student in Electrical Engineering at Columbia in the 1920s. Until I moved to New York, I never thought of him in connection with this city; I've always associated him with either San Francisco, where he was born, lived through the 1906 earthquake, and attended the same high school as me and my siblings, or Annapolis, where he spent most of his young adult life and through which he later solidified his professional reputation. But now that I've made my own home in New York, I've begun to reflect more frequently on him and his time here. Some of the things that I now see in Morningside Heights he saw as well, such as the Alma Mater statue in the Columbia Quad....
...others, however, like the Columbia Quad itself, were quite different (note the enormous athletic field in what is now the southern half of the quadrangle).
But I mostly think of him when I'm near the river. Of course, I never really knew him--I was eight when he passed away in Washington, DC--but if I had to wager on us having one thing in common, it would be a love of boats and being on the water. Like me, he grew up by the Pacific, and like him, there have been periods of my life in which I've spent hours and hours on boats (mine, however, were not weapon-bearing). In New York City, particularly the west side, the Hudson is our closest approximation to both, and I try to be near it as often as possible.
Grant's Tomb, which offers one of the best vantage points for watching the river, was as accessible in 1925 as it is now, and whenever I'm up by that memorial--either for tutoring, or on a walk with a friend--I wonder if he ever strolled over on a break between classes, or as a break from studying. The Hudson doesn't offer the same sense of endless water and boundless adventure as the Pacific does, but by virtue of the fact that one looks West to gaze at it, just as one looks at the water in San Francisco, I've found it to be an unexpected balm for occasional homesickness, especially when the sun sets. I also can't help but be excited by the different boats I see skimming the Hudson's surface--kayaks, barges, cruise ships, hapless looking dinghies, sailboats, tugboats, boats from the fire and police departments, boats that look like the heavy wooden whaleboats my father used to row. I have yet, however, to see the boat that held a special significance for my great-grandfather, or the kind that hold a special significance for me:
My Saturday mornings are spent coaching on Pier 70, which, as I've also noted previously, means that we are out over, somewhat "on", the water for a couple of hours before the city fully awakes. This is a welcome, familiar feeling for me--beginning the weekend on a body of water with a bunch of laughing, screaming girls--and I like to think that my great-grandfather found some way to be on the water while he lived here, as well as to imagine what that might have constituted in the 1920s. Sailing? Swimming? Log rolling?
Since I've been injured for the past six weeks and thus unable to run with our girls, I spend the workout periods at the end of the pier, often with at least one girl who's also unable to run in any given week. This past Saturday, which was sunny and still and during which the water was calm except for an occasional rolling wake, I hung out with L, one of our girls who had pulled her knee while playing baseball. We counted six different kinds of boats and waved at kayakers and rowers, and watched seagulls and terns swoop for food on the river's surface. We saw the tide rush back out toward the Atlantic and expose the rocks at the pier's base, and we watched a fisherman pull a small striped bass from the Hudson's depths and then toss it back into the river. If I closed my eyes I could have been a nine year old girl with a knee injury, on a San Francisco pier almost twenty years ago.
My great-grandparents stayed long enough for my grandfather to be born in New York City, but he's never considered himself a New Yorker, and since then our family's only occasionally had one member living here. But my sister is moving back to Morningside Heights this summer. And since she's beginning a Ph.D. at Columbia, two of us will now be by the Hudson, looking West, for at least a few years to come.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ita haec vita hominum ad modicum apparet

Medievalists are a funny bunch. Often solitary and meditative, they can be found deep in the stacks of the world's premier university libraries, and several have been known to cluster in Duke Humphrey's at the back of the Bodleian. Lists and catalogues excite their imaginations, and they are prone to wistful organizational yearnings at the mention of the name "Cotton Vitellius". They can distinguish between "hair side" and "flesh side", read several dead and modern languages, and pronounce the subtle distinction between "þ" and "ð". They know their Bloch from their Derrida and their Foucault from their Butler, but they often prefer Lewis and Tolkien, Klaeber and Wrenn. Many have tried making mead, with very mixed results.

We marvel at the survival of a single manuscript, its pages torn and smudged, and wonder at the manuscripts we will never know, like those lost in the library fires of Cotton and Alexandria. We spend years studying languages we will never speak, and then argue with one another over the philological significance of an obscure declension. We divide ourselves into camps that baffle non-medievalists--"B" text versus "Z" text, Latin versus the vernacular--and avoid seminars and library cubbies that might necessitate physical acknowledgment of our critics. We stare at one another from the ramparts of medieval history and medieval literature, although we claim the same texts as our own.

Many of us joined this funny family--for that's what we are at the end of the day, a family joined by medievalism, a shared attribute that, like blood, is remarkable for the disparate members it links together--through a glimpse, or a word, or a turn of phrase in a literary text we expected to disregard. For some it was through the man who envisioned the tower on the hill and the fortress in the valley, with the people of the earth on the fields in between. For others it was the pilgrims walking through southeastern England, or the young man who defended the Danes, or the dead duchess whose lover lay weeping in the grass. It was the woman who cast her seat-posts towards Iceland, the poet who wrote Breton lais, the Seafarer who wanders on an Anglo-Saxon shore, the Pope who saw the angels in the slave-market, the King who burned the griddle-cakes, the saint who lived in the fens and the woman who walked into the sea.

Our stories are both different and the same, and our scholarly disagreements, though very real, cannot always stand in the way of our friendships. We guest-teach one another's classes, and read each other's papers before going to Kalamazoo. We attend birthday parties, and weddings, and goodbye parties, for it is inevitable that we are never in the same place for long. We hug one another before our defense exams, and we hug after they are over. Our scholarly lives are lived in spite of minimal physical resources, but our minds are rich and we share them with one another.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is what at first seemed unremarkable. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but when I first read Bede I thought him a somewhat pedantic monk who would require little attention. A rainy evening in Palo Alto nine years ago bore no hint of the transformative study I would undertake, and the bus ride to Summertown seemed less a ticket to my future than a pleasant way to people-watch on weekday mornings. And when I first sat in an English faculty room at Oxford, on a Fall afternoon nearly six years ago, I had no sense of the significance of the person I was first meeting.

Many years of reading and studying have since passed, but my favorite passage in medieval literature remains the same. It occurs in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, when King Edwin is trying to decide whether or not to convert his people to Christianity. One of his advisors tries to help him by relating the following allegory:

It seems to me, King, that if the present human life on earth compared to that time of which is unknown to us, it is as when in winter you are seated at supper with your commanders and advisors, and a fire brightens the hearth in the center, and makes the Hall warm to the rafters, while outside all is raging through whirling, wintry rain or snow, and one sparrow flies swiftly into the Hall; it enters through one door, and soon leaves through another. In that time, when it is inside, the winter storm cannot touch it, yet nevertheless in the smallest time to a moment it leaves, and soon returns from winter into winter, it slips away from our eyes. Thus to this shortest time does human life appear; but what follows, or what precedes it, in short we know nothing.

I think of Bede writing his Historia at Jarrow, as the fires of Christianity started to die in Northern England and his temporal life's work and focus started to seem less certain, much as Augustine's had when the Vandals banged at the gates three centuries earlier. Ita haec vita hominum ad modicum apparet, Bede wrote--thus to this shortest time does human life appear. And yet, there's enough time for the sparrow to fly through the Hall, and there was enough time for a scholar of Bede to befriend a scholar of Langland, in spite of all their differences. They were family.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Biscotti and Bike Racing

There must be an affinity between "b"-named desserts and bikes in my mind. This weekend I'm attending a dinner party for SAS in Brooklyn, and she requested that I bring something "scrumptious" for the last course. Actually, she specifically requested bouchons, but I assured her that I could come up with something different yet equally delightful. Of course, then I had to live up to this promise, so I took a mini tour of my kitchen to see what might inspire me. Aside from basic baking staples, I found four items that looked promising: unsweetened coconut flakes, a small bottle of orange peel, dried pineapple rings, and a bowl of chopped up bittersweet chocolate left over from the bouchons. Eureka!

Now what, you might ask, could I possibly make with those four ingredients other than a very dry and potentially bitter fruitcake? Well, curious one, it just so happens that I have a great recipe for coconut pineapple biscotti; furthermore, if I'm going to go to the trouble of beating together eggs and sugar, why not make some bittersweet chocolate orange biscotti at the same time? To paraphrase my earlier Greek, Yes!

I was never a huge biscotti fan--with the exception of Jordan almonds, I dislike chewing things that sound as though they're about to crack open my teeth. However, two years ago I went with my friends CCW, AB, and LV to a bike race in Philadelphia, the famous Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference's Philly Flyer. As bike racers, even mediocre ones, are often forced to do, we crashed at the family house of a friend of a friend, and squeezing CCW's massive Land Rover--crowned with three bikes--down the narrow cobblestone streets of Society Hill marked the beginning of an amazing race weekend. Before we left Ithaca, CCW had baked several different kinds of biscotti to bring as thank you gifts to our host, so once we inched the Land Rover into a spot originally designed for a horse carriage (Society Hill is a pre-Revolutionary War neighborhood, after all), we presented these to our hosts along with our effusive thank-yous.
We could never truly repay their hospitality, however. Society Hill, like Georgetown and Beacon Hill, is one of those neighborhoods so unique in terms of both architecture and American History that just walking through it is a memorable experience, but we were actually staying in one of those remarkable buildings. The house was in fact two 18th century buildings combined into one modern home, and so there were two narrow colonial front doors and two main staircases at the outer edges of the building. My most prominent memory is of walking up lots of little stairways that opened up into beautiful, cavernous rooms, including a library that looked like a smaller version of Somerville's. Bliss.

At the race course by the Schuylkill early the next morning, fueled by oatmeal and the previous evening's pad thai--I don't even like pad thai, but I was so excited by the Society Hill architecture that I couldn't have cared less what I was eating--CCW and I were warming up on our trainers and talking biscotti. Could I, too, make such magical treats that I might be able to stay in beautiful homes in other colonial neighborhoods? Well, no, CCW said, but I can teach you how to make biscotti that won't crack your teeth open. Sold!
Biscotti Power!
What can I say? The weekend was a huge success. We won our team time trial. No one crashed. I was pushed sideways by a purple cow--who I later identified as a Williams rider with negligible bike handling skills--at the crit starting line and still managed to score points. We ate lunch at Whole Foods. We sang at the top of our lungs the whole drive home and shouted "Scheetz, that's cheap gas!" whenever we passed a Scheetz gas station. None of the bikes flew off the Land Rover's roof. And I learned how to make biscotti that wouldn't crack anyone's teeth open.

The secret, according to CCW, is to bake the slices for ten minutes max (as opposed to the fifteen typically recommended in recipes). When we returned to Ithaca I experimented with several different recipes, and my favorites were a maple walnut version, complete with maple drizzle, from one of Moosewood's cookbooks, and a coconut pineapple version that I developed off of a basic coconut biscotti recipe I found in Sunset magazine's archives.
The coconut pineapple biscotti roll pre-slicing, and the bittersweet chocolate orange roll mid-slice.
My luck with chocolate biscotti recipes has always been hit or miss--either the chocolate melts inconsistently throughout the roll before I slice it, or the taste is indistinct. I had a hunch that the bittersweet chocolate I had used for the bouchons might be just right, however, and my hunch has been validated. Unfortunately, I had no such hunch about the orange peel and as a result I didn't use enough. C'est la vie--the bittersweet chocolate orange biscotti would still be a yummy accompaniment to an espresso (which I rarely drink unless the palate cries out for it, as in this case I think it might be).
A great pairing for the coconut pineapple biscotti--if "pairing" is even the right word--would be Hédiard's Thé Pacifique blend, but given the near impossibility of finding that tea anywhere outside of Paris, a light green tea would be good as well. Fortunately, both espresso and green tea will be in high supply at SAS's dinner this weekend.

CCW and I live far away from one another now, and it's been a couple of years since I stood on a starting line next to her, but I still smile and think about it often. There are few instances in which I've felt the strength of my friendships as powerfully as I have when standing with CCW prior to those bike races, and given all the hazards of that endeavor, it's unlikely that I'll experience it in the same way again. But that doesn't make me miss that feeling, or her, any less.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mystery Bird

The morning walk from my apartment to the subway is one of the highlights of my day. It begins on the steps of my beautiful brownstone, continues past the non-Starbucks coffee shop on my corner, heads across Columbus Ave, and then passes around Theodore Roosevelt Park--which borders the northern and western sides of the American Museum of Natural History--before ending right at Central Park West.  Not only do I pass clusters of latte-drinking, paper-reading, bench-sitting fellow Upper West Siders with their colorfully swaddled children, all-terrain strollers, robust retrievers and bright-eyed spaniels, but I also get to tip my hat to the stone effigy of one of my favorite presidents, good old TR, his chest thrust forcefully at the morning sun. Most importantly, on the entire walk I see more trees than buildings.

However, one morning last week I was startled out of my usual reverie by a mysterious avian interloper. I had crossed Columbus and was turning left on the sidewalk when I noticed an unfamiliar-looking bird eyeing me from the top of the low iron fence surrounding TR Park. I stopped. It continued to look at me. I waved. It looked away. Then it looked back. I frowned. It blinked. At that point I had to keep walking, because another feature of my morning subway walk is that I give myself exactly six minutes to get to the B train platform, which means that 30% of the time I actually miss my train, and on that morning I had a 9:30 am phone meeting with India (yes, that would be the nation). 

But the bird's unknown identity nagged at me for the rest of the day. Why didn't I recognize it? I'm by no means a bird expert, much less an amateur ornithologist, but I do really like birds and will often stop when at the beach or in the park to watch them. Plus, my tenure as a volunteer docent at the 2004 Presidio exhibit of Andrew Jackson Grayson's Birds of the Pacific Slope paintings resulted in a verbal exchange between me and my sister that made it into the family pantheon of all-time best quotes (it includes a nod to both Christopher Guest and the American Kestrel). I've also unsuccessfully lobbied my mother to build a barn owl box under the eaves of her house in San Francisco, and have ridden my bike several times up towards Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, where one can watch the raptors migrating on the Pacific flyway circling and circling (they're afraid to cross open water, which I find fascinating, and which they have to do in order to get over the Golden Gate and continue their journey thousands of miles south). And finally, where would I be without my family's very first pet, our blue-fronted Amazon parrot, Picolé, who my parents brought back from Brazil in the 1970s?

Picolé: The best parrot that ever lived
When I was in Cambridge last month, I spent an afternoon in the Harvard Museum of Natural History; at one point I entered a special exhibit on colour and animals, and staring at me from a glass case was Picolé. It wasn't him of course, but because this stuffed bird looked so much like him, and because it's been nearly a decade since he died, I almost started to cry. By myself. In any empty museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

The bird in the Theodore Roosevelt Park was nowhere near this exotic, however--my best scientifically impossible guess was that it was a cross between a robin and a chickadee. So I began my search from those two points of reference, and in the process I identified several of the other birds I see around my neighborhood. For example, UWS denizens often encounter the ubiquitous European Starling, who at this time of year spends his/her time hopping around the tulip planters surrounding sidewalk trees, or pecking at things on the park lawns. The starling is often found in the same vicinity as the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the Brown Creeper, both of which I hoped might be my mystery bird but are neither big enough nor, for lack of a better word, bushy enough around the breast (poor diction is yet one reason why I would be an unscientific ornithologist).
European Starling, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper
Nor was the mystery bird a Mourning Dove, a bird with which I'm quite familiar because two like to come visit me on my living room windowsill as I get ready for work in the mornings. Given my hetero-centric mindset, I used to think that they were a cute little boy-girl dove couple coming to coo over each other in my adoring presence, but as NCT helpfully pointed out, they have the same coloring and thus are both girls. So now I thinof them as the cute little girl-girl dove couple coming to coo over each other in my adoring presence.

Leaning towards the lavender?
Several more days of investigation plus one late afternoon visit to Central Park with NCT ended with me, I think, correctly identifying my mysterious friend. However, this ID did not occur before I, while sunk knee-deep in my bird-guessing hubris, excitedly misidentified a docile loon as a raptor. NCT and I were standing by the pond in the Ramble when a large-winged bird flew overhead and then landed with a beautiful skimming motion on the water's surface. I'd like to think that I was distracted by the wingspan size and thus didn't notice the obviously non hawk-like silhouette and landing, but having a witness did not help my case. In any event, I maintain that the bird was not a loon but instead some sort of merganser, but NCT maintains that I'm just saying that because I only like the word "merganser" due to its frequent appearance in crossword puzzles I can't finish. Touché. Regardless, it definitely was not a raptor of any persuasion.

This is not a hawk
Anyway, while I wouldn't bet money on it, I believe that what I saw was a squat, very brownish-breasted American Robin that looked like the following beauty:

That said, please let me know if you have any better-informed theories/guesses as to what my mystery bird is!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Where Light Takes Its Color From The Sea: In Memory of James D. Houston

I was surprised and saddened to discover this morning that James D. Houston died on Thursday. Of the people who are familiar with Houston and his work most know the book Farewell to Manzanar, which he co-wrote with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston about her childhood experiences in a Japanese American internment camp during WWII. I first read Houston eight years ago, and while it's not unusual for me to forever associate a beloved text with the time and place in which I first read it, the memory of Houston's book In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey invokes my early adult life in California like few others.
In 2001 I read In the Ring of Fire while stretched out in a hot tub in Carmel Valley, at a vacation place where I had gone each summer with my family and a group of family friends since I was a child. Carmel Valley is like many other valleys in coastal California--dry and hot and covered in golden scrub and valley oaks. The coastal range rising on either side holds back the fog, which sits complacently at the Valley's mouth where the Pacific meets Carmel and Big Sur. The place where we used to stay is ten miles inland from the coast, but occasionally on summer mornings we would wake up to find the fog still settled among the cottages. By noon we would all be swimming or stretched out on the grass reading.

From the hot tub I could see the Santa Lucia mountains, which form the Valley's southern border and which conceal one of Houston's favorite places, the San Francisco Zen Center's Tassajara Monastery. It was only fitting, then, that I read In the Ring of Fire with that view in sight, and that this took place in the Summer of 2001, when California was very much on my mind. I had run the Big Sur Marathon a few months before, on a cold sunny day when children in the Carmel Highlands handed out strawberries to the runners, and after finishing and eating and laying down in the bone-chilling surf I napped on the white sands of Carmel's beach, my favorite beach. I had missed the U.S.S. Missouri ceremony for my family in Honolulu for this marathon, and so Hawai'i and the rest of the Pacific rim were very much on my mind as well. And I had just finished a seminar with Maxine Hong Kingston, so that the lens through which I normally saw California now refracted Oahu and Hanoi, Tahoe and Okinawa, Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal. I was about to buy my first road bike, and, in a few months, to move to England. I couldn't help but wonder if I should be going West instead of East.

But I went East. And while here, thousands of miles from my part of the Pacific, I read Houston's Where Light Takes Its Color From The Sea, which put into words the sensibility I've spent years trying to explain to people unfamiliar with California, that the light is the first thing we miss in other places because it highlights the absence of everything else--the coastal mountains, the bracingly cold water, the morning fog.

Houston was born and raised in San Francisco, and lived in the same neighborhood where I went to high school, ten blocks from Ocean Beach. As a child he would have seen Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands to the north and the Farallon Islands to the west, and when he went to college in Santa Clara County, not far from my own university, he would have seen the Bay stretching up towards Berkeley and Treasure Island, and the Santa Cruz mountains blocking the Pacific from view. It was after he moved over those mountains to a home rich in California history--it belonged to a descendant of the Donner Party--and within sight of Monterey Bay that he wrote the books that I found in my hands years later. These are the books with Tom Killion woodcuts on their covers and echoes of Stegner, Steinbeck, and Hong Kingston in their pages; the books that still make me wonder if I should be going West instead of staying East.

It seems inevitable that I self-identify with Houston because his stomping grounds are my own, but he explains these stomping grounds in words better than mine, so I've included them here, as follows:

"We traveled north and south of San Francisco, as I have continued to do throughout my life, exploring this region I call my natural habitat. And by habitat, I do not mean California. Not all of it, from border to border, from Berkeley to Tahoe. As a subject, or as a vast network of interlocking subjects, California can give you a lifetime of things to think about, and write about, and wrestle with and brood about. But as somewhere to call home, it's just too big. There is too much to grasp. Our nervous systems are not designed to identify with something as large and diverse and contradictory as the State of California. Its population is greater than Canada's. In square miles it's larger than Japan. Along the eastern seaboard it would encompass everything from Boston to Cape Hatteras. It would include the Adirondacks and parts of Appalachia".

In September I'm finally going to Tassajara.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Quotes of the Week

This week's installment is a bit shorter due to KP's absence on Friday and LP's on Wednesday and Thursday. Still, we have some winners...
On CR's momentary brain lapse
KP: Aw, he's having a senior moment. I love it.
CGC: I love you.
KP: You're having an amorous moment.

BKG: I wish I were a fame whore.
CGC: You kind of are.
BKG: Yeah.

CGC: What does E.B. stand for?
KP: Elizabeth--
BKG: Boo-tay.

On who would be paired with whom if our female non-technical team members were matched with our male scientists for a reality TV show like Wife Swap
KP to CGC: You would be paired with MJ.
CGC: Then it would just be long stony silences punctuated by me screaming obscenities at him.
BKG: No, for you two it would be better to do a play.
CGC: Like Pinter meets Chekhov?
BKG: Exactly. Like all the action's happening off-stage.

BKG to KP: You would be paired with PM. It'd be so we could all see this great, kind and patient man slowly be broken bit by bit as you boss him around until he snaps.
KP (laughing or crying--it's hard to tell): I don't want to break him. I don't want to break him!

BKG (BKG is a man): I'd love to have a baby right now. Just playing with it.

An Interview with Secret Canadian Running Friend

If it's Friday then it must be interview day with my best Canadian friend, fellow UWS resident and early bedtime lover, non-technical yet technical colleague and marathoner extraordinaire, Secret Canadian Running Friend.

Secret Canadian Running Friend: the Canadian Kara Goucher
CGC: If you had 30 minutes of alone time with Bono, what would happen?

SCRF: What would happen is that I'd get a cool new relocation to Central Park West and 74th Street, my first born would be named Patrick Paul Hewson, and U2's next album would be called "An ode to Jode."

CGC: Which of Jamie Oliver's two stew recipes is better and why?

SCRF: Since one of these recipes is named for someone called "Andy the Gasman," I've never even tried it. I prefer Jools, mostly because it calls for 1/2 bottle of wine in cooking (I recommend a full bottle).

CGC: How would you describe marathon running to someone who has never run one?

SCRF: It's like what I would imagine to be the stages of life. The first five miles are full of wonder and amazement. Everything is new and exciting and you're so full of energy, you could do cartwheels (except me; I don't know how to do a cartwheel). You just can't believe you're here!!! The next 10 miles are basically a tough slog. It kind of sucks, but not really; you're working hard, but sometimes it's worth it. There are too many smelly people around you and occassionally someone farts when you're downwind. For the next five to eight miles, you dig deep and find energy from somewhere. You know that the end is coming soon, and though you wish you had enjoyed miles 5-15 more, unfortunately you've only got a few more to go and now you have to try to make up for lost time. All while you're body is starting to fail you. The last 3.6 to 6.6 miles, you feel like you'd be better off dead.

CGC: When do you think Calgary will finally be recognized as Canada's greatest city?

SCRF: When people from Toronto pull their heads out of their asses, and when Vancouverites realize there's more to life than yoga and rain.

CGC: If you could have three homes, where would they be?

SCRF: Central Park West & W 74th Street. A villa in Tuscany (never been, but sounds whimsical). Next door to Oprah. I think it'd be neat to say that I was Oprah's neighbour.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

10 (12) Items or Less

I undertook a potentially fatal action today and got into the ten items or less express checkout lane at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods during rush hour (5:30pm) with....wait for it...twelve items in my basket. 

There's no "twelve" in "ten", sucka!
What can I say? I forgotten I'd picked up a box of snacks for my girls' practice, and then some sea salt, and then some asparagus, and then some frozen blueberries. My brain's foggy because I'm not running outside first thing in the morning. I had to ride my trainer at 7am and my brain hadn't recovered from listening to Bat Out of Hell in its entirety. My brain was numbed by the sheer insanity that is the Columbus Circle Whole Foods store-length-long checkout line at 5:30pm on a weekday. My brain had a whole list of legitimate excuses. 

That said, I learned that it doesn't help one's cause to assert that the woman behind you *technically* has fourteen items in her basket because she placed four loose onions inside of it, and that while they would have constituted one item if they were sitting together inside a plastic bag, those four loose items were *technically* no different than my asparagus, sea salt, blueberries, and Organic Clif Kids' Z bars when it came to checkout swiping efficiency. 

I'm lucky I made it out of there alive. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bouchons and Bike Tools

For my birthday picnic/egg hunt in Central Park this past weekend, I made chocolate bouchons from a recipe that I found on one of my favorite food blogs, Orangette ( True to form the bouchons popped out like little chocolate champagne corks, and tasted as though they were a cross between flourless chocolate cake and crumbly brownies. Yum. 
In order to achieve the bouchons' cork silhouette,  I followed Molly Wizenberg's advice and used a mini-popover pan, which, naturally, sparked a meditation on the place of single-purpose cooking tools in the culinary universe.  You see, I am a firm believer in tools--of any persuasion--that can be used for more than one objective. Many years ago I first read Laurie Colwin's wonderful essay collection Home Cooking, which is hands down one of the best food books/autobiographies I've ever encountered (see "Stuffed Breast of Veal: A Bad Idea" and "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir"). One essay particularly influenced me, however, and that was Colwin's "The Low-Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine", in which she lists what she considers to be kitchen essentials, preceded by the following very wise statement: "most things are frills [...] pots and pans are like sweaters: you may have lots of them, but you find yourself using two or three over and over again".

Now bear in mind that while I cook extensively, I'm not a fancy cook and therefore don't need all the gadgets that a pastry chef would require. Similarly, I don't live with any food professionals or, for that matter, children or pets, and on the occasions when I have more than three people over for dinner, I purchase disposable plates and cups (the Callaghan apartment is very classy). That said, in the ten months that I've lived in New York City, I've managed to cook a wide variety of eatables, ranging from berry pies to fagioli to gruyere fondue for twenty-five people, with one iron skillet, one 1.5 quart steel saucepan, one stockpot, one tea kettle, two casserole dishes, two cookie sheets, one pie pan, a handheld electric mixer, a rolling pin, four knives, a set of measuring cups, a set of measuring spoons, two mixing bowls, a small blender, a salad spinner, and a cutting board the size of a pizza slice. Other than a few plates, bowls, mugs, glass tupperware, and a smattering of cooking utensils (spatula, wooden spoon, and handheld cheese grater), I have a silver teapot that I picked up at the 77th St. flea market and that I use as a watering can for my rosemary when not entertaining guests.  

So it was with some trepidation that I turned over the mini popover pan (see above) in the Zabar's housewares department last week. What could I possibly use it for, other than bouchons and, well, mini popovers? Strangely cylindrical cupcakes? Arugula seedlings? Even my pie pan can be used for a variety of savory and sweet tarts, and the rolling pin could be a makeshift self-defense weapon if necessary (I'm thinking along the lines of a small baseball bat). The salad spinner drains pasta and works as a third mixing bowl when I get into the baking groove, and the cheese grater has worked its magic on both Irish cheddar and dark chocolate bars. If I'm really going to buy something for my kitchen, I thought, it should be a food processor, although my small blender has been able to puree both hazelnuts and stewed apricots, so I certainly don't need one. Plus, twenty dollars for one pan?! I could purchase a nice set of plates and have four more people over for dinner instead. 

And then the flashback struck me. Suddenly it was 2005 and I was standing in the back doorway of the RIBS bike shop in Ithaca, NY ( I had just completed my first day of bike repair-learning, which consisted of stripping a rusty, child size, hot pink wannabe huffy down to a pile of parts. The bike was so old and rusted that I couldn't even identify what type of bottom bracket it had, and BobWölfé--the RIBS guru--ended up hacking it apart with an enormous wrench, which was made all the more surreal by the fact that he is 6'4" and had come to the shop that day dressed like the Count from Sesame Street.  The backyard of RIBS used to share a fence with a community center/church, and BobWölfé had a tradition whereby a new repairer would throw the frame of the first bike he/she had stripped out the back door, and if it went over the fence then some sort of prize or honor was bestowed on the thrower. I wish I could remember what it was. But I digress; suffice it to say, the rusty pink frame made it half way across the yard--n.b. don't throw from the downtube--and so BobWölfé nodded curtly at me and then whisked me on to tradition number two.

What, he asked, as he gestured with his arms to the mess of metal hanging from the walls, is your favorite bike tool? I answered instantaneously: the chain breaker.

loved the chain breaker. I loved the satisfying snap that ricocheted up my wrist when I broke a set of links, its pins clattering to the floor. I loved the Germanic compound that constituted its name. Chain breaking without a doubt had been the best part of the stripping: the liberation of the stretched and rusty chain, which I'd twirled like a lasso over my head and thrown to the back of the shop like a metal snake. Ah. But when I looked at BobWölfé's face, I realized my error immediately. What folly, to choose a tool that serves only one purpose, that can only break and not mend if its pin is missing or bent, that is a lumpy afterthought no self-respecting rider stashes in his seat pocket on a long ride, to be nestled alongside the mocking multi-tool with its toothy chain tool arm. Why hadn't I said the hex wrenches, or at the very least, the pedal wrench, which in worst case scenarios could be used for self defense like my rolling pin? Even pointing to the rag would have been better, as it can clean the entire bike and not just one part.

From that day forward I have been a committed consumer of multi-purpose tools, and this commitment extends from my culinary batterie to the vinegar that both completes my salad dressings and cleans my bathroom mirror.  I saw, and continue to see, BobWölfé's face in that mini popover pan. However, since it was my birthday, I decided to compromise and pay homage--multi-purpose homage--both to Laurie Colwin and BobWölfé in the form of other more ingenious implements as I made my bouchons. For example, since I had to melt the chocolate slowly but I don't own a double boiler, I made one out of my saucepan and a mixing bowl.

And because I do not own a vase--although it might be time to get one--I displayed my birthday bouquets in my stockpot.
I also promise to make popovers once a month.