Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Interview with Elizabeth Gress


Mt. Greylock, EG's old stomping grounds
One of my oldest friends is one who I believe I met prior to being born; our parents were friends in college in San Francisco, and so I like to think that Elizabeth and I were kindred spirits even before we assumed our corporeal forms. In the years since we became human, Elizabeth and I have lived on both coasts and in different parts of the world, but I remember her best for the year that we spent at the same high school, when we would drive home from practice together on Monday evenings and she would spend the night at my house. Furthermore, the six of us--Elizabeth and her two sisters, and me and my two siblings--possess an unparalleled knowledge of Asian sweets and Japanese businessmen, for reasons that will presently remain silent.
-----
CGCName the pros and cons of playing basketball at a parochial grammar school in Oakland, CA.

EG: Pros: A bunch of white girls from the hills got a taste of the "real" Oakland. 
Cons: Being a little white girl playing St Augustine or St Leo. 

CGCWhat was the most interesting thing you saw while running up Mt. Greylock between the years of 2002-2004?

EG: Donuts and apple cider at the top! (provided by our dear coach, Pete).

CGCDescribe the perfect SpeedScrabble partner.

EG: Competitive & avoids cheap shots from the Scrabble dictionary.

CGCWhy does Japan produce such wonderful candy?

EG: I don't know but it sure is good. Especially Pocky and especially when accompanied by something from Sanrio.

CGCFill in the blanks: Latin is the _____ language to learn while _____.

EG: Best; having a crush on upperclassmen with learning disabilities.

Reunited (with my sunburned forearms), and it feels so good...

Sunday dawned warm and bright on the Eastern seaboard, and it was with a sense of excitement that I bounded out of bed and began cooking my oatmeal. Get ready CGC, the oats crackled to me from the pot bottom, you're going riding! Yes, my back bore the sunburned evidence of swimming in a saltwater pool the day before, and yes, my bike tires seriously needed to be changed, and yes, there was no time to read the Sunday Times before dashing out the door. Did I mention that swimming in the saltwater pool was glorious and well worth the pain of a sunburn covered by a bike jersey? And that my tires have so far held up, even under steep cornering? And that the Times is an enjoyable read on Sunday evenings? I was going riding!

Spurred by these frenetic thoughts, I rode up Amsterdam to meet JFL, and after a crowded half lap in Central Park, we decided to head west into New Jersey. It was with some trepidation that I rode across the George Washington Bridge--largely because ever since MAR's bike blew out from under him while riding around one of the Golden Gate Bridge towers (the winds, to put it mildly, were strong that afternoon) I've been unable to associate bridges with bikes in a positive way--but once we were on the wide shoulder of New Jersey's 9W, I couldn't help but relax. After all, I was riding with JFL for the first time since we rode together in France two years ago, and as the insides of my unsunscreened forearms turned an alarming pink, I knew that all was right with the world.
CGC and JFL riding up some col in La Drôme Provence, near Buis-les-Baronnies
One of the things that I miss most about riding in Ithaca, and JFL mentioned this as well, is the opportunity to "just ride" with someone, meaning without a sense of either competition or a workout needing to be achieved. I found this difficult in San Francisco as well as here, where most cyclists seem to fall into one of two camps: fiercely competitive and in training, or dangerously inexperienced and out for a novel way of seeing the city (Blazing Saddles, I'm looking at you). I don't mean to denigrate either camp, but rather to suggest that for me, the best cycling is often found alongside someone who's relatively equal in terms of experience and fitness, and whose intentions are slightly more relaxed than Lance's.

What did I discover on our journey to Jersey? First, that between Pelham on Saturday and Bergen County on Sunday, I was able to satiate, partly, my suburban envy (case in point--JFL and I spent a good ten minutes dreaming aloud about owning cars that we could drive to and from a grocery store and park without question every day in front of our homes, which would be ringed by massive outdoor space). Second, that my handling skills do need a little work despite my smugness, although I should just do repeats on the GW Bridge southern walkway approach if I want to regain my former handling prowess. Third, that I always, always forget that the insides of my arms burn like fire when I start riding outside again, and that it doesn't matter how many bike fits I receive, my inner arms will always turn out to face the sun unless I'm in my drops.

And fourth? That NYC, on our way East back over the Hudson, actually looked pretty nice. And that it was made all the nicer by seeing it with someone else.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Touché, Fairway!


In its mythical empty state
This evening I violated the covenant of sane NYC grocery shopping (i.e. never cross the threshold of a grocery store between the hours of 10:00 am Saturday and 8:00 pm Sunday) and entered Fairway at 5:00. Lately the W 74th St store has lulled me into a state of false confidence; the past few visits have been surprisingly manageable, and dare I say it, enjoyable, due to relatively empty aisles, tepid--as opposed to hostile--checkout clerks, and plenty of chopped coconut pieces. Tonight, however, Fairway pulled out all the stops and demonstrated the sheer madness for which it's both reviled and admired (admiredly reviled?).


The insanity began before I even entered the store, when I noticed that the twenty square feet directly in front of the Fairway entrance were torn up and roped off, thus resulting in a bottle-necked pedestrian jam of epic proportions. Throw in the Dumpling Truck, which was strategically parked right in front of this repellent morass, and you may wonder why I didn't hightail it back home at the corner. To that obvious yet untaken solution all I can say is that cheap organic peppers and the greatest sourdough bread this side of the Mississippi have a greater hold on me than any sense of self-preservation. I know--it's embarrassing.

Of course, in the perfect karmic twist, it was through the sourdough bread that Fairway's lunacy, and the psychosis that it lures out of my fellow shoppers, truly revealed itself tonight. After darting past the conventional produce to procure my yogurt--because Stonyfield organic yogurt would obviously be kept next to the marinades and potatoes, not upstairs with all of the other organic dairy products--I made a mad dash and a quick right into the bread aisle. Lo and behold, and readers please praise the god of your choice, there was only one person in line. Ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere, this NEVER happens. I wish I had photographed this Halley's comet of grocery store ephemera, because I might never see such a sight again in my lifetime; furthermore, the next thirty seconds unraveled a series of events of such mind-blowing craziness that I'm still sorting out what actually occurred. So without further ado, I present for your reading pleasure thirty seconds of Fairway mania...

I stand in line, the person in front of me quickly pays, and for a millisecond I am the only person at the bread counter. As I am uttering the words "long sourdough loaf, please", a woman walks in front of me and places five assorted bread items on the counter; another woman approaches from behind and physically moves me to look at the napoleons in the dessert case, and as I turn to her, ready to ask "Excuse me, was that necessary?" after I finish my bread request, a third woman proceeds from the other direction with the world's longest, widest stroller (there were three babies inside of it), which inevitably becomes wedged in the T-intersection of the bread aisle and deli cases.

The three of us at the counter are now shoved against it because of the stroller's girth; the woman manning the bread counter is shouting what sounds like "Christ?" from the unseen space on the floor, behind the counter, on which she's crouched rooting around for a long sourdough loaf. In my attempt to bend down and peer through the glass bread case--my addled brain has led me to believe that this will result in me understanding what she's saying (it doesn't)--I am outmaneuvered by the woman who waltzed ahead of me, who has now convinced the bread woman to stand up and get her several baby-sized slabs of ciabatta ahead of me and my apparently invisible loaf of bread. At this point the woman with the stroller decides to back down the aisle, and in the process shoves everyone who tried to form a line around her and behind the napoleon-lusting shopper back into the imported grains aisle, which subsequently causes everyone in that aisle to hit the express checkout lane like buckshot.

Miraculously, I deduce that the bread lady was asking "Sliced?" not "Christ?", largely because she must have interpreted my ignorant silence as a "yes" and is thus trying to force an unwieldy plastic bag full of sourdough slices into my hands, while also shouting something else incomprehensible and in a mildly alarming tone. I turn to beat a hasty exit, only to discover--immediately, because I can't move--that the stroller is now stuck at a diagonal angle in the bread aisle, and that the woman pushing and pulling said stroller is being gently and repeatedly tapped by the red and white cane of a very old and very alone blind woman.

Ah, Fairway, you give as good as you get. Until next time!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Death of a Lemon

A lemon the root rot caught,
Shriveled and sucked of light, with a shrinking shape has been shocked
Into its stem, and tucked sadly under
Its larger, healthier mate, in the shade
Of that bigger citrus--a blunder
That is starting to fade.

The rare Meyer sweetness goes,
Spends in the puckered rind, in the pith and juices, flows
In the seeds of the center, now dry and lined. It stands
As still as if it would return to ash,
And quietly observing, disbands
Toward some dark potting soil mash,

Toward breezy and leafy orchards
And El Niño rain, toward lost California’s tree farms.
Night lengthens, fading and soon is passed
In the pale yellow zest, which still seems
To reflect, through the window glass,
The rising sun's bright beams.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Swimming Up Amsterdam Avenue

As I've noted recently on this blog, I've returned to running and cycling in these past few weeks, and my body is feeling their effects--my legs twitch in my sleep (a disconcerting habit of mine that occurs when I begin cycling hard again after a break) and my core is regaining some of its prior strength (it tends to be much stronger when I run regularly, which seems counter-intuitive to me). But I don't think I've paid proper blog tribute to the activity that maintained my sanity and sense of self over the last six months, and I hope to rectify that oversight now. Swimming saw me through dark, early February evenings and cold March weekend afternoons, and it was the sport through which I first celebrated spring's arrival, by swimming through the sunshine pouring into the JCC Natatorium on April and May mornings. 

The Presidio YMCA Pool (San Francisco, CA)
My mother first took me to swim lessons at the San Francisco JCC when I was six months old, and it was in that same pool that my sister and I competed on a swim team throughout middle school. To be honest, my nostalgia for that pool is so strong that I have yet to visit the new JCC on California Street; due to poor retrofitting, the beautiful old JCC building and pool were demolished seven years ago, and a sleek edifice arose in its place. By all accounts the new pool is stunning, but I can't bring myself to part--yet--with my imagistic memories of the old one; it was the first pool in which I saw an Olympic swimmer effortlessly glide out of a flip turn, the first locker room in which I procrastinated with my friends while our parents impatiently waited outside, and the first funky sauna in which I fought for space with very old and very naked women (but not the last). 
Clockwise from top left: Fall Creek Gorge (Ithaca, NY); Bethany Beach (DE); The Connecticut River (Hanover, NH); The Russian River (CA)
As I've racked up hours and miles swimming at this "other" JCC pool these last several months, I've had plenty of time to reflect upon all sorts of things; when the black line on the bottom of the pool becomes annoying rather than soothing, and I'm really desperate for mental distraction, I'll occasionally make myself do something like name all the airports I've ever been to (it actually works when one is in need of serious mental diversion because it's so inane). One of my favorite mental pastimes, however, has been to think of all the pools or bodies of water in which I've swum. While similar to the airport exercise in terms of its categorical nature, the pool/body of water listing instead sparks a flood of memories, some of which I haven't consciously thought of in years.

The Stanford Aquatic Center
And so I remember swimming to Fannette Island in Tahoe's Emerald Bay from BM's boat, and seeing porpoises while swimming as a child off of Bethany Beach in Delaware, and swimming from The Point on the Connecticut River in Hanover, NH, when I needed a break from studying for my A-exam. I remember racing in the Presidio YMCA pool as a twelve year-old, and swimming in that same pool last year for my physical therapy before I moved to New York. The sky over Upper Angora Lake filled with shooting stars in the summer of 1997, and AAH and I slept on the beach to watch them before swimming in the cold water when the sun rose over Echo Peak.  I often "bathed" by swimming off the boat docks at Fallen Leaf Lake in the summer of 2000, and after long summer bike rides in Ithaca I would jump into the Fall Creek Gorge, cycling clothes and all, just to float under the waterfall for half an hour before my growling stomach forced me out. The memories continue to rise to the surface: sporadic childhood swims in the Russian River in Sonoma County; laps in my high school swimming pool; endless summer days at my grandparents' pool in Marin County; bone-chilling swims in Cascade and Donner Lakes in the High Sierra; swimming under Fourth of July fireworks in Chevy Chase, MD; a post-cycling swim at a pool nestled high in the medieval village of le Poet-Laval in France; lunch swimming at Stanford's aquatic center in brilliant sunshine, and inner tube movie night in the water polo pool; night swimming and lazy afternoon floating at the pool in Carmel Valley. 

Sierra Nevada lakes, clockwise from top left: Cascade Lake; Donner Lake; Upper Angora Lake; Emerald Bay (Lake Tahoe) 
Perhaps it's because swimming feels more elemental than other sports that I enjoy running through all of these memories while I'm in the pool. One of the greatest corporal sensations anyone can experience, in my belief, is that moment after pushing off of the wall when one's body feels both suspended and pulled along by a watery slipstream. That and the rolling, slow twisting and turning engendered by a steady crawl across the water's surface, as well as the rolling over to float on one's back to look at the rafters, or the sunlight, or the stars. 

Fallen Leaf Lake (Desolation Wilderness, CA)
I haven't been swimming as much in these last few weeks, but like John Cheever's Swimmer or William Least-Heat Moon's River-Horse, I find the visceral experience of charting my passage from water to water to be more complex than I would have expected. Fortunately, I've always like complexity, and good memories, and, last but not least, swimming. 

The Carmel Valley Pool

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Curious Case of the Missing Mixing Bowl

My apartment has a ghost. Or a thief with culinary designs. My suspicions were first aroused five weeks ago, when my 1/4 cup measuring cup vanished. I remember the moment clearly: it was 7:30 am, and I was about to start measuring cereal (some lightweight rowing habits never die). I opened the drawer where my trusty measuring cups rest, and to my horror, I discovered that the 1/4 cup was simply....gone.  I emptied my cupboards, scoured all my teacups and bowls, accused my visiting sister of hiding it--she was asleep and indifferent--and even searched the trash. That final step might seem unnecessary and strange, but I have been known to occasionally misplace things in a fleeting state of absent mindedness, such as a head of lettuce in my dresser (Ithaca, three years ago), and my roommate's alarm clock in a fire ash can (Fallen Leaf Lake, nine years ago).  

When the measuring cup failed to reveal itself, and I learned to accept that its absence was permanent, I chalked up the disappearance to a fit of the aforementioned scatterbrained behavior and bought a new one.  And then something truly freaky happened. On the recent evening when I baked bread, I used my four quart Pyrex mixing bowl both to measure flour for the French loaves and to blend the ingredients for gingerbread. Yes, this bowl was my trusty workhorse, a fused silicate vessel of reliability known to encircle mounds of salty popcorn as well as gorgeous spring salads. At the evening's end I washed the bowl and nested it back inside the six quart mixing bowl on my kitchen island, and then went to bed thinking that all was good and true in the world.
Goodnight, Sweet Bowl
Cut to thirty-six hours later: I wake up intent on making French toast with said French loaves and reach for my noble four quart. But. It's. GONE. I'm incredulous. I turn the apartment upside down, and rip apart every possible hiding place. The silence is insidious. I look mournfully at the six quart bowl, and it returns my sorrowful gaze; it cannot express whatever knowledge it has about its partner's fate. For days the enigma of the missing bowl nags at me, and I refuse to buy a new one in the hopes that it will return as quietly and mysteriously as it vanished.

Actually, I still haven't purchased one, but this has more to due with the absence of replacements at the Zabar's housewares department than deference to its memory; that said, I took the "out of stock" sticker as a sign that the bowl could still return. In the meantime, I'm nervously anticipating the disappearance of the next piece of kitchenware--my stockpot? Skillet? Salad spinner? Furthermore, I remain at a complete loss as to who, or what, is behind these vanishing acts...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Patagonia, I salute you.

Because you swaddle me in fleece like a mother lovingly swaddles a newborn. Because I've spotted you on lanky, teeth-gleaming, environmentally conscious, Bluebottle/Stumptown-sipping men and women from Berkeley to Brooklyn. Because you kept me warm on the whitecaps of Lake Merced, and sweat-free on the 'cross trails of Ithaca, and pleasantly temperate in my Midtown office. Because you cunningly convince me to drop $100 on a hoodie that should only cost $30, and because you make me feel good about it as the dollars float away. Because I don't even care that you make me a caricature of myself. Patagonia, I salute you!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pesto, Fennel, and Mandarin Oranges

I took advantage of some downtime this weekend to brainstorm a few cooking and planting projects I'd like to do over the next several months, and as grist for the mill, I decided to make pesto from my basil plant and a fennel and orange salad from a recent recipe by my friend Maggie. Fennel, for me, evokes memories of Laurel Hill's lower deck, where wild fennel fronds would poke through the fence, and which I and my preschool compatriots would pick in order to taste "licorice". 

Last summer I belonged to the Washington Square CSA, which is affiliated with Norwich Farms and which received an impressive and much appreciated bounty of fennel in July; this year, however, I'm CSA-less, so Fairway's fennel will have to suffice (as of yet I'm beyond satisfied).  I decided to play around with Maggie's recipe a bit--I'd picked up a beautiful bunch of flat leaf parsley at the Park Slope Co-op with SAS (I was an intrepid and slightly illegal shopper, and yes, my pulse did quicken in the ominously quiet aisles. Why do none of the Co-op members talk to one another in the store? I find that very, very strange for a group that insists upon shoulder-to-shoulder community--or perhaps therein lies the problem?). In any case, I had an equally enticing bunch of pungent mint leaves, but my general distaste for cilantro made me reluctant to include it, and because I had a tin of organic unsweetened mandarin oranges begging to be opened, I passed on peeling and slicing my own oranges as well. 

Other than those emendations, I stayed true to Maggie's culinary marvel, and I must say, this is a phenomenal summer salad! I ate half of it for dinner on Saturday and had to resist finishing it on Sunday post-lawn sports.

As of today--Monday--the salad had vanished, so this evening I made pesto from the small basil plant that I picked up at the W 77th St Greenmarket a few weekends ago. 
In the spirit of Tassajara, which has been my gastronomical muse these past couple of months, I followed Annie Somerville's recipe from the Fields of Greens cookbook; I also threw in a fistful of the leftover flat parsley leaves--delicious! The small yield of basil leaves (roughly one cup's worth) resulted in just enough pesto for two bowls of pasta, although as one can see from the photo below, instead of pulverizing the leaves I only pulsed them a few times, so that the pesto "dotted" the pasta instead of coating it.

Now I'm pesto-less and fennel salad-less, and my basil plant is oddly naked looking without its leaves, but the culinary memories more than make up for the losses. Furthermore, I was able to spend part of the weekend with SAS at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers' Market in Brooklyn, as well as some quality time in the Park, on the road, and both in and on the water, so there's simply nothing left to do at this point but revel in the afterglow of these wonderful experiences...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer's First Ride

"The first ride of 2009", or better yet, "The first ride since February 2008", would be a more accurate title for this post, but in the interest of not immediately revealing how badly I've neglected my beloved Celeste these past sixteen months, "Summer's First Ride" it is. This morning, I met up with AMK at 7:00 am and we rode two wet, drippy laps in Central Park; due to a combination of our late start and the dreary weather, we were the only cyclists on the road, which is exactly what I needed as the great Bianchi and I became re-acquainted. Apparently JSH saw me as she was running the loop as well!
Celeste: Je t'aime
I know that the burning question on every reader's mind is why I haven't ridden for nearly a year and a half, and to that I can only answer....I simply haven't felt like it. After years of competitive sports, and with no immediate plans for racing or a marathon-like event on the horizon, I only run/ride/kayak/swim/play squash/[insert sport of choice] when I want to. Of course, after being conditioned by twenty years of practices and meets I end up wanting to do something every day, which is why I can usually be found in the pool or by the river on any given morning or evening. Not being able to run these past several months has been very tough for me, and while I've channeled my inner swimmer and yogi, I just haven't had the cycling bug.
The Honeymoon Phase
I can chart my years in Ithaca not only by crits and time trials, but also by the rides that I undertook through Brooktondale and Trumansburg, around Cayuga Lake and past the goat farm in Wilseyville, out to Owego and back through Slaterville Springs. The cumulative months that I spent in New Hampshire saw me ride in view of Whaleback Mountain and down the massive grade of Kings Hill, around Green Mountain lakes and across the covered bridges of the Connecticut River. After shipping my car, bike, and books back to California, I went cycling through France, including up the mythic Ventoux with JFL and AB, and when I finally returned to San Francisco I decided to celebrate my arrival by riding the Mt. Tamalpais century. At that point, something in me, relative to cycling, switched off. Somewhere over the course of the 7000' elevation gain, searing heat and freezing fog of those difficult 100 miles--which normally would have been a welcome challenge--cycling stopped being fun. I joined a master's rowing team, started running more regularly again, and left Celeste in the basement next to my snowshoes and skate skis.
Riding up Mt. Tamalpais, in happier times
I still rode occasionally, especially once MAR moved to the Bay Area, but I didn't look forward to riding in the way that I had for the previous three years. The intense traffic, even more intense SF cycling scene, and very crowded roads--especially on the flanks of Mt. Tam and the coastal highways--annoyed me more than they should have, and I would return home more frustrated than pleasantly exhausted, which is the optimal post-cycling state. Even one of my favorite rides, the Marin Headlands loop out to Rodeo Beach, could no longer cheer me up, and so at the end of February last year, I rode through the Headlands one last time, and then decided to ride again only when the cycling sirens called.
Rodeo Beach, Adieu
Months passed, and the sirens remained silent. I rode my trainer post-foot surgery for a spell in the Fall (largely because I couldn't swim), but I still didn't feel the desire to take Celeste for a spin in the Park. For what became my first year in New York, I never woke up to the irresistible anticipation of riding my bike. So I never rode it.

And then about three weeks ago, with the weather warming and the days staying light until 8:00 pm, on my post-work walk home through Central Park I saw a pack of cyclists drafting off of one another past Sheep's Meadow, and just as had happened during the Mt. Tam century, something in me clicked. I knew that it was time to ride again. I went home and nodded at Celeste.

I won't address my current cycling fitness, which is abysmal, or my squeaky brakes and ragged racing tires, which need to be replaced asap, but I will say that similar to when I went running for the first time two weeks ago, I felt like "myself" again as soon as Celeste and I hit the road. I was surprised at how quickly handling came back to me, at how instinctively I shifted my weight when passing over wet road paint stripes and unexpected potholes, and at how naturally I moved in and out of gear and in and out of the saddle on Central Park's rollers. AMK was a great companion (not too slow, not too fast, and infinitely patient as I settled back into cycling) and when I arrived home with both an impressive skunk stripe and a very dirty bicycle, I wasn't only pleasantly exhausted--I was smiling.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Arboreal Baby

The Upper West Side has an unfortunate dearth of Meyer lemon trees, and I've decided it's time to right this imbalance. When I was growing up, my family had a Meyer lemon tree in our San Francisco backyard, and I firmly believe that, from a culinary perspective, these lemons result in superior lemon bars, sorbets, and roast chicken (to name a few gastronomical possibilities). As a result, I'm now growing one of these trees my in apartment. I can't take full credit for its lush canopy and tempting little lemon buds, however; Four Winds Farms raised my darling from seed to second year seedling, and then packed it in sawdust and shipped it east to my sunny living room. 
Prior to the tree's arrival, I sped around the UWS like a nervous mother-to-be, only instead of seeking nursery paint swatches and bassinet models I was on the lookout for optimal potting soil and fertilizer. On a few occasions I wish I had access to a car and a big box store like 99% of America--another recent such occurrence began with a search for a croquet set under $20 and ended with me cursing my 'burbs-less existence in the sketchy basement of the KMART on W 34th and 7th--and this situation also easily qualified. After paying an obscene amount for the world's simplest 10" diameter terracotta pot, I broke down and hailed a cab; I may be strong and tough, but carrying said pot and a massive bag of potting soil eight crowded UWS blocks was just more than I could stomach. 

Once the tree was delivered, potted, and watered, my anxieties only increased. Was it growing? Over-watered? Under-watered? Happy? Sad? Why couldn't it tell me?! Actually, I soon learned that my tree communicates quite well; when half the leaves turned yellow and fell off, I realized that, yes, it was both sad and over-watered. And when one of its little lemons started to grow with the ferocity of a butterfly pupa, I knew that it was at least marginally happy. 
In the last couple of weeks, two beautiful white flowers buds have emerged, blossomed, and peeled away to reveal two new baby lemon buds, and in the process they filled my apartment with a gorgeous scent that carried me right back to the West Coast. Hopefully it's only a matter of time until we're all enjoying Meyer lemon tarts and vinaigrettes!
The Marvelous Meyer Lemon Blossom: A Play In Three Acts

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quotes of the Week

This post might more accurately be named "Quotes of the Month"; the rate with which my esteemed friends and colleagues have said something funny has diminished in the last four weeks. So while I post these quotes here for your enjoyment, I also issue this directive: be quotable! Preferably within earshot of me!
-----
On smoker CE's complaints regarding her master cleanse
CE: Chickens, I feel kind of pukey and nauseous.
KP: You feel pukey and nauseous? Maybe it's because you cleansed your body and are now infusing it with tar and nicotine.
-----
LP: The reason I come to America, this great country, is for the BAM BAM BAM! Where is the BAM BAM BAM?
-----
On the "MotherLovers" opening scene
CGC: Wait, why were they in jail?
LRC: Are you serious? Because they were showing their d**ks to everyone.

-----
While at Collegetown Bagels in Ithaca, after the night from hell
LRC: I'm going to order the biggest coffee that they have.
CGC: I know, I'm going to order the biggest mug of tea they have.
LRC: Living on the edge, are we?

-----
On LP's root canal that morning
CGC: How are you feeling?
LP: I feel pretty good, because of the drugs. I feel...serenity.

-----
On Halloween costumes for this year
CGC: You're not going to be a pants-less Winnie-the-Pooh like last year?
BKG: No, I lost my Tigger.
CGC: Oh, that sounds so sad! You lost your Tigger!
BKG: Because Tigger was a vindictive bitch.

-----
On CGC's lack of some adult teeth
LP: Make sure you are solidly married to a man before you tell him of your condition.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bread in the Evening

This past Friday was both an English and a Northern Californian "summer" day in New York City--cold, windy, rainy, and very grey. I can't deny that I somewhat enjoyed this very un-NYC weather, as heat and humidity rank high on my list of "things I could do without"; I'm genetically predisposed towards the cold and grey, and growing up in San Francisco destroyed any chance of being conditioned to enjoy the hot and humid.

I left work early, walked home through a fierce wind--all the trees in Central Park looked as though they were raucously waving hello--and stretched out on my couch with my small stack of cookbooks. I knew that I wanted to make something, but my indecisiveness was driven by two crucial factors: lack of inspiration, and a serious lack of groceries. After an hour of aimless reading, I found myself returning to that bible of bread bibles, The Tassajara Bread Book. Now, this book and I have a long history together, and I think it's important to delineate that history here, however briefly. For those of you who grew up in San Francisco, you may remember the mouthwatering Tassajara breads that were sold both at the Tassajara and Just Desserts bakeries, as well as at some grocery stores--breads like potato and cottage cheese dill (incredible, and coming from someone who wouldn't touch cottage cheese if it were her last meal, much better than it sounds), as well as the more standard whole wheat and rye. My memories of Tassajara bread center around my elementary school lunches and the Cole Valley bakery where AAH and I used to pick up bread for her family, the same bakery where JH exhibited his Bali photos when we were in high school (he's now a photographer for The New York Times).

And then, out of nowhere, the Tassajara bakery shuttered its doors, Just Desserts eventually went the way of the dodo, and we were breadless. Some, my mother included, had The Tassajara Recipe Book lying on their kitchen shelves, and others developed new allegiances to bread bakers like Acme and Semifreddi, but for me, life was never the same. How could it be? Just as sourdough baked on the West Coast possesses a different tanginess than that baked in New York, even when the starter is the same, so too is Tassajara bread unequivocally different when baked in one's own kitchen rather than in the old Cole Street ovens. C'est la vie de le pain.

I did what every human does--or should do--and entered adulthood, and as the years passed I found myself encountering Tassajara at various twists and turns, from James D. Houston's books to the Saturday morning meditations at the SF Zen Center. When in Carmel Valley one summer on our annual family and friends vacation, I began to think a little more seriously about the origins of Tassajara baking in general, as a way of feeding the Center's monks and visitors day after day in the Santa Lucia mountains, and not just as breadly solace for a little girl in a San Francisco schoolyard (although surely that has a place in the Zen schema of the universe?). And then one Christmas, while home from the East Coast, as I lingered in Green Apple's used cooking section, I unexpectedly received culinary dharma transmission: I found a pristine, original 1970 Shambhala Press edition of The Tassajara Bread Book.

I cannot overstate the significance of finding this book, in both that edition and condition. The text contains calligraphy and thumbnail sketches, beautiful illustrations of bread kneading and loaf shaping, and a striking kitchen necessities-lists-cum-poetry, which begins, "bringing food alive with your / loving presence". Ah. The first page contains the imperative "cook, love, feel, create", and the Zen-like maxim "you are breadmaking itself", while the dedication commences, "dedicated / with respect and appreciation / to all my teachers / past, present and future: / gods, mens and demons; / beings, animate and inanimate / living and dead, alive and dying", which is, in truth, a universal dedication for any number of activities.


The Dedicatory Koan
Inspiration, assisted by culinary memories, finally came as I re-read Edward Espe Brown's words and skimmed over the kneading and sponging illustrations; however, my lack of several pantry staples resulted in me alighting upon white flour French loaves, as opposed to rye-oatmeal or sesame with cracked millet (which Brown aptly names "greed-arousing", a nice Germanic compound). At this point it was 7:00 p.m. and I had at least six hours of work ahead of me, so without further ado I slipped on my apron, cranked up Neil Young, and started measuring cups of flour.
Let us now praise the mighty pilot light
One of the blessings of having a small stove with a powerful pilot light is the truly astounding dough rising that can it can produce. While the dough "sponged" for sixty minutes--Brown's term for the initial rising, before the salt and oil are added--I pondered possible variations for the loaves; since I was only making two, a number decided by the size of my kitchen and baking implements, I decided to leave one "plain", and the other dictated by whatever my minuscule herb garden could provide. Although I considered the ramifications of a sage-infused batard, ultimately the rosemary caught my attention, perhaps because it was in dire need of pruning.
After the dough sponged and I had added the remaining ingredients, the kneading began. Now, kneading requires a certain rhythm, and I'm always struck by how much one's hips and core are required in order to truly gain said kneading rhythm. Suffice it to say, I knocked everything off of my tiny kitchen island and almost lost the dough in the process, but once I fell into the kneading groove I could literally feel the dough coming together into one organic unit. Back into the bowl it went for its second rising, and I baked a pan of gingerbread while I waited for it to double in size.

Dough Has Risen

Dough Thus Kneaded
Bread making doesn't frighten so much as nervously puzzle; at each step, the bread maker wonders, "Is this really necessary?", and outright asks, "What would happen if I just poured all the flour in at once? Beat for fifty strokes instead of 100? Didn't punch down the dough?". And yet, deviation from the prescribed steps is at one's peril, as the precision of each measurement and time-step signifies the difference between an airy, chewy loaf and a brick-like blob. The closest analogy I've been able to come up with so far--and let me know if you think of a better one, because I think it could use improvement--is that of trying to get a cranky child to sleep. The slightest shift in tone or a "too quick" lights out can instantaneously result in needing to start all over again, only even more exhausted than when one first began. But when the child sleeps and the best bread is baked: heaven!

Demonstrating my ambidextrous photography skills
After the final rising, I divided the dough into two pieces and rolled each out to about 1/4" thick. I sprinkled one with the rosemary leaves, and then I shaped both into loaves worthy of a Zen monk (or so I'd like to think). I slit the tops to allow steam to escape, and then into the oven they went...

...off went my smoke alarm, and a mere forty minutes later...

...they emerged, brown and crusty with a yummy, yeasty smell that would fill my apartment for the next few days.

Resting on the mini-popover-pan-as-drying-rack
At the end of The Tassajara Bread Book, Brown writes that when he became head of the Tassajara monastery kitchen as a twenty-two year old, he was "about as sure of my position as a leaf which falls in the winter creek", and that he "proceeded to do a lot of things which I didn't know how to do, learning first-hand, the blind leading the blind. Bumped my head quite a bit, and a few other people's heads also. The actual cooking, I discovered, was the easiest part of the job".

This passage seemed fitting for this past week, which marked the one year anniversary of my move to New York. To say that at certain points in the past year I felt like "a leaf which falls in the winter creek", (and bear in mind that this refers to a coastal creek, which rages swollen with rain and run-off in the wintertime), would be an understatement. I don't think I bumped my own or anyone else's heads too often, but I certainly learned "to do a lot of things which I didn't know how to do", and frequently felt like the blind leading the blind (see "coaching" and "computational chemistry"); the cooking has always been the easiest part. Cooking, however, is always the most meaningful when done in someone's home, particularly one's own. And perhaps the best part of this anniversary has been the realization that, after one year, New York has finally started to feel like home.