Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Constant Bliss with Apples and Potatoes

My recent Fresh Direct order allowed me to make one of my favorite autumn dishes--Mireille Guiliano's Potato Gratin à la Normade, from her book French Women for all Seasons. I realize that waxing rhapsodical about tart Granny Smith apples and dusty russet potatoes might not whet one's appetite in the way that writing about Guiliano's pumpkin petit pots or chocolate brioche would, but there's an important reason that this dish resides in my culinary stable: it's very, very, very good.
Aside from the brisk afternoon winds in Central Park and the cold hardwood floors that have been greeting my bare feet each morning, I knew that gratin time had arrived when I placed my Fresh Direct order and noticed that this otherwise ideal grocery service did not sell Pont-l'Évêque cheese. As I've noted previously, Pont-l'Évêque is one of my favorite cheeses, and as Giuliano points out, because the gratin consists primarily of apples, potatoes, and this cheese, which are ingredients native to Normandy, it's the epitome of a Norman dish. The absence of Pont-l'Évêque necessitated an improvisation that did not excite me, and I rather glumly scrolled through the list of soft cheeses. Until, that is, my eyes alighted on the one cheese that I might love more than Pont-l'Évêque, and that I never would have guessed Fresh Direct might sell: Jasper Hill's Constant Bliss. And it was on sale. The presence of this delectable little cheese was a sign from the grocery gods--Potato Gratin à la Normande could not only be made, it could be made in the likeness of a Californian who happens to love both New England (home of Jasper Hill) and France (home, of course, of Normandy).
The same night my Fresh Direct order arrived, I toasted some walnuts, boiled the potatoes, and browned the apples with a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Because I don't like my gratins particularly creamy, I always abstain from the crème fraîche or sour cream that Giuliano includes in her recipe, and instead dot the apple and potato layers with just the soft cheese (rind included); I often find, upon reheating over the next few days, that the cheese continues to melt, so that a thin film envelopes the slices and provides just the right, rich counterpoint to the tastes of apple, potato, and walnut. Yum. For the rest of the week, I enjoyed gratin for lunch at my office desk, and then, after a gorgeous, crisp forty-five mile bike ride out to Piermont with JSH and ZH, ate the last remaining bit with a Bunbury muffin. Autumn has arrived!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quotes of the Week

With all of my recent traveling, I've found that either my ears have failed to pick out memorable quotes, or that the people around me have become decidedly less quotable. Either way, LP remains a reliable repository of memorable quips!
On his encounter with immigration at Charles De Gaulle Airport.
LP: I wasn't exactly yelling at them, but I was saying unpleasant things.
While walking at Fort Point in San Francisco with CGC, CG, and MAR.
: If you could be either a pelican or a seagull, which would you be?
MAR: A pelican.
Thoughtfully, a few second later.
: But you know, I worry that I wouldn't be very good at being a pelican.

LP: You know, when I come to this great country, I realize that if you want someone to like you, you show them your boob if you can.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Poetry at Breakfast

When I was home in San Francisco two weeks ago, I spent a foggy evening deep inside the cozy confines of one of my favorite haunts: Green Apple Books. From the time I was ten I grew up literally around the corner from this bookstore, and before that my family was a mere eight blocks away. Many of the texts for my high school English classes came from Green Apple's eclectic used fiction aisles, and as a result, at a young age I possessed some of the most interesting editions of literary classics that I've seen (including this one of The Catcher in the Rye). From hours of browsing in those pre-Amazon days, I also explored books that I might not otherwise have encountered, in particular the minor works of authors like Henry James, Mishima Yukio, and Willa Cather.

On this last trip I had no specific agenda other than to find the following text: Robert Hass's Time and Materials. Green Apple's poetry section is impressive; in fact, to my mind it is rivaled only by Cambridge's Grolier Poetry Bookshop with regard to both quality and breadth. Grolier holds a special place in my heart, too, as it's where I purchased Hass's collection of essays, Poet's Choice, when I was seventeen (a collection that is not unlike a blog in terms of its objectives and content). But I digress. Time and Materials won the National Book Award almost two years ago, and I thus could have purchased it much earlier, but I've been a little reluctant to do so. You see, Hass's text Sun Under Wood is one of my favorite books--poetry or otherwise--of all time; I love Sun Under Wood so much that I wanted to make sure I was truly ready to let another book of Hass poems into my life (crazy but true).

I first read Robert Hass at the breakfast table, when I was almost sixteen. That spring the San Francisco Chronicle had published one of Hass's poems, "Dragonflies Mating", at the back of its Sunday magazine, and one weekday morning before school, as I ate my cereal, I picked the magazine up from the table and just started to read the poem. Because no one had moved the magazine by the next morning, and because it still lay open to the "Dragonflies Mating" page, I read it again. And then the next morning, I read it again. I read the poem each morning before school that week, so that by Friday, while we drove down Sunset Boulevard to school, the lines "Wouldn't you rather / Sit by the river, sit / On the dead bank, / Deader than winter, / Where all the roots gape?" kept running through my head. In gym class that afternoon I saw the basketball rim as "the true level of the world, the one sure thing", and the Jesuits walking down the school hallways became Franciscans "who meant so well [...] and such a terrible thing / came here with their love". And then at crew practice, I watched a flock of birds fly above the lake and thought, "I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us".

It was weird and new, this hearing a poem in my head, but it was also wonderful--by reading "Dragonflies Mating" so many times, I felt as though I had internalized the language, and I was suddenly and unexpectedly able to recognize it in the moments unfolding around me. Not long after that week, my mother gave me Sun Under Wood (which contains "Dragonflies Mating") for my birthday, and my perspective shifted yet again. The title for Hass's text, as I soon discovered, came from an anonymous Middle English poem that was reproduced at the front of the book, and which is entitled by default "Sonne Under Wode". I read this four line poem again and again; I had never encountered this type of language before, and the lines' almost childlike meter rang through my head for days (even now, out of nowhere, I sometimes sense it rising to the surface of my consciousness). Did I know, on some level, that this poem portended years of future scholarship?

Of course, I loved the other poems in Sun Under Wood, too, and some of them--"Faint Music" and "English: An Ode"--resonated with me at the same level as "Dragonflies Mating". I also found that at times of intense work, such as the nights before final exams, the poems provided me with just the right mix of story, imagery, and idea before I fell asleep. The book rested on my bedside tables in San Francisco, Palo Alto, South Lake Tahoe, Oxford, and Ithaca, and now it's with me here in New York City, where it's just been joined by Time and Materials. The two books, both published by Ecco Press, look like biblio-twins. I haven't started reading the latter text yet, but because Vermeer's "Milkmaid" is at the Met for the next several weeks, and because Hass has a poem about the painting in Time and Materials, perhaps I'll start reading it tomorrow morning--at breakfast.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Last Cosmos of Summer

Although we are well into September, summer still dallies on the Upper West Side; sunlight and blue sky have smiled continuously upon the brownstones this weekend. Yet an undeniable hint of a chill is in the air, and I haven't turned the air conditioning on for days. When I rode out to Piermont yesterday with JSH, ZH, and SS, I almost wished I had stuffed a pair of arm warmers into my jersey pockets; each time we stopped on our three hour loop I became cold within minutes. Still, I like the anticipation of Fall, and I particularly like it in New York City. The season evokes a kaleidoscope of experiences and memories for me: cyclocross races and the Apple Festival in Ithaca; jack o' lanterns and fiery leaves resting on the brownstone stoops in my New York City neighborhood; cold late afternoon runs in brilliant sunshine through Golden Gate Park with my old cross-country team. 

With the beginning of a new school year and business quarter--bear in mind that this is only the third Fall since I was two that hasn't seen me marching off to school--Fall also signifies a time to re-assess my current habits and practices. And so, unable to face the post-Rosh Hashanah/pre-Yom Kippur crush at Fairway this afternoon, I decided to embrace the seasonal spirit of new beginnings and place my first order at Fresh Direct. One would think that oatmeal, tea, potatoes, and one giant fillet of wild Pacific halibut--among a few other sundries--would not necessitate an online grocery order, but one would need to understand not only how little I desired to force myself through the crowded aisles with a heavy basket and then lug my grocery bags eight blocks home, but also how much Fall makes me miss shopping at the Ithaca Wegman's.

Yes, you read that right. I LOVE the Ithaca Wegman's, and I especially love it at the beginning of September, when its thousands of square feet would burst with mountains of local apples and jugs of apple cider. I loved the wide open aisles and the huge organic produce section, and the fact that I was always able to find every single thing on my list. And I loved how familiar Wegman's was to me, in spite of the delectable surprises that often awaited inside. I loved that I knew the fish guy at the fish counter, that I knew the man who sliced my turkey at the deli and the woman who picked out my favorite Pont-l'Évêque at the cheese counter, that I knew where to pluck Yorkshire Gold off the shelves in the enormous Imported Foods aisle, and that I knew where to find the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts in the model train-ringed bulk foods alcove. I even loved searching for my Subaru in a sea of Subarus in the gigantic Wegman's parking lot. I loved that I could take my time and think while I looked--for anything.

But since I no longer live in Ithaca, just as it's now no longer summer, it's time to find some new things to love. Clicking through the Fresh Direct links, I quickly liked that I could easily review and reject things in my cart, that I didn't have to engage in basket-to-basket combat with any other shoppers, and, most importantly, that I could go back (a swiftly jettisoned tactic in any assault on the Fairway battlefield). Still, the whole experience was a little too sterile for my liking, so after scheduling my delivery, I headed out to my absolute favorite grocery shopping experience in Manhattan--the 77th Street Greenmarket. There stood my favorite peach purveyor and crates of wax beans, the farmer with the cider doughnuts and the beekeeper from the Berkshires. And as I walked back home with a heavy bag of apples and haricots verts, I noticed, standing prettily in a giant tin canister, the last cosmos of summer, a parting gift from the sun and the blue sky before Autumn's first frost. Just as they've brightened the Spanish mission gardens on the West Coast for hundreds of years, the cosmos now brighten my living room desk, and serve as both a reminder of all the things I love that won't return for a few more seasons, as well as a portent of all the new things to come.

Cosmos: the harmonious, well-ordered whole of the floral world

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Earthquake Weather

Well. In the last few weeks I've dashed through four countries, seven states, and three cities, and even managed to attend one wedding (and thankfully no funerals). Little aside from my job and the Central Park running trails have received my attention during that time, although I did read some great novels during all the requisite hours spent on planes and trains. I have a bit of a breather before my next westward trip on October 2nd, so I'm enjoying one of my favorite modes of existence: routine. Yes, I actually derive pleasure from routine, which, I'd like to point out, differs from monotony. Routine, to me, resembles the seasons--the framework remains the same, and provides a firm foundation for a year or a life, but varieties within that framework make both of these timescapes limitlessly interesting. For example, Fall reassuringly occupies the calendar from September to December; it is a constant on which we can depend, and it cannot be prevented from occurring. And yet, no two Falls are ever the same, and each one elicits comparison to the ones that came before--this Fall is so much warmer than last Fall; the leaves in the Fall of 2006 were so much more colourful than those of the last few Falls; remember the Fall when it snowed in October?

Likewise, I find my day-to-day life in New York to seem, on the surface, as placid as the seasons' passing: I wake up early, run/bike/or swim, work, buy groceries, see friends, cook, write, read, and sleep. As elusive as its certainty may be, this routine provides me with a sense of both comfort and anticipation; who knows who I might meet at the grocery store? What new idea I might encounter in a book before I fall asleep? How the morning light will look above the swimming pool? Of course, each period of life possesses its own inherent routine; as a graduate student, I would study, teach, and attend class instead of go to work, and I biked in the afternoons and evenings around the Finger Lakes instead of in the early mornings in Central Park. As an undergraduate I never went to the grocery store, but I did eat my meals communally every day, and on spring evenings I would walk past the same heavily scented rosebushes on my way home from the library. Now I pass the tall plane trees towering above the Museum of Natural History, and in Ithaca I walked home along the rocky cliffs above Cascadilla Creek. And in each one of these periods these unique yet seemingly passive routines provided me with the strong lattice necessary to grow.

This past week in California was a difficult one, but I relished the elements of my home that have remained the same, year after year, even as I have changed--the pelicans dive bombing off of Baker Beach, the coastal trail wending its way through the fog, and the hot Indian summer that descends upon the Bay Area every September. We call it earthquake weather with all the heavy certainty of an old wives' tale, and each year we wonder if the Big One will strike. Most years it does not, but some--like in the hot October of 1989--it does. And every year the chance that it will grows.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Endless Summer, I salute you.

Because you show Mike and Robert traveling the globe wearing suits and carrying surfboards. Because you put "You should have been here yesterday" in my stable of regular phrases. Because you film the perfect wave off of Cape Saint Francis in South Africa, and because those four minutes of footage are better than most movies. Because despite your occasionally questionable depiction of non-whites and female surfers, your joy and love of the sport affects viewers who have never even stood on a surfboard. Because you show us a California, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii that we will never see. Because you found your endless summer. The Endless Summer, I salute you!