Thursday, December 30, 2010

Las Vegas hate/love/hate story, part 3

Richard and John. 1940s.
If you're coming late to this story, the first two installments are here and here.

In 1995, a month or so after the state mental hospital in Utah bought him a one-way ticket to Las Vegas and put him on a plane, my uncle, Richard Reese, disappeared. My father received a few phone calls from third parties requesting money, purportedly on Richard's behalf, and he sent the money. And then there was complete radio silence.

What do you do when your only sibling, a fiftysomething cowboy with longtime mental and substance abuse problems, disappears? For decades my grandparents had waited for Richard to straighten up and fly right. They bailed him out of scrapes and drove halfway across the country to track him down when he ran off and let him live in their extra bedroom for years at a time and checked him into the hospital as necessary. They were amazing people. But Richard was not exactly grateful. Richard was (quite rightly) convinced that they had thwarted his dreams, which involved an apartment of his own, sleazy friends, and gallons of cheap Scotch -- preferably in Las Vegas. Now that my grandparents were dead, was it my father's job to pick up where they left off, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow? Or was it time for Richard to sink or swim? Did any of us for a minute think he was going to swim? So, really, was it time for Richard to sink?

I saw The Fighter the other day, and the charismatic crack addict character played by Christian Bale reminded me a bit of Richard, and the sober, responsible Mark Wahlberg character reminded me a bit of my father. Addicts are impossible, and Richard was an addict. When Richard disappeared, my father let him disappear. I don't blame him at all.

But I was young and sentimental and it bothered me that we didn't know where he was. He could be dead. He could be in jail. He could be living on the streets. He was part of our family! He was my grandparents' son! And, as impossible as he was, Richard was also very dear. So I flew to Las Vegas to find him. I rented a car, checked in to the Stardust Hotel, called the police station, and then began a 4-day tour of every homeless shelter and freeway underpass in greater Las Vegas.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Texas & Louisiana vs. San Francisco

Sartin's. Beaumont, Texas.
Here, they have deep-fried barbecued blue crabs. There, we have steamed Dungeness crabs, which are bigger and less greasy. Point: San Francisco.
 Mulate's. Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
Here, they have fried alligator, which tastes like chicken fingers. There, we have sourdough bread. Point: San Francisco.
Where is the corpse?
Here, they have cypress swamps. There, we have redwood forests. Point: Texas & Louisiana.  Redwoods = John Muir effusions. Cypress swamps = James Lee Burke.

Here, they have racially integrated Starbucks. There, we have liberals who voted for Obama. Point: Texas & South Louisiana. The African-American population of San Francisco: 6.5%. The African-American population of Lafayette, Louisiana: 29%.

We're driving to New Orleans today. If anyone has recommendations for what to do and eat, please let me know!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Miscellany

Santa has a sense of humor and is also very astute. Lucky Mrs. Claus!

Obviously, I've been off my blogging game lately, but I've felt like a dandelion in a strong wind these last few weeks. As, I'm sure, have many of you. But now I am lying in a Houston airport hotel with two snoring children while my husband avails of himself of bad coffee downstairs at the free breakfast buffet.

Christmas was terribly sad but was (therefore?) of the sweetest Christmases ever. I got all my shopping done in time, I almost made all my work deadlines, Isabel and I baked and distributed many dozens of cookies, I learned that my book must be restructured (and, after taking to my bed for a day, accepted the fact), I arranged for our goats to be bred. My dandelion head remains intact. I am proud.

On the plane last night, I started reading a book I can't recommend highly enough: You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier. It's a brilliant, beautifully written and soulful critique of the shape the internet seems to be taking as of 2010 and how that is changing the way we think about people. Lanier is a computer scientist and pioneer of virtual reality, so this isn't just another crabby rage against the machine. I can't do justice to this book in a blog post written from an airport hotel in Houston, all I can do is urge you to read it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Just a pretty picture

I saw these oil paintings of petit fours in the window of a gallery yesterday. What I really want to see are petit fours like this in the window of a bakery.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Boy goats

Dan as a lad.

Kentucky in more innocent days.
You learn something about the earthy roots of the English language when you spend time around farm animals. You're idly observing your chickens one day and suddenly a lightbulb goes off about some dumb phrase you've thoughtlessly used all your life: Rules the roost, pecking order, hen-pecked, flew the coop, clipped her wings. For a while I kept a list, and it was long.

One day I was watching our goat Peppermint after a meal as she went around kicking her heels into the air and I thought, she's really feeling her oats. Ding!

I took the goats up to be bred today and I won't see them again until 2011. I've spent time with bulls and tomcats and unneutered male dogs, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer goatishness of a full grown buck goat. You could smell these dudes from fifty feet away and they did not look like the sweet pictures above.

They looked more like this:

Except they had their tongues stuck out and were making crazy noises. We put Natalie and Peppermint in with the boys and as I walked away Dan was already humping Peppermint while she wailed and tried to squeeze through a 4-inch hole in the stock panel. I felt a little bad. I know it's natural and all and this is the price we pay for cheese and baby goats and life itself, but Dan and Kentucky were acting like a couple of nasty old goats.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Didn't mean to leave you hanging

Heaven and Hell cake.
There's been a lot going on, what with work deadlines and a sick goat.

But Isabel got her Heaven and Hell cake. She seemed pleased. As a commenter to my last post pointed out, this cake is tall. Like, ridiculously tall. Like, move the shelves in your refrigerator tall. The ganache icing alone was 3/4-inch thick and very firm; it was as if I had affixed a thick, firm chocolate bar to the top and sides of the cake. Come to think of it, every element was firm -- firm, dry layers, firm, dryish filling, firm ganache frosting.
Better picture here
I felt it was a waste of angel food cake. You just can't appreciate angel food cake for the lovely fluff it is when it's squished between chocolate and peanut butter mousse like that. To achieve the brown and white effect next time I would probably replace angel food with marshmallow or white mountain filling, which would bring some moisture and creaminess to the experience. Overall I think this is a better concept than cake, but sometimes that's enough.

The best thing I made for Isabel's party: the sardine rillettes from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. I kid not. It sounds hideous but is so very good. All you do is mash up canned sardines, cream cheese, shallots and lemon juice, give it a little cayenne pepper, and wow. I am so happy to have this recipe.

I was thinking of switching over to Greenspan's book, but then I got inspired and bought all my Thai groceries yesterday. I recommenced Thai Street Food last night and will write a separate post about that.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Who doesn't love a bundt cake?

People, it is not hard to cook from Thai Street Food. It is hard to shop from Thai Street Food. There's not one dish in this book you can make using Safeway ingredients and over the last few days it's been impossible for me to get to the Asian market in San Francisco. I will get there soon, I promise. I want to be the first cookbook reviewer who actually cooks extensively (or at all)  from David Thompson's beautiful book.

Since I couldn't do Thai the other night, I decided to make a dinner from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. I really admire Gabrielle Hamilton's writing, but when I first read her review of Greenspan's book on Food52 I thought she was perhaps overly harsh. Then I sat down to choose what to cook from the volume and I found myself curiously and completely uninspired. Almost every entree looked heavy and old-fashioned, stodgy and unappealing. Nothing tempted me except for the cola-and-apricot jam spareribs, but they required long cooking and I didn't have a long time.  In the end,  I only used Greenpan's book to make dessert, which was Marie Helene's apple cake.

I chose the cake because Gabrielle Hamilton approved, as did David Lebovitz. Also: easy. My family hardly touched it, deemed it too plain. At first I agreed, but when I had a piece the next day, I changed my mind. This is a cake that improves with age. It's very moist and rummy, almost like a pudding or clafoutis, almost refreshing. I just now had another delicious wedge for lunch dessert, two words I should probably never use together again. You can find the recipe for this excellent cake here. I'm going to subject Dorie Greenspan's book to further scrutiny in the future.

On the subject of cakes, we are celebrating Isabel's fourteenth birthday tomorrow. Last night I asked, "What kind of cake do you want?"

She sighed and replied, "Oh, I don't really care. You pick." Then she disappeared to her bedroom.

A few minutes later she came running down the stairs with a wild look in her eye, pointing a finger at me accusingly. "NO BUNDT CAKE," she said. "You always run out of time and end up making a bundt cake. I do NOT want a bundt cake."

I knew the teenage diffidence was just an act!

Then she casually pointed out a cake she wouldn't mind having. It consists of angel food and devil's food cake layers sandwiched with peanut butter mousse and frosted with chocolate ganache. It makes me tired just to look at it. Here are some more pictures of said cake

Of course, she was absolutely right. I was going to think about it and think about it and eventually just make a bundt cake. 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Las Vegas hate/love/hate story, part 2

Nice grandparents, 1983
Some backstory to the Las Vegas narrative I started the other day, to explain how my uncle moved to Las Vegas, and why I cared so much when he vanished.

For Mormons, my paternal grandparents had very few children. They had just two, my father and his younger brother, Richard. We were a small family, but close. When I was a kid, the only vacation my family ever took was to visit my grandparents, which meant visiting Richard as well, because he always lived with them, or near them. They kept him out of trouble and when they couldn't keep him out of trouble, they bailed him out of trouble.
Bob, Glade, Richard
And Richard got in trouble. Richard was trouble. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Richard was bipolar. Or schizophrenic. Or something. The diagnoses varied, but even when he wasn't sick, Richard was completely crazy, in all the best and worst meanings of the word. He was extravagantly warm and opinionated, loving and funny, stubborn, belligerent, and morbid, and he had the most amazing cackling laugh. In a family of mild, moderate people, he was intransigent and passionate in his likes and dislikes.  He loved Scotch, Joan Baez, Bear Lake raspberries, and Navajo jewelry. He disliked Aunt Ida, pigs, pork, and several tight-lipped "witch" ladies in my grandmother's ward. He drove a brown Mustang until he lost his license for drunk driving, and he smelled like cigarettes and drug store cologne.

Richard was extremely sentimental and, perhaps because he had no children of his own, he was particularly sentimental about his nieces. The world is full of bad, abusive, and merely indifferent uncles. Richard, for all his problems, was a prince among uncles. My sister Justine and I could not have loved him more, and it went both ways.

I don't want to romanticize, though.  By the time I was 15, I knew Richard was a wreck, irresponsible and impossible, a heartbreaking burden that gradually became a crushing burden on my well-meaning grandparents. Here's what my grandparents and Richard taught me about parenting: You do not necessarily reap what you sow.

In the mid-1990s, Richard was checked in to the state mental hospital in Provo. While he was there, my grandparents both died, within months of each other, almost like they needed to hurry up and check out before he was released because they were too old and tired to take care of him anymore.

Shortly thereafter, without consulting my father, someone on staff at the hospital bought Richard a one-way ticket to Las Vegas, gave him a wad of cash, and put him on a plane.  I don't know who that person was, but what a heel.

Richard, of course, was delighted. Vegas was his Xanadu. He checked into the Stardust Hotel, called us drunk and jubilant late at night, spent all his money, and within a few weeks, disappeared.
Part 3 coming soon.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

How to spend 90 minutes in St. George, Utah

Conoco station 

The cashier showed me how to crack the swarthy little nuts in my teeth. 
If you've never eaten pine nuts straight from the shell, they're softer and fleshier than what you buy pesto-ready from the supermarket, and have a tiny green sprout in the middle. There's a resinous flavor on the shell that I didn't absolutely love.
There was nothing about Nielsen's frozen custard that I didn't absolutely love.

Brother Brigham's stove

I also toured Brigham Young's summer home, which I highly recommend if you're ever in St. George. 

Now, with great joy, I am going home.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Las Vegas, a hate/love/hate story, pt. 1

My first car looked like that, but blue and with a "Save Mono Lake" bumper sticker.
I know I've drifted from my cookbook-reviewing mission, but I'll get back to that when I return home on Sunday. I have a lot on my mind and if I don't post about it, I'll never write it. Or, I'll write it, but never polish it and no one will ever read it. So what's the point?

I'm in Las Vegas, though leaving momentarily. I have a long, emotional, and surprisingly rich history with this challenging and (to me) unappealing place. I'm going to write about it in installments.


When we were in college, my sister, Justine, and I went on a road trip around the Southwest in a used Toyota Tercel. We camped and slept in the back of the Tercel and sometimes stayed in motels, which made our mother happy. One of our first planned stops was to be Las Vegas, where neither of us had ever been. We rolled into town and drove down the Strip. As earnest young admirers of Edward Abbey, we were appalled and disgusted. We never even stopped the car. Vegas was not our thing at all. We could not get to Canyon de Chelly fast enough.

A few years later, our only and beloved uncle, Richard, who was bipolar, moved from Utah to Las Vegas following the death of our grandparents. Vegas was totally Richard's thing. Getting to move here was his lifelong Rhinestone Cowboy dream. He checked in to the Stardust Hotel right on the Strip, spent down his small wad of cash, and promptly disappeared. Which led to my second, very strange trip to Las Vegas circa 1995 to try to find my uncle.

But that's chapter 2.

Now, I have to get in my Ford Focus and drive to Springdale, Utah.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

It was a pretty good movie other than that

It doesn't look like a horror movie, does it.

Many years ago, I went on a date to see Lorenzo's Oil, a movie about a little boy with a degenerative neurological disease. About twenty minutes into the movie, watching Lorenzo's health deteriorate, I began to feel very hot and ill. I excused myself and went to the lobby and standing in front of the counter of popcorn and Junior Mints, passed out. When I came to, I had no idea where I was. Eventually, with the help of the concessions clerk, I figured it out and all was well, though I never saw the end of that movie.

Eighteen years passed. No more vapors. I'm just not the fainting kind. 

Last night, I decided I'd go see Love and Other Drugs at the theatre in Jackson, Wyoming. The story, briefly, is this: pretty Jake Gyllenhaal and pretty Anne Hathaway fall in love, but Hathaway has Parkinson's disease which complicates their romance. About an hour into the movie, watching Anne Hathaway's health deteriorate (very decorously, I might add) I began to feel hot and ill. Then unbearably hot and ill. I thought, I have got to get out of here NOW. But as I walked up the aisle,  I passed out. The next thing I knew I was flat on my back with all these people standing over me in this big dark room with lots of chairs. I had no idea where I was. That was the weirdest part. 

They had called the EMTs and cops and everyone was very kind, but ouf, how embarrassing trying to explain what happened, which is that I can not sit through cinematic depictions of neurological disease without having a panic attack. I'm unfazed by so many "difficult" things -- killing poultry, dead rats, blood, 127 Hours -- but tell a Hollywood actor to fake a tremor and I'm out like a light.

Nothing to do with food, but bizarre enough to share. Do others have mysterious psychological quirks like this? You must!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Yesterday in a picture

The interstate looks so peaceful when you're not on it.
I tried to drive up the east side of Idaho yesterday. The first three hours were a bit icy, but fine. The last half hour, when, through the crazily swirling snow I could barely see oncoming trucks barreling up the center line (or what I guessed was the center line), I was pretty sure I was going to die. Thirty miles from my destination, I gave up, turned around, and very slowly made my way back to Jackson, Wyoming, whence I came. Possibly wimpy, but definitely alive.

As expected, Good to the Grain won the Tournament of Cookbooks, tapped in the final round by Mario Batali. I'm sad this is over. Where will I get my cookbook talk now?