Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grant me the serenity

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, January 25, 2017:

“He can make you so nuts — he can so vacuum your brains out — that you find yourself slumped on the sofa all day refreshing Twitter, eating a big bowl of your son’s Honey Nut Cheerios, Cheerio by Cheerio, dry, for lunch, with a piece of prosciutto, for dessert as your whole personality drains out through your left heel and you find yourself in an agitated trance 24-7, not to mention fat.”

I took some liberties with the second half of Friedman’s quote.

I’ve written about my addiction before, but I think I finally hit bottom. At least I hope that was bottom. My only goal for January 25, 2017 was to stay off the internet. Because my laptop has been used primarily for monitoring Twitter in recent weeks, yesterday I did not touch my laptop. When I had thoughts that required expression, I wrote them on pieces of paper with a pen. I read stuff on paper. I finished Ian McGuireThe North Water, a novel full of pus, blood, sodomy, and frostbite in which the protagonist shelters in the hollowed-out carcass of a freshly-killed polar bear. It’s gross. It’s great. Leonardo DiCaprio should star. Then I started and almost finished Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House which is one weird, excellent book. 

When I came across words I didn’t know, I walked over to the dictionary and looked them up. Dimity, in case you’ve ever wondered, is a kind of thin fabric with checks traced by thicker thread. The curtains in Hill House are dimity. I wrote down passages I admired in my notebook, like I did in the olden days.
If your handwriting reflects your character, does that mean that by improving your handwriting you improve your character? Asking for a friend.
I read the newspaper, on paper and cut out bits that I liked and taped them into my notebook like I did in the olden days. 
There was a really cool story in the food section of the NYT yesterday about the beauty of burned foods. It included a recipe for burned toast soup, but I am most curious about that kazandibi.
When I felt bad about accomplishing absolutely nothing and started spiraling into a self-loathing existential crisis, I reminded myself that my only goal for January 25, 2017 was to stay off the internet and congratulated myself on how well I was doing. I looked at some cookbooks and remember how delightful that can be. I decided I wanted to make and eat Gabrielle Hamilton’s lamb shoulder with a celeriac remoulade and some juniper sorbet for dessert.That meal is happening tonight. I felt more and more and more like myself. My powers of concentration returned. Everything slowed down. It was wonderful. It was such a relief. 

At the end of the day I allowed myself 20 minutes on Twitter, just enough time to catch up with my boyfriend Keith Olbermann and watch clips of an ABC interview with this sad, bloated old man who was lying about stuff that no one cares about but him. I discovered I had already lost my taste for it. On a food diet, you get hungrier and hungrier. On a Donald Trump diet, you feel better and better. Today, I am positively jubilant.

To quote the protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House, “The warm wind would come down the city street where she walked and she would be touched with the cold little thought, I have let more time go by. . .

Time goes by no matter what, I just don’t want it to go by as I slump on the sofa in an agitated trance, eating Honey Nut Cheerios and reading about our pathetic president.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Preposterously flaky

"You're not putting that on Instagram are you?"
Isabel went back to school yesterday and on the way to the airport she and I stopped at Arsicault in San Francisco to try one of the bakery’s much-lauded croissants. Bon Appetit named this tiny, humble place 2016 “Bakery of the Year” on the strength of that croissant. How good can a croissant be? Bon Appetit: “simultaneously so preposterously flaky it leaves you covered in crumbs, so impossibly tender and buttery on the inside that it tastes like brioche, and so deeply golden that the underside is nearly caramelized.”

After that excruciating hyperbole and given that Arsicault is three blocks from my childhood home, I had to try one of the things. So there we were on a Sunday morning, late for the airport, standing in line, hungry, a little anxious, cold. I became silently, irrationally irritated at the innocent people in front of us. How dare they be in front of us in line. Why did they all have to use their credit cards to buy one or two croissants? Is it so hard to visit an ATM? Such lazy, irksome people. 

Finally, we got to the front of the line and I instantly forgave everyone. We bought our croissants, ran to the car, and I ate my croissant while driving down 19th Avenue somewhat faster than I should have. While I remember enjoying it, I could not tell you if it was “impossibly tender and buttery” or whether the underside was “nearly caramelized” or anything else about it.

I understand why magazines do it, but it’s silly to overhype a croissant. At least overhype something weird and new, like a cruffin.

We got to the airport, I kissed Isabel goodbye, watched her wheel her giant suitcase into the terminal, and fell into the usual post-visit funk, something I suspect will happen every time I put my children on planes to far-away homes for the rest of my life.

I texted Isabel today to see what she thought of the croissants because we hadn’t discussed them and I wondered if she had picked up on any extreme wonderfulness:

That’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ve been cooking from Alton Brown’s EveryDayCook and although everything has been good, nothing has reached the heights of those broccoli sub sandwiches. Those? Can’t overhype those.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

An Indescribable Sandwich

This isn't the indescribable sandwich. I didn't take a picture of the indescribable sandwich because I was too harried and hungry to do even minimal styling or look for my phone. This is a salty fried bologna sandwich. Describable.
Indescribable doesn’t mean that something can’t be described, only that the describer knows in advance that any description will fall woefully short. With that in mind, here’s my description of the indescribable broccoli sub from Alton Brown’s EveryDayCook: A hearty, super-flavorful, meaty sandwich that contains no meat. On a toasted french roll you spread mayonnaise and then apply a layer of sweet pickle slices that you have briefly marinated in Sriracha, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic. Heap some roasted broccoli on the pickles, top with shaved ricotta salata cheese and crunchy onion rings (the bad-for-you kind out of a canister). Take a big bite. Die of happiness.

And it’s only 430 calories! That’s not half bad if you’re calling the sandwich dinner.

Brown based his weird, perfect sandwich on an even weirder sandwich served at Tyler Kord’s No. 7 sandwich shops in New York City. How weird is Kord’s legendary sandwich? Where Brown uses pickles, Kord uses lychees. Life doesn’t get weirder than lychees.

A few adjustments to Brown’s recipe:

-I would start with more broccoli, like two pounds. My broccoli shrunk a lot and it seemed a bit scant. Also, I would peel the thick broccoli stems before cutting them into coins. 

-Use less pickle brine. Try 1/4 cup. 

You have to make this sub. It’s more satisfying than many a meaty sandwich, including the fried bologna sandwich I ate the other night at a sports bar in Richmond, Indiana. When a broccoli sandwich is better than a fried bologna sandwich, you know you’re on to something.

Owen is looking at colleges in the Midwest, ICYWW why I was in Richmond, Indiana. My kids seem magnetized by un-picturesque small towns in the middle of nowhere. But then so am I.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Bat curry, batty thoughts, shallow thoughts, other stuff

For Christmas, Mark gave me Culinary Delights from the Seychelles, a captivating and peculiar vintage title that includes recipes for delicacies like turtle steak and fruit-bat curry: “Skin the fruit-bats and remove their heads and insides, wash thoroughly to remove the blood, cut up and set aside.

Don’t hold your breath.

My sister gave me Mario Batali’s Big American Cookbook and my father gave me both A New Way to Dinner by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs and Alton Brown’s Everydaycook. So much I want to try from Everdaycook: coconut oats, a roasted-broccoli sub, chicken salad, kale salad, two brussels sprouts recipes. Healthy fare. Sadly, for the first time in several years my New Year’s resolutions include the word “diet.” 

More on cookbooks in coming weeks.

We always drive down to Los Angeles after Christmas so there we were for the last few days of 2016. In L.A., I like to eat and go to movies. To get a jump on my New Year’s diet, I tried to focus on movies this trip. Other than some Blue Star donuts, Kettle Glazed doughnuts, several pounds of Korean bbq, stray leftover Christmas candy, a friend’s daughter’s homemade macarons, and movie theater popcorn, I think I did really well.

Two movies from the trip that I must recommend:

*Our first day in L.A., Owen and I saw O.J.: Made in America, the 464-minute ESPN documentary about the life of O.J. Simpson. Owen was furious when we sat down at 1 p.m. because I’d forced him to walk the two miles to the theater, we were the only people there (“It’s just weird!”), and his Coke was flat. He said, “I’m so disappointed in this whole situation and I’m so disappointed I let myself get talked into this.” He said he might text his father during the first intermission and leave.
TFW you are about to watch an 8-hour documentary with your mom.
He didn’t. When we walked out of the theater at 9:15 p.m. he was incandescent.

OJ: Made in America is an enthralling, transcendent masterpiece. I know it’s hard to square “ESPN” and “OJ” with “enthralling, transcendent masterpiece,” but trust me. Trust Owen.  I wince when people describe something like a piece of cake or a movie as “a religious experience,” but I’m about to do just that. Bear with me here. I’m going out on a limb. 

Recently on a podcast I heard someone define God as “everything we don’t understand.” I wasn’t raised with religion and the most familiar image of God in my Judeo-Christian world was an elderly man with a beard who passed down a bunch of laws on a stone tablet. This never seemed plausible to me probably because my parents never tried to convince me that it was plausible. (My grandmothers did, but parents trump grandparents.)

But the idea that God is “everything we don’t understand?” That works for me. 

Every now and then I think I get a glimpse of an underlying wholeness to the chaotic world. Corny though it sounds, sometimes this happens to me in movies. This year it happened in an Indian film called Court and in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, which was my favorite cinematic experience of 2016 and perhaps my favorite cinematic experience ever.

And it happened with the O.J. documentary. I momentarily comprehended something previously incomprehensible. In this case, I understood how an achingly beautiful young man blessed with talent and grace went from hero to villain to pathetic buffoon over the course of a few decades. How the particularities of his journey intersected with larger forces roiling American culture. How a vast cast of bizarre and vivid characters (the film is narrated by journalists, preachers, former teammates, black childhood friends of O.J., white adult friends, Marcia Clark, jurors in the trial, . . ) all figured into the saga. The film showed how football, beauty, hubris, riots, history, vice, character, sex and a thousand other things fit together perfectly. Horribly, but perfectly. Inevitably. What had previously seemed crazy, complicated, and contradictory made complete sense. If you wanted to, you could even extrapolate the laws laid down by the old man with the beard from the O.J. tragedy. 

It took my breath away. When it was over, we walked out into the night and the vision started to dissolve. But I know that the coherence is there. This is probably not your experience of faith, but it’s the closest I ever come.

I’m sure I sound like a lunatic. 

On our last day in L.A. Owen and I saw 20th Century Women which you will be relieved to learn I am not going try to describe as a religious experience. It was just a sweet, wise, flawed film featuring a dazzling performance from Annette Bening as the single mother of a teenaged son living in Santa Barbara in 1979. There were so many charming things in this movie: Greta Gerwig dancing, Billy Crudup smiling, a shambling old house, snappy dialogue, Our Bodies, Ourselves, Judy Blume’s Forever.

Permit me a shallow moment: If Annette Bening has had plastic surgery or attempted any other anti-aging interventions, she hadn’t done so in the months before making this film. I am ashamed to admit that it took some adjusting on my part. You see wrinkles so rarely on the big screen that they come as a shock when you do. (Marcia Clark made some surgeon very rich.) But there she was up there, the great actress and beauty Annette Bening, with normal-person wrinkles. She did not seem to feel very bad about her neck. In fact she did not seem to feel bad about her neck at all. God bless her. She looked like all fair-skinned women in their 50s looked until very recently, albeit with star charisma, and once my eyes and attitude adjusted, I found her extraordinarily beautiful, not in spite of the wrinkles, but because of them. 

I mentioned that it was strange to see an actress who hadn’t had plastic surgery in a movie and Owen said, “I know, that was really nice.”

Happy New Year, everyone!