Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why Cooks Are Terrible (Loving) People

In her latest post Suzanne links to an interview in the film 24 Preludes for a Fugue, where the composer Arvo Pärt explains the philosophy behind his piece Für Alina:

He says: "I had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower...a blade of grass has the status of a flower."

Inspired by the grace and loving simplicity of Pärt's approach to music Suzanne writes:

"His music shows us that simple need not imply a lack of complexity; accessible is not a synonym for lack of depth. Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other...Timing and rhythm are essential. Mood is important. What you did that day. The music you’re listening to or the TV in the background. The sounds and smells floating in the background..."

This passage speaks to me: it strikes my heart, of course, as a cook, But it also strikes my heart as a human being. To think, each ingredient, each moment, is utterly important! This is the meal I always envision, the life I want to live.

The French poet Robert Desnos writes:

There is a precise instant in time
When a man reaches the exact center of his life,
A fraction of a second,
A fugitive particle of time quicker than a glance,
More fleeting than lover's bliss,
Faster than light,
And a man is awake to this moment

I chase this moment, ceaselessly, passionately, and often, recklessly. I strike out each day, each meal, each moment, in search of satisfaction, delight, and perfection.

In the realm of food, my chase often ends in the sublime. I'm an obsessive lunatic about ingredients. I'll drive all over town searching for the perfect parsnips. I'll drive an hour out of my way to buy a certain loaf of bread from a certain baker. I buy my Gala apples at one place and my Cameo apples at another. I work, for the love of god, at a famously well-stocked grocery store: Whole Foods Market. And yet, I'll leave work and drive somewhere else for my vegetables. I need the best, the most tasty, the most local (and unfortunately, usually the most expensive) food.

I know, there's madness in this. There's also a certain level of elitism. I refuse good food in favor of better food, I know, because I rank food in degrees of betterness and I convince myself I need the best. Really, I just want it. And this attitude leads, inevitably, to a certain, uncompromising plunge into economic insolvency. I have bills to pay. I don't care, I'd rather spend my money on raw butter. I'll never care, really.

I love what happens when you obsess over food. You meet strange, delicious people. You find yourself in odd places, full of good smells. You find yourself trudging through mud, in pursuit of berries. You get your hands sticky with all sort of goo. You stain everything. To me, this is simply part of the recipe.

Like Suzanne says: "Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other."

So you're a real cook. You truly believe every ingredient is important. You know, everything matters. You strike out each day, each meal, in search of perfection. Of course, your chase ends in the sublime. Your food tastes spectacular. You nourish others with kick-ass ingredients. This is the meal you envision.


You also envision the life you want to live.

You're a cook. You make food, for sure, but you live food too. Your ingredients are never merely limited to your dishes. You put a bit of yourself into a dish too: a bit of your stress, a bit of your fun, a bit of your obsession. You nourish others with your obsessive love.

But obsession can hurt people too. You're a real cook, which means you are uncompromising. You understand what a knife can do and you know how to yield it.

What if you step in the way of my search for satisfaction, delight, and perfection? I know what I do. I cut you. I call you names. I say, Get the fuck out of my kitchen. Then I slice your heart and serve it to you on a platter, garnished with lemon, for the sting.

No doubt, obsession hurts. Perhaps this is why so many great cooks are notoriously terrible people. We seek perfection for others, and we seek it in them too.

This is the type of attitude that says: I will cook you the perfect roast chicken, but you will not deserve it. Nobody deserves my roast chicken. Because to deserve my roast chicken you must first make it yourself. I buy immensely wonderful chicken from the local co-op, hormone free, anti-biotic free, displayed with happy little suicide notes from the chickens themselves! My chicken is brined in Sauvignon Blanc. My chicken is stuffed with two fat organic lemons, spiked with cloves. Then, as my chicken cooks, I say a prayer: God I hate killing little birds but at least we can eat them and do our little dance of praise.

Now, tell me, who cares this much? Not you.

No chicken for you!

I hate to say it, but this is me. This is me at work. This me, on the line, in the restaurant. This is me serving food to the undeserving masses.

(Illustration courtesy of Nesrine...)

Can I redeem myself? I try. I try to redeem myself with my love. I cook for my family, my friends, my wife. I try not to require perfection in them. I try to let them merely show up with an appetite (and, preferably, a bottle of wine). That should be enough. These people should deserve my food, without qualifications.

I cooked two Thanksgiving dinners this year (with the help of my formidable, patient wife): one on Thursday for my family and another on Friday for my other family, my friends.

I also cooked a pre-Thanksgiving Feast on Wednesday night.

I poured my heart into these meals, and yes, at times I felt nobody deserved my effort. But I tried so hard, so very hard.

For example:

Wednesday, I came home and brined a few turkeys with my great friend and neighbor JJ. We made a spectacular mess. Turkey juice splattered all over the kitchen. We filled trashbags with brine, slipped the turkeys in the bags, and then stuffed the bags in JJ's fridge. I'm sure we violated every possible sanitation practice recommended by the Department of Agriculture.

Then I made dinner with my buddy Mikey: roasted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips, roasted beets, pan-fried seitan, and melted kale. It was an epic, pre-Thanksgiving feast. A few friends came over. We got stoned on roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips. We drank wine.

Shortly after dinner, JJ went to his place to check on the turkeys. He rushed back.

He said: There's turkey brine all over my kitchen floor.

I went over and confirmed the disaster: one of the bags had exploded. JJ's kitchen was utterly flooded with impossibly unsanitary turkey brine-juice. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. We mopped, we scrubbed.

This is effort. But I love this effort. I love the hassles, the amazing dilemma. A cook has to love the effort--the effort is everything.

Fast forward to Friday. I've already cooked two turkeys. Karen and I have already served 15 family-members a fabulous Thanksgiving meal. We're dead tired, but we've made plans to do it again!

We've decided to eat at Karen's parent's house (we've been enlisted to baby-sit our nephews and niece; yes, we combine baby-sitting with massive displays of cooking and partying...) but because of a few complications I need to cook the turkey at my place. So I cook a 22-pound turkey and drive it over to Karen's parent's place in my car, precariously nestled in its roasting pan in the back seat, a pot of hot gravy on the seat below.

Friends show up. We drink wine. Karen carves the turkey. I mash sweet potatoes, finish the gravy, set the table. We sit down to a fabulous spread--no leftovers here: fresh cooked turkey, fresh gravy, fresh stuffing (two kinds), fresh pinto bean and winter squash stew, fresh mashed sweet potatoes, fresh grilled butternut squash. This is the fruit of obsession.

But what's this, a few friends are too fucked-up to eat! I curse them! Suddenly the meal turns sour. My hard work, I feel, is wasted. In the midst of my obsession, I feel deeply wounded.

My friends, I think, do not deserve my effort.

And this, to me, is the danger of food obsession: it just might steal your sense of light-heartedness.

It just might make you hate your friends for a night because they didn't eat your turkey.

Fuck them, you think. But then you feel lonely and full of sorrow. This is not the life you've envisioned. The life you've envisioned is full of delight.

You need a day to recover.

My recovery day was spent at Brigantine Beach at my father's house with my wife. We actually ate leftovers. We drank a bottle of wine in the middle of the afternoon. We took a long walk on the jetty. I took a long nap.

Around 8 o'clock we went to a Greek Diner. It was a terrible place. The menu was a ridiculous, chaotic blend of Greek, American, and Italian dishes. I ordered a half chicken. It came, inexplicably, with stuffing. A special Greek stuffing? No, a weird bread stuffing. I didn't eat it, of course. But I didn't complain either. I was happy. I was with my wife, my family. We talked, we shared wine, we shared bad food.

Yeah, bad food, but good meal. I got a chance to hang out with my family, and even though the food was terrible, when it was finished, I was still sitting there with my family, talking, and drinking not entirely bad "Greek" coffee.

Of course, I prefer great food and a great meal. I like when everyone eats kick-ass food, when everyone shares kick-ass food. The thing is though, that a meal is not entirely about the food.

You won't always have that perfect confluence of food and family or friends. Often, one or the other just goes bad. Sometimes, it's the people. Sometimes, it's the food.

But, in the end, a meal has to be as much about the people as the food.

After all, when the plates are cleared, only people are left: family, friends.

In some cultures this moment lasts for hours. Then it seems as if the food is merely an afterthought. What heartache for the cook! His effort, forgotten! Whatever. There will be other meals--other efforts.

Sometimes, it seems, nothing lives up to expectation: the people, the food.

I can forgive the food, but can I forgive the people?

Of course, a real cook always forgives.

Friday, November 09, 2007

History of FoodVibe: Part I

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the relationships between the FoodVibe writers. This post is about Steve. Soon, I'll write about Suzanne, unless she beats me to it.

Steve and I have been friends for seventeen years. We share an impulsive, terrible desire. When we get together, this desire is intensified. We get excited, out of control. We argue vehemently. We drive around Manhattan shouting obscenities at everyone who is not us.

Sometimes people cheer in celebration. Sometimes people get deeply offended. Sometimes the police get involved.

There's always food. And writing. And massive quantities of wine.

Before I met Steve he had already:

1. Burned down an entire field surrounding a drive-in movie-theater.
2. Smashed his parent's car into his sister's bedroom.
3. Procured a hookah.

Our first meeting could be called The Perfect Confluence of The Hookah and The Pot.

Steve, somehow, had the hookah. I, somehow, had the pot.

We were fourteen. We got outrageously stoned with a few friends.

Food, of course, was part of the deal. We built a fire in my father's back yard. Steve brought a few packages of hot-dogs. He cooked three hot-dogs over the fire. He ate the hot-dogs in minutes. I cajoled him into eating six more hot-dogs.

This moment defines a certain dynamic our friendship: I challenge Steve to eat more; Steve says, No way.

So I say: What do you mean no way?

Steve says: No way, I'm done.

I say: Fucking pussy.

Steve says: Fine, give it to me.

It's a sadistic dynamic and it benefits no one but me. It definitely hurts Steve. I've seen him eat two McDonald's cheeseburgers, a large French-fry, and a large Coke in two minutes, simply so I could have pleasure of buying him another round.

Does he even enjoy the second round? I'm not sure. I know I enjoy watching him eat it.

This is a fetish of mine: I love to see people eat. I love to watch people enjoy food.

This is why I cook.

But like all fetishes, mine has its requisite weirdness. Yes, I love to see people eat, but more than this, I love to see people eat massive quantities of food.

I even love to see people suffer. I love, sometimes, when people vomit. I love, especially, when people moan. Steve is a classic moaner. I like watching him eat until he moans. I am, in this way, a bit evil. But I am also a lover. After all, I'm a cook. A cook is always a lover, his food is always about making love. I do not want to kill you. I only want to make you moan.

In many ways then, Steve and I's friendship might be called: The Perfect Confluence of The Eater and The Cook.

Of course, I also eat and Steve also cooks. Recently, for example, Steve turned the tables: he cooked me and a few others a fabulous shabbos lunch. He literally made me eat the equivalent of an entire chicken. To cope, I drank two bottles of wine. I had no choice. Steve literally placed the bottles on my plate. I like this though, this sense of the ridiculous, the powerful sense of myth I feel from eating and drinking too much. In these moments, I come to represent human possibility and human funniness in its most ridiculous form. But this is not my typical style. This is Steve's style.

Steve is the eater.

I suppose then that I should tell you this: I've seen Steve eat more food then you might believe possible. This moment has become a myth. I should also tell you this: It has been suggested that I've invented this myth to cope with the pain of my own inability to eat massive quantities of food. If that theory interests you I can recommend some great case studies about cooks who did that, lied.

But I can only say, this is no lie.

Steve was a champion high-school wrestler. Each winter, every winter, he entered into a zone of torture: weight-cutting. He starved himself, literally, for months. Whenever he emerged from this zone, shortly after the State Championship, he was like a man possessed. I just so happened to pick him up one of these times, on a early-Spring Saturday morning. Another buddy, Henry, was there.

Steve hadn't really satisfied his hunger for months. So we drove to a local Farmer's Market.

And this is the part of the story that I like to call: Oh, the terror.

Have you ever tried Auntie Anne's Pretzels? They're ridiculously tasty, made with buttery dough, and likely sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Henry and I ordered one of these delicacies. Steve ordered three. He also ordered a 32 oz. Iced Tea.

Steve inhaled the pretzels. I thought he was satisfied. Henry and I certainly were satisfied. One Auntie Anne's pretzel, after all, contains 450 calories and 82 grams of carbohydrate. 82 grams of carbohydrate is equivalent to about 4 slices of bread. So let's say Steve ate the equivalent of 12 slices of bread. That might satisfy you, right?

So Steve says: I want one more thing.

And so we go to the pizza stand. Steve buys two slices. He eats them. I figure the bread equivalency count is close to 18 slices by now.

Is Steve satisfied yet?

He says: I want one more thing.

In Pennsylvania, knackwurst is a delicacy offered at Farmer's Markets by the loving, smiling, (evil?) Amish. Steve loved knackwurst, especially the knackwurst sandwich on a thick slices of rye. He ordered one, of course, and ate it slathered with raw red onions and mustard.

To wash it down, he ate two hot-dogs.

By now, my fetish had kicked in. And Steve, it seemed, might be willing to oblige me. Of course, he did.

Kielbasa is another Amish specialty. Often it is served, fried, on a thick torpedo roll. Steve ordered a double kielbasa torpedo and a side of French fries. We actually sat down, so he could savor it, bite by bite and I actually had the impression that Steve was still enjoying his food. The only person moaning was Henry, in disgust. I was laughing, on the other hand, in admiration.

(Let me repeat: This is true. And I'm feeling the fatigue of writing this story. It's insane, ridiculous, and offensive. If you're still reading, I'm offended.)

Steve says: I want one more thing.

Dessert. A triple-scoop ice cream cone, mint chocolate chip.

It doesn't really matter anymore--there's other worse things to consider, like all the fat, the excessive protein, the offended sensibilities--but the bread equivalency is close to 50 slices by now. That's my perspective: 50 slices of bread. Spread about three pounds of butter on that bread and you might account for the fat and calories.

I suppose that's why on the way out of the Farmer's Market, Steve felt compelled to add some fruit to his diet: an entire pineapple, peeled, cored and ready to eat. Which he did as we walked back to the car.


You might be cheering in celebration. You might be deeply offended.

Whatever: This is not the only story, nor is it the most worthy of celebration or derision.

Steve and I have been friends for a long time. I haven't even considered King's White Port, or dog valium, or the entire party's worth of salsa you ate, Steve, the salsa I had spent an hour preparing for the big Memorial Day Party.

Remember, you bastard?

Karen and I watched you through the window.

We laughed our asses off.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dreaming in Spam

I've been having disturbing dreams lately about turning into food.

Short Fiction: The Big Job Interview

“You realize of course that you are a can of Spam,” said the man in the blue necktie sitting across the oaken table in a wood paneled office.

He was leaning ponderously back in his swivel chair, brow furrowed, fingers tented, resting on his chest. A cigarette was smoldering in an ashtray next to a cup of coffee that was hot three hours ago. This was the sixth interview today and it wasn’t even lunch yet.

“So that may propose some,” he paused before saying, “difficulties.”

Sitting across from him in an imitation leather chair was a large can of Spam who only the night before had been George Williams, a twice divorced out of work middle school gym teacher. From the bottom of the can protruded an ordinary pair of legs wearing ordinary navy blue seer sucker slacks. The legs were crossed, with one penny loafered foot fidgeting expectantly in the air. Its sock had slipped down to ankle level, revealing a small patch of white skin and a few black hairs.

No arms. No face or head. Just a can, in slacks.

“I know,” said the can. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be that much of a problem.”

“Problem. Yes,” said the man, now leaning forward, resting his elbows and still tented fingers on the desk. He reached for the pack of Cools nearby on the table and offered it.


“I don’t have any arms.”

“Oh. Of course,” said the man, feeling slightly embarrassed. "I didn’t mean to…”

He trailed off, stuffing the pack into his shirt pocket.

“It’s O.K.” said the can. “You’ve seen my resume?”

“Yes,” he said as he turned his eyes down to the piece of paper that was on his desk. “I noticed that your last job ended in ninety-three. I was wondering if you could account for the...” He turned his eyes up to meet the can’s gaze head on. “Time gap?”

“I’d prefer to not discuss that,” said the can. “It’s rather personal.”

“O.K.” said the man, a bit relieved to be off the topic. “And then there is the issue of your previous experience?”

“What about it?”

“It says here that you taught physical education at Russell Thornhump Junior High in Bayonne, New Jersey, from seventy-three to ninety-three.”

“That’s correct.”

“You do realize that we are an international hedge fund with offices in New York, London and Tokyo.”

“Yes,” said the can with a twinge of unconcealed excitement. “I’ve always found the financial markets to be fascinating. The Japanese are really very, very kind people.”

"And that most of our candidates come from the nation's top business schools with several years experience in investment?"

"I finished the coursework for a masters degree," said the can. "But I never wrote my thesis. I believe that's all in my resume as well."

“Right.” Said the man, loosening his tie. “And how do you feel about managing a client investor portfolio of more than one billion dollars?”

“How could anything be harder than getting seventh graders to play dodge ball? Or being a can of Spam for that matter?”

“I see your point,” said the man. “What say we start you off on a trial basis then?”

“Well,” said the can, clearly disappointed, “I was hoping for something a bit more substantive. Could you tell me some more about your profit sharing plan?”

“Sure,” said the man…

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A spring in autumn

Last week I was ill. It was the flu. I spent four days in bed, rising only in the late afternoon to go to work, which I probably shouldn’t have done. I wear my great sense of responsibility around my neck like a anchor. Though sometimes I have the feeling that I am still not sure to what or to whom.

Andrés was in Valencia and I was on my own. I stared at the pillowcase. I sipped broth. I blew my nose. I drank juice. I cried. I felt alone. I sweated. I had the chills. I slept and slept.

On Friday I woke up after a 12-hour sleep. I felt better than I had in days. I leapt from my bed. I put on I’m walking on sunshine by Katrina and the Waves. I threw open the bedroom window, stripped the bed of its sickly sheets and let the autumn sunshine do the rest. I danced and made soup. After a couple of hours of prancing about I felt weak. I went back to bed. I had the chills. I cursed viruses everywhere. I wondered: Why me?

Being sick makes me feel the opposite of alive. It makes me feel sad. Sad is the opposite of alive.

I was depressed; I always am when I’m sick. There is nothing as depressing as flu. The flu is our deepest weaknesses incarnate.

Yet there in my feverish reverie I made a startling discovery. I felt something stir within me. Then there was an image, a vivid one, and its message was clear: it’s time to carve pumpkins.

My Friday morning rise and fall represented only a minor setback. By Saturday I was still weak. And about 4 pounds thinner. But I was determined. Not wanting to overdo it, I avoided over stimulation. I put on the Cure and gently bopped. I cleaned the bathroom. This routine act filled me with life and purpose. After so many days shut up in bed I was finally doing something that felt worthwhile. I have never felt so fulfilled. At least that’s what I felt at the time.

I went to the market. The walk and crisp fall air invigorated me and awoke my slumbering muscles.

Pumpkins aren’t a big thing in Barcelona. But I remembered having seen some at one of the stalls in Sant Antoni market. I bought two. A big one and a little one. I brought them home.

I had never carved a pumpkin before. I had so many questions. How do I keep the lid from falling in? How much pulp needs to be scraped out? Will the candle show? How many seeds can I expect? Are they as orange inside as I imagine? Is it hard to make the teeth? The BBC has a great website on jack-o-lantern making that cleared it all right up. I recommend checking it out the first time you carve a pumpkin.

I carved the pumpkins. The big one turned out to be a loveable brute. The small one’s mean. Why is it that the small ones are so often mean?

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my pumpkins

From the pumpkins I got seeds. Toasted ones. I like leaving a bit of the pulp with the seeds. I sprinkled some with cumin and they went fast. I also made a loaf of pumpkin bread with a recipe I found on Internet. I had to make some minor adjustments. We had it for breakfast three days in a row.

My pumpkining filled me with great satisfaction. Despite my faltering immune system, I felt strong. Despite my sniffles and runny nose, I felt vibrant. Despite my lingering depression, I felt alive.

On Monday afternoon, I was heading to work. I still looked like shit, like I had the flu. I saw my neighbors. I sometimes see them in their kitchen window when I look through my kitchen window. Or I see them hanging the wash when I’m hanging the wash. On Monday I saw them downstairs. They looked as though they were going away on a trip of some kind. They had two overnight bags, a big basket, two large potted plants and three big bouquets of flowers.

Are you going away on some kind of trip, I asked.

We’re going to visit my parents, she answered. Pobretes. They’re buried in my hometown.

Of course, I said. November 1st. The Day of the Dead. It’s a nice tradition. (I meant this. I do think it’s a nice tradition. People picnic by the graves of their loved ones.)

No sirve de mucho, but we do it anyway.

Ya, I answered.

But I didn’t mean this. I didn’t agree that there was not much point in having a picnic on the graves of their loved ones. But I said Ya anyway because it seemed like the polite thing to do. I could have asked why they were doing it if they thought there was no point. I could have defended their tradition of picnicking with the dead as a beautiful commemoration. I could have shouted But you’re alive! I could have pointed out that she didn't have the flu.

Autumn is my favorite season. That is why I decided to carve pumpkins. Not for fall’s sake, but for mine. In celebration of my waning flu. I plan on doing it every year. It brought me back.

On November 1st, the Day of the Dead, I stayed home in my pjs. Still not fully recovered, I rested. I padded around the flat in my slippers, flopping on the sofa to read, organizing pictures, admiring my pumpkins, even though you could see the candle in the little one. I made a pumpkin risotto in honor of the season. And I made panellets for all those visiting their loved ones in cemeteries. On the 31st of October, All Hallow’s Eve, Catalan families come together for the castanyada. They roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes. They eat panellets and drink moscatel. They often take the leftovers to the cemetery the next day.

I plan on making panellets every year as well in commemoration of this spring.


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als meus panellets
180 g sweet potato
300 g ground almond
240 g sugar
grated lemon rind (about 1/2 a lemon)
80 g pine nuts
100 g almond, crushed

Boil or bake sweet potato with the skin still on. Once they are soft, drain, peel and mash while they are still warm. Let mashed sweet potato cool completely.

Add the sugar, crushed almond and lemon rind. Mix with a fork.

Roll the mixture into small balls. Dip the balls in egg white and cover them in pine nuts or crushed almond.

The recipe yields about a dozen or so of each. Place panellets on a butter baking sheet. Cook at a high temperature for 8-10 minutes.