Thursday, August 27, 2009

permission/aimee bender and selected shorts

This intro to a beguiling episode of Selected Shorts featuring work by Aimee Bender and Etgar Keret, written and read by Aimee Bender, struck me as one of those things that's both honest and inspirational and, of course, like most things writers write about writing, a little confessional. I found it so on the mark that I transcribed it and am putting it here, for you.

If for any reason you are either unfamiliar with Aimee Bender or Selected Shorts, both are well worth your time.

I wrote my story Drunken Mimi while working on my 1st book of stories, and largely it was coming from a feeling of grand freedom and permission. Finally I'd been encouraged enough to try using the words and structures of fairy tales for my own purposes, and even the idea of using a mermaid as a character, even to put the word mermaid on the page in a serious story, felt to me like running free in scarves thru the streets.

I had previously thought of stories as objects that had to conform to many rules. As rigid as jam jars. But I'd been thinking then that maybe the form was a little more flexible than I had realized, for example, I had not thought a story could be considered a real story unless the people in it were all people.

As with Etgar I think both of our stories tend to be about the playing out of consequences. You set up a skewed world and then you see what's in it. You mess with the logic, and then you follow the logical consequences of the change. It's both out there and also not. Everything doesn't go. There are rules always beneath the story structure. For me, by bending the usual rules I'm trying to access a feeling I can't quite get to otherwise. Often I'll feel inhibited trying to get to reality on the page. The page isn't reality anyway, it's a bunch of words, so a writer's job, I believe, is to try to be honest and pinpoint a genuine feeling or idea, to put on the page something we can look and and discuss. The reader can feel this.

Realism or not isn't what's important, what's important is what the captured or what the writer's trying to capture. The sincerity of the butterfly net. So in that way I see both Etgar and myself as trying to grab onto something ineffable, to frame a feeling with words, to hold it inside the inner working of a story and to tell it in the only was we know how, which is often thru a very strange lens.

You know that feeling when you're walking around in your day and you're maybe going to get a coffee and there's a faint remembrance of last night's dream that floats thru your mind? Sometimes it's so faint and wispy you can't quite catch it. That territory interests me quite a bit and Etgar's not here, he wanted to be but he couldn't be, but I bet it interests him as well. Trying to slow down the speed of thinking, to catch that butterfly of a memory or thought or image and to turn it around and look at it. This wisp of a thought is as much a part of who we are as the coffee we drink and the to-do lists we make, even once it has drifted back down into the darkness and the recesses.

Friday, August 21, 2009

staff meal hits and misses

Staff meal, family meal, family, comida. No matter what you call it the food is usually the same. A salad, if you're lucky, something to get some sort of vegetables in your diet. Especially if you're a pastry cook. Some kind of meat since, as someone I used to know put it to me, most of the restaurant prep and line cooks are Mexican and if you don't feed them meat they will go somewhere else to get it since many are working two jobs anyway.

If you work normal-people hours of nine to five you'll likely hit two staff meals of the day. If you come in the early afternoon, depending on the restrictions at the restaurant and your familiarity with the line cooks you may be able to sneak a snack or a free lunch meal. If you plan on doing this and you are a pastry cook it really helps to give out free dessert at the end of the night. Those cookies that sat out for ten hours of service and won't keep? Give em to the line cook you ask for chicken sandwiches.

I had one job where half the pastry staff all day long would ask the line cooks for flatbread and fava bean dip. Food cost pretty minimal for favas, and since we were making the flatbread dough half or all of the time anyway we felt kinda entitled.

For those outside the restaurant industry reading this, family meal is what you feed your cooks and servers before they spend normal dinner/lunch hours on their feet hard at work. From an owner's perspective family meal is also where you use up your scraps. Fish on its last day or tomatoes slighlty gonig rotten on one side. Feed it to the family. There are plenty of restaurants that supplement their cupboard with goods just for staff meal--cheap pasta instead of expensive stuff, rice, ketchup, hot dogs. While staff meal is rarely expected to be great, an inspired staff meal can lift the cooks, servers and busboys to all work just a little harder to make everyone's night great.

You can turn to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for a number of truly awful staff meals, or you can call out any restaurant that segregates family meal by day - Wednesday pizza, Thursday sausages, Sunday eggs.

I expected there to be more standouts but in the end the meals that stick out are surprisingly few and far between. Staff meal successes that I can recall include, over various years and cities, from the hands of sous chefs and line cooks and caterers:
Fried rice with vegetables and eggs. While most people loved this one cause we worked at an Italian restaurant and it wasn't pasta, it also had a super low food cost and got rid of any leftovers.

Fish tacos. Same resto. The Mexican prep guys would make hot sauce and pico de gallo and bring in tortillas. You had to get there right on time for this one or you'd get nothing.

Make yr own burrito bar. This actually before my time in Cali. Guac, pico de gallo, cheese, refried beans, salad and meat. Fun, cheap, not too much work.

Thanksgiving leftovers. Multiple places, same agenda - turkey, potatoes, all the sides. A little hard to work after this one.

Sweet-hot chicken wings. A line cook made these super good one day kinda by accident, which unfortunately meant we never got to have them again.

staff meal c noii

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shawangunk Mountain Wild Blueberry & Huckleberry Festival

If you find yourself in the vicinity of the Gunks this coming weekend {which is to say, somewhere between the Catskills and Westchester, or, say, at the CIA or if you even changed to be in Binghamton, you could get there too, yessir}

then please go to the huckleberry festival.
go in my stead.

gunks photo c i eated a cookie
On the west coast they would have you believe that the only true foraged huckleberries come from the pacific northwest. This is simply incorrect as I found out last week while passing thru sleepy Ulster County. What little literature there is on this rad event says

"A celebration of the Shawangunk Mountains: music, BBQ, all-blueberry bake sale and pie judging contest, crafts and cultural area and art center, 9:00AM-4:00PM." Held somewhere in the town of Ellenville NY.

Huckleberries have been a foraged crop for hundreds of years, possibly dating back to 400 AD if you believe geologists.

If you're lucky you'll catch the eyes of an old-timey huckleberry picker who used to pick crops when the only roads between sleepy Hudson Valley towns were dirt carriage roads.

If you miss the festival you can still pick some huckleberries {now, not so much later} on the Minnewaska trails and elsewhere, though you might have to find a friendly local to share her berry spot.

Huckleberries are challenging to find commercially and expensive when you do find there because you're most often paying for a forager to traipse after them. Hunkleberries are smaller than blueberries and give a more complex flavor, though there are plenty of other differences too.