Tuesday, November 10, 2009

12 books/9 months

Everyone who knows me in real life understands that, while I may be a reader, I'm not much of a reader-of-classic-books. An old college professor once said I had an impressive breadth of knowledge of contemporary fiction and it's true - at the expense of the classics.

And that's always been fine with me. I could recite Baudelaire in French at 18, tell you the important American literary contributions of the 1930s and I once studied a blackboard in a classroom for 5 minutes then said "huh, I wonder whose class is reading Owen Meany..." And I'd kinda had enough of other people telling me what to read, so I went to college somewhere where I could pretty much do what I wanted and avoid reading the classics. A class in Victorian lit here, a little Romantic poetry there but pretty much unscathed.

I'm taking a break from all that now. I've set an ambitious reading project of 12 books to read by my next birthday, which is a big one. They're 12 great books, or 12 books by great authors and while it's certainly not an all inclusive list it does address some of the larger gaps in my education. I can't help but think of David Denby's book project, taking lit 101 classes at Columbia in his adulthood and feeling filled with the ideas of Machiavelli, Locket, Socrates, etc. etc. Will I feel anything differently reading these great texts? Will I come to understand our present time (writingwise or livingwise) in a different fashion? Will I still be the type of person who dislikes reading great books? Am I a type?

The list, in no particular order:
1. the canterbury tales/geoffrey chaucer
2. something by vladimir nabokov
3. middlemarch/ george eliot
4. walden/henry thoreau
5. a room of one's one/virginia woolf
6. don quixote /cervantes
7. ulysses/james joyce
8. anna karenina/leo tolstoy
9. something by william faulkner
10. something by charles dickens
11. moby dick/herman melville
12. robinson crusoe/daniel defoe

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Farewell to a food mag

Last week magazine published Conde Nast abruptly announced that it would be closing Gourmet Magazine with the November 2009 issue, marking an an end to the 69-year old magazine that has stunned many in the food world.

Speculation of such a move has abounded in the food industry for the last few months, with readers noticing slimming monthly issues of both Gourmet and Conde Nast's sister publication Bon Appetit. Fewer pages, fewer ads and less content to attract readers.

Conde Nast made the decision to kill Gourmet (along with yuppie parenting mag Cookie and Modern Bride) rather than Bon Appetit because the latter has approximately 250,000 more subscribers and has lost less advertising revenue.

The move has caused even the likes of Anthony Bourdain to offer solemn, heartfelt words on what the shuttering means to those truly passionate about food and eating.

I will be posting some thoughts on what Gourmet meant to be as a cook and reader and welcome anyone reading this to submit their impressions for publication here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

food mag report 1: Sauteed Kale with Kohlrabi

I always love it when my new issue of Gourmet arrives each month wrapped in its protective plastic. Sure, the issues have gotten thinner lately but the photography is absolutely stunning. The magazine has started focusing on close-ups of the food, pointing out those little things that most people don't even realize unless they're paying attention. The September issue features a close-up of a quince on the cover, so tightly shot it looks like cheese, or mold, or a fresh-baked boule or artisan bread, except it's not.

So, anyway, Gourmet. I purged all my magazines except for the odd New Yorker and my good mags, which left me with a pile of Gourmets, Saveur, Edible San Francisco, the odd Food and Wine and Edible Brooklyn or Edible Boston that I'd picked up along the way. After I pore through the magazine I've so eagerly awaited it goes in a drawer, where they've apparently multiplied a la dust bunnies. Because they deserve a little better than that, I decided a couple of weeks ago to cook one recipe per month from my stash (minimum).

First up to bat was a vegetable dish from the September Gourmet, Sauteed Kale with Kohlrabi, chosen because I've actually never eaten a kohlrabi and had been seeing them at the market lately. Taken entirely from the pages of epicurious:

Sauteed Kale with Kohlrabi, serves 8
  • 1 1/4 pound kohlrabi, bulbs peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 pounds kale (2 bunches), stems and center ribs discarded
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup salted roasted pistachios, chopped

Whisk together lime juice, lime zest and most of the olive oil, plus a pinch of salt and black pepper. Finely grate the kohlrabi using a mandoline and place in a bowl with the lime dressing. Remove the center rib from the kale and chop finely. Sautee the garlic in remaining olive oil until aromatic, then add kale and sautee 3-5 minutes or until tender. If you're not sure how tender it is, fish one tendril out and taste it. When properly cooked, transfer to the bowl with the kohlrabi and top with pistachios. The original recipe asks for the kale to be cooled to room temp before being combined, but we were eating it hot and it was refreshing and hearty.

giant kale by bhamsandwich

Friday, September 11, 2009

good times for chocolate

So, not only is there this cutesy place in the East Bay but there's another new choco shop opening up in the old Joseph Schmidt building. San Francisco, you outdo yourself.

I'm exhausted. Wrote novel synopsis, had too many crazy conversations today plus a deadline dropped on me. Have ripe pears for pie, must make this weekend.

Some thoughts on chapter one

Chapter one, chapter one, it's such a weighty word. Not like, say, chapter 17 where hopefully you'll know what you're doing or, if not, your readers won't care. Chapter one needs to be good, it needs to set the tone for the rest of the story, it needs to communicate who your characters are and what, pray tell, might happen to them. All of that and more, and still be entertaining, well written and unusual yet not gimmicky.

Enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to write a novel, right?

In preparation for my upcoming novel workshop, which I'm kinda terrified of due to a bad experience in grad school, I did a little meditating this afternoon on my on chapter one, which I don't love, but nor do I hate. I'd always thought it was kinda of necessary for the book - it had a setting that was important, it introduced the two biggest characters, it set out a quiet conflict that was in the same vein as a later, larger conflict. But it was kinda boring. And I didn't think that I'd done a good enough job with my details really. And I figured other people would not love it, because in comparison to chapter 2 and 3, and so on, not much exciting happens. It's pretty quiet.

That's all true, still. I haven't raced back into the chapter determined to give it shiny new wheels. I'm okay with it being somewhat boring for now. I do think that the events of chapter one need to be told in some fashion...if the crisis in chapter one changes, that's fine, but there'll be another crisis of the same sort, just a better one. The characters' differences are clear, the setting is clear, the stakes such as they are on the face of things are laid out. The chapter could be much more directly ominous, and hopefully it will be, but I think more of the stuff that needs to be said at the outset is being said at the outset than isn't. Only, of course, in a nondirect way.

About my being so nervous about this workshop, I shouldn't be. I should remember that grad school was frustrating at very many times and this class in particular was a waste of my time and effort, and think that also I could have done a better job in my work and been more professional myself about working with a bad teacher. My professor did not like my work and she made it clear, and she also didn't like me and she made that clear. That was unprofessional of her, but I didn't take my out to drop the class when I could have (why, I don't remember).
I found an old workshop draft of one of those chapters that I'd given a prior writing workshop and the comments on those papers were much more supportive than in Waste of My Time's class. Sometimes your work doesn't reach its intended audience. Sometimes you need to be humble in order to make your work better. we all have different tastes. I remember being horrified in workshop in college when one of my peers HATED, but hated James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room.

{That was the first Baldwin book I read, and he's still a favorite author to this day. So rich. If you haven't read him, do.}

I was lucky and/or spoiled in college to work with wonderful writing professors, people who I still keep in touch with.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

too much writing!

I have too much writing to do.

I'm taking a novel-writing workshop that begins in a couple weeks, but before (and during) I have this blog, two other blogs and three freelance clients needing regular work. Oh, and my novel.

I get up in the morning, brew some get-me-awake coffee and dash of a couple articles for client #1 while I'm doing this. Then if I'm lucky I'll throw something together for one of the blogs, post that, move on to something else in my day, toss a draft of something for client #2 together in a late afternoon coffee break, cook dinner, play some lexulous online, research something for another blog, remember I've got to start work for freelance client #3, spend a few minutes reading a friend's blog, work on some other things, think guiltily about the novel, spend ten minutes writing my book, decide to read a bit and go to bed, wake up and do it again.

It sounds so concise in paragraph form, but it isn't. There is so much research that goes along with writing--and blogging--and so much thinking and trying and procrastinating about writing that goes on when writing a book. So - basically - I live most of the time stressed out writing or thinking about writing or avoiding writing and it's hard to justify writing something I don't get paid for rather than something I do.

Oy vey.

I'm glad there are people who pay me to write. It's nifty. I just had a flash fiction piece accepted for publication in a journal earlier this week, and that only fuels my desire to work on my writing and submit to journals and so on....and if my dog chased his tail I'd feel like him, instead I just feel like organization is necessary, or something.

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