Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Eat, Cook, Travel

I promised myself I wouldn't write any more sad blog posts after such a rough summer, so I've neglected you a little. I think I owe you an apology, and something neutral, if not lighthearted.

Another friend lost their battle to colorectal cancer this week, so I want everyone to take a minute to call their father, uncle, grandfather, brother, whomever and remind them to get a colon cancer screening. There is a test that can be done before an invasive colonoscopy (called InSure Quik Fit or fecal occult blood test), don't avoid going if you just don't like drinking the funky kool-aid and pooping for days.

On another note, here's what I've been eating, cooking and enjoying lately... I do this a lot in times of stress, part of the RnR theory.

Let's rewind a little... the day before the party of healing, when I gave everyone in my universe exactly 11 hours notice that they were expected at my house in a joyful mood (quite the success, actually) - I decided to embark on a new journey. I love cheese, I have an unhealthy relationship with it, and I always want it around. It was inevitable that I would try to make it at some point. So I googled my way to a recipe for paneer, an Indian farmer's cheese. Recipe adapted from at least 1 website - Food, and Other Musings (seems pretty standard so I didn't credit anyone):

You need milk to make cheese. I used a half gallon (2% or whole), heated in a heavy pan until just boiling. Don't scald it!

You want to bring it just to the boil, stirring occasionally over medium heat and once you're sure the whole thing is boiling, pour in 1/4 cup lemon juice and gently stir a couple of times.

The milk will curdle and separate, sit for a few minutes and let the acid work it's magic.

Meanwhile, in a colander, I laid 4 layers of coarse cheesecloth. You could use muslin or some other clean fabric for the draining, but I had cheesecloth, what better purpose for such a thing!?

With my colander ready, and curds fully separated from whey - you should see a distinct difference between the two now, but try not to stir too much because it cuts the curd - I went to the sink.

When you do this, pour the curds and whey over the cloth, and rinse well under cold water. The water will cool the curds and rinse off any remaining lemon juice. We don't want tart cheese.

Once fully rinsed, sprinkle generously with salt - 1/2 tsp and mix well. Now the fun part. fold over the edges and give the cheese a good pressing. You'll need to hang or press your cheese to make 'cheese' happen.

I let mine sit for a few hours under some serious weight, and voila! Paneer! All you need now is a pan with some olive oil or ghee (clarified butter) and brown your paneer, before mixing in a nice sauce.

I cheated and used a store-bought sauce. C'mon, don't judge... I made the cheese! Plus it's a really tasty brand, available at Central Market.

Besides the indian extravaganza, I've been pretty busy traveling. I got to New York recently and had both 1. The best morsel of food I've ever eaten in my life, and 2. The best glass of wine I've ever tasted. It was by all accounts the most intense eating experience I've ever had.
The food... We were suggested a nearby Italian restaurant in Hell's Kitchen called Bocca di Bacco (9th Avenue between 54th and 55th). I walked in, looked for the only vegetarian offerings on the menu and ordered up. That's usually how my dining experience goes, unless I feel like fighting for something special made veggie-style. This selection was tomato chutneys and rustic italian bread, followed by porcini & truffle oil crostini. We ordered a bottle of sangiovese, ate our bread and drank in the people-watching. My expectations for the crostini were low, since I'm averse to mushrooms in general and this seemed to be a dish built entirely on their merit. I was pleasantly surprised. I picked off the offending squeaky porcini, and bit into the remaining parmesan truffle crostini.
Great Alton Brown's Glasses, this is the best thing I've ever tasted... The parmesan was rich, the truffle oil decadent, the bread - a perfect crusty outside with light pillowy interior waiting for your bite. You know something is good, so good that you will remember the deep breath it sucked in behind your first bite on it's own.. as if food were able to control your parasympathetic nervous system, simply because it was that good. Folks, I had before me 8 pieces of this deliciousness and I only managed to chew and swallow 1-1/2 because my senses were so saturated with umami and the savory decadence that only truffle can provide. After I could no longer chew, I sat gazing at the crostini in wonder. How could something be so perfect?
I decided to celebrate the moment, which before I could not define - what's the best thing you've ever eaten? I couldn't have told you before that hot night in New York City... How else to celebrate, let's order some expensive wine! I looked over the menu for a glass selection (after all, we'd been through one bottle already) that would be fitting of my victory. With help, I settled on a super tuscan, a raisin-y plum-toned chianti classico would turn out to be the best glass of wine I've ever tasted. It smelled like a rich socialite's lipstick, and actually made a strange noise as it swished around in the glass like taffeta, rustling against the inside until it slipped silently over my lips. I was overcome with the perfect food and drink... so much so that I forgot the name of the wine that took me an hour to drink because it was so exquisite I imbibed it in tiny bird sips. When I got home, I thought it was best that I had forgotten the name, actually because then it would be a mystery and I could never track down a bottle and try to recapture my perfect meal.
That is, until I looked through my phone and realized that, while I'm suffering a lot of memory loss lately, I'm compensating for it by taking photos when I'm out. I took a picture of the freaking wine list!!!
I can barely read it, but there down in the reserve section, lies my perfect glass. The Super Tuscan 'Girifalco' La Colanica 2007.
Epic vino.
My next hotel was a happy find as well, walking to my room I found some flowers, left behind from the wedding a night before. I never get fresh flowers on the road, but require them when I'm home because I tend to stare at them and smile. Someone left behind some smiles in the vending room, and I enjoyed them for three more days. It was a lovely trip to the city.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Crestfallen Sigh

There are some things that just resonate with my being, admittedly, they are usually sounds or smells, but today - a quote. One that I run over in my head like you might run your tongue across your teeth - feeling for irregularities, any resistance in a space so smooth and familiar you could completely forget it exists:

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I don't mean to make light of the tragedy of 9/11 by quoting a drug-endorsing eccentric writer who speaks of a time of decadence and its passing (and who likely had MDMA in his system while writing it). I mean that I understand what it feels like to have a defining moment, from which you measure all others and lucidly know that it's happening. You know that there will never be a time like this again, you've floated to a place that the tide of your life will never allow you to drift. Either a consequence of a memorable wave, or having the 'right kind of eyes' reveal the truth in its foamy surf.

9/11 was a wave-break for me. I don't know anyone who suffered directly from the tragedy. I was living my life in a quiet college town, watching CNN only because someone else turned it on, and frying bacon. Bacon is the perfect decadence to represent how blissfully unaware I was that a life outside of my own insignificant struggles even existed..

I was riding a wave of innocence and oblivion, disconnected from the world or the people who inhabited it, I was in it, but barely so. That morning, most people my age can tell you where they were, at school, work, a coffee shop - jail, the bookstore, asleep, in the arms of a lover... I can even tell you what my apartment smelled like and what I had for breakfast (besides bacon). But what comes to mind when I see, hear or run my tongue past the date, 9/11 is an emotional place I inhabited then. I was young.

After watching the news a whole day on Tuesday, numb and restless, I went to the store to buy the September 12, 2001 newspaper at 1 am. I shared a moment with the paper man as he slapped down the day's stack of papers, knowing that he passed a torch to me... words and photos to explain the indescribable day before. I'm an emotional 'cutter'. I purchased 3 copies. My life was unbelievably busy and important at the time and many people depended on me. In spite of that, responsibilities stopped, my obedience to all external things dwindled and I sat cross-legged for vast stretches of time in my living room, cutting out tiny scraps of newsprint. My hands and face were black with ink and tears, drawing blood from my spirit with each snip. I cut up photos, intricately carved out words... some tiny, some large, and all based on my guttural reaction to the object. The weblike facade of one building was a stunning centerpiece, surrounded by words I fiercely wanted to usher up the stairs with responders only a day before: hope, courage, acceptance. I cut out these words in the closest letters I could find, with great care, and surrounded the facsimile of despair clipped from the front page.

We always do things that don't make sense in periods of intense grieving. I withdraw. I cut myself off and protect myself with ideas, just as I was trying to do in the collage. Someone had suddenly removed the blindfold from my eyes, I blinked against the harsh light, and the world was ugly, cold, full of suffering and hopelessness. I couldn't bring order to what I knew to be suddenly true, and tried to arrange it with decoupage instead - meticulously pasting and identifying each subtle piece as I went. I finished the homage in 3 sleepless and toothless days, without a voice to scream with, no sharpness to fight the universe back as it cut me into tiny bits.

From my paper fortress, I watched the wave roll back, surrounded by little stacks of words and pictures. A cloud of communal grief appeared stinking around me, permeating my skin... stealing my breath... twisting up my nostrils until it tied itself around my thoughts. Everything was acutely different. People died for ignorance and zealotry. Innocence died and was pulled down by the tide as the wave pulled it away from me. I don't live in New York, or DC, and frankly most of the time I don't even live in the world you recognize, but that day I held my breath as the wave of change, one that forced molecules from my body at once to inexplicably touch everyone elses', splashed against the small of my back as I watched. Foreign, cold, uncomfortable.

And then it rolled back. Time receded from me, and the fires from that day grew smaller and more faint. Painted over by time, eclipsed by new heartbreaks and other tragedy, I no longer look at the news and long to console or help. I've learned not to look at the news at all anymore, especially with the 'right eyes'. The last ten years have carried me out to sea, but each year I get close enough to shore that if I squint, I can still see the innocence and pain and change I knew then.

I'm the most guilty because I have never grieved the loss of a human soul with dignity, and ironically ended up penitently suggesting my husband's undergraduate thesis for him on disaster animal rescue. I couldn't be sad about losing loved ones shortly after 9/11, or all the people who still rest because of that day, I was sad because dogs and cats in Manhattan were left without food or water while the city sat evacuated and lonely. Go fish.

10 years of waves have since broken against me, all shaped the same, reducing in size as I learn to resist. I moved the collage from apartment to apartment. At first, I cried every time I saw it. Under my bed, it peeked at me when I grabbed my shoes in the morning and reminded me of the sadness just beneath most ordinary things. A few years later, I moved it to the garage, face down, unable to haunt me when I didn't invite it to... and finally, after enough time, I discarded it - along with the fortress I built and the sadness and isolation that went along. I've let go of the pain, and now that wave just turns around and recoils. It's hard to see these waves for what they really are... little laps of weather, shaping and polishing us as we endure them. They are strong, leave behind a more virginal world, and disappear from sight quickly, but enough years of their aggression changes our shape.

Off to work again. I still can't believe it's been 10 years. I can't put my sadness for that entire year into words. If I had a superpower, and it was teleportation, I would say "I'm sorry" to the two girls I loved then. Chloe, Grandma - You're my wave, I know you're stronger than me - even if you're gone, and I accept the path that you dictate. Carry me there.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Muscadine Fall

Grapes gripped the ground

With frail roots like weak claws
Scratching the topsoil
Searching for life, now muted

Inching so slowly toward cloud
Unperceivable progress
The Muscadine vine looks skyward
Dreaming of a time when heat and drought
Didn’t hit back

In spite, they stand tall
Spreading roots while no one watches
Setting up for more summers like this
Visible growth halted, they appear silent
As they ready and steady for the next

Muscadine ancestors whisper across Texas
“Hold fast and be patient”…
“This suffering is temporary
You’ll see plenty if you stick around”
As roots slow, canes harden
Green gives to wooden as temperatures fall
I trim and worry, helpless
Unable to affect this hard little plant

Thursday, September 8, 2011

It Might Really Be All About Me

It's very possible that I take things for granted... Probably true, more than possible, actually.

I'm beautiful. I'm smart, I'm confident, I'm sometimes militant, I'm exceptionally dry and negative... and I'm intimidating.

But above all that, I'm also something even rarer and more special than those things - honest with myself.

I think that lately honesty has become a rare sight, and it seems like the only person I know who is in control of it is yours truly. That may actually be more difficult than being honest with myself. I want someone else to be in control of their mortal bodies and tongues too, and it seems like that's too much to ask.

Here's what I can offer in the way of personal honesty today:

I'm frustrated by most people's level of personal honesty.
I'm needy when it comes to friendship and romantic relationships.
I want people to think I'm as awesome as I know I am.
I need control like some people need food.
I have beautiful elven ears, but I cover them with hair because I'm self-conscious.
I am awesome at my job, but only because I insist on working harder and longer than everyone around me.
I sometimes (okay, usually) neglect houseplants.
I'm fiercely loyal to the people I love.
I'm a ridiculously good cook when I care about the eater.
I have issues with abandonment.
I have serious health problems that I'd prefer everyone just ignore rather than deal with.
I'm unnaturally stressed out right now by 'giving'.
I have too many conversations with my cat.
I exact a very high standard from my friends and require an unspoken contract of communication. I tell you what I think and what I'm afraid of, and I expect the same in return.
Above all of these things, I care when someone hurts the people I love. It hurts me too, more. This is not okay.

In addition to beautiful, smart and honest - I'm frail, sensitive and abrupt. I can admit these things about myself because I see the value in being a human that is well-rounded and not always sunny. I categorically prefer people like this in my life, who are joyful and sad, loud and quiet, funny and serious, boisterous and shy. It's a requirement that if you want to be in my real circle, you give me both sides of you. And that you don't hide either of your faces. I realize how demanding this sounds. Let's just skip all the uncomfortable bits and be 'real' for the love of corn!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Shrinking Violet

The longer I'm on this Earth, the bigger it becomes. Of course the mass of the rock I sit on doesn't change, and it certainly doesn't become any more important... maybe I just slip further from words like 'seminal' and 'pivotal' every day. Some of that distance is admittedly because both of those words sound like some kind of sexual reference.

I really enjoy cut flowers. I stare at them unabashedly, taking in their beauty - snipped from the bush at their most beautiful moment. They only dry up and grey a little, reserving a ghost of what magnificence once held your attention. I like them much more than the flowers who bloom on the plant and stay there to wither away and give rise to seeds, even though it's a fantastic and interesting process. No one wants to deadhead a daisy. It's a reminder of what happens to all beautiful things... and much harder than tossing an old bouquet in the compost.

I might actually be shrinking as I age. It's a consequence of life that the real atmospheric pressure we feel compresses our weak little bodies in spite of how tall we stand. We grow to a nice height in our late teens and then struggle to stand tall for the rest of our lives. Literally! How outrageous! I want to realize JUST ONE GOAL in this life that is mine forever. Height would be nice.

It's not only smallness that greets you in your thirties... fortunately there is a little shred of wisdom you gain as you lose inches of confidence. Pride, boastfulness, and even anger (for me) have gradually given way to patience, resolve and forgiveness. If I get to hang out here another 30 years, I'll be much happier with myself, albeit utterly alone and unable to share the feeling.

Today, I bled honesty. I opened my mouth to stifle the truth, and found it singing past my lips... joyful, vibrant... vindicated. It's becoming less important to be 'right' and far more vital to be 'me'. That kind of honesty is impossible to rush. It only shows up when you've carried your metaphoric umbrella under your arm every day in a yearlong drought. Eventually, you'll be wrong, and it will inevitably rain. This kind of bloodletting is the most healing type.

I'll sleep [eventually] tonight knowing that tomorrow I might just wake up a little less anxious, a little more willing, and a little closer to living honestly than I did today. I'm not proud that my body betrays my mind and makes me tell my secrets, but I'll enjoy the consequences and resulting unburdening of my soul.

Shit, I'm complicated. And tired. I'm even bothered to read this.