Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Somebody stop me!

Strange things happening over here, brain's all scrambled, so bear with me as I try to get the frequency unfuzzied. First, what we know: My girlfriend (Olivia) is an archivist in the Brooklyn Collection at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which is the second biggest library in New York and a pretty whopping big system overall. She makes less money per year than a sanitation worker here. Not that I have anything against people that pick up my trash, but basically this says trash is more valuable than books. I also know that for some strange reason nancy pelosi looks kinda good to me. You heard it here first. But I think it's only because I have a man crush on heath ledger playing the joker in that movie where the bad guy dresses in black and flies around at night, and now heath ledger isn't around anymore so I gotta put that somewhere.

None of this is relevant. I wanna talk about sweetness. No, not THAT sweetness--
I mean like sweet tooth, sugar daddy kind of sweetness. I mean like holy crap /look/ at this haul I brought in my candybag on Halloween. I'm talking SUGAH, people. Here's why:

Couple weeks ago I went on a trip to New Mexico. While on this trip visiting happy time friends I did something I almost never do: eat out. A lot. Like all but once for dinner in five days. I won't tell you about all of it, because I want to focus on the grits. These grits were so-called Tabasco grits, and I had them as part of brunch just a day or two before I left. By this time I had been feeling a nagging unnamed suspicion grow in the back of my head, cancer-like, until it became an annoying bulging mass clouding my thoughts. Everything tastes weird, I thought (later after I came home I noticed that I had a weird metallic/sour taste in my mouth that I thought came from the mineral content in the water there, but am now guessing was some sort of mouth bacteria that had spawned after using non-chemical toothpaste for the first time. but who knows).

Anyway, the grits did it for me--the whole plate of food that brunch, actually. I had "oatmeal guiness" pancakes, which involved dark buckwheat looking guys drenched in "whiskey syrup" and paired with a sunny side up egg, peppered bacon, and said Tabasco grits. Ignoring the overkill factor here, both in terms of flavor combinations and amount of food, I took a bite of the grits, which had already nabbed my attention when I was looking at the menu and especially after the fabulously flaming waiter recommended them (they're sooooooo good, with the vocal tone rising as the sentence continues). This tastes weird, I thought, for the four hundred and eighty fifth time. Then I took another bite. Same thought. The bulging mass in grew a mouth and a nose. Another bite, slow chewing, confused brow furrowing--the mass has eyes now, and is scanning the lower half of the back of my head, near my neck hairline. I swallow, just in time to feel the mass /taking a bite out of my left ear/.

"They're really sweet." I'm pretty sure I said this out loud, if only in an attempt to quell the beast, to let everyone at the table agree with me. John, who was also out there visiting and who ordered the same thing, agreed. it was weird, because they were orange, like they'd been doused with Tabasco, and I guess they were a bit spicy tangy like the sauce. But really they just tasted sweet.

Then I had it, and with understanding took up arms against the tumor of my confused ignorance. I looked at my pancakes, swimming in maple syrup actually sweetened with reduced distilled corn. Then I looked at my bacon all pebbled with hugely cracked peppercorns, and the same black flecks everywhere suspended in my bloody mary. Everything was either sweet or spicy. Everything, with the exception of one absolutely unreal dinner at the Pueblo Cultural Center, where I had buffalo short ribs braised in ancho plum sauce, followed this rule, and there was plenty of sweet and spicy to go around, as everything was imbalanced in either one or the other direction.

The bulging mass has receded enough to open some real estate for more mental workings by this point, and that's when the tilt a whirl really got going. I thought about, in no particular order, kids, about a particular set of high school girls I had helped teach for a week back in July, and how when we were talking about Whitman's Leaves of Grasses, which involved polling them as to what they had for breakfast this morning (it's a long story, but the bottom line is that corn is a type of grass), and finding out it was mostly Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. I thought about how when I wrinkled my nose at how unhealthy that was, I was told, "We're kids--whaddya expect? We like sweets." And how that had always been my assumption, that kids /loved/ sweets, and later in life when I got presumably smarter I had reasoned that it was an evolutionary or physiological thing, in the sense that sugar is needed for energy, is the cheapest form of energy, and is a result of the superabundant needs of a growing child's body. Then I thought some more about Darwin, and adapting to environments (I've been thinking a /long/ time about the intersection between natural selection and artificial selection, and in plain English the fact that we as humans can create environments that select for different adaptive traits in our given population, which is to say within a culture. And who's to say that culture itself isn't that very created environment wherein certain adaptations allow for survival and others lead to extinction? this is why I don't sleep), and thought about the French, and how my dad told me once they have a bitter cake, meant to be eaten for dessert. And that it's, well, bitter. And sure enough, I just got a French cookbook, and among the recipes for dessert is a "swiss chard tart". Now, putting aside for a second the fact that the French also eat frogs, and that I'm French, and all that these things must mean, I thought, isn't it funny that all these sugary cereals have cartoons in them, and isn't it funny that McDonald's uses (or at least used to use) a clown to sell its hamburgers, and/or cute "fry guys" and Grimace and Hamburglar and Mayor McFreakinCheese (my favorite) and all those other cartoon-like fellas. Is there anything, I thought, intrinsically necessary to child nutrition in cereal and McDonald's? Because if you would have asked me up until a few days ago, I would have said not only to kids and sweets go hand in hand, but I would have defended until my last dying breath the fact that kids LOVE, in an almost self-evident, inalienable right kind of way, McDonald's. All kids. Even kids who wear berets and have funny accents--you give little Pierre or Chloe some McNugNugs, man, and they'll be off to the races. They'll be hooked before they know it.

Only if they've got Cap'n Crunch stuffed animals and a stack of freebies from happy meals stowed away. I guarantee it. It's total bullshit, as I'm sure you've figured out by now. In fact, me sort of quasi-reading along with what I'm typing is thinking, This is so dang obvious, why even point it out? Well, because the obvious things happen to go by another name: the most important values we live by, every day. And to resist the negative ones is hard, since ubiquity and "good" are often considered synonymous (in America if you also add "cheap" and "conveniently available" you've got yourself a winning business model). See, the problem is not figuring out that we as Americans love sweet, crappy junk food of no nutritional model, or even that we love it because of our influences. It's no harder to see or prove than the fact that planting corn and soy in every square mile of the Great Plains is not only helping to destroy our Earth but also killing us with unhealthy food wrought from sweeteners and animals living and dying in unhealthy conditions, jacked up with drugs (quarter pounder and a coke, please!). What's really hard, what's really really hard, at least for me, is two things: first, to escape it, and second, to understand the effort involved in rejecting it.

How do you undo conditioning though? For years and years we've trained our taste buds to love, first and foremost, sweet things. After all, it's good for the economy! It got into our brains young ("Moloch who entered my soul early!"), such that it is /the/ central reality of our lives, unless we were raised differently (and even then we may flee to it as a refuge from uptight treehugging nazi parents, as this person explains). Well, the answer lies in the same place as the answer to quitting any bad habit, at least as far as I can tell--namely, develop new, better habits. And that means, not skipping dessert so much as cutting back on the amount of sugar when you make cookies or cake, or simply paying attention to how much sweetener of one kind or another you use when cooking, or drinking coffee, or in the food you order, which is the hardest, I've found. It means being aware, being conscious, at least at first. This is annoying and hard, it saps brain cells you'd rather use on Soduku, or at least that's how it was for me.

But over time I noticed something--well, lots of somethings, really. First, the obvious point that if I cut out high fructose corn syrup, I don't miss soda. Turns out I /like/ water (weird). And, well, I was never much into Twinkies, and aside from the treat or tantrum int he grocery store stopping candy bar, I wasn't allowed much candy growing up, so I guess I was prone to turning away from the sweet side already. But more subtly, what happens is a creeping weaning of your taste buds off the preference for sweet. It's like working out all your muscles, instead of just your pecs or your calves whatever. You may not look like someone stuck a bicycle pump into your boobs, or anywhere for that matter, but everything kind of works better together. Those puny malnourished bitter and sour buds get some time in the gym, and they bulk up, and instead of crowding out, sweet, they kinda commingle. I got, gasp, a palate--a real live pseudoEuropean person palate! I got /sensitive/ to different tastes, rather than simply feeding the sweet addiction. Of course, the subtle change becomes pretty honking obvious when I'm out of my food element, on away turf, eating out a lot, but it was that wake up call that made me realize: damn, I'm just not that into sweet.

To do this is borderline unpatriotic, given how much taxpayer money we throw at corn subsidies for megafarms, but I don't give a rat's ass anymore. I mean, I'll eat the grits--I did, because I don't believe knowing about food and taste should make you prissy or wasteful about either--but as soon as I get home I'm getting on the freeway of savory luuuuurrrrve. I can't go back now. I'm on my way!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chronicles of my stupid food addictions no. 1: Chestnuts

"And if you have nuts on the wall, are they walnuts?"
"Yes son."
"And if you have nuts on your chest, are they chestnuts?"
"No, son--that means you have a dick in your mouth"
-misquoted from Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle

I don't know why exactly, but when I came to New York I started getting possessed by the notion of eating, and thus of course roasting, chestnuts. I had tried to procure the little buggers in California from an Italian specialty store slash upscale deli with fancy submarine sandwiches, but they were expensive and moldy. Not impressive OR tasty. Plus it never gets cold enough in that part of the country (eastern edge of Los Angeles county) to give you that Jack frost nipping at your nose cozy fireplace feeling.

The first roasted chestnuts I ate were off a hot dog cart somewhere around Moma, in Midtown Manhattan, wanna say high fifties. They cost something like four dollars for a little brown bringing my lunch to school bag. It was the middle of autumn, I think--late October or early Novemeber, around there--and my fingers were just starting to feel cold after being outside a little while. It was the time of year when you first smell football, is the only way I can explain it. Anyway, there was the little bag rolled back to reveal dark brown nuggets that looked like oversized hazelnuts, but puffed out with their nutmeat (always wanted to use that word in an entry) beckoning forth from the cracked open hull. They looked like little molting eyeballs. They looked delicious.

My greedy semi-numb fingers rooted around in the bag and thawed in the steam. I plucked one out, popped it open, and rolled into my hand something that resembled a shrunked baboon brain: this dark brown wrinkly thing. Oh well, I still had the fancy song dancing in my head and was feeling so "right" for the season, so I soldiered on and ate the thing. Or tried to. Really, really gross--kind of like eating a burnt dried out sponge. Not just dry, but drying--I could actually feel my saliva being sucked out of my mouth trying to digest this thing.

Somehow this experience enchanted me, probably because I got one that hadn't been vulcanized, and I needed more instantly. Lots of things surprised me when I ate a non-nasty chestnut. One, they're mushy, not crunchy. The texture of chestnuts is a lot like baked potato, and the whole thing is more starch than protein (turns out chestnuts aren't really nuts at all, but whatever). Two, they taste vaguely like sweet potatoes, kind of mellow and roundly sweet, so you can treat them like a root vegetable rather than you would a nut in cooking. Three, they can be an absolute /bitch/ to peel if you don't roast them perfectly.

I've tried to roast chestnuts in about eight thousand different ways, including the Bing Crosby-approved method of on an open fire (I wrapped them up in tinfoil and stashed them inside an old woodstove in a cabin up in the woods of upstate NY. It didn't work--burnt the shit out of them), and have done it more wrong than right. But I think I've finally go the hang of it, and wanted to share on the off-chance you too found yourself with a hankering or sudden unexpected surplus of raw chestnuts. Side-note: this was more likely to happen a hundred years ago in America, where tons and tons of native chestnut trees used to flourish from Maine to the Midwest. But then a massive blight took em out in the early 1900s, and mostly our supply is now imported from Italy.

The trick to roasting chestnuts well is avoiding drying them out. Dried out chestnuts taste like ass, which I know I've already covered but want to confirm and kind of cathartically release. The best way to keep from drying them out is making sure the heat's not too high on the one hand and there's plenty of moisture for them to suck up on other other. Use a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan or whatever you call it and pour enough water in there to keep the chestnut bottoms wet. It all dries up in the oven soon anyway, so don't be skimpy. Then, with the heat, don't go above 350 degrees, otherwise they'll turn into moon pebbles and taste like ass.

Other than that the standard procedure is simple and excessively tedious. You take a pointy knife and make a slit or x in each one, making sure to keep the flatter side face down on the cutting board so you don't roll the nut while stabbing it and slice the top of your thumb off. Once they're done roasting in the oven, which takes maybe 20 minutes to half an hour, you get the treat, if you want to eat or use them warm, of trying to pop them open. There is no good trick I've found with cracking and peeling chestnuts except to say stay more gentle and patient than the Dalai Lama, no matter how many times you smoosh them into a pulp inside their skin, rendering half the thing inaccessible and useless, or how many times the inner furry skin which really, really tastes like ass won't peel off and gets lodged in tiny flecks in the many cerebral cortex-like wrinkles that line the nut. One thing I can say is "pop" the nut by squeezing it top to bottom, not side to side, as that reduces the smoosh factor. From there it's all about having the dexterity of raccoon paws, something I've always prided myself in after having my delicate wrinkleless French-canadian digits referred to as "aristocratic". Chestnuts proved to be my upper limit of fine finger motions, however.

Yet I'm still drawn to them. I've used them in stuffings many times--in turkey breast, in a goose--I've tossed them up in a saute with brussels sprouts (add some sausage, turn it out over polenta, and it's a main course) and I just made a soup with broth from rehydrated porcini mushrooms and parsnips and carrots that's thickened by adding chestnuts to the mix and pureeing the whole mess (recipe can be found here). I've even heard you can make gnocchi out of them, which makes sense given that you usually use potatotes, but I haven't tried that one yet. I can't really recommend using them, though they are warmly satisfying in taste and texture, perfect for when the thermometer loses all red from its reading, and who knows? Maybe you have a mascohistic streak in you as well. They're hard to find, expensive, and a bitch to use--chestnuts, you are my debutante living in the house on the hill, you are my Edie Sedgewick, you are my cowboy on brokeback mountain. I wish I could quit you!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Visiting Melville's Grave

First, this entry centers on Herman Melville, the guy who in the middle of the 19th century wrote a book about a whale, among other things. Maybe you've heard of it. Maybe you couldn't give a rat's ass. If the latter, then you won't want to keep reading. He means a great deal to me, though, more than maybe I could write, so I wanted to honor his death by visiting his grave.

Melville's buried in the Bronx, at the tippy-top of both the 4 and the 2 lines. Either way you take the train all the way to the end and you're there. Which meant I could walk to a stop in Brooklyn, hop in, and about an hour and a half later I'd be at the place. Finding the actual gravesite might be a little trickier, as the cemetery is honkin huge (that's just a section of it), but that's later.

Let's set the scene. I head outside and it's a clear, cold day, a pretty much pitch perfect gray Winter day in Brooklyn--overcast, light wind, just enough to make the bare trees shiver and clack their branches, and cold without being freezing. You see your breath but it's not uncomfortable. So I decide to walk to the 4 train, which is just a little farther than the 2. As I walk I get more and more sensitized to my surroundings, and giddy. I'm going someplace in the city I've never been before! It's on my list of crap I tried to do for all of 2008 and now it's 2009 and this is a little belated but hell I'm doing it! A group of seagulls are all wingspread and circling overhead. I think it's a good sign. Then there's apprehension, as the Bronx isn't exactly pedestrian friendly--it was designed later, and for cars--and my worries I'll get lost, the weather will get awful fast, I'll get too chilly. Essentially I'm worried I'm too much of a little bitch, unworthy to visit the bones of a mighty sailor turned scribbler.

I go on anyway, and a train is just arriving. I've packed along with my trail mix and apple--this is the closest I get to a field trip in the city--a copy of Moby Dick, and while that may seem corny or hokey to some of you I don't care. I'll shout it from the rooftops: I'm a big dork! I heart books! I double heart books, especially ones that nobody reads but thinks they should or have had to in school and have since summarily forgotten!! In the spirit of Ishmael, I will revisit his sentiment that when some feel down in the mouth and rimed and hoary about their beards, they fall on the sword; I quietly take to graves. The new year hadn't brought me so much cheer, and I had already been not only delayed heavily by a visit to the post office, but completely thwarted by that institution in my efforts to pick up my package--in short, I was not a chipper whistling Popeye heading out for the spinach factory that day. But I walked onto that train, sat down, took a deep breath, and opened to the chapters called, in succession, the Chapel, the Pulpit, and the Sermon, being as they are concerned with deaths of whalemen and how to grieve for them.

As I mentioned, I was feeling pretty radiated, and the world inside had become quite bright whenever I looked up from my reading. I noticed an old white woman with dyed carrot-orange hair coiffured into a perfect almost pumpkin roundness around her head sit down across from me with a young beautiful girl. The girl had this perfect flat face--she was adopted, I guessed, and either from Vietnam or Laos, some place full of orphan cannibals in need of Christianizing--and darting almond eyes. Her nose looked stretched across like her ears formed the tips of the Y-shaped branch of a slingshot. She was bopping her legs against the underseat heater and yammering about 86th street, about how they were getting off at 86th street, right? The high-toned white woman--who had absolutely flabbergasting blue eyes, the color of the atlantic ocean--sighed and nodded and generally looked deflated with weariness and out of her league. I had just gotten to the part where Ishmael notices Queequeg in the chapel, solemnly listening to Father Mapple go on about Jonah with very little recognition (and later marking off every fifty pages of the Bible and grunting at the impressive weight and length of the tome he can't read). I dug back into the cenotaphs marking off dead sailors so their families would have somewhere to attach their grief, and Ishmael talking about you don't know how lucky you grievers of those who died on land have it, with the bones under the earth under your feet! For the misery of not knowing just where the dead have been lost is nearly unbearable, and the doubts it raised haunt the living endlessly, and prove that the dead are always with us, and that the past is a heavy ballast on our soaring soul balloons indeed. And Ishmael is telling us that there is great loneliness in living, and that the ocean doesn't lie about that, and Mapple's telling us, too, and both tell us their stories and observations and thoughts and tell us that these things have their meanings as well.

When the train pops up above ground and goes local at the leading edge of the Bronx, I hear the two fat women to my right say in West Indian accents that it's snowing. I look up from the book again and I think they're mistaken, that it's just foggy. Then I see that these are just waves of finely grained snowflakes blowing in almost perfect 45 degree unison. I start nervously eating my trail mix with its omega-3 fortified cranberries and pumpkin seeds it calls "Pepitas" because it's from Trader Joe's and they're hip like that.

When I get out of the station I'm looking right at the cemetery entrance, practically. And it's beautiful: I'm in a soft swirling snow globe, no bluster at all--just gentle mists of tiny snow all around. The air is still and quiet, and even the cars passing on the melted blacktop have muted tires. I hustle past the entrance gate, remembering quickly that the website mentioned maps in the security booth, and head to what looks like such a structure.

it's the bathroom. But it's cozily heated and I figure I better follow the "make sure you use the bathroom before a long trip--just try" rule, plus did i mention it's cozy and inviting and warm, even for an antiquated public bathroom? So I don't get my map but the experience is pleasant all the same, and when I get back outside I see a guy--the only other patron of the place I see the entire visit, it turns out--staring at what looks like a map behind glass.

And there it all is: a map and a legend to different plots, most of which are named after trees. I had looked up some info. beforehand and so knew Melville was located in the Catalpa plot, so I found that in the index, traced my fingers to I-7, and mapped a route to it from where I was. It was easy it turned out--just stay on central avenue--so i turned off the worried about what lies ahead part of my brain and just took it all in.

What glory! What meaningless testament to rotten flesh! There are entire what looks like villages dedicated to august stone mausoleums in here, all because some rich or prominent or both guy died. There's J.C. Penney, there's Reuter who started the news agency, there's Macy and Woolworth. All these etched giant names in greek pillared houses surrounded by ornated protector lions or acanthus leaves or planters or, Jesus, who knows? All locked up in what looks to be a vault-like mechanism and behind stacks of metal-screened doors--you get to the top of the marble steps and knock knock knock to lay your wreath down, but nobody's home. He been gone a long time, mister. So I walk on in the complete silence--only a rare pickup truck with a snowplow or a sudden burst of birds overhead or in the distance breaks it--and wonder where Miles Davis is buried.

Or Duke Ellington. They're both supposed to be there. I march on and am really grooving on the way the snow has tucked us all into its blanket and how restful death is when I get over a rise and see a greened-up old copper sign to my right: Catalpa. Next I gotta figure out how the frig I'm gonna pinpoint the exact grave. This is a bit nerve-wracking, as the plot is big and winding. But of course you can't quit this close; you can just get annoyed at yourself for not looking harder for a map you could take with you (because, as it turns out and I found out when I exited from the same gate on my return trip after seeing the grave, that the very map I looked at has important people's exact location within plots marked for easy finding. But our hero doesn't know that at this point in the story, because he's a big dumb idiot that doesn't notice important details until they cease to be relevant. Doh!); and you can march around at an ever quickening pace, peering in and squinting at the names on the headstones that a blind man could read from east Des Moines; and you can try to determine the system for how the graves are laid out, as though the dead cared about being organized, or the families of folks had died in chronological and sequential order in such a way as to yield a neatly alphabetical or oldest to newest progression, all so you, the casual visitor, could make your way that much easier past them to the one headstone you really care about.

But I knew what it looked like, so I persevered. I turned a corner, saw what looked like the grouping for W.C. Handy's clan, caught from across the way the sight of an unrolled scroll:

(I actually didn't bring a camera, so I'm grateful to this person's flickr pic for giving me something to share with you all. This seems to be taken in autumn, and so doesn't capture the silent cotton robing of the snow meadow, or the way the flakes nestled into the browned ivy skirt around the base. Too bad, but better than nothing.)

The grave is fairly unremarkable, in fact. Especially amid all the pomp and circumstance of the other big names. You could easily lose sight of this plainspoken puppy. Next to it, the cross, is his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. Her name was covered in snow so I brushed a rectangle out for the "Melville" and the rainbow across the top for her first and middle names. Flanked on either side of the parents are their three kids, their daughter Bess next to their mother on the right, and the two sons, Malcolm and Stanwix, both of whom their parents outlived, next to Pops Herman off to the left. Stanwix's grave I have to guess at because the letters are worn clean off; he died young so it's the oldest of the graves, weirdly (and ghastly) enough.

On top of both Herman and Elizabeth's headstones are offerings of a kind. On the flat left part of her cross there's a neatly folded and faded old American flag under a rock, and a canister of that brand of sea salt, Bailene, with the whale on it, red fading to pink and banked up with a small mound of snow. It looks of a piece with the stone because the snow hides any separation. On the bigger surface area of his headstone there are more and more and still more rocks, along with some carefully and artfully placed twigs and acorns, all of which taken together forms a kind of nest. And the eggs in the nest? Pens. Tons and tons of pens, piled on top. It's breathtaking, and it choked me up a little to see--that and when I first walked up, saying Oh, God, oh, Wow, oh, my God.

It's overwhelming just to be there, and I get a little soft in the head. I start talking to the headstone like it's him, like Melville's still alive. I tell it I want to read it a story, and I read the section called the Castaway, as it's about deep-divers and coming back from long journeys not quite the same forever, and about being darkened but still the brightest, like polished ebony. I read it softly like I'm telling a secret, or like I'm trying not to wake the baby in the next room, and there's another guy--the second person I've seen--pushing a snowblower way off and making a muted machine sound that barely penetrates our soft little drama out here in the cold, with my cheeks puffing and red and my breath visible. I get done the section and tell the headstone thanks for that, deposit an apple core at the foot of a massive gaping oak tree next to the graves, and leave, still lonely but at least whole.