in which i am dead inside: my favorite food writer

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It used to be that all food writers wrote the same. When somebody tells me that their favourite food writer is M.F.K. Fisher, I’m like, ‘OK, you’re dead inside.’ That kind of writing is so stultifying. It’s like being stuck on a bus next to somebody’s grandmother for five hours.

Josh Ozersky, interviewed in GQ, 2013

Fisher’s autobiographical The Gastronomical Me (1943) includes the one of my favorite personal essays in the entire world, a tale of Fisher’s first oyster in 1924 that’s so cold and awkward and strange and familiar to those of us who have shivered in the New Yorker unhappy WASP narrative forever and ever and ever so much it’s like a family diamond or that first icy sip of a martini in a posh bar, and yet it’s warm and messy, oozy around the edges, going bad. It turns out, instead, to be about a dark, passionate, illicit underbelly of life that’s nearly Joycean in scope, one that the reader and narrator just get a glimpse of and then it’s gone again. I teach it to college freshmen from time to time and they never get it because they read skimmingly and trippingly, if at all.

So I as the professor, vicariously through these youngsters, get that pleasure again and again: what is happening here? Did we miss something? What are these hot glances and melting touches and tears and intemperate bravado – all hot, hot feelings in this piece that’s supposed to be about chilled shellfish, passed on a tray by servants in white gloves? It’s the pleasure of reading.

You miss that? You see Fisher as stultifying, dead inside, stuck on an Elderhostel tour. You miss that icy crust between what’s cold and what’s hot, what’s old and what’s new, what’s acceptable and what’s deviant.

You see it? You see the difference between Fisher and every single other food writer in her genre, her brilliance and subtlety, a critique of a society and class and feminine sexuality and the very circles in which Ozersky undoubtedly moves. It’s not about food at all.

Another example from the same work, though I could easily choose another.

In “To Feed Such Hunger,” Fisher explores the rifts in polite society even more oddly than in the oyster tale. Here, the narrative plays out a scene bristling with European cultural and political relationships in 1930, embodied in a foreign couple who end up in the same French boardinghouse as the American narrator. He German, she Czech, they fill the air with “moist Germanic hissings” and a host of displeasurable metaphors in “a strange kind of love affair” that involves food in an exquisitely subtle form of masochism.

Even the dullest critic will understand the personified animosity between the French and the Germans, the American’s awkward meddling among the European nations, but there’s more for the careful reader. Much more. Fisher mentions Klorr’s devotion to Uranism, a term she says she had to look up (and thereby suggests the reader should, too), and ends the piece in a litter of peeled grapes, champagne, and cake with a trembling Mademoiselle Nankova suffering a feverish episode of sur-excitation sexuelle.

This is most certainly not the same old food writing in the American mid-century. Not then, not now.  I can’t think of a single food writer who even barely grazes issues like this, much less one who writes of them well.  I am baffled by Ozersky’s “[T]hat kind of writing,” because it sure ain’t a genre I’m reading, and I teach this stuff.  I suspect “that” might mean ladywriting, and that, oh god for the last time already, is missing the entire point.

And speaking of favorite food writers, my favorite food writer who is still alive and kicking is the subject of a new, promising film on food in Los Angeles called City of Gold. Yes, that would be without question the Los Angeles Times‘ maestro of all that is edible, Jonathan Gold, who once, upon hearing I was looking for new texts to teach, sat me down for three hours and told me about every single worthwhile food writer ever, including, of course, la belle Fisher.

[This was originally published in a slightly different form at story.jml.is, a writing blog operated by none other than my friend, the force of nature, Jonas Luster, where I’ve been experimenting less frequently than I would like with new work.]

farm to table in this glorious fall

IMG_4266Planted garlic for next year, trying to keep my spirits up as the rain started to fall and fall started to reign. We must remember and celebrate the ways we put seeds in the dark earth so they’ll wake with time and water and love.  Because if we forget that, there’s not much point.

I’m going for ‘Keith Red’ and ‘Silver Rose’ again because they were all I wanted.  Keith continues to delight with his big delicious cloves, and Rose is a softneck that lasts longer and still tastes great.  Maybe I’ll remember the onion sets this spring, too!

Also hopeful: great meals this week at downtown Soubise and Grit Kitchen and Wine, a brand new farm-to-table place kittycorner from Ninkasi in the Whiteaker.

IMG_4268 I’m thrilled Soubise is open on Mondays, when most other restaurants in town worth eating at are closed.  It’s a good place for a quiet dinner, hopefully shared with someone who loves food, and it’s a romantic and sophisticated setting.  Perhaps the only one in town.  The combinations, as usual, were fascinating and subtle.  It’s really unlike anything else around, and I mean that to extend far beyond Eugene.  The fall menu is completely accessible and at a lower price point than earlier menus, too.  Definitely a place you can take your parents or a visiting speaker.  Standards like chicken with savory bread pudding and salmon with delicata squash.  Or their handmade smoked pasta with a poached egg and pecorino with green onion purée, above. There are still wonderful surprises, like perfect micro bits of celery leaf and pear on the oysters, and Japanese tamago omelette that provides a perfect sweet little pillow for the strong taste of seared albacore and slight bitterness of lemon cucumber in another small plate.  And ALWAYS order the farm vegetable composed salad, which features an everchanging melange of whatever produce is in season, served with simple buttermilk dressing.

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Grit is housed in a little historic cottage and they’ll need to get better signage at some point, so you might miss it, but it’s right on the corner of W. 3rd and Van Buren.  The kitchen is still experimenting and service is a little timid, but it’s fun to watch the chaotic dance as the staff gets to know the space and the flow and the clientele.  It’s all about the local and the warm and comforting: braises, soups, buttery custardy creamy details.  We opted for the prix-fixe four-course meal, with a stellar carrot and fresh turmeric salad, turnip soup with greens, duck over mash and chantrelles, and a fig tarte, above.  Corn chowder with pork jowl was good too; more pork would have been even better.  The charcuterie plate and gizzard confit app looked so good I almost regret I didn’t partake.  Oh well.  Another visit!  I expect this place will just get better and better, and I’m happy to go along on the journey.

separate two eggs: blossom end rot ketchup

IMG_4004The rain was ill-timed, for sure, and my garden is at risk.  Water has been an issue all summer.  Hubris and the bottom falling out of my life goaded me into believing that an overhead watering system was much easier than taking the time to put in the soaker hoses this year, so I’ve got powdery mildew shrouding the leaves of squash and cucumbers, cantankerous wilt encroaching on the tomatoes.  The soaker hoses I did lay down and test in June were either fixed too many times to work properly or just didn’t work at all.

My own eyes seem to be malfunctioning, too.  After those unspeakable hours when my beloved sidekick and best buddy had gone from seemingly healthy to “when they’re this far gone they usually don’t make it,” when I suddenly, terribly, intimately, finally understood the keening wail and hear-tearing grief of the ancient Greeks, they stopped knowing how to cry.  Something broke inside my head, and tears seemed to flow at their own will.

They didn’t come when I needed to feel some iota of resolution of a good life put to rest in the days that followed, stumbling around on the beach and begging for a sneaker wave to come take me.  They came and come while driving down Willamette or stepping into the fish market or making coffee or brushing my teeth, just enough to wet my eyes, and then go away again.  This pain births itself from you and rends you and makes you incomplete, absolutely paralyzed, sitting on your chest and not moving until — one hopes — it decides to climb down and go possess someone else.

You spend all your time still with the fear that there’s no consolation over the loss of a pet like him, and no longer consolation in your life. Instead of getting better, it just gets heavier and more leaden and more unreal. Even my subconscious has given up; the one fleeting glimpse of him I had in a dream I completely lost it and begged him to come back to me, saying what I had said thousands of times but not pleading, not in such high, hysterical, desperate tones: Come here, baby! Momma needs you!

It’s easy to say sorry about the job, sorry about the husband, sorry about the thousand other things you lost this year, just as easy as it is to compartmentalize these terrible things and deal with them one at a time as a series of tasks.  But no, we really don’t even know how to be sorry about the uncanny child-friend-mate-comfort blanket-lover-shadow bond one forges with a bright-eyed and utterly devoted feline with whom one has such a singular connection; we don’t know how to move beyond it…

And I’m just now getting around to mulching.

I moved the tomatoes to my Dissertation Draft Memorial Bed in the front of the house and the plants are gloriously erect and massive this year.  Huge, promising fruit have been developing well. There’s a grafted ‘Mexican,’ big luscious ‘Brad’s Black Heart,’ three ‘Amish Pastes’ sadly of the small and genetically muted variety, a nice ‘Carol Chyko’s Big Paste,’ my standard ‘Black Krim’ slicer, a ‘Hungarian Heart (which originated around 1900 in Budapest, like many good things), stalwart ‘Slava’, green and yellow ‘Grubb’s Mystery,’ Dawson’s Russian Oxheart,’ bright orange slicer ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast,’ and a deep yellow salad tomato, ‘Summer Cider Apricot,’ that I bought in a moment of weakness and don’t regret because of the unusual acidity.

At the first signs of blossom end rot, a virus we see every year on tomatoes as we transition from wet spring to dry summer in the Willamette Valley, we lay out calcium.  I’ve done it for years with ground eggshells dug in and dried milk watered deeply into the soil.  The first few tomatoes can be affected, but after they’re plucked and discarded, the rest are usually fine.

But this year, with the new bed and onslaught of trauma and my tragic confidence in watering methods against all portents from the gods, I didn’t see the early signs early enough.  Now most of the plants are infected, those big beautiful green lobes rotting from the bottom up like, well, there’s no point in veering off into the metaphorical direction, since you already get it.

I’m trying to cut my losses, then, with blossom end rot ketchup.  Safe canning practices say one’s not supposed to can with blossom end rot tomatoes, since the virus messes with the acidity, and since my crop is so damaged this year, I decided to make a batch of ketchup, which has enough acid and sugar added that slight variations in tomatoes don’t really matter.  And a little bitterness and salty tears just improve ketchup anyway.

And for sauce and paste and salsa?  I picked up a lug of organic ‘Scipio’ paste tomatoes from the good folks at Good Food Easy/Sweetwater Farm in Creswell, who are operating a farm stand on Sundays from 10-2 at 19th and Agate.  I ate one directly from the box and it was full and meaty and sweet and good.  Apparently, it’s also known as ‘Scipio San Marzano’ and ‘Astro.’ I’d warn folks off the regular ‘San Marzanos’ we grow in the valley.  It’s usually not hot enough and they take so long that they’re nothing like Italian ‘San Marzanos.’

Want the ketchup recipe?  Click here.

IMG_3421Boris Badenov Levin, RIP. 1997-2013.

Separate Two Eggs is my new, very occasional series about a lonely single woman eating sad meals alone. Or not. It’s really just a way to continue to queer food writing and add diversity to Mommy-blogging and monogamous couple-oriented fare (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

the juices of june

IMG_3534My hands are Oregon hands, stained wine-dark with the juices of June. My arms, too, are speckled with red, but that’s my own blood from being stuck, a reminder of the thorns that accompany the best pleasures.  On my t-shirt there’s a mix of berries and blood.  The juices of June.

Within moments of returning home, I was in the garden picking handfuls of raspberries and black raspberries.  I didn’t need a bowl, not where those berries were going.  My right hand man gave me fingers to pluck; my left was bowl and scoop.  As soon as I filled up my primal vessel I did as the cavemen (in Oregon? Sure — poetic license), yes, the cavemen did: stuffed the entire handful in my mouth.

Because I can.

My lust for these berries won’t be sated for another month.  I planted another row last year, and it’s still not even remotely enough.  I’ll u-pick them, buy flats at the market, buy flats at the farm, buy them in restaurants and pick them at friends’ places.

It’s gluttony, I know, and thanks to teaching the Professeur, M. Brillat-Savarin, for so many years now, I know the difference between the gourmand — the delicately attuned lover of food with a capacious palate and appetite for the finest and most appropriate foods for his class — and me, the glutton.  It doesn’t matter where and how when it comes to raspberries, I just want to stuff my face with them.  Even when I lived in California, I’d buy those horrible cellpaks of ‘Willamettes,’ which are harder and larger than some of the other Oregon varieties of raspberries so we trade them to our neighbor to the south for their inedible monster “strawberries.”  But unlike the strawberries, I’d buy those horrible cellpaks with their nasty kleenex pad and eat raspberries all in one sitting, just so I could take some edge off the craving.

Here in Oregon, I can eat the soft ones and the sweet ones, the acidic ones and the monstrous ones, the golden ones, the dark ones and the pink ones and the warm ones bright in the sun.  We have a month of fresh raspberries ahead.  I like raspberries far more than strawberries, which are delicious but always seemed a little obvious to me, kind of like a sweet plump girl who means no harm and doesn’t quite get the jokes.  They have a dumb-looking bonnet and they get turned into cartoons.  Raspberries, on the other hand, lent their name to that gross gesture of blowing spitty air out of your mouth.  Raspberries have a bit of punk in them.

And if raspberries have an edge, black raspberries are rude boys.  Raspberries I always knew, but I remember very well the first time I spotted black raspberries under the stairs leading down to my grandfather’s dock in northern Michigan.  I’m not sure how old I was, but I must have been close to the ground, even though those steps were steep.  Anyway, they were feral and growing through the stairs to scratch the legs of little girls.  I had to eat them.  I knew I’d get pricked and didn’t know if they were poison or not, but they were glossy and becoming and beckoning.

My parents weren’t in sight, and my grandfather was busy gutting fish down the dock.  He held a chinook aloft and showed me the egg sac.

“You see this? Rich people pay good money for these fish eggs,” and with a snort he dumped it all with the guts in the bucket.

Rich people, thought I, would pay me good money for these shiny berry eggs.  So I’m going to taste them.  And when I did and their wild dark tart sweet seedy little bits entered my mouth for the first time, I realized some things were too precious to be sold to rich people.  My black raspberry empire thus ended where it began, in Manistee, Michigan.

Now I grow them and I still don’t have enough, but I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world for just one second in June when I collect them by the handful and take that very first mouthful, unadorned.  I close my eyes and am grateful, hardly possibly, for another year.

a prayer for fat tuesday: paczki day 2013

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A souffle-waffle experimentIMG_4320A slice of chocolate mousse cake from Bon Appétit circa 1980IMG_2878Truth in Portlandia

Thank you, cruel Dominates of Moderates, for leaving your groveling minion one last day of respite: Fat Tuesday, the day we celebrate all that’s excessive and fat and delightful in carne-vale-esque fashion.

For I sing (softly and despairingly and despondently at times, but I sing) the body electric, for those of us who look like paczki and act like paczki, for we endeavor to lick the creamy filling out of our mortal days on earth.  I sing against watering down bourbon and decreasing diversity and kneecapping the tasty and pleasurable and loving.  I sing against the heart made of stone and the heart heavy as a stone and the body denied and the breath captured and the unseeing eye and the muted word, even though I know that Lent will still come and what will rise in the place of pleasure is not nearly enough.

But today, wearing my new perfume — no, not THAT perfume, Jesus — I will sally my pączek form forth into the daylight, and greedily, desperately, try not to feel the legacy of enforced continence, the pinch of the present, the undeniable, frightening, slouching-toward-us-inchoately horrors of the future.

Nothing better we can do, really.

Culinaria Eugenius Paczki Day coverage throughout the years can be found here.

watch out 2013!

After being knocked around for a couple of years, life decided to take off the gloves in 2012.  What violence! What misery! What an intolerable piece of work!

If the looming storm clouds on the metaphorical and literal horizons are any indication, 2013 is going to be even more horrendous than its older brother.  So what can we do? My goal is to bike straight in to the eye of the storm, for yea, o readers, I am the newest thing on two wheels.

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Retrogrouch has several fancy bicycles, and if I had my druthers, I’d have a Dutch-style old commuter bike.  But I’m rather smitten with this new one.  It’s as basic as can be as a one-speed, but I’m enjoying it.  I need to buy a basket so I can ride off to the market.  I’m trying really hard to resist the urge to buy streamers and a neon orange flag with a pirate skull-n-crossbones drawn on it, as I had on my former bike two ack, three! decades ago.

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All this bike action means, I might add, that my knee injury is doing pretty well after being laid up for two months, then another four months of learning to move again with physical therapy.  As you might imagine, there is considerable trepidation to ride in traffic, but I do think this fear is worth conquering, especially when it makes one hesitate to interact with the world.  I have most of my range of motion back and a good deal of strength, and although it still hurts pretty much all the time and has affected other parts of my legs and feet, my limp is only really noticeable on stairs.  A pox on the careless driver who hit me: I won’t wish you injury or death, but instead a thousand thoughtless acts to nestle up with you in bed, like a chef dropping your chicken on the floor and putting it back on your plate, or your keys falling into a clogged toilet, or an airplane screw left unturned causing you several hours on the tarmac. May you forget your wallet on your date; be served ruined holiday meals; run out of gas on a deserted highway; be abandoned by clients, friends, and family on important occasions.  I hope these things will make you learn why life is not best lived on autopilot.

Sound bitter?  Perhaps.  It’s been a rough year.  But these fragments I have shored against my ruins…and turned them into a shank.  So bring it on, 2013!

a tale of two detroit bakeries: greektown

I’m visiting my family in Michigan for a few days between work travel.  After a lunch of saganakispanakotiropita, and octopus salad in Greektown, we stopped by the Astoria Pastry Shop.  Greektown pretty much horrified me, as someone who hasn’t been in downtown Detroit for decades, but I’m trying not to be so sad about it.  It was one of the best memories of my high school days, going down to Greektown and the brand spankin’ new Trapper’s Alley for exotic Greek (and Ethiopian, my first!) food.

Now Trapper’s Alley is gone and Greektown is spillover for the first big casino.

We never went downtown while I was growing up.  My great-grandparents were the emigrant generation, and they all moved to the Polonia sections of Detroit once they landed on Ellis Island.  By the time my mom was growing up in the fifties, the family still had enough reason to travel down Woodward to the big department stores and to see relatives.  My mom remembers the city growing more derelict and dangerous over the years, and they finally stopped going.  When I was growing up in the seventies, it was just not a place to go.  We’d occasionally venture out to the Institute of Art or the Symphony or to see a ballet, but it was not a regular part of life.

Only when I discovered food did it become a part of my life again.

And now, with the casinos, as more middle-class suburban (read: white) people are returning to Detroit as a tourist destination to be drained of their income, Greektown is pretty much history.  There’s still an air of terror that surrounds the place, the fear that a white person will be immediately attacked once entering the city, but still they come.  And that’s a change. Some of the old restaurants and bakeries are there, and some even accept casino comps at cash value.  It’s like any gold rush town — new chain restaurants are moving in, and the place operates as if the casino has formed a parallel economy with its own transportation byways, currency, and value system that feels vaguely outside the law and yet firmly, urgently, within it.

Needless to say, there are many problems with this gold rush mentality, and I can’t argue the casinos haven’t raised millions of dollars for the site of one of the worst urban stories in the twentieth century. But it still makes me sad.  My mom is sad when she thinks of the deterioration of a city that was vibrant in her youth.  I’m sad about the holocaust and post-apocalyptic dystopia the city became and continues to become in my waning youth.  Detroit is more disturbing to me now than it ever was.

Yes, it’s mesmerizing and brutally raw, fascinating to see.  The decay screams out at you to become art — every single block is a photograph, every single conversation is a poem.  The waiter at our restaurant, an imposing dark man, said he’d lived downtown since the seventies.  “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he confessed.  “Of course, I have a CCW, but who doesn’t?  I have to keep an eye on my Harley.  Stay safe, ladies.”

Recording these impressions is almost impossible to resist.  But I think we (I) should try very very hard to press back against the impulses that find terrible beauty and remember the cost to humanity.  Not humanity in the big H Humanities sense, but humanity in the sense of people.  An old woman should have some better pleasure in life than being helped from her wheelchair to a slot machine in a toxic environment.  The city shouldn’t be primarily integrated in a holding cell.  Vending machines — if they should continue to exist — shouldn’t be stocked with cigarettes.  A waiter shouldn’t see packing a concealed weapon as a normal part of his day…

Ugh.  Have to stop.

You can still get a darn good meal in Greektown.  My mom had one of the best pieces of spanakotiropita (like spanakopita but with cheese) that I’ve ever tasted. The Astoria Pastry Shop, with its pressed copper ceiling and Greek pastries, was founded in the seventies, but it feels like an old place and worth your tourist dollars, and Greektown is a wonderful place to catch the People Mover around the downtown area for free views of the Detroit River and all the downtown buildings in their crumbling or renovating-renovated splendor.  The Astoria is a filo heaven, but if your proclivities swing cakeward, they’ve got you covered, too.  Click, click below to see some of the real sweetness of Detroit.  Next up: Polish bakery!

Note: Part II of this post can be found at A Tale of Two Detroit Bakeries: Polonia.