Saturday, January 28, 2012

I haven't posted here in a while. Originally I thought to separate my original blog into two - one for food, one for literature - but after a while that got hard to maintain. It's all part of one life, after all, and I've been spending more time there instead. Then there are my Tumblrs, mostly here and occasionally here, which I started after photography became more and more a part of my life. I think I might combine them into one, too, to keep things simpler.

This is something I wrote and posted on the other blog and Tumblr; it seems fitting to also put it here, as it's a farewell to an old friend. Goodbye to all that.

In memory of Peter Cipra.

I met Peter Cipra when I was five and he was my kindergarten classmate Peter’s father. I knew, vaguely, that he had a restaurant; I wouldn’t understand what that meant until later. Meanwhile I sat in the bright kitchen of his home and made “spaghetti” out of blue Play-Doh with a garlic press (presumably not a garlic press used in his restaurant). His wife, Susan, made spaghetti and meatballs (not out of Play-Doh) for our lunch and told wild stories about Peter (senior) and his career as a chef. How he used to terrorize his cooks, and how once, in a fit of anger, he threw a butcher knife at someone who’d made a mistake (fortunately he missed). As a child, you come to know the mothers of your friends because they pick you up from school and cook you meals; fathers are tall, shadowy figures glimpsed on their way to and from work, around whom legends are spun and myths are made.

Years went by, and our paths did not meet again until Peter (junior) and I were once again classmates in middle school. It’s possible that my parents had been dining at Labuznik all these years without my knowledge, but I only remember the day in 6th grade when my old kindergarten friend Peter came up to me and said, gleefully, “Your dad didn’t finish his carrots last night!” I immediately went home and confronted my father at the dinner table. As a child who had to finish everything on my plate, it gave me a deeply subversive thrill to catch my own father out, and for years I was convinced I had found a chink in his armor, that he didn’t like carrots. (He does). I wouldn’t dine there myself until high school, in that narrow, high-ceilinged restaurant down on 1st Avenue, a few steps away from the Pike Place Market. I remember succulent lamb chops, tender spinach, and yes, those carrots that were my father’s downfall years before.

Labuznik, as I remember it, was formal but not stuffy, warmed by the good humor of Susan Cipra, who ran the dining room while her husband ruled the kitchen. You went there if you knew what you wanted, and if what you wanted was Peter Cipra’s uncompromising vision. He used to have this rule: no matter how many were dining at the table, you couldn’t choose more than four of the entrée options. That is to say, if there were six of you, and six entrée options, you couldn’t try all of them. It was maddening, but if you didn’t like his rules, you didn’t eat there. There isn’t anyone who runs a restaurant like that anymore, in these ME ME ME times. That era has passed. The closest successor might have been Lampreia, down the street, which in the nineties and noughties had that same uncompromising attitude, but without the warmth, which made for some interesting dining experiences. But all that is another story. We were talking about Labuznik, where Peter Cipra could do whatever the hell he wanted because he owned the damned building and didn’t have to answer to anyone.

The last time I had dinner at Labuznik was some six months before it closed, on the night of my 18th birthday. We had just returned from Prague, and my mind was full of the addictive pickled red cabbage that came with every meal. It came with our dinner at Labuznik, too, though only recently did a friend tell me that it was from a can. I had the Tournedos Rossini, and Peter explained to me that traditionally, Tournedos Rossini is topped with foie gras, but he made it with a slice of pâté atop each medallion of filet mignon, which would melt into a rich sauce as you ate it. This was followed by a berry Pavlova, which Susan brought to our table lit with a sparkling candle, reed-thin and twinkling with all the promise of the years ahead. I would be leaving for college soon; childhood was at an end. I’ll remember that dinner, though, and those stories, forever.

I was sorry to hear of Peter Cipra’s death last month, all too soon and terribly from cancer. He and his wife were a part of my culinary education, and therefore my life, from a very early age. Food was something beyond a bowl of cereal at breakfast, a PB&J sandwich in my lunchbox, the Chinese food I ate at home. It could be something creative, as creative as “blueberry spaghetti” made from Play-Doh or tender carrots spiced with something from a faraway land. It was part of a wider world that was and continues to be forever expanding, forever changing, and I hope it never ends. How lucky I was to have known him.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

back and forth.

I haven't been writing here, lately. It isn't that I haven't been eating out, which I have, or cooking, ditto, or thinking about food, which occupies most of my waking hours. There have been dinners with old friends and brunches with new ones. Over Chinese New Year my parents were in town, which meant endless meals with their friends. There were parties I spent talking so much my voice went hoarse and laughing so hard I could barely eat. Often there were smiling babies with their messy hair and fat starfish hands, and I found myself concentrating more on their giggles and sweet babble than what was on my plate. When I do write, my thoughts are turning more to literature, theatre, poetry; that other side of my life apart from food. These are the twin poles, food and literature, betwixt which the pendulum of my life swings back and forth.

The other night I was telling some friends that I don't really consider myself a "food blogger." There was a pause. "But you kind of are," D. said. I always forget that there are people in my life now who are aware of my blogs. When I started writing, five years ago, it was something of an open secret. I didn't mind if people read it - I still don't - but we never discussed it, and I liked it that way. The first few years, I wrote as though a fever was working its way through my body, every single day. I needed it, but I didn't need other people to read what I'd written. Even now, I'll rarely admit to even having a blog. ("Why don't you just leave it anonymous?" asked B. "Because I still have a little core of narcissism in me," I said).

I won't ever be the kind of food blogger who posts photographs and recipes, who attends blogger conferences and cares about things like SEOs (I'm still not clear what their purpose is) and maybe even aims for the ultimate goal: the book deal. That's not what I'm here for. I love food, and I think about it all the time. I love writing, but I love photography more, and I'm more comfortable about sharing it. I always have been more confident as a photographer than a writer. So I go back and forth. What I am doing here? I don't know. But I'll be back.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Let them eat chicken.

Every now and then some food writer comes out with some new declaration involving chicken. They talk about how easy it is to roast a chicken for dinner on a weeknight even while holding down a full-time job. Or they talk about how mass-produced chicken is bad on every level and we should only eat free-range organic chickens that lived good lives during their short time on earth, purchased straight from the farmer or a butcher. The response is, of course, immediate, as food blogger after food blogger eagerly agrees or disagrees for whatever reason. But they are the wrong audience. The people reading articles about roasting a chicken on a Wednesday night or buying free-range organic birds from a local farmer are already the kind of people who do these things. They've already read Michael Pollan; you're only preaching to the choir.

A free-range, organic chicken from a local farm runs about $5-6 per pound at the farmer's market or at my neighborhood butcher. Therefore a chicken which weighs about four pounds and will feed me, a single person, for maybe six to eight meals in different incarnations (not including stock, made from the bones) will run about $20-$25. The free-range (but not organic) supermarket chicken will cost about half that much, and the "regular" supermarket chicken will cost probably half of the free-range chicken. Of course the so-called "free-range" chicken in its plastic shrink-wrap is still a mass-produced product, but that is an argument for another time. I have not bought a "regular" chicken, pumped full of antibiotics and raised, as Pollan et. al have informed us, under inhumane factory conditions, for over a decade. Although occasionally a package or two of chicken wings from the supermarket has made its way into my basket.

The issue is, what about people who can't afford the $25 chicken? For whom $25 is half the week's food budget? Or the entire week's food budget? For a family, not just a single woman like myself? Laurie Colwin's words have been burnt into my brain since I read them, years ago: Tell a working mother that she ought to find organic food for her child, and that mother's face will show you what desolation really means. There is simply no time and often not enough money. There is no right answer to the question, what do people mean when they say they have no time to cook? I dare you to tell someone who is working two jobs and raising three children, without help, that she doesn't have time to cook dinner because she doesn't make it a priority. Someone who has to worry more about rent and a lack of health insurance than the provenance of her pork chops and the terroir of her carrots is not going to give a damn what any food writer has to say about how she is feeding her family.

I have been thinking more and more about food lately. I remember the cafeteria lunches from my elementary school days, more than twenty years ago. They were not much different from Mrs. Q.'s. It wasn't that long ago - ok, it was fifteen years ago - that my cousins lived with us and I got to see first-hand how many chicken wings a teenage boy can consume. The answer is: a LOT. Thirteen-and-sixteen-year-old boys drink a gallon of milk a day and can consume up to two large pizzas - each - at a time. If there are ever teenage boys in my future, I can say right now that my locally-sourced, free-range-organic chicken wings ($3.99-$5.99/lb) will become an economically unfeasible, distant memory. I will hold some other words of Laurie Colwin's to my heart: Provision as much pure and organic food as you can and let the rest go by. Words to live by.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1995. p86.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This is just to say.
(for T.)
(with apologies to William Carlos Williams).
(Last week T. gifted me with a tall jar of homemade pickles, and I can't stop eating them).

this is just to say
i have eaten all the pickles
that filled a tall mason jar
that i had thought to save
for picnics at the beach
or on the living room floor
in a soft egg salad
or adorning a charcuterie platter
but i could not resist them
straight from the jar
they were so cold and crisp
and briny
and delicious.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wild Beast. Lark.

Some five or six years ago Lark started hosting what they called the "Whole Beast" dinner, a feast involving an endless series of dishes utilizing every part of an animal - pigs, lambs, and a goat or two - and I do mean every part of the animal. I went to my first one in the spring of 2008 (there were pigs' ears on the menu, and perfect lamb crépinettes). Last year, the dinner shifted its focus (and time - it happened in November) away from the usual pig/lamb/goat menagerie and turned to wild game, perfect for fall.

Last night I caught up with my friends - we met at my first Whole Beast dinner, and it's now become a tradition for us to sit together - at the door and we settled in at the same table as last year. We opened our bottles of wine - a Rioja and a Cabernet Sauvignon, both from 1998 - and nibbled away at a dish of almonds and olives. The menu looked thrilling, fourteen dishes broken up into four waves, plus a sorbet (more like a slushy) intermezzo and two desserts. We wondered aloud about the duck testicles and if the emu could be considered a large animal and tried the pheasant rilletes - they were fantastic - and checked out the costumes (all the servers and several other guests were in full Halloween getup).

Here are some dishes that stood out: Frogs legs, garlicky-sweet, the aforementioned rillettes, and the duck testicles, which were tiny chunks of deep-fried meat, with a texture somewhat like that of sweetbreads. There was a tiny cup of pheasant consommé with agnolotti, foie gras, and truffle (possibly my favorite dish of the night), and brown beans with thick chunks of wild boar bacon laced with the sweetness of leeks and maple syrup (which recall the Quebecois fèves au lard). I love the "little stewed birds" (quail) that are wrapped in bacon and scented with anise, and the skewered Bison hearts in some spicy sauce.

We drink our slushies - spiked with herbs and liqueurs it tastes curiously like Campari - and await the last wave, the wildest tasting of them all, with a saddle of Scottish blue hare that emphatically reminds you with every bite that you are eating wild game. Best of all are emu meatballs, with the croxetti pasta I love so much and the gentle perfume of matsutake mushrooms. We have been eating and talking for three hours. It feels good to catch up with my friends, which is hard to do at parties where there are too many people to say hello to, or farmer's markets where you are in a hurry to finish the week's shopping.

Dessert is a soft quince spice cake, which I like a lot, and a tiny cup of cocoa sorbet with white chocolate granite, which I love tremendously. I am unbearably full, a little drunk, and I can hardly wait until the next dinner. They are bringing back the Whole Beast dinner in the Spring. I'll be there.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School lunch.

I have been reading and re-reading this post in reference to the current battle over school budget cuts in Great Britain and alternately weeping from rage and heartbreak.

I grew up in the south end of Seattle. We lived on a nice street, the highest in the neighborhood, with sweeping views of Lake Washington and the mountains beyond. But the local elementary school and high school were down in the valley below, in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. I had tested into what was then called the Horizon program, which meant that our math and writing skills were one grade ahead of the average. Four grades - 1st through 4th - shared a vast space which contained three open classrooms, one central common area, and a small lab; we were in a newer wing of the building, separated from the rest of the school. Our paths rarely crossed those of other students, save for one day when an older boy tried to beat me up on my way home from school. I escaped with a scraped knee and was never allowed to walk home alone again.

It was an interesting time, the mid-to-late-80's. M. told me the other night that she had been bussed into our school district because of the Horizon program but also because of "forced integration." That part I don't remember. What I remember is that we spoke in hushed tones on the playground about the supposed drug house down the street and joked that classmates who wore red were "Bloods" and those who wore blue were "Crips" (rival gangs). I don't know if there were any actual gang wars going on but I remember used needles and condoms ("Eeeewwww!!" we said) on the playground and a drive-by shooting late one summer, before school started. Then I left for the manicured grounds of the city's most expensive private school, in fifth grade, and never looked back.

But this is all irrelevant, or perhaps it isn't. We were talking about school lunch. Our elementary school served breakfast and lunch, every day. I usually ate breakfast at home - whole wheat toast, English muffins, oatmeal, cold cereal, congee, or fruit and yogurt - but I also dimly remember school cafeteria pancakes, or perhaps it was French toast, with sausage, maybe some fruit, maybe orange juice in a plastic foil-sealed cup, like the ones they give you on airplanes. It was cheap, like the lunches, which I also occasionally ate (flabby pizzas, corn dogs, Salisbury steak), washed down with plain or chocolate milk (a rare treat). I think it cost a dollar. And for many kids, it was free or otherwise discounted. I wasn't really conscious of it at the time; I led a happy, sheltered, middle-class life that I later came to understand was incredibly privileged. I remember being shocked that some kids ate their lunches as if it were the best thing they'd ever tasted. I think about it now, and it breaks my heart.

I think that people - like Jamie Oliver, and others, like a friend, following his example - who are trying to change the way children eat are doing an amazing, incredible thing. In one sense, the system (as it stood 20 years ago) was doing one good thing: it made sure that children got fed, twice a day. In another sense, it wasn't: the food was crap, except for those for whom it was the best thing they had. It is part of a larger problem - where does the responsibility lie? On the school system which can't afford it, or on the parents who can't afford it? The more I think about it - and I say this as someone who is single and childless and doesn't see that changing anytime soon - the more it makes my heart ache. I don't have any understanding of what it must be like to have to send my child to school hungry. I hope I never do.

Twenty years have passed since I last ate in that elementary school cafeteria. I still remember the flimsy partitioned foil trays and the plastic sporks, the crates of half-pint milk cartons. We have to do better.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

the art of dining alone. Lark.

I haven't been to Lark in a while. I used to come here once a month, almost religiously. I'd go straight from work in fleece sweats or from home having changed into something slightly more respectable. My life is different now, made up of different circles of friends that nudge together in some places and overlap in others. There are cookbook clubs and Saturday brunches and jaunts up to Vancouver or over to Vashon or strawberry-picking in the Skagit Valley. When we go out to dinner I often find myself in West Seattle or Ballard or Queen Anne, and it feels good to explore different corners of my own city, to find my way in an unfamiliar place. But I miss my neighborhood, and I miss going to Lark, alone. It always feels like home.

L. has often remarked that she gets terrible service when she dines alone, which surprises me. She is very pretty and intimidatingly stylish and I would expect waitstaff to fall all over her, but apparently this is not the case. J., on the other hand, says she projects an aura of "I belong here, bitches." I don't remember those first few times of eating alone at Lark, but I am sure that I did not project that aura of "I belong here, bitches." I might have kept in mind Mary Cantwell's words about keeping my posture straight, my gaze confident while asking for a table for one. They must have been kind, for I kept going back. K., who is one of the owners, would always stop by for a word of greeting.

Anyway, I am here again. It is late when I walk in, and they are surprised (usually I come for dinner very early). I chat with my server, M., and collapse gratefully and ungracefully in the corner booth, order the foie gras and one of the night's specials, a poached duck egg. I eat far too much bread and butter (and what wonderful bread and butter it is) because lunch was ages ago and suddenly, I'm starving. My poached duck egg arrives, floating in broth on a raft of toast and a tangle of braised chard, covered in cheese shavings that melt slowly as I eat. The yolk is molten gold, and I am torn between eating it all quickly, before it gets cold, and savoring every last bite, slowly.

The foie gras, too, is perfect, seared and served on a crispy pig's trotter cake, with a few stray bits of crispy trotter (there are few phrases more delightful than "crispy pig trotter") sprinkled around. There is a pool of tangy-sweet peach puree, slices of pickled peaches that send shocks through the rich haze of the foie and trotter cake, and a few green curls of mizuna so you can pretend you had some vegetables. It is exactly what I wanted. No dessert tonight, no need for it. I am happy when I head up the hill towards home.