Potatoes

You know, I have no idea what the Irish Potato Famine was. All I have are some ideological props lamely disguised as history. It was the lack of biodiversity, you see, that did them in. Or more honestly the first thing that pops into my head is: Didn’t they know that potatoes are just empty carbs?

The point is, the only way I can think of the victims of the famine is as poor fools. Too bad they had to learn the hard way what we now know! I mean, I guess. They got what was coming to them, right? When you think about it, the holocaust only happened because we didn’t yet know to kill every goose-stepping kraut on sight. After seven decades of deliberation, we’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what fascism is--martial dance moves and fermented cabbage.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, what even the Irish knew: Always keep potatoes in the dark. I say this, but I don’t do it. A whole army of them are spread on the kitchen counter, bearing obscene green protrusions. The poor things don’t know that there’s nothing for them to grow in. Expose them to the sunlight and they’ll just start sprouting, unaware that once they’ve used themselves up to make green shoots, there will be nothing to support them besides sunlight. Their roots will scour the counter for water and nutrients, and they’ll find nothing. They’ll wither and die. Which is probably for the best. Imagine if you were born into a vacuum. They keep clearing your mouth of mucus, but there is in fact nothing for you to breath. There is only one way to act on this knowledge, and it will happen anyway: you must die.

Speaking of, I need some creative ways to preemptively exterminate these doomed spuds. I was thinking an oven. It’s an act of compassion. Sure, I could put them in soil, but come on, do you think there are enough holes in the ground for all of them? Besides, it’s so much responsibility. I have better things to do, like write this shit.

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting in vehicles for the driver to complete some errand (you know who you are), reading. The material varies. On better, less amusing days I’ve brought something with me, but sometimes it’s a pocket technical encyclopedia filled with trivia, sometimes it’s a tossed-aside (for good reason) magazine, and sometimes it’s a paperback, also tossed. When the driver gets back into the car, he inevitably gets an earful of whatever I’ve just entertained myself with during his absence. Imagine yourself the driver. One time it was the first chapter of some post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I think the premise was something like “and then the machines went kaput, because the nanomachines went berserk and murdered them, because nanomachines are evil, and, damn, now there’s a whole swarm of them, but only at low altitude, because real Americans live in the mountains.” As vague as The Road, but more torturously rationalized. In any case, our story centered around a small group of survivors, who of course were fighting amongst themselves. The author had taken the post-apocalypse as a perfect stage to set his vision of The Way Things Really Are, which I understood to be men posturing a lot, heroically saving their perceived inferiors with Hard Leadership Decisions (the kind Bush made), and filling the air with a lot of self-justifying talk. Stuff like “Lucy, I know it’s hard, but we can’t cuddle just now--we’ve got to cook the dog.” Paired with potatoes. Apparently when the apocalypse comes, we’ll all be eating a lot of meat and potatoes. Not because that’s what’s around, but because that’s Real Food.

29 March 2012

Caramel Pears

Whether out of laziness, haste, aesthetics, or as a gift to my wheat-allergic brother, I’ve decided crusts are for the birds. Or, more likely, for the grain moths. Or the rats. Or the dogs. I think my practice of making tarte tatin with out any crust evolved in the opposite order of that stated above: first as a gift, then because I liked the idea, then because I had only half an hour to make dessert for a dinner party, and finally because I don’t know what else to do.

Seriously. I enter the supermarket in a mental fog, and mumble to myself “dessert…” As sure as a wallpaper pattern my answer to this nonquestion moves from apples to apples to apples. I stare at the Golden Delicious, a little hesitant: is there something else? Not really, but this time I went for pears. A stain on the wallpaper. Same thing, different fruit. Peel them, quarter them, settle them in a hot pan of sugar and butter, boil them.

Until I tried pears, I didn’t want to write anything about the sweet paradigm I had stumbled into. There was something magic about how well the caramel-bathed apples came out each time, with so little effort. I wanted to keep my little loophole secret. This meant, of course, that I harbored a pride about it, which reared its ugly head when I brought my apples (mine, mine) out of the house. One of my hosts, biting into one of these apples, exclaimed in pleasure that it was one of the finest pears he had ever tasted. He was right--soft and stewed in sugar, it did taste like pear. I always hate any exchange of recipes, and especially when they come from myself. But there I was, specifying with gross excitement that the caramel takes six, not five minutes to develop. I could’ve used a bubbling, superheated pool of caramel to jump into.

Mortified, and stuck in a stupefyingly retrograde metaphysics, I had to advance from seeming to the real thing: I had to use pears. I should have known that what tantalized was glimpsing another flavor just on the horizon. To go directly toward the glimpse was as inevitable as it was misguided. It all would have been okay, I keep telling myself, had I used more pears, or less sugar. When it was just cool enough to try, my brother and I bit into this fruity, saucy mess as if it were heaven. It was. We had another bite. Our eyes bulged, and we yearned for water and other flavorlessness. While we had a hard time staying away from all of the preceding plates of buttery apples, more than a few bites of these pears could not be managed. They were too sweet.

Hence crusts. Still, the two of us finished the plate off in a few days.

18 March 2012

Pina

In "Pina", nothing ever goes wrong. Dancers dance on a wet floor, on a precipice, in the road, and in a room full of chairs. None slip (without being choreographed to do so), fall (likewise), run into chairs, or get hit by cars. In these dances, the possibility of an accident is constantly thrown in my eyes like sublime sand.

There is a theme of women falling over to be caught by men. The gravitational potential of her body shoots invisibly through his anticipatory movements. He follows her like a grave, loving spotter, and when she falls forward, he catches her at the last moment before her nose hits the concrete. The audience doesn't quite know what to do with this. It's almost slapstick, but deadpan, modernist. Laughter flares uncertainly through the theater in short fits. Her face is never allowed to make contact with the ground. He saves her from it, but what kind of salvation is that?

A similar dance features a woman not falling face-first, but tipping to the side like a ship in a storm. As before, there is a man to keep her from going over. He keeps close and watches her intently, moving quickly to the perilous side when necessary and kneeling to catch her. She walks and looks forward, zombie-like. When at unpredictable intervals she falls to the side, her eyes do not move. He must keep her on track, keep her from haplessly deviating.

Each dancer in the troupe gives a short monologue. One of them explains lovingly how much Pina loved obstacles. In one of her productions, "Cafe Mueller", the floor is filled with chairs. There is, of course, a man whose role is to move chairs out of the way of dancers who, seeming not to notice the chairs underfoot, would otherwise trip. His work is frantic as the other dancers move wildly about the cluttered space. He makes no false move. He deprives them of clumsiness, their one avenue of expression. While moving chairs is anything but quiet, and the movements of the dancers are anything but understated, nonetheless a tense, kinetic hush settles over them.

There is one dance in which a dancer falls, so predetermined it stings with the caustic amusement of a pompous psychoanalyst. It made the audience so uncomfortable that they laughed sincerely. A man and a woman embrace firmly, both looking needy but on the brink of satiation. They don't move, but a man with the suit, hairstyle, and manner of Agent Smith comes over to them. He rearranges them into a flipbook of passion--their hands to each other's hips, their lips onto each other's, and then he lays her whole into the still man's outstretched arms, as if supposed to carry her to bed in a cliche. As soon as the stern arranger of limbs lets go, she slips out of the arms, and falls to the floor. It looks like it hurts. She picks herself up and again the two embrace, seeming to be rescuing each other from the trauma that just occurred. Sternness turns to anger in the superegoical overseer, and he repeats the whole thing over again, faster. It repeats over and over. Their breathing becomes loud and rapid. It ends with the two embraced. The angle of the camera reveals a bloody spot on her ankle.

The accident is routed back into itself. To my rapt frustration, nothing ever happens. I have never been more convinced that beauty and terror are the same thing.

7 March 2012

Tacos at Agave

If you have any sense, I won’t be able to convince you that the tacos at Agave are anything other than mediocre. But once, under the influence of oxytocin and a little alcohol, I ate tacos there that can only be described as transcendent. I objected to the aesthetics of them--the repackaging of Mexican food as self-consciously healthful and mild--yet I could not deny the sheer pleasure of biting into one. There are advantages to Mexico as discovered by yuppies over Mexico as imported nostalgically over the border by immigrants. For one, the meat was cooked perfectly, meltingly, rather than grilled or fried to a crisp. Wait, sorry, that’s the only thing. But that went a long way, and everything else was good. The salsa, while it lacked heat, had the sharp and sweet flavors of cilantro and fresh tomatoes of the non-insipid variety. The tortillas were at once crisp and soft, not stale, damp, and falling apart.

I didn’t think about any of this then--I was too surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed it. I had scoffed at this place every time I passed its signage that proudly displays a plant as if it’s a revelation. Imagine if it had been named “Cabbage”. Though perhaps it should have been. There’s plenty of cabbage on the menu, and the only agave for sale is in the form of tequila. You may need it, if their sunny attempts to transport you to Mexico fail and you’re forced to face the food under the garish grey light of these latitudes in winter.

These transcendent tacos, they are only known by one other person, the same who I lunched with. It was pushing our luck to go back to Agave after sharing such gustatory delight there. It is to the cook’s credit that the tacos deluded us into thinking that they emanated from some ontic stability, to which we could return at our leisure. We did. The tacos literally fell apart in my hands, despite their wet innards being quarantined by two tortillas. The tortillas had come out of a bag, probably one that was at least two days old. The moldy aftertaste came from precisely that. The foundation on which tacos are built had sloughed onto our plates. What was left?

First we denied anything was amiss. Then we balked, and, finally, we rationalized. That first halcyon visit, we had come at around four when hardly anyone had been here (this second time it was 1pm). The cook must have had the time to take real care with the food, and probably there had been a different cook. Maybe they normally use fresh tortillas, but ran out today. Yes, yes, the lunchtime rush, the cook, that must be it. The experience, no, it was real, surely.

Meanwhile, we were busy with the wait staff, maintaining our own delusion, or maybe the restaurant’s, I’m really not sure any more. How is everything? Oh, good--no, delicious! The performance of enthusiasm that flares up in the friction between professionally doting waiters and polite customers can get a bit scary. The line between cheeriness and violence feels thin. The same unnaturally widened eyes could belong to someone yelling “good, I’m glad you like it!” at you or to someone stabbing you with a chef’s knife. I’m grateful whenever the fervor dies down.

Then came the flan. It more or less broke my mind. It came with a purple orchid, which my companion optimistically took as a personal gift from our cute waitress. If the flan was a part of this gift, it was the most mixed signal I’ve ever received. Of course, as it is with mixed signals, I wasn’t sure what part of it came from myself. Settling a slightly warm chunk of creamy custard onto my tongue with a spoon, I was given a wave of nausea. Whence? The texture was lovely, the flavor was at once strong caramel and smooth milk, and it was sweet but not overpoweringly sweet. I put another morsel in my mouth, and felt instantly gravitated toward the floor. It was perfect, yet I was not inhaling it, I was choking it down. I wanted to throw it back up, yet I ate my entire share of it. Our waitress glowingly asked us “how is the flan?” I must have looked stunned and indecisive, like a squirrel getting run down by a car. Thankfully, my companion swooped in to say “bliss”. I wasn’t sure if this was intended for our dessert or for the girl who served it to us, who seemed satisfied with the answer in whichever way.

I hardly remember the bill, or even going out the door. Eating there had sunk me deep into an epistemological crisis.

5 March 2012

Spiced Apple Pie with Dulce de Leche

What is Esquire? For reasons still unknown to me at the time of writing this, someone left an issue on my bed open to a recipe for “Spiced Apple Pie with Dulce de Leche”. Not bad. A little boring, but not a terrible idea to add spice and caramel sauce to apple pie. I wasn’t sure why the minimal conceit demanded a full-fludged recipe complete with retro-styled full-page photos, but whatever. Actually, who am I kidding. It’s one of the most pointlessly over-blinged desserts I’ve ever heard of.

I flipped around, and discovered other mediocre recipes coupled with raunchy food photography. Hold on--I see what’s going on here. These aren’t recipes. They’re ads. The spiced apple pie is an ad for Eagle Brand condensed milk. I have to admit, this may not have been money poorly spent on Eagle’s part, whoever they are. Apparently this is all a part of “The Esquire Pantry Hall of Fame”--a series of recipes complete with specification readouts--“CHEF:”, “MAKES:”, “PRODUCT:”--as if stenciled on a piece of military equipment. The reason for both pieces of painfully articulated information is the same: to destroy any possibility of ambiguity for readers who can’t be trusted unfold a napkin. You don’t want troops firing bazookas into their faces, or bachelors not knowing how much pie they’re making, or what brand of condensed milk to use.

I was confused. Some dimly-remembered rumor led me to believe that Esquire had content, somewhere. I searched. All I found was something about Willem Defoe, his grim face in black and white filling the entire opposite page (this magazine certainly makes use of its glossy paper). It wasn’t an article, it was a hagiography of quotations, the first of which I wish he had taken to heart more rigorously: “There’s a real wisdom to not saying anything.”

Scouring the pages for anything but ads, all I could find were nearly-nude photos of Kate Upton staring lasciviously at the camera, presenting her breasts as if they were prize pumpkins. In the first photo they’re being barely contained by a loose bra, to which she is taking scissors. Do they have a panel of 13-year-old boys, or do they come up with this stuff all on their own?

Eventually I stopped straining, and realized the nicest--admittedly the only--thing about the magazine is its fashion ads. Once I thought of it as a catalogue of mens clothing, it provided entertainment. (This whole rant is essentially an admission of how bored I am.) Of a sort. If I see one more suede desert boot, one more casual suit, one more appeal to the reader’s alleged uniqueness...

Wait, I finally get it: My dad wants me to make apple pie.

3 March 2012

Grain Moths

Have you ever eaten a grain moth? I probably have, though I really couldn't tell you for certain. Our kitchen is full of them, and they fling themselves thoughtlessly at any sticky object. As a result, any food that is left out for more than about fifteen minutes attracts a garnish of grey little bodies. Stubbornly, we still leave butter out in an uncovered dish. Their inadvertent suicides make Gary Larson-esque portraits of themselves in silhouette against the bright, opaque yellow of the butter--legs askew, wings flattened. It's incredible how frail and malleable these exoskeletoned creatures are. When I accidentally run across one with a butter knife, it smears, leaving behind unknown essences.

We keep our cast-iron pan always on the stove, always with a sheen of oil. We do this because we don’t want to ruin it by subjecting it to soap. It accumulates a grime of fried egg, vegetable, cheese, and bread that sometimes I scrape off with a paper towel, or with the spatula, which is fairly ineffective. Only when I scrape do I notice the moths that have died there. They have been fried to a crispy consistency, and saturated with oil, darkening them them to a color indistinguishable from the pan. Hundreds if not thousands of them have been infused in the iron patina. The pan imparts many flavors to what is cooked in it, and one of them is grain moth.

I am both nauseated and blase about their ubiquity on and in things I'm about to eat. I usually just try to take the butter that isn't directly touching one of their corpses. Unlike ants, they do not release an offensive smell when crushed. They are not sour, or at least I don't think they are. What does a grain moth taste like? I'm frightened to find out, even though I suspect they taste like nothing.

Their frequent failure to navigate the kitchen to suitable sustenance in which to lay their eggs is apparently not enough to slow them down much. On some days their swarm extends even outside the kitchen, and every day I see at least one, usually more. I've stopped being surprised. Today one fluttered out of an egg carton that had been in the fridge.

You might think that the grain moths would induce one of us to clean up and get rid of what feeds them. There are cupboards with countless forgotten bags, boxes, and unsealed jars of flour, beans, lentils, rice, noodles, and oatmeal. There's also a giant open bag of birdseed. Somewhere in there, they're feasting and breeding. I wouldn't say they're pleased by this bounty, but they do multiply accordingly. With indifference and neglect we keep providing for them. Yes, we could make life harder or even possibly impossible for them, but we don't bother.

Actually, I would really like to get rid of them, but the prospect of going through all that pantry cruft we've accumulated over the decades is too daunting. Who even knows what's in there. Maybe I'll find out when I've found out what one of one the maggots feeding on it tastes like.

2 March 2012