December 06, 2003

A Day of Snow (not to be confused with a Snow Day)

By March I’m sure I’ll be complaining as loudly as anyone, but today is New York City’s first snowfall of the 2003-2004 winter season, and I am as happy as anyone who is inside a warm building on a cold day can be. I have the great good fortune to work up the street from Grand Central Terminal, so when I step out of the building and face south, I get a great, dramatic view. Actually, what I have is a view of the New York Central building, which is not technically Grand Central Terminal, even though, unconsciously, I look at the clock face on the building and automatically register it as a part of the station in my mind.  Whatever it is, it looks great in the snow. It looks a New York Christmas gingerbread fantasia, the source of dreams in which you come into the city via a gorgeous old railway terminal, walk in the cold (but not too cold), snowy (but not too snowy) air, doing all of your Christmas shopping at elaborately-decorated department stores bustling with holiday activity (but not with a crowd big enough to get on your nerves, and with a ruthlessly efficient sales staff and a perfectly-modulated thermostat). You finish your shopping trip with a visit to one of those little French chocolate shops or patisseries where they make hot chocolate by heating up a pot of cream and dissolving a chocolate bar into it. If you had to set this scene to music, you’d set it to “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.

Of course I am old enough to know better. Half the Christmas-shopping visitors in New York have this same fantasy, and surge into the city to find it. The other half are not troubled with fantasy; they want to go to the big Toys ‘R’Us in Times Square, the one with the Ferris wheel, or they want to go to FAO Schwarz, where the crowds surge to near-Beijing proportions. The cold is always too cold, the snow is always too snowy, and the natives want you to know that they’re fed up with it. (I know I’m risking the wrath of my fellow New Yorkers, but really, when did we get so soft about a little cold weather? It’s a northern city on the freakin’ East Coast! It is supposed to snow in the winter! It is supposed to be cold, and painfully so, so that when May finally rolls around and those soft sweet May evening breezes roll in, we can sigh happily and know that this is our just reward for three months of subzero wind chills! For God’s sake, you’re New Yorkers, you’ve made an industry out of bragging about how we’re tougher than anyone on Earth, even Mongolians, even Texans, and yet as soon as the temperature drops below freezing, the first thing you do is whine and lose all sense of peripheral vision as you’re walking down the street? Sheesh. Move to Boca with your grandparents, already.) Because they’re fed up with it, their tempers are even more on edge than usual, and they are more inclined to a) shove you, b) pick a fight with you if you shove first.  (More risking of wrath:  Why is it that during the big, potentially panic-inducing moments like the WTC attacks and the blackout, do we all show each other such kindness and forbearance, and yet when a subway platform floods and two people bump into each other, those two people come to blows?  Are we really social idiot savants as far as our fellow man is concerned?) If you had to set this scene to music, you’d set it to something from Einsturzende Neubaten or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  It is the reason that I talk fondly of the Christmas shopping trips to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia that I took as a child, and yet my actual Christmas gifts are either bought online or are homemade.  (I justify spending ridiculous amounts of money at the farmer’s market in the summertime by telling myself that today’s $40 flat of strawberries is tomorrow’s gift basket o’jam.)

So I know better, and yet I still succumb, just because it’s so beautiful.  There’s something about that first snow, the moment that it falls, before we get a chance to drive over it and turn it grey, or walk over it and turn it to ice.  That snow, it makes a loud place quiet, and a quiet place quieter.  When I lived in the country, in a deeply rural, isolated stretch of Pennsylvania, I would go outside during snowstorms and the air would be so quiet that the quiet was almost a sound itself, a sound without sound, in the same way that the scent of snow is a scent without scent.  In Midtown, nothing ever gets that quiet—or unscented—but it still takes on its own peacefulness, a sense that things are slowing down, and while you are certainly welcome to bitch about how you hate to slow down, still, wouldn’t it be nice, just this once, to slow down a little, to feel that you have fallen into a painting that has been painted just for you?

What we’re eating

I am at heart a baker, not a cook, so I don’t have bragworthy cooking skills.  While I certainly know how to put together something that I like to eat, and while I know that Lloyd likes just about everything I’ve ever made him, in general I see baking and preserving as the place where I can flex a little creative muscle, whereas cooking is, well, cooking.  It’s a nice way to relax after a day at LutherCorp, and it is a source of creative-muscle flexing on holidays like Thanksgiving, but otherwise it is a doddle, a trifle.  (Well, not a literal trifle.) Having rabbited on thusly, I will confess to being inordinately proud of the turkey a la king I made this week with the last of the Thanksgiving birdy and a quart of the stock.  I think it’s because after spending half my life reading about proper technique, I am finally picking some things up.  I was able to make a nice thick rich clear sauce without having to resort to the 5 tablespoons flour: 1 cup liquid that so many recipes resort to, a technique that, in my opinion, produces a gluelike horror of a sauce.  Instead I made a beurre manie (paste of equal weights of flour and butter) and added it in dime-sized bits, after a technique I read in Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point.  This is not particle physics, it certainly isn’t anything new, and it’s not the exclusive provenance of French chefs—Karen Hess refers to it frequently in The Taste of America—but for some reason I was surprised to see how well it worked, and I felt like it was a reward for being patient and mindful:  pay attention to your sauce, and that sauce will pay you back for that attention.  To go with the a la king, I made little baking powder biscuits, using the recipe on the back of the Bakewell Cream tin.  (Bakewell Cream is a cream of tartar substitute that is sold in New England; I order mine through the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue.  If you’d like the recipe, please feel free to e me.) It had been a long time since I baked anything on a weeknight, and I had forgotten what a pleasure it was.  Although I am more of a yeast baker than a chemical leavener baker, I have to admit that I love a well-made baking powder biscuit.  Usually I make them with buttermilk, but I ran a little short of buttermilk, and thus was forced to substitute heavy cream for the rest of the liquid.  Gee, what a shame.  grin

Courtney has asked if I would be interested in doing a TypeList of worthy cookbooks.  Honey, I’d be glad to, but do you know what you’re getting into, asking me a question like that?  I mean, yes, I’d be glad to.  Until I actually get my act together, let me start by recommending this one.  I have a lot of baking books.  I have four books dedicated to just pies and pastry, and I use them all.  But Ken Haedrich’s book is the only one that I am bound and determined to bake my way through.  There are 100 recipes for apple pie in this book.  I’ve made 5 of them.  Tomorrow I’ll be making the caramel-nut version.  At LutherCorp’s Thanksgiving potluck, I made an apple-cherry-vanilla bean pie with a blond streusel top, and the resulting pie was so good that everyone who tried it kissed and hugged me.  If this sounds like hyperbole, I promise you that it is not.

In other news

Dream Company in Vermont has called me about a job opening and asked if I will be available for a phone interview next week.  I am not going to comment further, simply because I am afraid of seeing something pretty dangled in front of my eyes, only to see it pulled away as soon as I try to reach for it.  I will keep my fingers crossed, nothing further.  This is also the case for a culinary writing fellowship at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow Farm in Arkansas, for which I applied last month.  Fellows are being announced on December 15.  I will cross my fingers and maintain an aura of bland Zenlike calm, at least until 3 in the morning when my eyes snap open and I don’t fall back to sleep until 1/2 hour before I want to wake up.

Because I know I never thanked them properly, proper thanks to Snowball and Orionoir for bringing me into the blogging fold.  Snowball in particular deserves a MacArthur grant for answering my questions and listening to my general angsty ramblings without once threatening to kill me or change her e-mail address.  And if you have not already done so, do take a moment to visit Orionoir’s page and pay homage to his baby daughter.  I think that there is a taproot of beauty that runs through (almost) all children, but this particular child is one of the few I’ve seen that can be judged by adult standards of beauty.  There is such a brilliant future reflected in those eyes of hers.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:41 AM in • (1) Comments
December 04, 2003

When I decided to join this tangy, zippy world of blogging, I made two promises: 1. I would not navel-gaze. 2. I would not shill. It took me all of two days to break the navel-gazing vow, but at least now I’m liberated from such a silly rule. This just leaves the rule about shilling, and I’m going to dance all over it, with football cleats.

In fairness, though, I probably shouldn’t call it shilling. Shilling implies a certain quid pro quo, e.g. “if you mention how great our chicken Balti kreplachs are, we’ll give you free chicken Balti kreplachs for life!” No quid pro quo for me, even though this probably has less to do with my stellar moral fiber than with the fact that no one seems all that interested in bribing me. I would love to admit that I can’t be bought by the promise of easy Balti kreplachs, but unfortunately I can’t, simply because I’ve never been able to test the thesis.

Anyone who would like to help me test the thesis, particularly by sending me free foodstuffs, drinkstuffs, books, cd’s, dvd’s, 1972 Kharmann Ghias, fetish wear from Trash & Vaudeville, stocking stuffers from Toys in Babeland, stock certificates or small parcels of land on the moors of Devon, please do feel free to e-mail me. My sense of integrity and fair game is in your hands. (grin)

So consider this less a shill than an appreciation, a chance to transcend the bonds of TypeList, under which this should be filed, but sometimes a girl just wants to go on at length.  (As far as I’m concerned, replace “sometimes” with “more often than not.")

With all of that elegant defense out of the way, you will be undoubtedly pleased to hear that I am about to extol the praises of a magazine that is difficult to find outside of the UK, and its companion book, which is difficult to find outside of the U.S. Another bag of bagels to anyone with the patience to keep reading.

In Tuesday’s post I mentioned in passing “the geniuses at Petits Propos Culinaires” without explaining who those geniuses are or what Petits Propos Culinaires is.  Bad, pretentious Bakerina.  First and foremost, PPC is better known as, uh, PPC.  It is a UK-based, digest-sized magazine, all about food, cooking and cookbooks, with articles ranging from the scholarly to the whimsical, sometimes scholarly and whimsical all at once. (Although the essays are filled with impeccable scholarship and the editorial advisory board is filled with respected culinary historians, it is not a peer-reviewed journal.) It is published three times a year by Prospect Books in Devon, under the editorship of the great Tom Jaine.  It was founded in 1979 by Alan Davidson (who is also the editor of the Oxford Companion to Food), his wife Jane and the late American food writer Richard Olney, who at the time was working on the Good Cook series for Time-Life Books.  One of Time-Life’s strictures was that only recipes that had been previously published could be included in the series, a requirement that infuriated Olney.  He and the Davidsons conspired to produce a little magazine, in which Olney could publish pseudonymously (so as to throw Time-Life off the scent) the recipes he felt should be included in the Good Cook series, and solicited further assistance from Elizabeth David and Jill Norman, David’s editor, friend and literary executor.

For those of us in the U.S., who may have trouble finding PPC in bookshops (although they do offer subscriptions, and they do ship to the U.S.), Ten Speed Press has done us a tremendous service by publishing The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy:  20 Years of the Best Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires. (Yep, that’s the one in the TypeList.) I was thrilled to hear that Ten Speed was the publisher, as they take pride in never letting anything on their list go out of print. 

It is hard for me to confine myself to what I consider the highlights of Wilder Shores, because, simply put, there is no dross, none at all.  All of Richard Olney’s essays are here, written under the noms des plumes Nathan d’Aulnay and Tante Ursule.  There are essays from Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, my food-writing heroes.  There is a wonderful essay by Su Mei Yu (author of an amazing book of Thai home cooking, Cracking the Coconut) about the beautiful tradition of funeral books in Thailand.  When a famous or wealthy person dies, a book is published that contains their biography and any letters they may have written, along with examples of their work; a writer’s book will contain excerpts of his or her writing, while a cook’s book will contain recipes.  These books are distributed to visitors at the funeral service. I have read this essay over and over. 

I am also crazy about an essay by Astri Riddervold and Andreas Ropeid about the Norwegian Porridge Feud of 1864-66.  I will spare you for now the details of the Norwegian Porridge Feud, but trust me, it is fun stuff.  Send me an e or a comment if you’re interested.  ("What are you reading?” my boss asks me at lunch as I chuckle, nose deep in book.  “I’m reading about the Norwegian Porridge Feud of 1864 to 66.” He laughs.  I continue reading.  When I happen to glance up, he has an odd look on his face.  “The thing is, Fin,” he says, “I never know anymore when you’re kidding.")

There is plenty of great stuff in the new issue, PPC #73, July 2003.  There is an essay by Francesca Beauman, “Perfect is the Pineapple,” about how certain food items become cultural signifiers.  There is an essay by David Potter on early recipes for pate a choux, the dough from which cream puffs and eclairs are made.  I will be citing this essay in my bibliography when I begin writing my insane culinary study on the history of eggs in baking (believe me, I wish I were being tongue-in-cheek when I say that I am working on such a project).  There is an abstract of a doctoral thesis on the use of convenience foods and the skill levels of the cooks who use them (and yes, I was surprised by what I read).  But the best thing in there is one of the best food essays I’ve read in months, if not years:  “Going Wild in Urban America.” Alastair Bland was a college student, one semester away from graduating with a double degree from U.C. Santa Barbara, when he embarked on what he refers to as, plainly, “My Project,” in which he decides to see if he can feed himself only on what he can forage and/or catch around Isla Vista, California, for eighty days.  This limited his protein to fish, specifically whatever fish he could spear.  Vegetables and herbs came from a friend’s garden.  Fruit came from the abundant fruit trees in the area, most of which he secured the owners’ permission to pick from before picking.  Figs became the new staple of his diet, 40 per day for 80 days.  When they were good, they were very very good, but when they were bad they made his tongue bleed.  Toward the end of his project, he feared that he was going mad, knew that his friends thought he was unhealthiliy obsessed, and fantasized about buying tortillas and beans at the corner market. 

All ends well, though:  he graduates, his dad comes to pick him up just as a storm blows through and knocks most of the available fruit off the trees, they stop for Mexican food on the way home to San Francisco, his dad says that the project seemed to look good on him.  It is a joy to read, right to the last sentence, which I just cannot refrain from quoting:

“I was made, purely and solidly, through to the bone, down to my heart, of the best stuff on earth.”

As far as I’m concerned, he still is.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:25 PM in please support these fine businesses • (1) Comments
December 03, 2003

Although I have not given him the URL, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before my husband finds this little blog of mine, as he is a smart cookie. This should inspire me to be on my best behavior; after all, if I say to him, Gary Hart-like, “Go ahead! Read it! I have nothing to hide!,” I should not be surprised if he takes me up on the offer. Furthermore, I should consider this possibility before writing a page full of sound and fury about what a shitheel he is, how he persists in doing things that make one’s blood gout out of one’s head in anger and despair for the future.

This should inspire me to be good...and yet I am compelled to be mean instead, for not only is my husband so good to me as to be positively sick-making, but he is also self-effacing to boot. He has the good manners to accept an “I love you” graciously, but once you add anything onto that, he becomes sheepish and blushy, clearly uncomfortable in the presence of so much silly love, unless he is in a piss-up mood, in which case he rolls his eyes into the back of his head, sticks his tongue out, lolls his head from side to side and makes ridiculous noises. If he visits this page and reads my bragging on him, he will become downright obnoxious, devising sneaky little psychological torture games and asking, mockingly, “are you going to put this in your blog? How about this? Huh? Huh? Nnnnnnngeeee! Am I making you crazy? Am I Dial M for Murdering you?” Not only is he obnoxious, but he also knows he’s screwing up the movie reference: it’s Gaslight, not Dial M for Murder, that he’s thinking of. He knows this, and he knows it drives me up a wall, and he insists on saying it, as he has daily for almost 12 years.

Note to Lloyd, in the event he is reading this: Dude, you are so annoying.

Lloyd is not his real name, of course. I am enjoined from ever using his real name. So it’s his own damn fault if he doesn’t like his pseud, which I created in honor of a conversation I had with two friends. We were at Telephone Bar and Grill on Second Avenue. They were drinking girl drinks. I was drinking cider, fancying myself all hard and English because I was drinking cider, but considering that it was Woodpecker, I should have been called out as the poseur (poseuse?) that I was and tossed into the gutter like Dylan Thomas.

But I digress. We drank, we drank some more, and as we started getting pleasantly-but-not-yet-obnoxiously sloppy, Meredith began to wax rapturous over Lloyd Dobbler, the hero of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, played by John Cusack. We oohed and ahhed and reminisced about being just-out-of-teenhood in 1988, falling deeply in thrall with Lloyd, who is smart but directionless, whose best friends are girls, who focuses his considerable intelligence, charm and kindness on the girl he loves, the beautiful-smart-insecure-driven Diane Court. We recited Lloyd’s dinner party reply to Diane’s father’s question “what do plan to do with your life? ("I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything or process anything. I don’t want to buy anything sold or processed, sell anything bought or processed or process anything bought or sold...")

“Remember when all you wanted in a guy was that he be Lloyd Dobbler?” said Meredith.

“Oh, absolutely,” I said.

“Oh, fuck off,” said Bronwyn. Normally in New York this phrase is shorthand for “let’s have an alcohol-fueled obscenity-laden fistfight,” but since Bronwyn was from London, I knew that oh, fuck off is London-speak for oh, puh-leeze. “You married Lloyd Dobbler, didn’t you?”

Note to Lloyd: Oh, fuck off.

Well, let us count the ways: While he works like a dog, always brings home the bacon and has ambitions, plans and dreams, career-wise he is not what the social-climbing striver girls in New York would consider a good earner. His skills are not manifested in his resume, but once he enters a certain work environment he proves himself both flexible and indispensible to the team. He listens to swell music, although he has never serenaded me with a boom box. He used to wear a very Lloyd-ish trenchcoat, giving it up only after being followed by store security when he went to a nice liquor store to buy me a bottle of Armagnac for my 30th birthday. He can talk all night long without talking too much, if that makes sense. He can defend himself if he is physically attacked. These are all good things, but does this make him Lloyd Dobbler, who won Diane Court’s heart by steering her around the broken glass she almost walked over in the parking lot?

Normally, I abhor abrupt transitions, but I promise that there is a point to this. When I was 12, my family got a kitten. Kitten grew up into a cat, then an old cat, then an older-than-the-hills cat. He died when I was 27, long after I had grown up and moved out, and about a year after I got married. This should all be in the natural order of things, except that our poor Smokey died a particularly cruel death, cruel to him, cruel to us, the kind of cruelty that makes you believe Depeche Mode was onto something when they sang “Blasphemous Rumours.” Smokey had grown up, as I did, in the wild hinterlands of northeastern Pennsylvania, the northern end of the Poconos, the southern end of the Catskills. Then my folks up and moved back to Philadelphia, having finally been driven mad by 20+ years in Wayne County, itching to move back to a place where you didn’t need to apologize if your family hadn’t lived in Wayne County for the past 150 years. Smokey came with them, and spent close to two years refusing to go outside, fixing my parents with a look of contempt for moving him somewhere where there were many fewer mice and garter snakes to kill. Then one day he decided he would be fine outside as long as he stayed close to the perimeter of the house. He was good with this for a year, perambulating around the house, pretending to be stalking prey but really doing his little geriatric mall-walker kitty laps.

We still don’t know why he decided to break form one chilly night in February, and head down the driveway. All we know is that he did, and that he slipped on a piece of ice and fell under the back wheel of the car that my mom was reversing out of the driveway. I will not dwell on what followed, on how he survived, and was alive when Mom rushed him to the vet, but the vet couldn’t say for sure if he could be saved, so maybe we should just end his pain, which we did. I will pass briefly over the vale of tears, of how distraught my mom was, of how my brother, 17 at the time, not only missed the cat he’d known since he was 2, but was also thrown off by how much pain our mom was in ("I just want my mom back,” he said to me on the phone, his voice filled with confusion). I will not even begin to describe how I cried twofold: tears for Smokey, who, by virtue of his age, had earned the right to die in his sleep but instead had to die in pain and fear; tears for my mom, who adored that cat, and was filled with guilt that nobody could assuage, nobody could fix. Despite my vow to go to work and be a pro, I cried, silently, all week at the office, hoping that no one would ask me what was wrong, because when I told them, you could see the look in their eyes: sure it’s a shame, but is one dead cat worth all this?

I came home from work one night, feeling sad but ready to feel better, ready for the finest mindless entertainment broadcast television could provide. On came an ad for some expensive pet-store cat food. “When you love your cat,” said the sorghum-y female voiceover, “you want to take the best care of her.” Instant, gushing, body-convulsing sobs from me, the same litany running through my head, oh my cat, oh my mom, oh my cat, oh my mom.

Lloyd sprang for the remote and changed the channel.

“What are you doing?,” I asked. “Aren’t you watching that?”

“We’ll put it back when the commercial is over,” said Lloyd.

“No, don’t be silly. I’m sorry. Put it back.”

“No, I can put it back on in a few seconds.”

“Lloyd, really,” I said. “I just have to get over it. We can’t change the channel every time a cat food ad comes on.”

“Tonight, we can,” he said. And he did, that night and every night until several weeks later, when my mom called to announce shyly that she had saved a cat from the pound, a cat that was due to be put down, a cat that had never been separated from its brother, so of course she had to get both of them, and no, they weren’t Smokey, but they’re pretty great cats nonetheless…

Does he steer me around broken glass? Damn right, he does.

Note to Lloyd: Are you still here? Aren’t you supposed to be writing something now? Don’t you have anything better to do than to sit around and read blogs all night? Get to work, Internet Boy!

Posted by Bakerina at 11:16 PM in valentines • (1) Comments
December 02, 2003

Thanks, in abundance to Snowball for the boy-howdy and the kind words.  I feel like the belle of the ball.  I feel like Ingrid Bergman, even though I look more like Vivian Vance.  (rimshot)

To everyone who read every word of yesterday’s Astoria post, you deserve a medal.  Or a bag of bagels at the very least.

You know what you should do?

This is something I hear a lot.  As I mentioned at length on my “about me” page (actual quote from a friend, worried tone:  “Is everything you write going to be that long?"), I work as a desk monkey at a packaging company, making the carton in which you bring home your perfume or your facial cleanser or your dozen pen sets from Wal-Mart, today’s carton, tomorrow’s landfill fodder.  If I had a little more ambition, I could be a sales rep, with a base salary and a bonus plan and commissions, but the thought of doing this, making better money by selling plastic cartons that can’t be recycled and won’t biodegrade, fills me with a vague unnamable dread.  For the past 18 months I’ve been working on a business plan for a bread bakery, but I have hit some financing snags, and thus am on a bit of a hiatus from the plan while I decide what to do next.  Hence, you know what you should do? Sometimes I solicit advice, but more often, this question comes unbidden, although not entirely unwelcome.  It comes from people who see things I don’t see, who think the way I live is nice enough, but with a little redirecting, I could be doing something really interesting.

You know what you should do?  You should sell wedding cakes on the Internet.  Think of the money you could make! Once upon a time, after graduating from culinary school, I had visions of a career in cake design, until I woke up and came to my damn senses.  It’s flattering beyond words when someone tells me I could make a killing selling wedding cakes online.  Unfortunately, I know exactly how much money I would make selling Internet wedding cakes:  less than I would need to break even, that’s how much.  I don’t have the storage space in my kitchen to regularly crank out tiered cakes, which in any event would be a complete and utter violation of nearly every NYC health code extant.  I don’t have the cash or wherewithal to hire a fulfillment staff, the dry-witted, cheerful, efficient customer service staff of my dreams, who have no problems explaining to the wealthy and entitled why I can’t make a pure white, vegetable-shortening-based wedding cake.  And I certainly don’t have the nerve to charge enough for shipping to make the enterprise worthwhile. 

When I was in culinary school, our class was paid a visit by an alumna, a student in the prior semester’s class, who was externing for a famous and highly-paid NYC cake designer.  She said that one day a fax had been mistakenly sent to her boss—I’m dying to know who made that mistake, and how—which included the price list of another famous and highly-paid cake designer.  This designer had become famous for her loopy, whimsical cakes, and for her willingness to ship anywhere in the Lower 48.  Shipping was always via FedEx, always included dry ice, so as to keep the buttercream smooth yet beautiful, and always started—started!—at $2,000.00.  That’s $2,000 on top of the cost of the cake.  Now, I won’t say that this is price-gouging, because, frankly, I’m not qualified.  I do know that a wedding cake is less a dessert than a structural engineering project, that any mode of transport, whether air freight or ride across town on the nervous designer’s lap, is utter logistical hell, and that Famous Cake Designers have better things to do with their time than build custom crates for the shipping of cakes and dry ice.  At the same time, though, I can’t imagine having the nerve to charge $2,000.00 for anything I know how to do, much less to ship it.

You know what you should do?  You should open a restaurant.  You should call it Finster’s Home Cooking. This is something I usually get when I have people over for dinner, or after a marathon baking weekend, or after I have helped a likewise-cooking-inclined friend cater a little event.  Again, it’s a statement born of love and respect, so I take it graciously, with smile, warm thanks and a silent prayer that the subject will change.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t change, and the complimenter will press on, don’t be shy, you just need confidence in yourself, give me one good reason why you couldn’t make a restaurant work! I smile politely and recommend that they read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and then ask me again.  But is it really so hard?  Is it really something that you couldn’t do? At this point I tell them what little I know about permits and health codes and the cost of a liquor license and how to (try to) keep vermin out of the kitchen and how to clean a grease trap and exactly what hideous circumstances your liability insurance may or may not cover.  Once they turn pale—these poor people, whose only crime was to praise my cooking!—I decide they’ve had enough.

Most people blame the glamourama image of restaurant work on either the Food Network or the New York Times food section, but not me.  I blame it on Friends, at least the first season of Friends, when Monica Geller is supposed to be working as a chef at Iridium, but somehow her job consists of her nudging a wooden spoon around a one-quart saucepan while fretting about her love life with a fellow cook who is nudging a similar spoon around a similar pan, and has nothing more pressing to do than listen to Monica with rapt attention.

You know what you should do?  You should give cooking lessons. Again, a very flattering assessment, but let’s be honest.  Anything I can do, I can think of at least five people who can do it better, who have been doing it long before I ever considered baking as a career, who were putting in sweat equity while I was still chasing dreams of graduate school.  I will be more than happy to point you in their direction.

You know what you should do?  You should write about food. Okay!  That’s it!  No, really, I’m not being sarcastic.  That’s something I would be pleased and happy to do, although if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.  There are so many brilliant food writers out there that I fear I am treading water in their wake.  The good thing about this is that when you read a lot of Calvin Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten and Karen Hess and Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater and Ken Haedrich and Laurie Colwin and the genius minds behind Petits Propos Culinaires, you set a high bar for yourself, and even if you don’t come close to clearing it, your work is better for the effort.  You should write a food blog! No, no, no.  There are plenty of food blogs out there.  Plus, anyone who knows me knows that this will become a de facto food blog anyway.

You know what you should do?  You should have a baby. Oh, er...(peers at ground, nudges dirt with shoe, blushes to roots) Actually, folks, we’re working on it.  In the meantime, I know that this is one of those enterprises where it’s not just the destination, it’s the journey.  *dirty grin*

Posted by Bakerina at 10:31 PM in stuff and nonsense • (0) Comments
December 01, 2003

The UA Steinway Theatre is gone now, but I think of it almost daily.  The UA Steinway was an old theatre converted to a six-plex in a space that was too small for a six-plex.  I never went to the movies there, as every time I walked by it, there would be banks of giddy, mouthy teenagers congregating outside.  I could tell just by looking at them that the movie was not the point of the trip to the movies; they’d spend the running time of the movie taking cell phone calls, yelling to their friends across the aisle, generally grabassing and threatening bodily harm to anyone who asked them to be a little quieter, namely me.  I am ashamed to admit to being intimidated by the big kids after eclipsing their ages by 10, then 15, then 20 years, but there you are.  So there were no trips to the UA for me.  I went to the movies in Manhattan, and at the bigger, better plex that was built in Astoria, near the Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where the screens are huge and the seats are plentiful, easy to find a place to neck with your sweetie, or to just watch the damn movie in peace.

Nonetheless, I love the UA Steinway, and I mourn its conversion into another outpost of the predominant NYC drugstore/megalomart, for one simple reason:  If there was something you wanted to see at the Steinway, and you called the theatre for show times, you were greeted by a jocular recorded voice:  “Hello!  Thank you for calling the United Artists Steinway Theatre, located in beautiful uptown Astoria!”

The first time I heard this, I found it risible.  No one I’d ever met in Astoria, native, resident or transient, had ever distinguished between uptown or downtown, east or west; it was all Astoria, and until you came to visit, you had no idea of just how big the neighborhood was.  And Steinway Street, nice as it may be for shopping or finding good cheap Thai food or extraordinary flat-crust Sicilian pizza at Rizzo’s, is nobody’s definition of beautiful.  But I learned, and sharpish:  Astoria is beautiful.  As my friend Eric Olthwaite would say, even the ugly bits are beautiful.

If you mention Astoria to a New Yorker who doesn’t know the neighborhood well, probably the first thing he will mention is the Greek food.  Astoria was once known, colloquially, as the third-largest Greek city after Athens and Thessaloniki, and while the density of the Greek population here is not what it was 50 years ago, it is still the majority ethnic group (followed closely by Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, and new waves of Indians and Pakistanis moving west from Jackson Heights).  On weekends, the children of our neighbors, children who moved to the suburbs of Long Island and Rockland County, come back to buy food in the old neighborhood, where you can buy mozzarella made fresh hourly and $12/gallon olive oil that is better than anything you will find at Dean and Deluca.  After the Greek food, he will probably mention the piano factory; Steinway Street is named for the piano company, and for the family that gave it its name, and yes, Steinway pianos are still being built in Astoria.  Movie geeks will mention the American Museum of the Moving Image, Kaufman-Astoria Studios, the Hollywood-Before-There-Was-Hollywood, and Silvercup Studios, the bakery converted into a television studio, home to The Sopranos and Sex and the City.  Hipsters will mention the sculpture garden, or Bohemian Hall, the last remaining beer garden in the city, a block away from our apartment.  It is all of this, my neighborhood.

We have been here for 10 years.  With the lease coming due on our criminally-overpriced studio in the East Village (now a lethally-overpriced one-bedroom in the East Village, thanks to the landlord’s installation of a half-wall), we spent weekends touring Brooklyn and Queens, looking for a neighborhood we could live in for a year or so, until something cheaper opened up in our own nabe.  One snowy January we rode the N train to the end of the line, got out and started walking.  Pretty neighborhood, we thought, not fancy but cozy, snug under its elevated train line.  A block from the train, on Ditmars Boulevard, we smelled bread.  “Astoria Bagels,” said the awning.  I was not expecting much.  After two years in the city on my own and one year with spouse, I’d found that New York City bagel quality had, by and large, hit a steep decline, turning into soft, smooshy, chewless, flavorless travesties, what the baker Maggie Glezer has since termed “circular buns for the additive-deprived.” On the other hand, there was a crew of bakers sliding racks of shaped, unbaked bagels into a boiling water bath, a critical step in bagel-making, now largely abandoned by most bagel bakeries.  “This could be okay,” I said.

It was better than okay.  Our bagels were perfect.  The crusts were crunchy.  The crumb was chewy, not cottony, and was filled with the taste of wheat, rather than the taste of nothing.  “I want to live here,” I said, mouth full of bagel.  “Me, too,” said spouse, mouth similarly full.  We ended up moving around the corner from the bagel place, and while we didn’t do it on purpose, I am glad that that’s where we ended up, and have been glad nearly every morning for the past 10 years.

The night before we were scheduled to move, 14 inches of snow fell on the city.  “Of course you know we can’t show up,” said the mover, and he suggested we try again that weekend.  Fine, fine, fine, except that ConEd did not actually have to come to our old apartment to cut the gas and electricity.  I came home from work to find spouse sitting in a rapidly darkening apartment, shivering and glowering.  “Look,” I said.  “If the lights are off here, they must be on at the new place.  Let’s just get our sleeping bags and our clothes and sleep in the new apartment tonight.”

“Grrrnnnph,” he replied.  But he packed up our sleeping bags, and off to the subway we trudged, through nearly thigh-high snowdrifts.  By the time we got on the train, we had each fallen down twice.  We were blue-fingered, icy-haired and in evil moods.  We got off the subway in Astoria, where we found an Italian deli open.  The owner made us sandwiches, clucked over our bad fortune, welcomed us to the neighborhood.  Sure enough, the power was on in the new place.  We unrolled our sleeping bags into what would be our bedroom.  We unwrapped the butcher paper from our sandwiches.  Gradually we knew that we were no longer on the verge of killing each other.  Spouse got up to look out the bedroom window.  “Say,” he said.  “Look at that.” I looked, and saw the Triborough Bridge, lights blazing, prettier than pearls.  I couldn’t believe, still can’t believe, that we have a view of this beautiful bridge from our bedroom and living room, and that the sky over the bridge is big and open.  If there are dramatic cloud formations to be had, they almost always form over the bridge, postcard-ready.  It is almost impossible for me not to hum “Rhapsody in Blue” when I look at it.

Astoria is not going to be our neighborhood forever.  Despite the New York Times’ assertion that Astoria missed out on the same kind of rent spikes that hit other New York City neighborhoods, the fact is, the rents have spiked—apartments that rented for under $500 when we moved here are now starting at $1,100—and it has been a year since I have seen a house for sale for under $500,000.  We will have to go, and I know that when that time comes, we will be headed for a place to which we’re happy to go, and which is happy to have us.  We have talked about moving to Pittsburgh, a city that deserves a valentine of its very own, or Philadelphia, where my parents grew up, my extended family lives and the best memories of my childhood are embedded deeply.  We have also talked about moving to Vermont, where about once every three months I court my dream job with my dream company.  In our grandest fantasies, we talk about having enough money to move to Amsterdam, where we spent part of our honeymoon.  When the day comes, we will be ready for it.  But we will also take one more look backward before we go:  at the Amtrak track that runs over our apartment, with a roar that we don’t even hear anymore but always alarms anyone who happens to be on the phone with us ("what was THAT?"); at the local pasta wholesaler that makes pasta so good that Manhattanites get all snobbish about it, say that it deserves to be in Manhattan, where the locals can appreciate it properly (meanwhile, I queue up with my fellow wretched plebes, who can’t enough of this wonderful stuff); at the bus that takes us to Jackson Heights, home of some truly swell Indian groceries; at the Catholic church up the street whose bells chime “Lord Who Hast Made Us For Thine Own” every single damn morning at 8:00; at the store merchants who will extend you credit when you come home and discover your wallet is missing from your bag; at the view of the neighborhood in miniature, spread out around us and below us as we ride the N or W home, our beautiful home.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:36 PM in valentines • (7) Comments
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