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Flying Light

SAYING YES

I have eaten pizza on all but two continents-a hundred iterations of crisp flat bread and savory topping- the ragged jin biang seller outside the US Embassy in Beijing with her mostly toothless smile, she seemed to find me really amusing, but I kept going back for the savory fried flatbread with the red chile, egg, and hoisin filling- the quick fired flat bread topped with truffles gathered in the Transylvanian countryside- the pizza by the meter in Tuscany- that radicchio and walnut pizza was a fucking revelation – or the savory flatbreads at the market in  Tel Aviv-I eat the great pizza, the good pizza, and the not so good pizzas wherever I go

There are always people who will tell you not to eat the pizza- that it is too full of carbs- or too full of fat- or too dangerous- cause the street food vendors are trying to kill you- but I eat the pizza where ever I find it

So I ate a pizza topped with fried egg and beet root in Australia and a crisp buckwheat crepe filled with spinach, egg, and comte in Paris- I ate salmon pizza in Copenhagen and dosas fragrant with curried potato filling in Kuala Lumpur- I tried the obonomaki at a bar in Tokyo and had it again with kimchee in DC-and I eat the coal fired pizza at the place around the corner from my apartment in St. Paul

If it is pizza, I always say yes-if it looks like pizza, I say yes-if it might be pizza, I say yes

 

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Introducing Julia to Beijing

I am standing in front of 75 blank faces at the Beijing American Center wondering why the hell I thought I could explain Julia Child to a Chinese audience.

 

I was a brand-new, newly sworn, first tour, Foreign Service Officer assigned to Embassy Beijing. I was not the glamourous kind of diplomat, I was the back-of-house management kind of diplomat. Human Resources. I know, the worst. Not dashing, not Paul Child. As a first tour officer, they tell you to volunteer for stuff, or you will never get tenure. So, I volunteered to host a movie night at the Beijing American Center during American Food Month. A guy from Public Affairs (now those guys are the glamourous party-going kind of diplomat) asked me what movie I wanted to screen and what kind of things I would talk about during the discussion period. I told him I wanted to show Julie and Julia. He said no, I could not do that because Julia Child is French food, not American food. I said, no, Julia Child is an American cook and an important one at that, she is a goddamn icon. I think he was impressed by my passion, or possibly he had other things to worry about that day.

 

He agreed that I could show Julie and Julia. I read a biography (or three) and some of Julia Child’s own writing. First Tour Officers, We Over-Prepare. I put together a list of questions and discussion topics for after the screening and submitted them to Public Affairs. Yes, movie night discussions have to be vetted. I guess they were worried I might say something to embarrass the U.S.’s interests abroad or jeopardize national security. Because Julia Child, controversial stuff. My discussion topics were okayed, only minor editing, a triumph. I was good to go.

 

The movie was a success, everybody liked it. But nobody wanted to talk about Julia Child. Funny thing, it turns out they were all there for Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. I had 45 minutes to fill and nobody was interested in my carefully prepared and vetted discussion questions. Now what?

 

I ask for comments, questions? Crickets. Blank faces. This happens a lot. Free ranging discussion is not really a Chinese thing- maybe in the wet markets, maybe in the streets, but not in this kind of setting. Definitely not in this kind of setting. More crickets. I am teacher, so I better teach.

 

Desperate move, I try the Socratic method, terror inducing favorite of the frustrated academic. Which story did you like best? Amy or Meryl? Amy has a lot of fans, but Meryl wins. Meryl always wins. What did you like about their stories? Struggle, mastery. Have you eaten or do you like French food? More crickets. Have you ever had a meal that changed you profoundly, the way that Julia’s first meal in France did? Bingo.

 

A young man tells me about the first time he ate that beloved Chinese home cooking staple, eggs stir fried with fresh tomatoes in a sweet and savory sauce. A look of bliss on his face as he recounts the taste of the dish. I told him that the first time I ate that particular dish here in Beijing I thought it was awful, but when I tried it again, when it had been properly prepared, I loved it. Now other people are offering their food memories. All of the memories are of Chinese dishes; home style dishes. I hear not about restaurant meals, not about the famous Chinese banquet cooking, but about food prepared by Grandmothers and Aunties. A story from a young woman about her grandmother teaching her to cook; when she served her first successful family meal, her mother actually praised her. Heads nod, impressed. I guess Chinese moms really are a tough audience.

 

A turning point. I am finally asked a question by someone in the audience. Hallelujah. It is a softball, what favorite dish have I discovered in China? That is easy, soup dumplings, all day long. I also love Jin Biang, a street food, and roast duck. Since coming to Beijing, I have developed a profound appreciation for the Chinese way with noodles. There are also a thousand vegetable preparations that I love but do not know the names for. My Mandarin is still non-existent. I can, however, say “spicy” in Mandarin, which for some reason everybody finds hilarious.

 

Now the questions come. The first question that was actually about Julia Child, was Julia a spy? I have no clue, so I give a diplomatic answer. Why does everybody ask that? And why would anybody think that I know who was or was not a spy for the U.S. during WWII? I barely know who the spies are now. Wait. No, I do not know that. Forget I said anything.

 

The most interesting question by far, “If Julia and Paul Child had been assigned to China, would she have fallen in love with Chinese cuisine, mastered it, and brought it to America?” We enjoyed speculating about that for a while. Impossible scenario, but everybody agrees to have selective amnesia for a few moments about all those years China was closed to Americans. I tell them a little about Chinese food in America, and how it could have used a Julia. There are women famously associated with Chinese cuisine in America; unfortunately for everybody at the Beijing American Center that night, I know nothing about them. I guess that proves that there was nobody as iconic as Julia Child, nobody with Julia’s fame and stature, teaching America to cook Chinese. I ask if anybody has been to the US, and if they ate Chinese food there. Groans and laughter. I think we are all friends now, these Beijingers feel comfortable mocking my country’s food.

 

We wrap up, I think it went well. Smiles and cries of “xie-xie” follow me out the door. Thanks to Meryl and Amy, and most of all, thanks to Julia, I have learned a lot tonight. We made a connection in an unexpected way. True, things did not go to plan, but they ended well, after a few moments of terror. But that sums up China for me, unexpected, some moments of terror, some lovely moments of connection. Julia taught me that you can form a profound connection to a people and place through a shared love of their food. I re-discovered that truth at the Beijing American Center.

 

 

 

Yeah, I Get Anxious

I am sorry, I think I lied to you. You asked me if I ever get anxious when I travel and I told you “not really, not anymore”. That was not exactly true. I think even people who live to travel get anxious. I do not get as anxious as I used to, but yeah. It is the transitions that get me. I cannot relax until I am at the airport with my boarding pass in hand and my luggage checked, through security and have found my gate- that is probably an anxious traveler thing. But I have to say, even the most experienced travelers I know, even those Foreign Service veterans, tell me the same thing. They get to the airport early and they cannot relax until they are through security. We know it is dumb, but we cannot help ourselves.

And when I do something I have not done before, I get anxious. Like taking a train in a country where I do not speak the language or understand what is going on- that would be taking a train anywhere in the world, to be honest. I cannot revel in the feeling of being totally clueless, I am not Bill Bryson:

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” (Bill Bryson)

And because I travel alone so much, I always have those moments when I wonder -what if something happens to me? I am in a country where no one knows me and my friends and family have no real idea where I am. Or- if travelling with a group- what if I hate everybody? What if everybody hates me? What if the tour guide is a drug addict or a pervert or something? So- yeah-I get anxious. I wish I did not worry about stuff like this, but I do.

I think what I meant when I said “No” was that I have learned to ignore it. Apparently, I appear fearless, I am not. I just ignore my fear. You have to understand, I grew up afraid of everything, cripplingly self-conscious. My father was a bully, with a short fuse and a frightening temper. He never hit us, but I clearly remember tiptoeing around, hoping not to set him off.

My mom was better, but I have early memory of being 6-7 years old and dancing around in my front yard with a leafy branch, just for the fun of it. Totally at home in my body, just enjoying moving, you know? My mother made fun of me in a kind of mean way when I came in and I never did that again. Same time period, a little later, I was taking ballet classes after school and I remember being laughed at by another kid’s parents because I was a chubby little thing. I never felt that same childish freedom in my body after that. I quit dancing. I grew up, I thinned down, I got cute, and then I got to be self-conscious in a different way- you know- women are judging me and men are evaluating me. I never got back to dancing in the front yard for the fun of it again.

What does this have to do with travelling alone? My theory is that one of the themes of my life is that I do not have a normal sense of what fears are real and which are not, so I just ignore most of them. I still feel the fear, the anxiety, the self-consciousness, I just do not let it change my behavior. I am not saying that I am reckless, seriously I am not anything like reckless. I am, at least since I got sober all those years ago, a rule follower. But I do not pay attention to my anxiety, because I cannot afford to.

See, I do not want to stay home and if I listened to my anxiety, I would never leave the house. And gradually, I think I starved it out. I quit paying attention to my anxiety and it diminished. Or maybe, I just made a choice.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” (Victor Frankl)

The self-consciousness is harder. I know nobody is looking at me and nobody is judging me. There is still that mean voice in my head that says that I am too old, too fat, or too whatever to do what I want to do. Truth be told, I probably am too old for some things and too fat for others, but there is a lot left in the world for me to do and see.

I do not know if this is the healthiest way to deal with anxiety, fear, or self-consciousness, I really do not. It is my way, it may not be your way. I am going to continue to say “fuck off, anxiety”. And I will go to Burma, or India, or Easter Island. As for self-consciousness, maybe one of these days I will dance in the front yard with a tree branch again. Like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ko1vVA107ac

 

Laurie Colwin

Like a beat-up leather jacket worn with a tulle formal—surprising, but somehow so right–Laurie Colwin and Gourmet Magazine belonged together. That was where I first encountered Colwin, in the early 1990’s, back when Gourmet was very fancy. Meeting Colwin was like meeting a new best friend at a really stuffy party. A really cool friend who liked good food and cooking but was never pretentious, competitive, or smug about it. I re-read Colwin’s collected columns in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (Knopf, 1988 and Harper Collins, 1993) often, because I like hanging out with my friend.

Her writing is deeply familiar to me, and I always find it comforting to hear her voice again. I re-read her whenever I need a blast of snarky, slightly bad-ass, relatable, authenticity. One of her most famous columns details the weird food she would cook for herself in her tiny Greenwich Village apartment. This column taught me to celebrate the chaos and eccentricity of the solo meal.

“Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.” (Home Cooking)

Not typical content for Gourmet magazine. Colwin wrote about food I have cooked, food I am likely to cook, and food I like to eat. Much food writing is aspirational, Colwin’s food writing was reachable. She talked about being the best cook you can be, without ruining your credit rating, or making yourself crazy. She wrote odes to meatloaf and potato salad, to fried chicken, to succotash, creamed spinach, and pot roast. She even wrote about cooking fuck-ups– her own and other people’s–but in a gentle way. She was the dinner party guest who would help you cook, clear the dishes, rescue the split hollandaise, or phone for pizza if necessary. Colwin did not judge your cooking, she wanted to help. She has shared my culinary triumphs and consoled me when I failed.

There is universality to Colwin’s food writing, along with some deep weirdness. She seemed to put fermented black beans in everything; fermented black beans do not go with everything. She roasted her chicken at too high a heat. She was inordinately fond of eggplant. She adored British food, “nursery food”, and every home baked bread. When I am messing around in the kitchen, with an eggplant or some other vegetable, I feel her presence, telling me to go easy on the salt, and to consider adding some fermented black beans. I think of her every single time I make rice pudding, even though my rice pudding looks nothing like hers.

Colwin’s recipes are not really recipes, they are guidelines, stories. They have narrative heft. I fell for Colwin because of the stories, but I stayed with her because, like Colwin, I am a home cook. I do not use recipes. I cook by touch, by smell, by eye, by feel. I have been mocked on more than one occasion for the lack of precision in my cooking.  It was heartening to finally meet a home cook who rated a column in Gourmet. I found the cooking buddy I did not know I needed in Colwin.

Our relationship is not exclusive. Laurie Colwin has a lot of cooking buddies. There is a facebook page, a pinterest page, a website. Food 52 even hosted a Laurie Colwin themed dinner party featuring food from her columns. She would have loved that. Succotash, spiced beef, green sauce, peach pizza, Nantucket cranberry pie, buttermilk cocoa cake, lemon rice pudding, and somebody burned the roast chicken. The reporter detailed the struggle of reproducing these dishes without the benefit of “real” recipes, but that misses the point of Colwin–she would want you to make these dishes your own.

Colwin is not around to tell us exactly how she made these dishes. Colwin died young, and suddenly, of a heart attack in 1992. After nearly 35 years, it is surprising how well Colwin’s writing holds up; she does not read like an artifact of her time in the way that Julia Child does. There are a lot of theories about why Laurie Colwin is still being read. Some say she was ahead of her time in her devotion to real food, her enthusiasm for organic fruit and vegetables, for free range chickens and eggs. Others believe that she was the first food blogger, that her conversational style was the foundation on which today’s food blogs were built. I believe that the underlying themes in her writing, home cooking and family meals, are universal and will never go out of style.

In the end, I think she endures because she is not like any other food writer, not before, not since. Here is how her daughter describes her: “She adored cooking, perhaps more than her other favorite things, which were swearing and coffee.” Three of my very favorite things. How could I not love this woman? I think of her as a close friend I never met and lost too soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A TASTE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

I do not like fish sauce, not on its own. My sister can sprinkle it on her rice and be happy, but I only like fish sauce as an ingredient. Alone? Nope. Added to a sauce? Magic.

 

I grew up in the Twin Cities-Minneapolis, then St. Paul.  In 1975, and for many years afterward, waves of SE Asian immigrants and refugees came to Saint Paul. They settled mostly in St. Paul, in a neighborhood called Frogtown. Back then, Frogtown was a slightly scary place- drugs, prostitution, crime- and the gangs that ran them. If you visit St. Paul, please go to Frogtown, it is totally different now. What you will see is a vital neighborhood; full of shops and restaurants –mostly small businesses owned by immigrants and refugees. They came from Vietnam, from Burma, from Cambodia, from Laos, and later, from Somalia and Eritrea. They came from Central America and Mexico. But mostly, they came from all over SE Asia. There has been a recent attempt to rebrand the area as “Little Mekong”, but locals still call it Frogtown. It was in Frogtown that I ate the food that would change my life.

 

And it was not just me. By the mid 1980’s, every town in Minnesota had at least one Vietnamese place. They were usually run by Hmong who came to Minnesota as refugees via Cambodia or Laos; but nobody really cared about the exact origin of the food back then. I am pretty sure most white Minnesotans in the 1970’s and 1980’s had no idea that there was a difference between the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Minnesota took to Vietnamese food in a big way. We love pho.

 

My first taste of fish sauce was probably in the early 80’s, and it was definitely in St. Paul. I got kind of obsessed with that magic sauce (nuoc cham) that you pour over your noodle salad. That alchemy of nuoc cham (fish sauce, lime, sugar, and chili), grilled meat, soft rice noodles, and crunchy salad. Without the sauce, it is boring; with the sauce, it is transcendent.

 

For this magic sauce, fish sauce is the magic ingredient. Smelly, sticky, fish sauce. It is surprisingly pretty simple stuff. It consists of anchovy, salt, and rot. The fish have to ferment in the brine, ferment being a more polite word than “rot”. The fermentation is what gives it that depth of flavor.

 

It turns out fish sauce has been around forever. The ancient Romans made it. The southern Chinese version of fish sauce is even more ancient, and is thought to be a precursor to ketchup (you heard me, ketchup). The Thai and Vietnamese versions of fish sauce can now be found in every supermarket. I would not be surprised to find that there are infinite variations in fish sauce aging and fermentation processes for the enthusiast. I know I have a bottle of “barrel aged” fish sauce in my refrigerator. Is barrel aging really better for rotten fish?

 

The more interesting question is how the fish and salt and fermentation can bring that magic, bring that funk. If you add fish sauce to your curry it will have extra depth and complexity. If you add it to your sauces, it will provide a massive hit of umami. Fish sauce was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. The first time I ate it, in nuoc cham, I tasted a faraway place, under a hot and distant sun. The taste took me to a place I had not been before, and it made me long to go there.

 

And eventually, I did. By now, I have spent a fair bit of time in SE Asia. When I first arrive in SE Asia, wherever I am, I take a deep breath. I can smell heat and damp, a whiff of mildew, charcoal or wood fires, wet mint, chilies, hot oil frying, and fish sauce. It is a smell as evocative of place as the humidity in the air and the music of a language I cannot understand. It is seasoning the green papaya salad, and the cold noodles, and the rice. It is on the mile-long breakfast buffet, in the coconut-brothed curries, and on the crispy fried stuff. It is everywhere.

 

My first taste of fish sauce made me long for a foreign sky. Now, it returns me to a place in SE Asia- a place I have been or a place I need to go soon. Like all the best transformative flavors, you take a little journey when you eat it. Fish sauce, a little bit of magic.

 

The OTHER Smitten Kitten

Warning- There is a cooking and food blog (an excellent one) named Smitten Kitten. I own the cookbook, I recommend it. This is not a post about cooking. This is one of those mid-life posts. Yup, another embarrassing mid-life post. I write this stuff so you don’t have to. Be warned. If you are likely to be embarrassed reading about lady parts, or sexuality, or middle-aged lady parts, or middle-aged lady sex, STOP READING NOW. I do not want to hear any complaints later on.

 

There is a sex shop in Minneapolis named the Smitten Kitten and I am writing about my experience there. And it won’t be funny. Or not very funny. My goal on this mid-life stuff is to write true and honest, whether it is amusing or not.

 

Let’s get this out of the way-I have not had sex in over ten years- lots of reasons, which I might get into later, but it has been a long, long time. Now, I am thinking that I would quite like to have sex again someday, never mind why. No, I do not have anybody in particular or any real possibility in mind; I just have the desire. The body I last had sex in? It is not the body I live in today. I am heavier and I have been through menopause- I am older. I did a little reading about sex after a long um- hiatus, and a bit of reading about post-menopausal sex and decided I needed to consult a professional. Because, much as I love the internet, and much as I love doing research, it is easy to get overwhelmed and decide to never leave the house again once you go down the “sex after 50” rabbit hole.

 

I had an improv teacher a few years back who worked at Smitten Kitten, and I listened to a couple of podcasts that the store was running at that time, and because of those two things, I decided to check them out. They offer appointments with sex educators-private consults (they will close the whole store for you!), semi-private consults (which is a consult in private and public shopping), and regular consults- which is a public consult and public shopping in the store. I submitted my list of questions via email, and made an appointment for a semi-private consult.

 

I met with a nice young woman whose name is not important. I am going to call her Stacey. She told me that most of their clients are over-40 and many are over 50, so not to worry about that. They cater heavily to the trans community at Smitten Kitten, which might throw some of you, but that fact made me feel like my issues were not going to be all that difficult to solve. Here is what we talked about- pelvic floor exercisers, dilators, vibrators, and lube/condoms. We also talked about moisturizer/conditioners for the vaginal wall and whether I will ever be able to come without using the Hitachi magic wand again.

 

It was all fine, it was actually really helpful, and she really knew her stuff. I was only embarrassed briefly when it came time to do my shopping, because when I first arrived, the place was full of 20 something hipsters. I felt like it would be weird for them (and for me) to see this middle-aged lady, with gray hair, buying a vibrator. The hipsters were all gone when we went out front. Stacey had a bunch of products she thought would work for me available during our consult so that I could decide what I wanted. They have a lot of inventory, so that was really, really helpful.

 

I bought some stuff-never mind what exactly. I have not had sex yet, do not have any prospects, but I now feel like I actually could have sex again-if the opportunity arose. That is progress for me. I can totally see going back for a consult with Stacey when I have more going on.

 

I am so happy that places like this exist. Being open about your sexuality is dangerous for women- and I am a straight up hetero woman, with pretty vanilla tastes. My issues are pretty straight-forward-I am old and fat and have been celibate for a number of years. What must it be like to be trans or just-out gay and have sex questions? Where do you go for advice? I would not know where to start. I honestly believe that places like Smitten Kitten provide a real service, and that referring to them as a sex shop is not giving them the respect they deserve. They perform a valuable sexual education service for adults.

 

This is not like those stupid home sex toy parties with a bunch of giggly women drinking merlot- this is not about being “naughty”. This is about having real questions and concerns and needing help from someone who understands the biology and psychology of sex- and was capable of understanding what I am going through. Invaluable.

 

One last thought, maybe the most important thing that I learned. Stacey said this a couple of times- there is nothing embarrassing or weird about any of the issues we were talking about. There is nothing embarrassing or weird about sex. It is just that people never talk about this stuff. Think about that. People never talk about this stuff. How can you expect to have decent sex if you do not talk about it? As an older woman, my body is going through a lot of changes, and nobody is going to explain them to me unless I seek out the answers.

 

According to our fucked-up views about sexuality, women, after a certain age, are not supposed to have a sex drive. Older woman in particular are supposed to be entirely non-sexual. Anything else makes people uncomfortable. Think about that final scene in season 2 of “Grace and Frankie”.  Think about any season of “Grace and Frankie”. Since Grace and Frankie are not real, thank god for Stacey and Smitten Kitten.

What Kind Of Cook Am I?

 

I keep getting asked this question- what kind of cook am I? I should have an answer prepared by now, but I always have to think about it. I have cooked professionally, but it was years ago. And, to be honest, it was for a very brief time, and I showed no real aptitude for it. So I am definitely not a professional cook, definitely not a chef. I am a home cook, for certain, but I am not sure that the food I cook is “home cooking”. For someone who spends so much time thinking about and talking about food, I really do not have a sense of my identity as a cook.

 

Here is what kind of cook I am. I am the kind of cook who buys whatever looks good at the market. If I am shopping the Farmer’s Market, and I usually am, I buy whatever is fresh and looks good to me. This is the kind of cook I am, I get hungry, or I feel like cooking, and I take inventory of what is in the refrigerator. Then I hope inspiration strikes.

 

If inspiration leads me to something I have not made before, I do a little research on the internet. I read the recipes but I do not follow them. The I chop and season and drizzle oil on it. I sauté it or I throw it in the slow cooker and hope for the best. I steam it or I roast it. I toss it with oil and strong tasting vinegars. Or I make a mayonnaise based sauce. If I lack an ingredient, I make a substitution, sometimes an inspired substitution, sometimes not.

 

That is the kind of cook I am. I use very little meat, and I am not all that great at cooking fish. I like my cheese with bread, not in the food, so a lot of my food ends up being kind of vegan. I hate dairy with seafood, except when I don’t. I use Asian stuff, like miso, dashi, soy sauce, and Kim Chee. I like the Mediterranean stuff, so tahini and olive oil and olives and lemons will figure heavily. That is the kind of cook I am.

 

I think the low carb diet is garbage, so I use rice, pasta, couscous, quinoa, buckwheat, soba, udon, millet, and bulgur. Never met a carb I did not like, but I do tend toward the whole grain. Unless I don’t.

 

So, that is the kind of cook I am. My results are uneven, but the process is what I enjoy. The finished dish is almost beside the point. That is the kind of cook I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angry, Drunk Women

http://www.vox.com/2016/8/23/12584530/women-alcohol-wine

 

I read this a few months ago, and although I have been sober for ages, longer than I was drinking, this really resonated with me. After a lot of years of low maintenance sobriety, I am feeling itchy again. I am feeling angry; I am feeling like there is, among women, a new sort of relentless pressure to drink. I think this article really nails it. Wine with this, wine with that, like being a woman means drinking wine at all hours of the day, and that no experience is complete without wine, and no social ill cannot be made better with wine. Fuck that.

 

On my last trip, I had more group experiences than an introvert should have to endure. This is the price you pay for going the places I have been and seeing the things I have seen. What was more unusual was that for the first time in ages, I was made uncomfortable by someone else’s drinking. I should qualify- someone outside of my family- my mother’s drinking made me uncomfortable for years. I generally do not care about people drinking around me, I really do not. When I get around drinking alcoholics, however, it is like an alarm going off, one that only I can hear.

 

The first experience was with a couple at the writer’s retreat. Both of them were drinking more than everybody else, a lot more, but it was their pre-occupation with drinking that made me most uncomfortable. I think that the rest of the group was also more than a little uncomfortable by the drinking -coupled with their general dysfunction as a couple, but hey, who am I to judge? I did the mature thing and avoided them both.

 

The second experience was on the Spain/Portugal/Morocco trip. One lady excessively pre-occupied with her next drink. She was not drinking to excess, but it was obvious that she was counting the hours until her next drink. She was called out on it, like Australians will do (sensitive people should not travel with Aussies, all I am saying) and she got a little bit defensive.

 

By then I was feeling like the world had changed, or I had changed, or that something was definitely off. Then we were in Southern Morocco, Australian lady has gone home, in a Muslim country, no alcohol. Hooray- at last I will not be surrounded by people pre-occupied with drinking. Since they cannot drink, they will stop talking about it. Nope.

 

Lest you think this is just me being a recovering alcoholic; on a day trip to Provence’s Most Beautiful Villages- that was the name of the trip- my guide told me that she had experienced American women on the tour who did not want to do anything but drink wine while they were on the tour. She could not understand it- why come to a beautiful village in Provence to simply sit in a bar and drink? What was the point? I was at a loss to explain it to her.

 

It does seem like this article is pointing at something bigger going on in our culture. I can only speak to American culture, except to say that I do not experience this kind of thing among the Europeans I have met. They drink wine/beer, they enjoy it, but the pre-occupation with drinking? The drinking as a solution to whatever is going on/wrong? Do not see it.

 

I do not think drinking wine to solve your problems, or deal with your stress, is funny or cute. I do not think we need to offer wine with everything- hot yoga or cooking classes or shoe shopping-in order to attract women-it is still not funny or cute.

 

And-when did wine become the preferred method for dealing with women’s anger? We are doing it to ourselves. Cannot blame this on the patriarchy. Drinking is an excellent way to suppress your feelings in order to maintain the status quo. I speak from experience here, shit did not change for me until it got VERY uncomfortable- and life does not get very uncomfortable if you are tanked on red wine half the time.

 

So sorry, ladies, you cannot be an effective voice for social change if you are drunk most of the time. You cannot be a good example for your sons and daughters if you drink instead of dealing with your shit. It’s hard, I know, but stop, just stop. You do not have to get sober, trust me, I never recommend that-not even to the people who really need it. I do not care if you drink, just do not miss out on living your messy, painful, joyous, entire, life because you were drunk.

 

 

Christmas Memories

My family are Swedish, but not all that Swedish- the only Swedish things about us were the name, the looks, and the jar of pickled herring in the refrigerator. Otherwise, although my grandfather immigrated when he was a teenager, we did not ever do anything particularly Swedish. Until Christmas. Every year, my grandparents took us to the Swedish Institute at Christmas. We would tour the old mansion, look at the decorations, visit the gift shop. That was it.

We had the straw goat, the angel candles, the orange horse. When my grandparents became too old and unwell to take us to ASI we quit going. My sister and I were the only ones who were included on this excursion, I think my grandmother secretly hoped we would consent to be Lucia one year- but there was no way either of us were going to agree to putting candles anywhere near our hair.

The food at Christmas Eve dinner was really our principal connection with our Swedish heritage. When I was young, every Christmas Eve we would gather at my grandparent’s house. We were allowed to open all the presents from grandma and grandpa that night, so that was one of the big draws. Then we would have dinner, and every year, the same two dishes would feature- Swedish meatballs (from my Grandfather’s mother’s recipe) and rice pudding (same origin). When cooking the Christmas Eve dinner got to be too much for my grandmother, my mother took it over, which meant that we were all charged with making the meatballs and the rice pudding, as soon as we were old enough to hold a spoon.

The recipes are unusual, and a bit labor intensive by today’s standards. The meatballs were hand mixed and hand formed and were meant to be the size of walnuts- this was important, because there was a yearly competition between my two brothers as to how many meatballs they could eat at Christmas Eve dinner. The record was held by my father and the number was 38 or something ridiculous like that. I think my brother Richard may have beaten that number once.

When my mother and my sister and I took over making the meatballs, they got larger, like golf balls, sometimes even larger; nobody was eating 30 meatballs anymore. There was one year, when my mother’s dementia had progressed from bad to awful and my father’s health was also not good, my sister-in-law and I made the meatballs. There was so much going on, with the grandparents needing attention and the grandkids running around, we were really not into making the meatballs. We made them too big, and under fried them, and we served them under-cooked. Nobody really ate meatballs that year, they were pretty awful.

My grandparents died years ago, my parents have both passed on more recently. My sister does not make the meatballs anymore. I do not make them because my son thinks they are too dry- he did not realize that Swedish meatballs usually have sauce on them until the first time he went to IKEA. Now that is how he likes them. My brother Richard still serves them for his family every year, and when I join them for Christmas Eve, I eat them too. Last year, my brother made the meatballs and the rice pudding, and my sister-in-law, who is Thai, made a lot of delicious Thai food. It was a pretty eclectic menu.

The rice pudding is an unusual recipe as well. It is not sweet, and not all that creamy, and it is not meant to be a dessert. It is a side dish. Out of my family, I think I am the only one who actually likes it. We still make it every year even though it is a bit of a pain to make, the rice has to be stirred with milk for hours, then whipped egg whites folded in, then it has to bake. My sister claims that every year she refused it, and every year my dad asked her “since when do you not like rice pudding?” and every year she replied “since always”. Needless to say, Susan does not make the rice pudding ever. I do not make it because I prefer the dessert kind of rice pudding, preferably made with coconut milk. The only common element is cardamom, whenever I smell cardamom I think of Christmas at my grandparent’s house when I was small. The only time I eat the family rice pudding recipe is at my brother Richard’s house, where he and his wife carry on the tradition for another generation.

In the end is not about whether these are good recipes or not, it is about the whole family in the kitchen, stirring the rice in milk or frying the meatballs. It is remembering the year we could not find cinnamon zwieback or whole cardamom and had to improvise. It is, like many family recipes, much more about family than the recipe.

I have included my sister-in-law’s meatball recipe. This is a recipe from her Shan heritage and has proven very popular at potlucks and school fundraisers. It has little in common with the Swedish meatballs, but it comes from her family and I thought it was interesting. Like most of the women in my family, we do not use recipes all that often, so please forgive the approximations.

 

 

Rice Pudding

2 eggs, separated

1 cup rice – NOT Minute Rice

Milk, enough to absorb rice

2 or 3 cinnamon sticks

6-8 cardamom seeds, crushed

Pinch of salt

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar

Cook rice in milk over low to medium heat, stirring constantly until rice has absorbed a quantity of milk and is done to taste. Stir in beaten egg yolks and sugar. Gently fold in beaten egg whites, pour into a 2-quart casserole and bake, uncovered, for 1/2 hour at 325 degrees. Serve at once with Swedish Meatballs.

 

 

Swedish Meatballs

5 pounds lean ground pork

4 cinnamon Zwieback toasts, crushed

1 medium onion, chopped finely

1/2 pint cream, approximately

Salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 eggs

Combine all ingredients and make into balls about the size of walnuts. Fry slowly until done. May be removed from the fire when not quite done and finished in a 300 degree oven (keep covered).

 

 

Shan Meatballs

 

3lb of ground pork

2 Tbsp. of ginger paste,

3 tsp garlic paste or chopped garlic

4 tsp of chopped shallots

5 medium tomatoes, chopped

salt to taste

I tsp.  turmeric (optional, but recommended)

2 cups of chopped green onions

2 cups of chopped cilantro

 

When everything is prepped, mix them all in a big bowl and make into a good size of meatballs.

In a wok, put in a little bit of oil and add meatballs. Cook over medium heat.

The juice in the tomatoes will come out, cook meatballs until dry and medium brown.

Serve with sticky rice if available

 

Food, Memory, Grief: The Dorothy Experiment

I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression in 1990. I was 2 years sober and fell into a pretty severe trough. I pulled out of it through a combination of Prozac and cognitive therapy. My diagnosis was later amended to Dysthymia, now referred to as CDD or chronic depressive disorder. Being mildly depressed has been a feature of my life for as long as I can remember. And since 1990, so has some combination of anti-depressants. SSRI’s usually-and yes, I have tried most of them. If you have tried them too, you know that they are a mixed blessing. Depression fucks with your life and your joy, but so do SSRI’s. If you are chronically depressed, you spend a lot of time dealing with side effects and wondering whether the side effects are worth it.

 

I have had long periods of being SSRI free, and long periods of being on SSRIs. Honestly, I would rather be without when I can, but I sure as hell prefer medicated to depressed. It is a cyclical thing- some alchemy between the current environmental stresses in my life and my ability to take care of myself.

 

Part of how I care for myself is through food. I love food and I love cooking. I cooked professionally when I was in my early 20’s. I read cookbooks obsessively, I choose travel destinations solely for the food experience, and I operate a food tour business in my home town. I spend a lot of time thinking about food and I spend a lot of time tasting and preparing food. There is no denying that depression and medication change the way I experience food.

 

Depression has a bag of symptoms and appetite is a depressive “tell”. I may comfort eat when I am depressed, and if I get to a point where I am too depressed to eat, I know I am in serious trouble. In a depressed state, I eat easy stuff, with simple strong tastes; stuff that is easy to prepare and easy to eat. I use the slow cooker a lot.

 

When the SSRI’s kick in, at least in the initial stage, I get a little manic. I feel slightly speedy and have no appetite. Later, I might level out. I might be sleepy all the time or unable to sleep. I might be eating all the time, or unable to eat. I might have a buzzing in my head and a slightly metallic taste in my mouth. I might sweat excessively and need cooling foods. I might have a tremor that worsens when I have caffeine. I might be experiencing vertigo, and need more animal protein. Over the last 25 years, I have experienced some weird combinations of appetite and craving.

 

My last SSRI made me very calm, detached, sleepy, and sweaty. I ate more than normal and was able to taste things sort of normally. I stopped taking the drugs in early July. I have noticed a sharpening not of appetite, but taste. I am able to smell and taste more completely. It is a little like switching up from SD low resolution to HD high resolution. It is good. I am enjoying cooking more, and appreciating the taste of my own cooking again.

 

Food is evocative, it triggers memory and emotion. From what I can find, the relationship between food and depression has been looked at mostly in terms of symptoms, not treatment. FN One can find diets that claim to “cure” depression; there is research suggesting that a healthy gut full of the right kind of bacteria will stave off a depressive episode, or that processed foods may make depressive episodes worse. For someone like me, while this is promising stuff, it does not really answer the big questions. Can the link between food and memory be used therapeutically? Can certain foods really make us happy?

 

Think of the smell of a tangerine, and the way the taste makes you feel. Think of the link between chocolate and serotonin production FN. Think of your mother’s recipes, and the way they made you feel. My parents’ passed away in the past 2 years; my mother after a long, cruel illness and my father six months later. I am still grieving; I suspect I will be grieving for a long while yet. Lexapro is a wonderful drug for getting on with things, but it really blunts your ability to feel strong emotions- like grief. Since the drug has cleared my system I have experienced unexpected waves of grief for my father, I am trying to think of it as a good thing.

 

I am having a lot of difficulty accessing earlier memories of my Mother, before a combination of dementia, stroke, and alcoholism robbed her of her dignity, her essential self. My sister seems able to remember our glamorous, adventurous, fun- loving mother, but I am blocked. 7 years of a progressively horrible illness is a long time; the memory of those years is heavy. I desperately want to remember my mom the way she was before.

 

I may not have my mother anymore, but I do have her recipes. If there is one thing people remember about my mother was that she loved to cook. She taught me to cook, and to love cooking. She entertained often. She was always trying new recipes, researching restaurant favorites, or tweaking family recipes. Cooking was a big part of who she was.

 

My Mom put together a cookbook for friends and family in 1980. Here is what my sister wrote in the introduction to the digital version that she put together in 2007. Her memories are not mine, but I cannot say it any better:

 

In 1980, and again in 1988, Dorothy Bolander published the Bolander Family Cookbook for her family and friends. It was no easy task, and the 2nd version was decidedly the final one. But almost 20 years have passed, those old books have fallen apart, and I felt that the book deserved one more printing.

 

For me, scanning and formatting these pages was like looking at a photo album. I remembered passing crab rolls at Christmas parties; hiding the Swedish heirloom cookies from my dad; scarfing down mushroom cheese dip in the parking lot of the old Met stadium; and receiving high praise from my co-workers for the carrot cake that my mom sent for my birthday. I have a memory associated with almost every recipe in this book.

 

In general, families do not cook today – I think that’s a shame. My mother, Dorothy Bolander, has cooked more than 18,000 meals for me in my lifetime, and she’s not done yet. Was that important to me as a kid? At the time, I took it for granted, but now I realize what an extraordinary thing it was. Eighteen thousand meals. Thanks, Mom.

 

Even when she could no longer hold a knife, or be trusted in the kitchen, my Mom thought she was still cooking for us. My sister, sister-in-law, and I put the last few Christmas meals on the table, while my Mom provided commentary about what she thought she was doing. It was comical in an awful way. Now that I can fully taste again, I thought to try cooking some of those family recipes again. I am hopeful that I can get a clear sense memory of Mom as she was.

 

Last night, at a table full of new friends, we ate a slow cooked beef stew reminiscent of my mother’s beef burgundy or her simple oven baked beef stew. The smell of slow cooked winey beef and onion reminded me of coming home after school on a winter’s day and looking forward to dinner.

 

Here are Mom’s recipes:

 

Beef Burgundy

 

8 pounds beef chuck, cubed

1 pound salt pork (1/4 inch dice)

32 small onions (you can use frozen ones)

6 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons salt

12 peppercorns

4 bay leaves

8 sprigs parsley

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon marjoram

1 quart fresh mushrooms

2 tablespoons butter

6 cups burgundy (approximately)

 

Fry salt pork and drain. Sauté onions in pork fat. Add beef cubes and sprinkle in flour. Sauté mushrooms in butter. Combine ingredients in a large casserole (or two smaller ones), cover with wine and bake at 300 degrees for 2-1/2 hours. Cool overnight. Bake another 45 minutes at 300 degrees or until thoroughly heated through. Serve with wild rice or noodles.

 

 

Oven-Baked Beef Stew

 

2 pounds stew beef, cut into cubes

6 small carrots, cut in half

1 2-pound can tomatoes

1 onion, chopped coarsely

3 ribs celery, cut up

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt Pepper

Pinch each of thyme, rosemary, marjoram

1/2 cup red wine

Put raw beef and remaining ingredients in a large casserole with a cover. Stir well. Cover tightly and bake for 5 or 6 hours at 250 degrees. Stir occasionally, if you are at home. If not, it seems to do well all by itself.

If you want potatoes, add raw ones in large pieces at the beginning, or canned ones at the end, cook just until heated through. If a thicker stew is desired, mix a bit of flour with cold water and stir into the stew, until thickened. Serves 6.

 

I think it worth noting, Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is a multi-page recipe. Mom’s Beef Burgundy is a half-page- I bet Mom’s is just as good as Julia’s. We ate Beef Burgundy pretty frequently; it was not considered a “company” dish. Mom made it when she felt like making something hearty and just a little bit special. Being Minnesotans, we always ate our Beef Burgundy with wild rice. Here is Mom’s wild rice recipe, and no, you do not need all that butter, but you should really try it that way first.

 

Wild Rice

1 cup wild rice

1 stick butter

3 cups chicken broth

 

Wash rice in cold water and melt butter. Add rice to butter and stir until it pops slightly. Put into a 2-quart casserole and pour boiling chicken broth over it. Cover and bake at 300 degrees for two hours or less. Your time will vary, depending on the rice. If desired, sauté green onions and mushrooms, sliced, and add to the rice, before cooking. Also good are sliced water chestnuts, toasted almonds, or any other vegetable you might want to add. This can be made with beef bouillon, also.

 

Last night we had Sara’s beef stew. It was a slow cooked shank, with tomatoes, red wine, carrots, and olives. Orange zest was added at the end of cooking, adding some sunshine to the flavors. On the face of it, a very different recipe. But, the way it smelled, and the way it felt to eat it, exactly the same as Mom’s. I think the best part of last night’s experience was that someone else made the stew. It is the kind of dish that makes you feel cared for. So, for a moment, I had my mom back.

 

 

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