Thursday, April 16, 2015

Round and Round To Move Ahead




  A:   In a fit of unexpected bravery I've signed up for BikeNY’s Bike Basics (for fearful adults.) The last time I’d tried coincided with my older son flying off to college—one wobbly ride on a 
borrowed rusty bike down a quiet road to the beach. If nothing else it gave rise to a poem, a mothers’ musing on taking flight. So much time has passed. Now might be the time to try again.
     In a gym on Roosevelt Island on borrowed bikes we glide without pedals until we can balance for longer, then longer strides. Once mastered the pedals get reattached. We circle and circle, first one direction, then the other. The spokes of the wheels blur in a whirling illusion of solidity. After class, I am limping. Woe the tender creases of my uppermost thigh.
     At the next session we practice looking back over our shoulder and extending a hand to signal a turn. White knuckling the handlebar the effort to release my hand is far too great in the fleeting moment between the backward glance, and the turn itself. Plus there’s the jam of other fearful adults. Round and round, turning my head, glancing but not seeing, almost releasing, finally signaling for a nanosecond. It is ridiculous, I know. Acrid sweat is causing my glasses to slip down my nose. Round and round and the glasses are as precarious as I am and in a flash of cockiness I reach to push them up and find instead I am crashing down and the young volunteer with the Aussie accent is lifting the bike and me and chatting ever so warmly.  Round again a few more times, spinning my wheels. My heart is not in it, nor is it in my throat—my heart is in suspended animation least its beating throw my balance. It is the clock’s ticking towards classes end that circulates my blood.
     Kickstand kicked, helmet in the gunny sack, a sausage shaped welt is throbbing on my shin. I feel beaten. My illusion of control, rent. For now the enormity and discomfort of not knowing trumps any inkling of pride. On the tram crossing the river I practice yogic breath. Back on ground in Midtown, standing on a street corner in chill winter sunshine I tear the skin from an orange, then with sticky fingers pull apart a hunk of pumpkin apple bread, swallowing cake as if gasping for air. Later, ravenous before supper, I polish off some ice cream straight from the tub. 

B:    Standing at the cutting board, again with dull knives and I think as I have thought for weeks, no months, I will take them to the sharpener any day. And I think if only I were better with my knives. And I think, if only I practiced more. Wait, am I kidding? I cook every day. I know to get precise cuts there is wasteful trimming—I won’t do that. Then slices—mine are never even. Then julienne, a few at a time perfectly aligned, cut perpendicular into dice. Instead I stack too many, skew them in my fingers’ grip resulting in trapezoidal approximations. Or take chicken—my knife glides through some of the joints but has never mastered the one between the wishbone and the wing. Its a perpetual hack job. 
      There are things I know but don’t do, things I don’t know and won’t do. Things I might try. With the knife what’s missing is a deft, rhythmic clarion of the blade upon the board which comes from practice, and suffering an awkwardness of posture, a kind of coordination I will not, perhaps cannot master. Dare I let go the interminable buzz of what I should do, that constant judgmental fret? Dinner gets on the table. The cuts, though imprecise, are fine.

C.   At a meditation retreat at the local Zendo periods of zazen (sitting meditation) are interspersed with kinhin (walking meditation.) I’m listening to the bells, mimicking the bows. I suppose knowing where hands should rest and eyes focus and the ordering of time frees the mind. To me the formalities are spectacle.
     By all appearance we sit in stillness. Inside, a whirlwind circles my brain, breath, heart, gut, yoni, toes; the vortex contains me. Thoughts escape. I wrangle them back—you, and you, oh you again.
     The revelation is the snaking loop of kinhin which in the past I have despised—the hyperconscious tedium of one foot before the other in mind-numbing slow-motion. But here I am running to keep up, amazed by the gap before me, worried least I hold up those behind. Expanding. Contracting. Round and round, seeing faces, feet, gait, a part of the community and apart from it. At each round I anticipate glancing out the window at the far end of the room—an eleventh story vista I can’t quite take in because we are moving so swiftly, but still, the view is there. Maybe this time I will see more. Maybe this time. This one. Hello hopefulness, you again?  

D:  Days pass. Sitting with this story rising thoughts get lassoed, then corralled into notes. Round and round. What stays, what goes? The trick is finding balance. Maybe the trick is trust, or maybe just sticking with it.   
     On that street corner after biking my fingers were a mama bird feeding cake to my gaping mouth, soothing ruffled feathers, quelling a hunger borne of risk; a circle of its own, mother and mothered in one. Eating defiantly, lustily, indulgently, shameless. The taste of the cake created a memory that will outlast the incident with the bike. The flavor of the cake, and the act of eating it holds the emotion words only circle. I thought there was a way to break free of the circles, that if I mastered the circle I could then take flight.  Now I see its how the circle gets filled. 


Ellen Gray’s Pumpkin Apple Bread
yield: 2 loaves

3 cups AP flour (sometimes I use part whole wheat)
3/4 t. salt
2 t. baking soda
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 t. ground cloves
15 oz. canned pumpkin
3/4 cup canola oil
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 cups chopped apples (to peel or not to peel… that is the question)
Two greased/floured 9x5 inch pans. Pre heat oven to 350.


Sift together dry ingredients. Whisk together oil, sugar, pumpkin and eggs. Add dry to egg mixture in thirds. Fold in apples. If you’d like, sprinkle 1 t. demerara sugar over the top. Bake about 55 min. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Picture This

It had been a while since I’d had anyone over. I’d been busy with this and that and not cooking much and had all sorts of ingredients crying to get used in my over-crowded fridge. I mention this because in thinking what to cook for some friends the other night I had the goal of using freezer items and emptying containers jammed inside the shelves. This was to be a meal based on what was on hand rather than a dreamed up menu. Until an hour before company arrived I wasn’t exactly sure how the parts would fall in place.

I had a small piece of gravlax I’d prepared the week before so I served it with an assortment of crackers from multiple open boxes I’m diligently emptying, leftovers from various catered events. A lot of food passes through my kitchen. I give a lot away. Often I feel my life is a race to use the things that have come my way as opposed to being a series of conscious choices. Along with the gravlax I put out Genoa salami from a job last month and some blistered shishito peppers bought the week before when I’d spied them in the market heralding Spring. 

The main course was spicy lamb meatballs (the meat had been frozen since I’d made dumplings for Chinese New Year.) Black rice (extra from Christmas eve) flecked with toasted coconut (leftover from a beef Rendang made weeks earlier) and sautéed wild mushrooms. Quickly stir fried baby bok choy and snow peas contrasted with the dark rice, mushrooms and meatballs and as we sat at the candlelit table I felt proud and excited to see a plate with such an unusual palate.

The next course exploded with color. A medley of sliced Cara Cara oranges, pink grapefruit, Minneola tangelos, Meyer lemons and blood oranges topped with finely sliced purple shallots was paired with another platter of paper thin rounds of carrots, Chiogga beets, red radishes, and white and green daikon sprinkled with seaweed flakes, black sesame, demerara sugar and rice wine vinegar. Creamy goat cheese served with dried dates, figs, pears and cherries followed. Then from the freezer, a flourless chocolate cake (an extra from a catered birthday party) with cinnamon allspice ice cream.

Each course was very simply prepared yet the whole was totally unique and tasty. All the various flavors complimented yet remained distinct. The number of courses surprised, especially on a weekday evening, especially with this group of friends who all enjoy food but are not cooking professionals. 

The vision of the deep inky purple the back rice turns during cooking, the caramelized browns of roasted meat and the startling earthy blacks of wild mushrooms took me by surprise, and grows mythic even as the sense memory fades. There are no photographs, and my guess is my guests were wowed by the colorful salads and barely noted the quirky array of earth tones on the plain white plate.

Quick hand-held iPhone “plate-ies” like selfies, are touristic “I was here” declarations that only hint at the more complex stories anchored by everything outside the frame. I don’t much like them. They are like memos for memory, flippantly emailed then quickly trashed. I don’t much like the tightly composed pictures of a dish that accompanies most magazine articles, cookbooks and blogs either, as these pictures seem inextricable from commerce. Unlike portraits of people which at least engage a viewer in an emotional exchange of seeing and being seen, food portraits, apart from instructional value, are more like fashion photos. They work to elicit desire; for the food, the accouterments or the lifestyle. Some are beautiful of course, and sometimes looking at these pictures I get hungry and feel inspired to try my hand making a similar dish, but just as likely I feel pangs of envy and become critical of the life I lead or the one being offered.

I’m trying to understand what moved me seeing piles of dark food on a plain plate at a weekday supper with friends. The reference to fecund nature? An association with chocolate? Defiance against rule of thumb for a well balanced plate? Was it in relation to the other dishes colors? It was some combination, and also a private moment; my pleasure pulling off a meal with ease, clearing out my fridge, having the luxury to spend an afternoon in the kitchen as it is salve for other stresses. And that last minute stroke of adding rice to the menu born of compulsive fear there wouldn’t be enough when there always is too much.

A picture that might capture the plate would include hands washing rice in water dyed purple by the grains. The hands fluid back and forth motion half listening to the running water. The arc of sunlight crossing the kitchen counter fading well before dusk because of the particulars of the windows and the angle of the street. The interlude before a thought occurs to flip on the light. Wondering if Andrew will have his cane, regret that Ginny and Arthur won’t come, weren’t even invited because Arthur is ill and it is too much being cheerful. Worry the lamb is too fatty or has freezer burn. The thrill of Sichuan pepper. Black Trumpet mushrooms.

A picture is worth a thousand words or is a flimsy voucher for an accumulation of moments half rooted in memory. Either way, a picture wouldn’t have captured that particular meal, nor would making it again another time, and that is in part what keeps it glorious—cooking is new every time.

Spicy Lamb Meatballs 
(measurements are approximate, meatballs are forgiving)
yield: around a dozen 2” meatballs

1 # ground lamb
1 cup shredded par-boiled carrot (I par-boiled to ensure the carrot softens in the same time the meatballs cook.)
2 slices wheat bread, crusts removed, torn up and soaked in 1/2 c. milk 
1 egg
1/2 c. each minced scallions and cilantro
2” piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2  1” pieces of turmeric, peeled and minced
heaping teaspoon each: white pepper, ground Sichuan peppercorns, five spice powder, 
and dried ginger
a good dash each: Chinese chili oil, soy sauce, bourbon (or whatever booze is in your cupboard, bourbon is smokey, that’s why I like it)
salt to taste
1 cup chicken broth mixed with 2 T. soy sauce

Combine par-boiled carrots ginger, turmeric, scallions and cilantro, and pulse in a Cusinart 
leaving very small chunks. 
Soak bread in milk, mashing into a thick paste (to make GF—use 1/4 c. cooked rice instead of bread. To make dairy free—use broth instead of milk.)
Combine all of the ingredients except the chicken broth, mixing with your hands until well blended.
Form into balls, determining the size by your preference. (I make 2” balls.)

Sear meatballs in a glug of vegetable oil, turning gently with two spoons to brown all sides. Transfer the browned balls to a baking pan. Pour chicken broth over and bake at 325 until cooked through.  Serve with Thai black rice and sautéed wild mushrooms.  


Monday, March 16, 2015

On Pornography and Split Pea

Not long ago I worked the International Restaurant Show for a smoked meat company, frying sample bites of bacon non-stop for three days in a row, seven hours straight without letting-up, feeding the crowds who walk the massive halls of the Javits Center looking for the next big thing. Hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands of people dressed to the nines buying and selling, "owwing" and "ahhing", shaking their hips, closing their eyes, cooing “Ohh, ohh this is so good. Everything's better with bacon.” 

Later that week I found myself with time on my hands in the East Village. It was a freezing night so I popped into the vegetarian mecca B & H Dairy, a tiny hole in the wall I’d frequented when I lived in the neighborhood thirty+ years earlier. Walking through the misted door from the frigid street was a mind bending time warp; the same scrubbed formica set with clunky diner dishes overbrimming with the same menu items. The same crowd of young artists greeted warmly by the same short order cooks, sitting down with the same dog-eared French philosophy books and talking about their bands. The only change were the iPhones resting by every steaming bowl. As always, I ordered split pea soup and buttered challah and was transported by the first loving spoonful.

In the early 1980’s I was a founding member of an artists collective called Carnival Knowledge. Our earliest works, Bizarre Conceptions were made in response to threats to reproductive rights; proposed legislation limiting access to birth control and OB/GYN services, clinic pickets and harassment of healthcare providers and women seeking services, etc. We set up booths on street corners and created participatory artworks at community centers to raise awareness and open dialogue.

In 1982 a controversial conference at Barnard piqued our interest. The conference explored sexuality beyond reproductive rights which made many uncomfortable veering as it sometimes does into forms of exploitation, objectification of women’s bodies, kinky fantasy and the power relationships inherent in sexual practice. Carnival Knowledge however celebrated this unfolding believing our efforts to free ourselves from the bonds of reproduction opened doors to more liberated and empowered sexuality. We set about trying to define feminist pornography. Each month for almost two years, rotating from one members kitchen to another, we shared a pot luck meal and an evening of discussion.

The thinking we did, and field trips to sex shops culminated in a show called The Second Coming. This took place at the alternative performance and artspace the Franklin Furnace in 1984—a month long festival of artists books, installations, and performance art. On street level we set up a bookstore showcasing books and small objects, then down a narrow stairwell hung with flowing titty banners whose nipples gently brushed your face as you descended to the basement gallery. We divided the gallery into a kitchen, dining room, bedroom, etc. thinking most women would feel comfortable exploring pornography in the comfort and safety of “home.” Following the feminist credo that the personal is political much of the art, which we curated from an open call for contributions, was confessional and memoiristic.  

I built the living room furniture; a couch, easy chair, fireplace, which I covered with text recounting a fantasy story of a menage a trios, describing the acts that took place on the couch on the couch, on the rug on the rug, etc. I have no record of the text and of course can’t remember the details. I can only imagine it was fairly tame and peppered with the longings I had for romantic love. Throughout the show the living room became a performance space—there were artist made videos and Sex Ed. films we’d ordered from a catalogue looped on the TV in the corner of the room, as well as live performances. Draping her body across the couch, one artist did a striptease while playing saxophone. She had painted glittery keys down the length of her body and she encouraged volunteers to play her as she blew her horn.


top: ?, April Ford, Annie Sprinkle, Sabrina Jones, Veronica Vera, Karen Rusch
second row: Candida Royale, Ame Gilbert, Gloria Leonard, Anne Pitrone, Veronica Hart
odalisque: ?


The performance that garnered the most excitement was by a group of porn actresses called Club 90. They sat on my living room furniture and performed Deep Inside Porn Stars, a ‘Chorus Line’ style piece based on the consciousness raising support group they had formed. This was radical—that they were coming together in an artspace, that they, like women all over the country had a CR group, and that we, a group of feminist, artist, pro-choice activists were embracing women who were unapologetic and empowered by working in the sex industry. Plus they were funny, glamorous and sexy. 

The Carnival became a thorn in the side of Moral Majority conservatives who got wind of it from the bits of press we garnered. The gallery took the heat with the loss of some of their National Endowment for the Arts funding. During Club 90’s show there were threats of protests and we had to hire a security guard to watch the door.

By the late 80’s after switching focus to HIV, CK dispersed. Some of us married, had kids, divorced, moved on to different careers, but each of us has kept a finger in the art world. Last month a notice appeared in my inbox for CineKink, a film festival that focuses on “diverse sex positive kink” and one of their events was a tribute to Club 90. Surprised and excited I emailed the Carnies I’m still in touch with but no one was free to join me.

On a crazy bitterly cold night feeling like an intrepid warrior I ventured from Brooklyn to Soho to the East Village, first to an event that was part of a show celebrating Martha Wilson, the founder of the Franklin Furnace—a piece by Coco Fusco impersonating Dr. Zira, the forward thinking chimpanzee ‘animal’ psychiatrist from Planet of the Apes. The packed performance was smart and heady, Dr. Zira was a brilliant heroine, Coco Fusco is a brilliant thinker. During her powerpoint lecture she offered wry analysis of the male dominated pack behavior of humankind. 

And then to the porn stars! The sold-out show was at the Anthology of Film Archives, a venerable institution that preserves and exhibits avant-garde film and video. The LGBT+ hetero audience jammed into the lobby waiting for the theatre to open was dressed to the nines. I wish I’d had the courage to chat them up but I felt too shy. Who was this lively crowd? I knew, more or less, the people at Coco’s performance but not so here. Standing in the crowd I was aware of feeing judgmental, a bit critical and defensive—even after all that time working with CK. I found myself wondering too who I’d like to have sex with, surveying the room jazzed just thinking about porn.  

Veronica Hart, Veronica Vera, Candida Royale and Annie Sprinkle looked remarkably similar to my memory of them despite the passage of time. Each woman spoke about how important the support they gave each other in Club 90 was, and how formative the Second Coming was in helping move them towards a place in the industry they could call their own. I was thrilled and surprised, moved by the power of art. Then each spoke about the path she had taken. Candida became a director, moving behind the camera to make films that appeal to women, Annie is a performance artist and combines eco-activism with pornography, and Veronica Vera who opened a school “for boys who want to be girls” is an advocate for transgender rights. We watched a series of clips each had chosen that spanned her career; they were funny, sophomoric, empowering, and unapologetically joyful. There were bits that even aroused. After the show I pushed through the crowd to introduce myself, and was warmly greeted after explaining who I was (I guess I haven’t aged quite as well as they had!) They were thronged by fans and I didn’t know what more to say so I slipped out into the night. 

Like the CR groups that created space for women to reflect on and challenge the status quo, places like B & H welcomes you and creates a space where you are safe (and fed) and can reflect on and challenge the status quo. Split pea soup defines that period of my life. To this day eating a bowl feeds a sense of creativity and excitement. Sure its nostalgic too—the soup might be considered comfort food—but the sense of comfort comes from challenging the status quo and believing it possible to change the world.





In contrast, forking over bite-sized pieces of bacon at the Javitz Center felt pornographic, much more so than watching film clips at CineKink. The bacon was fetishized consumerism made into a billion dollar business that preys on longing and desire. The Club 90 women who defy repressive definitions of acceptable behavior poking fun with cum and pee—they are stars and artists. I think Dr. Zira would agree. 

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira











Monday, March 2, 2015

Memories quickly fade.


The driving impulse of this blog is to have a place to record food events, with
pictures and recipes icing atop the layering of ideas.

Alas, 
darn it,
blogs won’t write themselves
and I suffer equal parts shyness and laziness
worrying there’s nothing much to share
or neglecting the stories till they dim.

Herewith then is a stab at catch-up before the memories fade. Quick blurbs on dinners past. 

PoetryScienceTalks is a monthly salon. A revolving group of 30-odd people who come together for an out-of-the-box presentation and discussion. Before the talk we share a meal. I’m the cook. I try to have the menu reflect the speaker’s presentation and hope the meal warms the guests to the topic. 

December's talk was called “Quantum and the Dream.” The presenter, a radio talk-show host dream-interpreter explored “the underlying connection between quantum theory, the nature of our dreams and the creative potential of the beta wave brain state.”

The piece of the talk I most remember is that our notion of the unconscious mind was brought to light with Victorian brilliance by Freud, Lewis Carroll, and Carl Jung among others…  At that time popular stories shifted from Arthurian-type warrior legends into a feminine Alice down the rabbit hole racing to tea exploration of sub-conscious desire.



I dreamed up a "Through the Looking Glass" meal of topsy-turvy scale. Whole roasted quail nestled between overgrown chicken legs. Whole roasted cauliflower representing brains. Humungous carrots hollowed into canoes and filled with baby carrots swimming in carrot puree*.  For dessert, clouds of Pavlova tinged pink with wild berries.


January’s talk was a mouthful: “Obesity and the Bolus of the Beyond: A Sociopolitical Reading of Metabolic Syndrome” where the speaker brought to fore a dizzying array of topics by way of getting to a discussion about genetics, bioengineering, capitalism and science. The presenter is a bioartist and in one of his art pieces he grew e coli in a petrie dish, then subjected the bacteria to relentless tracks of Englebert Humperdinck. Antibiotic production ensued--perhaps e coli's means of defense. Survival is a wonder, no?

Supper, though lacking in coherence, was a feast of syllogistic word-play—his words > my dish > your mouth:

Orificial Economies: popcorn served with chopsticks
Complex Contagion: kale salad (is anything more contagious than kale?)
Positive disorder engineering: a mélange of rice varietals
Human identity: Amphioxus or Tunicate?: homemade gravlax* served with Japanese pickles and black bread. (Vertebrate, invertebrate, I was thinking about our forebears. Somehow--raw fish, pickling microbes, and heavy earthy grains seemed primal and could at least edge towards expressing something evolutionary.) 

And for dessert... Inborn errors of metabolism as aesthetic: wine poached apples and pears with cornmeal honey crust.  (Aren’t we all amorphous lumps hidden beneath a blanket of dough?)


February: could have been called Alta Kockers (affectionate parlance!) talk Psychedelics. Four white male Jews shared 50+ years of consciousness bending shtick about LSD as poetry, art, sacrament and psychic healing. For these gentlemen tripping became a way of life. A commonality and a centerpiece in all their stories was an experience of ego-death and rebirth that colored everything that followed.
A painting by one of the speakers, Isaac Abrams
All Things Are One Thing 1966
What else to serve but Psychedelic-atessen?

Mushroom Barley Soup because mushrooms needed to be on the menu. Katz’s Pastrami with mustard on rye, sliced turkey on onion rolls with Russian dressing, ½ sours, kraut, pickled beets. Also homemade knishes for the mashugina vegetarians,

A thin oil and flour dough filled
strudel-like with potatoes and
caramelized onions.
The roll is twisted
sausage-like, cut and shaped
 into individual pieces.
The egg glazed knishes, bulbous
and nippled, reminded me of breasts. 
                                                       


and then babka, a Madeline for Ashkenazim. One bite of the eggy yeasted dough striated with bittersweet chocolate darkness and syrupy glaze, and ancestors whose names never made it into the annuls of Ellis Island reached across time and pinched my shayna punim. Plus, the configuration of the rolled and cut dough fitted into the cake pan makes a pretty trippy pattern.




March's event comes next week--the speaker is a holistic nutritionist with an eye towards enhancing cognitive function. In our correspondence we've talked about fish (brain food) and the curative properties of turmeric, ginger, garlic, saffron... clearly some kind of Southeast Asian feast is in order.

Carrot Puree
1# carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ c. water
2 Yogi Ginger tea bags (if you want, tear open the bags and blend the tea with the carrots, or just steep the tea in the steaming water. Use the water when you puree the carrots.)
salt, pepper, butter and/or cream to taste.

Steam the carrots with the tea bags and a pinch of salt until very tender. Puree in a food processor or mash by hand adding a spoon of butter and/or cream--unless you want to keep it vegan, in which case a knob of coconut oil and/or coconut milk might be nice.

Gravlax:
1 # super-fresh, boned and skinned salmon fillet
¼ c. each: sea salt, demerara sugar and finely minced fresh dill
1 T. each: black peppercorns, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, combined and lightly crushed
finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon

Lay salmon on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Combine remaining ingredients and pat half onto the top of the fillet. Flip fish over and pat on the remaining spices. Wrap fish tightly in plastic wrap. Put wrapped fish on a plate and weigh down with another plate and a pile of dried beans or a can of something. Put in the fridge. Each day for 3-4 days, flip the fish over. The fish will seep but no worries because the plate will catch the drips.

When ready to serve: discard plastic wrap. Using a sharp knife slice fish against the grain, on a diagonal, into super thin slices. Serve with mustard pickles or honey mustard sauce and black bread.




Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Rites of Passage meal

poetrysciencetalks:a monthly salon where I serve a meal before an evening's talk and try to make the menu reflect the presentation.




This month’s poetrysciencetalk featured Mackenzie Amara, a grad student in Clinical Psychology at Teacher’s College, whose area of interest is mind-body theory. She is working on a project looking at the occurrence of major depressive episodes in emerging adults and the relationship of this to developing a spiritual worldview. She’s a tattooed Millennial with a past history of adolescent turmoil that so deeply traumatized her she lost, she feels, several years of her life. She is passionate about helping teen-agers have an easier time than she.

Youth haze as sport, gang bang, use guns, drugs, and drink to excess.  College tuition is prohibitive. There are no jobs. Dis-ease is inflamed by the belief we can fulfill ourselves acquiring material goods. High-speed communication makes us think we can know any and everything. Mackenzie thinks we are adrift in a rapidly shifting landscape with little to ground us, and blurry expectations.

Historically, ceremonial rites of passage fostered transformative growth by subjecting initiates to terrifying tests of endurance and strength. In the process aspects of the self metaphorically died only to reemerge transformed before being reintegrated in a new role within prescribed possibilities. Elders gave us just enough rope to leap without hanging, tested our mettle, then guided us back to the fold. I’m not sure this was all good, by my cultural standards it seems limited, but there must have been tremendous fulfillment completing the ritual, and comfort knowing the expectations.

The pst supper was to play with the idea of rites.  Celebration foods are easy to come by and some also serve to mark passages. Our main course was couscous with seven vegetables. Folklore has it that each grain of couscous represents a blessing while the number seven represents completeness, as G-d created the Universe in so many days. This North African dish, eaten by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike is popular at any kind of gathering—it is celebratory, humble and comforting.

Hot round pancakes eaten on Fat Tuesday symbolize the sun and represent Light and Fertility conquering Winter’s darkness. I made crispy golden discs of Spanakopita filled with herbs and greens. Also hard-boiled eggs stained red with beet juice—ersatz ritual, a show without meaning to represent our current lack of traditions. For dessert: iconic layered birthday cake with icing.


Mackenzie wondered if the meal could represent the stages traveled during a rite of passage: separation, initiation, and re-integration. I picked peanuts as a representative food. Peanuts stand variously for health, growth, and prosperity. I liked that you needed to crack them to separate the nuts. Along with a bowl of roasted peanuts I served shots of Coke with salted peanuts. This is a Southern tradition, a unique quirky regional treat passed from one generation to the next. Peanuts baptized in cola effervescence, a marriage of salty and sweet. Down south they push the nuts directly into the pop bottle before taking a long refreshing slug. Instead I served tiny plastic shot cups reminiscent of Kiddush during an Oneg Shabbat. I liked the action required to imbibe, lifting the cup, tilting back the head, simultaneous eating and drinking—made me think of Alice's trip adventures in Wonderland.  Finally, peanuts decoratively encircled the cake, integrating flavor and aesthetics into the chocolate buttery sweetness of the buttercream. 

It’s well and good thinking about food as symbol and metaphor—this menu used ingredients and the process of eating them as a kind of word play, one thing representing another. Given that the pst meal serves as a preamble to the speaker’s presentation, it was more than adequate to spark interest in the topic. I’m wondering though how food can be used in a deeper way to create an embodied experience that functions the way a rite of passage does, by transforming the initiate. 

Over time tastes change. We graduate from soft and bland to complex flavors and textures; baby food companies have lines of products based on this—but transformative eating experiences also incorporate memory and social interaction. When I think of my own life it is seldom a particular food that stands out—though there have been moments where tastes, smells or acts of cooking have roused forgotten memories, and foods have become emblematic of certain times—the Spring of first love summed up with North Indian stir-fries, my mid-twenties tasting of cigarettes and whisky spiked coffee, and so on. Done mindfully, cooking roots you in nature, and ties you to culture, family, and your body. Participating in daily family meals reinforces social values, but they’re not particularly transformative.

When I think about ways food has helped me grow while also rooting me to a community, I think of the potlucks I’ve made a part of my life each place I’ve lived since leaving my mother’s home. These are casual work-a-day evenings (sometimes as often as once a week) cooking with friends and friends of friends; the group evolving through each transition—college, marriage and divorce, growing kids, empty nest. People bring covered dishes, but also ingredients so there ends up being collaborative cooking. Children contribute too—helping in the kitchen or setting and clearing the space. Usually the kitchen fills with women--though sometimes men join.

Participating in these meals feels like stepping outside the confines of regular life into a liminal space where traditional familial roles, the division of labor, even the foods on our plates operate differently. I love that they transform supper into a feast, that they’ve created family beyond my own family (but without the tensions) and that my sons now set tables in their own homes to include their larger communities—that it is a given for them, our tradition of collectivity.

Mackenzie believes the traditional rites of passage eased transition from adolescence into adulthood. Without an equivalent in our culture we remain perpetually adolescent, unable to undertake adult responsibilities. She spoke of a need for our “Elders” to step up and catch the teen-agers as they make their precarious leap.

The space we sail through before landing is filled with such glorious potential. Its in this liminal place that transformation occurs and it is worth pausing a moment to take it all in before getting caught up in the landing. A place at the table with a shifting community of friends opens the world, fans our hunger even while offering nourishment and comfort, then sends us on our way. It too is a place worth pausing.









Friday, October 31, 2014

Wherein I make a meal that reflects Carleton Shade’s talk “Consciousness Shift as Civilization’s Salvation”





A growling Hellhound lies on the crossroads. The obvious path leads toward destruction; ecological and economic collapse, species die-backs… the end-of-the-world. Carleton is looking at the salvation potential of raised consciousness. He says some things have the potential to move us towards greater understanding; real paradigm shifts, and he holds up his hand to count them off on his fingers. Art. Education. Meditation. Psychedelics, and raw, harsh need. Maybe add war, or religion, and natural disasters too. These are the things that move us to action—in part because through them we see ourselves in relation to and as part of a larger interconnected whole. I am wondering can I throw the dog a bone? Is there a way food can help quell the beast?  Destruction still looms but if the barking dog is sated maybe we can focus on a better route, maybe stave off the final plunge.

Knee-jerk reaction has me cooking local/sustainable/organic/seasonal/low-on-the-food-chain foods, though this feel-good approach belies the complexities of our entrenched industrialized food system, global warming, first and third world disparities, vicissitudes of health. You can’t just serve up DIY, farm-to-table fare and think you’ll change the world. We tried that back in the day and what grew from it is a multi-billion dollar organics industry with its own dirty dozen and fleets of fossil-fuel gobbling trucks. Sure its done some good, but has it tipped the scale? The voting with your dollar tact only goes so far.

What if I jumped on the devils back and served up the culprits instead; monocultured commodities and over-fished prey? What if the meal talked back to “the man,” used his product but differently, co-opted corn and soy for something nobler than burgers-n-fries? * What if? This menu would exemplify the impulse to work from the inside out, which has its merits, though change this way is super slow.
*Corn is grown on approx. 80 million of 400 million crop growing acres of North American farmland. 80%+ goes to animal feed, though now there’s increasing demand of corn for Ethanol.  As for soy, the US is one of the top worldwide producers; the bulk of it becomes soybean oil, much of which fries potatoes.

Or why not appeal to the stomach to get the spirit up in arms? A meal of taste-treats tagged with the caveat of near extinction…  “Like this? Well too bad!--the honey bees are dying, the rain forest disappearing, the fish are nearly gone” This menu would be a parochial knuckle slap, effective, but cruel and decadent too.  

As no one culinary approach seems better than the other I decided to plan the menu using all three.

Grilled Banana1 Leaf packets with Malaysian spiced Tilapia2  
Kombu3 braised Kobucha4 squash with sake soy glaze 
Turmeric scented Quinoa5 cakes with sesame and coconut 
Guacamole6 with non-GMO corn chips 
Honey7 cake with ice cream
1: Bananas  are not “going extinct” as some doomsayers predict, but they are vulnerable because of mono-cropping (despite 100's of worldwide varietals—we only market one.) In the 1960’s the main varietal, the Gros Michel, was wiped out by a strain of fungus. Today’s number one varietal, the Cavensish, is also under attack by a fungicide resistant soil-borne fungus. Worse in my book is the “Banana Republic” history of Chiquita and the United Fruit Company: colonization, labor and resource exploitation, etc.
2  Talapia is one of the most common farmed fish. Under-regulated farming causes pollution and GMO contamination to “wild” fish populations. 75% of farmed Talapia is raised in China which has been sited for lax controls of bacterial infection in its farmed fish populations.
3 Kombu (kelp.) Seems seaweed is good and healthful and no more endangered than are the seas, although I've heard tale of dangerous mercury levels in some harvests. Post Fukushima there was a lot of fear around Japanese imports.
4 Kabocha—this seasonal, organic winter squash was grown on a nearby farm and the shiso leaf was grown on my windowsill, but is it actually fuel efficient to have a small grower truck the squash to my farmer’s market?
Quinoa is an ancient Peruvian grain—super drought resistant and high in protein, calcium and dietary fiber. Its hypoallergenic and gluten free. Some say that because its become so popular in the US and UK and the prices are so inflated, the indigenous people of the South American highlands who depended on quinoa as a staple can no longer afford to eat it. Others think the popularity is a boon to farmers in that mostly barren part of the world. Labor issues are as sticky ecological woes.
 Avocado and lime. For some reason both of these crops have suffered in the past few years. Is it global warming, or maybe Mexican drug cartels disrupting distribution?
7  Honey. We all know we’re fucked. The bees are endangered from colony collapse caused by the over use of pesticides. Without bees to pollinate, many crops and plant will disappear.  Another ingredient in the honey cake I served was coffee, a crop that has lead to rain forest deforestation and corrupt labor practices.
After the meal a young woman came into the kitchen to thank me. "So delicious and thoughtful,” she said, “its so IMPORTANT to be AWARE of what you eat.  People need to KNOW, We all must ACT.
Her earnestness itched like bad bed bug bites. I’d so love food to be an activists’ tool but my inner cynic worries its crumbs to the wind. Or worse, an inadvertent counter-revolutionary defusing of the drive to create positive change: eat “right” and delude yourself into believing you’re off the hook for sustained political action. 
“Still” I wistfully thought, nestling grapes in a bowl, “ a thoughtful,
carefully shopped meal makes its tiny mark.” 
It's a poetryscience tradition to pass red and green grapes at the point in the evening the speaker finishes presenting and the floor opens to discussion. This time, along with the ubiquitous red and green Thompson’s of 1960-70's UFW's Grape Boycott fame, I served tart black Ribier’s, a translucent green varietal of Concord, and tiny, unbelievably sweet Niagara’s grown by happy farmers. At my presentation before supper I’d catalogued every ingredient’s sorry story, but with these I kept quiet, hoping the glory of their taste would make a better case than mine.