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 suggested representing the stages traveled during a rite of passage: separation, initiation, and re-integration. First I filled a bowl with peanuts. Peanuts stand variously for health, growth, and prosperity. I liked that you needed to crack them to separate the nuts. Next came 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 in Wonderland. Reminded me of taking meds.  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, mid-twenties by 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.

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 take on 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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Water On the Road

In March I drove to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for a week of silent meditation.  This is the second Vipassana workshop I’ve attended but the first in this swank, three meals-a-day-with-live-Dharma-talks place. The other place played funky videos of a Burmese meditation master and served meager meals. Skeptical, critical, I hold myself protectively, not sure why I have come.  I want to be here but also don’t. Sure, I love finding where an unencumbered mind leads, I love the idea of magnified introspection, hope I’ll unearth a hidden vein of compassion, but its a vacation too and I wish I were on an artist’s retreat or eating mango and pineapples on a beach.

I unpack in minutes—lining the windowsill of my cell with mandarins and chocolates. I know I am supposed to but I cannot bring myself to turn off my phone, instead, silenced, I slip it and my notebook between bed linens. I’m not supposed to but I plan to write everyday.  Already, I am bending rules.

Day One
5:30 am: Morning bell

6:00am: Sitting meditation. I cannot grab the jumbled thoughts swirling in my head. My eyelids droop, I’m lost to sleep.

9:15am: We alternate between sitting and walking meditation at 45 minute intervals marked by bells. So busy.

10:45 am: Walking meditation is hateful. The others in the room take slow deliberate steps, their concentration irks me. I place one foot before the other, ten paces in each direction. In the common room stained glass Jesus’ greet me at both turns. In one window he breaks bread. He prays in the other.  I count the paces between them as if it is news, or catch myself repeating the last word of a phrase that must have crossed my mind. The word shatters into phonemes. I find my fingers spelling the fragments in ASL. Try as I might I cannot still to silence

1:00 pm: For an hour each day we practice by doing. I cut vegetables as per the Chefs directions, whispering with head nods and half words to preserve a semblance of noble silence. The striking of the knife on the board hushes stray thoughts and calls me to attention.

5:00pm: At mealtime we bow to the Chef who rings the supper bell. We fill our bowls and eat in silence, furtively watching, or at least I am. The carrots I cut earlier float in the soup.

7:30pm: Yawning, yawning through the Dharma talk, cannot focus, cannot fight the sleepiness. Will Roshi’s words become my dreams?

9:00pm: Pacing a skewed figure eight I wear a pattern in the rug. I am fretful and angry, unwilling to give into the moment, fearful of the vulnerability of my body. So much easier to tango with illusory thoughts. Less boring too.

10pm: exhausted, I cannot wait to sleep.

Day Two
5:30am: morning bell

6:30 am: The women here seem quirky and needy and I do not like the way they chew—some with eyes closed and such deliberation I want to slap them.

10:45 am walking: Instead, I go to my room to write. I long for eloquence but have little to say. I write about my mother’s Parkinson’s, hoping this week of contemplation will lead to greater patience. I’ve been curt with her lately—she cannot express herself coherently. Her mind is held prisoner inside her body. Sometimes she hallucinates but sometimes she’s still here. I forget to wait for her opinion, some days I cannot wait long enough for it to come.

1:00pm: Rectangular blocks of tofu teeter precariously. One block at a time my knife glides slicing five slices one way, quartering the other, then cutting in half. The towering stack transforms to a mound of bite-sized pieces.

3:45pm walking: I bundle myself and walk outside. In the sun snowmelt streams alongside the road, a glinting rushing squiggle next to a faded painted line.

6:15pm sitting: I have the pillows just right, tucked under and between and sit with relative ease. Before I know it, the bell rings.

7:00pm walking: Evaporating puddles dot the road like memories, or are they disconnected thoughts? Lingering mineral deposits leave faint trails.

Day Three
9:15 am walking: Refrozen ice melt forms a crystal skin above pockets of air. I walk gingerly shattering thin ice.

10:00 am sitting:  Still fighting. Sleep is winning. I wake angry and disappointed.

1:00pm: A bucket of onions. Cut off root and stem ends. Nick the skin with the tip of the knife and peel. Cut in half lengthwise and lay the cut sides down. Slice evenly across the onions’ rings. Change angles. Cradle the onion and cut 5 or 6 slices with the rings, perpendicular to the first cuts so that the onion falls into a ½” dice. Repeat.

2:15pm sitting: I imagine myself hidden inside a circular brick tower only big enough to hold my chair. I am a New Yorker cartoon. A word bubble emerges from the top of the wall. “Ha ha” it says, “I deal with loss better than you.”

3:00pm: Bundled, I glide along the thawing stream. Water seeps from the edges.

4:30pm: Daily Yoga with a funny teacher who fills the hall with laughter. A woman in front of me cradles a gimpy arm. The woman at my right has good balance. What is she, 70, 75?  The woman across, sitting in a chair, has some kind of eating issue. I’ve watched her in the dining hall as she mashes forkfuls of food then takes tiny bites. Throat cancer I imagine. There is a woman with the limp who dresses in pseudo Eastern clothing and has a haughty pinch to her lips. She raises my hackles. A cough is going round.

7:00pm: Hoar frost at dusk. I turn right after the fire hydrant onto a dirt road. Someone else must have walked here when the road was wet. Now, I walk upon frozen footprints. My footsteps leave no trace. I find myself narrating my present. Below this, I am counting steps.

5:30am: I wake before the bell. Its 12 degrees. I answer emails from my phone. If I walk outside at all it will be in another direction. Bad enough I write instead of walking, that I fall asleep while meditating; now I’ve become attached to the stream, anticipating its constant change. The opposite of be here now. Instead, I go with the flow.

11:30am sitting: Bring awareness to each sensation, thought, observation. Listen to the undercurrents, the background noise. Note them. Observe judgments and doubt. Note them. Come back into the present. Do not fall asleep.

2:15pm sitting: Am thinking through all the illnesses and deaths. Their scars mark the landscape of my body. My father’s heart disease beats in my heart, my sister’s cancer lurks in the darkness of my bowels. One day, any day, I too will succumb, or worse, lose strength and mind, yet linger.
 What if I lured these demons to light, hosed them down, hung them refreshed like laundry on a line? Unfolding my bodies map I mark off a DMZ hoping to contain and isolate my fear.  I am thinking through the metaphors; housework or war.

3:45pm: I’ve concocted the most delightful tea—hibiscus mixed with ginger. Steep a bag of each in a steaming cup of water. Add honey to balance the floral peppery tartness.

9:15am: A new stream flows from the same old snow. I walk with my eyes on the ground, searching for a source and see no beginning, only accumulation. I notice here, right here the stream moves forward. What is this called, its head? My steps match the rate of flow, slowing to a near standstill while cracks in the road fill to the brim and then forcefully, seemingly suddenly, raising first just above the surface, spills over and spreads. Air bubbles caught in the stream congregate round twigs and pebbles. They merge and burst.  The whole a world of is own set dancing by the vibrations of a passing car. A leaf blows across our path.

1:00pm: Today we cut celery and leeks for tonight’s Vichyssoise, the leeks in half lengthwise, and then into ½” moons. Today’s chef is compulsive and exacting.  Her voice is grating, but what’s it to me? The celery is fresh and crisp. The knife is sharp. She has us trim the jointed leafy tips and coarsest bottoms then flip the stalks concave to slice, cutting against the hollow rather than into it as I’ve always done.

7:00pm: Damp grey dusk. Dirty puddles dot the pitted road.

10:00pm: Note to self: Am I more involved with my stream then in practicing meditation? What began as a chance encounter has become a search for a narrative arc.

7:15am: Tire treads have etched patterns into fresh snow that melts before my eyes. The distance is blue grey mist. Trees cloaked in frost weep icy droplets onto the ground. People suffer needlessly, injustice abounds. We are poisoning the earth. I thrill anticipating the rush of run-off along the side of a road.

10:45am: A river, its snaking body shimmers in a moiré pattern of light.  Suddenly, it branches and crosses the road. Why did the river cross the road? Why to get to the other side.

3:00pm: Returns to the Sangha on all these walks has been swift, dutifully mindful of steps and breath, tinged with worry least I miss the bell. Today instead I meander, splashing against the flow. In the hush between the steps, reflected clouds race across the stream. My next step obscures reflection.

7:15am: Bundled, I slip my phone in my pocket hoping to photograph the stream but wouldn’t you know: nothing save a few muddied puddles that do not catch the light.

Noon: I am driving already, dialing into a weekly business meeting, looking for a place I might pull over to snap a picturesque puddle before I hit the highway home.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Post-prandial Bliss and the Oneness of Ohm

In December pst welcomed Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a neuroscientist who studies brain function at the Rutgers University Orgasm Laboratory where they study the correspondences between brains and sexual stimulation. Subjects volunteer to crawl into an MRI chamber and bring themselves to climax, or sometimes bring a partner who strokes them into climax while scientists monitor which parts of their brain lights up.

But Pooja came not to speak about her day job—instead she spoke about OM, orgasmic meditation, a form of meditation she practices where a partner stimulates the top left quadrant of your clitoris (this area has the most nerve endings) for fifteen minutes. During this time both stimulator and stimulated hyper-vigilantly maintains awareness of every aspect of their bodies and their minds. The point is not to achieve orgasm though sometimes, before you get good at OM, orgasm is a side result.  

Eager questions peppered with giggles followed Pooja’s talk. People want to know:
+ If there are differences in brain activity during male and female orgasms (not so much.)

+If there’s a difference in the male and female brains (yes—men have more grey matter while women have larger language centers--though I’m not sure what, if anything this means.)

+What role fantasy plays in arousal (plenty) and climax (not so much—climax is an involuntary reaction, albeit a pleasurable one, to physical stimulus.)
+  Are there differences in brain activity between self-stimulation, with or without a dildo (Pooja says dildos are the equivalent of jack hammers) and partnered interactions (yes—because with partners surrender happens, which activates, or actually deactivates parts of the brain.)

Try as I might, my brain has difficulty keeping track of the brains complex landscape: two hemispheres divided into multiple regions—each with its own distinct characteristic. Some activities and purposes cross between regions or express in multiple areas at once. The Limbic system, which sexual pleasure lights particularly brightly houses aspects of memory and emotion. Simultaneously, as arousal builds, activity in the critical, analytical frontal-cortex dims. I suppose this is evidence of surrender, or it’s possible brain waves emanating from one region affects the weather in another. 

It is believed meditation leads to clarity and an enhanced capacity for concentration, the brain firing full tilt. I wonder though what mixing these two different brain states, the all “on” of meditation with the on/off of sexual stimulation leads to besides an endorphin colored afterglow and a wish for the greater good? It was hard for Pooja to say.

Choosing a menu for the event I tried to steer clear of dirty jokes though temptation got the best me in stuffed Medjool dates that lay prone next to skewer-stiffened sauce-drenched satays. The centerpiece of the meal was Mapo Tofu, a dish described as numbing, tender, hot, and spicy—the Sichuan peppercorns that are central to the dish creates an anesthetizing tingle that allows one to perceive the floral undertones of the searing chilies that flavor the tofu. It was served with brown rice drizzled with tahini and flax seed—a staple at meditation retreats, and a salad of lively biting mustard greens modulated with succulent fleshy persimmon.

In my weekly writing class the teacher gives a prompt, then sets a timer for five minutes. This weeks: “You turn a key, open a door, cross a threshold into a kitchen—what do you smell cooking? How does this make you feel?” Charged with taping into stream-of-consciousness my hand stalls; I am thinking: I walk through the door of an empty house, live alone; I am the cook, if I was out nothing’s cooking. Glaring facts short-circuit an imagined lick of scent. Broth? Bread? Burnt sugar? The sense memory is supposed to generate a story. The scent, generating “remembrances of things passed” percolates desire.

It is not the thought of an old Aunt’s tea-soaked cookie that fires up my brain. I imagine opening my door to find a cook in my kitchen wiping buttered hands onto a worn linen cloth before reaching out to greet me. I thrill at the thought of relinquishing culinary control. Is it the food or are the food and the cook rolled to one? Is it scent that lights up the same parts of my brain as clitoral stimulation?

Orgasm is an involuntary reaction caused by physical stimulation. Desire makes it better, or more intense but at some point the conscious mind (though not the brain waves) stills. Is hunger similar; it too is an involuntary reaction stimulated and intensified by the smell of something good to eat. The smell drives the story but at some point the story no longer matters. Instinct takes over until you’ve had your fill. 

After class I prepare a simple supper—yesterday’s soup made from the bones of last weeks’ roast, thickened with 2 cups of frozen beans from Christmas Eve’s cassoulet. A sliced avocado with lime and olive oil offers bright accompaniment.  

Having cooked, having eaten, having sponged away the crumbs I turn off lights and head upstairs. Rising scents trapped in the stairwell, living ghosts of supper greet me as I climb towards the comfort of my bed.

By morning these lingering scents will have dissipated but in the moment they spark not desire, for I am on the other side of hunger, but a sense of well-being. Is this akin to post-coital bliss, or the oneness generated by ohm? No longer tied to visceral instinct the after-scent becomes sensual evidence lighting or maybe dimming region of my brain. In the moment the scents transform, becoming memories almost impossible to recall until new scents call them forward as a point of comparison. One scent, tying me to others.    

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Delectable Evening of Imperfection (to honor Martha Wilson)


This past June I had the honor of staging a dinner at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee Wisconsin, one of several events fêting artist Martha Wilson. Along with a touring retrospective at another gallery, this smaller show, “The Personal is Political” included contemporary Wilson photographs in one room, and two rooms with regional artists presenting pieces made in response to Martha’s influential work. The show’s title refers to a 1970’s postmodern Feminist slogan that pointed to domestic space and the body as sights of both empowerment and contention. Now-a-days, as Deb Brhemer the director of the gallery points out, the phrase is "more likely associated with the locavore movement, and resistance to fossil fuel consumption." 

Wilson is the founding director of The Franklin Furnace, a preeminent alternative artspace in NYC that has, for the past 35 years fostered performance and installation art (my own work included) as well as an artist’s book archive that is now co-housed in the Museum of Modern Art. Martha’s own art work, starting from the 1970’s has explored how women’s identities are shaped by cultural forces, power relationships, and now, aging. In photo, video and live performances Wilson has created role-playing self-portraits; the femme fatale, the butch, the bitch, the business exec to name a few, or staged pictures of herself bruised, as a man, or old when she was young; posturing or transforming one way or other. 

Martha is a friend, mentor, and a champion (the one and only piece of art I ever sold, a series of six framed prints about HIV, she purchased) so it was a great pleasure to look through her archives in search of images and ideas as I planned the event. It was fun, almost triumphant returning to Milwaukee where I'd lived for 9 long years, and none too happy ones. Deb Brehmer, who opened PSG after I left, was and is a good friend, and coming back to present a performance felt exciting. 

I decided on a three-course meal- one for each of the gallery’s rooms, and teased out themes from Martha’s work for each setting. It was a feat, working long distance with Deb, arranging for tables and waiters and wine. I did some of the cooking in Bklyn before jumping on a plane carrying a suitcase full of ingredients I was afraid I wouldn’t readily find in Milwaukee, then camped in a friends kitchen to prepare the rest. The gallery has no kitchen so we borrowed hot plates from an old catering buddy and dishes from an artist who’s made his home into a museum of collections. We poured over literally hundreds of plates and bowls to pick out a glorious assortment of mismatched chipped china, silver and crystal and torn and stained linens to set the tables for what was to become “A Delectable Evening of Imperfection.”  

Guests gathered in the vestibule for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; tiny bite-sized gems of color and taste: crostini of fava and pea puree, wild mushrooms, and colorful vegetable brunoise sprinkled over roasted garlic butter served by three waiters costumed in Martha persona drag.

First Course: Imperfection

Here we set a long narrow table with seats for 26 guests. Down the center was a still life of unusual 
fruits and vegetables; puckered, thorny, oddly colored specimens (yucca, calabaza, chayote, purple 
asparagus…) interspersed with candelabras. Pink crystal water glasses and goblets filled with rose’ cast 
refractions of pale pink light on elegantly laid chipped china and battalions of tarnished silver.  
Waiters now in neutral black wore a changing display of cut-out Martha masks to serve a salad of foraged
watercress and hand picked local greens, shriveled tomatoes and toasted pepitas, alongside a vegetarian tamale (made locally by Mamasita's) with raw tomatillo salsa and pan seared shishito peppers.
Both food and setting played with surfaces masking delectable insides, a matter of disparity between presentation and value. 

before each course I came out wearing a mask of myself and explained what the guests were about to eat.

                                                   2nd Course: Transformation in Multiple Plates

                             Deconstructed Miso

In the next gallery guests were seated at small tables lined with layers of butcher paper, newsprint and pages from the arts section of the New York Times. On each table was a shiso plant (carried from my garden in Bklyn) with a pair of scissors, a dried shitake mushroom with a small hand grater, and a bowl of nori flakes with serving tweezers. Each place was set with a Chinese soupspoon and a bowl containing a schmear of blonde miso, tofu cubes and scallion greens. 

Now the waiters wore double masks (side to side or front to back.) Martha diptychs of contrasting images. Martha made up as Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton himself, a reflection on the double standards of attractiveness for aging men and women. Martha's torso 30 years apart. Ditto with her profile.  The waiters made the rounds, first pouring kombucha or beer, then dashi into the bowls so guests could stir miso soup, adding snippets and flakes from the tables' condiments.  When the soup dishes were cleared waiters bundled the top layer of paper table covering and began filling clear blue recycle bags with the discards.

Second small plate: sambal egg with green papaya salad served on compostable dishes. Again the waiters gathered the top layer of table covering.  
Small plate three: sushi rice with black sesame and homemade pickles (wild ramp, hakurei turnips, green daikon…) and again the bundling of disposables.
Small plate four: cheeses and dried fruit. 


Each of these courses represented different transformations: 
Fermentation (bacterial transformation.) 
Pickling (a form of preservation.)                                                         Drying/dehydrating.                                                                                                       Eggs.                                                                                                      Cheese (an enzymatic transformation of liquid into solid employing chemical agents and time.)                                                                                                So too kombucha and beer.  
So too, the accumulation of recyclables now strewn about the floor. 

Between plates Deb invited the artists with work on display to speak about the ways their work had been influenced by Martha's. There was a push to explore the legacy of feminism which is currently, mistakenly brushed aside as being no longer relevant. Contradicting this trend is Martha’s newest work with its insistence on calling attention to the aging feminine body, so often disparaged or ignored.

Guests were invited into the next room for course three: Reflect/Reveal.


No tables or chair for this course. Milling about guests were served cake and ice cream on mirrored plates, and a ceramic mug of sparkling wine. Decaled onto the mugs (for sale in the gallery gift shop) was a reproduction of Martha's "Marge, Martha, Mona."

This piece pictured Martha, enigmatically smiling under a towering blue bouffant, positioning herself within the cannons of art smack dab centered between high and low. For service, the waiters donned appropriate wigs and smiles.

The cake, a moist Ottolenghi Orange Almond Upside Down Cake used fruit that needed peeling and nuts needing cracking and I liked that these actions; the peeling and cracking were about revealing inner goodness. I liked that it was an upside down cake; a topsy turvy change of perspective is always revealing. The ice cream, a rich vanilla was served with a drizzle of fruity olive oil and sea salt. For me, this combination is a revelation, an unusual pairing of ingredients that transcends expectation. The guests were left holding mirrors, hopefully used to look upon themselves 
with the same gentle humor Martha turns upon us.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tymbals, Gongs + Ultrasound. The sound of one hand clapping?

CommunalTable is an umbrella for event producers that come together to help each other create salon suppers that "bring art, ideas, activism and food right to the table." Co-founded with catering partner Deena Lebow, we present three or four event a year. 

This one was held in a funky DUMBO loft and on the day of the event it so happened some movie company was filming a bus crash scene on the cobbled neighborhood streets, lending a dream-like air to the entrance of the converted industrial building. Inside you had to wind through a maze of rusted machine shop carcasses that cast elongated anthropomorphic shadows in the waning light. Pigeons, who'd flown through shattered skylight panels to nest in massive ceiling struts were buffeted by breezes perfumed with stray cat urine and odoriferous garbage trucks garaged the floor below. 

At last, first sight into the loft proper was a take-your-breath-away close-up of the Brooklyn Bridge through floor to ceiling windows. Waves on the river below glinted in the rising moonlight while inside, a robotic Gamelatron chimed random half tone harmonics. Chaise lounges and batik throw pillows offered comfy perching spots from which to sip Dragon’s Breath, a cocktail concocted by Mihir Desai from coconut flower aarack, (a fermented Southeast Asian beverage similar to whisky) and velvet falernum (a spicy, citrusy low-proof rum-like liqueur from Barbados) topped with a splash of Chartreuse (a pale green medicinal liqueur dating from the seventeenth c.) We nibbled unnaturally colored pastel shrimp crisps and a rainbow of naturally hued crudités.

The first presenter was philosopher and inter-species musician David Rothenberg , a jazz saxophonist known for his duets with nature. Previously I’d heard recordings of his call and response duets with songbirds, and also a layered composition for birdsong, whalesong and clarinet using sounds stretched and compressed by a run through his synthesizer. For CT he was agog with the promised “Swarmageddon,” the reemergence after 17 years dormancy of the periodical cicada. (BTW: I searched hi and low, here and through a source in Indonesia for cicada powder, a protein-rich flour I’d hoped to make into fritters. Alas, to no avail.) David came with copies of his newly released CD, Bug Music, and serenaded us with screechy cicada inspired syncopations. What I love about David is his ideas about beauty and nature (I wrote about him here), and his passion for the musicality of all sound, but this nights breathy elongated wails set my teeth on edge. To my ears his music really was for the birds. David had brought quite a number of friends with him, all of whom felt they deserved discounted tickets. Gosh, I barely come anywhere near break-even on these events, but nor do I pay my presenters so this request put me in a bind of obligation and debt. One of these friends, loud and testy from Dragon’s Breath, fell mid program into deep, snore-punctuated sleep.

Next: our host Aaron Taylor Kuffner has traveled the world studying gamelan, documenting and working to develop written notation for these traditional Indonesian orchestral societies. Back in Brooklyn he co-created Gamelatron, a collaboratively developed iteration of gamelan using algorithmically programmed computerized robotic arms that strike imported cast bronze gongs. One wall of his loft is devoted to a beautiful Mandala shaped installation of gongs and arms and we had the good fortune to hear them chime.  I had listened to Aaron speak about this project several years back and at that time was profoundly moved by the beauty of the music and by his passion for learning about, sharing and helping to preserve an art form that is in decline.  Since then the Gamelatron has meet with rousing success, causing sadly a grievously swelled head.  Despite the beauty he has created Aaron exhibited a ghastly case of White Savior Complex, exemplifying cultural appropriation at its worst by claiming to have saved the gamelan tradition. He fancies himself THE voice of the music today.  For me, the sound of his arrogance drowned out the extraordinary sound of the gongs. 

Along with the cocktail, Mihir brought his sonicator for show and tell. This device, more frequently used in a laboratory than a kitchen uses sound wave vibrations for cell disruption, particle dispersion, and homogenization. You stick a probe in a beaker of liquid mixed with herbs that is placed inside a box that dulls the ear splitting sound waves that travel through the probe into the liquid, smashing up the cells. Unlike tea where you steep dried herbs in hot water to draw out the flavor, the disrupted cells release flavor without heat so the fresh and raw herbs taste just that, fresh and raw. In the case of the cocktail Mihir infused aarak with Thai basil, and a simple syrup with tropical pandan. Using the sonicator for particle dispersion or homogenization has other applications, for example, vinaigrette. Typically oil whisked with vinegar creates a bond that lasts just barely long enough to dress a salad. In the sonicator the bonds gain strength and longevity and the technique opens possibility for unusual bonds—say lemony duck fat mayonnaise or some such thing. What's cool is that we're used to thinking of cooking being done with heat or by chemical means (like the acid of citrus "cooking" ceviche,) or bacterial fermentation, (like bacteria and salt "cooking" pickles.) Now we can add sound to our arsenal.

Between speakers, guests were treated to Indonesian and Malaysian flavored small plates-- satays with a peanut dipping sauce made by a friend of a friend who cooks for the Malaysian Mission. Then fried sambal eggs with green papaya salad. Slightly undercooked hardboiled eggs are deep fried until golden and crisp and tossed in sambal belacan- a blend of shallots, chilies, toasted shrimp paste and palm sugar slowly fried in coconut oil.  The next plate was fish morsels steamed in banana leaf with sambal oelek, toasted coconut, crispy shallots and turmeric rice. Black sticky rice pudding with coconut cream and chilled mango, and chocolate-dipped biodynamic sundried bananas made dessert. My friend Barry Schwartz has a small operation selling hand-batched tempeh at area farmer's markets made from a recipe he perfected during his years cooking at a yoga ashram. He joined us and cooked up tasting portions of several different kinds of tempeh and told about his process making these fermented grain and bean cakes that originated in Indonesia.


Each element, despite my snippy complaints was more than interesting and the food was plentiful and delicious, so why do I feel the event fell short of my goal, which was to create an evening that broadened and expanded thoughts about sound?  Part of what was missing was cohesion. In planning, I'd gotten excited thinking of all these sounds and took delight drawing connections between sounds found in nature, and as a part of the richness of human culture, and in a unique science-of-sound kind of way, and I built the program on that. But during the event I didn't share my thought process or help the guests connect the disparate parts. Plus, at this event the food acted as decorative frill rather than as a voice in the telling of the evenings story. I realize now I need to spell out the conceptual base of the event both for the audience to fully engage and to guide the speaker’s presentations. This puts me in a position I'm uncomfortable being in, that of director and MC. I much prefer hanging in the back of the house with the food.

What was missing from the evening was that fantastic aha! moment when ideas stretch and expand. And this is precisely a place where food could and should have supported this process. Instead, I relyed on a simplistic obvious connection (Indonesian music = Indonesian food.) To come up with a menu that uses ingredients as well as the experience of eating to address the concepts at hand requires way deeper introspection, and also a willingness to engage and guide the audience. Without doing these more challenging steps, the work remains just an entertainment when what I want is for these events to be art.

Wondering about the sound of one hand clapping is a Zen koan meant to cause reflection. Some believe the sound is silence, a sound we have trouble hearing. In the case of this CommunalTable it was the sound of missed connections. An evening based on all things sound needed the crisp slap of two hands clapping for attention.

Fried Sambal Eggs is a simple and standard Malaysian dish though to me it was a revelation. I'd never thought of frying a hardboiled egg but doing so produces a nutty flavor and the craggy texture holds the sauce. I found making the sambal tricky. Every recipe I read speaks about cooking sambal long enough for the oil to separate and come to the surface, and every picture shows a glorious layer of chili-rich red oil but no matter how long I stirred, this separation never occurred. I've since discovered a tasty sambal in a box I buy in Chinatown. If you're near an Asian market-- look for Khim Yan Curry brand Sambal Nasi Lemak.  To figure out the eggs I used an amalgam of these two recipes (and recommend both sites.)

Green Papaya Salad is made from rock hard unripe papayas with honeydew colored flesh and white seeds, quite different from more commonly found ripe papayas with their shocking orange flesh and black seeds. The papayas vary tremendously in size and last a pretty long time. Basically the salad is a slaw. I prefer the texture of painstakingly hand-cut super-fine juliennes to Cuisinart grated shreds but really either way will make a nice dish.  Just like with cabbage slaw you can add a lot of ingredients or keep it simple. Traditional Indonesian versions include long beans and tomato. Shred 4 cups of peeled, seeded green papaya flesh and toss with 1/4 c. freshly squeezed lime juice, 1 T. fish sauce, 1 T. granulated palm sugar (or whatever sugar you have) and a handful of chopped roasted peanuts and cilantro. Taste for salt.