Friday, December 9, 2011

poertyscience December

 poetrysciencetalks:a monthly salon where I serve a meal  before an evening's talk and try to make the menu reflect the presentation.
                                Chapter One: planning the meal.
     December’s pst was about the Singularity, an idea that a time is coming when machines will become both self-conscious, and more intelligent than humans. To some, this seems great, a kind of techno-rapture. I fall in another camp, but still, it was great creating a menu to match this talk presented by an Associate Professor in Applied Computer Network Administration who has a strong interest in ecstatic practices and mystical eschatology!
     First food thoughts jumped to a cartoonish Rosie the robot/George Jetson technology. I had fleeting visions of robotic pacojets and centrifuges’ or “Soylant Green” nutrient pills, but thoughts about using fancy machines to make fancy futuristic foods dissipated like so much liquid nitrogen.  After all, cooking is technology, and some theorize our use of this technology early-on is what distinguished humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. The marriage of food and fire is our very essence, so using technology to cook, no matter how futuristic the machines, seems actually, antiquated.
     Second thoughts were helped along by madcap email discussions with my son, the neuroscientist, and my niece who is writing her dissertation about something I don’t quite grasp but it has to do with technology and sustainability. We discussed computers as tools that handle complexity. Computers figure-out complex things we mostly can’t, even if our human minds created the programs to set the figuring in motion. I started thinking about “complex” flavors. Pesto, say, is not complex, even though it's a blend of flavors. Your mouth can pull apart how the elements complement each other. Curries on the other hand, are complex. We can distinguish characteristics (i.e. hot or sweet) but most of us can’t tell exactly what’s in the blend.  
     Computers expand (according to my niece) but also limit (according to my son) how we think because the algorithms organize our access to information. This brought to mind hyperlinks, and how they lead you on a journey, and how flavors too, migrate and change. Tasting flavors also leads you on a journey.
     The menu I settled upon offered platters of “base” foods, which I shaped into 1’s and 0’s to represent computer code. Some of the shapes were formed with cookie cutters (technology) and some occurred naturally.

Delicata squash 0’s and tofu 1’s to represent computer code.
The base foods were plain, flavored only with salt and pepper. There was also a big bowl of Basmati rice.

I began searching for recipes online, but push comes to shove, books offered better and more in-depth information. Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffery, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, Nancie McDermott, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, all champions!

I did find a Japanese curry recipe here: though I doctored the recipe as I was interested in making sauce for the 1’s and 0’s, not stew.
                                                                     An interlude:
                            (It was lovely, so lovely eating a meal of sauce.)
                             Luscious, spicy Thai Green curry with coconut milk, fresh herbs,
                                                           and diced eggplant.
Malaysian pineapple curry thickened and sweetened with fresh pineapple puree.
Pungent North Indian buttermilk curry, with curry leaves and black mustard seeds.
The curry from Martinique used ground yellow mustard
 and had diced ripe mango and sweet potato. 
Japanese curry used Worcestershire, potatoes, carrots, peas and S&B.
Warm and rich, Japanese curry is a mash-up of cultures; Indian spices thickened by European roux.

Each guest filled their plates according to interest and preference. Google however, "fills our plates" for us by ordering the information in any given query we might have. I suppose it might be similar to taste preferences- based on our particular history... but what if you're in the mood for something new? How would Google know? 

chapter two: (and then there was dessert.)
Cookies: text files stored on your hard-drive, and also sweet treats. 
I thought sandwich cookies might represent our relationship with technology, 
but perusing the web I came upon this recipe for Fig Newtons:
 Fig Newton architecture seemed more apt; rich dough enclosing a fruitful center. Also, and this may seem off topic but bear with me, Fig Newtons were my sister’s favorite cookie. It was my sister who introduced me to poetryscience and every month when I  cook for the salon I think about her. She passed away from colon cancer three years ago. When I rolled the dough for the cookies I was filled with longing for her.

     Another aspect of the Singularity is that when it comes, humans may be able to merge consciousness with the machine’s “super-consciousness,” freeing us from the frailties of our bodies while preserving our minds. This is not wholly far-fetched, just the other day the New York Times had an article on bioengineering that spoke about the possibility in the not too distant future of storing digital information insides human cells.  
Maybe such a process could be reversed: instead of our becoming 
cyborgs, machines could become humanized?
     During the presentation the speaker asked us to think about how we’d like this merging of mind and machine? The thought horrifies me, but got me thinking about my sister again. She loved science fiction, and the idea of a Cyborgian Society. As she was dying, she found tremendous comfort thinking her consciousness would merge into some kind of universal energy force. I wondered how I’d feel having access to her now, via computer, and then it hit me like a flash! I do have my sister, now and forever, in the taste of a cookie.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

tasting a bit of history at The Festival of Ideas...

     Last spring, Communal Table (my food/art business) set up shop for a day of tasting and story telling at the Festival of Ideas For a New City on New York City's lower east side. Communal Table invited people to "taste the neighborhood" and set out bread and dips that typified the cooking of the various people that have lived and thrived for generations in this thronging, historic neighborhood.
     We offered oniony "schmaltz," to represent Eastern Europeans, (albeit a version made with olive oil instead of chicken fat to please Vegan, Vegetarian, Halal and Hipster denizens who abound in the neighborhood today.) Also spicy Chinese chili oil, and a pan-Latino Sofrito which had Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Spaniards debating all day long about the origin of this flavorful combo of peppers, onions and herbs.
     As people dipped and tasted, we asked them to "listen" as the flavors in their mouth told their brain a story about history and culture, and to be aware how each taste told a completely different story. Even if they professed ignorance of history, or knowledge about the city’s waves of immigration, or of Chinese cooking practices; we promised the flavors would tell them stories. It was a simple exercise; tasting and listening, and it seemed to move people. I watched people’s faces as they let the flavors speak, and saw that wonderful “aha!” moment when their taste buds explained a little piece of cultural history.    
     After the tasting, we invited folks to share recipes or list ingredients that described their own stories. These were written on colorful cards that we hung on a clothesline for other passersby to read and comment on. My favorite was from a young girl who explained that her mother’s Korean and her father’s Norwegian- so her diet is split between rice and potatoes. Her parents, she said, are divorced now and her father’s girlfriend is from the Caribbean, so she had no trouble identifying the Sofrito.        
     Throughout the day, people asked for my sofrito recipe, which made me feel proud. Yow! One guy almost cried, telling me he’d recently lost his mother and hadn’t tasted that flavor since she’d died. I’m first generation Eastern European, Jewish, and my people never ate such a delicious, spicy, lively concoction, so I couldn't call a grandmother or an Auntie for a recipe. Instead I researched cookbooks and the web, and made a mash-up version that included tomato, which is not traditional for Puerto Ricans, but is common in the Dominican Republic. I blended the raw ingredients into a fairly smooth puree, which I sautéed in oil that was colored and flavored with achiote seeds. Usually, Sofrito is used as a seasoning, dolled-out by spoonfuls to flavor beans or stew, but for the Festival of Ideas I made it strong and extra soupy, all the better for dipping.
Cross Cultural Sofrito for The Festival of Ideas
1 large Spanish onion
1 green & 2 red peppers (most recipes call for more green than red but I don’t like green peppers) plus 2 jalapeños (all the peppers seeded!)
2-3 plum tomatoes,
4-5-6+ cloves of garlic,
1/2 c. pimento stuffed Manzanilla olives,
1 tablespoon capers,
A big handful of fresh cilantro,
a couple of sprigs of parsley (stems and all)
salt and pepper.
Blend first 5 ingredients in a food processor, then coarsely chop and add: olives, capers and herbs.
Sauté in ½ c. annatto oil* for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add a splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and some water to thin to a good “dip” consistency.

*to make annato oil: warm a teaspoon of achiote seeds in 1/2 c. olive oil until the oil turns golden orange. Discard the seeds, but save the oil.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

poetrysciencetalks: is a monthly salon that meets in a private loft in downtown NYC. The group, which has been meeting ten + years is comprised of an ever-widening list of participants; a shifting cast of seekers, whose “day jobs” runs the professional gambit: professors, artists, entrepreneurs...  The group comes together to share a meal, hear a presentation (every month a different speaker and different idea) then Q&A/discussion and schmoozing.
     The talks range over many topics; those focusing on Creative Media catch my eye, while ones about Healing or Philosophy of Mind: Spinoza in Cyberspace: Affect as a Mode of Cyborg Communication or NO-THING: The Desire Path to Enlightenment, elude. This is true about the speakers too; some shine with intimate warmth, or dazzle with PowerPoint acumen, others bumble, cryptically mystifying.  However obscure, all the talks are presented in good will and the “breaking bread” part of the evening is straight-up pleasure. Being PST’s chef these past six years has been wonderfully engaging.
     Creating and cooking a low cost menu, using minimal equipment, and including foods suitable for omnivores, vegans and other dietary intolerances can be a difficult challenge. But imagining the menu, which is designed after consulting with the evening's presenter to highlight the talk, is an exhilarating challenge. Sometimes the menu rifts on language: a talk that explored money as a medium of exchange delivered foods whose names are slang for money: bacon, clams, greens, bread.  Other menus are illustrative: a talk about string theory and particle physics opened with a meal of strings and dots: bocconcini tossed with spaghetti, Israeli couscous salad, strawberry licorice whips. Still other times, the connection between talk and meal is more abstract. A talk about Elementality and Jungian Psychology offered platters representing the four elements: Fire/tofu with Chinese chili oil, Earth/sautéed greens with Umami rich mushrooms and Parmesan cheese, Air/a mélange of popped corn, cheese doodles and other ersatz snacks, and Water/lemon sorbet.
     Last month the speaker shared his “spiritual awakening,” charting, in his own words, his journey from “skeptic to Gnostic.” After opening the evening with a Chakra activation, he used a Powerpoint to illustrate connections between ancient Gnostic teachings and the concepts he's learned participating in ayahuasca ceremonies, kundalini awakenings, and through extra-terrestrial encounters at Burning Man.

Of all the possible inspirations for a menu, Chakras, which are energy points along the body that correlate with the color spectrum, proved to be the most concrete.

    Imagining the menu; a different dish would correspond to each Chakra color.

Tomatoes, roasted red peppers and salami/ 
Butternut puree/
Turmeric-scented basmati with split yellow lentils/ 
sautéed Kale/
assorted blue cheeses, Ribber grapes, dried Mission figs/
Beet and red cabbage pickle…   (this was way too magenta. Should’ve been indigo instead. Peruvian potatoes or eggplant would’ve been better but the pickles had been made and they were delicious. Turns out there’re several extraneous chakras beyond the standard seven, including a magenta one… so maybe this oversight can be forgiven!)
Berry ice cream with lavender shortbread/ stood for the ethereal violet Crown chakra.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Picking an ingredient or a recipe to write about
is one way to write about food and life
when hoping to set a place in the blogosphere.
If one could see the screen as a plate instead of emptiness,
and fill the plate as one does,
maybe there'd be less resistance?
Maybe resistance is the ingredient.
Or maybe its more a technique?
Seeking relief from the page I skulk to the kitchen
where knives and pans chastise;
nourishing rather than quelling hesitation.
Resisting words becomes tasty.

Bruise late harvest tomatoes
then swath in cheesecloth and wring.
In contrast to hand wringing before the screen
the resultant tomato water is an elixir.
Freezes for future uses;
seductive cocktails that spark taste memory 
resisting Winter's dearth.

And if you're in the kitchen
resisting writing,
and there happens to be squash:
scoop the seeds into a bowl of water
where they can sit an hour, a day, 
or more in the fridge,
and in a next moment
of productivity or procrastination,
swoosh the seeds about
and separate them from their fibrous flesh.

Put them in a pan. Blot Dry. Drizzle with oil. 
Add a pinch of salt.
Roast, shaking the pan now and again,                         
till browned and crunchy.
These are irresistible,

Put them in a pan. Blot Dry. Drizzle with oil. 
Add a pinch of salt.
Roast, shaking the pan now and again,                          
till browned and crunchy.
These are irresistible,
the clear actions of cooking,
and also the seeds,                                                    
especially with tomato water cocktails
which are good for celebrating 
when resisting desists
and words start cooking.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


notes from Uganda

Diesel trucks carrying men and goods
rumble down the rutted road that runs north/south
through Gulu and then to Southern Sudan.
Shocks are worn, the road is narrow, the traffic is alarming.
Listing overcrowded busses hurtle at terrifying speed in both directions.
Motor bikes weave, bicycles balance,
children hauling jerry cans of water trail goats on strings.
Pigs wallow in puddles in ditches on the side of the road,
pigs, and Malaria carrying mosquitoes.
Traversing short distances takes all day.
Red dust settles on everything.

Along this road clusters of thatched huts
house extended families. No running water, no electricity.
Along the road hawkers sell coal and cabbages.
Now and again there are Primary Schools, NGO’s, Churches,
cell phone towers and Government boreholes.
Now and again we pass trading centers,
leftover shops from the camps tha
t housed thousands
during the war that just barely ended.
Turn off this road past Atiak to find Earth Birth, a maternity center founded towards the end of the war by Rachel, daughter of a guitar playing Oregon Rabbi, and Olivia, a Jersey girl with bright red hair who practices Native American Shamanism.

Let me tell you,
pregnant women walking as fast as they can looking for help,
die giving birth along this road or if they get there,
they bleed to death or die from infection in ill equipped hospitals.
Babies die faster.
The war is over, but still, girls who were sex slaves of soldiers,
or concubines to Warlords die with the children they bare.
Happily married women too,
delivering five, six kids before age twenty five,
walk this same road, and many of them die too.
I have come here to Northern Uganda to celebrate the work my friends are doing,
and to help prepare food
as they host a weeklong International Midwifery Symposium themed on Birth and War.
The place is a construction site. The new compost toilet replacing the wretched hole in the ground does not yet have its door. The mud hut I sleep in is still wet.
But the clinic’s birthing rooms are in constant use and the kitchen’s up and running.

It is Nighty’s kitchen. She cooks for the staff and day-workers
and the women who labor in the clinic.
Girls from the neighboring orphanage who study English
and Tailoring and Catering in school have come to help us cook.
We are feeding 50 Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA’s) from neighboring villages
and 20 student midwives from around the world.

We wake to cock’s crow starting breakfast at first light.
There is good Ugandan coffee, packets of milk that requires no refrigeration,
black tea and honey.
Nighty teaches me to make the morning chapattis; fried flatbreads.
She shows me how to make the dough by handfuls and texture,
and to roll the dough with an oiled beer bottle.
I worry about serving deep fried food but realize not one person I’ve seen is overweight. Calories here mean something different than at home.
The whisk I brought is great for scrambling eggs,
which cook up white because of the chicken’
s anemic diet.
Chapatti and eggs one day, and Mandazi,
a vanilla scented doughnut served with mango jam the next.

I have brought Nighty three cookbooks:
a children’s book full of illustrations,
and two books about African American cooking.
The recipes use similar ingredients to what’s found here
and are written with simple words.
In between breakfast and lunch we sit together and read.
Nighty is delighted. These books comprise her entire library.
Centuries ago there was the Columbian Exchange
and things have kept shifting ever since:
American corn replaced millet and sorghum
and our peanuts, peppers and tomatoes became staples.
In exchange, we got rice, collards and slaves.

Today I learned to pick white pebbles from broken rice piled on a white cloth sac,
also to winnow old beans from a heap.
The women laugh with good nature because I am so slow.
Chickens underfoot squabble mercilessly, then pick the gleanings.

The girls from St. Monica’s feed smoky fires, tend pots of beans,
recline on papyrus mats talking
and laughing, waiting for maize porridge to boil.
They carry water from the well,
and bend over buckets washing dishes on the ground.
The green scrubby I brought to wash vegetables
turns out perfect to strain passion fruit pulp for lunchtime juice.

Nighty walks up to the kitchen with a flat stone I cannot lift balanced on her head.
Her son Stuart is strapped to her back.
We pound dry roasted groundnuts and sim sim in a heavy mortar with a heavier pestle,
then kneel in the doorway to grind the nuts to paste on the stone.
This is blended with slow cooked greens and eaten with boiled yams.
Along with rice and beans and greens,
I make frittatas and pasta and salads to keep the visitors happy.
There is no oven, only wood fire and a rickety two-burner run off propane tanks.
On Olivia’s daughter Zora’s first birthday I make pudding instead of cake.
We light candles and top the pudding with flowers from the garden.

There is no fridge, no sink, no place for garbage.
We compost, feed chickens and stray dogs and burn the rest.
I bask in privilege not hauling water and work hard to train myself to wash up less.
The visiting midwives eat at plastic tables under colorful umbrellas,
using forks and spoons. They speak of breech babies and placenta praevia,
and if they are lucky and the suns position lets them get online,
check emails from home.
I sit by the serving platters waving away flies and chickens,
and toddlers with dirty hands.
The TBA’s line up for bowls of maize flour porridge and beans cooked by the girls,
which they carry down towards the clinic
where sit on mats and eat with their hands.
Music wafts our way from where they eat.

Today we decide on meat.
Zora’s baby-daddy visiting from Kampala for her birthday
chases down El Jefe, the mean white cock.
In the service of humane slaughter I offer use of my prized Japanese knife.
The knife’s blade is not suited to cut through bone,
but using it rather than the kitchen’s dull knives seems a blessing.
Everyone laughs because I’ve never killed a chicken before
and because I’ll snap pictures but will not cut the chicken’s throat.
Killing the chicken chips the knife.
I decide I’ll leave it for Nighty.

A soak in boiled water makes it easier to pluck the birds.
The washtub stinks of blood. Wet feathers stick to my hands.
We sit on the floor eviscerating birds with a broken knife,
separating ours and theirs; breasts and thighs vs. head, feet, wingtips, and offal.
I flavor our broth with bay leaves and thyme brought from Brooklyn.
and Nighty uses Royco; a bullion she favors to season everything.
The pots simmer for hours. The broths are delicious. The meat is tough.
At dusk scattered chickens cluster near the warmth of the cooking fires
until Dante the new top cock calls them to roost.