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.