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.

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.

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.