Monday, April 9, 2007

Where have YOU been?

I haven't written anything in a couple of weeks. Where I come from, that's called a vacation. Sorry if that doesn't sit well with your buttoned-down, traditionalist notions of a what a "blogger" is suppose to be. But now I'm back. What's happened since I last wrote? Not much. I ate some food -- most pretty good, some not so much -- restaurants opened and closed, and Anthony Bourdain smoked about twenty packs of cigarettes. So to kick off your post-Easter week, here's a few little appetizers of infotainment to help you through your sugar crash:

  • The New Yorker has an article by Adam Gopnik about food in fiction. He discusses the 19th Century authors like Trollope, who use food as "the Styrofoam peanuts in the packaging of classic narrative," as well as more contemporary examples from Ian McEwan and Robert B. Parker. Despite his ridiculously hokey jokes ("European mussels have fewer [beards], it's true -- more like soul patches."), he brings up some very valid points, especially regarding the contemporary fiction writer's repeated use of cooking as a means of meditation:
    "While you are doing all this, I was reminded as I did it, you are thinking about the bouillabaisse, not about life in our time. Or, rather, you are not thinking about the bouillabaisse, or about anything: you are making the bouillabaisse. And here, I suspect, lies the difficulty with using cooking as the stock for the stream-of-consciousness stew. It is the act of cooking as an escape from consciousness--the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity."
    Indeed. One of the best things about cooking is that you have to worry about cooking, and, consequently, can't worry about student loans, bio-terrorism, or the Red Sox middle relief. Gopnik's analysis doesn't include the best contemporary food and cooking novel, Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament. Not only does Christensen create a memorable misanthropic protagonist, full of whiskey and cigarettes, she gives a smashing recipe for quick and painless shrimp Newburg as well. One of the great things about the book is that the main character, Hugo, cooks and eats because he's good at it, and because it brings him pleasure. The food scenes in the book are not excuses to ruminate on anything other than the food itself. And maybe women.
  • Edan and I went to Oakland last weekend and ate some really, really good food. Everybody in the free world had recommended that we go to a place called Burma Superstar, which, as you can imagine, serves Burmese food (I thought about suggesting they change the name of the restaurant to "Myanmar Superstar." You know, cause it rhymes. But then I remembered that the a-holes who are responsible for the name change run one of the five most oppressive regimes in the world, so I decided to keep my mouth shut). It did not disappoint. We had a tea-leaf salad, some spicy lamb, and a chicken casserole, made with rice and peas and a host of spices I can't name. Very delicious. A little like Indian food, a little like Thai food, but different. I highly recommend it. We also had a great dinner at a place called Cesar, which is tapas. The restaurant was the size of basketball court and had every kind of liquor known to man. I got to try both Booker's and Baker's, two bourbons I've wanted to try for a long time. Among the highlights were a hangar steak made olive butter and grilled chicories, spinach salad with grapefruit and bacon (wow!), and a bread pudding that saved dessert. After dinner, I sang a near-flawless rendition of "Piano Man" that brought the house down at karaoke. Surprisingly, the culinary low-point of the trip was our dinner at Cafe Chez Panisse. You all know Chez Panisse, so I won't bother with the in-depth background preamble. I'll just say that we ate upstairs at the cafe, which has a menu and is cheaper, as opposed to downstairs, which is prix fixe and expensive as hell. I had chicken al mattone (which means "under a brick;" basically they cook a de-boned chicken thigh and leg on a grill with a skillet on top of it to press it down), topped with chopped panceta and egg, and served with shoestring potatoes. For once, I ordered well and ended up with the best dish at the table. We all shared some very fresh, tasty oysters to start. Edan had a manilla clam and pea dish that was very heavy on the peas. She was quite disappointed. Others had a pizzetta of radicchio and Roquefort, which I tried. I loved it, but the flavors were intense. It made a nice appetizer, but I'm not sure I could've handled it as my main dish (as I write this, I'm tasting it right now. Isn't it funny how certain foods do that? Cinnamon always does this to me, too). Finally, on Sunday night, one of our hosts, Josh, made us a terrific Japanese noodle dish with beef and Japanese eggplant. Really delicious. Thanks to Diana and Josh, not only for putting us up at their place, but also for putting up with about four hundred stories about our dog.

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