Monday, December 20, 2010

Pranzo

        

       Usually, my blog is a place of great snarkery. Not great as in ‘of high quality’, I’ll admit. Sometimes I hit the mark, and sometimes I don’t. But it often makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality, and who could ask for anything more, right? But no snark today. I’m not in a snarky kind of mood. I’m in my kitchen as I write this, between batches of cookies I’ve been placing in the oven for my family and neighbors to enjoy over the holiday season. I love cooking and baking, and sometimes wonder if I’ve missed a particular calling (one of many, perhaps, but that’s another post for another day). I’m feeling a bittersweet mix of nostalgia and contentment, overlaid with a clear and calm sense of joy and well-being. I attribute this mainly to the direction of my thoughts as I work away with the mixer, recalling friends, far away for the moment, and conversation and laughter over many meals lovingly, if sometimes haphazardly, prepared. My small kitchen is full to bursting right now with a parade of guests, young and old, running through my mind, their voices and laughter and warmth making their way into each batch of dough. These will be some of the best damned cookies anyone ever tasted, I can assure you.


       I’ve been experimenting with new recipes, some of them from Andrew Carmellini’s “Urban Italian” cookbook, which I highly recommend. He has one called “Nero Cookies”, which are dark chocolate balls with crushed toasted almonds and a hint of mint, dusted with sugar, and surprisingly light, airy, and crunchy once baked. Another is a delicious cookie made with ground-up hazelnuts and white chocolate with orange zest; the chocolate barely detectable but adding just enough moisture and sweetness to satisfy. Then there are his pistachio and Sambuca biscotti, and my own shortbread cookies topped with raspberry jam and Belgian milk chocolate. It’s heady and tempting stuff, and I’m simultaneously aware of a growing gratitude for the new workout DVD, an early Christmas gift from my mother, which I requested.


       While scurrying around my kitchen between pantry and counters and oven, I’ve been listening to an audio book by Frances Mayes, called “Every Day in Tuscany”. Yes, I do like to multi-task occasionally. Oddly, it doesn’t feel that way today. It’s all blending quite seamlessly into one whole, delightful experience—the smells from the oven, my reverie, the author’s voice. In the book, she gives many fine and detailed descriptions of food and cooking, gardening and harvesting, and life in Tuscany among her adopted friends and family. She shows a deep appreciation for life’s simpler pleasures that I recognize, and it’s feeding my own memories of friends and food.


       This post isn’t a story, really. It’s more of a description of a moment in time. The kitchen smells glorious right now, if I say so myself. My kitchen window, right next to the oven, overlooks the backyard where, in the kinder weather of early September we entertained my partner Rudi’s family who had come for two weeks from their home in Italy. We did the usual sightseeing, and I got to give my newly developed Italian language skills a test drive. I got to discover how far my skills had come since our visit to Italy a year earlier when I first met the family, and just how dauntingly far I had yet to go. But no matter—we all understood the language of food, even if the dialects were a little different. For instance, they don’t speak “mayonnaise”. I respect this though, understanding that mayonnaise—at least, Kraft style—is the culinary equivalent of peppering one’s speech with “ain’t” and “y’all”. Use sparingly and only for effect among Italians. But I digress.


       The day was September 11th, which while infamous the world over for obvious reasons, also happens to be the birthday of my partner’s mother. I’m noticing how cumbersome that sounds. But she is not yet my mother-in-law, so how about we just call her Luisa? September 11th was Luisa’s 70th birthday. It also happens that we live right outside New York City, on the Jersey side. We can see that skyline from our house and yard, especially up on the second floor. On a clear night, the city lights sparkle in a way that almost makes up for the way it deprives us of the ability to see the stars at night. None of us, however, felt much like taking public transport into the city that day for the usual sightseeing. None of us wanted to brave the bridges and tunnels. Still, nine years later. We made a day of it at home, enjoying our large backyard, the gardens, the shade of the giant oak tree. There was some debate about how to structure the day; should we go to a park, would we have lunch, or make it dinner? We tried to keep to the Italian way of doing things, and planned a big afternoon meal at home. This met with a little resistance from the American faction at first, with the question being posed, “What ever happened to ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’?” to which I responded that these are the descendants of Romans, and you just don’t screw with the Romans, ok? Besides, trust me—you might just like their way of doing things. I know I do.


       My own mother drove the nearly three hours north from her home in order to meet “la famiglia”, as did a couple of my cousins who live much nearer. Coming from a barrier island in south Jersey, she had the stroke of genius to buy a huge batch of fresh clams for us to make part of our feast. And again, I’m not doing snark today—it really was a great idea. An even better idea, as it turned out, was allowing my partner’s brother, Davide, to cook those clams. I am not a clam eater, I have to say. The little suckers freak me out, frankly. I mean, have you ever really looked closely at one of those things? It’s a whole freaky little universe in each shell. But, since everyone went to such trouble, I figured I’d close my eyes and give it a shot. Turns out, it’s a friggin’ tasty little universe, too. My landlady said the same thing; at first reluctant to try them, a little arm twisting convinced her and finally with a big smile and juice on her chin she said, “Wow. I like clams. Who knew I liked clams?” She sat, and had a plate full. Inhaled it, truth be told. A woman after my own heart, for sure.


       My mother also surprised us by bringing a basket full of figs. Not a bag, but a real basket. She said that upon hearing about our foreign guests, my aunt Bianchi back in my hometown had her grandchild climb a ladder into a fig tree I never knew she had, and pick some fresh figs for my mother to bring with her, saying “Italians love these.” She was right, of course. Back in Napoli, Luisa and family have their own fig trees. . . and lemon trees, and orange trees, and nectarines, and olives, and citron, and, and, and, don’t even get me started. It appears Jersey folks like freshly picked figs, too, by the way. And maybe I’m crazy, but anything tastes better from a nicely-woven basket than it does from a bag.


       The cooking started early in the day, and in the meantime, the family, the landlord and her kids, me and my partner, all went indoors and out, preparing and relaxing intermittently. Rudi taught my neighbor’s six-year-old son how to play bocce, and he loved it. Rudi’s parents joined my mother with the soft, crocheted Frisbee she brought with her, and tossed it around the yard, looking like a bunch of senior citizen hippies. I kept watching for one of them to bust out a hacky-sack and a joint, but it never happened. Go figure. I picked fresh tomatoes and basil from the garden, and flowers for the table. My landlady’s husband brought us freshly baked bread from the best Italian bakery for miles. Good times. I didn’t even argue when Davide wanted to make the clams and grill the chicken himself.


       I was tempted, though, because a few days earlier I had been making my homemade tomato sauce in the kitchen when he said in his broken English, “Next time, I show you the right way to make it.” I was aghast, as it wasn’t even finished yet. He hadn’t even tasted it. But like a good hostess, I kept my mouth shut. Besides, at that time I didn’t yet know how to say, “bite me” in Italian. Oh wait. . . I said no snark, didn’t I? Anyway . . . a little while later, as we were eating the pasta with my sauce (complete with fresh tomatoes and basil I had nurtured from seed and protected from groundhogs. . from seed, dammit!), Davide’s wife went wide-eyed at the first bite, smiled and said in what English she could muster, “It’s so good! How you made this?” I resisted the urge to say, “the wrong way”, and instead pulled from the shelf the book that taught me a few new tricks (Carmellini’s again. See above). I noticed Davide stopped critiquing after that. So, I let him do as he would with the clams.


       The table was full of simple fare, fresh, quality ingredients, greens, veggies, olives, figs, pasta, clams, grilled marinated chicken, lemonade, iced tea and aranciata, just a little red wine, great bread, olive oil, and a chocolate birthday cake for Luisa at the end, along with a lot of espresso, and some sampling of Rudi’s homemade limoncello.


       Like I said, this was not intended to be a story. It has no plot, no gripping twists and turns, and just a pinch of the usual sarcasm. It is simply a description of a moment in time, and maybe something of a prayer of thanks for such simple pleasures, and hope for more of it in the future; more chances to be with family and friends, over good food and frisbees, under a bright Autumn sun, amid the green grass and oak leaves, English and Italian mixing in the air with the smell of food, and the sound of laughter.


       That evening, we sat outside around a fire in the chill September air, under that same oak tree, the smell of woodsmoke billowing around us, the wood crackling and crickets chirping, the light reflecting off satisfied faces. I looked east beyond the trees and saw the two giant beams of light; the Twin Towers memorial, and remembered the date. Lacking confidence in my Italian skills, and knowing that Luisa best understands her Neapolitan dialect anyway, I said, 
“Rudi, I want to say something to your mother, and I need you to translate for me.”
“Ok,” he said.
“Tell her . . . tell her I’m so thankful to have a happy reason to mark this day for a change.”
He translated, and there were affirming nods all around from our guests. Then Luisa said something in Neapolitan. 
Davide spoke this time, “She says she will come every year, if you want.”
We all laughed softly and smiled in the firelight.
“Tell her I want, Davide. Io voglio.”



Saturday, September 4, 2010

Smoking baby reportedly has quit



CNN: Smoking baby reportedly has quit


But it wasn’t easy, says little Ardi Rizal.
“You know, sometimes after a hard day crawling on my hands and knees, sometimes trying to walk, I just need to unwind, and naturally, I reach for Marlboro lights.”
And, like almost any former smoker will tell you, quitting hasn’t exactly done wonders for his figure.
“Yeah, it’s getting embarrassing—even more embarrassing than the whole world watching you chain-smoking on YouTube as a toddler, under your parent’s supervision—I’m getting this spare, spare tire from all the snacking I’m doing in place of the cigarettes. Sure, it’s hard to tell, me being a baby and all, but trust me—this diaper just doesn’t fit the same way it used to. I look like I’m gonna have a baby or something. . .”

When asked about the leather jacket-Arthur Fonzarelli-vibe he was working, he blamed said it was his father’s idea, just like the cigarettes. And the little-blue-plastic-guitar-cool-guy-rock-star vibe? “Yeah,” he laughed, “Dad’s kind of a douchebag, ain’t he? What’ll he think of next!”

When asked if he feels cheated out of a “normal” childhood with all the fame his habit has brought, Rizal was philosophical, “Look, I’m a rebel. You won’t catch me with that Baby Einstein b.s., or those freaky-ass TeleTubbies. Hell, we don’t even have a TV. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. It’s friggin' Sumatra. It’s all up-hill, Lady, especially when the Tsunami warnings come and the . . . ” Rizal seemed to smile, then told this reporter not to get too excited, it was just gas.

Despite his apparent success, it hasn’t been an easy road for Rizal, who has faced some of the typical challenges associated with quitting nicotine.  
“I probably should have cut out the coffee first, because now, without the nicotine in my system, I’m really feeling that caffeine effect, big time, all shaky, you know how it is. But I guess that will pass.  . . the worst part is when I’m hitting the bottle, though. That’s when I really have the urge to light up. That association is strong. Drink-smoke-drink-smoke. I’m off the formula now, too, but just the smell of the stuff sends me running for a book of matches. On ‘Wild Turkey’ night, it just gets worse.”

Initially, Rizal tried cutting back slowly, from 40 cigarettes a day to 39, but that didn’t seem to be working, so he tried to go “cold turkey”, with varying degrees of success—he relapsed a number of times. He switched brands, to Virginia Slims, under the mistaken notion that “chick cigarettes, you know, probably a little gentler on the system,” and about two months ago brought it down to 20 cigarettes a day. He’s now “just dabbling”, with only one or two cigarettes a week, on the nights when his social worker brings him to the bar.
You’ve come a long way, Baby.

Rizal’s parents were unavailable for comment, as they’re in hiding to avoid the public flogging.



Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Easy, isn't it?

OK, lest my blog make me appear too cynical and snarky, I thought I'd post this video someone shared with me today. I think it's just about the best thing ever (minus the soundtrack, which I don't quite get. It's a great song by Leonard Cohen, but not exactly heart-warming).




The Stamping Factor


"Stamped" into oblivion.


I arrived at the Hut of Pizza, cheese craving reaching unearthly magnitude. And, yes, I realize this was probably already my second or third error—the first being the decision to call Pizza Hut and place an order. But sometimes the Cheese Demon must be satisfied. I walked inside and the very young girl behind the counter handed me the Personal Pan Pizza I had ordered by phone, and did what no other pizza place has ever done for me—she opened the box there on the counter for my inspection and said,

“There. How’s that look?”.

 The irony is that it was one of the worst looking pizzas I had seen in a long while. I said, without hesitation, “It looks terrible.”

She looked at the charred disk and said weakly, “Yeah, I guess that one edge there has a little burnt cheese”

A little burnt cheese.

Only a chemist, with an array of tools, would have recognized it as 'cheese'. This young lady was dedicated, determined.

“Do you have 7 minutes,” she said?

“Well,” I said, “I don’t, really. But I’m hungry, so I guess I’ll have to wait.”

“OK. I’ll try to adjust things and see if I can make it come out better.”

She should have stopped there. But no. She tried to explain the complexity of the situation:

“That happens a lot with the personal pan pizzas. It’s the . . .the uh. . .um. . .you know,  The Stamping Factor.”
She said this while gesturing to the pizza, and shaking her head, looking at me as if this was a universally understood concept.  [Ah, yes, the Stamping Factor. Of course. Physics 101, I believe. ]

Now, I could have been nasty and said what I was thinking, but my annoyance turned into the kind of internal laughter that was so hard to suppress, my shoulders were shaking.
What I was thinking, and what I wanted to say was:

“The Stamping. . . . . Factor? . . .Can you . . . .explain?”

I can only guess that she was trying to convince me that the fact that Pizza Hut’s pizzas are all the same because they are stamped out in some factory turned them into this inedible discus that now sat before me, mute, blackened beyond all reason.

She would say, “Yes. It’s the stamping out of these identical shapes.”

I would say, “That’s peculiar. I’ve had many a Pizza Hut pizza over the years—not proud of that, but—and  the vast majority of them have been somewhat edible. Not burned at all. I think the problem here might be the ‘Cooked-Too-Long Factor’ or perhaps the ‘Oven Too Hot Factor’. You know, Occam’s Razor and all.”

Karma at the forefront of my mind, I said nothing. Just nodded in amazement at the swiftness with which she yanked such an elegant theory from some impressively productive orifice. Thank God employees must wash hands.

I sat by the window, looking out at traffic, trying hard not to burst out in guffaws. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure if the girl had returned, she would have thought I was so deeply disappointed, so overcome with hunger, that I had broken down. No telling what sentiment she would have yanked out then.

Not long after, she returned with a slightly less repulsive specimen for my dining pleasure, and even brought out the original pizza for comparison, opening both lids, smiling broadly, and making a somewhat ‘Vannah White’ sweeping gesture through the air above them. In the battle of good and evil, she had won.

"Love me. Just love me," was etched upon her face.

But it does not end there. No. That was not enough for her. Perhaps sensing my earlier incredulity, into The Chosen Orifice she delved again, fishing around for something more plausible. 

“You know,” she said with a deft mixture of certainty and conjecture, “I think what happened was this one [the charred wreckage] got stuck on the conveyor belt behind the others.” [known in professional pizzeria lingo as the Sci-fi Bullshit Factor]

The Others.

Plural. Never mind that the store was a ghost town at this hour, 3PM. Mine was the only pizza in sight. Perhaps, though, there was a rush of 5 or 6 patrons just before I arrived—in fact, they saw me coming and fled.
Perhaps there is a sensor that makes the conveyor inexplicably stop when one doomed pizza gets “stuck behind The Others” which are apparently defying technology and gravity to move much more slowly than the conveyor belt upon which they began their journey.

Perhaps.

Perhaps there are even more things than I imagined in this world, this life, the depths of which I may never visit, even in my dreams. Perhaps a few of life’s infinite colors will never reach my palette, for my own failure to understand the intricacies of this world.
Perhaps I, too, am a victim of some cosmic “Stamping Factor”.

What other explanation could there be?



Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Love Sonnet (sort of)

NASA image


Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer's Day?


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

                                                                by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)






Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Not this week?
Yet, do not such extremes render one more temperate by comparison?
The darling buds of May are shrieking in agony right now, as
Too hot the eye of heaven shines for at least the last four days.
When all the world seems sticky and uncomfortable, and starting to smell . . . well. . . let’s be honest, a bit ripe
Thine words, thine voice, are as central air conditioning and a
Camelback full of Gatorade.
Thou hast never wilted vegetables on the vine, so really,
Thou art looking pretty good compared to this infernal season.
And thou ought not get me started about the brown-outs.
Oh no thou didn’t!
Yes, power outages. ‘Zounds, why did that fan just suddenly stoppeth?!
Alas, it was really more like a blow drier at this point.
But I digress. . .this heat . . . what was I saying?
Oh, yes, thou.
Well, what can I say about thou? Thou maketh not sluggishness in me,
As doth this effing summer’s day, that’s for sure.
Thou doth not scald the fingertips of the beloved, as doth the steering wheel when in haste I have forgotten to carefully place the sunscreen against the windshield
                --though, thou art a hottie to be sure. Don’t get me wrong.
Thine presence, thine love, is as the cool blue chlorinated and well-skimmed
Pool of water.
Not the public one in the Bronx, either, where everyone waited on line, sweating and swearing
And then got into fist fights until the police came.
No, not that pool.
Nor any of the ones in Queens, or even Brooklyn.
This pool is ours alone, and we can use flotation devices if we want
And do cannonballs.
And enjoy margaritas, too.
Seriously, thou art like that.
Just like that.




Thursday, July 1, 2010

Spies Like Us

"You say 'bake sale'?. . .Yes, ve vill be zere."


It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. I was busy starring in a horror movie called “The Graduate Degree that Ate My Life”. That film has wrapped, and I now have a starring role in the sequel, which is (if you can believe it) already in production. It’s called “The Licensing Exam that Swallowed My Summer”. I’m still very busy but, when crisis hits, where else can a gal turn but the blogosphere?

I have a problem. There’s an infestation in my neighborhood. Those who know me will say, “Enough about the groundhogs, already!” but it’s not that.

It’s the spies.

Not just any spies, mind you. Zey are Russian, Dahrrlink. Rrrrussian.

I suppose maybe the “Live and Let Die” ringtone should have tipped us off, and the fact that the ringtone was coming from his shoe, but who thinks of such things in the post-Cold War era, in an era when your phone is your stereo and your address book and your computer? It’s not a Shoe-phone, it’s a Phone shoe. The iShoe, if you will. Sure, why not. And who questions a family named “Murphy” about their country of origin or their ancestry? I mean, duh. Right?

One thing’s for sure; it has folks in my little tree-lined, apple pie town all in a tizzy. Papers today have some of the most beautiful, predictable B.S. a blogger could ask for. There’s the classic, “"When he looked at you, he didn't look you in the eye. And I thought it was strange,” from one neighbor, who went on to offer this gem, “I remember him talking to me, but averting his eyes, and I had this feeling, even then, there was something not right.” Yeah, honey. Sure. You just knew, in 2010, that something devious was afoot, sent from Russia, with love. If he had looked you in the eyes, today you’d be saying “I remember how creepy it was, the way he’d lock eyes with you and not let go as you spoke to him.” Never occurred to you that the “something” that wasn’t right could have been your breath? Or that large boil on your neck? I’d avert my eyes, too. Consider the possibility that he found you profoundly uninteresting and/or full of it, which you clearly are.
The bigger tip-off should have been all those stunning catsuits the missus would bring over to Goodwill each Spring, and the Martini glasses she’d take home—10 cents a piece is a good deal—and the way she kind of purrrred, rather than actually speaking.

The best stuff, though, came from the family who had befriended the dreaded spies before their move to suburbia. They knew them when they were Hoboken spies. "I look back at it now and think, 'We let them watch our kids!' Russian spies watching our kids," the husband said. Wow, the panic! I love it! What does he think the Russian spies did with his kids, planted recording devices in their asses so they could hear all about middle class life in Hoboken? So they could find out who that family was cheering for on American Idol? Please. . .

Gets better. They say the wife baked cookies shaped like the Statue of Liberty. No joke. Methinks some little spy is trying way too hard, or maybe giving herself a sinister laugh to break the tension of life undercover. I see her and her “hubby” there, in the kitchen, snickering at first, then erupting into howls of laughter as she applies the red, white, and blue icing. It turns into a food fight, the spies and their kitchen splashed with a colorful sugary coating, practically soiling their pants as they roll on the floor, ending with a passionate kiss, of course. Ah, so utterly American. . . . at least, if this was Hollywood.
I guess when the hammer-and-sickle cookies didn't go over well at the school bake sale it was time to pump up the patriotism. You Amerrricans, you have noh senze of humorrrr.