Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Flashlight Worthy

It's rare that I come across a book-review or -recommendation site that fills me with joy, but Flashlight Worthy absolutely does. Their choices are thoughtful and interesting and the lists into which they're grouped are useful and fun.
A few that jumped out at me:
Great Books About Magicians and Circuses
Culinary Memoirs That Make Perfect Beach Reads
Favorite Reissues of Neglected Books
Creepy Houses That Must Be Explored
The Chocolate and Peanut Butter of Noir and Speculative Fiction
A Practical Fiction List for Surviving After the Apocalypse
The Queens' P.O.V.: Books About How Henry VIII Got Past First Base

Their twitter feed looks like a gem too. Now I'm triple-craving a week by myself in a cabin on an island in the middle of a lake with towering piles of books and firewood.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I don't even know what to call this post.

I spent this past weekend out of town with friends and in addition to performing a dramatic reading of the crazypants religious material left on our car at Wegman's — the gentleman, whose photo clearly indicated that it had been taken in 1986 and whose bio read, in total, "Tony Alamo is probably the greatest patriot the world has ever known," put forth the idea that Satan-via-the-Vatican-controlled politicians are trying to make humanity extinct, which is why they so shamelessly flaunt God's will that girls marry at puberty — which, um, is considerably less funny since I googled him after typing that second em dash and learned that he quite literally practiced what he preached,* I also had reason to start a sentence with "when I had bedbugs..."

I don't know if I've ever publicly said that I had bedbugs, now that I think about it. I did. It was three years and four apartments ago and I'm not exaggerating even a little bit when I say that it was one of the lowest points in a life containing at least the standard amount of loss and heartbreak and that one time I knocked a car window out with my head. (If you don't know much about the bedbug explosion that currently has New York in its thrall, this is a short piece that will bring you up to speed.)

My experience with them was pretty typical, I think, with two exceptions:
1) I was super-sensitive to the bites. Some people don't have much more than mosquito bites, but on me, they were the size of nickels, dark enough that they looked more like blood blisters than bug bites and both hot and hard to the touch, like I had m+ms under my skin. And crazy itchy.
2) I had them for an entire year because I kept getting my apartment treated, but there were people in the building who refused,** so they kept coming back. I cried a lot that year.

Since I didn't know the friends I was with this weekend back then, I got to explain that while having bedbugs was a terrible awful genuinely bad bad bad experience, it did lead to the events that have become one of my favorite New York stories.
Salient point the first: Bedbug treatment involves exterminators coming to your home every three weeks, turning all of your furniture upside down and spraying everything with poison. It's very traumatic, but, luckily, exterminators — and I met a lot of 'em — are almost universally kind people who will tell you all kinds of disgusting stories about horrible infestations if you're the kind of person who finds that fascinating and/or comforting and then, when they notice that you're a woman living alone, will turn your heavy furniture right side up again even though they don't have to.
Salient point the second: During that year, I interviewed for a job at Penthouse.

So. A couple of months into My Year of Demoralization and Despair, I was getting my apartment sprayed for bedbugs. Again. At this point, the process was familiar: the guy or guys would show up, I'd ask them about their most disgusting exterminating experiences while they sprayed, then we'd all leave together and I'd go to the movies to avoid being poisoned to death. That morning, it was a team of two African-American men, one probably in his fifties, the other in his mid-twenties. They were extremely polite, almost deferential in a way that tends to make me very uncomfortable. The older man went into my bedroom, while the younger guy got started on the living room. He didn't seem inclined to chat, so I was awkwardly sort of straightening things on the other side of the room when he started laughing. I look over, he's holding up the two issues of Penthouse that I had bought to prepare for my interview, then stuck in the drawer of my coffee table and forgot about.

So, I'm like, oh, yeah, I had a job interview there. He gives me kind of a strange look, so I realize he thinks I meant as a naked lady, which is pretty clearly not what I'm all about, so I'm laughing at that. Then the older man comes out to find out what we're laughing about, sees the magazines and is all, "Eh, they used to be good but there's nothing good in there anymore." I tell them what I learned at the interview (the letters are all real! really!) and the older man is teasing the younger guy about being so green that he's still satisfied with the relatively vanilla pornstuffs and somewhere in there, something shifts. Proof: a few minutes after that, the older guy asked if he could use my bathroom because he'd had a huge sandwich earlier and was feeling pretty uncomfortable. I don't want to say that we transcended all kinds of societal barriers and responded to each other's essential humanity thanks to the magic of porn, but he did go from calling me ma'am to telling me about his poop in five minutes flat.

Epilogue: I didn't actually want to edit Penthouse, but couldn't resist applying when I saw the listing. I was not offered the job.

*Whoa: I just googled him right now to see if he had an active ministry and it turns out (not surprisingly, really) that he's a convicted sex offender. The wikipedia entry outlines a very dramatic life story involving a religious compound in Arkansas, polygamy, prison, sequined denim jackets and the spectacularly named Birgetta Oyllenhammer. It also includes a photo of one of his pamphlets on the windshield of a car, exactly what happened to us.

**I know, I know. Shock and dismay. This part of the story always trips people up. I just think that there were people in that building who didn't feel like they were in a position to make waves. I was locked into a lease and the management company did what they were required to do, so I didn't have a legal way out. Once the lease was up, I got out of Dodge. But moving is really expensive and generally requires a kind of scrutiny to which not everyone is in a position to expose themselves. Or they could have just been lazy assholes who didn't want to have to do the work. And it's a lot of work. Curious? Enjoy this write-up (continued here) on how to prepare for/carry on during bedbug treatment and keep in mind that that's how I lived for a year.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I took another foraging course with Leda Meredith in Prospect Park this weekend. There was a fair bit of overlap between what we found this week with the plants we talked about in June, but some new stuff too. Like sumac, the berries of which are covered with a water-soluble, deliciously acidic substance. When Leda did her 250-mile challenge, she used sumac as a substitute for lemon.

I wasn't sure what kind of proportion to go for, so I put my handful of berries into a cereal bowl of cool water and swished and rubbed them until the berries were tasteless.
There was a fair bit of leaf matter and whatnot along for the ride, so I strained it through cheesecloth into a glass.
It tasted like water with the juice of about half a lemon added, roughly that degree of tartness. The flavor was pretty comparable, actually. I don't know that I would have questioned it if you had told me that's what it was, but since I did know, I'd say that the flavor was ever so slightly darker than lemon. A teeny bit musky. Not quite as sunshiney. Delicious. I liked it unsweetened, but I can see where adding a little honey or maple syrup would be swell. And there are a lot of interesting cocktail possibilities.

That's one thing I really like about playing with wild foods: getting to try things that aren't commercially available. We were talking about that on Saturday, in the context that acorn flour is so fantastically time-consuming to make happen that it will pretty much never be available for purchase, so if you want to know what it tastes like, you have to do the multiple boils with many changes of water and peeling and grinding and drying yourself. I *do* want to know what it tastes like, though word is that this summer has been too dry for a good acorn harvest. I'm thinking acorn crepes when I get around to this someday; you only need a cup of flour and don't have to worry about them not rising. In the meantime, I am super psyched for the October session: mushrooms and nuts.

I love 'community oversoul.'

For all the alienation, the guarded privacy we maintain in our public spaces, in a very basic existential way we each rely on the masses of people around us define ourselves. There is a kind of community oversoul, a species recognition that we will never acknowledge. The city as an idea may begin with the marketplace, the trading post, the confluence of waters, but it secretly depends on the human need to walk with strangers.

And so each of the passersby on this corner, every scruffy, oversized, undersized, weird, fat or bony or limping or muttering or foreign-looking, green-haired, punk-strutting, threatening, crazy, angry person you see...is a New Yorker, which is to say as native to this Diaspora as you are, and who must be acknowledged as such if we are not to become, even as we live, silver gelatinous ghosts among the ruins of a lost civilization.

–E.L. Doctorow, from his introduction to Gotham Comes of Age: New York Through the Lens of the Byron Company, 1892-1942.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

File under: who knew?

One of my co-workers is wearing a pair of very adorable t-strap wedge sandals today and when we all exclaimed over them and asked where she got them — this is the kind of office where no detail passes without comment — she said the Bass outlet and that they cost next to nothing. And I was like, huh, I haven't thought about Bass shoes in a while.* Let's see what they're up to.

Turns out what they're up to is making some very cute shoes with perfectly reasonable price tags. Of course, I really like men's-style oxfords on women, the way they add some gravitas to what could be an overly girlie outfit or dress up a very casual ensemble, so their offerings suit my tastes. Plus, I walk at least three or four miles a day just getting to and from work, which means I need sturdy, comfortable, yet still somewhat professional-looking footwear for all seasons and weather. (This summer, I'm all about my black patent Birkenstock Gizehs. Not especially flattering, but tolerably jolie laide and perfect for walking.)

I think the first ones below are my favorites. Love the wingtip details, though I'd paint the grommets black so they're not so shouty. The white and gray ones are adorable, but too summery for the fall/winter, which is all I'm interested in right now. The heels are great, though I don't wear heels all that often these days, what with the lots of walking and all. They'd suit the kind of dresses I like though, and I do occasionally go places other than the office. I don't know if I'm going to be buying any shoes for a little while (I had a bit of an accident on the Doc Martens site yesterday), but I'm going to keep these in mind. The wingtips especially fit in exactly with the kind of style profile I'm thinking about for the fall, once the weather cools down and I'm willing to care about clothes/anything again.
*I spent the summer of 1997 working at a Bass outlet in Maine with my friend Karen, along with a bunch of guys who lived at something called The Opportunity Farm. Karen and I lived with a couple of hippie dudes I knew and a revolving population of Sierra Club employees and slept on the linoleum floor(!) of what might have been a large closet. Occasionally, one of the guys would bring home a paper bag filled with live lobsters. I sewed a quilt by hand that summer that I still use now. Good times.

Buttermilk farro salad

I was very happy to see this recipe appear on 101 Cookbooks last week, since I had half a carton of buttermilk left over from my brief infatuation with cucumber/avocado soup and a small bag of farro I'd picked up to try. I knew I'd be getting some vegetables in my CSA pick-up that would work well, so held out until Tuesday night to make it. I used a small zucchini, sliced very thin, a handful of French breakfast radishes, also sliced very thin, and a head of lettuce, chopped. My share also included a small bunch of dill, which went into the dressing.

It turned out to be a perfectly serviceable, though not especially exciting, dish, full of whole grains and vegetables, well suited to bringing to work for lunch. (I'll eat anything if I bring it to work.) It missed the mark for a couple of reasons: This was my first time eating farro and I think I'd prefer it as one element in a mixed-grain dish, rather than on its own. It has a fairly aggressive texture that would be great when mixed with, say, brown rice, barley, and quinoa. It doesn't taste like wild rice, but I had the same reaction to it; a little goes a long way. Also, I substituted red wine vinegar, which I had, for the white wine vinegar, which I didn't, and it was a little vinegar-heavy even for me, who drinks vinegar for pleasure. And the very thin dressing worked well with the grains and crunchy vegetables, soaking in nicely, but left the lettuce limp and sad.

Still, I'm always happy to find new uses for buttermilk (oatmeal season is coming!) and this will be a good dish to keep in the make-ahead-and-eat-for-lunches rotation, as long as I tweak the dressing proportions and am savvier about the vegetables I use.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Simple hat

I don't know if this happens to other people, but sometimes I start a project for myself and at some point in the execution, realize that it actually belongs to someone else. So I finish it and give it away. Like this hat:
I've had what looked like a hat-sized ball of this purple tweed wool/silk handspun kicking around for ages. I was tired of looking at it, so I cast on for a hat (80 sts, 3x1 rib, for a while, then 7x1) a couple of days ago and was knitting merrily away while catching up on The Guild (I don't know how I missed all of season 3, but I guess that's just the kind of high-flying, lightning-paced life I'm living). Then I suddenly realized that this hat, which is very soft and quite close-fitting, is obviously meant for my favorite cousin, who's been getting radiation treatments all summer for a large, cancerous brain tumor. She'll be starting chemo soon and losing her hair, so obviously she needs this hat. It's even her favorite color.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The end is in sight.

Left to do:
- three more stripes
- work in the ends
- edging

I'd love to be done by the end of this weekend, but we'll see. Those ends are going to be a bear.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Coffee "cake"

I was intrigued by this recipe when I saw it last week. I've had coffee jello a few times and don't really love it; I find it a little harsh and too sweet, but I thought that it might be better tempered with the condensed milk layers. Plus: layers! Modern jello mold! Fun! I like stripes!

It came together easily, set up more quickly than I was expecting and looks great. Where it's lacking though: flavor and texture. I should have known better when I looked at the recipe in the first place: make regular-strength coffee then dilute it by half? I mean, I drink my coffee pretty strong, but even so, a robustly flavored dessert that does not make. What it does make is something that tastes overwhelmingly ... neutral. A couple spoonsful of instant espresso added with the hot water would have done wonders. Ditto the condensed milk layer. Cream instead of water and a splash of vanilla next time. Another problem was that the recipe called for the same amount of gelatin in each of the mixtures, despite them being different volumes. So the milk layer is so fully set up that it's almost chewy, when I want it to be meltier, more like panna cotta.

So: good idea, lousy recipe, but one worth revisiting.

Friday, August 6, 2010

(Something is afoot at any rate.)

I've always liked books and movies where magic is happening just out of the corner of the protagonist's eye. Objects shift, creatures appear and melt back into the shadows, chaos reigns, then everything snaps back into order as soon as the character looks directly at it.

I'm pretty sure that's the kind of story I'm in, mostly because that's how I WANT to see the world, but more specifically because when I was walking home after work, I saw a bumper sticker on a car that read, 'I am not a nudist.'

'What an odd sentiment to espouse so publicly,' I thought, 'What kind of fascinating person is that worried about strangers making that particular mistake? Is he or she often nude but has ideological differences with the larger community of nudISTs? Or are they really super uptight?' I had a lot of questions. And some theories. But by the time I turned my head, the sticker had been replaced by one bearing the far more prosaic statement, 'I [heart] my bulldog.'

Obviously, magic is afoot.

New jewelry in the shop

There's some new stuff in the shop this week, with more to come. I really like this batch, if I do say so myself. (in fact, there are a couple of necklaces I haven't been able to bring myself to list yet because I find the thought of sending them away a little hard to handle.) I wouldn't go so far as to call it a collection, but there's a cohesive spirit to the group. It's a little girlie, kind of quirky, casual but glam. I lucked into a stash of old chandelier pieces, which are rather fantastic. And I love the red chain that shows up in a few pieces.

Also, while I would love to sell out of these for my own selfish money-grubbing and ego-stroking reasons, I'm going to be donating 25% of the proceeds of sales from the shop until Sept. 12 to my friend and craft-industry superstar Kim Werker's fundraiser for pancreatic cancer research, which you can read about here, and would really, really love to send her as much money as possible.

The shop is here, and either does or soon will contain all of these things and more:

And then I want to tie a ribbon around his neck and call him Archie.

This extremely tiny hippo is pretty much my favorite thing on the internet today.
It's MAGIC. Like, what kind of world IS this where hippos are so small? I want to go to there.

From here. (apparently the magical small-hippo world is Australia, which makes a certain amount of sense.)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Suffering succotash

I have a secret, the kind of trashy, tawdry secret that could get my Certain Kind of Brooklynite membership card revoked.

I don't like being in a CSA.

It's true.

I've had CSA envy every summer for years now and still love the ethos of the thing, but now that I'm actually IN one: meh. Part of it is that I signed up for a half share, but the CSA I belong to has half-share people pick up a full share every other week instead of getting a smaller amount every week. I get it; it would be an organizational nightmare otherwise, but it means that I'm either overrun with produce and I have to gorge myself before it all spoils or the fridge is empty but I don't want to buy more because all I already prepaid a not-inconsequential amount of money for my June-through-October produce, goddammit.

I had gotten into a good rhythm over the winter of planning meals ahead of time, shopping for pantry items infrequently, picking up produce/dairy/eggs more often and just generally being efficient and thrifty, while also eating really, really well. It was a state of affairs that pleased me to no end. Not knowing what I'm getting — my CSA isn't one of the ones that lets members know what to expect ahead of time — and not being able to get and use it on my own schedule is driving me a little bananas.

I know that a lot of people like CSAs because it forces them to try foods that they wouldn't normally, but I actually do that all the time. I nerd out like crazy when I see a kind of apple I've never heard of or some dark, leafy greens that are new to me. And yes, the quality of the CSA produce is very high, but I also belong to the one of best food coops in the country, which carries loads of local, organic produce that's equally good.

So, I won't be rejoining this one, but if I move away from the coop and into a different CSA's territory, I'd reconsider.

I haven't been blogging much about cooking, partly out of CSA-related demoralization and partly because it's been too hot to cook anything, but I did make a succotash-ish dish Tuesday night that turned out pretty well. My distribution on Tuesday included five ears of corn, which is one of those foods I insist on eating immediately because refrigerating it destroys all of the good flavor chemicals and leaves it fit, basically, for cattle feed. (There. That should ensure that I don't lose my Entitled Brooklyn Asshole status for a while.) So I cut it all off the cobs and sauteed it in butter with green beans and a huge tomato, both chopped into manageable pieces. I cooked about a cup of orzo and added that too with some of the pasta water. Two changes I'd make next time: I would have preferred a pasta that was not the same size as the corn kernels for some additional textural contrast, but I didn't have anything else on hand except linguine, and would have finished the dish with a bit of cream, but mine had gone bad, so I used buttermilk instead, which tasted good, but didn't thicken up the way I wanted it to.

Monday, August 2, 2010

In which I learn about gin.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to check out a new distillery in Brooklyn, just a couple of blocks from my last apartment. Started by a laid-off bond trader and his girlfriend, they're making gin from scratch, which is the kind of enterprise I can get behind.

They have gorgeous equipment:

One of the owners, talking about the wheat they buy from a farmer near Ithaca and how they process it into flour and turn that into a thin, fermented slurry that becomes the base spirit.
They were in the middle of a tour when we got there, so we tasted the product before learning anything about it. We tasted it at room temperature, chilled, and with tonic. I have to say that while I liked it as a spirit, it didn't taste like gin to me. The ginger and rosemary flavors had the strongest impact, followed by lemon peel. I didn't get much juniper flavor at all. On the tour, the guy mentioned that they refine the juniper berries so that they're only using the lighter, more aromatic notes. But the thing is, I *like* that heavy, pine-resin juniper taste and scent. That's what I want when I want gin. So I wouldn't buy this expecting it to fulfill my gin requirements. But if I were looking for something else that's aromatic and tasty and could be used in drinks that are either sweet or not, I would certainly not be averse to Breuckelen gin.