SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Risks of Unraveling

Dec. 26, 2009

A few years ago, journalist Norah Vincent went underground as a gender spy, dressing and living as a man in order to write, Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back. Her book garnered accolades and became a New York Times best-seller. But the emotional price of her 18-month experiment was a nervous breakdown. The experience led to her next book, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin.

Vincent launched her loony bin experiment getting off the meds her psychiatrist had prescribed -- Prozac, or Vitamin P, as she called it-- and voluntarily committing herself, first to a city public hospital, then a small private hospital, and finally, a holistic recovery facility.

Early on in her experiment, Vincent writes, "Being put away does a number on you very quickly, and very thoroughly, no matter who you are in the outside world." She also recognizes fairly soon that the brain -- unlike the kidney or other types of the body -- requires more than medicine in order to be treated. It requires empathy.

You have to marvel at Vincent's brazenness and willingness to go the distance. She informs her insurance company that she (not they) should foot the bill for her institutional stays, as she is a journalist doing research, and shells out $14,700 not once, but twice -- to the public institution, then to the private facility, both of which put her in a state of roiling anxiety about all the freedoms she's turned over. Vincent doubts whether she can recover in these places, where patients are over-medicated, and conditions, often inadequate.

Vincent becomes fascinated by the habits and prognoses of the patients she encounters in wards, but their colorful stories would be old news to anyone who's ever been in rehab or made the rounds of recovery rooms for group therapy.

Vincent writes with confidence and her quirky observations can be inspired -- as she depicts day-to-day life among the addicted and mentally ill, and particularly as she questions her own mind, her surroundings and the system into whose hands she's entrusted herself.

She asks, for example, "How does one exist as a self, as a discrete person in the world, and yet not inhabit one's own self?" While at a private hospital, where she finds herself spending too much time curled up alone on the tiles of her bathroom in order to avoid having to deal with the overwhelming pain of those surrounding her, she realizes this is how many sensitive people feel out in the world and how the homeless mentally ill and addicted especially feel, as they are forced to live without a break on the streets, bombarded by chaos, noise, pollution and fear.

Vincent also ponders, "What might happen if we as a culture took even the most minor responsibility for the lost among us, rather than consigning them, and quite possibly ourselves, to the ravages of the system? The indifferent system."

At St. Luke's, the name she gives to a private hospital, she is touched by the kindness and simplicity of Sister Pete, who prompts her to muse: Maybe "true goodness... in this fucked-up creation" is a "form of retardation. Not an avoidance of vice but an ignorance of it, a lack of acquaintance with it that cannot be willed after the fall, no matter how strong the intention."

By the time Vincent leaves St. Luke's, she is beginning to emerge from her depression, a depression complicated by the power struggles she encounters in the institutions in which she places herself. At St. Luke's, she realizes how much a private room can mean, providing as it does, healing space, even room for exercise.

By the time Vincent commits herself to Mobius, a place she determines is easily "within the reach of the middle class," she is back on Vitamin P, taking 20 milligrams a day, and holding. Unlike the previous two institutions, Mobius aims to heal mind, spirit and body. It's a place where Vincent is able to explore past traumas and experience deeper healing. She finds therapists there to whom she can relate as they freely share their own humanity. They inform her that she is not mentally ill after all.

Summarizing, Vincent laments the overcrowding, lack of fresh air, cleanliness and nutrition that she has experienced in institutions, noting significantly, that among all the patients she encountered during her hospital stays, she found very few willing to take responsibility for their own health and lives. The resistance of patients to change stymies many in the system who want to help and often turns them cynical.

At one point, a therapist at Mobius asks Vincent to consider the word 'compassion" as a means to heal. Unable to stomach the word, she opts for the idea of help instead. Vincent realizes, "I am not bound by my diagnosis. I can help myself, and I will," a perception that, once seized, could make all the difference to anyone suffering mentally, physically or spiritually.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Death and Laughter

Dec. 18, 2009

We're getting close to Christmas and the farthest thing from most people's minds is death, or so I'm assuming. But it's pressing on my mind this year. My father died last Wednesday, and today we are going to the funeral of a friend's brother, who died suddenly this past Tuesday.

One thing I've learned for sure is, try as you may, you can't plan death. The world is full of surprises, and death, even in the midst of a holiday that rains so much color and joy. Like holidays, life with all its color and vibrancy ends too. Throughout it all, you try to keep laughing. That's why, even in the midst of my father's passing, I wanted to read David Sedaris. I wanted to laugh.

I loved Naked, published a few years ago, and expected great things from When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which I picked up a few days before we heard the news that dad was in the process of dying. I wasn't altogether disappointed, although the dark humor and pointed quips struck almost too close to home.

The cover of Sedaris' book has a skeleton on it that appears to have a cigarette between its teeth. The cover is meant to be the death mask of Sedaris himself, who was, until fairly recently, a habitual smoker, and whose final essay, "The Smoking Section," refers to his process of quitting. There's also an essay in this collection about a skeleton that Sedaris once bought for his partner Hugh, who decided to hang it in the bedroom. Sedaris found himself looking at this dangling skeleton, which seemed to say to him, "You are going to die."

I can't say this struck me as particularly funny, just true, having recently stared at death straight in the face and recognized, sure as I'm sitting here right now, that this life, solid and real as it seems, is indeed ephemeral as a dream and quick as smoke to disappear.

My father was a strong, indomitable soul, full of enthusiasm for life, with a vitality so palpable it was intimidating to some. He lived a year and a half longer than he was expected to live, and no one, least of all the doctors who predicted his demise, could believe he could carry on so long, his heart being in the shape it was. He humored us, mugging till the very end, reminding us of his amazing resilience and also of his capacity for laughter and the importance of it. It has always been a balm and savior for our family.

Taking my dad's cue, the night after his passing, my siblings and I drank, smoked pot, and drove fast and furiously around Hilton Head, where my dad lived. I turned around to my two sisters and brother once and said, "How does it feel to be 15 again?" No doubt, each of us was filled with the intractable knowledge somewhere deep within that we are no longer 15 and will never again be, and are in fact now ourselves on death's list, however far into the future each of us may live.

Still, the laughter helps, and for us, for me, provided a much needed respite from our vigil with death, reminding us that good times can be there, sometimes even in the midst of heartbreak.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Brilliant Madness

Nov. 30, 2009

A psychotherapist once informed me that it took a certain talent to develop schizophrenia and that I didn't possess it, as I had a solid mind. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. But it got me thinking about how one might learn to actually blow one's own mind, expand it out of its accustomed boxes, bust out of what one perceives as real and imaginary. Learning to do this might be the door that opened to madness or brilliance.

I've always been fascinated by how the mind works, and how it fails us. The best book I ever read on mania was Kay Redfield Jamison's soul-searching, gripping memoir, An Unquiet Mind, which captivated me so much I literally did not put it down from the moment I got it home until I turned the the final page. It took all of one bitterly cold night under the covers under a small, dim lamp in my room with a slanted floor in Ithaca to devour it.

Jamison's story is particularly remarkable because she wrote it both from the standpoint of a professional -- she's a clinical psychologist -- and as a sufferer of mania, doing what no psychologist or psychiatrist before her had done, coming out of the closet as a sufferer of bipolar disease. Jamison, an expert on the subject, is currently a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, and her autobiography set a standard that I don't think has been matched since An Unquiet Mind was published in 1995.

Jamison's ability to detail with uncanny precision the workings of her manic mind and to pose questions and logic concerning her experiences with equal precision captivated me. There would be no question at the end of this reading about the profound effect of mental illness on the sufferer as well as others in her life. Like alcoholism, the disease affects everyone who comes in touch with it.

This fact is made stunningly clear in the opening pages of Hurry Down Sunshine, A Father's Story of Love and Madness by Michael Greenberg. A columnist for The Times Literary Supplement, Greenberg was forced to come to grips with his 15-year old daughter's psychotic break in the summer of 1996 -- Sally unraveled while walking down a street in Greenwich Village and continued unraveling in a psychiatric ward -- an event that deeply shook up Sally's mother and step-mother, among others, and transformed Greenberg's life and Sally's.

While it's Jamison's ability to see herself that mesmerizes the reader in her autobiography, it's the combination of Greenberg's desire to love his daughter back to normal and his ability to embrace both the ways he is united to and separated from Sally by her madness that gives this book its unique beauty and power. It's as if Greenberg believes his own ability to perceive Sally exactly as she is might be the magic wand that reels her in from madness.

Madness isn't beautiful. It causes pain and hardship. Jamison's account of ruining relationships with her outbursts, and Greenberg's description of Sally on a rampage in his apartment, set loose by her instability like an automated alien, are chilling and disturbing.

Jamison found a route out of madness through medication, therapy and self-knowledge, and Greenberg found a way to cope by charting his daughter's descent and return with raw accuracy and honesty. Both journeys took extraordinary courage and both stories acquire a kind of luminosity in the telling.

Like journalists in a no man's land, these writers pass along their insights as they toe the edge. It may be the very danger they encounter in the act of telling that endows their perceptions with such rare and heart-wrenching brilliance.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rare Gifts of Our Mothers

Nov. 6, 2009

Ruth Reichl's memoir, Not Becoming My Mother(2009) is above all an ode to defiance, that much maligned virtue, especially when it is attributed to women. Reichl, an award-winning journalist, food critic and author of several critically acclaimed memoirs, has written a beautiful and heart-wrenching elegy, taking the reader through the diary notes and letters left behind by her mother. These messages left in a box and uncovered at what would have been Miriam Brudno's 100th birthday, it turns out, hold the woman's true self and legacy.

Not Becoming My Mother opens on an upbeat note with Reichl recounting zany "Mim tales" out of her childhood, stories about her mother's culinary mishaps and failed attempts to be a typical mother. Miriam was a disastrous cook and totally uninterested in housekeeping, something that constantly frazzled her own mother who expected her to excel at these.

Like many women of the generation of the 1940s in which she grew up, Miriam was stymied by convention -- marriage and motherhood. An intellectual, she aspired to become a doctor, but relinquished her dream, giving in to her mother's expectations to marry, settle down and have children. She did taste independence in her early 20s, when she ventured into the business of opening a bookstore, an opportunity that allowed her to befriend important writers and intellectuals of her day. But, as a wife and mother, Miriam felt burdened, with no outlets for creativity, and became overwhelmed first with boredom, then depression.

Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother: A Memoir (2007), includes portraits of many family members besides Gordon's mother, and many of these are dark and unflattering. Her primary focus is her mother's religious life and her friendship with a few Catholic priests. In younger years, despite polio, Gordon's mother, Anna Gagliano, a deeply devout Catholic and also an alcoholic, managed to be the family breadwinner making a living as a legal secretary, but at 90, in a nursing home, her mind gone, she is the epitome of decrepit old age, with its stench and embarrassment. Gordon compares the scene in a nursing home to a Bonnard painting, but it is evident that she is repulsed by what her mother has become. Gordon, who teaches at Barnard College, has written nonfiction, but is perhaps best known for her first novel, Final Payments (1979), and her best-seller, Men and Angels (1985).

Reichl's account, which focuses almost exclusively on her mother, is rare as it is about a woman who finds herself in old age, that time of life so often associated with waste and decay and so often discounted by our culture. Miriam endured a bad first marriage that ended quickly with divorce; suffered through years in her relationship to a harsh, demanding yet charismatic and talented mother; bore two children whom she taught to be self-sufficient despite her own feelings of insecurity and failure; and finally, survived the loss of her faithful husband of many years. But it is only after finding herself alone, at the end of her life, that Miriam saw who she was and felt free enough to become herself, embracing her independence.

Miriam's gift to her children was defiance -- that surge of the instinct rebelling against obstacles it deems unnecessary -- and a profound belief in the importance of a strong work ethic. She encouraged her children by negative example -- "This is what I don't want you to become," she seemed to say over and over.

Miriam's story is sad and not so uncommon, but it is ultimately hopeful. It's final message -- that one can transform at any age -- is refreshing and important, particularly in our youth-driven culture.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Visiting and Becoming the Poor

Oct. 29, 2009

Nickel and Dimed, award-winning journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's fascinating nonfiction account of living as a member of the poor working class,(published in 2001), and Clarice Lispector's novella, The Hour of the Star, (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, and originally published in 1977), about a pathetically poor, mistreated worker in the Brazilian slums, have in common the little people, and the writers' compassion for them which inform the reader and illumine the texts. As I read both books this past week, I was struck by their similarity -- primarily, both writers aim to raise the consciousness of readers about those that have not.

You don't need to be a social activist or a follower of Michael Moore's movies to become mesmerized by Nickel and Dimed. If you have any heart or curiosity at all, you will not be able to put the book down. It's particularly interesting to revisit it in these days when the economy is in even worse shape than when Ehrenreich started her project, testing herself at various service jobs around the country about a decade ago. According to the American Community Surveys (ACS) 2008 data, an estimated 13.2 percent of the U.S. population had income below the poverty threshold in 2007. America's poor don't just live in Kentucky and Louisiana, they are everywhere.

Ehrenreich embarked on her experiment, working service jobs, in Key West in 1998. Early in her text, she explains, she took on the challenge "just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do." A very smart woman, an accomplished professional writer and Ph.D. in biology, Ehrenreich failed time and again.

Service professionals sometimes form a weird subculture that allows waitresses in a cheap restaurant, for example, to simultaneously experience camaraderie, animosity and competitiveness with one another as they share the same toil and aggravation. But too often it's a dead end. Support just isn't there, and a worker needs two, maybe three jobs just to make ends meet, and that doesn't even allow for health care emergencies.

Much of Ehrenreich's story is not so much about the poor working class, but about poor working class girls and women and their drudge. While working as a maid, Ehrenreich encountered a particularly uppity woman who demanded a picayune cleaning, inspiring Ehrenreich to muse -- "That's not your marble bleeding. I want to tell her, it's the world-wide working class -- the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rug until they went blind, harvested the lovely apples in your fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the rails, drove the trucks, put up the building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it."

By Latin American standards, North Americans, even those in Appalachia, hardly know about poverty. In Colombia and Brazil, for example, poverty devastates masses, and hordes of children become street criminals; only the wiliest survive. On the street, the poorest of the poor cheat and mistreat and are cheated and mistreated, even by their own. Hunger is constant, with never the hope of a soup kitchen or shelter to ease wanting -- even for a day.

Lispector's fictional character Macabea, may be the most pitiful poor woman I have encountered in fiction. Homely and unloved, she makes a meager living as a typist in Rio. The reader perceives her through the eyes of the self-serving narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who attempts to make her his own, to become her by a willful act of literary transmutation: "It's my obsession to become the other man. In this case, the other woman. Pale and feeling weak, I tremble just like her."

The aim of Lispector's stirring, elegant, wholly original tale is to move the reader to experience the arrogance of the narrator and the anguish of the poor. A hint of the aim is unveiled in this telling line of the narrator's -- "I know that it is very frightening to step out of oneself, but then everything which is unfamiliar can be frightening."

Both Lispector and Ehrenreich dare the reader to step out of comfortable zones into the shoes of the poor, and further, beneath their skin. Each writer succeeds brilliantly, exposing not only the artifice and arrogance of those more fortunate along with the brutality of external circumstances, but the layers of internal suffering the working class and poor constantly endure.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sedaris and My Brother Bill

Oct. 26, 2009

Before I get to Clarice, not the Jodie Foster character in the Silence of the Lamb movie, but the inimitable great Brazilian writer, I am going to take a seguey into humor, specifically that of David Sedaris, who, I hear, is a favorite of my younger brother Bill's.

I wouldn't know this directly, you see, as my dear brother Bill, the youngest in our family, is many miles away, west of here, and we in our family tend not to communicate much -- with each other anyway. I heard Billy likes Sedaris through a sister of mine who calls him more often than anybody. I'm glad somebody calls him. I wish we talked more often. Heck, it would be nice to see one another.

I haven't seen him in 12 years, since our mother's funeral.

Be that as it may -- and mind you, we both love one another and said so during our last phone conversation, which was, oh, perhaps a year or so ago, when I called him -- I have to go by way of Sedaris to learn about my brother.

I chose Naked, Sedaris' collection of essays about his family to start, and let me tell you, I can totally see why Bill likes Sedaris. There are a lot of similarities.

Like David, my brother Bill was surrounded by females growing up -- three sisters to be precise, and a doting mother. Like David, Bill was a bit neurotic, and funny as hell as a child. He probably still is. And like David, Bill is a bicultural. David is part Greek and American, and we are part Colombian, and Iowan, if there is such a thing. David's mother was a strong personality, and needless to say, ours was too --strong and volatile, always saying what she thought, however outrageous or inappropriate, never making any bones whatsoever about her feelings, and being unabashedly hysterical.

Bill has some of those qualities, but practices directness with charm and aplomb. Rather than daring you into battle, as most individuals in our family do, he invites you to consider and even question an opinion or a stance. This from a guy who was beaten regularly by an older, bigger brother -- for just being. As the youngest in a mad brood of aggressive and opinionated individuals, Billy learned early to be diplomatic. Now he is so diplomatic, he is unreachable!

It must be that he has a lot to do.

As far as I know, ever since Billy picked up a racket, he hasn't done much else but play tennis, and play it well. After winning championships, he decided to teach tennis, and apparently, he does that well too. He taught Olympic hopefuls, and now he heads a sports program at a Midwestern university.

All members of my family are trademarked by some form of obsession, as happens to be the case in Sedaris' family too. And as is true in Sedaris' family, we are irreverent as heck about those things that most people consider sacred -- like death.

Witness Sedaris hearing about his Greek grandmother Ya-Ya's death by phone: "My roommate was listening in, and because I wanted to impress him as a sensitive and complex individual, I threw myself onto the bed and made the most of my grief. 'It can't be true,' I cried. 'It can't be true-hu-hu-hu-hu.'"

And here are David's mother's comments regarding her own death in the future, as the family gazes upon Ya-Ya's casket: "'When I get like that, I want you to shoot me, no questions asked,' my mother whispered. 'disconnect the feeding tubes and shut off the monitors, but under no circumstances do I want you to move me into your basement.'"

There are so many hysterical moments in this collection, dear reader, I can't begin to tell you. You must read David Sedaris, if you haven't already. He's been around a while. Hundreds of thousands watch him on YouTube. He's even done the most audacious thing -- Taken time to read an entire essay, five minutes long, on David Letterman. And had people listen, appreciate and applaud.

Imagine that. Now, let me tell you, that's some accomplishment for a writer.

So, go read Sedaris. Read Naked, or any one of his other books. He's got plenty of outrageous and insightful remarks to make about his family. A lot of what he has to say will probably resonate with you, as I know families are a lot weirder than Cheaper By the Dozen or The Brady Bunch would have you believe. Some of the members of Sedaris' family may even remind you of members of your own family. In the long run, that's one of the best things you can say about a writer -- that he or she is familiar.

Hey David, you remind me of my brother Bill. Take that as a compliment.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

With Apologies to Clarice

October 18, 2009

You know you are way too much a part of "the culture," when you cannot read or say Clarice without thinking of Jodie Foster's character in Silence of the Lambs. I know it's awful to admit, but it's true, even though I am faced with this reminder as I read about the great, the important, the inimitable Clarice Lispector in Benjamin Moser's biography, Why This World, recently published by Oxford Press.

Short story writer. Novelist. Journalist. Translator. Russian but Brazilian. Jewish yet not. Feminist yet traditional. Groundbreaking in her writing yet reticent in person. Shy yet a diva. Alluring yet dismissive. A star who only wanted to be seen as her true self, she was known to shrug off interviewers with one word replies, once even suggesting to a journalist that he turn to one of her books to glean answers about her life.

Translator Gregory Rabasa once wrote that Clarice "looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." She was, like Madonna, on a first name basis with the world, made famous by her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, written in the style of an internal monologue, at the tender age of 23. Among her other famous works are Family Ties and The Passion According to G.H.

Moser, recently named the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine, is a young translator and expatriate who lives in the Netherlands. Why This World is a careful, but daunting biography, and it's not hard to read between the lines that he is a diehard fan.

I have to admit that something this long -- close to 400 pages -- could only be a question of fits and starts. I had my first fit on page 15, upon discovering that a friend of Clarice's once wrote that her eyes "had the dull dazzle of the mystic." I wonder how this matters in any way, save perhaps to set the stage for the scale of Clarice's mythic importance. But this biographer takes chapters to set the stage. Ah well, I now know it's a dull dazzle in the eye I must look for when next I search for a mystic. A bit further along, Moser mentions that Clarice resembled the Jewish saints of her homeland, and at this point, I closed the book -- for the first time anyway.

It all starts with quotations from the grand dame of letters herself, who claims, "I am so mysterious that I don't even understand myself."

It's tough enough to handle an egoist, but to add to that, a biographer who swirls with vagaries around Clarice's own swirling self-conceptions -- This is a bit much. Moser claims, for example, that she possessed "the soul of a single woman, but within it one finds the full range of human experience." Is it me, or does this sound antiquated, sexist and trite? I'd like to suggest to Mr. Moser that he hop a plane back to the U.S. fast and learn a thing or two about the modern single woman and her full range.

Vanity (the subject's) and subtle and not-so-subtle praise (the author's) fuel this literary mise. The first, vanity, is a defect I myself was intimate with for years. And so I know that it's often utilized to cover up the flaws in one's own person and one's past, things one wishes to obscure. One substitutes the deeper search with a deeper affection for the superficial -- The curve of one's eyebrow, the shape of one's mouth, the angle of one's cheek and the slope of the neck can hold one in thrall until, alas, time passes, these droop and one must search elsewhere -- within? -- if one is to remain friendly with the self at all. Knowing the self is inevitable, one could argue -- if you stick around long enough.

Dear reader of this reader, I forced myself to open the book again, and read about the tragic rape of Clarice's mother Mania by a gang of Russian soldiers, a rape which led to her mother contracting syphilis and to Mania's early death. Clarice was born to a syphilitic mother in 1920 in the Ukraine, and shortly after that, her poor family was forced to wander, leaving the country and settling eventually in Maceió, Brazil. Her father was a peddler and raised three girls on his own, one of whom was Chaya Kinkhasovna Lispector, who became Clarice in the new land. Her name means "Life" in Hebrew.

Clarice led a fascinating life that included literary success, marriage, a child, travels in Europe, adulation and renown. An accident led to years of pain and a premature death at 57. Outsider and insider; popular, yet removed; spontaneous, yet affected; it's hard to know who Clarice really was and what she really thought about herself, but you can have a great deal of fun speculating along with Moser, if you read Why This World.

With apologies to the dear sister who inspired this read, I didn't wade through nearly 400 pages of awe-inspired revelations about the ever so elusive Clarice to determine what I already knew: The reader will have to let the unnameable remain unnamed, to respect Clarice's mystery, to search for answers in her oeuvre, as the writer herself suggested.

Unfortunately, as I learned during a search at a local Barnes & Noble, Clarice's oeuvre is difficult and expensive to procure.

Perhaps this latest tome about her life will help to lift veils not only of obscurity but of exclusivity, kindle fresh interest in her work and inspire a reduction in prices of her books!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sayonara Blood Sports

Oct. 13, 2009

I'm wondering if some a mad coked up, emotionally challenged wrestler runs the Travel Network. Don't expect to find any real food shows there, or anything that remotely resembles a civilized experience in which you, civilized reader, would like to partake. What you get is Man Vs. Food, Mad Adventures, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, and yes, No Reservations, featuring the handsome, charming, talented, ever predictable Anthony Bourdain.

I had to see these shows to believe them. Now I do. I really, really do.

In case you thought otherwise, none of the shows I just mentioned is about eating. They are all about the blood sport that used to be civilized dining. They're about grossing people out, about primitive man against the elements, about animalistic contests in the arena.

Last time I switched on 788, I happened on Mad Adventures, just as some guy was cutting off a live snake's head and pouring its blood into a glass. Then the heart was excised, left to quiver in a basin. I switched channels at that point.

I was really anticipating not just travel, but watching cooks respect something foreign, but not that foreign. But what you get on Channel 788 is a killing field, guys closing in on prey, as if the world itself and everything in it -- live, quivering and vulnerable -- is theirs for the taking.

The last Bourdain episode I saw -- and, I hope, it is the last -- was on the Philippines, and once again, its emphasis wasn't so much good or rare cuisine as it was the gross-out -- "See big, fat pig roasting on a spit." "See goat we are about to kill, whose entrails we are about to eat." "See what a big brave macho man I am going down on this."

I would love for time to roll forward about 10 years so Travel TV watchers could glimpse what becomes of the hosts of these shows -- if they are even here then. I wonder what X-rays of their stomachs and colons look like. How much money does it take to buy a blown out gut or an overextended colon? How much are these guys getting paid so they can commit suicide on air?

Maybe someone can ask Bourdain or Zimmerman or that poor oaf who's always belching and gagging over giant pizzas, omelets and unwieldy stacks of pancakes. Really, how much money does it take to not care about yourself at all and launch on the suicidal journey that hosting one of these shows is?

Someone somewhere must think that all women want to see on television is Oprah. I wonder where the really cool food shows are, where a camera slowly, thoughtfully pans a happy cook stirring something healthful and delightful, brought out of the earth with respect for what it yields -- rather than out of a poor animal's gut -- something that will be properly cooked, served, eaten and appreciated. Where is the show starring the gourmand who respects what she eats and expresses curiosity rather than bravado over the elements that constitute a good meal?

Indulge me this mental stream: Outside of thinking, that most precious activity that distinguishes us as humans, the most important things we do are breathe and eat -- in that order. Wouldn't you imagine then that we would strive to do both as well as possible in order to live as happily and as long as possible? Wouldn't you imagine then that breathing right and eating well, in the best sense of what the latter means, would matter to most people?

You would think....

I don't think most people have the slightest idea of how to eat properly anymore. Most of the time, even though I know better, I forget too -- the way we live keeps us from being our better selves. We're wound up, speed addicts and our culture demands we go on to the next thing before we even know what we're experiencing in the moment. Maybe we binge just so we can capture the moment whole. But it's really too bad, cause we'll killing ourselves that way.

Years ago, aware of my own predilection for hastiness, I took time out to study yoga at an ashram in Lenox, Mass. and took part in a workshop there that directed us to spend 40 minutes eating a bowl of rice, properly chewing and appreciating the process at hand. I can tell you I learned a few things-- mainly, how much better it feels to eat something mindfully than without having the slightest regard for what passes through my mouth.

Vietnamese monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh spent an entire 20-minutes eating an orange mindfully in a video he put out in the 90s. Some people have been enlightened on this subject for years.

In the late 90s, as an educational coordinator, I once spent an entire afternoon showing kids in an afterschool program how to eat a piece of fruit -- quietly and with respect for the thing being eaten that was providing life and nourishment. Believe it or not, the kids, middle schoolers, participated, amazed at their own powers of attention, their own ability to do this. Maybe too, they were trying to outdo one another with the new challenge of mindfulness-- but they put aside rowdiness and got into it. These kids who used to spend snack time tossing food at one another, got into it. And maybe, sometime in the future, when they get sick enough and bored enough with bad habits and the unhealthy routines propagated by the culture, mostly through TV, they'll remember eating properly and how it felt better.

So, it's time to switch off all the visual tripe of the Travel Channel. Time to put to rest the culinary adventures I took up to read -- mostly Bourdain's -- in the wake of that experiment.

Michael Ruhlman introduced me to great chefs, and got me yearning to eat at some of the finest eateries around the country; and Bill Buford's writing demonstrated how demanding the cooking passion can be. But it's time to put the big boys and their adventures to bed.

I'm going to break out a biography of Genet -- the journalist Janet Flanner-- and another of Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer.

No apologies. I'm going back to my roots, my way.

Friday, October 9, 2009

For Love of Small Things French

October 9, 2009

"Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do." - Thomas Keller

So says the artistic chef of chefs, Thomas Keller, who has so dominated French-influenced American cuisine for decades. As his birthday is coming up on Oct. 14, it seems appropriate to write about him now.

Keller grew up in California, apprenticed as a cook in many locations around the country, then hopped to France in the 1980s.

The French Laundry, which he started in 1994 in the Napa Valley, launched his extraordinary reputation. Subsequently, he opened Per Se in New York City, which immediately garnered four stars from food critic Frank Bruni of The New York Times. There is also Bouchon in Yountville, New York.

Time Magazine dubbed Keller, Best Chef in 2001, and he's received several Best Chef Awards from the James Beard Foundation.

Keller believes a great meal is an emotional experience, a journey, and so he tries to create this via ambiance as well as the attention to detail for which he is renowned. He's called Per Se -- which opened on Feb. 16, 2004, then after a fire, reopened May 1 of the same year in Manhattan -- an urban interpretation of The French Laundry; the two are connected by symbols such as the blue door, a garden and fireplace.

He has helped to make famous the sous-vide (under vacuum) style of cooking that is known to preserve the integrity of ingredients by allowing them to cook at lower temperatures for a longer time. Georges Pralus developed the method in France in the 1970s, and it's also been utilized by Ferran Adria and Charlie Trotter, among others.

Since bacteria tends to grow in the absence of oxygen, sous-vide style cooking requires close monitoring in order to avoid botulism poisoning, but also because the difference of even a degree can radically affect the final product.

A classic Keller recipe employing this method is his slow cooking cassoulet, a dish of white beans and pork parts, with white wine and tomato paste.

Keller's books are The French Laundry Cookbook, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous-Vide. His latest, Bouchon, is an homage to simple French bistro fare.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Those Darn Sweet Little Things

Oct. 2, 2009

This is dedicated to my mother.

There are a few things I could just about die for -- any time. One is chocolate, and the other, espresso. As I sit here writing at Barnes & Noble in Paramus, nouveau flamenco sounds from the speakers, and I'm reminded of my mother, my great friend, fellow foodie and raconteur who is no longer with us. I am reminded of her because, as her passion was literature, she loved to be surrounded by books (as I now am), and because after that, there was food and sharing it with those she loved. Right now, I am enjoying something she would have liked very much -- my own espresso concoction -- one part espresso, one part hot chocolate, and a splash of soy (to mellow the color).

My mother loved food and also liked to sneak it. She was addicted to Marshmallow Fluff. You could be searching high and low in a cupboard for a favorite long lost cup and find there behind the woodwork, her secret stash, that Marshmallow stuff. One time I caught her, jar in hand, spoonful in mouth, and she explained, "This is exquisite -- I cannot help myself."

She was a gourmand, like me, but she could enjoy food like nobody. Watching her savor something delectable such as a piece of chocolate, a section of Key Lime pie, yes, even Marshmallow Fluff was an experience royale. Her lips pursed and you felt she was kissing the food inside her mouth. A part of you wanted to be there too. Then her fine long-fingered hands would fly up to her face, clench and fly free in a flamenco gesture of complete gratification.

You have to know how passionate she was and how much she loved the idea that she could savor something so delicious and sinful and have it disappear inside her -- never to be seen again -- as if swallowing, she might never be found out, even by her own body.

There was no richer experience than being asked to partake of a morsel of something delicious with my mother at the kitchen counter. When she was in a good frame of mind, happy and not plagued by worry or a bout of depression, from which she was prone to suffer, there was nothing she could do that did not captivate anyone I ever knew -- child or adult. She told stories like no one, making you live in her words and actions, leaving you breathless for more.

I can see her now, unraveling a small package, a dessert surprise, which she would treat like a filched prize that she had gotten just for you, and so absolutely had to be partaken. She enjoyed deep dark, bitter chocolate while I preferred sweet chocolate, and we both reveled in desserts and espresso, which provided the kick that catapulted us into some of our finest gossip and conversations.

Chocolate and espresso are both part of our Colombian culture and heritage. Colombians love to talk and laugh and eat. At three o'clock, afternoons when we were visiting relatives in Bogotá, we would drink hot chocolate, dipping sharp cheese into it, and nibble from an assortment of fruits and cheeses laid out across the long dining table. And we exchanged stories.

My mother usually presided, imitating relatives and friends, being outrageous and hysterical, so hysterical my uncle and aunt often doubled over, blushing so that one worried how much redder they could get without bursting. My uncle laughed so hard, he cried. It always endeared me to him to watch him, a suave and dapper man in a fine business suit, so moved by my mother, he had to wipe tears from his eyes.

Later, after we had moved to the U.S., and I was an adult, the experience of sharing a rare dessert with my mother -- say, a mousse pie or mocha tart or ice cream extravaganza -- would be the catalyst that would put her over the edge, causing her to slip into that most precarious pasttime -- revealing family secrets.

There were plenty of secrets to tell. She made me promise never to repeat them -- yet afterward, proceeded to write nearly all of them into her stories and novels!

She wrote about her crazy Uncle Saul, who claimed to carry the secrets of the universe on a slip of paper in his breast pocket. And beautiful but simple-minded Aunt Adelaida who was the butt of her demented brother, who would, for example, get her to rest her head sideways on a bed of grass, so he could set rocks against it. My mother wrote about her great grandparents, the man, so jealous of his wife's voice that he imprisoned her in an attic, where she went mad and died young. One relative attached a rope to a church chandelier and leapt from the balcony landing buck naked at the foot of the altar during a Sunday Mass. As far as I know, my mother never wrote about him.

While it's alcohol that gets most people going, it was lovely desserts and the perico, espresso, that cup of black heaven, that would launch my mother into realms of the forbidden, into declaring those things that were, for her, daring to reveal. Growing up in a repressive environment, my mother was forced to stuff much of what she wanted to say.

She grew up in Bogotá, Colombia during the beginning of a period called The Violence, when anyone critical of the government could be assassinated in broad daylight on the streets. Her father, a prestigious judge, dared to defend peasants in his courtroom and criticized the oligarchy. As a result of this, he and his family were forced into exile many times. Once, when my mother was around five, as she and her father and a few of his friends descended the steps of a capital building, a car came to a screeching halt below, a door flew open and someone began shooting. One of my mother's father's friends, an official, grabbed my mother, ferreting her to safety in a taxi, and fortunately no one was killed or injured that day.

Experiences like that must have percolated inside her for years, begging to be told. When my mother finally gave herself permission to write, she gave herself wholeheartedly to the task. She did not begin writing until after leaving her own country, after marrying my American dad and moving to the U.S. Even then, she chose to write in a language not her own, perhaps believing that this would distance her just enough so that she could revisit her past with clarity and objectivity.

For whatever reason, perhaps having to do with the culture and time in which she was born and raised, my mother associated indulging in special foods with being naughty, even sacreligious, which she loved to be. Being sacreligious must have been the complete antithesis of what she had been expected to be as a child -- silent, proper and obedient, always fearing that an inappropriate word or gesture from her could lead to a fiasco -- someone's imprisonment, even death.

My mother and I liked being naughty together. After Saturday shopping sprees at Bloomies, we would settle at a lunch counter somewhere and order a wicked dessert. She would eye the white cream curling up out of the cup of a white chocolate mousse with Cointreau that beckoned her.

"This is soo good," she would say, closing her eyes as if in prayer. "Too good. May God forgive me."

The desserts didn't have to be elegant or complicated. Just plain ice cream could do it. Each spoonful was a deeply felt experience, utter delight.

"Should we have another? No, no, I cannot," she would ask and answer herself, her eyes roaming the room, sad for something lost that someone somewhere had deprived her of and that had somehow abandoned her in its wake.

Her relationship to her treats and desserts was varied too. She might gaze at the truffle cream between two cookies fondly as if it was a cute child, or cruelly, as if the thing had the capacity to persecute her, until she somehow convinced herself that what she longed for was indeed benign.

Little treats bedeviled her -- candy by her bedside, truffles, and especially Marshmallow Fluff, which she hid and ate in a kind of ecstasy, her pleasure beholding to nobody.

"This, this is mine," her secret indulgence seemed to say. "I am owned by everyone -- my husband and five children, by my writing even, but this, this is all mine."

Second to discussing literature or her sinful affection for things sweet with her daughters, my mother loved cajoling her friends into divulging their best recipes, their secrets. Her best friends -- Fran Decker, Charlotte Sabo -- were superb cooks. My mother loved to envy them the talent she did not possess and ravished their treasures guiltlessly, listening spellbound to each step of their concoctions. It was the way she loved them back for having fed her habit. My mother would take a bite of something delicious from their kitchens and beg to know how it was made.

"I place the little buggers in the oven, say at 450," Fran would say.

"And they look like this! Unbeleefable! Dees, dees is true ecstasy!"

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Culinary Music and Magic

September 25, 2009

"Jazz is like bananas -- it must be consumed on the spot." Jean-Paul Sartre, "Jazz in America"

There's a story involving Bird, a woman, Miles Davis and fried chicken that is too bawdy even for me to tell, although you can read it, if you like, in a section on Bird in Miles Davis' autobiography. But I'll say this, the tale would surely squash anyone's notion that the experience of delicious food, great musicians, and raunchy sex guarantee a fabulous experience, or always turns out, like a great recipe.

Everything is timing; everything is consideration; everything is taste, and the best artists would tell you so.

There is food and there is music and they can be partners too, just as art and food are -- in the best kitchens. And sometimes, cooks just like cooking to a beat, as if music might be the magical ingredient.

On coastalbeat.com you can find a story about Blues man Sauce Boss, who "plays the guitar and sings the blues and mixes up a 10-gallon pot of Gumbo at the same time." Try that, you dexterous kitchen wonders!

Sauce man's been playing gigs for 20 years in order to sell his own brand of hot sauce. Audiences not only get the Blues, but a bowl of Gumbo loaded with the Sauce Boss' Liquid Summer Hot Sauce -- handed out at the end of the show!

What's the secret of the Sauce Boss' invention? -- Datil peppers, he says, which are in the habanero family and provide a slow burn.

Brilliant food evokes great music, connects to all the arts. Grant Achatz, the young Midwestern culinary genius, who, together with Nick Kokonas, opened Alinea in 2005, says that "a menu should read like sheet music." Grant, an inventor, in the tradition of the Spaniard Ferran Adria (who in fact inspired Achatz' journey into culinary scientific invention), won the Rising Star Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2003, and in 2004, received four stars from the Chicago Tribune, when he was executive chef at Trio, in Evanston, Illinois. He is only 34.

Kokonas, a philosopher/techie/entrepreneur, explained recently in a blog that he and Achatz created Alinea to "touch all the senses —not only taste. The menu is composed like a symphony or a play, provoking diners, challenging them, and making sure they feel... happy, sad, nostalgia, humor... the full range of human emotion." A masterful dish should look like a work of art and evoke it.

(Coincidentally, The New Yorker just published a profile of Achatz in its Sept. 25 issue, available online).

What of the actual music of kitchens, the cooking noise that includes the metallic drumming of pots and pans and chefs' calling and shouting voices? Did composer John Cage ever dream that up for a recording?

I watched impressive footage of a bevy of meticulous cooks in Alinea's kitchen preparing food with the quiet mindfulness of monks creating a sand mandala -- Awe-inspiring, and nothing whatsoever like the Hard Rock insanity described by Bourdain in the typically loud and bawdy kitchens of his experience. If Alinea represents the new kitchen and cuisine of the future, then there is hope for humankind.

Music and art can inspire great food. But so can mindfulness and silence. Frankly, as a foodie, I'll opt for the latter. It's better for your soul and your digestion.

In those typical, rowdy kitchens, each with their own sense of dysfunctionally functional mayhem or order, there are certain chefs that insist on particular music, something to concoct by, and perhaps, keep them from losing their minds.

Bourdain -- who is more than a chef, someone who has traveled the great kitchen of the world trying to gain mastery of the sensual -- lists his own preferences on a Web site. They include hard pumping cuts from Snap -- "The Power"; The Cult -- "She Sells Sanctuary"; The Stooges' "Down On the Street (Take 15)," and slower, sexier numbers for sultry pot stirring, like Ralph Rebel's "Rumble," Bill Wither's "Use Me," and The Stones, "Gimme Shelter."

My personal favorite for cooking -- Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" -- as I think happiness is the best ingredient, perhaps the only guarantee to producing good food.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Kitchen Heart

September 17, 2009

"I've always suspected that for me, the act of cooking and the act of writing are linked, that the desire to cook and the compulsion to write arise out of the same spot in my unconscious, as two different manifestations of the same innate urge." Michael Ruhlman, The Reach of A Chef.

Cooking, sex, writing, art. Cooking, sex, writing, art. It's a mantra, and there's a rhythm and rush when you imagine each of these rituals, connected as they are by heat at the root.

There are certain things I like to do and certain things I feel compelled to do. Cooking mostly falls into the like category, but writing is a passion. There have been stages in my life when I felt so overwrought, so riddled with emotion that I was driven to create art even when I didn't know how to do it, to assemble collages, for example, that included photos I had taken, or to paint with acrylics. Years ago, during a divorce, I did nothing but paint for months. I didn't really know how to paint, but I had to do it. I became riveted by the rituals, the feel and smell of paint, the struggle to make something coherent happen on the canvas. I had to try to be creative in a big way, to make sense out of the craziness within, seeping out of me like questions into the dark. I felt if I didn't, I might go nuts.

Some people create because they must, others just because they are driven. I'm reading The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, who knows the culinary trade inside out, having worked in the kitchen and become expert writing about what happens there and around those who are transforming American cuisine. He writes about Tim Ryan, for example, a culinary success story whose accomplishments include opening up the American Bounty Restaurant (one of the first eateries to focus on regional cooking), becoming the youngest president of the American Culinary Federation, acquiring an M.B.A., and a Ph.D. in education. Ruhlman calls him a true chef "at the core."

What exactly does this mean, besides, one suspects, possessing a certain ferocity of character, and determination?

According to Ryan, there are four characteristics that determine greatness in an artist: 1) excellent craftsmanship, 2) innovation, 3) work that is both trendy and valuable, 4) and the capacity to influence others. Who are the great modern chefs that fall into this category? Ruhlman's list includes Paul Prudhomme (of Louisiana fame), America's first celebrity chef; Wolfgang Puck (Spago); Larry Forione, (An American Place); Charlie Trotter of Chicago; Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill); Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose forte was innovation; Nobu Matsuhisa, the Japanese artist in Manhattan; and Thomas Keller, known for his unique altering of French styles and techniques. Add to this list, Paul Bocuse, dubbed by Ryan "the Elvis Presley of the culinary world."

The American food revolution really began in the 1980s, and it has been greatly aided by television, which has provided an array of stages to help evolve the myth of the chef. What is "a chef," this creature whose reputation, once monk-like, is now anything but, synonymous in some cases with the worst kind of excess. And why are people obsessed with the chef culture?

One reason may be because we all have to eat and most of us do have to cook. And so, when we see someone perform culinary magic, we have enough reference points that we can recognize that this is something we have not only not ever done, but in many cases not even dreamed of doing, and so we determine we must have this thing -- both the ability and object just out of our reach. The chef takes us out of our world, expands the envelope, blows out the horizon. A chef is a leader says Ryan, head of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

The kitchen takes you down, down into the ravenous underbelly, into the realms of the unexpected, into the layers of desire. You are encouraged to excavate there for what you want, to wander, to ravage ingredients like treasures, to appease and to please.

I know what I am searching for in all this. It's not the chefs -- their badness, perfection or originality. It's the heart of care I never knew navigating the great kitchens of the world, passing from master hand to master hand, conjuring the current of art, the mysterious magic smoke that drives the writer's hand too.

It isn't that I've gone batty over chefs or even the idea of them. It's just that Bourdain so reminds me of my brother John, the one I lost. He lives like John did, drinking and eating the best, traveling and writing, constantly charming. A companion to all, Bourdain reminds me of him even in the intimate public persona he has evolved.

My brother died in 2000 in Chile of respiratory and pancreatic complications due to alcoholism. He left the U.S. for Chile during the first Gulf War, running from U.S. imperialism, but also toward something purer, better. I believe he was trying to find that part of himself too. He set up a fishing lodge in Patagonia, and took fishermen who came from all over the world, on fresh water trout expeditions, and wrote about his adventures like a modern-day Hemingway. He cooked like a top chef and was a genuine connoisseur of fine wines. He was an adventurer in the truest sense, who would risk his life to help an amigo, and, according to letters received after his death, did, in fact, do this more than once in the wilderness. After his death, the woman he'd lived with, the mother of his two children -- a girl and boy, who were seven and five, respectively, when he died--managed to develop The Heart of Patagonia into a premier resort, one of the best in the country today.

But, and here is a bit BUT, while my brother -- even with his cloak of superman abroad -- tried to be something more than the measure of a man he was raised to be, struggled to be tender with things and to forge real connections to the people and the land he had adopted, what prevails in the chef culture now and has for some time is the "kill, take and feast" macho attitude. It's a world in which primitive man beats out his maleness in the wilds of the kitchen -- "Eat me and my shit, baby!" -- nothing less than that, despite the fact that a few women have succeeded here and there and have stories to tell of matching wits or side-stepping brutalization brilliantly, oh yes, and cooking well.

Bourdain, who epitomizes the celebrity chef-that-no-longer-cooks-just-eats-out-all-over-the-globe, is all about raising his glass to man's dominance in the wild, the uninterrupted conquest, the macho ideal that is the reason people are drawn to this sport (as opposed to culture) of being a chef. It's the blood and guts lure, more killing and bloat than nurturance and tenderness, order and sensitivity -- rest assured. The chef culture, like wrestling, represents primitive man in all his gory glory.

What will happen when the fire in the dimming arena dies and a new, gentler order emerges in the kitchens of the world? I suspect it's starting to happen in the most modern kitchens -- fresh stories, new myths, a kinder direction. It's been a long time comin'.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Deconstructivist Digressions

September 7, 2009

The September 12 Issue, a documentary about the quirky behind the scenes dramas at Vogue magazine, recently inspired me to contemplate not eating for a while and going into old age not wearing make up. Fashion isn't dominated by the young and beautiful, as you might think, but by two canny women, both over 60 -- Anna Wintaur, the elfin Vogue editor that wields such power in the industry (and wears make up), and Grace Covington, a former model who has been Vogue's creative director for years (who does not). Surrounding this mighty, if discordant duo, are a bevy of rakishly thin, high-cheekboned women in their 40s and 50s who, at work at least, sport no make up at all.

When she wears make up, Covington, who is not so thin and in her late 60s, applies only a thin brushstroke of lipstick. She struts about, an unflappable authority herself, her wild red mane somehow reminiscent of a peacock's feathers in full bloom.

Imagine a film focusing on the accomplishments of two women past 60 in their professional prime whose work isn't remotely domestic. Now that is rare, and delicious!

In the world of couture, fashion is food. There are the same obsessions with color, texture and display. You wear what you love instead of eat it.

The Vogue film was very conceptual, very un-sensual. There is a lot of thinness to like here, but sorry, no food. There is one moment in the Vogue film, after a long shoot in Paris involving a tight corseting, when a coquettish model plucks up and ravages a cherry tart that has been sitting in a box; there is a quick pan of an insipid-looking salad on Covington's desk; there are Wintaur's Starbuck's runs -- Wintaur appears to subsist only on coffee. But otherwise, food is malaprop, the forbidden fruit here.

Imagine being a fashionista and a foodie, obsessed by food, but also thinness!

Speaking of those who can make remarkable objects of art, unexpected and delightful -- but in the culinary realm -- let us turn now to the inventive Spaniard Ferrán Adrià, the chef at El Bulli, one of the great eating establishments in the world. Once you have seen an array of his concoctions, anything else will seem ordinary.

Adrià, who is, alas, not thin, but nevertheless great, has expanded the dimensions of culinary possibilities, challenging standard notions of what an edible should look, taste and feel like. For example, he makes espresso foam and meat foam; he makes caviar out of apples. Looks and feels like, but surprise! An artist can create conceptually-- as Adrià does -- or simply let instinct and the senses guide.

As I am now exploring the culinary arts intellectually, I'd like to think that I am becoming more of a conceptualist, but I myself am instinctual at heart. I work best hands-on, just as I think best talking out ideas.

I am fixed still on the idea of making the perfect egg -- as if to learn to make one thing well might open the door to all culinary possibilities. I've been experimenting with folding my scrambled eggs just so, cooking them slowly, perfecting my recipe, Scrambled Eggs Parmesan al Pesto -- scrambled eggs with Parmesan flakes on which at the final moment, you douse a teaspoon of pesto (at room temperature, of course) and sprinkle Spanish paprika.

So much of life is all about food -- whether you are celebrating it or trying to pretend it doesn't exist. Beneath the trappings of style and couture, beneath the flesh, we are all the same, hungry beings trying to stave off the inevitable. We can't. But, in the meantime, let's toast to life, let's live -- a little!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Espresso Breaks

September 3, 2009

At this rapturous time of unemployment, my life is one long blissful espresso break. I have been ravaged by books, and literature is once again seeping into my bones like milk into toast. I am indescribably happy doing virtually nothing but what I want to do. Why doesn't the rest of the world look at not "working" this way? It is best we set down travail, and we will be rid of travails -- we hope!

As my reader or readers know, I have read much Bourdain. His glowing one-liners grace the cover of almost every book related to the culinary arts in the bookstores I frequent. He lauds a waiter's rant, another chef's expose. He is a generous man, there is no question about that. He is also getting tired of his gig, and soon -- although one hopes not -- he will be getting sick from it. "Notes from the Road" in The Nasty Bits details this very well. He is going to have to find some tricks to keep up the pace. Fasting on planes is one. Just drinking water between fetes will certainly help. Dang if the cliche doesn't apply here as well -- There is such a thing as getting too much of a good thing!

I've been balancing the onslaught of my mental palate with some other reading as well that I'd like to pass along. The Devil's Cup - The History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen (also endorsed by The Big B), is a little acerbic for my taste, but has some interesting references and asides, and if you love coffee -- or espresso, as I do -- it's a must read. Did you know, for example, that historian Jules Michelet attributes the birth of civilization in the West to espresso? Drink enough of the brew and you may also long to travel to Jiga-Jiga on the Ethiopian-Somali border to drink Kati (or Kotea), a potent concoction made of roasted coffee leaves.

Body of Work -- Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross is an illuminating, truly poetic account of a soon-to-be doctor's relationship to the human body, the patients on whom she operates and the corpses she dissects. The book is full of important questions and provocative insights, some of which are not without humor or irony. The following is an example: "I tell her two things, both truths, the first comfortably removed and political. I tell her that I learned that hysterectomies remove most or all the lubricating capacities of the vagina and that some result in vaginal shortening. I tell her that the hysterectomy is the most commonly performed surgical procedure in America, and we lurch into a long lighthearted discussion about how if the most common surgical procedure was one that resulted in erectile dysfunction and penile shortening, there would certainly be a great bloom of innovation to find alternatives."

Another fabulous read, melding art and science, favorite interests, is Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, who writes for The New Yorker and is an editor for Seed magazine. Among the subjects Lehrer explores are Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne and Virginia Woolf. He examines Proust's moments bienheurreux (fortunate moments), which are described as epiphanies experienced when recollection seems like an apparition. Cezanne investigated how the "moment is more than its light." And Woolf, at the age of 40, wrote in her journal that she was "beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain." Lucky woman, she, if that was indeed true.

I read both to escape and be inspired. The best literature helps me find ways to leave my body and my mind so that I can return to them refreshed and renewed. And so I navigate from the mental/sensual to the metaphysical, knowing as I do that the mind (just like the body) can suffer from ingesting "too much of a good thing!"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dreaming Big and Little

September 1, 2009

I'd like to be flying, but it's just time doing that these days. I'd like to hop a plane or even a boat -- even though I always get sick on the latter -- and just take off somewhere. Just sunlight in my hair and dreams weaving through my brain. No cares. Heck, I'd even consider hopping a freight, dressed like a hobo, eating toss outs from restaurants, just to realize once again what it means to be free. Or a certain kinda free. This is how reading Bourdain makes me feel, like life's a sin, and you've gotta grab a hunk of it and eat well and get happy real quick.

It's a swell, but dangerous recipe that begs a big question -- What does it mean to be free? For one, it would mean not having credit card bills to worry about, or any bills for that matter. Or having someone take care of them altogether. Gosh, if that worry were to be relieved, what else would there be?

I'm sure life would come up with something.

Now I'm enjoying The Nasty Bits, curled up, barefoot on my couch, reading about how The Big B loves to eat barefoot, his toes snuggling in sand -- just like I do -- and how he cooked and gorged while traveling first class on a cruise ship for the very rich. Nobody eats like he seems to -- all the time. How does he do it? And stay thin? Pleasure monger. Boozer. But the fact is, cut the alcohol, cut the beef, and I'm all that too.

Plus, the dude can write. Any time I pick up his books, I get mesmerized. What with the food and alcohol descriptions, what is there not to like ? Although, the way Bourdain paints it, all life is one big party. Last time I thought like that, I was still in high school. Still, he can carry a sentence and hook even a bad reader with his earthy "I'm just an every day kinda Joe" prose.

Of course, Bourdain is an every day kinda Joe who makes millions and is therefore no every day Joe -- much as he would like to think he is. He's not still in the kitchen, and he's not chef-ing anymore.

Apparently, Jackie O used to have the same fantasy -- that she was just ordinary and could blend in with the masses. Near the end of her days, she used to visit Canyon Ranch, a posh rehab in Lenox, Mass., where I lived. She used to like hanging out at a coffee shop, around people who didn't have a clue about who she was. It made her happy to hear people chatting about everyday things, and most especially to imagine they didn't know a thing about her.

It makes perfect sense to me that the very famous, the over-exposed, would like nothing more than to live with a cloak of invisibility, to do ordinary things, play ball, travel, shop, eat out -- unnoticed and unseen. I'll bet that's how Leonardo Di Caprio feels, how Michael Jackson often felt, how even Brad and Angelina feel -- sometimes. Heck, Michael Jackson distorted his face, wore gloves and practically slept with sunglasses on in order to hide who he was and, perhaps, just hide. Jackie O would stroll in Lenox, wearing a gabardine, her head covered -- probably to hide the effects of chemo-- and always her sunglasses.

Riches are in the mind, and heart. I'd hang my beret on that, even if I were ever to win millions! And the rich, dear Fitzgerald -- except for this greed thing, this compulsion to be seen and heard that boomerangs in the end -- are not so different from you and I.

When I lived in Lenox, Mass., I used to cater for a blonde divorcee with eight kids who ran a catering business with the help of her brood. She was ambitious, tough and hard-working, and we used to serve up meals for parties at Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow, for weddings and in luxury homes that were usually the second homes of the fortunate few, most of whom were New Yorkers. Sue called me often to go out on gigs because I was reliable, and, as she put it, "you never say 'no.'"

I needed the money, as I was neck deep in bills, living in a studio apartment I had no business renting, as it was too expensive -- just so I could feel inspired within its four walls. One of Chet Baker's exes, the one who was a jazz singer, had lived there, and I was in a jazzy kinda phase. When I wasn't working hard waitressing at the Town House across the street, or catering for Sue, or teaching at a local college, I was reading and writing poetry, typing it on a portable typewriter as I listened to Miles and Coltrane. Those were my existentialist days.

I liked working for Sue, seeing how much I could handle all on my own. Setting up for parties, passing around hors d'oeuvres trays, smiling and returning witty banalities to the (often mysteriously deep) questions people tossed at me, and even cleaning up. I liked the challenges, and I liked making people happy. Lenox is beautiful in the summer, and the places and events I worked were gorgeous, which meant I made decent tips too. Once, while hunkering over a sink, washing a pile of dishes after a brief, but intense gig, I felt the drunk host of a party slip a bill into my pocket. After it was all over, when I had a minute to breathe, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a crisp $100 bill.

My favorite gigs were those that of course involved minimal service and maximum cheese (PR or professional charm), which I liked to think I was chock full of. Voila, a rich chocolatey dessert and a demitasse of espresso. What is there to say but oo la la to that.

I like to dream big, but it's the little things that please me. I still dream of owning a special dive that serves up divine treats-- jazz on a live stage and small but unforgettable gems to take home on your palate.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Art of Gorging

September 28, 2009

At the end of Heat, you finally get to find out why Buford wrote the book. But it's a perplexing explanation. "...I didn't want this knowledge to be a professional; just to be more human."

How has the butchering of pigs and cows, attempted "respectfully" by the author, necessarily made him more human? How does one kill respectfully? Respectful to whom or to what -- One's own fingers, limbs and belly that could be gouged in the process? What does "respectful" mean here? And what does "human" mean?

Let's get back to excess, that being the real art these dudes wish to perfect. Heat begins and ends with a baccanal with Batali, the great chef and mentor that guides the book and Buford's efforts. At first, Buford is taken aback by Batali's excesses. Batali is, after all, a guy who has been known -- in the company of just one -- to polish off a case of wine, and whose idea of contributing "a little something" to a party at Buford's is bringing a slab of pig's lard to share. His "bigness" is in everything he does and he shocks at every turn. He's made a name in part due to his reputation for excess. Just like Bourdain, just like most of the guys on the food programs on the Travel Channel. At the end of Buford's adventure, the two, Buford and Batali, dine again, this time polishing off 15 bottles of wine and a meal that kicks off with 35 dishes as starters.

Wow, what a couple of real men, and hasn't Buford come a long way!

I feel gorged in more ways than one at the end of this book. I expect gorging and excess from the foodies on the food programs on the Travel Channel, but you know the trends aren't just low brow when a guy from The New Yorker hops on the train. Batali suggests that Buford start a little restaurant in New York, to put to the test what he has learned of Italian cooking, but Buford demures. He has more to learn. French cooking is next.

It's not just food, foodies and their opinions that fascinate me. I'm interested in how our relationship to food can make us better, richer, more alive, not just gorged, and big-headed cause we got to eat the best stuff. The world that Buford, Batali and Bourdain (the latter too, more often than not) inhabit, is one reserved for the elite, those who not only can never get enough, but can afford to keep on trying.

I resent that the baccanal is associated with the heart of good cooking. I resent the fact that while more than half the world goes hungry, people who can afford to help, spend all their time hanging out in Italy, elbows deep in slimy guts so they can learn the bucolic trade of ages. Sure it's an engaging story, but where's it taking us? Where's it taking poor Shmo who doesn't have such privileges, who reads well but doesn't have a lot. It's elite stuff, unabashed about being elite. Sorry, I can't afford even the time to read it.

I admit, I knew I was indulging myself -- a little -- what with the Bourdain crush and all, which is now over. I've seen enough of his shows to get what the fun is all about. I don't like watching crusty geezers or even virile young men slaughtering and vivisecting animals just to eat them, talking about "making love" and eating the way they do, like it's the same thing, like the reason they are here at all is just to pillage and take.

I don't have two weeks to spend neck deep in this shit. I have better things to do.

Where are the cooks interested in cooking for and feeding people who don't have didley squat? I'd like to read about what they do and how they do it.

When I write about those who write about food, and crave it -- as most of us do -- I am prone to examining too, erotic morality and the history of my own craving. What do I want? Why do I want it? Why not indulge? How do I deal with my insatiability? Food, excess, pleasure -- all in moderation.

Can one be moderate with one's own excessive tastes?

I'm not talking about being perfect, just responsible. I've run the gamut -- junk food junkie, faster, vegetarian, espresso addict. At 12, I got so thin from fasting, I had to see a doctor, who told me I was "skinny as a reed." His noticing me was enough to recall me to the importance of eating. Conversely, when I stopped drinking at 24, I weighed 180, and it was all booze, I swear, because in the first month of not drinking, while eating whatever I wanted (just not drinking), I dropped 40 pounds. I should note that the funny farm where I dried out served only vegetarian fare, so it wasn't just due to not drinking alcohol, but also to not eating meat or fish, that I dropped the weight so fast. In my first year of sobriety, I ate only nuts and cheeses, about a pound of each a day. I didn't know how to eat, and if I did, was only following my own prescription of want and need.

Eating is a constant test. How much do I want? And of this, how much will I take? I can never get enough.

I want to be happy. Stuffing myself with food, even quality fare, doesn't do it.

Scratch an itch, what happens? You gotta scratch some more. And so it goes.

What do I do with my insatiability, my lust for all the things I can't have -- for oysters, salmon, steak, roe, vodka, cognac, saki (that I never had)? I want to explore these inside out, outside in, taste and engulf them with my mind, then just let them go. They are toxic loves for me. I want not to lust, but to explore the lust and the logic of not eating, to consider abandoning myself to these things, then simply abandon them, relegating myself to catalytic emptiness.

It has been said that one way to let go an obsession is to dive deep into it. Only then can you let it go. If I were to indulge in these things I can't have, what would happen? Would I be spared a sudden death? A DWI? I don't want to go down hard, just float out easy.

I don't lust for what I can't have in any other arena but this. Some of those foods -- salmon, for instance -- are like lost companions. I miss them like that.

I have to remember what the decision not to indulge is about. For me, it's part of a lot of things. My mother and her mother died of stomach cancer. The H pylori bacteria, present in chicken, started everything off with my mother, and had x-rays detected it early, she might not have died so young.

Looking back, I realize I was following an instinct early on -- not eating fish or meat -- that was right for me. At a certain point, I couldn't eat lobster, even when it was right in front of me. I just couldn't. It was something my body couldn't bring itself to do even before my mind understood why not to do it.

As a drunk, at 20, I remember eating a burger that it took my stomach three days to digest. Something that took that long to digest couldn't be good for me. I stopped eating burgers first. It took a few more years to stop boozing.

There is of course a spiritual side to this that I'm loathe to mention, well, because people tend to resent it. They think that if you say what you're into that you are proselytizing or selling something that they should be into. That's not so. It's each into his or her own thing.

The point is I discovered that when I stop eating or eat lightly, I felt better. I feel quieter inside, calmer, clearer too. It's a fact about me that others have appreciated as well.

What's kept me from eating as little as I'd like of late is living in New Jersey -- no kidding -- Bourdain country, a town away from where he grew up, actually. It's a world where everyone eats heartily and eats out all the time, and I'm a part of that scene.

My friends are intimate with the art of excess. They've been known to order several dishes per course, they drink and dine out constantly. The pigging out I've watched has been on TV, in my reading and in the flesh, and I've had just about enough of it.

I don't want to grow old and fat. But it's a test sometimes. It's a test, pulling back my consciousness just when I want to lose it. There's that moment at the height of the night when everyone is buzzed and laughter is at its loudest when I ask myself, "Couldn't I do that? Just a little?"

Then I remember the reason I stopped drinking and hate gorging -- A little is never enough.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Writer's Reading Life

August 13, 2009

I'm on a culinary binge, a mental one, and it may last for a while.

I've been reading and watching Anthony Bourdain for a few months now, following his tracks, trying to see what he's about and what he has to teach me. I've enjoyed a few episodes of No Reservations, his cooking and traveling show. I loved the episodes in Spain, Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, Colombia, New Orleans and San Francisco.

In San Francisco, he talked and dined and drank with Augie Kleinzahler, who is the poet laureate of Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I now live. On Sunday night, Augie, Donna, Nelson, Tom M. and I, friends from the Fort Lee Film Commission, dined together at Inapoli's in Fort Lee. Augie said that Bourdain loved his book, Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained One, and knew he came from Jersey (Bourdain is from Leonia), so his people contacted him for the show. Augie, I might add, has been living in San Francisco for a few years now, and his book is set in bars there. He is home now for a few months to sell his mother's house. Augie said there was a lot of drinking and that he couldn't remember what he said, only that he was sure that what Bourdain said "was much worse." It was an engaging episode, of course.

Bourdain looks tired. He drinks too much. I am sure this is no news to him or to any of the people who follow his shows or his writing. But I like the guy. Mostly, I think because he reminds me of my brother -- which is no reason to like anybody, really.

But as far as No Reservations goes, I am beginning to view Bourdain as a one-note toot. After reading his highly entertaining and energetic memoir, Kitchen Confidential, and being mildly impressed (certainly impressed by the good looks of the guy on the cover), I have moved on to Bill Buford's Heat, about Buford's experiences working in the kitchen of a famous chef. I'm not as "into" this memoir, as it's chalk full of too many details for me -- too many characters and too many recipes. I often have the feeling the writer, Buford (who left writing at The New Yorker in order to launch into his culinary adventures), is talking to himself and a coterie of highly sophisticated and knowledgeable writers and foodies, neither of which I am. What I like most about Bourdain's writing style is that it's up front, plain-spoken and chatty as if he is sitting across from you in some restaurant, telling you the goods. I prefer Bourdain's style.

I'll say to my credit that I'm by no means uninformed, or unexperienced, when it comes to either reading or cooking. I come from a long line of readers. My mother got us started. She was a very sophisticated reader, loved the Brits, Anita Brookner and Graham Greene and passed on her love to her children, particularly my two sisters and me. My sister Marcela in particular is a voracious reader, and I am sure, were it not for the fact that my other sister Alexandra has to raise three kids, she would be right up there, consuming the best of the best -- as Mar does, and I aspire to do.

I'm not totally clueless as a cook either, which is one of the reasons I love watching the cooking shows, and Bourdain in particular. I put myself through college, working summers at Chez Pierre in Westport, Connecticut, and let me tell you, I have kitchen tales of my own. Chez Pierre was upscale, frequented by personalities like Paul Newman, who came in for beer and oysters almost every day.

I was the pantry girl and used to get regularly bonked in the rear by the assistant cook, Tom, who thought it was very cute to crotch bump me in the behind every time he had to slide past me in the narrow quarters in which we worked. I finally complained to the owner, who gave me a raise, which of course I took. The bumping stopped, but it was a crazy kitchen and the work, the hardest I have ever done.

All I had to do was make salads, shuck oysters and clams and get it all out on time, but it was more than that. The pressure was constant, and the cooks saw to it that I never had a free second. I was always doing more than one person should have had to do, prepping dishes, cleaning, shucking, and all the while taking crap, but also enjoying the cooks, Tom especially, who was a regular comedian.

I had a helper, Ana, from El Salvador, who was my assistant. One day it seemed like she was eating up all the fruit that I needed to have peeled for fruit salad. When I asked her to stop eating the fruit, she said, "Oh no, I'm not eating it, just peeling it" -- with her teeth!

We worked in a narrow space and once in a while a sweetbread that Tom was cooking would slip from his hand and fall into that groove where grease and the grime of ages collect. Tom would just pluck up the sweetbread, dust it on his pants' leg and plop it on the plate. It's true what they -- Bourdain, Buford and others-- say about the kitchen. It's peopled with wild characters and their habits would skieve out the funkiest of diners.