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

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.