Posted on October 7, 2015
While I’ve always loved food, I didn’t start cooking until I was in my mid-twenties. As a child in 1980s Brooklyn, I ate what was available, what my family could afford. We were inventive with $1 bodega chicken legs, bags of sprouting potatoes and cans of Chef Boyardee. And although there was a summer where we subsisted on bags of potatoes and food that was best suited for hot pot cooking, limitations gave way to creativity. I’ve always harbored a deep respect and appreciation for good food because for so long I wasn’t privileged to have it. I didn’t have a real salad until I was in college–back then salad felt frivolous because who would spend $10 for a plate of leaves when you could get a whole meal for that money? And I didn’t get serious about cooking and baking until recovering from a drug problem forced me to do something else to occupy my hands.
Back then I cycled through a handful of recipes I’d learned from my best friend’s mother (fettuccine alfredo, lasagne, Thanksgiving herbed stuffing), but it wasn’t until 2002 that I purchased my first cookbook, Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess. Nights that were usually reserved from blackout drinking and drug use were now spent indoors, catatonic, watching The Food Network. Nigella made cooking accessible, fun, and my first experiment was a cheesecake where I used confectioner’s sugar instead of regular sugar (I rationed: was there really a difference. Answer: Indeed there is) and no one had a second bite. I purchased springform pans and sheet pans. I stocked a small cupboard in an apartment I shared with a friend with spices and flours. I baked chocolate cakes that splattered my walls. I made scones that resembled hockey pucks, and I managed to somehow screw up pasta.
For two years I failed miserably, but I kept on because there was something comforting about the alchemy of ingredients. And even though I made cakes that no one would dare eat or dinners that sometime resembled science experiments, the idea that I could possibly create something from nothing, that I could create instead of ruin, kept me going. I made a simple pound cake again and again until I got it right. All the money I’d spent on drugs and nights out were funnelled into shopping bags of food. Back then no one really photographed what they made, and I’m grateful since I made the kind of food that was hardly photogenic.
Over the years I always returned to the kitchen when I was lost, confused, heartbroken, and stressed. When I lost a great love and we divided one home into two, I stayed up late drinking vodka out of the bottle and making muffins. When I lived in an apartment building where an unhinged man played jazz until dawn, I made stuffed shells and coconut macaroons. When my then best friend came over my Brooklyn apartment (the one with the Pepto-pink bathroom), I made her pancakes and maple bacon, and when I lost her I kept thinking about her, and how she loved those cakes. I invited scores of people into my home for a clothing swap, which was really a vehicle to road-test these red velvet cupcakes with peanut butter frosting. The year I resigned from my job and lost Sophie, I’d spend days bound to an oven.
However, it wasn’t until last year that my relationship to food dramatically changed. In a course of four years I’d gained nearly 40 pounds and lost my taste for good food. I shoveled lunch at my desk while answering emails. I came home and collapsed onto my couch and then ordered pizza, thai food or pasta smothered in oil and cheese. I stopped reviewing my credit card bills because I was embarrassed by how much I ordered from Seamless Web.
And then I started to get sick. Really sick. Like stomach pain so bad it felt like my appendix would burst. I would lose my train of thought so often that it became noticeable. I was forever tired, sluggish, and sick. A visit with my doctor (who’s also a gut specialist) and a nutritionist revealed that not only was I on my way to diabetes, I had a leaky gut and I was literally beating up my insides because of my diet.
Because kale smoothies don’t count when you spend the rest of your day binging on paninis, bagels and pasta.
Sometimes I look back on my childhood and I can barely recognize it. There were months when my fridge was anemic and now, as an adult, it’s abundant. I’m humbled by my privilege and the fact that I can afford to shop at farmer’s markets and buy organic. What bookends these two versions of myself were constraints. Back then I was limited by income, now by what I couldn’t consume. For a year, I couldn’t eat gluten, dairy, and yeast. For 6-7 months the list of foods I couldn’t eat was so unbearable that I spent the holidays alone.
At first I was apoplectic, but then I got wise and creative. I forced myself to eat vegetables I’d never previously considered (cauliflower, brussels sprouts). I purchased vegan, paleo, Middle Eastern and Asian cookbooks, and over the course of a year my palate changed and my repertoire expanded. As a result, I’ve noticed that I now cleave toward salty/savory vs. sweet. I eat pasta and bread a couple of times a month instead of multiple times a DAY. And I focus more on the quality of the food I consume rather than its caloric content.
What once had been a hobby that busied my hands became the core of how I would cultivate relationships with people. When I stopped drinking, I’d have friends over for dinner instead of playing the role of detective with my receipts after a night out. Now we connect over our most primal of needs–food, instead of a bottle of wine that merely serves to rob us of memory. We are our most vulnerable selves when we eat, and my friendships are richer, deeper because of it.
When I moved to California I chose my apartment specifically because it’s an open space and I have a deck for outdoor entertaining. From where I’m writing this I face my kitchen and it feels normal to live in a space that combines art, words, work, food, and friendship.
Last night I had my friend Jamie over for dinner, and we spent hours on my deck, talking, eating, marveling over how almond meal renders chicken juicier. While we were talking, I thought about alcohol and other anaesthetic agents. People sometimes ask: do you miss it? Drinking. And I think about how much anesthesia rubs away–you always end up with less than what you started. And then I think about food, which, in my strange math, is always about addition and multiplication. Friendships are fertile. Love festers and grows.
APPLE PIE INGREDIENTS
For the filling
4 pounds apples, peeled, quartered, and cored (I do a mix of tart + sweet–whatever’s in season)
1 lemon, zested
Juice of the lemon you just zested
1/4 cup cane sugar, plus 1 tsp to sprinkle on top
1/4 cup gluten-free flour
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground allspice
For the pie crust
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
12 tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) very cold salted butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp cane sugar
1/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup very cold vegetable shortening (I use a non-hydrogenated kind I get from Whole Foods)
6 to 8 tbsp (about 1/2 cup) ice water
Preheat the oven to 375.
Chop each apple quarter in thirds crosswise and combine in a bowl with the zest, juice, sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Set aside. Don’t worry about the apples browning — the acid from the fruit will halt the oxidation process.
Now you’re ready for the pie crust. I can’t stress enough how COLD the ingredients need to be. Dice the butter in tablespoons, and store it in the fridge while you prepare the flour mixture. Add the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse a few times to mix. Introduce the cider vinegar, butter and shortening. Pulse 8 to 12 times, until the butter is the size of peas. With the machine running, pour the ice water down the feed tube and pulse the machine until the dough begins to form a ball. Dump out on a floured board and roll into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. You can also make this by hand with a pastry blender or the two fork method. However, after the nonsense with the apples I sometimes want to take the path of least resistance.
Once the dough is cold, cut it in half. Roll each piece on a well-floured board into a circle, rolling from the center to the edge, turning and flouring the dough to make sure it doesn’t stick to the board. Fold the dough in half, place in a pie pan, and unfold to fit the pan. Repeat with the top crust.
Roll out half the pie dough and drape it over a 9-inch pie dish to extend about 1/2-inch over the rim. Don’t stretch the dough; if it’s too small, just put it back on the board and re-roll it.
Fill the pie with the apple mixture. Brush the edge of the bottom pie crust with the egg wash so the top crust will adhere. Top with the second crust and trim the edges to about 1-inch over the rim. Tuck the edge of the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust and crimp the 2 together with your fingers or a fork. Brush the entire top crust with the egg wash, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar, and cut 4 or 5 slits.
Place the pie on a sheet pan and bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours (start checking after 45 minutes, and make sure you rotate your dish half-way through the cooking process so the pie will brown evenly), or until the crust is browned and the juices begin to bubble out. Serve warm.
FIG SALAD + CHICKEN CUTLET INGREDIENTS
For the salad
2 cups baby spinach
2 cups baby kale
8-10 figs, halved and quartered
olive oil/sea salt
For the chicken cutlets
2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tsp butter
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp sea salt
1 cup almond meal
1 tbsp fresh minced thyme
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1 lb chicken cutlets, pounded thin (this serves 4, but I cook the whole lot and store the leftovers for salads
Making the salad is as simple as it looks. One important note, though. I’d wait to dress/toss it in olive oil just when you’re about to serve the salad as you don’t want the leaves getting limp.
The chicken cutlets work like an old-school assembly line. Heat the butter/oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the salt. In another bowl, mix the almond meal, thyme and pepper. Dunk the cutlets in the egg mixture, then dredge in the flour mixture. Fry on both sides (4-5 minutes each) until slightly charred. I kept the cutlets warm in a 175F oven.
Posted on October 3, 2015
This morning I woke to watch Taiye Selasi talk about origin, specifically how to tackle that seemingly simple question: Where are you from? I’ve been thinking about origin a lot, how it’s not possible that we come from a concept or place, but rather we self-identify through our rituals and our beloveds. We cleave to that which feels like a home and allows us to be our truest selves. I’ve also been thinking about this because the place I used to consider my home feels foreign, and it may not necessarily be the place I would return to. If you do anything today, please watch Taiye’s brief talk as she has the ability in a brief time to truly make you think.
I had the chance to return to New York this month and I couldn’t do it. Even the thought of it give me anxiety. JFK, the cab line, the subways, the frenzy–all I would care about are the people. People whom I live and miss every day. I guess my home doesn’t resemble a home because it’s always in a state of constant repair. Over the years I’d find places I knew erased, and the flavor, the fucking verve, has been whitewashed. Right now it feels as if I’d be flying into a shopping mall–my friends’ familiar faces fighting to rise above the motley lot. Right now I don’t know if I’ll head home for the holidays because right now, Los Angeles feels right. Admittedly, I’m a tourist here. I don’t have a car and work, and the simple act of adjustment to a new surroundings and routines keeps me on the Westside with intermittent treats out east and north. I know I’ve time to navigate my new home, and I’ve no urgency to leave it because there’s so much to navigate. A new language to learn. This weekend I’m immersing myself in a stack of books–all in an effort to make sense of this place. All in an effort to shift my view from something vague and elusive to something tactile, real, visceral and specific. I watch harrowing documentaries. I talk to people more. I read the local paper. I want to get involved in my community in a way that’s meaningful and decidedly offline. I’m making plans to navigate this city with new friends and old. I ask everyone when it will get cold. Cold is relative, they respond. Come January everyone will be in boots and a winter coat and the temperature will hover around 45/50F, depending. I think about the desert. Often. I think about water. Always.
I feel here what I haven’t felt in decades. Curious. Energized. A need to take nothing I have or see for granted.
I guess you can see I’m tethered to a feeling of California. Of planting roots and settling. When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll consider the question, and the weight of it, more deeply. Because I’m connected to New York in the sense that it is part of my makeup; I’m connected to L.A. because of an awakening, and there are parts of the world where I feel my footprints because whenever I travel back there (Bali, Thailand, China, Spain) it feels familiar, like a home–our place of origin is in the periphery, it doesn’t define our identity.
I spent the morning working, working out, and at the farmer’s market. The spring onions were fat and enormous and I had to use 4 stalks instead of 8. Chorizo wasn’t available this week so I settled for a heady andouille. And the rosemary was soapy, spritely and fresh, and I spent time listening to music, cooking, all the while my Felix looked on.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook (I changed it from a stew to a rice topper + switched around a few ingredients based on what I had on hand),
1 tbsp olive oil
8 spring onions, finely sliced (whites separated from green)
1 tbsp rosemary, finely chopped
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
400 g/15oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 chorizo sausages in casings, cut into 1 inch rounds (I used andouille sausage, instead)
2 tbsp sherry vinegar (I used white wine vinegar)
Salt/pepper for seasoning
1 cup basmati rice
1 3/4 cup vegetable stock or water
1 tsp chopped rosemary
In a large frying pan, heat the oil. Add the white part of the spring onions, rosemary, paprika and the chickpeas to the pan and fry for 2 minutes on a high heat.
Add the chorizo/andouille to the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Add the vinegar. Cook gently, uncovered for a further 10 minutes stirring occasionally before.
While this is cooking, add your rice, rosemary, and water/stock to a small pan, and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down to low, cover, and let cook for 10-15 minutes, checking over so often. When done, fluff with a fork, and all the rice to a large bowl. Top with the spiced chickpea + sausage mixture.
Add the green tops of the spring onions and serve.
Posted on September 28, 2015
People ask me why I moved to Los Angeles. Why I tossed nearly all of my belongings and moved me and the cat out west. Everyone I love lived in a ten mile radius. All of my professional contacts were in the tri-state area, and I had a steady stream of projects. I spent most of my time in a huge rent-controlled apartment in a brownstone in Park Slope. Everything appeared good on paper. Everything was going according to plan.
The only way I can make sense of the past year is to say that I’d become allergic to my home. Space didn’t exist other than in the confines of my apartment. Everyone was loud and suffocating. Days would pass and I’d become exhausted with the idea of going into Manhattan. I was forever tired, depressed and anxious. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write.
In Nicaragua I met a couple from Santa Barbara, and we bonded over our obsessive affection for our cats. At the time I planned a four-state adventure (remember?) My project was an expensive, logistical nightmare and I spent most of my time over thinking how I’d do it all. The couple listened politely, and as I was telling them of my plan I started to feel that it was kind of ridiculous. I’m someone who needs roots; I’m far from itinerant. At the end of my story, the husband said, I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the first word that comes to mind. Don’t think about it. Just speak. I nodded; I’d play along. If you could live anywhere in the states, where would you live? he asked. Don’t think.
I’ve been here for over a month and my only regret is that I haven’t moved sooner. I don’t yet have the privilege of perspective–that aerial view–however, the only thing I can say is that California feels right. Everything about being here feels right. Is it an adjustment? Absolutely. Do I miss my friends? So much it hurts. Am I nervous about paying the rent for my expensive apartment? EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. But I don’t regret it. And while I’m not yet at the place where I can give you a narrative, I’ll share my impressions. These aren’t truths; this is me acting like a tourist sketching the shape of things without understanding its true form. Think of it was an outline before it gets fat from fleshing.
1. FOOD: The best thing about childhood is the wonder. How you always have a first. How all the things that adults take for granted and invariably ruin, are beautiful and complete. While I knew the produce in California was superior, never did I anticipate that I would love eating more than I already do. I’d spend mornings at the farmer’s market in awe. Four variations of avocados, ripe peaches, mountain-reared apples, local chorizo, figs, guava, watermelon, plums, and a dizzying amount of herbs. And when I’m not at the farmer’s market, I’ve eaten lunches in places that make you excited about ordering a salad.
Because salad is an EVENT in Los Angeles.
This isn’t about a pile of sloppy greens on your plate. Oh, no. People take salad to a whole other place. I’ve had peaches, grilled chicken and local goat cheese dressed in a spicy cashew dressing. I’ve had things done to pork one wouldn’t think possible. Being here actually inspires you to eat healthy. And that’s not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of pizzas, tacos, and blueberry crumble bars–but there’s a real pride about the ingredients and everything tastes better. Eating gluten-free is easy here because restaurant menus are abundant with healthy and gluten-free options.
2. WATER: All conversations converge to water, the lack of it, how to conserve it, and how it tastes like wet coins shoveled into your mouth. Each tenant in my building has to pay for their individual water usage, so while I have a dishwasher and washer/dryer, know that I’m not just tossing in dirty items, willy-nilly. I have a shower filter and a water filter, because there’s no way I’m drinking out of the tap. And I’ve booked an appointment with a dermatologist next week because the water and my skin are in an acrimonious relationship. While the breakouts on my face have improved somewhat, I’ve scattered bumps on my chest, back and shoulders that aren’t going away.
Also, it never rains. The one night it did pour, my building’s fire alarms blared at 3:30AM, and people were more fascinated by the fact that it was raining than the idea that we’d be engulfed in flames. My neighbors’ reactions were much like this. In Los Angeles, you know the date it rains because it never does. Rain is also an event.
3. NEIGHBORS: THEY EXIST. AND THEY SPEAK TO YOU. Actually, everyone speaks to you here. Let me give you context. In all the years I lived in New York I only knew my neighbors by calling the cops on them or complaining about them. No, it’s not okay to have a threesome while blasting Britney’s “One More Time” on a Tuesday night when I have to be at work the next day. No, it’s not cool to have your dealer pound on my door when he mistakes my apartment for yours. No, it’s not normal to beat your front door with a snow shovel in the middle of July because you’re wasted and your husband’s frightened of you when you go off your meds. The last time I felt any semblance of community was when I was small, living in Brooklyn. Back then it was everyone’s business to know everyone else’s business. We traded stories on stoops and messed around with tire swings in the park or treaded water in the pool in Sunset Park.
Maybe I had the wrong neighbors or maybe I was a shut-in? Who knows. What I do know is that it’s normal in Los Angeles for people to ask about your day and genuinely care about it.
My next door neighbor just moved from Union Square, and sometimes we’ll catch one another on the stairwell and talk about Los Angeles as if we were gathering our findings and comparing notes. We actually lowered our voices and said, people talk to you here, and realized how asinine that sounded as soon as we said it.
4. THE CAR SITUATION: What it relief it was to toss my Metrocard. You can’t even understand how I don’t miss the MTA, LIRR, and NJT. I do not miss Showtime! Showtime! I do not miss being screamed at because my soul has yet to be saved. I do not miss stories about rats and pizzas and men telling me I’m beautiful. Smile, baby. I so much wanted to reply with Cry, baby. I do not miss the collective rage blackout that is the morning commute.
In Los Angeles, most people drive. I do not, which makes sidewalks blissful. I can walk around without having people book a one-way ticket to my sternum. My friends are awed by the fact that I walk four miles to Brentwood or two miles to Venice. For me, anything under five miles is walkable. The buses are pretty amazing and reliable, and I can take cabs for long-distance rides. While I’m still adjusting to life here, I can’t bear the thought of taking driving lessons, and I’m in no financial shape to buy a car, deal with insurance, gas, parking, and the inevitable accidents that will ensue. Most of my friends live in, or near, the Westside, so I’ve been managing well. It’s also amazing that I’m able to supermarkets, fitness classes, and the beach are in walking distance.
When I can afford it, I will invest in a car because there’s so much to see. California offers the desert, mountains, and beaches, and I want to explore them all. I love the idea of being alone in a car and driving to Joshua Tree. I love the idea of being alone, in a car.
5. MY TRIBE: I’ve read countless articles on the dangers of technology. You’ll be distracted; technology kills conversation and empathy, however, I’m finding a need to rely on technology to connect with those whom I miss and love. I use Facetime, Skype, email, social media and the good old phone to keep up with the relationships one can easily take for granted if geography isn’t an issue. Geography, and the distance between myself, and everyone I love is real, constant.
I miss my friends, and the ease in which I get to see them.
I knew that moving here would be tough. I would have to rebuild my life, establish professional contacts, and make new friends. Logically, I knew all of this and I expected to feel as I do now, but knowing doesn’t make discomfort any easier to bear. It’s hard for me to reach out to strangers and arrange friend dates (fear of rejection), and meeting them (!!!) presents a whole new set of anxieties. I tend to talk too much when I’m nervous. After meeting up with a new friend (I met this lovely women by way of introduction from a mutual friend) and her two sweet dogs for coffee, I text’d the friend who’d introduced us, writing: I really liked her. I hope she doesn’t think I’m…crazy. I’m reconnecting with old friends who I haven’t seen in years and it’s almost as if I’m forging new ground. Yes, we know one another, but we knew previous versions of ourselves so the getting-to-know-you phases is as pronounced in these scenarios because I don’t have the privilege of a clean slate.
And for the first time in nearly a decade, I missed have an artistic tribe. I used to be deep in the book publishing scene in New York and I…hated it. Nearly every minute of it. For a number of reasons I won’t go into. Suffice it to say it’s taken me a while to even consider the possibility of surrounding myself with fellow artists, attend readings and be part of something. After posting questions on a few closed forums on Facebook, I found what I wanted didn’t exist. I was blue for a couple of weeks and then I decided to create that which didn’t exist.
I posted a long call on several local Facebook groups populated by women creatives and artists. Similar to a salon I once co-hosted in New York (which gave me more stress than joy), I offered up my home as a meeting place for a small group of like-minded women who wanted to talk shop, collaborate, or just make new friends. What binds us is our art, our verve, and our drive to build. I was shocked about the overwhelming response, and a friend emailed me and said that Los Angeles is aching for more meet-ups that I’m trying to cultivate–we’re all so spread out!
I’ve been visiting Los Angeles since I was 17 and only now did I realize the geography. When it took me two hours to get home from Silverlake by bus did I understand that L.A. is MASSIVE. No wonder people crave connections–we’re all so far away!
I’m also flying to Seattle ($150 airfare!) for LitCrawl in late October–something, candidly, I would never have done had I still lived in New York. However, I’m staying with a fellow writer friend who has pets and lives far away from where the action is, and I see this as a good thing. I’m excited to see Sarah Hepola talk and a host of other writers read.
Luckily, I enjoy my company and don’t need many friends in my life, but I’m reminding myself that this work, these friend dates, this crippling anxiety–all of this is necessary.
Professional contacts….working on that.
6. THE LANDSCAPE: It’s incredible how a shift in geography will change everything. I’ve a whole new vocabulary to learn, a landscape to navigate. Plants that don’t grow in the East, tectonic plates that keep shifting, land that constantly rearranges itself. Even though I’ve traveled to Los Angeles on and off for twenty years, there’s nothing like setting roots here. My novel takes place in New York, Nevada and California, and much of the book relied on my impressions of the West coupled with research. Last week an idea crystallized for the third book, and I’m excited because it’ll take place in California during the 1920s and present day. This means more land to navigate, more to learn, more to feel.
My friend Pedro once told me that in order to learn a new language you have to think in the language. He’s fluent in five languages so you know I paid him the strictest attention. You can’t translate from the English, he said. You have to think, yo quiero ir… instead of I want to go… in the Spanish. Thinking in another language makes it intuitive; you feel the words as you’re saying them instead of relying on your brain to decode and translate. I feel that way about being in California. Until now I’ve been translating (and I’m still looking at this place through the lens of New York), and it’ll take me time to naturally interpret and speak the landscape so it feels visceral, real.
As you know I’ve a taste for the macabre, and the fact that my new novel centers around the appraising and selling of “touched” property (think cults, gruesome murders, suicides, the occult), I’m oddly excited to learn the language of construction, to see these houses and understand their architecture. There is so much history here, and I’m hungry to learn it.
7. FELIX UPDATE: In Los Angeles, there is no cowering from the light. In New York, buildings shielded me from the sun, but the light here is clean and abundant. So much so that it’s made my special guy content. I was worried how he’d adjust, and although he initially had a hard time without furniture (translation: boredom), he’s now content. Most days he stares out my many windows, battles with the washing machine and garbage disposal and longs to go out on my deck (not happening, mister). Much of his time is spent lazing in various columns of light that stream into my apartment. He’s so comfortable I wonder if I can send him out on my friend dates in my stead. He’d make for better company, clearly.
There’s so much more and I know I’m missing it, but these broad strokes are all I’m able to share at the moment. I can only imagine what it will feel like in a year’s time looking at this post with the advantage of perspective.
Posted on September 20, 2015
When I was told that I’d have to go without gluten for nearly a year I was sure the rapture was coming. I would sit in my doctor’s office while he pored over my bloodwork, shocked about my insulin spikes. What are you eating? he wondered aloud. How did you insulin levels jump this high so fast? At the same time my dentist studied my x-ray, studied me, and asked how I’d developed seven cavities in one year. I was 38 years old, drinking kale smoothies like it was my job and I was on the road to diabetes and several root canals.
DIABETES? You’ve got to be kidding me.
We have an image of sickness. A series of photographs and warnings that leave their indelible mark. I’m a relatively educated woman but I thought (erroneously) that diabetes was reserved solely for the obese, those who consumed processed foods. Let go of this image. Immediately. Diabetes doesn’t discriminate. Genetics also play a role, and seemingly “healthy” people can suffer from the illness. And while I was blitzing up smoothies and shopping local and organic, I couldn’t ignore the pasta, bagels and paninis I ate every. single. day. I couldn’t ignore that sugar and carbs subsumed the measly amount of vegetables, whole grains and legumes I consumed in comparison.
Last year I was on the road to ruin and I had to change my diet. FAST. But holy shit, how was I going to live without pasta.
When I first saw my nutritionist, I completed an exhaustive seven-page questionnaire and logged a food diary. One of the questions invited me to list foods I couldn’t imagine living without. I wrote: bread and pasta. These were my non-negotiables. Shoot me up with broccoli rabe and beets all you like–you’d have to pry a box of pasta off my dead body before I’d let go.
That was kind of a problem.
Recently I read Sarah Hepola’s Blackout. There’s a scene where she recounts lost time to her therapist. Hepola says, Everyone has blackouts, to which her therapist, bristled, replies, No, they don’t. I nodded along to this because I assumed blackouts were par for the adult course. One drank until they saw black. They drank until their mind was literally no longer able to create memories–the alcohol set up shop and was ready to do serious business.
I say this because I have a predilection for liking something to its unhealthy excess. I’m used to creating my own ruin because at least I thought I could control every aspect of it simply because the form of addiction is familiar. We cleave to that which is known–we’re frightened otherwise. And although I joke about chickpea fatwas and avocado addictions, there isn’t a day that goes by that I have to be mindful, aware, of my behavior. Am I ordering that pizza because I want to cope with an impossible client? Do I sit in front of my laptop and eat mindlessly because although I love Los Angeles, although I don’t regret–even for a moment–moving here, I miss my friends so dearly. I miss Amber. I miss Persia. I miss Mauve Cat Alex and Alex Alex (I’ve a lot of friends named Alex).
Food is for fuel not for recompense. Food is for subsisting not for cowering, shielding and hiding.
It took me a year but I now live a life where I’m not tethered to a box of macaroni and a loaf of bread. My insulin levels are normal, and after an expensive summer of painful dental work, I’m healthy, balanced.
Portioning my food into storage bins helps. Patroning farmer’s markets and connecting with the people who grow + cultivate the food I eat helps. California has brought me the gift of incredible produce. Never have I tasted peaches so ripe, with fruit so blistering claret. Never have I seen the diversity in pesto and tomatoes. Yesterday, before I met a friend for lunch, I trolled my local market and picked up bags of tomatoes, basil, peaches, cheese, figs, and local pork.
When I was eating gluten-free (I still sort of do), I hated the pastas. While it’s true that gluten-free fare has come a long way, corn, soy and potato are just as nutrient empty and unfulfilling as it’s white flour counterparts. Some brands didn’t keep well in the fridge, others were gummy and quinoa, for some reason, makes me extremely ill when I eat it.
I discovered Explore Asian’s bean pastas on a lark. The woman in front of me in checkout piled a few bags on the conveyer belt and I asked her if the pastas were any good. She nodded, said some were better than others, and she liked that they had a hefty amount of protein and held up well for leftovers. I’ve tried nearly all of them and they’re pretty exceptional. I’ve made them with avocado basil pesto, with chicken and all sorts of vegetables, and while the flavor takes a little getting used to (think of it as when you switched from Danon yogurt to Greek), these pastas are a mainstay in my pantry.
So after baking a peach crumble (i.e. this morning’s breakfast), I made this exceptional pasta dish. Not only did I need less of it (since the protein pretty much filled me up making room for PIE), I loved the flavors of the roasted tomato and bean with the salty sausage. AMAZING.
For the pesto
1 cup of tomatoes quartered. You can use any tomatoes, but I used 3-4 small of these farmer’s market tomatoes
1 tbsp olive oil, salt pepper (all are for roasting)
2 cups of basil, packed
2 fat cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tbsp pecorino romano cheese
1/2 cup olive oil (dial this up or down depending on how smooth you like your pesto)
Salt/pepper to taste
For the sausage pasta
1 package of your favorite bean pasta (I used this one), but you can just use a pound of your favorite pasta
1/2 pound of Italian or breakfast sausage out of their casings and roughly chopped
1 tbsp of olive oil for frying the sausage
Start with the tomatoes. In a 400F oven, roast the tomatoes with the olive oil, salt + pepper for 35-40 minutes until charred. Set the tomatoes aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a large skillet, fry up the sausage in olive oil until brown (7-10 minutes). While the sausage is cooking, add the pasta to the now boiling water and cook until al dente (per your package instructions). While both are cooking, add the tomatoes (and their juices), basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper to a blender and blitz until smooth.
Drain the pasta (leaving 1/2 cup of pasta water aside), and add the pasta to the pan with the sausage. Toss to combine. Add the pesto, toss to combine, and let cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
Serve hot with fresh basil and pecorino cheese. Enjoy!
Posted on September 17, 2015
For the whole of my career, I’ve been running on empty. Fresh out of school, I worked the long hours, took on all the projects just so I could prove myself. With every job or assignment I took, I always maintained a side-hustle–a creative outlet that invariably led me to my next job. Because when you’re interviewing alongside dozens of candidates who are essentially photocopies of one another, anything you can do to set yourself apart was tantamount. I’d never worked in book publishing, but I secured a job in online marketing in 2006 because I’d ran and publish a successful literary magazine, built and marketed a dot.com business from the ground up, and learned the fundamentals in marketing at a corporation where you needed to complete a requisition form in order to get a new pen.
I lived to work.
All those years I never found the fact that I’d sometimes go months without seeing daylight strange. I assumed it was par for the course, this is what you did in order to be successful. Giving the whole of yourself over to somebody else in exchange for a paycheck–you never stopped to think of what would happened if you gave away all the best parts of yourself, put yourself up for auction, what would be left? And is selling yourself and the years worth the paycheck? Because, invariably, you might make more money but the money only funds the distractions that take away from your overworked, anxious life.
When I left a job as a partner in a social media agency, I knew I would probably never make as much as I had but I was okay with that. I learned that I didn’t need things, and as long as I had a shelter, food, books, and the ability to travel and care for my cat, I’d be fine. I didn’t need fancy handbags or clothes each season since I normally wear the same ten items in my closet. I ended up donating and giving away my closet. I ended up making a fraction of what I used to make, but I got my sanity back. I became the friend who listened instead of waiting for her turn to speak. I became the friend who never took out her phone at dinner. I became the kind of friend who stopped cancelling plans.
I was present.
One of the reasons I moved to California was that I craved a quieter, slower life. I knew the risks–fewer friends, meager professional network–but I assessed that if I were going to panic about project work at least I wouldn’t be doing it in six feet of snow. Last year’s thirteen-month winter was relentless; I was tired of the grey mornings and cold that burrowed its way under your blankets and settled. Last year I woke daily to sadness, and I came here hoping to feel less of what I felt then.
What I hadn’t expected, so quickly, is how I’d become allergic to my home. It’s incredible how geography and proximity to stress changes things. Out of the maelstrom of the city, I started to react to calls where people would talk loud, fast and over you. I grew tired of the ubiquitous panic, the urgency, the we-know-we’re-not-curing-cancer-but-we’ll-still-act-like-we-are, anyway. The velocity and intensity with which people worked unnerved me, and yesterday I spent an hour with a wonderful client explaining how we could do great work without having an aneurysm.
Because I’m not living like this. I have this one life and I’m not living it to crawl my way into an early grave.
I know I have this privilege of risk, of turning away work with the knowledge that I may have to put my rent on my credit card. But I’m okay with that. Because if I wanted constant anxiety I would’ve never left my former life. I never would’ve given up a biweekly paycheck and health insurance.
I’ve worked for nearly 20 years and I finally want to choose the way I want to live this one life. For as long as I can, I’m going to try to live it on my own terms. And I’m not going to shoulder unnecessary stress.
My call went better than I expected, and I tucked into this soup late last night spent from the day but happy.
1 shallot, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
3 large heirloom tomatoes, chopped into fat chunks
1 28oz can of diced San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil, rough chop
1 qt of vegetable (or chicken) stock, reserve 2 cups of the 1 qt aside
6 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems
1 cup of basil, roughly chopped
1 cup buckwheat groats, rinsed and drained
This is honestly the easiest soup you’ll ever make. Add the oil to a large pot and turn the heat to medium/high. When hot, add the shallots and garlic with a pinch of salt, sauteeing the mixture for 1-2 minutes. Tumble in the heirloom tomatoes and toss with the shallot/garlic mixture for 3-4 minutes. Add the San Marzano tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, stock, and thyme, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook on low heat for 25 minutes.
Five minutes in, fill a small pot with 2 cups of the reserved stock and 1 cup of the rinsed buckwheat groats. Bring to a boil, reduce to a low, cover, and allow to cook for 17-20 minutes.
Add the soup to a blender with the basil (or you can use an immersion blender) and blitz until smooth. Return the soup to the large pot, add the cooked buckwheat groats, stir, and cover. Cook for another 10 minutes on low.
Season with salt/pepper, and chow down.
Posted on September 15, 2015
Today I’m chatting with Jenna Tanenbaum, founder of Green Blender, a service that delivers organic ingredients and recipes for superfood smoothies–right to your doorstep. Enjoy!
First off, congratulations on closing a round of seed funding! I’m in awe of Green Blender, and how you’ve transformed a genius idea into a fully-fledged business. Can you tell us about how Green Blender came to be, and what you envision as its future?
Jenna Tanenbaum: Thank you! The idea really came out of a frustration I had around health and wellness. Obviously what we eat is very important to our health, but in our society, when people decide to improve their health, often times, they go down a path of extremes and deprivation. We decide to give up carbs or go on a very restrictive diet and exercise plan where “no pain, no gain” becomes a mantra. I, myself, have gone on countless diets and cleanses where I am literally ticking off the days until I can have fro-yo and pizza again. This is not a sustainable approach to health and does not build healthy habits that last. Food becomes the enemy in these situations where guilt and restrictions run rampant.
I wanted to start a company that let people indulge in their health. If you love the food you are eating and it also taste great and is easy to make, then that’s sustainable. Investing in health is one of the smartest placed bets you can make.
I love that I am helping people start their day with a healthy decision and I’m ultimately helping them form not only a healthier lifestyle, but also a better relationship with the food they eat.
It’s so clear from your background that you’ve a passion for start-ups. How did you make the leap from working for companies that have such a strong, passionate vision to forming your own venture? What lessons did you learn from the meteoric rise of ClassPass?
JT: I have had a pretty eclectic career to say the least. I went to school for business and finance and started off as a consultant working in anti-money laundering and consumer compliance. I quickly realized that working in the regulatory industry wasn’t for me.
I remember reading a piece about the culture of Sales Force on a flight back from a client’s site and realized that I had to get into a company that had a strong culture. This is what spurred my career in start-ups. I was a product analyst at a real time data company, Chartbeat, and then went into marketing at ClassPass.
I learned two main things working at high growth start-ups. 1. The founders have to be passionate about the problem they are trying to solve and 2. The team needs to be passionate about the problem the company is trying to solve.
The first point flows into the second. How can you expect your team to be passionate about something if you are not?
What has surprised you most about launching your own company? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?
JT: Running a company, especially a health and food company, is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I was prepared to help people but I didn’t realize how deeply rewarding and satisfying I would find it. Food is so emotionally charged. Hearing how Green Blender has helped customers combat obesity, high blood pressure and lethargy while at the same time repairing the relationship they have with their health and with their food is truly an amazing feeling.
Who has inspired you along the way and why?
JT: My co-founder, Amir Cohen, inspires me all the time. Not only are we partners at Green Blender, but we are partners in life. He was the person who ultimately convinced me to quit my job, take a risk, and work on this idea with him. He inspires me because his approach to work and problem solving is so different than my own. I tend to be more of a work-aholic and he is constantly showing me that I can enjoy the process and I don’t need to be glued to my computer to be productive and effective.
I love working with him because I love observing how he executes ideas. He is very thoughtful and meticulous but he is a playful leader. He loves fun and really cares if others are having fun around him. I think this mentality really brings the most out of the people who interact with our brand. His approach is contagious and I can’t help but enjoy the process when I’m around him.
What are the three things that people who are interested in launching a start-up should know? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding food-related ventures?
JT: The three things I’ve learned:
1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable – this is my mantra. I am constantly pushing myself out of my safe heavens and getting out there to try something new. I truly believe that’s where you grow and learn the most. I am extremely camera shy when shooting videos but I recently committed myself to making a new Green Blender smoothie every morning on our Periscope channel. I seriously get a little shaky every time I hit start broadcast.
2. Get a product out there as soon as you can – Before we launched we had a lot of theories about who our customers might be and what they might want. We spent a lot of time thinking about them and designed our theoretical product with them in mind. Once we launched, of course, all that work went out the window and our actual customers took shape. One of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can do is wait to launch the perfect product.
3. Nobody will solve your problems but you – This is a big one. Core business problems must be approached head on – no consultant, employee or software will be able to solve the key problems in your business. Of course delegate as much as possible, but you must find the answer to the issues core to your business.
What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?
JT: My blender – This goes without saying. I drink the Green Blender kool-aid hard core and will make a smoothie from that week’s box for breakfast. I’m then usually at my blender a few times a week testing new recipe ideas.
Rapportive – Rapportive is a Gmail extension that uses email address to pull LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Green Blender is building a strong following and I use this tool to help identify potential leads for brand ambassadors and business development deals.
MeetEdgar – there is no way around it, brands must maintain a presence on social media platforms. Consistency (along with great content) is king and MeetEdgar let’s Green Blender categorize and rotate a lot of our evergreen content so my team doesn’t have to waste time republishing and writing content we can use again.
All images courtesy of Green Blender.
Posted on September 13, 2015
I’m a creature of habit. While I took conference calls from my air mattress, waiting for my furniture to make the long crawl across the country, I feasted on a small gluten-free sausage pizza–every day. My neck hurt? Order the double sausage. My furniture’s uncertain location and delivery date? Order the double sausage. Missing my friends who were no longer a subway ride away? Please, please, deliver me the double sausage. It got to a point where I was on a first-name basis with the Fresh Brothers cashier and delivery guys. Even now, even as I type this, I miss that pizza because it was so damn good.
I’ve an addictive personality, and when I get hooked on something, I tend to consume it to an unhealthy degree. Years ago I lived on avocados for a month, so much so, I developed an allergy to them and I couldn’t eat them for over ten years without getting violently ill. Last year I had to put a fatwa on chickpeas because my affection for them was getting out of hand. I tend to skirt the extremes, and it’s taken a lot of effort to create balance in my diet.
The double sausage and I are on a mini-break.
Last year, I was a wreck. Raised burning hives covered 85% of my body, and I had to cycle through steroids for a week and maintain a strict diet for months in order to heal myself. Come Thanksgiving, I couldn’t eat turkey, cranberries, gluten, dairy, yeast, and a host of other foods, and I found myself along eating gluten-free pasta because I was too embarrassed to ask my best friend, whom I see every year for the holidays, to make a special plate just for me. It’s taken over a year but I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been and I’ve fallen in love with foods I never thought I’d tolerant. Because when you live boxed in, you have to get creative. And while I’m able to occasionally indulge in gluten, I’ve no longer a taste for bread or pasta (I can’t even believe I’m typing this because I was a carb junkie, hoovering two plates a pasta A DAY).
Now that I’m on a break from the double sausage, now that I’ve got a stocked kitchen and a table on which to finally eat, it’s been a joy to comb the farmer’s markets and bring home fresh produce. From plump figs to corn and heirloom tomatoes, living out west makes me EXCITED for food in a way I hadn’t felt back east.
I mean, who gets jazzed over vegetables? (Raises hand)
When my friend shared this zucchini fritter recipe on Facebook, I dropped my plans to make an heirloom tomato and leek soup. My predilection for the fritter runs deep, and I went to the market today for fresh, local ingredients because who doesn’t want a fried crispy vegetable?!
I made some alterations to the original recipe to suit my palate (I love the lemony pungent nature of thyme over oregano any day of the week), and I tend to go heavy on the shallots (the only onion I can tolerate) and pepper.
And while these fritters don’t come close to the creature comfort of the double sausage, I’m loving the return of fresh vegetables to my diet.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Healthy Holistic Living: Makes 6 fat fritters
3 small green zucchini
1/4 cup fresh basil, minced
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and minced
1 small shallot, minced
2 small cloves of garlic, minced
2 medium eggs, whisked
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp gluten-free flour (you can also make this with almond meal!)
1 tsp sea salt, divided
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Using the large blades on your box grater, grate the zucchini onto a cutting board. Transfer the zucchini to a colander lined with a kitchen towel. Add 1/2 of the sea salt, toss, and leave for 10 minutes. Wrap up the zucchini in the towel and squeeze, hard. Trust me, you won’t even believe the amount of water zucchini releases!
Add the zucchini to a medium bowl. Add the herbs, shallot, garlic, salt, pepper, eggs, and flour and toss until all the flour is absorbed. Let the mixture rest for ten minutes.
In a large skillet, add 2 tbsp of olive oil. Wait 2-3 minutes (or until a small piece of the fritter dough sizzles when it hits the pan) until the pan is searing hot. Add 2 tbsp of mixture for each fritter to the pan. Allow it to fry until the edges are crisp and brown, 3-4 minutes. Turn on the other side and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes.
Transfer the fritters to a cutting board (or baking sheet) lined with paper towels. Although the original recipe calls for an avocado dill dip (YASSSS!), I couldn’t wait and devoured half of these fritters in one sitting.
Posted on September 9, 2015
I’ll never again take lying in a bed for granted. We slept the sleep of children last night–me curled up next to Felix. I love Santa Monica because the skies are perennially pink come nightfall, and the air is cool and crisp. I’m near the ocean and I sleep with my windows open, which is a luxury, really, because not too long ago I was enduring relentless heat and humidity. I lived in a home where false cold air blew in.
My furniture finally arrived yesterday (it’s been a month in the making), and I spent five hours cutting up boxes and unpacking. 39 of the 49 boxes contained books, and I’m still sore from moving them around my apartment, trying to make room for all that I’ve collected over the years. A friend sent me a note last night, asked if I’d seen the sky. She was driving home from Marina Del Rey and caught sight of it. I paused and walked downstairs and saw the sun settle into the horizon, and there was a kind of purple haze to it, a cool fire, and I felt the word home.
I fell into bed around 8:30pm, aching, exhausted–hands all cut up and bleeding–but happy that everything I love occupies this space. I don’t have my couch yet, but you can sort of tell from the mess below it’s coming together. Slowly, but surely.
I’ve been on work calls since seven this morning, and I finally had some time this afternoon to bake. I bought three pints of fresh strawberries for $7 and couldn’t wait to make a crisp.
Odd thing is, I wasn’t excited about photographing this. I brought the plates, napkins, and marble slab out onto the deck and it felt…false. I can’t explain it. I brought everything back in and set the dishes on the counter and took photos with my phone. I guess it felt more real to me–a first home-cooked meal in a new house. It felt like, okay, this is it.
I live in California.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from A Modern Way to Eat, with modifications
1 pound hulled strawberries, cut into halves and quarters
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic cane sugar sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp almond extract
1 cup almond flour
1 cup gluten-free steel-cut oats
5 tablespoons cold salted butter, cut into cubes (I found goat butter in my local market and it is INSANELY good)
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Put the strawberries into an ovenproof dish (a pie pan is a good size) with the 2 tablespoons of sugar, orange zest and almond extract.
Mix the almond flour, oats, and the rest of the sugar in a bowl.
Break the butter into little chunks and add it to the bowl or pour in the coconut oil and then use your fingers to rub the mixture together, lifting them out of the bowl to get some air into the crisp topping. Once the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs and there are no big lumps of butter, you’re golden. I used an old fashioned pastry cutter.
Pile the mixture on top of the strawberries and bake in the hot oven for 25 minutes, until the top is golden and the strawberries have shrunk and started to caramelize around the edges.
Posted on July 9, 2015
I believe, if you wear the Balinese clothes, you will be very beautiful. Because you have the good skin, the white skin, my guide says, pointing to the masses of women in the street preparing offerings for Galungan, the most sacred of Balinese Hindu holidays. The women wear folds of silk and satin in vermillion, sanguine red and yellow while they weave together blooms and wave incense. Some wear blue the color of certain skies as they prepare jaja, a Balinese fried rice cake. I’m quiet for a moment because I realize the deception my skin bears, and the privilege it affords me. I tell him the women are beautiful just as they are, and I’d hope that I would be the same not because my skin is the color of parchment, but because my heart is one where the good parts of me (dharma) smother the darker parts (adharma).
My guide, whose name translates to swastika in the Sanskrit, apologizes often. He offers regret over the enormous step I have to take when coming out of the car or if there’s traffic in the one road that snakes through much of Ubud. At one point I tell him that he’s nothing to be sorry for, he’s done nothing wrong, and he looks both startled and relieved. We spend most of our day winding around the Northeast part of Bali, visiting Mount Batur and feasting on sweet oranges from the groves that crowd the mountain while men sell adorable furry dogs locked in cages and chidren hock local fruit. We visit the Gunung Lebah Temple where I watch scores of tourists cleanse themselves in the purification waterfalls while the Balinese in traditional garb smoke cigarettes and attach themselves to their phones, texting, game-playing, Facebooking. I hike the grass covered Tegalalang Rice Terrace steps and weave in and out of dozens of shops known for intricate wood carvings, stained glass and iridescent shell art.
Often, my guide asks me questions about my work, life and travel. He can’t fathom a life like mine where a woman manages everything on her own. Often he calls me strong, and his words are tinged with a kind of respect that borders on envy, and I tell him it’s less about bravery than about choice. I’ve no choice to support myself. I choose to travel alone. And if given the choice, I would have a partner but we would be equals because I would never, ever, be with a man simply for means, simply to be taken care of.
I think about how my guide and others must see me–a prosperous white American woman on her own. No husband to command her time and attention. Enough means to demand it on her own. I am all of the things but none of things, and it’s midday and I’m tired.
Sometimes I try not to think of class division even though I know it exists. We sit in the back of cars when we pay someone else to drive them. We are polite, if not downright deferential, when we pay others to take our food away after we’ve eaten it. In no way would I ever be foolish enough to believe that my privilege affords me a better sense of self simply because I’m in the position of sitting in the back seat. I am of no better character because of it, despite of it, although I’m certain there are many who believe they are better than simply because of the weight of their wallet.
Often I consider the burden of it. The cruelty, or adharma, money can cause.
I had an odd day, the kind of day I wouldn’t have had four years ago (I wouldn’t have been present or healthy enough to see the subtle signs), but over the course of the day my guide’s despair become palpable. He revealed that his wife is away on a contract hotel job in Turkey for two years while he raises their five-year-old son. He repeats, this is her last contract, and I vacillate between wondering if this is a good thing (she comes home) or a bad thing (financial uncertainty). When he plays me the song he played the last day he spent with her before she left for an inn named after Snow White, I realize that her return is auspicious and desired. I feel this ache, his longing.
Although he lives with his mother, whom he loves, he’s lonely and doesn’t much like his job (we compared stories about working for sociopathic, dishonest people), and sometimes feels he doesn’t like his life. Even now, as I type this, as I try to decipher his halting English, I wonder if he told me that he contemplated taking his life. I acutely know the comfort in confiding to strangers, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did mean this, but it pains me nonetheless. I remember his nervous laughter when he tells me that his life is so hard. I know that laughter because I’ve used it when saying things too painful to say in the company of others (I’m fine, everything’s fine–my constant, cold refrain). Part of me always wants to correct, to save, but over time I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t want to be taken care of, they just want someone’s kindness. They only wish to be heard.
So I did just that. I listened without waiting for my turn to speak. And I tried to be kind as I know how.
I invited my guide to have lunch with me at a fancy restaurant, and he refused for some time. He’s never been in a restaurant where he takes his tourists, much less enjoyed a meal served by the people with whom he would share a lunch (don’t worry, there’s free food for me in the back). I felt my privilege so deeply it almost made me feel ashamed of it. Of how he felt odd sharing a meal with me until I made him realize that we’re people who like watching animal videos on the Internet (we referenced a particular camel video we saw and we collapsed into ugly guffaws). We’re two people who love food.
I talked a lot about my father, how much I’ll miss him when I move to California. My guide shows me photographs of his sweet son (very fat, but very, very happy). We speak of karma and how we both try to be good people even if we don’t always do the right thing.
On the drive back I grew sleepy as he played songs off his phone–rock songs that are riffs off American music (Skynyrd, Zeppelin) and songs about leaving. We pass some words on leaving, on time, and how we fear both of these things yet have to consistently face them.
I would be silly or arrogant to think I made any impact. And it’s not about the meal I can afford. It felt more like I was able to listen and give someone else the compassion and kindness they needed–to not make this day about me. I think sharing a meal, albeit briefly, is an intimacy, a deep kindness, toward myself and for this great man who’s suffering perhaps more than I know.
Posted on July 7, 2015
Maomao tells me that she’s glad her husband’s dead because she’s had thirteen years of freedom. You know, I liked him. I didn’t want him to die, but it’s as if the gods heard me. I’m 69 now. Can you imagine coming home to a man? It’s a second job. I would have to eat with him, pay attention to only him. My whole life would be him. Pointing to her license (all tour guides have to wear their badge prominently), I wonder aloud about the fact that she knows English and Italian. Why Italian? The dead husband, she says. I nod. The dead husband. We continue our half-day food tour around the Chinese wet market in the Chinatown Complex, weaving our way through hawker stores as she explains the difference between Haiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. Wrinkling her nose she says, Cantonese, all fried, very spicy, too much chili. Very yang. Gesturing to the cool blues of the Haiwanese placard she says, Steamed, boiled, healthy. Yin.
I offer Maomao back the pastry she purchased for me at the start of our tour. I tell her I have to chill with the gluten, that I spent a year with a nutritionist and doctor trying to repair my insides, and while I can occasionally indulge in wheat-based products, I got to take it easy. After an Odyssean of polite refusals, she accepts the croissant-like dough. Tearing into the flaky, hot sweet, she remarks that she’s no self control. I lost 30kg last year because I stopped eating and started walking. I tell her that’s a little extreme–a life sustained on salads and fruit. Maomao shrugs, pulls a bottle of water out of her bag, taps it proudly and says, It’s filtered. Then she proceeds to share her recipe for tortellini and meat sauce, a dish she’s making for her family this evening. Normally, they would never have pasta at night because there’s no time to expend the energy, but she’s mindful of a food’s expiration and tells me that she finds it strange that Americans store food for so long. How we allow time to steal all the nutritional value from what we eat. She only purchased the fresh pasta over the weekend and she’s concerned that time for her tortellini is running out.
Some might think this odd but I get it. I too am forever thinking about a ticking clock; I understand what it’s like to fear the one thing for which one has no control: time.
It occurs to me now, as I write this, that my tour guide’s name translates to cat in the English. The fact that the other person who was supposed to accompany us on the guided food tour of Chinatown dropped out at the last moment. Clearly Maomao and I were meant to meet.
We’ve only know one another for a few hours but I love Maomao’s candor, how she calls me a “new-style” woman because I’m unmarried, childless, and traveling on my own. At first she regards me with caution, curiosity. You’re very brave. And quiet. I laugh and say, I’ve only just met you. We start our tour and I do that thing I do when I’m around much older women–I become deferential, calm. My curiosity takes the form of quiet study while she’s inquisitive. Maomao has all the questions. How old are you? What do you do for work? If you are not owned by a company why do you pay taxes? Are you lonely when you travel on your own?
I think of a line Robert DeNiro said in Heat: I’m alone; I’m not lonely.
Over dessert at Tong Heng, where she presents me with a cool, syrupy-sweet bowl of cheng tng, Maomao tells me that shse has six children whom she loves but she says, emphatically and often during the tour, how much she hates frogs, pork, and turtles. You’re so lucky to live in New York, she marvels over the cakes, cookies, and pastries she devoured in the city while I pause over her non-sequitur. Maomao says she envies the fact that I have choices.
We talk a lot about alternative medicine. Maomao confides that when her son was six and he had asthma, she stepped a dried gekko in hot water, and he hasn’t had a problem with asthmas since. Shaking her head she says in a small voice that she could never tell her son this because he’d never forgive her. He’s a vegetarian. We talk about using lemongrass as a natural mosquito repellent and Maomao points to all of my blistering bites and tells me that toxins are desperate to leave my system. She tells me to drink frog or turtle broth (not the meat! never the meat!) as those are natural detoxifiers. We pass by a spa where we see a photograph of a woman’s feet seemingly steeped in sewage. The photograph suggests that bathing our feet in this way will expel all of the toxins from our body. I shake my head and laugh at the clever marketing and Maomao agrees. While she believes in the power of old medicine and natural herbs and the healing power of animals and plants–technology she doesn’t buy.
We agree that the marketing is clever and the people who buy into this are desperate, possibly stupid. I become fond of Maomao.
After, she takes me to a famous shop for mooncakes, Chop Tai Chong Kok, and by habit I purchase a bag of buttery savory cookies knowing that I can’t eat them so I instead attempt to pawn them off on Maomao and she reminds me of her willpower. Give her an hour and they’ll only be crumbs left in her bag. I procure bags of dried herbs from Anthony the Spice Maker after getting a whiff of his famous curry blend and Maomao’s assurance that if I spread the powder on a piece of chicken, your family will lick their fingers.
Maomao reminds me that she loathes frogs, pork and turtles and I confess my hatred of fish and the mushroom. There is a moment when Maomao looks at me as if I were insane. I’m not going to regale you with the details, but let’s just say we had a long discussion in a dining hall where Maomao tried to make me a mushroom convert and I adamantly refused.
Before we part ways, before I take another terrific lunch at The Noodle Man (the fried dumpings and tofu are REAL, people. REAL), Maomao embraces me. She tells me that it’s so hard to be a woman, we’ve so much to manage and bear that I should focus on making time.
Make the time for your life, she says. Before you are old and there is no more time.
Posted on July 4, 2015
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Jaffa tells me his name means orange–very easy to remember. His face is tawny and weathered with age, yet he has an verve that dwarves mine. He’s talkative, Jaffa, because of years spent being a limousine driver, where he made his living by making his home a story he’d tell to tourists of means and interest. Now he’s a taxi driver, a transition of which he’s slowly and painfully, become accustomed. His is a vocation that requires speed, dexterity, and silence. People want only to move between points on a map, and Jaffa affectionately pats his GPS, his girlfriend, who speaks to him when no one else will.
Later I’ll read that Jaffa’s name has roots in Israel and Palestine, and is more recently known as a seedless fruit with tough skin, perfect for export. Leaving. But I don’t know this yet and I spend my first hour in Singapore trying to stay awake from two days of travel, while trying to fill his quiet spaces with the only gift I know of: words.
Jaffa comes from a small village outside of Singapore, and there was a time when he could’ve afforded a home for $15,000. Now he points to the condominiums clouding the sky and whistles. One, two, three million. He tells me that it’s a different time. I ask him a few perfunctory questions, but what he really wants to talk about a fine he’s been issued. Last week he stopped in an intersection to pick up an elderly woman. If you’ve ever been to Singapore you’ll know that taxis don’t halt in the middle of city streets, rather people have to queue up in designated stands. Yet Jaffa breaks this law because he tells me that the woman was frail and aren’t you supposed to help someone when they’re in need? Tell me, he says, wasn’t stopping the right thing to do?
Of course it was. However, the law disagrees. A CCTV camera caught Jaffa and he’s been fined $150 (a princely sum for him) and three points on his licence (24 points revokes a license). His only recourse is to appeal to his minister (think of a minister as a supervisor) who will plead Jaffa’s case on his behalf.
Sometimes I get frustrated, Jaffa confides. Sometimes I want to leave.
I know the feeling. Yes, but not really. But almost.
I wanted to start over completely, to begin again as new people with nothing of the past left over. I wanted to run away from who we had been seen to be, who we had been… It’s the first thing I think of when trouble comes — the geographic solution. Change your name, leave town, disappear, make yourself over. What hides behind that impulse is the conviction that the life you have lived, the person you are, is valueless, better off abandoned, that running away is easier than trying to change things, that change itself is not possible. ― Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature
There was a time when I thought the definition of love was a house once brightly lit and warm falling to blight. All the lights extinguished, the fire gone out, and you’re left with the cold, empty spaces you once so joyfully inhabited. There was a time when I used the words love and leave interchangeably. Because people always leave. Because lights invariably burn bright, flicker, and fade out. Never did I think that leaving bears its own light, that the passage from one place to another isn’t an end but a continuation. A cloud shifting. A movement of light. Never did I believe that every exit being an entrance somewhere else. And the places and people you once desired become memories you rewind and play like old movies.
I think about Jaffa’s name, its origin, and it means both exit and entry. This is how my trip begins–the realization that I’m oscillating between two states. I haven’t quite settled and my days have come to feel like a nervous reverberation. I’m here, but not really, and you know how it is.
And it only occurred to me, only today, that I’m in a place that’s been known as a crossroads.
I started my second day in Singapore with an extensive education of the Peranakan. In Malay, “Peranakan” means “child of” or “born of” and is used to refer to people of mixed ethnic origins. Peranakans in Singapore are Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Eurasian. This is a world of color, of travel, of being itinerant and finally laying down one’s roots.
We started our tour at The Spice Gardens at Fort Canning Park, home to hundreds of spices and plants–used for local cuisine as well as medicinal purposes (DYK mixing a tablespoon of cinnamon and tumeric in a glass of water is good for joint pain, or that lemongrass is a natural mosquito repellant?). The rain came down in sheets today so the plants were fragrant (the vanilla, thai basil, mint, lemongrass were especially heady) and we learned of the origins of Peranakan cooking.
The sky cleared and we made our way to Kim Choo Kueh Chang, home to the Nonya rice dumplings packed with sweet meats and tender rice, sweet glutinous desserts (I never thought I’d be into sweets fashioned from rice, but I stand corrected because I feasted on palm sugar dusted with coconut and rainbow cakes made of rice and natural dyes). Aside from the tubs of homemade cookies and tins of cakes, Kim Choo Kueh is also home to rooms adorned in the Peranakan style so we not only got to view a traditional kitchen, but finery a bride would adorn–from the vibrant reds and hot fuschias to her bejeweled shoes.
After, we spent an hour in the Peranakan Museum, where we encountered a fascinating display of Peranakan costume, embroidery, beadwork, jewelry, porcelin, furniture, and craftwork–providing insight and lore into a captivating culture. To be candid, I entered the museum with trepidation–either I’d be fascinated or bored to tears, but the museum was cultivated so simply, richly and beautifully and made for a great story. Upon entry, we were given a piece of paper, “Auspicious Symbols”, of which we’d insert in various handstamps as we made passage through the rooms. Many of the bowls were painted with insects to symbolize an abundance of food just as insects fill a garden in good weather. Butterflies festooned wedding beds–a symbol of fertility. We saw phoenixs everywhere, and our guide, Foo, told us that whenever a phoenix appears, good news will follow. I think about this as I admire blue and white porcelain bowls and Foo jokes that I cleave to things of the dead. While pink porcelain celebrates birthdays and color toasts abundance, the color blue depicts mourning, loss. You see it in the gowns women wear and how they have to replace their gold jewelry with silver. You see it in the bowls covering dark wood tables.
I spent the morning with a rich, itinerant people and their cycle of life.
By midday it was hot (the weather here averages in the 90s and is mostly humid, but oddly a lot more temperate than New York), and I broke from my group to wander around Singapore on my own. While researching great places to chow in Singapore, I discovered Seth Lui’s blog and City Nomads Singapore, and so far both sites are on point.
While I’m no longer able to eat ALL OF THE PASTRIES (these are woeful, gluten-cautious times, people), I made it a point to stop by Artisan Boulangerie Co. (flaky almond croissants like whoa) and Freshly Baked by Le Bijoux (you need to buy all the butter cakes and I’m serious about this–I’m presently noshing on a lemon cake in my hotel room as I type this with greasy fingers and I have no regrets as Edith Piaf so sagely sang) on Killiney Road. I also stumbled upon Real Food, a 4,000sq foot space dedicated to organic, local fare. It’s a bookstore, a market, a restaurant, a coffee shop and it is GOOD.
Candidly, all of this greatness was a salve for the epic disappointment that was Din Thai Fung, a Michelin-starred Taiwanese dumpling chain. I’ve been to Taiwan and the dumplings at Din Thai Fung don’t even come close to the greatness I experienced on the streets of Taipei and Taichung. Don’t get me wrong, the wrapping was tender, the soup flavorful, but these dumplings were lightweight compared to their Taiwanese counterparts. This joint came highly recommended but friends whom I love and respect, so know that I was a tad disappointed. If anyone has recommendations for great dim sum (I’m hitting up Seth’s recommended spots and Chinatown tomorrow)
I spent the rest of the day wandering Orchard Road and Victoria and Bugis Junction. For hours I was trying to find an equivalent for Singapore and the only city that comes close is Melbourne, possibly Barcelona. You have vast newness and wealth juxtaposed with the old. Thoroughfares and quays. I wandered around, watching people eat ice cream on white bread (!!!), saw numerous signs of cows in parks and learned that New York may be the only place where people naturally jaywalk.
After nearly ten hours of exploring the city by foot (and losing an umbrella in the process), I came home and collapsed into bed. I think about home and leaving it. I think about the lease that’s taking forever to make its way to my inbox. I think about a home laid out to bear and not yet assembled and packed. I think about being in a city known for both entries and exists. I think about how it feels to occupy the in-betweens in a new way, in a different light.
Light moves. Clouds shift. View adjusts.
Follow my exploits on Instagram, if you’re inclined. And yes, that’s me in the photo up top–me and my wiry greys.
Posted on June 30, 2015
After months of seven-day workweeks, hectic days, and planning for a cross-country move, know that I can’t wait to board a plane tomorrow (I ran out of Xanax, so my coping with potential turbulence during an 18-hour flight should make for good comedy). I’ll be in Singapore and Bali for two weeks in an effort to get centered, find calm, and eat copious amounts of food. While I’ve been to Bali, Singapore is completely new terrain. All I know about the city is that it’s hot and the street food game is strong.
If you’ve been to Singapore and have recommendations on what to do, see and eat, please drop me a note in the comments or tweet at me, @felsull.
Be prepared for two weeks of snaps from my holiday with some freelancing tips and move updates in between!