Wednesday, March 24, 2010

White Night

Another bout of insomnia. It is 6:30am and I have been lying awake since three watching the light coming through the curtains change from vague streetlight yellow to early morning grey. The wind has picked up with the coming dawn, and my cat has finally settled down from his nocturnal prowling. Now comes the big decision, should I try again to get to sleep or just throw in the towel and start the day prematurely? I guess I’ll see if writing this calms me down or riles me up. I’m guessing it will be the latter.

When I was in high school I often had sleepless nights and became quite practiced at coping with the resulting next day bleariness. I even came up with some odd methods of dealing with the issue. I learned that sometimes just changing my location would help, as my body seemed to associate being in bed with wakefulness. So when I couldn’t sleep I would move to the guest bed, the couch, the big overstuffed chair in the living room, or even the floor. Waking up in a different place than I went to bed in, and having to take a few minutes to figure out where I was, became par the course. Luckily my problems tapered off and all but ceased by the time I was through college so I chalked it all off to rampant hormones and growth spurts.

My stepfather wasn’t so lucky. He was (and likely still is) a chronic insomniac. I remember him telling me once that he hadn’t slept a full night through since young adulthood. For him, nighttime was a battlefield and sleep was his wily adversary, always just a step ahead, always eluding him. Now I’m starting to understand what he went through. Ever since Jeff and I finally set a date for our move to Seattle (which we have been planning off and on for several years), I have found myself once again plagued with sleeplessness. Sometimes I’m lucky and can get right to sleep once I’ve moved to the bed in the study, but other times I spend the majority of the night staring into the darkness. If things are really bad, one night of insomnia will set off a chain effect and I will have difficulty sleeping for the next couple nights. I think this is due to the fact that once I’ve lost one night, I’m so terrified of losing another that I over think sleep and thus start a vicious cycle. Its strange isn’t it, how the more you think about sleeping, and the harder you try, the more elusive it becomes. Its almost as if you can start to feel that fine line between consciousness and unconsciousness and are painfully aware of the moment when you step over (or fail to do so). Simply being passive and letting it come for you is the best method, but its not always so easy when you know you have a big day ahead of you.

Lately my problem seems to be caused by an inability to shut my brain down. No matter how relaxed my body feels, my mind keeps chattering away, worrying , solving problems, replaying moments from the day. I want to reach right through my skull, grab that fleshy grey blob and yell “Shut the hell up why don’t you! Some people are trying to sleep!” I try not to drink any caffeine after 9pm and I avoid any movies or books that might get my mind going too much. So a sitcom is acceptable, but the Omnivore’s Dilemma is a recipe for disaster. Still, despite my best efforts, good old Hypnos manages to slip his collar and outrace me.
But its not so bad really, insomnia reveals a great deal to its sufferers. We start to see the vagaries of time…how without multiple hours of unconsciousness to break it up, the day seems to stretch on into infinity. What happened today and what occurred the day before become almost seamlessly melded. We get to witness the town around us wake up; the sound of traffic changing from an occasional rush to a steady hum, the first birds beginning their song…it all seems to happen apart from us, as if by missing the sleep that almost every living creature around us takes part in, we skip out of the natural order of things. Our exhausted neurons give the waking world the hallucinatory quality of a dream-everything seems overly bright, almost hyper real, and yet vague and detached at the same time. The French call these sleepless nights nuit blanche, white nights, which is aptly also the term used for the summer solstice in polar latitudes when the midnight sun is visible. White night…sounds just about right, those times when the light in your head just cant be turned off and the healing darkness seems so far away….

Anyway, I think its time to stop writing. I finally found sleep, he was behind the laptop the whole time.
Goodnight….or good morning as the case may be.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Chasing Ghosts at Fort Wetherill

Most of you living in the New England area have likely either heard of or visited the town of Newport Rhode Island at some point and are aware of its much touted stunning sea views, its gilded age mansions, and its elegant restaurants. But not all of you may be aware of a fascinating, darker side to Rhode Island that can be found just a 15min drive from Newport. Situated on 100 ft granite cliffs near Jamestown are the remains of Fort Wetherill, a former coastal defense battery and training camp. According to the Rhode Island State Park’s website, the site has been of importance for 200 years-originally built during the American Revolution, and then further developed during the 19th and 20th centuries, until it was finally decommissioned after World War II and essentially left to rot.

But this is no carefully maintained historical site, with helpful text, safety ropes, and wheel chair ramps. It is a wreck, a ruin, and a true joy for an intrepid urban explorer. None of the rooms are blocked off, no fence keeps you from entering, and you could spend much time in the surrounding park without knowing the fort is even there, unless you happened to walk past the belt of trees along the coast. Here the graffiti artist holds court and their brightly colored signatures, statements, and images, aged by sea wind and rain, seem to take on the character of historical inscriptions as ancient as the fort itself. Open doors gape like mouths and crumbling steps descend into dark corridors, blind passages, and gun rooms. This is most definitely a proceed at your own risk sort of location, rusted metal doors sag on their hinges, broken glass is everywhere underfoot, and ankle-snapping holes abound. It is a strange place…remote, unpreserved, like the remains of a moldering corpse, slowly sinking into the cliff.

On my first visit I came during the day, and even then found the fort to be more than a little eerie as there are rooms that even the strong sunlight cant penetrate into and each building’s floor plan is the exact copy of its neighbor so that after a while you feel that you have visited the same room again and again, traversed the same corridor over and over without getting anywhere. Only the graffiti and degrees of decay change as you walk through the complex.

This past weekend, after spending the day in Newport, Jeff and I decided to make another visit to the fort. Unfortunately the dusk caught up with us and we didn’t make it to the park until nightfall. We were afraid that our lone car would be glaringly obvious if we left it in the parking lot, so we stashed it a couple streets over and proceeded the rest of the way on foot. This time I was smart enough to bring a small flashlight in my purse though at first there was still enough ambient light left that we could make it through the park and to the fort without having to use it. By the time we had reached the fort, all objects had taken on that indistinct cloudy quality where depth perception starts to fail and a simple pocket of shadow can appear to be as deep as a well. There was a soft wind and we were constantly accompanied by the far off ringing of a buoy’s bell and the low moan of a fog horn off the coast.

It had rained recently and the pocked walls were slick with moisture, the rooms like damp caves, full of the echoing sound of dripping water. The flashlight barely kept the darkness back, just illuminating enough of our surroundings to keep up from tripping. After night fell completely, I began to become confused every time I walked through a door….were we entering another room or had we emerged through one of the exterior doorways. Only the sounds of the nearby trees moving in the breeze helped me to tell the difference. I found that I could only tolerate five minutes inside each building at the most, every hair stood on end, my skin crawled in anticipation of running into something, and I couldn’t help but speak in whispers. For one of the first times in my life I understood the primitive fear of the unknown darkness that our ancestors were all too familiar with. My intellect told me that there was nothing to fear beyond perhaps falling on glass but my reptilian brain screamed at me to watch my back, to protect myself, to get the hell out of there. Its amazing to truly experience how much of our ancient flight or fight responses are still intact, even in this modern world. Take away the comforting electric lights, the well known streets, and leave us in the wilderness and we will become the frightened animals that we try to convince ourselves we left behind so far back on the evolutionary ladder.

I don’t think a drew a steady breath until we were back in the car and most of the way home I kept having the same eerie thought, what if somehow, somewhere, there was another version of myself still in the fort, but now every dripping corridor turned in on itself like a mobius strip and I was trapped forever, vainly bouncing off the walls like a rat in a maze.

I realized later that my experience was just part of a grander tradition, familiar to all of us and played out in countless films and novels…the story of the haunted house and the hero who must survive it. The novel House of Leaves, the films The Abandoned, The Haunting, The Innocents, Event Horizon, The Triangle, Session 9, Alien, Silent Hill, A Tale of Two Sisters, and many more all depict a character confronting this darkness, this fear of the unknown within the ruins of a once familiar place. It can be a house, a town, or even a spaceship, but in all cases we see the hero faced with the specter of primal fear that exists where our world begins to break down. If our human architecture is an extension of our physical selves, then these haunted places represent the house as a body, containing the internal wilderness of the psyche. There we are left vulnerable and the beasts that hunt us are our own ghosts and demons
So let me leave you with this (before I turn every light on in the house and make sure that my back is safely pressed against a wall.)….

A long time ago, I think it might have been in elementary school, I was reading a book of short stories and came across one that has really stuck with me. I don’t remember the author or the title (if someone else recognizes its identity please let me know!) but I cant forget the essentials of the plot. A young man found lodging for the night at a house that reputedly had a haunted room. The old man who owned the house was reticent to talk about it or answer his questions, but he rented it to him just the same, of course with the disclaimer that nobody had ever been able to spend more than a single night there. The young man was skeptical of the supernatural and he looked forward to debunking the legend. He lit a candle in the room and cheerfully settled in for what he thought would be an uneventful evening. Try as he might though, he couldn’t stop thinking about the stories he had heard, and the more he thought about it, the more the room seemed wrong to him somehow…the shadows seemed darker, the proportions of the walls odd, sounds were magnified. Pretty soon the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up and he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was standing just behind him. Again and again he turned to look, only to see the empty room, but the feeling persisted and intensified, until he felt positively threatened, like something was bearing down on him. Suddenly a gust of air caused his single candle to blow out and the room was plunged into utter darkness. The young man came barreling downstairs, eyes wide with extreme terror and shouted at the old man “Dear god, you must tell me, WHAT is in that room??” The old man looked at him sadly and said shaking his head, “Fear. Fear is in that room, that and nothing more.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

Russo's on March 18th

Ah the second wonderful sunny day after a seeming eternity of dreariness and heavy rain. It almost makes me believe that Spring really is right around the corner….but don’t worry, Im not fooled, I know that Boston weather is notoriously fickle during this time of year, and even when Spring does finally arrive, Summer will be right on its heels. New England isn’t very good at representing the in-between seasons. Grumble grumble….Anyway, the weather and subsequent lack of a need for a coat convinced me that I ought to take the opportunity to get the hell out of the house and clean some of the winter cobwebs out of my brain, and no better way to do this than to make a trip to Russo’s.

A. Russo and Sons Inc as it is officially known, is exactly what their website professes it to be: a true food lover’s store. Located in Watertown and looking suspiciously like the warehouses that it shares the area with, it wont immediately catch your eye if you’re just passing through (probably part of the reason that it remained the secret of local chefs and foodies in the know for so long), but inside is a virtual wonderland for anyone who likes to cook (or even just graze) and needs a refresher after too many months staring at the wilted winter produce at the local grocery store. You will see exotic fruits and vegetables that you rarely find anywhere else: like Buddha’s hand, custard apples, and prickly pear, taro root, fresh water chestnuts, thai basil, and morel mushrooms. The produce is not all local and whether it is organic or not is certainly questionable, but I have never seen quality like this outside of a farmer’s market before. In fact, it rather puts Whole Food’s to shame, especially since they can offer only a small produce department, while Russo’s has an entire store. Not to mention, the prices are so good they will leave you reeling in disbelief.

Though produce is king here, the cheese, prepared foods, and bakery sections are nothing to sneer at. Local mozzarella, freshly prepared pasta, crispy baguettes, and pastries are only some of the highlights. During the growing season a large portion of Russo’s parking lot is closed off and turned into a mini nursery. Here you can find perennials and annuals of all sorts, herbs and heirloom seedlings, local compost, etc. Pretty much the only thing you can get here is toiletries, but who needs those anyway? :-P

Now, if you go to check this place out, which you most definitely should, keep it to yourself and don’t bring a friend. When Jeff and I first moved to the area, Russo’s was still under the radar but was ‘discovered’ soon after. Now days it is nearly impossible to find parking there during the weekend, and even on a weekday the place is packed. Maneuvering a basket down those narrow aisles, while constantly bumping elbows with other shoppers is a true lesson in patience. So shhhhh don’t spread the good news too far.

On most visits I prefer to walk to Russo’s and today was the perfect day for that. I know I know, Im crazy, its about two miles from my house in Newtonville, and on a good day, a round trip usually takes me a little under two hours. I would not recommend such an endurance test for everyone, but Im an avid hiker, and after spending last summer hiking for eight hours over mountains in New Hampshire every weekend, carrying twice my own body weight, a nice stroll across town with a small backpack of groceries is literally a walk in the park. Besides, part of the route I take runs along a portion of the Charles River, and after the past week of rain, it was a sight to behold. The River had burst its banks and the water had encroached all the way to the path, consuming part of the boardwalk and leaving the surrounding trees standing like forlorn little islands. Oddly it was the most peaceful sight I have seen in a long time…the usually brisk and choppy river, suddenly swollen and sleepy, everything submerged beneath several extra feet of murky water, blotted out, made quiet. I took my socks and shoes off and rolled my pants up to wade across the drowned portion of the path and laughed at my white winter feet. I felt like a bit like an unshelled mollusk, naked and cold, bravely stepping out into the unprotected world for the first time in ages…..but as usual I digress.

The real point Im trying to hit with this commentary on how much I go through to get to Russo’s is that I love doing it. I love how long it takes me to get there because it makes the trip special every time. The foods that I pick out have to be carefully evaluated in terms of preciousness and weight, and when I get them home, I swear to you, those hard worn delicacies taste far better than anything I could pick up around the corner. I think its important to have pilgrimages like this of all sorts in our lives. Go out of our way to make a journey to something we love. We do this because it makes us stop and appreciate the mundane. That apple that is only in season in September and can only be found at a farmer’s market, or that beer that can only be bought at its home brewery a couple states over have a savor and a satisfaction to them like nothing else. So once in a while forget about convenience and take a little time out to work for something you really appreciate. Whether it’s a hike or a long car ride away, I promise you it will be worth the trip. Er, but pick a place that isn’t Russo’s. I don’t need anymore competition in the aisles

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Shanghai Gate Review, Allston, MA

After several failed attempts at resurrecting frozen dumplings, Jeff and I thought we ought to go out and remind ourselves of what truly good dumplings taste like. If you have never experienced a truly beautiful dumpling, one that is so much more than the sum of its meat and noodle parts, one that makes you cry just a little when you first bite into it, I suggest you hie yourself to the Gourmet Dumpling House on Beach street in Chinatown and order as many dishes as you can. Your stomach may wreak terrible vengeance on you later in the evening for subjecting it to so much meat and oil in one sitting , but trust me, its worth it. Anyway, that’s a story for another time. On this particular evening Jeff and I didn’t want to make the trek out to Chinatown (mostly because we were hoping to throw back a couple Belgian beers at The Public House in Brookline after dinner), so we decided it was the perfect opportunity to finally check out Shanghai Gate, a Chinese restaurant in Allston that a friend has been raving about for years.
Now, when it comes to a recommendation for a new Chinese restaurant Im often skeptical. I have been subjected to far too many Americanized parodies where every dish is drowned in sauce so sticky and sweet that it seems better spooned over ice-cream, and everything else on the menu is fried into tasteless oblivion. I think many restaurateurs have the idea that the American palate has never made it out of adolescence, that all we can handle are bland, salty, and sweet and that any flavors beyond that frighten us into disgust. Okay okay I’ll try not to get up on my soap box again (or at least not so early in my review), but I’ll say right off that Shanghai Gate is in no danger of falling into this category. A quick glance at their menu reveals evidence of what Anthony Bourdain always salivates over on his show, a great respect for all parts of the pig. Experience has taught me that if you aren’t sure about a Chinese restaurant, always check the menu for dishes featuring pig knuckles or tripe, or blood sausage. Even if you aren’t bold enough to try these delicacies, their very presence bespeaks an authenticity that will ensure you never have to worry about your food coming out looking and tasting like candy.
At Shanghai Gate, as with most Chinese restaurants, dinner is preceded by the ubiquitous bottomless pot of hot tea. Some may see this as uninspired, but I have found that the tea’s plain bitterness helps it to act as both a refresher and a palate cleanser during the meal. Not to mention that its presence is easily the most comforting thing in the world when you have been standing outside in the Boston cold waiting for a table.

Jeff and I started with two familiar appetizers; pan fried pork dumplings and scallion pancakes. We had heard a rumor that Shanghai Gate serves the much sought after eastern species of dumpling commonly known as the ‘soup dumpling’ (seriously, these things are like unicorns, if you find a place that serves them, never ever leave!), and indeed, there is a photograph in the restaurant’s front window clearly featuring these plump little jewels, but we couldn’t find them on the menu and the waitress wasn’t sure of what we were asking for. Perhaps you need to know the secret password…or at least be able to pronounce Xiaolongbao. Anyway, settling for the pan fried dumplings turned out to be far more than a consolation prize. Each hot, juicy packet was encased in an almost paper thin wrap, which tore easily under our invading chopsticks and allowed full saturation of the simple vinegary dipping sauce. The pork was not simply seasoned with the usual garlic ginger mixture, but also carried a hint of Chinese five spice (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and fennel) which gave it a softly fragrant taste that we found surprisingly delicious. The scallion pancakes were fried until crunchy , which gave them far more spirit than the doughy blobs that one often comes across. They had an appealing slightly gamey flavor which led me to believe that they were cooked with Chinese Chives rather than American green onions- another nice surprise!

Next, we ordered another familiar dish ; pan fried noodles with pork (and to think that I used to have delusions of being a true vegetarian-ha!). The noodles were thick and chewy, lightly coated in a flavorful but not too salty sauce, redolent of sesame oil, oyster sauce, and smoke from an obviously well seasoned pan. They shared the plate with tender bits of pork and juicy green heads of bok choy, and there was a noted absence of bean sprouts which made me ecstatic. Normally I enjoy contrasting textures in my meals but for some reason I can never enjoy bean sprouts in a noodle dish. Maybe its because they look so much like noodles themselves, and when I bite into one and am surprised by its telltale crunch, I feel betrayed.

Lastly we ordered a dish that we had never tried before; Steamed salty duck with sticky rice. This turned out to be the true star of the meal. It came to the table in a small bamboo steamer lined with wilted banana leaves. Slices of fatty duck nestled atop a pile of glutinous rice tossed with shitake mushrooms and ribbon thin strands of Chinese bacon. The duck was perfect-meltingly tender and gently flavored. I usually remove the fat with my chopsticks when I eat duck, but Jeff encouraged me to eat each piece whole and Im glad he did. There was definitely a part of my brain that balked at consuming so much unadulterated fat in its natural state but the creamy texture that it imparted to the meat immediately convinced me that it was the right thing to do.

Far from being a mere accessory to the duck, the accompanying pillowy soft rice added its own deliciously mellow note to the dish. The shitakes gave it a wonderful gamey, umami flavor, and the salty, smoky bits of bacon rounded everything out. Needless to say that there were no leftovers at the end of the meal, in fact, if we had been at home, I might have licked my plate. Sadly though, I was so full that I was only able to manage a single beer at the Public House afterwards. But it was a Saint Bernardus so that’s all I needed anyway. If you’re a beer aficionado then nuff said. One more note to finish off this review- Shanghai Gate’s d├ęcor really caught my eye. Forget the usual ‘I’ve been to China and I can prove it’ knickknacks and blown up photographs of mountains, instead the restaurant is refreshingly spartan and decorated primarily in black and deep red. Scarlet curtains are pulled back from the door and the rear wall of the dining area features a painted mural executed in bold black lines of Chinese villagers. High ceilings add to the sense of bold modern openness.

So in conclusion, if you like your comfortingly American wonton soup and general tsao’s chicken, don’t come here, you might get scared. But if you want all the tastes of Chinatown without the hassle of finding parking in those narrow alleys, this is your place. Now I just need to learn how to order the soup dumplings, I’ll capture that unicorn yet, mind my words!