Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Cat Came Back

I truly love living in a city (or at least within shouting distance of one). Yes, its noisy, the traffic is atrocious, and its hard to find personal space when you are out and about, but a city is so varied, so multi-layered, so full of stories and textures that it can attain an almost magical quality if you look at it the right way. Read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and you’ll see what I mean. He understood that what we think of as one city, as a single organism is actually many worlds, all crammed together, all coexisting. Some of these worlds are obvious and some can only been seen in the right light or when you are in the right mood.

I grew up in suburbia and for me cities were once places where one went on vacation….as some people go on safari. You gawk, you keep a map close at hand, and when you leave, its almost with a sigh of relief. Oh yes, I’d say, I love to visit, but I could never LIVE there. So when I first moved to Boston for Grad school about 7 years ago, I was so terrified, that I literally didn’t leave my apartment for several days. I sensed that the city was a beast, that it wanted to absorb me, digest me, and I wasn’t ready to give myself up to something bigger than myself that I couldn’t understand. But over the years I learned how to do just that and it was only then that I was able to see past the big picture and pick out the tiny facets beneath.

I’m writing about this now because of one of these tiny facets that I noticed last week, the type of little incident that seems unimportant but manages to tenaciously stick in your mind.

When I was working in the South End, I used to take the commuter rail into South Station early every morning. Right before the train heads into the station, it crosses a sort of wasteland of access roads, construction sites, and rusted heaps of metal. Every time I passed through this spot on my morning commute, my eye was caught by the same thing; a sort of make-shift dog house sitting right there in the middle of this industrial dumping ground. It was really no more than a box with a small door cut out of it, and there was often a bowl for food or water placed out front. I always wondered what sort of creature lived there, but never gave it more than idle speculation. Then, several weeks ago I was taking the train into downtown on a shopping trip and saw that the house was gone. Suddenly I felt very very sad…, as if instead of a mystery being solved, it had simply been blotted out. I was surprised how much this little bit of a story and its disappearance had affected me. A few days later I was again riding the train, and there it was, a brand new house, this one very obviously hand crafted. Sitting next to it was a large grey Persian cat.

It sounds silly I know, but the sight of a domestic cat, out there in a place that is the closest to the middle of nowhere that you can come to in a city, was almost shocking to me. I thought wow….this is it, this is the animal that has been living here all these years. Someone that works on the trains saw this animal, fed it, built a home for it, and has cared for it all this time….and probably very few other people are even aware of its existence. It is tied to the city as much as the train, the station, all the other large blatant parts of Boston are, but it exists in another world that can only be seen if you are looking for it. It made me wonder….how many other things are living and happening that I don’t know about. Things in odd corners, in back alleys, or maybe even right out in front of me? This is what it is to be part of a city, I mused,….it’s a constant discovery, an eternal exploration. Who knows what those canyons and jungles of cement and steel have to offer. I guess that’s why its so important to always fight for the window seat on the train. ;-)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I would never go so far as to describe Jeff and I as vegetarians,( although for some time we did rub elbows with that disciplined crew) but we do rarely eat meat, and it is the central feature of our home cooked meals only once in a blue moon. I cant take sides in the great 'to eat or not to eat' debate, I’m far too conflicted myself to offer up any solid arguments, but I do feel strongly that eating meat should never be taken lightly. If one chooses to partake, I think it should be done with thoughtfulness and appreciation. I hate the idea of disembodied chunks of meat moved from freezer to plate with the casualness and lack of regard that one usually reserves for processed snack food. Think before you eat. Take a moment to consider your place in the food chain and maybe feel a little gratitude for what you are receiving, that’s all I ask. I came across a poem a while ago that I wrote down on a sticky note and then promptly lost, but it went a little something like this:

‘When you kill a beast, say to it: as I take your life, so too shall a far greater hand one day take mine.’ In other words, always remember that whatever you take from the world must someday be returned. Now there’s a thought for Earth day.

I might add, that the less meat you eat, the easier it becomes to be thoughtful about it, for the occasional addition to your plate gains all the special excitement of a culinary event. Weds night was one of those events. After a carb heavy meal the night before (risotto) Jeff put in a request for something a little different. What the hell, I thought, why not go all out, why not make Carnitas?

I have made Carnitas at home before on the stovetop but I found the results to be a bit dry for my taste and the process rather time consuming. Likely this is mostly due to my inexperience with braising. Semi-vegetarians aren't usually the best cookers of meat, go figure :-P. Anyway, I had been thinking for some time about trying my hand at making Carnitas in my slow cooker, an appliance that is often banished to the back shelf but always yields amazing food when used, and decided that it was about time to give it a whirl.

Carnitas, or ‘little meats’ is a type of braised pork used in Mexican cuisine. Traditionally, the heavily marbled ‘Boston Butt’ cuts of pork are used for the dish, and never having seen this portion of the pig before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Whole Foods didn’t feature Boston Butt in their meat case (oh how appropriate is that name!), but the butcher kindly brought the 2lbs that I asked for from the back. I was now the proud (and slightly squeamish) owner of a large roughly cylindrical hunk of pork, richly marbled, and covered in a thick layer of more fat.

When you make this dish, you must resist the urge to give in to lipid phobia and trim off all of the extra fat. That lovely white stuff is what will help give the dish it's wonderful moist texture. Don't be afraid, just close your eyes and think of England....

Cut the pork into 1-inch cubes and place in a bowl (or directly into the slow cooker). In another small bowl mix your seasonings. I used about 2tsp smoked paprika, 2tsp cumin, 2tsp smoked salt, 1tsp coriander, 1 1/2 tsp dried mexican oregano, and a couple pinches of dried ground chipotle pepper. You can add more to taste later if you like.

Toss the pork pieces with the seasoning mix, make sure they are well coated.

Transfer the pork to your slow cooker (if you haven't already). Quarter 1 onion, take the layers apart, and place on top of the meat.

Turn the slow cooker to low heat and forget about it for about 6hrs or until the meat is tender enough to shred.

Warm some corn tortillas in the oven, add the carnitas, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa, or whatever fixings you like, and dig in.

So how did it turn out? Oh dear god, I haven’t the words. The meat cooked down to a velvety softness and was literally drowning in its own rich liqueur of fat and spices. That, combined with the tartness of salsa, the creaminess of avocado and sour cream, and the mild roughness of the corn tortilla, created a sincornicity of flavor and texture that was beyond compare. My hands were literally shaking as I ate, no devoured, four portions one after the other. I lost all sense of self, I was no longer human, I was a gluttonous ravening beast, and I believe I made noises that were probably terribly inappropriate. I licked my fingers and then, dear readers, I gleefully and unashamedly licked the plate. If that isn’t a reason for cooking at home then I don’t know what is. Ah the joy of savoring every last morsel of a tasty dish without worrying about what the other diners might think….

If you attempt this dish at home, please make sure that you have turned the oven off and that there are no open flames in the house before you take your first bite. You may lose consciousness from sheer pleasure and I wouldn’t want your house to accidentally burn down during that blissful interval.

A side note; after Jeff and I had both gorged ourselves, there was about a cup of pork and liquid left, so I decided to use it in a makeshift soup the next night. I added about half a bag of frozen roasted corn from Trader Joe's, a 14oz can of crushed tomatoes, a 1/2 cup of water, and a couple more pinches of salt, then let it simmer for a bit. Top with some sour cream, dip in any leftover corn tortillas, and you have yourself another delicious meal. So yes, that 2lb piece of pork was well appreciated, and even if I cant feel entirely guiltless, I can at least say that I didn't take this pig for granted.....I also learned that I need to use my slow cooker more often!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cooking From Scratch: Key Lime Pie Part IV

Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for, the dramatic conclusion of my Key Lime Pie from scratch project. Hopefully you haven't fallen asleep and stopped following the process long ago.

I decided to use Nigella Lawson's recipe for the filling, as I have been successful with it in the past.

You will need:

5 Eggs
1/2 Cup plus 2 tbs Key Lime Juice
14oz of Condensed Milk

Separate your eggs so that you have five egg yolks in one bowl, and three egg whites in a second bowl (I saved the remaining two egg whites for later use in an omelet). Two of the eggs I used were from a friend who raises his own chickens. You can easily see the color difference in the photograph-the yolks were a deep orange.

Beat the egg yolks until thick.

Add the condensed milk (I used the condensed milk that I made from scratch in part I of this recipe)

Add the key lime juice.

In your second bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then gently fold them into the egg mixture in the first bowl.

Pour into the crust (see part III of this recipe) and bake at 325 degrees for 25min or until the filling is firm.

Behold, the finished product at long last! The farm raised eggs that I used gave the pie a very bright yellow color. Im happy to say that it was absolutely delicious; the perfect balance of tart, sweet, and bitter, and the crumbly, buttery crust nicely set off the creamy citrus filling. My dinner guests devoured almost the entire pie in one wasn't pretty, Im not even sure what happened. One minute I was cutting the pie, and the next we were all slumped over in our chairs with happy yellow grins on our faces. Seems strange to put so much work into something that can disappear forever in just a moment. Its rather Buddhist uh yeah, eat your dessert, it will make you more spiritual

Cooking from Scratch: Key Lime Pie Part III

This has been a crazy week so I have been a bit behind in posting the remainder of the Key Lime Pie recipe, but here it is, part III- The Crust!

Most of the recipes I came across seemed to indicate that making graham cracker crust 'from scratch' required little more than crushing up some Nabisco Graham Crackers and mixing them with butter. Read the ingredient list on the back of the box, and you know instantly that this method couldn't take you further away from basic ingredients. Thus, I was delighted to come across a recipe on Mike's Table, that basically builds the crust from the ground up by producing a graham cracker dough.

You will need:
2 Sticks of butter (softened at room temp for about an hour)
1/4 Cup Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup Cane Sugar
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1 Tsp Salt

Mike also suggests adding a 1/2 tsp of cinnamon, but since I would be using this crust for a citrus pie, I thought the flavor of the spice might clash and I left it out.

In a large bowl, mix the two flours and the salt

In another bowl, cream the butter with the two sugars. Once the ingredients are well mixed, stir in the honey. You can do this with an electric mixer, but I found it to be just as easy to use a spoon.

Mix 1/2 of the dry mixture into the butter/sugar and once that is fully incorporated, mix in the second 1/2. This will come together into a soft but slightly crumbly dough (just like your average cookie dough)

Form the dough into a disc, wrap it in plastic, and let it rest in the fridge for about an hour.

Mike's table describes an ingenious method of rolling out the dough and transporting it to the pie plate without it crumbling, but I was lazy and simply rolled it out, then pressed pieces of it into the pie plate. The result wasn't pretty or even, but I figured it wouldn't matter much in the end. Next time I think I'll try it Mike's way though, it seems more dignified.

This recipe makes enough dough for two pies so I used 1/2 for the pie plate and cut the other half into squares to make actual graham crackers.

Whether you are baking a crust or crackers, make sure you prick both all over with a fork, so that the steam from the butter doesn't make the dough buckle and crack. Bake at 325 for about 18min. I put the pie plate and cookie sheet with the crackers on it side by side in the oven and both turned out great.

No, this is not the graham cracker that you grew up with. It is more of a whole-wheat shortbread. Very crunchy, very buttery, and the honey gives it an extraordinary flavor. Its a lot of work but I cant imagine going back to those dried out slabs of cardboard at the grocery store after this. I wonder what smores would be like made with these? Maybe I'll have an answer for you on that this summer!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cooking From Scratch: Key Lime Pie Part II

Key Lime Pie part II: The Limes
Most of the time, when people think of limes, they imagine those dark green fruits, roughly the size of a chicken egg, that you can find in the produce section of just about any grocery store in the country. These are called Persian limes, and if you have ever had a Key Lime pie made with the juice from one of these, Im sorry to tell you, it wasn't the real deal. Key Limes, also known as West Indian Limes or Tahitian Limes, are smaller, rounder, have thinner rinds, a stronger scent, and are yellow when ripe. You can see the difference in size and appearance in the photograph above. They are native to South East Asia, but long ago their cultivation spread to the United States, where they flourished in South Florida, particularly the Florida Keys.

Most recipes for Key Lime Pie call for about a 1/2 cup of juice and 12 limes will yield just over this amount. Warning, these little guys are not easy to find in the North East outside of a bottle. I am lucky enough to live near a store that specializes in exotic produce, otherwise this project would never have taken off.

Slice and juice the limes. This is obviously quite tedious work because the limes are so small. If you have an electric juicer, use it, or be ready for sore wrists and hands.

I felt terrible about throwing out all of the spent rinds, but couldn't decide what to do with them. Perhaps next time I will try candying the peels to use as a garnish on the finished pie. For now, I'll just have to be wasteful.

Ah precious liquid! Seems like such a small amount after all that work. I really wouldn't recommend obtaining your juice this way unless you are a glutton for punishment, or are intrigued by the novelty of it.
Stay tuned for part III: Making the crust and putting it all together.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cooking From Scratch: Key Lime Pie Part I

So I have this weird obsession with making as much of my food from scratch as possible, and by scratch I mean, trying to get as close to primary ingredients as sanity, time, and finances allow. Yes, I want to be green, yes I want to avoid processed foods for my own health, but its more than that. There’s something about transforming raw, base materials into a refined end product that satisfies my compulsive need for order. Its rather like being an alchemist or a shaman, and for me, making such a meal elevates cooking from a mundane task to something rather like a ritual act. In other words, crazy as it is, I find the hard work extremely fun. :-P

At the end of this week a group of my friends are coming over for a potluck dinner. The past couple sunny days and record high temperatures have left me craving the classic refreshing tastes of summer (yes, yes I know its rather premature) so I have decided to make a Key Lime Pie for the dinner. Normally I can throw one of these together in record time. In its simplest form, its just about the easiest pie to make. Premade graham cracker crust+ can of condensed milk+ sugar+ eggs+ bottled key lime juice. Mix, Pour, bake, voila.
But what if….you made your own condensed milk and graham crust from scratch and used the juice of actual fresh key limes? Very quickly, this simple dessert becomes a labor of love.

Today I decided to try my hand at the condensed milk. Condensed milk is cow’s milk from which much of the water has been removed and a large percentage of sugar added. This technique was originally used in pre-fridgeration days to extend milk’s shelf life, as the decreased water and high sugar content prevent microorganism growth. Now days it is used primarily for desserts: thai iced tea, candy, tres leche cake, and of course Key Lime Pie.

Most of the recipes that I found online called for a mixture of butter, dehydrated milk, boiling water, and sugar, but this seemed rather counter intuitive to me…why buy dry milk, which I have no other use for, just in order to add water BACK into it? Finally I found a recipe that basically calls for adding sugar and vanilla to milk and then slowly reducing it

Start with 4 Cups of Whole Milk, 2 Cups of Cane Sugar, and 1/2 of a Vanilla Bean

Pour the milk into a medium sized pot and stir in the sugar.

Cut the vanilla bean length-wise and scrape out the seeds with a knife.

Add the vanilla; seeds, pod, and all to the pot.

Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly until the sugar melts. Continue simmering for just over an hour, stirring occasionally so the milk doesn’t coagulate on the bottom of the pot. You don’t need to watch this constantly, but definitely keep somewhat of an eye on it, as it is prone to foaming over.

The milk will turn a rich caramel color and thicken noticeably until it coats the back of a spoon. Fish out the vanilla pod and let the condensed milk cool. You can now store this in the fridge for several weeks.

This is the first time I have tasted homemade condensed milk and it is surprisingly delicious; very similar to the store bought canned version but less cloyingly sweet and with more of a caramelized flavor. Most Key Lime Pie recipes call for a 14oz can of condensed milk, so I should have more than enough. Stay tuned for Part II

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Deschutes Abyss

Deschutes Abyss, the brew that beer geeks cant stop talking about. A reserve stout that clocks in at 11% ABV, Abyss is brewed with licorice and molasses, then aged in oak and oak bourbon barrels .
From the label: Its dark. It’s deep. Its mysterious. This imperial stout has immeasurable depth inviting you to explore and discover its rich complex profile. The flavor of this special brew draws you further and further with each sip. The abyss beckons. Enjoy the journey.
Consequently, it is one of the most highly rated beers on Beer Advocate and has won numerous awards, but due to its small batch production and Deschutes’ limited distribution, it is nearly impossible to get on the East Coast. So of course this was the first beer that came to mind when Jeff and I were invited to a friend’s tasting party, where each guest was asked to bring a unique craft beer.

Deschutes flat out wont ship anywhere further East than the Midwest so buying from their site was right out....we had to resort to other more creative tactics which shall remain nameless for the sake of propriety, but yadda yadda yadda, after much conniving, two bottles arrived some weeks later, mummified in layers of pink bubble wrap and crumpled newspaper. Each was sealed with an impressive looking coating of black wax. We decided to save one bottle for the tasting party and open the second that night…you know, just to make sure that it was alright.
Out came the special glasses and we quivered in anticipation as we broke the wax seal and popped the cork.

The beer poured into the glass like a jet of black ink. Even when held to the light, the liquid is astonishingly deep and dark, its opacity relieved here and there by hints of red. Its thick, creamy brown head dissolves quickly, leaving the surface impenetrable and mysterious…..just as the label promises.

Aroma: all about oaky wood and black cherries, with rich notes of caramelized sugar.
Taste: Starts off sweet, but evolves into a strong and bitter coffee flavor, balanced out with just a hint of booziness (surprising in light of the brew’s high alcohol content).
Mouthfeel: Rich, almost creamy, but light, not cloying.
In a nutshell, it presents itself as sweet but the sugar steps aside in favor of deeper flavors. Or as Jeff astutely put it; It starts off like a Belgian and then turns on you. For me, Abyss is definitely an after dinner beer, something to be lingered over on its own, or paired with a complementary chocolate dessert. But watch out for the 11%. One glass of Abyss is like drinking three Guinesses at once, and just like its namesake, it is not something to be taken lightly.

Now the big decision….will we generously introduce this lovely prize to the other guests at the tasting party, or will we end up buying something else last minute and saving the second bottle for ourselves? Only The Shadow knows….

Restaurant Review: Jo Jo Taipei

Last week I got an excited email from Jeff, announcing that his boss Alex had given him a recommendation for a great Taiwanese restaurant called Jo Jo Taipei in Allston. This was the same guy who turned us on to Shanghai Gate, and he was certainly right about that, so my interest was instantly piqued. And here was the clincher, he claimed that Jo Jo had soup dumplings on their menu and they were BETTER than those served at the Gourmet Dumpling House!

Before I go on I think I ought to explain to the uninitiated just what this fabled soup dumpling is. Sometimes they are called juicy dumplings, sometimes rather confusingly, they are referred to as steamed buns, but in all cases they consist of a steamed pouch-shaped dumpling with a thin skin, that along with the usual filling, contains a rich liquid broth. Understandably, eating a soup dumpling can be a tricky procedure. If you don’t do it right you are libel to end up getting a jet of scalding hot broth right in your face. Luckily my friend Emily taught me the correct method a while ago. First, you take a soup spoon in your left hand and a pair of chopsticks in your right. You then carefully (emphasis on the carefully part) pick a dumpling up out of the steamer with your chopsticks, and gently place it into your soup spoon. Holding the spoon to your mouth with your left hand, you puncture the dumpling with your chopsticks and slurp up the broth that spills into the spoon. You can then eat the dumpling whole, or in bites, depending on how hot it is and how big your mouth is. It is a really unique experience that I cant recommend enough.

Anyway…. When I heard what we had in store for us, I hurriedly emailed our two foodie friends Emily and Brendan and asked them if they would like to check out the restaurant with us. Of course the answer was a resounding yes. Now when we go out to eat with Emily and Brendan, dinner literally becomes an event. There is always a large amount of excited hand clapping, sometimes jumping, we read menus together with that hot little gleam in our eyes that most people get when they look at pornography, and we always, always end up eating far more than is good for us.

Allston is a great, funky neighborhood, full of a surprising array of ethnic restaurants, concert venues, and dive bars. It was once home to the famous Mr. Butch, a well-known street character, who died in a Vespa accident in 2007, and the typical residents are a mix of clean-cut college kids and tragically hip emo types. In other words, we and our friends felt extremely old and uncool walking through the area to get to the restaurant.

With its offbeat décor, featuring an odd mix of modern glitz, traditional asian elements, and ridiculously cute stuffed animals, Jo Jo Taipei fits right into this eclectic neighborhood. The walls of the dining area are covered with kanji characters and ornate red paper lanterns, but the ceiling is painted a vibrant hot pink and surmounted by an elaborate crystal chandelier. Lacy curtains, embroidered with cartoon puppies, lead into the kitchen, and the area near the register is packed with creepy kawaii merchandise. Go figure.

We started with the usual noodle dish-Taiwanese noodles with pork. The noodles were thin, almost spaghetti-like and a bit soft and overcooked for my taste, but deliciously flavored. They were served with shitakes, bean sprouts, and slivers of bamboo shoot. I found the hard crunch of the bamboo shoots a little out of place with the softer noodles and mushrooms, but that’s just a matter of personal taste.

We then had Turnip Pancakes, which I have never had before, but Emily recommended.These are rectangular patties of pureed turnip, pan fried and served with a dipping sauce.They are not completely unlike a potato pancake texture-wise, being soft and smooth on the inside, and crispy on the outside, but are sweeter and less mealy. They had a slight seafood flavor, so I think they also contained small dried shrimp. The accompanying sauce was rather like a Chinese version of American BBQ sauce: a tomato based sauce (maybe ketchup??)mixed with sriracha. It was a very tasty condiment that I would like to try to duplicate at home.

Next came a dish of Chinese Watercress: long, hollow-stemmed leafy green vegeatables, sautéed with copious amounts of oil and garlic. If you have never found a way to make your veggies taste good, I suggest you try this method.

Then….the piece de résistance, the soup dumplings. We ordered two kinds: crab and pork, and both arrived in the same two-layer bamboo steamer, lined with wilted leaves. So what was the verdict? Were they indeed better than what we have had at the Gourmet Dumpling House? Hell yeah! The filling was more tender, more complex in flavor, and the skins were very thin and fragile, so the tiniest bite sent the broth I gushing out onto our spoons. The pork was similar in taste to what I have had before, but the crab was a lovely surprise, having a sweet and delicate sea flavor.

Afterwards we had one of Jo Jo’s specials, half of a smoked duck. It was pleasantly salty, fried crispy, a bit drier than the style of duck we had at Shanghai Gate, and it had a wonderful herbal flavor, suggesting that it had been smoked with tea leaves.

Last minute Emily asked for an order of Sesame bread, which she had spied on another diner’s table, and which she had fond memories of her grandfather making. This turned out to be a doughy almost gluternous bread stuffed with spring onions, and covered in a crispy, almost caramelized coating of sesame seeds. It was delicious-true comfort food, but it made our already overly full bellies groan.

We were stuffed to the gills, ready to sink back into a happy food-induced coma, but Brendan insisted that we run across the street to Yi Soon, a Taiwanese bakery, for dessert. I cant say that I regret the pastry stuffed with sweetened red bean paste that Jeff and I shared, but walking back to the car, I no longer felt old or uncool…. I was too worried about the possibility that my mistreated stomach would finally burst and I would become the new famous character of Allston.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Spirit of Giving

One of Jeff's co-workers has started raising his own chickens, and whenever he has a surplus, he
generously gives out six-packs of eggs to other people in the office. There is now such a demand for these eggs that I had begun to despair of Jeff ever being able to bring some home. Apparently you have to get on ‘the list’ or at least be in the office at the right time in order to beat the clamoring hordes. But this past Friday, oh joy of joys, Jeff walked in the door carrying that tell-tale half carton and I knew we were in.

If you have ever had the pleasure of eating an egg that wasn’t squeezed out of a factory, that was produced by a chicken that had free reign to roam and munch as its own avian nature dictates, you can understand my excitement. To those of you that haven’t, let me assure you, there is no comparison. The shells are of such a deep opaque color that grocery store eggs appear almost ghostlike next to them. The yolks are a rich yellow-sometimes almost orange, and the taste when cooked is far more complex. Its easy to see why, when you imagine the varied diets that such unfettered chickens have been enjoying: seeds, grass, insects, etc, as opposed to the monotonous soy-based slurry that factory chickens are kept alive on.

Boston in winter, is probably one of the most difficult places/times to find real farm eggs. You can trek out to Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge and find a half dozen for about $5, you can wait for the farmer’s markets to start up again in June….or you can rely on the kindness of friends. I usually choose the latter, though it means long dry spells in between sightings. At Christmas we had a real bonanza, Jeff’s childhood neighbors in CT raise chickens and gave us three dozen eggs at once! They were happy to get rid of them and probably found our excitement amusing. We used those eggs in everything-we fried them, hardboiled them and marinated them in soy sauce to eat with rice, and baked them into numerous desserts. I even dried and saved the shells (try it-next time you make coffee add some crushed egg shells. It cuts down the acidity and adds a nice dose of calcium to your drink). Then our source dried up, and I have been buying eggs at Whole Foods again for the past three months….until now!

Its extremely annoying to not have a constant flow of any food that you enjoy, and its not something that you can ever rely on or expect, but sporadic gifts of homegrown or homemade food from friends are a delightful surprise. And when you are able to pay back in kind, suddenly the big city you live in seems to shrink to the size of a country village, where people still barter and exchange and you know exactly where your food came from because you saw your neighbor growing it.

Last summer I had a surfeit of eggplants and, becoming weary of eggplant parmesan, eggplant salad, and all of this veggie’s other permutations, I gave a couple glossy beauties to my next door neighbor. The next day she brought over four sun gold tomato seedlings that she had started herself. Yesterday, Jeff’s father came to visit us and brought a huge loaf of homemade bread. That evening, I stuffed him with strawberry rhubarb pie that I had made the day before. These exchanges are miraculous to me, not only are we caring for others in the most basic sense possible-literally feeding them, but we are knitting our communities more tightly together.

I have a crazy dream, that as more and more people respond to the current recession by growing their own veggies, cooking from scratch, and experimenting with DIY projects, just about everyone in a neighborhood or community of friends will eventually establish their own cottage industry. Someone will be brewing beer, someone will be making soap, someone will be raising chickens, and we will all create a system for exchanging these goods amongst ourselves, with no money needed. Im not talking about complete utopian living off the grid self-sustainability here, Im already accused far too often of having my head in the clouds, but what’s so crazy about the idea of each urban community at least having their own internal farmer’s market? What’s so crazy about all of us being producers as well as consumers? Maybe it will happen someday…and until then I’ll keep working at establishing my own lines of trade. I wonder if the egg guy will keep me on ‘the list’ if I pay him back with homemade bagels….

But I didn't inhale!

I was sitting on the train reading The Improper Bostonian and I came across an article about a new product invented by a Harvard biomedical engineering professor, that is essentially a cylinder of inhalable chocolate. It is portable, easily thrown in a purse, and can be ‘smoked’ much like a cigarette. The purpose of Le Whif, as it is called, is to provide chocolate without the calories and, I suppose, without the terrible inconvenience of simply eating it. Apparently it also provides it without the pleasure. The article describes it as chalky and as cough inducing as a true cigarette. But don’t be deterred, Le Whif’s creators say they are working on new flavors and that in the future it will be possible to ingest any food this way- in the form of a calorie free vapor.

Ah yes, all those darn calories, plaguing our lives out, making us fat, forcing us to have self control . Apparently the only reason that people go through the trouble of consuming chocolate in the first place is that thus far, it has been the only reliable method to get at those sneaky pleasure inducing chemicals it contains. Forget about taste, texture, or sensual pleasure all together, lets just get right to the drugs. Its not like we have time for anything else these days anyway. Thank god the latest scientific discoveries are always ready to relieve us of the burden of being human.

The article on Le Whif made me think of a memorable scene from Dodie Smith’s classic novel I Capture the Castle, in which the family is sitting down to dinner and begins discussing the likelihood that future man will dispense with food in its original form all together

“When this house was built, people used daggers and their fingers” he said. “And it’ll probably last until the days when men dine off of capsules.”
“Fancy asking friends to come over for capsules,” I said.
“Oh, the capsules will be taken in private,” said father. “By that time, eating will have become unmentionable. Pictures of food will be considered rare and curious, and only collected by rude old gentlemen.”

This idea has never failed to amuse me, especially since it makes sense on some level. Eating is the only basic function that we still engage in in public. It is a very intimate, very visceral act that we perform in full sight of others, though we recoil in horror from the thought of elimination or sexual intercourse being treated in like fashion. One can imagine that as we continue to strive to outdistance our bestial ancestry, we might begin to find eating obscene as well: the indecent play of tongue and lips, the lubricious noises, the unfortunate associations with both the bedroom and the bloody battles of the savannah. Whew, sounds like something that belongs behind closed doors, I don’t think I want my kids around that! Indeed, a friend I once had (who shall remain anonymous) would definitely sympathize. She was literally disgusted by eating, even in private. Her refrigerator was a wasteland, as clean as an operating room and just as devoid of color. She ingested only enough as was necessary to keep body and soul together , cringing in horror all the while I imagine. She probably took long showers afterwards and cried. Needless to say, she was thin as a rail and cranky as hell.

The western world’s well known obsession with extreme thinness ties into this very nicely. Its as if by abstaining from the fleshly pleasures of eating (something apparently associated with animals, the morbidly obese, and profligates, if the messages the media pushes are to be believed) one can be elevated to some new level of purity and refinement. Consider the recent craze over the air diet (Im still waiting to hear that this has turned out to be a practical joke), where you go through all the motions of preparing and serving actual meals, but then only ‘pretend’ to eat. And wouldn’t you know it, the pounds just melt away! Call it what you will, I was brought up to know anorexia when I see it. I suppose the idea is that you abstain from calories while still receiving the vicarious pleasure of food by smelling it and interacting with it. Sounds like puritanical masochism of the worst kind to me, but hey, at least these dieters are still enjoying the food in some fashion, unlike users of Le Whif, who are only in it for the chemicals.

In the realm of food, modern society is always diligently working away at distancing us from our animal nature as much as possible. I guess those bodily functions that we just cant seem to evolve beyond are a constant embarrassment to your average civilized person. Our meat comes in innocent nondescript lumps wrapped in plastic, to spare us any hints of the killing floor, our carrots come pre-peeled and shaved down to tiny nubs, and microwave ovens and frozen dinners ensure that we never have to do anything so degrading, messy, and time sucking as cook. And now, we can get our chocolate without eating it, and survive on air alone! At this rate we must be close to angelic by now (or at least semi-transparent from lack of nourishment). Sorry folks, I hate to break it to you, but we have to eat, we cant just stand outside and blamelessly absorb nutrients from the sun. We also have to make love and visit the toilet. Its inconvenient, its exactly what dogs do, and you aren’t special because of it. But its damn wonderful, and if I have to give up the endorphin inducing zing of hot wings because they leave sauce on my face, or the mellow richness of chocolate because it prevents me from fitting into the skeletal clothing on sale at the local boutique, then forget it, I’d rather be considered unevolved and obscene. Just watch out though, I may keep the curtains open next time I sit down to dinner. Oh what will the neighbors say then!