Monthly Archives: March 2010

No Puppies in This Box

On this rainy Tuesday, I present you with a guest photo, taken in a boatyard in Sausalito, CA.

Raises the question, okay, what IS in this box? Also, it seems like it would be easier to label the boxes that DO have fish in them.

Though this does present fun labeling ideas for the home – I could entertain myself for quite some time coming up with little signs for all those old empty (but what if I need them someday??) shoe boxes under the bed. “No meerkats in this box,” one might say. Or “if you’re looking for newts, try elsewhere.” Or “Looking for silver ingots? You’re out of luck!” Or “no dust bunnies here!” But wait, that last one would be a lie.

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A Day in the Kitchen

Yesterday was a Kitchen Day. Passover begins today at sundown. Some friends are hosting a seder, and while they’re doing a lot of cooking, all the guests are bringing things too. I promised a flourless chocolate cake, charoset (chopped apples and walnuts, with wine and cinnamon), and deviled eggs.

In the midst of making those things, I decided it would also be a good idea to make strawberry rhubarb applesauce (I found fresh rhubarb at the co-op and I cannot resist fresh rhubarb) and a potato kugel. Meanwhile, my roommate made some kale chips for us to snack on. Because our kitchen was feeling sadly neglected and underused.

I started with the cake, using a family recipe for flourless chocolate cake. It turned out to be incredibly easy, especially with a food processor to grind the walnuts, and a hand mixer to beat the egg whites. And it only took 25 minutes in the oven!

Charoset was also rendered ridiculously easy with the food processor. I used about half a pound of walnuts, two Granny Smith apples (peeled, cored, and sliced), a teaspoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and two generous splashes of wine. Most people have a particular variation that they like; I’m pretty attached to this one. (Sorry, forgot to take a picture.)

For the first batch of deviled eggs of 2010, I had to haul out The New Best Recipe just to make sure I remembered all the ingredients (though I use a combination of soy sauce and lemon juice in place of Worcestershire sauce). To make deviled eggs, you’ll need:

7 hard-boiled eggs
mayonnaise
mustard
white vinegar
lemon juice
soy sauce
salt and pepper
paprika

I didn’t include amounts here because it really depends on your own personal taste. This time around, I would say I used less than a tablespoon each of mayo and mustard, about a teaspoon each of lemon juice, soy sauce, and vinegar, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. (The paprika goes over top of the finished eggs, for a touch of color.) The yolk mixture was a little thicker/drier than in the past, when I think I used more mayo and mustard.

De-shell the hard-boiled eggs and slice them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the yolks and place them in a bowl. Mash with a fork. Add mayo, mustard, lemon juice, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste, until you get a nice consistency. Then scoop the yolk mixture into a ziploc bag and cut off a tiny corner (unless you are all fancy and have a pastry bag with a star tip. Then use that). Squeeze the mixture into the hollowed-out egg whites, then sprinkle paprika over top. Serve immediately or refrigerate till you’re ready to serve (they will keep for a day or two).

Strawberry Rhubarb Applesauce: the improv dish of the day. I wasn’t planning to make it in the first place, but there was fresh rhubarb at the co-op, and I cannot resist fresh rhubarb. I did actually have a recipe for strawberry rhubarb applesauce in my recipe box, but it called for gelatin, so instead I just adapted my homemade applesauce recipe, thus:

1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick (remember to fish it out before you start mashing!)
1 apple, peeled, cored, cut into chunks
2 stalks fresh rhubarb, cut into pieces
1 box of fresh strawberries
> 1/2 cup white sugar
~ 1/4 cup brown sugar
pinch of salt

Throw all ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Give it a stir now and then to make sure nothing’s sticking to the bottom of the pot. Lower hear and let simmer for about 30 minutes, then remove from heat and mash with a potato masher (remember to retrieve the cinnamon stick first). Enjoy warm or cold!

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: strawberry and rhubarb is one of those all-time great food combinations, like peanut butter and jelly or mint and chocolate. Use them together to make preserves, jam or fruit butter, or pies, crisps, or cobblers. My imagination just stalled out trying to come up with a strawberry rhubarb sandwich, but I bet it would make a great crepe filling.

The potato kugel was also somewhat of a last-minute decision, inspired by two things: 1) potato kugel is tasty; 2) it will make good leftovers for lunch throughout the week. I found this recipe from Gourmet, 1976, and it worked out beautifully. (I used butter instead of schmaltz, though. Not all of us have liquid chicken fat lying around in our kitchens.)

Kale chips were something my roommate and I had been meaning to try ever since a former roommate and good friend of ours had told us how she made them. All you need is a head of kale, some grated parmesan or similar cheese (we used pecorino romano), and olive oil. Wash and pat dry the kale leaves, then chop or tear them into chip-size pieces, discarding the spines of the leaves. Toss the pieces in a bowl with some olive oil (go light on the oil), then spread the leaves on a baking sheet and sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 F for 5-10 minutes – you want the chips to be crispy, not limp. Once they crisp up, enjoy! If there are any left, they keep surprisingly well overnight if sealed in an airtight container (tupperware or ziploc).

A note for non-kale-lovers: I have never previously enjoyed eating kale. I tried it in many different forms – cooked into pot pie, stir-fried with veggies, in soups – and always found it too tough. Kale chips, though, are delicious!

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A Rare Find

Last Thursday I went to a rare book lecture at Housing Works, given by one of their longtime volunteers.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, as I’ve mentioned before, is my personal oasis in the city of New York. It is relatively quiet, spacious, and filled with books; you can even get coffee or tea or muffins there, and really, what else do you need?

It’s a great place to find old used books, whether you’re looking for paperback copies of contemporary fiction (as I usually am), children’s books (those too), literary biography and memoir (oh yeah, and those), classics (and those), or anything else – plays, poetry, books on music, pop culture, history, politics; records; ARCs or galleys; and rare books.

Housing Works is where I found my Limited Editions Club copy of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. (Actually, my friend found it, tapped me on the shoulder, and handed it to me. If I ever find a nice volume of Petrarch’s poems for Laura, I’ll return the favor.)

A few months later, I was at Housing Works again, and found a Limited Editions Club copy of another Wilkie Collins novel, The Moonstone.

It was just as beautiful as the edition of The Woman in White, and I immediately snagged it for my roommate – who wrote her senior thesis on Wilkie Collins. Honestly, I’d felt a little guilty keeping The Woman in White for myself in the first place, so I was extra happy to have found this one. I had a hard time waiting for her birthday to roll around, but, FOR THE RECORD, I did wait.

Beautiful binding, color illustrations and title page.

Beautiful font as well.

What I’m reading: Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
What I’m listening to: Tim, The Replacements

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Cold Spring

A few pictures from our Saturday hike at Mount Taurus (we encountered no bulls, alas) in Cold Spring, NY:

Fly me to the moon: We were collectively tempted by this little artifact. When else would we have the opportunity to purchase a plane for $50? But how would we get it home, someone wondered aloud. I’m sure it still flies, replied another. But we played it safe and took Metro North home, anyway…

Dysfunction Junction road sign: Call it like you see it.

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” -Flower, Bambi

Stop and reflect: Trees’ reflections in a large puddle.

Now you see me, now you don’t: Camouflage bark.

Not quite Niagara: But a challenge for bark boats and Pooh sticks nonetheless.

Hanging on: Paper-thin dead leaves haven’t given way to spring yet.

What I’ve been reading: Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman; Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (again)
What I’ve been listening to: Tim, The Replacements

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Miracle On or Near 34th Street

Three months shy of three full years in New York, I finally damaged my Metrocard for the first time. The corner is just a little bit bent, but it won’t work anymore. With almost two weeks left on a 30-day unlimited card, what to do?

Miraculously, there is a framework in place to deal with just this sort of situation. I went up to one of the information booths in the station, and the woman there gave me this envelope with an instruction form. I filled out the form – name, address, what kind of card did you have, when did it stop working (or when did you lose it), what was the remaining balance, etc. – slipped my old card in, and mailed it off.

My roommate has had to do this in the past, and she said that it wasn’t speedy, but a refund did indeed appear in the mail. Is it terrible that my customer service expectations have sunk so low that I was profoundly amazed and grateful to hear this? That seeing the words, “We’re sorry you had a MetroCard problem, and we’re here to help” had the same effect that a Hallmark card is supposed to? You can keep your roses and violets; if this actually works, I might kiss the next MTA worker I see.

Not really.

What I’ve been reading: Nurtured By Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education, Shinichi Suzuki; , Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman

What I’ve been listening to: Tim and Let It Be, The Replacements

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Comfort Food, II

“Too bad your comfort food takes an hour to cook.” -my cousin, referring to sweet potatoes

Let’s not kid ourselves; most comfort food really isn’t that healthy for you, physically. But sometimes it is helpful in a mental health sort of way. (To be clear, I’m not telling you to eat chips and M&Ms all day every day; but every now and then…it’s okay to eat something that doesn’t have a vegetable in it.)

Also, I’ve learned from experience, if you’re going to make comfort food, just make it the way you want it. Don’t try to make it healthier by using whole wheat pasta if what you’re really craving is refined flour, and for the love of God if you ever use soy butter, please don’t tell me about it. I’m happier not knowing.

That said, here’s the real recipe for macaroni and cheese casserole, the way it’s meant to be (i.e. my mom’s recipe).

Macaroni and Cheese Casserole

Ingredients:

1 lb (box) macaroni, cooked
16 oz. cottage cheese
2 eggs
2 cups shredded cheddar
2 cups shredded mozzarella
milk – 1/2″ in a 9×13″ pan
parmesan and wheat germ (optional) for top

Preheat the oven to 350 F and cook the pasta. Mix cooked pasta with all other ingredients and pour into pan with milk. Top with parmesan and wheat germ. Bake uncovered for 20-30 minutes, until top is bubbly and brown.

Simple and delicious! DO try this at home.

Unfortunately, I found myself missing many of the necessary ingredients when the desire for this dish overtook me, and was forced to make a shifty sort of substitute.

Instead of elbow noodles –> whole wheat spiral pasta
No cottage cheese
2 eggs –> 1 egg
Instead of milk –> almond milk
Instead of parmesan and wheat germ –> bread crumbs, dried oregano and basil

Also, as you can see, I made a smaller casserole, in a 9×5 bread pan instead of a 9×13 casserole dish. It was all right; edible, but not great. Next time I will make that extra trip to the corner store for cottage cheese (which I never have on hand, because I don’t use it for anything else) and real macaroni noodles.

Pioneer Woman also has more than one recipe for macaroni and cheese. I won’t be offended if you head over there and end up using hers instead.

What I’m reading: Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman
What I’m listening to: Horses, Patti Smith; Staring at the Sea, The Cure; Slanted & Enchanted, Pavement

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The Four Right Chords

And the four right chords can make me cry

-Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”

Music is something I’ve thought a lot about, ever since seventh grade or so, when I discovered a radio station I liked (one that played something newer than the Beatles). I remember buying one or two albums because I’d heard a good song on the radio, but it turned out that’s all it was – one good song and twelve mediocre ones. Then, early in high school, a good friend introduced me to punk music, and I fell in love. The albums were consistent; there was a recognizable sound, and I liked it. I could learn its patterns and rhythms and it quickly became familiar.

I remember also walking into my first show at The Living Room, a small all-ages club where bands on their way from LA to San Francisco would stop and play. A local high school band was playing the first time I went. The room was entirely dark, with scuffed linoleum floors, walls painted black, dingy couches around the perimeter. The stage was small and lit with blue twinkle lights, and the sound – it sounded like a car crash. My friend had forgotten to bring the ear plugs she’d promised, but I could deal with ringing ears later: here was a roomful of people, silent, dark, nodding, occasionally shifting from foot to foot but mostly still. I thought, Yes.

Music is important even for us non-musicians, “professional appreciators” as Nick Hornby’s Rob in High Fidelity would have it. Hornby must be responsible for starting hundreds, possibly thousands, of conversations about music, and my own most focused thought on the subject tends to follow the reading of one of his books. I read his essay collection Songbook back in January, and it got me thinking, specifically about music and lyrics. What follows here I started writing in February – my attempt to hash out my thoughts about music and words. It got to be a bit sprawling, but today being the birthday of the person who got me into this mess in the first place, now’s the time. So, with thanks to Cat (for the music) and Cait and Ben (for editing, and more music)…

*

“Music is such a pure form of self-expression, and lyrics, because they consist of words, are so impure…Words will always let you down,” writes Nick Hornby in Songbook. I generally agree with Hornby, but not this time; I can’t. “Words will always let you down”? For me,  words – lyrics – are nearly always the way in which I enter a song, my access point. Only after memorizing the lyrics will I turn my attention to guitar, drums, bass, and begin to listen for anything out of the ordinary – a keyboard or a trumpet or an electric violin.

There are bands I never would have listened to if not for their lyrics; AFI is the first one that comes to mind. I spent hours in high school squinting at the tiny print in liner notes, struggling against the tide of horrible grammatical errors in all caps (Did anyone consider copy-editing these? I wondered), to understand what Davy Havok was screaming. When I got a new album, I listened to it once all the way though while following along with the lyrics in the liner notes, to catch every word. Because I  listened to punk rock almost exclusively, it became easier and easier to decode a new song by ear. What was noise at first resolved itself into discrete sounds and words.

The musicians I know hear the parts of a song in the reverse order that I do; a guitar player and I can listen to the same song for the first time and hear completely different things. They hear what’s going on in the music itself first, and lyrics come second, if at all. But lyrics are, at their best, poetry, and to miss the words to songs like “Joey” by Staring Back or “Crush” by Jimmy Eat World or “Of Greetings and Goodbyes” by AFI, or a whole slew of others…if you’re only listening to the music, you aren’t getting the full value of the song. [See below for lyrics]

This is not to say that I will listen to a song that has brilliant lyrics even if the music is terrible; the music is what carries the words, and that’s important too. I’m more likely, in fact, to listen to a song that is great musically but has sub-par lyrics than the other way around. There are times I’ve seen the lyrics before hearing the song – “Ambulance” by TV On The Radio, for example – and been disappointed when I heard it all together. And there are songs whose lyrics are silly without being clever, or just bland or trite, but the music is so good you can’t help getting into it. Good music can save bad lyrics, but good lyrics won’t make me listen to a bad song over and over. A friend of mine’s standards for lyrics are thus: “Something I won’t feel too embarrassed to sing along to at the top of my lungs.” (This particular friend does everything at the top of his lungs. I bet his kindergarten teacher went through hell trying to get him to use an “indoor voice.”)

However, even though I notice lyrics first, I don’t discount all the rest just because I can’t analyze it the same way. The words are just what grab my attention first – like people having a loud conversation at the next table, I can’t help hearing them. I agree with Hornby when he writes, “There is something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out.” Words aren’t everything, and even if I don’t know what it is about a chord change that makes me feel sorrow or exultation, it acts on me; as Hornby writes, “The best music connects to the soul, not the brain.”

There is so much music that I enjoy listening to, and most of it doesn’t have top-notch music and brilliant lyrics; it doesn’t connect to the soul OR the brain (not meaningfully, anyway. But then, you can’t eat chocolate cake all day long.) The best songs, though, are the ones that have both, equally matched, supporting each other. These are the ones I come back to again and again, the ones that I’ve been listening to for years, or the new ones that are immediately arresting, instantly compelling. “The ones with the magic,” as Robert Mapplethorpe would say; Roland Barthes would use the Latin word Punctum, for the detail that wounds.

In Love Begins in Winter, Simon Van Booy writes, “Music is what language once aspired to be.” Nick Hornby quotes English writer and critic Walter Pater’s almost identical phrasing of a similar sentiment stated more broadly: “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” Maybe all of this aspiration to express what is, ultimately, inexpressible – a nameless, sourceless yearning – is more perfectly rendered in pure sound. Though in my experience, a line in a poem or a passage in a book can go as deeply and as swiftly to the core as music can, there are also times when, finally, you reach the limit of language, and you can only point wordlessly and say, Look. Listen. As Rumi writes, “I can’t stop pointing to the beauty.”

*

One of the most oft-quoted and best-known lines from High Fidelity is when Rob muses to himself, “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to music?” There is a tendency, when we are sad, to listen to sad music. Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to happy music, to try to change our mood? But what we want, I think, is something with which we can empathize, which empathizes with us – having someone “articulate your sadness for you,” as my no-indoor-voice friend put it, can be calming and healing. It is a little bit like fighting fire with fire, matching sadness to sadness; what you’re feeling now, someone else has felt before, and that is comforting. We self-medicate with music; the analogy I have used ever since I started using headphones is that of an IV drip (minus the unpleasantness of the needle). Sound flows into us, and we are soothed.

Where does the power of music come from? Why do we listen to the same songs over and over again, and why do we foist them upon our friends, insisting that they listen, hoping that they hear what we hear and feel what we feel? It’s as if moods have their own frequencies, and songs have frequencies too, and if we hear the right song at the right time, the wavelengths synchronize and everything resonates. (Apologies to any scientists reading this.) The power comes from that resonance. We want to express ourselves, and we want to be understood. Music helps us with these twin needs, whether it’s a lyric that articulates what we’ve been trying to say, or a chord change that resonates.

It’s no coincidence that I “discovered” music when I did; teenagers are perennially striving to express themselves and be understood. Music is a means to both of these ends. It is more expressive, private, and meaningful than, for example, what you wear, and it is far more enduring (though I do still have clothes from high school). That first show at The Living Room was, if I’m not mistaken, exactly ten years ago today. It would be overly dramatic to say I wouldn’t have made it through the last decade without music, but it would have been a lot harder, less fun, and more colorless. So, to the bands for the music, and to friends for the recommendations, I’ll echo the Descendents – thank you.

“So don’t forget the songs that made you cry
And the songs that saved your life…” -The Smiths, “Rubber Ring”

Happy listening.

*

Lyrics:

From “Of Greetings and Goodbyes,” AFI:

…Enter all the monsters, let us twist another fairy tale…

“Joey,” Staring Back:

If now’s the time to get it right, it won’t be over
I won’t get over this
I thought about what I did (what I did)
The air is colder than your shoulder, it won’t be over
until you’re through with it
Times have changed, but I haven’t
I wonder what you’d say
if I was never in your way
Without you to occupy my mind
and I’ve wasted all my time
I know what’s right, it’s untouchable like
You know I’m right
I’m the shadow in your light

“Crush,” Jimmy Eat World:

Faintest snow keep falling. Hands around your waist. Nameless, standing cold. Take in restraint like a breath. My lungs are so numb from holding back. Walk close to the fence, feel it hit clothes. Turn and smile nice. Smile, say goodnight. Say goodnight in a breath. Simple discourse breaks you clean in half. Regret. Do try it once but then you know. It’s your move. Settle for less again.

“Thank You,” the Descendents:

I listen to you for hours, I’ll listen all day
Just keep hitting me the right way
Sing your song in the shower
Cause you got a way
To say what I can never say right – right on
When I feel weak you make me feel strong
Make me feel strong

I won’t say your name
But you know who you are
I’ll never be the same again now – no way
I just want to say
Thank you for playing the way you play

You don’t get played on the radio
That’s not the game you play
Well I don’t care anyway
I glued your tape in the stereo
So I know every word, every note
And every chord is right – right on
When I feel weak you make me feel strong
Make me feel strong feel like nothing’s wrong

I won’t say your name
You know who you are
I’ll never be the same again now – no way
I just want to say thank you for playing the
Way you play

Did you know you’re why I go
And waste my time
At a rock and roll show
You let me know I’m not alone
You make me feel strong, make me feel strong,
Feel like nothing’s wrong

I won’t say your name, you know who you are
I’ll never be the same again now – no way
I just want to say
Thank you for playing the way you play



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