Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Dinner, 5 Minutes Late

This was one of the pieces I exhibited Friday night.

People had strong reactions to it. One guy dragged his girlfriend over, pointed, and said, "That's every Thanksgiving my whole life." Some folks ran off, and a lot of nodded vigorously with tight lips. People sought me out to share what they thought.

What a gift it was to make art, have the chance to put it into the world, and receive such a big response. I am blessed.

Many thanks to Tara for the photo! I came home that night to discover my camera had no film in it. Time to go digital, I suspect. If I can get clear photos of the other two pieces, I'll post those too. I did one with egg timers that people freaked out about. Mind-blowing. I can't believe this is my life.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Makin' food art

Tomorrow night I'm putting some artwork into the public sphere for the first time ever. Yikes! It's for my friend Russell's monthly club down in Chinatown, Knobturnal. If you live in L.A. and are free, please come by! It's food art; I have far too much experience with food and have had brushes with art, hopefully it'll balance out into deliciously disturbing pieces. Two are done (one's a bit naughty), and the third I'll assemble there. They're not even edible- it's really art.
In my family growing up my sister Jen was The Artist (my dad is a closet artist, he's great at drawing feet). I was The Writer, hey... and there was no point in trying to live up to Jen's talent. I'm glad I found a roundabout way to make a little art of my own.
Despite my difficulties with technology, I'll do my best to post some photos of the work... though it's best seen in person!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Urban Tomato Growers, Unite! (Membership: 1)

I'm growing my own damn salad. Well, that's the plan. We'll see how it actually pans out.
Tory plans, God laughs. -Shiksa proverb

I don't know if you noticed but recently spinach, a veggie I've always loved (the only one my mother couldn't overcook) has been killing people. Or making them grossly ill. Though this was tidings of great joy for most small children, I was not pleased. The bigger huge agribusiness gets the more often these problems occur, and the more homogenized our food becomes. Think about all those pale sad tomatoes you see in the grocery store (not the beautiful heirlooms you find at your farmers market, on or occasionally at Whole Paycheck). They all look eerily the same, don't they? And they're all quite equal in their mealiness, bland flavor, and boredom factor, no? It's not a mistake. Those suckers were bred to be shipped long distances, nothing more.
And let's reflect on the word "agribusiness" for a minute. It gives me chills. They lopped off the "culture" for a reason: it truly is factory farming now. There are three big corporations (ConAgra and friends) that control a scary majority of our country's food production. That's unnatural. For real reporting on this, check out At the point where spinach isn't safe anywhere, something has gone wrong.
Ok, so what can I do? Other than complain while the children shout with glee? I live in a city, I have no yard, I'm not a lobbyist in D.C. What can I actually change?
It all started with this tomato.
In July I was slicing one of these glorious fruits in half for lunch; when I opened it up I saw all these crazy squiggly green and white thingys. Ack! My co-worker leaned over and said, "Oh look. The seeds must have started to sprout." Uh, right, yeah. You'd never guess my dad planted a big vegetable garden every summer for much of my childhood. sigh. So I took that sucker home, stuck it in a tiny pot and dumped some dirt over it. I set it outside my door, right next to the basil plant I was slowly killing (something I do every summer), and forgot. When the basil leaves were shrivelled and crying I'd water everything, but whatever. I watered a pot of dirt for a month and a half, simply because I was too lazy to throw it out.
But then It Happened. One day a teeny tiny sprout with two little leaves stuck up a 1/2 inch from the dirt. Eureka! I'd done it, in spite of myself! I was growing a tomato. After that I took a keen interest in caring for my tiny charge, and today a big yellow flower bloomed on top of my 18-inch tall tomato plant. Magnificent.
Check it out, dear reader, here's the result of that flower a few weeks later!

The weather is getting cold (well, by Southern California standards), so yesterday I replanted the tomato plant and the basil, which miraculously survived my "care" this summer. I stuck them both in a pretty aluminum trough, filled in the gaps with potting soil and brought them inside. Apparently basil and tomatoes are more than good neighbors on the plate; an English gardener who has genuine expertise informed me they grow well together, uh, there are complimentary nutrients that they give or deplete from the soil... I wasn't paying close attention, but it's a good pairing. This morning I found a packet of organic mesclun salad greens from Seeds of Change. I think I'll throw them in the mix and see if I can grow my own damn salad; bite me, ConAgra.
And you know, there's something deeply satisfying about growing a little seed (ok, weird sprouted tomato) from an empty pot of soil into a strong, tall plant that smells green-tomatoey and may someday feed me. I feel a little closer to the mystery of the Universe.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Bone Strippers

This past week I learned of the deaths of four different people who made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Tonight I sat down with a leg of chicken, some green beans and a smidge of macaroni and cheese. Even in my sadness, I felt alive as my teeth sunk down to bone. It gave me great pleasure to leave a tidy pile of bones on my plate, and I thought about how the most tender, juiciest meat is always found by the bone. Why do some people leave it?
I've concluded there are two paths: you're either a Bone Stripper, or a Meat Leaver. I am a Bone Stripper, which means when presented with a barbequed rib, leg of chicken or t-bone I leave that sucker clean. I like to think it's indicative of a fearless lust for living, that I truly "suck the marrow out of life." I used to work with a guy I didn't like or respect, but when the two of us were given a plate of ribs it was a bloody carnival. There's something very primal about sinking your teeth into the flesh of another creature until you hit the bone; in our sanitized world of styrofoam wrapped meat that doesn't bleed, I like to be reminded of the wild violent truth behind my dinner. A living creature died to become this rotisserie chicken. I appreciate the chicken's sacrifice for my table; it seems disrespectful to waste any part of it.
Sometimes I judge people who are not bone strippers. I see them as fearful, reluctant to embrace being fully alive. Then I realize I'm judging people, something I try not to do (everyone's doing her best, me included) and I strive to see it differently. Is it possible the Meat Leavers are more peaceful, dare I say it, more evolved than those of us driven by our baser instincts? Perhaps.
Or are there hints of desperation in my determination to ferret out every last tiny bit of food? This preference might've been set by my humble early years: when your family has little money for meat it is sacrilege to leave any behind. We did not have the luxury of acknowledging an 'ick' factor with the soft, too-pink meat at the center of the leg. Hmm, but one of my sisters is definitely a Meat Leaver today. It cannot be all nurture.
To live a lusty and passionate life I must eat with gusto, even in my grief. My best thanks for this time is to be fully, deliciously alive, to savor the juicy, tender meat all the way down to the bone.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I'd like to teach the world to eat...

I spent a *delightful* Saturday morning with my friends Nina and Grace, pals from the magazine, eating dim sum until our bellies were about to burst.
Ben Franklin (Patron Saint of Philadelphia) said, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." He was almost right. I'd argue dim sum is much better proof: it lasts longer on the palate, and I don't think anyone ever started a fight after dim sum. You're too sleepy. Plus it's freakin' delicious.
A quick primer for the uninitiated: dim sum is a traditional Chinese brunch usually eaten with several generations of family around a big table. Or if you're me, a motley crew of hearty foodies. It's the original tapas, the OG small plate. Many brusque, often pushy ladies wheel shiny metal carts to each table and lift the lids off little steamers to reveal every imaginable delight. You point to what you want and she plunks it on the table, then stamps your check (all the stamps are tallied when you're done to determine the bill). Then the cart zooms off with a zeal that makes NY taxi drivers seem like drugged turtles.
These ethereal morsels have every sort of wrapper and filling. If there were a poster dumpling for dim sum, it would be siu mai (pronounced shoo-my), which has a thin wonton wrapper filled with a mixture of ground pork and shrimp, and is open on top. There are also crispy fried delicacies, steamed buns, crunchy Chinese broccoli (like a non-bitter broccoli rabe), little pork spareribs... I'd estimate there are easily 50 or 60 different options floating around in different carts at any one moment. Each dish contains 2-4 items and everybody shares. It's easy to try something new; if you're only committing to half a little football-shaped rice puff stuffed with beef (an excellent choice, yum), why not be brave?
There are sometimes language barriers in this process. One cart has many choices; I only know the (Cantonese) Chinese name for a few of my favorites, and the ladies driving the carts speak very fast when describing each dish. They're tough cookies with little time for round eyes who don't speak Chinese.
This Saturday was different. I'd brought a little book with me, aptly titled Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide by Kit Shan Li. It's ideal: each page has a yummy photo of a dish, and underneath are the Chinese characters, a phonetic pronounciation, the English name and the ingredients. A picture book for hungry grown-ups.
Now Nina, Grace and I are consummate dim sum eaters. Heck, even Graciela's frijole-in-the-oven had been before. (A blessed child already.) But Nina started flipping through the book as our chopsticks slowed down, and a curious thing happened. One of the ladies with carts actually stopped. She pointed to the photo of the sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf and the characters written underneath it, and gave a smile. I, because I am fearless or foolish (depends on the day) made an attempt at the pronounciation. She glanced at me a little wide eyed and said it back. I grinned.
She motioned some other ladies over, and soon we had several carts parked at our table. The ladies waited while Nina turned the pages, occasionally pointing at the photos while murmuring to each other. They looked pleased, and I continued here and there with my best attempts at saying the names (I've been listening carefully for many years, it wasn't too bad). The first lady smiled and corrected me a couple times, and we all glanced at each other and laughed a little. Then the carts zipped away and we set the book down to finish eating. Grace, Nina and I went back to talking about writing and babies and my colorful love life.
It was a quick exchange, but I believe this is part of how we make the world a peaceful place, a little nudge of the scale towards the 'stop killing each other' end. In that moment we were all just people delighted by the same book, who giggled at my attempts to get the words right and the wise lady's corrections. We paused to look each other in the eye.
This is why I love food. We all eat, but when you're willing to do something as intimate as take another person's history and culture into your own body, it's also a political act. It's better than "tolerance" because it's literal acceptance. My parents have these neighbors who say rotten racist things about Mexicans; I can't picture them at an Oaxacan restaurant eating nuanced, earthy mole, even though it's so delicious it (also) proves God loves us. But I like to think if someone dragged them there, if they took a bite, maybe in their hearts they'd suspect they'd been horribly wrong.
I have this fantasy of opening a kosher, halal falafel stand in the Gaza Strip. I know fried chickpea patties alone can't fix things, but I want to keep nudging that scale towards the peaceful, loving end. Besides, we have to eat every day. How cool is it to use a basic need to connect with the rest of humanity? We can all sit down at that table.