Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Comfort Levels


For the last two mornings, I've had my feet on the floor seconds after waking up, gulped down my coffee, showered and dressed as though the building was on fire, and made my way to a windowless room filled with chairs. There I was surrounded by silent people, almost all of them staring at pieces of plastic, and all of us waiting for our names to be called.

This morning I woke up slowly, made coffee, and am still drinking it almost an hour later. There's sunlight pouring into my apartment and the day stretches out like an adventure. This is my usual way of beginning a morning, and as a routine, it can't be beat.

I admit, I live in a bubble. There are days when I never leave Chinatown--or even my apartment. When I do, it's usually to meet a friend for a meal and a visit, or to go to my favorite bookstore. Once a year, I leave the country. My schedule, such as it is, is one of my own making and I like it that way.

As a prospective juror, my hackles rose from the second I lined up at the courthouse door to go through a security check. When I reached the assembly room and found that I'd rushed through waking up just so I could sit for hours waiting for a list of names to be called, I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise just a trifle. And although I don't begrudge the pittance I gave, I think it's unconscionable that a childcare center for offspring of people who have to go to court is financed entirely through the contributions of the jury pool.

Each time I was released, mercifully early, I stopped on my way home for lunch as a tiny reward for my discomfort. Each time I was served something that sounded good but was borderline disgusting. (Reminder to self: American cheese is actually closely related to Velveeta and "hazelnut and sea salt" means a mealy version of peanut butter.)

If the sunlight holds, I want to be near the water today, which will take me out of my bubble. If it fades into clouds, I'll stay in my neighborhood, running errands, seeing friends, and eating something that won't make me feel victimized. It's a good life and I needed that jolt of realization--which is why I will always answer that call to jury duty.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

White Out


When I'm sick, I become obsessive-compulsive, which is so far from my usual behavior that it always comes as a shock to me when I fall into it. A week ago, still feeling miserable but ambulatory, I went to a supermarket for provisions and came home with a copy of Vogue.

This is also far from my usual behavior and I blame it on Serena Williams, fierce, strong, beautiful, and black, gazing at me from the cover. How often do you see a woman with real shoulders on the cover of Vogue? Or more importantly, how often do you see a woman who is truly dark taking that pride of place? (If she's the First Lady, I don't think that counts.)

So because I was suffering from a virus that carried OCD, I began to count how many non-white faces I saw in this particular issue of Vogue. At first glance, there seemed to be quite a few but I wanted to nail down the exact number.

The editorial pages featured women of color but when I began to count, fifty faces were not white, or were of more than one race. And yes I included the Australian singer whose bloodline includes Maori. The remaining eighty-eight faces were pale and Euro-based.

The faces in the advertising pages? Twenty-two were of women of color. Ninety-two were white, very, very white.

So who is buying clothes anyway? Only white women? And of those white women, only those under the age of thirty with milk skin? The reason for the imbalance has to be economic, because Vogue's editorial pages clearly show that beauty comes in all colors. (Only Dolce and Gabbana dared to suggest that it might come in all ages, with their trio of short, stout, old women dressed in black and holding bejeweled handbags.)

A week later, feeling better but not up to full speed, I bought a copy of Vanity Fair. But my point of view was still altered by Vogue. As I flipped through the pages, I realized almost every ad had a white face, very, very white. (None of those faces were the triumvirate pictured by Dolce and Gabbana.)

As an olive-skinned woman, I began to look for anyone who might look like me. I found ten faces that were not pale white, not ten pages--ten faces that were my color or darker. Of those faces, three were African American, and one of those faces was Kerry Washington. Even the damned high-tech sex dolls that were spotlit in one of the articles were all pale white, making me wonder if white is the new fetish.

A buxom Columbian beauty showed quite a bit of her fair skin on Vanity Fair's cover, which is so dominated by cut-lines that the image is no more than wallpaper. But in very small type near the woman's left arm are the words, "If you haven't got it, you can't show it. If you have got it, you can't hide it." In even smaller type is the name of the woman who made that observation--Zora Neale Hurston.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Lady Lazurus Leaves L.A.




My Seattle neighborhood is loaded with grocery stores of all sizes that sell ingredients from all over Asia. China and Japan are well represented, with Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines crowding close behind them, and cameo appearances by India and Korea. I felt as though I'd seen it all until my friend the L.A. Resident introduced me to her friend the L.A. Native Daughter, who is the author of a comprehensive guide to restaurants in Koreatown. (Korean Restaurant Guide Los Angeles published by the Good Overseas Korean Restaurant Recommendation project).

The L.A. Native Daughter is tiny and elegant and one of the most knowledgeable eaters I've ever met. A food journalist, she embraces every aspect of the art of eating, from gardens to supermarkets to wineries--and of course restaurants. I had wanted to get a glimpse of Koreatown and I was lucky to have her as my guide, since this is her culinary backyard.



She began with a shopping mall that could well have been in Bangkok, except for the different alphabet. Sparkling and spacious with small shops and a profusion of daylight, its ground floor was dominated by a supermarket, which had me holding my breath with surprise and delight from the minute I walked in.

The produce section alone, with its huge section of different varieties of chile peppers, was enough to make me love this place, but as we went on through the aisles, I realized it was a culinary education. At the back of it was a very small food court with several tables and I knew my next trip would involve days within this supermarket, taking notes and eating whatever was being cooked that day.

Our next foray was into a bakery where the orange juice was fresher than any I'd had since Thailand and the pastries looked like jewelry from Tiffany's. We ended our tour at a busy restaurant that served its dishes in earthenware bowls the size of small washbasins, along with a tableful of savory snacks--I'm still haunted by the flavor of their kimchee, which pierced through my cold-drenched tastebuds and made me feel alive again.



The best way to end a trip is to find, on my last day, a spot I long to see more of; that's what the L.A. Resident and the L.A. Native Daughter gave me. I know there's so much more to their city than I saw this time around, but the places they showed me are ones that I could spend the rest of my life exploring.


Five days in another country that's less than three hours away by air is a lot like having every wish I've ever had come true. The city I visited is like no other I've ever seen--and I cannot wait to see more of it. Thank you, L.A.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mapping on Foot



I never feel that I've visited a place until I've walked it, which of course makes Los Angeles a challenge. However I was staying in what might one of the city's most walkable neighborhoods and I spent a large portion of my first day there on foot with a camera.

I'm easily delighted by small things like old tile on worn steps or an unexpected sign on a building. Graffiti framed in a doorway on a busy street always brings me to a halt and I am a sucker for deep, sharp shadows. My walks in undiscovered territory take me a very long time, which is why I always take them alone.


I saw so much in such a small area on my first day: art deco buildings studded with enigmatic names (Rock Etiquette?), a wonderfully anachronistic newsstand, a high school that looked palatial with a hangout called the Detention Room across the street, a Russian bakery that hit me with the smells from my childhood moments in NYC the minute I walked inside and the neighboring Arbat Deli, both seconds away from a gigantic Whole Foods, jolts of street art.


With so much to feed my eyes, I forgot to eat and by the time I reached the place where I was staying, I knew that had been a big mistake. Although Los Angeles was much less heat-filled than I'd expected, the clarity and brilliance of its light was making me dizzy and I needed to be somewhere with no stimulation at all. A few blocks away was the place where I'd had my morning banana and coffee and I'd spent enough time there earlier that it no longer felt anything but familiar. By the time I got there, I felt pale and shaky. Sinking into a chair in a cool room was all I really wanted, but I ordered a small smoothie and sipped it as slowly as I could.


Suddenly there was nothing to see, nothing to record. Gradually my shaking went away and when I looked outside, the light seemed less stabbing than it had been an hour ago. When I left the cafe, my steps were slow and purposeful and as I walked toward food and a friend, I forced myself not to lapse into amazement. Not an easy achievement in Los Angeles, but sometimes you simply have to down tools.



Later that evening, a strong, hot wind came out of the hills and slapped carefully planted trees and bushes with its rush of blown sand. Blinking my scratched eyes as I walked, I felt grateful for this momentary lapse of vision.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Art as Life on the Eastside


I was fogged-in on my second morning in Los Angeles, with a truly disgusting collection of germs that had me choked up, effluvient, and a little feverish. My friend the L.A. Resident drove me through Koreatown into downtown and beyond, where suddenly working-class bungalows were slammed up against gigantic, vivid wall murals. Even in my clouded state, I was dazzled, This was art that existed as expression of a neighborhood and I wanted to see it all, a visual greed that I hadn't felt since my time at Angkor.

El Mercado de Los Angeles is the closest way to see it all, especially when a cold has lent a hallucinatory cast to life. Built in 1968, it's a center for the cultural and culinary life of people whose roots in this area extend back for centuries as well as for those new arrivals who are eager to find a touch of home. Although I'm sure it receives more than its share of tourists, my friend and I were the only ones whom I saw there last Wednesday morning.


Art was everywhere--devotional, entrepreneurial, aspirational, and optimistic. Eat and be shapely! Drink and have a healthy spleen! (Or is that a gall bladder?)




And perhaps territorial--


I'm a woman whose life is dominated by words, but my greatest joy often comes from being in a place where images supplant language. After the market, walking down a street with a boulder in my chest, I stopped thinking and simply stared at wall after wall of art, integrated with commerce and food and daily living. More than anyplace else I went in this puzzling and exciting city, I wanted to stay and learn all of the languages of this community--art, music, kitchen, and words.





Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Smashing All of My Circuits



Because it is such a short flight from Seattle, and one that remains in the same time zone from beginning to end, it's hard to accept that coming to Los Angeles means entering a whole other universe. Even in the placid neighborhood of West Hollywood, where I would sleep for the next five days, sharp sunlight cast tropical shadows and the sky was a piercing blue, accented by the fronds of palm trees. Flowers that I usually see in Bangkok were part of the landscape and when I went for coffee on my first morning I was hit by the fragrance of dok gau--a whole hedge of those fragile white blossoms.





There were surprises--the silence of the residential area where I stayed, with so little traffic that this small dude ruled the street.


And flowers that had to have been invented by Dr. Seuss--bottlebrush flowers that are usually found in Australia and India.


I was in this part of town just long enough for contrast; soon after my arrival, my friend the L.A. Resident took me to one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, Eagle Rock. Next door to the bowling alley that was an integral part of the beginning of Reservoir Dogs is a corral of food trucks and an assortment of chairs and tables. More of a community picnic than an outdoor food court, accessorized by craft booths selling distinctive and pricey jewelry, the space was heavily populated with families of small children and gentrification seemed at a minimum.

In fact, according to an Eagle Rock blogger, who moved to the area with the hopes of turning it into Pasadena, the food trucks are discouraging the economics of gentrification, along with the neighborhood pot shops and the carloads of Armenian gangmembers. (Yup. that's what she said.) Her fancy coffee shop is often eclipsed by a food truck selling shaved ice and the local Trader Joe's is suffering too. I don't know about you but that would be enough to keep me patronizing the food trucks every night of the week. Plus the food is damned good.

On the way there, we passed miles of small businesses whose signs were in Spanish. On the way back signs written completely in Thai gleamed through the dark blue night. The air was cool and when I reached my room, I pulled a down comforter around me, closed my eyes, and was dazzled by memories of neon without translation and the fragrance of small ghostly flowers.




Monday, March 30, 2015

Around the World in Five Days without a Passport--Part One


This is what I expected to see in Los Angeles--a fantasy-filled corner brimming with props for rent or for sale. But except for that, the huge CBS complex, and morning preparations for a red-carpet gala evening, the movie business wasn't a keynote of my five days in the city. Instead what I saw was a city that has never heard of assimilation--at least not yet.

I live in a city that's a collection of small towns. Los Angeles is a collection of small cities, each one its own separate entity, independent of its neighboring counterparts. And best of all, each with its own food, which is served to people who want the real thing.

Even in the downtown area, which is being revitalized by turning warehouses into living-lofts and condominiums, the revamped Grand Central Market proved it wasn't just another trendy place to graze. I was dubious when I walked in and was greeted with Egg Slut, but just a few feet away I stopped dead in my tracks. There, behind a cluttered counter, was a plate of crisp and golden khanom krok, the bite-sized coconut-milk-filled pancake that is limp and flabby in this country, assuming that it can be found at all.

The ones at Sticky Rice looked a lot like this: (credit to ch3rri-blossoms.blogspot.com/)



and when I bought a little box of them, the woman who sold them to me told me to be careful because they were still hot. They were perfect, and although I walked the length of the market as I ate them, I knew where I was going to have my lunch.

I had no intention of eating Thai food in Los Angeles--my goals were Mexican and Korean places on this trip. But only a fool would pass up a place that could make khanom krok that was as good (or even better) than what I've enjoyed in Bangkok. Besides, I'd been slapped with a horrendous cold and it was screaming for Thai chile peppers. I ordered the Chiang Mai signature dish of khao soi, sat at the lunch counter, and let the lime and chile go to work on my sinuses while I watched flames shoot up from an open grill. Next time I'm in town, I'm getting the grilled pork neck.

Downtown L.A. is a mixture of nascent gentrification and urban life in the rough. There are at least two separate communities on the streets and they don't seem to mingle much. People who clearly have nothing live their lives on the pavement without panhandling those who clearly have much more,

It's an area that is on the cusp--Skid Row meets Starbucks. At this point it's still affordable to people with fixed incomes--one loft conversion had studios for under $800, utilities included and no pet fee. Yes, I was tempted. Only a block away was The Last Bookstore, an old bank building that is now a mixture of new and used books and very quirky art.


If I lived in one of those studios, one of my neighbors would be the Bradbury Building of BladeRunner fame and across the street from that is this:


There are newsstands


and street murals.


It's a place with pedestrians and parks and a supermarket. It's also, according to a downtown free newspaper, "where some people are quite happy. Others are quite hungry." The Last Bookstore directs its customers to Starbucks when they need a restroom and Starbucks is feeling a bit strained as a result. Famous for their clean toilets, their Spring Street outlet pushes that envelope just a trifle--bring your own toilet paper.

The disparities of this part of the city would become jagged to me if I lived in this neighborhood--and yet there are others...

Friday, March 6, 2015

My Favorite Glutton Strikes Again!

All over the world people are looking for street food, except perhaps for the people who grew up eating it. They’re often looking for more “sophistication” in their dining choices, which range from McDonalds to elegant sous vide joints, depending upon their income levels. They’re replaced by travelers, whose eagerness to find street food is exceeded only by their ignorance. Where? What? When?  (And sometimes)—Why?

Four years ago, Chawadee Nualkhair (www.bangkokglutton.com) brought light to the darkness for Bangkok visitors when she wrote Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, which is now out of print but still relevant if you can find one on alibris or at a used bookstore. (I suggest Dasa Books and Coffee in Bangkok.) This year she brings Thailand’s Best Street Food to eaters whose ambition surpasses their local knowledge—or for Thai residents who are overwhelmed by their culinary choices.



It may seem hubristic to the point of madness to narrow Thailand’s street food choices to a scant 160 pages, but that isn’t what Ms. Nualkhair is doing. She has written a sort of eater’s primer, giving a springboard of information that will launch the reader’s own journey of discovery—or, with any luck at all, her own series of street food guides to the regions she introduces in her latest book.

She begins with questions: Is street food dying out? What is a street food stall? How did she make her selections for this book? The question and answer that I loved best in her first book is absent here: How do you determine the hygiene of a particular vendor? Nualkhair’s advice is look carefully at the jars that hold condiments; if they aren’t clean, walk away.

A visual glossary to different kinds of noodles with accompanying ingredients and broth, fried noodles, rice dishes, appetizers and snacks, desserts, and beverages, with names in both English and Thai is almost worth the price of the book. Don’t want ice in your drink? Point to the Thai script for it and shake your head vigorously with a dramatic rendition of “Nononono." The only thing missing is the Thai script for “Where is the toilet?” which just might come in handy.

Otherwise the reader is covered, beyond a doubt. There are maps to each culinary destination; there are names and addresses of the food stalls both in English and in Thai, there are wonderful and tempting photographs (that certainly deserve more space than they have been given), and every so often there is a recipe—Elvis Suki’s Grilled Scallops, anyone? Adventurous eaters are even told which stalls have restrooms and which do not provide bathroom tissue.

The choices range from north to south, with the greatest concentration given to Bangkok. But every region is given careful attention—think quality over quantity, along with information that will help in conducting further independent study.

Really, what more does anyone need? On my next trip to Thailand, this book is going along too.



Monday, March 2, 2015

Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris--Seattle Version

My neighborhood is not known for its sartorial elegance. There are cute and perky girls who look great in the latest trends, many of which come straight from Tokyo, but they're cute, not drop dead. But then we live in a city where a visitor from San Francisco once said, "The people are so earthy, so real so Paul Bunyonesque." And that was at least ten years before grunge took over--Seattle has always had the dowdy and well-made garb of old money or the utilitarian clothing of fishermen and loggers.

So when I saw a coat on the street outside my apartment that was unlike I had ever seen in my life, I almost stopped moving. It looked something like this:


The woman who wore it looked as though she'd been born with it on--it was part of her, when it could well have overwhelmed her. Briefly I wondered where she was from and then carried on with my errands.

When I returned, I did stop in my tracks. In the window of Kobo, a neighborhood shop/gallery was a coat, much like the one I had seen earlier. It floated like a soap bubble or a spiderweb caught in fabric. I went into the shop that I rarely ever frequent and asked "What is that coat in the window? It's the most beautiful piece of clothing I've ever seen."

"Come and meet the designer," I was told, and was led to a room filled with color and fabric collage and clothes that looked as though they would dissolve at a single touch.

As a woman smiled at me, I blurted. "I saw you earlier today and I thought you were the most perfectly dressed person. I almost stopped to tell you."

"Here is the designer," she gestured toward a woman who was much sturdier than she, with the hands of a worker, eyes filled with a kind of divine madness, and a genuinely warm smile.

The clothes were magnetizing me. I moved toward them, trying not to moan and reaching out with one fingertip. "The colors," I breathed. "They are natural," the designer said, "for the blue, I use a plant." "Indigo," I murmured and she smiled, "Yes."

I was drowning in the blues: turquoise, aqua, deep blue. It was like walking through a tide pool, with many magical objects shimmering through the hues. The fabric was a treasure trove of textures and small pieces of flotsam, bits of beach glass and shells and silkworm larva that looked like gold leaf.



"Put something on," the designer said and I said, "I'm too big." "No," she said and her companion held out one of the deep blue overdresses. Tentatively I put one arm in a sleeve, then the other, and stood before a mirror, spellbound.

There is an enchantment connected to Hatsumi Yoshida's clothes. When a piece is on the body, it belongs there. I stood with the same look of belonging to the fabric that I had noticed as part of the beautiful woman on the street earlier in the day. These clothes become whoever puts them on.

And they are playful--a Chanel-cut jacket became a piece of ribbon candy, something that could be worn every day as part of the owner's life. A lace scarf that looked as evanescent as sea foam became a bolero, then when turned upside down, a long jacket. Necklaces that resembled regal Elizabethan collars were designed to be scrunched into different shapes once on the body.

For art, none of these things were expensive, For me, all of it was. I finally began to say goodbye, looking wistfully at the beauty that I wanted so much to own.

"Wait," Hatsumi said, "I have something to give customers." She held out a little bag filled with tiny gleaming beaded pins that looked like a child's dream of silkworms. "But I'm not a customer," I protested. She put a number of different colors on the counter and said, "Choose one."

I went home still wrapped in the magic of her clothes. I dreamed of them and the next morning I went out and bought art to keep, a piece of forest and sea on a bag with a long string of beads to keep it on my shoulder. I carried it when I followed some dragon and lion dancers through the streets where I live and it felt as though it had always been with me.

Hatsumi Yoshida's studio is in Bali, a place I had never wanted to go--until now. You can see her work at www.studiosuna.com

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fear of Cooking


I don't think it's cooking that I'm afraid of really--it's the idea of a routine that makes me flinch and babble. Three square meals, breakfastlunchdinner, eating by rote, using what's in a pantry or refrigerator because it's there, not because it appeals to me at the moment--these are the things that came to mind when I thought of cooking.

And yet since I came back from Thailand, I did plummet into a routine. My meals almost always were plain yogurt, or a lean pork roast, or something to do with chicken. Eating was only joyful if I chopped and pounded for hours to make a Thai dish or if I went out to eat. Or if I succumbed to a pint of really good ice cream. Even I began to realize that this was as boring as any menu from the Better Homes and Garden cookbook.

One day a few weeks ago, I went to Big John's PFI to browse. This is a very unglamorous but exciting food emporium that actually has "staff recommends" cards under the jars and cans and boxes. They have bulk spices and planks of chocolate and salt from all over the world. Their olive oil section is as well-stocked as a single-malt Scotch area in a good liquor store, and as expensive as one too. Their cheese and cured meats case is dazzling, although I don't like either, and the back of the store is devoted exclusively to pasta in all of its glory.

Everything else is in cans or jars, but this is not the canned food I grew up with. I wandered through the shelves, picking up whatever seemed interesting to me, and when I finally reached the counter, I could barely hoist my basket up to the cash register.

Paul on the road to Damascus, me in PFI--it was that kind of turning point. I came home with harissa from Morocco, imam biyaldi from Bulgaria, two different kinds of hot tomato and pepper sauce from that same country, capers, olives, Italian tomatoes in a box, and many different kinds of beans, including fermented ones.

Because I'm playing with canned food, it doesn't feel as though I'm cooking. Almost every day I combine a few things, squeeze in the juice from a fresh lime, after first tossing some badly chopped garlic and Thai chile into heated olive oil. While that simmers, I steam some jasmine rice, thinking of my mother's rice and beans that she learned to cook in Mayaguez. Different flavor principles, same protein values.

It's fun. There's nothing routine about it--at least not yet. And because I live in a city with many different kinds of grocery stores, there's no reason for it to ever go in that direction. Today I bought some chorizo and combined it with that harissa and some Italian tomato sauce and two kinds of beans. At first it seemed like a mistake but it simmered into something that's rich and strange.

It's not cooking. It's amateur alchemy, and I like it.