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.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dangerous Liasons

It's always the bad guys who carry the most clout. In memories, in books, in movies, saturnine smiles beat dimpled grins every damned time.

One of my favorite movies comes from Thailand, in which the mild and suicidal Japanese librarian turns out to be a mild and homicidal killer who fled the bonds of the yakuza. When I choose a flick by Wong Kar-Wai, it's always 2046, with Tony Leung channeling the baser instincts of Rhett Butler, rather than In the Mood for Love, where he is the sweet betrayed husband. And I once had a mammoth argument with a bookselling colleague over the character of Sam in Infernal Affairs. I maintained he was my kind of guy, while my friend sputtered, "Dude's a psycho-killer." Well, yes...

Last night I found out where this predilection comes from, when I watched John Sayles' Baby It's You. Vincent Spano as the Sheik is quintessential cool, even after divulging that he's nicknamed after a condom brand. Even when he's lip-synching to a jukeboxed Frank Sinatra. Even when he finds out that the bonds of social class are stronger than any forged by puppy love.

Watching this as a 60-plus-year-old woman, I'm well aware that the Sheik is a born loser who will be lucky to get a union job somewhere in New Jersey. And yet, he'll always know how to drive a fast get-away car, rule a dive-bar, and carry off a cheap tuxedo--plus the guy can dance, slow-dance, better than anyone else at the prom. That's not a skill that fades over the years.

When I was in first grade, in a one-room schoolhouse where everybody went out for lunch recess at the same time, there was an older man, an eighth-grader, who wore engineer boots, a black leather jacket, and a t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes tucked under the sleeve near one of his biceps. I couldn't stop watching him--he was that cool. He ended up a complete flop in life, naturally--but somewhere at his core, I knew he still had the capacity to win a drag-race.

Yeah, Tony Romano turned into Vincent Vega, but even with that greasy ponytail and pitted complexion and abysmal conversation, he still had it. He was still, at the heart of the matter, cool.

Is this a mental deficiency that ended with my generation? Have the girls who came along post-first-wave feminism grown up without that yearning for modern-day Heathcliffs? Is this a form of "Every woman loves the boot in the face" masochism that deserved to die out? Maybe.

But Caravaggio will always be my favorite character in The English Patient and I never walk into a room without registering the guy who looks as though he might be a mafioso. It's an attitude that just doesn't die, it just lies dormant under all of the wrinkles.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Reality? No Thanks.

I've been sick for over a week, but still I don't think that's an excuse. I've ignored the free cable TV offerings that are included in my rent for almost two years, except for major league baseball, so why I turned to it now is inexplicable and maybe unforgivable. Perhaps I can blame the internet, which is an easy way to waste time while running a low-grade fever. Somehow when I was noodling around on that, I found that a family I was acquainted with in Alaska had their own reality show that involved living la vida homestead on the Kenai Peninsula.

When I was much, much younger, I briefly went to school with the leading man of this opus, and I grew up on a homestead myself, and I was feeling too wretched to concentrate on reading. I'd never seen a reality show and I wasn't too sure of what they were exactly, except reality didn't seem to play a large part in them, according to what I'd read. Paris Hilton on a farm? Mafia wives brawling in New Jersey? Sarah Palin and her offspring?

I do remember much too vividly the reality of homestead living: eating far too many meals of beans and potatoes, the smell of a freshly-killed moose when it was slit open to be cleaned of its offal, the dismal cold mornings before a fire was kindled in the wood stove, the dubious aerobic benefits of racing to the outhouse several times a day, hauling wood and water home...Oh the list goes on and on, with a Greek chorus in my head asking the same question repeatedly. Why would anybody continue to live that way in the 21st century? And even if they wanted to, could they?

Even in the 1960's, homesteading on the Kenai was changed forever by citizen-band radios and pioneer access roads put in by the state of Alaska. Subsistence living, a shaky affair even in the early days of homesteading, had long ago been eroded by a depletion of game and an ability to order groceries from wholesale catalogs. Now, in our era of iPads, Amazon, and the Information Highway, satellite television, and streaming Netflix, the isolation that was the keynote of homesteading seemed downright impossible to achieve. How was this family managing to still maintain that particular life?

The answer seems to be "Very, very carefully," and with a generous helping of heavy equipment. This particular family has lived on this homestead for three generations and is busily creating the fourth. Over the decades, they have accumulated an all-terrain vehicle, a landing carrier, a small fishing boat, and a couple of backhoes, along with an impressive collection of firearms. They also have increased the family's original homestead allotment of 160 acres to 600, which may rival the size of Rhode Island.

Hills of pastureland overlooking a bay and rocky beaches form the setting for what seems to be a rudimentary farm, with a small herd of cows, some horses, and poultry. It seemed strange that this extended family living in a part of Alaska that is far from Arctic temperatures wouldn't have enough livestock to keep them alive through the winter. But maybe that would create too large a carbon footprint, whereas hunting wild game for winter supplies is part of the natural order of things.

Unless of course, the hunter hops into a bush plane and flies 625 miles to an island in southeastern Alaska to bag a deer that dresses out to 90 pounds of fresh meat. For a large extended family that seems to consist mostly of strapping males, that would probably last for a week. Why not, I wondered, stay closer to home and bag a moose or two?

Moose meat has long been the traditional staple of Kenai homesteaders but not to this family. They set their sites on bears, black bear which live on fish and berries, and are always a form of gustatory roulette. If bears have been living on fish, their red meat will taste rather horribly of salmon. Even if they've been glutting themselves on berries, their meat is far less succulent than moose. But even so, this family is quite excited about bagging bears, to the point that one of them even dives into a thicket of alder to pursue a bear that he might have wounded. Strange behavior--unless the man in question truly does harbor a strong death wish.

And except for a wife or two, this family is resolutely male, even though the generation I had known was quite female, with six girls and two boys. Only one of the girls shows up in the episodes I watched, and then quite tangentially--a mosaic tile, not even a cameo. Since two of the daughters still live on the homestead, that seemed peculiar.

Then I realized not only the female line of this family was invisible--so were all of the primary dwelling places. What is shown are hunting cabins, pastureland, chicken coops, small boats
and the males who dominate this setting--along with the hale and hardy women they have married. Suddenly I had the feeling that what is being shown is a homestead preserved in amber, an Alaskan version of Colonial Williamsburg.

But what has not been preserved hermetically is the leading male character, whom I last saw at a community party when we were both fifteen. Suddenly the reality component of this show became devastatingly clear and I don't recommend it to anyone. Seeing a boy whom you remember as a young teenager peering out from the grizzled countenance of an aging man with stringy white hair is enough to throw any woman into shock. I went to bed to dream of living on a homestead and woke up with a piercing headache, a pervasive nausea, and a return of my low-grade temperature.

So much for reality--bring on Downton Abbey, thank you very much.