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A Long Ago Dinner with the Don

How funny time is–in the moment it seems to crawl, but then, looking back, how deceptively quickly it flew by. Sometimes, when remembering an event in the past, time–a thing without form, measured only by how it is felt–seems to bend in upon itself to bridge the gap.

I wrote the review for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather over a year ago, on the eve of my second departure to Ecuador. Since then, I’ve left and come back and left again, but here I am, back in Orange County, and it feels like only yesterday that I slipped into my vintage polka dot dress and put liberty rolls in my hair before putting on an apron and making spaghetti with meatballs, only after which I ran out to Santa Monica Seafood to buy cannoli for dessert, having forgotten to do so beforehand.

On that night, the men of my family dressed up in pin-striped suits and dagger collars, the women rolled and blow dried and sprayed their hair and sipped wine while balanced on tasteful heels. It was a night on which my heavily Irish-blooded relatives played Italian for a day, drinking grappa, spearing olives on toothpicks, passing the tomato sauce from hand to hand. We ate, and we talked. We drank, and we argued, about politics and gossip and culture–more openly, one would think, than the real Don would ever have permitted. At our table, however, with my uncle Bob assuming the role of Don Kinsch, seriousness made way for levity, family business was fair game, and the women made their voices heard just as loudly as the men. Despite being neither so serious nor so jowly as Marlon Brando, I think he carried it off quite well.

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It may almost feel like yesterday, but here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t remember many details of this dinner. Technical difficulties kept me from writing this entry until I came home for good, so what I do remember has the tang of exaggeration, the lemon-lit glow of embellishment. It was a long time ago and so much has happened since. What my memory does provide is the smell of simmering tomatoes and garlic, the laughter as we each appeared wearing what we considered to be 1940s attire, the crunch of the cannoli, the gleam of the beautiful bottle of expensive grappa, but what I actually remember (scout’s honor) is exactly the reason I continue to do these dinners and maintain this blog: I remember my family together, enjoying themselves, and being happier than any Puzo character ever was.

 

Coming up! I’m back in the country and back on track, so expect posts much more often. June’s book is a surprise, as the dinner will be part of my mom’s birthday celebration! If you’re interested in what I was doing in South America for all this time, check out my other blog, La Güera Viajera.  In the meantime, keep reading!

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The Perennial Question: Clam or Cod?

The equivalent of 1/6 of a whaling voyage has passed since I wrote my last entry on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or, the Whale. That’s 8 whole months to those who aren’t paying attention. In that time I’ve been dealing with some minor leviathans of my own, a few pilot whales perhaps, and one sperm whale. I’ve been fired from a job I hated by a man who rivaled Ahab himself for megalomania, hired short-term at a job I loved, moved away from San Francisco, city of my heart, and embarked on a trip of indefinite length and nebulous itinerary to South America. Like I said, there have been some developments of leviathan proportions this year. But, here at the furthest culmination of all that excitement, sitting in a room on San Cristobal Island, in the Galápagos, where I’m staying for free in exchange for working (barely) at the hotel, it is comforting to think back to the first day of 2014, when I took on the semi-daunting task of cooking two different kinds of chowder.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick before, just know that, of all food-related scenes in literature, the 15th chapter of this novel is one that has always stuck with me. Maybe you’ll agree:

[Mrs. Hussey] ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said- “Clam or Cod?”

“What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” said I, with much politeness.

“Clam or Cod?” she repeated.

“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam”, Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two”, disappeared.

“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?”

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites  being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition…

Now if that’s not the kind of writing that makes you feel like you’re sitting right there on that bench between Ishmael and Queequeg, trying to shake off the chill by getting a warm meal of delicious chowder, I don’t know what is. In my attempt to stave off the not nearly comparable (to New England) winter chill of San Francisco, I looked up a recipe for clam chowder on my go-to, TasteSpotting, and found the perfect recipe on the blog Inspiration Kitchen. With my chef roommate and a New Year’s Day hangover in tow, I drove all over San Francisco looking for the ingredients. Once I’d found everything I needed, we headed back home, pulled out my big stockpot usually used for storing baking supplies, and set to work. Several hours later, I served the finished product to my famished and equally hungover friends, along with a Porter from the local Anchor Steam brewery. I was very pleased with the results as I had been a little worried by the amount of clam juice called for in the recipe which, in spite of the fact that it is clam chowder, seemed exorbitant. It was the perfect meal on a day when it was cozy within and dreary without, and the chowder was well-received and vivifying, as I hoped it would be.

DSC_0001I love soups. All soups. In fact, I can’t think of a soup I’ve ever run into that I didn’t like, including my recent encounter with some kind of chicken-based soup with very questionable looking pieces of what may or may not have been stomach lining. Tasty. I also love to make soups, but they can definitely be labor-intensive, especially, I found, chowders. But I wasn’t happy with just one chowder. I had to make two, simultaneously, and in my tiny kitchen, that was no small feat. But I couldn’t not make the fish chowder, not when it comes from such a great scene.

… when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.

We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What’s the stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? “But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl? Where’s your harpoon?”

Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. 

I used, of course, cod for this chowder, and paired it with Drake’s Drakonic Imperial Stout. Unfortunately, I was not as happy with this chowder as it was neither as thick nor as tasteful as I had hoped. It could also have been that we ate this one after the flavor-packed clam chowder and so it seemed lackluster in comparison, but in any case, the clam chowder definitely took the prize. I think Ishmael, Queequeg, and Mrs. Hussey would have applauded my effort, if not wholeheartedly my results. If the latter were around, I would definitely ask her for a few pointers.

DSC_0006Ultimately, I very much enjoyed making these chowders that are so lauded in Moby-Dick. Perhaps the making of hearty, hangover-relieving soups needs to become a New Year’s Day tradition.

Next up: One Hundred Years of Solitude (or Cien años de soledad since I read it in Spanish!) by Gabriel García Márquez. Thanks for staying tuned!

 

If Your Family Embarrasses You…Do Drugs

Have you ever read a book that didn’t pull you in right away? Maybe by the 50th page you find you’ve already convinced yourself that you aren’t going to like it but that you’ll finish it anyway, only to realize that it crept up on you and suddenly…mind blown? If you have, you’ll understand why I am having trouble putting what I thought about this book into words. If you haven’t, read this book. I’m going to give it a try in any case. Bear with me.

The premise of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a woman, Enid Lambert, trying to get her three children home for Christmas, a holiday made especially poignant by the fact that her husband, Alfred, is quickly declining into the encroaching darkness of Parkinson’s and dementia. The novel switches perspectives and narrators often, giving each of the main characters their minute in the spotlight. This narrative style helps the reader understand the dynamics of a very distant, incommunicative family whose members are often so wrapped up in their own lives that they neglect to maintain their familial relationships. Sound familiar? What I particularly liked about this style was that it allowed the reader to understand the family from every perspective, allowing an analysis that would be impossible were there to be only one narrator, only one version of events. Each new perspective begins with a brief overlap of the perspective before, so that the novel functions like a network of interweaving stories, daily experiences, and sentiments that come together to make a whole.

One theme that I noticed immediately was the novel’s constant mention or critique of consumerism, usually in the form of evoking brand names and the value of things. What’s interesting is that different takes on consumerism are evinced by different characters. For example, Gary, the eldest Lambert child and a frequent patron of the Church of All Things Monetary, thinks of consumerism as the great equalizer. He’s none too happy about it either, because Gary wants to believe that his abundance of wealth makes him different from, say, the overweight Walmart-shopping denizens of his parents’ über-Midwestern town, St. Jude:

Oh, misanthropy and sourness. Gary wanted to enjoy being a man of wealth and leisure, but the country was making it none too easy. All around him, millions of newly minted American millionaires were engaged in the identical pursuit of feeling extraordinary–of buying the perfect Victorian, of skiing the virgin slope, of knowing the chef personally, of locating the beach that had no footprints. There were further tens of millions of young Americans who didn’t have money but were nonetheless chasing the Perfect Cool. And meanwhile the sad truth was that not everyone could be extraordinary, not everyone could be extremely cool; because whom would this leave to be ordinary? Who would perform the thankless work of being comparatively uncool?…. Gary wished that all further migration to the coasts could be banned and all midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity–

In Gary’s mind, consumerism should be segregated, so that the individuals who are on the top, the 1% if you will,  can feel their superiority. I feel that this is a harshly accurate view of consumerism in the world. Money gives you entitlement, automatic respect, “individuality”. Lack of money, on the other hand, makes you part of the faceless, seething masses. Personally, I find that money, rather than the lack of it, seems to make the individual conform to an idea of “what one does when one finds oneself possessed of inordinate amounts of money”. When things don’t come as easily (and I’m not disputing that it’s difficult to make a lot of money, too), I find that people often become more innovative, more determined to get what they need to survive. The other Lambert brother, Chip, for example, in order to dig himself out of the financial hole he puts himself in, moves to Lithuania to commit a little bit of investment fraud at the request of a mysterious man. That’s nothing if not innovative, all question of morals aside. Desperation often breeds imagination.

Now I’m trying to keep these blogs around 1000 words, because I’m not trying to write novels here (not yet!) and I want people to read them, but I’ve never had more that I could talk about than in this book. Nevertheless, I am going to limit myself to one more topic. If any of you have ever read The Chronicles of Narnia, you’ll definitely remember the God-lion, Aslan. You may or may not also know that this series was actually one big biblical allegory, with Aslan being the God that created the Earth (Narnia). In The Corrections, Aslan is the name of a shame-suppressing drug. Quite the opposite of the actual God, who tends (especially in Catholicism) to be a big fan of the shame. I just found that hysterical. Of course, it turned out to be even funnier when Enid, who was taking Aslan in order to quell the shame she felt for having an infirm and incontinent husband, finds out that it is actually a club drug, commonly know as Mexican A, which seems to be a diluted form of Ecstasy.

I think this entry is seriously lacking. My head is all over the place. New job, new (old) city, late nights (re)connecting…it’s exhausting. But I think the overall feeling I gained from this novel is this: children villainize their parents for their shortcomings because they can never be truly aware of the sacrifices made for their sakes. It’s a simple, semi-universal truth, but the way in which everything comes together in this book to bring you to that conclusion is truly inspired.

I’ll try to get myself together for the dinner entry. I’m thinking either swanky, New York, nouveau riche food…or Midwestern Christmas, jello molds and all. The latter truly intrigues me… Maybe it’s time to get in touch with my Missourian (or Misery-ian, as my Papa calls it) roots.

 

Don’t Move. Just Eat and Be Merry.

No one has ever had to twist my arm to read a book. I used to cross streets while reading a book, bring a book to the dinner table, and every trip I went on, my blue and pink plastic Tweety Bird suitcase came with me, stuffed almost to the bursting point with Goosebumps and Boxcar children and Julie of the Wolves. When I meet people who have never voluntarily cracked open a book, it’s almost like I’m talking to someone from another planet. It’s like a vegan and a meat-lover trying to understand one another. That’s why I try to encourage people I know to read by showing them books that they can relate to or that I’ll know they’ll like. And that’s one reason I’m really enjoying these book dinners. Because whoever comes to these dinners becomes involved in these books whether they realize it or not. By eating the venison stew or the Buche de Noel, they’re becoming part of the book itself. Books for the people. Just thought I’d share that little tidbit of Chicken Soup for the Booklover’s Soul with you. You’re welcome. 🙂

Down to business. Last night, I made a really tasty Italian meal a la Don’t Move. I made the chicken scalloppini that Timoteo eyes untrustingly in the cafeteria of the hospital, while waiting for Elsa to give birth to Angela. I made the spaghetti aglio e olio that Italia makes Timoteo on the first night that they’re lovemaking becomes less assault-like and more consensual. Luckily, the dinner was much more fun than the depressing angstiness that pervades the novel, but I still felt a little closer to the characters, and that’s part of the whole point of doing this.

In the morning, I woke up and started making chai biscotti to complement the affogato that we would have for dessert that night. Whoever said that baking was therapy was right. I’ll admit I have a little pent up aggression right now, and whipping those eggs and beating that dough was nigh on cathartic. Even the electric mixer took on the depression from the book when it tried to commit suicide from trying to whip up the super thick biscotti dough. I had to abandon it before it exploded in my face and knead the dough by hand, which was quite the workout.

But it turned out really pretty (and tasty!) and my arms could use a workout, so I feel that it was well worth the effort. I found the recipe for this at Kitchen Trial & Error. As the biscotti cooled, I went and bought the rest of the ingredients for dinner. Then I went home and killed time by drinking dirty martinis and reading the next book on my list, The Corrections, since my guests weren’t arriving until six and the menu was simple enough that I didn’t have to start  until they got there. When they finally did arrive, I wowed them with the fruit of my pre-packaged labors…cold cuts! and olive tapenade! and a baguette! Oh my!

If you’ve ever had scalloppini before, you know that, whether you’re using veal or chicken, you have to pound the meat to within an inch (actually 1/8 of an inch) of its life. I delegated that job to my friend Diana, who apparently also had some pent up aggression she wanted to take out on the poor chicken.

Chicken having been sufficiently flattened, I made the rest of the scalloppini sauce, throwing in some green onion here, some lemon juice there. My mom took over the spaghetti, since I kind of have a fear of burning garlic. The reason being that one time I tried to make this seemingly simple orzo dish which involved shelling A LOT of peas (did I say simple?), and after that was all done, I ruined it all by burning the garlic. Hence, the fear. But finally, dinner was ready, and it was a hit. If it was possible to make this dinner any more nerdy, we took it to a whole ‘nother literary level by using the Pride and Prejudice wine charms I got my mom for Christmas.

The scalloppini sauce was super flavorful and the spaghetti aglio e olio had just the right amount of zing. The recipe for the chicken scalloppini, by the way, comes from Creative Culinary

…and the spaghetti aglio e olio originally came from Evan’s Kitchen Ramblings, though my mom kind of commandeered it since she considers herself the resident expert on all things Italian.

For dessert, we had affogato, which is vanilla ice cream and fresh espresso. It’s delicious, and really easy. If you’ve never tried it I definitely recommend it. And my chai biscotti were a big hit! So, thoroughly stuffed, we decided to play a game already notorious from The Last of the Mohicans dinner…Fax Machine! Hilarity ensued of course. I’m pretty sure affogato came out of not a few noses.

All in all, it was a great dinner, and my quest through the 1,001 Books list continues to be a success! Laughter really does make everyone feel better. Italia could have used a little more laughter in her life, that’s for damn sure. Until next time…

Time Doesn’t Stop. It Smashes You Into the Mud.

Don’t move. Stop. Wait. Just stay. Don’t. Move. If you’ve ever felt like this in your life, you know that it’s a terrible feeling. It’s a desperate wish for time to stand still, to stop, so that whatever horrific thing that’s about to happen is delayed, maybe even prevented. But at the same time, you know that time has no mercy, no compassion. It goes, and we go with it. In Margaret Mazzantini’s thought-provoking novel Don’t Move, the main character experiences a few of these moments in which he wishes time would stop, somehow, and give him a chance to change what seems inevitable.

This book was kind of a new experience for me, and that’s saying something because (and I say this with all the humility in the world)  I have read a LOT of books. I couldn’t get a grasp on it. Who was the bad guy? What was the message? Was there a message? What began with an admitted rape on the part of Timoteo, the pro(?)tagonist,  turns into a sordid affair with the victim(?) who ends up dying of a botched abortion on the day his legitimate daughter is born to his wife, all of which is happening in the past as he sits in the waiting room of a hospital after his kid (the non-aborted, legitimate one) gets in a motorbike accident and has to have emergency brain surgery. Confused? So was I. And although I still can’t figure out if Timoteo is an arrogant bastard who takes advantage of weakness in women or some other kind of monster entirely, the humanity of the characters, their actions and reactions, make this book something to be read, remembered, and passed on.

Maybe I can’t tell you for sure what kind of person Timoteo is, but I can tell you what my instincts tell me about him. They tell me that he is a man who is unsure of himself, who lacks confidence, who maintains a constant battle between his baser instincts and his nobler ones, who projects his weakness onto the women around him, and then takes advantage of them. Elsa, his wife, is a confident, independent, attractive woman who works as a journalist for a moderately-sized paper, and yet at every opportunity, Timoteo makes her smaller, makes her insipid and timid and needy. However, compared to Italia, Timoteo’s lover, Elsa seems a brazen Amazon. Italia is frequently compared to a dog by Timoteo: pathetic, ugly, kicked-around, starved for affection. Although he claims to love her, Timoteo’s descriptions of Italia are often unfeeling, removed, like a scientist viewing a specimen in a petri dish. He describes his relationship with her as follows: “…once I was a livid, barbarous man who raped a woman, a girl grown old before her time. I did it because I loved her right away and I didn’t want to love her; I did it to kill her and I wanted to save her” (149). And again: “Unfortunately because I raped you, unfortunately because I didn’t weep when my father died, unfortunately because I’ve never loved anyone. Unfortunately, Italia, Timoteo is afraid to live” (185). I believe that being weak is human. We are all weak in some way. But when we use our weakness as a weapon, when we use it as a justification for taking advantage of others, we become inhuman. The word monster, in ancient literature, always referred to a human being who through some crime or insult against the gods, was turned into a kind of half animal, half human mutant. Although the gods no longer play such an integral part in our lives, we can still become monsters. The only problem is, we keep our original shapes, and other people can’t always see the monsters inside. Italia, Elsa, and all the other women in Timoteo’s life are fooled by his apparent humanity, and either fail or refuse to see the kind of man, or monster, that he truly is.

Like most cases of rape, like the book I reviewed previously, A Triumph Over Rape, there is the inevitable transferral of guilt from the raper to the rapee. Although he admits the rape to himself, Timoteo never talks to Italia about it, never apologizes, instead using her own rape against her.

Tell her, Timoteo. Tell her now. Tell her to her face, to her dirty mouth, stagnant with her misery. Tell her you’re expecting a legitimate child, the heir to your sterile, cautious life. Tell her she has to have an abortion, because now’s the right time, now when she’s scaring you and you’re thinking, What kind of mother would so desperate a woman make? (208).

In moments of cowardice, instead of admitting his weakness, instead of owning it, he blames everything on Italia’s inadequacy. He can’t bring himself to tell her that he prefers his legitimate child to her bastard, so he convinces himself that she wouldn’t make a very good mother in the first place. Somehow, he convinces himself that through her apparent embracing of her misery, of her lot in life, that somehow she asks for the things that happen to her, including her rape. In truth, Timoteo is afraid and his fear (and weakness!) becomes the justification for all of his actions.

I recommend this book. I don’t recommend it because of its shiny, happy characters and its shiny, happy ending. I recommend it because it troubled and confused me, and I’d like to see what other people think of it. I recommend it because anybody can recognize little pieces of themselves in the characters, however pathetic or detestable they may be. I recommend it because it will make you think, and because it’s not the average book you pick up off a shelf or read because it’s on Oprah’s Book Club. Read it because it’s different, and we all need a little different in our lives, even if the difference isn’t entirely pleasant.

 

We have our heading.

O.K. So in the scene where the Munro sisters, Heyward, the two Mohicans and “Le Longue Carabine” are eating in the cave, hiding from the Iroquois, they drink spruce beer. Now I wikipedia’d this and it looks like I can buy it in a store or make my own… I may have to delve into the delicate art of brewing, methinks. In the name of art, of course…

In case, anyone out there in the neverending cyberverse is following this and wants to follow even more closely, I’m reading the hardback Barnes & Nobles Books edition, published 1993. This scene I’m referring to is on page 59.

Note to self: talk about the awesomeness that is BookMooch.