Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Stop Making Me Defend Snoop Dogg

Mont Saint Michel, but it could be Kings Landing
People are making fun of Snoop Dogg or Snoop Lion, or whatever he's calling himself these days for saying that Game of Thrones is historically accurate. Fans of the show love to make fun of other fans who miss the fact that Westeros is clearly not on Earth. It's that sort of superiority that geeks just love.

But let's look at it realistically. George R.R. Martin based the plot on the War of the Roses. The Lannisters are based on the real-life Lancasters, and so forth. The style of this world is based on Medieval Europe. There's nothing all that alien or foreign it the look of this world. Game of Thrones relies heavily on Earth mythology - swords, knights, beheadings, dragons, zombies (albeit ice zombies). 

When you look at the map of Game of Thrones the geography, it's nothing like Earth, may not be as heavily based on European geography as the Lord of the Rings was, but still, it kind of is. The seven kingdoms are on a big island continent, and then you cross The Narrow Sea to get to more countries. England is on an island with other nations (Scotland and Wales), and from there you cross the English Channel (a narrow sea) to get to other countries. Hell, the big giant ice wall manned by the Night's Watch is blatantly Hadrian's Wall.

The only thing that's radically different is that summer and winter each last for years unread of months, and the duration is irregular. Winter can last for 7 years or 20. But I think we can forgive some fans from noticing that important detail. The show might as well be called, Wait, Who Is That Again? Between all the naked bodies, and massacres and a cast so large that some of them only see each other on the red carpet...exactly how shocking is it that some fans think this show based on the events of medieval England is actually taking place in medieval England?

Oh, and scientists have figured out a way for those long, irregular seasons to be theoretically scientifically possible. Basically, big cosmic disaster screws up a planet's orbit. With all the talk on Game of Thrones about how entire societies can crumble and disappear (like Valeria which we sailed past last week), how can we be sure that this isn't all taking place many thousands of years in the future? All this has happened before, all this will happen again. 

I'm not putting forth my own little fan theory. But I am saying that people need to fucking roll with it when other fans mistake Westeros for medieval England. Because in some ways, it is.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Cookbooks

With luck, my couscous will look like this.
Last week, I read this essay by novelist Michael Chabon about a family trip to Morocco. Long story short, they ate so much couscous that they managed to get bored of it. It's been ages since I've eaten couscous, so now I have a hankering.

I'm not talking about the grain itself. It's unremarkable, though I do like how quickly it cooks. What I mean is the full dish - meat and vegetables served over couscous. It's kind of like pot roast or beef stew, but with different flavors. Which is probably a completely unhelpful description unless you've had couscous and know what I'm talking about.

I first had couscous when visiting a friend in France in the 90s. We spent the weekend in her friend's country home and our host made us chicken and vegetable couscous. It was good.

Side note: France has a food delivery service called Allo Couscous, which translates to Hello Couscous. Take out wasn't as much of a thing there as it is in the States, so everyone was excited that you could order food over the phone now. There's also Allo Pizza and I don't know how many other versions.

There are no Moroccan restaurants near me, so I've decided that the defunct pizza place should become a Moroccan takeout joint, along the lines of Curry in a Hurry. This will never happen, but I wants it anyway.

Back home, I've had couscous at Cafe Mogador, in the East Village. It's a bit of a hike form the subway, so I've been too sickly to go. They have a location in Brooklyn that isn't conveniently located to my apartment. Unless we get a car, and NYC car insurance rates are way too high for that to happen any time soon. Not even for couscous.

But I've been feeling a bit better lately, so I decided to cook some couscous. I started googling recipes, but immediately remembered that I own two Moroccan cookbooks, and maybe I should justify the space they're taking up.

I put them both on my Amazon wish list in healthier days when I did most of the cooking. (Things have shifted so much that when I suggest to HA that "we" try a new recipe, he assumes that he'll be doing all the work.) I guess I picked them because they were highly rated. They are Cooking at the Kasbah by Kitty Moore and Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert. 

Couscous and Other Good Food has no pictures, at least not of the food. Which is annoying and disappointing. And not surprising considering that it was published in 1973. That was the style then. Though Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking lacks photos, and I can still picture what each dish is supposed to look like. Maybe it's just that I'm more familiar with French cuisine than Moroccan.

It's considered one of the definitive works on Moroccan cooking, yet a 40 year old cookbook can't help being vintage and outdated. Vintage cookbooks are fun, but they usually include ingredients that are no longer available, or reflect tastes that have changed. (18th century Americans and Brits loved food that tasted like roses. 21st century Americans think that shit tastes like perfume.)

Wolfert describes the traditional method of steaming couscous (the grain). Morse does that to, but her recipes call for the instant variety because ain't nobody got time for that shit. Wolfert teaches the reader the complicated process of making warka, a light, flaky pastry that is so difficult to make that even in the 70s, Moroccans would buy theirs from artisans instead of trying to make it. She does mention that phyllo makes an adequate substitute. Morse reports that modern Moroccans buy their warka at the market and goes straight for the phyllo. Because modern Americans have shit to do.

I have two recipes in Morse's cookbook flagged, including a meat and veg couscous. As for Wolfert's book, I don't know if I'll ever use it. I may hold on to it so I can read it as travel writing. But I really do prefer cookbooks with photos. I wonder if it's just that I'm used to the modern way of including lots of photos in cookbooks. Or am I insecure about my cooking skills and need the validation of comparing my dish to the picture in the book?

What about you - do you cook from cookbooks without photos?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Knitters are Doing It For Themselves

I was knitting at a party, keeping my hands busy and out of the potato chips when Sal, a man I didn’t know well, asked me why I was bothering. If I wanted a sweater, why didn’t I just go to the store and buy one?

Anyone who knits in public is bound to get that question eventually and it doesn’t surprise me that it came from a man. Women will ask me what I’m making, but mostly, they look at me a little warily as if they’re unsure if they should feel inadequate for not having acquired this traditionally feminine skill themselves, or if they should accuse me of setting the cause of equality back by decades.

But knitting has empowered me in ways I had never imagined. For most of my 37 years, I hadn’t realized that I’d been letting strangers limit my fashion options.  I’d never tolerated limited choices in any other part of my life. I began my career in technology knowing I could out-geek any of the guys. And that if it didn’t work out, I’d be able to try any of a dozen careers that struck my fancy. But every time I go clothes shopping, the fashion designers and the store buyers treat me as if I’d be happy to choose between being a stenographer, a librarian or a housewife with no other options. Why else would they present me with countless variations of the same three designs, none of which fit my style?

“You need a new top for the office? Well, you can have what’s on these two racks, or nothing. Oh, you look like you’ve been dead for a week when you wear yellow? Well, that’s your problem isn’t it?”

I always walk into a clothing store full of hope, dreaming of the kicky new outfits I’m going to be taking home with me. When it’s time to leave (with one pair of socks), I’m exhausted, disheartened, thirsty and in need of a cookie. I am woman, hear me sigh as I face another weekday morning slipping into something ill-fitting, worn out and reasonably appropriate for the office dress code. The variation for the weekend is that I can lower my standards—I just need to wear something that will cover my body in a weather-appropriate manner.

What kind of feminist was I being anyway? Why was I leaving my self-determination at the entrance to Macy’s? When I learned to knit, I was able to decide to take back my power and I started to make my own darn clothes.

I answered the man at the party with a quip about saving the world from mass production, but really I was saving myself from the limited options the fashion industry thinks I deserve. There are more knitting patterns to choose from than styles of sweaters in any store. And many are so stylish that imitators appear at the mall anyway. With cotton and linen yarns for summer and animal fibers for winter, I can supply myself with tops for any day of the year. My favorite yarn stores give me a dozen or more colors, instead of the five I have to choose from at a department store. The sweater I was working on at that party was a certain shade of light green that looks perfect on me, but hasn’t been spotted in stores since the mid 90s.

With every stitch, I dream of a closet filled with clothes made with my own hands. Everything custom made at a fraction of the cost of hiring someone to make them for me. I fantasize about cardigans with vintage buttons found at thrift shops, pullovers with flattering silhouettes and tank tops that don’t put my bra straps on display.

I can go out and conquer the world without worrying about how I look because I can make things with sticks and string.

The man at the party finally understood after I explained that no one else in the world was making that pattern with that exact yarn in that color. I was making something unique and just for me because I wanted to. I am woman, hear me squeal with glee when I try on my one-of-a-kind-looks-fabulous-on-me cute sweater.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


I had a great idea for a blog post, but it was right before bed, so I didn't write it immediately. Then I remembered it while messing around on Twitter. So I just tweeted about it instead:

And now it's a blog post too because I'm too lazy/sick/whatever to come up with something else.

If you don't know, Eddie Huang is a chef whose memoir was turned into an ABC sitcom. He's mad because the network sitcom version of his life leaves out the domestic violence he experienced, his grandfather's suicide and his grandmother's bound feet. (Read his tweets about it here, if you're so inclined.)

My own childhood wasn't as bad as Huang's, but this isn't a contest. Mind you, some people think my parents should have their own sitcom, but my brother and I both know there's more to it than the wacky bickering they do in front of company. So I understand the impulse to call the sanitized comedy family a sham. And we forget that the characters on a sitcom aren't enjoying living through each week's crisis as much as we enjoy watching it. It's only funny with distance. 

But Hell, I'm half tempted to write a sitcom pilot about my own family just so I can see us all without the psychological scars. It wouldn't be us anymore, because your baggage forms you, but it would be comforting to visit that world. 

Kind of like how 9/11 didn't happen in the world of any sitcom airing in 2001. The characters of Friends and Will & Grace didn't discuss 9/11, not because they were so self absorbed that they took no notice of it, but because it didn't happen in their New Yorks. Those characters weren't living in a nervous, jumpy, scarred NYC, but in an alternate timeline NYC where 9/11 never happened. It was such a relief to watch that alternate NYC. 

I'm not saying that Eddie Huang should stop complaining and enjoy Fresh Off the Boat for what it is. But I am saying that in his position, I would say, "It wasn't like that. This is better."

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why I'd Rather Rent in NYC than Own Anywhere Else

Note: I wrote this several years ago, but the sentiment stands. And considering the rising rents and housing prices in Brooklyn, a lot of people agree with me.

After 43 years as a middle-class woman in NYC, I've seen the housing market fluctuate as much as my waistline. But the one thing that always goes up is rents. In June, the Rent Guidelines Board raised my rent by over $80 a month. But the most expensive city in the U.S. is also the greatest, so given a choice between renting here and owning anywhere else in the country, I'd rather stay put.

  1. Housing costs are lower outside of New York, but so are salaries. After living where having a six-figure household income makes you middle class, adjusting to the cost of living somewhere more affordable would feel like going back in time to when bread cost a dime and milk cost a nickel. I fear I’d end up vacuuming in a skirt and high-heels.
  2. Renters aren't responsible for home repairs. When a radiator in my apartment started spitting water, it took the super 15 minutes to replace the faulty valve. Left to our own devices, my husband and I would've needed three Google searches, five trips to the hardware store, one ride to the emergency room and an e-mail blast asking our friends to recommend a good handyman.
  3. Even New Yorkers who own cars have the option of taking the train. Elsewhere, you can’t take public transportation without first finding a parking space. If I left, not only would all the money I'd be saving on housing go towards auto insurance, but I'd also have to start caring about gas prices. Besides, I'm just not willing to give up the smugness that comes with the small carbon footprint of not owning a gas guzzler.
  4. Few places outside the five boroughs are this diverse. From my apartment in Woodside, Queens, I can walk to some of the best Salvadoran and Thai restaurants in the city. I'd rather not build equity if that means my only dining options are chain restaurants in a strip mall.
  5. I’d get carsick driving to dinner anyway. On a recent business trip to Florida, during the thirty-minute drive to a beachside eatery, I couldn’t stop whining that there are ten places to get a bite in any two-block radius back home. I was ready to gnaw my own arm off in hunger by the time we got there.
  6. There are so many entertainment options here that it’s difficult to be bored. I may stay home with rented DVDs more than I go to Film Forum, Lincoln Center or Broadway, but they're there when I want them. Other cities have one art film house, if any, and touring productions of Broadway shows don't stay very long.
  7. The thought of home ownership triggers my fear of commitment. I once had a railroad apartment in Williamsburg, with a series of roommates whose bedroom I had to walk through to get to my own. After roommate #3 left, I got tired of trying to sell someone on an apartment I hated. So I gave notice and left the landlord to find a new sucker. If I had owned the place, it would've been like being stuck in a bad marriage in a country with no divorce laws.
  8. By the time I’ve schlepped my laptop to the subway, and climbed all the stairs involved in changing trains, I feel like I’ve finished a biathlon. Whenever I leave New York, all my walking takes place between the front door and the closest possible parking spot and I end up longing for an hour on the treadmill. That’s just unnatural.

OK, convince me I'm wrong and tell me why I should move to where you live. Because don't kid yourself - living her means having a love/hate relationship with the city.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Marital Discussion - Bunny Foo Foo in the Zombie Apocalypse

My husband stayed up later than usual so we could watch the season finale of The Walking Dead close to live. Because he knows what's good for him.

(Side note the first: Monday morning, my FB news feed was not full of spoilers, which it totally would've been if we'd waited until Monday night to watch it. I don't know if this is a quirk of FB's algorithms, or my friends.) 

(Side note the second: I was prepared to watch it without him, which is now considered a form of adultery. I've managed to wait for him when it comes to The Gilmore Girls, but there are limits.)

So this meant that he had to go straight to bed after watching all the disgusting zombieness. So I made up a bedtime story to help him sleep.

Me: Little Bunny Foo Foo hopped through the forest, bopping all the zombies on the head.

Him: And then down came the good fairy and she said...

Me: "Good job!"

Him: "Those zombies had it coming."

Me: "But you should really hook up with Bunny FiFi so you have someone to watch your back. Bopping zombies is dangerous." So Bunny Foo Foo made friends with Bunny FiFi and they had lots of hot bunny sex and made lots of bunny babies so they could all hop through the forest and bop the zombies on the head. The end.

Somehow, he still didn't sleep well that night. (I know, right?) Next time, Bunny Foo Foo will bop insomnia on the head.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Appeasing The Wolf

This post originally appeared on The Famished Freelancer on 12/3/13.

Back in 2008, when the economy went to Hell (again), I knew it was time to hunker down. I'd switched to freelancing, which was great for my sanity, but not my checking account. But I didn't eat out much, and apartment living means I have no space for a recession victory garden. Still, the only expense I could seem to control was the cost of dinner.

I’ve never had a problem that couldn’t be solved by reading a book, so I decided to see if MFK Fisher had any helpful hints for me. Her 1942 classic, How to Cook a Wolf, was written during the Second World War, when even people who could afford food couldn’t necessarily find fresh eggs and meat at the grocery store, even without rationing. Maybe pretending the more expensive food in the supermarket didn’t exist could be an effective savings tactic.

I’d picked up the book years earlier at a used bookstore as part of The Art of Eating, a compilation of five of Fisher’s books. (The title How to Cook a Wolf refers to the wolf at the door and is not a suggestion to make a stew from that critter you just shot from a helicopter.)

All I remembered from my first reading was Fisher’s sludge of last resort, described in the chapter, “How to Keep Alive.” Rather than starve, she recommended dining on a mush of ground beef, cereal and whatever vegetables were cheapest. She claimed that not only would this concoction sustain life, but that the fried leftovers even tasted good. I briefly considered whipping some up just to see the look on my husband’s face when I dished it up. But that would mean having to eat the ridiculous stuff. Besides, unlike wartime housewives, I could fall back on fast food dollar menus, which are more appetizing, if not more nutritious. I decided to pass.

It’s just as well that I decided against it—later on she suggested using the sludge as dog food.

Still, I wanted to save money for all those flights to visit the in-laws without resorting to a daily dose of chicken nuggets, so I began rereading and marking up the book, seeking helpful hints and supercheap recipes. Between her conversational tone and desire for my well-being, I was talking to her in my head by the end of the first chapter. “Good idea, Mary Frances.” “What were you thinking, Mary Frances?” “How adorable that you’re suggesting I save fuel by cooking my food in a crate stuffed with hay, Mary Frances.” (Her own 1951 updates to the book smirk at that one, though I kinda wanna try it now.)

Her recipe for salmon pancake reminded me of the salmon cakes my mom and aunt would whip up on camping trips. I added canned salmon to the shopping list, even though I wasn’t sure my local supermarket had any. Once I looked past the two shelves of canned tuna, I discovered half a dozen brands of canned salmon, plus canned baby shrimps, clams and sardines. “Thanks, Mary Frances,” I thought cheerily as I contemplated the possibilities. Along with the salmon, I got a can of shrimp for shrimp cocktail, made a mental note to find a clam chowder recipe and renewed my conviction never to eat sardines.

On my way home, I checked the receipt. One can of environmentally sustainable, low mercury wild Alaskan salmon, large enough to feed two people, cost less than three dollars. I could buy seven cans for what I usually paid for two filets. I was saving a fortune.

At home, I smugly opened and drained the can and dumped the fish into a bowl. I then realized why I’d always been sent outside when my mom and aunt made salmon cakes. I’d heard to expect skin and short prickly bones, but vertebrae? Really, Mary Frances? I was sensing a secret plot to save my money by turning me into a vegetarian. I practically heard her talk back, “Stop being so prissy.”

This is a woman who included a recipe for calves’ brains because she thought it was silly not to eat the less popular parts of animals. After reading about her culinary adventures, dinner parties, and fascinating friends, I wanted to be the sort of person who she would’ve liked. But my social conditioning about what was edible was more powerful than my desire to pass muster with someone who passed away in 1992.

After a quick consultation with the Internet, I knew that the canning process had cooked and softened the skin and bones. I could mash them into the fish and eat them without even noticing they were there.  But I’d know they were there and find myself completely unable to swallow.

I decided I’d rather be a hypocritical sissy carnivore than knowingly eat fish bones. Mary Frances would’ve been so disappointed in me, but I was too busy trying not to gag to care.

After diligently picking out the skin and bones, I added two eggs to the salmon, just like Mary Frances told me to. But as I started mixing, it seemed that there was entirely too much egg in the bowl. Only then did it occur to me that 65 years ago, no one had even dreamed of Jumbo sized eggs and that I should’ve adjusted the recipe by adding only one. I mixed in a ridiculous amount of breadcrumbs (homemade in the food processor from stale bread—Mary Frances would be proud) to keep the mixture from turning into a giant fish omelet while glaring at the book on my kitchen counter.

“I am a good cook, Mary Frances,” I muttered as I stirred. ”Stop trying to trip me up by assuming I’m using oldfangled small eggs.”

The recipe said to make one large pancake instead of smaller cakes, which would be easier to flip. I decided to avert disaster by making four little ones.

“Take that, Mary Frances,” I said triumphantly to her portrait on the book cover.

I served them up with some couscous and homemade tartar sauce and enjoyed every bite. 

My husband, whom I’d banished from the kitchen so he wouldn’t see the bones and start refusing to eat seafood, asked me to make it again soon.

I went online the next day to confirm the existence of boneless, skinless canned salmon (available only in the past 10 years or so) and I started looking for it in my local supermarkets. I could’ve ordered a dozen cans online, but I doubted Mary Frances would approve of my paying for shipping and handling.

Later in the week, I attempted her clam chowder. The recipe is simple and straightforward and calls for so much bacon that she should’ve called it bacon chowder. After polishing off the first bowl, I grabbed a pencil and made a note to use two ounces of bacon the next time instead of the whopping half pound she calls for. It made sense that eggs had gotten bigger since 1942, but had bacon gotten more bacony in the intervening years?

Her Parisian Onion Soup was easy to make and stood up to my memories of eating some in a cafĂ© near a friend’s apartment in the 20th arrondissement.

Intoxicated with success, I decided to try her gazpacho, even though I’ve never eaten gazpacho and had no idea how it was supposed to taste or if I’d like it. After chopping vegetables for an hour, I could only force down half a bowl. I wasn’t sure if I’d used too much cucumber or not enough garlic for my taste, but the flavor was just wrong. I’d never be able to face Mary Frances again if I threw it out and let all that food go to waste. My husband had the idea to boil it down into pasta sauce, and, with the addition of an excessive amount of garlic and oregano, it was palatable, but not the sort of culinary triumph that I knew Mary Frances expected of me.

I consoled myself with the thought that it was still better tasting than the sludge would’ve been.

I needed a few weeks to recover until a repeat of the onion soup restored my faith in my ability. After that, armed with slightly more expensive, bone-free cans of salmon, I only had to check the recipe once to whip up salmon pancakes. Using only one egg this time, I needed a mere two spoonfuls of breadcrumbs and finished cooking without a single moment of panic or trepidation.

I felt so proud. Making fish at home used to require so much planning and precision. It would mean a trip to the fish market on the way home from work and no last minute menu changes, because that meant risking $20 of fish going bad in the refrigerator overnight. But now I could keep cans in the house and make it at the last minute with barely an advance thought.

I couldn’t quite believe it, but a cookbook from the 1940s had given me convenience on top of cost savings. I felt so empowered. I knew Mary Frances would approve.