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 café 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.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Who Would You Poison & What Food Would You Use?

This post originally appeared on my defunct food writing blog, The Famished Freelancer, on 11/26/13.

Photo credit: Andrew Kuznetsov
A friend of mine shared this news story with me about a teaching assistant who tried to poison a couple of teachers (on multiple occasions) with sleeping pills in cream puffs. 

My first thought is that's a terrible waste of cream puffs. They're really tasty, and not that easy to make. When Beard Papa, the Japanese cream puff chain came to NYC, they had all these complicated instructions - refrigerate them if you're not going eat them within 30 minutes. And definitely eat them within a day. But really, eat them right away for maximum yumminess.

Defusing a bomb is easier than taking cream puffs anywhere.

Now, if I were the homicidal type, I'd probably go with co-workers. (And that's how you know this is an entirely hypothetical discussion - I've never had a co-worker pass away while we were working together.) But we usually only see co-workers in the context of the office, so it's far too easy to decide that certain people are complete wastes of space, who must be destroyed because God knows they're never going to be fired. 

Every office has them: The one guy who does nothing all day. The guy who gets ahead simply because he has good hair. The senior manager who makes everyone's jobs miserable because they don't actually understand how the department works. The person who is in way over their head because of The Peter Principle, and instead of asking for help, they're just nasty to everyone.

Within the work environment, these people are The Worst, and your friendly neighborhood psychopath could easily decide that their deaths would be for the greater good. 

Of course, outside of work they may be perfectly lovely people who make their families happy, which is why we don't go around murdering our obnoxious co-workers. 

Also, they could totally murder us back, which would take all the fun out of it.

But we're playing a game, so let's pick a food to contain the poison. Because cream puffs? How would that even work? Whip the poison into the cream? It takes long enough to make cream puffs that only a really dedicated murderer wouldn't change their mind by the time the cream puffs were finished. And then you'd be stuck with poison cream puffs. 

If I'm going to go to the effort of making cream puffs, I'm going to want to eat them.

So cream puffs are out.

Maybe cookies. They come together pretty quickly. You could make two batches - one regular, one poison. That way you could take them into the office and the non-victims wouldn't be all, "hey, why don't I get cookie?"

Bagels are popular office food, so maybe poison cream cheese. What could be easier than tossing some cream cheese and poison into the stand mixer? (Besides serving non-poisonous cream cheese, of course.)

OK, now you play. You don't have to be a murderer to know that cream puffs are a stupid way to try to kill someone. So how would you do it? And if you're having trouble getting into it, just imagine that you'd be poisoning Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones. That guy really is The Worst.

Months-old spoiler alert: I haven't read the books, so when I wrote this, I had no idea that Joffrey was going to get poisoned. Poison in the wine glass - what a classic.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Imaginary Mexican Lasagna

This post originally appeared on The Famished Freelancer on 11/19/13

I used to make a dish called Mexican Lasagna pretty regularly. It was one of those casseroles in Cooking Light magazine that you an throw together by opening a bunch of cans. Perfect for someone like myself back then with barely any time to cook dinner. At the time, I was commuting an hour and fifteen minutes each way, then volunteering in the local volunteer fire department/ambulance squad. 

So quick meals - yay!

I remember telling my then boyfriend about Mexican Lasagna. Either I was suggesting making it for us, or I already had. His response? "There's no such thing."

Yes, J was the sort of guy who could deny the existence of food on a plate in front of him, and no, I don't have an explanation for why I was dating him that doesn't make me sound like a schmuck.

He wasn't saying that the dish lacked cultural authenticity. I mean, he was, but he was also denying this dish's right to exist because...I'm not sure. Because he'd never heard of it, I guess. He had no objections to eating Chinese takeout, and most of those dishes are American inventions. Just like most "Mexican" food we eat in the States.

He asked to borrow the recipe (which I had ripped out of the magazine), so he could show a Mexican-American co-worker. She also had never heard of Mexican Lasagna, and I never got the recipe back. 

So as far as I was concerned, it didn't exist anymore because I couldn't make it.

I'd actually have more respect for the guy if I thought that was part of his plan. The dish didn't exist as far as he was concerned, so he made sure that it didn't.

Since then, Cooking Light has made their recipe archives available online. So I can now make Mexican Lasagna again. I printed out the recipe, bought the ingredients, whipped it up, and expected it to taste like triumph.

Instead, it tasted like disappointment. And a little like self-punishment. 

Maybe I should've drained the diced tomatoes first. And pureed the hell out of them because I'm not that crazy about diced tomatoes. Maybe it's because Cooking Light's La Bamba casserole is a more satisfying execution of the same concept, and now this earlier version pales in comparison. Maybe there's a lesson in there about how I can't recapture the past. Or that I don't want to, since that past included judging food based on calories instead of taste, and weeping while I worked out because I was overdoing it, but if I didn't, no one would ever love me.

And that's what the Mexican Lasagna tasted like - the pale imitation of life I was living while I was waiting to be thin enough to start living for realsies. 

That's not to say you won't like it, since you don't have the same connections. And maybe you like diced tomatoes more than I do. Hell, maybe even I'd enjoy it better on a hot summer day when I didn't want anything too heavy.

But I probably won't try it again. There are enough recipes combining beans, cheese and tortillas that there's no reason to stick with one that doesn't rock my world. I thought I'd be reclaiming something that my long ago ex took from me. Instead, I discovered that I'd only been missing it on principle. I had no memory of the actual dish. I would've stopped making it long ago, even if he hadn't swiped the recipe. 

I guess my point is that even when we can reclaim what we've lost, it can turn out that it wasn't that great in the first place.

Do you have a dish that you went back to after a few years that disappointed you?