Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Close Encounter

I ran to the row of bright yellow machines perched in a dark corner of the subway station last night, credit card in hand, bouncing with awkwardly spaced skips through the crowded muddle of people. I was attempting to buy a metro card with unflappingly focused speed before the F train blew in on the track below me. I had just finished an educational but intensely busy day interning at an art magazine. It was late and I was so hungry that the thought of eating even my own arm was somewhat appealing. Unfortunately (fortunately?) I had on a bulky jacket and I could not reach the tender arm-flesh through my layers of winter cloth.

I made a beeline to the first ticket machine available in the row, sidestepping around a woman in a large, fuzzy black coat. She was grabbing her own yellow ticket out of the dispenser and turning quickly around in a jump to her own train; we could hear it vibrating on the track down below. I moved quickly aside, unreasonably annoyed that her physical presence could dare to possibly be in my way. I looked at her, radiating a frustrated vibe of overtired grumpiness (in what I like to imagine is a magnificently wilting, terrifying gaze) but immediately recoiled in surprise. I recognized this woman. It was Sara Moulton, executive chef of Gourmet Magazine and star of her Food Network show “Sara’s Secrets”.

In my post-accident, pre-New York and unemployed series of states, I have spent many an hour watching her on TV as she tames the seeming complexities of risotto or beef bourguignon. She has always struck me as a deliciously real person; never with the narcissistic, showy makings of a ‘celebrity chef’. Someone I could relate to as well as respect. Granted, I don’t think I’ve ever attempted one of her Food Network recipes myself, but those in Gourmet Magazine have been often well used and received. Instead of a manic recipe guru and larger-than-life cooking fiend (as I may or may not categorize other well-known chefs) I think I have viewed her more as (dare I say it?) a friend.

And so I was somewhat shocked last night when I found myself attempting to kill Sara Moulton with the death-rays of my gaze. She hardly even glanced at me, though, and certainly did not consciously register my presence. She ran quickly off to her train. We can all breath a sigh of relief; I didn’t kill Sara Moulton. I didn’t eat my own arm either. Overall, it was a largely productive evening.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Familiar Smells

In a free afternoon last week I went to The Strand Bookstore, a beautifully large mess of books – new, old, a smattering of favorites and deliciously intriguing new reads. I wandered, browsing for a long time. Surrounded by books, the infinite possibilities of prose and poem, I am in my favorite state of being. Libraries and bookstores are my havens of comfort and stability. Even my room has an obscene number of books stacked in all corners, spilling over in large flows from my bookcase. Especially in times like today, when the concreteness of my own life is awash with confusion and ungrounded future, promise of the other worlds housed in literature beckons unavoidably. The Strand boasts to have “18 miles of books”; and I didn’t doubt it while perusing their crowded floor to ceiling shelves, cases, tables, nooks and crannies. It was the perfect place to go after a stressful job interview.

In the extensive time that I spent browsing there, I realized that there was something missing. Something I had not yet thought of yet all of sudden felt very acutely. I miss the smell of books. The musty aromas of old novels have always hinted of past people, places, and untold stories; the possibilities of getting lost in a book for me are intrinsically tied to a scent. A combination of sharp paper, clean ink, clouded leather and mildewed pages – an odor so easily imagined yet now quite unobtainable. I felt strangely dissociated in such a richly supplied arena of past and present, leather binding and rippled paperback, without that familiar scent. It was as if a part of the experience was missing; the striking odor of “bookstore” is one I had forgotten means so much to me.

The minor depression of the scentless bookstore didn’t stop me, of course, from buying more books than I will be able to read in the anywhere near future. When I emerged from the store my bag was noticeably heavier. It was warm outside, sunny and hinting of the immediacy of Spring. I walked to nearby Union Square and wandered through the spattering of farmers market stalls set up in the late afternoon breeze. When I saw a woman surrounded by small pots of herbs and flowers on the tables under her white tent, I knew what I needed to erase the odorless bookstore from my presently troubled musings. I bought myself a tiny rosemary plant, slightly off kilter and snaking up in an arch around the side of its plastic pot, small and musky green. I sat with it on my lap on the subway, heading over the bridge back towards Brooklyn. I rubbed its small leaves gently with my thumb and forefinger and sniffed, my nose touching the felty stem. Its deep, resounding herb scent crept deliciously up through the connections of my still functioning olfactory neurons.

The little rosemary plant is living on my kitchen table for the moment, situated in perfect view as I sip my morning coffee and read one of the million books I have piled up on my bedroom floor.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Best Possible Nourishment for a Girl with Largely Impaired Olfactory Neurons: A Perfect Combination of Taste, Texture, and Discernible Scent

The Independent Food Festival and Awards, hosted by TasteEverything.org

As I have written before, the loss of my sense of smell affects my taste. The soft subtleties of flavor so imbedded in every eating experience are often lost to my largely scentless palate. My olfactory neurons have been working diligently since the accident; certain scents have been returning. And as a result, my eating habits have changed, focusing ever so much more on what I can taste. I would bath in salsa if that wouldn’t be gross; the feeling of spicy is wonderful in the muted field of my mouth. Anything with rosemary, thyme or citrus. Coffee, cinnamon and wine. (Yes, my brain seems to have its priorities straight. It knows what’s important to restore). I can smell soap, shampoo and laundry; I would probably eat them too if that didn’t mean a slow and uncomfortable death. The most important, however, is my reestablished ability to smell chocolate. Without smell, chocolate is nothing more than a texture, the true flavor floating off into the netherworld of damaged neurons. Though it is not any huge lifestyle change for me to eat a healthy daily dose of chocolate, its consistently whole flavor means all that much more now.

I don’t think there could be a more perfect scent to have remained intact. I just moved to NYC. I am confused about my future. I’m starting some temporary waitress work today and the heating system is all out of whack in my apartment. If there were ever a time for chocolate, it is now. Luckily, I have discovered the perfect bar of chocolate. And, believe me, I have done some extensive chocolate tasting in the last few months. Not only is it delicious, interesting, and made by a company that values fine ingredients and inventing creative new taste combinations, but it is artfully constructed with components that sing magnificently well for those who cannot smell.

Vosges Haut Chocolate’s ‘Barcelona Bar’; hickory smoked almonds, fleur de sel gray sea salt, and dark milk chocolate.

The sea salt is imbedded in careful, subtle yet tasteful discretion throughout the chocolate. Without smell, taste buds in general have full ability to register ‘salty’ ‘sweet’ ‘bitter’ and ‘sour’. The salt cuts through the already sweet, slightly bitter overtones of the chocolate. There hickory smoked almonds, small bits, are scattered throughout, providing perfect texture. In the midst of the soft melt of the chocolate, there are the satisfying crunches spread in each bite. Salty crunches, excommunicating any feeling of boredom some less thoughtful chocolate bars may have the tendency to inspire. It is an excellent quality dark milk chocolate, not too sweet, not too hard or soft. It melts quietly on the tongue. At least twice, more likely thrice or more times in any given day, I reach for a small square of the Barcelona Bar. I seem to consistently have one stored in my pocketbook, always there when just a little shot of deep, rich sweetness will get me by. And not just any dark, rich sweetness; it is one that caters to best of every viable taste and smell I still have intact. It is a solid bar of perfection. And in honor of the 2006 Independent Food Festival, I name the Vosges ‘Barcelona Bar’ the Best Possible Nourishment for a Girl with Largely Impaired Olfactory Neurons: A Perfect Combination of Taste, Texture, and Discernible Scent.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Playground of Sorts

My feet skid on the thin crust of sidewalk ice as I walk briskly to a nearby café; the cold morning air bites my cheeks. My breath forms clouds of mist as I exhale. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a hazy reflection of myself (flash of green coat, purple hat) in the shining front glass of a used book store. The dark window of a butcher’s shop hints of hanging cured meats, salty jars of olives. An elderly woman decked out in fur leads a tiny, delicate lapdog on a bright pink leash as she crosses the street, a newspaper tucked under her arm. Cars honk; a bus rushes by in a jittery haze of exhaust. The sky is blue and the sun gleams off car roofs. The café is a few blocks away from my new apartment. I arrive in a warm rush of heat, the familiar rhythm of Nick Drake humming in the background.

I sit in a cozy window seat, a mug of tea steaming next to my computer. A young hipster in her funky vintage wear is to one side; an older, gray haired man to the other, dark bulky glasses perch on his thin nose. My table moves in miniscule rocks as I change position; the legs are not quite even. I read over what I’ve typed and sigh. Detailed descriptions jump to my fingertips unbidden these days, a bubbling fountain of adjectival observation. It’s been difficult to push myself away from it in the last week; perhaps it is my attempt to feel at home.

I have officially moved out of Boston, away from the lengthy convalescent baggage of my accident. I now inhabit a small, often sunny, sometimes freezing little apartment on the top floor of a creaky old brownstone in Brooklyn. And I find myself constantly, keenly observing what is around me. [This morning I carefully noticed that the burnished cream radiator next to my bed stands at a slightly defiant angle; its bulk protests the small grains of chipping paint, the unattainable brush of morning light, the red wall screaming behind its back.] I am decidedly overwhelmed by this move; in hopes of making some sense of the transition I give full concentration to my immediate surroundings.

A little girl, her straight brown hair tied in floppy pigtails, hops on one foot by my table. Her pink corduroy dress bounces around the white socks at her ankles with each bounding leap. She seems determined to land in the center of each large square tile on the floor of the café. She frantically hurries her movements as her mother calls her name sternly. This isn’t a playground! I smile to myself behind the screen of my laptop. A large part of me would like to get up and join the cheerfully hopping girl, holding her hand and giggling as we pounce all over the coffee shop in carefree abandon. This is the part of me that also thinks spending every day from now to eternity at the MET, blissfully ignoring the pressing matter of unemployment, is a wonderful idea. It’s the one that feels blindsided by my jump to the Real World, a currently planless New York existence. But with the endless number of possibilities this city offers, I can appease all of my parts and look at it as a playground of sorts. It’s different than the tiles on the café floor, but still with plenty of room for hopping about.

I stand to pack up my things; it is time to meet a friend for lunch.