Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Art of a Deep Fried Pink Unicorn

My grandfather sat next to me on the worn blue couch, streaky afternoon light streaming in through the glass porch doors nearby. As he lowered himself down on the cushion, I heard the squeak of the metal springs deep within the familiar settling fabric beneath us. I felt his weight sink into the couch, causing an indentation that elevated me to a small, left-handed tilt. Sitting at that angle, I was high enough to see the top of my grandfather’s bald head. There was a small red freckle right on the crown of his skull; his thick rimmed glasses bore down on the curve of his ear. I was befuddled by his nose; it seemed its roundness, a strikingly human piece of a clown, was physically impossible in its perfect circularity. The room smelled like brisket, the same rich odors always wafting around the house when I came to visit, no matter the time of day. My grandfather sighed as he relaxed there next to me, straightening out his arthritic knees. I sighed, imitation in a higher key, stretching out my own little legs which barely reached out over the couch cushion. He smiled at me, casually patting my head, playfully tossing the protrusion of red ringlets held in the stylish side ponytail my mom had fashioned that morning. My OshKosh B’gosh overalls were bulkily hinged at the shoulders. I stared hungrily at the pile of pale white paper resting his arms, balanced on the tall side of his big belly.

Well, what’ll you have today Molly?

I clapped my hands in excitement. Um, can I have a unicorn? A unicorn with wings?

Well, of course. Nothing else?

A castle? A big castle with a palm tree in it?

A palm tree in the castle. No problem, kiddo.

And I crouched on my knees, my legs buried in the flimsy couch cushion, my head hovering over the paper in front of my grandpa. He wielded his pencil like it was built into his hand, confident strokes and quickly moving gestures. He created pictures with a reality that blew my little 6-year-old mind. The unicorn, I was sure, would hop right off the page and fly out into the late afternoon haze of that suburban estate. I watched in awe as he gracefully created a land of magical animals, a castle of architectural wonder. When he finished the drawing, he handed the page over to me attached to a clipboard. He opened a small sack of colored pencils that had been hidden from view behind his girth. Now it’s your turn, he said.

I spent hours at a time coloring in the sketched outlines my grandfather drew for me when I visited my grandparents throughout my childhood. The drawings transported me to another world; a gleeful one of pink ponies and purple castles. My grandfather was an artist his entire life. His little studio was connected to the living room, always filled with canvases swathed in oil paints, brightly depicted farms and deeply wrinkled portraits. In his own youth he gave up a career as an aspiring cartoon artist to go into the oil business and support his growing family. I think that was something he always regretted.

The genes of artistic vision, however, blossomed within his family. My Aunt Terry and Cousin David both went to RISD to pursue painting and design; my Aunt Pat is a high school art teacher. My grandfather himself still paints, arthritis making him switch to the relative comfort of digital art, deep into his 80s. He did his best to inspire the art within me; throughout my entire childhood he mailed me drawings, complete with fully illustrated envelopes, to help pass the time until I could return to upstate New York and draw with him, perched on the faded blue couch.

Beyond my forays into the world of pink unicorns, I am today sadly artistically stunted. Despite all that practice with my grandfather, I have yet to express the dominant art gene that should really be apparent in my genetic makeup. I have dappled in painting, pastel and pottery. My most successful foray into the art world was a drawing class I took while at Brown. My nude figure drawings tended to look more like glitched robots than anything near human; I didn’t last more than a semester.

I do, however, have one artistic medium in which I consider myself quite skilled. I am an expert Holiday Card Artist. I have the magical ability to make the most playfully beautiful block lettering, oozing with color and form. The cards are peppered with small, evocative sketches. They contain short but inspired literary messages, whether birthday poems or Hanukkah wishes. Just ask Becca; I put my soul right into those bubble letters. And in this year’s holiday season, due to my somewhat decimated monetary status, the art of my cards was all many could hope for. But damn did I do an excellent job; my grandfather would be so proud.

Charley, my mother’s fiancé, received one of my finest creations for Christmas this year. It was a homemade booklet of coupons, all meticulously illustrated. As he looked through the thick card on that chilly holiday morning in Vermont, I could see his lips twitching into a series of impressed smiles beneath his voluminous gray mustache. He may, I’ll admit, have been laughing at my attempts to portray his large black standard poodle named Elsie (who, even after a great deal of time home this year I cannot get to pay any attention to me). But I prefer to think that he was in awe of my artistic aptitude.

And last night Charley cashed in on one of his holiday coupons. It is three days before I officially move into the funky borough of Park Slope Brooklyn and he didn’t want to miss this opportunity. The coupon was for me to cook a dinner of his choice, no matter how fatty, red-meaty and fried. Generally, I lean towards the healthy side of things. I feel good when I eat well; fruits and vegetables, whole grains etc. (Though on a side note, I consider chocolate VERY healthy). I do greatly love Charley; but I do wish he wouldn’t be so vehemently opposed to trying a piece of tofu. Perhaps even one that wasn’t deep fried with a hunk of beef on top.

I did, however, enter into this coupon agreement with undiminished culinary joy last night. Deep frying is fun, I learned. There is a lot of action involved, an almost primitive sense of danger as the hot oil splashes up in the pot, a candy thermometer balanced carefully in the heart of the rippling bronze liquid. I made a juicy set of grilled filet mignon, topped with a thick pat of butter infused with scallion, garlic and parsley. I cut clean white potatoes into uniform matchsticks, soaked them overnight to ‘release excess starch’ (recommended by the Balthazar Cookbook), and fried them not once but twice. When I removed the french fries from the oil with my dripping slotted spoon, I was astounded by their golden hue. They were crunchy, tingling with salt and heat. For dessert, we cracked into creamy rich crème brulees with my favorite small silver espresso spoons. Wielding the small kitchen torch as I prepared their crust felt similarly primitive and dangerous, playing with fire in a technologically savvy manner. Kitchen tools fueled by butane are fun too, I learned. There was a lot of oohing and oily aaahing as we dug in. I even forgot, for a moment, to be nervous about my upcoming move.

It was an excellent meal. Spawned from an excellent (if I do say so myself) work of art. Not only would my grandfather love the museum-quality Christmas card that is now so magnanimously in Charley’s possession, but he would also be a fan of the steak frites and crème brulee. Brisket does get old after a few decades. I would have mailed him some, complete with an illustrated envelope. But I’m guessing steak doesn’t travel as well as paper.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

shedding quiet strong

I met with a writer last week. We perched on dark stools at the bar of Legal Seafoods in Cambridge, stapled packets of my writing spread out between glasses of crisp white wine in front of us. He was wearing a loose fitting blue sweater with the logo of a magazine he writes for emblazoned on the side arm. A head of gray hair fully mopped his forehead; he peered at me through wide rimmed glasses. We met to critique my writing, to go over future options, to help me find my way in a world that is no longer going revolve mainly around vats of chicken stock. The time he took, in the midst of deadlines and book tours, was stunningly helpful. The comments he made rang true.

You put yourself on the sidelines of your writing, Molly. You don’t show yourself, not your real self, the one that becomes apparent when meeting you in person. Don’t be afraid to let it out there.

I know he’s right. It’s amazing what a slam of realization an unbiased, outside perspective can give. He asked me, after a poignant pause; Were you depressed after the accident?


Have you ever been depressed?

You can’t tell from my writing?


It struck me suddenly, without abandon, that I have become very good at masking what’s hard. I often use writing to make myself feel better about what is difficult. If I focus on hope and happiness, no matter its miniscule weight in the face of the mountain of difficulty, I do feel better. It makes sense and I don’t think that this is wrong, certainly not in my personal writing. Nor, in all likelihood, will I be willing or able to stop doing it all together. But it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more honest with myself as I write. Lacking honesty may not be the best way to describe my tendencies; I don’t lie to myself, ignoring the difficult feelings when they come. I am simply not fully inclusive. It wouldn’t hurt to give some voice to the weakness and depression, to stop hiding behind a consistently quiet strong.

Yes, I have been depressed, I said. The words wanted to stay in my throat, confusing me with their unwilling stagnancy. They didn’t want to be expressed. There were a few weeks after the accident that I looked in the mirror and couldn’t remember who I was beyond ‘injured’; when I spoke I didn’t recognize my own voice it was too deep with pain, like a stranger had taken over my voice box.

If you are going to be depressed, Molly, be depressed. Don’t hide in your writing.

And so, in honor of my writer friend who wants some more dark honesty, at this moment in time I feel terrified. I’m moving to New York City in two weeks. I don’t have much of a plan beyond ‘find a job’. I bounced not one but two checks last week. One of my closest friends, Alex, who had been in Boston helping me throughout my entire recovery, moved recently to California, leaving me with the constant hum of loneliness. Becca is moving to Virginia in two weeks; she is now spending a transitional fortnight with her boyfriend’s parents in upstate New York. It is Valentines Day and I haven’t had a good date in over a year. As I write this post I am doing temp work in the window-less administrative office of a local university.

And still, in the name of honesty, I feel simultaneously good. Hopeful for what’s to come; proud of my stab at a new life sans injury.

Becca came to visit me this past weekend and, before the snow came and we were consumed with snow-shoveling duties, we went out to eat. I had a gift certificate to a local Vietnamese restaurant, a holiday present on hold, which we decided to use with thankful gusto. We sat at a small table in a dimly lit back corner of the loud, laughing room and perused the menu. I looked at the white cardboard certificate, contemplating the full dollar worth of options in front of us.

We could just get appetizers and entrees and have enough left over to come again some other time, Becca said, pragmatically.

True, I said, contemplating the possibilities; Or, we could get the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu and way more food than we could possibly eat.

Oh yeah?

Yes, lets totally do it. When in our lives will we ever again be able to order the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu as a celebration of a week that included bouncing TWO checks and moving in with your boyfriend’s parents. And we can always eat the leftovers for breakfast.

Alright, I’m in.

Toasting with the cool, money-laden bite of a chilled Pouilly-Fume, we ate crisp roasted quail with lemongrass and a lingering spicy crunch. We tried light pink shrimp cakes grilled around spears of sugar cane, oddly omelet-like in consistency, sweetly seafood. Crispy spring rolls, curried light tofu with a silken bite of peanut, a salty soy sauce finish; sweet crackling fried banana doused in honey-rum sauce and toasted sesame seeds.

It was delicious, extended. Hours later (when our waiter, bemused by the unstoppable laughter. asked us if you would perhaps like some hot water?) we were quite tipsy, quite full, and feeling at least somewhat at peace with our current unstable positions in life.

We had no food leftover at the end of the night. I figure we need to stock up, like bears before hibernation, for an immediate future devoid of luxuries such as restaurant gift certificates.

PS. I know this has a happy ending; I can't help myself. I'm working on it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Remembrance of Meatballs Past

A knock at the door. Becca's quizzically raised eyebrows, not expecting company. A matronly dressed, thick woman with gigantic dark glasses stood in the hall. Becca’s landlady; she lives in the upstairs apartment.

Oh hello, she smiled hesitantly, I was walking upstairs to my apartment this morning and I could smell what you were cooking – like a fried meatball was it? – and it smelled exactly like my grandmother’s cooking. I went to my son and said; ‘Do you think grandma is downstairs?’ and I had tears in my eyes.

The words came pouring out in quick flowing jumble. She seemed to have tears glistening in her eyes right at that moment, standing there in the hall.

It reminded me so much of my childhood. I grew up here in the house, you know. It smelled like Grandma. And yesterday too – I swear I could smell stuffed peppers cooking down here. I could smell my family. It's Grandma, I said. It’s my childhood. You must be a great cook.

Becca smiled, touched. Oh thank you! Quite surprised, her landlady has always been distant, remote, communicating largely through tersely written notes. MOVE YOUR CAR. LOCK THE DOOR. But the surprising hint of tears glinting in the plumply dark haired woman was very humanizing.

When the door closed and the landlady returned to her second floor living space (where beginning around 7am sounds like a lot of floorboard thumping square dance practice goes on), Becca shrugged and laughed.

Well that’s the most she’s talked to me all year, she said.

Strange, though, how last night’s truffled risotto*, seared scallops and chocolate cake were the olfactory equivalent of stuffed peppers – and this morning’s frittata and orange muffins were fried meatballs.

Her sense of smell is a bit off, huh.

Better than mine though. I would kill to smell some meatballs.

But no matter how off she was, in the odors emanating from the tiny apartment kitchen she smelled her grandmother, her childhood. It was touching to see her strong reaction to the smells of our weekend of cooking. And I can relate to smelling memories.

Becca and I, clad in pajamas and never very far from a glass of crisp white wine, baked a tremendous chocolate cake on Saturday night. We stirred and evenly poured thick the cake batter into two round cake pans. We made a smooth, rich, brown icing that clung frothily to the beaters. This was all accompanied by some rousing singing duets (renditions of a few old time classics) that competed tunelessly well with the noise of the landlady’s early morning floor stomping. And when we, 35 minutes later, pulled the deeply colored cakes out of the oven, I was shocked by the overwhelming scent that fairly assaulted my nose. The warm, buttery chocolate odor hung around my head, swam down my throat.

Only recently have I been able to smell scents in the air – detecting odors without practically having to stick them up my nose and concentrating. I was sidelined in the grocery store the other day when I walked through the produce section and, all of a sudden, smelled laundry. Clean, strong, potent. I was confused, momentarily, until I realized I was a few feet away from a display case of detergent. Smelling something that far away from me is new. The moment I walked into the kitchen and smelled cake my smile took over my face.

And it was not only a smell – it was a memory of all those times Becca and I had baked, sang, laughed, danced around our shared college apartment with gleeful, worry-free abandonment. I haven’t felt like that in what now seems like a long time. But I saw it with clear vibrancy in that smell.

I stuck my nose right above those cakes, feeling the steam, breathing in the smell – a happy moment. It was, on a side note, one of the best cakes I’ve eaten.

In the touching vision of her grandmother, Becca’s landlady smelled a piece of her childhood, a sense of safety and home. And in that late-night chocolate cake I, too, smelled a similar feeling. A memory of past fun; the present of deep friendship and its future strength. Whether it is found in imaginary fried meatballs or concretely delicious chocolate cake, smell has the ability to paint a vivid picture of home.

*Yes, Becca keeps white truffle oil around in her pantry. (This is just one of the many reasons why I love her).

Chocolate Layer Cake
Recipe adapted from Epicurious

For cake
2 cups flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk

For frosting

2/3 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 oz dark chocolate, melted and cooled
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

1. Put oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350 F. Butter two round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, butter the parchment and then dust all with flour.

2. For the cake, sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into a bowl.

3. Beat the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each until incorporated. Add chocolate and vanilla and beat until combined. On low speed, alternate adding the flour mixture and buttermilk in small batches until all incorporated.

4. Divide batter between cake pans and bake (until wooden skewer poked into the center of the cake comes out clean) 25-35 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, remove from cake pans, peel off the parchment paper, and then let cool completely.

5. For the frosting: Heat milk over moderate heat until hot.

6. Whisk together yolks, flour, 1/3 cup confectioners sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Add hot milk in a stream, whisking. Transfer to saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat, whisking again. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes (still whisking). Transfer to large bowl. [Here, Epicurious wants you to let the custard cool for 45 minutes before finishing the frosting. We have done that before while making this cake. Last weekend we didn't (we weren't really in a waiting-for-cake mood) - we used the hot custard to finish the frosting and everything turned out beautifully].

7. Add vanilla and remaining confectioners sugar and beat until well combined. Add butter, beat until smooth. Add chocolates, continue beating. At this point we left the room, the mixer on medium speed and came back around 7 minutes later. The frosting was light and fluffy - the perfect consistency for spreading on the cake.

8. Frost the cake. [Despite our generously applied frosting technique, we had quite a bit left over. We could even have halved the recipe, I think.]