Saturday, May 27, 2006

a pizza experience

Late last October my Mom and her fiancé, Charley, took me out to dinner. We went to Caffé Umbra, a fun little restaurant in the South End of Boston. It was not even two months after being hit by the car; I was dependent on crutches and a bulky knee brace and only just lucid enough, post-skull-fracture, to comprehend the significance of my injuries.

I remember feeling extremely nervous. My heart fluttered as we drove together to the restaurant. It was the first time I had done something “normal” – the first time I had ventured out into a public, social situation while injured. I was afraid that people would stare at me; I was terrified of attention. I was scared that being in a restaurant would make me sad, truly hammering in the consequences of my loss of smell. I was afraid of entering the familiar culinary environment and suddenly seeing how quantifiable the post-accident changes truly were.

Charley let my mom and me out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant before he parked. One glance at the small, dimly lit bustle of the dining room made my stomach sink in apprehension. The tables were close together; walking with crutches would be difficult. There were lots of young professionals, fancied up in suits and dresses and sipping drinks at the bar, independent and healthy. Though shy in high school and perhaps (quite) awkward in junior high, I have not had any problems with confidence or social comfort in a long while. But hobbling through the dining room that night, my mom’s hand constantly hovering at my back, the hostess having just helped me climb out of my jacket while I balanced precariously on one leg, I could feel my self-conscious teenage angst creeping steadily out of my ears. No one really looked at me. Even if they had been, there was truly nothing to be embarrassed about. Being young and on crutches is a common occurrence. My cheeks were burning none the less.

But then we sat, my crutches nestled inconspicuously in a nearby corner. My mom and I faced Charley, our backs to the wall, with a full view of the crowded restaurant. The air was peppered with laughter, low tones of deep conversation, loud greetings and the whispered clink of forks and knives. Pomegranate martinis were placed in front of my mom and me, bright purple. I began to feel more comfortable. Charley, would of course never drink something so girlishly colorful, and his glass of Chianti tapped our sweet drinks as we smiled, cheers, happy that we could finally all be out of the house together.

I don’t remember what we ate. I can only recall the vague taste of martini -- like sugar water with a tang, any sort of nuance lost in those early stages of my olfactory regrowth. But the food itself wasn’t the important part. As we sat and talked, eating and drinking our way through a few hours of the evening, my awkward self-consciousness melted away. Perhaps because of the strength of thesaid martinis, yes. But also because, after those few initially awkward moments, I was finally able to look beyond my fear of injury and change. And I remembered that I love all things culinary for a reason -- a reason beyond the subtleties of flavor. Beyond qualifications of the chef and quality of ingredients. Food brings people together – the obvious happiness of those in the restaurant, patrons leaning cheerfully over their plates, sharing bites, laughing into delicate glasses of wine. People dressed nicely, together, bonding over the shared experience of a meal. I had fun for the first time in months that night. My mouth muscles, the ones used for smiling, reasserted themselves back into my physical repertoire.

Recently I’ve been sad about my less-than-full ability to taste. I’m at a plateau, recovery-wise. Completely healed, it is only the lack of smell that lingers in this tumultuous year of change. I’ve been struggling with what I want to be doing with myself and my writing. I’m in a rather constant state of confusion. But I’ve realized that the confusion may not dissipate for a while. And in coming to terms with that, I am now more fully aware of the other things, many other things, that there are to concentrate on. I’ve been happily reminding myself, now that I’m feeling more settled in my new home, why I love the culinary. Taste was a part of my kitchen-love, of course. But certainly not the only part. It’s a matter of exploration and fun. The way food brings us together and inspires universal pleasure.

For example, one night this week my friend Colin and I took a romp from our Park Slope stomping grounds deeper into the realm of Brooklyn. We were on a quest for pizza. The best pizza. Di Fara’s Pizza. And fresh off the Avenue J stop off the Q train, I found myself turning in circles searching for some visual confirmation of the well-lauded pizzeria. Perhaps I expected some kind of spotlight, bright neon sign – fireworks? Singing elves? Something to loudly advertise the amount of wonderful hype I’ve been hearing about this little nook-ish restaurant. I saw only a calm, quiet neighborhood; there was nothing out of the ordinary. I was ready to pull out all my pizza-radar equipment (though, in reality what that involves I have no idea – maybe some kind of magic wand slash scuba diving mask) – when I noticed Colin staring at me, eyebrows raised.

“It’s right here, Molly.”

“Oh. Right.” I looked up, right in front of us, and saw the simple faded sign. Di Fara’s Pizza.

Di Fara’s is contained in a small, bright little room – a tall counter separates the few tables from the oven area. Domenico DeMarco, a slight, older man with gray hair and a green plaid button-down shirt, lorded unassumingly over the pizza dough and the ovens. He wore an apron and exuded an aura of calm. His slow movements were deliberate, delicate and perfectly executed. A light rhythm of guitar chimed in the background, twinkling of old school Italian. The walls were covered with articles about his pizza.

Colin and I watched Mr. DeMarco work (after ordering our cheese pie) as we sat at a small corner table. One pizza at a time; there is nothing fast involved in this food. It deliciously slow. Colin and I had stopped by a neighboring convenience store and had crisp, cold beers to entertain us as we waited. Still in their paper bags, we drank them with straws (Yes the straws were a strange twist, I know. But somehow that straw turned it into the perfect pizza-beer. More perfect than a normal pizza-beer. Don’t ask questions, just believe me.)

Our pizza came to us, an hour later, piping hot, thin crusted with twinges of burnt crispiness on the edges. Bubbling melted mozzarella di bufala over the thick red sauce (homemade multiple times daily, I hear). We watched – Colin practically clapping his hands, seal-like, in pizza-glee – as Mr. DeMarco drizzled olive oil and carefully snipped the leaves off a fresh bunch of basil over the pie, finishing it off with a smattering of hand-ground Grana Padano cheese to sprinkle over. We ate until it felt like death was knocking at the door – the pizza slices fairly melted down my throat. The Di Fara pain is a good one though. As pleasant as an over-eating pain could possibly be.

It’s true that I can’t taste every aspect of this pizza (or any food) fully and completely without smell. But that isn’t the draw of this experience, even. It is the feeling of a lovingly made pizza practically dancing in your mouth, soft and crunchy, salty and sweet. It is the olive oil dribbling down the corner of your mouth (“Now that’s cute, Molly,” said Colin, “beer with a straw and oil dripping down your chin. Classy.”) It’s the adventure of a new neighborhood, new food and new friends.

We slunched ourselves, full to the brim, to the subway for our ride back home. [‘Slunched’ isn’t a word, I know; but I do feel it accurately portrays our state of being at that moment. You can’t just ‘slump’ if you are that full.] Colin was cold, an unusual occurrence for him, and I made the astute observation that all the blood generally keeping him warm was in his belly, working on the pizza. I suppose that if instead of on the subway on a warm spring night we were somewhere out in the unprotected open wilderness in the middle of winter for a long time, this pizza-induced-cold might have been dangerous. But what I really think is that the human body does have its priorities straight. If I had to choose between basic body function (such as temperature control) and an evening of Di Fara’s pizza – I would probably choose pizza. That’s why they invented the jacket.

Friday, May 12, 2006

another beginning

It has been eight months since I lost my sense of smell.

There are certainly moments when I am positive it will never come back. My olfactory neurons seem to aggressively advertise their stagnant growth with silence.

I can clearly imagine myself at eighty-five, stooped and wrinkled, hair white as snow, baking cookies with my young granddaughter. Right before we take them out of the oven - golden brown, glistening pools of melted chocolate – I’ll lean towards the small girl and say in my creaky old voice, “When I was a little girl, about your age, the smell of baking cookies was my favorite. It always reminded me of Christmas; it smelled like school vacation. I can only imagine it now.” I will have a far-off, nostalgic gleam in my eye. And the little girl will just smile at me, confused, her batty old grandmother.

The fact that I actually do imagine myself (with vivid dexterity) as a gray-haired grandmother is slightly disturbing. So is my apparent penchant for wild exaggeration. Because the truth of the matter, when I take a small step back and view my sense of smell with a hint of reality, is that things are getting better. Slowly, almost so sluggishly it is impossible to tell if I am hallucinating.

I got a whiff of Spring the other day. I walked outside of my apartment building and most decidedly, concretely, could smell Spring. I couldn’t put my finger on any of the scent-details that were once so familiar - the freshly cut grass, perfumed budding flowers, a sweet warmth in the breeze – but I knew they were there, hiding under the inexperience of my regenerating olfactory neurons. The strength and depth of smell is not there; it was a simple baseline of Spring. But it was something, something concrete.

Beyond the distinctively sharp, recognizable scents I have had back for a while (chocolate, cinnamon, citrus, laundry, herbs, wine), I am now gaining a general sense of “scent.” Unknown and indescribable. But, I think, infinitely more hopeful. Even lacking the subtleties and nuance that give scent a name – there are smells, constantly. I find myself walking into a room and with a slam, my nose registers something. Something indefinable and weak. But it is something. I will say, confused, “What does it smell like in here?” And whomever I am with often looks equally confused, sniffing, and says ‘I don’t know… nothing much.”

I had almost forgotten that there is scent everywhere. It is easy to forget the universality and continuance of smell when you have it. The subtleties are so common they are literally unnoticeable. Every room, everywhere, has an individual smell. Temperature, too; warm has a smell, as well as cold and wet. Their baseline scents are different than their physical feeling. And the difficult thing for me at the moment is that I don’t have the words to describe them. They are registering in my nose with such a weak hum that it is more of a feeling, an idea, than a smell. But at the same time, I know that it is the beginning step to a full scent palate.

The only way I can describe these new delicate smell-ideas is to say that they make me feel alive. It is surprising how quickly I forgot that these universal scents ever existed, as I myself have existed in an odorless world. But the memory, however feeble the actual smells coming back, gives me the momentum to step out of black and white and into a world of color. Or at least sepia toned. Small steps, moving in the right direction. There are hints of a newfound vibrancy lurking everywhere.


On another note, it has been one year today since I began writing My Madeleine. The past year has been the most difficult and, simultaneously (the realization has been slowly dawning on me, though, I suppose that is another story in itself) the most beautiful of my life. I am very happy to have documented a great deal of the change here; the process of writing through it all has helped me in an infinite number of ways. So thank you, all, for reading.

Monday, May 01, 2006

a brief return to boston

On Thursday morning I lugged my huge suitcase down the two flights of stairs from my apartment to the sidewalk. With each lopsided step the suitcase bounced against my leg; it was a fight to keep from falling face first down the stairs. Coupled with the gigantic backpack I had somehow managed to stuff with every possible item under the sun (did I really need 6 different books for my four days in Boston?) my balance was widely off-kilter. Once on the ground I rolled the case behind me as I walked to the subway, leading like a tugboat of sorts, silently berating myself for agreeing to deliver this monstrous suitcase to my mother in Boston. She is going to London; she likes to pack a lot. By the time I awkwardly bounced myself down onto the F train, up the stairs at East Broadway, and down the few blocks of Canal Street to the friendly “Fung Wah Bus Station,” I was covered in sweat. After hectically throwing my money ($15.75; best deal ever) in the tiny glass window to get my ticket stub (handwritten on a scrap of paper) I lofted my suitcase (with a combination of arm raising, back bending and a few aggressive karate kicks) onto the luggage platform of the bus and collapsed into my seat, hot, sweaty and tired. I promptly fell asleep, wading through hazy dreams of subway trains somehow supplanted into the office of the magazine I am currently working for alongside some spinning cherry trees in full blossom, an old friend from elementary school and a series of shooting firecrackers launched from a rooftop. Strange dreams; I’ll blame it on the loads of allergy medication I need to take this time of year in order not to sneeze my nose off. I woke up when we reached South Station in Boston somewhat disoriented, but happy to be back, however briefly, in such a familiar land.

My mom and I walked to a local French bistro that night and had a glass of wine (or two) together while we ate fresh pea soup, vibrantly green with a pool of white crème fraiche in its center, grilled calamari and spicy chorizo. We talked about a lot of things: my new life in New York, hers continuing in Boston, future trips, plans, the excitement of my little (well not so little; 6’3 varsity lacrosse playing) brother spending the summer in NYC as well. And simply the strangeness of finding myself back in Boston, even if for only a few days, after my first two months in New York. I am beginning to feel comfortable in Brooklyn – like I live there and it may possibly one day be called ‘home’. In Boston it seems as if in every corner there lurks a ghost of my former, injured self. Driving to the grocery store there is a girl on crutches sitting in the passenger seat next to me; she winces whenever we go over a bump. Riding the T I brush hands with my shrunken self, the one wearing a large black knee brace, as we simultaneously grab the handrail. The kitchen reverberates with the sound of my cane and when I walk into my bedroom I leave behind a woman who is not able to climb the stairs to reach it. It’s amazing what only two months away can do to change your mindset. New York is good for me. It is wonderful, however, to be back at home for a weekend and see my family.

And Friday night I again took the helm of the kitchen and cooked dinner for my mom and her boyfriend Charley. I think they miss having an enthusiastic personal chef around the house; I certainly miss their standing mixer and Cuisinart (maybe them, too). I made a simple meal from the Balthazar Cookbook: mustard glazed salmon and earthy lentils, roasted asparagus with parmesan and a toasted vanilla pound cake with strawberries. It was very spring, fitting well alongside the yellow daffodils winking through the kitchen window. And comforting – to cook, to eat, to be back home, and to know how far I’ve come.

Mustard-Crusted Salmon
Adapted from the Balthazar Cookbook

6 salmon fillets
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
¼ cup Dijon mustard
6 tsp dry bread crumbs
2 tbs vegetable oil

-preheat oven to 500
-season salmon with salt and pepper. On top, spread 2 tsp of mustard and a sprinkling of bread crumbs. Press the crumbs into the mustard with your fingers.
-heat oil in large sauté pan, when it begins to smoke, add the salmon, mustard side down and lower the flame to medium. Sear for 2 minutes, until there is a crust. Flip for one minute and then transfer the pan into the oven to finish cooking for 3 minutes.
-Plate on top of the lentils

Adapted from the Balthazar Cookbook

1 cup green lentils
2 slices diced bacon
4 sprigs thyme

½ medium onion, diced
1 minced garlic clove
1 tsp salt
2 tbs unsalted butter
1 medium carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
¼ tsp white pepper.

-rinse the lentils in cold water and drain. Put them in a sauce pan with 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes.
-meanwhile in another saucepan, sauté the bacon and thyme for two minutes. Add the garlic, onion and salt and sauté 5 minutes. Add butter, carrot, celery, white pepper and one cup of water and boil five minutes.
-drain lentils and then put them back in their pot. Add the vegetable mixture and simmer 10 minutes. Serve under the salmon.

Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan:

Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Handful of parmesan cheese

-preheat oven to 500.
-toss asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper.
-roast 7 – 10 minutes, until fork tender.
-throw the parmesan on top, while hot, and serve.