Sunday, December 07, 2008

Scent of the City

I'm very happy to announce that I have a piece in the City Section of today's New York Times. It's about smell and it's about the city. But mainly it's about the life that each one gave to the other--and to me--as I recovered from the effects of the car accident in 2006.

Friday, December 05, 2008


I took an elevator to the 40th floor of a building in lower Manhattan on Tuesday evening of this week. When I stepped into the lobby, I saw small groups of people chatting and filling out nametags. I saw them sniffing at little brown vials of scent and recording their perception online. This is my kind of event, I thought with a smile.

I found a seat in an adjoining, window-lined room that soon filled to capacity. I was there for a lecture—A Rose by Any Other Name: the Science of Smell—hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences as part of their series “Science and the City.” For the next hour and a half I listened to Avery Gilbert, author of the recently published book What the Nose Knows, and Leslie Vosshall, head of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, speak about the sense of smell.

Though interesting and casual, sometimes even verging on goofy, there were no glaringly new insights for me. I already understand the basics of olfactory science and am familiar with the references to scent in pop culture. As you know, I have been consumed by smell for the last three years. But there were a few things that grabbed me.

A sense of humor, for one. There were images of Daredevil, the blind superhero with a highly tuned sense of smell, and Andy Warhol, who valued the memories attached to each of his colognes so much that he often retired them after only a few months. “… I realized I had to have a kind of smell museum so certain smells wouldn't get lost forever,” Warhol once said.

The theory of human pheromones was illustrated by a study done on strippers: tips earned from men while the pole dancers were ovulating were significantly higher than when they were not. Their tips fluctuated much more than the dancers on birth control, whose hormone levels were stable. It implies the power of our body’s chemicals, and the ability to perceive what we don't know is there.

In one moment, every member of the audience was asked to pinch his or her nose completely shut, place a jellybean on the tongue, and begin to chew. After a few seconds, everyone released their hand and exhaled. I watched as, one after another, the audience began to nod. Many smiled. While restricting the ability to smell, a jellybean is nothing but sweet and gritty. With an unclogged nose, however, flavor comes rocketing through. The sudden shot of vanilla, grape, or pineapple can be surprising.

At another point, Vosshall spoke about the different scent perceptions people have of simple, everyday items. It has to do with the olfactory receptors, which detect the odor molecules that arrive in all noses. Everyone has a different combination of receptors, she explained. Some of this difference is due to genetics, some due to wear and tear. It explains why some people love the scent of cilantro and others can’t stand it.

I remembered a professor I had in college, who taught child psychology early on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One morning during a lecture, she told my class that she loved the smell of skunk. “I would wear it as perfume if that wouldn’t be so socially unacceptable,” she said. I thought that was disgusting. I thought she was insane.

But now, over three years after I lost and regained my sense of smell, I too love the scent of skunk. To me, now, it’s sweet and nutty. It reminds me of baked goods.

“If you lose little bits,” Vosshall said on Tuesday, referring to the olfactory neurons, “things can get lost in translation.”

Monday, December 01, 2008

Nutmeg, paused in the midst of some hectic Thanksgiving kitchen work. More soon.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Sometimes the slow moments sneak up on me.

I had been spending my days working away, lost in reams of Word documents and stacks of library books, feeling little but the adrenaline of deadline and excitement of production. But then, suddenly, the articles were filed. The revisions were made. The endpoint never ceases to surprise me.

I woke up on Sunday morning with nothing more pressing than the newspaper, wrapped in plastic and the damp red leaves that had fallen from trees the night before. I’m really not used to free time. I baked a cake to take off the edge.

I have been transfixed by Suzanne Goin’s cookbook: Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Her “pumpkin” cake—understated and sweet, made with roasted butternut squash and a whiff of honey—transformed the house with scents of pecans and butter. It spoke to late autumn, early dusk, and lazy afternoons in the kitchen.

“Pumpkin” Cake with Pecan Streusel
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

1 butternut squash
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cups heavy cream
3 extra-large eggs
1 tablespoon honey
Pecan streusel topping (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Cut the squash in half lengthwise and place on a baking sheet, cut side up. (Don't remove the seeds yet; they give extra flavor.) Cover with foil, and roast about 1 hour, until very tender. Let cool 10 minutes, and then scoop out the seeds and discard them. Puree the warm squash through a ricer or food mill and measure out 1 1/2 cups.

Turn the oven down to 350F.

Butter and flour a 10-inch pan (I used a springform)

Place the butter in a medium saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean in two and scrape out the seeds with your knife into the pan. Add the seed pod as well, and cook over medium heat 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the butter browns and smells nutty. Remove the pod.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a large bowl. Add the salt. Make a well in the center.

In another large bowl, whisk the reserved 1 1/2 cups squash puree, milk, 1/4 cup cream, eggs, and honey to combine. Pour the liquid into the well in the dry ingredients, and whisk until incorporated. Stir in the brown butter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake 25 minutes, then remove the cake from the oven and sprinkle the streusel evenly over the top. Bake the cake another 45 minutes (or longer--mine was in for an hour), until the topping is crisp and cake has set. (The center of the cake will still be somewhat soft and won't pass the toothpick test.) Cool the cake on a rack for at least 15 minutes.

**Update: Originally, I had listed the quantity of heavy cream needed as 1 and 1/4 cups. The cake recipe calls for 1/4 cup, with the additional cup meant to be whipped and served along side the cake. I didn't make the whipped cream myself, and neglected to remove the measurement from the recipe when I wrote it up here. My apologies for the confusion!

Pecan Streusel Topping

1/4 cup pecans
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon dried nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375.

Spread the pecans on a baking sheet, and toast them 8 to 10 minutes, until they darken slightly and smell nutty. When the nuts have cooled, chop them coarsely. Toss the nuts with the oil and salt.

In a food processor, pulse the butter, sugars, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg until just combined. Remove to a bowl, stir in the salted pecans, and chill until ready to use.

Monday, November 10, 2008


I’m in the middle of an overwhelming writing project. It consumes my days, and some of my nights. I spend a lot of time at my desk. I'm sitting there now. Through the window, I can see a big, gnarly oak tree. It’s leaning to the left, stretching to touch its very last branch to the roof of the house below. Over the past two weeks I’ve watched the red leaves fall, one by one, and now it’s bare.

The excitement of this past week has been surreal, especially when experienced against long hours of concentration and Word documents, watching autumn slowly melt away.

But it has been exciting. I sold some freelance work and found a yoga studio near my house. I baked Edna Lewis’ Fresh Apple Cake with Caramel Glaze, and under-seasoned a mediocre pot of cauliflower soup. My car got a flat tire. I avoided fixing it for as long as possible. And, of course, Obama is President-Elect.

I cooked dinner for my family last night. It was a calm Sunday evening to prepare for another week—a calmer week, but one still laced with hope and change. My favorite part of the meal was the Julia Child’s Alsatian Onion Tart.

Now, I took a short cut. I admit it. I used frozen puff pastry rather than the "from scratch" Julia would have wanted. But I have no regrets. The sweet onions melted against its flaky crust just right.

Alsatian Onion Tart

Adapted from Baking with Julia

1/2 pound puff pastry, chilled
4 very large onions, peeled and diced
1 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 pound bacon

-Roll out the puff pastry until very thin on a lightly floured surface. Julia recommends cutting it into a circle using the lid of a pot as a guide. I left it as a rectangle. Place it on an un-greased baking sheet, and prick dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate until needed.

-Put diced onion and chicken broth into a saucepan and cook over medium heat for around a half hour, until onions are soft. Drain, discarding liquid, and let cool. When cool, add heavy cream, season with salt and pepper, and stir.

-Cut bacon into 1/4 inch cubes. Blanch for one minute in boiling water. Drain and rinse with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Then, heat a medium skillet over moderately high heat, and cook the bacon pieces for a few minutes, making sure they don't get too tough. Remove from heat, and drain on paper towels again.

-Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove pastry and top with the onions, spreading all the way to the edge. Scatter bacon over top. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown. (I cooked mine for closer to 45.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008


Today I bought Alinea, the new cookbook by Grant Achatz. There are hundreds of recipes, which are based on tasting menus at his Chicago restaurant of the same name, and stunning photographs. Many of his dishes are out of my league, as I don't own a Vita-Prep blender nor do I have any calcium ascorbate lying around the house. But I couldn't help myself: There is a short section on Achatz's use of scent in cooking.

Aroma, he writes, offers two possibilities for the chef. "The opportunity to flavor a dish by way of smell, and to add a layer of complexity to a concept by triggering an emotional response to a familiar smell. These two facets of the technique became so important in our cooking that the idea of aroma itself became a creative avenue."

Achatz has fought a well-documented battle of his own in the last year. Diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2007, he underwent radiation and, as a result, temporarily lost his ability to taste. I've followed his story with great interest. My own experience of sensory loss and regain has changed the way I look at food and cooking, taste and flavor. I can only imagine what it has done for one of the country's best chefs.

Monday, October 27, 2008

New York

I took an early morning train to New York last Wednesday. I was in the city for only a few day. They were crisp, fall days that reminded me how much I miss it.

I stayed with my little brother, Ben, who wears suits everyday and took me out for pizza, prosciutto, and wine at Mario Batali’s casual restaurant, Otto. I walked around Prospect Park in Brooklyn and, later, paused for cappuccino in a warm West Village café. I window-shopped, pressed into crowded subway cars, and perched on a stool at a bar with friends. I sat in a leather chair at a small paper-scented bookstore, reading food magazines before a more business-oriented meeting nearby. A plum tart, split in two with a plastic spoon at Patisserie Claude, tasted of sweet cream and powdered sugar.

I had dinner at Barbuto on Thursday with a couple of friends with whom I often used to cook. A pumpkin bruschetta and linguini laced with swiss chard and garlic spoke to fall. Afterward I met my brother and his girlfriend at an odd little wine bar that projected its menu onto the tabletop from a motion sensor lodged in the ceiling.

It was New York but it wasn’t. It was cool and calm, filled with good food and a lot of walking. But it was quick and nothing feels very real for two days that flew by.

Last night, back in Boston, I cooked for my family. I wanted something that felt like fall and, perhaps, a bit like New York. I made a bronzed set of pork shops, served over a cabbage and apple slaw. I saw the recipe on The Cooking Loft, a Food Network show with chef Alex Guarnaschelli. I met her once, when I was reporting for a story last year in New York. She and I sat in the dark front room of her restaurant, Butter, and spoke of being a woman and a chef in the city.

“It’s like “Rocky”,” she had said with a laugh. “You have to get up and drink the egg yolks. Every day I drink the egg yolks.”

This recipe, however, was quite easy.

Stovetop Pork Chops with Cabbage and Apples

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons crushed coriander seeds
2 small heads savoy cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons white pepper
2 knobs fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon dry ginger
1 14oz can whole, peeled tomatoes
1 poblano pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into thin slices
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
4 pork loin chops (bone-on)
1 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 green apples, cored, halved, and cut into small slices

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

-Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, and toast the cumin, caraway, and coriander seeds for 30 seconds. Add the cabbage, and toss to coat. Season with salt and white pepper. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring often.

-Add fresh ginger, dry ginger, tomatoes, and poblano pepper and stir to blend. Cook 5 to 8 minutes, until tender. Add cilantro and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and keep warm while cooking pork.

-Sprinkle pork chops with salt, pepper and paprika. Heat large skillet, and pour in oil. When the oil begins to smoke slightly, add the pork, arranged in a single layer. Brown on first side 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and brown on the other side for an additional 2 – 3 minutes. Reduce the heat and cook 5 to 6 minutes and then turn and finish up with a further 5 to 6 minutes of cooking time. Season again, lightly with salt and pepper.

-Heat the cabbage, add the apple slice and red wine vinegar. Arrange the pork on top of the cabbage in a dish or on a plate, and serve.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


It is Sunday afternoon and I am sitting at my kitchen table. I’m drinking tea and eating one of the many apples I picked yesterday at an orchard in Harvard, Massachusetts. A big pot of chili is bubbling on the stove; cornbread spackled in sage just emerged from the oven.

I am unemployed and therefore my boxes of books and pots and pans are all stacked in the basement of my family’s home in Boston, where I am pausing while I figure out what comes next. I have time, which both scares and inspires me. I am writing a bit and cooking a lot.

Even within my few week without a job, however, I realized something: I like deadlines. I like the pressure and the excitement that comes with an endpoint. I like the concrete. And so I am making a schedule and my intentions known: I will write for this blog every week. I will post on or by Monday evening. And look, I’m already way ahead of schedule.

In other news, this is a watermelon grown in the garden where I used to live in Point Reyes, California. It perched on the seat of my car as I drove across the country. I ate it in Ann Arbor with Becca, late on a Sunday morning standing at her kitchen counter. It was small and sweet. I have never seen such large watermelon seeds.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I left California early on a misty Monday morning. I left with a car full of books and clothes. A pumpkin, given to me by my landlord, perched on the front passenger seat. I left with both anxiety and excitement; I’m not quite sure what will come next.

I spent the next four days driving across the country alone. I passed through the Sierra Nevada mountains and Iowa’s rolling fields; I skirted the Great Salt Lake and Great Lakes. I didn’t find much good food, but plenty of scenery.

I arrived in Ann Arbor on Friday afternoon, bleary eyed and antsy. Becca, who I have known since our first week of college, met me after she finished work and we commenced what would be a restful weekend with a glass of wine.

Over the next couple of days we went on many walks – to the farmer’s market, along the river, to the bar. On Sunday, our morning stroll took us to a tea store in downtown Ann Arbor. There, the walls were stacked with rows of metal tins. Each held a different type of tea and their labels ranged from the familiar (Earl Grey) to foreign (Ayurveda Kapha).

The man behind the counter was passionate and verbose. He had a delightfully waxed mustache, a monocle dangling from a chain around his neck, and gave us an impromptu lesson on the spice and herb of all sorts of tea.

During the lecture, he held scoops of tea leaves beneath our noses. One at a time, Becca and I inhaled.

I was surprised by how much I could smell. Not only could I smell each tea held beneath my nose, I found that I could detect subtleties. I could pick out the rose in the Victorian Earl Grey. I could smell the orange in the Royal Grey. The peppermint tea nearly bowled me over. It was cold and deep. I couldn’t help but smile.

I remembered the first few months after the accident, in the fall of 2005, when I spent my time lying in bed at my mother’s house. I was recovering from a broken pelvis, open knee surgery, and the scull fracture that caused my loss of smell. Every morning my mom would bring me a mug of tea, sometimes laced with milk and sugar and sometimes just plain. She would ask me if I could tell what kind it was. I would inhale, willing myself to register something, anything. But there was nothing – just the wetness of the steam, the sharp heat of the mug. I could smell nothing; I could taste nothing. It may have well been hot water.

“Jasmine?” I would guess. “English Breakfast?”

But last week there was no question. I could smell the cardamom, the licorice and the lemon.

Towards the end of our lesson, Becca and I smelled a sweet variety of Rooibush tea. I inhaled over the scoop. The first whiff – burnt sugar, caramel – immediately conjured the hard black countertop at a tea shop in Providence where I used to go my freshman year of college. I went there all the time to read, to talk, and to drink Creme de la Earl Grey, a sweet brew that held blended blue flowers and a twist of cream. The similar scent in Ann Arbor sent me straight back – the uncomfortable stools, the constant cold draft sneaking through their large windows, the way going to college made me feel for the first time like I belonged.

Though I know much about the visceral memories that a single scent can conjure – I have them; I want them; I've read as much as I can get my hands on about them – they never cease to shock me with their suddenness and strength. And it made me think, standing there in that tea house last weekend, about how much I may have lost living for for those years without smell. Would I feel differently about those scent-less years if they had odor attached? Would my memories be stronger? Would they be different?

I was shaken from my reverie by the tea man, asking if I'd like to buy anything to take home with me. I thought about the Rooibush, and the way it hints at both caramel and my past. But then decided to go for a Chai instead. Might as well start fresh.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bavaria's best

My plane landed in Paris early on a recent Friday morning. Matt, who I last saw over three months ago in California, met me outside of baggage claim. He looked different, yet utterly the same. We rode the train into the city, dropped off my bags, and paused for breakfast at a nearby patisserie. The espresso was thick and nutty; the croissant was buttery and flaked with almonds. Women in heels and men in thin-legged pants walked down the sidewalk on their way to work. The street smelled of cigarette smoke, of coffee and baguettes, of the rotisserie chickens spinning outside of a butcher shop nearby.

I spent ten days in Europe. Matt and I walked all over Paris—exploring the Marais, fighting crowds in the Louvre, tasting coconut macaroons near the Pompidou. We drove to Germany, in a spunky little car that struggled to keep up with the BMWs and Porsches flying down the Autobahn, and stayed for most of the week on the cobble-stoned streets of Bamberg, a medieval town where Matt once lived.

The timing of the trip was perfect. Fall was just beginning and the air was often crisp, the light sharp. There were picnics in parks and walks along rivers. There was the scent of bakeries and chimneys, of smoke and water.

It was also perfect because I needed a break from reality. The financial struggle gripping much of the U.S. has long been biting at the heels of print journalism and, therefore, I recently encountered my first lay-off. In the face of unemployment and an uncertain future, baguettes brought straight from the oven have never tasted so fresh.

In Germany, Matt and I ate in local breweries every night, where thick glass mugs of beer were plunked down before us on the communal wooden tables. There was bratwurst, sauerkraut, and brown bread. There were even sightings of lederhosen and felt caps.

One evening we went to Brauerei Hoh, a small pub tucked in a hamlet near Bamberg. We sat at a table near the back of the main room, warm and filled with people, drinking a fizz-less brew available nowhere but there. We ate pfefferhahnchen, an impossibly delicious half-chicken with skin that was crisp and tender and covered in a bronzed mix of pepper and spice.

“How is this so good?” I asked.

“It’s the best,” Matt said.

That soon became the mantra of our time in Bavaria. It’s the best, said Matt, at least once every day.

Sometimes it was the perfect sweet-sour twang of sauerkraut; sometimes it was the smoke, cascading from a chimney at sunset. Mainly, though, it was the beer. I haven’t always been a fan of beer. I’ve often found it tasteless, needlessly filling. But this beer was different. It changed with each brewery—from flat and tangy to smoked and hammy. But no matter what, each had a depth of flavor I hadn’t realized was possible.

And every night we would sit, order (zwei bier, bitte!), and take a sip. “This is the best,” Matt would say. I would nod. It was.

Until the next night, of course, when that was the best.

Friday, September 05, 2008


I covered Slow Food Nation, the gargantuan food festival that took place over Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, for my paper (here) and (here). It was a whirlwind of farmers and chefs, pickles and produce—an event that aimed to teach and entertain, feed and foster awareness of food that is “good, clean, and fair.”

I had a wonderful time at the festival, wandering among the booths at the market on the Civic Center Plaza and sampling Gruyere and oak barreled brew at the Taste Pavilion. But it was difficult to work through the anticipation for the event, born of media hype (mine included, yes) and their own massive expectations, which touch upon changing the face of the American food system. Hard to pull off over the course of a three-day party.

Many of the ideas behind this celebrity and celebration, however, have been present where I am living here in West Marin for a long time, and I find myself running into living variations on a daily basis. I interview farmers and ranchers; I shop at the market filled with local produce and personalities. There is an open-air, 24-hour stand a bit south on Highway One where I can buy chard, potatoes, or vibrant-hued flowers at any time of day. Raw honey, plums plucked from the tree, barbecues glowing in an otherwise pitch-black night. Food, both the growing and the eating, sustains and brings people together here in sharper focus than New York or Boston, perhaps because of the community’s heavy reliance on agriculture.

Just the other day I was given a container of eggs so fresh tiny feathers poked out next to the pastel-tinted shells. Poached, on a bed of sautéed swiss chard: perfect.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I met Sarah when I was only a few years old. It was in gymnastics class. I was a shy toddler with a head of bright red curls; Sarah was outgoing and blond. My mom, who immediately hit it off with her mom, has told me the story many times. I don’t remember a thing.

But I was probably drawn to her then for much the same reasons as I am today: Sarah’s vivacity has always been coupled with as much grace as goofiness. And she sings a mean rendition of "Memory."

Since then, Sarah has always been present in my life. We navigated the halls of elementary, junior high, and high school together. For years I helped to decorate her Christmas tree. We spent many an afternoon in her backyard, pretending to be characters from Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals, and there were countless weekends with our families skiing in Vermont. We marched together, wearing suspenders and plumed hats for four years of band.

My childhood is laced with the dull scent of leather from her family’s living room chairs. It is filled with the aromas of wood and paint from the playhouse her father built in their backyard. It sounds of Christmas carols, of Ace of Base and Enya. It feels of steam from mugs of hot chocolate at her family’s home in Vermont and the cold metal mouthpiece of our flutes during shared lessons. There was our first sip of alcohol, in a friend’s kitchen a few weeks after my parents divorced. There was the fuzzy sound of her voice, simultaneously worried and cheerful, when I was recovering from a car accident three years ago.

I thought about all these things as I watched her walk down the aisle this past weekend, glowing in her white gown and veil. I sat between my mom and my brother, wearing a bright yellow dress, and thought of the weddings we had once set up for members of our Barbie doll collections.

Sarah married Joe, who is perfect for her in every way. Their wedding, which was elegant and merry, was rife with both memory and fun. It was almost as if the church carried the faint scent of leather; the dance floor, perched under a tent in rural Vermont, smelled of wood and paint.

Monday, August 11, 2008


This evening I went on a walk. I was in the midst of writing an article for work, the sun was just beginning to set, and I needed a break. I’ve always called this time of night the gloaming, and loved it for its glowing light and sinking shadow.

A few deer watched as I passed them on the side of the road; blackberries filled the bushes, ready to pluck. I wore a pair of yellow sandals, which I could see in the periphery of my vision whenever I took a step. They matched the golden patches of grass that stand dry on the side of the road.

I listened to Miles Davis as I walked and I let thoughts ricochet about my mind. I thought about Alice Waters, who sat gracefully at a long garden table for an event I covered on Saturday afternoon. I thought about my mom and her boyfriend, who just left after a lovely wine-soaked visit. I thought about Matt in Paris and Russia in Georgia. I thought about reporting: in a small town, in a large city. I thought about an almond cake I recently made, the blackberries I picked before breakfast, and my landlord’s chihuahua Louis. I thought about my transition to this new place, one filled with quirks and conundrums and truly excellent cheese.

I miss writing for myself; I’m going to try for more.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Figs and plums, picked yesterday by my landlord. He gave them to me today, after we weeded the rows of corn growing kitty-corner to both my apartment and his photography studio. I just put them on my desk. They look nice next to my mug of coffee, which steams next to my computer while I write.

Friday, June 27, 2008


My grandfather Morris didn’t sleep at night. He would stay up until dawn, filling the dark with books and television. He was an artist as well as businessman, and would spend time painting in his studio—oil on canvas until his 80s, when arthritis overtook his fingers and he taught himself to make art on his computer. And towards the end of his life, when he was confined to a wheelchair, he would talk with Joel, a soft-spoken man from Peru who was hired to help.

I met Joel for the first time on Monday of this week, when he stood at the bima of an earth-colored synagogue to give a eulogy at my grandfather’s funeral. His English was hesitant; he had spoken only Spanish until he began these late-night talks with Morris.

There were a few things my grandfather had taught him during their hours together, he explained. First, Joel said with a laugh, he had learned to eat and appreciate smoked salmon during those nights with the 93-year-old man. He learned to watch baseball, especially the Yankees. He learned that his wife is boss of the home. He learned to say I love you.

There was smoked salmon at the gathering in my grandparent’s house after the funeral. I looked at it, sitting on a plastic platter next to the bagels on a table piled with food, but couldn’t remember my grandfather ever eating it. I can't remember much of what he ate at all; there are only a few things that stand out.

I remember the salt—he used a lot, on everything. I remember the gefilte fish—I was entranced by the gray blob his plate during childhood Passover Seders. My family always brought an offering of dried apricots when we visited. Strange bottles of alcohol stood like one of his still-life paintings in the dining room there. And there was always that china container of M&Ms on the counter, waiting to be raided by me and my brother.

I only spent 48 hours in upstate New York before hopping on a plane to come back west. It’s all a fog now, punctuated with scenes of suits and nice shoes, dining room tables and my aunt’s tiny dogs, noodle kugel and roast chicken.

I didn’t have a chance to process anything—the funeral, my grandfather—until I returned home to California. I thought about it all for a while last night, while baking bread. There’s something comforting about the act of kneading. The rhythmic, constant movement relaxes me. Around dusk yesterday evening my kitchen counter was strewn with bowls and wooden spoons, bread pans and thermometers. The flour, which flew around the room as I wrestled with dough, reminded me of the smoke rising off the land around me, remnants of California’s current fires.

My grandfather, a man large in both personality and girth, was a powerful force in my family. Like with the dough, I suppose I’ll always wrestle with my memories of him. Patience is key. It all needs time to rise.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


After graduation Matt and I drove across the country - a trip filled with bumpy back roads and gas-station coffee, crawfish gumbo and BBQ pork, wrinkled maps and unfamiliar accents. There was the humidity of Louisiana's bayou, the deep-red sand of Arizona's canyon, and the rhythmic movement of oil pumpjacks spanning the Texas landscape. We arrived in northern California last week, just in time for me to begin my new job and Matt to hop on a plane and begin his own. Though the change is disarming, it's good. My new home smells like eucalyptus and the ocean. There are farmer's markets, dairy farms, and bread dough already rising on my counter. More soon...

Monday, April 28, 2008


I cooked dinner the other night for Matt and I, in the kitchen of his small New York studio apartment. The meal had definite potential: a roast chicken with cherry tomatoes, garbanzo beans and paprika. The garlic, seeped with olive oil and red pepper flakes, filled the room with its warmth as it baked.

But something—and I still don’t know what—went wrong. A frustrating hour and a half later, I slid the entire contents of the roasting pan into the trash. Rubbery, undercooked chicken had slouched next to a blackened, asphyxiated pile of beans and tomatoes. Grease flowed off the pan. It was my first experience with such surprising inedibility.

I’ve been feeling anxious lately, because graduate school is reaching its end and I’m moving to California in less than a month. My apartment is a mess and deadlines refuse to stop hanging over my head. I'm allergic to everything this time of year, which makes it difficult to breathe, let alone smell. Usually my stress manifests itself in small ways: forgetting my wallet, milk in the cupboard and cereal in the fridge. Occasionally bigger ways: picking fights with my mother on the phone, deciding to cut off half my head of hair. But my anxiety had never yet entered the kitchen.

I made a half-hearted attempt to carve the sad little chicken while Matt chuckled off to the side. I was frustrated and, true to form, began to pick a fight. I like when things to according to plan. The thump as it all hit the bottom of the garbage bin was satisfying.

Luckily, Matt is patient. We resuscitated the evening with the asparagus I had picked up from the farmer's market that morning - simply roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I made toast and Matt pulled out a delightful container of foie gras that he had brought back from France over a year ago.

"I was saving it for a special occasion," he said, prying open the thick sealed lid with a knife.

We sat around his small coffee table, perched on a desk chair and a corner of the bed. We drank red wine and plucked asparagus stalks off the plate with out fingers. Sometimes, I suppose, things are OK when they don't go according to plan.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I've been talking about scent a lot in the past few weeks. New smells, which continue to come back at an increasingly rapid pace, are exciting. I didn't think I could ever completely forget the scent of spring, but now it hits me when I walk out of my apartment and I am surprised anew by the depth of flower and grass. I spoke to an editor at my alma matter's alumni magazine about a new book, The Scent of Desire, and Dick Gordon, the host of American Public Media's The Story, interviewed me last week.

Here is just a short list of my favorite smell-related essays that I've written here, to help orient anyone new:

When I worked as a dishwasher:
Sardines and Frying Pans
Surprise Encounter

When I lost my sense of smell:
Unexpected Changes
Kind of Blue

Living without scent:
Rosemary and James Bond

Holding My Nose
Evening, New York

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


My family came to the city this past weekend. My mother and her boyfriend Charley, my brother Ben and his girlfriend Ashley, and Matt and I went to Annisa, an American-eclectic eatery in Manhattan’s West Village.

I’ve spent the last six months or so writing about Anita Lo, the chef there, for my Master’s thesis on gender in the professional kitchen. It was odd to sit in the chic cushioned booth of her restaurant, surrounded by the chatter of family and clink of silverware. I was suddenly an intimate part of a scene I had recently spent late nights pondering over a Word document and my laptop.

And the food took on a different persona when placed delicately down in front of me on a wide white plate instead of just a bite, quickly handed over on a battered spoon in a corner of the sweaty kitchen. The elegance of the dining room was charming, but I missed the character that came when eating with the heat and gurgle of a deep fryer half a foot away.

But out at the table, everyone agreed, the soup dumplings topped with foie gras were especially magnificent. The line cooks, I remembered, threw them frozen with a hunk of butter into a steamer to create their delicate liquid center. The goat cheesecake was soft and rich, with a perfect sour twang. The thin slices of candied beets served underneath had entranced me since February, when I helped plate desserts one evening, my reporters notebook tucked in my back pocket.

Mainly, though, it felt nice to have my family together. I recently accepted a job in California, to write for a weekly paper near San Francisco. I’ll be away from the East Coast for at least a year; it will be a while before we are all together again.

I’m going to miss New York, with its nooks and crannys, faces and melodies, perfumes and stenches. But there’s a lot going for the change. Without a doubt, I’ll have more time to write.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


They sky was still dark as Matt and I rode our bikes to Penn Station early on Monday morning. I watched the sun slowly rise over the Hudson while we pedaled down Riverside Park. The industrial buildings across the river looked soft in the trickle of early light. I wore a thin pair of black-and-red gloves that my mother gave me years ago; my fingers were numb by the time we hauled our bikes down the stairs that led to the Long Island Railroad.

Technically we are on “spring break” from graduate school, where both Matt and I are studying journalism. Unfortunately, as you’ve seen from my lack of activity here, there is very little break involved in a 10-month master’s program, no matter what the season. Thirty-six hours in Long Island would have to do it.

We arrived in East Hampton around 11 a.m., dropped our bags off at the Inn, and began to explore. It didn’t matter that the grass was brown and the trees gray. The windmill standing on a grassy plain off of Main Street was crisp against the cloudless blue sky.

The wind pushed against my puffy down jacket as we rode down Further Lane and gawked at the mansions overlooking the water. We parked our bikes and walked along the beach. I could smell the ocean. It was thick and salty.

That night, my face warm with the day’s resulting windburn, we went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant—which, I thought happily as we walked down the empty street, was probably the equivalent of 4 Manhattan-length blocks from our Inn. Then I realized that I was thinking in terms of Manhattan-length blocks, which disturbed me. As did my unfamiliarity with the sky’s blackness, as I’m so used to New York City’s perpetual light. Birds had been chirping all day; a stark contrast to the ambulance sirens and subway trains usually grinding in my eardrums. It’s been too long since I’ve taken a break, I thought.

We sat at a side table in the dining room of Della Femina, a graceful Italian joint filled with flickering candles and beige tablecloths. The food arrived on our table in unassuming combinations of the familiar yet interesting. A curried carrot soup with golden raisins, lime crème fraiche, and a drizzle of a spicy oil. Seared salmon with lemongrass syrup. Matt’s warm croissant bread pudding with white chocolate mousse disappeared quickly.

The meal meandered in a slow, even tempo. The simple act of sitting, sipping wine, and talking about subjects far from graduate school was delicious.

And now, back in the city, I am avoiding the Word document that holds the final draft of my master’s project. I am attempting to tune out the rocking bass of what I can only assume is my next-door neighbor’s perpetual dance party. It has been raining all day and I can smell its wetness, soaked into the brick outside my window. It’s thin and musty, very different from the ocean.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Lately I’ve been taken by spice.

Cinnamon, rosemary, thyme.

Turmeric, cumin, curry.

Ginger, especially, and garlic, inevitably.

I linger at the shelf of spices in my apartment, opening each bottle and inhaling. At home in Boston for New Years, my mom’s collection of vanilla beans was captivating; the paprika she brought back from Hungary, titillating. I find myself choosing recipes based purely on the pungency of their individual flavors.

My ability to detect the scent of spice isn’t remarkably new. I remember in the days after the accident when my father would hold bottles of curry or garlic powder or nutmeg under my nose and ask imploringly if I could smell anything. Nothing registered for months; each bottle filled with a monotone nothingness. But within a year that began to change. My sense of smell has been returning at an especially rapid rate for the last 6 months or so. The spice rack has registered for a while; I’m not sure why it’s suddenly consumed me.

Perhaps it is for scientific reasons: I recently spent a day at a Taste and Smell Center in Philadelphia for a project that I am working on. A doctor there told me that there was a scientific study in Germany which showed that those who sniffed spices each night before bed over time improved damaged senses of smell. Practice makes perfect.

But, really, my spiced obsession is less of a conscious decision to spruce up my olfactory neurons than the simple desire to feel alive. And detecting the cinnamon twang to a cup of coffee or the subtle wash of red wine in my mom’s braised short ribs gives a depth to my experience that is new and exciting. I used to revel in the fact that I couldn’t smell skunk, spoiled milk, sewage, or any of the many facets of New York City’s rancid summers. My friends said I was lucky. But even those, I suppose, are exciting in their own way.

So now I'm obsessed with my spice rack. How fitting, then, that I recently discovered Ana Sortun’s cookbook: Spice, Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean.

I spent an evening at Sortun’s restaurant, Oleana, last week when I was in Boston to do research and reporting for my mater’s thesis project. She twists western techniques with Middle Eastern cuisine to create a modern menu both comforting and innovative. Her food is filled with new and unfamiliar flavors. Her cookbook is organized by spice. I love it.

I made her Spicy Fideos with Chickpeas, Kale, and Lemon Aioli this weekend. Toasted angel hair pasta is broken into small pieces and cooked in a concentrated sauce made from tomatoes and cumin, vanilla beans and bay leaves, ancho chili peppers and cocoa powder, saffron and cinnamon, chickpeas and kale.

The complicated flavor combined the scent of spices, the feel of spicy, and a texture both soft and defined; it was an exercise in smell and taste. And so good I had it for breakfast the next day as well.

Practice does indeed make perfect.