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.