I’ve been on a bit of a break from writing the past couple of weeks. I wish I could say that it was just because I was just too busy, but that isn’t really the case. Sometimes I am motivated and sometimes I am not. I was in a period of no general writing desire and a slight funk for no discernible reason. I feel a bit more engaged now, and will be trying to be more reliable with updates. Last night was all about the EV and LES, as I first attended a friend’s (Michelle) birthday cocktail get together at a lovely little place called Mary Queen of Scots. The snacks, along with the drinks, were great (I especially recommend the Devils on Horseback). After one too many drinks there, I was off to a late-ish dinner at a place called Perbacco on east 4th. I really love it when odd groupings of friends that don’t know each other get together, and last night in addition to the regulars (Fabian and Craig), we invited along two friends of mine, Matthias (who I met in Hamburg this summer and who is visiting NYC this week) and my old friend Tom (who I used to work with in LA many years ago, lives here now, and I don’t get to see often enough). The food at the restaurant was really yummy, and although ostensibly an Italian restaurant and heavily influenced by Italian cuisine, it was rather more inventive than that. To give but one example, the starter I had (Crème brulée di Parmigiano Reggiano) was an amazing cross of several cultures, savory and sweet flavors, and full on yum. Highly recommended. It has been surprisingly warm and humid, with on and off rain for the past few days, but it was very pleasant last night after dinner as we walked several avenues across town to work off our dinner a bit before getting in the subway and heading north and home.
One of the things I have been noticing here in Italy over the past two weeks is how connected people are to the places they are living, where they grew up, etc. Whether in the villa or wineries of Chianti, or with friends in Modena or here in Florence (away from the tourists that is), Italians seem particularly in tune with the land, the culture, the architecture, the food. They know the ins and outs of their home regions, and take great pride and pleasure in the special things that make a place unique. They know about the best olives or wines from the region, the special dishes that only are served in this or that time or place. They know and love their old buildings or the history of a church or piazza. Americans, on the other hand, are all about mobility and newness, casting off not only the past but any strong traditions that may hinder this mobility. This is both our strength and our weakness.
And speaking of Italians and their connections to local traditions, Jonathan took me to an amazing restaurant here in Florence last night called Il Guscio. It was one of the best meals I have had in Italy (or ever), the dishes all refined interpretations of Tuscan culinary favorites. If you are ever in Florence, I highly recommend it.
As my friend Olaf is strongly habituated to such things, he goes to the (farmer’s) market at least twice a week to pick out fresh produce of all sorts. Sometimes I go along, as I always love a trip to an outdoor market, and especially love seeing the differences in such places from country to country. I have always thought one of the advantages of not being able to speak the local language is that we can be more adventurous with things we don’t recognize and thus find new flavors and expand our culinary habits. I mean let’s face it: I might like to try that marinated something over here or that sausage over there and potentially love the taste if it is called something unknown to me, but I would be rather less inclined to pick it up if it was clearly labeled something like “various animal scraps with blood and fat pieces”. One of the other things I find interesting is that all of the fruits and vegetables have labels on them describing their place of origin, whether it be a local region or another country. Olaf tells me this is an EU regulation, and I think it a good idea to know where your produce comes from, so you can apply your individual preferences and prejudices relating to locality, nationalism, and health. Olaf definitely shies away from anything from Spain, as he tells me he doesn’t trust their farming techniques (with regard to chemicals and such) and thinks they don’t know food the way the French or Italians do (so how could they know how to grow anything?). I tend to agree that the Italians and French have better food, but there did seem an extra whiff of nonsense to the argument about pesticides, since these regulations are the same (theoretically) across the EU. Olaf is an excellent cook and makes amazing food that I have been fortunate to share in while I am here, but I do notice he is (as with many here) very particular about likes and dislikes.
I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s slim new book, Food Rules. In this small volume of 140 pages made up of 64 rules and a lot of white space, Pollan dispenses some mostly common sense advice about how and what to eat. Rather, most of it seems like it should be common sense, but let’s face it, this country has a severely screwed up relationship to what we eat. Many of the things he suggests I have been doing for years. I stay away from soft drinks and avoid products with high fructose corn syrup whenever I can. But some of the most interesting and valuable things he is advocating for have to do with how we consume our food, and the culture around it. I have long complained about the fact that Americans judge value based on quantity instead of quality. Nothing disturbs me more than to hear someone talk about how great a restaurant was based on how much food was piled up on the plate. I mean, most people would rather have a heaping pile of crap than a couple of bites of something really tasty. Pollan points out that we should be eating more slowly, savoring our meals and that whenever possible we should eat with other people. We should (in a kind of Buddhist way, actually) pay attention to our process of eating and chewing, instead of plopping down in front of a TV. In short, we need to be more connected to our food and by extension our bodies. He also has a lot to say about food processing and what a terrible toll it has taken on our health. Some good advice has to do with not eating anything that has ingredients which you can’t imagine growing in nature. And of course a reduction in meat has all kinds of benefits that he points out. But what I like about him is that he isn’t an absolutist, allowing for the reality of our omnivore selves while advocating for a little moderation and perspective. Simple but highly recommended book.
Taking advice from the locals is always the best way to go. We hear about a nice beach near the rainforest and decide to hit it before going to the forest. It turns out to be a lovely little beach and the best on the north side of the island for swimming that we have found. After that we head into “El Yunque“, the only rainforest on American soil. We took a wonderful stroll through the forest, stopped at a waterfall where Josh braved the icy cold to swim for a few minutes, and then continued on the surprisingly long path to its endpoint. We then took the paved road back to our car, and as we were walking it, a huge downpour erupted. We were soaked through and through by the time we got back to the car, just in time for the rain to stop completely (isnt is always the way?). Although not on the same day, we later stop on the road near Luquillo at a line of famous food stalls for some of the most delicious stuff we have had in Puerto Rico. My favorite was the arepa con camarones and a kind of sweet plantain stuffed with beef. Yum.
Last night I watched the movie Food, Inc. With varying degrees of clarity, I have had small knowledge about some of the horrors that go into our food production and consumption. But the movie brought it into focus with grisly detail. In the future, I plan on being much more careful about the meat I pick at the very least. And the movie made me want to boycott any product ever touched by Monsanto. One of the more fascinating and troubling parts of the film has to do with the patenting of gene sequences that allows a company like Monsanto to prevent famers from saving their seed from previous crops to grow new ones without licensing from them. The movie detailed a story of one farmer who does not use Monsanto modified soybeans but all the farmers around him do. Because of the natural environment, it is likely that some of his crops will have the modified seeds (and his neighbors crops some of his seed). Monsanto runs “random verification” of crops tantamount to accusing him of being a criminal. Given proper testing, I don’t personally have any inherent issues with genetically modified foods. After all, every cross breeding of plants since Mendel is a form of genetic engineering. But testing should be much more thorough and the idea that once paid for you would have to relicense your own seed every year is troubling. The idea of being able to patent forms of life is troubling. Some of the other aspects of the movie dealt with the intimidation of people who wish to speak out against these industries, and the legal instruments used to silence dissent. I think this movie is a must see for any American, stomach turning though it is. The industrialization of our food production is making us less healthy in a variety of ways, and coupled with lax enforcement of safety standards, actively killing us. As with most things in the US, our obsessive need to have the most quantity at the lowest prices have guided us to this place without stopping to consider the hidden costs of our actions and habits.
The website for the movie has an excellent roundup of some of the issues.
Today was one of those totally great days that make you fall in love with the magic of New York all over again. One of those days that makes you realize how truly endless are the things to discover here. Today’s love ode to the city is mostly thanks to my wonderful friend Jonathan, who seems to have a deep knowledge of a huge number of quirky and great places in the city. We met down in the Lower East Side where he was doing some work at a coffee shop, and proceeded to have an inexpensive yet super delicious lunch at a Venezuelan restaurant called Caracas. We left to walk for a bit in search of dessert and made a quick detour into the St Mark’s Bookshop, which I remember well from 20 years ago and thought disappeared when their actual shop on St Mark’s street had closed several years back. To my delight, that seductive book smell still permeated the place, and I got an intellectual charge from our brief browse. After that, we headed to Sundaes and Cones for a really yum sesame ice cream, followed by a simple walk in perfect weather heading west on 10th street (which is home to some really beautiful architecture). I said goodbye to Jonathan while crossing 5th avenue, and made my way home.
In a way, there was nothing special about our little lunch and walk. These small adventures happen all the time (if we are open to them). But in another way, this kind of day, filled with minor new discoveries, deepens my optimism about life in New York (and in general) and the endless possibilities presented by so many different kinds of people living in such close proximity to each other. Although there are amazing, cosmopolitan, capitals to be found around the globe, for me, New York is the capital city of the world.
Sure, call it a chick flick if you think that damns it to some lower status. Maybe it is one. But I absolutely loved Julie & Julia, which I just saw today. It tells interweaving stories about the formative years of the famous chef on the one hand, and the woman many years later who would base a blog on working her way through every recipe in Child’s cookbook. Along the way we are treated to a jaw dropping impression of Julia Child by the incomparable Meryl Streep, and great performances by Amy Adams and the rest of the cast. It struck me that a great deal of the fun in this film is about the somewhat caricatured yet iconic place Julia Child holds in our culture. Her persona and mannerisms are legend, and the movie even plays to this by having the later characters watch the famous SNL skit with Dan Akroyd as The French Chef. On the more modern end in the character (based on a real person) of Julie Powell, I was moved by the potent idea of doing something for the love of it, and for the sake of having something to do. And through our projects, almost any project really, we find meaning in our way of pushing a rock up a hill only to have it fall back down again. Arriving somewhere is not nearly as interesting as the journey, and taking stock and pleasure in where we are right now.
The movie dovetails nicely with so many of my own interests, spread as they are over the years of my life. From France and French culture, to writing and blogging, this film really spoke to me. And of course one of the greatest elements in the film, taking notice that the love of great food is part and parcel of the love of life and living.
Yesterday was one of those days that makes me love New York — and makes everyone else think that I should probably be locked up for the inane grin on my face and kind, open look in my eyes. There was no special event happening. In fact the day was about as mundane as could be, but no matter where I was it was a pleasure. Went to go meet my friend Jon for lunch and he noticed and commented on this cheeriness in his usual way (with vague threats of physical violence). After lunch I took a pleasant, slow stroll through the streets near the UN to my apartment listening to music and feeling a strange and sweet sense of connectedness to every pedestrian who crossed my path and to the buildings and streets. The weather was perfect, and I am sure that helps. And being freelance and feeling no particular time pressure helps as well. In the evening I walked across town for a website meeting at a new (fucking) hipster hotel and then had a lovely dinner at a (so called) Indian restaurant called Tabla. The food was really more Indian inspired than Indian, but delicious nonetheless.There was seating outside, right across from Madison Square Park, the weather was perfect, and this continued my good-feelings-toward-New-York mood.
Other stuff happened during the day, but not as worth mentioning here. I leave that to your imagination…
Last night my friend Jon took me out to a yummy birthday dinner at a place called Zampa (which, funny enough I have passed several times admiring the signage). The food was great, I highly recommend it, and the staff was super sexy and friendly, always a nice combo. We had a few drinks and a nice time, then said our goodbyes, and I went to bed.
This morning I woke up and went downstairs to the coffee shop to grab a coffee and muffin. On my way and in the coffee shop, I (literally) bumped into 3 people and had to do the swerving dance with two others. Somehow my sense of direction is all screwy this morning. Like I went to bed in a right-handed culture and woke up in a left-handed one.