Sunday, April 13, 2014

Choose and Chews

Towards the end of last year, an acquaintance of mine talked about her word for 2014. Apparently, each year she picks a word to keep in mind for the year ahead. The words just come to her. While the idea struck me as dangerously close to being a little too New Age for comfort, I have to admit I was intrigued. And when as she'd promised a word came to me out of nowhere, I decided what the heck.

Late in December, choose settled over me. It seemed so obvious. My skepticism evaporated. I could use this time saving device. For all those days that I waste time on deciding where to meet a friend for coffee. Just choose!  Or for the times I can't figure out what book to read next. Pick one!

A few years earlier I'd made a New Years resolution to make decisions. Part of that resolution was to embrace the likelihood of making bad decisions. Knowing that the real success was in deciding and moving forward. Choosing seemed to fit in well here as well.

When I told my mother about my word, she asked, "which one?" I was confused for a second, but then realized that when I said choose she heard chews. It seemed even more appropriate now, and it was a good story--I trotted it out at dinners and coffee dates all through January and February.

And then I looked up the etymology of choose. From the Old English, ceosan, choose, seek out, ...taste. I was pleased to see the word also meant to taste. How can you taste without chewing? She who chews, chooses.

But it gets better. The etymology of ceosan stretches back to Old Saxon and Old Norse words and beyond to the Proto-Indo-European--the hypothetical reconstructed ancestral language.  (A side note. Proto-Indo European is abbreviated as PIE. I just wish there were also a CAKE language.)

The PIE root is *geus, which means to taste, to relish. As in gusto. In German and Celtic languages that root came mainly to mean try or choose. But in Greek and Latin it formed the words for taste.

And how fun to follow the PIE root up other branches of the tree. Whereas *geus on the Germanic branches went on to mean test and decide, if I follow it up the Indo-Iranian branch I see in Sanskrit it evolved to jus, meaning enjoy, be pleased. And in Avestan zaosa meant pleasure.The Old Persian dauš meant enjoy.

I love the notion of linking choosing with pleasure (and taste and relish and gusto!). I know that's not exactly what all this means. But it's the way I'm choosing to think about it. I figure I have both of these language traditions in my makeup. So why not have them work together? Embrace the PIE?

I like the idea of taking the more analytical approach, choosing by evaluating and selecting. But all the while, I'm going to aim to do this with gusto--make those decisions with relish, pleasure, and enjoyment.

Whether it's the big decisions (what the heck should I be doing with my life?) or the seemingly small (Little T or Bakeshop? Extracto or Ristretto?), my goal is to enjoy the process, to take pleasure in being able to make free choices, and to enjoy the ride.

Above all, to remember to taste. The food and drink, of course. But everything else along the way too. Because isn't that really the point?

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine's Trifle

Here's a Valentine's trifle for you. Much as I love fine chocolate--and there's so much to be had these days!--people who know me know about the soft spot See's occupies in my heart.

It's not so much their chocolate (I believe they use Guittard, which I find perfectly fine) that speaks to me. It's the brown sugar grainy filling of their Butterscotch Square, and the Apricot Bonbon's bright yellow fondant that is so sweet it almost--almost!--hurts my teeth before giving way to a slightly tart apricot filling. It's the sprinkles on the round Bordeaux and rectangular Mocha bonbons. It's the unlikely height of the Scotchmallows. And the four-in-a-cup crispness of Molasses Chips.

But it's much more. It's the spic and span white and black of their floors, counters, boxes, and uniforms. That white and black that never changes, and never goes out of style.

It's their slogan 'A Happy Habit', that seems to run directly counter to today's tendency to think of foods as naughty or guilt-inducing.

It's the free samples they give out to all who visit, and always with a smile. Even when it's a group of three teenagers who probably aren't buying anything. Or an old man who's picking up a box for his wife and gratefully accepts his prize, even when it's not his favorite.

And yesterday it was because it was the day before Valentine's Day. My local See's was full of men, apparently buying chocolates for their loves. I noticed one guy, paying, who looked as if he wished he didn't have to be there. But the man in front of me was picking out chocolates for a box, and smiling to himself after each selection. And the man behind me asked for the largest heart box, pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket, and began making his choices.  It was the See's cheat sheet, marked up with felt pens circling various types. I don't know if he'd made himself notes (I like to think Pavel has a list somewhere of all my favorites!), or if his wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, father, or child had given him the sheet. Probably just to be helpful.

I know a lot of people don't like Valentine's Day. But yesterday, as I stood in the See's line watching other people carefully select chocolates for people they love, celebrating being loved and being in love seemed like a good idea. The best idea there is.

Here's to love and chocolate!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Preserving Summer

Up now on Culinate, 'Preserving Summer'. I hope you'll read it (and explore the Culinate site). Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Camp Life

If bike rides and ice cream cones make me feel like a kid again, camping takes me right back to my first years as a young adult.

Not because I spent those years backpacking, or even car camping.

I didn't have to. The first apartment I lived in was carved out of one third of a garage. It always felt closer to outdoor living than to indoor living. That might have been due to the centipedes that showed up inside the doorway, and the occasional snails (who left their silvery tracks on my ugly indoor/outdoor carpet). Once, just once, I got lucky, and a cricket woke me up. He stayed, chirping in the bathroom. After a few days I wasn't so sure it was lucky.

My kitchen was really just the entry way. There were two burners (much like our camping set-up today) and a refrigerator (actually a step up from the camping cooler). I had no oven; a campfire would have given more options. Camping also affords much more counter space than that kitchen, thanks to a large picnic table. In my old apartment the counter barely held one plate.

I always enjoy washing dishes when we're camping. We keep a bottle of Dr. Bronner's soap in the corner of our camp cookware box. The bottle is about 20 years old, its label greasy and illegible. We squirt a little into a pot or a mixing bowl, whatever we have. Boiling water gets poured over, and we splash the dishes around. They're clean when we're done. Or so we tell ourselves.

Dish washing was less fun in that apartment. There was no sink in the 'kitchen'. Instead, the tiny bathroom sink, which I could have  reached by turning around from the stove top if it weren't for the bathroom door, did double duty. It never seemed very hygienic. But apparently I survived.

But the main reason camping reminds me of starting out in that first apartment is that many of the dishes and pans in our camp cookware box were my first dishes and pans.

And especially this knife. I bought it one of the first days I was on my own. Boy did I feel grown up walking into the Co-op Hardware Store to buy a knife for my kitchen. I used that knife for almost everything--and everything, back then, amounted mainly to slicing bread and chopping onions (for risotto or pasta--that's all I remember cooking in that kitchen).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bike Rides and Ice Cream Cones

I think you all know I enjoy ice cream. A lot. So much, in fact, that in the beginning of this summer I spent a sunny Saturday walking 18 miles and tasting ice cream from 10 different shops.

I promise to tell you about that before the leaves start to turn color.

For now, I just want to talk about yesterday. It was hot here--90 degrees. I'd gone for a 20 minute walk (each way) with a friend to our local tiki Bar, Hale Pele. (Because I think excellent daiquiris are right up there with ice cream). I arrived back home just in time for supper on the front porch, pulled together by Grace and Pavel: grilled sausages, corn on the cob, and coleslaw.

Sometimes we eat out back in the summer, but I have to admit I prefer the front porch. Nothing like a lazy evening eating, sipping, having short conversations with neighbors and passersby. I could have sat there all evening but Grace had other plans. "How about we bike over to 50/50 for ice cream?"

Since 50/50 is our favorite Portland ice cream destination, neither Pavel nor I could come with any good reason not to. So we cleaned up our dishes and got on our bikes.

At 50/50 I made the difficult choice. Should I pick sour cherry? Chocolate pistachio toffee? This time I chose blackberry. Blackberries are my favorite berry. It's probably a little childish to have a favorite berry, but there you have it. I have fond memories of eating bowls of sun-warmed blackberries at my grandmother's house. We'd sprinkle them with sugar and pour a little cream poured on top. The sugar always had that nice crystal crunch that contrasted so nicely with the crunch of the seeds. And I still think the mauve color the berry juice makes when it mingles with cream is one of the prettiest.

Sometimes I choose my ice cream flavor by color. Possibly because two flavors look so pretty together (apricot and raspberry are a favorite color combo). More often because I think the color will look nice on the shirt I'm wearing, when the inevitable drips fall.

I almost always take my ice cream in a cone. I like to think it's greener of me, as it leaves no plastic spoon or cup needing disposal. If you have evidence to the contrary, say about the amount of resources used to produce the sugar, or the energy to cook the waffle, please keep it to yourself.

Because the real reason I get ice cream in a cone is that it's just more fun. Licking an ice cream cone is one of those instant time travel activities. Just like that I'm back to being a kid. If the ice cream happens to melt and drip on my shirt, oh well (I did, after all, pick my color carefully). If the ice cream falls off the cone, I may just burst into tears.

Last night neither of those things happened. But I did slowly lick my ice cream cone, the sky pinking up in the background.

And then we rode home. The breeze continued to do the job the ice cream had started: cooling us down. We leaned into turns, calling out to one another as we passed a particularly pretty house or oddly shaped shrub. If I'd had a bell I would have rung it a few times. I kind of wished I had streamers on my handlebars.

The fact is, eating an ice cream cone and riding a bike is about as joyous a summer evening amusement as you can come by.

Turns out getting older isn't so bad. You can still have the childlike fun, but you also get to have those daiquiris.

I was so concentrated on licking my cone last night I forgot to take a picture. So instead, here's the Bourbon Cherry Chocolate ice cream cone I had last week at Mix in Ashland. Another great stop for ice cream (and delicious ham sandwiches on buttered baguette).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rooming Houses

A friend of mine told me that a developer is putting up mini-condos (micro-condos?) in her Portland neighborhood. Her concern wasn't the small size, but the fact that the condos wouldn't have kitchens. The idea being, apparently, that people are content to take all their meals at restaurants, or eat grocery store to-go meals out of clam shell containers.

So here's my idea. It seems as if it's time for the return of rooming houses. I have a soft spot for rooming houses; my grandparents met in the Milwaukee rooming house her family ran in the 1920's. Babbo, who was born in Italy, and lived in Black Diamond, Washington as a child, had come to Wisconsin to attend the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He shows up in the 1930 census as a lodger from Switzerland--whether that looked better to the family, to him, or to the census taker we'll never know. The fact that they ended up divorcing 40 years later doesn't bruise that particular soft spot--I'm quite grateful that they met and married. Not to mention that they had my mother.

And then there are all those great books that take place in rooming houses. A recent favorite: The Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton. Admittedly, this book might make you think twice about moving into a rooming house. I'd at least avoid British rooming houses during World War II. But they are fun to read about. All those personalities!

If I were a young single person with a busy career, I think I'd welcome the idea of being taken care of. The traditional rooming house model might require some tweaking. Most adults wouldn't welcome the idea of washing up in the bathroom down the hall. But wouldn't it be nice, if before heading off to work, or after a long hard day, you could sit down in a dining room and eat dinner?

I've long thought that a problem with (as well as a feature of) eating in restaurants is that everyone in a party is eating different food. It seems to underline the idea of the individual. I can't help thinking that eating together is more, well, together, when you're eating the same food. Crotchety? You bet. Don't start me on round vs. rectangular tables.

In the rooming house I imagine, breakfasts are served in a pleasant sitting room. Nothing too fancy, coffee and tea, yogurt and fruit, toast and soft boiled eggs. Maybe some oatmeal. On the weekends French Toast with plenty of maple syrup. The boarders would come together again in the evening for dinner. The food served would be more home cooking than restaurant cooking. In the winter there would be plenty of hearty stews and roasted vegetables. Summers would bring lighter meals, highlighting the produce from the garden out back. There would definitely be pie on Sundays. A cookie jar would be kept stocked through the week, for afternoon or bedtime teatime. And layer cakes would stand on the sideboard all weekend long.

Help yourself.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chez Panisse Comes Back

Chez Panisse reopened this week, 3-1/2 months after the March 8th fire. Two of the articles celebrating the reopening, on Bon Appetit and Huffington Post, remind me why Chez Panisse matters. Besides, if it weren't enough, for all it's done for food, eaters, and growers in the past 42 years.

To me it's about a shared vision. It's about optimism, and a sense of family. It's about working hard, but also having plenty of fun. Tasting all the while. I haven't really been around the restaurant, other than the occasional lunch every year or so, in more than 25 years. When I go, I'm always aware of how few familiar faces I see. I'm also aware of the faces that are still there, and faces that are long gone--some gone from the restaurant, some gone from this life. 

A couple of weeks ago I stopped in with my parents. People were working hard to get the restaurant ready for its reopening. And not only the carpenters. Waiters and cooks were bustling around, some cleaning, some working on refinishing chairs. Cooks were bringing up a lunch for everyone. I had to hold myself back from the bowl of tapioca pudding with cherries. Comfort food. 

Incidentally, in the last week I also saw that the New York Times 'Room for Debate'  section was discussing the question of tipping. Which led me to a few articles from past years about the question of tipping in restaurants. Chez Panisse adds a service charge to all checks; further tipping, while allowed, is not expected. It makes sense to me. I like the idea of a business that works together. The employers paying their workers a living wage, complete with health care, vacation and sick leave. The idea that the employers have a responsibility to their workers as well as to their customers and suppliers. The idea that the workers are part of the business, and that the way they do their jobs matters. That they have a responsibility to their co-workers, employers, and customers. Seems like it serves everyone--employer, worker, and diner--well.

Reading about how Chez Panisse got through the fire, I couldn't help thinking, once again, that the restaurant really is a family. Like any family, it has its share of struggles, and is always evolving. Like most families, the people there matter--and the family comes through best of all when everyone is in it together. 

Here is a few of those articles:
New York Times, October 9, 2008, 'Why Tip'
U.S. News and World Report, March 16, 2009, 'Alice Waters: Why Her Waiters Don't Expect Traditional Tips'

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