You are “where” you eat

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I am eating a piece of toasted walnut bread smothered in butter, topped with a slice of salted and peppered tomato, which, like the walnut bread, I purchased fresh today from the Hollywood Farmers’ Market. Maybe not to you, but to me, it’s delicious.

Excuse me, I think I’ll have another.

My mini-repast sparks two thoughts: 1) I owe this kind of haphazard pleasure to my association and appreciation of two friends: Kay and Sally; and 2) I am not what I eat, but where I eat. In other words, food pleasures are totally related to people and places.

This idea first hit me one Saturday morning in Phoenix before a bike ride. I walked into my friend Sally’s house. She was just finishing up a breakfast of avocado toast with her sister Jerry, who was visiting from Minnesota.

Gosh! To a hungry cyclist, that toast looked good. It was.

Chatting with Jerry brings me inevitably to memories of Sue, Sally’s other sister, the chef de cuisine for Sally’s favorite after-Ironman competition meal: Tater Tot Casserole.

You might have to be from the far north of Baudette, Minnesota or a post-Ironman contender to truly appreciate Tater Tot Casserole. I don’t fit either category, but I sure liked sharing it with Sally, Sue, husband Mark, and others around Paula and Thad’s family room in Whistler, B.C. in July, 2015.

Which reminds me of the very special delicacy I regularly ate one September several years ago walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with my friend Kay.

Spaniards are not big on early or American breakfasts, which made it difficult for predawn starts on the Camino. Kay and I were both early risers and found that a piece of fruit — maybe, a cold portion of Spanish tortilla from the night before — and very definitely, a carton of yogurt seasoned by a handful of peanuts kept us going until the chance for a real meal presented itself.

People make a difference in how much you savor a meal. And so does the place.

Every year or so, I get together with a group of college girlfriends. When we left Stanford in the Spring of 1963, none of the original six of us had immediate plans to marry. We called ourselves the GGP: Girls Going Places.

I don’t remember the first year we got together. (I leave that to Sooz, who keeps good records.) Deaths and occasional inclusions of others have decreased and expanded our numbers, but over the last couple of decades, four of us have consistently found ways of seeing each other on a weekend here and there, around a class reunion or birthday milestone.

Some of the most memorable get-togethers have been in Maine, where Sooz lives, in Claverack, New York, where Floss has a house, and on Lummi Island, Washington, where Judy recently hosted us in June.

According to Judy, who is active on a local preservation board, Lummi has turned into a NORC, a “naturally occurring retirement community,” though it still has a grade school, whose children ferry into Bellingham for middle and secondary school, and a community of fishermen.

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Raquel Ruiz Diaz and members of culinary staff at The Willows Inn

During our three-day visit, we ate breakfast at The Willows Inn, a reprise of a dinner we had had seven years previous. Dinners at The Willows Inn, $225 per guest, are out of our range and Judy’s, who hosted us. To reserve either breakfast or dinner — if you are not an overnight guest ($345/ per room) — candidates must call no sooner than two weeks before the date.

At the Willows, we were lucky to have Raquel Ruiz Diaz, fiancee and partner of head chef Blaine Wetzel, as our host. Raquel, a native of Paraguay, was gracious to speak to me in Spanish and reminisce about her time at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she met and studied alongside Wetzel.img_20180616_101815497

What did we eat? Frankly, it’s a blur of beautifully prepared and presented dishes: buckwheat pancakes topped with hazelnut butter, a syrup infused with chamomile and vanilla, smoked salmon, a cold-cut plate of kale, radishes and other crudites, everything locally grown, caught or foraged. I specifically remember a pucker-delicious juice of kale, apple and ginger. (One of us pronounced it “astringent.”)

I asked for a second glass.

img_20180616_113419576On the way out we crossed paths with one of the restaurant’s kitchen staff carrying  leaves of skunk cabbage destined to wrap  a dinner’s delicacies — probably a fish — to be roasted over a wood-burning fire.

 

Eating in the Pacific Northwest is always pleasurable because of the people with whom you share a meal and the place you find it. Portland is a treasure trove of culinary gems. I make a point of finding unique spots for lunch with friends and family whom I’ve missed during the seven or eight months we live in Phoenix.

In the last two weeks, I found wonderful eats at Providore, a marketplace at 2340 NE Sandy that opened in 2016, and Hat Yai at 1605 NE Killingsworth, a family-run Thai restaurant, which has plans to open its second place in Southeast Portland in November.

At Providore, my lunch companion, Karie Trumbo, Senior Development Director at the Portland State University Foundation, chose salad items from the Pastaworks deli case, and I — ever in search of the perfect poke — found a fresh tuna version side-by-side with a delicately seasoned pyramid of jasmine rice ($12) at Flying Fish oyster bar. It was heaven.

At Hat Yai, I had a braised chicken thigh in a soup plate of Malayu curry, roti (Thai fry bread) and pickled vegetables. There is nothing on the menu that I wouldn’t want to try. Allan Oliver, with whom I ate, is as much a culture monger as me. We like to eat lunch together once a month when I am in town and catch up on what’s new and what I’ve missed while I’m away.

People and the event of eating out with them is what makes a meal memorable. And some even leave you with a little going-away gift to remember them by.

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Rhubarb Jam — parting gift from The Willows Inn, Lummi Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A critique of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” by Denis Johnson

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Though he began his writing career at 19 with the publication of a book of poems, The Man Among the Seals, Denis Johnson, who died of liver cancer at 67 in 2017, is most highly regarded as a short story writer. It is gratifying for those of us who have been stunned by his craft in this genre that the posthumously published The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is such a fitting tribute to his domination of this field.

Interestingly, Johnson moves beyond his buddying up with addicts, the criminally minded and low-lifes to include here among his narrators a couple of writing professors and an ad executive. The other two, Mark Cassandra in “The Starlight on Idaho” and Dink in “Strangler Bob,” are a recovering alcoholic writing letters from a rehab facility and an 18-year-old in county lockup. Each of these stories deserves its own review. Alas, in a resume of this length, I can only recommend you read them for yourself. You will savor this volume as if your last meal.

In nearly all the cases, the forward motion of each story is propelled by episodes that prompt a series of linked memories. Bill Whitman, the narrator of the story that opens the book, is at the denouement of his career as an ad man. “My name would mean nothing to you,” he writes. Scheduled to pick up a prize for a twenty-second Super Bowl spot he directed years ago, he has settled into confused mediocrity.

“This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life — the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms — that I almost crashed the car,” he reflects.

He goes from a session with a chiropractor, a phone call from one of his ex-wives who is dying — he isn’t sure which — to a lunch with a journalist friend, the memory of an artist friend whose memorial service he had recently attended and finally to the fateful return to New York, where the ingestion of a couple of street-corner hot dogs assail his bowels and compromise his appreciation of the ad awards ceremony.

At 63, he is a man “creeped” out by his present tense, but still capable of going out in his bathrobe to wander his neighborhood streets in San Diego looking for a “magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.”

In “Triumph Over the Grave,” the story opens with the narrator eating bacon and eggs at a counter in San Francisco, where he spies a woman who resembles a friend in Boston. Calling Nan, he learns her husband has just died, which prompts a series of memories about the dying episodes over which he has presided, some of them horrific, others touching.

As always Johnson is at the apex of his story-telling powers. He praises his own writing skill. (“I once entertained some children with a ghost story, and one of them fainted.”) To demonstrate, he includes a short story, “The Examination of my Right Knee,” in which a hospital’s head orthopedist bungles a demonstration before a classroom of medical students and leaves the narrator, who had ingested LSD anticipating pain at the examination, to successfully right the operation.

“Triumph over the Grave” ends with the saddest closing I’ve ever read: “my friend Nan. . . .  took sick and passed away. It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Much could be written about Johnson’s writing skill and his legacy. And it has been. His brilliance comes in flashes as does his humor — like the grotesque over-riding presence of Grandma in the letters of amends that Mark Cassandra writes from rehab in “The Starlight on Idaho.” I learned from his obituary in the New York Times that Johnson spent days, months and years reflecting and working over every piece he wrote: be it poem, short story, play or novel.

Johnson once called himself a Christian writer. Indeed, he is a writer in Christianity’s grip as manifest in his remarkable book of eleven short stories, Jesus’ Son.

With Denis Johnson, it’s all about death and its transfiguration.

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A critique of “Warlight,” by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is all about light and the lack of it. The story only allows its readers access to events and character through the dimly lit lens held by Nathaniel Williams, whom we meet in its opening pages as a fourteen-year-old boy in 1945.

Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel learn their parents will travel to Asia for work.  Living in London, the teenagers are put in the charge of their boarder, a man they have named “the Moth.” This is a family given to applying code names: Rachel is “wren”; Nathaniel is “stitch.” The Moth is accompanied by an unusual cohort, among them a shady figure they refer to as the Pimlico Darter, since The Moth and he seem to have dog racing and betting in common.

For imaginative teenagers, these people are fascinating, mysterious. One clue that they are criminal is their wily ability to make things happen. Another is that the Moth keeps asking Nathaniel about the art gallery at his school and whether the boy can draw a map of it. Also, they overhear a quiet conversation in which the Darter asks the Moth if he can enlist the two young people to help with a “job.” The Moth asks if the work is safe.  He doesn’t ask if it’s legal.

Nathaniel’s and Rachel’s lives have changed. The subterfuge by their parents — they discover their mother Rose’s still-packed trunk months after she left — and the strangeness of the guests who noisily fill their household create a sense of adventure as well as uneasiness. Suddenly they are in contact with a bunch of people whose connection to each other is confusing and unexplained.

Nathaniel and Rachel are, in effect, orphaned. Their mother’s short absence stretches into four years without a call or a card. (Care or concern about their distant, moody father is minimal.) They are lonely and set adrift. Eating from food carts, standing side by side with the Moth instead of seated around a family table, Rachel pursues her interest in the theater, Nathaniel works washing dishes in the Criterion Hotel, where the Moth seems to supervise the service staff.

Later, Nathaniel accompanies the Darter delivering illegally imported, falsely pedigreed greyhounds for races at Pimlico and elsewhere. They ferry the dogs up and down the Thames at night, delivering other cargo as well.  Nathaniel is embarrassed by the “table full of strangers”  — the subtitle of Part One — that is his household. He even introduces Darter to his girlfriend Agnes as his father.

Through the Moth, they are introduced to the concept of schwer (German for “difficult,” “heavy”), used by the composer Mahler for certain passages in a musical score. For Nathaniel, schwer comes to represent his slow recovery of the long legacy of  abandonment his mother left him in pursuit of a career during World War II and its aftermath.

Warlight is an unusually structured book with a perplexing, exciting and often humorous Book One that leads to a cinematic conclusion.

Book Two, “Inheritance,” takes up the story in 1959 with a change of pace. Nathaniel again is the narrator, at least at the outset. Now 28, he works for the Foreign Office and can fill in the blanks on his mother’s past and her person. The narration then shifts to an impersonal third person voice, giving rise to an imagined version of Rose and her relation to a childhood acquaintance, Marshall Felon. Characters whom we meet in Book One reappear.

The conclusion to Book Two is just as interesting as the conclusion to Book One but for different reasons.

Warlight is what can be properly categorized as a slow-burner. From start to finish, it is filled with secrecy and half-truths. Ondaatje writes beautifully evocative passages and descriptions, yet the secondary characters are more compelling that the book’s opaque principals: Nathaniel, Rachel, Rose and Felon.

I found Warlight a tough read: sad and schwer.

 

 

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A critique of “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi

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Somehow it is harder to fathom than almost anything else about this multi-generational saga that traces two branches of a west African family to the United States than the fact it was written by a 26-year-old Ghanaian who came to this country as a young child.

Yaa Gyasi received a scholarship as a sophomore at Stanford to do research on a project. Traveling to her mother’s ancestral home, she made a tourist stop at Coast Castle and entered the basement hold of that edifice from which slaves stacked like kindling were shipped to America. She also learned that the eighteenth- century British slavers frequently took native wives. Thus begins the diverging seven generations that Maame begets, whose two daughters living in different villages are unknown to each other. Esi is transported to America as a slave; Effia marries James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle.

Gyasi, who prefaces the book with a key to the family trees, alternates the chapters of the two branches down through 250 years of struggle, loss and resilience. She takes full possession of the west African storytelling tradition that relies on folklore, opening the book with a great fire that destroys the crop of Effia’s father, the day she is born. Seven yams lost to the fire become the seven generations the book comprises.

There is a good deal of flipping back and forth between the page with the family trees and the slim chapters that follow with the stories. Gyasi is particularly adept and sketching in short, pertinent detail the particulars of each period and provides such mostly warm but often harrowing description of the many lives we learn about.

This is a tear-producing and chastening book. Your only objection would be the neat package into which it is all packed and the ribbon, a necklace, that eventually ties it all together.

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Una critica de “No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea” de Juan Pablo Villalobos

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¡Qué maravilla es esta comedia negra de Juan Pablo Villalobos! El autor que se personifica como el narrador principal de No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea se enreda en un complot internacional de mover dinero entre México, España y partes desconocidas. Para los lectores que se escandalizen de la violencia es mejor que terminen la lectura en la página dieciocho con un asesinato inesperado en el subte de un “table dance”.

Pero si se termina la lectura aquí, van a perder la oportunidad de conocer a tres otros narradores — a Valentina, la enamorada de Juan Pablo, a la madre de Juan Pablo y a su primo, cuyas cartas llegan a Juan Pablo y a Valentina después de su muerto.

Además, van a perder a otros personajes tan interesantes como los narradores: a una perra que habla Catalán y lleva varios nombres, incluyendo a Viridiana como un gesto al cineasta español Luis Buñuel;  a un musulmán gay, Ahmed, que se preocupa por la perra; a Alejandra, una niña argentina, que cita a Lacan y a Pizarnik; y a tres chicas que llevan el nombre favorecido de mujer en Barcelona: Laia.

El autor es sumamente experto en manipular las convenciones de la novela detectivesca a la vez en hacer burla de los estudios posgraduados literarios. Tanto Juan Pablo como Valentina se presentan en Barcelona como becados universitarios — inocentes perfectos para enredar a otros en el complot siniestro. Como dice otro crítico del libro: es “un delicioso coctel de humor polifónico y multicultural.”

No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea es ficción y es verdad. Al terminar, la trama actúa como un borrador de la pista que han seguidos los principales. Inclusive se pierden los mismos narradores. Se hace uno acordar del imagen de Alicia en el país de las maravillas que se pierde en el bosque sin sendero para seguir. El libro es tanto trágico como cómico. Las carcajadas terminan en un grito horrorizado.

Felicidades al autor.

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Psst! Portland: Upgrade your recycling

Here I am in the epicenter of recycling. We Portlanders invented it. (No, Seattle. It was us; not you.) Our involvement in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” movement began in 1971 with the Bottle Bill.

I mean, it’s who we are.

Have you seen that quirky map of the United States that is circulating on Facebook? The one where some witty resident in each state has come up with an apt description of his or her homeland in 22 words or less. For Oregon, the description is “We’re good at recycling.” (For Arizona, it’s “Everything’s beige.” But that’s another story.)

Now, Willamette Week — where I worked at one time — tells us we’re doing it wrong. Achieving the state’s goal of recycling 55 percent of its waste stream by 2025 has hit a snag. We keep throwing garbage in our blue bins.

In a June 6 article, political reporter Nigel Jaquiss lays out the problems. The percentage of contaminants in the 60-gallon rolling blue bins meant for paper, plastics and metal is growing.*

“Plastic bags, batteries, Styrofoam — and diapers, “ Jaquiss writes. “Lots of dirty diapers.”

A graph accompanying the article shows nine percent contamination in single-family bins, a rollicking 21 percent in multifamily bins. And it can only get worse, as the boom in apartment-building construction continues.

Maybe, we are not so good at recycling, after all.

The problem is bigger than re-instilling “Portlandia” values. Recycling is a business. The recycled materials that we’ve been commingling for the last decade, mixed paper, plastics, cardboard and metals, are commodities. They need a market. Due to a number of variables, among them the closing of area mills run on wastepaper — Blue Heron in Oregon City,  WestRock in Newberg, Georgia Pacific’s in Camas, Wash. –markets have been drying up.

Most importantly, China is enforcing a maximum contamination level of 0.5 percent established in 2013, twenty times lower than Oregon’s average. Called National Sword, this environmental program by the Chinese government is aimed at reversing environmental degradation.

”They’ve just created a super-EPA, and it’s got real power,”  says Jerry Powell, founder and editor of Resource Recycling, an industry publication in Oregon. Powell, quoted in the WW article, had high praise for the newer, more sophisticated recycling facilities in China.

Unfortunately, Oregon’s material recovery facilities (MRFs), some of the earliest in the country, are old and inefficient. According to Willamette Week, experts report that cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and Cincinnati have invested more in resorting and reprocessing equipment.

”We’re woefully behind in terms of technology and infrastructure compared to other cities,” says Dylan de Thomas of Recycling Partnership, a national advocacy group.

Other than upgrading the current system, what other avenues need to be pursued?

For one thing, get the producers of packaging more involved. Require manufacturer and large online retailers — think Amazon, Best Buy, Fry’s and others — to help solve the problem. Require them to take back the waste, as bottlers do now.

Monitor offenders. Haulers in some jurisdictions are putting “oops” tags in bins that contain contaminants. They are warning repeat offenders that they might be fined if they don’t shape up.

Here’s another thought: How about returning to the first part of the “living small” ethos? It was REDUCE, reuse, recycle. My husband and I have friends in Canada who take their own reusable containers when they take food home from restaurant meals. (In some circles in Phoenix, AZ, I might be accused of being a socialist for such talk, but maybe we’re over consuming.) It will be awhile before we find a planet where we can ship all our waste.

*Check Willamette Week online (Nigel Jaquiss, 6/6/2018) for a more thorough discussion of Oregon’s current problem.

Posted in Commentary, good thoughts, Phoenix, Portland | 1 Comment

Nouns and Verbs

You might want to skip this post if you are looking for something profound. Then again, why not? It’s just a short observation.

Language is such a wonderful conveyance of ideas and images. Consider how easily a noun becomes a verb and, in so doing, creates an image. Take this five-word sentence: “The past sleds behind him.” Suddenly, I am transported to the past and how I see it, as was Sam Anderson in a short essay (New York Times Magazine, 6.3.18).

Anderson plumbs this image, then comes up with some of his own: the past as the ocean at low tide leaving him on the shore; the past as “a broom closet stuffed with receipts.” (I like that one.)

Why not this: the past as the towering accumulation of newspapers beside my bed? I’ve checked the front porch through the window before getting a cup of coffee. There’s another one out there. Neat!

Past, present and future converge in a package of nouns and verbs, ideas and images. What a wonderful way to start a Sunday!

Posted in Commentary, fun stuff, good thoughts | 2 Comments