Saturday, February 25, 2006

3 brief fat boy memories

My mother was a canasta maven. She played two or three times a week. I was always happy when the floating game was held at our apartment, because that meant there would be plenty of candy. I was a fat little boy, and my gluttony knew no bounds. My mother would leave out dishes of fruit and all sorts of candy. I didn't touch the fruit, but I ate about half the candy. My favorite was the bridge mix--chocolates with five or six different artificial centers. Every time I would go back for more candy, my mother would say, in front of all the canasta ladies, "Enough already! Aren't you fat enough?" It was embarrassing, but not enough to stop me.

* * *

I remember an ad that always used to run in the Sunday Times Magazine. It was an ad for a fat boys' camp, and it featured a photograph of a now svelte boy in a pair of way-oversized pants. The boy held the waist out to show how much weight he'd lost. Sometimes I would stand in front of a mirror and hold my stomach in and try to hold my pants out like the boy in the photo, but it hardly made a difference.

* * *

Every time I hear the word "tit" I think of what Lynn Kurland said to me in 1967. It was summertime, and we were both eleven. It must have been very hot out, as I had my shirt off, and I was normally loath to show off my chubby little body. So there we were, Lynn and I, girl and boy, puberty only a stone's throw away, when Lynn looked at me and said, "Boy, look at those tits! They're bigger than mine." And, indeed, they were.

Friday, February 24, 2006


I don't know how they do it. These things are amazing-- thin, crisp biscotti, crawling with almonds and raisins. They call it "the delicious cookie without the guilt." Delicious they are. As far as the guilt is concerned, I got over food guilt years ago, but not everybody's so lucky, I know.

The ingredients are so simple: almonds, wheat flour, malted barley flour, sugar, egg whites, raisins, natural flavor. How does it work without any salt added? I know nothing about food science. According to the package I'm looking at, there's 8.9mg of sodium in a serving of 4, so something's coming from somewhere. The 8.9mg figure is totally meaningless to me, but I'm happy to report that it amounts to 0% of the recommended daily value. Zero is nothing.

There's no fat added either. As far as I can tell all the fat, which amounts to about 25% of the calories, comes from the almonds, which are extremely healthful. It's all too good to be true. Of course, you can get too much of a good thing. They may be less than 35 calories each, 133 for a serving of 4, but if, like me, you can't stop eating them the meter keeps running.

The entrepreneur behind Almondina is Yuval Zaliouk, a symphonic conductor. It is supposedly based on his grandmother Dina's secret recipe, which she supposedly guarded jealously until her final days. He named it in her honor: Almond-Dina. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this tale. Even if it weren't true, I'd advise them to stick with it.

A number of flavors have been added since the introduction of "the original," but I've only tried one of them, sesame, and frankly I was sorely disappointed. I love most things sesame, yet this just didn't work for me. The slight bitterness of the sesame seemed to be fighting the Platonic balance of the basic version. If I had tasted this one first I might have never discovered the sublime original. The AlmonDuo, with pistachios, looks promising, yet I fear the subtraction of the raisins might spell trouble.

They really should never have made those other flavors--Grandma Dina should have made them swear they wouldn't. By doing so they defile her memory. I intend to honor Grandma Dina properly, by eating only the original from this point forward.

When I think back on that package of sesame I ate, that's when the guilt comes.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The greatest fortune cookie ever

"Please ignore all previous fortunes."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

And speaking of Middle Eastern food . . .

I had an aborted lunch attempt at Mister Falafel this afternoon. I've been frequenting Mister Falafel ever since I moved back to Park Slope in 1987. Today, when I sat down, I was assaulted by the sound of a radio announcer. It turned out to be a "classic rock" station, and the music was at least as bad as the DJ. When the waitress brought me the menu I said, "I don't know if anybody else has mentioned this, but the radio is very loud."

"Oh, is it?" she said.

"Yes, annoyingly so," I said. The waitress walked away without responding. I hoped she was going to do something about the radio.

I began to peruse the menu, trying to decide what to order, leaning toward kibbeh. Meanwhile, the waitress was attending to other tables, and the radio kept blasting. I decided that there was no way I could enjoy a meal under those conditions, so I got up, put my coat on and started walking out. Before I left, I got the attention of the counter man, whom I've known for several years, and said, loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear, "I'll be back some time when you're not playing such loud, shitty music." It must have been "the energy" talking.

I ended up having a Chinese quesadilla for lunch (more about Chinese tortilla joints later).

The Energy

This past Wednesday night I had stopped off for dinner at the Olive Vine, on the way home from the subway. The Olive Vine is a Park Slope Middle Eastern "pizzeria" (2 locations) that is somehow related to the very similar Moustache in Manhattan. The menu is small but reliable, and one of the highlights is the fresh-baked pita.

My dinner was a falafel platter, with babaghanough substituted for the default hummus. Along with my meal I was drinking a Fin du Monde, the excellent Belgian-style trippel ale (9 % alc./vol.) from Unibroue in Quebec.

At one point, when I was maybe 2/3 through the platter, and dipping my pita into the babaghanough, a woman at a nearby table turned to me and said, "Excuse me, sir, I don't mean to interrupt you, but you seem to really be enjoying yourself. I just had to tell you that." I was taken aback.

"Well, the food is very good here, right?" I answered after a moment's pause.

"It's not just the food," she said. "I mean you REALLY seem to be enjoying yourself. I can feel the energy from here." Her companion nodded in assent.

This was news to me. I had no idea I had any energy. To tell the truth, I had been having a pretty mediocre, if not miserable, day. In fact, I was feeling a bit depressed. Now, out of the blue, a stranger is telling me that I'm very obviously enjoying myself--and projecting energy, no less. So maybe I wasn't depressed after all. All of a sudden I'm feeling great.

Sometimes a stranger is as good as a friend.

Olive Vine Café on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Chinese Menus

I love Chinese food, and consequently I spend a lot of time in Chinese restaurants. One of the fringe benefits of a meal in a Chinese restaurant, as if the food were not enough, is the menu. Chinese menus have some of the most remarkably odd locutions and typos. For instance, I go to one restaurant whose menu tells the customer that "the order of taking out is much larger than the order of eating here." Being a loyal fellow of the Order of Eating Here, I content myself with smaller portions. Another restaurant I frequent has a menu chock full of the most marvelous typos. Under the heading "Poutry," (no, there is not a section called "Prose"), they list an item called "Baked Squad." The seafood section gets equal time with two typos of its own. One item, nicely counterbalancing the squad, is "Fried Squib." And the other dish, which I have never ordered for fear it might turn out not to be a typo after all, is "Sliced Couch with Ginger."

[Note: I wrote this piece some time ago, maybe the early '90s. The restaurant with the symmetrical typos was called Kam Fung. Over time, the name of the restaurant morphed in stages, first to King Fung, then to Jing Fong. I actually haven't been back there in years, because I always suspected the name transformations were somehow related to ongoing labor disputes, the restaurant having been the site of several long-term picket lines. On the other hand, the name changes may simply have been the new owners' attempts to cut corners on signage modifications.]

Why am I doing this?

For years I've been terrorized by friends' and acquaintances' attempts to cajole me into writing about food and travel. Somehow, because I love eating and traveling, am somewhat adventurous in both, have garnered a certain level of knowledge thereby, and happen to be a writer, I'm obliged to write about these things. Things only got worse with the advent of blogging. I continually resisted this hectoring. In the first place, I don't necessarily want to write about the things I enjoy most; I'd rather just enjoy the experiences without worrying about turning them into some kind of "product." Besides, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to writing for publication. As much as I may know about travel or cuisine, I always felt I needed more comprehensive background knowledge in order to write convincingly about them (an apprehension that many writers have quite obviously managed to escape).

And then there was my fear of the narcissism that pervades so much "literary" food and travel writing (I have no interest in straight journalism). I may be an egotist, but I'm no narcissist. When I finally did write and publish a travel piece, "Mr. Cherches Goes to India," in 1997, these apprehensions were woven into the form of the piece. [I'll probably republish it here eventually.]

Nonetheless, over the years I did share my opinions and experiences with friends, verbally and by email. In emails I didn't agonize endlessly over each and every sentence the way I do with "real" writing. It was casual writing that I would never have presumed to make public.

So what's changed?

I don't know. Whatever it is, it happened gradually.

In 2004 I was working as a freelance proofreader at an ad agency. The freelancers were an especially lively, erudite and cosmopolitan bunch. I bonded in particular with three of my colleagues, Chesley Hicks, Joanna Roy and David Blacklock, all of whom are well traveled foodies. When there was no work to do (and more than a few times when there was) we discussed our passions with great gusto and volume. I loved them, but they did it to me too, damn them: "You really have to start a blog, or a newsletter," and so on.

"I'm really not interested in doing anything formal," I insisted. "I prefer word of mouth."

"That's it!" David said. "There's your title."

I did like the title, so I told them I'd give it some thought. I came close to starting something at the time, but my interest fizzled.

Then, last weekend, I was at a dinner party at the home of Peter Wortsman and Claudie Bernard. One of the guests, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, whom I've known for years, and who is a scholar of many things, including food and travel, did it to me too. BKG is a great advocate of blogging, and she browbeat me about the joys and ease of it all. I finally cried uncle, and here I am.

But let's get something straight. I don't read blogs. I have no interest in reading blogs. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't read my blog.

Maybe it's a generational thing (I'm certainly no technophobe), but I still have a bias toward print. I've never submitted any of my work to webzines; I still can't think of it as real publication. Of course I'm wrong, but just try to convince me.

Frankly, there's too much I haven't read that I should have read, and I'm sure that's true for you too. Damn, I'm about to turn 50 and I still haven't read Don Quixote. If you're looking for something to read, there are plenty of good books I can recommend.

Anyway, now that I've taken the plunge, here's what I have in mind. I plan to post a mix of literary, quasi-literary and pseudo-literary pieces, some new, some old, as well as anecdotes, mini-reviews, and annotated lists of favorite restaurants. I'm hoping the form of the blog itself will take me in directions I might not otherwise have considered. When I used to teach creative writing I always emphasized process over product. Here's a place where I can make my own process public. I've pretty much decided to focus mainly on food and travel, but I will allow myself occasional detours. I'll try to post at least weekly, most likely on weekends, except when I'm traveling.

If, after all that, you still plan on following this blog, be assured that your time and attention is humbly appreciated.

[The photo above was taken by Wim de Groot at Kantjil en de Tijger, in Amsterdam, the best Indonesian restaurant I've ever eaten at. Wim is a brilliant painter and one of the most engaging conversationalists I know. Wim, I miss you.]