Friday, May 30, 2008

The Housewife Is in the Kitchen

I wrote this piece in 1979, while I was studying in the graduate writing program at Columbia. I had previously been writing pieces that could comfortably be categorized as short stories, albeit experimental ones. However, I was veering toward a more minimalist style at the time, and the following year I began writing "Bagatelles," which was a major breakthrough piece for me. "The Housewife Is in the Kitchen" was part of the process that got me there. To some degree this was a result of my own changing artistic inclinations, but it was partly written épater la bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie in question being both the faculty and most of my fellow students at Columbia. This was written for a class conducted by editor Ted Solotaroff, one of the truly mediocre minds of the New York publishing world (credentials notwithstanding) and one of the most detestable individuals I've ever "studied" (I use the term loosely) with. But if Ted was surprisingly vapid and reactionary, my fellow students were at least as bad, and my experimental stories met with scorn and derision from most of my classmates. Among the few who did support what I was doing were Jon Scieszka, who went on to a wildly successful career as a children's book writer, and Judy Lopatin. I decided I'd write a piece that was somewhat nihilistic, but also process-oriented, and see what kind of reaction it got from my aesthetically conservative peers. I was quite pleased by the outrage it inspired. For some reason my classmates, the majority of whose greatest wish was to be published in The New Yorker, took this piece as a personal affront. It was hardly worthy of their outrage. While it is similar in form to Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, I was not yet aware of that masterpiece when I wrote this. The "story," to the degree that there is one, was inspired by the fact that Chinese restaurants always required that Peking duck be ordered 24 hours in advance. The piece was first published ten years after it was written, in the April, 1989 issue of New Observations, edited by Mike Topp, a kindred spirit.

The housewife is in the kitchen preparing dinnner. The husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. The housewife says Peking duck. The husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The housewife says tomorrow.

(The Housewife's Side of the Story)
I'm in the kitchen preparing dinner. My husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. I say Peking Duck. My husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. I say tomorrow.

(The Husband's Side of the Story)
My wife is in the kitchen preparing dinner. I come home and ask what's for dinner. My wife says Peking duck. I say great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. My wife says tomorrow.

(The Duck's Side of the Story)
Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack tomorrow.

The housewife [1] is in the kitchen [2] preparing dinner.[3] The husband [4] comes home and asks what's for dinner. The housewife says Peking [5] duck. [6] The husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The housewife says tomorrow.

1. A woman who manages the affairs of her own home.
2. A room specially set apart and equipped for cooking food.
3. The principal meal of the day.
4. A man joined to a woman in lawful wedlock.
5. The capital of the People's Republic of China, pop. 8,000,000.
6. Any of various aquatic birds, both wild and domesticated, with short legs, webbed feet, and broad bills.

The woman who manages the affairs of her own home is in the room specially set apart and equipped for cooking food preparing the principal meal of the day. The man joined to the woman in lawful wedlock comes home and asks what's for the principal meal of the day. The woman who manages the affairs of her own home says the capital of the People's Republic of China pop. 8,000,000 any of various aquatic birds both wild and domesticated with short legs webbed feet and broad bills. The man joined to the woman in lawful wedlock says great I love the capital of the People's Republic of China pop. 8,000,000 any of various aquatic birds both wild and domesticated with short legs webbed feet and broad bills when will it be ready. The woman who manages the affairs of her own home says tomorrow.

(The Polish Joke)
The first Polack is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The second Polack comes home and asks what's for dinner. The first Polack says Peking Duck. The second Polack says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The first Polack says today.

The duck is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. The duck says housewife. The husband says great I love Peking housewife when will it be ready. The duck says I didn't say Peking housewife I just said housewife.

The husband is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The housewife comes home and asks what's for dinner. The husband says Peking duck. The housewife says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The husband relates the following anecdote:

The housewife is in the kitchen preparing dinner. The husband comes home and asks what's for dinner. The housewife says Peking duck. The husband says great I love Peking duck when will it be ready. The housewife says tomorrow.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bathroom Behavior on the Subway

What is it with people who engage in acts in public that used to be relegated to the privacy of one's home? I'm talking about all those people I see on the subway during my daily commute clipping their nails or applying makeup as if the train were their personal bathroom.

Some people have told me that my violent reactions to public nail clipping are a bit over the top, that it's merely a minor annoyance. Minor my ass. That clip-clip-clip sound drives me nuts. And these clip-happy offenders don't just clip in broad strokes and get it over with quickly. No, they go at each nail with five or six minuscule clips in the most leisurely, ponderous fashion. That makes at least fifty clips for a pair of hands. Fifty annoying clicky clips! And then they leave the detritus of their bodies, crumbs and dust of nail, all over the floor of the subway car, a public conveyance, dammit! I don't know what annoys me more: the clipping itself or the lack of regard for others.

And then there are the women who apply makeup from scratch during their commute. I'm not talking about a quick lipstick refresher; I could live with that. I mean multiple layers, multiple brushes, the whole shebang. I know nothing about makeup, but I'm guessing that at the very least we're talking about foundation, blush, powder, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick. Have I left anything out and have they no shame? Isn't that what powder rooms are for? I realize that they're trying to save time in the morning by not doing this at home, but it annoys the hell out of me. Call me old fashioned, but there are some things one just doesn't do in public. Whenever I see one of these women doing their in-transit maquillage I secretly hope for a sudden jolt of the train that will bollocks up their handiwork.

In addition to the clippers and the makeup ladies, there are the nose pickers. And it's not furtive picking either. These people pick with great glee and gusto, oblivious to the passengers around them. Who knows how many boogers and pieces of fingernail I'm stepping on every morning.

I realize that some public behaviors I find annoying or disgusting are acceptable in other cultures. Indeed, while I was traveling in China I saw so many people spitting big gobs of sputum and phlegm onto train platforms that I felt like a party pooper for not joining in. But, unless I'm mistaken, there was a time in New York when people, for the most part, restricted their bathroom behavior to the bathroom. Something has changed over the years. My friend Manda believes the advent of the Walkman had something to do with it. It cut people off from the greater public as they tuned into their music and themselves.

There's probably no turning back, but I have a modest proposal for the New York City subway system. I propose that certain behaviors be restricted to certain lines. Nail clipping could be confined to the N train, makeup to the M train. Since N is already spoken for, we could put the nose pickers on the B for booger train. I'll tell you one thing, though. If my plan is ever adopted you can be sure as hell I'll be avoiding the number 1 and number 2 trains like the plague.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Of Norwegian Churches and Tacky Bar Mitzvahs

Last time I checked in I wrote, "I don't usually take photos at buffets." In an effort to make an exception that proves the rule, I brought my camera to the Wednesday lunch smorgasbord at the Norwegian Seamen's Church and shot the above photo of my first plateful of goodies.

When I was a kid smorgasbord meant two things. First, and foremost in my microcosm, there was the pre-dinner spread at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings at places like the infamous Leonard's of Great Neck, where my own lamented bar mitzvah took place. By the time my bar mitzvah date had rolled around I was already a resolute atheist, but these things are planned so far in advance that I still considered myself Jewish when the hall was booked. It was during my bar mitzvah lessons with Mrs. Goldstein, the gonzo haftorah coach, that I realized that all that bible and god stuff was a load of hooey, but I went through the motions nonetheless, in my rented tuxedo from Zeller's Formals, a black brocaded number reminiscent of tacky wallpaper.

In addition to smorgasbords, bar mitzvahs of this type featured menus where all the dinner items were listed in French, in an attempt, I suppose, to add a little extra class to the affair. Most ridiculous was the transformation of stuffed derma into "derma farci." And if you really wanted to impress the guests you'd splurge for the Viennese table, the lavish pastry table that is rolled into the darkened hall with sparklers a-sparklin'. Pardon my detour.

Back in the 'sixties there were also real Scandinavian smorgasbord restaurants in New York, and they were quite popular. The two I'm aware of were called Stockholm and Scandia, and were located in midtown; I never experienced either as a child. By the mid-seventies they were gone, and only recently has Scandinavian food made a comeback in Manhattan.

Though far from Minnesota, New York does have a certain Scandinavian history of its own. The Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, for instance, were originally settled by Norwegians. You won't find many vestiges of Scandinavian history in those neighborhoods, however. Sunset Park is mostly Asian and Latino, and within the last couple of years Halvorsen's funeral parlor on Eighth Avenue finally got a new Chinese name. Bay Ridge is largely Italian and Middle Eastern.

The Norwegian Seamen's Church, at 317 E. 52nd Street (in Manhattan, that is), serves their buffet lunch most Wednesdays from September through May, from noon to 2 PM (according to the website, the next, and likely last, is on May 28). It's a great deal at a flat $18, which you pay up front, no additional tax or tip. The smorgasbord features a range of seafood, cheeses, cold cuts, salads, fruits, spreads and breads. I don't know if they vary the selection, but when I visited they had, among other things, smoked salmon, baked peppered salmon, gravalax, several kinds of marinated herring, cooked ham, a prosciutto-type ham, chunks of pork, roast beef, and some kind of aspic loaf that may or may not have been a kind of head cheese. There were probably about five or six kinds of cheese, including the quintessentially Norwegian brown cheese (at 7 o'clock in the photo), which I didn't really care for. They serve one hot item each Wednesday, and this time it was an excellent beef stroganoff. Dessert consists of little heart-shaped waffles and jam, and good, strong coffee. More than half of the diners are Scandinavian.

The icing on the cake, as it were, is the fact that the buffet takes place in a non-restaurant setting and only one day a week, so if you go you can feel as if you're in on a secret. And then you can tell it to everyone you know.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Mess Aspiring to Be a Lump

As I mentioned when I launched this blog, I was dragged kicking and screaming into this enterprise. When I finally succumbed, I made two promises to myself and to my readers: that while Word of Mouth was active I'd do my best to post weekly, and that I would as often as possible try to post coherent narratives-that is, this wouldn't be a blog full of random musings, links to other blogs and articles with minimal commentary, or semi-illiterate web-age self-indulgence. No, I'm old fashioned, and I stand by well-crafted, literary self-indulgence. Still, there are times when I don't have a fully formed piece ready for release, or when I have something worth mentioning that just doesn't lend itself to the kind of package I prefer. Hence I offer this present mess aspiring to be a lump.

There's a story behind that last phrase, and it has nothing to do with the restaurant I'll eventually get to, which is neither a mess nor a lump.

As an undergraduate, at Brooklyn College, I was studying playwriting with Jack Gelber, best known for his play "The Connection." Indeed, before I turned to fiction it was my aspiration to be a playwright. Partly through Jack's influence, as well as through my reading of Pirandello and Genet and my awareness of trends in New York experimental theater, I was particularly interested in self-referential "metatheater." I was working on a play called "Audiences." It dealt with the witnessing of crime and atrocity as theater, and incorporated the Kitty Genovese murder, a notorious 1960s incident where a woman in Queens was murdered as neighbors looked on through their windows and nobody called the cops. It also incorporated the Lincoln assassination, including a performance of a section of the play he was watching, "Our American Cousin." Lincoln was to be seated in the audience, and shot by Booth when an actor said the fateful line, "You sockdologizing old mantrap!" In addition, for some reason known only to my long-bygone student self, one of the other characters was an anthropomorphized Tomato Herring. It was the kind of play that an ambitious nineteen-year-old could conceive, but not pull together, and I never finished it. But that's not the point of the story.

In one of my classes with Jack there was a guy, a middle-aged guy, named Arthur who was writing one-act plays adapted from Stephen Crane stories. The plays were flat and leaden, and we all wondered why anybody would devote his writing life to adapting Stephen Crane stories for the stage. On top of everything else, he was a pompous blowhard who liked to tout the fact that these plays were being produced by an off-off-Broadway theater. Nobody in the class liked him. I got a devilish pleasure when I read a review in the Village Voice of his adaptation of "The Open Boat" (or was it "The Blue Hotel"?). The reviewer referred to the play as "a lump aspiring to be a mess." We felt the same way about Arthur himself.

All of this, of course, has nothing to do with a Turkish buffet. But what, after all, can you really say about a buffet besides listing the items, commenting a bit on the quality, and noting the price? A favorite lunch spot near my new midtown-east office, the place I'm most likely to take friends, is Kanaat, a Turkish restaurant on East 55th that features a copious $10.95 lunch buffet. Formerly called Al Baraka, I believe the buffet format has remained unchanged. There's always a soup (the couple I've tried have been disappointing), a few salads (and the hummus is really outstanding), an array of hot dishes, and two desserts. The waiters bring some excellent hot clay-oven bread to the table that is identical to Indian naan. The hot dishes are a mixed bag. I've been there three times, and based on that I'm guessing that the four meat courses never change. The two I'm fond of are the lamb shank and the baked bone-in chicken. I've learned to avoid the bland stewed chicken and beef offerings. There are two or three vegetarian items, which do vary, and the mushroom and okra stews have been among the best. There are also two kinds of rice pilaf and two desserts, usually rice pudding and kazandibi (burnt-top pudding). It's not the greatest Turkish food in New York, and you won't find an array of grilled kebabs or pides, but at $10.95 it's one of the best lunch deals in midtown. And in case you're wondering, I don't take usually photos at buffets.

The last time I went to Kanaat I was joined by Holly Anderson, whose writing I would kvell about even if she weren't a friend. Holly has a habit of surprising people with food gifts. It was her birthday gift of wild rice from her native Minnesota that inspired my wild rice and chile challenge. Well, this time she handed me a jar of Swad Indian coriander chutney. I've always enjoyed coriander chutney as a condiment at Indian restaurants, but I never thought of buying any for my home. Holly has fallen in love with the stuff and gives jars out like calling cards. "It's great on so many things," she said. When I mentioned that I'd eaten a Cuban sandwich from El Gran Castillo de Jagua the night before, Holly said, "It would be great on a Cuban sandwich." I bet it would. I haven't tried any on a Cuban sandwich yet, but I did try some on a couple of Chinese tortillas, and it gave them a nice Indian twist. I like the surprise condiment gift concept. I might just do it with St. Dalfour kumquat preserves, a product I want to evangelize about.

One more thing. I was recently looking over some notes I made on dreams back in 2003, and I came across this food-related fragment. All I could remember about this dream was that I was on a plane, and it was mealtime. The flight attendant came by my seat with the food cart and asked, "Gnocchi or haggis?"

154 E. 55th Street (between 3rd & Lexington)
Lunch 11:30-3:30

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Which Padang Place Shall We Dine at Tonight, Dear?

The hot-spicy cuisine of Padang, the largest city on the island of Sumatra, is popular all over Indonesia. I haven't been to Sumatra, but I've eaten nasi Padang several times in Java. Nasi means rice, and nasi Padang refers to a serving style. At a nasi Padang restaurant, usually a humble little place, a plate of rice is served with small portions of a variety of dishes. This is most likely the ur-version of the Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel.

There are two Padang-style places I know of in New York, both in Elmhurst, Queens. For a city that has been Indonesian-food-challenged until recent years, this is a modest embarrassment of riches. I've already written about Minangasli, and I recently dined at Upi Jaya.

Both restaurants are good, but there are significant enough differences that set them apart. First of all, Upi Jaya is the much more comfortable of the two. While Minangasli is basically a take-out place with a few tables, Upi Jaya is more a full-scale restaurant. There is much overlap on the menus, but Minangasli may have a little more variety overall, and Upi Jaya appears to have more to offer the vegetarian. Upi Jaya's menu is heavily weighted toward two categories of main course-thick, spicy, coconut-milk-based curries (gulai or sayur) and dishes smothered in ground red chili (balado).

We started our Upi Jaya meal with two appetizers, perkedel kentang (potato fritters), and lemper ayam (steamed glutinous rice stuffed with shredded chicken). I liked both well enough but was not bowled over by either. I was curious as to whether the name perkedel comes "frikadel," or Dutch meatballs. An online search revealed that perkedel kentang are literally "frikadel potatoes," and though the Upi Jaya version is vegetarian they often contain meat.

At Upi Jaya we tried several of the same dishes we had at Minangasli. The ayam goreng balado (fried chicken with chili), which was the runaway hit at Minangasli, was rather disappointing at Upi Jaya, while Upi Jaya's jackfruit curry was somewhat more flavorful and spicy than Minangasli's. Daging rendang, beef with dry curry, is a staple of Padang cuisine. While I think Minangasli does this one better, I actually prefer the Malaysian spin on rendang, which has a very thick curry sauce rather than a dry spice coating.

Sayur Nangka (jackfruit curry)

Gulai cincang was described as curried beef spare ribs, but the meat was served boneless. I think this was more successful than the rendang. I convinced my dining companions that we shouldn't order anything with petai, which Upi Jaya describes as "green Indonesian nut," but is more accurately described on Minangasli's menu as "stinking bean" and tastes like I imagine formaldehyde would. So when we ordered udang goreng balado petai (shrimp sautéed with chili and petai), we said "hold the petai." While the chili topping was quite good, the small shrimps were overcooked and short on flavor.

I'd have to give the edge to Minangasli in the food department, but Upi Jaya is pretty good overall and considerably more comfortable. I'm planning to give it a strictly vegetarian test-run this summer, when some vegetarian friends come to New York for a visit.

Upi Jaya
76-04 Elmhurst Avenue
Elmhurst (Queens), NY
E-F-G-R-V-7 trains to 74th St./Broadway/Roosevelt

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