Monday, May 31, 2010

The Cook and the Book

In the Sunday Times Magazine, Pete Wells told everyone that he's moved into a rental apartment, where he'll live until his new house, and new kitchen, is ready. And the kitchen might not have bookshelves. Why? Because he hasn't unpacked his cookbooks and has found himself thus liberated from the tyranny of the book and the recipe. (Apparently when the books are out, he can't stop himself from cross referencing cooking times and being slavish in his devotion to detail. Why this would change with recipes from various cooking Web sites, I don't know.) Plus, there's an iPad or some kind of computer coming to the kitchen so who needs those old books anyway?

Well, I do. I like reading cookbooks. I like it when they evoke a world. I like it when they're very bossy. I like it when they refer to themselves internally and create their own web of rules and regulations you wouldn't think of breaking, at least while you're reading them. These books aren't simply biblical, they're Levitical. (If Leviticus can be an adjective.)

Maybe someday I'll read my cookbooks from an iPad; maybe someone will come up with some kind of protective case for hands-on kitchen use; but as long as people still create discrete worlds of food with their own rules and stories, I'll be happy. I don't dream of long lunches with multiple courses and wine in jelly jars after I enter a search term, but I do when I don't know what to read and pick up an old favorite. There are somethings databases just can't do, and for all of that, there are cookbooks.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Gulf in Pictures

Via Sullivan, here are some images of oil reaching the Louisiana shore and wetlands.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Ask

I've just read The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. (You can read the NY Times review here. Full disclosure: I know Sam Lipsyte.)

The novel is over the top, spot on, deeply funny. There were some scenes that felt like too much and others that felt so real it was like I was breathing the same air as Milo Burke, the book's protagonist. Burke is around forty and at the start of The Ask he's working as a development officer at a third-tier university in New York City. He has a son in the mid-threes and a wife with whom he "cuddled in the way of a couple about to not have sex." He's got a mom in New Jersey, a dead father, and a web of frayed connections to himself and the people who occupy different pockets of his life. All told, Milo Burke is a rich character and through him Lipsyte explores the way we in this place (New York, which happens to be in America) and time (now) conflate the moral obligation embedded in our relationships with something like (or actually) a quid pro quo. Whether the relationship is to our child, our friends, our soldiers, or our mentally ill neighbors, the book looks hard at what we could do, what we should do, what we want to do, what we can't help doing, and what we buy our way out of doing because we can.

Lipsyte does all this using language that's almost ecstatic. He's never met a ten dollar word he can't put to good use in a sentence about a two dollar bargain passing itself off as a fifty dollar steal; he'd really rather not use "and"; and he loves to end a sentence with a comma and a gerund. But the ten dollar words feel like they were originally assembled to be exactly where Lipsyte puts them, the text gallops along if you let it, and the way he ends a sentence, it can make you laugh out loud or break your heart. His language asks you to suspend disbelief and if you feel like it, I'd recommend doing it. It's worth spending some time with Milo Burke. He's not perfect, but he's got what to say.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mass Transit for One

This morning I sat down to write a perky little post about how much I loved to ride my bike when I lived in Philadelphia and how I dream of moving back, renovating our kitchen, and buying one of these bikes, about which I learned from a little catalogue that arrived in yesterday's mail. Then I read Elizabeth Kolbert's Comment in this week's New Yorker. It's about the oil spill now filling up the Gulf of Mexico and any given line of it would make you (or me) want to lay down your (or my) head and weep. How about these?

While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun. This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands. Oil from the tar sands comes in what is essentially a solid form: it has to be either strip-mined, a process that leaves behind a devastated landscape, or melted out of the earth using vast quantities of natural gas.

Meanwhile, as everyone knows, no matter where oil comes from or how it has been extracted, burning it is destructive: oil combustion accounts for nearly a third of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States.

And none of that is even about the Gulf of Oil, ne Mexico. The whole thing made me so angry at the guy from Design Within Reach who sent me a catalogue to sell me a new bike that I don't need. The catalogue has to be printed and mailed and carried by truck to my house. Then the bike has to be made and shipped from God Knows Where to my house, no matter where I'm living.

Meanwhile, I have a perfectly good bike that works perfectly well that I'd have to get rid of in order to make room for my thousand dollar new bike that I don't need but would look super nifty with me riding around on it not consuming fossil fuels, except for the ones it took to get me the bike in the first place. Which is to say, I'm not getting the bike. The renovated kitchen in the house I don't live in? I'll get back to you about that one.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Smart Phones

Up until a few days ago, my cell phone was a regular phone with a flip top that made calls and carried text messages. Sometimes, I'd use it to take a picture. I didn't know from data plans. Then, my phone died. Kaput. That's it. Couldn't even retrieve my contacts, so I went to get a new phone, and I learned that for ten dollars each month I could get service to a phone that would let me onto Facebook. "Why would I want to look at Facebook with my phone?" I asked the nice sales lady. "I don't know," she said, "Sometimes I like to check out pictures of my friends."

I scoffed and got a regular phone, no data plan. But what the phone has is a keyboard, and the keyboard makes me feel like I think my daughter feels when she writes in one of my old date books. Which is to say it makes me feel grown up. And it makes me want to do things, like send emails, which I think are longer than text messages, and read newspaper articles. In other words, the keyboard has shown me how it is that people use their phones like computers and now, even though I've been terribly prideful about having such a low tech phone, I kind of want a smart one.

A while back I read a post about smart phones, the ipad and using technology in general over at Kate Harding's blog. I took it as a cautionary tale of pocket interactive devices. Harding, who was writing about interactivity exhaustion, used a trip to Canada, which forced her to turn off everything on her phone except the part that makes calls, to illustrate the depth of her relationship with the smart part of her phone. A quote:

Crossing the border meant the roaming charges were obscene, so we both turned off everything but the phone parts of our phones. Which meant that for 8 days, we couldn’t e-mail, update Twitter or Facebook, end an argument by looking something up on Wikipedia, or read random internet shit unless we were actually in our hotel room with our computers. Now, everyone who witnessed the Sandra Bullock shitstorm knows I was online plenty last week — but I was also offline a LOT more than usual. Because these days, I am used to being online whenever I’m on public transit, when I’m out for dinner (yes, I’m that rude asshole, at least when I’m with my rude asshole husband), when I’m waiting for a movie to start or a friend to show up, etc. So when I realized I’d been out for hours and had no idea what was going on in comments on the Bullock post, for instance, I’d have a moment of panicky frustration before I remembered oh yeah, IT WILL STILL BE THERE WHEN I GET HOME.

I read that and felt like this whole time that I've been without a smart phone or iTouch, I've dodged a huge bullet, a bullet that would tear my time to itsy bitsy little pieces, that would connect me too much with what I might be reading online and leave me too far from what I should be looking at from the bench where I'm sitting. And yet, that keyboard on the new phone, oh, it makes me want to take all that time I have on the bench at playground and sink it right into the screen of my phone. Only the phone I got, it's not so smart, so I won't. For now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Friends & Enemies

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story in the Health section about the role enemies play in a child's social and emotional development. Honestly, putting aside extreme cases of bullying, the story's punch line should come as no surprise. We learn all about life in our relationships and working out what it means not to get along with someone is just as important as working out what it means to be friends. After all, not everybody can be friends and the story says it's just fine to be mean to the one who was mean to you.

And yet, the story bugged me. I read reactions to it on Slate's XX Blog and Jezebel, and it still bugged me. The thing is, these stories, they're all one sided. The good side. It's the "good" kid, the one who was heartbroken or the one who had meanness foisted on her who knows the person who knows the person writing the story or who writes about it herself. The kid (Who am I kidding? We're probably talking about girls here) who was mean, her side is not typically explored. For example, the Times story had this about a middle school encounter:

Ms. Shapiro’s fight with her former friend was partly for show. The stronger girl pretended to hit her — and told her to run away holding her face, for the benefit of the other tough kids watching. It was terrifying nonetheless. “I ran all the way home,” she said. “All through high school I was scared of her, and we didn’t talk. I just avoided her.”

That sounds like a pretty complicated moment for the mean girl. Of course it was scary for Ms. Shapiro, but did she really have to avoid her all through high school after that? Was there no opportunity for them to talk -- or for Ms. Shapiro to ask about what happened and, dare I say this, how she might have contributed to or changed the situation?

Sure there are times when people turn on you, and that's awful. But for the most part the stories we tell of these experiences are black and white. There's no room for any texture, any nuance, any dynamic other than telling a third party, "And then she did THIS!"

I'm not saying kids should be taught to take the blame when someone does something mean. I'm not saying a little agreeing to disagree isn't what's called for in a lot of life. One of the healthiest relationships I've ever had was with a roommate with whom I just didn't get along. She didn't like me, I didn't like her, we never pretended otherwise, and we just weren't nasty about it. I am suggesting that social situations don't erupt in isolation and sometimes, after the heat of the moment has cooled, it might be useful (or interesting) to look at all sides, even your very own.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Standardized Testing

Marjorie Ingall again on standardized testing. Please, please, please read. Thank you, Marjorie!

Tar Balls

OK. So the oil from the Gulf is not only reaching the Keys, but it could be entering the "loop current" bringing it right up the East Coast. Of course this will happen. The oil is filling up and destroying the Gulf but it's not like the Gulf has hard borders. And all this will make it harder to pass a climate change bill to reduce our need for oil and it's extraction. I just can't believe the plot of some kind of dystopian sci fi horror novel is actually happening right now, and now, and now and now.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A New Chocolate Chip Cookie.

So I tried that new chocolate chip cookie recipe. Most "new" chocolate chip cookie recipes simply tinker with measurements, reducing the white sugar here, adding an egg there. What made me want to try this recipe (titled "My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies" on a blog by Jennie Perillo), the thing that made the recipe seem "new" was the swapping of molasses (2T) for brown sugar.

The other new and strange thing about this recipe is all its flour. Four cups! That's a lot of flour.

Also, the recipe included this tip: Freeze the dough in balls so you can just pull 'em out and bake 'em up. I've probably read this before, but since up until now I've been freezing already baked cookies and my last batch got freezer burned, I wanted to give it a go.

I can tell you, once I've finished baking the thirty or so dough balls sitting in my freezer, I'll be making these cookies again.

Why? The molasses. It makes a big difference. Because of it, the cookies are a beautiful dark-nut shade and their consistency is just right, chewy on the inside yet crispy on the outside. (If you make them, follow the precise baking time directions--15 minutes at 350, even if they look underdone. Cookie dough that has been frozen or in the fridge doesn't look the same as fresh dough when it's done.)

My son loved them, telling my daughter that "Mommy made cookies like we get at the store." (Score!) I brought them to a picnic last night and my grown-up friends were, it must be said, impressed. My husband was the only one who wasn't completely delighted with the cookies. He liked them, he just wasn't convinced he liked them more than the other cookies. I believe this is because the salt stands out a little more in my other cookies. Or, it could be the memory of the salt the first time I made the other cookies stands out. It was a real game changer for us. But that was years ago and now I think it's time to change things up again. Plus, I have all those dough balls to bake in the freezer. They'll keep us happy for months, six warm cookies at a time.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Pretzel Croissant

Yesterday, I had one of those moments that we all seek with food, a moment that made my heart stop beating for a second to shiver with recognition and delight. It came when I bit into a pretzel croissant at The City Bakery on 18th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues here in New York. (I would link to the web site, but The City Bakery's web site is so pointless, unless you're interesting in catering or its story, that I don't want to encourage you to waste a click.)

Now, I'd seen the pretzel croissant many, many times. It always looked good, but so does nearly every thing on offer at The City Bakery. There's always something else to try, and croissants, they're so airy that even when they're good they don't seem quite worth the commitment. All that air leaves me hungry, while all that butter never leaves. But yesterday, my friend Melissa and I found ourselves at the food counter seeking shelter from the rain an hour before we'd planned. In other words, I thought we'd be having lunch at City Bakery, and instead we were there for breakfast. When I asked Melissa if she'd ever had one of those pretzel croissant her jaw dropped, her eyes got wide and she said, "Only about a thousand times."

Clearly, my time with the pretzel croissant had come. And it will come again. Soon. Because the genius of the baked good -- it's butter (a lot of butter) and salt lifted on light flakes of tender pastry -- it must be explored, investigated, enjoyed. Life's to short to neglect such fleeting pleasures.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Oil Spill

The terrible irony of the disaster spilling into the Gulf is that the loss of a chit for Republicans (off-shore drilling) will make it harder to pass a climate change bill. And then there's the other issue that's been discusses -- namely, that getting oil out of the ground is dirty and dangerous and better that it be done in places where there's money to use for clean up. Like America, and unlike, say, Nigeria.

Check this out in The Economist. Here's the kicker:

So long as Americans do not reduce their consumption of oil, refusing to drill at home means importing more of the stuff, often from places with looser environmental standards. The net effect is likely to be more pollution, not less. Nigeria, for example, has had a major oil spill every year since 1969, observes Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation, a think-tank. Putting a price on carbon would eventually spur the development of cleaner fuels, and persuade Americans to switch to them. But in the meantime, oil is both useful and precious. Extracting it domestically, with tougher safety rules, would bring a windfall to a Treasury that sorely needs one. When the current crisis is past, Mr Obama may remember this.

(Via Sullivan)

In Debt and It's No Tea Party

Greece has a big debt, and the US does, too. In today's New York Times, David Leonhardt explains:

"The United States will probably not face the same kind of crisis as Greece, for all sorts of reasons. But the basic problem is the same. Both countries have a bigger government than they’re paying for. And politicians, spendthrift as some may be, are not the main source of the problem.

We, the people, are.

We have not figured out the kind of government we want. We’re in favor of Medicare, Social Security, good schools, wide highways, a strong military — and low taxes. Dealing with this disconnect will be the central economic issue of the next decade, in Europe, Japan and this country.

Many people, including some who claim to be outraged by the deficit, still haven’t acknowledged the disconnect. Just last weekend, Tea Party members helped deny Senator Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican, his party’s nomination for his re-election campaign, in part because he had co-sponsored a health reform plan with a Democratic senator. Economists generally think the plan would have done more to reduce Medicare spending than the bill that passed. So, whatever its intentions, the Tea Party effectively punished Mr. Bennett for not being a big enough fan of big government."

A New Chocolate Chip Cookie?

I'm on the record as having some pretty strong feelings about chocolate chip cookies. At this point, I can make my favorite recipe in about five minutes, ten if you include clean-up, and I've perfected baking time in my particular oven (14 minutes). I remain curious about other recipes, but I haven't been tempted by them, until now. Poking around online last night, I found a recipe on a blog called In Jennie's Kitchen. (Although it maybe should be called In Jennie's Kitchen Camera because the pictures are so fancy-pretty.) Anyway, the recipe calls for molasses and no brown sugar, three eggs instead of two, Four (count 'em) cups of flour, and two of white sugar (more than usual, but brown sugar is just white sugar and molasses combined). Well, you can read it yourself here. I'm going to give it a try.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Last year, I never watched Glee. I'd catch a few minutes and think, 'Meh, really not my thing.' But then, a few weeks ago, there was the Madonna episode, which made me so happy. The week after, there was Kristen Chenoweth being all blonde and singing her heart out. Last week, well....let's just say I, along with millions of others, am now a serious sucker for the show and I'm seriously looking forward to catching up on season one when this season comes to end.

Giving Up the Ghost and the Book

Last night I stopped reading The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk with maybe fifty pages to go because I just couldn't bear the thought of walking across the apartment to get it. I'm amazed by this, when I think about it. It's not like there were any stairs involved. I should have been able to overcome my antipathy to the novel, but I just couldn't. I'm frankly annoyed I stuck with it so long. While it has some perfectly observed scenes, most of the book is filled with reductive observations about family relationships and how they strip away a sense of self in a net of obligation and through what we're supposed to recognize as love. Instead of inspiring recognition, the book made me think about the ways my own life has gotten better since I've had kids -- and not better just because I love my kids so much (even though I do), but better for just me. For example:

1) I'm a better cook. I used to worry every step of every dish, hover over saute pans, obsess about having all the right ingredients. Now, between my kids and reading Melissa Clark's Good Appetite column (seriously), I'm more relaxed, knowledgeable, improvisational, and, it has to be said, successful in the kitchen, and this means a lot to me.

2) I've made new friends and met really interesting people. After college, it's hard to make friends. Work friends stay at work, neighbors move, but having kids means meeting other women and men who've had kids and it turns out you can meet people you never would have otherwise.

3) I started writing. I wrote some before I had kids. But once Helen and Elliot were actually here, something shifted. Writing was no longer the most important thing I could ever imagine doing, so important that I couldn't even imagine that I could do it for real live (as my kids would say). With this lowered status, what came out when I wrote wasn't always so serious, so heavy, so striving (even if the topic was serious in its own way). As with cooking, I stopped worrying so much about the writing, and that made the writing better. Plus, not worrying about what I might write and whether it was worth writing opened up new space to worry about terrorism and climate change.

4) I appreciate time more. This means I have less patience for books I don't like and more excitement for those I do.

I could go on, but I won't. I should also say that I recognize my life could've changed in all these (and other) ways without having had kids. Because life itself makes us change, right? But, pace Cusk, for me, it's not all so bad in its new, post-children form.

Friday, May 7, 2010


This New York Times slide show of photographs of war scenes from Iraq re-imagined in the US has some very powerful images that bring home just what a war looks like at home.

The Cake Disaster

I'm struggling with yellow cake. Chocolate cake, I have down. I've got my recipe, it never fails me, I'm good. But I've yet to find the sweet spot for the yellow cake. I tried a Rose Levy Beranbaum cake yesterday, the All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter cake, which she said would be perfect for any event. Assuming that all-inclusive appropriateness extended to a special request from a daughter, I gave it a go. Only I left it in the oven a bit too long, and then frosting it was a disaster. There seems to me to be something a little bit delicate about these yellow cakes. I once made a butter cake which was very successful, except that the orange zest in it called to mind baby aspirin. I'll keep trying on the yellow cake front -- I hate to be denied cake success -- but the struggle is frustrating.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why Go (Really) Organic?

Sometimes when I talk or even think about organic food, it's hard for me to come up with basic reasons for choosing it beyond very general feelings about reducing pesticide use, improving soil quality, and growing better food. Hearing snippets on the radio about how organic food practices are nice and all for the upper middle classes but they won't solve food shortages in Africa and wondering what "organic" means when it's printed on all sorts of everything Whole Foods makes for their in-house brand made me wonder about my general, vague feeling that organic food must be the way to go. Well, writing for the Foreign Policy website, Anne Lappe has a piece on how organic farming can feed the world. Responding to a piece by Robert Paarlberg (which I haven't read), she writes:

"Organic farmers improve output, less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control."

And then there's this about industrial farming:

"Biotech and industrial agriculture would in fact more aptly be called water, chemical, and fossil-fuel-intensive farming, requiring external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet's freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer. In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it's hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution -- including the creation of dead zones in coastal waters that are devoid of fish. And despite the massive pesticide increase, the United States loses more crops to pests today than it did before the chemical agriculture revolution six decades ago."

So, you know, she had me at "fossil-fuel-intensive farming."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Lost Things

Every few weeks I have to clear off my desk, not because anything really important happens here, but because I can't find the checkbook. I hate not being able to find the checkbook. It's not as bad as not being able to find the keys, because if I rush out of the house without the checkbook it's not like I won't be able to get back in. But as soon as I realize the checkbook is gone, I remember the yards of checks I had to write yesterday. This makes me tense. Very tense. I imagine it's like how I used to feel in college when I thought I might not make a deadline for a paper, but that was so long ago, I can't be sure. In any case, none of this, unfortunately, will help me find my checkbook. If only hand-wringing and problem-solving were the same, things would be so much easier for me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chocolate Shortbread

A while back, I made chocolate shortbread with a dash of cinnamon. Nobody in the family liked them much but I did and the recipe made, like, seven thousand. So, I threw a bunch in the freezer and forgot about them. Until today. And now I can say this: Chocolate shortbread with a dash of cinnamon freezes really well.

Milestone Mania

I want to agree with this article on Slate by Nicholas Day bemoaning the milestone mania parents might experience as their children learn to do things like roll over, sit up and speak. Just the other day I was filling out a Kindergarten form for my daughter and it asked when she first did all sorts of things. I was annoyed, and I didn't remember any of it except for walking because both my kids walked "early," around ten or eleven months and because they were (and still are) on the short side, a lot of parents were a little freaked out by my walking babies.

And yet, and yet....when my son was two-and-a-half, he couldn't jump with two feet off the ground simultaneously. I asked my pediatrician about this. He said, "Don't worry. If he can't jump with two feet off the ground but can pedal a tricycle, he's fine." A few months later, Elliot would ride tricycles, but by pushing them with his feet, not pedaling. When he didn't hit a developmental milestone it was, in fact, meaningful, a tip off to some of the sensory issues he lived with and the kind of help he'd need.

Towards the end of the Slate article, Day writes: "Rather than a multitude of milestones, parents would sleep better with fewer but more relevant guidelines, an acknowledgement of how unstructured infancy actually is."

This makes sense, of course. (The bigger question I'd have might be not what parents do when their kids reach milestone (clap!) but what they do when they don't.)

We could all stand to take a deep breath on all kinds of things when it comes to our kids. Whether or not my kids "made" milestones never kept me up at night, my actual babies did that. But sometimes, you've got to be attentive because sometimes, they matter.

Monday, May 3, 2010

I (Still) Heart the President

Here's another reason why.

Magnetar on This American Life

If you haven't yet read the Magnetar story on Pro Publica, here's the link. And if you don't have time to read it, here's the link to the This American Life version on show #405 title The Inside Job. It's not exactly the same, but it will knock your socks off and send you screaming out onto the street in a rage. (Well, it did for me.)

I read a version of Michael Lewis' The Big Short in the late Portfolio magazine. That story was about the person and personality of a guy who saw the coming failure of the housing market and bet against it with a short position and made buckets of money. The Magnetar story is different and in a way more important because it's not about a quirky guy. Instead, it looks at the Wall Street system and the ethics embedded within it that made what could be construed as stealing, or at least rigging the system, seem like a reasonable day's work.

Testing, Testing

Marjorie Ingall is on the NYC testing situation. Go here for a letter from an anonymous teacher and here for test-taking haiku. Thanks, Marjorie!