Five Foods: Cake

What’s the first birthday you actually remember? What about it sticks with you, a present? A family friend dressed as a clown, making terrible balloon animals? A crying fight over a piñata or a broken toy or one of those vanilla-chocolate iced-cream cups? Maybe you remember your 16th birthday clearer than all the rest, but why—did you have your first kiss that night? Did you get your driver’s permit? Tell me about the pizza, because I’m sure there was pizza. What the hell kind of a 16th birthday party doesn’t have pizza?

(Mine. My 16th birthday party had zero pizza. My 16th birthday party featured an array of microwaved-frozen hors d’oeuvres acquired from a Sam’s Club in Edison, New Jersey. I distinctly remember there being tiny, soggy egg rolls. My kingdom for a pizza.)

In any event, the first birthday etched forever and ever amen into my memory was the year I turned 5. And the only thing about that birthday that I can even remotely actually recall was the cake.

The most glorious cake. The perfect cake.

I mean, just look at that thing.

Meister, age 5, with cake

Meister, age 5, with cake

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Five Foods: Pasta e Ceci

I thought I was immune to the lure of Italian food because I was on a mission, absolutely passionate to a single focus: a one-track pilgrimage through the streets of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples in search of the true essence of espresso coffee. I was on the hunt for that perfect, can-only-get-it-in-Italy espresso everyone always mythologizes, the unicorn of the caffeinated free world.

I also thought I was immune to Italian food because before I step foot in the country, I hadn’t eaten pasta in nearly two years. Afraid of carbs, afraid of olive oil, afraid of cheese—I had only very recently started to squirm out of the leg-irons of disordered eating, a misery which had kept me on a steady diet of boiled vegetables and coffee (and a daily 11-mile run) for the better part of minus 60 pounds.

The notion of visiting a country where the streets are practically paved with good bread and al dente noodles was a great test of self and recovery. It was a show of trust in and love for myself. I was ready, and I knew could do it.

Plus, when would I have time to think about food in between all those miraculous G-d shots of espresso? Certainly not I.

With that in mind, one of the best things I decided to do on this trip—in addition to trying to limit my caffeine intake to a perfectly reasonable 16 to 18 shots of espresso a day—was to eat exclusively at vegetarian restaurants. Not out of self-flagellation, though I realize there are probably few places in Europe where it’s easier to find plant-based food even in the most mainstream trattoria; rather, I wanted to go where few tourists dare tread, where English menus were unheard of, and where the ingredients would be so fresh as to practically still be alive.

Venice was a nice introduction to the culture and the cuisine of Italy, kind of like how Disney World is a nice introduction to the culture and cuisine of the United States. Italy-lite, I guess: Tourist shops, tourist restaurants, tourists asking other tourists for directions because everyone’s a tourist. Everything printed in English and Japanese; coffee shops advertising “American sizes” and “American breakfast.” The food highlight of my time there was an uninspired dish of curried carrots (because Italians are known for their curry), and a plate of limp and lukewarm grilled eggplant.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “What have I gotten myself into?” I crouched outside the warm glow of the cheesy but popular restaurants, coveting the living hell out of everybody’s meatballs.

But then I went to Florence, and all that changed.

Photo by Meister

 

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Five Foods: Tiramisu

The tiramisu came frozen, in enormous sheet pans, 18″ x 26″—so deep-chilled that they burned to the touch, and so big my father eventually needed to buy a separate fridge to store them out in the garage. A thin film of cling wrap covered the dusted cocoa top of a single magnificent, uncut cake of sweet, creamy marscapone and fat, coffee-soaked lady fingers.

Tiramisu would arrive two and three pans at a time, slid out of the climate-controlled back cabin of a solid-white catering truck which would pull up into our driveway in reverse—even sometimes half nudging itself into the garage—so that no one would see the covert dessert hand-off. Upon hearing the truck pull up, my father would creep up and signal to me to follow him: I loved watching with wide eyes as he unloaded the delivery, stacking the trays neatly in the tiramisu fridge.

Not every suburban New Jersey garage had a tiramisu fridge. It made my father feel like a rich man.

Photo by Flickr user Bricks Neapolitan Pizza

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Five Foods: Bread

I.

Give us this day our daily bread. Even thinking those words, I can taste the thin, stale wafer of the Christ’s transubstantiated flesh on my tongue, softening to a kind of pasty mush that quickly glued itself to the roof of my mouth as I walked back to the pew, following my father in his cologne and his scratchy Sunday suit. My hands cupped together in a mimicking prayer gesture, I would return to the kneeling board and focus all of my attention on the now-soggy body of our Lord and Savior, wondering whether it was a bigger sin to chew and swallow, or to leave it there and wait for it to slowly dissolve.

Apparently I wasn’t alone: A quick Google search of, “Is it a sin to chew the Eucharist?” not only calls up 1,210,000 hits (in 0.81 seconds), but also offers a host of opinions about chewing the Host—everything from, “Please note that the Eucharist is not chewed, but is allowed to soften in the mouth and then swallowed. This is to avoid having the smallest particle stuck in one’s teeth where it might be desecrated later by coming into contact with the profane. Having the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ mingle with a gulp of Mountain Dew is hardly the treatment He deserves”; to “The words are, ‘Take and EAT, this is My Body.’ They are not, ‘Take and let dissolve on your tongue, this is My Body.”

(That last one I find particularly comforting.)

I loved to think of the Tabernacle as Jesus’s bread box: It was also where He lived between Masses. Swaddled in some soft, protective cloth, I imagined boxes of wafers hidden away, quiet and cool and waiting to be transformed into the Body. A kind of religious Ritz cracker. The saltines of salvation.

I gave myself fully to the idea that this paper-thin presence on my tongue, the dryness and blandness of it so familiar and comforting, was truly transformed somehow through the mysticism of the sacraments. There was the Light inside me, slowly liquefying and mixing with my temporal saliva, connecting me to the faces carved in marble, to the smell of the prayer candles, to the gold everywhere.

Please forgive me, Lord, if I should chew.

II.

Ultimately, bread’s greatest purpose is to keep one’s hands clean. It is the protective coating between fingers and peanut butter or American cheese—or, in my house growing up, between fingers and liverwurst slathered with spicy whole-grain German mustard. In the Southern United States, it is the tool by which barbecue sauce and the juices of fatty, smoked meats are sopped up and brought to the mouth. In Ethiopia, it is plate and fork.

At my best friend Kim’s house, it was the food equivalent of the other side of the pillow: Doubled-up slices of pillowy white Wonder Bread, spread thick with buttery non-butter spread—Country Crock was a pantry staple in every neighborhood kitchen—and cut into tea-sandwich triangles, served cool to mitigate the steaming-hot bowl of SpaghettiOs Kim and I ate for lunch every day, sitting beside each other at the table comparing the number of meatballs in our bowls.

Kim’s mother picked us both up after half-day kindergarten, driving us back to their house in a long American-made car full of happy teasing, country music, and the clean warm vinyl smell that comes from parking in the sun. Standing over small wooden bowls, her mom would spoon the tiny pasta rounds and carmine-red sauce in equal portions, taking especial care to count each meatball.

But it was the bread that made lunch an event for me.

Photo by Flickr user French Tart

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In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967–2014)

It’s impossible to believe it’s been a full year since the world lost one of its finest, most authentic, and most versatile artists—and at the same time, it feels like a lifetime has passed since the release of that mournful news. There’s a deep empty space left by the departure of the larger-than-life personality which was Philip Seymour Hoffman; it’s felt by all kinds of people, in all sorts of places, for any number of reasons, and in myriad ways.

Today, I’d like to re-share this post from this past May, in remembrance of one of the most intense and inspiring people I’ve ever had the chance to… well, have a profoundly awkward and affecting interaction with in a coffee shop, I guess. 

Rest peacefully, PSH. You are deeply missed.
-M.

 


1.

“You’ll absolutely die when you hear what happened today at the café,” my then-girlfriend said, poking her head around the kitchen door to watch me struggle to cut the ribs off the entire bunch of dinosaur kale with a dull knife.

“Mmmhh?,” I responded.

“Well, we were listening to that Judy Garland album you put on the store iPod,” she said, stepping into view in the door frame. Her jeans were dusted dark brown where she wiped her hands after each shot of espresso, and she smelled like work in that way I loved: salt and coffee and warm milk. “Philip Seymour Hoffman came in, ordered a couple iced lattes for him and Mimi, and was standing by the bar waiting for me to finish making them.” She came up beside me and gently took the knife from my hands, easily dispensing with the ribs and cutting the kale leaves into delicate ribbons. I leaned back against the cabinet and crossed my arms, watching her work.

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Five Good Days: Routine

There are people who wake up every day feeling grateful and excited, as though every sleep is a reset button, and every morning a new opportunity. There are also people who wake up slow and sadly, rising up on a weary elbow in bed and thinking, “Oh, great. This again.”

Some of us wake up in a kind of gray, the color of snowflakes falling against a cloudy sky. We’re not quite sure what we feel when we open our eyes, or what to expect from another day. Maybe it’s the same as yesterday; maybe it’s completely different. Who knows? Who cares? Let’s just do this thing.

Sometimes I wonder what decides “good” days from “bad.” Is it a mood? Is it an incident or experience, a series of incidents or experiences? How much depends on the people one meets, the sites one sees, the outfit one wears? Sometimes it seems completely up to chance. I guess that’s life.

There’s a line in one of my favorite Paul Simon songs that attempts a definition that may or may not fit—you know, depending. “She said a good day ain’t got no rain. She said, ‘A bad day’s when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been.'” But then, I’ve sat by the window during an afternoon thunderstorm, feeling the electricity crackle and pulse like a living thing, taking deep breaths so full of that intoxicating rain smell that they almost made me dizzy. I have laughed myself hoarse on a misty morning in a forest, damp with fog and drizzle, tramping through a muddy creek, tripping on slippery tree roots. Those were good days.

I’ve also lain in bed long and lazy all day, remembering, longing, imagining how life could have gone, and what I could have done but didn’t. Some of those days weren’t bad, either: There is a deeply moving side to wondering at the difference a single choice might have made. A left or a right turn, the choice to leave a message after the beep or hang up in a quick panic, the buying of black or brown shoes. These are the things that make up our moments—how many of them do we have in the course of 24 hours, or 365 days, or 20 years?

Photo by Flickr user Bethan

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Five Good Days: The Thing

I didn’t realize how big the state of Arizona is until I had to drive clear across it in 48 hours. When you’re born and raised in the small Yankee city-states of the great U.S. of A., all the borders kind of butt up against each other, so that Newyorkjerseynecticut is practically a single state, and you can pass through three similar such conglomerations in any direction in the course of three or four hours, easy. So when I’d planned a surprise birthday trip for my then-boyfriend Brett—which called for us to touch down in Las Vegas on a Thursday night and make our way to the near-border town of Bisbee, Arizona, for Saturday lunchtime—well, he was…appreciative.

“Wow, what a great trip!” he exclaimed as he unwrapped the state map I’d given him for his 50th birthday, a little dotted line tracking the route I thought we’d take: Easy peasy, a straight shot southeast.

Then he unfolded the handwritten itinerary I’d prepared, printed in painstakingly small letters on the back of a vintage “Welcome to Arizona!” postcard. The grand plan was to give Las Vegas the business our first night out in the American frontier, with a couple of hours of carefree roulette and $5 blackjack. I’d rented a one-way car for the 600+ mile journey, so we’d put rubber to road the next morning and make our leisurely way down to Flagstaff for the hippie-dippy attractions (and a night in a haunted hotel); then on to Phoenix for vintage shopping and tiki cocktails; through Tucson for a chili dog (or two—with cheese); a brief detour in Tombstone because I’m your huckleberry; and finally pull in to the crown jewel in this birthday whistle-stop tour: The Shady Dell.

The Shady Dell isn’t just a magical place, it’s the magical place: A kind of time-capsule heaven on earth, it’s an indoor-outdoor sort of motel comprising vintage RV trailers, each one decorated stem to stern to reflect the cabin’s era. You rent, oh, say, a 1957 El Rey, and inside you’ll find a first-edition game of Clue; a cigar box full of postage-canceled postcards written out to Lon Chaney and Abbot and Costello; a hand-crocheted quilt on authentically sagging mattress; and maybe a package of Nutter Butters, just to make the place seem homey.

When I first heard about the place, my eyes dangerously embiggened; when I first saw photographs, I gasped myself completely breathless. It’s as though some wish-granting elf crawled into my right ear while I was sleeping, mucked around in my brain a while, crawled out my left ear and into Brett’s and did the same—then, with the inspiration of a thousand of our wildest vintage dreams, snapped its fingers and POOF! Just like that, up sprung the stuff of our very dreams, right in the middle of the desert.

(Well, OK: Right in the middle of an old copper-mining town right in the middle of the desert.)

I knew it was exactly what I wanted to give Brett: A long car ride through some of his favorite scenery, ambling detours to look at this or that relic of a bygone (or by-going) kitschy American West, chili-cheese dogs (obviously), and at least one night of pure time warp, going to sleep and waking up in a haze of the 1950s—a perfect match for both of our outfits, naturally.

He stared for a moment, then looked up at me with what can only be described as a kind of gently concerned smile.

“You want us to get to where, by when?

Photo by Flickr user dbostrom

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