Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thank you, and goodbye

Friends, the time has come to say thank you, and goodbye.

For a while now, I've felt unenthused about this blog, like I've been phoning it in. When a good friend whose opinions I trust confirmed my suspicions that I've been letting myself slip toward mediocrity, I decided it was time to retire this blog and move on.

I've started a new blog, Messing with Recipes, which is just that: I love to mess with recipes, and one of the things I've learned by writing this blog is that I love to write about food. I hope you will all follow me there, and that if you enjoy it, you will tell your friends about it.

There is a slim possibility that I will post some kind of masala here from time to time (Mowgli is in favor of this, funnily enough). If I do that, I'll certainly let all of you on the e-mail list know.

For now, though, thank you for reading, commenting and making my first blog experience really lovely. I've appreciated all of it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Indian Breath Mints

A few weeks ago a friend with extremely adventurous taste buds offered me an "Indian breath mint." I gamely put one in my mouth and immediately regretted it, but I stuck it out for a while to get the full spectrum of the experience.

It was more tart than 80 lemons, and then it was just plain awful, and the last taste was something like liime rind preserved in shoe polish.

So consider yourself warned if you find yourself presented with a jar of this or something similar, and don't be taken in by the happy-looking lady on the label.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Citizen Mowgli

On Friday, January 22, at approximately 2:10 p.m., my husband became a U.S. citizen. It was the culmination of years of visa applications, fee-paying and test-taking, and it was, honestly, a relief – I felt my whole body relax when the letter with the oathtaking ceremony information arrived weeks after we’d thought it would. Immigration policies and procedures have changed at a rapid-fire pace since 9/11, and it didn’t seem all that far-fetched to think that I might wake up one morning to find my husband had turned into an illegal alien overnight.

The ceremony was meaningful but not overly long, and was held on the 28th floor of the Eagleton federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis. There was a short speech by a lady who works at the International Institute; she talked about New Year’s Day and a new start, Dr. Martin Luther King and civic responsibilities, and later stood for photos with several of the candidates. The judge (a bankruptcy judge, as it happens), also said a few words about the responsibilities of a citizen. Then came the motion to naturalize the applicants, during which each of them (there were 46) were asked to stand and state their name, country of birth and occupation, as well as say a few words if they liked.

And then, we endured possibly the worst rendition of the national anthem in the history of time. The woman’s wobbly voice made me feel for her, right up to the point where she forgot the words. Luckily, the judge was on the ball and prompted her with “bombs bursting in air” after which it was just a matter of restraining the urge to nudge my mom lest I dissolve into a fit of giggles.

The final step was for each person to approach the judge to receive their certificate of naturalization as their name was called. Everyone took a photo with the judge, some just the two of them, some surrounded by family members. Three of Mowgli's friends from work had come to the ceremony, so we got a group shot with them, my mom and me (and the judge, of course).

As we exited the courthouse, my work team (my office is literally across the street) greeted us with flags and cheers – something I’d known about and managed to keep from Mowgli despite his habit of looking at incoming text messages. Later, we celebrated with friends and family at a bar that was grievously underprepared to receive a party of just over 90. Someone told me they’d seen one of the two bartenders cowering in a corner, crying and saying, “I can’t do this.” To be fair, I had called to warn them that we could be that many, but the woman I spoke with had laughed down the phone and said it was fine.

Thinking back on the day, the most moving part (other than watching my husband accept his certificate) was a very short statement from an older Pakistani gentleman. After he said his name and that he was retired, he spoke about how much he loves this country and how wonderful the people are, and that he knew he had to stay here for the rest of his life. His words moved me to tears, and as much as I hate to admit it, reminded me that I am very lucky to have been born in this country.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti, again

The other night I told a friend that I'd expected making a dontation to support the relief effort in Haiti to make me feel better. When it didn't, I began to question my expectation, and was almost overwhelmed with guilt for being upset that taking action did nothing to help my mood. There were people deprived of water, food and medical care, and here I was, feeling bad about, well, feeling bad.

Is this the disease of the privileged? To feel bad while living a decent life and helping others when possible? To be unable to fully accept the good fortune of being born in a wealthy country to a loving family that made sure all needs, including education, were well covered?

This morning brought news of a new quake, 6.1 this time, that sent people screaming into the streets. I'm already considering a second donation, but I won't expect it to do anything for me this time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


All I can write about Haiti right now is this: The same sun shines on all of us, and reveals that we are more alike than different.

Please donate to the Haiti earthquake relief effort if you can.

Here's a link to a list of charities already on the ground there.

Here's a website that vets and rates charities so you know your money is not going to waste.

Thank you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Kinks have a surprise for you, maybe

Hello kids, it's time for a little musical word association. I say "The Kinks." you probably think of "You Really Got Me" or perhaps the gender-bending "Lola." Or maybe you take the broad categorization approach and say "British Invasion."

Here's what you might want to answer in the future: We Are The Village Green Preservation Society. It's entirely possible you already know about and love it, seeing as how a friend said it's their favorite album in the universe when I mentioned it. But if not, do yourself a favor, go listen to a few tracks on YouTube or MySpace or whatever. Here's one, the title track, a bit slower than on the album, with a nice contrast between the prim, sentimental lyrics and the band's massive hairdos and late-'60s getups.

It's a concept album released in late 1968(early 1969 in the U.S.), the concept being to highlight endangered aspects of traditional English country and village life. Thus you have "The Last of The Steam Powered Trains" and "Animal Farm" and "Sitting by the Riverside." But you also have the philosophical "Big Sky" and the sweet, poppy "Picture Book." Through it all, you have straighforward (for the time) production peppered with folksy harmonica and accordion.

My only complaint is that the CD I picked up is so poorly mastered that it sounds like vocal mud pie, so I'm now on a low-level hunt for a vinyl copy (a friend has offered a turntable, headphones and the use of a listening space). I just have a hard time believing the Davies brothers wanted their affectionate gem to sound so smooshed together, and I want to hear what I've been missing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It Depends, or, a Recipe for Hummus

The other night I brought one of my fallback, signature dishes to a party, partly because I can make it in 90 seconds with my eyes closed, and partly because one of the night's honorees really loves hummus. Unbeknownst to me, one of the night's other honorees also brought hummus, and so, following a few minutes of good-natured smack talk, we had a blind side-by-side taste test.

Both test subjects, one of which was my husband, chose my hummus as their favorite. I was a bit sheepish about showing up the birthday girl, but she was a good sport about it, and during our post-battle chat I promised to pass the recipe along.

Later that evening, we were talking with someone else about food and cooking, and I was kvetching about Indian recipes. Real ones, meaning ones from cookbooks printed in India or written down by women who grew up making them, are nearly impossible to work with. The amounts are a small issue -- I can always find a conversion site to flip grams to ounces -- but the real problem is the instructions.

If you look at the photo of the recipe in this coconut chutney post, you'll see what I mean. "Heat little oil and fry all the ingredients," taken at face value, could have 20 different outcomes. How much oil is "little"? What level should the heat be at? How long do you fry these things? What should they look and smell and taste like when they're done?

As I was thinking about writing the hummus recipe below, it occurred to me that I could easily make it maddeningly brief and vague: Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. I entertained myself, briefly, by imagining the questions and answers such a recipe would spark. How long do I blend it? It depends on how smooth you want it. How smooth is smooth? It depends -- how smooth do you like it? How much lime juice? It depends -- how juicy is the lime?

For the sanity of my readers and the honoree who requested this recipe, I have tried to be as specific as possible so that my experience travels with the recipe, even though taking this tack could cause complete strangers to think I suffer from OCD. Whether that's better or worse than people I know thinking I suffer from OCD, I don't know.

A few notes before you begin:

- I use a Cuisinart to make this; if you don't have one, you can use a blender -- but be prepared for a lot of pausing and scraping. If you don't have either, then I hope your arms are strong, because you're going to be mashing beans 'til the cows come home.

- Great Northerns are my bean of choice for several reasons: They are cheaper and easier to find, and I can never get chickpeas smooth enough no matter how long I blend them. So go ahead, try garbanzos if you like, see what you think, but I can't abide them, the gritty little bastards.

- Tahini (sesame seed butter) is avaliable at international groceries and some larger conventional groceries. It's always cheaper at the specialty stores, though. If you live in St. Louis, go to Jay International on South Grand.

- As with almost all recipes, this is better the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to chat, dance around with each other and get on a first-name basis.

Hummus of Champions

2 cans Great Northern or cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
2 to 3 Tablespoons tahini
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lime
Pinch of cayenne, or more to taste, or 1/2 t. of a spicy spice mix such as Old Bay
Olive oil

1. Combine all ingredients except olive oil in processor bowl fitted with basic stumpy blade, using lower amounts for items that have a range.

2. Turn the machine on, leave the chute open and pour olive oil through it in a slow stream as you start to blend the ingredients. Everything will roll around and start to combine smoothly (and the texture will change) as you pour more oil in. You can stop as soon as everything's running around the bowl smoothly, but you can also keep going until you achieve the texture you like. I won't even try to describe the texture I like, because A) it's impossible and B) I don't want to make my readers ill in the process of trying.

3. Scrape the bowl once or twice to make sure everything's well blended and to taste and adjust the seasonings, most notably lime and cayenne. You want a detectable tang and bite, but they should be balanced against each other, i.e., not fighting.

A final note: I have made this with lemon juice and vinegar when I've lacked a lime. I've also left out the tahini. Nobody seemed to know the difference, since the beans, garlic and cayenne are the main players.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

People Change Their Names

If you know me and/or have spoken with me for longer than 10 minutes at a stretch, you probably know that I am fascinated with AMC's Mad Men. I love pretty much every aspect of it -- the production values, the art direction, the writing, the acting, the colors, the clothes, the shenanigans, the ad agency inside jokes, the historical references and sociological commentary.

Not long ago, as I worked my way through the first two seasons, the line, "People change their names" slid out of Don Draper's mouth, and my first reaction was, "they do?" Mere seconds later I realized how silly this was. Of course they do. I did.

When I was 18 and two years into a college career that would go on for three more years, I jettisoned my very Polish last name for the plain-vanilla one I have now. I picked the new one from a list I had systematically narrowed down over a period of weeks. I had spoken them out loud, written them, practiced potential new signatures, tried to imagine saying them to other people. Then, my seleciton finalized, I filed the paperwork with the court, placed the requisite ad in the local paper, and announced the change to my family on the back of that year's artfully photocopied Christmas card.

My father's reaction was much more low-key than I had anticipated. He wanted to know why I'd done it, and, as I'd rehearsed in my head, I told him the old one was a pain in the ass to spell for people (he agreed), and that it would be easier for my impending brilliant career in the music industry. He uttered a few understanding, innocuous words, and that was that.

I never told him the other reason: I'd wanted to separate myself from him, from our history as father and daughter, from his lackluster performance as provider and protector. I didn't see the point of prying open that can of worms; I'd tried to have the discussion with him, but it had gone nowhere. He simply wasn't capable, and eventually, I forgave him for that.

When I got married, among the myriad questions there was, of course, "Will you be keeping your name?" I decided to stick with what I'd chosen the last time I changed it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Swedes in Nashville

I have been lucky and pleased to work with talented and gracious musicians through my long association with Chris King. One of these, Lij Shaw, has a studio in Nashville called The Toy Box, where he engineers music ranging from illuminations of long poems to luminous Swedish pop.

It's the latter I bring to your attention in this space today. Anders Elfström's debut album, due to be released early this year, was recorded in Lij's studio. The process was documented in the 12-minute film below, shot and directed by Fabian Grapengiesser and edited by Edvard Heinmets.

Seeing an experience I've had through someone else's eyes was a curious experience. It made me nostalgic for the guitars and art and endless knobs and cords of the studio where I stood and sang last year. Emotionally, it made me both a little jealous (I forget, sometimes, that I have to share my favorite people) and thrilled that Lij's magic is being shown to the world.

My only criticism of the film is that it does not show enough of said magic, but I don't know that that's really possible. The visceral alchemy of working with a great recording engineer hinges on not only skill, talent and performance, but the ability to hear that last bit of something the music needs, and having the sense of how to get precisely that from the musicians. Lij is a past master of this, but again, I don't know how you'd capture that on film.

If you feel 12 minutes is too much time to invest, here's the video of one of the songs recorded at The Toy Box: