Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why I Write: Los Angeles Press Club Awards, June 27, 2010

After much anticipation, the day finally came for the Los Angeles Press Club’s 52nd Annual Southern California Journalism Awards. The star-studded event in the Crystal Ballroom of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel was the scene of several Oscars ceremonies in the early days of the award's history.

The 1937 Academy Awards at the Biltmore.

While there were plenty of Hollywood luminaries in the evening's program last Sunday night - among them former actor Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - the real stars were from the cream of Los Angeles journalism today. For once, those who deliver the news were making it.

For this writer, however, it felt strange not to have a pad, a recorder, or a camera in my hand. The dewy glass of chardonnay that I held instead did little to calm my nervousness during the cocktail hour before the dinner. I felt like a child who had left "the kids' table," about to intrude on the grown-ups.

I overheard a woman saying that LAPC is the oldest and most active press club in the United States. I watched people circle the silent auction fundraiser, perusing items like tickets to sporting events, tooth whitening, and artwork. At the back of the room, I found what I would have bid on had I been able to do so: two or three Chagall prints. I paced near the table they were displayed upon, sipping my wine and trying not to call anyone on my cell phone, which was tucked into my handbag like a security blanket. Nonetheless, I was comforted by thoughtful text messages from Larry and Daniel.

People tell me how lucky I am to be single and "free" to do the things that I love to do. But that night amid the accomplished and renowned journalists, I realized that most of them were accompanied by spouses, children, or colleagues who had joined them for this night of celebration. After the event, I spotted another finalist in the weblog category, syndicated columnist Amy Alkon, the "Advice Goddess". Wearing her signature black dress and elbow-length gloves, she was being photographed by her escort while standing in one of the Biltmore's picturesque hallways. The moral of the story: even a goddess needs backup.

I found my assigned seat at Table 34 and made the acquaintance of a charming young couple who were members of the LAPC and had turned out to support the event. Two older couples joined us; both of the husbands were finalists as well as I. We congratulated each other and fell to the task of eating dinner.

The chef was in his or her cups, literally. The salad of greens daubed with bits of goat cheese and dried fruit arrived in a shell of herb-flecked pastry. Dessert was a fluffy vanilla cream topped with glazed summer fruit in an oatmeal cookie shell. I had half-expected the roasted chicken breast to be presented in a doughy vessel, with the mashed potatoes, gravy, and asparagus spears as part of a savory sundae. Come to think of it, given the "cup" theme, a soup course would have been appropriate, but sadly, no savory broth was offered.

A few minutes after dinner began, the presenters started rattling off the considerable number of categories and winners. I was proud of the caliber of my fellow finalists, who were much more than just my peers. These were individuals who have entertained, impressed, and most of all, have inspired me as a writer.

Blurry photo of Anderson Cooper taken from my table. Not exactly rubbing elbows with famous people... at least not yet!

There were so many recipients that no one except for the key honorees - CNN's Cooper Anderson, NPR's Anne Garrels, and KCAL's Dave Bryan - made any speeches. For each category, there was a first place, second place, and honorable mention. In the fantasy acceptance speech I wrote in my head a few days before the event, I tried to figure out who to thank, or rather, who I could thank who would actually be present. The only person I could come up with was Jonathan Gold, the LA Weekly's Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic, whose work I had been reading since "Counter Intelligence" was featured in the LA Times, and to whom I credit for my love of hole-in-the-wall eateries. I also would have thanked the LA Weekly, because an ad that the paper had placed in Craigslist a few months ago for a food blogger was partially responsible for my idea to start GMS.

However, three of the key speeches said exactly what I was thinking that evening, surrounded by people who like myself, knew the thrill of researching a story, the human connection that comes from a good interview, and the painful exhilaration of meeting a deadline by a hair.

Anderson captured it best when he said that people tell stories to make sense of what happens around us. Nobody knows this more vividly than a journalist. In writing GMS, I am not only trying to share my love of cuisine but am trying to unravel human motivations and emotions. The most difficult ones I have tried to expose are usually my own.

Judea Pearl, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, presented Garrels with the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism. The award was named in memory of his son, who was murdered by Islamic extremists while on assignment in Pakistan.

Garrels, who since 9/11 has reported from highly volatile situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East, recalled a night of chilling premonition that she spent during the period that Pearl was held captive by his executioners. She also said that the manner in which his memory has been kept alive - through a foundation that supports cross-cultural understanding through journalism education, the appreciation of world music, and effective communication across borders - made her wonder what her legacy would be.

Judea Pearl, who is a professor at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, said that journalism is a profession whose practitioners work to illustrate the fact that we are "not alone, but in partnership" on the planet.

I received “Honorable Mention” in my category, which was phenomenal considering I had entered GMS on a whim along with my originally intended entries, stories I had written for my day job in public affairs at an urban university. But the real celebration for me has been going on from the moment I learned that I had been nominated.

The real thanks goes to my family, friends, and colleagues who have been supportive and believed in me along the way, long before GMS ever came into existence. A huge debt of gratitude also goes out to all the teachers I have had, starting with Deborah Goucher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, who successfuly got the attention of a roomful of squirming second graders when she told us that we could influence professors, employers, and the opposite sex if we learned to write well. Kevin Post at Adams Middle School was responsible for teaching me that a thesaurus was not a dinosaur, but the best friend that a young writer could have. The legendary Jolene Combs, my journalism teacher when I wrote for the High Tide at Redondo Union High School, managed to stroke a young writer’s already-inflated ego by coining the phrase, “the Joanie Harmon lead.” And Pamela Hammond, my former boss at CSU Dominguez Hills, always nurtured my “real-world” sensibilities when I wrote for her, and worked tirelessly to elevate our publications beyond the public relations pieces that they were into masterpieces of the journalistic craft.

The little writing group that Linda and Brenda and I have formed and that has been meeting for almost a year did a great deal to get me to write regularly. Before that, my creativity was limited to quarterly outbursts that would appear on one of my old blogs or were read hesitantly at open mikes. Last but certainly not least, A huge thank you is due to all of my long-suffering dining partners who in the last few months, have learned the finer points of food photography and who end up eating lukewarm meals in order to provide the visual component for GMS.

I may have been alone that night at the Biltmore, feeling like a wallflower. GMS’s tongue-in-cheek name and demeanor may seem to imply a lonely-hearts tone, with wistful observations of the world around me. I may write alone. But I feel, see, and tell my stories with all of you at my side. Thank you.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bar Pintxo - Otra Vez, June 12, 2010

Every other restaurant on the Santa Monica Promenade has faded from view for me since Shiho and I had tapas at Bar Pintxo. We took Jack there, without realizing that Spanish tapas - and really, a menu that is meant to be consumed with copious amounts of alcohol - is a land mine for anyone with gastro-esophageal netflux disease (GERD).

Knowing Jack as I do, I had suspected that GERD was just another way to for him to get attention from girls. Sadly, it is a real condition, with symptoms ranging from heartburn to difficulty swallowing to a regurgitation of bile. He cannot have things that we all take for granted and regard as healthy, like tomatoes, citrus, or olive oil. He can have poultry, fish, most vegetables, and whatever junk food I happen to have in my office when he rambles in at precisely the moment I am working on my next Pulitzer-quality opus.

With this in mind, we perused the menu. Shiho and Jack had gotten there before me and already ordered a couple of things: peach gazpacho and ensaladilla rusa, or Russian potato salad with tuna.

A view from the bridge.

I sat at the counter with my two friends, who had just met that day at an event we attended at a place near and dear to my heart, the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum. Beauty and the Beastly seemed to hit it off, but I was hardly a third wheel, having been lucky enough to find two handsome dining companions of my own. Sitting inches across from me on my end of the counter were two gorgeous serrano hams, installed on special wooden racks, one of which had a swath of glistening fat that the chefs kept to "seal" its cut end.

Swoon over my hammy.

The gazpacho arrived, topped with thin slices of serrano ham and lashings of lovely green extra virgin olive oil. Lovely that is until we were told what the effects would be on Jack's digestive system. So Shiho and I carefully skimmed it off the top of the pale yellow soup, which by the way, was fantastico. It was a lot like a vichyssoise with a summery, sweet finish kissed with cinnamon.

Everything's better with bacon - even peaches!

We needed to find more things that Jack could enjoy safely and selected the tortilla espagnola, which to my surprise was actually a type of Galician omelette. Composed simply of eggs, onions, and potatoes, it was the perfect thing.

Jack tentatively poking at the tortilla espagnola.

There is no sauce like laughter. We especially enjoyed the slideshow of someone's vacation in Spain that was playing over and over on the restaurant's widescreen monitor. There were images of hilarity amid much food, much wine, and much willingness of the revelers to moon the camera.

Humor is also the best medicine. We managed to eat well despite Jack's dietary limitations, which to his credit, he handles very well. I always feel badly for people who cannot eat everything because I live to eat, not eat to live. But considering some of the rare places I like, where one might say that food takes a backseat to ambiance, I also know that the power to taste and consume is not everything. Spending time with good friends is.

Which is not to say it was all a Kodak moment. Jack made fun of Shiho and me for being women of a certain age; I made fun of him for being bald. Your real friends are the ones who hammer at your faults and who let you hammer at theirs, yet everyone comes up laughing.

He gives it a thumbs up! Jack Sprat can eat no fat, so more aioli for Shiho and me!

Between bursts of hilarity, I obsessed over a stray flake of ham that had fallen on the base of one of the wooden racks. I wanted it, like it was a shiny, porky jewel. But I was being polite and refrained from snatching it up. It was kind of like when you are at someone else's house for Thanksgiving and can't just start ripping the skin off the turkey that has just emerged from the oven.

It was the best of all worlds for me, hanging out with friends while watching the Bar Pintxo team of chefs and cooks at close range, kind of like our own personal Food Network show. And somehow, we managed to finish with the traditional churros con chocolate. I guess GERD doesn't rule out dessert. Or hopefully, Jack felt too good to mind.

She's a lady. Except when it comes to stray bits of ham.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bar Pintxo, June 6, 2010

Summer weather turns a Girl's fancy to cold soups, especially one of my all time favorites, gazpacho. Like a V8 with bits of salad floating in it, nothing beats the heat - and gives you one of your eight-a-day - like a nice bowl of gazpacho.

The choice of gazpacho had a two-fold purpose: I had asked my friend Shiho, a talented illustrator and watercolorist, for special artwork for GMS. So we needed a colorful and textural dish for her to depict in her inimitable style.

Shiho and I started with some very flavorful olives. She drew them, I inhaled them.

I remembered that i had seen a tapas place on the Santa Monica Promenade, but could not remember the name of it. I called Shiho, who started looking up places on Yelp where we could have the chilly concoction, but none of them had the all-important "stroll factor," the better to have that post-dinner constitutional by. So I talked her into this unknown place, remembering that it was on Santa Monica Boulevard near 4th Street.

I met here there and the recognized the storefront, with the sign for Bar Pintxo. When we were seated, we immediately asked what the soup of the day was, ever hopeful for the long-awaited gazpacho. But it was lentil with chorizo, which was fine with me. The afternoon swelter had given way to a cool marine layer and suddenly warm soup sounded good. It was. The smokiness of the sausage was a great counterpoint to the homey-ness of the lentil soup, which despite the pork product, was not at all salty. But that was only the beginning.

A hearty soup like this one can be a meal in itself, but not when you can have all kinds of unusual little dishes alongside it. Upon exploring the menu, we found a number of enticements and succumbed to temptation. So distracted were we by these delights that I forgot to take a photo of the soup. But since the point of the exercise was Shiho's sketch, we were covered there.

Shiho's masterpiece - talk about multitasking... I don't think I can eat and paint at the same time!

We happily obeyed the axiom, "Eat dessert first" with a "pintxo" or "small bite" of dates wrapped in bacon and filled with valdeon cheese. I can't even begin to describe how good this was. Salt is the new sugar, and this celebrated the pairing of both with great flair.

Next up was the ensaladilla rusa or Russian salad. This consisted of a potato salad with house-conserved tuna in a light, non-greasy mayonnaise. A taste revealed the fact that a) the peas and diced carrot were fresh, not frozen as I had surmised and b) tuna is pretty darned good in potato salad.

Not your mom's potato salad - unless your mom happens to be from Barcelona!

For dessert we hemmed and hawed about the churros. In America, churros are foot-long tubes of tasteless dough coated with a fur of sugar that you buy at the movies or a fair. Bar Pintxo's version was what I've always imagined authentic churros to be: yeasty but dainty blips of dough served with a cup of bittersweet, cinnamon-laced chocolate for dipping.

This beats Krispy Kreme.

For more of Shiho's work or to subscribe to her newsletter, click here. She's a Scorpio, her favorite color is everything, and she digs long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and guys who are willing to go to museums, change a flat tire, and check her dim sum selections for hidden shrimp: she's allergic to shellfish.

Short Orders: The Lusty Month of May

Although spring has sprung, this Girl still loves her some soup... and bagels... and Vietnamese street food... and...?

Although May was a busy month, I still took time to stop and smell the:

May 22, Vietnamese Rice Cake with Caramelized Onion in Chinatown: Jolene and I always delude ourselves that we can just run into Chinatown, pick up whatever trinkets and treats we decide we can't live without that day, and depart in a timely fashion. We are always so wrong.

On a mission to fetch supplies for the necklaces I make and sell at local museums (the Japanese American National Museum and the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum), my sister and I hurried to Chinatown on a mission, promising my brother-in-law that she would be back "soon" for the onslaught of Saturday activities with the kids. While puttering in a shop that sells knock-off handbags on Broadway near Ord, I caught a whiff of something that took me back to childhood. It was as if someone had opened the world's biggest bag of Funyuns. I looked around and noticed a boy eating something white and gelatinous out of a styrofoam box.

I always share snacks with my sister. Unless she takes too long putting more money in the meter!

As we headed down the street, we stopped in front of a little Vietnamese deli where I found the object of my olfactory delight. As we entered the store, a woman was unwrapping a pan the size of a tire that was filled with something covered with caramelized onion. She was selling slabs of this to passersby, dousing each serving liberally with a light brown sauce full of little red chilies. Although I had already surpassed my allotted carb intake for the morning - miniature pan dulces from Venice Bakery - I had to try it.

Move over, Gaga. This is my neuvo-disco diva name: Lady FishPaste.

Although we had only meant to stay an hour, Jolene and I took turns running back to the car parked a few blocks away to add more change about three or four times. While she was gone, I put some of what the vendor and the people in the deli simply called "rice cake" and dug into my portion greedily. The consistency was custard-like and white as snow. The onion topping also had dried shrimp in it, Southeast Asia's answer to bacon bits. I tried to stop eating after my first helping, but decided that Jolene, who is as fanatic as I usually am about counting calories, wouldn't mind a smaller piece of the stuff.

May 23, Smoked Whitefish Salad on a Black Russian Bagel at the Bagel Factory: Fish is said to be brain food and I need all the help I can get. A weekend treat is a toasted Black Russian bagel - dark pumpernickel with raisins and onions - slathered with smoked whitefish salad from the Bagel Factory.

One bagel is said to be the caloric equivalent of five pieces of bread. My rules of thumb are a) if they use dark flour, it's practically whole-grain, which doesn't seem as evil and b) toasting a bread product makes it like a cracker, which is usually lower in carbs. No wonder I flunked freshman algebra.

May 29, The Big Steak at Grand Casino:
When I'm not wearing one of my many weekend hats as roving reporter, social butterfly, or doting aunt, I grab my beading board and go to one of my favorite spots in downtown Culver City, Grand Casino. I love the quasi-European twist to the menu and bakery, which is largely influenced by Argentine cuisine. I have spent many a sunny late afternoon alone there, reading or making a necklace, basking in the melodious conversations of the other patrons, who speak only Spanish.

It was getting close to dinnertime and once again I was faced with having to make a low-cal decision. And I was hungry. I spotted the steak on the menu but did not want potatoes or anything starchy on the side. I asked the waiter if I could just have twice the salad. He was very accommodating and told me he would have the cooks put something together.

Grand Casino always feels like I've gone back in time to a slower, more gracious era, where a "Lost Generation" isn't necessarily lost, just looking for comfort. If Lady Brett and Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises" would have stopped all their agonizing, they could have gone to a little sidewalk cafe to eat something like a juicy, medium-rare steak with a crisp, fresh salad - with yes, a little Pernod on the side - they would have felt as I did on that Sunday afternoon, alone in a babel of Spanish whose words I did not understand, but whose emotion was clear. Damned fine.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

El Rocoto, May 17, 2010

A veritable treasure trove of international cuisine can be found on Artesia Boulevard west of the 91 Freeway despite the seemingly endless arcades of nail salons, boba shops, and Starbucks. El Rocoto is one such gem, a change of pace from all the admittedly wonderful but plentiful Asian food available in the Torrance/Gardena hinterlands.

Dylan, who by now expects the possibility of soup as a main course when dining with me, accompanied me to El Rocoto, a local favorite of fans of South American cuisine. Those of us who grew up eating the Mexican food of Southern California are always surprised by the inclusion of different ingredients in what we consider "traditional" dishes: saffron- infused masa for tamales, ceviche garnished with sweet potatoes and corn, walnut sauce.

Traditional Peruvian tamale, with chicken and egg mosaic and colorful garnish

Although most restaurants treat soup as merely a prelude, at El Rocoto it is an integral part of a meal at El Rocoto, as listed on the menu under "Soul Warmers." I chose parihuela salvaje, a lightly spicy brew of snow crab, shrimp, fish, mussels, squid, and octopus. Dylan ordered the chupe de camarone, which despite sounding like something you shout out the window when getting cut off on the 110, was surprisingly mild in flavor, although loaded with a cornucopia of ingredients - including corn.

When I was a kid, soup was something that you ate when you were under the weather. Not so at El Rocoto, where you need to have all of your faculties present to partake of their hearty crustacean and mollusk-laden soups. By this I mean that you need to be able to use knife, fork, hammer, tongs, or blowtorch in order to extract the meat from claws and shells.

The right tool for the job... might still be in the garage. But we made do.

While Dylan is more handi-capable than most TABs I know - I just learned that this means "temporarily able-bodied"- his motor skills cannot easily accommodate a bowl full of crab legs and mussels on the half shell due to cerebral palsy. So I have come to anticipate certain tasks when dining with him such as cutting long strands of pasta into manageable lengths or large portions of meat into bite-size pieces.

I grew up fearing no fish and learned from my parents - who served boiled crabs and lobster thermidor as if they were meatloaf - how to take dismantle any shellfish in a relatively tidy manner. So I proceeded to use everything from the flatware on the table to my tiny Swiss army knife to extricate the sweet and savory flesh from its casings.

The shrimp chowder had among many other things, a fried egg, sunny-side up, on top of it. It had a full and satisfying sea-like flavor, very creamy and potatoe-y, with a surprising green herbal finish. Mine was more like a cioppino, very tomato-esque and spicy. My parihuela was full of snow crab legs, octopus, mussels, and squid.

Who you calling a shrimp?

While each serving is enough for three or four people, we tried bravely to make a dent in our respective bowls. We quickly surpassed the emergency supply of extra napkins that were thoughtfully tucked in anticipation underneath our bowls and had to ask for even more napkins to keep ourselves and the table presentable.

The aftermath. No clean napkin left behind.

Later, I was struck by the irony of humans who may not have the full use of their hands eating creatures who before they were dropped into a kettle of hot soup, once did. Which led me back to Seiji's admonition to my sister and I about eating shark fin soup.

The very food chain embodies the Orwellian fact that "some animals are more equal than others." This raises the question: If four legs are good and two are better, then what does ten get you?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

GMS a Finalist for Los Angeles Press Club Journo Awards

"Girl Meets Soup" has been selected as one of five finalists for the Los Angeles Press Club's 52nd Annual Journalism Awards!

I'm thrilled and kind of stunned. Just going through the entry process a couple of months ago was a good experience that made me think, "Gee, maybe we've got something here." I had hoped that GMS would possibly place, not for its perfection but for its journalistic integrity, eye on humanity, and mostly, for its heart.

Whether I win or not, I already feel rewarded when considering the company I keep as a finalist, a number of my local journalism heroes - Patt Morrison, Gustavo Arellano, Jonathan Gold, Warren Olney. Color me totally floored.

The awards gala will be held at the Biltmore Hotel downtown on June 27. CNN heartthrob and intrepid journalist Anderson Cooper will receive the LAPC's highest honors along with CBS2/KCAL/9 political reporter Dave Bryan and NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrells. Judea Pearl, father of the late Wall Street Journal reporter killed by Pakistani extremists in 2002 and actor Sean Penn are presenters.

I am so humbled by this, and very grateful for the generosity of the judges. But most importantly, I need a new dress!