Friday, May 11, 2012

Bon Appétit Redux

I wrote "Bon Appétit" as an assignment for a creative writing class at El Camino in 1995. That is to say, I was given a totally different assignment, and this is what I turned in. Amazingly, I still got an A.

I reworked this a couple of times as my rebellious emotions mellowed with age and my writing skills sharpened with time. For Dad, whose birthday would have been yesterday, and for Jolene and Joselyn, who were with me at the table.

Joanie Harmon, "The Power of Three"
Digital photograph, 2005
Every Thursday morning, there was a farmer’s market at the Redondo Beach pier. My parents would take my sisters and me to do the week’s shopping for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish. The sun seemed brighter then, with the sky a pale and cloudless blue, the color of a 1964 Ford Falcon.

My sister and I would follow our parents silently through the stalls, drinking in all the sights, smells, and sounds of a world beyond our sterile suburban existence. At home, nature thrived on man-made terms in neat ceramic planters and manicured lawns. At the pier it was less controlled, the shoppers and diners drawn by the opportunity to eat fish that had been breathing only minutes before it was cooked.

Our father was the chef of the family and selected ingredients for a weekly menu that would make today’s dietitians raise their eyebrows in horror. My favorite part of the trip was to watch him select live crabs from a swirling tank of sea water. We marveled at these crustaceans that looked like the gaudy toys we bought at the supermarket. But these fantastic creatures were transformed into dinner through a steamy demise on the kitchen stove.

In the days before salt, sugar, butter, and love were taken out of food so that we could all live a little longer, Dad would serve thick steaks with baked potatoes wrapped in foil. He would fry up the fat that he trimmed off and let us eat it as "cracklings." Liver and onions were served with a strip on bacon, and spaghetti with meat sauce was topped with fragrant shreds of parmesan cheese. I would pluck the tomatoes that he grew in the backyard off the vine and eat them greedily before my mother would make me wash the sunshine off of them.

My sisters and I ate with gusto and abandon, never counting calories or the number of helpings we consumed. For the most part, a youthful metabolism took care of any excess. Our parents made food a celebration, an embodiment of parental concern and well-being at home.

While Dad reigned over the kitchen, Mom applied her hand to the rest of the house and our collective psyche. She slipcovered the sofa with clear vinyl to protect it - and anyone from getting comfortable, and installed electric icons of the Virgin Mary around the house to protect us from ourselves. Every window in the house was covered with decorative iron bars that were supposed to keep intruders out, but only succeeded in keeping its inhabitants in.

The one redeeming feature of Mom's décor was a profusion of flowers from the weekly shopping excursion, supplied by a local family that grew their wares on several acres in Palos Verdes. I was intoxicated by the brilliance of pink stargazer lilies, flaming red and yellow poppies, and smoky blue irises that made my 64-color box of Crayolas pale in comparison. These flowers would fill the house with an unparalleled light and scent that could only have come from the earth, a welcome antidote to the iron bars and dark Spanish furnishings that Mom favored.

Each in their own way, our parents embodied the conflicting sides of our natures. Dad had a zest for life that pervaded the simplest thought and action without compromise. Mom had an equally strong tendency, with good intentions nonetheless, to subdue such abandon. Dad died when I was eleven, taking his decadent cuisine and blue skies with him. Mom attempted to fill both parental roles and put us on high-fiber, low-cholesterol diets that cleared our systems of unnecessary toxins - as well as part of the joy of living.

The sundrenched bouquets from the farmer’s market were replaced by concoctions of silk flowers that never wilted or left water rings on the piano. Once at Christmas, I scorched the varnish on the piano lid by burning candles arranged on fragrant - and very, very dry - pine boughs that went up in unexpected flames. Disaster was quickly averted, but the scar on the piano remains as a reminder that life is messy. Growing up, apparently, was as well.

In my own home as an adult, I tempered my mother's heightened sense of order and denial with generous portions of  Dad’s joie de vivre. I left my blinds and windows open. I would regularly offset a healthy dinner of a big salad with half a carton of Chunky Monkey for dessert. My middle-aged metabolism demands that I work off the excesses of good living at the gym, but it’s worth the effort. Thanks to our imaginative parents who made the acts of everyday living an art, my sisters and I are quite adept at having our cake and eating it too.

- 1995; revised 12/24/11, 05/11/11

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rock and Roll: Dosa Buffet at Woodlands Indian Cuisine

If they ever found a way to make bacon out of tofu, I would so convert to vegetarianism. Until recently in Western cuisine, meat-free has tended to be flavor-free. Not so in Indian cooking, where vegetarians enjoy an exotic cuisine that fits within their dietary boundaries, one so full of enticing aromas and textures that you don't really miss the meat.

But to me, one of the benchmarks of great Indian cuisine is the bread.

The colors: Wednesday night veggie buffet at Woodlands
Growing up in what was then the culinary wasteland of Redondo Beach, The Clay Pit provided a passage to India at the South Bay Galleria. My most vivid memory was of the fresh baked naan, which my sisters and I thought was special because it was fresh bread, baked right in the food court. Samosa House is my go-to spot on the Westside, a Culver City institution that serves small plates of crispy and colorful chaat, fragrant mango lassi, and the namesake potato pockets. There I indulge in my favorite combo plate with wheat chapati, which I use to scoop up bites of spinach saag and stewed jackfruit. But at Woodlands in Chatsworth, the idea of fresh baked is taken to a new level with the Wednesday night all-you-can-eat dosa buffet.

The adventure starts at the buffet table, where you can fill your metal tray with a bit of everything. Woodlands, which describes the spread as "Indo- Chinese," includes a Manchurian dumpling in a savory red sauce called idly. The name also refers to small rounds of a white and spongy bread with a texture reminiscent of Ethiopian injera or Filipino puto. A fiery soy sauce-based vegetable stir-fry adds color to the tray, as does a salty lemon chutney and fresh mint sauce to drizzle onto crispy pappadums. 

Dosa-do: My tastebuds do an allemande left with the fiery mysore masala dosa.

But it is the fresh dosa, each made freshly to order, that is the star of the buffet firmament. Harvey and I started with masala dosa, a large crispy lentil and rice-based crepe filled with saffron-hued mashed potatoes, and a version of the same thing with sauteed onions. The second round included the whimsically-named paper masala dosa, which was a masala dosa made with rice flour only and the mysore masala dosa, which promptly set my mouth on fire and heightened my anticipation of dessert.

And what a dessert it was. Payasam is a gentle concoction of vermicelli noodles cooked in milk and enhanced by cardamom. I brought up two half- filled stainless steel cups of the pudding-like dish to the table, just in case we ended up not liking it. We loved it, but were too full of dosas to want more. 

Sweet relief: Payasam or kheer helped put out the smolder of the mysore masala dosa.