Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Sound of One Hand Eating

Leave it to me to end up with a food-related injury. While lunging after a Béquet caramel that fell under my desk, I balanced my entire weight on my left hand while grabbing the candy off the floor with my right, in a sort of a one-handed downward facing dog. The next morning, my hand and wrist were painfully swollen from my acrobatics, so I went into the emergency room at Brotman.

The area between my left thumb and my wrist was so puffed up that the doctor could not tell from an x-ray if I had a fracture or not, so I ended up in what the staff optimistically called a splint. It was in reality, a mini-cast. I was instructed to not use my left hand for about a week, and accessorized with a stylish sling in basic black that kept my arm elevated at a right angle. Although the pain had gone away shortly after the cast was applied, I had to maneuver for several days with my left hand and arm almost totally out of commission.

It is fortunate that I am right-handed. I could still do things like drive and go to the gym, despite a number of modifications to my exercise routine. I can type well enough with one hand, but was maddeningly slow and needed to proofread my words even more closely than usual.

Dina Dini, assistant vice president of development,
Marymount College (at left) and me,
as we portray bookends at San Pedro's 1st
Thursday Artwalk. Photo by Brenda Solomon
I cheated a bit because I could, using the four free fingers of my left hand to prop things up or gently push them where I needed them to go. I discovered how useful one’s knees can be in opening bottles of water. And I eventually managed to take photos and save them for future blog posts. My good hand didn’t shake any more than it normally does when I am holding a camera.

On top of all this, the experience of having a physical impairment also turned out to be a real social leveler. The cast proved to be a great conversation piece. Everyone had an injury story to share, whether it had been their mishap or someone else’s. In the same way that you start to notice a certain type of car when you acquire one of them, I began to see my fellow walking wounded everywhere. People of all ages with braces or casts on their arms, crutches, and walking boots came out of the woodwork. Sometimes we would simply acknowledge one another with a look or a nod. Or if the situation presented itself we would commiserate, assessing our respective levels of injury. 

The uninjured were equally curious as well as empathetic of my condition, which was obviously not bad enough to leave me bedridden, but serious enough that I needed to have my arm in a sling. I reassured them that it was temporary and that I was never in any pain – it did look a lot worse than it actually was.

As it turned out, there were about a half-dozen people in my circle who were suffering from various injuries at the same time I had my cast. It seemed as if the universe was telling us to all slow down and pay attention to what we were doing.

Being in the moment takes on a profoundly different meaning when that moment includes making sure that I don’t strain my intercarpal articulations while putting my seat belt on, or while stirring a raw sugar packet into my tall Americano. It also makes me a bit more empathetic when I see those whose physical “limitations” are of a more permanent nature, and who, despite these limits, live their lives to the fullest. In addition to the mental exercise of trying to function as usual with my cast, it was an education in learning how one would actually live with only one hand. 

Work of art: Dylan at LACMA's Coffee + Milk

While the feats of Para Olympians and people  with disability who create art are amazing, we tend to overlook the average person who lives with disability. Unless we are privileged to have a closer look at their lives, whether through a family member or friend, we can never really know what it’s like for them to enact the most ordinary tasks, which many of them do without help.

Although my friend Dylan has for the most part, the use of both hands, he does not possess the same level of dexterity as most people. His movements are minimal but amazingly efficient, despite having having cerebral palsy and then suffering a stroke three years ago. I could not help but think of him when I tried to scrub my elbows in the shower – again, you’d be amazed what you can do with your knees – or maneuver my usual multiple tote bags of daily necessities.

To celebrate the liberation of my arm from its plaster prison, Dylan and I went to the new Coffee + Milk café at LACMA. As GMS’s official Hand Model Extraordinaire (See his debut here!), he presented our post-breakfast, pre-lunch snack of the café’s signature Elvis Cake. The mini-layer cake, which is coated with peanut butter icing and topped with bacon crumbles and a banana slice, is a homage to the King’s favorite sandwich. We consumed it with a mixture of shame and glee.

Dylan and I laugh about how wait staff in restaurants tend to be over-solicitous toward him, plying him with self-conscious attention and extra napkins, and replacements to dropped forks. We joke that they seem to ignore my beseeching look that signals my need for more water or bread. Male servers and restaurateurs often address him as, “My friend,” or “Big guy.” While it’s meant to be kind, I can’t help but think that people say things like that to mask their discomfort at encountering someone who reminds them of the fragility and the vulnerability of human life.

At LACMA, we were surprised that the observation deck above the Metropolis 2 installation was not accessible. I almost gave up, but Dylan was persistent and ambled up three or four flights of stairs in order to view the miniature representation of L.A.'s auto-choked universe at best advantage.

Bacon is the new chocolate: C + M’s Elvis Cake is
a hunk-a-hunk-a bakin’ love.

Dylan manages to open those hermetically sealed Trader Joe's salads, the ones I always break my nails with when hurriedly trying to get at their contents. He knows how to use an espresso machine, a device that is a total mystery to me. And I still am amazed when I remember how he climbed to the topmost row of the stadium seating at the Pacific Culver, simply because that was where my nephews wanted to sit to watch, ironically, the film, “Up.” He made it to the nosebleed seats with one hand on the rail and back down again, hanging onto my nervously stiffening arm. But he did it.

Having known Dylan has made me even more aware of the difficulties in movement that the disabled and elderly have to cope with on a daily basis. But it has also made me more aware of how helpless many disabled people truly are not, despite their physical limitations. Almost anything is conquerable, given a sense of humor and a good attitude.

Except, apparently, for the odd runaway caramel. It wasn't even one of my favorite flavors (Chipotle, if you must know.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Morning Has Broken: Copenhagen Pastry

Driving home from the gym each morning, I get to see Culver City gradually wake itself up. I watch the line at Arco on Sepulveda grow longer as the minutes tick away toward rush hour, and see the traffic increase slowly but steadily from all directions.

A fresh slice of Copenhagen Pastry's
almond-topped kringle. So good, you need
a plate to give it its due - if the bag makes
 it out of the car, that is!
It was during one of these morning reveries that I noticed the cheerful but elegant façade of Copenhagen Pastry on Washington Boulevard a month or so ago. The empty storefront, which is located west of the mosque and the gun shop, promised its “Coming Soon” with unstinting enthusiasm. So I waited impatiently until I received an email announcing the store’s soft opening at the end of June.

A few days after the bakery opened, I needed to know more. Spoiled by the never-ending glut of information on the Internet, I had searched for photos, information, anything that would reveal the mystery of the new merchants and their wares. But the proof turned out to be in the actual pudding – or rather, the kringle, nougat crown, or any of delectable treats that Copenhagen Pastry offers. There is always something that just came out of the oven, providing lucky customers with a warm and comforting way to start the day.

On my second visit, I complimented the shop's owner, Karen Hansen, on the coffee. The complex and satisfying brew was created by LAMILL Coffee of Silverlake. My first thought upon tasting it – with tastebuds jaded as they are by too much corporate joe – was, “I’m really having a cup of coffee.”

Karen Hansen, proprietor of Copenhagen Pastry, serves
up Danish hospitality along with the shop's amazing coffee
and baked goods

“I tried lots of different blends before I chose this one,” said Hansen, who is a native of Denmark. “I wanted coffee that tasted like it would in Denmark.”

Hansen and her crew are the most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered anywhere at 7 a.m. The shop is clean and spare, qualities that have long been attributed to the Scandinavian aesthetic. The menu is similarly streamlined, featuring a small but focused assortment of traditional Danish pastries and bread. Copenhagen Pastry offers about a dozen varieties daily, with one special weekly items that baker Henrik Gram likes to try out on the customers.

What we know as “Danish” in America is actually called spandauer or wienerbrǿd, which translates as “Vienna bread.” The description of these traditional pastries that I found online refers to a “cake” made from squares of pastry and filled with dollops of apple, almond paste, jam, or various creamy centers.

Maja Almskou fills freshly baked
nougat crowns with hazelnut cream. 
In the United States, we tend to view pastries like these as breakfast. In Denmark, however, breakfast is a much more substantial meal, including cereals such as oatmeal and muesli, and ymerdrys, a yogurt-like product made with soured milk and served topped with breadcrumbs and brown sugar. Hansen likes to sample her own wares at the bakery for breakfast, rotating them for variety.

“I always have the morning poppy [roll], a half of a coffee bread, and then I have the kringle,” she says of her favorites.

Hansen says that traditional Danish pastries are eaten in Denmark at different times of the day, as desserts and for celebrations. She describes rundstykker, a traditional bread roll topped with poppy or sesame seeds that is not a sweet, and often served with cheese or Nutella as a more popular breakfast. She also says that a hearty rye bread – which Copenhagen Pastry offers – is a staple, particularly for children, with its wholesome ingredients including sunflower seeds, black flax seed, rye flour, and rye berries.

“It’s really healthy and low in sodium,” says Hansen. “As soon as [kids] get their teeth, you give them the rye bread. It’s so good for them.”

“This is why the Vikings are so strong,” quips Gram, hefting a newly baked loaf and flexing his biceps.

Move over, Popeye: Copenhagen Pastry's
traditional rye bread gives baker Henrik Gram
his "muskels."
Hansen says that when she was planning to open Copenhagen Pastry, she knew that the shop would have to be in Culver City, with its family-oriented environment and easy freeway access from other Los Angeles communities. She and her staff have grown to rely on their customers – particularly the pint-sized clientele – for feedback on their products, of which they provide generous samples.

“We have good response from the children… because they always tell us what’s [gone] right and wrong,” Hansen quips. “They always have their favorite, and as they come in more times, they want this one or that one. They like to be part of the process of testing and trying out [our pastries].”

Gram, a native of Copenhagen, says that he was led to the baking profession by his parents, who owned a bakery back home. He says that while there are several bakeries that specialize in spandauer in every Danish city, Copenhagen Pastry is a rare authentic taste of home in Los Angeles. Hansen attests to her baker’s training and artistry, having also had a brother who was a baker in Denmark. His recipes, along with Gram’s, are part of the formula to the bakery’s success.

“Denmark has such a rich culture of making pastries,” notes Hansen. “To become a baker in Denmark you have to have four years of an apprenticeship, plus an [official] exam at the end. You really have to know your craft. But it’s also about how each baker handles it. Henrik does not compromise on what he makes. It’s the same with the equipment we have and the products that we use for the baking – we only use the best and that’s it.”

Karen Hansen and Henrik Gram with a
tray of dough for the bakery's signature
"Copenhagen" pastry.

Hansen, who studied interior design at Otis, also strove for authenticity in her design of the bakery’s storefront. She feels that Danish pastries belonged in a place that was as close to a shop that one would find in Denmark.

“They’re little pieces of art,” she says of the delectable inventory. “When you look at the store and the way it’s designed… here’s not a lot to sidetrack you and to look at – it’s all about the pastries.”

I could not agree more. Hansen plans to keep Copenhagen Pastry’s offerings as simple as when they opened the shop three weeks ago. There will be special holidays offerings, such as kransekage, a tower of graduated almond paste cookie rings that is served at Jul and other celebrations throughout the year. She also wants to add a seating area in front of the bakery so that customers can enjoy the pastries at an immediate but leisurely pace without having to ferry them to the office or home.

The elegant red-orange sign on
Washington Boulevard belies the
homey atmosphere within.
I’m all in favor of this decision. Unless the pastries are protected in a box with the bakery’s signature orange seal, they won’t last a car trip with me. Copenhagen Pastry has become part of my morning ritual, delivering a bit of Scandinavian flair and wholesomeness to the bustling burg of Culver City.

I'm taking my time in working my way down the list of pastries, which although I intend them for breakfast, have also found their way into my afternoon tea routine. My favorite so far, is the nougat crown, with its little jewellike blips of chocolate, icing, and hazelnut cream. And the kringle, with the richness of almond paste - not too sweet, and enhanced with fresh sliced almonds on top. And the...