Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Holy Cannoli, Batman: KCRW’s 5th Annual Pie Contest Serves Up Childhood Creativity

I don’t remember when or where I had my first cannoli. It was probably at Giuliano’s, which has been the go-to Italian mercato of the South Bay ever since I was a kid. There was nothing in my previous pastry-eating experience to prepare me for this unusual treat. The plain, yet oddly satisfying cookie-like shell and the vague sweetness of ricotta cheese laced with chocolate and candied fruit, was so unlike American cheesecake from a deli.

And I don’t know how I came to the conclusion that real Italian cannoli must be made by cloistered nuns, toiling in some medieval kitchen with a wood-burning oven. Maybe it was the exoticism of the pastry, which rivaled anything that Dolly Madison or Hostess could churn out in the 1970s. I learned later that cannoli actually originate from Sicily, where the only possible connection to divinity is a “Godfather.” No matter, my saintly image of the pastry has stuck.

Mini cannoli from Amalfitano's Bakery, San Pedro
My love of cannoli is often sullied by the fact that when you bite into one, the shell shatters, spilling sticky ricotta and chocolate filling all over the place. The inconvenience is heightened by the fact that I for some reason am usually blessed with cannoli while in the car. I brake for bakeries, and when I find myself passing Amalfitano’s Bakery on Western Avenue on the way home from the gym, I can’t resist going in.

While brainstorming for my entry to this year’s KCRW Good Food Pie Contest, I thought of the genius solution of flattening out the tube-like cannoli shell to a pie shell.

I envisioned myself clamping two Marie Callender’s pie tins together with a blob of cannoli dough in between them. But the prospect of dunking them in a vat of boiling oil would only amount to a stunt that would earn me the “Most Dangerous Baker” award. Ever health-conscious (and lazy!), I set to work searching out recipes for cannoli shells that could be baked in an oven, hoping to ease my way into a worthy pie shell.

But all the recipes and videos online clearly underscored the fact that a cannoli shell is not a cannoli shell unless it is fried. I puzzled again over how I would achieve a pie or bowl-shaped vessel of deep-fried dough safely. Then I hit upon it: I would get one of those metal baskets used to form and deep fry tostada shells. The cannoli “pie” would be a bit undersized, but that would be all right. 

Gonna fry now: Cannoli dough is formed into
a "pie shell"
with the help of a tostada mold
For me, giving something the “old college try” includes doing what I actually did in college – waited until the absolute last minute. The night before the KCRW contest, I did a test run in my kitchen.

The oil – three bottles of 100% Natural “Wessonality” – took forever to heat. We kept testing it with a meat thermometer, which had to wind itself around the dial nearly twice to meet the required 350 degrees. I periodically dropped tiny wads of cannoli dough into the oil, hoping to see them start sizzling and rising to the top. When one of these finally buoyed its way optimistically to the top of the pot, we cheered.

In the meantime, I had rolled out a disc of the fragrant cannoli shell dough, just big enough to make a prettily fluted bowl, and secured it in the wire baskets. I dunked it in the pot of oil, which bubbled happily with a professional-sounding sizzle, not unlike the sound of onion rings being cooked at your favorite charbroiler.

My excitement was tempered by the need to know how much time was necessary to cook a large cannoli “bowl” thoroughly.  I peered at the darkening color of the shell through the bubbling oil. Having noted the time on my phone – which may or may not have a stopwatch, but I’ll never know – I saw that it took about 3.4 minutes to fry the shell to a nut-brown perfection.

I was way too excited about having created such a large and unwieldy food item, using a potentially hazardous and none-too-calorie-conscious method. When it was sufficiently cool to the touch, I greedily tore a swath of the shell off and ate it. It was amazing, like a cross between a donut and a pie crust. I couldn’t stop eating it. For a moment, I considered the possibility of winning – the pie pundits always say it’s all about the crust, and mine was pretty darn good. And then, due to the late hour and impending panic that the contest was the next day, I worried that the next attempts would not be as successful, but they came out beautifully. 

It's all about the crust: Cannoli dough "pie shell"
is flaky, with complex flavors from cinnamon
and splash of Marsala wine.

I wish I could say the same for my cannoli filling, which although it was very pretty, studded as it was with 60% cacao dark chocolate chips and pistachios, was sadly nondescript in flavor. I followed a recipe that I found online that was promisingly luxe: along with the requisite ricotta cheese, a tub of buttery mascarpone was added to the mix. This resulted in a very creamy filling, but one that was kind of bland. Upon tasting it, I realized it needed the kick of some vanilla extract or something to bring out the richness of the cheese and other flavors.

This year, a new category for young bakers was introduced, and kids were invited to enter the contest. Their pies were not judged like the rest, but before the winners were announced, all the junior pastry chefs were called to the stage by “Good Food” host Evan Kleinman, who recognized their efforts and solicited hearty applause for them from the crowds milling about in Hancock Park. 

Pie on Ice: This one went to the judges.
When I was finally installed at the contest site with the other competitors to serve our pies to the public, I realized that I was placed at a table with four adorable little girls and their equally adorable entries. Standing under a canopy that just missed covering the pies on our table, I looked beseechingly at passers-by who overlooked my tiny pile of melting ricotta cheese for more tempting fare. One of the judges, came by, fork in hand, probably wondering how the middle-aged woman ended up in this lineup. He proceeded to taste each pie, and walked away telling the girls to, “Keep baking. I started when I was your age and never stopped.”

The young bakers had done themselves proud, with some classic fruit pies that were quickly disappearing. The girl to my right had created a magazine-worthy concoction of peanut butter, chocolate chips, and bananas in a chocolate crust that she had also labeled as a “cannoli pie.” She asked me without irony if I was entered in the “Kids’” category. Somehow managing a straight face, I said I was not.

Sister Mary Marsala (atop pie) and I greeted the crowds
with one of my Holy Cannoli Pies.
I tasted her pie, and it was amazing, hitting all the umami pleasure centers of the palate as only a classic combination of flavors can. She told me that she had been baking for a while and that next year, she would be able to compete as an “adult,” as she would be past the cut-off age for pint-size bakers of 12 and under. We compared notes on what our favorite things to bake were – she likes to make brownies and I am a cookie monster when I have the time.

As I was coming down off the highs of the brainstorming, worry, and euphoria of preparing for the contest, I felt a happy calm. I survived my third year of the KCRW Pie Contest, which has become a personal tradition. I didn’t win, which is also a personal tradition. But I was able to share the experience with well-wishers who recognize the excitement of competition, my creative and talented fellow contestants, and best of all, a cadre of dear and loyal friends who turned out to cheer me on and taste lots and lots of great pie. 

I am optimistic about another cannoli-fest in the near future. Since I don’t need to turn it into a pie next time, I’ll shape and fry the shells with their traditional cylindrical molds, and dip the edges in melted chocolate. Maybe I’ll add some zip with dried apricots or some candied citron. But the experience took me back to when I was a kid, and willing to try anything.

I once ate raw, unprocessed olives off the tree my Dad had planted in our front yard – big mistake. I tried to make perfume from vanilla extract and gardenia petals – also a disaster. But I learned from both of these trials. I not only never attempted them again, but took away a little more understanding about the chemical elusiveness of achieving taste and texture. And today, I know how to have a wild deep-frying adventure. I’ve got a tostada mold, and I’m not afraid to use it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I Cover the Waterfront: Back in San Pedro

There is one photo missing from this post that sums it all up better than the pix I have here.

I used to shop at the Albertson’s on Western Avenue, when I lived in San Pedro nearly ten years ago. For the first few weeks I was there, I was greeted upon entering the store by one of those towering stacks of soda cases that grace supermarket floors during times of high beverage consumption like football season. Its structural arrangement did not depict a pixelated Trojan, the name of a high school sports team, or anything of the like. It simply spelled out the words, “San Pedro” in huge and unapologetic red and green letters.

Sheet music for the jazz standard of the same
name as the 1933 film – which ironically, is one
of maybe only two movies in the history
of Hollywood that were
not shot on location in San Pedro.
This image is lost in the vortex of my digital scrapbook of unlabeled photos, carelessly stored without any sense of chronological order, hence its absence from this post. But the idea of it stands out in my mind as what it’s like to live in the former fishing village that is home to the bustling Los Angeles Harbor, the historic USS Iowa, generations of immigrant families who were born and raised in the “Port Town,” and now, once again, myself. It is one of the few – dare I say, only? – places in L.A. County where anyone can feel welcome, can be as enmeshed in local life – or not – as they wish, and most of all, where you can actually breathe.

Ironically, I am usually told to breathe this while crammed in with way too many sweaty bodies like sardines on floor mats at my favorite yoga studio. In San Pedro, you can breathe deeply because there is space, physically and metaphorically, to do so.

Even natives of the South Bay such as myself never know anything about San Pedro and never go there, unless they know someone who lives there. When I moved there in 2004, ignorant but not blind to the town’s charm, I lived near what is arguably its heart, the downtown arts district. I enjoyed freelancing for the local magazine, finding hidden gems of stories in my new hometown with each assignment. Barbers, bakers, giant sculpture makers – each article I researched was a window on what makes a small town like this so special, and the grit it takes to believe in it, 150 percent.

Life took me elsewhere, to marriage, divorce, several relocations, and a new job. For the last four years, I’ve lived in West L.A. with my sister and her family. Although it’s been a convenient homebase with a short commute to work, when it came time to strike out on my own, I tried to contemplate finding an apartment there. But the stress and cost of living on the über-congested Westside was unconducive to homey comfort. I ranted to friends about this, but assured them I would never move any farther south than El Segundo.

Don't let the empty streets fool you: San Pedro is business on
the outside, party on the inside. At least, until the
sidewalks roll up at 9 p.m.
Trolling for apartments on Craigslist, just for fun I decided to peek at places in San Pedro. I realized while looking at photos of whitewashed kitchens and charming old buildings with fire escapes that apartments were a) extremely affordable and b) in what seemed like nicer neighborhoods than my current environment. Then it hit me – why the hell not?

Once I had a clear objective in mind rather than an abstract idea of what I should look for in an apartment, it was so easy. I took the third place I looked at, seduced to view it by an online photo of the aforementioned whitewashed kitchen. My building is in the historic Vinegar Hill District, so named, I assumed, for San Pedro’s history in the once thriving canning industry. I found out later that it was named by wags for its one-time cottage industry: homemade sour wine.

I have also been told that Beacon Street was once the redlight district, which makes sense as it overlooks the Port of Los Angeles, Harbor Drive, and Ports O’Call. Among its places of ill repute was the infamous Shanghai Red, which was located – before being torn down in the 1970s – at 5th and Beacon. 

The night I went to sign my lease and pick up the keys was propitiously the same night as the monthly 1st Thursday Artwalk on 6th and 7th Streets in downtown Pedro. I had not been since last summer, so I decided to check it out. 1st Thursday is basically one gigantic party, like artwalks all over Los Angeles are. Proprietors lure the locals and tons of visitors from outside Pedro into their shops and galleries with loads of wine, hors d’oeuvres, and sweets. There’s no pressure to buy (although it would be nice if you did!), but there is a tacit agreement among the town’s residents: just have a really good time.

Slummin' Gourmet's menu serves up uptown
ingredients with downtown sass.
In recent years, 1st Thursday has also become a welcoming venue for the much maligned food truck. A fleet of lobster roll-bearing, ice cream-vending, and grilled cheese-slinging vessels set up camp on the streets like bountiful mama sows, with greedy piglets lining up impatiently to feed.

My friends – understandably puzzled as to why I would leave the Westside for a grotty, semi-industrial outpost of L.A. County – also were concerned about my longer commute to work. When you live in the epicenter of legendary L.A. road rage, every decision in your life is predicated on how long it will take to get anywhere.

While I am still adjusting to a longer drive and a new zip code, it’s been more than worth it. Gazing at the palm trees and cranes from my kitchen window, feeling the embrace of the sea breeze when I walk out the door, and navigating the semi-empty streets of Pedro seven days a week (there are mini-traffic jams at morning and evening rush hours, but they are mere trickles compared to what you experience on the Westside), I think daily that moving back was the best decision I’ve made in years. It has felt like a three-week vacation, occasionally interrupted by shifts at work and loads of laundry.

That night at the Artwalk, the Slummin' Gourmet food truck caught my eye. The tagline, “fancy without the schmancy” is pretty apt for the truck’s delectable wares, which include dishes like lobster “corndogs,” sweet potato tots, and scallop “sliders.” It's also how I see San Pedro: for all it's Palos Verdes-adjacent, oceanside glamour, it's a gritty, hard-working beast of a town, that looks equally as good in an ILWU hoodie as it does in its best Reyn Spooner - the formal wear of choice for the sartorially ambitious Pedro gentleman.

Slummin' Gourmet's sweet potato tots and Kobe beef
hotdog: my favorite works of art at 1st Thursday this month.
I obsessed about the braised lamb shank that was pictured on Slummin' Gourmet's menu page, but it was not available hat night. The next best thing was a Kobe beef hotdog, resplendent with wasabi mayo, teriyaki, nori, bonito, diced tomatoes, and daikon sprouts. Sweet potato tots with maple chipotle drizzle were a no-brainer as a side. One occupational hazard of food truck dining is the seemingly interminable wait for your food, but an icy blackberry mint limeade kept me happy until my food was ready.

I have to wonder if GMS would have ever existed had I never left the safe cocoon of the South Bay, Long Beach, and the other smaller communities that have always been my home. Being in the “big city” forced me to grow and speak out much more than I ordinarily do. And it offered a lot of gastronomic options that were previously unexplored by me while living in the hinterlands.

But all the things that I missed while living in L.A. proper – small town friendliness, laughing with friends at the gym rather than staying out of the way of strangers, fresh air, and best of all, space to stretch out and create rather than to merely react – are now within my grasp.

I do miss living with my nephews – it was a gift to watch them grow in such close proximity. I feel the lack of a good Jewish deli nearby. But it’s been great coming back to a place like Pedro, especially at this stage in life, where I aspire more to a quiet confidence about who I am, what I love, and where I want to go. Which is something that you can only find in a tower of soda cases that spell out h-o-m-e.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Porto's: Cuban Bakery-Cafe is Everyone's Fantasy Island

What is it about Porto’s that makes the name a magic word in households throughout Southern California? Is it the efficient elegance of their spacious stores? The baked goods and café offerings, which despite their exotic origins, are made up of ingredients that are easily accessible even to the most finicky or jaded of palates?

Forget Tiffany's window: The cases at Porto's
hold jewels of the pastry chef's art.
Porto's is one of those places in my orbit that deserves the GMS Award for Truly Drawing the World Together. The Cuban bakery-cafe attracts a microcosm of L.A.’s melting pot (can I still say that?). Women in hijabs, Asians from throughout the Pacific Rim. A myriad of Chicana/o, Latina/o, and Hispanic folks from around the world, and everyone else flock to Porto’s to stand in line, waiting to feast on the legendary potato balls, tres leches cake, or rellenitos – sweet plantains stuffed with black beans.

Carbo-loading at Porto's: Chorizo empanada, plaintain
rellenito, and the legendary potato ball.
If you aren’t that hungry when you get to Porto’s, that will change within seconds of standing in line and gazing at the pastry cases. Limited access to Porto’s from most parts of L.A. is also part of the bakery’s mystique. There are only three stores, located in Downey, Burbank, and Glendale. Even on a Wednesday afternoon, there are long lines of hungry customers.

The stores’ interiors are all more or less the same: spacious but efficiently furnished with rows of indoor and patio seating. A couple of extra-long glass cases reign over the space, like pastry-bearing Arks of the Covenant. But instead of stone tablets, they are filled with fanciful interpretations of Hispanic and European pastries. Where else can you get coconut strudel and mango mousse? Red velvet cupcakes are topped with rose petals, and mini-pina colada mousse desserts are graced with orchids. Even the humble blueberry muffin gets the Porto's treatment, split in half and filled with cream and fresh berries, taking it from commuter cup sidekick to an elegant dessert.

The airy interiors, with their immaculate tiled floors make you feel like you are in Batista’s Presidential Palace. The enervating rhythm of salsa keeps the staff and customers moving along at a steady pace. Angelenos, who are not known for their patience in most situations, seem to think nothing of standing in a line of 75+ people for cranberry walnut bread, empanadas, and guava and cream cheese-filled refugiados.

The ordinary blueberry muffin gets a little
Porto’s swagger.
Porto’s is the only restaurant where customers head for their tables laden with bags and boxes of food to go before they enjoy their meals. After a taiko drum event that my nephews' school participated in at a hotel in Burbank, all the El Marino families converged upon Porto’s. We tag-teamed one another and gave up our seats to members of our party who arrived later as we each finished eating. It took a while for everyone to get through the lines because they were buying up loads of baked goods to take home for people who didn’t join us that day. It is one of those rare places that when visited, requires that one check in with all family members and friends to see if they want anything. And yes, they always do.

I have a physical therapy appointment, which my insurance plan, in its institutional lack of intelligence, has decided should take place at a clinic in Downey, miles away from the Westside. But no matter. When life gives you lemons, head for Porto's.

Dinner is hours away, but I can't resist taking a little merienda. Although I want to ask for the whole tray of chorizo empanadas, I attempt restraint and order only one of the piquant pies. And a potato ball – the love child of shepherd's pie and Tater Tots. And a rellenito.
A typical visit to Porto's takes place during the weekend, in the company of hundreds of other fans and as many family members or friends as you can get to accompany you. Enjoying the relative calm of a Wednesday afternoon sitting on the bakery's patio, I notice that while the customers aren't lingering to eat, they still file in and out of the place in a steady, bakery box-laden stream.

I tuck into my chorizo empanada and rellenito greedily, but it seems strange to be there without a crowd of friends. I feel almost guilty at indulging in such a rare treat by myself. But no worry - you're never really alone at Porto's, because you've got to remember to pick up dulce de leche kisses and pastels de guayaba for everyone at home.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It Takes a Village: Vintage Cookbook Site Satisfies Appetite for Nostalgia

When I was in elementary school, there was nothing more exciting than when the bimonthly fliers from the Arrow Book Club hit our desks. Our parents would let my sisters and I have anything that constituted reading material, and we were allowed to order our share of books and magazines, which were curated for age appropriateness, as they continue to be today by Scholastic Press.
Having grown up in the kitchen, I was always most excited about the cookbooks for kids; Arrow offered at least one or two per catalog. “The Peanuts Cook Book,” which taught us how to make cinnamon toast - was one of my favorites. Who knew Snoopy and Woodstock could cook? And the delicate drawings in “Sandwichery: Sandwich Recipes and Riddles” combined two things that kids love best: corny jokes and food. I still collect cookbooks and related items like brochures and booklets of recipes using a particular ingredient like Campbell’s Soup or Bacardi Rum. Even if I never try the recipes, it is always intriguing to see how past generations cooked and ate.

I still don’t know what rhymes with celery.
A page from the 1975 book, “Sandwichery.”
With this in mind, I was thrilled to find the website, Cookbook Village, a treasure trove of vintage cookbooks for collectors, chefs, and the merely nostalgic. It was an even bigger thrill when I notified last week that I won the online shop’s drawing for a set of TV show-themed cookbooks. I am now the proud owner of “Cooking with ‘Friends,” “’The Sopranos’ Family Cookbook,” “Mary Ann’s ‘Gilligan’s Island’ Cookbook,” and “The ‘Desperate Housewives’ Cookbook.”
Wendy Guerin began the site after the thrill of selling items on eBay, including part of her vast collection of cookbooks.

“I had collected cookbooks for several years and at some point amassed a large collection — somewhere in the upper hundreds,” she says. “It consisted of mainly vintage and contemporary collectibles versus antiques, so it was affordable. I liked restaurant, autographed, and Junior League cookbooks specifically although I collected cookbooks from other categories.

The Cookbook Village website features everything for the cookbook
collector, including an online shop, blog, photo archives
of rare cookbooks, and interviews with specialty
collectors, as well as chefs and authors.
“The bug to sell was even more exciting to me than my collecting bug,” Guerin says. “We eventually ran out of cookbooks and had to start scouting for more to sell.”

Guerin, who works full time as an e-commerce/online marketing director was unable to continue selling on eBay, so her husband Ruben Guerin took over the business and started a Cookbook Village store on eBay. In 2011, he moved the store to Cookbookvillage.com. Wendy Guerin continues to be involved by overseeing the marketing of the store and continuing to scout and collect its unique inventory. The response to this unique enterprise has been overwhelming, not only from a business standpoint, but in the emotional attachments to cookbooks that lead customers to the site.

“Aside from their investment value, cookbooks often have extreme sentimental value to their owners,” she says. “Cookbook Village receives many thank you notes from customers regarding their purchase that are attached to a personal story about the cookbook. Some have lost their favorite recipe or their favorite cookbook in a flood or fire. We are pleased to be able to help them find the same cookbook.”

“We are starting to see more repeat business and have had good feedback from customers on our site and service,” she says. “Our first week or so following [the site’s] launch, Cookbook Village was covered in the LA Times food blog ‘Daily Dish’ by Russ Parsons, one of the top food editors in the country. That's huge. In the past six months alone, unique visits to the website have grown nearly 50 percent, and sales have climbed over 80 percent over the previous six months.”

A whole new meaning to the term, “TV dinner”:
My winnings from Cookbook Village.
A lot of cookbook fans, including myself, enjoy reading cookbooks not so much to use the recipes, but to learn about cuisine in other regions of the United States or around the globe. Recipes reveal a lot about the times they were created in — note the abundance of ingredients like butter in Julia Child’s mid-century formulas for decadence, as compared to today’s gluten-, salt-, and fat-free recipes. Ethnic cookbooks are enriching because of the addition of history and folklore, as well as exposure to a new language. Finally, cookbooks are often served with a side of nostalgia, recalling dishes that loved ones used to make.

“For me, collecting was truly more about the cookbook - the layout, the hard-to-find topic or signature, the imagery - rather than the recipes,” says Guerin. “Even community cookbooks weave in cultural and geographical background, eating habits, cooking styles, and lore. All of this makes a cookbook a kind of historical marker that carries on information from [past times] and preserves it for future generations.”

According to Guerin, collecting cookbooks, like most collectibles, is similar to other collecting hobbies in that, “The thrill of the hunt, the thrill of seeing your unique collection showcased in your home, and the thrill of finding [the] hard-to-find, all play into what makes cookbook collecting exciting.” She says that interviews with collectors that are featured on the Cookbook Village website and the feedback that she and her husband receive from customers reveals that many cookbook lovers, like collectors of other items, have specific categories that they search out, while others will collect anything that catches their fancy. Guerin says that her favorite cookbooks to collect are community cookbooks from the Junior League, because, “Those cookbooks tend to have family recipes that are best of the best. People get competitive, submitting their family's top recipe.” She also admits a love for autographed cookbooks, even those signed by non-culinary celebrities.

“Cookbook Village is known for its signed cookbook category," says Guerin. "We have a large signature library on both Flickr and Pinterest and also for sale on our website. A lot of collectors of autographed cookbooks shop with us, because we often have hard-to-find chef signed cookbooks in our inventory. Something about getting an elusive signature like one from James Beard or Alice Waters - who didn't sign too often - is exciting. In the past, we had several signed Julia Child cookbooks. Recently we sold a signed Dinah Shore cookbook. We even had a coveted Johnny Mathis-signed cookbook in the past, and an autographed cookbook from a popular silent movie actress Corinne Griffith.”

As satisfying as looking at cookbooks can be, they are, after all, cookbooks. Guerin says that she often tailors recipes to her own tastes, using the recipes as guidelines to invent a new dish or lighter version of a tried-and-true delicacy. She also has a couple of favorite cookbooks that for her possess a personal connection to food and family.

”For vintage cookbooks, I really like ‘The American Woman's Cook Book,’ because it's one of the few cookbooks you see around still that have a special wartime section,” Guerin says.

“But my [all-time] favorite was Betty Crocker's Cook Book, sometimes referred to as the ‘Red Pie’ cookbook,” Guerin remembers. “The cover art has photographs shaped like a pie with ‘slices,’  like a pie chart with photos. I think collectors started referring to it like that. It contained a lot of photos of the finished dishes and had these amazing sweets. As a kid, I used to leaf through it and mark pages for my Mom to make. Of course, I picked out all the cookies and desserts, but she hardly made any of them.”

As in the case of my Cookbook Village prize, recipes can also conjure up the imaginary universe of a favorite TV show, book, movie, or other work .

I am savoring my new cookbooks slowly, sharing them with friends and family, and ruminating over which recipes I will actually attempt in the kitchen. Reading them has answered a lot of questions I have always had, like how to pronounce sfogliatelle. It’s also raised a question for the ages: Where on the island did Mary Ann get the ingredients to make all those coconut cream pies?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Split Pea Soup with Tommy Lasorda

Before you all get too excited, no – I was not the lucky journalist who got to interview Tommy Lasorda. I have never felt compelled to pick up a copy of the L.A. Daily News, but I did yesterday, because he was on the front page. Over a bowl of split pea soup in the executive dining room of the Dodger Stadium press box, he chatted with reporter Tom Hoffarth about basically, The World According to Mr. Dodger. And while I've been told, "There's no crying in baseball," this piece did get me all misty-eyed.

Few people realize that I am a baseball fan, and when they find this out, they rail against the game. "It's too slow." "Those guys aren't athletes." But they're missing the point. While the finer points of the game still elude me – I'm still not sure what an error is, and neither apparently, are some umpires – I love how it stands as a metaphor for America. With all its imperfections, we are still looked upon by most of the world as a winning team. Indeed, baseball can stand in as a metaphor for life, and how we all strive to overcome obstacles while working to win with what we have. And sometimes, as Kirk Gibson's famous home run that cinched the Dodgers' 1988 World Series victory, with what we don't have.

Baseball players come in all shapes and sizes. A brawny guy can be a power hitter, but not the greatest runner. Pitchers are never who you want at bat when the stakes are high. And having a pinch runner at my service in elementary school would have saved many an embarrassing moment in gym class.

Tommy Lasorda in 1976, taking
the helm of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
My point is that everyone brings something to the field, according to his individual strengths and abilities. And in the age of the high-profile, product endorsing, bling-laden athlete, it's refreshing to enjoy a game where while there are definitely stars, the excitement is about a favorite team as a whole.

As a writer and fan of words in general, I have to acknowledge that the sport of baseball has contributed more idioms to American English than anything I can think of, with the possible exception of the works of Shakespeare.

There is, of course, a certain glamour about baseball, but it never supercedes the fundamental family-oriented atmosphere of the game. Last night during the All-Star Game, the cameras panned the audience to show celebrities in the stands. Marc Anthony sang the National Anthem. But as he sang, there was a satellite shot of a Marine unit stationed in Kandahar, standing in reverent salute.

The only complaint I have about baseball is, ironically, the food they serve at stadiums: mediocre, overpriced, and usually cold by the time you get it. If only Lasorda would start a second career as a food critic. With his trademark tact and diplomacy, maybe the @#%&$!* vendors would step up to the plate - pun intended.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dancing in the Dark: Farewell to Electronic Billboard Blight

Although the last post ended with a hope for the return of light, this one gives thanks for lights out, in the form of the obnoxious electronic billboards that until last week, have turned much of L.A. into Times Square. Not that I don't love Times Square, but that level of constant visual stimulation is a lot of fun when viewed by pedestrians in Manhattan. It's much less enjoyable while trapped in gridlock traffic on the highways and byways of the Westside.

Constant craving: The giant hot dog at the 7-11
at Overland and Palms
One morning last week, I noticed that one of numerous billboards that constantly flash at me on my morning commute to UCLA, was dark. I assumed it was out of order. On the drive home, however, I noticed that the electronic billboards at Santa Monica and Westwood were also dark. A court order had dictated that more than 60 of the billboards operated by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor be shut off. By mid-week, about 100 of these signs were dark.

For nearly six years, a coalition of residents whose neighborhoods were invaded by the glare of these billboards - which often shone directly into houses and apartments - fought to get the signage removed. Apparently, the L.A. City Council had made semi-secret deals with the billboard companies that allowed the signage to be installed in 2007. They were placed just about everywhere in the city, even near residential areas.

The argument is made - by the billboard companies, of course - that the signs are a vital asset to public safety, with their ability to broadcast important messages. While that may be true to an extent, I have only seen them used for this purpose less than a half dozen times. Besides, the public is so attuned to personal media devices that there is little chance that anyone will miss the memo about a sudden zombie attack upon Greater Los Angeles.

These billboards signs were a blight and a safety hazard. When I first saw them, I was alarmed by the speed at which the images would change. They made the streets look like a flashing computer screen full of pop-up ads and distracting graphics that would divert attention from whatever you were on the computer for in the first place. In addition, for the hapless residents of the Westside and other areas where the signs were thoughtlessly erected, the billboards were often placed at the perfect height and  angle to keep their homes brilliantly and unnaturally lit.

I think if advertisers want to get public attention, they need to consider giving us a truly authentic sense of what they are selling. Who doesn't love the giant hot dog that is perched about the parking lot at the 7-11 on Overland and Palms? It doesn't flash, but it does the job: I always want a hot dog after catching a glimpse of it.The gigantic sinker that is Randy's Donuts is another L.A. icon that does the job without offending anyone. There used to be a whole genre of restaurants shaped like the items on their menus: more giant hot dogs (remember Tail O' the Pup?), oversized coffee pots, fruit, and milk bottles. They tell you where you are and what you'll get, without any superfluous information on their Twitter or Facebook. You're not supposed to text while driving anyway.

If you do a search on the saga of the electronic billboards, you will be greeted with endless posts on the disregard of the L.A.City Council for the impact that such obtrusive signage would have on heavily trafficked and densely populated neighborhoods. Greed was the main motivator here, both on the part of the council members who were in on the deal and from the advertisers and billboard companies.

Although CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel have vowed to get the billboards back on line, there have also been murmurs that the offending installations will be removed completely. That would be a wonderful thing. But for now, I am enjoying the the reduction in visual clutter. Most of all, I am enjoying the return of the velvety night sky, the silhouettes of our iconic palm trees, and despite all the lights we do have on in the city, more space in which to see the stars.

Friday, April 19, 2013

When the Lights Go On Again

Reflecting on the horrific events of last Monday in Boston, I tried to remember what  the most impactful events were in the United States when I was a child.

The 1960s were full of hope. A historic sit-in for civil rights took place at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, as four African American college students used nonviolence to protest segregation. The Beatles visited the United States, twisting and shouting to the screams to hysterical teens. The Peace Corps were established by Sargent Shriver, sending our youth to developing nations to share our knowledge in exchange for a lesson in the planet's shared humanity. The first functioning laser was invented at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu. Thurgood Marshall became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court, and Neil Armstrong became the first American on the moon.

A lot of bad things happened too. I was born in 1965, the year of the first riots in Los Angeles. The Vietnam War raged on, spanning three decades of violence, dissent, and for many Americans, an umprecedented loss of faith in our government that I don't think we've fully recovered from since. The world said goodbye to Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, both John and Robert Kennedy, and Che Guevara.

We fared only slightly better in the 1970s at least here, on the home front - largely due to the distraction of disco. I remember the news being full of Watergate, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the energy crisis. For years, we were admonished to turn the lights off when they weren't being used. For years, nobody hung Christmas lights because of the excess of electricity they used.

Union Square, 2013
Today, our major act of solidarity in saving the planet - at least on the Westside - is to dutifully carry our reusable shopping bags to and fro, as we buy our organic, free range, and rBST free groceries. We recycle everything - I've even started to fill a Ziploc bag full of safety pins to return to my "green" dry cleaners.

But what good is it if so many people are bent on killing their fellow human beings - and not on a foreign battlefield, as was the controversy with wars overseas, but right here in what is considered a first world, technologically advanced and intellectually enlightened nation?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre last December, I barely noticed the displays of American flags returning to their usual flying height before they were lowered to half mast again this week. Actually as of late, it seems that half mast is now the default position for a flag that once flew proudly on the moon's surface.

We survived a lengthy war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the remnants of which we still deal with, in our soldiers who came home with scars of varying degrees, and the civilizations that the wars have left their mark upon, for better and for worse. We have technology now that goes above and beyond any science fiction that ignited the imagination of my generation. (I'm still waiting for the flying cars that they had on "The Jetsons," but am less hopeful now that we have all but lost our federal space program.)

I don't have any great answers, nor helpful solutions. But I do think that a fix to the despair and sorrow - conditions that occur before such a tragedy that in effect, create it - needs to start at home.

Not just with one's family, but with the whole human family that each block, each town or city, and each state contains. When something like the Boston Marathon tragedy occurs, we worry about what to tell the children. What we should think about even more is what to tell children before they grow up to do something as terrible as what the two brothers enacted upon an innocent gathering of happy, health conscious participants and their cheering onlookers.

This reposting of a blog post by Jonah James Fontela really captures it for me. While on a bike ride near the Charles River, he watched the burgeoning spring reveal itself in the calm of a city after a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. Along with the beauty of nature, he also saw a microcosm of the human drama, both in his own personal history and in the lives of his fellow Bostonians.

"Breakfast and tooth brushing and work and everything else could wait," write Fontela. "I looped around the river, along its edges on both sides. I saw trees with purple flowers beginning their bloom above empty benches on the water’s edge. Cops barked and car horns honked in this city where I’ve spent the last 13 years of my life. I saw buildings I worked in when I was still a scared kid and didn’t know shit, bars where I drank, places where I made mistakes. I saw the sun and rippling water, a pregnant woman jogging, rowers rowing silently under the Mass Ave Bridge.  I said hello to everyone I passed, the walkers, the runners, the mothers, the fathers, the homeless, the old couples holding hands, the tourists – a seagull. This morning I saw things I’ve never seen before."

We need to show the children - and probably more often than not, ourselves - the beauty, promise, and strength that lies in them and in each one of us. We need to especially do our best with those individuals who are harder to reach, because you never know what kind of pain they are in, or what they might do with it.

One Christmas season in the late 1980s, after becoming accustomed to another year without Christmas lights, they began to appear once more on the houses in my neighborhood. Timid strands would outline the roofs at first. Then over several years, windows, trees, shrubs, and every surface that would support a string of lights began once more to sparkle in the night.

Hopefully, one day, seeing our flag at half mast will become a rarer occurrence than it is today.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Girl Bites Boy; Eats Alone: Breakup Food 101

One Friday night in the not too distant past, I was blithely getting ready for a date with a guy I had been seeing for a few weeks. There was the enervating rush of trying to repair the ravages of a day’s work when unable to go home and freshen up, because rush hour traffic will make me late. It’s a mission not unlike storming the beach at Normandy: you have only one chance to make a good impression or to protect Western Europe from the Axis forces.

Finally satisfied with my efforts at personal renovation – which included a new hairdo and a mad dash to Zara for a more “datier” top - I made my way to my destination, anticipating the evening ahead. However, about two hours later, I was on my way to Canters solo, in search of comfort food.  

Not such a neon jungle: Canter's glowing refuge on Fairfax Avenue.

While the name of this blog may imply a carefree, unfettered female who lives only to eat, nothing could be farther from the truth. I do make an effort to have an actual love life. I am not one to kiss and tell, but I do enjoy kissing and eating (armed with Altoids, of course). A handsome face across the table is always the best sauce, I say.

I am pretty used to eating alone most of the time. It’s just what happens in a busy life, with the demands of a schedule filled with work, exercise, and various social and cultural interests. Sometimes I look forward to a table or counter to myself, eager to dive into a good book and a good meal, feeling both comforted and empowered in my solitude.

Then there are times when being alone at the table is a damning, painful feeling. This often follows the demise of a relationship. To combat this, I have a rotating prescription of feel-good foods, many of which lean toward the carb-y and chocolately. Even if the end of a relationship is for the best, there is still a feeling of loss, embarrassment, and inadequacy. Ironically, these emotions seem keener when one is the breaker-upper rather than the break-ee. But I digress.

Dorothy Parker was attributed with saying,
“Where’s the man could ease a heart like a satin gown?”
She was only partly right – what could be better than
a rainbow cookie from Canters that coordinates
perfectly with my backpack?
It’s so strange to realize that Canters has a Website, as the restaurant belongs to a period in my life when the Internet was still science fiction.  and the reality of three-dimensional objects like old diner booths and neon signs had more value than the same environment in HD brilliance.

I’ve been eating at Canters since shortly after high school, which is so long ago that I have no recollection of how I found the restaurant in the first place. I’ve gone there with large groups of friends and co-workers, back in the days when I ran in a youthful, noisy pack. Shelly gorged herself sick once on the dishes of pickles that appear on the table in the interim time between arriving and being able to order your meal – which used to average about 40 minutes. We accepted much abuse over the years from the gruff staff with good nature and grumbling stomachs. An impatient friend asked twice for a glass of water from a waiter who we dubbed “Houdini” because of his leonine but aging good looks. The waiter snarled, “I’ve only got two hands!” This same friend earned a dirty look for our somewhat loud and rowdy table from Rodney Dangerfield, who was dining nearby with his daughter (at least, we thought it was his daughter) when his frantic “Where? Where is he?” startled the comedian. We all laughed and told our friend to pipe down, but we weren’t as embarrassed as we probably should have been.

Canters is the closest thing I have to “A Clean,Well-Lighted Place” when I’m blue. It is one of the few places where my urban survival mode shuts itself off and once again, I’m a snarky, nerdy-cute teen with a new drivers’ license. I feel about the place like Holly Golightly did about Tiffany’s – nothing bad can ever happen to you there.

The décor, which has remained nearly unchanged in the last 30 years or more, is mid-century cozy, with roomy booths, a neat screen made of colored glass discs meshed together by a fisherman’s net of thick chain, and an overall golden haze, much like the hue crust on a potato knish. There are lighted cases with sliding glass doors that contain mysterious halves of cantaloupe and slim quarter slices of watermelon. I have never seen anyone order one of these slabs of fruit and always had wondered if they were real.

The ceiling in the first dining area is covered with acetate “tiles” that are lit from behind, each one featuring a quarter-paneled photograph of autumnal tree branches against a Technicolor blue sky. This always makes me think of walking home from school with Greg Brady. Peter was cuter, but Greg was the oldest and thereby, a catch in my mind. Any guy with a kidnapped goat in his room can’t be all that bad. 

Another Rodney – Bingenheimer, that is – has been at Canters nearly every night that I have ever been there in the last three decades. The New Wave impresario of my teenage years still has his show on KROQ FM in the wee hours of the morning, as he continues to celebrate new talent on the L.A. music scene. He also has his own special soup at Canters, a hearty concoction of beans in a savory broth that is kept to thicken on the back of the stove for him all day. Over the years, I would see him sitting with an entourage in his regular booth next to the staircase. Lately, I have seen him alone or not at all. This is probably due more to my self-imposed curfew of more recent years than to his seniority as the gracefully aging Mayor of the Sunset Strip.

Bingenheimer wasn’t there the night I sought solace in this safe haven of my teen angst and hope. I felt like something out of a 21st Century version of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” sitting at the counter and emailing Alice, who would totally understand my random message about eating after a failed evening out while waiting for my order. Amusingly, my big news to her was not that I had broken up with yet another misguided suitor, but that I was eating stuffed cabbage after breaking up with ----------.

Take another little piece of my heart – or my stuffed cabbage.
Heartbreak and hunger cut like a knife at Canters.

I’ve taken many dates over the years to Canters in much the same spirit that one would introduce a guy to Mom. While almost all of them have liked the food, I personally did not always end up with five stars on Yelp. But no matter. In the proper frame of mind, knishes can sometimes be better than kisses.

A few days later, Alice shared the link to Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” While I will never experience the therapeutic qualities of ice cream as Viagra (at least, I hope not), I have to admit that a toasted Black Russian slathered with whitefish salad from the Bagel Factory is not a bad way to bandage a bruised ego and achy heart. Nor is a half a cantaloupe from a glass case, my equivalent of really breaking loose when having lost at love. (Now you know why I’m single.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Grounded: Ode to the Coffee Cup

Every morning, I stop at Starbuck’s, Peet’s, or Copenhagen Pastry for a cup of coffee.  Friends ask why that since I drink decaf, why do I bother? I actually drink it for the taste, but yes, I do need a kickstart. This morning ritual serves that purpose.

Clouds in my coffee: A shot of deep, dark espresso with a
pristine froth of foamed milk at Profeta
in Westwood Village.

What, you ask, could possibly be motivating about standing in line waiting to pay two to three dollars for a cup of coffee? Ask everyone else who is standing in line with me. My two chief reasons are a) I hate cleaning up after making coffee at home and b) I need the personal attention in the morning. As a regular at my usual coffee stops, I get smiles and acknowledgement. But even in an unknown coffeehouse, I feel somewhat pampered by the attention, even if it is from a barista who makes $8.50 an hour.  

Why does coffee bring people together in a way that tea and other beverages – except for alcohol – do not? First off, for most people who drink it full-leaded, there is the promise of an energetic buzz, which seems to encourage the genial airing of half-baked ideas. Secondly, coffee is usually served in thoughtfully decorated environments that are typically graced with art, literature, and a parade of humanity to gawk at.

UCLA's William Andrews Clark Library

Imagine then, the chance to enjoy one's enervating cup of coffee in a setting that feels like a location for “Downton Abbey.” UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library is such a place, built in the early 1920s, a hidden jewel in the West Adams district of South Los Angeles. In January, the Library presented “Bittersweet Uprising: An Exhibition at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library: Coffee and Coffeehouse Culture in EarlyModern England,” which showcased a collection of dictionaries, diaries, broadsides, pamphlets, and satirical plays related to coffee and its caffeinated mystique. I attended an event celebrating the exhibit, which featured a keynote by Professor Thierry Rigogne from Fordham University titled, “The Creation of the French Café in Myth and History.” His talk complemented the exhibit and outlined the growth of coffee's popularity, from its origins in the Middle East to fortifying lively forums of intellectual discourse through the establishment of coffeehouses in Europe.

Preceding the lecture was a fabulous demonstration and tasting by Verve Coffee Roasters of Santa Cruz. Michael James of Cafecito Organico in Los Angeles was the Clark's barista for the day and demonstrated the French press method of brewing. Similar to Asian tea ceremonies, traditional and slower methods of brewing coffee are an artform that is rarely experienced in today’s hurried world.

What a grind: Yellowish "chaff" separates from
fresh coffee grounds.

James ground and brewed Verve’s “La Providencia,” a variety is grown in Guatemala, where he said that the diversity of climates leads to a myriad of flavors in a single cup of coffee. Lining a Chemex vessel with a white paper cone filter, he prepped by rinsing the filter with hot water to rid the paper of any flavors that would come from its processing. He then filled the cone with fresh ground coffee that was visibly separated from its “chaff.” James did “pulse-pours” that steadily filled the filter without letting the water get too high. His use of an electric kettle also kept the water at a constant temperature. The result was an aromatic and caramelly brew that I sipped happily without my usual cream and sugar.

In French, the word “café” stands for both the beverage and the place where it is served. The first scholarly history of the café begins in the 16th Century, when Europeans first drank coffee in their travels to the East. Suleiman Aga Musta-Féraga was the Ottoman ruler who established the use of Coffea Arabica as a beverage. The plant was first cultivated in Yemen and used in religious ceremonies by the Sufi. The beverage became known as qahwa, a term formerly applied to wine. Thusly, it became known as the “Wine of Islam” to Europeans. Presumably, the caffeine’s stimulating qualities would help keep worshippers awake during their evening dhikr.

"Pulse-pours" keep the brewing process steady, with
the water's temperature controlled by an electric kettle.

According to Rigogne, between 1650 and 1694, the enjoyment of coffee had spread throughout Europe, from Paris to Marseille, to Oxford to Leipzig. By the end of the French Revolution in 1799, there were 4,000 cafés in Paris. Coffee’s origins evoked for Europeans a history of Asian romance. Hence, the term, “Armenian” was often synonymous with “café owner” in the late 1600s.

According to the information displayed in the “Bittersweet Uprising” exhibit, at one point, more than 50 London coffeehouses were named "The Turk's Head" in recognition of the beverage's Oriental roots. This inclination toward exoticism still exists today in the names of coffees. Antigua, Colombia, Kenya, any place in Italy that ends in a vowel - the names are invoked by devoted drinkers as if they were magical incantations to transport one to a faraway place. I'm lucky if my tall Americano will last through the long and arduous morning commute through West L.A., its streets forever plagued by the ongoing renovation of the 405 freeway and the sheer volume of traffic.

A feminine call to arms by 17th Century"coffee widows"
of  London. From "Eighteenth-century
coffee-house culture, edited by Markman Ellis (2006).

Another artifact in the Clark’s exhibit was a recipe for making “artificial coffee,” from William Ellis’s “The Country Housewife’s Family Companion” (1750), the formula of which includes burnt breadcrumbs, which were used when real coffee was too expensive. Such measures were also used in coffeehouses, where a cup of "coffee" was a great excuse to linger with one's tricorne hat-wearing homies.

A little-known aspect of coffeehouse culture is the gender debate that ensued. A treatise titled "The women's petition against coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of that drying, enfeebling liquor" was printed in 1674 by women in London who were miffed that their husbands spent more time in coffeehouses than at home. Forty years earlier, an account of travels in Persia by Adam Olearius cited coffee as having an adverse effect on male desire. Is this why in this über-cautious age, so many blind dates and first meetings are done at Starbucks?

According to an article by ethnobotanist Chris Kilham in the Ethiopian Review, coffee has no diminishing effect on desire, nor any linkages to cancer, miscarriage, or birth defects. It also has some therapeutic qualities that help reduce the risk of gallstones, cirrhosis of the liver, and colon and rectal cancers.

W.W.G.D.: What would Goldilocks do? Giant cup of house
blend (in a cup too big) and French press (with a cup too
small) are just right at brunch at Bread and Porridge
on Wilshire Boulevard.

The caffeine in coffee stimulates the brain, decreases mental fatigue, and overall is a great mood lifter. It’s no wonder we are all addicted. And it’s a natural food pairing with dark chocolate, which has been found to lower "bad" cholesterol and blood pressure, is rich in fiber, and (this is a shocker) increase insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.

While tea is also a highly social drink, somehow it just doesn't have the same cachet for me that a caramel macchiato does. Tea is more about the ritual, which makes it a serene and wonderful experience. But when I need to wake up, a gently brewed pot of dragonwell green isn't going to cut it.

I need to be where the people are, with my fellow commuters shuffling along in line engrossed in their mobile devices, baristas shouting at us to pick up our drinks, and impatient caffeine addicts elbowing me while reaching for the nonfat milk at the condiment bar. That being said, to hell with decaf. Make mine a double, fully leaded.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Oshogatsu: New Year's Dishes With Chanto

The night before the Oshogatsu party that Jolene and her brigade of mom friends from El Marino Language School held in early January, I found her frantically mashing yellow satsuma-imo and chestnuts in a pot. She then began to puree them - by hand - forcing them through a fine metal sieve with a plastic rice paddle. The end result was an attractive dish of kurikinton, a traditional New Year dish that with its golden hue, symbolizes prosperity.

Jolene uses a sieve to make the
kurikinton as smooth as we hope
the New Year will be.

"It's not Japanese cooking unless you've kicked your ass five times to make it," she said, not without a touch of irony as she toiled.

Over the last decade and more, Jolene's connection to Japanese culture through her marriage to Hiro, and now, through her sons and the families of their friends at school, has made the fare at gatherings that much more Martha-esque (or Harumi-esque, depending on where you live). Her cooking and hostessing skills have been elevated as well as culturally enriched in terms of presentation, tastes, and subtlety.

Watching my sister cook and knowing what she and her fellow Moms turn out daily in their respective kitchens, is a lesson in what Japanese Americans call "chanto," or self-discipline. Being ten minutes early for any appointment or always having change for the parking meter are forms of chanto. Using hand tools to do what a food processor does is Chanto 2.0.

Kurikinton, topped with chunks of sweet golden chestnuts,
signifies wealth.

That being said, it stands to reason that the delicacies that are served to celebrate Japanese New Year require unusual ingredients not used in everyday Japanese cooking, and are laboriously prepared, fortunately, only once a year. The feast we enjoyed on January 6 (the holiday is celebrated anywhere between Jan. 1 and 4, but we're not that chanto) was, happily, a modern abbreviation of a meal that usually takes days to prepare.

Tomoe led the feast as mistress of the o-zoni, the traditional soup served at New Year celebrations, topped with the infamous cakes of fresh mochi. Great caution must be taken when eating ozoni, particularly by the elderly or by children, who can easily choke on the sticky, gooey rice cake. Our mochi, another homemade marvel thanks to Tomoe and her Volkswagen-sized mochi maker, was cut into safely navigable pieces. Anna and I were fascinated by the way it puffed up when toasted, and tended batches of it in the toaster oven, squealing with glee at the pillowy, crispy cakes.

Rollin' in dough: Nothing says "Happy New Year"
like fresh mochi.
Another example of chanto has to be the fresh tamago that Tomoe was cooking throughout the meal. Cooking a thin layer of omelette while simultaneously rolling it into a log in a tiny rectangular pan takes not only a lot of skill, but infinite patience. It is among my favorite Japanese comfort foods, and reminds me of the crepe-like sweet omelette filled with grape jelly that our Dad used to make, except that there's no jelly in tamago. It is just a marvel of very simple ingredients - eggs, rice vinegar, and a little sugar or soy sauce - cooked to perfection, and eaten at flavor's peak.

The rest of the meal was a cornucopia of traditional Japanese osechi-ryori and various world cuisines. On the buffet table were Amy's Thai beef curry, Anna's famous coconut milk tapioca pudding, a Spanish sweet made with almonds called turron, and Yayoi's presentation of a jubako, a tiered lacquer box filled with traditional Japanese foods served to welcome a healthy and prosperous New Year. There was also an unexpected treat, a "dip" that Judy kept warm in a Crock Pot, that earned for her our undying worship as a culinary goddess. While the name "Hot Crab Salad" might be more reminiscent of a 1970s Southern rock group, it actually makes a better hors d'oeuvre. We enjoyed eating scoops of it on top of hot, fluffy rice. A good, buttery cracker or slices of toasted baguette would work nicely too.
Tomoe puts all her eggs - and concentration - in one basket
with her amazingly light and carefully created tamago.

Judy graciously parted with the recipe and few days later, the coveted formula was in our email inboxes. The scan of a handwritten recipe was labeled, "From the kitchen of Watanabe," a family friend. It was charmingly related in the kitchen shorthand that only expert cooks and busy recipe-sharing moms can decipher. I will insert some descriptives in brackets, but here is - in verbatim, the originally penned formula:

Hot Crab Salad

Bake 350 at 45 minutes

1 kamaboko (package of Japanese fish cake)
13 shrimp
8 imitation crab (this means 8 sticks of surimi, not 8 actual crabs, as I had thought!)
2 c. Napa (cabbage)
1 t. pepper
1 potato
1 egg (raw)
1 c. celery
1 c. onion
2 c. mayonnaise

Dice (all ingredients) w/pepper & and mayonnaise. Put in casserole dish. Sprinkle paprika and bake.

At Oshogatsu, most of us ate the Hot Crab Salad on top of rice, like a fluffy and oceanic souffle. In retrospect, crackers or slices of toasted baguette would be good too. What made it stand out, I think, was that it was different from most of the food. While the menu was far from the fare at a traditional Oshogatsu, our collective dishes tended toward an ethnic theme. Judy attributed the unabashed luxury of Hot Crab Salad and its appropriation of a non-Asian ingredient like mayonnaise, to its Hawaiian origins.
The groaning board at Oshogatsu.Clockwise
from left:Thai beef curry, renkon no sunomono,
osechi-ryori rice, and Hot Crab Salad.

Hawaiian cuisine combines influences from indigenous culture, immigrants from throughout Asia, and the islands' European colonizers, to create food traditions that are an idealization of what America is at its best: perhaps not a melting pot where individuals are obliterated into a mainstream, but where they create the mainstream.

Ethnic and cultural differences are not always smoothly navigated (see this book trailer on Sarah Vowell's "Unfamiliar Fishes" - really, it illustrates my point!). However, the preparation and enjoyment of food is what we all potentially share.

I think our Oshogatsu embodied this very well. The entire meal embraced the polyglot of cultures that had gathered together due to each person's connection to Japan or Japanese culture, whether by birth, marriage, or association with friends. I hope that in the New Year as always, that we can find a way to understand each other, if nowhere else, at the table.