Iceberg with Russian Dressing

Iceberg in Russian DressingI feel like I’m drowning. Not in water or custard or paperwork, but in news.

I spend the day refreshing the homepages of my usual information websites, running away from my computer for a while, coming back, rinsing, lathering, repeating. I go to bed exhausted, yet sometimes too anxious to sleep for hours. When I wake up, my first thoughts are typically along the lines of, “Oh Sweet Jesus, what happened while I was unconscious?” I then open my browser and the cycle starts all over again.

My breakfast consists of reports on the Mueller investigation, Syria, the state of Maggie Smith’s health, and who’s left the White House today and which more frightening person is filling their shoes. My dinner is more or less a re-hash by pundits who help break down the news for me because I am so often overwhelmed with information that I can’t sufficiently digest it all unaided.

In between, I do my best to have a sensible lunch.

I’ve been getting so little accomplished lately in part because my fear of missing out on the latest updates has become a bit of an addiction and not a fun one like Plant vs. Zombies or The Great British Bake Off. But over the past few months I have, however, gotten rather good at pronouncing Russian names. Kislyak, Veselnitskaya, and Emelianenko dribble off my tongue like hot beef borscht, often trickling down my chin and onto the front of my shirt, which is extremely maddening, I must say.

Since I wrote that first sentence stating that I feel like I’m drowning, I have clicked over to the BBC homepage once and Washington Post twice.

There is so much freaking awful going on in the world and it all seems to be happening so fast that I simply can’t process it all. And it’s made me feel that anything I do– anything I write about– is unimportant. That I have no right to tell my stories with people dying, democracies undermined, and the whole planet going to hell. It’s a ridiculous notion, I know, but it’s been rather difficult to shake lately.

For some reason, my therapist thinks this is all rather unhealthy. He’s (quite rightly) pointed out that there have always been terrible things happening all around us, but that should never stop people from living their own lives and telling their own stories. Or, you know, people who write from writing stuff.

And I suppose he’s right. We just agreed that I need to limit my news intake and implement a bit more self-care. I’ve failed today in that I paused writing this post to check the news, but I have ultimately succeeded by having actually written something today.

I think that’s progress. Yes. I double checked my sources– it is definitely progress. It is, however a struggle.

So in an effort to please my head doctor, I’ve closed the tabs to my Facebook and news pages for now and tossed a slim volume of Truman Capote onto my couch for later. For when I come back from taking a long walk where I’ll try to think of one or two actual nice things for a half hour or so. Which I’ll open after I pour myself a glass of Beaujolais from the bottle I didn’t dare finish off with last night’s salmon. Not polishing off an entire bottle of wine in an evening is also a struggle. But it’s a healthier substitution for bourbon, so that is also definitely progress.

In the meantime, since largely about me eating my feelings, I will leave you with a recipe you will most likely never want to make.

Iceberg Wedge Drowning in Russian Dressing

Since everything seems to be tainted with the stuff in some form or other– possible government colluding, election tampering, troll farming, spy poisoning, Assad-bolstering– I figured it’s as good a time as any to whip up a batch and wallow in it for a little while, then take a very hot, soapy shower and get on with my day.

I can’t imagine anyone actually following through and concocting this recipe, which is excellent because it saves me so much time recipe testing. Thank you.

It’s one of those viscous mixtures that’s culinary death to the tender greens of a Springtime salad, but very much at home dripping down one’s wrists as it oozes from a hot Reuben. And now, if you are of a certain age, you have the image of The Partridge Family’s manager in your head and you will be upset. You are very welcome.

Makes approximately one gallon of Russian Dressing

Ingredients:

• 1 finely minced yellow onion
• 12 cups of mayonnaise. Really.
• 3 cups of tomato ketchup
• ¼ cup of hot sauce
• ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tablespoon of paprika
• A generous pinch or 12 of salt
• Iceberg lettuce, cut into 4 wedges

Preparation:

  1. Chop the onion so fine that it can mingle among the other ingredients for ages before it’s detected.
  2. In a (very) large bowl combine mayonnaise, ketchup, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, and salt. Infiltrate with onion until smooth.
  3. Stand back and look at the gigantic mess of pink goo. If you smoke, take a long, dramatic drag from your cigarette and say, “What the hell have I just made?” Emphasizing the word “hell” expels just the right amount of smoke for a wonderfully theatrical effect.
  4. Refrigerate for a few hours so that the flavor agents have enough time to properly collude.
  5. To serve, place each iceberg wedge in a deep bowl and ladle dressing over them until only their tips are left exposed, which will be fun for your guests because they will have absolutely no idea how much crap they’ll have to wade through to get to the bottom of everything.
  6. If anyone questions what you’ve just served them, tell them it’s Creamy French Dressing– they probably won’t know the difference. If you’ve still got that cigarette, blow smoke in the face of the person or persons probing you for an added dash of drama. Don’t ash.
  7. Place remaining dressing in a smaller bowl and leave out for several days, preferably near your stove. Stir occasionally. Leftovers may then be used to poison enemies.
  8. Deny everything.
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Down Argentine Way

Dulce de leche cremeBefore traveling abroad, some people like to bone up on the history and culture of their upcoming destination. Others prefer to wing it and hope not to drown in their sudden cultural immersion. I like to think of myself as neither fully one way nor the other. I like a heavy dash of surprise in my global adventuring but I do my best to learn a few things I consider important prior to my trip like native table manners, what not to wear, and the proper way to address the head of state in case of chance meeting.  And I always try to learn a few phrases of the local language, because knowing how to order in restaurants, say “please” and “thank you”, and ask for directions to the nearest free clinic are very useful tools to have under one’s travel belt.

But, before to my trip to Argentina, it never occurred to me that I should learn how to ask “Is this habit of random objects and people falling from the sky a cultural thing?” in Rioplatense Spanish. My mistake.

I’d never even considered going to Argentina before my friend Bill stood up on a picnic table at his Angel Island birthday party and asked “Who wants to go to the World Tango Festival in Argentina with me next year?”  It might have been the beer, the heat of the August afternoon sun, or the chance to escape my current domestic living situation for a few days– or a combination of all of those factors– that caused me to raise my hand. I had little interest in the tango, but I hadn’t been out of the country in years. I needed a little adventure.

There were seven of us who eventually found ourselves Down Argentine Way the following March: Bill and his boyfriend Gary, our friend Patrick, and myself traveling from San Francisco, plus three of Gary’s Boston friends: Michael, Ken, and Jim.  I consider it a miracle of social chemistry that seven gay men with rather strong individual personalities managed to spend ten days together without intramural conflict. We devoted our days to shopping, wandering, and spreading dulce de leche on every available edible surface. In the evenings we napped, smuggled cocktails into our hotel rooms, and explored the Buenos Aires nightlife. It was hard not to immerse ourselves in the pleasures of a city with the highest concentration of plastic surgeons and psychotherapists per capita in the world. Plus,  the dollar was strong, the policemen absurdly beautiful, and the steaks were as big–and delicious– as my head. Everything about our stay seemed perfect except for one thing: the chance of being killed on the street while walking off one’s morcilla.

On our way back to the hotel for a much-needed lie down after a particularly louche lunch one afternoon, we were startled out of our wine-induced torpor when a strange object descended from heaven onto the sidewalk just a few yards ahead of us. It was quickly identified as a diaper which, by the sound it made as it landed, had served most capably its intended purpose. We were lucky it hadn’t hit us. We were even luckier that, as far as shit bombs go, it was a dud. We sidestepped the unexploded threat with our lives and our south-of-the-equator Summer Whites intact.

The following day, after a similar noontime repast and clearly having learned nothing from recent experience, I was returning to the hotel by a similar route when I heard a noise  behind me, which sounded very much like the Tin Man might have made fashioning with his axe a pottery circlet for the Cowardly Lion during the “If I Were King of The Forest” number from The Wizard of Oz, but without the Harold Arlen music and much louder and more disturbing. I turned around to discover a potted palm tree, along with its glazed ceramic container, had just collided violently with the ground a few feet directly to my aft. There was terra cotta shrapnel everywhere, but I remained physically unscathed and, unlike the lion, uncrowned. My ensuing nap was fitful; my first cocktail of the evening, medicinal.

Two near misses in two days was enough to set anyone’s nerves on edge. But when news broke the next evening that a much-loved soap opera star had leapt to his death from his penthouse onto the pavement below, I sensed a rather worrisome trend. Was this really a thing in Buenos Aires? If so, it’s one of the customs my otherwise excellent copy of Let’s Go Argentina failed to mention.  After three days in the city, we were flying north to Iguazu the next morning to soak in the scenery and I for one was glad to get out of the city and its tall buildings for a little while.

After the seven of us checked into our rooms at the Hotel Cataratas, we agreed to rendezvous in the lobby downstairs lobby, then scout the area for suitable and sufficiently potent watering holes. As the first one down, I settled myself on the nearest couch, picked up a magazine to thumb through, and the succumbed to a mild sneezing fit. Before I had time to properly worry if I was coming down with jungle fever, a travel pack of Kleenex landed at my feet. I wasn’t at all startled, but rather, I was pleased that something actually useful had fallen near me for a change. I leaned down to pick it up and pulled out a tissue to help stem the unfortunate, yet aptly in-theme waterfall that was cascading down my nose. Gary appeared moments later and gave me a look.

“You could say thank you, you know” he said, irritated, but not nearly as much so as my sinuses.”I’ll bet you thought those tissues just magically fell from the sky.” To my embarrassment, I realized that he was absolutely correct.

Garganta del DiableIt’s always a bit shocking when the unexpected happens once. Disturbing when it happens twice. By the third time, one can only help but think “What the hell is happening? This isn’t normal.” When it starts happening every day, well, it’s incredible what one gets used to.

When we made it to the falls the next morning, I was convinced I had just discovered the most beautiful place on earth. I spent the day hiking in a sort of misty paradise with my friends as we looked for toucans and swatted bees away from our cans of Coca-Cola Light. We saved La Garganta del Diablo— the tallest of Iguazu’s waterfalls– for last. A wooden catwalk led us to the opening of the devil’s throat, and we were surrounded by a startling spray of mist and rainbows. But it was the frightening power of the water that stays in my memory of it. Standing at the edge and white-knuckling the metal railing as nearly half a million cubic feet of water rushed beneath us every second, Patrick looked at me and yelled over the sound of the torrent, “Doesn’t it make you want to jump?” I nodded back. I really did wanted to. I harbored no suicidal thoughts. No despair. Just the strange urge to join the inexorable force of the water as it dragged my senses downward. I thought about the diaper, the palm, and the soap star, believing for a moment that I actually understood their gravitational desire to be pulled towards oblivion. It was then that I realized something very important:

Diapers don’t have feelings.

I pulled myself away from the falls and the spell was broken, which was when I became aware of something else, even more profound:

I was only a mile or two away from Brazil and could therefore safely order a caipirinha.

Chocolate souffle

Chocolate Soufflé with Dulce de Leche Crème

The wonderful thing about soufflés is that one nearly always expects them to fall at some point and, if they don’t, one is often pleasantly surprised. For this obvious reason, I have chosen to make one to go with this story.

Since you’re all such smart people, you’re probably thinking to your collective self: “But Michael, chocolate soufflé isn’t exactly Argentine in nature, is it?” And I would say that you were correct, but try putting steak in one of these god damned things and see what happens.

The real gem, in my opinion anyway, is the dulce de leche whipped cream. On its own, “dee de ell”, as I may or may not now call it, is too stiff and sticky to effectively accompany such a delicate concoction of chocolate and hot air. Folding into whipped cream solves that problem and makes it ever so slightly less cloying at the same time. Of course, I might even encourage you to say “Sod the soufflé” altogether and just make the crème.

Makes: 1 large soufflé to share among you and your six friends or 6 small because you don’t actually deserve one and you really can’t afford the calories.

For the Dulce de Leche Crème:

• 1 cup of fresh heavy cream
•  1 jar of dulce de leche from a trusted manufacturer or Argentinian abuela. You are also very welcome to make it yourself, if you like. David Lebovitz has been known to make a dandy batch or two.

Preparation:

1. Whip cream into a mild frenzy, or until a medium stiffness is attained, peak-wise.
2. Spoon in 5 tablespoons of dulce de leche and fold in. Taste it. Is it what you wanted? If not, add more dulce de leche. I did. I added seven, but that’s because I’m bold. Make this before you do your soufflé(s), but you already know this.

For the Chocolate Soufflé:

Ingredients:

• 1 each: computer, web browser, internet connection and whatever else is needed to view an online recipe: Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflé by Melissa Clark. I followed her directions precisely and I suggest you do the same over at the New York Times because  I did not alter the recipe in any way and I’m not really into copyright infringement. If you’re annoyed with the current state of their Op Ed page and wish to find an alternate recipe, I suggest you do so.

When soufflé baking has been achieved, remove from oven and immediately dust with powdered sugar or cocoa powder, if that’s your thing. Serve forthwith.

Place the dulce de leche creme in a silver champagne coupe– one of a set of six you bought at the San Telmo flea market in because you just knew you had to have them. Even though, fourteen years later, this is the first time you’ve ever even used one of them and maybe you should have bought the vintage cocaine bottles because they were cooler but the guy who was selling them was also selling Spanish language versions of Mein Kampf and that made you uncomfortable.

Accompany with a silver spoon you once stole from the Rose Room at the Algonquin Hotel when you were pretending to be Robert Benchley and were therefore necessarily drunk.

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A Question of Size

Pepper MillAs I delivered a Greek salad to table twenty-two, I pulled a large brass pepper grinder out from under my arm and offered to pulverize its contents for the benefit of the woman who ordered it. When she declined, I tucked it back into the white, no-iron cotton sheath of my armpit.

My actions were noticed by Frank, one of our more amusing regulars who was standing just behind me, drinking perhaps his second Manhattan of the evening. He jumped as if  goosed by my moulin à poivre, as the French might call it. Although often tempted, in the seventeen years I’d worked in a Greek restaurant, I had yet poke anyone with the device, let alone learn the correct Hellenic term for it.

“Hey! Watch your Rubirosa!” Frank exclaimed in mock alarm.

“You know, I may very well be the only person working here who knows what the hell you’re talking about,” I answered, proud that I had, in fact, gotten the reference.

“Why the fuck do you think I said it to you?” he muttered as he sipped his drink.

I really do miss that man.

For the rest of the evening, I felt absurdly self-conscious every time I waggled a pepper mill over anyone’s food. Each time, the cold, hard metal turned to hot, turgid flesh in both my imagination and my increasingly sweaty palms. On one occasion, I nearly giggled in the presence of four women as if I were a nine year-old laughing at a fart joke in front of my mother’s bridge club. I needed to get a better grip on my professionalism. And on the pepper mill, which I worried might slip out of my hands.

Porfirio RubirosaIf there are any of you left in doubt as to the meaning of the term “Rubirosa”, I will explain its origin:

Porfirio Rubirosa was Dominican diplomat from the Mid-20th century. His interests were very much in line with most other international playboys of the time: polo, auto racing, and having sex with lots and lots of women, like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Jayne Mansfield. Of his five wives, two were American heiresses: Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. Both of them gave him B-25 bombers as well as many other items of value in their divorce settlements. He was, to put it mildly, extremely popular with heterosexual females. Perhaps it was his Caribbean charm. Or perhaps it was the fact that his member was reported to have put his polo ponies to shame. His friends referred to him as “Toujours Prêt” because it was always ready to go. His reputation was such that Parisian waiters began calling their oversized pepper grinders “Rubirosas”.

I’m so glad we’re finally clear on this.

Raw MeatNow is the point I should add that, at this very same Greek restaurant, there is another Rubirosa-esque item on offer: a 21-ounce bone-in ribeye steak, which is really far too much meat for any one person to tackle alone. Presenting such a slab of beef would occasionally produce gasps from unsuspecting diners, both male and female. As good as it is, I’ve never understood the allure of dealing with one by one’s self, but people do it all the time. Perhaps it’s the thrill of a challenge. I’ve been seduced into attempting it on one or two occasions, but sensibly found myself subscribing to the Rodney Allen Rippy school of thought: It’s too big to eat. Having that much meat inside of you all at once is unhealthy, four out of five doctors will tell you, and can lead to great internal distress. If you’re wondering about the fifth doctor, he’s probably in the pocket of the US Beef Council.

It isn’t my job to judge you if you enjoy your steak and your pepper mills well endowed. Judgement’s more like my hobby, really. I used to be like you, but age, experience, and my cardiologist have changed me. In these matters, the question of size is more like a question of taste, I think. And I, for one, prefer my meat more demurely proportioned.

Steak au Poivre

Steak au Poivre

Now this is what I consider a very approachable recipe. And for those of you who enjoy pepper but harbor deep inside of you a great terror of oversized pepper mills, it may be positively liberating. Modest meat meets Tellicherry zing.

Serves two reasonable people or one size queen.

Ingredients:

• 2  6-ounce filet mignon steaks, about 2 inches thick
• 2 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 decorously-proportioned shallot, finely minced
• 1 ½ cups of beef broth
• 1 seemly glug of cognac
• ¼cup of heavy cream
• a smattering of finely chopped parsley for appearances’ sake
• oh, and salt

Preparation:

  1. If you can think this far ahead, tenderly massage your meat with salt, then place in the protective sheath of your choosing and refrigerate. Remove the meat about a half hour before cooking to bring closer to room temperature.
  2. Crank your oven up to 450°F.
  3. Take a clean tea towel and place it on your cutting board. In the center, place 2 tablespoons of whole peppercorns. Fold one end of the towel over the other, making a safe pouch for the soon to be humiliated spice. Take a reasonably proportioned, heavy bottomed cast iron pan and bring it down upon the swaddled peppercorns with enthusiasm several times in quick succession until they are sufficiently crushed or your downstairs neighbor wonders very loudly in unrepeatably scurvy language just what it is you are doing to make such a racket. Remove the pepper from its wrappings and rub vigorously into the meat.
  4. Place the same skillet over a high heat and wait until it’s almost as hot as the women at Jimmy’s Disco in Paris were for Mr. R. before lubricating the pan with one tablespoon of butter. Add the steaks and let them sizzle for about two minutes to give them a good, dark crust on one side. Turn them over and do the same to the other. Toss the pan in the oven to continue cooking until the desired temperature is reached. You will sense when your meat is ready by frequently poking it with your finger. Remove the pan from the oven, setting it back on the stove top. Remove and cover the steaks to let rest until needed again.
  5. Toss the second tablespoon of butter in the pan and swirl it around, making certain to use some sort of barrier between the skin of your hand and the pan’s handle. Remember: it’s been in the bloody oven.
  6. Add shallots and cook until just starting to brown, then add the beef broth and let simmer. Add the cognac. If you enjoy drama, tilt the pan slightly towards the stove’s fire until there is an impressive burst of flame leaping up from inside the skillet, which is all the more alarming because you chose to perform this stunt on the side of the stove next to where you keep your rather flammable cookbooks. If you prefer a more relaxed form of cooking, just let the liquid reduce by roughly half. Add the cream and cook until slightly thickened. Add parsley, if you bother to remember.
  7. Return the somewhat more-relaxed-than-you steaks to the pan to coat with sauce. Serve on a platter the size of which you find satisfactory and non-threatening, and jettison the pan’s hot effluence on top. Serve with shoestring potatoes, which I am not telling you how to make and enjoy. In moderation, of course.

 

 

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So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

3 FishLike most reasonable people, you’ve just read the title of this post and may be wondering a number of things. Or one thing. Or possibly nothing at all, if you’ve just stumbled upon this blog by accident. Or you’re not even actually here because I haven’t posted on and barely visited this site for more than three months and you are now beyond caring.

Let me reassure you that the heading in no way means that I’m shuttering Food for the Thoughtless, or that I’m planning to bump myself off, or that I’ve come to believe that I’m a dolphin and making a hasty escape from planet Earth. It signifies something else entirely.

It means that I quit my job. The restaurant one. The one where, over a span of seventeen years, I have sold (and possibly eaten) several tons of sea life. Bream, huachinango, sardines, anchovies, smelt, rock cod, idiot fish, porgy, and bass. Then there’s the octopus, squid, cuttlefish, sea urchin, and that one calamitous special of sautéed calamari strips in pesto over matchstick potatoes I described to my guests as “caterpillars found dead on a tiny haystack” and was ordered in spite of my dire warning.

I’d only meant to take a six month leave of absence because I told myself I wanted that time to start writing my book. Some of my regular guests who knew me better than I know myself said, “You won’t be back.” I thought they were crazy.

French FlagI’ve worked in the preparation and service of food from the time I was fifteen, when a strange man wearing pink golf pants decorated with bunnies hungrily eyeing carrots offered me a job fondling oranges across the road from the Jungle Cruise, until last June. And with the exception of a few, excruciating school boy jobs in retail, I have done nothing else to earn my living. I’ve enjoyed every juice squeezing, celebrity scrutinizing, table serving, food styling, recipe testing, cooking show slaving, pastry making, ice cream churning, cater waitering, napkin folding moment. At least, I enjoyed most of them.

Then, at one point over the summer, high on a hill in a converted Alsatian convent, surrounded by Riesling grapes and mirabelle plums and chickens which may or may not become dinner, I understood I wasn’t going back. I realized that, in the amount of time I’d spent at the restaurant, a human being could be born, potty trained, endure puberty, finish high school, get accepted to college, and lose their virginity in celebration. I figured it was time for me to do something similar. It was time to graduate, move out, and move on. Finally losing my virginity is another topic for another time.

Turnip bloodBut I was also truly burnt out, crispy-fried, beyond exhausted. I’ve been blogging, in one place or another, for twelve years. I’ve kept Food for the Thoughtless going for ten, for g-d’s sake. Most people who were blogging back in 2008 have long since given up. And that wasn’t what I wanted. Not at all. But the Faerie Spring of Good Ideas was clogged with cat hair and running dry. And the thought of digging around in the emotional minefield that is memoir writing was especially horrifying. So I walked away from absolutely everything for a while. No “Sorry for not posting”, no explanations. Just a good soaking for the houseplants and a quick shuffle out the door. All the blood from this human turnip had been let.

And I have to tell you– even if it means betraying my Orange County roots– that it was awesome. Zero regrets. I slept a lot, went for long walks, read books, made myself salads. I more or less kept my own company. Never in my adult life had I had the entire Holiday Season free from the stress of working and being cheerful for other people’s Christmas parties. This year, I chose to ignore the Yuletide altogether. It was wonderful.

But now I am back. The little brook of inspiration is again flowing at full babble. I plan to have more fun on this here blog than I have in a while. My navel-gazing will now be reserved for the book that I now feel ready to attack, although I still find the prospect of doing it terrifying. But not in a bad way. I mean in a challenging sort of way, which is good.

I do thank you for your patience. You’ll be hearing from me on a regular, monthly basis again. With an extra lagniappe or two thrown in for good measure.

And a special shout out to Kokkari Estiatorio— my wonderful home away from home for seventeen years. It was hard to quit you, but I’m glad I did.

I am no longer a waiter who writes. I’m now a writer writing full-time, Monday through Friday.

So for now, all I want to say is, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”. And, of course, “Hello again, and thanks for reading.”

Cheers,

Michael

 

 

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Greek Mythology

MartiniWhen I was waiting tables, people seemed to offer me drinks on an almost nightly basis. If a couple brought in a particularly nice wine, they’d want to pour me a glass. If someone purchased an esoteric bottle from our reserve list, I’d be offered a taste if I hadn’t tried it before. Sometimes, people would try to buy me a shift drink or a shot of ouzo because they just liked me so damned much. These things happen all the time to charming, middle-aged servers in Greek restaurants in San Francisco. It’s part of the culture. Sadly and, I suppose, wisely, they were gifts I was compelled to refuse.

“Thanks, but I can’t,” I’d say with a detectable half-tone of disappointment. If there’s anything a waiter needs after surviving two crazed seatings in the dining room, it’s a shot of something alcoholic. “We used to be able to do that years ago, but not anymore,” I’d add as a slight, wistful foam began to bubble at the corners of my mouth.

It’s true. When I started at the restaurant, we’d taste wine multiple times a night. Slide management-sanctioned shots of Plomari down our gullets with the last guests. Sit down at the bar for a decompression cocktail when all the customers had left. That is, until one particularly unfortunate evening.

If my guests were persistent enough in their offer, saying things like, “Oh, what harm could it do?” I’d nearly always respond with, “Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you why we can’t drink at work. But only after you’ve finished your dinner because the story’s a bit…bloody.” I’d drop that on them like a sizzling plate of saganaki and let them make the choice whether to pursue this post-prandial line of conversation or not. But that last word usually got them hooked.

After their tables had been crumbed and tidied and the dessert menus slid into place in front of my guests, the question would come up again. “So?” I remember one woman who wanted to buy me a drink asking, “Give us all the gory details.” She sounded like a friend asking about an especially terrible date or a hemorrhoid  operation.

“Well,” I said, “It used to be all fun and games around here until someone literally lost an eye.” I noticed out of the corner of one of my own, fully functioning sight organs that I was needed at another table– a man had dropped his dinner fork. I excused myself for a moment, relishing the fact that the interruption would serve to make story time that much more enjoyable.

“What do you mean ‘lost an eye‘?” the woman demanded before I’d fully reached the table.

“I mean precisely that,” was my rather serious reply. And then I began to tell her and her dining companion the story, which goes something like this…

Years ago, I worked with a man we called “Papou”. It wasn’t his real name, of course, but he was Greek and in his sixties and just seemed like the type of grandfather who would drink a little too much raki at Holiday parties and start flirting with your young female friends. The name just fit and he never discouraged its use. He was an amusing man who seemed to enjoy the novelty of working in a fancy restaurant for once in his life, but he had a rather sharp tongue that he whittled to a fine point when he’d been drinking, which was often.

He was charming enough to peel the knickers right off a nun but, sadly, his breath could strip pine, which meant he’d have to work his magic from a distance of at least five feet for the seduction to be effective. He smoked. A lot. He was the one person for whom I considered stale cigarette smoke a breath freshener.

EyeballAt the end of one fateful evening when all of the guests had cleared the restaurant, a few of the staff bellied up to the bar for an after-shift drink. I wasn’t working that night, so the rest of the story I’ve reconstructed over the years based on the accounts of those who were. Papou, who’d more than likely had considerably more than just one cocktail by then, decided to go outside for a smoke, taking his martini glass with him. No one’s certain exactly how it happened because there were no witnesses– his coworkers most likely busy swapping customer horror stories and not-so-casually finding out who had the best night, tip-wise. It’s possible that he was trying to light a cigarette while holding his drink, propping open the heavy oak door at the front of the building. Maybe set the drink down on the pavement in order to pay more attention to his Marlboro Red. Whatever the method, the cocktail class managed to break and the jagged stem somehow found its way into his eyeball.

When our manager came upstairs to close up and kick everyone out, he counted heads and then inquired as to the whereabouts of Papou. No one had noticed him leave. Assuming correctly that the old fellow had gone outside for a smoke, he poked his head outside. No one was out on the sidewalk, but there was a trail of blood that led right up to the door of Papou’s white land yacht, where he was found trying to “sleep it off”. If the manager hadn’t found him, he would most likely have bled to death by morning. Instead, he was trundled off to the hospital to see what could be done, which was very little. The eyeball was a goner.

He never came back to the restaurant. Whether he was fired or simply decided to retire or both, I don’t know. All I do know is that a friend spotted him at SFO, one-eyed like a defeated Polyphemus waiting to return home to Greece and crawl back into his cave with his sheep and his wine, knowing that no man was responsible for his misfortune but himself.

After reading that last paragraph, you may be saying to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute. A blinded Cyclops is no longer one-eyed, but no-eyed,” and you’d be absolutely correct. I just can’t think of a more accurate correlation to Greek mythology. But that’s pretty much what this story is–a tragic tale about a Greek man that has taken on the distinct gauzy haze of myth over the years.

I remember very distinctly that the woman who asked me to tell the story had a cocktail glass with only a sip or two left of pink liquid in it, turned warm from lack of attention. When the narrative was over, I looked at the glass and then at her, asking if she’d finished with it. She nodded, speechless.

“And that is why we’re not allowed to drink at work anymore. Are you sorry you asked?” I queried, removing the potential hazard from the table.

“No!” she ejaculated. “That was amazing! I just feel so bad for the old man.”

“Me, too,” I said. And I do feel bad for him. But I’m also grateful to him for giving me such an excellent cautionary tale with which to horrify my guests. It happened in a Greek restaurant, after all. Drama is to be expected.

When the woman paid her bill, she slipped me an extra $20 on top of the gratuity. “I still want to buy you a drink,” she insisted, “Just have it….anyplace else but here.”

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Les Marseillaises

Salt CodA chunk of dried salt cod had been occupying valuable space on my tiny pantry shelf for months. It was given to me by my friend Craig, whose Azorean  fisherman DNA does not allow him to pass up snatching bits of bacalhau whenever it crosses his path. I thanked him for it, popped it into my messenger bag and promptly forgot about it for a couple of days until I noticed an odor emanating from the bowels of my man purse which brought to mind the neglected terrarium of a hermit crab I briefly kept in the 5th grade. Crystalized salt flaked its way through the gaps in its waxed paper wrapping and settled on the bottom, which looked very much the way the shoulder of a person with an aggressive case of dandruff might after wearing a black wool turtleneck for several hours.

I gave the bag a good airing and myself a good talking to.

I knew precisely what I wanted to make with it: brandade de morue— a mixture of poached salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and potato all whipped together, baked, and served up hot or cold. I also knew precisely how I wanted to prepare it– authentically. I remembered reading something by MFK Fisher about her time living in Marseilles and how she was impressed by the efficiency of the local housewives who, rather than waste time constantly changing the salt cod’s soaking water, placed hunks of it in their toilet tanks so that every time someone spent a penny, their future dinner got a fresh change of water. I tried to find that passage again but couldn’t locate it. And then I thought to myself, “Well, she drank.”

That thought was followed swiftly by another one: “Well, so do I”. Had I just imagined the whole thing? I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from drunken, hallucinatory reading. It had to be true and, damn it, I was going to pull that salt cod of the shelf, drop it in the bottom of my toilet tank, grab a copy of The New Yorker, and get down to the business of preparing dinner.

My enthusiasm for using “the necessary” as a handy kitchen tool was dampened over a rather wet lunch with my friend Mei, a fellow food writer and memoiriste, who said, “That might be okay for you here in San Francisco, but other places put all kinds of chemicals and shit in the water to keep the pipes from freezing.” She had a good point. She also lives in Dublin, and wouldn’t be trying brandade “à la methode des femmes au foyer Marseillaises” any time soon. I can’t say that I blame her.

Disheartened, I went home and put the small brick of desiccated fish back in its dark, dry goods prison until further notice. That night, I made chicken salad for dinner using tools found in no other room but my kitchen. It was bland substitute my heart could not fully embrace– it still yearned for brandade prepared the lazy Marseilles housewife way.

Months passed, but still I couldn’t bring myself to make the dish. I hadn’t the stomach to plunge the cod into the toilet and hadn’t the cheek to do it the bourgeois injustice of being soaked in freshly-Britta-ed water. So the dried-out ingot of The Grand Banks languished between the honey jar and its permanent sticky ring and box of C&H sugar cubes I refuse to throw away in case I ever got around to drinking absinthe in the proper, Belle Époque fashion.

And then– finally— inspiration visited one morning as I used the smallest room. I could still use my toilet as a prep tool without resorting to using toilet water. If I soaked the cod in water from my kitchen, but set the container on top of the tank, it would serve as a reminder to change the water every time I needed to go. I could have my fish cake and eat it, too, without encouraging my readers to do anything that might cause them to become physically ill. Or that might cause their loved ones to suspect they are mentally ill because they started dropping fish down the back of the shitter and calling it dinner.

Brandade

Brandade de Morue

While I maintain that the best and most convenient source for dried salt cod is from a half-Azorean ex-college roommate, my therapist has helped me to understand over the years that what is best for me might not be best for everyone else and that I must learn to make allowances for people whose lives may differ from mine.

For these people, I would suggest looking online for your salt cod. It’s disturbingly refreshingly easy to find.

The following recipe is merely a guideline. Some people (like me) prefer it mixed with potato, others find this heretical. I found myself smearing a thin layer of goat cheese on my toasts before spooning on the brandade. I sometimes chop up cornichons and sprinkle them over the top. I say do whatever it is you want to do to your brandade. Don’t worry about what the folks of Marseilles might think– people who put their salt cod in the toilet are not typically the type of people who are going to care too deeply what you do with yours.

The recipe I use is largely based on one from SeriousEats. With a few changes.

Serves 4 people as a sociable appetizer or 1 shut-in who will leave it on the counter uncovered and eat it all over the course of two days. 

Ingredients:

• ½ pound of dried salt cod
• 1 medium-sized russet potato.
• Fresh thyme sprigs (3 is probably sufficient, but I like to use more)
• Bay leaf, if you’ve got them.
• 3 or 4 whole cloves of peeled garlic
• 2 cloves of minced garlic
• About 1/2 cup of olive oil
• About ¼ cup heavy cream
• A few squeezes of fresh lemon juice
•Salt and pepper to taste.
• Finely chopped parsley for garnish. Or cornichons or Rice Krispies or whatever.

Preparation:

  1. Rinse the salt cod to make it less salt and more cod. Place in a dish of cold, clean water, either on your toilet tank or in your toilet tank. Refresh water each time you heed Nature’s Call over the next 24 hours.
  2. Bake your potato (or why not bake more than one, really, since the oven’s already on) at 350°F for about an hour  or until tender when stabbed by the tines of a fork or blade of a stiletto, whichever you have on hand.  Cut potato in half while still warm, scooping to flesh from the skin, and fluffing with a fork to remove any major lumps. Set aside.
  3. Take the salt cod out of your bathroom and place in a medium-sized saucepan over the stove, covering the fish with yet more fresh, cold water. Add the whole garlic cloves, thyme, and bay leaf. Simmer for about 10 minutes, turn off the heat and let steep for another 20 minutes. Or, if you are like me: Realize that you’re supposed to be at your therapy appointment in like 15 minutes, panic, put on pants, jump in cab, talk about how digging up everything you thought you buried and ran away from 20 years ago for the purposes of writing a memoir has left you emotionally slimed and brain-dead for exactly 50 minutes, take the bus home but stop at the market for a fresh baguette and a bottle of rosé to have with your brandade which reminds you that you have left the cod sitting in its poaching water for nearly two hours but that’s fine because it’s only cod sitting in scented water and everything is going to be okay, which is how you feel because you just left your psychologist.
  4. Remove cod from poaching liquid, flake into the clean bowl of a stand mixer, ridding yourself of any bones and gross whitish stuff you may find lurking in or around the cod flesh. Add the poached whole garlic to the bowl, discarding everything else.
  5. Add fresh garlic, to make it extra French and, using the paddle attachment mix ingredients on medium high, as instructed by the good people at Serious Eats.
  6. Watch in horror/amazement as the cloves of garlic and about ¼ of your flaked cod pieces fly out of the bowl of your stand mixer. Quickly turn of mixer and curse.
  7. Be grateful that you had just scrubbed your kitchen floor on your hands and knees only yesterday, then pick up whatever bits of ejectus you can salvage and place back in bowl. Try again at a slightly slower speed with a tea towel draped over the bowl. Curse again.
  8. Place flaked cod and garlics in the bowl of a food processor with a good drizzle of olive oil. Pulse three staccato-like times. Now return your quarry to the stand mixer, where you will more than likely not have to deal with flying bits of fish again. Turn on medium speed, adding a bit more olive oil, and beat the crap out of it.
  9. Add cream, then beat even more crap out of it.
  10. Remove work bowl from the stand mixer and incorporate the potato by hand. Add as much lemon juice, pepper, and salt as you like. Surprisingly, this salt cod dish will probably need a lot of salt added back in, since most of it has been flushed away either literally or figuratively. You may eat it now, if you really must, but it is better when placed in a baking dish or ramekin and shoved into a hot oven for about 10 minutes until it puffs and starts to brown a little, then shoved under the broiler until it continues to brown even more.
  11. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with toasted baguette, cucumber slices, Chicken-in-a-Biskits, or just a spoon, for all I care. Or, do as I’ll admit to doing and leave it on the counter until fully cooled and have it that way (read: drink two glasses of rosé, get tired, go to bed, wake up in the morning, grab a fistful of cold brandade de morue that you forgot to put away the night before with your bare hand, shove it in your mouth, and question everything about your life. Except maybe your cooking abilities because that lazy French housewife fish thing you made yesterday was really fucking good).

 

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Six Months to Live

DecemberApologies if the title’s a little dramatic– I’m just like that sometimes.

I’ll begin by reassuring you that I have absolutely no intention of dying in the next few months. To steal and re-contextualize a line from Elizabeth Bennett when she finally succumbs to Mr. Darcy’s non-charms in Pride and Prejudice, “My feelings are so different– in fact, they are quite the opposite.”

The headline, if a tad misleading, is accurate. Over the past several months, I’ve been listless, depressed, disinterested in the things that used to give me joy, and totally burned out. My sense of creativity withered and nearly died like the neglected and unclassified houseplant I placed high on a bathroom shelf, hoping it would find nourishment solely from the steam of my daily showers.

Blog? Who gives a Flying Wallenda about my blog? Well, I do, actually. But the only idea I’d had for months turned out to be unusable.

I’d been at a loss for quite some time as to how I might shake things up, life-wise. Diet? Exercise? Actually having sex with another person once in a while? Those are fine for people who give a damn. The post-surgery/post-Holiday/Post™ Sugar Crisp blues were and are rather difficult to ditch.

When my friend and co-worker George died a few months ago, however, things began to change, though not immediately. He suffered a stroke last September and died of a heart attack in February. People often eulogize their departed loved ones as being “full of life”, but I don’t think I’ve met many as full of the thing as he was. He was very loud, very affectionate. He seemed to get excited about everything, which I envied a bit. He spoke with great passion about the evening’s specials, even though he usually got most of the pertinent details incredibly wrong. “Tonight we have the most AMAZING dish cooked in a wooden oven and made with a goat stew stock! Oh my GOD.” I could never be entirely certain he wasn’t climaxing in front of his guests. If a minor television network had commissioned one of its new-hires who had once briefly visited Paros while on a cruise with his parents as a child to write a stereotypical comedy Greek waiter to inject life into one of its flagging sitcoms, he might have come up with a less colorful version of Georgie.

He was hyper, he was full of joy, he was sometimes very annoying, and I loved that man to death.

And now he is dead. It took me a while to realize that, if a doctor hadn’t accidentally found that blood clot in my heart last year, I might have beaten him to the grave. That moment of realization was when it truly hit me that I’ve still been just bracing myself for the next terrible thing to happen after telling myself not to. And writing about it previously, for heaven’s sake. Sometimes, it takes an annoyingly long time (and an awful life event) for things to sink in.

So I said to myself, “Fuck it. What in Fuck’s name am I waiting for now?” I have a filthy inner voice. With an alarmingly limited arsenal of swear words.

And, with that, I decided to take exactly six months off from work and do all the things I’ve been wanting to. I’m already a week or so into it. I been taking long walks in the morning. My apartment is shaping up nicely, thank you. I’m not hiding from friends as much. I’ve actually gone to the gym and plan on doing it again. I’m spending three weeks roaming around France this summer. I’m sleeping a lot. I’m thinking a lot about a week in Ireland. And I have two major-but-realistically-acheiveable goals to accomplish before December: lose 22 pounds and finish the book proposal (and start writing said book in earnest) by the time I return to work for the Holidays.

Oh, and I’ll be keeping up with this blog. I’ve promised myself to put my butt in my writing chair for 3 hours a day, Monday through Friday. Most of that will be devoted to the book project (you’ll be seeing work from me soon, dear agent), but I’ve got a couple of things up my sleeve for this website, too.

I’m hoping a summer spent leaving my apartment (and country) frequently will serve to get my creative juices going again. But I realize that takes actual slogging and effort as well as the occasional tap from the Inspiration Fairy. Last week, I cut back the dead leaves from my neglected bathroom plant and gave it a bit of food and water. I even sing to it in the shower, though I’m uncertain if Johnny Cash songs are conducive to healthy leaf development. I’ll let you know how things go.

I won’t, however tell you if I somehow wind up getting laid over the next few months. I’ll have to save that tragedy for my memoirs.

 

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Irish Sweepstakes Stew

Stew PotMy grandfather Dominic was said to have had the luck of the Irish, which I find  odd because he was almost entirely Calabrese. I also consider it a bit cruel because the Irish have not been, historically speaking, a very fortunate group of people. At least Smitty, his best friend in South Philadelphia, was of actual Irish stock.  Perhaps his friend’s purported Hibernian good fortune rubbed off on Grandpop when the two of them got so eye-wateringly drunk the day Prohibition was repealed that they tried to swim up the sidewalk. Many skin cells undoubtedly sloughed off and mingled on the cement that early December afternoon in 1933. It’s the only story I know about his friend, so that is all I have to go on.

But it was another December afternoon not many years after he took both his whiskey and his breast-stroke without the benefit of water that good fortune came into full play. This little story has everything to do with luck and, as appropriate to both the season and the saying, this luck had everything to do with the Irish.

Long before SuperLotto and Scratchers, there was the Irish Free State Hospitals’ Sweepstakes, which was set up specifically to raise money for, unsurprisingly, the building of hospitals in Ireland*. This Gaelic fundraising scheme was extremely popular in America during the 1930s– home of more Irish people than Ireland at the time. It wasn’t, however, strictly legal, but the U.S. government seemed rather soft on this specific sort of crime.

1937 newmarket irish hosp sweepsSweepstakes tickets were rather expensive for  working class people during the Depression and, naturally, working class people were just the sort of folk who liked to buy them. My grandfather was an exception– he never had to pay for his tickets. He was offered the opportunity of selling a book of them– the payment for his time and effort was to keep two tickets for himself. He chose the first and the last one in recompense.

A short time later, several numbers were drawn at random from a giant drum by either a blind boy or a sexy nurse– both were used as ticket pickers– back in Ireland. One of the numbers was Grandpop’s.

A list of names was published in the papers, including Dominic’s. Every winner was then randomly assigned a horse, which would then race against each other in a steeplechase completion. There would be a several horses carrying tiny jockeys and the big dreams of a very fortunate few. Dominic seemed more fortunate than the others– he drew a horse named Hurdy Gurdy, who was the grandson of one of the most famous horses in the history of horse racing, Man o’ War. Prior to the race, my grandfather was offered $10,000 for his ticket. He declined.

Man O' WarWhy settle for ten grand when you’re the odds-on favorite to win fifteen times as much? My father remembers the excitement of the time, though he wasn’t yet six. Newsreel cameras showed up at my family’s door.

When racing day finally arrived, I can only imagine the tension and excitement my grandfather must have felt. He was a thirty-two year-old man with a fourth grade education living in a small apartment above his mother-in-law’s butcher shop with his wife and small son. In a few minutes, he would possibly be a very rich man with a big house of his own. I imagine many of his fellow ticket holders were thinking the similar things about themselves.

Out of the gate, Hurdy Gurdy was in front and remained there for most of the race. And then, at the last hurdle, he choked. I couldn’t tell you what happened precisely because I wasn’t there. But then neither was Dominic– the race was run somewhere in Britain. There was just a moment of confusion and then disappointment as the family huddled around and stared at the Phillips radio. Since it was my family I’m describing, they most likely shouted at it, too.

There’d be no $150,000 grand prize for the Procopios that day. The ticket wasn’t even worth the $10,000 he was so recently offered for it. But he did receive $3,000 as a consolation prize. With that money, he was able to move his family out from over the butcher shop in South Philadelphia and into a three-story townhouse in another part of the city called Mayfair, which sounds as though it probably smelled much nicer than his old neighborhood. He could do now do all the consoling he wanted in the privacy of his very own home.

He may not have won the Irish Sweepstakes, but he was still pretty damned lucky if you ask me.

Here’s newsreel footage of some of the bigger Sweepstakes winners from New York that year. People whose horses didn’t stumble. My family isn’t featured but, by the look and sound of some of them, it wouldn’t come as a total shock if we were somehow related.

 

Irish Sweepstakes Stew

My grandfather may have been considered lucky, but not, alas, Hurdy Gurdy. He quit racing not long after his stumble at the Irish Sweepstakes. His owner declined to put him out to stud and he was no longer seen in the best stables. He may or may not have been sold to a very wealthy eleven year-old girl with narcolepsy and taken to Guernsey, where he lived a quiet life out of the spotlight until the Nazis invaded and occupied the island in 1940. He was last seen looking for sugar cubes near Candie Gardens in November 1943, shortly after all supplies of cattle, sheep, and poultry had been either consumed or exported.

You do the math.

Serves anywhere between 3 to 912 people**.

Ingredients:

Carrot• About 2 lbs of cubed horse meat, if available. If not, you may consider substituting mule or possibly lamb.
• 1 cup of medium-diced fennel, because this stew is in part inspired by Southern Italian people who do not really understand potatoes.
• 1 cup of pearl onions, blanched and peeled.
• 1 cup of carrots, medium diced which, in happier times, Hurdy Gurdy considered a treat.
• 4 cloves of garlic., sliced
• 4 tablespoons of bacon fat
• 2 cups of horse stock, if you have the patience to make it. Lamb, beef, or even vegetable stock will also work.
• 1 cup white wine
• 1 cup water or vegetable stock.
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste, ideally from a tube.
• 1 tablespoon of flour, for thickening. Or, if you still have access, one hoof.
• 3 tablespoons of flour for the coating of meat, which also helps to thicken. Do not substitute hooves.
• An unhealthy amount of salt
• The same amount of pepper
• A bouquet garni consisting of oregano, rosemary, parsley, and thyme.
• 1 bay leaf.
• More parsley, but chopped this time, for garnish.

Optional Ingredients:

• Freshly grated Pecorino cheese, because Parmesan is for Northerners.
• Pappardelle pasta. See: Southern Italian potato issues.

Preparation:

  1. Heat the bacon fat in the bottom of a large dutch oven. Toss the horse meat with three tablespoons of flour, some salt, and a bit of pepper. Shake off excess and place your dusty cubes into the hot pig fat. Do not crowd the pan– work in batches until your meat is browned on all sides. Remove from your cooking vessel and set aside.
  2. Next add garlic, onions, carrots, and fennel into the fat, lowering the heat, and cooking until hot and softened. Remove the vegetables into the same bowl as the meat or into a clean one if you don’t mind doing extra dishes. Pour the white wine into the pot and scrape at all the delicious bits stuck to the bottom unit they break free. Add 1 tablespoon of flour and your tomato paste and whisk until all is smooth and slightly thickened. Return the meat and vegetables to the pot, pour over horse stock and 1 cup of water. The meat and veg should be just covered by liquid. Add the bouquet garni, baby leaf, a little salt, and some more pepper.
  3. Cover and let simmer for at least 90 minutes.
  4. Plated Stew on PastaTo serve: if you are from a Southern Italian family, ladle the stew over pasta and garnish with Pecorino and parsley. If you’re from an Irish family, serve with potatoes. If you’re from a Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, you’d probably never consider making this dish in the first place.
  5. Sit down and enjoy with your family and thank the Lord for your good fortune as you say Grace. Just be certain to also thank the horse for your new house, your delicious dinner, and your new chest freezer, which will hold the leftover stew you’ll most likely be consuming over the next several months.

*Also not surprisingly, it was conceived by a professional bookie and most of the money never found its way into hospitals.

** This recipe calls for about two pounds of meat. If you intend to use the entire animal, please consider that the average horse weighs 760 lbs and has a meat yield of roughly 60%.  You will therefore need to multiply the recipe by 228.

Posted in Holidays, Meatness, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

The Next Worst Thing

PencilsI wrote most of a blog post last week– something to do with feeling bleak and turning to hummus for comfort– but it was lost after I took a small break to play a little computer solitaire, which crashed my computer. There was something wrong with my internet connection, so the auto-save feature wasn’t functioning.

Perhaps my wi-fi was looking after me, choosing to euthanize my work like that. It was quite possibly the gloomiest and most pointless thing I’ve ever written since I was an 18 year-old scrawling incomprehensible poetry about slutty cows on my dorm room wall.

But I have been feeling out of sorts for a very long time. Chronically tired but unable to sleep. I haven’t given myself permission to writing anything amusing what with the world about to end. I learned that I’d put a bottle of bleach in the freezer only after discovering my raspberry gelato melted under the sink. My brain has been in lockdown for what seems like ages. It’s just been one crisis or tragedy after another for the past couple of years and I haven’t been coping with them as ably as I thought.

I used to feel pretty good. I thought I had interesting things to share with the world and the energy with which to share them. I was (more or less) happy. I could fit into most of my pants. Last week, I couldn’t say any of that was true and I wondered if I actually gave a Flying Wallenda about any of it.

But I’m pretty certain I do. It’s just hard to get a good view of the situation when the elephant’s ass of depression has bumped you to the ground and parked itself on your face. And, if it wasn’t clear to you already, minging air and shit-covered peanuts aren’t part of a balanced breakfast. Or things that make you feel very happy.

Lately, I’ve come to realize that I’ve crouched deeper and curled up tighter with each emotional and physical hit until my brain resembled a roly poly bug. I’ve stayed in that mental position since at least the inauguration. It’s as though I’ve just been waiting for the next worst thing to come along. And, as my friend Jay reminded me last night, “Don’t worry, that next worst thing will happen.” He then added something slightly more comforting to the effect of not letting such things get the best of you.

But I’d already come to that conclusion, if only very recently. Curling up and hiding—apart from the chiropractic issues such activity can cause—is a crushing bore and I’m trying my best to stand upright again.

I took a week off from work to clean and sleep and organize. And, after almost eight years, I forced myself back to the gym.

I’d quit the Jewish Community Center back then, deciding it was too expensive and decided to join the closer, cheaper 24-Hour Fitness. I found it loud, grimy, and depressing, so I quit. And, not long afterward, I stopped being able to fit into some of my pants.

I’d toyed with the idea of going back to the JCC, but when one of the fittest people I knew dropped dead from heart failure at his gym, I was terrified of ever setting foot in a locker room again—especially after my own heart scare. But last week, frustrated by my current lack of energy (and lack of anything else, really), I did.

It wasn’t easy. I felt like William Hurt in that scene from Altered States where he slams himself against walls to shake free from whatever the hell it was that had gotten inside of him. Except I wasn’t naked. I really need to re-watch that film again so I know what the hell I’m talking about.

My free-with-new-membership trainer asked me what I wished to accomplish. “I want to get some of my energy back, increase my flexibility, and lose a few pounds,” I confessed.

“Well, if we take care of the first two things, the third will take care of itself,” he reassured.

He showed me some stretching exercises, introduced me to planking, got me into push-up position. I flirted with weights. It was all very mellow and civilized.

And it took me three days to recover.

I thought I was sick until I remembered feeling like this when I first started working out several years ago. My arms were finally able to fully extend this past Monday. It all felt awful, but it also felt fantastic. I walked the 1.5 miles home. I looked in the mirror. There was color in my cheeks. It was weird.

BooksOn Tuesday, I went back but, thanks to the advice of my psychologist (whose office is literally around the corner from the gym), I added a new exercise to my workout routine—a brisk walk two blocks east to the Presidio public library, which is not only quiet, but marvelously small, charming, and free from any whiff of adult human urine. I found a free corner, pulled out my laptop, and started writing.

Unfortunately, my first exercice de bibliothèque may have been more douloureux than my introductory session at the JCC but, one must allow that one’s writing muscles will be just as sore from disuse as one’s arm muscles when re-introduced to barbells after too much time off. It sucked. No, it more than sucked—it felched. I mostly stared at a blank screen for several minutes until I started to write. And what I wrote was excremental. I lasted barely an hour before I gave up and got some lunch. But the thing is—I went back again the next day. It still sucked, but not as much as the first time. And I intend to go back again on Saturday.

I’m slowly but surely whittling out a Holy Trinity of Wellness from a little sliver of Pacific Heights. A library for the mind, a gym for the body, and a shrink for the spirit. Of course, the gym helps the spirit, as does the library. And there’s even an excellent patisserie down the street to serve as a fueling station.

I’m not all fine and dandy yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be truly fantastic feeling, but I think I’m on to something better. If you were expecting a recipe in this post, I’m sorry to disappoint—I’m still working on a halfway decent recipe for my life. But I think the best fond for anything you may want to sauce your life with may just be getting yourself out of a bad rut, however deep it might be. Mine’s felt pretty fucking fathomless lately. With oily-slick walls. I was going to write “I’m digging my way out with a spoon”, but that would be wrong, since digging would only make the rut wider or deeper. Instead, I think, I’ve tied the spoon to one of my shoes like a crampon so that I can climb out, one slippery step at a time.

If someone would kindly throw me down a second, larger spoon for my other foot, I would be very much obliged.  Just make sure it’s not a cheap plastic one– that would not be helpful.

Thanks for reading. It’s been really difficult getting this out in words and I’ve felt I couldn’t move on to anything else until I did.

I shall resume full snark very shortly. Until then, cheers.

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(Insert Adjective) New Year.

Mr. Bacon with Champagne.I stayed in on New Year’s Eve.

Earlier that day, I braved the outside world for a little while, looking both ways as I crossed each street en route to the supermarket, where there were crowds of people performing last-minute raids on pre-picked crabmeat, overpriced avocados, and underwhelming brands of sparkling wine.

With near-surgical precision, I scored some tangerines, a split decent champagne, cheese, crackers, and chocolate; sped through the checkout line; and was home again in twenty minutes, taking care not to trip on any uneven pavement or have my eyes ripped out by errant bits of chain link fence.

After returning home and stowing my purchases, I moved into the bathroom where I liberated myself from my clothing and carefully stepped into the shower, making certain to neither slip in the bath nor scald myself to death with unnecessarily hot water. Upon finishing my ablutions, I dried myself thoroughly and moved into the bedroom where, after ascertaining that I was not standing upon any wet spots or unexpected live wires, I turned on my computer to play a little Blossom Dearie.

When I had carefully stepped into my pants without falling over and braining myself on the corner of my heavy oak teacher’s desk and pulled on a t-shirt without a hint of self-strangulation, I moved into the kitchen, where I washed my dirty dishes and put away every sharp object within view. I pulled out a clean champagne coupe from the cupboard and placed it in the refrigerator next to the little bottle of champagne, gently so as not to shatter it and accidentally sever an artery.

With everything ready for the evening, I settled myself down on the couch to watch a Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck film, wait for midnight, and do my damnedest not to die before the clock on my iPhone struck twelve.

Everyone, it seemed, was doing just that in 2016 and I loathe being on-trend. I cocooned myself for the last few hours of the year, sipping champagne, nibbling on fruit and chocolate, swooning over Ms. Stanwyck, and letting everyone on Facebook know that, as the minutes ticked away, I was still alive.

Midnight and the New Year tiptoed into my life this year, but I made it into 2017 alive, and was therefore relieved.

And then the next day, a friend commented that the people only got hysterical over the celebrity corpses of last year and I felt foolish, not being a famous person. But at least I still had a pulse.

And, if you are reading this, it means you are, too, dear reader. Congratulations.

Typically, I’d wish everyone a Happy New Year and be done with it, but my hopes aren’t all that high for 2017. There will be good times, I’m sure, but there will be some really terrible times ahead as well. After the lessons of 2016, I simply think it’s best to be prepared.

But there is one thing I am determined to do this year that I avoided in the last, which is take some actual risks. And to make my own happiness where and when I can. So that’s two things I’m determined to do.

I spent  a good part of last year being frightened and depressed. This year, I plan on being braver and, hopefully, a little less depressed. For a time, I wondered whether there was any point at all to writing this blog when all signs point to the world ending, but I’ve got my head on straighter now. This blog will stay because writing it helps me make sense of the crazy; it helps me stay sane.

And if it helps you at all as well, that makes me happy, which is an excellent way to start a New Year, don’t you think? So feel free to use that as the adjective to your early January salutations, if you like.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some new posts to formulate and a whole freaking book to write.

Cheers,

Michael.

 

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