Friday, July 30, 2010

On Comfort

Lace, 2010

Shopgirl. I like this film. It brings me comfort, Mirabelle Buttersfield in particular. Her quiet sadness and ability to carry on feel like an old friend when I am craving something familiar. The actual story leaves me feeling sort of lukewarm, yet I find myself watching this film again, for the third time. Maybe lukewarm is exactly what I want sometimes, and Shopgirl does lukewarm just right. There is something about the pace, mood, and the way it looks on screen, the stripped down beauty of Mirabelle's life. Her apartment is spare, but the vintage items she has collected suit her perfectly, and she has a nice bathtub. The evening gloves counter where she spends her days is surrounded by open space filled with soft light and dotted with objects of sadly dated beauty. She drives a bland little pick-up truck, serves cheap wine past its prime, and does it all with a gentle melancholic grace. She is an artist who follows her instincts and does not apologize for creating just one drawing every six months or so. I love her self-portraiture scenes. The men in her life disappoint, but she is hopeful. She tries to see the best in them. The ending isn't shocking or dramatic. It is calm and true.

What brings you comfort?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dene & Lisa (& Lion)

Dene & Lisa, 1971
Image courtesy of Aunt Barbara
Photographer: Mom or Dad (?)

Thinking about my little sis today... I'm not sure what was happening in most of our childhood photographs, but she's always smiling and I'm always looking a bit put-upon. Mom tells me the studious stuffed lion was the free gift that accompanied my parent's new checking account. Lisa seems to like it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

From 1746 to Lady Pickles

A Pint, 2010

It does not seem to be the place to procure the perfect bowl of ramen, but isn't ramen becoming a little overrated these days? If you would like to sit in a sun filled cafe and drink a creamy delicious matcha latte, browse bonsai, or shop in a market that sells fresh shishito peppers, nifty little Japanese white cucumbers, and bitter almond Kit Kats, San Francisco's Japantown is your place.

1746 Post Street is where to begin. Cinema Cafe serves a fine matcha latte. I always order mine in a small cup. The large is just too large, but they only have one button on the cash register for this beverage, so you'll have to pay for a large. It's worth it. It is the most beautiful latte I've ever seen, a calming pale green.

Bring a book or browse the Kinokuniya Bookstore (1581 Webster Street) before you head to the cafe. Kinokuniya has the most inspiring collection of Japanese books. I'm always drawn to their various craft and design books. Don't worry if you don't read Japanese, it is the imagery that will capture your attention. They carry some English books as well.

Currently, Kinokuniya has some darling little tote bags in stock. The bags are printed by a local artist, and selling for only $4.95. They come in a variety of colors and I really have to practice restraint to keep myself from purchasing a new tote each time I enter the store.

There is always the option of forgetting books altogether and simply drinking your latte while gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Cinema Cafe and people watching.

Before you go, visit the best ladies room in the city of San Francisco. I'm sure the men's room is nice too, but I cannot say for sure. The ladies room is located on the level beneath the cafe, near the small box office. Yes, they show films here--the focus is on "the latest and hottest films from Japan". Once inside the ladies room, you will find an array of tiny glass vases filled with fresh flowers. Best of all, you will sit on a high-tech heated toilet seat. The entire space is immaculate.


Even if you don't require any Japanese pantry items, the Nijiya Market is worth the trip (1737 Post Street). It's just across the street from the cafe. Peruse the aisles and note all of the interesting ingredients you will not likely find in an average American supermarket. Don't miss the Kewpie Mayonnaise.

If you are in the mood to wander, there's a cute little bonsai shop, Katsura Garden, just steps away (1825 Post Street). If you require rest, stop by Robert Redford's Sundance Kabuki Cinema (1881 Post Street). I'm sure there will be something that suits your mood.

I left Japantown with a new tote (I now own 2) and some nice pickle ingredients.

Once home, I made these deceptively feisty pickles. As I prepared the thinly sliced petite vegetables, all so delicate, and decided on the additional spicy and sweet ingredients, I thought...these are going to be called Lady Pickles.

Lady Pickles
1 pint

1 small chunk of ginger = to the top of your thumb, above the first knuckle
3 small carrots
3 shishito peppers
2 small Japanese white cucumbers
3 ooba (aojiso) leaves

1/2 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1 star anise

3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Peel ginger and place in the bottom of a clean 1 pint jar. Top, tail, and slice carrots, peppers, and cucumbers very thin. I used a Kyocera adjustable mandoline slicer for the carrots and cucumbers and a knife for the peppers. Chiffonade the aojiso leaves. Toss together and add to jar. Over low heat, toast cinnamon, red pepper, mustard, and star anise in a small sauce pan for a few minutes. Add vinegar, water, sugar, and salt to sauce pan and simmer for a few minutes while gently stirring. Pour liquid into jar, over vegetables. Allow contents of jar to cool before sealing jar and placing it in the refrigerator. Wait 24 hours or so.

Eat Lady Pickles beside grilled sandwiches, grain salads, or platters of cured meats and cheeses.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Back to Barbara (Pym)

Excellent Women with Almonds, 2010

Excellent women are women men take for granted. In a parish, they are there to help make the tea, arrange flowers in the church and provide companionship for the more boring members of the congregation with whom the priests can't be bothered.

Those women who are openly sexually alluring do not seem to be excellent, and do not need to bother themselves with such unselfish tasks as washing up or making curtains.

-Excerpt from A. N. Wilson's 2005 Introduction (Excellent Women by Barbara Pym)

Miss Mildred Lathbury is at the center of Barbara Pym's quietly comical and unpretentious story, Excellent Women. We are introduced to Mildred's way of thinking on the first page of the novel as she ponders her life at present.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Later in the novel we accompany Mildred as she is lost in a crowd of busy women shopping. Soon she is looking at her reflection in a mirror and seeing herself as colourless and worried-looking, the eyes large and rather frightened, the lips too pale. An uncomfortable encounter with a sales clerk ends even more uncomfortably, but with her desired shade of lipstick in hand.

'Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire,' I said obstinately, savouring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my shame.

I hurried away and found myself on an escalator. Hawaiian Fire, indeed! Nothing more unsuitable could possibly be imagined. I began to smile and only just stopped myself from laughing out loud...

Although we have very little in common, I am quite fond of Mildred. Seeing 1950s England through her eyes is a treat. Her observations of everyday life are subtle, yet crystal clear. Honestly, I really don't think she would have liked me very much, but she would have tolerated me, because that's what Mildred does, she tolerates people. She believes it is her duty. It would not be wise for me to hope for more. But like Mildred, I would adore Rockingham Napier before ever setting eyes on him. Rockingham is such a fabulously commanding name. And if I lived in 1950s England, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself sitting alone eating a very small chop followed by a little knitting with my radio tuned to Saturday Night Theatre. This does actually resemble a night I might have while Chris works late. My kind of adventure. Also, I find her idea for a novel exquisite. Perhaps Miss Lathbury and I have more in common than I originally thought.

Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin. Mr. Napier was called Rockingham!
I dare say a clever person with a fantastic turn of mind could transform even a laundry list into a poem.
I hurried about the kitchen, eating the baked beans in ten minutes or less, quite without dignity, and then washing up.
I thought of my half-used tin of baked beans; no doubt I should be seeing them again tomorrow.
You know I'm not used to wine, particularly in the middle of the day, I said, but it's rather pleasant to be unlike oneself occasionally.
It was a sobering kind of place to be in and a glance at my face in the dusty ill-lit mirror was enough to discourage anybody's romantic thoughts.
It was a good thing he began talking, for I am not used to meeting handsome men and I am afraid that I must have been staring at him rather rudely.
So he did remember me like that after all -- a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one.
My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

-Miss Mildred Lathbury Excerpts
(Excellent Women by Barbara Pym 1952)

One more thing before I go. It's always interesting to see the way the British use English a bit differently than we do here in America. For instance, I was sent to the dictionary after feeling confused by a particular passage in Excellent Women and learned the following (note 1 chiefly British, not 2):

Main Entry: slut
Pronunciation: \ˈslət\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English slutte
Date: 15th century
1 chiefly British : a slovenly woman
2 a : a promiscuous woman; especially : prostitute b : a saucy girl : minx

There, we've gotten that out of the way. Now new American readers of Excellent Women will not be confused.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Almond Granita 1.0

It was good warm too, 2010

When we decided a trip to Southern Italy was off the table for this year my heart sank a little. We have wonderful memories, so many reasons to return, and I really wanted to try a granita di mandorle (almond granita). I just discovered the granita during my last trip to Italy. I don't know how I missed it during earlier trips, but as my dad would say... It is what it is. The lemon granita was my first and last granita. I was smitten with the lemon granita and had no interest in further exploration. I ate one almost every day. I now realize the error of my ways. So I made a decision. Trip to Italy or not, I would soon be tasting an almond granita.

The recipes I found were all a bit different, but centered around 3 basic components: almonds, sweetener, and a liquid. Some ground their own whole almonds and some purchased almond paste (sweetener and ground almond combined). Sugar was the dominant sweetener. And for liquid, there was milk (from a cow), almond milk (store bought or homemade), or water (still, not sparkling).

I didn't put much thought into the preparation of my almond granita, a quick scan of a handful of recipes and I was off on my adventure. Almonds? Paste. Sweetener? Enough in the paste. Liquid? Milk (whole milk...cow).

It was good. The color was nice. It froze perfectly. It was a sweet treat and we ate every last bit.

But I'd like to continue experimenting. There are some things I'd like to change. It was a little sweet for my taste, so I will use either less almond paste or more milk in version 1.1. Also, I did not strain the mixture prior to freezing. Some do and some don't. I opted for the easy route. I love almonds, why remove the ground almonds from the mixture? I'll tell you why. I wasn't thrilled with the texture of the ground almonds from the paste. The creamy frozen milk melted in my mouth leaving ground almonds behind. It wasn't terrible, but a little disconcerting. Not my thing. I will employ my cheesecloth-lined sieve next time.

You should really try this, your own variation. It is the season.

Almond Granita 1.0
2 large servings or 4 small

1 tube almond paste (7 ounces)
1 kindergarten carton of whole milk (10.66 ounces)

Slice almond paste into 1/2 inch circles and place in small sauce pan. Add milk. Over low heat, never allowing a boil, break up paste with fork to incorporate it into milk. Remove pan from heat. Confirm liquid in pan is deep enough to submerge immersion blender blade. If not, transfer mixture to a smaller pan. Blend until smooth with immersion blender. Cool mixture. Transfer cooled mixture to small baking dish and place in freezer. Lick your cooled saucepan and fork as you would a cake battered bowl and spoon. Check mixture every 30 minutes and rake, smash, and stir with a fork as it begins to freeze. Continue these 30 minute increments until the texture is to your liking. Serve Immediately.

I prefer my granita pure and unadulterated, but I have seen others add whipped cream or crushed amaretti cookies. I've seen cinnamon and lemon juice involved at different stages as well. I'm sure any of these items could prove to be enjoyable. I would not sweeten my whipping cream. This granita is quite sweet on its own.

If you do give the almond granita a go, please return later and share your findings in the comments section.

Stay cool.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not sure how or where to begin...



How are you?

Me? I'm great. Today, I'm great.

Yesterday was another story. I did not drink coffee and, well, the best way to put it is things got a little weird. I considered yesterday a useless day, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. It turns out my weird day was actually a very productive incubation day. It has allowed today to be a day in which I am bursting with so many thoughts and ideas I'm just not sure how or where to begin. Some little things and some big, all of them in a beautifully tangled mess.

Red Leaf & Radish, 2010

There was the day last week that really felt like summer (San Franciscans don't often have these feelings in July). It required a cool crisp salad with a very particular buttermilk dressing. I adore this dressing. My salad was super simple, just red leaf lettuce and a few thinly sliced radishes. After finishing my delicious salad, I couldn't stop eating buttermilk dressed carrots. This somehow leads me to my desire to make Rachel's fiori di zucca. Simplicity at its best--no mozzarella, no ricotta, no anchovy...and served with prosecco. Oh, yes. Rachel is my hero. So I'm thinking of fresh fruits and vegetables (and flowers...and prosecco) and the way I am gravitating toward food with little to no adornment. Is there more to say about this? Perhaps. Maybe this is enough. Not sure.

Crumb, 2010

And then there is the day I felt like going for a ride over the Golden Gate Bridge. Chris made it happen. It was a gloomy morning and we escaped into the sunshine. We ended up in Larkspur at Donut Alley. I've been craving a peanut donut ever since I wrote The Pier. They didn't make peanut donuts, so I ate this one instead. They made a fresh jelly-filled donut for Chris. Such service! This also reminded me of a recent chat with my father and one of the many food memories we discussed. The memory about the orchard where we used to pick apples and the little shack with a screen door that sold warm donuts. This made me think of Mom's early cookbook collection visible in the background of a 1970s photo of my little sis and me. Do I have additional thoughts about food and memory? Pull up a chair. This might take a while.

The End, 2010

I've almost finished this warm weather scarf. Something for early mornings in San Francisco. It is complete with the exception of an end that requires weaving. Summer knitting is not something that ranks high on my list of summer pastimes, but the use of a cotton based yarn, along with living in a city that has a summer like no other (usually cool), has me changing my tune.

Thinking of Ms. Pym, 2010

And most importantly, Barbara Pym. Ms. Pym has been on my mind for a while. I'd like to talk with you about her. About her writing style, her characters, what she's made me think about my own writing, and some other bits. I'm organizing my thoughts. These thoughts feel most important and are therefore more difficult to articulate.

W.S. Merwin too, but I'm trying (unsuccessfully) to address one item at a time, take it one step at a time.

Thank you for your patience.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Almond Cake

Someday, 2010


The road was a little rocky. No almond extract. No food processor. No stand mixer. A failed attempt with a springform pan (least fun).

Still, it is done. Still, it is perfect.

Almond Cake Recipe

On Not Waiting

Not Waiting, 2010

I won't recommend Tom Cruise's latest movie (it was fine...), but his character did mention the word someday in a way that I haven't been able to shake.

Someday. That's a dangerous word. It's really just a code word for 'never'.
Tom Cruise in Knight and Day


I am obviously not the first individual to contemplate the meaning of this adverb.
Merriam-Webster defines someday as at some future time. Painfully vague, don't you think?

When I typed someday into Google I found Someday - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The page lists 36 songs and 5 albums titled Someday. This list doesn't even include John Fogerty's Someday Never Comes. His are the lyrics that really sting and inspire me to never use the word again.

"Someday Never Comes" is simply a song about my parents undergoing a divorce when I was a child and me not knowing many things. When my dad left me, he told me to be a man and someday I would understand everything. Now, I'm here basically repeating the same thing really. I had a son in 1966 and I went away when he was five years old or so and again told him "someday" he would understand everything. Really, all kids ask questions like "Daddy, when are we going fishing?" and parents always answer with "someday", but in reality someday never comes and kids never learn what they're supposed to learn. -John Fogerty 1973

I may move at a turtle's pace, but I don't stall. I do make things happen. Unfortunately, there are some things in my life that I've allowed myself to believe will happen someday. This isn't good. I'm thinking about these things today. Some of my somedays are deeply personal and some are as simple as almond cake.

I'm beginning with almond cake. Thanks Vanessa.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

summer read

Thursday Morning, 2010

It's almost time to select a new novel. I have a long list of books to read, but nothing feels quite right at the moment. It's like having a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. I very specifically want a summer read, although I'm not exactly sure how to define such a thing. I feel I'll know if it is right as I read the first few pages. It will be a novel, not a book of short stories or poems, it will not discuss the lives of vampires, and the author will take me to a landscape with wide open spaces. All of that being said, my perfect summer read might not involve any of those things. It will just feel like summer, at least to me. But where to begin? Do you have any suggestions?