A small collection of half-written posts from 2007, not likely to be finished, but worth more than tossing down the garbage disposal:
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My mom drives to Monterey to Sea Harvest or Wharf Number Two and buys cooked, cracked, whole crabs. The dismembered Dungeness beasts are dumped out into the utility sink, washed, and returned to the fridge until dinner. When I set the dinner table around four-thirty, I place a nutcracker and a pick along the top of the place setting, centered between the spoons on the right and the forks on the left. The crab is served cold in big earthenware casserole dishes. Mom’s whole wheat crescent rolls arrive at the table warmed and nestled between cloth napkins in a woven basket. We heap salad onto our plates and use the pick to tease crabmeat out onto the bed of lettuce and veggies.
Until my mid-twenties, I was too repulsed by my abstract, untested notion of crab to eat any myself, though the entire table moaned at its lusciousness. Some other runner-up meal was prepared for me and any other non-crab eaters present, but instead of jumping right in and finishing before everyone else, I moved around the table, helping crack and pick crab for the rest of the family. There was great disappointment when I finally clued in that Dungeness crab is one of the most delicious things a gal can have for dinner.
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At the end of the meal, we were well sated declined the offer of a dessert menu. Our server, in kind, careful English, offered that the house dessert was included in the meal and asked if we would like to try it. Reasoning that it would be rude to refuse, we assented. We didn’t know what the dessert was – I had only understood, or thought I had understood, “water chestnut,” and when it arrived, the dish was a bit of a surprise.
The dessert was a soup, I guess, in a small bowl – the same that held the white rice during our supper – with a saucer. It’s a clear liquid, slightly sweet and hot, in which floats a crinkly matter, not unlike rice noodles but firmer and in short, koosh-ball-esque shapes. And three lychee nuts. Or, they’re berries, right? The lychees were pitted, but still sheathed their rough red skins.
I took up the large ceramic spoon, awkward to my american table habits, and slurped, first the liquid, then with the crinkly bits. I discovered the water chestnut – if that is really what it was – a few bites in, cut up small and sunk to the bottom of the tiny bowl.
The lychee was delicious, and I especially enjoyed breaking the tension of the skin with my teeth to release the soft, sweet flesh inside. The physical sensation of its mastication was as enjoyable, if not more so, than its flavor.
My dining companion looked on in mock – or true – horror. She slurped a little of the liquid, might have tried the crinkly things, broke apart one of the lychees with er spoon, and then set her bowl aside to watch me.
I suggested she try a lychee, making a show of enjoying mine in the exact manner that my father used with trying to convince Baby J9 to eat steamed zucchini slices. Mmmm, just like candy, he’d say. This tactic never worked on me; I don’t know why I was surprised that it didn’t get the lychees eaten either.
When I finished and pushed the bowl away, she made a joke, likening our dessert to gorilla testicle soup.
“I am sure gorillas have much larger testicles than a lychee nut,” I volleyed, determined not to let an allusion to primate genitalia affect my digestion.
“Well, I would have said ‘monkey,’ but I didn’t want to be culturally insensitive.”
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Three years ago I was at the Portland Nursery with my friend Julia. We had gone on a specific errand, but as often happens, we allowed ourselves a stroll through the greenhouses and were unable to resist one or two particularly beautiful, or interesting, or just plain green plants. I spotted a cluster of coffea arabica: coffee. I let out a small, quick noise that betrayed my delighted surprise. Coffee? I asked, for Julia is one of my favorite resources for all matters relating to both fauna and flora. She responded in the affirmative. Yes, that really is coffee and yes, it can grow in the Pacific Northwest. Like citrus, coffee is potted instead of planted so that it can be brought inside in the winter. It took no more assurance or encouragement: I took home eight three-inch tall coffee trees.
The little trees are now three years old and have lived with me in four different houses. Each summer when the temperature is reliably above 60º most of the time, I take them outside and try to tuck them in shady, warm corners of my yard. Coffee plants prefer to live in the shade. Too much sun and their leaves will burn, making photosynthesis impossible. Too few months later when the temperature drops back down, I bring the pots back inside, trying to find places they may be protected from the cats.
Julia’s house is always stuffed with plants and living things, sometimes so much so that it resembles a nursery more than a place where one might settle down in the evening with a book. When she housesits for me in the winter, she brings some of her houseplants with her, hanging the orchids from the baker’s rack in my kitchen and setting pots down on the floor of my living room. When she leaves, my place looks a little empty and I wonder how I survive with so few houseplants.
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Sometimes a girl can walk by a restaurant and just *know* that it’s a winner. I’d like to tell you that I can always pick the great ones, that I am a human dowsing rod for good eats, and I’d like that to be an accurate assessment of my divination prowess. But the truth is, I’ve picked some real losers in this town, and often I don’t see the gems coming until the meal arrives in front of me.
Last week, however, I called it – called it good. A friend of mine has just moved to town and, having neither a proper job nor a full course load to monopolize the hours of my day, I have taken to exploring the City with her. It’s nice to see good ol’ Portland through fresher eyes. We had enjoyed a lunch at the Bridgeport Ale House and were walking up SE Hawthorne Boulevard just to walk up it. Construction compelled us to cross the street six blocks above 39th Avenue, routing our stroll by the Hawthorne Fish House. A sandwich board sign on the sidewalk forced us to walk single-file past the modest-looking door, just outside of which was mounted a translucent plastic menu caddy. As I moved past I reached for one, saying “Gosh, I bet this place is good,” while folding the menu into my bag. I don’t remember why I thought so, or if I could have justified the assessment at the time. Back home, the menu lay folded on my desk for days before I bothered to look at it again.
The Hawthorne Fish House (henceforth, HFH) menu is nearly perfect. Though they do offer one or two items to appease the non-pescaphile (a burger, chicken strips), the majority of their food is fish, fish, or fish. Or clams.
It is, I believe, a profoundly wise restauranteur who can resist needless innovation and clutter on her menu. So it is at the HFH. Make no mistake, I am not herein supporting the hum-drum or the uninspired. No, I am not. I am, however, saying just this: When you figure out how to make what are very possibly the best fish’n'chips this gal has ever had the rapturous pleasure to chew and swallow, it’s best for everyone if you don’t screw with them too much.
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The last time I watched and enjoyed a cooking show was during my grammar school years. I would have been home with a flu or something, watching Jeff Smith and Martin Yan on KQED between episodes of the Woodwright Shop and This Old House.
Cooking shows were different then. Jeff Smith opened his show with a stroll through an outdoor market. Martin Yan made vocal sound effects while chopping vegetables with his imposing, well-honed clever. These guys could cook, too. They didn’t need a pretense – no friends were on their way over expecting an array of munchies to to enjoy while watching the Big Game. Meals didn’t have to be prepared in under thirty minutes, or in only five steps, or with some obscure ingredient that nobody’d want to eat anyway. Jeff and Martin cooked because they were good at it, and I watched them because they were clever are rarely obnoxious. These days the Food Channel makes me cringe, as I do when someone asks if I’ve seen the newest Nigella Lawson cookbook, and when celebrity “chefs” appear on my darned cracker box. Leave my crackers alone, or bring back the Frugal Gourmet.