Monday, April 29, 2013

Anxious to close

JP's Blue Plate Special

JP's jagacita, of Cape Verdean and Puerto Rican descent, is rice studded with shell beans and sausage, the equivalent of jambalaya or Bahamian pigeon peas and rice. The secret ingredient is ketchup, as in Thai street fried rice—the world's perfect condiment. A blend of three of the Thai five flavors—sweet, salty, sour. The other two being spicy and bitter, although bitterness is just my word for the fifth-flavor approximation. The bitterness of coffee or cress or or kale or burnt garlic, although maybe all of those are merely the Japanese fifth flavor, umami, after all.

My brother's Thai friend, who cooked for us duck curry and savory fried omelets filled with ground pork, said they made it that way for us because we were farangs, Americans, foreigners, and farangs want everything with ketchup. It is perhaps true. I use it in my fried rice, just a tablespoon, and on my potatoes, and JP uses it in jag. It comes from Indonesia by way of India and the British raj, according to one story, where it's a syrupy black soy concoction, with fermented anchovy and tamarind and tomato, closer to Worcestershire sauce than anything.

All of our food comes from afar, is an amalgam of history that our genes themselves are. The definitive jag also calls for Stewart's shelled beans, a kind I'd never heard of before moving to New England, a pale pink moist bean. Evidently Scottish, it has a Stewart plaid on the label and is canned in West Paris, Maine. Just the thing for Puerto Rican food.

And also then linguica, the Portugese sausage inherited in Massachusetts from Cape Verde, red and garlicky and chunked with cubes of fat, a sausage that should by rights be at least as famous as bratwurst or kielbasa. But you can't even buy it outside New England. I tried, in Chicago, when I wanted to make Portugese kale soup, the perfect vehicle for greens. The only essential ingredients are kale, kidney beans, potatoes, and—linguica. Even the artisanal boutique saucisseries in Boystown didn't carry it.

I always want to travel everywhere, and when I get there, I am the most enthusiastic locavore—wanting to eat whatever is the local-est, whether beer, fast food, street noodles, or sausage, and I still look at the life I'm living now with an outsider's eyes. Aroostookisms, here, New England specialties retain the exciting frisson of a tourist's gaze: poutain (deep-fried potatoes drenched in beef gravy and melted cheese), coffee milk, frappes, and fried clams are still more exotic to me that guiteau nam and plah sahm roht and unripe papaya salad. Maybe it's the gift that my parents gave me. I am an eternal traveler passing through, and I will remain so even if I live here for the rest of my life.

Whatever I see, I read as an anthropologist. I snap shots as a journalist. I'm a food critic and a travel writer, even in my hometown, because it is not, of course, my hometown. I'd come to Detroit, the city of my birth, with the same existentialist terror with which I approach locals in almost any context, even my own neighbors.

Shortly before midnight, last night, I stood in my kitchen watching “boat television,” the hypnotic shuffle of nine years of photographs from my life with K—starting from the Appalachian Trail—overlaid with my iTunes library, always on shuffle. I have written before about my attraction to randomness. It is something I love, like God is speaking directly. He spoke last night, showing us a photo of the front yard in summer. The sky is blue and cloudless. The front yard and garden and ring of pines green. The beaver pond, fringed with water plants and cattails. It looks like Acadia, a mythical perfect paradise. It is Acadia. It is perfect. It is heaven.

K cracks: “But it doesn't show the mosquitoes.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A holy war

I've always wanted to go there,” I say, watching another travel show on PBS.

K. says: “But you say that about everywhere.”

But it's true. I've always wanted to go everywhere, and Maine is only one of the many places I dreamed of visiting. I've debated enrolling in the Century Club, where members visit all 321 (at press time) of the world's countries before they die. The number varies, of course, with new countries minted, nullifying a lifetime attempt to check them all of the list, forcing deathbed adventure, at least in my imagination.

But Maine: Maine I saw as cliffs and white-stone beaches, me walking along the shore barefoot, wearing a white dress, with a white house perched as an ocean lookout above the white-grey sea. Wherever this vision came from the illustrated children's version of Moby-Dick or from Bangkok billboards, I'll never know.

Maine is different. Maine is cold. Maine is a place where one can remain indoors, quietly stewing, for weeks at a time, while outside the moon principle rules, the cold, the dark. It's the yin principle come to life, the yin I recognize from childhood, although it's perhaps my first acknowledgment of its power.

The first yin-yang I saw was on the Confucian temple, bedecked with pink and orange pastel. We passed its alien statues of a dark-bearded idolatrous Confucius as we walked to our friend's house in the slum along the khlong—one of Bangkok's fetid bottle-green canal-sewers, smelling of garlic and rotting flesh, a smell I still catch in my dog's breath, which reminds me, thoroughly, of home. It doesn't disgust me. When I catch the smell from a septic release valve or loose propane now it feels old and faintly nostalgic, as when I caught the whiff of raw sewage through my dorm-room windows, in Manila.

What do sewage and the yin-yang have to do with each other? And how do they connect to cold and Maine and wanderlust? Who knows. Just another string of associations, the dangling trail as I pull monkeys from the barrel of memory. But I still want to go everywhere.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tweedle-dee Dum said to Tweedle-dee Dee


Full moon, not from now--because this week the moon was new

Your presence is obnoxious to me”
They’re like babies sittin’ on a woman’s knee
Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee

In my ongoing Bob Dylan series: it's not hard to imagine Bush and Gore in the above pair, and then we dive deeper into gemini, the astronomical twins. Of course all of us hate the thing closest to us, the thing we are most like—the vision of ourselves as obnoxious stranger, the shadow, opposite us, looking exactly like us, but wrong. The thing we hate the most is the thing most like us.

On Nova last week, they went inside the ancient computer built by Archimedes, found in the Adriatic Sea. Its complex of knobs and toothed wheels predicted the color of eclipses, the movement of the stars, decades into the future. Carved legible Greek words—helios—carved in the bronze. How the wheeling of the stars has been important to thousands of years of human beings, and how long have we been here. Jung says the collective unconscious holds the collective store of our memory, and the thing we hate the most is our Shadow.

I have a Shadow. He follows me around, room to room. He whines at my door, scratching to be let in. He follows me to bed at night and looks at me with a face of love as I pat his warm belly. I fear his death.

So my dog is named after Jung's great other. And he reminds me of how humans have used science, astronomy, the whirring of the planets, to make sense of reality for thousands of years—and art, to tell each other stories. Alice in Wonderland names the pair—suspendered and roly-poly—and then we identify them as what they are, ourselves split, ourselves at war with ourselves—unable to grow up.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

All you need is love

To take good care of houseplants
So I decided I needed a garden project and since the garden is still covered in at least two feet of snow and it keeps snowing, even though allegedly I can start my beet seedlings--according to the gurus--I repotted the plants that had been sitting in the windowsill languishing. You can see their poor shriveled leaves in the above photograph, but also that it's trying its darnedest to flower.  I can be a bit too laissez-faire in all of my housekeeping endeavors.  If the plant is living happily sitting in water, then it can't be doing too badly, right?

Except maybe it's not living that happily
Seriously, it lived in the water for more than a year.  And I'm keeping the ivy in its vase.  But when this one with the speckled leaves died, I decided I needed to rescue the other one.  The glass is found glass from the land.  I like to think an old moonshiner used to live here, but it's probably just someone's garbage glass pile.

Here's what the roots looked like
So now I have a plant living in my office, facing towards the sun, yearning with its chlorophyll towards spring, as do I.  It's long and spindly, and the new cat hired to kill field mice keeps trying to eat it, but it sits in my window and makes me happy and reminds me that occasionally I do successfully dig in dirt and make things grow.  The too-early seeds, planted in a neighboring pot, withered when I uncovered them too early.  But whatevs.

And here's what it looked like at the end
Note that it is still dark out in the above photograph.  We finally had the time change a couple of weeks after I did this mammoth repotting project, and now we're getting some light in late afternoon.  Do you think it'll still flower?  I have my doubts.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Into the big sleep

Fat, I think
Cynthia Timmons was the youngest of a missionary family's second set of twins, both adopted. Her family came from California. Her dad worked for World Vision—a development organization that my family judged as being too rich—proved by the vicious monkey he kept chained in their driveway. He'd adopted the chimp young and it turned cruel later. When we went to visit their house, we had to sprint from the car to the house. Cynthia and her identical twin were different, also, aliens among us, if I feel like making excuses for her. Filipina by descent, adopted as an infant, she bullied me on the playground—really a park attached to a pool, accessible to us because of the apartment our missionary cooperative rented as a schoolroom. I remember the crucial moment when she convinced me, cornered me. She was casually, unintentionally cruel.

Fatso,” she said.

I didn't know enough to let it lie. I chased her, first one side of the littorea bush, then the other. She was dark, lithe, small. I was chubby and easily winded, the girl always sitting in the corner reading, the girl who walked with an open book in her hand along the soi to recess. Cynthia dodged and laughed.

Fatso, fatso, fatso,” she said, as if discovering that word's power. As if discovering the magic spell that would hold me in thrall for the rest of my life.

Fat, I think, looking in the mirror. Fat, I think, putting my body through cleanses and fasts. Fat, I think, gaining it all back. Why couldn't I just let her run away?