Final post of June: What I learned

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I went back to this blog to write deliberately – by which I mean, to write at all. Part of me was curious: could I do it? Part of me liked the challenge, and that I did. Most of all, I wanted to connect to a different mode of writing I’d been letting lie for a very long time, to brush off old orientations to words not in spite of my academic work, nor in mutual relation to, but simply alongside.

For this last post of my month-long challenge, I knew I wanted to reflect on what it all meant, but in the days leading up to it, I kept feeling empty-handed. There was no one lesson learned; no singular diamond in the rough that I could emerge with, triumphantly, clutched in my hand. Was I a better writer because of this experiment? Yes and no: I re-learned what a manageable blog post feels like, and developed instincts as to what size and shape narrative arcs worked and didn’t work. But I didn’t necessarily grow in any linear way. Did I become a better cook? Again, yes and no. I tried my hand at new things (almond milk, chia seeds, restaurant reviews) but also felt I had less time to develop and dig into my cooking, always having to turn around and package it for immediate consumption. Even my appetite and zest for all things culinary waxed and waned: sometimes I was incredibly hungry, sometimes I totally lost it. All of this, I suppose, is not out of the ordinary – but I still can’t shake the feeling that it is not quite desirable, either.

Which brings me to the bigger question: what does one ever learn from writing, anyway? So many people I know seek ourselves in this craft, if only to capture a stillness in the forgettable hustle of everyday life. I had these moments of being, and I’m grateful for them. But I think what I gained, ultimately, was a new reinforcement of being in the world, or being-in-relation to others.

I learned that “social media” is a slippery slope, but to my great glad surprise, not always for the worst: taking up the blogging challenge was part of a wider embrace of (and registration on) Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and increased activity on Facebook. I got to know their cultures, habits, taboos: some burned out like fireworks, while some have become almost habitual. While I have really mixed feelings about these sites, what I will say is that a new aperture on life opened up because of them – and I like it.

I also learned that you read this blog, which has been tremendously exciting. For many of my posts, I received comments in person, on Facebook, and on the blog. Thank you so much for being part of this experiment in returning! It’s worth the world to know you have folks to return to.

So what happens next? I’m going to be generous to myself and say, honestly, I don’t know. I probably won’t do a month-long project again, at least for a long time. And yet I’ll also be generous to you, and say with great sincerity that I will certainly continue to write, at least from time to time. Until then, keep well.

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The good-enough blogger; or, Chia seed pudding

Chia Seed Pudding

The ideal shot. Of course, this isn’t what real life looks like (more after the break…)

A long time ago, one of my academic acquaintances made a remark that has since stuck with me. I knew you were really a grad student, he said, when you stopped blogging regularly. At the time I laughed, perversely somewhat proud that life had swallowed me whole I had become a full-time academic. Later, the comment gave me serious pause. Why should grad school get all the fun, or at the very least, all my writing energy? And yet how couldn’t it? At this point, I started to find polished, professional-looking grad student food blogs uniquely irritating, second only to certain cherished sites that made the eventual, yet still utterly betraying turn into marriage plots (“I’ve been waiting a long time to introduce you to X….” “X approves of this dish…” “Reader, I married him.” UGH. Unless you are the totally badass Charlotte Brontë, please never, ever use this last line.) But that’s a subject for another post.

 

Pudding, in real life. Seems a bit smaller, doesn't it, and more humble? Threatening, even, to disappear?

Pudding, in real life. Seems a bit smaller, doesn’t it, and more humble? Threatening, even, to disappear?

 

Now, I am interested in the inbetween of being a grad student and food blogger (and I should also say, cook), and the various strategies, compromises, and creative means one employs to be both. Sometimes that means not writing about literature, or not writing about food; sometimes that means doing both and feeling that awesome warm fuzzy feeling of cross-disciplinarity (and not just feeling fuzzy, a less desirable side effect). Recently, it’s meant choosing familiar or time-economical recipes. And with this particular recipe, it meant multitasking, leaving things be, and then deciding to feel okay with the result, which was a bit soupier than I wanted it to be.

The good enough student blogger / blogging student. I think I’m down with that. Now, onto pudding.

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And here’s where it all happens

It’s the weekend before the Great Exam, and I’m sitting in Green Line Cafe, drinking coffee, eating a cookie, composing the story of my summer (which also happens to be the story of my life), and hoping for a little magic. Here’s where it begins; here’s where it ends; here’s where it all happens.

Yes, I’m hoping for a little magic–some dizzying and luscious alchemy that will transform a summer of reading into something like a gemstone, to be held up and appraised from all angles, noting where exactly it catches and reflects light like a prism, where it is scratched or damaged, where it is particularly opaque.  I want to turn this timespace into something I can hold in my hands, a dynamic and plastic thing with physical and chemical properties that I can turn and shape in my hands. Color: The green of sunlit leaves, shadowy and sunlit at turns.  Momentum: variant. Ductility: High, especially around affect and justice. Melting point: close. Electric potential: infinite.

I should be writing my introduction right now, but there’s something telling me to take pause, to reflect, to give myself time to express to you, dear reader, what it is that the summer meant to me.  And in proper 50-Book paranoia, it meant everything. The time, I realized, is now–it’s here–it has announced itself.  There is good work to be done; there are books in this world that by their sheer fact of existence call me, or something like me, into being.  It is enough.  It is now. I, with both extreme hesitation and yet none at all, am ready.

This summer, despite itself, was a gift.  After all, ’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. And while the study of literature is anything but simple, there is still a true simplicity to it that I want, above all, to carry with me into this great and sometimes terrifying world.  If I can keep this in mind — the fact that I love what I do, or at least am capable of it; the fact that the work is exciting, generative, and self-renewing, no matter how many times I have to prove it to myself once more; the fact that life is difficult, the world complex, and literature strangely moving — if I can keep these things in mind, whatever bowing and bending is involved with this exam and this profession, not only will I not be ashamed, but I think I may even be delighted.  Or grateful.  Or a feeling I would closely equate to that of love.

Here’s where it ends, yes.  Here’s where it begins, of course; one is always stumbling into beginnings.  But it’s the feeling of it all happening that I’d like to dwell on, a spirit and physical property of thought that hopefully will surface as I open a new document and begin my introduction.

Break my heart, Roland Barthes

It is said that mourning, by its gradual labor, slowly erases pain; I could not, I cannot believe this; because for me, Time eliminates the emotion of loss (I do not weep), that is all.  For the rest, everything has remained motionless.  For what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable.  I could live without the Mother (as we all do, sooner or later); but what life remained would be absolutely and entirely unqualifiable (without quality.)

(Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida)

An Invitation

(Come, it says.  Come and share your life with me.)

In four days, I will be boarding a plane to Inchon International Airport, the reverse itinerary of a trip I made twenty-four years, one month, and twenty-four days ago, to the date.  I don’t remember much about that day, which is now known in my family as my arrival day–no, I was only three months old, old enough for bewilderment but not nearly enough for something like memory.  And to be frank, that’s a pretty good description of how I feel right now: bewildered, and not nearly ready enough for this trip.  I have no idea of what to expect: even when I make a concerted effort to imagine myself there, my mind simply cannot bring itself to design that particular landscape for me, disbelieving, I think, that there is even a there awaiting me, awaiting my arrival.  Instead, what comes to me are variations on a theme of radical, impossible hospitality, the type that welcomes you in without any intimation of your imminent departure, the type that invites you–you, a perfect stranger!–to become kin, and in doing so, to never be the same.  From somewhere in its actual, concrete, completely extant geography, Korea asks again for my arrival.

(Come, they said.  Come and share your life with us.)

Who were these strangers, these perfect strangers who welcomed me into their home, ready to take on this little alien baby as their own?  And–prepare yourself–I did truly look like an alien:

That’s me on the lap, mind you; the baby with the shaved head, turned out feet, and the sign bearing my Korean name, Choi, Kyeong Mee. I presume that the woman holding me worked in the foster home, and that her serene face must grace many other adoptees’ photographs as she sat there, on that remarkable red bench, on that particular day.  This, and one other photo (a headshot), were the only pictures my adoptive parents had of me during the lengthy adoption process: as my mom recounts, when I was walked off the plane that first June day, I had grown so much she wasn’t sure it was me; it was only when she saw my feet that she knew, for sure, that this was the baby she and my dad had loved for so long.  (Loved, I’ll say again, with an impossible openness and hospitality.)

Yet I have no such evidence of such an existence, no particular fact or photograph that has the potential to grant such a miraculous, reassuring recognition.  And what’s most terrifying to me about this trip, I think, is the potential that I won’t be granted this experience, the sense that this is it, the rush of connection between this and it that places me where I am and ought to be.  And so, with increasing urgency, I repeat and extend my impossible invitation to Korea to share its life with me, trying to keep myself precariously open to any forms of kinship this trip might offer me (hospitable or hostile as the case may be), and to the spectrum of possible change that might result.  And I’m so grateful–yes–so terrified and so goddamn grateful to be able to do so, to be able to say something like come–as I step off the plane into a new and very real vista–come and share your life with me, whatever this life may be.

Welcome!

Hello all, and welcome to my new blog. Whether it’s “new and improved” has yet to be determined; at the very least, I have resolved to update it more often during these summer months. Thanks for visiting, and see you shortly.

Thoughts; Time Out

Okay, so the first week at Penn has been incredible and incredibly overwhelming. I’m in the midst of a total life-shift right now–not as enormous as the Great Vowel Shift (which was pretty huge, as I’ve been told)–but something quite akin to the matter.

The reorganization involves thinking spherically (in every direction), but as a sphere without a center. An unthinkable object. A puffed-up rhizome crisp. It has to do with cathecting to everything and everyone without stopping to think why or how–a wild, endless desiring that cannot be measured except in the moment. It’s the first-year-of-the-rest-of-your-life syndrome, you see. Some might even say it’s healthy, productive and nutritive in a schizoid way. Some might call it neurotic. I’m banking on both, putting a lot of faith in the power of the tranformative…and hey, all good academics have their neuroses, right?

Unfortunately, the Great Shift also implicates the ontology of this space. It can no longer remain purely foodie (I know! sorry!) and it might also lose its image-density (double sorry!) It may even change colors. My hope is that this will become another space of thought for me–loosen up a little, you know?–and help me through this dense jungle of ideas and the search for intellectual kinship. This doesn’t mean I’ve given up food as a major theme–I’m not that deluded; the aliens haven’t eaten and automaton-ed me yet–but it will mean that from time to time ginger roots will nudge up against rhizomatics, pork chops will come to terms with conceptions of the animal, kitchen burns and knife wounds will find companionship with the inexorable necessity of History (for after all, “History is what hurts”) and the notion of a homemade life will find itself confronted with the deeply sad, deeply unsettling notion of homelessness and alienation in our modern age.

And we’re off!

Pizza


When summer time is over and school time sets in, what better go-to, quick-and-easy dinner do we have than homemade pizza? I’ve heard it’s the new thing, prompting an outbreak of gourmand pizzerias–but I guess I just haven’t caught on to the trend of going out for pizza, not when you can make such scrumptious versions at home for super-cheap. You can find ready-made dough in the supermarket fairly easily (I like Whole Foods’ whole-wheat variety, for under $2!), and what you put on it is up to you.


The first pizza pictured was a mixture of dried figs, Gorgonzola, bacon and caramelized onions. (Hold on, don’t rush to the kitchen quite yet!) Pictured above is a delectable white pizza, made with ricotta, mozzarella, a sprinkling of Parmesan, fresh tomatoes and garlic-sautéed spinach. I’ve also made a great mushroom pizza with onions, Fontina and rosemary–although I don’t have a picture for that, I can assure you it is so good. And of course there’s the classic Margherita, a revelation when, in the confines of your own kitchen, you can douse that baby with as much mozzarella and basil as you want. You don’t need a pizza stone. I usually sprinkle a foil-covered baking tray with cornmeal and slap the dough right on top. Just be sure to crank your oven as high as it will go, unless otherwise directed; the pizzas will bake and bubble merrily for around 12-15 minutes before your judgment (or impatience, for me) deems it done. Oh, and a drizzle of olive oil and light crackling of salt pepper doesn’t hurt either.

Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Figs, Bacon and Blue Cheese
from The New York Times

● large onion
● 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
● 2 bay leaves
● Kosher salt
● 4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch thick batons
● 1 ball pizza dough (see above)
● Flour, for dusting surface
● 12 dried mission figs, stems trimmed, cut into quarters or small pieces
● 3/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola
● Extra-virgin olive oil, to drizzle
● Freshly cracked black pepper.

1. At least 45 minutes before cooking, preheat the oven and pizza stone to 550 degrees.

2. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the onions, thyme and bay leaves. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onions begin to wilt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and turn a deep, golden brown, about 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves and transfer the onions to a small bowl.

3. Place the bacon in the pan and set over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until brown and crispy. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small bowl.

White Pizza, very casual:

(Ingredients: ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, spinach, tomato, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper)

Put a glug of olive oil in a pan and heat to medium. Add some garlic and stir until fragrant. Sauté a whole lot of spinach in this mixture until cooked down, and drain off excess liquid. Cut up the tomato in a medium dice. Open cheese containers, and assemble at will. Just before sliding in the oven, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with light hand of salt and a liberal hand of pepper.

Wild Mushroom Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Fontina, and Rosemary
from Epicurious.com

● 7 tbsp. butter, divided (I used less–you don’t need 3 Tbsp of butter to caramelize onions)
● 2 tbsp. plus 1 teaspoon grapeseed oil (I just used olive oil)
● 3 onions, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise (about 6 cups)
● 2 lb. assorted wild mushrooms (such as crimini, oyster, chanterelle, and stemmed shiitake), cut into bite-size pieces
● 6 garlic cloves, minced
● 2 tbsp. minced shallot (about 1 medium)
● 2 cups dry white wine
● 1 tbsp. minced fresh rosemary
● Pizza Dough
● Cornmeal (for dusting)
● Garlic oil
● 3 cups grated Fontina cheese (about 10 ounces)

Melt 3 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until golden, about 45 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter with 1 teaspoon grapeseed oil in another heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, garlic, and shallot. Sauté 4 minutes. Add wine and simmer until almost all liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 13 minutes. Add rosemary; season with salt and pepper.

Position rack in bottom third of oven. Place heavy 17×11-inch baking sheet on rack (invert if rimmed). Preheat oven to 500°F at least 30 minutes before baking. Roll out 2 dough disks on lightly floured surface to 8-inch rounds, allowing dough to rest a few minutes if it springs back. Sprinkle another baking sheet (invert if rimmed) with cornmeal. Transfer 1 dough round to second baking sheet. Lightly brush dough with garlic oil. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup cheese. Scatter 2 1/2 tablespoons onions over cheese. Scatter 1/2 cup mushrooms over onions. Sprinkle with salt.

Position baking sheet with pizza at far edge of 1 side of hot baking sheet. Tilt sheet and pull back slowly, allowing pizza to slide onto hot sheet. Repeat with second dough disk, garlic oil, cheese, onions, mushrooms, and salt, and slide second pizza onto second half of hot baking sheet. Bake pizzas 6 minutes. Rotate pizzas half a turn. Bake until crust is deep brown, about 6 minutes longer. Using large spatula, carefully transfer pizzas to cutting board. Let rest 1 minute. Slice into wedges and serve. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

The Divine Food List

Or, A Riff On Deliciousness

well-established:
wallaby maple yogurt
roast chicken with rosemary and garlic
banana bread with honey
butterscotch pots de crème
pear cake
soy-maple vinaigrette
mushroom risotto
the great unshrinkable sweet tart shell
alice waters’ apple tart
mary jo’s pecan pie
japanese pickles
chinese roast pork
salmon sashimi
rice in lotus leaf
seaweed salad
massaman curry
roasted brussel sprouts
french vinaigrette
penne carbonara
rigatoni bolognese
hell’s kitchen lemon ricotta hotcakes
apples and brie
sweetened ricotta with fruit
soft polenta
homemade tomato sauce
three-layer peppermint bark
broccoli rabe with sausage (post coming soon!)
roasted vegetables

in the works, on my mind:
frisée aux lardons: warm curly endive with pancetta and egg
homemade challah
artichokes with warm butter

favorite ingredients:
brown sugar, brown butter
honey
avocado
shallots
pecans, pine nuts, walnuts
berries
scallops, salmon
chives, rosemary, basil, cilantro
eggs!
cinnamon
ricotta
vanilla beans

what are yours?

A new beginning

Today was a beautiful day: I finally felt (that queer, official feeling) that I’d embarked upon the next phase of my life.

And it’s funny how unremarkable a day it was, really. It wasn’t particularly sunny and gorgeous; on the contrary, the sky was slightly overcast and there was a damp chill in the air. I didn’t have the day off from work, eat anything overly memorable, have any prophetic dreams. But I somehow awoke with a feeling of incipient goodness, promises of intellectual and personal nourishment afforded by graduate school, Philadelphia, a particular loved one nearer by than ever–and before all that, a glorious summer reading, being a yogi, and frequenting all the farmers’ market stands I can find. (Oh, farmers’ markets! I’m especially looking forward to those…)

I don’t have too much for you tonight in terms of recipes and food-related anecdotes, but I do have a collection of photographs that, in looking back over the last month of travelling, showed me that while I mostly put culinary arts on the backburner, they were never too far from my mind. Enjoy.