Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As Christmas approached and the weather became colder, Faustina assumed her pear-shaped winter body and spent the evenings curled up in her basket by the boiler in the kitchen, while Sophia stirred various mixtures stiff with fruit and nuts and laced with brandy.
Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment

Friday, December 10, 2010

the dude's good

Actors receive all kinds of Oscars. A common one is the Oops, Our Bad Oscar, awarded for a good performance when (more importantly) the recipient is getting up there in years and/or overdue for some general recognition and/or was snubbed embarrassingly in previous years. Jeff Bridges' 2009 Academy Award for Crazy Heart, which some claimed was that kind of classic Overdue Oscar, was actually for something else if you ask me: smoking.

There has never been a smoker like Bridges in films, and when I say that I am thinking of all film smokers and all smoking movies, from Bogie to Now, Voyager. Bridges' relationship with things he lights on fire and sticks in his mouth creates a parallel world of expression in film that he uses to great advantage and it deserves some recognition beyond the tiny gold cigarette that must be dangling from the mouth of his Oscar.

It started in his earliest work. Bridges smokes in a scene at the end of The Last Picture Show (1971) before he ships off to Korea, his uniform--and his cigarette---hinting at adulthood. Even then Bridges shows some of his classic smoking gestures, including holding his fingers close to his face and tilting his head down as he inhales.

In Starman (1984), Bridges depicts an alien come to earth who in one scene learns to smoke for the first time, (showing us, maybe, how he learned to do it) and before dissolving into a coughing jag that demonstrates the classic Bridges hollow-cheeked suck:

Among other parts in the 80s, Bridges was a post-war smoking innoventor in Tucker (1988):

before the role that I think earned him a gold medal as a movie smoker, The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), which, I'm sorry to tell the film industry, cigarette manufacturers, and my mother, made me want to smoke. I already smoked occasionally, but his character made me want to smoke better.

Taciturn, hooded-eyed pianist Jack Baker is a virtuoso smoker rendered in Bridges' naturalistic acting style, which extends into the smoking as well. Bridges is smart in that he doesn't pretend he's not smoking or minimize his movements. Nor does he try to look as if--or avoid appearing as if--he's too cool for the activity; he engages with it, looks foolish doing it on occasion, has some big gestures the way real smokers do, revels in the sensuality of it. It's subtle in human ways, not classically cinematic ones.

In The Fabulous Baker Boys he luxuriates in long, long scenes of smoking, letting it speak for him--indulging in the smoking even as his character remains coldly closed off. He employs some classic Bridges stuff such as the Dangle, which should look stupid--he talks with the cigarette wobbling in his lips, his eyes screwed up against the smoke, his lower lip pushed up in a silly way to keep it there--but on Bridges doesn't:

He has a distinct way of dragging hard on a cigarette then pulling it out of his mouth at the very last minute before speaking a line to punctuate it, showing that he is thinking and paying attention, but controlling his involvement in the scene until he's ready. He keeps his fingers poised over the cigarette and very close to his mouth the whole time before quickly whipping it out to the side, speaking quietly in the space his gestures have created:

He does this constantly in Baker Boys, accompanied always by the Bridges Suck, which can look goofy or voluptuous, but is always right there in the front of his mouth:

Here it is again in Blown Away (1994):

It goes without saying that somebody who's won a Smoking Oscar has demonstrated versatility in different smoking media, such as evil cigar smoking in Iron Man (2008):
presidential smoke rings in The Contender (2000):
more period smoking in Seabiscuit (2003):
and completely convincing pot smoking (which Bridges apparently quit during production) in The Big Lebowski (1998). The scenes in which the Dude smokes do a lot to show us who this guy is. He smokes like a real pothead: with ease, without worry about how he looks or with nervous attention to paraphernalia, but with a nonetheless dogged and sometimes myopic attention.

Bridges is really good at using smoking as a signifier of dissolute characters and of vulnerability in general, such as the alcoholic ex jail-bird in American Heart (1992) (the thumb push on the bottom lip--also a Bridges move):

and in Crazy Heart, which is among other things something of a paean to smoking. It is an absolute tapestry of debauched, repetitive physical gestures. He's almost never without one:
This was the first film of Bridges' I saw that made me think: is this ultimately a (big, sophisticated, chronic) tic? A crutch? It's so distinctive, so wholesale--there is major risk in doing something on such a big scale. His smoking characters smoke onscreen a lot, and it seems like there are more and more of them. It's either really convincing or the air's so thick with gestures you can't see past it.

True Grit, the Coen brothers sorta-remake with Bridges in the John Wayne role, which opens December 22, appears to be a possible apogee of Bridges' onscreen smoking. Even the trailer feels smoky, with all its grays and browns and outdoor shots and period quality:
Playing Rooster Cogburn gives him the opportunity to work an extremely boiled-down, aged, potent version of classic Bridges acting, full of vulnerabilities and gestures and (hand-rolled) cigarette smoking. I am guessing he will be great, if he doesn't tip over into growly caricature. Either way, though, it looks like Bridges' role as King of Cinesmoking is secure. No matter how you feel about smoking--it makes me ill now, I'm sorry to say; my days of hoping to imitate the Bridges insouciance are long gone--he sure is good at it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

guy smiley

There are a lot of things to say about the Guy Fieri Fenomenon, but the thing I'm here to get off my chest is this: I've never seen any cooking show as heterosexual as Guy's Big Bite. The bachelor rec room feel represents a big change in the traditional pitch of cooking show atmosphere.

There are other manly cooking shows: Steven Raichlen, host of "Primal Grill," with his grindingly personality-free delivery, is very butch; super-butch, in fact, in his fire-focused cooking and constant use of Tongs. Former Idaho game warden Cee-Dub (I love Cee-Dub), king of outdoor Dutch oven cookery and practical, portable ingredients, even more so. But those shows are set outdoors, which has been the main provence of the manly male cooking show cook to date. Fieri's show is filmed indoors. It aggressively designs a world where the regular guy hangs with his bros but still worries about the freshness of his buffalo mozz.

"Guy's Big Bite" is actually a better show than the live audience and competition shows Fieri hosts (I cannot stand to watch those, honestly), or even Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, which features great restaurants but is hobbled by, well, Fieri: his constant fidgeting for the next (co-opted, outdated) catch phrase combined with lack of food vocabulary makes for a hard slog watching it, and the fact that the show is usually edited around him, rather than the cooks he's interviewing, is a mistake.

Regardless, the main interest "Guy's Big Bite" has to me is as a monument to heterosexual male signifiers. The set for the first season of his show was much plainer (downright cheap-looking, really, with its sponged purple walls), but as he became more famous, the kitchen grew too. In Fieri's current TV kitchen, there is: a pool table (see top photo); racing stripes on the refrigerator:

a band rig in the corner:

hub caps on the walls and motoX on the TV:
and a pinball machine:

The logo that opens the show is blocky and bold; the heavy, granite-like letters crash to the ground (yabba dabba doo):

It's all an outgrowth of Fieri's "kulinary gangsta" (™) schtick, which he works insanely hard: the guido bling, the wrist bands, the surf shirts, the Bermuda shorts, the hair, the bro patois, the sunglasses, the Sammy Hagar vibe (including the slightly mediocre, not-David Lee feel), the stadium tours, the TGIFriday's endorsement. Even Fieri's (personal) logo has an Ed Hardy flavor, as you can see here in this ad for his "Knuckle Sandwich" brand of knives, which is itself a NASCAR sponsor (I'm not sure there's ever existed a more white heterosexual male sentence in the context of cooking than that):

Although people spend a lot of time gnashing their teeth about Fieri and his blizzard of hype (I thought Anthony Bourdain's comment comparing him to Poochie the Rockin Dog was apt), "Guy's Big Bite" is actually quite conventional. Granted, sometimes the packaging obscures the content, but that's all the grown-up man toys are: packaging. The structure of his show is the same as any other. (The content really isn't that bad--if you squint through the Fieri-blah and the usual TV chef-blah, there is occasionally new information in there and some good recipes.) He gives many dishes dumb names, like "No Can Beato This Taquito" (that one might be offensive as well as dumb) or "Beef--The Bomb--Bourguignon," and makes a cocktail every episode (those always have dumb names), but his cooking style isn't notably different from anybody else's, other than in his devotion to butch squirt bottles, which never seem as carefree to use as he might like, since even with labels it can be hard to tell what's in them. His food tastes are probably too conventional and middle-class for some people; you have to wonder what Bourdain would think about this recent anti-offal quote from Fieri: "I do not appreciate the parts of the animal that had a job. Parts that are licked, make sound, push, filter, walk and so on are not for me.” But I don't think he's a bad cook.

Fieri got his start on TV as the winner of the second season of "The Next Food Network Star." The winners of the first season were Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, a real-life couple who were more or less the opposite of the bomb-diggity het male cook, with their cozy help-me-here-a-sec-honey banter. Their show didn't take off, for what reason I don't know. I think Food Network promoted the heck out of it, but they promote Fieri harder (obviously), with a seeming glee at discovering a hitherto untapped market or at least way to pitch to it.

I do wonder what it means for cooking shows that the bar has been raised so extremely high in terms of branding--not necessarily super straight or cozy queer--but because it's so personality-driven. Bourdain complains a lot about Food Network cheese, but his network, The Travel Channel, has the same problem with its marketing, sometimes worse. Their big hitter line-up--Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, the Man V. Food guy, whose show is all--only--personality, since it consists basically of him sitting and eating and making faces about it--all white dudes--is promoted as yeah rebellious! Their bad-ass selves! Yeah! Woo! These guys! The whole thing isn't quite as superficial as Fieri-land, but it's still heavily leveraged and all that's left over for those of us who find it artificial is Samantha Brown and the 9000th showing of thinly-vieled service pieces like "Hot Dog Paradise."

Call me crazy, but I don't think cooking is an activity organically suited to performance. The occasional burst of flame or masterful toss of contents in a skillet is immediately followed by...seven minutes of covered braising. Or washing a pan. Or peeling pounds of potatoes. Fieri occupies the silliest end of trying to make cooking Exciting! every step of the way, but honestly I find even the less pushy versions of that kind of cooking show uninteresting, the more so the more they try. One reason that I still worship Jacques Pepin's TV cooking, where he lets La Technique speak for itself.

Guy Fieri Road Show

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

more than 140 characters

It was the first real day-to-day meal-after-meal cooking I had ever done, and it was only a little less complicated than performing an appendectomy on a life-raft, but after I got used to hauling water and putting together three courses on a table the size of a bandana, and lighting the portable stove without blowing myself clear into the living room instead of only halfway, it was fun.
M.F.K. Fisher

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I am a huge fan of Lundberg rice, and have kvelled about it often. Here are two quite different but equally yummy things I made from the same pot of this rice recently.

First I cooked almost a whole package of rice in chicken stock (1:2 ratio) with a dab of butter and bit pinch of salt for about 50 minutes (I find it needs the full time + a little more, usually, including at least 10 min resting). From this sprang:

a Rarebit-like experience!

While the rice was cooking I made a sauce by first making a roux (butter, flour) then adding about 1/2 c. vermouth and cooking it furiously to get out some of the fumey alcohol. Then I added 2 c. of chicken stock and once it had come to a boil continued to add: All the Cheese I Had in the House (the remains of some grated Romano and four slices of American no judging cheese), a slug of Worchestershire, a little dry mustard, and some pepper. I also added 8 oz. of diced up ham (on sale! it was lurking in the freezer, defrosted it first). The result: a not too thick, cheesy, winey sauce with lots of ham (you can see why I didn't add salt). I served it in a big bowl over the hot rice and it was just great. It needed a fireplace to be eaten next to.

then a Salad thing!

I needed a dish for a potluck the next day, so I took the rice out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature.

For a vinaigrette in a skillet I slowly heated a handful of finely diced prosciutto in a tablespoon of olive oil and cooked until it was slightly crisp, then removed from heat, and while it was still hot (but off the heat) I added a pinch of dried thyme. Once it was cool, I add two more tablespoons of oil, the zest and juice of two lemons, a splash of rice wine vinegar, a lot of pepper, and whisked it together. (I was inspired by a friend's really great vinaigrette I had this spring, the key to which seems to be adding the lemon zest as well as the juice--so delicious.)

I quartered, lengthwise, 1-1/2 humungous hothouse cucumbers, then cut them into thin slices. I added the cukes to the rice, then to the entire mixture added the vinaigrette and tossed very thoroughly. I let it sit some more to mature, then--yum!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

some foods in Vermont, sans dairy

I just got back from a trip to Vermont and feel like reporting on some of the noms I had there. Not to document hidden, undiscovered gems, but to say OH! is the food good.

This blog entry is dedicated to C & C, my fearless hostess and fellow traveler on this trip, respectively, who endured constant updates about the state of my stomach--at various points empty/thrilled/wonky/cautious/needful/rhapsodic/peckish/excited/precarious/etc.--as well as other parts of me with very great good grace. Thank you.

• Fresh, very fresh, warm cider donuts and cold cider at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury. We noodled through back roads to get there (our bleat was How Far Until Donuts?), but could smell it before we saw it. The cider donuts at Cold Hollow were small--maybe half the size of a regular donut--fragrant, not very sweet, and beautifully cooked, with crisp edges and no greasiness. The three of us got a dozen to share and then I went back for more (this will be a theme). Just wonderful. We all felt that a little sugar on the outside, dusted or in the form of a glaze, might make them even better, but I also wondered if there was something I didn't know about how or when these donuts would be eaten best. I think if you had them on a freezing Vermont morning with nothing else yet in your stomach, you might not want the sugar. Not sure. But they were delicious, regardless; yeasty but substantial, a nice donut texture compromise, and the cold cider was great. Tourist quotient was high at this place, but not too bad. Because we were there the week before Columbus Day, apparently the busiest time of the year in Vermont for visiting by the leafer/peeper types, we dodged a lot of tour buses, but it wasn't too bad.

• We stopped for maple syrup and Creemees, Vermont's version of soft-serve ice cream, at the Morse Farm sugar house in Montpelier. Like a good foodie I bought some Grade B (haven't tried it yet), then had a lick of my friend's Creemee that was both made with maple syrup and had a maple flavoring dusted on the outside. I have to say the lick was amazing. I didn't have enough to compare its consistency and flavor to non-Vermont soft-serve, but it was grand. The maple kettle corn was pretty good, but not salty sweet enough to make it crazy addicting.

• The P&H Truck Stop in Wells River was spectacularly good. I had the meatloaf special. I don't often have or crave meatloaf, so I felt as if I were throwing myself on their culinary mercy a bit, especially as a picky eater, but it was a good gamble to take and not really much of one in the end. 'Cause they know what they're doing. The high, squishy P&H dinner roll is unbelievably good. I want one now. And the meatloaf...I chased after every last crumb, which you don't always want to do with dried-out meatloaf edges, only theirs wasn't dried out at all. The gravy (I needed extra) was dark and savory, amazing on the buttered homemade bread and rolls and with coleslaw on the side. Honestly, the whole experience is kind of a fog, it was so good. I got my dessert to go and had it a couple days later, and I don't think I've ever had such good chocolate cream pie. People don't usually take this dessert very seriously, I find, especially as a medium of chocolate conveyance. There are so many other ways to have chocolate, and people seem to want other flavors for their pie. But this one was deep, rich chocolate. Love.

• You can't talk about food in Vermont without noting the free sample at the Ben & Jerry's Factory Tour in Waterbury. And it was really good, in fact: Mint Chocolate Chunk, which the tour guide told me was an old B&J flavor, but as a major mint & chocolate hound I know I've never seen it. I should have questioned him further. (Now I am wondering: was it a dream?) I chewed up some Lactaid tablets (terrible without water) and ate only half my sample. I spent a lot of time cynically pondering the nature of the B&J experience while I was there--the branding is so thorough and the way they position themselves as bumbling yet sincere is so clever but not too clever-clever--but none of it really mattered when I was licking my ice cream.

• Must note: really good pizza from Leonardo's in South Burlington, whose grand crust is made with King Arthur Flour, bringing us to:

• The King Arthur Flour Baker's Store & Cafe in Norwich, which on a beautiful sunny day was such a happy place. As a person on a budget, shopping at the store was an extremely clamped-down and careful experience (I could not resist these chocolate sprinkles), but the bakery in store is gorgeous. I don't know that I've ever seen such solidly beautiful baked goods. We sampled basics. Their croissant was extremely flaky, but not papery or dry; the layers smushed together when you bit into it in that good buttery way that real croissants do. The challah was delicious, the rich brownie so deep brown it was almost black, and my friend assures me the eclair was the real thing. It was a little painful to be in that store and not more engaged in baking-related commerce (someday-I'll-get-a-stand-mixer), but it was inspiring.

• Hostess-C & I found Curtis' BBQ in Chester after stopping at the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham (I did not long to buy much there, even after a lifetime of perusing their catalogs, although I would really like Mountain Weave tablecloths and napkins someday). At that point we were both fed up with sugar and twitzy-twee and longing for protein, and turned into Curtis' lot, nudged by no less than God, I think, via our growling stomachs and a traffic jam that slowed us down to see the Curtis' sign and smell the outdoor smokers. We sat in the quiet pre-dinner rush restaurant and worked our way through a pile, a downright pile, of lean but juicy pulled chicken (for me) and pulled pork (for C). We chatted with the waitress and owner, who is Curtis' daughter, and watched as the restaurant cat sniffed our car. I got some extra honey BBQ sauce on the side for my chicken. It was so, so great. Curtis' calls itself "the 9th Wonder of the World"--yay for BBQ in VT.

• We visited the Lake Champlain Chocolates factory in Burlington. Twice. Oh sweet lordy jebus. I don't know how to keep this short. Their chocolates are astonishing, and there was not a ding on them, not the slightest bit out of place on each integral piece: no bloom, no dullness, no chalkiness; all glossy dark shine and snap and full sweet scent. I am a huge fan of their hazelnut 5-Star Bar and was sad not to find any in their seconds bins, but did manage to get some beautiful mint coins and milk chocolate bonbons on sale. Also tried and loved: their Legendary Dark truffle, the Dark Chocolate Almond Caramel Clusters, and Milk Chocolate Pecan Caramel Clusters. I got some dark and milk chocolate chips for baking and cannot wait to see how some oatmeal cookies made with them turn out. Their chocolate is really, really good.

• One of our last days there we visited Shelburne Farms, petting the goats and calves, chasing the fluffy fretful chickens, soaking up the architecture and the setting. The place is beautiful and strangely intact: 3,800 acres of gentleman's farm built by a member of the Vanderbilt family in 1885 with $10 million (that's 1885 dollars). I have never seen farm buildings on so big and artistic a scale. Beautifully detailed but clean-lined, sort of Richardsonian, farm buildings blown up to a gargantuan size, in a gorgeous palette of dark, natural colors, traced against the greens and oranges of this Vermont valley. It's amazing and almost fantastical. And the parts of the farm on the shore of Lake Champlain are even more magical. Luxurious in the strangest, most practical way.

The three of us were hungry after frolicking in the petting zoo (more perfection: we were visited by a naughty escaped Corgi while looking at the pigs!) and stopped by the little store in their cheesemaking facility and then the organic bakery. We sat in the car by the lake, wind-waves crashing, and ate one of those magical unplanned meals: fresh, chewy ciabatta, bottles of cold cider, chunks of farm sausage, and two-year-old cheddar cheese. I had avoided cheese most of the trip, but let myself taste some here and felt it melt on my tongue: sweet, really sweet, but tangy and sharp as hell, thick and milky. All so good, and I am very lucky.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It is pure pleasure to listen to Ms. Fitzgerald turn this song on its ear in all its lugubrious glory.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reverse Strawberry Margarita!

The fruit IS the ice cubes. And it's not really a margarita.

Macerate one quart of hulled strawberries in citrus (around the juice of two limes) and a tablespoon of sugar overnight, at least, stirring occasionally. Drink the delicious liquid that formed, then puree the fruit in a blender until it's as smooth as you can make it. Freeze in a somewhat shallow container.

For the drink:

Chip off several big chunks of strawberry puree and fit into a tall glass until full. Add:

- one big shot of blueberry vodka
- one big shot of grenadine
- top off with tonic water and a twist of lime.

Add a straw, and mash the melting strawberry chunks into your drink as you go.
The crotch is the danger area. A good gusset is half the battle. There's nothing so horrible as a baggy gusset--short legs, voluminous ball-room--except a tight one that splits.
Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean
Facing the Music

Thursday, September 23, 2010


The best movies use pink lettering in their title sequences.

pommes anna

the quest for perfection continues, despite an uneven burner

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

hints from lizoise

1. Cocoa is tenacious, smeary powder and hard to get out of the container when you get to the dregs. The best way to do it? Add a big spoonful of granulated sugar, put the top back on, and shake vigorously, letting the sugar rub away at the cocoa. Dump the (now brown) sugar out, and repeat again as necessary, using the cocoa-ed sugar to make (for instance) cocoa!

2. This is what you need to clean your computer keyboard: STIM-U-DENTS. Trust me. They are genius.

They are made from squishy balsa wood, with an elongated triangular point, which makes them ideal for attacking the between-key spaces from many angles and for buffing away layers of grime. They are cheap, so you can use as many of them as necessary. And the wood is absorbent, which allows them to attract hairs and crumbs. They are a great thing to have near your computer for when you're staring out the window or something and can idly clean away.