Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On brownies and Brussels sprouts

Three days before my twenty-seventh birthday, I woke up at nine, had brownies for breakfast, and read Harry Potter on the living room couch. Somewhere between spilling chocolate crumbs down the front of my shirt, and reading about a giant bank run by goblins, I became very self-aware -- that this was probably not, by proper standards, a very adult-like way to start one's day.

To be fair, I'm reading Harry Potter in Spanish, in my third novelistic attempt to improve my second language skills. I first started with Gabriel García Márquez's El General en su laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth). That proved to be too ambitious, no matter how much I carried the book around in my bag, from subway to Spanish class to museum. I decided to try something I'd read before, then, in English, so I picked up El Americano impasible (The Quiet American) by Graham Greene . . . but that too fell by the wayside, on the nightstand, collecting dust.

Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal is proving to be much more fun for me to read -- the only genuine reason I am eager to pick up a book, anyway. I understand, on average, about ninety percent of the prose, and continue to learn as I go along. In addition to developing a deeper understanding of the subjunctive, and the various uses of the various past tenses, I am learning vocabulary words like "varita" and "lechuza" and "hechicería" ("wand" and "owl" and "sorcery"), which I'm sure will be very helpful when I go back to the States and start looking for a job.

I came across a part this morning, though, that made me frown. It's the bit where Harry and Ron have just met for the first time, on the train ride to Hogwarts, and the snack-selling lady stops by their cabin with her cart. Harry is enticed by the Every Flavor Jelly Beans and Ron warns him that the candies are, truly, every flavor -- even spinach, and liver, and tripe. Ron picks a green one, and bits into it gingerly: "See? Brussels sprouts."

While I fully concur that it would be very weird to eat certain foods in jelly bean form (including jelly beans), why oh why are things like spinach, and liver, and tripe, considered gross from the get go? I think the author picked these foods not because they would be unsuccessful candy flavors, but for the gut reaction they get when mentioned at all. What's JK Rowling's beef with liver?

There are some foods that, even as children (as evidenced by children's books), we are supposed to just not like. We're supposed to cringe at the threat of cabbage, of spinach, of beets. Liver, though it comes in so many delicious sizes and shapes and flavors, is simply pictured as chopped, stranded and forlorn. And while it's true that many of these flavors may be a bit strong for children's tender taste buds, we so often grow into adulthood without giving them a fair chance.

So, I say, in defiance of brownies-for-breakfast and Ron Weasley, I will have beets for dinner. I have a dish already in mind: sticky, creamy risotto finished off with roasted beets and crumbled blue cheese. Not food strictly for adults, of course, but it will certainly make me feel grown-up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A short study in duality: two partings/greetings

Less than a week before I left the States to go live in Buenos Aires, Argentina for an undetermined period of time, I had two very memorable partings with two people who had been, for a long time a long time ago, my closest friends. I use the word "partings" because these visits were effectively brought about because of my great move, my big goodbye. In actuality, though, I hadn't seen either of these two people in such a long time, that the visits felt like more of a welcome home than a sending-off.

I give you, then, two brief pictures of two good people, great women, best friends. Through food, of course, as it always has been and always shall be.


I can't remember if I told Liz directly about my move to Argentina, or if she found out through her mother. Liz's mom, Honi, and mine have been close ever since they met as working middle-aged, middle-class moms, sending their nine-year-old daughters to a daycare off of one of Pennsylvania's saddest excuses of a main street. Though growing apart once college rolled around, Liz and I have managed to stay more or less connected through our mothers' mutual hobbies of daughter-pride and familial gossip. Either way, when I left Liz a voice mail about Buenos Aires, she called back within hours to say, "I can come up tomorrow. Is that okay?"

Because she knows (Pleasant Valley High School Anatomy Honors aside) my heart is buried deep somewhere in my stomach, Liz came bearing a giant bag of soft pretzels from the factory in Philadelphia. For those of you souls unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the Philly pretzel, I give the following as a somewhat inadequate description. The Philly pretzel is a perfect street food, inexpensive and deceptively filling. The Philly pretzel is different from, say, the classic New York variety primarily in shape: instead of a stand-alone twist, the Philly version is smooshed up along a long line of neighbors. This makes it extra fun to pull apart, releasing hot steam -- gustatory experiences so often start with other senses. The pretzel is great plain, or, even better, doused with a fat line of tangy yellow mustard, the perfect contrast to the soft, slightly sweet dough. I also find the Philly pretzel to be a bit softer than street pretzels in other cities; its crust, somehow, is less crusty, its dough more doughnut than bagel.

When I opened the door to Liz, she had a big brown bag in her hand. "Chris and I visited the pretzel factory this morning," she told me, and I knew, just like she must have, it was going to be a good day.

We spent hours on my parents' living room couch, catching up, in between mouthfuls of pretzel and mustard. She told me the company she worked for was moving from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and so she was looking for other places to work. We discussed the merits of New York, of Boston. Of traveling for work, of traveling for pleasure. Of marathons and yoga. (I learned Liz is at, maybe even beyond, the stand-on-your-head stage! And I can barely stretch to reach my toes.) We talked about boyfriends, and about books. Later, we played cards with my parents, eating cookies my mother had made, the Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker ready-made dough kind, with the colorful shapes in the middle, which get squished as the knife slices down.

Liz left me with: a few good book recommendations, a present in the workings, and a big bag of pretzels I hid out in our garage, from which I would sneak snacks throughout the rest of the week, a treat I relished because I knew, dough and thought alike, there would be none of its kind where I was going.


It's hard for me to think of a time when I haven't eaten when I've been with Courtney. We're either on our way to get food, or in the middle of stuffing our faces, or resting on our stomachs to help heal the bloated-stomach pain (and help hurry along the next round of feasting). My memories of Courtney always seem to involve laughing with my mouth full, or spilling food on myself as I try to describe something with my hands, or spitting out a giant gulp of Coke when she says, well, almost anything.

So it was only appropriate that on my drive down to Courtney's apartment in Pennsylvania, just three days before I left the country, I got a phone call: "I'm at Dunkin' Donuts. You want anything?"

I showed up at her door with a bottle of Malbec, in celebration of my moving to Argentina. She in turn greeted me with a giant bag of Tostitos and a big jar of spicy salsa, in celebration of my arrival in Allentown. We tried, as best as two old friends could, to cram a few years into a few hours. We spoke quickly, leaving out certain details that may have been more important to those less in tune with one another, mortaring our broken pieces with hand gestures, and facial cues, and "ya know?"s -- laying a solid foundation, really, as any.

I drove away from Courtney's place very late, but much earlier than I'd wanted. Time, of course, nagging me all the while -- for what little time I had left, driving home a few hours in the dark, I spent thinking about how much time I had lost.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A plane ride

Or, These Are The Kinds Of Letters I Write

I wanted to clarify my story of the Portuguese girl on the plane. The phone just wasn't right.

I was sitting at the end of a row of five seats, and the girl was two seats away. I was translating a play of Garcia Lorca's (Bodas de Sangre: Weddings of Blood!) into English, when she leaned over and asked, in Spanish, what I was studying. I explained. We talked for almost three hours. Her Spanish was slow and sparkled with that slightly rough sound of Portuguese (I am enamored of the language because they have a sound that seems to me vaguely Slavic: kind of like schkkkah). We talked about the differences in Latin American and North American attitudes towards strangers, the Three Brazils, Mexican food. She complimented my Spanish. She seemed genuinely impressed and thus I was genuinely flattered. Most people who say, "Your Spanish is so good!" are either being polite or have only had short, simple conversations with me. You can easily wow a person by being able to master the present tense and phrases like, "I love Argentina!" and "The day is so pretty."

She told me that she can never sleep on planes, but after three hours of conversation, around one in the morning, over the sea, we decided to try and sleep. She put up the arm rest and laid down and curled up. She was a tiny girl, with very curly hair. She put pillows behind her head but she wound up resting in the crook of my arm (if you could see me, I am making a motion to the inside of my elbow). I don't know if she realized she was sleeping against me. It was nice, though, the simple intimacy of it. Her curls on my skin and me, being careful not to breath too deeply. I didn't want to wake her up.

So that's what I was trying to tell you. Also, there was a guy reading Nietzsche in Portuguese in the aisle across from me. His wife probably thought I was checking him out, but really it was just the situation that was making me smile.