Motorcrash.

Last Monday I got hit by a car; I survived.

Bruised and thoroughly shaken up, I insisted on making dinner the next night, much to Keith’s annoyance.  I could’ve cooked something, he said.  You should be resting.

He’s right — I should’ve been resting, and the short amount of prep time our meal took left me sore, aching and in desperate need of my prescribed Percocet.  That said, the recipe I’d chosen couldn’t have been any simpler.  I like to think I would’ve been able to manage it even if I had been seriously injured, something I hope I never have to put to the test.

Pork Noodle Soup w. Cinnamon + Star Anise -- 10thirty

The beauty of this soup is that you literally throw the majority of the ingredients into a pot, slap on its lid, and walk away.  Soon thereafter, doped up on painkillers or not, you’ll smell the most amazing fragrances emerging from your kitchen.  If you happen to be doped up on painkillers, these alluring aromas will likely have the power to lift you up off of the sofa and gently waft you towards the pot, much like the sweet perfume of a blueberry pie cooling on a windowsill in an old Merrie Melodies cartoon.

When I was younger, my mother frequently made a chicken noodle soup that I now realize must have been inspired by Vietnamese phở; at the time, I just thought it was delicious, though the skinny, silvery noodles my mom used were too squirrely to catch on a spoon.  Later I learned these were cellophane noodles, also called vermicelli or bean thread noodles, but when I was growing up I called them “swimming noodles,” since they too often slid off of my cutlery and back into the broth as smoothly as a fish.

To avoid frustration while eating this soup, I recommend using both spoon and fork, something that is only tricky if your head is cloudy with narcotics and acetaminophen.

Pork Noodle Soup with Cinnamon + Anise, from Gourmet
Makes four to six portions

2 ½ pounds country-style pork ribs
6 cups water
2/3 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup Chinese Shaoxing wine or medium-dry Sherry
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
3 3-inch cinnamon sticks
1 whole star anise (I used two)
5 ½ ounces cellophane noodles
Chopped cilantro and sliced scallions for garnish

  1. Gently simmer all ingredients except noodles in a 6-quart heavy pot, covered, skimming as needed, until pork is very tender, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
  2. Transfer pork to a bowl. Discard bones, spices, and garlic. Coarsely shred meat. Skim fat from broth, then return meat and bring to a simmer. Rinse noodles, then stir into broth and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until noodles are translucent and tender, about 6 minutes.
Motorcrash” by The Sugarcubes.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

A little fact about me: I like the end of the world. Always have. It’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to, per se — no zombie attack cardio training here — but I appreciate the apocalypse in fiction. It’s an excellent backdrop for drama, which isn’t to say that end-of-the-world stories are always well-written. When they are though, they can be the stuff of truly awesome nightmares, a pretty high compliment from me.

Another little tidbit of Nayiri info: one of my favorite kind of stories to read is the coming-of-age tale. Regardless of whether it’s a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, a “modern” classic à la Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, an instantly-influential novel like The Secret History, a super-trendy title like The Perks of Being a Wallflower… I love them all. The idea of capturing a very specific time in which a character experiences a major chance that influences the rest of his or her life is fascinating to me, and when those stories are successful, it’s heartbreaking and heart-bursting to read.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson -- 10thirtyThe thing is, Karen Thompson Walker‘s much-hyped debut novel The Age of Miracles is neither here nor there, in terms of success. There are some surprisingly lovely moments, a great amount of creativity, and a whole boatload of schmaltz.*

First, the synopsis: one morning, the world’s rotation inexplicably slows, and eleven-year-old Julia narrates what should be a tumultuous time. Both the days and nights grow longer, quickly reshaping civilization’s reliance on a twenty-four-hour day — “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” In spite of this, the beginning of a new era, Julia admits a truth: “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade.” So we learn of friendships’ end, training bras, crushes on boys. We remember that youth can be lonely, that parents can disappoint, that feeling included can be everything. We experience all this as birds fall from the sky, neighbors grow sick, scientists speculate the cause of “the slowing,” and food sources diminish. It’s not that Julia — sensitive, observant, intelligent Julia! — doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the changes in the world, it’s more that her focus is on navigating her way through a time of dance parties and growth spurts: “Some girls were turning beautiful… I still looked like a child.”

This is what I like, what I find interesting, how a protagonist deals with and interprets something as universal as growing up against a creative and unique backdrop. I don’t need to know about the so-called science behind scorchingly-hot days and frosty nights. Julia wonders why whales are beaching themselves by the thousands on her Southern Californian shores, why it’s suddenly so hard to kick a soccer ball into a satisfactory arc, why earthquakes have begun pummel Kansas, and I do too… until Julia’s gaze turns to skateboarding Seth Moreno, object of her affection.

(An aside: Seth Moreno just may be as perfect a name as Jordan Catalano, or Marcus Flutie.)

The Age of Miracles, from the SFGate -- 10thirtyI’m all for young love and first love and, heck, love in general, but unfortunately this is where things can often get exceedingly sentimental. I’m sorry to say that Ms. Walker overindulges in mawkishness. To be fair, it takes her a while to get there, but once she gets going… watch out. There is a specific scene that I can’t discuss, primarily because Ms. Walker chooses to revisit it and use it as the finale of her closing sequence — man, oh man, if only I could talk about it. Let me say this: it reads as though it is designed specifically to cause a tightening in the audience’s chest and a tearing of their eyes. It reads as manipulative. It reads as cheap. It reads as formulaic.

What legitimately burns is that Ms. Walker is a talented writer. There are many passages that are elegant, and stunning, and magnetic. There are descriptions that cause the reader to pause and say, Oh, how fine. The trouble is there are just as many passages that cause that same reader to pause and roll her eyes and say, Oh, jeez. And because the last note Ms. Walker leaves us with is maudlin, that commercialized shade of sickly blue can’t help but color the rest of the novel.

Second photo from the SFGate.
* Don’t believe me? Check out the schmaltzy book trailer.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

If you haven’t read any of The Hunger Games trilogy yet, I envy you.  This means you can go out to your local bookstore to purchase it and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and read all three in one fell swoop.  I don’t normally tell people what I think they should do, but I’m telling you this is what you should do.  I know I should be telling you wait a couple of days and buy Freedom by Jonathan Franzen instead, but who are we kidding?  I’ll read that sucker next year, when it’s in paperback and the waiting list at the library has dwindled.  I’m sorry, Mr. Franzen, I think you have a lovely reading voice and your writing is incredibly clever, but The Hunger Games can’t wait.

Mockingjay picks up a month after Catching Fire‘s cliffhanger ending; protagonist Katniss is living in the believed-obliterated District Thirteen, is coerced into becoming the face of Panem’s revolution, and learns that, as in the Hunger Games, she’s trapped.  Once again, she must figure out not only how she is going to survive, but also how she’s going to ensure the survival of the people she loves.  Devastatingly — and realistically — she doesn’t fully succeed.

And that’s part of the reason why I like Suzanne Collins: the woman is a mercenary.  She slices through her cast of characters, killing them off in what is not at all a flippant way.  Every death serves a purpose, and each one is a surprise.  Actually, the entire storyline is a surprise, and Ms. Collins’ ability to tell a captivating story is undeniably enviable.  You try writing a trilogy that’s both sentimental and graphically gruesome, all the while subtly threading through commentary on warfare, reality television and the media, politics, fashion, family values and sex, and then throw in some of the twistiest plot shifts ever.  When you’re done, get back to me.

In all honesty, I can’t write anything more about Mockingjay aside promising that it’s a ridiculously good read.  It’s just not fair to those who haven’t read it.  There are far too many reviews out there that, in my opinion, give away insane amounts of information.  (Putting the words “spoiler alert” or similar in the text is useless and stupid, by the way.)  So please, stop reading reviews right now — in fact, stop reading this post!  Pick up a copy of the book and read that, and then we can talk.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I should warn you, I’m writing this while (still) sick so I’m not promising much coherence.  Oh, this sickness has nothing to do with this book or its content.  It has to do solely with the fact that I live with someone who kindly shared his germs with me.  That’s love, friends.

Anyway.

First thing first: I love animals.  I also eat meat.  Is this contradictory?  Should I, or do I, feel guilty for what I eat?  I mean, I also love tomatoes and I find few things in this world that can topple a perfectly ripe peach from its first-place spot in my heart, but I don’t experience any sort of shame whenever I bite into its flesh.  And yes, it is called flesh.  I don’t get squeamish about that either.

Second things second*: I will read anything.  This is not to say that I won’t give up on anything, but I’ll give any form of writing a shot.  Topics don’t matter.  Authors don’t matter.  If it’s compelling and written well, I’ll read it to the end.  If not, I drop it.  Sounds harsh, I know, but it’s a new stance I’m taking because the stack of books I’ve got in the wings far exceeds the amount of time I’m able to devote to reading.  Such is life.  Sometimes I break my rule and continue reading in order to get the author’s conclusion or see how the plot finally unfolds, but not always.

All right.  So here goes.

The book in question on this go round is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  I definitely read it to find out Mr. Safran Foer’s opinion on the whole damn thing, which he researched and wrote about because he and his wife were about to have a baby, and he felt responsible for what that child was going to eat.

Sounds good, yes?  It is responsible for anyone to care about what they eat and where it comes from, that isn’t my issue.  My issue is that Mr. Safran Foer doesn’t write solely about that.  For example, he delves his history as a waffling vegetarian, and how, as someone who never liked dogs in the first place, inexplicably falls in love with a dog named George, and how, as a dog owner, he has a greater appreciation of the animal, even though he will never know what is going on her head, and that, by the way, people in other countries eat dog, so why don’t we?

While some of his argument is interesting and is well-written, some of it is superfluous and irritating.  Do we really need a “classic Filipino recipe” for stewed dog?  And no, by the way, I’m not citing this because half of me has relatives who may or may not have eaten Benji, but because it’s unnecessary.  I would’ve found the instructions on how to make Chinese-style braised puppy not only gratuitous, but also sensationalistic; the recipe is included to get a rise out of the reader, and that is a cheap ploy.  I don’t buy into the argument that Mr. Safran Foer is writing here in a  Swiftian, A Modest Proposal-esque fashion either.  Mr. Swift wrote satire as a means to insult the powerful; Mr. Safran Foer writes here for shock value.  If I had borrowed the audiobook of Eating Animals and Mr. Safran Foer were reading his own words on the recording, I would say that is tone is smug.  And that self-satisfied vibe wholly pervades the entirety of Mr. Safran Foer’s “introspective” sections of the book.

How I wish Mr. Safran Foer had spent his time exclusively writing about the American meat industry and its impact on the global state of the environment and that we as consumers have an obligation to eat out meat responsibly.  All of that I find interesting.  All of that I thought was well-written.  Give me more facts about how the animals we eat have been bred strictly to die, having done nothing with their lives other than produce significantly more meat than their predecessors.  Tell me how “efficiency” has made meat more economic, and how it is cheaper to kill worthless male chicks** than keep them alive.  Explain the ridiculousness of our country’s legislation in regards to our food.  I want to learn about that.

Everything else, however…

I’m intrigued to know the true cost of my food, and the implications of what I eat.  We cannot deny that in order to eat meat — be it pork, beef, poultry, seafood or game — an animal is killed.  In the same vein, we also must address the fact that, within an international culture that demands meat on its plates, animal husbandry is a necessity.  There is simply no way that tomorrow (or in the next year, or in the next decade) every single meat-loving person on this earth will decide to exclusively consume responsibly- and humanely- raised livestock.  People simply can’t afford it.

* Who knows if this is a viable phrase, but I’m using it.
** Aha, an arena in which the female is more valued than the male!  How nice.

Dinner at Russell House Tavern.

My cousin Niki’s in town from the Philippines for a month, and since she’s a cook this means we’ll likely be eating out a lot while she’s here.  Last night we met up at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, and let me tell you that you should stop reading right now and get yourself over there.

It’s busy and loud at the restaurant, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying your food — especially if you get the crispy soft-poached egg ($7.00) off of the small plates menu.  Don’t pay any attention to the spare, boring-sounding description (“Pecorino aïoli, toasted brioche, house pancetta”).  Honestly, those words do nothing for this dish.  Maybe it should instead say something like “absolutely amazing, will make you want to order thirds, trust me.”

I’m really not being ridiculous here.  The sous-chef is a friend of Niki’s, and after introductions and hellos, we pummeled him with questions about this dish.  Apparently the egg is poached at a precise temperature — I think he said 140° — for something like forty-five minutes before it is breaded and deep-fried.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Breaded and deep-fried.)  The egg is then placed on a small mound of greens and encircled with a creamy ring of aïoli that just about knocked me out of my chair.  Though the restaurant has only been open for barely over a month, the egg is already considered to be its signature dish.

After such a start, I guess it would be natural to have doubts as to whether other menu items could possibly stand next to that fantastic egg but I’m here to assure you that you have nothing to worry about.  I made a meal of small plates and appetizers — some of which I grudgingly shared — but the very reasonably-priced dinner menu has options that include pizzas, sandwiches and steak frites.  It’s an American gastropub after all, and though I can’t speak for its British predecessors, I don’t think they’d have any objection to Russell House sharing the category.

In addition to the egg (oh, that egg), we ordered the spinach gratin ($9.00) and charcuterie board ($10.00) to share.  I never have anything negative to say about charcuterie, and I dare anyone to try to do that regarding the chicken liver pâté, the smoky pork rillettes and the anise-flavored terrine that I tried to keep for myself.  The gratin was nothing to complain about either; its blue cheese base went so well with the sesame-zahtar flatbreads we spooned the spinach onto.

The one dish I didn’t share was the steak tartare ($10.00), which is probably because I’m just a greedy person at my core.  What I really liked about the tartare was, aside from its tenderness and delicate flavor, that the beef was chopped rather than ground.  Otherwise, I feel as though I’m eating a raw hamburger.

One last thing and then I’ll let you go: make sure to have a safe way to get home because when you see the beer/wine/cocktail list you are going to want to try one of everything.  I don’t advise that, but I do suggest you get the Battle of Trafalgar (which is worth its price of $9.00 and more).  It’s dangerously good, and should be since it’s made with Pimm’s, St. Germain and honey.  If you’re not a mixed drink kind of person, the beer selection will probably make you happy.  I know I was pleased to see Goose Island Matilda, my favorite beer from my trip to Chicago, on the roster.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Russell House Tavern is affordably-priced.  The portions, even on the small plates, are generous (though I’ve got to say that no one at my table ordered an entrée, so I can’t truthfully comment on that).  Gigantic salads passed us, we couldn’t finish the gratin, Keith took half a pizza home.   I truly think that the menu is comparable in value-for-money to Garden at the Cellar, which is one of my favorite places to eat in the area, and if Russell House proves to be consistent both will be competing for a place in my heart.  Or stomach.  Whichever.

So what are you waiting for?  Go already.

Russell House Tavern
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.500.3055
russellhousecambridge.com

Russell House Tavern on Urbanspoon

Lunch at Eleven Madison Park.

I’ve insisted that I don’t really read restaurant reviews, and I swear that is true.  That said, I agree completely with every word former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote in in his four-star review of Eleven Madison Park.

Is it distinguished?  Is it impressive?  Progressive?  Superb?  Yes, yes, yes and yessir.  And, even better, Eleven Madison Park offers a two-course prix fixe lunch for $28.00, three courses for $42.00, and a “Gourmand” lunch tasting menu for $68.00, so basically you can decide which option best fits your budget when you sit down.  And yes, I am writing with the assumption that you’ll eventually make a reservation and have a meal here.  I did — three times in the past four months.  It’s that good.

Elelven Madison Park amuse bouchesRegardless of which menu you follow — Gourmand, two- or three-course — you’ll first get an amuse bouche: six gougères, cheesy puffs of choux pastry warm from the oven, and two other little  bites.  Once there were molded domes of golden potato and surprising savory beet-imbued marshmallows; another time there were foie gras macarons and celery root gelée.  With the Gourmand meal, there was yet another amuse: a perfect pale pink scallop standing knee-high in cream of celeriac soup.

Though I’ll fight anyone for the last gougère, it was the soup that I fell in love with.  Its celery root flavor was utterly delicious, that’s a fact not up for debate.  What I became so enamored with was its astonishing mouthfeel: smooth and creamy, with a pleasant weight.

“How amazing would it be to have a robe made of this?” I asked Keith.  Before he could respond, I interrupted myself: “No, wait — underwear.  Can you imagine, long underwear with this texture?”

(Keith’s response: “You’re so weird.”)

Eleven Madison Park Scottish partridgeI don’t care what you order when you come here, because I can guarantee you that it’s going to redefine the word perfect.  I’ve had the heirloom beet salad, which features three different types of beet, each wearing a nasturtium-petal cap and a dusting of crumbled rye toast.  The butternut squash velouté rivals my beloved celeriac soup in terms of texture, but its flavor is far bolder.  Most recently I ate the balik salmon and its accompanying pommes Dauphine, which were lovely and pillowy and delicate.

Unfortunately, the Scottish partridge ballotine is not on the menu anymore, but I can only hope that some iteration of it reappears this fall so that you can try it.  If it were possible to somehow beam a bite of ballotine to all of you, a small plate of it would be appearing at your elbow right now, along with its garnishes of fig, plum and black truffle.

Also no longer available is the lobster navarin — which is a fancy way of saying ragoût, which is the French way of saying stew — so try to console yourself with a plate of the linguini and Alaskan king crab.  It gets its subtle citrus flavor from Meyer lemon, but coarse black pepper prevents the dish from being too precious, adding a much-needed edge.

Somehow I found room for venison and hen of the woods mushrooms; another afternoon, I managed to eat every morsel of my bone marrow encrusted beef tenderloin.  It was a true struggle, but utterly worth it.

If after all of this, you can squeeze in another course, you must have the chocolate peanut butter palette.  I can’t stress this enough: you must have the chocolate peanut butter palette.  Yes, it’s crunchy, and sophisticated-yet-comforting, and there’s edible gold flakes glittering on its surface, and it’s a heck of a tongue twister.  This is all true, but what takes the dessert from delicious and propels it into the next level is the caramel popcorn ice cream it is served with.  Eleven Madison Park’s popcorn ice cream wasn’t my first, but it was undoubtedly the best.

Eleven Madison Park macaronsEach of my three lunches ended with a plate of macarons — once, when eating there with Ben, we were sneakily given an extra plate, and when we had lunch with Stephanie on Friday two oval dishes of cookies appeared, sans the cloak-and-dagger.  I like a bit of covert ops every now and then, but I can’t complain at all about these little meringue sandwich cookies.  Of course, as it’s a risk-taking sort of restaurant, Eleven Madison Park’s macarons aren’t your standard everyday chocolate or raspberry.  Instead they are peanut butter and jelly flavored, or chocolate-and-banana, or toasted sesame, or green tea, or violet, or pistachio-rose, or Meyer lemon, or brown butter-hazelnut, or whatever other fantastic combo the kitchen comes up with.  I’m partial to the lemon, in case you were wondering, and the brown-butter hazelnut, while Keith always snaps up the PB+J.

One last word, and then I promise I’ll stop drooling (intentional pun!) over what just might be my new favorite restaurant: cocktails.  I know I already insisted you have the chocolate peanut butter palette, but now I must put my foot down and stand firm and require you order a cocktail.  I like the Painted Lady, with its frothy egg-white top and dash of house-made bitters.  There’s fantastic non-alcoholic ones, if spirits aren’t for you, like the cool celery fizz and kind-of-dirty-sounding”Up the Alley.”

Okay, that was sixty-two words too many, so I’ll wind it up now.  Just promise me you’ll go?  Please?

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10010
212.889.0905
elevenmadisonpark.com
Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Lopsided — How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting by Meredith Norton.

About a week ago I wrote about a memoir I had recently read, and why it was a failure.  Today I’m writing about one that is a success.

That memoir is Meredith Norton‘s Lopsided, which has the subtitle of How Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, and is probably the funniest book I’ve read in a while.  Yes, I know it’s about cancer, but that doesn’t change the fact that it turned me into The Crazy Girl on the subway — you know, the one who was pitched over laughing and with whom the other commuters tried to avoid accidental eye contact.  That was me with the cut-off gloves, wiping away tears and sliding helplessly out of her seat.

From all appearances, Ms. Norton was living an enviable life; after all, she had just moved into a Parisian apartment with her French husband and their young child.  She spent her time exploring the city, learning the language, cooking European-friendly food (I thought she would make hamburgers, her husband’s client says) and being mistaken for a prostitute.  When a series of French doctors dismiss Ms. Norton’s medical concerns (which range from a whistling nose to a tightness in her chest), she takes advantage of a scheduled trip home to visit an American physician — who promptly tells Ms. Norton that she has inflammatory breast cancer and a forty percent chance of surviving the next five years.

Most people* would take this news and promptly freak the hell out, but Ms. Norton reacts differently.  She freaks out all right, but somehow she finds time between breakdowns to also find little bits of levity here and there.  She writes, “…at the supermarket with my friend Rebecca, I reached to scratch over my ear and all the hair peeled off — like a piece of Velcro. We stood holding the patches and laughed until our cheeks ached.”

Ms. Norton also gleefully details her peeling feet, an after-effect of chemotherapy, and looking forward to seeing her post-mastectomy sutures; she had been, she says, the kind of kid who delightedly removed her spayed cat’s stitches.  I can definitely see how these graphic chronicles could easily gross a certain kind of reader out — for example, how many people could possibly take pleasure in reading about the excitement Ms. Norton felt when fitted with an indwelling catheter?  Turns out I do, and not just because it’s hard to offend or horrify me (unless you’re brushing your teeth in my presence).  It’s because Ms. Norton writes with clarity and humor about these so-called disgusting things.  Let’s use the catheter as an example.  Ms. Norton, who had previously used a catheter after her pregnancy, writes:

“It seems odd to adore a tube hanging from your crotch, attached to a plastic bag filled with warm urine, but I did.  I’d spent the previous nine months running to the toilet every twenty minutes, day and night. The last two months I ran to the toilet and still peed on myself when I stood up afterward. It drove me crazy.  Urinating effortlessly and at my leisure into a bag was downright luxurious.”

Though I’ve neither been pregnant nor used a catheter, when it’s described like that I can clearly understand Ms. Norton’s joy in it, just as I can plainly imagine the empty loss portrayed in these two sentences regarding her mastectomy: “There were no black stitches, no gruesome scar. It was just gone.”

What’s tricky about reading a memoir is that there’s not often the convenient sense of closure as in a work of fiction.  This is particularly true about those writers whose works capture a specific time in their lives, or times, as the case may be for M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Augusten Burroughs and other prolific memoirists.  It’s also true for Ms. Norton, but in her defense, who in “real life” can say he or she got that aforementioned closure following every obstacle encountered?  Even Ms. Norton understands this; after she has endured almost twenty weeks of intense chemotherapy and its side-effects, a mastectomy, countless prescriptions and more than fifty radiation treatments, she too looks for finality.  “There [I was],” she muses, “with the same annoying habits and bad manners, ungrateful, pessimistic, undisciplined, and bored. [I was] just as mediocre as when this whole drama began.”

It’s key that readers of Lopsided can look past that, the lack of conclusion, and focus instead on Ms. Norton’s ability to not only convey her humor, but also her matter-of-factness.  This is neither a heroic nor feel-bad-for-me cancer book, and Ms. Norton is adamant that readers do not feel that way.  Instead, Lopsided is a but a piece of a life.  “Nothing else has happened, but it will. As my father says: ‘None of us gets out of here alive,'” she writes.  “But life really is too short to worry. Against all the odds, I am here to celebrate [my son's] fourth birthday on the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. For now, that’s enough.”

And for me, regarding this book, it is.

* Me.

Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat + Obsession by Julie Powell.

Let’s start with the obvious:  I’m a blogger and a writer and a lover of food and dogs and Julia Child, and sometimes I can be deplorably unpleasant.  This is what is called a character flaw, but I think that — when combined with my devotion to my friends and my knack for color-coordination, let’s say — it adds depth to, well, my character.  As readers, we don’t need to like the characters we encounter; what we do need is for those characters to have some sort of humanizing trait that make us care about them.  For example, a huge part of what makes Neil Gaiman‘s iconic Sandman comic book series so incredibly readable is the fact that the major players are terribly flawed.  Their losses wouldn’t cut as deeply if we the readers weren’t invested in them; the same could be said about their gains.

In other words, likable characters are boring.

That said, I hate the Julie Powell portrayed in Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, a memoir written by the blogger herself.  I don’t say I hate this portrayal because I wanted the perkier, Amy Adams version; I’m putting it like this, in a vaguely diplomatic way, because I kind of feel as though I need to give Ms. Powell the benefit of the doubt.  I’m fully aware that the way we describe ourselves via our own writing is ineffably skewed… but maybe that’s my problem.  Maybe I read this memoir while banking too much on the dumb hope that Ms. Powell would eventually reveal herself to be — well, more fully realized.  I don’t care that she comes across as utterly unlikable, but she needs to throw me a bone or two in regards to the rest of her character.  And yes, that was an intended pun.

I’m getting completely ahead of myself.

Cleaving picks up a few years after Ms. Powell finished writing Julie and Julia 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (why the chronic need to subtitle everything?), as she’s tangled up in an affair with an old boyfriend that she refers to coyly as D.  Her husband learns of this and has a revenge affair of his own, but ultimately he doesn’t want to leave Ms. Powell, who herself feels no inclination to either end her affair or her marriage.  Instead, for reasons which are never adequately explained, she heads out of Queens to become an apprentice butcher in Kingston, New York.  When her apprenticeship comes to its end, Ms. Powell, still floundering, hits the road again, this time stopping in Argentina, the Ukraine, Japan and Tanzania; supposedly she’s traveling in order to learn more about meat, and how different cultures kill, cook and eat it, but really, she’s running from her husband, a fact Ms. Powell acknowledges.

Ms. Powell acknowledges a lot more than just this, though.  She depicts in great detail her escapades with D: bondage, biting and banging, oh my.  It doesn’t bother me that Ms. Powell loves being tied up, it just bores me; each so-called sexy scenelet seems to have been written strictly to provoke and show off.  It’s as though Ms. Powell is gleefully nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, “Did you get to the part where he throws me down so hard he bruises me?  What did you think about the part where we strip each other?  What about when we dry humped while my husband slept in the adjacent room?  Isn’t my sex life so hot?”

This self-satisfied aura pervades the entire book, and the frequency with which Ms. Powell congratulates herself in one fashion or another was utterly fascinating to me.  She describes herself as sexy, as alluring, as inviting.  At one point, when explaining why she so loves the text message, Ms. Powell writes, “With written words I can persuade, tease, seduce.  My words are what make me desirable.”

Not so, I say.

Ms. Powell’s words are interesting only when she’s writing about butchery and Fleischer’s, the butcher’s shop in which she apprentices.  Here the writing is almost lovely and at times quite fine, but once Ms. Powell leaves the shop behind…  the word self-absorbed comes to mind first, with masturbatory stepping on its heels.  Do we need two hundred odd pages of utterly dull, completely abrading twaddle about Ms. Powell stalking D after he’s dumped her, about Ms. Powell complaining that she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has to break up with someone she doesn’t want to break up with, about Ms. Powell forever checking her BlackBerry to see if D has sent her yet another racy SMS?  Not only that, do we need Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotation after quotation?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Buffy fan — I’m rewatching season two on Hulu right now, and I still laugh at the bitca scene — but do I use the show as a touchstone for my life?  And if I did, would I really write about it at length, knowing that the possibility existed that a good portion of my readers wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about?*

Ugh.

Basically, what I’m trying to say rather poorly is this: a well-constructed story — whether it’s told on the page or on the screen, and regardless of if it’s fictional or factual — entices the audience.  Its characters must somehow impress themselves onto that audience, and the narrative must purposely propel itself forward.  Ms. Powell’s characters, though they are effectively real people, fail to enrapture, and her wandering wallowing is absolutely aimless.  Inertia is something that I can understand, as is engaging in contentious behavior, but I want to stress that I don’t think Cleaving‘s fault lies in Ms. Powell’s having had an affair, or for being torn between her husband and her lover.  Affairs make for great drama — would The Great Gatsby even have a story if it were not for the infidelities of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle?  The difference is that Cleaving is made up of melodrama, none of which is at all great.

* This is one of the first things that Steve Almond told me, as my college writing instructor, when I wrote a terrible, god-awful and humiliating scene referencing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which coincidentally also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze.

Dinner at East by Northeast.

Two points, before we begin:

Knowing these little facts about me, you would think that I would love East by Northeast, the new Chinese-fusion small-plate-based restaurant in Inman Square, right?

We-ell…

Here’s the thing: I have money issues.  I can easily consider purchasing a $600 pair of great boots because I’ll wear them for six months out of the year for several years to come.  I feel the same way about bags, chairs, and other items meant to last a while**.  With food, I’ll have little problem spending a good amount of money at the market or on a memorable meal; when it comes to a “normal” meal out, though, I want value for dollar.

Am I trying to say that dinner at East by Northeast is expensive?  Of course not; plates average at about $10.  But $10 seems, to me, to be too much to pay for two mini pork belly sandwiches, especially when I’ve eaten two larger, similar sandwiches across the river at Myers + Chang and at Momofukus Noodle and Ssäm — for the pretty much the same price.  I don’t think this makes me stingy though; it just makes me realize I won’t order the pork belly sandwiches at East by Northeast again.

What will I reorder?

The candied pecans ($4.00), for sure, and the celery root/poached chicken/apple salad ($7.00). I’d definitely go back for the pork dumplings with butternut squash ($8.00) and the cilantro-lime soda ($5.00).  If the braised pork with sticky rice ($9.00) and fried shrimp with smoked salt ($6.00) specials were added to the permanent menu, no one would be happier than me.  I’m interested to try one of the delicious-sounding mixed drinks, like the goji-pomegranate cocktail, and order a dish featuring the hand-rolled noodles.  I found the spicy broth in the beef shank noodle soup ($10.00) to be a bit too spicy for my spice-averse taste buds, but the wide noodles were so chewy and lush that I’d skip the meat altogether for the vegetarian version.

See, this is why I feel awful for complaining about price — the food was good.  It was beyond good.  And the service was both speedy and friendly.  And the intimate space is warm and cozy.  And the chef/owner is only twenty-seven!  I’m certain the restaurant will become a neighborhood favorite.

Just… the plates were a bit too small.

East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
617.876-0286
exnecambridge.com

East by Northeast on Urbanspoon

* Half, but it still counts.
** This doesn’t mean I do it often, but that’s the point.

Dinner at DBGB Kitchen + Bar.

I had dinner at DBGB Kitchen + Bar, Daniel Boulud‘s downtown brasserie/bar, three nights before The New York Times awarded it two stars in its restaurant review, and though I rarely read reviews anymore, I’ve got to say I agree.  It’s a fine place to go eat, but not necessarily one that warrants a special trip.  If you’re in the neighborhood, though, at least check out the menu and see if anything catches your eye.

Speaking of the neighborhood…

The Lower East Side used to be gritty and grungy, the type of place I’d be scared to take my parents — more for fear of my father embarrassing me as he pointed out Hells Angels and littered, graffiti-ed streets than of anything else.  Don’t worry, though, if you’re seeking some grit; in spite of the area’s gentrification, the Hells Angels are still there.  Even with their tattooed presence, I feel a bit more comfortable directing my dad to Delancey…  even if he still might embarrass me.  Chances of that happening, though, are slim at DBGB, where aging parent-types like my dad can comfortably sit in the dining room and non-reservations-holding patrons can order the full menu at the bar.

My offal-loving father would have enjoyed the veal tongue appetizer ($9.00).  Dressed in a sauce gribiche and tossed with fingerling potatoes, it was much lighter than I expected it to be.  Traditionally sauce gribiche is dribbled over a boiled veal’s head, but since I’ve yet to order (let alone encounter) that on a menu, all I can tell you is that in my uninformed opinion, the animal’s tongue makes a delicious substitute.  It still frames the egg-based, caper-y, cornichon-infused gribiche beautifully.

Though I ordered the sautéed skate ($19.00) for my main course, I tried a bite of the DBGB dog ($9.00) and the Beaujoliase sausage ($13.00) — DBGB has a startlingly wide selection of sausages, which can be ordered as appetizers, sides or even an entrée.  Ask for the “sausage duo” and you’ll receive your choice of any two sausages and its accompanying sides for $21.00.  With the authentic-tasting dog, you’ll get a wiener in a bun, along with sautéed onion, relish and crispy fries; the sweet pork-based Beaujoliase arrives atop a mound of lentils du Puy.

I’m a bit sorry to say that skate was, to my taste, underseasoned; I hate having to salt and pepper my food when I’m dining out, but once I did I was much happier.  (My picky parent, on the other hand, would have been disappointed, self-seasoning or no.)  The cauliflower risotto the fish rested upon, however, needed no tampering.  Studded with toasted pinenuts and decorated with threads of saffron, it was the best thing on my plate.

I was too full after dinner to even considering splitting a dessert — though I was really intrigued by the cassis beer-yogurt at $3.00 for a scoop and $9.00 for a two-scoop sundae with Belgian spice cookies, a blackcurrant compote and a lemon crème anglaise.  If I do find myself in the area, and if Prune has no availability, I’d pop in for a taste of ice cream.  Otherwise I doubt I’d go out of my way.

DBGB Kitchen + Bar
299 Bowery
New York, New York 10003
212.933.5300
danielnyc.com/dbgb
DBGB Kitchen and Bar on Urbanspoon