May All Your Days Be Gold, My Child.

Yesterday I came home from my parents’ house in New York; I went to take the dog to the vet to be put to sleep.  It would be an understatement to say that I am a wreck, my mother is a wreck, my father is a wreck.  We are the Wreckorians.

Winston was an English setter, and fifteen, barely two months away from sixteen.  He was in bad shape.  He could neither see nor hear nor walk properly, let alone consistently make it outside to pee.  He had testicular cancer and probably prostate cancer, his body was covered with little growths, his hair was falling out, and his eyelids were droopy and rimmed in red and overflowing with something that looked like snot, or slugs.  He hadn’t eaten in days.  He couldn’t poop.  He lost a pound in less than a week, which is a dream for people and dangerous for dogs.

Logically, I know that putting him to sleep was the right thing to do, but my God, was it indescribably awful.  It’s impossible to prepare for.  Lately I seem to be encountering a slew of dead pet stories, most notably “My Dog Days Are Over” by Doree Shafrir and “We Were Kittens Once, and Young” by Anna Holmes, both from The New York Times.  Both are well-written, but neither braced me for what was coming.

No one tells you how quickly a body can go cold, for example, or that a euthanized dog both looks and doesn’t look alive, and that your brain will have a hard time coping with that.  No one tells you that when it is over you will stare at your dog’s abdomen like you have so many times for the past few years, waiting for the drop-and-fall of his breathing, because even though you know it won’t happen part of you is convinced that it will.  No one tells you that you won’t listen for his nails against the hardwood floor when you go back to the house.  No one tells you how quickly you will fall asleep that night, or how hungry you will be that day, or how guilty you will feel for both.  No one tells you your father won’t stop talking about it with you, or that the two of you will often start crying for no reason even though you’re both supposed to be tough, or that neither of you will be capable of driving.  No one tells you that a sunny day is best for something like this because that way you will feel justified for wearing your oversized sunglasses and using them to hide your face while your tiny mother directs an embarrassingly-large SUV towards the vet’s.

This is what Winston used to look like.  I took this picture when I was sixteen or seventeen, and Winston was either one or two.  He was almost exactly half my age.

Winston was a great dog, but at the same time, he was a terrible dog.  He couldn’t walk on a leash, he jumped all over anyone who walked in the house, he begged at mealtimes as though he had never been fed before.  He rested his head on your thigh while you ate, leaving a damp horseshoe of drool behind when he moved on to the next thigh under the table.  He nudged your arm with his nose during dinner if he wanted your food, he nudged your arm with his nose while you read a book if he wanted to be petted, he nudged your arm with his nose while you did your algebra homework if he wanted to play.  He darted out the front door if you didn’t close it fast enough, then ran ran ran down the street and into strangers’ gardens.

He knew exactly when I would come home from high school, and waited behind the fence for me.  Once the bus got me home early and so I spied on him while he sat with perfect posture on the other side of the yard, facing the driveway intently.  Not even a squirrel could distract him.  Only when I whistled did Winston bound across the lawn towards me, barking.

He loved salami, and eating honeybees, and the spongy insides of bell peppers.  He was particularly fond of vanilla ice cream, so much so that he would huff at my father and sit next to the freezer when he wanted some.  The only way anyone could eat dried mangoes in the house was by sharing half the bag.  Cucumber peels were another favorite, and Honey Nut Cheerios.

Winston’s first winter was a doozy — foot after foot of snow hidden under inches of ice.  We spent hours digging tunnels in the backyard for him to run through; the sides were so tall we couldn’t even see his feathery tail over the tops, in spite of how high he happily held it.  He barreled through the walls sometimes, lunging through the snow like a swimmer doing the butterfly.  At one point he slipped on the ice and slid full force into the house.  He yelped, and did it again.  Then he ran on top of the frozen swimming pool, eating snow.

I don’t know what he liked more, plowing through the snow or swimming.  We taught him to climb up the ladder out of the water on his own; even though my parents had a separate fence put in around the pool, Winston figured out how to open the gate.  Sometimes we came home to a wet dog, his white hair bleached brighter than bright by the chlorine. As soon as we removed his collar he raced around the pool, deciding from which side to jump in.  If we were swimming, he swam alongside us, using his tail as a rudder.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, my father said to me.  He held Winston’s head in his hands.  I don’t know if this is the right thing.

I thought I’d be able to stay in the room while the vet gave Winston a series of injections — This one will make him woozy — but as the vet inserted the first needle, Winston yelped just as he had as a puppy when he couldn’t get any traction on the hardwood floor and skidded into a mirror.  Then, as the needle slid out of his skin, a drop of blood swelled at the injection site into a globule that the vet tech accidentally smeared across the length of Winston’s back amidst the few bald patches he had there.  That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able stay, so I rubbed his ears and kissed the pointed top of his head and sat in the waiting room next to my mom, as an African Grey Parrot looked at us with a yellow eye.

Keith didn’t understand why I had to go home for this, and the best I explanation I could give was this: I held Winston in my hands when we first brought him home as a puppy, and I slept next to him in a sleeping bag on the floor his first few nights in our house, and until I went away to college it was me he ran to.  I had been there in the beginning, and even though I had missed so very much of the middle, I had to be there in the end.

Ask me why I want Winston back so badly and why I miss him so much and I’ll say, Why do peaches make me happy? Why do I like the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet? Why do I enjoy lying in bed with Keith, looking at the ceiling on a sunny weekend morning?

These things are lovely and simple and they’re what makes living so special sometimes. We don’t need fancy cuisine or extravagant trips to feel alive. We need comfort, and love, and the feeling of warmth on our skin. And I got all that from a dog.

The title is from “Gold Day” by Sparklehorse; it came up on my iPod on the way home from New York.

On Links.

I’ve just re-organized my column of links and wanted to take you on a quick tour of my most-visited food-, book- and travel-focused sites.

A note: Coincidentally, alphabetically, the one Armenian-ish blog I read follows the one Filipino-ish blog I read.  Fate?  Or my genetics translated into the Internet?

30 Bucks a Week
Two Brooklynites spend $15 each on their week’s worth of groceries.  Then they write about it.

101 Cookbooks
Heidi Swanson collects cookbooks and recipes.  She also takes great photographs.

Alinea at Home
Carol Blymire is cooking every recipe in the Alinea Cookbook.

Burnt Lumpia
Marvin cooks Filipino food.

Cave Cibum
Fellow Armenian Pam eats out and cooks a lot.

Chocolate + Zucchini
Parisian Clotilde Dusoulier writes in French and English about recipes, cookbooks, idioms and kitchen tools.

Cooked Books
Rebecca Federman has what just might be one of the coolest-sounding jobs ever: culinary librarian at the New York Public Library.

What New Yorkers are really reading.

David Lebovitz
The observant and funny cookbook author writes about life in Paris and what he eats there.

Diner’s Journal
New York Times
‘s one-stop combination of its three dining blogs.

Formaggio Kitchen’s Cheese Blog
This is pretty self-explanatory.

Arthur Frommer talks (writes?) travel.

Fucshia Dunlop
The memoirist/cookbook author’s blog.

Grub Street Boston
New York Magazine ‘s up-to-date info on the Boston dining scene.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
A great source for recipes + cooking techniques.

In the Kitchen + on the Road with Dorie
The often-adorable and always informative Dorie Greenspan splits her time between Paris and the East Coast. Oh, she also bakes. A lot.

In Transit
Another New York Times blog. This one’s about travel.

the kitchn
Apartment Therapy‘s site for people who love cooking and don’t mind making a mess whilst making dinner.

Lois Lowry
I want to be just like her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’ll just read her books and blog.

Lottie + Doof
A pretty food blog with a funny name.

Michael Ruhlman
The author of The Making of a Chef + Ratio cooks too.

The Millions
One of the best book-centric sites out there.

The New Vegetarian
Yotam Ottolenghi ‘s weekly column for the Guardian.

Nigel Slater
Recipes and writing from one of my favorite authors of food-related books.

One Minute Book Reviews
Also pretty self-explanatory.

Molly Wizenberg lives and writes in Seattle.

Paper Cuts
The editors of The New York Times Book Review blog too.

The Prognosticators
My friends Beth + Bob moved to Prague; these are pictures of their travels.

Reading is My Superpower
Annie Frisbie reads faster than I do. She blogs more often too.

Sandwiches might be my favorite.

Smitten Kitchen
Good things come from small kitchens.

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
Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

On Ditching Books.

Over the course of several months this past year, Keith and I got rid of something like five hundred books.  We still have several hundred left but these, we have decided, are keepers.  It took days to determine which titles got to stay, warm and cozy on their shelves, and which would get packed up into extra-strong cardboard boxes and toted to a book donation spot, but I’m surprised to say that I haven’t longed for a single banished book.

2009 was also the year I rediscovered the library — and, even better, the network of libraries that I can request books from — thereby giving me a means to reacquaint myself with any book I sent out the door, as well as the opportunity to test-drive new writers without spending who-knows-how-many dollars on who-knows-how-many books.  Some authors’ works I’ll always buy and never be able to part with (like Ann Patchett, Lois Lowry and Steve Almond) but others’ I’m more than happy to visit at the bookstore.  I’m all for supporting artists — which good writers are, without a doubt — but Keith and I’ve also got an apartment-hold to support, and we come first.  Right now, anyway.  Ask me again after I trip over a bag of no-strings-attached money.

At any rate, turns out the Times has been pondering the same thing — regarding tossing books, that is.  They even used their clout to ask a few writers and Fred Bass, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore, to share their thoughts on the matter.  I found myself most agreeing with what David Matthews (no, not Dave Matthews) had to say — “If I’m being honest, some of it is on my shelf because I like the idea of it being on my shelf” — which is exactly why I got rid of all my Roland Barthes and, like Matthews, our copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  And you know what?  I haven’t missed them for a second.  Neither have my bookcases, whose shelves are now sagging out of relief instead of with weight.

I Don’t Smoke…

…but I love matches too.  I don’t collect them, though — mine actually get used up.  Right now, I’ve got an old teacup of Keith’s grandmother in the living room, and that’s where I keep the matchbooks.  At the moment, there’s only a small assortment in there:

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
DBGB Kitchen and Bar on Urbanspoon