Interview with Jonathan Franzen

Reading and Writing

KrausProject

A year ago I interviewed Jonathan Franzen about his book, The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen with Paul Reiter and Daniel Kehlmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2013 NBCC awards.

My intro is below, but you can read the entire interview at NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass.

At 6’2″, Jon Franzen fills the door frame of his New York City apartment where we meet, yet he’s not menacing in the least. In stocking feet and slightly stooping, he answers the door light-footed, friendly, buoyant even…not what you’d expect from the curmudgeonly misanthrope, Luddite, or any of the other names he’s been called by his detractors.

But scale, even at the name-calling level, is something Franzen can’t avoid. With the overall critical and commercial success of his two earlier novels, The Corrections and Freedom, and within those books his concomitant analysis of American society, he cemented the novel as not only relevant, but necessary in understanding the complexities of being human in a modern world. Needless to say, oversized gravitas shadows his work.

Read the rest here!

Dressing

Fashion, Food

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No, it’s not another post about fall fashion, though the recent Balenciaga shirt I saw in this week’s NYT fall fashion “T” magazine (see photo insert) is the ugliest thing I have ever seen; I wouldn’t wear that skin-colored frock to a rock fight. I’m writing about dressing, the stuff you put on your salad, on top of white beans, lentils, or something you roast your beets in. And not that salty stick to your mouth oily mess you buy in Safeway. Please people, do your heart, your tongue, and me a favor; make your own. Get thee:

1) The best olive you can buy/afford. I prefer Greek, Spanish, or Turkish and not anything that is a blend. Don’t buy any contained in a plastic container, or looks like it has been sitting on a shelf for months. Also, don’t always trust those special wine and vinegar stores that have oil in metal casks; I went to one last week and tried every oil and most of them tasted stale. Your oil should be smooth with no plasticky aftertaste. Bitter or hot notes at the back of your palette is good, but just make sure it tastes good, is first-cold pressed, and if possible, comes in a dark container (light kills good oil too).

2) Fresh garlic. I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll say it again; if you use that pre-minced stuff, I will come to your house and stick needles in your eyes. Feel your garlic bulb, making sure it is firm, not moldy, and there are no green shoots coming out the top (a sure sign the garlic is getting old). Talk to your local farmer’s market garlic seller. Buy the BEST.

3) Vinegar or fresh lemon. The three vinegars I used most are red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and balsamic vinegar in that order. Again, get the best you can afford. With red wine vinegar, I find some of the cheaper ones actually pretty good and forgiving. This doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive balsamic or sherry vinegar, but do a little taste testing, if possible. Good food is wrought from carefully and lovingly selected foodstuffs.

— peel ONE decent sized garlic bulb for each 2 people served. Cut in half and degerm (take out the middle germ — but the fresher the garlic, the smaller/less bitter the germ).

— smash up in mortar and pestle with a bit of salt (not iodized salt for god’s sake). If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, slice the garlic and then with the flat side of your knife, smoosh it against your cutting board with salt. Or the cheater version is to use a nutmeg grater, adding the salt afterward. Put garlic in salad serving bowl

— Add 2-3 splashes of vinegar/acid

— With small whisk in hand, drizzle oil into bowl, whisking as you go until dressing is emulsified. Add pepper. Taste. Add more vinegar, salt, or oil if needed. Do NOT add more garlic at this point.

— Put all your greens into bowl and MIX WITH YOUR HANDS (not a spoon, not with gloves) making sure each and every leaf is coated with the dressing, which ensures that every bite is delicious. Please do not let guests pour their dressing in a big glop over their salads; they will never get the right mix. If you think there is too much dressing, add more leaves a little at a time.

— NOTE 1: don’t add much more to your salads, unless it is finely slivered pecorino or toasted pine nuts or something similarly light

The rule I follow is this: if there is an ingredient that sinks to the bottom, I don’t add it. Heavy tomatoes on spinach? Never. Put them on the side, or better yet, add them to the dressing first, then take them out and mix the salad separately. One should never be rooting around the bottom of the salad bowl for fixings. In other words, salad parts should have the same relative weight. Use your salad as a base if you like, which is what I am doing tonight when I roast sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, and parsnips. I make the salad (this time with balsamic) and roast the veg separately, then put the side by side or veg atop salad, like a finely made hat.

NOTE 2: Don’t use balsamic vinegar on everything. Often it’s too heavy for most lettuces and never use on iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce should only be used with skeet shooting. Let red wine vinegar be your default; I use it with white bean salads, lentils, tomatoes, or pasta salads (or at least I would use it on pasta salads if I made pasta salads).

So toss away those matching cruets sets and sticky bottles clogging up your fridge and your arteries, and make your own dressing.

P.S. I buy all my sherry vinegar at the Spanish Table via mail order and I always roast my beets in oregano and balsamic dressing.

Deer: it’s what’s for dinner.

Food

When there’s venison on the menu, I order it, wistfully hoping that a tender hunk of reindeer meat shows up instead, reminding me of that Swedish delicacy (usually served with horseradish sauce or berry compote) that nearly brought tears (of joy) to my eyes after my first mouthful. At District Kitchen, the venison medallions with blackberry sauce ended up being more special than Rudolph himself. The venison was served with pureed cauliflower and braised endive, chard, and spinach. I also ordered a side of kale poppy seed slaw . The slaw was addictive, and I ate it faster than I could ask, “what kind of vinegar did you use in this dressing?” to which the slightly uninformed waitress replied “balsamic.” It was the only hiccup, except those brought on by my hard cider, but remedied by her returning promptly with the correct answer (apple cider vinegar) in an otherwise spectacular meal that was tendered quietly, lovingly, and enthusiastically by the soft-spoken and attentive staff. The part-owner/chef, Drew Trautmann, from the west coast, has also seen to it that the décor isn’t impersonal or over-decorated, as are several wonderful (but impersonal and over-decorated) DC restaurants. The brick walls are warmed by mason jar lamps, and the dining room has an industrial rustic charm softened by the flickering candles (NB: Washington, DC – turn down your aircons!), and the hushed voices of the bartenders and servers who gave us plenty of attention without giving us their names. It’s simple but beautiful design reflecting the menus he dreams up. Speaking of mason jars, here you can order a variety of pickled veg all brought to you in individual wee mason jars. I got the asparagus. Delish.

Even as the room frosted with aircon blasts (we ended up eating outside) and the emergency generator at a nearby establishment whirred to life, nothing was stopping me from enjoying the garlicky greens, the perfectly cooked (rare) tenderloin, and my cold crisp hard cider. When finally a party of six (four of them were dogs) sniffed an adjacent table, I merely glanced at the hostess and armed with menus and good sense, she shushed them away.

District Kitchen, Adams Morgan, Washington, DC

Living in Paradise

Travel

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New Year’s Day in Curacao. A lot of smoke and mirrors. Sometimes just smoke (photo by me).

With my relocation to the Caribbean two years ago, it’s been difficult explaining to my New England brethren that living here is different than visiting here. My complaint that it’s hot, hotter than the center of the sun hot, seems gloating, whiny, pithy compared to their ice storms, high taxes, 4:00 p.m. sunsets. I confess, the view from my balcony was unmatched, life is slow, and I’m a writer with a lot of free time and endless sunshine. Paradise, or so I’ve been informed by those left behind, is comprised of such elements. And I live there. To my thick Yankee blood, however, I feel like there’s bunker fuel running through my veins, and with a dysfunctional oil refinery nearby, it’s quite possibly true. There’s lots to love in the Caribbean (proximity to South America, warm water, island insouciance) and loathe (half-assed carpentry, pollution, bad drivers, island insouciance)and to scuba divers, Dutch interns, and international businessmen, there’s no better place to be.

One night my husband and I awoke to an explosion and saw out our bedroom window a car afire in an empty parking lot across the street. Later that evening I observed two men stealing usable parts from its metal carcass. Then, for the next several weeks, people simply parked around the blackened debris. We used to live happily in Oakland, California, no stranger to burning vehicles and slow police response, however we thought and hoped we’d live there forever. But distance is the great equalizer and the East Bay, with its wall-eyed culinary fetish, ludicrous property taxes, and political righteousness, can be insufferable too. So where, I wondered as I watched the two plunderers casually liberate auto parts, is the perfect place to live, if not what most consider paradise itself?

We move a lot. My husband’s job demands it, and we don’t get to choose where we live. Every few years we pack up our cat and Cuisinart, beer making supplies, cookbooks and cough syrup, and alight unto new environs. Once settled we soon figure out the silly customs and sad truths, myths and mores, dos and don’ts, eating and exercise routines, real estate prices, languages and accents, people and plants of our new homeland. We manage to fit in, make more friends, find our way around supermarkets, Internet providers. And thusfar, we’ve evaded malaria, bombs, scorpions, sharks, children, cancer. Each move necessitates new jobs, clothes, weather, acquisitions and airports, neighbors. Subsequently, our wants and needs and thus our perfect place to live becomes revised. In Maine we met, got married, built fires, swatted mosquitos, wondered what it would be like to live elsewhere. In Sweden we stocked up on sweaters, candles, free education, Hans Wegner chairs, bought a Volvo. In Virginia we re-learned American history, watched hurricanes, ate ham biscuits, drove. In California we bought surfboards, ate locally, felt earthquakes, made friends. The only constant in our mobile life is that we are constantly mobile and my husband’s assignments, while not perfect, are usually determined by a perfect stranger.

And now, our collection of maps and brochures are almost as random and comprehensive as my Curriculum Vitae, which would be thinner if we were not dispatched hither and yon. But along the way we’ve met diplomats and terrorists, presidents and homeless people, hunters and World Cup skiers, authors and boors in train stations, caves, runways, refugee camps, boats, bars and consider our woes luxury problems. Meanwhile, the cold weather citizenry scoff at our prickliness at being summarily displaced to tropical climes, but in reality, this gig was a short time on a small steamy island bookended by monumental to do lists, endless trips to the hardware store, suspicious foodstuffs, and the fact that we never envisioned ourselves so close to retirement surrounded by car fires in a country we had to Google to locate. As my husband and I are sent across the world and back, I can’t stop fantasizing about the perfect place to live, a scattered and schizophrenic hobby that may be incurable. I am like the soldier who returns from combat, adrenalized by the roiling tenor of gunfire then lands a job at Lowe’s. Simply said, I now require more than just a roof over my head…wherever that may be.

For four more days, we live on the Caribbean sea with a 240 degree view of the sea itself. What’s great about living here, I suppose, is the opportunity to do so, a small consolation for almost losing my mind in the process.

On Saturday, we’ll pack up our cache of coral, scuba gear, air-conditioners, bathing suits, juicer, Cuban cigars, and leftover rum and be faced with another move for maybe one, maybe four years. But before long, when location is no longer decided for us by a young man in a uniform who knows absolutely nothing about us, we will be faced with the terrifying and insoluble dilemma of choice.

Mouth taste and moral taste and other thoughts from Adam Gopnik

Food, Reading and Writing

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Charlie the Tuna, France, the film Hugo, and a salad dressing recipe. All that and then some in my essay about Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First. 

 

 

 

Family doctors, Maine, environmental pollutants, acronyms, healthcare, and John McPhee

Environment, Reading and Writing, Travel

The Androscoggin River, Mexico, Maine (Photo by me)

New essay/book review on Bookslut today. Nobody is immune to healthcare woes or the lure of Maine…a brief excerpt below:

It’s no secret that the state of health care in the US is grim, even if you have a plan, as I do. Health crisis shenanigans such as this make me pine for the days when my family doctor, a man who delivered my four siblings and me, could give me medical advice in the produce section at Hannaford’s. This doctor also knew my parents, their friends, most of my family’s medical history, and my batting average for the high school softball team. It was Maine, the way life should be, as the billboard on the Maine Turnpike declared as you cruised into Kittery via the Piscataqua Bridge.

The Grass is Always Greener. New review on “Locus Pocus”

Foreign Policy, Reading and Writing, Travel, War

Walls and Religion, near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo by me).

My review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography is now published on Bookslut.com If you are interested in additional resources or have questions about the region, please send me a note or post your questions below. A modest excerpt:

Simon Sebag Montefiore writes of Jerusalem Syndrome, a “madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion” that arises out of the Jerusalem experience. “The contrast between the real and heavenly cities is so excruciating than a hundred patients a year are committed to the city’s asylum.” Like many visitors who came before me, I was disappointed. Jerusalem felt forsaken, less religious than a bowling alley.

The Three Cs: Carrots, Cumin, and Coriander

Food

Carrots, lower left.

I started cooking lunch for some ladies (with paying jobs) on Thursdays and I made one of my standbys, having not much in the fridge that day. I always seem to have carrots, so this is what we ate. Anyone who has ever eaten at my house has probably had these. I’m posting the recipe for my hard-working lady friends, who asked for it.

INGREDIENTS
Carrots: the best you can find. They are the star!
Cumin: preferably whole (toasted in pan until fragrant – no oil – then crushed while warm) or ground cumin if you must.
Coriander: FRESH only. Parsley if no coriander is available.
Sweetener: brown rice sugar, agave, sugar, honey, etc.
Lemon: One, freshly squeezed. Don’t use that stuff that comes in a plastic lemon or I will come to your house and hurt you.
Salt: anything but iodized.
Garlic: again, FRESH. Don’t use pre-minced or you will ruin this.
Olive Oil: preferably Spanish, Greek, or Turkish, preferably from a can or glass, not plastic. Nothing else will do. The stronger the better. Make sure it too is FRESH. Old olive oil tastes like plastic flip flops.

WHAT TO DO
• Cook peeled carrots in boiling water. Take them off heat before they become mushy. Strain, spread out on cutting board, and cool.
• Meanwhile, mash up one clove of de-germed garlic with a bit of kosher salt in your mortar & pestle. Don’t have one? Then use your fine cheese shredder and moosh in your salt. Carry on, mixing in lemon, cumin, sweetener, and beat in while pouring, your olive oil, adding enough oil so that the lemon is abated; you don’t want the dressing to be loose, watery, or too lemony. Add pepper or better yet, Turkish pepper flakes. Just a touch of those. Don’t substitute.
• When cool, cut carrots on the bias and in small bite-sized shapes. I don’t like the way these look when they are cut into coins; it reminds me of school lunch and boiled dinners. Blech.
• Chop up the washed coriander, finely, including the stems if they aren’t too tough.
• Throw it all together, adding whatever you need to make it taste good.

This is yum on the 2nd day when all the flavors have absorbed into the carrots. A couple days later spoon then over some fresh spinach, adding walnuts and/or goat cheese.

Obsessed with Oya

Fashion, Travel

Naturally, I came home from Istanbul with spices, kilims, and a craving for pomegranate juice, however, my Pièce de résistance was what I saw women in Istanbul wearing: headscarves with intricate decorative edging, mostly comprised of flowerlike motifs, an art called Oya.

The three-dimensional needlework is incomparable. The motifs and colors historically express the feelings of the woman who make them and it is traditionally sewn onto hand printed cotton scarves using (Yazma). The edging repeats or compliments the pattern of the scarf and some of the results are arresting. There are many machine-made varietals lurking in the Grand Bazaar, but an acute eye will help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Also, if you are lucky, you will find some silk embroidery or some motifs embellished with beads. So lovely.

I was told that the art is disappearing with many of the complex patterns in the imagination of the women who make then. When they die, the pattern goes with them. So naturally, I bought as many as I could.

A few related links:

  • A YouTube video showing the craft being made.
  • You can buy them (new) from Istanbul artist, Rengin Yazitas on Etsy. Rengin’s website also has a bit of information and history about the scarves, as does the Turkish government.
  • My photo shows two scarves collected by Kristin Evihan. She is a glassmaker by trade, however, over the years collected a big pile of vintage scarves. She also collects the beaded trims (minus the scarves they were originally attached to). You can contact Kristin at www.evihan.com or at her Etsy store.
  • There’s not a lot of information on the web about this art, but if you Google “Oya” or “Yazma” or “Nallihan*” you will find more.
* Nallihan refers to the decorative edging technique and also refers to the area in Turkey (near Ankara) by the same name where the craft is famous. Thank you Rengin, for clarifying this :)