Saturday, January 8, 2011

My life in food: Los Angeles

I first flew into Los Angeles in December of 2006, and I found there the same glamorous, depraved desert city that has existed in the American mindscape in news and in fiction for more than a century.  I was greeted at the luggage carousel by Eric, who had come to pick me up bearing a bus pass and a bottle of water.  His hands were chapped, and I suddenly noticed the air was extremely dry and that the view out the window featured a view of palm fronds and cacti.  I lived in a foreign country for a year, but I don't think flying into Edinburgh presented nearly the level of climate and culture shock flying into Los Angeles did.

Although it was much warmer in Los Angeles than in New England, the cold was surprisingly pervasive -- perhaps because there wasn't as much call for central heating in LA.  There were fast food restaurants everywhere in LA, some of them chains that had long since shuttered their doors in New England: Little Caesars, Arby's, Sizzler.  There also seemed to be an inordinate number of donut shops around.  We went to a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place for lunch, it was a fast food place, and for some reason shared store space with a donut shop.  The food was bland, but I hadn't eaten since five that morning, so I devoured it rapidly.  When we went back outside, I noticed the roaches skittering down the sidewalk in a la de dah fashion. There were Christmas lights everywhere, looking rather forlorn in the glaring sun. I was on Mars.

The next day, we postponed our plans to go straight into Hollywood to checkout the vintage shops* in favor of stopping in a little dive on Vine to get burritos.  I tried to order in my clumsy Spanish, but ended up merely pointing at a sign and nodding.  Bean and rice burrito with hot pickled carrots.  Si, me gustarlo.  We sat at a chipped formica table and looked out into the parking lot.  A homeless man was taking a pee on a cactus.

The thing that would intrigue me about California most was the seemingly infinite variety of Mexican food.  The first time I tried cactus was on a later visit, in 2008, in a cafe on Olvera street called La Luz del Dia.  I had a veggie enchilada and a cactus salad.  It tasted like a really succulent pickle.  It burst on my tongue when I gently sucked on it and cooled my mouth down from its encounter with the enchiladas' habenero fire.  I loved it, but I loved it more the way it was cooked during my one and only visit to a Oaxacan restaurant: Guelaguetza in Koreatown. I had the Nopal Zapoteco sin bif.  It did not taste like pickle this time, more like a fresh green pepper, grilled and simmered in cinnamon and mole sauce and Oaxacan string cheese: it was absolutely gorgeous.

I experienced other culinary adventures during the time I was in LA:  I had a "Northeastern Style" pizza while laughing ironically.  (It wasn't bad, but pizza really doesn't taste the same in California as it does on this coast.)  I got to eat a surprisingly satisfying vegetable curry at a Japanese-owned fast food chain, Yoshinoya. Sadly, I could not find anyone to sell me corn-on-a-stick, although I tried mightily hard. I had a ginblossom at Musso and Franks, the way Buster and Mabel and Roscoe, those crazy kids in the crazy Twenties, might have done.

Not all our food experiences were gourmet. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside the Autry Museum of the American West, sitting in our rental car as a coyote looked on.  I fell completely in love with the coffee sold at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.  Once in a while, I'd sit in Winchell's with the city's homeless and have a donut and fresh orange juice while everyone around me had complicated conversations with invisible people.  I grabbed a box of granola bars at a dollar store and at them in the courtyard of LACMA just so I wouldn't have to leave the museum for lunch and therefore spend less time at an exhibit of German Expressionist painters.

Los Angeles is probably the most exciting city I've ever been in. I don't know if I ever want to live there, but I miss it so.

*LA has the best vintage shops I've ever been in.  They've got everything: shoes, wigs, bakelite baubles.  And they have so much of it -- I think all the wardrobe vaults in Hollywood must sell their stuff to these shops.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My life in food: College

Nota Bene:  My absence from this blog was inadvertent -- this past Christmas shall forever be known as "The Christmas of the Flu from Hell", because it blasted through me and most of the people I knew right in time for the holidays.  This year -- let's try something different.

I was 19 before I realized that what I had considered the daily chore of eating dinner was actually a communal ritual.  When I moved out of my folks' house the first time, I was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  I had planned on attending college as a commuter student, but I during Freshman year I landed a job that, broken into chunks and done between classes,  kept me on campus twelve hours a day, and I was also subject to wild attacks of academic ambition* that progressively began to keep me on campus even longer than that. I've never liked driving very much anyway, so it was easy to decide that living on campus was a much better option for me.

After I unpacked my little red Malibu and furnished my side of the dorm room with the essentials - little white TV/VCR (this was in 2001), big bulky computer, Andy Warhol drawing of a cat, a spider plant - I went to the communal bathroom down the hall and threw up. 

My roommate arrived later.  She came in the room with her best friend and boyfriend, all speaking rapid Vietnamese and bearing mysterious parcels.  I could smell barbecued meat wafting from the quad, and I decided they needed privacy, so after I introduced myself I hurried out of the room in search of salad with a quick, tight smile. 

There was no salad, and I didn't think to bring snacks with me to school, so I decided to just be hungry.  I went back to my dorm... to discover an entire illegal kitchen set up! I had visions of the room burning down around us, but I almost didn't care.  It smelled so good -- spicy and sharp.  My stomach growled, but I didn't feel like going out in search of more food.  I sat down at my desk and prepared to distract myself from hunger by reading the newest Buffy review on Television Without Pity. 

I heard a voice behind me.  "Mary," said my room mate, "would you like to try some Vietnamese food?" She handed me a bowl of congee laced with thick streaks of pepper.  It was the best bowl of rice I'd ever tasted. 

That year, I learned to eat.  Vietnamese food, with its Buddhist roots, is exceptionally kind to vegetarians.  I learned just how good a bowl of steaming lemongrass pho tastes in the middle of an interminable New England winter.  I also learned about the delights of curried tofu, cucumbers pickled in hot pepper sauce and served  on rice, and the value of a good boiled duck egg after a long day of being an admin assistant.  I started to cultivate resteraunts:  the Viet Thai near the library was good for avocado shakes, the best tofu curry was at Pho Da Lat, the Battambang Market had the best deals on fresh veggies and little treats like almond Pocky and lychee jellies.  

That was the first year I'd ever celebrated Lunar New Year, sitting on the floor listening to Vietnamese oldies and eating oranges and playing mah jong.  I've made quite a few Asian friends since then, and I've had some pretty fun Lunar New Years (including a particularly crazy one spent at a Lez Zeppelin concert), but I think that first one remains my favorite.  

I also learned about the thrill of minor rule-breaking:  how to cook noodle and bok choy on a hot plate, how to angle the fan so the food smells went out the window, how to wash a rice cooker in a tiny dorm sink.  Hey, some roommates share the thrill of drinking under age, but even when I'm a badass I'm just trying to learn.

My roommate and her friend changed so much about the way I see and think about food:  the careful preperation beforehand, the friendly rituals of chopping and dicing, sharing one's day while working to provide food for a group.  My mom is a spectacular cook, but she used cooking to relax after a stressful day of teaching.  It was her alone time, and more power to her because she didn't really have all that much. However, it wasn't until I became a partner-in-hotplating that I realized what cooking meant to other people: something that could be shared and bonded over.  I think that was the true legacy of my year of eating Vietnamese food.  

*I was extremely prone to taking subjects I had a lot of interest in but very little natural ability for, such as physics and Japanese. I expanded my horizons, and tended to lose ten pounds a semester in sheer anxiety.