Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's a Book. It's a Museum. It's...Both!

Generally, literature is a topic I don't delve into on this blog. It's not that I don't read. There's always a book on my nightstand and my tastes range from David Sedaris essays to Hemingway novels to Sandra Cisneros and a whole bunch of other stuff. I like to mix the high and lowbrow, but I'm not sure how I feel about the literary intersection I heard about yesterday.

Seems that Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk decided to promote his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence by opening an exhibit in a museum in his native Istanbul. According to an interview with Pamuk on NPR, visitors to the unnamed museum can experience a tableaux fashioned after the character's world starting in July 2010.

In a form of cross-promotional insanity bordering on the Jon Bon Jovi-esque, "Pamuk began collecting the objects that his protagonist Kemal would save before he even began writing the novel. And, in an unusual instance of literature melding into real life, he plans to display those objects in an actual 'Museum of Innocence.'

The idea for the museum came, in part, from the author's visits to small collections around the world. Pamuk says he's always been attracted to small museums and the 'melancholy' that seems to permeate them."

If I were Seth Meyer, I'd probably just give an eye roll and an exasperated, "really?!" But since I strive for a little something extra, I figured I'd tease this out a bit.

What does it say about our culture that a Nobel Prize winner has both the audacity and the sick genius to collect hypothetical objects his imaginary characters might have possessed had they actually existed? Is this what authors have to submit to in our post-Potter world?

One can only hope that this bizarre clash of literature, spectacle and obsession is an outlier and that we're not going to witness a flurry of Dominican chicken restaurants inspired by Junot Diaz's character Oscar Wao, or actual comic books related to the heroes of Michael Chabon's the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Of course, if someone wants to organize a cross-country trek based on Jack Kerouac's On the Road - I'm all in.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cobbled Together

I know I've been pretty lousy at posting lately and I really don't have a solid excuse. The New Jersey governor's race while heated, hasn't exactly captured my political imagination and luckily no major catastrophes have struck too close to home. But, I know it's been a few weeks and my internal sense of blogless guilt has kicked in enough to throw up this piece of random bits.

First off - I do have to ask for some positive energy and prayers. My grandfather is having hip replacement surgery on Monday (Yehuda ben Rachel), a former coworker is undergoing cancer treatment (Chana Leah bat Esther) and a friend's son is awaiting heart surgery (Yehezkiel Chaim ben Chaya Rivka). Thanks.

Secondly, our latest International Culinary Staycation took us to the exotic Orient... or at least the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. From kosher vegetarian dim sum halls to restaurants offering fried pig's blood and food stalls hallowed by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, we ate our way through Flushing with gusto.

As I stared at the thousands of Asian folks eating their native cuisine throughout the neighborhood, I couldn't help but think of the presence of that kosher spot. Why is it that Jews love Chinese food so thoroughly that they get their own rabbi-sanctioned restaurant? You don't see kosher joints in the Greek neighborhood of Astoria, and I know plenty of Yids who love spanikopita! And beyond that - do Chinese people love Jewish food? Does anyone but Jews love food like matzah ball soup, knishes, borscht, brisket and kugel BUT the Jews? I guess we'll see if we ever do a tour of the Lower East Side.

Third. Well, no third at the moment but I suppose anything is possible.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Last Last Touch

The October 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine sits on my coffee table, opened to page 126. I started reading last week and stopped when I realized it was a bad idea to read a food magazine on Yom Kippur. The article on the page in question is a preview of some recipes from the newly released Gourmet cookbook, and it reflects heavily on the profound changes in food culture and habits that have taken place in America during the past 10 years.

Of course, any good foodie will knows that this cookbook now serves as a bit of a swan song as publisher Conde Nast announced on Monday that Gourmet will cook up its last issue in November, despite having already begun photography production and recipe development into January, February and March 2010. Citing declined ad revenue and newsstand sales, CN is closing Modern Bride, Elegant Bride (someone please explain the difference) and Cookie along with Gourmet.

As the American culinary epicenter and home base for CN, the New York Times has extensively covered the story and tomorrow's weekly food section is sure to be full of eulogies, reminiscing and interviews with the fallen.

Though I've never met Ruth, Ian, Maggie or any other Gourmet contributors, I've gotten to know them, their families' food traditions, their own flavor preferences, their cooking snafus and triumphs in the pages of the magazine and I suppose I will miss them. It's like hearing your favorite NPR contributor was cut because not enough people pledged during the Fall Fundraiser (Save Bob Hennelly and Contribute to WNYC Today!).

Hearing about their summary expulsion that takes effect at the end of this week, I empathize with the 180 folks at Gourmet whose paltry circulation of 978,000 couldn't compete in the board room with the more recipe-driven, less expository Bon Appetit which moves 1.35 million a month. Again - here's the NYT link.

Melodramatic as it sounds, my heart aches a bit to know my favorite magazine will soon cease to exist. Guys, if you doubt my emotions, try thinking about them pulling Maxim from your mailbox when you were age 19. Countless meals in my kitchen truly began at my coffee table as I poured through the latest issue and the genesis for even more grew from perusals on my grandmother's couch where I first encountered Gourmet.

The macaroni and cheese, the spicy tzimmes, the pomegranate chicken, the chocolate tart and an ungodly number of fantasy dishes sprung forth from the pages of Gourmet and inspired me to take a chance on a new ingredient or to attempt a challenging technique. The food porn of these recipes and of pretty, young things chowing down on them are par excellence, so buy a newsstand copy quickly before they disappear.

But none of these things really capture what set Gourmet apart from any good cookbook or the myriad other cooking magazines out there. What made Gourmet iconoclastic (love when I can use that word) was where it took us as readers, as cooks and as eaters beyond our own kitchens and our comfort zones.

Pushing the envelope with daring exposes on the human cost of the food industry (The Price of Tomatoes, March 2009), Gourmet made the edible political and raised important, if cringe-worthy questions about the implications of what we eat. With poignant pieces on oft-forgotten tasks (Framing a Life, August 2008), Gourmet taught a little beekeeping biology and brought a tear to many an eye. Food-based escapades from as near as the Bronx and as far as Basque Country and Burma fueled wanderlust and helped to inspire my own culinary staycations.

More than its basic components, Gourmet represented something in food preparation and enjoyment as it evolved from its founding in 1914, and yet remained completely fresh and modern. Few other institutions have weathered profound cultural shifts, inundation of foreign influence, changing tastes and political correctness with such grace, wit and stamina.

It's difficult to close this post and I certainly do not envy Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl's task in bidding adieu to her bastions of loyal readers. But if I've learned anything from Gourmet's own back page, titled The Last Touch, it helps to have a food-based theme. A review of Gourmets stacked in my living room revealed a range of topics for this feature: zucchini, pudding, ham, ice pops, lime, dumplings, etc.

For my own Last Touch, I'd like to offer a few favorite recipes and stories from my own reading of Gourmet.
There you have it. My best ode to the best food magazine ever. Do yourself a favor, crack open an old issue, buy the new one or go online to Epicurious and whip up your own culinary tribute. Happy eating!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Spirit in the Sky

We've made it through the more ominous of the Jewish high holidays and as of Friday at sundown we start that week where Jews hang out in backyard huts and shake tree branches and lemons in every geographic direction. By the way, it's called Sukkot and it's a really great holiday but not the topic of tonight's post.

For now, I thought I would regress to one of the themes that dominates both Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). No, not repentance or how to survive a 25-hour fast. I'm gonna dig a little deeper in these next few paragraphs of random musings and try to get a conversation going about God.

I make absolutely zero claims here and have no intention but to describe how I sort of envision a higher power. More than anything, I'd love to spark a few ideas in your head, dear reader, and to read your own thoughts in the comments section. Oh and I'm uber-rebellious and spelling out the word God. A format like a blog is ephemeral enough for me to sport the ineffable. So there.

Like most good little Jewish kids, I learned about God creating the Universe in six days and then resting for a day before doing things like kicking out Adam and Eve, parting the Red Sea and rocking a few miracles. We got some vague lesson about God not being a man or a woman, but then all the prayers seemed to be addressed to a rather powerful and sometimes angry dude.

As an adult, I'd like to think my conception of the Almighty has evolved somewhat and here's what I've come up with that works for me. God or Yahweh or some higher power designed the world in a way that everything harmonizes together. Whether that took place in seven days as we conceive of them or in "God days" that actually take a few millennia, I'd like to think that certain things are just too perfect to be totally random. Flower petals, symbiotic animal relationships, etc.

After that initial breath of life so to speak, God set the ball in motion and left it to the created beings to take over. God may or may not know what we do on a daily basis and God may or may not care. God may have a jam-packed schedule or may be stuck in traffic on the 405.

I don't believe God is a He or a She. God is just God and our language is too damn limited to figure out how to talk about God without restrictive pronouns or gendered adjectives. God may be majestic, sheltering, compassionate, merciful, judging, infinite and 72 other things, but God isn't a man or a woman. That said, ask me again after a day in pantyhose and heels and I may denounce this whole paragraph and voice my frustration with God for making my ass and legs look so much better in such uncomfortable clothes.

Finally, I'm pretty convinced there isn't any difference between Yahweh, Ahura Mazda, Vishnu, Jesus, Allah, Zeus or Buddha. They're all manifestations or slightly varied conceptions on a Creator imbued with greater power and force than us mere mortals. Listen, the Universe is a complex place. People need a little cosmic organization and nothing says anal-retentive like an all-encompassing, all-knowing Supreme Being.

So there you have it. Nothing earth-shattering or academically sourced, but it's my honest view of a ridiculously ambiguous and challenging notion. Take from it what you will and then if you feel sufficiently brave, share. Thanks for being a part of this fun little group project and please be respectful of others before you post. Let the theology begin!