Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Day Before Mother’s Day
          I sit at my desk and it is covered with the most urgent projects you can think of. But today is Mother’s Day, and I feel an even greater need to acknowledge it than those things in front of me. Tonight my husband will make dinner for me, my mother M, and my daughter L. My mother is 77-years old and has lived in Las Vegas for about six years. She has her own apartment, does not drive, and has become comfortable living in a 55-years and older complex. I call everyday and go over at least once a week. I write her bills for her and make sure she has what she needs.
          Yesterday morning, the day before Mother’s Day, I went to Whole Foods to pick something up for Mother’s Day dessert (I agreed to make this part of the meal). It was a typical beautiful Las Vegas morning, blue sky, temperate air, mountains in the horizon. I was out relatively early and had that yummy feeling that it would be a productive day. Outside a vendor was selling hot dogs. A woman in her late 30s was asking her two young girls if they wanted to share one. “Yes,” they giggled. The woman’s mother, a 60-something, well dressed and energetic woman, called out as she grabbed a cart, “Get two, we’ll share one too.” The woman replied, “No, we’re having dolmades.” They continued on.
          By the time I entered the store I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness, and when someone I knew wished me a happy Mother’s Day, I almost burst into tears. The poignancy of the exchange I witnessed hit home deeply. That woman was me. When she said, “No, we’re having dolmades,” I knew exactly what she meant: “ It’s Mother’s Day, we’re spending time with the kids, we agreed we'd do something special and eat dolmades, dolmades are better than hot dogs, I want dolmades.”

          Through the years my version of “We’re having dolmades” has evolved from first person plural to second person singular “You.”  I now find myself saying, “You have to eat well, you have to go to the trainer at the gym that I pay for, you have to take the vitamins I bought for you, you have to keep in touch with your doctor, you have to walk everyday so your old muscles don’t atrophy, you have to stay organized and constructive, you need a quality life and all that it entails.”  My intention, contrary to how it appears, is not to be mean or controlling. Yesterday, the day before Mother’s Day, I realized my words are the reflection of a terrible desperation. My mother is aging, and I can’t see my life without her presence in it.

          Before I left the Whole Foods I picked up a cantaloupe, my mother’s favorite. It was fragrant with ripeness. I was going to keep it for myself, but instead sent it to my mother’s house with my daughter when I dropped her off for her Saturday night sleep over. I imagine my mother will cut it in half and scoop the seeds into the sink. She will slice it into wedges right on the counter and call L over to join her. They will stand over the sink , eat the fruit right off the rinds, and let their fingers get sticky sweet.
          I have done that with my mother too. Today I remember.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Savory, Not Sweet

      If you were to offer me a choice between a chocolate truffle or an olive stuffed with blue cheese, I would choose the olive hands down. I see the world of gourmands as divided between the savory and the sweet—those who will pick chocolates and fruit tarts over olives and cheeses. I am of the savory genre; give me the olives and cheeses(the stinkier the better), salt and garlic (I was into kosher salt long before sea salt became vogue), a quiche for breakfast over pancakes, and, yes, anchovies on my pizza. For those of you who identify with my palate I have for you the ultimate in savory treats—the cheddar cheese scone.                                                                       
       I discovered the cheddar cheese scone at my favorite NYC bakery and café Once Upon a Tart . . . . It is located in SoHo, just south of Houston at 135 Sullivan Street (and Prince), and has been there for almost twenty years. It is owned by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau, who do all the baking.  I recommend a sojourn to this mecca of savory delights to my NYC friends and those who plan a visit.  I first discovered it as a graduate student in the early 1990s. I was constantly looking for somewhere quiet to read and study and get a good cup of coffee. I must have passed Once Upon a Tart . . .  a hundred times (I had been living in NYC for almost 8 years) before I worked up the courage to go in and sit for an afternoon. It is a small space, yet cozy and quaint. Outside the café is room for two small tables. It was their windows that called to me, full of glossy fruit tarts and scones of all sorts.
      When I finally walked in, I was beside myself to find that not only did they have the most beautiful pastries I’d seen, but they served sandwiches such as goat cheese, roasted ratatouille, and frisee on a sourdough baguette, and fresh mozzarella with oven-roasted tomatoes and pesto on onion focaccia; individual savory tarts were laid out on the counter—leek and celery, mushroom and potato, carmelized onion; there were chicken pot pies and lentil soup.  And then my eyes turned toward the cheddar cheese scone. A scone—cheesy, soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside— with a fine cup of coffee and a book to read was all I needed.                                              

       When I got my job in Las Vegas, as happy as I was, I knew I would miss this bakery. There was not, and to this day there is not, a single cheddar cheese scone to be found in Las Vegas. On my subsequent visits to NYC I would make sure to make a trip to Once Upon a Tart . . . and buy a dozen scones; in their pink bakery box tied with white string, these precious morsels were held tightly on my lap for the six-hour flight back home. After a couple of years Trader Joe’s began to carry cheese scones in a package of two. They weren’t too bad, though absolutely not the same. Then Trader Joe’s discontinued them. I had almost forgotten about my love for these savories, when one morning watching The Today Show (anything for a glance at my favorite city) I saw Frank and Jerome, pushing their new cookbook, Once Upon a Tart . . .. I immediately ordered it. The recipe stayed true to my tastebuds’ memories, and I have been recreating these tasty scones in my Las Vegas suburb ever since.                       
       These scones are great in the morning with a cup of coffee and even better with a cup of coffee for an afternoon pickup. I think each scone is fairly high in protein because the recipe is packed with cheese (cheddar AND parmesan). My guesstimate of calories is 350, a lot, I know, for those who count. But with the coffee for a snack you won’t need anything else since they are so satisfying. A recipe yields 8 scones. I freeze each separately in a baggy and then reheat in the oven when I’m ready. Or just let them thaw, but never put in the microwave—they lose their special crunch.
  The recipe calls for a food processor, which I have, but I  find that I always over mix the butter. Getting the butter consistency is crucial for a good scone, so I’ve taken to using my hand pastry blender. It doesn’t take that much longer, and you’ve got a 95% chance of getting it right (and it’s easier to clean up).

Grocery List:
2 and 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder

Pinch of cayenne pepper (a secret ingredient)     
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes

3 large eggs                                    
½ cup cold milk
2 tablespoons fresh dill (another secret ingredient)
2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1/3 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese (the third secret ingredient)
What You Need to Do:
1.   Place oven racks in the middle, preheat to 400, line baking sheet with parchment paper (not necessary but it helps).
2.   Dump dry ingredients into big bowl and mix well (a fork is a great way to stir dry ingredients).
3.    Add butter to the bowl all at once and mix with pastry blender until there are no chunks of butter left and the mixture looks like most crumbs. BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVERWORK.
4.   In another bowl whisk eggs to break up yolks, whisk in milk, whisk in dill and cheeses.
5.   Pour wet ingredients on top of flour-butter crumbs, and stir with a wooden spoon until no flour is visible. It may seem a bit dry, but keep stirring and it will eventually come together.
6.   Use a ½-cup measuring cup or your hand to scoop the dough and plop it onto baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between them.

7.   Place baking sheet in middle of the center rack, bake scones for 20-25 minutes, until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Bon Appetit !

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why We Should at Least Think About Boycotting Apple

I am an IBM user. But it is just a fluke of my technological education. Had I first been introduced to computer technology through the Macintosh, I would be an Apple lover I’m sure. I don’t own an iPhone or an iPad. Not because of any ethical stance or loyalty to another brand, but because I’m broke and making myself use what I have. I’ve envied my colleagues who've used Apple products for decades. So cool, so sexy. Even now, there are all those apps that can be downloaded and no more paper files to carry from meeting to meeting.

I first I heard about the human rights violations in China from  Mr. Daisey. Like Steve Jobs and Apple, I ignored him. Then I read a full expose in The New York Times here, which was followed by this in the L.A. Times and this in The Guardian. I was initially surprised to hear that Apple’s manufacturing plants in China were so deplorable. I don’t know why I associated Apple with earth friendly and humanitarian issues. Maybe it was because Steve Jobs seemed like a New Age man, with his eye well into the 21st century. My husband, a scientist, tells me I shouldn’t be surprised because Research (which Jobs headed) is totally separate from Manufacturing (which I suppose is headed by someone else). Jobs may or may not have known about what was happening, but from a scientist’s perspective, my husband assures me, one can understand why Jobs would be oblivious.

I have many, many friends and colleagues who are loyal and devoted Apple users, and my intention is not to deny them their tools. But when Guy Debord writes about the future of capitalism manifesting itself in the spectacle of technology, where we appear more connected but are actually more alienated (from the conditions of others around the world?), the strange paradox he points out is not so strange after all. What is going on in China is no different from the Western Imperial impulse of the 19th century to bring spices, teas, silks, gold, as well as beautiful and refined objects home to the mother country. This time, though, it’s Technological Colonialism, where we mine for abstract human effort rather than raw materials to make the objects we find so awesome.

Jobs’ genius was to show us the beautiful and aesthetic qualities of his technological innovations, to make us think that beauty and pleasure reside in technology. Like a hard gem-like flame that hangs in front of our eyes, Jobs' rhetoric of aestheticism mystifies and seduces. I’m not asking that people give up their Apple gadgets (as though it were even possible), but that we should at least think about the global cost of our avant-garde sensibilities. Ultimately, it will be the Apple devotees who make the difference.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year in Las Vegas

The Las Vegas local news reports the New Year has been good for our town. Hotels are at a 95% occupancy rate and the holiday brought in tens of thousands of visitors, up for the third year in a row. We have suffered greatly during this Great Recession, so the news bodes well for 2012.

However, I wasn’t at the Strip for New Year’s Eve, never have been. It’s the equivalent to going to Times Square in NYC. I never did that either. My New Year was spent at home. My husband cooked for my daughter and mother and me what he cooks best—chicken cacciatore. I baked an apple pie and provided a nice 2005 Pinot Noir. We were all in bed before midnight.
I have never been one for New Year resolutions, so I won’t make any here. But I have a very big year coming up (which you will hear about in later posts), and I’m getting old (which you will also here about in later posts), so I’m determined to make time for the things I’ve wanted to do for myself. This blog is one of them.
After reading a blog about blogs here, I learned three very important things. First, a blog is about making new friends. Okay, I can get with that, who can’t use a few extra friends? The second is that my readers are looking for information. Third, that the blog should have a focus. As you can tell from the bio I tagged my blog with, “an East coast girl writes about books, food, family, and life in the desert Southwest,” I have lots of information to give and not so much focus. The last suggestion from my blog about blogs is to plan the subjects of my posts and to set deadlines. So my goal this year is to write one post per month and to limit each entry to 500 words (so as not to bore you, my dear reader).

Here are some titles of posts I hope to bring to you this year:
Walking on the Ocean Floor                                        
Cheddar Cheese Scones
Turtlehead Peak
Hieroglyphs: A Review
Virginia Woolf Comes to Vegas
Spectacle in the Desert
My Nuclear Family
Street Names
New York City from the Other Side

Adventures in Technology

How Public Libraries Saved My Life
It is a potpourri of delightful topics. Who knows what else 2012 will bring and that’s the fun of it, I guess. Like writing itself, the year will only unfold as I enter into it. So here’s to us, my friends, a toast to a New Year, to unknown opportunities and unthought-of experience, to love, to passion, to creativity.
Happy New Year to you all from a Vegas of my own.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Welcome to My World

When I graduated in 1992 from a private New York City university with a Ph.D. in English literature, I was ready to be employed. As usual, there were no jobs in the humanities, but I did not give up. Looking in my library at all the books on Virginia Woolf (the topic of my dissertation), I found which cities the publishers were in, called information for their phone numbers, and then asked for the editors and  what they wanted me to submit. Lo and behold, one press, a good one at the time, sent me a contract after looking at my material. This was the beginning of my new life.

I was unmarried and desperate for work, so I was open to moving anywhere. Staying in the Northeast was my greatest desire, but parts of the South were okay, and even the Midwest or California had possibilities. There were also the places I wouldn't go. Not Florida, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Alaska, Montana, or Idaho. One place not on either list was Las Vegas, Nevada. But when I sent out my 50+ applications and went on my painful on-campus interviews, it was a large public university in Las Vegas that offered me the job.

June came around and I was packed and ready to go (they had summer school teaching for me). I left the East coast and looked out my airplane window at the stretch of homes, businesses, and highways that are NYC and its surroundings.  When I arrived in Las Vegas (after looking out the window only to see nothing but desert on initial descent), a new colleague, who offered to let me stay at her home in Blue Diamond (just outside of Las Vegas), picked me up. As we stepped out of the air conditioned elevator into the parking garage a wave of dry heat overwhelmed me. Through the concrete poles of the garage I could see the lights of the LV Strip, foreign and disorienting, and my colleague, waving her arm with a flourish of delight cried, "Welcome to your new desert home!"

At the time, I resented the statement. My plan was to leave as soon as I found another position. Not in my wildest imagination did I ever think I would be here 17 years later. I would like to tell you how this East coast girl survived her struggle to adjust to the life and landscape of the desert Southwest, but that would be a lie. I still struggle with the place that has given me so much--an awesome job teaching Virginia Woolf, a daughter who is a native of this place, a husband who allows me the structure and time to be creative, and friends who laugh at my jokes and with whom I share secrets.

In spite of myself here I am, living in a Vegas of my own. And you, too, are welcome to it.