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Updated: 31 min 57 sec ago

New York City, November 21, 2017

Wed, 2017-11-22 16:39

★★★★ The sunlight was so low as to make everything confusing, a tangle of long shadows and glary reflections. The temperature had lurched up again to a qualitatively different kind of day than the cold one before. At late lunchtime the sun was going sideways into storm drain gratework and lighting up the thickness of it. The warmth of it landed down on the lower back like a heating pad.

Two Prokofiev Pieces To Get You Through A Holiday Weekend

Wed, 2017-11-22 13:55

I’m having such a good time reading about Prokofiev, so much so that I do not care any longer if Prokofiev month feels like a chore to readers. Prokofiev, perhaps even more so than composers I’ve previously focused on, lived and wrote throughout such a transitionary period in world history––the first half of the 20th century––that trying to encapsulate a singular style or motif or theme feels nearly impossible. Though he was ignorant to politics and widely uninterested in the, uh, general insanity of the various Russian revolutions, Prokofiev often found himself between musical styles and influences. As a young and impulsive artist, freshly out of his conservatory training, it was hard for him to nail down what precisely made him Prokofiev.

This week, there are two different pieces I want to focus on, both of which illuminate different sides of Prokofiev’s creative personality. The first is known as the Scythian Suite (all of the music today comes from Prokofiev: The Complete Symphonies, London Symphony Orchestra, 2013) which was an adaptation of a failed and relatively disliked ballet that Prokofiev wrote earlier in his career known as Ala and Lolly. Both the ballet and the suite are meant to depict the Scythians, a Eurasian nomadic people from modern-day Iran. They were widely present across parts of Russia, Ukraine, and even China some several hundred years ago (more than one thousand years before Prokofiev was writing about them).

Upon first listen, it is… well, it’s a lot. It’s very brassy, percussive. The opening few minutes of the first movement Introduction To Veles and Ala is loud and in-your-face. It’s a person realizing they have a full orchestra and a full percussion section with which to make a lot of fucking noise. It’s kind of no wonder that the original ballet’s patron, Sergei Diaghilev, was like, “Hmm, no thanks?” To quote my big Prokofiev book, the suite relies on “harsh and bristling dissonances.”

Even so, I’m partial at the very least to the second movement, The Evil God And Dance Of The Pagan Monsters (tag yourself, I’m Evil God). It could be that I’m easily seduced by a fun xylophone part, but this one makes the most use of its dissonant style and percussive texture. There’s one other core issue with Scythian Suite. I’m sure longtime fans of the column will know it, so say it with me: this shit sounds a lot like Stravinsky.

Remember Stravinsky? The man who traumatized me with Petrouchka? If ever you were in search of dissonant ballets, Stravinsky was your man. And at the time in which Prokofiev was working on the Scythian Suite, Stravinsky was the composer to look to. There is the famous story in which Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring essentially caused riots when it premiered, its sound so new and alien to its listeners. There was a more muted version of this event at Prokofiev’s premiere of Scythian Suite: Alexander Glazunov, another Russian composer, walked out before the end, the timpanist broke the skin of the timpani with his mallet, a cellist loudly complained he was only playing this suite to support his family. What a bad time for everyone. Even listening now, I can’t say I’m overly fond of Scythian Suite as a whole—its third movement, Night, is profoundly tedious—but there are glimmers of something interesting and humorous and wonderfully textured as is Prokofiev’s later writing.

Two years later, Prokofiev completed his first symphony, the “Classical” Symphony, and by far his most popular symphony to date. Its sound is altogether completely different than Scythian Suite written in a style best known as neoclassical. And before you’re like, “what does that mean, neoclassical, I barely understand what any other genre means?” I will explain: think about classical music—your Haydns, your Mozarts, even your early Beethovens, got it? Okay, now, it’s that, but new. This was Prokofiev doing his best impression of those guys, but not in the way he had youthfully aped Stravinksy’s style. This time it was, bear with me, a bit. A joke. You’re supposed to be in on the “Classical” Symphony. Recognize its themes and rhythms and what he’s doing.

In his autobiography, Prokofiev writes:

If Haydn had lived in our era, I thought, he would have retained his compositional style but would have also absorbed something from what was new. That’s the kind of symphony I wanted to compose: a symphony in the classical style. Then, when it started to come together, I renamed it as the “Classical” Symphony. I called it that for several reasons: first of all, because it was easier that way; secondly, out of naughtiness and a desire to “tease the geese,” secretly hoping that in the end I would have it my way if the title “Classical” stuck.

And the “Classical” Symphony does create a type of whiplash. It’s like Mozart, indeed, or Haydn, but tweaked slightly. A remix, if I’m allowed to call it that. And it’s short, too. No longer than about fifteen minutes, just like the symphonies of old. I promise you’ll like this one because, well, it’s written to be liked. Prokofiev wants you thoroughly in on the joke, and you will be.

The notable movement here is the third one, the Gavotte. Only a minute and a half in length, it’s a very cheeky piece of music. A perfect little dance between strings and woodwinds. The melody is hummable and straight-forward. Prokofiev’s earlier and later works are so exponentially more difficult than this one that the simplicity of it is a joke on itself. Regardless, though, there’s a ruefulness throughout: Prokofiev knew he couldn’t be Stravinsky and he knew he couldn’t be Haydn. So who was there left to be?

Spice Cake

Wed, 2017-11-22 13:30

Spice cake was the best cake. The other kids thought that this was not the case, and argued for chocolate cake, they were wrong; spice cake was the best cake because I was six years old, it was my favorite and hence, it was the best cake. Not a carrot cake, not a pretender spice cake with bits of nuts or gourds in it, but a simple spice cake, with a cream cheese or butter cream frosting from the little plastic packet at the bottom of the box. Chocolate cake was everywhere. It didn’t even rate. Plus? No spice.

A thing to know about that time and place—West Virginia, late Q3 of the 20th Century—was that it was not a place one would encounter a wealth of herbs and spices. Even the non-box-mix cooking that might happen in my family, the drop biscuits and the minute steak and the chicken dumplings, relied solely on salt, black pepper and the applicable fat/shortening for flavor. Spice cake, it had spice. That hooked me, whatever this spice was.

What spice was, in the context of then, was a warm and woodsy almost-peppery flavor that took the edge off the sugar. I guess its purpose—cutting through cloying sweetness—was akin to that of chocolate, though chocolate was unctuousness you drowned in, while spice was friendly. Chocolate was a bully (and less a flavor than a precondition), but spice was a secret you were invited into.

Of course, my little kid brain was not curious about what spice actually was, and luckily so, because even now I wonder? Example: what food group do spices belong to? Answer: Yes! Sure, spices are these additions to food to alter the taste, but what do they have in common? They derive from any of the following: tree barks, plant seeds, plant pods, dried flowers, dried herbs even resins. They come from plants, yes, but so do fruits, and vegetables, and herbs. Spice is sui generis, defined by mass agreement.

And the spice of spice cake, come to find out, is primarily cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Sometimes you see ginger, sometimes mace, but spice cake, historically, is defined by that trinity. Why isn’t a spice cake called Actually Cinnamon Clove Nutmeg Cake? Because the world loves a synechdoche, or at least loves an opportunity to look up the difference between synechdoche and metonymy one more time. The spice in a spice cake was the American take on all spices—tasty, but interchangeable.

Obviously, spice has distinctive, collective connotations for a long time. Spicy means hot, and all senses of hot. Medieval abbot Bernard of Clairvaux reflected popular sentiment when he wrote that spices “delight the palate but inflame the libido,” which association survived to modern times, when a similar sentiment was expressed by the formation of a pay cable channel devoted to soft-core pornography called the Spice Channel. Somehow the association with this weird non-food group has been around for millennia, so maybe I was vibing that as a little kid in the way that someone’s fillings can receive AM radio transmissions.

But spice as a concept has not merely been prurient: consider also the spice “Melange” from Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which was this drug that could only be found in one place that gave you powers and fueled commerce and culture—actually, not far off, as spice has had an outsized role in world history. Spice was an historic focus of trade between the East and West since the time that mariners figured out how to traverse the oceans. Cloves and nutmeg were native to a group of islands just east of Indonesia, known then as the Moluccas or the Spice Islands, and now as the Malukus, cinnamon bark was native to Sri Lanka, and a sophisticated trade flow grew around getting spice into the food of Western Europe. Take the Age of Discovery, as the world was being circumnavigated and the New World discovered, it wasn’t just gold and glory that was being sought. More convenient trade routes, including for spices, was the goal, and slapping the moniker West Indies on the Caribbean Basin was a bit of casual disregard stemming from the fact that Columbus thought he found the eastern edge of the Spice Islands. (For further reading see Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner. It’s about spices.)

It is weird to know this now. I was a shaggy, devoted spice cake partisan—and from a box, not one of those gramma cakes that were made “from scratch” but didn’t have spice—and I certainly wasn’t motivated to make some overarching point based on a cake. (Yet.) What I knew was that, among the things that I ate, this cake hinted of another world out there. It wasn’t a world of hope or of dreams—it was possibilities and hints, but just barely.

Synechdoche is a strange thing to come in a box mix, but those times when box mixes were the norm were not so long ago and not so different from now. Yes, food sites and, if you’re feeling luxurious, food magazines, will tell you differently, not only about the many spice cakes you can make from scratch at home and the very hoity-toity spice cakes you may purchase from the spice cake stores around the country, started by frustrated i-bankers, but this may not be yet a universal truth. Trundle your butt down to an old-fashioned supermarket, a Shop Rite or Piggly Wiggly, and you will find the same glorious aisle of shelf-stabilized cake mixes that you would have seen forty years ago. Maybe more nods on the packaging to health, maybe exotic new flavors like “funfetti” or “red velvet”, but the event horizon of We Are All Foodies Now is not yet arrived, no matter what you hear.

You can still reliably find a box of spice cake mix in supermarkets out there, and they still call it a “spice cake” even though that’s a bit unkind to spices in general. I even made one! It was fine, as in “edible, I guess,” probably because I subscribe to food magazines and make healthful things from scratch. But nostalgia has its own flavor, and memory its own cravings.

In Defense of Tony Chachere's

Wed, 2017-11-22 13:15

When I first encountered Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning (pronounced SAH-shur-ee) I was twenty years old and living in Lake Charles, Louisiana—a city off of I-10, made infamous by the (very douche-y) Nic Pizzolatto of True Detective as “one of the easiest places to get your ass kicked on the Gulf Coast.” Lake Charles is also the birthplace of Lucinda Williams and the title of one of her saddest and most famous songs (about an ex-boyfriend.) My ex-boyfriend grew up about a half hour south of the city and in the spring of 2010 he and I lived with two friends and one enemy in a dingy housing development called the Fleur de Lis Apartments. That’s not a typo, they misspelled Fleur de Lis.

We were extremely poor, but young enough that it usually felt comical. Everyone made minimum wage, working in bar kitchens or at a motel called Inn on Bayou and shifts were unreliable. Our friend John Paul (“Not named after the Pope”) was in the habit of snacking on expired MREs left over from Hurricane Ike. We had two movies, Boyz n the Hood and Willow, and I remember them playing almost constantly in the background. When we went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras we put down blankets and crashed in the flatbed of John’s truck. It rained. Soaking wet and freezing, we ended up sleeping in an empty horse stable.

Because I am an idiot, I remember this as a very happy time. The Saints had just won the Superbowl for the first time in franchise history and I was in love, in a way that I’m not sure you can or should be past the age of twenty. Everything I ate tasted like Tony Chachere’s.  

Tony Chachere’s commands an exceptional loyalty among Creole and Cajun seasonings. It has neither a catchy name (Slap Ya Mama) nor the weight of history and New Orleans behind it (Zatarain’s, est. 1889).  And yet, “for a recent article on Cajun spice blends for Chile Pepper magazine, so many people responded to me with a die-hard love for Chachere’s,” Andrea Lynn wrote in Serious Eats. “There were accolades to Tony Chachere’s that weren’t seen for other Cajun blends. Fans keep Ziploc bags of it in their purse, containers in the car and dust every dish with the blend.” Lynn was baffled—pointing to the recipe from Chachere’s Cajun Country Cookbook which calls for 12 ounces of salt and only 4 ounces of spices. “I’m just puzzled by the utter devotion,” Lynn wrote.

According to company lore, Tony Chachere’s was invented in a garage in Opelousas, Louisiana—a small town about an hour and half east of Lake Charles. Opelousas is also the subject of a Lucinda Williams song, this one about visiting her ex-boyfriend in the St. Landry Parish jail (unfortunately very relatable). The eponymous Tony was born in Opelousas in 1905 and worked as traveling drug salesman during the Great Depression before setting up shop as a chemist—it wasn’t until the age of sixty-seven that he finally published the cookbook that would launch his line of seasonings. In every picture I have seen of Tony he looks like an impossibly old and friendly elf.

“Modern people have seen too many chemicals,” Mark Kurlansky wrote, in his 2002 book Salt, “and are ready to go back to eating dirt.” Tony Chachere’s is essentially the dirt of seasonings: grimy salt for people too lazy to navigate the nuance of individual spices. But it is meant to be used in place of rather than in concert with salt, something the haters seem to overlook. It calls for chili powder instead of cayenne pepper, so it’s spicy enough to make bland food interesting without overwhelming the flavor. It is great on homefries and eggs, it is perfect in a brine, it makes bad soup palatable. It’s a godsend if you are dead broke and just trying to get through another night of beans and rice and unlike Slap Ya Mama, Tony Chachere’s remains decidedly uncool. It is the people’s seasoning—low-key and all purpose and finding it in New York is like running into an old friend in the grocery store.

The best use I have found for Tony Chachere’s thus far is Dorito Cake. Dorito Cake is something my ex-boyfriend and our friend Blake “invented” when they were (obviously) very stoned and it is more casserole than cake. Dorito Cake sounds disgusting and it is but it is also delicious. Eating it more than once a year will probably give you a heart attack, but it’s a good thing to bring to Friendsgiving or a New Year’s Eve Party, a novelty food meant to be shared with all the gross idiots you love.

Dorito Cake


  • 1 Box Yellow Rice
  • Olive Oil
  • Butte
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • A lot of shredded cheese
  • 1 ½ Bags Cool Ranch Doritos
  • Tony Chachere’s, used liberally


  1. Heat stove to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Line a pan with Doritos and sprinkle shredded cheese over them. Use a lot of cheese! You want the Doritos to hold together as a base.
  3. Cook ground beef in a saucepan, throw a lot of Tony Chachere’s in there.
  4. Cook the rice, add olive oil and butter. Throw a middling amount of Tony Chachere’s in.
  5. Add ground beef to your Dorito pan, sprinkle a layer of cheese over the ground beef.
  6. Add rice, sprinkle cheese over the rice.
  7. Add a layer of Doritos on top. Cover in cheese. This is the “icing.”
  8. Cook pan in the oven for 5-10 or whenever the cheese melts. Serve!


Ten Points in Praise of Sumac

Wed, 2017-11-22 12:55

Image: Steven Jackson via Flickr

  1. Sumac is a berry that tastes like a powdery lemon, a soft bright lime, a sour flower.
  2. Sumac is the flavor of the Midwest. My Midwest, anyway. Southeast Michigan has America’s most concentrated population of Arab-Americans, and small Middle Eastern restaurants can be found in any grubby strip mall. Order mana’eesh or hummus or grilled lamb and odds are it will come sprinkled with powdered sumac, a little tang to offset the earth of the rest. When I moved to Seattle, people asked if I missed the Midwest. “I miss the food,” I said, and they gave me funny looks.
  3. Sumac is red, but not a trite red. It’s a little purple and a little brown, too. I love red lipstick but fear looking costumed, like I am going to see my sailor off to war, or selling ten-cent dances. Sumac is not that kind of red. It’s moody verging on difficult, a quality I like in colors and mouths.
  4. Here are some things to do with sumac: sprinkle it on popcorn or cantaloupe or roasted Brussels sprouts. Mix it into yogurt and use it as a sauce for chicken or vegetables. Put it on your finger and lick it off. Stick your tongue in the bottle. Sumac is best raw. Do something raw with it.
  5. They say lemon zest mixed with salt is a good substitute for sumac. They lie.
  6. I resent that liking Middle Eastern food feels like a political statement now. Like saying “Check me out, I didn’t vote for Trump!” I didn’t vote for Trump. I think Islam is as fine a religion as any. I don’t love Middle Eastern food the way a teenager loves French cigarettes. I love it because I am hungry and it is beautiful.
  7. My cousin in Mississippi is a textile artist. She sent me a photo of three vats of dye she made from foraged plants: sumac, privet berry, black walnut. Looking at them, I got swept up in longing to be the kind of person who can transform plants into entirely new things.
  8. Sumac backwards spells Camus, which has to count for something.
  9. Sumac bushes are sometimes called Lemonade Trees, because you can squeeze and strain the berries into a tart, pink drink. But wouldn’t you rather imagine plucking glasses of lemonade straight from the branches, like the Lollipop Woods or Gumdrop Mountains in Candyland? I’d rather imagine it that way.
  10. Once my husband and I were kicking around vacation ideas. Amsterdam, Prague, Seville. “Or wait, what about Tehran?” I said. “Tehran?” my husband replied. “I heard it’s very tourist-friendly!” I said. A moment later he held up his phone. “There is an actual State Department warning about jaunting off to Iran on holiday,” he said. This was during the Obama administration, when it seemed like government statements had some sort of reasoning behind them. We went to Paris and ate falafel in the Marais. But I fully intend to eat my way through Tehran some day. I’m going there.


Piment d'Espelette

Wed, 2017-11-22 12:15

Image: Stijn Nieuwendijk via Flickr

We’re in our boss’ kitchen, which is tidy and taupe in the way I’d only ever seen in a Martha Stewart Living, my mom’s copy, the one she checked out from the library.

We’re cooking all day, like I’m told we do every Tuesday. The kitchen is a busy, steaming, full-team operation crammed into a space meant for Sunday pie-making with kids. I learn quickly to watch for limbs, stray utensils, aproned bodies. This is my first week—my second day—at a food start-up in New York. My second day of moving past the casseroles and the piles of peas I came from.

Someone asks me to grab the Piment d’Espelette and I nod and smile and say “of course!” even though I have no idea what that is—whether it’s animal, or mineral, or some fancy antique baking mold from the French Revolution. I look around, for what I don’t know: understanding eyes? An early Alexa prototype? There doesn’t seem to be time to fall back on the methodology that got me through yesterday: Quickly Google the fragments of sounds I think I heard (“pee-mon dESS-plett”) then make an informed decision from the top three hits. I open the drawer closest to me. It’s the spices, a lucky guess.

It’s alphabetized, because of course it is, the spices all lined up like library books. More than I’d ever seen together. For a moment I daydream that I’m gliding on a ladder around a spice library, declaring each one I pass “my favorite!” like Belle from the bookshop scene of Beauty and the Beast. I’m only on the Ms: marjoram; mustard, black. It feels like there’s a spice from every continent in here, an announcement that cooking should be the least insular thing you can do, or think about, or write about—a fact we’d forget before scrambling back to it a few years later.

The Ps: Paprika; Piment d’Espelette. I grab the little silver tin and hand it to one of our food editors I just met that morning, who gives me a look that I’m certain says either what took you so long, or is that a Kohls’ tag still stuck to your shirt, or what is stuck in your teeth. She dips two lanky, manicured fingers into the tin and adds a pinch to something on the stove.

I buy a bottle on my way home. I look it up and find out it’s named after a French village in the Basque. The Basque! For a moment I daydream I’m summering in this little French village, that my fingers are lanky, too, that I cook the most perfect food. I learn Piment d’Espelette is the only spice in France with a protected designation of origin—like a fine wine I can’t afford—and that it has notes of “sea brine,” which I try to taste but can’t taste at all. I tell myself that the problem is definitely my palate, not the holiday edition spice catalog copywriting.

I spend the next years calling any dried and ground pepper that isn’t Piment d’Espelette bullshit. Cayenne pepper is bullshit. Red pepper flakes? Bullshit. Why would you use any of those when you could use Piment d’Espelette, a pepper with real …nuance? I decide the key to being a good cook—a Real Food Person—is knowing about the fancy spices. I start making salads sprinkled with Piment d’Espelette in the greasy galley kitchen of my $700-a-month sublet, and using the word nuance in everything I write.

I give Piment d’Espelette to my friends, with a box of Maldon salt, as a housewarming present, the only gift I’ve always thought says more about how cool you are than however much you’d actually like to warm someone’s house. I buy a bottle for my parents and tuck it into their spice drawer one Christmas, next to the 15-year-old paprika that smells like dust. If something was missing in a dish, I’d say what about Piment d’Espelette, have you tried it? at this point completely unaware that this is a very douchey thing to ask; that my spice evangelism is some kind of weird breed of forced—faked—snobbery; that years later, all I’d want are the casseroles and the piles of peas I came from.  

I’d still tell you to cook with Piment d’Espelette, of course. You should: Everything about this pepper is delicate—like the drawer I found it in, like that drawer’s kitchen, like that editor’s fingers. I didn’t know what I was saying back then, but it does have nuance. Really it does: It’s got a background heat and a little smokiness that makes it more interesting than most of what’s in your spice drawer. And probably, if your aunt asks you what’s in the potatoes this year and you say Piment d’Espelette, you’ll sound smart and worldly yet humble, like the only reason you want to know these things is so you can pass them on. So she can be asked the same question at book club next month. Maybe you’ll even try it in your casseroles, you genius, the ones with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. Because why shouldn’t you do that? You’ll pull it off, I know you will.


Wed, 2017-11-22 11:25

Image: Denna Jones via Flickr

As a kid in Texas, I spent most afternoons at my neighbor’s house—she was an elderly Spanish woman, she’d moved from Madrid for her own children—and after I’d annoyed her into oblivion for the whereabouts of her grandson, she’d sit me at her daughter’s table and cook me a meal. She made soups and queso frito. She rolled tortillas and empanadas. Sometimes she’d sit and watch me burn my lips on all them. But other days, she’d bring me clips of last night’s dinner, plastic plates of curried goat, or searing empanadas; but every now and again she’d lather her dishes with a powder, a smoky blend of spices that turned out to be achiote.

Achiote is the same thing as annatto but sometimes people confuse the two. Annatto seeds are ground for achiote paste, and that’s blended with other spices to serve as a rub.  It gives your food this orange-ish color. Or a yellow-ish one. Or a pulsing red. The seeds are extracted from Bixa orellana, which lives and dies in tropical climates, and if you’ve spent time in Latin America or the Caribbean or the southwest States, then you’ve seen it dashed somewhere across your plate.

It also makes a pretty good pigment: Mexico’s 16th century Aztecs used achiote to paint their manuscripts. The United States’ Native populations have long utilized the paste as a dye. Some folks in Colombia crush achiote to ward off spirits, and other folks in Brazil would spread it as a war paint, but I think a pinch in your sofrito is the closest anyone ever gets to God.

I’ve seen buckets of achiote spread across pork pits in Jamaica. At this airport in Panama, a bartender scooped a patch all over my sandwich. In Shinjuku’s red-light district, at a leaning fried-chicken stall, a lanky man in glasses sprinkled a thimbleful over my wings. And one night, in Cahuita, on the western edge of Costa Rica, I sat under a tent while a family cooked with some under a cauldron. Eventually, a woman set this cup of stew in front of me, only to pick it back up and dip the powder over the brim.

Por suerte, she said, smiling a little, and I bent to take a sip and it burned.

I tried cooking with it once. Twice. Three times. Couldn’t seem to get it right, or at least not the way I remembered it.

Once, my mother was prepping a drawn-out dinner with her friends—Jamaican women who grew up on the island. Folks who carry its recipes on their fingers. I saw one lady handling the seeds, mashing them under a pestle, and when I peeked over her shoulder she jounced me with her hip.

When I asked her how she’d made it, she looked a little incredulous.

You know, she said.

Nah, I said.

You do, she said, and I confirmed that I did not.

Well, she said, it’s just like this, but she did not tell me what it was just like.

When the food was cooked and the entrees were served, the achiote sat on her snapper. Simmering in the sauce. I took a bite and gasped. My mother’s friend glowed, sitting across the table, knowing and not telling.

This would’ve been easier if I’d just asked my neighbor how she’d done it. She only spoke Spanish, and I didn’t know much at the time. But years later, after she’d passed, I found myself back in her kitchen, cooking a meal with her grandchildren, looking a little lost. We stood around the counters she’d commandeered. Rolling dough with her pins. Boiling pasta in her pots. It all felt disingenuous. Like we were imposters.

Then her grandson—I’d finally found him—reached in the cupboard for a rusty black tin; and of course it was inside there. His grandmother’s achiote.

Except it wasn’t hers. He’d ground it up and made it himself.

So I asked him how he’d done it. He frowned a little bit.

You don’t know? he said, and I told him I did not.

She cooked for you as much as anyone, he said, and I was ashamed.

But in the end, he did show me. He doled out the cumin. I chopped the garlic. We poured the juice and mashed the berries. I sliced through the limes, he held my wrist as I ground the  seeds, and I watched him handle the bowl as he blended them together.

And while I’d like to say that it tasted inedible, that it was nothing like his grandmother’s recipe—because it was one of the many things she’d taken with her, and some things you just shouldn’t try to get back—the truth is that it was incredible. Tasted exactly as she’d made it. Or at least the memory of how she’d made it, a passing imitation, a lingering sense of the spice, which is honestly as close as any of us ever gets.

Robert David & Adrian Diaconu, "Bacterial Motion (Edit One)"

Wed, 2017-11-22 10:00

Be thankful it’s almost over. Enjoy.

New York City, November 21, 2017

Tue, 2017-11-21 18:59

★★★★ The river was inky and almost nonreflective, but so much sun shone on a building on the far shore that it cast a butter-colored gleam on the dull water regardless. Brilliant paper-white gulls rose and dipped in the distance against the gray. One plane tree by the schoolyard was drenched with gold in the otherwise color-parched autumn. In late morning, the clouds, stretching up in winglets, took on a ruddy sundown tinge. After that, the light became wholesome again. It was time again to worry about the ambient cold getting into the phone and sapping the battery. The night was so clear and it fell so early that, on the walk home with chicken for dinner, all three points of Summer Triangle could be found in the sky.

Soda With Bitters

Tue, 2017-11-21 12:00

Image: Farther Along via Flickr

Last winter, I embarked on my first Drynuary with a mix of shock and self-righteousness. I was thirty-fucking-five years old and I seriously, SERIOUSLY, couldn’t remember going an entire month without drinking. By Day 5, my husband told me, I started reminding him of the straight-edge kids from high school. But, I was really onto something. Wasn’t it crazy that we configured our lives around the consumption of alcohol, the same way that we configured our living rooms around television sets? Wasn’t it odd that we were always a little inebriated around friends and coworkers? How could we tell who we really were if we spent so much time in an altered state? He suggested I listen to some Youth of Today and opened a beer.

Even though I wasn’t drinking, I was determined to keep up with my social obligations, which meant I often found myself in bars, explaining to people that I had sworn off booze for the month. Around Day 12, I found myself in that particular circle of hell known as Hotbird on a Friday night. It was here that my friend Nadja introduced me to her coping mechanism for her own Drynuary: seltzer with a dash of bitters.(Bitters are also 44.7 percent alcohol, so a dash is either technically disqualifying for the “dry” part of Drynuary, or a symbolic way of partaking without partaking. It’s between you and your Oprah.) The idea was, she explained, was to, more or less, fool yourself by ordering a signature cocktail, which conferred a sense of agency, rather than a sense of deprivation. It was quirky, it was refreshing, and it was delicious.

The classic bitters in most bars are Angostura bitters, which have a delightful and convoluted history, assembled here entirely from this Wikipedia entry. Its ingredients are “water, 44.7% ethanol, gentian, herbs and spices.” Gentian is a beautiful blue flower. The “spices” are a secret proprietary blend. A German doctor working in Venezuela came up with the recipe and started making them in a town called Angostura, which means ‘narrow’ in Spanish. The name of the town is a reference to the narrowing of the Orinoco River, which is home to the Amazon river dolphin and the giant river otter. There’s also a plant in South America called Angostura trifoliata, which is used in other bitters recipes, but not, ironically, in Angostura bitters. The label is strangely oversized because of a miscommunication among the doctor’s sons who took over the business after his death.

Despite these Amazonian origins, Angostura bitters taste, to my immigrant mouth, distinctly American. The aromatics echo baking—cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, licorice—an herbaceous concentrate of pie with a bit of sweetness. In a glass of seltzer, the bitters add a lovely garnet tinge, and a perfumey detour from the sharp fizz of the carbonation. You can sip it, thinking of otters and Amazonian rivers and lose yourself in a veritable jungle, while your drunk friends yammer on about the latest sexual harassment revelations.

As a former bartender, my first experience with bitters involved mixing ill-proportioned Manhattans and Old Fashioneds at a shitty bar on Lower East Side. Who ordered cocktails at a sports bar anyway? And what was I doing there? Mostly I used bitters as a hiccup remedy: a slice of lemon, a sprinkle of sugar, and a dash of bitters worked like a charm on countless tipsy patrons.

Now, ordering seltzer and bitters I was forced to confront the same inexpert service that I’d provided to my customers. Some bartenders interpreted my request for a dash of bitters with a “more is more” approach and delivered seltzers mixed with a shot of bitters. Although, maybe, they were extending me a strange professional courtesy, since a shot of bitters is a popular version of the “bartender’s handshake,” a sort of ritual shared by the drink-slinging community. But every once in a while, it was as it should be. The bartender would fill a glass with seltzer, set it on the bar, and in front of my eyes, dispense, with a flick of the wrist, the perfect dash. And then the crimson would swirl among the bubbles, like a puff of smoke.

For the rest of the month, and in the year since, I’ve ordered dozens of seltzers with bitters. Some time after I wrapped up Drynuary, I embarked on another month-long exercise in self-torture: the Whole 30. (Yes, I know, technically bitters aren’t compliant, I don’t care.) A few months later, I had another extended episode of insomnia and stopped drinking to try and fix the problem.

The first seltzer and bitters of a dry month feels like a secret oath. I promise that I won’t drink for a month. I promise to be better to myself. I promise to be generous to others. (I promise to invent better essay endings than this classic three-beat bullshit.) And, the bitters filter through the seltzer, while hiss of the carbonation whisper, “I’ll be there for you.” And, then Bon Jovi starts to sing.


Tue, 2017-11-21 11:59

Image: Blaine Horrocks via Flickr

My mother and grandmother weren’t the types to use “recipes” very often, and, once they were both dead, and I was visiting my aunt, I was surprised when she pulled out a giant box of cards, notebooks, and loose sheets of lined paper covered in both of their distinctive scrawls.

This wasn’t my mother’s mother, but her mother-in-law. My own mother’s mom wasn’t really a cook, but my mother found a food buddy in my grandma Elly. They cooked the same way: by gut, never fussy, always talking the whole time. They could put together meals while doing other things, while managing children or talking on the phone.

At the time I took this box full of never-organized scraps home with me, I’d been cooking in earnest for maybe a decade. But I hadn’t inherited these women’s casual, throw-whatever-together-it-will-definitely-work approach. In order to do that, to become that type of cook, I assume, you have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen actually doing the method, watching another do it. But I’d been away from my mother since I was a teenager, and so, I learned to cook the only way I knew how: from a book.

I painstakingly followed recipes, first learning how to roast a chicken, how to make a decent lasagne, then a ham. I learned how to make my own tomato sauce, and every time, I followed the steps, in order. I worked my way through learning how to properly slice an onion, how to de-seed tomatoes, and how to, eventually, beat eggs until there were “soft, glossy, peaks.” I failed in these ventures many times, flat cakes that never rose, pie crusts that were soggy and cracked. Through trial and error, mostly error, I learned from the women of cookbooks: Betty Crocker, Fanny Farmer, Julia Child.

Even now, decades later, I almost invariably follow recipes to the letter, ensuring, these days, that there are minimal fuck ups. I cooked my way, over the course of three years, the entirety of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. There are always hits and misses, but most of the time, if you do exactly—I mean *exactly*—what a good recipe tells you to do, you learn a new skill.

Now that I have been a vegetarian for more than a decade, my ability to experiment with an herb like tarragon is somewhat limited. It is incessantly recommended for chicken. It is, with its distinctive anise flavor, a somewhat limited herb. I forget that it exists for months at a time, favoring cilantro, parsley, and rosemary. It took me years to realize that fresh herbs aren’t *always* best, that some recipes work better with garlic powder than they do with garlic. I learned all of this, mostly, on my own.

I remember my childhood baking with my mother, her glancing at her mottled, ancient cookbook, bloated with notes and bookmarks, but I don’t remember her “following recipes.”

Even now, when I refer to my mother and grandmother’s notebooks (which I transcribed into their own, new, clean, notebooks, word for word, over the course of several months after bringing them home), I often find only questions: how much molasses belongs in gingerbread? The recipe, if we can call it that, doesn’t say. The recipes are filled with mystery, scrawled quickly as if only to remind, not to educate. Notes for themselves, not for me.

In that box were two pages, one in my mother’s hand, one in my grandmother’s. They must have shared, though whose recipe this was to start I don’t know. It is, simply, for “carrots.”


Carrots, chopped





And the one instruction: boil.


This is the best Thanksgiving recipe (besides my mother’s spinach balls) that I have to offer. What you make of it is up to you.

A Taxonomy Of Spices Based On Three Million Instacart Orders

Tue, 2017-11-21 11:58

Earlier this summer, Jeremy Stanley, the Vice President of Data Science at Instacart, made the data on three million Instacart orders available for anyone to look at. Stanley wrote in a Medium post that he hoped people would use the data “to test models for predicting products that a user will buy again, try for the first time or add to cart next during a session.” Stanley should have known though that the data would ultimately be used to find out when shoppers purchase condoms rather than to develop some breakthrough recommendation algorithm.

The data includes the names of products and the aisles those products are found in at the grocery store. For example, 797 different items from the spice aisle have been purchased at least once on Instacart.

Above is a chart that looks at how many times the most common spices have been ordered (the inorganic and organic versions combined) versus the proportion of those orders that are for the organic version*. By looking at the chart we can see that that the most ordered spice on Instacart is garlic powder with 9,549 orders and of those orders 34 percent are for the organic version. Compare that to garam masala, which has far fewer total orders (870), but a much higher organic order rate (84 percent). 

The relationship between how often a spice is ordered and the demand for its organic version can help us create a taxonomy of spices.

First, there’s the Everyday Spices. Garlic powder, as we’ve already mentioned, in addition to oregano, cumin, and black pepper make up this group. On average, about 40 percent of orders for these spices are for the organic version. These are the spices that sit on the front row our spice cabinets and because of that we don’t mind shelling out the few extra bucks to ensure that the spices haven’t been exposed to irradiation.

After that there’s the Every Other Day Spices and the Every Other Month Spices. These are similar to your Everyday Spices in that we purchase the organic version of them nearly as often as the inorganic version. The key difference is that we often accumulate more than one bottle of theses spices because we can’t remember if we already have it since we don’t use them regularly. These spices sit on the second and third row of our spice cabinets.

Next, there’s the Forgotten Spices. These are the spices that we bought two years ago, forgot about, and prompt us to Google, “Do spices have an expiration date?” These spices offer the most compelling argument in favor of meal subscription services like Blue Apron, which send you a perfectly portioned amount of spice.

Lastly there’s the group that includes garam masala, turmeric, cardamom, and nutmeg. All four of the organic versions of these spices are ordered more often than the inorganic version. These are the spices for when you plan to make tikka masala instead of ordering it on Seamless for the fourth time this week, but then you get to the grocery store and realize all they have is the organic version of garam masala, turmeric, and cardamom, which collectively cost more than the three tikka masalas you already purchased this week so then you hem and haw in the spice aisle about whether to go home and order-in again but you don’t because you already put pants on so you might as well buy the spices and cook the food yourself. These are the Regret Spices and they sit at the very back of our cabinets.


*I’ve excluded the different kinds of salt (there are many) and spices that don’t have an obvious organic counterpart.


Germans Do Not Have a Word For Cilantro Because They Hate It

Tue, 2017-11-21 11:57

“Real Coriander,” as Germans call it, because they are wrong. Image: public domain

A few years ago (fine, it was almost eight years ago, because time really is a flat circle and I am a jabillion years old), the New York Times ran a very widely read story about a very polarizing herb. Lo, the Grey Lady came bearing excellent news for the outspoken loathers of a certain bright green that makes Latin American and Asian dishes jump off the plate: “Cilantro haters,” She intoned, “it’s not your fault.” Apparently, some people (not me) are genetically hard-wired to associate the smell of cilantro with bedbugs or soap.

These people are predominantly ethnic Europeans such as myself (clearly, I was spared). And among those are Germans, to whom Many Americans in the mid-20th Century referred as Krauts, after sauerkraut, the ubiquitous side dish made of fermented cabbage that is, so far as I can discern, the only thing that makes it possible for any German to shit.

Kraut (KROWT!) means cabbage, yes—but it also means “herb” in general. The plural is Kräuter (KROY-tur), and in traditional German cuisine, it usually refers to one or more of the following: thyme (Thymian, TOOM-ee-un), marjoram (which I can’t even pronounce in English), parsley (Petersilie, PEH-tur-ZEE-LEE-uh, which we will talk about more in a second, oh don’t you worry), bay leaves (Lorbeerblätter, LORE-beah-BLEEEEHT-uh), caraway (Kümmel, KOOOM-l), and so, so, so, so fucking much dill (der Dill, ha ha).

In most grocery stores during the cooler months, you can buy a bunch of Suppenkräuter, or “soup herbs,” which is usually a combination of celery plus several of the above. As far as spices, or Gewürtze (guh-VEEEEEEURT-suh), Germans pretty much only have one (besides shit-tons of salt and white pepper): mustard, or Senf (ZENF), and you should probably avoid Germany altogether if you don’t like it.

You will notice that cilantro is nowhere in this milieu. The first reason is that its taste (even its “normal” non-bedbug taste) doesn’t really go with the palates of Dead Grandmother, Slaughter Plate, Hacked Peter and other greats of the cuisine of my forbears (and also the people who murdered my forbears).

The second reason is that Germans don’t call cilantro cilantro, so even if they did use it (which most don’t), they’d call it by its borderline-unacceptable German name, echte Koriander (ESCHT-uh koo-ree-AHN-duh), which means “real coriander,” because they don’t differentiate the plant from the seed. That’s how much they hate it. It doesn’t even have its own name. That’s right, you heard me: The Germans literally do not have a word for it.

If you ask a German Essen Sie gern Cilantro? (EH-sun zee GEYRN see-LON-troh, “Do you like to eat Cilantro?”), they’ll be like, Is that the new Robbie Williams record? If you correct yourself and say Sorry, I meant REAL CORIANDER, they may well react the way my former colleagues Ina and Björn did (Björn, for the sake of accuracy, is Austrian), with prolonged inside-out faces, gagging noises, and, in Björn’s case, the assertion that even the passing one measly leaf thereof would cause him to vacate the contents of his stomach.

Now, to be fair, according to my very accurate scientific Twitter survey from two weeks ago, #notallGermans hate cilantro. (All Germans do, however, hate sarsaparilla, or at least the delicious American soda approximation thereof. This is a fact.) And some Germans, again according to my extremely rigorous peer-reviewed research, have even had their Kräuter-loving minds changed by excellent guacamole. But for those who hate it—and they really, really hate it—that Times piece (old like me) gave them ammunition to be like Ha, there’s nothing I can do about it. If they’re really German, they’ll even say hee hee hee, and spell it hihihihi.

So: like the ability to brrrrring one’s bicycle bell at a volume louder than the laws of physics would allow from an apparatus of that size, or the overwhelming compulsion to tell other people when they’re wrong about something, perhaps loathing Real Coriander is just in Germans’ nature, Mensch.

Well, I’ll see your New York Times and raise you one NPR, where 100 percent of Schuman mothers Heard It. According to this piece, also old like my soul (and my body), the genetic “evidence” of cilantro-loathing is far from certain. Based on two studies published after the study the NYT loved so much, the genetic aversion to cilantro does have to do with the way certain genes inform the sense of smell—but is far more “nuanced” than This Herb=Bedbugs. “DNA does shape our opinion of cilantro,” NPR cautions, “but probably not enough that we can’t overcome it.”

So what’s the deal, Germans? You love overcoming things, or at any rate Nietzsche does. Unsurprisingly, I have a theory. And sure, I enjoy science as much as any non-scientist who does not really enjoy science but has to say she does so that people won’t be so sexist—but my theory has something better: rampant speculation.

You’ll remember I mentioned parsley. You’ll remember I said we’d be speaking of parsley again. Now that time has come. Germans fucking love parsley. There is nothing they won’t put it in. I’ve seen parsley in coffee, don’t @ me. You’ll also remember, or perhaps learn for the first time, that parsley and cilantro have a slightly similar lewk. (Here’s parsley; here’s cilantro.)

Now, though they look similar, of course they do not taste similar. For those of us who like cilantro, it tastes bright, sweet and a little tart. Parsley tastes like eating a toothpick (or, more charitably, sharp and herby and not at all sweet). If you were to substitute one for the other in a recipe, it would not go well; in fact, my mother-in-law (who is also European but likes both herbs) regularly puts parsley into salsa and guacamole if she doesn’t have cilantro on hand, which makes for a surprising first bite. Because when you’re expecting cilantro but you taste parsley, it’s jarring. I can only assume that the reverse also holds true, though it has not happened to me. A sprig of cilantro on the side of a Slaughter Plate to garnish the sauerkraut would be vomitous indeed, Björn.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you’re expecting one thing and you get another—a flat surface instead of a step; a five-inch puddle instead of a pile of leaves; one innocuous green leafy herb instead of another—it is going to traumatize you, possibly forever. Combine that with the fact that parsley is literally everywhere in Germany all the time—as ingrained into the popular consciousness as punctuality and recorder playing—and you see that cilantro can’t be anything but surprising, in a bad way. Combine that with the fact that Germans only started eating cuisines other than their own on a regular basis in the last three decades, and you have a Kraut that still elicits suspicion among, well, you know. It’s only a matter of time before the AfD party introduces a regulation banning it from the “German Kitchen.”

Why My Parents Eat Paprika On Cottage Cheese

Tue, 2017-11-21 11:55

Image via Cardboard America

For as long as I can remember, my parents have eaten cottage cheese with paprika on it. This is… weird? No one else I know does this, at the very least. It’s a traditional Hungarian way of eating it, but we are not a Hungarian family. For this piece, I did two big things: first, I interviewed my parents to figure out why the heck this tradition exists in my family and second, I tried paprika on cottage cheese (my review? It’s fine).

Me: How ya doing?

Dad: I. Am. Good.

Mom: I don’t know what he’s doing. We’re good.

Dad: She’s. Transcribing.

Me: I’m using a recorder, so you can talk normally.

Dad: O.K.

Mom: Oh boy

Me: So I’ll just preface this and say this is an interview with my parents, okay?

Dad: Yes.

Mom: [laughing in the background]

Me: The Awl is doing a series of pieces on spices, and the best I could come up with, because we’re not an aggressively spice-heavy family, is that you both do a thing where you eat cottage cheese with paprika on it. I wanna know why the heck that is.

Mom: I think the cottage cheese with paprika is me. It’s my twist on it. Your dad would always season deviled eggs with a pinch of paprika.

Me: Right…

Mom: Originally, I thought it was Dad who put it on cottage cheese

Me: Okay…

Mom: I’m saying, somehow Dad got the paprika on the table for me to see it because, as you said, we don’t use a lot of spices. There was no paprika in the house when I was growing up, so Dad definitely brought that into the marriage.

Dad: And like Mom said, I only use it regularly on deviled eggs. And I make those every Christmas Eve. So I’d make those, and leave out the paprika, and then Mom would take it and put it on her cottage cheese.

Mom: Cottage cheese would also be a part of all of the cold salads we eat on Christmas Eve.

Me: Right, the cold salads. [NOTE: Every year on Christmas Eve or Christmas, my family eats “abenbroat,” which is a German tradition involving a light dinner of cheese, meats, pickled vegetables, spreads, and bread. Cold salads aren’t typically a part of this, but because we’re also Midwestern, those are usually also just around the house.]

Mom: Exactly. I think Dad just made paprika accessible.

Me: You tried it and then Dad tried it? Do you both do this?

Dad: I do it sometimes. Cottage cheese is naturally bland, and a lot of people spice it up. Some people put salt and pepper on it.

Me: I feel like a lot of my friends eat it with fruit. Now people dress it up to be sweeter.

Dad: Like a yogurt.

Me: Right. The only way I really dress it up is with salt.

Mom: It doesn’t add a lot of flavor, the paprika, but there is some. I really just like the way it looks. Now I add salt too because Sue across the street says she adds paprika and salt. But I didn’t learn it from Sue.

Dad: I assumed this was Mom’s thing, not mine. And then she said she got it from me. But I think she must have gotten it from her family, because it’s an Eastern European thing.

Me: Yeah, I researched it a little and it said it’s mainly a Hungarian thing, but we’re not Hungarian.

Mom: But when Owen [NOTE: my brother] got back from Budapest, he brought us paprikas. But I don’t think this is from my family. We didn’t have butter on the table when I grew up. We didn’t have salt and pepper. I think it was just a proximity thing, of Dad putting it on the table.

Me: And you just took a risk?

Mom: Yeah, it looked pretty.

Dad: Hm.

Me: Hm.

Mom: Hm.

Dad: I mean, paprika is just a sweet pepper.

Me: Right, I know that.

Dad: We eat more cottage cheese now than we used to.

Mom: We’re more health-conscious. Any condiment that made anything taste good, I have to say I got it from being married to your dad.

Dad: [yawns]

Mom: Who is just yawning in the background.

Me: Right.

Mom: I feel like we’re so boring.

Dad: We’re so boring

Me: We’ll see how this turns out. People are doing, like, tarragon and white peppercorns.

Dad: Yikes.

Mom: We are not that exciting.

Me: Well, I hope that’s maybe the interesting part of this. That’s it for me.

Mom: We’re sorry.

Me: I’ll let you know if I have follow-ups.

Dad: Like we said, Owen brought us paprika. Three different ones.

Mom: We went from a family with no spices to a family who has three paprikas. So exotic!

Tasting The Devil

Tue, 2017-11-21 11:53

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The “ouzo effect,” or “louche effect,” takes place when you pour water into one of the aniseed boozes. These are raki, pastis, ouzo, absinthe, arak, and sambuca. The liqueur begins clear or slightly colored (green, in absinthe’s case) but upon contact with water it turns a milky white as if transmogrified into the semen of the devil. This phenomenon occurs because the essential oil trans-anethole, also known as the flavoring compound anise camphor, is strongly hydrophobic: the oil has been dissolved in alcohol but when water is introduced it freaks out, turning the liquid opaque.

The association between aniseed and opacity feels spiritually right, because the merest whisper of aniseed on the air turns my world into a black void composed entirely of disgust. It is a total phobia. Trans-anethole is essentially what we know as anise, but it also gives that characteristic flavor to fennel, licorice, camphor, magnolia blossoms, and star anise. Fennel in a salad? No. The German candy Pfeffernusse? Fuck you. Licorice mixed in with normal candy? Cut my throat, rather.

Aniseed essential oil comes from the plant anise, Latin name Pimpinella anisum. This is not the same plant as star anise, which I can tolerate, or Japanese star anise (Illicium verum and Illicium anisatum, respectively), although those unrelated spices do also contain anethole. Growing in the eastern Mediterranean and in Southwest Asia, the name “anise” derives from the Arabic word yaānsuūn (“يَانْسُون). It is a herbaceous annual plant which grows about a meter high. The fruit of the plant is a schizocarp, which is a dry thing that splits into multiple carpels after falling.

The anise plant has a long history of medicinal use. The sixteenth century botanist John Gerard recorded that it could help with flatulence and also “stir up lust.” In the nineteenth century a Civil War nurse named Maureen Hellstrom tried to use anise seeds as an antiseptic. This was poisonous and did not carry on for long. Fishermen put anise on their lures to attract fish. British steam locomotive engineers put aniseed oil capsules into their metal ball bearings which broken when overheated, warning the driver with “the unmistakable smell of the fluid.”

Photo courtesy of the National Railway Museum.

Part of my phobia has to do with my drunken adolescence. In the dwindling years of the last decade I woke with sticky elbows about twice a week. In student clubs and cheap pubs across the United Kingdom, it is normal for the entire bar to be coated in a half-evaporated layer of sambuca. I’ve never quite understood why this aniseed-flavored liquor is so popular with British students, but it is. When the dreaded black plastic tray heads your way, laden with shots and borne aloft in a cheerful hand, you can pray for tequila but God does not listen.

But the phobia is older than that, dating back to a primordial licorice experience. I call it a phobia because the reaction of my tongue and throat and whole puking apparatus to aniseed is more than disgust. It is a physical recoiling that I can only liken to the feeling on your tongue when you accidentally taste deodorant. Aniseed is less a flavor to me than a spectrum of revulsion, the way that rot can taste like mould or like death or like the sweet breath of a destitute alcoholic.

Aniseed tastes to me like marzipan and parma violets and soap and cardamom and aluminium and obligation. It tastes like forcing your vomit down out of politeness when somebody elderly and kind gives you something disgusting. It tastes like the texture of powder and the involuntary gag that follows your fourth shot (I hate it, so much, and yet I’ve drunk so much sambuca). It tastes like talcumy old ladies and pissing on your shoes in an alley. It tastes like the billowing dark of a blackout and a hundred-year-old jar of sweets, each one laced with poison by an evil old woman.

Image: Richard Riley via Flickr

So, my deepest disgust has three chief elements. There’s the flavor profile of anise camphor, which is a material fact of the botanical universe. There is the world of aniseed sweets, which go along with the memory of being made by adults to eat what I did not want to eat. And then there’s the alcohol, and the accident of my birth in boozy England. Put together, aniseed is a pillar of my sensory being. Historically and geographically contingent, yes, but that is what our sensory identities are all about.

I’m not sure I know anybody else who hates aniseed this much, nor do I think that my interpretation of the anise essential oil flavor is right any more than the natural fact of the ouzo effect is right. Instead, my disgust simply testifies to the existence of the world as I see it; a world of tastes which I can access through my tongue alone. Like love, hate is a subjective experience that returns you to your body, alone in your feelings but certain of them. Aniseed is my certainty. It’s good to know what you do not want in your mouth.

Eat More Peppercorns

Tue, 2017-11-21 11:42

Image: Steenbergs via Flickr

My favorite thing to eat in the entire world, aside from Ferrero Rocher bon-bons and flan, is a Szechuan dish called ma po tofu. Cubes of silken tofu and ground pork are cooked together in a spicy red sauce, thick with fermented black beans, chili oil, ginger and tiny, metallic, tangy Sichuan peppercorns. It is best served over rice and decidedly at its worst when served with peas—something I have only encountered once in the wild at a Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg that was featured heavily in an episode in the final season of “Girls,” when Hannah’s mother eats too many edibles and finds inner peace eating soup dumplings at a table, solo.

Eating the dish will eradicate your palate such that if you wanted to enjoy anything other than the taste of metal in your mouth, you’d be at a loss. Sichuan peppercorns are a divisive spice. You either hate them and will assiduously pick them out of any dish where they might be present, or you love them unabashedly, crunching the little fuckers between your teeth and releasing the their tingling essence. A sichuan peppercorn is the epitome of ma-la, roughly translating to “numb-hot,” because that is the sensation that occurs when you eat one. Sweat breaks out on your upper lip, but it’s not the searing-white heat of a ghost pepper or the tangy acid of a Scotch Bonnet. There are never tears, just an overall feeling of heat, of numbness—absent the nose-tickling anticipatory hell of black pepper or the floral and slightly dusty mouthfeel of white.

Sweet tastes like the earliest stages of decay; sour is an immediate cry for mercy. Hot-sauce–spicy is torture and feels more like the purview of Guy Fieri super fans. Pepper is heat; it is piquant and not violent. It makes almost everything better: mac and cheese with cut up hot dogs is elevated to something haute cuisine when covered in a healthy grind or five of crushed black pepper from a disposable McCormick’s grinder. Consider the peppercorn—the Sichuan for special occasions, the black for your salads, and the white for just about everything else.

A white peppercorn is not actually a peppercorn like a Sichuan peppercorn or a black peppercorn—it’s a mature pepper berry that has been soaked and fermented for two weeks, until the little skins fall off and all you’re left with is the inner seed. It’s the essence of pepper, earthy and spicy and warm and much more interesting than the sad little specks of black pepper that sits on top of your stove. Where black pepper is a bottled sneeze, white pepper is nuanced—it’s not smacking you in the face, screaming “DO YOU HAVE SOME HOT BUTTERED CORN I COULD HANG OUT ON?” like black pepper does. It wants to be everywhere, but it doesn’t want to yell about it. It’ll be happy wherever you put it, and your life will improve for the better.

Like the vocal stylings of Christina Aguilera, I always want my food to do the absolute most. A proffered black pepper grinder from a bored man in a fancy shirt at a restaurant is stressful: of course I want the pepper, but I want it all. Leave the grinder on the table and walk away. At home, I am free to spice my food however I please. I will shower a sad dinner-adjacent meal of, say, one piece of slightly stale sourdough rubbed with garlic, covered in a shredded “Mexican” cheese blend, and stuck in the toaster oven until everything melts with white and a dash of black. The result still tastes like an ersatz grilled cheese (because it is), but something about the white pepper makes it feel fancier. Add white pepper to your soup, serve your soup to your pickiest friend and ready yourself to lean in and whisper, “It’s just some white pepper” when they ask you how and why your soup tastes like hot and sour soup in a good way when it is clearly anything but. Pepper is an easy way to convince people you really know how to cook; black pepper is what they’re expecting. No one thinks of white pepper. You’ll stump your asshole food friends who sip braising liquid from pots of beans and ask in increasingly insistent tones whether or not there is soy in the broth. With your food happily laced in white pepper, they will eat with a furrowed brow, rifling through their personal spice archive to figure it out. They will not figure it out and you will feel good. White pepper does the heavy lifting so you don’t have to.

Add it to eggs. Add it to a vinaigrette. Toss a tiny bag-of-cocaine’s-worth into a bone broth, you jerk, smash some ginger with the flat side of your knife and toss that in, too. Improvise a panic breakfast when all you have are two eggs, a weird tomato and three limp green onions: Softly scramble the egg with more white pepper than you think is necessary, and jiggle it around in a pan over low heat with the tomato and green onions, roughly chopped. Eat this over a clump of two-day-old rice, leaning your back against the sink. It will taste better than you expected—complicated and earthy. We all know that it’s bad to worship at the altar of kosher salt, no matter how tempting it might be. Take the pepper instead. Let the white pepper in.

Blue Hawaii, "Versus Game" (Hwulu Remix)

Tue, 2017-11-21 09:35

Thanksgiving is two days away, but in Now Hours it might as well be next month. Can you believe it was only a year ago that Mike Pence went to see Hamilton? We’ve lived and died a million lives since then and we’ll live and die a thousand more before the first fight on Thursday. Anyway, here’s music, enjoy.

New York City, November 20, 2017

Mon, 2017-11-20 19:57

★★★★ The wind made ripping and bashing noises through the night, but all the sounds of storminess led to a dry morning. Sun came through gaps in the silver-gray clouds in bursts of light like the gusts of wind. Two separate sun images both bounced their beams off the mirrored tower and into the living room on different trajectories. The people outside had the excitement of being harried and bustled without the pain of being cold. “If I run fast enough and the wind is strong enough, I’ll fly,” the six-year-old said, giving it his best try. The light was as bright as a polished steel chain curtain.

Ketchup Is A Pickle

Mon, 2017-11-20 15:01

Image: Mike Mozart via Flickr

I need to tell you something, which is that ketchup is, unfortunately for you, a pickle.

Not a moral pickle, but a culinary pickle.

Is relish a pickle? Yes—since pickles can be whole or sliced cucumbers, the physical integrity of the vegetable is immaterial to the pickle status of the vegetable in question. Therefore relish is also a pickle.

I know this is a sad day for people who obsess over artisanal pickles and order the pickle plate at every bougie restaurant in Williamsburg. These pickles may have notes of coriander or nutmeg, or exotic vinegars. Fancy pickles are nice. They’re not that hard to make, but I appreciate the effort and the attention paid to elevate what was previously a sad, limp sidekick to a sandwich. A good pickle cuts through fatty, creamy, decadent dishes, and a good fatty, creamy, decadent dish accentuates the freshness and crispness of a good pickle. Pickles are great. This is not an attack on pickles.

People who love these pickle platters, strangely, tend to also hate ketchup. Why do they hate ketchup? Have you HAD ketchup, is usually what they will say in response. A true foodie does not ketchup his fries, nor his burger. He would never besmirch a good mac and cheese or grilled cheese sandwich with ketchup. But if they were served with a pickle, he would absolutely, at some point, put down his fork or sandwich and augment his dining experience with a bracing bite of pickle. That would make him a hypocrite.  

I regret to inform you that the pickles you love and the ketchup you hate are, actually, one and the same.

Pickles are, broadly, a vegetable in a slurry of salt, sugar, vinegar, water, and seasonings.

Ketchup is also a vegetable in a slurry of salt, sugar, vinegar, water, and seasonings.

Aha, you might say, but isn’t anything that includes a slurry of salt, sugar, vinegar, water, and seasons just a DRESSING of some kind?

No—dressing does not have vegetables in it.

When there’s a vegetable, it’s a pickle.

If you think pickles are good, you must also extend that same opinion and courtesy to ketchup.

If you like pickles but hate ketchup, you don’t make any goddamn sense at all.

Then is green goddess dressing also a pickle?


Good day.


Julio's Seasoning

Mon, 2017-11-20 14:39

Within the first few years of my move to New York City, I was invited by a fairly new friend to spend a weekend at her parents’ summer home in Vermont. While initially surprised by the invitation, what I came to learn about the East Coast is that the adult children of people with summer homes in Vermont-—or upstate, or the cape, or anywhere else a day’s drive away from Manhattan—have been told again and again by their parents something resembling, “We paid for it, so you may as well use it,” thus making the barrier to entry considerably lower than I expected. Low enough, for example, for me to be allowed in. So I, the newest and youngest and least northeastern friend, joined the others and drove seven long hours in a rented sedan to the southern edge of the Green Mountain state.

The house, which sneaks up on its visitors on a winding, canopied, one-lane road just north of the Massachusetts border, was modest in size and furnishings, but its surrounding autumnal beauty and mere designation as a “summer home” was enough to make it feel utterly palatial. Having grown up in a hot state where second homes were uncommon and, if they existed, filled with guns for hunting deer and almost always known as, simply, “the place,” the whole experience—being in a perfect little place created for the sole purpose of making its rotating assortment of guests feel comfortable—was new and wonderful to me. For those three lovely days, the group of us did a lot of sitting quietly with our books, taking solo hikes through the soggy, transitioning forest, playing a board game called Incan Gold, and getting to know each other a little better over the snacks our host had brought from the nearest Stew Leonard’s.

I had never heard of Stew Leonard’s, a quaint Connecticut grocery store chain whose logo features a cartoon man milking a smiling cartoon cow, until that weekend, but soon became intimately familiar with what I was told was its most famed delicacy: store-made cheddar popcorn. One of those regional obsessions like the Goo Goo Clusters of Tennessee or Tim’s chips in the Pacific Northwest, Stew Leonard’s cheddar popcorn, I was told, had a passionate fanbase who would gladly go out of their way for a taste of home, and its cozy, welcoming saltiness reminded me of a favorite snack from my homestate of Texas: Julio’s tortilla chips.

I remember bringing this up to my new friends as we shared shared one of many bags of Stew Leonard’s cheddar popcorn procured by our host for the weekend—going on and on about these chips that reminded me of home, the grocery store (H-E-B) where they could always be found, and their ubiquity in the pantries of every Texan not told to limit their sodium intake–but waxing poetic over a food to people without being able to share a bite is a pointless endeavor. (At least cooking shows have beautiful visuals—this story just had my own droning voice.) I remember their patience with me as I went on and on about these special chips that existed somewhere far, far away. These snacks that were neither cheddar or popcorn and had no business being brought up in present company (the cheddar popcorn). Everything you could do with them. Everything they complemented. I remember thinking I should never speak of these chips with non-Texans again–that my stories are always minutes too long and contain details even the most reliable court reporter would omit.  

I remember that moment so vividly because it’s a monologue I’ve delivered—and forced friends to listen to—more than once. I deliver this monologue all the time. And here I am, 547 words in, doing it once more. For a series on spices in which it barely makes sense to live. Oh well.

A Julio’s chip, like most chips, is a triangle of fried corn tortilla. But what sets it apart from its many competitors—what makes it so much more special than brands like Tostito’s or Mission—is what it’s dusted with while steamy and glistening after its hot corn oil bath. The sparkling (I mean this, the chips actually sparkle) concoction is, per their website, is a magical combination of citric acid, pepper, garlic, paprika, cumin, and MSG. While the company also sells salsa (found in the refrigerated aisle, so you know it’s fresh), the chips are famous for being so flavorful that they’re satisfying even without a dip. Their yellow bags, with branding largely unchanged for nearly three decades, can be found in nearly every grocery store in Texas, but are largely unknown across state lines.

When I first moved to New York City, losing easy access to Julio’s was a topic of conversation between all the Texpats I hung around and drank Shiner Bock and Tecate Light with. I ordered a few bags direct from the company—and, later, from H-E-B’s online storefront—but could never justify the exorbitant cost of shipping for what would inevitably be a bag of crumbs. They would remain a gift when visiting—a welcome greeting in my parents’ pantry they would never otherwise buy unless I was en route.

After coming to terms with the impossibility of having an affordable bag of uncrumbled Julio’s somewhere inside my New York City home at all times, I figured out the best way to satisfy my Julio’s craving without resorting to overpriced cross-country shipments in boxes large enough to hold big-screen televisions from 1995 was to buy just the seasoning. This should have been the obvious solution, but it took years of going without my precious chips to finally make the purchase. Sold in an 8oz bottle that lasts years—my current one is approaching three long ones in the pantry—Julio’s seasoning is a secret ingredient for making not just homemade TexMex infinitely more reminiscent of home, but otherwise bland savory foods considerably more special.

I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on scrambled eggs. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on these easy-baked matchstick fries I always make with burgers and other hot homemade sandwiches. I sprinkle Julio’s on the tater tots that come with my favorite grilled cheese delivery order. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning in the dutch oven in the final hour of slow-cooking pinto beans, as I was taught by my father not to salt them too early. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on a bowl of Fritos before topping them with chili for Frito pie. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on the freshly fried corn tortilla bowls before loading them up with shredded romaine, black beans, corn, guacamole, and pico de gallo. And when I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on any food served to guests, they inevitably say, “What did you put on this? It’s wonderful.”

That’s my cue to begin a story about some cheddar popcorn I once ate in Vermont.