Thursday, October 30, 2008

Choices, choices

Some decisions are easy to make. I'll pick a random example out of the ether to illustrate my point: who will I be voting for on Nov. 4th? It's a no-brainer. I need only consult my pumpkin.

Some decisions are incredibly hard to make. I have 3 days left on this elimination diet and then I get to decide which food I will test first. Shall it be wheat or wine? Do I go for the bagels or the booze?

Which "food" should I test first? Help this agnostic, Libra, Jew decide: the staff of life or the blood of Christ?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And now for a truly scary pumpkin

Emboldened by my hopeful Obama pumpkin I decided to build upon the lovely descending gourd display my neighbor set up at the doorway to our building. There really weren't quite enough pumpkins to accurately portray the market decline but I did the best I could with what I had.

Monday, October 27, 2008

If you can't eat it, carve it.

I doubt pumpkins would really give me much of an intolerance problem but they're easy enough for me to avoid so when my friend saved the seeds for me and asked me if I wanted to roast them, I scooped them up and tossed them in the compost. I felt like I earned some sort of point in my favor, counterbalancing the Dow Jones-pizza-free-fall that I was involved in last week.

Tonight was our condo's annual Pumpkin Carving Get-Together. The wine goddess and I live in a relatively small, historic building that has 14 units. Our building has an insane ratio of dogs to humans. Currently we're 1:1.5. Put it this way, if dogs had just a little bit more clout and were verbal on the most basic level (hell, even if they could just stomp their paws once for yea, twice for nay), our board meetings would almost be productive and fun.

On this particular night every year, about half the building (sans dogs) wanders down to the main hallway and like some pleasant retirement home or day care center for adults we all sit down on newspaper and pass around cheap sawing tools made in China that snap in half if you look at them the wrong way. We started at 7 pm. I got the oh-so-brilliant, oh-so-ambitious idea to carve Obama into my steroid-enhanced pumpkin, its 3 inch walls an impenetrable fortress surrounding a veritable dump truck load of slimy seeds and pulp. I printed off a template earlier today when the day was long, the sun was shining and I was excited about the evening's activities.

I drew Barack's face onto my gourd and started to carve away pleasantly, listening in on building gossip and working my saw made for what could only be a toddler's hand. At 7:05 I got to swearing and sweating. Bing! Down goes the cheap orange nano-saw.

Around 7:45 pm I realize that 90% of the residents are packing up their tools (now broken), bidding each other good evening and placing their sweet, simple pumpkins out on the stoop, individual votive candles flicking shadows on crooked smiles and triangle eyes. Not unlike my childhood where I was forced to sit at the dining room table until I finished what was left on my plate - depending on the offending food, I could hold out for hours - I sat in the hallway, now alone, orange slime on my jeans, legs outstretched before me, pinned beneath the weight of it all, just about done with one half of one part of one eyebrow.

By the time everyone left, my pumpkin looked about as much like Barack Obama as, well, Barack Obama looks like a pumpkin. I had NO HOPE for this pumpkin and I started to feel guilty, like 'what if there is some cosmic connection between my failure and the results on nov. 4th?'. I dragged my 15 pound orange medicine ball up to my unit, gave myself a firm talking to, placed my butt on the kitchen floor, put on my orange ipod and committed myself to the task at hand.

It wasn't easy. I almost lost his nose. Twice. His left eye doesn't have a pupil but with all the flickering candlelight you can't even tell. Just before 10 pm I dragged that thing out to the stoop, lit it up and had my very first political-spiritual-vegetal experience.

Damn, there just may be hope after all.

No eating necessary

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The personal pizza is political

If a person eats 2 slices of pizza while making political calls on behalf of progressive Washington state candidates in a small office in Seattle, can anyone digest it? Here I am caught in the act by my bff. Note the somewhat shamed posturing and the tell-tale east coast finger in the act of folding the slice in half. I'm a food criminal so my head is ducked. You can't see me. This isn't happening.

For almost three months I have resisted quite possibly my biggest food craving EVER. Pizza contains many ingredients that I'm not supposed to indulge in: wheat, yeast, tomato, garlic, cheese, and chile flakes (almost 1/4th of all my forbidden ingredients in one triangular piece of oozing, cheesy, comforting goodness). My cravings became so intense that I'd find myself crossing the street to get away from the doorways of local pizza shops and the inherent yeasty, tomato-y smells that would invade my nasal passages.

If I had been thinking clearly tonight, I would have eaten at home before I subjected myself to other people's smacking lips and greasy smiles. Temptation is not as tempting when my belly is full.

"Hello, is Kevin there?" I say into the phone, while volunteer after volunteer passes before me obscenely eating their pizza, right out in the open where I can see them. "My name is Becky and I'm calling with Equal Rights Washington, have you voted already?"

I never had time to grab dinner before running down to the stuffy office overlooking Interstate 5. My bff brings me an apple. Kind as that is, it's cold and sweet when all I want is warm, rich and salty. I want a soft place for my teeth to land and then a thin crisp crust to bite through. I want tomato sauce on my breath and cheese on my shirt. The apple? 100% unsatisfying. I leave it partially eaten on the desk while I sulk and inform yet another person about upcoming ballot initiatives.

"I wanted to let you know that it is especially important to re-elect Governor Gregoire this year, as Dino Rossi would erode our civil liberties." I practice my authentic voice, so that people don't think we're automated callers interrupting their dinners.

Dinners, because it's dinner time.

I feel my discipline crumbling under the weight of all this political pressure. I'm irritated with the volunteer lobbyists pressuring me with their "want a slice?" rhetoric. The smell is deafening in here and I'm weaker than Bill Clinton standing in front of a fast food joint. I barely have time to consider the fact that if I go through with this, if I succumb to this temptation, then perhaps it blows all of my efforts. Or, at the least, it might set back my attempt to figure all this out so I can rebuild my diet, regain a normal digestive system, and rejoin the ranks of chefs the world over eating whatever there is that strikes our fancy.

I think back to my vegetarian days in college when I'd go home for Thanksgiving dinner and when no one was looking I'd sneak a little piece of crisp turkey skin from the resting bird, crackling and glossy beneath my fingers. I'd tuck it into my mouth with a quick, furtive motion like a squirrel with an acorn. If no one saw me, it wouldn't count and I could still be a vegetarian. Taken right from the playbook of unregulated corporate power-brokers, if the act was undocumented, it essentially never happened.

My intent was just to have a bite, only the tip off the end, to satisfy my craving. I'm Sarah Palin and this bite is my little bit of ear-marked pork; a wee something to keep the wheels going round.

I put my phone down, leave the cubicle and walk the long way around the back towards the stacked pizza boxes. I look around and see no one. I imagine my eyes are steely and focused. It never happened, I think, as I grab the piece to my lips, take a tentative bite and look through the glass of the conference room right into the eyes of my bff. Just as I swallow, her mouth drops.


My friends try to stop me in their attempt to bail me out but now that I'm going down I might as well go all the way down. Like a drug addict finally getting their fix, I protect my score. This isn't a little bit of political pork, it's the whole pig and I eat the shit out of that pizza, first savoring it and then gulping it down, greedily. I'm dizzy with my high; my eyes are glazed over and I go to another place, a happy place, a place that has bridges to nowhere lined with slices.... a place where I am again a self-indulgent food loving soul at peace with the world. I'll deal with the consequences in 30 minutes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Trickle Down

The trickle down (some would say 'flood') of economic woes has hit home a bit and several of my friends and clients have lost their jobs. Private clients that normally hire me for dinner parties are snapping their wallets shut and I can't say I blame them. If I could afford to hire myself, I'd probably have to fire myself.

All of this makes me want to stuff my face into a big bowl of macaroni and cheese. 17 days left until I can start adding back in some sorely missed ingredients and I'm feeling out-of-my-head restless to eat normally again. What is comfort food when you can't eat anything comforting?

There's one place, though, that has managed to thrive in a time when people are reluctant to spend money. Last night, we stopped by Poppy to have an after-work drink. Poppy has been packed since the moment it opened. I thought, at first, it was due to the good feng shui of their red-orange door (thought to be a sign of success and prosperity), but I know it is more likely a testament to the pedigree of chef/owner Jerry Traunfeld who has managed to open a unique place, in the perfect spot, at the right time with the care, quality and flavor of his food that we've all come to expect. The prices are set at a reasonable level and the mood is casual at a time when fancy restaurants around town are awash in empty tables.

My wine goddess ordered, shockingly, a flight of wine to sample. I ordered a smooth Cazadores Silver Tequila, neat. The few times I've stopped by a restaurant in the past few months I've tried to eat at home first. No one likes a hangry drinking mate and I've refused - on principal - to unroll my list of verboten foods to a harried waiter.

I used to cook with half the staff of Poppy. Jerry was my former boss and the goddess is buddies with the bartender and we both worked with the gm, at different places! Seattle is an uber-small, tight community of food/wine folks; we don't tend to make a lot of money but we treat each other well when we visit each other's establishments. If things really hit the fan and it comes down to bread lines, we'll probably have someone in the back sneaking us a croissant.

I've been anxious to eat at Poppy since it opened in early September. Sitting at the bar, smelling the food as it went out to diners was just slightly short of unbearable. The little temptress who sits on my shoulder breathing her forbidden breath of nightshades, cheeses, wine and cream whispers into my ear: "just try a little bit of an appetizer and maybe nibble a few things off of the goddess' plate." I figured the "spice crispies": a spicy bar mix of cashews, puffed rice, golden raisins and pumpkin seeds - I let the goddess eat those - would go nicely with my tequila. I knew I was cheating a little. I guessed it had a dusting of earthy, sweet garam masala with some chile, and something rich holding it all together (later we find out that was butter).

It could have been from the alcohol, but ten minutes into my snack, both of my ears got really hot and turned bright crimson. Jerry came over to say hi and after witnessing my flaming ears, checked in with me about what I could actually eat. I told him not to worry about it, but he insisted. When someone with food allergies tells me what they can eat, I take great pride and pleasure in crafting them a meal they can feel good about. Somehow, though, when it involves me, I'm reluctant to ask.

Fifteen minutes later out comes some tandoor chicken (without the garlic marinade) that one of the cooks has prepared (in their in-house tandoor oven). It was simply and deliciously flavored with olive oil, seasonings and fresh bay leaves, the green edges blackened from the intense heat. The use of fresh bay leaves in both savory and sweet preparations is something I learned from Jerry at the Herbfarm. Since my experience there, I use them liberally in all sorts of preparations; in bay vanilla ice cream, as bay sugar to caramelize pears in or as a dipping powder with bittersweet chocolate terrine. I learned how to tuck great quantities of fresh bay under the skin of chickens when I roast them so that they perfume the meat.

The moist, herbal tandoor chicken wasn't mac and cheese and the economic crisis hadn't changed, but I wanted, all the same, to bury my head in the plate and take comfort in satisfying my belly, if not my bank account.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Taken at my family's property, Johns Island, South Carolina. Photo credit: Rachel Elkind

Some days it strikes me that it might be more efficient if we humans had actual grooves on our bodies where we could align ourselves perfectly with our environments; a physical embodiment that exposes our need for routine and predictability, like so much steel gliding down a train track. While we're built - on some levels - with some modicum of flexibility, in general we're creatures of habit, hard-wired for repetition.

I note this phenomenon every morning in the canine world. As I leave the bathroom our Labrador has to go in, turn around and follow me back out. It's such a bizarre little habit of hers, I think, as I reach for the soap to wash first my right arm and then, only then, my left. Most of us, including our dogs, find it a bit uncomfortable to be derailed.

Even in careers where spontaneity, creativity and flexibility are encouraged, if not actually required (think artists, musicians, chefs, writers), we can find ourselves nose to the ground -or even ass over tea kettle- pondering the rut we have found ourselves in. Again. Everyone's rut looks different to others but painfully and perhaps comfortingly familiar to them.

I think about this especially in those times when circumstances demand a change. I remember something I read once that told a parable about different types of people in the world. First, there are those who walk along oblivious to the fact that they are about to fall in a hole, and then there they go, right into it. Next, there are those who see the hole well in advance and fall in it regardless. Finally there are those who see the hole, get right up to it, peer over the edge and then learn to walk around it. (Note the exclusion of a fourth type: those who see the hole and then push someone else into it.)

This is a time for reinvention well beyond me and my insular life. But there are parallels. If I can make a cupcake taste pretty darn good with no eggs, dairy, or wheat than perhaps there is hope for greater things in the world.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Finnegan Begin Again

Welcome to Chef Reinvented. Stay tuned for new writings, whinings and gut-wrenching, bittersweet paeans to foods that I can't quite eat... yet.


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