about bliss

Monday, October 29, 2007

bye, bye birdie

When I was a freshman in high school I was a chorus girl in the musical *Bye Bye Birdie,* along with a gaggle of my friends. We wore pastel pedal pushers, cardigans, and chaste cirle skirts that our moms and grandmas sewed for us. We sang never-ending renditions of "we love you Conrad, oh yes we do" and danced jaunty box steps to the teen chorus number, the name of which escapes me right now. And, I even sang one solo line in "The Telephone Hour": "It won't last/not at all/He's too thin/She's too tall."

But that's not what my title refers to this evening. Rather, it's an allusion to my abysmal performance at the inaugural badminton match. I give my sincerest apoplogies to my friend B., who is the more talented half of our team, Vance Refrigeration. I floundered all over the court, suffering from the dreaded TR (twisty racket) of tennis fame, the blinding bright lights in the gym ceiling, and the shame of hitting my own self in the head with my racket not once but twice. And at least one of my students, several of my colleagues, and our very athletic Dean were all watching.

It's rather a good thing that my continued employment does not hinge on my athletic prowess. Academic prowess? Culinary prowess? Sartorial prowess? Silly prowess? Yes, these I can excel in. But team sports have never been my strong suit. Why can't we have running or yoga intramurals? Those are "sports" I could definitely participate in without looking like a jackarse. Or better yet, how about a battle of big words? (which we're actually doing in my comp 2 classes this Wednesday. I'm calling it a define-a-thon, after an article I clipped from the NYT last Spring). Or what about a CHOCOLATE competition? Any other suggestions for non-athletic intramurals?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

ça va tres bien, merci!

I hope my French title is correctly spelled and grammar-ed. I left my lesson worksheet at work... I'm now learning French via podcast! Yesterday I sat in my office repeating French phrases and likely sounding a bit loony to all colleagues and students walking down the hall. The first lesson included such helpful phrases: yes, no, how are you? i am well, i am very well, i am not well, i am in good form, and you?

Why am I learning French in haste? I'm in the early stages of planning a mini-study abroad/continuing ed course that would focus on the American Ex-Pat writers in Paris, mainly in the Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wharton years. I'm planning on applying for a grant to fund a brief site visit this summer and therefore need to have at least rudimentary language skills. If my summer trip comes to pass, I will most definitely need a travel companion or two or three...please feel free to volunteer yourself:)

Last night I had the most scrumptious pasta in recent history. The honors of best Italian restaurant are shared between Trattoria Stefano, Trattoria Stella, and Cafe Spiaggia as to which restaurant has my favorite pasta. For now, Stefano is pulling ahead because of their geographical proximity, the warm ambience, and their (still giant) half portions of pasta.

After work yesterday I drove to She-town for two hours of bliss (i.e. highlights and haircut), and then walked into crowded Il Ritrovo for pizza. Because it was so busy I would have to wait even to eat at the bar, the host suggested I walk across the street to Stefano, where I could also order pizza if I wanted. The warm atmosphere, small tables with flickering candle light, and hushed patrons created immediate intimacy. I settled down at a round high table beside the bar and ordered half a glass of red wine (my new trick so I can imbibe with my meal and still be able to drive home). My mista salad (described in previous entries, I'm sure) arrived almost instantly. The salad is evolving with the seasons...now it includes small slices of young pecorino, which I usually am not overly fond of, but this non-aged variety was mellow enough to offset the barnyard tang.

I abandoned my platonic ideal of pizza when I read the menu: instead, I settled on a half order of rigatoni con mozzarella. Simplicity: rigitoni, cooked perfectly al dente, with a san marzano sauce, thin slivers of garlioc, parm, basil, and fresh mozzarella. I don't know how they manage to produce such amazing foods that I nearly make a spectacle of myself. When the host from across the street walked in, he stopped by to see how I was enjoying my dinner. I'm almost ashamed to say that I did not at all disguise my utter culinary bliss.

Here's the magic of a fine meal: my imagination is fired, my idealism returns, hope triples, and my heart expands to include everyone and everything that had previously fallen aside with the daily grind of disillusionment. Eating well can be truly transformative, and I pledge myself to making everyday foods and moments so spiritually elevating.

Thinking of Amanda Hesser's dear Mr. Latte (who misguidely orders lattes after 11am), I ordered a decaf espresso, which was bracing and just the tonic to cut through the heady dreaminess of my meal and set me back in reality and ready to drive home, my hair stylishly coiffed, my tummy happily fed, and my soul expanded.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

old fashioned autumn sunday

autumn leaves by John Everett Millais, 1856*painting held by manchester city art gallery, manchester*from wikipedia

Today has been just the kind of glorious, quiet, meandering day I needed to recharge for another busy week. I ate my breakfast and finished my grading and prepping for class tomorrow and went for a short run all before noon. The afternoon was mine alone, to fill at my leisure. I noticed a rake propped up outside my house and decided I would contribute to the yard work by raking the front yard and the small side that borders the neighbors' home (where I will be moving come January--more on that later). The sun poured down through the few remaining leaves, a warm antidote to a gusty wind that made raking seem like a ridiculous task. But I powered on, raking and scooping and flipping leaves into a giant pile on the edge of the street. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, chunks of fresh pumpkin were steaming and roasting in the oven. I "rendered" the pumpking from the cute pie-sized orb I bought at the market last week.

Upon finishing the leaves, I tended to my pumpkin, pureeing the softened chunks with my stick blender. I felt no small degree of satisfaction for taking this extra step to make homemade pumpkin bread. Even the great Dorie admits in her cookbook that she uses canned pumpkin (which I always otherwise do, but this pumpkin was so darned cute and sweet looking). First, I set forth to make carrot spice muffins from the aforementioned Dorie while the pumpkin cooled. By the time I had popped the muffins in the oven and washed my dishes, the pumpkin was cool and I mixed up the pumpkin bread, which is almost done. The house is now redolent of freshly grated nutmeg, ginger, and ceylon cinnamon (the only cinnamon I have left! a trip to Penzey's is in order next weekend). I tested one of the muffins and they are deliciously moist and delightfully healthy, with canola oil, walnuts, only 1 egg, and my special addition: flax seed meal.

I found my 2 hours in the kitchen slipped away without one moment of anxiety or urgency or feeling of "i should be doing..." and I haven't reached that flow state in quite some time. I listened to old grad school tunes--better than ezra and shawn mullins. I thought of my former friend A. who was in love with the lead singer for better than ezra, and how overjoyed she was when he touched her hand at the concert on our campus. I hope life is treating her well.

Now I sip my french press coffee and stretch out on the couch with my american lit anthology, reading ahead for the week. We start the Harlem Renaissance this week, and begin our first novel, Zora Neale Hurston's exquisite *Their Eyes Were Watching God.*

Monday, October 15, 2007

return of hot chocolate season

Fall can be a lively time, a season of overt transitions, of showy leave-takings, and bountiful harvests. As trees display their bare limbs to the world, and the well-laden tables at the farmer's market showcase hardier goods like winter squashes, gourds, and maple syrup, my heart starts to fear the coming winter. The endless days of grey skies, the bone-rattling cold that seeps through three layers of clothes, and the gorgeous snow that turns from sparkling to tawdry with each footprint and passing car...alas, this is the price we northerners pay for our gloriously temperate summers.

So I look for the silver lining in those foreboding clouds. And I have only one word: CHOCOLATE.

My favorite fall/winter bedtime snack (because, let's face it, who can't help but love a pre-somnolent treat?) is hot chocolate. You can forget your swiss miss or carnation (though I lived on a ginormous canister of swiss miss during the winter in college). I don't go all out with fat laden milks and melting pure chocolate (well, on an extremely rare occasion...). It's as simple as 1 TBS best cocoa powder (I'm partial to the mahogany bliss of Valrhona, though you may have to search for/mail order the stuff, and it isn't inexpensive), 2 tsp sugar (I use raw or vanilla sugar), a splash of vanilla (I like Mexican), and 6-8 ounces of milk (I use skim or 1% organic valley). Place the first three ingredients in a small sauce pan, and add a splash of the milk. Stir with a small whisk until smooth, and then add the rest of the milk. Heat over low-ish heat until it reaches your desired warmth. Serve with or without marshmallows and/or liqueur (I'm fond of starbucks coffee, bailey's irish cream, or godiva chocolate). Eat a piece of lightly buttered toast on the side (I've been using Natural Ovens--a local sandwich bread bakery--organic whole wheat + flax seed bread).

This is how ritualized my hot chocolate moment is: I actually have a designated mug, a Holly Hobby mug my mom bought for me from my cousin N. for a school fundraiser. It's trademark blue and white, with a lovely blue interior, and a floral sprigged exterior that features Holly and the phrase "start each day in a happy way." I like to think that my late-night treat is setting me up for a peaceful morning:)

Friday, October 12, 2007

the problem with eating locally

So I've posted many a time about my food ethos--of eating locally, sustainably grown goods over conventional goods coming from god-knows-where. I like to support my local farmers and food artisans, my local food purveyors, and small businesses.

But what happens when eating locally leaves you feeling a consistent sense of lack?

I know that some very dedicated and talented individuals have conducted eating experiments where they stay inside their watershed for all foods except items like spices and maybe coffee. I have never pretended to be that dedicated. I must have my chocolate, my spices, my oils and vinegars, my wines, my italian tomatoes. But for veggies, and now, cheeses, I've stayed true to my region.

My downfall is bread. With my apologies to any 'sconnies reading this entry, there is no good bread to be had in our little corner of the state. Well, there's decent bread in She-town, but only one variety.

I needed a Zingerman's fix, and I needed it quickly, a need which they so graciously obliged to fill. I placed my order on Wednesday morning, and when I arrived home from work today I found a big box inside my foyer, stuffed with three loaves of bread. I cradled the loaves, sniffed deeply of the crust, and promptly sliced off a huge hunk to stick in the oven before slathering with Wisconsin butter and honey from Suttons Bay, Michigan.

The crisp crust, holey interior, and delicious crumb made my heart melt with happiness (remembered tastes) and sadness (that returning home-less-ness feeling). I laced up my tennis shoes and went for a long walk, following the sandy shores of the lake and allowing the waves to ease my sadness. I imagined life on the other side of the Lake. I thought about my life here. I came home and ate dinner whilst reading the Zingy's newsletter that was so thoughtfully included in my package. I smiled to read about how the Bakehouse bakers worked with Michael London, a man I had just read about a few nights ago in this bread book I'm reading. (I know, first pies, and now bread. I'm wondering when I'm going to stumble on the cake book!).

I hate spending my now dreaming of the future and revisiting the past more than enjoying the moment, but sometimes, my mind makes its own way through the meandering web of time. I started scheming about multiple Zingy's trips over holiday break...and I can't wait to walk through those doors and hit the chaos and the profusion of gastronomic goodness that I so love and think of as my culinary HOME.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

throat tingling adventures...

Today fall asserted itself with a vengence--a taste of the blustery days to come, when swirling leaves transform to a breath of snow. Rain, wind, temps dipping into the 40s all drove me to the grocery store in search for chili makings.

I typically make chili with 2 varieties of beans, and tonight I chose black and pinto. Two colors of peppers, red and yellow, a carrot, a handful of frozen corn, and purple onion provide the veggie base, along with two cans of tomatoes--Muir Glen diced fire roasted tomatoes (I used one can with green chilis and they are throat-tingling hot!). I simmer the soup with cumin, chili pepper, a few cloves of garlic, and water as needed. I top the finished chili with chopped avocado, cheddar cheese, and sour cream; on the side, I serve piping hot homemade, Southern style cornbread with melted butter. And, a real treat, a Coronita Extra: a 7 ounce bottle of Corona that's just darling and a nice foil to the heat of the soup.

Now, I'm blasting Couperin (and the other gems Wisconsin Public Radio is playing tonight) to drown out the running of the bulls downstairs (i.e. untold numbers of small children who are ostensibly wild from being cooped up inside on a rainy day). Somehow this seems fitting for this evening's reading: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

longing for words and treats

I miss blogging! I miss baking! I miss thinking thoughts that are unrelated to motivating lazy, difficult, and ill-prepared students, and I miss conversations that don't revolve around those same students:)

To that end, I'm dedicating this weekend to writing/baking/deep thoughts, and I can't wait. I have a conference paper to create--a fun piece on the evolution of romance fiction in the digital age. I will bake pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. I will sketch out the mini-study abroad course I want to propose (American Ex-Pat Writers in...PARIS!). And I may follow the swirling, colorful leaves Northward to Door County to drink in the gorgeousness that is middle fall...

And I will share with you all some untold stories about Chicago. And lines from men in local bars. And my favorite fall moments.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

mad-town to chi-town: a weekend adventure

The drive to Mad-town seems longer than it is, primarily because of the neverending expanses of farm land and the dearth of substantial towns along the way. I pulled into Madison as the sun gave one last fiery appearance before slipping over Lake Monona and gracefully allowing the moon to cut into the blue-black sky.

I dined at Eldorado Grill, a slightly gourmet-ey Tex-mex restaurant located in an old candy warehouse. I settled into my table, extracting my tenure-track notebook (green with white hearts on the cover) out of my purse, and instead of writing deep thoughts about large projects or lofty goals, wrote notes about the restaurant. I'm waiting for the day when someone mistakes me for a semi-famous regional critic, but alas, I'm merely a foodie blogger with a tendency to verbosity and a palate limited by my personal ethics of eating (in the words of Phoebe Buffay, "no food with a face." Unless, of course, it's a morsel of crispy bacon, or tender ham. I know, Pigs are the 6th smartest animal, which should potentially make my craving for all things porcine seem all the more deviant. What can I say? My inconsistencies are complicated. But I digress).

I ordered a mojito, chips and salsa, and a guacamola tostado. The mojito refreshed my road-weary nerves, though I don't like it when the mint is cut into small bits. These are easy to suck up in the straw and then tend to get stuck in my teeth or lodged in my throat. The chips and salsa were delightful, and the black beans that came with my tostado were simplicity. And wonderful for their utter pureness. The crispy corn tortilla base had that slightly off flavor that fried foods can acquire, but overall the meal was satisfying, and would be even more so with a raucous group of friends to keep me company.

And perhaps my slight harshness towards Eldorado can be attributed to the fact that my parents and I dined at Rick Bayless' legendary--and James Beard Foundation Award Winning--Frontera Grill the next night, and everything was fabulous. Hot, spicy, flavorful, simple. Yumm. We sat at the bar since the wait for a "real" table was 2 hours. We enjoyed drinks--various mojitos (watermelon, mexican, and traditional, all with nice large mint leaves that stayed put in the bottom of the glass), margaritas, and, for Dad, a tumbler of second-shelf tequila.

Several summers ago, S, H and I went to Frontera and loved the food and ambience, and I was eager to share the experience with my parents, especially since Dad adores Mexican food. There's always a moment when I hold my breath, afraid that the restaurant I've raved about will disappoint my fellow diners, but luckily, this weekend all grills and cafes satisfied everyone.

We struck up conversations with others at the bar, and passed drinks back to the crowds of people enjoying the nightlife. I was--sort of--hit on by a 70+ year old man wearing a tweed jacket (no, seriously!), who then proceeded to hit on my mom by telling her she's "the best looking mom he's seen in a long time." Meanwhile, Dad was learning about Tequila and sampling habenero sauce from the man sitting next to him...

We walked back to the hotel, enjoying the bright city lights, wrapping our coats around us to shut out the very slightest of chills in the air. We stopped at Intelligentsia for a decaf nightcap, and went back to the hotel to chat and sleep. Poor Dad had to spend his Saturday in meetings, but Mom and I ventured out on the town, wearing stylish but in-advised shoes, and dodging attacks by kamikaze pigeons, but those are stories for another day...

Monday, October 01, 2007

waiting for the fog to lift

This morning and afternoon, thick fog wrapped around town, enveloping everyone in a funky sluggishness. Days like this breed existential melancholy that makes me long for all that I don't know... in turn making me crave an empty afternoon to escape in an engrossing novel...or the guilty pleasure of a daydrean about an idealized future...someday...right now I'm simply trying to create semi-fun and pedagogically sound class sessions for my students. Tomorrow I'm pairing Melville's masterfully short story "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street" with an episode of *The Office.* Quelle horror?!?

Yesterday on the train from Chicago to Milwaukee I started thinking in poetry again...something about "just another Carrie Meeber..." and something about the stacks of mannequins I spotted through a factory window as the train curved out of Chi-town and headed towards expanses of dairy farms and endless sky...something about home/less/ness.

Too many ellipses even for me tonight:)