Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On My Shelf

Just finished A Novel Bookstore - which earlier, you'll recall, I was merely enjoying - and can now make my final recommendation, which is affirmative if somewhat qualified.

Do you know the premise? Two bibliophiles decide to put together a bookstore called "The Good Novel" in which they carry only wonderful fiction. They put together a top-secret panel of writers to choose the novels and create the most wonderful, well-edited store in the world. Then someone begins threatening the members of the secret committee...

Anyway, it's all terribly French and a thoroughly good read. I must say, though, that rather ironically, for a book explicitly against bad fiction, there were a touch of the Ayn Rands about it. Not the prose, but rather, the throngs of angry mediocrities who are threatened by intellectual purity and dead-set on subverting it at all costs who seem to populate the Objectivist universe. Oddly enough, I've never met a sinister, organized mediocrity in my life - or, at any rate, not such a self-aware one. But don't let that stop you; it was a real page-turner.

It got me thinking about "good" books, too. I recently bought that Robert Khan "Books" edition, which has a similar mission and has given me all kinds of good ideas. I'm always looking for recommendations and am excited to have been directed towards Mary Robinson's Why Did I Ever by one of the three people whose fiction recommendations I most trust.

If I had to make my own list, it might contain (besides some of the basics):

A Girl in Winter, Philip Larkin

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

A Few Green Leaves, Barbara Pym

Up in the Old Hotel, Jospeh Mitchell

Here is New York, E.B. White

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch

The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

...and I'll think about more! (I can tell you what would NOT be on mine: The Dud Avocado, The Golden Notebook or The Ginger Man!) I hope this gives you a few ideas; may I have a few in turn?

Entertaining is Fun!

My dearest El. just sent along some pics from our engagement party spread. The caterers did a terrific job; it turned out to be surprisingly hard to find exactly what I wanted! In the end, we tracked down the long-retired proprietor of a tea room that used to exist a few towns away: she made the egg salad sandwiches, the banana nut-bread with cream cheese, the radish butter and the watercress. Some young women in town who are starting a catering concern made the deviled ham, the smoked salmon, the fruit salad and the deviled eggs! (They also provided lemonade and iced tea.) Then, El and her mother contributed cheese pennies, and a lovely neighbor made crab dip. I brought the sweets up from One Girl. Our neighbor Nicole (the recipient of my HS wardrobe of 1940s housedresses, incidentally) tended bar and generally helped out. It was a nice farewell to the Hastings house and a lovely chance to see all my folks' friends. But let me tell you: it is apparently far easier to find pesto and tapenade than tea sandwiches! While I'd never force the lovely Barbara to come out of retirement again, I'd happily recommend that new catering company to anyone - they even humored me and made melon balls!

Monday, August 30, 2010

From My Dad

I forgot to ask how you like the typewriter. I thought it was the best in my collection; not just the most attractive, but the one with the most crispest action and, hardly to be underestimated, the most satisfying sound. In fact, all of this was confirmed by my just-concluded visit with the gentlemanly proprietor of Gramercy Office Equipment, apparently the last old time typewriter repair shop in the city. (I went to him with my Olivetti Valentine, a machine so gorgeous it is in MOMA's permanent collection, but one with a tendency to fall apart even when less harshly treated than was mine). In any case, he had two Royals like yours on display, only in brown and blue. I told the guy and his son (his only employee) that we had a green one and they were suitably impressed, going on about its merits. I also procured from them a ribbon for the machine, and they said that if you had any difficulty installing it, you should bring it by. You might wish ti do so anyway, because the place is the last of a dying breed, and should you be so inclined, they'll talk old typewriters forever. They're right across from you old stomping grounds at Holt at 174 Fifth Ave, between 22nd and 23rd, 4th floor.

And Another Thing...

Also inspired by the L Magazine. There's some quiz on Brooklyn cred. And it's cute etc. etc. sure fine and I "had" it. But then there's this throwaway line about how "you almost never leave the borough, which is a good way to limit your worldview—and since someone from everywhere lives in Brooklyn, it is an excusable place in which to limit yourself thusly." Okay, this was joking and nothing against the author, who did a good job. But it is emblematic of the chauvinistic Brooklyn worldview I've come to find increasingly tiresome. People seem to regard it as a badge of honor never to go into Manhattan, and to this I say: unless you're, like, 5th generation Brooklyn and really do have your whole world here, or are severely physically handicapped or something...what's wrong with you? Why would you live in New York and smugly limit yourself? Sure, Brooklyn has some good restaurants and bars and lots of everyone's friends are here, but seriously? We don't have the Met (either one) or the MoMA, or...you know what, I'm not even descending to this level. It's idiotic. And I'll be damned if I visit a shrink outside of Manhattan and not just Manhattan but the Upper West Side, at that, because really, why limit your chauvinism? Anyway, I'm sick and I'm cranky and now's about the time when a little takeout wouldn't go amiss.

On Gentrification

Henry Stewart has some interesting things to say in the latest L Magazine (about which I have mixed feelings, but that's for another time if at all. In a piece on the fight for the Domino factory he writes,
When people talk about the gentrification of Williamsburg, they don't talk about what it has created, but only about the "bad things" it has replaced. For the gentrifiers, the former landscape needs to be destroyed, or at least gussied up beyond recognition—the past needs to be razed so a new culture can be overlaid, a culture that then celebrates its own superiority. To claim that gentrification has improved the community, Farr tells me, is "preposterous." How did the boutiques on Bedford Avenue make life better for the Latino community? Gentrification is not about what's been achieved but about the illusion that achievement has occurred. The idea. The feeling.

Of course, that's a tad reductive: "gentrification" is more than Amarcord. It's something about which we think a lot, living where we do. First of all, sweeping statements like that run the risk of generalizing about communities that are themselves multilayered and complex. My block, for instance, is made up of homeowners who have, in some cases, owned more than 50 years. Many of them have a fraught relationship with the residents of the surrounding projects. Which one represents the "culture" we're preserving? When does mere existence become an aggressive "overlay?" Williamsburg simplifies this conversation with its extremes. There's also the basic question of, where can people live in New York without trampling on something else? What they're talking about, I guess, is those who steamroll in after a place is "habitable" and lay on this gloss.

When a new, Neapolitan pizzeria opened not far away, there was something off about it. Not the place itself which, with its salvaged decor and locally sourced ingredients and Italian staff, was ready for Avenue B. Rather, the transposition of something so wholly inorganic and fully-formed was discordant. Especially when you walked in (especially post - "25 and Under") and realized some car service was doing a very brisk business indeed from Park Slope, while the neighborhood's residents, apparently, went on eating just where they had been. And yet, we went - we go - all the time. And there's the rub.

I will discuss this with Mr. Smith, who lives next door. I talked about something similar with a woman named Ally who was in her 70s and using a cigarette holder and has lived all her life on Amity. We were seated in front of a new coffee shop in which everything is sustainable and baked goods come from Birdbath. "Now," she said, "suddenly I'm a freak."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fall Wish List

I am in love.

The other night, coming back from dinner at The Bicycle Restaurant, a black kitten crossed our paths. And it was bad luck - for me! Because the moment I stroked that kitten and felt it nuzzle my hand, and felt its purring against my leg, and lifted it feather-light in my arms and felt its ribs and its heart hammering, I was a goner. I felt a rush of such absolute love and tenderness that it brought sharp tears to my eyes. I sat and cuddled it for maybe 20 minutes, while Slim went at my behest and got some milk. Finally we had to leave; I was weeping.

Slim is so allergic that I stripped off my things downstairs so as not to bring any of the offending dander into the apartment, but he felt terrible about it. Especially since, in the days since, I have randomly started crying, or fallen into melancholy reverie, or ventured out secretly whenever possible to try and find the kitten that I have dubbed Raisin Stein. I haven't; I've found her siblings, and her rather disinterested mother, but Raisin has not reappeared. And neither has my heart. It's gotten to the point where Slim says we just ought to bring her home and he'll make do, but doing it would be another matter entirely.

A Little Fall Inspiration...

Who wouldn't feel a back-to-school thrill looking at APC's fall line?

And these items from Etsy are proving seriously inspiring too:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Few Recs

I'm reading something I'm enjoying. That's all I can say, since I haven't yet finished it, but that's saying a lot, no? It's A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, translated from the French. Pleasant and absorbing.

Also very, very good: Brother's Keeper, a classic documentary which you may have already seen, but if not it's on Netflix Instant Watch. That's all I'll say, since talking too much about a film, if it's good, can only detract.

Also saw Eat, Pray, Love, and after all the pans found it surprisingly watchable - which is not to say good, but perfectly engaging. Which, after all, is also true of the book. My problem with the book was that the author seems to think just enough to give the impression of depth, and while I understand David Denby's point that humor and self-awareness are rare in a seeker, I'm not sure they're required, really. Anyway, it's very pretty and Javier is very overwhelming and I've certainly spent more unpleasant afternoons.

(Step Up: 3D is also excellent.)

And what do we think about the new Arcade Fire? I can't love it although of course there's some good stuff. But gosh, you know how I feel about "suburbia" cliches - that felt tired when Eric Bogosian did it...and that was in 1994.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Monday Monday

I started my week with a solo dance party; I highly recommend it. This is the dance mix I've made and which I humbly submit as totally groovy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Am dealing with some major apartment ambilvalence. On the one hand, we want to move. A lot. On the other, we can't. And moving is awful (I have the unhappy example of my parents' daily calls to remind me of that.)

It would be nice to be closer to produce, to food, to friends. I saw a woman being choked on the street. You can't walk after dark.

But then too, we have friends living nearby now; there's a new CSA; a small farmer's market; lovely new neighbors and sweet neighborhood kids.

Recently, L.D. moved up here from North Carolina and lives nearby: I was worried about the transition from beautiful roots to impersonal concrete jungle. But of course she has a huge container garden growing at their house and is on a basis of mutual adoration with every child under 10 on her block. I am selfishly glad of course to have another friend in the neighborhood and opportunities for impromptu drinks and settles and clothing swaps. To say nothing of a partner in crime for cooking and the dressmaking and flower-arranging classes we are contemplating (hey, a subway buddy's no joke either in this kind of country!) Last night she and her boyfriend J. came by to observe the block party; we had beers and spicy chips (I used Food52's idea) and I showed her my new cheesecloth cafe curtains and the stained sweater I'd dyed with coffee grounds. Then we went to L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst. Friday, there was an impromptu rooftop potluck at Marie's house; they brought a goose lamp onto the roof and there was paella. Ruby works only 2 blocks away and I was able to bring her a piece of peach cake as a workday treat. In short, it might just be okay. (Although I'm still haunting Craigslist.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

MORE Baking

Today is our block party, and they are not playing: donations were solicited for a "bouncer" (read: bouncy castle.) Wowsers! (Technically, I suppose they are playing, but you know what I mean.)

Last year, I took the opportunity to essay a baroque and slightly vile mix-based pistachio-chocolate bundt, and it didn't exactly move. Now, since I feel my honor is on the line (and I really would like to contribute something people will like) I am going with the most tried of favorites: Rice Krispie Treats (even though I hate them) and chocolate cupcakes with ganache, weather permitting.

(As M said, "the hippies, in lieu of money or food, will probably be providing music.")

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Recipe: Peach Cake

I have been much more myself lately, seeinf friends and getting things done (indeed, some might argue that I've swung in the distinct direction of mania!) Among other recent projects, I made a cake from my new favorite cookbook, The Craft of Baking. The author, Karen DeMasco, is the pastry chef at Locanda Verde, and the sweets I had there were so scrumptious that I was moved to request her book for my birthday. While the cover features a "Lamington Cupcake" that would look appetizing only to an antipodean, the rest of the photographs are as mouth-watering as one could wish, and everything I've made has been delicious.

I had some ripe peaches rapidly attracting fruit-flies (yummy, I know) so I decided to adapt her recipe for Caramelized-Apple Skillet Cake. I used peaches (obviously) used brown rather than white sugar for a more traditional upside-down cake effect and, because I always want more of the topping and fruit no matter hjow delicious the cake, I doubled that and added a layer mid-batter. I don't want to sound like one of those jackasses on Epicurious who changes absolutely everything; rest assured, the cake is all hers and it was the cake that, in its moistness and flavor, was really revelatory!

Peach Skillet Cake

Adapted from Karen DeMasco's "The Craft of Baking"

1/2 cup brown sugar (I used light)
10 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
4 ripe peaches, peeled
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons coarse yellow cornmeal or fine polenta
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In an 8-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, combine brown sugar with 4 tablespoons water, stirring to make sure all of the sugar is damp.

Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until melted and bubbling. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in 4 tablespoons of the butter. Pour half the brown sugar mixture into another bowl; reserve [if you don't want to do my second layer thing, just skip this step and halve the caramel.]

Slice the peaches and arrange half of them over the caramel in the pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, the remaining 6 tablespoons butter, and the vanilla. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in the egg yolks, one at a time.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In three additions, add the flour mixture, alternating with the milk, to the butter mixture. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the batter into a large bowl.

Clean and dry the bowl of the electric mixer well. Add the egg whites and, using the whisk attachment on medium speed, beat to soft peaks, about 4 minutes. In three additions, fold the whites into the batter.

Spread half the batter evenly over the peaches in the skillet. Add the rest of the fruit and the reserved brown sugar. Cover with remaining batter.

Bake, rotating the skillet halfway through, until the cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, 45 to 50 minutes. Place the skillet on a wire rack and let it cool just until the cake is warm, about 30 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert it onto a plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The cake is best eaten the day it is baked but can be kept at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 days.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Small, Good Things

Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um...Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh...Like what... okay...um...For me, uh... ooh... I would say ... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh...um... and Willie Mays... and um ... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony ... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues ... um ... Swedish movies, naturally ... Sentimental Education by Flaubert ... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra ... um ... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh...the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face ..

Obviously, that's Manhattan.

A few: the smell of a new shower curtain; a crushed basil leaf at a farmer's market; the last page of The Great Gatsby; all of Pink Moon; October on Madison Avenue; sense memory especially smells; maple bars from Red's Donuts; Chopin's Etude in E Major; my grandparents' honeymoon photos.

To be continued...