Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ugly Mugs

                Window clad garage doors are open on a 70 degree November day. Business men with beards and long hair are on the patio smoking cigs, and two hot moms wearing leather just walked in. They are sipping espresso while their tots play at the kids table that is ridden with toy trains and Dr. Seuss literature.  The warm breeze gently runs through my hair as I sip hot coffee and survey my fellow coffee house dwellers. I am still new to the city, still unemployed, and still without internet. The end result of this unfortunate trifecta: it’s another cozy day at Ugly Mugs.
                Ugly Mugs has sweet and friendly employees serving up a great cup of coffee always with a smile and witty chit-chat. The pleasant company of the employees and other patrons has provided me with the illusion of being at home. Feeling like I am in my old neighborhood instead of the new girl on the block, Ugly Mugs also has the added bonus of having the best coffee in East Nashville. It’s always smooth, fresh, and hot.  

Ugly Mugs:
1886 Eastland Avenue  Nashville, TN 37206
(615) 915-0675

Monday, November 14, 2011

Welcome to the South

My glass of bourbon is half full. My cigarette is burning in the window sill as I try to drown out the noise of my fellow drinking companions in the bar I am in that is down the alley from my new home. It’s difficult because the young man two tables down is describing the beginning of an evening long relationship with a 50 year-old woman. I don’t need to continue eavesdropping to know how it ends, as he is hanging his head, referring to her as “this old lady” and having trouble looking his buddy in the eye. Hopefully she got something nice out of it because Billy over there sure didn’t. Traffic is cruising by at a slow pace, a football game is on and no one is watching, most people in here have on a plaid shirt, a slouchy hat, smokes an off brand cigarette,  and says “bro” a lot. I, admittedly, fit in well. Welcome to East Nashville, where the man is hated more here than at a Black Panther meeting and people don’t get up in the morning unless they are out of tomato juice and need a bloody Mary(do you capitalize Mary? I guess so, the woman has saved lives…) from the bar that only serves organic, local food. I made the mistake of telling my Brazilian waxist that I was interviewing at a, wait for it, corporate restaurant…and I swear she took skin off on purpose.  It’s a far cry from the Cowboy hat ridden streets that I grew up envisioning, not that doesn’t exist here, it’s just on the other side of the river. This little area has managed to compartmentalize itself with its distinct clan of young twenty something’s with an enormous sense of entitlement and a shared love of glasses without a prescription.  I love living in a neighborhood where being cute is considered a negative and weirdness prevails. Fuck you pretty popular ones who wouldn’t sign my year book, fuck you.  What’s a hipster neighborhood without judgment and a little self-loathing? Not to mention the ever-crucial component of “I’m mad at my Dad”.  
                Despite my sarcastic and cynical view on my new surroundings (out of character, I know) I really do love it here. My observations of the community are dead on, however there is a twist. The people here are psychotically friendly and go out of their way to welcome me to Nashville. I thought that the mid-west was nice. Which I verbaled to the local barista yesterday and somehow he charmingly conveyed that the mid-west is nice, but somehow they are nicer. The creative energy down here replaces the competitive one of Chicago, New York, and LA.  People want to get ahead, but not without saying “excuse me” first. Nightly, I sit on my deck and hear a different neighbor finger his bass, stroke his keys, or sing a long and throaty note through her well conditioned vocals, as though they are on stage at the Ryman. People have soul here, the south has soul…and it’s doing good things for mine. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Wedding

I looked down at the highball glass in my hand, filled with homemade raspberry vodka.  I noticed the glass was obscenely condensed and tightened my grip as I brought it to my lips, slurped and grimaced in delight to that offensive perfection that is moonshine.  The hot afternoon was consistently relieved by cool Lake Michigan breezes, flooding the Willow laced field that served as our host for a beautiful celebration.  
                As usual my concern for the cocktail was initial , which happily subsided when I realized that this was true of the bride and groom as well, whom I knew little of, as they were introduced to me only last year.  However in the time that I had spent with these two people, I felt love immediately.  Almost all my time with the two of them involve soulful music, unassuming, unguarded conversation, cocktails and a porch…I suspect this is true with most of their social encounters.  As I spent more time with this couple I realized that music and food were their preferred medium to express their joy for life and I fell in love with them.  These are also the very reasons that I knew that this wedding was going to be what is known as, a shit ton of fun.  So having my cocktail needs fulfilled, I began kissing, hugging, and story-telling my way over to the appetizer table.
                The table was filled with vegetarian delights created by our hosts. Local Michigan cherries, Italian summer truffles, cheeses of only the highest caliber and sauces were prepared so carefully that the depth of flavor forced you to close your eyes and sigh. They were all present in the wave of flavors that set the tone for the evenings’ culinary jubilation. 
Once I had eaten enough to continue safely sipping on moonshine for the next five hours, I began to observe the jovial guests greet and embrace the evening.  We all sauntered (slightly unsteadily) outside and underneath the pavilion. A large and beautiful man charmed us all into an untamed dance.  As the sun sank into the horizon the night stayed hot with the soulful rhythm inspiring spinning bodies that had been browned from days on the beach.  As we danced I couldn’t help but survey the romance among the people.
Each one of them had a hint of rose in their cheeks, I noticed. Possibly from the variety of moonshine, the over-indulgence of food, or the ninety degree day, but mostly I think it was from the over-exercised cheeks muscles as they reminisced over their shared times together. Watching old friends and close family come and live in this weird and wonderful couple’s world for a day made me realize how strong and nourishing good food and music really are and the importance of sharing them with the ones you love.  I watched these people revel in the positivity and the love and I was content. And then I realized….I didn’t even miss the bacon. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Decapitation

My breath became shallow as my hand gripped the chickens neck. Randy held down the body as her feathers wildly flapped. I tightened my grip, silencing her. Leaving her with no outlet for her fear she violently released her bowls with impressive distance. She was enormous. After months of free range feeding without any restraint she had reached a point far beyond gluttony. If chickens believe in hell there is no doubt which circle lie in her very near future…and I was going to send her there. Her breasts were bare from them dragging on the ground, tearing out all her feathers, leaving the skin raw and bloody. There was a spasm in her gullet so strong it felt like a boney, arrhythmic heartbeat and it made me wince. Randy slid the knife he sharpened only seconds ago to and fro beginning to sever her neck and suddenly a vicious sense of urgency overwhelmed me as a feverish heat wave spread all over my body…I wanted to kill her. I pulled hard for a few seconds and suddenly the resistance was gone causing my arm to fly back behind me. Startled, I felt my heart beat drop and go into reverse causing me to release the head and run, falling face first in the dirt as a result of the panic. As the headless bird continued to spastically flap its wings still holding on to her last thought of escape…laughter ensued. I know this makes me appear heartless and cruel and even sick… laughing at an ending life…a life that I took. But it was all I could do to keep from slipping into a dimly lit, dank dungeon of guilt. We strung her up and Randy gave me my first lesson in butchery. She gave us three meals and all were delicious.
I have been fascinated and enchanted by the recent revolution of ‘Farm to Table’. The fact that people are caring about what they put into their bodies again warms me. Just as religious connection is a comfort for some, my connection to this Earth is what feeds my energy for inspiration, generosity, and overall balance. It restores my peace when I need it to and what better way to do that than by eating her beautifully unprocessed resources.
Having said that, I realized I do say that often, but other than shopping at local farmers markets and farms, what have I done to be a part of the process? If the government collapses tomorrow and we go back to a more remedial lifestyle of hunting and farming…would I survive? I realized I couldn’t go on talking, reading, and eating what others put their heart into. Killing this chicken made me see that the connection between our food and our selves runs deeper than understanding phrases like “free-range”, “organic” and “vegetarian fed”. It’s about caring, loving, and raising our animals and produce. It’s giving them a good life while they are under our care because we owe them that debt for the nourishment they will be giving us. Progressive health will come from eating food that we cared for…a life that was positive and meaningful will yield better product, plain and simple. So please support your local farmers, when you are hungry look to the dirt, and go kill some chickens.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

First Charcuterie

video

The Freak Show

t’s sunny today. Water floods the streets as the snow melts into rivers cascading down Lake Street and what doesn’t pool into mud puddles on my front lawn, empty’s out into Little Traverse bay.  I slip off the sunny street and into the ally that leads into the basement door of the bistro where I work. Steve our dishwasher is standing in front of the door smoking.  As I open the door I pound his fist and ask him how he is, only to shut the door in his face before I have to listen to the whole story of his life and why his P.O. is such a pain in the ass. As I unwrap my scarf from around my face I am greeted by Erin, our pastry Chef, not with a hello but an “open up”. I open my mouth wide so as not to touch my lips on the pastry bag and allow her to dose me with a heaping load of chocolate mousse.  I change my shoes, tie my apron tightly around my waist, fill the ice buckets, and head upstairs. Next is a long line of various greetings. We have the line cooks who are wrapping up prep before the shakes set in.  They can sneak a shot before dinner rush (makes for much smoother service, trust me). Then I have the bartenders who I have only known a few months but know every intimate detail of their divorces, and sexual partners since then, sometimes including pictures that I did not ask to see and now can never forget.  As I walk towards the front of the house, Chef tosses a copy of “Full Metal Jacket” to me without even a word.  The previous week I mentioned to the kitchen that I hadn’t seen it and they all got so upset I was asked to find someone to run my food for me the rest of the night.  The other early shift server that is on today is Joe. Joe doesn’t have a bank account, has a fake last name, spends his winters in Colombia, and lives with girlfriend, Sara in the winter.  Sara is a pretty, middle-aged nurse with a nice house and drives a 2008 Subaru Outback. She looks like someone he would wait-on. She pays for everything which Joe routinely brags about. He also constantly whines about not having a baby and feels that he and I would make a beautiful child together and that I should “think about it.”  It’s a large amount of repulsion to swallow night after night, but I manage.  Its 3:30 dinner service starts in an hour, but the rest of the freaks won’t be here till 6:00.
                I do, I work among freaks, and don’t get me wrong I’m a part of the show. However, on the floor from 6:30 to 9:00 you have to look carefully to see that show. Sure we might slip with a B-list swear word, or a barely racy sexually innuendo, but most of us have perfected the fa├žade. We are your gracious hosts and hostesses for the evening and even on our worst day, servers remain warm, understanding, and accommodating. Words and phrases such as “excellent”, “most certainly”, “wonderful”, “earthy”, “barnyard”,” well-balanced”, “well-done? Of course!” have become easy to swallow under most circumstances. However, once behind that swinging door, under the fluorescent lighting, and safely muffled by pots, pans, the expeditor and bar crowd…a paradigm shift occurs. Now sarcasm is dominant and welcomed. My melodic phrasing and elegant demeanor is replaced with “hey this guy hates delicious food, kill that filet”, “where is my food for 301?” “It’s working!!!!!””Oh shit, fire 312!”, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, I forgot to mark 305…”. It’s kind of scary actually, however perfectly acceptable.
                Before having worked in a restaurant I would never, ever, swear, tell a dirty joke, drink on the job, or discuss sexual episodes at work. Now I just call that Wednesday. This makes me unique in this world, because restaurants to do not cultivate freaks, they attract them. Ex-convicts, drug addicts, the sexually depraved, writers, musicians, actors and all who are lost in life will at one point,  work in a restaurant. When and if they ever come out of the industry, they will come out more tolerant, cultured individuals. But you always know when you’re waiting on someone who has moved on, that freak flag fly’s too high. I am speaking the truth, next time someone tries to proposition you for a four-some, sell you a prescription pill, or DJ at your next party, just ask them what restaurant they work in. 

The Last Supper

What would be your last meal on earth?
First thing that comes to mind is mussels. Prince Edward Island mussels soaked in butter, Pernod, white wine, garlic, and saffron. Actually, the beginning of the meal would be a plethora of dishes to share with my loved ones. A ceviche, of Chilean Sea Bass (however politically incorrect) would be present, and no one would be allowed to use the term Patagonia Tooth Fish, its Chilean Sea Bass or nothing. A small dish of yuzu glazed-pork belly and soba noodles, with a dashi garlic broth, oh my god.
Next a frisee aux lardon using pancetta and and bacon fat vinagrette. I know my flavors are all over the place, but there is nothing I love more than breaking open that perfectly poached, creamy, warm egg, and watching it coat the greens and pork, genius…pork and a poached egg. Taking that first bite and having to lick the bright yellow yolk and salty pork flavor off my lips is impossible to do with my eyes open or without sighing, try it.
Pan roasted Black cod with soba noodles coated in garlic, yuzu, sesame oil and soy mirin, with pea shoots. Cheese at the end of the meal, humbolt fog, barely buzzed chedder, and a cashel bleu, with fresh local strawberries. Homemade strawberry rhubarb jam on the plate as well. And probably the cooks house espresso creme brulee, (just for good measure) I would want to die tasting somthing sweet.
What would be the setting for the meal?
Definitely north of Harbor Springs, a big table in the middle of the Tunnel of Trees, on this one piece of land that I love, where I fell in love with Northern Michigan. The waves crashing, a cool breeze, a mid-September evening. The sun drops gently into lake Michigan just centered perfectly on the horizon that time of year, pulling softly shaded pink and red cloulds into the water before the moon rises and creates a yellow-bellied lake.
What would you drink with your meal?
I would have to have a glass of bourbon, (makers rocks) and wine. A rich, smooth, and fruity zinfandel or meritage, probably the Prisoner, or Woodenhead, I would want my lips to be stained purple. My Makers I would want to sip out of an over-sized crystal rocks glass, the wine however, out of simple juice glasses. I would want a glass of Veuve Rose with my cheese and dessert….that I don’t care what its served in.
Would there be music?
Kurt Elling.
Who would be your dining companions?
The man I love, my parents, my siblings and their families, and Peter Lucas, my only life long friend and someone who loves to eat and cook as much as I do. Also he makes me laugh harder than anyone in the world, my cheeks ache after our visits.
Who would prepare the meal?
Myself, J Kott, Tom Kaszubowski, and Jen Blakeslee. All people who I fell in love with immediately, and it was through their warmth as they expressed it through food. Not to mention I would be keeping the best of company in my final hours while enjoying my favorite thing in life….eating.

Chico

It was a good spring. We were lucky. The air and water were warm already. I can remember closing my eyes as we walked out onto the dock. It was damp…I can still feel my Tree-Torn’s sinking into the dank wood. Tide was high and the two little Whaler’s were waiting for us. Chico was on one boat, the other was empty.
“How do you want to split this up Frank?” My father said while laughing at what I can imagine was the idea of himself and John on a boat with Capt. Chico all day.
“You and John take that one with Cleo, Beth, Melinda, Linz, Doe, Alex, and Amanda. Ill go with Chico, Bets, Rich, young John, Sam and Abi.”
I was pleased with the crew Frank had assembled. Our families had been vacationing together for years and although we were all close, I preferred the company of my little brother, Richard as well as Sam and Abi. Young John was several years older than me, but I was crazy about him. He was a handsome and sweet boy. John use to organize “hold-ups” amoung us kids. The most recent being the robbery of my fathers Thule, which we had discovered earlier that morning was securly attached to my mothers mini-van…and locked. It was a disappointing mission to us all, however I remember being excited watching John craft a gun out of sticks, and he looked good with a hankerchief covering the lower half of his face.
I could see the relief on John Seniors face not to be stuck with Chico. John was tall and distinguished looking, with perfectly combed silvery gray hair. His shirt was tucked in, and he wore boat shoes. Chico was not a large man, maybe 5” 9’, skinny, but with a brown pot belly covered in white hair. He wore sunglasses and a pair of grey shorts perfectly faded by the sun. I liked him. He had yellow toe nails. They were thick, rippled, and chalky from salt and poor hygiene. As I sized him up I let go of my Dad’s hand and grabbed Uncle Frank’s.
Frank picked me up uncomfortably by the arm pits and set me down in the boat. I waited eagerly for Sam to get lowered on as well and relaxed once she did. I was always relieved when Sam was around. She, unlike my older sisters Lindsay and Dorrie, was uniquely drawn to things in life that I shared a passion for as well. Nature, music, a generally dirtier lifestyle than that of the one heavily peppered with tripple-layered mini dresses and brownie meetings, that my sisters firmly embraced. I felt lucky to have her as a friend even though she was a few grades ahead of me. In high school Sam would sneak me out when my parents were out and squirt cheap vodka into my mouth from a once-empty facial cleanser bottle. She also taught me the joys of heavily buttered cooking habits which I would later love her for. Her younger sister, Abi I found facinating, as did Richard who adored her, the two had a bond that the rest of us weren’t in on. The sisters had beautiful straight and shiny hair. Sam’s was brilliantly blonde and Abi’s was jet black, the opposition always enchanted me. Thier bright, blue eyes would widen with affection when you would open your arms to embrace them.
We pulled out of the harbor into the reed ridden savannahs of South Carolina. Chico plowed through the harbor and passed the no wake bouys as John was just getting his lines untied. I looked back and John had his arms in the air, furious.
Chico, being a seasoned stoner who chose an alternate path to suburbian life, was immediately liked by Frank, who has always been torn between two lives. One involved daily commutes to an office broken up by parties at a country-club where he would wear bright red pants covered in something horribily offensive like ducks or cocktail olives. The other involved eating acid in the jungles of Uruguay, studying the minutia of rare spider habits and making passionate love to indiginous women named Hu Tu.  As the two bonded Sam and I were quiet while Richard and Abi played with thier milk cap collections.
I remember breathing deeply that day. I would pull as much air through my tiny nostrils as I could, whistling at times because I was increasingly unsatisfied with the amount of salt I could taste in the back of my throat. It was my first time on the ocean and I was curious. I could easily compare it to the first time I became horny, watching two teenagers make out on a moving motorcycle in Aerosmith’s video for “Livin’ on the Edge.” I was excited, unsettled, and frustrated, wanting more and not knowing what of.
We stopped to explore a small island littered with gulls. Chico cut the engine and we went searching for sand dollars. An incredibly boring activity which Im sure Chico indulged hundreds of tourists in each month, especially small children. I waded in the water about waste deep and took another deep breath in. Finally I could stand it no more, I had to taste it, I dunked my face, eyes open, toungue out ready to drink in what I imagined to be pure and refreshing.
I was wrong. Uncle Frank and Chico laughed as tears came to my eyes and I spastically flailed my wrists, fanning my face then rubbing it profusely. Frank hugged and kissed my head, trying to calm me, all the while laughing.  When I became less hysterical Chico put his face right in mine and spoke to me in a thick Carolina accent. His voice was rich with salt, cigars, and bourban. All three were delivered in a raspy tone that made me feel safe.
“There is a better way to taste the ocean, can I show you?”
I nodded yes as I wiped my upper lip, still hyper-ventilating from my recent shock and overreaction. Chico took me from Frank’s arms and hoisted me back up onto the boat. The others joined and we headed back out to the depths. We didn’t go far before we came upon a bouy bobbing sullenly and Chico once again cut the engine.
Chico reached over the boat and began pulling up the rope. Whatever was at the end of that line was heavy enough to make chico quietly grunt as his tan almost black back flexed with each heave. All six of us were quiet until Frank reached over to pull a dark and slimy crate on board.
“What is it Poppa?” Abi sweetly inquired.
Frank looked at Chico and grinned before shouting “Oysters baby, they’re oysters!”
I quickly and clumsily stepped to the bow of the boat, my brown feet slapping unsteadily on the sandy wet floor. Chico pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed, twisted and flicked the sharp metal into the hard shell, effortlessly prepping it in seconds and handing it to Frank. Frank brought the shell to his lips, tilted back his head slurped it down. The slurp bothered me, but I was still curious, debating on whether to try one myself. Chico began to indulge as well, he had about three down before Frank was done with his one, but Frank was taking his time, enjoying. Then he slowly slipped his toungue between his lips and curled it up to his grey and white moustache. His lower lip followed and I could see blissful content pouring out of him. It was this expression on his face from that salt water chaser that sold me.
“Can I have one?” I asked, still uncertain.
Chico looked to Frank for approval before shucking my very first oyster. I had no idea the depths of love and appreciation that I was about to open my eyes to. I opened my mouth and awkwardly fit my lips and toungue around the shell. It being to big for my little jaw, Frank helped me slip the oyster into my mouth. My eyebrows involuntarily crushed themselves together as an initial reaction to the texture, then raised and relaxed as the fresh salt rolled over my toungue. I swallowed without chewing and let the cold meat slide down my throat and into my warm little tummy. I rolled my toungue around in my mouth, sucking the remaing sea off of it. I then opened my mouth and took a deep breath, now feeling pure and refreshed from the oceans beautiful gift.
There are only a few moments in ones life where you can actually feel an emotional shift in your heart. This was the first moment I felt it open up and make room for somthing other than my Mother. It was on this day, with Chico, that I fell in love with food…and it changed me forever.