Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lucky Peach (Or: How I Learned To Be Myself and Eat)


Back when I was eighteen and becoming myself, I got a job at a Cool Restaurant. Or, what passes for a Cool Restaurant in a small town, and to a teenager, and to a person who has mostly read about Cool Things rather than experiencing them in person. It was a watershed moment, a summer of hangovers and weird sex, secret cigarettes and making five hundred tax-free dollars a week with no real expenses other than magazines and fun clothes. It was the last hurrah of high school and the first wobbly steps into adulthood, a summer where a Cool Job meant getting invited places I had no business going, and being too emotionally uncoordinated to know I didn't belong. 

It was a hole-in-the-wall joint that served eight or so dishes, not including daily specials, all of Asian extraction, cooked and served by white people who had read Hot Sour Salty Sweet and who were offering a bit of that Thai/Vietnamese/Japanese profile in our small Ontario town. When I say it was small, I meant it: six tables of two outside on the sidewalk, bar seating for six more inside. The walls were orange and green, the bathrooms decorated with a former server's photos from a trip through Southeast Asia. There was a big bottle of fermenting kimchi on the counter; in my protozoan foodie state, I avoided it assiduously. I waited tables, made smoothies, peeled carrots for fresh juices, ran the dishwasher, took takeout orders, and handled money. It wasn't my first job, but it was the first where I made real bank, where I could wear whatever I wanted, where I could name-drop it and people would say, I love that place!

Working at a Cool Restaurant had its perks. I was able to keep tabs on some of the most exciting boys from high school, who otherwise would have been distant figures at basement shows, house parties to which I was only peripherally invited, and 'zine launches. I started talking to adult men—the ones who worked in the kitchen and who dated the other late-teen and early-twenties girls who worked with me—and discovered that they were fuck-ups, nice guys, and destroying angels. They were more assured of themselves than the guys I had gone to school with, more confident in their opinions, but still underneath it all, they were the same basic animal as the boys I already knew. One wore wool socks and Chelsea boots and soft twill cargo shorts and cooked with his flames spiking to the ceiling; one listened to punk music and work black baseball caps and was kind and unbelievably handsome; one was skinny and slithery and funny and mean. They all invited their friends to come visit them at work, so there was a hall of mirrors of guys like them, but a little different. I don't know if I was too awkward, too young, or not pretty enough—all three might be true—but I was able to eavesdrop while they drank beer and listened to hip-hop music and scrubbed the grill, and I mopped the floor and cha-chinged the final count of sales. On a good day, fifteen years ago, we could move a thousand bucks worth of noodles in a night, and everyone would get a Tiger beer on the house.

My boss lent me his copy of Kitchen Confidential. I read it, and understood that the fuck-you spirit of Anthony Bourdain skittered off the page into everything those guys did. My small town has a prestigious cooking school; we have more than our fair share of swish restaurants and mid-20s guys who know about mother sauces and who wear foam shoes and drink too much. There is romance in cooking—at least, there is if you're a man, not some schlumpy home-cook woman—and what Bourdain taught me was that there's a yang to that yin. Cooking school dropouts and self-styled renegades can open restaurants too. With his travel book, A Cook's Tour, I learned that everywhere has a Cool Restaurant, but sometimes it's a better choice to eat in the shitty-looking diner, or the ma-and-pa pho joint, or the restaurant in the city's revolving tower. Cool can be on the move. Cool can be Formica tables and chipped bowls, or perfect soft-and-crunchy salad rolls from some unassuming local chain, or the fucking "sharing plates" at the hip new place in town. (Side note: a pox on sharing plates. Just serve me an appetizer or a main, not some five-bite platter that satisfies nothing and no one.)

Since moving to the big city fifteen years ago,  I've eaten in a number of nice restaurants and a bunch of Cool Restaurants, and they've ranged from fine to outstanding. But there's a certain punk spirit that's MIA, a middle finger that's quietly folded down. I think it has to do with where your weird comes from.

In a city, you can tap into a vein of weirdness, no matter what weirdness you're after. Get yourself to the right city, and you can find your people: goth sparklebunnies, jockey standup comedians, gay ballerinos, anarchotrans youth, whatever. Activists, artists, cooks, writers, musicians, fashionistas—the subcultures that make a city pennies compared to, say, its banking sector, but that indelibly flavour a place's broth. In a city, it's simmering along, ready for folks to find it. In a small town, you have to cook that scene up from scratch. You have to fill in some blanks—read about it and then muddle your way through a DIY version, watch a video on the internet, make do with whatever weirdos and losers you find along the way. You learn it from cookbooks, from travelogues, from homemade darkrooms, from crystalline tarot-card hippie girls, from drug dealers, from the nerds in your class who have taught themselves how to clone a Moog on their laptop, the beautiful girls who are comfortable with muse status, the sneaky ones who eavesdrop and write about it fifteen years later.

All of this is to say that when I found out that Lucky Peach, the culinary magazine, was closing down, I got to thinking about Cool Jobs in Cool Restaurants and how much that particular Cool Job impressed on me about food. I ration each issue of Lucky Peach; if I don't, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content (fuck, there are so many words in each issue!), and I'm overwhelmed by so many foodie feelings. I don't cook for a living—I never have, and I probably never will—but I like thinking about food. Lucky Peach takes food seriously, but also makes fun of it a little. They give the recipes but also the stories: inspirations, context, emotion. The magazine gives the strip-mall restaurant, the home cook, and the Cool Job place equal credit: good food can come from anywhere, be anything.

Food, along with fashion, is, I think, one of the great self-definers we can make for ourselves. The type of food we get nostalgic for, that we challenge ourselves with, that we reach for in moments of celebration or grief, the type of food we travel around the world to eat? There are a million ways food defines a life—the feeling of being in your parent's kitchen late at night, the food you ate at your wedding, the first meal after you gave birth, the only things that tasted good to your dying mother, the restaurant where your partner proposed, the snacks you pack in your carry-on luggage, the things you drank on patios in your twenties and in your sixties, the things you taught yourself how to cook, the flavours you love, the things you hate, the millions of bites that you took over a lifetime—it's all just as much who you are as your job or your clothes, your family or your hometown.

I have no idea where any of the folks who worked with me are now. I have heard that one went to prison and then rehab; I have heard that one married the owner of the local sex shop; I have heard that one went on tour with his band (and I have a vague memory of running into him at a sweaty basement punk show not so long ago). I don't know if any of them remember me—I doubt it, there was a rotating cast of pretty, mouthy young things behind the counter, and I was neither the mouthiest or the prettiest. I grew up with parents who had traveled extensively in Asia, and who could cook tonkatsu at home, or roll up maki on a Saturday night. I grew up with the same food as my Cool Job served, and then I got to serve it myself, and now when I'm nostalgic for that summer, or my childhood, or myself, I eat that food. I miss those weirdos, and my old, half-formed self, and the feeling of possibility that comes from the unending summer, the unopened magazine, the freshly cooked plate. I hope something comes up to replace Lucky Peach; we need that awestruck, educated, madly-in-love approach to food, refreshed quarterly.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Evicted

Evicted is getting a hand-written form under your door, unsurprisingly because your superintendent told you it was coming, but reading the crumpled pages for clues for what your life will be like now. Evicted is cinderblock walls and freight elevators up to a storage unit that is four degree Celsius, we're all shivering in April as we load in box after box after box. Evicted is passing your upstairs neighbour without saying hello, because they get to stay in their home and you're out like last night's pizza box. Evicted is wondering if there was anything you can go, how much fight you can fight, that little brainworm that wonders if this, despite paying your rent on time and never blasting your music and being generally pleasant, is somehow your fault. Evicted is house-hunting in a city with a 1.4% vacancy rate, where the average rent went up by $300 in 2016, where we've applied for three houses and gotten none of them. 

Evicted is also walking through your apartment, the apartment that was your son's first home, where he learned to eat and sit up and crawl and say his first words, where your husband would snuggle with a sleeping newborn while he watched horror movies and you slept, where there were dozens of sink baths and the baby's first Halloween, his first Christmas, his birth day and his first birthday, where you laboured in the shower and in the living room and over two interminable nights, where you meet this person who is now in your bloodstream, and evicted is weeping because you have to close the door on those spaces and never see them again.

Evicted is fighting with your husband because we don't know where to go, where to live, how to live, and because there is no union in your wants, there is wanting in your union. Evicted is dancing in your mother-in-law's kitchen, swinging the baby over your head with a smile on your face and then bursting into tears as you spin him low, because while her house is beautiful, it's not your home. Evicted is resenting her beige walls, not because they're beige, but because you don't have any walls of your own.

Evicted is grief, the loss of a home, a house, an address. Evicted is suspending magazine subscriptions and using your in-laws as a mailing address. It's suitcases on the floor, lined up and lids neatly flipped down so things look tidy. It's a milk crate that doubles as a bedside table, and a pile of things—books, cards, an iPod, a jar full of markers—that make you feel safe. Evicted is not knowing where you packed the library books.

Evicted is anger, rage, frustration, hopelessness. It's low morale and wild mood swings. It's spending rent money on things that might make you feel okay, because when you're staying with your in-laws, you don't have to pay rent, so it feels like there's some windfall. Evicted is thinking about ways to pay them back for a month (maybe more, hold your breath) of free lodgings. Evicted is hearing the baby cry in the middle of the night and getting out of bed as fast as you can, because you don't want to disturb everyone's sleep. It's whisper-fighting, it's long silences, it's sleeping on opposite sides of your double mattress. It's undereye bags and eye twitches. It's long walks to get out of the house. It's cooking in someone else's kitchen, keeping everything so clean, so neat, please don't notice we're here, please don't be mad at the space we're taking up.

Evicted is an unexpected rush of shame, of embarrassment. It's another thing in a line of things—sick parents, bad births—that make you wonder, "Is this a bad time, or do I have a bad life?" It's wondering if you have done something to deserve this, and if so, how to reverse it. It's trying to remember if you've stolen stones from scared burial grounds, and if so, which ones. It's thinking about how you will talk to your son about why you had to leave his first home. It's being blessed that people took us—him—in. It's an emotion so loud and unshaped, roaring and buffeting the inside of your head, that it deafens you everything else, joy especially. It is trying to figure out how this story ends, and not having an answer.

Evicted is more than storage units, more than boxes, more than crashing at the in-laws, more than moving. It is fear. It is heartbreak. It is rage.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Where We're At

My life is basically on fire right now: between 24/7 childcare duties, part-time work that is just a weensy bit unboundaried, being evicted, househunting, the snowstorm, a baby who is learning how to walk/unlearning how to sleep, and also the general day-to-day grind of it being almost, but not quite, the end of winter...I am tired. I think I'm actually doing okay, emotionally, right now, but I'm also looking forward to having my midlife crisis/breakdown sometime in the next 18 months. Once we get unpacked, of course.

Anyway, because this blog is my neglected friend who still loves me despite the fact that I never call and never write, and when I do show I'm all disheveled and distracted, I'm here to write a very haphazard list of things that are sustaining me, or non-mom things I'm thinking about, through this tire-fire of a financial quarter.

1. Soma chocolate. I keep some gingerbread toffee from Christmastime beside my bed, and every now and then I remember it's there, and I eat two glorious bites. (Don't be fooled into thinking I'm some sort of chocolate aesthete, though. I mainline a Cadbury's bar every other day. "Why can't I lose this baby weight?" It's a mystery, truly.)

2. The New Yorker. My ability to read any kind of book is basically nonexistent right now, so I lean heavily on The New Yorker to make me feel smart. Their arts writing in particular is such a luscious, nourishing slice of heaven—last year's profile of Michael Heizer, the recent profile of Catherine Opie, even the interview with Jack White (in which he talks about the talismanic power of three in his creative practice); all are helping me stumble forward in my own self-conception as an artist. I realize that this sounds self-indulgent at best and insane at worst, but after a decade of saying "I want my spaces to look this way, I want my clothes to tell this story," I'm starting to realize that I can recast all that as being in service to a larger through-line in life, and that feels pretty delicious.

3. I'm currently running a March Madness-style poll on my Facebook page, in which I attempt to goad my friends into narrowing a list of 32 films down into the Ultimate Feel-Good Movie. It's so much fun.

4. The third Baby Dance Party is coming up this weekend, and I'm getting a new phone from my earnings. Lord knows I've made my poor Galaxy Nexus suffer long enough. I will miss you, little friend. Remember that one time someone posted a picture of a spider on Twitter and it scared me so bad I dropped you on the bathroom floor and cracked your poor screen? And instead of replacing it or feeling bad, I then just thought of it as being "a reason not to take my phone if I got mugged"? That was very silly. Also, your camera was terrible.

5. I am feeling all these feelings about my body, which is basically: Okay, now I am a fat mom, so what am I going to to about it? Because right now, in this season of my life, I don't have the time or the space to work out. Normally, I exercise at home, but it's hard to do on a hardwood floor that creaks like a fucking horror movie all day long, because just breathing weird from two rooms over will wake this baby up, so forget about a floor that makes it sound like a pile of lumber falling off the side of a boat. And the snow and the cold make it very unappealing to do long summer-style walks. And I eat chocolate all the time. And muffins. And brownies. And I'm not exactly mad at it, but I am just very aware that the longer this shape and weight lingers, the tougher it will be to dispense of it. And I'm just so body-tired all the time. My back hurts. My wrists hurt. I am not in dance- or yoga-shape. I am unbendy. It's shitty, because two years ago I was in the best damn shape of my entire life, and I knew it, but I took it for granted. I can get it back. And now? I am...not. And I can't figure out which reserves to draw from to make the changes, because it feels like all my reserves are tapped.

6. Building on #2, Abstract, on Netflix, has been so inspiring and cool. I love how confident all these designers are; like, they show up, and they do their jobs—well, because they're at the top of their game—and they're pretty humble but not falsely so, and the stories that they tell are just astounding. I need a push, a change, a new direction. I love being a mom and being a writer, but I want to change the shape of the world. So: How?