Look what I made for New Year’s Eve! I was KVELLING. I am still kvelling. Stanley Tucci’s recipe works incredibly well. I had moments of doubt as I was drying Italian bread only to resoak it in water for the 200 tiny meatballs the size of quail eggs, or when the paperback novel-sized lump of constantly contracting dough was supposed to get rolled into an unbroken, 30-inch circle to go around the filling. But with some effort and faith, it worked, IT WORKED, and I said a blessing for great recipe editors everywhere.
This being L.A., half the people attending couldn’t eat it (vegetarian, pescatarian, paleo, gluten-free, etc.) But all this good weather and lack of stress is turning me into a soft, magnanimous California dude. You can’t eat it? I’m sorry for you! More for everyone who can eat it!
Photo above by Raina. Look at how that dough drapes. It was like a gorgeous satiny wedding dress train made of pasta. Fuck yeah, there are layers of hard-boiled egg in it.
Cooks for an hour uncovered, 1/2 an hour covered in foil, then must rest for 30 impossibly long, nerve-wracking minutes as the timpano sets and contracts, allowing you to slice it like a motherfucking badass meat and pasta cake. Can you imagine how happy I was when I flipped the pot and the drum slid out totally intact?
You could save yourself two hours of work by not doing the 1/2 teaspoon meatballs, but you are making a timpano. Make it right.
The most expensive ingredient turned out to be the genoa salami. Half a baton of that stuff set me back $25, but I didn’t use it all, and fuck it, the whole project cost me less money than a dinner at a middle of the road restaurant in New York. Why did I spend so much money on eating out in New York? I want my money back.
For a little history on the timpano/timballo, read Regina Schrambling’s excellent article.
The next big cooking project should probably be vegetarian. The first two weren’t good for my cholesterol. I’m taking suggestions.
A few weeks ago, while searching for deals for The Sweethome, I noticed that a 60 qt. stainless steel pot was on sale on Amazon. Seeing as my apartment is only 230 square feet, this is possibly the least practical purchase I have ever made. But regrette rien!
For its virgin run, I bought Dungeness crabs from 99 Ranch in San Gabriel at $6/lb. The lady at the counter fished out six snappy guys (and Dungeness from the store are always male) with lots of verve. It’s disconcerting to hear your dinner rustling around in plastic bags en route home. I was also very conscious of the fact that I was toting a tank of flammable propane in the back of my CR-V. I also considered reincarnation and the whereabouts of my father’s soul. Hopefully he’d not made it into one of these crabs. Is that fucked up that I thought about that?
Brought my trusty patio stove over to my friend Raina’s house, cranked the heat on a few inches of water, and waited for the steam to start seeping out. First we steamed artichokes, potatoes, and corn until they were tender. I suppose we could have steamed them with the crabs, but I didn’t want to fuck it up seeing as I didn’t want the crabs’ sacrifice to be for naught.
I dumped the veg and turned to the crabs. Before everything else, I thanked them for the lives they were about to give. I released the crabs from their doubled-up plastic bags and dumped them into a stainless steel tub I had. Using some too-delicate tongs with scalloped nylon grippers, I tried to lift each crab’s body and lower it into the steamer basket, right side up. At one point, my friend Lisa’s tiny, hoodie-wearing black and white chihuahua ran out to observe the crabs as they snapped about and fell from my tongs’ grips. Fearing for her life, as the crabs were easily twice her weight, I yelled to everyone inside:
ME: Somebody get the dog!
My friend Dan came out to put the dog away, then observed the sacrificial pot, concerned.
ME: They should die pretty quickly in there.
DAN: Doesn’t look like it.
Once each guy was finally in, I shut the lid on the pot, waited for the water to come back to a boil, and set the timer for 12 minutes. After they were done, the freshly ruddy crustaceans were dunked into ice baths, cleaned with all guts and fat scraped from the shell for crab fried rice, and hacked into quarters.
(Photo below by Dan)
KOZY: We should say itadakimasu before this.
And we did, with great gratitude. And, holy shit, they were the best crabs I’ve ever had—sweet, tender, meaty, and not at all waterlogged. We dipped them in garlic butter and ponzu and squeezed lemon from Raina’s tree over them. Once we had eaten our fill, we picked the remaining meat from the shells and Kozy made crab fried rice with the white fat scraped from the shells—easily the best crab fried rice I’d ever had. I ate the leftovers for lunch the next day. That next night, we also got back together to make crab artichoke dip, butternut squash crab bisque, and the meatiest, thickest crab cakes we’d ever had. Raina even made stock with the crab shells, which now sits in her freezer, waiting for risotto night some time in the future. Six crabs fed five people three full meals, meals we’ve all been talking about for three weeks.
The occasion now feels momentous for me, one worth chronicling. I feel like I figured something out about how to enjoy life in L.A.—backyards in December, the freshest food in an unpretentious setting, gratitude for everything that I have, including this too short life which can be taken in a steamer basket, in a fender bender with a tank of propane, by globules of cholesterol coursing through my veins.
I’m standing over a fire again and it feels fucking fantastic.
I must get back to blogging more. An audit of my blog will probably show that I say this every year at this time. But I mean it every time. Whenever I use Twitter and Facebook, the analgesics of likes and RTs from my social network temporarily numb the little cuts that bleed my story. Why do I say stuff over there? I really ought to keep it here, my quiet little repository, my corner of the internet. I like it here. It’s not much, but it’s home. I really enjoy looking back and remembering moments and textures that would have otherwise slipped by in the stream.
I’ve only recently started reading Joan Didion. People talk about Goodbye to All That, an essay on why she left New York. Yes, it’s as relatable as it was when it was published, but I was interested in why she returned to New York and stayed. Nobody ever really talks about that.
I finally started reading The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve actually had it since before my dad died. When I bought it, I thought I ought to gird myself and face my fear of death, but it also seemed so morbid to do so. And, who am I kidding, as much as I pride myself on being a Buddhist who addresses death directly, I wasn’t ready to know exactly what to expect.
At the end of chapter 4, having explored medical journals and psychological studies on the process of grieving, Didion begins a new section with this quote:
Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use nor be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.
When I read that, I was like, YES, THANK YOU. Didion reveals that the quote is actually from Emily Post, the etiquette guru, on how to behave at funerals. Isn’t that something? No summary I can write would do justice to Didion’s severe, keen eye. Read it when you’re ready to. If you’re like me, it’ll make you feel understood just when you need to be understood from a distance.
Last night was the final night of Hanukkah. My friend Jewlia invited me to come over to her house. She texted:
Bring a pic of yr dad we have been doing a lot of winter ancestor honoring.
I grabbed the photo we printed and framed to place near his open casket. We lit rainbow colored candles in a menorah that dripped onto a piece of aluminum foil and sang This Little Light of Mine. Then we set Pau’s photo next to photos of Jewlia and Anmarie’s dads at a little shrine on a wooden dresser decorated with slightly dehydrated pomegranates, a lone persimmon, bright winterberry branches, and a bouquet of tiny paper marigolds. Jewlia said a prayer and put her hand on my arm and told me she talked to her dad every day here.
My tears spilled from a cup I’d ignored, a cup brimming with all the things I wanted to say to my dad, too. About how my brother was annoying me and my mom was annoying me and I’m sure I was annoying them and I wish he were here to annoy me in a different way, but also to bridge the divides between the three of us. About how when I am in the kitchen at my brother’s house, cooking the foods that he cooked and stacking bowls in the cupboard in the way he would have, I understand how hard he worked for us, how thanklessly he did so even when he was sick.
I’m going to find a place for Pau in the kitchen.
I’m getting on, I swear. I’m exercising more regularly (when in Rome), which helps, but I’m also getting out there and doing shit instead of moping. This is me in the desert garden in front of a bunch of wooly cacti at the Huntington Gardens, taken a few weeks ago.
More recently, I went to the Walt Disney Hall and sat in the cheap seats listening to the LA Master Chorale perform some Renaissance tunes from Tallis and Taverner, etc.; the music was a little boring for me but what a marvelous thing to hear 36 people sing as one, as though they were a spectrum of colors contained in a single beam of light. By the way, the organ seats are marvelous—it’s like you’re on stage and in the chorus yourself.
They sang If Ye Love Me by Thomas Tallis: “If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, ev’n the spirit of truth.”
I spent a few weeks in New York in the fall and felt sure I would move back, that my dad would have wanted me to move back. And yet I’m getting into L.A., as improbable as that would have seemed to my college self. I miss east coast winter not at all, not an iota. If I never see snow IRL again for the rest of my life, I would be perfectly content. I’ve put away all my New York power dresses and sweaters in favor of mesh sneakers and leggings so I’m always ready to go on a hike at the drop of a hat.
Yes, there are lots of malls and strip malls and boring swaths lined with strip clubs and casinos, and it is totally my prerogative to complain about them when I need to. But there’s also an energy bubbling up that makes my antennae wave around in buzzy anticipation. Not to get all predictably crystal astrologist on you, but something’s happening here, and I think I want to be a part of it.
Thanks to Francis Lam for asking me for a story. Thanks to Helen Rosner for giving it voice (my story is told towards the end). And thanks to my Pau, who I hope can forgive me for what is still raw.
100 days is the length of the Official Mourning Period for Thai people. If you’re a proper Thai, you wear only black or white for those 100 days. At the end of the mourning period, you make merit at temple to honor your loved one.
I insisted on getting doughnuts for my dad. I wanted to go to a Cambodian-owned, smaller doughnut shop near the hospital where he spent too much of his final year. I remembered a small shop with a tiny, difficult lot somewhere on that vast stretch of Amar Rd. Whenever we took a trip to the pharmacy to pick up giant bottles of Lipitor and refrigerated vials of Procrit to increase his hemoglobin production, he’d always ask to stop there, always for an apple fritter, a plain buttermilk bar, and a coffee with cream and two Splendas. Half the time I would take him, and half the time I would refuse. But if I couldn’t let him eat doughnuts in life, I’d make sure he could have them in the afterlife.
My mom and I couldn’t agree on which shop. She insisted that he made her stop at The Donut Hole, a landmark doughnut drive-through tunnel flanked by two giant doughnuts being dunked into the hot pavement. After driving around for 15 minutes and not being able to find my shop, we wound up at the Donut Hole because we were running the risk of not getting to the temple on time for the monks’ meal.
The doughnuts line the windows on the driver’s side—glistening bear claws the size and color of baseball mitts topped with glaze or mottled with crumb, a long row of frosted cake doughnuts with many different glaze colors and sprinkles, golden twists and long maple bars and piles of golf-ball sized doughnut holes. As you wait for the person in front of you to get their order, you have time to decide, then change your mind, then change it back.
It seems obvious now that my lifelong obsession with doughnuts started at the Winchell’s near our house on Colima Road, where I used to pick out a pink glazed yeast doughnut with sprinkles before he dropped me off at the Montessori preschool across the street. It was the three of us in the morning, my Pau and my brother and I, long after my Mae had driven to west L.A. for work. It was our secret, because if my Mae had known we got to eat doughnuts a few times a week, she’d have put the kibosh on it right away.
Now I try to think of doughnuts as yeasty time bombs of atherosclerosis, powdered sugar as potent as cocaine, each bite a doomsday prepper sealing itself in by padding my arteries with a hard paste of hydrogenated shortening. I try to think of them as the enemy so I don’t eat any more than I absolutely must. I ate two of the apple fritters after the ceremony, each one about a pound and the size of my face. And I felt terrible about it.
It’s been a hundred days. I got a $63 parking ticket, my first. I turned 37. The life span of a housefly is 15 to 30 days, and I killed two today. I bought six pairs of shoes and returned four. I’ve paid four rent checks. I saw a therapist once. Every day I think about things I have done, things I could have done, things I did not do, things I should do now.
It is a long time to be recycling your black clothing, but not long enough for the lacy edges of the scab to complete their infinitesimal creep towards the middle.
In an effort to get to know this unknowable city, I’m going to fling myself far and wide to do at least one thing I’ve never done each week. Enter Explore Mode.
Shortly before he died, my dad installed a motion detector which turns blindingly bright fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen on and off automatically. Unfortunately, the sensor stopped working correctly shortly after he died (or his spirit is haunting the kitchen which, you know, would actually be kind of appropriate). When sitting in the kitchen after sunset, the overheads will cut out suddenly, and there’s only a 50/50 chance that your frantic arm waving will actually flip the lights back on. Or you can leave the room with the lights on and come back at 3 in the morning to find that the lights still haven’t turned off yet.
This makes dinner after 6pm a frustrating affair in my parents’ house. After using the last hour of daylight to wrestle with and lose against the detector, I drove myself to Xi’An Kitchen, an always-packed noodle shop in a strip mall in the City of Industry. Under the kind of harsh, bright fluorescents only myopic Asians can appreciate, Chinese families sit at pushed-together formica tables for melamine bowls of hand-pulled or rolled noodles and Wimpy-worthy double stacks of pan-toasted rou ja mio, translated as “Chinese hamburger” on the menu.
The kitchen’s namesake, Xi’an, is apparently a city in the Shaanxi province of what’s considered “Northwest China”, and restaurants that pledge allegiance to it often serve the hand-torn noodles, lamb, and cumin-spiced foods of the region. But reading only the translations, you might not guess the menu’s origins; “Haggis soup” and “Shredded Hand Made Pita Bread in Mutton Broth” are both mystery items.
“What should I get?” I ask the waitress.
She brings me “Braised Meat in Preserved Sauce Hand Made Noodle”, a tangle of noodles that are like wider, thicker pappardelle, tossed with a tangy sauce of oil, soy, and vinegar. Tender, blanched lettuce and sliced scallions provide sweetness against the mildly piquant but toasty crushed chiles. The fatty fan of tender pork tastes of star anise. Each noodle I pull from the hot, haphazard pile curls over in a unique way, squeaking and resisting lightly against my chew. They’re delicious.
Even better for me is being in the crowd, soaking in the anticipation and conviviality. Several multigenerational groups of seven have ordered what looks like the $20 “Big Plate Saute Spicy Chicken With Hand Made Noodle”, a platter the circumference of a hug piled high with meat and a brownish sauce; the diners’ arms form an asterisk as they all reach for more. At one table, a toddler in a high chair bangs on a plastic plate until it flips over and lands on the floor to a round of his sister’s delight-filled guffaws. A stooped, grandmotherly woman wearing elastic-waisted sweatpants clings tight to a middle-aged man’s arm as they gingerly cross the room to meet their kin. Decor consists only of pastel posters with Chinese characters and giant, tasseled Chinese knots that frame the cash register. There are no proclamations of authenticity; There is only food and family, coming and going.
After a week and a half of being haunted in my parents’ kitchen either by a fitful spirit or some junk Chinese electronics, the garish light and steady hum of Xi’An Kitchen stirs a little life into me. I’m reminded that not only does life go on, it stops for no one.
18213 E Gale Ave
City of Industry, CA 91748
Right off Fullerton Ave., in the plaza near Home Depot
Plenty of parking, but if the lot seems full, check around the corner from Ruen Pair for extra spaces by the train tracks
I think it’s traditional in Thailand for the family of someone who dies to wear black or white for 100 days, signaling that they are in mourning. This makes a lot of sense to me now, though I’m not actually doing it. Would be great if my wardrobe signaled to people that, hey, I’m in mourning, and that is why I am especially mean or tender or humorless. It would be a gesture that offers explanation without asking for forgiveness.
You know, on the one hand I would like to preserve the dignity of my relationship with my father by encapsulating it in a single, crystalline essay that expresses my deep love for him. On the other hand, my grief can be acidic, or sharp and piercing, or a dull ache. A laugh or two can bubble up from the muck. Sometimes I let it stew inside, but sometimes I just want to throw my guts on the wall. I don’t know.
(from the LA Times)
What do you do if someone in the same tier is dumping in your circle (not my mom)?
If you’re me, you have a fight, storm out, see that the driveway is being blocked by the other car, contemplate going back in the house for the keys, not want to deflate your storm out by having to re-enter the room where the other party is, be deterred from a walk by the blazing valley August afternoon sun, and instead sit in your car, parked in the garage, texting everyone you know and blasting Olivia Newton-John on your headphones until the other person drives off.
As I didn’t drive until last year, I can’t even say it feels like I’m a teenager again.