I live closer to the east side location and I already knew that it was ridiculous. A snaking line every night and quite often during the day as well. But the phenomenon seemed to hit new heights of the ridiculous today. Passing SW 3rd Ave., while traveling east on Burnside Sunday in the early afternoon, I turned my head to see a line approximately two blocks long and a sidewalk wide. Hovering over these supplicants was a minimally formed god-monster outlined in neon; its edible idol inside the red door below. The internationally renowned Voodoo Doughnut.
I won't lie. I've patronized the northeast location on more than one occasion, and I've paid upwards of four dollars for a single fritter. But only after drinking. And it's never been worth it. And I won't wait past the first turn-back in the line no matter what. Because people: it's a doughnut! It isn't a unique experience or a chance of a lifetime. It's not the most scrumptious thing to eat in the city at 2:00am. And they definitely aren't the best doughnuts in the world. They're not even the best doughnuts in Portland.
You're going to get the munchies in the wee hours of the morning. So plan ahead. For about the same price as a high-end Voodoo model, you can get an infinitely superior Cuban dessert from Pambiche just up the street until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Or go kick it at the much friendlier Rimsky-Korsakoffee House. If you get desperate, you can probably buy a quarter of a cake at some 24-hour Safeway. Don't waste your life waiting in line for a pink box. They're more abundant than they might seem.
We're all fucked. I realize that crows are omnivores. However, I have of late seen them all too frequently dining on carrion in the middles of roads. This spectacle, coupled with a study I heard recently about how they can remember and I.D. human features better than any facial recognition software we've devised…this has me worried. They're hungry. They're everywhere. It's going to be a bloodbath.
Hitchcock's movie about this subject – featuring crows, by the way, in one of the most ominous scenes ever designed for the screen – seems pallid to a generation accustomed to high-octane horror. The supernatural and paranormal have superseded nature's ostensibly tamer threats. But think about it for a moment. What are we really going to do when crows in numbers approaching a bee swarm begin to suspect that living flesh may be more appetizing than tire-tainted squirl meat? Sure, you may be able to knock one or two out of the air before your eyes are plucked clean from their sockets. But you're not going to win against an entire murder, ultimately. They use gravity to crack nuts. They know what gravity is!
So watch The Birds with an eye towards preparing for battle. Don't let those waddling black bodies lull you into complacency. When you hear that call-and-response croaking from power lines above, look up to avoid triangulation, but do shield your eyes. Avian Armageddon is imminent. But you don't have to be one of the first to go.
Morning Edition recently presented a piece about the burden overweight people place on our planet. The problem of feeding flesh instead of mouths is especially acute in the United States. Though we make up approximately 6% of the earth's population, we account for about 33% of the overall weight wandering restlessly over this planet's surface. We can talk about calories and cavemen by way of seeking a solution. Pollan can chide us to eat food, and we can argue about meat fat, carbohydrates, and what the French do all day long. We can even turn our food consumption into a point system, perhaps hoping that our passion for sports will translate subliminally into a winning system for shedding pounds. We have done all these things, and experts tell us that our nation's people are still growing cumulatively bigger.
Let me suggest, unoriginally, that the problem of too much food and flesh should be viewed in a less compartmentalized fashion; that we need to consider the spirit, the psyche, and the entire body, rather than just the waistline. My fellow county-people, on this anniversary of our nation – when alcohol-laden, unfettered feasts surely threatens to push our share of the world's weight to 34% or beyond in a single hotdog-gorging day – let me propose a bold alternative to ever-more obsessive dieting: eat with your mouth. No. Not with utensils. Not with your hands. Put your mouth in your food and chew.
It has long been suspected that the geometries created by silverware, when used for eating, generates magnetic fields. Among other dangers, these invisible arrays probably disrupt the body's natural digestive processes and activate harmful micro-attributes in the food consumed. Furthermore, through a complex series of chemical reactions, metal repeatedly placed into and removed from the mouth siphons toxins out of the liver. When the eating session ends, those toxins are returned to the liver, forcing the organ to perform double duty. And I won't bother going into all the things leaching out of plastic utensils. But all the physiology aside, eating with implements separates you from your food.
Eating with your hands may seem like a viable alternative (and is certainly preferable to the fork, spoon, and knife), but this, too, has its problems. Even if you wash them as well as you possibly can, your hands still function like petri dishes cultivating harmful bacteria and viral matter. Scratching our bodies and touching foreign surfaces while dining is inevitable – and normal! When eating, and especially during social events that involve food, one should never have to feel like a surgeon who has just scrubbed in. Eating should be a rough pleasure, not a delicate procedure. And while bringing food to mouth with your fingers may be senorily thrilling, it also carries a high potential of delivering into your body pathogens alongside the critical nutrients. Beyond threats to your immune system, however, eating with your hands separates you from your food.
You know what doesn't separate you from your food? Grabbing it with your mouth and eating. And this method connects you with food in many respects beyond the obviously physical ones. Psychologically, eating with your face increases happiness. When have you witnessed a child in a high chair who, released from the parental dictates to “eat nicely” or “eat properly,” appears anything less than joyous? Or who does not rejoice on some instinctual level when Randy in A Christmas Story, induced by his mother's question about how piggies eat, smashes his face into the formerly undesireable plate of food before him. His snorting and laughing becomes contagious to everyone literally and figuratively present, as the nutrious food flows into his body unhindered by implement, microbe, or negative emotion. Research in science journals has surely demonstrated that happy eating increases the body's efficient and healthful processing of food, leading ultimately to moderation and reduced weight gain. Imagine being among a table full of adults at your favorite upscale restaurant, all gleefully devouring food like Randy. All knowing that your direct connection to that food will foster a healthy figure.
At an even more basic level, look to the dog or the cat or the alpaca. These and other animals are spiritually connected to their meals. They become one with the things they directly devour. Sure, the raccoon uses its hands, but observe that creature's sour disposition. Or the squirrel's stupidity. Or the chimp's covetousness. No, the happiest animals are the ones who do not aspire to anything more sophisticated than a face planted in something scrumptious. (The great exception may be the otter, who cannot be unhappy with that furry coat and aquatic agility; also who needs the blubber to survive in the cold ocean.) Bodies passing energy in the most direct and present way unto other bodies. This is the way to benefits including, but going far beyond, the mere reduction of weight.
So grab that patriotic potato salad with your mouth, my friends! Rip that hot dog apart with your incisors, just like an American should! Exercise your freedom to chew into that apple pie sans fork! Let's eat like pigs, and enjoy the physical and spiritual benefits that accompany our liberation.
Skip lay in bed, naked from the waist up. His desire was to sleep. But, intending some months ago to paint his bedroom, he had removed all the window coverings. It was around 8:51pm in the early summer, not quite dark, and what drooping light there was left in the day kept him awake. He wondered if the neighbors across the way could see him, and if they cared that he was shirtless. Their shades were always closed, but Skip was convinced that they peered out from gently lifted corners to observe him frequently. Although he felt repellent without a shirt on, this was actually a welcome scenario bordering on fantasy for Skip. What if they, unlike he, were pleased with what they saw? Sometimes Skip would even linger near the dresser, pretending to check the weather or email on his phone, indulging these voyeurs across the courtyard.
9:04 and still light. And now Skip was losing his resolve to sleep. He sat upright in bed and scanned the floor of the dimming room. Clothes all fading to the same dusky shade of grey lay, limbs contorted, about the place. Leaving his legs on the bed and supporting his weight against the ground with his arms, in some bastardized fashion of downward dog, Skip began feeling around for a shirt. Something with long sleeves. The days were warming now that it was late June, but a chill still seeped into the valley each night. Short sleeves, blue jeans, too thick. Soon Skip was extended well away from the bed in his quest for a shirt, his upper body upside-down, legs nearly parallel to the ground, and his feet trying to hold him on the bed like an action hero hanging on to the edge of a cliff. Skip relished what the the spies across the way must think about this half-naked calisthenic spectacle taking place at twilight. Probably porno exercises, or something untoward like that.
Out of options within reach of the bed, Skip lowered his knee and crawled about until he found a knit shirt with the right weight to insulate his arms against what he imagined the air outside to feel like. He pulled the shirt over his head, laid on his back, and held out his arms. Probably blue-grey. Or perhaps green flecked with earth. Twilight was ending. Skip couldn't tell, and it didn't matter for a trip to the grocery store anyway.
He wanted a pumpkin to carve. Skip hadn't carved a pumpkin on Halloween or otherwise in at least five years. But tonight he wanted to cut very basic geometry into a pumpkin, making a classic Jack O'Lantern that he would light with a candle and set out front on his orange-tiled step. He would roast the fruit's seeds with plenty of salt and a little cayenne, and nibble on them while he carefully sculpted a face from the hollow shell. In his long-sleeve shirt, which the entryway light revealed as blue after all, Skip locked the door and headed to his purchase his raw material.
Past the front door of his conflicted admirers, out the complex's gate, east four blocks and over half a mile, Skip walked with self-congratulatory anticipation through the parting glass panels of Parker Puddin's Foodopolis. Bright, uneven light seemed to change the temperature at the threshold and welcome him to the great bounty of consumables. Skip headed down the paper products aisle, as this was the surest and most direct route to produce. Single rolls, double rolls of double-ply, triple soft triple rolls in six, eight, sixteen, or thirty-two count. How could one possibly decide correctly on toilet tissue from this wealth of options? And then again, how could one go wrong! The only thing to do was to try them all, to see which type, style, and brand of tissue best balanced comfort with effectiveness in wiping away residual shit fom one's ass. It was no different with paper towels. Well, somewhat different. Yes. If there was no difference, then one might use the less expensive product to wipe one's ass and one's countertop. Yet these are clearly unique tasks and surfaces, requiring entirely specialized tools. Thankfully, a handful of manufacturers who understand this have developed a variety of paper towel types that address the nuance of spilt liquid: dimpled paper, absorbent pockets, angular and curved patterns (a difference still open to scientific and scholarly debate). And all available with various aesthetic options, such as baby animals, or images of Americana to comfort one’s guests with a sense of timeless stability. A psychological antidote to the terror of having spilled a drink in another person’s home. Or for the stoic pragmatist, who advertises confidence through lack of decoration, no print at all.
Skip moved past all of these – and the facial tissues, the wet wipes, the innovations in paper-based dusting technology, all of it – without turning his head. He had come to Parker Puddin’s for a pumpkin. He did not presently care about how he would clean up the mess he intended to make on the kitchen floor. That would be a future trip to the Foodopolis.
The first items he encountered were the apples. Skip stood next to the large square bin of Braeburns and surveyed the area for gourds. Leafy greens, long root vegetables with bushy tops, multi-colored citrus balls, berries and more berries. And there, sticking up over the rolling hills of avocados, there was the hard-shelled flag he was looking for: the butternut squash. Skip approached, expecting to see the bottom of the tall pale surface tucked into a sea of deep green, bulbous yellow, and, of course, orange. Instead: more washed-out brown. More butternut squash. After scoping out the rest of the section, Skip inquired with a Puddin’ Pal, who informed him that all types of produce available were on the shelves for the consumer’s convenience. Skip thanked the Pal and meandered back to stare at the butternut squash. Maybe Gardner’s across town had pumpkins. Maybe. But that would require exact bus fare, and he didn’t like the way Gardner’s clerks always asked him how his day was going even if it happened to be 10:38 at night. Perhaps he should just put his plan aside until a more proper season bore the appropriate fruit. Perhaps he was tired enough to go to sleep now.
After twenty minutes of indecision, Skip picked out an eight-pound squash with a sticker that noted Chile as its origination point. He would proceed. He would cut out the insides from the bottom and design a small face for the lower third. So what if his Jack O’Lantern’s forehead was extra tall and long? Who would complain? And if someone did, Skip would invent a story about pumpkins in October, but butternut squash in June. With his Chilean squash, a baggie holding a pinch of cayenne, and a six-pack of single roll double-ply toilet paper, Skip checked out and went home to carve.
Today I applied for a job as a cheesemaker’s assistant in the making of artisan goat cheeses. I was very up front in my cover letter that nothing in my previous work experience has prepared me for this type of position. However, along with my generally high competencies, I highlighted aspects of my enthusiasm for cheese. For example, my favorite dessert these days is a selection of three cheeses complemented by fruit and nuts. I own a book about cheese (I do still need to read it, but I have stared it). I directed a play about an old man who loves cheese so much that he neglects his family. I would rather make cheese for a living over the much more popular making of wine. I even talk frequently these days about starting a cheesemaking operation. This work is probably in my blood, since my mother grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Finally, I get along well with farm animals, and especially with goats.
Still and all, I don’t have direct experience making cheese. For a while after learning about the opening, I tried set it aside and out of my head as a completely impractical option. The paper with the job description sat on my desk waiting to be recycled. But the possibility kept tempting me, especially in light of all my recent talk about making cheese and starting a cheese farm. And then, just before I pulled up a blank document and composed my cover letter, a realization struck me: life decisions motivated primarily by pragmatism have rarely made me happy. The most fulfilling consequences have resulted from impulse and instinct. Here are some things in life that I would never have attempted if practicality had dictated the terms:
- starting a theatre company
- going to graduate school
- reading self-composed poetry to a girl outside her window
- getting on stage
- dating my amazing girlfriend
- traveling through Australia in a beat-up van
- meeting one of my best friends
These are just the major ones. There are dozens of beautifully quixotic minor actions for each one listed here. Most of them proved that reward is worth the risk many times over. All furnished invaluable experience at the very least; memories that stick in your bones rather than money that hides in your pocketbook. And yet remembering to let bliss move us is difficult with each new and unfamiliar scenario. I’m pleased that I applied to be a cheesemaker’s helper today. Hopefully I’ll be working with the goats soon.
Little doubt that I am under siege. Yes. There can be no doubt about it at all. Several small ants are wandering around on my front step just outside the door. Not dozens. Definitely not hundreds. There is no line back to some dark and miniature cavern. Just a few black, segmented bodies crawling in random directions. Making ostensibly unmotivated turns, like spies when their target catches a glimpse of them on the street. Bursting briefly with just a little too much artificial effort. Trying for a split second to blend back into the world that they set themselves apart from while waiting. But these ants are not spies. They are scouts.
When I am in my kitchen, thirty feet away but behind two walls and the door, these scouts know it and set up their bulbous physiques like homing beacons. In the kitchen, not that far away, I cook. Sometimes I bake, which inevitably calls for sugar. To make zucchini bread, say. Or basil lime cookies. It is possible to make some of these delicacies without sugar, I suppose. But then I would probably let them sit on the counter, waiting for the first signs of mold so that I could discard them in the garbage. So. Sugar.
Working with sugar never goes as well as one hopes it will. That is to say: perfectly. The transfer from the sugar container to the measuring cup – level, mind you, since baking is a more exact science than cooking generally – and into the mixing bowl is fraught with all manner of obstacles. During the mixing, too, it is probable that the electric mixer or the wooden spoon will throw particles away from the bowl. More! Once absorbed into the milk or egg matter or butter, the sugar becomes undetectable as a discreet substance. And when the inescapable happens…when fate takes hold of the pouring or blending process…when gravity and momentum and trajectories all conspire against the well-intentioned amateur chef…at that moment sugar, solid or liquified, lands on a surface which it was never intended to be on. At that moment – and it cannot be doubted – little black scouts thirty or so feet away all recalibrate their bodies so as to line up facing a common endpoint. I’m fairly certain they raise their posterior thirds up to help.
As quickly as I can in those moments, I swipe up the sugar with a wet sponge and thoroughly dry the area (the sponge must be rinsed and the paper towel placed in a lidded receptacle if the contamination is to be contained and the residual sweetness fully removed from the air). So far I have been swift enough. The scouts don’t seem to have made much headway. But I suspect they are learning, and that eventually this siege will become a full-blown attack. Perhaps I would do better to reckon with the mold.
I really do love to cook. It has long been one of my favorite activities. From designing a set of complementary recipes to selecting ingredients from the grocery store shelves…from breaking down the parts with cutlery to assembling new wholes with heat…from sipping wine while cooking to sitting down for the first bite. Cooking welcomes contemporary innovation while leaning on ancient wisdom. It does more than forgive accidents. Sometimes it embraces them as the next delicious idea. It calms anxiety. It exhilarates the senses. It dares the imagination and sometimes it tests the belly. Cooking is everyday magic.
For a while now I have thought that the greatest thing someone could invent would be an olfactory camera. Imagine being able to capture aromas as easily as we capture images and send them off to a loved one. I have been at pains to explain to my mother over the phone the splendid and complex smells escaping from a pan full of curry-spiced apples and lamb shanks, which have been simmering long enough to have the meat loosening from the bone. Or, simply, the invisible waves of ambrosia yeast and flour as they recombine in a 475-degree oven. How wonderful it would be to vacuum up a capsule-full of those scents and ship them off to tempt other noses.
Despite this passion, each afternoon – I’d say right around 3:00pm – I find myself longing for happy hour food. Yesterday it was artichoke dip and pita chips from Gold Dust Meridian. Today it’s a ridiculously oversized pile of nachos from Matador. Tomorrow it might be a build-your-own-burger from Club 21. (I shall not link to the respective sites, so as to preserve one more hurdle between you and your own downfall into happy hour gluttony.) These lures are salty, fatty, and all too easy at the end of an exhausting day. And most of them are accompanied by your choice of discounted alcohol, which makes most people expert at rationalizing poor choices.
So tonight, in the presence of Beulahland’s full bar, as plate of sliders flies casually by destined for a nearby table, and an assortment of pies stares out at me from a refrigerated case…tonight I shall resist. I’m going to spin up a batch of pesto, add it to some penne pasta, and toss in a few sautéed scallops. Some crudités with white bean dip beforehand. Hand-buttered garlic bread alongside. A glass of Chardonnay that I pour myself. Maybe two. And tomorrow I’ll wage mental war on tater tot night.
If you get the opportunity at some future point to have Japanese omakase (お任せ), please do it; especially if that opportunity arises at Tanuki in Southeast Portland, just west of the redline. We call this experience ‘chef’s choice’, but I like other various translations such as ‘I’ll leave it to you’ and ‘entrusted’. Name your per-eater price, and the chef – in this case the delightful owner Janis Martin – will craft a line-up of small dishes with huge flavor that arrive at your table with the persistence of lapping ocean waves. Combine these fresh culinary miracles with an equally constant flow of small-batch sake, cheap Asian beer, and sensational Japanese whiskey, and you have the makings of a experience that will stretch one hour into five without anyone at the table knowing how or when it got dark outside. (You also have the reason why this “daily exercise” took a day off).
The thing is, omakase is not at all particular to Tanuki. Nor, obviously, is sake or beer. What makes omakase at Tanuki feel special is the establishment’s rag-tag sensibility. You’d better know the address (8029) if you go, because there’s no sign on or above the door. My longtime friend, Eric, and I arrived a few minutes before opening and, from the locked door and look of the place, momentarily thought we’d have to find different digs than this out-of-business business. But then the deadbolt popped free and our absolutely adorable server for the night set up the discreet sandwich board that announced in scrawled pink chalk “No sushi / No kids”. Then she invited us into the dining room. It feels like a lower Manhattan performance garage / studio apartment / storage facility borrowed each night for the purpose of serving some food. The sparely placed tables themselves seem foreign between the well-stocked bar, Ikea showroom sitting space, and piles of boxes with provisions in the corner – mostly beer. A card table holds two self-serve jugs of water – one that broke during the night – and a garage door remains halfway open to a parking lot out back. Pin-up girls from alcohol-sponsored calendars adorn the wall near the bathroom, and two huge television screens in opposing corners are inescapable (all night, Eric watched soap operas out of his peripheral vision, and I was oppressed by blood-bathed Korean and Japanese cult grotesquerie). A hastily plugged-in stereo perched on the sill of the covered storefront window blares away. Everything is dark when you start, and it just gets darker and more luscious from there.
I know very little about what I ate. I mean, of course I know what muscles looks like and what nori is. But specific details regarding preparation and minor ingredients of the twelve plus dishes we were privileged to taste remain a mystery. Our server announced each one as it landed on the table, but the ambient sensory chaos conspired against comprehension. I rarely followed up because it really didn’t matter. What mattered was diving unabashedly into each offering. Not everything worked, but the rewards are more than worth the risks. And seriously: Japanese whiskey.
Food and drink deepen the environment. The environment bolsters everything you taste. Of course, the night was biased to begin with. I was in exceptional company, and together we were willing to let table after table around us turn over as we staunchly occupied our place in the middle. It also strokes the ego to have one’s server sincerely name you “drinking champs.” So omakase if you can, but have some bus fare ready and don’t assume you’re driving home. We didn’t.