8/14/17

Mothers, Capitalism, and Boiling Eggs Overnight: A Conversation with Tannaz Sassooni

[This is the fifth conversation in a series. For the others, click here.]
You may remember my next guest, Tannaz Sassooni, from my ghormeh sabzi post many years back. It was during that epic, old-school attempt that I first learned about Tannaz’s mother, Violet, and though this most recent conversation with Tannaz began with the recipes she contributed to Lucky Peach’s latest cookbook offering, All About Eggs, soon enough, she and I were talking about Violet again.

All the while, I’d asked Matt to take photos the next time I made oyakodon, a Japanese dish I’d been making a lot lately and one that’s featured in the above-mentioned Lucky Peach book. I thought the images would pair nicely with our conversation. But now as I’m putting this post together, I’m reminded that I first had oyakodon when a friend made it and brought it over for me after Isaac was born and how she told me that it means “parent and child in a bowl” (It’s a chicken-and-egg dish, get it?). The next time I made oyakodon (and Matt got out his camera) ended up being when my mom was visiting. And in case you forgot, a big reason I started this conversation series was to help me handle (come to terms with?) my mom's and my divergent political views. I served up Mom a bowl and Matt caught this on camera. Some might call this kismet? Some might call it something more like: But Amelia, you’re always posting about parent and child stuff. Either way, here's Tannaz and me, two products of our mothers, and a recipe for oyakodon.
*
Amelia Morris: One of the recipes you contributed to Lucky Peach’s All About Eggs is Shabbat Eggs, which are super slowly cooked eggs in their shells, along with some onion skins and tea leaves. You say they're often cooked as long as overnight, on a Friday, so that you can enjoy them on a Saturday, the day of rest in Jewish tradition. I love this recipe because it's so tied to culture and practicality. The WASP that I am would never have imagined cooking eggs this long. There's no reason for it. That being said, I'm very curious. Do they really taste that different from a regular boiled egg?

Tannaz Sassooni: There's no reason for it. Unless you're forbidden to touch fire for 24 hours. It's a beautiful tradition to shut down for a day and just enjoy life, but getting there is traditionally a lot of work for the family matriarch. The idea of a "Sabbath pot" of some sort is prevalent throughout the Sephardic world. I think in most communities, it's called hamine, but we (Iranians) call it khalebibi, and it's basically a pot of various things (meats, legumes, roots, tubers) that stew overnight to be eaten for the Saturday afternoon meal. There's a Sephardic concept of huevos haminados, which is eggs that sit on top of whatever's in that pot, and khalebibi can have that, too. In the case of Shabbat eggs, it's just the eggs, no big stew in the pot. The texture and flavor here are the antithesis of what's appealing to western palates today. This is nothing like a bright-yolked, oozy, just-set egg. The yolk gets a little powdery. Its edges take on a grey-green. The whites are straight-up beige! And the smell is, well, what you'd expect from eggs boiling forever (although the tea and/or cinnamon helps!). But it's so evocative for a certain generation of Iranian Jews.
AM: Fascinating. Your description reminds me of something I just read about in Everything I Want to Eat where Jessica Koslow talks about one of her inspirations, which is a moment from Jacques Pépin’s old PBS series where he goes through two ways to make an omelette: “the American way” and “the French way,” which Koslow prefers. She describes his French omelette as “the silkiest, supplest, sexiest omelette.” Your Shabbat egg sounds like the opposite! But not in a bad way. Maybe because it's everywhere here on the east side of LA, but I’m a wee bit sick of sexy food. What about you?
TS: I'm not sick of "sexy" food, whatever that means. I have a place in my heart, for sure, for comforting simple flavors that are nostalgic, but I'm not immune to the wiles of bright fresh things, silky textures, big spicy flavors, all of it. I feel like that's so much of the appeal of food—it's sensual. (Side note, I feel like dumplings are the sexiest food of all, and I am HERE for them.) If we're going to anthropomorphize food in this way, I'd say what I am sick of is toxically masculine food! I feel like there's this ongoing thing where, you have to eat the strangest animal, or the strangest part of the animal, or the most insanely spicy thing, to the point where it's not about pleasure at all anymore so much as just being a pissing contest. I don't buy into the mystique that's been created around chefs staying up for crazy hours, doing lots of drugs, being a jerk in the kitchen, then making these perfect specimens of foods in a vacuum. I feel like there's a fetishism to it all (5 years of apprenticeship before they'll deign to let you make the sushi rice?) that's born of privilege, and it doesn't excite me. Countless mothers, for generation after generation, throughout the world, have been cooking high-quality, delicious food for their (often extended) families, balancing nutrition, taste, aesthetics, and budget, not to mention the whims of fussy kids (and grown-ups!), making do with what they have, cleverly stretching what's left from last night into tonight, day after day, and not waiting around for a round of applause. This kind of grounded, aware, art-out-of-necessity cooking is what excites me, and I don't think it gets nearly enough exposure. I guess, as in life, as we get older, what we see as "sexy" becomes richer and far more complex than what the magazines would have you believe.

AM: But Tannaz, I am waiting for my applause! (Unfortunately, only half-kidding.) I like what you say here a lot. It makes me think that it’s not that I’m sick of sexy food or as you describe it: “bright fresh things… and big spicy flavors.” (I immediately think of the hummus platter at Dune in Atwater Village, which is both beautiful and delicious.) I think it’s the media’s obsession with this kind of food I’m sick of. It goes hand in hand with an idea I keep thinking about (shouting about?) ever since the election—this idea of why do we, as a society, seem to value strength (or the appearance of it) over vulnerability? The shiny over the subtle? Being right over being wrong (and being able to admit it and learn from it)? Being decisive over biding one’s time?

It makes me wonder about how to make practicality and receptivity sexy. I think Tamar Adler does this in An Everlasting Meal. But how to get this idea on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine? I don’t know if it translates to imagery. And imagery is why people buy food magazines, right?

TS: I don't know the answer here, but I think you hit the nail on the head with Tamar Adler. An Everlasting Meal is one of my favorite books ever, and perhaps if everyone could write as beguilingly as she does, we'd have no problem. Whenever I think about traditional food and cooking—of those systems that are ingrained in Italian, Vietnamese, Persian, etc. cuisines—I think about how practicality is also built into them. And then I find myself having problems with capitalism. It seems like everything needs to rely on a product, something to sell, when in fact these systems are about efficiently using the simplest things.

My mom makes elaborate meals, which could definitely be classified as sexy, but her footprint is very small. She buys mountains of herbs and picks them off the stalks, chops them herself. There are very few gadgets in her kitchen—why would you need a lemon squeezer when you have a fork? A jar has never left her home for the trash can—all of her spices live in repurposed jars (a fact I hated when I was a kid). She wastes nothing (no seriously, nothing). She has a system, and it's quite spartan, and amazing things come of it! She eludes capitalism. So in a society where the only things that are pushed forward are those that sell products, I don't know how you cultivate this. This fact troubles me.
AM: Me too, Tannaz. Me too. And speaking of products: Have you spent any time with Samin Nosrat’s new book, Salt Fat Acid Heat? She writes a fair amount about her Persian upbringing and Persian food. I haven’t read the whole book, but a few times she refers to how time-consuming it is to cook Persian food. Do you agree with that general assessment? And also, growing up, did you get a sense that your mom enjoyed her time in the kitchen or that it was more of an understood role or duty she took on?

TS: I haven't read the book yet, but I've been following its development through the instagram of its amazing illustrator, Wendy MacNaughton, and I have no doubt it's amazing. It's a really good question you ask about duty vs. joy. Persian food is without question time-consuming. Technique is a big part of it, and everything is fiddly and "high-touch.” I don't know a single person who is more driven by obligation than my mother; she never complains, she just does what she feels is expected of her, and has for decades. When it comes to big meals, she certainly exhausts herself, but I do feel there are a couple kinds of joy here for her: For one, there's that system. She's got a rhythm down in the kitchen over decades, and I feel like she's perfectly content doing her thing, without interruptions, in a kind of solo meditative state (not to get too hoity-toity about it – she'd never agree with me calling it 'meditative'). Then, she's modest, but I feel like she quietly takes pride in how delicious her food is. I think it's deeply gratifying to be able to make these meals, bring her family together over them, and see how happy it makes them to eat her food and share those experiences.

There's an academic book I read a while back, and it really cleared some things up for me. It's called From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture, by Saba Soomekh, a religious studies professor. She interviewed a bunch of Iranian Jewish women for the book, and in it, she talks about how, in my grandma's generation, while the father would study Torah and pray at the synagogue, the way the mother of the family expressed her religiosity was through keeping the family together, making sure the holidays were observed, preparing meals, taking care of the children. I found this really interesting. I love this idea of doing your faith in a practical way as opposed to just chanting. And it turns a lot of ideas about traditional, patriarchal family units, especially religious ones, on their head.

Anyway, I think this carries through in my mother. I'd say that she is around one-hundred percent responsible for keeping our family together and connected. Yes it's an obligation, yes it's definitely hard, constant work, without question. But she's making a profound contribution, and I think this is deeply gratifying to her.

Finally: It's just in her at this point. She always prefers to cook a meal at home than go to a restaurant. It's a fight to get her to go out even for Mother's Day. She knows she's making healthier food and spending less money, and she honestly gets antsy at restaurants. Obligation doesn't necessarily feel like the right word—it's just in her; it's what she does.
AM: I love that she is essentially repelling capitalism at every turn! Not even a restaurant is going to tempt her. That being said and as much as I love to rail against capitalism, I recently listened to Terry Gross’s interview with Billy Bragg and he said something I loved—that the enemy isn’t capitalism or conservatism. It’s cynicism! So with that in mind, can you tell me about a recent hopeful food experience? (Something you read or tasted or a restaurant you visited?)

TS: Back in 2014, I designed the menu for a three-course dinner at a local arts and culture non-profit called Clockshop, which showcased flavors from Iranian Jewish cuisine. There was a young chef in the kitchen there, a native Angeleno of Filipino descent named Chad Valencia, and it blew my mind to see him treat our family recipes, which I'd only ever seen prepared by my mom and grandmas, with the utmost care and respect. He went on to open a restaurant, Lasa, with his brother Chase, where they serve Chad's take on Filipino flavors, and I recently visited. Every bite was seriously delicious, and the innate hospitality in the room made us feel like family. We ended the meal with a dessert called a sans rival, and this particular rendition had brown butter buttercream, chopped pistachios, calamansi-macerated strawberries, and Persian mint. The meal resonated on so many levels, but this story of kids of immigrants taking their inherited legacy, mashing it up with the local bounty – both culinary and cultural – to make something that respects their roots but is also fully of-the-moment, makes my heart swell. It makes me proud of my beloved Los Angeles, and fills me with hope.

Oyakodon adapted from All About Eggs
serves 4

NOTE: I've been meaning to post about this dish for a while now. I've made it probably a dozen times, but I still haven't perfected it. Ideally, I would like the eggs to take on the consistency of a very soft scramble, but instead they often seem to get lost to the sauce. I think this might be more easily avoided if I made it in a 10-inch cast iron pan, but alas I don't have that size. It's not a problem though. We always eat it happily no matter how the eggs come out. My patience is lacking in the kitchen these days, but what I have done in the past is transfer some of the cooked chicken mixture to a separate pan (8-inch cast iron) and then finish the portions individually, adding two beaten eggs on top and getting more of the soft-scramble consistency I want. In this below version, I've followed the Lucky Peach people and made one big pan. I also sometimes start by sautéing the onion and mushrooms in a neutral oil before adding the liquid and chicken. Either way, I totally recommend this dish. It's become one of our weeknight favorites.

2-3 cups short-grain white rice
1 cup chicken broth (Dashi is what's traditionally used here, but I never have it on hand nor the time to make it myself anymore.)
2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup shoyu
2 tbsp. sake
1/4 cup mirin (When I don't have mirin, I've used rice vinegar and it's totally worked for me.)
1 onion, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into thin slices
8 oz. mushrooms (any kind), sliced (optional)
1 lb. boneless and skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
8 eggs
2-3 scallions, trimmed and chopped (optional)
some manner of greens like watercress or mitsuba sprigs or shiso leaves (optional)
chili garlic sauce or Sriracha (optional)

Cook the rice according to the package directions. While it's cooking, make everything else.

Add the chicken broth or dashi, sugar, shoyu, sake, and mirin to a 10-inch cast iron pan (or something similar) and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the onion, mushrooms, and chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and chicken is no longer pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl and stir in the scallions if using them. Reduce the heat to medium-low on the chicken mixture, then pour two-thirds of the eggs and scallions into the skillet and continue cooking until the eggs just start to set around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining eggs, cover, and let cook for 1 or 2 more minutes, until they look mostly set all the way through. Turn off the heat and let the oyakodon sit for another minute.

Serve over the rice and garnish with the mitsuba or watercress or chopped shiso leaves or whatever other green you think might work. As you can see, Matt likes to eat it with a healthy amount of hot sauce/Sriracha on the side.
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7/12/17

A Resume Attempt

Choose Your Own Metaphor!
Hi, guys. How's your summer going? After three and a half years of making a go of it as a freelancer who also raises children, I've decided to dip my toe in the ice cold waters of looking for a more traditional job with a more traditional paycheck. For anyone who has ever looked for a job, you know how it feels. Can you wear many high-demand hats while thriving in a fast-paced environment? Are you a self-starting multi-tasking professional with expert graphic design skills? Did we mention those HATS? 

I revamped my resume, but I don't think it fully represents me and many of my worthwhile skills, so I made a version that I think does. What do you think? Would you hire me? [I had to load it here as three different screenshots, so please bear with.]
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6/11/17

Video: Magical Mung Beans

Welllllll, all good things must come to an end, right? This mung-bean-centric video marks our last episode of the mom.me 'In the Kitchen with Amelia and Teddy' series. Like most endings, it’s bittersweet. It was a good gig for a freelancing mother of two young kids who is married to a shooter/director. (Here’s the youtube link to all 39(?!) episodes we did in case you want to watch my kids grow up right in front of your eyes and sure, also see the food we made.)

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m ready to spend some time not in front of a camera. I feel like motherhood is a constant exercise of when to let your kids lead and when to assert yourself as the actual person in charge (at least until they start wondering whether anyone is ever in charge). (These days, it surely doesn't seem like it, huh?) Anyway, sometimes letting them “lead” feels like a destruction of the self. Sometimes it’s extremely freeing. Sometimes it’s both! Point being, I’m looking forward to letting this all play out behind the scenes for a bit.

Of course this does mean that I’ll need to find a new job. Maybe UCLA gymnastics is hiring? (Just kidding.) (They’re not. I already looked.)

Either way, see you soon, friends!
Magical Mung Beans
To make your own mung bean sprouts:
Rinse 1 cup of whole mung beans, then put them in a bowl and cover with about 4 inches of water and leave to soak at room temperature for about 12 hours. Drain the beans in a colander and then rinse them with some more fresh water.

Line a large bowl with a triple layer of thick paper towels in such a way that there will be some left to fold over the beans. Fully dampen the paper towels or cloths and put all the beans in the bowl. Cover with the overhanging paper, or use extra dampened paper towel if you need to.

Put the bowl in a dark, warm place (like a closet) for at least 12 hours but up to 24. The beans should sprout. Rinse them in cool water, then cover and store in the refrigerator, making sure to rinse them in cool water every day. They should keep for 3-4 days.

Mung Bean Sprouts with Swiss Chard slightly adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India

2 large stalks of Swiss chard
1 tablespoon olive oil
generous pinch of asafetida (optional) (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 cups Indian-style mung bean sprouts
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 lime
1 teaspoon sugar

Cut the chard stems into ¼-inch dice and the leaves into 1-inch dice.

Put the oil in a large frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the asafetida and a second later, the mustard seeds. If the oil is hot enough, the seeds will start to pop in a matter of seconds. Once at least a few of them have popped, turn the heat off. Add the garlic and jalapeno.

Put the pan back on the heat and add the chopped chard stems and stir for two minutes. Mix in the turmeric, then add the bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, chard leaves, 6 tablespoons of water, and the salt. Stir and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Cover and cook very gently for 20 minutes.

Stir in the butter. Once it’s melted, add the juice of the lime and the sugar. Taste for seasoning.

Serve on flatbread or toast with whole plain yogurt.
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6/4/17

A Butcher, a Baker, a Really Good Book-Maker: A Conversation with Cara Nicoletti

[This is the fourth conversation in a series. For the others, click here.]
In Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books, Cara Nicoletti guides us through her reading life. Each chapter discusses a different book she read at a specific point in her life—from her childhood to present day. And while she uses food as a vehicle throughout these discussions (each chapter ends with a recipe inspired by the book in question), Voracious doesn’t feel limited by or overly bound to this structure. Much like the books she is highlighting, Voracious is a world unto itself. Sometimes we learn about a book’s cultural and/or historical context and sometimes about the authors themselves. All the while, we’re also picking up the story of Nicoletti’s life: her New England upbringing, her sisters, parents, boyfriends, butchering, baking, and that time she fed a mouse a cookie.

After reading it, I was left inspired both to cook (see below) and to read (Eugenides’ Middlesex). But possibly more than anything, I was inspired to instill in Teddy and Isaac the love for reading that Nicoletti has. More than once, she writes about times in her young life where she would come home from school, troubled by one thing or another, and find a book waiting for her on her bed, placed there by a parent or relative, and how usually that book hit upon something she needed to hear and/or feel at the time.

The other day at my local public library, after I’d checked out a couple of books for myself, I wandered over to the children’s section. Thanks to loving grandparents, Teddy and Isaac have an overflowing collection of books, so I rarely if ever check anything out for them, but that day I scoured the shelves for ones I thought Teddy would like. I grabbed two, drove home, and placed them on his bed—the firsts of a new tradition, I hope.

[After reading her book, I emailed a bunch of questions to Cara and she kindly emailed me back her answers.]

***

Amelia Morris: The more I read about your family in Voracious, the more I liked them. The chapter about how your dad (who you call “Noodle”) makes a pound of garlicky pasta to accompany every single meal, no matter the meal, is such an amazing, telling detail of a person. (Also, as I read, I completely aligned myself with your mother because I was imagining Matt busting into my kitchen fifteen minutes before dinner was ready to make his daily pasta.) I’m curious about your family’s background. You guys are Italian and Jewish? (But there was also mention of going to church in the book?)

Cara Nicoletti: My dad is Italian and my mom is Jewish, so we were raised with a blend of the two. My dad doesn’t have much family, no immediate, so we grew up surrounded by my mom’s family, which makes me feel closer to my Jewish heritage than any other. My parents took us to church every Sunday, though. I think it was important to my dad that we have some of the structure that he grew up with. We sang in the choir and got confirmed and pretended to be sheep in the nativity play but we were surrounded by Jews the rest of the time. Jews and Italians are really incredibly similar—both are loud and hungry and tough and warm—I mean, if we’re going to make sweeping generalizations here.

AM: I never read any of the Nancy Drew books, yet I’ve always thought of Nancy as a symbol for strong independent young women. Your description, however, left me with a much different impression. As you explain, Nancy is written to appear perfect in every way, which apparently includes a restrained appetite and also some body-shaming of her “slightly plump” friend, Bess. In this way, she reminds me of a Regina George-type. Why do you think “perfection” in a woman is so often tangled up in being thin? 

CN: I think on a really basic level it has to do with femininity being wrapped up in the ideas of fragility. From an evolutionary standpoint, women are supposed to be delicate so that they inspire feelings of protectiveness in their men, which will ensure that their babies survive. As archaic as this sounds, those pressures and expectations were still very much expected in the time the Nancy Drew books were popular. That kind of old-fashioned femininity is also wrapped up in the idea of restraint. Food is a bodily pleasure, just like sex. A woman who isn’t thin is too readily open to pleasure, and that’s not lady-like. These kinds of pressures are still very much present today—even for us women in the food industry, who obviously like to eat. Male chefs are allowed and even expected to be heavy, but female chefs are expected to somehow remain miraculously lithe despite making a living on cooking and eating.
All eyes on Queen Victoria?
AM: I also love the Charlotte’s Web chapter. It’s a simple reminder of that amazing thing fiction often does, which is tackle two opposing viewpoints with nuance (the practical farmer vs. Fern who has developed an emotional attachment to Wilbur). You also discuss E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig,” which, you write, “demonstrates that eating and loving animals are not mutually exclusive, or at the very least that it’s okay to be unsure about the answers to these enormous questions.” I totally agree! Why do you think the world is seemingly more comfortable with binary systems, e.g. this or that, for or against, male or female, gay or straight, democrat or republican, etc.?

CN: The world is a fucking mess of gray area and we’re all trying to navigate it and figure out where we fit into it. Binary systems give us a really easy way to exist and claim space and feel ordered and protected. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of gray space within those binaries, so basically 
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Maybe it’s because I live in the small weird bubble of New York City (more specifically, in the smaller and weirder bubble that is Brooklyn), but it feels like people are starting to push against those binaries in a big way. This election was a huge wake-up call that our two-party system is majorly flawed. It’s the first time I’ve been aware of there being such a wide spectrum of different kinds of republicans and different kinds of democrats—it always kind of felt, up until this point, that you were one thing or the other, but now not so much.

AM: We share two very important things in common. One, I’ve also publicly declared Pride and Prejudice to be my favorite book of all time and two, we both have food memoir-ish books that mention city chicken (which as we both know is actually pork, not chicken, on a stick). Here’s my question: which movie adaptation of P and P do you like better, the 6-hour BBC mini-series or the Keira Knightly one?

CN: If you counted every movie I have ever watched in my entire lifetime, that number probably wouldn’t come close to the number of times I have watched that BBC miniseries. I fell asleep to it almost every single night throughout high school and most of college. I played it so many times the DVD got melty and started skipping. The point is, there has never been a more perfect Elizabeth Bennet than Jennifer Ehle and probably there never will be. I went to see the Keira version in theaters when it came out and actually left the theater because I was so annoyed by it. Overtime I’ve come to accept it—it’s really beautifully shot and the music is great, but nothing will ever come close to the miniseries.

AM: In your chapter on Mrs. Dalloway, you write, “Woolf’s attitude toward food is Victorian, focusing on the grotesqueness of the flesh and the marrying of moral character with eating.” According to Google, the Victorian era lasted from 1837 to 1901 (when Queen Victoria died and her reign ended). And yet, this Victorian vibe, if you will, continues to persist! Example: The horrible YouTube comments you got on the Vice video where you mention your period. Periods = life, quite literally. Do you agree with my example or in general that this Victorian way of thinking is still hanging around?
CN: Oh man, the Victorian era still very much persists, in my opinion. We’ve obviously made massive strides, but there is still a very real fear of women’s bodies. With the overturning of the Affordable Care Act, pregnancy, or the possibility of pregnancy (aka having a vagina) will once again become a preexisting condition, which means it will be harder for women, including pregnant women, to get healthcare. But at the same time, they want to defund Planned Parenthood and make access to abortion more difficult. So basically, we have to have the babies but we can’t get the health insurance to have the babies. It’s a real head-scratcher!

Beyond that, the entire advertising industry is built around telling women that our bodies are gross and problematic, that we need to shave and pluck and douche and wax and never let anyone know that we bleed or poop. I work with men all day long and I make it my dang business to tell them all about my period. If it makes them uncomfortable I don’t care. It’s pretty uncomfortable to carry a cow in on my back when I’m cramping like hell, but I can still do it better than most of them.   

AM: Talking about a main character in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, you write, “Merry hates, detests America, but she actively consumes it in the most literal way through the foods she chooses to eat—cheeseburgers, processed-cheese sandwiches on white bread, milkshakes, BLTs, pizza, onion rings, root beer floats, and French fries.” Indeed, these foods feel intensely American. In your opinion, what does this say about America?

CN: America has such a weird food identity in that we don’t really have one. There are only a handful of foods that really feel like they are ours and not just a bastardized version of a dish from another place. I’m sure processed-cheese sandwiches and BLTs and cheeseburgers are, at their very root, bastardized from somewhere else, but they’ve morphed into something distinctly American. These foods are obviously all fattening and unhealthy, but what strikes me the most about them is that they’re fast. One of the reasons we’ve struggled to find a food identity in America is that we prize quickness and convenience over most other things when it comes to food. As a culture we don’t really like to gather and linger over our meals—we’re far too busy and important—so most of our foods are quick and dirty.

AM: This is simply a practical question. But you have a few recipes for donuts in the book. I never make these at home because I never know what to do with the used frying oil. You can’t pour it down the drain, right?

CN: I very rarely fry stuff at home because it makes the house smell so weird and also I don’t crave fried food very often (humble brag). You’re right, you can’t pour the oil down the drain—it’s bad for the earth and your pipes—which is another reason it’s a lot easier to buy donuts at the store. If you’ve reused the oil as many times as you can and it’s time to toss it, just pour it into a sealable container and throw it away. Obviously, make sure the oil is fully cooled before you put it in the container. You can also search for places to recycle your cooking oil using this website.

AM: How did you find the process of publishing a book?

CN: I wrote the book in about eight months, and the entire time I was working in a butcher shop full-time. I would wake up at 4:30 a.m., write until I had to work at nine, get home at six and write until after midnight, then I’d do it all again the next day. My apartment doesn’t have heat in the winter so I spent most of the time I was writing holed up in my office under 30 layers and wrapped in blankets with a space heater blowing directly in my face. It was a physically and mentally grueling time, but I look back on it with real fondness, which I never would have expected when I was in the thick of it. For someone who loves books as much as I do, getting to be a part of that process from start to finish was completely exhilarating. It was eye-opening, too. Publishing a book takes an insanely long time—much longer than I was anticipating—and a massive number of people to make it happen. It was exhausting and really really scary, but probably the thing I’m the most proud of in my life.

AM: What’s your reading and writing life like now? Read anything good lately? Any designs on writing another book?

CN: After the publication of Voracious, I took a giant step back from writing for other people. I stopped blogging completely, which is something I feel an almost-daily twinge of guilt about, but it felt like a chapter that had ended for me in a very real way. I still try to write every day, even if it’s just a quick notebook entry about my day, but I’m a lot choosier about what I put out into the public realm.

When I was blogging, it was always a pleasant surprise to me when people read my stuff—I really was just doing it for myself and my own sanity, and the fact that people were responding to it was just a bonus. When the book got published there came a point when I had to make myself stop reading the weekly emails from my publisher detailing how many books sold and how that translated into money, because I started getting obsessed, and it started feeling bad and stressful. Writing for myself and my own pleasure again feels really good and freeing. I’d love to write another book in the future, I think about it almost every day, but the exact shape of what it would be hasn’t come yet. I’ve been working on a screenplay for some months (I’m rolling my eyes at how gross that sounds), but I have a feeling it will stay in my notebook forever, and that’s totally okay. Right now I’m reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and it’s brilliant and excruciating so I’m also reading a Nora Roberts book called The Liar so that I can actually sleep at night.

***

Another thing Voracious inspired me to do was make these condensed-milk sandwiches. They come up in The English Patient, which (as I mentioned in my last post) I just read and loved. I knew they would be good, but they really surprised me by how good—they're like French toast but sandwich-ier. Here's a loose recipe to follow if you're interested.  

Condensed-Milk Sandwiches adapted from Michael Ondaatje
butter
regular white sandwich bread or thinly-sliced sourdough
sweetened condensed milk
salt

Butter the bread on at least one side or possibly both. Heat up a cast-iron griddle. Add a tablespoon of butter to the griddle. As soon as it starts to foam, add a piece of bread, butter-side down. Drizzle about two tablespoons of the condensed milk on top of the bread. Sprinkle with salt. Top with another piece of bread, butter-side up. Sprinkle with some more salt. Cook until the underneath is crisp and browned. Flip and cook until the other side is crisp and browned. Eat while it's hot.
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5/26/17

Video: Carrot and Avocado Salad with Tahini Dressing

Apart from Matt and the kids, my reading life is what saves me over and over again. I picked up The English Patient from our bookshelves a few weeks ago, initially pulled in 100% by the cover of Ralph Fiennes making out with Kristin Scott Thomas. It also helped that tucked inside the book I found a bookmark from a bookstore in Whistler, British Columbia called Bestsellers. According to this bookmark, the following are some of the things that you can be sure to find at Bestsellers: "Books, Walkmans, Discmans, Music (CDs & Tapes), Video." I've sadly never been to British Columbia, so Matt and I have decided that his mom or dad must've bought the book while there on a ski trip, sometime in 1996 or 1997.

I saw the movie a million years ago and didn't remember much about the plot. I remembered the Ralph Fiennes character had gotten badly burned, of course (but that pre-burn he had made out with Kristin Scott Thomas). I also remembered that something bad had happened to the Willem Dafoe character. It was Ondaatje's prose that pulled me in from the very first page. Here's a moment from early on that I'm still thinking about, "Coming out of what had happened to her during the war, she drew her own few rules to herself. She would not be ordered again or carry out duties for the greater good. She would care only for the burned patient." Gaaahhh. What a treasure of a book!

As for the kitchen and cooking, lately I've not been super inspired. But this salad is delicious and easy to make. And if you served it with with some basmati rice and a fried egg (and maybe some greek yogurt on the side), it would be a dinner worth telling people about.
Carrot and Avocado Salad with Tahini Dressing adapted from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories
1 heaping tablespoon tahini
2 tablespoons boiling water
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
kosher salt
1 lb (340 g) carrots, thinly sliced
3-4 radishes, sliced (optional)
1 ripe avocado, halved and pitted
2-3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds or Za’atar
2 scallions, roots and dark green tops trimmed off, white and light green parts thinly sliced
handful of roughly chopped fresh parsley (optional)

In a liquid measuring container or small bowl, stir together the tahini, boiling water, olive oil, honey, and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt. Put the carrots and radishes in a large bowl, add the dressing and toss to combine. Use a spoon to scoop the avocado from its skin and place the pieces over the carrots. Season the avocado with a bit of salt. Scatter the salad with the sesame seeds, scallions, and parsley (if using). Serve immediately.
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