A Tale of Two Cookies

 

I was sitting at a table in Paris, with two sets of cookies in front of me. The set on the right crossed international waters in a carry-on bag, sheathed in Styrofoam, wrapped in plastic, undeclared at customs,had I been conscious to declare them. Mango, Tiramisu, Coconut and Cinnamon roll. The set on the left came in a monogrammed plastic bag at the tail end of a genuine ordeal, my body in repair, brain still skipping like a thumped record. Rose, passion fruit, rhubarb-strawberry. The flavors, like the men who produced them, are varied and rich and a little wild and the question I was supposed to be asking myself is, “which cookies are superior?” A seed that was planted almost a month ago in a train station food court, in my hometown of Tacoma Washington, by a man who doesn’t fuck around when it comes to macarons.

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Roger Martinho was making one of his signature Liege dessert waffles that day, holed up behind his counter in the Freighthouse Square train station. There was a lull between the gouts of commuters and we were talking into it, over the sounds of construction noises outside.  

“You are going to France?” Roger pulled the emphasis up on ‘going’, accent chewy at the edges, run through with french like marbled chocolate. He comes down hard on the ‘L’s” even in words like ‘talk’, but he leaves so much style in it that you can’t help but wonder if he isn’t doing it on purpose.

“Yes.” I said to him.”I wanted to come by and see if you had any suggestions.”

Roger lifts the lid on his Belgian Waffle press. Flips the golden treat within.

Roger is the man to ask about France. He fought for France. Jumped out of airplanes into Kosovo by night. Roger has scars for France and pain for France and love for France, in volumes. While he drizzles chocolate over the waffle he was cooking, he tells me about the coffee shops that I have to visit and the kabob place I should try and then there’s a flash of mischief in his eyes and he says,

“Have you heard of Pierre Hermes?”

I have not.

“He is a famous Patissier in Paris.” Roger says. He steps away from the banana he’s cutting. Lays his heavy forearms on the glass case that fronts his counter, shimmering with multicolored macarons.

Says,

“I went to culinary school with him and he has shops all over the world now. In Paris and in Japan and New York.”

A train unloads into the station, foot traffic like an incursion and Roger falls back to his knife and banana.

A line forms behind me, ravaged by the commute, jonesing and in no mood for the antics of a chatty Cathy like myself. I step off center and Roger says,

“Take my cookies with you when you go. Try them in Pierre’s store. Tell me what you think.”

“Do you think yours are better?” I asked. The crowd had a current that swept me towards the door.

“I don’t know.” He said. You tell me. Hung in the silence that followed.

It may have been that distant fire in his eyes or maybe I’m just a sucker for a grail quest, but I left that station knowing that I wouldn’t be getting on a plane without those cookies in my bag. I went home that night on a mission.

 

The internet has a lot to say about Pierre Herme. So does the New York Times, andIMG_5087 the Guardian. Often, reading about Pierre Herme is like pulling a page out of a Kerouac. The wildness of character. The hyperbole.The legend they build up around him. 4th generation Alsatian baker, prowling through his many establishments like a shark through a school of guppies, sniffing for blood in the water. A dropped glass. An untucked shirt. A violation. He only wears black and people who write about him throw words like “magician” and “King” and “Emperor” around, and not without cause. Herme’s been credited with revivals and revolutions in dessert culture around the world. His macarons have been argued to be the absolute best, hands down, on the planet and the reasons for this are well stated. Only the freshest ingredients go into his pastries. The flavors he creates are produced with an attention to detail that errs on obsession. Strawberry macaroons effervescent with fresh basil and passionfruit absolutely crackling with tartness. He was awarded Best Pastry Chef of 2016 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy andChevalier de la Légion d’honneur” by Jacques Chirac in May 2007. His dessert restaurants and shops are regarded to be some of the finest on the planet and I in my feverish search to understand the man, I visited them from my laptop. I ate his food through the mouths of yelp users. I spoke to him on Youtube. I became engrossed.

 

The trip loomed closer.

 

When my paperbacks were bought, Netflix movies downloaded, sundries piled by the door, I made the trip down to Roger’s kiosk which was hanging in another mid-rush lull. The lulls have grown longer since the city of Tacoma took an axe to the station and lopped it in half. We’ve been assured that the renovations will be magnificent and invigorating, but for the time being, the streets are loud and the parking is scarce and the businesses of the food court are struggling.I bought 5 cookies from Roger that day. A mango, because he was proud of it. A coconut, because Herme didn’t have anything like that. A Cinnamon Roll, because it was unique. A tiramisu, because it was Roger’s favorite. And finally, a Rose Raspberry, because my wife loves them and if I stop at Roger’s without picking one up, my keys might not work in the door when I get home.

Standing there with the cookies in my hand, like the sword I was supposed to test on the dragon, I asked Roger what he thought of Pierre and his cookies.

 

IMG_1009I’ve spent a good deal of time at Roger’s counter. I’ve watched his confections plant the seeds of a smile on faces where they should not have grown. These cookies were the only thing that kept my wife on her feet at the end of a ten hour day and a 2 hour commute. This train station is the first place I take visitors from out of town, when I’m trying to sell them on the city I love.

 

So, when I learned about Herme, and how popular and revered he was, I couldn’t help but think that luck and hyperbole had a lot to do with it. Roger went to the same school Pierre did, at the same time. He took classes alongside him. Yes, they interned at different places, which can certainly affect the quality of training you get, but having been privy to Roger’s food, work ethic and technique, I certainly couldn’t find any holes in his abilities. So, their training was at least comparable, which made sense, because their philosophies echoed one another’s as well. Both men seem dedicated to producing an affordable product, without sacrificing quality. They’ve both said in interviews that reigning in the sweetness is important, and both men stand behind the ingredients they use like battlements on a beach head, ingredients, which, from what I could tell were very similar too. Yet, here Roger was at a train station, and Pierre was an international mogul.

Why?

My interview with Roger in May of 2016 shed some light on this for me. He had actually spent several years traveling through South America, working in fine dining establishments. He’d been the executive pastry chef for the Essential Baking Company in Seattle and at a posh restaurant called BA Bar on Capitol Hill, so his trajectory wasn’t all that different from Herme’s. Had he kept at it, he might very well have a chain of boutiques scattered across the planet, journalists slathering after him.   But Roger had decided to hit the brakes. He told me that he missed seeing his customers. Missed being on the ground floor. In 2015, Roger left BA Bar and started selling his macarons at farmers markets around the Puget Sound, talking to people face to face, looking for the right place to settle down, which is how he’d ended up in Tacoma.

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So when I asked him about Pierre, I think I was expecting rivalry. Fire. Maybe, disdain.

But Roger’s answer surprised me a little.

“The man is amazing.” He said. “The flavors he creates, the things he does… they’re great.”

He went on.

“To create a flavor, you have to go to the place. You have to find it with your eyes closed.” Roger went afar, searching for the words and the one’s he finally found, held onto me for weeks.

“A true professional tastes the food where it is, not just the flavor of it, but everything about it.” He motioned around him, like he was trying to draw the atmosphere into his nose. The essence of the people and the room. The noises and the feelings. ” You combine it all and recreate it. Pierre understands this.”

There was respect in Roger’s words. Reverence, even.

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Still, when I boarded my plane the next day with that sleeve of cookies in my bag, deep down, I wanted Roger’s to be better. In my dumb, young, American way, I wanted the underdog to come out swinging and win. I wanted humble, train station Roger Martinho to wipe the floor with Pierre Herme, “the Kitchen Emperor”. I wasn’t going to let that change the truth, but I was going to do everything in my power to make it a fair fight. When my plane landed I would make a quick trip from the airport to Herme’s shop in the 13th arrondissement. I would buy some cookies of comparable flavors and taste them side by side right there in the place, and do my best to keep my bias out of the equation, by knowing that it was back there. That was the plan.

 

Then, 6 hours into my 10 hour flight, everything went sideways. I lost vision in my right eye. My right arm went numb, then the left, alternating like cheap Christmas lights. I needed to know how much longer the flight was but my wiring started to short circuit. I scratched the words, ‘which longer?’ into a magazine cover and slid it to my wife and then the vomiting started and a little voice in my head whispered, you’re having a stroke, and I fell down a chasm in myself. I passed out. Time went by in snaps and flashes. People were talking to me, but I couldn’t answer. The plane was dark and full of people. The plane was light and empty. I was in a wheelchair. People were asking me questions in French. Airport clinic. Needles. Ambulance. Hospital. Needles. My wife was crying. Days seemed to go by. Weeks maybe.

Arduously,  I came back, like climbing a rope to the surface of myself. The half empty bag of saline may have had something to do with that. I was spinning and feral and disoriented and the vomiting and medication may have had something to do with that.

“How long was I out?” the only complete sentence I’d said since the plane.
Relief like the first bite into a cookie on my wife’s face.

“Few hours.” She said.

Impossible. “No,” I said. “Since the plane.”

“Few hours.” she said.

 

It wasn’t a stroke. We’re not sure exactly what happened but our best guess is a hemiplegic migraine. If you’re curious what the start of one looks like, watch the worst day of this poor lady’s career play out. They’re no fun, but they’re also not a stroke, which is cause for celebration.

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They released me, barefoot, into the hospital parking lot with a pocket full of amoxicillin and codeine packets and my wife and my parents and I stood in the afternoon light and waited for a cab and everything was different.

For days, I rested. My vision was still squirrely and my body was still weak, but I recovered on French cooking and when I finally made my way to Pierre Herme’s shop in the 13th, everything was still different. Sober is a good word for it. Grounded. Deflated. The epicness had drained from my cookie quest in the hours of peril and fear and uncertainty and I was left with a job to do.

 

IMG_4701I found Herme’s shop down a cobblestone alley, jammed with people like me, lost but not particularly upset about it. The inside of the place was tasteful and clean and decorated a bit like a jewelry shop. Rows of macarons sparkling under glass. I bought three cookies, which were slipped into a monogrammed bag by a teenage girl with a pair of tongs. One rose, because I was very familiar with that flavor of Roger’s, a passion fruit and chocolate, because I had a fruit and chocolate macaron to compare it to, and one rhubarb, passion fruit and strawberry because there was a line forming and I panicked. Pierre Herme wasn’t there. I carried the cookies back to the apartment we had rented because I had completely forgotten to bring Roger’s with me.

 

So, there I was, sitting at the breakfast table of an apartment in Paris. There were two sets of cookies in front of me and the question I was supposed to be asking myself is, “which cookies are superior?”

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But the first bite into Roger’s favorite macaron was a gut punch. It had gone stale. All of them had gone stale in the days I was recovering. I pushed them aside and I ate Pierre’s to the bleating tune of Mayday sirens on the streets of Paris in the pale light of a sunset against the pallid buildings outside.

They were excellent.

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The passion fruit sparkled, tart amidst bitter chocolate going off like a bomb at the back of my tongue, whooshing out my nose. The rose was subtle and aromatic. I’ve heard it said that Herme works with sugar the way most work with salt, just a touch as needed and I could taste it in every bite. The Rhubarb and strawberry was fresh and delightful and measured to perfection. I ate them all slowly and with reverence in this city across the world with it’s new smells and sounds and identity and the things that Roger said about flavor came back to me.

 

About understanding the depth of it, and what good chefs do with it. Suddenly, I felt naive for thinking that I could compare things this complex just because they had the same name and some of the same ingredients. Good cooking is about being so invested in the place and the moment, that you put the people who taste your food in that place and moment with you. These men are in such different places, having such different moments, that once you’re drawn into their confections, it’s like you’re eating entirely different things. Pierre’s flavors were perfect for Paris. Roger’s for Tacoma. Herme’s shop is the kind of place in which  you might find a Michelin star, but not anyone who knows your name. Roger might remember your birthday when you approach his counter, but he’s still in a train station food court. In their element though, these cookies are king. 

So, I sat there at that table, watching the sun fall against the jagged Parisian skyline, chewing fervently on the last bites of Parisian perfection and when that was done, I ate Roger’s stale cookies too, thinking that these two men had worked very hard to deliver me into an enjoyable moment, and that I might as well enjoy it.

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Written by:
Kellen Burden

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Herm%C3%A9

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/feb/25/macarons-pierre-herme

 

La Waffletz on Yelp:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/la-waffletz-and-macaron-station-tacoma-5

La Waffletz Website:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/la-waffletz-and-macaron-station-tacoma-5

Pierre Herme’s Site:

http://www.pierreherme.com/

 

Life in the Heart of Lincoln

I first stumbled into Lincoln District a few weeks ago, wandering Tacoma like a coyote, on the prowl for something new.There was some unforgivably smooth shit slithering through my speakers, painting the interior of my car in shades of sepia, hanging like smoke in the sunlight that was shining defiantly onto that quiet stretch of street. A rim of clouds lined the horizon in every direction around me like a violent purple iris of rain and sleet, but there in the pupil of Lincoln district, the sun was out and the jazz was smooth and I was into it. According to the radio host, KNKX connects me to Jazz, Blues and NPR news. It also connects me to the pleasure centers of my brain and to neighborhoods, apparently, because Lonnie Johnson started moaning into the microphone, picking at that guitar and the brick buildings reared up around me, spindly trees dancing in a winter wind and I coasted it into a lot on South 38th and S. Tacoma way because I was supposed to be right there, right then. I wandered into Zocalo Tortas and ordered at the counter. Planted myself in the seating area where the sound of the soccer game on the television was unfolding itself into an empty room. Roaring crowd and excited commentary humming between the windows and the glass case full of handmade Mexican pastries. Empty chairs and cleared tables.

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Coming down off my sunshine and blues euphoria, a feeling of apprehension rolled itself down my back like a cold fingertip. When my food came out I asked the waitress,

“Is it usually this quiet in here?”

Totally dead at lunchtime on a weekday? Not even one lovable old guy whose kids don’t visit tucked into a corner near the TV?

“Sometimes it’s quiet.” She said,” People are moving out.”  and she scooted my food towards me, pointed out the salsa bar, headed back to the kitchen.

I shrugged my shoulders. I bit into my sandwich.

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Time got away from me after that. I know that I made some noises, but I don’t remember how loud. There were flashes of meat and bread hurtling towards my face and the sound of gnashing teeth and then when I came to the sandwich was gone and I had more questions.


I cornered her by the register. Saw her recoil at the fresh-from-the-oven wild in my eyes.

“Why aren’t people lining up out the door for these sandwiches?”

And she smiled a sad and appreciative smile.

“People are moving out.”

I stood in that magical sandwich shop staring out the windows at the buildings full of character and history, shining in the sunlight against a frothy sky, wondering what could keep anyone out of a neighborhood like this one.

 

If you’re ever looking for a potent metaphor to describe a neighborhood in flux and you stumble across something more telling than the Rex Theater in Lincoln, email me about it. I’ll give a cookie or something.The Rex was built to replace a smaller theater in 1919 and was one of the first theaters to include a nursery near the lobby where parents could care for their children while still being able to see the screen. When it closed in 1958, it was passed off to a series of churches, who held their congregations in it. One website I visited said that it’s been a church ever since, which is bullshit because It was a porno theater for a while in the 80s. After a lot of guffawing it was changed back into a church again and according to google maps and the sign out front, it still is. Hard to tell exactly what’s going on from the street though. The phone number is disconnected and the windows are boarded up. Not unlike the Rex, Lincoln’s start as a definable neighborhood was exciting. It quickly established itself as an international district, hosting a handful of fantastic Vietnamese restaurants and an Asian specialty grocery store. Lincoln was a diverse progressive place to get good food. Gang violence began to become more prevalent in the 90s. In 1998, gunman burst into the Trang Dai Cafe and shot people indiscriminately. 5 dead, 5 wounded. The killing was carried out over a personal dispute with the owner. Lincoln began to feel less safe. People started moving out. In 2001, the city closed a bridge that connected mall traffic to the neighborhood for the better part of a year. It severed the femoral for local businesses that depended on that transitory business. More people moved out. The financial crisis of 2008 decimated much of what was left. The neighborhood was clearing.

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2 Days later found me back in Lincoln on my day off, wandering up the block to Zocalo with a book bag under my arm, singing a sandwich song I made up about tortas as one is wont to do on a blustery afternoon. I had parked on a different street than the day before, which meant a different route to Zocalo, which meant walking past a window full of BBQ’d ducks, which found me frozen in front of a window with a song about sandwiches stuck in my throat. Before I knew what I was doing I had hovered to the door and a gust of wind blew it open, blew it the fuck open and there I was, standing in the dimly lit place, saliva pooling in my open mouth. There was a loose gaggle of people in the corner. There were two elderly Chinese women at the bar. There was Sesame Street on the television in the corner. Everything had ground to a halt with my arrival, chopsticks hovering over bowls, food hanging from them. Everyone was staring at me. An atavistic voice in my head told me to shimmy back out the door, but that same voice saw those ducks hanging, crispy and caramelized, and thought, DUCK=GOOD and planted me on the spot. A chef sauntered out of the back with a cleaver like a steel book with a handle on it gripped in his muscular palm. The spell was broken and the eyes swiveled down and the eating recommenced.

I held a finger up, like, ‘table for one please’ and he pointed a finger at the bar and I sat there. Elmo was spelling the shit out of the word apple and the old lady at the bar beside me was still staring at me.

The chef with the cleaver said,

“What do you want?”

And I asked for a menu and he pointed at a chalkboard crawling with Chinese symbols. Help me Elmo. I thought, but he was juggling apples. The chef saw the panic in my eyes and he said,

“Do you want rice or soup.”

“Um, rice.”

“Do you want duck or pork?”

“Uuuummm…”

“Both?”

“Yes.”

And a grin splashed across his face and he walked over to his work station and that cleaver was singing on that cutting board, walloping through meat and bone while Elmo juggled apples.

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The meal that followed was bliss. I haven’t stopped talking about it for three weeks over and over again to absolutely anyone who will listen to me. Crispy duck skin, tender pork meat. Dollop of rice with a dressing. The kind of perfection that comes with hard learned lessons and time to practice.
“ How long have you been here?” I asked the chef with the cleaver.

“19 years.” He said.

I’m flossing with a duck bone. I said,

“How are things going?”

“Going to retire soon, I think.” He said.

“No!” I want this place in my life forever like a family pet.

“19 years is a long time.”

“Will you pass it on to your kids?” Hope sparkled in my eyes.

“My kids are American Kids. They’re doing their own things.” He said it with pride. No bitterness.

“One of the other restaurants on the street was saying that business is tough and that people are moving out.” I offer.

He nods sadly at the street.

“Yes.”

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On the walk back to my car I stopped on 38th street and turned in a full circle. From that spot I could see Vien Dong, a legendary Tacoma Vietnamese restaurant, Dragon’s Crawfish (a by-the-pound Cajun spot), a burger joint, a Chinese noodle house, my beloved Zocalo and the BBQ place I’d like to be buried in, Tho Toung BBQ. All on one block. Banners hanging from the street lights  snapping in a malignant wind, flashes of retro color against the pallid sky. They say, “reboot Lincoln” and “rejuvenate Lincoln” and “restore Lincoln” and they’re part of an 8 million dollar effort on the part of the city of Tacoma to tilt back the head of this neighborhood and breathe life into it. The artwork on the banners and some of the murals that have been added to the beautification process were conceived with the help of Lincoln high school students, who had set out into the community to restore it long before there was a city project involved. Kids who saw problems in a neighborhood they cared about and set out to fix them.

 

And sure, Lincoln has its problems.

Yes, there are empty buildings in Lincoln. It has potholes and homelessness and blight. But Lincoln has heart. It has character. Lincoln has strong willed people  who would rather fight for their living, then abandon their homes. People who came from other places and settled here and raised American kids and have American dreams.

Tacoma needs Lincoln. More than it needs high rise apartments and box chain stores. More than it needs a methanol plant. Tacoma needs Lincoln’s drive and its resilience and its history.

 

And right now, Lincoln needs us too.

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Written by:
Kellen Burden


SOURCES:

 

Tho Toung BBQ:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/tho-tuong-bbq-tacoma

El Zocalo Tortas Bakery:

https://www.yelp.com/biz/el-zocalo-tortas-and-bakery-tacoma

Lincoln Food Map:

https://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=Restaurants&start=0&l=g:-122.42978773598804,47.23120633223692,-122.45673857216968,47.21663367781346

Lincoln History:

http://experiencetacoma.com/lincoln/

http://www.tacomaweekly.com/news/article/lincoln-district-revitalization

http://www.pstos.org/instruments/wa/tacoma/rex.htm

http://blog.thenewstribune.com/tntdiner/2013/03/28/exploring-lincoln-how-did-all-those-vietnamese-restaurants-sprout-up-in-that-tacoma-neighborhood/

 

 

 

 

Nana Hums a Tune

     New Year’s Eve was a time of stock pots simmering on a stove in the Burden household. We’d shuffle out of our rooms in our pajamas and Nana would be pinging off of things in the kitchen, stirring and straining and seasoning and humming, always humming. A low vibrato warbling out between her lips  while the lids chattered on the pots and that honeysuckle southern california sunlight hung in the steam. On New Year’s Eve, the smells were foreign. Smokey and southern like the tune she was humming. They were traditional smells, that must have reminded her of her childhood, growing up in Michigan in an all black neighborhood. Smells that would have been climbing out of a lot of kitchen windows and hanging on a lot of people’s clothing when she was growing up, but were only New Year’s Eve smells to us.  Collard greens, black eyed peas and pig’s feet, simmering in their individual pots, full of their individual significance.

     My grandmother passed away a few years ago, but she’s found her way back to all of us in little flashes and snaps throughout the years. She wanders in and out of my father’s dreams and her photos hang bold and brassy on the walls of our family home. Nana in her rose colored glasses holding a glass of something boozy, staring defiantly into a camera, fresh off a shift working hard labor at a factory, flowers on her evening dress. This year, for me, she came for New Years. I was sitting at my kitchen table, wondering where my wife and I were going to be when the ball dropped, and what new traditions we’d invent here in Tacoma. The word traditions, turned over like a key in a lock and a door in me opened. On the other side of it there were chattering pots and foreign smells. On the other side of it there was humming. Sitting there at my new table, in my new home, far from Southern California and farther still from where all of my grandmother’s old traditions had been built, I realized how little I knew about them. I decided that that simply wouldn’t do.

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“The collards represent good luck in finances,” my dad’s voice through my cellphone. He was in his kitchen, pinging off of things. “Because the greens look like money.”  You boiled the greens, which wasn’t his favorite method of preparing them, (more of an olive oil and vermouth in a hot cast iron type of guy) but the tradition called for boiling, so he boiled. My great grandmother used to start hers on a low simmer first thing in the morning and they didn’t come off the stove until dinner time. What state they were in when she pulled them out of there, I can’t imagine.

“Next up,” He continued. “ the black eyed peas.” Water ran in the background and he moved away from it. “ I actually don’t know for sure what’s up with the black eyed peas. I know they symbolize good health, but I’m not sure why. I’m not a fan of them.” He said they tasted like sitting too close to a campfire, a metaphor that I found apt and well assembled.

He took a call and came back to me in a whoosh of kitchen noises.

“Sorry, telemarketer,” He said, “Okay, so, the pigs feet.” He enjoys the pigs feet. They’re boiled to work down the toughness of them, splashed with a handful of southern spices. Of all the dishes, pig’s feet always the most memorable for me. Poking out of the rolling water like pink icebergs, they were adventure food. Squeamish-look-away food. I loved them.

“What do they symbolize?” I asked.

“They- Ah shit.” He said. Clatter in the kitchen. “ I gotta go. I’ll call you back.” the line went slack.

 

     Standing there with a half-full bag of answers, I took to the internet like a true millenial douchebag, slamming hand over hand through a series of blog posts and wikipedia pages and came out the other side of it with this:

 

Collard Greens: Mostly represent good financial fortune. They look like money. Put a hundred on the Holiday traditions jeopardy board for dad.

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Black Eyed Peas: Many historians believe that these legumes (not peas) came over from Africa on slave ships, and their lucky reputation seems to date back to the Civil War. While General Sherman and his men were pushing through the south, they had taken up a ‘scorched earth’ campaign, which is to say they were burning whatever crops they didn’t eat as they passed through in an attempt to starve out Confederate fighters operating in the area. They did not, however, destroy the black eyed peas, because in the north, those crops are only eaten by cows. In the wake of the Northern Forces, Southerners survived on black eyed peas, which they considered to be a pretty lucky break. (some sites mention that people also thought black eyed peas looked like coins,which , I guess, makes them extra lucky.)

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Pig’s feet: According to several sites I checked, Pigs feet go back to the slavery days. One of the only times of the year that slaves weren’t working, was the one week between christmas and New Year’s. It was customary in some places for slave owners to give a gift to their slaves around that time, which usually consisted of food. The leavings of a butchered pig, (snouts, intestines, feet, etc.) were a common gift and during a cold southern winter, you learned to get by with what you had. This tradition of eating pork on the New Year is not unique to the southern and black community, though. Cultures all over the world see the pig as an inspiring example of perseverance and progress, and serve it around this time of year as a reminder of what to do. “The animal pushes forward, rooting itself in the ground before moving.”

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     When my dad called back, the kitchen was quieter. He’d found his rhythm and he was working in his space and all was well. He told me that he would be making the traditional Burden dishes on New Year’s Eve, and that he’d make sure to send me pictures for this post. I told him I’d be making my own variation, for good luck. Collard greens, black eyed peas and canadian bacon, mailed to us by my wife’s grandmother as a christmas treat. As I walked through the grocery store, picking the collards out of the case, lowering them down into my produce bag to be washed and boiled, an old tune wafted up out of that door I’d opened in myself and I hummed it while I worked.

     New Years is a time for pushing forward in our lives, while staying rooted to who we are. For going to new places and creating new traditions, but never forgetting about chattering pots, foreign smells and humming, always humming.

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Sources:

 

http://www.epicurious.com/archive/holidays/newyearsday/luckyfoods

 

http://www.blackisonline.com/2011/01/black-is-our-new-year-traditions/

 

http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/12/good-luck-food-new-year-pork-sauerkraut-lentil-herring-collards-hoppin-john.html

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherman’s_March_to_the_Sea

 

Top Popped and Guzzled

There was can in the gutter of the alley behind my house and I sympathized with it deeply. Sarah Mclachlan howling mournfully while weatherworn dogs drift across the screen in slow motion type of sympathy. I get you, boo. I feel you. You were empty and you were crumpled and it’s cold and it’s only getting colder and goddammit you’re still worth something to somebody if they would just pick you up and do something with you. It’s that time of the year, though.

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The sun’s on that off kilter rotation, throwing light only so briefly over the Pacific Northwest and it is a dark cold world into which we run full tilt, swinging. Last week, Krishan and I woke up in the dark, drove under cloudy skies to a rainy street and threw a nasty hip tackle on a guy with an inadequate number of teeth in front of headlights and horns honking. When we drove home, it was dark again.

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This last month my wife and I have boarded 6 different airplanes, up and back and up and back and up and back. Step forward, hold up your hands- this flight is %100 full so please stow your-the fasten seat belt sign has been illuminated-flight attendants please cross check for arrival- your shits on baggage carousel- 6-fucking-times. Streaking across a burnt grey sky with rain smeared across our little porthole window like teardrops and a fight that we snapped off cleanly at the car stuck in our throats like a cough.

The sink won’t drain. The car is falling apart. The world is unraveling.

And if you’re stretched out and heaving, you can always count on the army to drop a problem on your gut, as is evidenced by my old National Guard unit calling me a couple of weeks ago and telling me that they had royally fucked up my paperwork and accidentally extended my contract for 6 years. They needed me to make a 3 hour drive down to Portland on a work day so they could square everything away and keep me off their AWOL roster.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks is what I’m saying.

But even a crumpled can has had some lips mushed up against it. It’s top popped and guzzled from.  There were some highlights to all the holiday madness. You don’t turn a dude who’s carrying a bag of stolen vodka and candy into a human pinata, and not go get a killer bowl of soup afterwards.

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You don’t go cannon-balling into San Jose, California and refrain from smashing some Taiwanese Hot Pot into your damn face, even if you are jet lagged and bedraggled.

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Santa Barbara has some bomb-ass tacos

img_3751And Frank’s Noodle House in Portland is just a big bowl of hand made reparations.

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In the days following this season, with 2016 drawing to a close (burn you bitch, burn), I feel for you, crumpled can in my alley.

 That’s why I scooped you up, and I put you in my recycle bin, to be mooshed down and melted out and, from the pressure and fire, become a piece of something wonderful. A bicycle or a building facade, or maybe just a brand new can. I will feel for you then, too, in my little home office with my fingers poised at the keys, mooshed by the pressure of deadlines and born again in the fires of fresh hot food, rebuilding into something better. 

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Good For Business

Growing up in Monrovia California with two food conscious parents and a live-in-grandmother who cooked and ate like someone was going to try to take it from her, the local food scene was something that found its way into my life on a pretty regular basis. All the older people would go on scouting expeditions into the different boroughs of the city with a handful of rationed cash and hope in their hearts. They were suicide missions, though. Shots in the dark. At the time, nobody was covering holes in the wall and Yelp didn’t exist. If you wanted to find out which 4 star joint served the best foie gras, you could crack open a paper, but for the most part, if you wanted something life changing and you didn’t want to refinance your house, word of mouth or just gambling with your digestive tract was the only way to do it. Then In ‘86 a food writer for Weekly magazine (and later The Los Angeles Times) named Jonathan Gold started a column called ‘Counter Intelligence’. He featured places that were operating off the radar of anyone outside the neighborhood and forced the city and the food community to acknowledge the skill and heart of the people who ran them. My father and grandmother would open the Times every Sunday and flip straight to Gold’s column to see what restaurant they’d be saving up for that week.
So, when my dad found out I was hopping a plane to Southern California last weekend to see an old friend on leave from the air force, he broke out a copy of Jonathan Gold’s 101 places to eat in Los Angeles. He started highlighting. By the time I stepped off the curb at LAX, skin coated with a Northwest sweat, rosying in the desert sun, he had narrowed his list down to 12 places. By the time we’d freed ourselves up to make the drive back to the city on Sunday afternoon, we had it narrowed down to 3. We pointed the car east and as we drove, I made phone calls. The first place was closed until 5pm on Sundays, so we scratched it. The next was so busy the woman who answered the phone just screamed, “What!?” Into the receiver.

“Hello!” I said cheerfully. “I was just wondering what the wait is like?”

My voice was lost amidst an eruption of kitchen sounds like wartime radio chatter.

“Table for five!” She screamed, all consonants, and a slippery stream of mandarin followed it out, pointed in a different direction.

“What’s that?” I’ve got a finger in my ear.

“What do you want?” She hollered into the receiver like it was a gulf war radio and she was taking mortar fire.

“I was just wondering-”

“We’re too busy!” ” she said, and there was another clatter of pans, danger close.“If you want to come here, don’t come here!”

She hung up the phone.

And then there was one.


Sapps Coffee Shop sits comfortably in a strip mall, just north of little Armenia. The title of the place doesn’t really denote the savagery of its cuisine. Before I saw the picture that accompanied its write up on Gold’s list, I was thinking scones, maybe a mean slice of quiche.

No.


We tetris’d our car into the postage stamp lot and found ourselves in a mostly empty dining room. Little laminate tables scattered about, people tucked into corners, eating happily and quietly. My mom, dad and I folded ourselves into the room and ordered drinks and while we waited for them, my dad tapped at the table excitedly. He said,

“Your Nana and I used to take you and your sister out to places like this all the time. People would come in from all over the city to try some little hole in the wall, just because Jonathan Gold had given them the OK. It was awesome.”

My dad brings those trips up a lot.The food they served and the smiles on everyone’s faces and most vividly, the lines leading out the doors of places that, just weeks before were struggling just to keep the electricity on. Places that were fighting to survive, not for lack of effort or skill, but simply because there was no one to speak for them.

The drinks came out.


I had ordered an Oleang or Thai iced coffee and it was absolute rocket fuel. Ten minutes after my first couple sips and the word coffee buzz snapped sharply into focus because my whole body felt like it was set to vibrate. Couldn’t stop drinking it, though. It’s flavor was too deep and rich to put it down and sweetened condensed milk that was swirled into it was just the right amount of sweet to take the edge off the bitter of the beans. My parents opted for the Thai iced tea and the Jamaica juice, which were also fantastic.

We sipped our drinks and made ridiculous noises in the semi sunlight winking through the windows and mom said,

“I would have driven right past this place and never known they were in here making such amazing stuff.”

And she was absolutely right. From the curb, this place blends right into the neighborhood so seamlessly that it seems to disappear. We missed it on the first pass and we were looking for it. But there we were at the bottom of our glasses, wondering where this goodness has been all our lives, and that was just the beginning.
The food came out.


I can always tell when I’m having a memorable meal when I start to have irrational thoughts as I’m eating it. Whether I’m contemplating how many kidneys I’d trade for this experience, or swearing at a napkin for not being able to appreciate the sauce I was wiping onto it (true story), the crazier my thoughts go, the better the meal. A couple of bites into the jade noodles, I went full Charlie Sheen. Gary Busey on bath salts. The specifics of that interior monologue are too weird for even this blog, but the gist of it is, I loved it. The roast duck, barbecued pork and crab meat, which simply should not play well together, balanced one another out completely. The peanuts and noodles rounded out the chili oil spattered throughout it and every bite was total bliss. Under the circumstances, wired on Thai coffee, tripping balls on one of the best meals I’ve ever had, it wouldn’t have been too ridiculous for me to start seeing things. Which is why, when the door opened and he walked in, I was like, “nah.” I blinked a couple times, pinch on the wrist, another hit of coffee, but there he stood and I said,
“That’s Jonathan fuckin Gold.”
And it was. He waited to be seated and as he ate his lunch, the chef came out of the back and shook his hand. He took a photo with Gold and thanked him and thanked him, and slowly, the restaurant began to fill with people around him, as if his very presence was good for business.

To my parents: thank you for an incredible lunch and for being exemplary humans in a general sense of the word. 

To Jonathan Gold: thank you for what you’ve done for food writing and the food scene in general. Thank you also for being so kind to a highly caffeinated fanboy in the throes of a full blown nerd-out. 



Meet your heroes, kids. Meet them.

Sources:

http://ballots.latimes.com/lists/101-best-restaurants-jonathan-gold/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Gold

http://www.cityofgolddoc.com/

http://sapp.menutoeat.com/

 

Coastal Kitchen Casanova

“What time is it?”I check my watch and outside the car, the wind curls between the spaces in the buildings and surges down 17th, tussling with the trees.

“It’s 2:48.” I say. My dad puts his face in his hands and runs them down into the scruff on his chin like a penitent man washing his face in holy water. He has that blinky look in his eyes like a little kid, fresh out of bed on Christmas morning. Barely tethered. Hanging by a thread.

“Hmmmmm…” he groans. “ No.We’ll wait 5 more minutes.”

“ We could start walking now. Post up at the bar until 3 rolls around.”

“No, I’ll start ordering before happy hour.”

“Ordering what?” I say, but I’m just poking the bear now. Playing soccer with a beehive.

“Oysters!” he says and then the dancing has started and I have to ride it out before we can talk again. The car sloshes back and forth in the blustery wind, grooving with him and his personal version of cabbage patch. When the dance is over he says,

“What time is it now?”

“It’s 2:48.”

“Okay let’s go.”


Let’s talk about oysters.
As a food source, they’re incredibly well balanced. Pretty even split of proteins, carbohydrates and lipids, which all make for a happy belly. They’ve been on the menu for at least the last 2,000 years, when the Greeks started dredging them up out of the sea and punching them into their faces. They loved oysters so much that they began to cultivate them after finding that they would grow on the inside of broken pottery that was left submerged in coastal waters. You can attribute all the aphrodisiac references that accompany the pseudo-sexual looking mollusk to the Ancient Greeks as well. The very term “aphrodisiac” comes from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who emerged from the sea in an Oyster shell. And, in case you were wondering whether any of those ridiculous, “oysters will make your Peter Dinklage want to engage in a Game of Bones” rumors are true… They ARE! Scientists have found a rare amino acid present in oysters that makes your sex hormones go all squirrely. It’s rumored that Casanova (AKA: Italian R. Kelly) ate somewhere between 4 and 10 DOZEN oysters with breakfast everyday. If Casanova were alive today and living in Seattle, I know where I could find him on a Tuesday afternoon. You’d find him at the bottom of a glass bellied up to a dark wood bar on 15th street, watching my dad and I shoot back oysters like somebody bet us we couldn’t, thinking to himself “I wish I loved anything as much as those dudes love oysters.” Well, keep dreaming Casanova, you don’t.


The jazz through the speakers is that fast paced, jamming on the keys type of jazz, which is pretty fitting for the wind ripping at the trees outside and the feverish pace at which we are eating oysters. The waitress keeps coming to see how we’re doing and the prognosis is always, “out of breath and out of oysters.” What do you want from us though? They taste like the sea is giggling into your mouth. Each type has a slightly different flavor to it. This one’s buttery, and that one’s got a flash of garlic to it. Bit of melon, hint of sweetness. Beer comes, beer goes and we are happy. When it comes to oysters in Seattle, for me, its almost always Coastal Kitchen. Dark wood and light tiles, stiff cocktails and something akin to bossa nova usually on the speakers. Every time I walk into the place, I want to put on a fedora and commiserate over the last “dame” who walked into my office. When it comes to which day of the week to eat oysters at Coastal Kitchen, for me, its always Tuesday. After 3pm on Tuesdays, it’s one dollar an oyster, which in and of itself is enough to get anybodys Dinklage wiggling.


Between slurps of Oyster and beer my dad shakes his head, takes a breather.

He says,”while you and your wife were on vacation and I was house sitting for you, I walked here by myself.”

“Oh yeah?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says, and he’s setting up the next oyster, blast of lemon, drizzle of mignonette. “I ate 5 dozen oysters by myself, drank three martinis and staggered out the door. Barely made it home.”

“Holy shit.” I say.

“Yeah.” and he shoots the oyster back. “It was awesome”

http://coastalkitchenseattle.com/

Written by:


Kellen Burden

SOURCES:

http://www.foodwine.com/food/egg/egg0298/oysters.html

http://www.oysters.us/greeks.html

Oysters, a Simple Food with a Complicated History