I haven’t written here in a while. Instead, I’ve been blogging at 30at100, which is supposed to be about eating healthy on a budget but is turning out to be a collection of texts on food and memory.
You might want to visit. Recent posts include a story of a child’s love for hot food, a grandmother’s (lost) ravioli recipe, and the first meal a young man cooks for the guests of a half-way house, I’d love the company.
I’ll be back here in a couple of weeks. Thanks for stopping by.
“It’s easy for you to eat healthy. You’ve got money,” Lina said. I don’t think she meant it as an accusation, though I heard that way. I don’t really make a lot of money, but I earn more than she does, so I didn’t say anything.
Like most people, Lina knows how to eat healthy. If I gave her a list of foodstuffs and asked them to check which items they thought were healthy foods and which were not, she’d probably check off fish, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and fruit. She wouldn’t tick cheeseburgers, pizza and cupcakes, which she eats more of than she knows is good for her.
The rules of healthy eating are quite simple, common sense really, and quite neatly articulated by Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Real food, that is. Something not processed or containing ingredients that are several syllables long. Something your great-grandmother would recognize as food, as Pollan says. (Yes, she probably never saw quinoa, unless she was from South America, but she would definitely say, yes, that’s food, if she saw it cooked into a pilaf.)
Lina knows what it means to eat healthy but says she doesn’t have the time or money or skills to do so. “Hello, there’s a reason they’re called convenience foods,” she tells me.
I started wondering, what if she was right? What if eating healthy is comparatively so much more expensive and time-consuming and skill-demanding that it makes sense for most people—in a very short-term way and without factoring in the costs of later lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease—to rely instead on fast-food restaurants and middle-aisle processed foods?
A few days ago I recorded my day’s meals on an online food tracker that gives detailed reports on a slew of nutrients for the foods you enter. I ate over 2 kilos of food, of which 60% was fruit and vegetables—broccoli, tomatoes, beet greens, green beans, a bell pepper, zucchini, radishes, an apple and an orange. The rest of the food came from fish, whole grains, eggs, yoghurt and olive oil. Despite this load of food, I didn’t make all the FDA’s nutritional guidelines. I fell short of the calcium threshold (71%) and the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin E (86%) and just about made it for potassium (103%). Vitamin D was abysmal (though this was expected, since apart from sunlight there aren’t all that many sources naturally occurring in the food we eat). Granted, I did record two or three times the RDA for some other nutrients. But I don’t always eat a kilo or so of produce in a day.
The tracker’s results made me wonder how feasible is it to make the government’s RDAs, even when one consumes the recommended servings of veggies. And if it is, how much does it cost?
Lina isn’t the only one to think that eating healthy takes a lot more money than eating unhealthy. This argument has been advanced by anti-poverty activists who have called on governments to subsidize fresh produce for low-income families.
Research has been carried out on whether this assumption holds true. A study by researchers at Washington University found that meeting federal guidelines for potassium alone would tack on an additional $380 to the average consumer’s annual food budget.
I’m a data hound by nature and occupation, so I thought it’d be interesting to actually measure whether I could cook good food (because there’s no point in cooking healthy if you’re not going to eat it) on a budget and meet the RDA’s for a month—including guidelines for the intake of sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol. And not lose or gain weight.
And that’s how 30@100 started, a blog project I’ve just started at 30at100. (In fact, this is the first post of the blog)
I’ll be recording what I cook and eat on an online food tracker and keeping a spreadsheet of the cost of everything. Each day I’ll post the day’s menu, the cost of the food, and nutrition results. More details on the project to follow in the next post on 30@100, along with Day 1’s menu and results. I only wish I were a better food photographer.
This is a project on eating well and healthy on a budget. Although there’s no single definition of what a “healthy” diet is, though much consensus on what it would generally look like, and it wouldn’t look so different from the heart-healthy DASH or traditional Mediterranean diets, which is more or less the way I eat anyway, and the menus will reflect that. So expect a lot of vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fish like sardines and mackerel, which also happen to be among the cheapest fish available. (That said, sausage will make a cameo appearance now and then). With regard to the RDAs, I’m taking the FDA’s nutrition guidelines as the gold standard, at least for the purposes of the project.
I’ll also be sharing recipes now and then, along with notes about issues of food shopping, food access and nutrition politics. They won’t always be my recipes. There are some fascinating and nicely written blogs on eating cheap and healthy, and I want to highlight these as well. I’m hoping there’ll be readers interested enough in the project to contribute ideas or recipes or even take on guest posts.
I’m eager to start. I wish us all an interesting month. Hope you’ll stop by.
Spaghetti with olive oil and garlic is one of those minimalist signature dishes of cucina povera that demonstrate how a few humble ingredients can be transformed into something heavenly. It is also one of those rare foods that can become a comfort food even for those who come to the dish only later in life, as most of its aficionados do.
Precisely because of its simplicity, fans of spaghetti aio oio, as it is known in its native Rome, divide themselves into camps defined on the basis of ingredients, technique and garnish, much in the way that lovers of the dry martini do. Do you mince or slice the garlic? How long do you sauté it for? If you slice the garlic, do you leave it in the sauce or remove it before serving? Do you chop a fresh chili or shakes flakes of dried pepperoncini? Does parsley make its appearance as a garnish?
These branches in the decision tree of aio oio are already enough to generate a dozen or so variations. The permutations diverge at their extremities, as species and dialects do, and wind up as new, distinct entities.
But the great divide is cheese. Traditionalists, who, like my Roman grandmother (and me), associate the dish with the fasts of Lent and Christmas Eve and for whom this spaghetti was a comfort food by upbringing and not adoption, would not dream of adding cheese.
My friend Aris’ spaghetti aio oio is one of the heartier versions of the dish, with flecks of chili peppers and copious slivers of garlic that are browned in a generous bath of exceptionally good extra-virgin olive oil. He passes around a bowl of parmigiano reggiano when serving, which I add so as not to offend him. I tend to think of aio oio as a sexy and brash young peasant woman, a Sophia Loren in Too Bad She’s Bad perhaps. But in Aris’ dish, she’s wearing high-heels and a borrowed Missoni sweater. She’s still irresistible, but for my taste a bit of a fetish.
My version, which I learned from my grandmother, is different. A few crushed cloves of garlic and husks of chili pepper are lightly sautéed in olive oil and then the garlic is removed before it browns. A couple of anchovies are then thrown into the pan to dissolve into a silken, pleasantly salty and buttery sauce (I recognize the fish as a departure from the classic recipe, but it is not an uncommon one). The dish is garnished with a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley. No cheese. My aio oio is also a forthright village woman, but a younger one, and she’s barefooted and dressed in a sheer cotton summer dress. Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze maybe.
Another choice has recently emerged to multiply the variations of the dish. This one, however, has nothing to do with the sauce. It is the pasta itself. Barilla or not?
No one I know makes their own spaghetti. Not even my grandmother did. Lasagna noodles and papardelle, and pasta for ravioli, yes, but not spaghetti. My grandmother resorted instead to dried pasta, as Aris and I do and as a great many restaurants in Italy do as well. Until recently, this meant Barilla for me, which is arguably the best pasta that I could find in an ordinary supermarket here.That is, until the president of the multinational firm told us we weren’t part of his company’s core values.
In an interview with La Zanzara on Radio24, Guido Barilla stated that for him and his company, the idea of family was a “sacred”, fundamental value. Except that Barilla’s idea of family did not extend beyond the conventional one of a heterosexual couple with children in which the mother played a central role. Gay parents should not be allowed to adopt children, he maintained. “We’d never do a gay ad,” he said, “because our family is a traditional one.” He went on to say that if his gay customers didn’t like it, they could go eat another pasta. “Uno non piò piacere sempre a tutti,” he proclaimed.
Some of his customers, including me, did just that. I walked the extra blocks to an Italian grocery store to pick up De Cecco.
Barilla’s offensive comments set off a wave of negative commentary in the press and social media. A picture of the familiar blue and red Barilla pasta with a window revealing tubes of “Bigotoni” circulated on Facebook, and #boicottabarilla started trending on Twitter. Competitors such as Buitoni, Bertolli and Farofalo reminded us of their commitment to inclusivity and circulated (in some cases, earlier) pro-equality ads; one from Bertolli depicts a pair of gay ziti dads and lesbian farfalle moms dancing with their kids down a wooden spoon into a bowl of tomato sauce.
In a statement of half-hearted apology Barilla issued soon after radio interview, the firm’s president said that the company places such emphasis on families because “they embrace everyone and have always been associated with our brand.” Indeed, over the years Barilla has consistently used the family—a universal “symbol of hospitality and affection”, in the president’s own words—as the core organizing concept of its promotion. Sadly, Guido Barilla’s idea of family remained one of intolerance and exclusion.
It didn’t include the countless families of same-sex parents or one-parent families or even the family that my grand-uncle Leonard made with his brother and his brother’s wife.
Barilla didn’t reveal whether the boycott and negative press had eaten at all into its 4-billion-euro annual turnover, but a month or so later, on November 4th, the company announced that it was undertaking an initiative to take an “active, global leadership position on diversity, inclusion and social responsibility.” The firm has appointed a Chief Diversity Officer and set up a Diversity and Inclusion Board, whose members include Paraolympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi and LGBT activist David Mixner. Barilla has also signaled its willingness to participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, a measure of large companies’ performance on policies and practices relevant to LGBT employees. Mixner claims that he is encouraged by signs of Barilla’s openness to change and “impressed with the willingness of the Chairman and company to listen and learn from LGBT community.”
Workplace equality would be a notable accomplishment, as would Barilla lending its corporate voice to the advancement of LGBT rights in Italy and beyond. But I’m waiting for the ads.
Images matter, especially the ones we see in movies and television. They help shape one’s perceptions and interpretation of the world, filling it with a cast of characters that serve as referents or indexical pointers to people one has never or only rarely seen, or if one has, made no great effort to understand.
Granted, the more numerous the cast and more finely drawn the characters, the richer our understanding, and advertising is too sketchy a visual language to expect much depth. But we can and should expect presence. LGBT families need to become a more visible part of this cast.
In the end, the very ordinariness of reality depicted in much “family-oriented” advertising may conceal its potential to be a powerful instrument of promoting inclusion. Depicting two gay dads or mothers sitting down with their kids for spaghetti Bolognese at the same kind of dining room table in the same kind of house we’ve seen hundreds of times on TV. Friday night’s spaghetti with a loving family. It’s a way of saying, hey, this is how it is. Ordinary, unremarkable, beautiful.
Like aio oio it just takes a few ingredients—one or two parents, a child or two, a kitchen table, and a simple meal—to serve up something memorable, and there is enough variety in these alone to give us a richer and more inclusive depiction of what family means. Dove c’è Barilla, c’è casa. It’s time the company made good on its slogan.
The title of the post is inspired by a film called “The White Line” (“Cuori senza frontiere”), which also happens to be one of Gina Lollobrigida’s first film appearances. The film deals with the divisions—of family, homes and friends—that emerge after the Allies decide that a village in the Trieste region is part Yugoslavian, part Italian.
I remember it was Sunday because of the rolls. My mother had sent my middle brother and me to the bakery to get a half-dozen poppy-seed rolls, and we only had those on Sunday. They went with the roast, which we would eat in the dining room. That, too, was something that happened only on Sunday.
Having a Sunday roast in the dining room was one of the rituals that my parents had acquired when we moved to the suburbs. Like seeding the lawn and tending the azaleas and hydrangeas in the back yard, it was still a novelty in this first year in our new house.
The dining room wasn’t much larger than the kitchen alcove where we ate the rest of our meals. It was paneled in a knotty, reddish pine and sported a brass-and-wood chandelier, both of which were out of keeping with the rest of the house, as if to emphasize the special purpose of the room. The table was new, of course, and vaguely Scandinavian in design; a thin plank of polished wood with spindly cone-shaped legs that tapered to the floor at an angle, it was a rather unsteady construction that wobbled if we banged our chairs against it.
A hutch stood between a pair of windows on one wall. The glass display cabinets held a collection of crystal tableware, most of which, like nuns in a cloistered convent, were brought out only on the rarest occasions. It was less for fear of breakage, I think, than want of utility. We had no reason to use the footed candy dish and nut bowls and cordial glasses that were destined for tables more elegant than ours.
The tableware was a gift from my great-uncle Leonard, who had collected the pieces during his marriage and then stored them in a wooden barrel after his wife’s death. He had the entire cask shipped to our house when we moved in. Leonard knew that my mother was largely responsible for our moving out to the suburbs and thus out of the life we had shared with him and my grandparents in their brownstone in the city. He never forgave her for that. Nor did he make great effort to conceal his disdain for her arrivisme. It was only later that I realized the irony in his gift and the quiet scorn he must have felt when he saw my mother once fill the crystal boat bowl with plastic fruit.
I didn’t think much about the crystal or the wobbly table or the pine. I loved the room and the meals we had in it. It was the sunniest room in the house, the only that didn’t lie in the shade of the oaks and elms, and I loved how the light would get caught in the grooves of the empty fruit bowl at the center of the table. The ritual of Sunday dinner appealed to me. My mother and father made an effort to be nice to each other, which sometimes worked and other times didn’t. It was like being in a puppet play, though we hadn’t completely learned our lines or understood our characters fully. We were playing how to be a family on our own in a house in the suburbs, far from Leonard and my grandparents and the city I still missed.
We were on our way back from the bakery, about to come out from the highway underpass, when we saw the pigeon. It was sitting trembling at the edge of the sidewalk and to our surprise didn’t fly away when we approached.
“Look, it’s shivering,” I said.
“Maybe it’s laying eggs,” my brother said.
“There’s no nest.” I said. “And if there was, it would be in a tree. No, it’s suffering, can’t you see? Why else would a bird be on the ground shivering?”
“So what, it’s sick. Who cares?” my brother said.
“But we can’t leave it like this,” I said. “It’s cruel.”
I couldn’t stop looking at the bird. Now and then it would stop shaking, but only for a few seconds, and then it would begin twitching again. I remembered how the fish we caught would thrash on the floor of my uncle’s boat. And for some reason which to this day remains unclear to me I said, “We have to put it out of its misery.”
Where had I heard this from? Put it out of its misery? It must have been TV. A horse breaks its leg and the cowboy shoots him. It breaks his heart to do so, but he loves his horse and knows it will suffer otherwise and there’s nothing that can be done for it anyway. And so he puts him down. Takes him out of his misery. The charitable thing to do. The Christian thing to do, I told myself.
I had never seen a bird dying, of course, or any other living creature for that matter. The ants and flies and mosquitoes my brother and I swatted or stomped were too small and died too quickly for me to see anything. The lightning bugs we’d catch in summer died, too. We’d wake up the following morning to find them dead in the glass jar we had put them in, despite the “air holes” my grandfather had punched in the lid. But like the death of my great-aunt Lydia, this was an event that occurred somewhere else in the dark of night, unobserved.
Children have no discourse of pain (or of pleasure either); it is raw, unexamined feeling. Only later in our lives do we articulate our pain and pleasure and connect it with memory and meaning. My idea of misery, of endless suffering, was at the time as abstract as my concept of love or mercy. I had had a tonsillectomy years earlier and could remember the scratchiness of my throat and the nausea from the anesthesia, but that was all I could remember of physical suffering.
By necessity I borrowed words and imagery. They came from the paintings of hell I had been shown in art class, images of sinners shrieking in pain, their arms extended toward the sky in a hopeless act of supplication, their flesh nipped by tongues of fire. But even at eleven I found this depiction of suffering unconvincing: I knew that when something burned it would eventually be consumed, like logs in a fireplace.
My idea of misery and a creature’s desire to be put out of it was thus quite limited, and colored by the convulsions of the brook trout and striper on my uncle’s boat. Suffering meant seizures, and trembling was a prelude to death. And since the bird was plainly shuddering. I was certain that it was dying.
Before I could say anything, my brother picked up a stone, a small one that fit in the palm of his hand, and moved a couple of yards away from the pigeon and threw the rock. It struck the ground a foot from the bird, bounced and brushed its tail. The bird twitched but didn’t move.
I grabbed a rock and threw it from a greater distance and missed.
My brother picked up another stone and threw it from closer in. He hit the bird, but it didn’t die, as I had hoped it might.
Now it was too late to leave. We had put the bird into even greater misery. We had become authors of its suffering and were now obliged to find a proper, just ending.
My brother, already bored with the stoning, started walking out of the underpass.
“No, we can’t leave now,” I shouted. “We’ve made it worse, don’t you see?”
I looked at the bird on the ground as it lay shivering amid stalks of pigweed and thistle and shards of broken glass. The underpass smelled like the toilets in the arcade on the boardwalk. I wanted to leave, too, but couldn’t.
I was crying as I picked up a rock, heavier than the one I first threw, and blurted out “I’m sorry,” as I turned my gaze away from the bird and hurled the stone. I missed.
Then we heard a man yell at us. “Hey, you! What are you doing?” He was out on the front lawn of the second house down from the bridge. “Shame on you! ” he shouted as started walking up to us. “Shame on you! You boys leave that poor bird alone.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. We were only trying… ” I cried. “We were only trying to put it out of its misery,” I felt dirty and defiled. Bad in a way that not even my parents would forgive.
We ran out of the underpass across the street and down the block. But then I remembered the bag of rolls I had left on the ground. I doubled back and grabbed the bag, but too far at the base. Three rolls spilled out of the top of the bag onto the ground. I gathered them quickly and stuffed them back into the bag, anxious to leave no mark of our presence here, and started running back home. Halfway down the block I stopped and turned around. The man had picked up the bird and was cradling it in his hands. He’ll take care of it, I thought, and nurse it back to health. Yes, that’s what he’ll do. He knows how. He knows.
An hour later my brother and I were sitting in the dining room to a dinner of roast pork—with all the trimmings, as my father liked to day, the mashed turnips and baked beans and sauerkraut he had grown up with. I didn’t eat much, though I forced myself to finish my roll.
I kept thinking about the old man. He knows about us now. What if he had recognized my brother and me, the new kids on the street, the family who moved into a house with a dining room that they were just learning how to use? What if he told? I would bring shame upon my family, a monster who showed everyone we didn’t belong here. Suddenly I longed to be back in the city, to the streets I knew and could walk on without stumbling on dying pigeons.
Within a few years we stopped eating in the dining room, much in the way that my father stopped pruning the hedges and my mother began neglecting the azaleas. We weren’t up to that much occasion, I suppose. My father eventually removed the table and turned the room into a den of sorts, outfitted with a television set and a pair of recliners. The hutch stayed, of course, with its collection of crystal that was never used and bottles of liqueurs that were never drunk, a reliquary of a faith long lapsed.
He didn’t look like a hero at the weigh in. Not the one I had imagined, anyway. I had expected him to be bigger. Perhaps he only looked smaller because he had stripped down to his rainbow hip briefs and was flanked by much larger and fully clothed men. We always look more vulnerable when naked.
He was ripped without bulk, his muscles tightly but sparingly wrapped on a 5’3” frame. As he stood on the scale, his arms raised and curled in the classic bodybuilder’s pose, I could see the outline of his sternum but also the thin fingers of his serratus anterior. This is not a muscle you see in ordinary men.
Indeed, he seemed to be made only of muscle, tendon and bone, and this made him seem even more vulnerable, as if there wouldn’t be enough padding to absorb the volley of punches he’d be receiving in the ring.
Though Orlando Cruz could easily kill me with his fists, I could see in him the short, scrawny kid who grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in San Juan. I see the little kid who, as Amrai Coen recounts in his wonderful portrayal of Cruz for Die Zeit, used to get picked on and beat up in grade school. The boy fought back and soon the fights became part of his school-day life. His mother took him to learn soccer and judo in the hopes of channeling his aggression but it wasn’t until she sent him to learn boxing that the fighting stopped. “If you want to fight in here,” the trainer said, “you can’t fight outside.” He was nine.
When I watched Cruz in the ring with Orlando Salido—to the extent that I could watch—I saw a man of prowess and strength engaged in combat with another man, a gay boxer laying claim to the title of a “manly sport” that was the expression par excellence of heterosexual virility. I saw a man who got hooted and called whore and faggot when he entered the sports arena (including this one, according to Coen) —but who nonetheless had donned a pair of rainbow trunks for this fight.
I was proud of him but troubled as well.
If he was a hero, he was a problematic one. A hero excels. But what if hurting and incapacitating others is the thing you’re really good at?
I want to admire Cruz and without reservations. But much as I want to, I can’t like boxing. I can’t even watch a fight without feeling a certain queasiness that’s perches just at the edge of disgust—with myself for watching and with a society that has allowed a massive business to grow out of a sport that, in the end, is a medium for delivering neurological damage. Dementia pugilistica.
As I watched him fight I tried focusing on the elements of sport. I could see Cruz’s strength, agility and endurance. I could sense the emotional control and intense concentration. (Raging bulls don’t usually win matches; their anger blurs the narrow focus on the here-and-now needed to identify and develop opportunities to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.) But in the end I saw two men inflicting pain on each other.
Yes, Cruz is doing something important. He’s playing on turf that has never been sought for by gay men before, not openly anyway. It is at the same time a stake on the mythos of heterosexual virility—and a subversive one. But I’m still uneasy.
“Now it’s my time,” Cruz said in an interview to Donald McRae in the Guardian before the fight. “People think I’m not strong enough. They doubt me. They wonder if a gay man can win a world title.”
I imagine that few who watched the fight doubted that some day a gay man would win a title. It doesn’t matter that Salido won the fight in a technical knockout in the 7th round. Just getting into the ring for a title fight as an openly gay man was victory enough. A gain for equality, though not, I think, one for our humanity.
Cruz is a difficult hero, but one I rooted for. His struggle to be an openly gay boxer is symbolic in a richly figurative way of the refusal of LGBT persons to be intimidated. Cruz’s visibility and willingness to speak out may carry this message of resistance beyond the ring. In the Guardian interview, Cruz spoke about the “doors of death” that homophobia opens. “’There is suicidal death – when a gay man cannot stand being unaccepted and takes his own life. And there is homophobic murder. In both I want to be a force for change.” I hope he will be.
Five days after the fight, I donned the only purple item of clothing I own—a pair of thistle-colored socks—and purpled my Twitter avatar and Facebook profile photo in observance of Spirit Day, an annual event to raise awareness of bullying and show support for LGBT youth who have been and continue to be harassed because of their sexual orientation. Most of the major sports leagues and teams found some way of participating. Major league baseball, the NFL and the NHL all went purple. The boxing world was silent as far as I could tell.
Spirit Day is about taking a stand against bullying. Its coincidence this year with Cruz’s fight made me wonder if standing up is enough. It made me think about fighting back.
I still wonder how my years in middle school would have been different if instead of looking down and turning away from Jamie Marsh that first time he called me a faggot I had smashed my fist into his face. There was no chance, of course, of my doing that. I had never been in a real fight before myself. I never punched anyone, though I remember vaguely being goaded by my third-grade schoolmates into throwing a punch at Tony d’Angelo when we got into an argument outside school.
Instead I fantasized about having a secret superhero power. I knew exactly what it would be: a force that I could just will into existence that I could then send into my tormentor’s body, causing him such excruciating pain in the gut that he would double over and fall crying to the ground. I would only need to use it once or maybe twice, I thought, enough so that he and his friends would know not to mess with me. That’s all I wanted. I wasn’t looking for acceptance. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to feel safe.
I didn’t think of fighting back. I didn’t know how.
I was too ashamed to ask my father for help. I felt as it were somehow my fault. It’s almost as if I believed what my tormentors were saying about me. I was afraid they had seen something that maybe my father would also see. Or maybe I was convinced my father wouldn’t be able to help. He taught me how to swim and paid for music lessons. But he never taught me to fight back.
Fighting back hadn’t helped Cruz, not at school anyway. But, still, I can’t help wondering how things might have turned out if I had.
Bullies don’t fight, of course. They harass their victims, physically abuse them sometimes, but they don’t fight, not in the sense that boxers do.
It’s the inverse, really, of boxing, where the fighters are more or less matched in weight, strength and experience and where there are rules about the punches you can throw and a referee that makes sure you follow them. There are limits on the time you can fight and specifications for the space you fight in.
But the bully picks the victim carefully, and it is almost always the weaker, smaller and less self-confident (and disturbingly often, younger as well). The ground of attack is unpredictable and selected for the perpetrator’s advantage. The bully chooses when and where he’ll set upon his victim. It is less a fight than an ambush. Where boxers fight one on one, a bully runs with his pack.
When I watch Cruz in the ring I sense for the briefest of moments that he’s fighting the battle I never fought in school. But his opponent is just another boxer, another man fighting his way out of poverty, exposing himself, like Cruz, to the gashes, cuts and ruptured blood vessels that it is the cost of this sport, when not its aim.
I realize now I didn’t need to fight. I just needed the confidence that I could fight, which would have given me the aura of someone who would fight, if needed. And then, I think, my bully would have chosen another, easier victim. If only I had learned to box.
It’s ironic. In a way I did learn to fight, a few years later after I finished 8th grade and left for a Catholic boys prep school where I joined the wrestling team. I know, wrestling isn’t fighting, not in the way that boxing is, but the element of combat is there, even if in a highly stylized, very structured way. I was never a good wrestler, But I won enough matches to make me think, I could have taken Jamie down.
The Eakins painting depicts a boxing match fought between Billy Smith and Tim Callahan, who, like Cruz and Salido, were featherweights. Curiously enough, Eakins chose to depict the loser of the match (Smith) as the victor.
My insurance agent called a few weeks ago. Thankfully we seldom need to talk. The only reason he usually calls is to remind me that a payment is due on one of the policies I’ve taken out with his company. A useful man in an emergency but not one whose company I seek. He’s one of those persons, like my physiotherapist and accountant and ENT doctor, whose names would have been absent from the address book I had a decade ago, their places taken up by guys like Mark (skinmusc) and Andrzej—Hoist!, whose company I very much did seek, if only for a brief period of time.
He told me he wanted to meet to talk about revising the coverage I have for the contents of the house. “You know, it’s been seven years since you took out the policy, and by now you’re probably underinsured.”
Underinsured. He said it with the gravity of a doctor who pronounces you anemic or hypertensive, and the certainty of a school-teacher reciting a corollary of physics: the quantity and value of one’s possessions increases in direct proportion to age.
I suppose as a pithy summary of a general trend it has some truth. I certainly have a lot more stuff than I had as a college student or when Matthew and I were first living together. But in the last seven years, how much could have changed? I invited him over the house anyway.
“Hasn’t the value of most of this stuff actually gone down in the last seven years?” I asked, after we finished the obligatory small talk about our summer vacations. We were sitting at my kitchen table, the same one we had sat at seven years ago. In fact, the flat looked pretty much as it did seven years ago. The refrigerator and dishwasher were new and I’d gotten a sofa bed to replace the couch Matthew had taken (fair enough, he took so little when he left), but otherwise, it looked the same to me.
“Well, your policy is for replacement value so depreciation isn’t a concern here. And it’s gotten more expensive to replace some of the bigger ticket items.” He leaned forward, retracted his smile and knitted his brows ever so slightly. “But the real concern here,” he said, in a way that implied that if it weren’t my concern, it certainly should become one, “is that you’ve acquired a lot more things in the meantime and you don’t even realize it. Most people don’t, you know.” It sounded ominous, this silent, unnoticed accretion of stuff in my flat, almost as bad as the mercury I’m bioaccumulating from the tuna I eat.
I tend to think of my flat as one of the major constants in my life. Things arrive and things depart Plants wither and die, new ones are bought at a garden fair. Old clothes are rounded up for a charity drive, new shirts and sweaters arrive at Christmas and sales. Objects break down. Stuff leaves in the occasional spring cleaning. But there seems to be some unseen adjustment mechanism that regulates my domestic milieu intérieur and keeps it in a state of homeostasis. The idea that my possessions were inexorably growing in number, like some indescribable, nothing-can-stop-it blob or the ineluctable mid-riff bulge, was certainly disturbing.
“It’s like bed mites,” he said, relaxing back in the chair. “Did you know that in ten years’ time the weight of your mattress doubles because of dust mites and dead skin?” Insurance agents are like that. Full of stories of the worst things that can happen to people.
I’m too persnickety to take the mite story at face value (in fact, it turns out not to be true) but I thought it was an apt metaphor for my music and books and DVDs. Because they accumulate in the way sloughed-off skin and dead mites do—ever so gradually, bit by bit, book by book, disc by disc—I never quite realized how many more of them I have now than before. It was only when I cleared off the jars of lentils, quinoa, wheat berries and pasta in the pantry to make room for books that I thought, ok, this has gotta stop.
“Ok, I’ve got more books and music. And the dishwasher is now high-end. But I’ve also gotten rid of stuff,” I said. I would’ve told him about my theory of domestic homeostasis but the guy was obviously more comfortable talking about things.
“Not much, I bet. Why don’t you just take a look at the inventory we have on file,” he said and pulled out a photocopied sheet of the things I’d included when the policy was drafted. “And just make changes where necessary.”
I looked at the list later on that evening. Some of the appliances had been replaced, but no new ones added. The value of clothing inched higher a wee bit, mostly because of cycling gear, and kitchenware likewise, thanks to the acquisition of a professional chef’s knife and some new pots. An iPod had been lost and an iPad added. Books and CDs were adjusted upwards.
In the end, not much had to be revised. The bottom line changed less than it would have if I had just used the annual rate of inflation for the last seven years. It was still a shock, though, to see the final figure. My boss has a little painting in the guests’ WC in his house that’s worth more than the entire insured contents of my flat, but it still seemed a lot of money to me.
I can remember the stuff that arrived more easily than the stuff that left, especially the things whose loss is simply accepted as a consequence of everyday life—glassware breaks and socks seem to get lost in the wash—or the even more peculiar things whose loss, like the enigmatic if extremely small (0.000056g) diminution of weight that has been detected in the official kilogram stored at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, goes unnoticed or unexplained. Occasionally I’ll remember an object, like the silly liqueur glasses we once had with a thick, flared yellow-plastic stem, and wonder, whatever happened to that?
This evening I rifle through my drawers of socks and gather up all the single ones. There are nine. I look around for sets of glassware decimated in years of use and collect these as well: a single brandy snifter, a pair of flutes, a couple of crystal sherry glasses. I move to the cutlery drawers and find unpaired cob holders and chopsticks and various other orphaned or disabled objects. I move from drawer to drawer and room to room, collecting the evidence of loss–the disc-less jacket of a recording of the Allegri Miserere, the wide-angle lens for a camera I no longer own. They are curiosities arrested on the brink of disappearance, appendages left behind in an imperfect act of de-materialization. I pack them in an old suitcase I was thinking of getting rid of.
Like the vanished substance of the prototype kilogram, they are all of trivial worth. Nothing needs to be adjusted in my insurance inventory. Not yet, anyway. Not until that point at which I’ll withdraw from the world my own 60 or so kilos and 21 grams in an act of disappearance as curious and inevitable as the loss of socks and the widowing of spoons.
This is largely taken from a text originally published as part of the Left of Nathan project under the same title, but it’s one of my favorites and I thought it was worth re-posting.
My friend Marianne is a good cook. She could be an even better one if she weren’t impatient. She’ll take the beans off the stove before they’re tongue-tender. She’ll deglaze the pan before the onions have cooked to a honey-brown softness. It’s not that she’s anxious about leaching the vitamins out of the food or overcooking the fish. She just gets bored. I see her standing over the stove stirring a risotto and I can almost hear her thinking, “Ok, I’ve certainly given you more attention than you deserve, so can’t we finish this so that I can get on to more interesting things?”
Her instincts about spices and herbs are right but she doesn’t always give them time to infuse the food. Odd, really, since she does the exact opposite with her lovers. She gives them too much time.
Her impatience doesn’t matter, though. She brings together interesting people and tells wonderful stories and manages to make everyone feel so special that no one notices that the lentils are crunchy. The conviviality and wit at her table is a seasoning of its own.
I know all this because I’m almost always the first to arrive and thus have the opportunity to watch her cook. I still haven’t accustomed myself entirely to the Mediterranean way of telling time. When someone says, “come around nine” I take them at their word and I’m there are 9:10. Everyone else starts straggling in three-quarters of an hour later.
I’m too polite to say anything, like “I think maybe the lentils need a little more time.” Or, “you’ll want to let the roux cook for a bit more to get rid of the raw taste of the flour.” Well, not exactly polite. Well-trained. I grew up in a house where the kitchen was a high-powered trading room where only one person made the deals. No comments allowed.
Once when I was home for a visit during my freshman year in college I volunteered to make the salad. I had become a vegetarian, one of the many enthusiasms I embraced now that I was on my own, along with Pynchon, installation art, and sex with guys. I had learned that salads weren’t necessarily iceberg lettuce, hothouse tomatoes and bottled dressing.
“Stephen is going to make us a salad tonight,” my mother announced. Not, “Stephen will make the salad tonight.” That would have meant that I was assuming for the evening the chore of salad-making, a taking of turns that suggested, if not that we were equals, at least that I had a part in a common endeavor. Instead, I was making them a salad. She made it sound childish, as if it were show-and-tell and I was presenting a table lamp I had made in shop.
I had gone to the farmer’s market and picked up lamb’s lettuce and frisé and rocket, and then to the deli for olives, goat cheese and the fixings for a vinaigrette. I wasn’t conscious of wanting to make a point but it was a kind of show-and-tell after all. I wanted to show them I was different from the Stephen they had known. I was a young man living on his own who made his own salads. If I had known better, I would have realized that I really wanted to tell them about the guy I had fallen in love with at school. But instead I volunteered to make a salad.
I knew, of course, that the next time she fixed my father a salad, it would be the standard iceberg salad with Seven-Seas bottled dressing, just as I knew that the next time I went home to visit she’d have picked up an assortment of salad greens and goat cheese. “Since you were coming, I thought, well, we ought to have the kind of salad you like eating now that you’re in college,” she’d say, as if one of the effects of going to college was to show your family they’re not good enough for you any more.
She made a big fuss over the salad, of course. “Oh, mustard in the dressing. And honey, too! Just like my ham glaze,” she exclaimed, with the unassailable insincerity of a talk-show host complimenting an author whose book she hasn’t read. “Who would have thought, honey in the dressing?”
I didn’t volunteer to cook again.
As I said, I don’t easily comment on someone else’s cooking. It’s easier to give friends advice on love and relationships, though I’m less qualified to do so. Besides, that’s what friends do: give well-intentioned but not always good advice.
Cooking is different. It’s like driving, a competency most people have or believe they have. Even people who say they can’t cook have a repertory of dishes that they believe they prepare well.
The irony is, most of us, me included, would probably benefit from advice. We tend to cook the same things most of the time and often in the same way. And even if we improvise, we tend to do so in the same way. It’s like relationships. We repeat the same patterns of behavior with the same kinds of people, and to more or less predictable results.
There are techniques in cooking that can be learned—and more easily than one does in matters of love—like how to reduce a sauce. You can pick up tips for, say, telling if a steak has been cooked medium rare by touching it (the feel of your middle finger pressed against your thumb, if you’re wondering). Why do we find it easier to counsel a friend in affairs of the heart than it is to show her how to make a roux?
My friend Nicolas and I have quarreled only three times during the years we’ve been friends. Once about a book, once when I was acting like an asshole, and once over how to cook an omelet.
We were having brunch at my house one Sunday. It was just the two of us, so he was in the kitchen with me as I cooked the eggs.
He watched me lift up the flap of egg that had set at the edge and tilt the pan. The uncooked liquid at the center ran down and slipped under the flap and onto the surface of the pan.
“What are you making?” he asked. “I thought you said we were having omelets.”
“We are. It’s a French omelet,” I said.
“But that’s not how the French make omelets,” he said, in a way that said “I’ve lived in Paris and I should know.”
“But it is.” I insisted. I had lived in France, too. It was a much shorter time, but long enough so that I could feel justified in claiming my version as authentic. “You have to keep the eggs moving around in the pan so that it all cooks quickly and evenly. I’m just getting the rest of the egg under the bedcovers.” I smiled, as if to say, let’s end this conversation, a punctuation mark of pique more than a gesture of mirth.
I swished my fork through the mixture at the center of the mixture to distribute the eggs more evenly.
“I know that, but you’re scrambling them,” he said. “And I think you’re doing it too slowly.”
“I’ll eat this one. You do yours,” I said.
“Now you’re annoyed,” he said. “I’m sure it’s delicious. Who cares if it’s French? It’s eggs and butter after all, what could be more heavenly?”
I slid the omelet onto a plate, wiped the pan and put it back on the burner.
“Your turn,” I said.
“This is silly,” he said. “But since you insist.” He cut a knob of butter into the pan and after the foam subsided, poured the beaten eggs in. He waited a few seconds and then started to stir the mixture. He kept stirring, furiously shaking the pan back and forth, until the eggs began to set. It took less than a minute. He turned out his omelet onto the plate, a papoose of the palest yellow.
We sat down to eat, each with an omelet on his plate, mine a large-curd, slightly wet golden crescent, his a soft creamy white oblong. It looked as if we presenting a crafts project we had done for Boy Scouts. I apologized.
I didn’t tell Nicolas that I looked up the recipe later. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to prove anything. It turned out both our omelets were French. Mine was the down-home country version, his, the urbane classic one. I even found a video on YouTube where Jacques Pepin does both in the same session. I can make Nicolas’ version now, though when I cook for myself I still do my rustic, origami-ish omelet. Old habits die hard.