Hand to Mouth

misadventures in eating

Archive for September 2006

You’ve just made or broken my morning here.

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As a rule and in the interest of saving myself from the crushing agony of being destitute, I have a 4 c. coffee maker that I set up every evening and flick on first thing in the morning — when I’m so disoriented and half dead it’s too much to even grab my hairbrush out of the cabinet without tugging down my entire shelf of makeup.  (Cool thing I learned about CoverGirl foundation?  Their bottles?  They bounce. Good job Next Top Model.)

But sometimes — like this week — when you’re out of coffee you crawl back to your best friend, your early morning lover, that face that smiles up at you even though you know you look like you just lost a fight with a mac truck and then it made you roll in farm detritus as payback for picking the fight to begin with.

Weeks like this, you go to your barista.

My barista is an age-indeterminate genius named Lem. He is kind of my hero in life, and not just because he wears the bitchinest rasta cap every day to work and sports a soul patch like a mofo, but also because when I collapse at the ugly greenish-grayish-some-indeterminate-colorish counter at the Daily Grind (which is not in Efland, NC, CoffeeGeek, God) and mumble “tall skinny tough guy with an extra shot” he always laughs and says, “Good morning, I knew it was you,” and makes my drink with a combination of perfectly foamed milk and awesomeness. Then, he pours a heart into my latte foam as he passes it over to me and says, “You have a good day.” It’s one of the most intense emotional exchanges of my day.

Lem and the Daily Grind’s generalized coolness has ruined me for more easily-found coffee sources: Starbucks, Caribou, that English Starbucks with a blue sign instead of a green sign that spreads throughout Covent Garden like a cancer. Their fancy-pants macchiatos and blindingly-sweet frappachinos mostly make me gag at this point — why even bother when I could be drinking a tough guy?

Tough Guy, also known as, the best drink you will ever put in your face, no, really, modified for home production and consumption because I cannot afford Illy espresso beans or you know an espresso machine.

Chai latte mix
Milk (skim, whole, rice, soy, whichever)
Espresso, or, a strong pot of coffee, made with your favorite bold beans

(1) Prepare the Chai tea, depending on what brand you’re using, it will either call for water or milk, go for milk in this case. I personally recommend you be a freak and mix skim milk (for creaminess), soy milk (for a nutty taste in the background that is utterly excellent), and rice (for a clean finish).
(2) If you have an espresso machine, this is where you want to pull a shot and introduce it to the chai; if you’re me, you’ll pull two. If you’re working with coffee, pour half a cup of coffee at the bottom of your mug and up-end your chai in — stir and enjoy.

It’s a very soft finish with a nice bite of caffeine, so you don’t get any of the harsh back-of-the-mouth sourness you would from drinking a pot of coffee. Once you go tough guy, you never go back.

Written by lshen

September 29, 2006 at 8:27 pm

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Anything with liberal references to the word “aspic” will do.

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For the reasons I find moulded deserts and food that keep their own shape even if you shake them vigorously cool (if inedible) I collect old cookbooks.

It started as a lark when my best friend passed me an ugly, library-hardcover book with an unspired scrolling script on the cover: The Spice Book. It’s more than five decades out of print by now and lists meat tenderizer as a spice; we’re not talking about cutting edge cuisine or sexy comfort food so much as post-WWII PTSD, still traumatized and eating potatoes out of a can. Most of the recipes listed along with the encyclopedic number of spices are pretty terrible (anything that involves a seafood and the word “loaf” is delightfully disgusting to me, so much so I have to pause and really admire it because once upon a time, somebody voluntarily ate this stuff) but the book has its own charms. It talks about Purslane and Marjoram and Mace, spices that nobody I know uses and the first and last of which I have never managed to find — not even in the overpriced aisles of the local specialty grocery store, which stocks natural sodas made by people who feel almost as guilty about being white as you do if you’re buying their peddled fizzwater.

In the years since that day, I’ve started accruing more shameful purchases, including but not limited to old Chinese cookbooks pilfered from my parents’ pantry that make almost disturbingly frequent references to animal runoff in one incarnation or another: lard, marrow, blood, lard.

It was this year though when I hit the jackpot and realized what I really love about the old cookbooks: the history intrinsic in them. I ended up buying a 1974 Chapel Hill Junior League Cookbook at a Friends of the Chapel Hill Library booksale and have been entertaining myself (and horrifying my friends and colleagues) endlessly with tales of braised wild rabit, broccoli and egg aspic, molded raspberries and my favorite, hunter’s stew, requiring the carcases of 10-12 doves. The food is strange, unsophisicated and dependent on such mortifying ingredients like crushed potato chips and Knox gelatin mix.

I know, I know — let he or she who has never used a can of condensed Campbell’s soup as a recipe base cast the first well-deserved stone, but even my laughing is laughter with appreciation. Even if the food seems strange and inedible to me, to you, to anybody under the age of 65, they were the language of dinner tables three decades ago, were the foods set in dishes and crocks and upon steamed white tableclothes. Some family probably gathered around the broccoli and egg aspic and breathed of its fragrant steam, ate Chicken Captain Kangaroo and completed the meal with a slice of still-quivery molded raspberries and felt fancy for it.

Food changes with the people who eat it, and if nothing else, the book should be applauded for only having one reference to “low calorie.”

It brings up the really horrifying thought, obviously, that in fifty years somebody will find a cookbook I use today, flip through its once-glossy pages and stare horrified at the chemical substitutes and shortcuts modern cooks take, the utter lack of respect for the purity of the ingredients — stare in blank realization as they find that a Chinese person owns a Chinese cookbook with margins filled with desperate notes about failure to produce edible facsimiles of the recipes.

“Oh my God,” he’ll say, “this poor soul. She must have been retarded or something.”

“She probably was,” his significant other of indeterminate gender will say. “I found this other book she owned? And read this story called Flowers for Algernon. It was intense.”

Written by lshen

September 29, 2006 at 5:15 am

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It was either that or an Alabama Slammer. Damn my dry campus.

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My drink of choice is a large skim chai latte with one or two shots of espresso in it — depending on how craptacular my day looks — known colloquially as a “tough guy.”  (I can always tell when turnover is high at the Daily Grind when I say “Large skim tough guy with an extra shot and light on the chai syrup” and only get a blank, deadened expression of panic on their faces.  I’m a helpful person by nature, that’s why I also add, “That’s going to be $4.10.”)  Pair it with a chocolate croissant, and you have something that is such a vicerally comfortable delight it’s hard to be pissed about anything.  Chai, in and of itself, is already wonderful for me, less harsh than coffee and wonderfully aromatic, and paired with the rich burn of esspresso and the cushion of faintly sweet, piping hot foamed milk?  Even if Lem The Best Barista In The World wasn’t pouring me a foam-white heart in the top of my tough guy every time I ordered it, I’d still love it with all my heart.

Last night my roommate wheeled her rolling deskchair into my room and we curled around the new laptop and watched Project Runway as she quilted (I’m not making this shit up) and I made incoherant noises and planned to spend 24 hours awake in Orange County.  We spent a lot of time batting around ideas for what I could do after 2 a.m. and why Jeffrey should lose Project Runway just because he’s a douchebag and why Vincent is mind-bogglingly creepy in every way.  We also discussed how if given half the chance we would thieve both Laura and Michael’s dresses and how I was going to cry because they’d taken away Project Runway’s only ray of light: Kaynebow.

So this morning, all misty and gray and surprisingly chilly for mid-September in the N.C., I went to Friendly’s Cafe — which, though it tries hard, did not have Lem The Best Barista Ever or make a heart in my latte foam — and got a tough guy and a chocolate croissant and came to work, closed my palms around the white paper cup, and breathed.

Written by lshen

September 15, 2006 at 11:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized