Sunday, December 31, 2006

Blizzard Diary


Finally getting around to posting the thrilling narrative of my sojourn in Denver a couple of weeks ago.

12/20, 3:30 pm
There's no hope. I'm stranded in Denver. We had hopes, ah, such hopes of escape. I'd gotten myself booked on the one flight to Dulles that hadn't been cancelled. They loaded us on the plane, sat us down, turned on the fasten seatbelts sign. I felt so smug, knowing there had been over a hundred people waitlisted for this very flight, and here I was, stretching out my legs in the luxury of United's Economy Plus. I actually stood a chance of making it home before rush hour. Except the baggage cart got stuck in the snow, and they needed to bring snowplows around to get it unstuck, and the snowplows were themselves stuck on the other side of the airport. And then there was a heroic effort to push the plane back from the gate, to get it into the deicing area, and from there (once the foot of snow on the wings had been cleared) out to the runway. Such a heroic effort. Of course we were doomed.

They let us off the plane after four hours. I found myself in the smoking lounge of B Concourse, drinking beer and watching, with a rowdy gaggle of United employees, a 757 getting painfully wrestled back to its gate in the driving snow. All RIGHT, dude! Mush! Mush! Mush! the United people yelled.

One of them said, Hey, did you see them trying to get that 777 out? They were spinning all over the place. I was like, dude, give it up, no way. His colleagues fell all over themselves laughing.

That was my plane, I said. Of course that was even funnier. Actually it was. It’s hard to describe the kind of wacky refugee-party vibe here. Even though it’s highly possible we could be here for another two days, I’ve heard surprisingly few people freaking out. Which is good because we’re totally cut off. Even if there were space in nearby hotels, there would be no way to get to them because the roads are closed, taxis aren’t running, everything’s closed down.


8:00 pm
Most of the restaurants have closed, but the two bars that are still open are doing a booming business. I’ve had three beers, which is just about as much as is probably wise for me to drink. I Left the Mile High Grill just in time to snag one of the last two travel-toothbrush/mini-tube-of-Crest kits left on the whole B Concourse. (Later I found out the USO was handing them out for free -- somehow I missed that.) Brushed my teeth, slowly, gratefully. Everything’s going to be ok. With my teeth clean, the whole world seems a better, nicer, more bearable place.

I don’t know when I’ll get out of here. The plane I nearly flew out of here on and the truck that tried so hard to push it out to the taxiway are both now covered two feet deep, and the snow’s still falling fast. I’ve heard they may try to reopen the airport at noon tomorrow, though some travel agents are now saying they aren’t booking anything before Christmas Eve. Nothing to do but wait.


12/21, 1:45 am
Started out sleeping on the floor, hood of my fleece hoodie pulled up, using my lumpy Timbuk2 bag as a pillow. At some point somebody left me a little blue airplane pillow and threw a blanket over me; I discovered the pillow on top of my laptop case was something like comfortable. Except I really need some lumbar support. I could take off my hoodie and use that, but then I’d be cold, and I wouldn’t be able to use the hood to block out the light. I’m sitting up now, hoping I’ll get tired enough not to care about my back.

The snowplows cleared off a lot of the ramp area, and it looks like my plane has less snow on it than before. I may get out of here yet. But snow is still swirling down. I’ve never seen snow fall this thick for so long. Swirling, swirling, like thick smoke.

10:00 am
When I decided to get up this morning at about 4:30, the whole taxiway between the concourses had been cleared off. But now it’s all covered again. The word is no flights are coming in or out of the airport till noon tomorrow. Snow is still falling. Unbelievable. Some concessions are open – their employees are stranded here too. There’s a massage shop where I got some of the tension rubbed out of my shoulders and back yesterday afternoon; they were talking about going out to the terminal where the Red Cross cots are and seeing what good they could do.

I’ve heard there’s food to last for another day. Maybe by that time Peña Boulevard will be cleared off enough that some deliveries can be made. Maybe by that time we’ll all get to go home.

A flock of six or seven little brown birds just hopped by where I’m sitting.

What fascinates me about air travel is the feeling it gives me of stepping outside of normal life. Travel by other modes is a process and experience within itself. You look out the window of your car or train or riverboat and see the places in between where you started and where you’re heading. You might meet some of the people that live in those places, get into conversations with gas station attendants, with waitresses at Denny’s. Air travel is different. You’re in limbo. All you see is the inside of one airport, then the view above the clouds, then the inside of another airport. There’s a soothing alienness to it all. Brian Eno captured it perfectly in his Music for Airports; Eero Saarinen realized it architecturally in his TWA terminal at JFK International.

At this point, though, it’s a little much.

I think when I finally get to take a shower, shave, and sleep in my own bed, I’ll weep with happiness.

1:05 pm

I’m confirmed on a flight that leaves the afternoon of Christmas Day. But I’m going to get my skinny little ass waitlisted on every flight to Dulles between now and then. Spending another four days in this airport is unacceptable.

When I see you, I tell Diana, I’m going to squeeze you so tight.

And when you do, I’m going to go "erk" like a kitten.

I know. That’s why I’m going to do it.

There’s a gang of men with shovels digging out the trucks and equipment that were being used to try to push us away from the gate yesterday. It’s still snowing.

2:20 pm
The sun’s out.




4:25 pm
Ordinarily this airport has some pretty nice places to eat, as airports go – there’s a Wolfgang Puck Grill, a (somewhat) French (quasi) bistro, a couple of Tex-Mex options, bunches of decent little sandwich shops. But all those closed up earlier today. My dinner options were Mickey D’s, Domino’s, and KFC. So I went with the least karmatically damaging option and had a 6-pack of KFC crispy chicken strips. Salty, greasy, nasty little monosodium-glutamate-infused nuggets of the damned. My body is recoiling in horror at the vileness of what I’ve eaten. It’s going to take a lot of beer to kill the aftertaste.

12/22, 4:00 am
I started out sleeping upstairs, by the entrance to a kitschy animal art store, then (realizing the light up there was just too bright) moved down to where I slept night before last: Gate B36, on the floor, squeezed in between the back of the agent’s area and the window. I slept really well. When I woke up just now, I realized the twinkling lights I’d seen earlier were on the wingtips of planes being prepped at the next concourse. Wonderful to see.


11:50 am
This morning I waited in two long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long lines, and now I’m on standby for a 12:45 flight to Dulles, along with 149 other people. It's extraordinary to me that it's only 11:50 am. Feels like it should be mid-afternoon.


1:00 pm
No joy. The plane only had 14 vacancies. Whenever anybody's name got called for boarding, we all cheered. All of our standby tickets will roll over to the next flights, so there's still a chance I'll get out of here today.

4:30 pm
The crowd of us, frowsty, punchy, with our pillows and blankets and carry-on luggage, waiting to be called on the 3:35 flight. When one woman gets called, she turns to me, gives me a quick hug, and hands me her blanket, saying Give this to someone who needs it.

The next name they call is mine.

On board the plane, cheers, laughter, high-fives. I see the woman who gave me her blanket and I drop it in her lap. During the safety lecture, I close my eyes for a minute. When I open them, we've just taken off and we're already a few hundred feet above the white, white world, heading up into the bright quiet no-place above the clouds.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mongolian Lamb

It fascinates me how kitschy American approximations of international cuisines seem to take on lives of their own. Tex-Mex of course being a classic example, but no less the repertoire of dishes that have become staples of American Chinese restaurants. Sweet-and-sour pork, moo goo gai pan, General Tso's chicken, those weird red spareribs. Man, I love that stuff. Mongolian beef was always my favorite when I was growing up. Wikipedia says the dish was invented in San Francisco in the 1970s's by one Robert Hsi; of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with Mongolia.

It's a flavor that reaches way back into my history of eating, back to when I was about ten and my parents took me to the Ming Garden. At least, I think that's what it was called. It was new, I remember that, and it had moved into a space formerly occupied by Lester Maddox's Pickrick, a strange fast-food franchise owned by the noted segregationist former Governor of Georgia. It seems surreal now that the place ever existed. There was even a cartoon of himself on the sign, armed with his famous axe handle.

Anyway. Mongolian Lamb. Why not? I had this leftover Christmas-Eve lamb in my fridge (courtesy of Philippe and Mary Duke), and a wonderful new wok, and I was thinking about the extraordinary effect that flank steak cooked with ginger and garlic and green onions had on my young palate all those years ago. So...

Mise en place: Mince up about a half teaspoon each of fresh ginger and garlic. Measure out a quarter-cup each of soy sauce and water and about a third of a cup of dark brown sugar. Take your leftover lamb (maybe a pound or so? I had a hunk about the size of a healthy human heart) and cut it into bite-size pieces; toss them with about a quarter-cup of corn starch. Slice five or six nice fresh scallions lengthwise and cut them into inch-long lengths, including the green parts. Fry up a couple of handfuls of saifun (cellophane noodles) (but do it in small batches, they get out of control quickly) and set them aside on paper towels to drain.

In a saucepan, saute the ginger and garlic in a little oil. Add the soy sauce, water, and brown sugar. Simmer and reduce slightly.

While the sauce is reducing, fire up your wok. Add a generous amount of oil and rapidly stir-fry the lamb in batches, just till you've got some browning happening at the edges. Drain off most of the oil, return all the lamb to the wok, and add the sauce, stirring to coat the lamb bits. After a minute or so, add the scallions. Toss and cook for another minute or so. Serve steaming hot on top of the noodles.

Serves two. I would have taken pictures, but we were hungry.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas!

I almost missed it, thanks to being stranded for three days at the Denver airport. (More on that later.) But here I am. My first Christmas at home. It's been a good day.

Diana got me a shiny new wok from (where else?) the Wok Shop, along with all the equipment I'll ever need for using it -- bamboo and metal spoons and spatulas, a wire skimmer, big long cooking chopsticks, a steamer tray, a dumpling rack, and a bamboo cleaning brush. I'm WAY excited about this. I just got through seasoning the beast -- you scrub off the protective mineral oil, then stick the wok over high heat and add some vegetable oil, and roll the oil around in the pan until it's all burned on. It's just like seasoning a new cast iron pan, only more violent. What could be better? Then you fry the hell out of a bunch of onions to neutralize the metallic taste. My house smells GOOD.

Diana, my love, there's an endless progression of stir-fried foodstuffs in your future. And dumplings, and tempura things, and anything else that can be cooked in a wokish manner.

(At Ten Penh last spring, my foie gras came with a garnish that has haunted me ever since... bacon tempura...)

Switching channels: my mother's pecan pie was one of the dishes that, in my early childhood, formed my idea of what "good to eat" means. Here's the recipe. It's dead easy and impossible to improve on. All other pecan pies are inferior.

1 cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp flour
2 unbeaten eggs
½ eggshell milk (yep, that's what she said. I'm not arguing)
1 stick melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
1 cup pecans
Crust for a 9-inch pie

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine first nine ingredients and put in pie shell. Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce temperature to 325 degrees and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes. Serve with good vanilla ice cream, or without it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Grits

So there Philippe and I were at South of the Border, just inside South Carolina along I-95, hip-deep in possibly-offensive-if-it-weren't-so- ridiculous pseudo-Mexican kitsch, on our way back from an extravagant wedding gig with Elise on Kiawah Island.

"Where's the coffee shop?" I asked a cashier.

"You want coffee?"

"Um, yes, there's a huge sign on top of this building saying PEDRO'S COFFEE SHOP. We saw it from the highway. We're interested."

"Back of the hat shop."

And there, in the back of the hat shop, past the sombreros, Roman legionaire helmets, top hats, and skull-and-crossbones-adorned bicornes, was a counter, empty except for a stack of styrofoam cups and a lonely Bun-O-Matic, its filthy carafe half-full of a liquid that might once, hours before, have been coffee. Fifteen feet away the burning-wheat-field smell was hanging in the air. Pedro's Coffee Shop. You may imagine our crushing disappointment.

What the hell is it about coffee, anyway? Do people not understand that it should taste good? Can there be human beings that can't detect the difference between good fresh coffee, with its near-mystical powers to rectify the humors and make everything better in one's personal universe, and bitter foul horrible glop that's been carelessly left to stew over a burner for hours? I don't understand how it's possible for anybody not to care about this.

Anyway. Among the many adventures and misadventures of that weekend, we managed to score a whole lot of artisanally stone-ground yellow grits. They were party favors, lying in sacks on a big table at the reception. There were still piles of them left by the end of the shindig, so the bride's mother pushed them on us. I shoved as many sacks into my gig bag as would fit. I've still got eight pounds of them. Great is my happiness. Grits are goooooood stuff.


I know this English guy who was driving around in the South.

And he stopped for breakfast one morning somewhere in southeast Georgia. He saw "grits" on the menu.

He’d never heard of grits so he asked the waitress, "What are grits, anyway?"

She said, "Grits are fifty."

He said, "Yes, but what
are they?"

She said, "They’re extra."

He said, "Yes, I’ll have the grits, please."


(Laurie Anderson, "New Jersey Turnpike")

The grits I usually get (and which I regard as being the Very Best in the World) are from Nora Mill near Helen, Georgia (itself a slightly-more-upscale Tyrolean South of the Border). They're ground pretty coarsely, giving a nice rugged texture. What we got at the wedding are from the Old Mill of Guilford. They're much finer-textured than I'm used to. I could call them "polenta" and be free of regional stereotypes. Top them with morels sauteed with sage and caramelized onions (deglaze the pan with a shot of bourbon, boil and reduce it, and swirl in a little butter for a sauce). Or spread the grits out about a quarter-inch thick on a baking sheet, let them cool and set, slice into wedges, fry till golden, stand them up (leaning artfully against each other) in a puddle of tomato coulis, garnish with a spring of thyme and basil chiffonade.

Better, though, to treat them traditionally: serve them under shrimp sauteed with bacon, scallions, garlic, and red bell peppers; that's one of the greatest things in life. Best of all is to have them in a big bowl with butter and a heaping handful of grated sharp cheddar cheese and a squirt or ten of hot sauce, eaten on your front porch on an unseasonably warm morning in the fall, accompanied by coffee (good coffee) by the bucketful. Breakfast on that and the trembling earth will resound your tread.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Steak au Poivre

Friday nights for me are usually a luxurious time at home alone, and I generally end up either cooking something wonderful and dining in Lucullusesque splendor, or taking the risk-free opportunity to try something totally new. Diana and I had planned to go to Les Halles with Philippe and Mary Duke Saturday, so Friday I decided to whittle down my menu options by cooking something out of Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. This turned out to be steak au poivre. Pared down to one serving (and adapting my own steak-panfrying scheme), it ended up being something like this:

Heat your oven to 375 degrees. Use a chef's knife to crunch up 1 tbsp. black peppercorns. You don't want powder, so don't use a peppermill. Melt 2 tbsp. butter in a heavy skillet over medium/high heat. Pat your 8-oz strip steak with olive oil, season it with salt, and mush the peppercorns into it on both sides. When the butter is done foaming up, lay the steak in the pan. Let it go 5 minutes or so, moving it around every now and then. Flip it over and cook for another 4 minutes or so. Check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. If it's around 90 degrees (as it should be), take the steak out of the pan and stick it in the oven for a few minutes until the temperature comes to 120 degrees, then remove to a plate and let it rest for about 10 minutes, during which time the temperature should rise to about 130 degrees, perfectly medium-rare. While the steak is resting, deglaze the pan with an ounce of cognac, stirring to incorporate all the nice brown gunk in the bottom of the pan. Boil and reduce by half, then add two ounces of dark stock and a small spoonful of demi glace. Reduce that by half. When the sauce is a nice syrupy consistency (i.e. able to coat the back of a spoon), stir in tbsp. of butter and pour over your steak. Serve with fried potatoes.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Beginning

"So I'm thinking about starting a food blog."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I'll write about recipes, do reviews, stuff like that. Just a way to work on my chops a little. So to speak."

"I guess this means we're going to be going to more restaurants."

"I'm afraid so."

"Damn."