Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lit Crawl II: "How To Cook A Rack of Lamb" performed!

Rachel Resnick makes ocra sexy on Twitpic
Lit Crawl II reading at The Echo
Rachel Resnick makes okra sexy says PEN Center West on Twitpic

Just in from debuting The Art Of Boiling Water material at a helluva venue. Lit Crawl II, at The Echo in Silverlake. Honored to share stage with such talented writers. Lots more to say but gotta crash. Can't stop smiling at the thrill of sharing brand-spanking new writing, from a whole new phase of life, in front of such a groovy audience, with the support of such spectacular, generous and inspiring friends. What was I thinking wearing a yellow oven mitt for the reading? Just silly. And that, like taking three days in my first attempt to bake a potato, or various other culinary mistakes, is okay. Love that PEN USA/West posted this Twitpic with the caption about me making okra sexy. Ha! My culinary coming out party! More posts TK, once I recuperate -- just wanted to share this with you. I read a condensed version of How To Cook A Rack Of Lamb, the previous blog post. Thanks for all your warm words and support. It's thanks to you I had the cojones to read it. Buona notte!


Thursday, August 26, 2010

How You Cook A Rack Of Lamb: A Reverie and a Rant

This is how you cook a rack of lamb.
You park in the parking lot, descend the stairs from a level that's some color you've already forgotten, from the spot with some number you've already blanked, inhale the scent of fresh piss, experience annoyance with strangers brushing past you, feel the claustrophobia of concrete, the ugliness of overlarge structures, the swallowing anonymity.
Then you exit into the bright blare of the Santa Monica sun -- and already you are lost. Where is North? Where is West? Who are you? Reorient yourself. Seek signs announcing the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
Blot out any memory of the old man careening his killer car through the packed crowds that one fateful day, stop imagining the avid shoppers with their filled-to-bursting carts, their swinging bags, their eager foodie faces, the old man mowing these same people down, blood spattering the vegetable-strewn sidewalks, human bone cracking and the thud of flesh, the ebbing of life.
Do you dare enter the Farmers Market for the first time? Even though it is already 12:30pm and the market closes at 1? You walk, faster than your morbid mind can race, and you enter Xanadu.
Here are gleaming piles of Japanese tomatoes, there a cavalcade of avocados, yon a basketful of fuzzy peaches straining at their skins, promising you momentary gustatory oblivion. Everywhere riotous colors, scents, shapes.
A woman walks by dressed in a floppy-eared bunny suit. Maybe she works at a carrot stand. Maybe she is crazy. You enter the stream of people, dodge wire-wheeled baskets, the jutting elbows of single-minded shoppers, the ferocious foodies, unleashed, powering through their domain picking, tweaking, squeezing and weighing. It is mostly only the unserious ones, however, who drift by at this hour. The scavengers and the loafers. The bad planners, the unemployed and the lost. The amateurs.
Vestal Virgin in some apparent distress
Look, the vendors are already shuttering their stalls, packing away vegetables, wiping, sweeping. Caught up in the final throes of the market, you buy a sack of okra on impulse, and whammo, you are back in Sylacauga, Alabama, a confused fish-outta-water teen, eating a heat-wilted plate of fried okra, fried pork chop, fried green tomatoes in some Southern woman’s home, and knocking back tea so sweet it makes your teeth scream, while the older woman with Coke bottle glasses and Confederate lineage tells you why virginity is sacred. And you swallow that okra, don’t tell her about the scrawny truck driver you made out with last night on the red dirt road choked with kudzu because you couldn’t help yourself.
Back to the market. Study the piles of avocados. Pick them up. Squeeze. Look like you know what you're doing. (Are you supposed to squeeze avocados?) Ask the Avocado Man, what kind is this. How does it taste? Why do you live alone and what do you yearn for? Do you like selling avocados. What do you regret and is it too late? Buy two avocados and re-enter the market.
Turn a corner, where it is quieter, and smell before you see a stand that reeks of fresh blood, of butchery, of animals rendered into meat, chops, shoulders, loins, gizzard, tongue. Stand there, read about the Goat Special.
Photo by Shaun Higson
Remember the decapitated cow head squatting on a stump on the narrow streets of Palermo, in Sicily, where you traveled once upon a boat, with a man you thought would be your lover, but instead, he refused to touch you even when you lay in the same bed tucked with cool white sheets, the vendors shouting over bullhorns at the crack of dawn, and in the daytime you wandered the streets together, seeking doors on which he would paint ancient prophets for an art show to take place on a hillside back in Rome. This is when you, frustrated and sullen, passed by the head of a decapitated cow. A still-bleeding head, whose eyes followed you as you walked. You never did erase his gaze, the surprise of it and the fear. How the blood trickled, and lapped over the stump like red lace.
Wrench yourself back to the meat stand. Talk with the tattooed girl, her arms sleeved with Japanese tattoos, her belly bare, her hair bound back with a red kerchief. What’s your name? Michelle. Why do you work on a farm? What are you running from? Listen as she tells you and one other customer there are only two racks of lamb left, only two, would you like one? The woman next to you dressed in spandex workout clothes purchases one, and your adrenaline surges. Only one rack of lamb left, only one, would you like it? Our animals are grassfed, they roam free, they are happy. This lamb was only slaughtered this past Monday. What do you think? Do you have the balls to face a freshly slaughtered lamb? Could you do it justice? Do you dare? Funny, your name Resnick means butcher in Hebrew. How could you forget?
Yes. Give it to me. $23. Okay. And you take the rack of lamb, wrapped in choking white plastic, stuff it into your canvas tote bag and glide as if in a dream back to the parking structure, the whole time hyper-aware of this meat you hold, swaddled there in plastic. How could you refuse when Chef Maili taught you all how to cook rack of lamb? Never once do you allow the rhyme enter your head. You push it out of your mind the way the foodie shoppers pushed and elbowed you away from the last remaining peaches or the plump figs or the special on zucchini flowers so delicate their petals drooped if you stared too intently. Somehow you locate your battered red truck, return home with your bloody booty.
Home, where you place the rack of lamb in its white plastic bag into a drawer in the the refrigerator and ignore it. Try. Yet you know you know the lamb was running around, happy, grassfed, only this past Monday and today is Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday.
On Friday you run into someone who says, you have to decide. If you don't cook the lamb tomorrow, you've got to freeze it. And somehow, the thought of freezing this lamb, so recently stripped of its curly white fleece, its pumping blood, stripped to its fleshly glory, isn't right. You must cook the lamb. You must eat it. You must honor it. So you decide, tomorrow. Saturday. That is the day.
Saturday you will somehow make a rack of lamb, even though you have never brought a piece of meat into the house that you can remember, except for an occasional In 'n' Out burger -- but never a raw piece of meat, smelling of drained blood and fat and flesh and butchery, of slaughter.
At night, your mind crowds, unbidden, with images of sunlit grassy farms, animals romping, the sun shining off their coats, their warm animal hair, the sun crowning them as they frolic. The rhyme repeats like ticker tape. Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb…Stevie Ray Vaughan's Mary Had A Little Lamb
Saturday comes. You remove the lamb from its white plastic bag, set the vacuum packed rack on a meat cutting board. Study it. Even behind the plastic wrap, it seems to pulse with freshness. Juices. Nothing like other cuts of meat you've seen in grocery stores.
Meat you would sneak peeks at, glancing then turning away, remembering a former student who used to manufacture meat diapers, whose technology is the same as Depends, only in this case the material soaks up blood.
Camille Claudel, sculpting
After many minutes, you cut away the plastic and there it is -- the shining lamb. The rack. Thick with fine fat, no bones visible. You think of Rodin. You think of Camille Claudel. This is your stone. You must cut it away and reveal the perfection that is this animal. Honor it. But how?
So you set up your laptop, search frantically for videos demonstrating how to trim and French cut a rack of lamb. You watch, you watch again. How to French a Rack of Lamb This chef doesn't seen the least bit concerned. Why was it you didn't want to become a surgeon? Now you remember. Yet you unsheath your knife, and you cut.
"Beheading of St. John" Caravaggio
As you cut, holding the meat tenderly, feeling its fat and flesh, the underneath of ribs, you hear again the mournful sound of a shofar, and you tug at your father’s coat there on the crowded streets of New York. You sit again with your mother in the pews of an ancient church in Italy with stained glass windows, wanting her to hold your hand, draw you close, but she is transfixed by a Caravaggio gleaming from the candlelit shadow. Now you can summon the rhyme, having dropped red blood on the yellow oven mitt, having felt the lamb’s ribs separate in your worshipful fingers, under your blade, at your touch, so gentle...if this isn't revery, if that's not God...
And you carve slowly, carefully, for what seems like hours, until – though not scraped perfectly clean, there it is, a rack of lamb.
Somehow it feels the lamb’s life was a happy one, the death not unmerciful. Maybe you are tripping. But joy emanates from the flesh and the rack released, gleaming there on the counter. Forget any fancy crust. Let this meat be. Simple olive oil, salt and pepper. A quick searing on the stovetop, then rest it gently on foil on a broiler pan in the oven, with your new meat thermometer which you can't figure out how to use, never mind. You are in tune now, you and the lamb.
"Saturn Devouring His Son" Goya
The sacrificial lamb. Forever youthful. You remember when you thought of writing a book about your father, the cover was a painting by Goya of Saturn eating his son. Because sometimes parents live in the Biblical, a time when children were the enemy and must be sacrificed. You know this is the fierce land your father lives in, yet in this sacrifice, something's gained, not lost. The smoke winding upward from the lamb, the unexpected perfection of the meat, the simple beauty of the chops. Your friend who dines with you calls them lamb lollipops and sucks in ecstasy, the meat tearing like butter from the bone, that look on her face of sublime satisfaction, is momentary and memorable both, and you give thanks, silently, the taste of the lamb pungent on your tongue and in you, and you move into a state of savory grace.
Now you wonder where the child is who swam with scallops in Buzzards Bay, marveling at their blue eyes that winked all along the crinkled folds of their shell, how they seemed to moved through the silent water by breathing. The lobsters lurking on barnacled rocks you refused to eat, the bluefish you caught, then gave away or threw back in. Some tribes say if you eat the brain of your enemy you will gain their intelligence and their spirit. You sit there with your belly full, your heart radiant with flavor. What is it you’re still wanting.
From Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts, Hungry Ghosts devouring corpses in graveyard
 All of you with your impossible appetites. I’m talking to you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fried Okra & Auntie Colleen's Cornbread Save the Day!

Fried okra w/Aunt Colleen's cornbread -- Porkchop M.I.A.:  Dinner of Champions!
Tonight I burnt a pork chop something fierce. Charred it on the outside, left it raw on the inside, burnt the pan. Filled the place with toxic smoke and heat on a day when the temperature hit 110 degrees in the shade, even here in this usually breezy canyon location. Had to reschedule a phone session with a client, the gifted and soulful poet Amelia Ponomarova, who said kindly,
"It takes guts to burn things," then,
Bonnie Parker standing in front of a Ford Model 18
"Bonnie would've burnt the pork chop."
Bonnie & Clyde
How insightful, and intriguing. She'd read my post from yesterday about how I felt more kinship with Bonnie Parker than Betty Crocker. Which got me thinking -- wait a second -- didn't I write a bit about Bonnie burning a pork chop from her point of view? Years ago? In the aborted retelling of Bonnie & Clyde with the ex? The book that never was? How strange would that be. How utterly bizarre. Hadn't there been a fever dream prologue before the short first chapter featuring Bonnie and her first husband, Roy? What if I spliced that in as I shared about my attempt at a Southern-fried meal.
Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves) and Janet Fitch at the Love Junkie launch party, 2009
The other day at a literary "s'lon" (more on that in another post) I ran into Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black, writer extraordinaire and one of the most down-to-earth, generous, spirited women I know. When she told me she was reading the blog, I swooned.
Janet Fitch at recent lit s'lon, devouring last bit of finger-lickin' good blood orange-avocado vinaigrette!
"You should have a camera for when you're cooking, capture your face when you're dropping things or staring at foods that confound you, hacking up vegetables like a madwoman, you know, strap it to your belt or something."
Janet Fitch blissed out w/her new man
Then, when I told her I'd actually made a rack of lamb this past Saturday (post TK!), she said that was cool not to shy away from meat. So many people these days recoil from even the mere mention. She gave me encouragement to pursue the pork tonight. Her new man suggested I think about alternating the old love junkie self writing with this newborn cooking adventuress for a wild upcoming reading (LitCrawl II this Saturday night at the Echo in Silverlake -- come!). I thought about a quote from White Oleander:  "You've got to let go of who you were, to become who you will be." Thanks to his provocative suggestion, in this post I'm going to experiment by weaving in the prologue I wrote for Bonnie which was inspired by my then crazy relationship, teenage impressions of Alabama, and a slew of research and dreaming about Bonnie, who'd been a poet as well as a gun moll. Here goes.
I am dreaming, Mama, I am climbing a steep hill. Barefoot. Somewhere I lost my shoes, the ones with the silver snaps. Cain’t find the blueberries. The grass done turned to razor the higher up I go, cuts my feet to flesh ribbons. Tracking warm, slippery blood, I keep on. Hungry. Don’t even pay no mind to the sun’s blazing. Furnace air fisting my lungs.
"King of the Moon" Robin Williams in Terry Gilliam's "Baron von Munchausen"
I am writing this as a full moon blazes down, bathing my skin in silver light. There's nowhere to hide. Tonight was a culinary failure, at least a partial one. A necessary stage in the cooking odyssey, maybe. Still painful -- even though I laughed, too, as I wiped soot from my jeans and char from my lips.
I can see blueberries, fat and ripe, sweet-busting out their blue skins, but I cain’t find them. After hours and days, I get to the top and see a junked, rusted-out Ford coupe under a tree. My feet hurt, I am wearing a new red rayon dress that sweat-sticks to my body like a skin, so I climb in the car and sink down heavy into sleep.
Inflatable Okra Man from Imro Okra Festival
This story starts with okra. When I hit the tail-end of my first Santa Monica Farmers Market last week, I saw a pile of okra and bought it on impulse. Because I am currently single, because I have no one to answer to, no partner, no children, I can follow my impulses in this cooking odyssey. Trace a path motivated by taste, and desire, and whim. Inspired by dinner guests, occasions, or by memory.
When a low growl wakes me there’s a leopard pacing outside, staring me down, green eyes like kerosene lamps burning bibles through the shade. I didn’t know there was leopards in Texas. Why am I wearing a new dress? We lock eyes, time stutters. My heart seizes up, then swells like a blood-fat tick. I swear, Mama, the eyes are a man’s eyes, and I am gone.
The okra reminded me of Alabama, where I lived the last three years of high school with a pleasant foster family with whom I had little in common. Nor did I fit into small town Alabama. Though that family cooked more Pennsylvania Dutch style, which is where they came from, I'd grown close to a brilliant, eccentric older woman who became my mentor, guru and guide and she was pure Southern. It was a time of much confusion about all things intellectual, sexual, spiritual -- in a town obsessed with virginity, salvation and the Civil War. This woman taught me many things -- there is a much longer story there for another time -- including how to drive on the dusty red backroads of Sylacauga in her navy blue Lincoln Continental, the floor always strewn with crushed Diet Coke cans and discarded fast food wrappers. But at her house, the cook would make traditional Southern food. It is there in the sun-dappled dining room filled with antiques dating to the Confederacy that I developed a taste for fried okra, pork chops and collard greens, and teeth-achingly sweet sun tea and sugary cakes. Somehow, I would figure out how to fry okra. As usual, I became hellbent. Today was okra day. What would go with okra? Chef Maili was busy getting one daughter to school and homeschooling the other. I would have to strike out on my own. Explore Epicurious. Wing it. Eat my fear.
When he leaps into the backseat -- a raw blur of grace and power, sinew and will -- it is the savage love of Jesus come upon me. Jaws gaping wide, skull-crushing teeth at the ready. He’s goin’ to eat me, Mama, but I’m not scared.
Found a fried okra recipe (Epicurious Fried Okra). Googled what would go with okra. Fried anything. Fried chicken, pork chop. Pork chop. Okay. I could do that. Something new. Even though meat scared me. Then I remembered Maili had a recipe for cornbread on her site, so I added that to the menu. (Auntie Colleen's Cornbread via Chef Maili). There were too many new things to invite someone to taste. Tonight would be a practice run. Bought most of the ingredients at Vons. Picked up some items for more halloumi-cuke-lentil salad from Trader Joe's (that and puttanesca sauce are becoming staples), then a piece of pork at Whole Foods. Again, I figure if that's where the Top Chefs go...I had scribbled down the exact description of the meat from the Pan-Fried Pork Chops recipe on the Epicurious site:  "7-ounce center-cut pork loin rib chops (each about 3/4 inch thick)" though it truly was Greek to me. I appealed to the butcher. There was only one piece of meat fitting that description left. It looked monstrous! Bloody, bony, thick and...scary. I read the description to the butcher. He said, sounds right. But I had a bad feeling about this slab of meat.

I remember sweat hanging off the upholstery like jewels, the way the car rocks and fat black crows rip through the screaming sky above, and how tiny I am imprisoned between the cat’s claws, the heat coming off his furred body arched over mine. There is no slaking this want. I am his water in the jungle, I am the moonlight he tracks by, I am his crowning kill. 

Ann-Margret, "Tommy"
I started with the cornbread. Oh, a tip for everyone:  clean your station! Again, heard it repeatedly on Top Chef. Then Chef Maili repeated it. And since I'm already overwhelmed by the mere prospect of cooking and have to plunge in as if I were, say, throwing the hammer for the first time in college (which I did, until the time I threw wrong and the hammer flew into the crowd, almost decapitating someone) -- just go for it. Channel Julia Child and her tipsy, wacky self. So cleaning up as I go helps immensely. Somehow it makes me feel I'm all right, everything's going to be all right. You can do this. Not end up buried beneath burned food, dirty dishes, a molten explosion of baked beans. Pop the cornbread in the oven. Half hour for that. Now onto okra. 
Mama, I cannot help myself. Don’t you see? Mama? So much is wrong.
Trim and chop the okra. Pour it into a bowl, drench it in buttermilk for 15 minutes. (What happens?) Prepare the breading.
Then drain out the buttermilk and dust those okra with a coating of cornmeal, flour and other stuff.
Get the pan sizzling with oil and drop them in. Everything's going so smoothly. Two dishes down. Now, it's time to deal with the meat. 
I stare at it, consider its size, width. Is that 3/4"? Looks like two inches. Should I cut it in half? Is that a chop? I don't know how. There's a big hunk of bone in the way. The butcher must've known what he was talking about. I'm panicked. Lost. Usually I have way more guidance, more check-ins with Maili, with others. What did they say in sports? Never underestimate your opponent. Yeah. Never underestimate your protein. I figure, go for it. Just...pat it with salt and pepper (you pat the flesh and it's gnarly -- alive-ish but not). Wash your hands. Wash them again. Rinse away bacteria. Then prepare the coating or whatever it's called. Drop the big slab of beef in there. Heat the pan. The recipe calls for an inch of hot oil. Whut? Cannot handle that. As is, when I have a tablespoonful it spatters. I even purchased spatter screens. How will it cook, though? Something feels terribly wrong.
Yet, I dutifully, optimistically drop the meat in. The recipe calls for 5 minutes on each side 'til it turns golden brown and is done.
After a few minutes, the crust and oil burns. I panic. Check underneath. More charring. Isn't charring toxic? How can such a thick piece of meat cook in the middle? Still, I muscle through.
At the end of the ordeal, the house is filled with billowing smoke, the meat's burnt -- and when I cut into it, it's raw inside.
The cornbread, however, is perfection. And the okra -- a challenging vegetable -- tastes divine. I pour a glass of wine, and prepare a plate of cornbread and fried okra for dinner. Throw the pork into the oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes and hope that works. By the time I finish my meal, the pork seems finished so I eat a few bites. Not bad! Tough, yes, dried, yes, but that tasty crust! And, amazingly, it does taste like pork. Can only go up from here.
Faye Dunaway & Warren Beatty, "Bonnie And Clyde"
For your dessert, here is the never published, unfinished draft that followed the dreamy prologue spliced above, all from Bonnie's point of view. After much searching, I found this and learned Bonnie did indeed burn a pork chop in the scene. Whether this speaks to the mysteries of creativity, or to channeling characters, or to Bonnie Parker's and my kinship across the bounds of time and flesh, I dare not say. Enjoy. And remember, if I can cook -- ah, clearly -- anyone can. RRxo

BONNIE, Chapter One (draft of scene from many years ago)

“Darlin’, hike up your dress so’s I can see them pretty little thighs."

Roy was looking fine that night. Hair slicked on the sides and top, wearing that maroon gabardine shirt I liked so well. Eyes afire. Strong kissing mouth already fresh-wet from drinking. We’d been married down the First Baptist less than a month before. Whiskey became him. I scraped my fork across the congealed gravy and china. The chop on his untouched plate looked sad and shrivelled-up. I dropped a napkin over it.

“Bedtime for you, chop. Roy must have forgot he asked for you special. Must have had more important business to take care of than eating a poor nickel chop such as yourself. Could be Roy’s given up pork for Lent, maybe. Or he’s speculatin’ it’s not fit grub for the King of East Dallas. Or maybe he’s plain tired of keeping company with his new wife. Don’t you take it personal.

"Bonnie! C'mere."

He squeezed his groin, then spread his arms for me to fold into. Like they were wings and he was a drunken thug angel come to redeem me, Bonnie, through the holy act of fornication. I got up and brushed past him, shaking my head. This was not the Roy I pledged my love to, ‘til death do us part. Thinking he must have confused me with one of the gold-digging floosies hung around the American Hotel. Roy took hold of my hair, wrapped it around his wrist, then grabbed hold of my dress and pulled me back toward him, tearing a bit of the zipper seam along the way, pinioning my arm against his chest like it was some rare species of sugarcane he wanted to both cradle and crush.

“Look what you done.” I tugged at the seam with my free arm, ignoring how the touch of his body left me warm, electric-tingling, even now. “Fool.” 

I turned my voice all the way sassy, still burned up over the ruined chop and being stood up. Roy leaned his face down into mine, still holding tight to my hair. His pupils sharp like icepicks.

“That ain’t nothin’, Honey.”

I was so rattled, didn’t even see his hand coming. What I heard was a slap. I heard a fish, smacking against a cabinet, thudding onto a wet boatdeck. Maybe a striped bass. Greasy fat catfish. Didn’t Papa used to fish like that? Reeling in the catch, then heaving it into the air so the fish smacked down with a scaly theatricality. Racking my poor brain to remember as much as I could about Papa before he up and died and I only five -- did he used to smoke apple-scented tobacco, and how fast could he gut a fish? What kind of boat did he use, and did he wear suspenders or a waterproof belt? Panicking. Needing to remember, losing all of Papa in a vapor as I slumped down against the counter, holding on then pushing back up. Then I was aware my head was in an awkward position, jaw snugged in above my collarbone. And heat-streaks raced out from my cheekbone, trying to get away from a thumping pain. Dull ache in the back of my head. My face was struck dumb, Roy’s slap like a stone tossed into a still pond, spreading rings from this moment in time out into the waterway of me. Lapping the shore of my skin, all the way live, every nerve at attention. My tongue lapping salty blood from somewhere inside my mouth amidst bits of bitten-off flesh, that blood dripping down without cease, giving me the sign I’d been searching for. Shaking my head like a dazed mule what’s just knocked his fool head against a fencepost, looking down and seeing Roy wrapped around my knees, hugging them so hard they were buckling, and me feeling a bone-bright truth straighten my spine, a cold metal hardness come into my eyes, what’s called Experience. Putting my hand on Roy’s head and the warmth spreading from those tiny fingers, spilling over, waterfalls of obedience, white hot lightbolts of duty and the bondage of such love. Knowing full well I bore the sin of a smart mouth.

“This woman you married don’t need no mercy,” said I. “Go on and hit me again.

And Roy, sobbing at my knees, and me knowing he’d raise his hand to me again. If not now, soon. Next time without pity or restraint. Watching Roy’s hand scootch up my stockinged leg, me thinking any moment he would smote me again, then feeling the hand burrowing under my slip, over the garter, and finding purchase beneath my panties. Fingering me, and I was honeycomb in his hands. Was that night my first and only child was conceived, never to be born.