Artist Date 69: Spicy. Trouble.

It smells warm inside Savory Spice Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Artist Date 69. And while I know intellectually that warm is not a smell, it feels like it. Spicy. BBQ rubs. One is called Pearl Street Plank. I take a photograph of it.

I am afraid I am going to get into trouble.

I am often afraid of getting into trouble. Like the time Julie and I smoked cigarettes inside the multiplex at a midnight showing of The Crying Game.

The movie had been out for a while and we were the only ones in the theatre. Julie lit up. I was aghast. “What? Are you afraid we are going to get into trouble?” she asked. A little bit mocking. Well, yes…I was. Just like when we smoked cigarettes in seventh grade on Shabbat.

Julie was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Saturdays, my mother would drop me there for the day. Sometimes we watched movies on the Betamax (Meatballs was our favorite.) – her father’s concession.

Irv was a wise man who understood that raising his girls in an observant home, but not in an observant neighborhood, was tricky. Their customs were “other” than those of the secular Jews surrounding them. So while Julie could not go to movies and dances on Friday night and Saturday, she was allowed to watch movies, regardless of the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath. And also to go for long walks. Walks that often involved McDonalds’ French fries and Virginia Slims Menthol 100s.

Julie was brazen. I was convinced we were going to get caught and get into trouble. We didn’t. But that sense that I might have to explain myself has never entirely left me. Even today at the Savory Spice Shop.

I know some stores prohibit photography. I know I could ask if it is ok. But I don’t. Instead I snap and hope no one will question me. It is this sort of internal gyration that causes me anxiety. The kind I could easily avoid.

2014-03-23 14.14.42An employee says to let her know if I have any questions, and invites me to sample and to brush any excess onto the floor. She adds that my boots are “magnificent,” and we talk for a solid five minutes about the quest to merge fashion and function. I am reminded, part of the joy of a funky aesthetic is people want to talk to you. Want to talk to me.

She makes no comment about my photography.

I finger baking spices and books on pickling. But the spices from far away call me like a siren. Exotic. Other. Like I always wanted to be. I try to conjure up the smells of the market in Kigali, in Argles, in Jerusalem, but I cannot. I only know I was there.

I smell red peppercorns from the Szechuan Province. Green ones from Mysore. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves. Asafetida from Iran, also known as Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum. The label says it smells like garlic gone bad. To me, it smells like sulfur. Eggs.

There are Grains of Paradise from West Africa and Pinchito from Southern Spain. Preserved Lemon and Pomegranate Molasses. Marrakech Moroccan Spice and Berbere Ethiopian Seasoning.

2014-03-23 14.19.28I think about cooking and wonder what I would make. My repertoire has become small as a single woman. Often times, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I stick to egg-white omelets, soups and salads. Black beans, kale and squash. An occasional piece of fish roasted with fennel and oranges and olives.

I think about travel. The recent loud and incessant call to go away – somewhere big. Somewhere sexy. Sometime this year – my 45th come October. Italy or India.

Today I do not have to decide.

Instead, I allow myself the pleasure of revisiting Africa. Spain. And France.

Israel. Germany. Amsterdam.

Ireland and Mexico.

To return to each marketplace I visited – photographing beans drying in the sun. Salted fish. Unskinned rabbit hanging from a hook.

To the suburban movie theatre and the safety of Julie’s home. To her basement where her papa fed us Oreo cookies with a finger pressed to his lips as if to say, “shh…don’t tell.”

I think about the real trouble I caused in my travels.  The kind I should have been worried about but wasn’t. In Berlin.  Avignon.  Puerto Vallarta.  Today I know better.

Today there are no secrets. Nothing to hide. Nothing to get me into trouble.

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Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.