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A Cacophony of Collective Nouns

A pride of lions. A school of fish. A flamboyance of flamingos — yep.

I had a bee in my bonnet today (not a hive of them, mind you) about collective nouns. I love them. They’re poetic, they’re nonsensical, they’re fun to think about.

A shrewdness of apes. A parliament of owls or — alternatively, if you’re feeling more sinister than magisterial — a looming of them. A prickle (!) of hedgehogs (say hiya to my son, Hedgewig).

I can’t tell you why I’ve been thinking about collective nouns. I’ve been drowning in words lately, for all numbers of reasons, and so it was only a matter of time before I dove into collective nouns. According to this oldish article via Medium, there’s not really an answer as to where they come from, collective nouns just… are. Which is frustratingly vague! Apparently, there’s a paradox between actual popular usage and assumed common usage — aka, a text claims the thing is a thing, so it is — between how these things come to be. Linguists don’t quite know how to ascertain the origin, or if the thing — say, a murder of crows or a destruction of wild cats — will continue to be that thing down the line. It’s all poetry and chaos.

If you’re into other collective nouns, this Guardian piece features a bit of history behind some fun ones.

A zeal of zebras. A raft of otters. A cackle of hyenas. A bloat of hippos.

I could go on.

Photo by Wade Lambert on Unsplash

On Citrus Season

Growing up, calamansi was my favorite little fruit. My mom used in so many Pinoy dishes — in our house, there was always a bit of calamansi steeped in some soy sauce, or sprinkled over garlic rice. The fruit was so sweet, the pith so tart and slightly bitter. When we didn’t buy it from the Filipino grocery store, my mom would just pluck some kumquat from our backyard tree — deceptively similar but different. It didn’t matter; I loved how either would explode with electricity upon biting into them. The kumquat tree didn’t fruit year-round, but eventually it would and I’d happily grab the little fork-caged fruit picker and collect some of the thumb-sized, oblong fruits. We even had tangerines, and a lemon tree, which only ever produced one sad lemon in the entire decade we lived in that house.

Scent is a time machine. Every time I smell a kumquat or a calamansi, a part of me returns to that bitter little house on Pepperwood, where I played with my brothers outside and talked to clouds, running under the citrus trees and squishing fallen suns beneath my feet. During grayer times — El Nino weather, getting grounded, puberty — I was confined to the dull little rooms, separated from my beloved tree, the outdoors, the sky. There, I wrote plaintive little stories about being a lonely little boy who liked other boys, or others about a lonely little boy who wanted to be loved by his dad on the other side of the wall. Zest and pith — they are inextricably linked in my mind.

But mostly, I remember the zest. I especially loved squeezing the little hearts of fruits between one finger at a time, my sharp, feral fingernails capturing a bit of sunshine under the claws. Later, I would sniff my hands to relieve myself of sadness. When it was citrus season — the only discernible season in Orange County — our kitchen housed sunshine, but that only meant the shadows elsewhere were cast in sharper relief.

I haven’t lived in California for 15 years, and I still think about those citrust trees, especially when New York’s grey, dishwater days of winter creep in. Luckily, I now have a slowly growing sweet little thing of a calamansi tree inching skyward in my bedroom; I’ve named her Clementine. The morning light is hers, and I can’t wait to taste it.

*Not my calamansi tree. Photo by Paul Hanaoka via Unsplash

Dispatch | 11.17.19

Raise your hand if you’re tired. That seems to be the current collective, universal state of things. Tiredness knows no creed, no political party, no religion. Tiredness is in the water, it runs to our marrow. And it shows no signs of abating.

As the world turns increasingly dark — from here in the U.S. to abroad (see Turkey, Hong Kong, Bolivia etc. etc. et al) — it’s hard to find relief from the news cycle. The impeachment hearings are must-see TV and social media is constantly alight; who even knows where we stand on Brexit? Hilarious memes and astrology posts bidding us to look into ourselves and the stars are barely a balm, but there’s so much tiredness to overcome.

And then there’s the domestic front! The dishes pile up, a mountain of laundry is never quite tackled, and my research/writing/pitching to-do lists get longer. I know it’s something of a cliche, but “adulting” is so much.

The reality is, there are some days I can’t bring myself out of bed, but please allow me a humble brag moment: When it comes to waking up, that particular morning act was made even harder when Ian splurged on great sheets, transforming our bed into a true refuge. And! The best gift we gave to ourselves this year was a robot vacuum — at least we never have to worry about our floors. I know, I know, capitalism. But! Good sheets, automated vacuuming, these things have been a boon for my mental clarity.

Also, the things below. Take care of yourselves out there.

Books

I devoured Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions in a day. I was dumbstruck by the magical thinking, the childlike wonder of each microscopic poem.

“Why is it so hard, the sweetness of the heart of the cherry?
Is it because it must die or because it must carry on?”

Pablo Neruda

Podcasts

I’ve been listening to Wild Words, by Nicole Gulotta, author of Eat This Poem, which has helped me a bit in terms of figuring out my writing headspace.

Recipes

Ever since the finale episode of this season’s Great British Baking Show, I’ve been wanting to bake a chocolate cake. Well, I finally got around to it, baking Nigella Lawson’s chocolate raspberry pudding cake, from her cookbook How to Eat, which I found years ago on a stoop and never cooked out of. Not my first Nigella recipe, but frankly, it took me too long to flip through this book. Ian, on the other hand, has been cooking from another Brit’s tome, Nigel Slater’s Eat, which is a dream for any casual cook. We’ve had the book for a couple of years, too, and have rediscovered its simple charms. Also in our rotation, Cook’s Illustrated The Complete Cooking for Two we’ve saved so much on food waste, alone.

Tree-lined paths in Brooklyn, New York; Columbus,Ohio, other places

We Should All Be Forest Bathing

Lately, I’ve spent many weekend mornings wandering passed towering steel tracks and shuttered auto shops on the way to Highland Park.

Situated on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, Google Maps reveals its a large island of green surrounded by cemeteries of all kinds. Jewish, Christian, non-denominational. It’s not quite an escape from the city — the sounds of the Jackie Robinson expressway and nearby church bells commingle with those of the birds, insects, and wind in the trees — but walking the leaf-strewn paths allows me to ponder and process the current state of things. Wiki tells me that Highland Park is one of the tallest points in Brooklyn (makes sense, given the name), but more importantly, it’s a verdant escape from its humming urban surroundings. For me, it’s the perfect place to practice the art and science of forest bathing.

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li

What is forest bathing?

I first heard about “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, from a podcast Hurry Slowly a couple of years ago. The idea is that by disconnecting from modern life — our phones, social media, the urban grind — for a set time in the week can vastly improve one’s mental and physical health. A recent article in Outside magazine reiterated many of the benefits of the increasingly studied field of forest medicine, while the tome, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese doctor who helped jump-start the research years ago, confirms a lot of these facts. Basically, being in nature sets off positive biological responses in our bodies, namely a greater sense of calm and peace, which translates to lower blood pressure and heart rate; boosts in our immunity responses; even reduction of stress hormones. TL;DR: Trees are magical and good for us.

The former reservoir at Highland Park

How do you forest bathe?

And you don’t necessarily need a full, proper forest to benefit from forest bathing. A quiet park, a beach, a river, will all do — the entire point is to disconnect in nature, even for a little while. Even better? All the studies show you only need two hours spread out over a week to feel the benefits of a forest bathing session.

When we lived in Chicago, I was a big booster for the nature trail that ran near our neighborhood, along the North Branch of the Chicago River. About 3 miles in length, the trail ran north through a few parks and neighborhoods, home to ducklings and goslings in the spring time, Northwestern University rowers in the summer, and the odd heron here or there come fall. It was always my escape on Sundays, when I would walk the trail’s length while Ian was at work — it was a date I gave myself, weekly, permission to get out and breathe and think without the distraction and dread of a to-do list.

These days, I’ve traded the River for a park trail around the former Ridgewood reservoir. Parking myself on a concrete slab overlooking the water, with nothing before me but earth and sky — no headphones, podcasts, or other people’s voices — allows me an opportunity to really breathe. To take stock, to be kind to myself. To wonder.

I haven’t really had a chance to think about being laid off, at least, emotionally. I’m privileged enough to be booked and busy — with travel, with work, with coffee and cocktail meetings — but a full calendar has prevented me from reflecting about who I am without a job and who I want to be going forward.

Setting aside time every week to walk the 30 or so minutes to that concrete slab, where I journal, meditate, and write, is a gift to myself when I am buried under emails and tweets and deadlines. I’m still learning lessons from this city — can a homie ever just, like, chill for a sec? — but whenever I finally embrace my fullest, most anxious self, the city suddenly exhales, as if on my behalf. It decides to let up—like it sent out a some universal bat signal telling everyone to leave me the fuck alone. A quiet miracle, these moments, as the city gives me all the space I need to find my breath again.  And then I exhale, too, and wait for the next day.



Signs of Life Well-Lived in Columbus, Ohio

There’s a particular genre of food writing that I just love, that always gets me right in the feels: Odes to grocery stores. But not just regular, American-style supermarkets, with glaring lights, wide aisles and wild shoppers. Definitely not places Whole Foods, or Fairway, or Wegman’s, or even the Jewel-Oscos or Associateds of the world. I’m talking about international stores, once dubbed “ethnic,” a word which has since (thankfully) fallen out of favor.

Whether they’re a one-off mom-and-pop shop in a suburban strip mall, or they’re part of a larger chain — H-Mart, Seafood City, Patel Brothers — the presence of an international-focused supermarket in a community tells me so much about a place. Who lives there, what kind of food nourishes that community, the families and lives of a region, even how time and place have shaped that city or town’s economies.

On Saturdays, my family went to 99 Ranch Market in City of Industry, or Greenhills in Diamond Bar — both about 45 and 30 minutes, respectively, from our home in Orange County. 99 Ranch is this giant box of a building, with mini-shops just outside the main store; you’d find jewelry, knick-knacks, mani-pedis. At the back, once you pass by these smaller shoe-box type places, you’d enter the grocery, laid out with narrow-but-high shelves of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino goods. It’s where my mom felt most comfortable — when I read my friend Khushbu Shah’s essay about her mom’s love for Patel Brothers, I instantly recognized my own mother’s reaction to being in a store that served her needs. From the fish mongers knowing exactly how she wanted her cuts prepared, to the giant bags of my mom’s favorite kind of white rice, 99 Ranch let her return however momentarily to her Filipino roots.

That’s the power of stores serving immigrant communities: Their customers feel seen, heard, accepted. While the outside world feels strange and alienating, especially during these heightened political times, these grocery stores are a bastion for their shoppers, a place to get a taste of home.

Palestinian savory-stuffed pastries at Salam market in Columbus, Ohio.

I was recently in Columbus, Ohio, and I was exposed to this idea almost immediately after my flight. I was there on a press trip, and my contact picked me up at the airport to whisk me to two stops before I could check in to my hotel.

The first, a Middle Eastern market called Salam, was one such grocery store, humble but specific. Since I was only breezing through the city, with no time to cook for myself, we skipped the dry goods and groceries themselves, making a bee-line for the back, where a bakery and butcher were housed. The butcher was at work breaking down a lamb, while the bakers came out to help us mull over the 10 or so stuffed savory pastries in the case. According to them, the pastries are almost always sold-out upon baking — they made brisk business with the stewed lamb, for instance — and for good reason. They were Palestinian pastries, goods I’m not totally familiar with — spicy and tender beef kebab redolent of cumin and peppers, gooey eggplant with spiced ground beef, tart labneh with sharp green olives — but nonetheless reminded me of very similar flavors from throughout the region. The pita itself was tender and yeasty, crusty and cloudlike — definitely one of my favorite versions of the stuff in recent memory.

After our bakery stop, we swung over to Saraga International, a grocery chain started by two Korean brothers. Again, I didn’t shop the aisles, but the produce made my heart sing: So many varieties of mangoes, fresh passion fruit, rambutan in stacks and stacks. While I could shop fruit for hours, our destination was Momo Ghar, a tiny little Tibetan/Nepalese dumpling shop owned by Phuntso Lama, a former New Yorker who wanted to create a taste of home. That’s what I enjoyed here, little parcels that spoke of place and story, especially the jhol momo, chicken-stuffed dumplings swimming in a tomatoey broth that tastes of brightness and heat. I spoke with Phuntso a little bit, and she also served me and my contact some chicken-and-ginger momo, a new variety she was adding to the menu for winter. They were pungent, aromatic and so high-toned thanks to the ginger; I’ll be thinking about them next time I’m trying to fight off a cold.

Momo Ghar, located within Saraga International, a grocery store serving immigrant communities.

Useful but sterile, American supermarkets would never have offered me this kind of look at changing demographics or how people live; stopping into these immigrant-run shops really pulled a bit of the curtain back about who is coming to Columbus, about who moves there. I’m not claiming expertise on the diasporas that contribute to the city’s identity, but the pastries and momos allowed me to connect to the people of Columbus in an easily identifiable way, providing a moment’s insight on this major Midwestern city. Beyond “just food,” immigrant stores, in all their varieties, always show me a story about how a community and its people, far from home but by no means alone, live and thrive.

Man in library with white, wave-like shelves.

WTF is Stock & Flow: On creating a daily blogging practice

So I kinda decided, arbitrarily, to blog everyday. I’m in a new life season — see last post — which means I’ve been more or less trying on new hats and seeing what fits; daily blogging feels like a worthy exercise to blow away some mental cobwebs.

I haven’t blogged regularly in, well, ever. For the last decade, give or take a couple of months, I’ve always written or edited for another publication, so personal blogging just felt indulgent. Unnecessary. Now I question that mindset: What if I had also been producing my own work all along? Where would I be as a writer?

Oh, I was always writing for myself, sure. Snippets of a journal entry here, a longer Facebook update or a tweet or a longer-than-advised Instagram caption. The quick dopamine hit of “publishing” that “content” was enough to keep me away from here, my platform (or whatever this website is). And then, last week or so, I came across author-illustrator Austin Kleon’s blog post about daily blogging, where he cites Robin Sloan’s adaptation of the economic ideas of flow and stock. Applied to blogging, Kleon/Sloan explain the idea thusly:

The idea started out from my anxiety about “stock and flow.” As Robin Sloan wrote seven years ago: flow is the feed (It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.”) and stock is the durable stuff (“It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”)

I’d like to take that idea further, as I think there’s a key component missing between stock and flow in this definition: One gives you the impression you’re doing something, while the other is the long-game, which feels abstractly far-off. As we increasingly become a society of information and quick hits, in a few short years, we’ve already been conditioned towards leading more unexamined lives, in the name of flow. When I started to process these ideas, I had to take a breath. A professional media maker, even I was tricked into a mindless state in lieu of actual creativity.

There’s another side to this. As a journalist, I think about platform a lot, and how some of the current crisis in the journalism industry can be traced to trusting so much of distribution to third-party platforms (Facebook, Twitter) versus establishing a foundation and homebase (their own websites, for instance). Of course, this is fully a whole other essay, that’s still being explored by minds better than my own, but the general idea is that outsourcing links and content to social platforms gave those outlets power, and how discoursed was shaped. I’m all for the democratization of the internet, but algorithms have done much to shape stock/flow in terms of media literacy

I digress.

De-platforming can affect indie writers and civilians, too, especially in the context of stock/flow: How many of our ideas are we just sending out into the social media ether, never to return to them, because we are so addicted to just sharing what comes across our mind, in that moment? What is lost when we no longer consider what we published? Are we just sharing fleeting moments, or are we giving up potential moments for further self-examination for the sake of a like or an emoji? “Flow is ephemeral, while stock sticks around,” writes Sloan. What are we putting stock in?

I had lunch with a long-time friend this week who is going through her own transition phase. We exchanged some thoughts about media, working independently, and what’s next; she’s going off to travel for three months, and god, do I envy her. In the meantime, I shared with her the idea of stock-and-flow in relation to my work, and she told me, “You’ve always had great ideas, and I never wanted to miss what you wrote on either FB or Instagram, but I always thought ‘why is he sharing this and not writing more instead?'”

That struck me silent.

Had my years-long candidness and honesty on social media really been a font of projects and ideas worth exploring? I mean, I’m smart enough to realize that likes, notifications, reactions, the timeline et al served to keep all of us users in the clutches of the site, but did I let myself fall into the trap, too? Did I get complacent?

Obviously, the answer is yes. After a lot of soul-searching, I’m going to focus on stock, not flow; like Kleon, I’m going to give this daily blogging a try, instead. I’ve already set up some apps and extensions like Freedom and “Block Facebook” on both my phone and computer, though I can’t quite quit Twitter — it’s where my friends and many freelance jobs/potential new editors are.

The hope is I can stretch my writing muscles a bit. Rediscover my voice. Experiment with new ideas and writing forms. After working for so many others over so many years — publications, editors — what is my voice, even?

Photo: “Library @ Orchard, Singapore” by Fahrul Azmi, via Unsplash

On Transitions

A month ago, I was laid off.

An hour afterwards, I got to work — sending off resumes, messaging friends and colleagues, starting a newsletter, updating this website. I’ve kind of been at it since…

But was that a good idea? I’ve never had a transition phase in my life, not really. Even when I decided to move from California to Chicago, Chicago to New York, New York to Chicago and back again, my life has been a blur of decisions and action, decisions and action. I’m a master of abrupt moves and last-minute changes, somersaulting from one thing to the next. Even between jobs, I’ve only ever allowed myself a couple of days of rest; I could always find time for self-care later.

And this is true, even still, as I develop my routine for exercise, yoga, meditation, stillness. But I’m starting to think that carving out routine is merely a reaction to the upheaval I bring upon myself.

Of course, the layoff was not something I sought out (LOL I live in NYC, have you seen our cost-of-living?). But this transition, this liminal space I’ve been afforded, well, I’ve been reacting to it like I have in the past. Decision, action, decision, action. Everyone has told me what a blessing this transition may be, and yeah yeah, I hear you, but I also gotta get things done. It’s in my bones.

At least, that’s what I thought up until literally an hour ago, when I was journaling and pulling my tarot cards and otherwise being reflective about how I’ll go about the next few weeks in the job search/freelancing game. I finally listened to everyone: What if I slowed down and actually took time to ride this wave presented to me? What would that look like?

In the weeks since the layoff, I’ve traveled, and journaled, and even started taking podcasting classes at a Brooklyn media arts center. While all of that is good, it also all seems to come from my natural impulse to keep myself booked and busy. I realized that maybe, I’m afraid to reflect, afraid to be by myself.

Instead of filling up my calendar with projects and meetings and long-to-do lists, maybe I should be afraid for a little while.

View of downtown Chicago skyline from Lincoln Park

Chicago, a Love Letter

I’m gonna miss Chicago.

I’m gonna miss the usual stuff, of course. Friends, routines, my cute apartment. But I’m also gonna miss so much small stuff.

My barista at the pie shop, who remembers my name and that I like my coffee black, so always fills the cup to the top. My minutes spent walking near the River’s north branch, watching bumbling ducklings in the spring or Northwestern’s sleek rowing team in the summer.

I’m gonna miss the slant of sunlight coming through my apartment at sunset, the way my plants bend towards that one window over the course of months, no matter how many times I rotate them.

How I always snag a seat on the Brown Line in the morning, or the chocolaty smell of the Blommer’s factory when I disembark at Merchandise Mart. The dogs and puppies running up the hill at Horner Park, or the jangly folk band at the Saturday farmers market playing to an audience of wiggling toddlers. Sunrise yoga in Millennium Park. Sunbathers at North Avenue, Osterman, 31st Street beaches. Tacos from Las Barrilitos, 12 a.m. cheeseburgers at Red Hot Ranch, any open bottle at Income Tax. Drinking canned wine on the River Walk during a summer heat wave. The Lake gets plenty of love, but for me, my heart belongs to the ever-moving, ever-changing River.

I’m gonna miss Chicagoans, polite but direct with zero fucks to give. Like how, on a snowy day this week, another barista from another coffee shop asked me if it was hot out, because I looked like a sweaty mess. Or the bedside manner of my dentist, who couldn’t hide their reaction to my toothbrushing technique. I won’t forget the busker trilling “Imagine” at the Dearborn Blue Line station, a bard of the underground whose message may never reach the surface. The crowd at a recent Cat Power show, swaying and feeling their way through her seminal “I Don’t Blame You.” The drag queens and artists of Berlin like Lucy Stoole and Kenzie Coulee, who turned the idea of a circus freakshow on its head with poise, and grace, and holy fuck, so much goddamn bravery, their glittering existence a fuck you to every bigoted asshole this country has ever produced.

There’s always a bend in the river worth exploring.

I’m gonna miss the Chicago Tribune, my home for the last 2 years, 11 months and 3 days. Tomorrow, I walk out of the Tribune newsroom for the last time, taking a new job back in New York City, where I lived and loved 5 years prior. For the second time in my life, I’ll be leaving the city I love most.

Except for a youthful interest in geology and marine biology, I’ve only ever wanted to be a journalist and writer — I’ve never known anything else. From joining the high school newspaper to running the college magazine to landing bylines in publications as an adult, it’s always been my life’s goal to write and nurture my curiosity. Working at the Tribune has given me that and more. I’ve strived for inclusivity, covering queer food and brown food and all food, ‘cuz everyone has to eat, as both a writer and an editor. I helped start a union! I’ve strived to bring diverse voices into the fold, tapping my artsy writer friends and colleagues Jessi Roti for a piece on a food-and-music fest serving Chicago’s West Side, or KT Hawbaker for an interview with queer POC creating their own platforms for food and stories. My incredible, kind, generous editor and friend, Joe Gray let me do anything and everything, from every wild idea (taste testing weird internet shit) to helping style test kitchen photo shoots. My friends Sade Carpenter, Adam Lukach, Jessi, Marissa Conrad, Grace Wong, KT, Dawn Rhodes, Ese Olumhense, Louisa Chu, Alison Bowen and countless others kept me sane. Mentors like Joe and critic Phil Vettel kept me sharp. Of course, shout-out to my Food & Dining team Louisa, Nick Kindelsperger, Grace, Jennifer Day, Josh Noel and Kasondra Van Treeck for being consistently curious and challenging.

Along the way, I wrote about a chef who ran away and joined the circus, how chefs are grappling with sexual harassment amid Me Too, the great sommelier scandal of 2018, how to host Friendsgiving, a personal essay on my immigrant upbringing, and in the last few weeks, started a wine column even I didn’t know would end because, well, resigning surprised even me. I edited hundreds of stories about food and restaurants and chefs and talent in this amazing, supportive, diverse city. I’ve attended journalism workshops and committee meetings and college lectures and leadership conferences, always to be a better journalist, a better citizen.

I’ve always tried, and I’ll always continue to. I don’t believe there’s any other way to exist.

What’s next?

On Monday, I’ll be back in New York for my first day as senior travel editor at Thrillist. I’ll have some time to officially move back East, but for now, I don’t know quite what to expect, but it’s a new bend in the river of my own life. I can’t wait to walk along it, through its rapids and its shallows.

It’ll be a new flow, and I’m ready for it to take me away. Until then, thank you for everything, Chicago.

Dispatch | 11.10.18

This week has felt like a decade. Between the midterm elections (I worked election night in the newsroom), yet another mass shooting, RBG breaking some ribs and near-continuous attacks on the free press, I’ve been high-key anxious all week.

There’s been some light, though: I finally got to write and publish a story about a question that’s been bugging me for ages, and got two cakes out of it, to boot. Alas, the photos accompanying the story are the last taken by my beloved camera before its internal sensors shattered. Besides work, I’ve been trying to stay afloat and manage my anxiety by staying off social media as much as possible, cooking at home and keeping things tidy (my favorite form of procrastination).

Lumix GF6 -- beloved

Non-Recipe

Cleaning out my fridge last week, I realized how much stuff we still had. I hate waste, so instead of ordering take out, I put together a big ol’ salad. Just as well, since I’ve been trying to work out more and curb my junk eating (hi, Halloween), but damn, do I hate salad. Salad is just not interesting to me, though I do love vegetables. It’s a paradox. Here, I roasted off some sweet potatoes in smoky gochujang, and tossed them with creamy Bulgarian feta, quick pickled shallots, pomegranate seeds and arugula. The still-warm potatoes lightly wilted the greens and melted the cheese, which made for a great balance in texture. When salad can be this laissez-faire, I’m all in.

Processed with VSCO with a2 preset

Music

It’s been fall for a minute, my favorite season. While a weekend getaway to Indiana two weekends ago provided a little bit of leaf-peeping, it wasn’t enough — I’ve been taking a lot of walks in the brisk, cold air to get my fill before winter comes. The below playlist is my attempt to capture the feeling.

Books

I’m closing in on my Goodreads challenge of 50 books this year. Right now, I’m at 33, with some lessons learned along the way. Mainly, I’ve come to terms with putting down books that I’m just not getting into. Case in point, I got 60 pages into a memoir before I realized I was just not jiving with the author’s story. On the other hand, I tore through Dietland, which follows Plum Kettle as she confronts her fatness and society’s demons. An exploration of fatness (and shame culture), Dietland is also a revenge fantasy of women tearing down the patriarchy with disregard to the rules men have arbitrarily created. Highly recommend. PS: The Hoopla app is wonderful — sign in with your library card (you have one, right?) and you can download a ton of ebooks and comics, which is how I was turned on to Dietland in the first place.

Podcast

With my anxiety on high, I’ve stopped listening to a number of daily news podcasts — I can’t subject myself to the deluge of information any more. The world sucks, I get it! Stepping back, even in this small way, is self-care. That said, if we’ve spoken about podcasts at all in the last year, I’ll have definitely recommended Thirst Aid Kit to you. Hosted by Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins and now celebrating one year of lusting out loud, it’s a show that unapologetically explores desire and pop culture. Raucous, hilarious and so, so smart, Bim and Nichole explore the body of work (and bodies of werq) of celebrities, and how thirst can be so much more than just a pretty face — though obviously that’s a draw.

Richard Olney’s Infuriating Recipe for Mussels

In an attempt to clean up this blog, I took a look into my drafts. Reader, the terror of this particular corner of the internet strikes fear into my heart. The constant starts and the stops alone kill me! But *sigh*, therapy has taught me “done is better than perfect,” so in that vein, I’ll be publishing some of those drafts, as close to their “draft state” as I can reasonably stomach. Here, then, an entry from June 2015: 

I’m a way-late bloomer when it comes to this food thing. I didn’t go to culinary school, teaching myself from mostly from home. And while I eat at restaurants, it’s usually because a place looks charming, not because of its star-power (though I do try to make it to those, too). My food heroes growing up were Sarah Moulton and Emeril, and then your Julia Childs, your Jacques Pepin. As an adult, I predictably gravitated toward the contessa herself, Ina Garten, like a gay moth to the brightest disco ball.

But I had no idea about Richard Olney. Then, over a year ago , I came across him twice in short order. I first encountered him in the words of John Birdsall’s essay, America, Your Food is So Gay, published in Lucky Peach’s Gender Issue. The piece shed light on the work of Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Olney, three gay men who were influential in shaping America’s food identity. With the exception of Beard and some bits about Claiborne, I otherwise had no idea, about Olney in particular.

Then there was Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970, a narrative weaving of letters between Barr’s great-aunt, the storied food writer M.F.K Fisher and her best pals Child and Beard during one fateful winter in Provence. Olney — a trained painter and self-trained cook in the French tradition — makes an appearance, the book’s main source of friction. What I gleaned didn’t paint him in the best of lights: snobbish, meticulous to the point of condescending… Frankly? He sounded kinda bitchy.

But he also knew his way around a kitchen. When I finished the book and put the essay away, I only thought of Olney peripherally, until Ian bought us the 40th anniversary edition of his book, Simple French Food. 

Let’s just start by saying the title is anything but. “Simple” here does not mean a “set it and forget it” call to arms, but instead, a call for a simple list of immaculate ingredients prepped to the utmost of a cook’s ability, so that the food sings. It is a beautiful book, written in bitingly straightforward fashion with no sympathy for your lack of skills. In short, this book forces you to learn how to cook.

Ian cooked Olney’s “lobster dinner for two,” which included game hens, lobster and a raspberry coulis dessert from the French Menu Cookbook, which — duh — took a lot of work. When we picked up Simple, we thought we’d have a slightly easier time.

Not even remotely true.

Because there aren’t enough hours in a week and too many books to try, we’ve so far only really cooked one recipe: his mussels. You’d think this would be a hoot, as mussels are notoriously easy to prepare. Get your broth game correct and you’ll impart a wealth of flavors depending on your combo of aromatics, seasoning and broth-base. Folks will be impressed by the your Ina-level presentation of homey, elegant open shellfish swimming in bright, savory bath.

Let me reiterate: I. Love. Mussels. From Thai-style mussels, piquant spicy flavors of chiles commingling with creamy coconut milk and bright, citrusy lemongrass, to Belgian moules, with yeasty funky beer adding fruity, biscuity notes to the broth, or even French preparations, sing-songy with acidity from dry white wine, mussels in all forms are good. All easy to make.

Enter Olney.

His preparation of mussels—stuffed with spinach, hardboiled eggs and surprisingly, more mussels—reads simply on paper. There are very few ingredients, and the sauce is a quick preparation of butter, onions and pulpy tomatoes. It’s in the doing that you find out Olney is a real asshole.

Case in point? Bro had me stabbing open 50 or so fresh mussels, only to stuff them with their chopped up brethren, and then? AND THEN having me tie each bad boy up with twine. TWINE!

The elegance of mussels is the simplicity by which the dish basically builds itself. Got a bangin’ broth recipe you want to try? Whip it up any which way you like, add your mussels, wait until they open, and boom! Done. You’ve got a magical seafood dish with a rich liquid for sopping up with crusty, comforting baguette. If Olney were around, I would tell him to go fuck himself (not really, as I think he might be my type?) but I would argue against the merits of his prep.

It took me three goddamn hours to bring this dish to the table. By comparison, all of my other favorite mussel dishes take no more than 30 min, from shopping to slurping up the broth. And, to add insult to injury, the sauce wasn’t even in that good, and the stuffing we worked SO HARD to cram into the mussels I murdered with my knife just fell out into the broth anyway. Infuriatingly, we had the added task of UNWRAPPING our mussel packages that managed to stay open, instead of just, you know, EATING.

This recipe was an unnecessary exercise in rage.

While I respect what Olney has done for the culinary world, both as a cook and as a role model for aspiring LGBT food folks, if this was my first introduction to him, I’d chuck the book out the window.