Monthly Archives: November 2012

Radical Traditionalism

A few years ago, I purchased my first house in a beautiful neighborhood in Mount Airy in Philadelphia.  There were many reasons I wanted a house: more space for my ever-increasing piles of stuff, an investment for my future, and “why not, everyone else is doing it,” were among my reasons.  However, I also was excited by the idea of entertaining people in more than a tiny apartment.  Perhaps I could even host a holiday dinner.

See, as I’m sure you’re well aware of, children tend to backlash against the traditions of their parents.  And for a solid 10 or 15 years, Thanksgiving has been a non-traditional holiday for my family.  My parents began to drift away from the turkey, stuffing, and sides.  In fact, they even stopped hosting at their house.  Our usual tradition was to go to Lin’s Dumpling House in Chinatown in New York City and have a feast.  I think it began when my sister lived in Chinatown and we would come up to visit, but it remained a tradition for many years until the restaurant closed.  After that, we would usually forgo Thanksgiving Day and instead go out a day or two afterwards, usually for ethnic cuisine.  It was all very cool, very laid back, and very original.

Except apparently, I missed the family dinner.  As is the case with any (healthy) family, our roles with each other continue to develop and change.  I liked the idea of being able to provide for my family, especially (or perhaps solely) in the context of delicious food.  So I planned a Pre-Thanksgiving dinner my first year at my new house, and I invited my parents and my siblings as well as several of my friends.  I chose the day before Thanksgiving so that my friends wouldn’t have to give up their Thanksgiving plans to come to mine.

Pre-Thanksgiving

The half of the table that ended up in the living room.

I also knew I wanted to have it as a sit-down meal in which all the dishes were on the table, as in days of yore.  Even with my extra space, my house doesn’t hold too many people, so I knew it would be a squeeze.  But some extra chairs and some run-off into the living room, and we made it happen.

As for the food, well, I knew I wanted to make most of it, but I also knew I couldn’t make all of it (not for 10+ people).  So I solicited help from my friends and family to bring specific food items, while I worked on the staples.  I cooked mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, some desserts, and of course, a turkey.  Not only had I never cooked a turkey before, but I’m a vegetarian.  Internet to the rescue!  Should you be in the same boat as I and not be sure how to cook a turkey, might I recommend this video series.

Three years later, and I’m getting ready for my 4th Pre-Thanksgiving (though this time it’s a post-Thanksgiving).  The guest list shifts a bit, but I am always delighted to have the people I love sit with me and share some delicious food.  You might even say, I’m thankful for it.

Then you might accuse me of being horribly cliché.

I guess what I’ve learned is that even when I’m taking a radical tack in regards to how I live my life, I sometimes end up back where I started.  That doesn’t always invalidate my journey; sometimes it brings me more in touch with who I want to be and what I want to do.

I’ll leave you with a few of my recipes that I like to make for my Thanksgiving-centric meals.  Enjoy!

Rolls and Cookies

Dinner Rolls and Banana Oatmeal Cookies (see below)

Dinner Rolls

Recipe courtesy of About.com

1 packet Dry Yeast (2-1/4 tsp)
1 cup milk
3 tbsp butter
1 egg (beaten)
2 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups flour

In a mixing bowl mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of warm water.  Remember that the yeast will die if exposed to too much heat, so just make it warm, not scalding hot.

Melt the butter into the milk.  Remember it can’t be too hot, so maybe just microwave it and let it sit for a bit.

In the yeasty bowl, add the egg, sugar, salt, and a cup of the flour.  Add the butter and milk mixture and stir.  Add another cup of flour and stir again.  Add one more cup of flour and stir once more.  It will be wet and sticky at this point.

That’s what she said.

Transfer to floured cutting board and knead for 5-10 minutes, adding a little flour if it gets too sticky.  When it’s smooth and slightly elastic (the dough springs back into shape if you pinch it), coat it in vegetable oil and put in a bowl to rise.  Cover with a cloth and put it someplace warm.

After about an hour or so it should have doubled in size.  Plop it onto a large cutting board and lightly press it into a large rectangle.  Try to make the dough as even as possible at this point so that your rolls will be of consistent size.  Once it’s vaguely rectangular and even, cut the dough with a knife into 12 squares.  Roll each of these squares into a ball.

I find that if I pinch the ends together and smooth out the rest of the dough square, I get the smoothest shape on top.  Imperfections will come out in the baking, so try to get it as pretty as possible at this point.  But also remember that you will be gorging on these later, so don’t worry too much about transitory blemishes.

Place the balls onto a baking sheet relatively close together.  Cover again with a cloth and set aside to rise again for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, set oven to 350 degrees.

When they’re done rising they should be touching slightly.  Bake for 20-25 minutes.  They’ll start to stick together a bit at this point, which is exactly what y0u want to happen.  Test half of them for flavor, but try to save a few for the table.

Mashed Potatoes

I am completely improvising this right now, but that’s because I improvise it every year.  It’s one of those, “everyone is about to sit down, time to make mashed potatoes.”  So forgive me for the approximate measurements.

A bunch of red potatoes.  Let’s say, um 5 to 20.
Some milk or soy milk.
Butter.  No margarine for you!
Garlic powder
Salt-n-Pepa (the group)

Boil or steam the potatoes for about 20-30 minutes in their skins.

Pull them out and drain if necessary.  Leave the skins on and mash!  Mash like the wind!  Whistle “Suicide is Painless” if desired.

Throw them into a bowl or even back in the pot if you’re short on bowls.  Add some milk to make it creamy.  I’d say with 10 potatoes I usually add 1/2 cup to a cup of milk.  This makes it creamy and easier to stir.  Bonus!

Slice up a half stick of butter and drop it in.  Let it melt in its potatoey doom.

Garlic powder!  I used to think that fresh garlic would be so much better, but the powder works great.  Keeps you from eating chunks of garlic.  Actually, doesn’t sound so bad.  In any case, add until you reach your garlic tolerance level.  Mine is quite high.

Shoop a little of that Salt-n-Pepa into the bowl to taste.  Twist it and shout “Primo mash for everyone!”

And that is my old family recipe.

Banana Oatmeal Cookies

My friend Rachel can’t stand these cookies, but everyone else seems to like them.  She calls them mystery cookies.  The best part about these cookies is that since they contain bananas and oatmeal, you can guiltlessly eat them for breakfast.

Adapted from allrecipes.com

1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter (room temperature or melty)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
5 ripe bananas, mashed
3 cups rolled oats
1 package of white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Wet ingredients: Beat the butter and the sugar.  Add in the egg and vanilla and stir.

Dry ingredients: Mix the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  If you want to go a bit overboard on the cinnamon, I think that’s just fine.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir.  Mix in the mashed banana.  Mix in the oats.  Mix in the white chocolate chips.

Drop small spoonfuls onto a baking pan (I love me some silpats!).  Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the outside is solid and the white chocolate chips are brown and the banana is caramelizing.

Traditional Thanskgiving Rice and Beans (Gallo Pinto)

Ok, this one is not so traditional, except in the sense that I always make this dish.  It’s one of my favorites for any occasion, and it’s so easy to make.  I adapted this from Jessica B. Harris’s cookbook, Beyond Gumbo.

1.5 cups of rice (cooked)
4 cans of beans (drained)
1 Bell pepper (chopped)
1 Medium onion (diced)
3 or more cloves of garlic (minced)
2 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin)
Coriander (ground)
Salt (to taste)
Cayenne (pinch)
Worcestershire Sauce (bottled)

Saute the garlic and onion in oil (in a big pot).  When translucent, add the bell pepper.  When soft, add the beans.  After 3 or so minutes, add the rice.  Add a tiny bit of cayenne, a fair amount of salt (depending on whether the beans were pre-salted), a healthy tbsp or 2 of coriander, and a ton of Worcestershire sauce.  Really, I get about 3-4 Gallo Pintos out of one regular bottle of it, so just keep dumping it in (probably a 1/3 cup or so of it at least).  Stir, let sit, and serve.

You can make it vegan just by making the Worcestershire sauce a veggie friendly option.  You can also load it with bacon, but I’ve never tried that.

Have delicious times!

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Figure and Grounding

Last December, I spent my holiday break with my good friend Margaret visiting from Florida.  Between our recording Wedding Day for my recording project and my rehearsing for perhaps the worst NYE gig ever, we got to spend the rest of our time together doing what every man and woman, every man and man, every woman and woman, men and women alone, groups of men and women, people with dogs and cats, and even young children love to do: eat.

On her first night in town, after my rehearsal, we went out to eat at New Delhi Indian buffet in West Philadelphia.  Or I should say we tried, but were thwarted when I realized that New Delhi is closed on Mondays.  We ended up going around the corner to the vastly inferior Tandoor, where the samosas are tiny and the saag paneer is lackluster.  As we finished our meal, we vowed that for the rest of her visit, we would only eat food that was delicious.  That might mean spending a bit more, but that was a luxury we could afford and wanted to treat ourselves to.

Figure and Ground Beef

Figure and Ground Beef

To me it seemed like a revolutionary idea: for the whole week, only eating things that we wanted to eat.  But like those pictures of the two faces in silhouette that can also be interpreted as vases, there were two ways to view this idea.  The clear stated one was the idea that we take this time to eat what we want.  The unclear one that came into focus was that the rest of the time, when we don’t set a week aside to “indulge” ourselves, we don’t eat what we want.  And the big question is of course, why?

Certainly, there are time constraints that impinge on our doing everything that we want, food included.  But we know what kinds of food are awesome, across a variety of price ranges, styles, and portions.  Sure, eating 200 wings is a delightful experience, but you don’t have to do that to have a satisfying and delicious meal.  I ate well for a week, and it wasn’t that difficult or even that expensive.  So why would we do it any other way?  Why would we waste time on a culinary experience that is not up to our standards?

The answer seems to be too often, that it’s just the way it is.  When I go to work, the food truck serves bland tuna on white bread, so that’s what I eat.  What if eating were a conscious decision instead of a default action?  I know this is more difficult that it seems, as I spent many years perceiving eating as a utilitarian experience (mostly so I could avoid having to socialize with people around the Jr. High lunch table).  It’s a culturally accepted way of life to just eat what you’re given, but the alternative path is so easy to start down, and it just starts with a simple phrase: what do I want?

On my way from the train to my office today, I stumbled across this piece of paper from someone asking herself (if my handwriting-gender analysis is accurate) the same question in a different context:

Note

Here is someone who is tired of accepting the default options in her life and is ready to see what some of the alternatives are.  And her first statement, her title statement is “What I want for myself.”  That is often the trickiest part of the process: figuring out what you want.  When my friends turn to my for relationship advice and talk about the things they aren’t satisfied with, my number one question is “well, what do you want?”  If you don’t know what it is you want, you will have a hard time being happy.  It doesn’t have to be completely clear, but you at least need something to shoot for.

So now that I know what I want to eat and I know that I can achieve it, I can start to examine the other areas of my life and find what it is that I want and figure out how to achieve it.  Let me nip this in the bud right here: I know that you can’t always have everything that you want in life.  There will be things that are out of your reach, conflicting desires (I want to be the world’s foremost piano player AND enter in the Guinness Book of World Records with the longest fingernails), and impediments for which overcoming is not worth your effort.  Our culture tells us these things every day, and there is truth in the unconscious message.  However, I also know that it’s so much easier to be complacent and accept the things you want but cannot have as “just the way it is.”  If it was a simple enough switch for me to eat only what I wanted to eat for a week, then it can’t be that much more to examine if I’m happy with my relationships with friends, family, and lovers (spoiler: yes, but it’s important to always evaluate).  Am I happy with my career?  Am I happy with how I’m spending my free time?  Ultimately, what do I want to be doing, and how do I make that happen?

Once we figure out what it is that we want to do, we have to care enough about ourselves to make our desires reality.   We have so much capability as intelligent and feeling beings.  We deserve and owe it to ourselves to find ways to achieve satisfaction and joy.  To quote Owen Meany from John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, “IF YOU ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.”  Let’s start learning, loving, and living.

Open Mic Duality

A few weeks ago while in San Francisco, I stopped by the Hotel Utah to perform at the open mic.  My musician friends in the bay area had told me it was one of the better ones in the area, and I had seen it listed as one of the top in the US, so I made it my goal to get out there.  The open mic had certain qualities that made it stand out.  The stage was well-delineated and there was plenty of space for a band or performer to set up and not crash into equipment, the audience, or the bar.  There was a great variety to the acts that performed.  The night I played, there were pianists (on a well-tuned piano!), ukulelists, a laptopist, and of course guitarists.  Songs were funny, kooky, sincere, disturbing, original, and covered.  Most importantly, the host made it abundantly clear that any kind of act was welcome.  That included an incredibly entertaining performer named Lady Zeitgeist who has fortunately posted a video of her performance that night:

I had a great time playing there with my friend Art Elliot, even though we went on pretty late.  After we finished and were driving back, we got into a discussion about open mics.  We talked about the folk circles where aging hippies play the same songs they’ve been playing for the past 40 years as well as the open mics where rap groups put on a backing CD and pace the stage angrily.   Most importantly we talked about the dual role that open mics play for aspiring musicians, and how they conflict with each other.  I have been making it a goal of mine to attend at least one open mic each week, and I have fallen far short.  A lot of the reason I have fallen short is because of that conflict, and the frustration it causes.

The most obvious role of an open mic is to give any performer a venue to perform.  Perhaps you just started playing your instrument, or perhaps you used to play Santana covers years ago, and you want to see what it’s like to play on a stage in front of other people.  Your skill level is not especially important, because if you were experienced, theoretically you would be booking gigs as an established name.  These types of performers will often bring a few friends and family members to hear them play (and then leave as soon as you’re done).  The open mic is the perfect venue because by definition, it gives anyone an opportunity to play.  I think it’s fantastic that these types of opportunities exist, because experimenting with being on a stage can be quite a thrill.

On the other hand, many people don’t realize that established musicians often come to open mics as well.  Sometimes it’s to work out kinks in songs or work out new material in front of an audience.  But the bigger reason, and the one that is more for people “in the know,” is that open mics are a community that can lead to more opportunities for performing.  When an open mic is looking to book a featured act, a performer that plays a longer set in the middle of the open mic, they often pull from the performers that show up every week.  The musicians who keep coming back get to know each other as well, and are able to network into collaborative projects or shared billings at larger venues.  At one open mic in Philadelphia, the person who hosts it books at least 5 other venues in the area, many of which are paying gigs.  So musicians return week after week to keep their names in the mix, to meet up with and hear other local musicians, and to become a part of the larger community as a whole.

Perhaps you can see the conflict between these two groups now.  The first group is just looking for a place to play and have a good time.  The second group is there to further their careers (and also play and have a good time).  The first group is fine seeing anyone who shows up, as they’re just part of the show.  But the second group often gets resentful about having to sit through acts from random people who will come and go and who are either not interested or not dedicated enough to be a bigger part of the music community.  It does not serve the purposes of the second group to have the first group be there.

As I mentioned above, I really appreciate the role of the open mic as a place where anyone gets a chance to offer what they have.  And yet, I will often decide not to show up to one, asking myself “how many generic covers am I going to have to hear?  How many out of tune guitars?  How many people with no sense of stage presence?  How much time will I be wasting waiting to go on while performers that does not inspire me drone on?”  I feel horrible for thinking these things; I feel elitist, cruel, and wholly unsupportive.

I’m not sure what can be done to solve this problem, but I have found a few mitigating factors.

First, when the host of the open mic makes it clear that all acts are welcome and interacts positively with even the less experienced musicians, it makes it easier for the audience to be engaged by them.  When the host is dismissive or distracted, then we’re given the subconscious message that this person is not worth our time.

Second, I find that the more limited the number of songs each performer can play, the easier it is to pay attention to the act.  This can be tough for the established performers, since you want to showcase as much of your talent as possible.  Many local open mics give each performer 3 songs.  The World Cafe Live only gives each performer 2.  And when I played at the Hotel Utah, each performer was only given 1 song.  But I found I was concentrating on listening to the music and giving it a chance when I only had one song to hear.  That also forces you to pack your tightest material into your set and make yourself as relevant as possible.

Finally, and I can’t believe I have to say this, when everyone listens to the acts instead of talking through them, the whole experience becomes much more enjoyable. This can be tough, because those established musicians are Open Mic Dualitythere to network, as I said before.  And often, people come to a club or a bar to hang out with friends, not to see an open mic.  However, I am able to enjoy the multitude of acts so much more when I am giving them my attention and not torn between their music and the conversation next to me.  This, by the way, applies to everyone there.  The musicians, the audience members, the bartenders… the host of the open mic.  When you show respect to the people on stage, it becomes a much better experience.  Perhaps you’ll find out that act is better than you thought.  And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find out they’re cringingly bad, which is a whole other level of entertainment.

In any case, my trip to San Francisco has made it abundantly clear that being a part of the open mic scene can be a delightful experience.  I need to make the time for them in my life here in Philadelphia.  So next time you’re at the Grape Room or World Cafe Live on Monday, the Milkboy on Tuesday, Dawson on Wednesday, or anyplace else where an open mic is held, look out for the accordion player playing quirky songs.  If you’re listening carefully, you might find something you like.  Or you might be entertained by something cringeworthy.  In any case, you will be a part of the action.

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