The Menu Journal

I have a bit of an issue with food blog photography. While I love taking pictures of food, I am often too focused on the process of actually eating or cooking to remember to pause and set up a good shot. Plus my digital camera recently broke, I lost my Ollo Clip for my iPhone, and said iPhone has decided to insert a bright purple lens glare into the corner of almost every shot. So the pictures I am taking aren't necessarily the best anyhow. And as it will be awhile before I can afford the sweet DSLR I have my eye on, I find myself at a loss for what to do in the meantime. Because photos of food don't just act as pretty eye candy for the blog posts -- they also serve as memory-jabbers to help me recall what I've eaten and how the process came about.

Thankfully, the good people over at The Kitchn posted this a few weeks ago, and Hark! I had my solution! A Food Journal. I have tried to keep food diaries in the past, ones that counted all the calories and fiber content of everything I ate over the course of a day. Those diaries never made it to Day 3. And I have a recipe book, where I will write down a recipe of something once I have made it several times and it warrants recording for posterity (read: future disinterested grandchildren who don't even know how to read a real book with two covers and paper in between.) But this cookbook doesn't really capture all the little joys of my everyday cooking and eating.

So I got a fresh Leuchtturm notebook ( the BEST notebooks on the planet, far superior to Moleskin) and dubbed it Die Speisekarten, which is German for The Menus. I'm including meals I make at home in my sweet little Dollhouse, as well as particularly memorable meals I eat out in restaurants.  I started it off with what we ordered on our venture to the recently re-opened China Village in Albany, which was truly delicious, save for the Spicy Sour Chitlin Fun. (Ugh. I shudder at the remembrance of the smell of that one.) And since then I have been filling it with my Dollhouse dinners, and it has been very informative to see which ingredients get repeated and re-purposed. For instance, I made a Chive-Basil Pistou one night that, when mixed with some tahini and champagne vinegar, became a lovely salad dressing the next night. Since I don't write recipes for salad dressings ever, it's helpful to have some sort of record of this happy accident for future inspiration purposes.

So the problem of remembering what I have eaten seems to be solved. Now on to figuring out what to do with the mediocre iPhone food photography... Maybe I will just turn to illustration instead!

Au Lait Cru: Part One

Inspiration is a funny thing. When it strikes, I often feel the need to sustain it, to hold on to it so tightly it never leaves my grasp again. This of course has the adverse effect of promptly abandoning me, leaving with a great whoosh of deflated energy. So I vow to relax, let it all flow over me, the next time I feel that gentle intake of breath that lets me know I'm on to something. I often long for that which I don't have, but I always believe that it's near-inevitable arrival is just a few moments away. Marriage, a career that is utterly fulfilling, financial stability, children, travel , a house, publishing a book that becomes a wild success... And sometimes I get so wrapped up in longing I forget that it actually is up to me to somehow gently guide my inspiration with real live action and just do it already. Hm. Maybe I've seen too many Nike ads recently.

camembert
camembert

So when inspiration arrives, fresh off the plane from Paris, in the form of not one but TWO wheels of raw milk Camembert, I think of how best to document this glorious experience. I post a photo on the Facebook. I snap a dozen more iPhone pics with the intention of writing a blog post all about cheese and the demented US regulations that keep such lovely (and totally harmless) products out of our everyday grasp.

But then I eat. And I forget to take notes, instead closing my eyes and breathing in the ripe aromas. I nibble, letting the cheese melt on my tongue. I sip some Vouvray. I smile widely at my boyfriend. And I let inspiration just be, Nike be damned.

*Eternal gratitude to Mike and Angela for acting as illicit cheese couriers.

Is Wine a Reason?

I sell wine. Every week, my distributor reps come in and we taste new wines, searching to fill holes in my current inventory and try out new producers. I get to write shelftalkers and wine club newsletters, using my words to tempt customers into trying something new and different. I talk to every single person that comes into the shop and assess their needs, budget, and preferences in order to match them with their perfect wine for that particular moment. Oh, and I get to take home samples and leftover wines at the end of the day.

But what is it, really, that I do? I love the wine industry, and I love the fun parts of my job. Honestly even the unglamorous aspects like washing tasting glasses and spit buckets, breaking down hundreds of cardboard boxes, and dealing with an astonishing number of snooty wine snobs are just a small price to pay. However, at the end of the day, I sell wine. Is this to be my contribution to society? To provide you with one great bottle for one night's worth of fleeting happiness? If I do my job correctly, you take a bottle of wine home, to a dinner party, and while drinking it, you remark upon it's remarkable taste and glorious finish. Perhaps you even take note of the producer and vintage and vow to buy more (hopefully from me.) But is this it?

CameraAwesomePhoto (7)
CameraAwesomePhoto (7)

I don't mean to denigrate my industry and my small place in this world. I love wine with a sometimes overwhelming passion that threatens to subsume all other considerations.  And in these moments, I turn to the only thing I have ever turned to in times of frustration and aimlessness-- I turn to writing. I work on my book and I type these blog posts and continue to search for that which will satisfy my yearning soul. But I fear this is a question that not only I struggle with. Across all industries, do we all sometimes wallow in doubt? I despise regret and have no wish to visit with it. But if we chase the goal of regretting nothing, do we perhaps move too fast to see the truth in our actions? I make nothing. I give no tangible objects or benefits to the world at large. Is wine then, reason enough for being and breathing?

I'm not sure. I think I shall open up a bottle of vintage champagne and contemplate this some more.

CameraAwesomePhoto (8)
CameraAwesomePhoto (8)

The Girl's Guide to Bourbon

It's a funny thing to say to someone. It feels boastful and full of unearned pride.  Almost like an emotional masquerade. "I'm writing a book."

To which the other person in the conversation replies with any number of appropriately enthusiastic responses, and generally inquires as to the subject, how I got into it, who is going to publish it, when it's coming out... And I am left to piece together a reply that is factual, fair, succinct, and above all, something that doesn't make me sound as if I am an overinflated balloon of hot air and narcissism.

Invariably, it comes out something like this:

"Well, it's a book about whiskey. Sort of a guide book for women on how to understand and appreciate a spirit that is so rooted in masculinity." [Uh-oh. Feminist ideals seeping out. Do I sound pretentious?] "But it's just a work in progress!" [It is unfinished, and I don't have a publisher yet.] "Of course, I think it has so much potential, and there really is a huge market out there, I mean, there's just scores of women out there who feel so intimidated and unsure, and I really just want to help them." [What's that -- altruism in the midst of a violent flurry of self-consciousness?] "So, I'm in the organization and research phase." [Which is why I am drinking this lovely Whiskey Smash at two o'clock  on a Wednesday afternoon.]

In fairness to myself, I have been working on it. And it is progressing, picking up steam, taking off, take your pick o' clichés. I'm networking and talking to other writers and fellow industry professionals. I'm learning. And I'm feeling more and more, that cocktails and the spirits and ingredients behind them are just as fascinating and complex as wine and food.

Now, in the name of research, let's taste some vermouth and analyze which one goes best in the Rittenhouse Rye 100 Manhattan we are making.

Local New Zealand

One of the greatest ways to move oneself out of a rut is to travel. And one of the greatest travel destinations in the world must be New Zealand. How lucky for me then, that we had an opportunity to spend three full weeks in the land of Kiwis and Lord of the Ring filming locations. Feeling creatively stagnant before this trip, I'm thrilled to be exploding with new ideas for poems, articles, recipes, photos, general life-plans. It helps that this trip came right at the beginning of the new year, when the excitement of New Year's resolutions hasn't worn off to grim resignation or shamed defeat yet.  I will eat less cheese! I will drink less wine! I will eat more leafy greens and less cream and more root vegetables! I will do yoga every day and some sort of cardiovascular activity at least 2-3 times a week! Right?! 

Of course, one must not attempt all these things when on holiday, that would be detrimental to experiencing the most a country has to offer, the totality of the national culture. So we've been on a hiatus from the grey, dreary weather as well as those pesky resolutions.

Thankfully, we were able to explore New Zealand, through hikes in the mountains and along the beaches, through restaurants and street food, farmers markets, grocery stores, and wineries. Though we weren't  huge fans of most of the local beers, we did love some other things uniquely Kiwi.

IMG_1007
IMG_1007

For instance, at a local Saturday market, we were able to sample a whitebait patty, which seems to have consisted solely of eggs, butter, and tiny little briny fish. Fairly mild, it's served on a buttered slice of white bread. Though it is not quite "gourmet," it was delicious and savory, perfect for nibbling on while strolling in the hot New Zealand sun. 

When the heat turned into a heavy humidity that wouldn't be stirred by the slightest breeze, I turned to Real Fruit Ice Cream. Advertised by wooden placards as we drove through small towns, it was irresistable in its cooling, frozen-fruit and chocolate-y way. I haven't eaten an ice cream cone in years, and this was well worth a break in the fast! You are asked what ice cream you want (I chose plain frozen yogurt) and then a fruit (raspberries) and if you would like chocolate added (obviously yes.) Then the whole thing gets whirred up in a big stainless steel machine until its almost totally blended, leaving you with the tiniest bits of frozen fruit and chocolate chunks. Creamy purple goodness! 

There were lots of delicious morsels and great meals, including a three-course meal we created using only local New Zealand ingredients! It featured lamb three ways (meatballs, a braise, and roasted rack of lamb,) local cherries, potatoes, eggs, yogurt, herbs, greens, cheeses... It was fun to be able to reach for summer ingredients in January and not feel guilty! 

But now we're home, and I'm back to making rich winter stews and using only canned tomatoes. Sigh. At least I have the memory of the warm sun and dramatic mountains to sustain me until we reach summer here, or I embark on another excursion. And thankfully this trip has provided me with bucketfuls of inspiration that will hopefully also sustain me creatively as well. 

NZ mountain
NZ mountain

Wine Country Chronicles: The Shyness of Taste

Most of us have heard about the infamous tasting of 1976, where French and California wines were tasted blind by a panel of snobby French judges in Paris. The California wines rocked the house, much to everyone's surprise. They've made movies and written books all about it. If you haven't yet heard this fascinating tale, read the original Time article here Needless to say, I thought it would be fun to kick off my informally-formalized independent wine education with a mini-tasting here in the house. With Chris otherwise engaged preparing us dinner, I started off with two whites I had picked up at Cost Plus that morning. From France I had the Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse, a white burgundy. And my representative for California chardonnay was a Gundlach Bundschu from Sonoma. Both wines were from the 2007 vintage. I opened them up, gave myself some generous pours, and set about to write what I thought of them.

All of a sudden, I felt strangely nervous. Who do I think I am, that I can just presume to open some wines I know nothing about and then write what I think of them? What if I think it tastes like something that's not really there? What if I don't notice something about the wine that is painfully obvious to everyone else?

Why this sudden reticence? I'm certainly not one to shy away from speaking my mind, no matter what the subject. So it should be no different when it comes to my opinions about wine, right?

See, this is the funny thing about the wine world. It can be so intimidating to explore, with different people proclaiming opinions with an air of absolutism, magazines assigning points to "grade" wines and a plethora of different varietals and styles. Most of us simply don't have the knowledge, time, or money to be able to give ourselves a thorough education in all the dizzying aspects of the art of enjoying and understanding wine.

Plus, isn't the idea of taste subjective? I don't care for the taste of peanut butter, but it might be your favorite foodstuff in the pantry! Additionally, two people can like an identical dish but for different reasons. So, couldn't it be the same for our tastes in wine?

As our tastes vary, so shall our opinions. And if I think a wine tastes like hibiscus or seems flirty, that's just my way of expressing a personal opinion. There shouldn't be any reason to be shy about that.

Taking a deep breath, I sipped. Pen in hand, I boldly wrote my first impressions. The Pouilly-Fuisse was slightly sweet. It was crisp at first, then softened to something silky. It was pale. Light-colored. It had a fragrant perfume. And then came the chardonnay. It was so different! It was richer, golden-colored. It tasted like butter. It coated my mouth in a way totally unlike the French wine.

Excitedly, I sipped more. Chris jumped in, cautiously proffering his opinion as well. We were so taken with our new roles as wine critics that we forgot the whole tasting-in-moderation aspect of the wine tasting. Hm. I had planned on doing a red wine tasting that evening as well, but we polished off the last of the two bottles of white, I thought I might just postpone it for a day or two.

But we had so much fun! I liked writing about the wine -- it made me think about it more, and enjoy it even more than if I'd just absent-mindedly sipped it. Wine has always stimulated conversations, daydreams, pleasures, and friendships. Too often it can also stimulate depression, discord, and strife. I think the balance can be struck not just in moderation, but in always remembering to savor and enjoy the experience of drinking-- and feeling a little gratitude for the blessing that is wine.

Shyness simply cannot mix with unbridled enthusiasm. And so, I vowed that night to dispense with my hesitations and embrace this magical world of wine and words, sans fear.