Jan 1, 2012

the occasional annual ramble

home for three weeks in january for a wedding in the family, i discovered the beginnings of a coffee culture in singapore, one that gets the coffee right and the space too (here and here). reports from the field suggest that third (or even fourth) wave cafes are proliferating with astounding speed. i also discovered that food in singapore, once effortlessly and inexpensively tasty and full of heart, is now depressingly pricey and mediocre. i stopped in tokyo on the way back to cambridge. i'm glad to have seen japan again before the tsunami and fukushima devastated the country. it remains one of the few places where things are done right. we had a remarkable and understated dinner at tsuru ni tachibana that remains high on my incomplete list of nearly perfect meals (also see these frustrating updates from our field correspondent, who lives close by).

back in frosty massachusetts, i managed to slice my left index finger open while cutting bread. that was fun. some of us caravaned north to madison, NH, to celebrate a birthday with a lot of scotch. after many months, i became a regular at the hi-rise on brattle street (a single shot gibraltar is the drink). i visited lake forest again, to give a talk on telling stories with maps. one day at the hi-rise, club sandwich is born: nerds who meet sporadically for coffee and discussions that provoke nearby customers into fits of anger. mac and i thought briefly about rehabilitating a used rotavap for nefarious but delicious purposes (yet another case of execution failure).

spring came, damply. i went to dc several times to visit a field site. my respect for their operation grows and grows. each visit was the occasion for some informative drinking with the person behind the quite fine selections at ledroit. some long negotiations bore fruit, opening the way to a summer in denmark and the uk. meanwhile, the landlord at 32 chatham st, finally realising the value of his property, raised the rent by 25%. it was a nice apartment—but not that nice. i disposed variously of 50% of my stuff, in preparation for moving.

i moved may 31 and left for copenhagen on june 1. this was not the best idea. but denmark in the summer! what a great place. light in the sky til 10, then 11pm, and people everywhere who know how to enjoy a brief but beautiful season. i went to aarhus for a bit, to the beautiful new restaurant malling & schmidt where i ate a piece of very old beef that made me go to northern sweden (on which, see below), then came back down to copenhagen. at the field site, i encountered generosity, openness, strange architecture, and odd but tasty foods (here, here, here, here, and here). those were some long days, standing in the corner of the kitchen washing dishes while watching people think and cook. the danes know their flaky baked goods and are the best dinner conversationalists i have ever met: dinner with a pair of apple growers lasted 8 hours (they harvest unripe apples to add acidity to their cider, and freeze them until the main crop ripens fully). there was an experimental dessert that opened a new book, and a wine bar with great taste. my last full day in copenhagen, i had a nice surprise, then late in the day the skies poured down on the city a vast amount of rain. this washed away the tents at the roskilde festival and sent people running to their basements to survey their submerged belongings with dismay. 

after denmark, straight on to london. another field site, a very different sort of place, for a week. i have never seen a more completely utilised kitchen. while in london, i also had the opportunity to try several health foods from st john. 

oslo is a tiny city with incredible tap water (cold and ineffably pure-tasting), staggeringly expensive and mysteriously mediocre food, and the world's best snack. we left nearly immediately for fäviken magasinet, nine hours drive north and over the border in sweden. this tiny restaurant, by virtue of its remote location, can create for those who eat there a complete experience of hospitality. the carnivorous should note that lucky diners are sometimes served perfectly roasted pieces of beef raised and slaughtered on the property, then dry-aged in a casing of fat for many months (sometimes as many as seven). this meat is extremely good to eat. magnus nilsson, who runs the kitchen, has been experimenting with ways to grow and preserve meats, fruits, and vegetables so that the abundance of the swedish summer extends throughout the year. the small scale of his restaurant and its location on an enormous and productive property lets him do things which other chefs in the nordic region want to do but cannot. their kitchen garden aims for flavour and the ability to continue to produce the same amount and quality of food indefinitely (as measured by the amount of biomass and nutrient loss in their soils). for these goals they have sacrificed productivity and ease of cultivation. after dinner, which begins at 5pm and ends well past midnight, it is nice to stumble upstairs and fall immediately into bed. the next morning, if you wake up early enough, it is possible to dive (sky-clad, if you desire it) into the nearby lake. this brisk and bracing activity will help you become morally fibrous. a large breakfast appears shortly thereafter featuring, among many, many other things, a thick porridge of mixed grains and seeds (crushed semi-pearled barley, oats, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and hazelnuts). 

we dropped one of the fellow travelers off in trondheim, then drove down through norway, taking the E6 through the mountains. our destination was oslo by way of oppdal, where we spent the night in a moss-roofed smokehouse temporarily occupied by a geologist. back in oslo, the weather was nice, then it was not. one day, while i was out buying some smash about a mile from the norwegian ministry of petroleum and energy, i noticed that everyone had stopped moving. the bombings in oslo city center, then the shootings on utøya, consumed our attention for hours. the next day, the city was quiet. the norwegian response to this extremist right-wing act was dignified and completely correct: "our answer to violence is more democracy."

it was good to be back in cambridge after two months away but, almost immediately, i left again for a wedding in cleveland. this is not a city to go to in the depths of summer. the schedule was sufficiently condensed that we did not even get to try the fabled and splendid starch-stabilised ice creams made by jeni. but a wedding held in the presence of dinosaurs was more than sufficient compensation. 

back in cambridge, a friend from home came to visit and we installed 30 linear feet of industrial shelving in the apartment to accommodate our large and growing collection of cooking equipment and supplies. i discovered that the hi-rise on brattle street was to close forever. this made many of us unhappy. then, in mid-august, we left town again for charlottesville. driving there from dc, grapefruit proved vital for public safety. we entered the city as black clouds gathered overhead, and got to our rooms just in time for lightning to brighten the sky and tremendous gusts of wind and waves of hailstones to blow through. the lights went out across the street, and then went out in the building. gravel from driveways littered the darkened streets as we drove downtown in search of dinner. only bizou was open, but this old favourite from a decade ago was exactly right. the hot, moist air left behind by the storm had dissipated slightly after dinner but the smell of ozone remained. after this tempestuous opening, the weather became benign and conducive to morning coffee, walking about, and long dinners. a nice time was had by all, with some exceptions.

i flew from dc to sfo for a wedding in pescadero. this was great (as you can see). san francisco is ever the same: hills, beautiful weather, wondrous produce, happy people, great coffee (also see here), in-n-out, krispy kreme, and many dogs. but, you ask, where is the moral fibre? this is a good question. then some very last minute negotiations saw me abandoning my ticket from sfo to boston and flying instead to copenhagen again, for planting thoughts, a symposium about the future of food. the one thing you don't expect on arriving in copenhagen, but which is marvelous, is an indian dinner. behind the scenes, the organization of this first mad symposium was fraught. the morning of the first day, an enormous thunderstorm nearly brought down the symposium's circus tent and left the field completely saturated. locals came wearing waders and rainboots. i spent the week squelching around, never completely dry. but meeting lots of interesting people. symposium details here.

back to cambridge in september. i sat down to digest hundreds of pages of fieldnotes from the summer and write a dissertation prospectus. it would not be inappropriate to describe these two processes as "slow," or even "meandering." in october, the new hi-rise on wendell street finally opened to general rejoicing. by intent, its ceiling looks like the scrubbed pine floor of a swedish farmhouse.

the fall was brilliant: warm and dry. a good growing season in the northeast, so the markets overflowed (the apples were particularly good this year, if difficult to identify). it was not perfect weather for making kimchi, but the process seemed to work anyway. late in the season, various individuals converged on stockbridge, MA; some of us made a return visit to nudel, in lenox. we hope this will be an annual event.

now, we are in the depths of winter, but fall hasn't really left us. other than several hours of wet slush during a visit from some detroit food entrepreneurs and a few isolated flakes on christmas morning, we have had no snow. this winter has been unseasonably warm, in contrast with last winter which was brutal and involved many days of wintry mix and glassy frozen sidewalks. to celebrate, i freed myself from the tyranny of AT&T and apple.

the days are short but they've begun to lengthen again. in the late afternoons, it is nice to lie on the floor under the skylight and doze off in the sunshine while pretending to read an Important Scholarly Paper. the river flowing right outside my window remains ice-free. and today, on the first day of 2012, i went for a run in the sun and a t-shirt.

i'm grateful for small things and big things too.

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