December 1, 2015

Scenes from my week

image4{Why not make a turkey cookie?}

This past week was Thanksgiving weekend and so entailed a lot of eating, spending time with some visiting relatives, and…more eating! I also finally made it to the Holiday Train Show at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which I’ve been meaning to go to for years. It was definitely worth the trip. The whole display in the greenhouse made me feel like I had stepped into some cosmopolitan fairyland, and once the sun set the lights made everything come alive so much more. I cannot recommend it enough! Here are some photos:

image2   {A view from the place where I spent Thanksgiving}

image6 {The Train Show}

image5 {Famous Manhattan landmarks}

image7{Me, leaning in to get a closer look}

image8 {Because I couldn’t resist!}

image1{A red sky at night over the lower east side}

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November 27, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 3/4)

 

russianw.

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011); Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)

 

Like Pushkin’s character, Lensky, Lermontov was also a romantic poet who died very young in a duel, in his case at the age of twenty-six. His career is as remarkable for its brevity as it is for the incredible literary contributions he made during his short life, which earned him both the title of “The Poet of the Caucasus” as well as his reputation as the greatest poet after Pushkin. Lermontov showed great promise from an early age; he composed poetry from the age of thirteen under the influence of Byron, who he greatly admired alongside Goethe and other members of the Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Urge’) movement. Although he was a sickly youth and suffered from a permanent limp due to a horse-riding accident, the events leading up to his death had nothing to do with his physical afflictions and almost everything to do with the consequences of his intense personality.

His passionate behaviour included recuperating from his work with the same degree of intensity that characterized his work ethic itself. According to Lermontov’s biographer Alexander Skabichevsky, “In the mornings he was writing, but the more he worked, the more need he felt to unwind in the evenings…‘I feel I’m left with very little of my life,’ the poet confessed to his friend A.Merinsky on July 8, a week before his death.” During his years in the military especially, Lermontov not only gained a reputation for his whoring and drinking sprees but also a number of enemies due to his characteristic cruel wit and caustic humour. His lack of social pleasantries would eventually be the reason for the duel that killed him. In a letter dated to 1833, he admitted his impulsive proclivities: “Now I want material pleasures, happiness that I can touch, happiness that can be bought with gold, that one can carry it in one’s pocket as a snuff-box; happiness that beguiles only my senses while leaving my soul in peace and quiet.” Despite all of this energy expended on indulgent behaviour, however, Lermontov was extremely productive in writing and receiving publication.

Perhaps the act that best exemplifies his ability to create brilliant work under extreme duress was his creation of the poem dedicated to Pushkin that propelled him to fame, Death of a Poet. Following Pushkin’s death in 1837, Lermontov was severely distraught and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet despite his disfavour at court, impending exile, and fitful condition, he composed Death of a Poet, which enjoyed mass circulation among the Russian intelligentsia within only a few days. Its final part, in fact, was written impromptu within just a few minutes before being disseminated. Such was Lermontov’s gift.

Parallel to Lermontov, Amy Winehouse was also a young star prone to working and playing hard. In a 2007 interview, she remarked, “…Maybe I’m a bit resentful because all I do is work now. If I’m not working, I’ll be up for three weeks at a time, just like the old me.” In short, her idea of rest and relaxation was staying awake for three weeks in order to recover from working non-stop.

Only a year older than Lermontov was when he died, Winehouse was notorious not only for her involvement with drugs and alcohol but also for her disastrous love interests in a similar way that Lermontov’s personal life was remembered. It was in fact these tumultuous relationships that provided rich fodder for many of her song lyrics that mention being helplessly part of a toxic couple locked in a cycle of self-destruction. Lermontov’s romantic life was equally as chaotic. In his 1982 biography, author John Garrard mentioned that, “The symbolic relationship between love and suffering is of course a favourite Romantic paradox, but for Lermontov it was much more than a literary device. He was unlucky in love and believed he always would be: fate had ordained it.”

Fortunately, despite the frequent catastrophes that plagued them throughout their careers, both Lermontov and Winehouse at least lived to see the measure of their great success. Amy Winehouse, in a 2007 interview, remarked that although her greatest fear at one point was dying without being acknowledged for her contributions to music, her worldwide acclaim ultimately reassured her that “If I die…I would still feel fulfilled in a way.” By the time she died, Winehouse had received twenty-four awards from sixty-two nominations within a span of five years (2004-2009), including five Grammy awards in 2008. Her twenty-fifth and last award was a Grammy granted post-humously in 2012 for “Body and Soul,” her final recording done four months before her death.

Lermontov, by the end of his life, had earned the reputation as ‘Pushkin’s heir,’ not just for his admiration of Pushkin, but also as a brilliant novelist, poet, and founding father of Russian literature in his own right, alongside Pushkin. His interest in the culture and landscape of the Caucasus introduced new forms of literary thinking into the early development of his nation’s literature, and he invented the intonations of what was later termed ‘iron verse’ for its vigorous sounds and high energy of powerful expressions.

Next (part 4/4): Layne Staley and Nikolai Gogol

 

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November 23, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 2/4)

 

LDRvsPushkin    Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837);  Lana Del Rey (1985-)

 

Lana Del Rey’s attitude towards her own death and the association between ‘living fast’ and ‘dying young’ is well documented through both her song lyrics and personal interviews. In an interview with The Guardian in June 2014 she stated that, “I wish I was dead already,” and then confirmed that she thought of early death as glamourous. She somehow associated this foreboding feeling with her inextricable but stressed marriage to her career. “I do [wish I was dead]. I don’t want to have to keep doing this but I am,” she said. In short, Del Rey has intimated a view of early death within her future, largely in light of the empathy she feels toward other musicians who tragically died young. This dismal attitude is central to her personal brand and goes well with the lifestyle she advertises, which is all about paradoxically seeking freedom through self-destructive enslavement. And yet she finds inadequate release in the music she cannot help but make, thereby wishing for a greater extrication from reality through some aspect of the reckless lifestyle that she apparently leads, a type of lifestyle that also tends to accompany young, glamourised deaths.

Pushkin, in a way, also prophesied his own death in a textbook example of how ‘life imitates art.’ In Pushkin’s novel, Yevgeniy Onegin, Lensky, a romantic young poet, is killed in the duel that he challenges Yevgeniy to after Yevgeniy’s public flirtation with Lensky’s beloved Olga, a woman whose feelings run much shallower for Lensky than his for hers. Under eerily similar circumstances, Pushkin was also mortally wounded in a duel over his straying wife, Natalya Goncharova, a great beauty who became a figure of scandal due to her affair with her brother-in-law, Georges d’Anthès. Ridiculed by high society as a cuckold, Pushkin challenged Natalya’s lover to a duel, which he lost. In the aftermath, while Pushkin lay dying for two days, he reportedly recalled a premonition that he had about the number six in relation to his death: the tragic duel that bore so much resemblance to his own happened in chapter six of Yevgeniy Onegin. And while the tendency to conflate fact and fiction runs deep through the veins of Russian literary studies, of which self-mythology is a noted characteristic, the circumstances surrounding Lensky and Pushkin’s death are indeed uncannily alike, regardless of whether the report of Pushkin’s last words is true or not.

Next (part 3/4): Amy Winehouse and Mikhail Lermontov

 

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November 20, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 1/4)

 

Lana del Rey                            Lana Del Rey

 

What makes a martyr? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.” And while religious martyrs are perhaps the first kind that comes to mind when we think of this word, significant consideration can also be lent to artists of the past. These are the ones who have been famously labelled as tortured geniuses of practically mythic proportions, extraordinarily talented libertines fuelled by a greater cause, who suffered as a combined result of bearing the burden of their talent and the inability to save themselves from the destruction that their genius pulled them towards.

In the next three parts of this series, I’ll explore the various similarities between three Russian literary giants and three of who could be construed in some ways as their modern-day, musical counterparts: Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse, and lead singer Layne Staley from the band, Alice in Chains.

The three aforementioned writers are considered to be the founding fathers of Russian literature: Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837), Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), and Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). To understand how mentally fraught these writers were one must first understand the history of Russian literature. It’s remarkably brief. It only entered into its own national and global consciousness about two hundred years ago. Before that, Russian intellectuals wrote in French, German, English, or other European languages in large part because they were schooled in those languages, spoke several of them fluently, and could connect with other great thinkers of the Western world that way. However, after the expulsion of Napolean (1812-1815) and the concomitant emergence of Russia’s great poet, Pushkin, the rise of Russian literature was unprecedentedly rapid and intense.

The burden that therefore fell on the first writers of that new literary tradition was a heavy one. They somehow had to articulate that which distinguished their literary heritage as rooted in Russian songs, prayers, and folklore, and combine it with borrowings from their up-to-date knowledge of other European literary traditions, colloquial Russian, and Church Slavonic language. In short, they were responsible for creation of their national literature. The great weight of this immense undertaking, in conjunction with their intense personalities, gradually manifested itself in the personal struggles that Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol each faced, which eventually led to their demises: both Pushkin and Lermontov died in dramatic duels while Gogol starved himself to death.

The hauntingly strange part, however, is that the ways in which they died bear striking resemblances to the deaths and attitudes towards death of Del Rey, Winehouse, and Staley. And while the term ‘genius’ is a relative one that may not apply to all the figures discussed here, the duty of carrying on the sacred flame of literature or music is what unifies them and provides the lens through which we will conduct our examination.

Next (part 2/4): Lana Del Rey and Aleksander Pushkin

 

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November 18, 2015

Scenes from my week

image4{Molly and me in Central Park}

Temperatures are falling rapidly in New York, but luckily there have been enough sunny days to still make walking around the city a beautiful experience. Highlights from my week include taking this adorable dachshund out for a stroll on Sunday (with some chili-infused hot chocolate in hand), showing a master ceramist around the city and the museum I work for, and seeing the Philippine Gold show at the Asia Society. Below are some photos!

image1{Dr. Kaneta Masanao is an eighth-generation Hagi ceramist whose works were just on display at the Armory show. His works can be found in prominent collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, among others. Basically, he’s a really big deal, and it was a huge honour for me to take him through the storage facility of our museum to look at pre-modern Japanese ceramics. Afterwards, we went to the Picasso exhibition at MoMA, which he liked seeing for inspiration. Here he is, admiring a sculpture of a cat.}

image2{Part of Dr. Kaneta’s exhibition at the Armory}

image5

{A beautiful work by him that I can’t believe I get to keep!}

image1{A pre-colonial era gold chain from the Philippines in the Asia Society’s show, Philippine Gold. It weighs about 5 kg (10 lbs) because it contains another gold chain within the four-walled, outer chain.}

image7{The Boxer Codex: a Spanish manuscript written c.1590 about the various Asian peoples that the Spanish encountered during their expeditions. Here are two couples from the Philippines, attired in their ethnic garbs. You can see how much gold they’re wearing, which goes with the purpose of this exhibition.}

image2 copy{What Central Park is looking like these days!}

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November 15, 2015

Colour study: school stationery hues

schoolstationery

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November 11, 2015

Asianifying fall vegetables (part 2): kabocha & chicken stew

 

kabochachicken

 

Okay. This one is a bit of a cheat. In continuing my series, “Asianifying fall vegetables in the U.S.,” I should, in theory, be choosing vegetables that do not typically feature in Asian cuisines. However, this is not the case in today’s recipe, since kabocha is a type of small pumpkin that is used in a variety of East Asian culinary practices. The reason why I decided to try it was because of the interesting nature of the recipe book it came from. Nikkei Cuisine: Japanese Food the South American Way, by Luiz Hara, is an attempt to clarify and explain the legitimacy of Japanese cooking as interpreted by members of the Japanese diaspora. Hara is one such member, having grown up in Brazil before moving to London to become an influential food blogger (while working in finance) and, eventually, a chef.

That being said, this recipe is what I would classify as restaurant-level one, given that it took what seemed like an eternity to make and contains detailed instructions such as “caramelise [the] konbu strips to garnish” and “Bevel the edges of each [pumpkin] slice” (i.e. scrape the pumpkin skin off the edges.) Still, it made for a delicious soup erring on the unexpectedly sweet side, which was nicely off-set by the savoury chicken element. I would make it again, but next time I would break up the preparation in a way that wouldn’t require me to do everything in one session, since there is quite a bit of steeping  and waiting involved. My recommendation is to prepare the dashi and ensuing kabocha soup well-ahead of time. The chicken can be done shortly before serving. For this reason, I’ve taken the liberty of separating this recipe into steps so that you can do “Step 1” in advance, and save “Step 2” for later.

From Luiz Hara: One of the simplest meat recipes in this book, this is a delicate but flavoursome dish with three main components–chicken, dashi stock, and kabocha pumpkin. For this dish to work, all three should be fresh and of the highest quality. If the budget stretches, I recommend corn-fed, preferably free-range chicken, and the dashi should be primary, crystal-clear and freshly made. This is an elegant chicken dish that is sure to impress.

Serves 4

-1 litre (4 cups) Primary dashi

-1/2 small kabocha pumpkin

-100 ml (1/2 cup) mirin

-1 1/2 tbsp. caster (superfine) sugar

-5 cm (2 in.) piece of konbu

-5 tbsp. light soy sauce

-4 corn-fed chicken thighs, skin on, bone in

-1 tsp. sansho pepper, to garnish

-1 tsp. toasted white sesame seeds, to garnish

-2 tbsp. caramelised konbu seaweed, to garnish

[Step 1.]

Prepare the primary dashi; this dish is all about the quality of the dashi and the chicken.

Start by preparing the kabocha pumpkin. First, cut the kabocha in half and remove the seeds. Then cut each half in half again: the quarters will have a thicker top part and a thinner bottom part. Then cut each quarter in half again so that you have eight pieces of roughly the same weight and size, for even cooking. Bevel the edges of each slice using a potato peeler (I do this to stop the sharp edges from breaking off into the dashi and making it cloudy, which would also spoil the presentation.) Finally, tap the heel of the knife blade into the kabocha‘s skin to cut small nicks into it, so when the kabocha cooks and the flesh expands, the harder skin will be able to expand with it and the slice will not crumble.

Put the kabocha in a medium pan, skin side down. Add the dashi, mirin, sugar, and konbu piece. Bring to the boil over a medium heat. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat so the kabocha gently simmers. Cook until the kabocha is just cooked through but firm, about 7 minutes; test for doneness by sticking a toothpick through it. Do not overcook at this stage, as the kabocha will be cooked again. When the kabocha is ready, turn off the heat and add the soy sauce. Let the kabocha steep in its cooking liquor for at least 1 hour (more is fine, even a few hours but don’t refrigerate.)

[Step 2.]

Carefully remove the kabocha from its liquor, setting it aside but reserving the liquid in the pan.

Next, preheat a heavy griddle pan over a high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the chicken, skin side down, and brown for a minute or so. Turn the pieces of chicken over and brown the other side for 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken to the pan of cooking liquor and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, so the liquid simmers gently, and continue to cook for 12 minutes. When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and keep it warm.

Now, return the kabocha pieces to the cooking liquid, bring to the boil then turn the heat down and simmer gently for a couple of minutes to heat the pumpkin through.

To plate, place one chicken thigh in a shallow serving bowl followed by two pieces of kabocha pumpkin alongside, then add a ladleful of the cooking broth. Finish off with a sprinkle of sansho pepper, the toasted sesame seeds and a few strands of caramelised konbu over the chicken. Serve immediately.

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November 8, 2015

Colour study: pastels x red

pinkgreen

 

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November 4, 2015

Book Review

foodrules

After reading Ann Reavis’ Italian Food Rules, a book that aims to explain many of the differences between Italian-American cooking and authentic Italian cuisine, I was curious to see whether the ‘rules’ presented in the book matched up with those of an actual Italian person who’s been well-exposed to Italian-American food. Enter Mario.

Mario Merone is originally from Ariano Irpino in the southern Italian region of Campania and has worked as a playwright, actor, director, and drama teacher all over Italy and other parts of Europe. In 2013 he moved to New York to pursue his dream of joining an American theatre company. Like many actors, Mario works part-time as a waiter—in his case at Piccolo Café, an Italian-American café and restaurant with a location near my apartment, which I like to frequent especially when I’m trying to get some reading done. Its tiny, narrow interior limits the number of customers, which makes for a quiet and intimate atmosphere, and the wait staff has always been kind enough to charge my phone and seat me next to the heater in the winter.

With his first-hand knowledge of culinary interpretations in both Italy and the U.S., Mario very kindly accepted my request to evaluate some of the ‘rules’ listed in Reavis’ book and either confirm or correct them. He credits his grandmother for first introducing him to Italian cooking and inciting his culinary interests thereafter:

I love food and I love to cook. My culinary experience began at my grandmother’s house in 1980. Even though I was only a year old, I started to taste the delicious food made by Nonna Carolina, and day by day, she taught me the secrets of what tasted good.

1.) Italians only drink tea when they are sick (they much prefer coffee). 

False. Coffee is the number one choice, but a lot of people also drink tea even when they’re not sick.

2.) Don’t dip bread in olive oil. Bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is not served automatically in Italian restaurants. 

Partially false. In Italy, bread alone is served automatically in restaurants, but without the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. However, they can provide those condiments upon request, and then you can dip your bread into them.

3.) No pizza for lunch. Pizza is meant to be eaten for dinner, with friends (as opposed to a family outing), after 9 PM, and at a pizzeria. One should also eat pizza with a knife and fork, unless you are a guy and in Naples.

False. You can have pizza for lunch and/or for dinner with your family or friends, at any time (not just after 9 PM). Usually, pizza is served already cut into slices so that you can use your hands and enjoy the delicious taste. But you are also welcome to use a knife and fork if you’d like!

4.) Don’t put ice cubes in beverages. This is because Italians believe that icy cold beverages are bad for your digestion. They can even cause congestione, an abdominal cramp, that can kill you. Italy is a land of simple drinks–wine, beer, water, none of which require ice.

False, mainly for the wrong reason. Putting ice in beverages isn’t common in Italy, but the reason is because ice changes the real flavour of the beverages. People like to keep the taste undiluted.

5.) Spaghetti is not served with meatballs. That is an American thing.

True. “Spaghetti with meatballs??? Are you kidding me??” That was my first reaction…

6.) Don’t eat eggs in the morning. Eggs are not part of an Italian breakfast, as usually people opt for a cappuccino and a pastry. They might even stretch to some fruit or yoghurt. But no eggs.

True.

7.) Italians don’t drink orange juice in the morning because they believe it is too acidic and bad for your digestion. 

False. We drink fresh orange juice in the morning. I’m one of them.

8.) Bistecca alla Fiorentina should only be eaten rare.

Following the tradition, yes, but it’s up to you. There is no prohibition to ask for Bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked ‘medium.’

9.) Different dishes are meant to be served on different dishes. For instance, a dish of potatoes is served separately from a dish of meat. The different foods therefore don’t touch each other. 

False, because it depends on the food combination. For example, you are not supposed to serve something like tomato sauce with potatoes on the same dish.

10.) Don’t use bottled “Italian salad dressing.” Real Italians dress their salad simply: olive oil, red wine vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and pepper are added sequentially to the salad. These ingredients are not shaken into a vinaigrette and added all at once. Vinaigrette is a French invention.

True.

11.) Don’t dip biscotti in coffee. The only drink biscotti should be dipped into is Vin Santo or vino santo

True. But you can dip biscotti into a cappuccino, latte or caffe llatte. By the way, I saw someone once who dipped biscotti into coffee, and he’s still alive…

12.) An actual panino is a small roll (not sliced bread) containing two to three ingredients. Most panini are not usually heated under a panino press, as they are in the U.S., and butter is never used on them either. 

False. We serve them using sliced bread, too. We also heat them under a panino press. But it’s true that we don’t use butter. Ever.

13.) Eating melons without prosciutto is considered somewhat dangerous to Italians. The logic is that if a ‘cold’ food like melon is eaten without a ‘hot,’ balancing food, like a salty meat, the body will be ‘chilled,’ which leads to the dreaded congestione

False.

——————————————–

For a complete list of Piccolo Café locations, see here

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October 31, 2015

The Charm of the Grotesque (and Egregiously Tacky)

 

BlingAngels-Samsung-Galaxy-S5-Case-Cover-Faceplate-Handcrafted-Unique-3D-Swarovski-Crystals-Diamond-Sparkle-bedazzled-jeweled-Design-Front-Back-Snap-on-Ha

A few years ago, I had a bedazzled phone cover that looked a lot like one above. Certain friends of mine with a predilection for frilly, fluffy, sparkly things would call it cute upon seeing it, but others would find this both amusing and ugly, as I myself did. So why did I like it? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that its appeal lay in the very fact that it was so overtly tacky it actually managed to achieve some kind of unconventional charm.

It sounds strange at first, if anything because it seems totally counter-intuitive to our aesthetic sensibilities, which we regard as usually attracted to the beautiful, symmetrical, and clean. But it is not so strange when we think about the appeal found in the art of the grotesque, a term coined in the 16th century that refers to styles of art which incorporate elements of the bizarre, fantastic, ugly, uncomfortable, and horrific. First revived during the Renaissance by the school of Raphael in Rome after a landmark excavation of grottoes in which such decorations were found, the grotesque style quickly became popular in decorative art and architecture throughout Europe and remained so until the 19th century.

But how did those who found it appealing explain its appeal? Like several terms that first appeared in the field of art but were then brought over to other branches of the humanities to be discussed, one of the first attempts to understand the term, ‘grotesque,’ occurred in literature, more specifically, in Michel de Montaigne’s (1533-1592) Essays to denote a burgeoning genre. In it, Montaigne described the genre as closely related to satire and tragicomedy because of its ability to effectively communicate grief, pain, and comedy all at once. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) later concurred with this feature of simultaneous discomfort and delight, thereby calling the art of the grotesque a “genuine anti-bourgeois style” in Past Masters and other Papers (tr. H.T. Lowe-Porter). Mann’s view was in the context of his broader opinions on modern art, the key characteristic of which he regarded as the refusal to acknowledge tragedy and comedy any further because “[Modern art] sees life as tragicomedy, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style.”

The funny thing is, though, that because of this tragicomic trait, the grotesque could very well relate to what we deem as cute. As tragicomedy tends to elicit a feeling of sympathy towards the pathetic, it creates an imbalance of power in which we viewers have the upper hand, and according to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai in Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting (2012), so do cute things, which evoke “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” out of the fact that they are “small, helpless, [and] deformed object[s].”

Arguably, then, the reason why things like my egregiously tacky phone case are somehow charming is indeed because they are cute— oddly enough by way of the pity they inspire in us, much like the art of the grotesque. Who would have thought that my giggly friends with a penchant for stuffed animals were right all along?

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.29.14 PM

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