Thursday, July 31, 2008

Day 31: Finis, or Curtain, or "And...Scene!"

Fare thee well, July, and fare thee well, NaBloPoMo. I told David I am never doing this again, and that he should remind me I said that, if I forget. He said I wouldn't listen to him anyway. I had fun writing about food, but 31 posts, like 31 flavors, is a lot.

For my last food-themed post, I wanted to share some famous quotes about food, but that's sort of a big field. Then I remembered that my favorite play of all time, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, is fairly food-centric. In fact, it contains a pair of scenes that use the ritual of afternoon tea as an implement of social discourse. So I am going to share famous food quotes, but they are all from the same source.

For those of you who have never seen or read Earnest, well, what is your problem? It's the apex of awesome. Go find a show--it's not hard; someone is always doing it. I might also modestly mention that I am a professional Earnest reader, and I'm available for hire.

The play centers on two London friends and their pursuit of marriage under the guise of false identity. The first, John ("Jack") Worthing, has invented a younger brother named Ernest, whom he pretends to be when he wants to kick up his heels in town. The second, Algernon Moncrieff, suspects Jack's double life, and "borrows" Ernest's identity to visit and woo Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew. Jack has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, but his lack of aristocratic background is a red flag to her mother, Lady Bracknell. The men are surprised to find that Gwendolyn and Cecily's affection for them is inextricably linked to the name Ernest.

The play debuted in London in 1895, and remains Wilde's most popular work. Shortly after its premiere, Wilde was jailed for alleged homosexuality.

Jack: (to Algernon, regarding his preparations for Lady Bracknell's visit)

"Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?"

Lady Bracknell: (finding favor with Jack's response to her query, 'I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?')

"I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone."

Cecily: (to Algernon, who [as Ernest] has pledged to 'reform himself this afternoon')

"How thoughtless of me. I should have remembered that when one is going to lead an entirely new life, one requires regular and wholesome meals."

Dr. Chasuble: (on the charms of older women)

"Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green. (ahem) I spoke horticulturally. My metaphor was drawn from fruits."

Gwendolen: (who, having just met Cecily, suspects she has designs on Ernest)

"You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far."

Jack and Algernon: (awaiting the verdict from Gwendolen and Cecily, who have just learned that neither of their intendeds is named Ernest)

J: "How you can sit there, calmly eating muffins, when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless."

A: "Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them."

J: "I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances."

A: "When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I'm particularly fond of muffins."

Cecily: (to Gwendolen, peering at Jack and Algernon from the house)

"They have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Day 30: My Guest, Grace

Today's post is courtesy of my dear friend, Grace, who happens to have written a lovely food-related piece for her book club recently. They were reading This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, and gave themselves an assignment to write their own "This I Believe" essay for their discussion. Grace and I took a walk today, and I asked for her thoughts on food, as I do everyone I meet these days. When she told me about her piece, I asked if she would read it to me over lunch. After she did, I knew I wanted her to be a guest blogger today.

A little about the author: Grace lives in San Diego with her husband, Carl, and daughter, Julianna, who is nine. She is a teacher and practitioner of massage and dance, and can fix whatever ails you during a one-hour coffee date through a combination of peaceful, soothing energy, and warm, sparkling humor. I have been honored to call her a friend for nearly 10 years now.

All in a Peach Tree

In a world such as ours it's hard to have faith
in love, goodness and peace
There are many negative distractions
and most of our media is dedicated to
distributing "the Bad News" they feel we need to be
informed of everyday

I ate a peach the other day that transformed all of that
in a most miraculous way
and gave birth to this essay

It may seem strange to think of the eating of a peach as
being transformational, but there is a story

My earliest memories are from
when I was four or five; my family (there were eight of us)
lived on Long Island in the burbs of New York City

I vaguely remember this particular part of our life there
but it is somewhat legendary that we had a peach tree in our back yard
This tree became big-time symbolic in our family
of happier, more peaceful times, before the volatility
erupted between my parents, before changing
addresses four times in three years, before leaving
our supportive extended family, before Kennedy
was assassinated

My mom often reminisces about the peach tree
and how she never wanted to move from that house,
her voice trailing off in sadness, but move we did.
Trouble and trauma followed along with much heartache,
and the dramatic and painful divorce of my parents.
For the next 30 years I became someone driven to heal
and transform all that pain.
I dedicated myself to a career in massage therapy,
helping others heal and hopefully healing myself in the process.
I now have a family of my own and a house in the burbs of San Diego.

Things do come full circle, eventually

The other day there were three peaches in a bowl next to the sink;
as I reached for one, my husband said
Those are from the tree in the back
A tree I insisted he plant several years ago, not even
consciously connecting it at all
to the one from my childhood.

As I took a bite, the juices running down my chin,
an ecstatic bliss followed.
I entered a sort of heaven on earth nirvana
that you can only relate to if you have experienced
that first bite of perfectly ripe fruit.

This peachy nirvana was made even better
by the knowledge that it was grown in my own backyard.
This is when enlightenment hit
this delightful peace of fruit, or fruit of peace
my peach guru
gave me an amazing gift
The knowledge and experience that
Life is perfect with all of its imperfections
We are truly loved to be on a planet
that offers such magnificence so freely and simply

And here I was full circle
with a peach tree in my backyard
reminding me that the healing is complete
and I am home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 29: Bites and Tastes

I'm all over the map today, exhausted from a really busy weekend. I'm going for the fragmented pastiche effect.


We went to Legoland with Paul and Mary Saturday evening. We packed dinner from home and found a table with genuine ambiance overlooking Miniland to enjoy it. It was shaping up to be a virtuous outing, but then we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with my nemesis: Granny's Apple Fries.

Apple matchsticks deep-fried in cinnamon-sugar dough, arranged in a fry carton, with a (no-doubt) patented insert crammed with vanilla cream for dipping. The concept, execution and finished product are a truly evil trifecta. Once you've tried one, you're in it for the duration, and will soon find yourself scraping the bottom with slippery fingers, hoping for one last nugget you can roll wantonly in the last drops of cream. I shudder to remember, yet I am powerless to resist.


Last night I went back to Lei Lounge with a few gals, to send off our friend Jill--who is moving to Chicago--in style. I ordered a Singapore Sling, which contains gin, grenadine, simple syrup, vanilla, lemon and cherry brandy. I know what you're thinking, and I totally agree--a drink with NOTHING bad in it. Just six perfect ingredients whirled into a melange of deliciousness, splashed into a tall, frosty glass, and presented long before any food arrived. I took a sip. I took a bigger sip. I took an unladylike slurp. And that's how I ended up laughing hysterically when no one was talking, grabbing everyone by the arm and screaming, "I KNOW! RIGHT?" and marveling at how blurry the tiki torches were.

It's also how I ended up putting my head down and mowing my way through: tempura sweet potato fries (with caramel dipping sauce) deep-fried cauliflower bites (with cheese dipping sauce), tempura vegetables (with sweet chili dipping sauce) tiny burgers (with spicy pepper dipping sauce), coconut rice (with improvised, mixed dipping sauce) and some spinach salad (which tasted SOOO wrong.) My mouth called out for anything, everything fried, and my fingers answered. In the aftermath, I also decided it would be a good idea to order homemade donut holes (with chocolate, caramel and raspberry dipping sauces) because I was concerned we hadn't eaten enough fried items during the evening. On the way home, I had the distinct sensation that my insides were now, in fact, SAUCED. You could turn me inside out and serve me with umbrella drinks. Today, I told my friend Stephanie, "I thought I might have a hangover from that drink. But I don't."

"You have a food hangover," she suggested.

"That's it. I have a food hangover." I need to detox, stat.


Driving home today:

Jarrah: Mommy, you're not my best friend.

Sam: Oh, that's a shame.

Jarrah: What a shame?

Sam: That I'm not your best friend.

Jarrah: Why it shame?

Sam: Because I want to be your best friend. Are you sure I can't be your best friend?

Jarrah: You can be my best friend after dinner.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Day 28: Once More With Feeling, Part 2

Some of you may be going, huh? Comics? True, I don't know anything about comics. But Comic-Con, while targeted to comic book geeks when it started in 1970, has grown to encompass all manner of pop culture events, and has gotten so big that you don't want to go anywhere near downtown San Diego for four days unless you are headed to the Con. In the past three years, it's suddenly blown up to nearly 150,000 people, and while you used to be able to say that you'd spotted someone famous there, now every actor, director, producer and writer in Hollywood has an obligatory date in July, unless they want to tempt fate by flouting the thousands of fan geeks who make or break their pilots and opening weekends. While I'm not quite a fan geek, I get a huge kick out of the panels of stars and the pop culture sneak peeks. Okay, call me a geek if you want to--I can take it.

Here are some highlights:

He Needs Wholesome Snacks, Too

We arrive around 11:00 after a brief parking problem that resulted in us taking the trolley part of the way. The front of the convention center is an orderly mob, and Jarrah has been well-prepped to spot people in costume. In fact, she asks us incessantly, "Where people in costume?" Suddenly, I spot someone dressed head to toe in a green, rubbery suit. "Look, Jarrah! Do you see the sea monster?" She stares. A few minutes later:

"Mommy! Daddy! Did you see the sea monster?" We assured her we had.

"The sea monster was eating a pretzel!"

Watch Out For Those Big, White Teeth

We have a little time before our first "adult" event, and I tell Jarrah that we'll poke our heads into Sponge Bob, aka the Nickelodeon panel, which runs consecutive events all day. We grope our way to some seats in the dark while a cartoon about a cow and a pig who seem to be trying out for American Idol blares over our heads. Afterwards, there's a 30-second promo for a spin-off of Madagascar featuring the penguins. Jarrah is smiling when the lights go up. "Those penguins!" she chortles. Later, she asks me where Sponge Bob was. "Well, he wasn't there himself," I explain. "There was a cartoon, but we missed it."

"But I thought we going to poke our heads into him?"

Let's Hold Off Explaining "The Munchies" For Now

We line up at Ballroom 20 (which holds 4,200 people) for the Hamlet 2 movie sneak peek, starring Steven Coogan. There is a massive line, but we take cuts when David runs into his friend Brian. The panel is very short, and mostly consists of people asking Steve Coogan questions, him responding as sarcastically as possible, and clips from the movie, which looks hilarious. The last clip is a music video from the "show within the show," called "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" featuring smiling teenagers doing a song and dance number around a robed, wigged Coogan. One eyelash-batting boy croons "He's our Lord and Savior, and his lats make me feel gay!" Jarrah couldn't be less interested. Suddenly, the lights go up and someone starts announcing the panel immediately following--a DVD release event for Harold and Kumar, featuring Kal Penn and John Cho. We flee just as everyone begins cheering for the trailer, as it suddenly occurs to us that Jarrah might be a little more curious about this one.

I'm Suspicious of Pink, Furry Beasts

Jarrah is getting restless, so we decide to hit the convention floor, where the vendors are. It's a sea of humanity down there, with giant, inflatable Bart Simpsons, Spidermans and Pikachus breaking the surface. It's also great people-watching. At the entrance, we run into Shrek and Fiona in full green and muslin regalia, and they graciously pose for us, though Jarrah is a bit freaked out. Inside, we see Batman and Spiderman posing for dozens of picture-snappers--Batman even swoops some of the women into his arms for the photo op. "This is totally making his year," I say. Jarrah is not at all scared of the gigantic pink bunny and runs to greet it, which is ironic because that's the one that DOES scare me.

Mysterious Maladies

In need of a rest, we stroll into the San Diego Children's Film Festival, which is an assortment of shorts with director commentary, playing all through the day. We arrive in time for Butterflies, in which a little boy gets nervous presenting his hermit crab to show-and-tell and is diagnosed with "butterflies in his stomach" by the school doctor. He really wants to get them out. The film is cute and clever, but Jarrah is worried about the little boy. "How he get butterflies in there?" I told her he was scared. "Now how he get them out?"

You Will See My Wrath (Or At Least My Boob)

I was psyched that Sunday offered a "replay" of the Saturday night Masquerade on film. The Masquerade may be the most unique performance venue in the world. It's not a show, not a parade...maybe you'd call it a "revue." For two hours, people in costume (that's the only requirement, as far as I can tell) appear onstage to preen or lip-sync for about a minute, backed by blaring pop music that always seems unrelated to their costumes. Occasionally, there are themed groups who perform a dance number--inevitably, at least one of them will be seen mouthing "Oh shit!" as they flail around, not keeping up with the others. Many of the "performers" are announced by name with long, complicated modifiers along the lines of "She is the True One, the Lone One, the One Who Weareth the Golden Caul, She Alone Will Save the Damned and Damn the Saved." Some of the costumes are truly a marvel to behold, but it is quite unusual for any of the "scenes" to be worth watching. The vast majority of the contestants don't even try to perform; they just stand up there and pump their arms and stalk back and forth like the emotionally damaged polar bear at the zoo.

When we arrive, the room is packed, and some girls in black vinyl demand that we push as far down the row as we can. I end up practically in the lap of a glaring little girl in red satin who is eating a hot dog the size of a water balloon. It smells vile and I crane around so that I'm facing away from her. The show begins, and it soon dawns on me that the girl on screen who is spinning a gold lasso and shouting about some universal truth or magnificent power, is the girl sitting next to me with the hot dog. I wouldn't have known except the live version is still in costume, right down to the wig and the lasso.

Another early entry is introduced as "Emma Snow," queen of something, and a skinny girl all in white strides out on stage to crunching guitars. Her costume consists of underpants with a tube top, and boots. She paces around, pumping her arms, and after a minute or so it becomes obvious that the tube top is sinking by the second, and that you can now plainly see her breast cutlets poking over the top. This does not deter her frenetic dancing, and the audience is caught between laughing and gasping with the suspense of whether she will lose the top altogether. She makes it backstage just in time.

A few of the later entries are quite charming, including one called "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Formerly Known as Prince." I actually have no idea why the cast of Harry Potter suddenly whips off their cloaks to reveal purple outfits and starts jamming on guitars, but I think it best to overlook the lack of continuity. With my new-found tolerance, I quite enjoy the next batch of entries, though we slip away before it ends.

Buffalo Gal, Go Around the Outside

All day I've barely contained my excitement over the closing event, a screening of "Once More With Feeling," which is a Season Six musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I had heard about a traveling Buffy event with audience participation, kind of like Rocky Horror, with singing, yelling at the screen, costumes and props. Since I have the whole episode memorized, I love the idea. There a thousand or so people at this show, and I am grinning until my face hurts, but I think we need more direction because no one is standing, and hardly anyone sings. In fact, I can tell I am nnoying people by singing lustily at the top of my lungs (don't worry, I didn't let that stop me.) I love when Dawn sings "Doesn't anybody notice me?" and everyone screams "NO!" That is a whole lot of awesome. The volunteers pass out monster finger puppets and parking tickets (key to a scene), and people wave their cell phones during the songs. Jarrah leans over and whispers, "How Buffalo take care of bad guys?" and I almost lose it.

Now, Jarrah is strangely curious about Buffy and her "movie." Based on relentless questioning, she can tell you that "Buffy puts a stick in bad guys' hearts, and sends them to another world. She love Spike, who is nice monster." Today, she told me, "I want to be Buffy, and save the world."

As her mother and a geek, I couldn't be more proud.

Day 27: Once More with Feeling, Part 1

Just got home from Comic-Con, and I'll have a full report on the convention tomorrow, but tonight I'm just too tuckered out to do it justice. So I just have two food-related notes to whet your whistles for tomorrow. (That is if anyone is reading--I've been missing the comment love lately!)

David and I have attended Comic-Con together since we met, so it's been nearly 10 years now. (This is our first time with Jarrah.) All these years, I've been crowing indignantly about the state of sustenance at the San Diego Convention Center--thousands and thousands of people, and there is nothing to eat. Well, almost nothing: there are Mrs. Fields Cookies, Starbucks Coffee, and "Hot Pretzels" that 30 seconds before you pay for them were evidently buried in Greenland next to a Woolly Mammoth with some buttercups in its mouth. In the actual "cafe," they feature chips, a couple of wilted salads, and the notorious Con Pizza, which is like nothing you've ever put in your mouth on purpose. In my Chuck E. Cheese review a while back, I shared my pizza joke: "Why is pizza like sex? Because when it's good, it's REALLY good, and when it's bad, it's still pretty good." Well, the exception to that pretty sturdy rule is Con Pizza. They slather up a round of styrofoam which in its previous incarnation was packing material for Pokemons, coat it in radioactive ketchup-like substance, and then heat-seal it with an orangey coating with the consistency of birch bark. Then they put it in a cute little cardboard box and sell it for $10. The one and only time I ate some, I had a peculiar feeling while it was going down, but an hour later I could actually feel some of my vital organs transmogrifying into other molecular structures that would no longer serve a carbon-based life form.

A couple of times we've ventured into the Gaslamp and enjoyed a lovely (though crowded and expensive) lunch at a local bistro, but that takes a lot of time that would usually be better spent in an entertaining panel. The obvious alternative is to make a nutritious and alluring lunch--would you like to know how many times we've done that? This would be the first. We carried a lunch sack with veggie sandwiches from home--Havarti, Cheddar, cucumber, tomato, lettuce, sweet onion, yellow pepper and honey mustard on French rolls--sliced fruit, and some yogurt, cheese and bread for Jarrah. It was yummy and easy! We are a bit sheepish and plan to go the packing route every time now.

The other food note is that we parked several miles from the convention, and broke up our walk back by stopping for an early dinner at The Bareback Grill, which I'd been curious about because they describe themselves as "New Zealand burgers," with everything organic, even though they are a casual bar and grill. The place was about half-full, with baseball and surfing on the TVs and incredibly loud music. David and I had burgers (100% organic grass-fed beef) and Jarrah had Dino Nuggets (the chicken is organic, too, and for research purposes I tried some--delish!) The fries come with a cute tripartite plate with three dipping sauces--ketchup, spicy red pepper, and sweet aioli. The red pepper looks like standard Thousand Island, but it has a zip. I didn't try the aioli because mayo freaks me out. The fries were skinny and herbed, and while we liked them, we puzzled over the flavor. For a while, I tasted a surfeit of salt, then later it curiously seemed like sugar to me. David suspected the fries had been cooked in the oil for the fish and chips, because they reminded him of fried fish. I am no authority on fried fish myself.

The burgers were very pretty, and I did think the meat was tasty. David liked his, but not the BBQ sauce on top. I remarked that my two "bitty burgers" did not come with fries or anything on them and they were nine dollars. David thought this was because we were in the Gaslamp, where tourists and date-nighters will pay anything and the food doesn't even have to be good. These burgers ARE good, but the consensus, as we walked them off, is that we'll stick with Burger Lounge, which has the edge in both taste and location.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Day 26: Moms Go Wild for Italy

Ever since Jarrah arrived and turned mealtime into a production on the scale of a Vegas water show, adults-only dinners out have taken on a special patina. While once I might have been impressed with the perfect chill of my chardonnay, now I'm just relieved if my companion doesn't throw her fork on the floor every 3.2 seconds. It's a rare treat to sit down at a beautifully set table with china and linen napkins and not begin gathering all pointy and spillable objects into my airspace. It's also a true gift to start and finish a conversation over fine food without projecting my voice above a refrain of "MAMA! I WAS TALKING! Maaaaaaammmaaaaa!"

Because my friends Lisa and Martha are smart women (and also mothers of toddlers), they understand my pain, and introduced a monthly event known as MGW (Moms Gone Wild.) They reserve a table at a local fine-dining establishment, we RSVP, and the rest is magic, baby. Moms all over the county Tide-stick the goldfish thumb prints off their resort wear, smear on some lipstick, and look forward to a leisurely evening of slow food. And I mean slow. Even if it doesn't fall off a truck from Chino Farms, we can take as long as we like to clean our plates, and when someone says "Can I have a bite?" they wait for us to answer before they jab a finger into our mashed potatoes.

Last night we visited a little gem of a place I had never even heard of before, The Venetian in Point Loma. Tucked away on Voltaire St., it has two cozy rooms with soft lighting and a lively din. As I walked to our table, I saw servers carrying plates of swirled, colorful linguine that looked like they could each serve six. I sat down in front of a basket of hot, crusty rolls, nestled into their napkin with a scoop of orange, tomato-y butter. In moments, a waitress shouted (it was really loud in there) "Would you like some wine?" After the day I'd had, I was genuinely afraid of falling asleep at the wheel, but nearly everyone else enjoyed a glass.

I started with the Caesar salad, as did several of my friends, and the dressing was perfect, very tart and lemony with a peppery kick. It was a large salad, but I would have settled for smaller with more tender, pale inner leaves--I get pretty exhausted chewing the tough, dark-green outer ones. Still, I figure I got a good dose of greens. My friends Jen and Mary had the lentil soup, which was very colorful, but I noticed they both doused theirs in pepper and parmesan, so hopefully it wasn't bland.

My main dish was chicken piccata, which I hardly ever order; I was just in the mood for something lemony. The serving was generous--two plate-sized pieces, pounded thin--but I was a little disconcerted to find it breaded and crispy, like chicken parmagiana. It was very tasty, though, and drizzled with lemon sauce and a huge handful of high-quality capers. On the side, they served the only diminutive item of the evening: about 12 penne noodles in marinara sauce, firm, zesty, and just the right amount. To my left, Jen was yumming up the pesto pasta, and I was pleased to accept some on my bread plate--it was a vibrant green, with big, rough-chopped basil dice clinging to the pasta with the help of olive oil and a sprinkling of cheese. I really loved that pesto, and sort of wished I'd ordered that instead. Most of the gals ordered pasta, and they all looked great, though I noticed down at the other end Jill was exclaiming with delight over her scallops, each the size of my palm.

By dessert, we were all getting a little silly from wine and warm, satisfying food--there was some talk about children, but I also told a long story about one of my inappropriate summer romances of yore. Two tiramisus and a stack of forks made the rounds while we sipped our coffee--I had one bite and confirmed my general impression that tiramisu just doesn't interest me. It always seems very mushy and creamy with "no there there." I'm never really interested in the kind of desserts they have in Italian restaurants--the cannolis (ewww, ricotta) and carrot cake and chocolate layer cake that always seems a little stale. But I did very much enjoy the virtuous sensation of abstinence (and how often can you say that?)

Quite frankly, I don't really mind where we go for MGW, because I'd be happy to eat take-out tacos on a bench in the park if it means I can hang out with my peeps all evening, laughing, talking, and eating, very SLOW and with no drama. Well, no toddler drama, anyway--any other kind, bring it on.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Day 25: Food on the Cutting Edge

My MIL sent me these photos and I think they're really cool. My posts have been kind of text-heavy lately, so I thought I'd lighten this one up. Also, I haven't been home since this morning and it's now 10:30, which really complicates things when you're supposed to write a post every single day.

You're the apple of my 'fly.

Don't bite the hand that feeds you, or that pays for your gum.

"Ahhh! There are cobwebs on me and I can't wash them off!"

"Ugh, I've got a whole day's worth of Vitamin C on my back."

Now that's fierce.

"Wait for my signal--when they fall asleep, we're getting out of here."

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the egg in the baby carriage (now we know!)

"You look so ripe and juicy to me--if only I could get my peels on you!"

This one's a bit freaky--where is all that water coming from?

Ah, that's like music to my pears.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day 24: Best of San Diego

I've been noshing in this town for 15 years now, and I've got a thing or two to say about what's most delicious. Sure, this list is local, but you never know: if you find yourself in town, you'll have the inside dope. 'Course, you could also call me for a tour. (If you don't see a link, it means they don't have a website.)

Best Fruit Slushies - Fusion Cafe (Kearny Mesa)

30-something flavors of chilly goodness. You can get boba balls at the bottom of yours, or soy milk swirled in if you want, but I'm a simple gal. They'll mix up to three flavors in one slushie, and then they heat-seal the top with a cute little picture of flowers or fruit. Nothing hits the spot more on a hot day, and you can tell yourself that it's mostly ice. My favorite is Strawberry Vanilla. Jarrah favors Green Apple with boba. David likes Cantaloupe. Oh, and the food's good, too--try the plate lunches with mango salad on the side.

Best Bagels - Big City Bagels (Hillcrest)

Most San Diego bagels are cakey, or chewy straight through, and my jaw gets tired. But I love the bagels here, especially the divine bright-yellow, big-as-a-saucer Egg bagel--my favorite. I also love Sourdough and Toasted Onion. The staff are freakishly friendly, the shop always smells like a hot bagel, and you can't get in the door on weekends (call ahead for large orders.) I favor their bagels because the outside is crisp and the inside is soft and chewy. To me, it's the closest thing to a New York bagel in town.

Best Cupcakes - VG Donuts (Cardiff-by-the-Sea)

Mary introduced me to these beauties on somebody's birthday, probably mine. They are simplicity itself--either chocolate with vanilla frosting, or vanilla with chocolate frosting. I favor the former by a hair. If you want them decorated, they roll the edges in a wall of colored sprinkles. No flash, no froofy flavors, just moist, real-tasting cake with buttercream frosting that doesn't have that dread shortening aftertaste. We've had them for all our birthdays for three years running now. I hope the trend will continue.

Best Skordalia - Cafe Athena (Pacific Beach)

Skordalia is a Greek dip with the consistency of mashed potatoes, which makes sense because it's a mix of potatoes, garlic and cilantro. It's a lovely lightish-green color. Served as an appetizer, with a massive Anaheim pepper and tomato slices on top (totally superfluous, in my opinion) and a basket of soft, steaming flatbread triangles, a perfect conveyance for the chilled dip. When you're really hungry and waiting for your dinner, the first bite seems to fortify each and every cell in your body. I've never had it better anywhere. Of course, the food in general rocks at this place--I also love the souvlaki and the couscous.

Best Roast Beef Sandwich - Boney's Bayside Market (Coronado)

I'm like Goldilocks about my roast beef. It can't be too rare or too done, too fatty or too thick. In past years, I've been very partial to the roast beef subs (one is big enough for two people) at Poma's in Ocean Beach, and according to Yelp, they are still awesome. A recent discovery is the deli counter roast beef at Bayside--they'll fix it up to your liking, and the meat is juuuust right. I like mine on rye with shaved swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, cucumber slices and yellow mustard. Packs well for the beach, too, and it's right near the Ferry Landing. Picnic perfection!

Best BBQ Chicken - Phil's BBQ (Sports Arena)

There is no time of day when you won't stand in line, my friends. Most people are there for the ribs, and I have it on good authority that they're sublime, but I don't eat pork. The BBQ chicken, served as part of a "Chickless" dinner (I've never understood the name) comes with six or seven big chunks of boneless, skinless chicken that's been smoked all the way through, while bathing continuously in sweet, spicy sauce. I like baked beans and corn on the cob as my sides, but they also have wonderful fries and coleslaw. Jarrah can put away a man-sized plate of food at Phil's. It's just that satisfying.

Best Margarita - Baja Betty's (Hillcrest)

You have to take this one with a grain of salt. (Ha!) I am not a "serious" tequila drinker, though I do like a classic marg on the rocks. At Betty's, though, I can't wait to get my hands on their supermodel-tall, frosty blended margaritas, mixed with beautiful clouds of fruit puree, and a sugar rim. These babies are BIG. It's not unusual for me to stagger after just one. The place is beachy and cheerful with beautiful waiters who call you "darlin" and there's nothing I like more than to slurp down my drink and then chase it with a plate of mini-tacos in corn tortillas, sprinkled with chopped onion and cilantro. David says the food is only so-so, but that's news to me: after one of those deceptively strong margaritas, I'd swear I was eating the finest tacos in town.

Best Cheesecake - The Incredible Cheesecake Company (Normal Heights)

I am verrrry particular about cheesecake. To help you understand, when I can see that it's not exactly how I like it, I can say "no, thank you" to even one bite without an iota of sacrifice. What I crave is very dense, heavy filling (fie on you, light and fluffy!) with a thick graham-cracker crust, so dense that licking the fork feels like a substantial mouthful. And I like it plain, or plain with fruit on top. This place serves dozens of flavors, and I hear they are very good (we served a bunch at our wedding rehearsal dinner) but I am serene with a shiny slice the color of an eggshell. This isn't a hang-out spot--it's a storefront on Adams Ave. Pick up a cheesecake (they also sell by the half and the slice) and delight your guests. Or just brew some coffee and snarf up a piece by yourself in front of the TV.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Day 23: Food for the Soul

Today's post is about what nourishes me. Not just stuff I like, but that which restores my strength, rejuvenates me, brings calm, creates peace. And without calories. I'll tell you mine; you tell me yours.

reading novels and non-fiction/going to the library - I love learning about people, places, history, unfamiliar cultures, how to make stuff. I love memoirs, which are great for instilling gratitude. I marvel at the many, many ways people construct their own truth. I love the sensation of entering a library, knowing you are going to be there a while, the clean smell with a slight chaser of mold, the cool, dry air, the safe feeling of standing between two solid walls of books, the hours spent with no other sounds but the turning of pages and the slight crackling of jacket caressing jacket as a book slides out of the stacks.

smelly lotion and soap - I hardly ever buy anything at stores that sell bath products, because I don't think the reality of bathing with any of the hundreds of scented unctions could live up to the glorious few minutes spent screwing open bottles and jars of testers, plunging my nose into the Lemon Verbena or Rose Sage or Cucumber Lime. Then the cold, substantial weight of a dollop scooped with two fingers, texture like cream cheese, slathered into my parched, yearning hands.

shopping at Target - I'll get some raised eyebrows for this one. There is nothing like the sheer ordinariness of an hour spent in Target, the same experience in every city, the same lights and signs and specials. The t-shirts in stacks, the Windex, the powder compacts, the accent pillows. After 9/11, when my stomach hurt and I couldn't make sense of anything, I could make sense of Target. I went there and closed myself into a dressing room and tried on twelve dollars pants. My phone didn't get reception there; there were no TVs. And the place was packed.

watching Jarrah at the beach - My child is a water baby, which is funny, because she can't swim and doesn't like her eyes wet. But get her to a beach, and she won't have time for you for the next five hours. There are waves to jump over, and buckets of sand to carry, and castles to build. Friends who share their toys, and friends who hold your hand in the waves. She has no fear of the ocean, and twice has gotten the washing machine treatment for her trust. When she is crouched over a castle, shovel in hand, polka-dotted tushy sticking out, gorgeous milky-coffee skin dusted with sand, pouty-lipped with concentration, I think it might actually be possible to love her more than the whole world's worth of oceans that I already do.

singing karaoke - My husband is the cat's pajamas because, while the idea of singing in public is in his top five nightmares, he totally gets what I love about it. A few years ago, David assembled a state-of-the-art home karaoke system for me, including professional microphones, a sound-mixing board, and a library of over 1,000 songs. He even painstakingly entered and printed all those songs into books--just like in the bars--arranged by both artist and song title. Many a time I've suggested karaoke gatherings to friends who swear by all that is good that they will never, ever sing. Those are the ones whose fingers we have to forcibly peel from the microphone at 2 a.m. Over the years, I've assembled my "standards:" "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," "Son of a Preacher Man," "I Feel Lucky," "Life is a Cabaret," and "Stuff Like That There," to mention a few. Other people throw back a couple of David's famous lemonade martinis before they take the mike. But I don't need any social lube.

getting e-mail from friends - In my youth, I was a bit like a Victorian lady (only without the London townhouse and the footman with the silver server) in my epistolary prolificacy. I had a string of temp jobs in my early '20s, and whenever I wasn't busy (which was most of the time) I happily penned missives to my far and dear. I also adored receiving letters, and bundled them into shoe boxes for safekeeping. When I lived in England for a year, I was delighted to learn that there would be a "morning post" and an "afternoon post" (now there's a civilized country!) and the days when I received a little something on both occasions was a fine day indeed. Now no one writes letters anymore, which is a shame, but I can't complain because I don't do it, either. But there's e-mail, and for no reason that I can understand, my computer--formerly a soulless box that contained files of my term papers--is filled with letters for me, every day. Even 14 years later, too much contemplation of this good fortune sends me into paroxysms of giddiness.

movies with singing and dancing - My love of musical movies began with Grease, which was the first 8-track cassette I owned. I have probably seen it a hundred times. When I taught in Utah, I even chose the "Summer Love" scene for our Pageant Presentation, though I cast it in drag. Eventually, there was Dirty Dancing, which I've also seen a hundred times (even wrote about it in my dissertation) and Guys and Dolls. Recently, Hairspray and Across the Universe threatened to fritz out my nerve endings with zaps of joy. And, though I haven't seen it yet, I have every reason to believe that Mamma Mia! will be my movie of the year. I don't need these movies to be fine drama, mind you. Just filled with smiling people who sing and dance for no reason at all. The "no reason at all" part is where the soul food lies.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Day 22: Foods That Totally Make Me Lose My Head

Do you have these foods, Readers? The ones that turn all your healthy resolve to mush, that beckon to you across a crowded buffet table and aren't satisfied until you ravage them? And they don't have to be difficult to procure, or labor intensive, though they can be. They just have to be irresistible, plain and simple. The mouth wants what it wants.

Here are a few of mine:

hash browns - Nestle any kind of potatoes up against my eggs besides these and I have no time for them. If you don't believe me, ask my husband--they go straight on his plate. Your mashed, your smothered, your diced. But julienne those same potatoes into fine shreds and fry them all brown and crispy, and I'm a goner. The eggs will be left forlorn; the browns rule the day.

rich vegetables - By which I mean the kind that are served in fancy steakhouses. Candied carrots, creamed corn, and broccoli with cheese sauce. Broccoli with cheese sauce is kind of obvious, I mean, it has cheese sauce. Creamed corn is a similar story. But candied carrots? They make me swoon. I mean, they're vegetables and they're CANDIED. I like the ones that are caramelized almost crisp on the outside--lacquered, if you will--and meltingly sweet and tender inside. Excuse me, I just blacked out for a second.

Mexican Coke - This sounds sort of naughty and believe me, it is. Most Coke in this country is made with corn syrup, but some countries still brew theirs with real sugar cane. One of those countries is only a few miles from here, and you can buy boxes of their Coke at Costco, in heavy, satisfying glass bottles. It's so good it almost becomes some other soda, but I don't want to get carried away, because I love the inferior Coke, too. This just takes it over the top. Someone offers me one and I'm nodding and drooling even though inside I may be screaming "No, thank you!" There's no help for it--I have a Coke problem.

hot cherry stuff - I don't know what it says about me that I grew up the daughter of a woman who works true magic with a pastry cutter and fresh fruit (apple and blueberry are the family stars) and I only get dopey over store-bought cherry, the kind with neon, viscous gloop from a can. In college, they put out bowls of the stuff for ladling over cake, and I used to horrify my tablemates by sitting down with a massive serving of nothing but. "What the hell is THAT?" someone once asked. "Cherry slop!" I announced happily, just before inhaling it. I vividly recall a middle school refectory lunch in Utah (I was teaching there at the time) with a bounty of fresh, hot cherry turnovers. Readers, I believe I ate four, and this was after two barbecue sandwiches.

s'mores - Perhaps because I grew up near the beach, nothing tastes quite like a blackened marshmallow freshly pulled from a coat hanger, a square of Hershey's, and two plain graham crackers, with that final satisfying "smoosh" that turns three disparate ingredients into a melange of sublimity. There was a brief fad a few years ago of fine-dining establishments offering an elevated s'mores dessert along with their creme brulees and pot de cremes, but the whole enterprise smacked of sad wanna-be striving. They always went and ruined the simplicity with "house-made" graham crackers and "meringue" marshmallows (the very idea!) and a slab of bittersweet Valrhona, and when I took a bite I instantly felt embarrassed for them. S'mores are a communal dish, prepared in the dark amongst slightly drunken friends, redolent of woodsmoke, with a light crunch of sand between your teeth as you savor that first bite. They are hot, cool, soft, chewy, crunchy and melty all at once, a contradiction that perfectly complements your feelings for the teenage boy at your side, whom you desperately want to make out with but kind of hate at the same time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Day 21: Food Orgy (and Restaurant Review)

Yesterday was out of control. As I lay in bed last night, I could actually hear the various organs in my abdomen arguing amongst themselves. "What the hell is all this stuff?" "Is this woman insane?"

I ate at four restaurants yesterday. FOUR. That is just not right when one is not even on vacation. Even if one is entertaining out-of-town guests, it is just not right.

For lunch, we picked up Lesley and Alex at their hotel, and because they'd requested a) to see our house and b) Mexican food, I got the idea to take them to Casa de Pico. Casa de Pico can be found on the far end of the parking lot at Grossmont Center Mall. It used to be in Historic Old Town and I think they got a crane to pick it up and drop it in La Mesa, because the place looks exactly the same. Wrought-iron tables, umbrellas, fire pits, hanging plants, roving mariachis, it's all accounted for.

I had carne asada tacos for lunch (I gave Jarrah all my rice and beans, which were encased in portable taco shell bowls) which would have been fairly modest if I hadn't also eaten about two baskets of tortilla chips and a strawberry margarita the size of a fishbowl. I didn't realize I was drunk until the end of the lunch, when it became apparent that the story I'd been telling for half an hour could be heard by people in the home decor section of Target.

We lay low during the afternoon, sipping water and chatting while Jarrah slept, and then L and A suggested we meet for a drink before our dinner reservation. I agreed immediately, but later remembered I'm a cranky old woman now who can't handle more than one alcoholic beverage in a day. But I wanted it to be a special evening for L and A, so I suggested Lei Lounge, which had two distinct advantages, being right around the corner from dinner, and totally awesome.

We had no reservation, but they are very sweet and seated us at a fire pit table in the dining area even though we said we were only having drinks. My three companions ordered fancy things, and I didn't want to feel left out, so I told our stunning pony-tailed waiter, "Can you make me a super-fancy, super-froofy, fruity drink with no alcohol?" He didn't even crack a smile. Mine was the only drink served in a coconut. I think it was a pomegranate slushie, but I wouldn't swear to it. In any case, it was yummers.

Before we knew it, it was time to dash to The Farmhouse Cafe, which has received glowing reviews all over the place. We weren't quite fast enough, though, because the maitre d' (maitre dess?) widened her eyes when I gave my name and soon admitted she'd just given our table away to "some old people with canes who claimed they had a reservation." We had one, too, but there we were, chilling at the bar. The place is tiny--I'd say it has about 15 tables, crammed together in one square room, but no detail has been missed. From the wooden clothespins with their logo on the napkins, to the perfect white egg salt and pepper shakers, to the collection of wooden ducks on every surface, to the leafy wall sconces, the atmosphere is cozy and cute.

I've been to Farmhouse once before, and in addition to the the delicious food (more on that shortly) what impressed me is their eagle-eye attention to service. You will never wait for bread or water or refills, nor will you cringe from the constant interruptions of a server trying to curry your tipping favor. It's just seamless, and--though this sounds weird--kind. The noise in the room is happy and satisfied, the laughter and chit-chat of a small crowd of people who are enjoying some truly delicious food. The theme is Country French--simple preparations of very fresh ingredients, no wild gestures or elaborate fusion.

Because we had to wait, the maitre-dess plunked down a plate with the words "some house-made pate, complementary." Lesley and Alex were thrilled, but I...not so much. I've never had pate, and hence, could never actually be a restaurant critic. I had to admit the presentation was lovely. One pink-ish rectangle nestled amongst baguette toasts and a rosette of pickled vegetables. L and A pronounced it exceptional, and talked me into trying a little. I have to admit, I didn't hate it. It reminded me a bit of meatloaf that had been through the food processor. Not that any foie gras chef would be thrilled to hear that.

We started with a few appetizers--flatbread with pancetta and caramelized onions, a salad of "20 greens," fresh garlic soup, and escargot risotto. I had also never sampled escargot, but once again L and A worked me over. (Good thing they weren't pimping meth last night...who knows where their peer pressure would have taken me?) "Tastes like chicken!" I joked after my bite of snail and pesto-y rice. David said it reminded him of some of the meatier mushrooms. I have to concede that his comparison is more accurate.

For our mains, L and A shared the special of duck breast, David had the flat iron steak, and I had chicken with candied lemon peel. The servings are not crazy-big; I dispatched my chicken in a few succulent bites. It was really simple but very tasty. By then, we'd been there a couple of hours; the atmosphere is relaxed and no one rushed us. Our adorable waiter, Fabrice, came to offer us the dessert menu, but Alex told him we were going to Extraordinary Desserts and he said, "Well, I can't argue with that."

Extraordinary Desserts was mobbed, which seemed shocking at 9:30 on a Sunday. There was a long wait, so we admired their architecture (lots of metal) and their pastry case even more. Extraordinary Desserts isn't being the list bit grandiose with that name; these are the most over-the-top desserts you've ever seen. Instead of a gorgeous slice of chocolate layer cake, you have a gorgeous slice of chocolate layer cake crammed with ganache, mousse, cream, praline and nuts, topped with a bouquet of roses, peonies and daisies, plated with homemade ice cream, whipping cream, drizzles of three different fruit coulis, and a sprinkling of edible gold. And you pay dearly for this slice of cake--each one is close to ten dollars. Sharing helps, indeed, I'm not sure it's possible to finish anything there without sharing. In addition to a dozen or so kinds of cake, they have muffins, strudel, scones, danish, brownies, coffee cake, bread pudding, shortbread, and several kinds of cookies. And that's not counting the specials of the day.

They also have beautiful teas in flavors like Violet and Apricot and Bourbon Vanilla, which are served in individual pots and come with the most wicked temptation of all (at least to me): a bowl of rock candy sugar. I'm ashamed to admit I often crunch the entire bowl while others are begging for just a few rocks for their coffee.

Lesley and Alex shared the lemon praline cake, and David and I the chocolate strudel, melting inside and floating in a sea of cream. We washed it all down with several cups of tea, and I gasped when I saw the time. We fell into bed close to midnight, and I could already tell that my system had been severely taxed by the day's gluttony.

Still, it was fun to eat, and fun to write about. Maybe tomorrow I'll stick to watercress soup.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Day 20: Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together

Today I'm going to share a recipe that goes really well with the cucumber salad I described in Day 10. I've been making it for years, and it's great for parties because a) it makes a lot b) it can be served room temperature and c) everyone loves peanut butter! This recipe is on the sweet side--not spicy at all. Kids love it!

Udon Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Vegetables

6 Tbsp. water
1/4 cup reduced-fat creamy peanut butter
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. fresh ginger (available bottled at Trader Joes)
1 1/2 tsp. dark sesame oil
1/2 tsp. cornstarch
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz. udon noodles (Japanese wheat noodles, available in most supermarkets now)
2 cups snow peas, halved crosswise
1 cup shredded carrot

1. Combine first nine ingredients in saucepan; stir with a whisk until blended. Bring to a boil; cook one minute, stirring constantly. Set aside.

2. Cook noodles in boiling water according to package directions. Drain well.

3. Combine noodles, vegetables and sauce in large bowl, and toss well to coat.

This is a dish I like to serve when I have a lot of vegans coming over. Yes, I know a lot of vegans. They are almost like regular people; you'd be amazed. I try to convince myself that they're getting some protein from the peanut butter and it's okay that I'm not making something with tofu, which a) I don't know how to do and b) I despise. But you don't have to be a vegan to enjoy this dish, which has an addictive quality. It's easy to double, and the bowl is always empty at the end of the night. You can also make it go further by adding more veggies. There's always plenty of sauce.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Day 19: World's Largest Muffin

Does anyone else find that your body finds new and creative ways to betray you since you've become a parent? Jarrah, David and I were all sick in the past few weeks, one after another, and just when I thought I was better, something new has cropped up. I'm all hot and achey, and my limbs feel like lead. What the hell? It started last night, seemed like it was better by noon today (I chalked it up to dehydration) but I feel even worse tonight. I just took a hot bath while David got take-out, and hope to get to bed early.

We did have a really nice day today, though. My friend Lesley and her husband, Alex, are visiting from the Eureka area (all the way at the top of CA) and it's a joy to see them. We had planned to go to the beach today, but the weather was not cooperating so we made some other plans. First, brunch, and since I was feeling nostalgic for the days when Lesley and I lived in University Heights (not together, but a couple streets apart) I suggested The Parkhouse Eatery. It's a neighborhood place with yummy food, and I've seen kids there. When I lived nearby, we always went for dinner, but recently David and I have discovered that their brunch is even better.

Today was the San Diego Gay Pride parade, and I kind of forgot this would make it hard to park. But it was worth it to be in the middle of celebration--there were bike chariots cruising up and down Cleveland, my old street, to offer rides to those who had had to park several miles from the parade route. As we strolled toward the restaurant, we ran into a giddy group of men and women in matching shirts who were trying to arrange themselves for a photo with about five cameras--we appeared just in time. We saw men in too-tight shorts wearing rainbow beads and when we got to Parkhouse, the joint was rockin'. Amazingly, we got a table pretty quickly, and my mouth dropped open when I saw how long the brunch menu was. David joked that this is the place known for "tall food," and it's true--most of the dishes arrive with long sprigs of rosemary or knitting-needle thin bread sticks springing out of the top. We were all starving, so Alex ordered a couple of chocolate chip muffins for the table--the baked good of the day. We were shocked when we saw them--Lesley said (in her cute English accent) "It's like a loaf of bread!" They were huge, but nicely brown on top and very moist inside. We certainly didn't need two!

I know that David had the fresh blackberry pancakes, which looked scrummy and were big as wagon wheels. Jarrah had a lot of fun dunking her Bread & Cie toast into the homemade preserves--the fabulous little pot contained big chunks of plum and peach in a sort of fruit stew. I had a scramble cooked just right--I hate when eggs get too brown and rubbery--with homemade chicken sausage on the side, stuffed with fresh herbs. It tasted especially divine with the preserves on top. Lesley had Eggs Benedict smothered in some sort of green sauce--I have no idea what was under there, but she liked it. I didn't hear what Alex ordered (it was loud in there) except that it was the house special and had included the words "pork tenderloin." Let's just say that all our meals were served on platters instead of plates.

After all that food, we were craving a bit of exercise, so we drove to Torrey Pines State Reserve for a little hike. In all her years in San Diego, Lesley had never been there, and I was pleased to introduce her to its charms. You drive to the top of a steep hill of sand dunes (the intrepid can walk it, but Jarrah was a useful excuse not to) bristling with Torrey pines (only found in San Diego and one coastal island) and park at the trail head, a 1.5 mile loop that takes you out to the very edge of the cliffs. Looking south, you can see the folks swooping over the water from the Gliderport; looking north, the happy swimmers at the beach. Sometimes you can see dolphins from up there, though we didn't today. I told Jarrah to be on the lookout for "interesting shrubbery" but I think she was too busy showing us where to go. We tried to take another trail afterwards, but I had a freak occurrence--I twisted my ankle and the strap of my flip-flop wrenched out of the sole, making the shoes garbage. My ankle was fine, though.

We decided to head back down and walk across the street to the beach, just to dunk our toes, which was cold but really nice. It was round about then that I realized I was dementedly tired, and I slept for a long time when we got home. I hope I'm ready to party in the morning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Day 18: Dim Sum Memories

We had dinner at Mary, Paul and Joy's tonight (pineapple pizza, yum!) and afterwards we watched some of their video footage of China for the first time. We've watched a little of ours, but they clearly had a larger understanding of how time passes and have included lots of handy narration and establishing shots. Our favorite part is how the camera is focused on the babies, nice and steady, when we first saw them, and suddenly it dives to the floor, then swoops all around the room like a trapped swallow. What happened is that Mary and Paul unexpectedly had their name called first, and then we just as unexpectedly had our name called second. We were playing "Hot Potato" with that camera because we were so freaked out when our names were called.

Some of the footage showed us with the babies on the bus that took us back to the hotel. Joy is stoically sucking on a biter biscuit, and Jarrah is luxuriating over a flat, round biscuit the size of her head. We started reminiscing about some of our food experiences in China, including one night when our reps arranged a Chinese banquet for us in our hotel. Who knows how authentic it was, but the hotel is in central China, not a tourist town. David remembers that we started with some wickedly hot soup, and then there was an extremely sweet and yummy "chicken" dish (Sam: "Do not even THINK about telling me what this really is. I'm just going to eat it and call it chicken.") and some kind of green beans in special sauce that were memorably delicious. The babies all had noodles, extremely LOOOONG noodles (which are good luck during Chinese New Year) and they looked so cute slurping them into their mouths. In Chongqing, it was more common to have noodles than rice, even though everyone thinks they eat rice everywhere in China. Our wait staff were the sweetest people, doting on us and smiling indulgently. And it was such a relief to be able to get into the elevator and get off at a lavishly set table where all we had to do was sit down and eat.

It was extremely complicated getting meals in Chongqing, especially dinner when we were no longer out-and-about with our reps. By then, we were wrecked with exhaustion from a full-day of unfamiliar parenting, but not willing to wander the streets with a new baby hoping to find food we recognized. Other families were venturing out for "Hot-Pot," where meat, seafood and vegetables are cooked in a super-spicy broth, but my people eat bland food, and Mary's a vegetarian, so we were wary.

A couple nights we ordered pizza from the Pizza Hut down the block (one of the few places we recognized) and ate it on the floor in the hallway between our rooms. We left the doors open in case the babies cried. I don't remember that they did. I do remember that the pizza wasn't very good, but I didn't care because it was hot and had cheese on it and my needs had become rather simplified in recent days. More than a few times, I'm ashamed to admit, I sent David across the square to the massive McDonald's for a Big Mac. There was something about the familiarity of the whole experience that brought tears to my eyes. Once we even brought the babies to McDonald's, which brought us a lot of attention. Everything there was the same except a curious beverage, not on the menu, that we saw everyone drinking and had to inquire about. It turned out to be a passion fruit soda with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it. Hello, why can't they have that here? It was scary good.

After a few days, we started experimenting with some of the snack items that were featured in the grocery and convenience stores. They were often packaged in small, colorful plastic pouches and contained something totally delicious and not quite recognizable. Tonight Mary showed me that she actually saved several of these snacks (unopened, of course) to show Joy later, relics from her hometown. Some of them have English writing on them; most don't. One candy bar is called "Caesar Wave," and a package in the shape of a cow is "Jumping Dragon." A hazelnut chocolate bar is called "Kinder Bueno"--I'm sure the kinder find it bueno indeed.

One tiny package features a cartoon of a little boy singing into a microphone in front of a drum set. The only English on the wrapper says "Ball Cake." In a sense, this description is incredibly good: they are little crackers that taste like cake in the shape of balls about 1/2 an inch in diameter. They remind me a bit of those things they used to float on Clam Chowder in the '70s. But they taste sweet and cakey in an uncloying way. The girls went nuts for them. At some point during the trip, Mary and Paul started calling them "China buns," and the China buns have had a lasting legacy. Jarrah and Joy have China buns, too, as it happens. And they both know it. If you ask Jarrah to dance, she will often shake her tush vigorously while shouting "China buns! Look a' my China buns!" She talks about my China buns, too, and when I tried explaining why this was not quite accurate, she adapted: now I have New York buns.

I wonder if the New York buns would be shaped like little bagels?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Day 17: Seinfeldian Moment at Starbucks

I spend a lot of time in Starbucks. Which is odd, because I hate their coffee. But there's a Starbucks right next to my work (what a surprise!) and when I come out of class, it's the only place that's still open. I have to be pretty creative about what I order when I lounge in there. Sometimes it's fruit salad. Sometimes yogurt with granola. Occasionally, I'll gamble on an iced tea, but that's usually bad, too. But you won't see me ordering a muffin or scone at Starbucks. Why, you ask? Because every last item in that case is a mirage. That's right, a mirage. You may buy a crumb-covered slice of coffee cake. But what you actually end up eating tastes like a pile of wood shavings, neatly pressed into cake form.

Don't think I make this claim idly. Oh, I've done my research. I've tried a scone, a muffin, a donut, a slice of cake, an oatmeal raisin cookie. Each time, they end up in the garbage after two bites. Now I can stand in front of that gleaming bakery case without the slightest temptation. It reminds me of when I worked in a donut shop at age 16 and couldn't even SEE the donuts after a while. (Those donuts were actually good, but I ate too many in my first week.)

Let's see, what exactly is wrong with the baked goods at Starbucks, you ask? Let me count the ways they are vile. They are cold, for starters, which makes them hard and stale-ish if not actually stale. They will offer to "warm them up" for you, which means a minute in the microwave, after which the edges will be molten and the center, cold and stale. They are sweet, but not in a good way--in a chugging insulin punch way. They have no distinct flavors--all of them taste like oil and sugar. Each time I take a bite, I can feel the myriad chemicals oozing through my bloodstream, robbing me of vital brain cells. I could always feel the seething chemicals, but recently I obtained proof: I was waiting to order my fruit salad and I happened to get an unsanctioned glance at a lemon pound cake before it was sliced--it was sealed in shrink wrap, and the clear plastic was entirely obscured on one side of the cake by a printed list of ingredients, in a font so micro that I must have counted 76 ingredients before an alarmed barista whisked it away from my prying eyes.

This vileness is not limited to Starbucks snacks, to be fair. The vileness extends to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Peet's cases, too. I'm guessing every franchise coffee operation gets their yummies off the same truck, and that before that they've been chilling in a warehouse for six months. What seems so unfair, though, is that independent coffee houses often have the most delectable baked goods. Apple pie and chocolate tortes and irregularly shaped muffins and scones that are still warm. Twisty things with cinnamon and sugar. Cheesecake, in multiple flavors. When I lived in La Jolla, and later in Hillcrest, I was tempted in coffee shops all the time. It was an extreme occupational hazard, in fact, because as a grad student, I often spent eight or more hours grading papers in a coffee shop, in order to avoid the Siren's lure of my e-mail at home. I would power through two or three different creations before the day was through. Had I been grading at Starbucks, however, I would have had to pack a lunch.

In conclusion, I can never decide if Starbucks is perpetrating extreme cruelty on the coffee-drinking public by not allowing them to have a decent cookie with their espresso, or if they are secretly invested in helping us to watch our daily caloric intake. After hearing about the new law in New York where Starbucks (and indeed all chain restaurants) is required to list the calories under every item in the display case, and learning that the average Starbucks goodie clocks in at 600 calories, maybe it's the latter.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Day 16: Carb-o-Rama

I could live on carbs. I think I do.

Some years back, when the low-carb frenzy began, I was seriously disturbed. Not because I considered cutting back on carbs, but because it seemed the apocalypse was nigh if anyone was even suggesting it. And the fact that carbs were not just defined as bread, cookies, pasta, cereal and cake, oh no, but EVERYTHING with sugar or anything good in it.

Low-fat made sense to me. After all, there are 9 calories in every gram of fat, as opposed to only 4 in each gram of protein or carbohydrate. That's more than twice as many calories! I was perfectly happy to have my burger without cheese, or mayo, and to get salad instead of fries. But if you even think of taking away my bun, beware...I might bite your hand off.

When low-carb first began, a close friend of mine (who no longer speaks to you think something in her brain snapped from lack of carbs?) stood with me by the bakery case in Ralphs one day and announced, "I could just climb right inside there and eat every crumb without stopping." Yikes! One time we went to Denny's late at night and she ordered a 16 oz. T-bone steak...with nothing on the side. She ate every bloody bite while I nibbled my dry toast and jam. I wasn't sure what seemed crazier: ordering a giant steak in the middle of the night, or ordering it at Denny's.

Later, the powers that be redefined the low-carb mission to encompass lots and lots of shrubbery--so much so, that when my vegetarian parents jumped on the train, they had to give up their beloved nightly watermelon gorge fests. "That's okay," my mom told me. "We were eating too much watermelon." Yeah, gotta watch that watermelon. It's like shooting nicotine directly into your veins. Suddenly, it was no longer cool to order three-egg and cheese omelettes with a rasher of bacon for Sunday breakfast. Apparently, this could cause heart trouble.

Anyway, I'm going to go on record and confess that carbs are what I live for. Not even cakes and pie and cookies (though those certainly rank) but massive portions of toothsome fresh pasta smothered in vodka sauce, and hot biscuits with honey. I dream of hot, flaky biscuits. And sometimes the only way to make a bad day right is to bake up a round loaf of chewy, extra-sour sourdough, and let a chunk of butter melt into each piece. Only when my entire shirt is coated in crumbs has my bread jones been sated.

It really is all about the bread. I've got to have my sandwiches on honey wheat, 7-grain and rye, pillowy and thick. I need to start every day with a bagel, toasted crisp, with cream cheese. I need noodles in my soup, a crouton on my French Onion, the pizza slice with the greatest ratio of crust to cheese, and more spaghetti with my spaghetti. When I think "snack," I think "How about some lovely toast? A nice bowl of cereal?" Bread...didn't Jesus say something about the importance of bread? There you go--it's not just me.

Now I realize the carb-free mania has slowed a bit in the last few longer is it listed on EVERY menu in San Diego that you can have your sandwich "protein-style" (wrapped in lettuce leaves instead of a roll) but you can't close your eyes and open to a random page of Us Weekly without getting a quote from a celebrity about their "get-fit tips"--"I just cut back on carbs and smoke a lot!"

No, they're not even smoking these days. Just doing Vinyasa yoga and avoiding bread. It's the last true path to virtue.

Which means I'm a-goin' straight to hell. Make me a sandwich for the trip?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Day 15: Fro-Yo Fever

About two years ago, I threw a penny in a magical fountain and made two wishes: one, that it would become easier to find teeny-tiny hamburgers served in multiples, and two, that frozen yogurt would come back in style. While I might be making up the part about the fountain, that's how I'm spinning it, because both wishes came true.

These days, there isn't a restaurant of high or low cuisine that doesn't have their version of "sliders," with lots of additions to the basic model, like Kobe beef (Ruby's Diner) and fried red onion strings (Islands) and spicy pink chipotle sauce (Sammy's.) Recently, David and I had Indian food and even they were serving sliders--seasoned lamb, served on tiny circles of naan, slathered in mango chutney. Can you say INSPIRED?

Sliders are awesome for so many reasons, and as any five-year-old will tell you: Duh, it's just basic math, three is better than one. Mostly, though, I love them because you get three "do-overs" for that divine moment when you bite into your burger for the first time, before all the bits fall out, the sauce runs down your hand, and the bun starts getting soggy. Did I mention that three is better than one?

But the frozen yogurt resurgence has exceeded my wildest dreams, because in their new incarnation, many of these places are "DIY." Having been helpless on countless occasions as a pony-tailed girl with her back to me fills my cup to the heavens while I shout for her to stop, or plunks on two marshmallows when I really wanted 22, it's like a whole new world.

When we first moved to our current house, we were happy to be a 10-minute drive from a Golden Spoon, which in my opinion still has the best yogurt, in the "realest" flavors. But their toppings are limited and frustratingly sealed behind Plexiglass, so often I get mine plain. Which is fine, but then our beloved babysitter told us that just a few blocks away was Yogurt Xpress, where you build your own, and we gave it a try. Wow! First, you can have as many tastes as you want, since you serve them yourself in the tiny spitcups. Not that I like a lot of tastes (I get too full) but sometimes you just wanna try something new without gambling. Second, I can fill my cup half-way and no one gets their panties in a wad about it. I just know myself--I'm only eating half. Finally, the toppings are off the hook: there's a whole wall of dry toppings, with every kind of chewy, crunchy, chocolatey, candilicious texture, and a bunch of squeezy bottles with every kind of sauce. Best of all, you stick your creation on the scale and they say "That will be 79 cents, please," or some other ridiculous number that makes you wonder about their overhead.

Now we have another "make your own" that's sprung up near our house, YogurtWorks, and if anything, they have even MORE toppings, including every kind of cereal. My favorite is Fruity Pebbles, perhaps because my mother once almost retched at my very request to buy it. They add a nice, sugary crunch to a bite of cold, creamy vanilla. What can I say? See above where I think like a five-year-old.

Today Jarrah and I were driving towards Arizona (that's another story, but let's just say I might have misunderstood Google maps) and we got hungry right when we saw yet another yogurt shop, Yo-Yo's. Both of us lit up when we opened the door to the frosty interior and saw the "Here's How It Works" on the wall. Jarrah is a pro now, and directed me straight towards the Fruit-Loops and the mini-marshmallows. I admired the freezer unit they have for all the "better cold" chocolates candies, and the staggering range of colorful gummy shapes. Once again, I placed our two cups on the scale and heard, "That will be $2.37, please." I paused, thinking she meant just mine, but no, that was the total for both. Sweet.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Day 14: The Burnt Toast Post

There won't actually be any toast in this post. I just liked the title, and I was thinking about "burnt" because I am burnt OUT on food-related daily blogging. I need a day to collect my faculties (still waiting for you guest posters!) so I'm going to chat about what's on my mind today. Luckily, food is always somehow related.

Mary and I had a playdate today. Our first stop was Happy Buddha, which I just learned about from my friend Jill. Happy Buddha, where have you been all my life? In an unassuming strip mall on Convoy St. lies a little taste of nirvana in the form of foot reflexology. In Oriental medicine, the foot is like a microcosm of the whole body, and massaging various points on the foot can cure whatever ails you.

When we walked in, I was already in love. It's a tiny place, and we were the only ones there. There are about eight ginormous plushy red recliners (I'm talking the biggest recliners you've ever seen, more of a Lazy Giant than a Lazy Boy) some tinkling table fountains, and a flat-screen in HD spooling silent footage of China. We were invited to sit down, and someone brought us some jasmine tea. Then our therapists (they call them "foot masters") returned with two buckets (not the unromantic cleaning-supply kind, more like props from Hee Haw) full of scorching hot water. While we soaked our feet, the therapists (a woman and a man--I had the woman) reclined our chairs and began massaging various pressure points in the face, head, neck and shoulders. It was freakishly awesome. After about 15 minutes of that, they dried our feet, took the buckets away, and returned with warm towels and lotion, which they used to wrap up one of our feet and start massaging the other. This lasted an HOUR, Readers. Can you imagine? I'm getting all sleepy again just thinking about it. Not that it was all drool-time. Some of those pressure points must have been stubborn because she was WAY into them. I yelped a couple of times. Mary laughed, and the gal working on me said it might hurt but it was good for me. (Hmmmm...does she know my mother?)

Afterwards, we staggered next door to the Asian import shop, and bought some crazy-adorable satin balloon dresses (is that what they're calling them in Milan?) for the girls. We can always justify the Asian outfits, since they are the preferred costume at all the Families with Children from China events. I don't know about you, but I really work up an appetite when I get a foot massage, so I requested lunch.

We dined at Phuong Trang which was bustling with the lunchtime crowd, even though it's big as a banquet hall. We both had versions of pho, which is like the Vietnamese version of noodle soup (Vietnamese penicillin?) It's chock-full of fresh herbs, broccoli, carrots, baby corn, green onions, vermicelli and savory broth. Mine had chicken, Mary's had tofu (she's a veg.) We also had fresh spring rolls, which are wrapped in rice paper instead of fried, and filled with tofu, lettuce, mint and noodles which you dunk in savory peanut sauce. Delish! But my favorite treat at Phuong Trang isn't even Asian (I don't think) just addictive. It's a tall glass of club soda with fresh-squeezed lemon and a truckload of sugar, which you whip into a froth with a long spoon. I had two of those--I can't get enough.

Pleasantly full, we headed over to Daiso, which I have discussed in this space before--it's the Japanese dollar store. I always do some serious damage in there, and without a kid trying to smash everything in sight, I was able to do even more. Mary and I got separated for a bit (distracted, we were both knocked down by a wave of shopping with an undertow of extreme cuteness) and when we met up again she was sporting a basket chock-full of Bento supplies--"I've gone Bento-crazy!" she said. "It's Bento-madness!"


David and I saw the most delightful movie last night (not coming to a theater near you; you have to Netflix it) called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. That's a rather unwieldy title, if you ask me, for a sweet little documentary about the ongoing rivalry between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe for the world record on Donkey Kong. That's right, the early-'80s video game with Mario, the ape and the barrels (apparently, there are many more screens that don't have barrels, but I never got past the first one in my arcade days.)

Billy Mitchell was featured on the cover of a national magazine in 1982 for his video game records, and he's been building an empire out of the notoriety ever since. His Donkey Kong record, in particular, had remained unchallenged until recently, when a sweet, unemployed "hand savant" named Steve Wiebe decided to challenge him. He sets up a classic Donkey Kong in his garage, and spends most of his time in there perfecting his game, which drives his wife and two young children kind of bonkers. What happens when he videotapes himself scoring over a million points and submits the new record to Twin Galaxies, an independent foundation that tracks video game statistics worldwide, makes for some awfully entertaining shenanigans.

The film takes us to Fun Spot, an annual world championship video game tournament (I'm not making this up) and into the devious backstage machinations of everyone in the industry whose livelihood has been supported by Billy Mitchell's fame. Billy Mitchell himself is a hoot, and his simpering lackey, Brian Kuh, is even funnier. And through it all, Steve Wiebe just keeps quietly wielding his joystick, keeping his eye on the game, not bothering anyone and hardly objecting when everyone mispronounces his name (it's Wee-Bee.)

In the interest of tying this to food somehow, I marveled that these people play for hours, sometimes all day, and never seem to eat or drink or go to the bathroom. They're like video game superheros. Oh, and Billy Mitchell owns a restaurant called Ricky's, devoted to hot sauce. You must see this movie--you won't learn anything about how to play Donkey Kong, yet a tiny part of you will admire the men (oh, they're all men) who do.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Day 13: Family Food Trivia

For today's post, I am offering a one-time glimpse into the dazzling world of our family's food habits. I don't think I need to tell you that opportunities like this don't come along very often, and should be savored like fine wine and smelly cheese. At moments like these, I am simply overcome by what I am willing lay bare for your prurient curiosity. Look away while I collect myself, please.

G/N Food Trivia

Vegetable that David will not eat: broccoli

Vegetable David and Sam won't eat: zucchini

Vegetable that Jarrah won't eat: lettuce

Sam's favorite fro-yo: coffee

David's favorite fro-yo: peach

Jarrah's favorite fro-yo: anything with sprinkles

Sam's Dread Four "Chunky Cheeses:" cottage, ricotta, feta and bleu

Foods Sam hated as a kid that she loves as an adult: raspberries, blackberries, garlic, onions, mushrooms, pineapple, runny scrambled eggs, garbanzo beans, sweet potatoes, creamy sauce of any kind

Food David hated as a kid that he loves as an adult: pizza

Sam's bagels: egg, onion or whole wheat

David's bagels: cinnamon raisin

Jarrah's bagels: doesn't matter, they are simply a base from which to lick cream cheese or jam

Sam's cereal: Special K, Product 19, cornflakes

David's cereal: granola with dried fruit

Jarrah's cereal: whatever has the most sugar

Beverage we drink every morning: lime seltzer (David with orange juice, Sam with cranberry)

Top reason David will reject a food: too wobbly, mushy, or gummy

Top reason Sam will reject a food: "I think it has ricotta in it."

Top reason Jarrah will reject a food: "It have black thing on it."

Sam's favorite pasta shape: capellini (angel hair)

Jarrah's favorite pasta shape: rotelle (wagon wheels)

David's favorite pasta shape: whatever shape we're having

Jarrah's default meal in restaurants: "Mac a' cheese!"

Reason Jarrah might actually be an undercover agent disguised as a toddler: Recently, when asked her preferred side dish, she answered "Broccoli," and proceeded to finish the entire bowl.

Stuff Sam loves that David loathes: black licorice, root beer, Dr. Pepper, beets, eggs

Stuff David loves that Sam loathes: Vegemite, "fish patties," veggie burgers, anything black currant

How David and I knew we were meant for each other: we both loved pineapple pizza but didn't like fresh pineapple (though we both do now.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 12: Investigative Report--The Costco Buffet

It's 12:22 on Saturday and we're jostling the crowds choosing a cart in front of Costco. I have my clipboard for journalistic verisimilitude, and David says I look like "a not-so-Secret Shopper." I make a note that there are huge lines for the hot dogs, I guess because it's lunch time and they're cheap. I've never eaten a Costco hot dog, and I'm not about to start now.

Inside, we've barely made it past electronics when a lady near the bulk snack foods offers us a taste of beef jerky, regular or Hot n' Spicy. We nudge Jarrah's groping hand away from the Hot n' Spicy, and we all have some. It's not bad, though I'm not that discerning where jerky is concerned. Jarrah and David both go back for more. The lady tells us it's "great for the little ones in the car" because they can't make a mess with it. Good point.

Once we've passed cosmetics, there are a lot of beverages to try. The first is called Thai Mangosteen, which has bilious color but doesn't taste half-bad. The lady tells us one ounce "is equal to 15 pomegranates." Hello, that's a lot of pomegranates. Jarrah is starting to catch on and asks "What kind other ladies we can find?"

Next we try Zipfizz, which is marketed as an alternative to Red Bull because it boosts your energy without giving you a "crash" when the caffeine wears off. The gal's main pitch is "for being sugar-free it doesn't taste too bad." I agree, and normally I hate sugar-free stuff. The three of us drain our Pink Lemonade samples, but I'm not tempted to buy--I've never really understood the notion of getting nutrients or whatever from a beverage.

David, however, does buy a box of Joint Juice "with glucosamine" after trying it. He says he'll drink it instead of orange juice, and at work, to help his joints. I guess it must have been tasty but I didn't have any.

I do make an impulse buy at our next station, which is Fruit Crunchies--freeze-dried fruit snacks with no additives, available in strawberry and mixed tropical. They appeal to me because they're low-cal but not sticky like the fruit leathers that Jarrah yearns for. Because of Jarrah's teeth, we've got sticky issues. But she loves these and I think I can get away with putting them in her lunch. Jarrah is really excited now and dashes towards the next station, yelling "Look, there's a lady with another snack!"

Dry-roasted edamame do not look good. They are shriveled and brown. But Jarrah yums them up, so I try one. It tastes like sunflower seeds. Not bad, and pleasantly salty.

Jarrah is eager to get to the fruit section so she can go inside the refrigerated room and pretend she's on "Brrrrrr Street." This is a reference to the Wiggles, in case you don't know. While she and David are freezing their tushes off, I sample the sliced peaches and nectarines that you can buy by the flat. I'm not sure what Costco is doing to their fruit, if it's genetically engineered or what, but it's like crack. I can't even buy their peaches because I end up eating 12 in one day and getting violently ill.

Now we're in the savory section, and the competition is stiffer. I walk by the Harris Ranch Boneless BBQ Short Rib station three times, and each time the lady in the hair net just shrugs apologetically. If you want meat at Costco, you have to wait in line or be super-sneaky like a meat private investigator. Most of the savories are hard to access. The Lean Cuisine chicken paninis and frozen pizza stations present an empty plate to passerby as well.

I try a few things in quick succession, because once you get into perishables you are in the beating heart of the Costco buffet and the action is hot. I have a green ravioli on a stick (they also come in yellow, pink and orange, and the lady next to me says, "You know what? I really need to try all the colors." before helping herself to four) which is advertised as cheese-filled but tastes like the fridge. There's a mega-station with all kinds of meat on a stick, and I extend my hand as if on auto-pilot when a toothpick with a chunk of gristle is waved. It actually tastes pretty good, which worries me. David and Jarrah try Smokehouse Choice Angus beef, but it looks like a square of fat to me, and I'm not enticed. David makes a face and says "I'm not really into smoked."

One cube of Chipotle Cheddar cheese, which lures me in with attractive marbling, and I'm done. The cheese has a retroactive kick that keeps knocking my mouth around, and I have to look away when we pass the new and improved Cheetos, though Jarrah is over the moon.

So here are my findings: Yes, Virginia, you can have lunch at Costco on a Saturday, if you're patient. But start at the center of the store, where the meat, fruit and cheese is, working your way out to beverages. And don't cram things in your mouth witlessly, or you'll end up with a churning belly (like me) before you discover the thing you really, really want. And you're on your own for dessert--we didn't see any. If you're not exhausted from the competition, you can line up with the hot dog crowd outside--the fro-yo swirl cones looked mighty refreshing.

Here's the final, shocking confession: we went to lunch afterwards.