Tag Archives: eating

Turkish books and food

First off, I changed the header image on the blog! (Finally!) I also added the Goodreads widget to the sidebar so everyone can stalk what I am currently reading.

Secondly, I am sad to announce for the first time in years, I couldn’t finish a book. That book was The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

It won the Nobel Prize in Literature. And I couldn’t finish it.

urlI was reading this book for my book club, and while I still will go to the meeting on Monday night (maybe others’ praises for it will change my opinion), I guess just wasn’t in the right mood for it.

The Museum of Innocence is the story of a 30-year-old Turkish man’s obsessive love for the young shopgirl Fusun. The two begin a love affair when she is only 18, but she disappears in envy when the man becomes officially engaged to his long-term socialite girlfriend. Eventually, our protagonist, Kemal, finds her again — and surprise! She’s married. Then there are 500 drawn-out pages in which Kemal dines regularly with Fusun, her new husband, and her parents, eager to resume their romance but hopelessly separated from her. All the while, he collects small trinkets that remind him of her and their relationship in some way, for his museum about their romance.

I read three-fourths of this book thoroughly, but then I was just painfully bored, so I started skimming until there was some semblance of a plot again. It was just. So. Melancholy. It was like being trapped in a room for hours and hours with a very lonely person who could not stop talking, in painful detail, about every minuscule detail of their sad, sad life.

I will say the first third of the novel — which chronicles how Kemal crosses path with Fusun, a long-lost distant cousin of his, and falls madly in love with her while concealing this secret from the rest of the world — was wonderful. Pamuk writes lovely prose. What he does not write, in my opinion, is an engaging story.

The Museum of Innocence is set against the backdrop of Istanbul, beginning in the 1970s. It’s embarrassing, but when I think of Istanbul, the only things that come mind are the Hagia Sophia and that song, “So if you’ve got a date in Istanbul, she’ll be waiting in Constantinople.”

So yeah. Basically nothing.

And this is so silly of me, but I have SO much trouble reading novels when I can’t pronounce even the main characters’ names. This is my main gripe about Anna Karenina, as it is. And when the book isn’t already engaging, I become frustrated with trivial things like name pronunciations.

And the thing is I’ve already read and loved two other acclaimed novels with similar themes about obsessive love. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of my favorite books of all time. (Interestingly enough, the NY Times’ book review of The Museum of Innocence is titled “Lolita on the Bosphorus”.) When I took a whole senior seminar on Nabokov and found out we’d be studying Lolita for weeks, I thought my heart would explode with happiness. Lolita is the seductively told tale of the aging European Humbert Humbert and his doomed love for the 12-year-old American “nymphet” Dolores Haze. I cannot even tell you how beautifully written this novel is. And what a haunting confessional tale of a man pleading, hopelessly, for redemption. Yes, it is disturbing, as it in essence a tale of pedophilia, told by the pedophile himself. But no, it is not graphic. And yes, it is much more than a book about pedophilia. It also asks big questions about What is love, and what is obsession? Can you be in love with a fantasy? Can art be a form of redemption? And on broader, more metaphorical levels, it speaks of a sophisticated, aging Europe colliding with brash, young America.

Here is a depiction of the first chapter’s text. If that doesn’t make you both extremely creeped out and want to keep reading, I don’t know what will.

tumblr_lpqafpp9fM1qze3z3o1_400The other novel The Museum of Innocence reminded me of is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in Time of Cholera. This is the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall passionately in love in their innocent youth. Fermina eventually marries a doctor, and Florentino is tragically devastated. While he passes his years with 622 love affairs, as a hopeless romantic, he “reserves his heart” for only Fermina. As the book jackets says, “Fifty-nine years, nine months and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.”

I love love LOVE Marquez’ magical realism style. I’ve read his other major novel (A Hundred Years of Solitude) as well and a couple of his novellas. When you read his writing, you feel like you are sitting on the front porch of a couple of village elders, somewhere in the depths of Colombia. His stories comes across as part factual, part personal tall tale, part oral folklore, and part the “weirder” beliefs of Catholicism (like the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). It’s absolutely glorious and breathtaking to read. I’ve heard from some Spanish-speaking friends back in Texas that his prose is even more enchanting in the original language. I can only imagine.

One praiseful thing I will say about The Museum of Innocence is that the author opened an actual museum based on the book in Istanbul. This sort of blurs the line between reality and fiction, and I love quirky, imaginative things like that. I found a few photos of the exhibits online, and they eerily imitate the exhibits listed in the book. For example, Kemal spends years collecting thousands of Fusun’s used cigarettes for his museum. And there is an exhibit of used cigarettes in the actual museum in Istanbul.

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Anyway, after seeing reference after reference to the Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoglu in the book, I couldn’t help but want to go to the Turkish restaurant in our neighborhood of the same name.

This was our second visit. We got the large meze platter and another plate of the Mediterranean crab cakes, to share.

lThe meze platter includes hummus, Greek yogurt & cucumber salad, smashed eggplant salad, some sort of spinach concoction, something that looks like couscous or quinoa, and what I call “Greek salsa.” Everything has authentic names that I can’t pronounce or spell. Most importantly, it is all delicious and must be eaten with bits of bread. Anything that I 1) can eat with bread, and 2) fulfills my Meatless Lenten Fridays requirements is good in my book.

And you know what? I know it’s quite a generalization, but based on first impressions, I think I’m more partial to Turkish food than to Turkish books.

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Thoughts from places: Flushing, Queens

The Asia of America

One of my favorite authors, John Green, posts YouTube videos called “thoughts from places” every so often, in which he shares brief video clips of places like Amsterdam, Chicago, or Indianapolis, and narrates them with the most witty and poignant commentary. Here’s an example. I don’t think I can compete with his word skills, but I do have some thoughts from a place.

That place being Flushing, Queens. This past Sunday, Sean and I, along with two of his co-workers (one male and one female) and their significant others, embarked on a journey to the Near Far East. This was very exciting for me, as I tend to stay in Manhattan, with the occasional venture into Brooklyn and one sketchy detour to an authentic Mexican restaurant in the Bronx.

So we took the 7 train from Grand Central all the way to the end of the line — to the Main Street, Flushing stop. I’d yet to reach the end of a subway line, and this was an experience in and of itself. To reach the outskirts of what some would very well refer to as the “center of the _____ world” (insert “fashion,” “financial,” “publishing,” or other prominent New York City industry here).

Once we got out of the Grand Central tunnel, we were above ground for most of our nearly hour-long train ride. That was when I realized that even with its intimidating verticality, eternal bustle, and ceaseless noise, Manhattan is just a small island. New York City is HUGE. We zoomed along past the upper levels of brick buildings, colorfully graffitied, finally arriving at our destination. After a bunch of above-ground stations, the Main Street stop is back underground. You climb up the familiar gritty stairs of the MTA system, and you are in Asia.

Or something like it.

Everyone is dark-haired and speaking in a cacophony of foreign dialects. Some signs are in English, but not all. There’s a bubble tea place and a ramen place on practically every corner. I’d forgotten how humbling it is to be a complete minority.

A long, long time ago, I spent part of my first grade year living in Iwakuni, Japan, where my dad was stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps. My memories mainly consist of that which is most easily etched onto the mind of a 6-year-old: strawberry candies wrapped in playful Hello Kitty packaging; the enchantingly realistic plastic models of food in place of menu restaurants; the gilded patterns of origami paper, waiting to transform into any number of creatures. But one does not easily forget what it is like to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned in a sea of others.

It’s a good thing to experience, once in a while, I think — for those of us who are always in the overwhelming majority. It’s good to feel apart, alienated even, reminded of the fact that there are many worlds besides your own little world.

Once we started walking away from Main Street toward our final destination — Picnic Garden, a Korean barbecue buffet restaurant — it began to feel even less like New York City, and even more like a typical middle-class suburban neighborhood. There were houses and driveways (driveways!) and little patches of grassy yards with trees.

Picnic Garden was its own adventure. Basically, you pile plates with raw, marinated meat (there is also a selection of cooked rice and stir-fried veggies), and barbecue it yourself on a little grill built into a large table. You must use chopsticks — Picnic Garden doesn’t have anything else — and you must remember to use on pair of “cooking chopsticks” and one pair of “eating chopsticks.” Don’t get them confused. (Is there really any wonder why this place has a C sanitation rating? It’s like asking people to give themselves food poisoning.)

Once you get over the fact that there are a lot of bloodied plates sitting around you as well as a selection of squid and chicken gizzards, carefully picked out by a Vietnamese member of our group (and long-time resident of Flushing), it’s actually quite heavenly. The meat is so tender and flavorful! I personally recommend the short ribs. Mmmm.

Picnic Garden! More aptly named, “Meat Garden,” in my opinion.

Also, just for the record, they do come around and change out your grill several times, help cut up particularly large flanks of meat, and clear plates quickly. It’s not totally self-service.

Because you pay a flat-price for all-you-can-eat, the meal lasted us nearly three hours. I don’t think I ate as much as I thought I would or the others did because I can only eat so much meat. I ended up switching to chilled orange slices pretty early in the game. But when we left, I was very aware of the fact that my clothes and my hair smelt unmistakably of Korean barbecue.

I mean, I ate a lot more than I usually do, but you should have seen some of the Asian families dining around us. Impressive!

We made a pit stop on the way back to the subway at Quickly, a cheap bubble tea spot. Sean and I wanted to try two different flavors (I wanted coconut, and he wanted peach), but they have this deal where you can get the large tea for the same price as the medium — the only two sizes they offer, by the way. We knew there was NO WAY after eating all that Korean barbecue we could make it through a large tea, even if we shared it. The girl at the cash register seemed very confused by our refusal of their “free upgrade,” and kept pushing it on us. I looked around the restaurant and EVERYONE had a large. Those Asians, I tell you. Olympic-worthy appetites.

I got the medium, as did Sean. We noticed that we were the only orders that got announced in English and not Mandarin first. It’s because they knew. They knew the outsiders could not handle that much milky tea and tapioca pearls. (What are tapioca pearls by the way? Do I even want to know?)

After another long subway ride to Manhattan and an additional transfer to the uptown 6 train, we were back on the Upper East Side. With The Gap; our Fairway supermarket fully stocked with organic, kosher, all-natural and gluten-free goods; the uniformed doormen who spray the sidewalk free of cigarette butts and dead leaves. You know, all the stereotypical makings of all-American, streamlined, have-it-your-way New York City.

It was hard to believe Flushing, that place of more prominently Asian culture than even famed Chinatown, too, was part of this all-American city. Just a train ride away.

This, I think, is the glorious thing about New York. You can be home, or you can be in a whole new world in what feels like an instant, just by emerging from the depths of the subway system. It’s like a microcosm of the whole world: with rivers and beaches and woods and urban jungle, and high-rise condominiums, prewar brownstones, and suburban houses; grimy bars and majestic cathedrals and corporate multiplexes, and all the many types of people who drift between these various places.

I love that traveling by subway is not only efficient, it also adds an element of surprise to any journey. You descend into its stuffy and sometimes smelly depths, find your small person-sized place among the train’s crowd, feel the jostle of the train rumbling its way through the city’s underbelly. It stops, the door glides open, the crowds pour forth onto the station platform like a much-awaited exhalation of breath. And as if floating on that sigh of eagerness, you float dream-like up the steps and emerge into the sunlight again, blinking in your new surroundings. You never know what awaits you.

Thank you, Flushing, for reminding what it is to truly observe and wonder, explore and discover. I intend to keep on drifting.

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The Great Hot Dog Rivalry: East Side vs. West Side

Having survived closing out my first issue of one of the magazines I copy edit at my new job last week — and the longest issue of the year, mind you — I am happy to return to blogging more regularly. No, I did not work until the obscene hours my accountant husband has these past few months, but even just working an extra hour or so killed my spirit for wanting to look at words at home too much. Not even leisurely reading (gasp!). One night I came home, ordered Chinese food online (how lazy can you get?!?) and watched what felt like a half million YouTube videos of late ’90s and early ’00s music videos. I mean, you can’t watch just ONE Britney video. Trust me.

Sometimes, I really cannot explain or excuse my behavior.

Ahem. To the point of this post. On Sunday afternoon post-Mass, Sean suggested we grab a light lunch. “Where?” I asked. “I was thinking…hot dogs.” And then, because our hearts and minds are just so in sync, I just knew where we were going.

Papaya King.

Behold! The glowing yellow delights of Papaya King. (Photo not mine because I feel awkward taking pictures of food in public. I should get over this.)

Actually, I think that whole mind-/stomach-reading thing was less due to love and more due to common sense. I mean…where else are you going to get a hot dog in New York?

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) know what’s up. They dig a NYC hot dog here and there.

Yes, you can buy one for dirt-cheap from one of those carts in Central Park or Time Square or wherever tourists are (this is what Tina Fey does on 30 Rock, so it’s OK, I promise!), but here’s a little tip: check out a neighborhood favorite! I first learned this when I came to visit the city during spring break my senior year of college while my then-boyfriend/now-husband was interning up here, and we went to check out Gray’s Papaya in the Upper West Side.

We’d heard about it on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations NYC episode, when he raved about “the recession special,” which boasted two hot dogs and a tropical drink for $4 or something equally ridiculous. I was also pumped because this is the brightly colored joint where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet when their characters become friends (and are unknowingly in love with one another) in You’ve Got Mail. Oh, and Ted takes Robin there on How I Met Your Mother when she gets really hungry on New Year’s Eve. It’s a hopping place on TV.

Previously, I considered hot dogs a “specific occasion food,” as in, they were acceptable to eat at a professional baseball game or a backyard barbecue, but other than that, forget about it. Then I tried Gray’s hot dogs and they had this wonderful bite/crunch to them, plus I really dig the combination of the saltiness of the hot dog with the bitter/vinegary-ness of the traditional NYC toppings (sauerkraut, onions, and spicy brown mustard). However, once we moved up here and settled in the UES, getting over to Gray’s Papaya isn’t so easy. But good news! We have Papaya King:

There it is, right on 86th and 3rd, in all its colorful glory!

I’ve determined that I like this place more than Gray’s Papaya, so it’s all good. And I’m not just saying that to show my Upper East Side pride. The papaya drinks here actually taste like papaya, and not just thick sugar-water, so that’s a definite plus. Also, you can get a variety of hot dog toppings, like an onion-crunch dog or a chili-cheese dog. I still go with the classic toppings, but my favorite combo is “the 1932” (not so coincidentally, the year this fine dining establishment was founded), a balanced and nutritious meal consisting of one hot dog, a tropical drink, and an overflowing cup of curly fries for around $6. Like, I said you’ve got all the food groups covered.

It’s a teeny-tiny place with little counters by the windows where you have to stand to eat your food, just like we see Meg & Tom demonstrating in the You’ve Got Mail screencap above, or you can take it on the go and enjoy a meal in all of a New York minute. If you do choose to stay inside, I like to read the various news clippings on the wall. According to this collage of media, Julia Child proclaimed Papaya King to be her favorite NYC hot dog, and Chef Anthony Bourdain — a current UES resident, if I haven’t mentioned that half a dozen times already — said the Papaya King special (two hot dogs and a tropical drink, our pick this past Sunday) is the best meal you can get in the city for under $5. Uh, apparently, Bourdain is not very loyal with this hot dog stands. Which one do you really prefer, Tony?

Apparently, chef/author/TV host Anthony Bourdain has no discrimination when it comes to his NYC hot dogs. Here he is pictured in front of Papaya King (you can see where it says “King’s Special” on the sign behind him). I would love to run into Bourdain at Papaya King. Can the gods of the universe arrange this for me, please?

The restaurant itself boasts all kinds of ridiculousness, from “our frankfurters are tastier than filet mignon” and “papaya promotes heart health.” The last one might be true, except for when consumed with curly fries and hot dogs, of course. You can’t blame them for trying.

So how exactly did these two seemingly random foods, papaya juice and hot dogs, end up irrevocably paired together? As the story goes, the founder, Gus Poulos, fell in love with papaya while on a tropical vacation in Miami. So then he opened several successful tropical juice stands in the city. One day Gus fell on his roller blades and a young German-American woman (hopefully she wasn’t a Nazi spy…you know how Yorkville was back in the day) named “Birdie” helped him up and nurtured him by bringing him traditional German food, including…frankfurters! (This also explains the sauerkraut.)

Needless to say, “Birdie” and Gus were married, and he soon introduced the frankfurter to his juice stand. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a food legend was born.

Sorry to post a gazillion pictures of this guy, but “OH HEY! I totally stood in that same exact spot this past weekend and ate my hot dog.” Sadly, Bourdain was not there to stand and eat with me.

So maybe you’re a UWS resident with a fierce and undying loyalty to Gray’s Papaya.* Whatever your preference, I hope you relish (hardy har har) your classic New York meal! According to some statistic I saw while enjoying my hot dog, it takes about 5 bites for the average American to down a frank. So be careful: your meal could be over before you know it. Good thing the menu is cheap and the calorie counts aren’t displayed, right?

*…but we all know Papaya King is where it’s at.

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5 Good Things

One of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen, writes “the Friday Five” every, well, Friday in her personal blog. I love the concept, but personally, I think Fridays are already awesome. But Mondays? They could use a little help.

So here’s five things that have brought joy to my life recently in some way or another. Make your Monday merrier! Besides, you know what they say about “counting your blessings…”

5 Good Things

1. On Friday night, Sean treated me to ice cream from a neighborhood place, Emack & Bolio’s, and I tried salted caramel ice cream with chocolate-covered mini pretzels! I never knew I why people always rave about the salted caramel lattes at Starbucks, but now I totally get it. Salty sweetness is sometimes just the perfect juxtaposition of flavors. The ice cream was SO. GOOD. The perfect start to an otherwise laundry- and chore-filled weekend.

2. Now that the weather is a little nicer — it’s in the lower 60s right now, so I didn’t have to turn on the A/C when I got home, for once! — street festivals are popping up all over the place. Yesterday a pretty extensive one sprung up on 3rd Ave. on the UES. I walked down the street from 86th to 75th, and as I was walking downhill as well as downtown, I could see huge throngs of people all at once. I never did figure out what the festival was for or about, but there were your typical fair food vendors (deep-fried oreos, kettle korn, and at least a dozen fresh-squeezed lemonade stands in that 11-block stretch alone), a man making balloon animals for children, a few stands for the Chamber of Commerce and other city organizations, and little stands selling silk scarves, costume jewelry, handbags, and so on. What was amusing was that I began to see multiple tents selling the same things–I saw at least three selling knock-off designer sunglasses.

It was almost like Niceville’s annual Mullet Festival, except with less smoke and fried fish, and more tall buildings.

The usual street vendors, who camp out near the metro station and sell the weirdest things (one man has a table of high-end nail polish for suspiciously low prices, another sells CDs of himself covering Bob Dylan songs, and a woman has little plastic baggies of dried fruits and nuts), seemed to be enjoying the extra foot traffic. My only purchase was a cup of lemonade. It was tricky deciding which one to spend my money on, as there were so many. I was unable to turn down an overly jolly man who referred to his citrusy beverage as “exquisite.” How often is lemonade described as “exquisite”? Too rarely, I tell you. Also, he shook the ice, drink, and lemon slices together “like a margarita.” He meant martini, but the sentiment was still nice.

I noticed a sign this evening for a fall street festival at the Catholic parish down the street. I’ll have to check that one out too!

3. Do you ever become completely obsessed with one particular song and then listen to it over and over and over and OVER again? I only have this problem every once in a great while, but I swear for the past month, I can’t get over Radical Face’s “Welcome Home.” The whole album, Ghost, is fantastic, but this one song stands out to me in its folksy acoustic and clapping goodness. This is everything I feel like a song should be.

Plus, Ben Cooper, the man behind this musical act, is based out of Jacksonville, Florida. Sometimes you just gotta have home state pride. I love the music video, too, because you can see distinctly northern Floridian landscape in the background of some scenes.

Go ahead, I dare you do listen to this song and not be happier after:

4. As if we didn’t already know our cat was a huge couch potato (except, of course, when the humans are attempting to sleep at night), she appears to love watching television. She sat completely absorbed for most of the animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox a few weekends ago, watching the little animal-characters run around the screen. I think she enjoyed it because she thought the foxes were cats.

Kitty enjoys the Interwebz.

And like I’ve mentioned before, she can totally veg out in front of a video from the YouTube channel “Videos for your Cat.” Maybe “veg out” isn’t the right phrase. She sits very alert, her eyes darting around the screen, and occasionally paws at the birds or fish moving around on the laptop. Poor thing doesn’t get to see real wildlife much, even with the garden courtyard she can see from her favorite perch on either of the living room windows. Although she did once spot one of the cats who lives out there as it ran across a fence. I’ve never seen her eyes get bigger.

E.B. stands for “Elwyn Brooks.” No wonder he went by his initials professionally.

5. Last week I read the wonderful essay “Here is New York” by E.B. White. Yes, the E.B. White of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web fame. This little gem of a book, which I borrowed from the library on my Kindle, was named one of the 10 best books ever written about NYC by The New York Times and declared “the wittiest essay, and one of the most perceptive, ever done on the city” by The New Yorker. It is truly White’s love letter to the city.

Even though it was penned in 1949, so many of White’s words still ring true. He captures the mysteriously captivating traits of New York in ways that I never could. A must-read for anyone living in or visiting New York–or dreaming of it. I’ll copy one of my favorite passages here:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is the third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

Here’s to a new week of yet-to-be-discovered opportunities and adventures!

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