what I like

I don’t know a lot about art. I haven’t studied it, I don’t often go to museums and when I do, I don’t really know what I’m looking for. And though I’m loathe to admit it, though I myself cringe when I hear other philistines say it: I know what I like. It sounds so perfectly inane, so uninformed, so ignorant. And it is. I admittedly lack the vocabulary, the study, everything else to explain why I seem to have a visceral reaction to something on the wall. Makes me want it on my own, want to look at it all the time, want to know the story behind the image.

The same is true with me with wine and coffee. I don’t know why I like something, but when it’s good, I’m going to pour myself another. The cat won’t get any leftover cream from what I’ve allotted a pot. I might feel that third glass of wine in the morning. I make my choices based on some rudimentary knowledge, a handful of mnemonics and loose associations. I’m mostly driven by instinct, and usually it pays off.

In the morning it’s Rwanda coffee. That is, coffee I pick up from Ritual on Valencia, ground for the French press I employ in the morning with the directions of a brewing guide from Stumptown in Portland. The only way I remember the coffee I like is that I know I feel oddly conflicted about it. Rwanda. There’s bad things happening there. Where does this coffee really come from? Am I somehow supporting genocide with my coffee? I go to Ritual every Sunday, remind myself that some question will go up, and I’ll remember it’s not the Kenya I like. If there was a Darfur blend available, my mnemonic would fail and I buy that one.

At night, I’ve been pouring Cotes du Rhone. I know. I know I’m supposed to list vintages and geography and everything and anything else I’m supposed to know. But I don’t know it. I can’t commit those things to memory, even though I’m damn good at Trivial Pursuit and I often have the chance to feel a palpable sense of pride when I get the final Jeopardy clue and the actual contestants on TV miss it.

I’m not sure how to start learning. I always thought I would learn by exposure, by osmosis. But it isn’t taking. For now, I’m relying on instinct, because, well, I know what I like.


beautiful disaster

In Portland, when I was at a loss for what to have for dinner, I always knew I could count on a lovely, complementary combination: chicken satay and salad rolls. In my last few months in town, I began an informal survey of sorts, finding the best skewered chicken, the freshest, snappiest salad rolls and a peanut sauce that the two handheld delights would share. Since moving here, I’ve found one great satay specimen after another, but the salad rolls, well, they have been a little more elusive. So I decided to try my own hand at them.

Just three blocks to me is another country. I’m even more of a minority there in this already minority-majority city. At 5’3, I’m tall and speaking only English, Russian and Spanish, I can’t understand a word. From what I understand Clement St is the real Chinatown of San Francisco. Monterey Park to Los Angeles’ downtown pagodas and wishing fountains.

Shopping there is a bit of an adventure. I feel like I’m taking a risk by buying shrimp that aren’t protected behind a glass case, or that I’m making the wrong choice of one kind of rice noodle from an infinite array. I’m all for choice in the marketplace, but I’ll never understand why there is an entire row dedicated solely to two kinds of noodle: rice and wheat.

I finally pulled myself away from the very, very exciting candy aisle at the market there (the big one on 8th and Clement) where so many cute cartoons beckoned me to try any and every candy there. With a big bag of fresh ingredients ($15.80!), I headed home.

It didn’t take me too long into the prep work to realize why I’ve been so hesitant to really do some hard-core cooking in my kitchen. I thought it was just the electric stove with just one big burner that was holding me back, but it turns out there’s something else amiss. I have great granite counters. Four of them. Each about 1.5 feet wide going 3 feet back. Nowhere to just sit and cut and prep. This is a problem. Still, I kept on.

I made stations. One for the soaking, draining, cooking and draining of rice noodles, a place to pluck, rinse and spin the herbs, another spot doubled as a red-pepper chopping/ rice paper soaking station and then, finally the shrimp cooking in ginger and garlic on the stove.

It was an awkward dance made more awkward by an obese cat spurred by the smell of fresh shrimp to weave figure eights around my ankles.

Finally, with all the ingredients at the ready, I laid a sticky slippery round of rice paper on a plate, lined up two shrimp, then piled on thai basil, cilantro, mint, a couple sticks of red pepper, bean sprouts, and a healthy bunch of rice noodle. I delicately pulled, folded and plied the paper over and around the little heap. Flipped it over, and well, I had something. It was certainly not the most elegant salad roll, but I found something endearing in its lopsided looseness.

I’d make them again, and I’d do it soon. I have a fridge full of fresh ingredients, a few ideas on how to make them even better (mango shrimp rolls? Dash of lime? Jicama?). Inspiration has struck, even though my kitchen may not yet accommodate me.