Sandwiches and Parks

I didn’t always like parks. Not by a lot. Portland would have its days of seasonal gorgeousness and like freed prisoners, people break free of their cold corners and flood the parks. Suddenly everyone has a Frisbee or a dog. It’s college again and layers are shed to reveal inexplicably toned legs and arms. Dean once said it’s like a plane of hotness lands in PDX when the sun comes out. If you admitted to spending The Incredible Weekend inside, you were met with a haughty, disapproving look. So I’d try and play along. Take a towel and a book to the park behind my apartment and be at the park. And there I’d sit, shifting from one uncomfortable position to another, lying on my stomach, sitting Indian style, casually resting on my back propped on my elbows watching the dogs run by. I’d last about 20 minutes before I wrote the whole thing off as a hippie activity and go inside, draw the blinds and catch up on my Netflix. I’d lie on Monday. Said I went on a hike in Forest Park.

But in the lexicon of the lol: Park. Ur doin it wrong.

I was missing sandwiches. And I was missing the right park.

I’ve fallen for Dolores Park. It’s the only place I really ever want to be, watching the endless parade of entertainment go by. Motley crews of hungover missionites looking to make the best of the day. Cyclists laying down their fixed-gear bikes like proud trophies. Bridge and tunnelers creating the scene of an ersatz J.Crew photo shoot. And the families hurridly making their way to the other side of the park, away from the open containers, the swearing and the man who wanders from blanket to blanket with a cooler, singsonging “ganja treats.”

Dolores Park is a dangerous half-block away from some of the best food in the city. Besides the burritos, there’s Bi-rite, where their small aisles become even more unnavigable when the temperature spikes above 60 degrees. Hipsters in shorts and everyone with a bag a little too big tries to make themselves smaller as they turn sideways to choose some produce or order a sandwich. Apologies abound and patience can run thin, but the selection and sandwiches are worth the wait. The deli line and check-out line get confused quickly and if you don’t have a number in your hand, there’s little hope of seeing lunch outside of 20 minutes. I’ve sat outside, waiting to meet a friend and seen park-bound person after park-bound person trip out of the store, shell-shocked and weary, wide-eyed, ready to take their hard-earned lunch and do a fucklot of nothing for a few good hours.

And of late, I have a new plan. It’s not as convenient, but probably takes about the same amount of time. The answer? Saigon Sandwich. It’s a tiny little shop in the Tenderloin that’s rumoured to be a front for some shady dealings. And really, with their bahn mi being so instantly addictive and euphoria inducing, I wouldn’t be surprised if some dust from the bricks of heroin they may or may not be bundling in the back aren’t making it into the roast pork. Seriously, they’re that good. Freshly pickled vegetables, succulent meats and some kind of magic sauce all on a crusty French roll. For $2.75. Seriously. Not a typo. Two dollars and seventy-five cents.

Friday I was in a different park. A friend of mine is new to working on the Embarcadero, and had yet to uncover the simple beauty that is Secret Deli. The shop is entirely non-descript, could be in any office complex anywhere, but the lady there, she does amazing sandwiches. I don’t know what it is, but she can make a turkey-avo-swiss-on-wheat-no-tomato-no-mustard like no one’s business. The tuna melt on dutch crunch is just as awesome. I went for my regular and he ventured for the Cadillac Chicken, a veritable coma-inducing gut bomb you can really only get on a Friday where you have no intentions of being productive.

We took our sandwiches, we made our way to the little patch of park behind Fog City. It doesn’t provide nearly the same entertainment as Dolores. It’s more of an afterthought of urban greening than anything else, but it works. A slightly shady spot under a tree, two sandwiches and an oversized bag of chips and suddenly the workday has floated away. Traffic falls into a white-noise backdrop and muted conversations are only interrupted by the mid-day walking of secretaries and their dogs. Trepadation about sitting directly on the grass is gone and soon enough you’re there, stretched out, sandwich wrappers crumpled and wedged under the shoes you’ve just decided to take off, wondering how long you can stay without raising any eyebrows.

Though I'm inclined to stay for four hours, forty minutes is even enough to sit there, with a friend and a sandwich. "This," I hear myself saying,"this is what life is all about."


Introducing the Underground Food Academy

I'm not one to have ventures. I wouldn't ever really be inclined to start up a start-up or sink any savings into a seemingly sure thing. But then something happened. I had an idea. The kind of idea that keeps you from falling asleep because you can't stop thinking about it. Where new ideas stem from that one and there you are, smiling to yourself as you're walking down the street. This, I realized, could be really big.

Introducing The Underground Food Academy. I could tell you all about it here, but it's better if you just click on over here.


how to make friends. and enemies

Once in awhile a food comes along that’s good. Really good. Maybe even too good. Something so simple and irresistible that people ask you not to make it. “Don’t bring it around here,” they say. “I can’t contain myself.”

But it’s reactions like that, calls from my family where epithets are playfully spat that keep me making more. With a raised eyebrow and a sly little smirk, I offer, “Oh, why don’t I bring something sweet?”

This cruel joke I play, this tempting of willpower and ruin of diets? Simple. Matzoh brittle. Matzoh with a simple butter and sugar caramel poured and baked on, add chocolate chips and a sprinkling of pistachios and you’ve got friends. I’ve brought it to work and it was gone in an instant. I sent some home for Passover and my family almost stopped talking to me. I took it with me to a potluck last week and reveled in sitting across the kitchen, watching people and their reaction. They’d have one piece, then come up with ways of making it ok to have more.

There was bargaining: “The meal was veggie, so another piece is ok.”
Self-delusion. “Just one more piece. Just half of one more piece.”
Displaced empathy: “We can’t let that little half a piece sit there.”
And recruitment: “Have you tried this yet? Here, we’ll split one.”

It was insanely fun to watch. To see people get so excited about something I made. By far, it’s the most satisfying part of cooking for me. To get to watch someone else enjoy it, express genuine joy for what you brought to the table. It was, in a word, sweet.

Like coming across this empty bowl in the office kitchen a scant 20 minutes after I left it there, filled with brittle:

unfamiliar territory

In college, I wasn’t one for experimentation. I didn’t have the obligatory sophomore lesbian one-night stand. I had little interest in drugs. It always struck me that it wasn’t experimentation for curiosity’s sake but more for the shock value of doing it. It wasn’t about learning something from the experience, but about impressing your friends the next day. I was more interested in books and boys.

Some things never change.

But some things do. The older I get, the more confident I become, the more risks I’m willing to take. Things I’m more comfortable exploring. So it’s not entirely unexpected that I find myself down a certain dark road. A toe dipped in an unfamiliar pond. Suddenly and without warning, I’m cooking vegetarian food.

I know. It’s a shock. I’m sure it’s almost as hard for you to read as it is for me to admit. I’ve been alternately mocking and pitying vegetarians for years. I have a subscription to Meatpaper magazine. But driven by economy and curiosity, I wanted to see if I could satisfyingly subsist on veggies and legumes alone. If I could stave off the need to have meat at every meal.

And it’s going ok. I’ve been working on a lentil curry recipe that’s taking off. French techniques and Indian flavors. I start by softening onions, fennel and carrots in a little oil. Then add some simple yellow curry and cayenne. In goes some rainbow chard or kale, a fair amount of vegetable broth, then the lentils and chickpeas to simmer for about 10 minutes.

It’s good. Really good. It’s got a surprising depth of flavor considering the relatively flavorless individual parts. Then topped with a tangy dollop of yogurt (also new to me, it’s been on my “creepy foods” list for awhile), and it becomes a very satisfying and tasty bowl of food.

But don’t worry, I’m not converting. I don’t think I could make it through life without the crisp skin of a perfectly roasted chicken or fathom a perfect brunch complete without a strip or two of bacon or endure a long, cold winter with at least one day devoted to a long-simmering pot roast on the stove. But it’s nice to know there’s damn good food to be had that doesn’t require a trip to the butcher’s counter.