Monday, January 29, 2007

Living Mildly, Eating Fearlessly.

I had brunch yesterday with two of my best friends, friends that I have known practically my entire life. I met J. literally on the very first day of kindergarten when the teacher asked her to help me at the coat closet and something about the way she slung my tiny plaid jacket onto that brass wall hook impressed me and made us friends for life. Two years later in the second grade I met G. while admiring her red patent leather purse with the big gold rings affixed to it, and her, J. and I became a trio, a force to be reckoned with on our inner-city-school playground. I liked to think of us as a miniature version of Charlie's Angels without the good hair, hot clothes or crime-fighting skills.

We eventually went to different schools, got married, had kids and moved to different cities. J. and G. now live within minutes of each other and around an hour's drive away from me, but we all still manage to get together without fail three times a year to celebrate each of our birthdays. The routine is always the same - we meet on a Sunday at the birthday person's house sans husband and kids and treat the honoree to brunch. Over the years, when our kids were small we've had to bend those rules a few times and bring one or both of our kids along (necessitated by breast feeding schedules or babysitting issues) but for the most part we've been able to make it a girls-only bonding affair. I imagine we'll be doing this into our old age, eventually all rolling our wheelchairs into a van, trading coupons for Depends and Metamucil and complaining when one of the other's oxygen tank hums too loudly.

The restaurants vary from year to year, but the one prerequisite is that the brunch must be of the All-You-Can-Eat-Buffet variety, the kind where upon entering you are greeted with a vista promising absolute gluttony and excess. To see table upon table heaped with platters of crab legs and cocktail shrimp and huge chafing dishes piled with pounds of sausage is what gets our mouths watering and makes our reunion complete. We've actually got up and left restaurants when upon being seated we were handed a menu and informed that their Sunday brunch consisted of their standard breakfast selection served with a glass of champagne. No going back for seconds of eggs benedict or standing in front of a 'chef' while he carves up a slab of prime rib? We're outta here.

Another thing we look for in choosing a brunch is the co-mingling of ethnic cuisines. We've tried the brunches at Mexican restaurants where you can feast on unlimited servings of chicken enchiladas and finish off with a glass of horchata and even a brunch at a Japanese restaurant where they had fry-while-you-wait tempura stations alongside enormous vats of of miso soup. But the hallmark of a truly great brunch is one where your slice of lasagna happily shares a plate with your Chinese dumplings and on your second go-around that same plate is home to caprese salad, a spicy-tuna handroll and a mound of wasabi.

Please don't lecture me about the dubious reputation of the all-you-can-eat buffet. I've read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential where he cautions against ever eating at such brunches, especially at hotels, where it's common knowledge that they gather up all the leftover food from the week, lay it out attractively on an expensive platter and foist it upon a hungry, unsuspecting public. Ever wonder what they do with the leftover rolls they pick up from your dinner table? Look no further than the gargantuan banquet table at that restaurant's Sunday brunch, where piles of 'fresh' bread beckon to you from baskets the size of trash cans and that piece of leftover chicken from your kid's plate has now been cut up and incorporated into a lovely antipasto salad platter.

In fact, I like to freak myself out by imagining the scene preceding the brunch at a hotel restaurant we frequent. In a dark, basement corner of the kitchen, scores of hefty hotel workers in hair nets flank a long conveyer belt onto which platters of cast off room service trays are being dumped. The workers use their stubby fingers to pick out and discard cigarette butts smashed into scrambled eggs and condom wrappers stuffed between slices of french toast. What remains are sent down to a crew of chefs whose sole job is to immediately come up with appealing brunch dishes incorporating all the scraps being hurled at them via the conveyer belt. Six mounds of old hashed browns and a scattering of half eaten bacon? Pork au gratin! Three uneaten sides of steamed vegetables and some leftover shrimp cocktail? Seafood salad, bon appetit!

Is this visual I've created enough to make me turn my back on our beloved Sunday buffet? Are health reports that caution how vodka destroys brain cells enough to stop you from inhaling that fourth martini? I didn't think so.

I admit to being a bit picky when eating at restaurants. Here in L.A. all retail food establishments are given a grade by the health department indicating their cleanliness and food handling practices, with 'A' being sparkling and anything below a 'C' being the type of place where you'll find the cook using the poultry scissors to trim his toenails. I always try to eat at restaurants with an 'A' grade, although I've eaten at the occasional 'B' restaurant when desperate and only once at a' C' joint. This happened when the girls were small and Rigel and I found ourselves wandering the streets of Santa Monica late one night. We were starving and had gotten to the point where we had to choose between risking our health at the questionable offering in front of us or eating the children and lying to the police that they were attacked by wild dogs.

But I seem to be fearless in the face of all the health hazards the glorious all-you-can-eat buffet presents. At the sushi table, I barely bat an eye at the huge plates of raw fish sitting out for who-knows-how-long as I scoop up five pieces and place them on my plate, right next to the hunk of salmon whose age is unknown. Moving on to the cheese table, I hardly notice the absence of a sneeze shield and treat myself to a generous slice of brie and a handful of crackers from the obviously picked through basket. And look - it's a hearty pasta salad! I try not to think of the tomatoes that are probably leftover from the vegetable plate tossed out last night by room 1104.

We're already thinking of where to take J. for her birthday brunch which is coming up at the end of February. Both her and G. live in a city filled with first class restaurants, but the trick will be in finding the place that has a twelve-ingredient omelet station and a table in the back devoted entirely to potatoes. We'll walk in, survey the scene and try and decide which chafing dish to attack first, choosing to ignore the sauces that have congealed because of a extinguished sterno. Then we'll return to the tables with our heaping plates, determine who managed to snag the most slices of bacon and sit down to talk about our lives.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Aging Like Fine Wine. Or Was It Old Cheese.

I had a birthday last week. It was pretty wonderful - a few girlfriends took me out to dinner the night before, and the night of my actual birthday me, Rigel the girls and two of our best friends went out for sushi. (Is that sentence grammatically correct? Because all the holes in my aged brain are impeding my language skills.) I got so many great gifts - beautiful handmade cards, a candle and soap from the girls, bouquets of flowers, a huge basket of cookies from my sister and this awesome gadget from Rigel, as well as birthday phone calls all day long from family and friends, not one of them mentioning how much slower my metabolism seemed or the extra flab on on my upper arms.

I don't really like getting older, so I'm not going to get all Lifetime Channel on you and enthuse about how each advancing year is getting me closer to the 'real me' or how I'm like a flower, a truly beautiful flower that's just about to bloom. Or how every new morning brings new insight or that old tired adage about age being just a number (said the 19-year-old.) And don't expect any lectures from me on how those young people in their twenties really don't know what they're missing or that load of crap about how I wouldn't trade my wisdom for my youth. Because show me the scientist that could give me back my porcelain skin and tight ass I will gladly FedEx him my frontal lobe wrapped in a pretty bow and packed in dry ice.

But I will tell you that getting older is a little easier with a husband like mine, one who let me sleep in on my birthday while he got the girls up, dressed and fed and took them to school and then, while I still slept and he was late for work, made me a big breakfast and left it for me in the warming drawer. Because this is a man who knows that the true path to my heart is not necessarily through romance and flowers but through a couple of over-easy eggs, a slice of wheat toast and two pieces of bacon.

And the best part? He had left little notes all around the house, everywhere from my favorite coffee mug to the inside of the refrigerator, that I was finding all day long. I told him how much I loved this and how I was so touched that after thirteen-and-a-half years of marriage he would think of something so sweet and romantic to do. He looked happy for a second but then got one of those looks on his face that guys get when you've used the word 'cute' to describe the engine in their new car, or when you make them carry your purse while you go to the bathroom and he said, "Let's not let this get around."

It was then that I realized that if I ever wanted a repeat performance of his sweet birthday gesture it would be wise to keep pretty tight-lipped about it. And if it ever got out to his friends, say through idle gossip or perhaps through someone's blog, I'd better not reveal the truth, that those notes were composed of birthday sentiments and heartfelt 'I Love You's', but instead I'll just tell everyone that they contained numerous requests for hot monkey sex.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I'd Invite You Along On Our Next Trip, But I Need That Seat For My Shoe Bag.

Happy New Year!

We just returned from our Annual Winter Vacation. I know that sounds pretty lofty, like maybe you're picturing a family dressed in matching designer snow gear jetting off to their vacation home in Aspen where they'll spend toasty nights by the fire sipping cognac, their children lounging nearby playing backgammon. But for us? A hastily planned road trip in our van, a van whose windshield cracked an hour into our trip, heading up the 101 along the coast of California with stops in Pismo Beach and Big Sur. We bought Cheetos along the way, and I sipped this in front of the wall heater in our room at the Big Sur Lodge while the kids ate Cup O' Noodle and played Mario Kart on their Nintendos nearby. We're high class.

I'm a big fan of road trips. The main reason, and I'm being totally honest here, is because I don't have to think twice about how much crap I'm packing. The black sweater or the blue sweater? Bring them both - in fact, I'll just bring the whole drawer! Do I really need twelve t-shirts? Who cares? Eight pairs of shoes may seem excessive for a six day trip but not when you can just toss it all in the large cavernous backside of a van. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there's an airline around that would let me step on board dragging a small ice chest, a pack of juice boxes, a bottle of wine and two Trader Joes shopping bags stuffed with snacks.

Another benefit to a driving destination is freedom from schedules. Having to be at a certain place at a specific time has never been one of our strong points, and for us trying to catch a plane makes the launch of the space shuttle seem like a trip to the market. Being forced to figure out how to actually get to the airport is bad enough, and then there's those unreasonable, unyielding flight schedules. Damn you, all you efficient, on-time people! We're always frantic, scrambling not to miss our boarding time and are always incredulous that the departure time on our ticket doesn't actually mean TAKE YOUR TIME - WHENEVER YOU GET HERE, WE'LL FLY THE PLANE.

Big Sur was spectacular, and I don't want to spoil these pictures with some inane narrative. For instance, I could really ruin the moment by telling you how our heater wasn't working when we got to the room, and even after it was fixed I couldn't sleep that night worrying that we would all be killed in our sleep by carbon monoxide poisoning and even imagined what the newspaper headline would be: 'Family Enters Eternal Sleep In Historic Big Sur.' Or how the front desk told us the restaurant closed at 9, when it really closed at 8 and then we had to drive five miles to a local bar where I had one of the worst meals of my life, a pasta dish that contained fist-sized chunks of raw onion and a bowl of clam chowder that was fluorescent yellow and had an odd sour taste to it, a dish that had 'Food Poisoning' written all over it. (Next time? We'll listen when Kira says, "I don't like this place. It seems unstable.") And stop me before I taint these beautiful images by telling you about the old guy who kept walking by our table, giving us the evil eye, and how he had probably never seen an Asian before in his life, and when he saw me sitting there next to my white husband and my two half-breed kids I just knew he was thinking that Rigel was a traitor and how any minute he would summon his white-hooded friends to take our nice family out back for a little lesson.

But like I said, enjoy these photos:
We ended our trip at one of the girls' favorite destinations, Rigel's sister's home in Northern California. She lives in a beautiful house, and since she's single and without children the place looks like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog, everything neatly arranged and in it's place. It's strange to be somewhere that isn't strewn with tank tops, pajama bottoms and plastic jewelry, where you can actually see the tabletops and where you don't have to wade through a sea of backpacks and sneakers to get from the living room to the kitchen. At one point we were looking for Kiyomi's necklace and when I reached under the couch cushions I was shocked to find that there wasn't a single raisin, Cheerio or gum wrapper stuck to my hand. I did find a year-old People magazine that I hadn't read, though, which I was excited about since I was getting tired of all the ones stuffed into our couch back home.

Our usual routine is to go to San Francisco and get a hotel in Union Square for a few days, but after our Japan trip this past summer and the excesses of the holidays we decided that our remaining funds should be spent on other necessities like groceries, the mortgage and beer for Rigel. So we just drove in for a visit and spent a day shopping and eating, and I knew the long drive had been worth it when we saw this sign in an alcove next to a restaurant:
I'm thinking of posting a couple of these in our bathrooms, just for fun.

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