Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

August 31st, 2014

Use your nose

I’ve always suspected that smelling’s gotten a bad rap. It’s even right there in the verbiage available to describe it; tasting, seeing, hearing, and feeling have no outright negative connotations, but smelling could just as well mean “to stink” as “to experience scent”. Smelling is also neglected as a point of sensory praxis. Sure, there’s the “stop and smell the roses” adage, but it’s not too often taken literally, and what’s worse, commercial parfumerie inundates people with the notion that the olfactory equivalent of Vegas blinkenlichten is the final word on what smells good. When’s the last time you went to a department store and were asked if you’d like to sample having your retinas bleached? The umbrella of “entertainment” offers tasting menus, spectacles, concerts, sports, massages of various plotlines, but where are the smelling tours, the scent extravaganzas? At best smelling comes as a mostly unnoticed and unappreciated by-product of the indulgence of some other sensory inclination.

This neglect isn’t the only thing that would seem to separate smelling from the other senses. As input devices for the brain, sensory organs send data along their respective neural pathways in the peripheral nervous system; data which arrives at a ganglion, a middleman for our purposes, before it can travel to the central nervous system. This isn’t the case in the course of smelling. The olfactory epithelium1, slightly behind and above the nostrils, transmits data directly to the brain without the need for interfacing with a ganglion. That the the process of smelling is thusly streamlined as compared to the perception of other sensory stimuli is interesting medically, as the swift and unfettered delivery of whatever therapies is prized. I’m not aware of any definitive evidence either established or sought without success, but while the cogs turn it’s something to sniff on.

While you may never be able to inhale an anti-epileptic, though, you can very well make greater use of your sense of smell. Hopefully you’re not stuck in a city that stinks, but even the most congested of places is bound to offer an occasional pleasant reprieve. Smell flowers when you find them. Walk a little more slowly and breathe in the scent of roasting nuts from a street vendor. Visit a spice shop and sample some things you’ve never heard of. There’s a lot more to the life of the nose than cups of coffee, strips of bacon, and some guy’s gnarly BO on the bus. Like any other sense, smelling acquires greater ability to distinguish with practice, and doing it consciously will produce greater refinement.

***

  1. Anyone wanting to test their mettle against a giant tidalwave of squeamishness is invited to take a gander at this item. It’s possibly the most objectionable looking thing I’ve ever seen dissected. []
May 16th, 2014

Farewell, Romania

It couldn’t honestly be said that it wasn’t a good run. Some things I’ll miss:

*Architecture. Or more precisely, architectural decoration. Superfluous facades that evoke sandcastles dripped through a wet palm, ostentatious tin finials on gutters.
*Good mineral water. It’s inexpensive, it’s unpretentious, it’s miles better than any other I’ve had.
*Roses everywhere. Even people living in crumbling concrete apartment blocks trade their time and effort for spring and summer batches of big, fragrant, luscious roses around doorways and climbing walls.

Some things I won’t miss:

*A complete and utter misunderstanding of how to have sidewalks and stairs. It’s not just that they’re uneven and built thinly over gnarly tree roots. It’s not just that most sidewalks are narrow enough to admit slightly less than a person and still less than that once people’ve parked their cars on them. It’s not even the more or less constant littering of broken glass and dog shit (despite ocd-level sweeping of leaves from the same spaces). It’s all these things together, which’ve sprinkled plenty of annoyance over otherwise very pleasant walks.

*Obsessive cloistering. I first noticed it in people’s gardens; there are little fences and gates within them to separate different sorts of plants. Why? Because it’s what people do. Shopping around for apartments, I saw it in people’s homes, too. A place with seven tiny rooms (with monstrous, showy cabinets sporting multiple compartments for extra cloistering) was the standard; the same space with two or three was exotic. Then there’s the bit with the towels. Separate towels for drying off different parts of the body (a habit I thought was idiosyncratic the first time I saw a girl’s collection, but this proved false; it’s the standard, too). Topping it off, there’s the traditional dancing. Have you ever seen Romanian traditional dancing? It consists of standing stick-straight with your arms fastened to your sides while you faintly lift one foot, then the other. A mechanical sort of holding-in-the-pee dance, which keeps participants nicely cloistered in tiny boxes of space. All this is an amusing curiosity at first, but after a while one gets the impression of living among oblivious prisoners, people who look oppressed by their unexamined propriety.

*Churchly hours. In a drive-through town in rural Oklahoma, I’d expect most things to be closed on Sundays and to shut down ’round dinner time the rest of the week. In a country’s largest cities, however, such practices grate. Even bars and coffee shops have a strict no night owls policy. If you favor the night, you’re on your own (which is admittedly nice, until you remember you’re supposed to be living in a metropolitan place –a place very eager, even, to boast of its large size and “entertaining” “options”).

I wonder what things I’ll only realize I miss once I’ve left, and what things I’ll realize have been solved before they made the “not miss” list. I wonder what, if anything, I’ll take with me. In any case, the time seems right for packing suitcases and shoving off from this unlikely home and checking out another.

La revedere.

October 13th, 2012

Soup’s On

Today I watched a pot boil. Immature as it may sound, I nevertheless find a little piece of pleasure in checking on a pot just before it hits the boiling point, proving the old adage wrong. I suspect we grow up with too many adages, whether they’re formalized or not.

The pot I watched began to bubble and stir around various herbs of its own momentum; I was making soup. I’ve been making soups and having a bowl almost every day for a few years now. One of the major differences between cooking and eating in the US and in Romania is that here, there’s always soup on offer, and generally it’s eaten before the dinner meal. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had soup before dinner back home. When I came to Romania, the tradition seemed insignificant –soup was more like this needless and boring thing, and it took me forever to make one, not to mention that I had no real idea of what to put into a pot. Today I make them in about twenty minutes, and a pot’s good for me and company for three to four days. It’s splendid how a good soup fills the house with the inviting scent of herbs and vegetables. It aids digestion. It’s filling enough that it gracefully encourages eating smaller meals throughout the day. And while the cost varies according to season and what exactly I’m making, that three to four day pot runs ~$4.

In many parts of the world, soup is absolutely integral; in some areas soups are served in parlors specifically for the purpose of gathering people together to have a small repast and enjoy a game of backgammon or discuss whatever ongoing concern. Soup’s good if you’re sick or if you’re well, whether you’re old and frail or young, whether you have a meager grocery budget or want to try something epicurious. It’s even been suggested that the proliferation of modern restaurants has as its original raison d’ĂȘtre the provision of soups for the public. The staple’s been commercialized to all hell, of course, and cans of soup take up a big piece of your given grocery store aisle now, but I think the shortcomings of processed soup were largely to blame for my disinterest in the dish before I started to make it myself. When you make your own soup, you’re free to put in exactly what you want, leave out what you don’t, and perhaps most importantly, avoid all the preservative, chemical crap your body certainly doesn’t need.

There are a few things you absolutely need for good soup, and a variety of things that can help but which aren’t totally necessary. In that first category, perhaps the most important would be a good pot. Thick-bottomed, able to hold a gallon or more, and with a securely-fitting lid, preferably vented. And then you’ve got to have some ingredients. But there aren’t really any absolutes. It’s a good idea to have a basic herb garden (as it is within the context of all cooking). I grow a couple of pots of basil, and one each of rosemary, tarragon, and mint, though depending on your taste and your light situation you might also grow some coriander, fennel, thyme, or dill. Lovage, which doesn’t seem too popular in the States, is absolutely wonderful, with a slightly sweet, broadly herbal taste that incorporates notes of licorice. I tried to grow it on my balcony this year, and learned the hard way that local birds apparently think it’s some sort of ambrosia. I went out one morning and found my plants completely severed at the stalks, and caught a bird hopping around now and then checking out the damage to see if there were any scraps left. Next year I’ll have a proper battle plan. I round out what I grow with what’s in my cupboard. Paprika (which I wish was available smoked here, but they haven’t quite caught on yet despite the fact that next-door Hungary is the preeminent producer of paprika), parsley, black, white, pink, and green peppercorns, powdered ginger and rosemary, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, whole nutmeg, lemongrass, curry leaves, whole allspice, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaves make up the bulk of my stash and often find their way into soups in different teams.

Then you’ll need liquids. This summer and fall I’ve been using plain old tap water for my soups, which is great when fresh vegetables are available at the market. In winter months, or if the goal is something particularly special, a stock is in order. I haven’t yet found any prepared stocks here that are sane; there’s a plethora of over-salted, hydrogenated fat-laden stocks that I won’t touch, so I make my own stocks. For chicken and beef you’ll need some bones, a little lean meat if you want, and some basic vegetables (carrots, a whole onion, celery root or stalks) and some bay. Simmer these in a big pot of water for a few hours, skimming off any foam on the surface, and discard the solids. For seafood, get some shellfish husks. For vegetable, follow the chicken/beef bit above but obviously omit the meat and bones. You can pour well-reduced stock into ice cube trays and freeze it, which gives you better quantity control.

By now, all you have to do is pick some core ingredients, like diced or pureed vegetables and/or bits of meat, and maybe some pasta, add your herbs and you’re done. In Romania a lot of soups are heavily modified at the table, with lemon wedges, sour cream, hot peppers, and so forth. I like to eat the following soup with a splash of whole milk and a little bit of Sriracha (oh Cholula hot sauce, how I miss thee). So here’s a soup I’ve been feasting on all summer, a welcomely sweet and herbal pause in the bitter iron-heavy diet I’ve slowly been phasing out as I get over some devilish anemia.

Summer Soup

Bring a pot of water to boil, and throw in sufficient salt, pink peppercorns*, paprika, turmeric, and ground fennel and fenugreek seeds. While the water heats up, peel and dice 3 – 4 carrots and a few ounces of celery root, and dump them in. Leave the pot be for a while, and in the meantime peel and chop a cup or so each of zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. Slice a couple of green onions and chop a few basil and rosemary leaves; set these aside. After the pot has boiled for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (depending on how done you like your vegetables and how strong you want the soup), dump all the other ingredients in and turn the heat down so it barely boils; leave this for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I’ll throw in a little fresh ravioli, which goes in with the zucchini etc.

Crusty bread drizzled with olive oil goes nicely.

*I like peppercorns floating freely in my soup, but if you don’t especially enjoy the idea of biting down on a spicy bit of pale pink heaven, tie them in a cheesecloth before you drop them in.