An International Feast

Today was the conclusion of PEN World Voices (The New York Festival of International Literature) and I was fortunate to have attended two supremely fantastic events that, I realized afterward, were somewhat related in theme. I also realized that I had spent a good many hours this week with a whole lot of smartypants, which can sometimes go either way, but, thankfully, turned out to be a very grand thing.

On Wednesday evening, Marc and I joined about 1,500 other bibliophiles at “Town Hall Readings: Writing Home” where we listened to poems and prose by Steve Martin, Pia Tafdrup, Don DeLillo, Tatyana Tolstaya, Saadi Youssef, Kiran Desai, Alain Mabanckou, Neil Gaiman, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie.

Steve Martin read an excerpt from his soon-to-be-published memoir entitled Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life where he mused about his first routines in a San Francisco night club and experiences of the broken ties of home versus his new beginnings in show biz. Danish poet Pia Tafdrup read writings about her mother and grandfather with such beautifully depictive imagery, such as comparing the letters of the alphabet to the animals of the ocean. Don DeLillo read a harrowing excerpt from his new novel Falling Man which comes out in May and tracks the aftermath of the September eleventh tragedy. Tatyana Tolstaya recited a chapter from The Slynx, her dystopian debut novel about Moscow two hundred years after a nuclear explosion. Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, the self-described “Lonely Warrior,” delivered a poetic text about being a child of impoverished villagers destined to be a writer and cross-country traveler. Kiran Desai read a humorous passage about an Indian man who delivers food for a Chinese restaurant in New York City. Alain Mabanckou, born in Congo-Brazzaville, recited a heart-wrenching ode to his mother which moved the audience to tears. Neil Gaiman spun a hysterical yarn called “Instructions” in which he described what to do if one ever found him/herself stuck in a fairy tale (you can find Neil’s recount of his reading here). Nadine Gordimer read “The Ultimate Safari,” her short story about a young girl who flees Mozambique with her family and walks through the Kruger Park to a supposedly better life in South Africa. Lastly, Salman Rushdie delivered a brilliantly humorous, yet haunting, tale about the fantasy of “home” versus “away” stating that “when you dare to let go, you really live.”

As a wonderful juxtaposition to the writings of home, today I attended a panel discussion called “Voyage and Voyeur: Travel and Travel Writing” which included Alain de Botton, Ma Jian, and Ilija Trojanow and was moderated by Paul Holdengräber, the delightfully witty Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library.

Initially, the conversation started with the question of why people are interested in travel and ultimately became a deep discussion about superficial and spiritual departures from the boring, everyday life. Ultimately, the three writers on the panel agreed they did not want to be referred to as “travel writers,” because all writing, in essence and according to them, was, in fact, a form of travel writing and that they didn’t want readers to be confused with writers of travel guides when they consider themselves outsiders narrating their experiences and describing what they have felt in their “foreign” worlds and not merely what they have seen with their eyes.

Because I am such a lover of travel and transporting myself, in mind and body, to other places regardless of how near or far, this was truly one of the best and most inspiring events I have ever attended. If, like these “travel writers” and me, one longs to sustain the provocative element of the journey, what, then, is considered “home”? Is there such a thing as loneliness and boredom to the traveler who is willing to be transformed? Could there ever really be disappointment in experiencing someplace new if there is no anticipation as to what is but rather of what one has allowed to let go once in a new place? Travel takes normalcy and turns it into a challenge where the “trauma” lies in returning to the so-called normal life. That said, I believe it quite possible for the native to feel and act like a tourist in his or her own everyday surroundings by relinquishing any imperialistic notions and living authentically in the moment and not “infecting” it with the beliefs and thoughts that already exist within oneself. In this way, there is a pure experience even if it may seem, at times, that we are a little more exposed in doing so.

Shared plates

This weather can bite me. I wish it would make up its frickin’ mind – cold or hot? Which is it already? I can’t keep stashing my cords, boots, and wooly sweaters and then pulling them back out again. When I make a decision, I don’t like to backtrack, undo, or revert, especially when it comes to fashion. I just don’t need that kind of pressure.

But I digress.

Brisk evening and light rain or not, Marc & I enjoyed a lovely dinner tonight on the Upper East Side w/G & K at Crowe’s Nest Bar & Restaurant, a highly polished and beautifully decorated upscale pub. Nestled in a warmly painted alcove in the back of the restaurant, the four of us enjoyed hearty, but simple dishes of Fish & Chips, Chicken Caesar Salad, Pan Roasted Crab Cake (served over a roasted corn, black bean and jicama salad with cilantro-lime dressing), Baby Spinach Salad (mixed with sliced mandarin, roasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese and a citrus-mandarin dressing), and Grilled Marinated Skirt Steak (served in a tortilla basket with black beans, peppers, corn, crisp Romaine lettuce, red onion and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette). For dessert, we shared the Caramel Apple Pie with freshly made whipped cream, a deliciously rich ending to our meal.

 

So fresh and so clean.

Happy Earth Day, everyone! Go out and hug a tree, make out with a flower, and be generally kind to this planet. And if you can keep that going every day, that would be mighty swell of you.

Please also check out the fab Eco Options page from Home Depot who is giving out one million CFL lightbulbs today.

Outing

If you’re a regular reader (hi, Mags, Joon, and Maiden), then you’ve noticed I’ve outed myself. Yes, I know there are crazies on the Internet (heck, the bf and I met online, for crying out loud, so don’t tell me I don’t know from crazy), but it’s been over two years since I started this blog and I still only average four people a day, so I’m kind of not worried.

Plus, I’m Italian. I know how to take someone out.

But the real reason I decided to get rid of the nickname and use my real name is nothing more than pure jealousy, insecurity, and the overwhelming urge to get mad props from perfect strangers.

There is someone else in this country with my exact name (seriously, what are the odds?) getting recognition and I refuse to let her get famous before I do. You might be a talented singer/songwriter with an album and over 42,000 results for you on Google, other Dina, and I may be an anonymous, food-loving, book-reading, New York City-living nobody, but it’s on, girlie. Oh, yes. IT. IS. ON.

 

Amuse bouche

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

Originally, I believed that, so help me, dog, if I heard this frickin’ adage one more time, I was going to swallow my own tongue and/or rip it out of my mouth and smack silly with it the next person who dared speak these words to me. However, I’ve recently had time to really think about what this means and have now decided to interpret this in an entirely different way.

It’s not often a thirty-eight-year-old woman takes off on the interstate with no pre-arranged plans of where she’s going, where she’s sleeping, and when she’s coming back unless her name is either Thelma or Louise, but that’s exactly what I decided to do a month ago when I felt my life was crumbling around me and the only way I knew to escape was to plow through the wreckage in a rental car.

Three years ago, after changing careers and landing a job at a prestigious (albeit poorly paying) publishing house in midtown Manhattan, I decided to move to this great city, but, over the course of as many years, I started to realize that it takes a certain person to live here and that person might not be me. After all, I’m known to hug strangers, not push them out of the way to get into a subway car before the doors close on my heel/purse/earring, so I knew something was amiss when I found myself yelling to a group of people on the sidewalk in front of me one day to “get the hell out of the way!”

It was time to leave the city…even if only temporarily.

Armed with a road atlas, my cell phone, a handful of self-help audio books, a small suitcase of matching separates and toiletries, my driver’s license, and my keen sense of direction, I set out to shake the New York off of me in hopes of coming back rejuvenated and ready to face the city again with a whole new attitude. And if that didn’t work, I would become a truck stop diner waitress in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and change my name to Pearl.

I ended up covering nearly a dozen states in just under a week, from Pennsylvania and Indiana to Missouri and West Virginia. My mission was to make many stops along the way to breathe in the clean, fresh, Midwest air, shop at the local farmers’ markets off the highways (I actually lost seven pounds by eating mostly produce on this trip), chat it up with the attendants every time I stopped for gas, and, most importantly, answer the burning life questions that I had brought along in my head with me like, “What else is out there for me and does it have outlet shopping?”

Overall, I clocked about 3,300 miles of nothing but alone time with myself and the sprawling country in front of me. To some, that might be the scariest thing ever and, at some points, it was; but I learned that, while I may not have the answers to all of my questions (yet), I have a natural ability to make people feel comfortable around me, I can assimilate into most any situation, and I am fearless. I enjoy being in the company of me and I’m happy to take her wherever I go.

And if she ever gets on my nerves, well, there’s always Wyoming.

Have your cake and eat it, too.

Happy Birthday to this guy! You don’t look a day over 39.

UPDATE: And a Happy 2nd Blogiversary to Daily Dish. How could I have forgotten?

Melt in your mouth.

Gertrude Hawk is having a Spring Chocolate sale. This is where I lose my junk. If you’ve never eaten a Dark Chocolate Raspberry Bunny Smidgen, you just don’t know what yummy, yummy goodness tastes like and, for that, I pity you.

 

If music be the food of love, play on.

I have spent an inordinate amount of money this week on iTunes downloads. Some of my faves:

Lily Allen “Alright, Still”
Basement Jaxx “Remedy”
Natasha Bedingfield “Unwritten” (single)
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Facing Future”
Regina Spektor “Begin to Hope”

Other albums already on my playlist that warm the cockles of my heart whenever I hear them:

Erykah Badu “Baduizm”
Cibo Matto “Stereo Type A”
Deee-Lite “World Clique”
Eurythmics “1984” (soundtrack)
Gorillaz “Demon Days”
Poe “Hello”
Prodigy “The Fat of the Land”
Sia “Colour the Small One”

…and pretty much anything by Björk and Nina Simone

I’m looking to expand my library, so if you’re listening to anything wonderful (domestically or internationally), please share with me, won’t you?

Crock Pot: Sixth Installment

A while back, Marc and I enjoyed a late-night dinner at Vong*, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Upper East Side restaurant where the cuisine is an “amalgam of carefully crafted French technique blended with the bold and earthy flavors of the Far East.” I was thrilled to be in one of Jean-Georges’ restaurants, having admired him from afar for so long (and being unable to afford dining at any of his establishments on my own).

Born and raised on the outskirts of Strasbourg in Alsace, France, Jean-Georges’ earliest family memories are about food. The Vongerichten home centered around the kitchen, where each day his mother and grandmother would prepare lunch for the almost 50 employees in their family-owned business. He opened his most famous restaurant, Jean-Georges, in Trump Tower at Columbus Circle in New York City in 1998 and has in recent years opened a series of other restaurants around Manhattan, Shanghai and elsewhere. Jean-Georges remains one of the few restaurants in the city awarded four stars by the New York Times and three stars by the Michelin Guide.

Our appetizers were the simple, yet succulent Crab Spring Rolls with a tamarind dipping sauce and Warm Asparagus Salad with avocado and enoki mushrooms.

For our entrée, we had the Seared Black Sea Bass in a sweet-and-sour mushroom broth and the Roasted Chicken with Lemongrass, served with sweet rice in a banana leaf.

For once, we decided to skip dessert and instead pick up something sweet (brownies) at Dean & DeLuca to have at home. For those of you unfamiliar with this upscale grocery store/fine foods eaterie, here’s a brief history:

In 1977, Manhattan’s SoHo (“South of Houston Street”) was still a bleak warren of warehouses and small manufacturing companies. A bright light had emerged a few years back, when a history teacher decided to abandon his career to pursue a dream instilled during childhood. The little cheese shop on Prince Street that Giorgio DeLuca opened in 1973 quickly became an institution, offering artisan cheeses, lovingly made and the finest in their class. But his SoHo neighbors had a growing appetite for more products of such outstanding quality.

Joel Dean, a publishing executive with Simon & Schuster, had been talking with Giorgio DeLuca for years about opening a special kind of food store. They dreamed of a place that would offer customers a sumptuous celebration of food, a place to experience all of the pleasures that cooking and eating can bring to the senses.

That dream, the original Dean & DeLuca, opened for business in September 1977. Artist and founding partner Jack Ceglic designed the original store to evoke a turn of the century food department, with high ceiling fans spinning over a vast array of products that lined the high, white walls. Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca traveled the world in search of handcrafted products and artisan foods, and imported these discoveries into their enchanting emporium. On display was a staggering variety of produce and foodstuffs, including many never previously sold in this country.

“We were the first to sell balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms,” recalls Giorgio DeLuca. “In those early days, I went out of my way to establish extra-virgin olive oil. Everyone who came into the store got a taste.”

In the ’80s, Ceglic, who had become the true SoHo pioneer, set out with a plan built upon the concept of an outdoor marketplace. In his own words, “a street of shops, each with its own look and feel, each with its own manager, free to develop individual displays.” His design is at once revolutionary and timeless: massive exposed columns, Carrarra marble floors, white tile walls, stainless steel shelving and display cases, ample room for the meat and fish, bakery and pastry, cheese, candy and coffee display counters that would enable customers to assemble all the ingredients for an extraordinary meal.

The new Dean & DeLuca opened in 1988 with four times the space. Soon, smaller retail outlets were to follow, in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Plaza and in the Paramount Hotel. Espresso Bars were opened in locations around New York and in Washington, D.C., and in 1993, a second store with 10,000 square feet opened on Market Street in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown District. Dean & DeLuca has opened retail locations that have become epicenters of culinary excellence in their locations.

For our fifth anniversary dinner last month, Marc reserved a table for us at Anthony Bourdain‘s French restaurant Les Halles on Park Avenue where he sipped a fantastically authentic and ooey-gooey French Onion Soup followed by a hearty Steak and Pommes Frites entrée while I had the Terrine du Jour and a heaping bowl of Mussels in Broth as my main course. We finished off our meal with a tasty and decadent warm chocolate & banana tart.

Aside from the wonderful food New York City has to offer, I really appreciate the history behind these great restaurants and neighborhoods and do my best to learn about them whenever we frequent an establishment here. I’m happy to share our experiences with (the five of) you and hope that, even if you don’t have the abundance and variety of eateries in your neck of the woods as we do in Manhattan that you are at least inspired to try a new dish when you do eat out or prepare a meal at home.

*Vong has since closed.