Thursday, March 29, 2007

Working it Out

First, I apologize for being out of commission for a bit. I have had family and friends in town, and have been pleasantly distracted from my computer.

Second, this is what it looks like around here lately. Spring rocks, doesn't it?

Now, to the meat of the matter.

Last Thursday, Guster played in LA. As the show was free and as I’ve listened to Guster since Lost and Gone Forever, I had to take the opportunity to see them.

I’m so glad I did. Promised a half an hour of free live music, we received over an hour of sheer musical play. These musicians—whose greatest fault is that they’re albums tend to be over-produced, and therefore free of the “crunch” of good rock—exceeded my expectations by far, and I had one of those experiences at the show that doesn’t happen to me frequently enough: each cell of my body seemed to vibrate with the bass and my very bloodstream wove through the melody. The music became almost tangible, and crushed into me full force. Free from the perfection of a recording studio and mixing room, the band members took off and played against each other with organic beauty.

The lead singer cracked jokes with the audience and the band members between songs, and the drummer’s hands flew as he played without sticks. His hands were a blur of rhythm. The bassist and guitarist harmonized off each other. When the guitarist (who apparently can also play a trumpet) experienced a little technical difficulty with his instrument, the singer scatted a solo to replace the trumpet solo. His voice echoed against the surrounding buildings and humid air, eerie and beautiful. The band jammed with us, we jammed with them, they volunteered an encore, and we most graciously accepted it. These guys were straight out having fun.

And to think, this is their job.

Seeing Guster play together made me think of work. Actually, I had been thinking about it a lot lately for various reasons. Also, my students had just discussed part of W. H. Auden’s “Work, Labor, and Play.” Here’s an excerpt:

Between labor and play stands work. A man is a worker if he is personally interested in the job which society pays him to do; and that which society views as necessary labor, is from his own point of view voluntary play. Whether a job is to be classified as labor or work depends, not on the job itself, but on the tastes of the individual who undertakes it. The difference does not, for example, coincide with the difference between a manual and a mental job; a gardener or a cobbler may be a worker, a bank clerk, a laborer. Which a man is can be seen from his attitude toward leisure. To a worker, leisure means simply the hours he needs to relax and rest in order to work efficiently. He is therefore more likely to take too little leisure than too much; workers die of coronaries and forget their wives' birthdays. To the laborer, on the other hand, leisure means freedom from compulsion, so that it is natural for him to imagine that the fewer hours he has to spend laboring, the more hours he is free to play, the better.

Do the members of Guster fall into the category of worker? And, because I value my leisure so much and sometimes, especially this time of year, I pay close attention to the arrival of June, does that put me in the category of laborer?

No. And frankly, W.H. Auden, even though you’ve got a poem or two that has moved me to tears, in this case, you’re just plain wrong. Life isn’t that simple, and you should know it.

I concede that my job does feel like play sometimes. On a good teaching day, I know I fall into that state Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” My wit is on fire, and ideas and synthesis happen lightning-quickly; I feel like time doesn’t mean the same thing as it does outside of the classroom. I thrill in my students questions and lifted eyebrows of understanding. On a good day, my students and I find each other the most fascinating creatures in the world. But, Mr. Auden, it isn’t always a good day. Nor is the “flow” part the only part of any job.

I don’t personally know any members of Guster, but I’ve known other bands and their members, and I’ve heard the complaints. The shows, yes, they’re all-consuming moments of absolute zennish adrenaline. But the tedious practice, the working out of a melody that just doesn’t want to work out, the hours on the road, the production, production, production (when sometimes even the at home listener can hear the soul being ripped out the music) adds up to just plain labor.

I’m sure that there are times that Guster’s members wish they were doing anything but what they were doing. I’m sure that when a song just won’t happen, one of them wishes he was playing with his dog and another really wants to solve that crossword puzzle he left on his desk. When I’m stuck with a pile of essays that won’t grade themselves, sometimes I wish I were doing a myriad of other things: cooking, working on the house, working out, reading, writing, actually spending as much time in the pottery studio as I’d like to. However, we can daydream about these things because they are a reality, because we do get to do them sometimes. We daydream about them because it is impossible to always be “in the moment” and at our best. Sometimes, we just need to be laboring, waiting for leisure.

Did Guster spark all of this? Not really. Did Auden really get me going? Well, he raised my hackles a bit, but what really has got me thinking about work, labor, and leisure is ECG.

ECG is in the homestretch of his PhD and has been working through a variety of career opportunities. Deciding between jobs hasn’t been easy, but he just made a decision in the last couple of days.

I know that ECG’s job won’t be perfect; I know there will be some drudgery. I hope, nevertheless, that this job will offer him some of the moments of mental exultation that I get to have on my good teaching days. Lately, ECG has been reading a book from the 1880s on the physics of bubbles. Usually I’m the reader in the house, but right now it is him, and he can’t put the book down. He sits on the end of the couch, Rose the cat on his lap, with his book held about 10 inches from his face, his feet on the coffee table. I can talk to him when he’s reading, but he can’t hear me. He’s thinking about the wonder of surface tension and the mystery of spheres. He’s having fun. I love to see him like this—I hope he finds moments like this in his career. And when work isn’t like this, at times when the mundane overwhelms the inspiring, I hope those periods are brief enough to not get lost.

I hope for ECG, my love, good work.

What does this have to do with food? That will have to happen in the next post.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I have something bubbling away right now, slowly simmering as the ideas meld to make a stew of words. It's not quite ready to come off the stove.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Day After St. Patrick's Day

Damp, cool, and quieting the birds, a grey fog kept me under the covers this morning. I wanted to stay in bed all day, to tell the truth, but I knew that there was something leftover downstairs, something worth getting up for.

Let me say this: last night, I did not drink to excesses of hilarity one often finds around college dorms, bar-ridden neighborhoods, or wannabe Irish folks every March 17th. I did not start drinking green beer at 10am. I did not sing Irish Gaelic songs I didn't understand just because I had enough alcohol in me to think it was a good idea to sing—it is never a good idea for me to sing. I did not wear a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” pin (because it would be a lie, and hopefully ECG doesn’t have to believe I’m Irish to want to kiss me), nor did I sport one of those odd, green upside-down octopus-legged hats I saw around this year.

I did, however, wear a vintage green dress and host a party. It really wasn't as much of a St. Patrick's Day party as it was an excuse to get people I like all in one place. The night held few resemblances to other St. Patty's Day celebrations, but one essential Irish ingredient made a spectacular appearance. Some of you know it by its silky darkness, by its caramel bite, or by the taupe head that beckons like a down comforter on a frosty night. Yes, I'm talking about stout. Last night, I enjoyed a just-cool bottle (or two, or maybe even three) of the stuff; nevertheless, where stout made its show-stopping appearance was in the dessert.

I’ve used stout in chili and long-braised dishes before, and I’ve read quirky recipes for stout ice cream, but I’d never baked with it before. I’m so glad I did. This cake is worth the effort, the four cups of sugar (four cups, necessary to soften the edges of the unsweetened cocoa and dark beer, but still, four cups!) and the use of three cake pans. It is a tower of bittersweet, moist, chocolate glory, and even if it leans, as mine did, you won’t be disappointed.

Chocolate Stout Cake

I found the recipe for the cake on Epicurious, but I didn’t want this cake to have the ganache frosting listed with the original recipe. I wanted something fluffier and tangy-er, and this April's Martha Stewart Living had just the answer on page 219, which served to beautifully frost the layers and the top, but wasn’t enough to frost the sides. When I make this again, I may double the frosting recipe to cover the sides as well. It’s a lot of cake to cover.

For the cake, you will need:
2 cups stout
2 cups butter
1 ½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
4 cups all purpose flour
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups sour cream

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and generously grease three 9” cake pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper, and grease the paper.

Warm the stout and butter in a saucepan over a low flame (or low heat on an electric stove) until the butter has melted. Whisk in the cocoa powder, and continue whisking until the mixture is smooth. Cool the mixture enough to dip your finger in—you don’t want it so hot that it will immediately cook the eggs with which it will mix in a minute.

Stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, or in the work bowl of your mixer, beat together the eggs and sour cream. Pour in the chocolate stout mixture, and beat on low speed so that all wet ingredients are well-combined. Remove the work bowl from the mixer and fold in the flour mixture. Continue to stir only to the point where the ingredients are combined; don’t worry if you still have a few small lumps here or there, as it is more important not to overmix than it is to have a homogenous batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake the cakes about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick, when inserted in the middle of the cake, comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and place on racks to cool for ten minutes, after which, turn the cakes out onto the racks to cool completely.

For the frosting, you will need:
1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
A pinch of salt
5 tablespoons of softened unsalted butter
4 ounces of cream cheese at room temperature
7 ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate
2/3 cup of sour cream

When the cake is ready to frost:
Sift the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt into a bowl and set aside.

With your electric mixer, beat together the butter and cream cheese until the mixture is relatively fluffy, then gradually add the sugar mixture. With your mixer on low, add the chocolate and sour cream. Use the frosting immediately.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Someday, I'll Have a Yard

In the meantime, my sunny windows and balconies serve up quite astonishing treats.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Surfeit of Sugar

If it is too hot and it’s too sweet, what do you do?

Last week, I bought a gallon jug of unfiltered gravenstein apple juice. Unfortunately, this particular gallon must have been squeezed from the sweetest gravensteins the world has ever known, because the juice is so sugary that it makes my teeth hurt. ECG, a huge fan of everything apple, wouldn’t even touch it. A gallon of juice one doesn’t want to drink is a lot of juice with which one can experiment.

What I did try so far was a simple little sorbet. It hit ninety degrees here in LA County today, and the last thing I could even think about was using an indoor heat source. I knew dessert would have to be cold, something that could follow spicy barbecue, and still hold it’s own. This little number, sleek and sexy in frosty beige, hit the spot. It’s sweet, but not overly so, and the dark rum hints of rich caramel, packing quite a bit of satisfaction into a only few ingredients.

Apple Rum Sorbet

You will need:
3 cups unfiltered apple juice
½ cup (or more, if your juice isn’t as sweet as mine) of sugar
The juice of one lemon, strained
2 tablespoons of dark rum

To make the sorbet:
Stir the ingredients together until you are certain the sugar has dissolved. Taste the mixture to make sure that it is sweet enough; it should be just a little on the overly sweet side as the freezing dampens the mouth’s ability to register sweet. Chill until the mixture is very cold, at least a couple of hours, then freeze according to the directions of your ice cream maker.

Do you have more ideas that will use up too-sweet-apple juice? I’ll gladly take your suggestions, if you have some to send my way.