Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Brazilian" "Chicken" Stew

It's been a little while since I posted a recipe. Here's one I made up this week after watching a PBS show about Brazilian food. They appear to eat well.

"Brazilian" "Chicken" Stew
1 onion
1 bell pepper, any color (I used green because they cost half as much)
~2 tablespoons oil or butter or combo thereof
~1 tablespoon minced ginger
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
~1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
~2 tablespoons tomato paste
~1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1 14.5 oz can coconut milk (the full-fat kind is truly more delicious)
~1/2 can of water
1 bag of Quorn Chik'n Tenders (Quorn is my favorite purveyor of fake meat; this is one of the few varieties that doesn't contain gluten)
Juice of half a lime, or the full lime, if it's not very juicy
Handful of chopped cilantro
Cooked rice for serving
Here's the process: Heat up the fat in a large-ish pot or pan (I used a stainless steel pseudo-wok) over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, chop the onion and pepper, then add to the pan. I like to add a little salt right away as it helps the onions cook down faster. Sautee, stirring occasionally, for five minutes or so, or until the onion is translucent and the pepper looks tender. Throw in the red pepper flakes, ginger, and garlic and sautee for a minute or so more; it should be fragrant but not burny. (If you don't have red pepper flakes, some other heat source -- cayenne, fresh chopped jalepeno -- will do. Hot sauce, such as Tabasco, would be good too, but I'd add it later.) Add the tomato paste (I used about a third to a half of one of those tiny cans) and brown sugar, stir it around and cook for a minute or so more. At this point you might want to add a little more salt and some black pepper. Next, add the diced tomatoes, juice and all, and the coconut milk. It will be pretty thick from the tomato paste and coco milk, so I add a little water to thin it out. Bring this to a simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary so it isn't boiling away, then let it hang out for a little bit. In the meantime make yourself useful by chopping the cilantro, setting the table and whatnot. If you haven't made the rice yet, by all means make the rice. (See below for my rice-cooking method.) After the stew has "married" for five to ten minutes, taste it and adjust the seasonings. If I were you I'd add the lime at this point since that will affect things. With all that yummy tomato essence and coconut fat it should be highly delicious; if it's not, you probably didn't add enough salt, young one. Rookie mistake! If it tastes too acidic, add a little more sugar. When you're satisfied, dump in the phony chicken and most of the cilantro, give it a stir, then cover and let cook another five minutes or so to heat through. (If you want to make this with shrimp or chunks of fish instead, follow the same method.) Then serve on the rice with a little more cilantro for garnish if you're fancy like that.

BONUS: The Best Way to Cook Rice

This is how I make rice now, I'll never go back. Use a decent size pot even if you're not making very much. Dump some rice into the pot, I don't bother to measure -- about a cup if you're trying to serve a few people, a little more if you want leftovers. (I highly recommend you use basmati rice for maximum deliciousness.) Then add water -- don't bother to measure! Make sure there's at least three times as much water as rice, doesn't matter if there's more. Just don't fill the pot all the way to the top, because then it will boil over. Then add a good pinch of salt (more if you're using lots of water) and put it on high heat, no lid. Keep an eye on it -- when it starts to simmer you might want to turn the heat down to medium, because rice can boil over really fast. Basically you just want to bring it to a boil and then let it go for about ten minutes; don't put the lid on or anything, just let it boil around like pasta. Keep an eye on it and when it starts to look like cooked rice, pull out a few grains with a fork to test. When it's done to your liking, drain in a mesh strainer, then dump back into the pot, cover and let sit until you're ready to eat. While this method is a little more active than the absorption method, you don't have to measure or time anything and it never comes out waterlogged or burnt on the bottom.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Is poetry boring?

Recently I've heard a few people who used to write and enjoy poetry say that they now find poetry terribly boring and whenever they try to read it, they feel as though "life is passing them by." (You know who you are.)

I find this strange -- not because I don't think poetry is boring, but because I'm surprised they didn't think it was boring before. Is poetry boring? Yes, of course it is. Life is boring. Writing of all kinds (novels, movie reviews, the news) is boring, museums are boring, TV and movies and the Internet are mostly boring, exercise is boring, work is boring, school is boring, even sex can be boring. Most of modern life is an elaborate exercise in killing time, since there is little doubt we'll all live into our nineties, if not eternally. Anything novel is a temporary cure for boredom (a new hobby, being pregnant for the first time, drugs) but things become boring again eventually (even money).

I like the subhead of Kathy Rooney's latest column for the Southtown Star: "Why poetry doesn't matter now any less than it ever has." It doesn't insist that poetry matters, whatever that means, just that it didn't use to matter more.

Most poetry readings are indeed terribly boring. I can't be bothered to finish most poems I start to read, much less most books. Most food is not worth eating (unless you're starving), I prefer silence to most music most of the time, given anything else to do, I'd rather languish with my own thoughts than watch most TV, etc. Poetry is boring, except when it isn't.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

As long as I'm collecting bits of wisdom on the unfathomable, here's one from Dream Song 366 (John Berryman): "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort." (Which reminds me of this bit from City of Moths I read today, about "the sea": "She exists, I swear, I see her everywhere! She has been sent from somewhere far away to seduce and terrify.") And, to quote myself, from "Day Trip with Spires": "I don't want to apprehend the unknown."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Coherent enough"

One of my students tonight said he likes poems that are just "coherent enough." I rather like that as a definition, or ideal, for poetry. It reminds me of Todd Swift's definition: "language that somehow exceeds sense with strangeness and style." Poetry makes some sense, it somewhat coheres ... and yet.

Zero-sum bias

From the always interesting (when I remember to read it) Less Wrong (an offshoot of Overcoming Bias):
One of the most pernicious of all human biases is zero-sum bias. A situation involving a collection of entities is zero-sum if one entity's gain is another's loss, whereas a situation is positive-sum if the entities involved can each achieve the best possible outcome by cooperating with one another. Zero-sum bias is the tendency to systematically assume that positive-sum situations are zero-sum situations. This bias is arguably the major obstacle to a Pareto-efficient society.
(From Wikipedia: "Given a set of alternative allocations of goods or outcomes for a set of individuals, a change from one allocation to another that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a 'Pareto improvement' or a 'Pareto-optimal move.' An allocation is defined as 'Pareto efficient' or 'Pareto optimal' when no further Pareto improvements can be made.")

Zero-sum bias is a variation on the perception that resources are more scarce than they actually are -- an example would be someone who is unhappy with their job but refuses to look for new work (current economy notwithstanding), or someone who is unhappy with their relationship but refuses to end it until they meet and secure someone new.

This is an interesting framework for recent (and not-so-recent) controversies over submissions, to lit mags in particular. I'm thinking specifically of this type of reaction to submission policies:
  • When it's easier for other people to submit their work to a given magazine, my own (awesome) submission is more likely to get lost in the noise.*
  • When a given magazine makes an effort to include more women writers, writers of color, disabled writers, etc., it's unfair to the potentially awesome able writers, white writers, and men who then lose those spots.
These reactions seem suggestive of a zero-sum mentality, i.e., if women have more opportunities, men have fewer. I don't think that's the case (more open opportunities create new markets), but even if it were, you have to ask: Why does your submission deserve more attention than anyone else's? (If it deserves more because it is better, it should rise above the noise.)

*Not a judgment on editors who limit submissions by charging a submission fee, having a short submission period or other means. I'm looking at this issue from the perspective of the submitting writer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I just ate a really good black plum. Every year there comes a day when I ask myself, Do I like plums? And I buy a few. And I do. You know how with stone fruit (apples and pears too), one side is often sweeter? Is that the sunny side or the lee?

Lying in bed the other night, I realized why you order your eggs "over easy" or "over medium." It's because they're flipped over, as opposed to sunny side up. Seriously, no one ever explained this to me. In any case, I've decided I don't care much for fried eggs (unless they're in a sandwich, which genre is no longer on my menu); I prefer poached in almost every instance. You can't eat them with your hands, but they're so much gooier and eggier.

SOTD: Guerlain Rose Barbare on my right arm, Sonoma Scent Studio Jour Ensolleile on my left. (Reviews of both forthcoming in my next column.) On my upper left, I can still smell the remnants of a spray of Hanae Mori from last night.

For dinner tonight, speaking of eggs: This weird thing. Doesn't that look good?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The class conflict of teen movies

Teen romance movies, like Jane Austen novels, are always about class conflict. Sometimes the conflict is quite literally about economic class (as in Pretty in Pink and the superior Some Kind of Wonderful, or Gossip Girl for a contemporary example), sometimes it's just about who's cool/popular and who's a gigantic nerd (Sixteen Candles, Can't Buy Me Love, Weird Science). Sometimes it's about both (The Breakfast Club).

The '80s were the golden age of teen movies, to be sure, but the '90s produced at least one really good teen romance: Drive Me Crazy. I've been dying to watch this movie lately. It stars Melissa Joan Hart (of Clarissa Explains It All fame), right before she became totally unappealing, Adrian Grenier (of Entourage), and a few other recognizables (e.g., Ali Larter). Drive Me Crazy puts a good spin on the standard theme: The would-be lovers are star-crossed not because one of them is lame or poor, but because they hang with different crowds. MJH is a "joiner," goes to all the games, etc. AG is more of a stoner type, goes to all-ages clubs, wouldn't be caught dead having school spirit. The trope of how they end up "dating" is the usual setup: Just a scheme to make AG's ex, played by AL, jealous. Does it work? Totally. But oh no! Then they fall in love!

I like this twist because I think people in real life are too stuck in their little in-groups. Just look at sites like -- the whole principle is that they match you up with someone who's really similar to you. People put way too much emphasis on having things in common. Dating someone who likes all the same shit as you is a recipe for never learning anything. Having overlap in likes and dislikes is somewhat important, but not nearly as important as having the same sort of general outlook or value system, and having chemistry (a desire to be around each other whatever the activity might be). And that's the magical lesson of Drive Me Crazy. I'd sing along to top 40 radio with you, etc. (This movie also has a good soundtrack -- by which I mean it's fun while you're watching the movie, not that I bought it and listen to it independently -- including a cover of "Keep on Lovin' You" by The Donnas -- they play at the school dance!)

The fact that this movie has only 5.1 stars on IMDb is a travesty. Pretentious shitfest Shakespeare in Love, of course, gets 7.4.

They'd say you were drunk

Yesterday I left this in a comment on HTML Giant. It's an excerpt from A Handful of Dust (which, BTW, I never finished, because the last couple of chapters are like a totally different book). I love these witty British novels that wouldn't be half as funny if you weren't hearing the dialogue in an accent:
Half an hour later they got into Jock’s car. ‘Tell you what, I shouldn’t drive if I were you.’

‘Not drive?’

‘No, I shouldn’t drive. They’d say you were drunk.’

‘Who would?’

‘Anyone you ran over. They’d say you were drunk.’

‘Well, so I am.’

‘Then I shouldn’t drive.’

‘Too far to walk.’

‘We’ll take a taxi.’

‘Oh hell, I can drive.’

‘Or let’s not go to Brenda’s at all.’

‘We’d better go to Brenda’s,’ said Jock. ‘She’s expecting us.’

‘Well, I can’t walk all that way. Besides, I don’t think she really wanted us to come.’

‘She’ll be pleased when she sees us.’

‘Yes, but it’s a long way. Let’s go some other place.’

‘I’d like to see Brenda,’ said Jock. ‘I’m very fond of Brenda.’

‘She’s a grand girl.’

‘She’s a grand girl.’

‘Well, let’s take a taxi to Brenda’s.’

But halfway Jock said, ‘Don’t let’s go there. Let’s go to some other place. Let’s go to some low joint.’

‘All the same to me. Tell him to go to some lousy joint.’

‘Go to some lousy joint,’ said Jock, putting his head through the window.

The cab wheeled round and made towards Regent Street.

‘We can always ring Brenda from the lousy joint.’
SOTD: Byredo Bal d'Afrique, from a sample. Quite short-lived. At lunch I darted over to Sephora to look for a face scrub suitable for such dry, irritable skin as my own. While there I spritzed on some Acqua di Gio, and realized Kenzo Parfum d'Ete is a total ripoff of this. Mmmm, '90s.

Lunch: Leftover spaghetti (gluten-free) with Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce and fresh ricotta.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I ate my hat

After complaining about the unilaterally sucky poetry selection in my local bookstores (in a comment on my last post), I stopped into the Brookline Booksmith last night to escape the heat. And by jove, by gum, the poetry selection wasn't half bad! It wasn't terrific, mind you, but it was noticeably and significantly better than it's ever been before -- they must have a new poetry buyer or something. I saw 10-20 books by poets or small/indie presses I like. To show my support of its recent foray into not sucking, I bought a book: Shoulder Season by Ange Mlinko. I also picked up three used books: Or to Begin Again by Ann Lauterbach, The Red Bird by Joyelle McSweeney, and The Year of Magical Thinking (Didion). I'd offer the receipt to some prospective Tin House submitter, but it's got my name on it, so.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to limit submissions without looking like a dick

You've probably all heard by now that Tin House announced a new submission policy: You must include with your submission a receipt showing that you bought a "real" book in a "real" bookstore. The point, apparently, is to "save bookstores." And e-books, or even books ordered online, apparently, don't count:
Writers who cannot afford to buy a book or cannot get to an actual bookstore are encouraged to explain why in haiku or one sentence (100 words or fewer). Tin House Books and Tin House magazine will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains: why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore, why he or she prefers digital reads, what device, and why.
There was a big shitstorm thread on HTML Giant about this, of course, but I'm not bothering to read it. (News of the shitstorm comes via Moby Lives, via Matt Cozart.) The ML post claims there's but one "sane" comment among the noise, by Andy Hunter of Electric Literature:
The thing that I think many here are missing is the incredible volume of submissions Tin House must get. EL is not half as well known, but we get thousands of submissions every issue, and even with 35 readers, it’s very hard to keep up. Especially because everything is read twice. Sometimes we regret our open policy, but it was the policy we wanted to see when we were on the other side, as writers. Now that we’re on the publisher side, it gets a little rough [...] There are many, many writers who are scanning duotrope and submitting to magazines they’d never fit in. The majority of these writers don’t seem to read enough, to be honest. They really ought to buy and read more books. [...] There has been a lot of wondering, here and elsewhere, if emerging writers do enough to support the institutions which they wish to support them (i.e. ever buy a literary magazine). Tin House decided to playfully push the issue, and lighten the slush pile for themselves at the same time.
It seems like editors at big fancy lit mags (BFLMs) don't know what to do with all their submissions. Look, I read for a BFLM (Ploughshares) for many years, I know the sheer onslaught of mediocre to lousy or even good submissions is pretty tiresome. But there's a really easy way to limit the number of submissions you receive and ease the burden on readers: Just close submissions for most of the year. Some magazines only read submissions for one or two months out of the year (No Tell Motel and Pool come to mind). This practice is a bit annoying/frustrating for writers, but here's what it's definitely not:
  • Elitist and condescending
  • A self-congratulating attempt to "save" an entity that will die anyway (The current business model of brick-and-mortar bookstores is obviously unsustainable; coercing a tiny subset of the population into proving they've bought books won't help; this subset mostly consists of the people who are already buying real books anyway)
  • Encouraging an approach to reading that is consumerist and environmentally unfriendly (one can read books without buying them)
  • Needlessly complicated (If for some reason you can't or won't buy a book, you can write an impassioned 100-word plea or a haiku to that effect; won't this just increase the burden on Tin House's readers? Now they have to read regular submissions in addition to haiku. Also, submitters will wonder if the title they purchase or the store they purchase it from has any effect on consideration; it probably does, just as cover letters tend to have an effect.)
  • Easy to cheat
So I have to disagree w/ Moby Lives that the editors of Tin House are "doing their best by readers and colleagues dedicated to mother literature." It's a silly, messy policy and there's an obvious better alternative.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stars don't lie, charts do

Weird day. As I was making breakfast, I heard a loud bang like a gunshot or explosion nearby, then I noticed the air conditioner (a window unit in the bedroom next door to the kitchen) had stopped running. My first thought was that the AC had fallen to the ground three stories below. I rushed into the bedroom, where John was still sleeping, and saw that the electricity had gone out. (I didn't notice right away since it was broad daylight.) Seconds later I heard my phone receive a text message, which was odd because I don't usually get texts at 7 in the morning. It was my manager, alerting us that the power in our building was out, so we should stay home. That made me wonder if the whole city of Boston was without power, but then wherefore the explosion?

I'd been just about to put my breakfast in the microwave when all this happened. It wasn't suitable to eat cold so I had to scrape it into a pan and heat it up on the stove, which I lit with a match, like back in colonial times, since our pilot lights are apparently electric though the stove is gas. I was reading Howards End on the couch when someone came out to do some work on the power box across the street about an hour later. (I realized last night I've been picturing Helena Bonham-Carter in the role actually played by Emma Thompson.) Our power came back, so I didn't have to worry about our food rotting, etc., and I was able to Google-determine that the heat wave has caused multiple power outages across the region. The power in my office building was out all day, so I stayed home and sweated. Sweat. Sweat doesn't take an -ed?

I've been working, when I can find time, on a more essayistic essay version of the "Moves in Contemporary Poetry" thing from a while back, for submission to a poetics anthology. (Instead of just a list with examples, there's a little subessay on each move, though I won't cover every one.) For some reason I'm writing it in this ironic faux lit-crit tone. Not sure if that will survive the final draft. If not, it'll be interesting to see how much I'll have to change to convert it to my normal writing voice. Probably not that much.

Today on Twitter, Jessica asked me what my moon sign is. I had no idea, so I got my full astro chart done on this free site. (You only need to supply your date, time, and place of birth.) Now, I don't really believe in astrology (sorry Jessica), but I've always been told I'm a classic Scorpio, and this shit sounds EXACTLY LIKE ME:
Intense and complex by nature, you have extremely strong emotional reactions to most situations. Feelings are often very difficult for you to verbalize. Therefore you have a tendency to be very quiet -- to brood and think a lot. You seldom get overtly angry, but, when you do, you are furious and unforgiving. When you make an emotional commitment, it is total -- you are not attracted to superficial or casual relationships. If you are challenged, you take it as a personal affront and tend to lash out and fight back in a vengeful manner...

When you feel self-confident, you are gentle, giving and protective of the needs of others. But when you feel insecure or threatened, you become overly sensitive to criticism, shy, withdrawn and moody. You have a strong need for security -- in the sense that you are being loved, nourished and protected...

High-spirited and courageous, you are a fighter when your emotions are aroused. You have hair-trigger reactions to specific stimuli and tend to "let it all hang out." You sometimes act before you think and do things on the spur of the moment, and that sometimes gets you into trouble. Your moods change quickly -- you have quite a temper, but you don't hold grudges. Very independent, with an extremely strong and forceful personality...

Your mind is very curious and inquisitive, always seeking information on a wide variety of topics. The broader the subject matter (philosophy, science, religion, metaphysics), the more it will appeal to you. You prefer to deal with abstractions -- the small but important details associated with any subject tend to slip your grasp. [Well, I used to be a copyeditor, so not really.] You are known for being blunt, honest and truthful...

You are a very proud person. Strong, bold, courageous and self-possessed, you love to be the one to initiate significant actions. When people expect a lot of you, you respond positively and will work hard in order to maintain their respect. But when your dignity or pride is threatened, you tend to become sarcastic, arrogant and domineering. Try not to take any challenge or resistance that you meet as a personal affront. You are very stubborn about your right to live your life according to your own principles...
This shit, on the other hand, not so much:
Very sensitive by nature, you prefer to be in your own familiar surroundings. Cautious and conservative, you make changes in your life only very slowly, if at all. Friendships are made for life -- once given, your trust is forever. You are also very sentimental...

You are known for being impulsive, careless, reckless, foolhardy, rash and daring...

When you like someone, you do so totally and obsessively; if you do not like someone, they do not exist. Your faithfulness and loyalty to your lover is unquestioned, indeed at times it is too much so -- you get so possessive that you almost smother your partner. At times, your feelings are kept deep within you and, because they are so complex and intense, they frighten you -- this is the way that you try to ignore them. But the more you try to do this, the more explosive things get when you eventually do express them...

You enjoy being dutiful and carrying out responsibilities. You gladly take on the little tasks that others seem to want to avoid. At times, you carry things to extremes and feel guilty anytime you do something that you consider to be self-indulgent. While it is appropriate for you to demand little for yourself in life, try to loosen up once in a while -- go out on a fling and enjoy yourself!

Doing useful, practical things boosts your self-esteem. Abstract concepts and reasoning seem frivolous and a waste of time to you...
I guess that's usually how astrology works, huh? About half-right, half-wrong? Or do I just not see myself?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Quick update

I'm back from a short vacation in Hendersonville, North Carolina, which is half an hour outside Asheville. We saw an awesome waterfall and fireflies at dusk every day. Also Chimney Rock and the Biltmore estate (The Largest Home in America -- that's copyrighted); we ate Southernish food (pickled beet salad, grit cakes, Tupelo honey, etc.); we played Trivial Pursuit. Basically, it was just nice.

While I was out: My latest perfume column went up. This month it's all about roses:
In some sense the soliflore is a na├»ve form of perfumery, one that tries to hold a mirror up to nature rather than creating something that didn’t before exist. The pleasure of smelling a soliflore is based in familiarity and recognition, not surprise, realization, or shock. Because they are representational rather than abstract, soliflores are inseparable from the associations that the flowers themselves trigger. And roses have a lot of old-fashioned, sentimental baggage to carry compared to, say, sexy night-blooming jasmine or tropical gardenia, so they’re even worse off in this format than other flowers...
Also while I was out: The ivy that's been moving around with me since college appears to have died. It's hot here.