17 August 2017

dinosaurs and vegetables.

I’ve been back in Ithaca for a few days now to re-settle myself in my upstate accommodations before fall term kicks off on August 22 (this is a well worn complaint, but when exactly did it become permissible for the academic year to gobble up a full third of August?). I still very much have New York on the mind, though. I miss the bagel shop ’round the corner, the Midtown skyline rising above the edge of the Central Park Lake, the mountains of black garbage bags on the sidewalk baking under a relentless summer sun – I jest, the trash smells were actually the worst. But that’s enough introductory sentimentality. One of the benefits of being perpetually behind on blogging is that, at least in this space, I can sustain the fiction for a little while longer that I remain there.

My last weekend there was quite a busy one. I capped off a glorious summer of running in Central Park with my first ten miler – 9.9 miles is close enough, surely – then, after a few hours spent recovering, it was off to the American Museum of Natural History. Despite being one of the most prominent stops on the New York tourist trail, I’d somehow never gotten around to it. Like its artsy cousin on the Upper East Side, the Museum of Natural History is far too large to appreciate in its entirety in the course of a single visit, and, with a mere three hours at our disposal, we only had time to see the greatest hits. We spent most of our time in the Hall of African Mammals (which brought back, rather vividly, the episode of Mad Men in which Sally and Glenn go to the museum and have just the most perfectly adolescent rendezvous ever), along with the fossil halls on the top floor of the museum, with the boyfriend providing nerdy scientific commentary throughout.

american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.

We also squeezed in a quick walkthrough of the Hall of Human Origins, which might have been my favourite part of the afternoon. It was just absolutely astounding to gaze upon the remains of our human predecessors – they had Lucy! – and to be struck anew by the realisation that, though millions of years stand between the skeletons inside the glass cases and the representatives of Homo sapiens peering into them, we are barely indistinguishable from each other in the grand timescale of earthly history. (Back when we had been looking at the dinosaur fossils, the boyfriend had been able to put his medical training to work and identify most of the bones in the skeletons, and, at this risk of sounding like a stoned teenager musing on the interconnectedness of, like, everything, it was cool to see that these extinct reptiles literally from another era had a radius and ulna in their forearms too.)

american museum of natural history.
american museum of natural history.

We happened to be at the museum on the day that the utterly revolting terrorist attack in Charlottesville occurred amidst a broader demonstration of violence and hatred by white supremacists and neo-Nazis and the pile of orange shit currently occupying the White House decided to use the weight of his office to grant those basest elements of society the aura of legitimacy. Against such a backdrop, it was impossible to not read a political message into this particular exhibit. I had remarked to the boyfriend that I was sure that more than one person has walked away from the Hall of Human Origins disgusted by its unequivocal presentation of evolution as an incontrovertible natural phenomenon and its emphasis on the fact that, for all the variation in the physical appearances and adaptive behaviours of human beings, we are fundamentally cut from the same genetic cloth, and he replied that, indeed, he hoped that it made them angry and challenged their misunderstandings. It can be easy to forget that these museums with international renown, aside from being enjoyable destinations in their own right, can serve a valuable pedagogical purpose too when done well. In this day and age, their work in the service of a more humanistic approach to the world makes them more essential than ever.

--

I wasn’t planning on blogging about food again; events, however, intervened. My friend Faye invited us along to a special dim sum brunch at Dirt Candy, a self-described “vegetable-focused restaurant” on the Lower East Side, on my second to last day in the city, and who was I to refuse an overture like that? I would say that I can’t remember the last time a meal sent me into such paroxysms of culinary joy except that, courtesy of this blog, I can, but, seriously, all of the dishes were so delicious and creatively prepared that I could not help but whip out my camera to photograph, er, all fifteen of them. I know, I am shameless.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Fung Tu egg rolls.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Fava bean curd terrine.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Barbecued carrot buns with carrot hoisin.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Five-spice iced Vietnamese coffee.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Congee with hard boiled egg, smoked tofu, and peanuts; sweet corn dumplings.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Pizza spring rolls.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Sesame biscuits with lychee jelly.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Rice rolls with Chinese ratatouille.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Soft scrambled eggs with yuba and bamboo shoots.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Smashed vinegar cucumbers.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Mini scallion pancakes.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Pea and mint dumplings.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Salt and peper seitan with manchuri sauce.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Grilled snow peas, sugar snap peas, and snow pea leaves.

dirt candy dim sum brunch.
Edamame whoopie pies.

13 August 2017

vignettes from the west side.

As a resident of the East Side of Manhattan this summer, I have made precious few trips crosstown. For one thing, it is just that much more of a hassle as far as getting there via public transportation goes, and, besides, there is already so much to do – a surfeit of attractions, really – on this half sliver of an island that, absent a compelling reason, why should I ever need to leave? One such reason presented itself last week, when the boyfriend, who was on a relatively less demanding part of his schedule for the first half of August, called me during his lunch break one day and asked if I wanted to meet him later in the West Village, a relatively less familiar part of town for us both, for some wandering. I agreed, then begin putting together an itinerary that might give us a feel for the West Village’s gestalt.

west village.

A friend had described the West Village to me as the “Georgetown of New York City,” and I found the comparison apt. Boasting some of the highest rents in the city, the neighbourhood has a rather genteel feel with its narrow, tree-lined streets, stately townhouses, and expensive shopping. The contrast with its brother on the opposite side of the island and our second home, the East Village, could not have been more stark. Like Georgetown, it was also a perfect backdrop for insouciant strolling about, though we hid away in a kooky little coffee shop called Grounded until the worst of the afternoon heat had passed.

grounded.
west village.
west village.
west village.

We walked down Bleecker Street, where I indulged in some truly fanciful window shopping, on our way to the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Time Out had included their gardens on a list of the best parks in which to read in the West Village, and who was I to resist an inventory like that? The gardens reminded me not a little of an Oxford college quad: there were benches aplenty for resting, reading, or otherwise contemplating the universe in its inscrutable and limitless breadth, and it certainly helped that the flowers were all in bloom, spilling forth in a profusion of colours and scents. Heaven indeed.

gardens at the church of st luke in the fields.
gardens at the church of st luke in the fields.
gardens at the church of st luke in the fields.
gardens at the church of st luke in the fields.

(I must say this about New York: for all of the occasionally overwhelming quality of the masses of people that course through its streets, the city does not lack for pockets of quiet where one can get away from it all.)

From there, we duly pilgrimaged to the Stonewall Inn, where the puppy store next door was besieged by a small but vocal crowd of “adopt, don’t shop” protesters.

the stonewall inn.

We then ducked onto a side street to a bookstore called Three Lives & Company. Visiting literary establishments is one of my preferred ways of getting to know a city, and it goes without saying that I unconditionally love all bookstores, but this one quickly entered into contention for my favourite bookstore in the city. Its inventory was primarily weighted towards fiction of the serious, literary, and esoteric sort (a good barometer of such things is how prevalent books published by Europa Editions are on the shelves), and its decor – all rich mahogany hues, the glow of green banker’s lamps, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – evoked the personal library of my dreams.

three lives & company.
three lives & company.

At one point, I think I was holding no fewer than four books in my arms, but I eventually settled on one found by the boyfriend called Heart: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Heroic Organ, whose summary on the back promised a “perfect mix of medical fact and amusing anecdote.” All right, then!

We concluded our impromptu date with a walk through the eastern portion of Greenwich Village, where the presence of NYU and its student population begin to make themselves known. I made use of one of my sister’s restaurant recommendations and hit up Saigon Shack for dinner, where we scarfed down cheap but absolutely fantastic bahn mi. All in all, it was easily one of my favourite days of the summer.

--

A few days later, we ventured crosstown once more to walk the length of the High Line at night. The park snakes above some of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighbourhoods in the form of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, and it was quite diversionary to watch the monied and the young – hardly disjoint sets – in their going-out best, preening before smartphone cameras as the tempo of the surrounding nightlife accelerated to an alcohol-tinged allegro and the moonlight shimmered in the glass façades and angular lines of the surrounding buildings.

the high line.
the high line.
the high line.
the high line.

The hubbub eventually faded as we drew closer to Hudson Yards and the vaguely post-apocalyptic aura of still construction sites took over.

the high line.

I suppose there is no other city in the United States like New York for heightening one’s class consciousness, and, especially on nights like these, it was impossible to shake the image of this concrete jungle as little more than the playground for the very richest and most famous and we, the comparatively little people, can only gaze upon the barred doors of the enclaves they have claimed as their own. In a funny way, though, I felt no resentment or envy, only a kind of miraculousness that, even the face of status’s imperial tendencies, there is space still in the city to weave a story of one’s own, for the smallest of dreams to breathe.

10 August 2017

i ran a second thing.

Two Saturdays ago, I checked the 10K off my to-run list at the NYCRUNS Ice Cream Social (so named because each participant received a free soft serve ice cream for their respective troubles), which, like the 5K I raced in June, took place on Roosevelt Island. If I had trepidations about the latter because it amounted, in a minor way, as a public declaration of myself as a runner, albeit one at the beginning stages of her training, the 10K felt significant because it marked the outer limit of what I had once believed to be physically possible for me. I ran my first 6.2 miles back in the spring of 2016 and would eventually and tentatively extend that distance on a few occasions to just beyond eight, only to, not for the first time, fall off the exercise train soon thereafter. I only resumed running somewhat regularly at this distance in the spring of this year but did not feel brave enough to go beyond it. On one hand, there was really no reason to be nervous: I had already survived the emotional maelstrom associated with running my first race, and, as I tried reminding myself, I basically eat 10Ks for breakfast these days. On the other hand, I was quite cognisant of the fact that, with the 10K out of the way, no more official milestones stood between me and that distant dream of the half marathon (there are 10-mile races, I realise, but those aren’t particularly common, and I was’t about to compromise the dramatic quality of this statement with a “well, actually...”!). Indeed, in the days leading up to the 10K, I promised myself that I would finally register for a half marathon once it was over. I had, in fact, dutifully followed through on my post-5K intention of jumping into a half marathon training plan. This pretense of “unofficially” training for a half was starting to feel ridiculous; it was high time to admit to myself that I had every real intention of going for 13.1.

But, first, the 10K. Truthfully, nothing about the race felt particularly effortless. Although the temperature was pleasantly mild, there was a strong headwind gusting off the East River that seemed to steal the very energy from out of my legs. Despite making a point of running negative splits during my training runs, I committed the cardinal sin of starting too fast to ever settle into a comfortable rhythm – perhaps that was my racing inexperience coming to the fore? Of course, I felt the same during my 5K, but, at my current level of fitness, 3.1 miles are much easier to bullshit than 6.2. Still, whatever disappointment I might have felt with my performance must be appropriately circumscribed. The perk of running a race for the first time is that I am guaranteed a personal best, and, a year ago, the idea that I would run a 10K in 55:17 and place well in the top half of runners would have struck me as many types of absurd. That I am only at the very beginning of this journey – this is the proper standard by which to measure myself. (Now, if only I could bring such sober perspective to bear on academic matters.)

And, as I promised myself, I have since registered for a half marathon, so it is my extreme pleasure/horror to announce that I will be running in the Queens Half Marathon on November 18. Cue all! the! freaking! out!

I have, at this point, a little over three months to train for this face. During my giddier moments, I let myself daydream about what I might be able to accomplish during that time, and the boldness of my aspirations hardly feels native to myself – I, who have always been of such unfailingly cautious and pessimistic disposition. My current training plan, Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 Program, has me maxing out my mileage at ten – I am currently at eight – so, after I’ve completed it, I will switch over to his Novice 2 plan, which builds up to 12 miles. I feel confident enough in the current trajectory of my running progress that I believe I can hope for more than just completing the half: I think that I can aim to run it well (defined within reason, naturally). And I think I want to run a second half, the NYCRUNS Big Apple Half Marathon on December 10, whose primary draw is the fact that it loops through Central Park because, you know, who doesn’t want to run up Harlem Hill not once but twice? I suspect that, yes, it is quite mad for me to even contemplate undertaking two of these things in the space of a single month, but it would feel impeccably poetic to complete a half on the very grounds where I began to consider running as more than merely a convenient and passably enjoyable manner of maintaining adequate cardiovascular health.

For so long, my running felt boxed in by fear. I worried about being out of breath, straining my muscles, the weather being too hot or too cold, exercising too late or too early in the day. I resisted physical discomfort, convinced that it would overwhelm the delicate mental equilibrium required to even get myself out the door in the first place. I did not think about running particularly well or poorly: my only wish was to see it done, full stop. Maybe this exceedingly risk-averse approach was what I needed to pick up running at all and to never give it up even after a few months’ dust had accrued on my running shoes. Running in Central Park this summer changed everything. I cannot really ascertain why, precisely – maybe it has to do with the park’s unending succession of hills that, by setting the bar for completion so high, inspires the body to ever more determined exertions, or maybe it is just the magic of New York City, which is forever & always the site of some strange alchemy where people find in themselves who they always wanted to be – and it should be said that there is still this moment of terror when I am standing on the sidewalk, my left index finger hovering over the “Start” button in Runkeeper, and all of the pain I am about to bring upon myself flashes through my mind. I know I can still turn back and return home, which I’ve in any case not yet really left, but then I go. I take one step forward, then another, my lungs are filled with air before they are not, and I am running. I have been set free.

8 August 2017

photograph, eat, repeat.

Notwithstanding days I have to buy lunch because I’ve neglected to prepare my meals ahead of time or when I cannot be arsed to deal with grocery shopping and outsource my nutritional needs to Chipotle instead, I tend not to spend very much money on eating out in Ithaca. In contrast, it is exceeding difficult to not spend very much money on eating out in New York, which boasts of more dining options than could possibly be sampled in a lifetime. Since the bulk of my social life this summer has centred around catching up with various folks over a meal or coffee, this has been a particular boon. After all, the only thing better than settling into the pleasant rhythms of long conversations with friends is getting to do that and simultaneously delve into some culinary adventure.

So, without further ado, here are some foods I have had the joy of sampling over the last month or so. Note that this is not an exhaustive list thereof, just the ones at which I sheepishly pulled my DSLR out of my bag and prayed that none of the wait staff was judging me too harshly for being That Person (but, really, the longer I stay here, the more I realise that New York is maybe the one place in the world where no one will bat an eye at an impromptu photoshoot). With one exception, all of these places are in the East Village, which is a rather happening part of town that is convenient to access via bus from my accommodations.

First up: the Black Ant, a funky modern Mexican eatery where diners tuck into their entrees under the auspices of a mural depicting – what else? – a giant black ant bathed in fluorescent light. I had the pleasure of enjoying this meal with my friend Fabian, who was here on holiday for a stretch during July. (The centrality of New York as, like, a hub of the entire freaking world means that, as time goes to infinity, the probability of someone transiting through the city approaches one.) We had last seen each other a few years ago in Bern, and it was again a delight to be able to transpose our written correspondence to the tangible world.

The restaurant had been recommended to the boyfriend by a colleague of his who originally hails from Mexico City and said that, when she craves food from home, she heads to the Black Ant. Needless to say, the menu includes some rather adventurous offerings; the boyfriend attempted to order roasted grasshoppers (chapulines) as an appetiser for the table but the kitchen had already run out of that particular delicacy. At this point, I may or may not have breathed a sigh of relief. I defaulted to the safe but admittedly tasty option of crispy duck dumplings slathered in a mole sauce –

the black ant.

– but, for dessert, there was no escaping the chapulin ice cream with banana bread. It was actually quite good, as the ground up bits of insect mostly served to add a bit of texture to the ice cream. (Given I was once served pig brains at a restaurant in Chongqing, China – though neither my parents nor I went anywhere near it – who am I to judge what other cultures deem edible?)

Next up: the colourful, rambunctious Maharlika. Picked out by my college classmate Rosemary, whose taste in food and cooking prowess have left me in awe since our days at Georgetown, it marked my first foray into Filipino cuisine and left me eager to try it again at some later date. We started with the Pampangan-style sizzling sisig (various cuts of pork served in a still hot cast-iron skillet with red onion and chili and a raw egg cracked over the top, per the menu), and I followed that up with the pato tim in which slices of braised duck – it must just be the Chinese in me, but I just really love duck – bathed in a sweet sauce with hints of star anise rested over a bed of greens and apple slices. Ugh, I am salivating right now just thinking about it.

mahalika.
maharlika.

Then: Lucien, one of those impeccably styled French bistros that New York pulls off with such panache. We met up with my friend Chase, whom I last saw during my most recent visit to Washington, DC some three years ago, for a more luxurious than usual lunch (in fairness, given I have been subsiding on cold cuts and PB&Js for most of my midday meals, that was not a high bar to reach). Nothing on the menu would surprise anyone with passing familiarity with French cuisine, so, in that sense, it wasn’t quite as out there as the places previously described, but there is an undeniable joy to seeing the classics executed to perfection as well.

lucien.

Finally: a reprise of the modern Mexican theme at Empellón in Midtown. In general, ending up in Midtown makes me feel like I’ve lost at some cosmic game and my punishment is to be surrounded by slow-moving packs of tourists forever. (Also, Trump Tower, which I’ve flipped off every time I’ve had to walk past it this summer.) There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that Midtown is the most iconically New York part of New York – Times Square! the Empire State Building! – yet in attaining that level of symbolic power, it becomes loveless, bland. But look closely and there is in fact some treasure buried in the dreck.

While the fact that I have dedicated an entire blog post to restaurants might suggest otherwise, the truth is that I don’t consider myself a foodie, per se. I obviously like food insofar as eating is a biological necessity, eating delicious food is strictly better than not, and its value as a means of creative and cultural expression need not be belaboured further, but scouting out Yelp for the hottest and hippest places to eat isn’t really one of my hobbies, and food tends to not propel me the sort of rapture and rhapsody to which people who really love it are prone. The meal I had at Empellón, though, came as close as any I’ve ever had to inspiring such feelings in me as well. Proceedings kicked off with the queso fundido with steak tartare, which was a million kinds of cheesy goodness –

empellón.

– and two pairs of tacos, one with thick-cut bacon and the other with lamb sweetbreads, both of which were extremely flavourful.

empellón.

The real fun began with the entrée, however. We ordered the sea bream with chilaquiles verdes, and what appeared at first to be a whole fish – note the fried tail off to the side and the compact, circular plating of the dish – turned out to be a sort of deconstructed play on fish tacos. Food, it turns out, can have a sense of humour.

empellón.

The whimsy well and truly peaked with dessert. The boyfriend insisted we get the corn ice cream tacos, universally hailed by the denizens of Yelp. They were correct, as this confection turned out to be a visual delight to behold and, of course, delicious AF.

empellón.

Not pictured was the canela ice cream sandwich – mostly because it had already been partially consumed by the time I remembered that I had yet to photograph it – which was presented to us wrapped up in pink paper. It consisted of two cinnamon cookies with cinnamon ice cream in between, but it also gave off these heady, perfume-y notes that made it feel like I had plunged headlong (noselong?) into a field of rambling wildflowers, if that makes sense.

If my attempt at description has failed, then all I can say is that you go to Empellón and sample some for yourself!