Deb Perelman, my food rock star, at Politics and Prose Bookstore on November 12, 2012

Despite arriving early, it took me ages to find parking and I waited in a line that went out the door only for them to run out of books before I reached the end. Popular lady! Thanks to the zoom button on my phone’s camera I sort of know what she looks like. Adam and Kelly, I was planning to get you signed books for Christmas. This post is for you!

The book was supposed to be written over the final six months of her pregnancy, but it took three years. She said that she put a lot of specifications in the contract with her editor, one that it was to be written in exactly six months, no more, no less. She jokingly refers to the book as her second child, and she reminded the audience that if anyone asks when the second REAL child is coming, she’ll know her mother (in the audience) put them up to it (BUSTED). The reason it took so long was because she’s self-admittedly picky; everything has to be just so. For example, the pages needed to stay open to the recipe that you’re working on. It ended up being so long (350 + pages) because she didn’t want to take away from the text preceding the recipes, because they make a big difference. And she put a lot of thought into what recipes would go into it, and some were taken out and put back in several times, maybe after being tweaked a little.

The blog just celebrated its 6th birthday. If it were a child it would be attending kindergarten and starting to talk back. She went to university and graduate school in Washington D.C. (and yes, she had a bigger kitchen then, but it never got any use), and had tons of crappy jobs before quitting her day-job to blog full time. She has been a swimming instructor, art therapist, scrawler of “Happy Birthday” on cakes, barista, etc… Six years ago she quit her day job as an IT (something I’ve never heard of) which was boring, not worth mentioning, and she says she was bad at it.

The blog came about when she wanted to make a birthday cake for her friend. She wanted it to be just so: the vanilla flavor needed to be present, the cake needed to be just the right light density, fluffy yet moist, etc. And she thought there should be a go-to recipe for such a thing. And the results on Google were just too overwhelming; if she and friend spent every day testing 3 recipes out of the Google results, they might achieve an analysis after a lifetime of research, providing they still had all their teeth. She liked a lot of food blogs, and they all had a specific approach, a niche to fill, and she just liked to cook. She didn’t feel like she had a “theme” to work with.

The name Smitten Kitchen: she doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to mean. But she was drawn to the duality of “smitten”, containing the meanings of the past tense of “to smite” as in god smiting you, and “smitten” in the sweet sense, like being in love. That combination of sweet and evil is what she liked. So back to the birthday cake. She kept trying different recipes, but each on was “too x” or “not y enough”. She had in her mind this specific idea of a cake and it had to be just so. That is her process: she gets something in her head and she needs to make it. It might come from a dish that she tried at a restaurant, whether it was perfect and she wants to streamline it, or if it wasn’t what she expected and she wants to create exactly what she had in mind.

When she was asked what her favorite restaurant was, she said that her answer was sad because it just closed. It was a modern Indian restaurant with yummy perfect veggie dishes, and unfortunately Manhattan didn’t seem to be ready for it. But there were some in the running. When asked what her favorite recipe was, she said it was like being asked if you have a favorite child. But right now she and her family really love roast chicken with olives and grapes. Also it depends on the season, like right now she loves the cider caramel because they taste like fall.  And she loves stuffing so much that she thinks it’s a shame that stuffing/dressing is mostly limited to Thanksgiving. One of her next recipes is going to be a “breakfast stuffing”.

Someone asked what her son would remember her by in terms of food, and she quickly responded with “APPLESAUCE!” He eats it by the gallon. But that it’s not really a recipe. She is thrilled that his favorite food right now is her broccoli fritters and how exciting it is that her 3-year-old likes a vegetable, and it’s green. She said, no, she didn’t bring him with her on the trip and he was most likely doing beer and football with dad at this very moment. She had spoken with him earlier on the phone and he said he had eaten broccoli, but that was doubtful and they were definitely doing beer and football.

She was asked if there’s any ingredient she didn’t like to use, and without hesitation she said “BEETS! I hate BEETS!”. She continued to explain that “It’s not so much the taste, but, I don’t know, they’re so RED and… leaky”. Everyone’s got their food aversions, even if they’re famous chefs. Emeril can’t stand dill, and Rachel ray just can’t get over her dislike of honey. She also doesn’t really like fish. But she tries to overcome these aversions; she did a roasted beets recipe that she loved, and she combined them with other veggies and some olive oil and salt and pepper. As for fish she did halibut, which she liked, halibut is the “gateway fish”. The fish aversion isn’t a kosher thing—she’s not religious and she has intellectual beef with the kosher laws. For her, food is clean if it’s produced ethically and sustainably. She describes herself as a terrible Jew because her favorite things are pork and shellfish. She loves the traditions (but especially the foods, like challah) of Judaism.

She alluded several times to being extremely picky. She doesn’t seem like a difficult person though- she’s extremely good-natured. She has a bright and young energy, and she’s pleasantly childlike without being childish. She was extremely humbled, expressing shock that the huge crowd had come just to see her.

The questions turned to her process once more, and these days she drops her son off at preschool, where they sell coffee, which she thinks is the best idea ever. So she walks home with a giant coffee and enjoys the quiet, remarking that it feels odd to say that Manhattan is quiet, but somehow it’s true at that moment. And afterwards she has her most productive hours.

As for the photography, she stole her husband’s camera on her honeymoon in 2005 and hasn’t returned it yet. It’s fancy and has a ton of buttons that she doesn’t use. To her a photograph is good if it communicates what you intended. Specifically when it comes to food she wants to show what onions look like when they’re chopped, or the color of a fruit or vegetable. Oh, and natural light is by far the best. Her kitchen is tiny, and if she had her choice of kitchens, the most important thing would be to have a window. She loves her tiny kitchen and she’s not crazy; she wouldn’t turn down a bigger kitchen, but kitchens are just small in Manhattan, and she loves Manhattan.

P.S. My favorite things by Deb:

World Peace/Korova cookies: The answer to any chocolate emergency, and my Husband’s current favorite. If he didn’t eat them at the rate he does (One in each hand. And he’s still skinny. I told him that everyone WISHES they had his problems), I would gain thirty pounds.

Jacked Up Banana Bread: As long as you cross out the “optional” in front of bourbon in the recipe. I added walnuts because I was curious; my Mom hates nuts baked into things so I’m deprived.

Buttermilk Roast Chicken: Perfection. Even though I use skinless breasts because my weirdo Husband doesn’t like bones and skin or dark meat. I make it with mashed potatoes and add the chicken juices in. My mashed potatoes embody perfection, but adding the juices take them to another level.

Plum Ricotta Crepes: A real hit at my friend’s regular crepe parties

One last thing: My brother made her granola crusted nuts for a friend as a gift, but ended up eating them all because they’re addictive as crack. I believe him. He’s probably made more by Deb than I have, and his cooking skills blow me away. I don’t have that “thing” that makes me a food artist like my Mom and Brother.

Okay, last thing, I swear: I really can’t take credit for finding the Korova cookies or the Plum Ricotta Crepes– my BFF Kelly clued me into those.

And much, much more. WE LOVE YOU DEB!!!

Ashlee April Alligator

My Dad read a lot of Dr. Seuss to me when I was a toddler, and the memory that sticks in my head is the beginning of the The Amazing Alphabet Book!:

 “Big ‘A’, little ‘a’, what begins with ‘a’?

Ashlee April Alligator, ‘a’,’a’, ‘a’!”

That’s how my Dad read it to me— with my name in it, and I have no idea what is actually in the book.

The earthy aesthetic

Not mine; I wish!

Until a professional designer told me that I had an earthy aesthetic, I hadn’t thought much about it; I know what I like when I see it. But it’s true, and it happens to be very convenient for me, because I’m an amateur and as you can imagine, wooden beads are a lot less expensive than precious stones! Even if cost weren’t an issue, I still gravitate towards the raw and natural look of freshwater pearls versus their polished counterparts, for example.

As for colors, I like earthy hues that are naturally occurring; to me there’s nothing worse than a black and white checkerboard pattern with its sharp angles and cold colorlessness. Aesthetics is subjective but I draw the line there. As for textures, the natural look can be found when embellishments resemble water droplets or barnacles. Take a look at the placement of the gems in this Alexis Bittar bracelet, for example:

Just because I love Alexis Bittar so much, here are a couple more examples of his use of earthy textures:

The earrings look like they could have come from a cavern, and the shape of the necklace is reminiscent of pebbles in the bottom of a brook. Obviously the materials he used contribute to the earthiness of these pieces, but he does the same thing with resin and rhinestones in his most popular cuff bracelets.

These designs are most definitely not naturally occurring, but they look as if they could be; one can imagine natural processes being used to achieve this end result.

The gay agenda

I am close to a handful of gay people who grew up in a conservative and/or religious family, and I know being gay is not a choice. Because if these people had a choice, it would be to not be gay. That would be much easier. In many cases it took them a long time to even acknowledge it to themselves because of their upbringing. It is impossible to shake off all of the things you’re told as a child. That being gay is disgusting, unnatural, and immoral. If you had a choice, would you have your family see you as a deviant and a pervert? Throughout much of their lives they live in
fear of being discovered for who they are, and they try to live in denial. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t it eat at you constantly? And when you come to terms with it in your internal struggle, you then face the re-opening of those wounds by coming out to your family. No one wants to jeopardize their close relationships in this way. Even when the outcome of coming out to a family member has turned out to be positive, there was still a fear that it would change the relationship, that someone you’ve known your whole life is going to think of you differently.

No one is trying to turn your kid gay by broadcasting a message of acceptance (thereby earning the coveted purple toaster!). The religious right describes the issue in terms of an “anything goes” philosophy on the edge of a slippery slope. The real motive for reaching out with a message of acceptance is this: homosexuals who have struggled and endured through discrimination don’t want the pattern to be repeated. They don’t want others to suffer as they have. I have spoken with people who are annoyed at the outspokenness of “the gay community”- they feel as if liberal views are being forced on them. I admit I am impatient for social change. The reason I’m so passionate about this is because I don’t want my loved ones to hurt. Behold the gay agenda! All they want is to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law, hoping it sets an example for everyone else.

Phases

I go through phases in my jewelry-making, and right now I’m in my “brick stitch” phase. In brick stitch, you create rows of beads in a circular pattern around a spherical center bead, as opposed to peyote, which is staggered. I like it so much because I can play with progressions in color. And you aren’t necessarily limited to going around in circles, as is the case in these earrings, where I also used variations in texture:

By using color progressions, you can control how the center is highlighted. When you start with a core and work your way outward, you are literally radiating. I love focusing on the beauty of one color by contrasting or complementing it with others.

Why I wore a pink wedding dress

Image

I’m not that bad-ass. Let me begin by making it clear that only part of the reason to wear color was to make a statement. The biggest and most important reason is that I love color. The core of my aesthetic sense is earthy and natural- I dislike any stark and cold black-and-white color scheme.  And if I do use white in a creative choice, it is always ivory or cream. Hence the grey and brown that the groom is wearing instead of formal black. Ever since I saw Portia de Rossi’s blush-colored Zac Posen wedding gown it was in the back of my head.

So the aesthetic choice came first. But then I didn’t like what it meant in the context our cultural tradition; that it meant it was a second wedding, or I somehow didn’t deserve to wear white. The New York Times announcement of Vera Wang’s collection at David’s Bridal, the very collection I selected my gown from, described the color choices in these terms: “In addition to vestal virgin white, the dresses are available in ivory, blush and champagne — something women with previous experience at the altar might particularly appreciate”. Furthermore, the collection’s tagline was “Every bride deserves to wear white”. I think that what they were going for was more along the lines of  every bride deserves to wear a top designer like Vera Wang. And I adore Vera Wang.  But I still don’t like the implicit assumption about purity in the choice of color.

That’s where the “F*** you, Tradition, I’m wearing pink!” element came in. The idea that the dress I chose to wear is a statement about my purity is disgusting to me. I decided to forgo the veil for the same reason. You want to look and feel your best on your wedding day, and style, which is about self-expression and confidence, should not be tinged by judgement. Before Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding, color dominated the bridal fashion scene. And it will again; color is starting to come back, and I wanted to be a part of that trend. On my wedding day, I was beautiful, and to my knowledge, my pink dress did not elicit any scandalized gasps of horror or nasty comments from the guests. They were too busy having a good time.

The cooperative principle and America’s favorite misanthrope

Sheldon: (knocks) “Leonard…”

Leonard: “What is it?”

Sheldon: “I made tea”

Leonard: “I don’t want tea”

Sheldon: “I didn’t make tea for you!

At the risk of ruining a joke by over-explaining it, I am going to show how a scene from The Big Bang Theory illustrates one of the most important principles in linguistic pragmatics.

In order for there to be mutual understanding, there must be a systematic relation between what the speaker says and what he intends to convey. Herbert Paul Grice’s cooperative principle explains how the speaker gets the hearer  to recognize the intended meaning of the utterance. The speaker relies on hearer’s ability to reason backwards from the speaker’s communicative intentions, which is made possible with guidance by additional assumptions. The problem is that in principle, any action can have an indefinite number of goals and intentions.  In John Nash’s Game Theory,  shared assumptions help narrow down the search space by relying on each other’s cooperativeness and common goals. Here, the common goal is for the speaker’s utterance, and intentions behind it, to be understood by the hearer. Grice’s cooperative principle is based on this, and his conversational maxims lay out the rules of the game.

Grice posited that the assumptions we operate under in our conversations fall into four categories, the conversational maxims: Quality, Relation, Quantity, and Manner. Under quality, the hearer should assume that the speaker is not knowingly lying or misrepresenting the truth. Under relation, the hearer can assume that the what the speaker contributes to the conversation is relevant. Under quantity, the contribution is expected to be as informative as required for the purposes of the exchange, but no more than is required. Lastly, manner has to do with the composition of the contribution itself: it should be brief, or not unnecessarily long, avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and it should be orderly. It’s pretty simple, really: for conversation to work, we need to be able to assume that we aren’t trying to deceive each other, that there is a point to our contribution, that the contribution won’t keep us there all afternoon without a good reason, and that we can understand what was said. To be a cooperative participant in a conversation, don’t lie, don’t needlessly complicate things, don’t inconvenience your friend, and try to be clear.

Back to the clip: the humor of the “I made tea” misunderstanding rests on the fact that the hearer, Leonard, is operating under the assumption that the speaker, Sheldon, is guided by the cooperative principle. Which, by experience, is a faulty assumption, but where would sitcoms be without it? Sheldon is an expert in many things except, notably, human social interactions. Leonard, the ordinary human being, assumes that a speaker’s contribution is relevant to the exchange. Upon entering Leonard’s bedroom, Sheldon declares that he has made tea. The reasonable interpretation upon hearing this is that he is being offered tea, especially given the context of Leonard’s emotional state and Sheldon’s timidness upon entering.  Put plainly, why else would you walk into someone’s bedroom and say that you’ve made tea other than to offer it to them? How is it relevant? Well, it’s not, and that’s why it’s funny.