★★★★ The sunlight was so low as to make everything confusing, a tangle of long shadows and glary reflections. The temperature had lurched up again to a qualitatively different kind of day than the cold one before. At late lunchtime the sun was going sideways into storm drain gratework and lighting up the thickness of it. The warmth of it landed down on the lower back like a heating pad.
I’m having such a good time reading about Prokofiev, so much so that I do not care any longer if Prokofiev month feels like a chore to readers. Prokofiev, perhaps even more so than composers I’ve previously focused on, lived and wrote throughout such a transitionary period in world history––the first half of the 20th century––that trying to encapsulate a singular style or motif or theme feels nearly impossible. Though he was ignorant to politics and widely uninterested in the, uh, general insanity of the various Russian revolutions, Prokofiev often found himself between musical styles and influences. As a young and impulsive artist, freshly out of his conservatory training, it was hard for him to nail down what precisely made him Prokofiev.
This week, there are two different pieces I want to focus on, both of which illuminate different sides of Prokofiev’s creative personality. The first is known as the Scythian Suite (all of the music today comes from Prokofiev: The Complete Symphonies, London Symphony Orchestra, 2013) which was an adaptation of a failed and relatively disliked ballet that Prokofiev wrote earlier in his career known as Ala and Lolly. Both the ballet and the suite are meant to depict the Scythians, a Eurasian nomadic people from modern-day Iran. They were widely present across parts of Russia, Ukraine, and even China some several hundred years ago (more than one thousand years before Prokofiev was writing about them).
Spice cake was the best cake. The other kids thought that this was not the case, and argued for chocolate cake, they were wrong; spice cake was the best cake because I was six years old, it was my favorite and hence, it was the best cake. Not a carrot cake, not a pretender spice cake with bits of nuts or gourds in it, but a simple spice cake, with a cream cheese or butter cream frosting from the little plastic packet at the bottom of the box. Chocolate cake was everywhere. It didn’t even rate. Plus? No spice.
A thing to know about that time and place—West Virginia, late Q3 of the 20th Century—was that it was not a place one would encounter a wealth of herbs and spices. Even the non-box-mix cooking that might happen in my family, the drop biscuits and the minute steak and the chicken dumplings, relied solely on salt, black pepper and the applicable fat/shortening for flavor. Spice cake, it had spice. That hooked me, whatever this spice was.
When I first encountered Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning (pronounced SAH-shur-ee) I was twenty years old and living in Lake Charles, Louisiana—a city off of I-10, made infamous by the (very douche-y) Nic Pizzolatto of True Detective as “one of the easiest places to get your ass kicked on the Gulf Coast.” Lake Charles is also the birthplace of Lucinda Williams and the title of one of her saddest and most famous songs (about an ex-boyfriend.) My ex-boyfriend grew up about a half hour south of the city and in the spring of 2010 he and I lived with two friends and one enemy in a dingy housing development called the Fleur de Lis Apartments. That’s not a typo, they misspelled Fleur de Lis.
We were extremely poor, but young enough that it usually felt comical. Everyone made minimum wage, working in bar kitchens or at a motel called Inn on Bayou and shifts were unreliable. Our friend John Paul (“Not named after the Pope”) was in the habit of snacking on expired MREs left over from Hurricane Ike. We had two movies, Boyz n the Hood and Willow, and I remember them playing almost constantly in the background. When we went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras we put down blankets and crashed in the flatbed of John’s truck. It rained. Soaking wet and freezing, we ended up sleeping in an empty horse stable.
- Sumac is a berry that tastes like a powdery lemon, a soft bright lime, a sour flower.
- Sumac is the flavor of the Midwest. My Midwest, anyway. Southeast Michigan has America’s most concentrated population of Arab-Americans, and small Middle Eastern restaurants can be found in any grubby strip mall. Order mana’eesh or hummus or grilled lamb and odds are it will come sprinkled with powdered sumac, a little tang to offset the earth of the rest. When I moved to Seattle, people asked if I missed the Midwest. “I miss the food,” I said, and they gave me funny looks.
- Sumac is red, but not a trite red. It’s a little purple and a little brown, too. I love red lipstick but fear looking costumed, like I am going to see my sailor off to war, or selling ten-cent dances. Sumac is not that kind of red. It’s moody verging on difficult, a quality I like in colors and mouths.
- Here are some things to do with sumac: sprinkle it on popcorn or cantaloupe or roasted Brussels sprouts. Mix it into yogurt and use it as a sauce for chicken or vegetables. Put it on your finger and lick it off. Stick your tongue in the bottle. Sumac is best raw. Do something raw with it.
- They say lemon zest mixed with salt is a good substitute for sumac. They lie.
We’re in our boss’ kitchen, which is tidy and taupe in the way I’d only ever seen in a Martha Stewart Living, my mom’s copy, the one she checked out from the library.
We’re cooking all day, like I’m told we do every Tuesday. The kitchen is a busy, steaming, full-team operation crammed into a space meant for Sunday pie-making with kids. I learn quickly to watch for limbs, stray utensils, aproned bodies. This is my first week—my second day—at a food start-up in New York. My second day of moving past the casseroles and the piles of peas I came from.
Someone asks me to grab the Piment d’Espelette and I nod and smile and say “of course!” even though I have no idea what that is—whether it’s animal, or mineral, or some fancy antique baking mold from the French Revolution. I look around, for what I don’t know: understanding eyes? An early Alexa prototype? There doesn’t seem to be time to fall back on the methodology that got me through yesterday: Quickly Google the fragments of sounds I think I heard (“pee-mon dESS-plett”) then make an informed decision from the top three hits. I open the drawer closest to me. It’s the spices, a lucky guess.
As a kid in Texas, I spent most afternoons at my neighbor’s house—she was an elderly Spanish woman, she’d moved from Madrid for her own children—and after I’d annoyed her into oblivion for the whereabouts of her grandson, she’d sit me at her daughter’s table and cook me a meal. She made soups and queso frito. She rolled tortillas and empanadas. Sometimes she’d sit and watch me burn my lips on all them. But other days, she’d bring me clips of last night’s dinner, plastic plates of curried goat, or searing empanadas; but every now and again she’d lather her dishes with a powder, a smoky blend of spices that turned out to be achiote.
Achiote is the same thing as annatto but sometimes people confuse the two. Annatto seeds are ground for achiote paste, and that’s blended with other spices to serve as a rub. It gives your food this orange-ish color. Or a yellow-ish one. Or a pulsing red. The seeds are extracted from Bixa orellana, which lives and dies in tropical climates, and if you’ve spent time in Latin America or the Caribbean or the southwest States, then you’ve seen it dashed somewhere across your plate.
Be thankful it’s almost over. Enjoy.
★★★★ The river was inky and almost nonreflective, but so much sun shone on a building on the far shore that it cast a butter-colored gleam on the dull water regardless. Brilliant paper-white gulls rose and dipped in the distance against the gray. One plane tree by the schoolyard was drenched with gold in the otherwise color-parched autumn. In late morning, the clouds, stretching up in winglets, took on a ruddy sundown tinge. After that, the light became wholesome again. It was time again to worry about the ambient cold getting into the phone and sapping the battery. The night was so clear and it fell so early that, on the walk home with chicken for dinner, all three points of Summer Triangle could be found in the sky.
Last winter, I embarked on my first Drynuary with a mix of shock and self-righteousness. I was thirty-fucking-five years old and I seriously, SERIOUSLY, couldn’t remember going an entire month without drinking. By Day 5, my husband told me, I started reminding him of the straight-edge kids from high school. But, I was really onto something. Wasn’t it crazy that we configured our lives around the consumption of alcohol, the same way that we configured our living rooms around television sets? Wasn’t it odd that we were always a little inebriated around friends and coworkers? How could we tell who we really were if we spent so much time in an altered state? He suggested I listen to some Youth of Today and opened a beer.
Even though I wasn’t drinking, I was determined to keep up with my social obligations, which meant I often found myself in bars, explaining to people that I had sworn off booze for the month. Around Day 12, I found myself in that particular circle of hell known as Hotbird on a Friday night. It was here that my friend Nadja introduced me to her coping mechanism for her own Drynuary: seltzer with a dash of bitters.(Bitters are also 44.7 percent alcohol, so a dash is either technically disqualifying for the “dry” part of Drynuary, or a symbolic way of partaking without partaking. It’s between you and your Oprah.) The idea was, she explained, was to, more or less, fool yourself by ordering a signature cocktail, which conferred a sense of agency, rather than a sense of deprivation. It was quirky, it was refreshing, and it was delicious.