The author at home

Monday, February 6, 2012

John Cassavetes and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

“Watching the film is like listening to someone use a lot of impressive words, the meanings of which are just wrong enough to keep you in a state of total confusion, but occasionally right enough to hold your attention. What is he trying to say? It takes a little while to realize that maybe the speaker not only doesn't know but doesn't even care to think things out.”
--Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“All my life I’ve fought against clarity—those stupid, definitive answers. Phooey on a formula life, on slick solutions. It’s never easy. I think it’s only in the movies that it’s easy.”
--John Cassavetes

Ben Gazzara’s death over the weekend prompted me to re-re-re-re-re-re-re-watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, my favorite of John Cassavetes’ films, and, I think, one of the greatest things ever committed to celluloid. It’s a weird, quiet, disorienting, confusing piece of work. It’s a hard movie to watch. None of these qualities are ever really alleviated, no matter how many viewings you give it.

Before the 1990s, when Cassavetes’ best pictures got released on video (and he was celebrated by Fugazi in the song “Cassavetes”, a dreadful tune and one of their few real missteps), he was known mainly for playing Mia Farrow’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby and the films he directed were mostly rumors spoken in revival houses. I was lucky enough in 1990 to catch a screening of A Woman Under the Influence at Boston University, where Ray Carney—the primary mover behind Cassavetes’ reputational resurrection—taught film classes. I think Carney said he had one of the two (at that time) existing prints of the film. I was prone then to having panic attacks, and I had one while watching. I needed to leave, but I also needed to go back as soon as it was over. I’m still not certain why I broke so hard, sitting there in the dark, but trying to figure it out got me hooked on Cassavetes’ movies and, especially, on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

What’s the film about? On the most basic level, it’s about Cosmo Vittelli, a strip-club owner (Ben Gazzara) in debt to gangsters, who’s strong armed into shooting a Chinese mobster. He’s supposed to fail but doesn’t. Lots of gunfire ensues. That, of course, doesn’t capture it.

On a less basic level, maybe you could say it’s about a man whose fantastical visions of who and what he is collide with a reality he tries to keep unacknowledged, a portrait of almost damning avoidance. Again—maybe you could say that, but it still doesn’t capture it. And its unlikely that any film, any piece of art—and the movie is most certainly a work of art—that can be described as being “about” anything in concepts like that will be all that worthwhile

To me, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is about the experience of watching it. Or maybe it’s better to say that the film is about the experience of watching an experience unfold over a set period of time. You can’t ever fully know the import and impact of an experience while it’s happening, and to sum it up later usually means to rip the nuance and complexities right out of it. Cassavetes was always mouthing off about trying to get at “the truth” in his films. I can’t really say what hard, solid “truth” he’s getting at here, because the film, like all great artworks, is a little bit inscrutable. I can only say that there are a lot of small truths, in accretion, and what you see depends on who you are when you watch it. The truths are going to morph each time you sit down, cue the film up, and press “play.”

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is disorienting the whole way through. People’s motives aren’t explained; the editing jerks your attention all over the place; there are long shots of inaction, tons of reaction shots without any indications of what trigger them; everyone talks over everyone else; some shots are so dark you can’t tell who’s who or what they’re doing. None of this is accidental. There is nothing familiar going on. You will not—cannot—react to this thing like you do with your standard movie with its standard dramatic arc and its standard stasis/conflict/resolution.

There are a lot of mysteries: Why does Cosmo celebrate paying off the mob by going out and getting $23,000 back in debt to them? Why does he stop for coffee and then audition a dancer when he’s got other important things to do? Why does he screw around with the mob when they offer him a chance to reduce his debt? Why does Cosmo’s girlfriend Rachel attack the dancer during her audition? What the hell is going on with Cosmo and Rachel’s mother? Why does Cosmo kill the gangster? Why does the gangster say, “I’m so sorry” before he gets shot?

And all the bizarre behaviors or inexplicable expressions on people’s faces: the waitress in the hamburger place; Rachel both before and after the fight; the woman looming behind Seymour Cassel when he’s on the phone in the restaurant. There are the characters themselves: You can sense the gulf between Rachel and Cosmo but never quite pin down where they connect and where they diverge; Mr. Sophistication—you want to slap him and hug him all at once; look at the utter vulnerability around the eyes of the “Chinaman”; Cosmo only really revealing—something, something ineluctably human—during those long shots of hesitation or when he’s so beset he can’t rely on his usual impenetrability.

No answers, no explanations. You sense things about the characters and what they do and why. You take an inventory of yourself and your own impulses and reactions, recognizing something of the characters in your own psycho-genetic make up but nothing precise. The whole of the movie—the summation, the thing-of-it—is in a perpetual drift and elision past the tips of your fingers. You can come back again and again and sense something new, but never quite know.

I get this same complex of sensations every time I watch this film. I never truly know it. I probably never will.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why not?

I really like writing about food and cooking, but I like writing about other things, too. I just like writing in general. So, I figured, I didn’t need to restrict this to culinary things alone—I could pile words up about culinary things and other topics that were occupying the small space in my head. What follows is the first....

My New Turntable: 6 Musical Cliches, or How I am a Dork

“A vinyl record has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound's waveform. This means that no information is lost.”

“We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving.”
--Neil Young

“Sitting in a room, alone, listening to a CD is to be lonely. Sitting in a room alone with an LP crackling away, or sitting next to the turntable listening to a song at a time via 7-inch single is enjoying the sublime state of solitude.”
--Henry Rollins

Cliché #1: The first music that ever blew the lid right off the top of my skull was Meet the Beatles, which my parents played for me when I was 9 and John Lennon had just been murdered. I can’t listen to it now and haven’t put it on in over 25 years; the childhood nostalgia it evokes is unbearably potent, and, on the real down side, the music sounds unbearably lightweight. By way of explaining that judgment: One of the next albums my parents played not too much later was the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet. Compare “I Want to Hold Your Hand” with the similarly libido-driven “Stray Cat Blues” and you might see my point. The vital and historical does not always age well, aesthetically speaking.

But I digress. One of my parents found me sitting on the kitchen linoleum playing MtB (I won’t say which parent because they always accuse me of picking on them. But I would like to take a moment to say, “Hi, Mom!”), and told me that just sitting and listening to music was a waste of valuable time. Music is for pleasurable background purposes, to help pass the time while doing work of some sort, or while driving. Somewhere Nathaniel Hawthorne nodded at me in true sympathy.

Cliché #2: For more than a decade I was a music critic and the size of my music collection peaked at around 2500 pieces of music on cassette, seven-inch, LP, and CD. This meant I spent a lot of time just sitting and listening to music. That number has probably doubled and possibly trebeled with the advent of digital files, even if I accumulate them reluctantly. Digital files offer a strange disembodied sensation of both owning and not-owning a piece of music at the same time. There’s something phantasmic about digital files that hums with melancholia.

Cliché #3: When I started writing about music for fun and money in 1992, record companies sent you copies of new releases. You’d receive boxes with CDs, cassettes, or LPs in them. It was like nerd Christmas every time I’d come home to find one waiting for me, especially when the return address read SST, Sub Pop, Touch and Go, or Amphetamine Reptile. At that time, you could, as a reviewer, choose which format you’d like to receive your swag in and I always chose vinyl. I liked the physical object. It seemed more sturdy than a CD or cassette. The record companies acquiesced until around 1996 or so, when they just simply stopped making vinyl.

Not long afterwards, I stopped being a music critic. I doubt there’s a solid connection but I do know one thing: An LP side clocks in at about 20 or so minutes, which is what my attention span became geared towards. A CD can go for around 80 minutes, which is a long time to be warming a chair. And, yeah, I’m aware that you can press the “stop” button on the CD player at any time, but it’s just different not having the choice, and having the flow of momentum pre-decided. I also ceased just sitting and listening to music (I have never stopped playing it while I do stuff, though). I can’t prove it with hard science, but I believe down to my cockles that CDs and MP3s engender a blurry sort of ADHD. And while I was fully aware that there were die-hard vinyl enthusiasts out there, I assumed they were luddites, similar to cranks who say they don’t own TVs or have never turned on a computer. I figured vinyl had gone the way of the Edsel.

Cliché #4: Not long ago, we were engaged in a conversation with a trio of young women in their early 20s. Nelly was tossing the word “album” into the conversation. The trio of young women recognized “album” as an existing word, but did not seem to process it as an artifact, a conceptualized art work, an entity, a whole piece unto itself. Maybe their ears and cortexes are so attuned to the idea of singles that the arc and flow of an album wouldn’t really register on their perceptions of music. This isn’t even a criticism. It’s probably just evolution and change at work.

Cliché #5: Two weeks ago, my in-laws gave us a cache of stereo equipment that they didn’t need, including a barely-used Technics turntable. I haven’t owned a turntable in a very, very long time, and when I did own one last, my stereo was terrible and the turntable needle nearly destroyed. It was a comedy of errors, tangles, and misconnections getting all the components hooked up, and required three separate trips to Radio Shack for various wires. I tested it with a 45 of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” that I bought for a quarter at a yard sale last summer. The 45 was in bad shape, but everything else was in working order. Next, I rooted through my stash of vinyl. Mainly, what really appealed to me right then was the novelty of hearing some stuff I hadn’t heard in ages, and in a few cases, had bought and never played.

Cliché #6: I am big enthusiast of free jazz—the honking, screaming, or at least abstracted stuff that heydayed in the late 60s and early70s. I like noise. I like chaos and the sound of things coming unhinged. I like the sound of freedom. I decided to play an LP I bought for 7 bucks and had never debuted: saxophonist Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (whether or how it’s related to Debussy’s piece by the same name, I unfortunately couldn’t tell you). As it turned out, it’s actually a very quiet free jazz album, almost a little notional and obscure, full of bells, whistles, hums, buzzes, and the voice of Jeanne Lee. And it sounded incredible: thick but spacious, dense but not muddy, clear but not shrill. I sat rapt for the first side’s 18 minutes. The lid right at the top my skull quaked. It was more than listening—it was really experiencing that music. My 9-year-old brain had really been on to something I couldn’t even realize at the time, just as I was sure my 30-year-old brain was onto something when the CD started reigning omnipotent.

I moved on to Sun Ra’s Nothing Is and then Archie Shepp’s Life at the Donaueschingen Music Festival (thank you Jon Garelick, my old editor at the Boston Phoenix). CDs of this music suddenly began to seem like mere documents of Sun Ra or Archie Shepp playing, but the vinyl held the full brunt of Shepp’s wildness and aggressive blaring. I moved on to Public Image Limited’s Metal Box (the 2006 exact reissue of the metal-boxed original, a birthday gift from my friends Joe Garden and Anita Serwacki). This was also a revelation. I had always assumed all that audiophile stuff about vinyl’s supremacy was a lot of blather. Sometimes the flavor of your own words, when forced to eat them, tastes pretty good.

Because Nelly and I are prematurely old people, many of our evenings involve watching the re-runs of 30 Rock and Law and Order: SVU that I DVR. But after the shows are done, prior to the nightly ablutions, I’ve taken to just sitting and listening to music again. The nostalgia is not unbearably potent. This is real communing, a genuine moment. I’ve got Pharaoh Sanders on deck, and the Stooges Funhouse, and my dad’s 46-year-old copy of Highway 61 Revisited (in Mono). I’ve got to get the Black Flag and Grateful Dead records out of storage. And I’m realizing there’s a whole world of new vinyl out there (these days measured in 180-gram increments) and I’m itching to get my mitts on as much of it as I can. This is amazing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Buying Herbs From Dr. Know

Dateline: Saugerties, NY.

Just yesterday in the late afternoon, I finished washing garden dirt from my fingers after planting this summer’s new crop: lemon thyme, basil, purple basil, Thai basil, tarragon, rosemary, tomatillos, Japanese eggplant, and thirty plants worth of four varieties of tomatoes. The process has taken several days, beset as I was by rain. And then, last night, we were visited by an apocalyptic hailstorm, succeeded by more rain and high winds. The carnage from the hail left a handful of the tomato plants, one purple basil bush, and a tomatillo stalk lying broken, wilted, and dead in the garden mud.

I studied the corpses this morning and I have to admit that some part of me was grateful. Not grateful that the damage might have been more catastrophic to our 5’ x 18’ patch of agriculture (although I was relieved about that), nor that the economic toll was only about $4 worth of plants (and I was gratified by that, too). I was grateful for this: the slain tomatoes needed replacing and this meant I could head over to Woodstock and grab new saplings at Sunfrost, a locally sourced, organic vegetable store managed by Gary Miller, aka Dr. Know, aka guitarist for the Bad Brains, the best live band I’ve ever seen and one of the greatest outfits of all time.

(Bad Brains in the early 80s.
Dr. Know is the one up front, stroking his beard.)

Pretty much any description of the Bad Brains involves a density of superlatives: the most ferocious/wild/spirited/tight/kinetic. Anyone aware of them (and if you’ve ever paid attention to underground music, you know who the Bad Brains are) usually couches the terms of the discussion in tones of awe and reverence. Ask the Beastie Boys. Ask Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye. Ask Ric Ocasek. Go ahead and ask Madonna—she signed them to her Maverick record label in 1995, though that worked out somewhat poorly. I first heard them as a teen, hormonally-blasted, awkward beyond measure in my raw-boned, spindle-shanked body, just dimly becoming aware that there was a whole other world hidden within the world. The music was insane and, to a lily-white New Hampshire kid, the fact that they were four Rastafarians was the corker to an already mind-rending package. All that vigor and velocity, with the Armageddon displosians of the Rasta faith. A couple decades later, I still listen regularly and the songs still make detonations inside my skull.

For grainy video proof, check out this version of Banned In DC from 1982 and a 1987 version of I.

This saga really began two of summers ago, at about 6:00 in the evening, where I warmed a seat at the bar of New World Home Cooking , a Saugerties restaurant owned by chef Ric Orlando. I had just introduced myself to Orlando and we’d sat talking about cooking and kitchens for a few minutes. The restaurant door opened and from out of the gloaming came a man. The man sat down to my left, a slightly older, gentle-appearing guy, with his hair tucked into a brown knit Rasta-styled hat. He placed an order. Orlando called out a “hello” to him and the two bantered for a moment. The guy looked familiar. Really, really familiar. It took a second to dawn on me.

After finishing his drink, he slid off his stool and left the building.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to Orlando. “That he a musician?”

“Yeah, he is. He’s the guitarist for—“

I cut him off. I was getting excited. The amplitude of my voice ratcheted up. “Is he the guitarist for the Bad Brains?”

“Yeah. He’s a Bad Brain.” I sat down on the stool just moments ago vacated by Dr. Know. I hoped there might be some metaphysical transference of energies. I waited. I waited intensely. Seconds later, I felt no different. So I meditated on how I had just encountered someone who’d brought me so many hours of pleasure and adrenaline. Ric Orlando continued. “He also manages Sunfrost up on 212 outside of Woodstock. Have you ever been there?”

“Once, but, man, I am going back tomorrow.” When I got home, I told Nelly the tale and we resolved to drive the ten miles to Sunfrost.

We arrived in the early afternoon to find Dr. Know at the edge of the Sunfrost parking lot with a hose in hand, addressing himself to steel shelves filled with herbs, vegetable seedlings, and flowers. For a second, I experienced a major disjunct at seeing this man—capable of wrenching utter thunder and blazing motion from the inner workings of his guitar—at home among all this newly sprouted vegetation. But then again, this was Woodstock, and it started making an absolute sense.

“Are you going to say anything to him?” Nelly asked. We were both kind of gawking at Dr. Know in wonderment. When she was 14, dating a much older ne’er-do-well music producer, Nelly had actually met the Bad Brains in New York City and had hung out with them in a recording studio. Their bassist, Darryl Jenifer, had tried to talk her into breaking the relationship off for her own good. Nelly seemed no less impressed watching Dr. Know water his plants than I was.

“How can I not?” I said. We got out of the car and I approached. “Excuse me,” I called out. He stopped and turned to face me. “Are you, by any chance, Gary Miller?”

Dr. Know looked startled. Then he looked hostile. Then he looked like he wished he was anywhere else. He dropped the hose, said, “Yes, I’m Gary Miller,” and went straight into the store. I felt awkward. Then I felt bad.

Nelly and I perused the herbs, selected rosemary and thyme plants, and went inside to look at the vegetables. While Nelly shopped, I stood in front of a pile of cabbages, right in the stream of the air conditioner. Dr. Know came out of a door across the room and moved toward me, looking down at a clipboard. I said one more time, “Excuse me” and he glanced up and got that flashing series of looks on his face again.

“I’m sorry I interrupted you before,” I said. “I didn’t mean to intrude, I just wanted to say that you guys were the most amazing live band I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh,” he said. His whole stance relaxed. The hand holding his clipboard dropped down to his waist. “Oh. Man, the way you came at me, saying my name like that, I thought you were FBI or something.”

“No, just a fan. My name’s Jonathan.” We shook hands. After a few minutes, he took leave and Nelly and I took off. The next trip I made that summer, he wasn’t there. Last summer, we missed him on each of the several trips we made to buy herbs to grow in what was then our miniscule garden.

And then this year we went all out, excavating a much larger plane of land behind the garage for growing purposes. Which is how I found myself standing next to Dr. Know a few days ago as he helped me find the Thai basil, tomatillos, etc. from among his many outdoor shelves of plants. He didn’t remember me at all, but I didn’t care.

“No,” he was saying, “We don’t have any epazote this year. Sorry. No one bought it last year so we didn’t grow any this year. No, I’m sorry, we don’t have savory, either. The Japanese eggplants are right over here—” he moved to a shelf a few feet over and picked up a couple flats—“And you said you wanted Thai basil? It’s still pretty young so I’ll run to the greenhouse to get some for you.”

“Thank you very much. I appreciate it.”

“Any time, man.” He darted off.

And now I need to go back to Woodstock again, because of the rain and hail—not quite the fire and brimstone of Rasta theology, but no less a devastation to those poor few plants in the garden—and buy more herbs from Dr. Know. I guess I’m still after that metaphysical transference of energies.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Eat the Rich--PT.1

When I was in cooking school, fellow students would find out I was from New York City and make the inquiries: Did you ever eat at Bouley? Did you ever eat at Daniel? Did you ever eat at Per Se?

“No,” I answered every single time, not without some regret. “I’ve never eaten at any of those places.”

“Why not? You live in New York...”

I’d think about what I could nominally call an income, and how much was eroded every month by rent. I’d say, “Yeah, exactly. I live in New York.”

I spent two years exposed to culinary techniques, two years bent over a stove, face vulcanizing in the heat, trying to grab the rudiments and make them second nature. As I learned and progressed through the program, I recognized by watching my peers that cooking is like film, music, art, lit and just about anything else: there’s a wide cache of low talent out there, an even larger pool of the mediocre, a narrow echelon of the pretty good, and a head-of-a-pin sized group of the great.

A person can never read “The Wasteland” too many times, never over-hear Coltrane’s Ascension. Back in college, I paid $1.95 for the edition of The Wasteland and Other Poems I still read. I paid $20 in 1998 for the two-disk set of The Major Works of John Coltrane, which has both versions of Ascension, and I listened to one of the disks not five days ago for the thousandth time. This is a pretty good return on a pretty minimal investment.

During the cooking school stint, I learned who was great in the hippodrome of culinaria. Like pretty much everyone else who isn’t just being obstinate and contradictory, I came to see Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry and Per Se, as something of a near-deity. Paging through his cookbooks, looking at his menus—it’s seeing a philosophy in action. Just to take a single recipe from the French Laundry Cookbook: Chesapeake Bay Soft-Shell Crab “Sandwich.” Keller makes a sort of tartar/gribiche sauce out of hard-boiled yolks, olive oil, cornichons, and their juice. A soft-shelled crab gets de-clawed, cleaned, seasoned, dredged, and fried in clarified butter that is “hot enough to sizzle when the crabs are added but not so hot that it pops.” Its claws are added a few moments later. Whoever is cooking it has already made brioche croutons and confited tomatoes, and washed a ¼ cup of baby arugula. A spoonful of sauce goes down on the plate, topped with the crouton, then the crab body. A piece of tomato goes down next, followed by the claws, and a crown of arugula. Sprinkle the whole thing with a couple of capers and serve. Maybe, to the novitiate, this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but understand that in the French Laundry’s hands, each step, from seasoning the crab to making those croutons brings a surreal amount of technique to bear on it. The crab is going to have the exact degree of salt it needs, without the surfeit or debit of a single flake. It’s going to be one nice looking crouton. Every leaf of the arugula has been hand-selected. Every element will be the best, the most, the perfect. And the flavors and textures will reflect it.

Eat the Rich--PT.2

I just looked at the menu for tonight’s service at Per Se. A pair of selections: Broccoli "Velouté" with Sunchoke "Flan," Caramelized Sunchoke, Broccoli Florettes and Gruyère Tuile; 100 Day Dry Aged American Wagyu with Bone Marrow Custard, "Jardinière de Légumes," and Aged Madeira Bouillon. Again, the weird thing is that the components in and of themselves aren’t all that complex. This isn’t prestidigitation. It isn’t sci-fi. This is (relatively) traditional stuff. Veloute is one of those rudiments, as are custards and flans. Jardinière de Légumes is pretty much going to be (I imagine) a selection of julienned vegetables. The beef is going to be cooked as beef is usually cooked. But it will be superlative beef. An unbelievable degree of effort will have gone into the veloute. The Madeira bouillon will be exquisite. Every tiny constituent part will have been handled expertly. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Experiencing this food, some 12 courses of it, will cost each diner a minimum of $295, $100 more if you opt to include the beef on the tasting menu. More still if you opt for wine, which, if you’re already plunking down that kind of coin for the food, you probably should. So at the very least you’re looking at $600. And more realistically, probably around $850, which is more than half the rent on my 1-bedroom apartment. Still, do I want to eat there? Yes, I do. But right now, my appetites are definitely outstripping my means.

But if I had that money, if I could spend it and not miss it, would I go? Two days ago, my girlfriend and I went to Chinatown, to a renowned dumpling shop and got five absolutely, winningly exquisite fried dumplings for $1.25.

Can you compare the two experiences? Maybe not on the surface. But the end result? The end result is just a base, pure feeling of pleasure. What makes the experiences different is how you get there. Does the complexity of one experience make it superior? Is listening to one of the Brandenburg Concertos a richer experience than listening to “Machine Gun?” Or just different? If they’re just different, there is, presumably, still room for both, right? It depends on the day?

But can you justify spending almost a grand on a single meal?

I feel a strange schizophrenic fillip when I’m around Columbus Circle and see Per Se up there in all the glimmer of its exclusivity. I want to go in because I think Keller is a genius and I want to be in genius’ proximity. I want a sort of ultimate aesthete’s encounter. On the other hand, that glimmering exclusivity sometimes makes me feel like I should channel my inner Huey Newton into an outward act of aggressive class conflict.

$850 for a meal at Per Se seems (Sometimes? Many times? Often? Always?) a little decadent and not in the good connotation of the word, more in the Caligula sense of it. Or if decadent is a little too caustic, at least indulgent. And indulgence covers the waterfront; a dinner at Per Se might be a rarified sort of indulgence, but ultimately maybe not as far from the barbarian excess of Man vs. Food as Keller and Adam Richman imagine themselves. Which is a way of saying it’s all a little unnecessary.

Eat the Rich--PT.3

I find I can appease the at-odds impulses by doing something I think is really noble: cooking at home and cooking really well.

My girlfriend, Nelly, and I rarely go out to eat. For one reason, we’re poor. For another, at some point, the pepito mole with homemade tortillas, the raviolis filled with bacon and swiss chard, sauced with brown butter, began tasting as good—and, hey, if I’m honest—usually even better than what we’d get if we could go someplace affordable.

There aren’t any Indian places right around my apartment that I’m very keen on, so when I get the craving for korma, which I not infrequently do, I either just repress it, or pony up the $12 for a white cardboard container of the stuff. It’s usually quite greasy. You can taste the raw cream dumped into the sauce at the last minute for enrichment purposes. It contains what I estimate to be about $0.75 worth of ingredients.

The other night I got hit with a craving. I was about to say, “Screw it,” but then I said something different. “You know, you went to cooking school. You did your externship in an Indian restaurant. Get off your ass and make yourself some korma.”

I opened up a couple of cookbooks so I could get the general idea. I had the requisite spices in my cabinet: a garam masala mix that I’d made for another dish not too long ago (so yeah, some of the pungency was long gone, but nonetheless), cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and cumin. I had a bag of raw sliced almonds in the freezer. I had ginger, I had garlic, I had an onion. I went to the market and bought two pounds of chicken thighs, a container of yogurt, two plum tomatoes (out of season, I know, but...) and some cream. Once I was back in the kitchen, the rest unfolded over about 25 minutes.

I peeled the tomatoes, diced them, and set them over medium heat with a little oil to cook them into a paste (3 minutes prep, 10 in the pan). While this was going on, I put two or three handfuls of the almonds into a blender with three garlic cloves and a peeled 1-inch piece of ginger (2 minutes prep), along with a quarter cup of water. I blended it smooth. I ground a tablespoon of cumin (1 minute). I diced the onion (a minute and a half).

I heated up some oil in another pan and tossed in eight cardamom buds, four cloves, and a 1-inch piece of cinnamon and waited for them to pop and sizzle (2 minutes). I added the cumin and a tablespoon of garam masala and cooked it until I could really smell it (1 minute). I poured in the almond paste and cooked the water out of it (2 minutes). I added the tomatoes. I poured in a good shot of cream and added a little more than half the yogurt. A little water to make it all stirrable. Then I brought it to a simmer (2 more minutes). I cut the thighs into little chunks and tossed them in the liquid (5 minutes), stirring it all together, and covered the pan, letting the whole mix barely simmer—just an occasional bubble—for about 30 minutes. I had time to drink a beer and watch most of an episode of Sons of Anarchy while it cooked. Upon completion, I let it sit for a few minutes and, in the meantime, made some Trader Joe’s Basmati rice (1 cup of rice to 1.5 cups water), which took about 15 minutes, unattended, allowing me to finish the SOA episode I was engrossed in. About an hour in total, at a cost of maybe 8 bucks. It was really tasty, not greasy, not cloying with the taste of uncooked cream, and I froze at least three meals of leftovers. I felt subversive—take that, shoddy restaurant cooks up the street—and virtuous, which I’m not used to feeling. I was alone that night. I ate dinner in front of the TV—more SOA—and enjoyed myself immensely.