Saturday, October 30, 2010
I like waking up at a reasonable time on weekends. Sleeping in just an hour longer than normal is all that's necessary to feel refreshed and relaxed for a Saturday — and energized to go on an adventure. This morning was spent at Deptford Market, a classic British market filled with endless wondercrap, hagglers and blustery blue skies. It is an exemplary place to people-watch, and when the chill gets under your skin, walk down the road to The Deptford Project, a cafe in a converted train car, for a flat white.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
We let our lunches digest for a bit, bid goodbye to the adult Disneyworld of Jamie Oliver and meandered up very adorable road (through the tiny alley shortcut) to my course director’s home, where afternoon class was held. Teal’s house, which she shares with her partner Roger, is a contrast of ideas:
-very old, but also new.
-modern but inviting.
-gallery-esque but way, way livable.
The architects of Studio Octopi and the occupants faced the major design challenge of bringing a very old building up to modern standards — standards which were set by its two very design-minded residents. They were also asked to take on the task of finding a manageable way of displaying Teal and Roger’s vast array of collections.
On Thursday something very special happened. And it wasn’t the small lecture I went to on zines, although despite the too-warm room, it was quite lively and informative. No — what happened on Thursday was similar to the feeling I got when I opened my A-Z and dotted my flat on Lulworth Road. I went to the No. 67 to work on Thursday morning, and before I even said a word the dude at the counter (who I later learned is named Hamish and co-runs the café) confirmed my drink order. Anyone who partakes in café culture knows how serious this is. I took it as a sign: I am in the right place. Now, it was suggested that I’m moving a little too fast with No. 67. That perhaps I should essentially “date around” the other cafes and workspaces of South London. Admittedly, I am pretty infatuated with this place — the coffee, the soup, the space, the light, the insanely good (Steely Dan, Mazzy Star and The Shirelles), music. But what’s wrong with having all of those needs fulfilled? I actually get work done and manage a fair amount of people-watching. I don’t feel like I’m settling. If I were writing this from anywhere else, I’m pretty sure I’d be settling. For now No. 67 remains my place of worship and perpetual bliss.
It does cost slightly more to get to my college from where I live because it is the boofoo of South London. But still!
After an insanely long Monday of classes, I spent Tuesday doing lots of walking around and working. Simply waiting in line…err…queuing at the post office is an adventure in itself. Little kids rolled across the floor and ignored the agitated scolds of their hard-ass grandmothers. The lady in front of me stared blankly out the window while eating a fried chicken leg. I learned a few things about the post office: the pain of waiting to do anything isn’t any different than the states. But once you finally get up to the counter, an office worker talks through a thick piece of plexiglass, which makes hearing nearly impossible. I tried lip-reading for a while, but when that failed, I resorted to inching my ear closer to the little hole for sliding money and stamps. It looked quite odd, I’m sure, but it was worth it. Turns out if you give people your address, they send you fun stuff — an amazing care package had traveled 4000 miles to be opened by moi!
Later I waited 20 minutes for a train, got on it, got off early after finding out the stop I needed had been canceled, walked in a circle as I tried to walk back home, then found my A-Z and tried again. Things worked out because I managed to get to No. 67, my haven, in time for a late afternoon coffee and Internet-peruse before catching a bus home.
Do you like Jamie Oliver? I happen to be a kind-of-fan. I was thoroughly entertained by his Food Revolution show on ABC, and he makes me want to grow a vegetable garden. For the morning lecture, we met at Clapham Junction and walked over to Jamie’s restaurant, Recipease, where we drank lattes and a few others indulged in savory and sweet, breafasty, nibbly bits. The restaurant is straight out of Jamie’s shows and cookbooks. Rustic and traditional products in luscious colors adorn plain, wooden tables and furniture. Fridges are filled with fresh, premade meals in pretty packaging, and everyone — everyone — who works at Recipease has a twinkle in their eye. After slowly getting into some heavy design theory, Tim Hayward stopped by to chat, and we made our way over to a Jamie Oliver-twisted cooking class on mushroom risotto.
Before Wednesday, the only kind of risotto I had made was a box of gluten-free, organic risotto, which did the job but the gloopy consistency turned me off of making something like it again. However, we were in the clean, trusting hands of Jimmy, an instructor at Recipease and schooled by the Naked Chef himself. We were about to make Mushroom Risotto the Jamie Oliver way, or as Jimmy put it, we were about to become “one with the food.” We worked at our own stations and used minimal ingredients, which waited in cute bowls, ready to be dropped into the mix.
I won’t repeat the step-by-step guide to making mushroom risotto, but I will relay a few key points:
1. I had forgotten the power of butter. Last year I spent a lot of time with Julia Child, but when I started to eat less dairy, I dropped the golden goodness and used more olive oil. Cooking with butter again was a feast for the senses.
2. According to Jimmy, Jamie Oliver starts most of his savory recipes out with two simple ingredients — celery and onions — and allows them to sweat in a pot or pan. I’ve always used garlic and onions (probably explains why I have to chew peppermint gum), but I think I might try Jamie’s way more often. It gives the dish a fresher, cleaner flavor.
3. You can never use too much stock. Just pour it in. Let the risotto plump up. And pour in some more. And then probably some more.
4. Don’t underestimate breadcrumbs. Jimmy made the class an alternative risotto to try with extra parmesan, crushed cherry tomatoes and a lovely, toasty breadcrumb mix. The crunchy/creamy juxtaposition was so more-ish, he had us coming back for second and third samplings.
There is a trick to knowing whether your risotto is the perfect al dente. Take one piece on the back of your wooden spoon and press your finger against it. If the risotto breaks into four pieces, it’s perfect; ready to go. If it breaks into two pieces, it needs more time. If it smooshes, it’s beyond repair, and you’d better plate it anyhow. This really works. I promise. Even Tim Hayward was in disbelief when the trick worked. The risotto was earthy, rich and not gloopy at all. With a little parmesan on top, it hit the spot as we picked Hayward’s brain, discussed the future of being a writer (it's a scary world, but I’m trying to be positive), and even delved into themes of wabi-sabi.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Lately my master’s course has brought back to memory everything I ever loved about elementary school. Two weeks ago we went on a field trip to British Telecom’s dusty archives, just off High Holborn road, 8 stories up and 3.5 kilometers long. We even took a bus. It wasn’t yellow, but I think a double-decker suffices. Tomorrow we are taking another bus to a culinary school. We’ll make a meal — a mushroom risotto — with a hero of mine, Tim Hayward, who is a critic and writer for the Guardian and also publishes the most wonderful food zine called Fire and Knives. Then we’ll go to the home of my course director, Teal Triggs, where we’ll drink tea as we present our essays on Process and converse about our own authorial positions.
But more about that later. In the vain of all things Crayola Crayon and Elmer’s Glue, we had a show-and-tell of sorts in our Monday-morning session. Each of us brought in a design object to talk about and describe how it does or should fit into the Design Cannon. There was a clever, streamlined photo album. A vinyl record. A toy Routemaster Bus. The first graphic novel ever (!!!). A catalog of one-off graphics for one of the most influential ceramic factories in the world. A lipstick. I brought in my A-Z London Guide, the quintessential pocket-sized book of any map you need to get to anywhere you need to get in this silly, windy city. The A-Z (they call it A to Zed) is not subtle or surprising like the photo album that was presented; the garish cover is splashed with a red-and-blue logo that couldn’t get much bigger. The maps aren’t particularly beautiful. Street names wind around the illustrated roads in a way that suggests attractive kerning was sacrificed for curving. The A-Z, for most users, is highly functional but not exactly pretty to read. If I want pretty, I have my London Design Guide, but even that doesn’t make the impossible possible like the London A-Z. Published once a year, you can buy an updated A-Z and see every single street in London — before you get to that street, while you’re on it and afterwards. Other guides do their conventional job; they guide you on the course that gets you from Point of Interest A to Point of Interest B. The A-Z, although filled to the brim with detail, is a blank canvas for your journey across this confusing city.
“Go ahead, get lost,” it seems to suggest. “You might be surprised at what you find.”
I told my class that I didn’t think the A-Z fit my definition of aesthetics, and knowing this, I wasn’t sure how it should fit into the design canon. The A-Z definitely doesn’t outwardly possess the power — beauty or cultural — of a lipstick tube. A lipstick says everything with a twist, implied or physical; it’s there in your hand, on a blotted tissue, in a Thiebaud painting. The A-Z has been around for decades, but it simply is not a beautiful piece of design. Although it isn’t superficially attractive, it is part of a recognizable brand, and perhaps its shelf-presence is enough to fill that “aesthetic” need. Ian Horton, our tutor on Monday mornings, also said that using an A-Z opens up the theory of psychogeography — one determines one’s space through personal interactions. Making a little red dot at my address, 2B Lulworth Road, was a little like finding my house when I fly in from Chicago. It’s a bit of magical knowledge that you keep to yourself. My movements are based from that house, and now from that red dot. Suddenly, I am part of the landscape of my A-Z. While it’s not ideal to view confusing clusters of London from birdseye, the aesthetic qualities of London comes alive when you realize that what you are seeing, in front of you, not on the page, is real and tactile and maybe even beautiful.
After the morning session, I couldn’t get this idea of aesthetics out of my head. What did it mean, actually? I knew I had used the term in several different ways just in one class, and I also realized that I should visit an aesthetician to tame the wild beast that is my soon-to-be unibrow. Obviously, the aesthetics we spoke about in class and a professional eyebrow-tamer were different. It was the perfect excuse to snuggle up with a recently purchased book by Leonard Koren called Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean? Ten Definitions. Now, before you think I just wasted a bunch of time trying to milk a creative set-up to have a snobby conversation on aesthetics, I really didn’t know when I would read Koren’s work until after we had this class. And I actually did snuggle up with it, under a duvet, with a glass of wine and maybe even a hunk of Green & Black’s chocolate, because that’s what I have to do when the Internet won’t be installed for another week.
Anyway, all 94 pages of Ten Definitions is an enlightening, challenging read. Koren is an accomplished design writer/consultant, and reading that he too is perplexed by “aesthetic/aesthetics” is refreshing (and also a little worrisome since the term may never be clear or easy to understand). The book is divided into sections — introduction, origin of the term, 10 definitions, usage in context, notes and captions, all working together in a real attempt to make the vague idea of aesthetics more tangible.
Koren knows his audience. He writes: “If you have this book in your hands, you are most likely a creator or culture worker, who on any number of occasions, has been seized by the desire to wrestle the terms ‘aesthetic’ and ‘aesthetics’ to the ground and strip them of their pretensions.”
He has also done a lot of research. Even in a book no more than 100 pages, Koren’s knowledge and his willingness to share it comes through in all 10 definitions and their usage. The definitions are short; the longest one, where “aesthetics” is defined as “philosophy of art” is nine pages. Interspersed throughout the book are intriguing artworks — photographs, illustrations and pieces of text — that provide visual context and are also explained in the Captions section. Besides listing 10 different definitions of “aesthetic” and “aesthetics,” Koren wants us (the reader) to understand how they can be used in conversation. His section entitled Notes is an explanation of how the book came to be, with every definition of aesthetics used multiple times. He understands that despite his balance of thoroughly simple definitions, it is crucial to see how different definitions work together. “Notes” does a bang-up job of showing us how.
Ten Definitions is highly informative, but what I found most encouraging was Koren’s voice. In buying this book, I knew I was setting myself up for one of two outcomes: Page after page would whiz above my head, leaving me even more perplexed by the aesthetic conundrum OR the writing might actually be modest, humble and creative enough to whisk me away, inspiring me to jump into aesthetics rather than anxiously walk around the cold pool. Koren is transparent about his process in writing this book, and his own curiosities of aesthetics. His credentials, sense of humility and writerly humor make him a trustworthy guide through a very vague world.
Ten Definitions is not a book you can read once and understand. Determined to comprehend these definitions of aesthetics in colloquial usage, I flipped back to the beginning and recited the sections aloud. Simply spending time with Koren’s curated imagery helps cement certain elements of every definition. In many situations, when the word “aesthetic” is used, it possesses several of meanings described by Koren, illuminating the fact that there is no clear route.
Much like the A-Z, there are many ways to reach one point. Though, at first glance, they might cover vastly different terrain, my garish-looking pocketbook and Koren’s volume which sits well on a shelf or table, are useful, encouraging guides to an inscrutable landscape.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
When I lived here two and half years ago, I found my favorite place in London rather quickly. After hours dedicated to the research of all places coolycool, the Nordic Bakery was at the top of my list of nooks to visit. Turns out it was a replica of my imagined alternate universe — a contemplative haunt for frozen January mornings warmed only by the radiant heat and hair-raising ability of black coffee; an authentic smorgasbord of Scandinavian cuisine — smoked salmon, pumpernickel and dill — that impressed even my blue-eyed, homesick Norwegian date; a fragrance so thick with cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar — the sweetest ingredients comprising the stickiest rolls — that it left a saturated mark on your sense of smell for the rest of the day.
At the Nordic Bakery, an all-glass storefront marked by signage in bright-white Helvetica surrounds a low-profile, wooden door that opens inside to a large, canteen-style table surrounded by sparse, minimal 2-person seating and a counter occupied by tantalizing snacks, lunches and pretty, pony-tailed blondes in denim aprons. The first time I visited the Nordic Bakery, the girl at the counter had just pulled a batch of cinnamon rolls out of the oven, and it was possibly the only time in which a roomful of people stopped their frenetic conversations and clinking cutlery to smell something better than roses.
Let me take a moment to tell you that these cinnamon rolls aren’t like any you’ve seen or tasted. Really, they aren’t. I promise. Crispy, and dark brown — from sugar and molasses — on the outside, each flaky layer closer to the center is more tender and gooey than the next. Nordic Bakery was and is it for me — a place bring friends, dates, my mom and grandma. An experience to write home about.
There is, however, one place that is better than Nordic Bakery, and it is the adjacent park. Golden Square appears as it sounds — a four-sided haven in the middle of a loud, over-crowded city. Restaurants, cafes and shops (including an instrument shop where I have rented cellos) line the perimeter of the square, and the old brick and stone buildings do the best job of blocking out the city sounds that, through most of the day, can be classified as very, very loud, white nose (you can’t get rid of it, so just ignore it). It’s not until you sit on a bench in Golden Square that your ears feel clear.
Here, the waves of construction and overpopulated currents of people that you swam through is faint — barely a memory. Park-goers and pigeons converse quietly, sometimes between species. When there isn’t a free bench, strangers sit knee-to-knee, pseudo cross-legged, on the stone lips of the square’s colorful and dramatic gardens. A pale statue of a Romanesque man, Georgius II, gazes in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. His right hand is missing. Left with a shattered nub of a wrist, he takes in the scene as dark, iridescent pigeons peer from his shoulders and head as they scout out derelict snacks.
There are six small plynths in Golden Square. On one rests this morning’s paper, damp with rain. Another displays an ornamental stone vase of greenery, and on one more, a teenager with an afro looks down at his friend, talking over the music coming from his mp3.
Golden Square is the hub for the area’s lunchtime crowd. Their snippets of conversation are quiet whispers, happy to be out of the office.
I have a game in which I select a random piece of music, look at a person and pretend the song is part of his or her life’s soundtrack. Pigeon-pooped, cigarette-butted, tree-lined Golden Square is the perfect place for this sort of game. It’s funny when Carmina Burana underscores a well-dressed woman’s lunch. Suddenly she is not simply eating, but destroying — terrorizing — that parma ham and mozz panini with pesto.
As quickly as those who frequent Golden Square fill it, they hurry off, an hour later, leaving the garden as they found it, save for a few plastic wrappers and cans of Aranciata. Strangely, the grounds are as quiet when the crowds are gone as when they play and chatter behind the gates.
After buying a short latte and a cinammon roll (perfect for dunking) in Nordic Bakery, I assess from a table whether or not it is the right day to enjoy the other half of my snack in Golden Square. If the air breathes clear and the rain patters at a tolerable pace, I’ll venture beyond the fence to an open bench and tease the pigeons with the perfect afternoon in my hands.