Good evening, friends and neighbors!
On my current schedule, Thursdays are my first day off of the week. While there is plenty to be done around the house- cleaning, planning, organizing, errands, and so on- Thursdays are MY day. While wandering the city, I learned of the existence of the Oregon Jewish Museum and decided to mosey down and check it out- get a little bit of my family's history and culture in this strange new land.
Which is why I am currently sitting in Lan Su- Portland's Chinese Garden in the heart of its Chinatown.
Looking at the outside, the walls are sparse. They seem out of place in the thoroughly modern Portland, but not very noticeable otherwise. Once you enter, however....
More than once since traveling and living in this city, I have been struck dumb by my surroundings- and as a poet and blogger, it completely frustrates me. Driving over valleys and canyons, watching the sunset as you are caught between the ageless Pacific and only slightly younger mountains, you invariably run out of vocabulary and start repeating yourself- and that's when words and pictures seem in any way adequate.
I have always felt that while food and writing are both about communication, poetry is unique in that it communicates the same WAY as food- that is, it is a person, be it poet or chef, telling you a story about themselves and their experiences, but using the reader/diner's emotions and voice. As Roger Verge once said, "A cook is creative, marrying ingredients in the way a poet marries words."
In some places, however, the emotion is complex and dodgy. You really can't break it down to a word count, or dig it out of a thesaurus (Stephen King said, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word" anyway.
The best I can do is try to draw a picture, and then describe the picture. I remember the "5 W's and H" of Journalism (that I learned in 5th grade for some reason) and try to put it all together.
I'm sitting in the corner of the upstairs room of a Teahouse in the Chinese garden. It's my Saturday, and I am losing my thoughts of the last week and coming week in the momentary atmosphere of hot tea on an unseasonably warm day. I am enjoying a marbled tea egg, and am struggling for words while scanning the room. An elderly pair discuss their work, and the women occasionally smiles in my direction. To the side, an older man sits getting ready to demonstrate Chinese calligraphy. I am eager to hear about it, and shy to get up and ask. The chair is slightly uncomfortable as I have long legs, but I am careful about shifting and squirming for fear of disturbing the tranquility of the room. I am by an open window, and I can see the tops of trees starting to bloom and heralding the arrival of spring.
I know I will eventually leave the teahouse, explore the remainder of the garden, and then continue on into the city I call home. I feel slightly guilty I found this place while making a wrong turn trying to find the Oregon Jewish Museum, and chose to stay here instead.
I am quietly hoping that, this being the Year of the Monkey and having seen exhibits and decor for it around, I might find a likeness of one of my literary heroes- Sun Wukong, the Monkey King- in the gift shop. I look about at the Chinese calligraphy everywhere and think about the short poems and couplets I have already seen engraved in small spaces, doorways and arches.
Maybe I'll come up with a poem about it all later.
But my tea is getting cold.
Part of me wanted to dress up dapper and find another one of my favorite spots in the city- a whiskey library that recalls old wood, soft lounge chairs, scotch and cigars. All told, I think I made a better choice.
EDIT- 8:30 that evening
The calligrapher had started when he was a small boy, and had been doing calligraphy for over 50 years. I asked if he could do something special for me- it reads "The Art of Cooking." I'm hanging it in my kitchen.
P.S.- The gift shop had some children's books based on Journey to the West, but no statuettes or anything Sun Wukong. Ah well.
Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
I love bakers hours.
No seriously, I do. People tend to refer to "bakers hours" as a curse or a lamentation, but I really like them. Granted, right now my hours are 6am to 2pm at my current gig, which more or less puts me on the night shift of the baking world, but they are still early enough to make a lot of non-bakers cringe.
When I joined the professional baking world, my hours were 11a - 7p at the casino, a swing shift. As it was, I woke up at 6am each day so I'd have time to eat, work out, and clean up before driving to work.
Those hours soon changed to 9a- 5p so I could get more time with my mentor at the casino who worked 6a- 2p. After moving out to Portland, I had a brief job working 9-5 before moving to my current gig and hours.
I get up at 3am every work day now, and I kinda love it.
After waking up, my routine isn't too different from anyone else's- breakfast, exercise, Triple S (shower, s***, shave), and out the door. The differences that make it worthwhile though.
1. Trying to do everything with as much stealth as possible. Emily usually doesn't need to be up till 8:30, so I go through all my motions as quietly (and with as little light) as possible.
2. The isolation. On days I go out running, there are barely any cars on the road. The air is cool and wet, and mist is still floating over low ground. I can run right on through my route and let my mind wander. It's honestly during my runs I get my best ideas- an experience I share with a lot of great chefs.
Now I'm not about the proselytize about the merits of waking up early. Everyone's got their own schedule and their own likes, and I'd be a bit of a punk to take a holier-than-thou attitude about all of it.
Honestly, though? I feel weird on days I sleep in- like I wasted part of a day. Waking up early, I feel brighter and more productive, especially on exercise days. (Those who want to start on the "Don't Trust A Skinny Baker" crap, I've already covered it.)
Yes, I get tired a bit earlier, and I don't always enjoy feeling sleepy in the afternoon- but there are certain things that make me want to stay awake just those couple extra hours. One of them tends to be delicious, and the other tends to come home at around 7pm.
Stay Classy (and Caffeinated,)
Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
So, I friggin' love reading.
Entertainment, a variety of genres, no mucking about with WiFi or power cords (necessarily,) and an expanded vocabulary that can make you feel like the sassiest, smartest SOB in the room for at least a little while.
Oh yeah... And you pick up some great knowledge, ideas, and inspiration too- as long as you read the good stuff. Get your hands on bad writing, and it's still a plus- now you know how to identify a crap book.
Plus it keeps you off the emotional vamp-fest on Facebook.
A while back, I started a reading list on here of books that I felt every aspiring cook/baker should have. You can flash back on here and check it out for yourself, or here's a condensed list:
The BHB's Book List
- Kitchen Confidential, The Nasty Bits, and Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
- The Joy of Cooking by Marion Rombauer, et al.
- The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman
- Professional Baking by Wayne Glissan
- Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michael Suas
- How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science by Paula I. Figoni
- Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
- your favorite holy text
- your favorite fiction
- your favorite poetry
Recently, I've been making a point of looking up and reading as many food-related books and biographies as I can- not only to get inspiration and ideas, but insight into the workings of minds that have very much shaped the industry I've chosen and the world I have thrown myself into. Some of the works I've read/am reading so far are classics that should perhaps be on the reading list of any culinary student. The others, maybe not so much. Here then are the texts I am currently on about- particularly the ones I'll talk about at length if you catch me a couple beers in and have an hour to kill.
What The BHB Is Reading Now
Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions to the Cook) by Dogen
This is a text written by a Buddhist Zen Master named Dogen. I have covered it previously in this entry, but in a nutshell, Dogen describes the responsibilities and desired attributes of the head cook at a Zen monastery- not a menial servants position like in Europe at the time, but a position to be filled by an older, enlightened, and philosophically adept monk. For those who can't believe spiritual awakening can come from nominally menial work, this is for you.
The Physiology of Taste by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Brillat-Savarin was, by every definition, the host with the most. A politician, violinist, lawyer, gourmand, aristocrat- NEVER a cook, chef, or baker in his life. Yet, this book, published a few months before his death and comprised of his meditations on food, eating, pleasure, science, society, and nature, remains one of the bibles of the hospitality industry. From this man who lived at the turn of the 19th Century, we get the maxim, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." Read this for the 200-year-old recipes at the end, if not for the goofy anecdotes, tongue-in-cheek humor at the societal circles he moved in, and the casual insights into behavior at the table.
The Devil In The Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White with James Steen
Carême may well have been the first celebrity chef, but Marco Pierre White was the first rock-star chef. A chef proprietor at 24, the first Brit and youngest chef to ever win 3 Michelin Stars, famously given to outrageous behavior, rage and anger in the kitchen, and an absolute obsession with cooking, this book is his autobiography. It offers not only insights into the development of his food philosophy and career arc, but anecdotes of the lunatic madness that gave rise to Mario Batali, Heston Blumenthal, and many other now-household names that White called "employees," and who called him at one time or another "mentor." Read it for the wisdom. Read it for the madness and name-drops. Read it for the sex and foul language. Whatever you like- just read it.
There are plenty of others on my list that I have yet to get to, but rest assured- when I get done with them, you'll hear about it. In the meantime, got any books you think I should be looking at? Drop me a line!
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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