Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: My Berlin Kitchen

It has been a strange year in books and reading, for me. It began as a year to start reading again – I read all of 10 books in 2011 – and then became a year to read a more ambitiously.

So I read some newer books, which I enjoyed, but which frustrated me nonetheless. I read some older books, which convinced me, finally, not to waste my time on new books just because I thought I should – especially the 500-page ones. I enjoyed some shorter classics, and spent summer (which was a very late season this year) with some fun, light reading. My overall reading trend transformed into the goal of reading books to dispose of, mostly the used books I have collected from Title Wave Books. (I have too many books for someone who isn’t settled in one place. I am also a firm believer in passing books on, unless they are particularly sentimental or beautiful editions.)

The ambition then broadened into a more general goal of reading more, and reading what I liked and what interested me. I was helped along with the release of a new Meg Cabot book (whose work I love, completely un-ironically, and with less and less embarrassment every year), a book that my grandfather loaned to me, and now, by that genre I have always enjoyed, the food memoir.

It's in my blood. My family is full of writers and cooks, chefs, bakers, and - this part is perhaps the most important - eaters. I would mainly refer to myself as a baker and an eater, but I love, love, love to cook, too. And I love reading about other people who feel the same way.

So when our friend, Kim, called my mom and said, "You should come to my friend's reading tonight at Powell's! And tell Grace to come, too!" and my mom told me and mentioned "blog" (The Wednesday Chef), "Berlin", and "food", I was in. (She also said, "we can get a drink together after", but I would have gone anyway.)

Luisa Weiss was (and I mean this in the best possible way) sweet, cute, and warm. Even from the podium she seemed to exude friendliness. And the section that she read, about Christmas in Berlin, made me feel warm and cozy and excited for impending fall, and, well, a little homesick for Europe. (Because Christmas in Prague was a pretty amazing and unforgettable experience.) So of course I bought her book, and, of course, I read it.

For me, the draw to this book was not just the bi- and multi-cultural experience, nor was it just the food and recipes. The draw for me was the decision-making that was at the core of this book.

Lately, to be frank, I have been pretty lost - maybe even stuck. I don't like to admit that to myself, for the same reason I don't like to say "Life is hard". Because, first world problems. Because I actually have it pretty easy - privileged, even. I am one extremely lucky person who has been given some wonderful opportunities and experiences and I don't really like to whine about things. 

But the fact is that this life that I am currently living not the life I want. It's a life I wanted for a short time, but not for years. It's part of the life I want, but I'm beginning to realize that that part - the being in Portland part, the being close to my family part - is not a big enough part, if it is the whole of it.

So, of late, I have begun to ask myself what I want. I have been toying with the idea of finding out what there could be for me in the Netherlands, wondering if this isn't the right time for me to move to Prague and learn Czech, and questioning whether I actually can make the life I want here, in Portland. Because although the latter is my first choice, I have been working on it for two years, and gotten nowhere. I have begun to ask myself whether I won't look back on these years and wish I had spent them differently.

So My Berlin Kitchen was attractive to me because I thought it might contain some kind of answer, or - better even - the right questions. 

Luisa was born in Berlin to an American father and an Italian mother, and spent most of her childhood and adolescence going back and forth between Boston and Berlin. Then she spent a year in Paris after college and then she moved to New York and worked in publishing, because jobs were easy to find (admittedly, I have a hard time relating to that part).

At some point, after building a life for herself in New York, she starts to question it. 

I wouldn't give this book a general recommendation - I think there are a lot of people who wouldn't enjoy it. But I certainly recommend it to anybody who experiences the cross-cultural identity crisis, or questions their place. It's more than an expat story; it's a story of the self, which I find very interesting. 

And - it has recipes! Some of which I can't wait to try (swiss chard and Gruyere Panade, pflaumenmus, pickled herring salad with potatoes and beets, Hannchen Jansen [maybe one day!], and ragu). It's definitely worth buying for the recipes. 

As far as keeping this book goes, it'll be on my shelf for a while. It's such a pretty book.

And as for my life, well, I still have a long way to go. But hey, Luisa is ten years older than me, and yes, reading her story did help me out. A lot. Not with answers. But at least now I have questions, and not just question marks. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Baseball Born Again

A weird thing happened to me this year.

Usually such an absorbed, diehard Red Sox fan (although lately I have taken to calling myself diehard "by West Coast standards", because I don't know that I could keep up with those Bostonians), I allowed myself to drift off, float away from the Red Sox and MLB in general, and, in a way, take a break from the game.

I think I watched only one or two complete Red Sox games.

I never made it to the Morrison Hotel, a local Boston bar (actually its a bar on SE Morrison that shares it's Boston theme with some Jim Morrison decor) to watch a game. I did manage to see one of the first Red Sox-Yankees matchups at the New Old Lompoc, before the building was razed.

And late in the season I tried to get in the habit of occasionally listening to the game on the Red Sox' Spanish-language broadcast - but even that I did more out of a desire for language maintenance and improvement than to quench an undeniable baseball thirst.

When the season neared its end, and I knew that the Red Sox were not going to make it, but I hadn't realized just how far they were from making it, how bad they actually were.

They finished the season in the cellar. That's how bad.

But then, as I tried to wrap my head around the new postseason and Wild Card qualification rules and setups, I ended up getting really excited about the game again.

So much so, that when the two Wild Card playoff games were played last Friday, I watched them both. Not in their entirety, but following on my phone when I wasn't around a TV, or listening to the game. And then the next day, I watched or listened to the majority of the games as well, catching at least a small part of each game.

And then on Sunday morning, I got up and listened to the game, before heading back to work at noon after a weekend full of baseball. This was kind of strange, as I had been living in such a bubble of baseball for a few days.

I continued to follow the games all week. It is kind of fun, to watch the postseason when your team is not involved. There are the Yankees to hate, and I'm fairly anti-St. Louis and anti-San Francisco.

And the quality of the baseball has been incredible! So close, so many extra innings, and, for the first time since the Division Series has existed, every single series went the full five games.

That's a lot of baseball!

But then came the disappointment. I was rooting for the A's, the Orioles, the Nationals, and the Reds, and one by one, after so many promising late comebacks and large, safe leads, they all succumbed to their opponents!

And that leaves me rooting for the Tigers.

If it comes down to a New York-St. Louis World Series, my dislike of these two teams will make me lose that draw to the game I have so recently rediscovered.

On the bright side... it's a short offseason. Because it's a World Baseball Classic offseason! And I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: The Belgium & Netherlands Coffee Guide

Weeks ago, I found out about a recent publication: The Belgium & Netherlands Coffee Guide.

I spent about 30 seconds trying to decide whether it was worth the investment, than threw the decision-making out the window, went with my gut, and ordered it.

It took forever to get here, though, and by the time it arrived I had forgotten about it. When I found a package on the dining room table, I said to myself, in the presence of my housemate Ben, "What the... OH. MY. GOD! I am not going to get any work done today!" and ripped the paper away with more excitement than most kids with their birthday presents.

The book, I found, was not at all what I expected - definitely a guide, but really, very little more than that. As Hanna Neuschwander's book, Left Coast Roast: A guide to the best coffee and roasters from San Francisco to Seattle, was just released to much hoopla here in Portland coffee circles, I suppose I was expecting something more along the lines of that book. I haven't read it yet, just skimmed through it. But I know that it pays much more attention to the taste of the coffee and the way that different shops roast their coffee.

Then again, Neuschwander's book is a book about roasters. The Guide, however, is about cafes, and not so much about the coffee itself - however misleading the title is.

When I ordered this book, I did not even imagine that my old favorite Dutch cafe, Ko D'oooooooor, could be listed. When I left the Netherlands two years ago, I had still never had coffee anywhere in that country that was as good as what I had had at Ko D'oooooooor.

Obviously I wasn't impartial. As a Portlander, when a nice, pleasant space opened after my first year of college and started serving Italian-style coffee (which was much more familiar to my Portland palate than the Dutchified coffee I had been drinking for a year), I was ecstatic. It became personal when the owner offered to help my friend Eva and I with our Dutch, as the class didn't fit in with our schedules. And eventually, as I became friends with the owners, and improved my Dutch, and as I already had coffee experience, I occasionally covered shifts at the bar.

Which was always a lot of fun, because it meant speaking Dutch and English and French and sometimes German and Italian. And making coffee. And working alone. (But that's another story.)

When I got the book, I discovered that it is divided into sections by city - Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Amersfoort, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Maastricht, Rotterdam, the Hague, and Haarlem. And I have spent plenty of time in some of these cities, even at some of the cafes that they mention.

For example, the Amsterdam chain Coffee Company, which has been around since 1996, where I often met friends while I was hanging around Amsterdam in August 2010. And I can tell you that the Coffee Company is most assuredly no way near as good as Ko D'oooooooor, or a couple of the other coffee places that I frequented while living in Middelburg (Coffeeshop St. John, Honeypie).

Right off the bat, therefore, I was taking this book with a grain of salt or two. Imagine if they wrote a similar book on coffee in the US and went to NYC, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio, Orlando, and New Orleans?

(Meanwhile, Neuschwander includes coffeeshops in smaller, out-of-the-way cities like Fort Bragg and Hood River.)

Next issue: the coffee. Not one coffeeshop listed in this book received less than four "beans" out of five (like stars) for the coffee itself, but it includes places like Coffee Company and Starbucks. I know that that coffee is not very good. I also know it is mostly roasted in huge batches and packaged, and when you drink it you have know way of knowing how far out it is from the roast date.

Furthermore, while the roaster is listed for every coffeeshop, there is no way of looking up these roasters. I can easily find out more by going online, but what I want is an index, where I can look up "Phoenix Coffee" and "Cafenation" and see how many cafes serve their coffee. It would be nice if there was a way to look up the places that roast their own coffee - although the cafes are fairly carefully divided into different categories, there is no category for "Coffeeshop and roastery". The shops that roast are merely thrown in under "artisanal independent", whatever that means, with several other small shops who sometimes serve the same, mass-produced coffee as an unrelated cafe that is classified as a "lunchroom".

In general, this Guide provides a great starting-off point for certain people, say, for tourists in the Netherlands who really like coffee. But it won't get you very far with great coffee in the Netherlands. Moreover, it does not give a very good background to the history of Dutch and Belgian coffee - just a short timeline at the front of the book.

Considering that the subtitle of this book is, "The definitive guide to the 100 best coffee venues in Belgium and the Netherlands", this book is just a severe disappointment. I've been to several of the listings and still had better coffee at places that were overlooked, so it does not seem to be at all "definitive", or even very thorough.

That said, there definitely are some good recommendations. In fact, my father happened to be in Amsterdam on business when I received the book, and I suggested a couple of places for him to try.

He ended up going to Two for Joy. From the book:

"The owners of Two for Joy freshly roast their coffee in-store. Fitting with the unique Two for Joy style, all products are from local suppliers. Surrounded by specialty shops and boutiques, Two For Joy Haarlemmerdijk is a beacon for locals. The different, cozy rooms have a modern finish and coffee lovers can find the brew bar next to the espresso machine. Baristas happily advise what coffee to choose and freshly roasted coffee beans can be purchased for customers to enjoy at home."

My father said that the space was very pleasant, the cake he had was good (very important!), and his cappuccino was too, comparing it to Torrefazione Italia in 2002. Which bodes very well for the future of coffee in the Netherlands! However, no latte art on any drink he saw.

Oh well, you can't have everything. (I can't remember caring about the lack of latte art in the Netherlands. I just cared about the taste! You have to prioritize.)

Maybe one of these days I'll make it back, and get to try some of these places out. In the meantime, friends abroad, please report back!