Wednesday, April 17, 2013

botanical gardens

When I was a kid, my family would go to the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver, which my sister called Birdie House. In the dead of a Pacific Northwest winter, which equates to six months of bleary greyness, entering the crystal dome of the conservatory would transport us to another place, somewhere warm and bright and colourful. The Birdie House air was humid and balmy, in imitation of a rainforest. And though Vancouver is, or at least was, a rainforest itself, that denseness of air still felt exotic. 

Sometimes our dad would buy us a bag of Miss Vickie's potato chips from the vending machine at the entrance to share as a treat, and we'd happily crunch along, waiting on the bench while he paid the admission fees. Even when cold grey rain pattered on the glass panes, it felt like a vacation.  

Last weekend I went to the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center in Providence, where I took these photos. I hadn't gone to an indoor greenhouse-conservatory in years, and the colours and quality of light brought me back to cheerful afternoons spent at Birdie House.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be, 
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was: 
Look at the pictures and the cutlery. 
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

–Philip Larkin, found via Hila

Saturday, March 30, 2013

tastes of childhood

Birthday Cake with Rainbow Crumble at Milk Bar
Over the past few years, I've been fascinated by the Momofuku Milk Bar phenomenon, as well as reading interviews with its doyenne, Christina Tosi. When Milk Bar started getting media coverage, the idea of a French Culinary Institute-trained pastry chef incorporating Kraft marshmallows and Cap 'n Crunch, among other junk foods, in her critically-lauded desserts was fresh and kind of hilarious (though her personal diet sounds terrifying). And now it seems as though the trend has really taken hold–New York Magazine's Grub Street ran a feature on upscale childhood-throwback desserts earlier this week, advising readers on the city's choice spots for treats like ice cream sandwiches, s'mores, and snow cones.

As also seen in the broader comfort-food wave (hello, gourmet burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, etcetera), nostalgia seems to be having its moment in food culture, expressed through such disparate means as these retro junk food leanings and the back-to-the-earth urban farming movement. Through indulging in the processed, consistent flavours of youth or evoking the living-off-the-land lifestyle of generations past, aesthetic decisions are being made to imbue food with a (real or imagined) sense of memory.

Making sophisticated versions of childhood favourites  seems to be the way in which cooks and food writers are attempting to reconcile their desires to relive happy memories while appeasing their grown-up taste buds. In this week's installment of her "A Good Appetite" column in the New York Times, Melissa Clark revisits a favourite childhood meal–tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich–only to be disappointed. "So much for nostalgia," she writes after tasting the bland soup made directly from her grade-school recipe. Her solution? A revamped soup recipe with fennel and Pernod, served alongside Brie toasts. Not quite a dish that would pique interest in the average eight-year-old, but a vehicle for recreating the satisfaction of a past time.

I've tried a few cookies and a milkshake at Milk Bar before and they were okay, but weren't really my cup of tea. First off, I'm not usually a fan of super sugary things. But it probably also has to do with my own conceptions of nostalgic food. I grew up with health-conscious parents who always read ingredient labels, and my love of kale and distrust of artificial colours and high-fructose corn syrup stem from straight from childhood. So at the risk of sounding like a total snob, the treats I grew up eating were far from the junk food standbys–I loved bitter dark chocolate, nuts, olives, dried mangoes, paté, and sorbet. Yeah, I was pretty much the snobbiest child ever in terms of gourmet eating tastes. The closest to junk food we had in our pantry was potato and tortilla chips, and those were only the kind without preservatives and artificial flavours.

My dad does have one major weakness when it comes to snack-food cravings–cheese crackers. He will stash boxes of them in hidden cupboards and polish them off in record time, and while I'm not quite at his level of fandom, cheese crackers will always taste like home. Since I've never actually made my own crackers before, and was inspired by this concept of riffing off a childhood taste, I made these guys last night.

Parmesan-Herb Crackers (mostly faithful to Smitten Kitchen's Parmesan Cream Crackers, adapted according to what was in my fridge)

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/8 cup almond milk
1/8 cup sour cream

Herbs of choice for topping (I used an Herbes de Provence blend)

It's super easy: blend ingredients together in a food processor until a dough forms. Roll out to desired thickness (I like mine as thin as possible), cut into whatever shapes you want, poke the crackers with a fork (so that they stay flat while baking) and sprinkle with herbs. Bake at 400ºF  on a greased/lined cookie sheet until browned, about 10-12 minutes.

Monday, March 18, 2013

je ne sais quois

French singer Sylvie Vartan in the 1960s
The Breton shirt, the marinière…whatever name you give them, I love, love striped shirts. And I'm not alone, clearly–there are even blogs specifically dedicated to the garment. It's a fascination that in itself fascinates me, because how does such a simple design–replicated in millions of incarnations–become so iconic? How can we describe what makes it special?

French sailors in uniform
A bit of backstory: the Breton shirt came from the 1858 Act of France, which introduced a new naval uniform that included a knit shirt with navy and white stripes. Apparently, the original shirts had exactly twenty-one stripes as a reference to the number of Napoleon's victories. By the late 19th century, the shirt in both wool and cotton became a workwear staple in Bretagne (Breton), and was produced by the Tricots Saint James company, which continues to manufacture the style today.

Pablo Picasso and James Dean in striped shirts
Coco Chanel is credited for bringing the Breton shirt into the realm of civilian sportswear, after a trip to the French Riviera where she was inspired by seeing them on the fishermen. Striped shirts gained quite a following over the 20th century, popping up in the wardrobes of artists (e.g. Picasso) and style icons (e.g. James Dean, Audrey Hepburn). But the 1960s French New Wave movement in cinema could be considered a golden moment for the style, with Godard ingenues Jean Seberg and Anna Karina radiating effortless cool in their marinières, the antithesis of the overtly sexy pinup looks of the 1950s. Perhaps I like to wear striped shirts in a subconscious attempt to emulate the nonchalant stylishness of these characters, vicariously road-tripping through France in an Alfa-Romeo Spider…living a life captured in jump-cuts.

Jean Seberg in a promotional poster for Breathless (À bout de souffle)
Anna Karina in De l'amour (1964), which was actually an Aurel movie, not a Godard
Much has been made of the French's style and their "je ne sais quois," which is kind of the perfect expression to describe my attraction to this classic aesthetic, since it literally translates to "I don't know what." It's hard to describe the appeal in things so simple that they could be almost be mundane. With complex, extraordinary things, for instance, the clothes of designer Mary Katrantzou, it's easier to express admiration because the qualities of her work are so heightened and striking–those epic photo prints and their placement on the body! Those billowing layers of printed chiffon! Those shots of pure colour! Whereas with a designer like Phoebe Philo of Céline, the subtlety of her work presents a different kind of mastery, that makes it more difficult to pinpoint its appeal. An elegance brushed with a quiet irreverence? 

My point is not about whether certain types of design are simply easier to appreciate, but rather how the appeal of certain things is easier to articulate. Leave it to the French to fill in the gaps in our aesthetic vocabulary. ChicJolie-laideJe ne sais quois.

Looks from Mary Katrantzou's Spring 2011 collection
Daria Werbowy in Céline's Fall 2012 campaign

Sunday, March 17, 2013

st. paddy's day

Behind the bar at The Brazen Head pub, blurriness courtesy of bad lighting, not Guinness
Just over a year ago, I went to Ireland on a whim. A friend of mine was studying at Trinity and there was a very reasonably priced direct flight, so off I went. I didn't know very much about Dublin before my trip, and ended up really enjoying the lively city and the warmth of the people. I liked how walkable the city was. I liked how the pubs were friendly and casual and weren't all about partying and nightlife. I liked all the traces of Dublin's literary tradition popping up–in statues of writers and old libraries and houses marked with plaques highlighting their famous former wordsmithing inhabitants. I liked how Irish kids put on a pot of tea when company comes over.

These may be overly romantic surface observations about a city and its people, but they nonetheless compose a specific sense of place and memories gleaned from an outsider passing through. When I hear people reminisce about visiting my own hometown, I hear them talk about the beauty of the mountains and ocean and forests. Those elements are integral to the identity of the Pacific Northwest, but there are many more facets to the the region, and this applies to anywhere in the world. That doesn't disqualify visitors' impressions and interpretations of their experience, which are uniquely theirs.

It's funny how even short trips can be deeply memorable, and provoke an affinity and connection with a place. I suppose that there's a line between appreciating a culture and being a poser, but it's interesting to consider how the different places we visit leave their mark. As I sit here writing this in a green Aran cabled cardigan, I'm thinking about how regional traditions become diffused as people become enthralled with cities and states and countries outside of their own familiar environment, bringing elements of those cultures back home into their own lives.

On that note, since it was St. Patrick's Day today and I'll never pass up on the opportunity to engage in culinary festivities, I cooked up some colcannon (above) and made a Guinness cake (below).

I have only baked this cake once before, but it is one of my favourite recipes. The outside has a nice thin, crunchy crust, and the inside is tender, moist and velvety. I'm usually more of a pie person (yes indeed, I celebrated March 14th, but unfortunately the chocolate pie I made was a bit of a bust), but this cake is some good stuff. Is it really Irish? I want to discuss the matter of authenticity in cooking in another post, but let's just say it's what happens when a Chinese-Canadian messes with a recipe from a Massachusetts restaurant involving an Irish beer.

Guinness Cake (adapted from Barrington Brewery's chocolate stout cake)
1 cup Guinness
1 cup butter
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup honey
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup raw cane sugar (more for sprinkling on top)
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2/3 sour cream

Melt butter in saucepan on stove with Guinness. Simmer and stir until combined, then turn off heat. Mix in cocoa powder and honey and leave to cool slightly.

Combine flour, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, beat eggs with sour cream until smooth. Combine egg-cream mixture with butter-beer-cocoa, and stir until combined.

Fold wet and dry ingredients together until combined, then pour into a greased baking dish. Sprinkle the top of the cake with more sugar to create a sparkly crust. Bake at 350ºF for around 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

on the road (trip)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in a still from Thelma and Louise (1991)
Today I came across this article by Vanessa Veselka in The American Reader, which presents a compelling argument about the lack of female quest narratives and why, in turn, we nearly exclusively associate tragedy and violence with the idea of women on the open road. Veselka makes a well-observed point that in popular culture, the road trip has been romanticized as a a symbol of freedom and self-discovery for male heroes, whereas women and girls portrayed on the open road are often victimized, their standard narrative boiling down to rape and death.

I'm curious as to how Thelma and Louise got left out of Veselka's discussion. The story of Geena Davis' and Susan Sarandon's titular housewife and waitress who leave their dissatisfying lives for a quickly-escalating adventure of a road trip does in fact include (spoiler alert?) rape and death, but those aren't the core elements at its heart. In fact, the rape scene turns the standard victimization on its head, as the power shifts from Thelma's would-be rapist to Louise and the gun, and raises questions of morality.

Both characters undergo positive transformations over the course of the film, with ditzy, gullible Thelma becoming more assertive and empowered in her desires, and sharp-tongued Louise shifting from a primary diet of defensive snark to more thoughtful reflection on her damaged self. Their circumstances may be tragic, but there's great moments of joy, too, which they find within their complicated friendship and journey. They have been abused and conned, and yet ultimately, Thelma and Louise don't read as pure victims or martyrs. They can take control of their own actions despite the limitations of their destinies.

That discussion aside, I appreciated how Veselka's article made me revisit and reappraise the archetypal road trip as cultural icon. A funny thing about nostalgia is its root in the idea of homesickness, because I think that travel and even places that we briefly transit through can conjure strong feelings and that sense of remembrance and longing. I, for one, know that I have a wildly romantic view of the road trip, a North American ritual of soul-seaching and bonding with friends or family or nature and the surrounding environment. The article brought to light the very gendered basis upon which these perceptions lie. 

Monday, March 11, 2013


This is a pilling acrylic-wool blend Italian sweater from the 1980s. It's one of my favourite articles of clothing, in addition to being one of my most worn. In high school, I took it from a dusty pile at the top of my dad's closet at the last minute before heading to the airport for my first trip to New York. The sweater was my travel companion for that chilly November week, and we've been inseparable in cold-weather months ever since then. While I have these more recent memories associated with the sweater, when my dad sees me wear it, he's always reminded of how my mom bought it for him when they were dating (back when he actually liked knitwear).

I think that it's fascinating how this dated, scruffy piece of clothing is able to hold and evoke these stories from its owners' personal histories. Apparel, as a design medium, seems inextricably linked to memory and identity through its intimate relationship with the wearer. Unlike forms of art which are installed in a specific spaces and contexts, clothing lives on the body and travels with it. Favourite pieces in a wardrobe indicate their owner's dressing style and personality, but also are imbued with experiences that took place while they were worn.

I'm compelled by the idea of nostalgia and how particularly prevalent it seems to be in today's culture. Growing up with the internet, kids of my generation have had easy access to vast archives of media–photos, movies, and music from decades past. Trends that faded out years ago are revived as people rediscover and appropriate them–from Audrey Hepburn's beehives and shift dresses to Kurt Cobain's grungy plaid flannel shirts (see everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Saint Laurent's divisive F13 collection). Waxed canvas backpacks, vinyl records and Lomo cameras, once relics of bygone eras, have become standard accoutrements of modern hipsters (however ironically they may be used). There's always been cycling in fashion–see the cropped haircuts and waist-skimming silhouettes of the '20s flappers pop up again in the '60s mod crowd–but there seems to be a particular celebration of nostalgia, either real or imagined, in our yet-to-be-aesthetically-defined 21st century. 

A word with Greek roots in 'homecoming' and 'pain', nostalgia is now most often associated with affection and sentimentality, but its roots are in homesickness and illness. These negative qualities have pretty much become obsolete in favour of golden-hued romanticization in the term's modern context. Hearing a song or seeing a photograph that triggers thoughts of a different time and place is more often a source of joy rather than agony, and that's not a bad thing at all.

I'm exploring the concept of nostalgia for my undergrad degree project, through the making of textiles/apparel, art history research, and writing. This blog will be a place of documentation and discussion as I play around with and unpack these ideas.