1. Forget Introverts and Extroverts: I am a ball of contradictions, personality-wise: puzzles wrapped up in enigmas sprinkled with a healthy dose of non-sequitors and a few conundrums for garnish. I suppose we all think of ourselves this way -- does anyone really look in the mirror and say "I totally make sense; I am a logical whole"? I mean, anyone who isn't totally insufferable and boring? -- but after my first ever astrological charting I have discovered that the stars actually say this about me, so I feel myself to be completely special in my inconsistency.
The biggest puzzle about me, to my mind at least -- feel free to come up with others, but only tell me the not-mean ones -- is the fact that while much of the world sees me as gregarious, social, talkative, outgoing, a "big personality," I see myself as rather shy, introverted, and nervous in social situations, even slightly misanthropic. When I describe myself even to my closest friends in those latter terms, they generally start laughing uproariously, as if I'm telling the best joke in the world (which itself is ironic, because I am the world's worst joke-teller), and probably view my protestations as delusional at best and disingenuous at worst. That said, I think there are certain friends and acquaintances who are more likely to agree with my self-description than others. My daughter calls me a recluse.
I've been inviting local friends over for dinners so that they can help consume the food that I photograph for the blog, and I love gathering and feeding them, especially when I can stand back and listen in on the multiple discussions. The last time, surveying the room, I suddenly remembered an old colleague of mine who concocted a theory of parties that is easily applicable to a much wider range of human interaction. There are three kinds of people in the world, she used to say: fun makers, fun sustainers, and no funs. You need all three of these types to make a successful party: the fun makers to create the situation (they are the planners, the cruise directors, the hosts), the fun sustainers to come to the party and provide the momentum (they are the jokers, the entertainers, the people who encourage interesting conversation), and even the no funs to provide an audience for the work of the other two types (these are the people who really contribute to the social situation by their presence alone; they are appreciative but not particularly lively).
I've been realizing that the whole "introverted/extroverted" continuum is just a red herring in my quest to figure out why I am the way I am. I am both, obviously, at different times, as are we all to some degree. But what I really am, what makes my social contradictions make sense in my mind, is a fun maker: I throw the parties, I invite the guests, I cook the food, I encourage the gluttony, and I let my guests do the rest. I can participate in the banter when I'm feeling a bit more outgoing and concentrate on chopping parsley for garnish when I'm overstimulated and need to retreat into my head for a few minutes. I can use cooking as an excuse to withdraw without seeming anti-social. I can tidy my counters and refill serving dishes while absorbing the social energy around me. And I've always felt pretty lucky to have people in my life willing to accept my invitations and make me feel in the world, even if I sometimes choose to stay safely on the edges of it.
2. Definition of Friendship: One of the strange things, having moved to a new town at this stage of my life (you know, the decrepit stage) is having to figure out how to make friends. For the first year and a half I was so consumed by work that most of those with whom I forged connections were people passing through for lectures and conferences; the drawback of this is, of course, that they are scattered all over the world. Making friends locally has been more of a challenge: lots of interesting people around, but it's the usual problem of everyone being busy in their own lives and finding myself trying to enter into a network of social connections that was already quite firmly -- even rigidly -- in place before I got here.
I was whining about this to my friend Lisa the other day -- there are very few people that I whine to (I think -- oh god, what if I'm wrong?) but she's definitely on the front lines -- and she elegantly clarified exactly what I was yearning for. "You need friends with refrigerator privileges." Refrigerator privileges! That's exactly what I've been missing: all the people who feel free to come into my house unannounced, go into the kitchen, and help themselves to a nosh without breaking the line of conversation. The people who have refrigerator privileges at my house are mostly very far away: Paris, Ottawa, North Carolina, Alberta, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, etc. etc. And strangely, not all of these people are those to whom I speak regularly or with whom I share all my secrets. Nor are they people of whom I would necessarily claim refrigerator privileges in return -- which is probably a sad commentary on my sense of value as a friend more than anything else. I never want to be any trouble, if you know what I mean. I think some of my friends shake their heads at my willingness to share my most personal tales of emotional pain with the whole world but my refusal to drop anything on my nearest and dearests' doorsteps without texting to ask permission first.
Sometimes refrigerator privileges take a long time to develop, and come along with a friendship and intimacy hard won; sometimes they are almost immediately demanded and conferred. I made a friend not long ago. One day, when we were mere acquaintances, he came over to chat. But before he sat down, he went over to the kitchen, searched around, found a cheap bottle of rum, poured himself a drink, and then made himself comfortable on the couch. I laughed at this performance: what audacity! But also, what joy! -- I had a friend who claimed refrigerator privileges! That was a milestone in my adjustment to my village. Having gotten to know this person better, I suspect that he assumes refrigerator privileges with everyone he meets almost instantly, but that's the thing about refrigerator privileges: it's not a sign of best-ness or exclusiveness or rarity, it's just a sign of comfort.
3. Eaters: I met one of my friends, Richard, when he invited us to eat with him. He's famous for finding very good and very divey restaurants in Chinatown and then taking them over, inviting twenty or thirty people to sit around big tables, turning them into his personal salon. More importantly, he takes over these establishments' kitchens, going to the Chinese markets to buy the freshest greens or the ingredients he's craving most, and then getting the cook to make the dishes to his specifications. While this might seem quite imperious and bossy, Richard is the gentlest and sweetest person in the world, and the restaurants he chooses are more than happy to indulge his enthusiasms.
I suppose in the lingo of the day one might say that he curates his guest list, but really he only has one criteria: everyone there must be people who like to eat. Now, one might say, "But who doesn't?," and the answer to that would be "Lots of people." People who like to eat do so with gusto, with pleasure, with interest and curiosity; people who don't care little about what they consume, or do so with a discipline that takes the joy out of food, or fear or even hate food for reasons of health or vanity. But at the same time, Richard wants eaters, not diners: unlike diners, eaters don't demonstrate a particular reverence about the food, or pretension, or penchant for fetishizing the authentic (whoever finds the purest version of báhn mì in the five boroughs wins!) and the rare (the chef traveled to the top of Mt. Everest to forage these rare fungi!); Richard's choice of restaurants, all of which served the homiest dishes, was a mechanism of self-selection, of course. Eaters groan with pleasure in that moment they put something delicious into their mouths, but recover quickly enough to turn back to the raucous conversation; diners are there for the experience of the cuisine, and pay more attention to it. Which is not to say that eaters are without discernment: on the contrary, they care very much about what they put in their mouths. It's more about why they're putting it there: eaters are sensual, diners are cerebral. The gathering of eaters, according to Richard's theory, always worked. At worst, there would be a few boring people there, but there would never be anyone insufferable at the table. This turned out to be mostly true.
Some years ago, two colleagues of mine came down to the city and wanted to go with my ex and me to Chinatown. We enthusiastically -- and quite stupidly -- agreed to take them to our favorite place, a shabby but excellent Shanghaiese restaurant that had (contrary to common wisdom, which prefers the place across the street) the best soup dumplings in the city. Richard came with us. The visitors considered themselves "foodies," and they were most definitely diners: they were constantly talking in great detail about meals they had enjoyed and wines they had drunk, but with little regard to who they were with or whether they were having fun or not. They always seemed to remember the Robert Parker rating for every one of the wines they had ever imbibed. We damned near killed them, then, with our foray into Eaterland. They blanched at the vinyl tablecloths and the crappy furniture, and the female half of this duo actually started trying to question the almost-completely-non-English-speaking waitress about the "wine list" (which consisted of two bottles of twist-top wine, red and white and probably three months old because who the HELL orders wine at a Chinatown dump). They were horrified at the thought of serving themselves out of the same dish as everyone else family style, and when Richard started picking the last bits of the fish -- including the eyeballs and the cheeks -- off the skeletal remains with his chopsticks I thought they were going to faint, not at any sense of distaste but at what they saw as both a lack of good manners and an excessive enthusiasm for the food. At the end of the disastrous night, Richard made us promise never to invite them to dinner again.
Makes around 16
1. Slice the kernels off 3 corn cobs and place them in a large bowl. (Actually, I hold the corn cob vertically in the bowl and slice down with a sharp chef's knife to do it; that way the kernels don't fly all over the place.)
2. Add 1 finely minced garlic clove, a small bunch of cilantro leaves (about 1/3 c), chopped, 1 or 2 small fresh red or green chili, seeded and finely chopped, 1 spring onion, finely chopped, 1 TB soy sauce, 3/4 c all-purpose flour (or if you don't do wheat gluten, you can use rice flour), 2 lightly beaten eggs, and 4 TB water. Mix well. Season with salt and ground pepper to taste and mix again. The batter should be firm enough to hold its shape, but not stiff; add water if necessary.
3. Heat 1/4 c canola oil in a large, preferably nonstick or well-seasoned cast iron frying pan till quite hot. Add spoonfuls of the corn mixture, flattening slightly with the back of the spoon to make a roundish fritter. Cook till golden brown on each side, 1-2 minutes per side.
4. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with store-bought Thai sweet chili sauce (available even at my local and not-very-well-stocked chain grocery store) or some other dipping sauce of your choice.
Wild Rice Griddle Cakes with Smoked Salmon
Makes around 18
1. In a fine sieve, rinse 1/2 c wild rice under cold running water and drain. In a small, heavy saucepan, bring 2 c water to a boil and stir in rice. Simmer uncovered until the rice is just tender but the grains haven't yet split open, around 40 minutes. Drain in a sieve, rinse under cold water, and transfer to a bowl.
2. Lightly beat 1 large egg and stir into the rice, along with 1/3 c fresh chives, and salt and pepper.
3. In a large, non-stick skillet, heat 1 TB canola oil over medium-high heat. Drop heaping teaspoons of the rice mixture into the pan, flattening slightly with a spatula. (Each cake should be around an inch or an inch-and-a-half in diameter.) Transfer to paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
4. Top each cake with sour cream (you'll need around 1/4 c total) and smoked salmon, cut into bite-sized pieces. Garnish with more chives. The griddlecakes are also good with sour cream and golden caviar as a topping; leave off the extra chives in that case.