Archive for June, 2009

A slab of Gruyère cheese for fondue with my roommates.

A slab of Gruyère cheese for fondue with my roommates :).

There exist hundreds of different varieties of cheese and every one has its own name.

            The word “cheese” comes from the Old English “cyse,” from the West Germanic “kasjus,” from the Classical Latin “caseus,” from the Proto-Indo-European root “kwat,” which means “to ferment, become sour.”

            The word for cashew in Portuguese (cajú) is almost exactly the same as the word for cashew in Gujarati (kaju), one of the 14 official languages of India. This might seem strange until you consider the fact that cashews are native to northeastern Brazil, where they fall as fruit from a tree indigenously called “acajú.” Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque founded a settlement on the western coast of India in 1510 and the Portuguese ruled the colony of Goa for 451 years.

            Is every word just a muddled version of another word, born of human error? Are we all just slightly altered versions of each other?

            In 1961, the Indian Census recognized 1,652 different languages in India. That means that at any given moment in 1961, sunbrowned people discussed the weather, the neighbors, the government, dinner plans in 1,652 different languages. The country must have sounded like the ill-fated construction site of the Tower of Babel that God cursed with linguistic chaos.

            Such is the world of cheese, like any other world: linguistic chaos. Paneer, limburger, bleu, havarti, feta, manchego, cheddar, American, Muenster, Gruyère, Swiss, pepper jack, Roquefort, asiago, mozzarella, ricotta, raclette, brie, camembert, gorgonzola.

            Cheese can be made from cows or sheep or buffalo or goats. It can be hard, soft, spiced. It can be Turkish, Greek, Norwegian, Indian. Really, there’s an infinite amount of possible cheese variations, like there is an infinite amount of possible human variations. But we are not so systematically reproducible. Curdle, process, age, repeat.

            The Latin “caseus” is also apparently the father – or some other long-lost relative – of casein, a protein found in cow’s milk.

            No one is certain about the origin of cheese, but it was supposedly stumbled upon between 8000 and 3000 BCE. As one story goes, an Arab trader making an arduous trek across the desert on camelback stored milk in a pouch made from an animal’s stomach. The rennet lining the stomach turned the milk to curds and whey while the trader was busy shielding his skin from the sun and his lungs from the sand. Sometimes things happen when you’re not looking.

            The Arabic word for cheese is “gibn.”

            It would be all too fantastic if photographers’ use of the phrase “Say cheese!” to coax an elusive smile out of crabby children (circa 1930) was somehow etymologically related to the roots and meanings of the word. But I suspect “cheese” was chosen at random for its double-e construction and the smile-like muscle contractions it induces.

            “Cheesy,” meaning trite, cheap, or kitschy, is also surprisingly notrelated to what we know as cheese, despite its misleading spelling. British soldiers in India in the early 1800s picked up the Urdu and Hindi word “chiz,” meaning “thing,” to imply “a big thing.” Eventually the meaning morphed into “showy,” and now here we are.

            The French word for cheese, “fromage,” comes from the Medieval Latin “formaticum,” from the Latin “forma,” which means “shape, form, mold,” referring to the 14th-century practice of deliberately pressing and molding cheeses with rinds.  

            Cheese, it seems, like words and language and humans, is rather more complex than it lets on.

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(I think) A Razzmatazz (raspberry chai) milkshake & a Happy Fortune Shake (cinnamon, honey and chocolate chip cookies) from USC's Ground Zero Coffee House.

(I think) A Razzmatazz (raspberry chai) milkshake & a Happy Fortune Shake (cinnamon, honey and chocolate chip cookies) from USC's Ground Zero Coffee House.

Did I ever tell you I think you’re nine kinds of wonderful?

            You’re wonderful because you check the lock on the front door at night before you go to bed. You probably didn’t think anyone noticed, but I noticed.

            You’re wonderful because you try to make excuses for my mistakes even though I said you didn’t have to justify them. Sometimes you can tell me I did something stupid, you know. But you shrug it off, and you’re wonderful.

            You’re wonderful because you laugh at everything I say. It’s probably your fault that I think I’m hilarious and when other people don’t laugh at my jokes, I just think it’s because they don’t understand my humor, not because maybe I’m not very funny.

            You’re wonderful because you let me have the last piece of everything. You’re selfless like that. I never used to understand how you could give things up so easily, even if it’s just the last Lorna Doone, but I think maybe I could be selfless like that for someone. I think maybe I am selfless like that for someone. Sometimes I’m a lot like you.

            You’re wonderful because you order razzmatazz milkshakes and you take forever to finish them.

            You’re wonderful because you have lines on your face.

            You’re wonderful because you’re perpetually optimistic, because life is like a milkshake, it comes in a thousand million flavors and sometimes it gives you toothaches and headaches when the cold hits the back of your mouth, but you can put whatever you want in it and I want you in my milkshake.

            You’re wonderful because you write the way you talk and it’s good English, too.

            You’re wonderful because you like your coffee black. I think it’s gross, but I also think you’re wonderful.

            Well, now I’ve gone and told you! I think people should know when they’re nine kinds of wonderful.

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Heaven on sale for $8.50: sweet potato french fries and a vegetarian lavash wrap at Spitz.

Heaven on sale for $8.50: sweet potato french fries and a vegetarian lavash wrap at Spitz.

I almost died the night I went to Spitz.

            And by “almost died” I mean, of course, that I made a risky move by deciding to test the limits of my stomach’s ability to expand.

            Spitz is a Mediterranean restaurant and self-proclaimed “Home of the Döner Kebab” burrowed in a crevice between shops dangerously close to Yogurtland in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

            The options on the narrow, one-page menu are somewhat limited for a vegetarian like myself, but the few things I can eat are so delicious, I’m willing to overlook the fact. My vegetarian wrap was a crunchy combination of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, bright yellow peperonchinis, and kalamata olives. Everything, smeared with humus and feta cheese,  was tucked safely into a chewy lavash (a soft variant of flatbread) wrap and the whole thing dripped the most divine Tzatziki chili sauce I’ve ever tasted.

            And the sweet potato fries. There simply are no words to describe the sweet potato fries.

             But what exactly is this “döner kebab” upon which Spitz so prides itself? According to the Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, it is a dish that hails from the Middle East, Greece and Turkey and includes “slices of lamb, highly flavored with herbs and spices, wound around a revolving spit, cooked in front of a vertical charcoal (or sometimes gas) fire.”

            At Spitz, the “delectable sandwich” is made from minced lamb and beef, ground chicken or falafel, according to the restaurant’s Web site.

            A Turkish döner is very nearly the equivalent of a Greek gyro or Middle Eastern shawarma. In a traditional Turkish döner restaurant, a chef might hoist a huge chunk of lamb onto a rolling vertical spit first thing in the morning and slice off slivers of it until closing time. Unsanitary? Maybe. Delicious? So the European masses contend. (I wouldn’t know – I’ve sworn off meat. (Actually I was just raised vegetarian. (But swearing it off sounds so much more hardcore.)))

            Spitz’s döner kebabs are modeled after the Spanish version of this dish that seems to have percolated all of Europe. In the bustling capital city of Madrid, kebab shops are “as ubiquitous as Spanish tapas bars,” says the Web site. In Spain, chefs use electric knives to cut away paper-thin slices of meat – and that is the so-called “Spanish version” of döner.

            Spitz in Little Tokyo was named one of the “Best New Restaurants of the Year” by Los Angeles Magazine’s annual restaurant awards issue. Citysearch.com dubbed it the #1 Quick Food Spot in L.A. in both 2007 and 2008. Zagat, a restaurant survey with legitimate clout, voted Spitz one of the top 5 “best values” in the city.

            What more can you want from a restaurant than accolades like these and crunchy orange sweet potato fries snuggly tucked into a little woven basket next to an unassuming foil-wrapped sandwich that is secretly the most amazing thing you haven’t tried yet?

            If you think you can stomach any more food after a night at Spitz – a feat I thought I could handle despite my small frame (I tend to grossly overestimate the limits of my body’s food intake capability) – Yogurtland is just around the corner. I told you Spitz was in a dangerous place – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For more information: http://www.eatatspitz.com

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English breakfast tea sweetened with sugar and milk; a Hawaiian macadamia nut cookie.

English breakfast tea sweetened with sugar and milk; a Hawaiian macadamia nut cookie.

Harold watched two cubes of sugar dissolve into his tiny cup of tea. He dipped a gilt spoon into the cracked cup – the two really didn’t match very well, he noticed distractedly.           

            Everything about Harold’s life was somewhat mismatched. Shiny golden silverware and chipped china. Hawaiian macadamia nut cookies every day and a chest full of ribs. A daguerreotype camera in the living room and countless London Underground tickets to Bickerton-Astbury Engineers. Harold and Marion.

            His life was constructed perilously and almost entirely from thin sheets of irony.

            Harold heard the low roil of a dying engine faintly from his good ear. The left one had been nearly blasted to deafness by the constant clanging and bustling of civil construction.

            Twinings English breakfast tea. The smell was delicious and hardly describable. It smells almost exactly like Winston Churchill, thought Harold. Winston Churchill was a cat that, after spending countless hours in Uncle Thurmond’s kitchen, smelled faintly of powdered sugar, honey and cardamom.

            “Hm,” said Harold to nobody in particular. Then, more to himself on account of the room being empty besides, “Is it odd that English breakfast tea reminds me of Winston Churchill?”

            He took a sip of the steaming tea. The porcelain cup was warm around the outside, belying the scalding nature of its contents.

            It tasted milky and sweet: perfection. Even in mid-afternoon, without bacon, fried eggs, toast and black pudding, it held its own.

            Harold heard a gravelly click. If Marion kept hitting the mailbox, she’d leave a dent in the place where all the paint was shivering off. 

            “Full-bodied, rich and robust,” boasted the tea manual Marion had bought for the coffee table – oh, the irony – which had since been surreptitiously piled by the fireplace, then even more surreptitiously swept, then kicked, under the couch.

            Some say the tea and its name originated in a faraway land called America, where a transplanted Englishman called Richard Davies set up shop to sell tea in 1843. The tea merchant’s blend of Congou, Pekoe and Pouchong sold at 50 cents a pound in New York City.

            Black patent leather Mary Janes clacking on worn pavement sound oddly musical, like after years of abuse, the gravel has decided it’s giving up the fight, it’s going to join the orchestra after all. Harold felt much like the pavement. Nobody, really, is a match for black patent leather Mary Janes.

            Something grumbled. This sound Harold did not immediately recognize. The metallic, hollow twist of the doorknob should have followed the clacking, not this strange grumbling. But it was no cause for concern – just his stomach. Perhaps some fried tomatoes and black pudding would be nice after all.

            Black pudding is a sausage made of congealed blood. It’s really sort of disgusting, except that it’s delicious. Black pudding and black tea. Blood and caffeine. Tried and true.

            The metallic twist, then a heaving, grating, irritated whine from the door as it swung open at the hands of a tired and tousled woman. Marion was officially home.

            Harold downed the rest of his tea and set the cup on the coffee table. Really, it was the tea table. Nobody here drank coffee, except Marion.

            English breakfast tea left a numbing taste of Ceylon, Assam and Kenya on Harold’s tongue and lips. The sweet and spicy undertones of foreign escape, the remnants of which lingered in his mouth when he looked up to find Marion standing in the doorway.

            “Tea?” he asked.

            She nodded. She looked flustered, exhausted, puffy and at the same time impossibly thin. She looked cold.

            Harold stood and his knees cracked in protest at the unexpected movement – except it really wasn’t unexpected because every day at 4:37 in the afternoon, Marion came home looking worn and withered and Harold offered her tea and she nodded and he stood and his knees cracked.

            In the kitchen he stared at all the chipped china and chose one at random. At the bottom of the cup he plunked three sugar cubes and  lay on top of them a bag of blueberry green tea, thinking it was complete rubbish. Blueberry green tea? What a joke.

            Marion’s escape wasn’t nearly as desperate as his.

            Harold doused the tea and sugar with hot water and brought the cup and saucer into the living room, where Marion had settled into the slouchy dent in the couch Harold had left in his wake.

            “I’ve got business,” he said blandly. “I’ll be back.”

            The doorknob on the inside was newer than the one on the outside – it made a brassy ringing noise. More people came in than ever left this place.

            Harold’s brown loafers hardly disturbed the pavement and the change in his pocket for a tube pass sounded much more promising than the abuse Marion’s car inflicted on the mailbox.

            At Waterford, he settled into a corner table, squeezed between wall and window.

            A too-bright waitress arrived and asked in an unidentifiable accent what he’d like.

            “Full Monty, please,” said Harold. “With English breakfast tea.”

            The waitress smiled skeptically, barely revealing too-white teeth. “English breakfast even at 5?”

            As if she knew anything about tea.

            “Especially at 5,” he said.

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