Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center - A Holiday Party

Holiday party welcome announcements

“You know, I’m a vegetarian,” says Sumi, the petite woman standing to my right.

“Oh. That’s funny. Me, too ... well, sort of ...” As I glance over my shoulder in an attempt to catch her eye, I fight the urge to raise my eyebrows.

Oh, the irony. The two ... well, one-and-a-half vegetarians are almost elbow deep in turkey carcass, wading through the coagulating fat juice, searching for bits of choice meat that may have fallen into the marshland of turkey skin, flesh, and bone. With the noon start time of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center senior holiday party barely under an hour away, the turkey carving crew of two was way ahead of schedule.

Sumi had surprised me with her revelation. I thought for sure she carved fowl on a regular basis, so even were her cuts, so efficient were her knife strokes. In fact, I had curbed my normal get-to-know-you conversational banter for the past half hour (there were numerous turkeys) so as to keep up and keep focused; as a violinist, an accidentally sliced finger would prove far more than incovenient.

As we sifted through the fat dregs with our gloved hands, our knives set aside for the moment, she began to question me. How did I find out about the Neighborhood Center? Why did I decide to volunteer? I couldn’t help but loosen up and breathe a little more easily. Yes, my decision to keep quiet while working had been for concentration, but it was also a trained reflexive response to older Asian women with penetrating eyes and seemingly stoic lips. She was not quite old enough to be my mother, but the shimmering strands of gray in her neatly bobbed and otherwise black hair--not a split end in sight--conveyed an air of maturity and unflappable self assurance. She elicited my respect and a little fear. I had felt that I could not openly address her with a cheery smile and a list of questions, as is my usual way. I would wait for Sumi to address me. So, when she did, and with such an unortho-Asian-dox statement--vegetarianism for a woman of her generation is not common--I, albeit relieved from the weighted silence, felt thrown for a loop. But I answered her questions simply and quickly, as I generally do with my parents' friends on first introduction. I told her that I am relatively new to California. That I work down the street at Bernal Yoga and occasionally pass the Neighborhood Center. That I always have wanted to work with seniors, and so a few weeks ago I strolled into the building, met Roland, the senior program coordinator, and discussed creating a music appreciation class for the senior community due to start in January 2011.

Pie for dessert

Sumi tells me that she is Japanese, but originally from Hawaii. That she has worked at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center for seventeen years. And that when she first started, one didn’t dare walk down the main street, Cortland Avenue, at night out of concern for safety. I find this hard to imagine. Today Cortland Avenue is a hotbed for families with children and dogs. Kitchy meets hip in this hilly enclave, probably a result of the widely spread socio-economic range of the Bernal community.

Sparsely populated and mainly pastureland at the turn of the 20th century, Bernal Hill saw an influx of workers following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The workers, who during the day helped rebuild downtown, in the evenings went home to their families on the hill. And in recent years, young urban professionals are starting to buy property and raise their families here, creating the need for a premium grocery store, nice restaurants and cafes, cute retail clothes shops ... and the yoga studio where I teach. During my off hours, I run across the street to the newly renovated public library branch, where the diverse demographic makeup of the community is quite nicely represented among the stacks or seated at the reading carrels.

In fact, as I deliberately open my senses to survey the seniors, volunteers, and staff gathered in the kitchen and adjoining cafeteria area, I hear Spanish in multiple accents, amusedly watch my new gay volunteer friend, Don, flirt with the old ladies (Don had previously introduced me to one of the visually impaired seniors as “the girl who was just released from prison”), and notice couples that could have easily passed as my grandparents.

My reverie is broken by a beautiful alto voice singing “Oh When the Saints.” It’s Sumi, my carving partner, the Director of Asset Management at Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center.

The entertainment has arrived--two guitar players and a percussionist--and the seniors are starting to sing Christmas carols. The two huge aluminum trays of dark and white turkey meat are warming up in the oven. It’s Friday, and I’m due at the yoga studio at noon, so I start to pack my things up, carefully removing my lawfully required hairnet and plastic gloves.

The morning has been full of surprises ... of things seemingly out of place, but not really. Place is relative, defined by its constantly changing content and context. And as I step out into the noon sun, I realize it is me that is still getting used to my current one.

Listening to the music

To my family and friends in my Maryland, DC, and NY places ... I'm coming back to visit! Let me know if you'll be around during the holidays ... 'til soon!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Birthday Sushi

This past Tuesday I broke two major rules in Ann’s unpublished Guide to Economical Eating: 1) Never grocery shop on an empty stomach, and 2) Never buy produce at a supermarket, especially when corner bodegas and local farmers’ markets offer the same selection--and often better quality--at a fraction of the cost.

I figured it being my birthday, I could afford to indulge and stray outside my normal spending boundaries. So when the intense craving for a juicy piece of fruit hit me as I cut across the local Safeway parking lot on my way home, I consciously ignored the inner voice of reason encouraging my legs to stay the course and instead gave in to the rumblings of my tummy. Minutes later as I watched the supermarket cashier place a perfectly round organic Honeycrisp apple on the scanner, I felt a tinge of regret. Maybe I should have kept walking, maybe this was a bad idea, maybe ....

The monochromatic cash register monitor flashed “$4.24”. For one apple??? I paused and considered telling the young man I had made a mistake, that I didn’t want it after all. And then I remembered what day it was. With a carefree smile I reached into my wallet and took out my credit card ...

Some girls splurge on clothes and shoes for their birthday. I choose to charge fruit on my AMEX.

And so with caution blatantly thrown to the wind, the birthday dining began. Between lip smacking bites of my outrageously priced organic Honeycrisp, Jenny and I finalized the evening agenda. Kiji, a Michelin reviewed sushi restaurant a few blocks from our apartment, had been on Jenny’s radar, and even though my heart remains still faithful to Sushi Yasuda in New York City, I was eager to make my first foray into the San Francisco sushi scene. We were seated very quickly after our 8 pm arrival, but took note of the ensuing storm of customers--parties of three, four, five, and larger arriving about ten minutes after us. We had come at the perfect time, it seemed. The birthday gods were smiling down on me.

The restaurant itself was cozy, partitioned into three small dining sections, each room leading farther back into the building and successively narrower, sparser in decor. Jenny and I scored the best seats in the house, a corner table by the front window, in plain sight of the bar and the rest of the diners. I worried, though, that the clashing sounds of neighbors’ conversations and the rather loud, upbeat, jazz-inspired music would distract me from my dinner. In general, I prefer restaurants on the quieter side. Food is serious business; the quiet helps me focus.

A friendly server presented a heavy black iron pot of green tea; the accompanying small tea cups set the tone for the meal. Compelled to take dainty sips, else I’d be pouring tea after every other swig, I began to settle into the space, taking my time, enjoying catchup-chat with Jenny ... and savoring the tea.

Miso soup. Lightly fermented, but with enough zing to get the gastric juices flowing. We drank it straight from the bowl, too engrossed in our conversation and too lazy to tell the server we didn’t have spoons.

Oshitashi. Blanched spinach in ponzu sauce, topped with bonito flakes. After the warm tea and soup, the cool citrus flavored spinach calmed the palette. Jenny and I stopped talking, our heads nodding in sympathetic agreement at the perfectly prepared spinach--firm enough to warrant a chew, yet silky smooth in texture.

Hamachi carpaccio. Thinly sliced yellowtail, with spice, truffle oil, sea salt and jalapeno. This was Jenny’s favorite dish, definitely one of the highlights of the meal. The combination of cool fish and spicy jalapeƱo, their opposing qualities married together by the salty oil was delightful, a palette conundrum for my brain. I had to laugh as the contrasting flavors took turns registering, flashing hot then cool then salty then all at once, as I swallowed each bite. Definitely a tease, I couldn’t resist going back for more.

Jenn roll. Cucumber, avocado, and tobiko roll topped with salmon and lemon. This was an elegant example of traditional meets nouveau. The paper thin slices of lemon sealed onto the outer layer of salmon added a high note to this standard roll combination. Cucumber and avocado suddenly became exciting, their lemon infused flavors holding my attention for much longer than usual. I was impressed by the simplicity and effectiveness of this roll.

Soazik. Uni, ankimo, quail egg nigiri. The wild-card order of the evening. If the Jenn roll were a Mozart aria, exquisitely crafted and ease-fully light, then the Soazik would be a Wagnerian lied, deeply profound, deliberate, mystical. (A bit too dramatic for my taste--no pun intended.) Blending ephemeral elements of sea and sky, the fish eggs and bird eggs provided the liquid smoothness, the salt, the musk. This starkly contrasted with the more earthbound chewy monkfish liver, its flavor sightly metallic. While I probably won’t order this dish again, its complex flavors and poetic composition will be remembered and retold in the unpublished annals of Ann’s Wow Meal Moments.

We were done. Anything else would have been anticlimactic. Plus we had another stop to make before the end of the night.

Kiji’s prices were very reasonable, especially for such thoughtful and precise presentation. What also struck me was the slower pacing of the meal. Each course was presented at a point in time where any later would have given cause to suspect disorganization in the kitchen. But as a result, I remember an expansiveness, a timeless element to my conversation with Jenny. We chatted about our past four months in San Francisco, plans for the next four months and beyond ... the typical reflective and projective birthday talk of life and love.

Feeling the cool night air, we walked briskly, turning on 24th street, heading toward Noe Valley and our favorite 24-hour local donut shop, Happy Donuts. There are very few pleasures in this world that can surpass a late-night chocolate covered cake donut and cinnamon roll.

It was a fitting ending to our dining narrative--the apple, the sushi, and the donuts--and a fantastic beginning to a new year.

Kiji Sushi Bar and Cuisine

1009 Guerrero Street. (between 22nd and Alvarado streets)

San Francisco, CA 94110

Thank you, everyone, for the facebook messages, texts, e-mails, and phone calls. You made this day so special.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

El Dia de Los Muertos

Keeping vigil

While walking from my apartment to the starting point of El Dia de los Muertos parade yesterday evening, I reflected on the happy madness of the past few days. A confluence of many events--Halloween, the Giants winning the World Series, and Election Day--have stamped a glow on the collective consciousness of San Francisco. You see it on people’s faces, hear it in the small talk, and smell the wafts of cannabis in the air. Since last Saturday, every night has been a rollicking party in my Mission neighborhood ... and so I wondered what this night would reveal.

Glancing at my cell phone, I noted the time. Five minutes until 7 pm, the start of the parade opening ceremonies. My pace quickened as I approached the intersection of Bryant and 22nd Street, but already I noticed something strange. It was clear that my fellow pedestrians and I were converging on the same point, yet our strangely hushed demeanors and urgent pace unsettled me. It brought back a distant memory of being late to church on a significant holy day, scurrying across the parking lot after my parents, feeling unsure as to why we were in a rush, but knowing something important was taking place, something that I should not be late for.

Bryant Street was packed with bodies, and I headed straight into the pack. A plainly dressed man in brown holding a bowl of incense led the opening blessings, calling upon the crowd to vocalize. Vocalize exactly what, I wasn’t sure, but I bowed when told and blended my voice with the symphony of voices surrounding me. Staring openly at the fantastic representations of death, I appreciated the stark contrast of thick black lines outlining features on painted-white faces, visages artful in their grotesqueness. A sea of candles illuminated costumes portraying skulls and bones, made of feathers, lace, and leather. Slowly at first, the parade began to move forward, but as the drumming and dancing crescendoed in fervor and volume, so did the crowd. People played flutes, guitars, claves, bells, and whistles ... or they used their voices to accompany the hypnotic beating of the drums. Entire families with children and pets marched alongside the performers. It was often unclear who was marching and who wasn’t ... as everyone at some point did both. Camera flashes broke up the darkness, lending an air of paparazzi glamour to the gathering. And so I walked into the night, lost in the myriad of sights, sounds, and the smell of burning sage.

Mission Street

Hours later, the strains of the parade long faded, I came upon Garfield Park, where alters honoring the dead spoke to those alive, prompting us to remember, to make peace with the inevitable loss of even our very selves. A public shrine made up of hundreds of notes strung on clothes lines attracted passersby, who sat on the pavement to write personal notes to those no longer living. On this night, the division between the two worlds, the living and the dead, was suspended. I approached a small group of singers and musicians, swaying to their music, a lilting fiddle tune of eerie dissonance and charm. Gathered around an alter of candles, flowers, and statues of saints, their hauntingly mournful faces reflecting the yellow-orange of the burning flames, they were unrecognizable under the thick black and white paint; yet their honest emotions lay bare, unapologetic and beautiful before the cameras and stares of people like me.

Public shrine at Garfield Park

Grief, like joy, seeks its expression. And when that emotion is shared among people, the more intense and powerful its expression. Two nights ago, the Giants won the world series, and San Francisco spontaneously combusted. The instant the game was won and victory confirmed without a doubt, drivers pressed on their horns without mercy and firecrackers popped sharply in sporadic bursts. The alternating two-note ostinato of police sirens cut through the din, all the while accompanied by the underlying base-line “hum” of voices shouting. And my reaction as a quiet onlooker safe within the walls of my apartment? Hardly annoyed, quite the contrary, I felt my own inner excitement over the win reflected in the jubilant cacaphony outside.

I, like probably many in the Dia le los Muertos crowd, came for the spectacle of the night--the painted faces, the costumes, the music--but I walked home with my friends feeling deeply touched. I had not only looked, but I felt the sadness and the sweetness of those who held candles for their loved ones, the passion of the dancers and singers channeling their energy to connect with the sublime, and ... the silent tears of a solitary young woman in Garfield Park keeping vigil over a colorful photo collage, its subject a smiling and vibrant young man, perhaps her brother or a lover. It didn’t matter.

For it’s not the dead who need this night. It’s us, the living, who come together to give expression to the tender emotions we keep tucked away, shielded from the hard edges of our modern daily life. And whether it be the acknowledgement of a memory or a wailing song to the gods, it is a deep and powerful celebration ... El Dia de los Muertos.

A special thanks to Sidney, Ryan, Danny, Amy, and Josh ... fellow companions on this evening’s journey.

To those who have left us, you are not forgotten.

For more El Dia de los Muertos photos, click here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Go Giants!

[Returning online after a rather long hiatus. Jenny and I were out exploring our new town. Going to baseball games and whatnot.]

Play ball!

Horns honking, tires screeching, voices screaming ... so I definitely wasn’t dreaming that the San Francisco Giants had made it to the World Series. Mission Street was an impromptu streaming parade of cars and people decked out in Giants paraphernalia. Two fists with thumbs up reached toward me from the front passenger window of an approaching truck as I stood at a stop light. I smiled at the enthusiastic whooper, who proceeded to stick the entire upper half of his body outside the window. At that moment the light turned green, and the vehicle sped away, the sound of its blaring horn fading in the distance. Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, I sure hope somebody pulled that tipsy fellow back inside the truck. And second, I better hurry home before the happy madness turns into chaos. Seven minutes and two blocks later, I was turning the key to unlock the door of my cozy second-floor apartment. Home, sweet home!

Mission Street by day

The streets of my neighborhood have become familiar. I know how long it takes to walk from my apartment to my favorite bodega on 26th and Mission, my favorite bakery (Tartine) on 18th and Guerrero, and my favorite burrito on 24th and Valencia (fish burrito at Papalote). I know the idiosyncrasies of individual streets: which side is shadiest at different times of the day, where the hills rise and fall, and what sort of folk I most likely will encounter at a particular intersection. Like New York City, San Francisco is a walking town, and for this I am grateful. A section of road as small as three or four blocks becomes a sensory rich world when traveled on foot. Little changes in window displays of boutique clothing shops warrant a thoughtful moment of reflection, “Would I wear that ... and in that color?” The emanating smell of fresh coffee from a quaint cafe filled with laptops and their owners lure me to the open door, but I continually resist the urge to splurge by holding off until the next cafe one block down--throw a stone in any direction in my neighborhood and most likely you’ll hit a wi-fi cafe, each as cute as a button. And then the people ... these friendly fellow walkers will catch your eye, smile, and make you wonder if you’ve just forgotten their names and that if you gave it a few minutes you would be able to distinctly place them in a past era of your life.

The present era ... three and a half months a San Franciscan ... and a Giants fan. Sometimes I can hardly believe it. And in those moments I do feel like I am dreaming.

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Brunch at Ella's


When a hostess announces that the wait for a table is some number greater than 20 minutes, nine times out of ten I politely say thank you, turn to head out the door, and start mentally running through the list of dining alternatives in close proximity. It’s not that I mind waiting the specified 20-some minutes. What deters me is the possibility of eating the bitter regret that comes when the 20-some minutes quickly turns into 30 and still no open table is in sight. “Why didn’t I listen to my gut and leave earlier?” This first drop of a thought inevitably bursts into a torrential downpour of self doubt and indecision: “Should I wait just a few more minutes or leave now? What if my name is called as soon as I walk out the door? But if I go much longer without food, I may not have the strength to chew.”

Weekend brunch, however, has always been immune to this potentially sorry state of affairs--at least in my book. A model meal that encourages peaceful societal gatherings, brunch is the equal opportunity joining of breakfast and lunch foods, accepting and tolerant of any lifestyle or sleepstyle, amenable to barely sober late-night revelers of the previous evening, families with little ones in tow, or those who sleep through their alarms and, were it not for brunch, might otherwise have missed out on scrumptious breakfast fare.

The latter was our case this past Saturday morning, as Jenny and I quickly and carefully drove up and down the steep hills of Dolores Street en route to meet our friend Joe at Ella’s, a popular brunch spot just south of the Presidio. Between shifts from higher to lower gears and vice versa, I surveyed my internal state of affairs--was I in the mood for something sweet or savory? Pancakes? Eggs? Something off the beaten brunch path?

My mind was still turning over the possibilities when we arrived at our destination, unremarkable in appearance, save the huddles of three and four outside the tinted door. I could make out a dense pack of people standing right inside the entrance. There was definitely a wait, but it didn't concern me in the slightest.

Ever since my first brunch experience in New York City many moons ago, the word “brunch” conjures up feelings of excitement and anticipation, of Christmas parties and summer vacations, times and places outside the ordinary flow of life, where norms are ignored and subverted. The mundane rhythm of the workweek suspends, the daily three-meal pattern cadences into two.

Menus are even beefed up for this special weekend affair, and whether it’s the family with crying babies or the squealing gaggles of girls debunking their dates from the night before, a pervasive sense of festive casualness lends itself to informal behavior, the freedom of the weekend allowing for that extra cup of coffee ... or two. Brunch is, in essence, a holiday in a meal.

And a much needed one for Jenny and me, following a week of busy days spent unpacking and plodding up and down the stairs from our apartment to the garage, our arms full of collapsed boxes, bubble tape, and refuse bags destined for the the garbage and recycling bins.

Though I was prepared to wait the projected half hour or longer, we were seated relatively quickly. To my delight, portions were big, flavors were tasty, and prices very reasonable. The springy give of the curried cauliflower in response to my first chomp into my potato scramble felt, tasted, and sounded fresh. The melted cheddar cheese over Jenny’s silky fried cornmeal sang in my mouth, enticing me to take a second forkful. A chorus of tastes and sounds provided the accompaniment to the solo lines of our voices as we highlighted the milestones of over half a decade worth of happenings--since our college graduation, the last time I had seen Joe.

Every so often I would look over at my neighbors, also smiling, ooh-ing over their pancakes piled high and slathered in syrup. While still listening to Jenny and Joe discuss the intricacies of job hunting in San Francisco, I took in the rising and falling of patrons as they sat to eat or stood to leave, the acrobatics of servers and waiters with dishes in both hands maneuvering through the maze of tables, chairs, and shifting bodies. It occurred to me that under normal circumstances I would be looking at my watch, wondering if I should get up and leave, to make room for the next customer standing at the doorway. But I let these rather ordinary thoughts go, returning to Jenny and Joe. This was brunch, after all, and I was on my holiday.

Potato scramble with curried cauliflower, shitakes, grilled red onion, cilantro, gouda, and egg. Honey oat raisin toast.

Fried cornmeal with cheddar and green onions. Eggs sunnyside up and biscuit.

Folded omelette with bacon, spinach, oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, and brie with biscuit.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Driving Reflections

We just steered around a sharp corner along I-80 W in Nevada when it happened. The turn gave way to a straight open road when on the left, the sprinkled snow covered peaks of one of Nevada's north-south moutain ranges came into view. The puffy clouds receded to rays of sunlight, and at that moment, I believe I truly understood the definition of sublime.

As one normally averse to driving, I found myself surprisingly enjoying myself during the long stretch of road between the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to the ever lush green of Lake Tahoe. There were times when I felt completely alone with Ann sound asleep in the car and Suzy, so quiet since her radar left me following only a straight line of highway. With the radio off, my only sign of any companionship was the howling of the wind. In this silence, I forced myself to stay in the present, to keep my mind from wandering back to the past or from growing anxious about the future. My reward for doing so was really seeing (not passively looking) and appreciating the vast beauty of the land. The brightness of the sun bouncing off the salt flats. The shades of purple and green on the desert red rocks. The breathtaking sunset upon reaching the forests of California. I was able to experience all of this--the change from one climate zone to the next--in one day! And in making these observations, I also felt somewhat humbled by my own existence. All I can say is, one feels very small driving in the desert or in the mountains.

I was reminded of a quote from Alain de Botton's book, The Art of Travel:
"It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is overwhelming...if we spend time in it [the vast spaces of nature], they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events" that affect our lives.

I spent 10 days on the road...with many hours passing through nature...I assure you I still stress about events beyond my control now that we've reached San Francisco. Yet, I'm willing to hope that more exposure to the great outdoors may help mellow me out, that by standing in awe before such grand panoramas of land forms so close by, I'll often be reminded that I still have so much to be grateful for. Everything comes in its due time.

- Thanks Chau and Nicki for the reminder today

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Earthquake Box

“Look it up! We need to get one.” Jenny yells from the kitchen.

Sitting just fifteen feet away from my sister, I can barely make out her words as the clanging sounds of pots and pans accompany the sharp popping of bubble wrap and the extended groan of packing tape being mercilessly ripped away from its sticking purpose.

Jenny is unpacking one of the 49 boxes the movers delivered to our apartment in San Francisco earlier this morning, while I have been given the charge of investigating an intriguing commodity called an “earthquake box” that a friend recommended we get as a precautionary measure. Supposedly, one chains the aforementioned box--filled with practical things like water, food, first aid supplies, radio, flashlight, etc.--to one’s bed or some other relatively large and stationary object, so when the “big one” strikes, sending pots and pans flying out of cupboards only to land Lord knows where, at least the emergency supplies would be where last left.

The whole chaining idea had me skeptical though. I mean, “really?” So I sought a second opinion and consulted Google.

“Earthquake precautions,” I mutter to my fingers as they type the phrase into the search engine.

I click on the the first link that pops up. Nothing could have prepared me for the preventive prescription.

“Strap water heater securely to wall.”

It got even better ...

“Be sure your house is bolted to the foundation.”

Now my jaw is hanging, and my eyes are bulging. Firstly, “chain, strap, and bolt” are all verbs I would associate with a dank and dark torture chamber, not casual carefree San Francisco. Secondly, what the heck size bolts does one buy to bolt a house to its foundation? And most importantly, could I find them at Home Depot????

And here I thought Left Coast people lived spontaneously, but unbeknownst to me, they do things like strap heavy objects to walls and chain boxes to their beds. Well, I reason, it could be worse. Thankfully, I realize, I’m not a homeowner. For the first time ever, I feel smart about not making use of the Obama First-Time Home Buyer Credit.

I also realize that I’m hungry and in need of something familiar, something comforting ... something to remind me of home, far away from fault lines, earthquakes, and elephant-sized bolts.

“Jenny,” I call out, “hand me one of those pots.”

Fifteen minutes later we are eating our first “cooked” meal in our new apartment, a steaming hot pot of deliciously spicy ramen, oblivious to any care, save the splattering drops of red soup, as we slurp up the salty goodness.

Spicy ramen and salad