Tasting the Past

November 6, 2014--

For many, the taste-buds are the gateway to memory. One bite of a favorite dish can send me back in time, and I've always loved the nostalgia attached to well-remembered meals. This is what drove me to write GASTROPHYSICS, my novel about a time-traveling food critic. To celebrate finishing the final (read: sixth? seventh?) draft of this long-awaited accomplishment, my husband and I treated ourselves to the literal flavors of the past.

When one of my critique partners mentioned there was a Boston restaurant that served medieval and Renaissance dishes, I jumped out of my seat. I'd just finished researching centuries of food preparation for Gastro, and the thought of tasting some of these recipes executed at a high-end restaurant sounded too good to be true. I had to find out for myself, so my husband and I booked a table at Boston's new Seaport restaurant, M. C. Spiedo.

(I will not go into detail about what my husband thought of the restaurant's name, but let's just say he pictured a DJ in questionable swimwear.)

M. C. Spiedo is owned by Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, who own one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, Ogunquit Maine's legendary Arrows. So, Mister Speedo-- ahem, M. C. Spiedo-- already has some points on the board in my book.

When we arrived, we noticed the restaurant's upscale modern decor with hints of baroque-- some tapestry-like prints here, velvet booths there-- and although it didn't give the real appearance of a historical restaurant, part of me was glad. I wasn't looking for King Richard's Faire, here, I was looking for kingly fare. 

And I wasn't disappointed.

The meal started off with a snack cart that came by, boasting small plates of historical origin. There was poached pear wrapped in prosciutto, a pate made of walnuts, spiced ham and orange salad, and a dish akin to deviled eggs. I'm always on the prowl for good pig, so I took the pear and prosciutto dish. The pear was firm and the prosciutto tore apart like tissue paper. It was heavenly.

For an appetizer, all I needed to see was one word and I ordered it. In the Medieval feast scene in Gastrophysics, my protagonist Alfredo is wowed by a meal served on a trencher. I'm one to sop anything up in some good bread, so when I saw this meat and cheese trencher on the menu, I nearly hugged the server with glee as I ordered. When it came out, I was slightly disappointed that it wasn't served with bread as a plate, but the cured and smoked meats were diverse, unique and heavenly. And then there were the cheeses.

Don't even get me started on the cheeses. 

Let's just say it took a lot of self restraint not to stab my husband for the last piece of Parmigiano. And yes, of course there was bread with it, but like Nicholas Cage, it was gone in sixty seconds.

At this point in the feeding frenzy, I couldn't help but gush when the waiter came over. I told him how excited I was to be eating at a historically-based restaurant and I sort of pitched him my book. Sorry, Jessica, I know that's your job. Anyway, he began telling me the story of how they put the menu together, and even had the chef come out to the table to help us navigate the menu for our main courses! Chef Michael Sutton came over and discussed the most historically-accurate dishes they served. We talked at length about some of the most famous old cookbooks-- the Medici family's, in particular, where the M. C. Spiedo team got their "torta" recipe.

Now, I'm going to stop for a minute and give you a minute to think about what's in the torta, because I wasn't prepared for it and I sort of made a scene and there may have been some Muppet-flailing. The torta is a pie baked with Bolognese sauce, meatballs and tortellini.

I'm sorry, WHAT?!

The sort of pies I was used to researching were pasties and meat pies with ale, not ones WITH MEATBALLS. The chef explained that this was an Italian Renaissance dish, an era I did not cover for this book. I began to feel a sequel coming on when he described this recipe. I had to have it, or, rather, my husband did and I leaned over the table and did a face-plant into it. 

For my dish, I had to order something that Alfredo would have eaten.

One of the things that so entranced me about the Medieval feast dishes was the fact that the sauces were so thick, they were the consistency of hummus. This was because it would stay on the bread trencher and not make a mess. How interesting! Plus, they were nut-based, a delicacy I can't sample at home because of my itchy children. I threw my epi-pen to the wind, however, and ordered the spit-roasted chicken in an almond and dried-fruit sauce. This was something akin to what Alfredo ate during the feast, so I had to try it. It was just how I had imagined! Yay for authenticity on both parts! The sauce was thick and rich from the almonds, had a zip of traditional spices such as cinnamon and clove, and the dried fruit really added a nice sweetness. The chicken fell off the bone, too. Next time you see the word "spit" in a dish's description, don't cringe.

Because the people at this restaurant are so cool, Chef Sutton sent over two particularly historic dishes that we didn't even order! A "green cauliflower" dish that was fire roasted and covered in pesto, and the Leonardo Da Vinci salad...a recipe that came straight from the genius himself's note-pad! I couldn't get over the hospitality and atmosphere. 

All good things must come to an end, however, and the hubs and I finished our meal with some historically-inspired cocktails. While I thought mead might be more appropriate for my dish, my 14th century barrel-aged Manhattan was impressive to say the least.

As we finished our meal, I realized that this truly was the perfect place to celebrate finishing the long-awaited final draft of my "Anthony Bourdain meets Doctor Who" manuscript. The food itself was high-end and lovingly prepared, but the recipes sent me back in time. This was a food version of what I wanted my readers to experience! Sumptuous but with sustenance. A feast for both the mouth and the mind.

Bon appetit, friends.

A Geek Finds Who

March 27, 2014 --

Ok, there's been a blind spot in my geek radar for years-- Doctor Who. I've been a Lord of the Rings fan since I was five when my physicist uncle read it to me. I was weaned on Star Trek because of my dad, who outwardly was never a nerd but inside he was a space geek through and through. I've been a gamer since computer screens depicted only two colors. All this, and yet I've never watched Doctor Who?

Well, I've finally decided that enough is enough. Many of my compatriots banter the terms "TARDIS" and "Dalek" about and I'd smile and nod, but inside I'd feel like a noob. What was the hype about?

I soon found out. And while I'm only about thirteen episodes deep, I think I'm a fan. Here are my thoughts about the first season I've watched, which was the start of the re-booted series in 2005.

For the first three episodes, I was wary. There were farting aliens, weird mannequins and over-all I felt it was cheesy. Then I thought back to the early episodes of Buffy and decided to give the show a waiver. If Buffy could become my all-time favorite show and have a rough year or two, then this could definitely get under my skin.

And by the time I got to to The Empty Child, I was hooked. What a creepy, atmospheric and overall wonderful episode! I'd come to love the ninth Doctor and his kooky grin. His companion Rose was brave, smart and very human. I liked their interactions and I looked forward to seeing more of their chemistry together.

When suddenly Eccleston was replaced with Tennant, my first instinct was to shout "Nooooo" at the sky. I'd just completely fallen for this character, and now he was going to be replaced? Already? We'd just gotten to know each other. It was unfair.

After watching the first episode with the tenth Doctor, I'd warmed up to him a tad. I was familiar with Tennant from his performance as Hamlet, so that gave him a buy. I haven't watched any more of that season yet but I suspect he'll be just as whimsically charismatic as his predecessor.

All in all, I'm hooked and proud to be among the ranks of Whovians everywhere.



On Spoilers, Social Media, and the Demise of the Denouement

March 17, 2014--

So, last night when I went to bed an hour early, I didn't really think there would be any ramifications other than feeling more rested than usual. I opted for Cosmos before bed (space dreams!) instead of The Walking Dead (Survival/horror nightmares!) and this choice actually had an effect on my life.

This morning, when I began to review the usual feeds-- facebook, Twitter, etc-- I was stunned by the amount of OH MY GOD #THEWALKINGDEAD I saw. There were sad faces, the term "gross" came up a lot, and it was overall pretty negative stuff.

Then I got hit with anxiety.

Now, this makes me sound like I have no life. I became anxious, actually, because I watch the show with my husband, and he's away all week so we need to wait until next Tuesday to watch both last week's and this week's episodes. Still, no reason for alarm. Just tarry on and it doesn't matter.

But, to be perfectly honest, I want to stay away from social media.

I don't want spoilers.

What has happened to TV watchers since the social media revolution? It's more than just a water cooler mindset; watching TV has become a group experience in ways that were much more immediate than just a few years ago.

Back when Battlestar Galactica was ending, a co-worker of mine created a "Final Five" chart that we kept on the wall in our office, joking weekly and updating our picks. It was fun. It was a great way to come back to work after a weekend. I feel like that would be the extent of my "social" side of entertainment consumption.

Now, if you don't watch a show when it's on, chances are you're screwed. I've had Downton Abbey spoiled for me so many times that I don't even watch it anymore. If anyone would have spoiled L O S T for me I would have choked a bitch.

But is all this necessary? It's silly that I want to avoid the internet for a week, but have we become so addicted to plot twists and turns that if things like this don't happen, we get upset? Take True Detective, for example, something I'd call one of the best shows I've ever seen. Last week's finale drew ire because it didn't have any kind of reveal about the Yellow King or Cthulu or Marty's daughter Audrey. People were disappointed by denouement.

The series was 8 episodes long. Now, are we demanding plot twists in the final 8th of a book? Or the final scenes in a movie? No, it's where things wrap up. Denouement is ok. So why are we accepting of it with literature but not with television?

Personally, I think it's the "discussion" factor. I think we need to talk about it, and talk about it immediately.  And slap a hashtag on it.


When a Good Premise Goes Bad: American Horror Story Coven

January 30, 2014--

The Seven Wonders, last night's season finale of American Horror Story: Coven, was problematic and perplexing. The plot holes were the size of New England winter potholes, the motivation was worse than when I try to get up early on the weekend, but that's really just scratching the surface of what went wrong this season. And last season.

First off, it wasn't a horror story. Misnomer. The first season was full-on terrifying, season two (while not nearly as good as season one) was creepy and atmospheric, but Coven was gory but lacked the emotion that would make the audience afraid. And the main reason it wasn't scary: there were no stakes.

You could die, then come back. You could gouge your eyes out, then get them back. You could die again and come back again. You could gouge your eyes out A SECOND TIME and get them back. (Fellow Whedonites: I know Buffy dies and comes back twice. This is ok because it's Whedon.)

Secondly was the lack of an engaging protagonist. First we meet Zoe, who...can kill you with intercourse? Ok. I'm quaking in my boots. Then there's what should be the ace-in-the-hole, Jessica Lange's Fiona, but she's just a sort-of-evil-but-nicely-dressed non-entity. We gain some compassion for her, and then it's dashed, and then we get more, and it gets smashed again. Kind of like the resurrection and eye-gouging stuff. Are we supposed to like her? Hate her? I don't even think the writers know. The cast of other witches had potential to be interesting and cool, but most of them also vacillated between being likable and deplorable, except for Nan. Who should have been the Supreme.

And...can we talk about the big "stakes" here? Becoming Supreme is supposed to be amazeballs, right? You are the head witch in the world, and you have "everything" at your disposal. Ok, so why did Fiona only have that one black dress and why did she just mope about New Orleans drinking? Show us why being Supreme is enough for girls to kill each other over! Also, guess what, you'll be reigning Supreme over...four misfit girls. Great. I did like, at the end, (much in a Buffy fashion, erm) there were tons of witches that joined up, but come on. Most of the season was like "Yay, I'm going to be queen of this handful of awful people!"

But there were some potentially awesome characters who were squandered. You had Kathy Motherfuckin Bates and all you did was have her spit racist comments and get dismembered (several times...hmm, this seems to be a theme). She starts to grow on people, then does something reprehensible again. See a pattern? Then there was Marie Laveaux. Can you say badass voodoo queen? She was the highlight of the show, for a while, then  they killed her with Benedryl and a spill down the stairs. Or something. I barely remember because at this point I just watched the train wreck. How do you screw this up?

It had so much potential. Such a great city. Such fantastic talent. But what they did was, yet again, throw too many balls in the air. There was a rival bunch of witches. AWESOME. There was racial tension. COMPELLING. There were top-notch actors and actresses involved. BOOM. And then let's add unnecessary villains, the Axe Man and the Witch Hunters. UM... And then let's have an unbalanced love triangle. WELL... Now let's throw in a weird council. YOU GUYS... And Stevie Nicks. DUDE!


Now, next season once again has potential. It's set at a carnival in the 1950's and Jessica Lange sports a German accent. To me, that sounds like a recipe for a creep-tastic season. Please, writers, take it down a notch. And make it scary, not gross or shocking. Take some cues from season one and give the audience what they want.

And by that I mean Dylan McDermott.