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Sucking the life out of a city

We’re just about at the two months to moving mark, as we’ll be heading back to beer brewing equipmentWalla Walla in January, a bit before classes start up again. This has propelled me into renewing my original intention to check out various eateries, classes, and people in Seattle while I still have time here. I suppose I could be beginning an affair with a sense of doom, but I’m appealing to what’s positive about this whole process—I’ve gotten to know a new city pretty well, I’m learning some new things, and I can look forward to spending time with friends I miss when we relocate early next year. Hey, I made saag paneer on my own last night and it was pretty good! I will note that I need to let the aromatics cook a bit longer when I put that dish together next time. Read More…

Interview with the Colville Street Patisserie Owners

Cain and ChristensenTiffany Cain and David Christensen represent a new generation of restaurant owners in Walla Walla. I’ve been curious about the people behind the newer eateries in downtown, so I decided to ask a few of them to give interviews about their lives as business owners, gourmands, and as part of a revitalized, local food community here. Taking over the Colville Street Patisserie in 2008, Cain and Christensen quietly began updating the items in the shop, giving the windows a new look, and making the place their own. David previously was the pastry chef at Whitehouse Crawford and Tiffany was the owner of The Weinhard Cafe east of town, in Dayton. I sat down with them last week to talk about their adventures in cooking, or more precisely, baking. French style.

EM: Talk about how you found your way into the kitchen.

DC: I started cooking just to feed myself. I’ve had a lot of fast food jobs, since I was 14. Diners, French fry stands, other places. Then I moved to Walla Walla. Cooking was something I turned out to enjoy. My mom cooked a lot when we were kids. It was all pretty good. She definitely made an effort to teach each of us how to do it.

TC: It was really a calculated move for me. I don’t like offices. I first started out baking. My mom was really strict with our diets, so I really was excited about making desserts! So that’s how I learned to cook. I just really love being around food.

EM: Tell us the difference between a patisserie and a bakery.

DC: A patisserie is a pastry shop. The emphasis is more on dessert, whether it be cookies, tarts, baked goods that aren’t breads. They definitely have a French technique, but my spin is that there’s no point in just replication.

EM: What is your typical baking day like?

TC: The sobbing starts.

DC: I try to get here at 4:30. Start the ovens, start with things that aren’t yeasted, like the macaroons, the paris brist, then the things like croissants go in around 7. By the afternoon we’re making ice creams and doing assembly for things like the individual tarts, mousse, and other fillings.

Fruit tartsEM: I kind of want to know how much butter you go through.

DC: You want to know?

EM: Yes.

DC: It’s 24–30 pounds of butter for the croissants, and 30–50 pounds for everything else.

EM: Where do you go for inspiration?

DC: Part of it is just having a fairly good understanding of what the classics are and how I can duplicate the spirit of it with a twist. Like the chocolate filled congolais. That’s not how it is classically made.

TC: It makes sense, though. Mounds bar.

EM: Maybe you could put an almond in the middle, too.

TC: He was able to do things like this when he was a sous chef at Whitehouse Crawford.

EM: Tell us what you’re going to bring to the case this summer that we haven’t seen before.

DC: More big, fruity desserts. Crunchy, more crumbly pastry shells. More melon, some other fruits.We’ve also been thinking about a fancy but low-brow s’mores idea, with homemade marshmallows and the macaroon cookie. And we use the blow torch, like for the crème brulée.

EM: Oh?

TC: We had some lemon marshmallows left over one day and we heated them with the blow torch, melting the outside but leaving the middle solid. And we tried them and said, oh wow, that’s good!

EM: What flavors or ingredients are you most excited about using?

DC: This time of year I’m really excited about strawberries. I’m really tired of using apples all winter. Welcome Table Farm has an early berry coming out soon. So does Klicker’s. Actually they have strawberries all summer long.

TC: I think we’re also excited to be making all of the gelato out of local milk from Pure Eire.

DC: They’re the only grass fed raw and fresh pasteurized milk producer around here.

TC: We can’t use the raw milk for the gelato. It’s flash pasteurized. And it’s really good.

EM: I see people bring their goods into the shop. Talk about the environment here for food producers, growers, and restauranteurs.

TC: It’s really changed in the time I’ve been here, about 15 years. The farmer’s market downtown was really small. Now there are lots of young couples in their 30s who own little farms. That’s really changed in the last 5 years here. You don’t have to look hard for them because it’s obvious they’re here. So 15 years ago people moved here or moved back. Back then there was My Grandmother’s Garden, that’s always been here, and they had herbs and other produce. Now there are a lot of places to go, and a nice camaraderie of owners here.

EM: What would you tell others who are interested in doing what you do?

TC: Idiots! No, no. If you want fame but not fortune, do it.

DC: Go find a place you like, bug them until they let you work, for free if you have to. You don’t have to go to culinary school to get started.

TC: Yes, find out if you like it before you make an investment.

DC: It’s good to familiarize yourself with how kitchens and restaurants work.

TC: I’m always a fan of the shortcut.

EM: As long as there’s chocolate inside.

TC: Yes!

The Colville Street Patisserie is located at the corner of Alder and Colville Streets. For hours, check their Web site.

Note to self: chai means spicy

I’ve got a reading coming up Sunday evening as a local performer in the Tranny Roadshow, and thus I wasn’t terribly surprised when the Union-Bulletin, the local rag here in town, contacted me for an interview. I mean, it would never have happened had I remained in DC, unless one counts the Mirror company as a reputable newspaper. As it is, the “U-B” as people (affectionately) call it, is a bit more than a stone’s throw from being a paper that one retrieves gratis from the brightly colored  bins that litter the sidewalk like plasticized hawkers near a carnival. Apartment Guide! Great Jobs Listing! FREE Yellow Pages!!

It’s not that I have anything against the U-B, it’s that people I like have things against the U-B. Their Web site needs an overhaul, for one, with a one-inch column in the middle for the actual article content, and a thick bar at the right advertising things I will never buy, even if I live for 100 more years. I just can’t get worried enough about my nonexistent prostate, and I am not going to learn some random mom’s secret for white teeth. I suspect malware is part of her solution, see. But really, my indifference to the U-B is that there doesn’t seem to be any real reason to get a copy. I hear everything I need to from word of mouth or my news feeds. I know when the WW Balloon Stampede is coming, and I’ll be there. The rodeo happens the same Labor Day weekend every summer. If a resident of Walla Walla knows more than 5 people in town, then she probably will hear about every event for the next upcoming weekend that she cares about. If I wanted to know what the Elks Lodge is up to, I need only walk three blocks over and ask them. It’s just not that big a town. And I’m sure they know that’s a stumbling block to keeping revenue up.

So maybe I’ve been missing out by not procuring the U-B regularly, and now that one can’t read their articles online anymore without subscribing (even the New York Times is cheaper), perhaps I’m too cut off from the goings-on in my own city. After all, Walla Walla is light years away from having any interest in a Wallist-type blog.

The other thing that concerned me when I got the reporter’s email was that my bleeding heart liberal friends tell me the U-B is unflinchingly conservative. Now, I don’t care what they do in their own home, but I don’t want that stuff shoved in my face, know what I mean? Just what kinds of questions were they going to put to me regarding something called the Tranny Roadshow? On the other hand, I’m the one peddling my sex change memoir to every agent I can Google, so I’m not exactly hiding in a cave.

I thought about her offer, and talked to a few people, and said okay, let’s meet up. We agreed to meet at Cafe Perk, in the middle of downtown, which granted, is two blocks wide by six blocks long, but it has a heart, damn it. I tend to go to this place only when I’m having a meet up with someone, because the Patisserie has too many people I know in it, and I don’t want to blow the feeling of just rightness that I have when I’m trying to bang out another chapter or short story with memories of invasive questions and avoidant answers, the kind of repartee that Sarah Palin wishes she had with Katie Couric.

I got there a little early on Monday morning, and ordered a nonfat chai. I forgot to specify a vanilla chai, since out here in the Pacific Northwest, “chai” means “burn your mouth out” and true to form, I felt the tastebuds on my tongue sizzle and die. For some reason this made it a little difficult to speak, like I’d experienced when I’d gotten my tongue pierced at 28 and the thing had blown up to twice its normal size. Three days later I was fine, I swear, but in the meantime I sounded like I was wearing vampire teeth. Great. Maybe my mouth would settle down in the next 8 minutes.

It did not.

She seemed extremely young, like 4, so maybe she was a prodigy or maybe she would just ask softball questions, not wanting to get into the nitty gritty of What It Means To Be Transgendererer. I smiled. She looked like she was from Minnesota. Very Nordic. I guessed her father’s name was Thor.

Gosh, she was just so excited to write this article, to run in Thursday’s edition. Usually she got to write about things she knew. I could picture the small and worn-out newsroom: buzzing fluorescent lights in the ceiling, desk calendars filled with notes (buy ham) and doodles (Obama with horns on his head) dotting the desks, a ripped section of carpet fixed unceremoniously with duct tape, and one very tired entertainment editor contemplating retirement as he reads the press release that just came over the fax machine. Trans what? Give it to the pre-schooler, I’m not handling this.

I decided to give her a break. If I was the first trans person she’d ever met, maybe I shouldn’t be a total card.

We talked about how I’d come to know the Roadshow even existed. It’s not a very interesting story, and hopefully it will be revealed in tomorrow’s paper. It’s true that I met my future wife there, but it wasn’t our first date. I was still in the wake of a crappy breakup with a crappy person who’d spent two plus years being crappy to me, but I noticed that there was a cute, smart woman at the show. So what if our first date wasn’t until 10 months later? When she asked me why I thought people should go to the show, I had regular, plain, somewhat accurate things to say, but I did flippantly include the “you never know, you could meet your future partner there” line. I’m curious to see if that made it in there.

She didn’t ask either of the two worst questions to ask a trans person, which, for everyone’s edification, are:

1. What was your name before?

2. Can you come to the ladies room and drop your pants so I can see your hee haw?

Both of these have been asked of me, one on many occasions. I won’t say which.

She did ask, however, how I identified, and I didn’t want to answer that one, mostly because I didn’t think it was relevant to the article—it would be like asking the bronco riders how they identified as rodeo participants—but also because I didn’t want to be pinned down for all of my fellow residents to read, at least, not until they all jump on some list that gets hung on Main Street listing their most embarrassing moment, because that seems about equal to me. But her manner of asking was nice, almost apologetic. So I said that these terms are in contestation within the trans community and that they have different meaning in mainstream culture, and I didn’t want to take all of that on in this one article as my personal legacy.

See? I should go be a politician. We moved on to the show and I said it would be a lot of fun, tickets aren’t usually free, and people should check it out. She asked why I’d pointed the show organizers to the local liberal arts college. The smart ass in me wanted to reply that I thought it better than sending them to the local Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints church. But honestly, I don’t know about venues in town outside of the college. The Fairgrounds seem a skosh too big.

The reporter was nice, nodded a lot, didn’t seem to want to make me out to be a laughing stock—which we all know I do quite well enough on my own—and I felt pretty good after it was over. Now we’ll see, tomorrow, what the editors have done to the story. And come Sunday night, I’ll know how much of a success it was. For all of the LGBT folks in town who don’t get a lot of open air gay time, I think this will be a good thing.

And yes, I’ll pick up a copy of the U-B tomorrow. It’ll be the first one I’ve bought.

Next to the Blue Mountains is a roastery

I come here on Monday afternoons because my favorite coffee haunt is closed, but truth be told, they make a very good cup of coffee at this place, which I suppose one can achieve when one has roasted the beans that very morning. This place also has the benefit of sitting at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, so if one cares to say, type on one’s laptop outside, on say, an overcast day in which one can actually read one’s screen, one can take in the beauty of snowcapped moutains, even in July.

Walla Walla, February 2010There is a downside, namely a professor from one of the town’s institutions of higher learning who tends to date his students. He does that lean in too close to gauge your reaction thing that pushy people do. I mean, this is never directed to me, of course, given that he seems to focus on people other than fat, nearing-middle-age men who wear wedding bands. I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet, I suppose. But he absolutely flees my presence whenever I show up. I’ve never said one word to him, though I’ve heard several of his conversations with coeds. One time, at the start of the fall semester, a newly minted alum sat across from him, at the table next to me.

“I’m so glad we waited,” she cooed, not nearly enough under her breath.

“I’m so glad you’re here.” He has, it goes without saying, unwavering eye contact. Their hands were mere inches from each other, teasing at touching.

“Summer took so long,” she said, and I felt a shudder of uncomfortableness go through me. “But it’s so worth it.”

“You packed everything,” he asked. My mind, against my will, flashed to a pill container of ecstasy, some bright pink rope, and a French maid’s outfit. I cursed myself for forgoing my iPod that day. I would have listened to anything to drown them out: metalhead, steampunk. Slam poetry. And I really detest slam poetry.

Before I was an unwilling witness to this grotesquery of a dating lead-in, he didn’t really notice me if we were in the same space. But since then, he has absolutely fled the room when I come in, or if I’m somewhere ahead of him, he doesn’t stay for long. I wonder if I’ve raised one too many eyebrows or if he realized I was disgusted by his machinations with the barely-legal set. I don’t speak to him, so I don’t know.

A few months ago I decided to conduct a decidedly not scientific experiment to see if maybe we were just two ill-timed ships attempting to pass in the night, like the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm. Well, that didn’t go so well, I suppose. But, I thought, perhaps this was just a schedule conflict. And seeing as I have this amazingly flexible schedule, well, why not sneak a peek into some kind of insight?

I have thus showed up at the roastery at 11am, noon, 1pm, and 2pm. And each time I come in, if he’s here before me or comes in after, he stays an average of 14 minutes and then skeedaddles. Sometimes he’s had to gulp down his beverage, other times he seemed to be blithely carrying on, typing into his laptop or grading papers. But in each case, he was gone, usually less than a quarter hour later.

I’m not sure what this is about. I don’t think of myself as an intimidating figure, in my Merrel sneakers and comfortable hoodie that continually proclaims “Capitol Hill”, confusing anyone from that Seattle neighborhood. (It’s for the other Capitol Hill, FYI.) Maybe he’s embarrassed that I heard him that day, which means he knows what he’s doing is wrong. Or perhaps I’m just so handsome he figures he has no chance with a pretty girl if I’m even in his vicinty, and the idea that he’s cock-fighting with me nearly drives me into peals of hysterical laughter.

Anyway, he’s around so often when I’m writing that I’m a little concerned he’s going to make it into one of my stories, or that sexual predatory-ness will become some kind of unconscious theme in my work, and then people will be wondering about me, not him.

And then, at long last, the terrorists will have won. Damn it.

White people’s wants

During the last mayoral election cycle in Washington, DC, I couldn’t walk ten feet before some campaigner would come up and accost me. Shopping at Eastern Market. Walking down H Street in Northeast to catch a bus. Drinking coffee at the tax-thieving, now-defunct Murky Coffee on 7th Street SE. It was at this last location that one of the candidates herself, Linda Cropp, came up to me to stump, one-on-one.

“I’m here today because I want to tell people that this is everyone’s city,” she said, a bright red baseball cap sporting her name perched lightly on her head, presumably so as not to mess her hair too much.

I wasn’t sure what she meant by everyone’s city. Back in 2006, home prices were skyrocketing and “everyone” was getting priced out of living in the expensive District.

“It’s a great time to live in DC,” she went on, explaining that city residents have a median income of $82,000.

“Actually,” I said, “that’s the median income for the DC metropolitan area, including Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia. The DC-only median income is under $30,000. And I disagree with your vote on the ballpark last year—that thing is going to cost us taxpayers way more than  $800 million.” I smiled, like tacking on a gold star to the end of a painful root canal.

She smiled thinly, thanked me for my time, and moved on. But I wondered about the catering I’d just had. Cropp, an African-American woman from Georgia, many years in DC politics, and she was reading me as another white gentrifier of a historically black city. And how could I argue with that? Wasn’t I white (as per the US Census), and wasn’t I making my home in a refurbished (well, kind of) 1930’s-era apartment building? Why shouldn’t she stump to my perceived interests?

Except they weren’t my interests, even as I called 13th Street NE my home. And I’d overheard plenty of entitled conversations from new DCists who thought that their mere presence was bettering the city around them in something like a 5-block radius. “I just got a raise, I’m so glad DC will have a quarter of it in taxes,” “This is my city now,” and other comments not worthy of the time it takes to type them.

Watching the racial demographics of the city shift, other conflicts began to rise up in the late Williams-era/early Fenty years. Let’s put microphones in “residential” areas so police can pinpoint where gun shots have been fired. Let’s crack down on kids lighting fireworks on the 4th of July—hoodlums! Let’s crack down on prostitutes, because Giulliani had the right idea. Let’s reassess homes, because a lot of people seem to own their houses outright and they shouldn’t get to skirt their contributions to the city.

Fifteen years ago the city was 70 percent African-American. Today it is barely above 50 percent. Twenty thousand people of color left the city last year, and approximately 40,000 white people moved in. With them have come the Harris Teeter groceries, a Target store, loads more coffee houses (still no Pacific Northwest-style drive through espressos, though), and plenty more overpriced little bistros and eateries. During our vacation last week we shared one salad and each had a tea and a small dessert. $45, no kidding. I’d plunked money down like that before, but my salary was strong, so I didn’t flinch too much at it, even as a nagging doubt that I was getting ripped off could be heard in the recesses of my retail-addled brain.

Is this the city for everyone? Is this anyone’s vision? The gay strip bars of Southeast are gone, having been displaced for the brand-new, immediately awful Washington Nationals baseball team. Loads of condo building are still in some state of erection, all around the stadium. Where they’ve knocked down historic row houses they’re now putting up old-looking, new townhomes, a Rockwell version of DC. The people who staff services in the city—the hotel housekeepers, the baristas, the employees at that gleaming Harris Teeter—can’t afford to live in the city anymore, so they find 60s-era apartments in neighboring counties and ride into town, where they used to live. Crosstown buses aren’t as crowded anymore, with the white folk driving in carpools or biking. Whatever it takes to feel Grrrreat! about taking up city space.

If there were ever a bill that expressed the dire financial condition of a DC and the revised alignment of its politic, it’s got to be the nickel surcharge for all plastic and paper bags that went into effect this year. Doesn’t everyone have three or four Whole Foods canvas bags for their groceries? They’re only $10 each! Don’t we all love our planet enough to get rid of plastic bags? As for paper, well, you’re too far gone if you like those, or you’re trying to hide your 40-ounce malt. Those people should have to pay more, anyway.

Hey, DC’s H Street commission banned buying one 40-ounce a few years ago, even as they didn’t ban buying a six-pack of microbrew hefeweisen. I could see where things were going even then. Interest-only mortgages were the hot item, and the new owners didn’t like seeing drunk guys in Carhart jackets standing around on the sidewalks. It ruined their views of the other new apartment buildings. I’d moved into the neighborhood myself, a bit north of Lincoln Park, a couple blocks south of the H Street corridor.

“It’s up and coming,” one lady on the sidewalk told me as I was moving in. She was standing next to a woodpile. I found this odd because it was early September.

“Is it? That’s nice,” I said, sweating. September in DC is akin to the fourth circle of Hell, for those of you who have never experienced either. I can’t really recommend it.

I asked her why she had so much hardwood on her front lawn. Her brown brick house looked tiny compared to the apartment building that abetted it.

She explained that she’d thought she was paying for it to be stacked next to her house, but that the deliverymen had just dumped it and left. So I stacked the cord for her, and split several—okay many—of the bigger logs for her. Unbeknown to me, all the little old ladies of the street watched me, probably with one eyebrow raised in question as to my integrity. I passed the test, and I noticed that they—I was told to refer to them as old-timers for their age and longevity on the block—would always give me a head nod or hello when I saw them. I wasn’t sure I was very different from any other neighborhood newbie, but I tried to be respectful and appreciative of the history they had here. I was probably going to be just a blip in the time span of this place, and as it turned out, 5 years does equate to blip status. When I needed help a few months later getting a new mattress into my 3rd floor walkup, one of the old timers sent her grandson out to help me. He did look a little perturbed at first, especially upon seeing the narrow stairwells, but he and I got the mattress to the top and I gave him 10 bucks for his trouble. And two brownies, one of which I told him to give to his grandmother.

I miss having a neighborhood. I’m certain parts of Walla Walla have them, with their little give-and-take agreements: your kid can play on my lawn, do you mind if I park my car here this week, how about going into building a fence with me. But living right next to the campus recycling center, and a student building, we are not primed for friendly neighbors. So I wonder what has happened to 12th and 13th Streets NE, where I lived by myself and then with Susanne. I wonder who lives in my old apartments, and if they’re as tentative about the space they occupy as I was. I wonder when it will be when I have real neighbors again. And I wonder what is happening to DC, and if it is losing itself as it loses the people who have held its history for so long.

Potholes never move

On Tuesday I met an old friend for lunch. She’s also a life coach, and extremely new age, if one can say that spirituality comes in degrees. She’s said more than once that there’s a reason I found myself in a little town as isolated as Walla Walla, since my writing wasn’t really happening in the busy bustle of DC. Well, I have oodles of time to write now.

She’s from Nebraska, which I can only imagine, having never set foot in the state. In my mind it’s somewhere between the musicality of Oklahoma and whirling dervishes of Kansas, a state for whom I can only name three places: Omaha, Lincoln, and Platte, because my grandmother had relatives there. All the people I know from Nebraska, who also happen to number three, know farm life well, remember it fondly, and are the kind of folks who proudly announce, when they first meet someone, “I’m from Nebraska,” as if we’ll all have the same reference point. I’m quite sure none of us do. For easterners who only seldom cross the Mississippi, Nebraska is part of the “other” United States. We figure they’re flying the same Stars & Stripes, as us, but beyond that, it may as well be the surface of Mercury. Now that I live westward of ole Miss, I know this isn’t true. They’re just like easterners except quieter, often working with fewer resources, and ruggedly independent. They don’t need the east like we think they do.

What I’ve gathered from my friend is that she is a 21st Century person born nearer to the start of the 20th. She’s never more than nine inches from her PDA, and she handles it with an ease that I, a Generation Xer, never seem to manage, always cursing at a typo on my texting screen and feeling the urgent need to press BACK sixteen times to fix my mistake. She just hammers through on her iPod or whatever new device has just hit the market. She’ll have an Android sometime in the next hour, I’m sure. And for her it’s more than simple, or even amazing technology;  it’s the universe helping us feel more connected to each other, because there’s a positive force that comes with being proximate to our fellow life travelers.

She’s helped me beyond measure, as she helps everyone around her with her warm smiles, booming laughter, and occasional quick frowns that pop up when she wishes you’d behave differently. She tells me that I have one of the loudest interior critics she’s ever met, and that the next time it hovers over me I should just tell it to go away and retire. Such silliness, I have thought, at these kinds of declarations from her. And then the next time I think about writing and I castigate myself for thinking I have the right to waste my time like this, I hear her:

Oh, you again? You know, I am really so sick of you. It’s time for you to retire.

Could it really be that simple?

I look around. Nobody but me is in earshot. I speak her words into the air.

And then I start a new short piece. One that’s been kicking around for eight years or so, and that I’m positive I started writing a long time back. I can find no evidence of it, but I have sharp visions in my brain, scenes and characters and a plot surprise at the end of 3,500 words. I hate starting something all over when I know there’s even a piece out there, my wounded Marine on the battlefield that I’ve promised to retrieve.

I give up the ghost and start over, figuring that at least this way I won’t be burdened by past efforts.

I thank my friend for helping me with a sageless exorcism.

This trip has been good for pieces of me I’ve neglected since moving out west—the ones with unbridled optimism, the sanctuary for my bones by the old and familiar, the joy that comes with knowing how to avoid every pothole on a certain road you haven’t traveled in a long while. It shows me what I’m missing from Walla Walla, even though there are many things I enjoy and even love about that place. I’m missing the fullness of a boisterous life. I don’t know as many opinionated, brash people, have as many options, or have to tune out much noise. Even the frequent wailing of firetruck sirens has heartened me since we returned to the nation’s capitol, the only time Susanne has been here since President Obama took office. Walla Walla doesn’t have enough noise for me, although its springs come close to meeting my requirements for color, with the bright green, baby wheat, bold blue skies, and rainbow-infused balloons during the annual hot air stampede. I can relish Walla Walla for the quiet and agree with my Nebraskan friend that it’s given me—forced me, even, into—writing time, pushing me to reconsider what success means and who I am capable of being in this lifetime.

But while I’m here in DC, I can at least try to unite these selves—past and present—a little, and enjoy all of the good things in my life, which starting with Susanne, are plentiful.

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