Week 1: Salsa Ranchera

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What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Hello! And Happy Mother’s Day!
Also, welcome back. It’s been a while since I’ve sent out this email diary. If you’ve enjoyed it in the past, I apologize for the long hiatus. And if you’ve not enjoyed it, I’m sorry to again bombard you with free content. (There’s an unsubscribe button somewhere down there.) The truth is that I’ve missed sending this out. I’m hungry to talk about myself, about what I’m doing and thinking. So I’m re-starting this list. Buckle your seatbelts. I’m going to send out more emails.

In its prior incarnation, this was a travelogue. I narrated, sometimes at great length, what was happening as I traveled in Tibet, China, and Thailand. But today the airplanes are flying three-quarters-empty, the border guards are bored, and pleasure travel is the exclusive province of sociopaths and the mega-rich (but I repeat myself).

The other night, Lisa and I spent half an hour watching a video someone took a few years back of a simple night walk around Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. We peeked in little bars that only seat five at a time. We admired elegant billboards and looked curiously at businesses with English-language names like Peg and BigBang and Bon’s Old Fashioned American Style Pub. Most of all, we jealously ogled pedestrians who were out on the town, faces uncovered, physically undistanced, residing in the normal world that is no more.

Has any time ever made us hungrier for connection? And for that matter, has any time ever made us hungrier? I miss street life, restaurants, jam-packed farmer’s markets, and big dinner parties. Those are things that nourish.

I am going to try to send a copy of this email diary out every Sunday. Like my travelogue, this version of my newsletter won’t last forever. I’m thinking of sending twelve or eighteen installments—if I’m having too much fun, I’ll choose the bigger number. They will be open diaries, letting you know a bit of what I’m doing and thinking, how I am touching the world—the sort of thing I might tell you about if you came over for brunch. And I will include a recipe. Not because I expect you to cook it. More like, it’s fun when you visit someone to watch them cook, and to hear them talk about what they’re making as they make it.

I’ll do my best to keep it brief. Though I’m bad at brevity. I’m sorry.

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These are the huevos rancheros from Cafe One, a little diner on the north end of Fort Bragg. They are, to my mind, the perfect breakfast. You eat them with a fork and knife, and each bite can be perfect in its own way.

The essential equation here is eggs + salsa + beans + tortilla. The flavors fit together so nicely. Rich custardy yellow yolks contrast with tart salsa. Corn-forward tortillas plays off the softly round black beans. Sour cream, avocado, and egg yolk are all fats, but each brings something special: the cream is tart, the avocado is sweet and green, and the yolk is a rich, sinshiney liquid that flows and coats. All the components are fresh and good on their own, but as a dish they become even better. Especially if you drizzle some Tapatio over the top. And did I mention they come with breakfast potatoes and a tiny wedge of watermelon?

I have thought a lot about this dish—mostly about how much I want to eat it, but also about how I could make it on my own. Eventually, I realized that the main thing standing in my way was having a really good salsa ranchera. (The canned stuff is, for this purpose, just not up to snuff.) The need to find a good salsa ranchera became more urgent in January, when we moved to L.A.

 

This is the week that the jacaranda trees decided to reach maximum purple petal. It’s also the week that the carpenters building the luxury condo complex across the street decided to enclose it in a pale yellow sheathing product that every four feet proclaims itself to be “DensGlass.” I find the two colors—one organic, the other manufactured—to be unexpectedly lovely, together like this.

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I’m a tremendous fan of John Thorne, the cookbook writer. His book Mouth Wide Open did that rare thing that Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat also did: it changed the way I cook. Both books gave me permission to deviate, often wildly, from written recipes. But while Nosrat’s book gave me a framework for understanding the elemental components of good cooking, Thorne helped me think about cookbooks in a new way. Before, I thought that you read cookbooks mostly to look for dishes to make. You might idly page through one, and if something caught your eye you could flag it with a sticky note. But that’s not the only way to read a cookbook. You can also read it more like a novel: enjoying the language, getting familiar with the peculiarities of the narrator, and letting the waking dream of a different world assemble itself in your mind. In the case of a cookbook, the world you visit is mostly a kitchen, and the eyes you see through are those of someone who loves cooking.

Now I mostly read cookbooks while laying in bed. I love it when their authors talk about different techniques, how they came to learn something, and what they were thinking when they formulated a dish. In this way I have spent time with the minds of patissiers, Chinese-American cooks, Persian-American cooks, bread bakers, and even that guy who started Blue Bottle Coffee. (He’s very intense about his coffee.) I cannot recommend pleasure reading good cookbooks enough.

But John Thorne also taught me that when you want to cook a specific dish, the opposite approach is best: take down every cookbook that you can think of that might have a recipe for that dish. Read all of the different approaches. Then come up with your own.

So, excited to make salsa ranchera, did just that. I took down Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday (with its bizarre emphasis on yoga, of all things), The El Paso Chile Company Cookbook, and one of my favorite books ever, Secrets of Salsa.

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Secrets of Salsa
was first published
in 2001 by the Anderson Valley Adult School, and it collects the salsa recipes and stories of the women in their English as a Second Language classes. Everything in the book is presented bilingually, in facing translations. The book design is beautiful, the salsa recipes are excellent, and all of the proceeds benefit adult literacy in Anderson Valley. According to the seventh edition’s introduction, Secrets of Salsa has sold more than 27,000 copies. If you account that mine cost $14.95 new at Matson Mercantile in Elk, that must be a lot of money raised. Beyond its incredible value as a fundraising tool, it is a powerful proof of the work they are doing in those classes. I think of the pride of these women in seeing their ancestral knowledge and personal genius collected and valued in such a tangible way—it makes my heart sing.

So I compared Bertha Mendoza’s recipe for Salsa Ranchera to those from my other cookbooks. The El Paso Chile Company suggested fresh jalapeños where Bertha used pickled ones, and I thought that made sense—especially with what I had in the fridge. I also looked at a few recipes I found online. I liked the idea of adding some broth to both thin the salsa and make it richer.

Eventually, I turned the broiler on and made my own version. This salsa is rich with flavors, moderately tart, and a little spicy. It gets better over a few days in the fridge, and in my experience it can keep for up to two weeks. (As with all refrigerated foods you have to use and trust your senses.) Lisa and I have enjoyed it over huevos rancheros, in burritos, and on baked potatoes.

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Jasper’s Salsa Ranchera

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10-12 roma tomatoes
3-5 jalapeño peppers
1/4 of an onion
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup strong vegetable broth
juice of 1 lime
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1. Halve the tomatoes and peppers. Array them face down, round side up on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, along with the onion and unpeeled garlic. Roast for ten minutes in the broiler—until the tomato skins are crackly but not burnt.
2. After removing from the oven, pull the skins off the tomatos and jalapeños (if possible). Also peel the garlic.
3. Throw everything in a blender. Blend. Salt to taste.
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Serve alone or as a topping. Store in the refrigerator. If you have more than you can reasonably eat within the next week or two, give some away or freeze it.

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Just put some ice in your beer already.
I don’t get why people are so precious about this salubrious liquid. In Thailand, everybody does this. And why not? It makes your beer cold. Then it keeps your beer cold. And, best of all, it slowly dilutes it! Learn to love your cold, watery beer.

I’ll see you next week

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Jasper

 

World-Building Essay Wins Award

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I’m pleased to note that my essay “Building Coherent Fantasy Worlds: Taoism and Earthsea” has been awarded the 2019 Library Research Award from Antioch University Los Angeles. The award came with a $700 purse, and I gave a short presentation on my research methods and process at a ceremony on May 15.

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The award committee made this comment in awarding the prize:

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“Your work ‘Building Coherent Fantasy Worlds: Taoism and Earthsea’ was excellent, exemplary. The committee was especially impressed and moved by the ways you traversed the concepts of Taoism and of LeGuin, both a melding and a juxtaposition of ideas and texts while creating your own small work to sit alongside those. It was an inspired and inspiring endeavor. Your use of library tools, the scholarship that the library collects, was well done, and allowed for a depth of interaction with the texts in question. And your paper, your writing, was a pleasure to read.”

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The essay circles around the subject of world-building—the way that writers of fantasy and science fiction create worlds that differ from our own but nonetheless seem believable. I focus primarily on the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, tracing the way that her lifelong interest in Taoism influenced her creation of the world of Earthsea. If you’re interested, you can read the paper by downloading it from the AULA Library website. I am working to adapt it into a craft essay for wider publication.
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(To apply for the award, I also had to write a reflective essay on my research process. You can read that essay here.)

A White Male Writer

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The literary journal Your Impossible Voice has just published my story, “A White Male Writer,” which I hope that you’ll read either on its website or in the print edition. Here are its opening lines:

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He was a white male writer, and—despite having kissed a few boys at a Halloween party last year, even letting one stroke his bare chest, despite the occasional fantasy in which other boys featured — he knew he was for all practical and self-image purposes straight. So there it was: he was a man with light complexion and heterosexual leanings who wrote fiction, and he often expressed this in the cultural language of his day. Straight / White / Male he wrote in the margin of his notebook during class. Then he added, Unwanted.

Of course he wasn’t really unwanted. If he wrote something genuinely good, beautiful, and interesting, others would read and enjoy it, and he would eventually find a way of getting it published. Likely his path to print would even be easier than most. But his writing wasn’t genuinely good, beautiful, or interesting. He wrote a winking parable about a vendor at a gun show, a venomous parody about two lovers at the Student Center’s Tuesday Karaoke Night. He wrote a thinly veiled piece of autofiction about an unpleasable boy who had sex with the same girl as he had last year, in the same bed covered in stuffed animals. They were bad stories; unequivocally they were bad. Some of his professors thought they saw here and there the germ of good writing, perhaps in his ear for the names of fictitious groups like “Sudsy Studs Carwash,” “The Union of Back-Up Singers for The Tone-Deaf,” and “Melancholy Celibates Anonymous.” It’s more likely, however, that they were searching for something nice to say, some morsel of praise to cantilever their very constructive criticism. He noticed that his creative writing teachers, resolute in their practice of crossing out every last intensifier on his drafts, nonetheless used them in great quantity when prevaricating about what they liked in his stories. “It’s a very, very believable scene.” “I’m extremely impressed by the name of this group, really.” (Click here to keep reading)

The Body Is an Object

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I’m happy to announce that Juked has published my story, “The Body Is an Object.” Here are its opening lines:

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We grow marijuana in the summer and smoke it in the winter. It turns out it’s a lot of work to grow good pot, but we offset the difficulty of harvesting by hiring friends to come up from the city and help. They like the extra money, and we enjoy their company, seeing their tents out the window over the sink, if only for a few weeks.

Some nights I stand outside the cabin, staring at the stars. It’s lonely out here. I know that Venus has set. I think that that one orange-twinkling star might be Mars. There are only a handful of rocky chunks circling our sun, each impossible to reach. The distance to the next sun is unfathomable. How big the universe is, with its trillions of stars in their little clusters. How big the world itself, and us all spread across the surface. Why are Annie and me a couple? Fate seems cruelly deterministic right about now, and I dig my bare feet into the cool soil.

I want to fuck Carolina. She’s Jasper’s friend; I’m not sure if they were a couple at some point. I don’t know why, but it’s just been burning through my head since they came up to trim for us. Her round cheeks, wide hips, big butt, her belly. I edge around her in the kitchen, and I feel her life force right there up against me. Nothing happens, but I smell her fruity cologne and she is a whole other world. I get turned on, making my toast as she washes out her mate cup next to me, and I have to take myself into the bathroom, splash cold water on my face. (Click here to keep reading.)

Bodie

In May, my partner and I visited Bodie, a ghost town on the far side of the Sierra Nevada, between Bishop and Reno. It was a strange place, a slice of the old West.

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