On Self-Respect

It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
— from Joan Didion's 1961 essay for Vogue, "On Self-Respect"

The Unbearable Heaviness of Eating

Many of our meals in Copenhagen included herring (here, fried and topped with red onion in brine, potatoes, and pork).

Many of our meals in Copenhagen included herring (here, fried and topped with red onion in brine, potatoes, and pork).

We arrived at the home of my boyfriend's mother, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, just a few days before Christmas. Her two Swedish lapphunds, Sigge and Silop, barked incessantly when we stepped inside, uncertain of who these strangers were. After all, it had been five years since my boyfriend last visited and it was my first time there altogether. The sharp barking ceased once the rounds of hugs commenced.

His mother, Jeanette, lives in a large three-story house that was built on a hilltop in the early 1900s and overlooks a lake. In fact, it's so big that it was transformed into three apartments in which to house herself and her companion Hans, her daughter Pia and teenaged grandson Marcus, and her grown granddaughter Veronica and her boyfriend Kasper, who have their own private dwelling in the attic with a puppy named Belder. 

After such a long journey, we were hungry and eager for a hot meal. Everyone bustled around the table, setting out dishes, pulling up chairs, and pouring cold beer into glasses. A board of traditional Danish dark rye bread sat at the center, ready to be topped by an array of pickled herring, rullepølse (spiced rolled ham), and Gamle Ole, a distinctively pungent cheese. A large brick of softened butter was hurriedly passed around.

The chatter was done loudly and Danish, though, I didn't much mind. I was a fly on the wall, witnessing a Danish family's weeknight dinner. "Jessica!" Jeannette called out from the other side of the table, in her heavy accent,  "I am happy you are here." As a foreigner, those magic words instantly made one feel warmly welcomed. 

Hans, being Swedish himself, carried over his pièce de resistance: Janssen's Temptation, a rich Swedish casserole filled with lots of potatoes, cream, onions, and juniper-and-sugar-tinged pickled sprats. I personally can't resist any home-cooked dish that appears in a casserole dish, but found that–aside from my boyfriend, who requested that dish–none of the others partook. I tried offering some to Pia, who sat beside me, but she smiled and happily pointed to her plate of rye bread and cheese.

Hans peered at me over his glasses and sighed, "Danish people find the taste of 'Swedish anchovies' too strong." Then, he looked at the table and announced, "I have a second one in the oven called Jensen's Temptation," he joked, "which has less anchovies." (Jensen is the Danish version of the Swedish surname Janssen.) Everyone rolled their eyes and shook their heads at him.

"Do you really like this?" Veronica asked incredulously from across the table.

"I love it!" my boyfriend exclaimed, shoveling a forkful into his mouth.

"Well then, that can be your Christmas present!" she deadpanned as laughter erupted.

Hans passed me a shot glass filled with snaps, a Danish aquavit. Soon enough, everyone had one.

"Be careful with this," my boyfriend warned, "People have been known to completely lose it after two."

Jeannette held up her glass and roared, "Skål!

"Skål!" we roared like a band of rowdy Vikings as we downed the shot. A fireball of alcohol raced down my throat. 

It would not be the last I'd see of dark rye bread, cheese, potatoes, cream, butter, herring, pork, or snaps. Day after day, they'd all make their appearance. Don't get me wrong, it was some of the most memorable home-cooking I experienced, but I started to feel like a Christmas goose whose gullet was being filled to capacity. 

After Day 4, I looked over at my boyfriend and wailed, "I don't think I can do this anymore! I just need clear broth and bitter green leaves!"

We were in bed, severely jet-lagged, watching The Americans on Netflix at 2 a.m. He had a made a habit of bringing midnight snacks into bed and I had made a habit out of indulging in them with him.

"Oh, stop it," he said, taking a bite of rye bread, slathered with whipped lard and topped with pickled herring. "It's the holidays."

Sigh.

"O.K. One bite."

 

 

 

On Lovers, (Girl) Friends, and "Just Friends"

I had a collection of lovers to keep me warm and my friendships with women, who always fascinated me by their wit, bravery, and resourcefulness, and who never told you the same story twice. Now, women I didn’t mind. I mean you can go places with a woman and come back just fine (or as my agent, Erica, plowed right in and said: ‘You know that when you have dinner with a girlfriend, you’re going to come home a whole human being”). I had a third collection of associates who were men but not lovers. ‘Just friends,’ they’re called. An American distinction if ever there was one. Only we would say ‘just’ about a friend. My ‘just friends’ were more reliable than most of my ‘just lovers,’ since ‘just lovers’ were always capable of saying, ‘Gee, you’re puttin’ on weight,’ or ‘Are those the shoes you’re wearing?’
— from "Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A." by Eve Babitz

"Bibo No Aozora" – Ryuichi Sakamoto

Last night, I got into an Uber to meet a friend for dinner at a Thai restaurant called Si Laa –her pick. As the car was making its way to Beverly Hills, the song "Bibo No Aozora" by Ryuichi Sakamoto came on. (It's on the original soundtrack for the film Babel.) The melancholy piano and violin melody tugged at me. It made me think about the major changes that have occurred in my life the past few months–my mom's death, my transition to L.A., and so many of the unforeseen things in between–all unfolding like a bittersweet movie as this song was playing, making this the most emotional Uber ride of my life. Not a tear was shed, but it was certainly welling up inside of me. I asked the driver about his choice of music before I got out of the car. "Oh, I'm a film composer," he replied, before I shut the door. Of course he was, I thought, as I walked down the sidewalk toward the restaurant. The music was still lingering.

Grilled Whole Mackerel with Ginger-Scallion Sauce

I like to tag along with my friend Bill when he goes about his Sunday routine, which always includes a trip to the Hollywood Farmers' Market, a wine tasting at Domaine, and a visit to Cape Seafood and Provisions. My favorite part of the day is when we go to Cape Seafood because of the element of surprise that's involved–we never know what we'll come out with or what we'll do with it. As a creature of habit, it's especially fun to go with Bill because he has a knack for coming up with the most spontaneous and creative ideas. In the past, we've made paella, halibut marinara, grilled squid salad, and gambas a la plancha, for example

Last Sunday, we did our brainstorming aloud as we perused the shimmering wild-caught gems behind the glass case, but couldn't agree on the Dover sole or Atlantic cod. What to do, what to do...

"How about mackerel?" Bill suggested.

Mackerel? Mackerel is such a strong-tasting, oily fish. Unlike milder, white-fleshed fish–or tuna and salmon–mackerel was an unlikely choice, to be sure, but I was intrigued. What could we possibly do with it, I wondered. 

"We could grill it..." he said, trailing off with raised eyebrows.

Hmm... Asian cuisine... Japanese! Chinese! It was starting to come to me. We could incorporate stronger flavors that can stand up to the mackerel's pronounced flavor... Like ginger... And garlic!

"Yes!" I said excitedly. "We could make a ginger-scallion sauce! And rice! It's gonna be perfect!"

This dinner took us no time to pull together. In fact, the thing that took the longest to cook was the rice. If rice is the most difficult part of your meal, you know that you're good to go. 


1 whole mackerel, preferably wild-caught, scaled and gutted
1 cup of uncooked rice
1 small knob of fresh ginger, approximately 1.5 inches long, peeled
2 stalks of scallions
1 clove of garlic, peeled
Soy sauce, to taste
Sherry or rice vinegar, to taste (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grapeseed oil or another neutral oil (if you only have olive oil, that's fine)

--

1. Cook rice according to instructions. (Bill adds a pat of butter to his.)

2. Preheat your BBQ grill.

3. Finely mince ginger, scallions, and garlic by hand or in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl. 

4. Start by adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt at a time to the chopped aromatics and incorporate evenly. Stir and taste. It should taste salty. 

5. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl–except for the oil–starting with 1/2 teaspoon each. Then, slowly pour the oil into the bowl until it just covers the ingredients. Stir to incorporate evenly. Season to taste and set aside.

6. Cut a few deep slits into both sides of the fish. Mackerel is already very oily, but feel free to lightly coat it evenly with oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill. Season lightly with salt and pepper. 

7. Grill the fish for 7 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. The skin should start to char and crisp up. Be careful not to overcook as mackerel has a tendency to dry out.

8. Serve with cooked rice and ginger-scallion sauce on the side. (The ginger-scallion sauce is tasty on both the fish and the rice.)