My Inner Picky Eater

What's the deal with hummus? I mean, seriously. When guests come to the ranch, they always bring at least two tubs of hummus. It doesn't matter if it's roasted red pepper flavor or roasted garlic with gold-leaf and white truffles, nobody ever eats it. You know why? Because there are OTHER OPTIONS. Nobody willingly goes for the hummus when there are other things on the table. (Don't be that person who brings hummus to a party.) Dieters, especially, believe that hummus is a "healthy" snack, but it's actually loaded with carbs and it tastes meh. Meh, I tell you! It's edible, but it's not fantastic, by any means. It certainly doesn't warrant all of the oohing and aahing that it gets. I've heard people gushing "Omg, I loooove hummus" as they scoop up a gob of it with a baby carrot and I just want to grab them by the shoulders, look them square in the eyes, and say: "It's OK. It's not that great. You don't have to fuss over it. Try the Doritos over there. Those are great." Dips are meant to be fun. Hot spinach and artichoke dip in a bread bowl is fun. Queso con carne with tortilla chips is fun. And, if you want something fun for your baby carrots, try whipping up a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch Dip with sour cream–that's fun. Garbanzo bean paste? Not fun. It's suffice to say that I'm not that into hummus. 

Or beans and lentils, in general.

Tell me, is there anything more unappealing to look at than a bowl of mushy brown lentil soup? You can try to garnish it with a sprig of parsley, but it's like putting lipstick on a pig. It's another one of those things that's marketed as "healthy." I'd beg to differ. A bowl of simple chicken soup is much healthier for you, and your stomach won't feel like it's filled up with slop when you're done.

You know, I never thought of myself as a picky eater. I eat liver and sea urchin and anchovies and headcheese, for crying out loud. I've always kind of prided myself on being open-minded when it comes to food. Only recently did it occur to me that I might be a closeted picky eater. 

For example, whenever I order pancakes with bacon and eggs, I always ask for the pancakes on the side because I can't stand when the syrup touches the eggs and bacon. And, speaking of breakfast, I can't stand omelettes either. I think people go too crazy with the ingredients: ham, cheese, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, spinach, turkey, sausage... I've even seen chicken quesadilla omelettes on a menu! Stop the madness already! I rarely stray from soft-boiled or sunny-side up because I like my eggs yolky, with the whites barely set. When you ask for them scrambled, it's never done properly. It's either too dry or not whisked well enough. Scrambled eggs should have a certain creamy look that takes skill to achieve.

Caramelized onions? Not a fan. Just because you get caramelized onions on your hot dog or burger does not make it fancy. It just makes it complicated. I do, however, like thinly sliced raw red onions on my burger, but not lettuce–because it gets soggy–unless it's shredded, which is fine. I usually skip the tomato too, due to the sogginess factor. For the tomatoey-ness, I can get that from ketchup. Plain or sesame seed-topped hamburger buns are acceptable. As are soft potato buns. Brioche is a no for me–too sweet. And don't even think about putting a burger patty between a ciabatta roll. Are you insane? It's too chewy. 

French onion soup. I don't mind the soup part, but it's impossible to eat gracefully because when you dip your spoon into the thick blanket of gruyère, the melted cheese seems to string on forever, like an endless strand of spaghetti. Do not order this while you're on a date at a French restaurant. This sort of thing can only be eaten if you're dining alone and your table is completely shrouded by a thick curtain. 

Bell peppers. You know how Nicolas Cage is always Nicolas Cage in every movie he's in? Well, anything that a bell pepper touches tastes like a bell pepper. It doesn't enhance whatever dish it's in, it just overwhelms it. Therefore, I refrain from using bell peppers in curries, stir-fries, fajitas or pizzas. On the other hand, I like them as cold and crunchy slices on a crudité platter, or as the star of a dish, as in Stuffed Bell Peppers. Let's just say they don't do well as a member of the supporting cast.

I'm such a purist when it comes to classic dishes and this could not be more apparent than the night that Mountain Man cooked "spaghetti bolognese". You cannot put chunks of carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, blue cheese, coconut milk, curry powder, and tons of hot sauce in ground beef and tomato sauce and call it "bolognese"! A twist here or there, like adding a splash of heavy cream, can still qualify it, but not a full-on Frankenstein situation. 

Swiss cheese, like the cartoon one with the holes in it. It tastes like rubber! We can also add Jarlsberg and provolone to this category. They're all flavorless. I mean, why bother? 

Meat dishes that contain cherries, dates, apples, raisins, currants, pomegranate seeds, or any kind of fruit or berry. And may I also add: no pineapples on pizza. Just not into it. Same with nuts. Nuts are totally overrated. Also, do you know how much fat is in a nut? Who can stop at six almonds? 

Rhubarb. It's so ridiculously tart and sour. Why is it used as pie filling? Blech. In the same dessert vein, toasted coconut flakes always texturally feel like they don't belong on whatever they're sprinkled on. Kind of like finding a hair that has accidentally fallen into your food.

Quinoa, buckwheat, bulgar, barley, farro, and other grains. I must not have the same tastebuds as a horse because I cannot down any of the aforementioned grains. Yet another thing labeled as "healthy". Listen, I've tried living on a macrobiotic diet for four months in my twenties, and grains were put on a pedestal, but, for slimming down, I'm all about the high protein/low- or no-carb aspects of diets like the Dukan Diet or the Paleo Diet. I can't stand when I see a "quinoa and kale salad". The kale would taste so much better on its own without those soggy clumps of quinoa!

Broccoli. Poor broccoli. It's kind of an outdated vegetable and it smells awful when you cook it, no matter whether you're steaming it or puréeing it into a broccoli and cheddar soup. My thought is, why not eat broccolini? It has a much nicer flavor and doesn't stink up the house. Or try cauliflower, which looks like an albino version of broccoli, but has a nice mellow sweetness to it. 

Chicken feet. 'Nuff said.





Unhooked on Hookahs

Can you find the hookah in this pic?

Can you find the hookah in this pic?

Crackling fire, hot mint tea, a cozy blanket, and nice music... What else would you need on a stormy night in the mountains? Apparently, a hookah. This was my boyfriend's idea last night. It's sort of this thing he likes to do to create ambiance. (That, along with wearing Tibetan prayer beads with his cowboy hat. He's a "spiritual cowboy", after all, as he likes to say.) So, he went about the ritual of preparing a hookah: filling it up with water, stuffing it with flavored tobacco, wrapping it with a piece of tin foil, and poking holes on top. 

"It's Double Apple flavor," he noted, as he carried it over to the sofa. 

Then, he threw a couple of coals into the fireplace and turned them with a pair of tongs until they turned into glowing red cubes.

"Look!" he exclaimed proudly, placing the coals on top of hookah, "I'm getting really good at this!"

It made me wonder if one needed to be a rocket scientist to make a hookah. Is it possible to f*ck it up? Clearly, I am, by no means, a hookah connoisseur. I'm not even a hookah enthusiast. I don't get my jollies from smoking hashish, but, sure, I'll participate for the sake of participating. We did a hookah with a group of houseguests who stayed a few weeks ago and I couldn't help but think that we all looked a little silly sitting around in a circle, passing around the pipe, and burbling on that thing. 

My boyfriend and I took puffs from it throughout the night as we sipped on tea and snuggled. Then, it hit us: a wave of light-headed dizzyness and nausea, causing us to promptly pass out on the sofa, wrapped in each other's arms. A few hours later, after the fire had turned into a pile of ash and a crick developed in our necks, we groggily awoke and climbed upstairs to the bedroom for real sleep. 

By this morning, I still had a hookah hangover. Major headache, much like a regular hangover. "I hate the hookah!" I declared from under the covers. 

I mean, really, what is so great about smoking a hookah? There seems to be a whole lotta pomp and circumstance that goes into preparing a contraption that looks like an elaborate laboratory flask with a hose designed by the Catholic church. Bum-bum bah-dum! All hail the hookah! For it is ready for all to suck on volumes and volumes of cold smoke that tastes like... Well, just imagine soaking cheap car fresheners in a bucket of water!

"Don't exaggerate," he said to me over coffee, "It was really nice."

OK, fine. I won't.



On Hosting Houseguests

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The most difficult adjustment I've had to make since moving out here to the ranch is having houseguests. And I don't mean the kind of friends and family that come around during the holidays or even the ones who visit for a weekend. I'm talking about a consistent stream of guests who stay for long periods of time. For a girl who has spent the last three years coccooning in her New York apartment, being around people almost all of the time is pretty overwhelming. 

It's funny because I've always thought the idea of running a bed & breakfast was quite charming–you know, to fully manifest your vision of a cozy experience and share it with new people. This is essentially what we're doing, or, rather, in the process of doing. We're currently building an biodynamic garden and planning to put an outdoor shower on the deck. During the day, we go on epic hikes around the property and, at night, we snuggle up outside under blankets to watch the moon rise with wine glasses in hand. I mean, it's simply too special of a place not to share. Naturally, who wouldn't want to come?

Hosting, though, takes a great deal of energy, especially when it's so frequent and for such long periods of time. It starts to feel like a job, and, for me, that takes the joy out of it. I have a natural instinct for nurturing, looking after, and taking care of the people that I know and love. But when it comes to people whom I don't know very well (or love), I'm more reticent. I'm still polite and accommodating and social, but it feels draining. In fact, to be honest, I start getting irritable after a couple of days. I think it's because I've grown accustomed to carving out my own private space and time after all these years that I feel this need to protect it.  

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make: I originally wrote and published a different version of this post in the form of a comedic rant. But then I decided to re-write it. The first one was meant to be facetious spin on the many annoying observations I've encountered, but I felt that it wasn't very nice of me as a host to use it as material. Everything was, of course, rooted in truth, but perhaps the ultimate truth, above all, is that I simply can't be around houseguests on a regular basis. We've had some really enjoyable guests, but also ones who don't know the basic etiquette of staying in someone else's home. It actually drives me kinda nuts. 

I asked my friend Charles for some advice. He has a house in the Hamptons where he has invited groups of people out on the weekends and seems to deal with it well. Charles agreed that hosting can be super stressful. "Laziness has been my policy," he told me. He has a laissez-faire approach where guests figure out the weekend for themselves. Because they don't have any expectations from him, he's not stressed by it. Maybe I should try that.

Going back to that fantasy about running a bed & breakfast, I think I've gotten a good dose of reality to make me realize that I'm not cut out for being an innkeeper. I'd rather be a gracious host to loved ones who come to visit every so often. That, I can handle. 








For Old Times' Sake

I wasn't hungry the same time everyone else was hungry last night. (I also wasn't in the mood for spaghetti marinara.) At 10 p.m., after our guests ambled off to their rooms, I went downstairs and found myself in the kitchen alone. Alone! Oh, how I've missed feeling alone. So what did I do? I reverted back to my old habits: I made myself a bowl of instant ramen noodles with a poached egg, munched on a cold cucumber, and flipped through a magazine–all while standing up at the kitchen counter. Pure satisfaction.

On Being a Guest

Many years ago, while I was on a buying trip in Paris, I attended a dinner at the home of an artist's widow. She was an elderly woman who was Spanish by descent and still fiery and sharp despite her age. As the after-dinner conversation lingered on into the night, she suddenly got up from her seat and asked the table, "Is there anything else that I could offer you? A nice dessert wine, perhaps?" Obviously, it was a cue that she was ready to call it a night. I graciously shook my head, but another guest, an art dealer, shouted out, "That would be lovely! What do you have?"

Unbelievable! I recoiled, aghast that someone could be so insensitive to her polite signal. She, herself, was taken aback. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "I didn't think anyone would actually say yes. I'm actually very tired, but, I suppose, since I offered, I should be a proper hostess."  She went into her kitchen, brought back a bottle of dessert wine, and poured him a splash. 

It's a memory that sticks out like a sore thumb; a reminder that always made me aware of what it meant to be a guest. Guests should be as gracious as the hosts, as I was taught. My father drilled it into my head at a very early age. I used to think that he liked to impose his rules, just for the sake of it:

"Never go to a dinner party empty-handed," he would say, "Always bring something. Like a tin of cookies." Yes, Dad. (This would later become a bottle of wine or something of the like. But he would bring anything thoughtful, really. Even when visiting a neighbor, he might bring over an interesting newspaper clipping or a sack of ripe pears from our tree.)

"Don't forget to pay compliments to the host" Yes, Dad. "Even if the food isn't good, tell them that it was a wonderful meal. After all, it's never about the food."

"And send a thank you card when you get home. A handwritten one. Nice penmanship; no mistakes." I know, I know—use a pencil and a ruler to draw faint lines and erase them after the message has been written in ink. 

"Wait until the eldest person or host has taken the first bite before you start. It's rude to dig in." Yes, Dad. I've always waited! When have I not done this?

"When you put food on your plate, don't take too much. Don't be greedy. If you're still hungry after you've finished what's on your plate, only then do you take a second helping." Got it. I'm very aware of that.

"Don't slurp or eat too fast. If you're eating soup, remember to tilt the bowl and spoon the soup away from you." I know! 

"If there's one bite left, offer it to the table before taking it." Sigh.

"Oh, and if you have to use the bathroom, turn on the bathroom sink faucet." Geez! Okay, Dad!  

As a child, it felt like a lot to remember. How can I have fun if I'm thinking about all of these rules, I used to wonder. Like all of the ingredients that go into a cake batter, everything gets folded in and fully incorporated. Before you know it, it's baked into you. I like to think of myself as someone who's acutely aware of manners and etiquette, but not a total stickler. Although, admittedly, I do find myself cringing at the occasional social misstep. What can I say, like father, like daughter.