Monday, March 26, 2007

Beyond Lemonade

I believe there is a similarity between cooks and air traffic controllers. There is an art of keeping dishes airborne, a skill of precision timing and temperature memorization that keeps at once vanilla soufflés rising, lemon candies glazing, and canollis deep frying in a moment of controlled culinary struggle between trying to get the highest quantity of perfectly flaky deserts and not setting off the fire alarm.

I was a bit lost in my Saturday “Cooking with Lemons” class.

It might have been the deception of title of the course because the truth of pastry cooking is that it is never about lemons; it is always about the cardiac trio of eggs, sugar, and flour. From a construction perspective they form respectively the cement, paint, and wood of the structure being built. Lemons are more the furnishing, a few nice chairs being added to the room or the vase in the corner that distracts the eye. It is what you remember about a place. But without a context it would be lost like junk at a yard sale.

The instructor just assumed that we would have ten large eggs separated into whites and yolks. He actually insisted on extra large eggs for a better protein ratio. I lost the reason as he then went into how you should put racks at the bottom of the stove and then on to another point about how to butter a pan. My notes couldn’t keep up with his constant shifting dialog.

Perhaps at my best I could do one pie at a time, but he was determined to do four deserts at once: A chocolate dipped canollis with lemon marscarpone toasted almonds; a Mexican lime, mango and tequila cassata; a lemon and white chocolate tart; and a lemon and strawberry crème fraîche torte. He made the caramel for one at the same time as he worked the crust for another. A sous-chief in the background kept stirring and kneading, and a dishwasher came in halfway through the demonstration to wash the entire Williams Sonoma catalogue of whisks, graters, and bowls he used, but these were meant to be background players to his egg orchestration.

“Remember to get the sugar and water to exactly 238 degrees,” he said. “Sometimes it will get to 231, and you think you are done. But then it will shoot to 238 and if you don’t pay attention you will have only a film left,” he gave as a warning.

I think that was about the mango cassata. The truth is I understand the various cooking temperatures about the same way as I grasp Ashcroft terror levels of green, yellow, orange, and impending doom. Nervous about botching my recipe I highlighted the importance of 238 like it was a universal constant such as the speed of light or the number of phone calls it takes get a girl to go out with you. He then said if it was foggy outside it might have to be slightly higher. I now had fears about having to be a meteorologist as well.

Pastry cooking is hard.

With the kitchen aid blender whirling egg whites, he summoned us over to give us a better sense of when sponge cake has proper texture. We each poked into three sections to measure the bounce.

Perhaps this is the solution of how to manage the process. Perhaps we need to learn how to bake by feel. The thirties for me and my friends has been a constant balancing of hopes and hobbies, of relationships for some blessed with trying to navigate new additions and for others brutal conversations about falling apart in therapy, of careers that rocket up a management ladder or wind up being a never ending series of interviews for third rate companies. It seems at times we have been separated into our own egg parts with one batch for those who look like they have made it and the other that is a deflated soufflé.

It is not so much that our generation wants have our cake and eat it too; it is that somehow we are trying to do four deserts at once. And in this struggle some have figured out how to manage the mishaps of the world when there is still time to adjust the heat. Some are still trying to figure out the dough.

Watching our cooking instructor I still how no idea how he could have so many pots going much less figure out what spoon went with which dish. I thought he must be some savant, a figure that had time going much slower the way the pitches must seem slower to Barry Bonds or the end of Bush’s presidential term for the rest of us.

And then he made a mistake. He was finishing up the Mexican lime, mango and tequila cassata and was about to put into the refrigerator when a woman seated in the row in front of me asked “Shouldn’t you add the mango?” He was human after all.

He quickly apologized for missing the fruit. The desert without the fruit would have just been lime and tequila which certainly is good on a tropical vacation or a memorable second date, but not the art he had hoped.

The sous-chef who had been quiet mentioned that she would not have let him put the cassata in without the mango, and I realized that the only way we can make it through this busy world isn’t just on our sense of feel. We make it with the help of others. The world isn’t quite Netwon’s idea of standing on the giants who came before us, but I believe it is more of a place where we are elbow to elbow with each other in the kitchen (and with global warming we have kind of left the stove on). We need each other to check to see if something is burning. We need people to remember our mango.

And while I can’t say I left the demonstration with a deep grasp of how to make pastries I can say that not only did I get four wonderful deserts for lunch, but also learned the answer to the deeply philosophical question of how many does it take to mango.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Gliding Through the World: Gold Rush Race Report

I came in dead last again. The first time I came in last in a race with TNT in 2005 it was kind cool in a complete beginner way. But after a couple of years in the sport I had hoped to make some progress.

The race for me was over before it started. Not only was everyone was dressed in spandex, but they had the body types that suggested this wasn’t a bad idea. The pro teams (Salomon, Fisher, and Subaru) made up the front row. The next row was the local club teams such as Far West Nordic or the local high school. I was in the third row and was dropped faster than Donald Rumsfield after the midterm elections. There is a rule of poker that if you can’t figure out the idiot at the table, it probably was you. There were only about five skiers around me down the first hill, but I had little doubt who was missing a screw.

At least I thought that was only a metaphor going down the first hill. When I was putting on my skis, a spectator on the balcony above shouted that something dropped of my left ski. I quickly picked it up, put it in my pocket and told the guy that it must have been garbage. I had brought my skis in the day before to the shop to have them waxed and then figured it must have been something they had put on the ski. I didn’t think much of the Greek chorus on the balcony. In retrospect it was a bit like going to the beginning of a bike race and someone shouting out that there seemed to be a few gears left on the ground.

The release lever on my left binding was broken. It could not lock and as it was hit by snow would raise into the eject position. A small bump would then discard the ski, and I would be left with a single ski heading down the slope. The good news for the first lap was there wasn’t much loose snow on the trail. The course was a solid layer of ice having gone from temperatures in the mid sixties to freezing overnight. Snow plowing wasn’t any more affective than prayer on the descents. It was, as they say back east "wicked fast," and I gained strong momentum barreling down the hill.

The first ski ejection didn’t happen until the second turn. As I skidded first on my knees then on my belly I watched the last five skiers speed off into the distance. It was the final time I saw a fellow racer on the same lap. I ejected once more on the first lap, but for the second lap the snow had started to soften and I ejected six times. I started to make a routine of slowing ever so often to press down on the release lever and knock out what ever snow had accumulated. This worked well for the third lap.

I don’t want to make an equipment excuse for the race. I believe that you are responsible for your own gear. The race field was so strong that I doubt it would have made that much difference in overall placement. While I was recovering and putting on my ski I was resting and that had to have helped ski stronger in other places. I figure the net of equipment loss combined with a misplace turn was about five minutes which would have gotten me close enough to see other racers.

It was, however, a great day to be at Royal Gorge. With clear skies, the sierras were majestic, and the snow was so fast that I wound up with a personal best for the distance. Everyone did well; the course record was broken by a US Olympian who was the year behind me in school. It is an odd sport that sixty bucks gets you 81 spots behind Olympic competition. The only good news is that racing against the pros (other than watching amazing form) is that the equipment representatives are at the race as well. The wife of the Salomon rep was at the finish and was actually amazed that I had gone 30 miles on a broken binding. She offered to get me a new set of bindings and then commented how I should get better skis.

Still I am frustrated that I couldn't have done better. There is the notion that we should continually improve, that we learn from our mistakes and strengthen from our training. I don't want to be the "Charlie Brown" of skiing who constantly gets the football pulled away from him. I don’t want to be the replacement skier for the Wild World of Sport’s "Agony of Defeat." I want there to be joy in Mudville. I want Bill Buckner to field that grounder.

But the nature of sports is that there are those who finish last. Champions need people to thwart. I know that I want the reputation of a hero who wins gracefully, but that doesn't seem to be my casting in these endeavors. Instead I am out there both overmatched and under-equipped trying to make it around long after the glory has passed. I am there to give context to the struggle, to give the benchmark of the ordinary. I am out there to seize the best of what I have and to keep going even if means gliding through the world on broken skis. I am there to race.

Monday, March 05, 2007

California Dreaming on Such a Winter's Day

The legal boundary for gambling is the state line between California and Nevada, but for those with a keener sense of risk, the real challenge is the wintertime drive on route 80 as it heads over the mountain pass. Like all bets the drive can look deceptively simple. On a clear day traffic speeds along at times great than seventy miles an hour on two lanes: one that is almost reserved for the 18 wheel trucks and the other for their smaller gas guzzling cousins, suv’s. On those good days the mountains are less than four hours away from San Francisco, and the allure of spending weekday life at sea level and weekend life skiing on Olympic quality resorts has created a Gortex migrant class. Thousands go to the mountains in hopes of a weekend concoction of deep powder, blue skies, private hot tubs, and micro brewed beer. Most weekends this quadriceps indulgent lifestyle can be achieved.

But there are those other weekends when the gamble goes the other way; sometimes it snows. The book, The Perfect Storm, was about a series of weather coincidences that lead to massive waves in the Atlantic and George Clooney to try to speak with a Maine accent. Storms along Donner Pass up this ante; as bad as it got for Clooney he never decided to eat Mark Walberg. The mountain ridge is a jagged comb that clouds from the pacific scrape against as they head west. The week before the Great Ski Race it snowed 18 inches on three consecutive days, and I tried to do my best to make it over the pass.

I had rented a four wheel SUV from Hertz and decided to splurge on the $25 dollars worth of insurance. I was at a friends 40th birthday party and when I woke the next day and realized the combination of margaritas I had the night before wasn’t going to mix very well with trying to hit the slopes I got in the car and headed home. I was waved through a highway check that mad sure all vehicles had either chains or four wheel grip.

They don’t check, however, if the drivers have any understanding of physics because my journey home was filled with answers to high school problems of what would happen if a large mass hit a frictionless surface at a certain velocity. The times I slid were moments of chance. As I headed toward the snow bank on the side of the road there wasn’t much more I could than simply hope that something caught the pavement. I was lucky. Once the wind caught the truck directly ahead of me and pushed it one lane over. Another time with a different truck it sent it diagonally down the road before the truck managed to pull out and just avoid the 18 wheeler coming over the hill.

At least these were the times I could see. There were a couple of instances when the wind was blowing so strong at the drifts on the side of the road that I could not see the truck a few feet ahead of me, a white out. In one of my perhaps dumbest driving moments I tapped on my breaks because I wasn’t sure if the car a few feet behind me could see me either. I don’t know what it is like to drive through smoke at the Dayton 500, but I will admit that I was stupid enough to try to drive blind.

I think this idiocy of trying the pass might be the sieve that makes Easterners think all Californians are kooky. Those from the older states grew up with Snow Days and approach such conditions with the concept of there are times that one should not be out driving. This practical philosophy doesn’t occur to the Golden State where the ability to drive is almost in the state constitution, and the horror of missing a Monday meeting is almost unforgivable. The thing about being snowed in at the East is that everyone is. On the west coast, there is a good chance that your clients aren’t.

I did finally make it home in time for my father’s 71st birthday and was bright eyed enough for my banking job the rest of the week. A little bit of fear still lingered though as I knew I was heading up the next weekend to go once again over a mountain pass. Only this time, I would do it without a car.

The Great Ski Race goes 18 miles from Tahoe to Truckee. In its thirty second year it is a fundraiser for the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, an organization that aids those skiers who have made extremely bad turns. It did seem a little strange to have a race that was about helping people get out of the wilderness would send just under two thousand into it, but this is the kind of irony that my brain shutdown in elevation.

Since the route is a point to point, there is a bus that takes those who park at the finish to the start. The weather looked liked it was going to be gorgeous as I waited in the parking lot. I watched slow moving sunrise was a dark shade of amber and then turned around to catch the moon set under the mountains.

With my weather fears slowly dissipating, I quickly found a new source of anxiety: the competition. Someone shouted asked the guy four people back from me whether he was planning on doing Western States, the 100 mile race through the mountains.

“No,” he replied, “not this year,” as if there were other years that he would have thought this was a sensible idea. The guy seated next to me on the bus ride was an ironman triathlete which took him about three minutes for him to mention in the same way that people from Harvard name drop their alma mater. He then talked about how he done really well at a twelve hour adventure race and how great his training was coming along. I do not know why I tend to be the recipient of these types of discussions, but I do think the khaki pants and 49er sweatshirt I wore as an outer shell before the race started didn’t really intimidate enough.

I did discover the one subject that will go on longer than a triathlete discussing his bike: a cross country skier talking about the wax on his skis. The largest example of how I am hack skier is that I really don’t have an opinion about wax; I just go to the ski shop and ask them to put on the race quality stuff. In the race skiing world this is as blasphemous as a Trekkie not having an opinion about who was a better captain between Kirk and Picard. The wax comes in skittle like color schemes suited for precise range of temperatures, moisture content, and snow age. There is usually a base and then a layer on top. The expensive stuff, the high fluorocarbon, needs to be applied in a well ventilated room, and at the Olympic is a closely guarded secret held by teach team’s wax technician, the skiing equivalent of porn’s fluffer. The guy on the bus next to me went on about his diagonal grooving and I was lucky enough to escape of the bus before he started into how he rescrapes his skis.

Standing in the starting coral after dropping off my sweatshirt and pants to be taken to the finish, I was able to get a glimpse of the other competitors and it was the largest collection of big beards I have ever seen in a race. Prospector chic never seemed to left the area, and I wondered how much warmer these mountain men would be in their home element than me.

Still there were a few reassuring moments that even though it was suppose to be a race, the most important part was to have fun. A group of women dressed up in Wizard of Oz costumes and another had a rabbit costume. Right before the third wave started a guy came out wearing only his bib and a Speedo. I began to think that this race was going to be the skiing equivalent of the bay to breakers if it were, of course, twice as long, held at altitude and went over a pass.

As the race waves went off, I had worked to get towards the front of my wave only to discover that I had misread the sign and that my wave was the one right ahead. I quickly jumped the rope and found myself at the back.

The course description is rather simple: you go up for eight miles and then you go down for ten with some rolling bumps to keep you honest. The eight miles is never super steep the way some bike rides throw stuff at you with names like Nasty Grade or the Marshall Wall. But while there are no deep moments of panic, there isn’t much of a break. It is a steady constant push like the opening chords of Led Zepplin’s Kashmir, a constant pounding as if you plugged yourself into a stair master at frappe setting for over an hour. Then after your legs have squeezed every last atp molecule out, you ski down the backside with the same kind of hope I had in the storm crossing with my car, of sliding correctly though not necessary at all stable around the switch back turns.

The good news is that they serve soup on the course, and the view is spectacular.

It was a great day to be outside, and I did my best to push myself up the slope. It was the first race that I have actually had skiers near me; on one prior race I was dead last at forty minutes behind the next skier . I have not learned how to ski while avoiding the person next to me polling territory faster than the land grant in Oklahoma and hope I was kind to my fellow racers. Once the starting frenzy had subsided, I was with a polite crowd for most of the day though my main competition wound up being a couple of junior high school girls a third of my age. At the very end of the race is a steep chute and I did a quality face plant before watching those two finish ahead of me. My only consolation was that instead of their red wristband, I got a green one that let me have one of the free beers at the end to help anesthetize my pounding legs.

The Great Ski Race lived up to its name. There was an abundant friendliness in the after party where it seemed everyone knew everyone. I saw the guy who wore a speedo clothed and warm, and the group of Oz characters finished the race with arms linked together like the movie’s Dorothy and Scarecrow. It was nice to bask just a bit in the local scene and the satisfaction that comes from the lunacy of a mountain crossing before I hopped in my car and headed home.