Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ode to Trader Joe's

As I eat some vegetarian chili, I thought I would sing, or rather type the praises of my favorite Philadelphia institution: Trader Joe’s. Ok—I realize that Trader Joes is not native to Philly. I have vague memories of a trip down their wooden checkout isles in Westchester the year before I started college, and I think a friend told me it originated out in LA. But because I never knew the wonders of this world of cashiers wearing Hawaiin-themed shirts, isles named after local streets, affordable bulk packages of organic and ethnic food, and ten varieties of hummus (that’s just a ballpark—it could be 8 or 12) I’m calling it a Philadelphia institution.

A friend told me her father knew the owner and that the target audience was college professors. Perfect! If I love it now, I’m assuming I’ll love it even more when I hopefully get my degree in around 4 years from now.

So why is it so wonderful? Trader Joe’s is not just a food market. It’s a topic of conversation. And there’s really no equivalent in New York. People might talk about nova from Zabar’s or exotic produce from Grace’s but there’s no place that makes for a talking point like Trader Joes. (Maybe it has something to do with the cost-factor. Afterall, it’s a rare occasion that people my age living in New York City frequent shops where you can pay close to two dollars for a peach). But Trader Joe’s—well, that’s a whole other story. Almost every person I speak to around here has a Trader Joe’s tip. And they talk about it with the same enthusiasm you might have about an article of clothing you bought on a serious sale—so talking about Trader Ming’s teriyaki stir fry sauce the way you might about velvet blazer from the Gap that looks designer but sold for 39.99. My personal favorites—in case you were wondering—are the frozen edamame, the garlic eggplant dip (kind of tastes like babaganoush, the unsalted, roasted almonds packaged by individual serving, that Italian Tongol canned tuna, the olive and goat cheese tapenade that you find near the hummus, and the small caramel wafers (they have a Dutch-sounding name that I can’t remember at the moment, but a friend introduced me to them and they’re just delicious!) I could pass along all the tips I’ve heard but perhaps I’ll offer on request.

Small Town Philly

My first year in the City of Brotherly Love I uttered a dismissive “pshah” whenever my father tried to convince me that Philadelphia was just a “small town.” Though I’m admittedly obsessed with the Big Apple and refuse to acknowledge suburbanites and Long Islandites’ claims that they are “from the city”—I somehow didn’t want to give into what I perceived as unjustified egotism. Afterall, Philly has its “downtown” business district—that resembles the 50s around Lexington more than it does the financial district. It’s abundantly rich in cultural resources—in theaters lining the recently named “Avenue of the Arts” on Broad Street, in literary societies, museums and restaurants. In fact, in the 1840s, Philadelphia was dubbed the “Athens of America.” In comparing Manhattan and Philadelphia I just made the distinction that while in New York City I would never possibly know or be able to keep track of the hot restaurants, hip bars, changing exhibitions, let alone go to all of them—in Philadelphia, I still certainly wouldn’t get to everything but might have a better grasp on what was out there.

But you start to feel the small size of Philadelphia around the holidays. While I was here for a few weeks over the summer I wanted to go to a small Moroccan restaurant a college friend had raved about called Café Sud. But it was closed—closed for the month of August, if I remember correctly. Does this ever happen in Manhattan? Perhaps the closest comparison is a pizza place on the Lower East Side that’s only open several days a week and closes when the kitchen runs out of dough. But I think that has more to do with the peculiarities of the owner—or realization that he’ll do a good business no matter what time he’s open—than anything to do with his clientele. During the Philadelphia summer, particularly in the neighborhoods outside of Center City, the streets become quiet. People pack their bags for the Jersey Shore and the restaurant owners follow suit. And it’s the same this week. As I took a cab to the train station last weekend the driver told me business dropped off the week between Christmas and New Years—and he wasn’t just talking about a few minutes of down time here and there.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

home for the holidays

I’m back ‘til the weekend, but what a wonderful few days in New York—as much for doing and seeing new things as repeating those I’ve done before. I used not to understand the value of rereading the same book year after year (though I once read a lovely essay about someone who took Pride and Prejudice from the shelf every summer) or going to see a movie more than once (I just thought—why not wait to rent it). But every experience really is different the second, third, fourth time around. Spent Christmas morning making potato latkes with mom and I felt a certain sense of empowerment—not just as the chef’s helper, but a cook in my own right. When I was little, my jobs in the kitchen included either peeling the carrots or making the salad and some “special” dressing (read: mixing various pourable substances from bottles in the fridge to create something that tasted like a cross between soy sauce and Russian dressing.) But Sunday, I just may have mastered the art of clicking the Cuisinart into place, blending the potatoes and onions so that they were somewhere between a grate and a mush, patting down the mixture in the strainer to release the liquid and potato starch and flipping the mixture in the peanut-oil filled pan so that the pancakes were just perfectly speckled with golden brown.

I also watched “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Casablanca” both for the second time—the former after a year that included discussions about how to characterize and periodize Civil Rights and the latter after a semester studying the Third Reich. I certainly didn’t know who Gregor Strasser was the last time I watched Casablanca—and I don’t think I fully got the following line by Tilly last time I watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Joey tells Tilly (the African-American family housekeeper) that Dr. Prentice’s parents will be joining them, and Tilly says: “Civil rights was one thing but this is something else.” Somehow the mother-daughter relationship also struck me more this time as well—the way that mothers might think more about love when helping their children—and particularly their daughters—make decisions. I also thought about the progression of society—the way the Monsignor Ryan (at least I think it’s him) tells Spencer Tracy that the children are the future. Made me think about how children/the younger generation can’t always and shouldn’t always take the advice of their parents because not only the world they grew up in but the world they’re entering is something entirely new.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

starting a blog

It’s 10:46 pm on December 27 and I decided to start a blog. It’s unclear how much of this decision has to do with my desire to put off grading the final 30-odd blue books sitting in the left pile on my dining room table with essays that attempt to explain how the Nazi regime made policy decisions. (The right pile contains the already-graded exams.) But I think my decision comes from wanting to have a writing outlet—or rather alternate writing outlet. At the moment I let out most of my creative writing energy in my research papers. (I’m in my second year of a history PhD program) Or in introductions to historiography papers. At least that’s the prose that other people (or at least one person—my professor—reads). Then of course I have my journal—where I free write and post—no, record—more personal things than I would ever include in a blog. But I think a blog will offer more accountability—for creativity of both words and thought. Maybe it will force me to get back to reading the paper and commenting on the news and what I see in the world around me. Journalism (I worked on the daily newspaper in college) trained me to me acutely aware of the sights, sounds, smells and textures around me. When I was in college I often felt like life was magnified or amplified—the way one does when you go to a foreign country. Except I was in New Jersey. I’d like to get that back. Especially this past semester, since I started teaching—it’s been easy to just focus on the tasks at hand, since there are so many of them. Wake up. Pour the Kitchen Kapers, snickerdoodle coffee into the coffee maker before even putting in contact lenses. Check email. Go for run or to the gym for some elliptical and weights. Go to class. Teach. Talk on the phone. Do work. Procrastinate. Make plans. Of course there’s fun in there, including among the things I’ve mentioned. I love what I do and the people around me. But I felt a bit like I stopped noticing what I was passing as I walked to school and making the time to go those lectures not directly related to my field, or making a trip to see that photography exhibit I was dying to see at the PMA.
Being a writer is a huge part of what I am, and being a writer means being a journalist. Being a journalist does not necessitate writing articles but rather, being an observer, being an investigator, being curious, being aware—and then recording what you’ve noticed in a beautiful and compelling way. So that’s what this blog will be—my journalism—or rather a cross between a journal and journalism since I hardly think what I’ll say would necessarily make the morning paper. Also, while journalism undeniably in some way reflects the perspective or background of the reporter, it’s not necessarily supposed to be clear that it does. And I have no intention of hiding my identity here. I’m a 25-year old, only child, native New Yorker obsessed with cities, people and exploring new places who has moved to Philadelphia to pursue a PhD in history. I hope to be a professor—but more importantly a lifelong teacher, writer and learner. And as pompous as it sounds, I’d like to be a public intellectual—a talking head, but a smart one—write editorials, maybe an article one day for the New Yorker. . . I could say more, but perhaps I’ll let it come out as I go.
And until I start that literary salon or café I’ve talked about with friends—hopefully I’ll get some good discussion going.