Friday, April 30, 2010

The White Tablecloth

Photo courtesy Flickr
Well into the 1960s, it was standard for all but the most utilitarian restaurants to spread each table with a white cotton cloth and napkins. During a business lunch, guests would make notes directly onto the cloth in fountain pen ink. When the ballpoint pen displaced the scratch, restaurant owners were deeply distressed that they could not bleach their linens clean, because ballpoint ink is oil-based.

Tablecloths disappeared, and with them, I fear, a deeply creative graphic medium. The loss may have impoverished business thinking. Around 1990, a so-called “Microsoft millionaire” took over an old-fashioned coffee shop on our Broadway, the main street in the neighborhood. The shop was an exercise in non-profit entrepreneurship that didn’t pan out, but its design was brilliant. The tabletops were slate, and it was impossible to sit at one for long without picking up a chalk, making some marks, and enjoying the irresistible staccato intervals of chalk on slate that used to make viewing a teacher on a blackboard so entertaining.

Soon, the other long-established coffee shop next door changed owners, and its new manager put cotton cloths and a layer of butcher paper over the vintage coral laminate with overlapping boomerangs. Once again, guests can think with their hands. Now that every phone has a camera, it’s easy to record and transmit notes a keyboard can’t encompass.

Writing on a tablecloth was something I took for granted as a child, and as a student of calligraphy, I found long practice tables covered with butcher paper. Later in commercial art school, covering a drawing table with fresh butcher paper was a standard meditation going into a tough assignment. Doing so taught basic bookbinding without anyone thinking about it.

Recently, I covered the trestle table that serves as my desk with a layer of butcher paper over the import cloth that disguises the structure. Stumbling blocks to planning evaporated: the paper turns the desk into one giant page, and I can use both gross and fine motor skills as I make notes across the expanse of the desktop. White-out pen makes deletion easy, and the surface works like a low-tech computer screen. Since my handwriting and the Lucida digital type that is my workhorse font of choice (see classical typography in Wiki) are offspring of the same calligraphic models, the physical desktop is a seamless overlay of the digital one.

My white plastic MacBook was sitting there undefended the other day, and in a moment of benign vandalism I discovered that it’s fun to tag a laptop with a dry-erase marker. (Test this in an obscure place first.) The future is going to be very interesting.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lunch in Humacao

Taste first, then hot sauce. Photo courtesy Flickr

In July, 1962, I ate a meal that changed my life. I was volunteering in the mission hospital in Humacao, Puerto Rico. The women in my family are no slouch at the stove, nor the men either, but Humacao’s steam table cured all the ills I knew at the time. I recall being served greens, rice, an indigenous pea-like bean, pork hocks, and perhaps fried plantains, with some fresh fruit on the side.

Long, slow cooking violated standard post-war practice that encouraged cooks to finish dishes quickly to protect vitamins. The soul food on that cafeteria line was deeply relaxing, satisfying, and easy to digest. It was my first experience of typical Puerto Rican food, and I loved every bite. The weather had been ninety-five degrees with ninety-five percent humidity for weeks, and that hot lunch somehow left me equal to the weather.

I have cooked in this vein off and on ever since, particularly on Seattle’s two or three hot days of summer. The more I work with this unpretentious cuisine, the more I respect it. The ingredients are inexpensive and easy to grow at home, the dishes are simple to prepare, and stewing in an electronic pressure cooker reproduces sitting on the back of a stove all morning.

New Orleans’ Leah Chase writes about this approach to food in her cookbook and in a government printing office pamphlet about healthy food for people with high blood pressure. She says “a good cook stays with the pots”. I can’t think of a better way to put a meal on the table than to compose simple dishes and finish them with care.

The meal at Humacao was the gentlest one I ever consumed. Over the years, as I have explored soul food in its various manifestations, I have discovered that my own family recipe file contains many of the same favorites. My in-house anthropologist tells me that the people of the world who come from coastal communities and cook rice share the same cultural roots.

At any rate, it’s a happy thing to share good food.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Postal and Other Conventions

Photo of Kevin courtesy Flickr
Wedding invitations have two envelopes because the inner one is a vestige of good practice before mail service. Back in the day, an invitation would be dropped off at a house by a gloved footman who descended from a carriage like an elegant version of the UPS person.

When the post office was invented, an outer envelope protected the elegant message from grubby hands. Antibiotics made us insensitive to matters of transmission of disease, but etiquette used to prescribe boundaries of touch in things as well as persons. Someone on a household staff would place an item on a tray rather than hand it directly to a member of the family.

With postal rates what they are and with the cost of printing what it is, it might be fun and relatively cost-effective to find a handsome young athlete and hire one of the carriages that offer downtown tours to deliver a batch of carefully designed invitations to a neighborhood, particularly an older one that was laid out in horse and buggy times.

I warned a calligraphy class once about the bride who chose the whooping crane stamp for her wedding invitations, only to have many guests conclude that the stork on the envelope conveyed a hidden message. One of the students countered with the John Paul Jones “I have not yet begun to fight” issue that decorated a piece of mail she had received the week before.

-30- More after the jump.