2006: Things You Loved (Part Four)
We're nearing the finish line (appropriate, given one of the answers below). There's a special all-Texas friend edition to come, as well as perhaps a few stragglers. But for now:
Chicken, Chong Ching Style, from Grand Sichuan
Everyone always laughs when the waitress brings it to the table. I laughed the first time I saw it, too. It just looked like a prank, like something they spring on white people who don't know better. But Grand Sichuan – zero décor, zero hospitality, people cleaning long beans on the table in back – seems too no-nonsense for that. And plus, the Chinese couple at the next table was eating it with apparent pleasure, and also with total nonchalance, as if this were normal, innocuous date food; you split your ice-cream sundaes, we'll have our Chicken, Chong Ching Style.
The reason everyone laughs is this: What you order as a chicken dish (feeling faintly like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's at the mere act of saying the words "Chong Ching" aloud in a Chinese restaurant) comes to you looking like one of those wreaths of chilis that people in the Southwest hang up at Christmastime, in a dish, with maybe three quarters of a cup of diced chicken tossed in. I'm not exaggerating here: It's an entire steamer basket just completely full of those red chilis that everyone always picks off their kung pao chicken, mixed with tongue-numbing and probably narcotic Szechuan peppercorns, coated with oil and studded with frightened-looking little cubes of chicken that peer up at you as if to say, Please get me out of here, I can't take it anymore.
I should make it clear here that I'm not a member of the "quien es mas macho?" school of dining (or anything else, really). I don't have any Dave's Insanity sauce or After Death sauce or Torturous Rectal Pain sauce on my shelf. I work in publishing and take my self-punishment through the eyes, thank you. All I want from food is deliciousness.
And Chicken, Chong Ching style, is genuinely delicious. This is not to say that it isn't the hottest thing I have ever put in my mouth. It is. Wherever or whoever Chong Ching is, it must be a very tough person, place, or thing. But hot as it was, Chicken, Chong Ching style, tasted better than anything else I can remember eating this year. It was spicy and savory and salty and good, spiked with a little anise or something else very faintly sweet that made my saliva taste funny and made me want to have another bite right away. It made me feel (and trust me, I know how ridiculous it is to say this about a chicken dish) like I'd been drugged. My friends and I giggled helplessly between bites. We dug around in the oil for peppercorns to anesthetize our tongues, like kids licking a nine-volt battery. We were still laughing when the waitress came and took the dish away.
A little of everything
Book: What Is The What, by Dave Eggers. An exceptional high-wire act; it seems the logical place Eggers' writing has been going all along. Also, my now-ex-fiancee's book, Family and Other Accidents, is wonderful and real and sad and funny and still blows me away every time I think about it.
CD: Age of Winters, The Sword. I don't think it came out this year, but I discovered it this year. These guys rock harder than I'm really ready for. The perfect album for kicking ass and ripping shit up, neither of which I do particularly often.
Movie: The Fountain. Remember when Requiem for a Dream came out, and everyone said they hated it, and then seven years later people were falling over themselves talking about how groundbreaking it was? That's gonna happen again in seven years with this movie, and that's good, since it'll take Aronofsky that long to make another damned film.
TV Show: "The Office." I don't remember the last time that learning that a television show was a rerun during a given week made me actively sad. If you're still one of those people who loved the British version (like me) and therefore refuse to watch this one (totally not me), I feel bad for you.
Web site: The Dugout, a series of mock IM conversations between baseball players, is funnier than anything else I've found on the Internets, and, as witnessed by their famous Cory Lidle post, knowing and empathetic as well.
Although people have been participating in marathons for centuries (ever since Phidippides dropped dead in 546 B.C.), I just discovered the joys of endurance running this year, and I am here to say, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Runner's High."
A lot of people, most notably the blogger of ASWOBA, think I'm crazy for taking on this training, mainly because it means I'm no longer available for boozy happy hours, or in fact boozy hours of any sort. I know I'm not alone in my insanity, though. Marathons are seeing record levels of registrations, with the sharpest increase of registrants in the "Female, Beginner" category. For perhaps the first time in my life, I fit in with the crowd. And a sweaty crowd, at that.
Certainly, there's something to be said for the purely physical pleasure of a five-mile run, when my stride is long, my breathing deep, and the lights on First Avenue stay green in my favor. I run home from work two days a week, and I swear the drag on my back lessens the further I am from the office. When my neighbor in the Poconos shouted to me, on my return leg one leafy afternoon this October, "How far you goin' today?" I felt so strong when I shouted back, "Seventeen!" knowing I only had three of those seventeen left to go.
But perhaps, if I may indulge in a moment of universality, what I really love about endurance running is setting a seemingly impossible goal, and then very practically pressing forward to achieve it. Impossible goals are relative, right? For some, it may be to read a book a month, or to have a civil conversation with their mother. For others, it may be to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or see 15% increases in their stock portfolio. This is my relativity: on January 14, 2007, I am going to run 26.2 miles without stopping, puking or injury. But what's your impossible goal, and how are you going to attain it?
The Mountain Goats (Bowery Ballroom, 9/30) and The Sartorialist
As you've read here in the past, The Mountain Goats is basically just one guy named John Darnielle. I won't go into detail about why I personally dig his music -- that would take a while. I'll just say that he's truly an original, which seems so rare these days in the world of popular (or even fringe) music, and to witness him tell his smart, painful, plaintive song-stories in the intimate Bowery Ballroom felt akin to being a fly on the wall in Jackson Pollock's barn as he worked. Spontaneous, a little dangerous, and a lot beautiful.
"Sart," as his readers call him, is a fashion photographer and writer who has regular features in GQ and on Style.com, and also assiduously maintains his own site. I discovered the blog through a brief recommendation in a magazine and have been semi-addicted since. It's not great reading (in fact, I almost never read the text of his posts, which is usually minimal anyway); it's his photography that provides the allure. I would never list fashion among my interests, but, true to the blog's title, Sart's focus is on personal style and composure more than trends and surface beauty. Maybe it's a guilty pleasure, but I find the parade of slice-of-New-York-life characters set against a myriad of city streetscapes to be irresistible eye candy.