Friday, June 30, 2006

Gouranga! Or, the best spam ever

Last night I checked my work email, and discovered several new pieces of spam. It wasn’t surprising: In June 37 percent of the mail I receive at work is spam, in spite of the university’s claims that 30 percent of incoming mail is captured as spam and never makes it to our inboxes. There was one piece of mail that puzzled me. It wasn’t offering me cheap “c1allis” or “v1@gra,” a new way to enlarge my “d!cckk,” or a way to refinance my home or consolidate my debt. There were no attachments or suspicious links, just a message:

Call out Gouranga be happy!

Gouranga Gouranga Gouranga

That which brings the highest happiness...

I called Brian into the office to look at it. He had never seen it before, either, so I googled “Gouranga.” The first hit had something to do with Grand Theft Auto and I ignored it. But I quickly learned that it was a phrase used by Hare Krishnas meaning “be happy,” and that the spam’s been around for awhile. My favorite part of the explanation was that someone had identified themselves as the sender and given a very simple motive: I am just very enthusiastic person, who wants everybody to be happy.

Something about that made Brian and me smile.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

True fiction

On my way out the door this morning, I grabbed a copy of the New Yorker that was sitting on the coffee table, this summer’s fiction issue. I read through “Talk of the Town” and a couple of the short memoir pieces during my commute. They were all interesting stories, memories from war time, but none really engaged me.

On the way home I turned to one of the short stories, Uwem Akpan’s “My Parents’ Bedroom.” I was immediately drawn in by the voice of the narrator, a young girl in Rwanda. In the first column of the story, I learned that her mother was Tutsi and her father Hutu. Maybe that should have been enough warning. Maybe I should have stopped reading there.

I didn’t.

Standing on a crowded train somewhere between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn, I finished the story, fighting back tears, willing myself not to sob on a crowded train. I concentrated on the little diamond at the end of the story, watching the words on the page blur in and out through my wet eyes. The Rwandan genocide, which I had paid only vague attention to when it was in the news in the 1990s and which had been touched on in the commentary on Darfur that I’d read on my morning commute, was suddenly gruesomely real to me. It’s fiction, I tried to tell myself. But it’s not. These things happened.

Are happening.

Brian was a little traumatized by my arrival at home. I went upstairs and cried, sobbing for the family in the story, for the real people who lived through genocide (or didn’t), for the people in Darfur. I tried to tell him about what I had read (he’s not so much for the fiction issue), and as I attempted to explain how this story had somehow made real for me the stories I had read in the newspaper, something different occurred to me: what if this story hadn’t been about Rwanda, or about any real place? What if this had been some sort of science fiction story, about tragedies in a made-up world? Would the story have had the same impact on me?

I don’t think it would have. Even if an author had written such a story as a metaphor for Rwanda, it wouldn’t have been as powerful. Akpan’s narrative, written in the first person and set in a real place, made the story and the history live. The narrator’s story became truth and the history became personal.

Water-logged brain

Before I turned on the computer yesterday, I knew it had rained a lot--enough that one of the air conditioning units in my apartment was leaking wander and that a wet spot was growing on my wall because the condo association doesn't do a good job cleaning out rain gutters--but I didn't expect to see that they had measured seven inches of rain in 24 hours over at National airport. I didn't expect the news that several Metro stations in the District were closed due to flooding. Those stations were beyond where I exit the station, so even though I knew it would likely slow my commute I didn't worry too much.

When will I learn? It took me more than two hours to get to work yesterday morning. I wasn't alone. A lot of people in the DC area reported two- to three-hour commutes. But it was still annoying. I rarely drive to work. It's a 20 minute drive with no traffic, but 40 minutes or more during rush hour, so normally I'm happy to accept a 45-minute trek on public transit. At least then I can get some reading in.

When I reached the Pentagon station, I asked the station manager about buses to Foggy Bottom or Georgetown. He told me what to take, but also point out that the roads were pretty packed too. I'd see that on my bus ride to the Pentagon, and decided to take my luck with the trains.

Much like when a stuck train had caused delays on my evening commute a couple of weeks ago, I made a couple of new friends in the station. We peered down from the upper platform, watching people try to crowd onto the yellow line train that was headed into the District, shook our heads at the people who yelled angrily when they realized they weren't going to make it onto the first Largo train that arrived on our platform; wondered aloud at the people who arrived at the station and seemed surprised to see it so crowded, unable to figure out how they had missed the morning news.

Not everyone became friendly, commiserating with fellow transit riders. There were the angry yellers and people who called colleagues on their cell phones to gripe about being late.

Over an hour after arriving at the station, a blue line train arrived that I thought I'd be able to board. The platform had cleared a bit, and the train wasn't so crowded that arriving passengers couldn't clear off. As I slipped through the doors, a woman with a carry-on sized rolling bag and a brief case pushed towards the doors and stopped.

"I'm getting off at the next station," she explained to people who pushed by her, trying to fill in toward the center of the car so that others could board.

"The doors open on the other side of the train at the next one," I told her, trying to be helpful to her and others. There was room near the other doors and if she moved there, there would be more room for people to board.

"No, they open on the left."

"At the cemetery? No, they open on the right there."

"They open on the left when the trains are traveling in this direction," she said. "It does't just change sides. I think I know that by now."

Baffled, I shrugged and gave up. "Sorry. Didn't realize this was your normal train."

"Oh, it's not. But I'm here a couple of times a year on business."

The train pulled out of the station, and a few minutes later we arrived at Arlington Cemetery. The doors opened on the right. A few people nearby responded to the woman's "excuse mes," as she attempted to make her way across to the opposite doors and out of the car, but no one stepped out of the train to help make way. There wasn't anyone at the station waiting to board, and the doors closed before she could escape.

As the train began to move forward again she turned back to find a pole to hold onto. I noticed that she avoided making eye contact with me.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Enchilada sauce

Each weekend, Brian and I sit down to plan our our dinners for the week, flipping through our favorite cookbooks and compiling a list of recipes, from which we make our shopping list. Whenever we're having enchiladas, I tell him, "Once you're done making the shopping list, I'll put down the things I need for enchiladas."

Yesterday was his birthday and he had requested enchiladas for birthday dinner. For probably the eighty zillionth time, he suggested that I write down the enchilada recipe, so that he can just make the list from that. And for the eighty zillionth time, I told him that I couldn't do that,
because if he had the enchilada recipe he wouldn't have any reason to keep me around. But last night as I put together the sauce, I did take note of what I did. As it turned out pretty well (sometimes I go a little overboard with chile peppers--nothing some extra sour cream served at the table can't fix), I thought I'd share it here.

(Do note that I make no claims about the "authenticity" of this sauce. It's just a tasty, spicy red chile sauce--much better than the flavorless tomato sauce most Mexican restaurants around here dump on their enchiladas. And some of them don't even seem to dip the tortillas before they fill and roll them. Punks.)

Elizabeth's Tasty Enchilada Sauce

10 dried pasilla chiles
1 large chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced*
1 teaspoon adobo sauce
12 cloves garlic**
2 teaspoons ground coriander
6 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano***
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
2 28-ounce cans tomato sauce****

*And seeded, if you're feeling cautious. Last night I left in all the seeds and the sauce had chipotle flavor but not a lot of heat.
**Yes, twelve. Be quiet.
***I am all in favor of using fresh herbs most of the time, but for a lot of Mexican sauces, I really believe that dried oregano is better. I do at least start with whole coriander and cumin seeds and grind those fresh.
****I've experimented with crushed tomatoes, with pureeing cans of whole tomatoes, and with the tomato sauce that comes with Italian herbs in it (well, that one was a shopping mistake). I'm a regular
Cook's Illustrated, don't you think? Anyhow, just use the plain old tomato sauce.

Stem the pasillas and shake out as many of the seeds as you can. Place in a large bowl and cover with 3-4 cups boiling water. Let soak for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the other spices.

Place the pasillas in a blender. Strain the soaking water into a measuring cup. Add about one cup of the soaking water to the blender, reserving the rest, and blend to a thick puree. Set aside.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy pan. Add the garlic, coriander, cumin, oregano, chipotle, and adobo sauce, and saute 2-3 minutes. Don't burn the spices or your sauce will taste bitter.

Add the pasilla puree to the spices and stir until blended. Let cook for about 2 minutes.

Add the tomato sauce and the remaining pasilla soaking water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and let cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Let cool before assembling enchiladas.

This makes a lot of sauce. I made a 9x9 pan of enchiladas last night and had more than half the sauce left over. It freezes well. Or, you can make an extra pan of enchiladas and freeze them. I never think those taste as good when they're cooked, though, and once you have the sauce, the enchiladas are pretty easy to put together.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

And I still let him have some cookies

When one is baking chocolate chip cookies and can't find the cooling rack for when the cookies come out of the oven? One should not seek out her husband to pose the question, "Have you seen my rack?"

Unless, of course, she wants her husband to just start laughing instead of answering the damn question.