Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Saddest Lunch Ever

Image courtesy of

It's sad when the only thing left in your kitchen to bring for your cubicle lunch is a single stick of Frigo Cheese Heads Light String Cheese.

I think I need to go grocery shopping.

Drink, Don't Drool

Drool bib (complete with glaring grammatical error) courtesy of

"How many glasses of wine did you have last night?" My dad asked when I called with the details of my open mic triumph.

"Just one before reading my essay. Then I had one waiting for me when I got back to the table," I said. He laughed.

"That was a good idea. A lot of performers have a drink to help them relax before going up on stage. Even Barbra Streisand has to take benzodiazepine for stage fright. When's the audition?" he asked, referring to my audition for 2nd Story--the reason I had subjected myself to the nerve-wracking open mic night in the first place.

"Tuesday at 7:30."

"You'll do great," he said. "They already like your story. The audition is just to make sure you're not some weird, enormous person who drools."

"Yeah, I guess so," I replied.

"Just do your best," he said. "And don't drool."

From this conversation, I mined two important pearls of wisdom: drink and don't drool. Ever a Daddy's Girl, I tried my best to follow his advice. The drooling part was easy. I have never been a drooler. Check!

The drinking was a little more difficult. F and I were meeting after work at Story Studio, a writing center tucked away on the second floor of a renovated factory building in Irving Park. We planned to hang out there until my audition, which was conveniently located in the room next door.

F and I recently became Story Studio members, which includes discounts on writing classes and unlimited access to the writing center's comfy lounge. So we have been going at least once a week to sit on the couch and write. There's no TV, no Internet access, no snacks or cats to distract us from our Important Work. We bring the bare minimum: sandwich fixins and bottled water.

It's probably not cool to bring alcohol to the writing center. But I didn't care. My father had prescribed a glass of wine. And Sunday's open mic experience was so successful that I thought it most prudent to recreate the essentials. I wore the same outfit. I arranged my hair the same way. And I bought some wine.

I felt very classy waiting in line at the 7-Eleven after work with my $2.49 mini bottle of Pinot Grigio. Behind me stood an obese man from whose unbuttoned shirt his massive, grimy stomach protruded. He didn't smell very nice, and he repeated in a guttural whine, "Someone stole my cigarette rollers! Someone stole my cigarette rollers!" I paid, stowed my wine in my lunch box with the turkey, dinner rolls, and bottled water, and stepped out into the 95-degree heat of downtown Chicago.

I was sweating before I even reached the L stop, where I shoved into a train car that was at least ten degrees hotter than the sidewalk. Wedged against the doors of the train in the sweltering heat, I clutched in one hand a horrifically heavy bag filled with my laptop, two books, a notebook, my executive planner, and God knows what else--and in the other hand, my lunch box filled with cheap wine and Butterball deli meat.

An inauspicious start.

But once I got to Story Studio and set up my laptop on the couch in the cool lounge with F, I started to feel much better. I sneaked sips of wine from the brown paper bag hidden in my lunch box, and felt almost relaxed. Almost.

Although I wasn't nearly as sickeningly anxious as I had been before the open mic, I was still nervous.

I shouldn't have been. The audition went smoothly. Sitting on a comfortable, overstuffed couch with two attentive girls, I read the essay even better than I had on Sunday. They laughed, they nodded, they made the appropriate listening noises. And when I finished, they clapped.

Then they asked questions. After countless interviews for countless jobs, I consider myself a pro at fielding questions like, "What is your greatest strength?" and "Why do you want to work here?" and "What is your proudest accomplishment?"

I realized last night, however, that I am not at all a pro at answering questions like, "What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you?" Which is what one of the girls asked, leaning toward me with an engaging smile like a best girlfriend craving gossip.

I will freely admit that at times--most times, really--I tend to think too much. Immediately, my overheated brain crowded with all the possible implications of this seemingly casual question:

Does she mean the craziest thing I've DONE? or The craziest thing that has ever happened TO me? What does she mean by "crazy"? Does she mean "strange and unexpected" or "wild and kinky" or just "insane"?

Besides the fact that I'm not really the wild-and-crazy type, my mind instantly cleared of any and all fascinating tidbits to share about myself. I won't tell you what I finally came up with. Anything you imagine is sure to be crazier than what I actually said.

Other than the fact that I'm not interesting on demand, I think the audition went splendidly. I did the best I possibly could. I breathed. I talked. I laughed. I was confident and personable.

And my dad will be proud because I did not drool.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Baby Got Balls

I worried it would be humiliating. I worried my throat would close up, or I would pass out, or burp into the mic.

I am not a good public speaker. The last time I read my writing out loud—in a short story class a few months ago—I couldn't breathe. I gasped through my two pages of handwritten scrawl, sounding like I was on the verge of tears. When I finished reading, the teacher comforted me.

The first and only time I sang in public was even worse. I thought that if I took the private singing lessons offered in high school, I might get over my fear of public speaking and become a more confident, sparkly person. Although I couldn't breathe—much less sing—in front of the teacher for the first week, I warmed up to her and was belting out folk songs by the end of our time together.

And then she said, "So what will you sing at the recital?" Um. I hadn't known there would be a recital. Had I known I would end my private tutorial with public singing, I surely would not have signed up for this. But once I’ve committed to something, I don’t quit. I couldn't back out. And I only knew one song: "I Have Twelve Oxen."

I got up on stage in an old church in front of the entire school chorus and their parents, and I sang a twelve-verse song about cows. For your edification I have found the lyrics:

I have twelve oxen, they be fair and white,
And they go a-grazing down by the dyke.
With hey! with how! with hey!
Sawest not you mine oxen, you little pretty boy?

It doesn’t even rhyme. And the other verses are just as bad. There’s one for each color of cow. I sang in a high, warbling, gaspy voice, and when I finished, my teacher comforted me.

Last night, for reasons I will soon explain, I voluntarily signed up to read a personal essay in front of a microphone in front of a room full of strangers. In the middle of my essay is a rap song. Not only was I planning to read in public, but I was going to rap—two nightmares rolled into one ten-minute performance.

What does an open mic have to do with food, you may well ask. Not much, if truth be told. Except that the essay I read aloud to strangers last night was adapted from my blog post "The Worst Meal of My Life." I reworked this post into a personal narrative that I submitted to 2nd
Story, a Chicago writing group composed of thirty writers who perform personal narratives in bars around the city. There's an application and audition process, and if you're accepted into the group, you meet three or four times a month to workshop, rehearse, and perform in public. It's intense and difficult to get into. I thought that if I could get into this group, the workshops might make me a better writer, and the performances might turn me into a more confident, sparkly person.

Long story short, I submitted my essay to 2nd Story and they called me in for an audition. Which is tomorrow. Which is why I decided to try out my essay on an audience first. Auditions are scary. But an open mic is scarier. If I can get through an open mic, I reasoned, the audition will be a piece of cake.

So last night F accompanied me to Story Club at Uncommon Ground, a coffee shop/restaurant/wine bar. We were ushered into the back room, all brick with funky art on the walls, cozy tables for two, and window seats with pillows. Another door led to an outdoor patio. If I hadn’t felt like throwing up, I would have really appreciated the ambiance.

We were an hour early, so we ordered drinks. I tried to pace myself, but downed the first glass of wine while sneaking wide-eyed peeks at the mic. No podium. No chair. Just a microphone standing naked against the brick wall in front of an entire room full of tables. At the moment, the tables were empty.

As 8:00 rolled around, the tables began to fill up. And I began to panic.

“Why am I doing this again?” I squeaked to F.

“Because you’re great,” he said, patting my hand.

“But what if I embarrass you? Will you still love me if I stink?”

“Absolutely. But you won’t stink. You’ll be great, babe!” he said. “Don’t forget to breathe.

“OK,” I said, hyperventilating.

The organizer of the event, D, came over to introduce herself and handed me a clipboard to sign in. I was the first and only name on the list.

“I’m so glad you came!” she said. “You can go first.”

Then, suddenly, it was 8:30. D took the mic.

“Welcome to the first-ever Story Club. Tonight we have three featured storytellers, and one guest writer. So let’s get started with our guest writer L, who will be reading her story ‘Baby Got Stock.’”

Without further ado, I wobbled to my feet and strode with assumed confidence to the front of the room. There was a stool tucked back against the wall, and I dragged it into the center of the makeshift stage. D helped me lower the microphone a full foot then sat down at a nearby table. I was alone.

I heard myself say, very loudly into the microphone, “Wow. I didn’t know I’d be the only guest writer...” A few people tittered, and I began to read.

I wasn’t nervous! My hands didn’t shake, my heart didn’t race, I didn’t sound like I was on the verge of hysterics. I actually sounded pretty good. And people were laughing in all the right places. Like a baby bird testing the air with its wings, I lifted my eyes from the page and directed them out into the audience. I was reading without looking! I turned my head a little to sweep the room with my confident gaze. I imagined this is what flying feels like.

“Hey, this isn’t so bad! I kind of like this!” I thought as I made eye contact with various audience members, all looking up at me, all listening intently to what I had to say. It was exhilarating to have the floor to myself for a full ten minutes. I don’t talk all that much, in real life. So it was a novel experience.

And then I came to the part I had been dreading. The part of the essay that—if I could pull off—would be really funny, and if I couldn’t, would just be humiliating. I rapped. To the tune of “Baby Got Back.” About stock.

The crowd didn’t quite get it. They were slightly older than the intended audience, so perhaps they didn’t know the song and thought I was just crazy. But there were a few nervous laughs, and I just kept on trucking.

The time seemed to speed by, and before I knew it, I had come to the end. I had done it! I wasn’t humiliated. My throat didn’t close up, I didn’t pass out, and I didn’t burp into the mic. The crowd clapped and cheered, and I sat down to F’s huge grin. I hadn’t embarrassed my husband, after all.

I tried to listen attentively to the three “featured storytellers” who followed me, but I was too full of adrenaline to make sense of the words. I’m sure they were great, but I couldn’t tell you what their stories were about.

As we were leaving, an older gentleman stopped by our table to share his own story about cooking in college:

“My roommate was going to make us his mother’s famous meatloaf. He talked about it all day, and we were all really excited. When I went into the kitchen that afternoon to see what he was up to, I found him heating up a frying pan. Then he plopped in two big scoops of mayonnaise. It started smoking and running all over the pan, and I took a look at the recipe. ‘Um, Bob,’ I said, ‘You were supposed to use margarine.’”

Then a guy at the next table leaned across the aisle,

“That was fiction, right?” he asked. “You didn’t really eat that stock, did you?”

“Oh yes,” I said.

“Ugh! What a great description.” He said, and smiled.

When I got home, I treated myself to a cupcake. After the open mic, reading my story to a handful of people tomorrow night should be much easier. I’m looking forward to it, whether I get into 2nd Story or not. And if you catch me now, while I’m still feeling triumphant, I may even sing you a few verses of “I Have Twelve Oxen.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Act of Bravery, or Public Humiliation

Microphone image courtesy of

Tonight I rapped in front of strangers.

And I LIKED it!

I'll let that sink in. Check back tomorrow for the whole story.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ahead of the Curve

Image of asparagus with fried farm egg courtesy of The New York Times.

Mado was just reviewed in The New York Times! I'm officially ahead of the curve.

After enjoying one of the best meals of my life at Mado with my supper club in March, I took F for dinner last month, and he finally understood what I had been raving about. He has been talking about his hanger steak ever since, and chose to celebrate his 30th birthday there last night.

Our good friends and fellow
Top Chef devotees joined us for dinner. A group of talented cooks and shrewd epicures, they were smitten with the buttery pate, somehow spicy and reminiscent of Christmas; the asparagus with fried farm egg; the crisp trout that tasted like camp fire; the Gorgonzola polenta; the wood-smoked chicken that fell off the bone—the list goes on and on. We each ordered a different dish, and tried them all.

Our friend J, especially, knows food. He sends me articles about how to make homemade pasta sauce and what to do with ramps. He bakes the best scones I've ever tasted and knows everything about kitchen knives. As our waiter cleared the last plate from our table, J asked, "Can I work here?" Our genial waiter (who, in answer to our questions about the menu, earnestly mapped the cuts of pork on his own body) took J's question in jest.

But J was absolutely serious about donning an apron and heading back to the kitchen. And in that moment, I knew the dinner was a success.

In her extremely positive review, Monica Davey of The New York Times captures the mood of Mado perfectly: "On a cold, rainy spring evening, Mado offered escape without effort, the smell of a wood grill... a momentary journey to some quiet farm while still sitting in the city’s chaos."

After my third visit to Mado, I can safely say it's my favorite restaurant. I can't wait to go back.