13 April 2006

The Wednesday Night Mathletic Association.

I met with Nick and his sister Bee, students I've had since October of 2004, for the last time yesterday. With high school admissions out of the way, all Nick and I had to work on were the obligatory intrascholastic placement tests he'll take this week. Bee is in 6th grade, two years his junior. She's so far ahead of her math class that it borders on the absurd. We wrapped up the 7th grade math curriculum a long time ago. Nick and Bee are two exceptional students, and few Wednesday nights have passed over the last year and a half where I've been in the country and not at their palacial Park Slope brownstone, drinking green tea, discussing parabolas. Often the most intelligent conversation I will have in a week will be with a 6th grader.

(parents and Nick laughing in the other room because Nick is butchering some Hebrew he heard at a friend's Bar Mitzvah)

Mark: (laughing) You get those three around a table...
Bee: ...bizarre dinner conversations ensue.

And then later, Nick is talking about another student from his class.

Nick: Camilla spends most of math class talking to the fishes.
(all laugh)
Mark: Excellent metaphor.
Bee: No, literally. We have fish in the classroom (uses plural correctly).
Mark: OH. That's really scary.

So the kids are going to take a break from Mark's existential math review, and I will have my Wednesday nights free until someone else swoops in to take the spot. I'll leave you with some of the word problems I made up for Nick last night (he doesn't like working from textbooks, and none really challenge him anyway). First an easy one, then a more difficult one. Remember two things: 1) that he's in 8th grade, and 2) that he solved them both in less than a minute.

Enjoy.

Easy:

1. Nick goes to basketball practice at the corner of 7th Avenue and Flatbush. He stops off at home (7th Avenue and 1st St.) Then goes to get a Bubble Tea at the Tea Lounge (7th Avenue and 10th St.) He travels by bicycle at 8 MPH. If it takes 6 minutes to bike to his house and 4 minutes to bike from his house to the Tea Lounge, how far is it from Basketball Practice to the Tea Lounge?

Difficult:

2. Lets say Nick goes from Basketball Practice to Home, heading due east at 8MPH. It takes him 2.25 minutes to get home. Then he goes to get a Bubble Tea at the Tea Lounge, heading due south at 8MPH. It takes him 3 minutes. If it is possible for him to go from Basketball Practice to The Tea Lounge, finding the most direct route, yet still traveling at 8mph, how many minutes will this trip take him?

If you comment I'll tell you how he did them.

08 April 2006

2006: DinnerParty 2, Saturday 6-11pm, 4 March.

I neglected to recap the events of March 4th, possibly because it has taken this much time to get, as we say in the business world, "back on schedule."

My roommate and I hosted a sequel to the dinner party we threw in the fall. Forty-nine people had attended that one. With loftier ambitions in tow, we decided to ask a friend of ours, Erik from the neighborhood, if it might be possible to use his enormous loft for the party. Danielle and I had been at one of his party's in the winter and remarked, "We have to throw a party here." It took a few weeks of warming him to the idea. But we had an advantage; he and one of his 4 roommates had been to our first dinner party. They'd had a swell time. We held a meeting two weeks in advance at the party location. Met the other roommates. Tried to clarify the purpose of the party. There wasn't one. "Danielle and I are going to invite a bunch of people you don't know to your apartment."

The Nassau Street Location

When we arrived for our informal meeting, I was taken aback by the mess of the apartment. I remembered it as a cavernous space. My imagination had blinded me to the possibility of it being, like any apartment shared by four guys, a little on the slovenly side. The four guys who lived in there were not the cleanliest folks in the world. Even until three hours before the party, a bed was stationed in the living room. Every available walking space was covered in somebody's laundry. But there were advantages to their laid-back ways. They didn't give a damn about our micromanaging, our furniture re-arranging, our taking over their kitchen and their lives for one night. We let them invite whoever they wanted and that was that. Party approved. Which was good, because we'd already finished the invitations.

Invitations

Danielle somehow managed to scrounge up a dozen boxes of dinner party invitations from the stock room of her office. We collected mailing addresses and sent out 45 print invites. We sent them up and down the eastern seaboard, to four of the five boroughs, yet completely forgot to send an invite to the guys on Nassau Street.

The Monitor Street Location

Three days before the party we went grocery shopping. Since Danielle and I have opposite schedules, this required compiling a 4-page grocery list and dividing it between us. The master list was itemized by measurements in applicable units, with every ounce of sprouts and tablespoon of paprika accounted for in the 25 different dishes we were cooking. We recruited the crock pots of nearby friends, and on Friday morning I began prep cooking. Danielle joined me in the evening, and we chopped, peeled, seasoned, defrosted, marinated, stored, and labeled everything we possibly could. At 3am we went to sleep. At 11am on Saturday morning, we got seven crock pots going simultaneously and fired up the oven. With nothing to do between 11 and noon - too early to cook, prepping done - I made a delicious hazelnut mole sauce to sprinkle on the bacon-wrapped turkey breasts.

Arrival at Nassau Street Location, 2pm.

Hauling necessary furniture, our entire collection of pans, plasticware, cutlery, cutting boards, crock pots, and a fridge-full of food, Danielle and I began setting up. Jonny Cigar showed up to chop. Nick Bennett didn't. By 5, the place was clean, the bar was set up, the salads were underway, and the hot food was waiting patiently. At 6pm, the party began.

The Menu

Each of the dishes required some finesse. If every side dish was going to be delivered with its main courses, we had to keep on a steady pace till about 8pm, when the last of the food was to be served. We served four different salads with grilled meats on the side (sirloin, salmon, chicken), along with some ambitious empanadas, as our Summer Menu. Danielle was mostly responsible for these items, and they were gone by 7. The Winter Menu was more of my responsibility. And at the meeting two weeks prior I noticed that we'd be working with a mini-oven instead of a full-size. Nearly everything I had intended to warm in the oven was roasted on the burner instead, because I just could not get it hot enough. But the soul food, Indian, and Latin menus went out smoothly. I was pretty drunk by the time I needed to serve the finale entree: 8 cornish game hens, stuffed with mushrooms and cranberries, glazed in lime. Strawberry mashed potatoes on the side. They got sliced. They got served. Somehow. Jonny Cigar performed a show with a dead ovenbird in his hands. That's all I remember.

Dessert

Again, Danielle was head chef for this part of the operation, and it came to pass that the desserts were on the table at precisely the same time we ran out of booze. 9:30, the place was dry. The DJ's wrapped up at 10:30, the party was still well-populated at 11. I left with some friends to get a drink at Enid's around the corner, and saved the cleaning til the Oscars Sunday night.

The Wrap-Up

On Sunday, Danielle, Connor, Erik and I swept up the aftermath and tried to put together a list of attendees. 82 people were accounted for, and well over 30 bottles of wine and hard alcohol consumed. I put a recommendation for "Scotch" on the invite and 9 bottles showed up - from Johnnie Walker to an Albemarle 10-year to an 18-year Macallan. I believe the price tag perfectly matched the $500 worth of food consumed between 6 and 9:30. What remained? A half bottle of 4-year old Haitian Rum (supplied by Jaron), the fantastic Patron Espresso-flavored dessert Tequila (supplied and strategically hidden by Derrick) and the hazelnut mole sauce I never served. The party was an absolute blast. We learned invaluable information about hosting large-scale events, and some of it I share with you below. If you made it out, thanks for coming. It's gonna be hard to top, but we'll try. I'd say August, though it may be possible to put something together in June.

07 April 2006

The Five Elements of A Great Dinner Party.

The Space

Erik's floor-through loft on Nassau Street, with 20-foot ceilings, a fire escape, and a DJ booth, was the perfect atmosphere. The open kitchen featured an island counter that faced the dance floor, and the attendees could chat with us while we cooked. Since the counter space was ample, and most of it faced the party, we could work both cooking and presentation into our hosting. I recommend an open kitchen as the preferred setting for a dinner party; it makes any large room seem intimate.

The Food

People like food. As long as you stock a variety and a respectable quantity (not too much food, because an overstuffed crowd is no good on the dance floor) you'll do well.

The Bar

We decided to set up the bar as far from the kitchen as possible (to avoid the temptation to drink and hang in the kitchen) and this was an incredible advantage. Some of my favorite moments at the party derived from the two separate worlds created by the kitchen and bar on opposite sides of the space. A person I'd never met before approached me while I was in the middle of grilling shell steaks. He presented to me a bottle of wine and said, "Do you have a cork screw?" I gave him the least sympathetic look I could muster.

"The bartender has one. Over at the bar."

He replied, incredulously, "There's a bar here?"

My face cracked into a smile. "That's what they tell me."

But a bar is just a bar. We'd originally asked Nick Bennett to bartend, but it quickly became more than a one man job. Then Danielle's old roommate (and before that, Nick's old roommate) August showed up, bartending kit in hand. August and Nick took Bar/Barback positions and turned a pile of booze and soda into The 19th Hole at the country club. They mixed drinks, poured wine, ran out for ice, and kicked the party up to a classy level. Having a great bartender in the house is a must. Having two is a necessary extravagance.

Later on, around 8:30, our friend Caitlin came into the kitchen with her boyfriend John. Everyone exchanged handshakes and hugs.

Danielle: Did you guys just get here?
Caitlin: No we've been here for an hour and a half.
Danielle: Where were you?
Caitlin: We were over at the bar.

The DJs

Its nice to have music playing. Its nice to know someone who can play the music for you. Its also great to be good friends with an excellent DJ team who spins all over New York, Miami, and LA. Chris and June (DJ Baron and DJ June D, respectively, of Soulpusher) swooped in to provide us with an excellent soundtrack. From the second they broke out their needles the place came alive. They spin excellent R&B, Soul, Funk, and 60s Rock. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have the right music playing. With great looking people, great tasting food, and wonderful aromas of spices, the Soulpusher DJs treated the ears to a splendid palette of sound.

The Crowd

The night after the party I mentioned to Max the necessity of the above four elements. He added, "And the crowd." He was right. You should invite great people. Great people tend to bring great people. So its win-win.

Here are some additional elements, available in limited supply, that make a party great.

This pair of geniuses on the decks (Chris and June of Soulpusher)



This exceptional cohost (Right, with an exceptional guest)



This undercover bouncer (Center, with tie)



This professional bartender and doorman (Nick, left) and that imbiber of fine whiskeys (Pesko, right, with Macallan 18)



These two characters in the same room.


04 April 2006

2005: Coca Matte, Cusco, Peru; Jan 20



This man is a fugitive.

Whole, unprocessed coca leaves are sold legally in only three countries (Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia), and are used for a variety of purposes. Tea made from coca leaves is extremely popular in the smaller cities of Peru. Coca matte resembles a more traditional Japanese green tea (not flavored, vitamin-enhanced, etc), except that it makes your tongue completely numb. It is strong stuff, deceptively placed in a tea bag to look as harmless as Lipton.

My friend and I were hesitant to get going on the stuff, but a local guide we met recommended it highly. He told us the story of when, the year before, he'd run in the Lima Marathon and won. He said for two days he lay in bed exhausted. The only thing he ate? Raw coca leaves. Apparently they are a remedy for altitude sickness; the small amount of drug in the leaves increases your oxygen efficiency. Since Cusco sits 11,500 feet above sea level, and we were there for a paltry 3 days, the need for a quick fix from the thin air was in order. I remember going on a run my first day, Danielle opting out, and stopping at every corner to walk. I ran for twenty minutes and I will never forget the feeling; it was like I hadn't breathed at all. Every inhale was devoid of the necessary "breath stuff" I was used to. It was like jogging on the moon.

Our first morning in Cusco we ordered it with breakfast, and downed two cups floating above the street on a restaurant balcony table. Altitude no longer an issue, we hiked up to the big giant white Christ, "Cristo Blanco," another 1000 feet above town. I'll save that for another post. Later in the day we bought whole coca leaves from a woman in the park (Cusco doesn't really have a seedy side of town, so this is the best we could do). We stuffed them in our mouths like our guide had described, and washed down the metallic grass taste with some of the local brew. It was heaven.

And when it came time to smuggle something back home through US customs, Peruvian white wine and bottles of Cusqueno Dark were no match for four giant boxes of coca matte in tea bags. It is the secret weapon of 81 Monitor Street; no one here has gotten altitude sickness in sea level Brooklyn since.