Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Day The Network Died

Three weeks ago today, my Verizon DSL stopped working. I turned the modem off and then on again, restarted my computer, and waited for everything to come back up. It did not.

And so I made what was to be the first of more than a dozen phone calls to Verizon DSL technical support. After waiting on hold for nearly an hour ("Your call is important to us! Please stay on the line!"), I finally reached a live technician, who prompted me to restart the modem several more times and plug and unplug a variety of cords. Thirty minutes later, we hadn't made much progress.

"I'm not sure what the problem is," he finally confessed. "I think maybe your modem is broken. So I'm going to put a new one in a box to you. It should be on your doorstep in 48 hours."

48 hours later, a new modem was indeed sitting on my doorstep. Unfortunately, despite its shiny wrapping, it couldn't connect to the internet either.

By the second week and the 11th or so tech support phone call, I felt like I was trapped in another dimension. Work and correspondence were piling up; I had to drive to the library to wait in line for a chance to jump online and send important messages. I spent countless hours on hold with Verizon Technical Support, and subsequently screamed, raged, and threatened; but all to no avail. On one of the last phone calls, I finally broke down. "I've got to get back online!" I sobbed to the poor technician. "This is absolutely ridiculous!"

He apologized, yet again. And then he revealed what the problem was: "Hey! I just noticed something!" he said. "It looks to me like you cancelled your DSL service two weeks ago!"

"Excuse me?"

"I see it right here."

"You see me CANCELLING MY SERVICE?! Are you seriously telling me that I made a telephone call to CANCEL MY DSL?"

"It's right here. Yes."

"Then can you kindly explain why on earth I've been calling EVERY SINGLE DAY for the last two weeks to figure out why I can't get online?"

He assured me that my DSL could be up and running once again... in just 10 days.

AFTER I blew the poor man's ears to shreds, and AFTER I threw the phone across the room in utter and total frustration, THEN I breathed deeply and made a pot of green tea, and FINALLY I called Comcast and asked them how long it would take to get high-speed internet service.

"We can have you up tomorrow," they said.

I was back online on Thanksgiving, which made me very thankful indeed. A few days later, I've finally caught up.

And now, when I see those Verizon commercials showing the network for their cellular phone service, I think: that so-called network is made up of cardboard cutouts! They aren't real at all...

Oh, the taste of bitterness.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pairs Well With Delight

On his web site, winemaker David Phinney claims that The Prisoner was the result of luck. And that may be true, but oh, what a charmed roll of the dice it was when he tossed together a few different varietals to make this fabulous blend.

I heard about this mysterious wine a few months ago, when a girlfriend was giving me a detailed account of her date the previous night. It seemed that she had been wined and dined by a gentleman who bought "the last bottle of The Prisoner" at a certain posh restaurant. "It was the most amazing wine," she gushed. "And the most fabulous night!"

I didn't give it much thought; after all, I taste wines all the time as a part of my job, and most are frankly unremarkable. Even with its vaguely disturbing image by Goya on the label, how good could this red blend be?

But then, because the name is catchy, I decided to look for it the next time I was out wine shopping. And wouldn't you know it - I couldn't find it. Seems that the 2003 had been whisked away by rabid Californians. "Flew right off the shelf," one wine store purveyor told me. After that, I had to have some. That's right - I'm just your average American consumer - tell me that something is hard to get, and I simply MUST find a bottle.

Shortly thereafter, just by chance, I invited our neighbors over for a small dinner party (for which I made a version of Philippe Jeanty's famous Tomato Soup en croute). Now this neighbor just so happens to manage one of the largest wine stores in San Francisco. And he just so happened to walk in the front door with a bottle of The Prisoner in his hand.

The man deserved (and got) a hug! But still: I didn't honestly believe that this would be a super-special wine - I just wanted to be able to say that I had tasted it. Make that your average "entitled" American consumer. Sigh.

But this wine... oh, baby. The nose was full of dark chocolate and mint and black cherries. It was big and blowsy and voluptuous in the mouth, redolent of star anise, violets and blackberry jam, the liquid equivalent of rolling around naked on a mink blanket. Did I mention that I liked it? It was so yummy that I begged B to track some down for me. And he did - in New York of all places! - where they obviously don't know what they're missing.

And now I see that the 2004 has arrived, so I no longer have to hoard my stash. Hurray! Raise your glass!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Good Time Was Had By All

Of the parties I've done in recent months, the latest one was the most fun, simply because I've learned my lesson about planning ahead and allowing ample time for cooking. The party was Sunday night, and I insisted that my co-host/chef Adam drive up to Novato the night before so that we could brainstorm one final time, and then have the entire day Sunday to cook. The last time we did a party together - for twenty-odd people back in February - we were terribly disorganized. Our menu was in flux for days; Adam had never been to Novato before; he got lost en route and didn't arrive until an hour before the party started. To say that we were frazzled and cranky would be a severe understatement.

This time, we were prepared. Late Sunday night, we dove into a pile of persimmons, pomegranates, plums and oranges and poured bottle after bottle of wine over the lot of them. I added a few shots of Amaretto and Cognac to round out the flavors. We crashed hard and got up early Sunday morning. Adam and B made a final run to the San Rafael Civic Center Farmer's Market for a few last-minute items. Then we looked at our cooking schedule, and launched in on chopping, dicing, peeling and roasting. While we worked, we snuck sips of sangria and cranked up the music and told jokes. Remember last time? We said. When we were about ready to strangle each other?

At the aforementioned party in February, we passed small bowls of popcorn dusted with rosemary and sea salt, to be munched in between sips of champagne. We decided to repeat the popcorn starter, only this time with a brick-red spanish paprika that Adam procured from an un-named source. This paprika was like none other I had seen or tasted: we kept sticking our noses into it for whiffs of the sweet-smoky spice. With frites as my inspiration, I twisted sheets of black paper into cones, and we filled them with red-tinted popcorn for guests to enjoy as they arrived.

For starters, we filled black bowls with marinated Spanish olives; we served empanadas filled with chevre, sun-dried tomatoes and capers; whole mushrooms sauteed in olive oil with fresh garlic; a golden torta of potatoes and eggs; a crock full of rich, creamy salt cod. I had created a 4-hour playlist on my iPod of Tito Puente and Tania Maria and other Latin-inspired music, and the music flowed in perfect tempo with the sangria. Our guests were imaginatively dressed; from a gorgeous Matrix-like creature to a couple arrayed in vintage pilot costumes, our Ghost Chairs overflowed with eye candy.

And then, a moment of panic: As I leaned over the sink to wash a few prep dishes, my bare sandal-clad toes came into contact with something wet: uh-oh. I looked down to find water dripping out of the cabinet below the sink. The rug beneath the sink was quickly becoming sodden; I opened the doors to find that the plumbing beneath had become disconnected. Thankfully, it was an easy fix. I sopped up the water with bathroom towels, and hoped that no one noticed.

And then it was time for the piece de resistance of the evening: two pans full of paella. One was composed of red meats, including sausage and chicken; the other was studded with mussels and salmon and huge scallops. Several people crept into the kitchen to watch as Adam made a soffrito, then dumped it into bowls and filled the paella pans with rice and broth; finally, the vegetables went back into the rice, and the meats were arranged over the top, and the pans went into the oven. The aromas mingled in the air - paprika, saffron, sausage, salmon, manila clams - a blend of fish house and spice factory, rendolent of old Spanish streets and an apron-clad grandmother bent over an ancient stove. Would Brett have been impressed? I hope so.

At one point during the evening, one of the guests pulled me aside. It was someone I had only just met, a friend of a friend. "This is amazing," he said. "Most of the time, people just throw Doritos into a bowl and call it a party. This takes me back to my childhood, when people actually cared about the food." Right then and there - it was all worth it.

My sweetheart lured a few of our party guests outside with Cuban cigars while Adam and I fiddled over the last course: Chocolate Death. This was an example of true collaboration: we began with the notion of chocolate. I suggested brownies made with a blend of my favorite chocolates, plus a dose of dark vanilla and a hint of cinnamon. Adam upped the ante, suggesting that we dip the brownies in chocolate ganache and coat it with... something. Together, we created a mixture of brownie crumbs, Sharffenberger cacao nibs and pulverized chipotle pepper. And voila: Chocolate Death. Looking for all the world like coffee-colored hockey pucks, these were dense black wedges of bittersweet, faintly smoky heaven. We thought they might be too dense for people to finish, but they quickly disappeared.

And then, too soon, it was over... B and Adam and I sat down with the last of the sangria and talked over the high points of the night. We high-fived each other over the best dishes, and talked about how to make other ones better. We felt a little melancholy - all that dreaming and shopping and planning, and suddenly it was in the past tense.

Which is why - but of course! - we will do it again.