The day Big Papi called me ‘Mami’

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Tonight Boston said goodbye to one of the greatest to ever don the Red Sox uniform. David Ortiz wasn’t just a fearsome presence at the plate; he was a guy whose love of the game seemed to envelope everyone around him. He played with a passion and sense of humor you felt in the stands, and an enormity of talent that made the seemingly impossible real time and again.

And once about 10 years ago, Big Papi did something else amazing: He called me “Mami”.

We were eight hours into an interminable commercial shoot for Vitamin Water starring Ortiz and former Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher.

Perhaps you’ve seen the ad. In it, the two men are playing on a doubles badminton team presumably in the championship of a tournament in Hong Kong. It’s match point. The crowd is going crazy. Somewhere up in the rafters safely out of the shot, my dad and I are yelling and clapping on command. Again and again we break into raucous applause far out of the frame. (The Craigslist posting for extras neglected to mention that we should probably be Asian.)

We were basically the stars of the whole thing.

After eight hours of cheering and waiting and cheering and waiting, occasionally watching Urlacher or Ortiz dive for the shuttlecock or attempt a wicked spike, we broke for lunch. My dad and I saw the opportunity to end our dalliance with Hollywood, but there was just one thing I needed to do first.

“Excuse me, Papi?” I said as I waded cautiously into the Red Sox great’s conversation.

“What’s up, Mami?” David Ortiz replied.

We told him we were Bostonians, big fans. We gushed a bit ungracefully. Then we snuck out of that commercial shoot, smiles clutching our cheeks, and never looked back.

Thanks for that, Big Papi. Thanks for everything.

I wrote this book when I was 12 (and it sorta came true)

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So, I’m hanging at my parents’ house in Boston this week, sleeping in my childhood room, sitting on the radiator in the dining room to do work and basically transforming into high school me minus the weird crushes and all-bagel diet.

I am one of those people whose rooms are still more or less how they left them. My kitchen apron from summer 2000 at Chimney Corners Camp (Yippie Ai Aides forever!) is still hung over the door. A photo collage of the Newton North gymnastics team is still on the wall. There are framed pictures of friends I haven’t seen in a very long time and a somewhat creepy double exposure photo of 16-year-old me taken by my then-boyfriend (who did not, as it turns out, become a professional photographer).

And on the bookshelf next to the bed, I just discovered a true masterpiece: I Can’t be Late!! By: Sarah Feldberg.

Yes, I am a published author. Excuse me while I update my LinkedIn profile.

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Please, walk down the middle of the street this weekend

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While the East Coast braces for winter storm Jonas Brothers and toddler-height snow accumulation, San Francisco is just laying back in the cut of perpetual dampness. Seriously, El Niño is one wet kid.

I know, I know. We need the water. Life-ending drought. Desert-inducing climate change. I know it all. And, yes, I’m eternally grateful for this year’s snow pack and the rising levels in local rivers and lakes. Thank you, clouds. Thank you, precipitation. You’ve been missed!

Still, there’s something undeniably thrilling about the collective anticipation of a really big blizzard. The rush to the grocery store, the stocking of booze, the planning of movies to watch and cookies to bake and pajamas to wear. These are good, simple pleasures.

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Best. Hair Day. Ever.

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My dad got an Apple TV recently and found a bunch of old videos on his computer, including the gem where I got this screenshot. It features me, almost age 4, having a dance party with my neighbor Kyra in my parents’ living room. (Thanks to Mom and Dad for that awesome haircut. Now you know where Amelie got her signature look.)

Generally, I find home videos of small children pretty useless—including those starring yours truly—but this one reminded me of the kind of uninhibited dancing that generally ends sometime before middle school (and only resumes after the fifth vodka soda). Let’s all break it down a little more often—looming hangover not required.

 

Thinking about Boston

The women's leaders, including eventual winner Rita Jeptoo, fly past us at mile 21 of the 2014 Boston Marathon. By Tovin Lapan

The women’s leaders, including eventual winner Rita Jeptoo, fly past us at mile 21 of the 2014 Boston Marathon. By Tovin Lapan

It’s taken me a few weeks to digest my trip to Boston for this year’s marathon—an undeniably joyous, inevitably sad, wholly inspirational weekend in a city that’s usually just home.

As one of Boston’s holiest days turned to chaos and despair last year, I sat on a couch in Las Vegas, riveted and disturbed, wishing I could be there with loved ones and grateful to be far away. I promised myself (and my boyfriend) that this year we would be there. Boston strong. Home sweet home. All of that.

When we landed for a long April weekend that would culminate in the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, there was a buzz of energy about the city that I didn’t recognize—a mix of nerves, enthusiasm, pride and fear. The recent tragedy and the town’s gritty resilience echoed in every BAA jacket, every Boston Strong poster, ever lean-legged runner walking the Back Bay in sneakers. Even the mundane carried the weight of meaning. It was, frankly, a bit overwhelming.

The day before the race, Tovin, our friend Tristan and I hopped the Green Line to Copley for lunch and a little sight-seeing. Instead of staring into cellphone screens or at the passing homes and tunnel walls, strangers on the train were striking up conversations, swapping marathon stories, and sharing why they’d decided to come or who they were here to watch. The ride felt nothing like a normal trip on the T. It was warm and oddly welcoming, like we were all regulars in some stuffy, chugging coffee shop on rails.

By the time I hit the course on Monday morning—mile 21, just past the crest of Heartbreak Hill near my parents’ house—I didn’t know what to feel. So I did what I’ve always done at the Boston Marathon: I cheered, and watched, and marveled, and encouraged. I hugged runner friends who arrived red-faced and beaming, laughed at the military police taking pictures for posing families and screamed my head off when Meb came streaking by on his way to being the first American to take the laurels in decades.

And when it was time to go, I finally felt calm. Boston strong. Home sweet home. All of that.

Are the chefs lying to me?

Biscuits: the homemade variety. Photo by Tovin Lapan

This is a blog about biscuits. Incredible biscuits. But it’s also about the truth.

It all started last year when I picked up a copy of Saveur in the Denver Airport and opened it to find a picture of Island Creek Oyster Bar chef Jeremy Sewall with his famous biscuits. Giant, fluffy, golden monsters draped in honey rosemary butter that sell for $4 a piece at the Kenmore Square restaurant in Boston, these biscuits had become a minor obsession for Tovin and me since we tried them a few summers ago. I’d tried to get the recipe through a half-hearted Twitter campaign. But the ICOB social media team stayed tough. Damn them.

But thanks to Saveur, the recipe was mine. There was much rejoicing and texting.

Tovin and I whipped up a batch not too long after landing back in Vegas. We followed the recipe step by step, but the dough was dry and crumbly. So, we tried again, shaping bigger biscuits this time, hoping to approximate Island Creek’s pillowy carbo goodness. More crumbs. Finally, I asked a pastry chef for her professional diagnosis. More buttermilk, she said.

Our third attempt was the best one yet—dough that kept its shape, large, hot biscuits with soft, fluffy centers and lots of that honey butter. But something was still off. We were still eating amateur hour.

I mentioned my plight to a friend whose work involves the restaurant industry, and she laughed. Chefs never give out their real recipes, she said. What we’d gotten were general guidelines, a rough sketch that with the proper technique and generous tweaking could come close to the real deal. The recipe wasn’t a blue print, it was paint by numbers directions.

Which brings me (finally) to the question I’ve really been wanting to ask: Are the chefs lying? Are they keeping the secrets of their signature dishes even as they claim to reveal all? Is it all a big farce?

Either way, I’m determined that Tovin and I will conquer the Island Creek Oyster Bar biscuits. (On a recent trip to Boston, a friend with some inside information mentioned layers.) With some experimentation, a few more batches and maybe a tasting session or two at the source, we’ll get closer. And when we want the real thing, well, we’ll know where to go.

Your new favorite biscuits (trust me)

The biscuit-lover in this family is definitely Tovin. The man has a Montgomery Biscuits baseball hat (their mascot is a biscuit with a pad of butter for a tongue), nicknamed our dog Biscuit and orders the delightful carb bombs pretty much everywhere we go. Two years ago at his birthday dinner, we discovered the best biscuits in the world. They’re made at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston.

Yes, Boston isn’t the first place you think of when you hear the word biscuits, but these beauties are golden brown flaky treats drenched in butter and honey with a hint of rosemary. They run $4 a pop, and take up most of the plate they’re served on. I’ve been singing their praises ever since that dinner, and thanks to Saveur annual Saveur 100 issue, now I have chef Jeremy Sewell’s recipe. We haven’t quite been able to capture the lightness of his version yet. But I’m confident we’ll get there with a little more practice.

 

The 5 best places I visited in 2012

A pineapple vendor sits on her boat at a floating market in the Mekong Delta.

A pineapple vendor sits on her boat at a floating market in the Mekong Delta.


I love the start of the New Year, when the calendar stretches out like a blank page free from the restrictions of plans and obligations that start cluttering it up and pushing all the fun and possibility out. Right now you can still dream of taking off to Brazil for a month or kayaking to secret campgrounds or learning to scuba dive in Sinai. For the first weeks of January, anything is possible. It’s magical.

That feeling got me thinking about the places I saw and the trips I took last year. Some were the stuff of wild New Year’s dreams, others were weekend trips that wowed with unsuspected charms. All are worth your time. So here, in no particular order, are the best places I visited in 2012.

IMG_2436-edit1. Mekong River Delta, Vietnam I spent last New Year’s Eve in Vietnam, visiting my parents who were spending six months in Hanoi, teaching classes and generally discovering the hilarity of living in a place where your best efforts at verbal communication are met with confused laughter. My three-week trip took me north to the Chinese border on an overnight train, to the terraced emerald hills of Sapa, where we trekked with local native women to see tribal villages, and to the glittering boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City decked in Chanel and Dior. From there, we took off on a two-day tour of the Mekong River Delta, a network of wide waterways and chugging streams where everything is overgrown and tremendously alive. We biked down winding island paths, drank fresh sugar cane juice and sputtered about a floating market filled with fruit and vegetable vendors shouting their wares from metal hulled skiffs. Life moves a little slower on the water. Wonderfully so.

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2. The Narrows at Zion National Park I’m currently big toenail-less thanks to this scenic hike through Southern Utah’s breathtaking national park. I’ve been wanting to hike the Narrows since my first
visit to Zion a year and a half ago. While my friends tackled a 12-hour trip through the Subway that weekend, I spent a few hours solo, hiking the Narrows from the bottom up. Crowds pour into the watery slot canyon from Zion’s main drag, boulder hopping and wading back and forth across the Virgin River, moving upstream and thinning out as the water level and mileage rises. This year we came back with a group of friends and a backcountry permit to do the Narrows the right way: top down over two days with a night camping in the canyon in the middle. And despite the throbbing in my toes from too-small rental shoes and a backpack weighed down with crap I should’ve left home, this is one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. Every bend in the river reveals steep sloping walls, framing views far too pretty for pictures. I can’t wait to do the Narrows again—in a different pair of boots.

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Dark and cloudy beachscape on Vashon Island

3. Vashon Island Tovin and I spent a weekend at a friend’s beachfront home on this large island in the Puget Sound just off the coast of Seattle, and it wasn’t nearly long enough. Yes, there’s an adorable Downtown, tons of beachy and cliffy coastline and waters begging to be kayaked, but my favorite Vashon activity was a sunny run past the island’s small family farms. Folks here operate on the honor system, leaving fresh produce and eggs roadside with a note showing the day’s price. Even though I didn’t pocket any veggies, I loved exploring this sweet, Northwest escape.

4. Boston Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put my hometown on this list, but when you haven’t been home in over a year, there is something so remarkably comforting about trampling familiar soil, hopping on the same train you’ve always taken (even if it’s the Green Line) and hitting a favorite childhood diner for lunch. Plus, Boston is really fucking cool. Whether you grew up there or not. And of course, it helps to have amazing friends who show you the new hot spots. A few highlights: Island Creek Oyster Bar (get the biscuit, trust me), The Hawthorne (get a few expertly crafted cocktails while you wait for your table at Island Creek), JM Curley (Downtown gastropub), Regal Beagle (ask the bartender for the off-menu cocktail with a full egg in it). And don’t forget to drink water before bed.

5. Portland, Oregon Despite the rain and the gray, I can’t wait to return to Portland after an all-too-quick visit for a college friend’s wedding. Breweries! Chic shops! Book stores! Food trucks! Flea markets! Epic brunches with overly enthusiastic waiters! Yeah, I think Portland is my kind town—even if it makes my hair frizz.

Some place I call home

Dad with burnt caramel and goat cheese brownie ice cream cones from Toscanini's.

When I get a few days with my parents (it only happens three or four times a year), the conversation always turns earnest fairly quickly. So I wasn’t much surprised when my mom laid down this question during a casual radiator-seat chat last Friday: “These days, where do you feel the most comfortable?”

It’s something I’ve thought about myself recently—the curious concept of home and what it means when you’ve lived somewhere long enough to have just the twitching beginning of roots, but the people you love the most are still miles and miles away. Is home where the heart is? Where the boyfriend is? Or where the sweet red couch I bought on Craigslist is? And when those are three different places, is anywhere really home?

I used to boast about how I felt more me the moment the plane touched down in Boston. I walked faster, absorbed more, felt more alive in the city that I’d grown up in but had left before I had the chance to fully appreciate it as an adult. This time, I exited the plane into an unfamiliar terminal (E) and stumbled to the curb in an all-day travel stupor. I spent most of the weekend in Kendall Square, Cambridge, a neighborhood I’ve never known well and still don’t. I had to use Google Maps to choose a route for my run and even ask for directions while driving friends home. It was the first time that “home” has felt less than, well, homey.

But there were moments of comfort, too, with the people who’ve always made Boston home and the places that hold deep, embedded memories that I forget about until they’re right in front of me again. White Mountain Creamery still smells like sweet, rich, freshly churned ice cream; the North End still vibrates with cranky townies, wide-eyed tourists and the hungry energy of waiters hoping to make a buck. When my mom popped the question, the answer I gave surprised us both: Vegas. Four days later, Boston may not have taken over, but she was definitely back in the race.

Homestyle by Hannah Frank

"Moon Ballet" by Hannah Frank

There are certain things that will always remind me of home. Not of Boston, my hometown, but of my parents’ actual, physical house. Perpetually freezing in the winter, cluttered with old New Yorkers, and with a window-side radiator that makes the most excellent seat.

The other thing you should know about my parents’ place is that there is lots of Hannah Frank art on the walls. Hannah Frank was an artist from Glasgow, Scotland who lived from 1908 to 2008. She saw plenty in her day, and created these simple, gorgeous, somewhat haunting black and white drawings. My parents took a liking to them, and over the years, they’ve grown on me too. So when my birthday came around this year about two months after moving into a new apartment with depressingly naked walls, I figured I’d put in a request for a Hannah Frank print.

I picked out “Moon Ballet,” the image at the top of this post. Her stuff’s not for everyone, of course, not much art is. But give it a few minutes and see if it doesn’t grow on you. And if it doesn’t, well, then let’s hope you’re not getting a copy for your birthday, too.