You’ve Been Trumped: American arrogance in Aberdeenshire

In this blog, I have yet to discuss the smattering of studying I’m in the process of completing as I prepare for my five-month residency in Scotland. However, I’m filling in the gaps in my knowledge of Scottish history and culture in a variety of ways, including seeking out documentaries – the topic of this post.

In 2011, Anthony Baxter released a documentary that revealed stunning abuses of power in the village of Balmedie, Aberdeenshire. The events stemmed from American tycoon Donald Trump’s bid to build a golf course in Balmedie – directly on top of a rare and valuable dune landscape. Baxter’s film, You’ve Been Trumped, traces the distressing ways in which Trump’s project disrupts the lives of local property-owners and residents while also tracking the devastation of the dunes.

The film begins with an interview with elderly, widowed resident of Balmedie named Molly Forbes. Baxter sets the film’s atmosphere of fragility, loss, risk, and heritage by taking the time to fully characterize Molly’s daily life. Reminders of mortality are constant as Molly turns on a radio to keep foxes from hunting the hens she cares for in her garden and shows Baxter her deceased husband’s hat from his time as a seaman. Archival footage of Molly’s own father reveals Balmedie’s deep roots in traditions of fishing and farming.

However, the image of Molly’s idyllic, removed existence is shattered when the camera pans back to reveal that the back side of her shed is spray painted with a political message denouncing Donald Trump.

Trump’s first appearance in the film characterizes him in a far from flattering light. Memorably, Trump notices a woman at a media event regarding the golf course and calls her over. “Miss Scotland?” he loudly calls, not even asking her name. Immediately, he boorishly points out that she failed to secure a spot in the Miss Universe pageant, putting her on the spot as he asks whether the selected contestant is as beautiful as she is. After a series of rude comments, Trump dismisses her, remarking that “she might be good for sales and stuff” while his son leers on.

Although I was disturbed by Trump’s role as essentially an utterly inappropriate, disrespectful, and ignorant ambassador of America, the film surprised me by protesting actions of the Scottish government and local police as much as it protests Donald Trump’s arrogance. Protestors repeatedly accuse the Scottish government of being swept up in Trump’s grand promises of boosting the local economy, a political goal that ignores the scientific, environmental, cultural, and aesthetic value of Aberdeen’s unique dune ecosystem.

Baxter gave Americans a chance to redeem themselves in a series of “man on the street” style interviews at none other than St. Andrews’ world renown golf course. Most dismissed Trump’s project as a grandiose expression of wealth and power and had low expectations for Trump’s ability to incorporate a sense of authentic Scottish heritage into the resort. The Old Course at St. Andrews is among the oldest golf courses in the world and attracts visitors from around the world, and Trump’s course would deliberately compete with the Old Course, a goal dismissed by the St. Andrews golfers Baxter interviews, who feel little interest in visiting a course other than the historic and prestigious Old Course during their time in Scotland.

As the film rolls on, the construction invades homeowners’ lands, flattens nearby dunes, and wreaks havoc including loss of running water and electricity in nearby homes. Scottish public figures including scientists and economics professors contribute expert opinions throughout the film, each offering evidence of the negative impact of the golf course. However much evidence the film raises in opposition to Trump’s project, the camera captures the unceasing, irreversible damage done to the dunes.

The film also offers an interesting look at Scottish police when Baxter is arrested while filming the construction from private property (local resident Susan Munro’s driveway). The police roughly cuff Baxter, confiscate his camera, and lock him in a jail cell for four hours. As I listened to Baxter’s arrest, his camera showing hectic skewed images as he resists the police, I felt that something was off, something was missing – and it occurred to me that the exchange lacks the reading of Miranda rights that is ingrained in the ritual of arrests in America. The notion of Miranda rights, or basic rights granted to persons under arrest such as the right to call an attorney and the warning that anything said can be used against one in the court of law, is so much a part of my schema of police that it had never occurred to me that other countries’ handle policing with different customs. I felt slightly embarrassed by this obvious realization – a feeling I expect to repeat many, many times during the course of my time abroad.

The documentary also allowed me to listen to an hour and a half of interviews colored by thick Scottish accents and words I had never heard applied to familiar objects. For example, Molly Forbes refers to potatoes as what sounds like “tatters,” a word just like American use of “taters,” if not the same word pronounced in a Scottish accent. A few of the interviews were subtitled, and I carefully listened as I read the subtitles that popped up on screen. Overall, I didn’t find the Scottish accent terribly difficult to decipher, despite warnings from my family and friends – but I plan to keep listening to Scottish interviews and television shows in order to further develop my ability to easily understand a new set of pronunciations and vernacular.

As troubling as this story was, I’m glad that I’ll be able to come into Aberdeen with some knowledge of recent current events, as I have plans to visit Aberdeen soon upon my arrival in Scotland. A quick follow-up revealed that in May of 2013, Trump lost his battle against the wind farm that would obstruct views of the North Sea from his planned hotel, an event anticipated by Baxter’s documentary but which had yet to develop at the time of the film’s release.

I’ve got more to come on the resources I’m using to prepare for my study abroad experience in Scotland, and I’m looking for new suggestions every day. I haven’t had many comments on my blog yet, and this request may hang in cyberspace to the sound of virtual crickets, but do any of my knowledgeable and friendly readers have suggestions for me? If so, I’d love to hear them!

Spudnuts: An Immersion Experience

Typically, people who talk about study abroad as an immersion experience are referring to immersion in a foreign language. “Full immersion,” they say. “That’s the only way. I can’t learn [Spanish/French/German/Chinese/Arabic/Swahili/Greek/etc.] unless I have to speak it all the time.” Home stays with local families result in hilarious miscommunications at the dinner table.

But I’m studying abroad in an English-speaking country. This is partially due to the fact that with two majors, I couldn’t study abroad and graduate on time if I didn’t choose a school that offers classes the English department would approve. Additionally, my brain just isn’t wired to keep foreign language rules in order; I don’t have a strong grasp on the type of logical thinking you need to be good at that, and the same goes for music theory, math, and science. The rules of English make basically zero sense, but I’m able to navigate by intuition – I can diagram any English sentence you throw at me – but when it comes to practice understanding of logic-based subjects, I can’t remember anything for more than a second.

Immersion is about more than speaking a foreign language, though. According to a cursory Google search, Immersion is also the name of patented haptic technology (the tactile responses you get from an iPhone – that click or vibration that let’s you know you’ve clicked a button on the screen). It’s a brand of kayaking equipment. It’s a series of workshops hosted by the American Library Association. The word also calls to mind baptism, ritual immersion in water thought to cleanse the soul from original sin.

One of my two jobs is to copy edit Explorations in Black Leadership, a website co-created by Julian Bond and Phyllis Leffler. Over the past thirteen years, Professor Leffler and Julian Bond have been collecting interviews from famous black leaders in a variety of fields – poetry, politics, religion, teaching, and more. It’s my job to comb through every bit of text on the website, from biographies to educational modules. Most importantly, I listen to each interview and compare the video to the transcript, filling in missing words and standardizing the grammar.

Sometimes the world around you echoes back a thought you’re having. A few weeks ago, as I began to blog and reflect on my overarching theme of immersion, playwright Amiri Baraka traced his skepticism about religion back to his own baptism, recalling it as a physical, visceral experience that was ultimately disappointing. “They dunk you in that water,” he said, but instead of emerging feeling changed, he just felt like himself – not electrified by God’s presence, but just immersed in earthly water. Rather than reaching a new spiritual plane, Baraka found an experience that grounded him firmly in the literal, physical world that engaged his senses. For him, the ideas, the words behind the ritual just didn’t translate.

Recently, I’ve just been feeling immersed in work. So far, it’s been seven days per week for four weeks, or 28 days straight. I have two weeks to go before my first of two days off in July. This type of immersion is physical – I’m listening to interviews on my headphones for 30 hours a week, and I spend 15-20 hours on my feet serving customers at a retail store. It’s also mental – engaging intellectually with the transcripts as I interpret where sentences begin and end, how to demonstrate intonation through punctuation, etc. And occasionally, it’s even emotional. Middle-aged women in search of leisure wear can be a critical crowd.

As an English major and a writer, I’m captivated by this wordplay. Foreign language immersion, physical/emotional/intellectual immersion, the occasional incompatibility of abstract ideas and physical senses – it’s all webbed together in the definition of immersion.

I’ve lived in Charlottesville for two years now, but my life has played out on Grounds, where I’m constantly juggling classes, extracurriculars, and a social life that may or may not involve watching Extreme Couponing. Charlottesville is so much more than U.Va., though. Like any college town, tensions strain the relationship between students and permanent residents. Although Charlottesville isn’t in the Deep South, racial discrimination still determines where people live and whose houses are hidden from view. An uncomfortable blend of socioeconomic differences, misconceptions, and racism create hidden barriers between students and Charlottesville residents whose families have resided here for generations. To think of a U.Va. experience and a Charlottesville experience as synonyms is shortsighted at best.

I can’t change the fact that I came to Charlottesville for U.Va. In that sense, I’m no different than any other student, just like I’ll be just another study-abroader next semester. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that status, but I have no illusions about the type of “authenticity” I’ll be able to access as I search for immersion experiences in Charlottesville and beyond. What does that word mean anyway?

I’m not convinced that “authenticity,” like “immersion,” has a fixed definition, but I do believe that most people are able to describe an example of something authentic. So, I’ll do the same.

Spudnuts are a special type of donut made from potato flour. Donut enthusiasts prize Spudnuts’ unique use of potato flour, and although Spudnuts shops’ parent company went out of business, individual vendors have endured. Charlottesville happens to have one of only 52 remaining Spudnuts shops, so paying a visit seemed like a sure way of experiencing something that makes Charlottesville special.

The squat building that has housed Spudnuts for the past 40 years is located near the bridge behind nTelos Pavilion.

The squat building that has housed Spudnuts for the past 40 years is located near the bridge behind nTelos Pavilion.

Laura and I set out one Friday morning to the local Spudnuts shop, where a boy who was presumably the owner’s son helped us pick out some donuts. He told us that the glazed were most popular, but that the coconut donuts and the chocolate donuts tied for his favorite. “Pick out half a dozen for us,” I said. We ended up with one cinnamon sugar, two chocolate glazed, two plain glazed, and one blueberry cake donut. Including a cup of coffee, everything cost less than $5. Unfortunately, I was promptly embarrassed by my lack of cash – Spudnuts, like many small local shops, is cash only, as credit card fees would otherwise threaten to eclipse their profits.

I'm a toppings person - I like my pizzas weighted down with vegetables and my ice cream full of mix-ins like nuts or chocolate - so I was surprised that the plain glazed donut ended up being my favorite. I saved the extra one and ate it stale before work the next day.

I’m a toppings person – I like my pizzas weighted down with vegetables and my ice cream full of mix-ins like nuts or chocolate – so I was surprised that the plain glazed donut ended up being my favorite. I saved the extra one and ate it stale before work the next day.

We picnicked on the patch of grass next to the parking lot, soaking up the sun and watching as people pulled in and out of the parking lot, carrying away neat white boxes filled with dozens of Spudnuts. After we ate and contemplated napping, I stepped back inside to see if I could chat with the family who owned the shop for a few minutes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much before they disappeared into the back of the building, but they gave me permission to snap a few photos.

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The building retained its 1970s feel with linoleum flooring, dark wood panelling, and walls hung with an eclectic mix of Spudnuts memorabilia, family photos, and paintings. Among these decorations hung the obituary of the shop’s original owner. I learned that the Spudnuts are made in-house daily, and the building’s lack of air conditioning meant that heat and humidity varied wildly. The original owner used to begin frying donuts as early as 1 AM, and the batch he served was simply the best he could produce that day.

DSCN1787Visiting Spudnuts brought me into a new world. For the family who has owned Charlottesville’s Spudnuts shop for the past four decades, logistics of the shop’s operation has undoubtedly directed their daily lives. Spudnuts is a weekend breakfast tradition for some, a travel destination for others. Collectors undoubtedly scheme to gain Spudnuts memorabilia like the clock I noticed, competing to snatch up pieces that are no longer produced. Our morning immersion in a new corner of Charlottesville was momentary, but we glimpsed something much bigger and more permanent that moves around us all the time.

The Company You Keep

Sheltered in my rabbit hole of constant reading, writing, work, planning, socializing, etc., breaking out of my U. Va. bubble feels abrupt and jarring, startling me into the realization that, in fact, an enormous world shifts kaleidoscopically around me at all times. Seeing elderly people, babies – really anyone who isn’t between the ages of 18 and 23 – still surprises me sometimes. The fact that I could ever forget that, even just for a second, is disturbing to me.

When my former apartment-mate/very good friend Wishy suggested that we see a movie tonight at the $1.50 theater on Route 29, I checked the listings and was dismayed to realize that I didn’t recognize a single film on the list, despite the fact that they weren’t new releases. I watched a few trailers and was thrilled to see Robert Redford in The Company You Keep. I’ve seen pretty much every film he’s starred in, including his first television appearance on The Twilight Zone when he was so young that you can see the acne beneath his pancake makeup during close up shots. The Sting was the film that got me into other classic films, and All the President’s Men made me want to pursue journalism as the outlet for my writing. Redford’s work has guided my interests through the years.

From all of that background, it’s pretty obvious that I was inclined to like The Company You Keep despite the fact that I knew nothing about it. I tried to put that positive bias aside as I watched; here are some reasons I thought The Company You Keep was a smart movie packed with refreshing political messages:

  1. The Weathermen are explicitly defined as an American terrorist organization. As U.S. involvement in the Middle East drags on, it’s been easy for the media to frame all terrorism as foreign terrorism and, by extension, all terrorism as a threat emanating from Middle Eastern people. 9/11 generated justifiable sadness and fear, but it also generated racism, intolerance of non-Western religious beliefs, and distrust and resentment of anyone of Arabic descent. After the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon, the media connected the alleged bombers to an extremist faction of Islam within days, despite the fact that the two men were from an area of Russia plagued by domestic terrorism for decades. I was in elementary school when 9/11 occurred, and I can’t say that I’d seen a film specifically about acts of terrorism committed by  Americans, against Americans, before The Company You Keep. Although events of domestic terrorism have popped up in headlines recently – the Newtown shooting, to name one – Hollywood isn’t quick to put these themes in theaters. It’s easier to view threats to domestic peace as coming from without rather than within, hence the success of alien movies, apocalypse movies, superhero movies, and war movies in recent years.
  2. The Company You Keep resensitized me to Vietnam. My favorite class at U. Va. last semester explored contemporary literary representations of the Holocaust. We discussed emotional sensitivity to the Holocaust extensively – but above all, we talked about the way we’ve become desensitized to the Holocaust. To begin with, the sheer scale of tragedy and cruelty during the Holocaust is unfathomable. With that enormous obstacle in place, contemporary writers face the fact that readers “already know the story.” Most people know the basics – the trains, the gas chambers, the random shootings, the striped uniforms. These details become the basic arsenal of tropes, losing their ability to shock, to make readers viscerally feel the tragedy they are describing. To combat this desensitized audience, contemporary writers use a variety of techniques to awaken readers to the horror and grief examination of the Holocaust should inspire, including poetic language that requires re-reading and analysis; postmodern techniques that fracture the narrative, mirroring the destruction of continuity during the Holocaust; magical realism that reflects the way normal rules governing conventional life were disregarded; and more. During a brief but powerful speech, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) describes the violence and uncertainty of the Vietnam era. Eyes wide and faintly crazed, Solarz’s account of the Vietnam era reveals that her world view remains shaped by memories of being beaten by police during peaceful protests, watching fellow college students shot at Kent State, and the constant dread of the draft. American Studies majors often discuss the fact that public schools serve as the state’s primary opportunity to indoctrinate national values into young Americans; it seems convenient that we always ran out of time to learn about any history beyond World War II. Summer came, school was out, and the chapters on the Vietnam era remained unexamined, locked in our history books. At most, we learned about Watergate, but the darker stories were utterly sanitized.
  3. The Company You Keep offered an examination of news media begging to be put into conversation with All the President’s MenAs every college student should, I took a film class last fall. (If you go to U. Va., you should definitely try to take a class with Joe Arton before you graduate.) One idea that continues to fascinate me is the concept of excess – connections between films that exist outside of the world contained within the film. In this case, Robert Redford’s presence in a film that offered pointed commentary on the state of contemporary news media instantly triggered most audience members’ memory of Redford’s starring role in All the President’s Men, the ultimate classic among journalism movies and legends in general. I saw All the President’s Men at a lovely old theater downtown at the Virginia Film Festival last fall, followed by a Q&A with Woodward and Bernstein. I had always considered it to be a serious picture, so I was surprised to hear the audience laugh throughout the screening. Most audience members were old enough to recall the Watergate story breaking, and it dawned on me that the comic relief stemmed from experiential understanding of the period. Either way, it’s undeniable that Redford’s portrayal of Woodward is heroic. Redford’s Woodward is often humbled, stoic, honest, and in dogged pursuit of the truth. By contrast, in The Company You Keep, Redford plays a tired former-radical, while Shia LeBeouf portrays an arrogant, self-serving journalist eager to catapult his career away from the dying local paper he views with little sympathy. Ben Shepard (LeBeouf) is completely entitled, worming his way into people’s homes and even begging a source for a date. He somewhat redeems himself by choosing not to publish a story exposing the personal lives of other characters, losing his job in the process, but even this act couldn’t save his overall characterization as a basically sleazy guy who is ignorant of the history of golden-age, Woodward and Bernstein-era journalism that came before him. For example, Shepard doesn’t blink when multiple sources ask to be off the record, an arrangement used extensively by Woodward and Bernstein despite the fact that it threatened to compromise the Washington Post‘s legitimacy. The Company You Keep is critical of contemporary journalism.
  4. Adoption is portrayed in a way that reflects me. The Company You Keep features a character named Rebecca Osbourne (played by Brit Marling) who was adopted by a police officer after two radicals chose to pursue their cause without the limitations of caring for a child. Despite Shepard’s off-hand remark that Rebecca didn’t look like her parents, I thought that she basically resembled them – essentially, she was white and American. All too often, adoption is portrayed as a strictly international interaction. Even worse, discussion of adoption as an option for unplanned or unwanted pregnancy is completely absent from the pro-life/pro-choice debate, which focuses on abortion. Adoption laws are different in every state, making it difficult to orchestrate. International adoptions obviously have the same positive effect of placing children with uncertain futures into loving homes. However, there are many unwanted, unplanned children born within the United States as well. The Company You Keep also offered a glimpse at something I think all adopted children long to hear – Rebecca’s biological parents reunite for a single night together, during which they agree that they would have liked to have raised her themselves. Rebecca’s biological mother even admits to an act of voyeuristic observation; she couldn’t resist glimpsing her daughter, and she approved of the daughter she found.
  5. The film examines three different generations. Assuming that the story is set in 2012, the year it was released, Redford’s character’s eleven-year-old daughter would have been born just as 9/11 occurred. This separated the film’s characters into three generations: the aging Weathermen, who experienced the Vietnam era; Shepard and Rebecca, who witnessed 9/11 during their early high school years; and the newest generation, born into a post-9/11 world. This stratification into three distinct generations shaped by major historic events merits an entire analysis on its own, and I’d probably need to see the film again to do this justice. Not coincidentally, one of the former Weathermen is a university professor of – what else? – history. Cleverly inset within the film is a short scene of his lecture, in which he describes history as something made by human beings and human passions, delivering the film’s overall vision of history.
  6. There’s a Vonnegut allusion. And it happens to be my favorite line out of all the literature I’ve read: “So it goes.” Taken from Slaughterhouse-Five, one of Vonnegut’s many anti-war texts, this allusion contributed to the film’s commentary on the complicated relationship between violence and non-violence, action and inaction. As Solarz says, inaction during a time of government treachery seemed like an act of violence at the time of the Weathermen’s greatest activism.

Rotten Tomatoes reviewers found the film to be too slow and too boring, but I enjoyed its multifaceted, fully developed storyline and cast of characters. It’s rare that I see a recently-made film that leaves me satisfied, let alone in theaters. I found a lot to analyze in The Company You Keep, and I know I’ve seen a good film when it stays on my mind after the credits finish rolling.

Happy Bloomsday!

Nothing rings in Bloomsday like a lamb kidney with mustard gravy, boiled potatoes, and sliced tomato.

Nothing rings in Bloomsday like a lamb kidney with mustard gravy, boiled potatoes, and sliced tomato.

For those who are not Modern literature enthusiasts and/or residents of Dublin, Bloomsday is a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Notorious for being banned for obscenity in multiple countries (including the U.S.), Ulysses is ironically recognized as the most influential but least read book of the twentieth century. All of the book’s events take place during the course of a single day – you guessed it – June 16, 1904, a day that gained personal significance to Joyce when he went on a first date with his wife, Nora Barnacle, on a June 16.

The first few episodes of the novel are narrated by Stephen Dedalus, an intellectual utterly trapped in his own mind. The novel picks up with Dedalus where Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man left him, but Joyce shifts the narration to a Jewish Dubliner named Leopold Bloom in the fourth episode. Bloom is the antithesis of Dedalus: where Dedalus’ language is elevated, Bloom’s is plain; where Dedalus’ thoughts stew in memories, Bloom’s are saturated with sensory details of the present.

You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the photo I posted above, so with that background information out of the way, I can explain. Since 1954 (50 years after the events in the book take place), Dublin has brought Ulysses to life by celebrating Bloomsday, a unique literary holiday during which visitors and residents of Dublin relive the events in the book by traveling the route Bloom and Dedalus take as they wind their way through the city and knit their experiences together. I plan to visit Dublin during my time abroad in order to make my own pilgrimage, but in the meantime, thousands of miles away in Charlottesville, I needed to find another way to immerse myself. My encounter with Bloom, I decided, had to be sensory. Specifically, gustatory.

We meet Bloom as he’s preparing breakfast:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I’d never eaten kidneys, but I’m an adventurous eater and was up for the challenge. My search for kidneys began two days ago and took me to six different butcher shops, my path criss-crossing through Charlottesville. At the second Kroger I visited, the butcher eyed me curiously. “I’ve been here since the 1980,” he told me, “and when people would hear about us getting a lamb carcass in, they’d be here first thing in the morning to make sure they could get the kidneys if they were still attached.” He shook his head. “That’s the last I’ve seen them, though.”

He sent me over to the Carriage House, alternately called Anderson’s Old Fashioned Butcher, a dimly lit, linoleum floored building perfumed by the slabs of fish resting in glass coolers ringing the room. “You need help with somethin’ honey?” a grizzled woman called out to me as I peered at a fleshy white plank of halibut. Her eyes bugged out when I asked about my kidneys. “We don’t have anything like that here,” she said. “But I used to work at Food Lion and I have some connections. Hold on.” I waited patiently as she dialed her friend.

“No? You don’t have any? Okay. Thank you, baby boy. You take care.” She hung up. “You might want to try Reid’s. They usually have weird — ” She glanced around. “Pardon my French, but weird shit like that.” I thanked her and drove to Reid’s. “No, we don’t have any. A lady had us special order some a few weeks ago, so we could do that if you don’t need them right away.” (I did need them right away.) “She fed them to her dogs,” the butcher added.

For such a rare find, the kidneys were surprisingly cheap. It makes sense -- they're rare because no one seems to want them any more.

For such a rare find, the kidneys were surprisingly cheap. It makes sense — they’re rare because no one seems to want them any more.

Finally, Foods of All Nations came through with a shelf full of frozen lamb kidneys. (Bloom actually eats mutton kidney, but finding any kidney at all was so difficult that I was satisfied with settling.) By this point in the day, I was really enjoying the odd looks I was receiving. Kidney isn’t in high demand, but especially by my demographic (early 20s American female).

Having never cooked kidney before, I needed to do some research before I dove into cooking. I thawed the kidneys overnight in the refrigerator and rose early the next day so that I would have time to cook before I had to go to work. A thread ominously entitled “Kidney Fail” suggested soaking the kidneys in a salt water and white vinegar bath to help reduce the kidneys’ tell-tale whiff of urine, so I set them up in a bath and added some ice cubes to keep them fresh while they soaked for an hour.

Everyone thought the kidneys looked like little fetuses bobbing gently in the water.

My mercifully non-judgmental housemates thought the kidneys looked like little fetuses bobbing gently in the water.

Meanwhile, I picked out an audiobook recording of Ulysses on YouTube and began my breakfast with my version of the Gorgonzola and mustard sandwich Bloom enjoys for lunch. Bloom visited Davy Byrne’s Pub, a restaurant still frequented today. Until I make it to Dublin, my version of Bloom’s sandwich would have to make do, and it actually turned out to be a startlingly delicious combination of flavors.

I've found my new favorite sandwich.

I’ve found my new favorite sandwich.

The Gorgonzola was creamy and salty, and the Dijon mustard I used blended with the tang of the rich blue mold that marbled the cheese. Thin leaves of arugula added texture and a refreshing pepperiness that balanced the richness of the cheese. With no soda bread (and actually no bread at all, since I don’t eat bread – Laura, if you’re reading this, I owe you a slice), I ate a half sandwich on wheat. I decided against port wine, the other vital component of Bloom’s meal, since it was only 9 o’ clock in the morning. This is a sandwich I will make again, Bloomsday or not.

As my little kidneys soaked away and Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus annoyed each other on the audiobook, I nervously Googled for recipes and instructions. Although Bloom eats his kidney plain, with only pan drippings for dressing, I opted for a recipe that called for a red wine vinegar/Dijon mustard cream sauce, hoping that the strong flavors would soften the kidneys’ peculiar flavor. Additionally, I stumbled across this incredibly helpful video:

After cleaning the kidneys as the video described, I dropped them into the pan, where they happily sizzled away in a pool of butter.

After cleaning the kidneys as the video described, I dropped them into the pan, where they happily sizzled away in a pool of butter.

That white membrane is no joke. I ended up having to wash the scissors from my desk because they were the only ones sharp enough to snip through the slippery white spines of gristle.

I know I cooked the kidneys correctly because the texture was just right — the bite was juicy with just the right amount of resistance, like a firmer version of a scallop. My taste buds had been primed by the smell of the soaking kidneys, and I waited curiously for their conclusion. They buzzed skeptically as I chewed, waiting until I swallowed to offer a verdict. “That is not food,” they said in unanimous agreement. “Do. Not. Eat. More.”

DSCN1800

The kidney didn’t taste like excrement by any means; don’t be fooled by the horrified reviews you may find online. Unfortunately, the “fine tang of faintly scented urine” lingered in my palate for the rest of the day, a briny, bitter-saltiness paired with a rich meatiness unlike anything I’ve tasted before. Uncharacteristically, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the rest of my kidney and made a bowl of oatmeal instead. However, by the end of the day, the taste had settled comfortably into my palate, tinging the rest of the foods I ate but not unpleasantly.

I think on some level I always knew I'd end up eating oatmeal for breakfast.

I think on some level I always knew I’d end up eating oatmeal for breakfast.

Leopold Bloom is drawn to the most pungent flavors available, a sensory dimension to his character that can’t fully come to life from the page alone. He takes pleasure in his food, giving great thought to planning and obtaining his meals. Ulysses is a daunting book, and there are still entire episodes that I missed as I followed the sporadic but thoughtfully chosen stabs my survey of Modern literature took at it. But after spending this Bloomsday exploring Bloom’s particular tastes, I’ve found a new way into a book that continues to captivate me.

Feast Flash: Go-to tomato sauce

Everyone has a trusty go-to recipe – something simple, something delicious, and something for which you always keep the ingredients on hand. For many years, my go-to has been pasta. Pasta is a perfect dish to master when you’re first learning to cook – its flavor profile is instantly recognizable and it allows you to practice basics like boiling water and sautéing.

A jar of pasta sauce is far too much for one serving, so I used to sauté cherry tomatoes, diced onions, and garlic instead. Through the years, I’ve expanded my recipe to include a few more ingredients. I also enjoy being thin but do not enjoy exercising any more than I have to, so recently I’ve traded carb-loaded pasta for protein-packed quinoa. Here’s how it goes:

Making a fresh serving every time is definitely worthwhile.

Making a fresh serving every time is definitely worthwhile.

I recently discovered these small cans of tomato sauce – I can’t believe I had never cooked with them before. They’re just tomato concentrate with minimal seasoning and no added sugar. At 20 calories, they’re the perfect base for a sauce.

I like to pack as many vegetables into my meals as possible, so today I decided to use mushrooms and spinach in my sauce. I started out with a drizzle of olive oil – you really don’t need much – and then added some diced mushrooms and onions. These guys take the longest to cook, so I put them on the heat first and hit them with some salt and pepper. Meanwhile, I put 1/2 cup of quinoa and twice as much water in another pot to come to a boil.

No one likes oily food, so use olive oil sparingly. You can always add a little more if the pan seems too dry.

No one likes oily food, so use olive oil sparingly. You can always add a little more if the pan seems too dry.

Mushrooms and onions take probably 5-7 minutes to soften.

Mushrooms and onions take probably 5-7 minutes to soften.

While the vegetables were cooking and the quinoa was coming to a boil, I turned my attention to my other ingredients. After years of burning garlic, I’ve finally learned to wait before adding it to the pan, so this was the perfect time to take my time mincing a clove.

You'll want small pieces that can diffuse through the sauce.

You’ll want small pieces that can diffuse through the sauce.

Next, I cut the spinach into ribbons. There’s a trick to this: You need to gather all of the spinach together and roll it into a burrito-shape. You don’t need to do this leaf by leaf; just gently shape the handful of spinach so that it looks like this:

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And then run your knife through them. Easy! Another thing about spinach: when it wilts, it shrinks. Use probably three or four times as much as you think you’ll need and you’ll end up with just enough. I usually just fill the pan. Spinach’s dark green color indicates the presence of lots of nutrients, so it’s a great addition to a meal like this.

It seems like a lot of spinach, doesn't it?

It seems like a lot of spinach, doesn’t it?

But it shrinks!

But it shrinks!

You can see in that picture that I added the quinoa to the pan after it finished cooking. Once it boiled, I turned the heat down and let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so. You know quinoa is done with all of the water is absorbed and it’s released little white spirals. Cooking it a little with the vegetables will help to flavor it more. By this point, I’d also added a generous amount of Italian seasoning and a handful of chili flakes my housemate bought at an Asian market. With everything cooked and seasoned, you’re ready to pop open the can of tomato sauce and add it to the pan – but don’t add water or you’ll end up with soup.

Everything simmering away, flavors blending together.

Everything simmering away, flavors blending together.

It may seem like you’re ready to dig in, but this is actually the most important step: Wait. Just let everything meld together for a little while on low heat. (Don’t let it get too hot or everything will splatter!) Taste it after a few minutes. Add some salt or some more spices. In my case, it needed a few more chili flakes and then a little dried basil to balance out the heat.

This is the perfect time to wash your quinoa pot, cutting board, and knife and to pop the rest of your ingredients back where they belong. By the time you’ve put everything away, the meal will be ready and you’ll only have one pan left to wash. It’s a win-win.

Contrary to popular belief, I’m actually not a vegetarian, but I rarely eat red meat. I’d rather use my grocery budget to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables rather than animal proteins. Since this meal is vegetarian, I had some extra calories to play around with and chose to add a generous amount of cheese. I couldn’t decide between mozzarella and parmesan, so I added both.

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Eating this in a bowl will help keep it warm for longer. Plus, who wants to chase quinoa particles around a plate?

As much as I once loved pasta, I really don’t miss it. This meal has all of the flavors I appreciate with no gluten (except maybe in my low-quality cheese) and lots of vegetables. The handful of cheese melts really well, too, so it reminds me of my other love, macaroni and cheese.

This cheese actually couldn't be any more gooey and perfect.

This cheese actually couldn’t be any more gooey and perfect.

I don’t get sick often, and I think my diet has a lot to do with that. With a go-to meal like this, even the stress and busyness of U. Va. can’t wear my immune system down.