Hot Oakland morning

On very hot days, if I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time at home, I have a ritual. I get up early, boil a big pot of water, and throw in anything I have around that tastes good cold and boiled: eggs, potatoes, beets, green beans, shrimp, noodles, etc. I also make anything else to accompany these: sauces, salads. This way I can avoid a hot stove and unnecessary exertion during the hottest part of the day. I started doing this in LA, where I had a very hot kitchen and no air-conditioning in the apartment, and I did it again this morning, where I have a far cooler kitchen but still no A/C. They say it’s going to hit 96ºF today (35.5ºC).

I had intended to get through all this by 7:30, when the bakery opens, but I can see now that was an absurd hope. I woke late, at 7, drowsy and slow, but we had left the kitchen windows open and the outside air still felt like a cool fresh gift. Two hours later I had washed and prepped the sugar snap peas, the fava beans, the new potatoes, the spinach, the Wakefield cabbage, and a bit of cilantro and dill; I had made dashi and a dipping sauce and cooked the vegetables and a couple of eggs, and salted the cabbage, and put together a potato salad. Last night we cooked Napa cabbage and noodles and fish and shrimp, so we still had those, along with some leftover rice and poached chicken from a Chinese restaurant, and in the freezer I have a few pints of my first batches of homemade ice cream (vanilla bean, and dulce de leche). And there’s lemon juice and ice and simple syrup for lemonade. So I am all set.

At 9 I walked out to the bakery (in my Ghanaian dress from Kuukua. so airy on hot days). Much of Piedmont Avenue is in shade, so the walk was pleasant, though the sun was already strong and there was a bit of a rubbishy smell in the air, especially around the creamery. At La Farine I gave into the siren call of a chocolatine, but also got a baguette. I asked the man not to put it in a bag, and I wrapped a small cloth around it and carried it home like that. Sometimes in Paris we got baguettes like this, bagless, with only a little piece of paper for more sanitary carrying. I don’t know if it was the Ghanaian dress or the near-naked baguette, but I got more attention on my walk home; a white-bearded man carrying a battered Jazz for Dummies said “morning” as he passed by (common enough in the residential area, but not among the shops and restaurants), and a middle-aged woman in a flowered tank and a young warm-medium-skinned* man in restaurant whites both eyed my baguette as they walked past.

Here’s to staying cool.

Potato-egg-fava salad with dill


snap peas with garlic, oyster sauce, and sesame oil


teeny tiny amount of spinach with sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, and sugar


noodle sauce with soy sauce, fish sauce, green onions, cilantro, and garlic


ling cod and prawns (the little black thing is a peppercorn)


salted radish, bought from a tub of them in a Chinatown market


Napa cabbage and Japanese noodles Erik cooked yesterday


salted cabbage — it drains for a few hours before being turned into coleslaw


bonito and kombu for making dashi


dashi (Japanese fish stock)



*At VONA we had discussions about whether it is offensive to describe the skin tones of people of color by using food terminology, as in “coffee-colored” or “cinnamon.” I can see why it might be offensive, but as a painter, I’m chagrined to confess I find it really difficult to find alternate words. The English language simply doesn’t have a great range of words for true-to-life (not crayon) colors, unless one refers to food, or to wood (mahogany, etc) — which I don’t think makes much more sense than using food words. Honestly, perhaps because I do paint, when I think about people’s skin or hair colors I think of how I would render them in pigments, but I can’t go around describing people’s faces as looking like burnt sienna with a hint of burnt umber and maybe a slight touch of indigo in the shadows. But I make the attempt at description because we Westerners see the default as white, and I like to point out diversity whenever possible, not just in ethnicity but in age, size, dress, etc. (And even within “white” — or any ethnicity — there is a huge range of hues.)

As a writer and artist it interests me to note what I observe about people when I pass them on the street. The lady in the flowered tank didn’t make much impression on me: why? Was she truly unremarkable looking, or did I simply code her as “white middle-aged lady” and ignore her on that basis, as society tells me middle-aged women should be ignored when they appear to be default class and ethnicity and not particularly lovely or fit or well-dressed? Why do I remember the man in the restaurant whites? Is it because he was younger and better looking, or because I identify with him as a person of color, or simply because his darker face against the white jacket presents a better and more eye-catching picture?

Anyway, obviously I need to be reading more writing by other POCs, to see how they describe ethnicity.


15 responses to “Hot Oakland morning

  1. Lovely fresh foods. 🙂
    As for the dilemma on how to describe skin color – it seems everyone nowadays are just looking for reasons to be insulted. So much is put into the very simple wordings, soon we will not be able to talk or express anything at all… 😦

    • Thanks, Ronit. 🙂

      Some people definitely offend too easily, but I think the discussion about describing skin color (which was at a writers’ workshop, after all, where such a conversation is relevant) might have less to do with insult than with trying to break an automatic reliance on food words to describe human beings. And there are histories of people of color being treated as commodities, specifically to produce and harvest particular foods, so there’s that layer of unpleasant associations, too. Anyway, it’s something I think about when I write!

  2. wow I had no idea about this hot weather ritual of yours. That’s a great idea! I have an opposite hot weather meal prep plan. (1) plan out a tasty looking meal a few days in advance, (2) realize it’s something hot/spicy and the weather is warming up, (3) make it anyway, (4) sweat a lot. -_-

    And I agree with Tasty Eats that people are very touchy on the topic of skin color. If I’m describing anything, I use words that both I and the person I’m talking to will understand. It might be food, wood, drinks, plants, animals, whatever. =P Whatever gets the description across.

    • I don’t do it all the time — only if I know I’m going to be home during the heat wave and don’t already have leftovers to eat. ;b I’m sure sweating through spicy food is cooling too. 😉

      The skin-color touchiness does sometimes feel like a minefield, but I think it’s justified, given past histories and current inequality, and that many people still have difficulty being seen as individuals and not as stereotypes. But it might also be a creative question, too: how do we stop relying on the same old descriptions over and over? In conversation it makes sense to use whatever’s handy and functions for you and your listener, but it’s good for writers to think harder about these word associations.

  3. What a beautiful meal plan for a hot day! Unfortunately, at 7:00 am I can’t get that motivated. A cup of tea and breakfast is as far ahead as my mind wants to travel. But, all that food looks wonderful, Lisa! Did it actually get to 96 yesterday?

    • It did get to 96! Actually, that day broke heat records all over the Bay Area. I’m not always that motivated so early in the morning, but I will go to a lot of effort to avoid feeling hot. ;b

  4. I am a terrible cook and envy anyone (like my husband) who can just throw things together and have them look gourmet, like you did here. I need recipes. Regarding your footnote, I find myself watching for unique faces in crowds and then spend time trying to figure out how I would describe them in a story. Really, how many ways are there to describe a nose, or eyebrows? As with your comments on color, sometimes the language feels limited.

    • I saw your post the other day about your husband’s homemade rhubarb sauce! (Or was it a syrup?) It’s a funny thing, Lisa. I used to be a lot more heavily reliant on recipes, but since we started traveling, I’ve become much more experimental, not just in cooking (where many people go without recipes) but in baking. I don’t know if it’s logistical (I traveled without cookbooks and therefore had to learn to make do) or mental (I got more adventurous) — probably both!

      Very true. Facial features are hard to describe too, without relying on stock phrases like “long nose” or “rosebud mouth.” I’m always amused when I read old books or historical novels and they throw out a term like retroussé. I was happy to learn that one, but I don’t know that it’s useful for my own writing… does anyone know what that means?!

      I read a beautiful book the other day, written by a mixed-race writer, that described a character as having “skin the color of eggplant.” On the one hand I loved that because it was an unusual word choice and it made me really try to visualize what that would look like. But on the other hand, eggplant is not just one color! And it looks different depending how it’s been cooked! So in that sense it wasn’t really a good description!

  5. You are really cooking lady! This all looks delicious. We’ve had some hot days here in TX. I’ve been washing dishes at midnight and opting for raw foods like springs rolls.

    • Thanks, Maryn! Oooh, I hear you on the late-night dishwashing and fresh raw foods (spring rolls sound great). I notice I tend to stay up really late when the days are hot, just so I can actually get some work done without melting. Where are you in TX? I have dear friends in Houston!

      • We’re in Austin and I’m still adjusting to the heat (we recently relocated from LA). It feels like we’re living in a rainforest sometimes with the thunderstorms and humidity…but it’s growing on me 🙂 My bf’s family is in Houston, so we visit often. They have a great double decker bus that goes between the cities for just $12 roundtrip. I want to try and take it to New Orleans this summer!

        • Fun! You’ve gone from dry heat to wet. 🙂 I’ve only been to New Orleans once but I’d love to visit again sometime — it’s on my list!

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