From Food

One Crazy Trick for Working Productively at Home

Freelancers! I finally cracked it!

And it’s the most boring thing in the world:

Pretend like you have a real job.

These are the images that come up when you search for "office job." Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase "office job."
These are the images that come up when you search for “office job.” Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase “office job.”

Starting time is 10 a.m. You get a lunch hour–that’s when you do all your fiddly errands, like running to the frame store, or looking at rugs on eBay. (Ignore the unfairness that, in a real office-job situation, people don’t relegate eBay searches to lunch hour.) You knock off around 7 p.m., and spend your evening painting the living room, reading books, whatever.

I KNOW. The whole point of being a freelancer is so you don’t have to do this crap. But…it works. At least it worked for me for the last critical two months of finishing my book draft. (It’s done! It’s done. 150,000 words, give or take. Now: the long wait.)

But, of course, fooling yourself into thinking that your writing is as important as a regular office job, and that you absolutely have to show up for it–well, that requires a whole other bag of tricks. Such as:

1. Clock in with Toggl.
Usually I use Toggl to make sure I’m earning an OK hourly rate on low-paying jobs. For the book, I just used it to make sure my butt was in my chair for at least seven hours every day.

2. Clear your schedule.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.
Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.

For a freelancer, saying no to work is the most painful thing in the world. But you’ll have to do it until you get this one thing done. You know how you tell yourself that you work more efficiently when you have a few projects to play off each other? It doesn’t work when one of those projects is massive and genuinely requires all of your time.

3. Be married.
It’s nice to have someone to pay the bills and cook meals, in the background.

4. Don’t be married.
Regular human interaction, such as giving and receiving love, is just too distracting. Also, another human in your space who keeps different hours from you can be too distracting.

5. No, wait, be married.
What am I thinking?! Of course you need love and human support. What would I have done without Peter? Then again, it did help that he went to Australia for ten days. That was when I could really set up a regular work schedule.

6. Embrace electronica.
You need low-key, nonstop music. No lyrics. I like SomaFM: Deep Space One for mornings, Earwaves for afternoons. Def Con Radio occasionally, because the weird motivational samples make me feel like I’m at a different job.

7. Log out of Facebook.
Some people resort to turning off the Internet, but I found that if I just logged out of Facebook, I quelled the urge to visit it all the time, because logging back in was a hassle. All my other time-wasting strategies are relatively harmless (except for those eBay rugs…). If you do need something stronger, Concentrate is a good Chrome plugin.

8. Eat an easy breakfast.
If you are, for instance, waking up hours before your partner (and not because you’re one of those oh-I-can-only-create-in-the-cold-clear-light-of-dawn people, no sir, but only because said partner sleeps till noon) and you want to get right to work with a minimum of fuss, you must dispense with all morning food creativity.

To this end, I have started every day since, oh, October 2012, with two slices of a particular Swedish-ish fruit-nut bread. The indomitable Cristina Topham, aka The Wayward Chef, gave me the recipe, in a slightly more Swedish form.

I cannot praise it enough. It’s like granola, but granola you can spread butter on. It keeps you full until noon, when said partner may awake and fix you lunch.

This is what comes up when you search for "Swedish office job." Everyone talks about Sweden's great social services--but no one mentions the lack of heat.
This is what comes up when you search for “Swedish office job.” Don’t they have heat in Sweden?

Freelancers Breakfast Bread
This bread may actually be the one crazy trick to working productively at home–many thanks again to Cristina Topham.

I buy all the ingredients in bulk and keep them in the freezer (nuts, rye flour, seeds especially), so they don’t go rancid. For a denser, more sour bread, you can shift the flour more toward 2:1 rye:AP. Don’t ignore the flax seeds–they have a nice slippery quality. I made it without them once, and it was meh. And note the long bake time: You must make this on one of your free evenings, not in the morning.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together in a big bowl:
1 1/4 cups rye flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup nuts (I usually use pecans; you can break them up by hand, rather than chopping)
1 cup dried fruit (I usually use cranberries or cherries because I don’t have to chop them; apricots are good too, but should be chopped)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

In a measuring cup, combine:
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or regular milk with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in; or yogurt thinned with milk)
1/4 cup each maple syrup and molasses (or all molasses)

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir. Every time I make this, it’s a different consistency, but it tends toward super-thick, like glue. Don’t make yourself crazy stirring in the flour–if there are a couple of dry spots, it won’t matter too much.

I bake this in two smaller loaf pans, so I can freeze one; you could also use one large one. Either way, butter it or line it with parchment paper. Squash the batter into your loaf pans and smooth the top with a wet knife (that’s the Cristina Topham pro-tip right there).

Bake on the bottom rack for between 1 hour (two small pans) and 1 hour 20 minutes (one large pan). Let cool on a wire rack. Slice thin and eat with lots of butter and pinch of crunchy sea salt, plus very milky coffee, which, Cristina tells me, is the Swedish way.

Irish Coffee: The Winter Writer’s Choice

Phew. Went off the radar there for a while. Much of January and February was spent writing a draft of my book (I guess it’s safe to call it by its name now), The Crimson Sofa.

It got a little hairy at the end. After weeks of wrestling with the structure of the Morocco section (so many tiny details Morocco has!), I read a New Yorker story by John McPhee about his various strategies of organizing his stories. That provoked this:

scary mess
If you see a theme here that I’m not seeing, let me know, OK? I mean, a theme besides mentally disturbed.

It didn’t really work. The draft I turned in frayed at the end like a faulty piece of rope from which our hero has already plunged to his death. I’m trusting the solution will come to me.

So I took a break. I went to Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, where I savored a fine Irish coffee at Brennan’s in Berkeley.

The nice thing about San Francisco is that Irish coffee is a year-round drink, not just a St. Patrick’s Day thing. This is likely due to the climate and lack of central heating. Irish coffee warms the insides when you need it most–like, say, July.

My father, Patrick O’Neill (so right there you know he’s qualified to judge), has strong opinions about Irish coffee.

First of all, the glass has to be just right: tapered, so the cream stays in an even layer as you drink to the bottom.

Brennan's honcho says: These glasses were historically used for flips, before being adopted for Irish coffee.
Brennan’s honcho says: These glasses were historically used for flips, before being adopted for Irish coffee.

After a scare, they are now available again from Libbey, even retail. (Before, you had to buy them in cases of 36, which is how I came to have 24 and my father has 12.)

Then, the coffee has to be strong. And the sugar goes in the coffee, not in the cream.

Great for breakfast!
Sugar Duck approves of the Irish coffee recipe.

And the cream has to be thick, but not whipped stiff.

Brennan’s understands all this. The rest of the world does not always, and will sling you all kinds of crap (the world does this a lot; be vigilant).

So, in honor of St. Patrick, and my father Patrick, and what the heck, a book that’s still as drafty as a San Francisco Victorian…make yourself an Irish coffee today.

Mmm, creamy.
Mmm, creamy.
Irish Coffee, the Astoria Way
Don’t balk at the sugar. It helps support the cream on top.

For each glass:
1 tsp sugar
Glug Irish whiskey
1 tsp Greek Nescafe (or any euro-brand instant espresso)**
Heavy cream, whipped till thick

Pour boiling water in the glasses to heat them up while you get everything ready.

Rinse out each glass, add your sugar, whiskey and Nescafe, then fill with hot water till about a quarter inch below the rim. Gently spoon on the cream.

**OK, fine, if you don’t want to use Nescafe, then brew strong, un-fancy coffee (no top notes of grapefruit or leather or whatever) and fill the glass 2:1 coffee:whiskey, leaving about quarter inch at the top for cream.

Irish Coffee, the Brennan’s Way
Here’s Brennan’s advice, in video form. Watch it for the excellent justification of the use of non-fancy coffee.

And don’t fret about the manufacturing cream: its main asset (aside from being extra-creamy) is that it holds its peaks longer than regular cream. But you’re not running a bar where you need to keep the cream whipped all day. Are you?

Breakfast of champions.
Breakfast of champions.

American Museum of Natural History: Our Global Kitchen

I’ve been traveling so much, I’ve really lost the thread with New York. I mean, on Wednesday I got on an uptown train instead of a downtown train by accident. I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake, at least not while I’ve lived here.

So what better way to feel New York-y than to go to the august American Museum of Natural History? You know, the one with all the taxidermy.

I went to the preview for the new exhibit Our Global Kitchen. It opens today, November 17, and runs through August 11, 2013. (I shouldn’t tell you that far-off end date–it’ll make you feel less urgency, and then you’ll wind up missing it. This happens to me all the time.)

In short: You should go. It’s fun, and you’ll learn something. And, since it’s the AMNH, the dioramas and models are great.

I could have stared at this model of the push-pull farming technique all day.

The details: This is a really ambitious exhibit. Where to begin when you want to cover what the whole world eats, three times a day? Oh, and it’ll cover the food-supply chain as well.

As a result, it feels a little compressed, a little rushed–each section of the show could easily be expanded into its own exhibit. Then again, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about global food, and food production, so maybe it’s a perfectly good introduction to the issues and to non-American cuisine–which everyone should get.

Let's just take a look at another one of those models, shall we? (photo courtesy AMNH)

To my taste, the food-industry section, which starts the exhibit, could’ve taken a stronger “It’s time to change this!” stance. And certainly the curators’ comments before the show were more in this vein–the word “unsustainable” came up a lot.

But there’s some progress. This same exhibit 30 years ago would’ve been sponsored by ADM and Cargill, and had a thoroughly gee-whiz-technology-is-great tone. At least now we get the cons of fish farming listed alongside the pros.

And you get square Japanese watermelon! (photo courtesy AMNH)

After all the supply-chain stuff, the rest of the exhibit feels a lot more colorful and fun. There’s a fancy show kitchen, where you can eat actual food, and there’s a mirror where you can stick out your tongue and see how many tastebuds you have. There are buttons to push to smell things, and touchscreens to learn about banana transport. You can post your food pics to Instagram with the tag #CelebrateFood, and they’ll show up on screens in the exhibit.

But the meat of the exhibit is still the actual physical stuff. There’s a whole wall of cookbooks from around the world. There’s a vaguely obscene-looking Mesoamerican popcorn popper, and beautiful molds for Korean rice cakes.

See what I mean about the popcorn popper?

And there’s a vivid diorama of a just-before-Cortes-landed market in Mexico.

Somewhere in there is a basket of grubs! (photo courtesy AMNH)

I also loved the set rooms and meals from different places and times in history: a Roman empress’s breakfast, Kublai Khan’s buffet on the hoof…

In the same room, the juxtaposition of Gandhi’s typical breakfast with Michael Phelps’s is fascinating. It struck me as the stealth message of the exhibit. If Americans learned to eat more foods from elsewhere–more vegetarian staples, more flavor and spices–we might all put a lot less stress on the world’s food systems.

And definitely settle in for the second big video presentation, at the end–all about celebrations and special foods from around the world.

I’m glad such an august institution as the American Museum of Natural History has taken on such a huge and meaningful subject as food. And I hope it sparks some thoughts in people who haven’t thought so much about food yet. There’s a lot more to taste out there…

Sugar Duck! (Or: Best Souvenir Ever)

Our best souvenir of Turkey was not a rug, a set of tea cups or some blue evil-eye charm.

It was the newest member of our happy household, this sweet little guy:

Well, hello there!

We’ve named him Sugar Duck.

This is why:


See, we had dinner at a cheapie restaurant in Edirne where they had the red chili in these nifty flip-top caddies on the table: glass bottom, bright-green flip-top dome.

A couple days later, in Istanbul, we nipped (I was going to say ‘ducked’) into a restaurant-supply place just as it was closing, and they had the exact same form as the Edirne model, but in three colors…and with adorable eyes!

And labeled, in Turkish and English, sugar duck.

As Peter points out, we probably wouldn’t love him half as much if we didn’t know this adorable name. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even have put sugar in him.

Best of all, he’s made in Turkey.

Peter’s first thought was, Oh, we’ll use a better spoon. But then he appreciated just how flawlessly designed the Sugar Duck was. The spoon is his tongue, you see.

Yeth, it ith my tongue. Why are you laughing?

The only down side of our new Turkish pet: We definitely use more sugar than we used to.