Sunday, February 19, 2006

Monoawase: Food, Sex and the Magic of Comparison

Sex is no different from any other sensual pleasure--such as eating—the more we pay attention, the greater the reward. That may be why first times are so powerful; newness always captures our senses. But, being a person who believes depth and sustained focus provides greater rewards than broad, but superficial interaction (or in layman’s terms, fucking one person well beats out fucking many without true connection and intimacy), you can’t rely on newness alone. That’s where an ancient Japanese game called monoawase can help.

I just finished a memoir entitled Untangling my Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto which was very nostalgic for me, as I too was in Kyoto around the same time as the author. I’m not sure if the book would work such magic with a reader who’d never been to Japan. In this case a taste is worth a thousand words. For me however, Victoria Abbott Riccardi’s description of her first okonomiyaki (a cabbage pancake with a rich, smoky sauce—much better than it sounds) brought my own initiation rushing back. Riccardi went to Japan to study tea kaiseki, the spare but artistic cuisine that accompanies the tea ceremony (a great example of how attention can transform something mundane and simple into something exquisite), and the memoir is packed full of fascinating tea lore and history. She really knows her stuff. I did sense, however, that she was holding back both in writing the memoir and while she was in Kyoto twenty years ago. Part of it was certainly due to the fact that she had a serious boyfriend waiting in the States. I understand the sentiment, because during my second stay, I had a husband waiting in California, and it really does mean your heart is not as open to the foreign experience (of course, I was, in general, a much happier person the second time around because of my marriage). But there was something else, too. Riccardi is always describing how she labors for hours making elaborate and magical feasts, but she never chooses to eat them once they are done, even when she has the opportunity. Perhaps it is that in-grained American/Puritan fear of sensual pleasure?

I also wish there’d been more sex, but I feel that way about almost everything.

But on to monoawase and it’s relation to sex and food. Riccardi mentions this Japanese pastime of comparing like things in a ritualistic setting. Courtiers of a thousand years ago would compare incense or sake or tea or poetry, trying to guess the origin from the sensual qualities of the object. The tradition continues today among the artistic aristocracy. Even rice was the focus of monoawase, hard for Americans to believe perhaps, but if you go to Japan, you will come to realize that rice has a terroir just like wine and there are indeed subtle differences in flavor (the best I’ve ever had was in a minshuku, or family run inn, in Tsumago, a village on the old interior post road from Osaka to Edo). As I read Riccardi’s description, I realized how much I am drawn to American-style monoawase, or taste-tests as my kids like to call them. We’ve done monoawase with chocolate chip cookies, white chocolate, dark chocolate, German Christmas stollen, coffee, chocolate croissants and cinnamon twists from five different Berkeley bakeries, and of course wine.

Why can’t it work for sex, too? Of course, one obvious conclusion is that one would compare different lovers, and I’m sure many people do. But I’m more interested in the subtleties of lovemaking between monogamous partners, and I think it works there, too. The differences in scent, taste and response would be more subtle, but no less fascinating—plus there is the ego boost of proving one’s high connoisseurship of one’s lover, no? Is the temperature of his skin different tonight? Is his hard-on harder or fuller? Are her nipples more sensitive (sensitivity does fluctuate throughout the month)? Does she come faster if she shaves down there? How about the respective heat of different positions or fantasies (I’ve heard, and I believe, that an active fantasy life is key to a satisfying monogamous relationship)?

I think the Japanese aristocracy was on to something.

Friday, February 17, 2006

My Latest Pub: Garden of the Perverse!

I just got some great news from the editors of The Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults. The publication date has been moved up from the fall to April 2006, so my story "Virgin Ear" will hit the stores six months sooner. You can pre-order the book at Amazon now (it has a great cover). It has been so cool to work with Sage Vivant and M. Christian, both of whom played key roles in the erotica revolution, the worthy cause of elevating dirty stories to the realm of literary art. If you think about it, erotica really has come a long way in the past decade or so, thanks to the skill and imagination of writers like these. Sure, it sounds hokey, but because of them, and many of the other editors and writers I've worked with (see Jolie du Pre's list below), sexy and smart are no longer necessarily mutually exclusive.

So anyway, my twisted fairy tale contribution to the anthology is actually based on a real event from my college days. Yes, I do have only one virgin ear--my right one. But I won't give away the story yet!

The World's Best Chocolate Chip Cookies a.k.a. Magic Urban Legend Cookies

I’ve stopped counting the compliments I get from these cookies, but according to my kids, they’ve earned me a place on the roster of good mothers for the rest of my natural life. For the magic part, put down a plate of them at the next school party, turn your back for a minute, and they’ll all disappear!

Cream together:

1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar


1 egg, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (sometimes I make it 1 teaspoon and it’s good!)

Mix together in a separate bowl, then add about half to wet ingredients. Mix on low speed until mostly blended than add the rest and fold in by hand for a more tender cookie.

1 cup flour
1 1/4 cups oatmeal ground to flour in a food processor or blender
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Stir in:

1 cup chocolate chips or M&Ms (kids love holiday theme colors)
2 oz Hershey bar, grated on the large holes of a box grater
3/4 cup chopped nuts (if your kids will let you—mine don’t)

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 350 for about 9-10 minutes. Cookies should be slightly soft; they firm up as they cool and even then they are best chewy rather than crisp.

This recipe makes 30 cookies or enough to take for a party and to keep a few for the family to sample, just to make sure they taste okay. You can easily double or quadruple it. The cookies are absolutely fabulous a few minutes out of the oven, excellent later that day, and really, really good the next day, but they start to go downhill by the second day--—if they last that long.

I got this recipe from a friend from my college days, on what was clearly a tenth generation Xerox copy. On the top of the page, we’re told that someone who works with “Jean’s mother at the American Bar Association” called Mrs. Field’s Cookies and asked for their recipe. They said, sure, it’s two-fifty, we’ll charge it to our credit card. The lady agreed, thinking it was $2.50, but of course when she got her bill it was a whopping $250. To get back at the chiselers, she’s sharing the recipe with everyone she knows.

Of course, a similar type of story has been circulating since the late nineteenth century when the Waldorf Hotel supposedly overcharged someone for their cake recipe—in other words this is a classic urban legend. I doubt they are lifted from Mrs. Field's. These cookies aren’t as greasy as her real chocolate chippers, in fact they’re more of a cross between Debra’s Special and chocolate chip. (Better than both imo).

While I’m on the topic of delicious kid-pleasing cookies, I have two more recipes that get many requests and compliments. The first is the grand-prize-winning Double Chocolate Chip Cookies from 101 Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, a bible for chocolate chip cookie lovers, with lots of tips and a great variety of recipes. A few years ago I made four different recipes for a taste test—a popular activity with all involved (each person takes notes and shares impressions, then afterwards you get to eat your fill of the favorites). The Double Chocolate Chips are made with cocoa and chips and they are just SO GOOD.

To really get the compliments for your artistic flair, I suggest the recipe for Half and Half Cookies from A Baker’s Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, which is another fabulous resource for cookie recipes (it has an even greater variety than the above). After you mix the classic brown sugar dough, you divide it in half, add cocoa to one and a bit more flour to the other, fold in white chocolate chips to the first and semi-sweet to the later, form each into small balls and squish them together. I mold the balls into commas and form yin-yang shapes (the line between the two doughs usually gets wiggly anyway and this makes it less noticeable and more New Age). I also love the Amaretto Almond White Chocolate Squares and the Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Brownies with Coconut Pecan Frosting, which is just like German Chocolate Cake, but more accessible somehow.

So preheat the oven, brings those eggs to room temperature first, and get a big, cold glass of milk ready for the feast!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dirty Jokes from a Clean Source

All right, I think I am getting comfortable with blogging, because I'm not going to muse thoughtfully about some deep subject this time, I'm just going to post some jokes that come from the internet via the Clean Sheets weekly newsletter. I get the CS newsletter because it's my favorite erotica webzine and they've been good to me there. And under the guidance of editor-in-chief Susannah Indigo, the sex is always sprinkled with a sense of humor. These definitely made me giggle:

A man bumps into a woman in a hotel lobby and as he does,
his elbow goes into her breast. They are both quite
startled. The man turns to her and says, "Ma'am, if your
heart is as soft as your breast, I know you'll forgive me."
She replies, "If your penis is as hard as your elbow, I'm in
room 221."


One night, as a couple lays down for bed, the husband starts
rubbing his wife's arm. The wife turns over and says "I'm
sorry honey, I've got a gynecologist appointment tomorrow
and I want to stay fresh." The husband, rejected, turns
over. A few minutes later, he rolls back over and taps his
wife again. "So when is your next dentist appointment?"


Bill worked in a pickle factory. He had been employed
there for a number of years when he came home one day to
confess to his wife that he had a terrible compulsion:
He had an urge to stick his penis into the pickle
slicer. His wife suggested that he should see a sex
therapist to talk about it, but Bill said he would be
too embarrassed. He vowed to overcome the compulsion on
his own.

One day a few weeks later, Bill came home and his wife
could see at once that something was seriously wrong.
"What's wrong, Bill?" she asked. "Do you remember that
I told you how I had this tremendous urge to put my
penis into the pickle slicer?"

"Oh, Bill, you didn't!" she exclaimed. "Yes, I did," he
replied. "My God, Bill, what happened?" "I got fired."
"No, Bill. I mean, what happened with the pickle
slicer?" "Oh...she got fired too."

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Best? American? Erotica?

I’ve been reading the Best American Erotica series for over ten years now, long enough to feel that I “knew” it well, knew enough to expect certain things, including the unexpected. I did note that the kinds of authors and publications changed somewhat over the years. More New Yorker/Granta names were included, Dani Shapiro’s being the first to catch my attention, as well as a wider variety of contributing publications, such as the literary journal Missouri Review.

Having my work be part of it this year, however, made me look at BAE more carefully. You might say I was considering its makeup from a broader perspective, an editor’s point of view, although I don’t feel qualified to be an editor (they remain very much Other for me!). The task of assembling the “best American erotica” seems to be more complex than choosing the best short stories or essays. Certainly all of these involve politics and editorial decisions that are to some extent arbitrary, but the “erotica” part adds a necessity to consider the broad range of the erotic life of “Americans.” Susie Bright does come through for us in this regard. BAE always has a skillful mix of orientations: vanilla het, lesbian, and gay, authors divided among female, male and everything in-between. There is always a range of tone from romantic to humorous, wistful to downright scary (though I would say wit edges out the others slightly). I get the impression the editors of Best American Short Stories need not be so inclusive beyond what moves them personally, although perhaps they do try to balance experimental and classic, suburban angst with rural/urban underclass experiences.

I also became more keenly aware of a trend toward a broader definition of erotica since the days of being swept off my feet by BAE 1997. A look at the list of authors reveals that we have two main classes. The first is work by some of American’s most prominent writers such as John Updike, Steve Almond, and David Sedaris—that is, the best American writers take on erotic themes. The other group consists of people like me, who aren’t at all famous on the national scene (although many, like Gwen Masters and Rachel Kramer Bussel are renowned in erotica circles), but who caught the editor’s eye with a story that appeared in a publication devoted specifically to erotica. As a contributor, I don’t feel I have the perspective to determine if there are significant differences between the two, even something as simple-minded as the first group writes better and provokes more thought and the second group is hotter and nastier and provokes more zipper action. This may become clearer on later readings, if indeed the question still seems worth asking.

Another question I ponder is how the typical reader takes in his/her recently purchased copy of BAE. Does s/he go straight for the Names or read from start to finish? Does s/he pick and choose from similar orientations or go for a stretch? I personally began at the beginning with “Coyote Woman Discovers Email,” amusing, clever, certainly thought-provoking in its juxtaposition of an ancient myth with modern technology. Without challenging editorial decisions, I moved right on to the second piece, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favors,” which is a witty and multilayered spanking story if there ever was one. Then I got a little rebellious and skipped to my first Name, Lynn Freed, who teaches creative writing at nearby U.C. Davis and is known as a tough critic, especially on those of us fledging writers unfortunate enough to be perceived as slim on talent. Perhaps because I’ve never encountered her withering gaze in person, I liked the excerpt from her novel a lot and I see why Susie was expecting some fallout because it concerns a sexual encounter between a curious underage white girl in South Africa and a dark-skinned working man. Those of us in the erotica field must be super careful to avoid these topics—every character must be at least eighteen and one second old—but “real” literature allows the probing of these sensitive and shocking issues. What impressed me about Freed’s piece is her willingness to allow the girl sexual feelings (of a complex nature of course, along the lines of the protagonist in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina).

I then jumped to Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “The End” which is one of those stories you climb onto and let it take you for a ride. The momentum of the piece is lyrical magic, and I hope I don't ruin it by quoting a favorite portion of the poetry: "The end is like what they say about death, when your whole life flashes before your eyes. I see moments, fragments—my hand up her skirt on the street, taking her in the doorway of a friend’s apartment, so fiercely she can barely sink down to the ground, her on her knees in my bathroom, surprising me as she buries her face into me, no room to protest, grinding the edge of a knife along her back, slapping her tits until they are raw and red—but they seem so far away right now, like a movie, like someone else’s pornographic memories. They don’t make me smile, and I don’t want them anymore. I want to bury myself in her and never let go, hold on to that something that has just fluttered away in the wind, fine as the glittering sparkles she wears on her eyes, miniscule and almost opaque, too minute to ever recapture." The a love story as much as erotica, and a good example of the range of the book, especially when you compare it to Mr. Sleep’s terse “Beatings R Me” for example.

Gwen Masters’ “Fifteen Minutes,” a clear-eyed look at groupies and musicians on the road, stayed with me for a while as I pondered the nature of power and sex and self-destructiveness and callousness and how we armor ourselves against pain. (Aw, man, am I deep or what?) Not that there aren’t wild and provocative sex scenes in the story that would provide productive fantasy fodder, just that the lingering feeling was sadness. And Susie Bright is not afraid to show us this face of the erotic as well.

Then I went on to the famous people. I remember the John Updike selection from the New Yorker a while back, and as always, beyond the exquisitely elegant writing, I feel Updike is opening a door into the past for me, showing me the sexual mores and longings of my parents’ generation. Ah, sex in the forties and fifties, I am for the most part glad it’s gone—The girdles! The guilt!—but I’m also fascinated to see how it lingers still in our Puritanical American sensibilities. (As an aside, I can never listen to the “Hokey Pokey” without thinking of a Couples’-like spouse swapping party, where ladies with beehives and men with slicked hair put their right feet out and their back sides in….) But yes, the writing: “Often afterwards he would remember details of this hour…her gleaming eye-whites; his sense of her slithering into the space above his head like a silken kite, like an angel crammed into an upper corner of a Sienese Nativity….” Yum.

It was getting late and I knew I had time for one more story on my first sitting. I skipped to the finale, Steve Almond’s “The Nasty Kind Always Are.” Along with Updike, Steve Almond is yet another of that rare breed of straight white male who is able to write about sex in an interesting way. I was certainly drawn into the clever social critique of the L.A. scene, such as the protagonist making a living as a “Mood Consultant” or "High Priest Headshrinker to the Neurotic Autocrat"—what thinking person wouldn’t be? My favorite writerly passage is his description of changing fashions in pubic hair: “They all trimmed themselves today, like the porn stars. In his youth, women hadn’t thought to do more than a little pruning at the edges. To do more was considered suspect. The vagina remained, even in nakedness, something mysterious, veiled, pleasingly inconvenient: the coarse hairs that tickled the throat, the rash that pebbled the groin, the powerful funk of genuine muff. It was all gone today, shaved or waxed or singed off with chemicals, leaving the labial folds exposed, a kind of glistening origami.” Hmm, so although his character’s attitude toward women doesn’t exactly give me hope for the future of improved gender relations, I do feel like I’m inside a man’s head, feeling his truth, and that’s always interesting, if not consoling. “Nasty Kind” ends with a bang…or should I say “splat”? It took my breath away for a moment. And that’s what a good ending should do.

More later on the other stories—in the meantime, maybe you can read them for yourselves? ;-)