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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

It might have been the hiss,

the window of our tiny house was ajar.

Or the waxing of rain drops,

drumming on the roof.

Hours later our campfire was smoldering,

aglow on pine panels inside, when I awoke.

One corner of a log ablaze,

not ten feet from the door.

I’d doused the fire three times,

heeding the call to not leave it untended.

Half-awake it rages before me,

everyone else asleep.

Charred burgers and sloppy s’mores,

digesting in our dreams.

I had to coax this fire between cloud bursts,

to keep my promise to the kids.

This campfire is bent on keeping me up; it won’t quit.

Fire and water do mix, at times, it appears.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

I've started making my own Icelandic style yogurt, or skyr. It's a simple process, but it does take time. I have to plan ahead to have it ready 36 to 48 hours from the time I start heating the milk. The recipe calls for less time, but my way makes the yogurt thick enough for the spoon to stand straight up in it. I eat yogurt every day so my batch lasts less than a week, which means I'm always thinking about it. It's an unnecessary pre-occupation. Or is it? Well, maybe not this specific routine, but some regular, food-centered project of conceiving, planning, tending, just fussing over in general, seems important.

Making homemade skyr does save a bit of money. But that's not the larger reason for doing it. I do have control over my yogurt. I've experimented with the fat level in the milk. I've toyed with the amount of time my pot of bacteria-laced milk (half a gallon of milk and a few ounces of yogurt mixed in) sits in the warmest closet we have, wrapped in a blanket to stimulate fermentation and propagation. Some days my yogurt tastes better than store-bought, but not always. It is always thicker, though, and satiating. I take pleasure in peeling slabs of it from the cheesecloth, and wonder each time if I should do something with the two cups of whey that collect in a bowl under the colander. But, the largest reason for making my own skyr, I now see a few months in, is that I'm vested in my food more closely, like a farmer invests in his land. With homemade skyr in particular, I also feel I'm tapping into some ancient, magical ritual of creation every time.

This introspection was brought on by a brief story I read this week in The Counter commenting on a story published in The New York Times the week before about the difficulty of eating different fruits found in Bangkok's Talad Thai market. "Eating Thai Fruit Demands Serious Effort but Delivers Sublime Reward" discusses the experience of encountering, "harvesting," and consuming jackfruit, durian, mangosteen, rambutan, and langsat; fruits the majority of us in America haven't tried or don't eat regularly. Apparently, you do have to muscle through the thick hide of a jackfruit to get to the orb-shaped fruit. The mangosteen dyes your fingernails purple and you likely have to peel and eat several to find a delectable one. And, if you haven't been in its presence before, the funky aroma of durian is disarming and may dissuade you from experiencing its custardy texture and approachable flavor.

In the end, the NYT article author wonders whether it's worth the effort. The last line in the article in The Counter takes this author to task, commenting, "These objections seem to come not from interviewees on the ground, but from the reporter herself. One wonders: Are all these fruit problems, or are they you problems?" I get the point. At a time when we should be celebrating our differences, not letting them divide us, one should try to check one's prejudices, or at least acknowledge them. What might be labor for some is a labor of love for others.

Never having taken a hatchet to a jackfruit, or pricked my fingers peeling a lychee-like rambutan, I can't say I fully appreciate the effort that goes into eating fruit with a "grapple factor," but my sense is that the ritual alone is vital to enjoying life's bounty, and mystery, in all the places life markets itself.

  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Alone, together. That's what it's felt like for many of us for more than three months. Especially for those who live at home in plain sight of neighbors behind apartment windows and on balconies. The elemental urge to commune with fellow human beings will not be suppressed. Sequestered, we've made music together across at least six feet of sidewalk, lawn, and the air between high-rise windows. We shake hands at each other instead of taking palm in palm. Released from lock-down, relieved, we click elbows or ankles together in greeting. And we will do almost anything to meet up, even if it means murmuring through masks. Together, at least, even if apart from others.

But we can't wait to sit, shoulder to shoulder; fans yelling from seats much less comfortable than couches at home, or to stand shoulder to shoulder at a bar because drinking in public is something that drinking at home cannot be. We're desperate for the din of the restaurant. The first few forays to our favorite restaurants have been sad. Quiet and sterile and distant is unfulfilling. Which is why I sank in my chair the other day when I read a brief Bloomberg article entitled "Robot Food Startups Have a New Pitch: No Humans Touch Your Lunch."

The growing interest and investment in automating the restaurant, from the back of the house to the front, has apparently not yielded much to this point. But that might change with the threat of viral contamination permeating every possible public nook and cranny.

Pizza Hut has been advertising that no one touches your pizza from the time it leaves the oven. Zume, a well-funded, Bay area start-up has been trying to figure out how to afford using robots to make pizzas from scratch then serve them. Creator is a start-up focused on using robots to create a new and different burger experience. Imagine a restaurant where a machine makes burgers in the back and delivers them to you on a conveyor belt. When the pandemic hit, according to the article, Creator made the conveyor belt self-sanitizing, and created a pressurized transfer chamber to transport burgers to the outside of the restaurant so they could deliver on the promise that you would "be the first to touch your burger."

This vision for a contactless dining world is echoed in a piece called "Bon Appetit! Robotic Restaurants Are The Future," by Naveen Joshi in Forbes. The article lays out the benefits and drawbacks of employing robotics in addition to, or instead of employees. The description of a robot-driven restaurant experience struck a nerve with me:

"Robots can provide an engaging and intuitive experience to diners. A humanoid robot can provide for a fun experience, especially for small kids. Serving as an attraction, robots can help drive new customers to the restaurant. A more robot reliant restaurant can offer navigation guidance during the experience, along with cooking and serving food expediently and simplifying the payment process. A robot restaurant can completely transform the overall experience for diners, restaurateurs and the industry as a whole."

This reads as mechanical as I expect the humanoid robot restaurant experience to be if it were to become the norm. As a one-off, a novelty, sure. It's too bloodless for the many occasions we need to commune, whether alone among many, or together with others, over a meal.

We spend around 60% of our food dollars on food and drink we get outside the home. Of course it's more convenient to let someone else feed us, but we eat out for the pleasure of dining in the company of others. The restaurant atmosphere depends on the menu, decor, music, and other physical attributes of the space, but the ambience maybe depends more on the ebb and flow of the people occupying the space. Real people. Raw emotions. Genuine smiles and servile, tip-driven smiles. "Can I have everything on the side?" "Sure!" "What's your favorite thing on the menu?" "I had the special, and it's amazing...but if you're not into fish..." A robot might refresh without asking your sweet tea as efficiently as your server, but would it get all embarrassed after spilling a drink on the table, and offer a glimpse into its life's struggles and hopes while wiping up the spill?

These life-affirming exchanges are what we'd miss with contact-less dining. The best trained robot will fall short of serving what matters almost as much as the food. Going fully self-serve is even sadder. I think we're too hardwired to let this contactless contact become the norm. I hope this to be true...

Alone, together. Take a good look at the people in the diner in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl mused about Edward Hopper in the June 8 &15 issue of the magazine. He writes "Aloneness is his (Hopper's) great theme, symbolizing America: insecure selfhood in a country that is only abstractly a nation." He says this aloneness is not loneliness, but rather, solitude. I say solitude is necessary for good mental health. But there's only so much solitude one can enjoy.

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