From A Foodie: California Dreamin’

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
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Before you start reading this post, first play this song: California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas.

Looking for, you guessed it, good food.

Los Angeles is like an idea. There’s Hollywood and its entire edifice (Disney franchises, Universal Pictures, Walk of Fame, the Academy Awards, and all that celebrity fanfare). And then the films I associate with all that: The Mummy, The Sound of Music, La La Land, Pretty Woman… The list goes on.

LA is supposedly the city of stars. The idea, I think, is lived out better in the imagination than in the concrete. The real Hollywood Boulevard is like a backwater town, with dusty streets and gaggles of tourists. The Dolby Theatre — without the red carpet, flashing lights, and yelling paparazzi — looks rather nondescript. The most powerful part of Hollywood is not what I can touch. It lies in its promise, which has had a hold on the global imagination for generations.

Selina Xu Hollywood Walk of Fame

Some of that creativity can be found in the food. On my last day in LA, my family wandered over to The Broad art museum from the Grand Central Market. On my first day in LA, we went to another food festival, Smorgasburg. The former had some tourists and the latter was almost filled with local crowds. Full of local vendors selling food presented with unique artistic flair, both were melting pots (side note: I can never use this phrase non-ironically since reading Israel Zangwill’s eponymous play) of cultures and cuisines all in one bustling place.

The Broad also featured some of the most famous and trendy names in contemporary art like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the one and only Yayoi Kusama (I remember when Kusama’s exhibition came to Singapore and suddenly her polka dots and yellow pumpkins were all over my feed; I ended up skipping her work this time since there was a two-hour wait).

So, here’s a look at some of the most interesting local foods I tasted in LA, interspersed with some cool art. 

Shrimp Daddy (Smorgasburg LA)

Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp inside a bright pineapple boat with macaroni and rice. Tasted good, but not as good as it looked. Sadly, since the pineapple was hollowed out, I couldn’t eat it. There was a tiny serving of some pineapple chunks at the head of the boat, which lightened the palate between bites of the crispy, heavy shrimp.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Shrimp Daddy

Lobsterdamus (Smorgasburg LA)

A whole lobster YUM! My mom and I cleaned it off every last scrap of meat. Grilled on the spot with Cajun sauce, it was hot and chewy just like good lobster meat. For my mom, who enjoys eating from the shell instead of prepared meat, the experience itself was a plus. Very fresh.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Lobsterdamus

Blue Plate Oysterette (Santa Monica Pier)

Two lobster rolls, one with fries, one with macaroni and cheese. Fried calamari. Very good crab cake! SUPER FRESH SEAFOOD. Which made sense. That’s honestly all one asks for at a restaurant by the beach.

According to my parents, who each took care of a lobster roll, the bread was very delicious (and more unforgettable than the lobster meat?!).

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette

But, most of all, phenomenal key lime pie!!! However, I’m biased because I love lime/lemon-flavored desserts. Still, the BEST key lime pie I’ve eaten.

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette Key Lime Pie

When I was looking at the Jeff Koons pieces at The Broad, which included huge balloon dogs that were made from stainless steel and then coated in translucent colors, I thought about his famous Lobster.

Jeff Koons Lobster.jpg

He said:

I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us. We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.

Isn’t that sort of like the entire affair of eating? The tension between interior life and exterior life, like an energy, like a dialogue. Open up two palms towards the sky: on one hand is what we consume; on the other hand, how long we’ve got to live.

Sari Sari Store (Grand Central Market)

A Filipino concept store. In Filipino, sari sari translates into ‘whatever.’ Out of the various savory rice bowls (silog) on the menu, I ordered the Pinoy BBQ bowl which features garlic pork ribs, garlic rice, atsara (pickled papaya), and a runny fried egg. The rice was SO GOOD. Almost as good as the Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, but not quite yet. So simple, but so filling. 😇

Selina Xu Sari Sari

Glad that the egg I ate was not the ones in the painting below. Presenting to you: Joe, who seems to be frying eggs innocuously. But, look at his eye sockets. What a startling resemblance. 👀

Eyes and Eggs JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT

Eyes and Eggs by JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT.

I ended up seeing a lot of references to food hanging on the walls of the museum. (Possibly because I was hungry.)

Campbell's Soup Can ANDY WARHOL

Campbell’s Soup Can by ANDY WARHOL

Happiness Capsule by The Base (Smorgasburg LA)

Blueberry charcoal base with cold brewed tea in a huge jar that reads Bee Free (not a spelling mistake). No artificial sweeteners, so I was expecting something quite light. First sip and that was the case. After shaking the jar and almost dropping it, the drink got much more even in its sweetness. Would happily drink this every day.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg The Base Happiness Capsule

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner

On the road back to LA from Las Vegas, we turned off the freeway into Yermo — a town in the Mojave Desert — to stop by a small, 1950s-style diner with American classics such as meatloaf & chicken-fried steak on the menu. The waitresses were all dressed in turquoise and pink with vintage-looking white hats; there were a bunch of men in uniform munching on huge burgers at the table beside us; the walls were plastered with photos of Elvis (who also had a life-sized doll in a fortune-teller glass box). Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for a roadside diner near the Interstate 15.

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's 50's Diner

More interesting than the food was the nostalgic interior. The food was quite forgettable (I got cheeseburger and fries), so I didn’t even bother taking a photo. Loved the quirkiness, however. For instance, guess who I saw in the women’s bathroom? : )

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's Women's Bathroom

James Dean, how dare you!?

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Out of everything I ate over my seven days in LA/Las Vegas/in between, these are some of the most curious or memorable. They light up my memories of Southern California. Therein lies the magic of good food. They soften your eyes in reminiscence, sharpen some hazy outline of a feeling, or illuminate an ordinary day with a silver lining. They are interwoven with the fabric of the city and how I taste the contours of its syllables on my tongue.

Finally, ending with this.

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains TAKASHI MURAKAMI

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains by TAKASHI MURAKAMI.

From New York with Love,

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Girl in D.C.

Dear You, what is art for?

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:

Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.

In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:

And this:

Interestingly, this:

But also this:

Lastly, my favorite:

While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?

If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?

As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.

Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?

I don’t know.

This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—

The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.

How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?

I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!

Lots of love,

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(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.)