Friday, April 6, 2012

the king of bikini island + the dream strata

Dreams are strange things. I think they come from some psychic version of an underground stream, and they deliver gloriously bizarre and circuitous messages from our unconscious. That's why I feel I'm under no obligation to make this post particularly rational or linear. But I do promise a recipe at the end. Not the best thing I've ever cooked—I'm still in the process of figuring it out—but undeniably interesting because it's a recipe I dreamed.

Over a decade ago, I began the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Georgia. Truth: it is an impressive program, where I got to study under a number of brilliant, quirky people whom I admire and write a book-length dissertation that I'm proud of, on a topic that I found challenging and intriguing.

Also and equally true: Rhea and I had secretly always wanted to live in Athens, Georgia, ever since I was in high school and read somewhere that one of the members of the B-52's said they'd gone to an Athens house party where they danced so much that the floor fell in. This may be totally apocryphal; I have no idea where I read or heard it. In all honesty, I may have dreamed it. But it stayed in the back of my mind for ten years, even and especially after Rhea died: I want to live where they dance so hard they break the floor.

Shortly after I arrived at UGA, I made a huge group of friends who were my companions during what I think of as my own Wild Years. This period happened for me about seven to ten years later than it does for most people, who go berserk when they've just turned eighteen or first get to college. In the picture you see to the right, from 2002, I was attending the Christmas Tree Burning Party hosted by Jim and Angela, a married couple I knew. When I met them, she was a grad student studying British literature, and he was a grad student studying soil hydrology. At this annual early January get-together, everyone who had a big enough vehicle brought their own dried-out Christmas tree (or sometimes, one they found on the side of the road on the way to the party). Every so often, we'd toss a tree onto the bonfire, and then we'd all jump back and yell because it would make a noise like cellophane crackling and go up in a conflagration whose flames would lick the side of Jim and Angela's henhouse. In the picture, you will of course note the red beverage I'm drinking; it was a Bloody Mary. I had to drink it slowly because I hadn't made it and it was stronger than it looked. After a long while, my drink got low. Jim took it from me, and when he brought it back, it was faintly reddish and almost transparent. I'm pretty sure I never finished it. You might also notice my elaborate headwear in the picture. I wore a lot of fake foliage in my hair during that period in my life. Sometimes I would put my hair up and pin big, fake red maple leaves here and there in my coiffure, and then I would go out in public.

A bunch of us used to meet on Friday evenings at the Engine Room, a dive bar located at the lower end of Washington Street (a.k.a. where the frat guys are afraid to go). During happy hour, the bar offered dollar PBR pints, which had that magical alchemy of cheapness and ironic blue-collarness that grad students are suckers for. We would arrive early and claim a plastic table on their big patio. On a couple of particularly balmy nights, our group swelled so dramatically that we became a huge, misshapen amoeba of chairs with a couple of tables lost somewhere in the middle. Usually, at dusk, if we didn't walk en masse up to Little Italy for a couple of slices (sometimes we saved that for our midnight meal), we'd go next door to Clocked, order, and prepay for our dinner. Jim often got the spinach salad with hard-boiled eggs and bacon. Valerie liked the friendship grilled cheese, or sometimes she or I would order the brown butter hazelnut pasta, which had so much fresh garlic in it that for a full 24 hours after you ate it you'd exude that smell - she said that she once woke up on a Saturday morning to her cat Gazoo absorbedly licking her garlic-scented forearm. I usually got the deluxe grilled cheese and an order of tater tots with feta dressing dip. (Or, as I mistakenly said one night - and unfortunately for me, my friends heard me say it: "I'd like a small tits and feta, please.") Returning to our plastic chairs and our low-rent beer, we would wait impatiently for the Clocked server to walk over and pass our greasy food to us through the bars of the patio's fence.

At one happy hour, I remember complaining to my friends that I'd had a run of nightmares for the preceding couple of weeks. This was nothing new. My dreams have always been, at best, ominous - and at worst, terrifying. In one dream, a band of levitating land-piranha had left a trail of sparkly bracelets and brooches for me to find on the ground so they could lure me to a vacant trainyard, gang up on me, and slash me to death with their razor-sharp fins. (Tempting me with shiny costume jewelry would be an excellent way to trick me, by the way. Those were very astute piranha.) In another dream, I had been dumped by a guy, but he came back long enough to offer me an explanation for why he had rejected me. He handed me a thick sheaf of papers and said, "Here. I've made some notes and some queer little drawings"—a direct quotation, but hey, it's my dream's language, not mine—"that I think should explain everything." Before I could get the papers home, peruse them, and at last understand the nature of my inadequacies, I woke up. In still another dream, my brother and I were Jews who had been in hiding but had been caught by a group of portly, pious men led by Burl Ives (up until this dream, I had always associated him with the kindly snowman narrator of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Rankin-Bass Christmas special). The dream Burl Ives smiled and then opened his mouth. It was the size of a cave, and inside it were the flames and screams of hell. Finally, in yet another dream, I was walking down the street with live kittens strapped to my calves like legwarmers. When I realized I had gone out dressed like this, I was mortified.
The King of Bikini Island (and his queen)

Jim listened to my complaints and then said, "I have a recurring dream that I'm King of Bikini Island." Gee, thanks, Jim.

I had to laugh. I don't know whether he really dreamed that or was just busting my chops (and speaking of which, I once dreamed I had gigantic mutton-chop sideburns that I shaved off and that grew back as hundreds of tiny lavender flowers). Anyway, I envied Jim's good dreams then. Have you ever noticed that your worst nightmares sometimes sound funny when you describe them to others after you wake up? Mine do. Still, I guess, at least they're dreams. Real-life events can be harder to wake up from.

In 2003, Jim and Angela died in a car accident. All of us were devastated, and though Friday happy hour continued sporadically for a while, most of the spark went out of it. Appropriately, the Engine Room closed down a few months later. It was the end of an era, in many ways. When I think about it all now, I feel a bittersweet gratitude that the rest of us made it out of those years alive.

My dreams never got any better. If anything, over the years they have merely become more nuanced in their sinisterness.

Here are some common motifs:

- not being able to speak (and especially to scream)
- my teeth crumbling to dust and falling out of my mouth
- serial killers
- volcanoes
- flooding water
- being humiliated
- realizing I have a baby I was unaware of and can't remember having borne

self-portrait with hair pinned up
and mouth... ruined
A couple of years ago, I speculated in my journal, "Maybe all that darkness keeps my life 'light' in the daytime?" I always rationalized my horrifying dreams, even perhaps bragging about them, arguing that they made me healthier because they "detoxified" my psyche during the night, much as yoga classes did for my body. But now I don't know. Maybe they poison me more. I've read recently that some people think training ourselves to dream lucidly and deliberately makes us happier. Maybe my dreams keep serving me up the same themes in different narrative packages, and saying, How about this one? Do you see what I'm telling you? Oh, you're not ready for that yet? Okay, we'll try another disturbing story tomorrow night!

The only positive trend I see in my dreaming is the recurrence of unfamiliar houses with hidden rooms that appear as the dream progresses. These are usually interesting dreams—still a bit anxious, but interesting. There's usually more to the house than what it looks like there would be, from the outside. Often, it houses odd rooms: a ludicrously huge kitchen, a hidden turret, a waterfall in the basement. The nervous curiosity I feel when I explore these houses makes me think of what I like about poems. In Italian, stanza means "room." I enter a poem in the same way I tend to wander through the rooms of my dream houses, wondering what I'll find next: like a mouse being dropped into a maze and probing his way out, as Billy Collins puts it.

Yesterday felt like that: like a poem or a dream. Early in the morning, I hurried to campus from the east, trying to beat a thunderstorm that was about to overtake Tuscaloosa from the west. Arriving at my office just as the first raindrops began splattering Rowand-Johnson Hall, I remembered that I needed to post my daily picture for the April Photo-a-Day challenge I'm participating in. The day's theme was "tiny." I glanced around my desk and my gaze lighted on my Sigmund Freud action figure, and then I remembered my little souvenir Eiffel Tower.  I arranged them both in a tableau with a bit of rooted philodendron in a jar on the windowsill, took a picture of it, and then posted it on Facebook with this caption: "Tiny Sigmund Freud, with his tiny cigar, giving a lecture to the tiny Eiffel Tower on my office windowsill. In a thunderstorm."

Insert subtext here.  Heh-heh-heh.

Later in the afternoon, as I finished my last class and looked out the window at the suddenly (and suspiciously) gloriously sunny and 15-degrees-cooler weather that had blown into town, I checked the radar and found that another nasty-looking storm cell was encroaching from the northwest. Hurriedly grabbing my stuff from my office, I tried to exit the building, but the wind was so strong that I could hardly push the door open. Outside, the 40-plus-mile-an-hour gusts buffeted me across the street, dust and pollen blowing everywhere, including into my hair and eyes. By the time I reached the parking lot, I was blinking furiously but able to see that my car and the truck parked beside it were the only vehicles left at that hour. Of course, the truck had its door open on my driver's side, so as I approached I had to say "Excuse me" to the guy who was standing there in the doorway of his car. Staring down at his smart phone, he apologized and said, "I'm trying to find out what stung me. There it is." Then he pointed at the ground, where a hornet's corpse was lying on its side on the asphalt. I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry! Are you okay?" He said, "Yeah, but it hurts. I can feel the poison starting to spread." I clucked sympathetically while I put my stuff into the back seat of the car and then slid into the driver's seat, but then realized that I'd forgotten something in my bag. I got out, grabbed it, and in my hurry, promptly slammed my index finger hard in the car door. Trying not to shriek in surprise and pain, I got back in the driver's seat, hoping that when the throbbing died down I wouldn't find that I had a broken finger. (I didn't.)

Driving home, I came under the edge of the anvil-shaped thunderhead that was barraging the city in the distance, but got stopped just outside Bessemer because of a wreck. I sat on the interstate for 30 minutes, facing gray blackness shot through with near-constant bolts of cloud-to-cloud lightning, the ballooning cumulus clouds suffused with a weird glow from the vivid orange sunset at my back. When I finally arrived home, I was greeted by one of the strangest emails I've ever gotten. I can't give details, but suffice it to say it was an email from someone I've never met, accusing someone I know of being dishonest - because the accuser "thought it was only fair" that I should know the truth. Yes, yesterday was indeed like something I would have dreamed: full of surreal betrayals, dangerous creatures, and odd weather.

This is why the good dreams are so memorable: they're rare. In the years since Rhea's death, multiple people have told me that she has appeared to them in dreams, always doing things like sitting on a wall and smiling before she hops over it and disappears, or reassuring the dreamer that she's happy and at peace. I've had a few dreams about her, and they weren't that reassuringly decisive, but I cherish them because they were hanging-out dreams. In one, she was sitting next to me, and she put her arm around me, pulled my head over to hers, and kissed me on the temple. In another dream, maybe my favorite, I was a senior in high school again. One morning before school, Rhea and I went down to check the mailbox and found a week's worth of newspapers in it and a bunch of makeup samples. Mom joined us, and we three played hooky and stayed in the front yard all day, trying on makeup, not worried about the time at all.

Maybe she didn't hand me any pronouncements about where she was or how she was doing, but I got to hang out with her that night. We played and dreamed and experimented with makeup, like we did when she was alive and we'd make plans about where we'd live, or what we'd plant in next year's garden, or which recipes sounded good.

One day in March of last year, I posted this status on Facebook: "Heather is now inventing recipes in her dreams. The recipes are a little weird, but it's still kind of cool."

A conversation followed in the comments underneath:

Liz: Share?

Me: In my dream, I went to work for Vogue. I wasn't really confident about being able to do the job they'd hired me for - probably a writing or marketing position. On my first day at the office, I found an old kitchen with lots of dusty but good-quality pots. I shined them all up and started cooking, and everyone seemed pretty happy with that, even though I wasn't doing my real job. In the dream, I made a green apple, buttered toast, and pimento cheese strata, and it was good. When I woke up, I lay there thinking about it for a few minutes and decided that it *might* taste good in real life. I don't know. I think I should try to make it, though, to find out...

Justin: It's funny you mention that. Last night I went through the McDonald's drive-thru and ordered a McApplebutteredtoastmentocheesestrata, fries, and a root beer. It was a little greasy, but overall a nice combination.

Durn that McDonald's—they always get there first.

For what it's worth, here is the dream strata. I think my unconscious really wants us all to try it.

Recipe notes: 
Honey, this is the stuff. 

I really feel I messed up the apples in this inaugural version of the recipe. I used Martha Stewart's recipe for roasted apples, but that calls for Galas, which are apparently sturdier than Granny Smiths because only 15 minutes into roasting, they exploded pulp all over the baking sheet. It turned out a little like applesauce, only more tart. So I'm thinking: maybe peel and chop the apples, toss them with a little sugar, and then sprinkle them raw over the top of the strata?  It might even add some texture, since they'd probably still be a little firm even after baking. Or maybe just some jarred applesauce or apple pie filling?

I would welcome comments or suggestions as to how better to incorporate the apples. This recipe was delightful in every way except in terms of the apples, so it's still a work in progress. Like my psyche, I guess.

Second, for the pimento cheese I went straight to the source and riffed on my favorite recipe - Miss Verba's version from Frank Stitt's Southern Table—minus the white pepper and the hot sauce. (I didn't use the whole batch of pimento cheese in the strata itself, so the next night, with the leftovers, I broiled it on toast. Ohhhh yeahh...  Ahem. I mean, I really recommend that.)

green apple, buttered toast, and pimento cheese strata

8 slices sliced sourdough bread
several tablespoons of butter at room temperature
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 c. half-and-half
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
8 oz. shredded sharp cheddar, room temperature
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 red bell peppers
1/4 c. mayonnaise (I use the olive-oil kind)
1/2 tsp. turbinado sugar
3 Granny Smith apples
1/8 c. sugar

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Rub whole red peppers with olive oil. Place in an oven-safe skillet.

Butter one side of the bread, and lay them out in a single layer on a big baking sheet. Stick them in the oven for a few minutes, and then flip them when they get brown. Give them another minute or so, and then pull them out of the oven.

Immediately put the red peppers into the oven. They will roast for 30 minutes total. Flip them a quarter or third turn every 10 minutes or so, whenever they begin to char on the bottom. (This is Ina Garten's method for red roasting red peppers. Always trust this woman; nothing she makes is ever bad.)

While the toast is still hot, spread the opposite side of each slice with a little more butter. Once the bread cools, tear it into bite-sized pieces and spread them out in a baking dish - mine is a smaller one, 7-x-11 inches, I think.

Whisk together eggs, half-and-half, salt, and nutmeg in a medium bowl. Pour over bread pieces. Toss everything around a little with your hands to make sure all the pieces get soaked. Cover with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge while you're getting everything else ready.

When the red peppers have finished roasting, pull them out and carefully carefully carefully, using potholders, cover the whole thing tightly with aluminum foil. Or you can remove them from the skillet and just make a little airtight packet with the foil, if you want. They will continue to steam. Leave them alone until they're cool enough to handle - about 30 minutes - and then peel, seed, and chop one-and-a-half of them.

Turn the oven down to 400 degrees. 

In a bowl, toss together apple slices and sugar. Lay them out in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or so, until soft and exploded. Remove peel and put the apple pulp in a pile by itself. (Or use another method - see recipe notes above.)

In a medium bowl, stir together chopped red pepper, sharp cheddar, cream cheese, mayonnaise, turbinado sugar, and a little bit of black pepper until well mixed.

Turn the oven down to 350 degrees. 

Remove baking dish with soaked bread pieces from refrigerator. Dot apple into the crevices of the bread. Dot most of the pimento cheese on top of that. (Save about a fourth or a third of it to eat later on crackers or make into the most heavenly broiled open-faced pimento cheese sandwich.)

Bake strata for 30 minutes, until beginning to brown on top. For the last several minutes, turn on the broiler, just so that the top gets brown. Let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes, and then slice into squares and serve.

Sweet dreams.
- H.


Anonymous said...

Oh Heather, your writing is beautiful as always. What a great commemoration of a beautiful period in your life, and what a beautiful tribute to Jim and Angela. -Sta

Heather Akers said...

Thank you, my dear friend. I also have those years in Athens to thank for meeting you!