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Monday, December 20, 2010

IKEA and me

I was in a hurry. I had something I wanted to tell my wife, and it’s so easy to forget things these days that I didn’t want to waste any time. So I not only rushed to find her, but I went against traffic to do so. I was in one of Berlin’s four IKEAs – the magnificent, outrageously successful Swedish big box store that has become a staple of urban life in all corners of the disposable-income globe.

I slid past the POANG chairs. I jogged past the EKTORP sofas. Halfway through the kitchen section, with its deep reds, stainless steel glimmers and those light Scandanavian wood countertops, I noticed a couple, probably in their early thirties, sitting on a KIVIK chaise lounge. They were disheveled in the practiced way of the creative class. Sitting at oblique angles to one another in order to avoid eye contact but still be able to track the other’s movements, they both looked terribly distressed. He glared at the IKEA list with a mixture of disgust and confusion; she looked as if she might weep.

I slowed for a moment, forgetting my earlier urgency. Pretending to inspect a BAGVIK sink, I furtively watched the distraught pair. The man had slightly scuffed blonde hair, sports glasses with clear lenses and a two-day beard; the woman had just enough lines around her eyes and mouth to allow one to take her beauty seriously. I was not able to hear their words, but their body language told of an age old struggle: You just don’t understand my furniture needs.

Most of us are able to go through life without facing this issue more than once or twice; some of us spend our lives trying to avoid it altogether. But if there is an IKEA within 400 miles, the attempt will be futile. Some day, the allure of cheap meatballs and free coffee refills will be too strong, and you, too, will end up here, facing those marital demons.

Remembering my earlier mission, I tear my attention away from the couple only to notice that an inordinate number of yellow- and blue-uniformed staffers are standing nearby, all feigning nonchalance while watching me through the corners of their eyes while muttering things into their shirt collars. I understand immediately what’s going on: I had been rushing through the furniture, and to hurry through IKEA, whether it’s in Burbank or Berlin, Phoenix or Salt Lake City, is taboo. I wanted to tell them that I understood their concern, but they had no reason to worry. I would turn around and follow traffic and do it at a proper pace. Not only that, but I belong here: You see, I’m Swedish. Okay, I’m ¼ Swedish, which is surely enough to give me a direct connection to everything IKEA. When I smell the meatballs cooking in the IKEA cafeteria, I get the sense that my ancestors are texting me from the Nordic climes. I have a natural aptitude for wielding the little tools that come with every IKEA flat pack -- my wife has assured me that I can assemble a STYRØN bookshelf almost as well as any guy she’s met. And I have a deep bond with the tall, blonde Scandinavian super models that the company plants in all of its stores to evoke authenticity.

Instead of explaining all of this, I slow my pace and make sure I stop occasionally to write down a product number on my little sheet of paper, and this seems to work. It occurred to me, then, how odd this slow pacing thing really is. I understood the slow food movement, and even the slow travel movement. But slow crass consumerism?


In late November, the people of the United States were once again subjected to the annual ritual known as Black Friday. In the pre-dawn darkness on the day after every Thanksgiving, people line up in vast big box store parking lots all over the country, giant Starbucks pumpkin pie-flavored frappolattachinos in hand, in order to get in a good position. When the doors open at an ungodly hour, the throng surges into the store in order to take advantage of discounts on flat screen televisions, video game consoles, and other gadgetry. People do not take this ritual lightly; nearly every year, news reports of serious injuries, even fatalities, rise from the scuffle of the stampedes.

This ritual is and has been repeated on various scales across the capitalistic spectrum. Once upon a time, blue lights flashing in K-Marts would ignite a Pavlovian response in blue-haired women throughout the aisles, and the need to get a Cabbage Patch doll for their kids turned otherwise mild-mannered mothers into clawing, biting animals. This primal response is predicated on the notion that these objects will all be gobbled up by competing consumers, and the resulting drought of said objects will threaten the survival of those unlucky ones who did not sprint fast enough for the blue light, did not wake up early enough from their post-gluttony slumber. No matter that the said objects are produced by the hundreds of thousands in far-away factories, and that the discounts on them will be even deeper in a few weeks, when the new models come out, it’s the ritual that matters. It’s our way, I suppose, to get in touch with our hunter-gatherer roots, and this frenzied consumption has become a primary component of our capitalistic society.

But not at IKEA. At 4 a.m. on Black Friday, the IKEA parking lots of the world were empty, the lights dark. They waited until mid-morning to open, just like any other day. They offered free breakfast as consolation, along with a few one-day only sales. But to try to race for the specials would have been futile because of the way IKEA is laid-out. There is no simple grid system here, no going in, getting what you need, and heading out. Upon entering the store, IKEA customers are first given the opportunity to drop off their kids at free daycare. This seems pretty progressive and pro-parenting, sort of like Sweden's generous maternity/paternity leave policies. Except that it's really just a way to give parents more time to shop and more room to spend. It's also a way to keep kids from the ugly truth: Their parents' marital bond can be snapped in two by a $39.99 light fixture.

Childless, customers then head up an escalator to a sort of staging zone from which there are only two ways out: by following the meandering maze through the entire store, or by taking a "short cut" to the restaurant. One cannot simply turn around and leave an IKEA any more than Dante could have called it quits after reaching the third circle of Hell. It just doesn't work like that.

So customers end up wandering through the store like rudderless rafts on a slow river, all the while slightly disoriented, following the arrows along a path that must, after all the turns and twists, be at least a mile long. This, of course, is intentional. It makes for a more contemplative shopping experience, as well as one in which goal-oriented shopping is virtually impossible. This puportedly leisurely shopping pace gives the illusion that one has plenty of time to consider which items to buy, seemingly making rash purchases impossible. It's only an illusion, though. Once, my wife Wendy and I, needing furniture for a new house, made a 10-hour drive to the nearest IKEA, in Phoenix, Ariz. We entered the store at 9:30 a.m., for breakfast. We did not emerge until 7 p.m., dazed and confused, with no real understanding of what we had just purchased save for the knowledge that our credit card company was now $3,000 poorer.

Extensive research of '80s-era sitcoms shows that shopping like this was once the provenance mostly of women, with the men only getting involved when they saw the receipt, which then caused them to go into some sort of epileptic, but entirely comic, fit. In this new hunting and gathering society, women became the hunters. But today’s IKEA shoppers are of a more liberated ilk, and almost always come in pairs. If one does not have a life-partner or spouse, then she brings a roommate or friend. And here, among the light fixtures, sofas, office furniture and prefab kitchens, they talk in hushed tones and serious voices as though they were discussing Soren Kierkegaard, not SØREN couches. If the Wal-Marts of the world have lowered shopping to some kind of primal, stone-age urge, then IKEA has elevated shopping to higher philosophy. I’m not sure which one is worse: Judging by the huge lines at ever checkout counter during every hour of the day all over the world, the end result is exactly the same.

After I had broke free from the unhappy couple and the suspicious IKEA staffers, all about half my age, I moved through the crowd once again until I found Wendy in the dining room table section. She was crouched underneath a round, glass-topped table, inspecting it intently. I was going to tell her something brilliant to prove my theory that Berlin’s populace has a disproportionately high amount of injuries of hands, fingers and arms (another story altogether), but I completely forgot. Instead, I blurted: “Hey, don’t you think it’s time to head to the cafeteria for some meatballs?”

She peered up through the glass at me, bewildered. “It’s only 11:30. (She pauses to let me consider how base and uncontrollable my desires are). What do you think of this table? I’m thinking it would fit nicely in our kitchen.”

I looked at the table, and the price tag. I did not mention that we had no kitchen. No living room. No bedroom. At the time, we were still looking for a place, and were having no luck. The search for a Berlin apartment had slowly disintegrated into a nightmare that involved bumbling bureaucrats who didn’t seem to be conscious of the world outside their office doors, evil real estate agents who engaged in a particularly caustic brand of passive aggressive behavior, and which offered a glimpse into the naked psyche of the German people -- even now, months later, the wounds are too raw for me to talk about it in any detail. So, at the time, the IKEA trip was still purely hypothetical, a form of wishful thinking, perhaps.

“Yeah, it’s okay, I guess.” I searched for something more to say, something intelligent about the lines of the table’s base, or something insightful about eating off a glass table. I really, really wanted to converse with my wife, my soulmate; to connect with her here amongst all this furniture. But a table is just one of those things in life that I may never truly understand, and I just don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about it. It’s just four legs on which rests a plank sturdy enough to hold dinner, a few bottles of wine and maybe a drunken dancer every once in a while. So why were there so many choices? I looked across the vast plain of tables, long skinny ones, square ones, plastic ones and wood ones. I longed, suddenly, for the “generic” products of my youth, with their non-descript black and white labels promising nothing but what was inside: Orange Drink, Cheese, Hot Dog. What about just: Table? “I like the name,” I said, finally. “Sounds like a Scandinavian philosopher or something, doesn’t it?”

This is not what she wanted to hear. I mumbled something about light fixtures, and scurried off, until I came across the place where, in a seemingly impossibly small space, they had set up an entire apartment, complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room. I plopped myself down on the OLEBY sofa underneath the STYRØN loft bed and stared at the dead screen of the TV. I marveled at the self-contained efficiency of the faux flat. These are in every IKEA in the world, and they are my favorite part of the store (after the free coffee refills, of course). They exude an almost erotic sense of comfort. Someday, Wendy will find a man who can converse about tables, and I’ll end up alone, no doubt. These little places assure me that when that time comes, I can find a tiny apartment, call up IKEA, and have them deliver this very setup to me. And like the little apartment, I too will be self-contained.

Perhaps that’s the IKEA secret, and the reason some Swedish dude has made millions of dollars on wrecked marriages. These particular stores are not just a collection of discreet items to be purchased individually; they are instead a collection in which the sum makes up more than the parts. IKEA’s not about buying objects, which seems base but is just what shopping should be. It’s about purchasing a sense of self -- an identity. We don't really fully become members of the post-industrial graphic designer class until we purchase our first flat-packed sofa couch to fit into that tiny, 250-square-foot apartment. We don't really become post-post-modern parents until we've spent at least 12 hours in the IKEA kid's section. And we're not really post-divorce, bitter old bachelors until we've once again furnished a 250 square foot apartment with IKEA, this time leaving a few empty feet on the floor where the kids can sleep on their occasional visits. 

As I sat in the prefab-apartment thinking about all of this, I felt a bit as if I had been duped. My anti-capitalist tendencies had been confused by the IKEA approach, and here I was, sitting in just another big box store, longing to spend my credit card company’s money. It was no less crass than Black Friday, I figured, maybe even worse. What’s weird is that people don’t see that – they boycott Wal-Marts and burn down Starbucks, but the only people who scorn IKEA are hipsters, at least when they’re not too busy tossing scorn at, well, hipsters. I considered getting up and telling Wendy all of this, and insisting we get the hell out of this place and go build our own stinking table. Then I remembered, I don’t know how to build a table.

My daughters finally found me in the prefab-apartment and rousted me from my thoughts with their lists of all the things they had to have for their still non-existent bedrooms. By this time, the yellow and blue-suited staffers were getting really worried about me. So I pulled myself out of the couch and we all headed down to the restaurant to stand in line for our meatballs. I ate happily and drank a coffee with my meal. Then I drank another. And, since it was free, I lined up for a third. That’s when I started to see the light, and understand what it was all about. That’s when I heard my ancestors calling to me: Buy the table, you idiot. Just buy it. It will save your marriage. For now. Besides, it’s flat-packed, and will only take a few minutes to assemble.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Macaroon for the 21st Century! (And holiday cookies, too)

These are rough times. From our European vantage point, the Old Country seems to be unraveling (tax cuts for the rich, billions being spent on two wars, Wiki-leaks shenanigans). Meanwhile, over here, climate change has made it colder not to mention snowier, which has resulted in late, overcrowded trains. And in our Berlin neighborhood, even as the grimy snow piles up on the sidewalks, so, for some reason, does the garbage. It looks a bit like an ugly bomb exploded here. So, in order to bring some more balance and sweetness to the world, I figured I'd spend this Sunday baking holiday cookies and some macaroons, and then sharing the recipes with you (because I'm all about redistribution of wealth). That doesn't make much sense, I know, but either does anything else going on these days.

Here's something that does make sense: My new macaroon invention! I had set out to make the Barefoot Contessa's coconut macaroons, which are ridiculously simple: Mix up 14 oz. sweetened shredded coconut with 14 oz. sweetened condensed milk. Add some vanilla and some whisked egg whites. Bake. Thing is, I had come home from the store with unsweetened coconut and unsweetened condensed milk. And this being Germany, stores aren't open on Sundays (don't get me started).

Luckily, macaroons are marvelously flexible. And luckily, yesterday when I was cruising through Punjab's market, which is an amazing mixture of Indian grocery store, Halal butcher and "Afro Shop" (one entire row is dedicated to hair extensions and associated products), I picked up this huge container of vacuum packed dates for next to nothing. I had found the sweetness for my unsweetened ingredients. The super sweet dates alone probably would have sufficed, but I wanted to push the macaroon envelope. So I made this magic sauce: Start with some butter or ghee in a pan, throw in some fresh ginger, add two sliced bananas and a handful of pitted, chopped dates. Sautee it all until the bananas and dates shine with the butter, then add enough water to cover the fruit. Cook, stirring, until it all turns into an unappetizing-looking mash (a few chunks are okay). Add more water if necessary.

Date banana sauce. Looks bad, tastes great
Now taste. Yum-mo-lishious, no? Save a bit to sweeten tomorrow morning's oatmeal, then add the rest to your 14 oz. of unsweetened condensed milk and mix it up well (it wouldn't hurt to cook this a bit, too, if you want). Add the 14 oz. unsweetened coconut and stir it all up. If it seems too watery, add a bit more coconut. In a separate bowl, whip two egg whites until they have firm medium peaks (mine never peaked, and it didn't seem to wreck things). Fold the eggs gently into the coconut milk mix. Scoop into little piles onto a baking sheet. Bake in a 325 degree oven until the little tips of your coconut bergs are burnished brown. Keep an eye on the bottom of the macaroons, as they might burn if you have a crappy baking sheet. Let cool. Eat. Want to experiment? Try using coconut milk in place of the condensed milk. I can't wait to try that one.

The finished macaroons with their earthier color and more complex flavors.
Okay, macaroons are not really traditional holiday treats, so the kids and I threw together some great little cookies with which they can bribe their teachers, too. When I make Christmas cookies, I prefer to make a big hunk of base dough, and then add variety at the pre-baking/decorating stage. And my favorite base dough comes from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. I take Alice's lemon-clove cookies and remove the cloves (because cloves don't quite go with everything, while lemon pairs well with everything from chocolate to chicken -- and no, I'm not making chicken cookies. This time).

So, if you want to try these, go to the link and follow the recipe. You should end up with a couple of logs of dough in the refrigerator (I like to double the recipe and get four logs). Now's the time to get creative. As the dough chills, come up with your own mixtures for topping the cookies. We did: Lemon zest-black pepper-salt-sugar; candied ginger-dried cranberry; sugar-lemon zest; walnuts-chocolate. Though it sounds weird, my favorite by far turned out to be the lemon zest/black pepper one. To make it, I covered a plate with freshly ground pepper, sprinkled some turbinado sugar onto the pepper, added just a tiny pinch of salt, and some lemon zest. I then took one dough log and rolled it in the mixture, pressing hard so that the spices all get stuck in a fairly even layer on the whole log. Then, I sliced the log into 1/4" slices (each one a cookie) and put them on a baking sheet. If you want some more flavor, top the cookies with the same mix you put on the sides. Bake at 350 F until the cookies are golden brown.

Rolling the cookie dough log in chocolate/walnut/cranberry topping
Give a few away. Eat the rest. Feel better about the world.