Some authors set a scene like theater set designers: Here is the layout of this place. These are the colors of this place. This is a sound the place makes. Then there are authors — rarely — like Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski. Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski inhales his city like smoke, holds it in his lungs until it burns; then releases it in a masterful exhale.
For a debut work — for any work — Painted Cities is commanding. This collection of short stories about Pilsen, a neighborhood on Chicago’s near South Side where the author grew up, demands your attention. Not with the shock of violence, though there is plenty of it in these pages, but with language, beautifully and starkly employed. It summons us to the author’s world, whether or not we’ve ever actually visited there.
“The smell of wet metal spilled over the junkyard’s corrugated walls — rust, oil. In the distance an L rumbled across Eighteenth Street, traffic whined on the Dan Ryan, a truck ground through its gears on Twenty-second. I heard everything in echo, my ear to the city, one giant seashell,” Galaviz-Budziszewski writes. And though it’s his narrator with a stethoscope to the city streets, the passage final sentence could easily characterize the author’s uncanny sense of observation and distillation.
The themes that run through “Painted Cities” like cracked chain link fences could be overwrought in another young writer’s hands: temporality, death and life, resurrection, redemption. Though he is dealing with stories and places close to him, Galaviz-Budziszewski resists self-indulgence. His observations make the Pilsen of his childhood tangible to readers, whether in Chicago or on the other side of the world. I cannot wait for more from this author.
On my bike rides to Pilsen, there are a few foods I can never pass up: tacos from Birreria Reyes, tres leches from Kristoffer’s…and horchata. What is it about this cinnamon-spiked rice milk that drives me so crazy? I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite dishes from this neighborhood by incorporating its flavors into dessert form.
GLUTEN-FREE HORCHATA COOKIES
- 5 ½ tablespoon butter (melted)
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup white granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
- 1 tablespoon almond extract
- 2 ¼ cup rice flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon, plus 1 teaspoon for sprinkling
Combine melted butter and sugars with a whisk.
Add eggs and mix well, then add orange blossom water and almond extract.
Add rice flour, baking powder and 1 teaspoon cinnamon and blend to a thick, crumbly dough.
Refrigerate 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 Fº and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Form dough into 1 ½ inch, slightly flattened balls and place 1 inch apart on the sheet.
Sprinkle with remaining cinnamon.
Bake for 20 minutes or until surfaces crack.
Remove from oven and cool on a wire baking rack.
Source: I received a free Advanced Reading Copy from McSweeney's Publishing.