Not sure when it happened that I started looking back more than I look ahead.
It used to be when, when, when–I was sure that the best was in front of me and I would get there eventually, now I’m not sure. And for this I blame Thomas Pynchon.
Gravity’s Rainbow was the fundamental turning point in my literary edumacation. It turned reading a book into a process of self-flaggelation, humiliation and ultimately, snide elitism (since I could then boast that I’d finished the damn thing).
Okay, maybe not. It really is a grand book, filled with the kinds of inside jokes (in German), rollicking belly laughs and totally inappropriate sexual encounters which I value so highly.
So, why has Pynchon’s newest sent me into such a tailspin of self-doubt? After all, I confidently skimmed through much of Vineland and can’t remember if I’ve even finished Mason & Dixon, after slavishly reading all of his earlier work. Could it be that I’m not sure I have what it takes to read such a book anymore?
So, here in this personal echo chamber of a blog, I am calling myself out–I’m going to read Against the Day–and I’m going to detail my painful progress back to the self-respecting (nay, self-loving) intellectual snootiness that filled so much of my early twenties with loneliness and (most likely) adult acne.
And I’m happy to report that I have opened the book, and it starts out, promisingly enough, with hot-air balloonists on some kind of mission, stopping at the Chicago World’s Fair, the one detailed in The Devil in the White City.
These 26 instro tracks, each named for an international rock venue, represent the fruits of the long collaboration between the versatile Canadian genre-hoppers and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth documentarian Ron Mann. I’ve not seen the film, but these concise, fuzzy and sometimes silly tracks certainly evoke the trashy spirit of 1960s kar kulture, with side trips to the spaghetti west and Turkish cartoonland, and saved Mann the not inconsiderable headache of clearing twenty-plus vintage surf tracks with licenses owned by cranky old dudes.
Blecky Yuckerella is a nasty little girl with five o’clock shadow living in a world of rubes who inevitably get smeared with Blecky’s snot, poop, gas or barf in four panels or less. The underground weekly strip star is so sincere and delighted with her own grotesquerie that she’s kind of lovable, and you can probably say the same about creator Johnny Ryan. This second hideous compilation features Maakies parodies, some of the cutest testicles in comix, and Black Power Quisp, a cereal that tastes like Kill Whitey.
Here’s some belated praise for yet another deeply satisfying suite of impassioned, unpretentious American rock and roll from one of our most understated master craftsmen. From the Dream Syndicate days through his current band, Steve & company can always be counted to forge these perfect organic structures built of manic guitar lines, instantly familiar riffs, surging rhythms and crescendos that demand you hit the repeat button almost before they fade to fuzz. “Came on like a force of nature,” Steve muses in the exquisitely minimalist “Freak Star,” and it could be a snatch of critical autobiography, because these songs feel as necessary and elemental as a sudden windstorm, or the rolling waves that threaten to absorb the narrator of “The Deep End.” We’re damn lucky to have them.
While I was in the States in October, I was lucky enough to acquire a copy of this book, The United States of Arugula by David Kamp, which I’d been wanting to read for some time. Foodie-ism, if I may be forgiven the term, is an interesting cultural phenomenon, and hardly restricted to the United States, although the degree of it there and the swiftness with which it arrived can be unnerving. Furthermore, this book ties in with a couple of others which have been getting a lot of discussion recently, most notably Bill Buford’s Heat, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, , the former of which I’ve read, the latter not. I did, however, read Pollan’s great article on “nutritionism” on Sunday, and suddenly a bunch of stuff came together in my head. Now let me see if I can disentangle it.
Kamp’s story begins with pioneers like James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne, each of whom had an individual way of awakening postwar Americans towards the possibilities of what they put on their tables. Beard’s approach was that of the hearty bon-vivant, a man’s man who wasn’t afraid to mess it up in the kitchen to produce good-tasting, all-American food, and who was particularly adept at that manliest of all pursuits, outdoor cooking — although he could also whip out a mean loaf of bread. Child and Claiborne, on the other hand, were lucky enough to come onto the scene just as America’s Francophilia was initiated by Jacqueline Kennedy’s love of French food and put into high gear by the restaurant at the French Pavillion of the 1964-65 World’s Fair on Flushing Meadows on Long Island. Child had taken cooking lessons in Paris while her husband was employed there and came back to the States determined to turn Americans onto this amazing cuisine. Claiborne, for his part, was reviewing restaurants for the New York Times and got to watch the phenomenon grow, eventually hooking up with one of the chefs who’d worked at the Fair, Pierre Franey, to make the Times’ food section the template for all other American newspapers’.
But the story really becomes important when the idea of eating well leaves the expensive restaurants and democratizes by merging — in California, of course — the impulse for fine cooking with the search for perfect ingredients, which latter was an inevitable product of the hippie-driven natural foods movement. The central figure for this was — and, really, still is — Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, and the early chaos of that revolutionary place is a story which meets Kamp’s skills head-on. The intrigue, the musical beds, the drug use, and above all the titanic egos on display are perfect fodder for his Vanity Fair sensibility. Still, he never loses sight of the Big Picture, which was that ultimately this was a very, very successful movement, one which soon expanded past the California borders and into other states, and also expanded past the restaurant business into producers like Celestial Seasonings and Ben & Jerry’s and — especially — into the grocery business through America’s Whole Foods chain (which started in a building near my house in Austin which is now a laundromat).
The book’s momentum is such that you’re just swept away by the stories, and the skillful way Kamp joins them all together. The Food Network! Iron Chef! The Zagat Survey! Mark Miller! Tony Bourdain! It really is a great read. Except…
Except three really important figures in my own telling of this story are missing, two entirely, and one mentioned in passing for something I don’t consider his most important contribution to the story. And, in a really, really backhanded way, this also reflects on Pollan’s essay. Let me take these three missing persons in roughly chronological order.
First is Edna Lewis. who died last February at the age of 90. Mrs. Lewis was, unlike anyone else I can find in Kamp’s book, black, and she learned how to cook the traditional way from the traditional sources. Untraditionally, however, she left for New York at the age of 16, and, after a short time as a domestic, became known as a cook. She ruthlessly pursued that career, doing private catering work and finally taking over the kitchen at Barney Josephson’s Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, a hangout for all manner of lefties and jazz fans. She worked in several other restaurants, gave cooking lessons, and kept up her catering business, and in 1972, put out her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. Four years later came The Taste of Country Cooking, which made her reputation. I finally caught up with her (in a manner of speaking) in the late ’80s, when she was brought in as executive chef to help rescue Brooklyn’s fabled Gage & Tollner steakhouse. I remember going there with a group which included two German friends who loved to cook, and on the way out, one of them bought one of her cookbooks — one I already had — at the cashier. “You won’t be able to make any of that back home,” I warned her. “I don’t care,” she said. “Anyone who takes this much care knows things I don’t know, and they’re things I can turn to my own uses. This is a very wise woman.” And she nailed it.
Edna Lewis was fanatical about two things: paying attention and having the perfect ingredients. Observing what you were doing while you were doing it so that it became part of you was obviously something she’d picked up from her mentors. And having perfect ingredients, although it was considered eccentric when she first came into the public’s notice, is now a sine qua non of any good cooking. It wasn’t so much that Mrs. Lewis brought Southern cooking north, but that she brought what she considered Southern practice public. And yet, she is ignored in Kamp’s book.
The second figure is Raymond Sokolov, mentioned in passing as the guy who replaced Craig Claiborne as the Times‘ restaurant reviewer. Which he was, at the beginning of his career. He also became, through his books and his column in, of all places, Natural History magazine, one of the first to make the point that there were a lot of native American ingredients and foodways which were vanishing thanks to Big Agriculture and the Interstate highway system. I’m not even sure his 1981 book, Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods is still in print. While writing other books, including a cook’s apprentice narrative which pre-dated Buford’s Heat by a couple of decades, The Saucier’s Apprentice, which also serves as a practical guide to classic French sauces. But it was his sounding the klaxon about the “fading feast” which puts Sokolov in line for mention in this book, because people heard the alarm and responded to it, which has at least as much to do with the current greenmarket revival as Alice Waters and the guys in Union Square. (Due diligence: I worked under Sokolov during the years I was a cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, and had dinner with him once or twice, and although he can be a tough editor, I really like the guy).
The third missing figure here is one you can link to from the list over there on the side of the page: John Thorne. Thorne is far more of an outsider than the other two, but once again, I consider him important to the American food story for his doggedness in seeking out historical precedents and attempting to reproduce classic bygone dishes at a time when this was something very few were doing, as well as his non-gor-may attitude, and, most importantly, his ability to render that attitude and the reasoning leading up to it in absolutely crystal-clear prose. Thorne’s never been in much of a position to deal with classic French cuisine, having spent his formative cooking years in rural Maine and, now, in Massachusetts, but his was the absolutely perfect recipe for cornmeal pancakes I cooked this past Sunday morning and when I heard he was investigating Louisiana Cajun and Creole cuisine for his book Serious Pig, I was happy to pass on to him all the knowledge — and recipes — I had. (He wound up quoting me). I’m happy to have noticed that, after a slight interruption, he seems to be publishing the Simple Cooking newsletter again, and you could do yourself no bigger favor if you like to cook — and, just as importantly, if you want to read some of the best-written, best-thought-out writing on food and foodways — than to send the Thornes money for a year’s subscription.
What all three of these figures have in common is what breakaway cookbook author Eric Gower calls “mindfulness,” a being-there-in-the-moment approach to the not-so-simple acts of cooking and eating. This kind of mindfulness is at the core of the approach Pollan is suggesting in his long essay — and about as far away from the celebrity-driven honky-tonk of the second half of Kamp’s book as you can get. It’s also, I’m utterly convinced, at the heart of healthy, sane living, something I may not always achieve, but not for the lack of these exemplars’ lessons. In short, I’m glad I read Kamp’s book, for the scandal and for his attempt to structure a story which didn’t seem to want to sit still. But I do think it’s necessary to point out that that’s not all there is to the story.
I guess if you asked I’d tell you my favorite all-time band is probably THE FLESH EATERS. I never saw the 1978-83 version live myself, I’m afraid – it was a couple years later that I got wise to their majesty, and it’s been two decades-plus since that time & I still think no band has ever touched them for personification of sheer all-out, fire & brimstone raw power. The number of “rarities” out there from them are fairly few & far between (thankfully), since three of their four LPs have made it to CD in the intervening years. Still MIA is the masterpiece “Forever Came Today” LP and a couple of odds & ends. One thing I own & treasure is a live December 1982 radio show the band did not long after the release of that album on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. The 15-song set features songs from all four of their albums, including the “Hard Road To Follow” LP that hadn’t come out yet. The band are in total howling metal/punk/teeth-gnashing rare form on this particular evening, and man o man how I wish I could’ve seen them. I reckon this is as close as we’ll get – here are three whoppers from that night for your listening pleasure.
Finally figured out how to host mp3s on my site, so hey, welcome to a new era in DETAILED TWANG‘s evolution. I figure that this’ll either be the total death knell of the site, or the free, quasi-illegal appleseeds that bring the kids back every week. We’ll see. When I envisioned putting up some files a few months ago, I figured like everyone with a halfway decent mp3 blog that I’d try and reveal stuff that you probably haven’t heard before, and/or stuff that’s so out of print or tough to track down that you’ll be friggin’ stoked to finally be hearing it. I then thought about two 60s girl-group killers I discovered this past year, and how I’d like to teach them to the whole world. Here goes.
First up is “White Levis” by THE MAJORETTES, courtesy of DJ Chris Owen, a pal and a connoisseur of recorded musical wisdom. I heard him play this at gigs not once but twice, and both times bounded over to the “disc jockey booth” to ask who-the-f***-is-that?? I honestly can’t tell you when it’s from, but I know that it’s a sly knockout of a song. Stupid saccharine fun from the sixties. I hope you like it. Better still is 1963’s “Papa t’es Dans L’Coup” by French singer SHEILA, which may not clasify as a rarity per se, since it was sorta featured in the campy French comedy “Eight Women” a few years ago. Here’s a YouTube link of her video for it, featuring some of the worst dancing and lip-syncing of all time. Both tracks are among the best 60s girl-pop smashes in my narrow world. We’ll see what else we paste up here for ya next time. Enjoy!
Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition: a visit to Green Week at the mammoth ICC convention center, perfect for combatting those mid-January blues. It’s a huge celebration of food, a Berlin tradition ever since the end of World War II, with countries from around the world and all of the German states showing their wares.
But I think I’m over it.
I hadn’t been in a couple of years, so this time I guarded my cash reserves so I could go there and, I hoped, pick up some cool stuff I couldn’t get anywhere else, which is something that’s always happened before. It was going to take a little more cash than usual; in the past, I’d either had a press pass or had friends in the restaurant business who were overwhelmed by freebie tickets from their suppliers. After all, the real reason for this event is so that German wholesale grocers and restaurant suppliers could make contacts with the agricultural export and processed food export divisions of other countries, although we normal consumers could always get something unusual to eat and sometimes bargains to bring back home.
Olive oil, for one thing. Back when quality olive oil was hard to find in this city, Green Week gave you the opportunity to sample oil from the entire Mediterranean, with Greece, and particularly Crete, selling a wide range of oils. My bet, though, was always the guy from Tunisia who showed up with oil from the same farm on which he grew the grapes for his (not very good) wine. Tunisia is Italy’s dirty little secret: “Italian” olive oil only has to contain a limited percentage of grown-in-Italy oil to be so labelled. The rest is almost always made up of high-quality, low-price Tunisian stuff. Thus, I could buy a half-liter of pure Tunisian oil for five Euros, thereby saving myself about 15 Euros for a fancy label.
Another regular stop was the Irish stand, where I not only knew a couple of the people working there, but I could also pick up some actual Cheddar cheese with flavor. Yeah, it was Kerrygold, from some huge mega-corporation, but after the orange rubber which passes for Cheddar in Berlin, it was pure heaven, and never lasted very long.
Then there’d be serendipity: the year some Mexicans gave me a bunch of jalapeno and serrano chiles because they couldn’t give them away to the Germans and were happy to see someone who knew what they were and appreciated them. The year I suddenly realized, in the middle of the exhibition hall, that I was out of coffee and almost immediately came upon the Cameroonian stand, which sold me some stuff that turned out to be delicious. There was the intensely smoky (and never again seen) sauna ham from Finland, the hair-raising and sweat-inducing Estonian mustard, the year the Portugese were unloading cans of tuna in olive oil for 19 cents. Before the pasta ladies started showing up at the Thursday market at Hackescher Markt (before there was a Thursday market at Hackescher Markt, for that matter), it was a source for high-end Parmesan cheese, and the guy always talked me into buying a salame soaked in Barolo wine, which could turn an ordinary pizza truly extraordinary.
But this year: nothing.
Well, almost nothing. The Tunisians had long ago stopped bringing wine and olive oil, and concentrated on herbs and crappy handcrafts, but this year, that same olive oil (with a much-improved label) was there, and was dutifully scored. As was almost-authentic Cajun sausage (under the name Knoblauch Knacker) from the Wattwurm Wurst guy, who shows up at various markets — although not, alas, in Berlin — around this part of the country. But something basic has changed in the way this thing is presented to the public, and not in a good way at all.
Part of the problem is alcohol. Green Week has always had a large contingent of vendors of beer and wine — indeed, it’s impossible to imagine a German food show without big displays of German beer and wine, with the former, at least, being done around bars dispensing the sponsor’s product. And, of course, people drink it and become what the American alcohol industry calls “overserved.” National stands always offer some sort of local schnapps, too, and people drink those on top of the beer. Late in the day at Green Week can be pretty nasty, especially in the men’s bathrooms. But if you wanted something else, there was a wide range of stuff to eat. There was far less of that this time, and people were far more drunk at 3 in the afternoon than I’d ever seen them. And on a Tuesday, at that. (Always avoid Green Weekends). No doubt, behind the Albanian vodka, there were Albanian export guys selling Albanian lamb to German restaurant suppliers. But boy, was there a lot of alcohol.
Another part of the problem, sad to say, is Germany. The Republic of Malaysia, which is spending millions this year promoting its cuisine, a promotion I’d love to get in on, was absent. Fortunately, I had a real live Malaysian to consult on this, and he told me that the government gave up. “The Germans hated the food.” Well, I can understand that: it wasn’t Chinapfanne, that gooey, malodorous concoction so many Germans think is what people eat in that (broadly defined) area of the world. The Malaysians made the mistake of offering actual Malaysian food instead of Malaysiapfanne, and got rejected. Meanwhile, I stood by the Vietnamese stalls, which were cooking up Chinapfanne of some sort while waiting to hook up with a friend who was at the show and was going to meet me there, and I finally recognized the component of the dish that makes it smell so bad: overcooked cabbage. Germans, of course, have no problem with overcooked cabbage.
But it goes beyond the Malaysians and their hurt feelings. Other nations were missing as well. Israel, purveyor of loads of the vegetables and fruits in our markets during the winter, was absent, as, thank heavens, were their stinky Pfanne. Ireland, where I’d usually beg off a steak sandwich one of my pals was ready to cook up for me, and where I’d really hoped to stock up on some white sharp cheddar: missing, although Guinness was represented by two bars. France, which is usually promoting beef (which Germans barely eat), cheese (but not the higher-end stuff, just the heavily-processed fake Brie and so on you find in our supermarkets), oysters (which R in season!), and downmarket wines (wine “tastings” with an eye towards getting you to subscribe to regular deliveries are a big scam at Green Week): pas la. The United States of America, for heaven’s sakes, which was usually willing to embarrass itself by a hotdog-and-doughnut stand, another place selling Samuel Adams beer, a wine-subscription guy selling Californa wine, and, uh, some company in Wisconsin that made pots and pans: outta here.
My take on this is that the world’s exporters have more or less given up on Germany as a market for quality stuff. Of course, I didn’t need to go half-way across town and spend 12 Euros to get into the ICC to postulate this: all I’d need to do would be to visit the “upmarket” food floor at Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz, but spending three hours on the floor of Green Week brought it home. The people who buy for the German mass market haven’t yet discovered what I know to be a sizeable contingent of younger (ie, 30-40-year-old) consumers with more refined (or, let us at least say, less crass) tastes which are making inroads even here in impoverished Berlin. So they buy what they’ve always bought, and feed the masses with booze and Pfanne and stuff that looks just like traditional German food but which is jacked up with MSG (that’s E 621 for you label readers, or Natriumglutamat). Meanwhile, the jungle telegraph among my friends passes along news of a new store where you can get some good things that were hitherto unavailable, a new restaurant that is good enough that it probably won’t make it, a mail-order house which ships to Germany. In fact, I’ll be posting some of this stuff as soon as the info reaches critical mass.
I barely remember how to do this. Anyway, life/busy/stuff is keeping me elsewhere for the time being. However, I must unabashedly recommend Children of Men. This movie, this movie, this movie. The imagery was gorgeous, smart-alecky Christ-story, but the story itself, a near-primeval mythographic story about the trip through hell to deliver the pregnant woman who will save humanity into the hands of safety, resonated throughout me as though I were a bell being struck. The world it takes place in, a future England that is like Iraq as the last outpost of civilization (rather than the cradle), is a horrific vision of xenophobia, homeland security, the breakdown of government functions (see the trash strewn everywhere), terrorist factions, and authoritarian crackdowns. The message was crystal clear and as old as, well, the story: what is coming will seem like the end of everything, but there’s always room for hope. The movie’s verisimilitude is so raw that you’ll find yourself gasping at the end of the action sequences (two, prominently, are single-takes, which is a wow of a realization), unaware that you’d been holding your breath. I wept and I laughed, and the movie still has a hold on me, days later.
Some old folks may remember the early hype & interest around the band PAVEMENT around 1989-90. Theyâ€™d put out two strange, semi-experimental frazzled pop/noise 45s on two tiny independent labels & then a cleaner but still whomping 10â€EP called â€œPerfect Sound Foreverâ€. Yet theyâ€™d never shown their face in a live venue, and all most of us knew about them was they there were two mystery dudes from Stockton, CA named â€œSMâ€ and â€œSpiral Stairsâ€ and an older drummer/producer who sorta tagged along with them. When they finally announced a live show, in San Francisco around late 1990 or so, a lot of us were pretty frigginâ€™ excited to see what theyâ€™d be like. Sadly, they were simply awful live, and I remember leaving four or five songs in â€“ and this at a time when I never left shows early to catch up on sleep. I never dared see them live again, but Iâ€™d imagine they turned into something marginally decent, given the bandâ€™s burgeoning reputation long after Iâ€™d lost interest.
The net effect after 3 songs was a host of frothing rock fans who were half out for blood for such a â€œshortâ€ set & half stoked that theyâ€™d been left so rabidly wanting more, and surprised that the band were so on fire their very first show. I was greeted with the news that the Wooden Shjips are set to play at least two more local shows in the next couple months (one opening for Roky Erickson –their Myspace page indicates there are also some Austin, TX shows coming up) and I guess Iâ€™ll have to chain myself to them now, the way I did with certain bands in the eighties when I was 20 years old. In the process, by overhyping my new favorite band Iâ€™ll undoubtedly contribute to â€œthe Pavement effectâ€, helping dozens of their current fans out the door and on to new sensations. Anything I can do to help, fellas!