Paella!

The British chef Jamie Oliver created a tempest in the kitchen last week when he offered a recipe for Paella that included chorizo in the sofrito, the flavored oil that begins the process of cooking the rice and other ingredients. Social media lit up like a pinball machine with tweets lambasting the Naked Chef for a violations of some sort of food commandment. It is not as if this globally popular cook had never tasted paella in Spain.

This put me in mind of all those other instances in which the authenticity of a particular way of preparing a dish stands for defending the authenticity  of some group’s historical or social integrity. In this case, the good people of Valencia were impugned by the addition of a Spanish sausage to a Spanish dish. They are their paella, and their paella is Valencia.

This of utter nonsense, of course. It is romantic nationalism of the most egregious sort and stinks of the exclusionary nativist bullshit that is all too common in our current political moment. The truth is that there are hundreds of ways of preparing paella. Every province, every town, every restaurant, every home cook plays with the combination of braising rice in a flavored oil and flavored broth over high heat with other vegetable and proteins added along the way. According to David Rosengarten in a recent article in Savour, the dish “probably dates to the early 1800s and consists of saffron-scented rice cooked with rabbit, chicken, local snails called vaquetes, and three types of beans: a broad string bean called ferraura, a lima-like dried bean called garrofo, and a white bean called tavella.[Saveur, “The Art of Paella” (accessed 21 July 2015)]” This recipe worked well for over a hundred years as a rice dish cooked outdoors over a wood fire. The growth of tourism on Spain’s East Coast beginning in the 1960s changed all that. Tourists balked at the snails and the beans, inspiring variations in the protein ingredients. The cooking moved indoors to gas ovens. No more smokey wood! Today, a restaurant menu will offer paella Valenciana, and then as many as nine variations. The smoke of the original fire now replaced by the addition of smoked paprika, the main flavoring ingredient, by the way, in chorizo!

My authority for all things Spanish kitchen is Penelope Casas, an American who met her Spanish husband while studying abroad in the 1960s, lived her entire adult life in Spain, and published her seminal food ethnography, The Foods and Wines of Spain in 1972. It is still in print. She went on educate English readers to the variations of paella (1999), de-mystify tapas (1985), and celebrate Spanish home cooking (2005). She died in 2013. Even a cursory glance at the explorations of Paella across Spain in both restaurants and home kitchens shows that far fro being the regimented recipe of the imagination of Valenianian regionalists, paella is a canvas that is used to explore and celebrate the variety of Spanish ingredients. There is even one paella, prepared by the Clarisa nuns of the Santa Clara convent in Briviesca in the province of Burgos in the heart of Castile, in which the sofrito is flavored with chorizo. It also features green and black olives with red peppers, peas, and ham [Casas, Paella!: the Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain, 1999, page 106-7)].

I guess they don’t know how to cook paella either

 

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The P.I.C.

I have begun to reread Robert Musil’s “A Man without Qualities,” a huge Austrian novel written between 1930-43. It is considered by literary scholars as one of the greatest novels of last hundred years and is easily compared to the best works of Joyce, Proust, or Mann. I was inspired to re-read it when I encountered a piece last summer by David Auerbach in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he argues that Trump is not comparable to any of the other populist demagogues in the 20th century because he does not hue to an ideology. Instead, he only seeks to dominate others and not be dominated by anyone. In searching for a personality that accurately prefigures Trump, Auerbach lights on the character of Christian Moosbrugger in Musil’s novel. Moosbrugger is an uneducated carpenter who is also a serial rapist and murderer of women. Brought to account for his crimes, his trial becomes the talk of Vienna because of his eccentric behavior as a defendant. He applauds testimony in court that is damaging to him and basks in the fame and attention the trial affords him, frustrating his lawyers by commenting on the proceedings to the press. He contradicts himself frequently in giving testimony, and does so without a care, as if the truth is only what he chooses to believe in that moment. He is clearly insane, but in the way that people can be insane and still appear to be perfectly rational. This is the quality that fascinates the other characters in the novel, as they read about the case in the newspapers. 

I read the first part of the novel when I was an undergraduate. As with many of the works I read in that period of my life, I remember only the vaguest outlines of the plot and a few images. I even forgot about Moosbrugger. So I dove into this 1800 page monster looking to see what other gems Musil had offered that deserve to be better known as we start the 21st century in earnest. 

I was not disappointed. Only 130 pages into the book, Musil offers a biting critique of the aspirational language of organizations, political platforms included, in the form of a fake logical principle: the Principle of Insufficient Cause. Here is the passage in which Ulrich, the main character, explains the principle to Fischel, a bank manager who had been asked by Count Leinsdorf, a powerful aristocrat in the Austrian Emperor’s inner circle, to join Ulrich and several other notables in organizing a celebration of the Emperor’s 70th year of reign, the same year the German Emperor will be celebrating his 30th year in office, thus demonstrating Austria’s cultural, political and philosophical superiority to its Germanophone neighbor. The bank manager is trying to understand what the Count has written in the letter of invitation that describes what the project is about. That description includes the phrase “the true patriotism, the true Austria and the true progress,” which Fischel finds totally confounding. Ulrich, by the way, is quite cynical about the whole endeavor, but must remain guarded in offering his true opinions so as not to undermine his public reputation as a diplomat and a scholar, a reputation based not on actual accomplishment, but on, yes, the P.I.C. 

“The P.I.C.?” Director Fischel repeated the letters in all innocence, this time not thinking that it was a joke, for although such abbreviations were then not yet as numerous as today, they were familiar from cartels and trusts, and they were very confidence-inspiring. Then, however, he said: “Look, please don’t make jokes. I’m in a hurry, I have a conference.” “The Principle of the Insufficient Cause!” Ulrich explained. “Being a philosopher yourself, you know of course what the principle of the sufficient cause is. Only, people make an exception where they themselves are concerned. In real life, by which I mean our personal and also our public-historical life, what happens is always what has no good cause.” Leo Fischel wavered, undecided whether to contradict him or not. Director Leo Fischel of Lloyd’s Bank enjoyed philosophising (there are still such people in practical occupations), but he was really in a hurry. So he replied: “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. I know what progress is, I know what Austria is, and I dare say I know what patriotism is too. But I don’t know that I can quite imagine what true patriotism, true Austria and true progress are. And that’s what I’m asking you!” “All right. Do you know what an enzyme is? Or a catalyst?” Leo Fischel lifted one hand in a defensive gesture. “It’s something,” Ulrich went on, “that contributes nothing materially, but sets events going. You ought to know from history that there has never been such a thing as the true faith, true morality, and true philosophy. And yet the wars, and all the vileness and viciousness, that have been let loose in their name have fruitfully transformed the world.” “Another time!” Fischel implored, and tried to adopt an air of frankness. “Look, it’s like this, I’ve got to deal with all this on the Stock Exchange and would really like to know what Count Leinsdorf’s actual intentions are. What is he getting at with this supplementary ‘true’ of his?” “I give you my solemn word,” Ulrich replied gravely, “that neither I nor anyone else knows what ‘the true’ is. But I can assure you it is on the point of realisation.”

    The Principle of Insufficient Causes is a jewel of an idea because it is about the catalytic quality of words, the casual force of speech to bring things into the world and set events in motion that are truly transformative. In the case that Ulrich is dealing with, it’s a silly political celebration that will become as all consuming culture event and change people’s lives. In our case, it’s the formulas of populism, the “Make America Great / Put America First” slogans that  mean nothing, but catalyze actions that transform lives. And, I can assure you, it is on the point of realisation. 

    I can’t wait to see what Musil has in store for the next 1700 pages. 

    Just Go Up the Mountain

    This is an experiment. Is it possible to find a common ground where people of different political perspectives and ideals can find work together on common concern? It is silly season in America as the election circus is in full dirge. The media divides us into competing camps to sell their commercials. I’m not selling anything. I’m going to talk about my experience, not my beliefs. What I outline below is something you’ve probably experienced too.

    Like you, I want to make the best political choices I can. My experience with elections is that they show us where our problems lie. They rarely show us what we’re doing right. This one is no different in that respect, although it is certainly louder. I don’t think we ever get nominees for president who have not gotten dirty on their way up. I don’t believe that presidents solve our problems. At best they avoid making things worse. Part of the election circus is grilling the candidate as if they could solve these problems. Then, if we get the chance before the commentators tell us what to think, we compare their answers to what we think is feasible.

    We don’t stop there with presidents. We blame our leaders for what’s wrong with our lives. It’s not like we take no responsibility for decisions that may have gone wrong. It’s that we feel that our choices were limited in the first place. Public policy helped to create those limited choices. So, the leaders are involved in the what’s wrong with our lives. How does that happen? Being a politician may begin with wanting to better the lives of your neighbors but it quickly becomes more about maintaining power and privilege. And that means listening to and accommodating people who want to make money from public policies. You know these stories. Some group wants their product to have an advantage in the marketplace and a politician helps them make that happen. Then the politician gets a nice monetary contribution for the next election. We feel powerless to fix this. While federally financed elections would remove money raising from politicians’ daily work, the manipulators will find others ways to influence policy.

    How can we fix this? The first step should be to make any actions we take less isolating. I have my ways of “sticking it to the Man.” You have yours. But we are acting apart. What if there were organizations that we could join where people share information on subversive actions, like Angie’s List for goods and services in the old days, but with the purpose of thwarting those influential actors? How can we ‘disrupt’ the behaviors that enrich corporations and really democratize consumption? It may sound abstract, but it has worked before in this country through food cooperatives, buyer’s clubs, boycotts, citizens’ lobbies, and investigative journalism. It all begins with a few people getting together for one of these purposes, and then advertising their success. Doing so cuts across political parties. If we are dissatisfied with what the market offers, we can find others who feel the same way (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and work together on some action.

    The world I live in today is not what it was when I graduated from high school fifty years ago. At that time, White Christian America (WCA) was the dominant cultural force in the country. As described in Robert P. Jones’ recent book, The End of White Christian America, this not-so-silent majority within our country determined the shape and composition of our families, our sexualities, our gender roles, our relations with other religions, our international morality, our commitment to human rights, our images of justice and the greater good, even our sense of what was beautiful in music and art. That is not the case anymore. Its churches have been losing members for decades. Every effort at revival has produced a temporary surge in attendance, only to lose those new members too. Its leaders ability to gain the ear of politicians and people of commerce is shrinking. Neither of the presidential candidates most identified with the positions of this important group, Bush, Rubio and Cruz could not attract enough votes to secure the nomination. Its cultural agenda is overshadowed in a sea of multiculturalism and racial complexity. If I was a White Christian American, I would be frustrated and resentful at the way my country has engaged diversity while undervaluing my culture’s contribution to its greatness. These neighbors and friends are still everywhere, in the small towns and suburbs of the South and the Midwest. They are so numerous that this cultural sea change is barely felt. Even in those places, the broken families, the dangerous race relations, the substance abuse, the under-employment, and the increasing ethnic and religious diversity show that something is very wrong.

    This is the real culture war: the sinking of this formerly dominant cultural force in a cosmopolitan ocean of lost jobs, world religions, diverse sexualities and genders, racial complexity, and perhaps the most biting and intimate change, the social, economic and political empowerment of women. One has only to look at the position of women in much of the non-Western world (there are exceptions) to understand how revolutionary the current situation in the U.S. and Europe really is. The hundred or so years it has taken to get to where we are is very short compared to the millennia during which women were silent, or silenced bearers of children and instruments of family stability. These gains are not set in stone, as recent pronouncements about repealing the 19th amendment show. The war is between those who embrace the present promise of ever-increasing equality, and those who long for the orderliness of the past. This will not be resolved by any election. We must wait for history to sort out the relationships between these blocks as the century unfolds. It will take time.

    How do we support the positive contributions that the White Christian community makes to our nation? At the same time, how do we encourage the educated, coastal metro-citizens to stop looking down their noses and extend their hands in solidarity to the culture that built this nation. That, too, must happen if the anger and resentment felt by the WCA is ever going to abate.

    Race and gender relations in this country are terrible. Again, our leaders can’t fix this. The only people who benefit from the aggressions experienced by women and by people with Native American, Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific ancestry are the wealthiest Americans. It has always been that way. The founding documents of our nation (see article 18 of the Declaration of Independence for example) set these communities apart as not really “us.” Throughout our history, the men of wealth and property have been able to say to their poorer brethren, “At least, you are one of us, and not one of them.” Efforts over the past fifty years to remove legal distinctions, level the economic playing field, extend educational and employment opportunities, and offer immigration lotteries to a wider range of the world’s people, have made it even more difficult for men in the middle and working classes to distinguish themselves from working women and people of color. This blurring of categories is a dangerous situation. People explode into rage when the categories that help them make sense of the world are no longer reliable. This can easily produce a violent reaction toward women, immigrants and people of color unlike anything we have seen recently. Even if only a tiny group gives in to their rage, we could be in for a generation of murders, terrorist attacks, lynchings and sabotage. ISIS, after all, is supported by less than 10% of the world’s Sunni Arabs and see how much chaos they create. We must talk to each other about the real basis of racism and sexism now. Soon, it will be too late.

    When people with different perspectives on these issues talk to each other about their actual lives, they understand each other. We can all relate to the expense of real injuries and persistent illness, to worrying about our children’s safety, and to fear of those in authority. We are at our best when we act locally to meet our neighbors and devise solutions together. How do we act locally across this racial and gender divide to begin these conversations? This political season is too tense to afford such opportunities. Instead we must start small, reaching out to pairs and small groups of people meeting to establish a basis for conversation. It can be done. Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany is today one of the most diverse and welcoming countries in Europe. It has fully embraced its responsibility for the destruction and murder of the disabled, Jewish, Roma and LGBT communities, and through its actions has shown that it will do whatever it takes to build reconciliation.

    How much are we willing to ignore what’s good for us in the short run in order to justify long-term gains? Political parties urge us to see the world narrowly, using only one or two simple ideas to interpret everything. The Clinton-dominated Democratic platform asks us to accept borders open to trade and the movement of people while ignoring how this distorts the democratic process. At some point, too big to fail becomes too big to control. The Trump-dominated Republican platform asks us to close the border and protect jobs in exchange for ignoring how this will reduce everyone’s standard of living. The Greens promise a sustainable future for our grandchildren while asking us to ignore the immense restrictions on individual action imposed by authoritarian bureaucracies that such sustainability requires! Similar analysis could be described for Libertarianism and Democratic Socialism. There is no utopia that will not cost us something we hold dear. If we are frustrated and resentful over something, we are more likely to ignore our self-interest in favor of the long-term outcomes that will reduce our immediate pain. This is a contradiction. Why don’t we just focus on the immediate problem?

    We need to have a see the difference between fanaticism and idealism.? The ramping up of an ideal fueled by fear of impending cataclysm, a good definition of fanaticism, makes conversation impossible. No fanatic ever converts anyone to their cause. They just scare the daylights out people. We need to confront the rage that feeds this fanaticism. We need to offer alternative possibilities of hope and renewal. Here is a role for our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to show their relevance in the moment. They can do so by initiating an examination of how rage and hopelessness lead to fanaticism, not inside the walls of the sanctuary, but in the public square. Let’s put that wonderfully powerful rhetoric of faith to use as a talking cure for our growing anger.

    I’ve come to embrace the common sense idea that the ‘perfect’ is the enemy of the ‘good.’ In trying to realize our ideals we can overreach to such an extent that we end up strengthening our opponents, making it impossible to hold on to even the modest gains we make toward our desired world. Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of early warning radar during WWII even went so far as advocate for a ‘cult of the imperfect:’ “Give them the third best to go on with,” he said, “The second best comes too late, the best never comes.” Our ideals often require us to make matters worse in the hope they will get better, rather than celebrating how much we have already achieved, and how fragile those gains are. We should be working toward a strengthening of pluralism (“Everyone has a voice”), mutual accommodation (“Everyone’s interests are important”), and incremental reforms (“Fix what we can today”). These were the principles of political action that have provided the greatest good over the course of this country’s history. There is no reason to abandon them in favor of untested utopian visions on either side of the political divide.

    We need to practice step-by-step, incremental change in all the organizations and networks in which we participate. In his 2009 book The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, showed the way forward for divided communities such as ours. He dispensed with the arguments about the absence of common ground by showing that there’s no satisfactory way to decide among several equally compelling but incompatible ideals of justice. A perfectly just society is possible, he asserted, without having any common ideals at all! Let people believe whatever they want. The more ideals they put forward, the better. This isn’t really a problem because we don’t need ideals to solve problems. We only need motivated people to define the problems, identify the resources to effect change, and find the will to find a solution. What we don’t need are dominant ideals. We know justice when we see/hear it because everyone senses that some balance has even reached. Sen called this way of doing things “Just go up”. He wrote that if you are climbing a mountain, you don’t need to know what the peak looks like to know what to do next. All you have to do is make sure your next step is up. If we can identify an injustice in our lives or those of our neighbors, we can focus on fixing the most urgent and obvious problems, making everything incrementally, and progressively better. When we deal with the injustices and the aggressions where we find them, we gain in political stability and social justice step-by-step, leaving no community behind. When the last injustice is rectified (if we should survive that long), we’ve accomplished something that no ideal utopia could have. And we didn’t need one to get there.

    Why I make cheese

    I live in one of the greatest food markets in the world. I can get anything I want, including the finest cheeses in the world. Why, then, do I go to the trouble of making my own ricotta, goat cheese, farmers cheese, and yogurt? I am an inveterate explorer. I have always loved learning new things, especially the ones that give me pleasure. Cheese is one of the most pleasurable foods I know. So, it was only a matter of time before I dived into the mysteries of cheese making. I am having a lot of fun with it.

    Every handmade cheese, even if they are the same kind, is different. Every batch of yogurt, every cylinder of goat cheese, every pot of ricotta tastes different from every other one.  It’s a glorious mystery. I decided to spend the summer learning why. As with most good experiments, I thought I knew the answer ahead of time: it’s about what the cows/goats/sheep ate, the temperature of the milk, the variations in the starter culture, the length of time the curds are allowed to develop, and/or the amount of whey that is drained from the curds. Well, that partially true, but there are even more variables, as I  learned.

    We have been making out own yogurt for years. I already knew that draining the curds for eight hours will give you what  people understand as Greek-style yogurt, but draining them for 24 hours will give you a thick cream-like cheese (labna). Fermenting the curds for 12 hours will give you a softly milder taste, while waiting 18 hours will give you a sharper taste. That’s because before the whey is drained off, the bacteria continue to convert lactose to lactic acid. The milder taste is the presence of more lactose; the sharper taste is more lactic acid. If you only make one kind of cheese, you learn a lot about its important variables. If you make a whole series of cheeses, your learn more about the people who developed them, our farming ancestors.

    That’s what I chose to do. I decided to make two different series of cheeses. These include the lactic cheeses, like yogurt, paneer, ricotta, buttermilk, kafir, creme fraîche, formage blanc, and the mesophilic cheeses, like cheddar, farmers cheese,  cottage cheese, goat cheese, feta, canestrato, caciotta, queso fresco, and farmstead tomme. What distinguishes these two series is the temperature of the milk and the agent that causes the caseins in the milk to clump together into curds.  The lactic cheeses are produced from hot milk, 160-185° F, with little to no rennet. They rely on the action of the bacteria converting the lactose to lactic acid. When the milk acidity becomes high enough, the milk will coagulate even without the use of rennet.The mesophilic cheeses are produced from room temperature milk, 75-90°F. The mesophilic cheeses use a bacteria culture and rennet to firm the curds.

    The first thing I learned as I worked my way through the process of making these cheeses was that the lactic cheeses work fast and produce foods that can be immediately consumed, while the mesophilic cheeses required more days of draining and aging before they tasted the way we are accustomed to eating them. The second thing I learned was that the mesophilic cheeses would had to be produced in the warmer months of the year. The variations in the “room temperature” they require reflects a time when the farmers did not have thermometers. Instead, they might say to each other, “Today is indeed hot enough to make cheese.”  There would be many more days like that in the Mediterranean. That’s why there are so many variety of mesophilic cheeses from that region. Then it’s a simple matter of taking the fresh milk and letting it adjust from cow temperature to “room temperature”. Add a bit of starter from the stash in the cold cellar, add your rennet, and you are on your way. A few hours later you will have a pound of curds for every gallon of milk. The lactic cheeses, on the other hand, are not seasonal. They can be made anytime you have firewood to heat the stove, summer or winter.

    By the way there is another series of cheese, thermophilic cheeses: Mozzarella, Parmesan, Provolone, Romano, Swiss, Gruyere, and other mountain cheeses. These rely on bacteria that develop at higher temperatures, 115-140°F, and rennet.  They are more complicated to produce. I don’t yet understand how or why the higher temperature cultures established themselves. I suspect it has something to do with creating cheese that will age for years. That’s going to take some work. I’ll get around to them next summer.

    The other types of cheese you may be familiar with are distinguished by the finishing techniques employed: bloomy rind cheeses (brie, camembert), washed rind cheeses (taleggio, muenster, limberger) and blue cheeses ( gorgonzola, shropshire, rocquefort) are all mesophilic cheeses that have had special bacteria added to them, or have been aged under special conditions. Mesophilic cheeses are the largest series of of cheeses. Lactic cheeses are the most commonly consumed.

    Learning aside, making cheese is a craft. You get better at it the more you do it. I have made progressively more complex and involved cheeses over the last two months. This is my latest, a 2 lb. Caerphilly. This is named after a town in Wales. It all but died out in England after WWII, but it’s now making a comeback. It looks like a white cheddar, but the curds are warmed in the whey, rather than after being drained, as is the case with cheddar. It is a moister cheese than cheddar. It’s also sweeter and not as crumbly. What also appeals to me was that it can be waxed, making it easier to age in my refrigerator. Ordinarily, I have to find a plastic box for each cheese I’m aging, to keep the odours out and the moisture in. I’m running out of boxes! This is what the cheese looked like after 24 hours of pressing st 15 lbs pressure.

    I started with two gallons of milk and ended up with 2 lbs, 1 oz of cheese. The milk was whole milk.  One of the two gallons was milk from cows fed only grass, no grain. The other gallon was grain milk. The process, from heating the milk to pressing the curds took three and a half hours. Most of that time was spent elsewhere, while the cheese did something on its own. For only 30 minutes toward the end, did I stand at the stove and gently stir the curds. Easy peasy!

    Not done yet. It’s sitting in a salt brine for twenty four hours. Then it will dry at room temperature for two days before being waxed. Then it’s six weeks in the refrigerator to develop the final flavor off the cheese. I’ll let you know how it tastes. ( I did nibble a few crumbs out of curiosity. The cheese is surprisingly sweet. It will become more complex as the bacteria culture eats all that lactose.)

    Pots of Beans

    My Midwest friends probably think I’m joking when I talk about the importance of baked beans in the Northeast. The breakfast buffet at the Atlantica Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia this morning was primarily baked beans. People were putting it on eggs and on waffles. There was bacon and sausage in it! The beans were sweeter than I make them, but full of maple flavor and perfectly cooked from scratch. You can’t get away with canned beans in this part of the world. Look at how dark they are in the photo. That’s the sign of a good bean! 

    I’ve made tons of baked beans. They are a food I grew up on, one that defined the preferences of New Englanders and Maritimes Canadians of a certain age, along with clam cakes, lobster meat, cranberries, rhubarb, top-cut hot dog rolls, sweet red pepper relish, and maple syrup (often candied on snow). These were now restaurant foods, but in my youth these were eaten in the home, often because they were the only kind available (the rolls), were inexpensive (the lobster), were easily scaled to feed a crowd (the clam cakes), were seasonal delicacies that should not be missed (rhubarb, cranberries, syrup on snow), or were stocked in every refrigerator (the relish). Each one has its own history (clam cakes were a Portuguese fritter originally made with rehydrated salt cod) and is own path into the Northeast diet (for the role of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain in the origins of the top cut bun, see this Boston Globe article). Baked beans are no exception. However, they should not be confused with British “baked” beans that are eaten as part of a full breakfast. Those have a different genealogy involved the canning industry and the globalization of food branding. 

    Baked beans are the epitome of Northeastern frugality, a quality etched into the region’s cultural DNA by the demands of settler farming and hardscrabble fisheries. Dried beans are known throughout the world at least since the Neolithic. Dried beans are often cooked with savory flavors to produce a “relish” to accompany some form of starch. The dish uses a small white bean, variously called a Navy Bean, or a Pea Bean. The bean is rehydrated and cooked until tender. The texture will not change in the next step. The beans are then combined with a basic sauce made of molasses or dark amber maple syrup, chopped onions, chopped cured fatty pork, mustard powder, salt and black pepper. Subsequent immigrants to the region have adopted this base to include other flavors: brown sugar, garlic, tomatoes, smoked meats, smoked fish, or herbs, but none of these add-ins were used for the dish by the settlers and fisherfolk. The beans are then put in a thick-walled ceramic pot and placed in a bread oven to bake under residual heat overnight. The oven is hot at the beginning of the time and cool at the end. The beans are closely associated with weekly bread baking. Like bread, the beans are baked in sufficient quality to last most of the week. The acids in the molasses and the sugars reduce bacterial growth. In this way, the fuel necessary to heat the ovens produces two high nutrient foods. Beans on toast, anyone? 

    The experience of eating a well baked bean is among the great pleasures of my life. Each bean becomes a flavor delivery vehicle, having absorbed the bitter, sweet, salt and umani of the sauce. There is no sour component. This in itself makes the dish peculiar as a relish. The fats from the cured pork go into suspension with the starches dissolving from the beans to generate a thickened gravy. Every once in a while you get a bit of onion or pork to break the texture of the beans. The aroma is an unctious mix of molasses (or maple) and onion. It is not a dish to eat hot. The heat masks the flavors. It is best enjoyed ‘off-warm’ (~120°), at room temp (~70°), or even cold (~45°). At these temperatures, the flavors peak, although saltiness is more pronounced in the cold dish than it is at warmer presentations. 

    Unlike Proust’s madeleines, eating baked beans does not stir my memories of times past. It is more like the experience of terroir when drinking wine. It cannot be faked. You either know the earth in which the grapes were grown, or you do not; whatever you think you are tasting in bottles from places where you haven’t eaten the foods, smelled the rot of the leaves in the fall or the earth after a rain, inhaled the the pollen of  early summer, and baked in the heat of  high season, is a fantasy. When you know a place that well, there is something in the wine that immediately brings you to that place. That happens for me when I drink wines from the Wachau and the Kamptal in Austria, two regions where I “know” the earth, and it happens for me with baked beans. Terroir is often characterised as ineffable by wine enthusiasts. I disagree. It’s as clear as the nose on your face. But it does require you to have been there. 

    Kasha Varnishkas

    Each of us is responsible for taking some piece of our parents and grandparents knowledge about the world into the future. If we don’t do this, who will? Wouldn’t the world be a more dangerous place if the only people who knew how to make pickles were huge corporations? The piece of that past that I am carrying forward is home cooking. I’ve been building my knowledge of what to cook and how to make it since I was a boy watching my grandmother make the foods I loved to eat. She would role out her own strudel dough on a bed sheet on the kitchen table until it was so thin you could read a newspaper through it. I still don’t know how to do that. She was gone before I had a chance to make strudel dough with her. I tried to make up for that by learning everything else that grandmothers around the world knew how to make, or at least dishes they were willing to teach their children, who then wrote cookbooks, food blogs, or You Tube videos, all of which I search out to learn to cook something new, forcing my long suffering wife, Sonja, to sample. Fortunately, I live in a diverse metropolis with many shops specializing in groceries from all over the world. But that is the subject for another time.

    Last night I made Kasha Varnishkas as I do at least once a year, usually in winter. Sonja didn’t like this particular version. I had not roasted the buckwheat properly and the distinctive nuttiness of the grain was missing. She is my toughest critic. I can’t get anything by her. In one of its many variations, Kasha Varnishkas is a combination of four primary ingredients : cooked buckwheat (whole grain or milled groats of various sizes), onions, crimini mushrooms, and medium shell pasta. My grandmother made it for my father, sending a bowl of it home with him. He visited her on his way home from work every day. This ‘present’ was to my mother’s chagrin, since Grandma didn’t bother to ask her if she had anything planned for dinner. Dad preferred Grandma’s cooking over Mom’s any day. So did I. Mom wasn’t a bad cook. She was the product of the mid-twentieth century. Her imagination had been captured by ‘convenience’ processed foods. She knew better. Her mother was a great cook and taught her youngest daughter everything she knew. There was no organ in any domestic animal that my mother could not cook five different ways. For decorum’s sake you should trust me here when I insist that her skills extended to every organ. She insisted that nothing should be wasted long before contemporary chefs popularized the idea of respecting the whole animal.

    Kaska is the Russian word for porridge or gruel. For Russians it refers to any toasted grain cooked in a liquid until it softens. For Jews, kasha means buckwheat porridge. When these grains are toasted and cooked in water or stock, they form a mush, like oatmeal, that has a pleasing nutty flavor. If after roasting you allow the grains to cool, and then fold in a beaten egg yolk, giving the grains an hour or so to absorb it, when you then cook the grains in liquid they soften, but remain intact, like steamed rice. This was the preferred method for cooking buckwheat kasha among Ashkenazi Jews.

    Varnishkas is the Yiddish form of the Russian word varenichki, the diminutive of vareniki. These are small, stuffed dumplings like Italian tortellini. The word can refer to any filled dumpling. For Eastern Jews, buckwheat kasha was a preferred filling for anything that could be stuffed. It filled bread dough pouches, like Spanish, actually Sephardic, empanadas. It filled potato dough, like Polish pierogi (Yiddish: kreplach). It filled strudel dough like a Turkish börek, at which point it became my Grandma’s kasha knish, the all-time favorite food of my boyhood. It was to make knishes that my grandmother rolled out that ultra-thin strudel dough.

    The dish that Jews call Kasha Varnishkas, ironically, involves no stuffed dough of any kind. Instead, al dente pasta is folded into the liquid the buckwheat is cooking in with about five minutes to go. Mark Bittman and many other Jewish cooks insist that this must be falfalle, the bowtie shaped pasta. My Grandma disagreed with everyone else, as she so often did, and insisted on using medium pasta shells. She said they filled up with the kasha, and therefore tasted better. Neither the bow tie nor shell shapes are original to the dish. They both were adopted after immigration to the U.S. Joan Nathan cites the 1925 edition of the Settlement House Cookbook, a late edition of the first Jewish cookbook in English, where the recipe for Kasha Varnishkas is indeed kasha stuffed into little circles of dough and sealed, like Turkish mante, and served boiled with sour cream!

    Of course, there is more to Kasha Varnishkas than pasta and buckwheat. Ask any Jew what the dominant flavor of Kasha Varnishkas is and they undoubtedly will say cooked onions. No less an authority on Jewish cooking than Claudia Roden insists the onions were always added after the pasta, so as not to diminish their assertive sweetness. It’s the same with mushrooms. Use chopped crimini and the flavor is lost in mix. Use bolitis or shiitake and the mushroom asserts itself against the onion. Both of these are strong umani flavors that are easily eclipsed if added to the buckwheat at the same time as the stock, itself full of umani flavor. Salt and pepper are added early and then again at the end to add balance in the final dish.

    And then there is that last, secret ingredient: the fat from some form of fowl. For my Grandma, it was chicken fat. For me, it is the goose or duck fat I save from project cooking with these fowl around the holidays. Why add the fat? Aside from the few teaspoons required to fry the onions or mushrooms, some fat at the end brings everything together. This is true of other European dishes as well, whether it is olive oil or butter added at the end of the cooking to bring out the richness of the dish. For Eastern Jews, that function is performed by fat rendered from a fowl. Those two tablespoons will not be noticed in the six to eight cups of the finished Kasha Varnishkas, except in their absence.

    A dish of Kasha Varnishkas is not only tasty on its own. It plays very well with roasted meats and tofu. When I eat it, I think of Grandma and all the things I should have asked her about the foods she knew and how she adapted them after immigrating. Was pasta ever added to other grains, like barley or millet? Did she ever add nuts to enhance the nuttiness of the buckwheat? What did she use for pasta before she found boxes of dried shell shaped pasta in American markets? Did she ever stuff dough as the original Settlement House Cookbook suggests? I’ll never know. That’s why I keep making these dishes, carrying them into the future before they, too, are lost.

    A Little Schubert

    Yesterday (1/31/2016) was Franz Schubert’s 219th birthday. We celebrated by joining fifty, or so,  fellow travelers for a six hour festival of Schubert’s art songs. Yes, that’s right. Six hours. The time just flew by. If you think we’re nuts for indulging in our little Schubert Mania, consider that we did decide not to attend the after party, with another four hours of Schubert singing.

    We do this once a year on his birthday. The voices of the young singers, so talented and trained, bring the poetry of the music to life in ways that recordings (and I have all the great recordings) do not. And it was musical poetry that Schubert was writing, not songs in the sense of the Beatles or Beyonce. His great song cycle,  Winterreise, is one of the towering works of 19th century European music.

    He was an early nineteenth century romantic, which means that his poetical tastes ran to the melancholic. He was not depressed; he was convinced. He was certan that, as  Rabbi Alvin Fine’s prayer puts it, “Birth is a beginning and death a destination; But life is a journey.” And he was sure that that life was destined to be filled with the denial of love’s fulfillment. He accepted that no one would ever fully and completely love him, be completely present in his life, and that the unrequited life was still worth living, writing songs about it all, at least until you die. This sounds awful to our 21st century ears, but to the young people of the early 19th century it made perfect sense. Theirs was a world of disappointment. One may as well find beauty in that.

    After listening to six hours of his fellow poets (24 of them were represented) and the music he created to give emotional traction to their words, my head was filled with thoughts of my own mortality, my own unrequited loves ( people, places, things, ideas, political parties, etc.), and my own longing for release to a world that will make more sense (perhaps?), I happened to open an email attachment from an old friend who runs a Yahoo Group for alumni of a summer camp we all went to in Maine in the late 1950s and early 60s. The attachment was the list of deceased alums. It hadn’t been updated in awhile and I expected to find nothing new in the list. When I got to the bottom, I was surprised to find one name, Debbie. Of course that was not how she was listed. It gave her married name and her full first names, her maiden name and the date of her death: 5/31/2014. I immediately googled the obituary. It was only a short death notice that gave the town she lived in outside Washington D.C., her husband, her two children, her surviving brothers, one on the West Coast, one on the East. There followed that all to common notice that friends should consider a donation to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers.

    Debbie was my first love. We met at that camp as children, and danced every dance at every Saturday night social with each other in 1962. We were twelve years old then. In the very last dance of that summer, the counselors turned off the lights in the recreation hall, the PA system played “Sealed with a Kiss” and so we did. It was the first kiss for both of us. I was determined that it would not be our last, and invited her to my Bar Mitzvah the following December as my date. Her parents and my parents arranged it, and she arrived, replete with a mouth full of braces and a blue velvet dress, her eyes sparkling with the wonder of love postponed. My parents had to keep reminding me to talk to all the guests, but I only wanted to hold her hand and talk to her of the future. Schubert would really have gotten a kick out of that!

    That was the last time I saw her. We lived just far enough away from each other that visiting required parental commitment, and neither pair was interested in fostering the pre-adolescent crushes of their children. We wrote letters, but less and less frequently. She did not come to camp the following summer. I had slipped from her life and she from mine. We both went on to more mature loves. The news of her death from cancer at the age of 64, then, coming as it did on the cusp of Schubert’s birthday, showed me the up side of sorrow that he saw so well. I knew Debbie for only one brief moment of her life. Yet the promise of love that she awoke has stayed with me all my days.

    Dear Debbie, this Lied is for you. . .

    Mignon III (So lässt mich scheinen) (music by F. Schubert, words by W. Goethe, translated by Brian von Rueden)

    https://itun.es/us/QLhy-?i=1046510370
    So let me appear, until I actually become so.

    Do not take the white dress from me!

    I hurry from this lovely earth

    Down to that other home below

    There I will briefly lie in silent repose

    Until a new vision shall appear

    I will leave these pure trappings

    The belt and the wreath, behind.

    And the heavenly figures

    Know neither male nor female

    And no garments, no folded robes

    Will cover my transfigured body

    Though I lived without care or worry

    I felt my share of deep pain

    Sorrow aged me far too early;

    Make me forever young.

    Street Fashion

    Our public clothing style is a critical component of our lives in cities. “But wait,” you say, “I’ve never cared how I look. I wear whatever is clean.” That’s a style. “I have to where a uniform in public to do my job,” you say, “That’s not how I dress for myself.” Fine, but it is still a style. It’s typical, maybe even required to have more than one. What is important about these is that they are readable. This lets others interpret the messages we send about who we want to be, and what groups we affiliate with. This makes fashion, the aggregate of these various styles, a scene that is not only interesting to watch, but also to talk about with our fellow city dwellers.

    Some people talk about clothing as if it were a language, but this is not accurate. Clothing is iconic, not linguistic. It lacks the flexibility to generate new meanings on the fly, the feature of language that separates talk from barking. Clothing is more like barking. All of the meaning is built into the garment to begin with. This meaning can only change over time as the garment becomes dated. Thus, the two biggest categories of public clothing are the “new” and the “used.” Like many areas of design, the same formal relationships can mean different things to different generations and groups. We once tried to avoid the used and maximized the new. Only the new enabled our group’s aspirations. Only the used proclaimed our solidarity with our parents’ group. With the rise of Thrift Shop Chic this has become more complicated. Now, clothing with used iconic value is freely mixed with new garments from the hottest stores and the latest magazines.

    The conversation about fashion takes place on two levels. There is the message of the public style itself. These a messages we send to strangers through our clothing. If you don’t already follow Bill Cunningham’s video diary of New York Street fashion, you should check it out. Cunningham makes this group affiliation part of the conversation visible.

    The second part of the conversation is about how an ensemble for the street can best be put together. What makes one ensemble a more effective means of saying what we want to say than another? This requires learning about clothing sources, fabric, color, drape, ease, and shaping. Media, like magazines and television are obvious places to start. Ultimately, these ensembles are local constructions meant to be interpreted by a restricted group of people: classmates coworkers, friends, etc. The conversation must begin with those friends and family who provide the social mirror of how one looks. ( I’m reminded of a book about conversations between mothers and daughters by Deborah Tannen titled “You’re wearing THAT.”) But the conversation doesn’t end with a particular ensemble. How easy it is to recreate our common history as urbanites through fashion. All we have to do is look into our closets and gaze at the clothes we haven’t worn for years.

    What other conversations, like fashion, have evolved in our shared lives as urbanites to help us identify each other as part of the same local experience? What scenes have I missed? Leave a comment if you have identified another one.

    Weather Talk

    A dual tropical storm/hurricane system that is currently disrupting people’s lives in Hawaii, a rare event for those islands. I am fascinated by such sublime weather events. I will stare at approaching Midwestern thunderstorms as if they were the latest zombie apocalypse movie. I grew up on the southeast Massachusetts coast. So, the huge hurricanes and Nor’easter blizzards of my youth are as real to me today as they were then. I still track these storms with enthusiasm (and apps!), even though they rarely reach Chicago. City folk love to talk about the weather at least as much as country folk. What makes weather such a compelling topic is the danger and disruption of extreme events. This is how our shared histories are composed. Even today’s ‘ordinary’ weather is fodder for elevator conversations among strangers.

    Hawaii’s plight put me in mind of other islands and other weathers. I’ve recently discovered the British fascination with the channel and seas weather forecast known as the Shipping Forecast, broadcast four times daily on BBC radio. This two minute long report covers the thirty-one areas that describe the seas and channels surrounding the British Isles, the European Coast and Iceland (see map). In the forecast, each one (or group) is described in terms of the wind speed, visibility, and sometimes barometric pressure. So a typical report might read: “Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.” Growing up with these forecasts, Brits incorporate this information as part of their common knowledge as “islanders,” even though very few will ever sail these waters. Hundreds of thousands of them listen to the forecast every day. References to the shipping forecast can easily be found in British popular song lyrics, radio and television productions, and novels. In the 2012 opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, the shipping forecast was recited over the Nimrod section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. You could actually engage fellow elevator riders in a building in the heart of London about the day’s shipping forecast and someone in the car would know where the trouble spots will be!

    UK_shipping_forecast_zones

    What’s the appeal? According to one BBC producer, “It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.” A frequent reader of the forecast describes the appeal this way,”To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked-up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

    Weather talk is always local, even when it really doesn’t have anything to do with the local weather. The shipping forecast is local even though the weather it describes is several hundred miles away. It’s just like my fascination with hurricanes and Nor’easters.

    Making the Urban Scene: The Arts

    We will always need an artistic avant garde. No other group in our communities has the self-confidence to challenge that accept canons of taste and revitalize the production of expressive objects and performances. The avant garde was first identified as early as 1825 by Olinde Rodrigues who called upon the artists to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde”, insisting that “the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way” to social, political and economic reform [Matei Calinescu, 1987. The Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Duke University Press]. The last two hundred years has shown that technology is a much more effective reformer than art. Think about the differing impacts of the airplane, the birth control pill, or the computer, compared to the works of Martha Graham, Antonine Artaud, or Andy Warhol. It pains me to say so, but social, political and economic reform is an over-reach for the avant garde. So much of it’s energy must go to constantly reinventing itself that little is left over for sustained social change. Evolving standards of taste, the focus on form over context, and the development of new media for expression are the avant garde’s sweet spot.

    With very few exceptions, the avant garde is located in cities, often in a bohemian district specifically designated to contain it’s more rebellious elements. Just as the scene challenges aesthetic tastes, it also unhinges other social mores around pleasure-seeking, relationship-building, and body practices. The avant garde is never isolated. It is accessible and welcoming, even though it’s environs are considered slightly dangerous by visitors. That is part of its charm. While mainstream arts outlets are located in safe business districts, city folk in search of the next new thing must hazard the avant garde’s dangers.

    It is a fabulous bonus of our lives as city dwellers that we have this luscious, challenging, expressive resource at our doorsteps. It is any wonder that some of us invest our time and treasure in the offbeat galleries and theatres where the avant garde hold court? For our efforts, we are rewarded with conversational topics that set us apart from our more staid neighbours as someone who has both the courage and the stamina to walk on the wild side of urban life. And when we encounter fellow veterans of the arts scene, we can enjoy discovering that shared history of gallery shows and performances that only the brave among us could witness.

    In my previous posts in this series, I’ve cited Eric Hobsbawm on the need for the members of the urban middle class to seek out histories for itself. It started me wondering what other candidates have evolved in our shared lives as urbanites to help us identify each other as part of the same local experience. What other attractions in our communities require us to invest money in them and offer a common language of class experience in return?
    What scenes have I missed? Leave a comment if you have identified another one.