Thursday, May 26, 2011

Never Buy from a Store Installment Number 2: Re-fried Beans

Every now and again, circumstance provides a vague insight into the workings of your own brain. Something happens that demonstrates, at least in some way, the mechanisms that lead us to hold beliefs about things we don't actually know about. Take re-fried beans. I always assumed there was something complicated about them. It's that prefix “re.” Seeing that my logic just kind of takes over. Ok, “re” means to do again, so re-fried beans must be beans that have been fried twice. But, of course, that doesn't mean you just fry them in a pan, turn the heat off for a bit, and then fry them in the pan again. That would be stupid. So, logically, there must be some additional atypical process involved in re-fried beans for the name to make sense. Maybe several components of the dished are fried separately and then fried again together. Maybe there is a long pause in the process; a fry, a three-day rest in the refrigerator, and then a second fry. Or maybe it's not even just a rest, but a soak, or a marinade, or even a dry. Or maybe there's something really counter-intuitive in there, like you need to roast dry beans first or boil them in some kind of special liquid. For some reason the “re” set my logic to figuring before doing anything like research and I deduced a process tamale-like in it's complexity. I mean, why would they call them “re-fried beans” if they were really just mashed fried beans.

They're really just mashed fried beans. It's fucking maddening.

Here's a recipe Riss found for re-fried beans.

Half an onion, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1-2 tablespoons of ground cumin, depending on taste
either olive oil or lard for frying
salt and pepper to taste
1 can of whatever beans are in the cupboard (probably not garbanzo beans though)

In the pan heat up enough oil/lard to coat the bottom. (you might need to add more oil later)
Toss in the onions and cook until slightly translucent, toss in the garlic and cook on medium for another 2-3 minutes until onions are soft. Be careful not to burn the garlic.

Toss in the can of beans (drained and rinsed of course) and heat. Mash the warm beans in with the oil/lard and veggies. A potato masher works well. If the mashing is hard, add more oil/lard. Add cumin and some salt and pepper. Cook the beans on one side for a few minutes until they get a golden crust. Flip them in the pan to fry the other side. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
That's it. This has both way less sodium than canned re-fried beans and way more flavor. If you're watching your salt intake, don't add any at all. Cumin not your thing? Add pretty much anything else (coriander would probably be good) or leave out the additional spice. A little cilantro might be nice as well. Lard is traditional (and tasty and a lot healthier than you might think), but pretty much any fat or oil will do, except for maybe butter. If you're up against a deadline, you could probably even get away with skipping the aromatics, but you'll probably have to add more spices of some kind to compensate for the loss of flavor. Furthermore, since this is really just a technique, fry and mash, you can flavor it to match whatever else you might be having, making it a great way to add protein to a vegetarian dish. It can be served on the side or spread on something as part of a sandwich, taco, wrap, whatever. If you don't create the crust, you could even use it as a dip.

Have you bought a can of beans lately? This is also a really freaking cheap dish. And if you buy bulk dry beans, it's essentially free. (Dry beans note: They don't take any more work to prepare just a lot more time, since you have to soak them overnight, or boil them for a bunch before using them. Not a great impulse food, but if you plan ahead they are a really, really cheap meal.) Given how cheap this is, re-fried beans are a great starter food if you don't really cook for yourself. So you added way too much salt and pepper. Big deal. Your mistake cost you, like, ten minutes and a dollar.

At the heart of the whole assuming re-fried beans are a hassle thing, is the core assumption that cooking is a hassle (which I've talked about before and will talk about again), that the canned, prepped version, will always save you a significant amount of time. But, to me, anyway, the ten minute difference between canned and homemade re-fried beans is more than worth it for the increase in flavor and the dramatic decrease in risk for heart disease.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Convergence of Disparate Books

I wasn't planning on writing about David Foster Wallace's posthumous unfinished novel The Pale King. I got an advanced copy of it in January or February, thus making me far and away the coolest kid on the block. Unfortunately, in order to get the copy I had to promise not to tell anyone I had it. I was contractually bound to not mention the book on any social media before it's official release date of April 15, 2011. So, I couldn't write about it then.

Then Amazon released the book on or around March 30, 2011, despite all of the months of publicity that went into the tax day release and all of the independent bookstores that had organized events, release parties, and readings. I thought about blogging my outrage at the publisher, through neglect I would guess, throwing another bone to Amazon, but I decided not to. Simply put, I didn't feel like going into all the issues around strict on sale dates.

And I didn't think I needed to add my particular take on the book to the massive amount already being written about it. I think my image of the book as a circus with all the act apparatuses set up and no one to do the tricks is a good description of the book's state, and when people ask me about it at the bookstore, I'll say that if he finished it, it would likely have been one of the greatest American novels of the 21st century, and my roommate Nick is right to describe it as a kind of contemporary retelling of The Grapes of Wrath (as we said, Steinbeck wrote about The Great Depression and Wallace wrote about The Great Depression), and when asked, (as I have been) how finished I think the book actually is, I think my point that it lacks a kind of meta-balance amongst the events and characters that Infinite Jest has is accurate, but the book is an Indie Bestseller and there are plenty of other brilliant things being said about it all over the place. You don't always have to tell the internet what you're thinking.

I'll get to why I'm writing about it, but first I need to tell you that one of the central themes of the book is boredom. Where frontier Americans struggled with starvation, we struggle with tedium. Our normal response to boredom is to entertain ourselves somehow. What is “blowing off steam” on the weekend but an overt and intense version of sneaking five minutes here and there to play Farmville at work? If Infinite Jest was partially about our addiction to entertainment, then The Pale King is partially about what drives us to need entertainment. I think DFW's goal might have been even loftier, going beyond simply exploring the ideas and experiences of boredom. (Which is pretty lofty in and of itself, considering how rarely boredom has been written about.) On p438 Wallace writes, “It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot do.” To put it another way, there is no limit to what you can accomplish in our contemporary society when you do not need to to pepper your day with boredom relieving bouts of Farmville, or whatever. Wallace's ultimate goal for The Pale King, may not have just been to understand boredom, but to give his readers a vaccine against boredom.

I've been fascinated with Ferran Adria, chef at elBulli, for a few years now. His book A Day at elBulli is one of the most interesting works of food/creative writing I've ever encountered, and he is rightly considered one of the most creative people working today. So I was really excited to get a review copy of The Sorcerer's Apprentices by Lisa Abend from the bookstore.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices is about the stagiaires, the cooks who volunteer for a season or so at the lowest rungs of the elBulli kitchen, working long, strenuous hours for free, all for a chance to experience elBulli and say they worked with Ferran Adria. Many of the world's other great chefs spent a season in Adria's kitchen. The book is a well-written and fascinating look at the highly organized, highly effective, creative food machine that Adria developed and a good read for anyone interested in the creative process as well as people already interested in food. In some ways, this is the best book on the writing process that's come out this year (maybe in the last few years.). But that's not why I bring it up.

This is:

Now switch the frame. You are standing shoulder to shoulder with thirteen other cooks, laying cold rose petals on a plate. You've been standing there, with only one thirty-minute break, for the past six hours. You are not allowed to talk to anyone else on the line, so any jokes or wisecracks are issued in whispers. You have been chastised before for not focusing, so for the most part you keep your eyes on the plate in front of you. But it's impossible to ignore the flash of bulbs as the cameras go off, one every few minutes for about an hour and a half, from in front of the pass. You steal looks at the clients, posing there with Ferran, dressed in their formal evening wear on their jeans and sandals. Even from a distance you can see that their faces fairly shine with anticipation. You wonder what their meal will be like. After all, you wouldn't know: neither you nor any of the other forty people you work with has actually eaten at elBulli. And thus you don't know that the servers will take the machta tea powder you set out when you're plating the shrimp and whisk it with the straw brush until it turns into a bright green broth whose slightly bitter herbaceousness will play lightly off the sweetness of the crustacean. You don't know what it's like for a server to pour the bowl of fois gras ribbons, frozen with liquid nitrogen, over the plate of lulos, so that smoke billows over the table in clouds and the tartness of the fruit is mellowed by the richness of the liver as it melts. You don't know what it's like to have a magic box of chocolates placed before you and open drawer after drawer to find only more. You only know what it's like to fill that box, piping one perfect mint leaf after another with melted chocolate for elBulli's take on an after-dinner mint.
This is the great paradox of elBulli: that the most exciting dining experience in the world depends on the most extreme absence of excitement. It depends on the rigor, the discipline, and, to be honest, the utter boredom of the men and women who are standing in those two straight lines, laying cold rose petals on plates. Like all great restaurants, elBulli's dazzle rests in large part on the willingness of its apprentices, in the name of education, to do the dreary work no one else wants to do—and to do it for free. It's just that here the equation—learning for drudgery, learning through drudgery—is different.

Two completely different books. One is fiction. One is non-fiction. A novel of towering ambition. A book committed to journalistic storytelling. Taxes. Food. And yet in both, the vital and potentially creative role of boredom. For a moment, a picture of the world clarifies. The thematic convergence of distant books is one of the great joys of reading.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Revenge Politics and the Fading of One American Way of Life

When Republicans won elections all over the place int 2010, I expected them to try and do stuff with their new power. Why wouldn't they? And given how, at the Federal level, they united in the common goal of preventing any aspect of President Obama's agenda (an agenda he campaigned on and the American people voted for by a significant majority) from becoming policy through filibusters, anonymous holds, and other techniques, all while pretending it was the Democrats who were unwilling to compromise (oh, the public option, how practical and restrained you would have been) I expected them to be equally united and aggressive once gaining control of the House of Representatives (which, if we all remember from our high school civics classes can control the government's purse strings), and I was ready for state governments to do something similar.

What has actually happened, I did not expect. Imbuing state regulators and emergency financial managers with heretofore unseen executive power. The introduction of flat out misogynistic abortion legislation. The threatened defunding of NPR because of a heavily edited video, after NPR rolled some heads in response. The threatened defunding of Planned Parenthood. The Paul Ryan, or as I like to think of it “Mad Max,” budget that somehow manages to find more tax breaks for the rich while gutting the most popular social programs our country has ever come up with. The state by state crusade against unions that has gone so far in my home state of Maine, that the governor (on whose authority?) removed a mural depicting the history of the labor movement in Maine from the Maine Department of Labor. It would be stupid to assume that Republicans in power would not try to change policy to match their ideology, but the speed, vehemence, and dramatic nature of these policy changes is a surprise. So, I asked myself, why are they acting like this?

We've all seen this particular plot in movies, TV shows, and books. Someone kills the protagonist's brother and the protagonist responds by killing said killer's entire family. Revenge is an exponential emotion. To me, Republicans are acting like they are getting revenge. This doesn't mean I believe Republicans, in general, are saying to themselves “Oh, you see, we'll get all those Democrats and progressives for what they did to us since 2008, we'll get them good,” but the policies we're seeing being enacted and attempted have the passion and radicalness of a counter-attack.

But what was the attack? The Bush Top 2% spending program was extended (more commonly referred to as “the Bush Tax Cuts”). There were no new regulations on gun ownership and no changes in federal policy on stems cells or abortions. After the bank bailout money, the domestic stimulus spending was relatively restrained and no particularly rigorous regulations were imposed on the financial institutions at the source of the financial crisis. And Obamacare did almost nothing to change the day-to-day lives of most Americans because the public option was nixed early in the process and the most important remaining mechanism for lowering healthcare insurance costs, the state to state insurance exchanges that would allow customers to (gasp!) shop around for the best price, hasn't gone into effect.

Many people have a very specific picture of what the “American way of life is;” that utter illusion of the the 1950s two-car garage suburban living of landscaping, sitting up straight at the table, vacationing at lodges in national parks, etc, all in a strong America fighting around the world against the enemies of freedom. It was a stable picture built on how some Americans saw themselves at the height of American wealth and power in the world. And that way of life is crumbling. Terrorism is a very different enemy from the Soviet Union and “Communism.” Very few jobs actually pay enough for those houses, cars, garages, and vacations. Our car culture is destroying the environment. Our food is making us fat. The economic power of China and India continue to grow. More women are getting college degrees than men. Demographically, America is becoming less white. To someone whose identity is based on that image of the strong father in a strong America, this can feel like an attack.

And since you can't counter-attack the world, many of them congealed their emotional need to defend their way of life into an attack on “Obama,” an emotional response that was manipulated and exploited by politicians and interest groups to secure major conservative gains in the 2010 elections. But I think it's incorrect to completely separate the “public” from the “politicians.” Especially at the state level, many of politicians elected on this wave of misplaced revenge are people who truly believe this way of life is under attack from specific democrat policies.

I, personally, don't know why this counter-attack has taken the form of union-busting, wrong-headed attacks on public education, and misogynistic legislation. It could simply be that these are old standard topics for conservative politicians and, in the absence of tangible policy alternatives, they have fallen back on those standards. They believe abortions are wrong, and unable to identify the source of the attack on their way of life, they intensify their efforts to ban (rather than reduce, but that's another essay) abortion. They believe collective bargaining rights limit the economy's ability to grow, so, with no other apparent targets, they intensify their efforts to limit collective bargaining.

Emotions have always been a part of politics; have always been a part of human decisions. What's different now is the sophistication of techniques for manipulating emotions. Politicians and interest groups can draw on decades of advertising expertise (you know, the people who convinced us McDonald's serves food) and use mass media to project their manipulations to the public. Furthermore, the media moves through news items so quickly, that we rarely get the chance to rationally examine an event or policy after we've gotten over whatever emotions those events or policies generated. By the time you've calmed down enough to think about something, a new outrage is being paraded through the news.

The thing is, though, none of these backlash policies are going to stop the eroding of that particular way of life. The environment is changing. The global economy is changing. The power dynamics between the US and the rest of the world are changing. The structure of American society is changing. The problem is that every government policy designed to preserve this declining (if it ever really existed) way of life, renders us less able, as a society, to cope with new challenges. In trying to force America into a certain image, these conservative policies will create an America no one will recognize.