Thursday, December 20, 2012

Living, Young, and Awesome

In some ways, it's hard for me to be mad at anybody who buys books. People who buy books, essentially pay my rent. But there are groups of readers who annoy me; people who only read from one section of the book store, whether it's a single genre, a single age group, a single style, a single anything. Last I checked, life is fairly varied, and if you only read one type of book, no matter what type that is, you kind of undo one of the points of reading in the first place. Within those groups there's one in particular that sticks in my craw; people who only read classics (You've escaped this round YA-only reading adults). Part of that particular ire comes from the fact that I want to publish a book and if I do I want people to buy it and those who only read classics obviously won't, part of it comes from the fact that writing books is really fucking hard, that there are people out there doing it really well, and it would be swell if they could actually make a little money for their efforts, but the real root of my annoyance is a basic logical fallacy. All classics were contemporary. Before decades or centuries of human imagination explored these works, they were all written by living, young, and awesome writers. And in order for us to have these classics today, people at the time had to support them enough that they were published and kept in the cultural consciousness long enough for culture to process them. If people don't support living, young, and awesome writers today, they won't become classics in the future.

(I have a similar problem with people who dismiss experimental literature. Everything mainstream was once experimental. All the mainstream really is, is slightly less imaginative/daring writers catching up with the innovations of geniuses and ground breakers.)

All of which is a long introduction (excuse?) for me to share, in alphabetical order, some of who I consider to be living, young, and awesome writers. One note about the middle adjective; I don't know how old these writers are and I might have left out other living and awesome writers because I've erroneously identified them as “not young,” but such is the nature of the blog genre; an inherently subjective, idiosyncratic narrative of an individual's relationship with the world. Reward talent and dedication and go buy their books.

Jesse Ball: Imagine a sculptor approaches a block of granite and from it carves a sculpture that looks exactly like the rock face of a mountain worn down by thousands of years of erosion. That's how Jesse Ball writes. He is somehow able to capture the tone, or style, or voice, or nature, or something, of folktales and legends. The way he plays with narration and form is as cutting edge as anything out there and yet his stories feel ancient. Any of his three novels, Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors, or The Curfew are great places to start with him; The Way Through Doors feeling most like the folk tales and The Curfew presenting an essay worthy idea for social change. If you like what you read, then definitely add The Village on Horseback, his collected fiction and poetry as well. It's a beautifully designed book that includes his award winning short story "The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr." It's a great book to throw in your satchel for a long walk or camping trip.

Ron Currie, Jr.: His new book is going to blow your freaking mind. It's not out yet and you'll hear me talk about it ad nauseum when it is, but Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, is a stunning work. It's just, well, you'll see. His short story collection God is Dead explores the implications and events in which God existed and died. The main character from his first novel Everything Matters! is told in utero the exact date of the end of the world by a mysterious voice that ends up helping him through the rest of his life. What's remarkable about Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and Everything Matters! is how remarkably emotionally sincere both works are, without resorting to cliches or cheap story telling techniques. In a society where every emotion is market tested and every human desire is being leveraged by someone out there trying to sell you something, and most of our entertainment just plugs different character names into proven forms of reaction-generation, it's really hard to make people actually fucking feel something. And then to have thoughts behind those feelings, things you do with the emotions after you've felt them, to affect the head and the heart so to speak, makes his work just that much more awesome. And he does all this while telling totally weird stories and experimenting with narrative form and style. In a way, this makes Currie a direct heir of David Foster Wallace, and his attempts to tell a story that makes the head beat like the heart.

Paul Guest: My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge is one of the best collections of poetry to come out in the last five years. I'm not a huge memoir fan but I staff-picked Guest's memoir One More Theory About Happiness. His images have a vibrancy, a bravery, and a panache too many contemporary poets avoid in favor of a simplicity I believe masks an utter lack of content. You actually have to think a little bit to get Guest's poems and you will be rewarded for your efforts. He's another author on this list I've written a critical essay about. (Anybody want to publish my critical essay on Paul Guest's image of the body as object? Anybody?)

Grace Krilanovich: Homeless, junky, vampires. What's not to love? The Orange Eats Creeps, which earned Krilanovich 5 Under 35 recognition, is a hallucinatory whirlwind that somehow manages to be equal parts Portlandian chic (trademarked!) and Dostoyevskian intensity. I love books that give the reader a sea of words to float in, that exist in almost a pure language form, and whose story comes not from what we normally recognize as plot, but from the reader's efforts and explorations in that sea. (See also Blake Butler's There Is No Year.) There's also a darkness to The Orange Eats Creeps that gives it a unique intensity, not unlike the work of Mark Z. Danielewski. It's like there's a chance that, just below the depth at the edge of light, a giant squid waits for you to dive too deep.

Victor LaValle: I probably recommend Big Machine more than any other single book at the bookstore. It just fits so many different reading wants and needs. It's protagonist, Ricky Rice, is one of the great images of contemporary American culture; a recovering addict, lone survivor of radical religious cult, and just trying to do his best in a world he doesn't quite understand. His story manages to capture the state of our lives now. (When I've got all the time in the world to write, I'm also going to do an essay that explores how the recovering addict is the quintessential 21st century American hero, starting with Big Machine and Infinite Jest.) Lavalle's developed this really interesting style; conversational in a way that it takes you a couple of moments to realize just how intelligent everything he's written is. It's a unique kind of accessibility that doesn't feel simplistic or condescending, but still manages to feel easy to read. The Devil in Silver is just as good, this time set in a decaying mental institution and touching on a whole ton of themes including mental health, class, race, power dynamics, etc. The “classic” writer Lavalle most reminds me of is Kurt Vonnegut, because both writers find ways to teach us about mundane life through very weird stories.

Tao Lin: Tao Lin confuses the hell out of me. He took the whole Hemingway/Carver short sentences of daily life thing to such an extreme that short sentences of daily life feel totally and utterly alien. If the other novelists I've mentioned have an anti-thesis, if you can even use a structure like that for what he does, it's Lin. Honestly, I can't even say that I “enjoy” reading his books, but I think everyone should at least try Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates. Occasionally, books should make us uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable means you're confronting something new and books are supposed to do that.

Karyna McGlynn
: Along with having one of the coolest titles, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, is another one of the best poetry collections I've read in years. Like Guest (and really all the poets I like Kevin Young, Brian Turner, Merwin, going back to the dead, Vallejo, O'Hara, Cesaire) she isn't afraid to be difficult. Also, there is a lot of stupid, pointless, white space in contemporary poetry, large format books with few words that are supposed to say something, I don't know, about the distance between thought and expression, or the void of future considerations, or the stillness at the heart of all acts of creation, or whatever, but generally say very little at all, while being a pain to shelve at the store. McGlynn uses space on the page and visual layout to actually do those things. She's also not afraid to use a lot of words and long lines if the images call for it. She's also funny. And she has this strange dark sexiness that I haven't encountered, not quite like a Molly Crabapple, but in that vein. It all adds up to poems that are challenging and fun.

Other Young, Awesome, & Living: A Partial List
: Obviously, there are more young, living, and awesome writers out there than those I've chosen to highlight here, but life is really a process of exclusion, and so in order for the list to have some meaning, I had to not highlight other young, awesome, and living writers. Here's a partial list of them, go buy their books too. I mean, when you think of how much more money a mediocre financial planner makes than an awesome writer...wait, maybe don't do that, especially if you're having a really good day.

Chris Boucher author of How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive

Black Butler author of There Is No Year (My review)

Christopher Higgs author of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney (Interview with Christopher)

Emily St. John Mandel: The Lola Quartet (Interview with Emily)

Joshua Mohr: Damascus (Interview with Josh)

Karolina Waclawiak: How to Get Into the Twin Palms (My Review)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pats Vs. Texans

I’m trying something new for this blog post. Don’t know why this occurs to me now, but I’m going to blog the Patriots vs. Texans Monday Night Football Game. Obviously, I’m not liveblogging the game, since it’s Friday and the game was played on Monday, but rather recording my thoughts and then putting them in the context of the conclusion to maybe learn something, at the very least, about the two teams that played. I typed as I watched and then edited this post into something coherent.

I don’t watch a lot of NFL games. I work on Sundays and somehow the 3 ½ hours of DVR time doesn’t seem worth it. My partner is also, to use the rhetorical device of understatement, not a fan of watching football, so if I’m going to watch a recorded game, I’m going to do it alone. So very alone. But I keep enough track of the general story lines that I’m not totally lost when the Pats play a late game on Monday Night, which I means, I know how interesting Monday night against the Texans was supposed to be.

The Patriots are now the pinnacle of NFL excellence. It took them losing two of their first three to really hammer home just how good this franchise has been for over a decade. It had been about that long since they were last under .500. They’ve already clinched the AFC East (again) and have a pretty good shot at securing home field advantage (again) and a decent shot at winning the AFC (again). After starting 3-3, in six very strange games, they figured out a run game, sorted out their secondary reasonably well, and have developed a debilitating run defense, all while Tom Brady continues to eviscerate defenses no matter who is running routes for him. Though there have been moments when the Patriots haven’t looked like T1000s, they are still the team to beat in the NFL.

Football fans have wondered when the Texans would bring it all together and compete for a Super Bowl. They just had so much raw talent, especially on defense, that it was only a matter of time before they replaced the Ravens and Steelers as one of the teams nipping at the Patriot’s heels. The Patriots are 9-3 and the Texans are 11-1 (though they really should be 10-2) and it’s always interesting to see what happens when an excellent defense plays against the Patriots, but in anticipation of the game, there is one storyline in particular I can’t wait to see play out. Tom Brady vs. J.J Watt.

Brady succeeds because he is almost always able to find an open receiver underneath the coverage. He hits guys when they’re open deep, but the Patriots generally deal death by a thousand cuts. Six, seven, eleven yard completions. Every defense has soft spots and in the modern NFL the softest is almost always a linebacker in coverage underneath. But J.J. Watt completely changes the underneath game because he is so adept at blocking passes, not just because he’s 6’5” and can jump, but also because he knows when to break off a pass rush and settle into a passing lane. No matter what else happens, his unique skill set might be enough to throw a monkey wrench into the Patriot offensive juggernauts. (Editor's note: Don't tell the rest of the NFL but apparently you can game plan for J.J. Watt's pass blocking, as proven by the fact that I never bring it up again.)

You Can't Show Up 15 Minutes Late to a Patriots Game: Despite (or perhaps because of) their best efforts, the Texans were not mentally prepared for the game. Even though they all referred to it as the most important regular season game in franchise history (which it was) they still were mentally about 15 minutes late to the game. They weren't sharp on defense or offense and the result was a 21-0 score and a real risk of being completely embarrassed. On defense in particular it was little mental mistakes that undid otherwise successful plays. A good example is the pass interference call that extended Patriot's third drive. After a penalty extended the first drive, you'd think the Texans would've snapped to it, but instead, some careless contact with Welker extended another drive and lead to another touchdown. The call I think, is debatable as the pass was probably uncatchable, but the onus was still on the defender. Sure, the referee probably made a glamor call, but you still never run into a receiver mid-route. Those first few mental mistakes were enough to turn the Texans from the best team in the NFL to just another Patriots victim. The defense eventually stepped it up and actually put together a solid 20 minutes or so of game time, but the Texans offense never got it together. Partly that was because Schaub wasn't quite sharp enough and partly it was because...

Vince Wilfork is a Force of Nature: If “Tackles Made While a Blocker is Draped All Over You Like a White Sheet Before a Big Reveal” were a stat, I'm pretty sure Wilfork would be leading the league in it. In the past, Wilfork specialized in holding his ground, gumming up the opponent's plays by being an immovable object, but this season he's demonstrated a range of motion that is downright terrifying. He is shedding blockers and getting up and down the line of scrimmage. Last year he was a mountain on the line; this year his is some abominable meterogeological monstrosity crossing a mountain and a tornado. Perhaps what he has developed is what is often obscurely referred to as a “nose for the ball,” which is really just the defensive equivalent of “reading the coverage.” Wilfork has learned how to know where and when to break off his blockers. In some ways this doesn't take a lot, the difference between going right and going left. Go left, there's a gap, go right a tackle. And the ultimate result is that Arian Foster (of 1,148 yards this season fame) gained 46 yards rushing.

What We Learned from Two Fumbles: It could have all been very different, if the Patriots had lost that fumbled on the opening drive. The Texans came up with a big time play to strip the ball, but couldn't recover the fumble and the Pats scored on the next play. Part of that goes back to the whole Texans showing up late point, as one of them had a chance to jump on the ball, but part of this reveals the depth of mental perfection the Patriots really show. When I played football in high school, there was pretty much one fundamental technique for recovering a fumble; fall on it. If you try to scoop up the ball, it will only end in tears. Sure, sometimes you've got enough space to take your time and really get your hands under the ball, but if you have to rush at all, you fall on it. Texan linebacker tried to scoop it. Super star tight end Aaron Hernandez fell on it. Execution of a fundamental football technique. I don't think it's a coincidence that, after demonstrating some give you up your body commitment, Brady threw to him on the very next play for the touchdown. The second fumble recovery also revealed something about the Patriots (and maybe about the Texans). Even though the game was pretty much over. J.J. Watt made a huge play to force that fumble. Not only did he have to run down Woodhead, who had just made several tacklers look ridiculous, he also had the presence of mind to go for the ball, and the solid technique that if he'd missed the strip, he still would've brought Woodhead down. In a different situation, it would have been a game changing play. But what is revealing about this fumble is that only Patriots were around the ball. The ball flew out of Woodhead's hands and all you saw was blue. Part execution of the blocking scheme and part hustle, that little moment explains exactly why the Patriots are so dominant in take aways. Nine times out of ten, every Patriot on the field is in the right place and working as hard as he can.

It's Kinda Sad, that Some People Still Can't Live with Belichick as the NFL's Greatest Coach: About two weeks ago Donte Stallworth was not on the Patriots. On Monday night he caught a 63 yard touchdown pass, a huge play as the Texans were close to stopping the Pats for the 5th straight drive. When Talib, often in single coverage against Andre Johnson (of 1,209 yards receiving fame), was injured, Dennard stepped right in and continued shutting down Andre Johnson. Dennard? John Gruden had to keep correcting his pronunciation of the name because he didn't expect to have to say it. And how many of you were expecting Arrington to have the monster game he did? And now that we've opened this vein of investigation we might as well ask Danny Woodhead? Julian Edelman? Wes Welker? Ten straight years of 10 or more wins, one of which without Tom Brady? How successful was Charlie Weiss outside the organization? Or Josh McDaniels? How many Super Bowls did Parcells win without him? Whenever this era of dominance is finally over, as all things must some day end, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick will arguably be the greatest professional sports organization in history, rivaled only by the golden age Yankees, and this is in part because it doesn't seem to matter who takes the field for Belichick. He has established organizational excellence top to bottom that allows them to move players in and out without any negative consequences. Gronkowski who? Perhaps some resistance to Belichick comes from the fact that in many ways the Patriots are boring. The Packers in Favre's heyday were almost as good, but many times they relied on Favre's creativity after broken plays, scrambling around in the pocket and ducking tackles before finally finding someone open. It makes for exciting football. The Patriots don't have broken plays. Boring perfection.

A Few More Random Observations: The Pats did not hand the ball off once on a stretch play and yet executed the play action pass off a fake stretch play so well, it was a big play every time they ran it. To reiterate, to make it clear just how weird that was, the Patriots repeatedly and convincingly faked a play they never actually ran. The game was already out of reach when a shot before commercial showed Wes Welker absolutely furious because he dropped a couple of passes. Perfection expected by everyone. Corollary to the the Belichick haters, why people still gotta hate on Tom Brady? How can you not love a guy who is at a point in his life where he has TWO Super Model Baby-Mammas, THREE Super Bowl rings, a raft of records, is in the act of CRUSHING the best team in the NFL, and can still be totally stoked to run for the first down on 3rd and 5? Sure, he models for UGG, but don't you think he looks at the stills for the day's shoot and says, “That's not good enough guys. I wasn't good enough and you weren't good enough. So set those lights back up and lets take some pictures like we actually want people to buy these fucking shoes!” The real loser of this game was Ryan Mallet. He finally gets to pass a ball, makes a perfect throw, the receiver muffs it, the ball pops up in the air for the interception. It was the only Patriots turnover and lead to Texans second touchdown. You just feel bad for the guy.

One Remaining Question: Watching the Patriots thoroughly undress the best team in the league (How'd they do against Denver? Oh that's right, crushed them too.) does raise one question, a question that will haunt Pats fans until New England wins another Super Bowl. How the hell did the Giants beat them?

(Wilfork and Brady pictures from SI photos tumblr)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The New Contempt for Workers

You don't have to read Marx to know that conflict between workers and business owners can happen. They have different goals, different visions for their goals, and different perspectives. Even in the best scenarios, finding compromise between competing self-interest isn't always easy. However, business ownership (at least those owners making headlines) seem to have a contempt for their workers not shared by the previous generation. This new contempt was most clearly and eloquently expressed in Mitt Romney's infamous 47% comment, where he managed to both, prove that didn't know what he was talking about and call nearly half the population lazy moochers. But this contempt has taken many other forms.

The CEO of Papa John's thinks providing healthcare to his employees is so onerous he might need to charge thirteen more cents (or around what inflation would naturally increase costs anyway, and who knows how much cheese is going to cost next year, and if there's another drought wheat prices might rise, but, yeah, it's the preventative healthcare) for the terrible, low quality pizza he sells. While Hostess's bakers union had their pension essentially stolen and made salary concessions, the company's CEOs made millions in salaries and bonuses. (Huh, I wonder why it was difficult for the company to make ends meet.) A major component of Walmart's business model is paying their workers as poorly as possible, stopping their hours before benefits would kick in, paying women workers less, helping their employees sign up for welfare, meaning that an essential part of Walmart's business model is getting us tax payers to pay for some of their employees food. (Which is of course, totally all about the free market.) And let's not forget Scott Walker's fiasco, where his republican controlled legislature passed a whole slew of tax cuts for corporations and then tried to essentially destroy public sector unions as a way to solve a deficit problem.

Huh, wonder where all the profits are.
Yet somehow, these owners, and many others in the punditosphere, blame unions for economic problems, even though U.S production has been up while worker wages have stagnated for a couple of decades. The spiked-irony of this idea being that many of these companies wouldn't be possible without the union driven labor movement of the 30s-50s. Much of what our economy looks like now was created through the rise of a strong middle class, driven, in part by the power of unions to extract fair contracts and livable wages from ownership. Disclaimer: Economies are complex, chaotic entities. No one force is responsible for any trend, pattern, or phenomenon. However, though there were many factors that lead to the post-war economic boom (like the war not happening on US soil, for example) I don't think the influence of unions can be denied.

No Unions Equals No Consumer Goods Market: One of the distinctive features of the new middle class was an entire new population with discretionary spending. Millions of Americans could buy stuff they wanted, not just stuff they needed. And, lo, the consumer market was born. This consumer market made much of our current economy possible, everything from the tech boom, to infomercials, to suburban super stores. Without unions helping to drive up average wages, there just wouldn't have been enough discretionary cash spread around the economy to support, say, a personal computer market or a yearly toy market, or, tis the season, the consumerist orgy of contemporary Xmas. No consumer market, no Walmart. No unions, no consumer market.

No Unions No Suburbs: For better or for worse (I'd say for worse, but we didn't know any better then) the higher wages unions earned for their workers allowed for the “White Flight.” Average American families (at least white ones) in average manufacturing jobs, could own their own homes. Three decades earlier, those exact same jobs would most likely have kept those families chained to rental apartments in the city. Not only did these families have more money, but they lived in an entirely different economic environment. Spread out over a much larger geographic area, middle class families found themselves near, well, nothing but other middle class families. A new need arose; on demand delivery. Without the suburbs there really isn't an economic environment for national chain delivery pizza. The convenience of Papa John's is generated by the inconvenience of living five miles from any pizza joint. It's a solution to a problem of the suburbs, rather than an outright benefit. No unions, no suburbs. No suburbs, no Papa Johns.

Unions aren't perfect. Corruption. Abuse of power. Intransigence. But good luck finding a human institution free of these flaws. Somehow, these flaws are evidence of a fundamental flaw in the institution of unions, but when they appear on Wall Street or the corner office, they are result of an individual making a bad decision; one bad apple whose actions, no matter how many times the actions are repeated by other individuals, shouldn't reflect on the institution or system as a whole.

I've actually got this whole thing backwards. What we're seeing now from the ruling business elite isn't new. In fact, it's very old. It is part of a long human tradition of people who happen to be born into positions of wealth and power, for various reasons, feeling contempt, in various degrees, for everyone else. It only feels new now, because, for a whole host of reasons, America took a break from that bullshit for about three decades. It took a few thousand years of general effort and 40ish years of concerted effort in which hundreds of people gave up their lives in the struggle, to get to that point, but we did. During that break, America also became the richest and most economically egalitarian society the world had ever seen and began, finally, to break down some ethnic, racial, and gender based barriers. But then in the 80s everything changed again. There are now corporations for which avoiding the social contract is a basic plank in their business platform and politicians who believe the most basic acts of governing are destructive. I don't know exactly what caused this change, (I mean Milton Friedman, was already arguing for this bullshit while Keynesian economics was working brilliantly.) but there is some evidence, including the influence of the Occupy movement and the liberal swing of the last election, that we are ditching this contempt again. Let's just hope our economy doesn't collapse before we come to our senses.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stewed Beef with Turnips or How I Got My Brother to Eat Tongue

As I mentioned in last week's post, Lucky Peach was in my reading pile, and also happens to have some of the best food, cooking, culture writing out there. Irreverent, edgy, interesting, I don't think it will be too much longer before it starts pulling in major magazine writing awards. I've been on board since the beginning, when the rep for the publisher told our buyer all about it, so I have every issue. And though every issue has recipes, we've only cooked from it once before, a noodle recipe that happened to be, also, the only recipe that contained a basic error. Until we came across the innocuously named “Stewed Beef with Turnips,” by Danny Bowien, the chef of Mission Chinese Food, in the current Chinatown themed issue. (DO NOT FORGET ABOUT IT, Jake!)

As I mentioned in my post on tomatoes, one of the challenges with getting your food from a farm share is that it is real easy to get sick of certain foods. Climate, weather, bugs, deer, parasites, labor force, all of it can combine into years where you get a lot of one thing until you're sick of it. Never being a huge fan of turnips to begin with, Riss and I have been sick of them since about July. Not that I have anything against turnips, it's just well, really that says it all. And we still had a tongue in the freezer. When you come across a recipe that makes use of one of the biggest things in your freezer and one of the ingredients you're having a hard time getting rid of, well, I wouldn't go so far as to say you're spitting in the eye of god if you don't make it, but you're probably spitting in the eye of god if you don't make it. To further solidify our destiny, we had pretty much everything else for the recipe as well; pork bones left over from a roast, carrot, onion, bay leaves, ginger, cheese cloth, a big old pot. The only things we needed were short ribs--which gave us an excuse to walk up to the new locally owned, organic, pasture raised, grass-fed only butcher--kombu and tofu, which gave us an excuse to go to the Japanese market.

The recipe also lets me return to one of my “overarching food themes;” the most important ingredient is almost always time. This is a three-day recipe with a fair number of steps. It looks daunting, but most of it is just waiting. Season the meat with kosher salt and let it sit in the fridge over night. The next day, sear it, put it in a pot with the bones and some of the other ingredients, bring to a boil, and then simmer for three hours, (For the complete recipe, buy a copy of Lucky Peach. Seriously, it's an awesome magazine.) during which, if you're me, you can watch college football, scratch out a few sentences in a novel, read a book you're reviewing, read a galley you've been dying to get to, and read a history book you've been interested in since it came out in hardcover. Then add the turnips, simmer until fork tender, let the whole thing cool and put it in the fridge, again, over night.

According to Contemporary American Corporate Food Culture, this is a hassle. If you feel like Stewed Beef with Turnips, damnit the whole reason we fought the Cold War was so that you could eat it now. Time has somehow been equated with effort. But, most of the time, most of these time intensive dishes really only require you to let time pass, during which you can do whatever else you want. Most of the time when I'm making stock, smoking pork, or making this dish, I'm doing something other than cooking. You just have to get over the idea of eating the exact thing you want at the exact time you want it. Which, of course, has a socio-economic component to it. (Doesn't everything on this blog.) The massive carbon footprint of American eating comes from only eating what you want when you want. To eat a certain vegetable, out of season for your region, involves a massive economic structure, with a massive carbon footprint that combines commercial farming with commercial shipping. To only eat a certain cut of meat, creates this whole other economy, where shmillions more of an animal needs to be bred and slaughtered and something must be done with the rest of it that you don't want, in order for the rancher and butcher to make ends meet. The real mental/cultural breakdown here is that just about anything edible can be made delicious if you know how. And with the internet, you can find out how to make anything delicious. And, not every meal has to be delicious for you to survive. A decent tasting meal will get you through the day just as well.

But this was delicious. It's described as one of those restorative soups, and we ate it after this year's pick your own day at the farm share. It was restorative. Because the broth has a really clean, fatty flavor, you can augment pretty much at will. The recipe suggests a salty, fermented chili sauce which we didn't get to, but I ground up some of our radish kimchi and put it in and that was fantastic. You could easily add siracha or soy sauce. I also threw in some fresh mustard greens. Any fresh greens would do. You could definitely serve it with noodles too. Or extra tofu. And it's also a good starter dish for someone looking to eat a little more adventurously (or someone looking to trick someone else into eating more adventurously). Beef tongue tastes like really beefy beef, and if it's cooked in certain ways (including all the boiling it goes through in this dish), has this really nice, velvety texture. Throw in the cleanness of the broth and you have a dish that tastes very different from average American fair without being particularly challenging to the American pallet. My whole family, even my teenage brother, enjoyed it.

And let's face it, you should never pass up a chance to take a picture with a beef tongue.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Book Pile November 16, 2012

This, my friends, is a pile of books
My life is pretty much moving piles of books from one place to another. I go to work at the bookstore, I move piles of books from one place to another. I come home, I move piles of books from one place to another. Here's what's in my current pile and why.

Bibliodeath, Fight Song, and Gun Machine: I've actually read all three of these, but I'm working on reviews for them, Bibliodeath for Bookslut and the other two for this blog. Gun Machine could be one of the best crime books of 2013, Fight Song is a noble entry into perhaps the most difficult genre of literature out there: Books About Average People with Average Problems, and Bibliodeath is another brilliant book by Andre Codrescu.

Notturno: I'm actually on a second read of this because I've pitched a review of it to The Rumpus. It's a book length prose poem that the author wrote on single-line long scraps of paper, while recovering from an injury and....BLINDFOLDED. Yep. Dude had an eye injury and to recover he needed to have both eyes completely bandaged for months. It's an amazing work, beyond the fete of its creation.

This is a pile of books going all Godzilla on Paris, the only city a pile of books would attack
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles: This is the new book by Ron Currie Jr. author of God is Dead and Everything Matters! God is Dead is a collection of speculative short stories that explore a world in which God has actually died. In Everything Matters! the protagonist is told by a mysterious voice the exact moment when the earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid. Then he deals with that burden for the rest of his life. Sophisticated and poignant. Heartfelt without being sappy. It's the kind of book that stays with you years after you've read it. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is a little more daring, a little more experiment, a little closer to the attitude of God is Dead. Let's just say I am very, very excited for this book.

1493: I really liked Charles Mann's previous work 1491, a book that uses fairly recent archaeological data to speculate on the world of the western hemisphere before Columbus arrived. Mann concluded the region was much more populated and the societies much more sophisticated than they'd ever been given credit for. 1493, is a look at the effect of what's called the “Columbian Exchange,” the interchange of plants, animals, products, and diseases between the western hemisphere and the rest of the world. I must say, there is something uniquely satisfying about turning over the first few pages of a heavy book of history.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: You'll be shocked to find out my benefits at the bookstore do not include stock options. But they do include free copies of books that come in too damaged to be sold as new books. I do my best to at least sample a wide range of genres so I'm not completely clueless if someone asks about one. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is considered one of the great spy novels, by one of the great spy novelists and when I saw it damaged at the store, I saw an opportunity to close a reading gap. So far, I'm really enjoying it. There's a kind of chaos to its style, that I think successfully contributes to its atmosphere and to the thrill of reading it.

With the right filter, your pile of books can do anything.
Parallel Stories: This one has been going in and out of the reading pile for months. I've been using it as kind of a pallet cleanser, reading a few dozen pages before staring a new novel. In some ways, Parallel Stories deserves better. It is a brilliant, ambitious, massive, challenging work, and Peter Nadas often finds himself mentioned in Nobel Prize speculation, but, at the same time, books of this scope demand a kind of attention I just can't give to it. And the writing is strong enough that even if it takes me a few pages to remember where we are in the story and who we're talking about, I eventually find my place in the narrative. It's also totally different from everything being written in America. It's philosophical, directly intellectual, and ponderous. Also, there's 40+ page long sex scene. So there's that.

If on a winter's night a traveler: Book club. Your envy is justified.

Periodicals: Though they're hard to see, there are also three periodicals in the pile. I've had a subscription to Smithsonian for several years now. It might be the most underrated magazine around. History, cultural, food, politics, all well-written and informative. And Lucky Peach is one of the best anythings. A food magazine founded by David Chang, published by McSweeneys, with regular contributions from Anthony Bourdain and Harold McGee. And recipes. And Peter Meehan is slowly establishing himself as one of our best food writers. Almost certainly invisible in the pile is the very cool lit mag Cupboard. Cupboard comes out twice a year and consists of one fairly long creative work of fiction. They've done some very cool stuff, including a collection of short “stories,” by Jesse Ball. Totally different and always interesting.

2013 Guide to Literary Agents: I'm trying to find a literary agent.

Not Pictured: One by Blake Butler & Vanessa Place, Assembled by Christopher Higgs. This is on my tablet so obvious, it's not in the picture. This is an experiment in which the two authors write different sections of the story, one only allowed to write about “inside,” the other “outside,” and those sections are then assembled. I really liked Blake Bulter's There Is No Year and Christopher Higgs' The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, so I'm pretty excited to see what they've come up with.

That's my pile, what's yours?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Random Fall Sports Thoughts

The books I've been reading to blog about recently aren't coming out until later in the winter, I've got a whole big thing about election reform in the works, but I think we can wait until we've all caught our breath a bit (either from wailing in rage or smugly smirking when making eye contact with other liberals, which takes a bit more oxygen than you might assume), and well, I wrote about tomatoes two weeks ago. (Probably six weeks too late to be useful, but well, it's out on the Internet. Just bookmark it.) So my post this week is a slew of random sports thoughts from the past couple months.

The Biggest Loser in the NHL Lockout is Your Boston Bruins
Think about the state of Boston sports in early October. The Reds Sox were, well, you know. The Celtics hadn't started playing and the scab referees were sowing chaos all over the NFL. If the NHL season had started on time, the Bruins would have been the most popular team in New England. Not only would they have been the only professional team actually playing an actual version of their sport, but their season was packed with story lines. How would Tukka Rask handle being the official number one goalie? Would Tyler Sequin compete for the scoring title? What would Nathan Horton's capacity be? Would Doug Hamilton make an impact? Would Patrice Bergeron finally, finally, be recognized as an elite NHL player? And this before any games are played. Unless something went horribly wrong, the Bruins would make the playoffs, mostly likely winning their division again, and, if they stayed healthy, their young stars continued to improve, and their veteran stars (Krejci, Lucic, Bergeron, Chara) played liked stars, would be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. All hockey fans are the losers in this stupid, stupid lockout, but if there is one organization that lost a major opportunity, it is our own Boston Bruins.

How Did the Sox Get Farrell So Easily?
When the Red Sox first showed some interest in John Farrell, last year, the Toronto Blue Jays demanded Clay Bucholtz in exchange for a meeting; Jays get Bucholtz, Sox get a conversation. I think everyone; fan, player, coach, owner, wanted John Farrell to come back and manage the Sox once Tito was run out of town, it was just a matter of when. At the beginning of the season, before Armageddon hit, I would have assumed Valentine would stay his two years (which would have lined up with the end of Farrell's contract) and unless he won a World Series, be politely replaced. So when the bubonic plague swept through the second half of the Sox season and Valentine was fired, the Jays must have known the Sox were desperate for Farrell. This is not a knock on Mike Aviles, I'm just shocked the Jays would settle on one player. Maybe they know something the Sox don't. Maybe it was just that they knew they weren't going to keep Farrell after the end of his contract and figured they'd get that part of their club settled quickly and easily. Who knows what they're reasoning is, but the Sox have to feel a lot better about their resources this off season since they had to spend so little on Farrell.

Ortiz and Ellsbury
I like the Ortiz contract. Well, I don't like any professional sports contracts, but when you take the real world absurdity of all professional sports out of the picture, I like the Ortiz contract. Are the Sox probably overpaying him? Well, they're not really paying for the next two years. There was some strong evidence last year that Ortiz could be worth something like that, but there was also some strong evidence that he is one tweaked knee away from uselessness. This contract pays Ortiz for his career and all but guarantees he'll retire in a Red Sox uniform, so we can all begin fantasizing about Tek coaching pitchers and Papi coaching hitters. In terms of Ellsbury and trade rumors and the occasional absence thereof, what we can know for sure is that nobody in the league has much confidence in his durability, but in a very weird way. He is just so talented, that his trade and contract value is massive, except that, for some reason, he keeps get season ending injuries. The economics of trades make it almost impossible to accurately evaluate a trade involving him. If he stays with the Sox through the off-season and if he extends his contract with them, his stability here might come as much from this impossible value calculus as it does from his value as a player.

A Tale of Four Teams
I work on Sundays, so I don't get to see many Pats games over the season. Usually, I use NFL Game Center to keep track of what's happening, and even though the display is only color coded lines across a field, if you have a good sense of what football looks like, you can get a lot out of that data. It's not complete, but there's enough information to draw some conclusions. The Patriots seem to field four different teams. First is the front seven on defense which, lead by Vince Wilfork (Pro-Bowl at this point), are ranked 7th in rushing defense and have forced 7 fumbles (2nd), have only given up 3 rushing touchdowns, and only one run of more than 20 yards. They've also come up with huge plays, like Wilfork forcing the fumble against the Cardinals and the sack/fumble of Sanchez in over time. Then there's the secondary. Maybe they still haven't quite figured out the bend-don't-break pass defense. Maybe they're still too young to handle NFL style offenses. Maybe Patrick Cheung, talented as he is, doesn't have the ability to lead the team needs from him. Maybe, they just don't have Super Bowl caliber talent. Whatever it is, the Patriots are way down at 28th in passing defense giving up an average of 8 yards a passing play and 281.1 passing yards per game, with a 65.8% completion rate good for 6th worst in the league. Aqib Talib (when he can play and more on him later) might be a piece in the puzzle kind of player, providing just enough raw talent in the secondary for the scheme to come together and the pass defense to radically improve. But even if he only moderately improves the secondary, that might be enough for another ring.

The offense seems to be just as divided. There's the no-huddle offense (NFL Game Center indicates when a play is no-huddle) which is, in standard Patriots fashion, tearing defenses apart and there's the huddle offense which seems to stall out, usually on really important drives. Maybe Josh McDaniels doesn't have a complete grasp on the talent at his disposal. Maybe the no-huddle just keeps defenses off their feet. Maybe the players execute the no-huddle plays better. But, of course, you can't run the no-huddle all game. At least one sports writer thought they looked worn out by the end of the Denver game. (Of course, by then they'd already scored 31 points.) One of the problems the Patriots have had over the last few years is managing the clock; keeping the ball in situations when it's best to slow the game down. Having an actual running game (which, man, is that pretty sweet) will help, but they still need to be able to huddle, walk up to the line while the clock ticks away, take a breath, and execute enough plays to sustain drives. Without at least being mediocre that this, it's hard to see them winning another Super Bowl this year, no matter how well the rest of the season goes.

On Aqib Talib
I don't know if he'll be the missing piece that makes the Patriots defense championship caliber, but, he won't tear the team apart. The big risk of volatile players is that their behavior will lead to team wide conflicts, but that hasn't happened with the Patriots. Whether the high-risk player has worked out or not, none of them have brought the team down with them. This probably part of why they were able to get Talib for basically nothing. The Bucs were done with him, other teams didn't want to risk it, and the Pats knew he'd either improve their secondary or he wouldn't. Another reason why Bellicheck should be talked about as an all time great.

The Big Gap in My Sports Fall
Finally, a major part of my sports Fall will be missing this year. For the past eight years, the Lewiston Maineacs, a Quebec Major Junior Hockey Team, played the Friday after Thanksgiving, so I was always in town to see it. The whole fam would go and then I would go out with my friends afterward. High quality hockey with a dose of hometown nostalgia. Alas, for a whole host of reasons, the Maineacs were dissolved (right before they were due for a playoff run) and the arena hasn't found a replacement for them. The AHL Portland Pirates will play a few games there over the winter, but not on this particular night. I think Lewiston is a great fit for a junior team, and, assuming the overall economy begins to improve and Lewiston hockey fans have learned a little about the cycles of Junior Hockey, a team, maybe from Eastern Junior Hockey League (which already has a team in Portland), should be successful.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sisyphus, the Mountain and the Boulder: On the Life of David Foster Wallace

Biographies of writers are strange beasts. A biography of an athlete tells the life story of a person who then goes on to do something you can actually narrate. The story of an athlete's life leads to athletic actions; in a warrior's life to fighting, sometimes with explosions and stuff; in a leader's life to a momentous decision. But with a writer, their life all leads to a moment when they sit down alone and write. The most important aspect of what a writer does, the reader of the biography can go and experience directly by reading the book that made said writer interesting in the first place. “Writer sits down at the desk and cranks out a good grand of words,” generally doesn't make for good reading. This challenge is intensified when writing about David Foster Wallace. Unlike some well biographied writers who either did interestingly-narratable things in addition to their writing, or had such things happen around them, the story of David Foster Wallace happened almost entirely in his brain. Whether it was his brilliance or his depression, the conflict, the action, the point of the life was interior rather than exterior. To call Every Love Story is a Ghost Story an intellectual biography is almost redundant; no other biography of David Foster Wallace is possible.

I'm not going to review Every Love Story is a Ghost Story in my usual manner because, unlike nearly every other genre, it's hard to know how good a biography is when there's only one. You can say if it's well-written or not, but you can't know how well the story is captured until someone else tries to capture it. Instead, I'm going to share the thoughts I had in response. (Which is a review in a way, of course, as a bad book would have left me thinking very little at all.)

There is one writer who I've read and who's life story I am familiar with who is a very, very close analog, and for entirely forgivable reasons, this writer was not mentioned once in the entire book. Though the British post-modern writer B.S. Johnson was older than Wallace, they both grappled with virtually the same questions and the same problems. Johnson was essentially a direct heir of Beckett in the way Wallace saw himself as an heir to Pynchon and DeLillo and, just as with Wallace, Johnson saw as his greatest challenge, finding a way to tell the truth about the world in a meaningful way. If there was any major difference it was that Johnson was able to make a few more experiments before mental illness combined with circumstance drove him to suicide. He wrote darkly comic novels that played with structure, form, and voice, building on the freedom of narrative forged by Joyce and Beckett and going so far as to write a beautiful, heartbreaking, moving story about a close friend dying of cancer that is composed of individual unbound chapters that can be read in any order. (If you've never read him, start with his brutally funny Christie-Malry's Own Double Entry.) He experimented with television. He struggled to find a way to make a living while writing, including trying to forge a publishing contract that worked almost like a traditional salary. He was occasionally the darling of the literary media. And one day, he drew himself a bath, drank a bottle of red wine and slit his wrists in the tub. I wonder where Wallace would have gone with The Pale King if he'd read The Unfortunates, the book of individually bound chapters. What might have happened if Wallace's brain of Wittgenstein and Taylor, infinity and tennis, Pynchon and DeLillo had he realized you could be sincere in any order of event and actually break the binding of your story into a work unlike anything anyone had written or read before.

The most interesting and difficult aspect of Every Love Story for me was the conservative turn Wallace took in his aesthetics before writing Infinite Jest, It wasn't that he sought emotional connection with the reader or to transcend the irony of the era for a productive sincerity, but that he saw those goals as primary and mutually exclusive with cleverness, intellectual athletics, and irony, essentially agreeing wholeheartedly with his friend Jonathan Franzen's absurd, reactionary idea of the “contract writer,” a concept susceptible to the kind of obsessive recursive thinking at the root of so much of Wallace's own anxiety; is your writing only concerned with meeting a contract with the reader or are you writing so it seems likes your only concerned with meeting a contract with the reader, which is way more dishonest than writing in service to your own ideas in the first place, but, I digress. One of the repeating phrases of this era in Wallace's life was “Make the head beat like the heart,” but somehow he didn't seem to understand the broad implications of the image. But that is the magic behind great works of fiction; they are independent of their root philosophies, they contain more, extend beyond, have conversations with strangers, have substance that frees the reader to think about other things than what is written, and allows the reader to appreciate aspects of the work the original author might despise or disagree with. He did not seem to truly understand the potential of making the head beat like the heart, but, in Infinite Jest, he met that potential nonetheless.

Did Michiko Kakutani ever like something that took a risk or ever like the risky aspect of a book she was generally positive about? I bring it up, because she apparently really liked the biography of David Foster Wallace and yet she only shows up in the book in quotes of negative reviews of Wallace's work, reviews that, in my humble opinion, reflected her unwillingness to put a shred of her own fucking effort into understanding the book and not any kind of obtuseness or intractability of Wallace's work itself. Sure, it doesn't lend itself to review deadlines, but we need (or at least I love) books that need more than one reading to understand.

Perhaps the most personal, autobiographical image Wallace ever wrote, was of the contortionist, the young man who committed himself to touching every part of his body with his lips. Add a level of manic intensity and speed up the iterations of effort, and you have, what I suspect, is the most accurate image of Wallace's mind. Another version of this kind of self-flagellation occurs in The Pale King in a character who sweats a lot, who is then anxious about sweating a lot, whose anxiety increases the likelihood of an attack of perspiration and then who sculpts his entire life around managing and coping with these attacks. Other stories talked more directly about mental illness, but these images I think were portraits of his brain.

If there is any new tragedy revealed by Every Love Story, it's that Wallace was never able to transfer the lessons of recovery, that were so vital to both his survival and his progression from the author of Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair to the author of Infinite Jest, to coping with his mental illness. There is a limit, of course, to thinking your way out of dangerous neuro-chemicals, but given that addiction is usually treated as a mental illness and given Wallace's exploration into Buddhism, mediation and Zen, one has to wonder if a recovery mantra like “Your best thinking got you here,” might have saved Wallace from the recursive thoughts that seemed to cripple every aspect of his life. Of course, this might be less a limitation of Wallace's imagination and more a limitation of the culture of treatment at the time. I'm told by someone in the profession that it is only very recently that the fields of addiction recovery and psychological therapy are beginning to share their ideas and techniques.

The Pale King and the forthcoming essays collection will not be the end of Wallace's published work. He was a prolific letter writer and we will see a “selected” and a “complete” collection of his letters at some point. Pay attention to that moment, even if you don't plan on reading them, because it is quite likely that the collection of Wallace's letters will be one of, if not the, last major collection of letters ever published unless something drastic happens in our culture.

We should understand Wallace's suicide as a death deferred. Many times over his life he almost didn't climb back out of the hole he fell in. It is a miracle he survived his time in Cambridge, and the fact that he lived long enough to write Infinite Jest, is a gift we should appreciate as such. (So go read it.)

I'd like to circle back to my introduction with a quote from Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant, his biography of the previously mentioned B.S Johnson, and one of the best literary biographies I've ever read. One bit of context for the quote, Johnson made graphs of his days' writing outputs. Emphasis in original.
And here we come up against the chief problem with literary biography: the thing that makes me, essentially, mistrust the genre...Take 17 August 1965, for instance. Johnson got involved in no literary bust-ups that day, wrote no fiery letters for me to quote. He did not go out and get hilariously drunk with a fellow author, to provide me a spiky anecdotal. He did not have a secret tryst with a beautiful journalist, leading to a torrid but eminently disclosable affair. (He was not, you will have gathered by now, the sort of person who had affairs.) No, he sat at his desk for six and a quarter hours, and wrote 1,700 words of Trawl. Boring, or what? But this is what writers do. Not only is it what they do, but it is what they do best, it is when they are happiest, it is when they are most themselves. If they did not do it, none of the other, superficial, gossipy stuff that fills up books like this would matter in the slightest. It is the essence of the thing. But this is the one thing I cannot write about, that I cannot make interesting. It shows up the whole process I am engaged upon for the potentially dishonest enterprise that it is...
All I can say is this. I know—from my own experience of writing—that 17 August, 1965 would have been a great day in B.S. Johnson's life. At the end of those six and a quarter hours, he would have felt exhilarated. He would have felt a degree and a quality of satisfaction that he felt in his short life only very rarely.” (p194-5)

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Wallace's life is that he never had a day like 17 August 1965, even when he had a day like that. Doubt. Anxiety. Depression. Arrogance. Intelligence. It all swirled, coiled, and combined into a state of being that needed to be surmounted, for Wallace to simply go on. His life was Sisyphean, except that he was Sisyphus, the mountain, and the boulder.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tomatoes! Tomatoes!

The farm share is a classic double-edged sword. Sometimes you get vast amounts of certain vegetables for a whole host of environmental and climatological reasons and the challenge of using them all leads you to new techniques and new recipes and other times, Oh My God I cannot eat another fucking turnip! This year we got a lot of tomatoes. Not only did we grow them ourselves as we always do, but Steve had so many he was selling them by the box on pick up days. We bought them. Obviously, our experience with the tomatoes was more of the cutting the other guy edge of the sword and less of the accidentally lopping off your thumb edge, as tomatoes are a lot easier to use than turnips, especially given that much of our home cooking is in the Ameritalian tradition.

We had some typical responses to the tomato avalanche. Of course there were lots of salads, as there always are lots and lots of salad in the summer. We also made sauce, diced them and tossed them with pasta, and canned them. We also made salsa and froze it. (Yes, you can freeze salsa.) Here are a few things we did that might not be as typical, including the best fucking sauce I've ever fucking had.

Tomato Water Ice Cubes: A lot of tomato recipes call for you to take out seeds and all the congealed mystery ick that surrounds them and most of the time you just throw that stuff out. Instead, put it in a strainer over some kind of receptacle and let it drain. A pink, slightly thick liquid will collect, which I'm going to assume is called “tomato water.” Pour it into an ice cube tray and then put the cubes in a plastic bag in the freezer. These cubes have tons of uses. First, there simply is no other way to chill a Bloody Mary. I've tried a few other cocktails with them, but they are very nice in vodka or a martini. Second, because tomatoes have “umami” chemicals these cubes add a depth of flavor to a lot of other dishes. We added them to gazpacho to great effect. And to rice. Just replace some of the water with tomato water and the rice takes on an almost meaty flavor. The same goes with any kind of tomato sauce. By retaining the water, you avoid the seeds but don't lose any intensity of flavor. Really any dish that uses water, that doesn't have an inherent flavor conflict, will benefit by replacing some of the water with tomato water. And I'm sure there's a smoothy in waiting at some point.

Corn and Tomato Pie: Every now and again you throw a few key words into Google and it justifies (sort of) the gazillions of dollars it makes every year. What makes this recipe from Smitten Kitchen so successful is that it has a totally unique taste. It doesn't just taste like corn and tomatoes in a pie crust. The different sugars in the two vegetables combine into a unique flavor, one that manages to be sweet, while interacting with savory “it's dinner time” parts of your brain. It's a really cool, really delicious dish. And, because of whatever magic is in this pie, you could serve a salad with tomatoes on the side without risk of, I guess you'd call it, “tomato fatigue.” One of the challenges with avalanches of a particular vegetable, even a delicious particular vegetable, is that you get sick of the same flavor, even a delicious flavor, after a while. This recipe adds diversity to the same ingredient. (Also, you could just smother whatever in an appropriate cheese. A technique I, and my gout, personally endorse.)

The Best Tomato Sauce You Have Ever Had: I had the audacity to go away for a couple days for a book conference (yes, we have those), and the conference happened to coincide with our purchase of a 20ish pound box of San Marzano tomatoes. When I came back ‘riss had leftovers from her most recent experiment; pasta and some sauce. My brain melted from the awesome. Like the corn and tomato pie above, it was a totally unique flavor, with a tomato sweetness cut by a butteryness I've never tasted before (a butteryness, I should add, that came in sauce whose only fat content was olive oil). Obviously, you want to know how she made this sauce, though I'm not sure you can be trusted with such arcane knowledge. OK, my concerns over the time-span continuum aren't strong enough to counteract my need to brag, so here it is.

A whole bunch of San Marzano tomatoes. (You could use most other kinds, but I probably wouldn't use a fancy heirloom and you’ll have to bake them longer to condense the water.)
Olive Oil
Half an onion, diced
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
Perhaps a dash of dried oregano or any other herb of your choice (like the overabundance of basil which coincides with tomato season)
Preheat the oven to 350
If using San Marzano tomatoes, half them perpendicular so that when you open it looks like each half has two compartments of tomato goo. If you are using regular tomatoes, cut the horizontal, scoop out all the seeds with your fingers and then cut them in half again, making quarters. Seed the tomatoes and retain the tomato water, (a small mesh colander over a bowl works great for this). Place the halved tomatoes face up on a baking sheet or pyrex dish. We put them on a silicone mat to keep them from sticking. Basically you want something that will be easy to clean burnt tomato sugar off of, since there’s a lot of it tomatoes and hot sugar is sticky. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the tomatoes and drizzle the top with a bit of olive oil. Bake for about an hour, rotating the pan in the oven halfway through to ensure even cooking, unless you've got one of those schmancy ovens with even heat all over. The astute recipe reader will probably notice that this really just a slow roast. At the end, the tomatoes look almost sun-dried. Given them a moment to cool and then extract them from the baking sheet and peel the skin. If there is a little bit stuck on the skin, it’s not a huge deal, you just want 85-95% of it gone so you get a smooth sauce.

In a blender or food processor puree the tomatoes with the retained tomato water. What you've essentially made is something one step removed from tomato paste. You've removed the water from the flesh in the tomatoes through the baking and then added the more intensely flavored tomato water to bring it back to sauce consistency. You can actually use this as a sandwich spread (great with rabe and provolone) or freeze it to use later.

Sweat the onion and garlic over medium heat, in a frying pan with a whole bunch of olive oil until the onions are softened and transparent but not browned. The olive oil is not just for frying the onions and garlic but also for thinning the puree to a sauce consistency and adding some fat to interact with the umami of the concentrated tomato flavor.

Add the puree the pan, whisking to combine it with the onions, garlic, and olive oil. If it is too thick add a little water until you've reached your desired consistency. Once at that consistency and warmed through taste it and adjust the seasoning with a little oregano, salt and pepper. You could serve this over an old magazine and a with a little grated cheese, it would be delicious.

Alternately, if you want to use it to make a vodka or wine based sauce, you put the alcohol over the onions and garlic and let the liquid reduce by half before adding the tomatoes.  (Or perhaps even some tomato infused vodka if you have any, which we do, because, if you've heard, we got a lot of tomatoes this summer. How do you make it? Vodka, cut up tomatoes, time and a strainer at the end.)

One of the great downsides to our modern American food industry is that most of us, most of the time, are never challenged by ingredients. We decided what we want and then buy whatever is needed to make that from the grocery store. But, none of the world's cuisines developed that way. All the traditional recipes came from people coping with the ingredients their climate forced on them. Furthermore, the greatest recipes, especially when you start cooking animals as well, are inspired by poverty, the need to make a tough cut of meat or a strange looking vegetable into something delicious because you have to eat it or starve. Obviously, ‘riss and I won't reach that point, but having the farm share has replicated, at least in a small, safe way, a part of that challenge, and I personally think our cooking has improved because of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why I Will Vote for Barack Obama

In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama as a repudiation of the Bush administration. I believed that a popular vote reflecting a substantial majority of American voters would signal a turning point in American politics, not towards something truly just and productive, Obama is a Democrat after all, but towards a less destructive, more nuanced, more rational American government. I believed the popular vote would count for something. And it should have. The 2008 Democrat Platform was one of the most popular platforms in decades, but Republicans made a political, strategic decision to oppose the President at all cost. Whether it meant contradicting themselves, condemning ideas they once believed in, and/or hobbling all attempts at recovery and reform from the 2008 economic collapse, they would do it, as long as it got in the way of the President. In 2008, I voted for a symbol. In 2012, I will vote for a president. In 2008, I voted for what Barack Obama represented. Now, I will vote for what he's done.

Oh right, Obama had nothing to do with the deficit.
Given the intransigence of Congressional Republicans and the willingness of media to take absurd charges against the President even remotely seriously and the state of the national and international economy, Obama accomplished a lot in his first term. People have critiqued him for not celebrating his successes enough, for not selling himself to the public, but I respect him for his decision to stop campaigning to actually lead the country. It seems like every day or so, something else pops up that is really good that happened under Obama. But two things, in particular, prove to me that Obama is an excellent president, with the potential to be a great president. The first is Don't Ask Don't Tell.

There were a lot of different ways for Barack Obama to end Don't Ask Don't Tell. As Commander in Chief of the Armed forces, he could have simply ordered an end to the policy. It was within his power to do so and many people called for it. He could have also let the courts decide, as was already beginning to happen. Legislatively there were also lots of different ways to do it, including just repealing the original legislation. But the legislation let the military investigate the issue and lead the end of the policy itself. What they found, as we now know, is that integrating openly homosexual soldiers in the armed services would not compromise combat readiness. All of the other ways of getting rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, likely would have worked, but by letting the military manage the eradication of the policy, the Obama administration exposed the homophobia and bigotry at the heart of the policy in the first place. Those who would seek to re-institute the policy must somehow prove that homosexuals in the military are bad for the military even when the military says they're not. Furthermore, this allowed the military to fully prepare for the change in policy and gave it the opportunity to make changes should the need arise, and, well, have you noticed Fox News hasn't said much about the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Don't you think if there were any hint of controversy at all, Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, and the rest would be shouting about it? They've shouted about much less. The point I'm making is not that getting rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is good policy, it is obviously good policy, but that it was implemented in the perfect way. Obama understood the idea and saw the path to its fruition. Add in that Obama instructed the Justice Department to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court and it's clear Obama has laid the groundwork for a major advancement in equality. You can see this in the other policy successes of this administration; rescuing the automobile industry, investing in renewable domestic energy, making progress in immigration reform, etc.

Secondly, I think the administration's handling of the Libyan revolution in particular and the Middle East and foreign policy, in general, have been excellent. Yes, there has been conflict, there has been violence, and yes, we have not been able to broker peace in Syria or Bahrain or make meaningful inroads into the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia, and yes, Americans in the Middle East are still subject to attack, but we in America have to remember just how long we have been messing with stuff in the Middle East. To put it bluntly, we have been fucking up their shit for decades. Though it doesn't come up as much as I think it should, I believe American actions in the Middle East are still hampered by the chaos we sowed when we deposed the democratically elected government in Iran and replaced it with the Shah. We armed the Mujahideen, allied ourselves with or supported Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Hussein, and continue to support the Saudi Royal family. And we invaded two Middle Eastern nations, one over the objections of pretty much everyone in the world. No President would have been able to heal those wounds in a single term. But, America was able to support the Libyan revolution without embroiling ourselves in another war. Furthermore, we have, somehow, managed to maintain cordial or at least respectful diplomatic relations with nations, Pakistan most importantly, while we kill their citizens with un-manned drones. The Middle East is a complex, conflicted, and chaotic region going through dramatic change and the Obama administration was able to support the emergence of two democracies (one more quickly and decisively than the other) in under four years without committing thousands of American soldiers to battlefields. Oh yeah, and, finally, began winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officially ending combat operations in Iraq. How many of the wars did Bush see through to conclusion? The Obama administration, lead by Hilary Clinton, picked up the tattered remains of international standing and restored this country to a level of diplomatic respectability. I mean, our diplomatic standing around the world was so shattered by the Bush administration, Obama got a Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up. The Obama administration hasn't solved all of our foreign policy problems yet, but voting against him because of remaining problems is like benching a guy for not hitting a home run off Christy Mathewson.

To Liberals Who Are Thinking of Not Voting for Barack Obama

Well, technically he was President in January
There is this meme of being disappointed with the President, of having such high hopes in his presidency and not seeing those hopes realized. My question to those of you who are thinking of not voting for him because of this is, exactly what should he have done differently? Congressional Republicans had nothing to gain, politically, from good faith policy negotiation with Democrats and so they did not negotiate in good faith. They demanded change after change after change in legislation and still blocked its passage after their demands were met. Republicans in the Senate filibustered more than any other group in history. And the President can do nothing about a filibuster. What would being tougher in policy negotiations have achieved when policy had nothing to do with negotiation? What would making a stronger case to the American people have achieved when the most popular cable news network gave air time to death panels, birthers, and creeping sharia law? And a strong case before the American people still wouldn't break a filibuster. As shocking as this is going to sound, the Obama administration was as liberal as possible. We all know (still talking to the disappointed liberals here) that a much larger federal infrastructure program funded by the expiration of the Bush era tax breaks on income over $250,000 and temporary increased deficit spending would have restored the strength of the economy, but the economy did not collapse as it seemed about to and we are, finally, starting to see some growth. Oh, and our renewable energy production vastly increased. We also all know that a single payer universal healthcare system is the most cost efficient way to solve our nation's healthcare problems and that, barring that, a non-profit, federally administered health insurance option is the best way to ensure some level of price control, but the healthcare reform that was passed has helped millions of Americans and, as parts of it continue to roll out, will slowly improve our private system to the point where the only step available for further improvement is nationalized universal health. If you want to blame someone for just how moderate Republican the policies of these four years was, blame Ben Nelson, not President Barack Obama.

One more note to disappointed liberals. If you're not buying this and you have decided not to vote for Obama, please, please, please, vote for Jill Stein of the Green party. You probably agree with everything she stands for anyway. And if we want the course of American policy to tilt to the left, we are going to have to demonstrate the liberalness of the American population and you're not going to do that by sitting out the election.

To Those of You Planning to Vote for Mitt Romney

“47%.” “#RomneyShambles.” “legislation that I know of.” “Corporations are people, my friend.” “Etch-a-sketch.” “$5 trillion.” That infamous video also includes him saying he would take advantage of an Iran Hostage Crisis type situation if one arose. At the beginning of his campaign, before all the Republican primaries, I saw Mitt Romney as a moderate Republican and a competent executive and administrator. I didn't agree with many of his policies as I understood them, but I felt that, at the very least, he wasn't going to drive the car over a cliff. What I have learned is that Mitt Romney is radically disconnected from the American people, living his life in a milieu of obscene wealth with a belief structure befitting the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age (who at least built libraries). The only thing I truly believe that Mitt Romney truly believes, is that he deserves every single dollar he has ever made, no matter how he got it, no matter how he protected it from being taxed, no matter how he sought at every step to minimize his personal risk, no matter who else was being hurt by it; Mitt Romney sees his wealth as proof of his quality and doesn't have any idea why the rest of us would question it. Some of you may believe Romney's radical self-interest is the exact engine we need to improve our society; that Romney is just an expression of capitalism and capitalism is the way to go. To you I say, what if the nurses at your local clinic all felt the same way? Or your town's fire fighters? What if you lost your job and there were no unemployment benefits or food stamps? What if your president only thought of himself?

When seen through this lens, a lot of Romney's actions make “sense” to me. He's not releasing his taxes because he doesn't think we have any right to know how he made his money and what he did with it. The money itself is proof of his quality. He's not being specific about the tax loopholes he'd close to fund his tax cut (which would somehow be revenue neutral and maintain the percentage of total income tax paid by the wealthiest, which makes you wonder why he's proposing it at all), because he believes he'll just be able to fix it when he gets in office. He says whatever he wants to say, whether it's true or not or whether it contradicts a previous statement he made or not, because he believes he deserves to be President and will do whatever it takes to get elected. It's not that Romney is a hypocrite or a flip-flopper, it's that he believes in the fact of his own presidency and everything else is what you pay accountants to handle.

Finally, a vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for the most cynical political techniques I've ever seen. Congressional Republicans put their own elections far ahead of national interest, Fox news gave air time to every preposterous accusation leveled against President Obama often after those accusations were refuted, in the most important speech of his life VP nominee Paul Ryan lied his face off (telling lies that had already been debunked), and Romney himself has changed his positions on pretty much everything depending on who he's talking to and when he's saying it. A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for win at all costs campaigns and if he wins, Democrats will have to adopt them in the next election cycle and Republicans will almost certainly escalate. If you're disgusted with how this campaign has gone, a vote for Mitt Romney will ensure the next will be twice as disgusting.

Ultimately, though, there is really only one point to this post. Barack Obama will be a better president than Mitt Romney and that is why I will vote for Barack Obama.