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.