Monday, May 25, 2009

Jay Bennett, 1963-2009

On a day meant to memorialize those who have sacrificed their lives in combat, it may seem a tad off-topic to offer some thoughts on the passing of Jay Bennett, Illinois musician and songwriter, best-known for his stint in the alt-country / indie rock group Wilco. Bennett's death came at the young age of 45, after a rather public battle for health insurance and the need for a hip replacement, complicated by Bennett's financial struggles after being forced from Wilco back in 2001. Sam Jones' 2002 documentary film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart chronicled this period of the band's existence, showing onscreen battles and disagreements between Bennett and singer/composer Jeff Tweedy. An extremely poignant moment in the film came after Bennett's departure, as he sings a gentle rendition of an old Wilco tune to a small audience in a folk club, as off-screen somebody wonders aloud as to what kind of a following Bennett may discover he actually has or doesn't have.

I'll admit to not being the most vocal Wilco fan, but this has less to do with their sound and ability and more to do with the rashes of critical hosannas that seemed to follow the band's every move a few years back, and also a sense that Jeff Tweedy's lyrics often failed to keep up with the enormous musical strides the band was making. In recent years, this seems to have changed a bit - Tweedy's "Hate it Here," from 2007's Sun Blue Sky, is a fantastic piece of songwriting. Yet for me the impressive nature of Wilco resided in their complex, swirling and pleasingly melodic backing, and Jay Bennett played a large role in crafting this sound. He was a fine guitar player and an even finer organ / piano player. And in an era of finely-tweaked idols and pretty-boy posturing, he looked great, too - an unkempt mess, cigarette dangling from mouth and forehead wrinkled in concentration.

If anything, the early death of Jay Bennett is just another sad reminder that the road of rock and roll is littered with plenty of lost opportunities and missed chances. Outside the stadiums and endorsement deals dwell countless numbers of working musicians, who need paying gigs to stay afloat and pay the doctor bills. It's an indisputable fact that some of the most talented musicians around are the ones holding regular jobs and living down the street. It's a sad coda to a rather sad tale.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Simple Quiz

Based on the following photographic evidence :

and the following factually accurate statement :
Jason has a major and semester-ending paper due this Thursday evening
- which member of our household would you guess is normally saddled with dish-washing duties?

Monday, May 18, 2009

An Antique 'Round My Wrist

Turning twenty-nine for the fourth time has its pleasures, like inviting a few friends over for a sumptuous meal prepared by yours truly (the bigger the meal, the smaller the guest list, unfortunately). Cooking one's own birthday feast may raise a few eyebrows, but I had a recipe I wanted to try (short ribs alla genovese, boasting a rich anchovy-onion-red wine sauce) and, at this point, cooking gives me as much pleasure as anything, so it certainly wasn't a chore. Besides, the other cook in the house whipped up a slab of roman bread and a decadent Irish Cream Bundt Cake, so it wasn't just me slaving over the hot stove. One friend brought over a whopping bottle of Russian vodka, the other a much-welcomed gift card for a certain beverage chain (one does start to sense a trend here).

But the surprise of the night lay inside the tiny box my wife handed me after we had started toasting each gift with small glasses of Greek ouzo. A wristwatch lay inside, but this was no ordinary wristwatch. This was something we'd both spotted a month or two earlier while scrounging around the antique shops and specialty stores of Escondido. Among the Bulovas, Hamiltons and Omegas lay a unique and odd-looking example of wristwatch whimsy. No name, no details, only a little note alongside indicating it was from the 1920s and a rare design. The 12 digits were squeezed into a narrow rectangular shape, with the 1, 5, 7 and 11 nearly oozing, Salvador Dali/The Persistence of Memory-style, towards the intricate moving hands. It was way out of my price range and areas of knowledge, but it stopped me short in my tracks.

Jane must have been paying attention, because she apparently made a return drive up the 15 to Escondido to claim the watch. It's now sitting next to me, fully wound, ticking away like a charm. It's a thing of beauty. I've been drawn more and more to uniquely crafted items these days, and to have something that boasts both sleek design and utter practicality is a real treat.

They say that male vanity is best expressed through watches and shoes. I have no intention of hoarding large collections of antique watches, and I probably won't be wearing this out to the grocery store or the bike path anytime soon. But it's the sort of thing I'll own until the end of my days. The fact that it was helping somebody keep their appointments before my grandparents were born and when Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House is something I still have difficulty grasping.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When the Jacaranda Blooms

One of the surest signs of late spring in the Southern California region is when the ubiquitous jacaranda trees begin to flower. Small hints of purple blooms have been spotted across the city over the past week or so, and now even our most dreary urban plots have been enlivened with this short-lived and spectacular display of color.

The technical name for these trees is jacaranda mimosifolia, or the "blue jacaranda". Originally native to South America, the sub-tropical tree thrives in frost-free regions across the world, from parts of the American South to Australia (who have a Christmas song about the jacaranda, and often refer to the trees as "exam trees" due to the fact that by the time they blossom, it's too late for Sydney University students to begin studying for their finals), and South Africa, where Pretoria is known as Jakarandastad (or "Jacaranda City") because of the enormous amount of blooms that turn the city blue each spring. I first discovered the jacaranda when making the cross-country drive from Albany, NY to San Diego in late May. From the snarling freeways darting through Los Angeles, I spotted acres of gorgeous violet/purple tapestries decorating mall parking lots, side streets and park edges. When the colors vanished suddenly as June neared its end, I felt as if I had lost a great part of what most attracted me to the area. Yet, as spring nears its end, they return.
For much of the year, it's easy to forget that jacarandas even exist. When stripped of their blooms, they are a bland and forgettable species of tree.

It's only when they begin filling in their spindly branches that most of us remember what they have in store for us.

It's hard to relate how welcoming the jacaranda blossom is to those of us who have fallen under the spell. Like spring flowers in the Midwest or the first touch of autumn color in the northeast forest, the violet blossoms stand as a gorgeous reminder of the seasons passing before us.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Refinement of the Dish; Piero Camporesi Breaks it Down

I just completed a small and fascinating volume that I accidentally stumbled across in the library a few weeks ago. The works of Italian historian Piero Camporesi have slowly become more and more readily available in English translations, and he's released a series of works exploring the ways cuisine and food evolved within European society. Exotic Brew: The Art of Living in the Age of Enlightenment might sound like a rather dull topic of study, but I was surprised at how lively, bizarre and humorous Camporesi's style proved to be. As European society (and in this book, that largely means Italy and France) moved away from the Dark Ages and into the glare of the Enlightenment, a radical shift in diet and food preparation followed, with portions changing, new ingredients flooding kitchens, and "strong" spices deemed utterly barbaric. Camporesi details the oddities of fleeting food fads, such as an earlier mania for "chickens fed on viper meat" being left behind in the mid-18th century, or the wholesale gluttony devoted to dark cocoa, in which rumors flew that the Cardinal of York drank 30 pounds of melted chocolate every morning.

Camporesi's research is stunning, and he seems to have considered every cookbook or recipe collection worth noting, along with poems and anecdotes from writers both high and low, while conducting research for this book. The recipes themselves are wonderful, if rather impractical - whimsical and poetic, such as Lorenzo Magalotti's 1762 recipe for crested peacock:

A young plump peacock caught in the wild,
dancing rings round thrushes and buntings:
Take a thick chunk of fresh lard
whose rind is dyed Brazil-wood red
and was reared on the slopes of the Alps
making the lard thick and plentiful.

With a knife cut the lard into strips
quite as fine as vermicelli:
for the finer you slice it
the tastier your lard strips will be.

Having carefully plucked the bird clean,
now sit down and, trapping it beneath you, begin,
with needle poised, to stuff this multicoloured
marvel both trousers and doublet.

Other recipes and dinner suggestions are even more outlandish. My favorite detail involved the cultural struggle as the nobility shifted away from the consumption of "large quadrupeds" such as wild boar and fallow deer - those "heavy and viscous meats," as Camporesi calls them. Apparently, old habits died hard, as an amusing digression on Grand Duke and chief physician Francesco Redi makes clear. Hard at work in the dissection lab, his head filled with higher notions of investigative science, he apparently could not ignore the fallow-deer brain lying in the laboratory, and "cast it sizzling into a frying pan." While his compatriots might have been horrified at the consumption of such a variety meat (dubbed "Lutheran villainy,") Redi writes with pride that the brains were brought to him "piping hot and well roasted" by his "ashamed" servant, and "after repeating this safe and careful experiment many times over," he proclaimed the fallow brain "a noble thing indeed," much better than even dolphin brains, which he had previously considered the finest in all the cerebral land, "considering that one can eat them during Lent and other compulsory fasts."

I'll leave Redi to his fallow-deer brains. But I couldn't sign off without citing my favorite passage from the entire book, a sentence as richly decadent as the food it describes (although I'll bet it sounded even better in Italian) :

A new taste, a new poetics and a new style were introducing order, measure and moderation into areas where the excesses and extravagances of the baroque imagination had created bulky, majestic and bombastic cascades of main dishes, marvels of decoration, cream-syringed rhetoric, multiple roasts a surprise, batter-gilded meats, monstrous amber-scented pies, sumptuous glace emblems, ornamented apotheoses and gelatinous tapestries of liquified lard.

"Gelatinous tapestries of liquified lard".... I don't know whether to binge or purge.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Zakuski Time

We've noticed that, perhaps due to the damp ocean air on our block, carrots don't last long once out of our farm box, going from crisp and sturdy to soft within a day. I made a pledge to tackle this week's carrots as soon as possible, and lunchtime yesterday found me paging through my Russian cookbook for options. An entire page of the book is given over to small illustrations of various examples of zakuski - hors d'ouerves or tapas, Russian style. Many called for ingredients I didn't have, but the simplest one seemed to be nothing more than grated carrots, lemon juice and oil. The book didn't offer a name for the dish or any specific directions, but how difficult can it be to assemble grated carrot with lemon juice and oil?

The carrots were beauties. They were promptly peeled and beheaded, with the remains headed for the compost bin outside.

Then came the grating. The results were fantastic - soft and fluffy. Yet as I worked up a sweat reducing crunchy carrots to silken strands (having just done the same to half a dozen beets earlier in the week), I remembered that cooking is not for weaklings. Laugh all you want, but you need to put your back into grating sometimes.

The lemon juice came, as always, from our lemon tree in the backyard.

I chose safflower oil for flavoring, although I think the preferred choice is sunflower.

And although there was no mention of it in the book or evidence in the picture, I decided to add some chopped dill. Partly for color, partly because you can't get more Russian than dill, and partly because I love it and we had a surplus.

The finished dish was about as simple as a dish can be. I found the flavors to be mild yet notable. The carrots dominated at first, but slowly the dill and the tang of lemon juice asserted themselves. I left out the typical Russian topping of sour cream - unnecessary for somebody like me who gets plenty of fat in their diet.

I held off chasing the dish with a glass of ice-cold vodka. The Russian soul in me was disappointed, but it was only noon on a Friday, after all.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Rediscovering the Masters

Literary reputations can be a fickle thing. Over the past six months, I've been revisiting or discovering several American authors from the 1920s and 1930s that had either floated below my radar or been damned through faint praise by academic canon-compilers. John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck were all, at one point or another, considered among the top literary voices in American literature, with critical reception and general readership largely positive, if not worshipful. Lewis was awarded both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize (although he would only accept the latter), Steinbeck won both the Nobel Prize and the United States Medal of Freedom, while Dos Passos was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was cited by Jean-Paul Sartre as the greatest writer of his time.

Somewhere along the line, things changed. I suspect much of it had to do with the steady encroachment of Steinbeck into middle and high-school reading lists, the decline of regionalism as a viable literary genre, and Dos Passos' own shift towards right-wing politics. At the same time, all three writers produced works that were explicitly leftist, critical of capitalist structure and profoundly sympathetic towards organized labor. By the 1980s, such attitudes were severely out of step with the national mood, and by the time I hit college, the preceding decade's conservatism and the current mode of irony-at-all-costs meant that the rather earnest efforts of Dos Passos, Lewis and Steinbeck were viewed as too distastefully engaged. Finally, in the onward push for greater multicultural diversity in American letters, several white men needed to be moved along to make way for equally worthy voices to be heard. Unfortunately, in the battles that followed, Dos Passos and Lewis, especially, seemed relegated to the sidelines, with Steinbeck shuttled off to high school along with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

There are plenty of similarities between Steinbeck and something like Death of a Salesman, and a heavy-handed approach to symbolism is one of them. The reason why Of Mice and Men and the travails of Willy Loman work so well in a high school classroom setting is that students needn't wrinkle their foreheads strenuously to determine what the crushed mouse means or why Willy Loman is literally a Low-Man. These obvious and sometimes clunky techniques cause much eye-rolling among academics, but offer precocious students their first feedback after taking apart the strands of a narrative. For me, the jury's still out on Steinbeck, although my wife recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath and found it moving, and our recent trip to the Sea of Cortez has made me curious to explore Steinbeck's non-fiction work on the subject.

But in regards to Sinclair Lewis - an author I'd long neglected and unfairly dismissed - I have found a type of kindred soul. His novels may be broadly drawn and his characters burdened with nearly cartoonishly satirical names (such as T. Cholmondeley "Chum" Frink and Vergil Gunch), but as his humor and wrath are directed at targets such as boosterism and advertising (Babbitt, 1922), the hijacking of science for corporate and investment return (Arrowsmith, 1925), and the hypocrisy of the clergy and religious hysteria (Elmer Gantry, 1926), I can't much complain.

Having just finished Arrowsmith, the chronicle of a driven and idealistic young physician repelled by the hyper-commercialized world of patent medicine and the status-driven goals of institutional research, I find I'm still relatively amazed at how accurately Lewis predicted the ways in which American medicine would continue to be held in the hands of drug companies and large conglomerates - and how snake-oil salesmen would move up the corporate ladder and into the boardroom. One needn't look too far from the inane ditties and horrible poetry composed by Dr. Arrowsmith's nemesis, the tiresome small-town booster Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh (sample snatch of verse: You can't get health/ By a pussyfoot stealth,/ So let's every health-booster/ Crow just like a rooster) to the self-help inanities blathered by Dr. Phil or the mail-in video discs of Richard Simmons sweating to the oldies. Lewis predicted an ongoing struggle between the science behind medicine and the Yankee desire to make a fast buck, and I was struck by how often his observations, made nearly 85 years ago, seemed as up-to-date as the evening news.

Of John Dos Passos and his U.S.A. Trilogy, which I spent much of the month of January devouring, what can I say other than the three books are a masterpiece of American literature and that anybody still searching for the mythical "Great American Novel" had better set aside some time to absorb the 1,151 pages that make up The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money. Wildly experimental, yet deeply character-driven, they chronicle lives caught up in the surge of history with both a dispassionate eye and a true concern for the working classes. If Sartre praised Dos Passos' ability to present the lives of Mac McCreary, J. Ward Moorehouse, Eleanor Stoddard, Richard Ellsworth Savage and many others without any attempt at redemption, others were dazzled by Dos Passos' numerous "newsreels" placed throughout the novels - short bursts of headlines ripped out of context, song lyrics pasted from broadsheets, advertising notices and real-estate bromides tacked up on billboards. The newsreels were avant-garde yet hilarious, collages putting the insanity and speed of American culture up on display.

And yet for me, both the most extraordinary and the most profound of Dos Passos' many literary devices in the trilogy are his short histories or biographies of contemporary Americans, from scientists and politicians to writers and agitators. In these poetic and staggered accounts, Dos Passos laid bare the lies of American myth making and history-telling, dragging the legendary through the mud and elevating the scorned to the pedestal. These radical short pieces are far more effective than books such as James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, yet offer the same result. Thorstein Veblen's entry will make you weep, Paxton Hibben's will cause you to conduct a Google search, J.P. Morgan's will have you rushing about for torches to burn down Wall Street. And while it technically lies outside the biographical sketches, when the aftermath of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair is detailed in a blistering stream of consciousness chapter, Dos Passos delivers a single line, delivered in confusion, rage and hopelessness, that may be the finest line he ever wrote - all right, we are two nations.

These words still have the power to sting, and heal. I'm deeply chastened to have taken so long to approach them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Borrego Modern Weekend IV : Along the Salton Shores

So, over one full week after returning from the desert, I'm still finishing up posting photos of our various explorations, but this entry should be the final one. On Sunday afternoon, before making the long drive back to the coast, we set out further east to the dusty wilds of Imperial County and a drive along the shores of the Salton Sea. It's a drive I've made several times before, and the places we stopped were areas most of us had previously visited, but the ruined land and scrappy desert communities in one of the lowest geographical sections of the world always offers new sights and experiences (the agricultural town of Calipatria sits at -184 feet, officially the lowest city in the Western hemisphere). For those unfamiliar with the history of the Salton Sea, a quick refresher course can be found here. We spent most of our time along the eastern shores, where some of the most fascinating pockets of civilization are to be found.

Bombay Beach may be of the most photographed towns in all of California, thanks to the spectacular damage caused to shoreline development after one of the Salton Sea's many expansions and flooding. A sea wall now protects the rest of the tiny village from the saline waters, but the ghostly remains of a few blocks set under layers of muck are still accessible.

We found the sun-dried and dessicated remains of someone's picnic lunch drying on the shore (which itself is made up largely of the bones of the thousands of dead fish which are washed up each week).

With only 330-some inhabitants, Bombay Beach has few attractions, other then the whimsical home decorations and the novelty of seeing the majority of the population drive around in golf carts (the nearest gas station is over twenty miles away). However, one place to stop is the Ski Inn, a welcoming watering hole with a surprisingly decent tap and the constant possibility of interesting conversations. Sadly, the place had just gone on the market as the current owners have decided to retire, and its future is uncertain.

On Highway 111, heading south towards Niland and Salvation Mountain, we came across this eerie and abandoned homestead, which seemed to double as a welcoming area for extraterrestrial voyagers. We spent some time exploring the crumbling remains before getting thoroughly weirded out.

Our last stop was Salvation Mountain, a majestic and large-scale piece of environmental folk art just outside the town of Calipatria. The work of visionary Leonard Knight, the site has drawn the curious for several years before gaining mass recognition through a recent (and pretty lousy) film, Into the Wild. While the number of visitors has vastly increased thanks to the exposure, Mr. Knight remains the same humble, enthusiastic and gentle figure he previously was. I've now visited Salvation Mountain three times, so I left the camera in the car. But you can see a bit of what is on display by visiting this website. The Mountain has recently come under protection as a designated national treasure, and one can only hope that other forms of long-term preservation steps will come along. It's a wonderful piece of art in a unique section of the country.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Borrego Modern Weekend III : Galleta Meadows

As a desperately needed breather to a horrible ongoing critical essay assignment, I thought I'd post some photographs of the wonderful sculptures we discovered scattered around the vast Borrego Valley during last week's architecture tour. I had vaguely remembered reading about this project, and my friend forwarded me this older San Diego Union-Tribune article that explains how numerous steel sculptures of prehistoric creatures came to be located throughout the Galleta Meadows area of Borrego Springs. Dennis Avery, a wealthy local landowner, combined his interest in paleontology and preserving open space by buying up large parcels of land in the early 1990s, which he has primarily left alone and kept open for use during wildflower season. Recently, he approached Mexican artist Ricardo Breceda and commissioned several of the concrete sculptures to demonstrate the wildlife that once roamed this area and to bring some large-scale public art works to the open regions of the Borrego Desert. The project has been a hit with both local inhabitants and visitors, and after spotting some of the sculptures far off in the distance during our house tour, we set about discovering as many as we could. My friend points out that, looking at Avery's website, we seem to have missed a few, including some borrego sheep and a saber-toothed cat attacking a horse.

The first animals we spotted, far off in the distance on Saturday afternoon, was a cluster of camels and llamas.

The following morning, we headed off in the direction of some primitive pachyderms - the gomphotherium.

More camels, and a mother-and-child giant ground sloth could be found just up the road.

Our final encounters were with the missionary, Father Francisco Garces, and the nearby giant tortoise and the mildly disapproving Aztec God.

The interplay between the sculptures and the arid desert landscapes was something to behold. No doubt there are plenty of the real-estate types who've dragged the country's economy into the sewer who see such projects and open space and wonder how many split-level developments they could cram into the valley. I'm glad individuals like Dennis Avery can see beyond such sort-sighted plans and recognize how much things like open sculpture parks add to communities. As my friend wrote me in an email, paraphrasing the original newspaper article - "All hail the whimsy of multimillionare Dennis Avery!"