Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Sotomayor Hearings: In Defense of Wise Latinas

I'm with Sen. Russ Feingold when he said earlier this week that, "At this point, perhaps we should all accept that the best definition of a 'judicial activist' is a judge who decides a case in a way you don't like. " And I'm also with Sen. Al Franken when he pointed out that "Justice Clarence Thomas voted to overturn federal laws more than Justices Stevens and Breyer combined" during the Rehquist era. I'm with these statements not simply because I'm especially fond of Midwestern Jewish liberal politicians (although that's part of it), but because both comments get to the heart of the matter surrounding the false furor around Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the past few months, we've seen the entire concept of what it means to be an 'activist' judge largely determined by voices in opposition to some of Sotomayor's decisions or supposed political leanings. And since the majority of Sotomayor's decisions have landed her squarely in the centrist/moderately liberal camp, there's little for opposing senators to introduce as evidence when voicing their displeasures. Given the solid majority Democrats hold, there's little any opponent could do to block the nomination, anyway.

So what we've witnessed is an increasingly monotonous parade of senators and politicians either falling over themselves with praise for her "remarkable American story" or sternly wagging their fingers at her inopportune remarks on "Wise Latinas" and questioning her capability at remaining blissfully bias-free and non-prejudiced in cases placed before her. The fact that Sotomayor is a female and a minority while the suddenly prejudiced-panicked are nearly all white men should be amusing, but it's not. It's too familiar to be funny.

These hearings are meant to be occasions to explore a judge's record, to scrutinize controversial decisions, lapses in judgement or glaring oddities within the official record. This is why the Ricci vs. DeStefano case is important to the current proceedings - it represents both a recent and controversial decision in which Sotomayor took part, and a decision later reversed by the Supreme Court. This reversal, of course, doesn't mean Sotomayor's opinion was "wrong," but it does suggest an occasion in which her judgement may have been flawed or compromised. I find the Ricci case to be a fascinating example of the twists of logic needed to sort out contemporary quotas based on race and ethnicity in the work force. I am also fascinated by how passionate white politicians get about questions of discrimination whenever it involves fellow white individuals. At any rate, Sotomayor should be made to carefully explain her reasoning behind the Ricci case, as well as her decisions in such cases as Center for Reproductive Law and Policy vs. Bush (which she decided in favor of the Bush administration and the controversial abortion-limiting Mexico City Policy). And yet, we've seen little discussion along these lines (at least Feingold pressed her on post-9/11 court decisions). The main interrogations of the day have followed three related paths - questioning the "Wise Latina" remark, asking whether or not she has a bad temper, and the constant refrain that Sotomayor will be unable to approach cases fairly and without personal bias.

These questions nearly all stem from comments made by Sotomayor outside of her courtrooms, either in public speeches or during interviews. And while any comment made by a public individual is certainly a fair target during confirmation hearings, this willful disregard of her decisions strikes me as odd - much like judging a candidate for a restaurant's head chef position by peeking into their home refrigerator and asking what sort of take-out they prefer rather than sampling their showcased dishes or perusing the menu. Either the Republicans truly believe that Sotomayor's record means nothing and that personal behavior counts for all, or they're aware of how bleak their fight is and are determined to sling as much mud as possible to achieve some form of personal satisfaction. The "Wise Latina" comment has, in my opinion, been willfully misconstrued, and replayed ad nauseam in the press and online. One can debate whether or not this line represents Sotomayor at her most insightful or eloquent. I'm of the opinion that the sentiment made quite a bit of sense spoken in the context of her speech at Berkeley during a Cultural Diversity Lecture. As Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and John Cornyn stumble all over themselves denouncing this rhetorical flourish as emblematic of dripping racism, one has to wonder - what are they so shocked about? Is the mere suggestion that a female or a Latino - or, even worse, a female Latina - might possess the capabilities of making "better" decisions truly an unthinkable position?

Perhaps being married to a strong woman in a male-dominated career area (doubly so - military physicians exist in work zones dripping with machismo) has made me more sensitive to the subtle and not-so-subtle methods men in power use to denigrate, test, dismiss or punish women they find threatening or simply more competent then themselves. I hear it in the patronizing voice used by Sotomayor's examiners. I hear it in the consistent referrals to her "temper" and "difficult nature" (as if Scalia and Alito are simpering wet noodles on their respective benches), as clear a codeword for "bitch" as you're likely to come across on the public record. I hear it in Lyndsey Graham's comment to Sotomayor that she'll almost certainly be confirmed unless she has "a complete meltdown" - language typical when demeaning feminine emotions and the "weaker sex's" propensity for hysterical behavior.

Yet the most distasteful aspect of this entire third-rate circus is the smugness of white southern Republican politicians glancing down towards Sotomayor and questioning whether she has it in herself to ever achieve the prejudice- and bias-free satori possessed by Sens. Graham, Sessions and Cornyn. The suggestion that personal diversity and gender differences might benefit the high court - might inject understanding, empathy and knowledge currently in short supply - is being painted as a pathway into chaos. While any judge must aspire towards impartiality, achieving this perfect state seems both unlikely and unreasonable. And yet, apparently, Justice Scalia is emblematic of the intelligent robot, trusted to be completely impartial and to possess no life experiences that might have any bearing on any decision rendered whatsoever, while a minority candidate - a woman, a Latino, both - arrives smothered in a lifetime of choking bias and prejudice, unable to produce a coherent thought without first mentally considering how it might benefit the "movement" or her fellow brothers and sisters in the barrio.

Perhaps we should see as a sign of progress the fact that no politician on the right has challenged Sotomayor's intelligence or capabilities, or that nobody has raised the once-common charge of "tokenism". I suspect this has less to do with Sotomayor's own impressive record and more with the fact that the Republican wing of American politics has lately proved expert at producing tokens to suggest some movement towards inclusion. One could mention the sorry nomination of Clarence Thomas, whose confirmation hearings are largely remembered today for the national debate on sexual harassment brought about by Anita Hill's accusations, but one should not forget that the majority of the debate surrounding Thomas dealt originally with his undeniable lack of experience (mere months on the federal bench, no published books, articles or briefs, having never argued a case before the high court, and boasting the lowest ABA rating of any confirmed nominee since the 1950s), and his quiet tenure on the court since 1991 has backed up these concerns (he once went 3 years without asking a single question). One could also point to the brief and disastrous Harriet Miers drama, in which a Bush lackey with little intellectual heft and zero judicial experience was hoisted up to replace the great Sandra Day O'Connor. And one could note the sad saga of Alberto Gonzales, at one time considered a candidate for the high court, yet a man of such questionable abilities and judgment that his tenure as Attorney General was little more than a farce starring a lightweight who had gotten in well over his head. No, when it comes to tokenism - that is, offering positions to individuals regardless of ability but with an eye towards quotas and forced diversity - the right owns it.

If the Republican party wants to suggest they are more than a regional gathering of southern white Christian males, they could do better than to line up against the first minority nominated to the Supreme Court in eighteen years, or the first woman in sixteen years. In a perfect world, I'd like to see a Supreme Court made up of individuals that truly represent the variety and diversity of our nation of 300 million. I'd like to see a panel of women and minorities pick apart the dinner comments of a white judge or cast doubt upon their ability to rule fairly. Mostly, I'd like to see Supreme Court confirmation hearings that are less about theatrics and playing for the cameras (the ass-kissing competition courtesy of the Democrats hasn't exactly been riveting viewing, either) and more of examining the record. As it is, the proceedings are little more than clumsy swipes at any meaningful dialogue on diversity or justice.

In the spirit of goodwill and humor, I'll finish this lengthy venting of spleen by quoting another favorite Jewish liberal of mine (although he's neither Midwestern nor a politician) -

You know it pisses me off a little
That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world
To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother...

Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either

-Randy Newman
"A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"

Monday, July 13, 2009

Beating the Heat

Friends hailing from parts more eastern or northern often are surprised to hear that we San Diegans largely do without those bulky and polluting additions to contemporary living, the air conditioner. The fact of the matter is, I sweated far more during my summers in central Wisconsin and upstate New York, largely due to the extremely uncomfortable humidity levels and the lack of cool breezes in those locales. Here along the coast, humidity levels can get high, but the breeze is almost constant, and so one merely needs to find shade in order to remain cool (in fact, even the calmest sea breeze can bring on the goosepimples). Living as close to the beach as we do, I like to tell people that we rely on the largest air conditioner in the world - the Pacific Ocean, just five blocks away. And given the area's complete lack of bugs, we simply leave our doors and windows open to catch the breezes, and thereby stay comfortable throughout the year without the use of rattling air conditioners.

Still.....there are summer days when the air conditioning can't quite keep up, either due to the intense heat billowing over from the inland valleys or due to the relative lack of breezes earlier in the day (the winds always pick up in the afternoon). And when mid-July rolls around, the morning fog and clouds of early summer give way to clear skies that allow the warming sun to beat upon our house throughout the entire day. And this is when the heat begins to become noticeable.

We've learned several tricks to stay comfortable. The back section of the house receives by far the brunt of the sun's force, and most in the later part of the day when the heat has reached maximum power. We've discovered that by simply closing the door to the back laundry room and "greenhouse," the vast majority of the increasing heat remains trapped inside, keeping the rest of the back section pleasantly comfortable. On truly hot days, the entire kitchen broils, so we've learned to shut off that section between 3 PM and 8 PM. Needless to say, the use of the oven or stove top is greatly discouraged during these periods - cold meals or the outside grill suffices. We have several fans throughout the house, from a ceiling apparatus to smaller and larger varieties of box fans. Water and lemonade is consumed in large quantities, and our wine selections make obvious movements towards the white. The front porch becomes a place of refuge, especially now that we've pivoted our chair and tables to catch the eastward flow of sea air. And, of course, when we begin to irreversibly wilt from the heat, we take a brisk walk to the beach and jump into the water for an instant dose of cooling. Our Pacific waters never exactly warm up - just yesterday, the temperature was still cool enough to take our breath away momentarily. But the surfers have begun shedding their wetsuits, and it's no longer only the tourists running into the waves. We gladly dodge the sting rays and stinging jellys (and the stray piece of human detritus) to enjoy the greatest outdoor pool in the country.

I feel lucky that Ocean Beach is resting at a rather comfortable 78 degrees while I write this, even as the nearby inland valleys reach the 90s and the deserts shimmer at 113. Still, the breeze hasn't kicked in yet, and I'm running low on lemonade. Time to hit the beach.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

13 Reasons One Needn't Go Hungry (Or Thirsty) in O.B.: The Dining Options of Ocean Beach, San Diego

We OBecians (yep, real word) get a lot of slack from other resident San Diegans for choosing to inhabit the "hippie" section of town, a place where VW vans and patchouli oil far outweigh military-regulation haircuts and designer eye shadow. And, for the most part, we like it like this. When you live in a city as conservative and sometimes as reactionary as San Diego, it's nice to know there's a place you can go where there is always a black light being reflected off a Jim Morrison poster, a white dude taking the dread-lock plunge, something by Sublime playing in a passing car. But where some of us really do take issue is with the casual slander that there's no restaurants in O.B. And I'm not just talking the locals - I've seen our slice of real estate get completely left out of national guide books or mocked openly on television (I remember a pancake breakfast on some morning program in which the anchor cracked himself up with some well-rehearsed line about you "bet you'd never thought you'd hear the words 'Ocean Beach' and "cuisine' in the same sentence, did you?").

Well. Allow me. I'd like to wrap up the recent flurry of food-related posts with a rare foray into boosterism as I offer 13 well-reasoned ripostes to the smugly condescending types who suggest we beach types get by strictly on Ramen and carrot juice. We may not have the gastronomic delights or farm-to-table fare of such culinary hotspots as North Park or Hillcrest (or the overpriced tourist slop shoveled out in the Gaslamp or La Jolla), but below find a baker's dozen of recommendations that will satisfy all but the most refined of pallets. And mine's pretty damn refined.

1) Ranchos Cocina, 1830 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.
Part of a local chain offering vegetarian and vegan-friendly Mexican country cooking (although meat eaters will find plenty to placate them), this location offers a cornucopia of traditional and not-so-traditional dishes. Lots of olive oil, not so much lard. Just spicy enough. And fabulous Mexican hot chocolate for foggy beach mornings. Rumor has it they no longer serve the shiitake tacos that once brought in the true believers - say it ain't so!

2) The Vine Wine Bar & Cafe, 1851 Bacon Street
I'm being honest here, so I'll admit that this wine bar doesn't have the selection, quality or prices I look for in wine. They have several options for flight tastings that can be fun, and if you dig around you can find several worthy bottles. But I don't come here for the wine. It's the menu that really makes the place. I recommend the Vine Burger, a glorious mouthful of beef and crisped bread. Or the dueling varieties of pate, either mushroom (yum) or "Shannon's Super Sexy" (chicken liver, double yum). And their beer list (bottled, no draft) is solid - Avery, Bear Republic, Lost Abbey, yeah.

3) Kaiserhof Restaurant & Biergarten, 2253 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.
As a prior Wisconsinite and German-American of good standing, I'll admit I've had better German food back in Milwaukee and even Appleton. And although I enjoy a heaving bosom as much as anybody, enough with the Bavarian wench outfits already. Still....the onion rings are wunderbar. The schniztelette gruyere and calves liver are for true believers. And bring on the Oktoberfest releases.

4) Nico's Mexican Food, 4918 Newport Avenue
This is the real deal - a few tables, no website, frequented by everybody from barefoot high schoolers to construction workers on their way to a local site. The burritos are king - I fancy the breakfast burritos especially. Nothing fancy - just potatoes, melted cheese, egg and greasy sausage. A mere $4.13. Add an horchata and you're set for the day. The other big draw are the rolled tacos - 4-6 crisped taquitos layered in cheese, guacamole and hot sauce. When my wife returned home from her 7-month deployment, she insisted she get intimate with Nico's rolled tacos before she'd get intimate with me. No kidding.

5) Olive Tree Marketplace, 4805 Narragansett Avenue
True, a grocery store, not a restaurant. But a fantastic grocery store with a great deli - we're especially partial to the dolmades. But this spot gets the nod for their truly world-class beer and wine selection. Great deals and far-flung offerings - I've seen craft beer here that I've spotted nowhere else in the city. Just picked up some hard cider and Stone Anniversary Ale today.

6) Jungle Java, 5047 Newport Avenue
Mere feet from the beach lies the best place to grab a cup of joe in O.B. And not just for the rotating selections of high-quality brewed beans on drip (or the excellent deals available for day-old pastries - fiscally-challenged, take note). The place also doubles as a garden supply store and boasts dozens of nooks and crannies to squeeze into or hide in while consuming the hot brew. I always grab a seat in the front - some of the best people watching in O.B.

7) Azucar, 4820 Newport Avenue
The newest addition to the O.B. food lineup, this "Cuban Style Patisserie" would be welcome if all it offered were the meat pies and cafe cubano that can be had for under $1.50. Except, there's more. Lots more. Such as the greatest selection of pastries and cupcakes and ridiculously decadent desserts in town. Weep over the flan de queso. Splurge on the cinco leches. Gobble down a red velvet cupcake. The window display caused a friend to ask her husband if she could "be a bad vegan".

8) Ortega Cocina, 4888 Newport Avenue
Hands down, my opinion, best Mexican food in Ocean Beach. Tight little spot, a few counter spaces, a few booths, some outside tables thrown out once in a while. Freshest ingredients are used, with awesome mango fruit juices available for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast options - I love the Ortega scramble (sun-dried tomatoes and rich cream cheese) but often spring for the chorizo scramble. And dinners? I still recall the entire fish I once consumed one emotional evening, the two of us huddled under a quilt we dragged out of our car's trunk.

9) Newport Pizza & Ale House, 5050 Newport Avenue
It's possible they'll lose some of their thunder if and when the much-rumored Pizza Port moves in down the street later this year, but for now, this is the place for pizza in Ocean Beach. I'm a New York pizza kinda guy myself, but these guys toss up some decent pies, and you gotta love the names they've come up with for their offerings (the all-cheese pizza is the "David Hasselhoff," the all-meat pizza is the "Ron Jeremy"). And their draft and bottle selection of beer literally kicks ass - "No Crap on Tap" is their motto, and brother, they preach true. Spotty service, but that's O.B. Go grab a slice.

10) O.B. People's Organic Foods Market, 4765 Voltaire Street
This wonderfully self-satisfied cooperative market has been a neighborhood staple of Ocean Beach since 1971, and goes a good way towards defining our hippie spirit. The produce is fabulous, their guilt-free coffee selections awesome, the vegan muffins...not so hot. But I'm here to give it up for their second-floor deli, which keeps pushing out serving after serving of foods both flavorful and healthy. In the mood for raw kale salads? Tempeh stir-fry? Look no further. And I make weekly treks for their breakfast potatoes, where one can feel righteous and decadent at once.

11) Livingston's Chicken Kitchen, 5026 Newport Avenue
They make great chicken here, as the name would suggest, and they come with those greasy proofs of the existence of a higher being called jo-jos. But I visit this literal hole-in-wall joint for the gooey bean & cheese burritos and their light, flakey fish tacos. And to watch the drunken patrons from the adjoining bar try and place their orders while standing upright.

12) The 3rd Corner, 2265 Bacon Street
Slightly off the beaten path in O.B., this place doubles as an excellent wine retail shop (extremely fair prices, world-class selections) and a solid bistro. Even better, with the retail offerings scattered attractively in crates throughout the restaurant, one gets the chance to browse and select one's wine with the bottle in hand, not merely on the menu. $5 for corkage gets you retail-priced wine instead of the usual 50% - 200% mark up common at most places. And the bistro menu? Cheese boards, a glorious ham and brie sandwich, decadent short ribs. The friendly and helpful staff will guide you along. A real treasure.

13) Hodad's, 5010 Newport Avenue
Maybe someday, they'll get a web page up and running. Doesn't matter. This is the grandaddy of O.B. hangouts, one of the few remaining examples of old-school Southern California burger joints, and home to the grooviest inner decor (mostly mounted license plates) in San Diego. You've come across it in various books ranking the best USA burgers, maybe watched it featured on Food Network, seen it ranked in the nation's Top 10 burger joints courtesy of What you get are massive mouthfuls of perfect burger - the mini-burger alone could set you back for a few days. The milkshakes runneth over. The local beer options arrive in jam jars. You'll probably stand in line for the better part of a half hour, and it still won't be long enough. All hail the majesty of Hodad's.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mizuna Salad / Roman Bread: More Recipes

Some friends over on Facebook requested specifics for the photos I tantalizingly placed of last night's front-porch supper, so recipes follow. As the summer kicks into high gear, produce starts to ripen, and meals utilizing both our CSA box and local gardens need to accommodate large amounts of food that might not last through the night before succumbing to both the heat and their own juiciness. Last night's creation used a healthy clump of vine-ripened tomatoes from a neighbor and a bag of fresh mizuna courtesy of the farmer's box. The idea was to create what I've dubbed a "sort-of salad" - all the major ingredients of self-respecting salad, but deconstructed, so to speak. For those not yet acquainted with mizuna, this tasty green is a Japanese delight, a little less zesty than arugula (which would make a fine substitution) and pleasantly leafy. The pesto dressing was made far in advance - Jane makes large batches and pours the mixture into ice cube trays to freeze, leaving us with perfect little dollops that we transfer to containers in the freezer. They quickly defrost and can be added for flavor weeks and even months down the line.

Mizuna Salad with Tomatoes and Pesto

3-4 large vine-ripened tomatoes
1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts
1-2 tablespoons pesto
1 large bunch mizuna or other peppery salad greens
juice of 1/2 lemon
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt & pepper

Slice the tomatoes into large chunks and place in large mixing bowl. Slice artichoke hearts and add to bowl. Mix in 1-2 tablespoons pesto, and stir to coat. Add salt and pepper and leave to sit.

Wash mizuna and clip off extreme stem ends, then dry. Create vinaigrette using olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and seasonings, then pour over mizuna. Toss to coat.

Layer tomato-artichoke-pesto mixture on one side of serving dish, and the mizuna greens on the other. Season if necessary.


The other part of the equation last night was a gorgeous loaf of Jane's homemade bread. Since she first stumbled upon the recipe for "Roman Bread" (based partly on my desire for some kind of flat loaf with dinner), it's become a favorite. It's amazing how something consisting of such basic ingredients - flour, sugar, salt - can prove so overwhelmingly good. This recipe utilizes a bread machine for the first section, so adjust accordingly based on skill and / or bravery.

Roman Bread

makes 2 pound loaf

(for dough)
1 1/2 cups water
4 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon SAF yeast
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon bread machine yeast

(for topping)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons rosemary (dried or fresh)
coarse sea salt, for sprinkling

1) To make the dough, place the ingredients in the pan according to the order in the manufacturer's instructions. Program for the Dough Cycle; press Start.

2) Brush a large baking sheet with olive oil (very important, prevents sticking). When machine cycle ends, press Stop and unplug machine. Immediately remove the bread pan and turn dough out onto the baking sheet. With oiled fingers or rolling pin, press and flatten the dough into a 1-inch thick oval. Cover with plastic wrap (or not - we tend to leave it uncovered) and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 40 minutes.

3) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (if using a baking stone, place on the lowest rack and preheat to 425 degrees).

4) Slash the top of the dough with a knife into a tic-tac-toe grid, 1/2 inch deep. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle the rosemary over. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. After removing from the oven, sprinkle with the salt. This bread tastes best immediately after being removed from the oven.


The mizuna salad was purely my own creation. The Roman Bread is courtesy of Beth Hensperger's "The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook," and apparently hails from the Casa Vieja restaurant in Tempe, Arizona. The wine in the photo was a 2008 Sauvingon Blanc from Frog's Leap in Rutherford, Napa Valley, and I'm afraid I don't have the recipe for that one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Recipe Time: Squash, Southern-Style

Throughout the year, Jane and I find ourselves struggling under the accumulated weight of squash - yellow squash in particular. This past week found us staring at a heap of the little guys, along with a not-inconsiderable mound of onions that had found their way into our kitchen through a friend emptying their pantry before a large move. Clearly, simply dicing up one or two for breakfast alongside eggs and coffee wasn't going to cut it. We decided to take drastic measures. It was time to make a Southern-style attack - namely, butter, brown sugar and a long saute. The result is not for those who prefer their vegetables crisp or those of the vegan persuasion. But it'll taste like candy to the rest of you. Guaranteed to win over even the most vegetable-wary.

Squash and Onions, Southern-Style

2 large yellow squash (we used more)
2 medium to large onions
2-3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Slice the squash into rounds, dicing the larger chunks. Cut onions into similar slices.

Add butter to a large pan and warm over medium heat. After butter has melted, add onions and cook until soft, 4-5 minutes.

Add squash, salt, pepper and brown sugar. Stir, then cover. Cook for about 20 minutes, until the squash has become very soft.

Remove lid and cook for another 7-9 minutes. By this time, the liquid in the pan should thicken into a glaze. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Bad Vibes

It was a bad week for Quincy Jones, the famed composer, arranger, producer and performer. On June 25, he lost one of his greatest and closest collaborators, Michael Jackson, with whom he helped craft several remarkable albums, including Off The Wall and Thriller. Then, five days later, on June 30, Vibe magazine, which he founded in 1993, announced it was shutting down operations. That's a lot of African-American culture to lose in one work week.

I was never a subscriber or even much of a reader of Vibe, but the impact the magazine had on the cultural landscape may partly explain why I didn't need to be. One of the stated goals at the publication's founding was to insist upon greater cultural respect and media coverage for hip-hop as an artistic force, not just as the latest noise or sign of impending apocalypse. In an era dominated by hip-hop style and entertainment, in which nearly everybody's grandparents have at least heard of 50 Cent, the need to assert hip-hop's credibility may seem ludicrous. Indeed, hip-hop has become so mainstream in 2009 that one might argue it stands in as de facto American culture, for better or worse. Yet when Vibe was launched in 1993, rap music and culture was under pretty heavy fire from cultural critics and the powers that be, with plenty of media types hyperventilating over Ice T's "Cop Killer" or N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton while remaining blissfully unaware of such classic contemporary offerings as De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising, Digable Planets' Reachin' or Stetsasonic's In Full Gear, to say nothing of earlier classics by EPMD, Boogie Down Productions or Eric B. and Rakim (Public Enemy got decent amounts of coverage, although largely thanks to the ignorant spew coming out of Professor Griff's mouth rather than the full sonic barrage of Chuck D and Terminator X in full glory). Looking back to the early 1990s, just before the sludge of G-Funk arrived via Southern California and replaced James Brown breaks with George Clinton synth blats, one wonders why more mainstream critics weren't actively pushing the fact that hip-hop was truly entering a Golden Era and enriching popular music to an extraordinary degree. Vibe was one voice in the midst making the point.

The loss of the magazine is, of course, tied to both the larger economic downturn and massive shifts in ad revenue suffered by the print industry. Other music magazines have shuttered in the last year, including Blender and No Depression. But No Depression was a bi-monthly publication catering to a defiantly non-mainstream subgenre. Vibe was pretty huge, with a circulation over 800,000. In fact, one could argue that Vibe had become too large - so mainstream and image-conscious that it had become more of a glossy spread for overpriced clothing ads and movie tie-ins than a place to analyze cultural trends. I'm not sure how much impact the magazine was making upon the hip-hop scene during the last few years, and it seemed like the gritty and stubborn pride of old had been replaced with a slick corporate line that ultimately revealed the utter conservatism and profit deliberations at the center of much contemporary hip-hop.

Still, those ads were specifically and deliberately aimed at African-American audiences, and one simply doesn't come across many other mainstream publications doing the same. Will there be a replacement for hip-hop style in any print offering? Or have the online purveyors once again claimed victory? I sense a great loss as our cultural voices and critics see their publications shuttered and their talents scattered across the messiness of the Internet - a review here, a review there, lots of blogging without pay. That's not the way to achieve any kind of critical consensus on matters artistic or otherwise. Rather, our current situation resembles a noisy free-for-all, defiantly rejecting editing, fact-checking or simple reflection as mere "compromise". Such an approach may be good for the democratic spirit, but seems bad for intellectual health.

So, we've reached the point where dashed-off rants on IMDb and vie for bandwidth with the carefully crafted words of columnists and critics. Yet we've also reached a point in which one of Vibe's final issues carried a front cover photo and article on Eminem. One could point to this as yet another compromise, with a magazine founded to celebrate black culture reduced to propping up yet another white entertainer. Yet I think it says more about hip-hop's ascendancy within the greater culture - an ascendancy that Vibe partly helped to arrange.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Quite a Pickle: How We Spent Our Saturday

About a year ago, we first received a small handful of gorgeous pickling cucumbers in our much-beloved weekly farmer's CSA box, and lacking the proper equipment, knowledge or free time to launch a large-scale canning operation, I cast about the Internet for some "quick pickling" recipes to help turn our cukes into dill pickles. These recipes generally consisted of copious amounts of dill, garlic, sliced onion and spices along with a heavy brine, and required only a day or two of sitting and a few days of refrigeration before being ready to consume. To my surprise, they were awesome - crisp and flavorful, if not quite as brine-soaked as long-term honest-to-god pickles.

It's once again the season for these types of cucumbers, and when our CSA farmer sent out an email offering bulk prices for larger orders, we decided to make the plunge. A mere $15 brought 10 pounds of perfect pickling cucumbers to our door (well, the farmer's market where we pick up our box). All that was left was....everything else, including a crash course on canning and preserving. I scrounged around for recipes and tips and ended up purchasing my very first "For Dummies" book, while Jane made a special trip up to Escondido to the delightful Hawthorne Country Store, overflowing with canning and preserving supplies in addition to things like live baby chicks (which Jane almost scooped up - I told her to wait until we do some research on local zoning laws and how many chickens one can legally own). She came home with a massive water-bath canner, jar rack and jar lifter. I visited the local co-op for Mason jars and the ingredients needed to make a brine and induce the pickling (dill, garlic, peppers, etc.). We were set.

10 pounds of cucumbers can pose a formidable cleaning and scrubbing challenge. Given Jane's childhood memories of preserving and drying, she was much more used to the sight of such large quantities of a single food item than I was.

After much scrubbing, the cucumbers were placed in cold water with ice cubes and salt to help chill and crisp them before the pickling.

The Mason jars were also cleaned and readied for use.

Surprisingly, I found the peeling of individual garlic cloves to be the most tedious exercise of the entire endeavor. I'm normally a master at peeling garlic, but our two heads proved to be somewhat finicky. The recipe I chose called for two cloves of garlic in each jar of pickles, one at the bottom and one on the top.

We decided to slice our cucumbers into individual spears for pickling, rather than keeping them whole, mostly for issues of space. Jane set about the monumental task of slicing 10 pounds of cucumbers.

Another herculean task was actually getting the water in the water-bath kettle to come to a boil. I suspect we used more gas on this day than we did during the entire month of June. And on a warmish Southern California day, the heat within the room soon became noticeable.

I chose a recipe that would offer a little bit of a snap. Each jar would have one dried red chili pepper and a garlic clove on the bottom....

...along with handfuls of dill and a variety of spices (I alternated between peppercorns, cloves, bay leaves and mustard seeds). Several of the recipes I read noted that placing whole grape leaves inside the jars helped maintain pickle crispness, and while I have no idea why this might be the case, I decided to take advantage of our grape vines growing in the backyard. We carefully cleaned the leaves, sliced them lengthwise, and placed one of the bottom and one of the top of each each jar.

All the while, my homemade brine was boiling on the stove top - a thick concoction of salt, vinegar and water (a later batch made use of apple cider vinegar, which offers a milder taste). Jane used her new jar rack and jar lifter to introduce the jars to the hot water in order to avoid cracking or breaking - a common problem which we managed to avoid.

With the jars stuffed full with cucumbers, dill, garlic, spices, peppers and grape leaves, the hot brine was ready to be poured in and the lids and screw bands tightened.

One of the most important steps of the entire process was to use a non-metallic spatula to help release air bubbles within the brined jar. Trapped air causes liquid levels to drop during heating, which may result in improper head space for the cucumbers.

Finally, the filled and lidded jars were placed within the jar rack - seven for each bath.

These were placed into the boiling water bath, where they needed to sit, completely covered, for a full 10 minutes of boiling before being removed. They were then moved over to our kitchen table for cooling.

We ended up making 19 quarts of pickles, working from 9:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. For our last batch, we sat around the kitchen table and waited for the welcome and wonderful sound of our jars signalling we'd done everything right - the satisfactory "pop" as the cooling jars sealed themselves and safely contained the products inside. This gentle thunk means the difference between a batch of semi-preserved food that must be consumed within a week and a batch that will safely keep for upwards of two years. Every single jar sealed properly, thanks, perhaps, to my gentle chiding.

We'll have to wait at least six weeks before we'll know if our brine and ingredients were combined properly to create tasty dill pickles. I have no doubt that at least some of the 19 jars won't be the finest offerings on the market. But it was a good first try at a somewhat vanishing skill. Our cucumbers now rest in the darkness of the study closet, tucked away into a corner of the house that suffers the least amount of sunlight or heat. Come August, we'll start to sample. If we're pleased with the results, some of you may well receive some jars of homemade pickles as autumn commences.
Our next farm box, due to arrive tomorrow afternoon, apparently comes with a new (small) batch of pickling cucumbers. I have no idea what we're going to do.