Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Somebody Call A Palm Muting Lobbyist: Beating Back Socialism One Cookie Monster Vocal At A Time

It’s not often one stumbles across the unveiling of a heretofore unsuspected niche voter bloc – the kind of individual who triggers the salivary glands of wonks and pollsters, the special interest specimen who makes NAAFA adherents (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, of course) or members of Jews For the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO, although not the only JPFO out there) look like hopeless centrists of the most mainstream variety. But once in a blue moon, in the vast parking lots that stretch across this great land, one uncovers a voice from the wilderness, a transmission from the darklands, a distress call wrapped in the cloak of extreme individuality. Behold that most democratic – nay, populist – form of interpersonal communication – the bumper sticker.

My discovery of the Stealth Voter came about by pure accident, as I pulled into a parking spot just alongside the Mission Valley BevMo, on a root beer errand for a thirsty duo. I can’t identify which store in the shopping plaza our Stealth Voter was patronizing, although I’m fairly certain it wasn’t David’s Bridal or Chevy’s Fresh Mex. Golfsmith is a distinct possibility, as is the Gordon Biersch Brewery, but this is all guesswork. All I have to go on are the impressive litany of complaints and enthusiasms plastered along the car’s backside, pasted together with little regard for order or feng shui, but a dedication to Here-Am-I pronouncements. The vehicle was a 93 Ford Festiva. There was a pizza box sitting on the dash. The driver was utilizing The Club.

I offer you the Death Metal Libertarian.

(The following lists the entirety of present bumper stickers, divided between sides of the vehicle, running top to bottom. I had a notebook. Footnotes are offered to parse cultural memes.)















[1] Possibly indicates moderate beliefs, as “millions” is less than “billions”. Side note: is there a bumper sticker mimicking the McDonald’s logo that reads, “WELFARE – MILLIONS AND MILLIONS NOT EARNED,” or did I miss my calling as a creator of politics of resentment stickers?

[2] Black/speed metal band, Norwegian in sound while British in origin. Lead singer is Dani Filth, debut album entitled The Principle of Evil Made Flesh. Even better is the title of their 2001 epic Bitter Suites to Succubi (which I guess passes for humor in the speed metal world – wouldn’t want to crack too big a smile, you might never stop). Words fail when confronted with the 2003 EP Vempire or Dark Fairytales in Phallustein. Again, possible hint at moderate views, as Cradle of Filth are, technically, foreigners.

[3] Meaning possibly obscure – sticker badly peeling on one side, might well be “Coatwhore”. At any rate, Goatwhore seems likely – Louisiana black metal outfit. Latest release is 2009’s Carving Out The Eyes Of God. Actually sounds like fairly typical late-80s hardcore to me, although with song titles such as “To Mourn and Forever Wander Through Forgotten Doorways,” you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a collaboration between Jim Morrison and Sylvia Plath.

[4] Pretty self-explanatory, although the wit of “NOBAMA” is sort of lost with the subsequent effort to turn “no (to) Socialism” into one word.

[5] Ultimately suggests an earlier phase in the Death Metal Libertarian’s record buying habits. Although, Bon Scott certainly didn’t sit around waiting to be taxed to death, right?

[6]Two responses suggest themselves. One, how incongruous that such a devotee of the English language should find meaning and ultimate satisfaction through the medium of death metal lyrics, surely one of the least language-bound and most incomprehensible styles of performance in modern culture. Two, can I have your Hollenthon cds then?

[7]Have to admit, this is pretty impressive – the death metal equivalent of bumping into a booklover who keeps bringing up Edward Whittemore or Ugo Foscolo. A side project for members of the dissolved Dark Angel outfit, with exactly one cd to their name, released over ten years ago. In case you’re curious, Dark Angel broke up due to lead singer Ron Rinehart’s health concerns, the details of which have been summed up by a fan or perhaps band member on their brief Wikipedia page thusly; “he was forced to retire from music because the doctors told him he shouldn't sing again if he wanted to walk, thus ending Dark Angel's reunion”.

[8] Unclear. United States Snooker Association? University of Strathclyde Student’s Association? The lead-off song on the B Side to the Butthole Surfer’s 1987 classic Locust Abortion Technician?

[9] The pride of Buffalo, NY. The downward spiral of these once cutting-edge death pioneers can be easily traced through a cursory glance at their album titles, which opened the 1990s with such visually commanding entries as Eaten Back To Life and Butchered At Birth to the I-give-up-what-do-you-wanna-call-it 2006 offering Kill. It’s nice to see, however, that the boys haven’t turned all mushy in their old age – Kill features the modern classics “Five Nails Through The Neck” and “Submerged in Boiling Flesh,” which I can't quite compute.

[10] The presence of a cartoon bald eagle suggests this sticker refers to the San Diego-area program aiding wounded military personnel. The organization was created by Rick Roberts, conservative radio host at KFMB.

[11] Oddly, another non-English speaking/growling band, from Germany. 1999’s Onset of Putrefaction is considered their definitive work. Name literally means “Eater of the Dead” (Nekro = dead, Phagos = eater of). Not to be confused with American death metal pioneers Necrophagia.

[12] As of press time, Ozzy Osbourne’s stances on welfare and socialism have not been recorded. He did, however, inform the Israeli press this past Sunday that “I have no time for politics. They don't understand me and I don't understand them”. Concerning the second point of this statement, at least, I am sure both Ozzy and the owner of the 93 Festiva agree.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Yankee Fries Up Some Lady's Fingers: Crispy Okra with Tomatoes and Pesto

No matter what you want to call the edible green pods - okra, Abelmoschus esculentus Moench, lady's fingers, kingombo or bhindi - one thing most Americans agree on is that white Northerners have no idea what to do with the stuff. A staple of southern cooking and soul food, as well as South American, East Asian and African cuisine, this flowering member of the mallow family (making it a relative to cotton, durian fruits, kola nuts and cacao) hails from Africa, and indeed it is from the Bantu word for okra - kingombo - that our culinary term "gumbo" derives (while Americans tend to refer to the stew made with okra as a gumbo, other cultures simply use the phrase in reference to the pods themselves).

One rarely sees okra above the Mason-Dixon line, and this is a shame, for its uses are many. Japanese cooks use it for tempura. Haitians mix it up with maize or rice. In Pakistan, okra is served pickled or in sambar. Mediterranean cooks from Yemen to Israel stir it into meat-based stews, the Vietnamese add it to canh chua, Gujarat cuisine stir fries the pods in sugar, and Caribbean callaloo uses okra as one of its defining ingredients. In the American south, of course, okra most commonly shows up in gumbo, but it is also gloriously deep-fried.

Having come into a nice bag of fresh okra from our latest CSA farm box (we decided to swap out a head of lettuce for the newly-arrived green pods), I wanted to attempt a variation on the standard deep-fried approach I'd seen multiple recipes for. I tend to avoid deep-fried food in general, and never try to create it at home, believing quite strongly that one shouldn't attempt deep-frying unless one actually has commercial-sized equipment and copious amounts of oil. Nothing is more lame than someone's limp, greasy, pale home-made french fries.

But I wanted our okra to come out a little crispy, partly because of the satisfaction of the tempura-like crunch, and partly due to the very nature of okra itself. Okra pods are infused with mucilage, full of healthy fiber but thick and unpleasant to many people. During the cooking process, okra pods release this slimy goo, much in the same way that canned nopales offers up sticky strands of gummy liquid. I'm not the biggest fan, and that comes as little surprise, seeing how I'm not the biggest fan of what is one of the few food products actually created from mucilagonous extract - marshmallows (and as noted above, okra is a member of the mallow family - kinda cool, huh?). There are many ways around the okra goo, such as only using young, fresh pods, cooking the okra with citrus or other acidic ingredients, or simply dousing them in lemon juice (the gumbo preparation solves the sticky problem by slicing the okra thinly and cooking long enough for the mucilage to dissolve). Deep-frying also bypasses the goo, and I decided to adapt a recipe first used by famed chef Jeremiah Tower and adapted by his proteges at the Ogunquit, Maine restaurant The Arrows.

I was especially drawn to this method of preparing crispy okra because it called for a nice selection of heirloom tomatoes, which have reached their peak just outside our kitchen door. The recipe also required pesto, of which we had a few frozen containers Jane had whipped up a month ago. I've seen other variations on this recipe that call for bacon or crispy ham, but we decided the meat wasn't necessary for the meal.

I sauteed the okra a little longer than necessary, perhaps, but we enjoyed the resulting crisp-almost-burnt crunch.

It was awesome. I picked up another bag of okra at yesterday's farmer's market for a repeat performance. That doesn't happen very often around here.

Crispy Okra With Tomatoes and Pesto

5 large tomatoes, plus 6-7 cherry tomatoes, sliced
1 pound fresh okra, cut into rounds
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons of pesto (plenty of pesto recipes out there - here are some - the secret is to make in bulk and freeze)
fresh basil

1) Arrange the sliced tomatoes on plates or in bowls, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2) Pour cornmeal into a large bowl and add okra. Toss until coated.

3) Heat olive oil in saucepan over medium heat, and add okra. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Saute slowly, stirring occasionally, until okra takes on golden brown color (5-7 minutes).

4) Divide okra over the tomatoes, drizzle with pesto. Garnish with strips of fresh basil, and serve immediately.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

File As: Screenplay Treatment of Aborted Borders Purchase

Border(s)line Insanity : A Treatment



Palm trees, convertibles, distant elevated freeway, Fuddrucker’s on right-hand side – a snapshot of typical Southern California consumer zones.

CUT to 30ish scowling man (JASON) locking vehicle, turning towards off-screen shopping center. He fumbles with sunglasses case, tucks under arm.

EXT. shot of entrance to Borders Books. A few moms with strollers glancing over clearance items. Old man with wide-brimmed cowboy hat stares at JASON.


Soft, idiotic music barely audible – poor man’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, say. Large display of books dominates view. Sign above display reads: TWILIGHT HIGHLIGHTS.

JASON moves away from Twilight display table, towards adjacent shelf display. Sign clearly reads: NEW TITLES 20% OFF.

CUT to JASON POV, looking down at new book display. At least one diet book, something about bonding with cats, Bill O’Reilly’s PINHEADS AND PATRIOTS, **** MY DAD SAYS, etc.

JASON’S hand reaches out to touch colorful hardcover book - THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET. Turns to back flap, photo of author. DAVID MITCHELL.

CLOSE-UP of JASON’s face. Clearly thinking hard. Glances up at sign on display table.

CUT, CLOSE-UP of sign. NEW TITLES 20% OFF. Slight pan to new sign, also on display table. BORDERS REWARDS MEMBERS, TAKE ADDITIONAL 10% OFF!

CUT to JASON turning book over to examine back of book. ZOOM to book sticker : $26.99.

CUT to JASON moving his lips, silently doing some math (it should be obvious that this does not come easy for him).


CUT to long view of distant checkout counter. Customer’s back is turned towards viewer, cashier can be seen and heard. Snatches of “do you have a Borders Reward card?” should just barely be audible over the poor man’s Mary Chapin Carpenter.

CUT to Jason. Big sigh. Should be obvious he is not looking forward to any encounter with the cashier. He steps out of frame, still holding book.

CUT to checkout line. JASON nearly stumbles over stacked piles of junk – board games, dog calendars, coffee-table edition of book on NASA space shuttle Endeavor, plastic-wrapped trinkets, etc. General impression should be that of a Dollar Store rather than a bookstore. Others standing in line glance suspiciously at JASON, who winds around the junk maze to stand behind sunburned woman holding an elephant calendar and a Joyce Meyer paperback. Poor man’s Mary Chapin Carpenter song ends, replaced with poor man’s Ray LaMontagne.

CASHIER (male, bearded, 40s) looks up.

Can I help the next guest in line, please?

CASHIER alongside him (female, 50s) looks beyond camera.

And I can help the next guest after that!

JASON walks into frame where male CASHIER waits. Sets book down on counter.

Hi, how’re you doin’?

Great, great, great. Did you find everything all right today?

(nodding emphatically)
Yep, yep.

Was there anything else you were looking for today?

(slightly puzzled look on face)
No, this is it.

OK, do you have a Borders Rewards Card with us today?

(very quickly, shaking head)
Uh, no.

Would you like to fill one out and get started with one today?

(makes bitter yet polite smile)
No, I don’t think so. Not today.

You sure? They’re free and they just take a minute.

(kind of wincing by now)
No. Really, no thanks.

(hitting a few buttons on cash register)
OK, then, well, that’ll be $28.75.

CUT to JASON looking uncomfortable.

Umm. OK. How much was the book?

(glancing at screen, then at book)

OK, I got it off of that table over there, and it said all new books were 20% off.

CUT to CASHIER POV shot of distant table.

OK, I think what you’re thinking of is the 10% off price for all of our Borders Rewards card holders.

Well, there’s that sign, too. But that’s an additional 10% off. The sign says all new books are 20% off.

(his smile is fading a bit)
You need to be a Borders Rewards card holder for that additional 10% off.

Exactly. I don’t need the additional discount. But I picked up the book from a table that said 20% off of everything.

(long pause)
The 10% is for Borders Rewards card holders.

(shorter pause)
There are two signs on that table.

(really long pause)
Why don’t you show me what you’re talking about?

CASHIER and JASON walk over to display table. JASON awkwardly steps over boxes of trinkets and $3 coffee table books.

POV of sales table. Sign clearly reads NEW TITLES 20% OFF. Adjacent sign on table clearly reads BORDERS REWARDS MEMBERS, TAKE ADDITIONAL 10% OFF! CASHIER and JASON look at sign for a few seconds.

So, I see the whole additional 10% is for members, but I was looking at the 20% off sign.

But that is only for books on this table.

JASON leans over, picks up copy of book in question, sitting directly under the sign. CASHIER looks at the book, then back at the sign.

I think the 20% off thing is for Borders Rewards card holders, too.

Both the 20% and the 10% are only for members?

I think so.

On the same table? That’s 30% then.

(thinking silently)

I don’t see why it would be two separate sales on the same table. And both only for members, if only one sign says something about it being for members.

I guess I could see how somebody might get confused.

I’m not confused. I think the signs are confused.

I imagine somebody could say it was a little misleading.

I grabbed it because the sign said all new titles were 20% off. But they’re not. That’s more than a little misleading. It’s actually kind of a mess.

I think only some of the books on this table are on sale. They have another special sticker.

(silent, continues looking at sign)

We might be able to get a manager out here to talk to you about this.

(making a very nice smile)
No, no, look, I’m not trying to get a manager out here, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m not going to complain. I’m just not sure how this table can have this sign if the books are not actually on sale.

They are on sale for our Borders Rewards card holders. Some of them are on sale for Borders Rewards card holders.

For 20% off? Or 20% plus 10%? Or 30%?

That’s something I’m not sure about.

It’s ok. Why don’t you just cancel the transaction. It’s not that big of a deal.

If you would fill out a form and join our Borders Rewards program –

(holding up hand, sad smile on face)
Really. It’s ok. No hard feelings.

JASON turns to walk out of bookstore. He nearly trips over giant stack of Elmo pop-up books. Steadying himself with one hand on a nearby revolving rack of English Cottage calendars, he exits store.



Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mad Beats and a Mad Professor: The Medicine Show, Nine Months In

You can list the number of hip-hop artists hailing from Oxnard, CA (official motto, "The City That Cares") on one hand with plenty of fingers left over to pull off a passable Tonedeff Fast-Finger Playa-Piano gesture, but why crunch numbers when the hip-hop artist in question is someone as prolific and daring as Madlib, aka Quasimoto, aka Otis Jackson, Jr? Now based in Los Angeles, Ventura County's finest DJ has been proudly showcasing his impeccable taste and turntable skills since first hooking up with the late J Dilla in the mid-90s. Even as the hip-hop scene has morphed into a more blatantly MC-based form of entertainment, with beats increasingly simplified and pop hooks masquerading as samples, Madlib has remained a DJ first - this despite the fact that one of his signature moves, the manipulation of the vocal track's speed, has become a rap hallmark.

Perhaps Madlib has managed to stay on the right side of the hip-hop divide thanks to his deep knowledge and appreciation of that other great wellspring of American rhythm - jazz. In a project he's dubbed Yesterday's New Quintet, Madlib and others have explored the intersection at which jazz and hip hop meet, through a combination of live tracks cut up through studio edits and sampled beats pasted in to the mix. The result is a true collaboration that is neither straight jazz nor pure hip hop, but a dank melange of improvisation and groove.

Not exactly one to rest on his laurels, Madlib has greeted the new decade with an ambitious project labeled The Madlib Medicine Show, a twelve-month/twelve-album release schedule that might exhaust lesser mixers. The odd months of 2010 see releases highlighting his own productions, from sessions with Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson to fresh cuts by Yesterday's New Quintet. On the even months, Madlib lays down new mixtapes and DJ sets, and these are the offerings I've been digging the most. Over 80-minute sets of non-stop sound, the Mad Professor defies listeners and fellow DJs to keep up with his my-vinyl-weighs-a-ton ethos.

Madlib Medicine Show #2 - Flight To Brazil

Far more than a tip of the hat to the funky bossa nova 45, this set comprises field recordings, traditional folk chants, psychedelic cuts, tropicalia and salsa singles, jazz tracks, and phase-shifted sequences of obscuro whimsy, all linked through abrupt yet assured edits. While a steady diet of heavy beats is maintained (often dropped in with little warning and just as quickly faded into the ether), this set is not merely for breakbeat addicts. Sweet melodies and murmured lyrics in Portuguese dominate as much as "Funky Drummer" loops, and the entire scene manages to avoid the excessive scratching and cutting that so often mars DJ sets helmed by those less sure of the musical quality of their selections. Simply put - a muddy, grimy, unapologetically restrained peek into the broad musical traditions of the world's fifth largest nation.

Madlib Medicine Show #4 - 420 Chalice All-Stars

What this set of reggae remixes lacks in thematic diversity, it more than makes up for in sonic consistency and pure bong-soaked hedonism. An exercise in epic crate digging and low-end bass worship, it's proved one of the more solid Jamaican mixtapes I've come across (and I've come across a few - this is far superior to some of DJ Spooky's reggae sets, and ranks alongside Bill Laswell's dub reductions of mid-70s Trojan tracks). All swampy echo, dub lines, clattering rhythm tracks and ghostly vocals, this is roots-heavy and convincingly skeptical of the dancehall revolution that has dominated Jamaican music since the mid-1980s (although Madlib doesn't ignore the style). One shouldn't come looking for a painstakingly crafted symphony of reggae moods, however, as the set has the feel of late night rec room parties, where an omnivorous host keeps switching out current tracks for ever-more obscure cuts. It should be pointed out that my description of this set as "bong-soaked" should be taken literally - released on April 20 (4-20, right?), with liner notes consisting solely of Los Angeles marijuana dispensary locations, and song titles nothing more nor less than an extended Q&A session on the various benefits Madlib ascribes to medical pot use....well, it's clear how Mr. Jackson believes you should digest this stew. I can report than a few Dark and Stormy highballs can do the trick, too.

Madlib Medicine Show #8 - Advanced Jazz

Opening with a classic routine by Lord Buckley, this immersion in the world of post-bop jazz, circa 1955 to 1975, is recommended to both seasoned scholars (who'll rack their brains trying to identify Madlib's more obscure selections) and swing neophytes (who'll hopefully discover a world of music far more adventurous, varied and appealing than mainstream culture lets on). No purist, Madlib unloads hard bop, soul jazz, Afro-Cuban, free and fusion, raids the back catalogs of ESP, Blue Note and Strata-East. Again, the beat nazis may be more than a little disappointed by the general lack of funky edits in this set, even though plenty of slinky grooves rub shoulders with pointy-headed improv. This album is more an educated tour of America's native art form than a funkster's revenge on the complexities of swing. And as a jazz fan, I dig it. I dig the cover, too - something called Jazz Cats Crossing the Hudson, with Miles Davis as George Washington overseeing a crew made up of Mingus, Coltrane, Herbie, Pharaoh and the other single-name giants of postwar jazz.

I don't need all twelve Madlib Medicine Show releases - I can live my life quite happily without his prog-rock mixset, for example, although I'll admit to being pleased by its existence - and I can't yet report on how the mixes will age over time (DJ sets often prove notoriously unable to consistently offer up new surprises after the initial listen). But it's a privilege to witness an artist effortlessly tossing off monthly updates on their craft - living proof of Madlib's innate good taste, deep-rooted adventurousness, and warped sense of humor. May the Medicine Show roll forward.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Two Perspectives on Sports as Prelude to the American Football Season

I gather from the excited background chatter of friends and acquaintances that the long American summer has finally come to a close, although not due to any change in the weather or calendar flipping after the national Labor Day observance. No, summer can truly be said to have expired when the National Football League begins airing televised coverage of the meetings between 11 men per side, 32 teams strong. Having disabled the cable box and packed away the antennae several years ago, such goings-on seem, at times, almost impossibly distant, and if I ever wish to drop in on an ongoing game to see how the San Diego Chargers are doing, the radio or Internet updates are usually my only chance (although during our stay in Ocean Beach, I could always rely on the echoing blaaaaattt of a nearby resident's industrial-strength airhorn, affixed to the side of their home and deployed during moments of celebration, to keep me in the game, so to speak). Wandering into bars or restaurants throughout the football season, I'll notice the wall-to-wall coverage of the Sunday games via literal wall-to-wall flat screen dominance, and after filing away a few notable nuggets of information - some scores, some matchups, a spectacular reception - it's time to move on to other things.

I realize that this sets me apart from many of my fellow citizens. All I can say is that it ultimately stems neither from snobbery nor masochism, but from a combination of childhood trauma and a greater desire to balance out the heightened attention given organized sports at this moment of history. The childhood trauma was nothing more than a rather typical immersion in NFL lore, common to nearly any sentient being born and raised in the great state of Wisconsin. Amid these rolling green hills and multisyllabic-named towns, the fall tradition of watching the green and gold suit up and slam it home over brats and Bud Lite is far more than mere activity or past time. It is the fabled "way of life," a phrase that gets tossed around by adherents to activities as varied as surfing and skateboarding to punk rock and cosplay. Try as they might, even the most earnest surfer or kosupure devotee cannot hope to rival the twelve-month immersion in NFL activity required by those of us lucky enough to have been born within a few hours' drive of Lambeau Field. The heightened fanaticism taking place over the seventeen-week stretch of the regular season is mere detail - true Packer Backers follow year-long off-season developments and player rumors the way Wall Street lifers track the S&P 500 ticker.

Add to this localized mania the generally national attitude that places professional athletics on a tier perhaps just below the First and Second Constitutional Amendments in terms of cultural and societal import, and you're left with somebody who admires feats of physical skill yet questions the infallibility of David Stern or Bud Selig, the way NBA draft coverage trumps updates from foreign battlefields, or the wisdom of rewarding Manny Pacquiano or Formula One drivers with $40 million in cold hard cash. And as somebody who grew up a mere forty-minute drive from the Frozen Tundra, it can be difficult to square the often-fickle nature of sports fans, who switch teams according to seasonal trades or office pools, with the fierce loyalty instilled in those of us beholden to the smallest community in professional football and the only team to remain blissfully free from the clutches of the corporate owner.

That's key - the manner in which professional sports have been wrestled away from a celebration of individual athletic ability and the nuances of a glorious game. In substitution, we witness a lolling behemoth of greed beholden to the advertising dollar, steroid juicing and weak domestic beer. If there remains somewhat more individuality at play among the September NFL lineups than are to be found on the drive-through menu at any McDonald's location, I'm sure the owners and official sponsors will soon find a way to sully and tarnish even that moderately silver lining.

Before howls of protest threaten to overwhelm the voice of Hank Williams, Jr., I should note that such sacrilegious thoughts are not solely my own. Actually, I was both pleased and surprised to note that the Roman author, lawyer and magistrate Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, had explored similar thoughts circa 109 AD in a grumbling letter to Calvisius. I reprint the pertinent section of his letter below in its entirety, as it really is too good to edit or paraphrase:

I have spent these several days past in reading and writing, with the most pleasing tranquility imaginable. You will ask, "How can that possibly be in the midst of Rome?" It was the time of celebrating the Circensian games, an entertainment for which I have not the least taste. They have no novelty, no variety to recommend them - nothing, in short, one would wish to see twice.

It does the more surprise me therefore that so many thousand people should be possessed with the childish passion of desiring so often to see a parcel of horses gallop, and men standing upright in their chariots. If indeed it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense of reason for it. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy. And if, in the midst of the course and contest, the different parties were to change colors, their different partisans would change sides and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following with their eyes, as far as they could see, and shouting out their names with all their might.

Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the color of a paltry tunic! And this not only with the common crowd (more contemptible than the dress they espouse), but even with serious-thinking people.

When I observe such men thus insatiably fond of so silly, so low, so uninteresting, so common an entertainment, I congratulate myself on my indifference to these pleasures - and am glad to employ the leisure of this season upon my books, which others throw away upon the most idle occupations.

A little distancing from some of Pliny's more class-based assumptions is probably in order - I can't say I find the "common crowd" to be any more or less "contemptible" than supposedly "serious-thinking people," and suspect as much if not more loutish behavior occurs in private luxury boxes than among general admission. I also do my best never to "congratulate myself on my indifference" to anything, indifference often being a less than noble affectation. And yet, even allowing for such caveats, the general thrust of Pliny's kvetching seems about right.

But a little softening is perhaps in order, and to that, I'll turn to another voice from the past, one a little closer in both time and culture to our own. If Pliny found local professional athletics to be silly, low and uninteresting, he perhaps misses out on the fundamental pleasures of witnessing experts test the limits of the human body in a format both structured and free. Walt Whitman suffered no such apprehension, and in a brief article first published in 1846, he remarked upon the local phenomenon of Brooklyn youth playing "base," a "certain kind of ball". Far from an "idle occupation," Whitman sees these games of "base ball" as a nearly ordained form of recreation:

Has God made this beautiful earth - the sun to shine - all the sweet influences of nature to operate and planted in man a wish for their delights - and all for nothing? Let us leave our close rooms and the dust and corruption of stagnant places, and taste some of the good things Providence has scattered around so liberally.

We would that all the young fellows about Brooklyn were daily in the habit of spending an hour or two in some outdoor game or recreation. The body and mind would both be benefited by it. There would be fewer attenuated forms and shrunken limbs and pallid faces in our streets. The game of ball is glorious - so are leaping, running, and wrestling. To any person having the least knowledge of physiology, it were superfluous to enter into any argument to prove the use and benefit of exercise. We have far too little of it in this country, among the "genteel" classes. Both women and men should be careful to pass no day of their lives without a portion of outdoor exercise.

Now, Whitman may have his own reasons for wishing that all taut-bodied "young fellows about Brooklyn" spend an hour or two in daily outdoor physical recreation - one can easily imagine him finding a shaded spot, the better to watch the games go by. And certainly the current atmosphere in professional sports is far from any idealized glory in "outdoor exercise". We play most of our games inside or under domes these days, and it would be difficult indeed to imagine our earthy poet working up much enthusiasm for media-besotted press conferences, Gatorade tie-ins and Super Bowl halftime entertainment.

Yet I'm doing my best to take a page from Whitman's ground-level appreciation of the noble pleasures of sport, while simultaneously filing away Pliny the Younger's enjoyable screed as a kind of guilty pleasure. As the football season begins, and team colors start to saturate our suburban landscape, I'll recall Whitman's admonishment that we all "leave our close rooms and the dust and corruption of stagnant places" for the relatively brighter light of outdoor recreation. Looking around my desk, I do see some dust and sense more than a little stagnation. You'll forgive me if I suggest there's also plenty of dust and maybe a bit of corruption inside the equally stagnant interiors of the local sports bar.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rojack Salad : A Malaysian Dinner

Certain cuisines demand a well-stocked pantry, and for a European-American such as myself, kitchen standbys tend to run in the direction of olive oil, garlic, basil, dill and potatoes - staples of Mediterranean and Northern European cooking. Much as I love the foods of East Asia, my larder has never exactly runneth over with the necessary ingredients for creating even a barely passable attempt at authentic Thai or Malaysian cuisine. Soy and fish sauce, palm sugar and shrimp paste have certainly made inroads to my refrigerator and cupboards, but Siamese watercress, betel leaves, galangal and tamarind water make far rarer appearances. And yet, to attempt assembling a traditional meal without such basic ingredients at hand would be akin to a Greek meal prepared sans olive oil (won't vegetable oil do?), oil-cured olives (how about canned chopped black olives?) or feta (can I substitute a few slices of cheddar?).

So when the urge for fiery Thai or Malaysian dishes arises, we either jump in the car and head north of the 8 Freeway to dine out in Kearney Mesa, or I, uh, jump in the car and and head north of the 8 Freeway to pick up necessary supplies at 99 Ranch Market, the "Chinese supermarket chain," in which I am often one of merely several white people amid a sea of nationalities, and where iced octopus bundles rub shelf space with bags of dried prawns and clumps of durian fruit (the only fruit, so far as I know, to be banned entrance to certain elevators, hospital rooms and hairdresser salons due to its pungent smell). On my last visit, I was both chagrined and somewhat pleased to note that the only Caucasian aside from myself in the building was an obese woman loudly yelling at a bemused individual behind the to-go food counter that she didn't want any rice with her moo goo gai pan because she was "allergic to rice. Aren't you listening to me?"

My latest trip to Ranch 99 coincided with a desire to assemble a nice Malaysian summer salad, a fruit-and-vegetable dish known as rojak or rujak. The word itself can be used in reference to any eclectic mix, and the salad is very flexible in the types of ingredients capable of use. I decided to follow the basic outlines of a rather traditional recipe presented in a favorite southeast Asian cookbook, but allowed myself a little creative license to pick and choose among the fresher varieties of fruit and vegetable in order to make our rojak.

A few ingredients were non-negotiable. My first step required making a fiery dressing that would chill and deepen in flavor as I prepared the fruit portion, and as with so many sauces, pastes or dressings from this corner of the world, thick dollops of shrimp paste and red chili peppers were required.....

....along with a handful of dried shrimp, which I ground into a flaky paste and toasted over the stove top.

The chilis were pounded into submission, while both varieties of shrimp paste were folded in to the mixture, to which I added palm sugar and the juice of several limes. The whole assemblage was then subjected to some pretty serious mortar-and-pestle time.

As the dressing was covered and set inside the refrigerator to cool, I set about unloading the fruits and vegetables that would make up the main body of the rojak salad. Some of the ingredients were less than exotic to me - cucumber and pineapple, for example. Others were a bit less common to my kitchen, such as a lovely specimen of jicama, which my cookbook had actually referred to as "yam bean" (which, as you can see below, makes a lot of sense).

My recipe also called for green (unripe) mango, guava, and starfruit. While I had no trouble locating some extremely nice and tart green mangoes and a decent guava, the starfruit on hand proved less than inspiring. Taking a bold leap into the unknown, I decided to leave the starfruit out and substitute papaya, given the easy availability of extra-fresh local crops. I am well aware that starfruit and papaya have absolutely nothing in common aside from the letter "a," but I am also fully aware that a fresh slab of luscious papaya is nothing to quibble over. It was added to the salad.

I also sliced up some small strips of white ginger (galangal root), a nice citrusy/soapy/ cedarbox variation on the heat and bite of regular ginger. I also sliced up sections of the bud of the red ginger - a real treat, unique to the flavors of Malaysia and surrounding environs.

With the fruits and vegetables fully mixed and a pinch of dried shrimp paste tossed inside, I was ready to dollop the red dressing over the rojak.

In the end, the salad could have been a little spicier - while my wife and I are both heat wimps compared to your average resident of Malaysia, we like to sweat as we eat. I had followed the recipe faithfully and discarded the seeds from the red chilis, but in hindsight, leaving a few in would have boosted the flavor. Nevertheless, the dressing had a lovely, slow-rising burn that increased as the meal progressed, and we found our side dish of green onion "twist buns" proved a worthy foil to the acidic sting of this very raw salad. We both agreed our rojak had at least the appearance of authenticity. As always, success was measured by posing the question, "Might you see something like this in a hole-in-the-wall East Asian restaurant?"

Rojak / fruit and vegetable salad
1 cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into small rounds
1/2 pineapple, in chunks
1 small jicama (yam bean), sliced into chunks
1 small starfruit (carambola), segmented
(my recipe included 1 medium papaya, sliced into chunks, instead of the starfruit. Utilising both wouldn't be the worst idea in the world)
1 unripe/green mango, peeled and sliced
1 guava, sliced
white ginger (galangal root), several thin strips
1 bud of red ginger plant, thinly sliced to taste
3 tablespoons black shrimp paste
8 fresh red chili peppers, seeds discarded
1 tablespoon dried shrimp paste, toasted in dry skillet
2 tablespoons palm sugar (regular sugar would be ok)
6 limes, juiced (tiny bit reserved)
1) Place chilis into mortar and mash to a paste (this took a while, and you may be tempted to use a small food processor instead. The flavor is more intense, however, if you take the slow route).
2) Add toasted shrimp paste and blend with chilis. Mix in black shrimp paste, mash fully.
3) Add sugar and nearly all of lime juice to shrimp/chili paste. Mix fully. Place in refrigerator to cool as you prepare salad.
4) Place all chopped vegetables and fruit into a large salad bowl. Add a pinch of toasted dried shrimp paste and a bit of leftover lime juice.
5) Pour cooled dressing over salad, and toss. Should be served immediately. If you have leftovers, the dressing and juices should be poured off of the main salad and stored in a separate container, so as to avoid general mushiness. The flavors will also intensify overnight, which I think is a very good thing.