Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The one-time, irreproducible, crazy-local gourmet recipe: or, I can do that

Make no mistake. I like food magazines. But sometimes they are annoying. For every simple recipe for something good, like say "Apricot Clafoutis" (which sounds mysterious but is essentially pancake batter baked in a pie dish and topped with fresh apricots -- Food and Wine, August 2015) they provide six more which look stupendous in color photographs but which the average cook won't reproduce because she is not inclined to rush out to that organic textile/non-GMO bison farm in upstate New York -- or outside Portland or Seattle or Nashville -- where that up-and-coming Manhattan chef spends his summers getting away from it all and thinking up new "small plates" sourced from his twenty-acre experimental locovore garden. I'm talking about, but will likely never make, recipes like Cherry and spring onion salad with Asian fish sauce, Peach, burrata, and pickled pepper salad, Red cabbage and fried Mortadella Okonomiyaki, Ajo bianco with crab and green grapes. We're getting into the July issue here.

We're also talking about a fussy complaint that the editors of Food and Wine could shoot down in a jiffy. If the magazine annoys you, they would say, 1. don't read it, 2. recognize that it's meant for entertainment, and that's why we have test kitchens, 3. recognize that novelty and creativity drive the restaurant business, 4. recognize that this level of novelty and creativity eventually drives new products down to the supermarket level, which is where you shop for foccaccia and Brie, dear (it's the famous "blue sweater scene" from The Devil Wears Prada all over again), 5. recognize that only a day's -- only an hour's experience transforms an ingredient or a technique from something you consider crazy-progressive-stuffed shirt into something you know and like, a la clafoutis; and 6. then go buy Woman's Day. Rock those hamburger casseroles.   

But you see the reason I bring up the fussy complaint at all is because I think recently, on a small scale, I cracked the code. I did what the chefs and the food writers do: assemble an unusual, irreproducible food or drink item from a handful of ingredients that I happened to buy all at once but that few other souls are going to have ready in their homes. Voila: food as literary and artistic entertainment. The up and coming chef.

Up and coming mixologist, rather. What I bought all at once, and on vacation at local shops, were just sweet, orange-fleshed "Simka" Japanese plums and a small bottle of Spice & Tea Merchant's Blood Orange pepper. What I had ready at home, as who doesn't, were rum, lemons, and sugar. The professionals who relax on the farm by tossing cherry, onion, and fish sauce salads may laugh at my clumsy dumping together of all this... stuff. But I made a new type of Rum Sour.

Simka plum and blood orange pepper rum sour

1 to 2 Simka plums, peeled and sliced in halves
good pinch Spice & Tea Merchants Blood Orange pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
juice of one lemon
1 jigger (3 Tbsp.) rum

Muddle one of the plums in the bottom of a rocks glass. In a cocktail shaker, combine sugar, lemon juice, rum, and pepper. Add ice and shake gently to mix. (Too much shaking anesthetizes flavor, which is why, contrary to James Bond's instructions, you do want to shake and anesthetize the flavorless but powerfully alcoholic vodka martini.) Strain into the rocks glass, garnish with a toothpick stuck with the other peeled plum halves rolled lightly in more pepper.

Incidentally the Spice & Tea Merchants' store reminded me a bit of the WineStyles store where I got my start in the wine industry. It's another franchise, each shop meant to look like a local entrepreneur's idea, each shop laid out the same way -- dark and rustic in this case -- and stocked with the same products. The franchise fee to join and get started on the path to opening your own store is $17,500. My question is, who would imagine that demand for these particular spices and teas is such that a store like this can stay in business more than a few months, anywhere, tourist mecca or not? There was small enough demand for the wine, all those years ago, and chances are if you bother buying a bottle of wine, you will use that up faster than you will use a jar of blood orange pepper. Quaint and interesting, to be sure, but next time I'm on vacation if the store is still there I'll buy something different. There must have been a thousand quaint products on the dark, rustic shelves. They've been open a year. The matter in my jar was solidified, to be fair perhaps because, according to the ingredient list, so much of the "pepper" is sugar. Still. I was the only customer in the store. I wonder when was the last time they needed to place an order for re-supply?

And -- startling thought -- could lack of demand and irreproducible, crazy-local recipes have something to do with the fact that so many of the chefs and mixologists in Food & Wine seem to bounce around so from one awesome gig to another? They are all young and happy and at one with the land, but have resumes as long as rap sheets.   

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Behind stars

This is the view out the cottage door.

These are bluegills, under the pier. I tried for an artistic shot by just aiming at the water -- I tried for a lot of artistic shots, by just aiming at the water -- and what do you know.

This is the view over your head, when you are relaxing on the lawn chair in the afternoon. You've seen blue sky and trees before, but I like to capture exact things. Perhaps it's the historian in me.

Sometimes there were clouds. Magnificent ones. Morning or evening, didn't matter.

I walked around the lake. I met a handsome rooster. I swam.

I took selfies. Tried to be artistic there, too. The young fashion bloggers would have "rocked" something other than a tank top, I suppose.

Away across the lake is an elegant property that always reminds me of some shimmering, time-warp affair from the eighteenth century. The white house, secluded in the trees. The gazebo, never used. The gentle watery jungle at the shore. Swans.

I imagine ladies in long sacque gowns (the Augustans never thought of anything so vulgar as a hoop skirt) trailing down to take tea or maybe champagne in the gazebo, accompanied by gentlemen in breeches and striped waistcoats. No powder in the country, surely. They would find everything "extreamly pleasing."

I bought an eighteenth-century lady's diary at the secondhand bookstore in town. She was Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland, 1716-1776, and her Diaries, or a redaction of them, were published by George H. Doran Co. in 1926. Only in the vigorous 1700s, it seems, will you find ladies recording bluntly, Went home voided a large Stone. Tired to Death. Went to Ball; tired to Death. A bad supper. Miss Townsend drunk. Or, having such interesting evenings as this:

We returned home & after Dinner, Ly. M. gave an Acct of her Husbands brutal usage of her -- beating, pinching, & kicking her; having an intrigue with her sister, who offered to put Ly. Mary out of the way if he would go to live with her abroad.   
It makes one, as the Duchess might say, entirely asham'd of one's own Reflections, which seem to go on for years all about Struggling with one's Feelings, &c., &c., and are dull and mewling in comparison. To be fair -- to myself -- the eighteenth century provided any diarist with experiences and sights which make effortlessly vivid reading now, but which they probably would have been glad to be spared. One day in November 1765 her Grace saw an opera singer perform, a woman named Spagnoletti. Imagine this:
The Spagnoletti was as ugly as the Devil, half her Face being burnt away she supplys it by Pasteboard, has a Glass Eye, dresses like a Gorgon and is as hoarse as a Raven.
Wellllokaythen, as we mewlers say today.

For five days I was unplugged from the world of news and wise men's commentary. I came back to stories of the kind of evil, taking place in our own country, that we used to shudder at and call satanic when our and our allies' troops uncovered it in the enemy's liberated concentration camps two generations ago. Who is the "technician" who cut a baby's face open with scissors to extract his brain for research? Why isn't he -- or God help us, she -- on trial for crimes against humanity? Yes, to mention this is jarring amid the water lilies, but the testimony exists. No eighteenth century person, duchess or otherwise and vigorously aware of right and wrong, would have ignored it. I dare say if any one of them could step forward from their gazebo on the water, the first thing they would do is slap all of us full in the face. And it wouldn't be a silly gesture.

I went out at night to see the stars in a truly rural environment, and was rewarded with a view of the Big Dipper that I never get from my suburban balcony. Of course there were many more stars and constellations I don't know; it can be really freakish to look up long and patiently and begin to see a three dimensional picture, to see distance in space: fainter stars behind faint stars behind stars. I stayed out long enough to accustom my eyes to the darkness, and discerned the Milky Way. Our galaxy, edge on. Imagine being able to see the spiral. Are there wondrous planets where that fills the night sky? Ignorance in the age of the iPod queries also: does the Milky Way always stretch, for us, in the same direction across the same quadrant of the heavens? Does it always appear as I saw it, thickest overhead and tapering off a little to the east of the North Star? (Which I only spotted because in grade school we still were taught that the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper point to it.) Or can it "move"?

Later, I ventured out in the very small hours, 3 a.m. in the wilderness, because when am I ever in the wilderness? -- and had the satisfaction of seeing, in the oddly not black but sepia-gray night, that the Big Dipper had gone from its place in the southwestern corner of the rim of trees around the lake. A sort of triangular collection of bright stars had moved from above the eastern treeline to the nighttime zenith. Then a creature, a heron I think, squawked closeby with that scratchy sound like a giant door creaking open. I thought I must have disturbed the bird's nighttime fishing, and I crept back inside. But I witnessed: so it's true. Stars and things do vanish from east to west as the earth turns on its axis. Perhaps that, or some character's ignorance of that, could play a part in my Michigan mystery novel. At the bookstore along with the Duchess' diaries I bought Whitney's Star Finder (Knopf, 1989), by Charles A. Whitney, "Revised, Updated, and Expanded for 1990 through 1995."

And there are a hundred other things. What are the aquatic plants that grow in freshwater Midwestern lakes, what are all the roadside flowers  -- above is chicory, we think -- that surround them, what are the fish in them? What are the bugs making that clacking sound all night, like the teeth of a cogged wheel turning and scraping rhythmically against something? Somehow one thinks the Duchess of Northumberland would have known most of this. Especially about the stars, maybe. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Are you?

Are you a diary-keeper? O gad. Have you ever gone back and read them? 

O gad. I can tell you a few things. You were a nicely righteous preteen. "Why didn't God give Hitler a heart attack?" Then, you learned the words bitch and fool, and everybody was one. But you also snapped, and pasted in physical pictures of, your backyard. They have endured and kept their color, folded into a dime store notebook for thirty-five years.

You copied out song lyrics, such that, even now, looking over what seems a bizarre obscure poem will quickly put a long-forgotten melody and a voice and even backing orchestrations right back into your head. Like so.

There's a house
On a hill
By a worn down weather'd old mill
In the valley below where the river winds
There's no such thing as bad times
And a soft
Southern flame
Oh Cotton Jenny's her name
She wakes me up when the sun goes down
And the wheels of love go 'round,
Wheels of love go 'round

Later on things got a bit more serious. You gushed gaily in simple French -- et pourquoi? -- when you were in love with your much-too-older community college professor. Of course he hated Ronald Reagan, and liked to refer to the president and his wife as "Ronnie and the Empress Dowager." Such an original mind. Later, you wrote anguishedly in worse French when you didn't want posterity to suspect you had any doubts about true love, or where it lived. You had to consult your high school French dictionary to understand how to write je suis tres, tres, fachee. But, later again, "I'm almost sure I'm pregnant" came in plain English. This was back when home pregnancy test kits were not yet totally reliable.

What's most curious is that, having via all this scribbling purged from your mind whatever you wanted to say about bitches, fools, love, professors or song lyrics, -- when you chance to re-read it, what you chance upon seems to get branded into your mind for good. From time to time you may have had the idea of "going over your old diaries," typing them up for history's sake and for safekeeping. But it's just this fear of what you'll re-find that stops you.

So you might buy an old cedar chest, and put them all in there. You even toss in an old passport, your only one ever. That's what cedar chests are for.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The August moon

The miserable Lucia started a run of extreme bad luck about this time, of which the adventure or misadventure of the Guru seemed to be the prelude, or perhaps the news of her want of recognition of the August moon, which Georgie had so carefully saluted, may have arrived at that satellite by October. For she had simply 'cut' the August moon ....
E.F. Benson, Queen Lucia (1920) 

Strange bits of old knowledge always fascinate, don't they? Writing in 1920, E.F. Benson was still familiar with some sort of folklorish custom in which one "saluted" the August moon. No moon phase is specified, whether new or half or full; no one is saluting the January moon or the harvest moon. August, only. Failure to do so brings bad luck.

I don't know if July's second full moon, the blue moon, counts as part of August's too. Certainly it seemed rude, in a cosmic sense, not to sit out on the patio with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese, and admire "that satellite" as it rose, a gleaming mother-of-pearl gold against pale daylight blue sky, and then turned its usual, sophisticate's brilliant white-on-black. "Like a jewel hung in ghastly night," as Shakespeare said (Sonnet 27). You have seen better pictures of it, but far be it from me to "cut" it in any way.

The wine was 2013 Selbach-Oster (the producer) Zeltinger (the town) Himmelreich (the vineyard) riesling (the grape) kabinett (the harvest designation -- first time through the vineyard, to be followed, if the winemaker thought it wise, by 'spatlese' and 'auslese') halbtrocken ("half-dry"). It all means that a riesling's mild, kabinett sweetness was cut not only by the grape's natural acidity but also by a kind of firm, stony core. It's when wines have this that you enjoy drinking something more interesting than grape juice.

One final thought: I was all set, today, to go on a righteous rant about the Traveler Beer Company's beer, "The Illusive Traveler." I thought, for heaven's sake, modern craft beer is far, far too much in the hands of ignorant young men who still think, for example, that the raised-fist "Revolution" theme is cool (umm, hint: you won --  your glorious President is now going to outlaw coal -- "revolution" now means dissent against you), and who don't know grammar. "Illusive" Traveler? Dear things -- my fatheads -- do you mean elusive -- to elude, to be hard to find? Do you mean a traveler who isn't there, hence illusionary? Do you mean a traveler whose courage and adventurousness are to be copied, and is therefore illustrative?

Here is what Traveler Beer's marketing department says:

Driven by an unquenchable thirst for discovery, the Illusive Traveler often disappears for weeks at a time without telling a soul of his destinations. Not friends. Not family. No one. And each time he returns, he unveils new, wonderfully refreshing beers with great aplomb.
When pressed to reveal his travels, I.T. changes the subject or dodges the question by refilling the inquisitor’s pint glass with his latest recipe ....

I was fully ready to believe that a major company had created a product and done all the marketing and gotten the product on the shelves, all the while a glaring, end-of-civilizational error had escaped everybody's (that is, all the young men's) notice. But -- in fairness to myself, as Georgie would say -- and in fairness to all, I did my research first. Perhaps my salute of the moon protected me, or perhaps I was just well-trained by seventh-grade English composition teachers.

I opened the dictionary. It turns out there is such a word as "illusive," Adj.: illusory, unreal.

There. No rant. When I am wrong, I own it, as Lucia very nobly would say. This doesn't mean civilization isn't ending, for one wonders how it can exist without coal, or with a glorious President who loathes the thing itself. But at any rate we know that the young men in beer marketing departments still use dictionaries. I can't believe they knew the word for its own sake.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...