Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Story

I think this happened when I was eight or nine, so it would have been 1964 or '65. That year I had my best costume ever. In one of the closets of our apartment I found a New York Giants baseball uniform that one of my older brothers had from the 'fifties. But I had a perverse imagination even at that age, and it wasn't enough for me to go as a baseball player. I decided to wear a skeleton mask too and claim I was the ghost of one of the dead Giants. I asked my brothers to give me the names of famous dead baseball Giants. I settled on Mel Ott.

My friends and I were power trick-or-treaters. These were the days when it was safe to go around ringing doorbells without parental escorts. A group of five or six of us would go around to a bunch of the six-story buildings in the neighborhood, starting at the top and working our way down, ringing every bell. Our takes were prodigious.

Occasionally, one of the adults would ask, "Who are you?" Sometimes I replied, "The ghost of Mel Ott," and sometimes just, "Mel Ott."

That year, at the end of the night, my shopping bag was fuller and heavier than ever before. I was thrilled. I got home and boasted to my mother of my haul. I left the bag on the kitchen counter and went to sleep.

The next morning I ran into the kitchen, ready to start working my way through the Halloween candy, but the bag was gone. What could have happened? I figured one of my brothers must have taken it. But they were eight and twelve years older than me. I knew they wouldn't have stolen it, but maybe they hid it, as a joke. Both brothers, however, denied any part in the candy's disappearance.

I went over the apartment with a fine-tooth comb. I looked in every closet, every drawer, every cabinet, and under every bed, but the bag was nowhere to be found. It remained an unsolved mystery for weeks. After a while I pretty much forgot it.

A little after this, my brother Bart got a major fright when he went to the bathroom one night and saw a giant rat drinking out of the toilet. This rat was as big as a cat, he said. At first my mother wouldn't believe him. "This is no tenement," she said.

But soon there were other sightings and evidence. So my mother went out and bought mouse traps. That's right, mouse traps; little mouse traps. And she placed a little square of kosher salami in each of them, perhaps assuming a rat in a Jewish neighborhood would have Jewish tastes. In the morning the salami would be gone, the trap sprung, and the rat nowhere in sight.

Finally she realized she had to call Manny the super in to investigate. Manny moved the refrigerator out from its alcove. Behind the refrigerator was a big hole, leading down to the basement (we lived on the first floor). Also behind the refrigerator was my Halloween shopping bag, ripped to shreds, with only a subset of the original contents remaining, Milky Ways and Hershey Bars half-eaten, with big rat's teeth marks through the wrappers.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What's Purple?

Remember those stupid old jokes, like:

Q: What's green and dances?
A: Fred Asparagus.

or

Q: What's green and sings?
A: Elvis Parsley.

or

Q: What's purple and conquers the world?
A: Alexander the Grape.

Well, I've got a new one for you:

Q: What's purple and a total dickhead?
A: Joe the Plum.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

True Vindaloo


You may think you've tasted vindaloo, but if you've only had it in a U.S. Indian restaurant odds are it bore little resemblance to the dish as it's prepared in Goa, where it originated. Many people are under the misapprehension that a vindaloo is nothing more than a very spicy curry, and that's how it's treated by many Indian restaurants: a tired, brown curry, made with a pre-ground spice powder, with a little vinegar and a lot of ground chile added. A true vindaloo should be a deep terracotta red, slightly sweet and sour, very hot-spicy, and made with fresh-ground and chopped spices. As hot as a vindaloo is, when done right the spiciness will not overpower the other flavors in the mix, as it often does in your usual curry joint vindaloo.

The name vindaloo derives from the Portuguese term "vin d'alho," or garlic wine (roughly pronounced "veen dalyoo"). "Vin d'alho" (or, alternately, "vinha d'alho") originally referred to a stew of (or a marinade for) meat, usually pork, and was made with red wine. In the colonies, where wine was less easy to come by, vinegar was substituted, and in India local spices were added (the Portuguese dish was not spicy). Due to a linguistic false cognate, the Goan version came to include potatoes. You see, the word for potato in Hindi is "aloo," and over time Indian cooks came to assume that the "aloo" in vindaloo meant that the dish had to have potatoes. In Goa, where much of the population is Christian (of mixed Indian and Portuguese ancestry), pork is still the meat of choice for vindaloos. When I traveled in India, Goa was the only place where I found pork on restaurant menus. As far as I know, there's no official prohibition against pork in the Hindu religion, and pork is actually quite popular among the Hindu Balinese, so I'm guessing that the absence of pork in Indian cuisine is a result of hundreds of years of Muslim rule.

Every once in a while I'll order a vindaloo in an Indian restaurant, in hopes of finding something at least vaguely reminiscent of the true Goan version. I've been invariably disappointed--until I stumbled into Tadka, that is. Tadka is a tiny restuarant (11 seats) among a strip of tiny restaurants on East 53rd Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I decided to give the restaurant a try for lunch one day several months ago, and I ordered the lamb vindaloo, without high expectations. When the dish arrived my expectations were elevated. The color was promising. It looked like the vindaloos I had in Goa. And when I tasted it I was amazed. It was true vindaloo, done right. It was spicy, tangy, and had a complex, well-balanced flavor. I could taste and feel the freshness of the spices. After my lunch I called everybody I knew who might care about such things to announce that I'd found the holy grail of New York vindaloos. Tadka also does chicken and shrimp vindaloos, but I haven't tried them, and I think that in the absence of pork (which would be a tall order at an Indian restaurant) lamb is the best meat for a vindaloo.

Tadka is quite a bargain for midtown east. At lunchtime the vindaloo is $8.95 and comes with rice and naan. Dinner is an even better deal, as long as they're featuring their dine-in dinner special. For $14.95 you get your main course (larger than the lunch portion), rice and naan, plus a side vegetable and a side legume of the day (the one time I went for dinner these were matar paneer (peas and fresh cheese) and dal makhani (red beans with black daal)). Most of the other dishes are excellent too, but Tadka reigns supreme as a vindaloo destination. Tadka is a sister restaurant of the much bigger, more lavish, and more expensive Chola, on East 58th, one of the town's top Indian restaurants, so it's really no surprise that the food at this hole-in-the-wall is so good.

Tadka 229 E. 53rd Street (212) 355-9660

Tadka on Urbanspoon

America's Worst Appetizers

I don't usually do posts that are just links to news items, but this is pretty harrowing. I know that none of my readers eat at the kinds of places mentioned in the article, but it should give you a better understanding of why Americans are so fat and otherwise unhealthy.

And the winner is:

CHILI’S
Texas Cheese Fries w/ Jalapeno-Ranch Dressing
2,070 calories
160 g fat (73 g saturated)
3,730 mg sodium

Fat Equivalent: Like eating 16 Taco Bell Crunchy Tacos!

. . .The Texas Cheese Fries with jalapeno-ranch dressing has nearly two days’ worth of sodium in this one starter — and nearly four days’ worth of saturated fat.

That reminds me: I still haven't tried poutine.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Free Newspaper Pitch

At the entrance to the subway this morning the guy giving out copies of AM New York was shouting, over and over, "AM New York! You don't have to read it! Just take 'em off my ass."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Overheard in My Dream

"He has the moral fiber of an Australian haircut."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Double Date

It's a Shakespearean double date--Hamlet and Ophelia and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go to a restaurant, a steak house. It turns into a comedy of errors. As soon as they arrive, Lady Macbeth goes to the ladies' room, to wash her hands, and she stays in there for twenty minutes. And that Ophelia's such a weirdo--in the middle of a conversation she starts singing snatches of old songs. And then, every time the waiter comes to take their order, Hamlet says he needs a few more minutes to decide. And when they're finally ready to order, it turns out that Hamlet and Ophelia don't even want steak--Ophelia orders the California Platter and Hamlet says, "I'll just have a Danish." The Macbeths are big meat eaters, though, and they both order the 16-ounce New York cut. Macbeth orders his medium-rare and Lady Macbeth orders hers well done--the sight of blood makes her nauseous. While they're waiting for the food to arrive the Macbeths try to make small talk, but it's a losing proposition--Hamlet is sullen and morose and Ophelia's in her own world. And when the food arrives there's another problem--both steaks are well done. "Call the waiter," Lady Macbeth says. "Tell him to take it back."

"That's all right, dear," Macbeth says. "I'll eat this one."

"You ordered medium-rare, didn't you?" Lady Macbeth says.

"Yes," replies Macbeth, "but I don't want to make a scene. I'll eat this one."

"Don't be such a wimp," Lady Macbeth says. "Send it back!"

"All right, dear," Macbeth says, and he motions for the waiter.

When the waiter comes to their table, he insists that both Macbeths ordered their steaks well done.

"Are you going to take that from this nincompoop?" Lady Macbeth says.

"No, dear," Macbeth replies, and kills the waiter.

And then Hamlet, who has just taken the first bite of his Danish, spits it out, all over the table. "Yecch, something's rotten," he says.

And on top of everything else, the Macbeths drink so much coffee that they might as well kiss the idea of sleep good night.


This was originally published in North American Review.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pasta con le Sarde


Spaghetti with fresh sardines, fennel, breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins. A classic Sicilian pasta dish. You won't find this at too many restaurants in New York, but Joe's of Avenue U, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, does an excellent version. It's well worth the trip, and quite convenient by subway, as Joe's is right near the Avenue U stop on the F train, at 287 Avenue U, near McDonald Avenue.

Joe's is only the third restaurant where I've tried this dish. The first time I had it was at the now-defunct La Focacceria, in the East Village. Then I tried it at a humble trattoria in Palermo. I think the version at Joe's was the best among the three.

Most of the food I ate in Sicily was fabulous, especially seafood, especially swordfish and tuna. Sicilian food is, in general, much less rich than Northern Italian cuisine. For an analogy, one could say that Sicily is to Bologna as Provence is to Lyon.

Before I visited Sicily and Southern Italy, the furthest south I had been was Rome. Every time I went to Italy it struck me that the people didn't look much like Italians in New York, whose families tended to come from places like Calabria, Puglia, Campania and Sicily. So finally, when I got to Sicily I saw lots of what I've always thought of as Italian faces and skin coloring. One day I was at a cafe in Taormina, and two guys who I assumed were locals were sitting at a table next to mine. Then one of them spoke. It was not Italian, it was not Sicilian dialect. It was pure Brooklynese. "I got plenty a Vinny stories. Everybody in da neighborhood got a Vinny story."

Joe's of Avenue U Italian on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's Time to Start Thinking About Thanksgiving

I've been thinking about Thanksgiving for at least a month, but it's also time to start thinking about others. I just received my reminder letter for my annual contribution to the Food Bank for New York City's Thanksgiving Appeal. The Food Bank provides food to over 1,000 food assistance programs in the city to make sure that our less fortunate neighbors get a decent Thanksgiving meal. This year, perhaps even more than in recent years, it's crucial that those of us who can afford to make a donation do so. A gift of $25 or $35 will provide a Thanksgiving meal to a needy family in New York. Don't be a jive turkey: go for $35.

If you're not in New York, please consider giving to a food assistance program in your community. And, of course, there's always Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Prayer Booth






I stumbled upon this prayer booth in front of the Roosevelt Island tramway on my lunch break the other day. At first I thought this was a conceptual art installation, but it seems to be in earnest. My curiosity quickly turned to disgust as I checked it out. That wording on the warning, "Please avoid the booth if you are sensitive to or feel threatened by actions that are religious in nature," appeared to be a challenge. Sensitive? Threatened? No. But disgusted? Yes! How can I avoid this booth when it's in my face as I walk down the street? If people want to pray, fine, that's their problem, but prayer, like nail clipping, nose picking and maquillage, is not proper public behavior.

UPDATE - 1 PM

According to the blog Roosevelt Island 360, it is an art installation after all. I guess it's so postmodern that we're not supposed to know what statement, if any, the artist thinks he's making.

UPDATE - 2 PM

Here's artist Dylan Mortimer's statement:

My work explores how private faith functions in the public sphere. It investigates the role of private faith outside of the self. I aim to explore the boundaries of faith by blurring the lines where public expression is permitted and prohibited. My challenges lie in what it means to carry an individual belief into a world where everyone believes different things. I try to navigate somewhere between the boundaries of propaganda and censorship.

My goal is to spark dialogue about a topic often avoided, and often treated cynically by the contemporary art world. I employ the visual language of signage and public information systems, using them as a contemporary form of older religious communication systems: stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, church furniture, etc. I balance humor and seriousness, sarcasm and sincerity, in a way that bridges a subject matter that is often presented as heavy or difficult to deal with.

I’m not interested in simply reporting my own beliefs. I'm more concerned with how those beliefs relate to anyone else. I am interested in presenting ideas and issues of faith in a way that will cause the audience to question their assumptions and beliefs. The intent of the work is not to provide answers, but to create questions that allow the viewer to confront their religious and spiritual feelings.


Of course, it's clear from the above that he does indeed have a pro-religion agenda, one that has no place in public space. And that accursed word "faith!" Why do all these in-your-face religious types insist on using that euphemism? That's a rhetorical question. Of course, it's a way of skirting the establishment clause and interpretations thereof by avoiding calling a spade a spade, RELIGION, damn it! "Faith-based initiatives" indeed. The term wouldn't have seemed benign to so many if Bush had said "religion-based initiatives" (and we shouldn't let Obama off the hook for his own embrace of this direction and rhetoric). I propose we abolish the newspeak use of the word "faith" when we're talking about "religion." I challenge all responsible media to avoid the word "faith" in religious reportage unless it appears in a direct quote.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Breakfast Malfunction and a Discourse on Tipping


While in San Francisco recently I returned to Canteen for Sunday brunch. I had written about Canteen before, praising their blueberry pancakes. I sat at the counter and was handed the menu. The waitress explained that the new menu had not yet been put together and that there were certain changes. She told me that instead of the omelet with corn, chantarelles and a cheese the name of which I can't remember, they had an oyster-mushroom omelet. That sounded good, and oysters were in season, so I ordered it. When the omelet came I dug in with my fork and took a first taste, discovering that the center was cold, so I sent it back. The cook put the plate in the oven. Several minutes later the waitress returned the plate to me. The center still was not expecially hot, and as I tasted it there didn't seem to be any oysters. The omelet had corn, mushrooms and a creamy white cheese. "I think I got the wrong omelet," I told the waitress. "I ordered the oyster-mushroom omelet. There don't seem to be any oysters."

"Not oysters," the waitress told me, whose native language, I think, was not English. "Oyster mushrooms. You've heard of oyster mushrooms?"

"Yes," I said. "I know oyster mushrooms, but you made it sound like it was an oyster and mushroom omelet." The first part of the problem was that she had placed equal emphasis on the words "oyster" and "mushroom." If I were talking about oyster mushrooms I'd have put the emphasis on "oyster." And what she really should have said was that the oyster mushrooms were replacing the chanterelles in the original omelet she said they didn't have. "I'm going to send this back and order something else," I said. She hesitated for a few seconds, looked annoyed, then gave me the menu again. There was an item called "The Big Pancake," which included strawberries and vanilla. "I'll have the pancake," I said. I waited a while, and then I was presented a plate that had poached eggs in Hollandaise sauce. "I ordered the pancake," I said, my tone of voice betraying my annoyance.

"Oh, I thought you said 'the Benedict,'" the waitress replied as she took the plate away. The cook apologized and told me it would be just a few minutes.

The pancake was great--a big eggy thing with a light vanilla cream and strawberries inside. It reminded me of a cross between a thick crepe and a Dutch pancake. It ranked with the wonderful French toast of my previous visit.

After I was done the waitress handed me my check with no apology. I wasn't comped on anything or offered any extras.

Now I'm usually a reasonably generous tipper, but in this case I decided that my only recourse was to stiff the waitress. Granted, part of the blame lies with the owner of Canteen, I think. It's an esteemed, somewhat high-end place, despite its humble digs, and there's no excuse for a server with such poor communication skills at a place like that.

I can't think of more than a handful of times in over thirty years of heavy restaurant patronage that I've left no tip. In a system where we're stuck with tipping, I think one needs to put a positive spin on the practice.

Sure I find tipping an annoyance. I’d much prefer service charges to be included in the cost of a meal, like in Europe, where you know up front what you’re paying, where the German word for tip is “trinkgeld” and the French word “pourboire,” a little something extra to buy a drink, not to pay the rent. In European countries servers are paid a living wage; in the U.S.A. tips form the major part of a waitperson’s living wage. So we’re stuck with tipping.

In the context of a tipping economy, I contend that tipping reasonably well, when appropriate, is actually a bargain, what I'd call a "social bargain." In New York the standard tipping range is considered to be 15-20%. Restaurants that add a service fee for large groups usually take the middle and round up to 18%. In New York City, doubling the tax will yield a tip of just under 17%. For normal, satisfactory service, my policy is to tip in the neighborhood of 20%, rounding up or down. For service that stands out, I tend to make sure to round up from 20%, and often lean toward 25%, which is hardly extravagant. Occasionally, for really outstanding service, I'll leave more than 25%.

A good tip doesn’t cost that much more than a standard one, and the benefits, as far as I'm concerned, outweigh the cost. First of all, consider that on a check for $100 an extra 5% is $5. If you can afford $100 for a dinner for two (or one), $5 won’t break you. It will, however, likely be noticed and appreciated by the server. You may be remembered warmly next time you visit the establishment, and you can feel good about contributing to the fiscal well-being of the person who made your meal memorable, or at least helped to make it enjoyable.

I once went to lunch with a group of coworkers and when it came time to settle the bill one of them announced “I don’t believe in tipping.” What a ridiculous, self-righteous rationalization for being a scummy cheapskate. The rest of us tried to reason with him, but he remained adamant, and we had to make up the difference. I refused to go to lunch with him after that. I secretly hoped that, in his case alone, our boss did not believe in bonuses.

What about bad service? Opinions differ, and every case is different. If an incompetent server is clearly a novice I try to have some compassion and leave 15%, maybe a tad less. But in the rare, egregious case (I felt that my experience at Canteen was one of those cases), I figure anything between zero and 15% is, for the most part, pretty meaningless; it's still a tip and the server is as likely to consider you a cheapskate and a bastard as to think he or she was at fault and is being fiscally chastised. Of course, it's important to remember that some service issues are the fault of the kitchen, not the serving staff. A good server will do damage control in these cases, and can save a tip from going too far south.

If you’re cutting corners, eat at home, or eat out less frequently. But if you can afford to eat at a restaurant, don’t try to cut corners when it comes to tipping. A good meal in a good restaurant should make you feel good. As long as we’re stuck with tipping, tipping well, or at least fairly, should make you feel good too.

That waitress at Canteen, however, didn't deserve a tip.

* * *

Today's Sunday Times Magazine (The Food Issue) has an interesting article about tipping, with a focus on one restaurant, The Linkery, in San Diego, that has not only replaced the tip with a service charge (as some other high-end restaurants have done), but actually prohibits additional tipping. So, what happens if the service sucks? I guess you have to have a confrontation with the server or talk to the manager.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"I Have to Tell You About These Oysters" as told by John McCain


My Friends, it's not often that I write a second piece about a restaurant I've already covered, but the oysters Cindy and I had at Imperial Palace a couple of weeks ago were so good that I felt the American people deserved to hear about them. We're already in the fourth quarter, and I am confident that the culinary fundamentals are strong, but my friends, the steamed oysters in the shell with X.O. sauce may well be the dish of the year. In addition, everything else we ate that night further convinced me that Imperial Palace may well be the best Cantonese restaurant in the New York area. It's certainly a lot better than that other restaurant over there.

The oysters were the enormous ones I've usually only seen in Chinese restaurants. I don't know what they're called or where they're from, but I also don't know much about the economy. I don't think I'd want to eat them raw, but they form the basis of some great Cantonese dishes. I've had them battered (at the Hanoi Hilton) and fried, on a sizzling platter with black pepper sauce, steamed in the shell with black bean sauce, and in casseroles with ginger and scallion or roast pig. In fact, until this recent Imperial Palace oyster experience, my favorite Chinese oyster dish was the casserole with roast pig and lipstick at midtown's Phoenix Garden. You gotta love a restaurant with Phoenix in the name.

My friends, these oysters at Imperial Palace were works of art. Each shell had a bath of savory X.O. sauce surrounding an oyster that was topped with a perfectly complimentary combination of minced crispy bacon and scallions. The sheer luxuriance of these bipartisan bivalves, along with the supporting flavors, sent most of my fellow diners, especially Sarah and Todd, into rapture. I might not have thought to use the word "bath" in my description if that trollop Cindy, my lovely wife and meal ticket, had not exclaimed, in her unbridled enthusiasm over this dish, "I want to bathe in this sauce!"

X.O. sauce, by the way, is a relatively recent addition to Chinese cuisine. It is named in homage to X.O. Cognac, which is an extremely popular drink among Chinese people (indeed, it is often consumed as a beverage during meals when they should be drinking Budweiser), but the sauce doesn't actually contain any Cognac. Developed in Hong Kong in the 1980s, when I was a maverick, it is a concentrated flavoring made of dried seafood cooked with chili, garlic, onions and oil.

My friends, we are all faced with tough choices in the days ahead, and I promise to put my Chinese oyster eating on hold until my poll numbers stop sliding in tune to the Dow. Because, my friends, we have to stop mortgaging our oysters to China.

Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Avenue, Flushing
Near the 7 train Main Street stop.

Original Version

Three New Pieces in Mung Being

The new issue of Mung Being is out (or does one say "up" for online journals?). It's an excellent site, with a heavy focus on visual art as well as writing. Each issue has a theme, and the latest is "Environment." My three pieces approach different aspects of environment: the state of our planet, domicile, and upbringing.

The Bubble

The Man Who Lived in a Shoe

Mother's Meat Loaf

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Shout Out to Shtreimel on Yom Kippur

About a year ago I stumbled upon this blog by a Hasidic closet atheist. I don't know what search terms got me there, but as an atheist who is nominally Jewish, I found his blog compelling. For Jews who come from reform or conservative traditions, doubt (or even better, certainty!) is an easy thing to deal with, at least socially, and for many there's no contradiction between identifying as both a Jew and an atheist. Many say, "I'm a cultural Jew." I don't say that. I say I'm a New York Jew. But for me atheist is the much more important component of my self-definition.

Jews who come from ultra-orthodox or Hasidic communities have a much harder time coming out of the atheist closet. They live in insular communities, and belong to large families that would shun them if they were to proclaim their heresy. Some do manage to make the break, at the cost of lost relationships, but many stay in the community and lead double lives. I've learned that there's a book about "Hasidic rebels," The Unchosen. The web has provided a space where the disillusioned can bare their souls and share their woes under the cloak of anonymity, but it's not an area I've pursued. I'm not really that interested. Nonetheless, I remembered Shtreimel's blog as this day of atonement approached (personally, I have nothing to atone for but atonement itself). This blogger is charming, funny and enlightened, and I just thought I'd go all Sarah Paliny for this maverick and give him a shout out (and thankfully, unlike most in his community, he's not a Republican).

I'll be working this Yom Kippur, as I always do, when I have a job, that is. I know a number of secular, even atheistic, Jews who always take the day off on Yom Kippur, even if they work on every other Jewish holiday. It seems to be a variant on Pascal's wager: this is the holiest of days, so just in case there is a god I don't want to get on his bad side today. This approach reminds me of those not-kosher-but-won't-eat-pork Jews. I've met a number of them too. Cheeseburgers, no problem. Lobster, no problem. But somehow pork has come to represent the quintessence of treyf for some Jews. Of course, there's nothing in kosher law that reserves a special place in Gehenna for pork above and beyond any other forbidden food, but who am I to tell these people they're meshuggah?

I plan to pig out today, my extra burden for all those Jews who are fasting for Yom Kippur. And yes, there will be pork.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I Have to Tell You About These Oysters

It's not often that I write a second piece about a restaurant I've already covered, but the oysters we had at Imperial Palace a couple of weeks ago were so amazing that I felt they deserved a post of their own. We're already in the culinary fourth quarter, and I think the steamed oysters in the shell with X.O. sauce may well be the dish of the year. In addition, everything else we ate that night further convinced me that Imperial Palace may well be the best Cantonese restaurant in the New York area.

The oysters were the enormous ones I've only seen in Chinese restaurants. I don't know what they're called or where they're from, and I don't think I'd want to eat them raw, but they form the basis of some great Cantonese dishes. I've had them battered and fried, on a sizzling platter with black pepper sauce, steamed in the shell with black bean sauce, and in casseroles with ginger and scallion or roast pig. In fact, until this recent Imperial Palace oyster experience, my favorite Chinese oyster dish was the casserole with roast pig at midtown's Phoenix Garden.

These oysters at Imperial Palace were works of art. Each shell had a bath of savory X.O. sauce surrounding an oyster that was topped with a perfectly complimentary combination of minced crispy bacon and scallions. The sheer luxuriance of these beauteous bivalves, along with the supporting flavors, sent most of my fellow diners into paroxysms of ecstasy. As a matter of fact, I might not have thought to use the word "bath" in my description if Holly had not exclaimed, in her unbridled enthusiasm over this dish, "I want to bathe in this sauce!"

X.O. sauce, by the way, is a relatively recent addition to Chinese cuisine. It is named in homage to X.O. Cognac, which is an extremely popular drink among Chinese people (indeed, it is often consumed as a beverage during meals), but the sauce doesn't actually contain any Cognac. Developed in Hong Kong in the 1980s, it is a concentrated flavoring made of dried seafood cooked with chili, garlic, onions and oil.

Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Avenue, Flushing
Near the 7 train Main Street stop.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The 0% Solution

Fage (pronounced fa-yeh) yogurt has taken America by storm. This thick, strained, traditional Greek yogurt has become incredibly popular and easy to find over the past year or so. At first it was imported from Greece, but earlier this year the company built a facility in Johnstown, NY to produce the product locally from the original recipe, allowing for longer shelf life and better distribution. The yogurt has the bold flavor common to Mediterranean yogurts and the straining gives it extreme thickness, lending an illusion of creaminess even to the nonfat version. Fage comes in 0%, 2% and 5% milkfat, with flavored versions (peach, strawberry, cherry, and honey) available in 2% only, and the fruit preserves used are nothing special. If you want a fruit flavored 0% Fage you're on your own.

My solution is to mix some St. Dalfour fruit preserves with my 0% Fage. I've mentioned St. Dalfour before, recommending their wonderful kumquat preserves. But kumquat didn't really work with the yogurt (too bitter and not enough liquid). What does mix wonderfully is the Four Fruits (strawberry, blackberry, raspberry and cherry). Both Fage and St. Dalfour are totally natural products. The only ingredients in Fage yogurt are milk and cultures. Besides the fruits, the only additional ingredients in St. Dalfour preserves are grape juice, lemon juice and pectin.

So if you're looking for a delicious nonfat yogurt with fruit, mix some St. Dalfour preserves with your 0% Fage. 6 oz of 0% Fage has 90 calories, and 1 tablespoon of St. Dalfour Four Fruits has 60, for a total of 150 calories for a 6.5 ounce serving (you might want to use less than a full tablespoon of the preserves, though, depending on your sweetness preference).

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Another Quick Read

Six Sentences has published my piece "He Wouldn't Take No for an Answer" today.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Musical Bridges III: Brazilian

Aside from jazz, my favorite music is Brazilian, many types of Brazilian music: samba, bossa nova, choro, and MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira), as well as Brazilian soul and funk. I became a resolute convert to Brazilian music in the early 'eighties, though even as a ten-year-old I was enthralled by the Jorge Ben song "Mas Que Nada," a big hit in the U.S. for Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, and of course there was "The Girl from Ipanema." I started collecting Brazilian recordings in the 'eighties and, as with all passions or obsessions, one thing led to another. I was familiar with the singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento through his work with jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. One day, at Tower Records, I found an album of Milton Nascimento songs performed by other Brazilian artists. One of those artists was the singer Elis Regina. This was a revelation. I had discovered one of the greatest voices of the 20th century just shortly after her death. I fell in love with Elis. And through Elis I found Joao Bosco, one of the young songwriters whose work she recorded and championed. Bosco is one of the writer-performers who emerged in the 'seventies, along with Nascimento, Ivan Lins, and Djavan. The previous generation, the immediate post-bossa generation, had included Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, all central players in the Tropicalia movement, as well as Chico Buarque, as revered in Brazil as Jobim, a composer-lyricist and singer who might be considered a Brazilian blend of Dylan and Cole Porter.

Elis Regina recorded many of Joao Bosco's songs, including the samba "O Bebado e a Equilibrista" ("The Drunkard and the Tightrope Walker"), with lyrics by Aldir Blanc. The song, a metaphoric ode to the resilience of Brazilians in the face of the horrors of the military dictatorship ("Hope dances on a tightrope with an umbrella"), became an anthem. Elis's recordings led me to Bosco's own albums. By the early 'eighties he had really reached his stride as a writer and performer. Many of his songs have a strong samba influence, and eventually he also became known for romantic ballads--beautiful songs when performed acoustically, but often recorded with unfortunately syrupy arrangements. Something in Bosco's music really grabbed me from the start, perhaps its particular mix of samba, jazz, and African influences (though his own ancestry is Portuguese and Lebanese). In the past ten or so years I've seen him live at least seven times. I had the opportunity to tell Bosco how much his music meant to me when I buttonholed him at the bar before a recent performance of his at Birdland. I don't usually buttonhole musicians. The only other living Brazilian musician I'm equally excited by is Jorge Ben Jor, whose music is the quintessence of funk.

While Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and, of course, Joao Gilberto were well known in the U.S. by the late 'eighties, Bosco was virtually unknown here. My fondness for Bosco helped me to make some Brazilian friends when I visited Tobago in December of 1989. I was at the Port of Spain airport, waiting for the short flight, during a trip that included visits to Caracas and Trinidad & Tobago. A group of four men, one woman, and two children were sitting next to me, speaking Portuguese. At one point a member of the BWIA staff at the airport asked the little boy in the group where he was from. One of the adults whispered something in his ear, and he proclaimed loudly and proudly, in heavily accented English, "I am from Brazil!"

I had been speaking Spanish in Caracas, so I asked one of the adults in the group, "Habla Espanol?," assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that Brazilians were more likely to speak Spanish than English. We conversed in Spanish a bit, but eventually switched to English mostly. At first I told the group I had a question about Brazilian music. I wanted to know whether Joao Bosco was very well known in Brazil. "Oh yes, very famous," one of them told me. Brazilian music became the anchor for our conversations, but we eventually we moved on to other topics.

The person I became closest with was Antonio Carvalho, a travel agent from Sao Paulo who took small groups on escorted trips. There was also a young gay couple and a family of four. It beats me why they needed an escort for a beach vacation, but they were all very nice. The kids, a girl and a boy, were very cute. I wondered why Brazilians were going on a beach holiday to Tobago when Brazil was so famous for its beaches. Tony told me that the beaches in Brazil were too crowded and crazy, and that Tobago was so quiet and bucolic.

As I hadn't booked a place in Tobago I followed this group to where they were staying. For a Caribbean vacation spot, Tobago is especially rustic and unspoiled. The Trinidad and Tobago government had long insisted that their islands not become playgrounds for rich foreigners, and oil and smart economic planning helped them keep their integrity. There are no high-rise or sprawling resorts on Tobago, just small hotels and bungalow complexes, like the one we stayed at.

Being from heavily West Indian Brooklyn I had no trouble understanding accents in Port of Spain, but in Tobago the accent is particularly thick. As I took a cab from the airport with several of the Brazilians I chatted with the cabbie, but with some difficulty. When we got out at our destination the woman in the group, whose name I forget, said, "I thought I knew English, but I didn't understand one word he said."

So I hung out with these Brazilians for the couple of days I spent in Tobago (they were staying longer), talking in English and Spanish and, to the kids, in body language. I got some tips on Brazilian musicians I hadn't previously heard of. One of the pleasures of solo travel is making new friends. Another pleasure of solo travel is not making new friends (or seeing old ones) if you don't want to, but this time I enjoyed the company.

Tony Carvalho and I corresponded a bit afterwards, but we soon lost touch. This was before email, after all.

Tony, if you somehow stumble upon this, get in touch, velho amigo.

* * *

This happened in London on the morning of November 5, 1999. I know this because I still have the program from the concert I attended that evening, one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen.

I had come to London to see the concert "Since Samba Has Been Samba," named for a song by Caetano Veloso ("Desde que o Samba e Samba"). It was an all-star Brazilian show at the Royal Albert Hall, a benefit for an organization that aided Brazilian street urchins. The show featured six of Brazil's most famous singers, three men and three women: Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Elza Soares, and Virginia Rodrigues. Soares is an older Brazilian jazz and samba singer with a gravelly voice who emulates Louis Armstrong, and Rodrigues is a younger singer with a pure, angelic voice who was discovered by Veloso. The concert featured each of the artists performing solo, then duo, relay-style. So, for instance, Gilberto Gil sang some songs, then Gal Costa came on for a duet with him, then she sang solo, then Caetano came on for a song with her, etc. Before this part of the show, two London-based escolhas de samba performed. There was also a special guest, British hipster icon Georgie Fame, who had one American hit in the 'sixties, "Yeh Yeh." I believe it was the first time I'd seen any of these artists, and it was nirvana for a lover of Brazilian music. The opportunity to see Chico Buarque live was an especial treat as he rarely performs or records any more, devoting more time to his second career as a novelist. The show was also a homecoming for Caetano and Gil, who had lived in London from 1969-72, in exile from the junta. Caetano sang his song "London London" to thunderous applause.

I was staying at a small hotel near Hyde Park. I noticed at breakfast that most of the kitchen staff were Brazilian. I think this is common in London hotels. I got into a conversation with the guy who was serving me. I told him about the concert I was going to see that evening, and he was incredibly envious. He became nostalgic about Brazil and Brazilian music. He sat down at my table to chat, probably breaking the rules.

"I love all these singers," I told him, "but one singer I really love who is not on the program is Joao Bosco." I had just seen Bosco live for the first time the previous year, at Lincoln Center.

"Oh, Joao Bosco, I love him too. His song 'Papel Mache' was very special. So beautiful." The song, a romantic ballad, was a breakthrough hit for Bosco in 1982. I saw tears begin to well up in the waiter's eyes. "I really miss Brazil so much," he said, his voice cracking, pining for his sunny homeland, so far away, on this typically grey, damp, November morning in London.

* * *

Youtube Jukebox

(I could have gone on forever with links to great clips, but I had to stop somewhere (though some more video links are buried in the descriptions below). Do share your thoughts on the music.)

Joao Bosco - Linha de Passe. One of Bosco's most infectious sambas, featuring the bandolim (mandolin) player Hamilton de Holanda, from a recent live DVD.

Joao Bosco - Papel Mache. A really cheesy music video, but the soundtrack is the original recording that brought tears to my waiter's eyes.

Elis Regina - O Bebado e a Equilibrista. A performance of the Bosco song that helped keep hope alive. There are a couple of glitches in the video, but I prefer this version to several others available on Youtube. She often sang it at a slower tempo, but this one has more of a samba feel.

Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim - Aguas de Marco. From the recording session of the classic album, "Elis & Tom." One of Jobim's greatest compositions, Elis was its greatest interpreter. Art Garfunkel recorded an English version ("Waters of March"). I could live without Art's version.

Milton Nascimento - Travessia. One of his most popular songs, "Bridges" in English.

Joao Gilberto & Caetano Veloso - Garota de Ipanema. Probably the most famous Brazilian song internationally. A meeting of two generations. If you absolutely must have Astrud . . .

Chico Buarque & Friends - Paratodos. This is a fun video. Chico begins his song and it's picked up by a succession of Brazilian music legends: Gal Costa, Djavan, Dorival Caymmi, Tom Jobim, Daniela Mercury, then back to Chico.

Jorge Ben Jor - Taj Mahal. One of his biggest hits, this infectious tune was appropriated by Rod Stewart for his "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

Daniela Mercury & Caetano Veloso - Desde Que o Samba e Samba
. The song that provided the title for the show I saw in London.

Caetano Veloso - London London. Caetano's bittersweet tribute to the city of his exile. Audio track with London slide show and lyrics.

Gilberto Gil - Drao. One of my favorite compositions by Brazil's current Minister of Culture. From his Acustico MTV (Unplugged) performance.

Gal Costa - Coracao Vagabundo. Composition by Caetano Veloso, featuring Jaques Morelenbaum on cello.

Elza Soares - Formosa. A spirited performance of a samba-choro by Baden Powell (the Brazilian guitarist, not the founder of the Boy Scouts) and Vinicius de Moraes.

Virginia Rodrigues with Nana Vasconcelos - Canto de Xango. Also by Baden Powell & Vinicius de Moraes. Vasconcelos is a master percussionist from Recife in northeastern Brazil who has performed in a wide variety of musical contexts.

Alaide Costa - Solidao. There are certain female vocalists who are legendary for a visceral honesty of expression, for a rare ability to communicate vulnerability, artists who transcend their genres. This pantheon includes Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, the Portuguese fado singer Amalia Rodrigues, the Egyptian singer Omm Kalthoum, and more recently the "barefoot diva" of Cabo Verde, Cesaria Evora. One artist I'd add to that esteemed company, virtually unknown in the U.S. and hardly even a "star" in her native Brazil, is Alaide Costa. Costa is one of those singers who improve with age.

Max de Castro - A Historia da Morena Nua
. See what Time magazine had to say about this contemporary Brazilian artist. De Castro is one of the mostly Sao Paulo-based artists, along with his brother Wilson Simoninha, Ed Motta and Paula Lima, among others, who update Brazilian funk and soul for an urban sound that has become popular in U.K. clubs but is virtually unknown in the U.S. Many of these artists record for the excellent Trama label, which is run by one of Elis Regina's sons, Joao Marcelo Boscoli. Elis's other two children, Pedro Mariano and Maria Rita, both have successful singing careers.

Seu Jorge - Tive Razao. One of the most charismatic performers to come out of Brazil in years. He's appeared in a number of films, including "City of God" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," where he performed adaptations of David Bowie songs.

Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 - Mas Que Nada. One of the first songs that got me hooked on Brazilian music. I even have a weakness for their Beatles covers.

Georgie Fame - Yeh Yeh
. Because I mentioned it.

Note: My apologies for the absence of accents throughout. It's just too difficult with a U.S. keyboard.