Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gotti's Son is a Commie

Gottes Sohn ist kommen
uns allen zu frommen
hier auf dieser Erden
in armen Gebärden,
dass er uns von Sünde
freie und entbinde.
Back in 1980, while I was working on my MFA in creative writing at Brooklyn College, I took a poetry tutorial with John Ashbery. Though I was officially in the fiction writing program, by that time I was writing short prose pieces that straddled the boundaries between short stories and prose poems. John agreed to take me on for a tutorial. In a sense it was an odd pairing of mentor and student. While I admire Ashbery's work, it's also about as different from mine as you can get, often extremely dense and oblique compared to my preferred mode of bare simplicity. Yet we shared a love of many of the same writers, especially the French surrealists and the OuLiPo writers, a number of whom he knew personally.

The tutorials consisted of one-on-one meetings for a half hour every other week throughout the semester. I'd bring John works in progress for critique, and his suggestions were always most astute. One of the greatest compliments I've ever received as a writer was when he told me my short prose series "Bagatelles" was "frighteningly simple." He'd also suggest writers I should become familiar with, and the works he suggested were always compelling.

But in addition to critiquing the work I was generating on my own he also gave assignments. He's a big fan of fixed forms, and I wrote several pantoums under his tutelage. I also wrote a piece based on an Italian rebus. Another favorite assignment of his was to have his students write pseudo-translations of poems from languages they didn't know, a kind of surrealist exercise. I remember he once gave me a section of the Finnish Kalevala to work with.

I haven't worked with this last method for many years, but I decided to try it with an old German hymn (above), words by Johann Roh. Here's my version:

Gotti's son is a commie
and Allen's his foreman,
hair of diesel earth
in Armen's garden.
This is one fun Sunday:
fried and in bondage.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Lone Ranger's Last Stand ...

... happened to be a hot dog stand.

My piece was published in Titular, an online literary journal where every piece bears the title of a film, novel or TV program.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stand By Your Rant

There's another study out linking red meat to heart disease and cancer. And not just another study, but the largest study of its kind. Let them say what they will; I stand by my rant.

The Case of the Lost Photos

You may have noticed that there are blank spaces where some photos once stood. It seems to be a Blogger problem, and apparently has happened in the past, though never to me. If they don't return of their own accord I may have to reload selected ones, but I won't be able to get to all of them. I guess you get what you pay for.

Update, March 27: It took a few days, but it looks like they're all back.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Hamachi kama. Some Japanese menus translate it as yellowtail jaw. Some translate it as yellowtail neck, and others translate it as yellowtail collar. While the bulk of the fish's flesh is usually served as sushi or sashimi, the jaw is often grilled, and it deserves to be less obscure to American diners.

Fish heads (and subheads) tend to be popular among Asian diners who know that the most succulent meat can be found around the neck and cheeks of many fish. One of the great Malaysian dishes is fish head curry. There are Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino fish head soups. The Chinese prefer their fish served whole, and the head is one of the most prized parts.

For me, yellowtail gives the best head in Japanese cuisine. I've had sake kama (salmon neck), but I find it too rich and fatty. With a hamachi kama, one digs meat out from the crevices among the cartilage, moist, rich, amazingly flavorful meat. And then there's the crispy skin on one side, and the soft, white, creamy skin on the other. It's a little work to get at all the meat, but incredibly satisfying. If you're good at it, all you'll be left with when you're done is a clean hunk of cartilage and fin.

Hamachi kama is usually listed as an appetizer, but augmented by some rice, miso soup and salad it makes a fine meal.

I've most recently eaten hamachi kama at Dai-Hachi, a new restaurant near my office, at 303 E. 56th St., just east of 2nd Avenue. My several lunches there have been pretty satisfying, so I thought I'd give them a plug.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Istanbul in Brooklyn

There are a bunch of Turkish restaurants in Brooklyn. I don't know if it's because there are that many Turks in Brooklyn or because Turkish restaurateurs are savvy businessmen who know that their restaurants are extremely popular with the many Russians and other former Soviet emigres in Brooklyn. I briefly mentioned Taci's Beyti in a piece I wrote about pides. Taci's is one of the best places in the city for Turkish kebabs. But don't eat dessert there, because just down the block is a real treat, the first American outpost of a famous Istanbul baklava baker and cafe, Güllüoğlu.

The sign says Güllüoglu, Since 1871. I knew they weren't in Brooklyn since 1871, but they've been in Istanbul that long. Way back then, Çelebi Güllü introduced baklava to Turkey, based on a recipe he had picked up in Damascus. The chain is still a Güllü family operation. The Brooklyn cafe has a charming old-world European feel. According to the Brooklyn branch's website, "At Güllüoğlu Baklava and Café all Güllüoğlu products are imported from the Istanbul factory frozen and vacuum sealed. A baker trained in the Güllüoğlu tradition at the Istanbul factory then bakes the products fresh each day for our N.Y.C customers." The ingredients for the baklava, hand picked by one of the Güllüs include "pistachios from Barak and butter from Şanlıurfa (Urfa) made from sheep’s milk, which is made clear in the heat of the sun and sealed in airtight containers."

I actually didn't try the baklava or that other Turkish specialty, kadayif (a shredded-wheat pastry) my first time there. I was full from a big lunch, and had really stopped in for a Turkish coffee. But as I looked at the different pastries and puddings something caught my eye. It was in a container next to the rice pudding and other milk puddings, and was covered with a variety of nuts. It seduced me. I wasn't sure what was under it, and the girl behind the counter wasn't able to or didn't want to explain. It turned out to be a milk-free fruit pudding--apple, or maybe quince (a popular fruit in Turkish desserts and preserves), with what might have been a slight citrus accent, just sweet enough, not anywhere near cloying, my idea of a satisfying dessert.

I went back the following weekend with a friend and tried two of their pastries, something I had to do after discovering just how famous an Istanbul institution Güllüoğlu is (as a matter of fact, my Turkish friend Cem, in Canada, was amazed that there's a branch in North America at all). I tried the double pistachio baklava and the şöbiyet, which is a baklava augmented by kaymak, a kind of clotted cream. An order of baklava consists of three small pieces, but they're so rich and sweet that one is quite enough to satisfy your sweet tooth (I took what I couldn't finish home). You can definitely taste the sheep's milk butter in the pastry, which adds a subtly cheeselike dimension.


Güllüoglu, 1985 Coney Island Avenue (between Avenue P & Quentin Road). Q or B train to Kings Highway.

Taci's Beyti, 1955 Coney Island Avenue.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Walrus is Saul

For years I've been writing tiny, one-paragraph stories. Well that's all over now. Twitter has proven that a single sentence is quite sufficient.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yo Soy El Exigente

When I was a kid I always confused Juan Valdez and El Exigente. After all, they were both mustachioed Colombians who had something to do with coffee. I think people still confuse these two characters, or at least those old enough to remember El Exigente do. El Exigente may be a memory, but Juan Valdez is still the icon of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia.

It's ironic that the two characters would be confused, as they represent distinct social classes. El Exigente (played on TV by Ricardo Montalbaln's brother Carlos), the coffee taster for Savarin, the demanding one, was an aristocrat and a gourmet. Even his brand was named for a legendary gourmet, Brillat-Savarin. Juan Valdez is a coffee farmer, a humble campesino. But to Americans in the 'sixties, a mustachioed Latino was a mustachioed Latino.

Anyway, Juan Valdez has made me El Exigente, because I've fallen head over heels in love with the coffee from the Juan Valdez Cafe, an international chain sponsored by the Colombian coffee growers federation. Currently they have U.S. locations in Manhattan, Philadelphia, D.C. and Seattle, as well as shops in Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Spain. The coffee is superb, and the prices are reasonable, cheaper than Starbucks and infinitely preferable to their swill. I'm especially enamored of two of their specialty brewed coffees, the cardamomo and the anisido, made with freshly ground cardamom or anise. The cardamomo reminds me of the flavor of Turkish coffee, but because it's filtered it works well with milk. The anise adds a very slight sweetness to the coffee, and I prefer to drink it black without sugar.

But it's not just the coffee that draws me to the Juan Valdez Cafe. I've also become addicted to their traditional Colombian breakfast pastries (which seem to be available all day). The pan de bono is a sweet (but not too) cheese bread made with cassava flour and "queso fresco," a mild white cheese. It's great, but even better is the arepa de chocolo (or choclo), a sweet corn pancake. It's made with both cornmeal and mashed corn kernels, so it's very moist. The arepas at the Juan Valdez cafe are huge and filling, served topped with white cheese. I'm sure they're extremely caloric, so I eat them less frequently than I'd really like to. After all, I don't want to morph from El Exigente into El Gordo.

Juan Valdez Cafe, Manhattan Locations:
140 E. 57th St. (near Lexington)
480 Lexington Ave. (at 46th St.)
1451 Broadway (at 41st St.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Further Adventures of Pete and Holly

The second half of the collaboration Holly Anderson and I did for qarrtsiluni has been posted this weekend.

Read "Similarities" and "Found Photo"

Thursday, March 05, 2009

ING Direct Offers Great Rates . . . On Coffee

ING Direct, the online bank known for their higher-than-average interest rates, has opened cafes in a number of U.S. cities, including New York, in order to promote their products and services. The cafes offer coffee and pastries at prices way below prevailing market rates. A cup of coffee, the size of a Starbucks tall, goes for a mere $1, and unlike Starbucks it's actually good coffee. The ING direct cafes serve Peet's, an excellent California coffee mainstay that's almost impossible to find on the East Coast. You can also get pastries for a buck each. The one muffin I tried was respectable if unremarkable, but the anise seed biscotto was quite good.

Manhattan locations:

968 3rd Ave, at 58th St.
45 E. 49th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

Click for a list of all ING Direct cafes.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Holy Shit, Shatnez?

Fifty-two years as a nominal Jew and I just found out about shatnez--sometimes spelled shatnes, sometimes shaatnez. I was walking down Coney Island Avenue, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, home to many orthodox Jews, and I saw the sign in a tailor's window: "Have your garments shatnes checked." Shatnes, I wondered, what's that? Clearly it had something to do with some obscure Jewish practice or law. Tefillin checking I knew about. Tefillin, or phylacteries (which always makes me think of prophylactics) are leather boxes containing miniature scrolls with texts from the Torah, accompanied by leather bands for attaching them to your arms and forehead. Once, on the Lower East Side, I saw a sign in a Judaica shop window: "Tefillin Checking While U Wait." Tefillin have to be checked to make sure that the scrolls are in good shape, no rips or holes, etc., and that none of the lettering is obliterated. But what was shatnes checking?

I looked shatnes/shatnez up and learned that it refers to a prohibited mix of linen and wool in clothing. So it's sort of like kosher for garments. A suit with a wool and linen blend, to the ultra-observant, may well be as anathema as a cheeseburger. A few years ago the Times did a profile of a shatnes tester who refuses to eat in restaurants.

There are two biblical passages that specifically reference shatnez:

"You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of shatnez (Leviticus 19:19)."

"You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed. . . You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. You shall not wear shatnez--wool and linen together (Deuteronomy 22:9-11)."

As with many ridiculous religious customs, there are multiple explanations for where the rule came from. According to Wikipedia, "Early writers, like Maimonides, argued that the prohibition was a case of the general law (Leviticus 20:23) against imitating Canaanite customs. Maimonides wrote that: 'the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal materials, while they held in their hand a seal of mineral. This you will find written in their books.'"

"Where's your Moses now?"

But why settle for dissing those relatively modern heathen priests when there are those who'll put the blame squarely on old Cain and Abel? A difference of opinion about what kind of offering to make to the Alleged Deity (a sheep for Cain and some flax for Abel) led to calamity. In his usual inscrutable and capricious manner, the A.D. of the O.T. accepted Abel's offering, but not Cain's, so Cain, jealous and enraged, killed his brother. So heaven forbid you should have a little linen in your wool suit.

Some commentators say that shatnez is a hok, i.e., a law without any logical explanation which nonetheless must be obeyed. Yes, Kafka was Jewish. Could that tailor on Coney Island Avenue be running a hok shop?

You could also go with this positively new-agey explanation from the 13th century. According to the official website of The Shatnez Testers of America:

Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona wrote in his book "Sefer HaChinuch - The Book of Mitzvah Education" the reason why it is forbidden to mix wool and linen together is because it destroys the spiritual fabric of the universe. This can be explained as follows: Each and every thing on earth, except for man, has its own spiritual force that influences it. When some of these earthly items are mixed together, they cause their spiritual counterparts to become entangled. Once entangled, they cannot perform their tasks as originally designed, thusly destroying the spiritual fabric of the universe. However, after the explanation, the author tacked on "We still need a Mystic to explain this." (Sefer HaChinuch - The Book of Mitzvah Education #62)

I've polled most of the Jews I know since I found out about shatnez, and none of them had ever heard of it. And one of them even attends synagogue every week. Kosher we all know about, that ridiculous set of restrictions that denies so many the pleasures of suckling pig, cuban sandwiches, dungeness crab, bacon, xiaolongbao, oysters, and butterfly shrimp. But holy shit, shatnez?

If you're concerned that you might be the victim of shatnez, this resource may come in handy.