Monday, September 29, 2008

A Crayola Memory

Six Sentences has published a mini-memory from my childhood, "Crayon Trouble."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Dream with Buchanan

In this dream, which I had last night, or more precisely this morning just before awakening, I was participating in a conference or a panel, or some kind of important deliberations. There were about twenty people seated around an imposing mahogany table. This event was taking place over multiple days. I had no idea when it would end, and I didn't know what it was all about. But I could tell it was important, because most of the people around the table were well-known political and public figures. I can only remember two of them, though: Clarence Thomas and the late Thurgood Marshall. Then there were four nonentities, me and three others, two men and one woman. None of us did any talking at the table; we were observers. We were all clueless about why we were included, so we bonded with each other and chatted on breaks.

During one of the breaks the woman said to me, "After this is over I'm leaving town." I was disappointed, because I was attracted to her.

"Oh," I said, "where are you going?"

"Back home," she replied. "I finished my degree and now I'm going to work in the community."

"Oh, was your degree in social work?" I asked.

"No, Buchanan," she said.

"Buchanan? Is that anything like social work?" I asked.

"No," she replied, "it's a holistic therapy for the mouth, teeth and gums. Let me look in your mouth."

No way I'm going to let this flake look in my mouth, I thought. Now that I had learned of her new age proclivities I was no longer attracted to her. "YOU'RE NOT LOOKING IN MY MOUTH!" I screamed. Then I woke up.

The first thing I wondered when I woke up was: what was this Buchanan thing all about? I was going to be flying to San Francisco in a few hours. Could I have been thinking of Buchanan Street? Then I noticed that the TV was on. It was "Morning Joe," on MSNBC. I had fallen asleep last night watching the post-debate programming. Pat Buchanan is one of the regular guest commentators on "Morning Joe." Somehow his voice or his name, and the political discussion in general, had invaded my unconscious and shaped the dream.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Some Great Travel Writing from a Good Friend

Or maybe some good travel writing from a great friend. Anyway, I was so bowled over by Peter Wortsman's latest contribution to World Hum, "Vagrant Ruminations of a Compulsive Traveler," that I just had to share it.

This Post Is Not Postponed

Well, the old maverick has recanted and agreed to attend his own debate, so I might as well go ahead and post this. Now I normally don't pass along press releases, but I kinda liked this one from Zaro's, and I do like their black and white cookies. So, in honor of tonight's presidential debate . . .



Black and White Cookies with Faces of Candidates on Sale at Zaro’s in Grand Central Terminal

Zaro’s Bread Basket in Grand Central Terminal has put some “sweet” into the very contentious 2008 race to the White House. On sale now are black and white cookies with a twist. Each of the faces of the four candidates are baked into the middle and totally edible!!

Joseph Zaro, the co-owner of Zaro’s, which is a New York institution, said using New York’s classic and beloved black and white cookies for this new treat seemed like a good fit.

The cookies are selling extremely well and staff members have been keeping a very informal tally on sales. Zaro said Obama cookies clearly outsell McCain cookies and the Palin cookies are doing very well. He added that some customers are not buying a particular cookie because it represents their candidate of choice. Other potential buyers have said they will purchase cookies if a chart is put up recording the sales for everyone to see.

“One woman bought five Palin cookies, then smudged out her face, broke them up and threw them in the garbage,” said Zaro. “Others buy a candidate’s cookie as a joke for a boss, friend or spouse, who is supporting the opposite party. So any poll we take is less than scientific.”

Zaro’s, a fourth generation family business, bakes all their products in their own baking plant in the Bronx . The cookies are available at two of Zaro’s locations in Grand Central Terminal – Track 34 in the Shuttle Passage and in Grand Central Market. Each cookie is $3.25.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Quest for Non-Alcoholic Gin

I got this bee in my bonnet the other day. It took hold of me, became an obsession. I was sitting at my desk, at work, and was seized by a craving for gin. Gin is my favorite hard liquor, and I love the juniper berry flavor. My workday would be so much more civilized, I decided, if I could sip some gin while I worked. But that, of course, wouldn't do. First of all, the quality of my work would go down the drain if I were to become even slightly inebriated. And then, of course, the powers that be wouldn't look too kindly upon an employee sipping gin at his desk. Vodka maybe you could hide, but not gin. That's when I got the idea for non-alcoholic gin. I figured that a beverage that was reminiscent of gin, without the alcohol, might at least provide a pleasant illusion to make my workday that much more enjoyable.

So I started thinking about how I'd go about making this faux gin. I knew that juniper berry was the predominant flavoring, but I wasn't sure what the other ingredients were. What I learned was that, other than juniper berry, the herbs and spices can vary. I figured I had to start with juniper, and I figured there might be a commercially available juniper berry extract. There indeed is, available from several brands and sold at health food stores and suppliers. Apparently juniper is an ancient herbal remedy, especially for urinary tract disorders. I called up my local health food store, Back to the Land, to see if they carried the stuff. They answered in the affirmative, and the next time I stopped in I picked up a 1-ounce bottle of Eclectic Institute Juniper.

I then consulted with fragrance blogger Christopher Voigt. I told Christopher about my plan to work on a non-alcoholic gin substitute, and asked for his flavor advice. We quickly got into a discussion of gin flavor preferences. Christopher is a Bombay Sapphire fan, and I'm more partial to the classic London Dry style of gin, with my favorite, Tanqueray, being perhaps the most juniper-forward of the bunch. Bombay Sapphire has a more complex blend of botanicals, yielding a mellower gin, but I prefer in-your-face gin (the scent of which always reminds me of the Vitalis of my youth).

Christopher suggested that Angostura Bitters would help to round out the flavor of whatever I came up with. The only listed ingredient of Angostura is gentian, a bitter herb traditionally used as a digestive aid, but Angostura Bitters is made from a blend of otherwise secret ingredients, with only a handful of people privy to the recipe. According to one source, "The company has special government permission to import the herbs and spices in sacks labeled 'rice' or 'corn' to keep the ingredients secret. To intensify the mystery, the company buys a far greater number of botanicals than they actually need. People speculate anyway. There are guesses such as orange peel and tamarind pulp as the main ingredient. Residues are burnt to prevent identification." I bought a bottle of Angostura Bitters.

All right, I had my flavorings, juniper extract and Angostura Bitters. Now I had to deal with the question of what to use as a base. At first I thought I might just add these ingredients to tonic water or juice, for a mixed-drink flavor. But I nixed the idea, deciding that I really wanted to come up with a true faux gin. I knew that tap water wouldn't do. I needed something with a little more presence, to provide at least a subtle flavor base on which to add the seasonings. My first inclination was to go with a still spring water that has a bold mineral presence, like Evian. The mineral quality of certain dry sakes led me in that direction.

Then I had a brainstorm. I thought of Metromint water. I recently discovered the stuff—mint-infused, purified water—and became especially fond of the lemon mint version. It has a very slight natural sweetness from the mint, with a lemon finish. Something told me this might work.

I went to my favorite local gourmet shop, D'Vine Taste, which I knew carried Metromint. They didn't have Evian, but they did carry a water that turned out to be an even better bet, Jana, an artesian water from Croatia with high alkalinity. I bought a pint of Metromint lemon mint and a pint of Jana.

As soon as I got home I started mixing. Into a glass of each of the waters I started adding drops of the juniper extract (it comes with an eye dropper), tasting it progressively. I decided that 10-15 drops per 8-oz glass was the right amount of juniper. Once I got a satisfactory juniper level it was clear that it indeed needed something else. I added a dash of Angostura Bitters to each. A little bit of Angostura goes a long way, and one small dash did the trick. It gave me a more well-rounded flavor, though I'd say it added a vermouth-like quality, which was just fine. I had just invented the softini.

I alternated tastes of the two versions. While the augmented Jana was interesting for sipping, something was lacking for me. I decided that the Metromint version was the winner, and realized that the vapor component of the mint provided an extra dimension that helped to make up for the lack of alcohol.

This is just a start. I'm sure the recipe can be improved, by working with the balance of ingredients as well as considering additional extracts. I don't intend to make this a full-time occupation, though.

So, what to call this drink? I've already suggested softini. But there's a nostalgic side of me that wants to pay homage to the Shirley Temple (and once, as a kid, a waiter offered me the macho version, a Roy Rogers). But who to name it for? It's too late to name a virgin cocktail a Lindsay Lohan, for a variety of reasons.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another Little Thing

My piece "A Letter Opener" has just been published on Bard Cole's quarterly webzine of short prose, Six Little Things.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Screw the Cupcakes, Have a Muffin

The Buttercup Bake Shop specializes in cupcakes, cupcakes for the new millennium, weirdly unappetizing-looking little buggers with buttercream frosting in fluorescent dayglo and pastel colors that are completely unnatural to the culinary domain. I don't get this whole cupcake revival. For thirty or forty years cupcakes were relegated to the dustbin of history, and now people wait like sheep on interminable lines at places like Magnolia in the West Village for them. I don't get the cupcake thing. I don't get red velvet cake either, by the way, and I especially don't get red velvet cupcakes. I'm guessing the cupcake fad keys into some kind of atavistic, infantile comfort-food buttercream craving. Buttercup doesn't have the long lines like Magnolia, but their cupcakes are quite popular.

Cupcakes notwithstanding, I'm a regular customer at Buttercup's east side branch because they have what just might be the best blueberry muffins in all of Manhattan. If I had to propose an ideal blueberry muffin, this would be it. First of all, they're just the right size. Not small, and not those ridiculously humongous monsters that dominate the muffin landscape these days. And they're only $1.25 each, a steal. They're sweet enough, but not cloying, moist yet sturdy (unlike the pasty or dry, powdery muffins that are so common these days), with a perfect blueberry to batter ratio and a tasteful touch of sugar on top. They taste like home-baked muffins from a kitchen in a perfect 'fifties Twilight Zone Middle America that no longer exists. Yes, I can see Gig Young traveling back in time to a better place for a muffin just like this!

Buttercup Bake Shop has two locations:
973 2nd Avenue
(Between 51st and 52nd Streets)
141 West 72nd Street (Between Amsterdam and Columbus)

Buttercup Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Prosthetic Mole

I ordered a prosthetic mole, on ten days’ free trial, from an offer I saw in The Well-Tempered Bridegroom, the only periodical I subscribe to. I tried it on, but it didn't fit my face. For one thing, it made my nose look lopsided. So I moved it to the inside of my thigh, and as fate would have it I got lucky and unlucky again that same night. Trisha, whom I had met at the Oyster Bar, was at first excited by the mole, but when it came off in her hand she immediately lost the bulk of the ardor she had hitherto exhibited and booked a cabin to Pago Pago, which I always thought came about as the result of a calcium deficiency. I've got six days left on the ten-day offer, and I've hung the mole on the wall, right next to the needlepoint of Sacco and Vanzetti that my aunt Shirley left me in her will. And I'm not sending it back until the last minute.

This was originally published in Between C & D.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Rumble with Mr. Mondrian

As I mentioned before, literary short-short prose seems to lend itself to the web, and there are now a number of webzines dedicated to the form.  Call it what you will: prose poetry, flash fiction, microfiction, sudden fiction, short-shorts, or just plain short prose, as long as you call it.  The excellent journal of microfiction, Rumble, has just published my piece "Mr. Mondrian's Confusion."  Take a look.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Chicago Dogs, Italian Beef, and the Dreaded Deep-Dish Pizza

Chicago is proud of its junk food. Like Philadelphia with its cheese steaks and pretzels, Chicago's nosh specialties tend to come from Italian-American and Germanic backgrounds. Perhaps the mostly widely disseminated is the Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. The Chicago hot dog, with its particular and copious mix of toppings, is becoming something of a fad in other cities. The "Italian beef" sandwich, as far as I know, has not traveled very far.

A Chicago hot dog is as much about the toppings as the dog itself. Indeed, the toppings nearly wag the dog. The only way to eat a Chicago dog, as far as I'm concerned, is with everything. In this case everything is mustard, chopped onions, relish, pickle spears, sport peppers, tomato slices or wedges and, the icing on the cake, a dash of celery salt, all crammed into a poppy seed bun. The majority of hot dog stands and restaurants in town get their franks from the same supplier, Vienna Beef, so any real differences have to do with the quality and ratio of the toppings. They're most commonly served boiled or steamed, but I much prefer the grilled version, chardogs. For my money a Chicago chardog with everything leaves New York hot dogs in the the dust. Looking back on the mustard and sauerkraut of my youth, it was a childhood of relative hot dog poverty.

When I recently visited Chicago for the Jazz Festival my first order of business upon deplaning was to head to the Gold Coast Dogs outlet in the airport terminal for a jumbo chardog with everything. A couple of days later I hooked up with some friends at Portillo's, in the city center, for a chardog and an Italian beef sandwich (about which more in a moment). I hit Gold Coast again right before my flight home. Between the two, I'd say I prefer Gold Coast. I'm not sure what exactly the difference was, but the toppings at Gold Coast seemed to marry better.

Vienna Beef has been serving frankfurters to Chicagoans since the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Their logo is ubiquitous in Chicago. They make a great hot dog, certainly in the same league as either Nathan's or Hebrew National. The Chicago dog as it's served today was reputedly developed in 1929 by Abe & Fluky Drexler at their stand at the Maxwell Street market. At first they called it the "depression sandwich." It survived the depression.

At Portillo's I also had an Italian beef sandwich. According to one Chicago restaurant website, "an Italian beef sandwich is, essentially, a French dip sandwich whose thinly sliced, oven-roasted beef has been impregnated with garlic, oregano and other Italian seasonings, served pre-dipped in flavorful natural juices and topped with either sauteed sweet peppers or a spicy pickled-pepper mixture called giardiniera (though the counter clerk will just ask, 'Sweet or hot')." I had mine hot. It was good, but I wouldn't kvell about it like, say, a Philadelphia pork and greens sandwich.

I'm more than willing to concede the hot dog crown to Chicago, but when it comes to pizza Chicago has nothing on New York. In fact, I find Chicago pizza an abomination. The core of a classic Chicago deep-dish pizza is a dense but crumbly, thick cornmeal dough. Copious amounts of mozzarella cheese are layered on top, with Parmesan sometimes added. Standard additional toppings are generally available. The result is a heavy mess of mediocrity.

Chicago pizza just don't make no sense to me. I wouldn't have had any deep-dish pizza during my last visit if I hadn't been invited to join some friends, who had also come for the Jazz Festival, at Pizzeria Uno. I think I'd only eaten Chicago-style pizza twice before. The first time was during my first visit to the city, in 1985. I can't remember which place I was taken to. The other time was at a Pizzeria Uno franchise in New York. I thought the pizza at Uno in New York was dreadful, but I'd also heard that the Chicago Uno was different than the franchises. Apparently the owners of the original Uno lease out the name for other cities, but run the one in Chicago themselves. Supposedly the Chicago Uno and its sister restaurant Due are much better than the franchises. Though it's been a while since my New York Uno experience, I don't think my leaden, bland pizza at Chicago's Uno was much better at all.

I wondered whether Uno in Chicago was just a tourist trap, and if there were places that made better deep-dish pizza, but when I asked around the consensus seemed to be that there weren't significant differences among the best known pizzerias in town.

Chicago-style deep-dish pizza was invented at Uno in 1943. Over the next twenty or so years this style established itself as a Chicago institution at a number of pizzerias, eventually spreading beyond the windy city. My friend Claudio, originally from Puglia and now of Milan, told me in a horrified tone of voice about how, when he was driving in Norway, headed for the Arctic Circle, he passed by a restaurant that proudly proclaimed, "We Serve Real Chicago Pizza."

"What is this Chicago pizza?" he asked.

I told him.

He cringed.

Pizzeria Uno on UrbanspoonPortillo's Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 08, 2008

I Ate Armenian Meatballs with Bradley Lastname

Chicago poet and artist Bradley Lastname, author of such unhefty tomes as Bela Tarr Has Feathered His Nest, The Squeaky Fromme Gets the Grease, Oracle Whip, and Your Pretty Typeface is Going to Hell, is a master of profound silliness. He writes like Bozo the Clown on nitrous oxide chanelling the likes of Tristan Tzara, Luis Bunuel, Steven Wright, and a mischievous eight-year-old with ADD. I hooked up with Bradley for Sonny Rollins's concert at the Chicago Jazz Festival. I had last (and first) seen Bradley in 1985, when he was instrumental in arranging the Chicago performance of "Love Me Like a Bitter Pill."

The concert took place at Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. After the show we went to dinner. I had researched places within walking distance of the park and suggested Sayat Nova, an Armenian Restaurant named for an 18th-century Armenian poet. "That's a Chicago institution," Bradley said. He had never been there before and was game to give it a try. The place had a dark, old institution look and feel. We settled in and I ordered a beer, a Goose Island Honker's Ale, an excellent, crisp, pale ale from one of Chicago's premier microbreweries.

The food at Sayat Nova was good, not great, basically hearty Armenian grandmother cooking. I had the Armenian combination plate. It consisted of four items that all were similar to common Greek, Turkish and Balkan dishes, but with different names or variant spellings. The plate had a cheese boereg (a stuffed filo triangle), sarna (meat and rice-stuffed grape leaves), stuffed eggplant (layered with ground meat) and kufta (a meatball in a yogurt-mint sauce). For me the kufta was the highlight. The sauce was wonderful. It definitely had garlic in addition to mint, but I don't know what the other seasonings were. Kufta, or kyufta, is, of course, similar in name to the Turkish kofte, Greek keftedes, and Middle Eastern kefta. According to one source, "Language may give us some clues and all indications point to Persia as the origin of meatballs. The word kofta, used in variations throughout the Middle East, India and Central Asia probably comes from the Persian word koofteh which means 'pounded meat' and derives from the verb koobidand, 'to pound.'"

A legendary saxophonist, a solid beer, an Armenian meatball and a wacky poet for company. There are worse ways to pass an evening.

* * *

With Bradley's permission, I offer you:

Selected Quotations from Badly Steamed Lard
(anagram of Bradley Lastname)

The Beatles did it in the road; Robert Frost did it in the road not taken.

Miss Muffet testified about the Kurds before the House Wheys and Means Committee.

Mail that used to come marked to my attention now comes marked to my limited attention span.

Artaud shocked the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie electroshocked Artaud.

A bad hair day on Mercury is only four hours long.

When the odds maker made something odd on my front lawn, I vowed to get even.

The girl from Ipanemia went walking to get some iron supplements.

Repossession is ten-tenths of my car.

What happens in the litter box stays in the litter box.

The postman with obsessive-compulsive disorder always rang thrice.

The alchemist shouted "earth air water fire" in a crowded theater.

During my fainting spell I was unable to spell 'fainting.'

Lipstick traces, but mascara draws from scratch.

I'm with the band, but the band isn't with me.

Sayat Nova on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Rolled Beef, an Endangered Deli Meat

There was a time in New York when the mention of a rolled beef sandwich would not elicit a blank stare. That was when kosher delis ruled this town. Rolled beef was part of the standard deli menu. Then kosher delis started disappearing, and rolled beef along with them. Now rolled beef is an endangered species, available at only a few select places.

As a kid I enjoyed rolled beef at my local delis in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, first at Aaron Grossman's humble spot on Avenue H, and later at Golden Caterers on Avenue J. Up until the 1970s (when, it seems, everything started changing), it was a given that if you ate at a kosher deli rolled beef would be available. Now it has gone the way of the egg cream.

So just what is rolled beef? I was never quite sure, so I did some research to augment my own impressions. First of all, it's a cold cut. It's served cold, as opposed to pastrami and corned beef, which are best hot. It's cured in a way similar to them, seasoned with black pepper and garlic and who knows what else. The meat, when sliced, has a relatively smooth finish, with a nice fat to meat ratio. A whole rolled beef has a circumference larger than most salamis and smaller than most mortadellas (pardon the treyf; it's only for the size comparison; this you should allow). It has a red color from the curing not unlike pastrami. You might say it's like a cross between a pastrami and a salami. You might also liken it to a Jewish version of pancetta or perhaps capicola (treyf again--feh!).

I never knew what cut of beef it was made from. One poster on a Chowhound thread wrote, "Some producers used brisket (which was, literally, rolled up); others used different forequarter cuts." Until I learn otherwise I'll have to trust that claim. The thread on Chowhound, incidentally, was initially on the subject of a related Toronto deli specialty called baby beef, made from veal, an item I'd previously never heard of. Baby beef is available at Pancer's deli in Toronto.

A post on the blog Save the Deli made the following erroneous claim: "Rolled Beef sandwich: this is a meat that only two delis carry in all of America [my emphasis]. It is difficult to make and expensive, but oh my good Hebrew lord it tastes wonderful. Like incredibly creamy roast beef, super duper trooper tender, with just enough pepper to give it a kick." That was in a piece about the Second Avenue Deli, one of the places that does carry it for certain. I believe the other place the writer had in mind is Sarge's, where I recently had my first rolled beef sandwich in years. A little research online revealed that it also appears on the menus of Artie's on the Upper West Side as well as Ben's Best in Rego Park (Queens). Rolled beef is no longer on the menu of the Carnegie Deli, but it was in 1985, when a delivery guy vanished into thin air with some rolled beef sandwiches among other items.

As far as expensive, it certainly is at Second Avenue Deli, where a sandwich goes for a whopping $21.95 compared to $14.25 for pastrami. Yet at Sarge's a rolled beef sandwich costs $10.95, the same as a pastrami sandwich. What's with the big difference? It's hard to imagine that the two delis get it from different suppliers, as it's such a rare item, but who knows?

A Google search didn't reveal too much more about rolled beef, but I did find several references in literature and music.

In the 1940s, Anton Chekhov was seen eating a rolled beef sandwich at Lindy's. Not really, but in the surreal New York of S.J. Perelman. In his story
"Whatever Goes Up," Perelman wrote, "The public don’t want to think–they want to laugh. Look at Chekhov. We looked at Chekhov, who had just come in and was having a rolled-beef sandwich and a bottle of Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic in the corner."

Alfred Kazin waxed elegiac about the deli of yore in his memoir A Walker in the City:

But our greatest delight in all seasons was "delicatessen"–hot spiced corned beef, pastrami, rolled beef, hard salami, soft salami, chicken salami, bologna, frankfurter "specials" and the thinner, wrinkled hot dogs always taken with mustard and relish and sauerkraut, and whenever possible, to make the treat fully real, with potato salad, baked beans and french fries which had been bubbling in the black wire fryer deep in the iron pot.

Now that sentence is quite a mouthful!

But I think my favorite rolled beef reference comes from Mickey Katz. Mickey Katz, if you don't know, was a Jewish comic musician popular in the 'forties and 'fifties. A singer and clarinetist, he performed Jewish takeoffs on familiar songs and current pop hits with hot klezmer breaks. I knew his music as a kid because my grandfather had his recordings. I fondly remember such tunes as "The Little White Knish That Cried," "I'm a Schlemiel of Fortune," "Borscht Riders in the Sky," "Bagel Call Rag," and "Duvid Crockett" ("he flicked him a chicken when he was only three"). Mickey Katz was also the father of actor Joel Grey. Katz gave his version of "Sixteen Tons" a deli twist: "You load sixteen tons of hot salami, corned beef, rolled beef, and hot pastrami. . ."

* * *

Note: When I had a rolled beef sandwich at Sarge's my camera punked out and I had forgotten to bring spare batteries. I did, however, find this photo of rolled beef online.