Sunday, March 29, 2015

Texas Dance Halls, Part Two

The last bitter, rainy, windy day passed. The sun came out more frequently. This would probably be a problem later on, but for the moment it looked good. What better way to celebrate than with the second half of Steve Dean's dance hall tour, this time of the eastern end of the trip?

This part of Texas is one I haven't spent much time in, although I have been to Schulenberg in the company of the present Count Studeman von der Schulenberg (better known to his friends as Fred) and would often break the journey back home from Louisiana at the now-vanished Bon Ton in La Grange for their superlative fried chicken.

This was also the part of Texas that Steve has documented in his only (so far) book, Historic Dance Halls of East Central Texas, available in Austin at your favorite independent book store (or that link). Just reading that book made me want to jump in the car and head out there, but I was more than happy to be a passenger with a bunch of other people, like last time, and just ride along.

As we did last time, we headed out from the Midway Food Park, where Steve books the entertainment, and headed east out of Austin. We had a full van this time, 13 of us, all history buffs or Texana fans, apparently, although the couple next to me were dance fans and seemed to have a project of dancing in as many Texas dance halls and honky-tonks as they could, and at the outset were already plotting to see if they'd be home in time to see the Bellamy Brothers in the evening. Our driver was Erik McCowan, who's still working on his documentary about dance halls, which should be a doozie once it's finished. Steve usefully defined the difference as being "A dance hall you go to to dance with your wife, but a honky-tonk you go to to dance with someone else's wife," as concise and useful a definition as I've heard. During the day, as we went from one dance hall to another, he'd also point out legendary honky-tonks, most of which were no longer operating, but emanated history and good-natured sleaze.

The main difference between what we'd see today, as opposed to what we saw last time, was that Czech-Tex was added to the mix. The Hill Country is pretty solidly populated with the descendants of German immigrants, and although when the immigration boom happened, there was only a subtle difference between German and Czech (go look up the Sudetenland, if you want), there being no Czechoslovakia at the time, these settlers, mostly from Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were different in that they were solidly Catholic (the Germans were Protestant and Catholic, depending on whether they were from the north or the south), and their foodways were subtly different.

Our first stop was Kovar, a fly-speck so small that nobody has ever included it in a census, a Czech-Moravian settlement with an active SPJST (Slavonic Benevolent Society of the State of Texas) chapter at one time. There's still not much in the way of Kovar, but the SPJST Hall, is still there, and in pretty good shape. When we arrived, it was preparing for someone's Golden Anniversary party, and truth to tell, it wasn't much.

It doesn't even have the SPJST seal on it, but at least it's still in use.

Our next stop was an early lunch in Smithville, which connoisseurs of barbeque will realize meant a stop at Zimmerhansel's. This relatively unsung barbeque joint is one of the best in the state, and if it were in Austin, would give healthy competition to Franklin's for crowds. But the servers are quick and efficient, and if you order right, you can get a very memorable meal.

The good stuff is hiding under those onions

Unfortunately, I ordered wrong. Or part-wrong. The sides were utterly undistinguished, including the beans, but the brisket (I asked for half fatty and half lean) was astounding. The sausage, much raved-about in the online reviews, was the coarse-ground, underseasoned type found in a lot of barbeque joints in this area, and was only mildly improved by dipping it in the vinegary sauce. What was good, although I was afraid my teeth wouldn't be able to handle it, was the pork ribs, which a fellow-diner shared with me and was the cliched falling-off-the-bone excellent. So next time -- and there will be a next time -- I'll order small quantities of meat (mixed brisket, ribs) with one side. I've known about this place forever, thanks to my pal George Carver, but never made it out; Smithville never seemed that attractive to me. Silly me.

Erik exits, happy.

Where the action is: Zimmerhanzel's' pit, powered by post oak.
Next stop was Plum, Texas, pop. 95, host of the annual Plum Sausage Festival in June. Steve swears by Plum's sausage, but it's only available at the festival. Hmmm.

Plum in full bloom.
It sure didn't hurt that the recent rains have encouraged a fine bloom of seasonal wildflowers, which will continue (barring a freeze, which in a state loaded with climate deniers, Nature might yet impose just to show them), and this display was very patriotic, consisting of bluebonnets, some little white flower, and bright red Indian paintbrush. I also spooked a cluster of small frogs while taking this shot; they were hanging out in a culvert with water in it and leaping into darkness when they sensed my presence.

Plum's hall, again, wasn't very spectacular, but the surroundings were so nice I wasn't about to complain. Unlike the rest of the halls on this tour, the original settlers here came from Tennessee, and so were presumably Anglo Protestants, but the place soon was full of Moravians, who built the hall next to Sts. Peter and Paul church.

From here, we went to LaGrange, whose large fairground just out of town sits on a magnificent bluff above the Colorado River, totally invisible from any fairground attractions. It also has the spanking new Texas Czech Heritage Center, an archive of historical papers and photos which is expanding to a museum village just behind it with various buildings of interest to Texas Czech history in the process of restoration. The Pavillion is used in several events on the grounds, although as a relatively recent hall (1927) I didn't find it too interesting.

It is, however, big.

After leaving LaGrange, it was down another back road to another break, this time at the Rohan Meadery in Nechanitz. I'm not a big fan of mead, and after one small taste of what promised to be one of their varieties not infused with sweet fruit syrup (although a pure honey mead was, inexplicably, not available), I noted a nose of decay and a bunch of cloudy flavors and walked out to await the rest of the party on the porch. There was a huge white dog who'd greeted us, some guinea fowl making noise off by an outbuilding, and a bunch of chickens, some with elaborate leg feathers. There was a much smaller one who was chased away from the water dish by a very aggressive black chicken, and after a while I managed to coax it onto my lap.

What I saw.

What I imagine the chicken saw. 
And, refreshed by their mead-tasting, my fellow voyagers filed out and we were on our way to Cat Spring, where the Landwirtschaftliche Verein (Agricultural Society) erected a round (actually octagonal) dance hall in the 19th century. Thanks to an unusual community cohesiveness, this society is still in existence, with over 200 members, and was setting up for an event when we showed up. It's been dramatically renovated without harming the exterior, and you can dance in air-conditioned splendor when they have music.

The Germans, being German, had rules, though:

Translated from the Deutsch-Tex: The wearing of hats, spurs, smoking and chewing are forbidden in this hall. 
Cat Spring was an important German community, the first German settlement a lot of immigrants encountered after getting off the boat at Indianola or Galveston and heading towards the Hill Country, so it prospered by selling them supplies and provisions.

The history (click to enlarge, of course)
Germans just seem to naturally form associations, and so down the road apiece we pulled into Millheim, where the local Harmonie Verein built a hall in 1874, and built a new one in 1938.

The two chairs in the picture had just held two voluble and entertaining gentlemen who filled us in on the history and were eager to invite us to the Father's Day bash, where two tons of meat (including mutton) are cooked in an odd concrete trench and served to members and visitors.

The trench, minus glowing coals, brisket, pork, and mutton.

The history
Among the things the two guys yakked about with us was how pathetic the folks down the road at Peters were, especially after we told them that was our next stop. Oh, Peters could hardly draw flies at their Mother's Day barbecue! Those poor people! Well, we'd see about that, but I'd already begun considering coming back to Millheim for Father's Day, and Erik and I made a tentative plan at the end of the day.

Peters turned out to be another octagonal hall, surrounded by large trees -- and the stumps of others, since a violent wind-storm in 2001 severed a bunch of large boughs, one of which went through the roof --  and it dated from the end of the 19th century, built by a Schussverein, or shooting club, like the one in Grapetown we'd seen on the Hill Country tour. The Verein no longer exists, but the association now administers the hall, which is popular for Mexican 15th birthday celebrations and weddings. And that Mother's Day barbecue.

The local paper was supposed to be there to meet us, but instead they asked the folks from the Verein to do the honors, and at one point we all sat on the lip of the stage and grinned for a photo. The things people will do for the media!

Schneider Hall, though, our next stop, was a raging success story, mostly due to Amber Burris, a descendent of the four Schneider brothers on whose land it sits. In 2009, her younger sister Adrienne decided she wanted a deluxe wedding reception and they started clearing out the old hall, which had not only been a venue for dances, but also a meeting place for the local Farmers League. In 1941, it was shut down and used to store cotton, and then hay, so the girls had their work cut out for them. But after the wedding, Amber went into high gear, engaging social media, the site's proximity to Houston, and a clever feeling for marketing Texana into a publicity campaign that assures that the place is booked up nearly every week into the beginning of the summer and starting up again in the fall. Current pride of place goes to the new building containing the bathrooms, which are the equal of some I've seen in fine restaurants.

Deceptively funky: Schneider Hall
Amber admitted to being a garage-sale addict, and two corners of the hall bear her out with a wonderfully improvised lighting system:

Mason jars, Ball jars, and tea lights: this whole array may have cost two dollars.

Our last stop was Schulenburg, where Steve had assisted in the renovation, opening, and managing of Sengelmann Hall, a two-story dancehall that's attempting to be a tourist magnet in a town whose motto, last time I was there, was "Halfway to Everywhere!" Presumably someone snapped to the hidden meaning of this phrase, because it's changed. I was looking forward to getting there, not only to see how it had changed since my last visit, but because their annual Sausage Fest was underway. We cleverly managed to miss it, though, and it was even hard to snap a photo of the hall because the sun was making a blazing exit from the sky.

Kinda hard to miss. 
A bunch of vintage tractors (and one vintage car) were parked across the street, but the cookers had long packed up, won their prizes, and hauled their sausage home. Something of a street party was happening in the block the sun was zapping, but I didn't bother to go check it out because, like a number of our other passengers, I was bone-tired by now: one of the problems with Steve's enthusiasm is to assume it on the part of everyone, and since this turned into a 12-hour tour, it was too long by several hours. Also, having Erik making his film stretched out our time at places where there were people to meet us, because he wanted to interview them. I stayed around for some of these interviews because I found them interesting (as I assume the film will be) but not everyone else did. And I believe the couple headed to the Bellamy Brothers must have missed the first set.

* * *

Although the Hill Country tour was more scenic (East Texas is pretty flat), both tours had me thinking similar thoughts, but talking to the folks at Millheim and Peters really put one issue in stark relief. These places were largely built by communities, and sectors of those communities who identified themselves by reference to national origin, activity, or occupation. Since travel between towns was done by horse, and 20 miles was an average day's horse ride, that's where towns were, but starting in the 1920s, the car shortened those distances (although the state of Texas took a while improving the roads). Nonetheless, the community feeling remained, often bolstered by a statewide association of associations (the SPJST being the most obvious) or simply common interest (now it was easier for the singing groups to visit and compete with each other). 

World War II put the German communities through a lot of stress, although their loyalty to America was hard to question, and indeed Texans rarely equated a German-American neighbor with Hitler, even if he did speak Deutsch-Tex. But when men came back from the war, they'd seen a lot of the outside world, even if they hadn't shipped overseas, and mass media began to break down the kind of solidarity these people had felt for each other. The next generations saw this solidarity erode even further, especially as the young people left for good-paying jobs in the oil fields and the cities -- far better-paying than a family farm could offer. Even those who stayed saw no reason to engage with their forebears' culture, and the current generation seems to have no interest in it at all. This may well change as they grow older, but as they grow older, so will the majority of the current members of the Vereins who maintain these halls. The men we talked to at Millheim and Peters admitted it was hard to interest the younger generation in paying the nominal fee to belong, and at Millheim, they said that the only time younger folk showed up was when the night crew for the barbeque (they start the fire about 10pm for an 11am start to the food), and when the cooking was over, they disappeared. (Another thing to note is outside interference: the health authorities raided the sausage-making at Plum one year, although there had been no complaints and certainly no illness or deaths from eating sausage made in the traditional way, and the association had to comply with the rules). 

Community is one of America's vanishing resources, at least partially because it's in the interest of the forces attempting to take control of the country to keep its people atomized and stupid, by cutting back education, putting them at each others' throats on political and racial issues, and numbing them with cretinous entertainment, particularly on television. So far they're doing a magnificent job, but I can't help but feel that by entering into the world that the activities generated by the structures we visited yesterday represent, a key towards a contemporary definition of healthy community -- even temporary community -- people might see an alternative. To me, this alternative is vital, essential for putting American society back on track before the oligarchs and plutocrats have it totally at their mercy. That's why getting married at one of these places is a more optimistic thing to me than just the cliche of two people setting off on the journey of life, blah blah blah. The people who attend the reception get a glimpse of what community can do. A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but with enough buckets, you can start putting out a fire. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

SXSW 2015: In Which I Become a Cineaste

Many apologies for the silence here. At first I was daunted by the torrent of hate mail my last post occasioned from people I probably don't know -- many of them signed in under phony names or as the ever-popular Anonymous. Many, as well, either didn't read what I wrote or had a distorted understanding of it. Nonetheless, I intend a second part to it: I actually got distracted somewhere along the way while writing it and never included a couple of points I was going to make. 

But that won't happen today. The other reason I haven't posted of late is that almost every day I've been working at my book, which is tiring, detailed work that saps my desire to write any more after I'm finished. I'm making great progress and should have the first draft finished soon. After a short break, I will then do the hardest work: making it cohere and making sure nothing important is left out. Then, I hope on time, which is September, I'll hand it in and hope the publisher likes it. 

I haven't worked on the book in over a week, and I'm quite anxious to get back to work, but the reason I haven't written any more on it is that, as happens every year, SXSW has raised its head and I've had to deal with it and the visitors I only see once a year and the hell that downtown Austin turns into. But I think some of what I saw and did will be of interest, so since weather has cancelled the softball game, I'll stay home and write this post. I may not be back with part two of the On Returning piece for a few weeks or longer, but it's always a good idea to let people know you're alive. And since I am, in fact, alive, here we go. 

* * *

At first it was just a dull rumble on the horizon. Then a couple of 35-year-old bros from Vanderbilt University demolished a long-standing business, a piñata company on the East Side, with its stock still intact in the building, while the proprietors weren't there. The reason was to get the family off the property so the bros could rent it to a SXSW party, and after they'd not only demolished the property, but compared the ex-tenants to cockroaches, the community was in an uproar. I'd sure hate to be these guys (I'd like to think my mama raised me better, for one thing), but they made the dull rumble turn into a roar. (Latest update on the situation by Tony Cantú, who's been doing an exemplary job, is here). 

SXSWi is the big draw now, the Film and Music modules its satellites, but I found little to interest me in the panels, which, as usual, were divided up between Buy My Product, Buy My Book, Stuff You Don't Understand, You're Too Old, and Next Big Thing. Last year's Next Big Thing this year is near the mothball stage: I saw not one person wearing Google Glasses. This year's Next Big Thing is apparently Bitcoin, although I remain as sceptical about that as I can be. Of course, what do I know: they introduced Twitter at SXSWi some years back and I thought that was dumb, too. (I actually still do to some extent, although I've become @HistorianOfRock in view of the day when I'll start promoting my books). 

I figured that instead of going to one of the few journalism panels to get condescended to, I'd just skip them (they seemed to be about writing shorter to get noticed, Reddit, and I swear I saw one called "Advertising is Dead: Content IS Advertising" that chilled me) and head to the trade show, which was less exciting than ever before, filled with solutions to problems that don't exist and gadgets I don't seem to remember anyone needing: talking vegetables, anyone? (This was over in the Japanese area, where there were stuffed animals to get infants used to using devices and an app so you could add graffiti and animated animals to your videos). NASA had a nice exhibit about the Mars mission, and someone else had a semi trailer filled with a demonstration of the Internet of Things. Since I'd just read a story about the first refrigerator's e-mail system being hijacked to send spam, I think this is a wait-and-see situation. As well as a don't expect to see much yet one. 

SXSWi had some sideshows, and one was a series of panels at the Driskill Hotel about food. (The actual module was entitled Food and Experiential Dining. Yawn.) Most of the panels were about tech and food, and the dreaded Nathan Myrhvold was invoked, as well as social media et. al., but there was a nice session about food and heritage in which late-generation ethnic-heritage people (Jewish, Mexican, Palestinian) talked about keeping their ancestors' cuisines alive and relevant today. More like this and fewer about making money and this could be a viable draw. 

This year, I swore not to go see any live music. Skimming the list, I found only two acts I recognized out of the 3.8 million listed (figure approximate). One was the Gang of Four, which was actually the Gang of One Plus Three Employees, and the other the Zombies, who I was never crazy about but are apparently in fine fettle. Negotiating the din and drunken crowds held no appeal whatever, but I hit on an ingenious solution: movies. Here was a chance to see living and dead musicians, situations whose importance I already knew but could always learn more about, and maybe even something left-field that I knew nothing about. So at 3:15 on Friday the 13th, I settled into a seat at the Alamo Lamar and saw Julien Temple's latest film, The Ecstacy of Wilko Johnson

Photo: Katy Woods
I'd seen Temple's remarkable documentary on Wilko's band, Dr. Feelgood, Oil City Confidential, and was much taken with Wilko's candor about his role in destroying it. He seemed a very complex character, and I was shocked, shortly after I'd seen the film, to learn that he had fatal pancreatic cancer and only a short while to live. Temple, a brave man, got his permission to film him dying and interview him along the way. It's a harrowing film if you don't know how things turned out, and harrowing if you do. I won't spoil things: go see this if you can. You'll never forget it.

I felt great: I'd figured out a way to participate in SXSW without heading into the Gate of Hell that was downtown! Of course, once Music fired up, that would change, but meanwhile I'd turned into a moviegoer. Well, I'd done that earlier: several months ago, I bought a screen and hooked it up to my CD player (which was also a DVD/BluRay player) and amplifier and started a subscription to Netflix to catch up on the 50 or so years of movies I've missed. 

Monday, with a great deal of ambivalence, I went to my next screening, again a world premiere. The film is somewhat legendary: Leon Russell hired the late Les Blank to do a film on him and then suppressed the result for nearly 40 years. Les was a friend of mine when I lived in California, and I loved his movies. In fact, I bought the Criterion box of his documentaries shortly after I bought my screen, and am working my way through it with great pleasure, since there are several I've never seen. So on the one hand there was that. On the other hand, I've always detested Leon Russell's shallow, superficial music and by viewing this film, inexplicably titled A Poem is a Naked Person, I'd be putting up with 2 ½ hours of it. 

Don't trust that smile. Not that he smiles much in the film.

Someone relented after Les's death, so here we were, gathered in the Topfer Theater at Zach (which is what Zachary Scott Theater is now called), the Great Man (or what's left of him) in attendance along with various other VIPs including Les' son, Maureen Gosling, Les' long-time assistant, and no doubt others I didn't recognize. It's easy to see why one might not want to be exposed in the way this film exposes Russell: he appears offstage in it very infrequently, and much of the film is spent with his entourage, with Austin artist Jim Franklin painting the bottom of his swimming pool, and gazing at audiences at the shows while the incessant din of the band hammers on. Unusually for Blank, there is no food in this film, unless you count the scene where a snake, someone's pet, eats a baby chicken. In every one of his other films, Les features the preparation and consumption of food. Like music, he seems to say, this gets people together in one place to share an experience and in so doing binds them in that experience. Since Russell is part of the early '70s' "we create, you consume" music culture, a food scene would be out of place, perhaps. I can't recommend the film, but that's me. If you think you might like it, go see it. 

I was dubious about my next film, Love & Mercy, a biopic about Brian Wilson starring...John Cusack? Only a friend's urgent recommendation -- and the fact that the screening happened when I had nothing better to do -- got me back to the Alamo. 

Yes, John Cusack. No, he doesn't look like Brian.
Man, is this not what you're expecting, and man is it good. What it is, basically, is the story of Brian Wilson meeting his second wife, Melinda, and her struggle to get him from under the heel of Eugene Landy, the psychiatric charlatan who was supposedly treating his depression and creative block. It's also the story of how he got that way, necessitating the services of Paul Dano as young Brian growing away from his brothers (and his cousin, Mike Love) as he has them record first Pet Sounds and then Smile. Neither Dano nor Cusack looks much like Brian, but boy, do they inhabit him. The same could be said of Paul Giamatti as Landy, Jake Abel as Love, and Bill Camp as the Wilson's abusive and envious father Murry: this film has some bad bad guys, adept at causing extreme psychological damage. All of the music is authentic: ever wonder what all those isolated track cuts on the Pet Sounds and Smile box sets were good for? I have no idea what Melinda Wilson is like, but Elizabeth Banks does a great job with her role, too. This is set for general release in June, so mark your calendars. 

The last film I saw was one I really wanted to see: Danny Says, a documentary portrait of the inimitable Danny Fields. Who? you say. A behind the scenes guy in New York who's been there seemingly forever and who's always in the right place: I remember him taking the stairs two at a time to come up to our office at Crawdaddy! in 1967 to see what we were doing and, after wishing us well and leaving Paul Williams noted that even at Hit Parader (Danny's current employer at the time) there were the kind of people we were trying to reach. Of course, Danny probably also wanted to see how cute Paul was or wasn't. 

Credit: Danny Fields Archive. Danny's the one in the t-shirt. Duh.
The 28-year-old director, Brendan Toller, makes it look easy, and it's true that once you start Danny talking it's hard to get him to stop, but there's a lot of craft here that's pretty much invisible but makes the film work. Amazing archive footage is interspersed with contemporary interviews, and the whole arc, from law school (who knew?) through managing (and letting go of) the Ramones, is here. If names like the Stooges, the MC5, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico, and the Ramones pop up in your pantheon, you need to see this. 

I managed to miss a documentary on Tower Records' rise and fall, one on British punkers the Damned, another on Mavis Staples, and one on local gospel phenoms the Jones Family, not to mention Joe Nick Patoski's Doug Sahm film, Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, an early cut of which I saw a month or so ago and which I intend to catch at a San Antonio screening next month, but I'm pretty happy with this year's activity. I got far more out of it than the rather anemic Music panels I went to this year (although there were three scheduled for the same slot one day and the one I went to was a major disappointment), but I did manage to end SXSWeek feeling I'd made maximum positive use of my badge. 

And as for all those films I missed? I told you: I have Netflix now. I can catch up on not only some of this year's when they get pressed onto disc (I don't do streaming), but on some of the ones from years past. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Returning

I'm usually pretty good about this: marking anniversaries of milestones in my life. August 12: I moved to Germany. Late October: I moved to France. October 23: I moved back to Texas. So why didn't I jump on this first anniversary of that last event to put up a blog post?

Several reasons. Mostly, I've been way too busy to do it. That's the good news. But in small part, because I'm ambivalent about having done it. Let's see if I can explain.

The daily vista
Shortly after I moved into this place, I set up a work area that hasn't changed noticeably since then. I bought and built a desk, which had a defective drawer, so I can't use that helpful aspect of it. And I set it up by a window, which is what I've pretty much always done, everywhere I've lived. The outdoors isn't a distraction so much as it's something to look at while I'm gathering my thoughts. More than once I've been absorbed in writing something, then gotten up to get a drink or just to stretch my legs and suddenly notice that it's rained. Didn't even notice.

But I'm under no illusion about how lucky I am. I arrived in the US minus a credit rating, due to the fact that for twenty years I'd lived in places where that information was between you and your bank (and the police, who have access to most, but not all, of your data), and that's all. "He's a ghost," one prospective landlord told my realtor during my search for a house. "It's like he doesn't exist." By a miracle, a friend of a friend (who was my realtor's husband) with whom I'd almost gone into business (said business proposed by the same realtor's husband) had outgrown his house and was renting it out. He was plenty sceptical, because of the no credit rating, but he took a chance.

Which made me scared. I'd been trying to sell a book that, it seemed to me, was a natural. I was sure my agent could do it, but I was hoping he could do it soon. It was the reason I'd moved back here, or one of them: I wanted access to UT's arts library, which I'd used before. There were other reasons, too. I tried, but couldn't seem to master Catalan, which I needed if I were going to move to Barcelona, which was Plan A. The hard disc was full. Oh, I might have been able to do it if I'd just moved there and taken a class, and I'd seen classes that encompassed both Catalan and Spanish. I might, just might, have been able to do it. I didn't actually know anyone there, but I could probably have made a few friends. And I did like the place. But...with no language, not a good idea.

The days passed, and the book didn't sell. Soon, I was in debt to my landlord. That was not a good thing. I was going to have to live like I could become homeless at any moment, because that's the reality in America, particularly in Texas. I still had no credit rating, and if I lost this place, I would have to live in my car. I wasn't much looking forward to that, and eked out day to day. Fortunately, my "broke, not poor" habits made it possible to feed myself fairly well, but they put a damper on having a social life. But I was living from day to day, and that's not what I'd hoped would happen.

My stuff arrived from France, and I started slapping it onto shelves. Unfortunately, there weren't enough shelves. There still aren't.

90º shot from the previous. More (but not much) in the garage.
It's the same way with the CDs: I desperately need to get them shelved and sorted. So far, though, I haven't gotten the shelves or advertised for help:

And there are many more on the facing wall. 
But, a year after I moved in here (Nov. 8, as it turns out, so this post is actually only a couple of weeks late), I have probably got enough money to make it through the coming year. The feeling of being able to pay my bills, to pay my rent, on time, is entirely new to me. And I like it.

Yes, I sold the book, finally, as I've mentioned here. And now I'm writing it. Another reason not to blog: when I sit down and start working, I eat up all my writing energy, although the results, I have to say, have been pretty nice for a first draft. But that was in August, and the money didn't reach me immediately. When it did, I took off on a vacation, sorely needed: after returning, I couldn't wait to tear into the book.

But really, what that means is that my new life didn't actually start until early October. when I got back from the vacation. Just this week, I replaced the transmission in my car, the last major expense of the change. Now, it's just write and write, picking up some extra money on the side from radio work and teaching the informal class at UT, and hoping nothing else goes wrong.

So now that I've been back a year, how does it feel? People keep asking me that. Well, I'm ambivalent, like I said. Turns out I didn't actually need the UT library -- or not yet, not for a couple of years if everything goes right -- but somehow, my psyche gave a sigh of relief at not being illegal any more. France and Germany (and possibly Spain) are no more eager to have undocumented immigrants than the U.S. is, but it does help to be a middle-aged white guy so the racist immigration authorities don't notice you. But Obama's executive order doesn't affect me personally in the least.

Austin, as anyone will tell you, isn't Austin any more. It's a generic American city made unusual by its weather (we had a very mild summer, for which thanks), its live music scene (to which I am profoundly indifferent), and its youth (I was told that the median age here is 28). It is perhaps a tiny bit more cognizant of the issues facing America, but mostly the people who haven't been squeezed out (and who did the squeezing, along with the real estate developers) are as solipsistic and entitled as they are in other hip capitals. The other night I went out to dinner with friends, one of whom has a leg in some kind of cast and crutches, and while we waited to be seated, two men sprawled across a seat made for four, oblivious of the fact that there was a guy on crutches standing right next to them who could have used the seat. (Later, inside the restaurant, they were at the next table and I overheard enough of their talk to realize that they were in the tech sector: no huge surprise). Although Austin voted pretty liberally in the midterms, it's still in a state with a Neanderthal for governor, another on the way, and represented in Washington largely by the kind of people who make people in other countries fear the United States. And I live in a nation that is preparing to sell off its national parks to extractive industries, further our endless war in the Mideast, make sure children aren't educated or taught critical thinking, and all but ban science. And I can't do anything about that because too many of my fellow citizens are too engaged with entertaining themselves to look up from their devices and see what's happening.

All things considered, I guess I'd rather not be here, "here" being both the U.S. and Austin. But I do have work to do, and this is where I am, doing it. I don't want to move again any time soon, either next door or across a continent, so for today, here I am. As for where I'd rather be, I can't answer that. There are days when I miss France fiercely, even knowing I'm not welcome to live there. There are days (admittedly rare) when I even miss Berlin. I miss being able to get on a train and (if I've planned right) for very little money going to somewhere quite different from where I started. I miss efficient public transportation, something Austin will never have, in part to the Koch Brothers "investing" in defeating proposals to build it. I miss the outdoor market at the Arceaux in Montpellier, and the seasonal changes in the produce -- and the fact that, unlike at Austin's "farmers markets," that produce is priced within reach of the average person. (This summer, tomatoes cost literally twice what they did in France). I miss affordable wine that actually tastes good, and I miss a good variety in things like juice and yogurt at breakfast. I miss being in a place with a deep sense of history.

Is there anything that's gotten better? Yes: besides the physical plant of my house with its gleaming and useful kitchen, which has enabled me to cook better than ever, there's Central Market, the enlightened grocery store where I buy the majority of what I do cook there. I don't have to wonder about meats and vegetables and what would be a good replacement: what you see is what you get, and last night, it being stormy, I cooked up my very first pot roast and it was amazing. I also have access to books in English when I need to buy them, in a browsable bricks-and-mortar bookstore with another browsable books-and-mortar record store right across the street. The Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants aren't "Asia" restaurants, and so I patronize them when I can and recognize what I get. There's the inestimable joy of getting bills and notices in a language I understand thoroughly, not just pretty well, so that, for instance, I can easily make out that the $20 hike in my monthly Internet bill is due to a decision to adopt a new deal from my provider that I supposedly made on Nov. 11, even though it was a holiday. And I can protest it in my own language, too, for all the good it'll do me. (Although I have to say the English help line at France Telecom Orange has some brilliant folks working for it). I'm a lot closer to a lot of my friends, even if I do have to fly (which I abhorred even before they shrunk the plane interiors so that I fear an embolism every time I get in one) to see them; it's too bad I'll probably not live long enough to see decent train service in this country. Of course, your grandkids may not, either.

I'm choosing to keep my hopes small and my energy high, and work hard at what's before me without the need to seek out anything more (while still being open to other things, just not with the aching sense of need I once had). Like the alcoholics, I'm taking it a day at a time in my new old place (and, unlike them, enjoying a craft beer after dinner), looking to make it newer with a modest screen to show movies on and maybe a couple more chairs for the dining table (I still only have two), and confident that change will come when it's supposed to. Meanwhile, I do give thanks that I've got work and a decent place to live. Tune in tomorrow, but with luck, it'll be the same, if not better.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Truckin' Around Austin

My friend Special K earns extra cash on weekends by working out at the Midway Food Park, which is where I met Steve Dean for our dance hall tour earlier this year. Her gig is schlepping the PA equipment for the bands that play there each weekend (Steve books them), and as a result she's gotten a bit of insight into the culture of the food trailer scene here. It also meant that she got early warning about Truck By Truck West, which sounded interesting: you bought a wristband, and for five days got unlimited samples at a whole bunch of food trucks that had signed up to participate. At the end, those who had week-long passes would vote on the best places they'd visited. This would be facilitated by an app for your smartphone called Byte, which seems to combine Google Maps with a Yelp-like rating system.

Since I'd been wanting to check out the whole Austin food trailer scene for some time, this seemed like a good excuse to do it, so I plunked down a $40 registration fee (K mysteriously found a free registration at the Midway), and we decided to be food detectives for a week.

Austin, in part because of its weather, has been in the forefront of this trend for some time. Several years ago, before things even got as crazy as they are now, I heard that there were 1800 trailers in Austin. No idea how many there are now, but one interesting trend was that trailers often had high-end dining and the more successful ones got brick-and-mortar locations. The great success story, of course, was Franklin's Barbeque, which went from a trailer to a huge operation for which people now stand in line for seven or eight hours. (It's good. It's very good. But nothing is worth standing in line for seven hours to get. This isn't a slam at Aaron Franklin, but, rather, on trendy people.)

I also have to say that restaurants like Barley Swine, Salty Sow, and East Side King are hard to imagine as trailers, and that they might have been better off there, but I have yet to really investigate them. What put me off from the whole high-end-trailer-to-restaurant thing was the worst meal I've ever paid that much money for at Foreign and Domestic, one of the first to make the jump. I don't want to go back over the experience, although it lingers in my mind, but engineering such a collision of horrid atmosphere, ill-thought-out-food, and arrogant, ignorant service would be hard to do on purpose.

Still, if there's one thing that TXTW didn't seem to have, it was high-end food. Which is a shame, but although there probably are nascent success stories that didn't sign up, the levelled playing field was probably more fair to the overall voting results. At any rate, K and I installed Byte on our phones, and then tried to figure out how to get our wristbands and how to make them work. This was TXTW's second year, and given the level of disorganization around it, I don't even want to contemplate what last year's was like. Just getting next to the wristbands was difficult: the organizer's perfervid style of communicating via e-mail forced the reader to dig in, looking for the information amidst the logorrhea. Eventually, we each went to the Squarerüt Kava Bar nearest us and asked if they'd been delivered any wristbands. They had, in both cases. She accepted the free cup of kava and liked it. I passed, although the folks were friendly.

For our first night of tasting, we decided to head up S. 1st St., where there were a number of places to try. Our first stop was a little trailer park at 504 W. Oltorf, hidden from the road by a building that was part of one of the vendors' operation. We decided to start with something familiar: tacos from Cheke's Takos. They were friendly enough, but refused to understand that we were two individuals with two registrations, so we only got two of the three samples. I don't even remember what they were, although the salsas were superb. One for another day. Next up was Flying Carpet: Moroccan Souk Food.  The guy who ran it, Abderrahim, was super friendly, and we wound up talking with him while his wife Maria dealt with the deluge of TXTW orders that had started arriving. Again, I didn't take notes, and the sample was small, but extremely tasty. The building that blocks the view of the court belongs to Flying Carpet, and is simply a dining area out of the weather. I bet I wind up at this place again, too, and if Abderrahim is able to expand to more complex dishes than the street food he's serving now, I'd enthusiastically try it. The evening closed when we left this place and headed a bit up the street to Regal Ravioli, a place I'd seen out of the corner of my eye while eating outdoors at Elizabeth Street (another fine place I've been saving for a restaurant wrapup here). This guy is ambitious, but the sample was a couple of ravioli in red sauce (but that's probably what Austinites expect), and I found the sauce to have an unpleasant citrus-y tang. I dunno; worth watching, but, as with so much Italian food in Austin, I can do better at home.

The idea of finding a food court and working our way around it was a good one, so Thursday (I teach a class on Wednesday night) we headed up to Hipster Central, E. 6th St. across the freeway. In the 20 years since I've been here, the Mexican-Americans have been rather aggressively removed from this long-time enclave, and people with ink, shaved heads and Smith Brothers beards have taken over. It's entirely too close to downtown to allow ethnics to live there, after all, and if the young people who've taken over are ignorant of the families they've displaced, they're not entirely to blame, because it was the real estate interests who led the charge. It's too late to do anything about it, in any event, but I'm still haunted by the ghosts of the residents of 35 years ago when I go there.

Our evening started at Baton Creole, presided over by a jolly young woman with whom I talked Cajun food, who also told me there was another branch near me on Stassney Lane inside a bar a friend of hers had taken over. I may check it out some time, but the sample, a mini sausage jambalaya on a stick, wasn't too great: basically a sausage was threaded onto the stick, then a rice mixture covered it, then it was breaded and fried. It was too hot when I bit into it, but it didn't seem to have a lot of flavor as it cooled, either. The Wholly Kebab place didn't impress me -- kebabs rarely do after 20 years in Europe, where I mostly avoided them, although they're the most universal street food on the continent -- and the portion was too small to figure out what it was supposed to taste like. Next up was Way South Philly, allegedly a cheese steak joint, but what we got was a small pile of shredded meat in a bun. K thought she detected some cheese, but I couldn't, and anyway, the meat in a cheese steak isn't shredded. There was supposed to be an Indian place in this court, but there wasn't, so we had pizza from Spartan Pizza for dessert. Two half-slices, nothing special. Better than most Austin pizza, which is damning with faint praise.

There was one more place on the street, but it was getting late. Hell, we had a parking space, it was only a block, so we trudged to Kyoten. And were amazed. The sample was excellent, but simple: a sheet of fried tofu split open to accommodate some rice. Both the tofu and the rice were subtly flavored, and I trusted these guys enough to order a small bite of sushi to try, the "Negihama," which consisted of a fish called kenpachi that I'd never heard of, and is, according to an expert I asked, the mature form of amberjack. Whatever it was, it was buttery and flavorful. I talked some to one of the guys running the stand and found him full of knowledge and enthusiasm. The grounds were beautiful at night, the raked gravel, the Zen garden, and the quiet (of all things) making the whole experience the opposite of what we'd just been to. I intend to stop by several more times before somebody hands them a wad of cash and the lease to a building to grow in. I suspect I'll have a superb meal next time I check in: I've only scratched the surface of the menu, and there are regular daily specials. Now, if I only knew something about sake...

Friday, K had to work at the Midway, and I stayed home and cooked some ravioli, some red sauce, and mixed them together, strewed mozzarella over the whole thing and threw it in the oven. Sorry, Austin, this is what it tastes like.

Saturday, K also had to work but it was a chance to use the wristband at the Midway, as well as to see Don Leady, an old pal, sit in with the band that was booked that night, which also featured Don's protege, a 13-year-old guitar whiz. The thing is, when I got up there I wasn't at all hungry: none of the trucks, either through their samples or their regular items, tempted me. K, between doing what she had to do (she also passes the hat for the bands twice during the evening), ordered first a "lobster roll" from Dock and Roll that sure didn't look like any lobster roll I've ever seen (like the "cheese steak": these people are defining regional food for Austin!), and then "sausage and peppers" from Gregorio's, which came with a few mostaccioli blanketed by a generic red sauce. There was also a slider joint (Hand Held's), a taco joint (One Taco), Widespread Dave's (he being the former caterer for the jam-band Widespread Panic), a cheesecake place (K's favorite), and a juice place. Frankly, after the Gregorio's sample K handed me, I lost all interest, and after she'd put the equipment away, we called it a day.

Turned out we were supposed to integrate the Byte app with Facebook each time we checked into a place (I don't do Facebook mobile for security reasons), and there's also the voting to go through by midnight today. Frankly, I'd rather write about it, but I'll dig out the e-mail with the voting link just to see that Kyoten gets its props, and Flying Carpet, too. I'm glad to have had this intro to the food trailer experience, and can't help feeling that there are a few interesting ones I've missed (and will be happy to hear about them before cold weather comes on). As for TXTW, it was chaotic, disorganized, and not quite worth the money for me. But since it gave me the excuse to get out and see these places, I'm glad to have done it.

Oh, and as you've no doubt noticed, I was one of the few people not photographing my food.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Eating Québec (And Elsewhere)

The vacation I ended last week was intended to clear my mind in preparation for the hard work of writing my book, which I have just a year to do. I couldn't think of any better way to do it than to fly to New York, meet a friend in Jersey City, eat Indian food there, then take the train up to Montreal for a week. I figured it'd be coming on to peak foliage season, and I was right. So right, in fact, that the Monday I went up was the first day Amtrak added the Dome Car to the run: a car with a glass dome on it for maximum sightseeing.

It's not easy to take pictures from a speeding train, but this gives you an idea. The glass is thick, so it mutes some of the colors, and I decided to check out the special equipment to see what advantages it would bring.

The view was nice, but the car was crowded. The head in the picture belongs to a fat woman who sat down at a table meant for six and spread her crafting supplies all over it and played with them while ignoring the scenery. So this was as close as I got. I spent most of the time listening to green-shirted folks with "National Parks Service Volunteer" on arm-patches talk about the landscape and the history ("Ethan Allen, who ran the Green Mountain Boys? He was a thug. They were all thugs. Fortunately, they were our thugs." Pretty accurate assessment, actually) and passed on the occasional bit of misinformation: water hyacinth is not an alga, sorry. But Lake Champlain, like most places with water in them, is pretty choked by them now.

Having a ten-foot raise in your view doesn't really help, especially when you can't get to it, so I listened to the Parks Service folks for a while and went back to my seat. The upper reaches of the hills were bursting out in color, particularly the red maples and sumac trees, which do a darker shade of red. It was a great show.

Then the sun went down and the rather boring ride between Plattsburg and the border station at Rouses Point and then into Canada ends in a rather dramatic view of Montreal all lit up, which I, of course, forgot to snap.

No matter; I was among friends, ensconced in an ultra-deluxe hotel I'd scored rooms in via a discounter, on the edge of Old Montreal, which is picturesque, at least, although it tends to be clogged with tourists. My usual guides, Terry and Patricia, were on hand to help me through a city I learn just as I leave -- every time! -- and we decided on a well-reviewed fish-and-chips place not far away. It was pretty good, especially for someone like me who hasn't had fish and chips in an age, but only pretty good, and it had all kinds of breadings, which I didn't understand, and a lot of other kind of nouveau trappings. I lost the address, so if you feel inclined to challenge my opinion or check it out yourself, it's on the edge of Old Montreal. Somewhere.

The next night, though, was filled with anticipation. Ages ago, Terry and Patricia took me to Cuisine Szechuan on Avenue Guy. Its huge menu was filled with stuff I never thought I'd see in a restaurant outside of China, and it's always been superb. Terry reported a downward slide in the two years since I'd been, but he'd heard it was back in action. There was no way we'd miss this, so off we went.

Left to right: fried lotus root sticks, twice-fried fish, Chinese spinach with pickled Szechuan chiles.  Grease stains in bowls and on plate due to Szechuan dumplings in chile sauce and Szechuan dumplings with peanut sauce.
The bad news was there were only three of us, so the amount of stuff we could order was limited. Not shown was a dish a guy cooks in a wok on your table, which was very good. The lotus root was like French fries, they're that starchy, but with a completely different texture and, of course, green onions and two kinds of chiles lending their flavors to the oil the lotus root's fried in. The fish was also wonderful, although I didn't get as much of it as I'd liked, and the spinach wasn't overwhelmed by the pickled chiles, although they were certainly powerful, and I intend to find some next time I'm shopping at the Vietnamese-Chinese supermarket. The appetizers were, unsurprisingly, also great: those cloud-like dumplings with a little ball of pork hidden in them somewhere, one batch swimming in a delicious deep red sauce, the other napped with a peanut butter and soy sauce with other ingredients. You don't want to know how inexpensive this place is, but you definitely do need to know how to find it next time you're in Montreal:

Don't forget to tip: the place attracts lots of Chinese students from China, and the staff complains loudly of their parsimony.

The next evening we somehow managed to pull off a coup. Patricia had been wanting to go to Joe Beef, which seems to have replaced Au Pied de Cochon as the in restaurant in Montreal. Like Pied de Cochon, it's been visited by, and raved about by, Anthony Bourdain. Unlike Pied de Cochon, it doesn't post its menu on its website, but I pulled it up and the first thing I saw was a photo of Ai Wei Wei with a kitten, so I figured it'd be okay. Then followed a comedy of sorts in which Patricia attempted to use the website to make a reservation and discovered they were booked up until Christmas or something, then called and was told there'd be a table tonight -- or was it tomorrow? At any rate, we headed down there secure that we'd made a reservation and stood in line in the freezing evening temperature and the young woman with the iPad came and told us she couldn't find our reservation. So we stood around a bit more and finally got escorted to a tight table with windows onto the street, and discovered there's no menu.

Or, rather, there's a menu, but it's written on a chalkboard above the bar, surrounded by tiny Christmas lights, and impossible to read. That's all the menu you get. So you twist in your seat, squint at the words (all of them in French, but that usually doesn't faze me), try to make stuff out, and try to construct a meal out of that. Eventually, crafty Terry and Patricia chose two things I don't like, with him getting "veal liver" (which I remember being called calf's liver) in a red wine reduction, and her getting trout prepared some way that she deemed excellent, neither of which I was going to try. I got pasta with lobster, since I hadn't had lobster in over a decade. Oh, and now it's time for the wine: this menu is written in even smaller letters on its chalkboard and is in all kinds of languages. Naturally, a party of three can't crowd around it with the waiter to discuss it, so I volunteered myself and wound up with a very, very good Ardèche Syrah. Luck of the draw, I assure you.

So by the time the starter arrived (salads for T&P, croquetas made with Montreal smoked meat for me) I was pissed off. Not allowing diners full access to the menu and wine list is just plain arrogant. Diners at a place as upmarket as this need time to weigh choices when spending this much money. (Well, actually, it's not that expensive, but it's expensive enough that you want to choose well). They definitely need extended access to the wine list to make a good choice. Hell, during the meal, Patricia spotted the word cheval on the blackboard. I probably wouldn't have ordered horsemeat, but the waiter hadn't even mentioned it while running down the list. Who knows what I missed during my hurried confab at the wine board? We left feeling a bit mistreated -- or I did, at least. I felt like I had a shot at a wonderful meal but hadn't had the opportunity to make a fully informed choice. I liked what appeared to be, from our small sample, Joe Beef's approach to food, but I definitely did not feel like going back. I should also note that the "croquetas," a common Spanish tapa that, in its simplest form, is sort of like a Tater Tot made from mashed potatoes and then gets more complicated as you put other things in with the potatoes, didn't have potatoes in it. There was a sour taste, and I never tasted any of that famous smoked meat (aka pastrami in the USA). I was enjoying the wine too much to pay attention, but boy, when I got back to the hotel and ran into the bathroom, I realized what had happened: they'd substituted goat cheese, to which I'm violently allergic, for the potatoes. That's what the sour taste I didn't like was. Not their fault, but a printed menu might have mentioned that. And there wasn't one.

It's worth noting that across the street from Joe Beef is a pizzeria called Geppetto, and later that week, after I'd come back from Québec City, Terry got three pizzas to go from there. They could have been the best designer pizzas I'd ever had: all three had a tomato sauce base, but in each case, the sauce was different, aimed at complementing the toppings. Just subtle differences, true, but it's the mark of a serious place, and I'll happily go for a sitdown meal there any time.

I interrupted my Montreal stay for a quick trip to Québec City, the provincial capital and scene of a lot of Canadian and American history. I wasn't sure what was there, actually, just wanted to see another piece of the province I've been visiting off and on since the '70s. Unfortunately, when I checked in at my hotel (a charming place where my room was just a tad too small), I was told there would be five cruise ships in the harbor the next day, and 25,000 tourists in the street. Fortunately, the lady in the hotel said, they'd stay in the "lower city" and wouldn't be rampaging up where I was. I had no idea what she was talking about, having just arrived on the train, but I'd find out the next day.

Dinner that evening was at one of the older houses in town (not as old as the town by any means because the Brits bombed the hell out of it in 1760, and caught the mostly-wooden city on fire), a semi-hokey-looking place called Aux Anciens Canadiens, featuring Quebecois food. It was an impressive menu, although I knew that the real deal was fairly simple, and, in fact, that's what I went for: the mixed plate with two kinds of meat pie (tourtière), pig's knuckle, meatball stew, and "salt pork rillettes," which sure looked like cracklins to me. The leg of Inuit-caught wild caribou with Labrador tea spice, cooked sous-vide with a green alder sauce was extremely tempting, but not the price, not even at 85¢ to the Canadian dollar.

The next day I was hoping for a kind of historical museum of the province, but the nearest thing was to walk a bit up the hill and into the Citadel, built by the British to protect their investment in this city at the narrows of the St. Lawrence River once they'd bombarded it and chased the French away. Security was high due to the visit of the Governor-General, who has a residence there, and our excellent teenage guide ordered us to stick close to her and not go off and investigate stuff on our own because there was a good chance people disregarding this would be frog-marched off the property and/or arrested. (Not that this stopped a couple of Japanese tourists from running towards a landing military helicopter at one point in the tour. I was kind of hoping it'd either shoot them or land on them, to be honest.) It was a bracing walk on a chilly morning, but I rather enjoyed it.

Québec means "narrows," and, at 700 meters, this is as narrow as the St. Lawrence gets. Enemy in sight at far left. 
At noon, we got to watch the firing of the salute.

The museum in the Citadel proved to be boring, concentrating on the regiment's time in World War I rather than the history of the Citadel, so a quick turn and I was gone.

Next was the Plains of Abraham, the battlefield where, in 20 minutes, the French lost Canada to the British and both sides lost their generals. The French one, Montcalm, was from Montpellier, where I used to live and where his family's seat is now a tourist restaurant.
Ground Zero for the Cajuns? Uh, no.
This battle, of course, meant the final expulsion of the French farmers from Acadia, the parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia where they'd been living happily for about a hundred years until forces larger than they decided the land could be better used.  A couple of shiploads became homeless people who drifted down the Atlantic coast of America, finally arriving in Haiti, where they hated it and eventually escaped to Louisiana, whose governor gave them a ton of land. Mostly swamp, of course, but at least the peasants didn't settle in New Orleans. I wanted to pay a visit to it as the place where the whole Cajun story started, but as it turned out, the French had been moving them on for some time by the time the battle happened. Oh, well.

I then decided to head to the Museum of Civilization, a kind of undefined museum in the lower Old Town where Terry told me he thought a historical exhibition on Québec had been moved. I knew they were having an exhibition of classical Greek stuff that was being heavily hyped. And after a bit of getting lost, I found my way down the steep hill, not looking forward to going back up, and gazing over the edge at one point to see a street deep in tourist gridlock. Pickpockets would faint for the choices down there, I thought, but fortunately where I was going was elsewhere. Turned out that the Greeks were from the Greco-Roman museum in Berlin, where I'd seen them years ago, and, idly wondering whether the pornographic pottery was in the show (I'd come upon it when a high-school art class was sitting there, impassively sketching and I noticed that the pots showed a bunch of very graphic hetero- and homosexual goings-on; this being Germany it's likely nobody cared one way or the other), went down to the Québec stuff. I was pretty bushed by now, so I didn't really give the exhibit as much attention as I should have (and I have to say it was mounted and lit oddly, so it wasn't as easy to decipher as it should have been). It did manage to clear up the whole British-French thing, as well as the anti-British thing that had Canada declare its independence (albeit within the British Commonwealth), as well as reminding me of the incredibly destructive iron grip of the Catholic Church on French Canada, which lasted well into the 20th century. Another bit of history was in a park at the top of the hill: this statue of a man Terry's descended from, the first settler in Québec City.

Limping by now, I went back to the hotel to put my feet up for a while, and later went down to a place I'd seen earlier, the Clarendon Hotel, whose menu looked as good as any (attempting to get my network to come up with suggestions was unproductive; the only concrete suggestions were Schwartz's and Au Pied du Cochon, both of which are in Montreal), and turned out to be quite good, although the hotel itself seems locked in the past. The food was excellent for the '80s, and I was given a couple of rolls with this little device, which I figure must've been in the basement for decades:

Not a world-beating photo. Sorry.
If you look carefully at that thing in the distance, it's a pewter cylinder with a grid in it, on which sit little spheres of butter, each with nubs on them. The most antique serving-device I've seen. The rolled-up smoked whitefish and salmon was very good, and the roast wild boar tremendous. Not as au fait as Joe Beef, nor was the wine as good, but perfectly okay.

It rained the next day as I headed back to Montreal, but it was finished once I got there, and that night was the night of Geppetto's. Fall had fallen on the province of Quebec, and I was headed back to New York for a meeting with my publisher and a visit to my agent. And a quick shopping trip to Chinatown in search of an odd ingredient, which I found.

I'm back now, the book has been started (albeit not to my total satisfaction, since I'm still finding my feet, having not attempted a narrative this large in a while), and it'll be a while before I hit the road again. But this sure was fun.

* * *

Intrepid readers who were as excited about the Indian cuisine in Jersey City as I was will want to read this report of a place I wanted to try but didn't. I'd gladly attempt a story for some magazine about this neighborhood if they'd fly me back!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Week (Almost) in India, New Jersey

Want to know how to stay in New York for four nights for less than the price of one night in a hotel? The answer is, stay in New Jersey. Specifically, stay in a crazy Indian-run hotel called the Haiban Inn on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, the heart of that town's Little India. And if you don't mind the room being shaken until all hours by drumming and singing and dancing, book your time in the middle of the nine-day annual religious festival known as Navratri. You won't get much sleep, but on the up-side, a lot of the restaurants are open til 5am.

And you'll want to eat at the restaurants, trust me.

I arrived on Thursday, after a chaotic series of events that made it so it took me almost as long to get from JFK to the hotel as it did for me to get from Austin to JFK. Some of it was my fault: at one point I was steps from the hotel, mis-read the street numbers, turned around, and walked a mile, with my computer bag and my suitcase. But here's the point: at least I got there.

The Haiban isn't going to make anybody's list of luxury hotels, even in Jersey City. In fact, it's barely a hotel. The current owners bought it ten months ago, rid the property of its bedbugs, and started renting out rooms with an eye towards long-stay Indian guests in town to do short gigs in the tech sector. For around a hundred bucks, I got a big room with a bed, another room with a sink, a fridge and a microwave, and a bathroom. No furniture except for a little chair that looked sad that the rest of the dinette set had walked off and left it, no glass to wash your mouth out after brushing your teeth, no desk at which to set up your computer (the wi-fi was great), and nothing much else. The walls are paper-thin and there's a chance the businessman in the next room is using Skype in the wee hours to make a deal. In the morning, basic breakfast is provided: tea, bread to toast, cereal. The people running the place are extremely friendly. And you can't beat the location:

These are just random grabs of the block of Newark Ave., a long street that starts downtown and winds its way until just past Little India. You will notice the huge number of restaurants. We will return to this, never fear. What's not a restaurant is probably a shop selling saris, a money-transfer operation, or a superette or meat market. I would have gone nuts in the superettes were it not for the fact that I have two well-stocked Indian markets right near my place in Austin. Not even they sell curry leaf (neem) plants, though. Gotta get me some of that.

Of course, my never-ending quest for great Indian food, and particularly south Indian food, would bring me to stay in a place like this, but there was another factor as well: PATH. This is a small subway system that connects places like Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City with Manhattan. Really: in very little time at all, I was able to walk to the Journal Square PATH station and, with a regular New York City Metro Card, ride as far as a block from Penn Station. This proved to be amazingly convenient, and, in terms of getting where I needed to go, not much different than staying at a non-midtown hotel in Manhattan. Except for the price.

And Navratri. I got in about 10pm, thanks to the screwups, and heard the music coming from the parking lot across the street. The enthusiastic young man at the hotel desk told me it was the most important festival of the year, nine nights long, and many Hindus spent the entire nine nights praying, not bothering to sleep. I figured that was okay as long as they let me sleep. In fact, it appears to be a festival that's been celebrated since prehistoric times, as the excellent Wikipedia article hints. I was unaware of Navratri before this trip, but the whole world's currently aware of it as a result of the Indian Prime Minister's announcement that he's happy to have dinner at the White House with the Obamas, but he won't eat. It's also a fast, you see.

Well, I didn't want to fast, so I headed up the street to a promising-looking place called Deccan Spice with over-the-top encomia from the Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsma in the window. It was a very strange, but wonderful, experience. I was with a friend from Malaysia who'd, unfortunately, just eaten. (Well, you can't expect people to wait for you when they're starving and you're two hours late). Overwhelmed by the menu, I ordered something called Special Pakora to start. This was described as "paneer and cashew mixed with spices and gram flour and deep fried." We've all had pakoras: they're bits of vegetable coated in spiced chickpea (British: gram) flour (besan) and deep fried, so I figured this would be hunks of paneer, that amazing chewy Indian cheese, treated similarly. What I got was a big plate of crunchy tidbits, a bit like a bar snack for the beer they naturally don't serve here. (I had a Limca, an allegedly lime-flavored soft drink made by Coca Cola India which contains no juice at all, just some kind of unspecified "acid," and tastes sort of like lime-scented disinfectant. I have to order Limca once a decade to remind myself how little I like it). It was, its form notwithstanding, delicious, and I had to watch myself because I am all too aware how besan expands. Next up was the house specialty, Natu Kodi Vepudu, described as "spicy country chicken cooked with poppy seeds, coconut and curry leaves," which sounded astounding. It was. It was also not boneless. My Malaysian friend said there's a very similar-tasting dish back home, also not boneless. You're supposed to suck the marrow, crunch the cartilage, and, of course, eat the meat. The spice mixture was out of this world, and I'm going to go looking for it so I can treat some boneless chicken this way. As it was, my current dentition found it challenging, especially when a bone shard got under my denture and found its way to where my teeth had been extracted. I asked the waiter if I could have some rice on the side. He said, and I quote, "No."

Bizarrely enough, this didn't keep me from returning two nights later. I went with a Jersey Citizen of my acquaintance who'd never eaten in Little India, but who is somewhat spice-averse, which is okay because I suspect the Deccans are all too willing to blast you out if appropriate. For appetizers, she ordered samosas and I ordered chilli paneer. Her samosas were definitely southern Indian style (the restaurant advertises itself as Hyderabadi) and the filling, although it contained potatoes and peas, also contained other stuff that made it sublime. No sticky sweet chutney accompanied them, because really, nothing else was needed. For a main course, she got charminar ka murgh, "boneless chicken cooked in spinach gravy and spices," and I got a goat curry from a new state that had split off of Hyderabad and isn't listed either on the takeout menu I lifted or on line. The goat wasn't boneless, either, which was okay, because I'm used to Jamaican goat curry, which isn't boneless, either. It was pretty good, although, again, dentally challenging for me. My friend lucked out with her chicken: there was far more than spinach in that thick green sauce, including mint and fenugreek and cilantro. I do have one of those little Indian cookbooks back in Texas that claims to be Hyderabadi, and I'm going to look for it. Oh: how was my chilli paneer? No idea. It never came, despite two reminders to the waiter. Finally the manager showed up and my friend allowed as how the white rice she'd ordered hadn't come, either. That, at least, was produced post-haste.

In sum, I suspect that repeated visits to Deccan Spice would reveal a bunch of superb Indian cuisine of the sort I, and probably most gringos, have never had. There would be service problems, and if you order the "goat fry" you'd have to remember it's goat brains you're eating there. They're opening various new locations, and if they'd like a tip on a strip-mall property just down from an Indian grocery on William Cannon Boulevard in Austin, they should contact me. I promise to deliver customers if they promise to deliver the full order.

(Deccan Spice, 771 Newark Ave. Jersey City, NJ, 201-604-1772. Open 11am-1am Mon-Thu, Sun, 11am-5am Fri & Sat. Other locations, check website).

* * *

The next day, not having had enough, I went to a place across the street and around the corner from the hotel for "pure vegetarian" food. Sapthagiri is another burgeoning empire that can have that space down from Man Prasand Grocery if Deccan Spice doesn't want it. It was lunchtime and I was, again, hungry, and this place's menu had a bewildering number of items on it. It also had a rabbinical certificate declaring the food Kosher. It serves both northern and southern Indian vegetarian stuff, but I was going to stick to the south, since that's less familiar and, if you make it at home, more labor-intensive. 

I started out with rasam idly, two little puffs of rice flour left to ferment and rise overnight and then steamed, then soaked in that deceptively fiery thin lentil soup called rasam (which I have made, and loved: it's not hard). I don't have an idly maker, though, so here it is:

Prepare to sweat, gringo
The coconut raita, the white stuff, was exquisite. And those little puffs kept puffing when they got inside. 

Which made my next choice a little prolematic: a dosa. Some day someone will teach me how to eat one of these mammoth pancakes, which are folded like a crepe over a filling that only makes a bit of a bump in the overall dish. Mine was a Mysore masala dosa, whose description on the menu says that it's "spread with spicy home made sauce and filled with mash of potato & onion and green peas and cashew nuts." I attacked this so fast I didn't have time to photograph it until I pulled up with the certain knowledge that a stomach ache awaited me if I ate another phenomenal forkful:

Coconut raita, amazing rasam, three killer chutneys and that filling...
I kind of ripped open the dosa to show off that filling. Man oh man. 

That did me for the day, despite a trip into Manhattan and back and very good intentions to visit one of the biryani joints that was open late. But I noticed that Sapthagiri offered a breakast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays. My Malaysian friend was all ears at that -- and stomach, too. Saturday morning we were there:

Umm, let's see, clockwise from noon, fried things that had gone cold, some farina dish with onions and I think kalunji (nigella) seeds and other stuff, a cup of rasam, some fried parathas, a cup of coconut chutney, a close relative of that dosa filling, a blob of chutney, a blob of ginger chutney, two idlys and in the center more chutney. No, not real helpful. Just go get some on the weekend. 
There was excellent masala tea and less excellent masala Nescafé. This is the way to start the day, boys and girls! 

(Sapthagari, 804 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ, 201-533-8400, open seven days 11am to 10pm. Another location in Franklin Park, NJ).

* * *

There are many, many other restaurants on the block. I want to try one of the biryani joints, myself, specialists in what might be termed South Indian jambalayas, which can be fiendishly difficult to make at home, or not, depending on how complex the recipe you're making is. (I once made one with the rice in three layers, orange, white, and green, the colors of the Indian flag, each layer with different stuff in it. I almost died before I got it on the table, but, unbelievably, it was amazing. I'm not sure where the recipe is and am disinclined to go looking for it). Up the side-street from Sapthagari is an egg-based Indian restaurant, probably the only one in the US. I need to check that out; eggs aren't much eaten in India, from what I can tell. Another Jersey Citizen tells me that Dosa Hut is good, while another remembers going there -- or was it Dosa House down the street? -- and getting a dosa with a frozen center due to bad microwave technique. There are a couple of places obviously catering to a younger crowd with names like Chutney's that deserve a visit. Am I going to check back in to the Haiban when I get back on Monday so I can continue to investigate? Stay tuned. 

* * *

Of course, each night starting about 8 there was dancing in the streets, big ring dances with men and women and loud live music, although the shenai and santur and sitar and other instruments were all synth presets played by one guy. There were, however, several drum kits to keep people shaking. There was a shrine in the parking lot, one by the stage, and another down the street in the front of a travel agency. 

The main shrine

The travel agency shrine
People started dancing about 8, but things went on, with various vocalists, one of whom was a boy about 4 years old (who kept going flat, as kids do) singing pop-ghazal until about 1:30. 

Live music! Except for the presets. (Kid not shown: he came up later).

Only gives a hint of the chaos. Later: roman candles. 
Even on Thursday and Sunday, when there was no band, recorded music blared out. I was, amazingly, able to fall asleep to it, but unless you're going to celebrate, this might be a nine-day window to not stay in Little India. Of course, from Manhattan, it's the cost of one ride on your Metro Card, and the food won't break your budget at all. 

I'm writing this in a considerably different hotel in Montreal, and the second chapter of this adventure has started. I will not be eating Indian food here, although I understand it's on offer...
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