Thursday, March 31, 2011

Temporarily Andy

This is what happened in New York yesterday afternoon.

A silver guy, looking impassively over the heads of dozens of people mostly talking to each other, but taking the odd photograph.

Andy Warhol, standing in front of the Union Square building where he had his first Factory, staring impassively at the park. In his hand, a Medium Brown Bag from Macy's, which he favored.

An interesting crowd. An older woman walking around kind of randomly telling people it was a sculpture of a "great American artist," a fact which seemed to be news to some of the gawkers. Several people I felt I should recognize. One, I think, was Glenn O'Brien, whom I never knew, but who, apparently, is in Italian Vogue this month. Or so said the guy talking to him. I didn't see any superstars. Rob Pruitt, the sculptor, was apparently there, but I didn't see him, either.

As you can see, it's the Andy Monument. It'll be there until October 2. After that, it won't be. Nobody I asked seemed to know why.

As for Andy, he seemed totally bored. Just like having him around, I guess.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Return to Acadiana

It's a trip that always starts with a poem:


Poems are subject to interpretation, but for me, this one signals that Houston is behind me and I only have to survive Beaumont and I'll be in Louisiana soon. The bridge over the two indistinguishable rivers with their deserted woods and chilly-looking water clicks a switch in my head, and I'm in another country.

I've been coming to the Acadiana Parishes, as the tourist map calls them, for years, pretty much ever since I moved to Texas in 1979. I've driven a rented Buick backwards as the Mamou Mardi Gras Courire "robbed" farmers of chickens, rice, and sausage for the communal gumbo back in the town, I've heard legendary and now-dead artists like Dennis McGee and Bois Sec Ardoin and Beau Joque play to their own people, written tens of thousands of words on the subject of Cajun music and culture, and even bought two chairs from the legendary songwriter and chairmaker D.L. Menard at his house/shop in Erath, Louisiana. I must figure a way to get them to France.

But I haven't been there in a long while. I used to go over, hauling a carload of Brits or Germans, after SXSW, which is to say during Lent, but not so much during Lent that there wasn't a bit of music and food available. Then I started getting rental cars that prohibited me from leaving the state in them. And fewer people wanted to go. A book project I'm working up, however, gave me a great excuse to run over for a day on Tuesday, so I asked that that clause be taken out of the contract. I chose Tuesday so I'd be rested for dinner at Hawk's on Wednesday. But more of that anon.

Boy, have things changed! For one thing, there are scads of places to stay, motels in all price-ranges and more B&Bs than ever before. I stayed in something called the Microtel in Breaux Bridge for the breathtaking fee of $38 a night. It was clean, comfortable, and looked like it had been built last week. Across the street was a rice-field and smack at the turnoff to it was a branch of Cajun Claws, the legendary Abbeville crawfish joint.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning and took a drive up I-45 to Ville Platte. It's a bit out of the way, up on the prairie, but I had an agenda. The Piggly Wiggly supermarket there used to sell Mr. Allen Ortego's Pimenté Sauce, which was like Tabasco, but hotter and more flavorful. It was probably the best hot sauce I ever used, and I finally had to toss my last bottle in Berlin when it became too funky to use. Thing is, Mr. Allen is now 91, and, while he's still alive, he's not making hot sauce any more. Moreover, according to the nice lady at the Chamber of Commerce/Tourist Information Center, he sold the grocery where he used to make it.

On a friend's recommendation, I asked if they could recommend a hot sauce, and one of the guys at the butcher counter came back with a bottle unmarked except for a C on the cap, offering to sell it to me, but I was going to take it back to France, so I didn't want anything without a label. I wish I had a kitchen to cook in, though: the tasso and other smoked meats in their display case were utterly fantastic-looking and made me want to whip up a mess of jambalaya. I settled for a boudin link, which I managed to take a bite out of -- my first in over ten years, okay? -- before photographing it. 

It was just what I wanted at 10:30 in the morning and made me nostalgic for the boudin I used to bring back to Texas and serve alongside bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning.

With no Ortego's, I stopped in for an obligatory visit with Floyd Soileau, who'd run the Swallow Records label and recorded a bunch of local talent during his reign, and whose store is now pretty barren inside. Ace Records in London has a bunch of it on CD, though.

Having done this (and attempted to "parler Francais," with him, since the door has a now-ubiquitous sign on it saying "Nous sommes fier de parler Francais," "We're  proud to speak French," which shows how times have changed), I figured to take the long way back to my hotel, where I'd prepare for my afternoon of interviewing. 

The thing is, lacking mountains and rivers and other scenic delights, this part of the world offers manmade beauty, for the most part. I had no sooner driven off the Interstate onto the road to Ville Platte when the god of photography appeared to me and said "Ed, I know you're not such a great photographer, but here's a gift." The light was right, the yellow flowers mixed with the grass were right, the angle of the huge bowl was right...

I keep staring at this. I can't believe I did it.

The road stretched through the prairie, and I figured that at some point it would intersect Route 13, which has always been my road off of I-10 into Cajun country. Both sides of the road were lined with crawfish ponds, since this is the start of the crawfish season. It may not last long this year: the air temperature, I was told, is 15° F warmer than normal at this time of year, and at a certain temperature, the water can't retain enough oxygen to support the crawfish, so they dig holes and estivate.

Still, there were the red ends of traps bobbing up in the ponds, ibis and rare ducks swimming there (most of whom flew off when I slammed the car door), and, I hoped, tens of thousands of luscious mudbugs beneath waiting for me.

Sure enough, both 13 and a gas station appeared at the right moment, so after refueling, I headed south. I knew Mamou was nigh when I passed the massive rice-dryers, sort of like grain elevators, but specialized for the task of storing and drying rice. I should have taken a picture, but a lot of the roads in this part of the world have very steep ditches in their shoulders, and a lot of Cajuns like to drive fast on your rear end. Mamou was the rice-market town for the area once upon a time, its Hotel Cazan a luxurious retreat for brokers and agents, but that changed long before I hit town. The Cazan was enough of a dump the one time I hit their bar for a beer with some of my Berlin friends that they were scared. But its past explains the song "Big Mamou," in which the guy's been dumped by his girlfriend there: "Why'd you go away and leave me in Big Mamou?" he asks. Probably ran away with a fat guy with a cigar.

Mamou has adjusted nicely to the tourist environment, welcoming tourists who don't know the right way into town with this spanking-new gateway.

On the way back to the Mazda (seen in the left distance) I found Mardi Gras beads in the ground. Beads for Mamou Mardi Gras? I didn't see a bead in sight when I attended that bacchanale, which began with the courire leader chugging a whole bottle of wine. At any rate, although Fred's Lounge still draws tourists to its morning radio shows (rarely any musicians of any worth there, of course, and everyone's drunk), some things don't change:

Seems to me this former snack-bar was empty last time I was in town!

Back onto 13, I noted it was getting late. I wanted to hit Poché's in Cecilia before heading to my interviews, which meant going back to Breaux Bridge to get my recorder and stuff. I did, of course, have to seek out my old haunts in Eunice, which used to be my base of operations. I almost wish I hadn't: Le Jeune's Creole Smokehouse, makers of the best smoked garlic sausage on the planet, appears to have folded. Many's the time I've spent talking with the great Kermit LeJeune, and if you want a hint of what he's like, ask me the Cadillac story next time we meet. Last time I was there, though, his son was in charge, and his wife was poking around in some fundamentalist tract and trying to get his attention. For old-time Cajun Catholics, this is not a good sign, and it looks like she might have gotten her way. Another tragedy was that Johnson's Grocery, purveyors of the finest boudin ever made on the planet, was also gone, but at least someone had prepared me for that shock. Damn, now I really wanted another link! And, headed down 190 towards Opelousas, I noticed a lot of building had happened, and that although the Savoy Music Center still stood (I'd have been shocked if it wasn't there), the Stone Motel, the barely-respectable place I used to stay, wasn't anywhere to be seen. It's okay: there's now a Holiday Inn Express that's got to be better, but I sort of missed it. I didn't hit downtown Eunice because of time constraints, but maybe next time...

Camping centers now took the place of the black honky-tonks where I'd spent many a happy evening eating gumbo and drinking those maddening 10-oz. cans of Bud (you hand reaches out, feels like a toy), and in fact I only saw one place that looked like it might be okay. On the outskirts of Opelousas, I stopped to shoot a brick building that's always been in disrepair, with someone's horse munching happily away on the weeds and a tree growing in the room just behind him.

The guy in the tractor repair shop came out to ask what I was doing, but he was more amused than anything. Lord knows that, except for its gorgeous courthouse square, Opelousas has been falling apart since I've been visiting it. But the Palace is still there, and I bet you a quarter they still serve fried chicken salad. Ah, I see by this that they do! Whew! The world's only legit use of Miracle Whip.

I finished my work at about 6 (and couldn't even find Poché's because I had a personal GPS blankout in Cecilia like I always do), so I was ravenous. I got back to the motel, downloaded my interviews, and called my friend Dickie to go to Hawk's. He's never been there despite being born and raised in the area and resident there after a distinguished career in New York for dozens of years. Of course, there's a good reason: it's impossible to find. Look at this map. There's a very important detail there you might miss, which is that the first turn is a couple of feet after you get off the Interstate. We just drove north on 35 til we got to Branch, where a woman in a service station gave us bogus directions that got us onto a really bad gravel road. At one point I drove into a field. But (and boy, did I never expect to say this) thank heavens for cell phones: I called Hawk's and got great directions (thanks, Jennifer!) and soon we were standing in front of this:

Behind that corrugated iron door lie the best crawfish in the world, purged clean of impurities for you head-suckers out there, boiled in water with a perfectly-balanced boil spice mixture, and delivered on Budweiser trays like God intended:

Dickie mowed through his order like a machine and proclaimed them some of the best he'd ever had -- and he's had a lot. I ordered an appetizer-sized bowl of etouffée to start, because I was so starved, and it was also magnificent (note to self: a tad more garlic next time you make it).

It took us about 2 1/2 hours to get there and about 45 minutes to get back, following some other patrons. Their website is right: it's absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It's worth finding.

This morning, I got up at 7 because I had to check out and drive back to Austin, but not without a detour first: I'd stumbled on the town of Grand Couteau one time and can't remember how I did it. It's a perfectly-preserved Cajun village of the early 19th Century, or at least one street is, and some of the other buildings, too. The only better collection of buildings I can think of is in the superb Vermillionville museum outside Lafayette, which I strongly recommend along with the exhibit near the restored theater in Eunice. Vermillionville, though, has guides who are very knowledgeable. That's why I was able to look at these buildings and understand them better.

This house is from the 1830s.

This store is from the 1840s and was totally restored in 2002 after getting hit by a hurricane. 

But the real masterpiece is this 1825 house. The stairs lead to the garçonnière, the complex of rooms upstairs where the older boys and men lived. This is as much a feature of traditional Cajun architecture as the Spanish moss used to chink holes and the spaces between boards -- and, not coincidentally, provide fireproofing at the same time. 

All of these houses are in the National Register of Historic Places, and rightly so. I took a last look, jumped in the car, and went back to the Interstate. A couple of hours later, I saw it again. 


This time it meant "Hope to see you again soon." Me, too, me, too. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eating Austin

I should get this out before what I'm eating here in Cajun country blocks the memory out. In all, Austin has been pretty good to eat in, and I still haven't had a bad meal there. Or, I should day, I haven't had any bad food.

The first night I was in, I naturally headed to Mexican food, and, on the basis of a report from a generally reliable source, the choice was El Mesón, a new place on South Congress, in the same group of buildings as the venerable Horseshoe Lounge. It was very spacious, well-designed, and had a gargantuan selection of tequilas, to which I am violently allergic. There was also a huge problem: there was no light. One tiny tea-candle the size of a quarter was all the illumination you get and, as you can see from this foodie site, the menu is printed on paper with a fake texture on it, rendering it totally illegible in the dark. I didn't want anything too fancy, so I got cheese enchiladas. They were luke-warm. I wasn't too happy. I went back later in my visit and figured I would get something fancier. I ordered tlacoyos, which can be fantastic: little "boats" of corn masa with beans in a little well, topped with salsa and onions, something I remembered from the long-vanished Elda's. Then I ordered pescado mojo de ajo, the fish in question being the now-ubiquitous tilapia. The waitress put down a small complementary dish of nopalitos in a red chile sauce, although she appeared not to know how to pronounce the word. "I'd better learn my grammar!" she chirped as she disappeared. They were okay, but nopalitos (cactus pads) are, by nature, very bland, which is why you scramble them with eggs and dried shrimp. The chile sauce was pretty good. Unfortunately, the grammar-deprived lass also forgot to put the tlacoyo order in to the kitchen, so they never arrived. The fish was okay, the accompanying rice had hard bits in it, and the pinto beans were soupy. I'll try them again on my next visit, but I suspect this won't become a favorite.

* El Mesón, 2038 S. Lamar. Open daily for lunch, Tues-Sat for dinner, Sat-Sun for brunch. 512-442-4441.

Saturday night, a couple of friends joined me for dinner at an old favorite of theirs I'd been recommended, T&S Seafood Restaurant. From the menu, this would seem to be Chinese-ethnic Vietamese food, since several dishes have Vietnamese names  appended to them. We started out with "shrimp roll," which appears to be a baguette-shaped pastry made with ground shrimp, green onions, and maybe powdered rice, baked and then fried and sliced, served with a sweet ginger sauce. It was astounding. Other dishes were salt-and-pepper shrimp, nothing like the ones I was familiar with, having a breaded crust, but delicious anyway; an eggplant clay-pot dish, also tremendous, and one other dish I can't remember. This place is now on the list, although a few days later when I was in the area I dropped by to see if I could get a dim sum lunch and was made to feel distinctly unwelcome. There were also no other customers. Stick to dinner, stick to seafood, and you'll be happy.

* T&S Seafood Restaurant, 10014 N. Lamar, Open 11am-2:30pm, 5pm-1am except Tuesday: 11am-2:30pm, 5pm-10pm. Tel 512-339-8434. 

Somewhere in the first couple of days, I lost my jacket at a restaurant, so I toured back to these two looking for it, with no luck. Discouraged and still wanting lunch after T&S, I saw what looked like a good place to get a Vietnamese meal, it being Tuesday, the day when my favorite, Tâm Deli, inexplicably closes. This tiny hole-in-the-wall proved to be an excellent substitute, with lovely, flavorful, packed barbequed pork spring rolls and a beef phô that was redolent of cinnamon, quite different from the others I've had, and, unlike at other places, a "small" portion was available, making this combo a great lunch. The owners seemed scarily anxious to please, to the point where I was a bit nervous, but don't let that put you off if you're in the neighborhood.

* Thanh Nhi Vientamese Restaurant & Sandwich, 9200 N. Lamar, #104. Open Mon-Sun 10am-9pm, Sandwiches 9am-10pm. Tel: 512-834-1736.

Austin has a plague of "fine dining" restaurants these days, some of which started out as one of the 1300 food trucks now infesting the city. The biggest buzz was for Foreign and Domestic, and I had a weary grad student to feed whose only requirements were interesting food and cloth napkins. It's in a weird location, at 53rd and Avenue G, so it's real easy to find. It was also one of the most bizarre eating experiences I've had recently. We started with beers, a Southern Star Pale Ale from nearby (but in a can!) for me, a Session Lager from the UK for her, mine more interesting, in my opinion. Then appetizers: a salad of celery and chicory with pickled beets, boquerones, orange, and mint for her and for me a smoked beef tongue croquette with carrot remoulade, cocoanut vinegar caramel, and dried shrimp. The salad was amazingly greasy, and I clearly won this round, since the tongue was nicely smoked, and the "remoulade" made a nice contrast. The server then deposited a free plate of the venison heart tartare with pig ears, yolk confit, and white chocolate on the table. I can see why it was free: I doubt it gets ordered a lot. It was just plain a bad idea: venison heart is an extremely assertive taste, not completely pleasant, but I'd use it in a snap if I were doing a terrine. Pig ears, which feature on other menu items, are like doggy chew-toys, all texture, no taste, but weird, right? And what the white chocolate, with a dusting of pepper, was doing on the plate is beyond me. Awful idea. Just awful. As for the main dish, she had the waygu steak with orzo, soft egg and ham-hock broth, and I had the "pork pie" with hard eggs, peanuts, and tamarind chutney. The steak itself was good enough, but why drown it in ham broth?

The orzo was undercooked to the point where some of it was raw, there was a smear of Chinese chile paste along one side of the bowl, for no good reason, and, well, what a way to ruin steak. I again scored the best: the "pork pie" was nothing more than a big slab of pâté en croûte, and a very good one. (It was the cornichons in the salady thing that tipped me off).

The peanuts were negligible and the chutney was a good idea. Verdict? These people are more into weird than good. Ingredients, technique, service impeccable. Thinking: muddy in the extreme. What a waste of good ingredients -- and expensive at that: a clean $100 with tip.

* Foreign & Domestic, 306 E. 53rd St. Open Tue-Thu 5:30-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-10:00pm. 512-459-1010

I also checked out, at a friend's recommendation, the Bombay Bistro, almost impossible to find in the Brodie Oaks Shopping Center on far south Lamar. The Goan curried mussels were interesting, but I need another visit to see why he's raving so much. I also went to Uchi on a night when my goddam sinus polyps decided to shut my taste down to about nothing, improving to about 10% as the meal went on. There are subtleties at work here I'd like to write about and can't, so a rematch is indicated. Incredibly friendly service from a knowledgeable staff, stunning presentation, and, if you're careful not to go bazootie with the alcohol, cheaper than Foreign & Domestic (where we did not go bazootie with the alcohol). I also want to try Uchiko, their "farmhouse cuisine" joint.

Yet to come -- because I haven't tried it yet -- Franklin's, the new barbeque sensation. Stay tuned. Meanwhile I hear a link of boudin calling my name.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

SXSW XXV, A Few Observations

It's almost over, the worst SXSW I can remember. I missed one over the past quarter-century, but I doubt that it was worse than this one. And, for all the flack SXSW's management takes, the reasons for this situation were, as far as I could tell, out of their control.

It wasn't all bad, needless to say. Bob Geldof's keynote speech, which, for all its snappy lines, probably shouldn't be quoted out of the context of the whole, was superb. More than once I found myself finishing his sentences with him: it's all stuff I'd been saying over the past few years. Among his observations were the spiritual impoverishment of so much contemporary popular music (particularly American) and the apathy of its audience. To me, this ties in with ubiquitous entertainment, which is now apparently regarded as a basic human right: on the awful Continental flight down here from New York, the TV screen in the back of the seat ahead of me urged me to swipe my credit card so I could "continue to be entertained." The pilot in the next seat took the emergency card and affixed it to the screen in such a way as to blank it out.

Geldof's speech also tied in with the panel I was on, entitled "I'm Not Old, Your Music Does Suck." An overstatement, but at least it addressed the overwhelming quantity and mediocre quality of so much of what's out there. The youngest of our panelists, Paige Maguire from the Austinist website (in her early 30s) referred to Austin as the "light listening capitol of the world," although when one is being entertained all of the time, shutting out the world with earbuds, light listening is, perhaps, all that should be attempted. You don't want those messy mood swings music with actual content provides. Older farts, like Chris Morris (until recently of Billboard) bemoaned the lack of what some called "gatekeepers" and he called "trusted observers" to help us wade through the deluge of mediocrity. In the end, when anyone can make a CD, a lot of anyones do, and when everyone is a record reviewer (and few are critics), there's a lot of noise out there.

And boy was there a lot of noise out there! It's a problem that's been growing, but this year the challenge of finding a bar or a restaurant where some mediocrities with loud guitars weren't set up was harder than ever. There's a reason for this. SXSW has gotten a lot of resentment from the locals for the onslaught of visitors it's created. It also dumps an amazing amount of money into the local economy. But increasingly, the noise is from events that have nothing to do with SXSW except the time-frame in which they're happening. There are a lot of young people who buy things in town. Brands set up events, parties, swag giveaways, for which kids queue for hours, sometimes in the hopes of catching a short set by a performer who is far better known than anyone playing a legitimate SXSW showcase -- which, lacking badges or wristbands, they can't get into anyway.

In short, SXSW has become a spring break destination on top of a large-scale event. The roar on 6th St., the main drag of clubs, is horrendous. (I regret that I tried to record a walk down several blocks and for some reason the recorder didn't get it. The picture above comes from Friday night, when I tried to make the recording). But the roar all around town is, too. You can blame the folks who put on SXSW if you want to -- and lots of people do -- but there isn't much I can see that they can do about this. If Levi's wants to throw a party during SXSW, it's not much difference from Levi's throwing a party at any other time of year in Austin: they need to get permits and a venue and all, and there they go. If you think SXSW gets a lot of criticism for what happens each year, imagine what would happen if they went after these other events.

Me, I mostly hung out at the Convention Center, going to panels, tossing business cards into fishbowls in a vain attempt to win an iPad (I'm enough of a gadget head to want one, but not enough of one to pay $600 for one, even if I had the money), schmoozing with the folks I only see once a year at this event. There was almost no music I wanted to hear, and although I might have made a fortuitous discovery and been well-entertained for 40 minutes, the sheer physical toll wasn't worth it. I finally got game on Friday night because a pretty young girl had approached me after my panel and said something about stalking me (always a nice approach) and handed me a card for her gig, which was early enough that I could make it. I lasted half a song: not very interesting at all. And then walking out onto 6th St. I was confronted with the roar. I actually felt physically tired by the time I got back to the hotel, and it was only 9:30.

I don't see an easy solution to this, and I'm very happy it's not my problem. As someone who lived in Austin for 13 years, I know ways around the mess, and places where quiet exists. I have friends here, who mostly live outside the noise zone, and I know restaurants where I can eat without being subjected to unwanted irritation. For that, I consider myself lucky.

(Incidentally, the morning paper has an actual news article about some of the stuff that went wrong, which I recommend).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

South By So Far

The day of catching my breath is upon me, the day between SXSW Interactive and SXSW Music (I'm not real interested in Film). I'm due at the airport in a couple of hours to pick up a friend, but I have a little time to ruminate on what's happened here so far. (Food has happened, but that'll be the next post, I suspect.)

The main thing I've been doing since the conference started is attending the Interactive conference, particularly the track called The Future of Journalism. Last year, these tracks weren't as well-defined, which in a way is good, since you could dip into stuff you didn't know much about and learn, and some of what I learned related to publishing and writing. Some of the rest was pretty ridiculous, like the endless discussion that eventually came to the conclusion that people visiting websites liked well-written, informative content, and privileged it above tripe. No shit, Sherlock.

This year started badly. I saw that all of the journalism stuff was at the Sheraton, and my lizard brain walked the block and a half to the Sheraton Crest. Which, as most Austinites know, isn't there any more. It's a Radisson, I think. No, the Sheraton was 14 blocks away, and I didn't know about the shuttle buses or the Chevys you could just hail, so I walked in a very warm sunlight all the way, arriving late at a panel called "Tell & Sell Your Story," which was like a freshman English workshop on how to sell a book. An agent! A proposal! Borrrrring. Not to mention instilling false hope in the kids who packed the room out to hear one Stephanie Klein talk breathlessly about her successful memoir about going to fat camp.

After the lunch-break, at 3:30, NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen gave a speech called "Bloggers vs. Journalists: It's a Psychological Thing" which had its moments, even if he did erect a gigantic straw-man of Olde Skoole Luddite Editors, vs. Sleek Young Serious Bloggers. He then spent some time tearing that down, and wound up by making some interesting remarks about how the synergy between "real news" and the opinionated stuff bloggers -- some of whom work for that same Olde Skoole media -- can produce exciting reading. Not quite the waste of time the earlier panel was, but too much time spent with the straw persons.

Finally, that day, there was a panel called "The Great Paywall Experiment: Evolving Digital Subscription Models" which interested me because if some way can be made to monetize all this stuff, maybe those of us who toil in the fields might wind up getting paid before we all starve to death. Alas, this was mostly hot air, and I'm not sure, but I think I walked out.

Sunday, I finally tracked down something useful and interesting, a presentation called "The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism," although there was a steep learning-curve because it was assumed that everyone in the room already knew about, run by co-presenter Max Linsky, and The Atavist, a very interesting-looking site the other presnter, Evan Ratliff, has started, not to mention Instapaper, Readability,  the Twitter hashtag #longreads, and the Amazon Singles Store for Kindle. I was at a distinct disadvantage, since a number of these tools are handiest for the iPad, and I don't own one (France doesn't seem too hot on them: I'd only seen one before I hit the New York subway a week and a half ago, and I've never played with one), nor do I own a Kindle, which isn't available in France at all. Still, if you click around those links you'll see that longform journalism is alive, if not yet profitable, and I was altogether cheered, enough to hand Mr. Ratliff my card so he'd remember me when I contact him with a piece the Atavist might like. He gave me a "who are you, old man" look which might have been a "are you still alive" look, but he's young enough and successful enough that I can understand, if not approve of, such behavior; I was pretty much an arrogant young asshole myself, after all. And although it lacks bells and whistles, which weren't available when it was written, it's still a good piece.

The day ended up with a discussion of bespoke news apps, by which time I was fairly lusting after an iPad and feeling old and left out for lack of one, although to be honest I'm not certain what I'd do with one and I'm damn sure not spending $600 on one. The takeaway from that was that publishing apps are neat, but nobody's figured out one that is killer, nor has anyone made any money from them. Which is good, because I'm working with some people in London who are trying to do all of that and it should cheer them that they're just a tiny bit ahead of the crowd.

I ended up Monday with a panel discussing "Will News Apps Re-Invent Journalism?" which, given the panel the day before, seemed like an already-decided "no," but during the course of which I realized that I'd been chasing the wrong question all weekend. The problem I face is that, of all the journalism in the world, the kind I practice -- cultural reportage and criticism -- is considered the most expendable. It's not news, it doesn't lend itself to Twitterific utility, and, just like it was 32 years ago in the newsroom of the Austin American-Statesman, it's still considered less important than Real News, even if it does draw people to your publication. I'm not about to concede the field to those folks, but the truth is that the leading web and tablet publications, such as Miller-McCune don't have room for it, the "culture" button on M-M's website notwithstanding. As I discovered personally, it was the first thing jettisoned in the panic over declining revenues, and it will, I suspect, be the last thing to come back. Which leads me back to my hope that I don't starve to death before some way is found to make what I do pay at least the kind of living wage it did ten years ago. It's worth noting, however, that one of the participants, Aaron Pilgher of the New York Times, noted that "The iPad should be a totally different reading experience, and [none of us have] taken advantage of that." So even the elite aren't there yet.

I also had a moment to stop by the trade show, which is about four times as big as it was last year, and, for some reason, not as noisy. And yes, every table that had a "drop your business card here and maybe win an iPad" got a card from me. Free, since that's the price people seem to want me to work for, seems to be a fair price for one. If it proves useful, I might buy my second one someday. But, although you'd never know it from the geekoisie around Austin this past weekend, it seems like a luxury so far.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Photographic Miettes #1

Things are going to get a lot more intense tomorrow when SXSW gears up, and I don't really have a lot to say about my trip to Philadelphia, because it was mostly about catching up on my sleep and getting to know my nephew, whom I hadn't seen since he was about 6, ie, about 15 years.

My sister lives in a neighborhood of classic old Philadelphia row houses that looks like this (although I don't think this is her block):

This was something of a working visit, though: I recorded four pieces for Fresh Air at the WHYY studios:

The studios are just behind those glass windows on the ground floor. I got to use the studio just after Terry Gross had finished that day's show, but she hustled out the door as soon as I produced my camera and my producer, Phyllis Myers, took a couple of shots, since we don't have a current promo shot of me. Don't I look professional?

After that, following a longstanding tradition, she took me to lunch in the Reading Terminal, a converted train station that's a market hall with a lot of little eateries inside. We settled on Delilah's, a soul-food place which advertises "everyday soul," because every other place was jam packed with visitors to Philadelphia's annual Flower Show. I would have preferred extraordinary soul, but settled for the best fried chicken I've had in a decade (and the only fried chicken I've had in half that time) and a weird, dry, version of macaroni and cheese that was a big disappointment. Still: the chicken rocked.

The next morning at 4:15 am, it was off to Austin, no help to Continental Airlines' baggage check-in at Newark Airport, who will be getting a formal complaint against one of their employees and her supervisor later this afternoon.

That ordeal over, I'm on the ground in Austin for a while, had some fine enchiladas last night, and will be tormenting my European readers with some food photos that should make them writhe with envy. Although I bet I could make a killer mac & cheese with some of that old Cantal and Laguiole one of my cheese guys at the market sells...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Amtrak: The Nightmare

The Adirondacks as seen from the Adirondack. One of the top ten train-rides in America, the crew told us, and one of the top ten of my life, running neck-and-neck with another 11-hour visual spectacular, Oslo-Bergen, which I did one August, so I got to see Norwegians in bikinis on skis having snowball fights with each other by thermal springs glowing with psychedelically-colored algae at the foot of a glacier.

No bikinis in early March, of course, not in upstate New York, and it was a bit early for the really spectacular view of Lake Champlain, which was indistinguishable from all the other white stuff except it didn't have shrubs and trees growing out of it. Still, the idea was to get to Montreal in as picturesque a manner as possible. I've done this seveal times, and I know the ups and downs. For instance, the "club car," which is what remains of a fine dining tradition. A friend of mine, many years ago, remembers taking the train from near San Francisco to Philadelphia, where the other half of his family lived in the 1950s, particularly the stop in the Rockies to load on live trout and strawberries for the dining car. This year, the conductor announced that chips and hot sandwiches were available there. "I'm not sayin' it's good," he said, "I'm just sayin' it's hot." Us seasoned Adirondack hands know that at Albany, the stop to change crew and switch engines is long enough to stomp up the escalator, grab some somewhat reasonably-priced chips and soft-drinks and some unreasonably-priced sandwiches (unreasonable mostly because they're lousy -- but at least they exist), pay for them, quickly check your e-mail on the iPhone if that floats your boat (no wi-fi on Amtrak, although I understand it's been on the Canadian trains for a while now), and get back to the train before it pulls out.

Mostly, though, on the way up, once you've gone through the gauntlet of submachine-gun toting security guys (contractors, from what I could see) at Penn Station, what you want to do is stare out the window. So much history, so much scenery. At one  point we were stopped at Lake Champlain and I realized that that odd-looking building over there was Ft. Ticonderoga, which I'd just read about in Manituana, that astonishing look at the race up to the American Revolution seen through the eyes of loyalist tribes of the Iroquois nation. It gets dark after the customs stop at Rouses Point, New York, and by the time you get to Montreal, it looks like a real city, with skyscrapers' windows dotting the night sky in grids.

I've done this a number of times at different times of year -- fall is kind of mind-blowing -- and loved it. It's peaceful, beautiful, and you wind up in Montreal or New York, depending on which way you're going. What's not to love? I've recommended it to dozens of my friends, and I recommend it to you.


It's Amtrak. And sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

You do have to accept some things when you step onto an Amtrak train. You have to accept that it's kind of funky. You have to accept the inedible food at mind-boggling prices. You have to accept that you will never, ever be on time, and that 30 minutes late is "on time," the same as it is in Montpellier. You have to accept that a certain number of your fellow passengers will be gibbering idiots or sullen drunks, and hope they're not sitting in earshot or next to you. But the train's almost never full, so you just claim your turf, look out the window, and wish you'd remembered to stop at that deli on your way out of town.

The morning I woke up in Montreal on the day I had to leave, it had snowed six inches overnight, that on top of what had already been there. It was still snowing hard. To get to the train station was easy: I left Rodney and Victoria's house, turned the corner, and walked a few hundred feet to the Metro station. By the time I got there, out of breath from tugging my uselessly-wheeled luggage, both hands were an unpleasant blue color (I have gloves, but I can't find them, since I've never needed them in Montpellier). But I got to the Central Station via the Metro in plenty of time to not only buy a bagel for breakfast, but also some kind of sandwich for lunch.

It was pounding down snow as we left Montreal across the bridge, and it got worse as we travelled into rural Quebec. The engines failed once before we got to the border, but were restored by the time we hit Rouses Point, which is good: the heat in the cars depends on electricity. The Customs and Immigration guys did a good quick job, possibly because only one Arab guy was on the train and only one black guy had an attitude, a large Jamaican chap who thought each question was an attack on him personally. The trip didn't turn hellish until we were in the U.S.

Rodney had said something about six inches being nothing: it was looking like 18 inches before this was over. Being in a train, and having done plenty of train travel in Germany during bad winters, I was just thinking that it was probably nicer than flying when the first major outage hit. It was a total whiteout; no way to tell where we were. The train stopped, the lights went out. It began to cool off. Then the lights went on, the train lurched a few hundred feet, and the lights went off again. There were two conductors who were serving the train, a tall Irish-looking guy who looked like his older brother might have been NYPD, and a short, brash young woman who had a clear, piercing voice. They gave us status updates whenever they had something to report. This start-and-stop stuff went on for about three hours. It was, from what I could make out from the reports, due to the engines just refusing to accept this weather. "It's been like this all winter," the young woman told me. "The engines are just worn out; it hasn't been like this since '07."

Then, a miracle: the electricity caught and stayed. We could, if the tracks were still good, keep going and only be an hour late. Ah, but the tracks weren't good. But no worry: at the cost of some more time, a vehicle was being sent up to correct the problem. It arrived.

It derailed. It tipped over.

Another crew was sent out to rescue the repair vehicle. Which would then still have to fix the tracks so we could proceed. We were shunted onto a sideline. A freight passed, going the other direction. The sun began to go down and the sky became a colored grey instead of grey. It's hard to say what color or colors were infecting the grey and cheering it up some, but it sure looked nice, briefly. It was sometime after four. We were somewhere south of Rouses Point and north of Plattsburg. We were there for four hours.

There's not a whole lot to say about waiting. We waited. I read just about everything I'd brought with me for the whole trip. I gave up on a New York Times puzzle from the Friday paper and finished the last Sunday one I had with me, wishing I'd been somewhere I could have gotten the new Sunday Times magazine, which has been redesigned. The Jamaican guy complained; he was going to Washington D.C. I was wondering when we'd get in. An attempt to book the same hotel I'd had earlier in the trip for Monday night had failed, and I'd had to pay more than I'd wanted for a room, but it was in the magnificent New Yorker Hotel, whose Deco architectural details I'd been able to see out the window of my last hotel, and I was eager to see what it was like on the inside.

We paced. We went into the club car, where free "snack packs" filled with questionable stuff (one pack of white, salty triangles had a notation that said for ingredients, we should call an 800 number or write, which was ominous, although they seemed to be rice crackers, that legal?) were handed out. There were Starbucks Frappuccinos to keep me awake. Finally, the crew passed through to tell us we were ready to roll, that Plattsburgh would be next in about twenty minutes, and the train started up.

But we were late. There were still stops to be made, although no one got on or off. Rebellious smokers found a car to smoke in, or just outside of in the vestibule. I was stiff. And we still weren't at Albany. At Albany, there'd be a crew change and a ten-minute layover. Experienced Adirondack travellers said it was almost exactly two hours from Albany to Penn Station.

We hit Albany at half-past midnight.

I dozed, I read, I paced to the club car, I proudly resisted the temptation of another $1.75 four-ounce bag of taco chips with so much seasoning on them they seemed to have grown artificial chili-flavored fur. I also didn't get another Frappuccino. I wanted to sleep.

At 2:34 am, we pulled in, and I finally stepped off the train. It should be noted that the Albany crew offered no apologies, there was no voucher offered for being six and a half hours late, and there was no other sort of gesture in the direction of what the rest of the world considers service. I once was delayed badly on Deutsche Bahn, and wound up with a €50 travel voucher. Several other times, I was given coupons of one sort or another for one kind or another of systemic problems. The only institutional feeling I got off of Amtrak was "Get off the train quickly so the cleaning crews can get on."

It's not a surprise that Amtrak isn't supposed to exist, that the Powers that Be in Washington have been trying as hard as they can to kill it for decades, that its rolling stock sucks, that the trillion-plus miles Americans drove last year were good for them, and that President Obama's attempt to introduce a high-speed rail network such as other civilized countries have is doomed because there's no Federal money for it and the states in which it would run (with the exception, apparently, of California) have rejected it because their Republican legislators don't want no damn Negro telling them how to travel and besides, they, too, are broke. As someone who's been riding the European train lines for nearly two decades, all I have to say is you don't know what you're missing. Of course, you'd also have to upgrade the service, but gee, that would mean hiring semi-skilled people and training them to do things like walk a snack cart with nearly-edible offerings on it up the aisle, use a boil-in-bag setup for hot meals, and have a coffee cart with decent coffee on it.

As for the end of the trip, I bolted out of Penn Station, with the New Yorker two blocks away, stepping over people sleeping on the floor, having fistfights just inside the door, and leaking bodily fluids of various sorts, ran to the gorgeously-lit lobby of the hotel, and discovering that they couldn't find my reservation. Thirty additional minutes later, it was discovered that Expedia Canada had hyphenated my middle name with my last name, resulting in my not being with the Ws, but I got my key, went upstairs, threw my clothes into a heap on the floor, and, between 3:30 and 8:00, slept in the New Yorker Hotel like I'd wanted to do since I was a kid. I really must go back some day to enjoy it: it's old-school New York (the heavy bathroom, the firehose shower), with all mod cons (wi-fi, excellent bed). But at 8, I was up and getting ready to go to Philadelphia.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Remedy For Montreal Weather

I suppose there are worse times to visit Montreal than just at this moment, but I'd be hard-pressed to name them. The transition to spring involves lots of cold rain, which, on the ground, turns to ambiguous ice: is it frozen, or just slush? Your feet start taking on a mind of their own and your center of gravity lurches. Okay, it's ice: find the safety of a snowbank.

We slogged to a historical monument-cum-museum, the Maison St.-Gabriel, a mansion that a fur-trader sold to a nun who was one of the first women in the Quebec colony. She turned it into a school/chapel/house for the  young women the French crown recruited to marry the men who'd settled the colony, known as the filles du roy, daughters of the king. My friends Terry and Patricia have just bought a house in the Point St. Charles area, the first landfall of the Europeans in the Montreal area, and this is, as it were, in their back yard.

There are tours on the hour, the only way to see the place. We had 37 minutes to wait, so we slogged back to the apartment, then slogged back. When we returned (after a really informative tour) the power was out. There was only one thing to do: Chinese food.

Terry had arranged for some local media types to join us at Cuisine Szechuan, 2350 Rue Guy. I'd been there last year, but my sense of taste was gone, as it had been for a year, and I only got the sense that the food was spectacular. This time, since I started recovering this summer and am almost back, I got more than that. My new camera even has a setting for shooting food, and I hope I didn't act too obnoxiously as plate after plate arrived at our table and I stood up and tried to shoot it before it all disappeared. Look at this, for instance, which I think is called "Beef and Vegetables in Chili Sauce."

Not as obscenely hot as it looks, but rich, deep flavors. Another total winner, cumin lamb:

Aromatic, subtle (maybe a little too subtle, considering the other dishes), perfect.

One problem with this place is they bring stuff in almost random order, so that the appetizer of sliced green chiles with preserved vegetables showed up in the middle of everything else and almost got ignored.

Then there was a simple dish of bok choi in garlic sauce:

And the Szechuan classic, dry-fried green beans, which I've never had better than here:

And (slightly out of focus), twice-cooked pork, another Szechuan classic. The pork was, authentically, pork belly, which squicked out some of the folks at the table. By the time it came, I was quite full from all of this (there were several other dishes whose photographs just didn't turn out, including soft tofu and eggplant casserole which was astounding, and pressed tofu and celery, a masterpiece of texture and taste), but it seemed pretty good if you picked pieces of pork which weren't 100% fat.

The meal concluded with a tureen of simple soup: chicken broth, fluffy pork meatballs, and some glass noodles, light, strong enough to stand up to the residual tastes from the rest of the banquet, but cooling and refreshing. After a meal like this, you're ready for whatever the Montreal night can throw at you. And for bed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Half A Day In New York

Been a really weird day so far. I walked all the way across town to have an expensive but delicious deli breakfast -- corned beef hash with three eggs, onion bagel, toasted, schmear -- and found myself lost in what New York now is as I walked there and back through Murray Hill in the biting 20-degree temperature with the wind ripping through me. Who lives in these exquisite brownstones? Besides people in Woody Allen films and the very rich? A question that would come back later. 

Came back to the hotel and went through a bunch of rigamarole with the bank: they wanted me to report the theft to the NYPD, which I thought was a good idea, and the woman I talked to when I finally found the right number told me I could just make a report at the local station house around the corner and they'd send it up to Harlem. But no: the cop at the station (first time I've ever been in one, oddly enough) told me I had to go to Harlem and report it there. Had no idea how to get there, either. "You got a car?" As if. 

I wasn't about to go up there, so instead I decided to go to this gallery which had had a show I read about in the New Yorker which dealt with some stuff I'm researching to see if they had a catalog. They will have one, the girl at the desk told me, but it's in the early stages of production. 

Looked at a couple of other galleries on that block, but only went into one which was a tedious bunch of snapshot-quality pix of Chinese people in dorms and various druggy Danes doing drag and drugs, all by some Danish guy. Dull. Even some of the stuff I saw in Berlin was more interesting than that. 

I was depressed enough by the people I was seeing in the street, especially the 20-somethings who looked like they'd come to New York to do art or act or something but had gotten crushed by the economy. An awful lot of dog-walkers, all wearing the same knit Kurdish caps, although they were young Americans. And old guys -- my age -- standing on the corner as the wind drove down the avenues trying to hand off discount coupons to fast-food joints. 

But not far after I'd left the gallery block, I came upon something wonderful. I read the sign and then I climbed up some stairs and found myself on the High Line. This is an abandoned railroad line that's just been sitting there, in this industrialzed riverside stretch of mid- and downtown, forever. Someone who'd been to Paris and seen a very similar project there suggested turning it into a park. I've never been on the one in Paris, although I've walked past it enough, but this was great. It's got art installations, and the first one made me realize why the High Line is such a good idea. The guy's got a white metal plate on which geometrical shapes are cut through. This is on a stand. A few feet away and absolutely parallel to it is another stand with a cube on it. A square has been drilled into the cube. If you look through the square hole in the cube, you can align the cityscape perfectly with the white shapes. so that you're seeing details of the view without their context. Absolutely brilliant. I walked on, and then came upon a sound installation which played a different New York bell every minute of the hour. Some are famous, like the starting bell at the New York Stock Exchange, some obscure, like the Zen temple one I heard. There are tables and chairs around, and some places that look like they might sell food when it's not 20º out there. A great place to sit and have lunch and listen to bells. 

The first installation had reinforced something I already knew: New York is beautiful from a distance, or regarded as an artwork, but not so much close up. There were some amazing views of the river, the decaying old docks, and just random views up obscure streets. What's below is a part of Manhattan most people have no reason to visit, with wholesale button companies, the floral district, and, where the thing ends, the meatpacking district, which, thanks to some Mafia-owned underground gay bars, has blossomed into the Unaffordable Restaurant District. I fled as soon as I descended onto Gansevoort St., and found myself in the West Village, which has become gag-me chic and littered with outlets of companies I'm sure New Yorkers think are oh-so-sophisticated, but which I recognize as stores I walk past in the mall going from the supermarket to the wine store back in Montpellier. I wandered on, because I wanted to see what SoHo and TriBeCa look like today. I wish I hadn't. 

It wasn't just the guy talking on the cell phone who turned the corner too fast in his SUV and hit the young woman crossing the street full-on. That was awful, but it could be rationalized by the way things are here: everyone in a hurry (a problem dating to the 18th century which I doubt will ever be fixed) and utterly self-absorbed (a problem that's been coming on strong for the past few decades). No, I'd been walking down once-familiar streets. Once they'd had the signs of furtive enterprise, with gallery names and names of projects on the doorbells, a lot of industrial stuff on the way out -- wholesale cardboard boxes, shirt factories -- and the occasional business on the ground floor selling fashions crafted in one of those lofts, a couple of Italian bars that wouldn't let you in, a record store or two, an organic restaurant, and, on the side streets, huge galleries showing important artists who usually had studios not more than a couple of blocks away. There were three bars: the Greene St. Bar, the Broome St. Bar, and the Prince St. Bar, just so that when you felt like a drink with your friends, you didn't have to walk too far: they're essentially a block apart. When things started changing and expensive (but independently-owned) shoe stores and the like started moving in, they endured. So did the Kitchen, the avant-garde performance space, where I'd seen so many people in the course of a festival a few months before I moved to Texas in 1979. And Dean and deLuca, the gourmet grocery. That was still cool and there really was a Dean and a deLuca, who were real guys selling fancy food to artists whose stuff was beginning to sell. 

Well, I already knew the Kitchen was down where I'd gone to the gallery because I passed it and a friend of mine is playing there on Friday and Saturday when I'll be in Montreal. It, like everything else, was priced out of the neighborhood. And...was it still a neighborhood? Was anyone living in these lofts? Well, of course they were, young and rich. Who were they? Who cares Downstairs, cheek and jowl, were brand stores. One after another, flying the flag for something you can find in the mall, with "limited edition" shit you can't get in the mall that still has the logo. More extensions of French chains. Precious little restaurants, some of which, actually, might be okay; I didn't stop to read a menu. (That corned-beef hash was still with me.) Finally, I was walking up one street and I saw a flag: OK Harris. All right! That was a great gallery. I hadn't heard much about them of late, but then, I haven't followed the New York art scene lately, either. I got closer and closer and was about to cross in the middle of the block when...I saw it was a cigar shop. With little rooms where you could smoke. No trace of the gallery. No trace of the Greene St. Bar. No trace of the Prince St. Bar. The Broome, thank god, endures. I almost went in to have a beer in celebration. I think that was where I saw the graffito in the men's room that said "Congratulations: you're in the one place in this neighborhood that does not appear in A Woman Under the Influence." Someone knew the end was nigh in 1979. It has arrived. Long ago, I suspect; I wasn't paying attention. 
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