Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday In Barcelona

Oboy! More narrative discontinuity!

On the plane to Barcelona from JFK, most of my neighbors were Delta flight attendants, headed to Barcelona to crew some future flights to the U.S. One of them was new, and asked the crew what its being Good Friday when we landed meant in terms of things being open and so on. One of the folks was from Barcelona himself, and he said that not much would be open -- restaurants excepted -- and that there would be a huge parade. I asked him for details of this, and he gave some. Basically, what he had to say was a condensed and less specific version of this.

As I checked into the hotel, the lady at the desk said that oh, yes, it was definitely not to be missed, and so around 4:45, I headed down the Ramblas to the street where the parade would cross on its way to the Cathedral, carrer de l'Hospital. Remarkably, the thing seemed to be starting on time, as a couple of horsemen made their way up the street and the cops pushed people back from the parade route, hemming it in with some tape.

The first to arrive were two guys in old-time uniforms atop two magnificent horses.

That, however, was all we got to see for a long time. Off in the distance, though, Jesus was coming.

First, however, were these spooky people, some of whom were women.

The various devotional articles they carried were beautiful, and, like the shrines being carried, no doubt lived most of the year in the church. There was an honor guard for Christ, and everyone in the parade took it very seriously, as the woman below seems to show. The priestlet (I guess he's actually an altar boy) is giving a dirty look to the guy whose head is at the lower left, who was snapping the parade with an iPad. Note to digital idiots: if you want to take a picture, buy a camera. Don't hold something the size of a magazine up and block everyone else's view. He became so obnoxious the police moved him on.

At any rate, Jesus had his own band, made up of bagpipers, and I wished I'd recorded them, because the music was sweet and not the kind of thing one hears every day.

Following these folks came barefoot penitents, carrying crosses.

Some of them enhanced the experience.

More KKK-looking guys, this time with green velvet caps and doublets and white gowns.

I haven't researched any of this particular phenomenon, but I believe these all are members of societies within the congregations devoted to worship of a particular saint or aspect of the religion.  At any rate, they were the honor guard for the guest of honor, whose float was next.

The Virgen de la Macarena is the patroness of Barcelona, and as she passed, a man in the crowd near me, head thrown back in ecstacy, shouted "MACARENA!" to which the crowd responded, then "MOST BLESSED VIRGIN!" and ditto, then "QUEEN OF HEAVEN!" and as before and then three more MACARENAs before subsiding. Me, I was fascinated by her little buddy riding on the front of the float.

No idea what that's about. Finally, her float passed (these floats are borne by men, who, invisibly, do this all as a demonstration of faith, and considering the amount of silver and gold on them, this is a fearsome feat of endurance), a brass band (with a single bassoon, something you don't see much), visible on the left,  played solemn music, and the parade moved on to the cathedral.

Much props to the Guardia Civil and the police, who kept order without raising hackles, controlled young kids with a sense of humor, and kept the show on the road. I was hoping to have this posted while the parade was still going, and it may still be, but the Internet at this hotel, which charges €17.95 a day for access, has taken between 12 and 35 minutes to upload each of these photos, there's a restaurant across the street I've wanted to try for a while, and I'm starving. So if you'll excuse me...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

U.S. Tour '13, Part 3: Eating Louisiana

Hope you don't mind a bit of discontinuity here. I'm busy trying to sort out what bits of SXSW '13 belong here and which belong in my other blog, for which I get paid. Much of it will probably be posted in a follow-up miettes post. But the fact remains that, after the circus left town, things got a whole lot better. My friend the great composer Carl Stone came to Austin, and plans were laid to head over to Acadiana to investigate the year's crawfish crop, as well as to ascertain whether or not Ville Platte really is the "Smoked Meat Capital of the World," as it advertises. It would be an arduous trip, but meanwhile we had to eat.

Chef George came through like gangbusters on the first evening: he'd found a real good Mexican restaurant and wanted us to try it. He lives in a part of town that I don't think was a part of town when I moved to Austin in 1979, and I sure had never seen before. We had to pick him up, but the actual directions to the restaurant, which is called Mi Ranchito, are easy: find Manchaca Road and follow it until it ends. (If you wind up on Lamar you've gone the wrong direction and must be from out of town). Many Austinites are unaware that Manchaca has an end, but it does, at some FM (farm-to-market road for the rest of you), and as you sit at the light, it's just to the right and across the street. It's easy enough to order, too: everything's eight bucks. Well, except for a basket of chips, which cost a rather amazing $3.00, the most I think I've ever seen. But without them, you can't sample the incredible salsa bar, which has a poblano salsa and a "spicy avocado" salsa, both of which look like they're mayonnaise-based and aren't, a roasted tomato salsa, some pico de gallo, and some basic salsa ranchera, as well as other things you might want for your meal. Oh, and the meal: George's was carne asada, perfectly grilled strips of marinated beef mixed with nopalitos (cactus pads), Carl got a couple of mole enchiladas with the best mole sauce I've ever tasted, and I got three fat tamales (pork, chicken, and jalapeno-cheese). Our friend Jon was along, too, and I'm damned if I can remember what he got. There's no alcohol sold there, but the food'll get you high enough.

(Mi Ranchito Taqueria, 1105 FM 1626, Manchaca, TX. Open daily 6am-10pm, except Sunday, 10am-3pm)

Our second dinner in Austin, however, was a massive disappointment: Maharaja, the amazing Indian joint we'd found last year, also with George's help, with the Goan fish dishes and wide South Indian menu, including several goat dishes, had turned into a tame North Indian joint with all the stuff you can get anywhere, a couple of Goan fish dishes, and one goat dish. I'm sorry to have to retract my endorsement of this place, because they've obviously had to knuckle under to customer pressure from customers who are ignorant of Indian regional cuisine in order to stay alive. What Austin needs is a whole passel of Tamils to come work in the tech industry!

On Wednesday, we headed out, and found ourselves ready for lunch as we hit Winnie, Texas, home of the great (but disgraced) record producer Huey P. Meaux, where Al T's advertises heavily on the highway and enjoys a good reputation. Undeservedly, I'd say: my boudin link was dull and contained MSG (although not a lot), but the fried okra was good. Don't remember what Carl had, but he was not impressed. We pressed on and got to Breaux Bridge, where we started trying to connect with my old pal Dickie Landry, who currently plays with the Little Band of Gold, CC Adcock's smokin' outfit, and once played with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Oh, and Otis Redding, but that was a while back. He didn't call back, so we went in to downtown Breaux Bridge to the Cafe des Amis, where I'd tried to go last time. Last time I couldn't get in because it was closed. This time, the place was jammed and the hostess (honest to god) had no idea when we could be seated. I'm going to get there some day, but not this trip. Instead we settled for an old local favorite, Pat's Fisherman's Wharf in Henderson, up against the levee. Great gumbo, and half-and-half crawfish (half fried, half etoufée). The fried weren't as good as the etoufée, which I should have figured out. Just as we got there, Dickie called back, apologizing because he'd been entertaining visitors as usual. This time it was Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Tom Tom Club (and of course Talking Heads before them) and they were at Don's Seafood in Lafayette. So we joined them for drinks, except that the bar was already closed (at 9:30!). Still, it was nice seeing them again, and the three-inch oyster shell on the table signalled that Don's might be worth a revisit. The evening ended with Dickie showing us the photos he'd selected for an upcoming book of his photographs (he also paints, being a multi-talented guy), which includes the only known photo of William Burroughs smiling.

Thursday was the investigation of the Ville Platte claim. It's a lovely drive up there, and once you're there, the Chamber of Commerce/Visitors Center is one of the friendliest places on earth. They explained that the smoked meat title was due to the many small meat markets that were just about everywhere in town, and set about pinpointing a few of them on the map. We were on the trail of a young chef who'd served a tremendous meal to an Austin musician friend, but he turned out to be the son of the best friend of one of the women in the office, and she said he now worked in Baton Rouge, which was a little far to go for lunch, especially since we hadn't yet chased down the smoked meat. We had some seafood boudin waiting for us at Paul's, the first one on our list. It was part of a gas station -- as were many of these little places.

It turned out that Carl avoids offal -- weird, since he lives in Japan, where they eat even odder fare -- and so wouldn't touch regular boudin. A real shame. But the seafood boudin was flavorful and chunky with pieces of shrimp and crawfish.

Teet's is diagonally across town -- not that that's a great distance. They also do mail-order, apparently, and I'm all in favor: we wound up scoring a hunk of tasso and a pound of severely delicious smoked garlic sausage there, and the counter personnel couldn't have been friendlier, especially as we introduced ourselves as being from Tokyo and France.

The guys at Teet's know their meats. 

The younger guy was concerned that perhaps I had never had boudin (when I lived in Texas, I consumed twice my weight of the stuff, but I didn't mention that) and he came up with a link. Not their greatest product, not even close to the best I've had, unfortunately. And we struck out at lunch at a café I won't name, because the people there were super-friendly, but the food was totally undistinguished. It would appear that there's something in the water in Ville Platte that makes the people friendly: after lunch we stopped in at the headquarters of Slap Ya Mama hot sauce, which Dickie had recommended, and one of the fellow customers, who was from St. Martinville, struck up a conversation with us, too, and we had a great discussion of eats with the gal behind the register, who was horrified at the idea of eating eels. Problem: Ville Platte doesn't have a decent restaurant, from what we could make out. Someone needs to fix this.

We'd heard that the very best boudin in Acadiana was at T-Boy's, but it turned out to be in Mamou, which was going to be our next stop anyway. It's not on the touristed main street (which is a nice change from the long line of abandoned storefronts I remember from years past), but out in a remote corner of town, because it's not only a meat market, but a slaughterhouse, too. I was too full to get a link of boudin, though -- a problem with travelling with Carl that's similar to matching drinks with a British or Finnish person. How do they do it? Nobody knows. But I've stored this info away, and the way T-Boy's winning awards, I have no fear that he'll vanish.

Dickie had been raving for years about a crawfish place called Cajun Claws in Abbeville, and I was eager to try it (although not as eager as Carl). My concern, though, was that my teeth would have problems with the crawfish. I'm down to two properly-working teeth, and can't bite at all. Proper dental attention will come soon, but at the moment, I'm dentally challenged. Dickie assured us there was stuff on the menu I could eat -- etouffée, bisque -- and there was a branch of Cajun Claws right in front of our motel, but I knew all they had was boiled crawfish. So we trucked all the way to Abbeville to find...that all they had was boiled crawfish! The waiter helped us mix a concoction of mayonnaise, worcestershire sauce, Cajun Power garlic sauce, horseradish, Tabasco, and granulated seasoning like the kind that was on the crawfish into a dip which I used for my potatoes, but which turned out to be for the saltines on the table. No matter, the stars were the mudbugs:

Obligatory mouthwatering crawfish photo
On the one hand, we could have walked to the Cajun Claws in Breaux Bridge, but on the other, these giants -- really the largest crawfish I've ever had in quantity, although any beer-tray full often has some big ones -- were perfectly prepared (my dental fears were quashed because the tails were easily extracted) and the whole crowd in the place was fun to watch.

Big Al is Prejeans' famous mascot. 

Breakfast has always been a problem in Cajun country, but we made an amazing discovery. Prejeans in Carencro is hardly unknown, being that rare thing, a tourist trap with great food and great live music. It's also one of the very few places around that serves a real breakfast, and it opens at 7am for it. We had something called a Napoleon, which was a potato patty, topped with a crab cake, topped with a poached egg, smothered in a hollandaise sauce with shrimp and crawfish tails in it. Not something I'd want every day, but sufficient fuel to get us out of town.

Soon enough, we were across the border.

Odd sign; SXSW was already over!
Once back home, there was nothing to do but to grab the groceries I'd bought and get cooking: my famous jambalaya recipe, which I hadn't had in years, smoked garlic sausage and tasso being very hard to find in Europe.

Once the rice absorbs the liquid, it's dinnertime!
And now, I believe I won't eat much more for a while. How long do you think I'll stick with that resolution? I'm still in Austin, after all.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

U.S. Tour '13: Entr'acte

I finally made it to Austin, and look who I bumped into at the airport. We hadn't seen each other in something like 30 years and he still remembered me.

photo by the lovely and talented Patricia Collins
Then I checked into my hotel, and a couple of days later emptied a coffee-cup into my computer. This was because the hotel's wi-fi had fried my e-mail program and I was trying to fix it. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do. But it happened and I had to take the laptop down to the Apple Store, which took just under a week to fix it.

I'll detail this whole thing a bit more, but I've only had the machine back for about 24 hours, and have a lot of stuff yet to do. Tomorrow I'm leaving for a couple of days in Louisiana, and I'm taking the camera. I have some good food news about Austin (no pix: I'm getting a little self-conscious about shooting food pix in public), and I'm sure I'll have some from Louisiana. Kind of impossible that I won't.

On the music front, please be on the lookout for these two guys:

That's Marquise Jones on the left, and Julian Agacannoo on the right, dunno the percussionist's name, but I owe them $5 for making joyous avant-garde jazz in the streets, probably the most creative music I heard in all of SXSW Music. I talked to them briefly, and Marquise explained that the plastic tube gave each of them access to overtones they wouldn't normally have been able to blow. It was like the World Saxophone Quartet cut in half, or some of the loft jazz from the '70s, played by young guys with skill and enthusiasm. I only had some $20 bills, and I was only able to listen for a few minutes, so I owe 'em. Power to those who respect and build on the tradition, and may they thrive and prosper.

Back soon with a much larger post.

Friday, March 8, 2013

U.S. Tour '13, Part 2: Brooklyn and Art

Yes, it's a real nice hotel. Not cheap. And, while it's easily accessible to Manhattan by subway and water taxi (more on that in a moment), it's not easily accessible to the rest of Brooklyn, where the alleged action (and the Brooklyn Museum) is. Plus, this has been an action-packed couple of days here: edit and record Fresh Air scripts, lunch with my agent to talk about this huge book project I've spent the last year writing just the proposal for, and wanting to squeeze in a little culture as horrible weather descended. I'm writing this now with three inches of snow out the window, hoping I can get to JFK in time for my flight to Austin. I can, but it's not going to be fun.

But still: this is the view from the terrace to my room:

At night the Woolworth Building and the U.N. light up real nice, too.

I'm also real near the pier where the New York Waterways' water taxi stops. It's a slam-bang cowboy ride across the East River, and they take off the second the last passenger gets on. Here's the view from the pier. Not shown: a number of cats who seem to live among the concrete slabs.

I've mostly liked it here. The mixture of Poles and hipsters is workable, although I fear gentrification is on its way, and when it comes to eating, it's the former who rule. I went to a restaurant called Anella which is very highly rated, not as expensive as you'd suspect, and so French in execution vis a vis ingredients and seasonality that I was put off -- I can do that at home! But it's worth your time. More attuned to the terroir of the street is Krolewskie Jadlo, where an ex-employee of hot New York restaurant Nobu is doing excellent traditional Polish food. I started with bacon wrapped around prunes, and moved on to stunning venison meatballs in a rich mushroom gravy, studded with pine nuts (I think) and surrounded by slices of potato dumpling with flecks of spinach. The meal starts with an amuse-bouche of cracking fresh cucumber pickles and a little dish of some kind of pâté and slices of immaculate white bread, obviously from one of the bakeries lining Manhattan Avenue. There's also a terriffic, um, I hate to use the word "gourmet shop," but I don't know what else to call it in the neighborhood called Eastern District, with a great beer selection, as well as cheese and charcuterie. They even stock Moxie, America's most undrinkable soft drink! They're challenged in the charcuterie department by the many Polish meat markets (and mini-markets with meat counters) lining Manhattan Avenue, and passing them on a cold rainy day when a customer sweeps out of the store trailing a garclicky smell of fresh sausages is a swoon-worthy experience.

* * * 

I had lunch Tuesday with an old friend, and at meal's end, he did some prestidigitation with his iPhone and determined that every single art museum and gallery I wanted to visit was closed. Who closes on Tuesday, for cryin' out loud? New York, apparently. So I swept up to the Whitney on Wednesday, and was overwhelmed: five floors, four shows, the permanent collection (which isn't that permanent, since they keep changing out the artists), and pretty much all of it great. 

I went to see the Jay de Feo show, which is the big buzz, and deservedly so. I of course went to see "The Rose," the gigantic work on which she toiled for eight years and then, evicted from her apartment, donated to the San Francisco Art Institute, which then built a wall in front of it so it remained unseen for twenty years, until it was rescued by the Whitney and restored. No biggie: she kept going, and your response to this show will likely be mine: how could such a major talent paint so many great paintings and be pretty much totally unknown? Part of the answer is that San Francisco's art scene is about as philistine as it gets: I once interviewed a very famous artist there who told me that as soon as the paint was dry he'd crate up his painting and send it to his dealer in New York, because nobody in San Francisco would touch him. He liked living there, but he couldn't make a living there. De Feo eventually did, and as you wander through the galleries getting your mind blown, you see her story come to a satisfying end. 

Then, on another floor, we have Sinister Pop, a really audacious look at a movement you thought you knew well. I actually followed a lot of this carefully as a teenager and saw a lot of it in galleries and group shows, so I wasn't as surprised as I might have been, but the curation, the way these pieces are brought together and hung, is right on the money. You don't have to see Warhol's huge quartet of electric chair paintings to realize that Pop, in its critique of consumer society and the Vietnam War and the oppression of women and minorities -- and yes, it did all of that -- had a side that wasn't all soup cans and Great American Nudes. Here it is: great stuff. 

The only show I wasn't totally wild about was Blues For Smoke, on tour from the L.A. Contemporary, a kind of, um, well it's hard to say. Examination of the theme of the blues in contemporary art? Curatorial concept gone pear-shaped? Overthought, theory-laden mess? Doesn't really matter: I loved individual pieces, like Kerry James Marshall's Souvenir IV, a tapestry showing a black angel on a couch as the spirits of blues and jazz musicians hover above her, or Martin Wong's La Vida, a huge painting of a couple of tenements with the denizens at the windows (click the Images link on the exhibition's page to check these out). On the ground floor is an odd video piece called Hors Champs (off-screen) by Stan Douglas, interesting mostly because it's a documentation of Albert Ayler with a very small band playing "Spirits Rejoice," which is worth your 13 minutes or so.

The current selection from the permanent collection, American Legends: From Calder to O'Keeffe, is of course worth your while, loaded as it is with masterpieces. This whole thing was so amazing that it made up for all the other downsides of this trip, and just revisiting it for this post makes me happy. I've only been to the Whitney once before, ages ago, and I can't remember what I saw, ecept one piece does stick out: a tiny village made out of clay hidden behind a window on the staircase, one of several that a local artist was bombing the city with in the '80s. It's still there: Dwellings, by Charles Simonds. Check it out. 

Time for me to shut the computer down and check out and hope that I get out of here on time. More news as it happens!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

U.S. Tour '13, Part 1: Barcelona to Bigos

The train from Montpellier wasn't full, but in my car the only people speaking French were the conductors. There was an older Swedish couple, reading a .PDF of the Sunday paper on their laptops, two guys behind me speaking a language I couldn't identify who looked East Asian, and who were on a tour whose guide outlined the day's activities to them in English, and then, as I walked back to the bar car to get something to make up for the breakfast I'd missed by getting up at 6 to catch the train, row after row of silent Japanese girls, their faces half-obscured by surgical masks, eyes following me with what looked like fear.

I checked into my hotel (once I found it; something about Barcelona confuses me) and decided to go out for some lunch and some art, probably at the Contemporary Art Museum, which was nearby. For lunch, I first found a tapas bar that's excellent, but was closed. Then I walked up Paseig de Gracia looking down side-streets for Tapas 24, where I'd been in September. When that failed, I settled for a place that looked pretty good called Tapa Tapa. They have a nice gimmick: each of their over 60 tapas offerings is pictured in a small photo with a number, price, and name in Catalán on the place-mat. The diner is then presented with a book with translations of the dishes in a dozen languages.

The tapas are uniformly excellent, too: fat anchovies lying on a bed of finely diced dred onion and tomato, perfect ham croquettes, the usual suspects. If it hadn't taken nearly two hours for the waiter to serve them, one by one, forgetting the last one, I'd go back, but this was a classic case of a place you don't leave a tip: the service gets a zero. Ridiculous.

That night, though, I had dinner with a young couple who'd moved back to Barcelona from Berlin, where they'd been for five years. They seemed happy enough, and shared with me one of their favorite restaurants, in which I realized that there was a new gastronomic sensation in Barcelona: Slow Food. I ate in my first Slow Food restaurant in Italy over 20 years ago and merely thought it a clever name, but the movement has swept Europe, and they've caused some tremendous things to happen. I'd passed another Slow Food place near my hotel, but this one is tucked away on an obscure corner in the Raval district.

Mam i Teca has three tables and a short bar, and the menu shows how far from that corner the food was obtained, hence several "km 0" markings. It has small plates which aren't exactly tapas, and what I think is probably stone Catalán food. Cod and tuna played a large part in what we ordered, a cold tuna dish with white beans, dressed in an aromatic olive oil, the above not-quite-salad of cod, frisée, and romesco sauce, and a kissin' cousin of the garlic with shrimp in garlic sauce and garlic I had in Valencia a couple of years ago, only this was cod, the garlic wasn't quite as pronouned, and that last slam to the senses was provided by a nice amount of paprika instead. I wished we'd had some bread to soak it up with, and maybe we would have if it hadn't been Sunday, when I assume bakeries don't open.

We finished it off with tiny glasses of a yellowish-green licor des hierbas that hit the spot. An infintesimal amount of English is spoken by the nice lady who runs the joint, and her partner is a Los Lobos fan and was playing them on the sound system. What a great evening. Oh, and served with it was the last thing you'd expect.

A handcrafted, light brown, nicely hopped local beer. Went perfect with the meal, too.

Taverna Mam i Teca, Carrer de La Lluna 4, 08001 Barcelona. Phone 93 441 33 35. Reservations are, I would think, mandatory. Open daily for dinner. 

* * * 

So what could possibly be a better way to slide back into the US than by getting a hotel room in Brooklyn in what appears to be an old factory or warehouse in Greenpoint? Remote as it may seem, I have a stunning view of the Chrysler Building from my room, and a kind of gentle gentrification appears to be happening in this historically Polish district of what was once New York's second-largest city. Beat as I am from flying all day today (and getting plenty of exercise, although the doctor pronounced me healed enough to travel), I still had to have dinner, despite the fact that this place has a fully-equipped kitchen. I couldn't risk cooking with all this jet-lag, so I headed for what sounded like a good deal, a restaurant named Karczma on Greenpoint Avenue. 

When I got there and saw it was next to the Polonaise Terrace (just dig that website and its blaring music!) my heart sang. It doesn't get more old school than that, and if it's hokey to have the waitresses in traditional peasant skirts and blouses, so be it. Mine was authentically Polish, and I noticed all the banter between the waitresses was in Polish, too. It's heartening: for reasons I don't know, Polish culture still seems to be vital here, and that's not something (with whatever culture) that's happening in a lot of the United States. 

The food was delightful: I started with a mixed plate of six pierogis (fried): two each potato, cheese, and meat, with a truly insignificant amount of apple preserve in the center of the plate. I ordered a beer, and of course they had the right kind. On draft:

Yes, it does say Zywiec, and the waitress helped me pronounce it right. If we wind up in Poland together, I'll teach you and you can buy us a couple of beers. I'd been jonesing for a dish called bigos, but it didn't seem to be there, which is very weird indeed: instead it turned out to be hiding on the menu under the name "Hunter's stew," which, considering what it is, is almost a Polish joke: the brave hunter shot a pig, captured some fierce sauerkraut, ripped a few bay leaves off of a tree and stole some allspice berries and cooked it all up with paprika and garnished it with some nicely hot pickled peppers. It's perfect cold night food (and it's cold here, no denying that), packed as it is with vitamin C, of which sauerkraut is a major source, believe it or not. 

Why hunting rifles for Polish people should remain legal. 

Outside the wind is howling, and in my head it's three in the morning, so I'm going to proofread this and go to bed. More culinary delights loom before I leave New York on Friday, so stay tuned. 
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