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...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Minor Annoyance

I was mooching around the Internet the other day, bored and between work duties and kind of desultorily researching my upcoming vacation without enough information or money to actually do anything about it, when I picked up a kind of hint that my iPhone and iPad had something on them that I didn't want there. And sure enough, they did.

On the one hand, pretty nifty graphics. On the other hand, I didn't ask for this. Nor, to be honest, would I have.

In case you've been asleep this week, or in case you use iTunes as little as I do these days (ie, never, now that I no longer have neighbors who'll bust me for playing music through speakers after 10pm), if you have an Apple device, you've got it, too. I have no idea what your reaction will be, but I got mad.

A bit of history is in order here. Back in 1968, I started to write record reviews for Rolling Stone. In order to make sure I could keep in touch with what the labels were putting out, their record review editor, Greil Marcus, called some record labels and I got put on their mailing lists for pop music. Stuff began to appear in my mailbox before it appeared in my college bookstore's record section, which was a big outlet for testing new releases. I got Cream's Wheels of Fire from Atlantic, and Waiting For the Electrician Or Someone Like Him, by the Firesign Theater. This was memorable because it was a record that, from its cover, I'd never have bought, and covers were about all anyone had to go on back then. One night, I put it on and a whole new world opened to me: comedy made with all the resources of the modern recording studio, just like a new Beatles album or something.

I got used to free albums pretty quickly. Arguments that people who got free albums were more inclined to like them than if they'd paid for them were hogwash: with $4.98 invested in a record, you had $4.98 worth of reasons to consider that a good investment. I had no investment in a free piece of plastic, and if it knocked me out, all to the good. And it kept me abreast of what proved to be an oncoming tide of music: it seems quaint nowadays, but it was once possible to keep up with pretty much every album that came out. Or every rock album, at any rate, and more and more they were becoming the majority of what was released.

Many times I've told the story of what I don't want to call a tipping point: Rolling Stone had assigned me the new Beatles album, Abbey Road, for review. Weird as it seems, there were copies all over the country in warehouses, waiting for the release date a couple of weeks later. A promo man in Cincinnati who worked in one of those warehouses was asked to hand-deliver my copy. His main gig was for Elektra Records, though, so he brought that month's Elektra stuff with him, too: albums by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, Ars Nova, Rhinoceros, Wild Thing, and one the guy candidly told me was awful, so awful he drew on the cover. "These guys are morons," he said. "I have no idea why we signed them." They were the Stooges.

However, let us not forget Wild Thing.
It was like the past (the Beatles audibly falling apart), the present (a lot of pretension, inept rock masquerading as art), and the future (The Stooges was the only album in the pile that got to me viscerally, and I reviewed it, too, for Rolling Stone) all in one neat pile of vinyl.

The great thing about free records is that, once they started flowing in and once some of them proved to be duds, you could almost always find someone to give you a buck or two for them. With what writing about them would turn out to pay, this was a valuable asset.

Of course, this was physical product. I could hold it in my hand, hand it to you to hold, mail it to a friend, stack it in the corner. True, I hadn't specifically asked for most of it, but some of it I was glad to have. It took up an awful lot of room, but that was no big thing. (Well, until I had to move, at least).

The U2 situation is completely different, and needs to be addressed in ways I don't see it being addressed. Most of what I've seen has been "Man, I don't want an album by these guys because they suck!" type of thing, or else "Hey, I played it and liked it a lot!"

That's not the issue.

First, it's not taking up space on your device. What you've been given is the opportunity to download the album for free until October 13. I get links like that every day, since there are still publicists out there who think I'm interested in contemporary rock music, which I'm not. But I have to take the action to click on the link, deliver the product to my desktop, and then integrate it with my iTunes if I so see fit. I think that's fair.

What's not fair is deceptively placing that link on my device without my consent. I can (and do) ignore those links in the press releases. I can't ignore the existence of something I'd never ever want on my device. And I wonder how many people innocently click on the link and download this album, just out of curiosity. Apple, one reads, spent $100 million for the rights to do this, a nice payday for the corporation that is U2. How many people did this? It's important to know: an industry source I trust claims that their last album was downloaded 22,000 times. Yup: no missing zeroes there. Twenty-two thousand. No doubt the people who downloaded it paid for it, and no doubt some percentage of them played it for a while, decided they could live without it (or most of it) and deleted it (or most of it) from their devices. I'm sure that out of the majority of consumers who bought the album as physical product some traded theirs for something else, sold them at garage sales, and the like. In all cases, this is the consumer's right: you made the choice to own the music and you make the choice to do what you will with it, even something technically illegal. Or returning it to the electronic chaos.

The economics of giving music away gives me a headache, and I don't want to discuss it. The blitherers who talk about how musicians should make their money with live appearances ought to do a four-month tour of the U.S. and Canada in an Econoline van and get back to me. Extra points if you're over 45. And yes, someone sent me that article about Joe Ely and his long-standing love affair with Apple Computers (ever heard his album Hi Res?), and no, much as I love Joe, I wouldn't have been any happier if it had been his new album that was forcibly inserted on my devices. (I would, however, have been very happy for him and Sharon if they managed to get $100 million out of Apple. Hell, Sharon's never going to make that much from her posole, good as it is).

What this is about goes to the core of owning these devices in the first place. We give certain entities -- Apple Computer, most importantly -- access to them so that they can make them better: Apple constantly provides updates to the operating system, for instance, that result in better functioning and stronger security. They improve (or, well, let's just say for the sake of argument they're improvements) the various applications like Mail and Safari that come with the computers and let us know they're available. We can choose not to upgrade, and sometimes that's the right choice. What Apple is not doing is slapping a copy of Angry Birds, for instance, on our devices, giving us trial e-subscriptions to Us magazine. Some of us choose not to put games on our devices. Some of us don't care about the "content" in Us.

We all have the choice to configure our devices as we wish, which is how it should be. We choose what software to put on them, what content. The autonomy this technological revolution we're living through is, in fact, liberating, even when it doesn't seem that way at the hands of some political and religious organizations. But those entities aren't forcing themselves on us. U2 is.

I have been denied a choice. Yes, it seems easy enough to rid your device of this stupid thing, yet I scrupulously followed the instructions for erasing it from my devicesyesterday and as of a minute ago, it's still on all three -- computer, iPhone, iPad. I don't like the precedent. I don't like U2, either, but that's not what this is about.

Apple should be ashamed of itself and it should apologize for this breach of privacy.

But of course it won't be, and it won't. Welcome to the oligarchy, consumer tool.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Modest Disappointments

One of the books I discovered when I started to unpack my stuff from storage was T. R. Fehrenbach's classic history of Texas, Lone Star. I was happy to find it: after all these years, perhaps it was time to dive into what most people say is the standard history of this state.

It's a tough slog for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the narrative lurches around out of sequence for much of the book, and several long passages seem to be papers Fehrenbach presented just inserted into the book, making the idea of a flow ridiculous. It could also use way more maps than it has. Still, given the time it was written and the place it was written about, Lone Star is remarkable in a number of ways. Fehrenbach's concept of the "races" of Texas (not the word I'd use) posits that the Anglos who came here came directly from the frontier of Tennessee and Kentucky, and their ancestors had bypassed the civilizing influence of the Enlightenment thinking that was developing in New England and Virginia. They were no to much anti-intellectual as, well, a-intellectual. This put them at odds with the Europeans who moved here, and with the Mexicans who were already here. He makes the black experience sound like hell on earth, even compared to other parts of the U.S. The female experience he doesn't consider at all.

I bring this up not to mock a classic work or pretend that I know better than he (although I certainly would have added and subtracted information were it my book, and if I had the knowledge), but to give some context to what I did last Thursday. The Bullock State History Museum had a travelling show called 1968 that I wanted to see, as did my pal GB, and she, having worked as a consultant on another special show there, had a contact, so she called and got us free entry and a parking pass.

The 1969 show was perplexing, taking up very little space, and cramming stuff into it in a rather claustrophobic way. The artifacts on display -- weird to think of a year from your young adulthood as possessing "artifacts" -- were all over the map. Some of the wacky, zippy furniture and other design elements may have been available for purchase, but few bought them because they looked as ephemeral as they turned out to be. Instant museum pieces, I guess. The war in Vietnam was very well covered, and there was most of a Huey helicopter taking up part of the space, as was part of a space capsule in which astronauts had ridden. The pop culture items were well-chosen (although the dorm room with the dope in one of the desk drawers could have used with a curator who knew how to roll a joint), and the use of video was excellent: short, informative pieces you could watch and then go. The Presidential election had the requisite number of campaign buttons and an oddly moving display, down near the floor, of a bunch of china from the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated.

But it was tiny, and before long we were through. "Want to look at the rest of the museum?" GB asked, and, well, of course I did. So off we went.

Lack of space isn't a problem at the Bullock: its cavernous interior recalls the rotunda of the state capitol building, perhaps intentionally. It has an IMAX theater, a conference center, a restaurant, a concert hall, and three floors of exhibits. Which is where Fehrenbach came in handy. The ground floor seems empty, despite a good reproduction of a "dog run" house of the sort early settlers built (I thought I knew what one looked like, but Fehrenbach's description confused me). There's just not much Stuff, and after 20 years in Europe, I'm used to museums with Stuff galore. What it does have, in enormous quantity, though, is text. Text on the walls, text in documents, framed next to more text. But having read the book, this made sense: the Spanish had artifacts, but the Apaches, the dominant Indian tribe in Texas, had none becauses they had no culture, at least not in the way we'd define it. They made no art except to decorate weapons of war, and had no settlements. (Reading Fehrenbach, it seems like a miracle that they survived into the 19th Century, having no technology other than superb horsemanship skills, and, later, some marksmanship with captured rifles; it was like the Mongol hordes surviving into early modern times). As for the early Anglos, their goods were very modest, and the display that made the point that the Colt revolver had won the war against the Apaches was dull: old rusted guns tend to look very much alike, and a display of a couple of disassembled Colts, showing the original model and the model made after the Texas Rangers bailed Colt out of bankruptcy by ordering a thousand or so guns made from their suggestions would have been very welcome.

I started reading the texts, but soon got fatigued by them. GB, for her part, wanted to continue upstairs, so we ascended the staircase to the 19th century, where there was a bit more Stuff. There, the Civil War awaited us, confusing as all get-out, although the video showing comments from Texans' writings during the period had its moments. It, however, showed one of the museum's big problems. In trying to be fair to the Texas experience of Mexicans, women, and blacks, the exhibits often spend time on matters that are either trivial (some of the women's stuff) or odd (you cannot sugar-coat the black experience in Texas, which was right up there with Mississippi as one of the worst places to be a slave -- or, starting a short time after Emancipation, a free black -- and there are very few positive role models among black Texans during this period).

We drifted on, surrounded by text, which was often in black letters against a brown background, and some of that in reduced light to preserve documents and artifacts. GB complained that representative costumes would have been a good idea, there not being any before the 1920s, which I hadn't noticed, but was a good observation. I suggested that in a climate like Texas', preserving clothing against decay for a century or more might have been impossible, but more likely, it was the people themselves who didn't see the point of saving anything. Life was hard enough, after all. When the costumes appeared, they were in one of the ingenious displays that were behind a scrim, with the lighting changing to make it more or less opaque. The change, however, was fairly quick and you couldn't really get a good look at the contents of the window until the next cycle.

By the time we got to the third, and top, floor, I was frankly bored. There was an Exxon-sponsored display about the oil business, which saved Texas when the cattle boom faded, a nice old neon sign from an old movie house called the Texas, some cool stuff from NASA, a video about Texas today starring my old friend Ray Benson (who is, as he'll tell you, a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia), and, as you exited that room, a small adjunct to the 1968 show called The Years That Made Texas Weird, which was no such thing, but, instead, a tribute to a number of the great local poster artists with a small display of each one's work.

We descended the staircase into the rotunda, checked out the gift shop (filled with stuff you'd want to take home to New York or Illinois), and walked outside where, to our amazement, a thin rain was blowing in. It was, in context, the high point of the afternoon.

* * *

"Hey," said the voice on the phone last night. "Got dinner plans? Want to go get noodles with us?" It was Andrew, whose suggestions on where to get great food around Austin had never let me down, starting with, years ago, a phô place that's now in my neighborhod. It was late afternoon, so I suggested we wait a bit, and he agreed, saying he was going to grill one of his kids about where to go. This son lives up north, where a lot of the Chinese and Vietnamese places are. 

"How about Chicken Lollypop?" he asked a couple of hours later. Um, what? "Noah says it's great and he's been there a lot. It's Indian food." Okay, sure. As I have learned to do, I called up its website, which is why I know it's misspelled. Also how I knew that I had no idea what was ahead, because the menu is too small to read. But you couldn't miss those three words: "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE."

Now, I knew that fusion was the new thing. I also know that my favorite Austin South Indian vegetarian restaurant has an "Indo-Chinese" section on their menu that I always ignore. I've also seen "Szechuan sauce" in jars at my local Indian grocery store. So who knew what this was? 

The surprises didn't end there. We drove up to a strip mall. A huge convenience store shared space with a hospice. Fortunately, we were headed to the convenience store, in the back of which was a window and a menu on the wall. As it developed most people did, we hung out in front of the menu trying to make sense out of it. There were "House Signature Delights," which featured the eponymous Lollypop, spinach, and Bombay Potatoes. There were sandwiches, soups, and Naan wraps, all of which featured stuff cooked in "Shezwan" sauce. For entrees, you can get chicken, paneer (a kind of Indian cheese that doesn't melt when cooked) or shrimp, as either chili, garlic, ginger, Shezwan, Manchurian, or sweet and sour. Then there are many kinds of fried rice, more or less along the lines of the entrees, a spinach fried rice, triple Shezwan fried rice chicken or shrimp, which features "Yummy in a Separate Bowl," pav bhaji (vegetables, something called Amul butter, and pav, which appears to be a tomato concoction), and naan, which we were told by some diners we shouldn't miss. We ordered the Lollypop (of course), the spinach appetizer, spinach fried rice, garlic paneer and chili chicken. 

We then wandered the convenience store looking for drinks. It was immense. There was a decent selection of craft beers, and all manner of industrial wines, some weird alcoholic jellies, and stubby little bottles of Dublin Dr. Pepper, made in a holdout bottling plant in Dublin, Texas, that refuses to use high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. I grabbed one in solidarity: it is Labor Day Weekend, after all. Andrew got a beer, then had to put it back: they don't have a license to let you drink it. 

The food comes in round foil containers like you use for take-out. The Lollypop (four to an order) are like chicken wings: the drumlet from the wing, cut in such a way that you can jam the meat down on the bone, leaving the bone to hold it by, marinated, then probably baked. They were delicious. But, as it developed, hardly a harbinger of things to come. The spinach appetizer was also delicious and pretty copious, sauteed, the menu said, with herbs, some of which were sour. I never did figure it out, partially because it vanished so quickly. The chili chicken was in a bright red sauce with lots of vegetables. The red was, as Andrew noted, a color not found in nature, and the increasingly gelid texture of the sauce belied the presence of that ubiquitous Chinese ingredient cornstarch. For all its flamboyance, it didn't have a hell of a lot of flavor. The sauce on the garlic paneer was lightly garlicky, with herbs and vegetables in the mix, also cornstarched to within an inch of its life. The spinach fried rice, though, was lovely: covered by a thin egg pancake, the rice and spinach was complex, savory, and compulsively edible, although that might have been because the other entrees were so bad and we were hungry. The naan was a disc of cooked flour, unlike any naan I have ever had, or, I hope, ever will. 

I have no idea where this cuisine was dreamed up, although I note that the to-go menu amplifies the provenance by saying "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE MUMBAI STYLE," and I do regret the fact that in all the confusion we neglected to order a "Shezwan" dish. The man behind the window was upbeat and friendly and very concerned that we were enjoying ourselves. Twice, he noted that the spinach was local, supplied by a man in Buda, and that he went through five pounds of it a day. On the way out, the guy behind the main counter said that they were thinking of opening a place in South Austin, or perhaps downtown. I might go back and have some different stuff if so, but this was one of the most bizarre dining experiences (talking about the food, not Mr. and Mrs. Andrew) I've had in a long, long while. 

Chicken Lollypop, 1005 E. Braker Lane, Austin, 78753, 512-412-1260 or 512-909-9826 for takeout. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dog Days

It's that time again. And, inevitably, people are complaining. Look, I want to say, you knew it was Texas when you moved here. And, as summers here have gone in the recent past, it really hasn't been that bad this year. Of course, it's not over yet, either.

I used to look at the state capitol building when I lived here last and imagine the workers dealing with all that heavy stone, laying the floors, installing the woodwork, in the depth of a Texas summer. My old house had two window-unit air conditioners and there were days when I was just immobile in the living room as the unit wheezed in cold air. The kitchen didn't have one, and as I remember I ate out a lot, or else ate salads. The refrigerator worked fine; my landlord's brother owned a used appliance store. There was even an ice machine. The electric bills were frightening, especially once I went back to freelancing. The office had the other machine, so sitting in it was okay, and it connected to the sleeping porch/bedroom, a room lined with windows that was just wonderful before and after the summer and winter weather. So life wasn't too bad once you got used to not doing too much. It could have been worse: I could have been working construction.

But then I moved to a place without air conditioning entirely. You didn't need it for the 45 or so days of summer in Berlin, of course, but really, summer in southern France wasn't so bad, except maybe for a week at its height. Which would be right about now. The French cleverly invented shutters, big wooden doors that you could close without closing the windows, so that air could circulate.

The place I live now has central air/central heat, CACH, as the real-estate listings have it, and what I discovered over the winter is that the house is very well insulated. I'd unthinkingly step into the garage and suddenly it was winter, just as now I walk in there and it's like an oven. (Well, it does face east). I've got the thermostat set for 79º, which is about right. The temperature at night slips below that most of the time so that I'm not running the compressor all the time, and the well-insulated interior keeps use at a minimum, although it steps up during the afternoon.

As it should: these past couple of weeks, we've been into the three-digit range. Today's high is forecast for 102º, low of 79º. These are the dog days, the days when Sirius the dog star is above us. Might be: I rarely go out at night, and anyway, the city illumination in the distance would negate seeing it, even if I did know a damn thing about stars, which mostly I don't.

No, boy, it's not about you.
"Cane Beagle" by Ale300885 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This weather, though, has all kinds of side-effects. For one thing, it hasn't rained decently in some time. There's a general drought on, which has been going for the better part of the decade, although,  again, it's been atypically wet since I got here. I gave thought to starting a garden, or at least plants in planters, on the back deck, and a friend even presented me with four tomatillo plants he'd kind of impulse-bought during a road trip. They throve nicely (although the chile seeds I got from a friend in New Mexico never sprouted because apparently they don't in peat pots) until one day they didn't. This is something I remember from my previous residence, too. One day, the leaves start looking bad and no amount of watering will change that. In what seems like minutes (but is actually a couple of days), the whole plant goes from plasmolysis to death. Bang. 

Things aren't much better in the critter community. I was planning to write a post in which I was upbraided by the local blue jay family for writing about such lowly critters as bugs and turd-laying toads when there was such a splendid display of avian-Americans available to me. Which is true, even if the blue jays' latest family caused a bit of panic when the kids were learning the ropes and several times flew at the screen in the open window a couple of feet from my head here on the desk, but managing to grab the mesh with their claws just in time and take off again. I don't know which of us was more alarmed. When the lawn in the back yard was going, so were the bugs, including the first lightning bugs I'd seen in decades, and so were the birds eating the bugs. Corvids were popular: there were grackles, of course (Austin's famous for grackles: ask anyone with a car who's parked under a tree they use for sleep), but also cowbirds (which may or may not be corvids, but are structurally similar) and starlings. Grey doves made the scene, with their annoying cooing sounds, but also their ability, unique in the avian world, to suck up water through their beaks. No leaning back and gargling it down for them. My most treasured avian-American visitor, though, was a woodpecker of some sort -- I still haven't identified it properly -- with a body covered with bars of black and white, and a bright read topknot. His station was one of the trees, where he'd cleverly knocked a wound. The wound bled sap, the sap attracted ants, and the woodpecker had dinner. And I shouldn't neglect the cardinals, of whom I have two, male and female. At one point I thought I might have a wounded baby cardinal back there and went out to check. Nope: some bird had found a bright red cigarette lighter in the street, where it had been run over, and brought it into the yard. 

(Although there's sure no complaining about this guy, who may have been dead, for spectacular color. He landed in the driveway, shed a lot of the red, and then disappeared)

There are mammals, too: squirrels and a cat. An old cat. Black and white, and acts like he owns the neighborhood, which in some respects he does. I know when he's around because the jays tell everyone he is. I saw him just yesterday, walking stiffly across my front yard. So as to keep on the good side of my avian-American friends, I pay him no attention: no feeding the predator. 

But the weather in the past couple of weeks has cut back on all this activity. I suspect water is at the bottom of all of it: there just isn't any here because it hasn't rained. My guess is that most of the critters are hanging out near any creek or even backyard swimming pool that's got wet in it. Yesterday I almost hit a squirrel who was attempting to cross William Cannon Boulevard, a four-lane road with a center divider. He was walking oddly, and I think his tiny brain was kind of baked, but it worked well enough that, as the traffic came on, he changed his mind and went back to the starting place. I wondered what was going on, but again, the thought was water. There are no birds in the back yard, few bugs at night, the grass is largely yellow, the leaves on the trees contracted but not plasmolized. 

As the day ends, instead of the colorful sunsets of a few weeks back, we get a sort of annoying yellow light and then darkness. What it portends is the same thing the Weather Service tells me: "abundant sunshine," which sure is a nice way to put it. And hot. 

Well, I knew it was Texas when I moved here. Now for the electric bill. 

Photo by Stephen Wolfe Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I'm going to be looking out the window while writing anyway. He'll be back. 
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