Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pizza, The Broke-Not-Poor Staple

It's inevitable: if you're raised within a certain radius of Manhattan, you're going to eat great pizza at a very young age. And if you're someone who likes to cook, you're going to spend countless hours trying to recreate that experience at home.

And you'll fail. You'll fail for a bunch of different reasons: unless you're Francis Ford Coppola, you're not going to have a professional pizza oven in your home kitchen, and temperatures upwards of 700º F, which are necessary to get the dough to rise and the toppings to cook in the amount of time that locks in that flavor, are not going to be possible. You'll fail because you won't be able to get the right kind of char on your crust. You'll fail because some ingredients only come in huge cans available to pizza-shop operators.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Because you can come close, and you can make a very satisfying simulacrum. And the more you do it, the closer you'll get. And yes, you'll get back to New York and have some pizza and get little insights that will improve your next pizza. And yes, I'm going to tell you how I do it.

I didn't get enough pizza when I was in New York in March, mostly, I suspect, because the really good pizza places, like all the other really good ethnic restaurants, have fled Manhattan and gone to places where the rents are kinder to the bottom line. There's a reason that the only good bagels I found were in Brooklyn, after all. But I picked up a good insight one cold, rainy night on 9th Avenue in the 30s somewhere. The pizza itself wasn't very good (note: this isn't the place behind Port Authority Bus Terminal, which was the only other pizza I had in New York, and which was considerably better), but the guy there was kneading the dough in a metal bowl. I tried that last night, and it worked amazingly. Another little trick in the repertoire!

There are also a couple of specialized pieces of equipment you'll need here, but nothing that'll break the bank. First, you need a pizza stone. These are easily found in the U.S. and cheap, but really all you need is unglazed terra-cotta tiles, which are available everywhere. Some "gourmet" company was selling a glazed pizza stone for something like €30 around here last year, which amazed me. I can't imagine it worked. The other thing you need is a peel. This is a device on which you build and top the pizza, then use it to shove it into the oven. Restaurant-supply stores have them, they're not expensive, and they last forever.

Okay, on to the recipe. I apologize in advance for the photos. Not that they're so awful, but because there are some crucial steps here which take both hands, and which I couldn't photograph.

My dough recipe is based on one from the woman who literally wrote the book on pizza, Evelyne Sloman, who also operates a restaurant in Albany, California, called Nizza la Bella, where I've never eaten, but which features her pizzas and an 800-degree oven. You take three cups of flour and a teaspoon of salt and mix them together in a metal bowl. All-purpose flour works, but if you can get what's known as 00 flour, which some Italian groceries have, you'll get a much better crust. You also take a teaspoon of granulated yeast and put it in one cup of hot (but not too hot) water, and wait for it to fizz. Then you mix them together. Start mixing with a wooden spoon, and keep some extra flour and water handy. Depending on the weather, you may find that you need to add more water before all the flour is scooped up. Then, you start with your hands, accumulating it into a single mass. Then you knead, pushing the dough into the bottom of the bowl. You can also, of course, knead on a countertop, or, if you have such a thing, in a food processor with a dough hook. Eventually, the dough will smooth out. It may stick, in which case add some flour. It definitely shouldn't feel dry, and you can wet your hands to add just a touch of water while you're kneading. But eventually, you'll get this:

This isn't quite there yet. When it is, it'll be a bit smoother on the surface, and when you hit it with your open hand, as Evelyne says, "it'll be like smacking a baby's bottom."

And when you've got it right, put it on the counter, wash out the bowl and dry it well, and put some vegetable oil in there, then return the dough and roll it around to cover it in oil thoroughly, cover it with a plastic bag (or plastic wrap, I guess) and let it sit for an hour in a warm place.

Meanwhile, put your stone in the oven and heat it at maximum heat, which for me is around 500º.

(If you look closely, you'll see that my stone broke some time ago and is now in three pieces. Fortunately, they fit together perfectly).

Now it's time to get your sauce going. Last night, I had some leftover pizzaiola sauce, my basic red sauce I've made for 40 years, which I'll demonstrate here some day. It's not as liquid as an ideal pizza sauce would be, so what I usually do is sautee some garlic in olive oil, then add a cup of tomato puree out of a box, some salt, and generous amounts of dried basil and dried oregano, in about a 1-to-2 ratio, more oregano than basil. Cook this carefully over low heat for around 45 minutes, stirring it frequently and making sure it doesn't scorch. It should be about the same consistency as ketchup. If you can do this earlier and let it sit some, it just gets better. Just make sure it's ready by the time you have to assemble the pizza.

And, while I was waiting, I prepared my other topping, slicing some mushrooms

and then sauteeing them in some olive oil, and a little salt to make the juices come out. Nice and brown!

Set these aside. After an hour, check your dough. It's risen. Probably not a great deal, but there's more there than there was. Okay, now, as gently as you can, make two balls out of it, pat one into a disc, and put it in a zip-loc bag and into the freezer: this recipe makes two pizzas, but since each one takes 20 minutes to cook, it doesn't exactly make dinner for two unless you can make the logistics work, which I can't. Anyway, the next step is to take the dough you will be using and cover it with the plastic and put it into the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes. Get out your peel

and sprinkle it with cornmeal. If you live somewhere where good old American cornmeal is like gold, you can, as I do, use semolina, which is cheap and used in Arab recipes.

Now the part I wish I could have photographed. After the dough is cold, take it from the fridge, flatten it into a disc, and shape your pizza shell. There are a bunch of different ways to do this, but this is a little 12" (approximately) shell, so I've found this to be the easiest way:

Grab the disc by the edge and turn it quickly with your hands. Gravity will start stretching it, and you want to keep the center from breaking, but you'll notice that you're getting a ridge around the outside of your disc, which you should squeeze to send more dough into the center. It's probably still pretty small, so at this point, drape it over your two hands and open them slowly, or push them apart. This will stretch the dough, but maintain the ridge. Try like hell not to tear the inside bit: keep it just thick enough that this doesn't happen. Yeah, it takes practice. Yeah, you can repair holes, but they usually leak. With luck, you'll lay down, precisely over the area with the cornmeal or polenta on it, your shell:

Pretty good! Now, lay anything that could burn (in this case, the mushrooms, but also anchovies -- which I meant to add here, but forgot -- or thin slices of salame or cooked Italian sausage) as your first layer.

Next add your sauce, spooning it into the center and spreading it with the bottom of your spoon (you've seen guys in pizza joints do this hundreds of times, it should be easy).

And finally, your cheese (Italian mozzarella here, of course)

and then, open the oven, slide the peel on top of the stone, and with a quick jerk, snap the pizza off of the peel and onto the stone. Not overloading the pizza is a real skill, and it's important to learn it: too much stuff and it can make the bottom soggy, or at least make the stuff fall in your lap as you're trying to eat it!

Much depends on your oven, but please, don't take this out too soon. Uncooked pizza dough can cause nasty reactions a couple of hours after you eat it as the still-living yeast hit your digestive juices. This one maybe got just a tad too brown

but not too badly. It maybe was in there two minutes too long.

You're not through yet. There are two more steps. First, I always put the pizza on the plate, then transfer it to a wooden board, and sweep the cornmeal/semolina off the plate. It's like sand, and you want to get rid of it. Then there's the post-oven dressing. At this point, you'd add fresh basil leaves if you had them (too early here), parmesan cheese (don't cook with parmesan: it'll burn), and a drizzle of fruity olive oil (a must).

And that's it.

One more specialized piece of equipment you'll need at this point: a pizza wheel to cut it into wedges. It's worth investing in a good one: I've had them come off their axles and fly across the room when confronted with a hard crust, and the crust you get with this recipe is usually too hard to cut with a steak knife.

There are a lot of variations you can ring on this, especially when fresh tomato season comes in, which it will in a couple of months, bringing with it eggplants, which also work well on a pizza. But the surprise comes when you figure out how much this costs you. A basic pizza like this costs under €2, and all it takes to make it is time: it's about 2 1/2 hours end to end. And that's €2 in retail cost of the ingredients. Now do you see why there are so many pizza places? At a decent local pizzeria, this'd cost me over ten euros, at least. It's true, it takes a while to learn how to make something as well as I made this (and don't let its ugliness put you off: it tasted just great), but when you can feed yourself a satisfying meal like this for so little (there was also a salad), it makes being broke just a bit easier.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Return To Miettes

There was a huge celebration in Montpellier the day I returned, and, much as I might wish it had been for me, it was for the inauguration of not one, but two new tram-lines. I'd joked about this in the past, with the town dug up just about everywhere, but I wasn't expecting this huge work to be finished on time, let alone that there'd be two, instead of one, new line.

But there it was, in the mail that had accumulated in my absence, the new tram map, folded into a credit-card-sized thing you could carry in your pocket. Like many public transport maps, though, it's more schematic than informative. I don't yet see the point of Line 4, which seems to describe a circle, mostly passing through places that already have tram stops. Tram 3, though, has two end-stops. One is Lattes, where the Roman village which helped give birth to Montpellier is, along with its excellent museum, and the other is Pérols, where the tram stops at the Étang d'Or -- the beach, in short. I intend to make this journey soon, before it gets warm enough that everyone will be doing it. The beach here is kind of skanky, but it has the kind of seedy vibe that has its own appeal.

As before, the two trams have been decorated with their own color-schemes. The one for Tram 3 seems to be the Mediterranean and its sea-life.

The motif for Line 4 is, I think, the American Express Gold Card, only with the water tower in the Peyroux Park added to the design.

As you can see, they're polished to a mirror finish, and these were in motion, but I think you can get the idea.

The main result of all of this is that Lines 1 and 2 have been slightly changed, so that both now stop near my place on the Comédie, and the schedule has been screwed up so that at any given time you'll see trams backed up at the main stations like Comédie and Corum. Surprising? Uh, not really.

* * *

Meanwhile, just like you lucky folks back in the States, we're about to have elections. This means, among other things, that posters for all the candidates are posted near where people will wind up voting later this week, and that people have already started voicing their opinions. 

As you can see here, the Socialist candidate, Hollande, is the only non-mutilated poster, and as you can't see, the far-right National Front candidate, Mme. LePen, didn't even bother to put up a poster. Montpellier, and this region generally, is pretty left-wing, and every LePen poster I've seen has been ripped to shreds. At any rate, Sarkozy (who, come to think of it, isn't up here either) will likely have his ass handed to him locally. I, of course, can't vote, but I can urge Americans to visit Vote From Abroad if they're living overseas and want to vote in the U.S. elections in November. 

* * * 

There is suddenly an alarming number of cats in the street here. They started off as spray-paintings, and there are still a bunch of those around

but there are also a bunch made from mirrored glass showing up, too. 

The spray-painted ones work best at night, where they seem to be real cats. I've also seen them in other towns in the area, but here in Montpellier, the guys who work for the city's Enlevement de Tags department can't tell the difference between street art and gang tagging, so it's always good to shoot these when I find them, because they might not be there tomorrow. 

Still, there are street artists who are in and out of the mainstream. This guy, Jonny Style, I've caught at several unauthorized places, and, authorized or not, he's doing glamour paintings on high-end shops around town. The first one I found was erased in 48 hours, but this was still up today. 

This may or may not have something to do with the coming of spring, which is sure taking its time. 

* * * 

Finally, some things I learned on my recent trip to the States. 

1) Young American women are turning into Germans. I was unnerved to hear them talking to each other and, when agreeing, saying "Yah" instead of "Yes" or "Yeah" or something. Young American men are well-advised to monitor this situation. German women are nothing to fool around with, take it from a grizzled veteran. 

2) The word "awesome" has come to mean "nice," "okay," "interesting," instead of "filling me with an almost inexpressable sense of wonder." I assume a new word is in the pipeline to describe actual awesome things like the Grand Canyon. Or maybe it's that flattening of affect thing again. 

3) I will never take a 5-week vacation again unless I'm being paid crazy money to do so. Oh, I said that last time? Maybe I have to keep reminding myself. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Nine and Last: Coming In Second

From some ways of looking at it, it's the second-largest city in New York State, and yet I'd never really been there. The last booking of my over-long trip needed to be in a place from which I could get to JFK Airport easily, and I just assumed that'd be Manhattan. But...PriceLine wasn't being nice at all. Fortunately, Marie jumped into the fray and found me a place in (gasp) Brooklyn. Really? Brooklyn? Well, it's not like I had a choice.

What I did have was a whole day free to have lunch with a friend in Manhattan, do my last-minute grocery shopping, which probably wouldn't take long, and maybe discover Brooklyn. And then, at last, I'd catch the plane home.

Brooklyn, of course, has caught some flak recently because of its huge hipster population and the inevitable displacement of previous residents to elsewhere, the juggernaut of gentrification rolling on as Manhattan became utterly unaffordable by mere humans. I was curious what it was going to look like up close.

By some miracle, the train pulled into the station ten minutes early, as I've said, and although the trip with two heavy bags on the subway wasn't easy (particularly the last part, hauling them up the narrow stairs of the Union St. subway stop -- riding the New York subway will make you wonder how the elderly and disabled get around in the city) but the hotel receptionist was nice enough, and pointed me to nearby 5th St. as a kind of restaurant row. I wound up at a place that was having a soul food evening, but was too late to get their famous fried chicken and had to settle for what they thought was an oyster po-boy: a bunch of fried oysters in a toasted hamburger bun.

The next day I had a hamburger in a toasted hamburger bun, an almost totally perfect one near the New York Times, where my friend works, at the 5 Napkin Burger on 9th Avenue. It wasn't my last meal in the U.S., but it was, symbolically, a good end to the trip. After that, I went to 10th Avenue and 47th St. to a real live Mexican grocery store -- tiny, with a minuscule taqueria in the back -- and bought some corn tortillas so I could make enchiladas with French cheese. I wandered around some, but eventually I found myself getting on the subway back to Brooklyn, where I took care of some business and then, looking out the window, saw a photograph happening.

Sad to say, by the time I got out to 4th Avenue's median to snap this, the deepest red of the sunset had already faded. I stood there for a minute, looking at this skyscraper, reflecting that I had no idea what it was, or, really, where it was except down the street. The architectural details, including a clock tower which, unusually, actually told the right time, made me think it was a landmark, and later research proved it was the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, which Wikipedia confusingly says is either the second- or third-tallest building in the borough. Eventually, it got dark, and I walked a mile or so into unknown territory to join Marie and some friends at a bar, where I had a light meal -- only appropriate after that hunk of burger at noon.

The next day I was confronted with a problem: I had to check out of my room by noon, yet my plane didn't leave until 7:15. Fortunately, there was a baggage room, but unfortunately I had nothing to do, and no idea where I was. First things first: I hiked a few blocks to find an ATM for some cash, then back down to the corner of 4th and Sackett (I think) to the bagel bakery there. Another of my quests was fulfilled: I'd been frustrated by the bagels I'd gotten at the start of my trip, but here was a place making chewy, flavorful, large bagels -- and inexpensively. Another memory to carry with me until I get back to New York -- which won't be soon, from all indications.

After breakfast, I packed up my stuff and stashed it at the hotel. There was nothing left to do but wander around until 4:30 or so, when the hotel's car service would drive me to the airport. So I wandered. First, I headed towards the Gowanus Canal, which wasn't far from the hotel. I tried to snap some of the industrial artifacts of the past, including this garage, which was across the street from the hotel.

Thanks to Marie for Photoshop!

Still, I love those winged wheels, back from the days when America had a real romance going with the autmobile.

The canal is a sad place. One of the most heavily polluted waterways in North America, it's home to some intrepid urban voyagers who call themselves the Gowanus Canal Dredgers, and run canoe trips on what was once a historic stream. I sat at their boat launch site for a while, looking for signs of any life whatever. Some bubbles appeared from time to time, indicating the possible existence of turtles, but the general neighborhood made me think it was just organic decay, maybe a long-dumped mobster, going on.

I finally got up and started walking again, crossing the canal near the apartments shown here with the weird towers. What on earth are they? Not water-towers, not with those windows. The mysteries of Brooklyn.

A bit further down there was a kind of parking lot which contained this, and was ringed with BEWARE OF THE GNOME signs.

I crossed over the canal again and walked down 4th St. to the Williamsburgh tower, then headed back on 5th St., where I figured I'd find some lunch. Not only did I find some, at a place which curiously specialized in meatballs, but I also found the Old Stone House.

This was just what I was looking for: some local history that would show me something about where I was. And, although it's not much of a museum, I did learn about the Battle of Brooklyn, where Washington got his ass royally kicked, and how it fit into the other various local Revolutionary War battles I'd heard about as a kid, growing up not far from the famous Battle of White Plains. Miraculously, even with a victory like this one in their hands, the British still managed to blow this campaign.

I determined that other sites were too far to walk (plus, I was carrying my computer case: I wasn't going to risk leaving that at the hotel, not with the luck I'd had so far on this trip) and finally, out of options, got back to the hotel an hour early to get the ride to the airport. This was where I really got to see Brooklyn, though: the car driver barely spoke English, and sped through mile after mile of bleak industrial landscape (with living-spaces interspersed, depressing apartment buildings which indicated that Brooklyn sure wasn't 100% gentrified yet), finally arriving at JFK. I was broke, tired, and absolutely ready to get on that plane.

By 2pm the next day, I exhaled in relief: I was back in the Slum, listening to Mme. Merde upstairs screeching at her kids. It sounded great. Well, until the next day, anyway. But now I'm back.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Brief Interruption For Spring

First day back from North America, and it's Saturday, so what better thing to do but go off to the market and see what they have. I must say, this is a distinct improvement over potatoes and Swiss chard, which was about all that was there when I left. There's a new crop of spinach, the first strawberries (which were good enough that you could almost watch them vanish into the hands of Easter shoppers), some nice green peas from Mme Choisisez (I must record her sometime; what a voice!) and the star of the show, a bundle of alleged wild asparagus. Not sure what I'm going to do with that, but there's ample proof that the non-wild is coming in big-time.

In fact, jet-lagged as I was last night, I still managed to stagger down to the supermarket and grab some (Spanish, not local) asparagus of the domesticated variety. And, since I haven't posted this seasonal recipe yet, I figured I'd let you in on a big favorite around The Slum during the springtime. Given what asparagus goes for (although not the bundle I bought last night) at this time of year, this does qualify as broke-not-poor cuisine. I only got to cook twice on my trip, and this was something I made the night the Vegan Child came home from college. She got to sneer at the cheese we applied at the end, but she ate as much as her mother and I did.

Anyway, first we consider the penne, as it will be the pasta of choice for this. It's a pasta shape with, um, lusty associations, also known as "bridegroom's noodles" and "wedding pasta." I never notice a libidinal boost from the stuff, but who knows. Still, the point of this picture is so you can see the size of one penne noodle.

Kinda hard to see against the wood there, but the point is, that's the size everything you do next should be. So take your asparagus (about half that bundle did for two servings) and snap it into penne-sized pieces, toss them into cold salted water, and heat them just until the water starts to boil. If you're using extra-thick asparagus, you might let them boil for a few seconds full-on, but no more than that.

Drain these, fill up the pot again with water for the pasta, salt that and put it right back on the stove.

As you can see above, straight-ahead green onions are very rare around here, so I have to make do with these "sweet onions" with bulbs on the end. I deal with them by cutting them into approximately penne-sized bits, using the Chinese technique called "horse ear" cutting.

Then I mince up some garlic, heat some olive oil, sautee the garlic until it's fragrant and add the green onions, mixing them around for a minute or two.

Then add a can of crushed tomatoes, hit it with some salt and pepper, mix well, and let it cook down for a while.

Once the pasta water boils, toss your penne into it, and then get a bunch of basil leaves. Lay one on top of the other, making a neat stack, and then, with a very sharp knife, slice them into slivers, a technique known as "julienne." (I added a bit more pepper to the sauce above because I was using the large-leaf basil, not the peppery little-leaved "Provençal" basil, which isn't here yet).

Now throw the asparagus into the sauce to warm it up.

When the pasta's done, drain it (tossing a tablespoon of the water into the sauce) and mix it with the julienned basil and some Parmesan and sit down and enjoy the taste of spring.

* * * 

Yes, there's one more tale from the North American tour, which I'll get to soon, but since I'd noticed that most of the U.S. is awash in lovely green asparagus, I figured I'd document last night's dinner and put it up before the bounty recedes. Any ideas on that wild asparagus are welcome, too. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Eight: In Which We Flee The Country, Return, and Prepare To Flee Again

I hereby heartily resolve that I will never again embark on a five-week trip unless I'm making stupid money by doing so. Instead of spending stupid money. I'm sitting here in a tiny hotel room in Brooklyn burned out as I can be, with the only bright light the fact that I will jump on a plane early tomorrow evening and by 2pm the next day be wondering how I'm going to haul these two suitcases upstairs to my apartment. I'll do it. I've done it before.

I did manage to get out of Times Square, thank heavens, and to Penn Station, where I got on the Adirondack, one of the great train lines of the world even if it is in crappy shape, and head to Montreal. Both the trainride and the stay were designed to be relaxing, and the panoramas which unfold slowly (due to the crawl at which the train travels) are as soothing as they come. If you know where to look, you can see such historic landmarks as the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., the hull of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (laid in 1814), and Fort Ticonderoga itself:

This picture was snapped on the way down, though; going up I mostly slept.

I was met by my friends Terry and Patricia, as usual, and as usual, they had some crockery with them. There's no real link there except that there's a very inexpensive and good shop selling dishes in the central train station in Montreal, and neither of them gets there that often, so when I come up, they usually have some shopping to do.

Amtrak was a whopping 90 minutes late (almost early for them, of course), so we got me installed in the Intercontinetnal Hotel, which I'd nabbed in a fire sale discount offer, and which had weird wallpaper alternating (real, I think) birch bark and (definitely fake) fur, as Montrealish a theme as one could wish. Blinded by low blood sugar, we headed into Chinatown a few blocks away and had an absolutely disgusting Chinese meal. (Not, as you will see, because Chinese food in Montreal is all bad, as it is in, say, Montpellier.)

The next day while Patricia worked on her speech therapy classes, Terry and I grabbed a municipal car-share car and drove around doing errands. These included going to the Atwater Market, one of two wonderful market halls maintained by the city, and a collection of some of the finest purveyors of meat and vegetables in existence. Sadly, it was still March, and the real action doesn't start there until the summer comes. We tend to think of Quebec as the Frozen North and, well, it kind of is. But its farmers produce some amazing fruits and vegetables. Of course, one of the things they produce is maple syrup, and Atwater Market is where to get the good stuff cheap. A can sits in my luggage as I type.

Terry had some time before he had to return the car, so we went out to a favorite place, the Lachine Rapids. This is a pretty impressive display of nature in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, and I'm not sure what makes them happen, but I wasn't going to find out today.

It was closed.

Given the strong sunshine and the cold temperatures, the rapids were a reminder of some of the problems the early fur-trappers had bringing their wares to market. You really have to see and hear them in person to get an idea for how vicious they are, but maybe one of these pictures will give you an idea:

Try that in a canoe. In winter.

Although, given what winter feels like up there, this was actually spring. As if we needed a reminder, this guy was hanging out, being admired by bird photographers and generally acting like a star as we headed back to the car.

Yes, folks, sometimes Great Blue Herons really are blue!

That night's dinner was definitely a winner: the Cuisine Szechuan restaurant on Guy, which I wrote about at length last year, just gets better and better. It may be, in fact, one of the best Chinese restaurants in North America. The chef's ability to balance flavors -- including fiery ones -- is unbeatable. It was kind of sad that I ordered one dish -- pork tongue with pickled chiles -- that Terry and Patricia didn't like, because the rest were sublime, and I had to eat all the tongue (there was an identical repeat the next day for lunch: talk about prolonging the pleasure!). The only thing that marred the meal was that the next day I discovered I'd mislaid my sunglasses, and they were never found.

One of the things Terry wanted to do was to show me some of the contemporary art galleries around town, as well as the CCA, the Canadian Centre for Architecture. This last was housed in a remarkable old mansion which had belonged to some Canadian railroad magnate, and we actually did explore a bit of the house itself, which was gorgeous with its carved wood and parquet floor. Unfortunately, the exhibit was ridiculous, incoherent, badly curated, and a waste of time. Called Imperfect Health, it was supposed to deal with the "medicalization of architecture," and dragged in this and that in almost random fashion. Terry and I sat through a bunch of a promotional film for Del Webb's Sun City, made in the late 1950s, to judge from the cars. My parents retired there and then spent over 35 years there, burying one set of friends after another. The visits my sister and I had to make were traumatic: what could be worse than a huge city filled with one-story houses filled with people over 55? It was chilling to watch it presented as a Utopia.

That evening, we visited some friends and watched them cook a paella in their fireplace, something you don't get to do every day, and something they won't be doing every day, what with the weather warming up, even in Montreal. And the next day, we went on a quest for some contemporary art in the former fur business buildings in downtown Montreal. It being Sunday, though, they were all closed, although the eerie hallways were a fascinating space, Frustrated, Terry took me to the McCord Museum of Canadian History up at McGill University, and there were three floors of mostly fine stuff to see. A show of contemporary Inuit art was very well-done, and on the second floor there was a show by some guy whose schtick was taking pictures with a pinhole camera and printing them big (and in negative) which was pretty dull, balanced by a superb small exhibition of the city's history that made up for it. Finally, the small gallery room on the top floor was given over to a great exhbition of photos of empty spaces by the formidable Lynne Cohen, an American who now lives in Montreal. Terry, no mean photographer himself, was gobsmacked.

That evening, there was a special dinner since, as I found out, Terry and Patricia have decided to get married this summer. It was at Pinxto, a Spanish/Basque restaurant that's among the most highly-regarded in Montreal, although it's also affordable. We had their tasting menu, which started with some foie gras (served too cold -- we had to wait a minute for it to warm up so it could be tasted), a shooter of warm cauliflower soup with a bit of crisp-fried Iberian ham sticking out of it (bacon on steroids!), duck tartar, and, on a second serving, a fig stuffed with serrano ham and a hunk of grilled mahon cheese on top of it. All superb. I lucked out with a kind of Spanish interpretation of cassoulet, aswim with tasty hunks of sausage, a big duck confit, and lots of beans. This was all washed down with a Clos Mont Blanc, which, despite its name, is a huge, smoky/woody red with lots of fruit. It was a grand occasion, and I promised Terry I wouldn't perform the ceremony this time, as I had in 1970 for his last disastrous marriage. Note to Pinxto, though: you really should change the silverware between courses -- yes, I know it means more to wash, but it keeps flavors from blurring together -- and you must fire the idiot designer who did your website (loud music!) and business cards (absolutely unreadable even under strong light).

Monday, both of them had to work, learning and teaching, although Terry had time in the morning to hit the fur buildings again, and we found some galleries open. Mostly what we saw wasn't worth discussing, but the SAS Gallery had a neat little show called Possession, about the bourgeois trappings of home, which was run away with by Jannick Deslauriers' iron, typewriter, grand piano, and sewing machine, each rendered in crinoline. It's sure good to see someone who's not carried away with deadly seriousness.

After leaving Terry at his office, I wandered my way back to my hotel. I grabbed my new camera and wandered around, but Montreal pretty much defeats my photographic instincts. One day while wandering, I noticed a place which seemed to indicate that it made its burgers upside-down and with wilted lettuce:

and on the wander back to the hotel, I got this sort of mediocre rendering of the idea that there are various layers of Montreal, with Mount Royal in the background:

and this one of an absolutely bland building by the train station:

I wondered if the Queen was happy about that or not.

In the end, though, I did what I'd come for: see friends, relax, and enjoy a fancy hotel which allowed a wonderful coffee chain, Java-U, to operate on their property for those guests who didn't want to spend $23 minimum on breakfast.

I walked back to the station Tuesday morning and was smart enough to grab a sandwich to eat on the train, Amtrak food being nothing much at its best, and we were ten minutes early getting into New York. I'm writing this in Brooklyn, where I've never really set foot before, but I'll be happily flying back home tomorrow evening. I'll likely have some pictures of Brooklyn to post, but I'm looking forward to being in one place for a long time. This has been too long of a vacation, and I'm going to have to find some work to pay for it -- fast.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012 Part Seven: In Which We Leave San Francisco, Eat Towel Guard, and Get Robbed

Here's how to get into San Francisco's De Young Museum for free. I woke up on Sunday, packed, and said good-bye to my gracious hostess Lori in Petaluma. Not long thereafter I was catching up with friends over brunch in Marin County. They had to rush off to work afterwards, and suggested I spend the time between the present and the time I had to check into my airport-area hotel (I didn't want to risk driving from Petaluma to the San Francisco airport, filling the car up, turning it in and making a 9:15 flight all during rush hour) driving around the newly-opened Presidio and checking out the De Young, which, they thought, had undergone some interesting changes since I was last there. All very good suggestions for a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon, I thought.

I approached the Presidio in a kind of haphazard fashion. This large former army base had always nestled at the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge, and had been largely off limits to civilians since around the time of the Civil War. Of course, officers were allowed to have their families with them there, and there's a kind of surreal suburbanity to a lot of the place, with looming pine trees, a lush green humidity coming out of everything, as well as barracks of various kinds, a large hospital, a parade ground, an airfield, and an old cemetery. The whole thing was decommissioned some years back, and turned over, from what I can tell, to both the Parks Service, which is turning the historic buildings into a kind of Museum of the Presidio, and to private interests, who have already turned the officers' quarters into private homes and apartments. A large hotel was about to open up and, down by the waterfront on the Bay, lots of private businesses have opened up, the whole thing being seamlessly joined to the city's Marina district.

I should have taken pictures, because it was very cool, if a bit creepy, and I made a note to spend more time there next time I was in the area to learn more about this part of the city where I lived for 13 years but was never allowed to see. A posting here, or to the officers' yacht club on the other end of the bridge at Horseshoe Bay, must not have been the most hellish thing the Army could do to you during the Vietnam era, something which occurred to me every time I spotted these places while going between my house in Sausalito and San Francisco back then.

Next stop was Golden Gate Park, which I eventually found (I wasn't used to starting from where I exited the Presidio, and had to roam around some before I found a place where I could orient myself), and made my way to Ocean Beach, where I snapped a picture of heavy surf, the Cliff House, and a surfer in Blur-O-Vision and then discovered I could e-mail it instantly to a friend in Texas:

No idea why it didn't turn out better, but trust me, all those elements are in the picture. I could probably plead expressionism, in that it was cold and windy and I can still feel it looking at that shot.

From there, I kind of randomly made my way into the park and eventually the museum complex of the De Young and the Academy of Sciences appeared. One thing my friends had told me was that there was a huge underground parking facility there now, which really helped a lot. What they hadn't told me was that the De Young had gained an odd nine-story tower. But sure enough, there it was. I crossed over the plaza between the two museums, and found an old Chinese guy, grinning like a fool, playing "Jingle Bells" over and over on his accordian. Well, or something approximating it. Just right for late March.

I'd been warned that the main visiting show was Jean-Paul Gaultier, since struggling art museums -- and non-struggling ones, for that matter -- have found out that big fashion shows bring in visitors by the score, and this one seemed to me to be both a no-brainer and something I had no interest whatever in seeing. Still, there was the rest of the museum, and judging from the way others in line were dressed, J-P would be where the crowds were. I walked to the end of the line and suddenly heard my name. Out of nowhere, Andrew and Ani Roth, old friends from Berlin who'd escaped even before I had, appeared, looking happier and healthier than I'd ever seen them. They turned out to be De Young members, scored me a guest ticket, and, chattering away to catch up on old times, we got on the elevator to the panoramic view from the tower.

After returning to ground level, we parted, and I quickly discovered that the De Young hadn't gotten any better in the years since my last visit. They've spun off their top-notch Asian collection to another building downtown, and now the central collection is called The Americans. You start by having to make a choice between going right or left, into the Indian collection or towards the European-American art collection, which is clever, because either choice will foster guilt. Guilt drips all over the captions, with, for example, a painting of Mount Vernon in 1833, the year a bunch of women got together a fund-raising campaign to save it, the first such effort of historical preservation in the young nation. The house is clearly in bad shape, and probably a number of these paintings were made to show potential donors. None of that is in the caption, however. Mount Vernon is described as "the slave plantation" of George Washington, who owned many "enslaved persons." Never mind that the plantation system ran on (legal, regrettably, but legal nonetheless at that moment) slavery. And what's up with "enslaved persons," a locution I also encountered at the Oakland Museum? Doesn't "slaves" sound much worse? And, "slave plantation" owner though he was, Washington was hardly Simon Legree. Nonetheless, his slave-ownership is mentioned in the caption before his Presidency. It's just this relentless righteousness that I found oppressive when I lived in California. Mind you, if you choose the Indians to start, you'll not only get the extermination guilt, but what seems to me to be a false equivalency between the artifacts there and the more self-consciously created art pieces in the other wing. It wasn't like that. These curators should be forced to read 1491. It'll make them spitting mad, but the fact is, these were very different societies than exist in our world today.

Satisfied that the level of the collection was still mediocre (although there's nothing as bad as the Renaissance Madonna and Child that caused a friend of mine straight out of art school to erupt from giggles to outright laughter years ago -- I had to steer her out of the gallery), and just enjoying it for what it was, I passed the rest of the time wandering hither and yon and finally had exhausted the place and myself. I got back into the car and, after some more wandering through the park, exited on 19th Avenue and headed to the airport motel.

Because I'm an idiot, I didn't print out the address, and as a result, the nice gas fill-up I'd made wound up nearly a quarter-tank down by the time I reached the place. (Hint: there are two South Airport Boulevards, one of which is, logically, south of the airport, filled with lovely scenery of the Bay, over which departing flights take off, numerous hotels, and no Travelodge. The Travelodge, it developed after I'd driven for over an hour in and out of SFO, was on South Airport Boulevard north of the airport.) It was also the most tawdry joint I've parked in since the whorehouse in Nîmes (no longer there) or some of the oil-crew motels in southern Louisiana during the '80s oil boom. The freeway was about 200 feet from the room, the clerk didn't know how to make a key ("Oh, yeah, I used the old system."), and about the only nice thing was the huge Samoan wedding which was breaking up just as I arrived. What a sad place to have your wedding banquet.

Fortunately, my favorite Zen nun picked me up in her Prius (first time I'd been in one of those) and drove me to dinner not long afterwards. This was to be at the Little Sichuan Restaurant in San Mateo, where there was supposed to be a large menu of hard-to-find authentic items. And there was: where else on the planet will you have the opportunity to try sautéed towel guard? But there it is, right on the menu! The question, of course, is what is towel guard and is it okay for vegetarians? One of our party, who's been eating at this place since he was a teenager, had deciphered the Chinese, though, and it turned out to be green loofah, which is, after all, a squash that's edible before it develops its skeleton. I wish the menu had said that, because "towel gourd," which is what it probably meant to say, is equally inscrutable.

The menu sure wasn't. Man, extraordinary Szechuan cuisine is to be had here -- and this was the first of three amazing Szechuan meals I was going to have on this trip. (And towel guard, smooth, bland, and juicy, makes a great palate-cleanser after each highly-spiced dish). It was a great way to end my week in California -- good food, good people -- and I pretended the noise of the freeway was really the ocean or something.

* * * 

I'd been curious to fly Virgin America from SFO to JFK, and overall it was a pleasant experience: $169 for the flight, which is certainly budget friendly, and if the "Italian sandwich" I had cost $9, that's reasonable, given that it resembled actual food and tasted like it, too. The only big disappointment was the wi-fi, $14.99 and spotty and slow. My time would have been better spent reading and not trying to respond to a request from a friend for where to stay in Berlin. My answer got eaten by the cybersphere, she panicked and booked a place you couldn't pay me to go into, and I hope she'll be all right. 

Things went a little pear-shaped, to say the least, in New York. Disappointed with my experience at the New Yorker, I'd booked a Times Square-area hotel, the Millennium Broadway, on PriceLine. I was in something of a rush: my pal Dickie Landry was playing at the Guggenheim, a solo show, and he'd originally told me this was on the 27th. It wasn't: it was on the 26th, the day I was flying in. The plane got in at 5:30, and the show was at 8: I had to get into the city, book into the hotel, and get uptown before it started, which didn't leave me a lot of time. In my haste, as we got into Manhattan, I grabbed the wrong bag -- it was also bitterly cold and I wanted to get inside -- and I got to the hotel at about 7:15, only to discover I'd gotten the carryon bag of some guy from Turkey. It was a Ralph Lauren bag, so I knew it wasn't mine. 

I grabbed a taxi uptown, and endured the hate radio coming out of its speakers (what was a black taxi driver doing listening to some hate-spewing moron blathering about what Obamacare would do to "us," and backing it up with phone calls from old ladies who'd lived in the USSR?), and not only got to the museum in time for the show, but with time enough to at least skim the John Chamberlain retrospective there. Chamberlain's the guy who is most famous for working with crushed cars, and although yes, it's something of a gimmick, he was good enough at it to make you forget the origin of the materials and see it as abstract sculpture in which lurk some familiar curves and, of course, strips of chrome. There's a wonderful scary installation of chrome bumpers with black paint called "The Black Armada" here, but that's about as literal as it gets. There are imposing shapes, graceful hunks, wisps that weigh a ton. 

Chamberlain died in December, just missing the opening of this show. In his later years, apparently, he'd taken up the saxophone, and my assumption (without really knowing) is that his friend Dickie Landry may have been the inspiration for that. Dickie is someone I've known for years, a guy who's played with both Otis Redding and the Philip Glass Ensemble, as well as amassing a very impressive body of work -- visual and audible -- on his own. He's currently got a show at Salomon Contemporary in New York, and  while he was up to deal with that, he booked a concert of solo improvisation at the Chamberlain show. 

He started out on the ground floor, playing with elements, teasing them around, drawing, although not too overtly, from his jazz and soul background, creating some building blocks. Then, he walked over to the Guggenheim ramp and started his ascent. 

In no time, he was lost from view to those of us on the floor downstairs, but the unique sonic properties of Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral kept us apprised of his progress as he went around and around, becoming elegaic, drenched with soul, as he confronted the works of his late friend. The audience, too, was scattered among the works, and tracked his progress. 

(That's a kind of atypical Chamberlain sculpture from the ground floor in the corner, covered with aluminum foil). 

Finally, he got on the elevator, playing the whole time, and emerged on the ground floor, where he blasted out the last of his tribute. 

It was emotionally draining, uplifting, and absolutely worth rushing across the country to see. Afterward, the audience, a virtual who's who of the '70s and '80s downtown scene, congratulated a sweaty and tired Dickie, and I went back to the hotel talking Hindu theology with an ebullient cab driver who seemed to be the perfect companion after such a show. 

Oh, but there was this bag to deal with. It was still early -- only about 9:30 -- and the concierge at the hotel got me the central number of the Airporter shuttle. I called there and discovered that not only did they have my bag, but they were in touch with the Turkish guy. They had my bag at the bus they have parked by Grand Central, so I walked over there, made the exchange, and walked back to the hotel, happy that it had been that easy. If only it had: when I opened the bag, I discovered that my camera was gone. Now, either it had been liberated by the Airporter folks, or the Turkish guy had grabbed my bag and taken it. I have no way to prove either theory, but it was a most unwelcome discovery. 

The next day, I spent money I really didn't have on a new camera -- a better one, reconditioned, at B&H, the classic Hassid-run camera store. And that night, to test it out, I documented one reason I'm never going to stay in Times Square again. 

The action over to the right there is all of the flashing, incredibly bright lighting that's going 24 hours a day in Times Square, a place oddly devoid of character, chockablock with American tourists of a particularly repellent kind who don't seem to demand anything of the place they are except to be relentlessly entertained on a brainless level. They wander around, taking pictures of the ads and each other, and of themselves talking with actors wearing Smurf or Disney costumes, having brochures for comedy clubs and tours thrust at them, and generally circulating in Brownian motion in a way that makes it impossible to get from A to B. You don't get them in your hotel room, thank heavens, but all that light gets through the curtains. Pretty hellish circumstances, and I was undeniably happy to get to Penn Station (after yet another memorable Szechuan meal with friends) and get on the Adirondack to spend twelve hours in a train going to Montreal. 

That's where I am now, and that's what the next blog post will be about. I have to say, though: I'm more than happy this tour is drawing to a close, and I'm really longing to get back to Montpellier. But there are two more nights in New York to endure. Stay tuned. 
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