Saturday, December 21, 2013

Europe vs. America: The Food, Part 1

Okay, I understand. You're not interested in the fact that on Tuesday the rest of my stuff arrived here and the garage and the rest of the house got packed with even more stuff.

The white boxes and the boxes with the cats on them are new. 
You don't care that in some of these boxes there's stuff that will enable me to catch up with my work, that a bunch of bookshelves arrived that, with help from a neighbor, got put up in my office yesterday and are slowly being filled up so that at last I have access to important reference material.

No. You're wondering how I'm coping with the food in America.

Since some of what arrived from France is my better cooking equipment  -- my Allclad pots and pans, a nice Le Creuset Dutch oven I bought myself last Christmas, stuff like that -- as well as the cookbooks I've used over the past 20 years, it's only in the past few days that I've even been able to really start cooking again. Still, starting off with a few pots and pans I got at Target and the miraculous wok I found in storage and the two cast iron pans that revived just like that, I did start up again when I moved into this house, and I also started shopping for food again.

And yes, there have been some changes. There's a lot of stuff I can't comment on yet, but there's just enough that I can in a preliminary blog post.

Shopping: The first big change. I'm not particularly happy that I have to drive everywhere for everything. In fact, I felt particularly virtuous the other evening when I walked to have dinner in a particularly good and affordable Mexican restaurant nearby. If I can afford it, I may do this once a week, just for the exercise. I'm feeling bloated, and this isn't a particularly walk-friendly neighborhood (not that many in Austin are). Eventually, walkability will become moot: when it's 104º outside, walking to the end of the driveway is a drag. But for the moment, that restaurant will get my ambulatory business.

But I still have to go to the store. I managed to drive to one of the weekly farmer's markets when I first moved in here, and that was nice enough. I got the last of the season's tomatoes and a couple of butternut squashes (because i alway manage to buy a couple of butternut squashes, get them home, and realize I don't have a clue what to do with them), but most of the action was either prepared foods (salsas, organic spaghetti sauces, Texas French Bread) or hemp-based cosmetics, handcrafts, wind-chimes... I understand: the season hasn't started yet, or, rather, it was just ending when I got here. But there'll be no more twice a week walks to the market and back whether I need anything or not.

Thus, I rely on the supermarkets. Up on the opposite corner from the Mexican restaurant is an HEB. This is a garganutan Texan chain, and I hated it when I lived here before. Then I left, and they did something really smart: they opened Central Market. By positioning themselves as upmarket competition to Whole Foods, but also recognizing that part of the market they were after wasn't quite as concerned about whether stuff was organic, and also held some affection for some things like Kellogg's Corn Flakes that Whole Foods would never touch, they hit a sweet spot in Austin's food buying habits. (They also made some mistakes: I went to the first Central market not long after it opened, on what was probably my first trip back to Austin after moving to Berlin. In those days, you had to traverse the entire store once you'd entered in order to leave. I quickly became overcome by the sheer quantity of what was there, because the markets in my Berlin neighborhood were seriously understocked. I got dizzy and couldn't find my way out and began to have a panic attack. The friend who'd taken me there eventually found me outside on a bench trying to get my bearings).

The other thing that both Whole Foods and Central Market capitalize on is the fact that for all the fancy kitchens people put in their houses, nobody cooks any more. Thus, there's a huge emphasis on pre-made foods that I'm trying to do my best to ignore. So I do most of my shopping either at Central Market's south location or at a much bigger and better HEB a mile or so from my house. I almost never go to the south Whole Foods location (and never the downtown one: traffic is insane around there) because the clientele just radiates entitlement: I saw a young power couple buy $272 worth of baby food there a couple of days ago, all of it packed in what looked like plastic single-serving containers. Even the baby, strapped to its father's chest, looked smug). There's also an outpost of a chain called Sprouts, which I saw in Brooklyn in March, and looked like a tarted-up version of the old-school health food store, and whose location near me looked pretty awful on a once-through, and a new version of Wheatsville Co-op, a longtime Austin institution, that's opened in a once-dying mall, and to which I still haven't been. The enigmatic Trader Joe's, purveying prepared food to harried suburbanites with lots of money, has opened its first outlet here, too, off in West Austin where the McMansions live, another joint I'm not in too much of a hurry to check out.

So, with a couple of Mexican markets and an Indian market near me, and a huge Vietnamese/Chinese one way up north, I can pretty much shop the world. The big shock that still hasn't worn off is that I can hit Central Market or Whole foods til 11pm, the big HEB until 1am,  and I can shop at all of them on Sunday. That last still hasn't sunk in.

Okay, so what have I been getting? Herewith some preliminary comparisons.

* Yogurt: About every other day, I like to have toast and yogurt for breakfast. When I first got here, I went right for something I'd heard people raving about: Chobani Greek Yogurt. I tried it in various forms and configurations and decided I didn't like it. (Someone recently compared it to wallboard compound, which I figure is like a thick Elmer's Glue, and that'd be about right). It doesn't stir, it's gelatinous and chewy, and the flavors at the bottom don't want to mix, either. The New Yorker says it's an overnight sensation. I say feh. I finally found "Australian style" yogurt, by a company called Wallaby (U.S. based: my carbon footprint is bad enough after 20 years of walking and using electric-powered transportation) and it's got some good stuff. So the scoreboard: Germany 9, France 6, US 7. The Germans lead by having tons of flavors, including seasonal ones (the only instance of seasonality you'll find in a German supermarket), as part of their dairy-mania. The whole country seems to run on milk products. The French make very high-quality yogurt, but only in a couple of flavors, and you pretty much have to buy multiples of 8 or more, either yellow (pineapple, mango, lemon) or red (strawberry, cherry, raspberry), which gets boring. America has, as usual, a bewildering number of brands, some of which are very expensive, but not as many flavors as Germany.

* Fruit and Vegetables: Okay, you know that on some level, the Americans will take this one, particularly since where I am, we're close to Mexico, where everything grows all the time. But America also has something that neither of the other countries has: uniformity. The other night I went to buy onions and discovered they only come in one size: softball. That's more onion than I usually need for a recipe, though. I wound up throwing a bunch of the one I used away. It's eerie seeing hundreds of potatoes piled up, all the same size. Pretty much any vegetable I've gone looking for has been like this. At least I busted Central Market's sneaky trick of having you enter through the (expensive) organic section, with the same types of (non-organic) vegetables available further along. Which is another thing about France: a lot of the stuff at the outdoor market was organic, but nobody made any big deal about it. It was just that they didn't want to pay for EU certification, so they could keep their prices down and compete with the other vendors. As for fruit, my French-born appreciation of pears and melons and cherries and so on says this isn't the right time. I saw a basket of strawberries the other day, and although they were from Mexico, I just couldn't do it. Also: size. They'd go bad before I finished with them. The melons are the size of basketballs. The scoreboard: Germany 2, France 8, US 8*. Germany, of course, goes nuts once a year for asparagus and again for strawberries. The rest of the time, forget it. I bought so much plastic-enshrouded rotten produce there it was scandalous, but since the Germans don't know what vegetables other than cabbage are, what can you do? France keeps things in season (not that you can't buy baseball-hard Dutch tomatoes there right now), and allows a variety of sizes. America ties with qualifications, some noted above, but also because there's such a wide variety. I could get bok choy a few times a year in France. I can go get some right now.

* Bread: Another foregone conclusion, because you just know the US is going to lose this one. The Germans may make spongy, squishy baguettes without any flavor at all (and then try to sell you sandwiches in them), but those dense, heavy, dark, seed-and-grain-infused breads they do there rock. And you pretty much have to go there to taste them, because as far as I know nobody's doing them at all on this side of the Atlantic. Be happy to be proven wrong, though. And again, the French don't do that style, but beyond the baguette (which of course they frequently do very nicely) they have lots of wholegrain and other traditional breads, often cooked in wood ovens, available. (And this is without even getting into the "viennoiserie" stuff that the bakeries do, the croissants and pain au chocolates and so on). The one exception I've found in Austin (I'm still holding out the possibility there's a good bakery here) is bagels. Now, there was a bagel chain in Germany called Bagel Brothers that didn't have an outlet in Berlin that did perfect bagels, and a place that was called Bagel Station in Berlin that did pretty good ones. The bagels in France all came pre-frozen from a single source and were too bready, albeit not as bad as Einstein Brothers or Lender's. But Central Market, of all places, has very good bagels, and I'm digesting one as I type. So bread/bagel scores: Germany 9/7, France 9/4, US 6/8. Reserving a US point for if someone starts making bagels like I had in Brooklyn a couple of years ago.

* Wine: Okay, you probably see this one coming, too. Basically, so far it's the fault of the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission and marketing at places I shop. Germany wasn't a great place for wine, but there were shops that paid attention and had some decent things at decent prices. In France I was living in the middle of the EU "wine lake," so good wine at decent prices was no problem. In Texas, the Baptists don't want you to enjoy yourself (Biblical adjurations to drink wine notwithstanding) so they tax the hell out of it. The result, plus the snob appeal, means that at Central Market, which has a huge wine department, and at Whole Foods, which doesn't, I'm surrounded by $25 bottles about which I know very little. I was enjoying a nice mix from Lodi, CA (the Languedoc of California in that it once produced awful plonk and now has an infusion of young winemakers doing some good work) called Ravenous Red, which was nothing revolutionary, but a good everyday wine at $6.95 a bottle, but it's sporadic in its appearances there. No scorecard for this one; it's still early innings.

I'm still feeling my way around stuff here. Canned tomatoes, for instance, seem to be grossly inferior to what I was getting in Europe -- they seem to be picked way too green, while the general quality of meat seems much higher. I'm still wrestling with some dental problems that preclude a lot of exploration, and I'm also sure I'll make some nice discoveries in the days to come.

Now, about getting these books unpacked... Time for some more shelving.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Opening King Tut's Tomb

I've spent most of the past couple of weeks hauling a couple of boxes of books in from the garage each day, going through them, discarding the ones most eaten by rodents and insects (not nearly as many as you might think, but some), then going through the ones I clearly don't want but kept out of inertia, and looking up their ISBN numbers to see if they're special in any way. If so, they get listed on my Amazon store.  I'm selling about one book a day, and had to de-list some because of interest from a rare book dealer.

But oh, that gets tiresome. There are these other boxes, boxes with, well, stuff. I do accumulate stuff. Stuff tends to be the documentation of memories. Which is a good thing: I didn't remember getting a large poster for the Residents' album Third Reich and Roll with a letter from them on the back. I do remember going to a San Francisco art party with my pal Hudson in the mid-'70s and us wandering around looking for someone interesting, and Hudson spying four guys standing together and saying "Those guys are the Residents," only to have all four say in unison "No we're not!" So I've seen them without their eyeballs. I bet that poster would bring something on eBay. If I could only figure out how to use eBay, that is.

But like I said, this is documentation of memory. For instance, I think I was on assignment, probably for Creem, at Willie Nelson's horror-filled 4th of July extravaganza at College Station in 1974 when Charlyn Zlotnik caught me and some other low-lifes backstage.

L to R: Himself, Joe Nick Patoski, unknown, Patrick Carr

Now, I have some memories of this three-day error in judgement left. It was terribly hot, and Jim Franklin, the artist-in-residence at Armadillo World Headquarters, had distributed salt tablets to one and all, most likely keeping us from dying. If you could get into the Lone Star Beer bus, Jerry Retzloff would give you a beer. That was all the nutrition available until some brave students drove an old station wagon through the fence, opened its tailgate, and started selling barbeque brisket sandwiches for a buck apiece. Words cannot convey how good they were, and, their tuition for the next two years in hand, they zoomed off as quickly as they'd come. Just as the thing got started, a catalytic converter on a car set the field of grass in which it was parked on fire, and people watched helplessly as a dozen or two cars were turned into art. (One, I think, belonged to the poor bastard who was performing at the time). I have no idea where I slept, but on the last night it vanished (probably along with the record company person who was paying for it), and I wound up with the Mother Earth Band, most notably Toad Andrews and family, on the floor of a Holiday Inn. The record company person who'd driven me there having vanished, I was very, very grateful to hear a voice asking if anyone needed a ride back to Austin, and that's how I met the late, great Joe Gracey.

But wait, there are other pictures here. Dozens of me cooking gumbo, as if that were some kind of remarkable event. Hell, now that I'm back in Texas I'll probably do that again relatively soon: I'm out of the land of eight okra pods for €7.00 now. There are pictures of bands snapped during performance, but who are they? More than that, there are scads of posters, lots from a band I was going to produce called No Sisters, who really were four brothers (and one drummer), and who almost got signed to A&M right after I moved to Texas. (They went for D-Day instead, because their wealthy manager was absorbing the expenses). At some point I'm going to have to sort through these posters, because I'm certain some of them are worth money, and I have multiple copies of some of them, too. Ah, but here's another photo of me in my back yard in Sausalito taken by my long-vanished friend and colleague AJ Bernstein.

Gentleman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A year later I was in Texas. Probably saved my life. 
But there were other artifacts that were less disturbing.

Ashtray, candle
The way I used to cope with Texas summers when I worked at the newspaper was to save my money, and put in for my two weeks' vacation sometime in August, when I could be sure that I'd reached the limit of my endurance and very little would be happening to write about. I would fly to London and then make my way to Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where I would be retrieved by a gent named Pete Frame, who would then convey me to his thatched-roofed former pub in the tiny village of North Marston, which didn't have a post office, store, or much of anything except sheep and cows.

And a pub. The Bell, it was called (like about 60% of the pubs in England). Mel the Bell was the landlord, and I was a novelty: no American had actually stayed more than a day in North Marston, and since I had Pete's imprimatur, and bought my rounds as a decent pub-drinker should, I was accepted. What I was drinking, at any rate, was ABC Bitter, a lovely drink with lunch and after dinner, and just the thing to dissipate any lingering tension from working for The Man. I met a lot of fine folk there, including Rob Gurney, Pete's running buddy, and a budding mariner at the time. He's a full-fledged captain now, and has places in Aruba and Belgium, but has held on to the family farm. Pete lives in Dingwall, in remote Scotland, and pretends he loves it. He was down visiting the captain recently and tells me that ABC Bitter is no longer made, that in fact that whole brewery complex in Burton-on-Trent has been eaten alive by The Man and the Aylesbury Duckling is no longer seen on glasses or ashtrays. Which is a shame, because I have a pint glass and it's chipped. That, too, was in storage.

The candle is a very wry piece of post-modern commentary, although it just looks like a bust of Lenin made out of mud. Waxy mud. But I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments in 1990, when I drove from Berlin to Prague what seemed like moments after the Velvet Revolution. At the time, the word was that it had been a bloodless revolution except for one student who'd been shot dead. Immediately a wall with a huge John Lennon graffito on it became a place of pilgrimage and hundreds of candles burned there in his memory. Now, it appears that some people knew the truth, because if Wikipedia is to be believed, this guy, Martin Smid, was fictional. In the spirit of punk -- or something -- a bunch of entrepreneurial students cleaned away the candle wax, melted it down, and, with some molds they'd found, cast candles of Marx, Lenin, and so on, and then sold them on the sidewalk. I bought one because although I didn't know all the story, the involution of the idea of recycling memorial candles into an ironic icon of the now-defeated enemy sold for profit appealed to me. And yes, that was an amazing trip.

But before I get sucked into that, what about this (sorry about the framing)?

The real action's on the back.
This is a souvenir of a story that never happened. A friend of mine was on the comedy beat at the paper, and invited me to go see this new guy, Bill Hicks, at one of the local clubs. He wasn't local: he was from Houston, where, he insisted, a wild comedy scene was happening. Being unemployed and freelancing, I sold Mother Jones magazine on the story, and thus it was that I found myself in Houston doing a story on the Texas Outlaw Comics which would culminate in an appearance at Rockefeller's. A day or so into hanging out with these guys made me realize that there was no way a magazine as politcally uptight as Mother Jones would even go near this material, but I stuck with it until the show, which was magnificent -- I particularly remember Bill Hicks' piece on Jesus returning and walking into a church and seeing, first thing, a crucifix -- and at the end of my stay in Houston, I was presented with the above artwork, signed by all the Outlaw Comics including Bill. I wish I could tell whose signature was whose.

Then there are other souvenirs of I know not what: the odd duo of a wind-up sushi chef who chops at a fish (which wriggles its way out of range of his knife) while reading what is presumably a how-to-cut-sushi book and an enamel advertisement for Casanova Cigaretten, showing a scarf-wearing Boston terrier smoking a cigarette and blowing a smoke ring. I must've gotten the latter at a flea market before moving to Germany, but the other is anyone's guess.

And then there are memories that go back much, much further.

Tammany? Los Angeles 1911? I swear I wasn't there. 

When I was in college, my friend Terry, even then a great photographer, became obsessed with the dying city of Springfield, Ohio, near where we were going to school. One of the great things about the poor side of town, where he went photo-hunting, was the antique shops, which were loaded with the most miscellaneous things. I've always loved advertising ephemera, and there was tons around. Buttons, too, matched my fashion sense as a kind of East Coast hippie. ("NO SALOON!") People collected cigarette cards, which came with every package of some kinds of cigarettes, and then didn't know what to do with them. I also found a copy of what is probably the first country music record, but no other recorded treasures (turns out they were still for sale in a strange old record store I only went to once). Anyway, Terry got some great pictures over the years. I got some of the odder corners of my own personal King Tut's tomb. I just hope there isn't a curse on this one.
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