Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Guaranteeing Trump’s Reelection

This is an important article on how Democrats can manage not to help Trump in 2020. The problem is that it fails to address the problem in a way progressives can really grok. Let me take a shot at it.

Progressives! I wish you (apologies in advance to those who reject the "you" pronoun) good morning! Let me sum up what Never-Trump Republican Charley Sykes is saying here in his desperate, panicked desire to assist you in helping to rid America of its current blight. He wants you to perform three acts of kindness and tolerance into the election season. He asks you to recognize that:
1. There are dyed-in-wool liberals outside your cosmopolitan bubble who don't buy into all the boutique issues you deem self-evidently right. Don't alienate them. Broaden, don't narrow.

2. There are moderate Democrats who live VERY different lives from you. Don't alienate them. Broaden, don't narrow.

3. There are Trump-repelled moderate Republicans, former Republicans, and Centrists living in an entirely different universe than you. Don't alienate them. Broaden, don't narrow.
You know how you talk around squares? Talk like that!

You know how in certain social situations (e.g. with your parents' friends) you do your darndest to find common ground, keeping your more doctrinal urgings to yourself? Do that!

And keep it going into the 2020 election. Don't assume Democrats (much less Centrists and apostate Republicans) in Pennsylvania or Michigan, who drive pickup trucks with gun racks, share your lifestyle and your tribal inclinations. Assume that many/most of your potential allies are creepily, disconcertingly, maddeningly behind re: attitude trends you and your friends synch up with via social channels, and maybe decline to eat their flesh for their failure to diligently update.

Tolerate. Embrace. Build a coalition. And, for godsakes, WIN.

At least, do this if you want to defeat Trump. If that's NOT your top priority, then, by all means: as you were.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Frame Yourself in Comedy

Most people go through their lives with greatly inflated notions of who they are and where they're headed. So if you're cursed with even a tad of self-awareness, life becomes hell right around middle age - the age when, it's often observed, you discover who you are. If your self-image was always unrealistic, that's when the mounting evidence becomes hard to ignore.

At that point you have two options:

1. Readjust your self-image, or
2. Live in denial.

#1 seems like the healthier route, and it would be, except for a very perilous trap.
I've written about this trap twice (here and here), in a different context.
If you resign yourself to resetting your self-image with a declaration like "I'm not a hero after all. All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!" and if you feel like you're starring in a movie (as nearly everyone does), this will be a sad, sad movie moment. This is where your life movie gets sad and stays sad. You've willed yourself into depression (in fact, I believe this is the most common origin of depression).

It's a shame, because you were so close to nailing it! Confronted with evidence that your self-image was nonsense, and choosing the healthy path of readjusting self-image accordingly, you were so close to equanimity and happiness. But as you spoke the lines to the camera, you decided to play it tragically, gamely adding a quivering lower lip. That's quite a momentous scene; you've placed your character in a box that cannot be climbed out of (at least not without upturning one's framing).

So if you ever find yourself going down that road, forced to concede that maybe you're not the moral paragon and saintly hero you'd imagined yourself to be, and you're never going to pitch for the Yankees, so it's time to readjust your self image, just don't speak to the camera.

Or, if there must be a camera (for most of us it's inescapable), play the scene as light-hearted comedy. Say "I'm not a hero after all. All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!", wink mirthfully, and walk to the horizon with a jaunty Chaplin-esque spring in your step, if that fits the character you play. Or walk into a multi-hued sunset, heaving a sigh of relief with your strong shoulders. Or saunter away, cooler than school, having jettisoned the bullshit that had been weighing you down. There are lots of ways to play it, if drama's your thing. If you must be in a movie - if this must be a cinematic moment - find a way to make it a happy one.
“I’m not that great (cute shrug)” as opposed to “I’m not that great (heaving sobs)”. “I probably don’t deserve every great result (carefree grin)” as opposed to “I probably don’t deserve every great result (weighty sigh)”.
It's that easy. It's that stupid. Yet I've seen two people die and more than a dozen people throw away their happiness because they didn't know they could flip this switch.

(Note that there's a trap within the trap. If you're naturally depressive - if negativity is the tone you've chosen for this movie you imagine yourself to be in so that's how you frame most of your scenes - you'll find the brighter comedic framing fluffy and false, whereas the heavier, sadder framing seems truer. That's your own skewing, however; it's not real. Set yourself the task of stretching as an actor, and escaping old habits. Dip your toe in comedy, however unfamiliar it seems, and work to get better at it.)

This is how hypnosis works. We decide how we'll play a scene from a position of relaxed detachment, and, if the hypnosis works, the next run-through is transformationally different (in fact, it's a parallel universe).

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Near-Extinction of Thoughtfulness

News story:
Read this important terse analysis.

Two very similar reactions by two influential people:
He obviously intended to type “ensure” ("stupid threats like this ensure that they won’t"), but thought about it for a few seconds and decided, correctly, that “make it more likely” was more accurate...even though it's less snappily satisfying.

That pause for reflection, with diligent follow-thru, is a nearly extinct move (outside of the crustiest journalists...who are constantly punished by the Left for their measuredness). I treasure it when I spot it.
So that's the new-school approach: thinking/writing like an addled teenager. Trump didn't lose "some" credibility, or even just "credibility". He's lost all credibility. EVERY IOTA of it.

The second guy's an expert, and a lawyer, so if I were to challenge him on this, he'd sheepishly concede the overstatement. Whereas I'd imagine many readers will see no problem with it. Trump is the worst possible president (he's not. He's a mere "4". We're spoiled.), and has no credibility whatsoever (he has poor credibility). Every bad thing is the worst possible thing; every bad move is the worst possible move; and thus our species slogs miserably through utopia toward its inexorable extinction.

Five Theories of George and Kelly Ann Conway’s Marriage

For those who haven't experienced the tingling joy that is George Conway's Twitter feed, go ahead and feast on it for a moment before continuing (here's this morning's best missive).

Five Theories of George and Kelly Ann Conway’s Marriage:

1. Fade-in on Conway house. George and Kelly Ann are screaming at the top of their lungs, throwing things at each other. Home's a complete war zone, with sandbags and shrapnel.

2. George and Kelly Ann languorously sip wine, sitting close in a love seat, smug smiles on their faces, discussing her exfiltration plan per his careful set-up.

3. Kelly Ann comes home from work and makes only the lightest conversation with George, awkwardly avoiding politics. Several faux pas increase the awkwardness, until finally the word “Trump” comes out of the TV and George leaps across the kitchen, throws Kelly Ann to the floor, and makes furious love to her; cursing her and her boss while she urges him on by calling him a “fucking traitor”.

4. George and Kelly Ann, both wearing heavy reading glasses, are perched anxiously around a dinner table piled with with reports and computer monitors. Image consultants are coaching them on their "bifurcated branding operation". Kelly exults about how she just reached 2.5M Twitter followers. George pecks her cheek affectionately and says "love yuh, babe".

5. George and Kelly Ann finish a painfully cold and silent dinner, sitting at opposite ends of a very, very, very, very long table, and say a perfunctory, clipped "g'night" as they head upstairs to their respective bedrooms. Split screen as Kelly Ann fishes a vibrator from her night table and pleasures herself while watching Trump rallies on TV, while George does likewise watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's viral dance video [this one's a cheat; George is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who happens to be virulently anti-Trump]

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


People often call me "optimistic" or "positive-thinking". It always strikes me as strange, because I'm neither of those things...at all.

Here's the explanation: people are so skewed toward pessimism and negativity - dramatizing the undramatic and catastrophizing the mundane - that being merely levelheaded makes you seem like a Pollyanna ("an excessively cheerful or optimistic person").

79.9% of people are neurotically pessimistic, 19.9% are neurotically optimistic, and .1% enjoy some shred of clarity.

Never forget that everyone's playing a game, an angle (though they get so wrapped up in the pose that they forget they ever had a choice). Here's how it comes about, and here's why.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Most Helpful Insight About Creativity

I've been gradually sussing out the rules of engagement for creativity (tough to verbalize, since that stuff's inherently native to the intuitive, non-verbal side of the brain). Among these 76 (currently) postings there are some especially interesting ones (several are listed in the left margin <---). But one insight beat all the others. As usual, it was a total "duh" once you heard it.

My posting "Why Hacks Think They're Geniuses" didn't just explain the mindset of drek purveyors (as well as the merely uninspired). It explains what holds them back, and why they'd never heed a call for superhuman commitment. They think they're already doing that. As I wrote:
It's super hard to write a lousy book, compose a lousy symphony, direct a lousy film, or paint a lousy mural. It takes 10 years of instrumental training plus another decade of improvisation experience to even begin to call oneself a jazz musician - far longer than med school! - so it's little wonder that every unexceptional player considers himself some sort of genius.

Every purveyor of crap feels - with good reason! - like they've made the Big Sacrifice. They've tasted commitment and suffered for their art. Every one of them. That's why uninspired hacks nod along in weary agreement when you discuss "commitment". Just getting to square one, assembling and presenting something with some minimal degree of competence, is inhumanly difficult. They all believe they've done the thing because they've done the thing!
I wrote a few weeks ago about how
Human beings compress extremes. We regress toward means. In plain language, we narrow our perspective, which means we "clip" the ends of the scale, mentally compressing extremes into a nondescript paste.
This is an example of that. Authoring a shitty book takes a year off your life, turns your hair grey, and gives you ulcers, so one would assume that writing a great one requires just a little more of that. But no. "Shitty", "adequate", and "great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond the excruciating rigors of producing any old book.

As I wrote in my tribute to Mamma Grimaldi's spectacular lasagna:
Extremes can be strange. You'd expect them to be like lesser instances, only more so. But sometimes they're a whole other thing; a different world.
This accounts for why most lasagnas, most books, most movies, most music, most art, most creative things generally are so sucky. Sucky purveyors, already working hard, couldn't conceive of trying a quadrillion times harder than is strictly necessary. This is what people mean when they talk about creating "with love": doing vastly more than is needed while being crushed to death. It requires a stout-heartedness ordinarily only available to ardent lovers. Most people stop well short of that point...hence suckage.

Continuing my quoting from "Why Hacks Think They're Geniuses":
Just getting to square one, assembling and presenting something with some minimal degree of competence, is inhumanly difficult. They all believe they've done the thing because they've done the thing!

Here's what I'd say to such people: Remember how hard it was just to generate and organize that material and have it be coherent? Well, what if some impossible-to-please tyrant loomed constantly over your shoulder, screaming at you to demolish perfectly adequate chunks and rework them for a result that's far better than it needs to be; far better than audiences will likely even notice, much less appreciate?

What if that belligerent asshole required you to treat every trivial decision like a matter of life or death?

What if every facile choice and easy cliché stabbed at him like a dagger to the heart?

What if, amid the overall death march, he compelled you to weigh yourself down further with seemingly unnecessary extra compulsions and requirements?

What if he demanded perpetual self-questioning, leaving you perpetually unsure whether you've committed the sin of settling for "good enough" rather than riding the curve of diminishing results all the way to brilliance (100,000 times harder...when it's already so, so hard)?

What if you needed to spend time soothing collaborators who might otherwise feel smothered by the intensity of the demands he compels you to satisfy?

And what if you could never, ever evade this person, because it was you?
I await my X Prize for having at long last derived Sturgeon's Law.

As I once recalled:
I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:

You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Problem Solvers

People who pride themselves on their sharp problem-solving abilities are frauds. Don't listen to them.

You want the person who walks with a limp and is missing half a tooth and who flinches whenever you move your hands fast. That's the person who has deep experience with coping with problems.

It's another facet of the David Copperfield thing. Shiny, composed people who seem superior have worked hard at shiny composition - at seeming superior. Seeming is a completely separate track from being. Those who've actually got the goods tend not to waste effort on the seeming part. So they're overlooked (here's where I made my original case for that, talking about how hard it is to recognize who's intelligent).

"You know so much about computers!" remarked a friend as I fixed her Mac. "I've had a long string of computer disasters dating back to 1992, and never had someone to zoom in and rescue me...so I gradually figured stuff out," I explained. I didn't sound superior. I didn't seem expert. Just aggravated, aggrieved, and beaten-down.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Vintage Kitchenware

My supposedly stainless steel slotted spoon rusts if it sits in the sink overnight.

My colander is so flimsy that it dents if you drop a spoon in it.

The shiny surface of my flatware is wearing off, revealing toxic copper.

My folding steamer basket jams.

My measuring cup chips if placed within an inch of any dishwasher item.

I feel like I'm 22 again, living an ad-hoc life on the cheap with everything jury-rigged and temporary. But now there are no alternatives.

You might decry it all as "Chinese-made crap", but that meme's wrong. China also manufactures our iObjects - to a level of refinement and build quality no American factory could match. Same for your fancy TV. The problem isn't crappy Chinese manufacturing, it's cheap American consumers demanding ultra-cheap essentially disposable crap. That market is so dominant that higher-quality operations can't compete. Few of us will pay an extra dime for quality.

If only I'd intercepted my mom before she'd thrown out all her housewares prior to moving to an assisted place. Her measuring cup, her slotted spoon, her steamer baskets and silverware and colander had performed for decades. I remember them like a dream of my more grown-up era before backtracking to my flimsy life as a 22-year-old. A more substantial, less aggravating existence - my gentile upbringing on a Viennese estate where the kitchen staff (Jakob and Sophie and dear old Magdalena) labored with weighty, substantial spatulas. Having fallen on hard times, I obsess endlessly in my quest for a proper potato masher.

Next best thing: I intercept other moms. I head to eBay and insert the search term "vintage" along with the item. Zillions of households are selling this stuff. There's a premium, but I'm happy to pay 1.5 - 2x the going rate. Like the 1945 Buicks still going strong in Havana, the good stuff will last forever. It never dawned on me that my Mom's Ekco slotted spoon was a potential heirloom.

I don't mind the additional expense because it doesn't add up to much overall. Thankfully, I'm not a "lovely coffee table person" (LCTP), my shorthand for people who need to establish for themselves and others that they're cultivated "nice" people who "have nice things". This preoccupation gets very expensive, and becomes a mindspace-dominating neurosis. I lack the LCTP gene, so none of this is a question of status. I just want stuff to work.

Clarification: I'm not saying you must not have a nice coffee table. I'm not calling you decadent bourgeoise for owning anything decorative or lovely. It's the compulsion that you have to. LCTP are people for whom everything must be perfectly lovely and decorative. They feel they're living on stage, and anything cheap-seeming or not perfectly matched makes them tremble with unease, like they're revealing fractures in their desperately glossed image.

I frequently note in this Slog that we're not living in a movie; that it's a horrible mistake to neurotically pull back the camera to view one's own life as if it were some cinematic narrative (that's what Narcissus was about, IMO, though the Greeks, lacking film cameras, were forced to use a less precise metaphor). This impulse is the source of all unhappiness, and the extreme version is seen in the LCTP person. If you happen to own a nice chair - or even a nice coffee table, whatever - god bless and enjoy. Me? I own a jacket.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Day My Life Changed

I was anonymously part of an online discussion where someone asked for tips for launching an online community. He received dozens of replies, many of them highly-rated, but all of them primitive from my expert vantage point.

I wrote up 500 words - 500 golden words - with the weight of authority and hard-won knowledge. It was insightful and smart. You didn't need to know my history to recognize that 1. I knew my stuff, and 2. I was right. I'd offered, perhaps for the first and only time on the Internet, a terse but complete guide to online community design and management. A gem. Sorry, it just was.

My reply was completely ignored, aside from a couple of users who took snarky potshots at it.

I was long accustomed to being ignored and to receiving potshots. I've lived a bifurcated life in which I feel both eccentric/crazy/annoying and correct. I have tolerated this paradox, self-identifying both ways: batshit eccentric and also quietly correct. Crazy and sane. Right and wrong.

"Rightness might not be everything, but it's got to count for something." That was the plaintive maxim I held onto for decades. It sustained me, and I needed the support. You'd need to be a supreme egotist to walk around with straight spine and haughty superiority in a world that unanimously insists you're out of your mind. Your internal mental tickertape would need to sound like this:
What a horror that would be! Fortunately, I'm capable of only one mousy, hesitant refrain.


For one thing, I couldn't be sure. I didn't love everything that came out of my brain. I'd failed at stuff, I have blocks and shortcomings and slowness and fog. I once noted that
I read slowly, I memorize poorly, I have trouble following instructions and following novel and movie plot points. I don't digest data points quickly or easily. I was a B+ student, and am shockingly poorly-read. My cognitive horsepower is, at best, mildly above average.
Also, I recognize that all sorts of people are better at all sorts of things than me. Recognizing my own spottiness (and having been raised around people with a strange ironclad faith in their phenomenally ignorant convictions), I always accepted the possibility that I might be far less reliable than I believed.

But then this online situation happened, and I could only see one side. In this one instance, for the first time in my life, I felt 100% assurance. When I'm 90% assured, or 99%, or even 99.999%, I can comfortably continue my bifurcation, and live my life as daffy-overheated-weezil-but-also-probably-onto-something. But not this time. And that's when it all began to unravel. Worldly reaction had jumped the shark.

As I've come to recognize my general rightness (my patches of wrongness feel wonderful and refreshing when I discover them; I bathe in them with considerable relief), the one thing I haven't done is to flip the switch launching an inane narrative about how being right makes me awesome. It just doesn't connect. My mechanic can rebuild a transmission - something I couldn't learn to do with a century of instruction - yet he doesn't feel particularly awesome. And assurance, it turns out, feels way better than arrogance, anyway.

But the gaslighting's over. That's the main thing.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Opportunity of Endless Iteration

If I took a cooking class - even a great one that lasted for a thousand years - it wouldn't help me cook anything great. I'd make fewer mistakes, but I wouldn't advance one nanometer toward deliciousness (see my thoughts on culinary school).

But for 15 years I've channeled meal time hunger into culinary improvement. Simple. Mild. Gradual. Torturous. And while I'm not completely there yet, I'm starting to become the sort of cook I myself might (lightly) praise.

The writer Nassim Taleb, who coined the term "Black Swan" (and who is an arrogant shlub whose thoughts should never be taken at face value - useful intellectuals are self-doubtful, assuring that their insights get pre-passed through a belligerent filter, whereas self-worship makes for spotty thinking), talks about "skin in the game" as being the key to success and creativity.

He's right, it's true. Humans do their best work when it's tightly keyed in to their deepest needs and desires. If you cook and work and love and breathe in a rote get-from-point-A-to-point-B fashion, you're missing the opportunity; you're squandering the rocket fuel.

And dryly resorting to books or videos or classes to improve yourself won't help you cook up anything truly great - in any realm - no matter how hard you work at it. You must have skin in the game (this is why black athletes do better).

Be more ant-like, and let your preset needs and desires drive you, through the endless iterations of daily life, to transcendent result.

From here:
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.
From here:
Billions of people yearn for greatness.
Millions of people do things they hope will make them great.
Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Poultry Victory

I've finally figured out chicken (sometimes I'm very, very slow, but one of my secret tricks is to keep plying away, ant-like, even in - especially in! - realms where I'm hopeless. That's why I'm a writer even though I'm aphasic).

The trick: low heat and long cooking time. Also, I added a bit more olive oil to the pan than usual. I need to eat low-fat (and enjoy the creative challenge of devising delicious workarounds), but some things can be a little less low fat than others. So for twice this quantity of chicken, I used a tablespoon rather than my usual teaspoon. Not exactly a deep fry.

Here's how I produced this weird-looking plate:

Crush a few garlic cloves and very briefly sauté them at medium low temperature (mostly to flavor the oil).
Lay unfurled boneless/skinless chicken thighs atop crushed garlic cloves, rough side down.
Sprinkle with ground coriander, Smoked Spanish Paprika, Aleppo Pepper, and salt and pepper.
Cook on medium, just barely sizzling. Don't touch anything.
Flip when brown and shrunken (and pull out and set aside garlic cloves).
Note: I never needed to scrape chicken thighs to flip them before. A good development!
Requires only minor cooking time on other side (just as well; you don't want the smoother surface to get tough/dry/browned).
Remove thighs, add chicken broth or wine to pan, reduce while stirring, pour over final result at the end.

Baby Bok Choy
Cooked American style, not Asian! This 'Merica, dude!
Cut bulbous bottom off each baby bok choy
Cut roughly in 1" thick slices, vertically
Lots of water baths to remove dirt
Shake dry then blot dry with paper towel
Season with Aleppo Pepper and salt
Sautee with olive oil in post-chicken pan until well-shrunken and tired looking.

HMart's Five Grain Rice (pre-cooked)
Heat cast iron pan or griddle to high.
Add rice mixture to pan (no oil necessary if pan is properly seasoned), crushing it down with heel of hand
When it starts sputtering like popcorn, remove and serve.
Note: any leftover rice or rice dish would work.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

YA TV Update

Yesterday I recommended my favorite news show, but I haven't updated my entertainment TV reccos in a while (here is a reverse-chronological view of all prior postings). I'll be terse and maddeningly non-descriptive.

I think Chernobyl, on HBO, was "The Wire"-level quality (must listen to the episode-by-episode accompanying podcast, and check out the episode-by-episode run-downs by a guy who lived in Russia at the time). Chernobyl is the highest-rated television program ever on IMDB, and I think that's proper. It's grueling to watch in the watching, but the takeaway (as with all great art) is warmth, not trauma.

Killing Eve's second season had the misfortune of being merely excellent after a debut season that was oh-my-god great. If Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna taught us nothing else, there are light years between "good" and "great" (more on that here). So don't listen to people suggesting that you ignore the second season which is, again, excellent.

Fleabag, written by and starring the creative dynamo behind Killing Eve's first season (she wasn't part of season two, which surely accounts for the fall-off), was excellent in its first season, and even better in its second. Don't miss.

I was leery about What we Do in the Shadows, the vampire comedy on FX, being an American TV series transplant of an New Zealand film (with the same name) that I love dearly(stream it from Amazon for four bucks). But it's really good.

The Other Two, on Comedy Central, didn't get much attention amid this frenzied golden age of television, but I loved it. It was about the family disruption when the youngest son suddenly gets Internet famous. Super dark, ala You're the Worst, on FX, which I loved even more (despite its disappointing final season).

You probably saw the VEEP series finale. I'd suggest re-watching the final scene - where all the characters are aged 24 years. Keep your eyes on Tony Hale, who plays Gary. Here's that part, below (though I'd suggest watching the whole scene on HBO):

I write a lot about lavishing excessive love, care, and effort to create a magical result, and this is an example. For just a few seconds of screen time, it is clear that Hale spent way, way, way, way, way, way more time than necessary preparing; accounting for every minute of those 24 character years. This over-diligence creates a magnetism, a gravity, that shocks the viewer. He's not doing dress-up shtick like the other actors. This really is that guy after that time jump. It's magic (and necessary for the scene to have real dramatic weight beyond the gag). It's Mamma Grimaldi level work.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Best TV News Show

I've previously noted that the path to sanity in these politically trying times is the witty/smart Twitter feed (and Periscope live videos, also in the Twitter feed) of Rick Wilson.

If you're looking for a news show, centering on Trump, with a rational, smart perspective and a sense of humor - offering genuine insight rather than the standard shallow venting - you've got to check out "Deadline: White House" with Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC. It's on at a weird time, 4pm Eastern, but I'd strongly suggest you record it. If you watch just one news show, let it be this.

The program has always been good, but lately it's been unbelievable. Everyone I know in or around politics has been attracted; its influence increases geometrically. It's truly must-see TV.

I find MSNBC, generally, to be too lefty doctrinaire, CNN too shallowly surface-skating, and FOX to be cynically pursuing a strategy of profiting on - while abetting - the dismantling of the Republic (see clip below for, among other things, a dandy dissection of this). But Nicolle Wallace, a moderate Republican, is Goldilocks, and that's why she attracts the best guests (though not all are winners; one senses MSNBC policy foisting some substandard talking heads on her)

Here's Friday's show, which was particularly good (I loathe Al Sharpton, but I'll be damned if his political analysis - when he manages to get past his imperious, self-serving inclinations - isn't pretty sharp):

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Mistaking Fogginess for Deafness

When I was in my 20s, most of my friends were 80 and 90 year old semi-forgotten jazz luminaries. And I noticed a correlation: old people who stayed sharp didn't say "huh?' a lot. Old people who were slowing down, mentally, did. This made me suspect that hearing wasn't the problem.

If you simply slow down your speech, old people's hearing often works much better...even if you haven't raised you voice. The problem is often cognitive bandwidth rather than hearing. As your mind slows down, there are fewer available resources to process conversation in real time. The result is a buffer overload. Hence "huh?"

Much - perhaps most - old-age deafness should be attributed to deficient mental processing.

Of course, some old people really are deaf. But most of them are at least somewhat deaf, and that's the confounding factor. Their hearing being marginal, it's easy for them (as well as their doctors) to blame aural deficit. If someone with crappy hearing says "huh?" a lot, it's a perfectly reasonable conclusion, and there's no machine that can intercept brain signals and measure how much of the problem is in the hearing versus the processing.

So we buy into the myth that old people who say "huh?" are having problems hearing. Try slowing down, and see if it mysteriously improves. Or, even better, speak in canned clichés. When unsurprising things are said, that poses less of a challenge for sluggish brains (this is why we instinctively speak in predictable ways with babies and very young children).

More Observations On Aging
My Quora answer to "What does it feel like to be old?"

I have the opposite problem, myself. I have more than 50% hearing loss, but nobody ever believes I didn't hear them. So whenever I ask people to repeat themselves, they always, always rephrase with 1. simpler words and/or 2. greater politeness. I've considered pinning a button to my lapel with the words "Seriously Fucking Deaf".

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Chicken Cutlet Country

Years ago, a big reason for traveling was to try regional foods (here's a very partial list). You wouldn't miss goulash in Toledo, or green chilis in New Mexico, or spoon bread in the Deep South, or barbecue in Texas.

Regional dishes weren't always unique to the region. For example, Manhattan was all about oysters - at least until New York Harbor's oyster beds died due to pollution. Oysters were served in many other places, but Manhattanites made a celebration of them. You could depend on high quality and freshness. To this day, Manhattan oyster houses usually adopt an old-timey, turn-of-the-20th-century look. Whether they realize it or not, they're linking to a long tradition.

I may be the last surviving person to realize this, but the regional specialty in the lower Hudson Valley is chicken cutlets.

No, really. If you read food guides from the 1950s and 1960s, you'll see mention of this very old tradition, which was fading even back then. Chicken cutlets have always been found everywhere, but folks there made a celebration of them.

I enjoy spotting echoes of dying cultures and watching people act without awareness of the ghostly traditions forcing their hands. The delis in towns just north of White Plains to this day feature their chicken cutlets, without quite understanding why. I haven't seen hard stats, but I'd bet they move more cutlets, day after day, than similar delis in Stamford or Yonkers. Chicken cutlets still have some residual juju!

The other day I lined up to order at Rocky’s Millwood Deli. The place has a lot of pride despite modest ambitions, and the glue holding it all together is Rocky's chicken cutlets. Nine of their twenty "named" sandwiches are chicken cutlet-based, and cutlets are prepared throughout the day, so they're often hot and fresh (unless you go super late - Rocky's is open 24 hours). Like Montreal bagels or Vermont cider doughnuts, "always-hot-and-fresh" is is a sure-fire sign of a regional food....even long after the region itself has forgotten.

Like a particularly high bank of shoveled snow persisting well into Spring, Rocky is the final holdout, not completely melted. They're unaware of their link to a wider tradition, but I feel privileged to know.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Reed

The reed,

unendingly assaulted by violent wind,

never suffers.

It never ocurred to the reed

that the wind was a separate, external thing.

Insofar as the reed thinks at all,

it thinks it's dancing.

Photograph by Paola Casali

Monday, June 3, 2019

Killer Cereals

Guests often remark at my unusually large number of cereal boxes, and ask what's up with that. I reply, with glee, that as a grown-up I can have as much cereal as I want to. I can also get in my car and drive anywhere anytime without permission. I take great zest in the perqs of adulthood.

I'm a mixer. I used to consider this an eccentricity, but I've discovered that many other people mix cereals, too. I've settled on a repertoire of boxes selected for mixability, taste, and healthfulness:

Joe's O's (Trader Joe's) - better than Cheerios, though not as much better as they used to be. A great mixer, adding malty grit without occupying much bowl space.

Special K Red Berries - this is my equivalent of Peanutbutter Smurfs or whatever. Its sugar content is above my threshold (though still not all that high), and its fiber relatively low, but I mix it with homelier, healthier cereals to add a bit of sweet fruitiness, only eating it undiluted when I crave dessert (it's infinitely healthier than a brownie or slice of cheesecake).

Note that the best freeze-dried fruit cereal I've ever found (perhaps my favorite current cereal, period) is Jordan's Country Crisp with Strawberries, available only in UK and Canada (though it's sold on Amazon for a ridiculous sum). When I get my hands on a box, I pay the ultimate honor. I eat it with whole milk.
Ohmygodohmygod someone came up with a do-it-yourself recipe for Jordan's Country Crisp with Strawberries! Note that Trader Joe's sells good freeze-dried strawberries and good coconut oil.
Corn Chex. Rice Chex were never exactly zingy, but they've gotten blander and blander over time. At this point, they're effectively flavorless. Corn Chex are super corny, and the texture's great, to boot. Not much fiber, but not much sugar either. Combines well with Joe's Os. Contrasts provocatively with blueberries.
Quaker once made a divisive cereal called Crunchy Corn Bran that I really liked. It's been replaced with Corn Crunch, and the Crunchy Corn Bran fans are outraged by the new formula.
Nature's Path Organic Heritage Flakes "Ancient Grain". Cheap at Trader Joe's. Remember the old SNL commercial for "Colon Bow" cereal? This is heavy and crunchy, with more fiber than particle board. Good flavor, however. I sometimes eat it straight, but more normally add it, like medicine, to mix ins. It comes in a "Crunch" version which isn't half as fun as the manufacturer seems to think it is. It tastes like something eaten by angry nuns. Stick to the flakes.

Autumn Wheat is the only cereal that could be described as beautiful. It's made by the good Kashi product manager (in my head, there's a good one and a bad one. While there are atrocities in their line-up, akin to rabbit feed pellets, I always try new products in case it might stem from Kashi Dr. Jeckyll). There are versions of Autumn Wheat flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, berries, even chocolate, but I get horribly tired of them after a single box. Cereals must be subtle and enigmatic. If they commit to a really distinctive flavor, you'll easily tire of them (that's why I space out my Corn Chex). There's a reason cereals like Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes have been dominant for over a century. They're ultimately enigmatic; the David Bowie of breakfast cereals.

I have mixed history with Corn Flakes.
I once cooked up a theory that Corn Flakes causes amnesia. The moment you start eating them, you enter a deep bliss state which is utterly forgotten after the final bite, as you snap back to your previous opinion: Meh. Corn Flakes. Whatever. If aliens visited and tasted Corn Flakes, I maintained, and they were told they were available anywhere on the planet for mere pennies, they'd consider us a demented species for our failure to celebrate this blessing and to live our lives around it.
The problem is that as corn has become a tasteless, soulless food thanks to selective cultivation in the US (when was the last time you had an ear of corn that tasted like anything but pure cloying sugar?), Corn Flakes have lost their appeal. Although....hmmm. Maybe they haven't. It's quite possible they're as great as ever, but I'm cloaked in amnesia.

Years ago I did a massive granola tasting. Here's an update on the top picks: Love Grown Foods scaled massively and lost the love. Early Bird is still obscenely rich, obscenely good, and obscenely expensive, and Udi's has become ubiquitous (I haven't tried them in a while but have them mentally filed as "downhill"). Made to Crave went out of business years ago, and Ola is still out there, and has remained small, but I haven't mail ordered any since the tasting.

What about my beloved Quisp? Quaker brought it back - a dream come true - but it wasn't the same recipe. Not as much brown sugar flavor. What do you expect from a company named not "Quisper" but "Quaker"?

No highly-commercialized boxed cereals with nuts ever. They're always rancid.

My hot porridge recipe

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Breaking the Rhythm

It was the first night of a six night gig in a nightclub in a fancy hotel in Berne, Switzerland (The Schweizerhof, which we, naturally, referred to as The Scheissekopf). We slept in the hotel and ate our meals there.

On the first day, I was nice to our waiters. Though starchy and formal, they tried feebly to return the friendliness. On the second day, they didn't try at all. On the third day, they radiated contempt, and on the fourth they were subtly rude. By fifth day, I worried they might spit in my soup.

Nothing had changed on my end. In fact, I kept trying harder to be nice, figuring I must have been doing something wrong. It didn't help. Quite the contrary.

Finally I asked a Swiss friend for his opinion, and he said "You're being overly nice. They don't respect you. And they suspect your motives."

The sixth night I ignored them completely. I was aloof. They behaved properly, and the meal went much more smoothly, their normal rhythms unbroken.

A friend who'd worked in a movie box office one summer once told me that his pet peeve was customers trying to be friendly and personal with him. He had a job to do, and it required a certain rhythm, and if you really wanted to be kind you wouldn't break the rhythm. You'd behave predictably, so he could efficiently do his thing without needing to indulgently redirect attention toward chatty yadda yadda.

Further Reading:
Surprising Behavior Breaks Things
Driving Tip

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Great Leon Redbone

The great Leon Redbone died today. He was even greater than you realize.

Leon Redbone was flawless. The fact that he was an Armenian refugee who entered the hemisphere at the late age of 16, yet managed to channel the essence of old-timey American music more beautifully and authentically than any other retro performer only magnifies his glimmer. I’m like Diogenes when it comes to insisting on genuineness in music (and other things) and Redbone was the realest of the real, even though his persona was the fakest of the fake.

He was flawless in his musical taste and performance, his singing and his strumming, but also in his witticisms and bon motts, many of which appear in this great profile which you absolutely must read, even if you've never heard of the guy. Every quote is a gem; every observation a pearl.

I apologize for my flatly superlative praise, but as with Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna, there's a level where there's not much to say.
The very best stuff has a shocking purity, a grace, an emptiness.
I think Redbone was at that high pure level, and remained there consistently throughout his long career. His output was so stripped down and unearthly relaxed that you might not notice your universe has been powerfully reframed - into a timeless space of elegance and intimacy. It's magic.
Pure water gently trickling. A soothing stream, at body temperature, scarcely vulgar enough to fill your gut or tickle your palate.
The following is a late Redbone performance on the "ALF" talk show, hosted by a puppet alien (the show lasted only seven episodes and is considered among the very worst things ever put on television). After performing one song solo, ALF, the obnoxious puppet character, insists on a duet, the very suggestion of which will leave you cringing. But dammit if Redbone doesn't make it music...and touching music, at that. Again: magic. Have a look:

The following are Redbone's two favorite recordings (as mentioned in the article linked above). Have a listen, and see if you don't come around to Redbone's it's-all-happening-now perspective. Both of these strongly evoke Redbone, who was more of a timeless wavelength than a man. Andy Kaufman, alas, is truly dead. But Leon Redbone? Never.

No accent. Not in his speech, nor his music, nor his taste. Never out of time or out of place in any respect; always the very essence of whatever he chose to evoke. Flawless!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Must-See Film

"Long Day's Journey Into Night", an experimental Chinese film with nothing to do with the Eugene O'Neill play, is still in its limited run, and you shouldn't miss it (see local showtimes on Fandango's page for the film).

This is 75 minutes of confusing noir, as the lead character struggles to recover foggy memories and piece together incomplete information (a bit maddening, but exactly in the way such odysseys actually are) and then it's a 50 minute 3D single shot elegy; a letting go into non-linearity. Once one has accepted, after effort, that some story can never be resolved - the memories never fully restored, the facts never reassembled - one's nonverbal, intuitive brain frames it as melancholy poetry - beautiful shards drifting out of reach. It settles into a dream, making its limited sense within the non-analytical realm of dream logic.

There have been a great many films centering on foggy memory and incomplete facts, and cinematic efforts to portray the dream state. These have been two of the main preoccupations of the form. But Chinese director Bi Gan has finally done it. This is what your mind feels like - first, when it's fragmented (and it always is to some degree) and woozily tries to preserve foothold amid the tantalizing spottiness of it all. And then we put on our 3D glasses, and, for the first time, behold the dream state convincingly captured on film. Gan has resorted to none of the usual cinematic tropes used to telegraph to audiences that this is the dream part. I guess that's why no reviewer fully understood the movie.

This section is not just representative of dreams, or reminiscent of them. It truly registers as a dream - the first one you've ever dreamt that was created by someone else. I saw the film two weeks ago, and the fading memory has become entwined in my own dreamscape. I fully recall it as something I dreamed. I wouldn't be surprised if I returned there some night.

LDJIN is not trying to be linear or logical, nor to tell a story. Quite the contrary. If you view it with your left, analytical brain, it feels like pushing a noodle. Don't view it as a movie with a plot; just let it wash over you. As you sit with it over subsequent hours/days/weeks, I think you'll agree it captures the state of foggy memory and patchy comprehension, and offers a direct experience of the sensation of letting go; of allowing incomplete pieces to simply hover in the unconscious.

It’s a breakthrough and a masterpiece, but movie reviewers have confused it, for better or for worse, with a novel means of storytelling. It's not that. The film is not about its own story...which never condenses into a story, anyway. That's the point! Rather, it's the meta-story of how we gather and process our stories.

Real life is never pat. We never have all the information, and we spend our lives struggling to make sense of fragments. Sometimes the result feels satisfying, and sometimes we must resign ourselves to letting the remaining shards simply be, reframed as poetry and drifting, of their own accord, into unconsciousness.

Screening schedule

Hating and Loving Correction

Good point from a reader re: yesterday's posting, "The Nightmare Fuel of Naomi Wolf's Hilariously Ruined Book", which included this:
I live in terror of hitting the "publish" button, because I know I'm capable of putting something obviously, flagrantly stooooopid out there. I'm always waiting for someone to kindly tap my shoulder and say "Um, Jim, I'm really sorry but that's just absolutely flat wrong". It hasn't happened more than a few times here, but the potential's always present.
The reader presented it very politely, but, for clarity's sake, I'll fire the guns all the way:
Hold on. I thought you're the guy who's always saying how you love being shown you're wrong; how you find correction preferable to operating under false assumptions.
I do love being shown I’m wrong...because I want desperately to be as annoyingly right as possible. Most people would much rather feel right than be right, which shows that they don't want it badly enough. The really super vain approach isn't to stick bandaids over one's gaps and pose as flawless, but to thirst for constant correction in order to eventually enjoy life as an unbearable preening know-it-all (of course, it's asymptotic - you never actually arrive - but, after a while, the sandblasting feels cleansing and welcome in its own right).

But not like this! To have it happen live on the radio in front of everyone, days before your book publishes and invalidating years of effort...that's my worst nightmare. I want to notice my wrongness before I’ve built an ambitious structure on shaky ground. The point of my relentless self-questioning is to avoid precisely that fate! This is the result I'm desperately trying to avoid!

However, I do acknowledge my inner contradiction. I'm mortified about being wrong yet love correction. I fear the tap on the shoulder, yet welcome it. I pride myself on having built ideas, brick by brick, for fifty years, subjecting each nugget to skeptical examination, and I both love and hate the idea of being forced to throw big chunks away.

What's more, I hadn't quite noticed this ambivalence until right now. And, sure enough, I'm grateful that it was pointed out. I'm happy for the extra clarity. I don't feel consternation or embarrassment. But isn't that the nature of fear? Aren't feared things always surprisingly endurable in the actual happening?

Hey, look at that! An interesting little insight/connection popped out! Can you see why I like having my inner contradictions revealed? There's always a cookie!

I welcome correction because I fear wrongness. Correction removes wrongness, even as it exposes the thing I most fear. Thankfully, I fear it so much that I'm willing to withstand its exposure to avoid its exposure!

It's a bit daft, yes, but I think we can all relate to this observation in some aspect of our lives: "I fear it but don't dislike it when it happens." Also: the observation that cleaning is the dirtiest work of all is a fundamental observation; number one on the list of paradoxes that must be embraced.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Nightmare Fuel of Naomi Wolf's Hilariously Ruined Book

You may have heard the Naomi Wolf news. She's written a book based on research that took her through a slew of archival material, concentrating on one single phrase that seemed quite clear in its meaning, but which turned out to mean the opposite thing. The entire enterprise turned out to have been for naught, and she only learned this while on the air during a radio show shortly before the book release.

She handled it as gracefully as one could, but every writer hearing about this died a tiny bit. I lost a toenail and eleven eyebrow hairs, plus I need to check in with my islets of Langerhans.

Here's the news story
Here's a short Twitter thread about this by historian John Schindler.

Wolf seems like a Keystone Cop; an incompetent asshole who met her righteous come-uppance. Hilarious!

But not to me. There, but for the grace of plod, goes me.

I spent two years working on my smart phone app Eat Everywhere. It contains virtually everything I know about practically every cuisine on Earth (plus the knowledge of a phalanx of smart colleagues). Not just dish names and categories, but cultural background and savvy know-how accumulated over the course of decades of promiscuous eating.

I fact-checked nearly every damned statement in ever-increasing panic, hoping that ethnic Brazilians and Ethiopians and Russians - who'd surely look up their family's home cuisine first - would say "Man, these guys really get it!", and trust us deeply on less familiar stuff (while some fantasize about sex or power, this is my fantasy: being corroborated and trusted). I knew that if we’d messed up some Italian pasta shape or Thai curry, hordes of food weenies stood ready to pounce - to pronounce the work lightweight bullshit (I have some experience with snark).

My panic was "ever-increasing" because something horrible was happening: it was revealed to me, drip-by-drip, that 5% of my food knowledge was comically, stupidly, embarrassingly wrong.

Most awfully, a half dozen dishes I knew like the back of my hand turned out not to actually exist. And they were some of my favorites! I'd found each in some immigrant restaurant that had, it seems, capriciously dreamed it up, and I'd enjoyed it - often for years - presuming it authentic, and adding it to the underlying basis of my food knowledge.

I spent tens of hours trying to track down these nonexistent dishes, assuming I'd gotten the spelling wrong, or that they were from obscure parts of the region, or that they'd lost popularity (a few bona fide dishes I ate in my 20s have indeed begun to disappear, Pakistani aloo bujia being one example, and Haitian fufu another; only old people remember them). I grilled natives, raked through menus....had a hard time letting go. Some of these non-dishes may be rolling around in my brain still. I'm pretty sure I filtered them out of the app, but it was often too late. Several had popped up in my professional work. Some food expert I am.

I'm not a food historian. I'm actually dubious of the phrase, because there's no central motherlode of scholarship in which to school oneself. Given the immense variation and cross-pollination, and the moment-by-moment evolution, there's no solid "there" there, so one has no choice but to learn empirically. And, while empirical knowledge may be useful, it is inevitably 5% comically, stupidly, embarrassingly wrong - higher if you’re not very careful. 

Those two years were a horror of discovering how hacked-together and patchy and dubious my knowledge is. Maybe I'd done it all wrong! I wrote last week that...
There are two schools of food writers covering world cuisines. The first are like gringo anthropologists, poking and prodding. They are fixed points while the restaurants revolve around them. The second school is the one I subscribe to: the mergers. We eat Moroccan like Moroccans, Peruvian like Peruvians. The culture du jour is the fixed point, and we do the revolving, feeling at home everywhere thanks to malleable cultural stem cells, paisonified even when we look nothing like the rest of the crowd.
Perhaps I'd have done better to choose the other way, pumping waiters for fritter ingredients, taking Aspergian notes on the soups, and treating this less like delirious cultural surfing and more like the dry dissection of moths or tadpoles. Less immersion, more taxonomy.

But the gringo anthropologists make plenty of errors, too, and they're worse ones - viral bits of inaccuracy endlessly passed on. The well's been poisoned by shoddy conventional wisdom, and only peripatetic Lone Ranger types have an independent enough perspective to recognize the contaminants. But, alas, we generate new wrongness of our own.

To most people, Wolf's a laughingstock. But if you're not cautiously trafficking in accepted convention (and even that won't ensure accuracy, but merely cover your ass when you do inevitably err), your fresh, original observations and conclusions place you in grave danger. You're out there without a safety net. This is why people rarely stick their neck out. There's a deep fear, and it's not unreasonable.

This Slog, for example, is a lumpy bag of mostly fresh observations and conclusions. I sometimes wake up in night sweats, questioning the entire enterprise. What if I'm some kookie ditz willfully spraying banality and nonsense into a void, having convinced himself I’m clear-eyed and insightful? I live in terror of hitting the "publish" button, because I know I'm capable of putting something obviously, flagrantly stooooopid out there. I'm always waiting for someone to kindly tap my shoulder and say "Um, Jim, I'm really sorry but that's just absolutely flat wrong". It hasn't happened more than a few times here, but the potential's always present. One can quintuple check oneself, but assumptions inevitably become firmament, and it's impossible to accomplish anything worthwhile if you're constantly and endlessly rechecking firmament.

Oooof. Just horrible. It's total nightmare fuel.

Back in the Hemisphere

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples
Desserts and Lodgings
The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples
Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy
Mama Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface
Mamma Grimaldi: The Final Lasagna

In Naples! Naples!

Oh well. Anyway, I flew back into Newark Airport, where I'm a big fan of SNAP off-site parking (wrote about it here), and grabbed my traditional post-flight Newark bite (...meet it greet it eat it 'fore I get home tonight).

I hadn't been to Casa Vasca in ages. It used to be a staunchly Spanish place (more Galician than Basque, despite the name) with the best sangria I'd ever found in the western hemisphere (the most convenient hemisphere for me!), including great white sangria. Never on foodie radar, I always gave Casa Vasca credit for producing some of the most authentically Iberian flavors in the tristate area - and I say this as an Ironbound skeptic, unimpressed with virtually all the standard options around Newark's Ferry Street.

It's changed a bit. It's starting to morph toward Latin American, and the cooking has a Telephone Game vibe, where recipes have been passed down through too many generations of chefs. But while this dish was Mid-Atlantic (i.e. halfway between Spain and the Dominican Republic), it was so well-prepared that authenticity was the last thing on my mind. I kind of blissed out on it, remarking that it was no come-down at all from what I'd been enjoying in Italy. So why did I get on that plane in the first place?

It's the eternal Chowhound paradox:

1. Total confidence that treasure awaits discovery literally everywhere, yet...
2. An irrational drive to seek it out as far from home as possible.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Mamma Grimaldi: The Final Lasagna

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples
Desserts and Lodgings
The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples
Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy
Mamma Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface

Prerequisite: Mamma Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface (don't forget the homework assignment at the end!).

28 years - exactly half my lifetime - ago in Barcelona, I ecstatically devoured precious cargo brought back from Italy by one of my music students at the time, guitarist Andrea Grimaldi. Andrea was a wonderful cook, but he insisted he was nothing compared to his mother. I'd flown in for my biannual Spain gigs, and this time the timing had lined up. Andrea was just returning from a visit home, bearing holy parmigiana from The Master.

Even reheated, it was one of the greatest things I'd ever eaten. I've spent the past three decades dreaming of meeting Mamma Grimaldi.
In the meantime, I've visited Andrea's rustic hacienda in northern Catalonia several times (documenting his amazing cooking here and here, plus a slideshow here). I was also proud to host Andrea's photo essay about Mamma Grimaldi here on the Slog, starting here.
Last month, stars finally aligned. I was in Rome for Easter, and Andrea had brought his family for a visit. So I finally got invited for lunch at Mamma Grimaldi's house in the village of Aprilia, between Rome and Naples.

Andrea, a Slog reader, was aware of my lasagna obsession, and asked his mom to make some for me, an act of kindness so great that I despair at my inability to show sufficient gratitude. She prepared it with mini meatballs. Let's go to the videotape.

A couple of brief "making-of" videos:

Extremes can be strange. You'd expect them to be like lesser instances, only more so. But sometimes they're a whole other thing; a different world. This is why "The very rich are different from you and me", and it's why "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." There's a threshold past which it's just strange. You can't anticipate it. You can't extrapolate it from what you already know. It's terra incognita.

This is because we are a conservative species that does a poor job with edge cases. We instinctively place the extraordinary adjacent to the very good, even if it's light years beyond. As I recently wrote:
Human beings compress extremes. We regress toward means. In plain language, we narrow our perspective, which means we "clip" the ends of the scale, mentally compressing extremes into a nondescript paste.
I've reviewed food that's good, delicious, and transcendent, and, once, a Oaxacan corn porridge/drink (which I dubbed "The Medusa Gruel") that went beyond the beyond:
As its sublime, all-embracing soulfulness penetrated every capillary, I became utterly lost within myself. The flavor simply would not fade. In waves, it permeated my internal universe, and I didn't realize I'd fallen into a stupor until Manuel came over and waved into my eyes and asked whether I was ok. It took effort to return to the conversation, as the afterglow still showed no signs of dimming, but I managed to wrench myself from its tendrils and resurface. Until, that is, my next sip, which again turned me to stone. I was eating very languidly, yet Manuel kept urging me, with a degree of urgent concern, to "¡Cálmate!", or calm down - which, even in my hazy state, struck me as an inapt instruction for someone who'd gone essentially catatonic.
That description bears no resemblance to anything I - or anyone else - has ever written about food. It's not relatable. There are peaks where we must abandon toolsets and find new means of description and comprehension. At a certain point along the upward reaches of the curve of declining results, the fog clears and we've landed elsewhere. Or turned into stone. Or who knows what.

I've also seen this with very rare and prized wines, and struggled to explain my experiences in a posting titled "The Beauty of Water, of Whiteness, and of Silence" (I'd strongly suggest reading the whole thing):
Having tasted 1929 Chateau Lafite, and many of the very greatest sakes, wines, beers, Chinese teas and spirits of the past century, I can report that those diverse experiences all triggered a similar observation: they all struck me as improvements on water. They uplifted its essential purity rather then masked it. All I've thought about while drinking those masterpieces was....water. I reveled in water. It's a miraculous feat! While anyone can tastefully mask water, improving on it is a seemingly impossible task because water is perfection.
The very best stuff has a shocking purity, a grace, an emptiness. You don't process it, it processes you. It's a whole other thing.

When I took my first bite of Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna, nothing happened. It fit my biology so precisely - the natural state of my taste and texture receptors - that it was devilishly hard to recognize it as something foreign to my mouth. It was like descending into a pool heated to body temperature. It was like kissing a mirror. You might pronounce it "light", but that would be grotesquely faint praise. It was evanescent. You search, but...nothing.

What the hell just happened???

So you take another bite, and it all repeats. Exactly, like a computer algorithm reliably producing the same answer to the same question until the heat death of the universe. While dream-like, it's also paradoxically rock solid because it's repeatable.

The experience of Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna was total intimacy...with no specificity whatsoever. No noodles. No sauce. No cheese. No lasagna. If anything, it was water. Pure water gently trickling. A soothing stream, at body temperature, scarcely vulgar enough to fill your gut or tickle your palate. Happy flipping Easter; you have received communion.

I will never eat another lasagna. Lasagna has been retired. I couldn't bear to eat a merely fantastically delicious one. I'd perish from the sadness.

Mamma Grimaldi also made parmigiana (because of course she did) and I was shocked to discover that I'd held a perfect holographic memory for three decades. This was a Swiss-precision match of my recollection. The prior parmigiana had imprinted like a trauma and, even all these years later - her age now advanced, and living in a sci-fi future with Internet and mobile phones - her concept and execution remain so solid that the parmigiana hasn't wobbled. My 28 year old self waved at me, and I, at 56, waved back. Sup.

Nutty. So nutty. Nutty from the flavorful wheat in the breadcrumbs. Nutty from the mild olive oil and ultra-gentle sauté . Nutty from the eggplant, grown in the sunny Grimaldi garden. Nutty from the rind-ish cheese. And, above all, nutty me, sitting there at the table, grinning widely like some dolt.

Amid all the nuttiness: a precisely calibrated zing of acidity from the tomatoes.

If you're still breathing normally, I pity you.

This sums up Mamma Grimaldi better than anything: After we'd risen from the table to resume terrestrial activity (more wafting than walking, though), she went straight to work on dinner, which was, ho-hum, totally normal, nothing special, an entire meticulously-split lamb's head.


And that's a rap.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Back in the Hemisphere

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Mamma Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples
Desserts and Lodgings
The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples
Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy

There's something you need to understand before you lay eyes on the long-awaited report about lunch at Mamma Grimaldi's house. I don't want to overload that report with background material, so let's briefly talk lasagna.

A regular reader of this Slog might get the impression that I'm obsessed with it. Here are just a few recent mentions.

Why Simplicity is Hard, on the foibles of reheating lasagna:
As I recently reheated some leftover lasagna (lasagna!!!) with brutish vapidity (belying the many years of experience behind my reheating choices), thunking the cold carby slab into a nonstick skillet at medium heat, drizzling a tablespoon or two of chicken stock into the pan, covering, and cutting heat back to low at first sizzle, I experienced a flash of self-awareness, showing me how Philistinian I looked.

Not a pretty picture. I appeared like some elderly British pensioner futzing around mournfully in his bathrobe, dutifully executing a series of tasks beginning with the opening of a reeking can of cat food. This is not how magic conjuring is assumed to look (yet again: magic is messy).

But then I transferred the lasagna to my plate and beheld a thing of beauty. The bottom was just starting to crunch/caramelize, and the rest was perfectly melty and moistened. As is often true, my reheating turned out better than the original. So-so lasagna was transformed into something that could make you weep.
"Cave of Forgotten Dreams", on lasagna as an examplar of the magical quality of art:
"....an exceptional lasagna might transport us in ways that can't be attributed to its constituent ingredients. Why, after all, do certain lasagnas have that power, while others do not? Why do some results amount to so much more than the sum of their parts? That's the magic!"
" "The Frets are Very, Very Far Apart", on entitlement:
For those convinced that we're the most suffering sufferers who've ever suffered...I have good news and bad. The good news is that we've been spoiled rotten, which explains why we gnash our teeth at the lower end of a spectrum of unprecedented prosperity, tolerance, and high-mindedness - as if someone's snatched away some tiny morsel of our towering portion of astoundingly delicious lasagna. The bad news is that when you've lost all sense of proportion, you curse yourself to apocalyptic pain whenever the floor drops further.
Bands I Like, on subjectivity in art appreciation:
I may know more about food than you do, but if we were to share a slamming plate of lasagna, you and I would feel an affinity. We'd know we were enjoying the same thing in the same way. But if we were to listen to music together, you'd see me smiling, grimacing, and rollling my eyes at what would strike you as completely random moments. You'd wonder what the hell I was hearing. There's no commonality!
And my magnum lasagna opus, Lasagna and Depression, a complete prescription for a happy life based on a sanely clear-eyed framing of the whole lasagna issue:
I love lasagna. Sure, everybody loves lasagna, but I love it more. If you ever saw me eating lasagna - even just pretty good lasagna - you'd be watching a happy fellow. You'd figure I was born to eat lasagna.

But do you know how many times per year I eat lasagna? Maybe once. If that.

There are lots of reasons. It's hard to find good. And it tends to be overpriced. And I try to eat healthy. So lasagna doesn't happen much for me. But the weird thing is how absolutely okay I am with that.

Now that you understand where I'm coming from with lasagna, we are ready to proceed. I'm assuming you've done your homework, per the assignment several postings back:
Coming up soon in this series: lunch at the table of Mamma Grimaldi, who I've been scheming to meet for 30 years, and who didn't disappoint. If I can assign some homework in preparation, please have a look at the devastating Mamma Grimaldi photo essay sent in a couple of years ago by her son, guitarist Andrea Grimaldi, a very old friend living near Barcelona. The three-part food porn glory begins here, and it will change your inner biology (not to oversell).

Next installment of my Italy trip: Mamma Grimaldi: The Final Lasagna

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples
Desserts and Lodgings
The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples

Roman Jewish cuisine is something I reluctantly felt obligated to try. I'm always skeptical of trendy cuisine; that's how crudely wonderful Neapolitan pizza became something refined; that's how Spanish tapas - cheap pub grub - turned into swank Iberian sexy swankness. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't believe there are remaining Roman Jewish grandmothers who grew up cooking this sort of thing, and art forms seldom lend themselves to artificial respiration.

But, again, I had to give it a go. There are a handful of places specializing in Roman-Jewish cuisine, all very famous, and the least pandering of them seemed to be Piperno.

I'm especially uncomfortable whenever cuisines get associated with one single dish. "You're going to Japan? Have some sushi!" Or "hey, Jewboy, betcha been munchin' on a whole lotta bagels, amiright?" I don't see much difference between insta-associating Russians with borscht and associating black people with watermelon. But I went ahead and ambivalently ordered the famous (famous!) carciofi alla giudia, described in my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, thus:
It was heavy with its oil saturation, reminding me of the Belarussian food I had in Brooklyn that channeled my late grandmother's cooking and floated my boat in primal ways I'd have preferred to keep moored.
I'd normally continue with "....but delicious!", after "heavy with oil saturation" but, as I wrote in that other report, a part of me harkens to sodden disgusting grease. I keep that part locked up in an inaccessible lobe of my brain, and normally don't let him order.

But even if you don't share my self-surprising old world proclivities (btw do you know where I can get a rickety cart full of second-hand pots and pans and filthy washcloths to hawk around my neighborhood?), you'll still find it delicious despite - if not because of - the oiliness. I wouldn't describe it as "good-oily", but it's every bit the special treat the photos convey.
Also: filetti di orata in crosta di patate, aka sea bream fillets in potato crust. Another dish from a bygone, mildewed era that excited my less enlightened and modern faculties, perhaps even engaging some sleeper agent encoding. I do, in fact, feel a certain yen to agitate against the czar.
Crostata con marmellata di visciole, aka tart with sour cherry jam. I'm unschooled in the fine points of 19th century European pastry, but my genome enables me to pronounce this a descendent from the Austro-Hungarian tradition. I can't tell you where this conclusion popped up from. It's like a child spontaneously speaking fluent Basque after some crisis, or an old uber-WASPY girlfriend of mine who once joined me for dinner in a restaurant doubling as an antique store. Without once glancing directly at any furniture, she declared with haughty certainty that they're "not real antiques". How can you tell? "I just know."

In that spirit, I just know this is Austro-Hungarian, and if you doubt me we might be forced to duel. I am, after all, a man of honor.

There's something stately about this kind of cooking (probably not a function of the Jewish/Italian hybrid so much as general old-school traditionalism). I wasn't raised eating with proper silverware on proper china, so whenever I pick up fork and knife with real heft to them, I feel a bit cowed and disoriented. But this food absolutely requires them - and starchy, heavy linen napkins, to boot. Have another look at that anachronistic potato-crusted fish fillet, and expand the photos for greater detail, and ask yourself: Wouldn't you'd need to eat that with a silver fork weighing about a half a pound - preferably a special purpose potato-crusted-fish-fillet fork with the second-to-last tine slightly inset for a perfectly logical reason People Back Then understood?

I've spent my life gulping tacos and pork buns, and, when flush, perhaps a paella or t-bone steak. But this sort of cooking is why people in olden times used heavy forks and starchy napkins. It's why they ate in jackets. It's why they sat rigidly for photos.
I have never, ever, in my life felt more shmucky to be wearing a t-shirt and sneakers. If I were sitting there stark naked, I'd scarcely have felt wronger. Not because of the ambiance or social morés (it wasn't a formal place, especially at lunch) or fancy decor, but because of the heft of the fork, and the heft of the food requiring that hefty fork, and the heft of the restaurant that cooked that hefty food that required that hefty fork. Lightweight chowhound idiot was not an apt terminus in that chain. All at once I get it: the silverware, the napkins, the dress code, the whole damned thing. The ways of older generations are suddenly ravelling. Martin, bring me my walking stick!

Jews may be famous for comedy, but Roman-Jewish Piperno was extraordinarily un-funny. Naples' Trattoria da Nennella, however, was a laugh-riot.
Bustling crowds straining to enter; a perfected-yet-undignified procedure for herding them in, and then back out again in 25 mins flat - all performed with a wink and a grin. There are private clubs in London where high-powered bankers pay big money to be scolded and slapped by imperious matrons while they dutifully sip their milk through straws. This is a bit like that. It's the kind of place where waiters theatrically berate you for not finishing your pasta. They're "real characters", the noise and the crowds and the dense-packing and fast turnovering are inherently barbaric, but, again, there's always that wink-and-nod.
If this were New Jersey (and it could definitely exist in Jersey) it would be played straight. But here it's played for farce, so you find yourself rolling with it. The crowd isn't just eager tourists; working class locals eat here, too. As do what look like bankers, perhaps there for some nostalgic disempowering.
I came for their big specialty dish (I had one job to do!): pasta with potatoes, swimming in a sauce of provolone cheese; a seriously old-school item that's otherwise been evaporating into the Neapolitan ether. I stole this photo from Yelp.
But I was distracted by a special of rigatoni with swordfish and potatoes, which I foolishly imagined would afford similar starch-on-starch bliss. Idiot. I should have returned another day and ordered correctly. It's one of those weighty regrets one carries with one.

How's the food? It's cheap. Really cheap, at 12-15 euros for the entire meal.
And it's exactly as it looks: prepared by untrained cooks with supermarket ingredients (the menu discloses the use of frozen foods; I wouldn't be surprised if my swordfish chunks came from a can) with the talent of a mediocre Italian home chef (i.e. damned good) but who've grinded out these dishes way more than the 10,000 iterations required for task mastery, so there's a certain snazzy sizzle to it all. Great...though obviously not-great. Or, perhaps, not-great....but obviously great. After mulling over Naples' culinary koan for a while, I texted my BnB host, Giancarlo, to say:
If I lived in Napoli I would go to Nennella either every day or else absolutely never. I honestly don’t know which.
He replied :
I can understand what you mean. In my opinion pasta with potatoes and provola cheese of Nennella is one of the best in Napoli.
My bad.

Light forks. Light knives. Light napkins. T-shirt fine.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Mama Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface

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