Saturday, March 19, 2016

How to Know If You're Doing it Right

"You shut your eyes when you taste my food because I keep my eyes wide open every second." - a great soul food chef, quoted by Newsday's Sylvia Carter

As I've mentioned, I've been building yet another crazy-ambitious project (I'm a glutton for punishment), along with a great, highly-dedicated team. One member of that team is a fellow who's as appreciative of Great Stuff, generally, as anyone I've ever met. It's been a bit rocky for him - as it inevitably is for us all - to come to realize the super-human exertions necessary to produce the magical, delightful sort of result he himself so richly appreciates.

I once tried to pin down the commonalities present in all the times I managed to attain such results, and it came down to the following:
Love. Care. Fervor. Attention. Intention. Subtlety. Detail. Commitment. "Doing justice to..." Or, as I more succinctly explained in my article explaining the magic of Steve Jobs, it's about "lavishing heart-breaking love and caring generosity and ingenuity into something - so much so that you almost can't stand it."

This is all that's necessary to transcend humanity's needlessly grey, grim, grinding experience. It's the open doorway of the divine. ... You only have to give a damn.
I went further still in describing the quiet, banal miracles I've seen produced by a certain "lowly" car detailer:
There is a level of care and ingenuity where miracles happen - though few appreciate them (the Bible's got it all wrong; miracles aren't big flashy affairs, they are subtle and easily overlooked). Wherever mere greatness is possible, there's always "a whole higher level" waiting to be mined in the asymptotic real estate atop the curve of declining results.

...The secret involves a wanton lavishing of embarrassingly earnest qualities such as love, attention, intention, and commitment.
My team member's work mostly involves cataloging a type of web site no one's ever previously catalogued. He must use his expert surfing skills (and knowledge of the topic) to ferret out not just good examples, but small miracles...again and again. A great big mountain of triumphant discoveries - akin to what I try to pull off in my food writing.

Most people would merely grind out the work, settling for good enough ("good enough" being, inherently, good enough). What's excruciatingly hard - like, "weep-while-you-work" hard - is to keep one's level of commitment jammed onto the very highest setting. To care much more, and try much harder, than is necessary. To break yourself a little trying to heat the whole ocean. Very few people manage this, and that's why there's not more greatness, or magic, or delight, in the world.

This morning, he shot me a quick email about a fantastic link he'd just excavated:
Great site. I'll have to return to explore that one further
It seems like an ordinary enough communication, but I knew better. I wrote back:
That is precisely how it feels to create something great.

A chef yearns for a moment to sit down and actually ENJOY the soup. A novelist wants to stand back and passively appreciate his fictional world. I, myself, have eaten 10,000 investigatory meals praying to someday return to relax and experience great meals.

This is how it feels to be of service, and to create something great. Shitty chefs, shitty novelists, and shitty food writers never experience this! They enjoy the process as it happens, because they're hardly working!

That feeling is the unmistakable sign that you’re doing it right. If you’re not feeling that feeling - if you're not just a bit envious of those who will be enjoying the fruits of your labors - then you’re just grinding it out, and not truly serving them. If you let this feeling become a drug, you'll forever NEED it, and will never settle for less from yourself.

"You shut your eyes when you taste my food because I keep my eyes wide open every second."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ants v Humans

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy"
- Albert Camus

I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable reversal, and who only with great weighty effort manage to soldier on - are the sad ones.

I'm also like an earthworm. And a reed.


From yesterday's NY Times (via Zaheer Alam Kidvai)
My father was the governor of Punjab Province from 2008 until his death in 2011. At that time, he was defending a Christian woman who had fallen afoul of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are used by the Sunni majority to terrorize the country’s few religious minorities. My father spoke out against the laws, and the judgment of television hosts and clerics fell hard on him. He became, in the eyes of many, a blasphemer himself. One January afternoon his bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, shot him dead as he was leaving lunch.

Mr. Qadri became a hero in Pakistan. A mosque in Islamabad was named after him. People came to see him in prison to seek his blessings. The course of justice was impeded. The judge who sentenced him to death had to flee the country. I thought my father’s killer would never face justice.
Qadri remained in jail for five years. The author hoped popular sentiment might have shifted due to the many bloody murders, acts of terrorism, and the appearance of ISIS during that time. Yet 100,000 showed up to mourn the killer, who had finally been put to death by the state for his crime.
It was among the biggest funerals in Pakistan’s history, alongside those of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the nation, and Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007. But this was no state funeral; it was spontaneous and it took place despite a media blackout.
My mind immediately reeled through a series of connections. First and foremost, to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who'd incensed hawks by daring to make peace. You can still see graffiti in parts of Brooklyn celebrating his murder. I know people who celebrate his murderer. They're quite nice, non-brutal people.

There's another connection, less violent but undeniably flowing from the same inner logic: conservatives making it their duty to target Republicans who've compromised in any (and I mean any) way with the Obama administration. Highly-respected leaders have been targeted for defeat via primary attacks fueled by massive spending for their opponents, for the crime of compromising with the enemy for the good of the state.

Finally, there are the Trump supporters who view opponents to Trump's candidacy as being against making America great again. If you buy that's what Trump's doing, then any attempt to thwart him is, by definition, anti-American. It's not even sick logic; it makes sense if you're in that mind frame. It would make sense for any of us. We all have this in us.

The central problem isn't religion, or political ideology, or racism. It's not even mob sentiment or extremism, per se. If you peel through the layers to the core of the problem, you'll find that it is, above and beyond all else, a matter of certainty.

And we celebrate certainty. Since the dawn of history, our heroes have been the staunchest of the staunch. People of unwavering conviction, adhering faithfully to a rigid code. The central problem of humanity is the intrinsic and bloody connection between our noblest quality and our most barbaric one. The connection is not often discussed, because a clear-eyed view unravels the fabric of what humanity most admires about itself (our "human exceptionalism", if you will).

All those bad guys shot to death by the white-hatted cowboys in those movies constitute a great big pile of slaughtered people. All the Nazi troops killed in WWII were a great big pile of slaughtered people. If we killed all of ISIS, that would be a great big pile of slaughtered people. Examine your shifting perspectives (and your attempts to morally justify them) as you consider various hypothetical piles of slaughtered people; it's easy to perceive - right here; right within yourself! - the impulses which drive human beings to celebrate such things. It's baked in. We all have this in us. Each and every one of us has a big pile of slaughtered people which we'd roundly celebrate.

As I wrote last month:
Evil...stems from the combination of desensitization and raised stakes. It is inevitable, because both factors seem biologically baked in. But hatred - the product of desensitization and rigidity - is optional. We've often chosen to make a virtue of rigidity, celebrating our staunch partisans, unyielding heroes, and any unquenchable drive to right "wrongs". We may want to reconsider that.

Consider the OJ Simpson verdict. Seeing massive numbers of African-Americans celebrating the vindication of a man who was clearly a double-murderer was one of the strangest and most troubling spectacles many of us had ever witnessed. Nearly all of these celebrants were nice, non-brutal people. The thing is, we don't all share the same certainties - though we certainly do share an impulse to justify our emotions, actions, and conclusions, at any cost, via those certainties.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Wonderful, Wonderful Woodside Avenue

In order to get this out there during a busy time in my Real Life, I didn't do much proofreading or polishing. Consider this an informal data dump.

The most intriguing short stretch of road I currently know is Woodside Avenue in Queens (one side of the street is in Woodside, the other in Elmhurst, complicating web searches). I'll focus today on three extraordinarily good, friendly restaurants serving seriously rare cuisines (Bhutanese, Indonesian, and Bolivian). All three deserve individual treatment, but this is not a food blog, so I have no aspirations of thoroughness.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi (67-21 Woodside Ave 718-458-8588) is the only Bhutanese restaurant to open in the Tristate area during my lifetime, and a quick Google search seems to confirm my suspicion that this is the only entirely Bhutanese restaurant in America, and perhaps in the western hemisphere. That would be enough, but it's also great. And friendly. What's more, while you'd expect Bhutan to be a slightly different inflection on Tibetan and Nepali-style cooking, nyuh-uh. Befitting the country's isolated geography, it's totally its own thing. The only culinary connection I make is to Jamaica, of all places, because the combination of tangy cheese (the Bhutanese are even more cheese-crazed than middle-Americans) and searing peppers is a dead ringer for Jamaican scotch bonnet mac-n-cheese.

I've fallen into habitual ordering there, only because this combination works so great:

Puta noodles - originally ordered because I was dining with native Spanish speakers who couldn't stop howling with laughter at the name (and, yes, the pasta puttanesca jokes have already been done). They're buckwheat, very soba-like, but there's also some numbing Sichuan peppercorn action in there, which makes little sense, geographically.

Dried beef with string beans (I forgot the Bhutanese name)

Keyroa Datsi - "Datsi" is the class of dishes available in different configurations that every cuisine seems to feature. It's a garlicky, chili-hot cheese sauce. Ema datsi, the national dish and the restaurant's namesake, is the default choice, and it's largely just the sauce (which absolutely deserves to stand on its own). Shamo datsi, with mushrooms, is damned tasty. But keyroa datsi has potatoes. Nuff said.

Tingmo (Tibetan steamed bread) and momo (Nepali dumplings) are both better than at restaurants specializing in their respective cuisines. The Bhutanese touch is a good touch.

Note: I called this an "entirely Bhutanese restaurant" even though they offer Tibetan, Nepali,and Indian dishes, because 1. it's flamingly Bhutanese (the name is literally "Bhutanese Ema Datsi"), and 2. those other things seem to be almost condescendingly offered, the way a diner might include a pasta section (I'm sure those dishes are great, though; the chef's a magician).

Upi Jaya Indonesian (76-04 Woodside Ave, Elmhurst, NY; 718-458-1807; closed Mondays

This was once my favorite Indonesian restaurant in New York, but it's been on a long downhill jag. On the other hand, they started out so lofty that they're still a very worthy eat, especially given how hard it is to find good Indonesian. Compared to other local choices, I prefer a downhill Upi Jaya to the others in their prime (though my heart belongs to Hardena, the Philly restaurant run by the former chef of the Indonesian consulate basement cafeteria which I featured in my first book).

Also, they do a great version of melinjo krupuk (a.k.a. emping), a hard-to-find fave of mine: crispy crackers made from bitter nuts.

I'm putting Renacer Bolivian Restaurant 67-03 Woodside Ave 718-476-2200, closed Tuesdays) third, to make room for photos (please click on each for the full porn). I ate there last night amid a mad screaming, dancing, singing scene of football madness, but the sheer quality of the food lifted me through the ordeal.

The mountainous Incan-descended cuisines of South America are all similar, so you taste lots of flavors familiar from Peruvian and Ecuadorian cooking, but there's a special touch. In all these countries, the mountain food is a whole different creature than the coastal food, and this place specializes in the former.

They were out of the potato soups I was hoping for (Chairo, freeze-dried potato soup, and Sopa de Locro cheesey potato soup) but we enjoyed the hell out of sopa de mani, ultra-creamy peanut and potato soup studded with shreds of carrot, curiously perfectly bisected green peas, and topped with french fries, unceremoniously dumped on like Paul Bunyon's potato sticks.

Salteñas are baked empanadas. They're sweet and oniony/raisiny like Chilean, but these guys also add mustard (I'm not sure how much of a Bolivian thing that is). Good pastry here.

Falso Conejo "False Rabbit" made with very thin, breaded fillets of beef topped with a sophisticated sauce studded with yellow peppers. As with the Italian dish of the same name (a connection I don't understand; Bolivia's not like Argentina or Uruguay, with their large Italian populations): they're not imitating rabbit so much as treating meat with sauce you'd normally use with rabbit.

Majao Cambita: tendrils of dried beef cooked into rice, along with onions, yellow plantains and egg. A seemingly random aggregation of foods, but this is deep Bolivian soul food, and it all works beautifully together. Sorry for the dark photo; I figure it's better than nothing.

Charquekan The stand-out. Dried beef - teased into frayed cords fried to a nearly glass-like crunchiness, served atop mote (big boiled hominy corn) with boiled potatoes, boiled egg (a whole boiled egg, in its shell), and blocks of (very good) cheese. At this point I've remembered to turn on the flash. Definitely click to expand that shot.

As a side, we ordered Chuño , dark mountain potatoes, which are alien-looking. Served very plain on a dish.

Spudophilia compels me to note that the boiled white potatoes included as afterthoughts amid some of the juicier entrees were splendid. Cooked not to the right point, but to the right nano-second, they were silken and somehow subtly different in every application. Bolivia is for potato lovers.

Moqochinchi is a refreshing drink of dried peaches and cinnamon. Order a pitcher.

Api is a purple corn drink, like Peruvian chicha morada, only here it's served infernally hot, murdered with big hunks of terrifying spices (you can see some spiky spear of something emerging from the muck) and thick as pancake batter. Delicious, but a not-in-Kansas (NIK) experience.

Dessert evoked deep contemplation. Huminta sounds like a misspelling of "humita", the Ecuadorian word for tamal. And, indeed, this is steamed in corn husks. But the interior, which is tamal-ish coarse corn studded with some cheese, had a different flavor and texture than anything I've ever eaten. Really, it could have been from, like, Bhutan. It took a couple dozen bites before I realized what it reminded me of: cake. Humintas are more like cake than cake itself. Don't ask me to explain, I'm powerless on this one. Go try it, and you try to explain!

We hit most of the purely Bolivian menu items, but, alas, didn't get any Pikacapas Cochabambinas, red-topped slighly spicy, cheese-filled round empanadas popular during Carnival.

Other Woodside Avenue Fascination

The fact that Ayada Thai (7708 Woodside Ave 718-424-0844) merits a mere honorable mention speaks to the stupendous fascination of this stretch of road. Ayada once served me perhaps the best dish I ate in all of 2010, but only one subsequent version has been its equal.

I've never given Spicy Shallot (77-05 Woodside Ave 718-672-5266) a proper try, though I jotted down at one point that they offer homemade sun-dried sausage. Khao Kang (76-20 Woodside Ave 718-662-8721) is another Thai I need to explore more. I guess Ayada Thai acts like Jupiter, its substantial gravity repelling lesser objects.

At the other end of the Avenue, near Roosevelt Avenue, Cuckoo’s Nest (6104 Woodside Ave) is reputed to make excellent burgers and curry fries, and Ottomanelli runs a renowned butcher shop at 6105 Woodside Ave and an equally renowned burger place at 60-15 Woodside Ave. Finally, of course, the legendary H Mart/HanAhReum Korean supermarket at 59-18 Woodside Ave

I hasten to add that there's a LOT more goodness in this stretch. I've only just begun. But with three Jupiters in this planetary system (not even counting Ayada), it's going to be awfully slow exploration.

Alert readers may have noted that dried beef was an important ingredient in both the Bhutanese and the Bolivian. You'd imagine they might agree to share a source. But, curiously, even amid the extreme melting pot of NY restaurants, I've only seen one single food item jointly sourced by multiple ethnicities: Korean dduk and Taiwanese rice cakes are considered interchangeable by both parties. Just that one instance!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

More Sane Words

More insightful and blessedly clear-headed writing from William Saletan, who I quoted yesterday

I strongly recommend giving it a ten minute read.

Brief excerpt:
How did the GOP end up in this madness? By twisting itself to thwart and vilify Obama. Cruz paints the president as a traitor “who doesn’t believe in the mission of our military and who undermines them at every step.” Rubio, incensed at Obama’s inclusive language, repeatedly excoriates him for “talking about discrimination against Muslims.” Both senators pledge to shred the Iran agreement on their first day in office—apparently out of spite, since renouncing the agreement would free Iran of its nonproliferation commitments without recovering the money that was relinquished in sanctions relief.

Sane Words About the Republican Party

Slate's William Saletan offers the sanest, pithiest, and most eloquent analysis I've heard to date of how the Republican Party set the stage for Trump:
The Republican party as it's constituted today doesn't actually stand for anything in particular. It stands against liberalism, but that's not exactly coherent.

What the Republican party has become now is the party that's against Barack Obama; everything Barack Obama stands for. If Republicans had been right that Obama was a crazy leftist, then by opposing him at every turn - which is what they've done - they would have made their party a moderate, centrist, politically popular party.

Instead, Obama was a moderate; a practical centrist. And therefore, by opposing him at every turn; by holding the nation's credit rating hostage in the debt ceiling talks; by coming out against the Iran deal when they had no alternative but war; by becoming the party that's against not just illegal but LEGAL immigration, they have pushed their party to the extreme. And that is what has left them in a situation where Donald Trump now represents their voters.

As far as I'm concerned, anyone who uses the term "liberal" to describe Obama is as disregardably ignorant as those who call him a Muslim or a Kenyan. He's been the very definition of a moderate (unless you're so far to the right that the center seems like the left).

While, as a moderate/centrist myself, I'm unusually open to differing viewpoints, I've decided that I no longer consider this an arguable point.

Update: see Saletan's reasoning at greater length here

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