Monday, August 30, 2021

My Portuguese Rosebud

In 1992, when I was last in Portugal, I was only beginning to eat fish. Like many chowhounds, I was a picky eater, something I never felt obligated to apologize for. After all, what is chowhounding but extreme pickiness? But I was starting to play less and write more, so I could no longer could indulge culinary whims. I made myself like fish.

My biggest early boost was in a seafood restaurant right on the river across from Lisbon. You had to take a ferry to get there, and it was one of three restaurants right at the boat landing. My contact there, a local music producer with the improbable name of Vítor Hugo, had booked me for a jazz master class and concert, and, having heard about my whole food mania, led me directly into a seaside dining room so skinny you could touch both walls with the span of your arms. We sat on small wooden boxes as the gravely waiter, wielding an enormous pot and an enormous ladle, spooned out steaming soupy arroz de mariscos, sort of like paella soup with coriander and replete with clams, mussels, shrimp, lobster, and unidentified gloriously delicious sea monsters.

It was one of the greatest meals of my life, and I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve thought of it, if only briefly, every day for 29 years. I always figured I’d be back soon, but then Chowhound happened (supposed to be a two or three year enterprise, though it’s now going on 25), and then recovering from Chowhound happened, and I didn’t make it back until now. So very far into the future.

I somehow lost three decades, and it’s very disorienting, especially at moments like this. I’d booked a room in Almada, near the ferry, and ambled around the port, which seemed unrecognizable. It was jammed to bursting with huge, loud mega cafes. I stood there moist-eyed amid the touristic mediocrity, like one of Colombus' crew trying to recognize his pristine Hispaniola amid the clatter of 2021 Santo Domingo.

One place claimed to be an arroz de mariscos specialist, so I headed there and it was half as good as my previous (people always say food memory lies, but my palate's proven to have perfect recall). Still real good, though.







I made mistakes eating this, because I was rusty. The waiter was solicitous but not quite condescending, because he sensed some facet of some fraction of my story. As I ate, I picked up steam, regaining my sea legs, so to speak. I sucked shrimp brains, and dissected exoskeletons like a surgeon. As he brought the check, the waiter called me "amigo", and this is not friggin' Mexico where this is done glibly.

But it was not like my arroz de marisco. Not even close.

A few weeks ago, I explained a memory trick which involves letting memories surface at their own pace, slow and steady. 12 hours after this meal, I recalled that my gig and my meal were not in Almada, but in Seixal, a village 15 minutes up the coast with its own Lisbon ferry service. So I made my way there, and suddenly the restaurant's name flashed into my head: Pescador. The Fisherman! I found an obscure reference on the web, in Portuguese, along with an address, and I drove straight there, discovering that it was exactly where I'd remembered! And still super skinny! But now it has a new name and it’s dolled up.



As I stood frozen before the window, an old-timer limped by, so I grilled him in broken Portuguese. "Yeah, I think I remember...." he croaked out possibly his last words on this planet, "but that place closed a long, long time ago. Different owners now.” He shrugged and kept walking. A representative of the single most sentimental culture on Earth, and he couldn’t even button it for me. No “A shame!”  No “It was great!” Nothing. Just exit stage left.

I’d arrived too late. I’d thought I had all the time in the world. But you can't fast forward three decades without repercussions. 1992 feels like yesterday to me (I honestly don’t remember much from the Chowhound years, or my recuperation years thereafter). I’m still there. But the world moves on.

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal

Odd food day in Portugal. I’ve been here a while (will try to post previous eats eventually) and needed a change of pace, so I started out with chicken momo with not-quite-hot-enough sauce, pretty good, at a Nepali restaurant in Almada called "Base Camp", which strikes me as an extremely clever name (though if I were Nepali, it might be like calling a soul food restaurant "Aunt Jemima's", Idunno).



Many hours later, I closed out with carill de frango do campo. "Carill" seems to translate to "doghouse", so I just ordered it on a whim, and found that it was curried chicken.



I know what you're saying: "curry in Portugal....ugh bad move". But nyuh-uh. Goa, a state of India, was a former colony of Portugal's, and while it's damned hard to find serious Goan food here, Indian touches have baked deeply into the food culture. So if British-style curry (harsh and scrapey) is a slap in the face to Indian chefs, this is more gracious. And I'm a sucker for "country" chicken in Iberia (see the bruisers at my all-time favorite restaurant, The House of Garlic Mayonnaise in Badalona, just north of Barcelona). 

This was just some stupid anonymous bar on a grimy street of a not-food town (Dom Afonso Henriques 10, Almada). And pretty great. Nine euros.

This is why we go to Portugal.



Tuesday, August 24, 2021

High Difficulty

To any visitors from the future who've accidentally found their way into the Slog (not sure how; since no one links here, Google barely indexes the Slog, leaving it essentially invisible), I have a humble request: Please take into account the high difficulty rating.

I write all this without a drop of feedback, and pretty much without readers (I envision a few morbidly curious ex-girlfriends and a small claque of chowhound diehards patiently awaiting errant reports of yum-yums).

These writings might be anywhere between "brilliant" and "demented". Not sure. No one helps with that determination, leaving me at the mercy of my merciless self-skepticism (a few entries which have withstood my withering self-critique are indexed at left; I reread them sometimes to restore my faith that maybe I'm not completely wasting my time).

In installment 4 of my tale of the sale of Chowhound to a big corporation, I note how at my low point of bedraggled impoverished desperation, I was approached by the Macarthur Foundation:
I'd received an email from none other than the Macarthur Foundation - the "genius grant" folks who toss $500,000, with no strings attached, at people doing clever and/or useful things. And they were writing to invite me to, uh, well.....to serve on the nominating committee! You know; to help them find deserving recipients out there! People who could stand to be rewarded with half a million bucks for their fine, outside-the-box work! Do I know anyone like that?

I dutifully sent in a few nominations, including one for the Arepa Lady . And I was happy to do so, though none of my suggestions won. But it felt like someone crawling, thirsty, through a desert being asked to point jolly folks passing in a late model SUV toward parched souls who might like some lemonade.
That's how it goes for me. Utterly confusing surreality. I like to insist that life's sweetest if you opt out of framing yourself as starring in a movie. But it's hard to avoid the impression that I'm starring in a spoof for the amusement of some unseen extreme comedy nerd.

Me, I never got a dinner. But I watch beloved people of letters breathlessly followed by crowds of cognoscenti, their every mild witticism evoking guffaws. I do not yearn for easy guffaws. Receivers of easy guffaws stop trying and start Bob Hoping. Smug gloaters. It's perilously easy to reframe yourself as The Guy Who Does The Thing, rather than as a Thing-Doer. That's when the doing stops being any good.

So I’d make a miserable beloved Bob Hope. I'm here to drive it till it drops, a thing-doer who's 100% crew and 0% "talent". I strongly agree with Albert Camus that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. I am, as I've previously written, an Ant:
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 round of smashings, and who only with great suffering manage to soldier on with reconstruction - are the sad ones.
As always, I've been granted my wish (I'm always granted my wishes). I'm not being pestered, distracted, or flattered away from doing my damndest. And doing my damndest is the goal; not becoming a celebrated figure renowned for doing his damndest.

But here's the thing. To come up with - and explain - credible fresh insights no one's previously come up with is hard (I credit my younger self, who unselfconsciously marinated on various questions through the decades). But to do so in a vacuum is excruciating, much more difficult without feedback, applause...heck, even negative feedback from haters or naysayers. Any calibrating reflection, however wavy. One needs some indication beyond muffled silence; some glimmer beyond the opaque dead ends. Not to improve morale or to elevate pride, but simply to have something to grind against.

I've lived a binary life. Always X and the-opposite-of-X. I'm a schlub and a star. A loser and a winner. Smart and dumb. Kind and assholic. I can simultaneously hold an idea and its opposite in my mind without discomfort, because I'm cursed with enduring sanity and only a depraved kook maintains a lofty self-image in a world consistently offering, ahem, contrasting assessment.

So I'm probably doing what I think I'm doing at the quality level I believe I'm doing it at. But I'm also plying overheated annoying nonsense for no discernible purpose. Both. Always both! And at this point, I'm really too old to be pushed fully one way or the other - though the aforementioned postings in the left margin have, for the first time, solidly beefed up the not-total-nincompoop argument, sparking an unfamiliar sensation that I suspect might be some low-simmering precursor of pride.

I wouldn’t want to hear cries of "Nice job!" People garner hundreds or thousands of social media likes and repostings for stating the obvious, for stroking confirmation bias, and for sharing shots of adorable kittens. I'll opt out, thanks. I do not seek cheap Skinner box rewards. And I recognize that my entire proposition here is the antithesis of confirmation bias. Year after year, I delight in explaining how our assumptions are wrong and our impulses are self-defeating....while goofily expecting readers to welcome this, and revel in it!

Hey, I'm just following the Golden Rule! I'm offering what I like! I love sussing out my wrongness and self-defeating habits. I adore surprise, even when the surprise makes me the joke's butt. Above all, I've been focused on trying to become smart rather than to feel smart. It's a highly eccentric choice, but one can't have it both ways. Becoming smart means feeling perpetually dumb, because that's how learning happens. Most people don't/can't learn because they'd need to presuppose that something's missing…which is unthinkable! I've set myself up to learn, which explains how a shmucky B+ student from the paneled rec room basement zones of 70s suburbia - a child of foosball and Asteroids, who remains utterly unimpressive - managed to cough up numerous credible fresh insights no one's previously come up with. I enjoy the grace of a highly-determined idiot (and keep offering the secret here, hoping someone will take it and run and do way better than I have).

Again, it's just my adherence to the Golden Rule. Like an adoring puppy eagerly offering its owner a stiff, bloody pigeon carcass, I proffer the gift I'd most desire: perspective on your enduring wrong-headed stupidity. And I’m absurdly confused by the utter non-response.

Despite my broad self-awareness (I’ve framed this about four different ways so far, above), the silence still oppresses. Yet I know this is the best possible outcome. Outcomes are always best-possible. The universe unfailingly contrives the necessary circumstance for evolution and learning, even if it's hard to see it. And, having learned this, I can appreciate the perfection while also ruing it. Just because it's so much harder this way.

Working in a vacuum - essentially pulling a Salinger, though hidden in plain sight - is extraordinarily difficult. If I could finally convince myself I was doing something legit great, I might enjoy some helpful tailwind. If crowds hung on every word, I might reframe the enterprise and transcend to better heights. As a devoted karma yogi, my commitment level is permanently pinned to "11", but the latent potential for transcendence is always there. I can scarcely enumerate the eurekas overlooked, or the awkward, wordy explanations that might have been streamlined by some elegant, ingenious turn of phrase springing into my head if I knew it really mattered to people. 

I worry that I'm not reaching my potential because, at some level (i.e. plainly evident reality, at least at the surface) I’m an enfeebled has-been self-indulgently droning on and on in an invisible blog. Such a launching pad is encumbered by especially sticky gravity. High difficulty!

I don't turn my mind often to that self-image. I opt out of drama, which is why I no longer get depressed. But there's a legitimate question: Is that yet another horrific flight of fancy my brain cooks up to bait and hook me? Or is it reality....while the lofty notion that I'm aptly channeling my talent (and fuck 'em all if they don't realize) is the flight of fancy? Am I quietly, honorably building something worthy, or am I a kook compulsively erecting an ugly ramshackle Watts Tower?


It's obvious that, even at this late date, I still sometimes struggle with the dilemma that sparked this Slog's founding insight as I struggled, so many years ago, to decide whether I was experiencing a grim lonely Christmas Eve, or a glorious peak moment of comfort watching a terrific movie on a great big TV from an extraordinarily comfy couch. I’ve grown very clear about that, but not 100% clear. Human beings don’t do 100% anything!



Monday, August 23, 2021

Sniffing the Tribal Tendencies of Local Retail

Being vaccinated, I mostly don't wear a mask. But I dislike kerfuffles, so I've developed a sixth sense for tribal morés.

Starting in the center, with CVS, and working leftward:
CVS: No mask*

Bakery: Mask in hand, just in case.

Starbucks: Mask on.

Trader Joe's: Mask, distancing.

Whole Foods: Mask, distance, hazmat suit, and CDC vaccination card glued to my forehead.
Now moving rightward from center:
Local Gin Mill: Mask off upon entering.

Auto Repair Shop: Mask off before entering

Home Depot: Hide mask carefully (no ear strap dangling from pocket).

Indie Hardware Store: Hide vaccination card. If I must search through wallet for a credit card, I do so below counter level to avoid shame and embarrassment.


*- though if I need to sneeze, I try to move away from people, and sneeze into the crook of my arm.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Expert/Layman Triage Fallacy

I'm replaying this posting from January 2019. It's a fallacy I've never seen pointed out before....and its' kooky how impossible it is to make the other person see they're doing it. The comments below are interesting, as well.


I love ferreting out common cognitive failings that are otherwise unnoticed. This one is huge - you can spot it everywhere - but I've never seen anyone point it out. It’s so unilluminated that it’s nearly impossible to make someone see it when they’re in the midst of it. In fact, it's so hard to explain that I can only do so anecdotally. Two examples:

Example #1

Computer Programmer: "Please stop adding tasks to this job. I am full up. Consider the request line closed unless you're ready to pay me a ton more money."

Me: "Ah, ok, sure. It's a pity, as I was really hoping you could make the thing do the thing when they do the thing."

Programmer: "Oh, well, that’s trivial. I can do that, no problem."

Me: "Oh, great! Also, it would be nice if it did the opposite thing if you don't make the thing do the thing when they do the thing."

Programmer: "That’s just a simple toggle. You’ll get that, absolutely."

Me: "Wow, fantastic! Hey, one last thing. Those last two turned out to be trivial, and there’s another, though I will not - repeat: will not! - add it to your task list if it's time-consuming. If it's okay, I'll ask just on the odd chance that, like those two previous things, it turns out to be super trivial. Can’t hurt to ask, right? Hahaha! Would it maybe be super easy to make the blue thing act like the red thing when they press the yellow button? Again, if this is a pain, just ignore this."

Programmer: "Jim. My friend." [Speaking through clenched teeth] "I enjoy working with you, and I wish you every success with your project. But I have already informed you that the task list is closed. What you ask would take hours of work. Kindly stop burdening me, effective immediately."

Me: "But...but...but...you just said...."

Example #2

Patient: "I'm not sure if this is meaningful, but my handwriting keeps getting smaller and smaller."

Doctor: "That’s very meaningful. It's a classic warning sign of Parkinson’s. Hold on while I muster every possible medical resource to stave off this debilitating illness."

Patient (a year later): "I have this strange numbness radiating down my left arm. It's not really bothering me, but it's weird. And I can't quite catch my breath."

Doctor: "Thank goodness you told me. You are quite possibly having a heart attack."

Patient (a year later): "I know this is crazy, and I doubt it's of any importance, but sometimes minor stuff's significant, so here goes. My thumbnail is growing more quickly than usual."

Doctor: "It means Spring's coming late this year? Maybe you're part lobster?" [suppresses eye-roll, mentally noting this classic example of petty patient alarmism]

Patient: "But...but...but...you just said...."


Followup posting here.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

More Hearing Stuff

Apropos of my piece yesterday about how going deaf is like running low on milk, here's writer and public radio producer Jon Kalish's incredibly thorough survey of alternate options for hearing assistance. The piece is titled "Making Low-Cost, Stigma-Free Tech Solutions for Hearing Loss a Reality", but I don't agree that stigma is truly an issue these days, unless someone is terminally locked in the past. As I wrote a couple years ago in "Hearing Aid Adventure",
The days of bulbous beige mushrooms are gone. A stylish sliver hides behind my ear, and you can't spot the filament extending into my ear canal even if you're looking for it. Ear buds are 10,000 times clunkier, and they're stylish; a status symbol.
Why wouldn't I want sleeker, smaller, less intrusive and infinitely higher quality earbuds that also solve my whole, y'know, deafness problem? You can totally stream smartphone audio through hearing aids, offering music and radio and podcasts invisibly. My hearing aids are vastly lighter, more comfortable, and better-sounding than the clunky Air Pods you're so proud of. Everyone's walking around with conspicuous earwear. So where's the stigma?

In fact, when you think about it, the stigma never made much sense. Back to my article again:
I've worn, since childhood, a highly intrusive medical device on the front of my face, revealing to one and all the feeble weakness of my vision; my deficit. Yet not only are my glasses no big deal, but I've been deliriously happy to see that, for example, trees have leaves (and not just blurry green halos).

So I can also put on a far less conspicuous gadget and hear individual leaves blowing in the wind and crunching underfoot? Awesome! More perception-boosting gizmos, please!

Kalish is one of my three favorite radio people. If you're into radio, check out also Sara Fishko and the incomparable Joe Frank. The best radio host who ever interviewed me was Brian Lehrer of WNYC, who's amazing - though people might not realize it because he's so goddamned smart and smooth and transparent that he calls scant attention to himself.

What's it Like to Go Deaf?

I've been losing my hearing at a fairly rapid clip. It's more than half gone, so I've accepted that my aural world is seriously contracted, and will only get worse. What was once vibrant and richly absorbing is now gestural and distant.

As a kid, I was deeply pained by the story of Beethoven conducting his final symphony and being unable to hear the triumphant applause (it's said that a musician gently spun him around toward the audience, which makes for a poignant story, but I assure you that conductors never forget there's an audience behind them, and can pivot on their own to acknowledge applause, audible or not).

I don’t view things that way anymore. A few years ago I started opting out of telling myself sad stories about my life. I'm not living on-screen, so there’s no need to play out cinematic scenes. But even though I no longer self-indulgently troll myself, it's still surprising how little I've grieved over my deafness. I'm barely even annoyed by it. I've been straining for a metaphor, and think I finally found it. Here's what going deaf is like: It's like running low on milk.

When you run low on milk, maybe you won't eat cereal because you need to save some for morning coffee. There are tradeoffs and compromises, but they're taken in stride. Nobody yells "DAMMIT!" because they can't enjoy Corn Flakes right this minute. Certain tanks aren't always full, so we adapt and compensate. No biggie.

If you really fixated on it, you could make yourself miserable over the deprivation. No Corn Flakes! No milkshakes! No chocolate milk or bechamel sauce! You could, with effort, manage to pitch a fit over losing the option.

But we don't, because we're oddly sane about resource management. We don't become emotional wrecks when the gas needle moves left, or as we use up soap or toilet paper or cell plan minutes. Having framed these things as depletable, we don’t launch displays of grief and anguish.

It's a lot easier to buy more milk than to buy more hearing, of course. But the thing is, milk runs out all the way - no more milk! - while hearing, usually, doesn't. Hearing-wise, there's usually a drizzle of milk for the coffee. And probably enough for some Corn Flakes, too, if you handle it sensibly!

The "low fuel" light flashes, but the car's still moving. There'll be no extended bubbly shower with a mere sliver of soap, but you can get clean if you're reasonably strategic. That's what going deaf is like. There's stuff to forego and to adopt to, but you can hear what you need to hear if you're reasonably strategic (e.g. captions always on). No running the air conditioner on the low fuel tank. No playful soap beards hanging from your chin. But until it runs out all the way, it feels as mildly inconvenient as being low on milk.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Pattern Matching For Glorious Life Victory

Great minds discuss ideas.

Average minds discuss events.

Small minds discuss people.

And teeny-tiny minds pattern match.


I had a conversation with someone who was complaining about the Right in some way, and of course the complaints were well-deserved. But it was an issue that's not a Left/Right thing, it's an American thing, and I began to point out the many ways the Left does the same. His face lit up, and he pointed at me, ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

"Both Sides!", he thundered with withering contempt and triumphant delight. Check frickin' mate.

Match pattern, win life. We're living in a crap video game.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Killer 24 Hours of Food, Starring POTATO TAHDIG

In June, I wrote about a palatial Persian restaurant in Doha, Qatar I'd discovered while feverishly chowhounding online (the next best thing to eating!). The food looked crazy good (do check out the link if you missed it), and launched me on a whirlwind virtual tour of Persian cuisine, culminating in my discovery of potato tahdig.

Here's the original potato tahdig photo, plus some new ones I found here:


Tahdig is crunchy rice scraped from the bottom of the pot. Nearly every culture outside America and Canada makes and worships this, and they all give it a unique name (there's even a Wikipedia page listing many of them). I'm acquainted with most of those versions, but never imagined potato tahdig. Friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani mentioned it to a Persian-American co-worker, who casually replied that she and her mother make it all the time.

WHAT??????????????????

Fast forward a few weeks. The co-worker, Abby, offered to bring her mother's leftovers to work, under condition that we eat it first thing in the morning, for freshness. Since the office was far away and I'd need to be in full eating mode at dawn, I booked a hotel the night before, which necessitated ambitious dinner plans, so we hit Thai Angel way out in Suffolk County (just south of Long Island Expressway exit 57), a great place largely unknown to Tristate area food fans. I'd eaten there shortly after its opening, but hadn't been back in many years, and it's still great. We had Thai sausage fried rice (so moist and fluffy), pork larb (generous with the rice powder) and hot sweet basil duck, a recipe from the chef/owner's home region (I forget exactly where, but it's not as far north as Issan) that was crunchier than Crunch itself. All as great as ever. My photos, alas, have disappeared. But you may Yelp.

A few hours later, it was time for Persian breakfast. Behold the angelic baghali polo (dill rice with fava beans):


This is not an Eastern European application of dill which clings to your filthy beard as you slurp copious vodka. Who knew dill could be so classy? And the fava beans were sneaky. I've written previously about how the loftiest deliciousness calls scant conscious attention to itself as you consume it. It can be like a perfectly-synchronized highway merging, where nothing is perceived as changing. I'd barely welcomed the fava beans into my cellular structure before they'd begun making mysterious and wonderful adjustments to my mood and spirit from within.

And, finally, ladies and gentlemen, the new taste sensation of potato tahdig:


This was unlike any potato dish I've ever tasted. It happens sometimes (though rarely) that a region has such a firmly unfamiliar concept of a certain food that it exerts a gravitational force, pulling you to a place you've never been. It's "false nostalgia" galore as your view of potatoes shifts to that of Iranian grandmas who see potatoes very differently than you or I do.
The classic example of this for me is the use of coriander ("coentros") in the Portuguese region of Alentejo, south of Lisbon. There, and only there, coriander has an entirely different... I don't want to say "flavor", because it's the same coriander as anywhere else. But the effect is jarringly unique, and I doubt anyone will/could ever explain why. Alentejans just love coriander - and in a completely different way which bears no resemblance to the love shown in the world's other coriander hotspots. If you venture just an hour beyond Alentejo, coriander goes back to tasting like coriander. I never order açorda (bread soup) or porco Alentejana (pork and clams) unless the chef was born and raised in Evora. Otherwise, it will taste pedestrian. Unthrilling. Just some coriander thrown into your food.
After a lifetime spent madly infatuated with potatoes, I've found a fresh approach. A civilizational shift of spuds. I nearly ululated.


I'd planned to bring along my favorite Turkish pastry, burma kadayıf (which my smart phone app, Eat Everywhere, describes as "a tight, crunchy pistachio-filled braid of frizzy, buttery baked noodles soaked in syrup"). Nazar, a Turkish grill and grocery in Deer Park, normally carries pastries from fantastic Gulluoglu Cafe in Brooklyn, including their blessed burma kadayıf. However, Gulluoglu Cafe has closed (at least the Brooklyn store; their branches in Turkey remain open, for all the good that does me). So the owner of Nazar recommended this brand of frozen pastries from Turkey, which she promised was fantastic:


"Just defrost at room temperature and serve," she told me. I was skeptical, but it was fantastic. A whole other take on pistachios (yes, two civilizational shifts in one day!).

For lunch, I'd pushed for a visit to an untried Italian restaurant, Trullo D'Oro in Hicksville (here's their Yelp page, for more photos). For some forgotten reason, it had attracted my attention months ago from online photos. Unable to let go of the infatuation, I dragged the entire office (still groaning from rice, potato, and pastry breakfast) to this random place, which turned out to be great in several superlative ways.

It's the best Roman home-style restaurant I've found in America (it reminded me - and I am very aware of the gravity of this statement - a little bit of Mamma Grimaldi's cooking, being from the same area). It's the best Italian restaurant I currently know in Long Island. And it's just a great place, owned by an immigrant, Gino, who's totally into it. No fakery. No posing. No self-transformation into an pandering caricature from "the old country". It's just the real deal, without shtick or pretension. You could be There.

Bruschetta was quite good, though the tomatoes were second-rate.

The first-rate tomatoes (clearly from someone's garden) are reserved for the mozz-and-tomatoes. That's so Italian! When one of us asked for more balsamico, Gino jovially bellowed "No!" The balsamico, which is generously high quality, is reserved for this dish, apportioned in exactly this way, and is not some condiment to be freely lathered upon one's food like ketchup or mustard. That, too, is so Italian (an American might find this ungenerous, but it's simply correct).

We'd ordered three entrees for four people, a grave mistake/insult/blasphemy/catastrophe. Gino didn't make a fuss, but was far from happy about it. He hastily resolved our faux pas by offering to bring an off-menu pasta dish with breadcrumbs and squash. We meekly agreed, but he was already striding back to the kitchen with our order. And here's that dish:

It was the best thing. This simple concoction was a "10", and perhaps the best home-style pasta dish I've had in a restaurant outside Italy. I uttered the name of Mamma Grimaldi while eating it, feeling an immediate pang of stabbing shame and guilt, but then decided it was okay. She's better - much better! - but I think she'd approve.

Insanely great, insanely light, insanely fluffy, insanely delicious eggplant parm with perfect Italian-not-"Italian-American" vegetables done to the perfect point. No breadcrumbs coating the eggplant, just delicate egg and flour. The tomato sauce had the optimal acidity to offset the oiliness of the fried eggplant. Seriously, this is a whole other level.

Gnocci with potato and butternut squash, butter, sage, crispy pancetta, and just a bit of pesto. Very good. Non-miraculous. Can't say I've ever had much better, though.

Ravioli. The photo seems blah, but, hey, ravioli are ravioli - at least visually. Ingestion's another story. These were not just puffy and tender, but the platonic forms of puffy tenderness. So many top restaurants use Borgatti's or Cassinelli's, and I love both, but I've been eating them for years. These, however, are from-scratch, and better than either. Nothing tricky, no clever moves. These are honest ravioli, befitting their dowdy appearance. Homely classic ravioli to delight a jaded palate.


“What's for dinner?” I asked my stricken tablemates. They weren't responsive, so I took off for home, stopping at a kinda/sorta Persian grocery in Great Neck called "Shop Delight" purported to sell saffron cookies, one of my holy grails (I first tasted them in Toronto, and Toronto Star food editor Jennifer Bain subsequently posted this recipe). Shop Delight sells a commercialized, packaged version, with no discernible saffron, but still pretty good. 



Many thanks to Paul, Abby, and Mother-of-Abby!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Greatest Olympic Moment

Greatest moment from Tokyo Olympics: Studmuffin Chinese diver grabs at thingee on floor, misses, has to re-grab, looking put out and mildly winded from the exertion, mumbling "for chrissakes..." in Mandarin.



Relatable!

I see no reason whatsoever to grow abs like that if I'd still be put-out and flustered having to grab twice for some dropped thing.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Redux

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Way back in 2008, I began telling the tale of the rise and sale of Chowhound.com in a series titled "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out." It started here, and, seven years later, I reached the epilogue, where I noted that a number of successful entrepreneurs had described the series as a harrowingly accurate account of what idealistic founders go through.

It's now been seven years since I posted the Epilogue, and while I wasn't planning on adding to the series, Pat Hammond just reread it and piped up with a text message.

Pat was Chowhound's longtime head moderator (here's an interview with her from 2007), and pretty much the heart and soul of the operation. She sopped up every posted word for years, while I flailed around like a manic robot trying to keep it all together. I rarely had time to read the site for enjoyment. Like chefs back in their noisy, hot, cramped kitchens, I never experienced it like a customer. But Pat knew both the front and the back of the house.

Here's our discussion:

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

White Nationalism Tipping Point Reached

Tucker Carlson is in Hungary, consulting with far-right autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a pillar of European ethno-nationalism. Pretense has been dropped. This week we see where the Republican party is headed. The racial insensitivity of the Trump presidency was nothing compared to what’s coming.

The kernal of fierce white supremacism and avowed racism in America (not people who wore blackface once at Halloween in 1981, or who sometimes still say "colored") has been rather slim. But many who'd normally refuse to stand anywhere near a whiff of white nationalism have turned a corner. It's spreading, bringing the pestilence into sunlight and out of its dark hiding spots. This isn't the fake-racism hunted on Twitter for bloodsport. This is the real thing.

"Conservatives have all been totally racist all along" is the explanation offered by many progressives. It's a vicious lie. Just like "Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals," it's a generalization that can only come from people too insular to know actual individual people from the group they're attacking. It's as disgusting as any other group-based generalization. And that sort of thoughtless tarring has radicalized conservatives who'd otherwise have fought this movement.

Strident anti-racists have chosen certain groups as free targets for their contempt (dudes, boomers, the melanin-deficient). Let's call them "negatively-protected classes". This makes many such people feel "othered", which ensures conflict. In fact, it's the eternal route to conflict.

Randy Newman pissed off many with his hit "Short People", making fun of racists by pretending to dumbly condemn an arbitrary harmless trait. Short people wanted to kill the guy, despite his clearly satirical intent. He'd drawn a circle and placed them outside its circumference, and said unkind things about them. Regardless of intent, that move has power (which is precisely why racism's toxic).

Humans are simple creatures. Make someone your enemy, and, no surprise, you'll have made an enemy. The people you scream at and hate on - certain that with this element it's amply deserved - will not sit there obediently taking your medicine. They won't willingly line up at reeducation camps. They won't strive to "do better". That's just not how it works.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of those who've taken that bait, responding by collapsing their moral standards and enabling, however hesitantly, the encroaching abomination. Far from it. I keep praying that humanity will finally follow the lead of Christ, Gandhi, and MLK and rise above, reacting to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism.

But we are, alas, a race of bait-takers. Bait and ye shall hook. So a whole slew of Americans - including the nice Republican lady down the block who brought you brownies when your kid was born - who've been freely and loudly "othered" (not because of who they are, but because of what they are) might not be ready to don robes and burn crosses, but, if they had to choose a team...

Wide frame: the good news is that I believe this entire fiasco represents the last gasp of a certain type of human assholery. As the world gets better and better, there are inevitable zigzags. It's never a smooth, straight line. So welcome to the zig, which may last for a generation or two. Our experience won’t be remembered. We’ll be rounding error in an upward trajectory, like protozoa drenched by an errant splash of Pepsi.


Did I mention that I'm moving out of the country?

Monday, August 2, 2021

Racism

Any time someone curls their lip and condemns a person for what he is rather than who he is, that’s the pure expression of racism, regardless of particulars. 


Sunday, August 1, 2021

Floundering For Fun and Profit

Even more than usual, the following is just me floundering and hoping that by the time I get to the end I'll have something.

If you're reading this, that means I published it, so it wound up striking some small gusher of usefulness after all...which would make this intro unnecessary. If not, you won't be reading any of this, including the intro. So my typing this part is an exercise in utter futility.

Or is it? It dawns on me that this illustrates the very issue I'm pondering. When is floundering futile? And what's the alternative?
I've been planning to move out of the country. Many reasons, but they're not pertinent to today's posting. And I've been going about it in a weak, slithery fashion. Which freaks out some of my friends because I'm generally Mr. On-Top-of-It.

"Jim Aims To Conquer"(TM), so I should be doing a zillion clever moves, boosting myself to the highest odds to eke out a big win here! I should have plans and contact lists and strategies and back-up strategies. I should be scheming and plotting. Armies should be mobilizing.

And I do have some time pressure. And financial pressure. And other pressure. Yet, to my shock, I find myself approaching this like a hapless vagabond. I'm traveling there at the end of the month, and have lined up nothing, not even an AirBnB. I know people there, but I'm not alerting them, or having them alert their networks. I'm not even scouting - no voracious devouring of online information. When I think of ledes and angles, my reaction is a bland "meh".

What's wrong with me? It looks like I've lost my edge! And this isn't a new story. In recent years, I've executed some shifts of perspective (charted here) which have led to the dropping of some old patterns, some of which seem awfully helpful. Yikes. Have I lost babies with the bathwater?

Let's say I tried to do this smartly, to try to force a killer result. I have 58 years of experience to draw on in predicting how that would play out, so here's the upshot: I'd delight in having found just the right home in just the right town in just the right region, at just the right price. Score! But all victories are Pyrrhic. There are no happy-ever-after endings in this world, because there is never an end point, just an ongoing wash of turbulence and fresh opportunities and slate clearings. Nothing but endless waves to bodysurf (or to moan about as they crash over your rigidly planted head).

There are no actual landings - no footholds - because Jane will not stop this crazy thing...ever. Those who imagine they'd be happier if the churning stopped, leaving them in peace to marinate in static staus quo, have missed the entire point of this worldly undertaking. Here's a poem I once wrote (click here for the original posting with a great accompanying photo):
The reed,

unendingly assaulted by violent wind,

never suffers.


It never occurred to the reed

that the wind was a separate, external thing.


Insofar as the reed thinks at all,

it thinks it's dancing
If I were to find the perfect place in the perfect place at the perfect price, and did the move, there would inevitably arise an unpleasant neighbor, or termites, or a village seven hours away where all the residents bake cookies for each other on Fridays. I'd be disappointed by my water pressure or the local bus service or the rising crime rate. On the other hand, I'd be ideally suited to find the BEST place. So I'd move to Cookietown, vet my neighbors and my water pressure, spray down the termites, and immediately find new things to be disappointed about. Also: unexpected delights.

In my posting "Decision Factors" (a "Popular Entry" indexed in the left margin), I tried to help a friend's daughter through her college selection:
The fabric and feeling of your college experience will be determined by the aggregate of myriad trivial factors and derailments you can't possibly anticipate. The circle of friends you wind up with. One great professor who gets you excited about a topic you never knew you cared about. A line in a book of poetry. An insight that occurs while you walk home one day. Loneliness. Depressingly awful scrambled eggs. Romantic heartbreak. Your outcome, in hindsight, will consist of the sum total of all such spontaneous minutiae, none of which has the slightest thing to do with any factors you might pre-weigh, or with any of the big-picture scenarios you've mentally conjured. Big-picture scenarios are like cartoons, and we don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.

You can attend your last-choice school and emerge a brilliant scholar, gainfully employed, deeply curious about the world and full of insight, head over heels in love with a true soul mate, and enjoying a circle of friends you'll retain for life. Or you may attend the Sorbonne, and emerge miserable, lonely and intellectually numb. You can't engineer either result via consideration of Factors. "Optimality" is nothing but a head-fake.

Do the research, and fool yourself into believing you're deciding smartly, but understand (and feel comforted!) that there's no right or wrong choice. Rich opportunity awaits at every juncture of every decision tree. Any choice, no matter how bright or disappointing, can yield a jackpot or a dud. In the end, it's not about the choice, it's the chooser. It's you, playing the cards you're dealt - both good hands and bad - with delight and exuberance. If you focus on the rich immediacy, rather than the cartoonish big picture, you literally can't go wrong.
So, yeah, I've understood all that for quite some time. But it takes me forever to fully integrate my own insight. My insight is always miles ahead of my head (I'm far more wise than smart), so, as I notice my failure to properly prepare, I worry, and feel impelled to write Slog postings explaining to myself why I'm making certain odd choices.

I am a very slow child.

Until I understand, I adopt a conventional view. So in this case, I worry that I'm being lazy and sloppy. I've lost my edge. I'm beaten down and hapless and dragging my sorry ass to another country out of rote obedience to some harebrained scheme I've cooked up.

But, again, being 58 I know how things go. When the political scene in America turns really ugly, and my savings have started really dwindling and I realize how sorely I needed a change of environment, I'll survey my new perch in my new country, with sunshine and garlic, and finally see the wisdom of it. It will all make sense. Despite the lousy water pressure and unreliable bus service and missing out on free cookies.

Letting go of control and declining to thrust one's agenda pugnaciously forward, for someone born in a place like America, feels like dereliction of duty. The self-evident fact that we only imagine ourselves to be in control - perspective (framing!) is where our free will resides, not action - is awfully hard to digest.

Perhaps I'm old and hapless and reduced and lacking in vim, vigor, and motivation. Perhaps I'm letting the world walk all over me rather than seizing the diem. But the more I do things this way - so counter to my striving/hounding nature - and witness the surprising results, the more I realize it isn't resignation. This isn't losing. Rather, it's as close to winning as one can get in this world.

Donald Trump has plenty of what everyone imagines to be victory. People scrape and suffer and murder in pursuit of that result, yet he's miserable, anxious and deranged. Even the most virulent Trump haters have not fully internalized this lesson and recalculated accordingly. But if you process the implications, you'll begin to recognize that real victory doesn't involve grabbing gold rings. The secret I've gleaned from 58 years of hyper-curious observation amid a world composed of Skinner Boxes is this: the rewards are never so fulfilling and the punishments are never so daunting.

Real victory feels more like settling back into sunlight and garlic and blithely, indistinctly noticing the myriad ugly fates you've magically evaded by your bemused, curious, unambitious putterings about. Flounderings, even.


I know I sound very much like an old guy. Planted in his rocking chair, watching the frolicking children through sad, distant eyes, and endlessly insisting to himself that he's living The Life. I suppose either old people have had it right all along, or else I've simply found a way to flatter my hapless enervation. I can't be the one to decide. That's for you to ponder.

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