Saturday, February 26, 2022

El Salvador: Hotel Panic

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment
El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound
El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights
El Salvador Bits & Pieces
El Salvador/Tokyo Connection

I need to check out of the hotel in 15 minutes, but have just spilled an entire bottle of mineral water in the worst possible sector of my bed.

The maid, a kind soul, has surely witnessed atrocities beyond imagining. This is nothing. But I aim to police the happiness level in my corner of the universe, and would prefer not to be the guy who makes this "one of those days” for the nice woman.

My first thought, being me, is to approach her and tell her the soaked bed is JUST WATER, PROMISE. But, really, isn’t that exactly what an incontinent would say? Like an alcoholic insisting that’s merely coffee he's sipping?

So I use every towel in the joint to wipe and scrub and blot through layer after innumerable hotel bedding layer, each increasingly unpleasant. And I turn up the air conditioner, hoping to wick moisture into the chilly dry air. None of it helps. These are all "weak tea" (sorry for the imagery) solutions. There can be no cheap coverups. I have created what any observer would describe as a toxic waste site.

Finally, eureka. I reclaim the water bottle, shake out remaining drops, and lay it down horizontally right in the center of the wet spot.

There’s always a solution, and it’s usually simpler than you’d think.

You're welcome.

Before we wrap up El Salvador, I'll share my Google Maps list. The notes are mostly pre-visit; my reporting here supersedes. But there are gems I didn't get to. Perhaps you'll do better than I did.

Finally, here is a homely little photo I excluded from my Day 1 report on Pupuseria Chayito in Olocuilta. It's my pupusa plate after the pupusas. Just curtido and red sauce and ubiquitous wax paper.

It's obvious why I declined to include it. But after fully considering a trip where I repeatedly found myself knocked unconscious and left babbling by the things I ate - and spent an unknown amount of time drifting around Izalco, struggling to make sense of, well, anything (there were no drugs and very little alcohol, for those wondering) - I'm thinking this might have captured more than I initially realized. It's not correct, but it's expressive. It's not anything, but it sure isn't nothing. And those very dialectics defined my experience down there. 

It also represents my lingering sadness over no more pupusas.

Thank you, El Salvador, and the many people (some reading along) who helped guide me!

Lagniappe: I struggled, in my "El Salvador/Tokyo Connection" installment, to define the Spanish term "ganas". And a Sanskrit word just sprang into my mind: "bhakti". “Bhakti” is a high and holy thing in Indian religion, while "ganas" is no such thing in Catholic-dominated Spanish-speaking countries, where "urges" of any sort are looked at askance. But even the most conservative priest would respect the notion of spiritual fervor, and I'd posit that all fervor is spiritual in origin (if not always in its ultimate expression).

Friday, February 25, 2022

El Salvador/Tokyo Connection

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment
El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound
El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights
El Salvador Bits & Pieces

I mentioned, last time, a kooky bakery run by a Japan-obsessed Salvadoran woman, who, never having been over there, opened a Japanese shop which, via sheer force of will and power of imagination, is seriously the most Japanese Thing that's ever existed.
If I knew, at the time, the story I would tell, I'd have photographed way more thoroughly and carefully.

I have dishonored myself.
KĀKO Cakes ("Japanese Cotton Cheesecake") is a miracle of ganas. That's an untranslatable Spanish word meaning something like "urge", or maybe "propulsive desire", but it refers to the pure inertia itself rather than any aspirational pose someone would write a song about. Your ganas is to get from point A to point B, but without squandering attention on self-consciousness. It's not about you. This is a very Japanese concept. In fact, it's the most Japanese term in the Spanish language.

And it's strikingly appropriate given the mission: bringing Japanese cheesecake - a style with little resemblance to Jewish or Italian cheesecake, and which seems like an odd culinary artifact even in Manhattan or San Francisco - to El Salvador.
I must once again invoke "Fitzcarraldo", Werner Herzog's depiction of a nineteenth century Irish robber baron's megalomaniacal obsession with bringing grand opera to the Peruvian Indians, which required, among other travails, hoisting a 320-ton steamship over a mountain.
I can't imagine know how the proprietor found the shop's location, in a woody, bucolic little shopping center which, if you squint a little, could be in the outskirts of Tokyo. And, strolling into that cluster of little shops, KĀKO Cakes does not make itself apparent. It's up a level from the rest, and tucked into a corner - exactly where a whimsical Japanese woman full of ganas might open her little labor of love.
The minuscule shop doesn't just look Japanese, which is easy. It actually feels like Japan, to an impossible degree. It was like I'd stepped into Harajuku.
So here is the cheesecake on display. It is inauthentic but very delicious. But this sort of inauthenticity is - if you'll tolerate the paradox - authentically Japanese.

It goes without saying that the proprietor has carefully studied every single Internet recipe for Japanese cheesecake, but it's also apparent that she's never tried any in person. So she may not realize how phenomenally dry it should be. Japanese cheesecake is like spongecake - really, more like foam rubber - which tastes like cheesecake but could be dragged, in cross-section, across a sheet of paper without leaving a mark. Japanese cheesecake's weird, man.

If I need to explain it to you food nerds, imagine how audacious it is to try to sell this to Salvadorans, who are only beginning to develop interest in other cuisines.

Though unique, this nonetheless expresses the essence of Japanese cheesecake. It's still considerably drier than conventional cheesecake - which has grown popular in El Salvador (remember the dandy slice with housemade fruit marmalade at Roots Cafe that I reported on last time). But it's not quite as dry as authentic Japanese cheesecake.

One doesn't get the sense that she's making it more accessible. This isn't a pander, or a misfire. It's bona fide improvement. It's better this way. And the reason I'm giving benefit of the doubt is that this recipe has clearly been worked and perfected to beyond-the-beyond, with all micro-balances smack-on to the nth degree. The intense loving workmanship that's gone into this cheesecake recalls the level of care by which a Japanese sword maker is said to invest his output with a soul.

The nearly deranged ganas invested in this shop and this cheesecake make it impossible to imagine any pandering. She's sought and found her perfection. Even if you haven't been to Japan, you've surely seen "Tampopo".

One would expect to often see such diligence in the food world. This, after all, is the job. But only a few dozen times have I experienced a really celestial degree of polish. When the curve of declining results is climbed to its loftiest reaches, one senses a consciousness offering poetic statements via sweetness, saltiness, moisture, texture, etc.

In my first book, I wrote about the mackerel sushi at a secret Japanese whiskey bar/eating club in Midtown Manhattan:
[It's] about RICE, not fish. The snowy grains are consummately plump and texturally perfect; if the chef had cooked it 15 seconds more or less The Perfect Point would have been utterly lost. They yield to teeth with exquisitely even resistence; it seems as if each one had been meticulously placed in position to ensure the ideal chewy smoothness of bite. The fish is a mere scent, a perfume that floats over the mouthful, then dissipates in a dance of flavors that eventually defers to ginger and wasabe.
That's what you can achieve with really, really - no, really - sensitive and conscientious consideration. And the Japanese are the revered masters of that sort of thing. So it all makes sense. Except that the proprietor of KĀKO Cakes isn't Japanese. And has never been to Japan.

This isn’t some Salvadoran chick's fake Japanese bakery and fake Japanese cheesecake. It’s what a young Japanese woman would come up with imagining the sort of cheesecake a girl in El Salvador, pining for Japan, might bake in a Miyazaki film. And there is nothing more Japanese than working in a meticulous and heartfelt manner, and deliberately hiding that effort to set a beauty trap of unexpected delight.

Such an approach is anomalous, and anomalies spew surprises. For example, there's the serendipitous Japanese garden visible through the side door.

My father, aunt, and uncle were experts on Japanese Zen gardens (my long-gone aunt, Claire Koffler, is still remembered for her exquisite bonsai work), and I've visited a number of them in person and viewed thousands of photos. Here are a couple:
So I was gobsmacked to spot this view from the side of the shop, so unlikely that sorcery must be involved:
If I'd fully made the Japanese garden connection before shooting this, I'd have found a more thoughtful angle. I do not deserve KĀKO Cakes.
I did not try the mochi or the handful of other non-cheesecake offerings. I did have a matcha, which was friendly/restorative but wrong in ways I couldn't quite debug, though, again, distinctively Japanese in its inauthenticity. Only a Japanese would invest such unflamboyant ganas and care. That's the Japanese connection, not any certain taste profile.
Thing is, it would be easy to miss nearly all of this. Hell, I don't know how people find even the cafe itself, positioned to resist discovery even by customers seeking it out (which is also incredibly Japanese). So this long story might be supplanted by a zippy one liner in Time Out: "Salvadoran lady opens Japanese-style bakery with good cheesecake." But those who revel in fine points and subtleties - the small end of the telescope widely neglected in the pursuit of grand prizes and big pictures - know that the really good stuff requires and rewards sensitive attention.

As a devotee of nano aesthetics, that's how I frame the world. And KĀKO Cakes is one for the ages.
Domo arigato to artist Erin Nicholls for the tip!

Go forward to "El Salvador: Hotel Panic"

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Acknowledging the Tailwind

Back to El Salvador in a jiffy, I promise!


For years, I concluded that Chowhound had hit it big because the credo was fresh and infectious, and I'd infused it with cleverness (precisely targeting a previously unserved demographic, etc.). It took a very long time for me to realize that Chowhound hit big because web sites were "cool" in 1997, and really, it all glided on that tail wind (blogs were not cool in 2008, and apps were not cool in 2017 - regardless of how fresh, infectious, and clever they might be).

It's odd for me to have realized this, however belatedly. People drastically underestimate the effect of tailwinds, especially with respect to their own results. Some of it, of course, is ego (we want to take 110% credit for our success). But a lot of it can be attributed to a cognitive blind spot with respect to tailwind.


Whenever the stock market goes up, investors start feeling not just happy and lucky, but brilliant. "I'm a fantastic investor; look how my balance goes up as I've performed all these terribly smart investment moves!"

It's damnably hard to recognize (much less acknowledge) the tailwind, even when the market sinks and your smart moves only make it worse.


I once wrote that
We over-emphasize first-movers, crediting them with creating waves when, truly, they're just surfing them like everyone else. Causality has nothing to do with it. The first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop.
Stepping Up

I made friends with a little-known public figure by slipping him notes when I thought he was misstepping. Most people don't appreciate that sort of thing. But really smart people do, because they're savvy enough to fully recognize (and worry about) their shortcomings. And he's very smart. So it worked out well, and he was very appreciative.

But then, thanks to a confluence of lucky factors, he became quite famous. And his reactions changed. He began raging at my temerity. Correction implied that he wasn't magnificent.

Normal enough, right? No big surprise. We all know how that goes.

But what was truly odd was that he couldn't see that my behavior was the stationary piece, and that the change had been on his end. He honestly felt that I'd become an asshole while he was still just being the same old him. He couldn't spot, much less acknowledge, changes he’d made as a result of tailwind.

The Chicken's Delight

A Skinner Box is one of those lab experiments where a subject gets rewarded for some behavior and punished for some other behavior. Skinner Boxes show that creatures of any intelligence level are capable of learning.

But what interests me is what happens after the experiment, as the critter continues to go for that sweet, sweet reward:
When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.

Practical upshots

1. Be more humble and realistic
Easier than it sounds (for one thing, in nearly all cases, realism compels humility). I find it helpful to keep returning to the image of the chicken, stupidly pecking shitty corn till his stomach explodes, with a smug conviction that he's won.

2. Recognize the world's Skinner Boxes
The world runs entirely on them, and, if you pay close attention, you'll notice the reward is always chintzy (which explains - I've buried the lede - why humans are "never satisfied") and the punishment is always oversold (which is why the worrying is always worse than the actuality) as well as fleeting (the next Skinner Box resets the meters). So maybe stop buying into them quite so eagerly. You're not a lab rat.

3. Go with the flow
Once you've dropped your obsession with frantically working the umpteen Skinner Boxes, you're free to bathe in the lovely flow of it all. And that flow (perennially immediately available if we merely stop fighting it via the fraught misimpression that we need to keep pushing the buttons which eject the shitty corn) is your tailwind. It's also the only non-chintzy reward.

Another buried lede: the above deconstructs and re-explains every world religion.

Europe at War

One demagogue psychopath rising to power can always do this. And will.

The Steven Pinkers of the world who see an irreversible moral shift away from violence and toward our "better angels" may be correct. But that's a shift of the median, while there will always be edge cases forcing themselves into power - on the backs of a dumb, aggrieved mob, ripe (per Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer") for manipulation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Putin in Ukraine

There are three more El Salvador installments to come. But returning to global events....

It appears that, thank god, I was wrong about a two-headed move on Ukraine and Taiwan.

So then what, exactly, is going on?

Here are the theories I've heard from experts I follow (mostly via my carefully curated "Must-Read" Twitter list)

Inch by Inch

A little-reported nugget:
Putin's order on Ukraine is a nearly exact copy of his 2008 order on Georgia. It's almost like he's calling plays from a playbook.

It appears he's trying to reassemble something more or less like the old USSR one chunk at a time, moving slowly enough that the rest of the world isn't quite moved to shoot him in the face. Doing what he feels he can get away with.

After all, he's done unthinkable things (Crimea, Skripal, false-flag apartment bombings) and we haven't hurt him badly for it. He's emboldened to take further well-chosen, well-spaced, carefully-tuned steps, and this is the latest. He sees a weakened, divided West, and surmises that he can get away with it.

He also wants his pieces well positioned in case his minion is reinstalled to the oval office in 2024. And even if the latter chokes on a cheeseburger before then, bets are hedged via Tucker Carlson - avidly demonstrating his slobbering synchronization with Putin's agenda on prime time TV - positioned as the standby Republican candidate.

One opportunistic step at a time. Doing what he feels he can get away with. I once won a ping pong tournament, as an extreme underdog, that way.


Rattled by Putin's speech yesterday, which was apparently completely unhinged, some smart people are thinking he's gone nuts.

This comes up a lot during the tortured ravings that are his mid-atrocity trademark. Back in 2014, when he launched his Crimea operation, Angela Merkel told Obama, after her phone call with Putin, that "she was not sure he was in touch with reality."

He's not crazy. Just because someone's blathering doesn't mean they're nuts. For one thing, sometimes there's benefit to being seen as nuts (anyone remember Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, who wandered around Little Italy in an unkempt bathrobe?).

If your intentions are evil beyond all plausible deniability, there's no sense trying to spin it plausibly. But you’ve got to say something, so you offer ridiculous credo that domestic "patriots" can latch onto, which also serves the purpose of dirt thrown into the eyes of onlookers.

You'd think Americans would, at this point, be familiar with the tactic of the "bullshit tornado". Putin is deliberately confusing foreigners who have way more of a stake in established order and crisp rationality than he does. He's zestfully screwing the world, while we consider his perspective and try to "negotiate". Hilarious!

Kookie rantings and ahistorical pretext are an autocrat's stock in trade. Think of Kim's impenetrable juche dogma, or Hitler's credo of Lebensraum. That crap's never meaningful, never reality-based, nor does it need to be. It's empty fluffy complication for your enemies to waste time and energy trying to parse. The bullshit tornado somehow still has its uses, so using it tactically is crazy like a fox.

Fatal Hubris

The Soviet Union planted the seeds of its own destruction when it invaded Afghanistan; a step too far in their hegemonic momentum. Putin, trying to Make Russia Great Again (and cling onto power), is similarly overreaching.

This is a middle ground between the "Scheming Incrementalist" theory and the "Madman" theory. And it's surely right (there's no denying the guy's hubris). But it's not really a theory.

The smartest observation about Putin goes way back: he's terrific at tactics but has no gift for strategy. You need to destabilize something, or smother something, or crack heads, he's your guy. A true KGB man, he can cagily pull off missions, but overarching gameplans - big, stately, visionary thinking - are beyond his ken.

So, yes, he'll overreach, either now or later. But so long as he gets another twenty years or so without being shot in the head in a ditch like Saddam, he'll chalk it up as a win. Big flowery aspirations are always window-dressing, pretext, and/or rallying cry for his MRGAs. Like Trump, he's all about getting to tomorrow via feral desperation, canny leveraging of power, and the superpower of shamelessness. That's all he does; all he knows.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

El Salvador Bits & Pieces

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment
El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound
El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights

Downshifting my El Salvador reporting from epic accounts to anecdotes and short stories (though there's one epic left - I'm desperately trying to boil down a 5000 word paean to a kooky bakery run by a Japan-obsessed Salvadoran woman, who's never been there(!), yet who opened an astounding little shop which, via sheer force of will and power of imagination, is seriously the most Japanese Thing that's ever existed).

Here are a bunch....

Desayuno Típico

This is (aside from swapping toast in for tortillas) is a very standard breakfast throughout the Hispanic world:
I ate this at hipster Roots Cafe, which also makes a hell of a wonderful cheesecake topped with housemade mixed-fruit marmalade. Oh, hey, I just remembered that I took a picture!
The fact that "this is a very standard breakfast throughout the Hispanic world" makes it seem easily dismissible.

Food writers and experienced chowhounds can't resist prioritizing rarity and novelty over core cuisine, and that's a particularly grievous sin in a place like this. This, once again, isn't France where waiters holler "voila!" as they reveal the spectacular soufflé. Hispanic America sees food as process, as deep tradition.

Just typing those words, I know I sound poised to condescend. But let me remind you that in three of five reports thus far I've described renditions of traditional foods which essentially knocked me unconscious and left me babbling. I've never come close to such an outcome in all my years of eager eating. So, sure, go ahead and try to explain to me how boring these traditional foods are.

"Traditional" only sounds boring because we've lost stuff. Returning home to a place like El Salvador, we slip back into deeper streams. We remember.

I've never blacked out with such frequency before. In fact, I didn't realize what the Izalco yuca had done to me until weeks later, as I organized my thoughts for the write-up. At the time, I thought I'd eaten something tasty, but in retrospect, holy crap, I was wafting around in an altered state the whole rest of that day. It was so subtle and so unexpected that I hadn't recognized what was happening.

Beneath its report, I linked to my account of the Medusa Gruel - a transcendent corn drink I once sipped in Oaxaca Mexico which was probably the greatest thing I ever ate (though Mama Grimaldi's lasagna came close). It nearly left me catatonic (I don't say that in a slick writerly way; I mean it quite literally; my host was about to call a doctor). I think the yuca, the gruel, and the lasagna may be my holy trinity; the top experiences in my lifetime of avid eating.

Dismiss banality at your peril. This is a region of spiritually elevated banality. Yet, all that said, the aforementioned breakfast is actually called desayuno típico. So they're a bit dismissive, too! You cannot out-hip them with your outsider's eye. They have grown self-aware.

The Land of Griddling
Nowhere special. I just took this photo to capture how essential the griddle has become to El Salvador. All the (many) items currently prepared on griddle were formerly - and superiorly - prepared on a clay comal. And, as I've reported, you can still find comal cooking in a few holdout places. But if you're opening a Salvadoran restaurant, you're going to need ample griddle real estate. Because here, griddling is king. Let this photo burn that fact into your retinas.

No Tamales For You!

Cruel twist of fate. You find these tamal trucks in parking lots. (Note: tamale is not a word. Singular = tamal, Plural = tamales.) You look inside and see tons of varieties. You swoon a little. And then it dawns on you that it's all refrigerated.
"Take them home and steam them!" suggested the vendor.

"I don't have a home!" I replied.

"You don't have a home?" she asks, aghast, scanning me from head to toe to verify her initial impression that I was more or less respectable.

"Not within 4000 miles!" I replied.

"Didn't you bring a hot plate?"

"No hot plate!"
What sort of shmuck travels without a hot plate? Having wasted enough time with Mr. Hopeless, the tamal lady sensibly moves on to her next client.

So bring a hot plate!

De Las Gemelas

DLG De Las Gemelas (Facebook link) is one of many twee hipster shiny shops that have popped up in the upscale El Escalón corridor. It's clearly got money behind it, and they're taking no chances with their investment, offering only the most bankable international hits of Instagram baking: macarons, cupcakes, red velvet doodads. You've seen this movie before.

But have you? Sometimes appallingly conformist, trend-mongering places - places tarted up with shiny facades that show they're angling to metastasize into soulless transnational chains - are, despite themselves, terrific. It just takes one bad apple, one weak link, one saboteur cooking with real love rather than focusing on Instagram-readiness.

God bless the good Gemela; the saboteur. The things I tried were killer. A hundred times better than necessary. Do they even realize this stuff doesn't need to taste good? That the people who patronize shiny shops and squee over halogen-lit macarons don't care about quality?

Also: what's with the Oreos? Salvadorans are, for whatever reason, obsessed with them as ingredients. They show up everywhere. No doubt someone in-country is making pupusas with them.

Puente Quemado Upshot

I mentioned two reports ago (in El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound) that I got great vibes, pre-trip, from El Salvador's smallest brewery, Puente Quemado ("Burned Bridge"), which...
....finds itself in a predicament, being way more sophisticated a craft beer operation than Salvadorans are currently able to appreciate. So those guys do as much education as brewing, hoping to build themselves a market from scratch. Very Fitzcarraldo.
I read up on them, noticing that the only venues serving their beer in the capital were exra cool-seeming places (and I used that to help build my master list for the trip). And I want to emphasize that not one person I encountered has heard of them. Not beer-loving gringos living in-country, not Salvadoran chowhounds fervidly tracking food/drink developments. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Puente Quemado is as under-radar as any find I've ever found.

Their beer is only available in large 22 oz bottles. No smallies, no drafts. So it wasn't convenient to try down there. However, I did bring a bottle of their Saison (a tangy/yeasty/dry farmhouse Belgian style) back home with me, where I've been writing these reports, and, wow, it's way better than I'd ever hoped. This isn't just surprisingly serious craft beer.

The saison I tried is as masterful an example of the style as you'll find outside Belgium. It's not good just for Latin America, it's good for anywhere. World class. Beautifully brewed, even if I'm being extra critical (I actually started as a beer writer, and was one of the first Americans to report on Belgian beer in the late 80s and early 90s).

Aguilar is a wizard, and he's in for some pain trying to draw the attention he amply deserves as perhaps Latin America's best brewer. Salvadorans are at least a decade from being able to grok how good his beer is. They're just beginning to wean from watery commercial lager, entering the "shtick" phase of big, strong, strange beers - i.e. the antithesis of "your father's watery lager". It takes time for a new market to mature to a level of sophistication where refinement and subtlety are prized (and enough premium can be charged to be viable).

If you visit El Salvador and have beer geeks in your life, bring back a bottle of Puente Quemado and stun the bejesus out of them.

Here's the saison:
...and here are some other beers (all photos are stolen), with de rigueur "AWESOME!!!" label art:

There's "golden light", and then there's El Salvador

Lush and blue everywhere you look.

"We will return" scrawled alongside a mural of an active volcano. Hmm. That can mean many things....

Go forward to El Salvador/Tokyo Connection

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Ukraine/Taiwan Connection?

A quick break before we return to El Salvador.

The only way Putin's adventure with Ukraine makes a lick of sense is if he's orchestrating a joint mission with China, which would invade Taiwan simultaneously. That would make a huge, bold anti-US statement and usher in a new phase of world history. That seems very Putinesque.

I've been hesitant to go public with this opinion, because, first, what the hell do I know. This is very far from any of my areas of expertise. An experienced defense analyst might easily point out technical reasons why it's not feasible. So this may be nothing more than random ignorance. So take it with a grain of salt.

However I follow a bunch of very smart and diverse national security analysts (mostly as part of the mix of my Twitter Must-Read List "of centrists, moderate Dems, and anti-Trump Republicans + generally smart not-very-partisan people"). Articulate and non-partisan Russia experts like Michael McFaul (former ambassador), John Sipher (former CIA Russian station chief), John Schindler (former NSA), Tom Nichols (Russia expert at Navy War College), and Molly McKew (a well-respected itinerant expert/advisor/writer on military and security issues), along with international relations wisdom from Robert E Kelly, the famous "BBC dad" (I came for the antics, but stayed for his superb analysis on N Korea and beyond).

I've been reading them for a long time now, and I'm following them on recent events, and while none pushes this prediction, they're all perplexed about Putin's thinking. He appears to have cornered himself. This all strengthens NATO. He's in danger of having his pipeline canceled in Germany (remember: natural gas is pretty much his only resource). And the last thing his people (who aren't over WWII yet) want is another Afghanistan-style insurgent slog.

War makes no sense, and if this is strictly extortion, that doesn't make sense either, because, as he well knows, none of his asks are remotely possible (we won't block Ukraine or other sovereign nations from applying to NATO). By process of elimination, the only thing that makes sense is a two-headed move with China that has him so excited that he's willing to bear the consequences.

But, again, what do I know?

Thursday, February 17, 2022

El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment
El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound

"Places" are like "dishes". These are abstract two-dimensional labels affixed, ridiculously, to organic three-dimensional things. The discrepancy becomes more apparent when you get away from the bustle. And as my creaky Third World highway gave way to a rural route, funneled into a potholed one-laner, and finally collapsed into dirt increasingly undistinguishable from the rest of the countryside, obliviously crossed by broods of haughty poultry and packs of feral dogs, I was very much "away from the bustle".

That's why, despite its legend, and its presence on Salvadoran "best-of" lists, and its Google "place" entry, there is no Sopa de Gallina Caluco. It's not a restaurant name. It's the name of a common soup followed by the name of a tiny village. So if you're foolish enough to blow into town [sic] asking "Where is 'Sopa de Gallina Caluco'?", you will draw befuddled laughter. As I did.

It's like driving into Brooklyn and asking your first local "My good sir, might you direct me to an establishment by the name of Brooklyn Pizza?" Except it's worse than that, because Brooklyn actually has establishments, while Caluco has - besides the resident Calucoños (sí, lo sé) - a river, populations of feral dogs, strutting hens, plus the familiar compliment of trees, rocks, turds, and wind. And that's it. There's no 7-11. There's no post office. And "Sopa de Gallina Caluco," such as it is, appears to be some lady - or shifting slate of ladies - who may or may not choose to neglect her housework long enough to give your gringo ass some soup.

"Sopa de Gallina Caluco" is a hoax. It's like following your GPS to something called "Jim's Pancakes" and knocking on my door, demanding flapjacks. "Uh, Hi! Uh, geez, I wasn't really making pancakes right now, and this isn't actually a restaurant, and I don't totally understand what you're doing here, but, uh....."

There was an emergency conference of the citizenry where it was decided that I would be obliged.

I was guided by a six year old clutching a soccer ball into a riverside concrete bunker and seated at a bare table impressively populated by ants performing many important tasks. And finally I was asked whether I wanted "the whole meal", and I supplied the standard chowhound's reply, derived from improvisatory theater: "Yes and." Then I waited there a good long while, just me and the ants.

I had time to meditate on the essential question: Whence hen? Pollo and gallina. Chicken and hen. I'm perennially foggy on the difference, even though every decade or so it gets pounded back into my awareness, and then, from sheer disuse (I don't get a whole lot of hen), any lingering hen acquaintanceship is buried anew in brain silt. I thought I remembered hen as being tough (but worth it!), but otherwise I'd been using the terms interchangeably.

But no more. My hen memory can never again sink into brain silt.

The "whole meal" is a two parter: Hen soup...and then the hen. There's a Pete Barbutti Vegas lounge joke in there somewhere, but I won't reach for it.

Best curtido of my life:
The soup was supernal:
And the hen was...well, just look at it.
Try not to click that last photo. It would expand your view of that wondrous cheese, quite possibly making you cry. I teared up a little, but don't think anyone saw. This was the humblest and best fresh cheese I've ever eaten. Way less characterful than the brilliant stuff served at "A Casa do Jorge", south of Lisbon, but sometimes less is more.

I asked whether the cheese was made in the village. Once again, befuddled laughter. Nahh, dude. Nahh, we have the cheese flown in daily from Nicaragua on the town chopper, because we villagers are too busy incubating social media startups to flip over to VCs for a third round exit (five-banger minimum, dude). See all that vegetation? It's AR. Nahhhhhh, dude, no time for messing around with cheese here. Oh, hold on just a sec, dude; I need to bring my kid down to the river so he can shit.

Yeah, I ask the best questions.

Oh, and hen is tough. It's like chicken for bigger, stronger, better people. Decathlon champs and so forth. But worth it.
I know I haven't been offering much in the way of specific flavor description in these reports. Salvadoran is not a subtle cuisine, packed with surprises. Things taste like they look, so I let the photos carry the message. I'm also assuming you've all tried Salvadoran food in immigrant restaurants.

And if there are revelations, I'll try to rise to the descriptive occasion. But this simple fare was all unshowy tens (on my surprisingly un-ditzy system of rating foods from one to ten). Not because, like, some perfectly nuance hint of tarragon was just boffo. It's more modest magic. Perfect catnip for a devotee of nano aesthetics.
I paid pretty-much-nothing and drove on. Everyone was friendly enough, but life in remote villages is tough and they had stuff to do, and I did not fit comfortably into their movie.

Ancient Yuca Artifact

Minimal research on this one. A local food maven had sternly directed me to drive for hours to try yuca, wrapped in a fluorescent green banana leaf, at a certain place (Yuqueria de Penjamo) in Izalco, and I took it on faith, flying blind into Izalco.

Sometimes I'm oddly submissive in my chowhounding; willing to make myself driftwood and be carried by the waves. I've learned to cultivate passivity to draw in serendipity; to conjure something from nothing. See my posting "Creating a Vacuum to Leech Out Eurekas".

Yuqueria de Penjamo is hidden on a residential block of Izalco, where the yucateers combine ingredients from a panoply of white plastic buckets from a sunken courtyard far beneath a broken sidewalk. They wrap yuca salcochada (stewed) or yuca frita (fried) in enormous, fluorescent green yuca leaves, and you don't need a degree in gastro-archeology to recognize that this is pre-Colombian. You are traveling back in time.

I could feel in my bones that this is a dying art form, which, a few years from now, will be a distant memory. It has the feel of being impossibly out of its time - a feeling which leaves me immensely grateful. It's like having found the great jazz drummer Walter "Baby Sweets" Perkins, a hero of mine, playing in a little club near the airport at the relatively late date of 1987, and befriending him, and playing with him a lot, and taking him to Spain to play some more. Why am I so lucky? Why me?

I like fried yuca, but you can't beat the silkiness and subtle flavor of stewed, so that's what I asked for. Myriad things (including curtido, natch) are mixed in, plus your meat of choice: lengua (tongue), cachete (cheek), hígado (liver), corazón (heart), or patitas de cerdo (pig trotters). They run out of trotters early, so I opted for cachete.

I'm a bit hazy on this. The yuca also comes with chicharrones (pork skin), and I think that's what I'm displaying in the photo. So either the cachete never happened (and I'd missed this in the vendor's rapid-fire Spanish), or it was so tender that it was lost amid the ecstatic slimy swirls. Not sure. I was, by that point, in a drifty altered state, just barely able to click my camera button, much less probe around.

Ok, here we go:

Once again I'm left with chowmnesia. I have very little recollection, but am experienced enough to understand why. When food passes a certain threshold, your brain turns off. You can't characterize. No adjectives or metaphors arise. You are simply captivated; galvanized. You can't frame it as anything but your all-consuming immediate universe. The camera lens gets stuck. There is no editorial space.

This had happened on Day One with the rice pupusas, Day Three with the hot/fresh quesadilla, and earlier today with the potatoes in Mercadito de Merliot. At a "9" or above, I once wrote,
"Rational thought breaks down. You don't analyze, you just want to keep enjoying, blocking out all distraction.
Here's a nice article about Yuquería de Pénjamo (note that the area boasts other yuca vendors, though I do suspect that the hourglass sands are running out), and they're open Tues, Thurs, and Saturday after 2pm, and the price is whatever the hell they want to charge (it'd be worth it), or $3, whichever's lower. Click the link for a look at the whole yuca leaf package, which, in my tunnel vision, I forgot to photograph.

One final note persists. I deliberately rammed it in my memory banks at great personal expense, knowing it would be damnably hard to retrieve data in the aftermath of the total system crash caused by the yuca. Even so, I've stared at my screen for nigh unto 10 minutes, patiently waiting for the memory to recompose itself.

Ok. Got it.

It was vitally important for me to remember to tell you that you can eat the strings. Those weird, zany strings. The yuca strings. When yuca's really really super-good, and really really super right, like it was 2000 years ago, you eat the strings.

This is forgotten knowledge. I beg you: tell your children so it's not completely lost. The strings? You can eat them. When it's right. Only when it's so, so right. This is how we heal as a species.

Having performed my vital Earthly duty, I can now peacefully expire.

Staggering Aftermath

I do not understand Izalco. I drove up the hill into what I thought would be the town center, but it looked like a village even though I know this to be a major city. And as you stray onto some dull side street to park, or walk around, you might turn a corner and suddenly behold an unexpected 200 mile panoramic view across El Salvador's plains and across to multiple mountain ranges, because that seemingly modest rise to the town center somehow quietly hoisted you up the slope of an enormous volcano. In the wash of my yuca, I couldn't figure it all out. It's all dream logic. I drifted around the town square in a stupor. Almost got hit by a couple cars. Then somehow managed to find my car and get home.

What happened?

Remember my tale of the Medusa Gruel in Oaxaca, Mexico?

See the next installment

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment

This is not really "Day Four", as I was only in El Salvador for three days, total, and I have a bunch of reporting still to write. It's my perennial curse: whenever I set up any sort of organizational structure for myself, I am inevitably compelled to break it).

But let's keep pretending each report is a day, and that it's all playing out in order (it's not).

As everywhere, eating in the big main city has its advantages (everything's close together, addresses are easily found) and its disadvantages (crass commercialism means cutting corners, so you don't get fully traditional methods and ingredients). My time here was short, but I felt compelled to do at least one trip out of town, aside from my quick scoot down and back to La Posada for quesadilla.

If you live in a place with some Salvadoran immigrants, you've already heard the term "Izalco", because they tend to name restaurants for it (like South Indian restaurants are often named "Updupi" and Cambodians' are "Angkor Wat"). I had two grails to hunt down in the Izalco area, a couple hours west of San Salvador. And on my way out of town, I had a few other stops to make, starting with Mercadito de Merliot in Santa Tecla.

Mercadito de Merliot

This is the big food market. And by "big", I mean small. Hence mercadito, the diminutive of mercado. So they know it. If this were a big city in Mexico, the main food market would occupy several football fields, and boast far more diversity and richness. This gives you some idea of why Central Americans are resentful of big, fat, comparatively rich and culturally dominant Mexico, the hegemonic "America" of the region (like nesting dolls, you can drill down even further and learn that, to the rest of Central America, El Salvador itself is the local fat Mexico - you'll find pupusas in Guatemala and Honduras, but they're not happy about it).

Mercadito de Merliot is still way larger than any single food market in NYC, so stand tall, El Salvador! Up front there's a nice produce section (nothing too crazy-unusual, but perhaps February isn't primetime), and then a cookware section, a cheap-plastic-Chinese-crap section, a haircut section (with multiple independently-owned stalls), and then, in the back, a bustling, hustling food court lorded over by the venerable Cocteles y Mariscos Mary.
Note that I'm using Google Maps places links for all these places; Yelp has spotty coverage outside USA, where Google Maps is more popular for the wider WhatsApp world. Even in Portugal (did you catch my reporting there?), while there's some Yelp coverage, it's all tourist places, so even there I preferred Google for better coverage and more native perspectives.
99% of foodies would make a beeline straight to Mary, the famous bastion. But I don't work that way. I bumble and stumble, following yens and irrational hunches, always blithely willing to get it wrong in the greater pursuit of serendipity. You can't force it. Like a string, serendipity can only be pulled, never pushed.

I lack the American drive to target and grab trophies. I don't need to hit all the best places and have the best time. I'm ok hunkering down winsomely in the back corner of some anonymous joint (what the hell is he doing THERE???). In fact, I get anxious with the scavenger hunt approach, darting around to acquire a list of pre-approved TREMENDOUS EXPERIENCES. I've renounced tremendous experience, having devoted my life to nano-aesthetics.

So you go have yourself a rip roaring time tearing through shrimp cocktails at Cocteles y Mariscos Mary. I'll be the lonely older dude hunkered down at the wrong booth eating the wrong thing. This is one reason I often travel and eat alone: my approach drives companions crazy. I frequently appear to be losing.

As I entered I noted these majonchos (member of the Bluggoe subgroup of bananas according to this reference). It's one of the few cooking bananas that can also be eaten raw, and it's flavor-packed..
I glimpsed these shimmering potatoes walking by a neglibily small and anonymous concession. I immediately had to have them.
The proprietor was not wholly comfortable with the eager gleam in my eye, and tried to sort me out quickly in terms of the actual real food I'd be ordering (you can't just have potatoes; you can't steal the bait). Really, all she had was caldo de gallina - hen soup - and it smelled good, so I said "yes" and sat down. She brought me my bait potatoes and a large bowl of soup that seemed simple almost to a fault, and I began patiently spooning, very well-aware that my itinerary for the day included a two hour drive for El Salvador's finest hen soup.

So I'm a lousy chowhound. I'm making mistakes. But you know what? I've been doing this for a long time, and I know it's at least possible that this anonymous, severe woman, in her otherwise unpatronized little booth, might make even better caldo de gallina than the famous place, which would make for a great story and memory. Or else, maybe not, and I'll have established a useful baseline for myself. It's all process, that's all!

So I not only ate the soup, but finished it, sensing that it would hurt her feelings if I didn't, and I try - harder than I let on - to police the happiness level in my small corner of the universe.

The soup was lovely but not exemplary. It came with tortillas, indistinguishable from the fat, pillowy Guatemalan type.
I also ordered a tamal de elote - the paradoxically dense-yet-fluffy fresh corn tamal (naturally sweet from corn kernals, not corn meal) made only by Salvadorans. It was served with crema that made me guffaw out loud. I've spent years explaining to Americans that while Hispanic crema is usually translated to "sour cream" on menus, it's not as sour as sour cream. Well, this really was. And it was great. The crema and the potatoes were the best part (why oh why didn't I think to dunk the former into the latter? Yet another failure to be tremendous!).

The tamal was exactly like I've had from good immigrant places abroad. Lousy versions are dyed bright yellow and sweetened to compensate for lousy corn, but these were good ones, very natural tasting. The potatoes, I don't remember. Chowmnesia. I fear I may be going feral.

Oh, and for those tracking curtido, here is her better-than-restaurant but worse-than-grandma version:
I handed back the empty bowl and said I loved the soup. "Really?" she asked. It meant something to her. I was her only customer, and she was cooking her heart out and needed reassurance. Oh, thank goodness I'd finished it.

Needing to conserve what little remained of my appetite, I didn't eat another bite in the market. But I did pass the Vendor of Frizzy Fried Meats:
....and took-away some simple market cookies.
...including very nice mereingue kisses, flavored with slightly smoky doce de leche
Outskirts Spazzing

On my way out of town, I stopped at The Macacos Club in Nuevo Cuscatlan, a wonderfully quirky cafe/hang-out full of carefully selected vinyl records (tons of Andy Williams - remember him? - and 1960s kitsch Iberian accordian groups) and vintage radio equipment and Barbies. They serve a few select bottles of weirdo alternative craft beer and fancy coffee.

But it's always the same problem with such places: the interesting, quirky dude who put it together as a labor of love doesn't want to hang out there all day every day(this isn't a 1975 comic book store). So he hires some affable 23 year old who knows nothing about vinyl records or vintage radio equipment or Barbies, transforming the place into a generic turnkey operation amid The Owner's Quirky Crap.

How many times have I quaffed great beer in a bar where neither bartenders nor managers knew a damned thing about beer? How often do jazz club workers know anything about jazz? It's like hanging out in the EPCOT Scotland pavilion, hoping to discuss the Highlands and shortbread with experts, and finding that the place is run by fuckless pot-bellied Floridians. THAT'S MY WHOLE LIFE, RIGHT THERE.

I was waiting for Cacique to open up. I'd decided it looked cool in my pre-trip online scouting session (check out the photos at that link). I had my eye particularly on a shot of papas con camarones, which is not a normal thing in El Salvador nor elsewhere.

Like The Macacos Club, Cacique is a rare sales point for the nation's smallest brewery, Puente Quemado ("Burned Bridge"), which finds itself in a predicament, being way more sophisticated a craft beer operation than Salvadorans are currently able to appreciate. So those guys do as much education as brewing, hoping to build themselves a market from scratch. Very Fitzcarraldo.

So I relaxed a good long while at The Macacos Club, reading and drinking coffee and beer and stalling until Cacique's opening time, even though it was a terrible idea to devote precious stomach space to capricious papas con camarones with a full day of eating ahead of me. But, again, I am not compelled to optimize such things. I have renounced TREMENDOUS EXPERIENCE. I take it as it comes, screw-ups and all. To an American, I am a frightfully docile loser. And yet, at the end of the day, I often will have eaten as well or better than anyone alive. Strange how that works. I honestly can't spot the trick, myself.

I knew Cacique was close by. I got in my car and tried to locate it in this scruffy no man's land, to no avail. Finally I realized the place was 75 feet away from The Macacos Club, in the very same shopping strip. Doh! More poor optimization. More low tremendousness. But finally it really dawned on me that I'd soon confront a second enormous bowl of caldo de gallina, plus I was losing daylight. So off I sped to the western wilderness outside distant Izalco.

Go forward to El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights

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