Tuesday, December 16, 2008

To me snow is bread mold growing on albino tree frogs.

"New York gets godawful cold in the winter but there's a whacky comradeship somewhere in some streets. LA is a jungle."-Kerouac, from On the Road

I'm walking to the train stop--the faraway half mile to get there one, not the three block away one--on wide Eastern Parkway with the rows of trees now bare so they look like giant brooms stuck upside down in the ground, and the sky's all gray and dismal and it's not really cold but you can see your breath anyway (I had joked earlier to Olivia that this was a day that made our surroundings look like /The Road/, which if you haven't read it is more or less about after the end of the human world with only a few survivors, constant nuclear winter and what not), and next thing there's ripped up toilet paper all around me. But wait--that's not Charmin, that's not charmin at all--someone wasn't yanking my chain: it was snow! Big ploppy wet snow that fell down in raggedy clumps and when I looked at it on the ground close seemed to be bread mold. Really fluffy soon melted stuff. And it's just started, and I'm walking, and I'm walking, and I'm not even to the three stops away train stop when it's like the whole environment, the buildings and the people with big bags full of Christmas gifts and their big ugg boots and even the cars and honking buses and emergency vehicles, all got wrapped up in this swirling whiteout. It looked and felt like a silent gentle apocalypse, like a plague of snowflakes (only I could equate giant snowflake clumps with tiny albino frogs falling from the sky).

Needless to say, I got my ass underground at the near stop and went on my way. When I popped up out of the Borough Hall stop, though, it was like magic: the big tree they have set up next to the fountain made its blue ornaments more twinkly in the soft light and the pine boughs wrapped around the pillars of the Hall were all frosted and glisteny. Today happens to be a market day, and the farmers at the stands I guess misjudged the weather or something, because they only had in most cases part of their vegetables and other things they're selling covered up. So you got these ultra shiny yellow and orange carrots and broccoli with snow tucked into its florets. Crazy stuff, looked like a field forgotten by harvest. And I'm bouncing around and really digging it because I'm still kind of romantic about snow since moving back east from california and only seeing a couple real snow storms here in New York, noticing how one stand left all its wreaths and boughs and assorted evergreen decorations and pinecone wares out in the snow and how perfect a picture it made, how much sense it made to see the needles all flecked with what was quickly becoming transparent water from opaque white snow, and opening up again the spaces between the branches and needles to air rather than a visible and palpable network of plant and snow matter, then moving down the line to Barnes and Noble and stopping to watch as a complicated human architecture coordinates itself at the front door to allow for a stroller and an old man more horizontal and vertical in a walker get respective out and into the store, and me participating, too, and finding a role somehow, making myself a cog, among all the shaken out hair and wet dripping umbrellas and everyone just getting through, so that even the normally terrifying flourescence and obscene volume of BN's interior (that for horror effect must be experienced alongside the silent efficiency of cashiers not talking to customers, and customers not talking to each other, and everyone just kind of solitary and flipping and not in a warm browsing way but somehow mutated by the surroundings into these pale parasitic ravenous shoppers, desperate to get Uncle Fred's or cousin Annie's bratty twin children out of the way and crossed off the list, no matter how many elbows they have to throw to get there)--even my normal gut reaction of recoil subsides and I can wade through it all like a proud masthead in the arctic fog that hides icebergs.

Then I check out, and the guy--I think his name was "Greg" although it was hard to see his nametag from behind his sagging droopy chin--doesn't acknowledge me, and I go to Trader Joe's, and an old lady bites my heels with her cart, and the same thing happens at the checkout, except the dude sort of acknowledges me with a slight nod, then I get to the little gourmet place across the street and this time not only does the Polish lady cashier ignore me as anything but something to be processed, but doesn't miss a beat in her conversation being held in Polish with the guy on the side of the counter who I practically have to maul with excuses me to get past and out the door.

And I'm outside and the snow has slaked, and stops, and all that's left is trash running into storm drains from the streamcurrent of filthy slop water glowing with the rainbow of chemical runoff. But there's still a hush in that air as I walk back to the subway. And the smells: something about snow in the air punctuates smells for me. The turmeric coming out of the halal food huts jabs my attention--I see a tall man under an umbrella on hold on his cell phone walk up, "What's up, man? Yeah, I'll have a chicken and lamb with rice"--just in time to see the guy inside the cart disappear behind a sudden gushing cloud of steam as you hear whooosh! Of chicken going on the flat grill. Then I get the charcoal and the crusty smell of the pretzels and the kind of gross but also weirdly appealing aroma of the steam that collects under the storage tray for the hot dogs--that unmistakable whiff of boiled tight pigskin. I'm not even that hungry, either; it's just overwhelming in this particular atmospheric condition. I raft back home on the smells rather than the empty milk containers and cigarette packs that remind me to be careful where I step if I don't want soggy feet and think to myself how it just goes to show you: New York's the kind of place where in the morning you can praise with abandon the mass transit and other public services and find out by that night on the local news that a sanitation worker had been shot a block and a half from your apartment and a bus driver stabbed to death in your old neighborhood for trying to collect a fare from a rider. Now /that's/ America!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Me off Potatoes

I had another one to post earlier today with the heading "Notes on America," but summarily forgot its contents, and now I'm sitting here watching Westside Story and thinking about how I've been trying not to eat potatoes--or at least not so MUCH of them--especially as winter comes. I blame Westside Story...for all of it: my food freakiness, my forgetfulness. The economy...

Moving on. Did you know that the primary source of Vitamin C for Americans is potatoes? Yep. Alex Trebek told me so. And ever since I heard that as the Final Jeopardy clue I've been thinking about my potato intake. Because I remember thinking (after, "Damn, not what is orange juice?), "Man, I /do/ eat a lot of potatoes." And while corn people is the single biggest thing we are, we've got spuds pretty well covered, too, such that I imagine our legs and arms and torso made of cobears, and our faceparts and ears and hands and fingers and toes and feet made out of potatoes. And since I was trying to stretch out and consider the fact that maybe it might be better for my body and my mind and all of it if I don't eat the same fucking thing every day of life on Earth. And because, well, why not? I like to cook and I like to challenge my skillz in culinary town. Because of all these things and more I can't remember but mostly Final Jeopardy and the fact I got it wrong, I decided to see what else I could eat when tomatoes weren't growing and asparagus wasn't here while still eating at least mostly seasonally and if possible locally (this is a barrel of goddamned monkeys once February rolls around in New York).

Part of this included eating different kinds of potatoes. You know, as a treat. Fingerlings generally had not been a revelation for awhile, but now there were like forty kinds. I tried Russian Banana, Ruby Crescent, Pink Thumb, Rose Finn, French, La Ratte (which look like the rat king apparently when they're all bunched up), and these purple knuckler things. They were OK, but mostly just expensive when all you really need to do is buy new (or small) potatoes to get the same effect. But if you wanna try em I'd say stick with anything yellow (Russian Banana or La Ratte), rather than the pink and blue and purple ones. The consistency on these last are just too annoying to work with, and come out gummy when you roast them, when roasting is really the only thing worth doing (buying tiny adorable segmented potatoes at three bucks a pound in order to boil and mash them will result in me showing up at your house and beating you with a turkey baster). Either that or when it's warm they make good potato salad.

Among regular potatoes, oh Jesus--don't get me started. There's German butterball, Caribe, Bintje, Adirondack Blue, Purple Peruvian, Carola, Kennebec, Norland, and then the common Yukon Gold, Red Bliss and Russet (or Idaho). For mashing or potato salad I like butterballs or Carolas, for french fries, gnocchi or baked potatoes I like kennebecs and the blue and purple ones, but really the Yukon Gold and the Russets I found work just as well in these respective categories. For boiling and potato salad I like any red skinned ones.

So, yeah, I still screw around with different kinds, but the only real difference I'm finding is one I already knew, namely, that some are starchy, some are waxy, and some are halfway between the two (the all-purpose ones, like Kennebec or Yukon Gold). They all taste pretty much the same, with one exception: blue and purple potatoes taste really nutty. That's the only word for it: nutty. Not like loco, like walnuts. They're good, but distinct. I actually like them best for french fries.

This wasn't enough, isn't enough, variety for me, though. I am a variety whore, it would seem. Or maybe it's just because I'm obsessive about going to the Farmer's Market for my food and the produce you get int he winter all comes out of the ground. This really, erm, /encourages/ creativity. I'm still trying to figure out turnips. So far I can do a soup with them and this thing with butternut squash and sesame seeds and leeks, like I half sautee half bake in the overn dealie. But that's about it. I suck at turnips. I make a really good rutabaga mash with thyme and roasted pears, but turnips have conquered me so far.

What I am pretty good at and like a lot, besides the obvious potato alternative carrot and its nine thousand possibilities (soup, side dish, roasting buddy--I've even made carrot gnocchi once), are the following:

Celery root. This shit is CRAZY. By far the homeliest, wartiest of the root vegetables, the ugliest of any vegetable, possibly. This is the troll, this is the toad, of the vegetable world. The skin is all nubby and brown and difficult to peel. There are cracks and crevices around the nodes at the bottom of the root that trap dirt, too, which is good times. But once you're done you find these creamy, aromatic white flesh (it smells and tastes like a cross between celery and spud). You can treat just like a potato. It's great in a cream of type soup, and my favorite recipe simply boils it with peas and then tosses it up with some shallots sauteed in butter. Plus I guess it's good for you, with calcium and minerals you don't see often in high quantities in veggies.

Parsnips. These aren't all that exotic, but I've been playing with them, trying to figure out how to prepare them in a way that doesn't act like they are bizarro, albino carrots. There's a soup I make with leeks and dried porcini mushrooms (you soak em in hot water to make a sort of broth) that's thickened with chestnuts to make it creamy that works well. I've experimented with mashing or food processing it instead of mashed potatoes. I wouldn't pay this one forward to any of you, as it comes out the consistency approximately of Elmer's glue. Maybe if I thinned it with milk or something? (I did use a shit ton of butter, but that didn't help)

Beets. I grew up on beets in New England, but have recently rediscovered them. Candy cane, Chioggia (my favorite), the regular deep purple red ones. The best thing about beets is you can use the tops for stuff--I sautee them for either a side like spinach, to put under fish or something, or to use in a pasta dish with anchovies garlic and hot red pepper. But the tuber part kicks ass. I actually don't do much with beets--I treat them like squash. And besides borscht, which I don't know how to make, I can't think of anything that really incorporates beets. But that doesnt' stop me from roasting them for like a week and slicing them up with some rosemary and parmigiano and drizzled olive oil (winter bruschetta). They also work pretty well puree with some ricotta as filling for ravioli that you serve with poppy seeds cooked in butter (stole this dish from a restaurant in Brooklyn. It's an Italian restaurant. Seriously.) Mostly just on their own roasted beets are fan freakin tastic, and I try to integrate the tops and roasted root together.

Parsley root--this one's tricky. I like to think it's the most shy of all root vegetables. There's only one thing I've found I can do with it that doesn't suck. Once it's cooked and turns into semi-mushy starch, you can make it into a soup easily. The taste is super mellow, with parsley and potato and celery undertones, and delicate. Plus you can get your rocks off knowing, as with celery root, you're using the /whole/ friggin plant (unlike celery root, however, I've seen a massive punch of parsley sold with the root attached).

Leeks--not really a root vegetable, but I'm finding out just how versatile they are. They're part of my "substitute for onions" campaign, which also includes shallots, since I didn't really know how to cook with either of these non-onion oniony tasting things.

Another thing I've noticed happening is that the fewer potatoes I use the more I branch out in the "vegetable" category of the "meat, potato, vegetable" model (I don't always follow this model, but if you've got a mess of pork chops or steak that makes you drool just looking at it, why be anti- just for the sake of being anti-?). The two areas I've mainly explored are cruciferous vegetables--I've always eaten broccoli but now I play with cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and even and especially cabbage, which, who knew? Also has a burlapsackful of Vitamin C in it and God knows what other good crap for you--and squash--started with butternut but found I like all these nutty--like loco,, not like walnuts--Japanese varieties whose names except for Hokkaido I can't remember, Acorn, Kabocha, Delicata (a whole lot, one of my favorites), Carnival, Sweet Dumpling, Hubbard, Cheese Pumpkin, even the Jack-O-Lantern sugar pumpkin is good eatin', I found out.

But I'll get into all these non-root vegetable potato distractions later, as they fit better under the category of "fall seasonal" post than "how I broke my potato habit." Let me finish, though, by saying that, despite all the wonderful other flavors from food you can pull out of dirt, and all the cool new recipes I now have under the belt buckle, I still love me some potato. I in fact love it MORE now, I think, as I've started doing things like make my own french fries when I get a good steak (this combination may be completely unbeatable when paired with a high-end Belgian beer). It's weird, once I got healthy-like with the widening my food spectrum into stereo sound and abandoned the mono-tuber eating, I wound up eating potatoes with worrying so much about how they aren't all that good for me. Turns out spuds get a bum rap, and that the blue ones and purples ones have exactly the same antioxidants as blueberries or blackberries that they look so much like and people are so frantic about (the skins of all potatoes are where most of the nutrition lies, I found out, which is why "clean" mashed potatoes and most french fries from restaurants aren't all that great for you, being just empty starch). My attitude coming out of my little experiment is pretty basic: any food, if you drench it in grease and other garbage that in excess kills you and fry it up after dehydrating and flash-freezing it and more or less turning it into something you can eat but can't really call food anymore, is gonna be bad for you. It's a problem. But that's not the potato's fault--it just happens to be one of the only things on Earth that we can digest that will tolerate such treatment.

I used to hold the belief, and to share it with anyone who would listen, that "a potato was barely a vegetable." Now I think that's only true after we get done with it far too often, as in the case of what I call "french fry vegetarians," those wonderful hypocrites who weep at the thought of a feedlot cow or their grandchildren living in a world without polar bears and seasons and promptly get into a fast food line to be processed single file and served food their gut can't digest like the corn in that sad cow with other cow's shit on its fur's stomach, or who buy frozen dinners from Whole Foods or Trader Joe's that are packed with sodium and not much else and have been processed(manufactured, really) in the same industrial model Purdue or supermarket ground beef uses to supply these folks' heartless carnivore cousins. Nothing dies for a frozen dinner of daal, granted, but damn if those frozen veggies didn't come from a massive farm, growing in soil packed with petroleum-based fertilizer and unless you live in California trucked in from another coastline on diesel fuel. Drowning polar bears anyone? mmmmmm. yummy. And so ethical!

And this last paragraph is proof positive why I should never, ever do any grocery shopping on the weekends here. I see far too many of these people, and a perfectly harmless blog post turns into a piranha feeding frenzy I subject you all to. Sorry for the blood in the water, and for rambling. I'll be back at you all soon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I'm thinking about the machines.

This is something I've been meaning to write for a while now, but have been too busy and drained from personal events I will not now go into to get down. In fact, if and when I do get back into a regular routine with this posting stuff what you read will pretty much all fall into the category of "majorly delayed." So here we are, back to cooking and food related musings--

The last recommendation I ventured forth and shared food-wise was to buy less more expensive food. This is more or less blasphemy in our culture, in that it in effect is saying "pay more to get less" when we are possessed by the need of getting "value" in the form of "more stuff for less money." That's fine, I would argue, with things you don't put into your body (although one has to question the notion of "value" when it's completely divested of the notion of "quality." Is thirteen pounds of animal-grade pigshit worth a nickel when the other guy is selling sub-animal-grade human sewage, same quantity for a dime? Sadly, folks, I think most of our decision making has entered this realm, when what it might be time to do is dismiss ourselves to recess and politely say, "Um, I don't want any shit. Thanks anyway. I'm going to play on the monkeybars now."); but when it comes to things you do put in your body, that you try to digest, there's more at stake here than simply how much it costs or, even more importantly, how much you get.

Now, the first objection I see being raised to my eat less and pay more for it argument is the whole mother of eight who may or may not be an immigrant and is trying to put dinner on the table each and every night on almost no income. I'll get to this objection in a minute, as it's a valid point and more or less vocalizes the single biggest argument FOR our current industrial food system--namely, that it's a triumph of being able to feed a huge number of people for not much money, which of course means nobody's going hungry in our country and we're all healthy. I hope you can sniff the faint whiff of ozone as the bullshit meter just starting smoking after blowing all its fuses on the end of that last sentence. But more in a minute.

First, I need to share my big machine metaphor, which isn't much of one as metaphors go but it'll work. I see the human body, all human bodies, mine, yours, your friends' and families', as a big, beautiful chugga-chugga machine, complete with cogs and specialized parts that do different things, and most importantly, with the need for fuel. All machines need something--whether it's gas or electricity or whatever--to make them go. And all machines use that something, that fuel, by transforming it into something else, often with a waste or other byproducts (in our case we poop and pee and generate energy, mainly in the form of heat but also metabolic activities we need to keep running). And, to my mind, the question with the human body machine remains the simple one of, "How much output are you getting for your fuel?" With all this hyperactivity about gas mileage in recent months and years, we ought to ask ourselves what our fuel efficiency rating is.

This means defining our gallon of gas, our fuel unit. For human fuel that would be the calorie. Everything you eat (not drink, because water has none), whether it's protein, fat, or cabohydrate based, vitamin and mineral loaded or not, has calories in it. Your body needs these calories to keep going, but only so many (can't remember exactly where we're at now but I think the recommendation is around 2,000-2,500). After that we start storing the fuel as fat, and our machine gets kinda bloated and porky-acting. Imagine a car with deposits of fuel sludge all over the place, or, better yet, imagine a whole tangle of cars being used with only one driver in each and creating an atmosphere that chokes the drivers to death along with all other life on Earth. Come to think of it, you don't really have to imagine that so much as look around.

So, yeah, we need calories, a certain number to keep going, but with a maximum limit. The question, then, becomes, how much bang are you getting for your buck? /Here/ is where we should be asking value questions, here is where and how we should be defining value anew. By asking ourselves, what am I getting for each calorie I intake? For example, I eat a bowl of McCann's Irish Oatmeal, which just means the oats are steel cut, or whacked into little pieces rather than rolled like that Quaker Wilfred Brimley's. I eat approximately a quarter cup of it a day with a cup of water, often with apples or raisins and walnuts in it. The oatmeal itself has 120 calories. Add in about 30 calories for the added fruit--without sugar, which would jack the total considerably more than 30--and you've got 150 calories total. But more importantly, let's ask ourselves: what did I get for it? Well, I got full, mainly, as I don't usually want to eat anything but these 150 calories for about four more hours. Compare this to when I eat breakfast cereal, like Life that Mikey likes so much. Now, Life has about the same calorie content--not to mention all those /awesome/ enrichments of Riboflavin and Folic Acid and Vitamin B12 and what not--but the thing is, when I eat a bowl of Life with milk, which adds more calories than the pat of butter I eat with the oatmeal I forgot to tell you about earlier--oops--then I'm hungry in like an hour and a half.

But isn't it worth it on the whole? I mean, what /else/ do you get from this lumpy porridge gruel looking crap that's the consistency of bread dough? Let's see. Looking on the label...well, not much. Some protein, a shit ton of dietary fiber--about a quarter of your daily recommended allowance--but overall our "Nutrition Facts" tell us it doesn't have any of that snazzy vitamin B12 and Riboflavin I've heard so much about and that Mikey likes. But here's the thing: those things don't /belong/ in oatmeal, or cereal made from oats like Life. A little bit of protein and a whole lot of dietary fiber, both of which, it turns out, are necessary to keep me full and are lacking from Life, are what belong in oats--like the plant oats. Like if you started chewing on some grain, its "Nutrition Facts" would be much closer to McCann's than Life.

And now more questions arise, the two most prominent being intertwined, it turns out. First, what about the enriched contents of Life, all the snazzy stuff they added later at the cereal's processing plant (a factory preparing things for your little factory)? And second, where's the beef, so to speak: where'd the dietary fiber and protein I'd need to stay full on Life /go/? Because it's not there. I've looked. The carbohydrates, instead of coming from complex sources like the much lauded "whole grain"--which is to say, more like the oat plant than like the lattice work square floating in milk--are coming in at least equal measure (more in sugary cereal) from sugars, or what the cheap beer world calls "adjuncts." Invariably the sugar of choice is high fructose corn syrup, which is a refined version of another grain, corn. So what we're faced with here is a breakfast cereal, and Life is by no means an exception, that, in being created, had the stuff it was born with, fiber and protein and whatever else on a micro-level. stripped away or at least leeched out in processing (which ultimately just "stretches" the amount of oats you need so that you need less grain to make something you somehow still call cereal), and then replaced first by a variety of isolated vitamins and minerals somehow chemically implanted into the processed oats and had its carbohydrate structure reconstituted with, not just sugar, a simpler carb., but a /form of sugar derived from another grain/.

At this point you may ask yourself as I can't help asking myself again, what the fuck is going on here? This makes almost no sense. It's simple, really: corn's cheap. Sugar's actually cheaper to make in the form of corn syrup than simply growing oats in a field, drying them out, and hacking them up with rotary steel blades like they do in the county in Ireland where McCann's comes from. Somehow the chemistry mechanism whereby foods are "enriched" is also now cheaper. I have no idea how this happened, or at least not a full understanding, but let me assure you of one thing: it does not have to be this way. Just because the current apparatus makes it looks like this is what grain should be, it is absolutely ludicrous to think that the only way to make food cheap is to make it cheaply, in a processed and refined and mostly nutrition-free form (while I can't prove that the enriched Vitamins and Minerals in these cereals are not absorbed by your body, I can tell you that increasingly the same food science that brought us Yellow No. 5 is also researching and revealing how closely linked the absorption of nutritive elements like vitamins, minerals, and those precious darling antioxidants, is to the food in which those nutritive elements appear in nature, whole. In other words, you can't take a blueberry extract capsule and absorb the good stuff from it; you have to eat a blueberry. Which means you can't just eat Total or Life and expect those "Nutrition Facts" percentages of your daily recommended amount of Folic Acid to be met. It is increasingly coming to light, sadly, that this is a lie. That's life, Mikey). Unfortunately, we're locked into a logic whereby we think 'good food'--i.e. food that doesn't make us fat and sad and full of Wilfred Brimley-hates it die-uh-beatus of the type II variety--costs a lot, and that Hilda the eight children rearing mother can't bring her kids up on anything but dollar ninety-nine a lb. feedlot beef and Life cereal, because McCann's costs 5.29 for a little metal barrel of it (grass-fed ground beef, which is to say beef from cows eating what they are /genetically designed to eat/, costs much much more than corn-fed feedlot beef).

But here's the thing. Go back to that description of what I eat for breakfast. A quarter cup of McCann's. That's even /less/ than the "serving size" of most breakfast cereals, ignoring of course the fact that we usually eat twice that serving size, and thus get twice as many calories for half as much other nutritive elements we need in the course of a day. I get a tin of McCann's every two weeks, sometimes every three. You do the math, you determine the value. Get more, pay more, and eat less, and maybe, eventually, our consumer choices will drive an agriculture in this country that when described in plain and open terms can only be labeled insane. It's possible. There's absolutely nothing that says we must have the Great Plains full of corn except the farm bill's glut of subsidies. We could keep the subsidies so the farmers don't lost their shirts, just redirecting them to different products.

But that's a different recommendation for a different day. For now, just eat less and pay more--a quarter pound of grass-fed filet mignon tastes so god damned much like real beef, and is so rich and buttery and absolutely decadent while still tasting like a real animal that hasn't been pumped full of drugs and feed a grain it doesn't know how to digest, that you'll not only feel better in your conscience, you'll be much fuller, too, and much fuller of the good fat, Omega-3, so many folks are popping fish oil pills of, than the Omega-6 overflow of, say, a Whopper. Sick cows make for sick people, and frankenfoodfactories produce products, not food (breakfast cereal is a created commodity; there's absolutely no reason we need nine hundred varieties of a combination of corn, rice, oats, and wheat). That product may seem cheap, but like that black market Mexican or Venezuelan gas with the 60 octane rating, it'll break your machine.

PS--Just as a footnote the food science regarding the connections between nutritive elements and whole foods has been discussed by Michael Pollan in /In Defense of Food/--can't remember where specifically, but, like Prego, it's in there.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Notes from Election day Last Week

These are pretty rapid fire, so bear with me--no real string of narrative, just the frayed ends of images and senses.

Let's set the stage. Did any of you watch the election night coverage on either NBC or MSNBC? You know the ice rink with the United States on it that they fill in red or blue as they find out which states go what way, and the little trundling what looks like the top of the phone company cherry picker boxcar thingies that keep track of respective electoral votes for each candidate, with OBAMA and MCCAIN printed on the front and trailing a blue or red banner as it goes up the side of a building? Or have you seen the Tina Fey show 30 Rock? Well, you might already know this, but the name comes from 30 Rockefeller Center, where NBC has its studios, and where they put the big Christmas tree up soon. And where they do all that election hoo-ha. And where I was last Tuesday night along with a bunch of yahoos.

"Dude I can't hear what they're saying. Dude, dude," she looks like she's from Colorado or New Jersey, all black fingernails and Cyndi Lauper hair and a jean jacket with rolled up sleeves. She's chewing gum madly and twirling her fingers at her ears, which are plugged into a walkman--yes, a real walkman, with a radio dial on it--and then pointing to the enormous screens and speakers, the two signs that read MSNBC on the left and NBC on the right, poking through the line of American flags and live oaks interlaced high into the air with Christmas air, the balmy early November air blowing through the leaves on their branches they'll keep all year.

"I can't hear what they're saying...i can't hear it over your conversation." Now, I don't own a cell phone. But Olivia does. And I was talking to my friend John. I don't know how to talk on a cell phone, or really how the whole thing works. I worry the other person can't hear me amid the noise surrounding me and all the other people's voices, so I tend to talk a bit, uh, dramatically. Imagine the guy at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a megaphone screaming "8 Piece BUCKET--EXTRA TASTY CRISPY--FOR DELIVERY?" Or imagine a third grade teacher dealing with a slightly hearing impaired immigrant child from Mexico who happens to be introverted and possess artistic sensibilities.

I felt slightly ashamed, and to prove it I got off the phone quickly and mousequietly right afterwards. Would have felt worse but she was taking this whole spectacle /way/ too seriously. I mean, there's the Croatian press core, with horrible pancake makeup and their American press corps handlers basically getting drunk and eating fancy sandwiches next to the set. And over there is a Santa for Obama, and that guy's not wearing pants, and what's that smell? Oh, they're feeding the draught horse from one of the quaint tourist carriages and he's gotta make some room. And over it all CHRIS MATTHEWS IS PLAYING HARDBALL WITH MY EAR DRUMS and why are there greek columns? I see through the branches and stars and stripes waving in the spotlights, distinctly, on the screen, fake greek columns. Did they steal those from the DNC platform and Obama's last occasion to speak in front eight jillion people? And that map is /floating/, in the air, and maybe even rotating like right before the guy dies in Mortal Kombat.

Oh well, they're doing a county by county breakdown of Florida, North Carolina--ohp! There goes the boxcar up the building!! It's the blue one!!!

It's really flying up there--if it wouldn't have hit that snag around the fifteenth floor it'd be there now. About six states go to the B-man and they're hovering just under two hundred. We wait another half hour and listen as children whine for more candy, to stay up a little later, strangely excited by this political melee. This one girl, whose dad was Russian and Indulgent and whose mom came from southern California and was the most nasty spirited person i've encountered in quite some time, looked at her parents when they announced they were leaving at 10, immediately and forcefully replied, "Ten thirty!" Pretty sure she's in law school at Columbia. Pretty sure dad's rich, bought himself a green card with sourpuss mom, and now they're in their forties with an eight year old hell bent on the intricacies of the electoral college. they're doing the best they can, and then they're leaving.

Texas goes to McCain, and the lagging red boxcar limps its way up to almost halfway the height of the blue one. I crane my upper body over the railing to get a good look at the ice (I can only really see the northeast down to about North Carolina unless I get all contortionist about it). I thought Wyoming was big--man, Texas is motherhonking HUGE.

It takes three people to carry it out in what looks to be a tent for the brady bunch to camp in. Good God, it's so dang red, so incredibly hotel lobby looking. I'm not sure Texas has ever looked this formal. But they get it on there and blow dry it with the enormous leaf blower jet packs and buff it like professional Canadian curlers in the winter Olympics, and we're off.

Ohio has since gone to another O and it finally dons on me the election has ended. It's just a matter of time til they call the west coast. We finish the wine in the portable coffee thermos and head on our way. Nothing has officially registered because nothing has officially happened. I left things hanging back at the Rock with the blue trolley banner around the twenty second story and nearly 205 electoral votes or some shit. But I know better and we get on the subway and besides the crowd is getting the sense that the networks are talking around something ("i feel like they're not telling me something, bob? Do you get that sense? Why are they being so scripted sounding, it's like they don't know what to say...")

We take the D train and cross above ground over the manhattan bridge. The view of the East River, the tugboats and the Brooklyn ports and the barges and the Brooklyn Bridge always gets me, so I'm kind of tripping the lights fantastic, when this girl in the corner of the car squeals while looking into her phone display, "Obama won!" She does a sort of happy dance in the seat with her feet and her friend hugs her and he keeps on dancing. The woman across from me with the alphabet blocks spelling 'obama' on her hoop earrings keeps her eyes closed, not even stirring at the news.

We transfer at Atlantic to a 2 train, which drops us off a little further from our apartment, but away from the car oriented Eastern Parkway and closer to the small streets of President and Union. We pop up out of the station and it is absolute pandemonium. Cars full of black Americans and West Indians and Caribbean folks are honking in ecstacy, people are hanging out of their balconies Mardi Gras people, and everywhere, everywhere--in the streets, on the pavement--folks are shouting. It's just noise for the most part, the cacophonous roar of jubilation, but every now and then you catch shouts which consist mostly of "Barack Obama! Whooooo!" And if you pay close attention you can tune in to individuals. Girl on a cell phone, holding it in front of her:

"Bitch, you haven't paid your taxes in three years. Barack Obama, that's all you need to say."

I popped my head for a moment into a teeming bar that was bouncing and sending electrical currents through every body in the place. I glanced a TV mounted up in the corner of the bar and looked over those bouncing shoulders to read the headline saying, "Barack Obama Elected President of the United States." The place was all lit up and the door was wide open. It was nothing for me to peer in like that.

One man coming the other way down the street looked me dead in the eye with the most warmth I've ever felt by a stranger with that dark a skin looking at my white ass, then put his arms straight up over his head, his fists tight, his cheeks bright with teary streams, and shouted, "Barack Obama! God Bless the United States of America." He shut his eyes and when he opened them the woman sitting near us on the train was swaying in his arms in a hug. "Come here, brother--just come here..."

By the time we had gotten to where our usual stop, Nostrand Avenue, is, I was thankful we hadn't gotten out there, as the scene was calm and emptied of people. Just cars tooting by occasionally. It was eerie quiet after the ruckus on our block, but then a tax stopped going the other way and let out an old woman with a cane. It was just her and me and Olivia, and she took that cane and pumped it over her head and just let loose with a soul shout: "Hoooooo-whoooo! Hoooooo-whoo!" And got her keys out of her pocket and put her cane down and in a very dignified fashion got into her house.

"Exactly," I said, and walked on down the line.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How a beggar made a beggar outta me.

I gave twelve dollars to a beggar a week ago, the most I've ever given to one person, and I still don't know that I have a full handle on it.

But first, let's set the scene. I'm on my way to the franklin ave. stop, which is half a mile away, up eastern parkway toward the museum and the arch and all the stoneworking impressive stuff of Brooklyn. I'm about a block away, at the corner of Bedford and Eastern Parkway, right near the Washington Mutual, and this dude shows up. He doesn't approach me so much as appear from behind a trash can.

He's mouthing words and pointing to his head. I have no idea what any of this means because he's kind of behind me, barely in my peripheral vision, and I've got my ipod ears in this particular Wednesday. But I turn my head and turn on my real ears and he's insistent:

Hey, look, I don't want your money. I just want to talk to you for a second.

yeah, right. But I hang out, because, hey, I already stopped, which is the equivalent of buying the ticket. You might as well ride the ride.

But this dude's different. Not at first. At first he's the same pose, same posture: kind of leaned forward with his hands gesturing in front of him like he can conjure up a crystal ball to show the hardluck past he's trying to make sense out of and/or embellish for pity's sake--

I'm from New Orleans, I've been told I have four months to live, my baby girl is hungry...

So far, so good. This is going exactly according to script. Having a short period of time to be alive and being from a disaster struck area (despite the fact that the disaster was, what? Two years ago?) always seems to make its way into the narrative on way or another. I look for signs that he's a junky, which means getting closer than I should have, because then things get a little weird--

He smells. But not like a junky smells. Like sickness. His eyes are rheumy, they're leaking goo--they ain't just red and veiny, they have some sort of pus that is actively trying to escape from his tear ducts. His eyes, in short, are sneezing. I see scablike things all over his face but they don't like they're from being picked at, they look like they're from down below, like they're raised up from beneath. Can't really tell. Plus his clothes aren't THAT raggedy, so I wonder if he's got family or some shit taking care of him.

Then I start listening again, ironically because he's stopped talking. There's a hitch in his rap, and he's breathing different, shorter, faster. Uh-oh--

It's just, I'm not gonna be around for my daughter, my baby, but I wanna....It hurts me, it hurts me, man--

And here the gesture goes from outward to hands bringing something out of his chest.

Can you help?

Things are back to normal. How much?

No, no--he's real adamant now. I don't want no money. I told you that.

I'm making the confused face.

I want you--and here the speech slows down, like it's in a different language I can't really understand yet--to go, down, there, with me, and buy some milk for my baby daughter.

I can't just give you some money to pay for it?

He shakes his head even as I'm reaching into my pocket for whatever loose change I got.

So you won't take this if I try to give it to you?

It's not even a question. He's still shaking his head. I haven't seen him twitch or tweak or look like he's fiending once, and he damn sure ain't on anything. He's got it too together for that right now.

He looks different again, and then I can see it. He's helpless, but he still has his dignity. A rare thing to see in a beggar. It's almost like he's not begging at all.

I blink, then I ask him where, if it's close?

Just down here--he doesn't smile, he just points. Not relieved. He actually tells me first thing once we're walking,

I've been waiting an hour and a half, man.

As if he's been waiting for me. I don't say anything--I'm a little thunderstruck at the turn of events, the literal turn of events, as we get off Eastern parkway and head down Bedford. I start getting a little worried, and my thoughts are my own, and my thoughts are questions: Is this dude taking me to his fence? His dealer? Where are we headed exactly?

He's still jabbering--

It'll only take a minute, I promise.


I just needed someone to stop.

Well, yeah--I was hoping it was close. I'm kind of in a hurry.

Not too much hurry to do somebody a kindness. Nothing in the world feels better than doing good for someone else.

And I've been feeling bad lately, so this hits me pretty hard, and i realize that's why I'm walking right next to him right now, a total sucker, and I tell him,

Yeah, that's kinda what I realized back there listening to you talk. That I'm not in as much of a hurry as I thought.

Then we're at the entrance, and it's a bodega after all. Just your average corner store in brooklyn, replete with the standard watchful teenager, maybe younger, at the door, and his grouchy taciturn father or uncle or whatever, middle eastern or Indian or some combination thereof, sitting behind the counter surrounded by bulletproof plexiglass. He doesn't even move his head at this guy, who points to someplace behind the counter. He doesn't have to; the grouchy man is silently placing a can of enfamil on the countery.

Seventeen dollars.

He says it and I about run right there. I stare at the man, then I stare at the can--impossibly small at that price, friendo!--then I stare at the 17.00 in green LCD on the cash register window, then I look at the guy again. He's kind of wincing in that frownface that says, See, I told you so--can't get ahead in this town.

Let's take a break in the action for a sec. Where I was on my way to was the farmer's market, and more generally grocery shopping. The market doesn't take cards, so the easiest way to do the shopping every week is to take out the amount of money budgeted that week (Olivia and I take turns) for food out of an ATM, and have the "wad," as we call it, ready for me when I head out Wednesday.

Now, as soon as we entered that bodega my brain starting doing some quick goat thinking. I had my hand jammed in the front right pocket, which is my wad repository, and I was thinking about how, this week, I already spent 8 dollars of it, so I had exactly 132 dollars in assorted denominations floating in my pocket. It's my ass if I lose that money, and we sure as shit ain't gonna NOT eat for a week. I make the fastest moral judgment in the world and decide I'm willing to pay up to the amount of the loose bills--i.e., non 20s--in my pocket for my time with this fella. My fingers grab the wad as I walk in, peel off the ten and two singles, and jam the 20s (you may call them hamiltons) back in the wad repository. I'm therefore ready for this moment when the taciturn men of the giant black moustache says

Seventeen dollars.

I look at the guy, he makes the face, and I tell him, look, man, I only got twelve.

And now check this! He doesn't want it! He initially waves the money away. I have to /beg him/ to reconsider, telling him, in effect, this is what I got, take it or leave it, and if you leave it you'll be a whole lot farther from where you were had you taken it. We're walking out, and I'm about to turn right, and fast, and finally he shrugs, says alright, and takes the money.

Hey, at least you're closer.

But he's already gone. And I'm left standing there like a jackass two times over, feeling guilty from a cause I can't name.

I waited to write this because I thought in a week why, after the man behind the counter told me it was 17 for the enfamil, I didn't just put the ten and two singles back in my pocket, take out a 20, and be done with the whole deal. Why half-ass it if you go this far? What formulation did I come up with that resulted in 12 being on the other end of the equals sign?

Well, a week ain't helped, so here I am. Maybe clarity rests in others' eyes.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Food Thinking, the beginning--

Back when I tried to unscramble my thinking on why and how I eat animals, I ended with a promise to explore the way I eat more generally. I've read more than one book published recently on the recent history of food and eating (Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, Animal Vegetable Miracle, In Defense of Food, Common Ground: Essays by Wendell Barry), and still have some more I want to read that go way back to the English guy who termed the phrase "Organic Farming" around the turn of the last century, when fertilizer was first being developed and introduced into agriculture on a mass scale (with some pretty startling socioeconomic effects on rural areas, but more on that later). I think the British guy's name is Sir Albert Howard, but I could be wrong--I know he's a Sir, which I love to visualize as a suit of armor on a man riding a tractor out to field.

So that's where I'm coming from in terms of books. In terms of life, a few years back, living in Southern California, I discovered Farmer's Markets. They were cheap, close, and the fruits and vegetables were not only abundant but tasted way better than what I found at the supermarket. I didn't make the choice to "go local" ever in my life; nor did I consciously go out of my way to learn to cook so I'd be less wasteful or reduce my carbon footprint or whatever. My family on my dad's side owns a restaurant my now dead grandfather started, so I grew up around kitchens and then, when we moved way from the town in Maine where the restaurant was, my dad taught me how to use a knife. Then when I graduated from college my folks gave me a set of knives on my own, and now I have a framed picture of gramps hanging on the wall of our (tiny) kitchen in Brooklyn. Along the way I cooked in college, my senior year, when I had an apartment of my own and thus broke free of the chains of the dining hall. I couldn't WAIT to start cooking, then when I moved to california to go to grad. school I lived with a bunch of yahoo volleyball jocks whose major dinner decision consisted of jack in the box, in and out, or el pollo loco, I cooked for one in the pots and pans I homsteaded out there on a u-haul truck stuffed with what was left of my youth, and out back of which I towed a 1986 toyota tercel station wagon that was rust-colored where it wasn't rusted out.

Once in california I not only discovered farmer's markets but Mexicans as well. And, more particularly to our story here, Mexican food. Mexican food is the best thing in the universe. And I wanted to learn how to cook it. That's when I went "local" in a very basic way: I learned what the people native to the area made, because their food tasted good in a desert surrounding by swaying palms and suburbia and swimming pools when it was 110 degrees out and you could barely breathe from the oven you sat sweating in. Again, there was very little in the way of studying, or forethought here. I just did what felt right and what I liked to do anyway and went with it. I followed my taste buds, and I didn't eat out a lot because I didn't like fast food all that much (though I fucking grew UP on McDonald's and Wendy's and Whopper Jr.'s and Taco Bell and little Caesar's bread sticks that were my dinner on breaks from my shift at Wal-Mart, because Little Caesar's was next door in the strip mall). There is absolutely nothing about me that I can positively point to that led me to the current food fanaticism in which I currently dwell, but I will say that once I moved to NYC, food did become a political event.

I get here, I look around, and there's a "Movement" going on--everywhere I looked people were barking in capital letter phrases about Go Local. The Farmer's market became a veritable boundary marker for the avant-garde foodie liberal. I thought foodie was what Cookie Monster called anything that wasn't a cookie. I thought it was a dumb word, and I thought all this shouting and busybodying and goading people into political positions based on where they bought their food was even dumber. It seemed irrelevant to me. And the volume was too loud and preachy. I didn't wanna be an avant-garde foodie liberal.

Then I lived here for a little while, and realized I had no choice. No matter how poorly my clothes matched, or if I forgot to wear deodorant, or I double plastic bagged my scallions, I was "one of those" whether I wanted to be or not. This was an important lesson New York taught me: if you don't define your position, someone's gonna come along and label you for you. Fawk. I was not pleased, but I was hooked on the market--I couldn't go back to asparagus from Mexico. It tasted like ass to me, even if i could get it (from Peru) in December. What good is convenience if it tastes like overcooked broccoli if the broccoli had been lying in a compost heap for three weeks? I can still remember bringing home in California a cucumber in June or July or something and John eating it at dinner with something I barbecued, and him having a revelation, and telling me that he never knew a cucumber was supposed to /taste/ like something, that it even /had/ a taste. I was gratified and saddened at exactly the same time.

So here I was, in New York, awash and drowning in others' catchphrase and assumptions for me. I decided, if I'm swirling in the whirlpool, I might as well dive as deep as I can, straight down the middle. Gimme the friggin vortex, I thought. This had been my approach for pretty much everything else in this city, and it had worked (really well, in fact) so far. (in retrospect i think this is what defines this place, what defines whether or not you'll "make it"--it all has to do with reactions and unrequested unsettlings. LIke it or not, this place will happen to you if you live here, and how you respond has everything to do with whether or not you'll like your existence in this place or loathe every breathing second of it.) When it came to politicking food, and the swarms of annoying old ladies asking for the difference in starch content of la ratte fingerlings vs. russian banana fingerlings (THESE are my compatriots in the struggle against food tyranny??! Gimme a frigging break--NO ONE is gonna sign on to this 'movement' and go to a farmer's market if they to squeeze elbows with the likes of these people, or wait in line waiting to pay behind some shrill soccer mom wailing about WHY do they spray the swiss chard and NOT the spinach, and are the chickens organic OR free-range, and WHY don't you tell us on your sign?? "Is this milk pasteurized? My sister-in-law's two year old son almost died from salmonella because of raw milk she insisted on giving him. You swear this is pasteurized?"

I wonder sometimes whether this country will ever solve a problem without first turning into a total nutjob about it, chock full of ill informed dogmas and judgments and rigid definitions of "them" and what "they" aren't doing. Keerist.

But, yeah, I wanted to be understanding, so I read the books that Olivia got for me outta the library. And I read, and read, and read. And what I read freaked me the fuck out. I silently said thank you to all the crazy bluehairs and strange bulgarian women with funny accents wondering how to eat rhubarb, faithfully gathering a pound or two in their arms despite their trepidation; I built a small and silent shrine in my skull to these people, for helping me, for motivating me toward these books and the beginnings of my self-education on the systems in place regarding food production and distribution, the so-called agribusiness, of the last thirty odd years or so. I've learned all about the history of the nutrient, ever since George McGovern's revision of the first National Food Guidelines ever issued, following heavy leaning and threatening memos from American beef and poultry councils, from a recommendation to eat less meats to reduce heart disease to an advisory to "lower the intake of saturated fat". Since then we've demonized every chemical and compound from carbohydrates to omega-sixes, and isolated and pounded supplements of garlic extract, fish oil, gingko biloba, st. john's wort, niacin, as well as the since fallen from grace but once coveted essence of oat bran suppository, the only one of its kind and the alleged most effective away to immediately absorb the benefits of that wonder ingredienet, the mighty, the cracklin', the oat bran (yeah, i made that last part up, but not by much).

The more I learn the more I tailor what I've instinctively done all along, once I could make up my own mind when it came to food choices. Basically, cook for yourself, know where your food comes from, master either a particular kind of cuisine (I ditched mexican because it was too localized and the mexican restaurants did it better, and instead hitched my wagon to Italian. Little known dirty secret about California: despite having some of the best restaurants in the cosmos, they didn't have great Italian where I lived. So I decided to fill the void myself) or figure out what grows best in your particular climate and either fine a supplier for it or grow it yourself, or some combination of all of these. It's up to the individual to look around, see how and where they live, and what they have time for, and do what fits best. But for me, I decided I wanted to make sure I had an hour to make dinner if I wanted to (and I want to), and that I had another hour to enjoy it with whoever was around in my household (the more the better, most of the time), and, finally, that this time of enjoyment would be purely food and people and conversation and wine or beer or whiskey or whatever you're drinkin--the important thing was it was gonna happen around a table, without any distraction from devices.

This is how I eat. I eat slow, I eat with relish, and I eat with an ear, eye, nose, and feel for fresh ingredients (this was the thing I learned about Italian cooking: that its heart may be tomatoes but its soul is really whatever grows best where you live, and what you can most immediately get fresh from the ground, sea, or stable. Italian flavors are immediate, unfussy (for the most part), and bright. They are the essence of the thing you are serving, without all the mishmash of layering and cooked down reductions and all that. At most you splash in some wine to deglaze and five minutes later you serve whatever's int he pan with some pasta. And whatever's in the pan is most likely whatever is growing the tastiest that week, that day, that hour. The quicker you get it and pop it in your mouth, the more Italian it's gonna taste. Which, again, is another convenient way my approach to eating dovetailed with the now green or politically correct one: Italian cooking is inherently seasonal. You don't eat bolognese sauce in july and you don't eat insalata caprese in january. It's just wrong, and besides, where the shit you gonna get tomatoes from that time of year, Guam?). Plus i eat with people, as much as I can, and I eat more different KINDS of things that whopping overhwelming portions of any one thing (1/2 lb. double whopper with bacon, anyone? How about a porterhouse with a side of, uh, sprig of kale?)

This leads me to my first distillation into a rule, what may actually be the ONLY rule, I follow, in the sense that it's the only guideline I consciously follow and can succinctly state:

Eat less, pay more.

Now, that's completely ass backwards from the American food habits currently in place for I would bet 99% of the folks out there, but it's my rule, and I'm stickin to it. And explaining what I mean by it in the next installment. For now go ahead and marinate on that, and if you happen to drift by a ticket to France that you can get into your possession for free, grab it, and go, and come back and tell me about how THEY eat, as that'll help flesh all this out. But for now, I gotta bolt--stay tuned for explanatory events detailed with no particular allegiance to reason, logic, or good sense.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I killed a conch! With a hammer!

This gets a bit gruesome--think dinner meets biology lab dissection table--so if you don't like the idea of taking life to give life, especially shelled mollusk life, then better stop now.

So I go to the fish stand at the market, and I see "Conch," and I see they cost 2.25 a lb. Why is this, I wonder, to the nice lady behind the counter?

They're mostly shell.


You want one?

I'm intrigued by them, yeah....Yeah alright. Let me have a good sized one.

She opens one of the big coolers labeled "catch".

This one's wide open--look at that! And she shows me how it's, uh, moving, like a giant marine snail with a pointy I can hear the ocean shell, along the wall of the cooler. The body is grey and the muscular foot looks like an elephant's knee.

Holy crap, I think, as she's bagging it up and I'm giving her the money. What have I gotten myself into?

Olivia, thankfully, has worked with these before. She clues me into the second reason they're so cheap:
Because they're a pain in the ASS to prep. (By prep, of course, I mean, getting the freaking thing out of the shell and getting to the parts you can actually digest after cooking up.)

Not one to be easily scared off, and ever vigilant and intrepid, I do what I always do when I'm at home, alone, and don't know what the crap to do: I log on to the internet! There I get "tips" from many helpful Bahamians, among others, talking about how to go about this thing. Awesome! I think. Nothing can go wrong now! And I commence to pawing around the junk drawer, hell bent on a hammer.

Hammer in hand, I'm off to the cutting board. This thing is fairly big--I mean, it's a normal-sized conch shell, the icon of a tropical beach, except this one isn't brightly colored, has barnacles growing on it, and is nowhere near empty. It smells great--like the wet wood of a pier. I get it out of the water, watch as the foot retreats into the shell, and...oh shit! Is that actual conch poo in the water?! It is. The thing is doing life functions--there's a streamy strand of, uh, refuse, floating around in the water. These things are a bit more complex than clams or mussels or even oysters, which I've hurt myself shucking but beyond that haven't gotten much into fluids of any sort.

At this point, hammer raised, I have a pause to consider, that cityboy meets the wild moment of, uh, can I do this? Do I want to do this even? I think about how in the "tips" they explain to cut off the "head" (you'll know it from the eyestalk) as well as both the orange "skirt" of the mantle--the thing that secretes the shell, incidentally--and the thick intestine toward the bottom. These things whitewater rush into my foreconscious, sending off a fine misty spray of doubts. But I've bought the thing, and what I'm gonna do, set it free? Go out the back door, lay it in the grass, and say, run little conchie, go to your home, your native place! Or maybe take the subway with it cradled in my lap down to coney island and toss it into the tideline when horace the magic horseshoe crab whose suddenly appeared to assist me in the matter gives the thumbs up and a dashing wink (then we ramble down to the nathan's stand and get two with kraut and mustard, sharing a lemonade between us with two straws).

I shake my head clear. No, no, no! This is meat, and I really wanna know what kind of meat it is, what it tastes like (turns out either I wasn't around or don't remember when Olivia prepared conch the first time--and her last time). Plus I'm getting hungry, and hunger does things to you, or me at least. I get more single-minded, especially when the first instruction on the "tips" is to bash a hole between the second a third ring from the top. I think just about that first step, and I locate what I think is the right spot, and I just go in, making sure I have the paring knife ready once the puncture is made and I have to cut the top muscle from the shell.

I make an exploratory tap, then whack at it. Nothing. I get absolutely nowhere. The shell mocks me. And then I get it, then second gear of my carnivore reptilian mind kicks in. I get mad. I want the MEAT. I whack it two, three more times, harder, without hesitation, actually enjoying the challenge and seeing this not as a puzzle but as a moment where somebody's gotta win and somebody's gotta lose, and I've got a wicked genetic advantage I intent to exploit. Can't help it--I'll admit, I swaggered my cerebral cortex, my ability to acquire and use tools, and I felt GOOD when the shell cracked.

I felt less good when I poked the paring knife in to cut the shell away. The "tips" told me that if you feel soft tissue, you're too low, into the muscle itself, and you need to make a higher hole. Guess what I felt with the knife? What they don't give you a "tip" for is how the hell to make another hole once you've already got one, since subsequent bashing yielded only a long radial crack and then exposure of, you guessed it, more and more flesh. So then I thought, why not just wedge the knife in close, up tight, and pray up with it, kind of, until I can separate the muscle from the shell? My backup plan by this point was simply to cut my losses, literally, and sever the flesh at the exposed point and surrender whatever was above it to the scrapheap.

then it happened, then I felt the remorse of the sloppy first-time hunter. My knife hit something weird, then all of a sudden a bunch of, well, crap, exploded propulsively onto my fingers of the knife hand. Slimy entrailic stuff was everywhere, and leaking more each moment. My backup plan came full force to the fore, and I sawed and sliced until the flesh was rent, then yanked my heart out on the bottom foot--the scene looked like a jaws of life in a stock car evacuation in miniature. The whole mass of flesh slowly and with sucking sounds uncoiled from the winding chamber of the shell, and into my hand, so I fished out what was left of the, uh, head and organs I had, uh, stabbed. I had grainy diarrhea, more or less, dripping off my hands.

Lemme tell you, when they say between the second and third ring, don't overthink it, don't wonder if the first one counts. It does, idiot. Just start there and count to two. When you get to two, split the difference to the next one, take aim, and whack. Anything else is bad form.

I felt ashamed. I felt stupid. I felt like an asshole. I wanted to respect the animal's life I was taking and I didn't, and I realized that it wasn't killing I had a problem with, it was killing that acted as though the pain threshold or otherwise life functions of the animal being killed doesn't matter. It's not respecting the fact that the animal is alive in the act of killing that bothers me, which is why I'm off the slaughterhouse pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. Treating animals like Ford F-150s awaiting assembly, whether they know they're about to die sitting on that conveyor belt or not, doesn't work for me. It's up to each person to make up their own mind on the matter--guys in slaughterhouses claim the cows, for instance, have no idea the gun is coming to the forehead, even instants before it's their turn, but these guys also admit there are some wrigglers on the hook, some carcasses that aren't dead yet, yet have been strung up by their back legs, their throats cut and bleeding. Proof this is a human system, with living things, and thus imperfect--it is NOT a well-oiled machine, especially at the pace and volume at which these slaughterhouses now work. More on that later.

So I had my moment of remorse, realized I could hunt if I was a good shot, and with some practice, acknowledged the thing was dead now, and went on with the business of doing a better job getting to the meat than I had turning the conch INTO meat. I was really good at this part, I'm proud to say (I've taken more than my fair share of college biology classes, which helped in a number of ways). I found the intestine, excised, sawed the solid part of the bottom of the foot off, cleaned up the remaining entrails from the top part of the foot, and did the hardest part--peeling away the tough outer grayish skin to get to the melon colored edible flesh underneath--with great pizazz and elan. Once something's dead I'm a sangfroid motherfucker.

Anyway, once it was all said and done, the shell tossed, the cutting board cleaned up, I had about a half cup of meat left (the conch with shell was maybe eight inched top to foot).

I am not doing this again, I told Olivia, who was now home.

I know it. That's what I thought too when I did it. It's just not worth it.

So I also got a lesson in waste.

Although I will say this: I grilled each side a minute after pounding the crap out of it with teh same hammer (this time protected by plastic wrap), which was another trial, then chopped the grilled pieces up and threw them in tupperware with the juice of a lemon, some chopped up spring onion and garlic and a good heap of diced fennel fronds, let it marinate for about half an hour, then hit it with a little olive oil and turned the whole thing out on a bed of sliced cucumber and radish (I had no lettuce or else I would have had that in the middle) with some grilled baby fennel, and it was pretty damned good, tell you what. Tastes like a cross between clam and scallop, if you're into those two critters.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Adventures in Seasonal Cooking aka Using Weird hard to find ingredients that you can probably find in the woods but I pay three bucks for.

Vol. 1: Ramps

Also called wild leeks, these are very pretty, with long fanned out lily-like leaves, which are edible along with the bulbs. Evidently they grow all up and down the eastern seaboard, and folks in the Appalachians celebrate their arrival as the first of spring. They're season is short like asparagus, maybe three weeks, and about a week or two earlier, starting in early April here in New York and lasting until early-mid May. They taste a little like a cross between garlic and onion, though mellower than both. They go great with eggs and poultry, but here are two recipes, one with rainbow Trout and one that riffs on Potato-leek soup that you can serve alternately cold or warm, depending on the weather.

Trout with Ramps two ways--baconated and unbaconated

Unbaconated--super easy, here's what you need:

One rainbow trout about a pound or so, gutted.
Maybe half a dozen ramps, leaves separated from bulbs, bulbs chopped fine
A tomato sliced thin and the slices sliced again in half
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil

Oven should be high, maybe 425-450.
Stuff the trout cavity with the chopped bulbs and the tomato slices, putting any extra tomatoes on top of the body. Salt and pepper inside and out (to get at the inside flesh I sprinkle some s and p into my palm and kind of sprinkle in, otherwise it's kinda hard do direct the shaker). Move the whole operation to a cookie sheet. Then you want to grab your ramp leaves and wrap them around the body to help keep the cavity closed and impart flavor. Don't worry about the tail or head--it's pretty funny when you're all done; the fish looks like it's wearing a green blanket, or a fancy full trenchcoat. I like to make it talk in funny accents and say silly things at this point. Once I'm done I drizzle oil over the leaves and head and smear it kind of under the body, too, so it doesn't stick.

After that just whack it in the oven, as Jamie Oliver would say, for 12-15 minutes, or until the eye is completely opaque and the flesh is not pink anymore. Once it's done take it out, unwrap it from the leaves (you can use those later in the presentation on the platter), and get to carving. That means first separating the head and tail, which is a breeze, then cutting along the back of the fish laterally, just above the backbone/spine. Once cut take a spatula and lift the top filet off--don't worry if some bones comes with it, you can pick those out later, but if the flesh isn't coming off the bone then it's not cooked enough. Once you've exposed the backbone just pull it up off the bottom filet, spatula the filet over to a platter, and serve the whole mess with some roasted potatoes or whatever you feel like.

Baconated Trout with Ramps

This was kind of a disaster, but I think I could have avoided it. Here's what you'll need--
Trout same size as above
Maybe three slices of bacon, either thick or thin, about 6 oz. (you may need another slice or half slice, depending on the size of your fish)
Three sprigs thyme
Two or three ramps, this time both the leaves and bulbs chopped fine
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Wooden skewers or toothpicks

You want this time to stuff the cavity with the thyme sprigs and ramps, then season it. But this time our gentleman or gentlelady or whatever will be wearing what I like to call a meatvest. And this is where I went horribly wrong in my operation. I thought I'd be fancy and do like the pros and not fasten the bacon to the skin of the fish, assuming I could sear the bacon fat to it in such a way that it would act like a glue. Wrong, wrong, wrong--after I wrapped the bacon around the fish and tried searing it in a hellishly hot cast iron skillet, I went to turn the whole mess, which resulted in a flopping noodle like mass of baconflesh, exposed fish flesh where the skin had torn away, and a bubbling molten bog of bacon grease too hot to swim in.

So let's not do that. Best thing to do is wrap the body with the bacon in such a way that the seams of each slice line up, and then affix the slices along that seam to the body with a skewer. Or you could use toothpicks and just affix each slice one at a time, whatever works for you. But make sure they're stuck on the trout one way or another, otherwise you'll have sloppytime express.

Alright, now once the fish is all set up get a cast iron skillet blazing on a stovetop, hot enough that a little bit of olive oil drizzled in starts to smoke immediately. Then add the fish and sear the two sides so that the bacon gets good and brown and crispy, about two three minutes a side. Meanwhile get the oven up to temp.--again, 425 or so--and once you're done browning and the trout is swimming in some good liquiporkofat (you may want to drain some off), pop the whole mess in the oven for about ten minutes or to desired doneness. After take the fish out I like to sautee spinach in the leftover grease, but whatever floats your boat.

From there you just take out the skewer/toothpicks, peel off the bacon strips, and filet as above. The flesh should be juicy and rich.

Veggie-friendly Potato-Wild Leek soup
What you need:
2 T. Butter
Another half dozen ramps, bulbs and leaves chopped fine
Maybe a lb. of potatoes (I used four good sized red-skinned, white fleshed potatoes--I think they were called "Norland" or something. I dunno, one of seventy five thousand potato varieties available at the market. You could use about any non-russet, and thus non-baker/starchy potato here, even fingerlings if you want), diced and unskinned
1/4-1/3 c. Heavy Cream or half and half if you're a health nut (don't event ask if you can use lowfat or skim milk--I MIGHT give a little and say you can substitute whole milk here, but dono't push me.)

Bring a pan of heavily salted water (i.e. the water tastes salty, almost like the ocean--sea salt (duh) works well to this end) to boil and boil the taters until soft, maybe 20 min. Remove the taters and save the water.
Melt the butter over medium heat and sautee the ramp bulbs only until light brown, maybe 8-10 min. You may have to turn the heat down--keep an eye out so they don't brown too quickly and burn. That sucks--they taste like crap when they burn.
Add the potatoes and stir for a minute, then add the water in which you cooked the potatoes (purists of potato-leek soup HATE this step) and the ramp leaves.
Swirl the whole concoction around and bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, for 10 min. tops, until the flavors mix or you get impatient. Check for seasoning, add pepper if you want to or more salt if you need it, then whiz it up in batched in a food processor or blender. Once it's smooth add the cream--the soup should be a pale green color, the color of spring, because of the pureed ramp leaves. Don't add so much cream that you kill the color (and the taste), and you're done. Add croutons if you want or serve with crusty bread.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Brooklyn was Beautiful Today

I don't know if it was because of the weather, a perfect clear mid 70s feel with that no humidity clarity perfect blue sky you get after a weekend of deluge, or because I wasn't here for the deluge and its torrential buckets, or if it was because I was in Boston all weekend and just coming back and so it was all new again in its pure city-ness (I like Boston. I do. But you look around and, you know, everyone's kind of white, and kind of ruddy-faced Irish of one kind or another, or generally United Kingdomish with a splash of Portuguese--which makes for dramatic dark moustaches--and there are lots of pubs with green bunting and shamrocks and the notre dame 'fightin' irish' fella with his angry leprechaun dukes up, and everyone seems to be talking about Go Celts! or do the Sawx have what it takes and what if the Yankees don't make the playoffs that would be wicked cool. All of this is interesting to me, and the lobster roll and homemade ice cream I had was kickin, plus I got to swim in Walden Pond, which was surreal since the place is now a hot spot to cool down, with scads of kids engulfing the funny smelling shores (the water gave off that slightly uncomfortable freshwater in hot weather acridity, which I kinda love, in all honesty) and the tree rim being interrupted by a bath house here and there for changing, but I relished it if only for the transformation. But still...you come back on the bus and you watch Massachusetts and the little marina towns and new english quaintity of outer Connecticut give way to the raucous concrete migraine that is the Bronx, and then you pop out in Harlem and leafy upper Manhattan, zooming down Museum Mile then through central park then you're blammo jet shot back into the subway system where you finally exhaustedly walk your luggage the few blocks from the stop to home and people are out and lovers are real and no one, no one, from the obese family sitting across from you on the train and the over made-up face of the resigned mother giving them candy in place of love, to the perfect skin perfect short hair, a vision of fleshly sculpture tall asian women leafing delicately with twig arms through a magazine, to the steel drums and dreadlocks parade of my neighborhood and the bushy fella who keeps watch on New York Ave., a brown bagged Mackeson sweet stout in his hand--none of them, none of it, is the same for more than a blink. Here, let me give you an easy contrast side-by-side of Boston and New York: Boston's south station, which holds the commuter rail, T stop, and bus terminal (it's sort of Grand Central, though more of a hub for more kinds of transport), has, I think, around 25 or 30 gates for buses. Port Authority, the bus terminal at 42nd and 8th ave. in Manhattan, had, at last count, something like 80, maybe more. And it only does buses, with a couple subway lines going into it. Near South Station is Boston's Chinatown, which you can see if you look down a street. It's clean looking, small, and has a huge tourist welcoming green sign-banner thing with ideographs presumably saying welcome to chinatown in Chinese cantonese or something. It's wooden and the characters are painted gold and it looks like a good place to take your kids. Like the "Near East" section of it's a small town after all at Disneyworld. New York's Chinatown is a sea-beast, with population tentacles shooting out and swallowing whole entire blocks of little Italy, which is gasping to hold on to a few last blocks before the constriction of wave after wave (or barge after barge) of immigrants floods the tides of the rickety brick and stone fire escapes. The place is teeming--it moves at a shorter height, and a much faster pace--than even normal NYC movement when you walk through it. Behind shaded or blinded windows ten stories high echoes of turn of the century tenements reek out fish odors and hung laundry and weird crepe paper cutout thingies that wave in the window and stream from window to window and building to building. behind the windows are makeshift plywood dividers that turn two rooms into four, and studios into homes for families of six, seven, or eight. Plastic bags hang everywhere, on one wall a drunken uncle scribbles poetry in his native language, mostly one or two lines about vomit or the smell or the taste and smell of noodles when they steam or the sounds of the buses screeching onto the curb as rival bus lines fight for customers with tiny ticket takers buzzing around or lying in the street to block other companies' buses from parking. A woman stands sad-eyed in the sunset after shuttering her dry cleaners for the last time, mopping her eyes as the fishmongers hock their exotic species from lined up bubble tanks in what looks like a chinese version of a pet store but what is actually wives and grandmother selecting a good pick for dinner, the fish darting behind the bubbletubes and racing in the tiny plastic bins, suddenly exposed after the mini-sized forklifts unloaded them from enormous coolertanks so they could be displayed on what seems to be the sidewalk but which the fishmonger has turned into the new boundary for his storefront. It is an instantly foreign place. It makes you forget where you belong to, where you are, what this place called America is.)

Anyway, so Brooklyn was something else today. It seemed to me full of grace. Let me take you back to what I just came in from, in no particular order after that.

I'm asking how much an 18lb. bag of Kingsford costs. The cashier smiles and says sure, no problem.
"That's charcoal, right?"
"Yup. That's a big bag of charcoal."
"11.19, but there's tax on that." She says this so fast, so New York, that it sounds to my ears like, "11.19, buthassaxamant." I make a stupid voice, ask her to repeat herself, understand finally, and tell her I'll take it.
Meanwhile, a ladybug has taken up residence on my hand. I know this, but I figure it's better to shoo it after I get outside rather than in the store.
"ohhhh!" She's alarmed, not excited like a little kid. She points, "You've got a ladybug--is that a ladybug?"
"Yeah." I go to show to her and she recoils. "I was gonna let it out outside."
She grimaces. "I hate bugs. I'm sorry, I just can't stand him."
"But it's a /lady/bug."
"Don't they bite?"
"You're from New York--you're a New Yorker, right?"
Then she does the obligatory toughface, "That's right I'm a New Yorker. Brooklyn born and raised."
"Yeah, I knew I wasn't from New York when I first moved here and saw a bunch of kids in the park look terrified at a squirrel."
"So they don't bite?"
"It's been sitting right her on my hand and did it bite me?" And here the ladybug got a sense of humor and flew off my hand. "See it flew away, wants to get outside, maybe it's flying to you to show how it won't bite."
And she flips the freak OUT. She knocks her headset off and starts delintifying her self with desperate sweeps of her hands. "Get it off get it off!" She looks at me, no toughface anywhere in sight. "Is it on me?"
I just grin and shake my head and walk out the door. "have a nice day!"
"You too!"

Between there and home, which is a block and a half, I see a bunch of school buses pass by. You can always hear tons of kids screaming out the windows, but this time I slow down and pay attention because there's acrossing and I don't have the walk sign. There's a woman next to me waiting at the bus stop. Two kids, maybe 8 or 9, boys, in white shirts and dark pants, uniforms, are hanging half out the window with their finger up. Turns out it's their middle fingers (one boy has his upside down), and they're shouting something like, "Fuck a pussy," or "fuck your pussy" or some combination of the two words. I hear the woman behind me as I cross yell,
Then I'm on the other side of the street, in front of the all Catholic, all Black, mostly Caribbean, church next door to home. There's a fedex truck parked on the curb and two employees in the front with the doors all open, enjoying the day. They've both got black skullie doorags on in addition to their uniforms, the driver's passed out and the passenger's flipping slowly through a New York Post, totally at ease.

On my first trip out earlier today the neighborhood crazy man on Eastern Parkway, who usually is totally silent and drooping his head down, is twirling his hands like he's simulating a wheel's motion. His eyebrows are raised and he's talking about, Idea! Idea! It's Idea!

Then I got off the train at Borough Hall, which is the sort of downtown of Brooklyn (downtown is considered closest to Manhattan--think of it as the tip nearest that island, where the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge are. It's also where all the official looking buildings are, including the court house whose front they used when filming Law and Order). I pop out of the station and go to the market and run some errands in the vicinity, and next thing I hear two little girl voices, amplified, singing that Alicia Keyes song--the one with the hook that goes, "No one, no one, no wwwwuuuuunnnn," in ascending pitch. There's just two of them all made out in dresses and little flowers in their ears, on this bandstand in front of Borough Hall itself where they've been having what are mostly lame children's chorus concerts with bad piano that bank on the cute factor for anyone to stop and listen. Not today--these girls were RIPPING that song! And there was a throng of folks there, some smiling in that awww, so cute, way, but many moving along to the music, getting hip to it, you know. I stood for a moment myself, bogged down with the first cherries and blueberries of the season along with the last strawberries it looks like, some new garlic and spring onions, a dozen eggs, some weird purslane I want to try, asparagus, and a couple tomatoes, bopping my head in spite of myself and the fact that I don't even /like/ that song. Turns out that may depend on who's singing it.

And everywhere the tiger lillies have exploded next to the fading peonies and the overgrown yard on the corner of new york and eastern parkway is exploding with poppies and some enormously tall snapdragon looking things that must be six feet up and have a bigger bloom despite growing up the stem like a snapdragon. Can't figure them out, or the yard in particular, since it has no garden-plan attached to it, but I like it.

So when I was careening back home on the train full of the usual jamaican and barabadosean and trini accents, and the mother scrunched next to her slumping teenaged son, all iced out in the ears and around the neck and fingers, smoothing out his back and telling him in shushing tones that it was all right, they'll make it without dad, and the kid who looks like a man but clearly feels like crying, fuckall if it's in public, his eyes bulging and blinking and him wiping and dabbing at his face when no words can come, and the scene and sounds and people that have grown soothing to me, comfortable despite the fact that I'm almost always, for the last couple stops anyway, the only whiteboy in the car--when all this mellow got sliced up by a tall whitewoman in a floralprint dress standing directly in front of me, her pastel echoing pansies making impressions across her slim figure and slight slope of taut belly, curving into her calves and then on into her yellow jelly laced sandals that look like they are positively murdering her pinky toes, and she holds up a book and starts reading it so I can read the title, "All Those Sad Literary Boys," I am ok with it. And even when I read the back cover, and the little endorsing write-ups from other sad literary boys, and see that among them is a blurb by Jonathan Franzen, my literary Magneto, my Dr. Octopus archnemesis I HATE that effing guy, that no talent having success anyway published motherfucker--even then, even when I saw him and saw here reading this schlock and feeling sophisticated and all that, even then I didn't feel rattled. I just leaned back and let it glide, because even the wind was on my side today--I could feel it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Ethics of Eating Meat and other tales from the gypped (6/8/08)

I'm eating steak tonight, a good-looking bone-in sirloin from my buddy Farmer Rick, plus it's about fourteen hundred degrees here on this fine, uh, early-June Sunday, so I figured now was as good a time as ever to write something like this. I've never done this, so I'm bound to stumble; it's never been imperative to me to write down, let alone publicly share, my reasons for eating animals. I have over the years simply cultivated certain eating habits based on what I believe is good sense, what is obvious to me. Well, as I get older and see more and more, looking around at folks I know, some of whom I've known closely and dearly a long time, I've gotten more and more confused.

And now there's a movement, or twenty. I remember when being straight-edged, or vegan, or both, was a rare miracle of radicalism. These folks were marginalized (or marginalized themselves, depending on your point of view) and easily recognizable. Since then there's been any number of food and lifestyle movements: there's abstinence, the willpower to be anorexic in pro-starvation websites, and of course the more common recent trends, with "going green" or becoming a "locavore" or the "New American seasonal" movement among top chefs in restaurants. It's getting confusing to me, and everywhere I see lines between groups of people getting drawn into more and more minute spaces; the cubbyholes are shrinking and the number of names on each are getting more isolated from each other. There has been, arguably, as a result less marginalization, but I wonder if there isn't an equal paucity of communication and understanding across groups.

So what I have to say I should make clear is going to be rambling and awkward, in that way that only the confused and the hesitant first-timer can be. It has always been my policy to mind my own business and let others mind theirs when it comes to eating. I've shifted a little the more I read and learn and try to understand, and while I am far from being activistic about anything, let alone food, I at least feel comfortable enough, feel like I've done enough homework to share some small testimony and analysis of why and how I eat the way I do and place myself among others who eat differently in order to understand where they are coming from. But that's just it: I write all this to start a discussion, however awkward and stupid and lopsided my viewpoint may be. I am convinced of nothing--my perspective has shifted markedly in the past ten years when it comes to food--and I don't view this as a right or wrong issue. I want to have a sane, even-voice conversation so I can learn about and understand those about me. Dogmas, ideologues, in other words, need not apply.

Ok, on with it. Here's what I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about the reasons, the basic general reasons, most people list for eating or not eating meat. I've heard a few basic categories, and when I ask vegetarians of all stripes why they chose to give up eating animals, I pose the question as being one of two options: did you stop eating meat for ethical reasons or because you didn't like the taste of it? On the other side, carnivores wrestle with their own inquiries from others, but mostly from within--at least in my own case, I've asked myself countless times the logical endgame question that comes from intelligently thinking about why you eat an animal--namely, are you willing to kill that animal, skin it, gut it, etc. BEFORE you eat it?

Now these are some loaded god-damned questions, if you ask me. And since I asked myself, I'm gonna keep talking on it. On the one hand, posing vegetarianism as an "ethical" choice stuns me, the more I think about it, in that it brings to bear an enormously simplified idea: that is, if you don't eat meat you are doing something "good" and if you are not eating meat you are doing something "bad." Whoa nelly is it a bad idea to think this way, for reasons I'll get into. The carnivore question is loaded in the sense that killing something, and moreover killing something seconhand, is innately BAD, because killing is innately wrong. This depends on your religion to a certain degree--if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist, then, yes, this is the ethical position you take. I am neither of those things, however, and so take a different one, as I assume most of you do in this Christian/Atheist nation.

For me, yes, at this point in time I would be willing to kill an animal and prepare it for consumption. My only example to back this up is fishing, which admittedly is the most chickenshit easy backdoor way to answer this inquiry, as a fish is much smaller and less mammalian than, say, a pig. But nonetheless, I've caught a fish, killed a fish, and gutted a fish. I've whacked a live fish's head off and chummed the waters with it, so I could catch a bigger, more edible fish. In short, I've hunted, and it felt fine. It tasted better. It is enormously satisfying to sit by a river or on the deck of a boat in the late afternoon heading into sunsent, smelling a trout or a catfish cook over a fire in tinfoil--nothing smells like that smell of opening the tastepackage up and smelling the steam vapors laden with flavor. You are smelling, and then you are tasting, the fruits of your labor. You are tasting your sweat, the energy you put into it. And I could understand this when I was eight years old--it is very possible, in fact, that it is BECAUSE I understood this, felt this way, was placed in a hunting environment where it was deemed acceptable and right to kill something yourself and eat it, that I have fewer qualms about eating animals now. I dunno. Let me move on.

For me it, and by "it" I mean the rationale beyond the feelgood scenario I just outlined, has to do with energy and evolution. Let me explain. We've domesticated animals, and we've domesticated plants. Gardens and farms and chicken pens and shepherded flocks and fenced pastures are nothing more than humans expressing their abilities as apex predator to shape their surrounding environment and its creatures to suit their own ends. You can clear land to plant swiss chard and strawberries by the acre, making neat rows in dirt (anyone who's seen a small farm, say ten acres, surrounded by woods, knows there's very little "natural," in the sense of doesn't look manmade, about a farm), or you can keep a herd of animals to munch on grass or grain or bugs, depending on the diet they prefer, so they can get old enough to kill and dress and eat. Or you can hunt and gather--those are two other options, and as far as I can tell the ONLY two options for eating animals, that don't involve domesticating the surrounding environment so that it will nourish us.

There are now two directions I can go from this premise of domestication. The vegetarian in me will go down one of them, and ask, Well, ok. Given that you can either domesticate plants or domesticate animals, and it feels less morally wrong, it feels "better" (in the sense of more guilt-free), it is less complicated feelings-wise, to kill and eat plants than animals, why not simply keep to farms and eliminate animal husbandry from the eating equation? The carnivore in me, who, strangely, also occupies the same brain and soul space as the economist in me, or the Mark Twain view of humanity in me, the skeptic realist (just as the vegetarian in me occupies the same space as the poet in me, the tree-hugger in me, the part of me that wants to raise my own child to love)--I'm offtrack: my carnivore side argues for the natural progression model, and states, quite simply, that things like slaughterhouses and chicken factories or whatever you wanna call them--the industrialization of animal killing for consumption--is just a "natural extension" of a human impulse, the happy matrimony of science, technology, and I'm hungry. Isn't "agriculture," the carnivore economist positivist historian asks, simply the continual advancements of methods to feed more people with less money and resource usage? Is it any less like humanity to line up cattle on an assembly line a la Henry Ford's model than it is to herd goats on a mountaintop, and if one can be done more cheaply in a way that feeds more people than the other, shouldn't we do THAT one?

Not so fast, you two. And here's where context comes into play, and the need for conversation between the two parts of my brain, between and among the different cubbyholes of those who attach themselves to movements, arises. First, to the vegetarian side, I would say this: if we could get in a time machine before years of domestication of animals, then, yes, we could just wipe out all the animal eating and go on our merry way. But we can't, and the fact is, some creatures, like chickens and most breeds of cows and even turkeys, can't do much but BE dependent on us after years and years of human beings selecting for traits that will render them needful of human care (cows have to be milked, chickens have so many predators if introduced into the wild in their current state that it takes about an ounce of reason and imagination to see their imminent extinction). Many animals, like goats, benefit from us herding them--we protect them from predators, we lead them to good food sources. Do I think we should treat all animals this way? Do I even think we should CONTINUE to select for a narrow range of characteristics so that breeds of certain animals become as restricted in their gene pool as to resemble the Amish? No. Absolutely not. In fact, I support efforts to raise heritage or heirloom breeds of pigs; I eat cows that aren't Holsteins and turkeys that aren't the humongous white variety that look oddly more like donald duck than a gobbler. I eat eggs from ALL kinds of chickens; I know this for a fact, as I've asked the egg farmer, Nestor, himself, in order to support animal diversity. But in doing so I cannot ignore that many, many animals now benefit from our interaction with them, and that a symbiotic, humane relationship can exist which results in the human eating the animal.

This is not without complications, or considerations, for me. Pigs, which I have mentioned above, trouble me. They are the animals I am most on the fence about, who I would consider first on my spectrum of not eating (a.k.a. animals I feel bad about killing, with fish being last on that spectrum, poultry like chickens, turkeys, and rabbits and other game being next, and cows being closer to pigs). This is not because pigs can feel pain and other animals can't; I understand all animals can feel pain. It is because pigs, from some accounts I have heard, can sense they are going to die before they are killed. They are aware enough to sense danger, threat, etc. and this suggests that they are more like me than less. Chickens, on the other hand, you can put in a metal cone-sling thingie to calm them down, where they will lay there placidly, waiting for their throats to be cut (I'm taking this from Michael Pollan's experience on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, which he recounts in The Omnivore's Dilemma. He explains how, standing there with the knife that will slit the chicken's artery in its neck, he notices the chicken's eye is blank, flat, unknowing, and that, if done well, done expertly, without hesitation or missing, the chicken will die without so much as a squawk. Like much death, it is undramatic, absurdly uneventful--the body lies there with a few ruffles while the blood leaks into a metal pail. Now, emptying the guts out....that can get a little intense, but leave that for now.)

In any event, I want to be clear that I'm not set in my opinions, not at all, but that I've worked out some preliminary premises for why I do what I do. Admittedly, I have not killed a chicken, that I have only vicariously experienced it. Admittedly, I eat pigs and cows, while wondering whether it is right. Admittedly, the first bites of rabbit were strange because I couldn't NOT know where my food was coming from, in the sense that I thought I might be eating someone's pet, or Bugs Bunny. But this is good, I think; this is healthy. John Milton claimed in one of his essays that there is no virtue in living without temptation, that virtue untested is anything but, and I agree with him. If I don't continue to know where my animals come from, and don't ignore the blood and death and bones involved in feeding me, then I forget there's a sacrifice, there's a transfer of life-force and energy from them to me, and that forgetting leads to some ugly stuff.

And that brings up the last two things I want to discuss. First, let's get back to my carnivorous rationalizing side, and a response to its question about stockyards and slaughterhouses and meatpacking and even more generally the industrial model for ALL agribusiness, the thing that creates high fructose corn syrup plants and McDonald's burgers with feces in the meat (check out Fast Food nation for investigation that reveals the validity of that claim), and why all this isn't necessarily an inevitable, "natural progression," with positive results. One argument against this is context. There are all sorts of problems with applying the metaphor and mechanism of industry to animals and plants and eating in general. The main one is that this metaphor assumes not only that food is a machine, but that the thing being fed, us, human beings, are machines as well. It works from a model of chemistry, of nutrients, of the belief that oat bran is good and saturated fat is bad, that soil consists of the three elements of fertilizer (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium), when in fact the earth has a number of important living microbes essential for plants' root systems; the fruits and stalks and leaves and seeds of those plants that are edible to us are not as nutritious if those microbes aren't present because the overabundance of fertilizer's three elements has killed them. This explains, incidentally, why organic food is better for you, and may even taste better, arguable, than non-organic food (Again, see Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, or more conclusively his newest book, In Defense of Food, for more on this).

The biggest problem with claiming that nature's flora and fauna, including homo sapiens, are machines is that it ignores two things. First, a metaphor claims something is LIKE something else, not that it IS something else. All metaphors break down somewhere--that's what makes them metaphors. And in this case the metaphor breaks down when you take into account the fact that humans, pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, beets, carrots, arugula, and all of the natural world is LIVING matter--these are all carbon-based life-forms. They are products of life processes, not the product of applications or craft or the conversion of inorganic natural resources into machines and systems that make more efficient human society. And thus there are all kinds of deficiencies, inefficiencies, and wasteful acts affiliated with an industrial mode of agricultural production, or so-called agribusiness, as one takes into account the amount of energy in resource terms that one puts into making a industrial hamburger from a feedlot cow vs. the amount of energy and nourishment in food terms you get OUT of the process, the system is horrible--the entropy involved is incredible. One easy comparison is calories put in against calories put out, which, again, you can find in Pollan's In Defense of Food. The ratios are ridiculous; any business working from this model and using calories as currency rather than dollars would tank within a year.

But that's just one way the metaphor breaks down. Because cows and chickens and all that are alive, they produce living waste, they work in concert with the land around them, and if you stack them up like widgets in a small space, they will not only get diseased and/or die (and thus require piles of antibiotics, themselves expensive and deleterious to the health of the human consumer), they will destroy that earth they live on, and/or pollute it in such a way that they will pollute themselves. Living things are more complicated than machines, they exist in concert, in an interconnected manner, and thus the industrial model of agribusiness doesn't work. Planting acre after acre of corn and making corn the basis for everything from steak and perdue chicken (both feedlot cows and chickens are fed mostly corn in their 'grain' diet) to potato chips (the oil) to ding-dongs and coca-cola to breakfast cereal makes the food supply incredibly vulnerable to disease, a trait that ONLY belongs to living creatures (machines require maintenance, but they don't get sick).

So I can outfox the reasonability of the industrial model of agriculture with my own rationale. And I'm pretty sure I can out feel-good myself on the feasibility and ethicality of eating animals (where, for example, would we /put/ all the chickens we're not eating? What is the natural habitat for a holstein cow in a country into which we have imported it? These are just some of the questions I have for the more militant among the vegetarian impulses I have). I can more or less, in short, play Hamlet in terms of my eating habit, and argue for both sides. But what remains is this interconnection argument, this belief and recognition through observation that life happens in a cyclical, incredibly complex but equally delicate, harmony and symphony. At root I don't feel like I can understand it fully, and that means not understanding human beings' impulses to control or alter that symphony indelibly. I simply can't politely excuse myself from the party just because I'm uncomfortable with the fact that the party reveals human activity and impact on the world, or the most startling, glaring fact of all: that we have impacted the natural world in a way that has changed the nature and manner and habits of some of its creatures. We could perhaps work to resolve that issue, to reverse that trend, but I don't believe instantly forsaking the consumption of animals is the way to do it. And so I cannot equally believe that becoming vegetarian, choosing not to eat animals would change me as a human being, or even help me understand the way my humanity impacts the world on a personal level.

Nor do I think it always makes sense from an energy standpoint to do so. And this is my final point, for now, of an already too long post. Energy is a funny thing, depending on how you look at it, and these days it seems like in one way or another we're all looking at it. Particularly, we are concerned about the SOURCES of energy, the origin and sustainability of those sources. For me the same goes for food. The sun is where it all starts: whether you eat plants or animals, the food chain starts with the sun. When we eat we are eating converted solar energy, whether it's in the form of the spinach that photosynthesizes its energy to grow and convert that energy into an iron and fiber and calcium packed package for us to eat and convert into OUR energy (and waste in both cases: the spinach's waste nourishes us and our waste, both CO2 and poopie, can enrich the next crop of spinach), or whether it's second-hand in the form of the grass the cows (should) munch (instead of the corn they now are if you buy your beef from supermarkets). The question is, how best to use that solar energy? What's the shortest, least wasteful chain from the sun to our bellies?

That answer, for me, is simple in some ways and complex in others. The simple answer says: the shortest chain is best. In this point of view, if you isolate it, we should all have a garden or small farm from which we feed ourselves, with no animals. Ok, fair enough, for the time being let's say I agree, and this seems to be the answer behind the local food movement--the farther the food travels, the longer the energy chain, and thus the more wasteful and hurtful to life on the planet it is. Again, fair enough, I agree. But there are some complications. What if you live, as I do, in the northeast, where everything is dead, for all practical purposes, from about Thanksgiving to about the middle of April, when the first shoots of ramps and asparagus stalks come up?

Now, there is such thing as storage, and canning. I know all that. You can put up green beans, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers (some folks like to call them "pickles") in little mason jars (never mind that I live in an apartment with a tiny kitchen--that's my own damn fault for being an asshole city-dweller), and you can put some potatoes and turnips and cabbage and squash/pumpkins in the cellar. If you also freeze some zucchini you'll be in alright shape, right? Maybe. But it's close. And other store foods, like flour, for example, are fairly energy intensive, and lengthen the energy chain, arguably, more than the roast chicken pecking at the seed grains out of which something like flour and bread can be made does. Again, it's close--too close, by my standards, And the risks are too great in this model in terms of malnutrition, bugs and rodents getting into your cellar, doing the canning wrong and spoiling it all, for me to build a log cabin or get all Into the Wild about it. I want a safety net, and I bet my ancestors (and, hell, the American Indians, too, for that matter) at least felt somewhat the same way, if they lived in a place with winter, when they started killing animals and eating them. For me, eating meat in the winter makes a whole crapload of sense, because frost doesn't kill cows, or buffalo. As a result, I eat as much or more meat and eggs in winter and early spring as I do root vegetables and the few leafy greens I can muster from the farmer's market. And I don't feel a lick of guilt for it, because I know where the animals came from, I know who killed them and how, and I know how they lived before they died.

The more I think about it, the more I think I'm just living in the way that is most connected, most harmonized with my particular climate. This may be the next wave of the local food movement! Get a leg up on your holier than thou friends, show up your neighbors--let the whole world know you are the most conscience-laden person in a fifteen mile radius (to consider people outside of this area would be un-local): start the NATIVE-locavore movement! Start a buffalo ranch! Set fire to fields that grow apples, or peaches, or pears and turnips and cabbage and broccoli and carrots, all in the name of new world eating reclamation acts! Wear only loincloths and paint your face and learn how to fancydance!

Ok, so there are limits. I can't become an Indian, much as I want to. And while fanaticism is fun for a little while, I get lonely quickly. Fact is, I'm a white boy on stolen land, surrounded by ways and means and plants and animals that don't, strictly speaking, belong here. But then there's Darwin, and the fact that adaptation is the way to go. Fair enough, so let's work from a flexible adaptive model, and say this: if you live in Los Angeles, eat like a Mexican. If you live in Washington sate, you should probably eat plenty of salmon and not so much in the way of rhubarb. I'm not saying "go local"; I'm saying learn about your surrounding area, what grows there, what is already growing there, and GET some of it, and EAT all living hell out of it. If you live in Texas eat beef--it makes sense to. But baking bread in El Paso? Doesn't make much sense--stick to tortillas.

I dunno, I realize there are limits here. All I'm saying is that my standpoint doesn't work from an abstract sense of "right" or "good" one one side and "wrong" or "bad" on the other. It works from a belief that the best way is the way most in concert with what is immediately available and can be endlessly sustained one side of the equation and what is most healthy and least risky of starvation and spoilage, as well as devoid of denial and weird puritanical purgation on the other. I am finding the most adaptively native way of living in my environment that is also ethically sound. In this way if you're a vegetarian in New Jersey eating strawberries from Mexico because you have a hankering for them, and some tomatoes, too, from California, in the middle of January, you really aren't any more "Good" or "Right" in my book than a Texas rancher eating beans, tortillas, and carne asada on his way to round-up at the stockyards. I worry sometimes that vegetarians make the choice so that they don't have to think about food choices in nuanced, sometimes conflicting and difficultly ambiguous ways, that they make the choice to disavow animals as a way of not having to worry or think about being wrong anymore, a sort of eater's get out of jail free card, that sometimes leads to some weird food choices based on a cycle of denial and indulgence (I've earned those Mexican strawberries/Argentine asparagus!). Another tendency I sometimes witness is the hypercensuring of eating ANYthing because there is a stain, a mark of sin in the form of the business practices of the farm's owner's uncle, or, to use but one example I heard recently, overfishing. I have a friend who will remain nameless who felt bad, like he wasn't supposed to eat the mahi-mahi I had cooked which came from Trader Joe's.

Why, friend? I asked.

Because so-and-so told me mahi-mahi is an overfished species, Friend replied.

Now, everyone's /right/ here, but they're on the wrong tack, I think, because the perspective is limited. Is the lesson here not to eat mahi-mahi? It would seem that way, and yet I can get mahi-mahi from my farmer's market from a boat off of Long Island that fishes in a way and in a place that doesn't clean out the species. it respects the eco-system whence the mahi-mahi comes, and as a result I can only get Mahi-Mahi for a limited season (when they're migrating north for the summer) and in limited quantity (it often runs out of its limited supply by the time my lazy late-rising ass gets to the market). So it's somewhat more complicated than simply laying down a commandment of denial that reads, in essence: don't ever eat mahi-mahi because it's overfished. Don't eat mahi-mahi from Trader Joe's that comes from Ecuador, yeah, sure--that was a bad choice on our part, for a number of reasons only one of which is overfishing.

But shouldn't that lead to some further questions, rather than simply a new commandment to be followed? Questions like, how much fish should I be eating in the landlocked town in Western Massachusetts where this took place? The coast is fairly close, however, so maybe a better question is, why doesn't fish from the nearby atlantic coast (only a little bit north of long island, where i get my mahi-mahi from) show up to be sold here, at a stand at the saturday farmer's market? Maybe it is! I should go to the local farmer's market this Saturday. And then you would go to the farmer's market in this quaint massachusetts college town and find....rhubarb. And a shitload of plants in plastic pots to buy. And some goat cheese and milk. Hm. What is going on here, you may ask? Why are no farmers selling food in their stands at the end of may? And why is the Trader Joe's and the Whole Foods (which seems to have asparagus, by the way, from a local farmer in a nearby town) packed with customers? Why is the place that shouldn't have the mahi-mahi but does loaded with people expecting exactly what they want any time of day or night, let alone season, and the place that should have the mahi-mahi but only for a limited time and from a local waters devoid not only of fish, but of almost /all food/? Does this say something about our eating priorities and assumption?

This would seem to be better solved, these questions better answered, than with simple, or oversimplified, decisions or discussion of ethics regarding whether an animal should be eaten or not. The problem is systemic, deeply rooted into our culture, and often packaged, I would argue, in ways that pose as the solution to the problem, when really a place like Whole Foods, contains elements of the problem as well (don't get my wrong, I'm not picking on Whole Foods or TJ's--they are both FAR better options than almost any other major supermarket chain. I prefer TJ's for reasons I won't bore you with here, but the point is, I shope there). My beef is with a mindset that thinks food comes from stores, from cellophane wrapped packages, NOT from, holy hell, the nearby ocean or the acres of farms that, at least in this example, the town was surrounded by!

this mindset is a problem to me because it ignores reality in favor of an abstraction, a perceived good. And that perceived good is seen as being uniform, as being wholly good (If I shop at Trader Joe's then I am doing the right thing, and am not a bad person like those shithead republicans). This takes me back to the beginning, as its what is behind my issue with eating or not eating animals (If i don't eat animals, I am doing the right thing, and am not a bad person like those shithead republicans). I'm not saying vegetarians don't make decisions on their own terms, nor am I, not by a long shot, saying that some carnivores are not shitheads, or republicans, or both. Many carnivores, perhaps most, are guilty of being willfully ignorant of where their food comes from, and refuse to engage in any sort of truth-seeking about their eating habits and their impact or influence on the real live world around them. They will not educate themselves because to remain ignorant is to remain safe. And this is abhorrent to me. But, frankly, I see it on both sides of what I call the bloodline, even though there is more evidence that it's the carnivores who are baldly turning a blind eye (by analogy, many southerners are easy targets for racist sentiment, whereas northern racism is very difficult to discern, and in that way perhaps more damaging, in that it is so hidden. so south carolinians become uniformly rednecks to outside observers, and new york a tolerant place of refuge. yet new york city, at the outbreak of the civil war, wanted to secede from the union as well....where does it leave the moral compass of racism if bigotry is seen in terms of geographical location??).

What I'm saying here is shitz is complicated, and deep. What I'm also saying is that not ALL carnivores suck, and not all vegetarians are necessarily getting off the hook by my measure of what is "right" or "good" ethically. Equally, not all carnivores are enlightened, and many, many vegetarians have educated themselves fully in their positions. I try to count myself among the former, though it needs work, and would love to hear from fellow folks like me, or from the latter group I described, as there are many veggies in the midst of my readership who no doubt have strong, well laid-out positions for their eating behavior. I'd love to hear them. It's time we opened this nut up and started looking at it for what it really is, rather than huddle into our respective groups and plant a flag labeled "I'm right" in the ground. I am not staking out a claim; I am exploring a series of ideas. I change all the time, and am tentative in more than one of my positions. Moreover, I screw up, and don't always follow my own advice. I am fallible, and stupid, but I'm trying to be less of a moronic, destructive cock about the way I eat. It hasn't been easy, I've swallowed more than one bitter pill as a result, but hearing others' opinions has not been one of them.

Next I'm going to lay out, based on my philosophy of eating, my literal habits. I'm going to show the practical methods, the concrete actions that this abstract notions lead to, with regard to how I eat every day. Hope I don't lose all my readers or piss everyone off/bore them to tears along the way.