Play of the Day

This little number is very likely my new culinary sound track. It is also the play of the day.

I am a foodie (this is true) and am deeply appreciative of the so-called ‘finer-things’ in the epicurean wonderland we call Los Angeles (and, indeed, the global culinary landscape). I am also, however, ever-more appreciative in these troubled times of deliciousness on the cheap. Hence my adoration of all things “flamin’ hot.”

Think of it this way: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Brand Cheese Puffs* are a highly efficient food: very high fat and calorie content paired with potent, technologically advanced flavor chemicals. And so very inexpensive. Economy got you down? Spice up your life with the neon red-orange, space-age goodness of some flamin’ puffs!

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*Look: I’ve gotten into this argument time and time again. Crunchy doesn’t do for you what puffy does. The puffs can be slowly dissolved in the mouth, searing their spicy brand into your already battered and weary taste buds. The crunchy version are a quick-bite solution to a slow and complex hunger-meets-capitalism-meets-culture problem. Puffs say “America: Oh yeahhhhh!” in an inviting, universally hopeful kind of way. Crunchy Cheetos just scream and point, convincing no one and alienating all but those who have already uncritically bowed to their apparent dominance.


On "earthquake weather"

…”thus, in Alton Locke: ‘They rowed her in across the rolling foam–/the cruel crawling foam.’

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characteristics of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.”…*

In the late afternoon yesterday I stopped into Cafecito Organico for a shot of espresso with a sparkling water back.** The barista asked me if I was enjoying the weather. I said I was (one enjoys anything alternative to 75 and sunny as ‘weather’ in Los Angeles and the last two days have been hot, muggy and overcast. The heavy air is still and breathing it in takes effort. It feels like smoking). The barista replied, “me too. But, you know, this is earthquake weather.”

I did not know, in fact.

I conferred with my friend who, once also incredulous, told me that her husband had heard the same thing from a colleague: “earthquake weather.” Shortly after this colleague finished explaining the phenomenon (and I’ve checked with the source) an earthquake did, in fact, occur. The long joke for all those present for the event had something to do with being burned at the stake. But, apparently, such a thing as earthquake weather exists. And might, at least if colloquial knowledge could tell it, be a good way to know when the next big shake is coming.

Today no major seismic activity was registered. But there were shifts in the world, as there always must be. Some of them were mine alone.*** It felt very much as though the weather served as my warning for a few rough moments I had to work my way through. And, for this reason, it occurred to me that earthquake weather, like the other very Angeleno phenomenon known as the Santa Anas, might be this city’s particular sort of metaphysics, our own cult prophet: meteorological forecast as horoscope.

I am not the first to wonder about the very specific pathetic fallacy of Los Angeles. One might characterize a good chunk of the literature that has come out of this strange metropolis as devoted to exactly that aesthetic. L.A. noir, in particular, is full of dark and stormy nights personified, made alive to match the trouble brewing in a character or two.

The world we make of this city, perhaps because so many of us believe ourselves to be the center of it in one way or another, is one in which the wind and the rain, the heat, anything that shapes the light and temperature of the vast sprawl we call home, might be an omen of our own personal disasters or triumphs.

I like this about Los Angeles. It would be nice, though, if once in a while all the good weather that we don’t notice portended better things–if the vast majority of 75 and sunny days were communally read as an indication of nicer, kinder moments to come.

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*John Ruskin, Modern Painters Vol. III. 1901 (pg. 156).

**This is how espresso should always be served, by the way. And if you’re in Los Angeles and in need, Cafecito is indeed the place to have a good shot pulled.

***I would tell you all about it but, come on, this is the Internet. What kind of media scholar would I be if I really believed in privacy and ‘social’ media as unproblematically co-extant?+

+But don’t worry. I’m well. The rough moments were navigable and I escaped only slightly scathed.


Of the early Roman morning

Sometimes, as a traveler, this sort of thing just happens. You turn a corner and are staring at some astounding monument and it is more than it should be. It is so much, in fact, that you can’t shake the uncanny feeling that you have mistaken the guidebook description for the real thing–that something has gone terribly wrong and you have landed somehow in a postcard of the place you are trying to understand, trying to navigate, instead of being in that place, at a particular moment in time.

It was late, my first night in Rome, and after the best spaghetti vongole I have ever eaten and a bottle of white table wine I went wandering with my friend, who knows Rome and speaks Italian. He led me, in a round about way, to the piazza in front of the Pantheon.

When we rounded the corner off a narrow, cobble-stone side street and I saw it and the inexplicably vacant plaza in front of it, the nearly full moon above it, I thought I might not be able to breathe.

A place like that should be anticlimactic. It should be vacated of all its power and history by the heat of high season and throngs of tourists. Or this is, at least, what I believed it should be, what I was sure it would be. But it wasn’t.

The enormous Roman thing stood there, in the well-moonlit, warm night and was so close to the gift my 18-year-old self imagined European travel to give that I stumbled. I did not believe it. I could not fathom that the stuff of novels I’d been reading since I was an over-emotional, self-obsessed and deeply romantic teenager could possibly reveal itself as real to an increasingly jaded, well-traveled and critical 31-year-old me.

“Oh, Rome!” (I hear myself saying) “I’ll never forget it!” And I cringe. But there are moments, as it turns out, when cynicism just fails–when you can weep at beauty long after you’ve stopped believing in it outside of its social construction, long after you’ve given up the idea that it might save us savage creatures from surely but slowly and violently destroying ourselves. The Roman Empire was no paradise, nor is the odd, frenetic, present-day city that stands in our global memory as its remaining vestigial limb. But for a moment, though it was brief, I understood why someone might believe a place to be holy. Why we (the communal, universal, human ‘we’) would  long to stand in the shadows of our history and believe in greatness.

Now that the moment has passed I worry. I worry because what I think of is the Satyricon. I think of what ’empire’ meant once and what I believe it to mean now. I worry because I know too much and too little of history. And because while my 18-year-old self believed in History (Marxist teleology was my particular bent), my current self does not.

In the end I have decided just to be glad that the vestigial limb of my own emotional, historical and nostalgic former self is capable of flailing in the Roman night, wowed. It wasn’t like a postcard. It was me and my friend, in the very early morning, under a moon so big it seemed impossible. We were astounded, amazed, and happy that something in us was connected to something with such weight–this marble structure that bears history.

The academic in me is ashamed. The traveller, though, whom I think I may have more trust in, nods and is satisfied. Such contradictions are the very reason to wander.


Of the Italian commitment to exceptional coffee

I have just spent a little over a week roaming Italy in a little rented Renault with two friends (let’s just call them ‘Marc’ and ‘Mary’ to protect their anonymity).* We can now boast a large number of visits to the beaches on both the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts. We can also boast hours and hours of zooming around winding cliff-side roads (first in Puglia and then Salerno). We sipped Brunello in Tuscany and tasted olive oil everywhere. We sang in a sea cave. We sat on verandas overlooking red rooftops and swinging bougainvillea.

In between all of this, of course, was the sizable chunk of time we spent on the autostrada. Sloping, curved roads and small Italian towns are endlessly charming. The autostrada is not. It’s just your average fast-paced automobile fare. There is one key difference, though, between the long-distance car travel I’ve done in the U.S. and what I’ve now done here in Italy. It’s all about espresso.

Every twenty kilometers or so along the highway you can pull off to a gas station or an ‘autogrill’ and when you do, inside, no matter how small the place is or how dingy, there will be a counter at which to order perfectly pulled espresso shots, cappuccini, macchiati… Its roadside coffee porn. Let it be known, too, that the rich, deep brown-nearly-black stuff is always served in a porcelain demitasse resting on a saucer with an appropriately sized stirring spoon sitting alongside the cup. It feels a little bit like stumbling into a 7/11 to pick up a few blinis smothered with caviar and créme fraiche. I’ve never had such amazing espresso in my life and I certainly never imagined one could go just about anywhere in Italy, including a truckstop, to get it.

Let it be known, too, that the commitment to exceptional coffee is, apparently, universal throughout the country. I stayed for a night with a fabulous Italian family in Cecina and the lady of the house (who, yes, made me homemade carbonara and ragu and stuffed zucchini and fileto di carne and oh god so much food I could barely move when the final course of fresh fruit arrived) had no fewer than ten stove-top espresso makers. All different sizes, colors, shapes.

Italy is a wonderland of thick, inky espresso. Would that we in the less culinarily adept countries would learn what they take here as a matter of course.

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*This is little protection. Their names are actually Marc and Mary.


Of Amsterdam, the second time around

Oh, Amsterdam. So lovely a little city.

The canals lined on all sides with rows of bicycles haven’t (despite their endless reproduction in all tourist materials on the lowlands) lost their charm. Dutch still-lifes and the Vermeer of the woman pouring milk in the Riljksmuseum still stun–regardless of the mass of postcards of these works they make. Dutch design and architecture, Dutch aged Gouda, Dutch people (though perhaps not Dutch cuisine) make strolling through the city at as slow a pace as you’d like a true pleasure for any visitor.

What is more, it seems a truly livable city. Particularly if you avoid certain stretches of the center and all of the Red Light District (though it is well worth suffering a trip through if you’re somewhere in the Western canal rings and need to get to fondue at Café Bern).* Infrastructure devoted to bikes and trolleys, the enormous and lovely Vondelpark and the fact that when the weather is nice, the Dutch seem to congregate in any available outdoor space, make it a place you want to stay for a stretch. Maybe a very long one.

I remember roaming in Amsterdam when I was 18. Then, because all travel was novel and certainly anything ‘abroad’ was exotic, it was strange. Now, it feels a little bit like visiting a prettier Brooklyn. The people there in the central districts are kind and good-looking, well dressed, and unflinchingly fluent in English. You can duck down an alley and find fantastic art, perfectly prepared Indonesian food, magical canal-side cafes serving La Chouffe and you’ll barely notice that you can’t utter a word in the native language. Of course you can end up in a mass of tourists oohing and ahhing at the ‘native’ bridges and photographing themselves alongside a mass of bicycles, or perhaps a live sex show. But I am willing to entertain the possibility that this darker under belly buoys up the rest of the urban culture there.

I prefer my most recent trek through the city to the one I took, low, some nearly 15 years ago. But that may just be because I like me, and cities and me in cities more now. Either way, if you find yourself meandering around Europe for any reason, Amsterdam is worth time. Maybe lots of it.

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*And you do need to get to fondue at Café Bern if you’re anywhere in Amsterdam. Trust me.


Of urban sprawl and Chinese dumplings

I am currently working on a long-past-deadline dissertation chapter dealing with the potential for positive activation of urban sprawl. ‘Sprawl’ is a shudder-inducing term for most, and frequently cited as cause for Middle-American, New English or New Yorker hatred of my sweet, sweet city, Los Angeles. We are sprawl, perhaps par excellence. But I’m gonna just jump the gun to my head that is said chapter here and tell you, dear readers, that sprawl can rule. Yep. I will defend that disastrous result of population explosions and epic infrastructural development and say that sprawl can be outright lovely.

Now, in my ongoing (its a Sisyphean endeavor) project I am interested in artists and activists who use new technologies (particularly autonomous networks) in an effort to provide alternative communication routes for city-dwellers via sprawl, but for the purposes of this little post I’ll set that aside and talk about something else. Lucky you, that something else is the dumpling.

If you want to argue that urban sprawl is not only existentially but socially disastrous, I ask you to calmly and reasonably consider the fact of Arcadia. This enormous suburb (why we still use this term in L.A. is beyond me–no visible marker exists between an ‘us’ as city-proper and a ‘them’ as external to city-proper) is home to the most ridiculously delicious steamed and fried dumplings in the universe.*

‘Proper’ Angelenos and suburbanites alike flock to the always-packed dumpling houses of Arcadia because, well, that’s where the best of Chinese dumplings are to be had. Whether you’re rocking soup dumplings or dim sum, in perfectly pillowy form, the best are to be had well outside the manufactured Chinatown of central L.A. Din Tai Fung is perhaps the most obvious go-to, and given their long lines it’s a good thing they have two locations in the same block. If you don’t believe the authenticity of such a place, may I point out that they’ve got locations in Tai Pei (and Japan and Singapore, etc. etc.). They don’t fuck around. The corporate nature of the endeavor is noticeable in the friendly but impressively efficient way the servers move you through the menu and deliver those aesthetically pleasing silver pots of impeccably built steamed pork and seafood pockets.

Other favorites include Dumpling House, the new and highly lauded Wang Xing Ji, and any number of spots folks who can’t read in ideographic languages rarely visit. If it weren’t for Jonathan Gold we foodie types with a penchant for decent Chinese would probably be doomed. And perhaps it is for the best that even he can’t get into the far reaches of the Arcadian culinary scene.

The point (excuse my meandering lazily towards it) is that this enclave of amazing Chinese cooking is a fact of the weird way sprawl works. Communities pop up, having chosen to move to cheaper outskirts or being forced out of city centers by any number of cultural or economic forces. The requirement of a little bit of travel to get to the glorious things somewhere in the outer reaches only makes such stuff more fascinating. You can, in your journeys to such places, learn entirely new things about the city’s cultural and material geography.

(Sub)Urban enclaves are magical city spaces. They invite city-dwellers (and all sorts of other adventurers) to navigate their way into the dynamic pseudo-external urban landscape. And such ventures always offer rewards. Contemporary sociality works, indeed, via such movement. It can be abominable, no doubt, in the way it sometimes bulldozes natural and social landscapes which pre-exist city expansion, but it is how we all, now globally, seem to be moving. Nostalgia will save no trees on this one. And, worse, such false narratives can’t be eaten with chopsticks.

I have no interest in defending the often insidious aesthetic and cultural phenomenon that come along with expanding urbanity. But I also have no problem enjoying, in an ever-increasingly urbanizing and sprawling world, what the so-called ‘outside’ spaces have to offer. It is the only real choice we have, I think. And if such a choice is offered with steamed, folded, gooey little bits of epicurean goodness, I’m gonna go ahead and say, o.k. Let’s go. Sprawl, why don’t you. I’m in.

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*Obviously this is hyperbolic. I have not eaten dumplings everywhere in the universe.


Play of the Day

I could live on mollusks alone. Seriously. They are astoundingly delicious. And weird. The combination of these two qualities makes them a near-perfect food.

Last night I had two mollusk dishes and both were so wildly pleasing as to border on the pornographic. Thank you very much L & E Oyster Bar. On special (and first up) were smoked mussels. Served with chorizo toast, these were so delicious that I could have consumed the olive oil caper sauce they came in as a digestif. I probably would have too if I hadn’t been in the company of such classy clientele. They might frown on such behavior.

Then two-dozen outlandishly tasty raw oysters. My god. Decadence, thy name is mollusk. If there’s a better reason to jump for joy who cares?