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?


Of cooking large birds and eating them in America

Yes, dearest comrades, it has been quite some time since my last update. You will, I trust, forgive my absence on the interwebs. I have been busy teaching and writing or procrastinating to avoid writing. But I offer you this short post as an offering of peace and goodwill in this, oh most ridiculous but glorious holiday season.

Thanksgiving is a strange cultural quirk of this great nation. It’s founding mythology is, I have little doubt, primarily apocryphal. Even if indeed two otherwise warring parties in the early days of the U.S. settlement broke bread, is it not just a little bit difficult to imagine that some long-ago coming together of the White Man and the group of people he went on to nearly eradicate in his genocidal push Westward merits the annual over-consumption of birds, booze and gourd pies?* But despite this dubious history, I must nonetheless say: I love this holiday.

This may be mostly because I love eating and drinking, but it is also because I have a very large, very funny, very bizarre family and they all come together on Thanksgiving to eat and drink with me. The standard policy is a minor showing of travelers on Wednesday evening at wherever the hosting family chooses to make a reservation. The big Thursday is an all-day cooking affair in which everyone is ready with always unrequested and often unwanted and unwarranted culinary advice for the chefs. Our family-wide penchant for criticism  is linked, as well, to one of the dishes we serve. Each year, despite the pleas of nearly all of the cousins, we insist on making what’s known as ‘Waldorf relish’. This is a gelatinous, savory, molded foodstuff that harkens back to a 50s era American obsession with jello. There are apples and peppers in it. It wiggles. It’s an abomination. But Grandma Sara, the matriarch of the family and the woman responsible for what seems a genetic predisposition to self-righteousness and inflexibility, served Waldorf relish which means we have to keep serving Waldorf relish. Forever.

There are, too, the standards: mashed potatoes, turkey, peas with pearl onions, stuffing and the like. Usually a whole roasted salmon. Sometimes they let me make brussels sprouts. The timing of all this cooking is very important: we don’t bother with that ludicrous mid-day or late afternoon meal. It’s dinner at the dinner hour followed by pies at the pie hour. No elbows on the table. No eating until everyone is served. Always pass the salt with the pepper and no, you can’t have the last cinnamon roll without suffering stinging glances from everyone at the table who notices. Needless to say we eat a lot. We laugh a lot. Barbs are exchanged and we grow more riotous with each opened bottle of red wine. We go to bed tipsy, but full and happy.

Thursday is followed by an equally large and perhaps still more lavish meal out on Friday night. This dinner is usually covered by my father (perhaps his punishment for not actually having remained married into the family–his conversion to hanger-on status has cost him thousands over the years). If you’re keeping up that’s three multi-course, family-packed, wine-fueled meals in a single week. And that’s not even counting the occasional brunches thrown in if someone gets engaged or has a baby.

I’m often, at these dinners, chastised by my uncles for my anti-capitalist idiosyncrasies and disdain for U.S. foreign and economic policy. But if I’m honest, all week long I love America. Genocidal history be damned, I adore Thanksgiving. I’ll go further: God Bless America! God bless the turkeys who sacrifice their lives for our gluttony! God bless even the poor, misguided soul who thought it was a good idea to put fruits and vegetables together with jello! God bless us all!

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*I realize this is a wildly long sentence that any good editor would break apart. I just don’t care. This is America. My sentences can run on as long as I’d like them to.


Of homecomings and such

Oh, readers of mine! Since my last post journeys were made, a despedida was held in my honor*, tears were shed, disasters were narrowly averted and, finally, I find myself in my native land.

It has been a trying homecoming. I managed to hit all three major venues of my past lives in a scant five days: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and now I am once more in the city from which I hail, Albuquerque.

I will not trouble you with the details of those various visits except to say that, despite all the existential disturbances caused by such acts of returning, I managed to get in some night swimming in the Pacific, fresh doughnuts in a beach town (coerced from the bakers at a closed shop North of Santa Barbara around three a.m.), a very Hollywood Independence Day bar-b-q as well as the consumption of long awaited (and surprisingly high volumes of) hot sauce.

I only now have come to a bit of a resting point in which to reflect on the sweeping transition I am now making. I miss Buenos Aires. I miss my studio departamento. I miss the keys. I even miss (or perhaps most miss, rather than ‘even’) having to move between languages, having to be always somewhat out of place. Though, worry not, I’ve spent plenty of the last handful of days out my comfort zone.

I find it off-putting that people in the U.S. chat with me as if I’ve always been here. They ask where I’m from and where I am going and I find myself somewhat stunned not to have anything but a complicated, circuitous answer: “Uh, well, I’m here for a bit, then I’ll be headed there, then maybe back again over there, then the world will be my oyster,”** etc. Usually after the second destination I list they stop listening. It’s understandable. Even I stop listening.

So, now that the Buenos Aires portion of this blog has, for a moment, come to a close, itinerant me will begin to write about the other cities in which she finds herself a temporary resident. If you require the whetting of your readerly appetite, know this: The chances of me exploring in detail the outstanding and glorious phenomenon of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese puffs are extremely high.

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*Perhaps you will not be as excited as I am about this fact, but I assure you, it is awesome. At my despedida I was the only U.S. citizen and also the only English speaker. We went to my favorite bar, La Bella Gamba, and I spent the evening switching between political discussions with the handful of Argentines and crude and fabulous jokes with the handful of Colombians.

**My language, as it turns out, is somewhat stilted as I adjust to constant English. Sometimes, without conscious effort, I insert little words in castellano. The most common is ‘dale,’ essentially the Argentine version of ‘o.k.’. Weirder still, when this happens, I pronounce it with a thick American accent.


Of white wine, scallop gonads and Chilean despedidas

So, my patient followers, my dearest friends, my truest joys, I must pontificate (as I am so often want to do) about my return to Santiago and my final days in the splendid country that is Chile.

I left Valparaíso early on Thursday morning to fit in a tour of the Casablanca Valley vineyards. This isn’t Chile’s primary wine-making region but they know how to make some very tasty Sauvignon Blancs. Really the purpose of my little jaunt into the valley was less the wine (though it was fine indeed) and more the chance to see a little bit more of the country. The fog on that crisp morning had yet to dissipate as we drove towards the first viña (in Argentina vineyards are referred to as bodegas–not so in Chile). At Casa del Bosque I sipped a bit and wandered a bit and got a good look at the strange post-post-post pressing which produces the juice for wine that the vintner only sells in Asia because no one anywhere else seems to have a taste for the stuff. The final detritus from this process looks like bright purple paste. Best part about Casa del Bosque, you ask? They play soft jazz for their wine when its fermenting in the barrels. All day. All night. I asked the guy why not Reggaeton and he said he figured that wine would be way too ready to party for the wine-enthusiast’s refined palate.

From there I went on to a biodynamic vineyard called Emiliana. Better wine at this second viña and, best: llamas, peacocks and chickens all help keep things sustainably running. The vineyard also makes some very tasty olive oil I had the pleasure of sampling.

A little tipsy but happy as can be I was delivered to the bus station and off I went to Santiago. I arrived at my hostel without incident but it was so freezing inside that I had to take myself out to an early dinner. I went to Liguria in the Providencia neighborhood and enjoyed the best fried fish sandwich I have ever had. Seriously.

Speaking of fish: I must pause to mention one very important difference between the Chilean and American preparation of a particular fruit of the sea, the oh-so-delicious scallop. Called ostiones in Chile, scallops are cooked with the gonad still clinging to the body of the mollusk. Why we insist on removing this delectable portion in the U.S. is beyond me, though it may have something to do with the fact that some discomfort is likely to be provoked by the term ‘gonad’ when it is spoken in reference to cuisine.

Aside from enjoying the food upon my return to Santiago, I was also offered the special treat of an invitation to a Chilean despedida. I have written of the phenomena of despedidas before, of course, but it was a pleasure to be able to partake in Santiago’s version of the ritual. I met up with my friend Maria and we made our way through the city to the home of a few young Chileans with whom she had been working during her stay. The send-off was for Maria who was winding down her final days in the city. We sipped Chilean wine and Escudo, the local beer. We talked about architecture and language and the locals in attendance made fun of me for speaking like a porteña. As the night wore on, speeches were given, toasts were made, pizza was eaten and, finally, around one in the morning we all rose up and danced and danced and danced. Oh my what a fine way to while away the hours. And because I too was leaving in the morning, for Buenos Aires, I got to share in the boisterous pre-departure party. The next morning I made my way without incident to the airport and back to B.A.

Ahhhhhhh, Chile. May I return to your sweet shores once more. May I climb your heights and traverse your vast and diverse territory. May I, oh fine country, once again come back to be warmed by your tender welcome. For now, alas, I must bid you adieu.

No te olvides de mi y te digo, Chile, que nunca me podríaolivdar de ti!


Of Santiago de Chile

Oh my! A poor pseudo-porteña like myself (actually, a poor pseudo-porteña that was myself) is typically ill prepared for the cold that awaits her in Santiago de Chile at this time of year. The rain, luckily, had stopped for a bit when my plane landed a mere three hours late and so finding the subway and making my way to the hostel in the frigid night air was far easier than it might have been.

Santiago gets a bad wrap where the metropolises of the Southern hemisphere are concerned and, I feel, undeservedly so. There seems to me to be much to do and, more importantly, much to eat.

My first day in the city was spent roaming, hopping on the subway, roaming again. Much of said wandering was less aimless than fishwardly. The seafood market near the port is astounding and chaotic. As you move in crowds along the smelly, cold rows of freshly caught creatures the fishmongers compete, half-cat-calling, half-hard-selling, to get you to choose from their various and vast selections. I refrained from purchasing any of the tasty, if slimy, offerings in the knowledge that I was kitchenless and thus bound to eat out on the town.

From the fish market I made my way to two key hilltop views of the city. From Cerro Santa Lucía, the lower of the two, you get a fine panorama, not to mention a good look at some stunning fountains and what remains of the days when the hill served as the site of a military fort and lookout.

On your way to the second major hill you pass the hyper modern and exceptionally designed Centro Gabriela Mistral. A ministry during the dark years of the Pinochet regime, the building was later burned and recently revamped. There is no dearth of fantastic architecture in Santiago, but this building has got to be in the top ten. Well worth a visit (and a stop at its high end but wonderful café for a creamy cortado).

Cerro San Cristóbal offers the best view of the city and unlike Santa Lucía, you don’t have to hike the whole way up thanks to a rickety funicular. That and the presence of a large statue of Nuestra Virgin make the view all the more magical. Particularly nice if you can get there at dusk, as I did, to see the city begin to sparkle.

I closed the day off with a seafood feast at Azul Profundo in Barrio Bellavista and a few pisco sours at a bar in the nearby Patio Bellavista. Of the seafood, you will hear more. It was delicious–piles of squid, rock fish and scallops, oh my! Go. Eat. Walk. Eat. Drink. Eat. Be very, very merry.

For photographic documentation, go here.


Of porteño street food

Loving, as I so deeply do, all things edible and adoring, as I so truly do, all things urban there is little in the world that pleases me more than street food. By this I mean any sort of vittles you can buy on a downtown corner, from a truck or a cart, served from baskets or coolers, out of trunks or passed through windows.

Here in Buenos Aires there are a handful of street foods that I like to nosh on as I stroll about the city. For your reading pleasure I detail my top picks below.

First and foremost among the urban edibles here in the port city is garrapiñada, pictured above. Men and women set up blue carts all around Buenos Aires (though the highest concentration of vendors of this urban delicacy seems to be in and around the Plaza de Mayo). In round copper pots they cook a pile of sugar until it melts and boils and then mix in peanuts or almonds and stir until the nuts are coated in caramel-colored, crispy goodness. The going rate for a small bag of garrapiñada de maní is two pesos. If you want almendra, three. This stuff is radically addictive, especially because when you’re walking around you can get whiffs of the boiling sugar and it leads you, powerless against its olfactory magnetism, to the nearest bubbling pot. They’re best enjoyed calentita.

A very close relative of these nutty little treats is tutuca. This isn’t actually prepared on the street but there you can find it, usually right alongside garrapiñata. It’s sweetened, puffed corn. Imagine a sort of simpler version of Corn Pops that taste more like Honey Smacks. Sometimes the vendors have big trash-bags full of the stuff that they’ll divvy into smaller, take-away sizes. So airy and delicious and just the right amount of sweet. I’d say Kellogg’s is in for a run for its money.

Pan relleno is another must-try metropolitan treat. A little harder to find on your average weekday, but always available from a variety of bakers who stroll the weekend markets with baskets full of them, warm and fresh. This is literally just stuffed bread–easily encountered are the typically Argentine gustos, jamon y queso; queso, tomate y albahaca; or the ubiquitous carne. I myself prefer the more thrilling flavor combination that is zapallitochoclo y cebollo. If you want the best pan relleno I’ve tried in this wonderful place, hit the Sunday fair at San Telmo and look for a young man with long curly hair who ties a huge basket of his freshly made and portable feasts to the front of his bicycle. Usually ten to twelve pesitos and well worth every centavo.

Finally I must commend the industrious coffee slingers who walk the markets, the corners, the busiest streets. They usually have a plastic crate equipped with shoulder straps in which sit five or six thermoses of coffee. This java may not be of the creamy cortado quality you find in the city’s notable cafés, but it’s to-go and will do in a pinch. Warning, though: if you ask for it black you’ll get some sugar already in the mix. A sad fact about Argentine street coffee is that they mix the sugar in with the grounds. Just no way around it.

And, finally, speaking of sweets: porteños love sugar and all the ways you can consume it. This means that at every market and anywhere folks are selling foodstuffs you can find someone offering churros filled with dulce de leche, doughnuts rolled in white sugar, slices of cake and more. Just the other day I was walking up the steps of a subte exit and a couple was offering these little postres for a couple of pesos a piece.

All this means, of course, that if you’ve got some spare change and a little shoe leather to spare, you can spend a fine, palate-pleasuring time in this city without ever setting foot in a restaurant. Fast food made friendly.


Of the Argentine empanada (and its semiotic system)

Ohhhh, the empanada. It is a culinary mainstay in this country and these little pockets of foodie fun can be found anywhere in the city. Ideally, the encasing is just crisp enough on the outside to offer some buttery resistance to your bite and, on the inside, just soft enough to begin to integrate with the cheesy or meaty or veggie center. Every once in a while they’re deep fried, but the common porteña empanada is baked, a kind of pocket calzone.

I enjoyed a veritable panoply of empanadas at a late Tuesday lunch. Jamon y queso, cebollo y queso, napolitano, roquefort, carne picante and an emanada de pollo were among the special little treats we ordered at a well-known Argentine joint near my apartment, El Sanjuanino.

Visitors to this country often sample empanadas all over the place, but few know of the signifying capacity of the doughy outsides. The way you fold an empanada indicates what lies within. I know of only a few indicators–ham and cheese empanadas are like little hearts, empanadas de carne have ruffled, twisted-rope edges like those pictured above, veggie empanadas have edges pressed down with a fork. Sometimes small marks are made in the center of the empanada as well. I’ve discovered this handy chart which will give you some idea of the complexity of the signifying system of the fold.

The point is this: even eating the local food requires a certain amount of semiotic acrobatics. Just one more reason why Buenos Aires is a little linguistic (and delicious) wonderland.