- Award for Best Home Accessory goes to...the barbed wire toilet seat.
- To the Dallas Chamber of Commerce: Condoms To Go does seem like a sensible business idea, but it begs the question, are there any, oh shall we say, dine-in locations?
- Was briefly grilled by a participant on my knowledge of Judaic history, fared poorly.
- Got a recommendation that Stephen Pyles is Dallas' finest chef. For the sake of local gastronomes, I hope this isn't the case.
- The only way to end any trip is to witness some Air Marshall action on approach to ORD.
- Clipboards are scarce, so don't let yours crack in your luggage
- So much Anderson Cooper
- The Grassy Knoll badly needs to be watered
- My co-workers should know that I have already secured a place on the 2010 highlight reel
- Ambulance chaser ads on cable cast a wider net for potential negligence than in the Great Lakes region
- BBQ has been achieved
- Easy to blend in crew traveling to Dallas: a Jew, an Indian, a Japanese
- DFW, sadly not David Foster Wallace Airport
- Waiting for bag, played with akita puppy who was on my flight
- Drive into city = Megachurch, megachurch, Waffle House, regular church, adult novelty superstore, megachurch, hotel
- Fox News on in hotel bar
- Hotel room, the most brightly colored place I've ever stayed: blue pastel bathroom, bright yellow bedspread adorned with pineapples
- Tex-mex dinner at The Iron Cactus washed down with "longhorn margarita"
Since I am sure you've forgotten who we are, let alone where we perform, we will remind you of how this works. First, clear you calendar for this Sunday. Then, make your way over to the Atlantic Bar and Grill on Lincoln Ave. (an Irish bar run by actual Ireland Irish guys, not South Bend "Irish" guys). Get a drink, maybe some fish and chips. I recommend swapping the chips out for tater tots. (Sorry real Ireland Irish guys we are beholden to no potato traditions, for we are spud libertines.) Then head to the back room of the bar at 2 pm for the hilarity. Done and done. Resolution accomplished.
If that was too much to read, here's all you need to know in a neat-as-a-pin list:
1. The Buttress Decade Begins!
2. Sunday, 10 January 2010, 2 pm
3. Atlantic Bar & Grill
4. 5062 N. Lincoln Ave
5. Lincoln Square, Chicago
6. Cost = $0
7. The Flying Buttresses are: EvanJoleneMoiraShannonTom
Casualty of the hot, hot heat?
I am going to put Lollapalooza's worst foot forward to get it out of the way. A huge crowd of people, in really hot, humid weather, standing/milling/dancing in a field, smells a lot like cattle. Or maybe it's not that cattle smell particularly bovine when gathered together. Maybe it's that, like us, they smell mammalian. In any event, there were moments, especially when the wind would abate, that Grant Park had some serious zoo-grade human stinkage going on. Still, the music was pretty good.
Wooed by the prospect of 80s animated icon immolation, and, frankly, shade, I wandered early on into Kidzapalooza to see Care Bears on Fire. They have a silly name for a reason; they are fourteen years old. They sound it too, pop punk that doesn't even try to hide its white middle class concerns, which I guess is at least honest. With junior high school anthems like "You Can't Make Me," it's hard to say more than (1) it's cool that your parents let you do this, (2) you are far better role models, I suspect, than Hannah Montana, and (3) you're from Park Slope, of course you're from Park Slope. No bears, caring or otherwise, were lit on fire.
Care Bears on Fire
Lykke Li was a highlight of the afternoon, and not simply, though partly, because it was the only time beside CBoF that I could get close enough for a decent view of the stage. Li is a part of the ongoing Swedish invasion into indie music in the U.S. Though produced by either Peter, Bjorn, or John, I forget which, she has far more edge than any of P, B, & J's hooky poppy music. She likes to punctuate her stage persona by banging frantically on cymbals every now and again, and her voice has a perceptible hip-hop attitude to it which reminded me alternately of M.I.A. and Lady Sovereign though she is clearly neither related to the Tamil Tigers, nor an idiot. I think she just wants us to know she's from the hards streets of Stockholm. (Truthfully, she lead a rather peripatetic childhood, but the idea of her speaking the truth from Helvete's Kitchen, Sweden is way more amusing.)
Lykke Li prepares to beat up some cymbals
Tool wrapped up the evening. Salted and preserved in my own dried sweat, I opted to watch them rather than really experience them in any all-encompassing concert going way. I found a seat on the small hill on the far side of the field from the stage and enjoyed the show, relaxed and recumbant, from a great distance. I could sing-along to myself, especially given that Maynard et. al. still do a number of songs from Ænima in concert. It was lovely. It also occurred to me that this was the same field where I saw Obama on election night. Beware about singing of California sloughing into the ocean, Maynard. We'll need the electoral votes and fundraisers for 2012.
Day 3: Lou Reed: how worse is he for wear?
All Praise be to Jojo's brother, who has no nickname so we shall call him The Bunchberry Maven (that's for the Mainers), who suffered Free Stuff Amnesia and planned a trip for this Lollapalooza weekend.
Double All Praise be to Jojo for thinking for some reason I might want B. Maven's ticket.
Way back when Lollapalooza started and was sub-/counter-culturally relevant, I listened to music that was sub-/counter-good, or at least had passed its expiry date. My first teenage concert, I am proud to say, was Midnight Oil, but there were many missteps to follow. I'm looking at you, Steve Miller. [shudder] Still, we had a brief (real brief) discussion about whether Lollapalooza is/was our generation's Woodstock. Bonaroo was offered up as a better alternative, and one with a far hippier pedigree, but it's not about being the same as Woodstock, only about being the correct answer on a Miller Analogy Test. I went in search of similarities:
- A man sucking on suspicious looking (i.e., possibly drug laced) lollipops (he had a toolbelt of these lollipops and was handing them out leading me immediately to suspect he was spearheading his own Electric Bubble Yum Acid Test) collapsed onto me, and subsequently into the mud, during The Decemberists set.
- Supremely ugly-ass bootleg tie-dye Lollapalooza t-shirts being sold by illegal vendors on the sly.
- The month of August and a year that ends in 9.
This shoudn't be a grumble-fest about Lollapalooza. It's better to have festivals like this than to not. Good for the fans, the musicians, and the city, if less good on the wallet. Plus, Of Montreal (one of my favorite bands both for their carnivalesque stage shows and grotesquely over-literate lyrics) covered Bowie. So, let me sum up Day 1 with my Number 1 learning: Converse All-Stars are a horrible choice of festival footwear. Write it down.
Day 2: No Age, deciding between Lykke Li and TVOTR, Animal Collective, Tool, and trying to sneak my SLR into the park so I can take some decent pictures damn it.
The Decemberists in the rain
Of Montreal, I think doing "Heimdalsgate like a Promethean Curse"
My eating experience in Japan, while delicious, was not quite comprehensive. I was restricted by several factors. First was work. I generally had to eat wherever the job took me, usually within five blocks of my hotel in Shinjuku. Also, relating to work, we have an unofficial moratorium on street food. No one likes a strange ethnographer in their home with the runs. It's just awkward. Then there was the language problem. When without a translator, we were forced to fend for ourselves, and by “fending” I mean, look for English menus or, barring that, plastic food models to point at. Limitations aside, I can say for certain that maki is not sushi and not a single piece of chicken teriyaki passed my lips.
Probably the least interesting thing that I ate in Japan was sushi. It was delicious, mind you, fresh and buttery and generally far superior than anything one can expect to find living 700 miles from the nearest ocean. I did stray from my usual orders, often because I had no idea what I was asking the waiter for, but never got further afield from my Chicago norm than a raw clam or sea urchin roe. Mostly I gorged myself on deep wine-colored tuna and any and all eel I could get my grubby American hands on. This actually worried one of my Japanese cohorts at a work lunch. She feared that, as a foreigner, I had mistakenly ordered something so slithery. They don't have those at Mickey D's. I dropped the word unagi to reassure her, but, always mindful of being a good host, I think her fears persisted.
The main difference, other than the obvious one of quality, between American and Japanese sushi is the lack of maki, the above photo notwithstanding. It is a much simpler, and perhaps, refined, dish there. I saw no fishy fusion hybrids, "Tropical Makis" with avocado, jalapeno, and mango. Mostly it was a expertly cut slice of fish on a lightly vinegared fist of rice. Though I did come across one instance of wheatgrass sushi that appeared without explanation. Other than being a non sequitur, it is not worth mentioning.
The one gimmick, of course, was the conveyor belt, kaiten-zushi. Like all fast foods, it was not as good as its higher priced cousin. However, there is something comforting for the foreigner. That something is that fact that you don’t need to order anything, except for a cold and monstrously portioned Asahi to be shared among friends. You sit at a counter and grab the plates that look best, or at least those identifiable to you. No pressure, no embarrassment of being rendered mute by an incomprehensible language. As an added bonus, you get to stack each successive plate into a tower that dwarfs those of the Japanese diners, reassurance that you are an American and proudly stuff yourself as such.
Meat and sticks go together like a horse and carriage. I think that’s how the old song goes. It is an accessible type of cooking and readily recognizable, though the line between chicken and chicken gizzard may be blurred to the naked eye, putting off the preemptively squeamish eater. It’s all grilled and lightly seasoned, making for a light meal where many non-sushi items end up fried. Though, truth be told, we did order tender fried octopus as an appetizer on our yakitori excursion. It’s all part of a balanced meal.
If you hold the not-entirely-unfair prejudice that no part of the animal is off limits in Asia, then order veggie yakitori. The eggplant is delicious and I even ate some sort of marinated mushroom which, I’ll admit, made a dent in my long-standing anti-fungi armor.
You all know about tempura, so I don’t need to tell you about it. I do have a story though. One evening, on a recommendation, we went to a tempura restaurant in the bowels of the nearby Hilton. The meal came out in several courses. The sake was cold and all was going swimmingly. Before the final round of the fry up, the waitress and the chef came over to our table, each carrying a shallow metal dish. They were grinning broadly, either out of pride or a mischievousness from freaking out foreigners.
In the dish lay our soon-to-be next course, alive, though perhaps not well, existentially. The chef poked the shrimp on his tray, either to show it was still frisky and fresh or to prod it into begging its hangman and hangwomen for mercy. Not one to go down without a fight, the shrimp took the chef's urging as a cue to make a break for it. It leaped out of the tray and began scuttling across the rug to sweet sweet freedom. The prisoner was quickly apprehended to meet death by [ahem] lethal convection.
Hantei specializes in kushiage, a kind of cross between tempura and yakitori. Food on sticks meet the fryer. Part of Hantei's charm is the decor, dark woods and bamboo. It makes you feel like you are dining in an older incarnation of Tokyo, which you kind of are. The food itself was nothing fancy, but well done and diverse. Ordering is easy because you only have to specify number and not the food itself. Dishes come out one at a time, each dish has three skewers, two dish minumum. And there's a bulk discount, each successive set of two dishes gets cheaper.
Anything that can go in a fryer does: I had twelve skewers, no repeats. I take great pleasure in variety. Eventually it will make me fat - people eat more when offered a selection than when presented with a lot of the same thing - but long-term negatives don't diminish the big short-term positive. The set included: shrimp, scallop, some sort of whitefish, a whole sardine-like fish, ginger, eggplant, lotus root, and a corn nugget.
Wondering what the oddest thing I ate was? I'll give you a hint. When I told my co-worker she exclaimed, "You ate Shadowfax?" Geeky, but funny response.
The izakaya is the Japanese bar and grill: loud, smoky, and serving up lots of booze and arterially unfriendly foods. A few years ago I was in one in Vancouver, Guu with Garlic, and I guess that it was pretty authentic. I met up with my friend R in her old neighborhood of Shimokitazawa and hit the izakaya as a prelude to karaoke, just a Saturday night on the town in Tokyo.
Fried tofu (tofu is magical in Asia), potato salad with roe, grilled octopus, pork skewers, sharply pickled Japanese eggplant, spring rolls as an affirmative action roughage inclusion, beef carpaccio, and...horse...raw horse. I have no problem eating horse. If I am going to eat a docile cow or an adorable lamb or a badass elk (what's a good elk adjective?), then I have no moral ground to stand on for not eating the noble equid. I do, however, wonder where they come from. I have read that older horses are slaughtered and exported from the US, but this didn't seem tough enough. Sorry Shadowfax, if I am going to eat you I should at least get your story straight.
I know I wasn't supposed to eat street food, let alone seafood stored out in the sun, but I was at a festival at the Tsukiji Shrine and, you know. octopus balls.
The Western sweettooth has some tricky waters to navigate in Japan. Beautifully packaged and presented, the actual substance of a given treat can be a mystery if you can read descriptions. Texture especially is alien. There are airy cakes and rich chocolates, but also worlds of mochis and jellied...jellies. The mochi is wonderful. In the US we have been introduced to mochi as a kind of Japanese ice cream surrounded by a squishy shell. It is delicious in its own right. In Japan, it's more of a squishy pastry, often green tea flavored and occasionally filled with a chalky cream. It's chalky in a good way, because the Japanese are just that good.
The most overly decadent of the sweets were the crepes. Dotted about Tokyo are crepe stands, not filled with the refined jellies and nutellas of the West, but crammed with chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, coconut, or whatever, and obviously topped with a massive cloud of whipped cream. The one below was born to fill a late night yen after my izakaya/karaoke night.
OK. Tapas? Really. Well, it's not Japanese per se, but the dully named (or maybe dully translated) Tapas Dining provided what may have been the tastiest dish I had in Japan. This is no fault of Japanese food, but rather praise for Japanese chefs. As my co-worker said repeatedly, "Another reason why they're better than us." By implication, they must also be better than the Spanish.
The service was questionable, but the food was delectable. Even the most bizarre dish, raw eggplant stuffed with mint and dusted with sea salt, was interesting. The picture below, octopus and shoestring potatoes, both broiled in ample butter was unreal. The butter browned and the octopus, often chewy, seemed to have replaced any sinewiness with that very butter. They are better than us, especially in the kitchen.
Minor my-own-horn-tooting intro: My name appears in legitimate print exactly once. Well, there is an EH is a book called Evil in Paradise. He is some kind of county commissioner embroiled in a scandal for accepting a shady loan from a developer. Also, you can search the New York Times archive and find that I share a name with a vaguely successfully and long-dead racehorse, but my name, referring to me, appears in legitimate print but once.
Way back when I was an undergrad, I worked as a research assistant for Prof. Ted Bestor. My job was to dig up info on fish markets on the American side of the North Atlantic. Embarrassingly, most of what I knew about fisheries going into the project was what I’d gleaned from Billy Joel’s song “The Downeaster Alexa.”* Over time, I did learn a number of non-Joel-related and surprisingly fascinating tidbits about the politics of fishing, the collapse of the North Atlantic cod stocks, and the gender conflict that ensued when fishermen in Maritime Canada were forced to abandon the sea and started spending way too much time in the entirely female space of their homes. Near as I can tell, nothing I did contributed much to Bestor’s own work, but I am mentioned along with dozens of other research assistants in his ethnography, Tsukiji.
* * * * *
As soon as you enter the gates of Tsukiji, you have one thought: I am going to die, or at least be paralyzed. There will be some sort of grisly accident involving you and a speeding fish courier. The streets of the Tsukiji neighborhood are reasonably quiet at 6 am, but inside all is chaos, for the visitor at least. In truth, it is highly choreographed, workers focused on their tasks of zipping around on motorized carts laden with seafood, packaged and destined for one of the hundreds of loading dock spots where trucks wait to take them closer to their final destination. At intersections and while crossing aisles and streets within Tsukiji, these drivers have no interest in your curiosity about the inner market. To get there, you can play a game of fish market Frogger, but at your own risk. They don't care one way or the other.
I mentioned the inner market. That's because Tsukiji is organized into four basic parts: the outer market, which is essentially retail, an inner wholesale market, auction houses, and loading areas and delivery byways that occupy any and all spaces in between. The easiest way to give you a sense of how things work at Tsukiji would be to follow the route of the fish themselves. The king of those fish is the tuna. They are huge in bulk and fetch huge prices, thousands of dollars for the finest catches of the day. Lucky for me, they are also the most photogenic.
All of the seafood get an early start. Though it is on the water, Tsukiji's present location is more of a historical legacy than the result of logistical strategy. Fishing fleets do not dock at the market, but elsewhere in the Tokyo area where the fish are offloaded into trucks to arrive at the market hours before dawn.
The tuna, when they arrive at Tsukiji, are brought into one of the market's six auction houses. The houses are no Southeby's, rather they are basically giant fish hangars that serve as the inner arc on the bayside of the market. Once they are taken off the trucks and laid out, frozen solid on the auction house floor, a small piece of skin is cut off below the head so that buyers can inspect the quality of the meat as the inspect the day's catch. What they look for in a top-notch fish is a mystery to me, but that judgment can affect prices around the world.
Though we arrived at 6 am, the auctioning was in its final moments. Still it was impressive: a cement floor covered with these frozen torpedoes that created a low-lying fog. There is a faint resemblance other trading floors: many buyers wear hats that indicate who they are buying for and auctions are conducted with their own inscrutable set of symbols. Each takes less than 30 seconds. There are, after all, a lot of tuna to get to.
Once a tuna is sold, it is marked with a read paint...
...and loaded on those motorized carts whose main purpose is to deliver the fish to trucks or to vendors in the wholesale market. Running down tourists is only a secondary function.
Some of the tuna go onto waiting trucks for destinations unknown, some to other markets throughout Japan, but others will head to Narita Airport to be flown overseas. A number of tuna stay behind, to be expertly sliced and diced for purchase within the wholesale market by retail fish mongers, chefs, or even just ordinary citizens of Tokyo looking for the freshest of the fresh.
The slicing and dicing may be expert, but not at all dainty. Some of the giant fish, being still frozen, are buzzed into cudgel-sized wedges with band saws. The tuna are defrosted and are carved into deep red hunks using two-foot-long knives. As the knivesmen go about their business, most ignore the tourists and prefer to concentrate on retaining all of their fingers. Others take not of your camera and give you a look that lets you know that the difference between filleting a fish and an American is negligible. You move on.
It takes no time at all for the tuna to go from fish-shaped to something we are more familiar with. There are somewhere around 1700 wholesalers in the market. Among those dealing in tuna, some offer only bulk for other mongers and restaurateurs and others prepare smaller portions ready for searing or sushi.
Typical retail market streets are not only crowded, physically and visually, but are cacophonous with sales pitches and blaring speakers, not to mention those chatty shoppers. At Tsukiji, there are no hawkers, no eager sellers giving you spiels and samples to get them into your stalls.
With all of the competition, you would think that there might be motivated selling, but Bestor's ethnography (not to mention my previous blog post) may give some clue as to why it's unnecessary. Like other business transactions in Japan, many of the sales are relationship-based. The wholesale businesses are often family affairs, with the men up front and the women at small booths in the back of each stall handling the money. Some of these businesses go back generations and long-term connections take precedence over browsing on price. In fact, shopping for the best deal is no easy feat. There are no prices posted, they are actually contingent on the relationships. Regular customers get better prices, prices that are complete opaque to browsers because they are often hashed out in code. The code is also explained in Bestor's book, if you want to try to fake it.
There are two really fun aspects of markets for me. One is the commerce and, as I've tried to convey, that is manic. Then there is the array of wares. Though hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of seafood move through Tsukiji, most vendors only offer a handful, some only one. Some are familiar (stacks of whole fish), some are more exotic (geoducks always look exotic to me), and some are just gruesome (conger eels swimming in water bloodied by their already-filleted brethren). Allow me to offer my pictures....Oh, and it didn't smell fishy at all.**
*As a side note, the Downeaster Alexa was Joel’s boat named after his daughter with Christie Brinkley. I once saw the DA, in dry dock, probably awaiting its fate during Joel’s and Brinkley’s then-ongoing divorce.
**One of my favorite quotes about how fish should really smell is from an interview with Jethro Tull frontman, Ian Anderson. Anderson was discussing his salmon farm in a radio interview. He said fish do not smell at all. They should smell like the sea, "like a mermaid's armpit."