Friday, May 1, 2020

Food Blog or Not?

Okay, apparently there's been some confusion. From the giddy-up, re: this blog, food has been a vehicle for a writing blog. Period. I'm sure that I made that clear early on. I hope that this, FINALLY, clears this up. Recipe Not Included.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Hey Everybody!

I've been battling with the finicky Gods of sourdough starter, and the mischievous daemons of ruination have plagued my efforts to create the allusive Perfect Loaf.

My friend Lu3ke will complain that this is yet another "process story" (my words, not his) in which the author of a food blog rambles endlessly with color commentary, sometimes for entire screens full. "It was springtime, and the orange blossoms... blah de blah... you could smell cut grass in the air."

We get it, you're rich and you live in the country.

I will admit to sometimes allowing such floral prose to wash over me as I languidly turn one glossy page of an issue of Saveur (rest in power) or Wine Spectator over – precise, tony fonts, color corrected panoramas, lurid close-ups of sun-dripped chardonnay grapes and white people in Ralph Lauren summer casual.

But I am also sympathetic to Lu3ke's rage and understand the absurdity of the food porn industrial complex.

That said Chowbacca has not been a food blog, at least in my estimation, for some time.

If anything, it has always been an anti-food blog. Larry, the founder of this project, created the tag line "We have knives, don't call us foodies."

This is an expression of disdain more than a menace, but I suppose it is a little threatening. That is the perspective that I lacked when this project began, more than eight years ago. Wisdom and age have led our founder and fearless leader to adopt a less menacing tagline: "Play with your food." That seems much more germane to the spirit of this blog.

Instead of harping on the meta-subject of unnecessary wordage on food blogs ("just get to the damn recipe!") – which, again, this is not – I will return to the subject of sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter does not grow on trees* – except of course when it does, as is the case in San Francisco during these strange days of self-imposed (if not frustratingly loosely enforced) isolation due to the novel Coronavirus.

"Communal Tins of Sourdough Starter Are Popping Up In Trees In San Francisco."

I have not encountered any, but I attempted and repeatedly failed to spontaneously foment my own.

My first attempt involved bananas, sugar and water poured into an empty handle of Kirkland Vodka (don't judge, these are trying times – and any trip to Costco is fraught with perils both real and existential). After several days of this failing to "catch" I pitched in a small amount of instant dry.

After a few more days and little sign of activity, I saved about of cup of the liquid and poured the rest down the drain.

I fed that flour, sugar, and added water, but the solution was still disappointingly lethargic.

After again cheating the starter with more instant dry, I was able to pull off a couple of decent loaves: a ham-fisted attempt at ciabatta using the no-knead method, and focaccia with quick-pickled shallot.

Every few days I would pour the fluid that would settle on the top into a large bottle of Bragg's Cider Vinegar (the original cider vinegar had long since been supplanted by left-over beer and some organic fruit juices which had nicely turned with help from the SCOBY - a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).

I would re-water and feed this starter, but it remained frustratingly inert.

I made homemade pizza, which involved a bit of archeology locating and digging up my pizza stone and peel after almost a decade of disuse.

More cheating with a small amount of active dry, enough to make a passable dough with a barely lifted crumb, but not to my expectations.

Next, I attempted a more traditional loaf, which I may have over-proofed, then ended up being dense as a brick, with one or two inexplicably large air pockets in the otherwise impenetrable crumb.

In a fit of pique, I dumped 2/3rd of the besotted solution into a large Pyrex bowl and resigned myself to make lemonade of the lemon that was my sourdough starter in the form of sourdough johnnycakes (pictured above).

I may now have to chuck the whole thing and start over.

However, I will have plenty of some kind of kvass-slash-shrub that will hopefully convert fully into vinegar in the coming weeks.

And now, just to risk summoning the ire of Lu3ke, a sort of recipe:

It's not really a recipe and I eyeballed every bit of it.

If you've ever made pancakes from scratch, or better still, sourdough pancakes, you will be familiar with the make-up and ratio of wet and dry ingredients, the desired consistency of the batter, the appropriate resting time for the batter's wet phase to integrate with the dry.

Start with that set of ingredients, halve the baking soda, replace about 1/3rd of the flour with fine cornmeal, and you have your basic johnnycake batter.

I know - a true johnnycake is really just fried cornbread which would contain little to no all-purpose flour.

Perhaps a better descriptor for what I made that morning is a corny pancake.

I added two finely chopped green onions and a heaping fist full of shredded cheese and fried those suckers up in bacon fat.


* Yeast can and does grow on trees, and particularly on fruit-bearing trees. The microbe we use to make bread and beer is attracted to sugar primarily and will thrive in any environment where that can be found. One method for starting a starter involves wrapping organic grapes in cheesecloth and submerging this in filtered water – this stuff from the tap may be a hostile environment for microbes, which is probably my mistake in the first damn place. When the bunch of grapes begins to bubble and float then you are in business. I may try this next.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Rails Across America - Part Four: Lakeshore Limited to Albany

Leaving Cleveland.

"A picture tells a thousand words," as the saying goes.

If I wrote a million words, I couldn't begin to capture everything in the above photo.

I am facing east, dawn in Cleveland is breaking. The sun reflects off untold numbers of tiny ice crystals suspended high above me, relative to my position, in the thin atmosphere of the earth, relative to the sun and the moon.

An airplane is hurtling in a seemingly straight line high above me leaving a trail of water vapor – the exhaust of kerosene burning up.

Some people see this and are confounded by the mystery of it. I am. Some people see something they can't quite come to terms with, and they make up stories.

Chemtrails. What are they spraying? How can this be?

But turn on your oven or stove and it is no more mysterious than combustible gas turns into carbon dioxide and water vapor. That wave of humidity when you open a preheated oven is those two things escaping, rising up, passing your face.

Think of the hours and effort and sweat and blood that was put into developing the light-bulb, the red-tinted plastic coating for the brake lights of the car pictured driving away. The automobile is a wonder in and of itself, yet it is a technology that is 150 years old – internal combustion – built of metal and plastic, fueled by the long since putrefied remains of plants and animals that died hundreds of millions of years ago.

It is a wonderful thing that I, right here in this very moment, am typing on a plastic and metal keyboard sending radio signals to my nearby computer on a glass and metal table suspended more than a dozen feet above the ground on a floor made of planks of wood, cut and milled and assembled by people who built the house I live in.

A very clever protein molecule indeed... a very clever molecule was formed and copied itself over and over and over and over and over a sextillion times, over billions of years. A very clever molecule built a fortress around itself, protecting itself from the harsh primordial earth. First, it trapped carbon and other gasses. When it was safe, it began to breathe in oxygen. It formed teams. Those teams built organisms more and more complex.

Think of scale. A billion years, three hundred and sixty-five billion sunrises and sunsets. The very first day that deoxyribonucleic acid came to be it copied itself perhaps dozens of times. Maybe more. Maybe millions of times. On the seventh day, billions. Billions of clever little molecules reproducing itself each day, eventually each hour, each second. That's the first year for this clever little molecule.

A sextillion or more mistakes were made. Some of the mistakes ended in failure. Those mistakes able to replicate themselves became ever more and more complex. Algae, fungus, plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, primates, humans.

Eventually, that clever molecule wrote the Eroica. It painted the Sistine Chapel. It built pyramids. It fought to free the slaves, it fought for women's suffrage. It waged war, it held "peace-ins." It came together, and often it fell apart.

In the distance, we see the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, a museum that exists because a white disc jockey in Cleveland coined the term to describe the music that was rooted in the aftermath of the shameful stain of slavery in this country: the music of and for black Americans.

I sit here today because of a very clever molecule – an anthropomorphism for a chain of dumbly self-replicating proteins.

But what is given will also betray.

The same chain of proteins that gives me life, and movies to watch and music to listen to and a house in which I can live, will also kill.

That is what cancer is: the betrayal of the very thing that makes us "us". Our genetic code gone horribly awry.

The sun has risen more than one trillion, four hundred and sixty billion times on the horizon of this earth, but for each of us, it will only come and go several thousand times or so times at most. For B, the sun rose a little over fifteen thousand times.

I know this is a huge downer. I promise the next installment will be a little more fun. I'm still processing losing my oldest friend.

Here are some random photos from the train ride from Cleveland to Albany. There's not much to say here. I either slept or drank on the train and ate shitty cafeteria food from the cafe car.

I wish I could say more about Erie or any of the other cities between Cleveland and Albany but honestly, I know nothing about them.

Next up, Bolton Landing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Rails Across America - Part Three: The Lakeshore Limited to Cleveland (and Fuck Cancer)

The 48 Eastbound Lakeshore Limited rolls out of Union Station in Chicago at 21:30 hours, assuming it's running on time.

Generally, it is.

Unlike the California Zephyr, there aren't major weather obstructions like avalanches on the tracks, nor contention with commercial freight.

The "right of way" is a term I learned about watching an excellent independent film called "The Station Agent" starring an at the time unknown actor named Peter Dinklage.

In 2003, when the film was released, I was not the train nerd I am today, but I credit the film for nudging me in the direction of taking an interest in travel by rail.

Of course, I had traveled on Amtrak before.

That's a story I want to get to later, as it involves a rather extensive cast of characters and mise en scene.

The Zephyr, my friend Scott warned me, oftentimes finds itself side-railed – sometimes for hours, sometimes, according to Scott, in tunnels inside mountains – to allow commercial freight to pass.

If everything is working to plan, however, the 48 Eastbound rolls into Cleveland at 5:38 in the morning.

On June 6th, 2018, sunrise was 5:54 in the morning.

Looking north, you can see First Energy Stadium, or as the locals call it, Browns Stadium. "Factory of Sadness" is also the unofficial moniker for the venue, a place where one can reliably expect the local NFL franchise to lose any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday during the football season.

Northeast is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which I am steadfastly refusing to ever set foot in until they induct singer and songwriter Warren Zevon.

That's another story, another cast of characters and pages of mise en scene.

It's June 6th, 2018. I am in Cleveland. Father's day is just over a week and a half away, but my dad does not even know I am in town – I want to surprise him.

I will check myself into my faithful standby hotel, the Downtown Cleveland Hilton Garden Inn. If you are sitting in the hot tub at the Garden Inn, you have a view of the parking lot and the inner-belt freeway exchange where Interstate 77 and Interstate 90 meet. Just south of that is a wasteland that stands as a sort of stark reminder or memento mori of Cleveland's past industrial prowess as a steel town.

In the next 72 hours, I will receive news of death and near death.

This was the second to the last time I saw Mary Owen alive. She passed away last spring. I miss her and love her.
I saw Mary Owen alive one more time after this visit to Cleveland.

It was the Dinosaur Jr. show at The Grog Shop, and she was wheelchair-bound.

She died in the spring of 2019.

The Grog Shop holds about 450 people. Let's say for legal reasons that the attendance was exactly 450 and not a person more for Dinosaur Jr.

Mary's boyfriend helped her get close to the stage, where she remained for the rest of the show. I saw her on the way out afterward, gave her a kiss on the forehead, and never saw her again.

I will never kiss Mary Owen's forehead ever again.

The crowd was thick. I knew Lou Barlow had been invited back into the lineup by J Mascis. Lou even sang a couple of songs. For the entire time they played, I barely got a glimpse of Barlow (the mastermind behind Sebadoh and Folk Implosion).

It was as if he wasn't really there.

Midway through my train ride from Emeryville to Grand Central, I had another penultimate encounter with the condemned.

"B's not doing well," said a friend of mine in California.

"You might want to book the next flight you can... if you want to see him again," came the text from a mutual friend.

B's little brother N insisted weeks earlier at the end of May that I head out on the train trip I had planned. Hopeful words were said about chemotherapy and other treatments. We would wait and see. Perhaps there would be a miracle.

"B is in the ICU," word had come from N, and I knew that I did, in fact, need to book the next flight out.

My grandfather on my dad's side died before I was born. My grandmother on my dad's side was the first grandparent to pass away. Pneumonia. Complications from a hip replacement resulting in a weakened immune system.

Next, it was my grandmother on my mother's side. Cancer.

My grandfather on my mother's side eventually remarried; his spouse a widow from his church. Someone to keep you company, someone to talk to. Imagine my grandfather's loss after more than 50 years of marriage to my grandmother.

He was the last to die, cancer as well.

B had cancer, and no matter what spit shine we tried to put on it, it was terminal. B was diagnosed, and not expected to see Independence Day.

No preparation in the world can ready a person to see someone in the throes of cancer-related illness.

B was an athlete, even if I didn't play any sport in particular. He was the most physically fit person I had ever known. Until his body betrayed him.

I landed in San Francisco, dropped my bags off at my apartment and didn't say a word to my roommate about why I was there. 

B's condition was what they call in the journalism community "on quarantine."

I went to San Francisco General Hospital and made my way to his room.

While in flight, B's condition had improved. When he was admitted to the ICU, he was put on 24-hour dialysis. 

Just before I landed, the doctors were able to take him off dialysis. His body had recovered just enough to allow his kidneys to work on their own.

B is immortalized in a manner of speaking by posing as a photo reference for my former roommate Marty Egeland, who at one time was the illustrator for DC Comics Aquaman.

Perhaps the photo doesn't exist anymore. Or perhaps it is stuffed away in a box. It's B, sitting in a chair as if bound by ropes, in a pose that would grace the cover of an issue of Aquaman.

No disrespect to Jason Momoa, but B was Aquaman first. In his peak, B had the physique of a Hollywood leading man.

In his hospital room, he was jaundiced and slight. His head, normally shaved, had a stubble of grey and white hair. His ankles were swollen with edema.

I could tell B was uneasy with his frail appearance, as if his body were under his control.

His brother N, his mother and father, long ago divorced, myself and a few friends gave him an uncomfortable audience.

Regardless, B still cracked jokes and seemed in good spirits.

A few months later I spent some time with him at his home, with his mother, grandmother and N.

B was starting to look like his old self again. His skin color was back to normal, he'd gained weight, his head freshly shaved.

The jokes came faster, with a darker tinge, but we all had a laugh. But B tired easily, still, in between aggressive chemotherapy sessions. The tumors in his lungs and pancreas had all but retreated, leaving a few troubling tumors in his liver.

I had tried to see him a few times after, but his treatments were taking a toll and he never had the energy for guests or excursions.

On June 14th, 2019, he passed peacefully surrounded by family.

B (left) was taken from us by cancer this last summer. Jesse (right) was taken from us ten years ago in September. Cancer. Fuck cancer.

When I go home to Cleveland I often split my time staying at my dad and stepmom's house and in hotels. My dad's house is in the Historic Euclid Golf District of Cleveland Heights, just west of Coventry Road and north of North Park. The street he lives on is named Colchester, which is also a town in Essex England.

Many of the streets in Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Shaker Heights are named for towns or landlords from Britain and Scotland, others are named after foliage (Maple Drive, Buckeye Road, Fernway, Cedar, etc).

As a teenager, I would often set off on foot to make the roughly three-mile trek from my home on Parkland Drive down South Park, crossing Shaker Boulevard, past the Shaker Heights Nature Center onto North Park. Mansions lined the north side of the street, and a man-made pond called the Lower Shaker Lake was on the south side. North Park eventually runs into Coventry Road, where I would turn north and continue marching. I would cross Fairmont Boulevard, then Cedar Road with its clear view facing west of the Terminal Tower in downtown Cleveland, and continue until I reached Euclid Heights Boulevard.

The intersection of Coventry Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard was the epicenter for misfit teenagers, cranky intellectuals, caffeine addicts, punks, skaters and stoners. Here was Cleveland's very own version of Haight-Ashbury.

If you continue northbound on Coventry you will reach Mayfield Road, where, if you take a left heading west, you will reach the southern entrance of Lake View Cemetery.

I try not to be superstitious, but if ever there was a magical place charged with a certain kind of energy, the area known as Coventry Village is certainly one such place.

Alex Alvarez, left, local artist, singer-songwriter, caregiver, all-around good guy.

Instead of staying with my dad and stepmother, upon arrival by the Lakeshore Limited into Cleveland I figured I'd give myself some respite, some "me time", at Cleveland's less-than-glamorous Hilton Garden Inn.

Hilton recently built a new, modern, state of the art hotel close to the Lake Erie shore complete with a 36th-floor lounge and outdoor patio offering views of downtown Cleveland, First Energy (Brown's) Stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, designed by famous modernist architect I. M. Pei. This Hilton is also much closer to the Amtrak Station.

I've stayed there as well, as hotels go, it's pretty nice.

My affection will always be with the Garden Inn, however, despite the fact that the hotel abuts the spaghetti-like collision of Interstates 90 and 77. It is a tangle of raised concrete that would warm the homesick heart of folks from Los Angeles where road pasta is elevated to a loved and hated art form.

Due south of I-77 is a stretch of land built on the swampland surrounding the Cuyahoga of mostly shuttered steel mills and refineries. Here is a stark reminder of Cleveland's glorious industrial past, a barely still animated memento mori belching sulfur into the air and lighting up the skyline at night with smoke-stacks burning off kerosene.

Caddy-corner northwest of the hotel is Progressive Field, known to most locals my age or older as "The Jake" after its original name "Jacob's Field."

North of the hotel, protected by a row of red brick buildings, is the Erie Street Cemetery.

I think I'm safe in my hotel womb.
I was sent to my room a lot as a child for punishment, and I wonder if that didn't enure me with a sense of comfort in solitude.

I know folks who would be punished by being made to fight their siblings. Those were the people I'd have to drag away from some imagined slight late night at various bars before they got into real trouble.

I lived with a guy who had gone to prison on a drug offense – pot – if you tried to wake him, he'd wake up swinging. When his mother would come visit our apartment, she would wake him by poking his feet with a broomstick. She knew he'd come out guns blazing.

My punishment was emotional isolation and abandonment.

I fought with my siblings plenty of times, but not the way the person I know who was forced to fight theirs. 

Between the three of us, I'm not sure who is the more of a danger to those around them.

Sometimes I think it is me.

I sneak up and harm people without knowing I'm even doing it.

...And when the rage inside of me is released, it rages uncontrollably. 

That's maybe why I like the solace of a hotel room as much as I do.

A friend told me "we're done with Tony Bourdain," as if to put a period on a sentence that required a semi-colon.

I want to talk about Bourdain a little more, and the when and where I learned about his suicide, and the other things that were pressing on my mind that week.

On this day, chef and author Tony Bourdain took his life. So, what better way to memorialize the man and his legacy than eating some delicious charcuterie.

Goodyear Tire Company headquarters is Akron, Ohio, about 40 miles south-east of Progressive Field. A dirigibles expert in the US Navy in World War II, my grandfather went on to work for Goodyear after the war, and like those of his generation, retired having never left the same company; a company man. If Cleveland was a steel town, Akron is a rubber town. In fact, Akron (industrially speaking), is the rubber capital of the world. Goodyear's affection to blimps, I suspect, might have something to do with my grandfather's enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm of his peers for a vehicle that even at the time of the Second World War was a bit of an anachronism.

The Dan Rogan Memorial V.I.P.'s Only Bathroom, Grog Shop, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Dan was taken from us several years ago. Cancer. Fuck cancer.

Breakfast on the plane, which Tony Bourdain notable hated, on my way to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital's Intensive Care Unit.