Monday, April 22, 2019

Bentonville, Arkansas

Dedicated with love to the memory of Mary Owen...
And to Zeus, who was the best boy.

I went to the city that is home to Walmart corporate headquarters, Bentonville, Arkansas.

On a lark.

Zeus, who is a good boy (most of the time). RIP.

Northwest Arkansas, riparian sedimentary terrain and deciduous vegetation. 
Why am I in Arkansas?

I asked myself the same thing as the Embraer commuter jet touched down at Northwestern Arkansas Regional Airport, known by its call-sign XNA.

The answer to that question goes back to the middle 1990s, and my guilt toward generally being a prick to everyone I encountered online in a nascent global internet, well before there was such a thing as the "world wide web". Even the term "world wide web" is an anachronism these days, as is its abbreviation "www", frequently dropped altogether from addresses printed on business cards or writ large on billboards on the sides of buildings or next to the freeway.

Before the web, there were a number of entirely text based venues to interact with the few thousand people on the internet. Instead of Facebook, folks hashed out their arguments in threaded debates on Usenet. Users had multiple avenues to chat in real time, often requiring users to be logged into the same host, usually a Unix box sitting in an office somewhere at a university – old timers will remember tools like "wall", "talk" or "ytalk", and their many cousins.

The real fun was to be had using internet relay chat, or "irc". Kids these days would recognise distinct similarities between IRC and its modern day incarnation, Slack.

Slack. Fucking IRC for the web, for smartphones. How it never occurred to me to take IRC and make it an app, ... let's just say I'll never forgive myself. Slack is now valued at almost eleven figures.

Before Slack, before Google, before billion-dollar IPOs, back when Silicon Valley was just recently chopped down fruit orchards that had been repurposed for integrated circuit design and manufacturing at the height of the Cold War and not yet a comedy series on HBO, the internet was the realm of a few very geeky pioneers. The internet was a collaboration of the US military and academic community, whose original charter was the creation of a digital communications network that could withstand nuclear war.

History will show that the greatest threat to that nascent global network wasn't the Soviets, but bored teenagers.

I got onto the internet around the end of 1992, when most of the infrastructure and governance was split between the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Defence Advanced Projects Research Administration (ARPA).

Making what could be an exceedingly long story short, I applied for and was granted my own domain name for free from the Defence Department's Network Information Center – the now defunct "nic.ddn.mil".

For a 17 year old, this was true power, and I was drunk with it. To my underdeveloped teenage brain, this was enough coverage to abuse faceless strangers on "irc" (and to be mercilessly abused by others). That's how I encountered the radiant Amity, then a tender 15 years old, for the first time.

Of course, I had no idea that she was radiant, or even a she, at the time. How could I? All we were to each other, myself, Amity, and an army of disaffected malcontent youths, were just words glowing on a CRT screen: fixed-width, green or amber on a black background.

Between the winter of 1992 and the spring of 1997 volumes of incandescent text scrolled past spelling out the greatest soap opera never to be seen by more than several dozen teenagers and the FBI agents whose grim task was to catalog every mercurial spat into each of our respective permanent records.

When I finally met Amity in person, in the early aughts, it became apparent that I was gravely mistaken if I ever suspected her of actually being a bored teenage boy pretending to be a hot girl. And one of the first things she told me was, "you were so mean to me!"

In spite of all of that IRC nonsense, we became close friends. We often relied on one another for support and encouragement even though we rarely saw one another in person.

I had let her down recently, and that's how she was able to guilt me, defenceless and under the influence, to fly across the country into enemy territory to redeem myself.












Rounding out an afternoon into evening of pub-crawling through "downtown" Bentonville, we arrived at Tusk and Trotter for dinner.

The architecture of 110 Southeast A Street, where Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie is located, belies its original purpose: general office and warehousing for Sam Walton, red brick and utilitarian. Walton, you will find, touches nearly every brick and mortar property near Bentonville Town Square. The restaurant lays faux authenticity,  chic in modern American casual dining, on in thick exaggerated strokes: Walton's warehouse door, itself fashioned to look like the giant sliding door of a barn, is repurposed here to partition the bar, kitchen and dining room. The concrete floors have been washed with acid, and coated with shellac, as have the tables, perhaps made of reclaimed wood. A mural illustrates the standard English primal cuts of pork. There are custom made fixtures, and perhaps, although I did not look close enough, hand blown incandescent light bulbs. "Authentic! Artisan! Farm to Table!" screams the decor, set against exposed support columns and an unfinished 30' industrial ceiling. What was, and what could be, is the promise of Tusk & Trotter.

It is the promise of Bentonville, Arkansas, "a New American Town."

I was lured by the promise of pig's ears nachos, a decidedly Portland (Oregon) sounding appetiser in the middle of what was maybe only a decade ago the least Portland-like city in America: Sam Walton's own time capsule only recently broken open and dressed up out of necessity to attract a new kind of worker to this "company town".

I whiffed my chance to try the nachos, and I regret having done so, but I had been steadily noshing on haute pub snacks since early afternoon, in addition to a few heavy local ales, which had a dampening effect on my appetite. I did the math in my head and figured I could eat half and entrée, and take the rest back to the house of my host for the weekend.

Unfortunately this ended up being a strikeout for me, swinging and missing with my entrée choice of local bison strip steak ("...everything here is farm to table..." assured our server).

I ordered the steak rare to mid-rare but came out closer to mid-well. The steak, my host's appetiser-as-entrée of bone marrow, pork belly and pig's cheeks and the slab of BBQ ribs that her partner ordered were all salted within inches of their lives. To my palette the ribs were also too dry, and I imagined that the shortcomings of the preparation suggested a story of multiple failures happening in series, leading to one catastrophic end result: too aggressive a dry rub when brining would have been better, pre-cooked too far ahead of time and perhaps improperly stored after the initial cooking to exacerbate the dryness of the rib meat, too much salt added to the BBQ sauce in the early stages resulting in a concentrated salty mess, and finally the failure of each one of the cooks and the chef to taste it before putting the ribs on the pass.

The first "Five and Dime" owned by Sam Walton in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The statue at the center of Bentonville Town Square commemorates Governor James Henderson Berry of Benton County, a former infantryman for the 16th Arkansas Infantry Regiment which fought for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. This statue depicts the governor as a soldier in full Confederate Regalia. Unsurprisingly, some controversy surrounds this memorial, and many would like to see the statue replaced.

The bar at the Pressroom in Bentonville.

Hush puppies.

A roast porchetta sandwich. Unlike the food at Tusk & Trotter, the roast could have benefited with some more aggressive seasoning. Missing was the citrus and herbal notes one expects from this classic preparation of pork loin. The cauliflower would have benefitted from a hit of lemon, Meyer lemon or perhaps cider vinegar.

Drinks at Scotch and Soda in Bentonville.

This glass is way too fancy for the John Powers "Gold" Irish Whisky within.

Scotch and Soda
It is worth mentioning that if I got any kind of "gay" vibe in Bentonville, that vibe strongly emerged from the various service industry workers employed by these new restaurants and bars that were now dotting the landscape of the greater Bentonville and Rogers area.

Despite the claims to the contrary by various homophobic regimes (Iran, modern Russia, the former governor of Indiana), the queer community exists everywhere you look.

Hospitality and restaurant work has been a traditional refuge for "friends of mary", and Bentonville – a town which has strong ties to the Confederate South and to various stripes of extreme religious communities (for instance the Church of Latter-Day Saints, of which Sam Walton was a member) – is no exception.


John Ritter, may he rest in peace, might have been encouraged by the societal changes that have taken place since "Sling Blade" was filmed. I was certainly encouraged touring Bentonville and Rogers.

I witnessed servers and cooks who made no attempt to disguise the fact of who they were in a part of the country where doing so still requires an act of personal bravery.




Corned beef, sliced into a steak, and grilled, over braised cabbage and potatoes for St. Patrick's Day, at Levi's Gastropub and Low Bar.

I was hoping they'd cover The Pogues, which Amity hates.
Each time I attempted to pay for dinner, I was outgunned. Either Amity or her partner would whip out their credit cards before I could shove mine into the hands of a server, insisting that I not pay for anything.

I grew tired of this, and decided if I can't pay for dinner, I can go a step farther and simply make dinner.










Dinner

Beef shanks braised in wine with shallot, Dijon mustard, celery, carrots and fresh dill

A typical slow braise. First, you salt the meat, then sear it to get a bit of the maillard reaction going, then set those aside to arrange your aromatics in the pan: celery, carrots, shallots. I rubbed a generous amount of Dijon mustard all over the meat, returned them to the pan, poured in my braising liquid, covered them and put the whole works in the oven at about 275ºF for several hours.

Bone-in ribeye steak, prepared using the cold-hot method

Sometimes called a "reverse sear". Take the meat out of the fridge and salt both sides. Let the meat come to as close to room temperature as you can – this can take more than an hour depending on the size and thickness of the steaks. Put the steaks in an oven that is set to a low temperature, for instance, 250ºF, just long enough to see the outside of the meat just starting to become grey and exude liquid (the liquid being the interstitial fluid and myoglobin from the muscle cells that have began to lyse). This takes some practice. Over cook the meat at this point and the game is over. The steak should be soft to the touch, and warm but not hot. Remove the steak and set aside, placing the pan (preferably a big cast iron) on your stove to get as hot as possible. At this point I like to give the steaks a nice rub down in oil or bacon fat, or any fat you like that has a high smoke point. Open all your windows and turn the stove top fan all the way up. Whichever side was up when you had the steak in the oven will go down on the hot pan. That's your "presentation side". You're going to cook that side in hot fat until there is a nice, crispy, brown crust on the steak and the whole steak is roughly 60% done, then you flip, and you pull the steak off about 20% short of what your intended doneness is going to be. This takes practice. Remember: you can fix an undercooked steak, but you can't fix an overcooked steak. The meat will continue to cook for several minutes after you have taken them off the heat – a phenomenon called "carry over cooking." Resting the steaks for several minutes will ensure that residual heat will be more evenly distributed and the juices will have an opportunity to settle.

Steamed asparagus

Another technique that sounds easier than it actually is and requires a modicum of finesse and attention. I will trim an average sized bunch of asparagus that you might find at your local supermarket, removing the woody part of the stems, so they are a uniform length that can fit into a 9" or 10" sautée pan. The pan should go over medium high heat. Add a tablespoon of butter, pinch of salt and a few tablespoons of water – probably just short of 1/4 cup – and put a lid on the whole works until you have a nice rapid simmer going. After a three or four minutes, take the lid off, check for doneness and color, and boil off the most of the rest of the water to form an emulsion of cooking liquid and butter. The whole process from when you put the pan on the stove to when you take it off should be about 10 minutes. Your asparagus should be a nice bright green, with just a little resistance when you pierce with a fork.

Boston Bibb lettuce salad with marinated carrots, radishes and asparagus in a dill cream dressing

I used a vegetable peeler to cut thin strips of carrot, then thinly sliced the radishes and asparagus by hand. I placed the vegetables in a bowl with a good pinch of salt, a dash of rice vinegar and a few pinches of fresh chopped dill. This I set aside as I tore off the lettuce and dried in a clean dish towel. The salad dressing was prepared in a chilled mixing bowl: two tablespoons of cold whipping cream, salt, pepper, a brunois of shallot, finely chopped dill. I whipped with a small whisk until the cream was a frothy soft peak – just enough to hold its position loosely when the whisk was pulled out. I removed the marinating vegetables, discarding any excess liquid, and hand tossed them in the dressing with the lettuce.

Sugar cookies dipped in chocolate ganache with vanilla bean ice cream

This recipe uses one of the few cool tricks you can do with a microwave. Add a cup of bittersweet chocolate chips plus a tablespoon of maple syrup to a microwave safe bowl and zap for 45 seconds on high. You should now be able to stir the chips together, but if there are unmelted bits, simply zap for another 20 or so seconds. Add a cap full of good vanilla extract and a quarter cup of heavy whipping cream. Blend with a spoon. Now you have milk chocolate ganache.

Dip anything you want into this and then place on a cookie sheet that has been lined with lightly oiled wax or parchment paper (or a silicon mat). Refrigerate until chocolate sets, usually at least an hour.

The radiant Amity hunting Pokémon in an Indian restaurant in Bentonville.
Hot take: the Indian food in Bentonville, Arkansas is really great.

Like, London great. Milpitas great. South Bay great.

For my last dinner in Bentonville before going back to my liberal, socialist bubble I decided I would treat my hosts to Indian take-away. This plan was hatched days before when I first arrived and my host was giving me the lay of the land in this "company town".

In addition to Walmart's main corporate campus, the company recently built out The David Glass Building, a technology-only center just down the road to house a datacenter, various IT engineering departments and probably some of walmart.com and all that comes with it. Walmart.com was previously entirely in San Bruno, California just south of San Francisco.

India has been at the forefront of exporting technical expertise and technical labor for over 30 years, outpacing the Chinese, former Soviet Republics or South America (oddly, Colombia is a big exporter of tech labor).

Where there is tech, there will be Indians. As far as I am concerned, to quote Martha Stewart, this is a "good thing."

That is because where there are Indians, there is Indian food.

The Indian food in the Bay Area, where I live, is overwhelmingly northern in style. Colleagues of mine from southern India and Bangladesh have often lamented this fact to me. During my years at Microsoft and Yahoo, either company would often put on an elaborate Diwali celebration, and often special dishes and desserts from southern India would be featured around that time of year.

Bawarchi Biryani is located on the outskirts of a seemingly endless stretch of commercial property and malls in Bentonville. "In Ohio, we would have passed through six suburbs already going the same distance," I mentioned to my host as we drove 30 minutes away to pick up dinner.

The menu features a dizzying blend of Indo-Chinese fare, but I believe their hearts are in south India, judging from variety of idli, vada, uthappan and dosa. Idli is a sort of savory rice cake, vada is a lentil donut, uthappan is a lentil flatbread and dosa is a fermented crepe.

I ordered a sambar idli, a sort of sour tomato stew, along with saag paneer, an uthappan, naan, fish stew, and a chicken appetiser to appease the pickiest eater among our group, my hosts' four year old son.

Whatever hijinks I got into last night, and I dimly recall watching Hap & Leonard until about four in the morning aided and abetted by a constant stream of VSS (vodka, soda, splash), were now expelling out of my pores. Most of what we ordered was merely mildly spicy, based on Bawarchi Biryani's heat scale. Caveat emptor.




I recently learned, to my dismay and chagrin, that an entire generation of my great-great grand uncles and cousins were named after Confederate generals and war heroes after the end of the Civil War.

More alarming, I recently learned, as did an unsuspecting majority of fellow US citizens, that in some very real and very scary ways the Civil War never really ended: it merely retreated, went to ground, dug in its heels and festered. In November of 2016, it finally boiled over like a boiling pot on the stove, dripping down the side of this melting pot and flaring up the fire from the burners below.

White men in the United States, especially in the post-Reconstruction South, in the heyday of the Jim Crow Era and the Ku Klux Klan, seemed to be particularly susceptible to suggestions that newly emancipated former slaves somehow posed a greater threat to their status and livelihood than the circling vultures of robber barons, gilded age oligarchs and political graft that would dominate the socio-political zeitgeist from President Grant all the way up to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When I posted an Instagram of me giving the Confederate Memorial in Bentonville an obscene finger gesture, it did not take long for some folks to take umbrage. Criticism ranged from lengthy explanations about how the Civil War was not about slavery but instead about Northern aggression against the Southern way of life, to the unpleasant things certain Instagram users were willing to do to me should they catch me "in their hometown."

After a few hours (yes, hours) of this barrage I decided it behooved me to archive the post rather than confront an onslaught of people who were on the continuum of being tragically misinformed to simply outright hostile. The experience was eye-opening but not entirely surprising, especially in an era where a sitting President of the United States cannot bring themself to openly condemn the scourge of white supremacy and white nationalist terrorism.

My aunt bought a home in Georgia, near where my late grandfather grew up.

She wrote me me, after the 2018 election, that she would likely never spend another election cycle in Georgia – her ideological opponents in the town my grandfather grew up in were too vituperative.

She has always strived to stay connected to our family roots: traveling to Alabama where her mother lived, traveling to my grandfather's ancestral origins in Scotland. She's an academic, and it's through her diligence that I learn about my origins – including the uncles and cousins named after war heroes of the losing side. One of my aunt's closest friends is a Civil War historian, and together we sojourned last summer to the cabin in which Ulysses S. Grant spent his last days, in upstate New York.

There, after the tour, she repeated the story of my grandfather rushing away from dinner one Friday night, after my grandmother had labored to put this family meal on the table, to bail an employee of his, an African-American truck driver, out of jail in southern Ohio. My grandfather understood the peril this man, his employee and thereby his responsibility, was in at the hands of corrupt cops who were almost assuredly also high ranking members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

The inconvenience for a man like my grandfather to leave his home to help is a minor sacrifice but infinitely more honorable to me than the cowardice of our current president to stand by and equivocate about the evils of racial injustice in the United States that clearly continues.

Under the current administration hatred, nationalism, and fear as a governing policy is not only unabated, but encouraged.

We can, and should, do better.

Maybe it starts with Indian food in Bentonville.

No comments:

Post a Comment