How to Get to Denver by Air Slower Than if You Had Driven
Soon after booking my classes and flight - I booked a Friday morning flight so I’d have a whole weekend to spend in the City before driving up to Hyde Park for class on Monday - my friend Keith, who is from New York, offers to go along, he can show me around and we can stay at his friend’s place in New Jersey. So, now I’ve got a native guide and a place to stay for the couple of days in NYC, things are looking good. A few of weeks before the trip I book my hotel in Hyde Park and begin buying the things I think I’ll need. The welcome letter from the school tells me that I’ll need white chef’s coats and black or checked pants for the production class, and “business casual” attire for the business class. I’m sure I know what business casual is, and I’m sure business casual in New Mexico and business casual in New York are two very, very different things. Here it means that your jeans are pressed and you don’t have fresh shit on your boots. I am also sure that I don’t have any NY business casual as anyone who knows me more than in passing knows that I don’t shop, in fact I hate to, my wardrobe consists of jeans and t-shirts and cargo shorts. Looking through my closet, I come up with two shirts that’ll work, and no pants, so a trip the store is in order. I also order chef’s coats and pants, since these garments are foreign in the Café Rio kitchens; a white cook’s shirt is as formal was we get, and a few odds and ends for my tool kit, in that, at least, I’m pretty much prepared. Then two of my knives go missing. My chef’s knife and my paring knife, both gifts, come up missing. To say that this pisses me off is understatement, but I borrow a chef’s knife from Keith and take a paring knife from work and I am set. The last couple of days I check and recheck my paperwork for the trip, making sure that every piece is where I think it is, pay bills for home and work, walk Brett through the Café’s minimal paperwork, sign a couple of checks and place some cash where the kids have access to it if they need it, double check their schedules, the work schedules, clean up my office and finally it is Thursday night and it is time to leave for Albuquerque. Keith had suggested driving up Thursday so that we wouldn’t have to leave by 4 am to catch our flights (he’s taking a different one), and getting a hotel close to the airport. This entire thing (Keith going at the same time) has given the crew a lot of entertainment. In the back kitchen is a chalk board the sole purpose of which is to provide a place for the Café Rio Top Ten List. From my first stint as a waiter nearly eight years ago the Top Ten lists have been posted there and everything is fair game: quitting, firing, marriage, divorce, birthdays, you name it. For the “Top Ten Reasons Eric’s Going to New York,” number seven was “Hookers” while number five was “Commitment Ceremony with Keith.” Funny, funny stuff. In between Top Tens the board sometimes hosts other pertinent notes, such as “No pissing outside,” and “Hobart 1 Brandon 0.” The drive up is uneventful except for near the beginning when, right outside of Carrizozo I end up behind a pickup pulling a stock trailer. When we get to the one stop light in town and I get close enough for my headlights to really show some detail I realize that the back gate is open and there is a horse in the trailer standing with legs locked in a cartoon-like pose of rigidity. I flash my lights as the pickup turns north and, surprisingly, the driver pulls over and stops and I let her know about the gate. This, I think, should keep me from dying in a plane wreck tomorrow. That’s how my mind works. Anyway, we get to Albuquerque, check into the hotel and drive downtown for dinner. Of course I insist that we eat at Asian Noodle Bar (see previous ABQ posts) and dinner is outstanding as ever and entertaining as the chef is doing sake shots with some regulars at the bar. The next morning starts off well enough, we’re running a little late but not too bad, but goes down hill fast. I have to park a flippin’ mile from the airport in long term parking because I’m too chicken shit to just leave my car at the hotel like Keith did. If I had just done that and taken the shuttle things would have been ok, but I didn’t. I get to the United check in and go to one of the automated terminals, punch in my numbers and receive a message that the plane has departed. A woman walks over immediately and tells me the same thing, “That flight has already departed.” “Why?” I want to know. “It departed at 7:27,” she tells me. I recheck my paperwork for the hundredth time, “It wasn’t supposed to leave until 7:55,” I say, showing her the time on my Travelocity printout. This does not phase her in the least and she quietly processes me and gives me a pass for standby for the next flight. As I walk away and pass by where Keith is waiting in the American line he tells me that pretty much the same thing has happened to him. “Sorry,” I tell him. Shoulda took the shuttle. “Shit happens,” he replies. Yes. It does. We grab an airport breakfast, and let me just say that airports have gotten so much better about the quality of food and options for entertainment available while awaiting a flight…but not in Albuquerque. It does not matter which “vendor” you choose there, either the food or the service, or both, will suck ass. I don’t even remember what it was that I ate, but it was stale and I didn’t finish it. And the coffee sucked too. By then it was time for me to head for my gate so I told Keith I’d see him in New York and off I went. The next time I “talked” to him he was in Dallas and texted me to see where I was. STILL IN ABQ, I answered. WTF? was his response, so I told him how I didn’t make the next flight to Denver but now had a real boarding pass for the next one in a couple of hours. We agreed that he should just have his friend pick him up at La Guardia and that I’d meet them at the restaurant where he had made reservations when I got there. I did make the next flight, but once in Denver found that my connecting flight had been delayed an hour. YOU IN NY? I texted. STILL IN DALLAS NO SHIT? NO SHIT He’d been bumped from standby three times. I found my gate and, having plenty of time on my hands, went in search of food and beer. The Denver airport is heaven compared to Albuquerque in that regard. I found a nice little pub called the Hub, ran by New Belgium Brewing, the makers of Fat Tire (not my favorite, but some of their beers I like) and settled in an hour or so. My phone chimed, THE FOOD HERE SUCKS, Keith complained, so I sent him a picture of my bratwurst and beer, which were very good. I had one more beer and then made my way back to the gate.
Things To Do In Denver When You’re Wishing You Were Dead
Airports are great for people watching, you see all conditions, emotions, rich, poor, those in love, those heartbroken, excited, exhausted…they are all at the airport, so find a spot where you can see the most people and enjoy the show. First, I noticed that I had seen more pretty women in the hour that I had been there than in the past two months at home. The best show though was a couple of kids, about four or five, playing on the moving walkways. They were hanging outside of the walkway by the handrail and letting it drag them along the smooth polished metal that covered the gap where the floor stopped and the walkway began. They were squealing with the sheer joy of it and when the one in front couldn’t hold on any longer he let go, causing the one behind to crash into him and let go as well, they collapsed onto the floor in a heap of rolling, laughing fun. People stopped for just a second to smile. It was also fun to watch adults get miffed when they misjudged their own dismount and stumbled a little. After a bit two guys sat down across from me. By then I had begun reading, so I looked up and nearly choked. These guys looked liked they had just stepped out central casting for a Tim Burton movie: one fat and short, bald with dark five o’clock shadow and wearing, of all things, a shirt with wide, horizontal stripes; his friend was a little taller, thin, with spiky hair. Both were bug eyed and pale. I don’ think they caught me taking frequent glimpses as I quickly sketched them. Right about then, the gate crew began making announcements for my flight. The plane was being changed from a 757 to a 737, meaning about 40 fewer seats and they were calling names. ‘Nonononononononononononon-’ “Eric - ?” Shit. With a totally sunk system I stepped to the back of a depressed line. There are two older women at the desk, something about a death, the gatekeeper shaking her head and as they walked away I could tell it didn’t go well for them. I stepped up and told her my name. She scanned my boarding pass and tosses it as a new one spit into her hand from some unseen device. “Here you go, just changing your seat assignment, your old one doesn’t exist on this plane.” Yes! “Thanks,” I mumbled and walked away feeling that maybe things are going to work out. Then I saw the two women again. ‘Damndamndamndamn…okokokokokokokokokokok!’ and somehow Iwas back at the desk. “Yes?” the gatekeeper asked. “Uh, those women, if they need a seat…” She thanked me and told me that no, they just got bumped from first class but still had seats on the flight. Cool, that should keep this plane in the air. My brain is a fucked up place. Soon we boarded the plane and I found myself sitting next to a gorgeous Ukrainian girl, who was of course, sitting next to her ridiculously handsome husband. Across the aisle, the guy closest to me was already chatting up the couple next to him and I overheard that he’s a chef and the other guy was a sheriff’s deputy. Then one of the flight attendants apologized and mentioned that apparently when they changed from a 757 to a 737 they forgot to get the right pilots en route. But, he assured us, we should be off shortly. I wanted off then; this is not good, my fucked up mind was telling me. But I avoided the horrible scene that would have been me pushing my way off of the plane* by doing what I had done dozens of times, if not more, as a soldier and cop, or even as a kid sitting at the top of a steep hill about to challenge the Courtland Levee Speed Record on a borrowed bike with a warped rim, by just sucking it up and driving on. For some of us, embarrassment is a fate worse than death. As you are reading this, you may assume that the plane, and by extension I, survived the flight. It was happily uneventful except for our entire row getting drunk and loud and using the first class bathroom a few too many times and my chef buddy trying to woo first the female attendant, and after that didn’t work, the male. In short, I had way more fun on an airplane than I’ve had since coming home from Uncle Sam’s aborted attempt at involving me in Desert Storm seventeen years ago. Finally we landed, I bid goodbye to my new friends and met Keith at the United luggage carousel. “Do you believe this shit?” he asked, but by then I could only laugh. He had only been in New York a half hour longer than I had, we are got there almost eight hours late, and it wasn’t over. My luggage, of course, didn’t make it onto the smaller plane, so we had to stand around to wait for it to come in on the next flight, which was, at least, only 30 minutes behind mine. Then a shuttle ride to the car rental place where, I noticed for the first of many times, how friendly and helpful New Yorkers can be. Soon we were in my rental, an ugly, bright blue Dodge Journey - “Journey great American rock and roll band,” Keith would say in a mangled “Asian” accent nearly a dozen times over the next couple of days, mocking some Korean kid he’d known once - and on the highway. A few minutes later I saw, for my first time, the Manhattan skyline at night.
* I really don’t care for flying much. It’s not death really, I don’t want to die any time soon, but dying doesn’t actually scare me. It’s the horrible, conscious minutes that I imagine it takes from the time something goes horribly awry to slamming into the earth. I don’t like being in my own head sometimes, but we really don’t have a choice now do we?
I first heard about the CIA reading Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” prior to that I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Harvard of cooking schools. I assumed that cooks were still trained by the ancient route of apprenticing under a master chef, though I was aware that there were culinary programs at some Vo-Techs. Actually, the first reference or two to the school in Bourdain’s book, by it’s initials only, confused me somewhat. CIA? Why the hell would anyone go there to learn to cook. Reading on I learned that he was referring to the Culinary Institute of America. I learned more about the school reading Michael Ruhlman’s “The Making of a Chef” in which the author follows a group of culinary students through their training and participates in classes. Upon reading “Making…” I knew that I wanted to go to CIA, this school that was started by two women in Connecticut as the New Haven Restaurant Institute to train returning WWII vets as the next generation of American chefs was now a bona fide university dedicated to the preparation and service and study of food, but I never expected to be able to attend. My kids were too young, I’d be too old to attend school full time by the time they were stable on their own, money was too tight, and my wife probably wouldn’t be too keen about moving to New York and supporting me while I pursued this dream. Years later, my kids, if not on their own, at least trustworthy and well-watched by enough friends to be left home for a brief period of time, my wife now my ex-wife, and me now the owner of a restaurant that provides me with a decent income, I enrolled in two continuing education classes at the Hyde Park, NY campus of the Culinary Institute of America. I initially wanted to take a “culinary boot camp” course, thinking it would provide a foundation in some classical techniques that I am lacking, but a phone call from an admissions director at the school, after I had already enrolled and paid for the class online, changed my mind. “You’re going to bored,” he said. I told him that in spite of owning a restaurant and cooking every day I still felt like I should probably start at the bottom. “We really need to describe that class a little better,” he went on. “You’d be in class with people right off the street, some of whom have no idea about how to cook. Most of the students in those classes are rich people who want to play chef for a week. Looking at your menu, you’re already cooking beyond that level, you’re going to be bored.” He suggested taking some continuing ed classes, so I relented, but told him that I had already bought my flight for that week. Looking at the continuing ed classes I found a few that week that looked interesting. One was a business class, “Controlling Your Bottom Line,” it promised to, “teach you how to successfully operate and maintain a profitable business and develop a menu that identifies recipe costs, stations, and labor and equipment needs, determine customer profiles, target markets, competitive analysis, and marketing strategies, learn how to analyze your P&L to make your operation more profitable, discuss the control of labor cost, sales, and the flow of goods, and understand how a Total Quality Management program can help ensure better results for the bottom line.” ‘Wow, that looks useful,’ I thought, the business end has always been my weak point. But what else? The classes are scheduled so that a student can take one in the morning, starting at 7 am and another in the afternoon, starting at 2 pm. Since I wanted to get as much out the trip as possible I wanted to take another class. One, “The Art and Science of Cooking” looked interesting but required a “solid, fundamental knowledge of cooking principles and methods.” Again, my insecurity over my experience and skill was messing with me, so I looked on. Another class, “Small Dishes, Big Flavors: Appetizers and First Courses” looked like it might work without throwing me too far out of my comfort zone, but the schedule was showing that no seats were available for the class on the dates I wanted, so I called my admissions guy. “Let me see what I can do, there are some Marines taking the class and they never all show up because of deployments and so on. I’ll call you back.” Thirty minutes later he did call back to tell me that I was in, I was going to the Culinary Institute of America. At least for a week.
"'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?' "'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?' "'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?' said Piglet. "Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said."
Ok, folks, more old stuff follows. Some, ok two, of you have probably already read these; I'll try to get something new up soon. I'll be in New York for a couple of weeks in Nov., so I should have plenty of material after that.
So, I'm in this French restaurant...no, it's not the beginning of a bad story, or a worse joke...ok, I guess that's up to you to decide. This is actually a couple of stories. My kids, girlfriend and I were at Le Bistro one night several months ago when owner Richard Girot ( pronounce it Ree-CHARD) stopped by our table to talk. After a couple of minutes he took his leave and moved on. As he did I heard a man say, in one of the strongest west Texas accents I have ever heard, "Excuse me, sir. Where are you from?" Richard replied, "I am from France." "I know that," the man continued. "What part?" "The southwest." The man paused, I thought to myself, 'Dear God, no. He can't' He did. "So, you were born here, but you moved there?"
Part deux. Tonight, same restaurant, same kids, same owner. A woman (with the same accent, pattern developing?) asked Richard to suggest a wine pairing. He suggested a French Sauvignon blanc. She replied, insisted, that the French do not produce Sauvignon blanc. I give up.
Today was a little bit of a break for me. After getting my ass seriously kicked on the line the last couple days, I got to spend most of the day in the back doing prep. Started off by making a tub of peanut butter cookie dough (one of my favorite things to do), then iced cakes (my least favorite thing to do...I'd rather be elbow deep in the grease trap), and baked more cakes, diced linguica, fried 80 pounds of ground beef (shouldn't have worn sandals today), made icing, gave my knife some much-needed love on the sharpening stones, drooled over Bon Appetit, yelled at the prep cooks some (they're 15 and 17, you try working with 'em without yelling), started a beer & wine order and a food order, sampled some beer, made a list for the store, listened to John's Roswell UFO theory, then went up front for the dinner rush and did apps. A very nice break. Tomorrow it's back to the line though...and God help me, I can't wait
So, the old cook tells the young cook, "Stir this shit for forty-five minutes. Whatever you do, don't stop stirring." "Why not?" asks the young cook. "Ok, stop stirring." The young cook stops stirring for a minute, not even that long. Soon the center of the thick cornmeal mush on the stove in front of him begins to rise, like an IED taking out a chunk of desert roadway. The young cook watches it grow, sensing that this is not going to end well. And it doesn't. The bubble bursts, spraying hot, thick, herbed putty on the young cook's arms and face. "Fuck!" he says, stumbling back as he wipes the scalding polenta from his already reddening body parts. "Don't stop stirring," the old cook repeats. "They don't call this shit Italian napalm for nothin."
Sometimes, in even great restaurants, we get tired of our own offerings. After all the years here I have reached that point, so I've been cooking some different stuff lately for family meal. Saturday I cooked up a big pot of pasta and let everyone do their own thing with it. I just cracked a raw egg over mine, added some parmesan and a hell of a lot of black pepper...delicious. Raw egg? Oh my God, the danger! Let me just say that if I'm weak enough to be taken out by an egg it's time to check out anyway. Last night, after reading the latest issue of Gourmet for a day or so, I decided to make a good Southern dinner for us. I started with a pound of excellent bacon from the meat counter at Thriftway, there really is no better smell on earth than bacon frying, I can only think of one thing I'd rather wake up to than bacon and strong coffee, and if I can have those after the other thing...well, that might just be the start of a damned perfect day. Then a couple of chickens, which I cut into eighths, then marinated in buttermilk, Tabasco and onions for about four hours. Made some mashed potatoes and collard greens, heavily dosed with bacon fat and crumbles, then fried the chicken in more bacon fat. Some biscuits and a big glass of sweet tea and I swear I was as happy as I've been in a long time. There really is something miraculous about 'soul' food. I use the quotation marks because soul food to me is more than just that described above. It is the food of our youth, where ever that youth took place, be it the deep south, a small village in Mexico, or the streets of Brooklyn. It is the food that takes us back to a more simple time, the time of childhood, when every problem could be solved by mom's cooking and a hug. In Ratatouille there is a scene where the cruel food critic, steeled to eviscerate our hero and his food, tastes the humble ratatouille, and is instantly transported back to his mother's own offering of the same peasant dish to take away the pain of his crashed bicycle. That scene brought tears to my eyes because that's the power of food. That's what we, as cooks, have the power to do when we're working at our best, I've seen it happen more than once. My favorite example is a guy that walked in after smelling the pizza from outside. He ordered a slice (cheese, of course) and left, minutes later he was back, tears in his eyes, to get another. He was from New York and hadn't had good pizza in years, our simple pie brought on that flood of emotion in a grown man. That's soul food.
Ok, so I'm already getting pissed and Hell Week hasn't even started. WTF? I've got two guys who are supposed to be prep cooks burning every other fucking thing they cook, except jambalaya, which they're more than happy to send out cold. Guess I yelled too much about their burning shit. Caught a dishwasher throwing silverware in the trash and another sticking his finger in cakes and my waiters are already getting pissy and running tables off. So far I've managed to not lose it, but it's coming, and it will not be pretty; there will be blood, spit and ass everywhere. Only my dear Gentleman Jack has a chance of preventing a stir-stick swinging tantrum at this point.
The Worst Angels Of Our Nature: Rage And Racism On The Campaign Trail
Like everyone else, I am worried about the economy and the financial panic I sense around me. But I am absolutely terrified--I tremble for my country--by the rage that has been expressed at Republican campaign rallies during the past two weeks. It is a rage that partakes of the worst forces in American history--xenophobia, racism, anti-intellectualism, religious fanaticism, envy, and utter contempt for truth and reason. Lest anyone suggest that this is a bipartisan phenomenon, I should point out that no one at Obama rallies is calling out for anyone to kill the other candidate. Worst of all is the behavior of Sarah Palin, a candidate for the second highest office in the land who stood on a platform, heard the cries of "treason" and "kill him" after her anti-Obama rant, and said absolutely nothing. She went on with her vile speech as if nothing had happened. John McCain has belatedly realized that his campaign has unleashed forces that it cannot control; perhaps he came to that realization when he was booed at his own rallies for contradicting supporters who called Obama an "Arab" and a "traitor." Pundits on the left and right (and Barack Obama himself) always preface their acknowledgments of McCain's effort to calm the waters with an obligatory "to his credit." Talk about unearned credit. McCain picked the rabble-rousing Palin as his running mate, and he picked her because she appealed to the far-right Republican base. Her speeches, with their accusation that Obama was "pallin' around with terrorists," followed by attempts to link Sixties' radicals with the 9//11 bombers, leading logically to audience's conclusion that Obama himself may be a terrorist, were certainly cleared by the Rovian McCain campaign strategists. That McCain is now recognizing that he may be inheriting the wind says nothing creditable about him. The least we can expect from respectable candidates is that they decry calls for murder and accusations of treason. You don't deserve a gold star for doing that. I am afraid, as others are afraid and reluctant to say so, that some unhinged Joe or Jane Six-Pack will pick up a gun and act on the passions aroused at these rallies. How can anyone who came of age in the sixties--whose youth was punctuated by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, not be afraid? The ignorant and bellicose governor of Alaska badly needs a history lesson. Most of us demon liberals weren't pallin' around with terrorists during the sixties; what we were doing, too many times in our young lives, was mourning the loss of leaders who did try to speak to the better angels of the American nature. The trouble begins with the notion that there is some special wisdom in the virtuous, uneducated Joe Six-Packs of this nation. I met my very own Joe-Six Pack (that's what he called himself) a few weeks ago, and if he exemplifies the purported wisdom of ordinary Americans, we are in trouble that cannot be measured by any decline in the stock market. I wound up at the same table with Joe, the owner of a Polish delicatessen, in a packed bar as we waited in the Milwaukee airport for a delayed flight to New York. After volunteering the information that he was flying to New York for his niece's wedding in Brooklyn, Joe said he wasn't looking forward to the event because his niece was marrying a native New Yorker and they were "moving into some kind of hippie loft under some bridge." Then Joe started talking about the economy. He didn't blame Wall Street nearly as much as he blamed ordinary Americans who, pursuing the dream of becoming homeowners, had obtained subprime mortgages with no down payment. "These people knew they couldn't afford to pay back those loans," he said, "and they didn't give a damn because they hadn't had to put down any of their own money. So they're losing nothing when they get kicked out. No money down, and they've been getting free rent for as long as they've lived in the house." How, I asked, did Joe figure that people had been getting "free rent," since most of them had been making mortgage payments--at increasing interest rates--for years. Wasn't it possible that many of the homeowners facing foreclosure had simply not understood what it would mean for their monthly payments if the rate on the mortgages went up by, say, 5 percent? Wasn't it possible that they thought they could make their payments when they signed the mortgages but subsequently lost their jobs? Or that someone in the family got sick and piled up medical bills that lend to bankruptcy? "Don't you believe it," said Joe, whose face literally turned purple with rage. "So maybe they made payments for a while, but they were a lot lower than rent payments would be. That's always the excuse with these people, that they've been unlucky, that they're poor little victims." "These people." I wanted to ask who "they" were and what separated them from "us," but I didn't have to. He exploded again. "You have a whole group of people who don't really want to earn what they have. These bad home loans, they're like special treatment for blacks who want to get into the best universities. You want it, you don't have to work for it, the government will give it to you." As soon as I boarded the plane, I took notes detailing everything about this conversation. I hope that this Joe Six-Pack was just one Joe Six-Pack, and that there are many other blue-collar Americans who do not share such views, reeking of class and racial resentment and absent any awareness of the ways in which unexpected blows of fate can derail the honest efforts and hopes of hard-working people. We will, I suppose find out on Nov. 4. The fate of our nation rests on the hope that a majority of Americans are not as uneducated and angry as my Joe Six-Pack. I do know that a real leader ought to challenge such ignorance, wherever it exists, instead of praising is as an example of down-home American values. Any politician who provides fuel for the worst sort of American fire, or remains silent in the face of bigotry and threats of violence, is a disgrace to this country.
At what point does my responsibility end? With my kids I know that the answer must be never. They are products of me, and having been a single dad for a considerable portion of their lives I know that the decisions that they make for years to come will be based on decisions, good and bad, I made while they lived with me. Regarding my employees, the water gets murky. At what point do I step away and say, "Not my problem?" Of course, the argument can be made that I'm not responsible for any grown person's behavior, in or out of work, they are thinking people capable of making decisions independent of my will. How do you control that? That is a tempting way out, but I can't take it. Whether it's my upbringing, my training, or the experience of having served under a handful of great leaders, I feel a very real sense of responsibility for my crew, both for their well being and for their mistakes. If one of my guys is wrong, I'm wrong. If they aren't happy, neither am I. It doesn't matter if I like them or not, it matters that I either hired them or inherited them and did both knowing what I was doing and that I was becoming responsible for human beings in the process. Too dramatic? This isn't the military after all, no one's life is dependant upon my doing a good job as a boss. But several livelihoods are, along with the tens of thousands we pay in taxes, both through the business itself and its payroll. And actually, if we don't do a good job regarding hygiene and food storage and preparation we very well would be putting lives at risk. So, when is it OK to walk away from an employee? Even in the military they only kick members out for the most serious offenses. Trying to get kicked out of the army is damned tough, I saw people try and the army punished them but kept them with a "you're a fuck up, but you're my fuck up" attitude. Even the samurai felt the same, the master was responsible for the acts of his men with the understanding that if the soldier embarrassed his boss too badly the shit would roll down hill, and so would the heads. So, should I keep a guy that is nearly always late, but does an otherwise good job, and who I truly like and want the best for, and then no-shows without explanation until the next night? What about the guy who calls in all the time with different excuses until I catch him in a lie? That one's a lot easier, but I still feel a very real responsibility for how the courses of their lives will be affected by the decision each has forced me to make. This is really a letter to myself, to solidify my thoughts and strengthen my resolve. The decisions have already been made, and the heads collected.
In an effort to not be sued this month (actually, I've been litigation free for almost four months), I'm changing the name of the restaurant in question. We'll call it U-Bahn. U-Bahn serves sandwiches and salads and a fat guy once got famously thin by eating their food, and I was hoping to replicate that success since hyper-extending my muffin top last week. I've now figured out why that guy lost so much weigh, there's no flippin' food on an U-Bahn sandwich. On a six-inch sandwich, named after one of our fine New Mexico towns, there are three slices of turkey, two tiny triangles of cheese and two thin slices of bacon (hold 'em up, you can see through 'em!), for a grand total of maybe five ounces. The rest is lettuce, a couple of slices of tomato, green chile and guacamole. In U-Bahn's defense, they are generous with the last two toppings. In my defense, my sandwich artisan left all of the green chile on one end of the sandwich; I believe it was the left end. Three little strips of bell pepper and maybe four of onion and then some mustard and my sandwich was ready to go. This and a bag of chips for just under seven dollars and we wonder why more people don't try to eat healthy on the go; I know I was wishing I'd gone next door to McDonalds as I was eating what tasted like a lettuce, guacamole and mustard sandwich, at least it did until I got the left end.
The sun beats down with no regard for my skin as I watch the soldiers in their heavy wool uniforms face each other across the field. The Rebs have marched in line to within sight of the Union artillery, but still no shots have been fired. A young Confederate officer orders his men down into a prone position as they wait. They don’t wait long as a squad of blue-clad skirmishers moves toward the gray line’s right flank. Soon sporadic firing begins, but somehow no one falls. To the Confederate rear cannons fire and almost immediately the Union gunners answer back and gun smoke hangs in the still air as Yankee cavalry moves to engage the Rebel line. The firing becomes more general and Confederate cavalry moves to thwart the northerners, but they and their infantry begin to fall back as a large group of Union infantry crests the rise to their front, moving toward them through the tick and chigger filled grass to a muffled cadence. The Confederates stop and reform their line, firing a volley at the approaching enemy. The Union troops respond with rolling volley fire. Their first rank drops to a crouch and fires as one. As they reload, the second rank fires over their heads, then crouches to reload as well. The third rank then fires and by that time the first is ready to go again. A very good way to get a whole bunch of lead down range in a very short amount of time using single shot rifles which only an expert could reload in less than 10 seconds. A second rolling volley shatters the Rebel line and they fall back to the trees at their rear where another line of infantry has been waiting. This line now fires it’s own volley but the men in blue continue their advance as the cavalry skirmishes in the brush. Soon the fighting has moved past my vantage point as the Confederates abandon their artillery, a red kepied gunner slumped across a gun’s carriage. A Union soldier taunts the Confederates, now across the creek from him, by waving their own battle flag at them. The firing is less concentrated now, an occasional shot or cluster of shots to my right as I watch a surgeon in a red-smeared apron move among the bodies on the ground, looking for signs of life. He carries a bottle of whiskey and a saw. A group of women carrying water bags follows him and tends the wounded. Soon the fighting has passed over the little wooden bridge, through the area where the Indian Tacos and snow cones are being peddled and has nearly reached the parking lot. I follow behind and stop to watch as an older, overweight man in a blue uniform gasps and claws at the ground. ‘Overacting,’ I think for a minute, enjoying his performance, before realizing that he’s suffering from heat stroke. A few minutes later, while waiting for my snow cone, I’ll think it odd that the Union soldier standing in front of me is talking on a cell phone.
"This is America. We're a nation that's faced down war and depression; great challenges and great threats, and at each and every moment, we've risen to meet these challenges because we've never forgotten that fundamental truth, that here in this country, our destiny is not written for us. It's written by us." -Barack Obama
Ok, I'm trying to be good, recycling as much as is possible here, trying to remember my re-usable grocery bag, and composting. Since the young lady who was picking up our vegetable waste for her own composting project has moved and the folks at the community garden never picked up the slack, I've started taking it home and have started a trench composting project in anticipation of starting a garden next year. I would just like to say that in twenty years as a soldier and a cop (also drove ambulance for a bit in there) I have NEVER smelled anything as bad as what comes out of that can.
Just in case anyone’s been wondering, Joan Jett is still smokin’ hot and rocks better and harder than anyone half her age. Took the crew to her concert tonight and it was amazing. From fifty yards I thought she still looked great, then we rushed the stage and…damn. And the sound was fantastic; none of the bullshit sounds-great-on-the-album-but-not-live, if anything she (and the Blackhearts) sounded better live. It was the best concert I’ve been to in a long damned time. The only complaints have to be about the length, too short at just over one hour, and the crowd was completely lame. I tried to lead my section into at least getting out of their chairs but only three of my crew followed me…and my daughters cringed. My son didn’t even want to go, said he doesn’t like Joan…I’m having a DNA test first thing Monday, not liking Meatloaf was one thing, but this is bullshit. Of course, everyone fucking stood up when they did I Love Rock n Roll, she must get sick of that. Anyway, great night. Joan and Co. rocked like it was 1982 & I got damned close to her; LindZ caught two picks, one tossed by Joan and one by her guitarist and gave me the latter; I almost got in a fight over our seats, which were occupied when we got there; got whisked into WPS (best damned country bar in the USA) ahead of about 30 people like we were rock stars, then one of us got kicked out, so the rest bailed too; then spent the rest of the night back at the Café listening to Renee chew Brett’s ass for God knows what and John gloat ‘cause Crystal was drunker than him for the first time in at least three years. Tomorrow’s gonna suck.
He stood to one side, watching, as the man strained against the medics, his eyes wide and shocky as they struggled to hold square-foot patches of gauze against his side. Later, he would come to know that this look was for the dying, this life would be lost before the ambulance even moved. Though he was still young and didn’t recognize the look, he knew upon examining the car and noting the line of blood and shit that ran from the front along the driver’s side to the back fender that this man would die. A few minutes later he would learn that the man had been picking up his dead dog from the road when he had been hit.
Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars. We're consuming about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen-about 17 percent of our nation's energy use- for agriculture, a close second to our vehicular use. Tractors, combines, harvesters, irrigation, sprayers, tillers, balers, and other equipment all use petroleum. Even bigger gas guzzlers on the farm are not the machines, by so-called inputs. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides use oil and natural gas as their starting materials, and in their manufacturing. More than a quarter of all farming energy goes into synthetic fertilizers. But getting the crop from seed to harvest takes only one-fifth of the total oil used for our food. The lion's share is consumed during the trip from the farm to your plate. Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. In addition to direct transport, other fuel-thirsty steps include processing (drying, milling, cutting, sorting, baking), packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration. Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food. A quick way improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it. More palatable options are available. If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That's not gallons, but barrels. Small changes in buying habits can make big differences. Becoming a less energy-dependent nation may just need to start with a good breakfast.
Sidebar by Steven L. Hopp from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.
Don't you just hate it when you're working, driving, whatever, and you have this really good idea for a blog topic and then can't remember it later? I even thought at the time that I should pause to write it down, but then told myself that it was a good enough idea that I'd surely remember it. I don't.
I thought briefly that it might have to do with Star Trek, since that was a fun topic of conversation at work today; as in, "If this was Star Trek, Macie and Zack would be wearing red shirts." Zack understands the meaning of this since I've been telling him that for over a year now, even though he has since evolved more into the wacky neighbor you love to hate character from any given sitcom. Macie on the other hand, did not understand, and had to be sent to Brett (blue shirt) for an explanation.
I, of course, as the captain, wear a gold shirt even though I now look more like the Kirk of Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, than the TV show Kirk, even though in the movies pretty much everyone wore red shirts...but, that's beside the point. The point is that I don't remember what the hell I was going to write about, even though I thought it was pretty good.
I once read an interview with a songwriter in which he was asked if he kept a notebook next to his bed to write down ideas he might have at night or as awoke. He stated that he did not, as he believed that any idea that he couldn't remember in the morning couldn't have been that good.
I remember the first time I ever had the miracle of fried cheese sticks, it was at a now-defunct restaurant in Oklahoma City named Pumps, more than twenty years ago. It was served with a sweet mustard sauce and it stands out as one of my first culinary "awakenings." Simple mozzarella, battered and deep fried, the crunch of the shell, the molten cheese, the sweet twang of the mustard, how had I lived without it for all of my (then) seventeen years? Since then only one fried cheese dish has matched that experience, that of Hot Dog on a Stick, the wonderfully kitsch stands found in malls across the US. Which brings me to the corn dog. My God, I do love a good corn dog, and Hot Dog on a Stick has the best I've ever had. As I order my heart quickens, my saliva glands are working overtime; is it knowing that I'm about to get a great corn dog or that the dog is being hand dipped in batter and fried to order by an always beautiful girl wearing a beguilingly retro uniform of jockey hat and hot pants, as her twin strokes away at a vat of fresh lemonade with a long handled plunger. I'll leave that question to smarter people with degrees in psychology, but it's a damned good corn dog. Locally, if you want a good corn dog you can do no better than at The Quarters. A dive bar of Loverboyesque-mullet proportions, The Quarters (conveniently located on the same block as our place) has a liberal shot pouring policy (at least for friendly neighborhood cooks and waiters) and a really good corn dog. Sweet corn breading, crunchy on the outside with just the right amount of give on the inside, wrapped around a good, plump dog. None of the show you get at Hot Dog on a Stick, but when you consider that you don't have to drive half a day to get it, and you can have a cold Corona as well, a pretty darned good pinch hitter.
I'm no sommelier, but here is a great wine buy. Little Penguin's shiraz is very drinkable and creates a very enjoyable buzz for under $10 a bottle. It also pairs quite well with Marie Callender's beef pot pie. Next wine blog: Which white wine to pair with ramen.
Leaving work, I know I have to go somewhere. Not home, not to the bar, not yet. I need to talk, it needs to be someone in this business, and really there are only a few people who will do. Two are too close to the problem, one is unavailable, so that leaves Richard. I find him in his usual spot, lost in the banquet at Le Bistro, an open bottle of red on the table in front of him. The small Frenchman waves me over, past an eight top of business types, and offers me a glass of his wine. We make the usual small talk about how business is, how this one is doing, how that one is, how the hell is that one still open? before I get to vent. He listens, nods and says, "Edeek, I'd rather be asshole than stupid." He's right of course, I can be every one's buddy and be taken advantage of now and then and just live with it, or I can be an asshole until the problem is fixed. Donica and Hillary soon join us and we start another bottle of wine, soon they are talking about their own problems and I realize what I'd already known; we are all in the same boat. Not all of us will survive the trip, but I am not alone.
The Dark One led the way down a torch-lit hallway past several doors which bore signs warning that only employees were allowed beyond. Eventually, we passed into a cavernous space, the center of which held a cast iron range. Various other tools of cooking radiated from the center and at the opposite end something screamed while being cooked on a spit in an enormous fireplace as a group of cooks cheered. "Well, this is it," my new employer said. "Ok, thanks, I'd better get to work." "Uh, don't forget about my party Friday night, please." "No worries," I replied. I waited until Satan had left before crossing toward the fire. The beast on the spit continued to scream and the cooks were now jumping with excitement. "What's going on here?" I asked one toward the back of the crowd. "Oh, hello," he replied. "Just having a bit of fun, sir." "Is that Gordon Ramsey?" The English accented profanities emitting from the spit were unmistakable. "Yes, sir." "What's he doing up there?" "Well, it's part of the Hell thing, sir." "Couldn't you find anyone worse to burn?" Several candidates from history came to mind. "Well, the karaoke bar up-cavern already had Simon Cowell." "Ok," I conceded. "But get him down, show him to the dish room and put Dick Cheney up there." Having sorted out the rotation of villains to be cooked I retired to the office and began sorting through the books, such as they were. I was beginning to appreciate how bad hell was going to be when there was knock at the door. "Yeah?" "Guy's here for the order," one of the cooks called from the other side of the door. Must be a supplier, I thought as I walked out. "Holy shit, Keith, what are you doing here?" I asked, recognizing him immediately. "Same thing I was doing up there," he answered with a glance topside. "Sysco?" "Yeah, we're everywhere."
In Gourmet Magazine this month there is a fine article by Francis Lam in which the author discusses his perfect omelet. I had never read an article by Mr. Lam before, but I have now read several online and he is becoming one of my favorite food writers. I just have a minor contention with the omelet article in which he writes that the omelet should be cooked in a specific pan and that the eggs should not be over mixed to avoid their becoming too fluffy and thus dry when cooked. Mr. Lam has been to culinary school, I have not. Once, at the age of 17, I briefly entertained the thought of going to culinary school, but opted instead to spend the next twenty years wearing various uniforms and toting about mechanisms for killing people. Which led me to one of the best omelets ever. While in the Army, in Germany, way back in the 80s, our battalion mess hall was a relatively small affair which still somehow was able to prepare three meals a day for nearly one thousand troops, employing a handful of pale, skinny warrior-cooks (this was a tad before the Army was taken over by civilians). And these fuckers could cook, making several entrees, sides and desserts for lunch and dinner with no waste and all of it better than anything you pay for in those "family" restaurants. And the omelets...a few times a week the guys would do omelets, you could tell by the meez set up in front of the guy working the flat top, and the word would pass back down the line. "Fuckin’ A, omelet day!" Upon reaching the station the cook would ask what you wanted. "Omelet, ham and cheese." He’d pick up a bowl with a couple of eggs in it and dump them onto the flat top, whack ’em a couple of times with a long, solid spatula, roll ’em over then put the ham and cheese in. A few seconds later, letting the cheese start to melt and the eggs set up, he’d give the thing a flip, folding it in half before putting it on a plate and setting it on your tray. As you passed down the rest of the line the cheese would continue to melt so that by the time you had everything and had sat down it had reached a perfectly gooey state. The omelets were dense and filling, the perfect thing right after PT with five hours still to go before lunch. They were moist and delicious, the mild flavor of the eggs complemented by the smoke of the ham and the tang of the cheese. Fast forward 21 years to New Orleans, the Clover Grill. Freshly over my hangover-from-hell and with newly shined boots I stumble back into the Clover for a quick lunch. The last time I was in I watched the cook making omelets (along with waffles, burgers, fries...) and am determined to get one now. The juke box is still blaring, but the staff is different: the cook one of the best I’ve ever watched and the waiter one of the worst. From the counter I can see everything. I’m right behind the cook as my order comes up, he reaches into the low-boy cooler and grabs three eggs, cracks them one-handed into a shake can, throwing the shells into an unseen trash can behind and to his left. He puts the can into the shake mixer and goes back to his burgers, fries and the hundred other things he’s got going on, taking a minute to yell at the customers blocking the door lining up at the register to get to go orders. "If y’all are getting to gos you gotta wait outside, come in one at a time. Y’all can’t be blockin’ the door!" He turns back to his station shaking his head. "God DAMN," he mutters. The suit-wearing guy a couple of stools down from me has been trying to get the waiter’s attention for about ten minutes now. The waiter is at the juke box sliding dollar bills into its face and loading us up with another half hour of rave music. The dishwasher walks out of the swinging door that conceals her station from our sight and the man yells his order at her. I’ve got to confess, I’m smiling big as the young lady stops, looks at him as if he had just asked her to perform a most unnatural sex act and yells, "I DON’T take no food ORDERS!" As she walks by me on her way to the bus tubs she is shaking her head. "God DAMN," she mutters. My eggs are still mixing in the shake machine. My bacon on the flat top, the cook pours a ladle of oil into his pan and then pours some waffle batter into the iron and throws the old hubcap over a couple of burgers. The oil hot, he pours my eggs into the pan, immediately starting a gentle swirling motion. The eggs roll together, simultaneously setting up and breaking free from the pan’s edge as he applies more torque. He stops long enough to put the cheese and bacon in the center and then rolls the thing out of the pan onto a plate, folding it in half perfectly. The omelet is wonderful, the eggs are light and airy from the minutes of mixing, yet still moist, the bacon crisp and the cheese completely melted. I must confess that I have never had an omelet prepared the way Mr. Lam describes them, prepared with nothing but three eggs, salt, pepper and butter, but I will be trying his recipe and the technique described to see for myself if it tops my perfect omelets.
About 60 miles south of Albuquerque on I-25 is Lemitar, NM, a Phillips 66 station on the west edge of a tiny village that I guess I’ve driven past dozens of times without really noticing until the other day. What caught my eye was the bright yellow van parked in front of a small cluttered farm a bit north of the actual town. In bold black lettering the van proclaims that HONEY is available. Driving another mile or two to the Lemitar exit I leave the interstate at the Phillips 66, turning north on the frontage road (ok, if you’re driving on an interstate and can't determine your direction of travel, please step out of the gene pool at the earliest opportunity, thank you). The frontage road is only 60 yards from the interstate while being at least that many years in the past. While the interstate cuts straight through even the slightest rise with nary but the most sweeping curve, the frontage road lays on the very nap of the land, a series of what would, on a dirt bike trail be whoopdidoos, and sharp turns, an inviting playground for a middle-aged kid in a fast car; the speed limit on the frontage road is 30 mph but believe me, it’s much more fun at 60. The farm consists of an unfinished two storey house with an impressive iron gate, and is surrounded by old trucks and mobile homes and overrun with half-feral chickens. Enter the gate, do not make eye contact with the little rooster with the giant ego, and ring the door buzzer. Before long you will be ushered into the Bee Chama store by Glen, the guy who holds down the fort while the rest of what appears to be an apiest commune traverses the state (and country) with their truck loads of bees, doing commercial pollinating as well as just parking and letting their bees sample native flowers in remote areas. The results are outstanding, with varietal honeys such as desert wildflower, mesquite and mountain wildflower. Their commercial work in the almond groves of California allows Bee Chama to trade with other beekeepers for varieties such as wild blackberry and meadow foam, as well as new stock to keep their bees genetically diverse and resistant to parasites and (so far) colony collapse disorder. The meadow foam is the sweetest honey I’ve ever tasted, with hints of vanilla lending it the unmistakable flavor of a marshmallow. One thing has to be said about the Bee Chama crew, they do not fit your likely preconception of what a beekeeper looks like, a soft-spoken, slow-moving old man with kind eyes. This bunch looks more like a professional mountain bike racing team, all tats, facial hair and a passionate excitement for what they do. After tasting several varieties with Glen, who snatches up any spilled drop with his finger, I settle on a quart of the desert wildflower for fifteen bucks. It is a strongly flavored dark honey that Glen tells me reminds older customers of the honey they used to get wild. Which reminds me, all of the Bee Chama honeys are wild, unpasteurized and unfiltered, the proof is in opening the lids with specks of honey comb, pollen and possibly a bee’s leg (it’s protein, shaddup) apparent. Bee Chama honey is available at Albuquerque area farmers’ markets or online at beechamahoney.com.
Ok, four weeks after the fact, here is the final part of my Albuquerque lunch trilogy. My Return of the Jedi, to be followed in twenty years by a really shitty "prequel" about my breakfast in Durango back in '98 when I was annoyed by a little smart-ass kid, a large bug and an Ebonics-spouting swamp dweller. Pulling out of the parking lot, I immediately take a wrong turn and spend the next few minutes taking a very un-scenic tour of some of the back streets around the Old Town area. Later research revealed that these streets were designed in the late 1700s by a blind Spaniard riding a drunk mule. Upon discovering Central Ave., I stuck a little American flag in it and turned right. In between downtown and Old Town, or Down Town and oldtown, there is a little place called the Dog House, that serves the best danged ol' chili dawg I've ever had. Not at all hungry, but unable to avoid stopping at a place that looks like a Tastee Freez painted yellow and converted to hot dogs, I pull into the lot and spend the next few minutes standing in front of what appears to be a window for ordering before I try to walk through the door to the kitchen and finally find the right door and enter the restaurant (the right door is the one to the left). Inside there are a handful of tables and a short counter (yes!) where I sit and order a 6" chili dog with mustard, cheese and onion, and a lemonade for under four bucks. The dogs are split and a cooked to a nicely caramelized crispness on a flattop, the buns are toasted, and the whole thing is then covered in a spicy stew of what tastes like our own New Mexico red chile mixed with thin canned chili, yellow mustard and nacho cheese…in short, it's flippin' delicious.
I would like to correct a statement I made in a previous blog, in which I claimed that phyllo dough was the Devil's own creation. Well, I was mistaken. Come to find out, phyllo dough was created by Kudurrus, a minor demon assigned to the area of Mesopotamia in the 8th century BC. Kudurrus, later, provided the inspiration for Daedalus's use of wax to secure the feathers in Icarus's wings. He also, much later, convinced Dieter Schilling, a food scientist with Nestle, that his invention, Hot Pockets, was a good idea. Kudurrus also filled in for the lesser three Horsemen of the Apocalypse to maintain staffing during vacations and illnesses. Reference the phyllo dough; it is thought that Kudurrus created the dough to drive cooks to acts of violence and mayhem. And in that regard, it has been a success. By the 4th century BC, the art of making phyllo had been lost to all the world except for a handful of Greek grandmothers. This, and the Persian king's lust for baklava, led to the Persian invasion in Greece and the Spartan's heroic stand at Thermopylae. It was later discovered that the king had actually only misplaced his recipe. The Phyllo Riots of 33 AD, in Jerusalem, led to the rounding up and subsequent crucifixions of hundreds of people. Jean-Claude Le Jeune, a celebrated French chef of the 18th century, killed several members of his employers household, and then jumped from a parapet, impaling himself on a fishmonger, after working with phyllo dough. Ho Chi Mihn, a pastry chef before leading his people in kicking the Japanese, French, then the Americans, out of Vietnam, pioneered the use of phyllo dough as shrapnel in improvised explosives. So you see, if not actually created by Satan himself, phyllo is definately an instrument of the Devil's to work evil in our world.
And lo, the gates did open wide and within I saw a land of great desolation and ruin. I passed a lake of fire, filled with the souls of the lost, many of them wearing very surprised looks and name tags and waving pamphlets above the burning waters. I passed monsters, great and small, inflicting horrible tortures upon the hapless sinners, yet I was unmolested. Eventually, I came to a great throne, and he who sat upon it was Satan. He held aloft his right index finger, indicating that I should wait, as he finished some task on his BlackBerry. When he spoke it was as if storms, fire, and war were unleashed, yet his words were clear, "Hey, how's it goin'?" "Pretty good...you?" "Oh, you know, work." "Yeah." "Uh, well, you'll be wanting to get started, I guess. I'll show you to the kitchen."
From The Cook's Tale, Lost on the Way to Canterbury, The Missing Tales of Chaucer. Feldham, Larry. University of London (Arkansas) Press, 1954
What you seek, you shall never find. For when the Gods made man, They kept immortality for themselves. Fill you belly. Day and night make merry. Let Days be full of joy. Love the child that holds your hand. Let your wife delight in your embrace. For these alone are the concerns of man. -The Epic of Gilgamesh
Eleven years ago this month I moved to this area. This is, by far, the longest I have ever lived anywhere. I moved here because, like so many others, I came here on vacation and fell in love. Within months I had a job and had moved, since then I've had the best times of my life, and the worst. Recently it's seemed like the bad times have out weighed the good, and I've often thought of leaving, getting a fresh start somewhere new. There's something so seductive about that clean slate. But my kids have grown up here, and I've grown here. The best job I've ever had, working with the best friends I've ever had, is here. It is just gorgeous here, but I still take it for granted, as we all do after a while. Usually all it takes is the shortest hike, or mountain bike ride, or sometimes just the drive into town, to remind me why I came, why I stayed. But I still wonder. How would things be had I left? Had I never come? As in any long-term relationship I find myself taking her for granted, something I know to be deadly. I find myself not looking around on the way to work, not noticing the way she's draped in fog, not appreciating the sunrise my schedule requires me to witness almost every day, not making the time to walk the dog. Then she does something to make me appreciate her again, and suddenly I don't want to be anywhere else. Saturday I finally made it to the farmer's market in Capitan, after a full summer of good intentions. Capitan (for those who don't know) is about 20 miles north of Ruidoso, and just one hell of a pretty drive. On the way another favorite old flame pulled out in front of me and immediately the old "what if" record started skipping in my head(second guessing my own life is, if not one of my favorite passtimes, the one that I'm best at). She soon turned off and I finshed the the trip singing along to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack (shut up, you're gay). By the time I got to Capitan, I was a melancholic. Then, to make things worse, it appeared that there was no farmer's market. I had been told it was impossible to miss, but somehow I didn't immediately see it. Had it closed early for the season? Then I found it, the market is tucked into a small vacant lot across from the Smokey Bear Memorial. As I got out of my car I heard a curious combination of accoustic Johnny Cash and electronic drum machine. They came from a man at the front entrance who, with the right combination of lighting and blood alcohol level, could have passed for the Man himself. I stopped, listened, and realized that he was damned good. He smiled at me, I felt welcomed, and I found that I was smiling back. Entering the market, I was immediately enchanted, there was not a bar scanner in sight, and not a person seemed sorry to be present. A short time later I not only had bought locally produced bread, spinach, green beans, tomatoes, blackberries, Swiss chard, and (holy shit!) raw milk feta and cheddar cheeses, but had met some really interesting people. Producers of food who were proud of their products and happy to talk about them; even willing to give directions to their farms so that I could see where my food had come from. On the way into work that morning I realized that my old flame had done it again. Just when I was starting to drift she had dazzled me with nothing more than a new summer dress and a smile. I rolled the windows down, cranked up Ewan and Nichole, and daydreamed about the meal I would soon be sharing with my friends.
A couple of weeks ago I get this call from this guy who represents a tour company that specializes in bus tours of the region for folks from the British Isles. Now, these tours have been coming through the area for a couple of years now and the folks are generally of retirement age and quite nice. The bus drops them off in midtown and they go about as they wish for a while before re-boarding and going wherever they go. One group of Welsh farmers was an absolute blast. This group was different. I don't know much about these tours, whether all the groups are from similar areas or backgrounds, but this bunch just plain sucked. As is the usual procedure, someone from the company called a day ahead to give us a heads up that they would be by, but this time they wanted to just order sandwiches to go. "Ok," I answered, and gave him our menu choices. "Ah, the cold cut, what's on that?" I told him. "Hmmmm, let me see and I'll call you back. When he did a short time later he told me that the cold cut sandwich would be fine, but that as they were English, they didn't want the sandwiches with all the "stuff" we Americans were used to. So, I agreed, after a short but sharp burst of foreboding, to make six cheese sandwiches, three ham sandwiches, and thirty-seven ham and cheese sandwiches. I even gave them a cut rate since I'd be leaving off all the "American" stuff. The next day, as Danny and I are making sandwiches in between regular orders the phone rings and it is our English friend again, seemed like now the group wanted to stop off to eat their food at the café and would we be able to handle a large group. Since it wasn't too busy and our lunch rush was pretty much over I agreed. Again, a voice in my head told me to say no, but the thought of selling all those drinks and my waitress getting a decent bunch of tips swayed me. To shorten a story that is already too long, they were the most miserable bunch of geriatrics I have ever seen, they mobbed the register as my one waitress and a prep cook tried valiantly to handle their orders for about three dozen hot chocolates and café lattes, and one charming lady pressed the remains of her sandwich into the counter in front of me and snarled, "Dreadful!" I was taken aback; I thought she must have been joking. "Dreadful?" I asked. I was actually still smiling. "Awful," she replied. At that point I wanted to say, "I know what dreadful means, you bitch, what the hell's wrong with the sandwich?" Or just reach out and poke her in the forehead with my index finger and screech, "Horrible!" But I didn't, I just stood there stunned as she limped out, probably to terrorize the poor old Mexican lady who sales turquoise next door, and watched as the rest of the group muttered and mumbled their way through their meal. The only two who seemed to be enjoying themselves were a younger guy who ordered a slice of pizza and ate it, smiling, outside, away from everyone else, and a lady of about 45 who was flirting with the bus driver. Oh, and the big tip payoff for Holly? Not one fucking cent. Really made me appreciate Texans for once.
After leaving the Asian Noodle Bar I head toward Old Town. This is the tourist trap of Albuquerque, much like our own midtown, but nestled around a square and with better architecture. Driving west on Central I pass a shack of a place called The Dog House, I keep going, but vow to check it out sometime. Near Old Town I find another dirt lot with the slot-box thingies. I park, walk toward the box, realize that I don't know the number that I parked in, walk back and check, then back to the box. When I get there, two men, who've just stepped out of a giant of an SUV are struggling to put their coins in the slot, they keep sticking and won't fall in. "Pretty archaic," the one with the sticky coins says. His companion agrees as I watch, bemused. Use your key to push them in, I think, but instead say, "Well, you don't have to worry about 'em breaking down." They look at me like I farted and return to their struggle. By the time they finish and I've folded and shoved two bills into the face of the box I realize that I'm probably paying the wrong one. Shit, I think, and walk back to the space, check the number, and walk back and pump three more dollars into the right box. Glad the fart sniffers have moved on and missed that little cluster. I'm thinking that they probably don't even check the boxes all that often, but I sure don't want to come back and have to call an impound lot because I was wrong. I like Albuquerque's Old Town because it is what it is, it doesn't try to be Santa Fe. With a few pretentious wannabe exceptions, the area around the square is perfectly content to be a giant Stuckey's. Far above all this is the church of San Felipe de Neri. Originally built in 1706, the first church collapsed in 1792 after heavy rains, and the present church was built the following year; it's walls are adobe and at the ground are five feet thick. Looking up at the two towers that grace the top of the building I think that they may be the most beautiful man-made objects I've ever seen. Brown stucco, with white trim and adornments, and framed by sky that is only this blue in New Mexico, they are stunning. Walking past the front gate of the church grounds I see a group of Mennonite (I think) women walking toward me in traditional dress with prayer coverings over their hair. One is perhaps in her forties, the other are all in their late teens, they are all tall, strong looking with pretty northern European faces bright red with a sheen of sweat and they are taking furtive, disapproving looks to their right where two young Latina women lounge against the church wall, all legs, makeup and cleavage. Then I realize that they are, in fact, casting their glances past the young women to the Catholic church. Behind the church one comes to Church Street and the Church Street Café. I had eaten there once before, years ago and, remembering how good the fruit salad was then, simple syrup covered berries topped with plain yogurt, I wanted it again. But, this time was a disappointment. The service was good, efficient and friendly; the beer (Outlaw Lager) was fine; the back patio, surrounded by adobe walls, shaded and complete with the sounds of a fountain and an excellent classical guitarist, was wonderful. But, the simple, delicious salad of memory was no more. Oh, they offered a fruit salad, and it even appeared to be the same on the menu, but it was merely a bowl of yogurt and a plate of very under-ripe melon slices. Still, gotta give the Church Street Cafe huge points for atmosphere though, so I would try it again.
A few days ago I was in Albuquerque after dropping the kiddos off at the airport (off to Germany, again… the lucky turds) and looking for something to eat. I had a vague idea of what I wanted, Thai or Middle Eastern, and was cruising Central looking hot as hell in my bad ass Batmobile when I spotted the Asian Noodle Bar. Oh, hell yeah, I thought, remembering the article I had read months before and then forgotten about the then year-old restaurant being named one of the five best noodle bars in the US by BonAppetit magazine. On the one hand, I tend to dislike any "best of" list as there is no way in hell the author checked every one of anything in most cities, let alone most states, to say nothing of the whole friggin' country, but they did check a lot of places, so if something is listed as one of the "best" you can safely bet that it's at least pretty damned good. That in mind, I sought out one of those dirt parking lots with one of those box-with-numbered-slots-honor-system boxes (oh, redundancy), parked, deposited my money and walked the half-block back to the small store-front restaurant with the unpretentious sign proclaiming it the Asian Noodle Bar. Seen more exciting labels on a pack of ramen, I think as I walk in past the disheartening Coors neon blazing away in the wrought iron protected window. These, and all other thoughts, are quashed as I enter the dining room; no clichés here, just cool, clean-lined modern Asian décor and a large inviting bar with a view of nothing but the kitchen. As I've said before, if there is a counter, sit at it. The waiter is prompt, friendly and answers my questions with pride and authority, he knows the menu and the history. The chef, MimySingvilay, immigrated to the US, settling in Albuquerque, from Laos with her parents when she was about three years old, she's "self-taught" (parens only because I hate that term because it implies that no one else was a factor in the learning of a skill, even if it was a parent, author, mentor; just because the knowledge wasn't handed down from on high by a degreed professor in some institution of higher learning….okay, I'll stop now…), and this is her first restaurant. She's also drop dead gorgeous, I know that doesn't have anything to do with anything, but I have a thing for Asian women in chef's coats…there, I said it, it's a diagnosed condition, look it up. My waiter makes his suggestions and I pick Japanese miso soup from the forty or so choices that span most Asian cuisines. I settle in with my KirinIchiban beer and watch as the cooks work, one of the two commercial woks putting out around 65,000 btus, compared to my stove's 26,000 and your 18,000. Together, they sound like a jet taking off and the heat can be felt from fifteen feet away. A lone TV, to my left, is tuned to what I think is a Singaporean soap opera (I'm pretty iffy on that one) that seems to exist only so that a woman in a blue dress can sign songs complete with bouncing ball graced subtitles. Directly opposite of me, near the cash register, two small children sit, playful, but restrained, that is until the smallest throws his flip-flop at the waiter. Reading the label of my beer, I'm a little disappointed to find that my Japanese beer is bottled in California by Anheuser-Busch, the brewer of Budweiser. Then I think that A-B is in a struggle to avoid being bought by InBev, a giant Belgian brewer, that is in turn ran by Brazilians. Gotta love globalization. Oh well, it's still a good beer. Amid these, and other thoughts (mmmm, chef coat), my soup arrives. It comes in a gigantic bowl, a very generous serving of green onions, seaweed, tofu and soba noodles in miso broth. The smell alone is worth the price and the taste is fantastic; clean and fresh. Less than half way in, I put the fork down and pick up my chop sticks and do a pretty good job of making it to my mouth with the slippery noodles in spite of being years out of practice. A few stools down from me a very happy looking Asian guy is slurping away at a bowl of something spicy, pausing every few bites to mop his bright red, beaded forehead. I finish with some awesome red bean ice cream I then walk back to my car, passing Knockouts Gentleman's Club, a pastel colored building with no view inside. One of the dancers takes a smoke outside the door, chatting with the bouncer who is setting out a sandwich board with drink specials on it. I wonder who exactly her clients are going to be at 3 o'clock on a Monday afternoon
That night he went home from work to find that she had in fact moved out. "It's just temporary," he told himself as he noted the small things that were missing, her toothbrush, some CDs. He sat down and read that terrorists had exploded bombs in the subways and buses of London. 52 dead. Then he went to bed and cried, thinking only of his own loss.
Exhausted, sore, my head aching with a hundred different worries and gripes, I finally have the place to myself after ten hours of listening to a mixed bag of 80s pop up front, rap in the dish room, and the ever-changing sounds (sometimes literal) that accompany Frank anytime he’s in the prep kitchen. One song had the catchy title of “Fist Fuck”, I actually recognized it from an Al Pacino movie called Cruising that I saw more than twenty years ago…it’s that kind of song. I pick up my favorite broom and carry it toward the pizza bench, pausing at the XM radio to change the channel. The only thing that sounds good right now is classical, and as I start sweeping my way back toward the dish room the Mozart that had been playing ends and is replaced by a pleasant little dance number which sounds familiar but not. I stop again at the XM and look at the screen, “Tchaikovsky – Polonaise” it glows. A polonaise is a dance, but the word brought to mind an emulsion of egg and oil with pineapple; it would be the base sauce for numerous Jell-O concoctions containing cottage cheese that are seen only at funeral pot lucks in the South. Polonaise would be distantly related to vaginaise, a mix of Dijon mustard and mayo that I was introduced to during my short tour of duty at Le Bistro. This is what happens to your brain when you stand next to a blistering hot oven all day, every day. Stay in school.
Thursday morning by about 8:30 I was pretty sure I was going to go. I’d been talking about it for years, more and more in the past few weeks and I knew I needed to go now. The time was right, my motivation was flagging a bit at work, I was bored, and I knew I wouldn’t get another chance until after summer. Plus, I had to know if it was true. Was the best pizza in the U.S. being made in Phoenix? By 10:20 am I was on my way through the Mescalero Apache reservation, driving past (with regret) dueling fry bread stands on opposite sides of the highway, their spray painted plywood signs proclaiming both to be real Apache fry bread. Alamogordo I got to avoid thanks to the new bypass. Alamogordo is one of those towns that I always wonder why they were founded in the first place. Throughout the west, certainly the southwest, there are hundreds of towns like it that had to spring up only because a hundred and forty years ago someone’s wagon broke down or their oxen died. They couldn’t make that last push across the desert to California and they sure as hell weren’t going to make it back to Kentucky, so here they stayed and built and lived. Las Cruces was the usual cluster fuck to negotiate. A small town pushed to the second largest city in New Mexico in just a few years, it is always under construction and highways start in dirt fields and end in two lane one-way city streets with little warning. Next come Deming and Lordsburg, both unremarkable from the interstate, and truck stop pauses to refuel, piss and buy junk and soda (all dietary rules are suspended while on road trips…it’s in the Geneva Convention, look it up). About thirty miles across the Arizona line a sign announces that I am entering Texas Canyon and suddenly I am in the landscape that surely must have inspired Radiator Springs in Cars. Bare rock piled on bare rock in bizarre towers, the jutting tail fins just visible with the right mindset. Tucson, bigger than I expected, but with an alarming lack of gas stations on the west side of town (they were there, I saw later, just hidden behind piles of orange barrels) and then the home stretch to Phoenix. Phoenix, a city I’d never had any interest in visiting, my sole contact with it had been to change planes there last year en route to Mexico, and nothing about that experience had impressed me. But it is the home of Chris Bianco and his Pizzeria Bianco. Chris Bianco is said to be a high school dropout from New York City who moved to Phoenix after winning a ticket to “anywhere in the U.S.” He has said that he still doesn’t know why he picked Phoenix, but that he felt a connection to the place as soon as he arrived and had soon moved there. Pizzeria Bianco is located in the Heritage Square area of downtown, and finding it was no problem, exit I-10 at Washington, go west to 7th and then North to Adams. Then be prepared to turn around and follow the simple directions from the guy working the parking lot to find the nearby parking garage. The place is busy as hell and the small parking lot will be full. I arrived around 6 pm, local time, and walked up to the front door of the 1920s era machine shop that now houses Pizzeria Bianco. Folks waiting outside at the shaded picnic tables that sit between the front door and the sidewalk told me that I needed to get on the wait list and to “get ready.” I assured them that I was and walked in…and damn near froze. There he was, the legend himself. Said by some, including the New York Times writer Ed Levine, to make the best pizza in the United States, Chris Bianco won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef, Southwest in 2003, the only pizzaiolo to ever do so. Legend says that he makes every pizza that comes out of his restaurant, that he will not make pies to go because they just aren’t as good after steaming in a box, that he makes his own mozzarella, that he uses local products as much as possible and that if he can’t be present at his place, he closes. The legends are true. There he was, in the flesh behind his counter making pizzas in front of a large round wood-fired oven. The hostess was beautiful and courteous and I could scarcely concentrate on what she was telling me as the man looked up at me from his station and gave me one of those sneering Bronx nods that says, “Hey, how you doin’?” Two and a half hour wait for one? On a Thursday? All I could thinks was, 'How fantastic is that?' He’s been doing this for about fifteen years and to have that kind of a wait on a weekday is incredible. I am more than happy to go back outside and walk next door to Bar Bianco, an old brick house that has been converted into a beer and wine bar waiting area for the pizzeria. The bar is awesome. People are in every room, sitting on couches, playing cards and board games, several girls wait on the front porch, and families wait at the tables in the yard between the two buildings. The place is just beautiful My Session in hand I pick a bench in front of the pizzeria and fire off a few text messages to my kids and a couple of friends who have just found out where I am and are trying to fathom why. The people-watching is great here and no one seems to mind the wait. A couple of women approach and one goes inside and checks with the hostess. She exits and tells her friend of the three-hour wait and her friend says, “No, no pizza is worth that.” It’s all I can do not to say something. I have driven nearly eight hours, and have already spent a hundred dollars (mostly in gas) to arrive here to be told that I must wait, not to mention the awkward feeling of hoping that the pizza is truly the best I’ve ever had while hoping like hell that mine is better…it better be worth it. A little bit later a woman arrives with two kids. She goes in and comes back out and again the discussion about the wait. A man arrives with a poodle in his arms. The poodle is wearing a “service dog” vest, and the man walks into the restaurant with it. He is soon back outside. The questionable service dog, nor his very healthy-looking master, will be seated in the pizzeria, but the chef will break his rule and make something to go. Another group arrives and the lone representative enters and returns. “How long’s the wait,” his companions want to know. “Not sure,” he lies. “We can go next door though and get a drink.” He knows how long the wait is going to be, he’s been here before, he knows it’s worth it, but knows that his friends will rebel and insist on going elsewhere if he tells the truth. Another indicator that this will be good. Within an hour and a half I am called in and given a seat at the counter (love counters) at the same time as a guy named Gary. Gary is from Houston originally, though he works and lives in Dallas now. He works for a company that manufactures and sells electronics. Gary is very talkative. Next to him are two older ladies, both transplants from New York City. Gary strikes up a conversation with them and they are more than happy to tell him all that they know about Bianco, “He won the James Beard award,” one says. “The first time I came here, he was closed, on vacation. Takes his whole crew someplace every year,” the other says. Umberto, the bartender, tells me that he’s been with Bianco for about fourteen years. Any of you in the restaurant business know what this says about Chris Bianco. I order a Peroni and the mozzarella plate to start. Bianco does make his own mozzarella and it is stunning. Chewy, mild with just the right amount of salt and smoked in the oven the cheese is nothing short of amazing. The mozzarella that most of us are used to is shit by comparison. It’s like eating nothing but Wonder bread your whole life and then being given a piece of warm fresh baked artisanal bread, which the mozzarella is served with, along with beautiful, flavorful tomatoes and basil with a drizzle of olive oil. By the time my pie arrives, the two ladies from New York have been replaced by a woman and her two kids. This really isn’t a place for most small kids, only because of the wait, but she said that they had checked out the museum next door since getting on the wait list. I ordered the Margherita and it was fantastic. So simple, yet so good, give me this every time. Yeah, complex and challenging food has its place and I do enjoy it, but it’s not what I want to eat or cook on a regular basis. This is. Tomato, mozzarella, and basil on a perfectly charred, smoky crust. Perfect. As I eat I watch the room, several that have entered after me are clearly regulars as the staff greets them warmly and soon after Gary finishes eating and leaves one of these folks is seated next to me. Mr. Roth is dapper looking fellow in his 60s wearing a bow tie and one of the few men on the planet to be able to pull off wearing pleated slacks. He and Umberto exchange a very complex hand shake and as he pours his Coke from the glass bottle he’s been served into his glass he wants to know how I like the food, have I been here before and doesn’t seem fazed in the least by my eight hour drive just to get here. “Good for you,” he says and goes on to say that he’s been a regular for years, since the place opened in the mid 90s. As his salad arrives and I order my second pie, Mr. Roth confides in me that his wife gets their produce from the same local purveyor as Bianco. “Chris gets the best stuff though,” he says without rancor. My second pie is a Wiseguy; a white pie topped with mozzarella, roasted onions and locally made sausage. I actually groaned with the first bite and Mr. Roth was very happy that I liked it. I love that proprietary interest customers like Mr. Roth bring to the table, as concerned about my enjoying the food and experience as the staff was. Only intending to eat one or two slices of the Wiseguy I finished off half of it before giving it over to Umberto to box. I finished off my second Peroni and ordered an Americano, strangely there are no desserts at Bianco’s. Mr. Roth leaned close to tell me that there used to be an old lady who did the desserts, but that it was always the dessert’s not ready yet, or the dessert’s already gone, so no desserts anymore. No matter, I thought as I sipped my coffee and Mr. Roth got started on his antipasto platter of roasted vegetables. Around the counter, and the room, people were laughing, sharing food and having a good time, Chris Bianco watching with a slight smile, standing in front of his wood burning oven, a row of pies just visible inside its mouth. Turning to look out the window at my back I could see about twelve or so people waiting to get in, drinking their wine or beer and enjoying each other’s company. I lingered a little longer, not quite ready to leave, but not wanting to hold up a seat that someone else could be enjoying, so I said good-bye to Umberto and Mr. Roth and stood and made for the door. On the way out, I looked to where Bianco was standing and he nodded again and waved. Had he seen the scars on my hands and arms, my own oven “kisses”, or had he just recognized that I had been totally digging the food and the experience since first walking in? The drive back was even less eventful than the drive out and by 6:00 am, the sun just up, I was back home. One thousand miles, twenty hours and about two hundred and fifty dollars after my pilgrimage began I crawled into bed for a few hours sleep before I would return to work. Was it worth it? Will I return? Hells yeah.
“Have you ever thought of quitting?” she asked. “Smoking?” “No, not smoking. Smoking doesn’t make you wreck your car, doesn’t make you say or do shit you regret later, or lose your wallet. Smoking just kills you, it’s harmless.”
I hate being disappointed by movies, I take it almost personally. Ok, I do take it personally, “Surely, it will get better,” I tell myself as I continue to sit through a clearly doomed picture, refusing to move. But then crying, “How could they do this?” as I cry on the way home. I can only remember walking out of one movie in my life, Krull, way back in ‘83. I’d like to say that it was so horrible that I couldn’t stand it, but it couldn’t have been worse than 10,000 B.C., which I sat through. No, the truth is that I walked out of Krull because Stephanie Bates was chewing on my ear and whispering what she was going to do to me when we got back to the car…so, out we went. Anyway, what the hell was I talking about? Ah, yes, the disappointment that a bad movie can bring. A bad movie on tape or disc is no problem, I’m far more adventurous in that regard and will rent movies I’m not sure about because if I don’t like them I can turn them off, or just wander in and out while cleaning, or writing. But going to the theater takes commitment, in time and money (cost today for three with snacks: around $35.00), so I was a little nervous about seeing Speed Racer today, especially after reading reviews of how bad it was. It flippin’ rocked. I think a lot of reviewers forgot something, the film is based on an old cartoon, an old cartoon that, though I liked it as a kid, I find nearly unwatchable as an adult, and were expecting something more dramatic, darker. I bet these critics also hate the 60s Bat Man TV series because it made the Caped Crusader out as a joke and “ruined” the comic book series for two decades after. Again…cartoon, get the F over it. I think Speed Racer is beautiful; the colors, the animation, great actors doing a superb job with campy dialog and pulling it off, making it fun to hear, and race tracks that look like every eight year old boy’s wet dream of a Hot Wheels setup. The movie hit all the right notes for me with regards to referencing the original material, and all anime since, and never once in two hours and fifteen minutes of run time was I bored. In fact, if you liked the campy Bat Man, if you’ve ever gone shopping for pink plastic flamingos to piss off the neighbors, if you secretly love some music that you hope none of your friends find out about, I think you will leave the theater after more than two hours of bright, flashing, roller coaster simulation-like racing action as I did; slightly nauseous, but giddy and ready to go again.