World's Best Food? I say BURMESE!

I'm posting a few pics just so you can witness this paradise of the palate. I'll come back with a post dedicated to tea salad, the dish that made me love Burma -- both last time and now --- but feast on these in the meantime...

 Fish with two curries, cabbage and a chili/fish paste compote. I go to this stand every morning for breakfast. $1

Fish with two curries, cabbage and a chili/fish paste compote. I go to this stand every morning for breakfast. $1

 Chapati and chana. I watched him slap the dough to the inside of the tandoori oven. 20 cents. 

Chapati and chana. I watched him slap the dough to the inside of the tandoori oven. 20 cents. 

 Curried fish filets and all the trimmings: cabbage, vegetable tray with spicy fish-sauce dip, sour greens soup, and tea. $1

Curried fish filets and all the trimmings: cabbage, vegetable tray with spicy fish-sauce dip, sour greens soup, and tea. $1

 Fish with chilis: can I get a pound of this a day?

Fish with chilis: can I get a pound of this a day?

 A sublime roasted eggplant salad with dal

A sublime roasted eggplant salad with dal

 Almost a beef jerky but soft

Almost a beef jerky but soft

 Spicy chicken. But note the sides: raw eggplants mint, some incredibly sour leaves, cucumber, boiled beans maybe, and something like very firm and tart  green mango. 

Spicy chicken. But note the sides: raw eggplants mint, some incredibly sour leaves, cucumber, boiled beans maybe, and something like very firm and tart  green mango. 

 Squid and tiny shrimp. Eighty cents -- with two bowls of soup!

Squid and tiny shrimp. Eighty cents -- with two bowls of soup!

 A nod to Leopold Bloom: kidneys for breakfast!

A nod to Leopold Bloom: kidneys for breakfast!

 Chicken livers and gizzards

Chicken livers and gizzards

Filipino food 101

One month, an odyssey of flavors. Here are some of the highlights...

 A variety of dried fish and squids. These are delicious dipped in vinegar sauces and/or grilled.

A variety of dried fish and squids. These are delicious dipped in vinegar sauces and/or grilled.

 Bikol: a treat of grilled coconut rice (i think). Super yummy.

Bikol: a treat of grilled coconut rice (i think). Super yummy.

  Sinigang: the ubiquitous sour tamarind soup, a Filipino classic.

Sinigang: the ubiquitous sour tamarind soup, a Filipino classic.

 Street food in Manila, including chicken adobo (top), pancit canton (the noodles) and veggies cooked in coconut milk

Street food in Manila, including chicken adobo (top), pancit canton (the noodles) and veggies cooked in coconut milk

 Fish-head sinigang in Iloilo, a town in the Vasayas. Delicious. 

Fish-head sinigang in Iloilo, a town in the Vasayas. Delicious. 

 The classic crispy pata: pork knuckle. 

The classic crispy pata: pork knuckle. 

 A Manila streetfood staple: batter-fried duck egg.

A Manila streetfood staple: batter-fried duck egg.

 One of my standard breakfasts: pancit with assorted vegetables and a balut on the side. 

One of my standard breakfasts: pancit with assorted vegetables and a balut on the side. 

 Eatery food in Iloilo: munggo (mung bean soup) and pickled anchovies.

Eatery food in Iloilo: munggo (mung bean soup) and pickled anchovies.

 Lechon kawali! One of the many variations of fried pork meat/skin.

Lechon kawali! One of the many variations of fried pork meat/skin.

 Popular fast food: Filipino spaghetti, fried chicken, lumpia ( summer rolls ), and pichi pichi -- a steamed cassava dessert, this time covered in cheese. 

Popular fast food: Filipino spaghetti, fried chicken, lumpia (summer rolls), and pichi pichi -- a steamed cassava dessert, this time covered in cheese. 

 Pork adobo: a classic. 

Pork adobo: a classic. 

 One of the best things I ate: kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) in Iloilo.

One of the best things I ate: kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) in Iloilo.

 My favorite Filipino food? Sisig -- pig face salad -- here bought on the street in Manila. 

My favorite Filipino food? Sisig -- pig face salad -- here bought on the street in Manila. 

 Tapa: fried marinated beef. 

Tapa: fried marinated beef. 

  Turmeric chicken (manok) and sisig

Turmeric chicken (manok) and sisig

 Lunch on the island of Negros Orientales: grilled fish, prawn sinigang, and tomato/ginger/chili salad. Yum!

Lunch on the island of Negros Orientales: grilled fish, prawn sinigang, and tomato/ginger/chili salad. Yum!

My dumbest moment ever? The balut story...

 "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it.' / Let us go and make our visit."

"Oh, do not ask, 'What is it.' / Let us go and make our visit."

Well, I'm now in Manila and happy as a tahong.

I've already eaten a zillion delicious variations of pork, vinegar, fish, and deep-frying as well as more pork, more vinegar, more fish, and more deep-fried stuff. I'll do a giant Filipino food post soon, I promise.

But before that, I want to step back a bit in time and recount a now rather prolonged odyssey I've had with the most (in)famous Filipino food of all: the balut.

A balut is a fertilized duck's egg, eaten when the embryo has gotten quite near ready to be hatched. It seems to strike fear in most palefaces (though is also eaten in much of the rest of SE Asia), is praised for its texture -- as you are supposed to be able to detect the crunch of the beak -- and is reputed, like many things dubious, to be an aphrodisiac.

When I failed to eat balut last time I was in this part of the world, many of you readers gave me deserved grief. So when I saw a little handwritten sign in the Filipino supermarket near my house in LA that said "balut," I knew I was in.

Once home, I used the standard method of tapping the top of the shell off so you can drink the liquid.  I had read that they were only lightly cooked, and when I started sipping the liquid, I thought to myself, Wow, this is really lightly cooked -- as in really.

So I drank it all -- nor was it pleasant in the least -- and then I unwrapped the rest of the thing and found this inside:

 would you eat this? 

would you eat this? 

Friends,  you know me to be an idiot. I looked at that imminent avian and thought to myself, Well, I guess lightly cooked is pretty damn lightly cooked, and then i popped the whole thing in my mouth at once and ate it. 

Nor was it pleasant in the least.

Now, I tend to like pretty much everything, so I realized maybe something was wrong. So I fired up the Google machine -- for, while intelligent people research and then act, I clearly do the reverse -- and I saw many images of yellow hardboiled-ish-egg-looking orbs -- but with heads in them. None looked like the photo above

And then i realized: I had eaten a balut, but it had been raw. 

(When I told my Filipino colleague Andrea Roxas this, she died laughing, called her grandmother in the Philippines, who also died laughing and apparently still asks about the dumb white guy who eats raw balut.  I'm a family favorite!)

As to moments of travel-related dipshittedness on my part, I think this even beat out smoking Burmese cigars backward (thus inhaling the entire filter) or trying to chew the mega-roach's wings as my biggest rookie mistake. Some live, others learn. 

I knew I had to try again. So I went back, bought another, boiled it this time, and then shot this video:

Upshot: that was one seriously overcooked balut. When I recounted both my mishaps to another Filipino friend, John Pingol, he postulated that the grocery would never have sold me a raw one -- as I had suspected from the get-go -- and thus had gotten the one in a million raw one the first time, but then the second time, had just cooked an already cooked one. Good times. 

Well, now I'm in Manila, so you can be damn sure I was going to do it a third time and try to get it right 

(apologies that my forehead looks like Gary Oldman's in Bram Stoker's Dracula...)

Success! Though it still mostly tasted like a regular hardboiled chicken egg, and the bird in this one was so small, it didn't have much of an effect. I felt I needed to go back and find a bigger, Erik- or Billy-sized fetus to get the full effect. 

Fortune smiled on me, and my next one had this titan inside, taking up pretty much the entire egg -- and so developed it even had real feathers and feet! 

large balut duck fetus

That, my friends, is a balut to test your resolve.

But braved it I did, if only to recount back to you lovelies. So if you want to know just how giant the thing is when seen next to my head, have a gander. Or to have explained the umami effect (or, were I to coin a neologism, the counter-umami effect, as it was) of highly developed feathers, beak and feet eaten in a lightly boiled state, spend another 90 seconds with me. I'm sure it will be more fun for you than it was for me. 

Though balut will never be my favorite breakfast, and though much of the point really was lost on me, I'm glad I tried (and tried, and tried). For not only should everyone's norms should be shaken to their  taproots, but also because unpleasant things push the amplitude of your life's vibration just as the joyous ones do, and I think that by plumbing deeper below the axis you make yourself that much more capable of rising up above it. Melville's Catskill eagle, anyone? 

(And, now that the balut is crossed off, anyone have anything else they want me to eat while I'm here? Or any culinary misadventures you want to share? I love hearing from you.)

Australia on my fork

 Wattle-seed "damper" with dukkah seeds and oil

Wattle-seed "damper" with dukkah seeds and oil

Melville once quipped, "Nantucket is no Illinois," by which he meant that it's an island, not an immensely landlocked state but for Lake Michigan to the North. 

A similar logic would have us say that Australia is no France, but here I'm referring to the lack of threat that one would feel the need to emigrate to Oz to satisfy one's all-consuming gourmandize. No, I suspect you haven't heard much about Australian cuisine (I barely demur from putting the last word in quotes), and that clearly is a function of enough people following the old maxim that if you have nothing nice to say, you zip your trap. 

Now that isn't to say that you can't find good ethnic food in Australia; from what I'm told, that abounds and is quite passable. But as I was soon to be visiting the countries themselves from which said food would hail, I tried to focus exclusively on local specialties and oddities, like the quite nice wattle- (Oz-speak for acacia) seed "damper," a loaf traditionally made in the Outback, baked either directly on the coals or in a camp skillet and also, the gods of Wiki tell me, sometimes called "cocky's joy" -- a marvelous, if rather misleading appellation. 

 Salmon, smoked crocodile, emu carpaccio, and kangaroo pate

Salmon, smoked crocodile, emu carpaccio, and kangaroo pate

To maximize my exposure to the indigenous, autochthonous, and native, I twice visited North Queensland's most celebrated restaurant, Ochre, in Cairns. They specialize in all the synonyms I just listed and bring together tasting trays for those of us with mental checklists and inkpens itching to ex.  

My overall takeaway from Ochre was that the food was terrible, but actually that's because the dishes my Swiss friends ordered -- veggie and a seafood samplers, respectively -- deviated both from the local injunction and from all attentiveness to the laws of flavor and texture (though the presentations weren't half bad) . However, the truly Aussie-only ingredients they did rather well, as with the platter above. 

I had never had croc, though i have had gator, and the croc left a much more pleasant memory.  The emu wasn't especially noteworthy one way or another, but I do think there's an extra transgressive pleasure in punishing creatures that are supposedly birds and yet remain flightless. (Poor things.) 'Roo I had eaten in virtually un-chewable and vile jerky form, whereas this pate was both palatable and admirably easy on the mandible.  

But the star of the night was the wallaby steak. (What is a wallaby, you ask? As far as my zoology takes me, it's a small type of kangerooish thing that of course only lives in Ausralia).

Now if i could get wallabies to traipse through my brother's yard in Westchester, there's no doubt we'd be hurling boomerangs at them willy-nilly in hopes of eating more of these tender, slightly gamy, and simply yummy steaks. (Everything else on the plate was an icky purple goo drowning some couscous, but bless their hearts for trying...)

 Wallaby steak -- yum!

Wallaby steak -- yum!

That was round one of Ochre. I went back a second time and started with a flight of local hooch: two gins, a wonderful rum called Iridium, and a liquor most unfortunately named "The Big Black Cock Whiskey." (We'll let that pass, per the aforementioned knowledge that my maturation was also slowed by lack of outside input; too much isolation and that shit just happens.)

Still feeling the need to get a kangaroo steak, I ordered that, but it proved true to the warnings: overcook it even an iota and it gets tough.  Mine was overcooked an iota and a half.

 Kangaroo steak -- bring a buzzsaw

Kangaroo steak -- bring a buzzsaw

Finally there was a dish on the menu that had really attracted my attention: "Gulf Bugs on Lemongrass."

Ooh, local bugs! Alterity for the honky-normative! Take a video; scare the children! Those of you familiar with these pages will remember the giant roach, the wallet-sized tarantula, the grasshopper, etc, so I was dying to see what entomological wonder some Australian gulf could come up with with a few undisturbed million years of evolution.

What I got were these:

 They call them Gulf bugs...

They call them Gulf bugs...

(Sorry about the blurriness)

Good god! They're huge? Are they the biggest cicadas in the world? Biblical locusts? Ants that could eat Adelaide?

As it turns out, none of the above: they were absolutely scrumptious "bay lobsters," as they are called by their other name.  Shellfish, not insects? I realize that I had the distinction of running a marketing team for Disney, but does it take insider experience to realize that with a predominately foreign clientele, Ochre wasn't really doing its star dish justice by calling it bugs instead of lobsters? 

But there I go again, taking umbrage. So apparently here in my final hours in Australia, I had still missed the point. Shouldn't I instead have been taking a page from this sweet country's book and just sat back, chilling with a beer and a smile?

Alas, relaxation is not my strong suit, much less easygoing acceptance. I fear I was too much a New Yorker for this country and it too much a relic of the Commonwealth for me.

Time to move to duskier settings; next stop: the teeming chaos that is Manila. 

Bats revisited

Not to belabor, but these things were utterly crazy -- and there were thousands of them each night swarming the tree outside my hotel in Cairns, Australia. Each one looks like this:

 yes, I'm a giant frigging bat with a mink collar worthy of a Tzar -- and what of it? 

yes, I'm a giant frigging bat with a mink collar worthy of a Tzar -- and what of it? 

Since my scuba-diving trip in Cairns got cancelled, this was my best Aussie nature experience -- living that is -- that I had in North Queensland. And though the spectacled fruit bat -- a.k.a. flying fox -- is not exclusively indigenous to Oz, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a hotel in a downtown city anywhere else in the world where you can see this every night:

'Nuff said

A friend just asked if, now that I'm peregrinating about and being utterly freewheeling, whether I'm back to my old self, and how distant Disney feels. My answer was that the job really feels like someone else's memory that I temporarily housed, like I had been sent down the wrong Bladerunner assembly line but am now fixed.  

i took this picture from outside Kata Tjuda, and I think it summarizes the Disney years pretty well:

Whereas now, things are much more like this.

The oyster waits, shelled. 

Curious dingoes and flying foxes (no, not SE Asian flight attendants...)

So…close encounters with dingoes or “I can now go to the grave saying I was sniffed by wild dogs.” 

The backstory is that I had signed up for an outback tour that included 3 days of driving around in a rickety van with 18 20-somethings — and, yes, I was feeling quite acutely the fact that my birth year starts with a 6 instead of an 8 or 9 — and two nights of “bush camping,” which apparently means no tent, just you and a bedroll under the prodigious Southern Hemisphere stars.

Now, the rest of the group circled their sleeping bags around a big central fire, but I was concerned that my snoring might keep everyone awake — until they stoned me or doused me in kerosene and set me ablaze — so I took my roll and moved a couple hundred meters away from the camp. Our guide told me I’d be fine out there by myself, and though we had spotted some dingoes creeping up sort of close to us, they scattered when we trained our flashlights on them.

    In the mood for American tonight...?

 

In the mood for American tonight...?

Well, the stars weren’t really out yet, but the moon was so bright that I had a very tough time going to sleep. So for quite some time I was just lying there with my eyes closed, and then I heard faint footsteps. I opened my eyes, and about 4 feet away was a dingo, somewhat courageously checking me out. 

I obviously couldn’t get a picture, but he looked a lot like the one on the left in this stock photo)

An hour or so later I heard the footsteps again and the same thing happened. And then, once I guess I had dozed off lightly, I woke up hearing sniffing noises, opened my eyes without twitching any other muscles, and there were three dingos right up close, giving my face the nose test. They weren’t menacing at all, and once they realized I was awake, they all backed away. 

I don’t think I was in any danger — though I have to think my un-showered self probably smelled a bit like an aged bratwurst —  and to be honest, they were really cute and playful-looking. Perhaps my guide knew this, or perhaps he was just okay having the lone senex in the group dragged off into the night. 

In any case, I’ve now had exceptionally close and unexpected encounters at various times in my life with dingoes, moose, falcons, water buffalo and stingrays.  This was the least frightening of the episodes, but, as with each of the others, it felt kind of magical, like being behind the curtain of a play or seeing a poet’s original hand-written drafts. 

Maybe it’s sad that nature in its own element is such a rarity for me (my Alaskan friends are just shaking their heads), but I am a country and city boy, after all, and there really wasn’t anything where I grew up except corn and soybeans for 150 miles in any direction. i’m planning on doing some serious scuba diving in the next few weeks, so that’s likely to add a few species to the face-to-face list, but for now at least, the dingoes seemed really cool -- and a distilled dose of authentic Australia.

Next animal adventure: the spectacled flying fox, a.k.a. fruit bat, one of the world's largest "megabats," with a wingspan of 4.5 feet. They look like this (stock pic):

And here's one I caught with my own camera. 

It lives....or at least I do

yes, good people, this is the new blog, and I am indeed typing these brief words from the underside of the globe, almost dead-center in the middle of that left-by-itself-its-entire-childhood oddity known as Australia.

(as a similarly conditioned oddity, of course I'm sympathetic)

within a few days, expect photos and limpidity on wild dingoes sniffing my face while I tried to sleep on a bedroll sans-tent in the outback; on Uluru, the great aboriginal icon (and much more); and on my probably overactive honkiphobia. 

for now, a pic of where I am: 

    The at-times-aptly-named (but not always) Australian "Red Center"

 

The at-times-aptly-named (but not always) Australian "Red Center"

the stuff of dreams


hello dearies

so clearly this pic is of the serbia i was expecting to find; note the dilapidated soviet-era car, the crumbling building, etc. in reality, there isn't much of that here, but at least i was able to find a little (and, yes, i only wear green polos and always carry bags full of root vegetables wherever i go...).

i promised a few dreams, despite remembering clearly a few lines of cautionary poetry that go: "describe a dream/lose a reader." alas, hopefully these are worth it.

the more recent is easily explained: my brother comes to visit, and instead of me taking the feather bed off my futon and putting it in my office, as i normally do (so we have separate beds, for if you've ever been w/in 20 yards when my brother takes off a shoe you'll know is a vital necessity), but this time, it's clear we're going to have to share a bed. more odd, mike tyson is also there. very friendly, not at all homoerotic (really!). just like he happens to be staying too, and now we have the dilemma of three guys who have to share the same bed and work very hard not to accidentally bump each other in the night.

in person, the former champ is very mild-mannered and pleasant, by the way -- at least in my dream.

the other one i think holds a meaning i'd like to keep with me.

i'm walking through a very fancy restaurant with my mom. we're planning on eating, but we see the prix fixe and decide it doesn't look so good, so we decide to pass. i'm walking toward the exit, and suddenly it's my dad, not my mom. we walk into the only apparent way out: a tiny blank white room, as if under construction. i ask a waiter if this is the elevator, and he says of course.

it looks barely painted, unfinished, and entirely inappro- priate for such a fancy restaurant. worse, the back left corner appears to have a punch hole in the top; there's a jagged opening in the ceiling and the plaster seems all in shards. but when i look more carefully, i see that the jags are actually intended, that the plaster is all made of interlocked, unbelievably subtle lettering, and then i see that in fact the whole room is made of such lettering, only perceivable when you try to see it. it is intricate and exquisite in the extreme -- and clearly a joke on the patrons to think that the restaurant had failed them. especially when crowded, there'd be almost no chance of thinking that the elevator was anything other than a travesty. but no. it's consummate art. loved it.

the food, by the way, is the other stuff of dreams: buckwheat pasta, parsnips w/ greens (the leaves of which were absolutely delicious), and the best beans i've ever had. sorry, steve from rancho gordo; i still have a dozen or so of yours to try, but the bar has been raised. if all goes well, i'll bring 10 pounds of these home w/ me and all of you will get to taste them. they are the legume equivalent of a hot sulphur spring: so minerally, good for you, rich, dense, and gratifying you can't believe it. i've been making tuscan-style bean sandwiches w/ kaymak, ajvar, pickled veggies, beans, and a drizzle of olive oil. superb.

unlabeled bottles -- yeah!


among the few regrets i have in life is never having been on horseback on a dustblown plain out west and had my brother, also on horseback, put a cork back in an label-less bottle and toss it to me for a swig.

my version instead is to purchase mystery homemade liquors in all countries of the world, raising local eyebrows, risking eyesight, and enjoying every incendiary drop.

obviously, the above is a bottle of rakija, we have no idea what type, delivered by one of danica's friends named Bojana -- a dentist -- as a present from her boss, who heard i like the indigenous hooch. head dentist, buddy, this one is for you. i won't tell that you've been using it to anesthetize both your pre-op patients -- and yourself.

(oh, and here's the picture, by the way, of the rest of the spread she brought, food compliments of her grandmother: homemade ajvar, sublimely delicate cabbage rolls, roast pork, the rakija, and roast lamb. score!)

now, assuming the liquor bottle does in fact, tragically, have a label, the thing you're clearly after is the hand-written type, or at least the hand-numbered small batch, as in this delightful case, a delivery from another of danica's friends (apparently my reputation is beginning to precede me). this one is from the provinces down south, and apparently the one the friend's dad drinks (natch). she also brought a homemade jar of ajvar, as you can see. delicious.

of course i can't bring any of these home in their bottles proper, so many of you can look forward to my own barely labeled bottle special: the former water bottle with the label ripped off and the name of the alcohol written into the residual glue left behind. apparently my left-behind half-liter bottles that say:
G
I
N
down the middle have traumatized some visitors to my brother's home. sorry about that, Stoli Beri drinkers everywhere.

to know your double-goer, and for him to be famous and dead

this could be my bio:
•born while dad is in grad school
•elder of two children
•moved to and spent early life in champaign, IL
•dad prof at Univ of Illinois
•eventually went to public school in Urbana, IL
•prodigy in math
•went east for college
•double majored in philosophy and lit
•considered (briefly) grad school in philo
•had extremely unkempt long hair
•became a writer
•suffered depression
•wrote fiction and nonfiction
•taught at a university
•loved tennis
•loved dogs

and in fact, it is. it is also the bio of the late David Foster Wallace.

when i consider my frustrations with my career, i would do well to think that much of his writing is what i would like mine to be, his notoriety what i covet, yet still he tied a noose for himself at the apex of it all.

sparkle in the eye

first, a guest entry from my brother (who is just back from a bbq weekend retreat w/ my dad in KC -- details to follow, apparently):

"bro, i made some hot sauce from annesa's peppers (her dad has a big garden). it's really good but it's so fucking hot i can't believe it. whole body heat. i have a jar for you. you'll love it but you'll also live in fear of it. i really should bottle it and sell it. i gotta say it's the best tasting almost inedible hot sauce i've ever had."

so, yes, my family takes vacations just to eat meat, then comes home and we exchange hot sauce for the holidays. good times.

in other news, i met this utterly adorable little guy while on my way back from the market (yes, with leeks). he was so cute and excited i can barely tell you (note the paw placement in the fence). when you see the sparkle in his eyes in the last photo, you'll know why i think i could move out of the city and be happy just having a dog and playing tennis every day -- even if i'm living in my van.

on the food front, i did in fact eat at the hunter's lodge. had a venison goulash, yummy, and continued to scandalize my friend by eschewing silverware and instead simply mopping bread in sauce for every bite then taking home all the meat at the end.

clearly you've all been waiting for your serbian thug bird gang update. well, today i saw about 6 of the crows torment and herd about 3 dozen seagulls, driving them to various corners of the soccer pitch and then finally shooing them away altogether. these is a no-nonsense avian mafia, i'm telling you. highly organized and capable.


didn't end up writing much this week, as i spent the entire week reading Infinite Jest on my computer (it's a half a million words long, so at the end of each day of nothing but 1120x820 text, i'd get up and walk around like one of the mole people pulled out onto a daylighted Broadway). amazing what a protracted cry for help it was; with hindsight's 20-20, it's haunting (mike moore's word) to see all the signs that DFW was going to take his own life. tragic.

as for the book, it's clearly the Gravity's Rainbow of our generation -- intentionally so, i think -- and a pretty amazing, if flawed and, in my opinion, quite unfinished book. have much more to say but won't go on here about it.

i'll wrap up for now, but coming soon: two dreams -- the white elevator in fancy restaurant and mike tyson meets my family

the $1 lunch experiment

here is the chronicle of The One-dollar Lunch Experiment , otherwise known as a one-man, 4-crockpot, itsy-bitsy social experiment — if not the first seed of a revolution.

Ok, that's an exaggeration, I don't think there's going to be a revolution, and even if there was a revolution, I think the effects would be short-lived, as they seem to have been with every other (have you heard me tell the story about being in Prague in October of 1990 and going to the bar where Havel and the Charter 77 revolutionaries would have underground rock shows and poetry readings; a year after the "Velvet revolution," there was a red velvet rope outside the bar and doormen only letting in the cool, well-dressed, beautiful, and those who bribed).

So let's call it a social experiment — not a bad way of thinking about my life as a whole.

The whole thing came about like this. I decided to do an article reviewing crock pots, so I ordered a ton of them and needed to do a lot of testing.

Simul- taneously, I tasted some dried heirloom beans that my brother had ordered from a place called Rancho Gordo in Napa. At $5/lb they cost 4 times what I normally spend on dried beans, but the one kind I tried made me want to try the other 26 varieties that they sell.

So I ordered them all.

And I created a spreadsheet with reviews (I'm happy to share it w/ anyone who's interested).

Now the survivalist's perfect storm of having both 4 crockpots and 26 pounds of dried beans in one's apartment at the same time will lead you to some unorthodox thinking. In my case, it led to the desire to feed my office lunch, and to do so such that I could charge them each only $1 a portion and still break even.

It was the perfect economic challenge/mass-providing activity to suit all my psychological needs.

Additionally, it brings me one step closer to my dream of being a 260-lb Baptist woman — now, in addition to the perpetual roots gospel I have playing in my apartment, my basso singing along, my hip-shaking, and now, the capper, my bringing of lunch to 22 people a day, as if I was toting my prized pies or buttermilk fried chicken to the church social or the fair.

So here are the 19 meals i ended up cooking over the 29 business days from sept 21 - nov 1. (didn't use any recipes, but can give basic ideas upon request)

Meals:

1. Malaysian-style curried beef (rendang-like) w/ broc, red pepper, carrot, brown rice $1

2. SW-style chili con carne (pork/chicken livers as secret ingredient), green pepper, brown rice $1

3. Chana masala (chick pea curry) w/ broc, potato, brown rice $1

4. Chinese noodles w/ roast pork, red pepper, baby bok choy, peanut sauce $1

5. Penne w/ mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, labna, pepper/herbs de provence $1

6. Bbq pulled pork, heirloom flageolet beans, cabbage/cilantro/green pepper no-mayo slaw, rice $2 (couldn't get enough pork shoulder on sale, thus the price)

7. Hunter's stew (lamb, pork, chicharrones), white beans w/ spinach, brown rice $1

8. Re-tread chili (3 leftover chilis/beans from freezer mixed up), rice, cilantro $1

9. Pasta e fagioli (heirloom tepary and giant lima beans, artisinal orecchiete pasta) w/ watercress and sopressata) $2 due to Little Italy last-minute buying

10. peanut noodle dish w/ red peppers and scallions 75 cents (note, here's the pic, but normally i'd have to bring about twice this much food in)

11. 2 curries: french lentil w/ pea shoots/carrots/ghee (vegetarian not vegan), ground pork/red peppers/broc/cilantro and a roasted cauliflower (vegan) and brown rice $1

12. ricotta mini ravioli w/ broccoli rabe, heirloom snowcap beans, luganiga sausage, kalamata olives, fresh basil and tomato sauce: $2 (rabe is expensive)

13. tuscan-inspired sandwich w/ grilled duck hearts, broccoli rabe, white beans, shaved parmesan, and quality olive oil: $1.50

14. ziti w/ "sausage and peppers" -- sausage in the bolognese sauce w/ green pepper $1

15. vegan curried zucchini and brown rice. 75 cents (see pic)

16. heirloom mayocoba beans w/ green pepper, much better chick peas than you're used to (cuz they're not from a can) w/ spinach, brown rice $1

17. syrian-spiced grilled chicken breasts and "succotash" (corn, potato, greens), + chick peas, spinach, rice from yesterday $1.50

18. chicken cacciatore w/ egg noodles, green pepper, steamed yams $2

19. ricotta ravioli w/ zucchini and rich meat sauce (w/ soppressata cubes) $2

my favorite responses were from Kyle who repeatedly said how much he loved the whole idea of the thing (and seemed to enjoy the meals quite a bit too). megan was sweet b/c she had a new favorite every few days (as did margaret). and i got to know the people on the nerve side too, since obviously i opened it up to them.

in all, a blast, even though i'll probably have dishpan hands for all of 2011.

westchester redneck

all,

it's getting toward the holiday season, which puts me into my annual dilemma about whether or not to buy my brother a still for christmas.

he lives in westchester, so i'm dying for him to be cooking up his own hooch in a shed in the backyard, thus confirming that they could take us rednecks out of central Illinois, but couldn't take...

(i also have been trying to get him to host a greater New York roadkill cook-off, but somehow that plan has been stalled as well)

the problem, of course, is that stills sometimes explode (thus some of cormac mccarthy's characters referring to their liquor as 'splo -- and thus i go by Splo for our various sports leagues), and he and i and his wife hillary all love their three kids more than anything on the planet, so i'll need to resolve some safety issues before we proceed.

nonetheless, i'm encouraged by this set up -- and the certainty that my brother will see in it a portrait of my future just as i see in it a portrait of his. we might have to wait till the kids go to college, but there might could be some shine in westchester. just you wait and see.

as to matters more in the here and now, meanwhile, tomorrow i'm going to eat at a place called the Hunter's Lodge/Home. sounds quite promising. apparently i'm also about to be treated to some homemade village rakija and ajvar, which of course thrills me to no end (ajvar is a kind of roasted pepper spread that i'm beginning to think is my favorite food here. it's absolutely killer)

i've also learned the cyrillic alphabet and am now reading street signs everywhere and figuring out all the cognates. my vocabulary is now at a whopping maybe 80 words, but i am surprised at how many greek and latin roots sneak in to this old-church-slavonic-derived language. and now that i've caused acute narcolepsy in all of you, i'll say sweet dreams.

check back in for report on the game at the hunter's lodge. i promise to order any rodent on the menu.

barbaro black and blue

my activist amici

here is the fruit of my equine slaying: a faux serbian feast on a platter (i've eaten two such feasts already, one called the robinja, the slave girl, that was outrageously meat within meat within meaty delicious.) i like the all-on-one-board thing, and, forgive the horn toot, but i'm proud i managed this with one flimsy 10" frying pan. it was really tasty (though couldn't supplant the mountain lamb). and, yes, that _is_ a horseradish/mustard/wine/yogurt sauce on the spuds. root on root! i'm in heaven...

and for one other transcendent experience, earlier in the day my friend here, danica, and i went back to what's now my favorite rakija store and bought the one that's named, more or less, "charred" (also made from plums). i had thought that their honey one was the ultimate, but this was even better -- similar complexity/flavors but w/o the sweetness. kind of like the male version of same. utterly sublime.

danica also convinced me to buy a the strong version of the local Lav beer, which for a moment i thought was 16.2% alcohol, but i realized later was just 7.2% as well as a digestif, which was peculiar as peculiar gets (not sweet at all, herbal strangeness and then the longest, bitterest note, like some biblical jeremiad to finish things off), but actually did seem to help break down the Seabiscuit, root-fest, and various hooches. plus, it's name seems to mean "the belly warrior" -- and look at that funnel the dude's holding! suffice it to say, in all, it was an excellent celebratory feast for finishing an absolute ton of work.

also should mention that i got mildly sunburned today (nov 13!), and i saw various outstanding old eastern european- style vehicles, including this van (note the screwdriver tucked into the driver's side window). obviously, ruf, this is the ride i would have liked to park in your back yard. and lars and osk, sorry that daddy's van isn't quite so hip as this. maybe one day.

serbia is really rocking. more reports soon.

as fate would have it

gentles

we earth-trodders should probably tremble when we see portents from the higher powers. i was reading on my balcony yesterday (nov 12) -- again in just boxers in the delicious sunlight -- and i see a cat crouched to spring on any one of the 7 or 8 serbian crows (not monochrome like ours but black then grey then black in three equal parts) bopping about within a few feet of it. i'm thinking, what are those birds doing there? don't they realize it's a cat?

so i watch, never having seen a tom ever catch a jerry (or the like), but when the cat finally pounces, the birds jump easily away. and then i see more: the birds are actually taunting the cat, prancing close to it but just out of reach, flying right over its head and landing just behind, hopping across its field of vision. and they seem to be working in concert.

after a few more attempts, the cat gives up and zips away. the birds then disperse.

when this Trauerspiel began, i assumed of course that fate was the cat and i one of the clearly doomed birds. but no! perhaps it's not so bleak; maybe all these chapters are going to turn out ok; just maybe...

another sign i wasn't sure how to interpret was my dishwashing liquid -- for the sensitive, such as myself! (also note how the ketchup label advertises hot peppers. hot peppers, however, are not among its ingred- ients...)

finally, the grilled lamb stand i intended to bring my main course for last night's dinner was closed, so instead i continued on and ate at a pretty fancy, old-school serbian restaurant, decked out gaudily like a love grotto Cupid would have shared with Bacchus. (oh my did the fountains spurt)

and reading the english menu, and noticing the prices being a little high, i was a little concerned. but how, my lovelies, knowing me as you do, could i resist Mountain Lamb in Self Milk? fear not! resist i didn't, and out comes a helmet-sized glass cauldron half filled with lamb chunks, potato, and veggies in a rich dairy "potage" -- clearly thickened with the feta-like kaymak and utterly stupendous. (picture to follow) i think i'll make this at home, only i'll cook down the liquid till it's an ultra-dense, lamb-infused ICBM of flavor. should be amazing.

also had an excellent day at the market, buying beets the shape of breasts in National Geographic from an old woman whose face said Eastern European Root Vegetable Farmer so loudly even had i not seen her wares i would have known she'd have tubers and rhizomes stashed away somewhere. even better, after i gave her a somewhat inappropriately large bank note, she kept saying in serbian, Grandma will change your bill for you, honey, Grandma will give it to you. ha!

by the by, my grandmother often refers to how her husband walter's family in austria-hungary -- now romania -- were "dirt farmers" only 2 generations before (not exactly sure what other type there are apart from the hydroponic geniuses in Marin county), and i've alluded here to the photo in which the alexandr karelin-faced women look like they could beat my brother at arm wrestling, so, yes, Grandma really wasn't far off the mark.

i then bought spinach from a man whose hands looked like size x-small medical gloves inflated to near rupture.

and -- PETA ALERT! PETA ALERT! -- i also bought 2 delightful bits of Barbaro, soon after the fall: horse steaks and dried horse sausage, the latter of which is complex and delicious in the extreme. i'll be cooking up the steaks tonight and will report back. but based on the color of the meat, they should be scrumptious.

back to the mill wheel, which, gods willing, will keep turning smoothly. the portents appear good.

xxx