4/11/2014

Not just another night at WD50

I had a crazy start to the week. My friend WoWe asked me if I wanted to join him and see what might dribble out the end of my pen while he photographed a gang of international culinary superstars spending 72 hours in New York to prepare for an all-star tribute dinner for Wylie Dufresne. Okay, I said, sounds like fun. Here's one of many possible dispatches:

3 Dufresne dishes, with his famous "Shrimp noodles" on the right.

Last Tuesday afternoon on Clinton Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, chef Wylie Dufresne's molecular gastronomy restaurant WD50 appeared to be closed. The sun streaming over the tenements made the windows glow a dull, mottled brown: they had been blocked out from the inside with lengths of butcher's paper, as if the place was under renovation. Inside, however, the kitchen was a hive of activity, full to bursting with an astonishing gathering of some thirty head chefs from the best restaurants around the globe. Apples were being cored and mousses were being frothed. Magnus Nilsson of Sweden's Fäviken and Agata Felluga of Jour de Fête in Strasbourg were hip to hip, braiding shallot shoots into little nests of “Longevity” brand noodles, purchased in nearby Chinatown. René Redzepi of Noma, ranked #2 on the influential World's 50 Best Restaurants list, was sampling a variety of hot chile infusions with Ben Shewry of Melbourne, Australia's Attica (#21). Iñaki Aizpitarte (#17) and Kobe Desramaults (#72--the “50 Best” actually has 100 restaurants on it) were piping caviar-laced chicken liver parfait into those cored apples.

Wylie Dufresne was not present. In the basement, event producer Alexandra Swenden had assembled a team that was madly editing video footage to be tweeted and uploaded later in the evening. Out in the dining room, seemingly immune to all the stresses of the kitchen, the impresario Andrea Petrini had only one concern: with hours to go until dinner would be served, could this giant international secret possibly be kept from the pioneering chef whose restaurant they had all occupied?


Agata Felluga, Blaine Wetzel, Virgilio Martínez, Fulvio Pierangelini, Claude Bosi, Daniel Burns, Ben Shewry, René Redzepi, Alex Atala, Rosio Sanchez, Ana Ros, Rodolfo Guzman, Karime Lopez, Magnus Nilsson, Danny Bowien, Daniel Patterson and Gabrielle Hamilton are just the people in this photograph I got to meet and chat with and even interview over the three days of Gelinaz! preparations. Daniel Boulud is in there, too, but I didn't really get to talk to him. I did meet him, at Frankie's Spuntino on Monday night. He walked up while I was talking to Frankie Falcinelli and when Frank introduced us he said “do I know you? I don't think I know you.” I don't think he intended to be rude, I imagine he was just wondering if I was some Gelinaz! chef he hadn't met yet, but I never quite recovered enough to ask him to talk to me later. David Chang and I had plans, but apparently he started running the kitchen at WD50 to get things back on schedule Tuesday night and so he eluded my interviewing stamina. That's why I'm only an accomplished home cook, not a chef. All the other people who aren't named: I hope to meet you another time and I don't mean you any disrespect.

This surprise dinner for one of their own was the most recent in a series of undefinable culinary events presented by Gelinaz!, a loose collection of chefs that is part think-tank, part spectacle and part gathering together of friends who like to cook. Petrini, a longtime food journalist and talent scout, is the co-founder and the cement that binds them together, much like the transglutaminase “meat glue” that Dufresne uses to make his infamous shrimp noodles. Coincidentally, this is likely the actual dish immortalized in the recent premiere of HBO's Silicon Valley as “liquid shrimp.”

Gelinaz! started in 2005 “as a joke,” Petrini told me. His good friend, chef Fulvio Pierangelini “was known world-wide for being a pain in the ass, always complaining that people were stealing his ideas and his recipes. So I proposed that he go onstage with a bunch of other chefs who were re-imagining his dish and we would do away with copyright forever.” Perhaps the only thing all subsequent Gelinaz! events have had in common is this core idea of many chefs concocting their own versions of a specific dish. At a June, 2013 event in Ghent, Belgium, diners were served twenty interpretations of an 1861 Cauderlier recipe for chicken in pig's feet jelly.

We live in an era uniquely obsessed with food and its preparation. Cookbooks, now almost invariably tied to a particular chef and restaurant, are one of the few thriving areas in “old” publishing, despite the mind-boggling number of recipes and preparations available on the web. As evidenced by HBO name-checking Wylie Dufresne, high cuisine is pop culture, and an art-form. Last night's dinner is as worthy of conversation and serious discussion as the latest Wes Anderson film or that recent museum show that just opened. “We live in difficult times,” Petrini explained to me as I was trying desperately to dodge hot saucepans and scurrying sous-chefs. “Food is something that can reassure us”. The old standard of excellence in food was the Guide Michelin, which, Petrini says, “judged food by the criteria of the upper classes.” The idea was that a regular family would save its money to go to a great restaurant, perhaps once or twice a year. Today, that seems absurd. “For young people,” Petrini says, “food is everywhere.”

On the web, we have instant access to menus and photographs from the most far-flung of the world's temples to eating. Places like Nilsson's Fäviken, in a remote corner of rural central Sweden, would likely never have become must-eat destinations without the information era. But meticulously prepared food is not a commodity that can be ordered from Amazon. The global promise of the internet has also brought a great uprooting which with food has had the paradoxical effect of making us desperate to regain a sense of place, a sense of craft. We want access to unique ingredients and preparations that in the past might have remained unknown. Craft in general, and food in particular, is an antidote to the emptiness of consumer culture, and to the mass production and anonymity that are the less welcome side effects of the information technology explosion. Food grounds us, and an innovative, memorable meal is something everyone can aspire to create. It is no coincidence that so many of the World's 50 Best chefs here, many assisted along their way to stardom by Petrini's significant influence as its french chairman, are foragers, cooks who make it a point of pride to use ingredients so fresh and so local that they are often found growing only in the immediate surroundings of the restaurant. Places like Noma and Attica turn the winemaking notion of terroir into a guiding culinary principal.


Monsieurs Wylie and Andrea

Petrini is modest, with a profound sense of humor he expresses daily in his wry smile and his choice of wardrobe. At WD50 he was wearing a pale lemon-colored flannel shirt trimmed all the way around at the bottom with a row of dangling white lace balls that looked as if they might have been stolen from your grandmother's lampshade. “I'm not trying to influence anything,” he said, but chef after chef commented that they first met Petrini because he came to eat at their restaurant when it was still comparatively unknown. Rodolfo Guzman struggled for five years to keep open his restaurant Boragó, in Santiago de Chile. Then he was named #8 on the Latin American 50 Best list. “Overnight, we were booked one month in advance,” he explained to me, while picking through his arsenal of endemic Patagonian murtilla berries. “It was like a gift. It's why I am here.” Redzepi remembers meeting Petrini at Noma only a few months after he had opened: “That's why he knows everybody, because he discovered everybody.”

The chefs gather around unwitting host / roastee / honoree Wylie Dufresne, stretched out on his own work table.

At WD50, time was running short. The sun had set, and Dufresne was due to walk through the doors at 7:30 PM, lured to the restaurant on his day off by bogus reports of a refrigeration catastrophe. The ten-course meal--what Petrini called “remixes” of three of Dufresne's signature dishes, including the shrimp noodles—was as ready as it could be. Seventy non-paying guests—each chef had invited two—were hushed into silence in the dark dining room. In the kitchen behind, the lights dimmed; the only sound to be heard was the roar of the range hoods. Thirty of the world's best cooks had worked seamlessly together preparing for this moment, their egos apparently left at home. Now they crouched in the gloom in their colleague's kitchen. Precisely on time, Dufresne entered. In the middle of his own dining room he was greeted with a wide-screen television playing videotaped greetings from one chef after another. “Where are they?” he murmured in the dark, “where are they?” Suddenly, the lights went on, and there they were, hugging him, and serving him reimaginations of his own food. At once the world seemed smaller, friendlier, and a whole lot more delicious.


Alex Atala, Wylie Dufresne and René Redzepi

All photographs courtesy WoWe

Update: I don't want to jinx anything, as it hasn't run yet, but this story has now been acquired by the Suddeutsche Zeitung. If you want your own story, be in touch, as I have many more. 

3/08/2014

Proud Freaks


Even mardi-gras aficionados might not think of Jacmel when making a list of the world's greatest carnivals, but the Jacmelians, much as they would love to have had more visitors since mass tourism withered in Haiti some thirty-five years ago, ultimately don't seem to care. Through dictatorships long and short, political turmoil of every stripe, cyclones and hurricanes, this small city on the south coast has nourished and maintained its old and eccentric carnival traditions. Only the terrible earthquake of January 2010 put a one-year damper on the festivities. Today's urban planners and "creative placemakers," fond of overusing words like resiliency and vibrancy, would do well to visit Jacmel, where on most Sundays between the Day of Kings and mardi-gras itself the Avenue Barranquilla and its innumerable side streets may be filled with impromptu parades, guerilla theater and entirely freelance carnivalesque actions. New Orleans is definitely a good time on mardi-gras day, but its uniformed high-school marching bands and vast motorized floats populated by waving bacchanalians seem hopelessly corporate when put up against the roving pantomimes of Jacmel's masqueraders. I confess I have never been to Trinidad or Rio, but it is hard for me to believe that their mardi-gras wonders could surpass those of Jacmel.


Haiti's carnivals have been by no means immune to corporate pressures. There is now an "official" national carnival, organized by the government, held this year in Gonaïves, and in recognition, perhaps of Jacmel's uniqueness, there is also a weekend dedicated to Jacmel's "historic" kanaval. This took place on the weekend of February 21st and 22nd, a few days before I arrived in Port au Prince, fed up at last with New York's endless winter. We wanted to film and record music in Jacmel, and because the previous weekend had been heavily promoted, people in the capital announced that Jacmel's carnival had already happened, that we had missed it and would find nothing on the weekend of March 1st and 2nd, when the whole country, they said, would be heading for the giant party in Gonaïves. Contacts in Jacmel, however, assured us that this was preposterous, that the revelries would be in full swing, and that we would find, if anything, a more authentic and relaxed expression, given that the town would not be overrun by partying outsiders.


Early on Sunday morning, we headed out from Port-a-Prince for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Jacmel. By 9:30 we were cruising slowly through near-deserted streets. While many of Jacmel's tropical Victorian coffee warehouses and gingerbread homes were damaged by the earthquake, the town is still architecturally splendid. There wasn't a carnival reveler to be found. “Perhaps after church lets out,” said my friend and former student Bayard, a graduate of the Ciné Institute of Jacmel who had agreed to help us film some kanaval action. As the unofficial producer of this particular weekend's filming, I felt a sense of responsibility, and therefore nervousness. I had been in close touch with Bayard all week, and he had urged us to leave the capital as early as we could, but now that we had arrived bright and early Jacmel was so calm that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blowing down the street. I had to wonder if my intel was bad.

Then, as we were turning onto a steep cobblestoned street leading up to the town square in search of breakfast, we were accosted by a strange figure. He wore turquoise trousers and a blue blazer, festooned with colored ribbons and ersatz medals. On his head was a red felt hat and a mask made from flesh-colored screen decorated with a cotton-ball beard. In one burgundy-gloved hand he held a small scepter, or perhaps a short length of tin curtain rod, to which were tied bits of red, white and blue ribbon. "Je suis Mr. L'histoire D'Haiti," he said. "I am here to tell you about the Haitian history. Would you like to know it?"


Why, yes, we said, excitedly. We unloaded our gear just in time for Mr. Haitian History to begin what turned out to be a grand recitation of some long-forgotten (by others) primer, complete with commas and full-stops. ("On August fourteenth comma seventeen ninety one comma the voodoo priest Boukman held a ceremony at the Bois Caïman comma launching the Haitian revolution period.) Soon, under the tropical sun, we were exhausted. Mr. History was not. He seemed prepared to recite the entire textbook, if we were interested.

I'm not sure if Mr. History of Haiti is a well-established member of the Jacmel carnival pantheon, or a recent creation, but this uncertainty is just one of the things that keeps the town-wide party interesting. Successful "traditions," once invented, are passed down the generations. Sometimes they lie dormant for years, or decades, only to be resurrected, often when their particular political message once again seems relevant, or pointed.

Perennial favorites are the gangs of "Charles Oscar," a sort of combination of multiple eras of evil political enforcer based on a single early 20th century Jacmel police officer of renowned brutality. These roving bands wear Napoleonic gear and huge sets of felt teeth to represent their corruption and insatiable greed.

Those interested in the history of anti-semitism will be shocked and awed to turn a streetcorner in Jacmel and come upon a pantomime of the Wandering Jew, in which a beak-nosed, silk-robed figure with a tall shepherd's crook takes turns trading blows with a hostile, jeering, laughing crowd.

The semiology of the "Lanceurs de Corde" should be obvious; these ominous chain gangs of whip-cracking youth, painted head-to-toe with a foul, black and sticky tar, menace spectators with their long ropes, their threat of a syrupy smear, and their allusion to slavery.

Our random, felicitous encounter with Mr. History of Haiti proved to be a good omen. As the day wore on, we were to meet with all these Jacmel archetypes and more.

My dear friend Leah Gordon has published a spectacular book of photographs culled from more than fifteen visits to the Jacmel Kanaval. (Full disclosure, I wrote one of the accompanying essays.)

I believe Jacmel represents the apogee of papier-maché construction.

March of the zombie Carmen Mirandas?

Where else are you likely to find a marching gang of green satin frogs banging bits of scrap metal together and presenting an impromptu parallel-bar gymnastics act?

Demented transvestite beautician-arborist? This gentleperson is a solo operator who runs madly up the street cacking to himself, before pausing to touch up his astonishing makeup.


We're really into recycling.

12/22/2013

Bloggus Moribundus

Don't worry, I have some spectacular new posts coming soon. It's just that I'm spending my mid-life with my one-year-old daughter and it is difficult to find the time to scintillate you regularly with my bloggery.

11/04/2013

All the Bookworm leaders we don't trust

One of the huge array of free services and products that Google provides in order to get our data in their clutches is the automated transcription of voicemail messages. I have my cellphone set to forward all unanswered calls to Google Voice, which then instantly transcribes any left message and emails it to me. While typically garbled in whole or in part, the transcript is usually enough to gauge the basic content and urgency of the message. It is far easier to read an email than go through the rigamarole of dialing in and entering prompts to listen to a message, with the result that I no longer do the latter. Sometimes the transcripts are so incomprehensible as to be amusing. Blame Marty Markowitz's heavy Brooklyn accent. 

Tomorrow is election day; don't forget to cast your vote!

All
 what's I'm delighted to call you because there is a very important election this Tuesday. Will Brooklyn District Attorney so I hope thatyou'll join the and supporting Democrat 10 times, along with the New York Times and all the Bookworm leaders, we don't trust fromsome of the truck show month, so I'm next may have. Again the course is a top notch federal prosecutor. He has a plan to get a legalguns or possibly as the integrity and this is to make each about the person is able to see if and Scroll. This is Borough President, Marty.Markowitz bridging the both a democrat Kent Thomson, but book with District Attorney this Tuesday, November 5th. Thank you.



10/16/2013

Evolution of a Banksy: the subversion of vandalism UPDATED

We are now halfway through street artist Banksy's self-proclaimed "artists residency on the streets of New York," a so-far successful attempt to create a work on each day of October, in disparate locations of the city. More of a stencil artist than a graffitist, Banksy is still what used to be called a vandal. Property owners, the city of New York, and the MTA have spent countless millions* of dollars erasing, buffing or painting over the likes of him. His (or her) continued anonymity is astonishing given his fame. The one fuels the other, but by insisting on keeping hidden, Banksy is also insisting that his art remains of the street, outside, unsanctioned. For an artist who commands hundreds of thousands of dollars for works translated into a gallery context, this is rather the point of this month-long onslaught: I will come to your city, I will surprise and baffle on every night of the month, I will make art for the people and it will be free and I will not get caught.

The witty and accessible stencils that earned Banksy his notoriety tend, despite some pointed political commentary, to be one-liners: the stenciled girl  floating over the West Bank Barrier on a bouquet of balloons; a maid, sweeping the world's problems behind a trompe l'oeil white curtain; two bobbies, smooching; the bandanaed anarchist hurling a fistful of flowers instead of a molotov cocktail. 

In New York, Banksy has once-again put spraycan to some of his familiar stencils, but more importantly he is continuing the broader critique of commodification and art-as-business so deftly elaborated in his documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop. What has been happening to the New York works within hours of their completion turns the economics and motivation of graffiti-removal, in the city that pioneered the cleansing of subway trains, entirely on its head. It is safe to say that property owners around the city are wishing and hoping that Banksy would strike their wall, instantly bestowing a valuable windfall upon them.

A phenomenon like Banksy's October show is precisely the kind of blog-fodder we at antarcticiana would normally avoid like the plague, but given that the home turf of Red Hook, Brooklyn was last week the happy recipient of Banksy attention, we're making an exception. The piece he did here is a perfect example of the multiple, interactive layers of baggage that pile up at the feet of almost every Banksy work, just as fast as it goes up on the wall or out onto the street.


Sometime in the middle evening of October 7th, the Banksy crew rolled up on this unassuming single-story cinderblock nothing of a building at the north-west corner of King and Van Brunt. Second-hand reports were that a white tent-like structure was quickly assembled to shield a portion of the wall from the view of any passersby. Presumably this is to protect the anonymity of the artist(s), but in and of itself I found this description hilarious; I had seen just a few weeks ago, at the Clinton Global Initiative, a similar tent set up in the middle of 53rd St. to enable President Obama to safely and invisibly exit his limousine and enter the Sheraton Hotel out of the prying eyes of midtown snipers.

Note in this pre-Banksy Google Street View the varied tonal grays where the property owner has rather lazily painted over previous graffiti. I'm certain it is no accident that Banksy chose such a wall. He made a similar choice a few days earlier.

The resulting artwork was a simple stencil of a pink, heart-shaped balloon, heavily patchworked with band-aids, floating up the wall. The balloon is a favorite in the Banksy iconographic toolbox. It represents liberation from constraint, imagination, taking flight. According to the gently fatuous faux-museum "audio guide" posted with photos at Banksy's NYC website, this heart represents the "battle to survive a broken heart." Of course to Red Hookers, it can only represent resiliency and the uplifting of our neighborhood, now all-but-fully recovered and soaring once again, one year after hurricane Sandy.

(Not my image: boosted from Banksyny.com, linked above)

According to these photos, the piece seems to have survived the rest of the night and seen the light of day. Quickly, however, layers began to pile up. As soon as the location of Banksy's October 7th stencil was made known, it was scrawled over by graffitist "OMAR," who apparently makes what little career he can out of defacing Banksies. Such behavior is of course in the time-honored New York tradition of graffiti greats claiming territory, or over-painting perceived peons, except that Omar is by no stretch a graffiti great, nor can jumping in a car and rushing to the scene of the latest Banksy be described as marking territory. What's interesting is that public sentiment is clearly against Mr. Omar, who is seen as no better than some maniac rushing into a museum and dumping a bucket of paint onto a Monet. In bloglandia, Omar is a vandal, destroying the art of Banksy. This is perhaps because Banksy is far more famous, far more successful, and far more creative than "Omar," but it surely also has to do with the very real notion that Omar is destroying cash value where Banksy has just added it. 

Soon thereafter, perhaps because his temporary New York HQ is said to be right here in Red Hook, Banksy seems to have revisited the scene of the crime to get in the next word, appending "is a jealous little girl" to Omar's self-aggrandizing tag, in dainty typescript. Someone else, with distinctly un-streets penmanship, then wandered by with some purple spraypaint.

(Not my image: boosted from NBC news)

Meanwhile, we can imagine the owner of this modest building bitching about the quickly evolving mess on his wall as he heads to the utility closet for his trusty can of off-gray paint. As he emerges with bucket and brush he finds a crowd of art-lovers gathered on the sidewalk. No, they inform him, you haven't been vandalized, it's actually more as if you had won the lottery! Don't you know that gallery Banksies have sold to celebrities for hundreds of thousands? Don't you know that a street Banksy was cut out of a wall in London and auctioned off for 1.1 million

(Not my image: boosted from theverge.com, linked below)

Away went the gray paint. When I first saw this piece, after returning from a jaunt to West Virginia, it was covered with an enormous square of plexiglas, PL'd, and then duct-taped to the wall. When I next saw it, the following day, the plexi had been entirely painted over, and visitors had attempted to pry it from the wall. The owner of the building, out of a deep and selfless desire to maintain access to public art, or perhaps some other reason, then hired a night-watchman to guard the wall. This local worthy sat out on the sidewalk for at least an entire night in a deck chair, just as the weather was getting nippy. But the long-term economic deficit implied by this strategy, or possibly the ever-present threat of napping, soon became apparent. The owner decided, one imagines, that selflessness might be alright for some, but there comes a moment when one must stop messing about. It was at about this time that workmen covered over the already mutliply-defaced Banksy with a shallow box made from cold-rolled iron angle and welded one-quarter-inch steel plate, bolting it right into his precious cinderblock wall. 



This double-parked would-be Banksy viewer found only sheet steel, itself tagged with the note below, reading "SELFISH! Art is for Everyone!" 



Similar insanity has greeted most of Banksy's October output. My favorite response to his work so far were the East New York entrepreneurs who covered their neighborhood Banksy with squares of cardboard and then charged slumming hipsters $20 to get a look at it (this is $5 less than MoMA charges for admission). Some headlines have suggested that Banksy just can't get a break in New York, but unless he is far dumber than his work suggests I think he must be laughing uproariously at every twist and turn and value-enhancing antic.

Somewhat late to the party, and demonstrating a startling lack of business acumen, Michael Bloomberg "told reporters Wednesday that graffiti ruins property 'and is a sign of decay and loss of control.'" Mr. Mayor, Banksy is no vandal, he's wealth creation.

*According to Craig Castleman in Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York (1984, MIT Press, Cambridge. Pg. 149), the MTA spent $300,000 on graffiti eradication in 1970, a figure that spiraled upward by orders of magnitude in the subsequent decades.

Update #1: My friend Amy Helfand send the image, below, of the handwritten sign currently posted on top of the sheet steel box. The one calling the box-makers meanies and art-concealers has apparently been removed:


This suggests they cut out the wall and that the steel plate is just covering a big hole, but I suspect that is a red herring.

Update #2: The property owner has finally gotten it together to remove the wall. Walking past, this evening (Sunday, October 27th) I found him observing two laborers who were drilling out a kind of postage-stamp perforation all the way around the outside of the piece. The building appears to be made of brick, not block, to judge by the brick dust, below.


Dude: "Don't take pictures."
Me: "I'm on a public sidewalk, I can take as many pictures as I like."
Dude: "Good answer. But if you write something, you have to tell us, and if it is something bad, you are responsible. We are preserving it. If it was your wall, would you spend $3,000 to preserve this artwork?"
Me: "I have no idea what I would do. The whole thing has been a comedy since the beginning."



9/02/2013

Carlos Menchaca for City Council!


Down in deepest Sunset Park the other day, I pulled the car over to send a text (don't text and drive, kids!) and found myself parked right in front of a Mexican specialty store. From the contents of the front windows, it looked like its taste in Mexican specialties ran pretty deep. I'm a sucker for that stuff, so I ponied up for 15 minutes worth of parking credits and went in to check it out. With an unpronounceable name like "Plaza Xochimilco,"* it's a fair bet the place was not designed or stocked with gringos in mind. I was not disappointed. The shelves held dozens of varieties of dried chiles, obscure brands of Mexican soda pop, nixtamalized corn,** molcajetes and nuestras señoras de Guadalupe up the ying-yang. 

In the front was a fridge case with plastic bags full of fresh epazote and papalo**, this year's most fashionable Mejican ingredient out on the west coast, but one still near-unobtainable around this way. I had some in a sandwich at the Red Hook ball fields a few weeks ago, and have been on the lookout for it ever since. In the front window was a poster for Carlos Menchaca. His is a smiling face I got to know well, almost a year ago, after Red Hook was walloped by hurricane Sandy. Menchaca was the guy who marshalled the large quantities of volunteers who came down from dryer neighborhoods to help clean up the hood. Tireless and invariably pleasant and friendly while surrounded by mountains of soggy rubble and dozens of eager-but-anxious volunteers, all raring to go, with nobody quite sure yet what they could do, Carlos brightened the mood when a lot of us residents were wandering around wondering if we would ever again live in our houses, drink in our bars or eat in our restaurants.

I don't frankly know if he had already considered running for office, or if this experience of organizing and helping people pushed him in the direction of city government, but he's getting my vote. It won't be easy. City Councilperson isn't exactly mayor or president, and most people, I fear, will vote for the incumbent simply because they may have heard of her.**** 


Carlos lives in Red Hook now, having fallen in love with the neighborhood in those trying post-Sandy weeks. I'm not surprised to see his posters in most every neighborhood window here, but I was surprised and pleased to see his face behind glass in the demographically very, very different depths of Sunset Park. I think he's going to get elected. He helped us. You should help him.



*I'm going to go with zhou-chee-mil-co. For all you would-be papalo-purchasing punters, it's on 5th Avenue between 62nd and 63rd. (Brooklyn, obv).

**I've only just noticed that "tamal" is embedded within this word.

***Known to some as "summer cilantro", this may be a bit of an acquired taste. This weekend, my sister told me "your corn salad tastes like soap." Well, maybe, but if so that would be a cilantro-grapefruit artisanal body bar.

****S_____ "no hace nada" G________z, who won't be getting a name-recognition-boosting mention from the likes of me.

Corn Salad Recipe:

12 ears Jersey sweet corn
1 red bell pepper
1 medium red onion
1 pint sweetest cherry tomatoes
12-15 fresh papalo leaves
1 lime
1/4 cup fine olive oil
salt and pepper to taste


Cut the kernels from the cobs of corn. Chop red bell pepper and red onion very fine. Chop papalo into fine shavings. Halve the cherry tomatoes. Mix well in a bowl. Juice the lime and mix with the olive oil, salt, and pepper to make a dressing.

7/21/2013

The Ancient Airborne Yeasts of Crete


Back in May 2012 I received a facebook message from a recently decamped New Orleans friend, the painter Myrtle Von Damitz III:

Hey,
I'm in the countryside of central western Oregon with the same family as last year--they run a big greenhouse and this is the busy season--my friend's sister married a guy from Crete and they live here half the year and back in Greece the other half. The food here is pretty much like eating in the Garden of Eden and everyone relishes it. Anna and Markos brought back some bread starter--they asked the baker at their favorite bakery in a village in Crete for some and he surprised them by obliging--it's been around since before he became a baker.
They asked me if I had any baker friends back in NOLA to send some to. You're not in NOLA, but if you give me an address I will mail you some of the starter. You're the only bread baker I know! They make some pretty good bread, mostly simple, no yeast.
xo,
Myrt

Intrigued by this unsolicited offer, I replied at once that I would be honored.


I bake bread using my own starter, the wild yeasts harvested from the air right here in the wilds of Red Hook. Now almost three years old, that starter has been fed and kept alive not only by me, but by house-sitters, subletters, a neighbor and former tenant, my mother, and anyone else I could con into dropping by the fridge and adding some flour and water to the Ball jar during my frequent travels. Even my wife, for whom the kitchen is a rarely-visited and unfamiliar land, something like Uzbekistan, even Katie has helped the starter survive my absences, removing half of the bubbling mass and replenishing the bacteria with fresh whole wheat flour.*

But three years are few, compared with the romance of ancient Greece. Who could say how long that cretan sourdough had survived? Generations, certainly. Centuries, perhaps. It is a fabulously romantic notion, rather like a legendary and likely apocryphal stock-pot said to have been continuously bubbling on a Lyonnaise hearth since the medieval period, never cleaned, with fresh ingredients and water being added every day. Ancient flavors simmered eternally right on down to the present day. Would those ancient cretan yeasts persist? Would the bread baked with it be redolent of the savage, rocky and herb-choked slopes of that most rugged of greek islands? Could such bread be said to be an expression of cretan terroir?


The rationalist in me says no, absolutely not. The yeasts that rise sourdough bread are introduced with the ground wheat that feeds it, or harvested accidentally but inevitably from the air, and it seems to me that very soon after transplanting that starter from Crete to Oregon the local flora must begin to dominate. After all, the flour added is not cretan, nor is the air, and both are constantly replenished in one's baking practice.

Nonetheless, the romantic in me begs to believe otherwise. Could it not be that the strains of yeast, once established, propagate themselves at the expense of the local yeasts? Might they create a stable colony capable of overpowering any freeloading visitors? The many online purveyors of sourdough cultures subscribe to, or at least exploit, this romantic notion, offering things like original California Gold-Rush San Francisco Sourdough, and "Tasmanian Devil" Australian starter. The implication is that by purchasing some far flung fungus, the home baker will be able to marshall exotic flavors and traditions right in their own kitchen.

In this case, romance was obviously going to win out over rationalism. There was only one problem: although I checked the mail hopefully, every day, no starter was forthcoming. Weeks went by. It seemed unsporting to inquire, or pester.



Flash forward 13 months, to June 24th of this year. A post by Von Damitz, with whom I had more or less fallen out of touch, washed up in my facebook feed. It was a link to an article about bread, possible fallacies relating to gluten intolerance, and the sourdough biome.  The pull quote was this:

"Expert bakers are thus essentially bug ranchers, managing their herds to achieve their signature balance between flatulence and, well, that other stuff. The result is a fecundity of enzymes, amino acids, and more than 200 flavor compounds."

"Word," I flippantly commented. "Where's my starter?"

Using starter instead of commercial yeast has several benefits. Bread baked with it takes much longer to go stale; it imparts flavor--that famed San Francisco sourness comes largely from the lactic acid produced when the yeasts "consume" the flour in the fermentation process; the intensity of this flavor can be regulated simply by varying the amount and maturity of the starter; it is free of charge, so long as the baker finds some use for the flour and water removed during division and feeding. Another result of this processing is the off-gassing of carbon dioxide; this gassy bubbling is what introduces space and levity into a loaf of bread. The carbon dioxide pockets in the dough ultimately become the crumb structure of the loaf.


Soon afterwards, Myrt wrote back, typifying the rationalist perspective: "the greek starter was probably no longer greek (or cretan) a month after its time in Oregon, but I'm heading up to the farm tomorrow and bringing a collection jar."

A few days later, on the way to the airport, en route to spending the July 4th holiday weekend in Tennessee, I received another message: "At last, starter is in the mail to your P.O. box, marked perishable, wrapped up the wazoo. They say it's due on Friday."

This wasn't great news. We were due back Monday evening, too late to go to the post office, and although starter can survive just fine in the refrigerator, where the cool temperatures retard all of its bubbling and frothing and dividing and conquering, left at room temperature for too long it can quickly overextend itself and expire in an acidic puddle of its own juices. 

I didn't write anything of my concerns to Myrtle. Once back in New York, somewhat worried, I made my way to the Clinton Street post office at the earliest. On July 5th, in England, a gifted jar of home-made rhubarb chutney had exploded, destroying the kitchen of a small apartment, and that had been in the fridge!

I handed over my claim slip and received my wild yeasts, which had been fermenting all along their merry way to Brooklyn. In two small Ball jars, wrapped tightly in paper and plastic bags, I found, intact, and innocuous in appearance, a few tablespoonsful of soupy white liquid. They had clearly blossomed and then died back, for the one marked Crete, despite being half-empty, had at some point oozed out from under its Ball jar lid. The outside of the jar was caked with a now-dried, bready substance. I was lucky indeed that it hadn't exploded, and lucky that Myrtle hadn't screwed the lid on any tighter.


The yeasts were not dead! It took only a couple of feedings (50% white flour and 50% dechlorinated water) before the Cretan starter began to bubble merrily. Holes, like pores, were visible on its surface, and it had doubled in volume. Here I was, in possession of my own little vat of ancient Greece. It was time to bake.**


"Cretan ciabatta," on fire bricks at the bottom of the oven.





Splendid crumb structure despite the slight overproofing suggested by the largest cavity just below the crust.



The dough was very wet, for two reasons. I usually incorporate significant whole wheat flour into my loaves, and whole wheat flour is more absorptive than the white flour I decided to use to respect the whiteness of the starter. Also, at 100% hydration, the cretan starter was wetter than my typical mixture. While not soupy, the dough was almost unmanageably flowy. I fermented it overnight in the refrigerator to imbue the loaf with the maximum in Aegean island flavor. In the morning, the dough was worryingly moist. Nonetheless, it was veined internally with a powerful honeycomb of carbon dioxide voids stretched through with springy strands of gluten. It reminded me of the wet dough for Ciabatta, and I treated is as such.

Soon the house was filled with the spectacular aroma of baking bread, albeit more venetian in style than cretan. Was it just my imagination, or was there an herbal edge to it, as of a bouldery Rosemary and Thyme-choked hillside? After giving it an hour on the cooling rack I carved into it. I have never been to Crete, much less to Armeni, in Rethemno,*** so while it may be anticlimactic to report it, I cannot say if my loaf shared the rustic flavors of the village bakery there. But it was delicious, especially dipped into some fine greek olive oil.

Many thanks to Myrtle Von Damitz III both for mailing me the starter and for kind permission to reproduce images of her paintings here.

*Commercial bakeries that bake daily easily keep their starters going for years and even decades, given that constant feedings are simply a natural part of the baking process. Home bakers, and especially travelers, have a more difficult time of it. I have successfully frozen starter and brought it back to life after months away, but I generally find that two weeks without a feeding brings refrigerated whole-wheat starter to the brink of exhaustion and death; if I am home but not baking I try to "feed" it about once a week, discarding half of the contents of the jar and topping it up with an equivalent quantity of fresh flour and (dechlorinated) water. Bread starter has a pet-like tyranny to it.
**Technical notes in the comments.
***These two words, "Armeni, Rethemno," were just legible on a bit of masking tape on the lid of the jar, half effaced by oozing starter.