Last weekend my friend Kara roasted a sixty-pound pig for a housewarming bash at her new digs upstate. Serving an entire roasted animal might seem extreme, but since Miss K has moved into a cavernous six-thousand-square-foot disused creamery, it felt somehow appropriate.

I like to cook, but that much bacon was a daunting project, and no sooner had she floated the idea than I began repeatedly begging out, mentioning early and often that I refused to accept any responsibility for a pig-roast gone wrong. Nonetheless, I agreed to broker the loan of my neighbor St. John Frizell's caja-china. A plywood box, lined with zinc and big enough to hold a whole pig, the caja-china is supposed to be a fast, sure-fire and idiot-proof method of roasting a massive slab of meat. I have been twice honored to enjoy pork roasted in St. John's box just two doors down the block, and found it absurdly delicious on both occasions, but Frizell is a maestro artisanal bartender, an accomplished host and a culinary wordsmith who weekly contributes his expertise to the Bon Appetit blog at Epicurious.com. In short, he is a pro whose successes in the roasting of multitudes of porkers can by no means be taken as an indication that mere mortals, even using the same technology, might dream of achieving satisfactory results. My plan was to foist the box off on Kara a couple of days in advance and then drive upstate on Saturday afternoon just in time to arrive, plate in hand, as the pig was being dismembered and served.

Things don't often work out as planned, however, and when K arrived I detected a snag. Although she was driving a new upstate-compliant SUV, the caja china, once dug out from under the rubble in my neighbor's yard and wheeled out onto the sidewalk, was much larger than I had remembered. It wouldn't fit into the enormous car. Somehow I was being sucked into the vortex of pig-roasting against my will, but there was no other solution. On the Saturday, rubbing my bleary eyes, I rose at dawn, strapped the box into the back of my petite, antiquated, but fuel-efficient little truck, and headed for the highway.

In the meantime, the previous evening, the early-arriving upstate posse had meticulously injected every square inch of pig fleisch with brine, a mixture of sea salt, maple syrup, and water. Upon my arrival I found the carcass, bloated and clammy and curled in the bottom of a barrel underneath a few bags of ice. Michael Herstand and I lifted the pallid beast free and laid it into the wire rack of the caja china. The pig is sandwiched between two heavy wire grids, which are then cinched together with baling wire before the whole contraption is lowered into the box. Within minutes we had sealed it up, and with the help of some cedar kindling hooped from Michael's woodshop, we had twenty pounds of charcoal briquets smoking in the metal lid topping off the box.

Cheered on by Camilla and Hamilton pere, Joey, syringe in hand, mainlines a brine of salt, maple syrup and water into 60 lbs. of raw pork splayed out on the cement floor of the creamery

It was at this stage that the first of many kibitzers wandered over, and drawing on extensive knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics and the tenets of Newton, pointed out that it seemed odd and even improbable that the pig would ever cook, the charcoal being on top, and the pig underneath. Indeed, like plumes rising from Three Mile Island, the whiffs of smoke and shimmering rays of heat coming off of our box were visibly dissipating in the air, wafting off on the breeze, warming the globe, perhaps, but not our entombed swine. I realized then why I generally prefer to cook on top of the stove where I can see what's going on, rather than inside it; the instructions for the caja china proclaim in large letters that the worst possible cooking error one can make is to peek into the box in mid-cook. Like rice, swine-in-box must not be disturbed; the pig must be left alone, unmolested, untested, unprobed and unseen for a full three hours in its personal sweat lodge. It was, to say the least, nerve-wracking. We sat and drank beer and stared blankly at the box, as if, like Pandora's, it might hold some magical secret within. We endlessly debated the physics of the thing. Each new arrival at the party stopped by to comment. Most, before even saying hello, said things like how strange, or it's really quite counterintuitive, isn't it, or where's the pig? Where? Under the coals? Good luck! (I wonder if it isn't too late to make dinner reservations....)

Michael and I prepare to remove the sputtering, crispy pig from the box

Begone! Signaling like an airport traffic controller, I politely urge all women and children to get out of the damn pig-path

At one hour gone we piled an additional ten pounds of charcoal on top of the box and headed off to the swimming hole for a blissful bath, trying to wash away the anxiety and uncertainty of this stressful experience of blind cooking-by-faith. With two hours gone we piled on yet more coals. The passing crowds of guests began to ask questions that suggested they were getting restive. Is it almost done? What sort of time do we think we might actually be eating? Are there any snacks? (I didn't realize the invitation was for Sunday breakfast....)


At two hours and fifty-nine minutes Michael and I put on welding gloves. It was the moment of truth. On the count of three we grabbed the metal handles of the coal tray and lifted off the top. Inside was a golden-brown, crispy masterpiece. A full quart of bubbling pig fat sizzled in the chest cavity of the beast and the box emitted an enchanting aroma. Reaching in, we lifted the pig free and flipped it over, pouring the boiling lard back into the drip pan. The back of the pig was disturbingly flaccid and pale, but we laid it back down, this time skin side up, and after clearing the ash pan, replaced the top for a final half hour of crisping.


Sensing, or perhaps scenting, the action, the troops now began to bunch about the table like, dare we say it, pigs gathering at the trough to await the evening slops. Only a few more minutes, we promised. The skin crisped, the pig removed, we snipped away the wires to free it from its rack. Tender, moist, falling off the skeleton; there was virtually no carving needed. Faced with hot, roast pork, we discovered, mankind returns to a primeval state. Channeling prehistoric hunter-gatherer instincts the guests descended on the steaming pile of flesh, ripping at it with their bare hands, and splattering their Prada with grease, as if our species had never invented tools. And if no one found time for a fork, no surprise then that at this crucial stage in our narrative there were no digital cameras to be found capturing the demolishment of dinner.

Fresh back from a post-pork nocturnal trip to the swimming hole, an unidentified beast dives back into the trough for more tasty morsels of swine.

A note about Photo Credits: In the excitement, euphoria and confusion of pig-preparation and consumption I'm not really sure anyone knows just who snapped what. I took none. My thanks to all those who contributed.


From our Zimbabwe correspondent...

Our good buddy in Harare, whose fortitude in the face of chaos and mayhem continues to boggle this western mind, sent the following. Things are, staggeringly, even worse than they were last time we had an update.

F#*K, its beginning to get me down. Inflation at 7,000% but with the added joy of price controls which means even if you did have the cash there's nothing to buy. No meat, chicken, eggs, milk, bread, fuel....and no beer! Each morning starts with a hunting gathering expedition. Join a milk queue then become overjoyed when someone finds you bread. Utter misery for the average civil servant who once had a standard of living. Most people die at home as the hospitals turn them away as they have no medicine, or broken facilities. God forbid you should be on ARV's. Shortages on state roll out and millions required to purchase at the pharmacy. But luckily luxury lodges going up on the Zambezi and the rich just get richer. But I can still get a cappuccino and go to the Zimbabwe International film festival. Avoiding the Chinese and Iran propaganda entries. (That's all for now,) am off to another bread queue with riot police....


Camping in Rwanda, Part Deux (highlands version)

The contrast between Nyungwe Forest and the Akagera National Park (see Camping in Rwanda, Part One) could not be more extreme. From the baking sun, whining locusts in the trees and a bronzed landscape of blonde hillsides and shimmering lakes I traveled in a few hours to dense, wet, closed forest. At 2400 meters above sea level Nyungwe is chilly and shrouded in clouds. Here the distinction between the rainy and dry seasons, so crucial to Akagera's animals, might better be characterized as the drenched season versus the merely soggy.

The attraction here are the Albertine Rift endemics, both simian and avian. A series of mountain chains running down through the heart of the so-called Great Lakes region of Africa, the Albertine Rift is home to at least 30 species of birds that occur nowhere else. Its plant and insect life is similarly exotic and restricted in range, and Nyungwe is home to no less than 13 species of primates, one of the highest totals for any location on earth. L'Hoest's Monkey is common, and often found patrolling the shoulder of the lone switchback highway that crosses over the mountains to Cyangugu and South Kivu state, in the Congo.

L'Hoest's Monkey

Blue Monkey

At Uwinka camp, on a high mountain ridge, there were no other campers, and I chose the most remote campsite, amongst the dripping epiphytes and soggy mosses of the forest interior, beside a thatched bungalow with a central hearth for cooking. "Est-ce que vous êtes capable d'allumer le feu?" Asked the park ranger. Are you able to light your own fire? His tone suggested he had never yet met a muzungu with these skills. Although I indignantly answered Of course! as if I were some sort of tinder-box wielding eagle scout, it transpired that my campsite came equipped with a kind of African National Parks version of a Filipino house-boy, a young man who, while I was camped out in the middle of the woods, brought me hot water with which to bathe. At the end of my first day, a long mountainous trek in search of the Handsome Francolin, I limped into my campsite to find a blazing fire and a steaming bucket awaiting my bath. I half expected him to stand by holding a towel for me as I lathered up.

My digs at Uwinka

Having had luxurious views of the Handsome Francolin, a skittish, quail-like bird that is actually one of the more common Albertine Rift endemics, but a bird I had missed out on during my last visit to Nyungwe four years ago, I bedded down for the night in the trusty tent.

Superlecker Spargelcremezuppe mit Ramen-nudeln

At 5:50 AM I awoke in a panic; I was due at the headquarters at 6 for Chimpanzee-tracking, a thrill I had forgone on my last, entirely bird-obsessed, visit. The outing is based on the extremely lucrative Mountain Gorilla tracking concession in Volcanoes National Park, which pulls in $700,000 a month in foreign currency earnings just in permit fees. Park rangers, full-time chimp trackers, follow the roaming bands of chimps as they feed during the day, watching them bed down at dusk (Chimpanzees make leafy, mat-like beds high up in the trees each night, used once only), and then returning at dawn to follow them as they move on. Guides, bringing tourists like myself, then coordinate with the trackers via walkie-talkie and determine how best to get the muzungus to the fruiting trees which the chimp pack has chosen for that day's gorging. They range widely, and fast, and spotting them can be a literal half hour walk in the park or an experience more closely resembling the crossing of the Andes on foot.

The "oh-so-very" Handsome Francolin, Francolinus nobilis

In the pre-dawn darkness I scrambled up the steep trail to the guard post, where I found my fellow-travelers, an Indian-American “in software,” living in Mumbai, and the Irish publisher of a “businessman’s lifestyle magazine,” from London. The former was one of the few legitimate tourists I have met in Rwanda; a wildlife aficionado, he had arrived directly from Volcanoes National Park where he had done two back-to-back gorilla trekking excursions. The latter had accompanied a posse of humanitarians from the British conservative party who were touring and participating in various aid schemes, a jaunt he claimed was not quite so completely a publicity stunt as it might sound. I judged him politically suspect but gratefully piled in his car anyway, as I didn’t have one.

Ten kilometers down the road the vehicles left us, and the three rangers, on the side of the road. It was about 6:30 in the morning. “Well,” said Claude, the ranger who had taken me bird-spotting the day before, “unfortunately they are quite far down. There’s quite a walk ahead of us.” The day-before-yesterday, he had told me on the yesterday, the entire group of chimps had been within half an hour’s walk of the headquarters. Chimpanzees move fast over long distances, looking for the best fruiting trees.

I was alarmed to see that my friends had daypacks stuffed with camera equipment, changes of trousers, biscuits and camelback hydration packs; in my stumbling, sleepy getaway I had brought only my camera, binoculars, and half a liter of water. We started down a steep track, winding around the side of the mountain, the valley to our left, the rising hill to our right. We walked fast, ignoring tantalizing birdcalls in our rush to descend and locate the chimps.

I’m generally opposed to these sorts of organized outings for this very reason; all too often they resemble forced marches, with no time for stopping to look at "lesser" wildlife, or just to experience the grandeur of the forest. We were on a mission, however, and, concerned by Claude’s ominous scouting report, I put my head down and hurried on.

A tranquil forest scene

After an hour of dishearteningly steep descent on a trail cut into steps, the future retracing of which made me pant for breath just thinking about it, Claude’s walkie-talkie crackled with an update from the trackers. Soon we heard an unearthly screaming and chattering, which seemed still to come from far below us in the valley. At a meeting of four paths, we paused, and suddenly, there beside us, was a ranger we hadn’t met before. A handful of female chimps were feeding nearby, he said. We waited. The tracker disappeared. I proposed to Claude that he and I move gently down the track away from the group in hope of seeing a bird or two.

When we had gone a hundred meters or so around a contour the tracker came running back up the path towards us. “Quickly, quickly!,” he said, urging us forward in a sort of shouted stage whisper. I looked behind me. The others were out of sight beyond the bend. We were already a team, we three. Should I abandon them? “Go,” said Claude. “I’ll tell the others.” I rushed headlong down the trail, following the tracker towards a majestic grove of towering trees. He stopped, pointed. Up, far up. I got the binoculars to the eyes and saw her, very briefly, before she saw us, and immediately bolted, shimmying down the trunk and away. The magazine publisher jogged up just in time to see the dark shape of the ass end of a female chimpanzee, flailing away through the mid-story canopy. The software guy, hard on his heels, nothing.

We stood staring longingly up into the trees, as if she might return. “Too shy,” said one of the rangers. The huddle of Rwandans in their green ranger’s fatigues looked at one another with resignation, sharing a look that suggested they knew that their day, which had been so close to being over, had only just begun. “These females,” said Claude, “they are just too shy when they are traveling with the babies. But the trackers say they think the males will be in some fruiting fig trees, beyond the next mountain. We’re going to try for that. I told them it is a good thing we have a strong group of tourists today.”

I thought: beyond the next mountain? The trackers had already melted back into the forest, like Viet-Cong. We set off again, fast, but the sweaty rush to chimpville was only beginning. When we next paused, many ridges further away from where the jeeps had dropped us off hours earlier, Claude simply pointed down over the edge of the trail. “This way.” It looked impassable, a clifflike steepness overgrown with mats of liana and shoulder high underbrush. He went, we followed. It was like walking down a woven web of ropes. There was no ground, just an abyss of compressed vegetation in which to put one’s trust. I am convinced that the descent we made would have been impossible on dry ground; without that choked infinity of vines, branches and trunks we would have fallen right off the side of the mountain. Twigs and leaves whipped our faces and tore at our clothes, but they stopped us from plunging down to the valley floor.

On a parallel spur, visible through the soft edges of the clouds wherever there was a break in the canopy, chimps were feeding. The foliage in those distant treetops moved and swayed unnaturally. We heard eery screams, then, apparently, cackling. In return, we trudged and grunted, slipped, slid and swore. Finally, soggy of foot and streaked green with trails of chlorophyll, we arrived at the foot of the looming fig trees. All was still. “Where did they go?”
“Shhh,” said Claude. “They are here.”

With DNA 97% identical to theirs, it's no wonder you like figs so much.

We heard a rustle in a branch in front of us, visible through a gap between trunks. The branch bobbed up and down. A chimp emerged onto a mid-high branch, some seventy-five yards off, and began acrobatically picking off fruits and stuffing himself. As he ate his fill, we watched until we too were sated, passing binoculars around and snapping one blurry and backlit photo after another. I’m not sure that we actually high-fived, but the mood was certainly of three men who might at any moment break out in an orgy of self-congratulatory palm-slapping.

At last we declared that we were satisfied. The rangers huddled again, and debated. It appeared that we were, as the saying goes, somewhere in the back-ass of beyond. Should we go up through the impenetrable tangle of impossible steepness, or down? The goal being to hit a real trail as soon as possible. Down looked easier, and Claude suggested that the drivers, when we could reestablish radio contact with them, could be instructed to drive down a jeep track to a village on the valley floor, where we might rendezvous with them.

Having seen chimps, we were now rather less motivated. Adrenaline had ebbed. Feet were sore, not to mention moist. It was a hard slog, and I believe it was a good hour of bushwacking before we finally reached the beaten path. After our time in the dense underbrush the narrow dirt trail seemed to us like a broad and sunny boulevard. We paused and I took tiny sips from my much diminished supply of water. Claude radioed. "Unfortunately," he reported, "the drivers are saying they don't have enough petrol to drive down into the valley. They are afraid they won't be able to get back." Our prolonged chorus of groans perhaps reminded the rangers of the chimpanzees they spend so much time with. Looking up at the cloud-shrouded ridges above us, it was impossible to see how far up we would have to climb. "Where's the helicopter?" I asked Claude. "I thought the tracking fee included a helicopter." He laughed, nervously, and set off up the trail. Steely adventurers all, we bravely marched behind. The ascent was long, but finally we emerged at the top, back on the trans-montane highway. Congratulating one another, and ourselves, we piled back into the jeeps and drove back up to the camp, where I looked forward to a hot meal:

Epuisé of Ramen a volonté in West African peanut butter sauce with "overripe" tomatoes



The long lost images to illustrate my last post

Now, the photographs below will do in a pinch, but those of you who know me probably didn't have much difficulty picturing me seated at the kitchen table tweaking my review of Bill Buford's Heat, thinking to myself, what on earth might I use to illustrate this wordy digression into Tuscan cookery? Cooking, kitchen, digital camera: problem solved. And I barely had to get up from my chair.

Naturally, the very next day, in one of those pesky coincidences, I came across this on boing-boing. I'm not usually a big fan of scribbling text onto the surface of photographs, but these really work for me, above and beyond just how very perfectly Douglas Gayeton's pics (link now dead, apparently since the publication of Gayeton's own book Slow, Life in a Tuscan Town, which contains these images) would have served to illustrate my last post, not to mention the rather dull dust jacket of Bill Buford's book itself. The series of images is largely dedicated to slow food, slow and biodynamic cultivation of crops, animals and wine, and the slow lifestyle that goes along so well with these pastimes. In Tuscany. Featuring crusty old Italian people holding pork products.


Reading: Heat by Bill Buford

After twenty-three years of being a magazine editor, married to another magazine editor, Bill Buford apparently greeted the new millenium by having a mid-life crisis. His resumé includes both co-founding GRANTA and editing fiction for the New Yorker, but this is just work. Throughout Heat, his book on cooking under pressure, he ironically refers to this high-flying media career as his day job. Determined to quit all that and learn how to cook, he becomes an unpaid trainee in the kitchen of Babbo, Mario Batali's heralded Italian spot in the Village.

Where George Plimpton, long considered the inventor of this sort of experiential writing-by-doing, might be content to spend a solitary afternoon stirring a pot in the kitchens of a four-star restaurant before whipping up a piece about what life is like as a celebrity chef, Buford takes participatory journalism to a whole new level. He finagles to write a profile of Batali, he suggests, largely in order to foster a relationship with the man, since he has already set for himself the goal of quitting his job at the New Yorker to go and slave and toil at Babbo, and he doesn't know quite how else to manage it. Given the number of New York waiters who would crumble with excitement to have their words read by the fiction editor of the New Yorker, all desperate to a man (or woman) to quit their days jobs, Buford's seems a bizarre quest, at least by the standards of today's New York society.

But Buford is plainly not much concerned by those standards; mid-way through the adventure he even convinces his wife to quit her own well-paid editor's position and return to Italy with him, so he can learn to butcher meat. His world becomes arcane cuts of loin, unknown outside of the Tuscan hills. (When he returns, eager and breathless, to discuss his discoveries with Batali, he is like a Shaolin monk bringing back from the monastery crazy kung-fu unknown to the master who sent him there: Batali just looks at him blankly and says "Bill, I have no idea what you are talking about!")

Except for the proof of the book I was holding in my hands, there is little to suggest Buford entered into his contract with cookery with journalistic intent. Here and there, he reminds us that he took a note, wrote something down. He reads a lot, but his taste tends mostly to medieval cookery memoirs written in forgotten dialects. At one point he leaves Italy in the middle of butchering the hindquarters of a cow in order to fly back to New York for some vague, unspecified commitment relating to his former life, but that is about the sum total of his efforts to hang on to a Manhattan civilization that had thought he was thriving in it. If this is journalism, let us call it radical immersion journalism.

We should perhaps be unsurprised that Buford has written only two books, since he seems essentially unsatisfied to do anything less than make a complete career of something before writing about it. In his first book, Among the Thugs, he spends unhealthy amounts of time with Britain's semi-professional football hooligans. In this chilling, pop-culture expression of Elias Canetti's classic Crowds and Power, Buford, seduced and revolted by the endless violence and his own attraction to it, ponders whether he has crossed the line between observer and participant, and then, while being beaten half to death by the Italian police, discovers that it doesn't really matter which side of the line he thinks he's on if others see him as part of the mob.

Cooking professionally, we learn in Heat, is almost as violent as stomping on the skull of a hapless opposing football fan. There is no room to move in the infernal sweltering greasy sauna that the typical New York restaurant kitchen resembles. Orders for complicated dishes rain down unceasingly, like the hellfire of a Baghdad bombing run. Power and hierarchy are expressed through abuse and torment. Cooking is done under conditions of such stress and exhaustion that, like great athletes working at full capacity, successful cooks must cease thinking altogether, falling back on years of repetitive training to let instinct, or robotics, take control. Plant your feet, don't move, swivel at the hips. Know where your shit is at all times. Don't yield a square centimeter of your slick and fat-coated perforated rubber floor mat to your equally frazzled co-workers. Fire it! From this, we learn, great food can emerge. But it must be cooked with love.

After a year, Buford thinks he has begun to get the hang of it, but his obsession is unsatisfied. He retraces the trail taken by Mario Batali, learning pasta-making in some nowhere in northern Italy. Not content to have toiled in Dante's Inferno, he apprentices himself to the world's most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini, a maniac who quotes Dante's Inferno at exhausting length, drunk, at midday, from the podium of his butcher's shop floor. "Midway through the road of life, I found myself in a dark wood, on a lost road," being the opening line with which Cecchini greets the questing, middle-aged Buford upon his arrival.

The appeal of Italy is that no matter how fabulous, no matter how Babbo, no matter how Batali, the very best New York has to offer is still a simulacrum, a valiant effort to recreate a culinary experience that ultimately can never exist away from the land that birthed it. I've been reading a lot about wine lately, with an eye to a project of my own, and Buford's efforts to comprehend the essence of the Italian ideal read like descriptions of that elusive wine-making concept of terroir, the idea that the identity of a wine and the experience of drinking it are inextricably linked to the minerals and conditions in the land from which the grapes spring, so that in its aroma one scents the crumbling limestone earth of a particular southward facing vineyard, feels the breath of the Mistral rustling the hairs on the back of one's neck just as the grape leaves were rustled, senses in the first sip the impossible but undeniable influence of the ancient fig trees in the adjacent orchard.

Everybody knows that the essence of Italian cooking is "fresh local ingredients, prepared simply." I just recorded sound a few weeks ago on a "web-based" cooking show sponsored by Bertolli olive oil that hammered home the conceit in six back-to-back episodes. This concept, which became the mantra of the 1980s California restaurant revolution that so attracted Batali, is now such a cliché that we even have a "fresh local ingredients" restaurant in Red Hook, the excellent Good Fork. Buford, obsessive that he is, delves much much deeper than this, right down into the dirt. The food he wants to learn to cook, the Italians tell him, should taste like the scent of moss after fresh rain, of wet twigs and crumbled lichen, of winter woodsmoke mixed with mud. (I couldn't be bothered to go back and dig out actual quotes, so I made these up, but I don't think I'm betraying the flavor of his informants' testimony). Apparently if it isn't made with something you walked out the back door of your Tuscan cottage and collected amongst the roots and stumps of the forest then we aren't really talking about food.

No wonder, then, that he visits Italy again and again, hungry for more knowledge. His marriage, he says, is tested. But what sense of terroir can one hope for cooking in an apartment in the West Village? The culinary journey Buford embarks on with such unswerving dedication is all about getting back in touch with the land, reaching out and actually harvesting, plucking herbs off of living plants that grow in ancient soils, and slaughtering beasts that have been raised with dignity. No wonder most of our meat tastes like crap, he observes, since somewhere along the way people seem to have forgotten that it actually comes from animals.

Buford is a fantastic writer, far superior on food and cooking to anyone I've yet stumbled upon in my wine researches, and Heat is a book that does much more than just make you hungry, the standard bar for food writing. He knows he is an obsessed freak and manages out of his obsessiveness to develop a nuanced, self-deprecatory voice from which flows a vein of humor as rich as a free range flan. A note of bemused apology creeps in as, for example, when he devotes an entire, long, chapter to his dogged attempt to pinpoint the exact moment when eggs became an ingredient in pasta. After apologizing he nonetheless proceeds to lead us on a culinary tour of literary Italy, from the middle ages through to the 18th century, desperately turning dusty and untranslated pages, looking for eggs. These exhaustive researches are fertile ground, and must have led to many of the most interesting factoids that are scattered throughout the book. I had forgotten, for instance, that both tomatoes and corn came from the new world--until well after Columbus polenta, scandal of scandals, was made with buckwheat. Tomatoes of course more completely dominate Italian-American cuisine than true Italian (not that such a thing exists, for like its language and political history Italy's cuisine is infinitely fragmented). But still, pizza without tomatoes?

As if he knows that he is leaving us salivating for more, Buford ends his book in classic Hollywood blockbuster fashion, dangling the threat and promise of a sequel in his very last sentence. After three hundred pages of slagging off "faggy" French cuisine and its cookery, also universally derided by his various teachers, and after reheating the old and discredited heresy that in fact France had no concept of cooking as art until Catherine de Medici brought good food with her out of Italy to the court of Paris, he (probably unintentionally) steals the ending of the seminal coming-of-age movie Breaking Away, in which an Indiana stonecutter's son obsessively takes up bicycle racing, idolizing the Italian riders of the Giro and driving his parents mad by speaking only Italian around the house. At the end of the film, when his idols come to town and realize that the eager kid riding up the hill beside them is actually a contender, they sabotage him, thrusting a bike pump into his wheel on a nasty ascent. In that cruel moment, to the relief of his father, he is instantly cured of his Italian obsession, only to fall in love with a French foreign exchange student (if I remember rightly--I must have last seen it about 28 years ago...). In the final frames he gives his father apoplexy, bursting into the living room and greeting him with a Bonjour, Papa!

On his last page, Buford plays it like this: "I saw that I'd mastered food in one tradition (I'll call it the Florentine-Tuscan-late-Renaissance tradition) up to a certain point: when Caterina became Catherine and crossed the Alps (or the Mediterranean), into France. There is still much to learn, and I may never have this opportunity again. I want to follow Catherine de Médicis. If I'm really to understand Italian cooking I need to cross the Alps and learn what happened next. I have to go to France."


There but for the grace of God go I...

The Alexey Maryshev, on board which I and the Generation Earth team sailed from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula in March, has had a terrible accident, and the captain, a gangly, Ichabod Crane looking guy who chainsmoked and spoke only Russian, is in big trouble. He seemed to us a consummate professional and seasoned seaman, so the rush to judgement appears to me to be born out of a corporate desperation to assign blame first and figure out what happened later. Although there are special standards of responsibility for captains at sea, the fact that a glacier fell apart just as he was sailing underneath it seems to me to have much more to do with the grave state of the climate than it does to do with navigation. Here's hoping everyone will ultimately be okay....


Rwandan Textures

Rural Rwandan buildings are almost indistinguishable from the landscape in which they sit; in most cases the earth used to construct them is drawn from a hole only a few feet from the house, so they are literally made from their own surroundings. Water is mixed with soil in the pit to make a thick mud, reinforced with straw, from which bricks can be cut. These are then laid out in the sun to dry, mere footsteps away from the foundations of the structure they will create.

The doors and window frames are cut with hand saws from local, fast-growing eucalyptus. Sheathing on the door is invariably a skin of sheet metal recycled from a disused oil drum that has finally become so battered in its various transits that it can serve no other purpose. The top and bottom are cut off and bent into bowls or other vessels, and then the drum is sliced lengthwise, beaten flat into a rectangular panel, and nailed to the door. Although most are pounded to a rust-speckled patina, on some Rwandan front doors it is still possible to read an oil company logo, sideways: Shell, Fina, etc.

From a global warming perspective, compare the carbon footprint of a house like this with the one left by even our most basic structure. Our 2X4s are forested and lumbered with diesel-burning machinery and milled using energy intensive industrial processes thousands of miles, and sometimes continents away from where they will be used. Our steels girders are shipped from South Korea, the gypsum in our wallboard mined who knows where. The fasteners come from China on ships registered conveniently to circumvent any inconvenient niceties regarding emissions and engine efficiency.

I don't mean to suggest that Rwandan vernacular architecture, or for that matter, any architecture of grinding poverty, grew out of environmentalist sentiment. The first improvement a house here will see, given a bit of money coming into the household, is the plastering of the interior and exterior walls with cement, the bottom rung on the upwards ladder of purchases requiring actual cash money, and the first material that will come from outside the community. The next, and in this context an almost middle class progression, would be to build from cinderblock or fired brick, and the owner would feel no nostalgia for the earthen walls of his ancestral village.

There is no doubt that the African mud-brick house springs from an architecture of convenience and necessity, of opportunism and economy, and of realism in the face of extraordinarily limited financial possibilities. But that does not mean that we should not learn from it. So-called "development" remains a goal and an aspiration across the globe, something almost universally accepted to have a positive connotation. (Who is in favor of "underdevelopment"?). The elimination of poverty and corruption, the improving of education, health care, and human rights are all thought to require it. But if development has brought us to the brink of self-sponsored extinction as a species, without even considering the grotesque arrogance by which we have already extinguished so many other "lesser" species in its name, then we need to do some serious rethinking.



When it comes to vagrants and rarities in New York, I'm like cancer, a man with the plague. It has almost come to the point where I don't even call the New York Rare Bird Alert (212-979-3070) any more because I don't want to be a spoiler; you can pretty much bet solid money that if I go chasing after some accidental bird that has washed up unexpectedly in the New York area, no matter how long it has been hanging around, that will be the end of it. I won't see it, and what's more, it will never be seen again. The last record of it will have been the day before, or even that morning, and once I set out for it, as if it knows I am coming, it's gone, forever.

I don't take it personally. At this point I'm rather amused by the consistency and infallibility of it all, to be honest. But thank God I don't really fraternize with the local birding community, otherwise they would have caught on and would have already stopped by and snuffed me out, to prevent my chasing off their rare birds.

There was the Boreal Owl in Central Park a winter or two ago. Been there for months, hanging out in the top of one particular evergreen tree not far from the Dakota, sniping mice at Tavern on the Green [Update: See "Comments"]. I was out of town when it arrived, or didn't hear about it right away, but since I would (still) love to see a Boreal Owl, I drag-assed up there at dawn one day as soon as I heard tell of it. After all, this little beast only rarely makes it south of the vast conifer belt crossing east to west through the middle latitudes of Canada, for which it is named.

Needless to say, the owl wasn't there on its customary perch. At the foot of the tree was a sportive gentleman with flowing white facial hair and binoculars, "gripping off" the arrivistes with exciting tales of how splendidly the bird had "been showing" the day before, and the day before that. He had apparently been studying the specimen at his leisure for some weeks. "I'm sure it's still around here somewhere," he said, airily. "It's just a matter of re-finding it." Hah. Never seen again.

On another occasion I got onto the news of a Broad-Billed Sandpiper, a minute wading bird that breeds in Siberia and generally migrates down through Japan and the Philippines to Australia, a little late. This is a major rarity in New York, or anywhere in the USA, for that matter, and I only found out about it after scads of people had been seeing it daily in the West Pond at Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge for something like a week. I called my main man Joseph, who could care less about waders but is always up for a bizarre sociological phenomenon, and inspired him to take the afternoon off and drive out there with me. The power birders with the frequent flier miles had mostly already seen the bird, which was only about two miles as the sandpiper flies from JFK. But the broke ones were arriving by car, from Maryland, Tennessee, Ontario, Florida, and so on, after getting the gas money together, having another bird-war with the wife, and calling in sick to the job. The parking lot was full of forlorn birders and out-of-state plates. What should I have said? Should I have jumped up and down yelling "sorry, it's my fault!" I don't think so. As Joseph and I made our way through the clusters of disconsolate telescope-toting mooks wandering aimlessly around, I tried not to look guilty.

I dipped on the Long Island Harris' Sparrow and the Smith's Longspur at Jones Beach as well.

One never wants to completely give up hope, however, and so, in an idle moment on the way back from the airport after coming home from Rwanda, I gave the old hot-line a call. In my absence a Western Reef Heron, the first record of the species for New York State, had taken up residence in a Brooklyn body of water I had never even heard of, the Coney Island Creek. I knew exactly where it was, though, because the instructions on the tape-recording suggested parking in the lot of the Coney Island Home Depot. Since I'm going into the fifth year of a career-long house renovation, I'm familiar with every Home Depot in Brooklyn and Queens.

This is not a bird I would generally drop everything and rush off to see, as I added it to the life list in Dubai a couple of years ago, and apparently the last time this particular individual had been spotted I was still chasing chimpanzees in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, so it seemed like a long-gone long shot. But I was out reuning with the family down in Princeton on Thursday, and as the Rare Bird Alert is updated on Fridays I gave another little jingle as I was rolling back up the Turnpike on Friday afternoon. The Reef Heron was back, and had been seen Thursday morning, the very day before! I had seen one last year in Ghana, which is about as close as it should normally ever get to New York, but I didn't have it yet for this year's epic and growing year list (816, by the way, stop drooling with jealousy), and I was going over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge anyway, which is only a short Belt Parkway traffic jam away from Coney Island.... Since it had first been found all the way back on July 8th or so I figured anyone who would want to had probably had a chance to see it already anyway, so why not give it a shot, even if "the curse" were to chase it definitively away.

Upon arriving one can only think: boy, is this a hole. Coney Island Creek is the sort of scummy disused New York City waterfront that people are referring to when they complain about the neglect we have heaped on our former maritime glory. No "greenway" bike paths here, just rats skittling across rotten pilings, a beach of green sludge impregnated with abandoned truck tires and half submerged shopping carts, and everywhere the skeletal rib-cages of vast, long-abandoned barges. Graffiti, fat men in wife-beaters fishing for toxic fish: it is the sort of place where, stumbling through the weeds to view the water's edge, one expects at any moment to surprise a party of crack-smokers, or worse. And that was what I thought even before I read this.

Looking around at this desolate post-industrial wasteland I really had to wonder what sort of dedicated nut-job birder would have ever come down here to go birding in the first place. The next thought was how improbable it was that any self-respecting bird would eat anything swimming here. However, there was a Great Egret marching through the muck, and many fishermen, so the waters must be capable of sustaining some form of life. The sonorous tones of the recorded voice on the hotline had warned that the Western Reef Heron was easy to overlook as it skulked about the abandoned barges, of which there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. Most of these were viciously backlit by the afternoon glare and stranded beyond a moat of foul muddy sludge. Some were far away on the opposite shore and would require a telescope for effective viewing. I had none. There was nothing about the dismal scene to suggest that I had any chance whatsoever of ending my losing streak of rarity-seeking outings.

There is a Western Reef Heron in this picture; the tiny black dot to the left of the bigger black triangular lump of rusting boat that looks like a shark's fin. I shot all the pictures for this post with my cellphone, not only because I forgot to bring a decent camera, but because they look so much more ghetto this way. If you want to see what this Western Reef Heron actually looks like, go here.

Working my way around the squalid shore I flushed a few shorebirds (a complete list of species from my brief outing to Coney Island Creek is in the comments) and saw a Black Crowned Night Heron flying across the creek and into a sheltered cove, where, in fact, numerous egrets and herons were patrolling the flats. Among the six Great Egrets were two Snowys, three night herons and a dark, almost black, slate-colored heron with an exceptionally long and fine dagger-like bill. The closest thing we have in all the Americas to a heron with a bill like this is the Agami Heron, a permanent resident of densely forested wet tropical swamps that would be even less likely to wash up in Brooklyn than the Western Reef Heron, the bird I was definitively looking at. It was actively feeding, flying from one possible patch of fishery to another, and showing off its black legs and yellow feet. The curse was lifted!