With a name like that, what's not to like?

Regular readers know that only on the very rarest of occasions does antarcticiana stoop to play the game of political endorsement. But sometimes a candidate is so impressive that we have to get down off the fence of dissatisfaction and exhaustion to shout "Antanas Mockus for president!" You want environmentalism? Mockus is a visionary urban planner and bicycle path specialist. You want transparency? Mockus laid his medical records on the table and explained that despite a diagnosis of Parkinson's he has twelve good years left to lead. You want style, pizazz, and razamatazz? Mockus looks like a cross between Slavoj Zizek, an Amish farmer, and Fidel Castro. You want a man to lead Colombia away from 40 years of conflict and blood? Vote Antanas Mockus!

Warning, cheesy music! We are still waiting for the power cumbia Mockus remix.


Where there's smoke, there's fire...

We interrupt this orgy of self-promotion (see post immediately below) to bring you the important news that traffic along the Airline Highway in LaPlace, Louisiana slowed to a crawl yesterday when motorists were confronted with billowing clouds of thick and fragrant smoke, pouring out of Jacob's World Famous Andouille. (see post about three posts ago). We received an urgent communiqué from antarcticiana's New Orleans regional correspondent, that fabulous painter, Myrtle von Damitz III, tipping us to the breaking story on NOLA.com, from which I quote extensively:

"Flames have engulfed a rear section of the store, possibly the smokehouse....

"Traffic in both directions along Airline Highway is extremely slow as thick smoke and an acrid smell hangs heavy for several blocks.

"'The car wash guys saw the flames and ran in to tell me to call 911,' said Robin Guillot, owner of the Quick Stop Car Wash, which sits very close to Jacob's. 'We were worried cause we had some cars parked along the side very close to the building.'

"Jerry Lumar was traveling from Norco to LaPlace to get his truck washed when he noticed smoke all over Airline Highway, he said.

"'They have some real good andouille,' Lumar said. 'Thank God nobody was hurt.'"

We agree with Jerry in every way, and we urged von Damitz to stick to this story like a splash of gumbo on a prom dress. A few hours later she sent more info, including comments from LaPlace fire chief John Snyder:

"''our first truck arrived at 3:39 to find heavy smoke in the middle building of the property, which is the smokehouse,' he said.

"The front, or retail portion of the business sustained little or no damage, Snyder said. 'Mostly just the smell of smoke.'

"Most of the inventory was moved to coolers in the back of the business, able to be saved."

Apparently the cause of the blaze was unknown. (I'm not a fireman, but I'll go with "ignited pork drippings." Just a theory.) Thank goodness I still have a giant stick of Jacob's andouille in the freezer to tide me over until they get back up and running.


Walking to Williamsburg

Ben Anastas and I will be reading on Thursday, April 29th, at the fabulous Pete's Candy Store, at 709 Lorimer Street in beyond-trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is my first area appearance in some time, and since I have fantasies of disappearing soon to begin another project almost as unlikely as walking across Cuba, it would be wonderful if you could join me.

Pete's is a comfortable and conveniently located bar that has been hosting one of Brooklyn's very best reading series for over nine years. Cold beer and good books guaranteed. That's at 7:30 PM.

If you are the rare person who is reading this blog and still has no idea that I wrote a book called Walking to Guantánamo, I have a website about the book HERE.


Um, okay, sure I'd like to go, but maybe not with that guy

For the last couple of decades eco-tourism has been touted as the potential savior of third-world economies on at least three continents. Birdwatching is a key staple of the industry. But when I first came to Guatemala twenty years ago, wandering the countryside with a pair of binoculars was a risky enterprise. The so-called "internal armed conflict" (a current euphemism for the genocide attempted against the majority Mayan highland indian population in the 1980s) was still very much underway, even if its worst atrocities had happened a few years earlier. One risked being thought some sort of gringo military operative. The message that crazed birdwatchers would pay handsomely to wander off the beaten track in war zones just to see small feathered creatures had not yet gotten through to the authorities, who regarded with suspicion any foreigners using high-quality optics. That seems to have changed, to judge by this poster, seen in Panajachel a couple of days ago. It aims not only to entice existing birdwatchers with the splendors of the local avifauna, but to promote the hobby to those unfortunate enough to be not yet infected. "It's worth Birding," gushes the header. (Although I've heard pajarear come out of the mouths of Latin American bird guides, this is the first instance I've seen in print of this invented verb, a direct Spanish translation of the invented English verb "to bird.") How thrilling! Tell me more. Further down are diagrams of the basic equipment, the binoculars, notebook, and field guide, and this excellent advice: "don't make noise, (wear) lightweight clothing in neutral colors, stay on the trails, never approach nests, and go between 5:30 and 9:00 AM." But I have to wonder how many of the unconverted find this seductive.

My favorite part of this promotion is the graphic of the avid birder, who looks like a cross between Fidel Castro and a peeping Tom, with fatigues, and tiny feet. What guidance was the artist given? Was he or she asked to sketch someone ecstatically looking through binoculars? Between the psychotic swirls of his goggle eyes and the red lips pursed in surprise, this birder looks, I'm afraid, like the same inexplicable and demented gringo who might have aroused the suspicions of the military in the dark Central American '80s. Suggesting, I think, that even if the economic value of the birder has been registered, the pastime remains deeply mysterious.


Crucial ingredient

It is a rare day that antarcticiana jumps on somebody else's story and recycles it, but on our January stay in New Orleans we were shameless tourists, consulting the local literature and doing everything possible to maximize all forms of excitement, whether culinary, musical, or architectural. It seems only fair to share the good news with our wide and cosmopolitan audience. We're also already big fans of the edible series of magazines, which appear to be defying the generalized hemorrhagic fever cutting down the publishing industry; they're springing up like March crocuses in one small regional marketplace after another.

The very first issue of edible New Orleans appeared in tidy piles in Bywater cafés and restaurants only days after our arrival at the beginning of January, featuring on its cover a row of giant but smoke-wizened andouille sausages dangling in a row above an undoubtedly fragrant puff of woodsmoke. Laplace, Louisiana, the article editorialized, is the andouille capital of the planet.

In the two centuries since the French sold us most of the Mississippi valley for the equivalent of a few bowls of gumbo, the Louisiana andouille has diverged enough from its continental ancestor that they really shouldn't be thought of as the same sausage. Somewhere in France someone doubtless disagrees, but American andouille is ruddier, spicier, smokier, chunkier and more rustic than its finer French cousin. I was aware of the Louisiana variety as a ubiquitous and essential ingredient in cajun cuisine, a sort of local bacon likely to crop up in everything from jambalayas and breakfast sandwiches to chocolate bars, and had bought a package at the supermarket while laying in supplies. Only after I read edible New Orleans did I come to understand that the dull orangey cluster of shrink-wrapped, factory-produced links I had acquired scarcely deserved to print the word on their packaging. Mine were wet and scrawny and soaking in nitrates; the photographed andouille hanging in the smoke were gigantic meat batons, wrinkled and dry from countless hours of smoking. They looked like the sort of preservative-free sustenance that you would hang off the pommel of your camel-saddle for emergency snacking during weeks of trudging through the desert. If there is a culture that rides camels and also eats pork.

Laplace is an hour west of New Orleans. I'm willing to drive much further than that to sample premium hog products, so Laura and I jumped in the truck.

Being known as the andouille capital of the world is perhaps a humble distinction. Once we had arrived, after an hour's drive through salt-blasted cypress stumps, the town's stretch of the "Airline Highway" proved to be a generic and charmless strip of big box stores and auto-glass purveyors ready at any moment to slide back into the swamp. It was a tawdry landscape, and it seemed entirely credible that regional sausage excellence was the town's greatest and perhaps only claim to fame.


Our first stop was at Bailey's "World Famous Andouille," the largest business in a modest strip shared with a hair-salon named Starz and the sort of one-desk-and-a-fax-line financial services firm you might expect to find pushing 5-year ARM mortgages in a roadside mall in Louisiana. But to step through the doors was to enter a womb of regional character and cultural preservation entirely distinct from the mind-numbing familiarity of the chain-store landscape outside. A long row of icy display cases held one product after another critical to the local culinary heritage and entirely unavailable back home in the tri-state area. Forget the andouille, here's a sampling of things I'm fairly certain are not on offer at the local Red Hook Fairway: Hogs Head Cheese (hot or mild), Boudin, Tasso, Smoked Pig Tails, Hand-ground Filé, Rabbits, Green Onion fresh sausage, and Chicken Gumbo, for starters. In fact, most people outside of Louisiana have no idea what most of these things are; I was only familiar with Tasso, the salt-dried pork, because an identical beef preparation with the identical name is still served in Haiti. (It is meat salted and dried to just this side of jerky.) We gobbled some boudin, had a cup of gumbo, and bought a stick, as andouille sausages are known locally. Log might be more appropriate; Bailey's andouille was at least an inch-and-a-half in diameter, and something like a foot long, nothing like the inadequate hot-doggesque links I had purchased in a New Orleans supermarket, about which I suddenly felt ashamed.


Only fifty yards down the highway was our second stop, Jacob's "World Famous" (no relation). Although almost next door, Jacob's sticks proved that there is no one ideal archetype for this king of sausages. Jacob's andouille was dryer, denser, and smaller, if still imposing; I suspected that it and Bailey's version had likely begun their existence as similar sized agglomerations of chopped pork shoulder and spice, but that Jacob's had smoked theirs longer, rendering more fat, shriveling the casing and hypothetically intensifying the smokey flavor. It was the reddest of the three sausages, with the calloused skin of an octogenarian woodsman. Visually, I found it the most appealing. 

"Don't be confused, we are the original Jacob's." In fact, we've been in business since long before the invention of ducts, conduit, vents and maybe even electricity.

But two giant sausages weren't enough, so we left the strip, looking for Wayne Jacob's (some since expired but historical relation) and a sausage trifecta. A few blocks in, on what might have once been the main street before the Airline Highway sucked the life out of it, WJ's is the only spot of Laplace's three towering pillars of andouille manufacture to have seating, so we sat. And ordered lunch, despite the long morning of snacking on pork crackling. Here I made the only misstep of the day, ordering a pulled pork platter. Laura is from North Carolina, and while some Louisianans, Alabamans and Georgians might disagree, you really can't mess with NC pulled pork. I blame myself, not Wayne, or Jacob; this was poor ordering. I should have gumboed or jambalayaed, even though by now I felt I was up to my ears in the stuff. The andouille here was a gigantic meat baton, but I can't tell you anything about the flavor, because I took it as an offering when invited to an upstate Mississippi farm for the weekend, and I never saw or heard from it again. (This post was never meant as a battle of the andouille, but next time I'm in Laplace I promise to do a side-by-side taste test and post an update).

It's all about the smoke. Pecan is the wood of choice, which contributes to the regional character, pecan orchards being almost synonymous with the deep south. One imagines that an andouille smoked with Massachusetts hickory chips would have Yankee overtones. Nonetheless, back in Brooklyn, and having exhausted my supply of andouille, I scored some double-smoked kielbasa from Eagle Provisions. Desperate to make some jambalaya, I was unwilling to wait for some airlifted sausage to arrive from Laplace (Jacob's and Bailey's will both overnight ship to you, although don't expect Google checkout).  I don't know what kind of wood chips they use in Poland, but the kielbas' was a highly effective substitute.


The Whitest Second Line I've Ever Seen

In my ongoing delight with all things New Orleanian I jumped on the bicycle this morning and took a ride up to the Brooklyn Bridge, where a NOLA-style Second Line parade was advertised for 10AM, "giving the Big Apple a taste of the Big Easy." At the Brooklyn end of the walkway various NOLAphiles were already in evidence, sporting Saints t-shirts, Mardi Gras beads and the parasols that are twirled during these traditional parades. For those that don't know, a Second Line is a celebratory parade in which dancers lead a growing and organic throng of marchers through the streets of New Orleans, invariably accompanied by a brass band (the actual "second line" [Oops, apparently only sometimes: see the comments, where my good friend CP, NOLA historian extraordinaire, has kindly checked in to qualify this observation]). Second Lines are often organized as memorials, or as part of funerals. The most ornate and well-organized showcase the various social aid and pleasure clubs, black fraternal organizations which provided emergency loans and assistance to the post-slavery Afro-American citizenry, attempting to counterbalance the almost total lack of any social, civic and banking services extended to them by the ruling white elite.

The Brooklyn Bridge Second Line seemed to have no particular purpose beyond an expression of pure and communal Easter weekend joy. Under a piercing blue sky a small troupe of musicians and dancers tromped and pranced up the boardwalk, to the bemusement and smiles of gaggles of international tourists taking advantage of the New York's greatest single free attraction, a Saturday morning stroll across the bridge.

It was an event that, it seemed to me, could scarcely have happened without facebook and the recent revolution of social media. Would the hundreds of strangers gathered there, united only in their Mardi Gras memories or one-time residencies in the Crescent City, ever have responded in such numbers to an announcement on the back page of the Village Voice, or flyers posted on telephone poles? Unlikely. In the barrage of tweets and links that descend each day I can't even remember exactly where or how I stumbled onto the news, but there I was, and what a delightful East River spring morning it turned out to be!