Guilty as Charged

Interesting things are happening in Guatemala. Despite the election of Otto Perez Molina, installed as president just a couple of weeks ago, the Guatemalan judiciary proved its bravery and independence two days ago by indicting former General and one-time de facto president Ephraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide. Ríos Montt was Otto Perez Molina's boss in the grim dark 1980s, when something like 200,000 Mayan Indian highland peasants were massacred by the dictadura. Perez Molina's election, on a campaign to restore security in a country that suffers from Juarez-like rates of murder and impunity, was generally seen as a setback to the cause of justice for the victims of the genocide. He is a genocide-denier and a former military man.

But on the same day that Perez Molina was sworn into office, Ríos Montt, leader of the junta in the bloodiest days of 1982 and 1983, ended his twelve-year term as a congressman, and with it ended his legislative immunity from prosecution. With pre-emptive bluster, he promptly announced that he was prepared to present himself before the courts, should they require his testimony. The courts, and specifically a heroic judge, Carol Patricia Flores Blanco, took him up on his offer. Flores Blanco decided two days ago that there is sufficient evidence to merit a trial, and Ríos Montt is now under house arrest. Impunity and corruption reign in Guatemala, and we may be some distance from seeing Ríos Montt rotting in prison, but that he went directly from a seat in Congress to home-bound defendant is, in the context of the country, extraordinarily significant. The Mayan majority, ostracized, marginalized and disenfranchised since the arrival of the Spanish conquest, may finally get some justice.

For background on the genocide and on Ríos Montt I highly recommend you seek out and see Pamela Yates' latest film, Granito, which among other things presents evidence of his guilt, in footage she shot in Guatemala thirty years ago. I'm very proud that I got the chance to work on this film. I'll be even happier if Ríos Montt goes to jail in any part because of it.


Today's Semiotic Malfunction: Please Enjoy Passively

In Fort Greene Park, where on one recent evening I passively walked past this sign and the monument it protects.


Time to Make the Cookies! UPDATED

Although I was showered with gifts yesterday on my birthday, the best present I received came last weekend when I fulfilled a Christmas promise to my niece, a budding baking aficionado, and invited her out to Brooklyn to make cookies and bake bread. This was just about the most fun I can remember having in months. First we traipsed around Fairway hand-in-hand, collecting ingredients. Then dough was kneaded, peanut butter, butter and assorted shades of brown sugar were creamed together. Bits of batter plopped onto the floor, swelling loaves were spritzed with a waterjet to generate steam. We formed blobs of insanely delicious mixture into golf-balls and tined them with forks. The kitchen filled with delicious smells. We tasted the results. So much better than any amusement park!

Photo: courtesy Ashley Singer

01/31/2012 UPDATE:
 Just found, the cutest shopping list in the history of shopping.


Blackout, UPDATED

I'm too internet clutzy to figure out whether there is a way to black out antarcticiana in solidarity with today's webwide SOPA and PIPA protests, so these screenshots of major websites, all shut down for the day, will have to do. SOPA and PIPA are two pernicious pieces of legislation making their way through Washington. They would make much of what makes the internet great, illegal, such as the ability to link to any bit of information, anywhere, at any time. Masquerading as enforcers of copyright protection, SOPIPA essentially makes websites responsible for the copyright, piracy and trademark infringements of any other website that they link to.

In the non-virtual world the equivalent of this would be if the police were to arrest me for giving a tourist directions to Canal Street because I might have known that the reason they wanted to go there was to purchase counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags.

This legislation would have two immediate results. The radical impoverishment of the richness of the web, and a mammoth migration of the United States information technology sector, one of our last thriving industries, to parts offshore. These laws were written by over-priced movie-business lawyers and Washington legislators whose web experience is having an assistant who checks their email for them. They have to be stopped.

UPDATE: Amy Goodman's story in the Guardian does a great job of laying out the issues and explaining why this is really censorship legislation masquerading as an anti-piracy initiative.


Metropolitan Etiquette Authority

Situated somewhere comfortably between street art and public service are the amazing signs of the Metropolitan Etiquette Authority. Presenting like a hybrid between an alternate-side parking warning and one of those friendly "mind-the-gap" style helpful hints you find in most subway cars, these pleas for sanity and common decency are ones you wish some city agency was actually producing and plastering all over the city. In fact, they are already fetish objects, "free" limited edition artworks that I suspect are frequently stolen just about as fast as the artist cleverly bolts them to existing signposts. So far, I have resisted the very powerful temptation to stalk one and bring it home for myself, if only because the messages on them so desperately need to get out there in front of the public.
This one is my favorite, so far. Photo spotted, and stolen from, Eileen Costa's facebook page.


Making too much of Gumbo

Although it was not an event officially sanctioned by the Association for the Promulgation of Gumbo, dinner at my house last night owed a lot to the founding spirit of that organization. Call it the fraternity of consumption. Never having invited twenty people to dine at once before, I was typically concerned that there wouldn't be enough food. While at this point I pretty much grasp what dinner for eight should look like when laid out on the chopping board, were two and half pounds of okra, two chickens, and my last few sticks of Laplace, Louisiana andouille going to be enough for the gathering hordes? The affirmative RSVP rate was running at about 96%.

Not to worry. Despite my protestations that I had everything under control, "although a bottle of wine would be welcome, if you feel like bringing one," everyone bought food, and dessert, and wine, and I probably could have fed forty.

Just one little corner of the groaning board. Wild rice with a trio of mushroom species bundled up in lotus leaf, by Ordoubadi. With friends who bring platters like this to your gumbo social, you can almost get away with not even bothering to cook at all, and just blaming the lack of gumbo on a last minute scorched roux accident. But I'm ahead of myself. "First," as it says at the beginning of hundreds of Louisiana recipes, "you make a roux."

Roux, along with okra, is one of the defining, character-bestowing ingredients in gumbo. White flour, slow-fried in bubbling oil, must be whisked constantly to avoid it carbonizing and infecting your gumbo with the acrid taste of arson. Donald Link, of the brilliant Cochon Restaurant, in New Orleans, whose gumbo recipe I was following, writes that "the process of making roux can be hypnotic.... Watching the oil and flour mixture slowly change color and begin to take on its unique aroma gives you plenty of time to be alone with your thoughts."

Indeed, with the narcotic swirling of the whisk, I began almost to hallucinate. The surface of  bubbling roux has the quality of primeval swamp, as if, ultimately, life may emerge from it, the product of some wondrous accident of science and heat. The world and my thoughts, reflected in this toasting caramel lake, put me in mind of that film school classic, Jean-Luc Godard's cosmos as experienced in the swirling bubbles on the surface of a cup of coffee. It's from "2 ou 3 Choses que je Sais d'elle," and while sort of fun, it is almost staggering in its pretentiousness:

It is now time to admit the artistic debt the Association for the Promulgation of Gumbo owes to Godard in its own cinematic debut from early 2011, even if our version is perhaps too minimalist to reach the same heights of pretension:

Almost ready: one wants the roux, says Link, to be the color of a dark copper penny.

Lots of stock.

Perhaps the defining moment in the preparation of gumbo is the addition of the so-called Holy Trinity, along with abundant cajun seasonings, to the lava-like roux. This mixture of equal parts finely chopped onions, celery, and peppers is an obvious manifestation of Louisiana's French culinary heritage, for the Holy Trinity is essentially a mirepoix, with the peppers substituting for carrots. Once this flavor-base is added to the stock, the only remaining question is what sort of gumbo the dish will become. Will it be foot of pork or pile of crawdad? Back of crab or eye of newt? Just about anything can go in there, because no matter what you do next, now it's unquestionably a gumbo.

This one was andouille and chicken, cooked until the chicken was shedding off the bones into string. Last to go in is the okra, a symbol of fertility and virility thanks to many attributes, from its proud, firm shape to its womb-like interior cavity, bursting with seed and slime. Okra likely originates from Africa and was brought to the new world for or by slaves to grow and eat, and Cubans call the vegetable quimbombo, a word almost identical to various West African Bantu names for okra. Gombo, ngombo, gumbo, okra is synonymous with the dish.

The (mostly) Manhattan contingent, the Brooklyn locals having (mostly) wandered home in a gumbo-induced stupor by this point. This and the first photo courtesy of WoWe.

That is the bottom of the kettle you see there. Malheuresement le gumbo est terminé.

Brooklyn Multiculturalism at its best

"La Boulangerie Lopez," a bakery that obviously takes Eurozone Unity seriously. And they are not kidding. While the Mexican hipster at the counter was bagging up my tamales a most beautiful brioche came steaming out of the oven in the back of the shop. This is a newish place up on Fifth Avenue between 18th and 19th. The tamales were not bad, either.


Loafing on New Year's Eve

I'm attracted to superstition, but I'm not superstitious, except perhaps when it comes to natural processes. It doesn't seem to me to be black magic to feel that if the rivers are flowing and the clouds are blowing and the trees are growing as they should, then there is room for optimism. This is the source of the solace I take from the natural world, from wild places. The tide has gone out, but it will come in again.

So I took it as an auspicious auguring that the loaves of bread I baked as my contribution to a New Year's eve dinner last night were, if I say so myself, magnificent. The dough behaved as I expected it to, it swelled and rose in accordance with my understanding of the natural cycle of fermentation, understanding gained after significant effort and observation and much poking and prodding of moist compilations of flour and water. This is a blow-hardian way of saying that my sourdough starter is kicking ass right now.

It has been months since I used commercial yeast. I have no use for the stuff. An untouched jar of it sits in the fridge in the ghetto of mouldering condiments. This bread is made from water, flour and salt, one less ingredient than the Germans allow in their beer. Unless you count life itself as an ingredient, the wild, living yeasts of the air, which find their way into the starter to feed and multiply and expand. When they are doing their job this well, it is hard not to take it as a sign that it will be a glorious 2012!

I'm not bragging, I'm just saying: I would put these loaves up against Balthazar's in a shaolin kung-fu battle for bread supremacy. I apologize that there is no crumb shot, but I didn't want to bust any of these open before taking them to dinner, and snapping pictures of my own bread laid out on the groaning buffet table seemed dreadfully gauche, even for me. Technical details in the comments.