Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mangia, mangia

ONCE IN A WHILE a cookbook appears that just can’t seem to go wrong. Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Café Cookbook is one example: when it arrived I almost immediately made a Caesar Salad following the recipe, and the result tasted exactly like being in the Zuni Café. A few weeks later, same experience with her marvelous roast chicken.

The latest example is Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques, published last month, I believe. Suzanne worked a stint at Chez Panisse, is how we know her; then she moved on, first to the sous-chef role at Mark Peel’s Campanile in Los Angeles, then opening her own restaurants — first Lucques, later AOC.

We’ve only had time to try one recipe so far: we’ve been away. A couple of days ago Lindsey decided to try Suzanne’s Pappardelle with wild mushrooms, shell beans, and parmesan, making so many substitutions you’d be excused for thinking it was an entirely different dish. Farfalle instead of pappardelle; a mix of storebought mushrooms; lima beans instead of fresh shell beans — that sort of thing.

But the result was absolutely delicious. And better than that: it was intriguing, interesting, substantial. Everyone commented on it, from twelve-year-old Fran (as fine a bouche as any in this family) to seventy-year-old me. And delicious as the thing was the night Lindsey made it, it only got better the next day, when it was served warmed over in the skillet you see here.

It tasted of Suzanne’s restaurant Lucques, which — like Loretta Keller’s Bizou of fond memory — seems at its best in slow-cooked dishes — braises and the like. There’s something special about dishes like these, comforting of course this time of year, but beyond even that there’s something really interesting — their complexity and depth suggest something chthonic and primordial.

In this case, as Giovanna pointed out, there are so many details. Textures, colors, tastes. And each forkful brings a quantity of physical interfaces far beyond what you’d expect: the tiny morsels of bean, pasta, mushroom, spinach, parmesan, breadcrumbs have so much texture; so many wrinkles, edges, folds, grains; each of them immediately finding a receptor on the tongue, then moving on to dozens more.

It’s a complex recipe, but not a daunting one, I think — I say complacently, as I had nothing to do with making it. But it is a delicious thing, and a glass of Nero d’Avila does not hurt it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

PORTLAND again: jazz history lives

THE CULTURE IN PORTLAND, at least as far as I am concerned, is predominately a café culture. Here I am under my black Italian hat next to Pavel, who is instructing me in the art of the Treo, an electronic gizmo for which I lust, as another aspect of the Portland culture is electronics. Giovanna took the photo, with her cell phone, I think, or maybe her Palm, I’m not quite sure.

In fact I wrote a much shorter version of this instalment of the blog on the Treo and uploaded it from this café, one of the small locally-owned chain of Mio Gelato shops. We admire these shops for their correct and delicious gelato, and overlook their insane loyalty to Illy Caffe, what I would call the Starbuck’s of Italy. When you put enough fior di latte gelato into a cup of said Illy espresso the result is a perfectly acceptable affogato, and life does not get that much better.

We had been to the Portland Art Museum, there to see a short documentary film made by a seventeen-year-old highschool student named Samuel Allen. When a little short of his seventeenth birthday he read and reacted to a history of the local jazz scene: Bob Dietsche’s recently published “Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957.”

During those years Portland had a vibrant jazz scene, centered on the black part of town (naturally) situated across the Willamette river from the majestic railroad station. Jazz greats toured on the train in those days, and after playing dates in clubs frequented by white audiences they jammed in their own clubs in their own part of town. This is the scene recalled fondly in Allen’s video, consisting largely of interviews with survivors, many of them conducted at a local senior center.

Alas, that part of town was demolished during the 1950s when “urban renewal” became the prevailing social value. An interstate freeway, a convention center, and a basketball arena dislodged the rooming houses, bars, and jump joints that had been at the center of thriving economy of booze, gambling, music, and social entertainment. Like so much of America, Portland turned toward the bland.

It’s amazing and ironic, in a way, that it was left to a high-school student to translate Dietsche’s book, already published to celebrate a nearly vanished strand of virile urban culture, into a documentary film not without its own ironic glances at the stuffier clichés of that medium. There are problems with it, of course: the sound could be better; some of the interviews get lost in the background noise; there isn’t enough of jazz itself. But it’s honest and evocative and fascinating, partly for its subject, partly for its own charming innocence, which frequently presents an ironic counter to the lusty, witty intelligence of its subject.

And as urban cultural history it offers an important challenge to many another American city. There must be dozens of places with similar stories. Properly researched and presented -- or even simply put together on the fly -- their telling would go a long way to correcting the star-struck metropolis-ridden view most of us have of our own national heritage. Sam Allen’s movie, and Bob Dietsche’s book, deserve wide currency.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Gently sliding away from “consequence”

THERE’S NOT MUCH REASON to say much here about Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address, but I was struck by two features: its relentless optimism, calculated to tarnish any disagreement as mere pessimism (a lesson learned from Mr. Reagan); and its insistence on a continued global engagement as America’s right, privilege, duty, hope.

Lebensraum, an earlier world leader might call it. It seems odd that in a speech so welcoming of “bipartisanship” domestically there was so little said about any kind of global negotiation or co-operation.

My friend John Whiting [www.whitings-writings.com] regularly sends me information about depressing but accurate assessments of the present condition, and Mr. Bush put me in mind, last night, of a recent one, which I’ll simply print here, as John sent it to me:

“What no one seemed to notice was the ever widening gap between the government and the people. And it became always wider.....the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting, it provided an excuse not to think....for people who did not want to think anyway gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about.....and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ’crises’ and so fascinated.....by the machinations of the ’national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.....

“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ’regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ’little measures’.....must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.....Each act is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.

“You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone.....you don’t want to ’go out of your way to make trouble.’ But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes.

“That’s the difficulty. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

“You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father.....could never have imagined.”

Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1938-45 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p 166ff