Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A Little Less Terror is a Good Thing

I was reading my daily news update, called "Today's Papers," on Slate. I find this daily update to be both a useful summary of the news and of news reporting, as the summary includes the headlines of all major US papers as well as which papers front what -- and often asks why they do so. It reminds you, sometimes scarily, of the power of media to decide what is important. It also is a quick digest of the major news which saves me from having to deal with a whole paper, as well as avoiding television news which I find bizarre and loud.

In yesterday's edition, there was this passage regarding terrorist alerts, " ...according to James M. Loy, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, "We must find a way to hold onto the sense of urgency, and hold it potentially for decades."" Slate then offers a contrasting view from Harper's magazine.

It's a joy to read. If you want to breathe a little easier after all of this terror stuff, just for a little bit, please check out the article now.

As an aside, I find some folks' obsession with being up to the moment on all news to be baffling. If something important happens, don't you think you'll find out about it? Isn't it stressful and time-consuming to constantly assault your awareness with updates on the state of things, all of which may change by tomorrow? A passage in Lost Horizon by James Hilton has stuck with me all of these years: the visitor to a remote country find out that the country's leader has access to a newspaper only once a year. When the visitor expresses his shock at the lack of information, the leader smiles and tells him that if the news is important enough, it will appear in that yearly newspaper access or in some other way.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Monster Oyster Quest

Enormous Scary Oysters! Posted by Hello
The photo simply doesn't do it justice ... I should have put a small child in this photo somehow for comparison. These things were huge!

I was in Chinatown on Tuesday getting a stupid filling. I hate getting fillings! (I know, I know, no one likes getting them, but I am just a baby about it).

So I tried to make the best of it by seeking out a Food Quest item I'd put on my list after reading about it on chowhound: oysters in Black Bean Sauce at Peach Farm Restaurant. Located the venue, located the menu, there it was ... six oysters for $8.95. I like oysters, and this price seemed pretty reasonable. So I ordered 'em up, while my companion ordered "shredded duck with rice stick." A very eggy hot and sour soup arrived quickly as did the duck, which was greasy but tasty. (Rice stick apparently means rice noodles.)

And then, the oysters appeared. Holy shellfish, batman. I guess I have never encountered Pacific oysters before (these were from Seattle). Eight of these things could have fed a large family. The inside flesh of each one was about the size of my hand. I couldn't believe it. Gamely, I dug in and ate one. Not bad. Mild, seafoody thing with the nice black bean sauce. But by the time I had four I was more than full. Turns out that you can order them by number and not just get the platter (which is not made clear on the menu). So if you go and you want to try something a little, um, different, just order two for starters, ok?

Would I recommend them to all and go out of my way to get them again? Nah. They weren't bad, but maybe a little more adventurous than even my own adventurous self can be culinarily speaking. But nonetheless, another food quest fulfilled. Whew.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Boston Cops Come Through

Do you know you are supposed to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk? At least in Boston, this is the law. Today I crossed in a crosswalk and a car came bearing down on me, with the driver honking the horn and shouting at me. I encounter this often enough that I generally point at the bright white area called the crosswalk and say pleasantly, "It's a crosswalk." And the driver response: "Get off the road, moron." It's a standard urban exchange, part of the patter of urban life that one probably longs for when one moves to the country along with the sound of jackhammers on concrete and ambulance sirens.

Today was like any other, except once I had gotten on the sidewalk and continued on my way and my fellow driver on his, a woman standing on the sidewalk laughed and said, "He's busted." I turned around and sure enough, one of our city's finest had seen the exchange. Our pal was obviously getting a ticket and was still there even after I completed my errand 20 minutes later. I walked by his car but I very honorably did not wave or gloat, at least not visibly.

Well. So sometimes the forces of justice prevail. I was pretty self-conscious about being an especially good pedestrian after that, at least until I got back to the office.

Vegans vs. Foodies?

A friend forwarded a blog entry he read that he thought I might find interesting, knowing I like food stuff and that I love David Foster Wallace. (You should avoid reading A Supposedly Fun Thing on a plane because all your plane mates will give you funny looks for the weird noises you make trying to suppress convulsions of laughter). And for whatever reason, I ended up writing back a little rant which I'm now turning into a blog entry. So for your reading pleasure, the rant.

The gist of the situation is that DFW wrote an article for Gourmet magazine about a lobster fest and DFW ponders the dilemma of the death of the lobster, and how that can't be much fun for your typical foodie. In response, Erik Markus writes a blog entry about Gourmet Magazine being likely to alienate many readers over this article and that foodies can't stand to think about the fact that their food comes from (here's the kicker) animals. Foodies simply don't think about this, and those who do, don't care. A quote from the blog:

"If the tone of my description strikes you as being dismissive towards foodies, it’s for good reason. I personally love to cook, but I don’t think that great food demands hours upon hours of fussy preparation. And that’s even not my main complaint. What I find most galling about foodies is that they seem to go out of their way to purchase precisely the foods that inflict the most suffering on animals. Delighting in exotic meats from such unfortunate creatures as suckling pigs, pheasants, and veal calves, these people generate more misery for mouthful than perhaps any other food consumer."

I don't consider myself a foodie (basically defined: a follower of food trends) but more of a chowhound, so you might say there is no good reason that my beans got burned after reading this article. But they did, and I think it is because there is this idea that gourmet food/cooking and caring about animals and/or the environment are mutually exclusive.

Saying foodies inflict some of the worst pain on animals is unfair. Sure, they are more likely to eat foie gras than your average Joe here in the US, but that number of people seems pretty small compared to the millions of people eating fast food, Tyson chicken, and factory eggs every single day. That's plenty of misery per mouthful.

And it neglects a large category of gourmet cooks who are willing to pay the extra bucks for organic locally raised produce, meat and eggs (as opposed to factory raised), which certainly relieve the suffering of some animals, and help support local economies, the environment, etc. These folks choose local partially because that kind of food TASTES better, as well as partially because it makes them feel good to help in this way. The editor of Cooks Illustrated wrote an essay last month discussing how his family only eats meat/eggs that he or his neighbors have butchered or raised. His kids participate in both the raising and the killing of the cute little lambs and pigs. It seems at least to be honest -- if you're going to eat meat, knowing the creature is a pretty powerful part of the process. Barbara Kingsolver talks about this as well in her book Small Wonder. It seems to be an acknowledgment of something more real. This is a discussion in which I'd rather be a part.

I hear Erik Markus saying, hey, let's be conscious of the animals here and not just our own pleasure. And he's right. And there are ways to do this and to still experience pleasure. How about we educate instead of dismiss? Connect instead of separate?

It's a tangled web we live in -- our food, our clothes, our transportation ... all the basics of everyday life and how they are related to others. Trying to lead a good life is pretty overwhelming, especially on days when just getting through the day is a lot of work. Okay, end of rant.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Chilli Garden Food Quest Fulfilled

After reading a review in the Globe, Chilli Garden in Medford, MA went on the Food Quest list. I made one unsuccessful attempt to find it, and then last night on attempt two, was successful. And hooray, it was worth the trip!

I'm not a huge Chinese restaurant fan, but I like interesting food that is well-prepared, and I believe you get that here. I'm guessing from the very mixed on-line reviews I have read of the place that their specialties are impressive while the Chinese standards are not as interesting. So I made sure I ordered the specialties and this worked pretty well.

By the way, I find this to be true as well at Wang's Chinese Cuisine (formerly Wang's Fast Food) in Somerville, which makes dumplings to die for but most other things I have ordered have been eh.

Anyhow, I ordered the "house special chicken with dried pepper" ($10.95), asking for a little less spice than the two "bombs" on the menu. It arrived first, a heaping plateful of freshly fried chicken pieces in a salty, spicy coating with bits of red chilis and black beans. I didn't know it would be breaded and fried (and I'm not a fan of fried), but it was delicious. I also ordered won tons in chicken broth ($3.85). The won tons were great, but the broth had little flavor at all and got left in the bowl. My companion ordered the whole fish in spicy sauce ($15.85) which takes an extra 15 minutes. And yes, it's the whole fish, head and tail and eyeballs and all, and it fills the whole plate. The meat was very tender and the sauce spicy and vinegary.

Service was good, and we received a lot of refills on water -- very necessary with all the chiles. When I go back (and yes, it's definitely worth a return trip), I want to try the scallion pancakes, the hot and sour soup, the green bean starch with chili sauce, and the ma po tofu.

Food quest fulfilled! Next on the list: Russo's Market in Watertown for exotic fruit, with a side trip to Arax Market on Mt. Auburn Street to pick up pita and latvian sardines of course. And soon I'll be headed to Detroit, land of all things um, midwestern? So if anyone has a food quest to suggest there, I'll take it! (I've already got Zingerman's Deli on the list, and I'd love hints on Greektown).

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A Taste of Blackberries

Berry picking Posted by Hello
Does this count as a food post? I'm counting it as a gardening post. Went and picked the last of the raspberries and blackberries last night at my community garden.

Was going to get some more concord grapes also but someone had beaten me to them. I love the fact that concord grapes are named after the town just a few miles away from where I pick them. A few years back I made a concord grape pie which was a lot of fun only because everyone made such a fuss over the idea of a grape pie. It tastes kinda like cherry. The hard part is getting all the seeds out.

Anyhow, I just wanted to mention what a true pleasure it is to pick berries in the late summer evening. The sun shines on the berries, lighting them up like red and purple jewels, the bees and mosquitoes buzz around your head, the cicadas drone on, and it is very necessary to immediately eat the really soft, ripe berries because they just don't travel well and won't last. And wow, a really soft ripe berry eaten while you are standing in the summer sun is really a beautiful thing on the tongue. Some are still just a little tart, some have gone past the moment of ripeness and have a hint of vinegar, and some are just nothing but the straight taste of sugar and sunshine. Yeah, I love summer.

You Were Getting Hungry for a Food Post, Right?

Squash Blossom Quesadilla Posted by Hello I got some flak about my numerous food posts, so I held off for a bit. But you know you were dying to know what I've made lately, haven't you? Well, I made a nice peach pie with Joselyn, using tapioca as a thickener which was pretty successful, although I forgot to include flour in the topping so it wasn't quite perfect. Then I was at the Arlington farmer's market and one booth had squash blossoms along with assorted Asian greens. The Harvest Restaurant extravaganza I wrote up earlier included a pan fried squash blossom in one of the dishes which I thought was delicious and fun. So I bought a batch ($2 for 24ish), brought 'em home and started flipping through my Mexican cookbook. One recipe included them in the standard sopa de pollo (chicken soup). And another was for quesadillas with cheese and "flor de calabeza" (squash blossoms). Above is the evidence. They came out pretty good. Not a particularly strong flavor to the flowers; their addition mostly enhances color and texture. So that's my latest culinary adventure.

And in case you were wondering if I ever do really stupid things in the kitchen, well, let me share one thing. I'd stored the blossoms in the fridge in a glass of water to keep them fresh until I cooked them. When I took them out of the fridge, I set the glass of water they'd been in on the counter. Later when I was thirsty I thought, oh, here's my glass of drinking water. Ew.

A break from Very Serious Posts

Isn't Boston pretty? Posted by Hello Took this shot on my lunch break in Copley Square. I love the John Hancock skyscraper building (upper right corner) which was designed by IM Pei. Supposedly the windows popped out and came crashing down sixty stories when it was first finished but happily this doesn't happen now. The church in the middle is Trinity Church, a famous example of "Richardsonian Romanesque" style. It's lovely inside as well. I live in a pretty cool city, and Copley Square is not a bad place to spend a lunch hour.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Trials of Henry Kissinger (long post)

As part of my current documentary obsession, I watched The Trials of Henry Kissinger this weekend. From watching the entire thing (albeit rather sleepily), here's what I can recall as the major reasons some people think he should be tried.

1. He was involved in/responsible for the delaying of the peace talks which would have ended the Viet Nam war much more quickly. The number of American and Vietnamese casualties after this delay until the end of the war exceeded the number killed before the peace talks.

2. He was involved in/responsible for extending the Viet Nam war much more deeply into Cambodia (through a campaign of "secret bombing"), causing the deaths of 1,000s of Cambodians and Americans, and a destabilization of Cambodia, leaving it open to be taken over by the murderous Khmer Rouge.

3. He oversaw the assasination of the general of the Chilean army who was standing the way of a military coup to overthrow democratically elected Allende. The overthrow of Allende was important to US interests because of American copper mining companies working there, as well as issues with Pepsi Cola. Because of Allende's overthrow, Pinochet stepped in (with US support).

There's also lots of other issues involving East Timor, Cypress and some US stuff but I was too worn out to take it all in.

My take on the film as film: lots of good information, but as a movie not as compelling as The Fog of War. Could have been better organized. The filmmaker's goal was "making the case for there to be a trial" as opposed to trying to prove that Kissinger is guilty. Which is a good way to try and keep things relatively neutral, although the film obviously isn't trying to achieve too much on both sides.

I read the article about Kissinger in Harper's a while back(the link is to a good panel discussion) , and I'm going to read the book as well.

Should Kissinger be tried for crimes against humanity? In the Fog of War, Robert McNamara admits that many of the decisions he or the presidents he served made would be cause for prosecution in front of an international trial. However, he notes, only the defeated ever end up standing trial. This brings up all kinds of questions around illegality and immorality, around the idea of what is justice and what is retribution. As the world grows increasingly smaller and interconnected, there is this question of how to deal with "the monsters of the world"? But first how do you define who those monsters are?

In the panel discussion linked above, I thought the following quote by Alfred Rubin at the Fletcher School was a good one:

"Henry Kissinger reflected then, as I think his successors have reflected, the overwhelming urges and prejudices of the American people. The racism that was reflected in our policy in Southeast Asia was a racism deeply embedded in American society. Henry was not an aberration. He was a kid from George Washington High in the Bronx and, I need not remind you, Harvard. And he reflected the values and the often unspoken inner ethic of our most revered institutions. He got away with it, not because he was some sly magician or some skillful manipulator, but because he reflected so often what so many of his peers in the press, in Congress, in the Executive branch, in the bureaucracy, in the political world, in the intellectual world, in academia felt. In his savagery toward the outside world, his heedlessness, his imperial mentality, he was quintessentially reflective of very powerful strains in American life, and we must not forget that. He was not apart from the main. And though we now single him out for responsibility, the responsibility, of course, ultimately is ours."

Pinochet is now likely to face trial which continues to stir up the discussion around the whole idea of an international court of law. As the book and movie point out, Kissinger has much to fear in Pinochet going to trial. I wish I knew more about the ins and outs of The International Criminal Court (which the US has been refusing to be a part of, and not surprisingly, Kissinger denounced in an essay). So much more to learn.

What does this mean about being in power? And about living in the most powerful country in the world?

As an aside, I feel kinda funny chatting about these films that were much more topical six months ago (The Fog of War) or three years ago (The Trials). So I'm a bit behind the eightball on all of these, but hey, I never said this blog was about up to the minute news (although the latest news on Pinochet is only two weeks old so I'm not that behind I guess). And it can't hurt to brush up on the thrust of the arguments for the next time it pops up at your dinner party, right?

UPDATE: A good pal (and poli-sci mentor) pointed out that September 11 was the anniversary (among other things) of the coup d'etat in Chile in 1973. So maybe I'm more topical than I thought. Spooky is right.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Documentary Delight

I'm not sure why, but I've been digging the documentaries these days. Is it just me getting interested, or is it that there are cooler options than there used to be? Or am I turning into the lefty equivalent of a Rush Limbaugh radio junkie? Oh and yeah, I did see Farenheit 911. It was interesting, although Michael Moore's method sometimes makes me squirm.

My new updated list of DVD rentals now I've seen the Fog of War:
The Trials of Henry Kissinger
The Corporation
Uncovered: The War in Iraq
Roger and Me
Darwin's Dangerous Idea I started to watch this on and was fascinated but didn't have time for the whole thing.

An oldie but goodie (1990s) I'd recommend: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

In the non-political category:
Winged Migration

An oldie but goodie (ie 1990s) by the same guy who did the Fog of War: Fast Cheap and Out of Control A movie which drives you to declare, "Hairless rat moles rule!"

Let me know if you've got some other can't miss documentaries while I'm on my tear here.

Update on the Fog of War

In the previous post I was pondering what McNamara's opinions about our current political situation might be. A friend let me know that McNamara was interviewed by Charlie Rose after the release of the film. McNamara steadfastly refused to answer questions about the Bush administration's handling of Iraq. So, another dead end?

With a quick poke into Google, I was able to unearth an article from the Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, who were for some reason able to break down McNamara's steely reserve by, um, calling him up and asking him these questions over the phone. Those wily Canadians! So here's a link to the article expressing McNamara's current take, as well as a list of the 11 specific mistakes McNamara believes were made in the Viet Nam war. (Whether or not they apply to the current political situation is up to you).

This is the fun thing about blogging, I've got to say. I make a random musing, I do some searching around the question and get Chomsky's take on it, a friend fills me in on another angle, I do a little detective work, and ta dah! A question turns into a whole story. So cool!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Fog of War

I just watched the DVD for The Fog of War, about the life of Robert McNamara. The film's site includes a link to a negative review from Eric Alterman in the Nation (as well as a rebuttal), which says it lets McNamara recuse himself too much. While I felt the movie kept pretty neutral, Morris let McNamara avoid the toughest questions.

I guess if there is one thing you are reminded by the controversy around this type of film is that hindsight is NOT 20/20. Not that history wrapped up in pretty packages isn't appealing, even if it is much more boring.

After the movie ended I wondered about the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. Noam Chomsky does a nice job of stopping that question cold in its tracks in his blog, saying that the consequences of invading Iraq, a locus of economic and strategic power, are unquestionably much larger than that of Viet Nam. In other writings, Chomsky is pretty dismissive of McNamara as a whole, that McNamara was a "narrow technocrat, small-time engineer" who was in far over his head. McNamara says almost as much in the movie when he describes his reluctant reaction to Kennedy's asking him to be Secretary of Defense. Kennedy's response: "There isn't any school for being president, either."
Some days you are reminded more than others that our world is held together by bubblegum and scotch tape. Some days I think this is a good thing, and other days it is pretty darned scary.

Nonetheless, I'd still be curious to hear McNamara's opinion on the current state of affairs. This guy has a lot of perspective from 85 years being in the front row on a lot of this stuff.


When I was a little kid I would spend hours playing with water in the sink, or turning shampoo bottles upside down and watching the golden liquid bubble and fold inside the container. I loved some weird substance I got as a present called Magic Sand which allowed you to form strange constructions out of colored sand underwater. And at the beach I would spend all day at the edge between the water and the sand forming castles and drizzle buildings until the sun went down and my shoulders were hot with sunburn. When my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I "grew up", I would say with certainty, "A Fountain Maker." To which they chuckled and said there was no such thing. So I became other things instead.

Well, it turns out there are Fountainmakers out there. One I met in an Artist's Way course two years ago. And not only is he a cool maker of fountains, he also is the guy responsible for the beautiful fishnet holiday lights, as well as this fascinating project involving Native American Fishweirs.

I'll let you check out the site to learn more. But this kind of history always gets me. Who knew we had fishweirs right here in the Back Bay of Boston? To discover such an ancient activity amongst our concrete sidewalks just boggles the mind, let alone coming up with a way to make it alive again. And isn't this the best kind of thing to do with art -- connect with the past, connect with your own present, AND with your community in this beautiful and meaningful way? Throw in some kids and a curriculum and you've got something that I think is as real and true as it gets in terms of Art That Matters. So a big shout out to Ross Miller, confirmer of my childhood career fantasy and overall doer of mighty cool things. Thanks, Ross, for keeping me hopeful!

PS I did end up making a fountain last year using a water bubbler I bought at a pet supply store with a beautiful bowl and lots of rocks. Very fun if very small.

Friday, September 03, 2004

And we close the file on Bonita the Duck

For my faithful readers enquiring of news about the fate of Bonita the Duck, I think we will have to close the file on this one and mark it "unsolved." I vigilantly scan the river each morning and afternoon, stopping and searching among the grazing flocks of geese and generally wreaking small havoc amongst the local goose population who begin to mutter suspicions that I am stalking them. But no Bonita.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are likely three scenarios for our favorite feathered friend, and the mystery remains unsolved about which flock she has joined. I have to share one last suspicion that recently occurred to me based on the number of these I pass on the path -- perhaps instead of Bonita the Duck, all along she was actually Carmen the Cormorant?

Goodbye Bonita and we all wish you well, and that you have found a place where you belong ... somewhere...