Wednesday, November 24, 2010

it's all connected

a few photos i took before i left. might we be wrong in thinking that plants don't feel?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

the stuff of dreams

hello dearies

so clearly this pic is of the serbia i was expecting to find; note the dilapidated soviet-era car, the crumbling building, etc. in reality, there isn't much of that here, but at least i was able to find a little (and, yes, i only wear green polos and always carry bags full of root vegetables wherever i go...).

i promised a few dreams, despite remembering clearly a few lines of cautionary poetry that go: "describe a dream/lose a reader." alas, hopefully these are worth it.

the more recent is easily explained: my brother comes to visit, and instead of me taking the feather bed off my futon and putting it in my office, as i normally do (so we have separate beds, for if you've ever been w/in 20 yards when my brother takes off a shoe you'll know is a vital necessity), but this time, it's clear we're going to have to share a bed. more odd, mike tyson is also there. very friendly, not at all homoerotic (really!). just like he happens to be staying too, and now we have the dilemma of three guys who have to share the same bed and work very hard not to accidentally bump each other in the night.

in person, the former champ is very mild-mannered and pleasant, by the way -- at least in my dream.

the other one i think holds a meaning i'd like to keep with me.

i'm walking through a very fancy restaurant with my mom. we're planning on eating, but we see the prix fixe and decide it doesn't look so good, so we decide to pass. i'm walking toward the exit, and suddenly it's my dad, not my mom. we walk into the only apparent way out: a tiny blank white room, as if under construction. i ask a waiter if this is the elevator, and he says of course.

it looks barely painted, unfinished, and entirely inappro- priate for such a fancy restaurant. worse, the back left corner appears to have a punch hole in the top; there's a jagged opening in the ceiling and the plaster seems all in shards. but when i look more carefully, i see that the jags are actually intended, that the plaster is all made of interlocked, unbelievably subtle lettering, and then i see that in fact the whole room is made of such lettering, only perceivable when you try to see it. it is intricate and exquisite in the extreme -- and clearly a joke on the patrons to think that the restaurant had failed them. especially when crowded, there'd be almost no chance of thinking that the elevator was anything other than a travesty. but no. it's consummate art. loved it.

the food, by the way, is the other stuff of dreams: buckwheat pasta, parsnips w/ greens (the leaves of which were absolutely delicious), and the best beans i've ever had. sorry, steve from rancho gordo; i still have a dozen or so of yours to try, but the bar has been raised. if all goes well, i'll bring 10 pounds of these home w/ me and all of you will get to taste them. they are the legume equivalent of a hot sulphur spring: so minerally, good for you, rich, dense, and gratifying you can't believe it. i've been making tuscan-style bean sandwiches w/ kaymak, ajvar, pickled veggies, beans, and a drizzle of olive oil. superb.

unlabeled bottles -- yeah!

among the few regrets i have in life is never having been on horseback on a dustblown plain out west and had my brother, also on horseback, put a cork back in an label-less bottle and toss it to me for a swig.

my version instead is to purchase mystery homemade liquors in all countries of the world, raising local eyebrows, risking eyesight, and enjoying every incendiary drop.

obviously, the above is a bottle of rakija, we have no idea what type, delivered by one of danica's friends named Bojana -- a dentist -- as a present from her boss, who heard i like the indigenous hooch. head dentist, buddy, this one is for you. i won't tell that you've been using it to anesthetize both your pre-op patients -- and yourself.

(oh, and here's the picture, by the way, of the rest of the spread she brought, food compliments of her grandmother: homemade ajvar, sublimely delicate cabbage rolls, roast pork, the rakija, and roast lamb. score!)

now, assuming the liquor bottle does in fact, tragically, have a label, the thing you're clearly after is the hand-written type, or at least the hand-numbered small batch, as in this delightful case, a delivery from another of danica's friends (apparently my reputation is beginning to precede me). this one is from the provinces down south, and apparently the one the friend's dad drinks (natch). she also brought a homemade jar of ajvar, as you can see. delicious.

of course i can't bring any of these home in their bottles proper, so many of you can look forward to my own barely labeled bottle special: the former water bottle with the label ripped off and the name of the alcohol written into the residual glue left behind. apparently my left-behind half-liter bottles that say:
down the middle have traumatized some visitors to my brother's home. sorry about that, Stoli Beri drinkers everywhere.

to know your double-goer, and for him to be famous and dead

this could be my bio:
•born while dad is in grad school
•elder of two children
•moved to and spent early life in champaign, IL
•dad prof at Univ of Illinois
•eventually went to public school in Urbana, IL
•prodigy in math
•went east for college
•double majored in philosophy and lit
•considered (briefly) grad school in philo
•had extremely unkempt long hair
•became a writer
•suffered depression
•wrote fiction and nonfiction
•taught at a university
•loved tennis
•loved dogs

and in fact, it is. it is also the bio of the late David Foster Wallace.

when i consider my frustrations with my career, i would do well to think that much of his writing is what i would like mine to be, his notoriety what i covet, yet still he tied a noose for himself at the apex of it all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

sparkle in the eye

first, a guest entry from my brother (who is just back from a bbq weekend retreat w/ my dad in KC -- details to follow, apparently):

"bro, i made some hot sauce from annesa's peppers (her dad has a big garden). it's really good but it's so fucking hot i can't believe it. whole body heat. i have a jar for you. you'll love it but you'll also live in fear of it. i really should bottle it and sell it. i gotta say it's the best tasting almost inedible hot sauce i've ever had."

so, yes, my family takes vacations just to eat meat, then comes home and we exchange hot sauce for the holidays. good times.

in other news, i met this utterly adorable little guy while on my way back from the market (yes, with leeks). he was so cute and excited i can barely tell you (note the paw placement in the fence). when you see the sparkle in his eyes in the last photo, you'll know why i think i could move out of the city and be happy just having a dog and playing tennis every day -- even if i'm living in my van.

on the food front, i did in fact eat at the hunter's lodge. had a venison goulash, yummy, and continued to scandalize my friend by eschewing silverware and instead simply mopping bread in sauce for every bite then taking home all the meat at the end.

clearly you've all been waiting for your serbian thug bird gang update. well, today i saw about 6 of the crows torment and herd about 3 dozen seagulls, driving them to various corners of the soccer pitch and then finally shooing them away altogether. these is a no-nonsense avian mafia, i'm telling you. highly organized and capable.

didn't end up writing much this week, as i spent the entire week reading Infinite Jest on my computer (it's a half a million words long, so at the end of each day of nothing but 1120x820 text, i'd get up and walk around like one of the mole people pulled out onto a daylighted Broadway). amazing what a protracted cry for help it was; with hindsight's 20-20, it's haunting (mike moore's word) to see all the signs that DFW was going to take his own life. tragic.

as for the book, it's clearly the Gravity's Rainbow of our generation -- intentionally so, i think -- and a pretty amazing, if flawed and, in my opinion, quite unfinished book. have much more to say but won't go on here about it.

i'll wrap up for now, but coming soon: two dreams -- the white elevator in fancy restaurant and mike tyson meets my family

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the $1 lunch experiment

here is the chronicle of The One-dollar Lunch Experiment , otherwise known as a one-man, 4-crockpot, itsy-bitsy social experiment — if not the first seed of a revolution.

Ok, that's an exaggeration, I don't think there's going to be a revolution, and even if there was a revolution, I think the effects would be short-lived, as they seem to have been with every other (have you heard me tell the story about being in Prague in October of 1990 and going to the bar where Havel and the Charter 77 revolutionaries would have underground rock shows and poetry readings; a year after the "Velvet revolution," there was a red velvet rope outside the bar and doormen only letting in the cool, well-dressed, beautiful, and those who bribed).

So let's call it a social experiment — not a bad way of thinking about my life as a whole.

The whole thing came about like this. I decided to do an article reviewing crock pots, so I ordered a ton of them and needed to do a lot of testing.

Simul- taneously, I tasted some dried heirloom beans that my brother had ordered from a place called Rancho Gordo in Napa. At $5/lb they cost 4 times what I normally spend on dried beans, but the one kind I tried made me want to try the other 26 varieties that they sell.

So I ordered them all.

And I created a spreadsheet with reviews (I'm happy to share it w/ anyone who's interested).

Now the survivalist's perfect storm of having both 4 crockpots and 26 pounds of dried beans in one's apartment at the same time will lead you to some unorthodox thinking. In my case, it led to the desire to feed my office lunch, and to do so such that I could charge them each only $1 a portion and still break even.

It was the perfect economic challenge/mass-providing activity to suit all my psychological needs.

Additionally, it brings me one step closer to my dream of being a 260-lb Baptist woman — now, in addition to the perpetual roots gospel I have playing in my apartment, my basso singing along, my hip-shaking, and now, the capper, my bringing of lunch to 22 people a day, as if I was toting my prized pies or buttermilk fried chicken to the church social or the fair.

So here are the 19 meals i ended up cooking over the 29 business days from sept 21 - nov 1. (didn't use any recipes, but can give basic ideas upon request)


1. Malaysian-style curried beef (rendang-like) w/ broc, red pepper, carrot, brown rice $1

2. SW-style chili con carne (pork/chicken livers as secret ingredient), green pepper, brown rice $1

3. Chana masala (chick pea curry) w/ broc, potato, brown rice $1

4. Chinese noodles w/ roast pork, red pepper, baby bok choy, peanut sauce $1

5. Penne w/ mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, labna, pepper/herbs de provence $1

6. Bbq pulled pork, heirloom flageolet beans, cabbage/cilantro/green pepper no-mayo slaw, rice $2 (couldn't get enough pork shoulder on sale, thus the price)

7. Hunter's stew (lamb, pork, chicharrones), white beans w/ spinach, brown rice $1

8. Re-tread chili (3 leftover chilis/beans from freezer mixed up), rice, cilantro $1

9. Pasta e fagioli (heirloom tepary and giant lima beans, artisinal orecchiete pasta) w/ watercress and sopressata) $2 due to Little Italy last-minute buying

10. peanut noodle dish w/ red peppers and scallions 75 cents (note, here's the pic, but normally i'd have to bring about twice this much food in)

11. 2 curries: french lentil w/ pea shoots/carrots/ghee (vegetarian not vegan), ground pork/red peppers/broc/cilantro and a roasted cauliflower (vegan) and brown rice $1

12. ricotta mini ravioli w/ broccoli rabe, heirloom snowcap beans, luganiga sausage, kalamata olives, fresh basil and tomato sauce: $2 (rabe is expensive)

13. tuscan-inspired sandwich w/ grilled duck hearts, broccoli rabe, white beans, shaved parmesan, and quality olive oil: $1.50

14. ziti w/ "sausage and peppers" -- sausage in the bolognese sauce w/ green pepper $1

15. vegan curried zucchini and brown rice. 75 cents (see pic)

16. heirloom mayocoba beans w/ green pepper, much better chick peas than you're used to (cuz they're not from a can) w/ spinach, brown rice $1

17. syrian-spiced grilled chicken breasts and "succotash" (corn, potato, greens), + chick peas, spinach, rice from yesterday $1.50

18. chicken cacciatore w/ egg noodles, green pepper, steamed yams $2

19. ricotta ravioli w/ zucchini and rich meat sauce (w/ soppressata cubes) $2

my favorite responses were from Kyle who repeatedly said how much he loved the whole idea of the thing (and seemed to enjoy the meals quite a bit too). megan was sweet b/c she had a new favorite every few days (as did margaret). and i got to know the people on the nerve side too, since obviously i opened it up to them.

in all, a blast, even though i'll probably have dishpan hands for all of 2011.

westchester redneck


it's getting toward the holiday season, which puts me into my annual dilemma about whether or not to buy my brother a still for christmas.

he lives in westchester, so i'm dying for him to be cooking up his own hooch in a shed in the backyard, thus confirming that they could take us rednecks out of central Illinois, but couldn't take...

(i also have been trying to get him to host a greater New York roadkill cook-off, but somehow that plan has been stalled as well)

the problem, of course, is that stills sometimes explode (thus some of cormac mccarthy's characters referring to their liquor as 'splo -- and thus i go by Splo for our various sports leagues), and he and i and his wife hillary all love their three kids more than anything on the planet, so i'll need to resolve some safety issues before we proceed.

nonetheless, i'm encouraged by this set up -- and the certainty that my brother will see in it a portrait of my future just as i see in it a portrait of his. we might have to wait till the kids go to college, but there might could be some shine in westchester. just you wait and see.

as to matters more in the here and now, meanwhile, tomorrow i'm going to eat at a place called the Hunter's Lodge/Home. sounds quite promising. apparently i'm also about to be treated to some homemade village rakija and ajvar, which of course thrills me to no end (ajvar is a kind of roasted pepper spread that i'm beginning to think is my favorite food here. it's absolutely killer)

i've also learned the cyrillic alphabet and am now reading street signs everywhere and figuring out all the cognates. my vocabulary is now at a whopping maybe 80 words, but i am surprised at how many greek and latin roots sneak in to this old-church-slavonic-derived language. and now that i've caused acute narcolepsy in all of you, i'll say sweet dreams.

check back in for report on the game at the hunter's lodge. i promise to order any rodent on the menu.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

barbaro black and blue

my activist amici

here is the fruit of my equine slaying: a faux serbian feast on a platter (i've eaten two such feasts already, one called the robinja, the slave girl, that was outrageously meat within meat within meaty delicious.) i like the all-on-one-board thing, and, forgive the horn toot, but i'm proud i managed this with one flimsy 10" frying pan. it was really tasty (though couldn't supplant the mountain lamb). and, yes, that _is_ a horseradish/mustard/wine/yogurt sauce on the spuds. root on root! i'm in heaven...

and for one other transcendent experience, earlier in the day my friend here, danica, and i went back to what's now my favorite rakija store and bought the one that's named, more or less, "charred" (also made from plums). i had thought that their honey one was the ultimate, but this was even better -- similar complexity/flavors but w/o the sweetness. kind of like the male version of same. utterly sublime.

danica also convinced me to buy a the strong version of the local Lav beer, which for a moment i thought was 16.2% alcohol, but i realized later was just 7.2% as well as a digestif, which was peculiar as peculiar gets (not sweet at all, herbal strangeness and then the longest, bitterest note, like some biblical jeremiad to finish things off), but actually did seem to help break down the Seabiscuit, root-fest, and various hooches. plus, it's name seems to mean "the belly warrior" -- and look at that funnel the dude's holding! suffice it to say, in all, it was an excellent celebratory feast for finishing an absolute ton of work.

also should mention that i got mildly sunburned today (nov 13!), and i saw various outstanding old eastern european- style vehicles, including this van (note the screwdriver tucked into the driver's side window). obviously, ruf, this is the ride i would have liked to park in your back yard. and lars and osk, sorry that daddy's van isn't quite so hip as this. maybe one day.

serbia is really rocking. more reports soon.

as fate would have it


we earth-trodders should probably tremble when we see portents from the higher powers. i was reading on my balcony yesterday (nov 12) -- again in just boxers in the delicious sunlight -- and i see a cat crouched to spring on any one of the 7 or 8 serbian crows (not monochrome like ours but black then grey then black in three equal parts) bopping about within a few feet of it. i'm thinking, what are those birds doing there? don't they realize it's a cat?

so i watch, never having seen a tom ever catch a jerry (or the like), but when the cat finally pounces, the birds jump easily away. and then i see more: the birds are actually taunting the cat, prancing close to it but just out of reach, flying right over its head and landing just behind, hopping across its field of vision. and they seem to be working in concert.

after a few more attempts, the cat gives up and zips away. the birds then disperse.

when this Trauerspiel began, i assumed of course that fate was the cat and i one of the clearly doomed birds. but no! perhaps it's not so bleak; maybe all these chapters are going to turn out ok; just maybe...

another sign i wasn't sure how to interpret was my dishwashing liquid -- for the sensitive, such as myself! (also note how the ketchup label advertises hot peppers. hot peppers, however, are not among its ingred- ients...)

finally, the grilled lamb stand i intended to bring my main course for last night's dinner was closed, so instead i continued on and ate at a pretty fancy, old-school serbian restaurant, decked out gaudily like a love grotto Cupid would have shared with Bacchus. (oh my did the fountains spurt)

and reading the english menu, and noticing the prices being a little high, i was a little concerned. but how, my lovelies, knowing me as you do, could i resist Mountain Lamb in Self Milk? fear not! resist i didn't, and out comes a helmet-sized glass cauldron half filled with lamb chunks, potato, and veggies in a rich dairy "potage" -- clearly thickened with the feta-like kaymak and utterly stupendous. (picture to follow) i think i'll make this at home, only i'll cook down the liquid till it's an ultra-dense, lamb-infused ICBM of flavor. should be amazing.

also had an excellent day at the market, buying beets the shape of breasts in National Geographic from an old woman whose face said Eastern European Root Vegetable Farmer so loudly even had i not seen her wares i would have known she'd have tubers and rhizomes stashed away somewhere. even better, after i gave her a somewhat inappropriately large bank note, she kept saying in serbian, Grandma will change your bill for you, honey, Grandma will give it to you. ha!

by the by, my grandmother often refers to how her husband walter's family in austria-hungary -- now romania -- were "dirt farmers" only 2 generations before (not exactly sure what other type there are apart from the hydroponic geniuses in Marin county), and i've alluded here to the photo in which the alexandr karelin-faced women look like they could beat my brother at arm wrestling, so, yes, Grandma really wasn't far off the mark.

i then bought spinach from a man whose hands looked like size x-small medical gloves inflated to near rupture.

and -- PETA ALERT! PETA ALERT! -- i also bought 2 delightful bits of Barbaro, soon after the fall: horse steaks and dried horse sausage, the latter of which is complex and delicious in the extreme. i'll be cooking up the steaks tonight and will report back. but based on the color of the meat, they should be scrumptious.

back to the mill wheel, which, gods willing, will keep turning smoothly. the portents appear good.


Thursday, November 11, 2010


all -- a quickie (which, of course, will lead to all sorts of Gueller jokes...)

if you are reading this blog, please do not fail to click on the comments button beneath each post. apparently my skill in life is not so much prose as assembling friends with the gift of the blarney, for their responses are quite superior to my windbag exhalations.

in fact, in a kind of revisitation of the cain/abel myth, my semi-illiterate younger brother turns out not only to be a better writer than i, a better cook (by far), an almost equal scrabble player (and superior at catan), but also a dean!

he hoists me on my own petard! i'm slain by my kin! oh the injustice!

so, yes, read his comments and those of the rest of the sanctum sanctorum.

as to the picture, it is anatomically correct only in that he'd be the clothed and i'd be the naked one, as i spend most my life in the buff while apparently no mortal save himself and our rents has ever seen my brother naked.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

it aint cold in serbia

my long-losts

an over-belated post (and a few more coming at some point about events from recent weeks); sorry for the lack of chrono- logical order, but wanted to give a general update on la vie en belgrade.

first off, i'm embarrassed to say that prior to coming here i didn't really process that this is the former capital of yugoslavia and, as such, was a pretty prosperous and cosmo- politan city. now a decade of war obviously changes things, but you can still go downtown and see all the same shops you see in new york, get all the same stuff, and pay all the same prices. after 7 weeks of the alterity and curiosity of southeast asia (my last getaway), this familiarity was a little disappointing. instead of being a place where i could bring marlboros and hand them out like gold coins, i could buy marlboros from any kiosk while listening to lady gaga and checking out the newest nikes in a store window. so much for me being the risk-taking traveler.

furthermore, i failed to realize that belgrade is as far south as milan. everyone had been asking me how cold it would be, and i suspect it was some combination of associating serbia with siberia, the balkans with the baltics, and thinking of eastern europe through a russian/polish optic that made everyone (including myself) not remember the actual place on the map. strange. as it turned out, i sunbathed on my balcony in just boxers the first three days i was here. (photos mercifully suppressed)

on the food front, however, it has been pretty much as expected: LARGE quantities of meat.(the photo to the right represents some leftovers from a dinner where a single order netted you either 5 of the 8-inch sausages to the left or 5 of the meat/cheese stuffed polpette on the right. egads)

i did finally make it the central market, however, where i was delighted by pickled cabbages and peasants who look like they know how to pickle a cabbage in equal abundance. as you can see from the pic, i had a pretty good haul (exquisite smoked meat on the left, some incredible funky sort of cheese stuff in the plastic container on the right, an whole cabbage head -- pickled entire, of course -- beets, carrots, parsley, spinach, fresh pasta, radishes, delicious red/brown potatoes, tomatoes, and a cornbread with spinach in it). yum!

and last but not least, i've been delighting in the local rakija -- various types of brandy, this one a sljivovica (slivovitz, in the lower east side). i'm quite taken by this character and his orchiditis. this label actually seems to have more "subliminal" genitalia than the camel cigarette pack or Family Guy, but maybe that's just me.

in any case, zhivite! work's going well. i'll write again soon.