Friday, November 30, 2007

Food and Place, volume 7 (New Orleans)

Next to San Francisco and New York, New Orleans is probably the best food destination in the US of A. That makes it hard to pin down the one dish that defines New Orleans food. But I will go out on a limb (or into the bayou) and say: Gumbo!

Other obvious nominees are crawfish etouffee, blackened catfish, the justly famous beignet from the Cafe Du Monde, jambalaya, and the po' boy sandwich.

My two visits to New Orleans were a long time ago, but were memorable, mostly for the food and of course the music. We made the obligatory stops at Cafe Du Monde and Brennan's, and I recall a surprisingly good dinner at an Italian place in the French Quarter. But the best was a very long and late dinner at Tujague's. Served family-style, the food just kept coming in dizzying variety. I ordered none of it -- our small group was hosted by a colleague who'd lived in New Orleans most of her life, so she took command and ordered every course, every accompaniment, every bottle of wine. She was like an orchestra conductor. I was more than happy to just try whatever she summoned from that marvelous kitchen. Can't even tell you anymore what we ate, but the feelings of adventure and surprise and joy are still with me.

The other New Orleans-related food memory is of gumbo. A friend's mother was a Louisiana native so the holiday tradition in her house was to cook huge vats of gumbo and invite every relative and friend and passing acquaintance to stop by for a bowl. The gumbo vat was kept stocked for the entire week between Christmas and New Years and the house was abuzz with visitors. It was a wassail bowl of a different sort; one we looked forward to every year. My friend's dad was a football nut, so amidst all the comings and goings and hubbub, he sat in his big chair and watched every college football game he could find, often stacking one TV on top of the other to watch two at once. He rarely left the living room. Somebody was always around to hand him another bowl of gumbo and another cold beer. He was sultan for a week!

Gumbo is one of those dishes for which everyone has a secret recipe or at least a secret ingredient, but the must-haves are Andouille sausage, file', and okra. The dish is often called file' gumbo because a powder made from dried sassafras root-- file' -- is used as a base or thickener.

Rather than post a recipe here, I 'll just say that whatever you use -- chicken, shrimp, leftover turkey -- you should try very hard to get some Andouille sausage and some okra in there.

Here's a poem by Richard Brautigan in which catfish, of all things, is a romantic image:


If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, "It's beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,"
I'd love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, "I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them."

Next stop: Kansas City or Maine!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Welcome, Delmon, to the Upper Midwest

The Twins acquired Delmon Young from the Tampa Bay base ball club in a trade, giving up Matt Garza and some other dudes.

<--- As Photoshop hats go, that's not a bad one.

Delmon was born in Alabama and played some college ball in Arizona. In honor of Mr. Young's joining the Twins, I was all prepared to write something about the food in Alabama or Arizona (to continue uninterrupted the "Food and Place" series). Then I realized that I don't know anything about the food in Alabama or Arizona. Never been to Arizona. Been to Alabama just once but don't remember anything about eating there.

Dothan, Alabama, is the county seat of Houston County, which is in the southeasternmost corner of the state. (Hey, Houston County, Minnesota, is also in the southeasternmost corner of the state! Strange.) I visited the Houston County, Alabama, jail one day on a consulting job. I recall the red clay of the countryside, the extreme quiet of Dothan, and little else. The small group I was with was supposed to help Houston County decide whether to build a new jail (they'd asked for some federal money for a new jail) and, if so, how big it shoud be. I have no idea what, if anything, Houston County did with our report or your federal tax dollars.

Anyway, I hope Delmon enjoys being a Twin and I hope he can contribute lots of extra-base hits to what is a pretty anemic offense. And remember, Delmon, umpires are people, too.

Matty Garza was fun to watch and gave us Twins fans an excuse to drink Sierra Nevada ale (brewed in Matty's home town of Chico, CA). Jason Bartlett was also included in the trade. I never got excited about Mr. Bartlett. In fact, his nickname in our house was Yawn.

Torii Hunter goofed around with a Rally Monkey at his news conference in LA yesterday. Take the money, Torii, and enjoy life with the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area Angels, but please do not adopt a Rally Monkey. They're creepy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food and Place, volume 6 (Houston)

Houston! Texas!


Charles Whitson and his lovely wife, Karin, taught me how to make chili. They’re Texans, though when I worked with them we lived in Ohio. Whenever we traveled to Houston (usually on the way to or from Hunstville, home of Sam Houston State University and one of the grimmest prisons I've ever visited), we’d get some chili or some barbeque or some Tex-Mex. The Whitsons also taught me to make tortilla chips and to appreciate Jerry Jeff Walker and David Alan Coe.

Texans themselves disagree on what real Texas chili is. It’s a big state (just in case you had somehow forgotten), big enough for clear regional differences. Plus Texans tend to hold strong opinions on nearly everything and usually aren’t shy about expressing them. That’s what I liked about Molly Ivins. So I have to take pains to point out that the following chili recipe is but one version of Texas chili and I do not presume that it is THE recipe. It is damn good, though.

Texans argue (mostly amiably) about many chili details:
  • The kind of chilies to use. It's a key ingredient and there are many, many choices, most of them fine choices, indeed.

  • Tomatoes. None at all, or tomato paste or tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes.

  • Thickness and thickeners: masa harina, plain old white flour, or none. Purists says that one should never put a lid on a chili pot. Let it cook down and if it gets too thick, just add some cheap beer or a little water and keep stirring.

  • Meat. There really isn't much disagreement here. Beef it is! And coarsely ground or chopped. Not hamburger! Chicken chili and turkey chili sometimes show up at cookoffs, but really this is a beef dish. Some people add a little chorizo.

The most vocal and heated arguments are about beans. According one classic text on the subject ("Chili Madness" by Jane Butel), a fair number of Texas chili aficionados eschew beans.* She favors no beans or beans on the side, but if you have to have beans, she says use pinto beans because at least they are southwestern, whereas the ubiquitous red kidney bean found in most mass-produced chili is just weird.

I cast my lot with the anti-bean faction. Some good beef in a potent but pleasing mix of spices – that’s the essence of chili. In season, venison is an acceptable substitute for beef, but please do not try to sneak turkey or chicken or zucchini or tofu into my chili. You hear?

The annual chili cookoff at Terlingua, Texas is legendary. In about 1981, a small group of Texas ex-pats and friends** in the Twin Cities sponsored a chili cookoff. We even imported some Shiner and some Lone Star. This was the winning recipe, prepared proudly by yours truly:

Hell Hath No Fury Chili

3 tbs lard [sure, you can use butter or cooking oil, but lard works better and it's at least a bit more healthy than bacon drippings]

2 onions, chopped [yellow onions are preferable to white; red onions are an affectation]

6 pounds of beef, coarse chili grind or chopped by hand [round steak or flank steak works well; save the ground beef for hamburgers or meatloaf or hot dish]

4 garlic cloves, diced

4 or 5 tbs ground hot red chili [best purchased in the Mexican market or the Mexican section of your local supermercado]

2 or 3 tablespoons of a mild red chili pepper [the McCormick's generic works fine]

1 tbs ground cumin/comino

1 tsp ground Mexican oregano [don't substitute Italian; it's different]

3 or 4 small tomatoes, finely chopped

3 cups [more or less] water or beer

1 cup masa harina [this is to thicken the chili, but don't use the whole cup, just use enough to get the consistency you want]

Use a big ol' pot. Melt the lard and cook the onions in it until they're just translucent. In a bowl, mix the beef and the garlic and the spices together, then put that in the pot with the onions. Cook it and stir it until the meat is browned pretty well, maybe 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the water, turn down the heat and let this mixture cook slowly and gently for a good hour (or longer of you have that luxury). Add some masa harina if you think the chili should be thicker or some water if you think it should be thinner.

This should give you a spicy, tender version of beanless chili, which you can serve with some black beans on the side, some corn bread or tortillas, and cold beer.


Next stop: Kansas City or New Orleans.

* Some Yankee snob once asked Carroll Shelby, automotive icon and Texas chili expert, "Do you eschew beans?” and he replied “Hell no, I don’t even eat ‘em.”

** My parents met and married in Texas, but I don't guess that makes me a Texan.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Food and Place, volume 5 (San Francisco)

I have nooooo idea. From a half dozen visits to the Bay Area, I do have some fragmentary food recollections:

Fried calamari in Oakland, in a seafood place right near the base of the Bay Bridge. Full Sail Ale in a little waterfront bistro near the ferry station. (That's the ferry station in the picture. Ferries go to Oakland and Sausalito and some other places. They're cute.) A robust pasta and sausage dish in an Italian place in South San Francisco. (Who eats in South San Francisco?) Mexican food in San Leandro next to the tiny marina. Ribs in Berkeley. Salmon in El Cerrito.

But a culinary sine qua non for San Fran? I don't know. Irish coffee? Something from Chinatown? Ghirardelli chocolate? Sourdough bread? Rice-a-Roni? Seriously, I have no final candidates, chosen nominees, narrowed suggestions, greatest ideas, or short lists. There are just too damn many choices.

So let's use this post as an excuse to play a song. It's a food post, you say? Yeah.

Ed, tour guide and driver and chief mechanic for the Old Blue Bus, put me onto Arhoolie Records, a label headquartered in El Cerrito, across the bay from San Francisco. Their catalog is amazingly eclectic. One of the artists recorded in the Bay Area is Omar Sharriff. (He's a Texan whose real name is Dave Alexander. He changed it very late in his career. I don't know why.) Sharriff's song called "San Francisco Can Be Such A Lonely Town" is my favorite. I think everyone should listen to it and buy some records from Arhoolie. The hell with Tony Bennett.

I haven't figured out how to embed MP3 files into this blog, so the next best thing is to take you to the site where you can listen. Try this link to Sharriff's 1971 album Raven.

In addition to its unmatched culinary culture, its wonderful music, its beautiful architecture, and its spectacular (if dangerous) geology, San Francisco has a marvelous literary history. Richard Brautigan and his pals at City Lights Books had a lot to do with that. Here's one of many Brautigan poems set in or around San Francisco.


Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Francisco’s skidrow.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
dinosaurs.Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
“One must always be drunk,”
said Baudelaire.“I live in the American Hotel,”
said the wino. “And I can
remember dinosaurs."
“Be you drunken ceaselessly,”
said Baudelaire.


Since I cannot fulfill the promise of this entry (that is, name the signature dish of San Francisco), here are some entertaining random facts. The airport is in Burlingame. They have a very nice public transportation system. The Haas family used to own Levi Strauss and the Oakland A's. They gave enough money to Cal Berkeley to have the business school named for them, and enough money to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to have the lobby named after them. We aren't related, which is a downright shame.

OK, so you try to name the one dish that is emblematic of The City by the Bay. I dare you.

Next stop: Kansas City (for real, maybe) or Houston.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Food and Place, volume 4 (Seattle)

The title should really say 'Pacific Northwest' because in truth, I've only been to a corner of Washington (on a side trip from Oregon) -- unless you count that time when our flight was diverted from Sacramento to SeaTac because of bad weather in Sacramento. We spent an hour or so on the runway (I refuse to call it "tarmac") before finishing the flight.

The subject at hand: What food item is most intimately associated with Seattle (other than coffee)? Well, if you didn't say salmon, something's seriously wrong. Sure, Alaska probably has a stronger claim, but recall that one premise for this series is to write about places I've been. Sadly, Alaska isn't yet on that list.

The Seattle food and wine show was last week. A quick look at the program shows what a deliciously diverse food culture has emerged in Seattle. But I still think of the big river and the big ocean -- that is, salmon -- as the number one food/place association for that part of the country.

Salmon is versatile. I've cooked it many different ways (poached, grilled, baked, broiled, planked, in parchment, etc.). As with most foods (and most other things), simple is better.

The Columbia River Gorge is spectacular. Others have written more eloquently than I ever could about its beauty and power. Interestingly, the Columbia is not just home to salmon, but to another anadromous migratory fish, the shad. According to John McPhee*, a few thousand American shad were taken from the Hudson River in 1871 and hauled to the west coast by train by a man named Seth Green, who worked for the New York Fish Commission. He put the shad into the Sacramento River. They liked it. The shad quickly multiplied, making their way up and down the Pacific Coast. They've done pretty well for a non-native species; the Columbia River is now the world's largest shad hatchery.

Richard Brautigan is a Tacoma native and I recall some stories or poems of his about fishing in Tacoma. Be damned if I can find them, though.

So I wrote a salmon poem myself.

Salmon recipe with options

Obtain a salmon of some weight
The type doesn’t matter
Coho, sockeye, king

Remove the skin
The fins, the head
These may be used as fertilizer for your azaleas

Place what remains of the salmon on a plank
The type doesn’t matter
Cedar, apple, ash

The plank should be soaked with beer
Or ale or malt liquor
Preferably something cheap

Put something on top of the salmon
That will add a bit of kick
Sage butter, balsamic vinegar, strawberry yogurt

Place the planked salmon in a very hot oven
Or on a grill fueled with anything that produces heat
Charcoal, wood, propane

Make everything else (the salad, the vegetable, the dessert)
Because the salmon will cook slowly on the plank
Absorbing the heat, the smoky flavor of the wood, and the topping

The salmon is cooked through
When the following conditions have been met:
The meat flakes easily and cleanly with a fork;
The plank is very hot, probably burnt to black on the edges; and
The guests are drawn to the kitchen out of
Hunger, boredom, or magic


Thanks for listening. Next stop: Kansas City!

* "The Founding Fish" copyright John McPhee 2002

Monday, November 19, 2007

Food and Place, volume 3 (Boston)

What is the one food most often associated with Boston? Could be scrod. Could be baked beans. Could be lobster (lawbstah). How about New England clam chowder?

Boston scrod (sometimes schrod) is just cod or haddock and I would guess it’s not what most people think of any more. Boston baked beans were once famous enough that the baseball team was known as the Beaneaters. These days, beans may not be the first Boston food that comes to mind, either.

Lobster is really a Maine dish, though I’m tempted to use it as the Boston flagship food, mostly because of the volumes of lobster served to tourists at the venerable and famous Durgin Park restaurant in Quincy Market.

But it could just as easily be some Italian dish because of the North End tradition. I have enjoyed some very robust and satisfying meals in North End Italian joints. But does it define Boston cuisine? No. This is harder than I thought it would be. Boston is a great food town, no doubt about it.

I remember visiting the fishing wharves with my step-grandfather, who wanted to show off a little bit by personally selecting the very swordfish (just off the boat) from which several thick steaks would be cut. We carried them home and grilled them along with steamed quahogs.

That’s it! The lowly quahog! O.K., it’s a stretch to say that the quahog is Boston’s culinary symbol. Maybe Cape Cod’s. Rhode Island seems to claim the quahog as its own, but I've never been to Rhode Island (except as a way to get from Boston to New York) so for purposes of this blog series, it doesn't count. Sorry, Rob.

Ah, what the hell, it's my blog, so I hereby declare the quahog to be Boston's signature dish. Sometimes called hard shell clams, I recall digging buckets full from the sandbar in Buzzard's Bay near my grandmother's house, then steaming them in a seaweed-covered pit on the beach. (The picture at the head of this post is the railroad bridge over the southern end of the Cape Cod Canal. It's visible from my grandma's house on Buzzard's Bay). My dad loved the quahog ritual because to a farm boy from the Midwest it was quite exotic. And the quahogs were good (to say nothing of the swordfish steaks). Plus there was Naragansett beer.

The quahog is a bi-valve mollusk, distantly related to the famous west coast univalve mollusk called abalone. Here's a Richard Brautigan poem from "Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt" about abalone, followed by some links to abalone and quahog recipes. Enjoy!

Abalone Curry

I have Christmas dinner every year with Michael
and he always cooks abalone curry. It takes
a long time because it tastes so good and the afternoon
travels pleasantly by in his kitchen that is halfway
between India and Atlantis

For some quahog recipes, go here. Abalone recipes can be found here.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Next stop: Seattle!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Food and Place, volume 2 (Cincinnati)

Cincinnati is known for its chili. Mr. Joe Posnanski, the brilliant and funny writer, started his career with a now-defunct afternoon daily in Cincinnati. He's a fan of the so-called five-way chili, also sometimes referred to as Skyline* chili.

Well, I humbly disagree with Mr. Posnanzki's nostalgic views about Cincinnati's signature dish. When I lived in Columbus, work sometimes took me to Cincinnati. Every time, somebody would loudly and enthusiastically say "You gotta get some five-way!" and they would drag me off to one of the 80-some chili parlors in or around that old river town. I would politely have a bowl and silently vow to myself 'never again.'

Start with boiled ground beef. (I'm sorry, but any dish that uses boiled ground beef as its base is off to a bad start.) Then pile that beef on overcooked noodles (usually spaghetti or a thicker version like bucatini). The two combine to form an amorphous mass with the texture of uncooked bread dough or wet cat food. What makes it 'three- four- or five-way' chili is the addition (on top) of one or more of the following: beans, diced onion, grated yellow cheese, and crushed oyster crackers. They don't help much.

Cincinnati has a lot going for it, including some very good seafood restaurants, a revitalized riverfront, and Barrelhouse beer. Five-way chili is no reason to go to Cincinnati.

In Richard Brautigan's classic "A Confederate General From Big Sur," the narrator describes the food on which his eccentric friend Lee Mellon tries to survive. An excerpt from the chapter Breaking Bread at Big Sur:

The dinner we had that evening was not very good. Some salad made from greens and jack mackerel. The fellow who owned the place had brought the jack mackerel for the cats who hung around here, but the cats wouldn't eat it. The stuff was so bad they would sooner go hungry. And they did.

Jack mackerel tears your system apart. Almost as soon as it hits your stomach, you begin to rumble and squeal and flap. Sounds made in a haunted house during an earthquake tear horizontally across your stomach. Then great farts and belches begin arriving out of your body. Jack mackerel almost comes out through your pores.

After a dinner of jack mackerel you sit around and your subjects of conversation are greatly limited. I have found it impossible to talk about poetry, esthetics, or world peace after eating jack mackerel.

Well, the famous Cincinnati chili isn't quite that bad.

Next stop: Boston!

* I think the name comes from a road that runs on the top of the bluff above the city -- Cincinnati's version of Mulholland Drive.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Food and Place, volume 1 (Northfield)

What's that game? The one where somebody says something and you're supposed to respond with the first thing that pops into your head? Joe Poznanski did a version of it a while back on his blog, in which he named each major league baseball team and the first player most people think of in relation to that team. For example:
Yankees ---> Babe Ruth
Brewers ---> Robin Yount
Nationals ---> ummm...nobody. And so forth.

Let's try it with cities and food. The US of A is becoming ever more homogeneous in its eating habits, what with the staggering proliferation of chains and fast food outlets. I believe it is now impossible to get more than 30 miles away from a Subway sandwich shop anywhere in this country.

But there are still pockets of regional or local food specialties, and it is these to which we will turn our attention. Should be good for dozens of posts, because I (with the generous help of legions of loyal and clever readers) will offer up commentary on each. It's a series. Or a serial. Or (see below) a cereal.

As a warm-up exercise, try this one:

I say Northfield, you say....Malt-O-Meal! The cereal company is a prominent industry here, occupying a large modern factory on the edge of town and the historic Ames Mill in the center of town. That's a picture of the Ames Mill at the top of this post. They still make the original hot wheat breakfast glop at the Ames Mill. People around here are quite loyal to Malt-O-Meal (often shortened to MOM) and make a game of guessing which cereal they're packaging today based on the smell that envelopes the town. Marshmallow Mateys? Tootie Frooties? Yum!

Malt-O-Meal's dry cereal is good. I don't fancy the artificially flavored kids' cereals, but the simple classics like raisin bran or corn flakes are better than their major-label counterparts.

Tomorrow, the food-and-place post will look at Cincinnati.

Let us conclude with a poem by Richard Brautigan which is about food and not about food:

Private Eye Lettuce

Three crates of Private Eye Lettuce,
the name and drawing of a detective
with magnifying glass on the sides
of the crates of lettuce,
form a great cross in man's imagination
and his desire to name
the objects of this world.
I think I'll call this place Golgotha
and have some salad for dinner.

(from "The Pill Versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster" 1968)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Re: Percussion

The St. Olaf percussion ensemble was outstanding as usual. Their recital last night had an unexpected treat for me: They played "Three Brothers." Written in 1948* by Michael Colgrass (then an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois), it has become an old standard for percussion ensemble. The piece uses ten drummers on fairly traditional instruments (marimba, cowbell, snare, tom-tom, bongo, triangle, timpani, bass drum, wood blocks, etc.). The music, now almost 60, has aged well.

When I was a junior in high school, "Three Brothers" was just sixteen years old. My drum teacher, the legendary Harold Firestone, arranged it for seven musicians and we took it on the road, appearing as guests of several small orchestras in the region. It was a rewarding experience and we felt a little like rock stars, although we were our own roadies and there weren't many screaming teenage girls greeting us at the stage door.

Anyway, it was a very pleasant surprise -- a reunion of sorts -- to hear "Three Brothers" again.

* Hagedorn said this in his introductory remarks, but the publisher of the sheet music says it was copyrighted in 1951.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A food poem

Rob Hardy's post about home-made bagels got me to thinking about food. Actually, I think about food most of the time. What will I eat later, what do we need from the grocery store, how was this or that meal, and so forth.

We live in a small town and, while there are some good restaurants, the choices for dining out are, shall we say, limited. It has become a Friday ritual to meet some friends downtown for drinks, then launch into a discussion about where to eat dinner. It takes about 5 minutes to run through the list of local dining establishments and we usually settle on one of them*, but we sometimes get adventurous or desperate and go to to eat in a nearby town (or occasionally all the way to Minneapolis). And we talk about memorable meals we've eaten in far-flung places. Each year we buy a meal at a fundraiser for the Arts Guild or the Historical Society. These are donated by local gourmands and prepared in their homes. Moroccan, Irish. It's fun.

So I started working on a long boring food essay that may or may not appear here someday. In the meantime, here's a little poem on the subject.


The neon sign blinks
its slow rhythm
the light from inside falls on the snow
steam rises

and the smell -- the smell is amorphous
it is the smell of food
but not a food
it is an admixture that evokes hazy memories
of meals enjoyed long ago
the smell and the memories are pleasant, uncertain,

People leave, talking quietly, sharing a laugh
Others enter hurriedly
drawn by the steam and the neon and the warmth
and the smell

I wait for you on the corner
anxious for the mingling of smells

* In reference to the paucity of choices, one of our number said last week "Sometimes I hate this town." That sounds harsh, but it isn't. It's just...true.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Best use of [blank] in a song

Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums: This has become the de facto standard for rock and roll band instrumentation. Is there some unwritten rule about this? If a band shows up at the bar for a gig and one of the members is carrying, say, a banjo or a saxophone, are they barred at the door? Bouncer says “We didn’t hire no bluegrass band and don’t allow no jazz, neither.”

To encourage them (yeah, like they read this blog), here are just a few examples of atypical instruments or sounds in some songs I like. Additional nominations are encouraged.

Best use of a banjo: Bob Dylan in "High Water" on his 2001 Love and Theft CD. That song is excellent for many reasons, and the banjo is a nice bluegrass reference. Honorable mention to Jim White in his song "Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi" on the 2001 No Such Place. Favorite lyrics from that song:

My Trans Am is missing
My Trans Am is missing
I guess no more kissing
the girl who loves my car

Best use of a siren: Joni Mitchell in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" from the 1991 CD Night Ride Home. If a siren can be subtle, it is on this tune, adding to the foreboding tone. Makes me shudder. Honorable mention to John Hiatt for "Tennessee Plates" on the 1998 release Slow Turning. Clever phrase from that song:

We crossed the Mississippi like an oil slick fire.

Best use of a cricket chirp: Joni Mitchell again, for "Night Ride Home" on the CD of the same name. Story is that the recording engineer leaned out a window of the building that housed the studio, sampled the cricket chirp, then put it on a loop behind the song. Nature's own tambourine.

Other stuff: The jazz combo Oregon used an udu drum to great effect in "Vessel" on the 1979 record Roots in the Sky. That’s appropriate because the udu is a clay vessel slightly modified to become a unique instrument. The flamenco group Ojos de Brujo uses a staggering array of percussion instruments up to and including the kind of turntable (for ‘scratching’) found in hip hop music. My favorite is the cajon. That's a picture of a cajon, also known as a box drum, at the top of this post.

I try not to miss the annual recital of the St. Olaf College percussion ensemble, in part because I'm a washed up former percussionist but really because it is always an enjoyable musical experience. Under the direction of David Hagedorn, the ensemble's next recital is Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 8:15PM in Urness Recital Hall.

I want a cajon drum for Christmas.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Music (short version)

Rob Hardy recently wrote about the importance of music as part of a well-rounded education, which got me to reflecting on the central role music has played in my life. I'm working on a long, boring essay on that subject which may or may not appear here someday.

In the meantime, I kindly draw your attention to four music-related links there on the right sidebar.

Fabchannel shows concert videos from the Paradiso in Amsterdam. It is a free glimpse into a much more multi-national venue than exists in this country. It's where I first learned of Ojos de Brujo and Walter Trout and the Radicals. High quality.

Songs:Illinois is a blog devoted to contemporary alt-country, indie rock, nuevo-folk, and a bunch of other cool musical stuff. Very nicely done.

Old Blue Bus has become one of my favorite daily blog stops. Ed from Richmond (VA, not CA) is a one-man encyclopedia of roots music. He opened my eyes and ears to Arhoolie Records, a label based in El Cerrito, CA (where I once ate a lovely meal at a golf club high in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay). The Arhoolie catalog is full of classic blues from the pre-electric guitar days.

Drummerworld is just that -- everything about drums and drummers. Videos of famous drummers drumming, places to buy drums and drum music and drum records.

So listen or watch the samples on those sites...because I said so!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Sort of Poem

This started as an essay following a brief visit to Los Angeles. But somewhere along the way it morphed into more of a poem. The main problem (for me) is the ending. The piece feels incomplete, like it needs some kind of profound or clever thought to tie it all up. I don't know. [Edit: The last two lines were added to fix this problem. It's better, but...]

Since I admire Greg Luce's courage in putting his poems out there for comments and suggestions, I'm doing the same with this one, so have at it if you care to.


Exhaust fumes rise and swirl, merging with the sea mist
The rumble of the surf is overmatched by the growl of engines and the steady hum of tires on pavement

Every vehicle in this town seems to have tinted windows, as if every driver has something to hide

For decades, this place has been called a car culture, which may be a slight understatement
At least one third of the land area in the county is paved, habitable only by vehicles parked or looking for a place to park or on their way to or from a parking place
Pedestrians are rare, and half of them are panhandlers working the exit ramps

They’re saving the fruits of their begging to buy cars

The carcasses of worn out tires pile up in ravines
Huge ships crisscross the oceans hauling cars and car parts and oil
Acres of buildings are devoted to car insurance companies, car repair shops, highway engineers, car rental agencies, chop shops, race tracks, junkyards, DMV offices, car dealers, gas stations, courtrooms jammed with traffic offenders and jail cells with car thieves, emergency rooms, lawyers’ offices

It is a ceaseless, merciless hammering of our senses, yet we cannot seem to quit

We are drawn to the sounds of our own undoing, like the citizens inside a walled city mesmerized by the beat of Attila's battering ram


Pastoral, yes?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Magic of Heat

No, not the Orlando Magic or the Miami Heat. I'm talking about temperatures above 2000 degrees (Fahrenheit) . It transforms dull clay and other inert, inorganic materials into shiny pretty things. These are two pots that came out of the kiln yesterday. They're OK.

I've tried to think of an elegant metaphor for making pots; something that captures the fun and msytery and earthiness of it. I've never been able to find just the right one. That's OK.

Making pots is for me just a nice combination of the artistic and the utilitarian, the subtle and the surprising. It's very pleasant. Maybe it's like fishing -- a bad day fishing beats a good day doing anything else. I wouldn't know, though, because I haven't been fishing since I was about twelve years old. Maybe it's like sailing -- using the forces of nature but at the same time being at their mercy. I used to have a 14' O'Day Javelin on a reservoir in central Ohio, which is to real sailing as Wendy's is to cooking. My only experiences with ocean sailing (off Cape Cod and off the Florida keys) both went rather badly.

See? Why bother?

Monday, November 5, 2007

It's A Pretty Little Town

In Richard Brautigan’s novel ”The Hawkline Monster,” the characters pass through a county in eastern Oregon in which the two principal towns are named Brooks and Billy. Brooks and Billy were founded by two brothers who’d had a falling out, and the towns continued the bitter rivalry long after the brothers were gone. Indeed, the citizens of Brooks went so far as to erect huge signs that straddled either end of their town’s main street. Approaching town, the signs read “Welcome to Brooks.” Leaving town, they said “Fuck Billy.” [Edit: The signs? Not in the book. I had embellished the story in my own mind, I guess. ]

I’ve always been fascinated by place names.

This fall, my son started college in a small town in Iowa. The long drive down there has opened new possibilities for guesswork, speculation, and daydreaming.

Here is a list of place names we encountered on recent trips, along with some commentary. Kind of like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 – some of it might be amusing.

Raymond: The Chamber of Commerce needn’t spend any time on a slogan because, well, everybody loves Raymond.

Carbon: The fundamental basis for life forms on this planet. In fact, we should stop calling Earth Earth and just call it Carbon. A local entrepreneur started an Internet dating service. She called it Carbon Dating and couldn't understand why so many paleontologists were contacting her.

Manley: Even the girls’ teams at the high school are called Men.

Rembrandt: The choices had been narrowed to two: Rembrandt or Bosch. Idiots.

Lytton: My middle name! Really!

Everly: Everybody in Everly has a brother.

Royal: Just across the creek from Plebian.

Balltown: Not as good as Ball Club, MN, but close

What Cheer: Is this someone’s idea of a joke?

Swisher: The candy store is called Swisher Sweets. So is the tobacco store. Confusing even to the natives.

Persia: No rational or even fanciful explanation. Persia?

Clinton Falls: yes, he does
Nora Springs: yes, she does
Lost Nation: yes, it is

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The "OOO" Team needs a catcher

Mikhail Horowitz is a contributing editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly, which began life as The Minneapolis Review of Baseball. Horowitz has constructed many amusing baseball lineups using real players' names. So the idea is his, though the following roster is mine.

Almost every team has somebody with the "OOO" sound in a name or nickname, a name the fans can chant, as in "LEEWWWW " Ford. What if every player had such a name? I suppose the novelty would wear off pretty quickly, but imagine the anticipation on opening day if the PA announcer and the fans could wrap their voices around this lineup:

OF Mookie Wilson

OF Lou Pinella

OF Max “Scoops” Carey

1b Boog Powell

2b Moon Mullen

3b Dave “Soup” Campbell

SS Jimmy “Scoops” Cooney

DH Cecil “Coop” Cooper


SP Johnny Lee “Blue Moon” Odom

RP Ugueth “Oogie” Urbina

Mgr Bob Boone

You noticed the missing catcher. I couldn't come up with one. Nominations are open.

PS: It was a thrill to get a comment from Mr. Horowitz himself on an earlier post. Cool!

PPS: Most every player with the nickname Scoops was a first baseman, and most every player with the nickname Soup had the last name Campbell. Sometimes ballplayers aren't the most original lot.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cellulosic Ethanol in the News

Story in the Northfield News yesterday about Dan Rather himself coming to town to interview David Legvold about ethanol. Legvold, who was a brilliant Daddy Warbucks in the Arts Guild production of "Annie," is also the director of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and a farmer, so he knows something about the economic and environmental issues in ethanol production.

Story on MPR this morning about how corn-based ethanol isn't a good long-term biofuel solution because of the high energy costs and negative environmental impacts of corn production and how some scientists at the U of M are working on techniques for converting trees to ethanol. Apparently, the barrier to be overcome is that trees have too much cellulose. But one researcher said that problem will be solved within ten years, maybe five.

The forest products industry (read: logging) is in a bit of a slump right now, what with the flat housing market and some competing materials (aluminum framing, composite flooring and decking, etc.), so the loggers are excited about the potential for grinding up trees -- and not just the trunks, but every little piece -- to make ethanol. Somebody said that millions of tons of detritus are left on the forest floors every year after the loggers haul the trunks and big limbs off.

But environmentalists worry (it's what they do best) that not leaving pieces behind to rot and enrich the soil would mean terrible erosion, a blow to biodiversity, a reduction to wildlife habitat.

So, it seems a stalemate is inevitable unless a new source of cellulosic plant life can be found. A source no one particularly cares about one way or another. Leave the corn for people and domesticated farm animals to eat; leave the forests to the Isaac Walton League and Weyerheuser to wrangle over.

My solution: plant buckthorn!

It's perfect. Everybody seems to hate buckthorn, labeling it a "menace." It clearly grows quite well without any help from humans -- no need for tons of chemicals and fertilizers. Farmers can easily convert from other crops, fencing off a portion of their fields for buckthorn. Cut the most mature 1/3 of it down each year, grind it up and ship it off to the ethanol plant. We will have converted a menace into manna, saved the primeval forests, and given the struggling farmers another cash crop option.

Hail buckthorn!