Brief Sojourn To Japan

Up early to walk the dog in pitch blackness and end that walk in burgeoning light.  Water on the boil, beans freshly ground, no appetite.  Soon I’ll be heading to the airport for 17 hours in the air to reach an airport in Ishikawa prefecture and from there a car will fetch me for a dark, short ride to a remote mountain inn where I’ll be holed up for five nights writing and interviewing artisans.

I’ve got Kawabata’s, “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa,” with me and a novel by Oe, and that ought to be OK.  I hadn’t known the Kawabata was a modernist book, which means, according to the forward by Donald Ritchie, that it meanders thematically and hasn’t got much of a plot and is so hard to follow that people have given up trying.  Uh oh.  I’d better add another book.  “Hard Times,” by Dickens, anyone?

While in Japan writing about the artisans of this remote area on the Sea of Japan, I’ll also start to research Meiji era hotels, which were the first to adopt Western styles of accommodation, dress, and service.

And sleep.  Of course try to sleep in between the onsen or long, hot baths.

Countdown to Japan

In just over 24 hours, I board a plane to D.C. that takes me to Narita where I board a third plane to Komatsu in Ishikawa prefecture.  It’s to be a short, five day trip to Japan to conduct interviews on the export value of various products, some of which are food, some of which relate to health, and some of which are design-related.

This past Friday I was trying to sort out, again, why I feel a strengthening tie to Japan, and it occurred to me that the appeal comes about in part from the way in which acceptance is so fundamental to the culture.  It reminds me of cognitive-behavioral ideas or values utilized in treating mental disorders.  It’s good to be in a place where acceptance is understood to be as much a part of being a human being as tumult.

To be sure: Beneath the surface of acceptance is quiet suffering and there can be erosion of versatility needed to create change or develop workable tactics and strategies.  But it’s a good starting point, and the calm can lead to deep creativity.

Some of that imaginative prowess is evident in the products I’m looking at: Clean lines, delicious eggs, well-placed tatami mats.


I Survived Thanksgiving!

Guests long gone, I’ve had the obligatory turkey-bacon sandwich for breakfast (twice) and the delicious turkey croquettes (once), and after some rye and a private viewing of the uneven, but enjoyable movie, “Dope,” it’s time to plan the next holiday.

Not naming names, but I know a certain someone who regards her emotions the way my investment bank friends regard money.  It’s uncanny, really.  Substitute “money” for “feelings” and you get the gist: Never enough of them, trading one for another that has more value, the power of growth, the potential of money/feelings, the way in which money/feelings add so much to life.

Hence, pie and club sandwiches, not necessarily in that order.  The pragmatism of gustatory experience is a keen substitute for emotion and money, and I think that’s in large measure why cooking and food have become so ungainly in their appeal.  It’s true while at the same time kind of shameful.

But the alternative is a craving, right?  For more emotion, a change in emotion; more money, a change in where the money is invested.  Food provides an immediacy, ultimately a grim one, that obscures turmoil.  It’s still there.  You just can’t see it.

On to Christmas!

Thanksgiving: The Day After

Black Friday deal at EATALY arrived via email this morning: 25% off the entire website of products and free shipping for orders over $30.  And you don’t need to leave the house in order to spend money.  Could dark chocolate with candied pistachios from Italy be in my future?  Hard to tell.

The day began with the last slice of M’s ridiculously delicious pecan pie and a slice of wonderful apple pie.  Hot coffee.  And what awaits?  Club sandwich with turkey and bacon from Kentucky.  Oh, life is good, life is very good, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Guests upstairs are still asleep or lolling in bed and by the time they start their day, I’ll be ready to go back to bed.  But that will have to wait: Dozing while trying to read the Huysmans novel that played a big role in Houellebecq’s novel, “Submission,”  and after a 17-19 minute nap, up to work.

Because it’s 72 hours until I leave for Japan for a few days on a government project, and that requires preparation.

Ecumenical Gastronomy

Chicken soup from scratch made yesterday and matzoh bills chilling in the fridge.  Two 12-pound birds about to be removed, and stuffed.  One with turkey sausages and the other veg: Both with chestnuts.  Golden beets.  Slow roasted fennel.  Baked beans and maybe, just maybe, green beans with a light black bean sauce.

Not a hodgepodge, but a kaleidoscopic and all-embracing culinary experience.


Cacio e Pepe: Pre-Thanksgiving Jaunt

Originally, it was to have been a bone-in, dry-aged prime ribeye I bought from DeBragga, but then I thought: Gee, that’s kind of a heavy meal, and besides I crave pasta, 24/7.

I had no idea how easy it is to make a good cacio e pepe.

Batali has a recipe in one of his cookbooks.  Boil salted water.  While water is boiling, heat up a lot of freshly cracked black pepper in a pot.  Add six tablespoons of good olive oil.  Add six tablespoons of butter.  When butter melts, turn off heat.  When water boils, add linguine and cook until al dente.  Add 1/4 cup good, freshly grated parmigiano and 1/4 cup good, freshly grated pecorino to the butter-oil pepper.  Add linguine to the oil-butter-cheese sauce.  Toss.  Add a little pasta water if necessary.  Serve hot.

No wonder this dish shows up at about $18 a pop all over the world.  Talk about great margins!

And?  And it’s crazy delicious, perfect before the big, Thanksgiving blow out.

Big Night Out

Putting down my copy of, “Bonjour Tristesse,” I bundled up and walked the 1K to Harvard Square to meet friends from out-of-town for drinks at Park.  Lovely people, they were in a mild state of shock as they spoke with wonder about the “dumbing down” of Boston restaurants.  Both people are in the restaurant industry with long histories and very impressive success, and they couldn’t fathom why the food here is so peculiar.

One theory that came up–along with students setting the agenda, the town’s most influential critic knowing next-to-nothing about food, inept servers who don’t know how to sell, and chefs who lack abilities to match their ambition, “to be the next Wylie Dufresne–was this simple fact: The chefs, in general, don’t want to pay more for the best ingredients, but think that cutting corners on ingredients won’t prevent them from having first-rate restaurants.

One friend noted that Boston, if it wanted, really could have a first-rate restaurant scene: Rents are on average 20% lower than NYC, the fish and shellfish coming in here are fresher at point of origin, people here have money to spend.

Instead, we see pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, plates teeming with a hodgepodge of ingredients, faux French, and lots and lots of pork, skate, and branzino.

Bonjour Tristesse, indeed.

Things Change

The French and Germans were at each other’s throats until 1945 and now they’re best buddies.  Things change.  It used to be iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing, and now it’s iceberg lettuce and blue cheese dressing again.  Brussels was once the capital of an empire that tortured and enslaved millions in the center of Africa, then it became the joke of Europe, and now it’s under lockdown, this morning, due to what the BBC is reporting is an “imminent” terrorist attack.

How in the world are we supposed to decide on this year’s stuffing?  To say nothing of pies.  Let’s face it: The bird is more of a lawn ornament, and that’s necessary, should go without saying, but when guests visit, they go past the ornament, come inside, and are often handed a tumbler of ice and halfway decent liquor.

And so it is with pies and stuffing.

One bird, pre-trussing, will have a cornbread and vegetarian and chestnut stuffing; the other bird, both 12-pounder’s, will have a turkey sausage stuffing, etc.  As for pies, it’s the Usual Suspects: Pecan, pumpkin, apple.

And so, as Europe backs away from its turmoil, cat-and-mouse day to day, we’ll be here talking and talking, eating and eating, in full recognition that sooner or later we’ll all be friends again.

Countdown to Thanksgiving

I’m making it easy this year.  Russo’s, the Boston version of Fairway, started a new program with Cart Fresh about six weeks ago and now, for $7, they will deliver anything you like from the store to your doorstep.  This saves a ridiculous amount of time going back and forth to this wonderful store as well as time spent navigating the narrow aisles and long lines at cashiers.

So we’ll have here on Tuesday all the things needed for Thanksgiving except…

The turkeys.  Two 12 pound birds, Jaindl Farms, sold by Whole Foods.  These are good birds, which will be lathered in butter and adorned with sage and rosemary and sage, and we’re talking Club sandwiches from leftover turkey and Father’s Kentucky bacon in the days subsequent to my favorite holiday, bar none.

All the time spent out of stores leads to greater productivity.  I’ve got two articles on the whiskies of Japan out in December; my book on resiliences of immigrants from India will be out in April (I’m told, we’ll see); and, the edits on my book about family life are proceeding.

Years from now, we’ll all remember The Age of Retail fondly.  It’s over.  What will replace the stores?  Who knows?  I’m guessing that it’ll be a division between mom-and-pop joints that subsist year to year; franchises that have top brands and lower brands all owned by the same hedge funds; and, lots of therapeutic places where people–through meditation, yoga, acupuncture, massages–can forget the anomie which results from diminished social contact.

Food During Wartime

When I started writing here many years ago, the subtitle of the site became: “Why Talk about Food When There’s a War on OR The Gourmet’s Guide to Berlin, circa 1941…Scott Haas Analyzes The Bunker Mentality.”

I’ve always felt that food was a conundrum.  On the one hand, there is the defiance implicit in celebrating life with good food during wartime.  On the other hand, if it becomes the focus of attention, a top priority, it’s dissolute–a distraction from more important matters.

Best of worlds, worst of worlds.

From the Beckett archives: “The word “war” itself appears nowhere in Godot or in those strange lyrical fictions of 1945-1946, which were published in Nouvelles et Textes pour Rien (Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1955)— L’Expulsé (“The Expelled”), Le Calmant (“The Calmative”), and La Fin (“The End”). But the very absence of the word has an odd way of insuring its prominence in these stories. As the narrator of “The Expelled” (1945) puts it sardonically:

‘Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little. That is to say, you must think of them for a while, a good while, every day several times a day, until they sink forever in the mud. That’s an order.'”

Yellow fin tuna pan seared, fresh chanterelles, and grilled shishito peppers.