Wednesday, December 04, 2013
The family was away for half a year, an exotic adventure for all of us, in theory anyway. While dad did research in centers of old-world learning, we’d explore Oxford and roam around Rome and stay pretty close to the hotel in Jerusalem until dad got back, and then we’d all do some sabra sightseeing. We traveled together, lived together, mostly ate together.
But thanks to a concatenation of unfortunate planning (travel, procreative), there was one way the members of our family would have fundamentally different vacation experiences, and I was on the sort end of that stick: Mom and Dad and Sis would all celebrate a birthday abroad, but we’d be headed home just in time for me to have mine stateside. This disparity in eurobirthday distribution soon grew in my eyes into the ultimate unfairness. I complained about it and my parents heard my plight and gave me succor. Actually, better than succor: they gave me a half-birthday celebration.
My being born under Taurus, an actual birthday party would have been a gross artifice. But the mid-point in my annual spin around the sun was coming up, and we decided to make it a day to remember. My dad and I took the down train and hit all of London’s primary attractions - I specifically recall Mme Tussaud’s basement, the planetarium, a hamburger restaurant (at the time these had not yet achieved ubiquity so it was a real treat), and we also saw the changing of the Buckingham Palace guard.
And, though the whole day was full of delights I appreciated with newly-enriched maturity and still recall in cherished bullet points of memory, that viewing of the guard change remains as fresh to me as if it were still happening somewhere even now.
Architects seem to agree, Buckingham Palace is not a particularly exceptional building. But it was big and the broad road curved before it deferentially around a monumental fountain guarded by imposing sculptures. Identical men in huge shaggy hats stood stiff sentry, patrolling the grounds like so many tin toys. The scene was set.
Shortly, more soliders showed up, some playing instruments, all marching in rigorous lockstep. The change was afoot. The crowd surged in front of me. There betwixt my sixth and seventh birthdays, I was too short to see much of anything over them. My dad lifted me up and for a while I rode his shoulders. Then some burly local plucked me off that perch and set me on a massive ornamental lion, cold in the autumn sun. My fingers traced the whorls of its mane as I watched the ceremonies.
My recollection is impressionistic: streaks of red-and-black arrayed in moving patterns, lines intersecting, spinning into each other; busbys and sporrans twirling, shiny boots striking the pavers like synchronized rifle cracks; a petulant snare drum and shrill fife and bagpipe’s haunted wail drowned, somehow, by color and shifting geometries. It was a bizarre demonstration, archaic and artificial - yet somehow also moving, almost inspirational, a choreography of ancient power that remained compelling, at least to me.
I had been mesmerized throughout it. When the guard had begun to change, I was kind of still a six-year-old. But by the time the relieved detachments had stomped their spectacular way back down to the barracks, I was definitely a rising seven-year-old. Regardless, I still needed help getting down off that enormous lion.
Posted in honor of my father’s 80th birthday. Good going, sir. Thanks for putting everything into being my dad. You are loved.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
round these parts you feel it spinning
underneath your shadow’s gyre
surfing the ecliptic’s surges
rolling us unceasingly
into new tomorrow mornings
all suns bow before the daystar
night evaporates like butane
sleep eludes the turgid dreamer
fool’s moon bitter in my vision
waiting on the grand rotation
point your axis to the void
and let the darkness eat my days
(I’d thought of the phrase “fool’s moon” one day some months back and thought it ought to be in a poem of some sort so I wrote this on the bus today, about the midnight sun.)
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Sweet and Sour: A Rapid-Rise Affair
Nowadays bread is basically no big deal. You can buy it at any hour of the day, at any number of convenient places, and in stupefying variety. We no longer trouble ourselves about the miracles of lactobacillic fermentation or the wheatfarmer’s gamble or the miller’s stones or the baker’s alchemy. What had once been a complex choreography of acquiring and manipulating raw materials into a breathing, almost sentient food source, is now a mere culinary macarena.
Even for those who take up breadbaking as a hobby, all the key ingredients are just waiting on a grocer’s shelf for us, right down to active yeast in tidy premeasured packets. At a gourmet heartland grocery I once visited, they actually kept a grinder full of plump tan wheat kernels for those who demanded fresh flour from sourced resources, but I didn’t want that when I was there. I just bought a bag of bagels, pre-made who knows how many dusty miles distant. I didn’t want wheat, I wanted bread, with no thought or effort required on my part beyond that already expended in my having gotten to the store with the means wherewith to pay for my sustenance. The hardest part was selecting which plastic sack of carbs to haul back to the condo.
Not so long ago bread remained sufficiently mysterious and important to serve as a slang stand-in for cash money, but not anymore. Bread may be the staff of life, but who still goes around with a staff? Most of us eat bread on a daily basis, but it has lost most of its significance to us. Though generally not contemptible (except to the rising minority of the gluten-intolerant or Atkins-addled), bread is so familiar, so unremarkable, that its hardly worth a second thought most of the time.
I am fortunate to live in a neighborhood rich with bakers, so it’s easy for me to reconnect with the extraordinary qualities bread can possess. From the racks of puffy little puris at Royal Market, to the shelves of airy golden challot at Moscow & Tiblisi, to the panoply of authentic boiled bagels at their eponymous House, I’ve got lots of fresh-baked options within easy reach. I even have friends who will crank out a round of baguettes or fresh matzo when called for, and I’ve been known to follow their example on occasion. But there’s one local bread that, till just a short while ago, I’d never given its fair due.
For, among the many baked delights for which my neighborhood is justly renowned, is one actual San Francisco Treat - as much a part of the city’s history as steam beer or Halliday’s cable grip. Ask any gorgeophile what bread is most redolent of Fog City, and the answer will be Boudin Sourdough - the original since 1849. This was the tough-crusted, tangy-sweet bread that came to represent the tough-crusted, tangy-sweet people who thronged here back in gold rush days. You can go to the wharf and get a bread bowl of it filled with chili or chowdah; you can go downtown and see it flogged at shops that cater to visitors… but Boudin sourdough is actually baked just three blocks down the street from my humble abode at 10th and Geary, in a corner shop that used to be a dive bar of some charm. This bakery’s distinctive aroma is as much a part of the fabric of this town as Levi’s denim. The excellent -a-roni family of products notwithstanding, Boudin is the real thing.
Or so I’ve been told. My own self, I remained unconvinced. I’m a big bread fan but sourdoh never really won my heart. Too chewy, a crust that could inflict significant palate lacerations, a gooey cell, and that outsized odor like a cheese or beer wort - yeast gone mad, a smell that overpowers every other smell on the table or on the street, like mothballs in a closet. No, no fan of sourdough, I.
Except I do sort of like the smell of mothballs, in proper intensity and in its proper place and all, but still I like it, so maybe there’s hope for sourdough after all? Or maybe more than just hope, because:
A few months ago we were returning from a family trip to the local library, which is awesome, but anyway, we were walking those four short blocks on an idyllic golden afternoon, and suddenly there we were at Boudin’s little storefront boulangerie. it’s not one of those franchise chowdertoriums like down at the wharf, but an actual bakery with cookies and muffins in the window, and plenty of loaves of fresh sourdough (frequently baked into improbable shapes). A large industrial bakery sits behind the shop, producing thousands of loaves of sourdough a day, all sons of the same authentic mother. When it’s rising the whole block reeks of it.
But this particular afternoon the ring danish in the window looked unusually scrumptious, and we wanted treats, and by the time we got out I’d somehow also acquired a loaf of fresh-sliiced sourdough in a cheerful white sack.
The sun shone on my face as I walked home with my family, loafsack in hand. My boys, book-delirious, jostled each other lovingly; a saline breeze teased the edge off the sun’s warmth and something just clicked. I opened the sack. The aroma that greeted me awoke a primary desire for carbohydrate.
The bread, fresh--sliced in its bag, actually smiled at me, and as I plucked a mid-loaf slice it smiled wider. That slice of bread was perfect. From the crust to the heart, the texture, the taste, it was everyting a slice of bread could aspire to be. Sourdough made sense at last. It was warm and comforting, strong and supporting. It was the bread version of a daddy. An analogy suggested itself to my mind, but my hand brought the slice back up to my mouth and I stopped thinking in such specifcs. I returned to the feeling and flavor and pungency, I lost myself in that delicious, fulfilling bread until the slice was gone. Then the boys both insisted on slices of their own, and I wanted another. By the time we got home three blocks away, we’d blasted through half the loaf. We felt ready for anything. Especially more sourdough.
Since that day I’ve had some boring bread and some damn fine bread, I’ve baked bread and burned bread and I’ve had toast with my breakfast nearly every day. But I keep remembering those two or three wonderful slices of fresh Boudin sourdough that sunny afternoon and they seem to crowd the others out of my thinking. And my thinking goes something like this:
People have an evolutionary inclination to latch onto good ideas and to detach from bad ones. In subjective areas like taste and style this has led to the frantic churn of fashion, in which the world enthusiastically adopts some exciting new development, then grows tired of it, and eventually replaces it with something essentially parallel, if not identical, to it. And, while San Francisco is far from an old city, it still does connect pretty directly with the 19th century boomtown it once was. That city didn’t have time for second rate goods. If it picked something up, it’s because something was worth picking up. Levis. Cable cars. Boudin sourdough. All this time we’ve carried these forward, and for good reason. I finally get it now. What’s more, I’m definitely going to get it again.