Monday, December 31, 2007

An Autumn Afternoon at Eccolo

This is the first in a handful of posts that will fill in some gaps from last year. Posts that didn't quite happen, thoughts that didn't get expressed. If I was sure there would be 10 of them, I could call them the Top 10 Missing Posts of 2007.

In the third week of September, I headed to 4th street in Berkeley to pick up my son's birthday gift. It was late afternoon, sunny and mild, I was feeling like an escapee. I'd ducked out of work half an hour early. I walked past the patio of Eccolo where Christopher Lee was sitting at a table under the trees, in his chef's whites, with a glass of something. I think he may have even had a towel thrown over one shoulder.

I had preconceived notions about him that this still-life complicated in unexpected ways. My wife worked as a busser at Chez Panisse while Chris Lee had been there. I understand that he established the tradition of serving fried chicken there on Martin Luther King Day. A few years ago, someone told me that his salumi depended on a nitrite crutch.

I can't even tell you what a nitrite crutch is, let alone if the claim is true. Blogs make fragments of description like this public, at least findable, without any journalistic imperative on the part of the author to address their veracity or implications. Mario Batali was getting at this when he wrote that he hates bloggers:
Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web. This allows them a peculiar and nasty vocabulary that seems to be taken as truth by virtue of the fact that it has been printed somewhere. Unfortunately, this also allows untruths, lies and malicious and personally driven dreck to be quoted as fact.
An equally one-sided assessment of traditional media would have to address it's proximity to corporate dollars, an almost mechanical objectivity that keeps the discourse in the shallows, and a tendency to reduce human complexity into a handful of quotes. There's something to be said about the currency of personal professional relationships too.

However little it matters, what I felt when I saw Chris Lee that day was that he'd made it about as much as a chef makes it. That the scene was a kind of perfect. I'm not saying I'm right, or that it means anything, but I was happy for him.

Photo Credit: Ingrid Taylar.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Release Day: St. George's Absinthe Verte

This past Friday I stuck out the three hour wait and picked up four bottles of the first legal batch of absinthe produced in the United States in nearly 100 years. The parking lot at St. George's Spirits was sliced by a line of a few hundred people. I saw my plumber there, along with a guy who used to work for me, a woman who works at Speisekammer, and a handful of other familiar faces from around the East Bay.

The wait began a few weeks ago when a friend forwarded me a link to this New York Times article on absinthe's comeback. Laboring under the delusion that absinthe was still illegal in the states, I was unaware that two european brands (Kubler & Lucid) had been on sell for months. With the ban lifted, and after years of experimentation, the folks at St. George's Distillery in Alameda would be bringing theirs to market on December 21 - which just happens to be my birthday.

I'd had some serviceable absinthe at a party in New York during the summer of 1997, listened a year later as a friend described being served homemade absinthe at a party in Berkeley ("My senses all stopped working sequentially, like lights going off on the bridge during an attack on the Star Ship Enterprise..."), and with both of these things in mind I passed on some that a friend had "scored" online. Still, I was intrigued and I was not the only one.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article on St. George's absinthe efforts. Googling turned up blog posts, announcements on Yelp!, and a thread over at the Republic of Absinthe forums.

So, just before lunch I made the short trip from my employer's offices on the island of Alameda, over to St. George's Spirits. My first inkling of what I had gotten myself into came as I pulled into the parking lot. A line of 200 to 300 people snaked out from the door, through the lot, and out through the gate. Through the gate.

The line moved five people at a time
As people came out with multiple 6-bottle cases, we learned there was no bottle limit. Of the 3,000 or so bottles that had been released in this batch, only 1600 were available. The line gasped audibly as a guy came out with a dolly-load of cases. Spirits were bolstered when people came out with single bottles wrapped in popcorn bags. The line constantly assured itself that the staff would let us know if there was no hope, that a limit might be imposed as supplies dwindled. The length of the line seemed to always be right around two hundred people.

We wondered what the street value of a bottle would be by the end of the week as women dressed in militaristic uniforms (with absinthe spoons in their pockets) came out to pour the line hot chocolate. While the Bay Area Bites blogger who posted on the release didn't flash their press credential, the line seethed at a woman who did flamboyantly flash hers. This prompted a group of guys near the front of the line to shout that they were part of the Photoshop development team, and that a swap for software was not out of the question.

Entirely Worth It
We drank some with our friend Jenny that night, dropping water into our glasses one drop at a time. It was thicker than we'd expected, very complex tasting. Each drop trailed oily legs through the glass. No one claimed hallucinations, though the flames in our fireplace seemed brighter than usual to me. I also dreamt that I could see through the blanket I'd pulled over my head.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lablabi Is Very Tunisian

I'd been meaning to post a follow-up entry on lablabi for a couple of weeks now. Turns out my original post ran roughshod over the dish, by attributing it to Algeria rather than Tunisia. The friend who introduced me to lablabi pointed my gaffe out this morning, and observed that a Tunisian friend of his wanted this corrected ASAP - by the Eid certainly, or a fatwa would be forthcoming. Edits made, I'll include this handy map:

I also considered a Jam Phat style chart or graph on where they make lablabi and where they wouldn't dare. I'll go with one of the classics instead:

Here's the thing I wanted to say about lablabi - if you make mediterranean food a couple of times a month you almost certainly have what it takes to whip up a bowl of it lying around your kitchen. And yet it will taste new. This overlap was the point, really, of Mario Batali's ill-fated cooking show Mediterranean Mario.

Or to put it another way, some of you know that I toiled briefly as an independent video game developer. I play video games rarely these days but I do still follow them, and I do still read Penny Arcade - a webcomic and blog that focuses on video games. In one of their blog entries, they discuss open source digital video recorders and offer up that most people reading could probably make one out of stuff they have in their closet. This is how I feel about my readers and lablabi.

Editor's note: At the risk of starting another international incident, I can't let mention of a fatwa pass without sending you here.