Monthly Archives: July 2013

Recipe: The Artist’s Palette in the Kitchen

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Good Evening:

I have worked for years–no, decades–trying to figure how to make a decent batch of fried chicken. For whatever reason, this classic American dish has defeated me for a long time. The past few years of trying have finally produced a bit of success; not quite enough to qualify for this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece, but with another year’s practice I should have something good enough for guests.

This post is for the cooks out there who favor using buttermilk in their fried chicken. The first key discovery consisted of choosing only chicken thighs and marinating them for 24 hours in buttermilk and spices. The hard part has consisted of finding an ideal spice blend–but I think I have found a really, really, really good combination. I took this photo before I blended everything together.

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I used about a tablespoon and a half of each spice. In the middle you will see freshly ground black pepper. Clockwise from left you can see pimenton (smoked paprika), garlic, oregano, onion, and my latest discovery, a spice very hard to find, at least in San Francisco.

Smoked Cinnamon–that’s not a misprint–seems to be some kind of secret ingredient in Spanish cuisine. Obviously unsuitable for desserts, it excels with poultry, meat and shrimp, and yields a stunning aroma in fried chicken. And it has proven hard to find in this city; I get a lot of strange looks when I ask grocers if they have it, and so far I have only found it via mail order at some New York City company called La Boite.

Anyway, if you belong to the clan of fried chicken cooks who favor buttermilk, whisk the above combination into your next marinade and let it go for a day. I honestly believe that Smoked Cinnamon makes an amazing contribution to the American classic. I do offer this suggestion with the proper respect and humility: I do realize that millions of recipes for fried chicken exist and the world’s finest is the recipe your parents taught you.

Vonn Scott Bair

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The Anti-Masterpiece of Bad Architecture! (Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece)

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Good Evening:

How do I meet this week’s Challenge and also do something different from everyone else’s responses? How?! I know! I’ll will photograph a masterpiece of bad!

During the 1960s and 1970s, San Francisco became home to some of the most gosh darned awful office architecture in the history of Western Civilization. One incredibly bad high-rise after another, all reaching to ridiculous heights so you could not avoid seeing them, no matter how hard you tried. In 1986 the people finally got fed up enough to pass something called Proposition M, which did a lot of good things to the city, including a pleasant side effect; the architecture improved greatly.

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But we still had these blights upon the city, ruining views everywhere:That building in the background ruining the view of City Hall (by contrast, one of the most beautiful civic buildings in America) is one of the disasters, one of two buildings taking up an entire block of Van Ness Avenue (you can’t see the other, but it’s also a disaster of that era). I did once manage to take a picture of it looking halfway decent, but it was just an illusion of the early morning Magic Hour:

White & Blue Series 672: Van Ness Avenue Friday Morning

White & Blue Series 672: Van Ness Avenue Friday Morning

Beyond the sheer masterpiece of bad ugliness of the tower, an example of what is sometimes called The International Style, these office buildings are also masterpieces of bad energy management, wasting fuel and electricity, poorly designed for use of space, possess hard to upgrade HVAC, et cetera. But I have some good news.

The thing is getting dismantled.

Taking down an office building in the middle of a city presents challenges. You can’t blow it up; you can’t implode it most of the time; and you can’t always resort to that old standby the wrecking ball. So this office building is coming down piece by piece.

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But now that it’s coming down, I don’t know that I want all of it to come down. I present a view of the dismantling from the point of view of where I work on Golden Gate Avenue:

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What if they take down the windows, exterior “skin” or whatever the technical term might be, take out let’s say every other floor—and then leave the rest? That might become a rather interesting sculpture, or at least a sort of frame on which the City could display a variety of decorations. For example, we could entwine the frame in red, white and blue lengths of cloth reaching all the way from the top to ground level. Or perhaps add decorations for the holidays in December.

Or perhaps I could keep my crazy ideas to myself and let the construction crews (destruction crews?) do their work.

Vonn Scott Bair

The San Francisco Burrito (Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece)

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Good Afternoon:

In June 1998, my family had a mini-reunion in Portland, Oregon. The Parental Units flew out from the East Coast, whilst I traveled up from San Francisco to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and she whom I like to call Her Majesty the Granddaughter. One night the family agreed upon Mexican takeout for dinner, and as my brother-in-law fetched the appropriate menu from the kitchen, Mom suddenly turned to me.

MOM: We don’t want to hear it!

(VONN sits silently, puzzled.)

MOM: We know that San Francisco burritos are the greatest in the world! You’ve told us that a thousand times and we don’t want to hear it anymore! You don’t have to tell us that no one has burritos as good as San Francisco’s!

(VONN sits silently, stupefied.)

DAD: You know, I don’t think he was going to say anything this time.

VONN: Do I always say that no one has burritos as good as San Francisco burritos?

MOM, DAD, SISTER, BRO-IN-LAW (Perfect four-part harmony.): YES!!!

OK. Lesson learned.

It’s not really my fault, though. I mean, look at this Burrito Movado from Tacqueria Cancun:

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Can you blame me for bragging? Wish I had my ruler with me, but since I didn’t, 10 inches long, almost 4 inches wide at its widest. I go to Cancun for their “wet” burrito, as opposed to the standard non-sauced variety which normally comes wrapped in aluminum foil, hence the sometimes nickname “Silver Torpedo.” When I compare this edible depth charge stuffed with grilled shredded steak with the pathetic little hamburger burrito I had in a “Genuine San Francisco Style Tacqueria” in New York City (where the “San Francisco Burrito” was vegetarian–egads!), well, I ask again: can you blame me for bragging?

The San Francisco (or Mission) burrito, whose origin dates back to 1972, 29 September 1969, 26 September 1961, the 1950s, the 1930s, some time during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921), and northern Sonoran miners of the 19th Century–which origin is correct? Probably all of them–will always represent the city as our contribution to the world of dirt-cheap darn-good red-blooded true-blue American food, proudly taking its place beside the Chicago deep-dish pizza, Philadelphia’s cheesesteaks and New Haven, Connecticut’s “white clam pie,” amongst many others. The above meal, including tax and tip, cost $USD 8.34.

As far as I’m concerned, you could easily spend a week in the Mission alone exploring the world of burritos. Like planets rotating about binary stars, most of the great tacquerias cluster around one of two intersections: 24th & Mission Streets and 16th & Valencia Streets. Tacqueria Cancun (a rogue planet) sits roughly in between at Mission near 19th Street. The restaurants have ways to distinguish themselves. La Cumbre (Team 16th & Valencia) is the home of the first San Francisco burrito, dated 29 September 1969; El Faro (Team 24th & Mission) is another home of the first San Francisco burrito, dated 26 September 1961; Pancho Villa has a huge free salsa bar and a once-white wall now multicolored with the ribbons their salsas have won in state competitions.

I’ve never had the opportunity to ask any of the employees if any serious rivalry exists amongst the restaurants; they’re always too busy caring for their customers. I do not make bets but I do make predictions, and I predict that of the 100 or so new fancy-pants restaurants that have opened in the Mission District in this decade, maybe 2 or 3 will survive until 2020; but almost all of the tacquerias that have been around for decades will still endure and prosper.

The San Francisco Burrito will outlast any balsamic mozzarella ball.

By the way, did that Burrito Movado look too big to finish in one setting?

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Think again.

Vonn Scott Bair

Charles Lloyd, Forest Flower – Music for a Friday Afternoon (Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece)

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Good Evening:

I have a little sub-collection of music reserved for a specific day and time: 3:00 p.m. Friday afternoon, a fifteen minute work break. Time to relax, reflect on the week past, plan for the weekend, deep deep breath. I recently added something from my long, long, time ago, a favorite jazz album of my entire family, 1967’s Forest Flower by Charles Lloyd, a recording of a live performance at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival.

This is the cover art for both the LP and the CD.

This is the cover art for both the LP and the CD.

Lloyd has had a long and distinguished career, but enjoyed one stunning surprise megahit with this 1967 album, featuring Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett, selling over a million copies. The original LP had only five songs, but the Rhino CD reissue has an additional LP of material from something called Soundtrack.

Jazz & Rock Singer Melinda Lopez

Singer Melinda Lopez

The masterpiece is “Forest Flower” itself, a two-part suite consisting of “Forest Flower: Sunrise” and “Forest Flower: Sunset,” taking up the entirety of Side 1 on the original vinyl release almost a half-century ago, and of these two, “Sunset” is the moment when the Charles Lloyd Quartet ascends to the innermost circle of jazz “Paradiso.” It’s hard to believe that these guys were so young and had played together for maybe a year (Jarrett might not even have reached legal drinking age!), because early in “Sunset” they achieve the kind of synergy that most quartets need a few decades to achieve.

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It’s a matter of knowing when your bandmates are pulling back to allow you to push forward and knowing when to pull back and let the other musicians shine. Bassist McBee sets what remains one of my favorite bass lines ever and holds it for the rest of the song, but he doesn’t disappear because the other musicians know when to quiet down and let the audience he’s still there. At about 3:15 Jarrett takes over and unleashes one of his trademark solos, and I still don’t know how he does it. It’s total chaos, totally atonal, totally arrhythmic, totally anti-harmony–and therefore total composition, totally tonal, totally rhythmic, and totally harmonious. I have no idea why it works. Anyone else tries that and it’s a mess.

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The 6:30 mark presents a good opportunity to crank up the bass as at that point, everyone except McBee quiets down so you can enjoy his work. Meanwhile, a propellor plane flies over the audience at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and somehow even that fits in with the music. Definitely their day that day.

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“Forest Flower: Sunset” fades quietly to its conclusion after a little over ten minutes of four guys hitting career peaks simultaneously becoming–for those ten minutes–the greatest jazz band in history. So quiet, so calm, so beautiful.

The ancient Greeks had a special term called aristeia or something like that (I will feel shocked if that spelling is correct): those passages in the Iliad when one of the Greek warriors briefly reaches a level far above his norm and becomes invincible to the point where a mere mortal like Diomedes can hold his own against Olympian gods. Aristeia or however one spells it is a word that could use a revival as it has so many uses in so many fields of endeavor: Pablo Sandoval’s three homer performance in Game One of the 2012 World Series; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the short story for which she’s most remembered; or Ortueta-Sanz, a chess game that ends with five consecutive moves which remain the only reason anyone remembers Jose Sanz Aguado.

Or “Forest Flower: Sunset:” enough reason to remember the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Vonn Scott Bair

Kind of a Big Deal for Me: The ATLAS Playwrights Showcase

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Good Evening:

ATLAS is a program sponsored by Theatre Bay Area, in which theater artists receive training, mentoring, career development and a showcase for their work. This year, for the first time, TBA opened up the program for playwrights, and yours truly earned the honor of becoming a member of the first class of writers.

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As part of the program, ten of the playwrights including yours truly got to read from their works in five-minute showcases at the annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival this week. 7th up to read, I chose a few modules from my modular play The Possibility. Now I should explain how a “modular” play differs from a regular play. The Possibility, instead of scenes, consists of modules ranging in length from several pages to a single sentence. A director or theater company can arrange the modules in any order they please, use some multiple times, use others not at all, producing a set of ten-minute plays, 2-3 one acts, or a full-length play. I chose three modules related to food, and after the next picture, you can read what I performed on Wednesday night at The Thick House.

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The plot of The Possibility is pretty simple: a MAN and  a WOMAN dealing with the possibility that they are falling in love with each other even though each is happily married already to KAREN and STEVE. Their spouses know the possibility of trouble exists, but they also know that nothing is happening–so far. Here are Modules 31, 35 and 39.

Module 31: Dances With Chickens.

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Sunday afternoon. Preparing a nice Sunday dinner. Sundays usually are takeout, perhaps even delivery, because I must also make our lunches for the work week, but I want to make a nice roast chicken.

I do not feel guilty. I feel like doing a good wifey-poo sort of thing. Like that woman in the movie and the gourmet lunch she prepared for her lover, except I’m cooking for my husband.

Why am I doing this? Doing what? The possibility, or the chicken?

Pat the chicken dry. Salt the cavity, pepper, too. Quarter a lemon, insert in cavity. That woman in the movie roasted a chicken for her lover; I roast a chicken for my husband. Salt and pepper the skin. A sprig of rosemary in the cavity; as she did. No French baguette, not like her; wild rice.

After all, that woman in the movie ended up dead.

Why do I think of that? I mean, I’m happy. Aren’t I? But when she walked home she had that sun, her sun, that smile, her smile, those autumn leaves, one red, one brown, entangled in her hair and she leaves those leaves there to dance with the wind. Do city streets look like that when your life dances with you as you glide down city streets with that smile dancing upon your face? Because you roasted a chicken for your lover?

I have never betrayed. But I can betray. I can betray because I’ve never betrayed before. But I have no idea why.

And she died.

Roast at five hundred degrees for fifteen minutes, lower to four hundred and continue until the thermometer reaches one sixty-five. She was happy when she roasted her chicken. Her entire life was dancing. I used to dance.

I want a smile that will dance with the wind dancing with the leaves dancing with my hair dancing with the sun dancing with my smile down city streets that look like that when your entire life dances. I want to dance with the sun and the stars, dance in a circle, dance in a ring. But one truth cuts into my dance, one grave and graven fact.

I am dancing with a chicken.

I am a good wifey-poo.

(Module 35. Happily Married Couples Who Are Trying to Stay That Way.)

STEVE

I spied on my wife as she danced with a chicken. True, this was no ordinary chicken. It was a politically correct free-range organic chicken, quite tasty at six ninety-five a pound. But even if it was a politically correct chicken, it was still a chicken.

I thought this was a clue.

So I signed us up for salsa dancing classes. It’s the romantic in me.

Salsa classes are interesting. Evidently, when middle-aged single women ask for advice on how to meet new men, their friends advise them to take salsa classes. However, men do not get the same advice. Therefore, our salsa classes consist of a few happily married couples who are trying to stay that way and a large number of single women dancing with other single women, taking turns pretending to be men so they can learn how to dance like the women in happily married couples who are trying to stay that way. The single women who are taking turns pretending to be men sneak looks at the men in happily married couples who are trying to stay that way, and since there are so few men at salsa dancing classes, that means that every Tuesday night from eight p.m. to nine-thirty p.m. a lot of single women who are taking turns pretending to be men sneak looks at me. I look at my wife looking at the single women taking turns pretending to be men sneaking looks at me.

Maybe sushi classes.

(Module 39. My Husband Likes Sushi?!)

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My husband likes sushi?! Is that my fault?

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The entire showcase seemed like a great success. The other playwrights brought their best work and best readings, and it sure seems that the first class of ATLAS playwrights is a good one.

Vonn Scott Bair

Car Slapping in San Francisco, 23 July 2013, 5:20 p.m.

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Good Evening:

I apologize in advance for not getting my camera out in time to photograph the phenomenon.

At 5:20 p.m. this afternoon, I stood at the intersection of Market and Hayes and Larkin and 9th Streets (another one of San Francisco’s five-way intersections) waiting patiently for the light to turn in my favor so I could cross the street to my bus stop. Sad to say, the automobile drivers of San Francisco rank among the worst in the United States–I’ve heard tales of worse drivers elsewhere, tales which, if true, would be, uh, um, well, really impressive–and many of them happened to cross Market Street at the same time in an effort to beat the red light. In San Francisco, a yellow light means Hurry! Step on the gas! Now!

All but one of the bad drivers got through the intersection. The last and worst of the drivers actually ran a red light, perhaps appropriate given that he drove a small red stationwagon. This gentleman (60-ish, receding hairline, grey hair, silver goatee, professorial looking) blocked the pedestrian crosswalk, so that we had to scoot around him.

But he also did something worse.

Much, much, worse.

He blocked the green bicycle lane.

Market Street is one of many streets in San Francisco that now have painted green bicycle lanes. These lanes, the ones closest to the sidewalks, belong solely to the rapidly growing population of local citizens who have chosen the two-wheeled commute to work. The green lanes make their daily rides safer and swifter.

Unless of course a very poor automobile driver tries to run a red light and fail, completely blocking the green lane. The bicyclists had no room to do anything except veer toward the middle of the intersection, placing themselves in the path of automobiles driven by lawful drivers and thereby placing themselves at risk of collision and injury.

Make no mistake: Prof. Silver Goatee broke the law and recklessly endangered the lives of others.

But the bicyclists took the law into their own hands. Literally.

As each rider swerved around the little red stationwagon, they reached out with their right hands and slapped the rear of the car. Slap, slap, slap. About 30 bicyclists slapped the car once or twice depending upon how fast or slow they rode. Prof. Silver Goatee bent forward, eyes growing wide, clenched his steering wheel tightly, and gritted his teeth to the metallic rhythmic sounds of slap, slap, slap. Equal parts justified and self-righteous.

I have never seen this before, so I cannot tell you if this is an old tradition, a new tradition, a peculiar one-time event, or a new tradition, the start of something slap-happy. Car slapping poor drivers must constitute a huge temptation for bicyclists, esp. at 5:20 p.m. if they  have had a bad day. And permit me to emphasize this: Prof. Silver Goatee put the lives and health of 30 people at risk; he did commit a pair of crimes threatening tragic consequences for innocent people.

But I don’t know if car slapping (car-slapping? Carslapping?) is such a great idea. Remember Prof. Silver Goatee’s wide eyes, clenching hands, and gritted teeth? He did not look too far from losing his mind, throwing his car in reverse, and ploughing through and over a few car slappers, throwing his car into drive and then running over them a second time.

What’s so great about being right and hospitalized? Or dead?

Perhaps forgiveness sits closer to wisdom than self-righteous justice.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Civic Center Farmers Market (Weekly Photo Challenge: Fresh)

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Good Evening:

The Civic Center Farmers Market (open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) represents San Francisco as America’s Great Stewpot. Not “melting pot,” we cook in this town. All kinds of people pour into this particular farmers market, especially on Wednesdays when the local government workers rub shoulders with the local construction workers, who rub shoulders with the students from the nearby cooking schools, who rub shoulders with the elderly Asian women buying live chickens at 7:00 in the morning because they like everything fresh. First a general view looking east to west:

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Now one looking west to east:

Photographing the Photographer Photographing His Photography, 21 July 2013

Photographing the Photographer Photographing His Photography, 21 July 2013

I’ll keep the produce pictures to a minimum. Just one:

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OK, maybe two:

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The Civic Center Farmers Market has also become a sort of cultural center of sorts, drawing musicians, oddly-costumed performers, and photographers in vast quantities. The couple below seemed to have a specific project in mind for their picture taking on Sunday.

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She would give a flower to a child (or in this case, the dog belonging to the woman in the wheelchair) and then he would take photos. That was the only kind of photography in which they indulged.

This group consisted of bicycling tourists (the group leader is waving her arms) stopping for food, photography, beverages, photography, rest and more photography.

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Presenting Dean Harlem:

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Dean Harlem is a C&W singer who has performed for spare change in front of the statue for several months. Should you visit the Civic Center Farmers Market on a Sunday and he’s performing, don’t even bother to wait, just fork over a dollar. You’ll want to do so anyway, so you might as well get it over with.

I went home with among other things my lunch: peasant bread stuffed with Kalamata olives; a hunk of Bronsha cheese from a local artisan; cantaloupe and strawberries; and a Dean Harlem CD.

That was one heck of a good lunch.

And I didn’t even eat the CD.

Vonn Scott Bair