I've been obsessed lately with Blixa Bargeld, the front man for Einstüzende Neubauten (and formerly with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). He's aged remarkably well! The middle picture is early 80s Blixa doing his more-heroin-chic-than-Peter-Murphy look. The other two images are from his latest videos where he looks like your cool degenerate uncle. Looks much healthier with a little meat on his bones.
Looks aside the new album Alles in Allem is excellent. Taken as a whole it's a love letter to Berlin, with four songs explicitly about various neighborhoods and the whole thing having a Berlin cabaret feel. The two videos are a good place to start: Ten Grand Goldie and Alles in Allem. But the whole album is great and very listenable. If like me you mostly think of Einstüzende as the arty machine noise group from the 80s, you missed their turn to more lyricism. Still plenty of unusual percussion sources though, not to mention Blixa's trademark shriek. May they have another forty years as productive.
(CW: rape, racism). Ken and I watched Gone With the Wind this week. As if it were prestige TV, in one hour segments over four nights. It’s imminently watchable that way. And for a movie as early as 1939 it still feels very modern. It’s completely enjoyable by modern standards, no early film awkwardness of plotting or direction. Well written characters, amazing sets and costumes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film.
It’s also a racist piece of shit of a film. And deeply steeped in rape culture. And these sins don’t just mar the surface; you can’t watch the movie and just sort of ignore them. The entire intent of the film is racist, the racism is woven throughout the whole story. It’s a Lost Cause fiction about a Gallant South, about how Georgia suffered unjustly under the evil invading Union forces. I was prepared for the racism part; the film is notorious for it. I was less prepared for the rape culture.
The center of the film is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It’s excellently written and both actors are amazing, so the performance is exhilirating. It’s also absolutely awful. The first time they kiss, it’s as they’re fleeing the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of Scarett’s world. Scarlett keeps saying "no" and pushing Rhett away, hitting him, pleading him to stop. And he literally forces a kiss on her against a blood red sky. To the film’s credit she holds her ground, pushes him away and slaps him, but Rhett doesn’t even look surprised.
It gets worse with the actual rape on the staircase, a drunk Rhett violently attacking his wife, grabbing her and carrying her up the stairs. To impregnate her, after she’d already told him she didn’t want a second child and implied she wanted no sexual relations of any kind. The hideous thing is in the morning she’s shown waking as from a dream, with a smile, a happy smile, because apparently… I can’t explain it, it’s simply rape culture and it’s awful. Particularly for Scarlett. In many ways she’s a great character, a strong woman who survives no matter the circumstances, uses men and sexuality for her own purposes. To have her so violated and then shown to enjoy it is deeply offensive.
There’s nothing I can say about the racism in the film that’s not been said better elsewhere. Happy slaves, noble Klansman (barely disguised), the whole mythology of plantation life… it’s all awful propaganda. What I didn’t know before reading about the movie this week is how there were protests about the film both during its making and in its premiere in 1939. It was a hugely successful film but its hatefulness did not go unnoticed. Just most white Americans didn’t care. The Jim Crow South in particular was eager for a film that justified its continuing racism.
I don’t know what to say about the stereotype character Mammy. When I was a little kid I had a nanny like Mammy, a big caring middle aged Black woman who loved children. So this Mammy stereotype is deeply wired into me. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance is excellent. I particularly like how much latitude she has in the household, how she can speak the truth and be sassy and be respected. OTOH Mammy is only written as a character to support the white people in the movie. Nothing at all is said about her own life, or what the transition of emancipation might have meant to her, or whether she had her own children or life outside of being Scarlett’s minder. None of the other Black characters get any better treatment, the film is entirely blind to the reality of life in that place.
My mother loved Gone With the Wind. She loved the fantasy of the antebellum South, the costumes, the performances. She might have acknowledged the fantasy depiction of plantation life but would have found it unobjectionable. But I think what she really liked is Scarlett, a strong woman, a woman who survives very difficult times through grit and shrewdness and clever use of her feminine wiles. I don’t know what she would have thought about the rape culture, I think she bought into it as much as most people her age. That it was romantic for a man to ravish a woman. What an awful thing.
Next up: Giant.
I joined the Instant Pot religion. I mostly use it as a pressure cooker, but the fact you can also saute and brown things in it, simmer them, etc makes it really versatile. The cooking modes are confusing though and the pressure cooker is lower pressure than typical American electric pressure cookers.
Note that simmering means to keep the pot just below 100°C. It’s not quite boiling, but there’s still a little steam nucleation which makes the tiny bubbles. In an Instant Pot that means Slow Cook on Medium or High, probably with the lid off.
A favorite indulgent potato chip dip. It's the mild egg flavor with a bit of smoke makes this special. We generally have it as a holiday treat but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about it. Ken says he got the recipe from someone who worked with his Mom around 1960.
Chop the eggs in a food processor fairly fine. Put the cream cheese into a wide, shallow bowl. Add the eggs and mayonnaise and mix well with a fork. Add the remaining seasonings and mix again. Enjoy with your favorite chips. This is a mild dip so plain or mild flavored chips are a better choice.
I posted this recipe three years ago but that was me trying to reconstruct it; this better version is from Ken's own hand.
One of my mother’s favorite Christmas recipes dating back to at least the 1970s were her cheese balls. Nothing unique about the cheese ball or cheese log for Christmas. But ours were specifically Texan. I have a photograph of her recipe card, here’s the ingredients. I think things in parentheses were variants.
Cheese ball (3 fist size balls)
Her recipe didn’t include any notes on actually making it, but it’s basically "put it all in a bowl and mash it together". Grate the cheddar first (she used a sharp cheddar) and don’t be afraid to use your hands to mush it all together. To finish she would roll the balls in bright red mild paprika, mostly for the color. Sometimes in pecans but I never much cared for that.
What makes this Texan? The sharp cheddar, the liquid smoke, and the garlic/onion/cayenne that are chili seasonings. All it’s missing is cumin! (Don’t use cumin.) The prepared mustard is a bit of a curveball for a Texas dish but it’s good. And the touch of wine adds a sophistication.
I was reminded of this because Homesick Texan just posted her Aunt Betty’s cheese ball recipe. That recipe is similar to my mom’s but there are some interesting differences. I like Fain's Worcestershire and the idea of rolling in chili powder (itself a spice blend, including cumin). Wouldn’t be my Mom’s though without the liquid smoke and I suspect the prepared mustard is doing some magic not in Fain’s recipe.
I wonder at the history that gives us these two similar Texas cheese ball recipes. Knowing my mom I’m guessing it was Helen Corbitt. Indeed Corbitt has a cheese ball recipe involving mustard and smoked cheese. And horseradish and pickled beets?! Maybe not.
Update: just made this and it's as good as I remember. Mix the (scant) non-cheese ingredients first, then mash that into the cream cheese, and only at the end add the cheddar. The finer grated the cheddar is the better, but don't use pre-grated; the grocery store stuff is coated with anti-caking powder. I mixed with my bare hand, the warmth helping melt the cream cheese, then froze it for half an hour to shape.
I went to DC a few weeks ago and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an excellent pair of museums, I strongly recommend anyone visiting DC make it a priority. It’s still free and still a hot ticket but easier to get in to than before. If you’re going in summer reserve tickets three months in advance for your best experience. But you can also get same-day tickets and walkups, particularly outside of peak season.
The museum is clearly designed as two separate sections. Downstairs is history, upstairs is culture. The bottom half of the museum is a fantastic history of African Americans from the earliest days of slavery, through slave uprisings, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. It’s ambitious. It will leave you exhausted at the end with no energy for the other half of the museum, the cultural museum. Which is also fantastic, a celebration of African American cultures. Food, textiles, sports, music, TV. I mean, they have the goddamn P-Funk mothership! It’s a lot of fun. Definitely also worth a visit, but plan a break for lunch or something in the middle.
I approached this museum from the background of having visited a lot of German museums about Nazi history. I was wondering how the Smithsonian would deal with America’s enormous crime against humanity. Thoroughly and honestly, but very differently from the German museums. The Nazi memorials tend to a direct documentation of how the genocide and other crimes were conducted. They are focussed on a recent history in living memory, and one that is meticulously documented in precise bureaucratic detail. By contrast formal American slavery is 150+ years old and there’s precious few direct records of, say, individual slaveholders and their daily abuses. The historical distance demands a different telling. Also the Smithsonian has made a decision to tell as uplifting a history as possible; in every room details of African American resistance, strength, and heroism are highlighted. I think that’s admirable but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for documenting the horrible abuses. Those are documented, but only as one facet of the whole museum.
So I was a little conflicted. Honestly I think America needs a fully uncomfortable museum about slavery where the abuses are the focus. How American people and government worked to subjugate other Americans, to keep them and their children in slavery. Far too many people still think that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or wasn’t really Americans’ faults, or that slavery is over so what’s the big deal now? The German museums exist to ensure that no German can be at all confused about what happened in the Nazi regime and could never consider even slightly lionizing that era. Plenty of Americans still celebrate Confederate "heroes" and do not admit to the horrible abuses of slavery, not just in its time but the echoes of it today. I fear in softening the message the Smithsonian does not do enough to communicate how horrible American slavery was. There are a couple of museums that are more focussed on the mechanisms of abuse which I need to visit; the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans and the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery.
One other thing I can’t let go… Nazi memorials in Germany are in no way museums of Jewish culture. They are museums of German history. The Smithsonian has chosen to put museums of both Culture and History together in one place. I think they’ve done an excellent job of it. The separation of floors makes for a separation of concerns. And I like the uplifting message in the history section, the story of how African Americans shall overcome. So the combination works, but it still makes me uneasy.
I’ve learned to make a simple Korean stew that’s delicious and foolproof. Doenjang Jjigae (된장찌개) is a homey stew made with a flavor of fermented soybean paste, something like miso only more rustic and spicy. Serve it over rice with some banchan (side-dishes) and you have a simple reliable meal. There’s a zillion different recipes online. Maangchi’s recipe is good or see here for a second opinion.
The core flavor comes from the broth made from doenjang paste dissolved in water. The broth is easy since the flavor comes from a pre-prepared product. You can find doenjang in Asian groceries or at a markup on Amazon.
Garlic and chile is added to the broth for heat and flavor. Korean ground red chile is best (Amazon) or you can use most anything; red pepper flakes, cayenne, maybe some hot paprika for a bit of smoke. The broth can also be upgraded by starting with anchovy stock instead of plain water.
Once you have the broth you add the rest. Common vegetables include zucchini, daikon or mu, onion, fresh chiles, potato. Proteins include tofu, shrimp, clams, or my favorite: fatty pork. You can pretty much just boil everything together, although if you’re using pork you should render the fat first in the pot before making the broth.
I serve it in a bowl over short grain rice with whatever side dishes I can muster. A full banchan spread is a ridiculous amount of work. But I almost always have a jar of kimchi on hand. These marinated mushrooms are also super easy to make and delicious.
Mexico City is famous right now for its food culture. From the temples of fine dining like Pujol to casual street tacos people love to eat well in CDMX. I made thorough notes on all the places we ate on a short trip. My favorite places were Carmela y Sal, Corazón de Maguey, and Taqueria Califa.
Cafe Tacuba for lunch. Our tour guide suggested this as something near the Cathedral. I really liked it, a funky throwback cafe with a nearly ossified traditional Mexican menu. Honestly the service was a bit off and slow, but that was offset by the place being so retro and comfortable. I liked my chile rellenos quite a bit although I would have traded one of the two enormous chiles for a more complex sauce. Ken’s enchiladas tapatías were good.
Carmela y Sal for dinner. We told some of the hotel staff we were going here and they were all very excited; apparently chef Gabriela Lugo has made quite an impression in town. Us too, this felt like the exciting, trendy, yet comfortable kind of place that everyone says Mexico City is great for. The highlight dish for us was the "liar’s tostadas", a vegan preparation of coconut doctored up to taste like crab pork. Delicious on their own merits even without the hilarious cooking trick. My Poc Chuc was also fantastic, as was Ken’s creamy canneloni. Great wine list too. This restaurant was where we figured out Mexican portions are huge, we ordered way too much food. As dining mistakes go that’s not so bad.
Corazón de Maguey. Our tour guide took us here for a mezcal tasting; they are serious about mezcal here. Which was great, it’s interesting to taste a bunch of mezcals against each other. Nice restaurant too, good basic Mexican vibe with a leaning towards Oaxacan cuisine. I loved the Coyoacán neighborhood this is located in, the restaurant is right on the lively main park / square that defines the neighborhood.
Capital Grille. We decided we might want some familiar American food one night, and who doesn’t like a good steak? They delivered well here, although other than a couple of Mexican cocktails we could just as easily have been in Duluth or Miami or Toronto. Was nearly empty on Saturday night other than a lunch party that’d started 7 hours before; I suspect this is a businessman’s dinner kind of place. If you want a US steak at US prices go here, otherwise go somewhere Mexican!
Taqueria Califa. Casual and fast tacos but in a nice well lit place with table service. Certainly a good choice for gringos who want street food but are nervous about it. My favorite here was the classic tacos al pastor; with fresh onion, cilantro, and pineapple setting off the roast pork so well. Great place for a quick snack or casual full meal.
Porfirios. Dinner at a hilariously trendy / fancy restaurant. I think every single table had at least one tableside preparation, whether molcajete or something set on fire or the lady wheeling around a street corn sign. Great looking grilled steaks and shrimp, but we stuck with simpler chiles rellenos (good) and enchiladas mole (too sweet). This seems to be a place wealthy locals go to celebrate. The lighting in the restaurant is tragic though; so dark all the waiters have flashlights handy for reading menus but then also a super bright TV in the bar annoying everyone having dinner. On the balance I think the theater of it overcame the quality of the food. It was fine, but I wouldn’t go back.
Restaurante Meztli. Not in CDMX but rather right next to the pyramids at Teotihuacán, a good spot for thirsty tourists. Margaritas, micheladas, good guacamole and enchiladas. I can’t say it’s anything special but for the middle of a tourist zone it was quite good. The owner was super friendly, too.
Zanaya restaurant at the Four Seasons. Traditional Mexican, not great. Dinner felt more like an obligatory hotel restaurant than a place someone was running with love. Absolutely beautiful outdoor patio in the hotel’s magnificent garden courtyard. Sadly we had to sit inside which is not nearly as nice, despite the cool retro tile. Good cocktail list but the food seemed a bit ordinary, certainly not elevated. Definitely would not make a trip to dine here. (Breakfast here was good, but is a whole different thing.)
So those are all the places we dined. In addition I polled friends for places to go, here’s a list sorted by popularity: Pujol, Azul, Lardo, Tetetlan, La Clandestina, Alba in Roma Norte, Quintonil, Casa Hevia, Brassi, Dulce Patria, Casa Virginia, La Docena, Chureria El Moros, Rokai, Elilsito, La Capital, Lucerna Comedor, Rosetta, Masala y Maiz, Contramar, Maximo Bistro.
For my birthday this year we visited Mexico City in early March. It was great! I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who’s interested in going to a big city that’s vibrant and has a long great cultural history. Also relatively inexpensive for American wallets. We went for four days and that was a good taste of the city. But there’s so much to do and enjoy I could see spending much longer, particularly if you start getting into neighborhoods and enjoying daily life.
There’s some photos here on Twitter. I didn’t do as good a job taking pictures this trip as I usually do.
I have to confess this trip was a bit of an education for me. I grew up in Houston with severe prejudice, so much that "Mexican" sounds like a slur to me, not a description of nationality. I think I’ve grown past the outright bigotry but my brief tourist jaunts across the border and on the coast didn’t really cure me of the idea that Mexico was somehow lesser. Mexico City is a whole different thing, a sophisticated international city bustling with life and excitement. Sure some taxis will rip you off and as a visitor you probably shouldn’t drink the tap water. But it’s a home to 21M people, fully modern, and full of excitement and modern culture and history and great food. Also people seemed very friendly, relaxed, and welcoming. I’m looking forward to going back.
We stayed at the Four Seasons which treated us very well. This hotel’s rooms all front on an enormous central courtyard so it’s quiet and beautiful. Service was excellent. Didn’t love their casual Mexican restaurant for dinner although breakfasts were great.
We booked this trip with a tour guide and driver via Journey Mexico for four full days. It was great; we saw a lot more than we would have on our own and understood more about what we saw. It was also exhausting and I think next time we’ll probably plan half days, stop at lunch. It’s an expensive way to travel but you can get a lot of the same value by hiring tour guides day by day and taking Uber everywhere. Here’s what we did:
Day 1: City Centre. The Templo Mayor museum, the Diego Garcia mural at the National Palace, and a quick visit to the San Juan Market. (We were supposed to see the Cathedral and the Palacio de Bellas Artes too, but skipped them). The museum offered us a remarkable view of historical Mexico City, the way the new city was built right on top of the old Aztec temple center. And the Diego Garcia mural is phenomenal, you can get something of a view of it here. I wish we’d spent more time just walking around the streets and less at the Templo Mayor, but we were moving slow. Fun retro lunch at Cafe Tacuba.
Day 2: Rivera/Kahlo/Trotsky and Coyoacán. The highlight here was visiting the Casa Azul, a privately run museum about Frida Kahlo at her home. The exhibitions were quite good and personal. Huge line to get in, even with advance tickets. We also visited the Rivera and Kahlo studio which was interesting architecturally but the exhibits are not so exciting. OTOH the Trotsky museum was fascinating; I had no idea Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico City and met a dismal end with an ice axe stuck in his head by a Soviet assassin. All these sites are near each other in the southern part of the city in the absolutely charming Coyoacán neighborhood where we had a great lunch and mezcal tasting at the Corazón de Maguey.
Day 3: Chapultepec Castle and the Anthropology Museum. The castle is a walk up a big hill but the views and exhibits are worth the effort. A preserved vestige of Hapsburg and French meddling in Mexican politics, the brief-lived Emperor of Mexico. Unfortunately that left us without enough energy for the anthropology museum, one of the best in the world and the very best for Mesoamerican history. I want to go back to Mexico City just to spend a couple of days slowly working through its treasures. For lunch I had the best tacos al pastor of my life at Taqueria Califa.
Day 4: Teotihuacan. An hour drive NE of the city, Teotihuacan is an enormous archaeological site of a city that lived from 150 BC to 600 AD. At its height it had some 200,000 residents, making it one of the largest cities in the world. It’s totally worth the drive to visit, particularly to see the reconstruction of the 2.5 mile long Avenue of the Dead and the scale of the Pyramids and Temples built alongside it. There’s also a lot of beautifully preserved original carving and painting on-site to see and a small museum of artifacts. If you want some companion reading this recent museum exhibition catalog is very up to date and has both great text and photographs. Lunch was nearby at the surprisingly good Restaurante Meztli.
In the evenings we went out mostly to fancy restaurants. See my companion blog post for more, but our favorite was Carmela y Sal. Our trip was a nice mix of ancient history and recent. If I had to pick three highlights off the list, I’d say the Diego Garcia mural, the Casa Azul, and the anthropology museum. What I wish we’d done more of was just getting into the town, walking around and enjoying neighborhoods and cafes. But that takes more time and local knowledge (not to mention language) than we had this first visit. But I’m sure Mexico City is a place I will happily return to, enjoy and experience more.
One of the conveniences of Berlin city life is the Späti or Spätkauf, the local convenience store. It’s like your corner bodega in New York, a little market that sells essentials and is nearby and open late. Beer, newspapers, fresh baked goods, condoms, a couple of cooked meals, some minimal groceries. There’s one on nearly every block.
It’s particularly useful in Germany because laws and customs strictly limit how late stores can be open. For instance almost no one is open on Sundays, including grocery stores, without special exceptions. But somehow the neighborhood Späti is open every day, often 6am to 11pm or some even longer. The name literally means "late store".
In nice weather the Späti often have a couple of tables outside. And there’s no rule against drinking beer outside so they become a low cost alternative to going to a bar. There’s even Späticrawls where people spend the evening wandering between their favorite Spätis drinking beer on the way.
One other handy thing about the Späti, they often double as a formal package receiving service. My local has a deal with Hermes where a package can be delivered to them and they’ll hold it for a week. Fairly serious system for pickups too, an ID check and a signature and a record made. Amazon is happy to deliver to these so it’s easy to buy things from them in Berlin.