Monday, November 26, 2001

They Got the Mustard Out

Unlike all those daycare pampered precocious children of today, my pre-school education primarily consisted of the TV shows my mom let me watch while my siblings were off at school. For science there was Sea Hunt; for contemporary American history there was 77 Sunset Street; and for political science there was Mission Impossible.

Perhaps the shows I learned the most from, and were the most fun to watch were cooking shows like the Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr and a locally produced show with Chef Hank Meadows. I would cook along with the chefs using my Romper Room plastic cases, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys serving as substitute food items and utensils (Mom let me borrow her oven mitts). I'll never forget the day Mom (Watakushi no kioku ga tashika naraba...) taught me how to prepare my first real food item (not counting toast and Pop Tarts)- instant pudding. Precisely measuring the milk and mixing up the two ingredients (milk and pudding powder) was a thrill like nothing I had ever experienced.

Thus there was a tinge of nostalgia when I discovered the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef a couple of years ago. For those of you who haven't seen the show it essentially takes the art of cooking and turns it into a fiercely competitive sport. The premise of the show is that Chairman Kaga, a fan of fine cuisine, decided to build Kitchen Stadium, a place where the world's finest chefs would come to test their skills against his "Iron Chefs." The four Iron Chefs specialize in a different style of cooking- Sakai is Iron Chef French, Chin is Iron Chef Chinese, Kobe is Iron Chef Italian, and Morimoto is Iron Chef Japanese.

The challenger is allowed to choose which of the Iron Chefs he/she wishes to square off against. Then Chairman Kaga unveils a food ingredient that must be used in all of the chefs' dishes. (My favorite episode so far was the "carrot contest" in which Kenichi-san defeated his challenger by better realizing that the meat around the core of the carrot is what should be used in fixing exquisite meals.) Many of the shows feature some wacky main ingredients like sea urchin, Shittake mushrooms, and squid- not exactly stuff you'd likely have lying around your house.

There is something uniquely Japanese about the style of the show in its mixture of melodramatic sincerity and humor. Chairman Kaga's presentation of the whole show is over the top but in a sly way. As the chefs scramble to complete their different courses running commentary is provided by a play by play guy, a color commentator and Ota- the roving reporter who runs between the two chefs and breathlessly reports on what ingredients are being used and how the dishes are being prepared. The panel of judges also includes Japanese celebrities usually a bubble headed actress or actor or athlete or politician with no apparent knowledge of food other than they like to eat it. The chefs have 60 minutes to prepare their dishes (usually four or five) and then the panel of judges comments on what they are served.

Despite appearances I'm not exactly the most Japanese guy around. Sure I love my sushi but has there been anyone in recent memory more Americanized by this country's popular culture? Shamefully no and thus I think some of my fondness for the show has to do with my ancestry and feeling some guilt that for an hour I can feel a bit Japanese and a culinary expert as well. At its best Iron Chef inspires not only a love for fine food but also for creativity. Not much of a cook my own self, I must admit being a tad more ambitious with my stir fries after becoming a regular viewer of the show and I even learned what foie gras is. (The duck liver is used in many of the chefs' dishes- and apparently for good reason: It is an expensive delicacy and the chefs are allowed to take items not used up in preparation back to their own restaurants. Thus we see heavy use of caviar also.)

The American version of the show debut last week and predictably something got lost in the translation. While the premise of the show is the same none of the subtle elegance remains. By its very nature there is a campiness but the American version has too much of wink to it- as if the viewer has to be reminded that the whole thing is some big joke. The choice of William Shatner as the chairman was inspired and the over the top actor seems to be having a great time (I liked his little spiel about food being fuel for the body but great food is fuel for the soul.) But the American show is loud and soulless- more akin to professional wrestling or the XFL than Julia Childs or Wolfgang Puck. On the first episode we seldom knew what was being cooked or how it was being prepared- the focus instead was on the celebrity of the chef (and lingering shots of the Playmate of the Year who was one of the judges). While the Japanese Iron Chefs never seem to play to the crowd, the American pretty boy Iron Chef did little but that.

Leave it to Hollywood to take a fun little show and turn it into a spectacle emphasizing flash over substance. It was almost enough to make me want to finally live up to my surname and remove the hyphen from the census category I fall in.

Monday, November 19, 2001

I Can't Imagine (a) This World Without You

My one-year-old nephew Caleb, one of the two true Minnesota twins, said his first word ("apple") during the days before my 37th birthday. Thus he like his uncle is on pace to learn about a word per year. And like me I'm not entirely sure the little guy quite understands the meaning of what he uttered having never had the fruit (other than applesauce), but he said it quite clearly and over and over again. Point to a picture of an apple and impressively Caleb clearly identifies it, but read him a Sesame Street book point to a picture of Elmo and ask, "who is that?" and Caleb quite cutely also says, "apple."

Before we delve too steeply into the symbolism of his first word and the obvious Adam and Eve analogy let's just say I think the kid is wiser than his year(s). There are many words I wish I didn't know and there have been many times when I wished and prayed that I didn't have to use the same word to describe the situation I found myself in. Taking my cue from Caleb next time someone asks me how I'm doing I might just mumble, "apple." That should say it all.

You have to envy somebody who can look at just about everything in the world as brand new and shiny and still doesn't have the arrogance to believe that everything all kinda ends up the same no matter what you do so you might as well do the same things over and over. Call it the old comfort routine. But what you find out is that inevitably life intrudes and throws you for a loop by taking away something you've depended on, relied on leaving you gazing through the hole where the bottom fell out.

My day these days (daze e daisy give me your answer do...) is more predictable than it is spellbinding. I have developed a morning ritual that has only changed slightly over the years. It always begins with waking up, a process that one certainly can't take for granted nor even hope for. Also in the morning mixture is enjoying my morning homemade cappuccinos while reading both local daily newspapers. Of course one of the first things I've turned to the past couple of years is the comics page where among the first comics I always read was the Fusco Brothers. Last week those wise folks at the Pioneer Press decided to replace the Fuscos with a generic locally written strip called Amber Waves..

Though I appreciated the fact that the Pioneer Press chose not to follow Major League Baseball's lead and contract its comics page I still was a tad disappointed that they didn't expand it and merely switched one of the better strips with what appears to be another cute kid and animal comic. Which reminds me of another part of the soon to departing routine- occasionally glimpsing up to see the peering gaze of Mr. Max looking around the corner wondering if it is in his best interests to join me. Usually Max decides to postpone really checking up on me and instead goes and finds a splash of sunlight coming through the window to lie in. Eventually he ends up on the couch with me, usually first plopping on the spread out newspaper page I'm trying to read. The twins would chuckle, sneeze and wheeze at the lil guy's antics.

Caleb's brother Micah was the first of the two to take a step bringing up the age old debate whether or not it's better to move forward without saying a word or whether one doesn't dare take a step in any direction without first expressing oneself. I think Buffy/Joan said it best when she sang, "Life's a song/You don't get to rehearse/And every single verse/Can make it that much worse..." Baby Steps baby steps... When one word can make all the difference in the world especially if it is the only word that you know. Sometimes as that other famous slayer bard said "the silence can be like thunder."

And it was at the Bob Dylan concert during the first encore when the band strummed the chords of "Love Sick" when my friend, call her the Fusco sister, turned to me and said, "You like this song don't you?" And I muttered something incoherent back to her (as I'm wont to do) as I nodded my head. If only I had been able to say what was in my heart, what was in my mind: "apple."

Monday, November 12, 2001

Ask Me To Sing About the Second President

I spent Tuesday in the basement of St. Therese's Catholic Church in Highland Park serving as a head election judge. Besides coming uncomfortably close to running out of ballots (the county gave us 800- we ended up with exactly 800 people voting) things went pretty smoothly. Despite all the repetitive jokes about hanging chads and whether or not we allow dogs to vote (not if they're them foreign dogs like a German shepherd) I enjoyed working with a group of people many of them believe it or not, a little older than myself. I was even tolerant of the woman who kept saying to departing voters, "See ya later alligator..." in hopes of grown ups playing along and completing the greeting with the proper response. She wasn't having a whole lot of takers. As a group we did form a bond, a team camaraderie that comes with doing one's civic duty and working a fifteen-hour day protecting the legitimacy of our election system.

One of my fellow judges was an elderly gent named John who told me the best thing he ever did was to get married. He said that when he turned 36 he figured it was time, so he went out church hopping in search of a good woman. Forty years later John had nothing but nice things to say about the missus. The other thing John sure couldn't say enough about was the exploits of our nation's second president, John Adams. Seems election judge John had just finished reading the new Adams' biography written by David McCullough. Every five minutes or so John would walk over to me and tell something else about Mr. Adams. The only things I could offer to judge John in return were a couple of conversational nuggets: that I had recently learned the world now has turkey Spam; and that more and more I'm becoming convinced life is all a song and dance.

Like most conversations I'm responsible for starting, the Spam one drew first a blank stare followed by a look of what can only be described as sympathetic concern. The other observation elicited more curiosity especially after I told John that I was sacrificing watching my favorite TV show to be working in the precinct. (Of course true to accusations, I wasn't disclosing everything I knew- before I left for work that morning I was quite paranoid in double and triple checking my VCR to make sure that it was all set to tape the special episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Buffy the musical (or "Once More with Feeling") got a fair amount of publicity, enough so that even my nieces who don't watch the show and roll their eyes whenever I mention it, asked me if I was looking forward to the episode. Actually I was a little worried that having the cast members break into song would be too gimmicky, an ambitious experiment gone wrong (does anyone remember Cop Rock?). But I should know by now that the show's creator/producer/writer Joss Whedon is too skilled an artist to not pull off the unexpected.

Unlike peers like the West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, Whedon doesn't need to rely on cliche to get to the heart of his show's emotional fabric. The West Wing may have gotten ALL the Emmys but has anyone noticed how through this entire impeachment/the president lied to his staff and the country story line how Sorkin more and more has relied on swelling background music to convey the emotion of payoff scenes?

Whedon on the other hand has created a world so rich, so complex that even when the characters spoof old musicals they do so with wit and charm and it even makes sense in the series' overall plot. (I was seriously pissed off however when the show ran eight minutes longer than normal and thus my tape shut off just as all the revelations were occurring.)

I told none of this to election judge John. Didn't think he'd be all that interested. But he persistently told me about the love/hate relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two men played such an integral part in establishing our country yet they shared entirely different points of view. They died on the same day, exactly fifty years to the day that our country was born.

The relationship reminded me of another rivalry/partnership that produced great things- Lennon and McCartney. I would have told election judge John that but again I figured the connection might not click. I almost recommended he listen to Paul's new CD, Driving Rain- a CD I couldn't stop listening to over the weekend. Driving Rain is a departure from much of Paul's work. Many of the songs deal with his undying love for Linda, and finding solace through song and through the inspiration of the new love of his life Heather Mills. Unlike Lennon, Paul has never particularly been a autobiographical writer. While many of Lennon's best songs seem torn directly out of his diary, Paul has never been one to reveal much in his writing. His best songs like "Hey Jude" and "Tough on a Tightrope" remarkably convey deep emotions without revealing that much about the writer.

More and more I've found myself feeling defensive for remaining a staunch Paul fan but his music holds a special place in my life. I can play most of his songs on the piano. And I remember the day in high school when my life became a musical as I serenaded Sue Weiss, who I didn't ask to the prom, with "C Moon" over a game of shoddy played pool even though I was much too shy to speak to her.

Paul's melodic bass playing on the new CD is stellar and expressive and the singing of a revealing set of lyrics shows a skilled artist meshing his life with song. On Driving Rain it is truly refreshing to hear Paul writing music that truly matters; if not for anyone else, certainly for himself.

Monday, November 5, 2001

Waltzing the Floor with a Podiatrist

The electric Christmas card photographer got in line with many others and as we were listening to Emmylou sing Lucinda's "Sweet Old World" she said to me, "You sure do like sad songs." If I had a nickel for every time I heard that I'd be at least three dollars and fifty-five cents less in debt by now. That particular song (which happens to be my current all time favorite song) never has struck me as being all that sad. Sure it's a song chastising one who has killed himself, but it isn't so much about losing one with suicidal tendencies as it is all the beautiful things in this world that are worth cherishing, loving and living for.

Now if you want to hear some really depressing music listen to the Cranberries' new CD, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. It's not that the new disc is downbeat, indeed it is the group's most chirpy to date; rather it's the music is downright awful and listening to it not only insults your intelligence it sucks brain cells right out of your noggin.

Normally (if that word can ever truly apply to me) I'm as big a fan of insipid music as anyone I know. Paul McCartney remains one of my favorite songwriters precisely because his music can be so inane and cloying. Paul has worked hard to earn his reputation as the empty headed producer of the world's silliest love songs and I for one applaud him for that.

But the new Cranberries' disc is so annoying that it goes beyond my tolerance for such contrived happiness. It reminds me of the fairly lousy Buffy episode in which John Ritter plays a robot/boyfriend of Buffy's mom and seduces Mrs. Summers by putting a drug akin to Ecstasy in her chocolate chip cookies. Just when you think the episode will take the less than normal standard network "ignorance is bliss" stance, pouty Buffy ruins things by showing she is right and that the Ritter character is a bit more evil than your normal "I don't want my mother dating anyone who is not my father" boyfriend. Similarly Wake Up and Smell the Coffee tries to sound convincing in its vapid "we've done the depressing stuff now it's time to sing happy songs" approach.

Lead singer Dolores O'Riordan Burton writes in the liner notes that since having her second child she thought the group owed the world music that's "extremely up and grateful." "I guess family and friends are the essential key to happiness," Dolores writes. "It is from such simplicities that we create love- for me love is all."

Well, fine. But how about writing music that conveys that love and joy and not one that seems contrived and listless? Happiness isn't that uninspiring is it? There isn't a single moment of revelation, a single bit of insight in the 13 songs- a pretty mean trick to pull off. The best song of the lot, "Analyze" sounds so much like the group's biggest hit, "Dreams" that a copyright violation citation seems in order. (In perhaps a bit of unintentional irony the chorus of the song ends with the sing along tag- "lie, lie, lie, lie lie..." how bloody appropriate.) So many of the songs sound so eerily derivative of the group's earlier work that one wants to take the songwriter(s) aside and tell them that if they're going to steal music, at least steal something classic and with roots.

Maybe it was the sour mood I was in when I first listened to the disc. The CD provided background soundtrack noise to the gossip/rumor turned news that MY heart's team is in immediate danger of disbanding. It sure will be a sad day when Macalester no longer has a football team. The news hit me like a needle inserted into a familiar feline's ample stomach. After a difficult day when Mr. Max came home with a shaved belly and I resorted (some would say insensitively) to calling him "Mr. Poodle" in reference to his stylish fur and skin look, I desperately needed some music to pick me up. Believe me, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee wasn't the right tonic.

To get rid of the icky goo stuck inside my mind I put on Loudon Wainwright III's new CD Last Man on Earth. That CD is truly a powerful and admirable effort, a sterling cycle of songs about dealing with the grief after one's mother dies. After listening to the disc my nerves were a bit less agitated. All the songs are worth listening to but the final song "Homeless" effectively closes out the journey in such a powerful manner that it is a wonderful reminder of the healing powers of the sharing of music. "People have called to find out if I'm fine/I assure them I am/But I'm not/It's a line/They say in the end/Your good friends pull you through/But everyone knows/My best friend was you..."

I guess Ms. Electricity was right all along: maybe I do have an affinity for sad songs after all.