Friday, October 7, 2011

Criterion Collection - F for Fake

The idea entered my mind like a transmission from orbit: I-should-watch-the-entire-Criterion-Collection. Maybe it was my fatigue, or the glass of red wine, but, it seemed achievable. And wanting something calm but curious, for my first attempt, I picked the movie 'F for Fake' - Orson Welles's and Francis Richenbach's epic of fraud, sleight of hand, and professional tomfoolery.

The movie begins with Welles himself performing several simple tricks for a young boy with a fabulously wealthy and beautiful mother, clad in expensive furs, looking on. Welles's gravelly narration brings you in and hypnotizes you, and as he explains his intentions - to catalog fakery of all kinds, the movie's credits roll over a montage of men being distracted by a gorgeous woman, shown only from the waist down, walking along in a skimpy dress. "Her name - is Oja."

The point of all this is perhaps to demonstrate the power of distraction, which the film proceeds to make a great deal of use of. It continues in a difficult to follow stream of consciousness style, jumping from one narrator to the next, Welles annotating in a manner one could only describe as vague. Soon it emerges that the movie is all about the island of Ibiza, and two men who live on it, two notorious cons, Elmyr LNU, and Clifford Irving, who have "made each other famous" through their fakery. Welles tries to tell us this is a movie within a movie, a fake within a fake, lies within lies, but so much is happening at once it is hard to tell what he means. A visual sleight of hand, perhaps.

Elmyr, it turns out, is an art forger of such exceptional skill that the artists themselves look upon his forgeries and declare that they themselves painted them. And Clifford is writing a book about him. But who is the master faker? asks Welles, and somehow, all this is tied back to a man of even deeper, more persistent mystery: Howard Hughes. As a Millennial I found this baffling. I knew who Howard Hughes was, but the rest, was I supposed to know them? This was covered in Life magazine, but I wasn't alive to read it.

Without warning, the story shifts to Hughes and Las Vegas and the power of rumor, with Welles as much character as narrator, upstaging himself. And what does this have to do with anything? It seems Irving penetrated the great hermit's shell and wrote a new story... but is this story true? Or is it simply another articulate fake, like the Elmyr of journalism? It is all an attack on the authority of experts, whom the principal characters of the movie - Elmyr, Irving, and Welles - categorically reject. They do not believe in expertise, they say.

The focus shifts again - this time to Welles himself, who paints his career from the age of sixteen onward as a path of fakery leading up, of course, to his most famous con, The War of the Worlds. Through an account of Citizen Kane, we come back to the 'Hughes Affair', and all too quickly we hear a confession from Irving, accused of creating a hoax - but is this merely another hoax, laid atop it all? No matter what, Irving, and whatever accomplices he has, benefit.

In the final moments of the movie, Oja makes her triumphant return, and we learn her story, though little sense it makes in the sense of the greater story. My patience grew short, waiting to see how this would all connect (perhaps because, as a woman myself, I found less appeal in watching Oja than others might have). Welles steals the show again, putting more life into the story than the story puts into itself.

Inevitably, I felt myself straying to Wikipedia, wondering what the hell all these people were talking about. But just as quickly, I found myself echoing the sentiments of Richenbach, who earlier in the film recounts purchasing art, after learning of Elmyr, and opting not task questions of the art dealer, as he no longer wishes to know whether he is getting the real thing or not. I found that neither did I. Whether this movie was a complete fabrication or not, it was an interesting meditation on what 'real' really is, what art really is, and a curious story of the life of an elderly art forger. Why not simply take this movie for what it is? Why taint that with the ideas of experts? "As long as there are fakers, there have to be experts," the movie says. But even more so, we must deny the expert that dwells within every soul, the devil on your shoulder asking, "It's pretty... but is it art?"

Monday, May 2, 2011


On September 11th, 2001, I was in eighth grade. When we were first told that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, it was nearly the end of the period. We watched the first images on TV, and then I went to gym class. I hugged my best friend and told her the news, because she hadn't heard yet. Later, my dad picked me up from school and took me home. As we went to pick up my brother, smart mouthed little me speculated aloud that perhaps it was a disgruntled American that had done it, because I thought there were people in our country who were really angry enough to do it, perhaps remembering McVeigh, Waco, and the Republic of Texas hostage-taking.
Later, I heard a bomb threat had been called in to my school. There was no bomb, of course. And I remembered that a close friend of mine in elementary school had moved to New York, where one of her parents worked for the Associated Press. I called her but couldn't get through. I don't really remember what else I did that day. I don't even really remember being sad. More shocked. Later, perhaps, as the saga went on, I would start to feel sad. My next door neighbor, a hazmat firefighter, soon packed his bags and went to NYC to help rescue people.

A couple years later, I myself would go to NYC, and stay right across the street from Ground Zero, then still a gaping hole in the ground. The buildings around it were still damaged and under what passed for repair.

As a teenager growing up after 9/11, I became very jaded. We went into Afghanistan and didn't find the people who killed our countrymen. The country went into a war that, while aimed at a very terrible despot, had nothing to do with 9/11, but rather appeared to be the continuation of a saga that I did not remember. I felt trapped by a government that did not represent me, and responded angrily in words. My sense that I lived under the sway of tyrants corporate and political engendered in me a strong desire for social justice and change. I got the idea in my head that if I could just put words the right way, people would have to listen. Even after years of anger and disappointment, I never stopped thinking that someday, I would get my chance to make a difference.

Yesterday, May 1, 2011, when I heard the news via the rumor mill, I sat on my porch, smoked a cheap cigar and drank my best tequila and Benedictine while I listened to our President tell us that Usama bin Ladin had been killed by an American specops team, and thanked our military and intelligence personnel. It seemed like an impossible dream. I'd fantasized about the day we'd catch bin Ladin. I'd even dreamed about how I might be able to contribute, somehow. What a coup that'd be, I thought. How sweet the day. And how sweet it was.

9/11 and Usama bin Ladin helped make me, and much of the rest of America, who I am, for better or for worse. Since 2001, I have been intrigued by the ideology of terrorism, and concerned that in battling such a shadowy foe, we might hand them the victory by becoming exactly what they wanted us to be. And perhaps in some ways we have. We have struggled constantly with our desire for vengeance and our need to protect our own civil rights. Now that we have sated our appetite for revenge, let us turn our strength to repairing the damage in our own souls.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Great Burger Debate, part 1

Yes, Erin, I will stop blogging about food eventually. I swear. And then I'll blog about linguistics. Then you'll be sorry.

Hamburgers and I have a long, conflicted relationship. From age 6 to age 21, I hated hamburgers. My brother has always loved hamburgers, and I have always unilaterally rejected them (except Annie's hamburgers, but then only maybe once a year). It began as a personal preference. I don't like gristle and hamburgers can sometimes have a lot of it. I hate it when things are chewy and sometimes hamburgers are chewy. Also, I just like(d) hot dogs better. What's wrong with hot dogs? I could easily get by in fast food joints by eating arguably more dubious food items, such as the Filet-o-Fish.

Setting aside that my contamination fear irrationally excludes hot dogs, when I went to college and was forced to take a biology class, my relationship with hamburgers took a turn for the worst. It wasn't that I was surrounded by vegans and began to enjoy vegetarian food; it was that I had to sit right next to the incubator in biology lab. And while we were in biology class, we had to do a months-long experiment with E. coli.

In case you're not familiar with E. coli, it's a thing that lives in your colon and will give you diarrhea if it somehow makes its way out of your colon into other parts of your body. Let's go back and highlight something. E. coli is a thing that lives in your colon. In case you've forgotten, your colon is where poop lives. In case you can't see where I'm going with this, E. coli smells like poop.

We did eventually do an experiment where we tested storebought hamburger patties for poop E. coli. I don't remember what the results were exactly, but the point of this story is that I was never able to eat hamburgers again. Every time I saw a hamburger, all I could think about was the incubator and how terrible that stupid thing smelled.

There's a happy end to this story. A couple of summers ago, I did an internship in DC. In DC, they have a restaurant called Five Guys. I would never have gone to Five Guys until I learned that our President eats there, and as it happened there was a good chance (or so I believed) that if I went to the Five Guys near my workplace on Pennsylvania Ave, I might eat at the same restaurant as the President. So one day on my lunch break, a fellow intern and I went out to go find the Five Guys, which ended with us never finding it and me being accused by Special Police of being a plant to test security... but that's another story.

I eventually made it to Five Guys, where I enjoyed a cheeseburger. Yes, after 15 years of reluctance and/or disgust, I ate a hamburger, and I enjoyed it. Five Guys taught me to love again. I ate Five Guys frequently the rest of that summer, then went back to Portland into famine, as the nearest Five Guys was in Hillsboro. But my eyes had been opened. Soon, I was eating at Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest's own venerable burger chain. And I began to consider the burger a legitimate form of food, capable of great heights of culinary awesomeness.

Now, in Arizona, I discover that I have access to what appears to be every good burger chain in the entire United States (except Burgerville). Five Guys. In-N-Out, the place Californians won't shut up about. Culver's, the bastion of the Midwest. Whataburger, the one true Texan love. Fatburger, endlessly promoted by Jon Huertas on Twitter. There are probably more, but I have to stop somewhere.

And now that I love burgers - yes, I love them - I have decided that I must make the best of the Phoenix wasteland. I must take advantage of the chain saturation.

I must settle, once and for all, which chain has the best burger.

Some of my Facebook friends have already weighed in, but I invite you to fight it out in the comments some more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cooking With Booze, Vol. 3: Tequila


Across the globe, there is one drink that is spoken of perpetually in loud tones one day, and hushed tones the next. One drink that is consumed only in the most classic of ways. No drink inspires more profound glee and profound regret than this, the regal, golden scourge of the Southwest, TEQUILA.
As a Texan, my relationship with Tequila is a good one. A lot of people talk crap about my drink, but other than that it always seems to be the tequila shot that I wish I hadn't agreed to, I don't understand why. Probably, most people drink terrible tequila. That, or they haven't been raised on margaritas from birth, like many, if not most, God-fearing Texans. In any case, tequila is a difficult drink for its storied past, its Spring Break woes, and its complicated taste. I honestly believe that the closest drink to tequila is gin. Both are extraordinarily complex liquors that people have strong feelings about.
My feelings about tequila are so strong that I have a hard time imagining what to do with it besides drink it. I've already done quite a bit of research on tequila recipes, but everything seems to end up as just another margarita recipe! And I'm still looking. But in the meantime, I want to convey to you an extremely important fundamental of Tex-Mex that you can have while you are drinking your tequila...


Ofiuco's Family Recipe

4 ripe avocados (just a little give to the touch. Not too much. Not, as a former housemate of mine once assumed, the consistency of a boob. Firmer.)
2 small tomatoes (or 1 medium)
1 medium onion (You may pick which color - yellow's sweeter, red's fieryier, white's white)
Salsa of your choice (In emergencies: Tabasco)
Lemon or lime juice

1. Cut each avocado in half, around the seed. Remove the seeds, peel the avocados, and set all of them in a large bowl.
2. Dice onions and tomatoes. This is going directly into your mouth on a chip, so size should be appropriate for chips.
3. Mash avocados. It doesn't matter how, but get it good and mashed, like you would mash potatoes. Lumps are fine, though, really.
4. Add diced tomatoes and onions and as many spoonfuls of salsa as are necessary to bring the heat quotient where you want it to be.
5. Unless you used Tabasco, add a good squirt of lemon or lime juice.
6. Stir it all up and add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Eat!

Guacamole en estilo pacifico

I don't know if this is actually 'Pacific style' guac, but in my short time in Zihuatanejo, almost all the guacamole we got was like this. There are as many variants of guac as there are chili.

4 avocados
1 medium onion
1 lime
Salt to taste

1. Prepare the avocados as we've already discussed.
2. Dice the onion. You can use less onion than this (I probably would, since as far as I'm concerned this may be too much onion) and I usually cut it a little finer than my family would.
3. Mash the avocados.
4. Mix in the onion.
5. Cut the lime in half and squeeze the juice out of one half. Mix it and taste it - if it's not enough, add more. I usually vote for more.
6. Salt to your taste.
7. Eat!!

Bon appetit!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sounds of the outside

I don't know what it is about today - the laughter of my neighbors' children, the blue sky, the light breeze - but today everything feels familiar. Setting aside the odious smells emanating from the Safeway next to my apartment complex, today is a really nice day. I found myself desperately wanting to be outside, so I am sitting on my porch in my Goodwill Pepsi lounge chair. This is the first time the weather's been nice enough to do that and I've remembered.
Today feels like Colorado and Houston and Mexico. On days like this, a whole flood of memories comes back to me, a collection of moments of stopping and looking around and absorbing the totality of the environment. A crisp day in a Rocky Mountain forest in summer. A jaunt in a Texas park with my brother, pretending to be looking for Pokemon around the creek. A hot, bright day at the beach in Zihuatanejo, with families enjoying the sunlight as far as the eye can see. I guess it is this feeling of simple beauty and connectedness with everyone else who is enjoying it. A ball game. A barbecue. Being down by the pool. Being surrounded by good things, being happy, being in the moment, experiencing, being one with the universe.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cooking with Booze, Vol. 2: Bourbon Reprint #2

Readers, food isn't just a mechanism by which your body creates ATP to be used by your muscles. I'm not a Bio major, so I'm not even sure if I got that right. But trust me when I say that food is an adventure, and that's a scientific fact. Making food can be exciting, like trying to find a restaurant on foot at night on 82nd Street and getting lost. Except you're in your own kitchen, where only your housemates or dormies can mistake you for a prostitute.
One way of making food exciting is applying sauces. This is because making sauces sounds easy but takes some actual effort and practice. I have failed often enough to assure you that messing up a sauce is easy.
Fortunately, you can learn from my errors. Even if you still mess this one up, you can console yourself with the following Mint Julep recipe:

Mint leaves (as many as you like - how about five? Five is a good number)

1. Take your glass and your mint leaves and put them together. Put a little bit of sugar and pour it in with the mint leaves.
2. This is the tricky part. Muddle. Basically, the goal is to bruise/shred the mint leaves by means of abrasive action with the sugar. If you don't have a muddler, get creative... but not too creative, this isn't Renn Fayre.
3. Once you've muddled your mint leaves (the more the better, I say!) pour in some of that sweet bourbon.
4. Add sugar to taste. I won't judge you.
5. Imbibe. You just made for a pittance what costs 7 bucks at the Delta.

Now, a tasty sauce: bourbon creme anglaise.

1 cup whipping cream or heavy cream (or milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons bourbon

You will also need a whisk. Trust me, it's the best way to go.

Now, creme anglaise can be intimidating - there are several places where you can go wrong, and there's one skill required that not everyone has ever even heard of - keeping the yolk. To extract the yolk only from an egg, crack it carefully, but don't open it yet. Instead, hold the egg upright (pref. over a sink or something, because white is going to spill when you open it) and open it carefully. Really carefully. Now, you should have one half with some white in it and one half with most of the egg in it. Carefully trade the yolk back and forth between shell halves until you've gotten rid of most of the white. Voila!

1. Heat your cream in a saucepan over medium-low heat, aka setting 2 or 3. Be very, very careful not to go overboard with hotness, because it will split the cream and you will feel very sad. Add vanilla and simmer (setting 1). Always stir!!
2. Once you've got your yolks, whisk them with the sugar until the mixture is a sort of pastel yellow color, not unlike a cooked yolk.
3. Slowly pour about half your warm cream into your yolks and sugar and mix. Then pour all of that back into the saucepan.
4. Simmer this for a while. Don't let it boil, and don't stop stirring it. Ever. You should start noticing it thicken.
5. Add your bourbon. If you want to add even more bourbon, advance at your own peril. While White Russians don't curdle, there is a threshold at which you will cease to have bourbon creme anglaise and begin to have ugly bourbon and creme curds. And that's gross.
5a. (A tip for advanced users: When I get scared I have too much booze for the cream, I save some of the sugar from previous steps, put it in a cup with bourbon, and microwave it to zap some of the alcohol out, then add it back in.)
6. Serve on top of something delicious, like cake! Or ice cream! Or, now that you know how to make creme anglaise, add something to it besides/in addition to bourbon!

Allez cuisine!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cooking with Booze, Vol. 1: Bourbon Reprint #1

When I was in school (not so long ago) I wrote two columns for the school newspaper in order to open the minds of my colleagues to the wider possibilities of teh booz. As a bon vivant, serious chef, and equally serious drinker, I am not satisfied with just one side of one thing. Like Alton Brown, I need everything in my life to be useful or beautiful in more ways than one. So it is with his cooking implements, and so it is with my drink. What is the point of buying something you will only ever experience in one way?
As I tried to point out in my short-run column, cooking with alcohol can immediately elevate the sophistication of a dish, especially if you are a poor college student. Steak with port sauce sounds a lot cooler than just steak. And moreover, if you try hard, you can do it cheaply. For example, I currently have like a gallon of cheap port sitting on my countertop.
My recent attempts to get friendlier with my copy of that longtime bible of cuisine, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", have reawakened a desire in me to cook with booze. Mainly because cooking with booze is well-nigh one of the foundations of French cooking. That, and it makes for some good blog posts. Without further ado, I'd like to kick it off by offering you a reprint of my first column. Keep in mind that this was tailored for college students; if you have nice things, don't let my sassy instructions keep you from using them.

Readers, while I cannot in print endorse or support underage drinking, I think we can all say that alcohol is one of nature's great gifts to humanity. Besides getting you drunk, booze also has the magical property of making food taste DELICIOUS, which is something everyone can enjoy even if they don't drink. You can save yourself a lot of money and impress the hell out of whoever is eating at your place by mastering the art of cooking with booze. Let me take you there.
This month's booze is bourbon. If you live under a rock and don't know what bourbon is, it's a type of whiskey produced and favored by the American South. Bourbon tastes excellent with muddled mint leaves, AKA the 'Mint Julep'.
Bourbon also tastes great in sauces and marinades. As I found out thanks to Tarah at Genesis of a Cook, it also tastes great in DESSERT. Here is Tarah's recipe for Vanilla Bourbon Bread with Walnut Coffee Crumble, translated by me into College Student:

For Crumble Topping

1/2 cup walnuts
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. cold butter
1 tsp. instant coffee
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

For the Bread

2 cups flour
3/4 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs
2 tbsp. bourbon
2 tbsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. salt

You will also need a 9x5 baking pan.

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and grease that pan.
2. Put all the ingredients for the crumble in one bowl and then mix it. Don't worry about it; it doesn't need to be hardcore mixed.
3. Put all of the dry ingredients for the bread in a different, much bigger bowl. Mix them together until it's all nice and evenly mixed. Be careful, because if you're an out of control mixing freak you're going to get flour everywhere.
4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones. If you want to, you can add more than just 2 tsp of bourbon - though not TOO much. I personally think that another tsp would be awesome, but YMMV. Stir until ingredients are combined. If you don't have a mixer, don't sweat it - small lumps will come out fine.
5. Pour the batter into your greased pan, and top with the crumble. Bake for 40-50m, or until it's done (if you stick a toothpick in it, it comes up clean).

Allez cuisine!