Sunday, September 30, 2007

la donna e mobile: campari

I’ve always felt taunted and challenged by “acquired tastes”— the level of maturity required to appreciate the item, the implied elitism of the expression—I would learn to love artichokes, fish sauce and Catherine MacKinnon, just for spite. Campari remains a target to overcome. My aversion to Campari is a point of cultural shame, particularly in light of my enthusiasm for appertivo, or happy hour. I resolved: in October, as I approach 25th birthday, I would make a concerted effort to appreciate the liquor, and then bask in my enlightened standing.

It’s bitter, barky flavor has put my off for years, but I keep coming back for the alluring, vibrant red. Campari’s signature flame, I am told, comes from the natural pigment carmines, which are the dried remains of the cactus-dwelling insect, cochineals. The recipe for Campari is CocaCola-level secret (only one man in at Campari’s factory in Novi Ligure knows the details), but officials do confirm that wormwood and 59 other aromatics and herbs comprise the aperitif.

Campari is almost a fable, a continental version of Camelot—culturally it symbolizes the achievement of success, of a self-made man, but also tradition, of easing into mealtime after the workday. Gaspare Campari was born in Castelnuovo, Italy in 1828, and became “apprentice maitre licoriste” (barman extraordinaire) in Turin at the green age of 14. After futzing with the recipe for his bitter concoction over 20-some years, he officially founded the Gruppo Campari in Milan in 1860. Campari would only sell his product to outlets that displayed “Campari Bitters” posters, quickly establishing a brand identity outside Milan. The business plan was both sturdy and stellar: today, Campari grosses 33 million bottles in annual sales, about the same world-wide as Jack Daniels.

The iconography of Campari is as unique and recognizable as its color. Davide Campari, Gaspare’s son, commissioned ideas for the Campari posters from European artists with the following instructions: “Artists must clearly display the brand name; use uncomplicated color; and the brand should be incorporated naturally in the picture.” French poster art luminary Leonetto Cappiello responded with one of the most noteworthy works of the period: a clown dancing in an orange peel holding a bottle of Campari. Also patrons of progressive design, the Camparis contacted Futurist art superhero Fortunato Depero to create the bottle for CampariSoda, the premixed cocktail. The beaker-like final product combines forceful and urbane features, and appears just as modern as when Campari released it in 1932.

As glamorous and distinctive as its image came to be, the house of Campari contracted trenchfoot in the culture wars of the 1980s. In 1983, the Reverend Jerry Falwell brought a case against Hustler magazine for producing an ad which featured Falwell and his mother in a “drunken incestuous encounter in an outhouse.” The ad parodied a contemporary Campari advertising campaign in which celebrities described “their first time” drinking Campari, with obvious sexual innuendo. The Court ruled 8-0 in favor of Hustler, finding that public figures “must tolerate occasional false statements, lest there be an intolerable chilling effect on speech that does have constitutional value.”

Over the next week, I will sample Campari in various incarnations, I will sweet-talk and swindle my taste buds into submission, I will take down this feeble-minded aversion of mine!

I shall try each of the following drinks, report back on their flavors and my level of satisfaction with the cocktail, hopefully garnering some level of affection for the drink as the week goes on:

• Campari neat
• Campari and soda
• Negronis
• Campari and orange juice
• Americano

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mozzadrella on Mozzarella

My grandparents regularly outfoxed the U.S.D.A. when re-entering the States: they smuggled their native cheese from Umbrian mountain country. Upon arrival, they would move the precious cheese, with its fetid bouquet, to their cool basement for ripening. To get Christmas lights or more Sprite, I would descend into the cheese crypt, the rinds hanging like fragrant contortionists.

My appreciation for cheese, then, is spurred by a sense of adventure and informed by the death drive. Today an ode to the cheese I love, and my namesake: mozzarella.

Mozzarella is the diminutive form of “mozza” or the general term for “cheese,” but it derives from the verb “mozzare” which loosely translates to “to cut off” or “to dock.” In Italy mozzarella is made only from buffalo milk—if made from cow’s milk the cheese is “fior di latte” or “flower of the milk.” While it is often found as a large lump floating in salt water, one can also purchase bocconcini (small mouthfuls) or ciliegini (little cherries).

A short historical sketch: while some attribute the provenance of water buffaloes in Italy to the Visigoths, others believe Marc Anthony brought the animal from Egypt and sent it, with a recipe for bufala mozzarella, to Caesar as a gift. Much much later, when Hitler’s armies retreated, they destroyed Italy’s entire water buffalo population. Italy was forced to grovel and order more from India.

To see first hand how the cheese is made, I consulted the Italian specialty store Pasdeli, which agreed to let me join the mozzarella creation ritual. On the weekends, John, the owner, makes 5lbs of fresh mozzarella a day. He starts with bricks of whole cow’s milk curd, a large silver bowl, two colanders, and a custom-design water heating system.

When I come in, he has already begun the “pasta filata” process: the bricks are soaking in a large silver bowl. The initial bath of warm, unsalted water breaks up the logs of curd and loosens the milk proteins. With a custom-designed water heating system, he rinses the bricks in warm, then hot water over a colander, returning the cracked curd bits to the larger bowl.

After heating it twice, John’s hands begin to mold the curd into something more solid and smooth, ironing out the curd’s pocketed surface. He then begins to twist the cheese, bringing air into it, and breaking chunks from the mothership that remains in the bowl. With the portion he broke off, he tucks the chunk into a sphere, or “makes a face” with it, and dips it back into the water to smooth it and form a skin on the surface.

The newly-formed globes rest in cold water to stop the cooking process, then soak in salt water for flavor—salt is added last and not first because it renders the curd too sticky to work with. After their salt bath, John wraps the balls in plastic, and seals snuggly to get the air out. Air will make fresh mozzarella turn slightly yellow, says John, and it looks better when it’s wrapped in plastic. If you buy mozzarella that is a little yellowed at the edges, it may mean that it’s made fresh, not necessarily that it’s past its prime.

He is right that mozzarella is attractive—the final result is a tray of glossy, malleable pearls.

As satisfying as it is, however, cow’s milk mozzarella does not feature the soft, spongy, rustic disposition of the water buffalo. The next objective: how to procure the best bufala “mozzarel” in New York.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The WOP's Guide to Kosher

“I have a friend who is half Italian, half Jewish. When he can’t get something wholesale, he steals it.” -clerk, Kosher liquor store, Borough Park

What is “Kosher,” and how can the average Dago be sensitive to the needs of our Semitic friends? Most people know about the restrictions of milk/meat and shellfish, but why do Orthodox observers keep turning down my dinner invitations? I went to Borough Park, Brooklyn to find out about Kosher and Italian cuisine’s place in it.

First off, Kosher (or Kashrut) food requirements derive for the stringent and severe book of Leviticus, and apply to almost all foods, both the by-product and the process of making it. The regulations—there are too many to name here—are upheld by certification, or by routine rabbinical inspection by a local Rabbi:

It’s immediately apparent that Italian food is popular in Borough Park—Amnon’s Kosher Pizza is bumping with modestly dressed women pushing strollers and visibly warm young men with peyos. I spoke to a couple of people behind the counter, and gathered the following about Italian cuisine through the lens of Kosher:
• Cheese: they use Haolam cheese, and it comes from sheep and cows only. I followed up, and the cheese also has to be made with rennet from a Kosherly-slaughtered cow, or grown bacterially (without coming into contact with animal).
• Vegetables: these are routinely inspected by a Rabbi. Why? Because vegetables may contain insects. Insects are not (not not not) Kosher.
• Bread: when it’s time for unleavened bread (i.e. Passover) the Italian restaurants have come up with a solution—no yeast whole wheat pizza and calzones! They look as if they have passed through the tunnels of the human system already, but I was assured that they are quite popular year-round.

I went into a Kosher liquor store on 13th Avenue, and talked to the clerk about Kosher wine. If invited to a Kosher household, what should I look for on a wine bottle or know about the wine before purchase?
• Certification: this is paramount in all Kosher foods, especially for those who observe Kosher and are eating outside the home. The most familiar and popular is OU, or Orthodox Union Kosher, which has 600 rabbinic field representatives world wide, and its “New York headquarters staff consists of over 50 Rabbinic Coordinators who serve as account executives for OU certified companies, supplemented by a roster of ingredient specialists, flavor analysts and other support staff.” OU is symbolized by the following sign:

• Process: I was told it had to be pasteurized, or “cooked” so to speak, but Baron Herzog wines indicate that wine only needs to be handled by Kosher methods, and use yeasts that are also Kosher.

Fellow goyim might wonder: what’s the deal with Kosher salt? In addition to being Kosher itself, Kosher salt is used in the process of Koshering meat (ritual slaughter and preparation). Since Torah dictates that one cannot consume blood, the large crystals cure and remove the residual blood within the meat.

All of you Catholic eye-talians out there, don’t try to Kosher at home! In addition to individual items and processes, Kosher also refers to a system: kitchens that have separate milk and meat plates and silverware, dishwashers, and even stoves. This is often the reason why Orthodox or Conservative Jews may decline invitations at your home, or as I heard it, will not “eat by you.” Do not be insulted my brethren—Kosher Pizzerias make the only passable Chicago-style pizza in New York!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mystery! The Phantom Clothes Leaver.

On a very busy street in Brooklyn, adjacent to a Catholic church and a purveyor of fish, I began to find discrete items of women’s luxury clothing abandoned, left to the elements of urine and brine.

Sometimes in piles atop garbage bins, sometimes strung up on the fence that surrounds the church, at times cast atop fire hydrants—the trail felt maniacally deliberate or slapdash. As a hand-to-mouth youngin’ starting out in New York, the discards would taunt me with their extravagance, and I would pass by their display two or three times before finally discouraging myself from taking it.

After six or eight instances of finding this quality apparel, I began to keep track of the articles: 3/14/2007, a translucent Louis Vuitton knapsack. 5/2/2007, solidly-made Merino wool trousers. 7/26/2007, oversized cowl-neck sweater. 8/16/2007, jersey skirt, sparkly purple top, constructed white button-down.

The bizarre behavior of the Phantom Clothes Leaver. What causes someone to violently pluck items from their closet? It’s so much easier to leave them there, unworn! I’d like to think it’s a motive more sinister than “donation,” so I began to cobble together ideas for who this person might be.

1.) Fashionista with the attention span of a subway turnstile. A cross between Anna Wintour and a werewolf. Bad or outdated clothing is a virus on her closet that drives her mad.
2.) Female superhero who must strip down to her skivvies before fighting realtor’s fees.
3.) Predatory assailant who is indiscriminant about what they will steal from victims, but becomes more discerning on the way to the train.
4.) Fervent bulimic who hates the label “Size M” on her clothes, so she purges them like microwave tacos and instant brownies.

Pictures of the remnants to come.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It's Quite Pedestrian--On the LAMM

There’s an abandoned building at Henry and Amity that I feel consistently drawn to—it’s a rather large brick semi-institutional building with bars on the windows, filmy glass, and the strangest items inside: signs that still say “Please present your insurance card at the window,” bulletin boards covered with tinsel wishing no one a Happy Holiday, sinks torn from the walls in placed in the middle of the room. It’s obvious the building has gone unused for years.

The fact that it’s the former home of a child neurology clinic--The Stanley S. Lamm Institute for Developmental Disabilities—makes the items inside even creepier. According to the Long Island College Hospital website:

“The Stanley S. Lamm Institute, a part of Long Island College Hospital, treats cerebral palsy and Cooley's anemia patients. The Lamm Institute was established in the 1950's by Dr. Stanley S. Lamm for the comprehensive care of the developmentally disabled.”

I was very curious about this person, especially since everyone knows the 1950’s were flush with experimental methods for treating disabilities: Ice-pick lobotomies just began to decline in the early 50’s (who can forget Rosemary Kennedy’s sexual disqualification in 1941?), and involuntary electroconvulsive therapy continued until the Surgeon General regulated its administration in 1999.

Research on Lamm’s background and methods is scant. A visit to the Brooklyn’s Historical Society uncovered little background on the building--it was built in 1903 as a nurses’ facility.

However, I did find that the LAMM method of robbing a bank means taking a military approach: acquiring blueprints to the building, assigning a role to each associate of your gang, and doing “drills” of each possible outcome.

The Gray Hair Diaries

I’ve always known that it was might fate—I would go gray young. Growing up, no one ever officially came down with the sentence, I gathered the evidence from my mother’s coloring rituals: a robe spattered with ammonium drips, the brown paste at her crown as she defrosted dinner, the basement bathroom dedicated to the activity.

My future in black in white. It came across as a decree, rather than an option, in the furtive way female family members would admit it, away from their husbands: “Once you start, you can’t go back” “I prefer to call it ‘frosting’, makes me feel like a cake!” These asides, cagey, coy, or earnest, bespeak some communal knowledge: 1.) many women do color their hair—“color” not “dye” because no one wants to be “dead,” and 2.) the trompe l’oeil is permanent. Fudging your age with color means you are “of a certain age” and you can’t go back.

But does gray mean you are “of a certain age’? Since we do not collectively gray, at say, 35, gray does not communicate that we have moved past a fixed age: gray does not betray a number. Rather, it does convey that one has started the process of aging earlier: you are the bruised peach in the bunch, you have passed ripe, you’ve begun to sour sooner.

As forecasted, the fog rolled in around my sixteenth birthday. Further defined and fuller in volume since then, others began to notice the streak around 23. I know how many of them there are (21 last count), I know how to style my hair to hide them (or did until recently). I can project when the contrast level will shift from gray to white (32).

Going gray early forces you to address aging, and then the cultural forces at work in making you feel older, far sooner than actual middle-age. As the sage (and obviously, gray) Sontag noticed, aging is “mainly an ordeal of the imagination—a moral disease, a pathology” in Western society, especially for women. Case in point: Gabrielle Union’s recent commercial trying to sell my demographic wrinkle cream. In a show of hands, most of my female friends already use some sort of anti-aging product.

Apart from the biological wear-and-tear we will all address, melanin’s cruel abandonment of hair follicles pushes you into a maelstrom of tensions: Will I be a crusader by not coloring my hair? Could I justify coloring it until others around me begin to gray? Is the anxiety from aging itself, or the unmerited quality of the graying—I am only 24. If I do color my hair, at what point would I begin?

Folks, it’s not just a sensitive subject because of the anxieties gray will signify, namely age, but also the gray-ee may not have resolved how they want to express the gray—as pride, as denial, as fashion, or as I have plainly tried to play it, as Sontag devotee-ism.

For your convenience: The Double-Standard of Aging.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

That is a nasty aftertaste

I know I've been mentioning this, but the event left a mark on my spotless brooklyphile record:

Apart from my new perverse relationship with the Food Network--folding cake batter, oh my, Nigella!--Sunday's real estate section in the New York Times is the basest consumption I do. I love its voyeurism, the way you suspend your own poverty and dismiss the shabby 2.2 mil brownstone on Baltic in favor of the 2.5 on the corner 8th and Union. I blame this snooty-licious behavior on my mother, a realtor to the stars for 30-odd years.

Sunday's times featured a profile of the most indulgent, revolting, arrogant display of excess income i have ever seen. A couple is building a behemoth for the luxe lifers on west 15th street. They paid 1 million dollars to buy out the former tenants alone. Please, for a moment, indulge the description of the couple's current home:

"Long before they began the current project, the couple spent five years creating the apartment next door — a place like no other in the city. It contains a two-story-high waterfall that flows into an 18-inch-deep river set into the living room floor.

The river, which is home to 10 large koi, follows the outline of the Yangtze, a feat the Raths accomplished by building a Styrofoam model (following a National Geographic map that they enlarged), setting the model onto the building’s foundation, and then pouring the concrete floor around the model. (The final step was using gasoline to dissolve the Styrofoam, Mr. Rath said.)"

This made me so sick that I wanted to turn Giada off, and may have dulled my invasively-dirty passion for real estate in New York, and at large, forever. I find it tasteless in the most gauche and frivolous way, and I am fast becoming bitter about a paper and a city that would elevate this couple as a symbol of who it is or who it wants to be.

book store, i want to like you.

But probably I never will.

I like that it's there, on my street, small and haughty. I like its collaged and unorganized window displays. I like how, by the simple miracle of walking by it, I feel as if I am supporting something independent and community-sustained. I live in a neighborhood that still has an independent bookstore, after all.

I just hate everything in it.

I resent how it invites me to just "drop on in" all nonchalant and casual, but never stocks anything I want to read. This is a tease and it puts me in a bad mood.

Their history section perpetuates the myth that history is about war. This brute oversight I might allow if the bookstore featured a cultural studies section, a sociology section, an ethnic studies section, and/or current affairs section.

But it doesnt. Apparently, to this day, men and their wars made all of history.

The philosophy, oh, I should say 'philosophy/religion' area leaves me underserved--a scant volume of Foucault, a book that teaches me how to read tea leaves in my urine. Also in this section: "My Inner Goddess and Her Love for Chocolate Cake."

The very inaccurately genre'd "essays" area is half full with fiction anthologies. The poetry section is comprised of Shakespeare sonnets and the odd Ogden Nash.

I often attempt to support Bookcourt, only to storm off to the Barnes and Noble two blocks away. it has occured to me to speak to their manager--please stop buying books that suck--because i want it to pull through so badly. My inner goddess is keeping me in check for now.