Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Quiet Little Restaurant Rant, Picking Specifically on New York

 I'm picking on New York because as is so often the case it is leading a trend.  In this particular case, unfortunately, it's a very bad one.  Worse, it's already widespread.  Worse yet, it is being abetted by certain writers who carry a certain authority, and who ought to know better, but whose wanting to sound young and cool has muzzled their critical faculties.

For the moment I wish to leave aside the metastasis of "sensation" as the governing experience of the food in too many highly competitive New York restaurants.  It's a complicated business, but--since restaurants are businesses--it is admittedly almost irresistible in the face of all the morons taking pictures of their food and reviewing it while they eat it for Yelp or whatever...morons who really don't know anything about food and whose combined knowledge disproves the last vestiges of the notion of the wisdom of crowds.

But as I say, let's please pass over that for the moment to another and worse sort of ignorance, that of professional critics caught up in coolth.  I'm reluctant to pick on the New York Times, because I love and revere the New York Times but also because it can bite back.  Nevertheless some of what has been appearing there has stirred me past the point of prudence.  I'm going to take just a little-bitty example, namely, the recent review of another "theatrical" or "theme" restaurant--these are getting big lately--the kind that works very hard at seeming "authentic" in a ghoulish possible-only-in-New-York fusion of snobbery and Disney World, this one a "French" restaurant called Lafayette.  (How many of you remember the old Lafayette?  It was a French restaurant that didn't require quotation marks around its ethnicity.)

And from that review only an eensy-tinesy detail, from down in what they call the "service information."  One of the items listed there is "sound level," and a good idea that is, too.  But in this review the sound level is described as "authentically loud."

Ooch.  This, I infer, means that the writer thinks that "real" French bistros (i.e., in France) are loud.  Well, they're not.  French people don't bellow.  Sometimes Parisian bistros get loud--when there are a lot of American tourists there.  Otherwise, the word for a French bistro full of people talking would be "lively."  Nobody hollering, no danger of hearing damage.

An aside: I've finally gotten something figured out, in at least a physiognomic way: Americans have started opening their mouths really wide, especially the women, especially when they laugh.  When you open your mouth really wide, you make a lot of noise, ipso facto.  (You also often show a mouthful of half-chewed food.)  Then look at a bunch of French people at table.  They really don't know how to open their mouths wide (exception for opera singers).  Anyway: French bistros in France are full of conversation, because, absolutely, French people, especially Parisians, love to talk, usually all at once, and at a lively level.  But it's like one of those limiters we used to use in the recording studio when I was in the record business (when LPs could take only so much)--the volume hits a certain level and that's it.  They don't bellow, they don't holler, they don't scream, they don't do that shrieking laugh that women in San Francisco and New York have so horribly made their own.  (And what's so not funny about it is that when you find out what they're laughing about, it's invariably not funny at all.  They'll admit it themselves.)  Thus the young and/or never-been-to-France or never-noticed-if-they-did reader of the Times review has his or her open-mouthed bellowing certified as "authentically" French-bistro-loud.

Okay, I know, I know, next thing is an aluminum cane with four rubber tips.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Good Thoughts about a Pussycat

(With apology to the incomparable George Booth for the borrowing of his phrase.)  I am trying to dampen my blazing fury at the just-published proposal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Barack Obama, proprietor) to remove all federal protection from all gray wolves in the United States except the perpetually persecuted Mexican subspecies.  I will be returning to this subject before long, when I calm down.

In the meantime, in quest of solace, I am thinking good thoughts about Isabel, which she makes easy.  Here is Isabel the intellectual, thinking good thoughts about I'm not sure what:

And here is Isabel the esthete, contemplating wildflowers just gathered from the prairie:

If there were a wolf pack roaming the prairie and the cottonwoods here, might they put the bite on Isabel?  I suppose it's possible, but most unlikely.  This place is crawling with both white-tailed and mule deer, including newborn fawns--much more appealing to the lupine palate.  Nevertheless it should be admitted that even while the wolves' attitude toward Isabel might be indifference, hers toward them would, I'm quite sure, be distinct antipathy--from way, way up in the top of a tree.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Onrushing Spring

The first whitetail fawn just bobbled across the meadow, close behind mom.  Not a newborn--their first weeks are spent curled up in hiding, rising only to nurse and to test those trembling, fragile legs.  I've nearly stepped on one several times in old disused irrigation ditches around here, but they will bolt away at the last second.  It's always a surprise to see how dark and how red they are, and they're never less cute than ever.

The prairie flora is already changing fast.  The white field chickweed, Cerastium arvense, has disapppeared with unusual quickness, and the mustard-yellow biscuitroot, Lomatium cous, which I've previously misidentified as L. dissectum and which was blanketing the dryest meadows last week, is rapidly turning brown.  It's a plant I damn well ought to know, since its root is a favorite food of grizzly bears in Yellowstone.   The sand-lily, Leucocrinum montanum, was like a field of stars the day of my arrival (June 1st), but low as it is, it's fast overshadowed.  Low larkspur, Delphinium bicolor, isn't low at all this year--I'm seeing great bouquets of them a foot and a half tall.  Maybe I've got that species wrong too.  Anyway it's a great year for it, though indoors it falls apart fast.  The little sunflower, Helianthella uniflora, seems a bit more widely spaced than usual, but it may be just getting going.  Last year--the year of brutal drought--the hauntingly elegant death-camas, Zigadenus venenosus, appeared hardly at all, whereas in the very wet year before that there  were swaths to the horizon; it is just now rising in profusion, though I think it will not rival 2011.  Hairy penstemon, P.eriantherus, a big, bold, pink, almost rudely bulbous thing that grows most happily in the most miserably dry clay and gravel, is a sentimental hero of mine, and it seems to be booming early.  Style onions, Allium style, are more abundant and taller than I've ever seen them--tender leaves coming soon to a baked potato.  Oddly, I haven't seen a single shooting-star, despite all the rain we've had.

Out on the prairie, a few diffident pioneers are showing up close to the ground, under the rain-charged grasses: phlox, pearly everlasting, yellow violets, a low spreading cinquefoil; but the usual bull-goose chest-thumping champ of the farther range, silky crazyweed, Oxytropis sericea, seems a bit on the sparse side.  It is making up for that modesty, however, with a wondrous range of pinks way beyond its customary cream, some of them almost purple.  Its little sister, the small but well-named (in both English and Latin) showy crazyweed, Oxytropis splendens, appears only here and there, lovely in her pink frills like some shy girl at a Jane Austen ball.  My favorite of all, the boringly named narrow-leaved gromwell, Lithospermum incisum, is excruciatingly hard to find but heart-achingly beautiful when at last you do.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Yummy Dinner from Materials at Hand, though Some of Them Could Have Been Local

Yesterday my peripatetic dear friend Lexi Rome called from northwestern Montana, where she and our mutual pal Burr Heneman (a great conservation hero, but that's another story) had been birding at the Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte Preserve, on the east front of the Rockies near Glacier National Park, under the guidance of the one and only David Allen Sibley--himself, not the book--the Bull Goose Birdman of them all; and Lexi wanted to know if she and Burr could drop by for dinner here at the Langston House.

Normally I'm not thrilled by last-minute self-invitations, but Lexi has permanent carte blanche with me on just about everything, and I was intrigued by the idea of tossing together something good from whatever I had in the fridge.  I knew I didn't have any dessert--my cherries had just gone moldy--so they were going to pop in at Ft. Benton and see what they could come up with, which turned out to be excellent cherries and pretty darn good brownies.

I had stocked up pretty liberally when I passed through Bozeman last week, and one of the things I had was a rather opaquely frost-covered package labeled "duck breasts."  I thought it was going to be two big ones, which would be fine for the three of us, and I had managed to keep four pluots alive since I left San Francisco, from the great Frog Hollow orchards; and I had this idea of serving grilled duck with grilled pluots and toasted walnuts and yogurt.  I'd never heard of the combination before, but it sounded good, and then when I googled around a little I discovered that it's actually not an uncommon combination in the Middle East.  Thawed, the duck breasts turned out to be four small ones, from Mary's Farm in Sonoma County, and that got me to thinking, How come the Bozeman Co-op has to sell California ducks?  That is, why aren't some of these ranchers around here who are always moaning about how they're going broke in the cattle business also raising a few ducks--and so on?  Chickens, turkeys, guinea hens, squab pigeons, pheasants, you know--come on!  It's really not all that hard.  The kids can do most of it.

So I marinated the duck breasts in olive oil and a lot of black pepper, and I toasted the walnuts and cut the pluots in half.  Then I prepped some spiced rice: I fried a little fine-chopped onion in butter, then added whole spices--cardamom pods, cloves, coriander seeds, peppercorns (just three or four of each of all of those), a tiny cinnamon stick, and a tee-tiny pinch of turmeric--then basmati rice, and fried that all up together till the rice turned opaque.  That was all a couple of hours in advance.  When the guests arrived and we all agreed we were half an hour from hungry, into a 300 oven went the rice (with water).  Came out gorgeous.  Except I forgot to add the goddam frozen peas at the end, which would have made it even better.

Besides the duck, the onions could have been local, maybe the walnuts (not sure about those), certainly the yogurt and the butter.  We do get local cherries, but later.  The brownies might in fact have been local, I don't know.

Andway, back to the cooking.  You can time all this within an inch of your life, or you can hold the rice warm easily and then do the rest.  I chose the latter course.  I grilled the duck to medium rare, rested it a while, sliced it across, served it with the hot fruit and briefly warmed nuts and cold yogurt nestled up against it; and the rice had actually improved from the wait--fluffier, I think--and I gotta tell you that was one yummy dinner.  Lexi and Burr had brought a pale rose de Provence that was just the thing.  The late afternoon was still warm ,with no skeeters, so we ate outside under the sunset and you could not have beat that dinner with a stick.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Night Sky

One of the best things about being here is walking in starlight.  It is best on nights like tonight when there is no moon at all, but in June the real, dense dark is brief.  I have been pleased to discover that gives the precise times of the successive deepenings of darkness:

Ordinary sunset tonight will be at 9:08 p.m, sunrise tomorrow morning at 5:30.  But of course at those times, especially under a sky this clear, it's bright enough to read a small-type King James Bible.

The more meaningful darknesses begin with Civil Twilight, "The time period when the sun is no more than 6 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon should be clearly defined and the brightest stars should be visible under good atmospheric conditions (i.e. no moonlight, or other lights). One still should be able to carry on ordinary outdoor activities."  Civil twilight tonight will set in at 9:46 and return at 4:52.

Next comes Nautical Twilight, "The time period when the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon is not defined and the outline of objects might be visible without artificial light. Ordinary outdoor activities are not possible at this time without extra illumination."  So we will lose the horizon and the outline of objects tonight at 10:36, and have them back, should we wish to witness the redefinition of visible shape, at 4:01 a.m.

The advent of real black darkness is known as Astronomical Twilight, and at this time of year you have to stay up late to receive its velvet embrace--a comfort which comes to most of us with a little chill of ancient fear.  Tonight's deep night will last only from 11:45 p.m. to 2:53 a.m., barely more than three hours.

The moon plays her part beautifully tonight, by not appearing at all.  In the stage of "waxing crescent," only the moon's black face is turned to us, and in any case today's moonrise was at 5:43 in the morning, and the moon will set at 9:09--one minute after the sun.

It seems like a time for any kind of seriousness--for fear, for gladness, for love, for gratitude, for ghosts and grief, for wishes and hope.  For me, most often, such specificities fade, as I walk in the starlit dark, into a stillness, an interior stillness, which in turn, sometimes, effloresces in an opening of the physical senses.  Sometimes then it seems time to stop walking, to sit down and just to listen, smell, feel, breathe.  The darkness is not dark, the stillness is not still, the quiet is not silent.  After a while I get cold, and it's time to walk again, home.

Well, that's the  dreamer's vision, before he set foot outside.  Here's the event.  First of all, what the Weather Underground tells us is going to be loss of horizon, black dark, objects invisible at 11:45--ha!--is nothing of the kind.  Here in Greater Metropolitan Melville even at midnight the sunset is streaking the western sky with orange and purple.  To the east, a sickly brownish sodium-vapor dome, given sufficient humidity, hangs over Billings; the humidity may well be composed of gases from the oil refineries there.  But there is a lot of natural vapor in the air as well, sufficient that the stars do not shine at the horizon as they do on a perfect night.  Oh, and a neighbor has put up a light on a pole of such candlepower that even at a third of a mile away it's like staring into the headlamp of a truck on bright.  What for, what for, out here in nowhere?  Do they think it will keep coyotes away from their sheep?  (It won't.)  Then there are the planes, half a dozen of which are visible at any given moment, and the satellites, which I now see as somehow naturalized, so politely silent as they are, skimming behind invisible clouds like spirits.  I know, I know a lot of them are junk, I know that when I'm looking at some of them so benignantly they're actually looking at me not benignantly at all.  I willfully employ them as reminders to force a form of belief on myself, in the same way that I pray aloud in church, repeating words I don't believe in order at least to occupy the shape of belief.  In our damaged world, in our imperfect starlight, we must walk in a certain degree of illusion, must we not?  This may be the closest to perfect starlight I will ever see, and I had better love it while I have it, and the closest to velvet dark.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Nesting in Montana; the Field Naturalist and the Great Swarm of Bees

After two summers of climatic cruelty--2011 flood, 2012 drought--and a winter threatening a dry forever, an ordinary Montana spring has set in: rain machine-gunning the metal roof all night, wind lashing the house like Paul Bunyan's ox-whip, low gray days when the mercury struggles toward fifty degrees and gives up, nights like last night from which the Crazies awake blinding white with fresh snow down to timberline and past it, under blue-defining blue.

Cat Isabel, not yet two years old--wherever that puts her in terms of maturity (youth, I can say that much)--after two and a half days enduring without complaint confinement in her kennel in the thrumming M3 and two nights in motel rooms (Elko, then Bozeman) reeking of chemical solvents and artificial fabrics, is as happy as that sky is blue.  We play Race to the Face, in which I place my chin on the corner post of the pole fence while she trots as fast as she can from the farther corner to touch her cold nose to mine.  She charges up cottonwoods to about ten feet of altitude, just for the feel of it in her claws and for the challenge of balancing on fragile little branches and finding her way down.  (Before long she'll go farther up and have to be serious about descending.)  She sproings across the lawn and into the higher grass beyond in pursuit of phantom prey.  She sits regally erect on the porch and surveys her demesne.  When I return from the creek, she bounds toward me with her front legs spread wide with each bound in what looks like a gesture of embrace--much like the gesture she used to make when she was a kitten that said, Pick me up--and when she arrives at my feet, in fact, she curls and curvets in her more mature way of suggesting the same.  Then we walk in the driveway together and she grovels in the gravel--Graveling, I call it--rubbing herself till she's thoroughly dusty, grainy, her white feet tan, in what's actually a kind of bath.

On the prairie the long-billed curlews and marbled godwits are nesting, and dive-bomb the intruder with shrieks of annoyance.  The curlews' alarm call is a relatively melodious frederique, frederique, and their warning flights are long graceful circles that often end with the funny-looking creature (what a schnoz!) in profile not far away giving one the eyeball--the whole routine lovely and comical (not to the bird, presumably).  The godwits take everything more seriously.  Sometimes they will fly straight at you, which can be rather unsettling until you know that they always do veer away.  Their call is harsh and unmistakably upset.  Neither of them ever gives a clue to the location of their nests, and I've never seen one.

I walked out as far as a flooding irrigation ditch and was still city-prissy enough that I didn't want to get my feet wet, so I was about to turn around when I heard a monumental buzzing, inconceivably loud.  It must have been a hundred thousand bees, I thought, maybe a million, maybe ten million, some sort of epochal swarm.  At first I said to myself, Well, turning around is a good idea anyhow, do I want to get caught up in the thing and stung to death?  And then I thought, Oh, hell, something like this has got to be once in a lifetime, I bet they don't pay attention to you at all, I've got to see it.  So I waded on across, and suddenly the immense sound was all behind me.  How could that be?  It made no sense.  Well, duh.  It turns out that the hundred thousand or ten million were in fact about two hundred, and they were all zooming around a patch of half-drowned crummy little mustard plants, the kind that grow in the beat-uppest, stomped-onnest dirt road beds, except that these were half under water so that only their flowers were showing, and these little bees, sweat bees was what we used to call them when I was growing up in Memphis, were going totally apeshit over them and making the most amazing amount of noise while doing so.  I waded right through them and they paid absolutely no attention to me.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A wondrous Yellowstone mystery [alas, now removed]

Apparently it's okay to just lift somebody's stuff from the web.  This one can't possibly be copyrighted--the person who posted it didn't even give his last name.  So thank you, Max.  WRONG-O: SEE BELOW.

Showdown: Fox Defends the Den Against a Badger

Dear Readers, please note: The photographs and text I posted were in fact copyrighted by Max Waugh, and it was wrong of me to use them without his permission.  I guess I'm still naive about copy protection on the internet--something I need to know about for my own sake as well.  I hadn't even been able to find Max's full name on his original post (maybe I didn't look well enough), but I'm now removing his pictures, and I here publicly apology, most sincerely, to Max Waugh.

Of course I didn't win.

Big, handsome, ever-smiling, famous Marcus Samuelsson won the James Beard award for best food book of the year.  He's on television all the time, he's got a couple of booming, very good restaurants in New York and all the food people in New York know who he is.  He has an amazing life story--born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, bootstraps-to-glory in Manhattan.  Nice guy too.  Naturally I hate him.