MUCHAS GRACIAS, CON CHORIZO

Once more, against all odds, my friend Jae and I managed to prepare a splendid Thanksgiving feast, applying minimal cooking skills with fiendish precision.

Jae made his famous creamy mashed potatoes, we roasted a gigantic turkey to perfection and we stuffed it with an improvised dressing consisting of croutons, celery, carrots, onions, three kinds of mushrooms (Portobello, shitake and oyster) and chorizo, the spicy Mexican sausage.  An instant classic.  Next year, I'm going to add even more chorizo — it lent a bacon-y tang to the stuffing that was really spectacular.

Now the long days of turkey sandwiches begin — and however many sandwiches are consumed during those days, I'll be sorry to see them come to an end.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A CELL PHONE PHOTO FOR TODAY


Jae Song sent this cellph portrait, taken on the sidewalks of New York, from his new phone cam . . . sometime in 2004, I believe.

Jae rolled into town yesterday for his annual Dream Thanksgiving Vacation In Vegas.  We had a great meal at Mon Ami Gabi then headed straight for the poker room at Planet Hollywood.  We sat down at a no-limit table for four or five hours, during which time I made $45 and Jae made $50.  Not what you'd call a killing but way better than losing.  Picking up some beer on the way home, we felt that we were getting it for free, since it was bought with ill-gotten gambling funds, lifted from the friendly folks we played with.  It tasted better than cheap American beer has any right to taste.

MARKET PREDICTIONS

I have no money in the stock market.  I owned a tiny amount of Wachovia paper, given to me on the day of my birth, which I've always held onto for sentimental reasons but which is now more or less worthless after the company's collapse– the end of an era.  I also have no specialized insight into the market — otherwise I would have sold the Wachovia stock long ago.

Based on the above non-credentials I hereby offer my own personal market predictions, on the theory that the common-sense intuitions of an outsider are bound to be at least as reliable as the proven ignorance of the insiders.

The market will bottom out somewhere between five and six thousand points — closer to six.  I base this on a fact my friend Cotty reminded me of recently — the market stood at around six thousand points before the recent fantasy-based boom cycles, which are now over, and so is a fair measure of the real value of the shares.

When the market hits five thousand-plus, there will be a slight rebound — to somewhere between six and seven thousand, closer to six, where things will rest for the next five years or so, until we enter a new period of growth.

The logical strategy for current larger-scale investors is clear — have enough resources on hand outside the market to cover basic bare-bones expenses for five years, leave the remainder, if there is any, in stocks (assuming they're already there) and wait for the rebound.

Of course, it's always possible that there will be no rebound within that time frame.  If the market drops below five thousand, there will be no bottom — panic will rule and the next Great Depression will be upon us.  We'll be facing at least three decades of nightmare — unless we get really lucky and another world war pulls us out of the abyss ahead of the natural cycle.

You heard it here first.

THE BIBLE AND MADAME de . . .

It's almost impossible to understand the culture we live in without knowing the Bible, simply because the culture we live in was created by people for whom the Bible was a central text, a central reference point.  I'm speaking of the Bible as a literary document, a compendium of phrases, images, folk wisdom and psychological insight — all of which it is, quite apart from its specifically religious nature.

This was brought home to me recently listening to the commentary on the recent DVD release by Criterion of Max Ophüls's The Earrings Of Madame de . . . .  It's delivered by two female academics who chatter on at great length about the sexual politics of the film, referencing Freud and Stendhal promiscuously but missing the film's central reference to a passage in the Gospels.

[Warning — plot spoilers ahead . . .]

The commentators disagree about whether or not Louise, the film's main character, consummates her adulterous affair with Count Donati.  This despite the fact that, while praying to the Blessed Virgin in private, she says she was unfaithful “only in thought”.  “And what is a thought?” she asks the Virgin.  One commentator suggests that Louise, an inveterate liar, is here lying to the Mother Of God.  This is, in itself, quite preposterous.  Why would anyone pray to a saint who couldn't see through a human lie?

Both commentators miss the real import of the question — its reference to Jesus's teaching in Matthew's gospel . . . “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

It is precisely this reference which goes to the heart of the film's themes.

Louise's husband in the film commits adultery in the flesh, but in a discreet way that does not disturb the civil compromise of their marriage.  He loves his wife and tolerates her flirtations, because he believes that, while she might not love him, she loves no one else.  For him, this isn't much of a bargain, but it is the bargain on which his whole life depends, as we eventually see.

He might have tolerated a discreet adulterous affair on her part, as long as it was frivolous.  When she falls in love with someone else, he is destroyed.  He cannot tolerate her committing adultery in her heart.

Seen from this perspective it's impossible to read the husband's violent and destructive actions as exercises in patriarchal authority — they are, in fact, exercises in existential despair.  It is also impossible to read Louise's actions as exercises in pure passion, pure self-realization, because they also involve extreme cruelty towards her husband.  Perhaps she doesn't know what she means to him, but we cannot help feeling that she should know — that not knowing, or caring, involves a deep moral failure . . . deeper than any casual extramarital affair would represent.

At the beginning of the film, as Louise is searching through her possessions for something to sell to raise some quick cash, she comes across a prayer book, or an edition of the New Testament, with a cross on its cover.  “I need you now,” she says to the book — meaning, I need your help raising the cash.  Seen retrospectively, in light of her last question to the Virgin, the need she expresses in this first scene has a profound ironic implication.  What she really has needed all along was an appreciation of what it means to commit adultery in one's heart — an appreciation of its extreme seriousness.

Louise's question is not asked at the end of the novel on which Ophüls's film was based — there is no scene in the book corresponding to the one in the film in which Louise donates her fatal earrings to the Virgin.  This was Ophüls's invention — and it's the key to the story he was telling.  For Ophüls (above), a Jew, there was probably no religious dimension to the Christian text he was referencing, but there was certainly a reference to the psychological truth at the heart of Jesus's words.  It is, as I say, a vital element of the film unavailable to anyone unfamiliar with those words.

Ophüls was a highly educated and cultured man.  In 1954 he would have assumed that any educated and cultured viewer of The Earrings of Madame de . . . would register the allusion to the gospel text, and note the irony of a vain and self-centered woman like Louise being clueless about it, even as she prays to her saint for the things she wants in life.  54 years on, we cannot assume that even a college professor will have a clue about it.

LAMB CURRY

My
curry is improvised from an old
Joy of Cooking rule for stew and
various hints thrown out by my brother-in-law Simon, who makes a fine
curry, refined during his years in Kenya. (His goat curry, served at a
picnic by a river on the edge of the Nairobi Game Park, was my first
meal in East Africa, sometime in the last century.)



The
only real secret to simple, reliable curry, however, is Patak's Curry
Paste, available at many local supermarkets, worth tracking down at a
specialty store if not.  (It can be had via Amazon as well.)  You need a jar of mild and a jar of hot, so you
can mix to taste.



Start
with some vegetable stock. This used to be collected from the run-off
of boiled vegetables of every kind, but since we now steam our
vegetables, the liquor from soaked and boiled dried beans is a good
substitute, especially for curry. Pour enough of it into a stew pot to
comfortably cover the meat and vegetables you will be adding — lean
chunks of lamb, or goat (I like to use chunks cut off of thick lamb
chops, with all the fat removed, but there are cheaper ways to go), an
equal volume of pearl onions, an equal volume of carrots cut into
pieces about the size of pearl onions, an equal volume of potatoes, cut
into chunks of a similar size, and three or four tablespoons of peeled
and chopped ginger root.



Begin
to warm the vegetable stock and stir in table-spoonfuls of curry paste.
I like a 2 to 1 hot to mild ratio, for a very — very — spicy but not
searing flavor, but do it to taste. About six table-spoonfuls at least
will be required. You can tell by tasting when you've got enough.



Bring
this mixture to a boil, then throw in the ginger and the carrots, cover
tightly and reduce heat to produce a steady but not furious bubbling.
After ten minutes, put in the lamb. After another ten minutes, put in
the onions and the potatoes. After another twenty minutes, cut off the
heat, let the pot cool, and then put it in the refrigerator overnight.
(This must be made the day before it is eaten.)



This
is a dish to fiddle with — placing the lamb in later if you like it
rarer, the carrots in later if you like them crisper, the onions and
potatoes in earlier if you like them mushier, more or less ginger and
curry paste.



The
next day, put what you want to eat into a smaller pot (you can freeze
what's left, if any) and heat it up, thickening it with some dollops of
sour cream if you like. Serve it over basmati rice, and no other kind,
with, on the side, some mango chutney and raita — plain yoghurt and
peeled, thinly sliced cucumbers, chilled — and some kind of plain
bread (real Indian bread, like poori, is best but too hard to make.)
Drink beer with it.

CAN IT BE?

Yes — the President-elect of the United States Of America is cool.

This is going to take some serious getting-used-to.

I just created a section, over to the left there, called Politics 2008, where all my political posts are now collected.  I had no idea there were so many of them — I got a little carried away and didn't realize how much I was obsessing on the race.  Some of the writing is too shrill, some is downright hysterical — all of it is interesting to read in retrospect, or will be one day when the hangover from this long campaigning season eases a bit.  I can't really apologize for writing so much about the election, however, since it would have been impossible for me not to write about it.

One of the subjects that interests me most is the survival, in disguise, of 19th Century forms into the 20th and now the 21st Centuries.  In the 19th Century, politics was a major feature of American popular entertainment — people read newspaper reports of politics the way we read gossip magazines, people went to see political speeches and debates the way we go to the movies (or used to go to the movies.)  This year, gossip and movies seemed a tepid brew indeed compared to the drama and spectacle of the race for the Presidency.  In this age of television and the Internet, hundreds of thousands of people felt it was important to show up in person at Barack Obama's rallies — to share a real space with him.  An image on a screen wasn't enough.

The Victorian world is always with us — we only dreamed that we left it behind — and sometimes it doesn't even wear a disguise.  When Obama is sworn in on the steps of the Capitol this January, you can be sure he'll quote Abraham Lincoln.  In a very real sense, Lincoln will be standing beside him.  As William Faulkner once wrote, in some lines Obama has already quoted, “The past is never dead.  It's not even past.”

Sure, Obama made masterful use of the Internet in his campaign, but one of the things he used it for was to get us to listen again to the voices of our ancestors.

ROASTED GARLIC DRESSING WITH GREEN CHILE

I've shared with you a recipe for creamy queso añejo dressing from Rick Bayless's superb book Mexican Everyday.  I've been testing other salad dressings from the book, without any great finds — until I stumbled upon this one . . . roasted garlic dressing with green chile.  It's incredibly tasty, incredibly easy — and hot.  Not for the faint of heart.

Roast one fresh jalapeño pepper and four to six unpeeled garlic cloves in a skillet over medium heat — until they're slightly soft with dark brown blotches.  This should take about ten minutes for the chile and fifteen for the garlic.  Remove them from the pan and let them cool.  Stem (but don't seed) the chile and chop it up coarsely.  Peel the garlic cloves.  Put them all into a blender with three-quarters of a cup of olive oil and one-quarter of a cup of balsamic vinegar.  Add a bit less than a teaspoon of salt and blend thoroughly.  Add more salt to taste, if necessary.  Refrigerate until needed.

This will give you a wondrously spicy dressing for salads — it will make even iceberg lettuce seem exotic.  (You can use two seranno chiles instead of the one jalapeño if you want to totally wimp out.)

BUT WAIT — THERE'S MORE!

Bayless suggests a variation on the above recipe, which makes an even more stupendous dressing.  Substitute two canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce for the jalapeño.  No need to roast the chipotles, of course.  Add a teaspoon or two of Mexican oregano — easily found in most supermarkets but you have to check the label . . . Mexican oregano is made from a different plant than regular oregano.  The chipotle variant has a sweetish, smoky flavor which is irresistible.

These two dressings, between them, along with the creamy queso añejo dressing, will turn you into a salad-eating fool, even if the very word “salad” makes you gag.

Bayless, by the way, is well-known in food circles for his encyclopedic knowledge of Mexican cuisine and his imaginative takes thereon, and familiar to TV viewers from his cooking show on PBS.  He's gained an added measure of fame recently because his restaurant in Chicago, Topolobampo, is a favorite spot of Barack and Michelle Obama, when they're dining à deux.  One more reason to admire the good judgment of America's new first couple.

SOME THINGS A MAN CAN'T RIDE AROUND

Director Budd Boetticher started out his professional life as a bullfighter in Mexico.  He knew a lot about bullfighting and made three films on the subject.  Because of this it's become a critical commonplace to discuss all of Boetticher's films in terms of bullfighting, finding parallels to and metaphors for bullfighting in his work.

Wary as we must always be of the critical commonplace, it is in fact almost impossible to understand Boetticher's formal methods without thinking of bullfighting.  On a narrative level, the parallels take us only so far.  Boetticher's Westerns invariably involve a duel to the death between two characters, a good guy and a bad guy, which can be read as an image of the duel between matador and bull — but most Westerns involve such a duel.  The bullfighting metaphor doesn't add much to our understanding of the contest — except perhaps in explaining the conflicted emotions Boetticher often encourages us to feel about the two figures involved.

His heroes are never wholly heroic and his villains are never wholly bad.  Hero and villain often share admirable qualities which, given a slight spin in one direction or another, lead to moral or immoral actions.  This can be said to evoke the conflicted feelings about bull and matador in the corrida.  We root for the matador but we also root for the bull, particularly if he is brave and determined and clever, and part of us resents the matador for killing an especially admirable bull, even though this is what we pay him to do.

As I say, though, it's in the area of formal procedure that bullfighting truly illuminates Boetticher's work.  In bullfighting, space is everything — and ultimately the difference between life and death.  Working the bull in the broad expanse of the ring, focusing his attention on smaller and smaller areas of the ring, finally calculating the distance between the bull and himself down to fractions of an inch during the passes with the muleta — these are the concerns of the matador, on which his life depends.

In the framing of his shots, Boetticher has similar concerns.  A man's relationship to vast empty spaces, the way he does or does not make a place for himself in them, tell us much about his character.  The way antagonists move in a contested space, the way they watch each other and calculate their chances, are always the central focus of Boetticher's action sequences.  Martin Scorsese says that this concern with movement and space in Boetticher's work extends to the subtlest gesture — a hand moving six inches can be a crucial fact.

Boetticher's Western stories can seem simple, but they never are — just as a bullfight is never simple.  The meaning is all in the details, and the details require intense concentration to read fully.  Boetticher's use of space to evoke character and relationships is not limited to traditional action sequences, either.  There's a tracking shot towards the end of The Tall T in which the hero and the woman he's trying to protect run from a shack to the shelter of some rocks.  They have just played out a love scene, but the way the camera follows them over dangerous ground, racing with them as they race together towards their destiny, tells us more about what they are to each other than the kiss they've just shared.

She stumbles, he lifts her back up — they get where they need to be.  He tries to send her off to safety alone but she won't leave him — she insists on facing whatever's coming at his side.  The tracking shot has already made us feel what she's feeling.  They're in this together.

In The Tall T the protagonist speaks a line that sums up the code of every Boetticher hero — “Some things a man can't ride around.”  Characteristically, the moral imperative is expressed in spatial terms.  Where you stand, with whom and against whom, the challenge you ride out to meet — these things are character for Boetticher.  They play out in his films like ceremonies in a ritual space, as they do in the bullring.

LOSING BATTLES

The image above was taken in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King preached, at the moment the networks called Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 Presidential election.

Bob Herbert in The New York Times writes of 4 November:


It can be easy in such a moment of triumph to lose sight of the agony
wrought by the unrelieved evil of racism and to forget how crucial a
role anti-black racism played in shaping American life since the first
slaves were dumped ashore 400 years ago.



Blacks have been holding fast to the promise of America for all that
time. Not without anger. Not without rage. But with a fidelity that in
the darkest moments — those moments when the flow of blood seemed like
it would never stop, when enslaved families were wrenched apart, when
entire communities were put to the torch, when the breeze put the
stiffened bodies of lynched victims in motion, when even small children
were murdered and Dr. King was taken from us — even in those dire
moments, African-Americans held fast to the promise of America with a
fidelity that defied logic.



The multiracial crowds dancing with unrestrained joy from coast to
coast on Tuesday night were proof that the promise of America lives —
and that you can’t always hang your hat on logic.



We probably shouldn't forget that the epic of hope lived out by black
America was rooted in faith.  White America, in its hypocrisy and
complacency, believed that converting black slaves to Christianity
would reconcile them to their “place” in “Christian” society.  Even the
influential abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe turns the rebel Topsy
into a missionary at the end of Uncle Tom's Cabin and sends her off to
Africa to be with and convert “her people”.




Abolitionists saw blacks as their brothers and sister in God, but in an abstract theological sense — almost
none of them imagined, or would have accepted for a moment, blacks as fellow citizens, living in social (as opposed to political or theological) equality
with whites on American soil.



It was a different view of Christianity that elevated blacks to a sense
of absolute equality with all people everywhere, even ole massa, even the kind-hearted Harriet, and
fired them with the conviction that God, in his good time, would free
them from bondage of every kind, including the separate-but-equal kind, as he had freed the people of Israel.



Blacks took the radical message of Rabbi Jeshua bar Joseph straight,
and made a long, painful bet on his promises being fulfilled.  It was
their courage and perseverance that gave the promises flesh, through
rivers of blood and generations of sacrifice, but it was the illogical
faith that made the courage and perseverance possible.




The Reverend Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when America would
“rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” — and he wasn't
just talking about the opening words of the Declaration Of
Independence.  White American Christians were and are sitting on a time
bomb, which they have tended to consistently misread as a license to preserve the
social and/or political status quo, whatever it happens to be, or to recover a status quo whose passing they regret.  Black
American Christians have consistently seen deeper into the rabbi's more
dynamic and subversive — and illogical — vision.


“Hope is not a strategy,” says evangelical white “Christian” Sarah
Palin.  In fact, according to the rabbi's teaching, hope is the one infallible strategy.  As Bob Dylan
once sang:



There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pouring out of a boxcar door –


You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, in the final end he won the war


After losing every battle.