What drives us to cook the same foods over and over and over?
When I was a kid, tacos were the consolation prize at the end of hour-and-a-half-long custody exchanges where Mom and Dad each drove to a carefully-determined midpoint and handed me and my brother off for the weekend. These handoffs were always a bit melancholy, especially on winter Fridays when the sun was already well down by the time we made it to dad’s house out in the middle of nowhere. We’d walk down the walkway to his house, a million stars spread over our heads, and feel very distant from our lives and friends back in the big, light-polluted town up the coast.
But once we hauled our backpacks inside, dad would build a fire, turn on the digital projector, put on a John Wayne flick (my brother was obsessed), and head to the kitchen to fix dinner. Soon a haze of burning butter and caramelizing corn tortillas would waft in, crossing the cone of cinematic light and making its way up my nostrils, into my brain. A few minutes of salivation. Then, finally, the tacos themselves. They arrived crispy and hot on the outside, warm with cheese and salsa and green onions on the inside. We’d been apart for two weeks, but as we sat together on the couch eating tacos and watching The Searchers, we felt reconstituted, at least for the night, back into a little family.
If you’d prefer an audio version, you can listen to this essay on the Lightplay podcast:
Maybe it’s because today I myself want to be a parent that I tear up a little, remembering those times. The memories, filtered by two decades, are potent, like a tawny port. I feel sympathy for all three of us, each hurting in our own ways. And the distance especially helps me see how my dad put as much as he could into making those forty-eight hours he had with us count.
Of course, like probably any single dad of his generation, he could also be ridiculously bad at keeping the three of us fed. He’ll never live down the time he admonished us, “Don’t think of me as your father. Think of me as the guy who can get you food. Sometimes. If you ask.”
In a way, it was this very incompetence—or, more generously, inconsistency—that helped me develop as a cook in my own right. My dad had this wonderful, generous, teacherly quality where he would invite me to join him, to help out, and together to treat cooking as a fun experiment. Sure, there was an element of Tom Sawyer to this, but maybe all teaching is just tricking someone else into doing it themself. At any rate, it worked. With his guidance, I mastered his style of making tacos.
Then we kept on going. Every other weekend, tacos. More tacos. Summer tacos. Winter tacos. Good tacos. Bad tacos. Tacos. Tacos. Tacos.
Over about a decade we developed and grew our taco technique as collaborators. There were many breakthroughs, like when my sister introduced us to Herdez salsa and Tapatío hot sauce, or my dad’s insight one night that he could melt the cheese right against the pan, caramelizing one side. There were also more gradual refinements, like my own technique of putting pungent aromatics (garlic, onions, jalapeños) directly in that grilling cheese. Together, we decoded how to pan-sear poblano peppers to perfection without choking on capsicum smoke. And then there was the legendary, years-long development of a tofu preparation technique my dad nicknamed “to-fries.”
We ended up with a dish that was complex and satisfying and fun—and all our own. Until my dad went vegan in 2018, we made these with each other every chance we got. And I still make them for myself and my partner a few times a month. They’re not really like any taco I’ve been served in a restaurant, Mexican or otherwise. They’re probably well-described as “Cali-Mex,” though in California we just call Mexican food, well, “Mexican.” Ultimately, they’re the product of one particular family.
Also: they’re devilishly tasty and, once you get the hang of the different steps, pretty quick to make. Try ‘em out. And don’t be afraid to put your own spin on them. I know there’s still more to discover.
Recipe: Henderson-Style Tacos
Makes between three and twenty tacos. Estimate the amounts on everything until you get a feel for what works for you.
Soft corn tortillas (king size) Soft melting/grilling cheese (usually sharp cheddar) Green onions Spicy, tangy hot sauce (classically Tapatío) Avocado Lemon or lime Butter or cooking oil Salt
Main Filling (use one or two or all three)
Firm tofu for “tofries” Black beans (cooked or canned) Poblano peppers
Optional (depending on mood and season; don’t use all at once)
Tomatoes (especially little ones) Cilantro Garlic Red onion Salsa (classically Herdez brand in the little cans) Sour cream Whole pickled jalapeños in escabeche (preferably La Morena brand)
1. Turn the heat on under a cast iron.
This, my dad taught me, is the first step of all cooking. Only once the flame is lit do you take the ingredients out of the fridge and begin prepping them.
2. Get your main filling(s) cooking up:
If using beans, heat them in a pot.
If using poblanos, sear them in the cast iron pan over high heat: coat the hot pan with a bit of high heat oil, place the whole poblanos in the pan, then press them with a weight (I use another cast iron topped by a full water kettle) till they hiss and spit; rotate the peppers every few minutes so that all the sides get charred.
If making “tofries,” cut the firm tofu into extruded squares that are roughly the same dimensions as thick homefries or, say, a long thick Lego brick, then fry in a hot pan coated with high-heat oil (I prefer peanut), carefully flipping so each side becomes golden brown; once the tofries are evenly fried, I like to splash a bit of soy sauce into the hot pan, hastily stirring the tofries around so the sizzling soy sauce kisses each tofry with its salty, umami soyness.
3. Get your cold ingredients prepped.
As you have a free moment, prepare each cold ingredient so that it’s ready to slip into the prepared tacos at the perfect moment. (This can be done during or even before Step 2 and may continue up to the moment of Step 6; the key is to be in continual, purposeful motion, never idle when there’s a task to be done.)
Slice your green onions into thin-thin medallions, on the bias. If just using a few green onions, start by cutting them into thirds, then consolidate, then slice. (My dad’s trick; it halves the labor.)
Halve or quarter your cherry tomatoes and be sure to follow each tomato’s anatomy, cutting down through where the stem is attached.
Macerate the avocado by making careful slices while the flesh is still in the skin, then squeeze a lemon or lime over it and maybe a pinch of salt. When it’s time to put it in the taco, lift the slices out with a wide spoon.
Crush then mince a clove or two of garlic.
Cut thin slivers of red onion.
Pick cilantro leaves or, if lazy, just whack some off with a knife.
Stick a serving spoon in your sour cream.
Cut pickled jalapeños into thin strips.
4. Cook the tacos.
Starting with a hot cast iron pan, put a tiny dab of butter or oil in, then arrange three tortillas around the pan so that half of each tortilla is touching the pan’s bottom (the other halves will be sticking up the sides, almost out of the pan). Allow the parts of the tortillas touching the pan to cook and grow golden, then rotate each tortilla 180 degrees and wait for the second half to cook.
Now that one side of each tortilla is cooked, flip the tortillas so the cooked sides face up. (This cooked-first side will form the inside of each taco.)
Now add the cheese along the edge of each tortilla that faces the center of the pan, arranged so that half of the cheese is actually off the tortilla and directly touching the pan. (The cheese from your three tacos will melt together; we’ll fix this in a later step.)
Place your spicy/aromatic ingredients atop the cheese so that as it melts they fall in and cook slightly: green onions, garlic, red onions, pickled jalapeños. Don’t be too precise.
Next add your other warm ingredients, which might include beans, tofries, and pasilla peppers. I usually add my tomatoes at this point too.
NOTE be cautious not to overfill your tacos. Less is more here, and if you’re that hungry just make one more than you were planning to!
5. Fold your tacos up and finish cooking.
After a minute or two, your cheese will have melted and grilled to your preferred level of golden crispiness where it touched the pan, and it’s time to fold the taco up into something deserving the name. At this point, your cheese will likely have run together. You may have to use a fork and a serrated steak knife to cut the cheese apart. Urse your implements to flip the cheese up onto its taco. (It ends up kind of gluing everything in.) Then, at the same time, close the taco up and flip it over onto the final side that has yet to cook. This side should now be touching the pan.
Cook this final side till golden and crispy, too. Then remove to a plate.
6. Put the last cold ingredients in the cooked tacos.
You may have to gently crank the tacos open to slip in a slice or two of avocado, a modest dollop of sour cream, and a generous big pinch of cilantro.
Now the tacos must be eaten immediately, from the hand, with a bottle of hot sauce nearby and perhaps also a cold cerveza. Meanwhile, the taco maker will already be deep in the cooking of the next batch, on and on, till everyone has had their fill.
The way I’ve come to think of these tacos is as big fried dumplings. A neutral dough, wrapping a flavorful filling, fried up and eaten from the hand.
There’s a deeper connection, too. The joy of a dumpling, for me, is the way I can taste the thoughtfulness of the maker, who has put all these ingredients in just the right place and proportion, and has cooked it just so, to guarantee a blissfully perfect bite. That’s especially true of fried dumplings like potstickers or samosas, which require a watchful, tender eye to prevent burning and ensure golden perfection. At their best, that’s what these tacos are, too: condensed care and, yes, love, crunchily giving way to the teeth.
The best dumplings I ever had were in a Christmas light-festooned back alley of Luang Prabang, Lao. (This was around the time I wrote my incomplete “Lost Travelogue.”) I ate in that alley several times that week, in no small part because for about $4 I could gorge on a heaping plate assembled from a long, psychotically laden an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food wasn’t, you know, good, but I was hungry and it did the thing. Even as I ate these massive, mediocre meals, I kept passing by this cart where a Yunnanese man was selling veggie and meat potstickers by the bag: six pieces for the equivalent of $2.50. (From a caloric perspective, a rip-off compared to the buffet.)
I had been sneaking glances at the dumpling cart for the whole week I stayed there, but it was only on my last night I decided to splurge.
The man making them looked to be maybe thirty. He was handsome, with big, smart eyes and strong, pianist’s hands. With his Chinese looks he seemed out of place among all the Lao vendors who staffed the other stalls in the alley.
We talked first in his bad English and then in my bad Chinese. He was a university graduate who had fallen in love with a woman from Luang Prabang and moved there to marry her. But in his new city there were no jobs. So he started his cart. People liked to have a genuine potsticker. And cooking them reminded him of home, which he missed.
I watched him cook. He wielded a pair of long chopsticks, regularly lifting and rotating and testing the dumplings. His focus didn’t waver, even as we talked. He was a true artisan, frying his little dough pouches just so.
When the dumplings were finished—he cooked up batches of thirty at a time—he put my six in a thin little cellophane bag, ladeled some hot pepper oil in, shook it with great precision and restraint, stuck a dainty skewer in the top dumpling, and handed the bag to me.
I started eating from the bag as I walked through the electric city back to my hotel, my mind worrying about packing and emails and what time to leave—the ferry would embark from the outskirts of town at 6:30 the next morning. But then I noticed the dumpling in my mouth, that first bite, and all that chatter in my mind came to a halt. These dumplings demanded my full attention. They were so perfect: the balance of hot and rich and salty and tart flavors, the crispy texture encasing warm soft filling, the wheat of the wrapper, the aroma of star anise and fried dough. Eating them engaged all of the senses, even hearing, through the sound of crisp dough shattering against my teeth. Three dumplings in, I just stopped and squatted on the side of the road and gave myself over to them.
I thought I could taste more than just food—I could taste their cook’s homesickness, his love of his parents, his thwarted ambitions, the way he poured himself into his food cart. It was overwhelming.
When I finished, I walked a few minutes further, and then realized I’d regret not getting another bag. I headed back to the alley.
It was awkward trying to explain why I came back, and I think I embarrassed the vendor, too. It was dark now. He ignored me as he fried up a new batch. My second bag was good, too, and I wolfed it down. But it couldn’t match the ecstasy of the first.
I walked again back in the direction of my hotel. Before going in I smoked a cigarette in the cold night as a rain began to fall. I had to pack my bags. I did need some sort of plan to make it out to the ferry in the morning. But through it all, the taste of those dumplings was with me, that heightened experience. I’m still thinking about it six years later.
When I left the next morning, leaving just enough time to catch the ferry, it was the start of retracing my steps—first back to Thailand, then back to China, then across the ocean back to California. That dumpling cart was about the furthest I ever got from home.
A week or two later, I was back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I decided to make a special dinner of tacos for the friends I’d made there. I searched the city for tortillas (only found flour ones), beans (dried black beans!), and cheese (surprisingly decent cheddar available…for a price). I went to the fruit market and bought tomatoes and green onions and chili peppers and two different types of avocado, one super tall and skinny, the other simply enormous.
At Li and William and Amelie’s shared house, I took over the kitchen. I made the beans from scratch. I got everything lined up on a cutting board. And then we ate the hell out of some tacos, even as the flour tortillas cracked and came apart in our hands, even as the avocado was strange and leathery, even as there was nothing to use for hot sauce.
I missed home so much, certain moments on that trip, and I tried to be like the dumpling man and pour all that feeling into a bunch of crispy little dumplings for my friends.
My maternal grandfather, Bob Ruffing, died at the beginning of February. He was 93 and led a good long life. It was a natural death, at home. It was also, as death can be, though for whatever reason I didn’t expect it, sad. I missed him. I felt his absence.
Bob was the last of my biological grandparents left on earth, and if there’s something to take solace in it’s the knowledge that I’ll keep thinking about him for the rest of my life—just like I do everyone else I’ve lost.
In a funny way, my love of tacos is one of the things that reminds me of my other bio-grandpa. My dad’s dad’s name was Don Henderson, and he died in 1998. I only really got to know him for a few months, right towards the end. I don’t know if we all ate tacos even once during that visit. My dad and my taco thing really got going a few years later. But last year I was talking with my dad, reflecting on how great our joint taco technique had become, and he said that he wished that his dad had lived long enough to try them.
“Did Grandpa Don like tacos?”
Dad explained that Don was a great appreciator of the taco himself and had indeed been my teacher’s teacher. Grandpa Don’s tacos, he told me, had ground beef in them, and iceberg lettuce, and tomato. They were a white man’s taco of the 1960s. But he was proud of them. He loved tacos. And that love, you could argue, was a beginning place for my dad and my love of tacos. A special, unexpected etymology.
Writing this essay, however, I realized that in fact I did know that tacos were on Grandpa Don’s radar. And that’s because they feature in a scene from the 1969 drive-in classic The Babysitter—the highest-grossing film my grandfather ever directed, and one today usually described, when it’s described, as a standout in the genre of “trashploitation.” And let me tell you, The Babysitter is sleazy as hell. The tagline is, “She Came to Sit With Baby… and Ended Up With Daddy.” There a male-gazy lesbo sauna scene and much inappropriate and overwritten innuendo. It’s also full of deep family lore—too much for any of us to stand watching it. It can be read as a map to old scars.
But that doesn’t concern us here. Instead, just one scene in particular. This is when the sexually frustrated deputy district attorney protagonist establishes the first glimmer of sexual connection with Candy, the hippie babysitter/seductress. He’s decided to drive her home after an evening of babysitting, and at her request they’ve stopped to get… tacos! They sit in the car eating their tacos, and she talks him through his very first experience eating this messy, ethnic-coded cuisine. “So this is what the kids eat,” he says. She tells him to pick his taco up and eat it out of his hand. The camera is outside the car for this, so we’re spared a close-up of the assistant DA messily crunching. But then we do get close, and we see him gaze at Candy longingly, and she says to him, voice sultry, “The light is green. That means you can go.” They drive off.
Grandpa got it! Tacos are sexy. They’re messy. They’re tempting. Certainly they are difficult to eat while driving. Why not put a few in your sexploitation flick?
I’m thankful that Don’s love for tacos was passed down through the generations and reached me, his vegetarian grandson. If I have a kid of my own, I can guarantee that the taco gene will last another generation.
Most of all, though, I’m glad that tacos gave me and my dad a place to bond. We had so many good times bent over his gas range, frying up tofries and trying out something new, discussing what worked and what didn’t and why, and gradually refining our shared technique. Those are sweet memories.
Now when I visit my dad, we work on vegan tacos. I will say, it’s hard without the crispy cheese or the sour cream, the fats that balance and unite the other flavors. We’re clearly due for a breakthrough. Even so, we eat well every time, and we savor each other’s company.
It’s not in search of ultimate mastery that we cook the same foods over and over again. At least not for me. I cook the same foods over and over again because each time I do, I feel a little more whole, a little more connected to yesterday, to yesteryear, to my family and friends and past adventures and, yes, future ones too. When I make tacos, I feel at home.
This essay was originally published on February 26, 2022 as part of Lightplay, a publication available both as a newsletter and as a podcast. Thanks to Hunter Gagnon for editorial help.
What does it mean to be a self? Where does the self end and the world of not-me begin? Is identity … an illusion?
I imagine a three-panel comic, each frame zooming in on the face of a very confused man: me, Jasper, your loyal if intermittent correspondent, head-scratchily toiling over another installment of Lightplay, my newsletter about home cooking, the writing life, and—apparently—intractable philosophical questions.
Welcome to your late summer Lightplay! Please stay; I promise not to get too worked up over eternal questions of life.
Maybe it’s just been one of those weeks where I feel extra connected to the rest of humanity, the rest of planet earth. And not for joyous reasons, alas. Between the IPCC’s reiteration of the profound fuckedness of our climate emergency and the painful end of a war that began two-thirds of my lifetime ago, it’s been a long week. By Tuesday, my partner and I made a pact not to read the news the rest of the week. But still, the weltschmerz lay heavy on my heart.
So I went for a swim with an old friend who was visiting from out of town. In the Pacific: the biggest ocean in the world, and the most beautifully named. We splashed in the waves, dove under them. A million tiny bubbles. A single seal snoring some distance down the beach. Kids boogie boarding. Out beyond the breakers, a pelican splash-dove. A big wave crested. I jumped in with it, body surfing for a second, then tumbling, salt water shooting up my nose. Breaking the surface. Feeling like a seal myself. Laughing. We sat on the margin where the waves rush up the sand. Listening to the surf’s soft susurrus. Forgetting everything else.
Wherever you are, I hope you’re doing well, staying safe, and, if that’s what you need, taking yourself to the beach, getting in the water. It’s been a hard week.
I want to rap at you about espresso. Did you know that espresso is really good? Maybe I just think this because drip coffee makes me feel hollow and insane, while this concentrated coffee extract makes me feel sharp and warm and extra awake. I don’t know why that is, but I do know that I love espresso.
I don’t mean bad espresso of course, that bitter sludge that one is often served at non-coffee-snob cafes. I mean the coffee snob stuff, obvi.
The amazing thing is that you can make yourself coffee-snob-level espresso at home in under five minutes, with just a few (awesome) tools and a little practice. It’s really satisfying. Let me pitch it to you.
I. Meet the Moka Pot
Beyond how delicious espresso is, getting to use the ingenious and, frankly, steampunk contraption known as a moka pot is a big part of why at-home espresso rules.
This device was invented in 1933 by an Italian named Alfonso Bialetti. It uses the laws of physics to push hot water through coffee grounds at a rate over which you have significant control. The way it works is that you fill the lowest chamber, the “boiler,” partway with water. Then you fill the next component up (a funnel) with coffee grounds, tamped down just so. When you screw all the pieces together and light a flame under the moka pot, the expanding water vapor eventually creates enough pressure in the lower chamber that it steadily forces the water up through the funnel, through the coffee grounds, and up a further tower up to where it spills into the upper chamber, as espresso. Magic!
NB: Should you become interested in making your own espresso in a moka pot, I recommend that you get a beautiful stainless steel one, rather than one of the ubiquitous (and, I’ll admit, iconically faceted) aluminum models. Aluminum, unfortunately, is a reactive element that will both corrode over time and will leach into your espresso. Yuck! Happily, there are many stainless models available today. (Thank you Virginia for giving me my treasured moka pot almost a decade ago!)
II. The Three ‘Spresso Skills
Before I discuss the three things you can control in making espresso, can I just quickly say that I have come around to loving the way that some coffee joints call this sacred elixir “expresso”? I suspect my view is unpopular, but I think this purposeful misspelling is playful and silly and fun.
Okay, the three skills:
Grinding The size of the grind will determine how much surface area the coffee has, which in turn will dictate how easy or difficult it is for water to move through the coffee. For espresso, you want a really fine grind. But you also want it to be even, and this is really important for the coffee to extract evenly. There are many ways to achieve a good grind—the most obvious is buying a proper burr grinder. I do fine though with my $10 spinning-blade grinder. I shake it up and down as I depress the button, and I also pulse it on and off so the blade hopefully doesn’t heat the grounds too much. I don’t know if this makes a difference, but it works for me. What really makes a difference, I think, is that I’m always feeling the grounds with my fingers, looking at them, and generally trying to pay attention, noticing what works and what doesn’t.
TampingThis is the step where you compress the grounds into a perfectly dense puck in the funnel. The failure states are pretty obvious: no tamping at all and the water will create channels through the grounds by which it can avoid touching the coffee at all; too much tamping and the water will struggle to pass through and will end up over-extracting the grounds and making a bitter sludge. To tamp properly, you really do need a tamper. Luckily it’s a relatively cheap device. Once you have it, you just have to experiment and keep track of what works. I try to softly, evenly pack grounds across the funnel, then I push down firmly but not strongly (if that makes sense) with the tamper, rotating it as I go and trying to keep it level. Again, this is a skill built through making attempts and then reflecting on how it worked out as you slurp the results.
Heat Regulation Deciding how much heat to apply to the boiler is the last decision you make that will determine the success or failure of your stovetop espresso. If the flame is too high, the water will erupt through the grounds with a great deal of pressure, it’ll probably channelize, and the espresso will be both watery and bitter. Too low and it will take minutes for it to come through the coffee, over which time the coffee will overextract. The good news is, once the espresso starts dribbling out the top, you can always adjust the heat. You want the finished espresso liquid to come steadily but not gushingly out of the tower and into the top chamber. If it’s coming too fast, quickly turn down your heat. Too slow, turn it up a tad. We have a gas range here in LA, and I find that a low flame—low but not quite as low as it will go—works best.
III. Other Considerations
Picking Out Your Coffee In general, I tend to want a darker roast for espresso than for drip coffee. With lighter roasts, this brewing method tends to emphasize the bitterness. An espresso roast on the other hand will be darker, more balanced, and often a bit chocolatey. Lately, like a true arriviste Angeleno, I’ve been loving David Lynch’s A-Plus Organic Espresso.
Serving Espresso in a Nice Cup A key pleasure of espresso sipping is the little shrunken cup it comes in. The collapse of scale is delightful—and it’s important, too, to be able to brim-fill your vessel. After drinking espresso from an espresso cup, you will be horribly disappointed to return to drinking your potent but not voluminous decoction from a big ol’ mug. Don’t do it! Instead get yourself a special little sweetheart of an espresso cup.
Adding Milks Okay, philistine, let’s talk about the other espresso drinks: cappuccino, latte, macchiato, mocha, americano, red eye, affogato, and, uhhh… flat white? I still have no idea what that last one is. But for the others, this espresso is perfect! Add to boiling water, fresh brewed coffee, or over dense vanilla ice cream to make an americano, red eye, or affogato. And for the drinks that use milks, I heartily recommend getting a heating-frothing machine—a magical device in which cold milk becomes perfectly hot and insanely frothy. (This is the one we have.) I used to use a stovetop steamer but this baby is way less scary and less of a hassle. Just add your milk, press the button, and then combine it with the espresso in an appropriate vessel. (For cappuccino, I love a real wide bowl, so I can easily eat the foam!)
And that’s that on that. Do be in touch if you’re setting out on your moka pot journey and have any questions or need for hand-holding. I think you’ll eventually love making coffee this way. For me, the ritual of packing my moka pot and waiting for the espresso to burble out is one of my favorite and most relaxing moments of the day.
That’s it for this installment of Lightplay. Thank you for spending some minutes with me, your far-flung friend who is… just another part of the grand organism that is humanity, the whole of double-helix life on earth, the unity of the galaxy, universe, multiverses, and more. Here’s one part of the whole, wishing all the other parts well. Catch you next week.
What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Dear Reader —
Greetings on another Sunday in the interminable present from which 2020 is apparently fashioned. Will the year ever end? Will the final six weeks somehow outdo in chaos and pestilence the preceding forty-eight?
This morning I received one of the golden tickets of 2020: another negative COVID test result. I hope you, too are staying COVID-safe and -lucky. Now is no time to get lax in our dodging of the virus. If you recall back to August’s Lightplay 09 – the Strangest Summer, guest epidemiologist Erin Graves Quansah warned that “as the pandemic goes on, those who seemed immune to or felt unconcerned with the early waves may well end up bearing the brunt of later and, in many cases, more deadly waves.” Today this seems to be borne out, as ERs and COVID wards fill with younger patients and patients without known comorbidities. So don’t let up! Keep up the good work of protecting yourself and your community by staying safe, wearing a mask, and certainly not dining indoors around people not in your bubble.
But that’s not what I want to focus on, this Lightplay. I’d rather talk about the experience of time, portable dwellings, the sweetness of fruit. The small pieces of life and thought that lend it its savor.
I’ve spent some of the last year studying images of myself as an older man. In one image I’m perhaps sixty. In the next, I look like I might be eighty-five.
The images sometimes disgust me. Other times they terrify me. Will I really look this way? Is there no escaping this fate? Oh man, I am going to be ugly.
There’s something transgressive, in a society that venerates youth, to considering your face as an old man. It tickles all sorts of shame centers in your brain; you subconsciously reach for the anti-wrinkle gel.
Yet they’ve stayed with me, these images. I keep looking at them. And as I’ve become more and more comfortable looking at them, I’ve come to see that they have a beauty, too. It wouldn’t be so bad to have a face like that, one full of wrinkles and far from youth. For one, it would mean I had survived that long. I’d have some stories to tell. Some people might still love me, even.
To be clear, I have not been receiving time traveled photographs from the future. These images were created by an algorithm, through an app called FaceApp. The app became popular about a year ago—and quickly provoked a privacy backlash, as the company that makes it is based in Russia. Putin will have your photo!
If you can handle Putin having a photo of your face, though, it sure will turn it into a photo of an older face. And if you feed photos through twice, you can get ’em looking really old.
In one of his lectures, Alan Watts says that everyone should “observe skulls and skeletons and…wonder what it would be like to go to sleep, and never wake up.” He says that contemplation and acceptance of death is like manure: “very highly generative of creating life.”
For me, I’m happy just to consider my old, wrinkly visage. I know I’m no Dorian Gray. Time will have its way with me. But I’m forewarned. I’m warming up to becoming that guy.
The passage of time, its inexorable march, often gives me angst. Kashgar’s old city is bulldozed, Aleppo is bombed to bits. John Prine dies, Klay Thompson ruptures his achilles’ tendon. College days are over, my twenties have ended. The loss of how things were can be so sad. The golden age is always just past.
I do my best to remind myself of something else that is true: the golden age is also, often, right now. Don’t miss it. These, too, are the times that we will remember.
This is true on a personal level but also on a global one. So much beauty, history, and culture is still right here. I think of the many folkways that are endangered around the world. Somehow, so much still exists, so many people carry on life in the old ways. And today there are growing movements to protect them, to keep languages alive, and to bring back older ways of life.
I want to point your attention toward one very specific example of the way today is a golden age of protecting and documenting ancient ways of life: a Youtube channel that captures and shares the extremely various ways that nomadic peoples make shelter. It’s called Nomad Architecture.
Nomad Architecture’s videos are to all appearances made by one guy, Gordon Clarke, director of the Institute of Nomadic Architecture—also seemingly a one-man shop. He’s traveled around Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe documenting these nomadic building techniques.
The videos are entrancing journeys to distant worlds and ways of life. I find myself mesmerized, watching Khanty women harness vast herds of reindeer, watching Shahsavan men erect a beautiful round half-globe of a tent, and watching a whole Arbore family build a home out of reeds. It renews my love for this world, with such different people in it.
Of course there’s a problematics to a Brit named Gordon Clarke jetting around the world to document various indigenous peoples. With these videos I think he runs the risk of joining the long parade of Western anthropologists who have tried to document a culture and ended up—more or less wittingly—collaborating in the destruction of that very culture. I acknowledge this, and I think that these are problems we need to continue grappling with. At the same time, often past anthropological works are the primary remaining documentation of cultures and can serve as instruction for those hoping to bring back the old ways and languages.
Our world is complex. By my reckoning, at least, these Nomad Architecture videos are a meaningful contribution to our understanding of its complexity. What is best about the videos is their steady focus on the material culture of their nomadic subjects and the camera’s patient, admiring eye. They also delight as films created by an engaged, unembarrassed mind.
What’s better than going to the asian grocery and buying a big pomelo and a bag of longan? Getting a box of green figs and slicing them all up? Going to a friend’s orchard and filling a box with apples and asian pears?
This morning, I took two perfectly-ripe Bartlett pears out of the fridge and cut them into cold slices. I ate them slowly, slice by slice. They had a custardy texture and sweetness, set off by the gentle tartness of their skins.
They reminded me how perfect a fruit can be.
Treat yourself to a perfectly ripe fruit. Settle in and watch Siberian nomads erect a tipi in the biting cold. And while you’re at it, age a photograph of yourself and marvel at the years yet to come, the adventures you have yet to etch on your very visage. No matter what you do, I hope that you stay safe and happy. See you next week!
What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for eighteen weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Hello, Gentle Readers, and may your Sunday be peaceful. This is the eighth letter in this food-themed season of Nighthawk’s Notes. (Is that the name of this newsletter/email diary? Still not sure.) Thank you for reading it.
When I started this season, I said that there would be either 12 or 18 issues. Finally this week I figured out the answer: there will be 18 issues! But they won’t all be in a row. After today’s newsletter, I’ll be taking a break for the next three months—I have a lot of stuff needing doing, all of which has been made more complicated by the pandemic. You might hear from me once or twice over the summer. Then on October 11th I’ll resume sending the newsletter weekly, and we’ll finish off the season around Thanksgiving. I can hardly wait to write about the food we eat when it’s not 100° outside.
Before we get to the heart of this email, a quick thanks to everyone who read and circulated Elias’s column. He and I were both gratified by the feedback, and it seems to have moved the needle a little bit in the renaming movement. Stay tuned for more guest columns in this space—including one about biscuits!
I started baking bread in college, when I lived in a co-op with 31 other students. Our living situation was cooperative because we pooled our ‘board’ money and shared our labor to take care of cooking for each other and cleaning our two big houses. It was a good deal in some ways: we saved about $600 a semester, in comparison to what the other students living in college housing paid. But we made up for it in labor, each spending somewhere around 4-8 hours a week doing chores.
The chores were something you signed up for on a big online spreadsheet. Each had a different point value. Cleaning a small bathroom was worth 5pts, while tidying up the kitchen in the middle of the day was 4pts and cleaning our three regrigerators was 7pts. The two cooks every night each got 7pts for cooking dinner, while the person who did the dishes got 4pts and the one who washed the pots and pans got 9pts for the trouble. Chore point values were assigned roughly on the basis of demand: because many people wanted to cook dinner, it was worth fewer points than clean-up even though it often took hours longer. Everybody had to do 33pts of chores every fortnight. It was a socialist system that operated on principles of supply and demand.
One of the most in-demand chores was baking bread (7pts). There were some talented bakers at the co-op, including Abram, who had been the head baker at Deep Springs College when he studied there, and Ashley, who would go on to be a professional pastry chef. She was the one who showed me a good cookbook to start with (The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart) and how to do the ‘window pane test,’ where you test gluten development by stretching the dough thin and looking to see if it lets light through, like the webbing between our fingers does.
I was a senior when I baked my first loaves. When they came out of the oven, I was so proud. They were ugly, sure, but they were mine. They were worth so much more than seven points.
Today, it seems like half of all Americans have had the empowering experience of pulling loaves fresh from the oven—and the other half is sick of hearing about it! The pandemic has led to a much-publicized sourdough bread baking craze, including shortages of flour, dry active yeast, bannetons, popular bread cookbooks, and even instant-read thermometers. Americans love nothing more than to buy all the gadgets for a task.
The funny thing about learning a new skill is that it’s not enough to have the requisite materials. You also need to know where to start—and where to find guidance if everything doesn’t work out. A teacher or mentor is someone who does this work. But so too are books—cookbooks especially—and blogs, and forums, and even email newsletters.
I can’t teach you how to make delicious sourdough bread in this single email, but I can guide you to the resources I have found—and created—that make it possible for me to pull delicious, life-sustaining loaves out of my oven with consistency. Maybe you have a bunch of bread baking gear and have baked a half-dozen loaves so far, but you don’t know how to take things to the next level. Maybe you feel like the sourdough train left you behind, but you don’t know how to catch up. Perhaps you’re just curious what all the fuss is about. This email is for you.
When I graduated college in 2012, I knew that I wanted to get better at baking. But it wasn’t until I signed my first lease—on a tiny one-bedroom in soon-to-formerly-have-been-known-as Fort Bragg—that I got the materials and started baking bread again.
At Gallery Books, I found the first ingredient: a cookbook called Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. I didn’t know at the time that it was an international bestseller that was revolutionizing home bread baking. Instead, I felt like I was the only person encountering Robertson’s long narrative about his apprenticeship in France, his search for a specific sort of loaf he knew from old paintings, how he built his wood-fired oven out in windswept Bolinas, and his eventual to glory in the form of a popular storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story of rags to riches—but with bread!
Years later, I was reading Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough when I found what could only be a gentle parody of Robertson (renamed Everett Broom) and his cookbook. Here’s an excerpt:
The book’s introduction ran for twenty-two pages. It was a baker’s bildungsroman, chronicling Broom’s youth in Sacramento, his visits to his grandfather’s bakery, his flameout as a professional skateboarder, his addiction to a home-cooked drug known as spaz rocks, and finally his retreat to a bread-baking shack on the beach and his reformation there. There were photos, all monochrome: a young man with a thick black beard below a face so clean and cherubic it made the beard appear glued on. In a photo spread across two pages, he leaned against a homemade brick oven, for which the adjective rustic was a favor; it looked like a pile of rubble. Scattered in the foreground were various signifiers of bohemian tranquility: a guitar, a surfboard, a book with VOLTAIRE on the spine.
This is the vibe of Tartine Bread! It’s a weird cookbook, part heroic autobiography, part Pinterest mood board. But at its heart, it is a detailed guide to making ridiculously delicious bread. I studied this book.
At the urging of Robertson, I invested in a few other tools:
A digital scale to measure flour and water by weight
A dough scraper to scrape out kitchen bowls
A bench knife to help turn the loaves during shaping
Some razor blades to score the loaves before baking
A Dutch oven in which to bake the loaves
These, all told, cost me less than $100. And then I was off to the races: capturing a wild sourdough starter, mixing up leaven and then dough, letting it rise in the fridge, baking in the early morning. Some loaves came out fantastic; others were abject failures. Slowly I learned how to make bread.
You can do all of this without even buying Tartine Bread! There’s a fairly good ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version of Robertson’s method that you can find at this link. It won’t teach you everything, but it’s a fine place to start.
The main learning curves for making bread this way are getting over kneading (you develop the gluten instead by giving the bread ‘turns’), getting used to shaping and handling a wet dough, and figuring out the schedule. But the results are excellent, and the hands-on work only takes about 30-60 minutes total, once you know what you’re doing.
When I started baking this bread I found myself totally stymied by timing. When do you start? When do you bake? How long should each step take?
In my confusion, I did what anybody who enjoyed high school chemistry would do: I made a log in which I could keep track of all the variables.
It turns out it’s pretty useful to keep this kind of record. It gives me data to help sort out out what went wrong or right in any one bake. It lets me replicate more successful loaves. And I’ve even taken to stapling a polaroid of the finished loaves, as an aide de memoire. Also: the filled-out log looks pretty cool, right?
The current baking schedule I’m following—as a man stuck at home all day, every day—has me mixing up my leaven at about 10am, mixing the dough at about 3pm, shaping my loaves in the evening, letting them rise overnight in the fridge, and then baking when I get up in the morning. There’s a certain Christmas morning feeling to getting up, pre-heating the oven, and then waiting to see what sort of oven spring your loaves give you.
Here is a bread log following this schedule that I filled out for my mom—and that may be useful for you, too:
The other big piece of advice I have is to seek out many different voices, different suggestions, different techniques. I’ve found useful videos on bread Youtube (a silly, bearded place) and useful discussion threads on bread forums. Perhaps my favorite place to go for inspiration and fresh ideas is a blog called Girl Meets Rye. The author, Francis-Olive Hampton, started the blog as Tartine Bread Experiment, devoted to exploring the cookbook Tartine Bread. But her curiosity and culinary genius came to exceed the bounds of homage. I can read her posts all day long.
Here in Los Angeles, the hour grows late. The downstairs neighbors are smoking their Sunday spliff, the sweet herb wafting up and through my open window. I want to take a walk before the light fails. And then to make dinner, watch a movie. The small patterns of life that, together, are life itself.
It’s been a pleasure sharing these last eight Sundays with you. Thank you for joining me here, for sending me emails of support or gentle correction, for cooking some of these recipes along with me, and for joining me in the struggle to make our world a more just one. None of this has ended. Even though this newsletter is taking a break, we’re all still here, still hard at it. Let’s keep cookin’.
I’ll see you in a month or two. Till then, stay well and enjoy the sun!
What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for eighteen weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food (although this installment does not). To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Hello dear readers! And a happy Father’s Day to you! I hope that you each are well and—is it too much to ask?—enjoying moment of internal tranquility and reflection. That’s what I always want for myself, especially on a Sunday, especially in this unsettled year, 2020. I want it for you, too.
Sunday morning here in L.A. it is overcast and cool and quiet. It’s nice, especially in contrast to the heat of recent weeks. This weather reminds me of home, which is about 500 miles north-by-northwest of here. Up on the Mendocino Coast, summer or winter it’s often foggy. There’s so much fog that we taxonomize it. What we have here today is Grand Fog, high up in the sky. This is in contrast to Drizzly Fog, Split Pea Soup, and the deadly Tule Fog. The best fog, though, is Blowing-in-Your-Face Fog. You zip your jacket all the way up, pull your beanie down, and still the fog finds its way up your sleeves, under your collar, and into your very bones. I miss it.
I’ve been thinking about the Mendocino Coast this week because I’ve been designing an anthology of poems written by my poetry students in Fort Bragg. Their poems are so rooted to them and that place.
Coincidentally, this is also the week that a growing movement to change the very name of Fort Bragg has coalesced. This change is long overdue. The argument in favor of changing the name runs roughly like this: our namesake Braxton Bragg was a slave-owning Confederate general in the Civil War, and the military fort named after him was used as a staging ground for the systematic genocide of hundreds or thousands of Native Americans in our county.
These facts are not seriously disputed! Nonetheless, there is a lively debate under way about, as the great poet Shakespeare put it, “What’s in a name?”
Would Fort Bragg, by any other name, smell so sweet?
This week’s newsletter has three sections:
Poetry and the power of words.
A guest column titled “How Can I Help? Change the Town’s Name.” Its author is the brilliant Elias Henderson, who happens to be my brother. If you read nothing else here, read his powerful column.
An analysis of certain arguments put forward by Fort Bragg Mayor Will Lee in a recent interview.
Dana Gray Elementary School sits on the east end of Fort Bragg, up against the high school and, beyond that, the deep and silent redwood forest that still blankets our hills. I attended the school as a youngster, when there was a small baby boom (known colloquially as ‘the Millenials’) that forced the school to add a half-dozen portable classrooms between the basketball courts and the soccer field. Today those portables are largely abandoned. But the rest of the school is newly remodeled, with solar panels powering the place.
Dana Gray teaches students between between 3rd and 5th grade, about 380 of them. More than half of the students are Latinx, with the rest made up of a mix of Asian, Black, Native American, and white students. Three quarters of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. The school reflects our town’s increasingly vibrant diversity and at the same time its persistently deep inequalities. Test scores consistently lag behind statewide averages, and Dana Gray’s teachers and administrators struggle to balance its small budget with the profound needs of its students. And yet! Its students are delightful, funny, wise, and oh so creative. The school does an unusually good job of fostering these virtues, due to the devoted work of its teachers but also to its vibrant culture of parent and community participation.
One part of this culture is Dana Gray’s poetry program. For decades, local poets have sustained a tradition of visiting classrooms at the school and in each one leading a series of one-hour poetry lessons. The students read poetry, talk about language, and write their own poems. At the end of the series of lessons, each student poet has a sheaf of 4-10 poems to take home. After three years of poetry at Dana Gray, students often head off to middle school with well-developed identities as poets and mastery over many of the techniques of poetic self-expression.
For the poet-teachers, the work doesn’t pay well but it does pay, which is more than most poetry work can say. And it brings the usually private life of the writer into contact with their community. It’s a way to be useful. Over the years the program has grown due to support and funding from many sources: the county and state Arts Councils, the Mendocino County Office of Education, the Dana Gray Parents’ Club, and even the local chapter of Rotary.
I know about all this because six years ago my friend and mentor Karen Lewis invited me to lead some poetry lessons in the fifth grade. I took her up on it, and I loved the work. I took over leading the program, and every year since I’ve spent a month or two giving poetry lessons at the school. (Karen and another local poet, Hunter Gagnon, have shared the teaching load.) It is important work, sweet work, often hard work. It’s taught me so much. It’s taught me how to be a better teacher. It’s taught me how to work with students who have behavioral issues, with students who don’t speak any English at all, and with students who don’t get steady meals or parental love at home. These are sometimes the students who connect most with poetry, which gives them a language and an opportunity to speak what’s on their mind. I am regularly amazed by my students’ brilliance.
Every year at the end of teaching, I put together an anthology of these student’s poems. Getting signed parental releases is a nightmare, and typing up hundreds of chicken scratch poems can be tiring. But it’s all worth it to see the joy of students when they receive a professionally printed book full of their and their peers’ poems. We print about 450 copies—enough so that every student in the school gets a copy, regardless of whether their poem is featured. For some students, these are among the first books that they have ever owned.
And they are so full of joy, beauty, laughter, wisdom, sorrow! Here are the poem excerpts I included on the back cover of the 2018 anthology:
Who could fail to be charmed by these kids and their sweet poems? For me, they provide a lot of hope for the future of our town and planet.
And yet I fear they are swimming upstream. Our society has deep fault lines and fissures. These mostly trace back to the U.S.A.’s foundation on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Black people. We have yet to have a full societal reckoning. And nothing has made this more clear than the protests after the murder of George Floyd by our state security forces.
For these sweet kiddos growing up in a not-so-sweet society, the pervasive failure to take the past seriously is visible even in the name of the town in which they study.
Maybe, just maybe, we can do something about that.
How Can I Help? Change the Town’s Name
by Elias Henderson
With protests sweeping the country in the wake of the shocking murder of George Floyd, many concerned citizens have found themselves asking, “How can I help?” Luckily, if you live in Fort Bragg, the answer is simple. Change the town’s name.
In 2015, eight members of the California Legislative Black Caucus sent an eloquent, impassioned plea to our town’s leadership: “We are hopeful that you will engage your community in a serious reexamination of the historical implications of your city’s name and come to the conclusion that now is the time to end your ties to such a disgraced and treasonous figure in our nation’s history.” Then-mayor Lindy Peters responded, “You cannot change history.” Well, let’s talk about the “history” that is represented by the name Fort Bragg.
Braxton Bragg, our town’s namesake, was born in 1817. After graduating from West Point, he rose through the ranks to become a colonel in the United States Army. He won distinction for his role in the Mexican-American War, where he served under future president Zachary Taylor. A severe disciplinarian, he was so hated by many of his men that they twice attempted to assassinate him, once by detonating an artillery shell beneath his cot. Miraculously unscathed, he went on to retire from the US Army in 1856 and soon after purchased a sugar plantation and 105 enslaved African Americans.
Five years later, the Civil War broke out and again Bragg signed up to fight, this time as a general in the Confederate Army. After a string of ignominious defeats caused by strategic blunders, his resignation was accepted by Jefferson Davis in 1864. About the only good thing that can be said of Bragg is that his disastrous incompetence contributed to the military defeat of the Confederacy.
Why does our town bear the name of a disgraced Confederate general who never set foot here? The military post was established in 1857 in response to a petition from 51 settlers, all white men, who threatened an “Indian War” if the government did not protect “their property.” The lieutenant who founded the outpost named it for his former commanding officer, the soon-to-be confederate Braxton Bragg. For the next eight years, troops stationed in Fort Bragg subjugated the indigenous population, participating in violent campaigns against Native Americans as far north as Shelter Cove. After many of the remaining Native Americans were forcibly marched to Round Valley in 1865, the military post was abandoned. Thus ended the brief military history of Fort Bragg.
In his 2015 response to the Black Caucus, Peters went on to say, “We are a tight-knit community who do not favor changing our name, especially when pushed to do so by politicos who have never even visited our town and know nothing of our long and rich local history.” But one has to ask, which part of our “long and rich local history” is represented by the name Fort Bragg? Is it our non-existent connection to a slave-owning general who committed treason against his country? Or is it civic pride in the brief moment a century and a half ago that our town was used to perpetrate genocide against Native Americans, a handful of whom still live here?
There are numerous alternatives that bear actual, meaningful, and positive connections to our town’s history. I’m partial to Noyo, the name of a historical Pomo village near Virgin Creek and of the river to which our town owes much of its prosperity. Whatever name our community decides upon, we could hardly do worse.
Recently, the bastion of progressivism that is the United States Army announced its willingness to reconsider the name of its largest military base: Fort Bragg, NC. It is past time for our community to do the same. Join me in calling for the Fort Bragg City Council to place a referendum to this effect on the November ballot. Place the decision in the hands of our community. The time for cowering behind the threadbare excuse of “history” is over. The time for change is here.
(If you’d like to thank Elias for this column, email me and I’ll pass it along.)
Although it would have required only a few hundred signatures for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot—a number that could now be collected in an afternoon—the deadline for submitting such signatures was in mid-May. For obvious reasons, no one was out in front of Harvest Market trying to get signatures in April and May: the shelter-in-place orders were in effect, and the murder of George Floyd had not yet shocked the conscience of a nation.
Yet a measure can still be placed on the ballot, if three members of the Fort Bragg City Council vote for such a plebiscite. I hope that they will do so.
Unfortunately, it seems likely that the council will take the path of passive resistance, refusing to place the question before the voters until the present moment of urgency and enthusiasm has long since passed. Why do I fear this? Because friend-of-the-newsletter George Steeley passed along this recent segment of Forum in which Michael Krasny interviews the current Mayor of Fort Bragg, Will Lee. Lee is just one vote among five on the council, but while he says he has not yet made his mind up about the name change, he sounds quite confident that he already knows what the people of Fort Bragg want: no name change and no vote on a name change.
Here are five quotations from Mayor Lee’s interview, which reveal popular arguments for keeping the name unchanged. (Full disclosure, Will Lee was part of the council that fired my mom after she served twelve years as Fort Bragg’s City Manager.) I have followed each of Lee’s statements with some commentary.
‘I can say that the majority of the people of Fort Bragg—and we’re a city of 8,000 people—the majority reject the proposal to change the name of Fort Bragg, as this has come up to us several times in the past. Just as recently as 2015 we were dealing with this same issue, and the people were overwhelmingly rejecting the name change. However this time around seems different.’ – Will Lee
Lee is certainly right to hedge this very strong statement about what ‘the majority of the people of Fort Bragg’ want by acknowledging that ‘this time around seems different.’ But it is ridiculous to claim to know what the majority of people want while refusing to actually ask them in a timely manner.
‘If the people of Fort Bragg decide that they want to put this on the ballot then there’s a citizen’s initiative to gather signatures, put it on the ballot, pay for it, and then vote on it. It would not be the five city council members recommending a ballot measure, at least not on Monday night’s meeting … I believe that it is up to the people of Fort Bragg and not just five people to decide this contentious issue.’– Will Lee
This self-contradicting statement reveals the shoddy logic of keeping this off the ballot. The people should make this decision. We, their elected representatives, can’t make it for them. But we can’t presume to put it on the ballot and ask them to make the decision. If only Lee realized how ridiculous this sounds.
‘Certainly we are well aware of systemic racism in our country, hatred and bigotry. I will point out that the City of Fort Bragg, California was named after Braxton Bragg before the Civil War. The City of Fort Bragg itself has no ties whatsoever to the Confederacy. And so Braxton Bragg retired from the U.S. Army, and then when the Civil War started he fought for the Confederacy because he had property in Louisiana, a sugar plantation. And so we recognize the long, dark history of slavery in our country, but the people of Fort Bragg do not feel that that in any way defines our culture and our society here. So we certainly understand that.’ – Mayor Will Lee
This is what’s known in rhetoric as the ‘shit sandwich.’ You say something nice and conciliatory, then you say the mean thing that you really want to say, and then you conclude with something nice and conciliatory. In this case, Lee is trying to conceal two flimsy excuses for keeping the name. The first is that Fort Bragg has no ties to the Confederacy. This is contradicted by the fact that soldiers at the original fort abandoned their posts to go fight for the side of slavery—and also by the fact that Confederate flags bumper stickers are to this very day regular features on the city’s streets. The second excuse, that the fort was named after Braxton Bragg when he was just a slave-owning soldier and before he joined the Confederacy, is equally flimsy. When Civil War broke out a few years later—and in the century-and-a-half since—people have continued making the active choice to keep the fort and then city named after him. What Lee is making here are excuses, not arguments. The worst part is that, despite it forming the bulk of Krasny’s question, Lee entirely neglects to mention the genocide of Native Americans that was carried out from the fort itself.
‘Now, we get to the point of paying for it… With the COVID shutdown the City of Fort Bragg has had to cut $1.5M from our budget. That may not sound like a lot of money to the Bay Area, but to a small, rural town like us that’s several jobs at City Hall, we furloughed, laid off, closed City Hall, cut services. Thank God we didn’t have to affect our public safety, police, and fire, or public works. But there are people laid off. So the whole cost of this matter is another major consideration. Who’s going to pay for it?’– Will Lee
The economic pain caused by this pandemic is real, but can that in good conscience be an excuse not to right a historic wrong? The council declined the chance to change the name in 2015, when the economy was doing just fine. The truth is there will never be a perfect time to get rid of this racist relic of our past. But there can be a right time. That time is now.
‘We don’t even have a cost [estimate] for what that would entail. So we don’t know. So [Advocate News] editor Robin [Epley] suggested, I’ve also heard it, we could sell the name. We could have a Survivor Island Fort Bragg, and whoever wins gets to name the city, and then the $50M dollar jackpot would pay for changing all of the names. We would all need new driver’s licenses, passports, the deeds to our house. And it just goes on and on and on. And so, who’s going to pay for that?’– Will Lee
To take this serious proposal that our town change its name in light of its connection to slavery, Civil War, and genocide—and then to joke about ‘selling’ it or making it into reality TV? It’s rude. That number, $50M, is an attempt to scare people away from having an actual conversation. And the idea that a name change would instantly invalidate all official documents? That’s not only wrong, it showcases Lee’s refusal to take this seriously. The town of Greenwood, 30 miles south, changed its name to Elk just so it could have a post office! And this man throws around $50M as if he knows what he’s talking about.
I hope that the rest of the City Council treats this more seriously. I hope they choose to stand on the side of history, justice, and the belief that words have meaning.
Now it’s afternoon. The fog has burned off. The police choppers are out, circling over a demonstration that looks like it might be headed down La Cienega. It’s time to bring this edition of my email diary to a close and send it off to you, dear reader.
I’ll close with a story that I ran across in a military history of Fort Bragg. One of the stories it tells is about how, after establishing a fort just north of the little town of Noyo and naming it after Braxton Bragg, the soldiers decided to comission a painter to record their handiwork.
‘Lieutenant Gibson had two paintings of the post made by Alexander Edouart, an artist of San Francisco. One was retained by Gibson who later stated, “One I sent to Genl. Bragg, then not in the Army, but Mrs. Bragg years afterward told me that it was burnt when the Genl’s mansion and plantation were burnt or destroyed by the Union troops in 1864.”’
Burning the plantation—a machine for turning enslaved people’s labor into money—was in keeping with both the strategic and moral interests of the Union Army. It was part of the same strategy that led the U.S. to turn Robert E. Lee’s estate on the Potomac into a tribute to the hundreds of thousands who died fighting to preserve the nation: Arlington National Cemetery.
I can only imagine the feelings—joy? relief?—of the over one hundred people who had been enslaved by Braxton Bragg, watching his plantation burn to the ground. And I love thinking about how as those flames burned, the painting that commemorated how our town was named after him also turned to ash.
It’s past time we finished the job. Change the name!
What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for sixteen weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Hello! This is the sixth installment of this email diary, and I vowed in the first one that this season would run for either 12 or 18 installments. I’m still not sure which one! Either way, thank you for being with me on this journey. We’re either half-way or one-third done.
A brief email diary today. Sometimes I want to say so much (I see you nodding), but other times it feels more right to sit with silence. To be receptive. To follow.
Today is one of those days.
In lieu of writing a long essay, I want to share with you some of these signs from this morning’s march against police violence. I think these signs, partly due to their roughness, capture something of the the sorrow and anger of these protests—and also some of the humor.
The protest began up on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and then it headed west, cutting down onto Sunset and then onto Santa Monica. There were maybe 30,000 people filling miles of street, with nary a policeman in sight. (Except, of course, the ever-present helicopters.)
The mood was oddly quiet, less fiery than last week. There was still plenty of chanting, plenty of fellow-feeling. It was just a little less intense. The rage and stark sorrow of the early days has shifted into a steely resolve.
Maybe we all feel a little tired, seeing so many reminders that this fight won’t be won in a day. I know I can feel this weariness. But then I gird my loins and vow to aid in this struggle as long as it takes to deliver justice.
When we returned to our apartment, we were tired and hot and ready to sit. We needed something to cool us down and pick up our spirits. We needed popsicles!
So I opened the freezer and took out the mango popsicles I had set up to freeze in the morning. They were just the thing. A true refreshment.
And so I ask: why does our society relegate the popsicle to childhood? Why do so many of us willingly forget its charms just so soon as we hit our teens?
When we moved to L.A. in January, I finally bought a good set of reuseable popsicle forms off the internet, for about $20. They came the next week. I fill them with juice, give them a few hours in the freezer. In the afternoon, especially if it’s a hot day, all I have to do is grab one, run it under warm water until the plastic mold slides off, and ta-da: I am eating a delicious popsicle.
May I recommend mango popsicles, made using Russian mango juice purchased at the corner deli? That’s my current go-to.
In the picture above, you’ll see my sister’s favorite: concord grape juice. It does make an excellent popsicle. (Cassie got back into popsicles the way many people do: by having a kid.) The grape juice is a vibrant dye, however, so be careful you don’t drip on your white clothes.
My all-time favorite popsicle must the apple juice popsicle. I know, I know, the freezing forces much of the apple essence to the surface, leaving behind only vaguely apple juice-y ice crystals. It is not a ‘flavor-bomb for your mouth.’ Quite the opposite; this may be the quietest of the popsicles.
In lieu of instense flavor, the apple juice popsicle is redolent of hot summer afternoons when I was four. Feeling the breeze on my skin, wondering what life would be. Standing outside because I wasn’t allowed to eat popsicles inside. Looking at my sand box, my tricycle, the Pacific Ocean. Enjoying the way an hour passed, how much it held, how long a day was. How filled with wonders.
Those endless popsicle days constituted an era of my life. Only this year have I discovered how to time travel back to them.
I hope today has had some wonder in it for you, dear reader. Perhaps the wonder of seeing your fellow citizens rise up in the name of justice. But if you’d like a little more wonder, a few sweet minutes of it, consider the humble popsicle!
What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for twelve weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Hello! It’s nice to see you again. Thank you for opening this email, this erstwhile cheese sandwich blog that has been pressed into duty as a chronicle of protest. Since last Sunday, it feels as though years have passed. Time is so plastic, stretching to fit the weight of events. And 2020 has insisted: stretch, stretch, stretch. It’s been a year for the books, and we’re not even halfway through it.
Last week I heard from a handful of you who were surprised and/or delighted to learn about the efforts of protesters to clean up the morning after an evening of sometimes violent protest and property damage. It ran against some of the images being presented on our screens, which are algorithmically optimized to showcase violence, fire, and blood. Truly here we are, beyond the reach of F*$%book, out where we can talk about the important stuff.
Since you last heard from me, I have actively joined the protests. On Wednesday and again yesterday I marched on the streets of Los Angeles. Each event filled me with so much hope. Partly this must just be a result of finding myself in a crowd of thousands after three months cooped up in my apartment. But I think it’s also because in these protests I see America talking to itself. Asking itself to do better. And so many are showing up to say, ‘Yes, we will do everything we can to do better.’
Today I want to talk more about the tactics and the tactile feel of these protests. Hopefully you will hear something you haven’t heard yet—and understand what’s happening a little bit better.
But first—a video! This comes courtesy of my friend Johanna Case, a gifted filmmaker who graduated just this spring from the New School. (You can view more of her work at her website.)
Yesterday, Lisa and I met up with Johanna and her partner Ben. We walked to Pan Pacific Park where we joined several thousand other protesters. There was a teach-in at the park and then a march through West Hollywood, towards Beverly Hills. Johanna took video of everything. And when I asked if she would share her footage with you, she speedily put together this video for the newsletter. It’s hot off the presses—please enjoy!
Recipe for a Protest Movement
Many have tried to explain why some protests grow and change the world while others fizzle without making a mark. In one of my favorite books, the great Why Civil Resistance Works, the authors collect data about every major social uprising of the last century, see that violent uprisings tend to be less effective than nonviolent ones, and try to answer why. One of their conclusions is that violence seems to keep a movement from growing to include grandmothers, pregnant women, children, and others whose lives are precarious. It makes sense, and the authors bring receipts.
But no two movements are the same. The current protests differ in major ways from the 2014 protests that followed the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And their tactics differ even more profoundly from the 2011 Occupy movement, the ongoing Gun Violence protests, and the Anti-Iraq War Protests of 2002-11. So what are the tactics of the current protests? How do they feel? And why do they seem to be having such a big effect?
The following “recipe” comes from my observations as a protester—and as a reader of news, the internet, and emails from readers of this newsletter. By its very nature this is an early draft. But I hope you will find it informative and useful. (And let me know if you have any further insights!)
There Is A Large Support Apparatus
It is striking the degree to which protesters are taking care of each other. In both the marches I participated in I encountered dozens of people circulating and handing out bottles of water, squirts of hand sanitizer, free face masks, snack bags. The support aparatus—this weight of generosity—makes everyone feel safer and more comfortable. Restaurants along the route of the march sometimes hand out glasses of water or, memorably, slices of pizza. Meanwhile a few support cars drive in the middle of the protests, handing out water, carrying protesters who feel faint, and even distributing single cut flowers for protests to hold.
Then there are the organizers working around the protests: the clean-up crews coming in the day after, the people running bail funds to help get protesters out of jail, the legal observers recording what happens, and the lawyers working pro bono on behalf of protesters targeted by police.
People spontaneously pouring into the streets can be powerful, but to keep those people in the movement requires support. Today this support is arriving on a scale I have never before seen.
The Tactics Emphasize Education
It may look on TV like protesters are spending their time yelling at cops, getting beaten by them, and demanding various changes. In fact, one of the central activities of the protests is education: first-time protesters are learning about the prevalence of police violence against black people, learning about the system’s refusal to change, and learning about the strength of collective action.
Yesterday at Pan-Pacific park, several thousand protesters sat in the grass, totally silent, listening as a woman with a bullhorn gave a history lesson about systemic racism. She talked about Tanya Lynn Blanding, a four-year-old girl who was killed by police or the National Guard during riots in Detroit in 1967. The speaker brought her up to show how police violence against black bodies isn’t something new. ‘My grandfather marched fifty years ago for the same things that I’m marching for today,’ she said. ‘And probably my grandchild will have to protest fifty years from now.’
After this teaching, everyone stood up and began marching. With the march came chants. ‘Black lives they matter here!’ ‘No Justice / NO PEACE! / No racist police!’ ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ These were also educational in a way, especially the core chant of these protests—’Say his name / GEORGE FLOYD’—which inevitably shifts to ‘Say her name / BREONNA TAYLOR,’ reminding people of this other recent victim of police violence.
When I first heard this chant, I didn’t know who Breonna Taylor was. Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old ER tech in Louisville, Kentucky. Around midnight on March 13th she was asleep in her apartment when police broke down her door with a battering ram, swarmed into her house, and promptly shot her eight times. She died right there. The police had never even knocked or said they were police or announced why they were there. (It turned out they were investigating two people totally unconnected to Taylor, who were in fact already in police custody.) How did this happen? Because of a “no-knock warrant,” a legal authorization to burst fully armed into a private home without any warning. No-knock warrants are legal in 48 states—but these protests are aiming to change that.
If you participate in these protests, you learn more. You get angrier. You become more committed.
There Are Policy Goals—And Wins Are Being Notched
Most protests aim to change the way their government acts. But some are more coherent in their demands than others. These protests, which come after almost a decade of activism by the various organizations around Black Lives Matter, have some very specific demands. A central demand is to defund and demilitarize the police—and to reinvest the saved money in programs that benefit black communities.
Here in L.A., the protests have already gone some way towards achieving that goal: the mayor is proposing to cut $150M from LAPD’s $3B budget, and he is also vowing to steer $250M to programs benefiting black communities in the city. This isn’t a panacea, but it is a tangible win for the movement, showing that with good politicians and broad public support change can actually happen. In Minneapolis, where a policeman murdered George Floyd while three others watched, the protests have had an even bigger effect: its city council is now vowing to dismantle its police department and create a new system of public safety. Wins like these keep wind in the movement’s sails.
Black People Are Leading
A key organizational tactic of these protests is for them to be led by black people. This is smart because it nurtures black leaders, it means that the movement’s actions follow its values—and also because white people often have serious blind spots.
Here in West Hollywood there was a small dust-up when the organizers of the annual Pride march, which had been cancelled after covid-19 fears, decided to un-cancel it and re-imagine it as a march in support of black lives. This was a great idea, especially because black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson were at the very front lines of the gay liberation movement. But the lead organizer of the march, a white man, promptly asked the police for demonstration permits. The activists leading the current protest movement questioned this decision to ask police permission for a march against police violence; part of the motivation for these protests is a questioning of the idea that we should need police permission to protest. To the credit of L.A. Pride, they quickly stepped back from organizing the event and rescinded their permit applications. I am confident that the march will still happen—I intend to join it—but now it will be led by black people.
The good news is that white people seem to getting better at following, at supporting, at being allies. You can see it on the streets: white people standing alongside black people, giving support without hogging the mic.
The Protesters Are Profoundly Diverse
You see every type of person on the streets. The signs tell it well: “Latinos for Black Lives,” “Armenians Against Police Violence,” “Black Trans Lives Matter,” “Yellow Peril Supports Black Lives.” (This last one is a reference to a classic sign—“Yellow Peril Supports Black Power”—from the 1967 campaign to free Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers.) The diversity of this protest movement is a sign of its strength and durability. It also reflects the interconnectedness of the many struggles for justice today. As one sign reads, “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter.”
The Protesters Are Overwhelmingly Young
This is striking here in Los Angeles, where protesters under the age of 18 seem to easily outnumber those older than 40. This is not to say that there are no older protesters. It is to say that there multitudes of young protesters. It reminds me a lot of the Hong Kong protesters—a group of people who have never yet had the chance to grow complacent—and who worry that if they are silent, they might never have a chance.
Our country’s political system is strongly tilted to favor older folks, who dominate the ranks of active voters and elected politicians. My eyes suggest that, should that balance change, the direction of this country will change dramatically, too.
The Protests Are Now Peaceful—Except the Police
As the raw rage of the early days after George Floyd’s murder has given way to a giant protest movement, the incidence of violence against property and provocation of police seems to have dissolved. This is certainly the case here in Los Angeles, where giant crowds have marched peacefully with almost no police supervision (beyond the omnipresent helicopters). It turns out that when not provoked by police, this movement is deeply committed to the tactics of nonviolent resistance. Which is no surprise, given the groundwork laid through years of nonviolent Black Lives Matter activism. But it is notable.
At the same time, police have committed many of the signal violent acts of the last week-and-a-half. Perhaps nowhere has this been clearer than when military police gassed and assaulting peaceful protesters in D.C.’s Lafayette Square so that our president could have his picture taken holding up a Bible like 12-pound salmon. But here in Los Angeles we have also had incidents of police intentionally ramming protesters with their cars, clubbing peaceful protesters, and even smashing out windows to drag people out of their cars for the crime of driving after curfew.
There’s a word for this: a police riot. I only learned the term this week, but I really believe that once you have a word for something it’s a lot easier to see it. According to Wikipedia, a police riot is “a riot carried out by the police; a riot that the police are responsible for instigating, escalating or sustaining as a violent confrontation; an event characterized by widespread police brutality; a mass police action that is violently undertaken against civilians for the purpose of political repression.” Now that you know what it means, keep your eyes open for one. And if you see one, say something.
8:46 is a Long Time
The police officer Eric Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. That is a very long time. I know that it is because this length of time has become a tool of the protests. On Wednesday, a little after noon, I joined a silent mass of protesters in trying to kneel for that long. Others in the protest were staging a die-in for this time, laying on their stomachs against the hot pavement, hands mock-cuffed behind their backs. Minutes passed. My knees hurt. But well before eight minutes passed the people laying face-down had to give up. They were in too much pain. Just the hot asphalt, plus 8:46, was too much. It proves a point.
That night, a call went around social media for people to go outside at 9:00pm and shine flashlights into the sky for, again, eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It would be a tribute to George Floyd, a devoted man of Christian faith, dispatched to heaven much too soon. Lisa and I went down to the street, where we found that there were others on our block answering the same call. We all pointed our flashlights to the sky and waited. Minutes passed. Then more minutes. It took long enough that the mind wandered, was called back, and wandered again. It was hard to think of anyone being killed like that. Finally the alarm on the phone went off. We said ‘Good night’ to our neighbors and went back upstairs to eat dinner.
Consider the Smaller Marches
The major newspapers are covering this story by focussing on a few major cities that have had massive marches: Minneapolis, New York, D.C., Philly, Los Angeles. But I think that equally hopeful are the thousands of protests in small towns across the country. Even in L.A. there are easily a dozen protests every day, and giant groups have come together in more conservative Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. The same is true in rural places. Dozens protested in Unalakleet, Alaska—population 697. And from Mendocino County Vincent Poturica writes to say there have been protests not just in Ukiah, Willits, and Fort Bragg, but also in Laytonville and Gualala. (See this invaluable—but only partial—worldwide map of George Floyd protests.) They may not get the glory of appearing on national TV, but isn’t it beautiful and heartbreaking to imagine this country as consisting of a thousand main streets, each holding a crowd bearing signs that affirm, “Black Lives Matter”?
That’s all for this week. I hope you’re well, and I send you my very best. As always, feel free to forward this to a friend, or to send me an email of dissent or affirmation. See you next week.
. What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for twelve weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Hello! And thank you for spending a moment—in this moment—with my words.
The first thing to say is that I hope that you and your people are safe.
This morning in L.A. was the first since 1992 that the National Guard has walked these streets. The last time before that was in 1968. Each time it has been for the same reason: to suppress widespread, violent protests that began after policemen brutally attacked a black man.
I don’t have the answer. But I know that today I can’t write about a cheese board, which had been my plan. It’s not that food isn’t important, but there’s a man named George Floyd who will never eat another meal. My heart hurts. .
There are thousands and thousands of protestors across the country who have had rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray fired at them, harming their bodies and particularly their lungs. .
Right now, in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, a pandemic that is disproportionately harming black communities. .
As they protested the death of yet another black man whose last words were, ‘I can’t breathe.’ .
Yesterday, when I meant to work on this newsletter, I instead compulsively watched live TV of the protests here in Los Angeles. It consisted mostly of aerial shots of the crowds. Helicopter’s-eye-view: the native medium of L.A. television.
From so far up in the sky, you couldn’t make out people’s faces, their humanity. You just saw a mass of people roiling in front of the police lines. An SUV was burning and others had been covered in graffiti. You could see police aiming their big guns at the ground. At the bottom of the screen a chyron read, “POLICE VEHICLES BURN.” Above this, in tiny type, it said, “George Floyd Death Protests.”
The main Saturday protest was not far from where we live, and I thought about joining. But I found out about it late, and I’m scared of violence and don’t want to march with people who are breaking things. Excuses were made. Instead, I made a sign saying “Black Lives Matter” and put it in my office window. It felt like a half-measure, but at least it gave me something to do. .
Around six o’clock, my phone honked with a Public Safety Alert: the mayor was imposing an 8pm curfew. Lisa and I decided to go for a walk before then, to ‘take the temperature on the streets,’ as I put it. At first things seemed quiet, if on edge. The main sound was the buzzing of helicopters. I counted seven, up there near the first-quarter moon.
Dazed-looking protesters sat on the curbs of Fairfax, a few still holding cardboard signs from earlier in the day. Some were trying to summon Ubers and Lyfts to take them home before the curfew, but the people running the rideshare apps had decided to cut off services in the area of the protest.
A giant pickup truck waited on the side street across Fairfax. It had a menacing look, with a half-sheet of spray-painted plywood strapped to the outside of the driver’s side door. I worried it might be some counter-protester, a racist hick looking to pick a fight. But when it pulled out onto Fairfax I could read the spraypainted words, “I CAN’T BREATHE / BLACK LIVES MATTER”.
We walked south. Down a few blocks we saw emergency vehicles, lights flashing, blocking the entire four lanes of Fairfax. We’d seen enough, and we turned down a side street, back towards home. We passed small groups of protesters. Everyone wearing masks.
It was a warm night. The street trees were full of fragrant blossoms.
When we came to the corner of the street we live on, I noticed smoke rising to the south. There was a lot of smoke, billowing into the sky, a police chopper circling low over it. I decided to take a picture with my phone, trying to frame it to include smoke and helicopter, a few protesters down the block, and a flowery hedge in the foreground that made the scene feel incongruous, apocalyptic.
Right as I was snapping my picture, a car gunned its engine and charged into the intersection. We turned and watched as tires squealed, the car drifted. It was a maroon sedan. It turned and kept turning. It was doing a donut, right there in the intersection, not ten feet from us. Time slowed down. I could see the driver: white, maybe thirty or forty, hair cut short. Not a protester. The car’s tires clipped the opposite curb and the driver gunned the engine again, doing another donut, swinging near again, rubber burning. Lisa grabbed me and pulled me away. We hustled behind a parked car.
Finally, he drove off. Doing 40 or 50 mph down our street, barely braking for stop signs. We walked home as fast as we could, wondering if we might have just been menaced by one of the men from the apocalyptic civil war cult we’d both read a long, scary article about. ..
Lisa and I shut every window in the apartment and closed every blind—the first time we’d done this since moving in months ago. Our living room was still loud with whining sirens and the terrific din of a half-dozen police choppers hovering over the neighborhood. I stared at the live helicopter feed on my phone with the sound turned off. I wanted to know what the police were doing, whether the protesters were getting closer, as the sound of the police choppers suggested. But the camera operator kept the shot zoomed in on a shoe store that was being ransacked by a crowd of maybe 20 people.
I watched, entranced, as people ducked under the metal grating, which one man was holding up. A minute later, they’d come out with a few shoe boxes. Was this really what you wanted to steal most? What if you got the wrong size? The potential consequence—entering our profoundly punitive criminal justice system—seemed to me to be totally unworthy of a pair of overpriced shoes. Finally I mentioned my confusion to Lisa, who was sitting next to me on the couch, staring with a look of horror at her own phone.
“I don’t think it’s about the shoes,” she said. .
As soon as she said it, it became obvious: of course it’s not about the shoes. This was another type of protest, a more impulsive, opportunistic one. My understanding turned on its head, and now I could hardly believe my earlier confusion. Thinking like that was partly a consequence of the camera’s insistent framing of what was happening as just one thing: looting. It was infuriating—here the TV station had a tool that could be used to give us a real sense of how things stood, whether things were spiraling out of control, what the police were doing. Instead they focused solely on this prurient image of a handful of people stealing a handful of relatively inexpensive goods.
When I finally turned my screen off, I could hear through the window the tell-tale *whumph* of tear gast canisters being fired, sounding so much like the launching of fireworks.
I thought about what a shame it is that when our capitalist overlords destroy and steal, their crimes are so much less telegenic than these ‘looters.’ When billionaires, led by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, increase their wealth by half a trillion dollars during this pandemic, there’s no camera circling overhead, framing it as a despicable travesty. As the U.S. government made decade after decade of decisions that ensured Native Americans would remain, after half a millenium of colonization, radically more vulnerable to disease than white people, where was the helicopter shot? When vulture capitalists swarmed in during the Great Recession to buy up foreclosed homes in black communities, making “the homeownership gap between blacks and whites … wider than it was during the Jim Crow era,” where the fuck were the news helicopters? .
This morning when I drew back the blinds on my kitchen window the first thing I saw was a woman walking down the street carrying two brooms and a dustpan-on-a-stick. Their cardboard wrappings revealed they were fresh-bought, probably from Tashman Hardware up the block. She was headed towards Fairfax, to help clean up.
After breakfast, Lisa and I walked the three blocks down towards Melrose. As we neared this major shopping thoroughfare, the sidewalks filled protesters carrying signs, curious locals, media. The feeling was less tense than the evening before. Still, I only saw one person out with a kid.
Where our street comes out onto Melrose, there was a broad police line, behind which firemen worked to douse a smoldering storefront. It had held a nail salon called Pearls and part of the Shoe Palace sneaker empire, which stretches across three storefronts. Firefighters had been trying to control the blaze all night. Steam and smoke rose in damp curls.
Across the street, a half-dozen black-clad protestors were hard at work cleaning graffiti off the window of a barber shop. Others were sweeping up broken glass, trying to clean up the mess of the night before. The protesters who try to stop vandalism, who clean up from destruction, all while putting their bodies on the line for the same cause—we hear so much less about them. They are less photogenic. They’re less sensational. Their actions don’t play as obviously into our culture’s stereotypes about struggle. .
I return to the eternal question: what is to be done? Stay safe, first, and take care of your people. Beyond that, I don’t think there are easy answers. However I do know of two things that you really should do, as soon as possible.
Read this essay by Kareem Abdul-Jabar. Before you judge anyone for stealing a pair of sneakers, read this article. Especially if you are white. Really, it is not to be missed.
Give money to your local bail fund. Here is the one I’m donating to, in L.A. During a summer when jails are among the worst loci of covid-19 infection, getting protesters out from behind bars has never been more important.
I hope this week brings peace and justice. Please reach out if you have a suggestion for what I should be doing to further this struggle. Let’s keep working together. And maybe next Sunday I’ll be able to write about that cheese board after all. See you then.
. What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.
Hello—and a good Memorial Day to you! This is coming a day late, but isn’t the Monday of a three-day weekend really, on a spiritual level, a Sunday?
My whole life I’ve thought of Memorial Day as the “unofficial beginning of summer.” Somewhere along the line I also learned that it’s the date after which it’s “okay” to wear white. A good weekend to barbecue!
Yesterday it hit me more than it has before that our cheery little day off is, to take it at its word, supposed to be a day to memorialize the soldiers—humans, mostly men, mostly about my age or younger—who lost their “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it, working for Team U.S.A. in the bloody ritual sacrifice by which our species has often resolved its disputes. It’s so intense. I’m not un-grateful for the sacrifice of these men and women. They were brave. I’m especially glad they beat the slavers and the Nazis. The British Empire, too. But more than anything, I wish they hadn’t had to die.
The idea of a memorial has so much power in it. Memory is a fragile thing. It needs preserving—and celebrating.
The physical memorial that inspires the most feelings in me has to be the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A depression in the National Mall, filled with a vast horizontal monolith. When you get up close you can see the name of every single young man who died in that war, etched on the black stone. Phonebook-thick catalogs are available to locate a particular name from the 58,220: the name of a brother, uncle, father, son, friend. Maya Lin’s design famously captures both the vastness of the loss and the particular tragedy of each missing life.
We need more memorials. A gun violence memorial. A covid-19 memorial. We need to remember. We need to give ourselves space and time to grieve—and to work collectively towards the goal that these stupidities never happen again.
That’s what I’m thinking this Memorial Day.
After writing the preceding paragraph, I found this Sunday’s New York Times at the grocery store. In a small but beautiful way, it actually does this. The first four pages of the paper memorialize 1,000 of those killed by the pandemic. I recommend taking the time to read some of these names—and the brief descriptions that run alongside them, spare silhouettes that gesture at the full lives we have lost.
. I’m honored to have you reading my writer’s diary for a third week now! I’m trying not to dwell too much on the pandemic, as I figure you spend enough time thinking of that without my help. Instead, I continue to be excited to talk to you about my food and the writing life.
This week, I have been full of thoughts about storytelling. Telling a story is so human, so universal. What kid hasn’t found themselves, after an unusually momentous day at school, suddenly excited to answer the eternal question, ‘How was school today, honey?’
‘Mom, you wouldn’t believe it…’
Yet when you call yourself a writer and try to tell a good story, it can seem suddenly, damnably hard. It’s a mystery. I’ve tried to solve this mystery by reading books about the craft of writing. (Some are really quite useful!) I’ve attended lectures, spent mornings deep in writing workshops, and acquired an MFA. I’ve even tried out one of those Hollywood plot formulas called a ‘Beat Sheet.’
But the best way, bar none, that I’ve found to learn about storytelling is to pay attention to the great stories I encounter out in the wild. Some are in the form of novels, movies, magazine articles, histories, podcasts, parables. Others are the stories friends tell—the ones that have me sitting on the edge of my seat, laughing along, asking ‘Then what happened?’
. Here’s a story: When I was three, maybe four, my parents took me on a trip from our home in rural Northern California down to Los Angeles to visit my grandma Mimi, who lived in a condo in North Hollywood. I remember very little about this trip, except for one event—and I remember this event because my grandma never let me forget it.
Mimi was born Mary Anne Morar in Canton, Ohio in 1924. Her parents were each freshly naturalized American citizens. They had separately left Romania to seek their fortunes in the U.S., where they met, married and spent the rest of their lives together. So Mimi grew up in an ethnic enclave of first- and second-generation Romanian immigrants based around the Romanian Byzantine Catholic cathedral there. While Mimi was as American as April in Arizona (in Nabokov’s phrase)—even serving heroically in the Second World War—she always spoke Romanian with her parents, she briefly imported a handsome young Romanian man to be her second husband, and when she passed away last February, at 95 years old, she left behind a small family foundation dedicated to the study of Romanian culture.
Mimi was an excellent Romanian cook, a master of mamaliga, cornulete, and, especially, sarmale—the Romanian version of Pigs in a Blanket. This is where our story truly begins. Because, you see, even as a young child I was a vegetarian. Were a few morsels of salmon to be placed in a dish in front of my high chair, I would cast it to the ground. When my dad dangled a choice bit of flank steak in front of my mouth, I pressed my lips firmly together until he laughed and gave up. I steadfastly refused to take even a single bit of meat. By all accounts I was a pretty easygoing kid, but when it came to meat I was as willful as they come. I have always struggled to articulate the root cause of this inborn vegetarianism, but from birth I basically forced my parents to accomodate it.
This was all well and fine with my generous parents, but when we visited my grandmother and took our meals at her table, it was hard for her to understand it. How would I grow up to be a proper Romanian if I couldn’t eat most Romanian food? (Like so many diasporic communities, ours was within two generations reduced mostly to a cuisine.) She encouraged me to at least try sarmale. She was sure that I would discover it was delicious. The flavor of ground pork, rice, and herbs, all wrapped in a big, pickled cabbage leaf and baked till the flavors mingled into a thing of beauty—what Romanian boy would turn his nose up at that?
I understood how important it was to my grandma that I try this dish, and I really wanted to make her happy. At the same time, I found myself haunted by this phrase, ‘Pigs in a Blanket,’ that everyone kept using to describe the sarmale. It was terrible to think of eating a cozily snoozing animal. I spent a long time thinking about it, and then one evening before dinner I told Grandma that I wanted to try her sarmale.
She was delighted. I remember that very clearly.
For an hour we could both believe that I was going to fulfill her wishes. But then we were all seated at her table, under the chandelier. The sarmale was served. There it was on my plate. The pickled cabbage wrapping was greenish and slightly translucent, a few wisps of steam betraying that it had just come out of the oven. It smelled of cooked cabbage, of brine, and of the umami of browned meat. It smelled good.
I tried, I really did. I picked at it. I sawed off a sliver of cabbage and ate it. I unwrapped till I got to the meat, and then I tried to get my nerve up to eat it. I couldn’t eat it. I wanted to have eaten it. I avoided my grandma’s hungry eyes and pushed the meat around with my fork. I took another little bite of the sour cabbage. How could I get the meat to go away? How could I get myself to eat it?
Finally Mimi couldn’t help herself. She said, ‘Jasper, are you going to eat your sarmale?’
‘Yes, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I am eating it…’ Here I apparently paused for dramatic effect. Then I said, ‘Methodically.’
. Do I really remember saying this? My grandma probably told me the story fifty times. She loved it. I think somehow that the improbable precociousness of a four-year-old dodging his pushy grandma with the perfect $10 word must have so tickled her funny bone that it made up for the sorrow that I refused to eat her prize dish. She was a kindergarten teacher who loved telling stories and dreamed of one day writing her own novel. It was enough that young Jasper loved words.
I do remember sitting there and looking at the wrapped meat dumpling on my plate, feeling nauseous. I remember the chandelier. Maybe most of all I remember the smell of the cooking sarmale, the rich cabbage and pork smell, the smell of grandma’s house before her famous Romanian dinners.
Why did it work as a story when Grandma told it? Well, it had a good punch line. It was somewhat unusual, had different particulars than other stories. But I think the best part was the joy that she took in telling it. She savored how uncomfortable I had been. It was delicious to her how much she had wanted this thing from me. The pathos of it were so intense, the way she told it. And then they were resolved in such an unlikely way. Listening to her tell the story—that’s where so much of the pleasure was. It was in the telling. It was in her joy.
. In the last years of her life, my grandma Mimi lost most of her memories. It was the gradual, inexorable progress of Alzheimer’s disease—every month that went by left her a little more childlike. The body, a vessel filled by nine decades of experience, became empty once more. By the end, most of what remained was her glinting soul, and it was a blessing that Mimi was quick to smile and easy to get laughing, even when she was disoriented and swimming in a sea of confusion.
In the logic of ‘first in, last out,’ many of the memories that lasted the longest were those of childhood. Mimi would talk about her father’s backyard garden and his barrel of sauerkraut in the basement, next to the illicit, treasured barrel of wine. (Prohibition was still in effect.) She would describe the big feasts put on by the Romanian church, and how there would be dancing afterwards.
Around the time last year that Grandma passed away—with all her progeny at her bedside—my dad became very interested in making his own sauerkraut. Just like great-grandpa Vasile, Dad had his own cabbage patch. Now all he needed was to send off to Ohio Stoneware for a pair of three-gallon crocks and he could, in more than one sense, keep the old culture alive.
After his first batch, he gave me an enormous glass jar packed with fermented cabbage to take home with me. Lisa and I ate it all. It was delicious.
A few months later, I was visiting him and noticed a big box of cabbages from the farmer’s market. They had been purchased to make more kraut, but my dad felt like he’d missed the window of opportunity. The cabbages were too old now.
‘What?’ I said. ‘That’s ridiculous. Why don’t I take the cabbages and one of your crocks, I’ll ferment them, and then I’ll give you a big jar of kraut ready to eat?’
This is how I acquired my prize crock: highway robbery. It’s also how I learned to make saurkraut, Romanian style.
This sauerkraut, properly known as varza murata, differs from the classic German-style sauerkraut in one major way: the cabbage is not shredded before fermentation. Instead, it is kept whole (or halved or quartered), so that the leaves may be used later as the wrapper for sarmale. This means that the juices of the cabbage cannot provide, on their own, enough liquid to cover the cabbage. You have to add brine.
. A Really Big Wide-Mouth Jar or Small Crock A Weight to Hold the Cabbage Down – (the simplest version is a plate slightly narrower than the jar, weighted with a river stone that has been boiled and scrubbed)
. Cabbage – 4 medium heads, cored Kosher Salt – 1/2 cup (do NOT use iodized salt) Water – 16 cups Whole Black Peppercorns – 2 tablespoons Garlic Cloves – 4-8, cut in half Bay Leaves – 2 Fresh Dill – a small bunch (optional) Fresh Horseradish – two inches, split into sticks (otional)
. 1. Boil the water and salt, stirring till the salt dissolves. Allow to cool. 2. Pack the jar with the cored cabbage and other ingredients. If you want to, you can halve or quarter the cabbages so they fit more tightly. 3. Pour the brine to cover all the cabbage with about an inch of brine. 4. Place the weight on top, making sure that all of the cabbage is submerged. 5. Cover with cheesecloth and place in a dark corner of your home. The crock should ideally stay around room temperature, but if it’s in a cool place it will just ferment more slowly. 6. Wait four weeks, regularly checking to make sure everything is submerged, adding more brine if need be. You can also ensure that no molds are forming. 7. Around week three, begin tasting your kraut. It should get more and more sour. At a certain moment, it will be perfectly sour for you. This is the time to radically slow down fermentation by transferring the kraut to a jar with a lid and putting it in the fridge. It is ready to eat!
Cut into narrow strips, it makes a delicious small salad.
As a sour addition to crunchy salads.
On top of nachos.
On top of a fully dressed baked potato
In breakfast tacos that are also filled with scrambled eggs. (Surprisingly delicous.)
Beside pierogis or latkes, along with sour cream and apple sauce.
With sausages, vegan or otherwise.
As the wrapper for a mystical vegetan version of your grandmother’s sarmale. (I still need to try this one.)
I’m afraid I don’t actually have a picture of my or my father’s Romanian-style sauerkraut. We’ll have to make do with this picture of the 3-gallon crock I stole from my dad. In the picture it had just released a deliciously sour batch of more German-style kraut—a scrumptious pink from the blend of red and green cabbage. This one I mixed up following the recipe in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation. If you are interested in fermenting some food of your own, GET AHOLD OF THIS BOOK. Here’s his bio: ‘Author Sandor Ellix Katz is a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist.’ His explorations in fermentation developed out of overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition, and gardening. A long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, Katz considers fermented foods to be an important part of his healing. A native of New York City, the author is a resident steward of Short Mountain Sanctuary, a queer intentional community in the wooded hills of Tennessee.’ How terrible it would be not to have this encouraging, non-prescriptivist fermentation fanatic guiding us on our journeys!
. One of the very best movies I’ve seen this year is The Florida Project. (It streams for ‘free’ on Netflix.) Like Mimi’s story I think this film’s excellence has something to do with the joy of its telling. It is a hectic, harrowing story of what it’s like to be a little kid in difficult circumstances: your young mom is sometimes turning to sex work, there’s no dad in the picture, you’re being raised in a long-term hotel in the shadow of Florida’s Disney World, and the most responsible adult you know is the delapidated hotel you live at’s manager, an overworked and precariously employed man (played by Willem Dafoe). The hotel manager knows what she doesn’t—that her innocence won’t last forever. He and the girl’s mother, flawed people, do what they can, in a society that relentlessly exploits and punishes its weakest members, to protect her precarious childishness. Watch it!
(& if you enjoy The Florida Project, consider reading “The Magic Kingdom,” a long essay in The Baffler about the film, and Disney World, and the American imagination.)
. The other night, around midnight, Lisa already asleep, I was doing the dishes by the wide open window, through which a soft, warm breeze was blowing, when a powerful feeling came over me. It had wrapped up in it longing, possibility, being-in-nature, and contentment. It washed through my bones.
Though the moon was a waxing crescent, the way I felt I can only call Warm Night Full Moon Feeling. I have felt it before, sitting outside, all alone, under the summer stars. It feels like nature is on your side and you on its. Like everything is possible, everything is just a story. Like the air is there for breathing and you can feel the moonlight on your skin. Like the night will never end.
I hope that this summer you get some Warm Night Full Moon Feeling, too.