Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Leaven Life: Sourdough

Yeast is familiar to us for a few reasons, the most appetizing being their critical role in making beer, wine, and bread. At some point, people discovered this cute little trick that yeast does. It eats sugar, shits alcohol, and farts COtwo. (Did I say this was appetizing?)

Yeast is in the air. Many moons ago, probably somewhere in Egypt or Mesopotamia, someone mixed ground wheat with water to bake over a fire. The paste was left out for a while, and when it came time to bake, they found the dough was like twice the size it was before. Yeast farts. When you bake the dough after yeast has done its thing, you get a lighter, spongy-er bread that’s pretty tasty.

The yeast/gas action is known as leavening, a word most of us were probably first exposed to in its negative form: unleavened bread. The Jews use unleavened bread for their Passover celebration. Maybe it was because of those Egyption bastards who had enslaved them. Leavening was probably all the rage along the Nile, and the Jews were like, look at those assholes with their asshole bread all ballooned out and stupid looking. What assholes. Hence, unleavened bread for the Passover.

You can do this today. Mix a cup of flour and a cup of water together in a container and let it sit in the open air for a few hours. Then put a loose-fitting lid on the container, let it sit for a few days, and watch what happens. It starts bubbling. This is COtwo. You have enslaved yeast to build your pyramids of French bread.

Now, it’s kind of hard to do this in Indiana. Some places are famous for the ease with which you can capture yeast out of the air and create a sourdough culture. San Francisco is one of these places. The Midwest is not. I’ve tried to do this several times, and have only been successful once.

[There are also people who think the "yeast in the air" theory is bullshit, and that the yeast is actually already in the flour when you mix it with water. I prefer the airborne yeast theory because it is demonstrably cooler.]

The recipe I used that worked (can't find it at the moment, but there are a bunch online, along with this great article on the topic) called for pineapple juice. This is supposed to create the optimal environment for yeast to survive in your petri dish. Specifically, it produces an acidic environment, which is good for yeast and apparently bad for bacteria. That’s what’s happening in your container there, a battle between yeast and bacteria, and you want the yeast to win. But there’ll always be a little bacteria in your starter, as you keep this bubbling goo going for years and years.

After 3 days or so, you start “feeding” the thing, which means you add equal parts water and flour and stir it up. You’re adding food (sugar) for the yeast to keep them alive, but as I said, some bacteria will stick around in small amounts. The buggers just won’t go away, and that’s what gives the sour flavor to sourdough bread.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cloud Atlas

It's been a while since I've read a book as creatively structured and stylistically diverse as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

I'm putting a mild spoiler notification here...

The structure of the book could be compared to a mountain, with the first five chapters residing on different altitudes or clines. Each cline is a somewhat self-contained short story, and the sixth chapter is the summit of the mountain. Here are the titles of the first 6 chapters and the style they're written in:
  1. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"--19th century travelogue at sea
  2. "Letters From Zedelghem"--Modernist, set in the 1930s
  3. "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"--mystery novel set in the 1970s
  4. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"--contemporary cockney gangster style a la a Guy Ritchie script
  5. "An Orison of Somni~451"--Philip K. Dick-ish sci-fi future
  6. "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After"--sci-fi even further into the future with Clockwork Orange level invented language (actually, that far into the future, it would be like someone who spoke middle English reading modern English--so it's not an argot but a futuristic version or dialect of English)
These chapters, as I indicated, have nothing to do with each other, for the most part. Chapter 2 is not a continuation of chapter 1. But there is a connection between the two. The main character from chapter two, a young and wayward British musician who's sort of apprenticing with this old, half-blind composer in Bruges, ends up finding a copy of the travelogue that we have read in chapter 1. But that's the extent of the connection. There is no significant role that chapter 1 plays in chapter 2. Maybe all the chapters could be said to have a thematic connection, but the plot connections themselves are tangential.

The same kind of link is made between chapter 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and so on. The previous chapter is almost non-chalantly referenced. That's it.

So, you might be wondering, how many chapters are there? There are 11. And here's another thing I haven't mentioned. The first 5 chapters end in the middle of things. They're cliff-hangers. The sixth chapter is complete, but chapter 7 picks up where chapter 5 left off. Chapter 8 completes chapter 4, 9 completes 3, et cetera. Here's what it looks like using the mountain analogy:

5         7
4                  8
3                            9
2                                       10
1                                                11

You don't get the conclusion of chapter 1 until you travel up the mountain and come back down to the same cline at the end of the book, at chapter 11. In that way, the entire book is a kind of mystery, where threads are lost and picked up again, in a satisfying way. Or maybe I should say, they are unsatifisfying as a typical mystery. What I mean by that is, for the most part, I don't like mysteries. They usually get all neatly wrapped up in the end. Things are too tidy. Life isn't like that. Mitchell links his chapters and supports his themes (according to my reading they are slavery/colonialism/consumerism and human nature), but he leaves a lot unresolved. 

His next book is actually being released tomorrow. It's called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Jesus' Son

Jesus' Son is a collection of short stories which are linked by common characters. They take place in Iowa or there'a'bouts, in the '70s as far as I can tell. The only other book I've read by Dennis Johnson is his Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke, which was a heck of a lot longer. Jesus' Son is basically a concentrated dose of what he seems to do best: show messed up people doing messed up things, using spare/raw language with flashes of religious imagery now and then. The characters have a  fuckall attitude and are very much in the moment. This is the sort of down-and-out-full-blooded life, sans sophisticated self-consciousness, that American poets have been writing about since Whitman.

It's also damn funny. Especially the story called "Emergency".

The title comes from Lou Reed's song, "Heroine":

--When I'm rushing on my run.
   And I feel just like Jesus' son...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

At the Window

[Wrote this one a while ago.]

At the window I can see
that this is a good morning
to walk a dog.

Socks is rounding the corner,
high stepping it, his paws hopping
like popcorn in the pan.

And there's Buster and his
busy tail which regards no one
and no thing, whacking and
thumping up the sidewalk.

I wonder what their real names
are and if they just might be
the names my wife and I have
given them. We are dogless
and childless and nameless
for that.

I walk to the bathroom door
and ask if she's ready to
go yet, and then I'm back
at the window, watching
a dog I've never seen before,
a gaping mouth that curls
up at the corners, all teeth
and tongue and breath.

There goes Jester, I say to
myself and head over to the
front door when I hear the
roaring flush.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Leaven Life: Yeast

The first quantum revolution was in Biology.

Physicists first started using the word "quantum" in the early 20th century as a way to describe the basic make-up of our universe at the smallest scale.

There was a nagging unanswered question scientists and philosophers had been asking about physical reality for millennia. If you break matter down to smaller and smaller chunks, will you get to the smallest chunk possible, the basic building blocks of matter, or not? Is matter infinitely divisible? We are familiar with the answer to that question now. Matter is made of atoms, and smaller atom like particles, so yes, matter is made of building blocks.

And energy, it turns out, comes in small packages as well, called quanta (plural form of quantum). It is quantized. It all fits together with the e-equals-emcee-squared concept. Matter and energy are equivalent and ultimately grainy, pixelated and, at the smallest scale, freakin weird. We refer to this discovery about physical reality as the quantum revolution.

But the living world is also quantized. Everything that is alive is made up of a bunch of small building blocks called cells. Your cat, the tree in your lawn, the ants on your floor, the mold on your bread, they’re all made out of a bunch of little blocks, or sacks, with molecules inside. Cells can combine to form all kinds of shapes and sizes, organs and organisms, one of the most complicated being homo sapiens and their conscious brain.

If you chop up a living creature, you will eventually get to the smallest chunks they are composed of, the cells. Of course, you can chop up cells too and look at the molecular stew inside, but at that point we aren’t looking at the biological world anymore. The point is that plants and animals aren’t just homogenous bodies which can be divided in any old way. We are made of organs made of cells, which are then, yes, tiny bags of chemicals.

Robert Hooke discovered the first cell back in the 17th century, and the cell theory of life was first proposed in 1839 by a couple'a German guys. It seems like we don't hear as much about this revolution as we do about quantum physics, but it was just as epoch making. Our bodies are communities of trillions of tiny living blobs. Weird.

Life on earth began when the first cell came into existence. It took a while for single cells to start congregating to form multi-celled organisms, but there have always been single celled organisms hanging around since the big-biological-bang. One of them is bacteria. Another is yeast. And yeast, my friends, is what gives life to bread.

Friday, June 18, 2010


This is another short novel I've read recently, by Nicholson Baker. Ok, what to say about this book. Hmm. I liked it. I did like it. The writing is good. It's all dialogue, so I should say the dialogue is good. Witty. Accessible. The characters...well there are only two of them. Um. It's one long phone sex conversation. The entire thing. Phone sex.

This is a good book.

I've never read any erotica before, and this definitely counts as erotic. Literary erotica. Erotic literature. It may not be your thing. But I do recommend this book because of the way Baker's characters develop a real connection and intimacy during, and in spite of, something as superficial and smutty as phone sex.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy Bloomsday

All of the action in James Joyce's Ulysses takes place on June 16th, 1904. Fans of the book celebrate the date as Bloomsday, named after the main character Leopold Bloom. It's basically another Irish holiday excuse to drink. Here's a refresher on Ulysses--a comix adaptation of the novel. Looks like it's not completed, though.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

By Night In Chile

I'm gonna start going back and writing at least a few sentences about the books I've read lately. Hopefully I'll warm up and start doing some full-blown reviews in the future.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano contains two paragraphs. The first paragraph takes up just about the entire 152 pages of the book. The second paragraph is one line. The whole thing is an all night rambling monologue by this old Chilean priest. He basically tells his life story, which intertwines with the literary history of his country over a good chunk of the 20th century.

At this point, after reading The Savage Detectives and 2666, I find it hard to be objective about Bolano. This is how it is with me. I read two or more brilliant books by an author, or watch two or more brilliant movies by a director, and I'm convinced they are geniuses. And can do no wrong.

By Night In Chile doesn't disappoint. The style is similar to Savage and 2666, in that he's able to jump from one story to another without losing you, without losing momentum, and his typical themes and motifs are there, buggery and all. Except maybe grotesque violence. I don't remember grotesque violence being in there. Then again, maybe it was, but I'm just so numbed by 2666 that it paled in comparison.

If there's a weakness to this, no I don't think there is one. I tried.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Leaven Life

For about 10 years now I've been baking bread. Some years have seen more loaves than others. A professor of mine at Huntington College was the first person to show me how it's done. He taught me how to make dough and knead it by hand, and that's the way I've been doing it ever since.

I'd like to really get back into baking, so I thought I should do some regular posts on the subject. Fresh bread is one of my favorite foods. The smell fills the whole house, the rustic loaves look like a frickin still life by Chardin, and the taste makes you want to smack your mother.

Here's the loaf I've been making for about a year now. It's a whole wheat boule made with a brotform. This is the loaf I'll be writing about in the next few Leaven Life posts, and I'll get into brotforms and yeast and kneading and all that in the future. Right now I'll just list the ingredients (some of the amounts aren't included because there are two ways I make this--with bakers yeast and with wild yeast):

whole milk
1/2c oats
1tsp salt
1/8c oil
1/8c brown sugar
1 egg
1/4c wheat germ
wheat flour
bread flour

Oh, and as a p s, I'm not writing this as a master baker or anything. Please point out if I'm doing something stupid or if you have a tip that'll help me out or if I've done a sucky job of explaining something.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's up now

Recently I was feeling guilty about how many books I buy, and then BAM! I read this. The more books you have in your house, the smarter your kids'll be. And thank goodness I know now that correlation is causation, so there's no doubt these studies are solid. This is my license to buy. Check it out:

"The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is 'as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.'"

500 books! So like 1000 books would be twice the advantage of having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and four times the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father, right?! I need to get more bookshelves. For the sake of my not-so-distant-future children.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Smoked Chicken

This past weekend I smoked a chicken for the first time. Well, I cooked a chicken with smoke. Actually, I don’t have a smoker, I just put some soaked mesquite wood chips on charcoals. Turns out, it doesn’t work out that well if you put wet wood directly on the coals, ‘cause it kind of dampens the heat. And you need heat for an hour to cook a frying chicken on a charcoal grill.

So I had to finish it in the conventional type oven, but man was it tasty. I soaked the chicken in brine for an hour beforehand, and rubbed the following spices on its tender body: curry, cumin, chili powder, black pepper, cinnamon. Come to think of it, those are just about the exact spices I used for my chicken curry. Anyway, et vas juicy. And smoky. I ended up simmering the carcass with some carrots and celery to make chicken broth, which has quite the mesquite flavor.

Also made some fresh salsa with black beans. I’ve been trying to make stuff with fresh beans. And by fresh I mean soaking dried beans overnight and boiling them for an hour. I know you can get real fresh beans at farmers markets, or so I’ve read. Never seen them at the grocery, though I don’t know if I’ve looked. I just want to stay away from canned stuff, if possible.

Monday, June 7, 2010

More lists

Classics I want to read:

Histories (Herodotus)
Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)
Decameron (Boccaccio)
Discourses On Livy (Machiavelli)
Essays (Montaigne)
Faust (Goethe)
Demons; Notes from the Underground (Dostoevsky)
Middlemarch (Eliot)

Anything by Balzac
....               Stendhal
....               Swift

20th Century fiction I want to read:

Love in the Time of Cholera (Garcia Marquez)
The Tin Drum (Grass)
Hunger; Growth of the Soil (Hamsun)
Finish Proust (already read volume 1 of Remembrance of Things Past)
Blindness (Saramago)
To the Lighthouse (Woolf)
Catch-22 (Heller)
Nostromo (Conrad)
On The Road (Kerouac)
The Bell Jar (Plath)
The Master and Margarita (Bulgakov)
More Murakami (already read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Anything by Coetzee
....               Alice Munroe

21st century fiction I want to read:

Netherland (O'Neill)
Oblivion (Wallace)
Cloud Atlas (Mitchell--currently reading)
Middlesex (Eugenides)
Austerlitz (Sebald)
Nazi Literature in the Americas; Amulet; The Skating Rink; Antwerp (Bolano)
The Known World (Jones)
Anything by Coetzee
....               Alice Munroe
....               Zadie Smith

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Didn't finish

I was reading this essay on the Millions, about books started but never finished. And this piece about the books you feel like you should have read already, or want to read before you die.

Here's my list of books I’ve started and want to go back and finish:

Don Quixote (Cervantes)
Tristram Shandy (Sterne)
Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon)
Mason and Dixon (Pynchon)
War and Peace (Tolstoy)
On Human Nature (Hume)
Madame Bovary (Flaubert)
The Metamorphosis (Kafka--no excuse for this, I've never read any Kafka)
The Golden Notebook (Lessing)
The Magic Mountain (Mann)
Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
Invisible Man (Ellison)
Galapagos (Vonnegut)
Democracy in America (Tocqueville)
The Order of Things (Foucault)

Books I’ve started and probably won’t finish.

The Evolution of God (Wright)
Sources of the Self (Taylor)
Midnight's Children (Rushdie)
Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas)
Suite Francais (Nemiravsky)
Emile (Rousseau)
Rabbit, Run (Updike)
I'm sure there's more...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Men's Room

I need to do a little public service announcement for women. This may not come as a shock to some of you, but I don't think you all are aware of this. Some men don't wash their hands after using the restroom. And it's not just the guys who look like they don't wash their hands. If you're looking at a guy and you think, "He looks like the kind of guy that doesn't wash his hands," he doesn't. But, as I witnessed today, it's not just those dudes. It's also some of the other dudes. This guy had on a suit and tie and was well put together, nice haircut, close shave. Dangled and left (no, those aren't the same thing). And what's worse, he had a briefcase in one hand the entire time. That's kind of impressive, actually, because of the dexterity involved. But he could not have been very precise in his execution. And he walked right out without even running his hands under some water.

The more you know.

(I just realized this is the second post I've done in two weeks about the public restroom. Maybe I should rename this blog "Sub-sub-custodian".)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fruit Flies

They came without our permission.
There was no introduction, no
consideration for the untidiness of our apartment,
the sink full of dishes, half a lime balancing
on the countertop next to the rotting banana peel.

In fact, they didn't seem to mind
the opened bottle of wine, the cheese grater
caked with cheddar. They weren't put out
by the refried beans in our trash
or the chopped onions and olives
on the cutting-board.

What else could we do? We tidied up,
said goodnight, and turned out the lights,
tip-toeing into the bathroom.
But they were there too, hovering
over the faucet, doubled by the mirror,
red eyed and exhausted.

They were above our heads
as we brushed our teeth, our eyes
fixed upward as if we were in a
renaissance painting, gazing
at an angel or the crucifixion.

The next morning you were already sick
of them. You stood in the kitchen
in your nightgown with a bowl of cereal,
wondering aloud how there could be
so many, how they could multiply
overnight while we slept.

You looked up ways to kindly ask them to leave.
We are not cruel. An empty spaghetti jar
would do, full of apple-cider vinegar
and a few swirls of dish-soap.

Our decency kept us in the bedroom,
reading on a bright Saturday morning,
while they drowned one by one.

But still there were a few left, crawling
on the blue tiled wall above the stove,
slowly navigating between the trash can
and the refrigerator.

Maybe we've just killed the vinegar loving strain,
I said, mumbling something about genetics.

Wine works too, you said as you poured
the deep red Cabernet into an empty olive jar
then reached for the dish-soap.