November 2008


In honor of my recent move to New York City, and in order to keep up with a quest that has been AWOL for more than six months, I have decided to preemptively announce the next Pilsner in my quest for a good, Czech-style lager in the United States.  That beer will be the Prima Pils, brewed by Victory Brewing Company from Downington, Pennsylvania.  Technically, we’re talking about a German Style Pils; but given the American micro-brewer’s tendency to go over the top, I’m assuming that Victory’s German Pils will come off more aggressively hopped, and, therefore, more Czech.  

This post will accomplish two primary objectives.  (1) It will motivate me to continue updating this blog; and (2) it will force me to update this entry, post-tasting, within the next couple of days.  Just call it a contractual agreement between my tastebuds and my brain–the latter of the two being in the arena that could use the extra motivation.

I think I’ll be heading to the irredemably frat-ish (but well-stocked) East Village Tavern after work today, to see if they’ve got the Prima Pils on tap… so stay tuned!

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I have a bone to pick with my brother, Neal (or Boozhie, as he is more commonly known).  A few days back he opined the following thought:

Shallots are for babies; Onions are for men; garlic is for heroes.

I’m unsure of the origin of this quote: whether he found it somewhere or composed it himself.  And, grammatically, I am impressed.  A big fan of creative and appropriate semi-colon use, I applauded the architecture of the sentence.  However, the message, I fear, is inaccurate.

Not to say that babies shouldn’t eat shallots, or that garlic isn’t for heroes, but the flow of the sentence implies a hierarchy whereby shallots are inferior to onions, which is, in turn inferior to garlic.  It seems as though your implication here, is that shallots are for wussies.  This, sir, I cannot abide!  I raise my sword in defense of the noble shallot, and will not permit her name to be sullied by someone I otherwise respect.

Therefore, Boozhie–consider this my response. My dropped gauntlet, as it were…

The admittedly three-day-old roasted vegetables that I am about to tear into for lunch at work today.  Pardon the crummy presentation.

The admittedly three-day-old roasted vegetables that I am about to tear into for lunch at work today. Pardon the crummy presentation.

Since I’ve moved to New York, where the Farmer’s Markets persist year round and seasonal eating has become a way of life, I’ve become enamored with a very simple fall dish: roasted vegetables.  There are a few keys to this dish:  oil (I’ve taken to grape-seed over olive), diversity (that is to say, the adequate balance between root vegetables–unpeeled, of course–and non root vegetables), a simple array of spices (salt, pepper, thyme, and, if I’m feeling adventurous, a little fresh rosemary), and, last but certainly not least: the onions/garlic.  Clearly, an entire bulb of whole peeled garlic cloves is essential, but recently, I have begun to appreciate the spectacular flavors of whole roasted shallots, particularly when paired with turnips, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

If you care to endeavor garlic’s superiority over shallots, I challenge you to eat this dish.  Sure shallots are a little more expensive, but, I would insist, they’re worth the investment.  And I hope that you reconsider your otherwise witty remarks, and make room for the noble shallot.

And please save some room for leeks in your semi-colon-spattered taxonomy.  They’re also well worth the inclusion…

Book CoverI’ve finally gotten around to reading McDonough and Braungart’s influential Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and within the first few pages, I can immediately understand the book’s street cred.  The book itself is a polymer–composed of plastics, rather than paper.  Its waterproof, and 100% recyclable.  However, given McDonough’s obsession with practicality–redesigning simple items like carpeting and shoe soles–I was surprised and disappointed by his willingness to retreat into utopianism.  

How can one be forward-thinking without being utopian?  I don’t know frankly, but I can tell the difference between productive utopianism, and counter-productive utopianism.  McDonough (and Braungart; I don’t want to neglect our co-author) manages to do both.  

In terms of public policy, Cradle to Cradle is, in a word, spectacular!  The idea of legislating waste by requiring manufacturers to dispose of the products they produce(a utopian idea, to be sure), I’m certain, if it were ever established, would greatly reduce the amount of heavy metals going into our landfills, and would conversely reduce the amount of virgin materials that we need to expurgate from the earth.  Relatedly, I’m afraid that his semi-Orwellian guarantee that landfill mining will be a major growth sector in the coming years is spot on.  In addition, the collaborations that he has worked on to produce materials such as recyclable carpet, etc. are noteworthy.  

His argument against so-called “recyclable” plastics is stunning.  Though I had never actually thought about it, I didn’t know the vast qualitative differences that exist between the recycling potentials of glass and plastic.  Glass can be melted down and reconstituted forever, essentially.  A plastic bottle of water, on the other hand, cannot under any circumstances return as the same plastic bottle.  Each time it is melted down and reconstituted, its quality is reduced.  Therefore, when you recycle a water bottle, it doesn’t come back as a water bottle; it comes back as a parking cone, or a playground apparatus, or some such thing.  In short, the degradation of plastics is absolute.  And, when you consider the equally absolute law of the conservation of matter, the frightening realities of our reliance on virgin plastics hits you (or at least it hit me) like, well, a parking cone to the face.

All that said, I was left with a very sour taste in my mouth after having finished this book, and McDonough’s excitement over what I would call architectural utopianism, is the sole culprit.  

In graduate schools across the country, the great utopian thinkers of modern architectural and urbanist thought are taught not as shining examples of forward thinking, but instead are off-handedly guillotined every semester in our graduate classrooms as examples of large scale planning gone horribly awry–Corbousier, Ebeneezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, even Olmstead to a certain extent (see Riverside, IL, not Central Park, NYC).  In fact, I would argue that the most infamous of all urban planning quotes was Daniel Burnham’s “Make no small plans.  The lack the ability to stir men’s souls” (or something to that effect; I’m too lazy to play factchecker right now).

And yet, generation after generation of urban thinkers are prone to the large plan.  Its just so glossy, and new, and the answers are so clear and concise, and, “consarnit”, even revolutionary!  But, every time, within a few decades, the big plans (Cabrini Green; Civic Centers across the country; cul-de-sacs; pedestrian malls) are exposed as careless, under-nuanced and over-funded, and prone to political or social collapse.  And, yet the circle continues as McDonough has fallen into the same glittering trap.  

Instead of towers in the park and garden cities, McDonough gets all twitterpated about his grand plans for sustainable cities: huge plans for huge cities, sweeping changes, a new paradigm for urban design, lots of fancy graphs and artistic renderings of perfectly manicured green-roofed cityscapes and aerial views.  And ooh, look at that fancy powerpoint!  I wanted to just stand up and say (despite this being a book, and there being nobody to complain to) “How?”  In China, where one of his major projects is located, he flings up these fancy pictures on the page, and doesn’t bother to mention basic political hurdles such as, I dunno, land ownership, cost, or god-knows-what-else.

A front-porch clad, New Urbanist House

A front-porch clad, New Urbanist House

I guess I just don’t trust that kind of thought.  Its one thing to plan a perfect city in your head where everyone acts rationally, and you can save the world through urban design, but to implement it verbatim frightens me.  The new urbanists (the darlings of progressive urban planning theory in the mid-nineties) are learning this fact now.  You can require front porches in newly built neighborhoods (and they look mighty fancy!) but nobody is going to sit on them.  Nobody is going to sit on their stoops, because there’s no reason that people should.  The fall of close knit communities was not linked to the departure of the front porch from American architecture; it was caused by two primary inventions–television (the lesser of the two) and air conditioning.  And new urbanists suggest that people can keep their TV’s and sir conditioners, just as long as they have sidewalks and front porches.  Its a joke!  

The only thing worse than a house without a front porch is a house with a front porch that’s never used.  That’s the problem with McDonough.  All of his micro-analysis is wonderful, but his translation from treatise on waste to manifesto on the future of architecture doesn’t reflect the political, social or economic complexities of urban environments.  

In short, I’ll recommend this book to anyone.  However, I will recommend that they put the book down when McDonough unveils his bright, shiny, perfect sustainable city.  I generally avoid things that are bright and shiny to begin with; things that are perfect are outright dangerous.