Of all people skeptical of the backyard chicken fad, I’m sure I come across as an unlikely one.  So it is with great shame that I have to recommend this article in the New York Times from a few days ago:

“When Problems Come Home to Roost”

The author, Kim Severson, rightly characterizes the backyard chicken craze as a fad, like the potbellied pigs of a decade ago.  Like any fad, many people jump in head first without acknowledging the risk, commitment, or education and skill involved.  Severson rightly points out that a lack of attention to these issues by unprepared and inexperienced owners–as well as the unavoidably strange and unique biological climates that urban and suburban areas contain–often lead to some bumps in the road.  In the case of San Francisco, new diseases and other persistent health problems have emerged, and many unprepared chicken owners have begun abandoning their hens and roosters at animal shelters.  These unprepared and overly hasty owners have unfortunately given the movement a bit of a black eye.  No offense to the people featured in the article–I’m sure they meant well–but they are far from the victims in this story; the abandoned and sick chickens are.

Seriously adorable backyard hens in Toronto, Canada. Photo from torontochickens.com via http://www.blogto.com.

Personally, I grew up around chickens: picking them up from the post office at 5:00 AM in a loudly chirping, warm cardboard box, raising them, collecting their eggs, cleaning them, and butchering them.  I (with my younger brother) even won best in show for the Grant County Fair two years in a row, and have the trophies to prove it!  These were, in fact, the only two years we entered, marking a short and impressive reign in Southwest Wisconsin.

At any rate, I love chickens! They’re wonderful, intelligent, even affectionate creatures, and if I ever have the time and space to care for them, I’d do so in a heartbeat.  I do have an apartment with a private backyard in Brooklyn, and its physically able to handle a few chickens, but still I’d never attempt it here for a few reasons.

First, I’m a renter and I seriously doubt my landlord would approve.  Elena and I looked at an apartment in Red Hook where the landlord lived downstairs and had chickens in the backyard, but as the chicken owner also owned the building, the situation there was much more friendly.

Second, I’m more than a little worried about the microclimate that these chickens would be living in.  Brooklyn soils contain a lot of lead and other heavy metals, and anyone who knows chickens and has been around them knows that chickens spend a lot of time with their beaks in the dirt.

Granted we all have to start somewhere, and as far as chickens in backyards, go I’m all for this movement gaining ground.  It’s a spectacular and sustainable trend, and as soon as I am in a place to participate, I’ll do so!  Online communities such as Backyard Chickens and The City Chicken do a lot to encourage responsible urban chicken ownership, and more and more cities are realizing that they are beneficial creatures that should be legalized.

It’s clear that we’re headed in the right direction, and this I applaud!  But clearly, more education is necessary.  We saw this in tomatoes as well, just this year. The blight that affected the tomato crop this year was partly blamed on too high a demand for seedlings by too many amateur gardeners growing heirloom varieties for the first time.  This problem, I would surmise, has partly the same roots as the chicken diseases we’re seeing emerge.

So, please, if you’re planning on gardening or getting chickens for the first time next year, do your homework! Do more than you think is necessary, or even sane!  I’ve seen far too many tomatoes planted in the hard soil of full-shade tree pits in New York, and it really does sadden me every time. There are plenty of skilled gardners and urban farmers dying to warn you about that kind of thing, and you have to listen to them.  Thanks!

Derrick Rose, sporting the Los Bulls jersey in a game versus the Miami Heat last season.

The 2009 season will mark the second consecutive year that a handful of teams in the NBA will honor their Hispanic fan base by donning Spanish language jerseys.  A few baseball teams established this great idea before the NBA got in on the act.  Personally, I think its a nifty idea, even if the cynic in me assumes that (like any alternate jersey), the primary reason for these nights is to boost jersey sales.

However, I think these jerseys may seem a little less patronizing if they actually translated the team mascots.  “Los Bulls” sounds like Chris Farley in SNL translating “El Nino” as “The Nino” a few years back.  And while that joke is mildly amusing, I doubt the NBA was aiming for something more significant than an unoriginal SNL joke.  What they were really after was a tribute to Hispanic players in the NBA and to the latino fans of NBA basketball.

I mean seriously: “Los Bulls”?

Although “El Heat”, “Los Rockets”, “Los Mavs”, “Los Suns”, and the “Nueva York” Knicks (which, of the group, makes the most sense) are also getting in on the act, I’m using the example of Los Bulls to illustrate the linguistic problems with these jerseys.

First of all, in English there are never definite articles in front of team mascots on jerseys.  The Mets, even if they are referred to as “The Mets”, never put both words on their jerseys.  It would look phenomenally silly and aesthetically cumbersome.  Can you imagine a jersey that says “The Diamondbacks”?  That’s simply too may letters.  As it stands, the team rarely even uses the entire word, instead using jerseys that say “D-Backs”, which from a distance can be a little problematic for obvious reasons (think “g” instead of “ck”).  At any rate, simply on those grounds, the “Los” in Los Bulls makes no sense.

The second and more important issue is the laziness involved in not bothering to translate the mascot?  When the the Giants and Brewers do this in baseball, they use “Gigantes” and “Cerveceros” respectively: creating jerseys that are just as freaking sweet as they are thoughtful.

Brewers shortstop JJ Hardy sporting the "Cerveceros" jerseys. The San Francisco Giants wear "Gigantes" jerseys for the same event.

In the case of the Bulls (or the Heat or the Suns, etc) there exists a straightforward translation.  In the case of the Bulls, its Toros.  Its simple, would look elegant on a jersey, and would actually look like serious tribute to Latino players and fans, not just something an unpaid intern came up with between goggle-chat marathons.

It would be one thing for a team to not do this if their mascot was not as easily translatable. The Astros, for example, is practically a made-up word.  No simple translation exists for it in Spanish as far as I know.  However, I am confident that there are possible Spanish translations for teams like the Suns and the Heat, and, as I’ve said before, definitely the Bulls.

Hopefully, in coming seasons, the NBA will class up its act and follow suit, but for now, its just bewildering and strange to envision Eduardo Najera wearing a jersey that says “Los Nets”.

In the meantime, if anyone would care to enlighten me as to the NBA’s rationale for these decisions, I’d love to hear it.  Seriously, I would.  Given the way that ESPN Deportes lists MLB teams translated but keeps all NBA teams in English, I’m assuming there’s some lame legal explaination behind it, but that would just be speculation.  For now, I’m pining for the day that I can buy my very own Milwaukee Venados jersey (a guess, by the way, with the help of the internet).

There are few things that make opening your most prized bottle of beer more inevitable than carrying forty pounds of cat food/litter nearly a mile–after a long day of data entry.  So, after quickly catching my breath, taking off my coat, and putting some chickpeas in the pressure cooker, I reached deep into my refrigerator to unearth my bottle of New Glarus Bohemian Lager.

Yes, in a fridge that contains a bottle of the Dogfish Head 120-minute IPA and a Founders Breakfast Stout, I chose a Bohemian Lager.  Not a oak-aged imperial barleywine, or a weiss beer brewed with grains of paradise, saffron and dry-hopped with amarillo hops, or even a 2002 vintage of some high-gravity Belgian nonsense that you can’t even buy in the states; instead, I was saving a single bottle of a simple, Czech style lager, brewed in the traditional style of the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic.

Granted, this beer is part of New Glarus’ coveted “Unplugged” series of beers, which, according to the label, is “a very limited edition and we make no promises to ever brew this style again.”  So, considering my love for Czech pilsners, New Glarus beer, and the fact that this beer would most likely only be brewed once, I delayed the inevitable for months before finally succumbing this evening.

As for the beer itself, the brisk (but not effervescent) carbonation, the billowy head of foam (great retention, by the way), and the nose provided all you’d ever expect from this style.  The beer itself is not as crystal clear as most Czech lagers, but this may have been a result of the beer having been lagered in unlined oak casks (a rarity in modern brewing, even in Central Europe).  I do mot mean to be dramatic or overly hyperbolic, but as for the taste, it instantly reminded me of this scene:

More specifically, the malt character was excellent: very bready and light (think baguette, not pumpernickel).  It tasted, actually, like barley, which was refreshing and familiar.  As Czech lagers go, its closer to the more roundly balanced, almost amber-colored Budvar (aka Czechvar in the U.S., tragically) than the classic, sharp Urquell.  The difference is subtle, but impressive, and this beer nailed it.  The piney and peppery Saaz hops are there, but they’re neither screaming, nor cowering; they are, in fact, announcing themselves courteously.  Unlike the vast majority of American craft-brewers–who often can’t resist to cascade-ify their versions, making them too hoppy, like a lagered pale ale–Dan Carey, New Glarus’ brewmaster, has created a beer that is understated to a fault. Vyborne!

As I’ve written previously, brewing a traditional czech pilsner in the United States is a risky endeavor.  The extreme beer types will be unimpressed by the lack of innovation, and the newly converted former bud light drinkers will have difficulties teasing out the complex subtleties of a beer like this.  Strangely, it’s a style without an audience.  In 1915, this beer would have flown off the shelves, but in a time after prohibition and the resulting abundance of mass-produced “pilsners”, the style has been, more than any other, left behind.  That is why I’m savoring this beer so much, as the odds of it making a repeat appearance anytime soon are slim.

Where (some of) the magic happens.  The brewery, despite large demand, only distributes in the state of Wisconsin.  As their bottle-caps proclaim: Drink Indigenous!

Where (some of) the magic happens. The brewery, despite large demand, only distributes in the state of Wisconsin. As their bottle-caps proclaim: "Drink Indigenous!"

As the beer itself is already long-gone, and difficult to come by, I’m not going to even bother grading it in my quest to find the best U.S. brewed pilsner.  Pislners are inherently available, easy drinking beers.  The kind you drink when you’re more interested in your conversation than getting drunk.  So, the NG Bohemian Lager, a beer that’s both expensive and hard to come by will have to be excluded on a technicality.  While I seriously doubt that I’ll find a better tasting pilsner or one that tugs so strongly at my memories, it fails in the proletarian sense.  Whichever pilsner is crowned champion, it will have to be one that (in the region where it’s brewed and distributed) it’s always around, and at decent price.

Sorry, Dan and Deb.  Let’s all hope the fine people of Wisconsin start demanding this beer again, and you can get it into your regular rotation.  Na Zdravi!

Three prominent films have emerged in the last few years on the subject of food: more specifically on the subject of industrial food production.  Each has taken a deliberately different approach, and I’ve arranged them in order of optimism, with FRESH (the most optimistic of the three) at the top.

Each film is definitely worth seeing, particularly Our Daily Bread, the hardest of the three to find.  You might vomit about two thirds of the way through, but, honestly, its worth the punishment.  Watch the films, tell your friends, and start discussing.  Until people get outraged and start talking about these issues, nothing is going to change.

FRESH:

FOOD, INC.

OUR DAILY BREAD
In German

Happy eating!


(cross-posted on Dirt-Farmer)

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Somewhere along the Williamsburg Bridge. I have no recollection of taking this photograph.

Now that the weather has begun to turn, and the longest winter in recent memory is receding in the rear-view, I’ve begun walking places again.  I’ve resumed my semi-regular walk home from work: a constantly evolving, jagged path through the fire-escape-gilded Lower East Side and the pungent lanes of Chinatown. Aside from the sidelines–Broadway to the west, and the Co-op (balcony-clad) and NYCHA (balcony-less) towers to the east–no street is safe.  Anything in between is in-bounds.

A couple weekends ago, I offered to bring a case of Brooklyn IPA to an afternoon of watching baseball in the vicinity of Gramercy Park.  Ordinarily, the trek to the Brooklyn Brewery involves the L-Train, but I decided to walk instead.  Having never walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, I headed straight down Avenue D (and then Columbia, as I crossed Houston). After I realized that I couldn’t access the bridge at Columbia and Delancey, but before I started to backtrack west, I ran into something that reminded me of Iowa: Masaryk Towers.

Masaryk Towers: Named in rememberance of the Third Defenestration of Prague in 1948.

Masaryk Towers: Named in rememberance of the Third Defenestration of Prague in 1948. (It's private, not public housing: notice the balconys!)

Masaryk Towers, according to New York Songlines (a spectacular site for DIY walking tours of Manhattan), was a 1967 Mitchell-Lama co-op development, sponsored by SOKOL (A Czech organization similar to the German Turner’s Society).  As I suspected at the time, this development was named after Masaryk the younger, Jan Masaryk, who while acting as Foerign Minister, was (though there is some speculation of suicide) thrown out of his bathroom window in 1948 by Soviet-sympathizers.  This defenestration, was actually the third in Prague’s history, thereby emblazoning this unfortunate event as the “Third Defenestration of Prague.”

Tomas Masaryk, first President of Czechosolvakia, and father of the victim of the Third Defenestration of Prague.

Tomas Masaryk, first President of Czechosolvakia, and father of the victim of the Third Defenestration of Prague.

I spent the fall of my third year at Grinnell in the Czech Republic, and during my senior year I studied Jan’s father’s personal and literary relationship with Karel Capek, for whom this blog is named.  Tomas G. Masaryk, a philosophy professor turned politician, led the exiled Czechoslovak army (literally) around the world during the First World War.  After the War he became the country’s first president, and was a strong crusader for small nations during the inter-war years.  Masaryk’s story and his writings are fascinating, and I would recommend “The World Revolution” (translated meekly in English as “The Making of a State”) to anyone with an interest in European history.

Back in New York, I rounded the corner of Columbia and Delancey, and headed west until I hit the bridge.   Of the three East River bridges I’ve crossed, the Williamsburg Bridge may be the most visually interesting.  And, like the elegant Brooklyn Bridge, it is most striking in that it reflects the character of the neighborhood you’re traveling to (that is, if you’re coming from Manhattan).

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All gray steel and rivets, save the red stripe elevating pedestrians and cyclists above the roadway, the bridge is mesmerizing and beautiful and repetitive, while at the same time transparently functional.  Nothing is showy; there is no artistic stonework; and the girders themselves are straight and simple, unlike the curved and stylized metalwork of the Manhattan Bridge.

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As the cables between the towers began to rise in front of me, and as the slope of the bridge began to tilt Brooklyn-ward, I was reminded that my comparison between the bridge and Williamsburg itself was fragile and tenuous.  On the south side of the bridge, uninteresting condominium towers jutted upward from what was once a completely industrial area, and much of the industrial buildings that have been left standing have long since become residential.

I like Williamsburg, and I like to an extent what it has become, but after two years studying cities and Urban Planning, there is one constant despite the chaos and diversity of American cities that is nearly universal.  Once manufacturing areas are rezoned and turned to residential, they never go back.  Jobs may be lost for residences, but residences are never lost for jobs.  And in a society that requires vapid consumption just to survive economically (as we’ve seen recently with the demise of Circut City, Chrysler, and, (*gasp*) even the strategic shrinking of Starbucks), the permanent loss of manufacturing and industrial infrastructure in favor of residential development in communities like Williamsburg, Willets Point and Red Hook is a historic act whose reprocussions will be far reaching, and, most likely, irreversible.

These were the sorts of thoughts in my head as I got off the bridge and walked north on Berry towards the Brooklyn Brewery.  But to finish my story, I made it to the Brewery, had a Blast! (the beer) while reading Lush Life (Richard Price’s most recent novel), and trudged back to Manhattan and up First Avenue to my destination: this time with a case of beer in hand.  Thankfully for my back and my arms, I took the L-Train.

The moral of the story: Good beer tastes even better under the following conditions:

  • it cost only $25 for a case,
  • you drink it in good company, watching a good baseball game, and
  • you just walked 4 miles to retrieve it

CHEERS!

Around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery: Silly, I know, but really well done!

Around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery: Silly, I know, but really well done!

Its been awhile since I’ve posted anything even remotely political, but as a regular transit rider and supporter of the MTA, I wanted to post this poster produced by the Working Families Party in New York.  As any NewYorker already knows, significant fare hikes, and massive reductions in service are set to kick  in over the next few months, and its not too late to take action (or at least voice your outrage).

Even if you can afford the fare hikes, there are thousands of people for whom the proposed hikes and service cuts are really, really detrimental, so click on the poster or go to the link below (www.haltthehike.org), print out some of these, and spread them around!  Write a few letters to representatives while you’re at it; there’s a form to do just that after the link!

My last few food posts have been more anecdote than recipe, so for this post my goal is to keep the story short and sweet, and get to the food as soon as I can.

This story begins with my grandfather Leo, who despite being born in the United States, grew up speaking German in a small area of east central Wisconsin called “The Holyland”.  Dotted with minuscule farming communities all centered around (and named after) Catholic churches, this area persisted as an autonomous German-speaking region well into the twentieth century. My grandfather was from Johnsburg; my mother was born in Marytown, a mere seven miles away.  Other towns included Mt. Calvary, Jericho, and St. Cloud.

St. Marys Church in Marytown Wisconsin.  My mother and her siblings grew up down the hill. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

St. Mary's Church in Marytown, Wisconsin. My mother and her siblings grew up down the hill. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

When I was a kid he spoke English exclusively, but frequently mixed German words, phrases, and idioms into his speech.  A hangover was a “katzenjammer” (pronounced kah-tzen-ya-mer), and from a very young age he called me “Hannes-wurst” which means, literally, “John-sausage”.

The Holyland was for a long time a very insulated German Catholic community.  As a result, the people there created their own slightly modified version of the language over time.  And my Grandfather was third or fourth generation, so his German was anything but “hoch”, that is to say “high”, proper German.  So when we’d go to visit Leo and my grandmother, we’d eat “shtumpus”: a mix of left-over sausage (usually bratwurst), sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes.  It was delicious, but for years afterward I always assumed that “shtumpus” was Holyland-German for “leftovers” or “mash” or some such thing–something delicious, but decidedly humble.

However, as I found out while reading Sanford D’Amato’s column in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week, I learned that shtumpus has noble origins.  D’Amato is unquestionably Milwaukee’s finest and widely respected chef and a James Beard Award winner, so when he writes about shtumpus (or as he calls it, “stoemp” or “hutspot”), I feel that my grandfather’s cooking has been exculpated.

However, D’Amato’s version lacks many of the elements of the shtumpus that I was raised on, so last night I thought I’d create my own version: keeping in mind D’Amato’s technique, my grandfather’s love of “speck” (Holyland-German for “fat”), and my own love of root vegetables.  What follows is the delicious result of this effort. This shtumpus may be used as a side dish, or topped with any variety of meats; D’Amato recommends short-ribs, and I used eggplant, pepper and olive ravioli (from the Italian grocery off First Avenue at 11th Street) with toasted pine nuts.

Also, if you’re looking to make this vegetarian,you can just make up for the bacon by adding more butter.  Though there’s so little bacon in this dish, I’d recommend cheating and having a little meat!

The Ingredients:

A 2-3 pound mix of root vegetables, cubed.  Less than half potatoes! (For mine, I used three medium sizes red potatoes, a large parsnip, two medium large turnips, and half of a celery root.)

1/2 pound bacon, diced

One medium onion, diced

1/4 to 1/2 head of cabbage (depending on size), chopped

Milk (no less than whole), a generous splash.

1 to 2 Tablespoons of Butter

Fresh Dill

Salt and Pepper, of course.

The Method:

Start by peeling the root vegetables and chopping them into similarly sized cubes.  Place in a pot, cover with water, add salt,bring to a boil, and simmer until the vegetables are completely done.  Drain into a colander and immediately add back to the pot.  The heat of the pot will help to evaporate the remaining water.  Save about a 1/4 cup of the root vegetable water to steam the cabbage.

While the vegetables are coming up to a boil, dice the bacon, and add to a medium hot skillet with a little butter.  Brown the bacon (not too crispy) and transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towel to drain most of the fat.  Pour out (and reserve) almost all of the bacon fat, but save back a few tablespoons.

Add the onion and saute for a couple minutes in the bacon fat before adding the cabbage, the 1/4 cup root-veg-water, pepper, salt, and a large pinch of minced fresh dill.  Toss in the skillet to combine and cover: to let the cabbage steam (it’ll cook a lot faster this way). Once the cabbage is nearly done, remove the lid to let almost all of the liquid cook off and remove from heat.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the root vegetables, along with a generous splash of milk, and a bit of the reserved bacon fat (what the hell, right?).  Mash to desired consistency; I prefer a chunky mash, myself.  Add the cabbage onion mixture, the bacon, and a generous amount of fresh dill to the pot, and stir to combine.

Whether Flemmish or German, Alsatian  or Belgian, this dish is delicious!  Next time you’re going to make mashed potatoes, make this instead!