Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A true American cuisine

I spent the day in Seattle yesterday. At lunchtime, I popped into a sushi bar in the middle of a strip mall in Kirkland and immediately soaked up the Japanese ambiance. I have really enjoyed Tokyo and Kyoto on my trips to Japan, and bide my time before my putative return there with Japanese mystery novels and the occasional visit to Japanese restaurants.

At first I was put off by the Americana on the menu. The chef has created sushi menu items inspired by his many trips around the U.S. My choice ended up being the Arizona highway themed Cactus Sushi, which was made up of a tower of stacked sushi rolls accompanied by another shorter tower, each doused with crunchy green shavings of flash cooked spinach juice. It was as Japanese food always is, pretty, and happily also delicious.

Then I had a very pleasant taxi ride to Sea-Tac, with a driver from Pakistan who had lived in Seattle for what must have been more than 20 years. He told me his life story on the long ride from Kirkland to the airport, and suffice it to say he is the quintessential "millionaire next door," a real American success story. As we approached the airport we got into a lively discussion on curry and I took with me a couple of ideas I could try at home. This conversation reminded me of one I had years ago in Verona, Italy with a group of Italian business men during a lunch. The conversation veered from local politics, to business management theory, to different types of Italian pressed meats. At the time, I quietly observed how food was so central to the culture that even business men would discuss at length amongst themselves about the history, tradition and flavor of a local speciality.

And I got to thinking. What is American cuisine, or cooking if you take the view we don't have a cooking culture sophisticated enough to call a veritable cuisine? Do we have a food culture?

Back in the day, it was about filling up with apple pie, fried chicken, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese and ice cream. Where were the vegetables? Usually canned and disgusting. Now, I've seen a throwback to some of these traditional foods, but they are usually modernized into gourmet versions, e.g. organic, imported macaroni with fontina, gorgonzola, gruyere and the like. It is a weak kind of rebranding, really, as the dish isn't any healthier it just tastes different and costs more. It has gone "premium" as so many brands try to go in order to revive themselves.

And so much immigration has affected what we eat, but in terms of ethnic culinary enclaves like Mexican, Chinese, and Greek restaurants, the pervasiveness of pizza, and the presence of lots of heat in dishes we like to dig into. Lately there has been a profusion of a kind of tropicalismo, and a new profusion of Latin American eateries in Portland such as Oba!, Andina and Pambiche, as this photo of beans, rice and fried plantains will testify.

I don't think there is a bona fide American cuisine. I do think in the Pacific Northwest we are developing an ethos, style, integrity of ingredients that could develop into something akin to a cuisine. Like French waiters and chefs who become indignant at rubes who ask for ketchup for their filet mignon, PNW foodies take pride in demanding locally grown, seasonal, organic food that is unpretentious, healthy and aesthetically pleasing in its balance of ingredients. Like my cab driver, virtually anyone you meet here will quite quickly jump into a conversation about food as a subject that really matters. As my friend, chef and culinary educator Robert Reynolds has said, Oregon could be the new France. We have everything to make it so. A real American cuisine has to first be based in values such as these in order to evolve. It will not be an amalgam or fusion of Thai this and Mexican that. It will be something original and grounded in what is natively ours.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A desultory Sunday afternoon in June

It is HOT here in PDX today. 100 degrees F. We used to have to wait until August or September to get up to those temps. Well, things are different now.

Luckily we have lots of shade in our garden, where we retreated after the Portugal/Nederlands game was finally over (as one announcer said, it looked more like a match out of world wrestling for a while) to read the Sunday Times, sip iced tea and feed ice cubes to the dog.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Km-clear feed

I have signed up with feedburner. If you want a km-clear feed, go to

New information paradigm

Like most people in my field, I'm trying to figure out what is the new information paradigm given widespread access to broadband Internet, the arrival of the first truly digital generation, the demise of mainstream print, and therefore changes in how and what information is consumed. The old paradigm is definitely not working any more. I have a feeling the new paradigm has not yet become clear to most people. But somewhere, someone gets it.

This Orb is sensational and mind-bending. It is an information device. It is sensory and visual and carries no text. You configure it to give you customized information through changing colors and light. So you can get up in the morning, give it a glance, and get the weather report. Or see how your portfolio is doing.

Now that's a new paradigm.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Perro Mexicano y los Perros Yanqui

Our dog lives a charmed life. A doted-upon life. It makes us feel guilty sometimes, because she lives so much better than most people on this earth. And it goes without saying that she lives better than most dogs too. Like this street dog in Mexico.

And then I think of the members of the U.S. Congress who just cut even more taxes for the rich, through the removal of the inheritance tax, while denying an increase in the minimum wage.

The minimum wage is set at $5.15 an hour meaning if you work a 40-hour week your weekly salary, before taxes, is $206, seriously below a living wage. Furthermore, the New York Times today reports that 83% of Americans support raising it by $2.00, which would provide a weekly salary of $286.00. But Republicans won't even allow the issue to come up for a vote. After all, somebody has to pay taxes. And it's not the rich, who with this latest bit of largesse from our elected representatives will hold on to another $760 billion over the next decade.

At least I have some shame for having so much when so many have much less. It makes me work harder at not being part of the problem. The GOP has no shame at all. What a cynical, nihilistic lot.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Africa in my soul

Long ago, my family lived in the Ivory Coast in West Africa. It was a different time for Africa, relatively peaceful and free of the terrible violence that has come to characterize the entire continent for so many people. I'm not saying it was utopia; far from it, especially for Africans. But violence was fairly isolated. (In fact, I knew two sets of two American women who hitchhiked across Africa much later on, in the 1970s, and had the time of their lives and immediately upon returning home started planning their next trip.)

Anyway, we lived in a French, petit pain au chocolat colonial bubble. The house was modern and Le Corbusier-influenced. The school was French, and had only a few token African students, who walked from their villages when their parents could spare them, meaning hardly ever. There were two sisters in my class; they sat at the back of the class and laughed all day at our foibles. When the teacher went wild and smacked students over their heads with slates, or pulled down the underpants of another for a blistering spanking, or dragged someone by their hair or ear to the front of the class, the African girls could barely contain themselves. Often they were sent home, doubled over with laughter as they staggered out the door of our open air classroom. I liked them and wanted to get inside their heads.

We had servants and a couple of drivers. And of course, night watchmen who would often keep us awake with their laughter and chatting into the wee hours. The laughter: that is a main memory of Africans for me. That bubbling up, resonant, exploding, free of artifice laughter. Like their music. Years later when I went to Kenya I waited for that laughter and it was like a balm.

Inside this bubble, we had mostly French friends. There was no TV and no organized sports so most evenings after ecole you could find every child of a diplomat at the French Club pool. That was our social life. That and the British library where we'd take out as many books as possible to fill the long days.

But one day, my mother asked me if I wanted to drive out with her to visit a French woman who had defied convention and married a local man. She lived in "the African" part of Abidjan. The woman was beside herself with joy at the visit. Clearly she had been ostracized and needed companionship. I was struck by her small, plain apartment, but also by the degree of comfort she felt in her neighborhood. What did she see that the rest of us didn't?

Now, her neighborhood was another world. It was color. It was sound. It was visual. It was vibrant. It was interesting. It had more bustle and street life than Rome, where we'd lived before moving to Abidjan. I wanted to stay and observe life from the window while the women talked, but my mother rushed us out after a perfunctory chat. I think she wanted to get home before anyone asked any questions. It was unforgettable.

On one of our last nights in Abidjan, our parents were at an embassy function, leaving the four children at home. Instructions were clear not to leave the house, mostly because of the bugs and snakes I believe but also because the night was an unknown entity.

But sometime after dark, we heard drumming. Then we heard the singing. Then we heard the music. In captivated us, literally. We clambered against the windows to hear more. We despaired to get closer. My younger brother and I made a go of it and ran past the servants into the pitch of the night down the street chasing the sound. We arrived at a wall enclosing a house and the music. We climbed it and peered in at the band and were in its thrall. The drumming became part of our bodies and we went wild dancing. It was unforgettable. I was nine years old.

I have forever since chased African music. They say drumming is primal. It has certainly been a fundamental experience for me. Maybe we respond to it in that part of every one of us that is African. (See: Lucy)

Last night, I went with my own family to a concert at the Portland Zoo of one of Africa's great bands, Amadou & Miriam ( from Mali. The heat, the hard French accent, the broad smiles and warmth, the race through the night to find the music before it was gone, were all there.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Goodbye to the penny?

I missed this. Apparently Congress is going to make the penny defunct. The rationale is that it is such a worthless unit that it is not worth the taxpayers' money to mint it. I guess Congress needs that extra cash for its members' annual pay raises and we know how much they deserve it! Regardless, there is a national movement afoot to save this historic fixture of American life. See the great Virgin Mobile ad in the NYT today on the "Save the Penny Drive". Buried in it amongst the patriotic and nostalgic mumbo jumbo is an offer to "penny text". Even the font has a wee bit of ye olde Williamsburg look. Finally, an ad where the text is more powerful than the picture! How retro. How perfect.

Flowering succulent, Joe Bazooka

Nothing much to say here other than summer has finally arrived, and not a minute too soon. Even the cacti and small fry are in bloom.

On another note, I wanted to call attention to the article in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" from LAST week which I just received THIS week because the local distributor is behind the proverbial 8 ball, on the rebranding of Joe Bazooka. I was fascinated with this character when my family moved back to the U.S. after a few years in the southern hemisphere, pre-global culture. He seemed so brawny and carefree and American, like a less intimidating Paul Bunyan. It is worth a read to get a view into what the rebranders think a bubble gum poping American boy is looking like these days.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Summer in Portland, Pioneer Square

We are lucky to be living in Portland, Oregon.
There is no better place to be in the summer if you are living in a U.S. city, in my humble opinion. The disgusting summer weather and high saturation of seasonal allergens drove us out of Washington, D.C. and eliminated the east coast for consideration when when we were plotting a move to rebalance our lives, back in 1991. The sprawl in California (and fear of "the big one") kept us from considering that state. Likewise Seattle. The high temperatures voided the Southwest and the months of lows did it for New England. OK, we have rain. But we don't have to shovel it or trudge through it and it gives us all that lovely greenery. For those of you in less clement climes, can you imagine summer nights sitting outside with coolness on your skin, clear nasal passages, and no need for mosquito netting? And then there is the produce -- sweet strawberries, succulent cherries, syrupy marionberries, juicy peaches and smooth tasting fruit of the vine for any occasion. They go so nicely with our organic local meats, cheeses and fish. We plan to enjoy much of what I have described in our outing to hear Amadou and Miriam at an outdoor picnic concert on the lawn at the Portland Zoo tomorrow night. We live in a cornucopia of delights.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bumper Stickers

It looks like a new crop of bumper stickers are in circulation, making driving interesting again. In the last couple of days I've noticed several along the lines of "I can't wait for 2008" and "Is it 2008 yet?". Today I saw one of a picture of Richard Nixon with his trademark outstretched arms over his head, fingers splayed in the "V" for victory sign, and the statement "George Bush makes me miss Richard Nixon." Another one depicted a Caucasian Jesus, all light brown hair with blonde highlights, looking beatifically upon the visage of George Bush with the statement, "George, I need a word with you." Not bad.

I still rather like my own, purchased at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. in 2003.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Sardine Can

The other day, I riffled through my old Saveur magazines to find inspiration for dinner. A recipe for spaghetti with sardines caught my stomach’s eye. I was in a southern Italian mood, having been lately indulging in reveries about our 2000 trip to Puglia. So I went on a search for the key ingredient, sardines packed in tomato sauce. After trips to Wild Oats, Albertson’s and Safeway, I found a can at New Seasons. And what a delightful discovery it was to find this Bela can from Portugal!

My first conscious thought upon seeing it was, “What can do with this can after I use the sardines, in order to justify saving it?” Not far below consciousness was another thought,

Portugal must be a cool place. I’ve got to go there!”

Therein lies the power of design.

Now let’s compare Bela with a competitor from the U.S., Beach Cliff Sardines. What do we see?

First, the lettering. It is much bigger on the U.S. can. But I’ve noticed that U.S. signs tend to be large. Why is that? Some design ethnographer probably has a theory. Then there is the font, which is not contemporary at all. The logo is a lighthouse, a symbol of the hardy sailors who used to fish for the sardines in dangerous waters in order to provide for the wants of our palates. Is this an inauthentic brand symbol? I mean, who fishes for sardines like this anymore? At least sardines destined for the tin?

Then the color, a relatively bland red, topped off by a truly hideous shade of blue-green (acqua?) in the word “SARDINES.” Navy blue for the brand name. So we have the seafaring references covered. All this against a dull, dirty shade of off-white or gray, I can’t really tell. Maybe like an overcast sky? (“None of them knew the color of the sky...", for you literary types.)

I could not help but wonder why the front of the can had to have the jingoist label “Proudly Made in the USA”. Does this mean I should chose Beach Cliff over Bela? What does patriotism have to do with sardines?

Lastly, there is an awful lot of information packed onto the front. Bar code, ingredients, weight info, web site.

All in all, a perfunctory buy for me. There is no brand promise other than it serves a patriotic duty, really. And – a real no-no in today’s health conscious consumer’s mind – you are instructed to WRITE for nutrition information to an address that is given!!!! You are not even directed to a web site. Isn’t this illegal? More:

The side and backside are devoid of any graphic element, although there is some ribbing in the middle of the sides that feels good when I grasp the tin between thumb and fingers and give it a rub.

The key opener is smack in the middle of the front, off to the side, looking lethal as ever.

Net weight: 3.75 OZ or 106g.

Ingredients: besides sardines, they include garlic powder, onion powder, natural flavors (what does this mean anyway?), modified cornstarch (genetically modified?), sugar, tomato paste, xanthan gum, horseradish powder, extractives of paprika (hmm. Mysterious.) totaling 10 ingredients in all. On second thought, I don’t want to eat these.
Maybe the only reason to eat these is indeed if you feel it is a patriotic duty.

Now for Bela. Truly BELLA in my view.

First, the lettering. It is a clear, slim font in navy blue that leaves lots of room for the bright white of the background. The Bela logo has lots of vitality, and it took a second look for me to see that the Mediterranean blue letters make up the form of a fish – a cut up fish, with long eyelashes and full red lips to boot. It struck me as funny. I think the positive emotional response is key. There is a brand promise implied here.

The Bela lettering is set against a glorious red. To the right side, there is a pictogram of a tomato in the same shade. I don’t know what to call the red – it has a bit of coral, a bit or orange, but it is, well, YUMMY. Again, I’m getting a message about what this brand means.

Best of all, the entire rim of the front of the can is ringed with swimming fish, in alternate shades of that Mediterranean blue, navy blue, and red. It reminds me of the way tadpoles swim in a pool. That’s fun, too.

There is a lot less information on the front, so the main impression is the childlike fun of seeing that logo and the swimming fish and that primal response to the dazzling red. Nutrition facts, bar code and other info is all on the back, in black against white punctuated by that funny logo again. Added is a small logo that lets you know the can is recyclable. So now I know I am buying something more than sardines.

The sides are entirely ribbed and covered with the swimmers, with the logo and tomato superimposed. Fun to touch and look at.

The key opener is at a natty angle, maybe helping it look a bit less lethal. Or maybe I'm just biased by now.

Net weight: 4.25 OZ or 120g. More than the what's its name brand above.

Ingredients: sardines, water, tomato puree, extra virgin olive oil, salt, natural smoke flavor, totaling a mere six in all. These sardines will go in the spag

Saturday, June 17, 2006

My trusty Prius

Friday night returning from Seattle, stuck in traffic near La Center (where did they come up with a name like that anyway?). Notice the MPG log: 99.9.

Brian was really taken with this display, which we had up the entire trip.

Friday in Seattle

I spent the day in Seattle yesterday at a client meeting. My colleagues Brian and Megan and I drove up in my Prius. It was the first trip out of town for the little guy, and it did super well. Since I hate to drive, especially in heavy traffic and long distances, Brian and Megan took turns. It was their first experience inside a Prius and they were mightily impressed. Plus, the round trip was about a $20 gasoline fee.