You say potato, and I say peruna.

So I tried boiling the potatoes until soft and then dunking them in a bowl of ice water for ten seconds and then peeling off the skins. It worked. Life just got a little bit easier. The skillet already had the diced onion, bell pepper, sweet pepper and collard greens. Dropped in the spuds and let them, brown and make an unholy mess out of the bottom of the pan and hot damn, Irish-German heaven. Spuds, baby, Kartoffels, pomme de terre, papas in a brand new bag. Well, recipe. Well, old recipe, new technique. Thank god for the Incas. Without them we might still be eating gruel. Though I don’t know who the lazy bum was who brainstormed on this boiling and dunking thing. A Finn maybe, leaping from the sauna into a ice cold lake. Peruna they call a potato. Comes from Swedish, something to do with pears. Probably Swedes fucking with their minds. Here, Aarni, have a pear. Though the Germans used to call then earth pears. At some point they became kartoffels, from the Italian. The French called them earth apples. The Swiss still call them earth apples. A little too close to road apples. I wonder about Europeans sometimes.

The Finns eventually Finnicized it into peruna. That crazy language has fifteen cases. Each one changes peruna into something else, and same for plurals. By itself a potato is a peruna. More than one is perunat. But as they were mine they were perunoiden. When I dropped them into the pot they were perunoihin. Once in the pot they were perunoissa. As they were boiling they were perunoita. When they were finally softened they were perunoiksi. As I took them out of the pot they were perunoista. When I removed the skins they were perunoitta. In the skillet with onions and peppers they were perunoineen. When I took them off the fire they were perunoilta. As I put them on the plate they were perunoille. As they sat there on the plate they were perunoilla. And when I gave them to my wife they were perunat again. (For those of you taking notes, those were the plural declensions for the nominative, genitive, illative, inessive, partitive, translative, elative, abessive, comitative, ablative, allative, adessive, and accusative cases.)

Luckily we ate them in English.

 

(This piece was also posted on BricksScience.com)

 

Bakersfield and points south

(April 1, 2012)

Bakersfield?

For starters there’s a good Basque place called Benji’s out on Rosedale Hwy west of the 99…it’s a restaurant as opposed to a community table kind of thing, but of all the Basque places in town it’s probably your best bet. If you’re looking high dollar there are I’m sure plenty of those throughout town, as there is a lot of bread up there in places, especially up on  the north-east edge along the Kern…head along Panorama Drive and you’ll see some serious spreads along with some incredible views. In fact Panorama Dr. will take you out onto the Alfred Harrell Parkway and that’s where the Old Corral is, where you can see some genuwine sangers and bands. We’ve seen some great stuff on Sunday afternoon. Beer and burger joint, great views, maybe a few too many bikers. You’ll be overlooking Oildale from up there.  Showed up once and there was a horse at the hitching post, bartender told us that some of the good ol’ boys will ride up the trail so they don’t have to worry about driving home. Later that night, sure ’nuff,  a drunk cowboy reeled out the door, clambered aboard Ol’ Paint, swayed a bit in the saddle and let the horse take him home. He was singing all the way down, just like a goddam movie.

Now if you want to see an honest to god honky tonk right down to the chicken wire round the bandstand and fistfights in the parking lot, Trouts is absolutely essential. It’s down in Oildale there, but if ain’t gotta horse you just turn around and head back down Alfred Harrell and into town again. When you finally get to Chester, turn right, head due north, cross the river and it’s up a couple blocks on the left. You can’t miss it. We love it.  It finally occurred to me the last time we were in there–last night actually–that there’s no chicken wire around the stage. I’ve been telling people about that chicken wire for years. Been there several times, there’s never been any chicken wire apparently. I dunno. Makes me wonder if I did see it there years ago, or maybe I’m thinking some other honky tonk. Maybe it was part of  the decor. Whatever….if there isn’t any chicken wire around the stage now, there no doubt was back then.  Had to be. When them okies chucking bottles at the band, chicken wire helps. (I’ve been pelted with beer bottles on stage, and chicken wire would have been helpful. Then again, I once nailed one mid-air with a drum stick and glass shot through the sparse crowd like shrapnel. No one threw another….) So let’s just say I’m guessing okies ain’t chucking bottles anymore, not inside anyway. Can’t vouch for the parking lot, though. Our first time to the place some years back there was a helluva fist fight going down just outside the back door. It wasn’t affecting the coming and goings of patrons, so security just watched. Besides, the parties involved seemed evenly matched so best they walloped each other a bit before being separated by cooler heads. Didn’t bother us none, we were old punk rockers. Don’t fuck with me or my wife and you can beat each other senseless. Oildale, ya know. I told my pal Greg about the joint…in fact sent the man earlier draft of this here essay. Kind of a travelogue. Which makes this a combination of that travelogue for him and an account of our trip yesterday and therefore kind of a mess. But it’s my blog so whatever…. Anyway, Greg and his wife sat at the bar downing a few too many and digging the scene, then on their way out nearly walked into one hell of a row. A couple dudes clawing and punching and biting and rolling around the street. Greg’s wife went nuts, loving it. She’s a big shot westside lawyer and professor, and there she is drunk and screaming  like she’s at a hockey game. She’s an old punk rocker too. Both of ’em. Greg  used to hang at the Masque. So violence seemed, well, normal. Entertaining. But I’m giving the completely wrong impression….Trout’s is maybe the friendliest, most comfortable and down-to-earth joints I’ve ever been to in my life. There’s two big rooms….in one it degenerated into some bad country karaoke, but go around the bar and there was the other room, a big expansive dance floor in front of a huge stage and there was one fine country band playing, great Bakersfield players, sessions and tours and gold records galore between them. The sound last nite was that pure Bakersfield sound, all of it covers, but great covers–Buck and Merle and Waylon (they love Waylon up there) and a zillion others…if you like country music at all you’ll know the tunes. We were listening to a Lefty Frizell on Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius pulling into the parking lot and damn if the band ain’t playing it 30 minutes later. We wound up sitting next to a silver haired old boy at the back of the room and just started talking.  His name is Jim Jones, he’s been playing country forever, he’d known Buck and Merle before they were anything, one of those kind of people. Been there, knows everybody, apparently plays a wonderful guitar and lives this stuff. The three of us sat there and talking and listening and laughing. A helluva good time. He tells me Red Simpson is there every Tuesday. Red Simpson. The legend. That’s Trouts, man. If you dig country or roots or Americana or whatever it’s all being called nowadays, you need to go. Consider it a pilgrimage. This is the real shit, and the real joint. There are probably honky tonks on back roads all over rural California , every one a little treasure, but Trouts is solid gold. Just watch yer drinking if you’re the one driving, it’s just too easy to do in there.

And ya know, I love the Silver Palace. Saw Buck himself there a few times. There’s Nudie everywhere inside (that sparkly, spangly western wear), and I think  that’s one of Elvis’s Cadillacs built into the wall there behind the bar if I remember right. They  still get a lot of great music in there, and the Buckaroos remain the house band and there’s no cover once the main act is over. Somehow I was heartbreakingly ignorant of the fact that Merle Haggard was there that night. The following night too. Four sets. I mean this is my birthday week, double nickles on Thursday, and I can’t imagine buying myself a finer present than Merle in Buck’s place. I’ve been dreaming of that for years. I fucked up. As we were walking outta Trouts somebody–either one of the help or a patron I couldn’t tell, everyone is equally hospitable–well this guys says y’all taking off so soon? I said yeah, gotta get back to LA. Ohhhhh….so you came up to see Merle at the Silver Palace. I told him I didn’t even know he was there until a half hour ago…I fucked up. They just shook their heads, they could feel my pain. Then they shook my hand and said see ya next time.  Hollywood this wasn’t.

The food at the Palace, by the way, is chicken fried steak etc. And not that great. We don’t go there for the food. I never went to Charlie O’s for the food either. Don’t think I ever ate anything in Trouts. Not even sure if they serve anything besides chips and pickled eggs. Not that I recall seeing pickled eggs. You just figure that if a bar sells pickled eggs it’d be trouts. Jerky too. Good jerky. I suppose I’m always full to bursting with Basque food by the time we get there. Just go to Trouts for the music, the whiskey, the people, the vibe. None of which, aside from the whiskey, can be got this side of the Grapevine. Well, it can, I can think of a couple places, fine places–but it just ain’t the same.

Yesterday was a day trip.  We kinda decided around 2 p.m. that we ought to go to Bakersfield for dinner and a little music. It’s a hundred miles from our pad, straight up the 5. Two hours if ya stop at the McDonalds in Gorman for coffee and a leak. No need to worry about accommodations this time,  just that beautiful ride up through the Grapevine, down the grade and off across the 99. Wind came up something fierce out there on the flatland. Kicked up all kind of loose topsoil till the sky and the air was thick, gritty and brown. Tumbleweeds like you can’t believe, some the size of cars. Watched a CHP cruiser aim right for one to keep it off the highway…damn thing was so big it bore the impact and didn’t disintegrate but wrapped itself around the front of his cruiser. He veered off the highway to pry it loose. He must have been cussing a blue streak. Ahead of us visibility plummeted from miles and miles to a couple hundred feet. We all slowed down. As we came into the suburbs of Bakersfield it let up…less farmland to blow away, I guess. We got off on California Ave. and headed east, figuring to go to Woolgrowers, for old time’s sake. Besides it’s a tad cheaper. Not a chance, booked solid. We should have figured on that, it’s always been the most popular of the Basque places in town, diners coming all the way from Fresno.  It’s tucked away in a commercial neighborhood he other side of Old Bakersfield (as opposed to the glassier, multi-storied stretch of new downtown Bakersfield) and the parking lot is always full and the place is a hive of activity in a neighborhood that otherwise closes up shop at 5 pm. But not a chance in hell they could squeeze us in that night. So we headed west on Rosedale Highway out to Benji’s, the place I mentioned back there in the opening sentence. Once past the 99 it’s there on the left. Wind still blowing like mad, nearly took the eye glasses off my head. Put our names on the list and headed into the bar. There was a family at the bar, I remember a peroxide blonde mom, her husband, some uncles, and two daughters even more peroxided than Mom. Knockouts, though. Stunners, even. I made sure I sat a couple stools down and pretended not to notice a single curve, which I’m sure didn’t fool Fyl for a second but she appreciated the effort. I was on my second whiskey when they called us to our table and the Basque feast begins. Course after course…we were there an hour and a half and still took leftovers with us. There’d been a bizarre scene with some neurotic queen talking food channel-speak lingo with the waitress who was terribly busy but polite. Then some endless argument about the kind of box to take his leftovers with. Strange, irritating, entertaining. He tipped hugely so ya never know. He was from outta town. I know I’ll run into him on Melrose sometime….. Then after Benji’s we went on to Trouts. But we already talked about that, didn’t we, and in detail. I feel like I’m writing in flashbacks, like in a 40’s film noir. So nevermind.

The ride home was mellow. Once out of Bakersfield you can see the 99 go on forever, and endless stream of oncoming headlights in a perfect straight line. The engineers apparently just pointed and the thing was laid out like a ruler. Southbound it comes to a sudden end at the junction with the 5. The light stream switches course smack into the mountains, disappears from view but reappears another thousand feet up. The temperature kept dropping, dropped into the thirties even, 35 at Gorman. It had rained and all was wet and windy. I heard it was much much worse today, with snow and wind. The Grapevine is a different world.  Right now it was a  dark world. At night there’s nothing but headlights. We hurtled through the darkness at 80 mph. The first sign of Castaic is its luminescent glow on the horizon. Our megalopolis is bathed in light. We shut the blinds and draw the curtains and shut the doors to get any kind of darkness at all. But venture off the Grapevine even a mile and unless there’s a moon you’d be stumbling along blind. Cougar bait. Coyotes would watch you, hoping you’ll trip and die.

The Central Valley back there is one of the flattest surfaces on the face of the globe. That explains how you can see the headlights on the 99 ahead of you for miles and miles. No topography. Nothing undulates or swells or dips or outcrops. Just perfect flatness. I can’t remember where I read this–maybe in John McPhee–but  the surface of the valley is so flat that the horizon extends five or so miles beyond what you’d see at sea. You can see that on the 5, north of the 99 split, before you get to Kettleman City. They call it the Antelope Plain, though the antelope are long gone, pronghorns fed by the zillions to 49ers and their followers, then pushed out by farmers. The surface of the Plain is surreal, like it was laid out by German engineers, smooth and perfect and unyielding.

The geology along the 5 through the Grapevine is stunning. It was invisible on the way home, but going up I looked at it with my usual sense of awe. I love where the 138 comes in and the freeway is in a slow motion dissolve, only the endless efforts of CalTrans can keep it together. That’s the San Andreas fault there, you can see it in the small hills and hummocks everywhere or if you go off onto the 138 and see the lake there, which is groundwater seeping up from beneath. Lovely spot. Back on the 5 past the McDonalds with the clean bathrooms you get to the top of the pass. The coffee shops carry both the LA Times and the Bakersfield Californian, as the two civilizations meet there, sun loving L.A. and Okie Bakersfield. You head north again and round a bit of a bend and then there it is, vast, endless, and flat, the Great Central Valley of California. By the time you get to the bottom of the hill and have to put the foot on the accelerator again you know you’re in a different world.

It’s hard to think of another place in Southern California  where the transition is so sharp. The vast L.A. megalopolis comes to a sudden end at Castaic. Gas stations and shopping centers and restaurants and fast food places pile up there at the base of the mountain. And the Central Valley ends there at Grapevine which is really just a travel stop. In between the two sit Gorman, Lebec and the rest of the mountain towns much like all the other mountain towns ringing L.A.  A lot of L.A. up there, a lot of Kern County. Hints of the desert too, since the west end of the Antelope Valley is nearby,indeed it sneaks in between the mountains in bone dry little canyons complete with cactus and cactus wrens.  And Lancaster is not much further away than Castaic or Bakersfield, less than an hour east on the 138. Gorman might seem to travellers to be a roadstop, eateries, fast food and gas stations, but there are a couple ten thousand people up there tucked into a couple small valleys like a little alpine civilization unto itself. Get off and head west there and you’ll see what I mean. Retirees, weekenders, hippies, mountain men. Places like this ring the L.A.. megalopolis, scattered mountain settlements a mile high, from Gorman to Wrightwood to Big Bear to Idyllwild. Alpine but very much southern California. But  keep going north on the 5 and as soon as you hit the bottom of the grade you’ll know that you’re not in Hollywood anymore. You’re in the Central Valley. There’s a twang in the accent, chicken fried steak on the menus and Baptists in the churches. I’ve heard there’s a Democrat up there somewhere.

So Bakersfield is where you go to get the  hell out of L.A. for the weekend. Really out of L.A.  You hit the valley and you switch to a country station. You relax. You look forward to a huge Basque meal, maybe catch a hockey game (the Bakersfield Condors are the team, used to be the Bakersfield Fog with the weirdest mascot I’ve ever seen), maybe shop for cheap antiques. You head over to Trouts for a few beers and a solid country band, maybe some slow dancing. Get tri-tip with your breakfast skillet in the morning. Don’t talk politics. But do talk. They love to talk. up there.  And before hitting the 99 back home grab a cup of coffee (not Starbucks, just AM-PM coffee), settle in, turn on the country station and head straight south. As the mountains before you turn to blue and shadows, the cattle begin to wander back toward the feed barn. If you’re lucky, you’ll see cattle egrets perched on their backs, sparkling white, hitching a lazy ride.

Licorice

The world was a much better place when you could get licorice. Well, maybe it wasn’t better, but at least you could get licorice. Not that red stuff, either, or the blue or green or pink or yellow. Banana licorice? Watermelon licorice? Fruity berry licorice? I asked the lady behind the counter if they had any licorice. Sure, and she pointed to the red, blue, green, pink and yellow. No, I mean real licorice, black licorice. They have black licorice? What flavor is it? Licorice, I said. Licorice is a flavor? Well, it was.

Coffee

That free coffee at the Silver Lake Trader Joes. The one hipster complains it’s too hot. The other hipster says it’s too strong. I said it’s too wet. Both look at me, then at each other, then back at me. It’s funnier if you’re stoned, I said. Oh wow, the one said. The other nodded, sagely. Truth.

Your salad is merely a pile of leafy corpses.

Bad news for vegetarians! said the Daily Mail. Plants can ‘hear’ themselves being eaten – and become defensive when attacked. Egad.

Most people don’t give a second thought when tucking into a plate of salad. But perhaps we should be a bit more considerate when chomping on lettuce, as scientists have found that plants actually respond defensively to the sounds of themselves being eaten.

I don’t think this is actually anything that vegetarians have to worry about, though, since the plants we eat are dead already, having been slaughtered long before they reach the plate, harvested by scythe or by brute force plucking savagery. Your salad is merely a pile of leafy corpses, and the Silver Lake farmers market an abattoir of vegetables and fruits and lifeless greens, of tubers and carrots wrenched from the ground like beating hearts torn from sacrificial victims, or of herbs, still alive amid all that death, waiting to be murdered on the cutting board, diced with silent screams or pounded into a chlorophyl mush and sprinkled over the corpses of kale. And don’t even think about the pressed olive oil, oh god. And that fresh baked bread? Soylent green is people, or wheat, anyway, same thing.

I sliced open a blood orange once and the juice splattered everywhere, over me, my face, my clothes, like some gory film. The orange lay before me, quartered, dead, and I devoured it with bloodstained hands, feeling oddly cannibalistic. I cut open another the next morning, again there was citrus blood everywhere, but this time it was communion, and I drank of the blood and ate of the body and became one again and filled with the Holy spirit, until some monophysite came in and told me I was making a mess.

Meat

Watching a David Attenborough documentary–Planet Earth–with a Sioux Indian is mildly disconcerting. Attenborough is intoning about the bison. That’s a magnificent animal I say. That’s a lot of meat, she says. We used to hunt them with arrows, she says. You could kill them with arrows? Nah, but if you could immobilize it you could hack at it. I blanch even whiter. That’s a lot of meat she says again.

Rich people everywhere

(2010)

Last nite we went to a show at the Bowl. Showed our press passes to the usher and went to turn right and head up the stairs as ujsual.  The usher said no and pointed us down the stairs. We kept going down and down, past all the places I thought we were gonna sit, through steadily rising income levels. Then through a special gate. I was about to head to a spot tucked in the corner when the usher led us down to the very front. Then across to the very center. There we were, front row center at the Hollywood Bowl, the stage maybe four feet away. Apparently some billionaire died or something and we got his seats.  Whatever, there we were with our picnic backpack full of home cooked fried chicken, some Lake-to-Lake cheese, Ritz crackers, tortillas, some fruit, whatever we found in the fridge. A ten dollar bottle of wine I got for half that. Rich people everywhere. There were menus on the table. The Beef was $41. Appetizers pushed $20, desserts a mere twelve or so. I didn’t even ask to see the wine list. I sat there kinda stunned. Fyl acted as if this were normal everyday stuff for her…she’s getting jaded. The server was oh so perky. I said we weren’t going to order off the menu and she looked a little disappointed—no big tips from table numero uno tonight. She did offer us place settings, glasses, to open your wine, anything, sir. I declined, but we did order Fyl a beer. Who knows how much that cost. Anyway, we have this really nifty picnic backpack I got once for test driving car far too small for me. I wanted that backpack. Like a sixty dollar deal, free.  Really nice plates (plastic), really nifty wine glasses (plastic), stainless steel silver ware (plastic handles), a cutting board (wood) and some cute little checkered napkins (cloth). We love this thing. We pack it full of food, put a wine bottle in the wine holder, I mean it’s perfect.  The envy of all picnickers. My god did it look cheap and plastic and tawdry amid that little sea of rich people. I opened the bottle and poured it into one of the little glasses. A server looked and I swear rolled her eyes. This unctuous little man, nattily dressed, went from table to table chatting with the rich people, anything I can do, etc. He studiously passed right by us, eyes averted. Suddenly the program director of KKJZ (the jazz station) pops up. His wife is holding a picnic bag. The look completely dazed that they’ve been plunked down front row center at the Bowl. They pull out their picnic dinner. Grapes, some sandwiches, a bottle of wine from Trader Joes. She was crazy about our plastic wine glasses. I had to show her the picnic pack. Tell the test-drive story. Then pops up a writer and a pal. Dazed, both. And so broke we all shared our wine and food with them. All around us tinked fancy silverware on fabulous china. Champagne bottles popped. It was surreal. The people stared at us, sitting at that table, knowing we had to be somebody, but if we  were somebody how could all of us be so cheap?

A wonderful evening. Two excellent Latin jazz bands and a hackneyed Sergio Mendes set, made up for by an army of near naked Brazilian dancers who strutted all around us. They were between us and the non-rich people and we got about five solid minutes of 99% bare Brazilian tushes shaking it for the people. The night before there’d been a symphony there…. It ended and we finally got out of the parking lot and I had to get home to write my column so of course I said hey, there’s a party, let’s go, and off we were to Highland Park and caught the last dregs of an obviously uproarious party. A couple dozen boho wackos old enough to know better. Lots of slurred sentences. People with the munchies bad. We stayed till 1:30. Home by 1:45. We had left the house at 6:45…..

Btw, we never did pay for that beer.