Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Butter Letter: German Christmas Cakes and Religious Schism.

Φλαυίου Ἰωσήπου ἱστορία Ἰουδαϊκοῦ πολέμου πρὸς Ῥωμαίους βιβλία
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all our readers out there in virtual land! Its been a busy year with too much travel and a lot of music and this is the time of year when I get to spend a week at home doing absolutely nothing but reading web comics and it feels great! Christmas in Hungary is a holiday reserved for families: people go home on Dec. 24th and basically barricade themselves with their nuclear families for the next three days. There are the ritual feasts at the family table each day, fortified by gallons of wine and palinka and followed by howling hangovers to be cured by "the hair of the dog" so as to be ready to attend the next rigidly timed feast of leftovers from the previous feast. Also: you had better like to eat carp.

The term for this fish in the Romanian language is... "crap."
Yes, carp. Apart from the heavy rolled opiate pastries called beigli the most emblematic Magyar Christmas dish is fish soup made from carp and fried cap to follow. Carp - a fish regarded in North America as an invasive trash fish so full of pointy Y-shaped bones as to be inedible - is the centerpiece of the Christmas table. Yum. Mama in the kitchen boilin' up a carp! I will be honest here: I do not like carp. I do not like eating it. I do not like the idea of fishing for it. And I certainly do not like the idea that this boney, fatty, nearly inedible coarse fish should be the culinary embodiment of Uralic family cohesion on this most significant of days. Go ahead and say it: I am a Carpist. The other thing Hungarians like to snack on around Christmas is kürtos kalács, the sweet Transylvanian cake baked on a log that we can get at all the Christmas gift markets at this time of year. I can get along with yeasty sweet cake. With carp - no.

BBQ cake. Should be introduced to New Orleans.

As a rule, Hungarians do not communicate or interact outside of the family during the three days around Christmas - it is considered bad form to even call a friend or meet for a drink outside. If you are not connected by DNA or a wedding ring to a web of Hungarian family, you get a pass on this practice. Believe me, you should consider yourself lucky. You get to go to Tom bácsi and Amy néni's Christmas Eve dinner party, as we did this year, and relax with the cream of the foreign, unfamilied crowd. Tom - a stellar host - stands proudly, proclaiming "Give me your tired, your poor / the humble masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of their teeming shore..." Brits, Amcsik (that's US for you outsiders) Poles, Serbs, Celts, and the occasional Egyptian all find a welcome on this most exclusive of evenings. And best of all: no gifts!
Deak ter: a perfect storm of hot wine and consumer goods.
Gifts are de rigeur for the breeding members of our species at Christmastime, and finding them is effortless. Avoiding them, less so. Christmas markets are everywhere, and always packed. It isn't just about shopping - there is a lot of eating and drinking, particularly things so unhealthy that you would not even consider them at other times of year. Hot spiced wine is the preferred  tipple, although it is often sickeningly sweet and has little to commend its origins in wine at all. I was up in Berlin on biznitz last week and had just enough time to check out a couple of their Christmas markets. Same deal.

The pretzel is Germany's most successful engineering wonder. Then comes the VW Bug. 
Germans are serious about their hot spiced wine, and some stands were serving unsweetened wine, and often fortified with an extra shot of schnapps. And for some reason, huge saute woks of garlicky mushrooms count as holiday fare in Germany. Stands all over were offering hot, whole regular supermarket white mushrooms sauteed with sour cream and garlic to be eaten outside from a paper plate with a toothpick. While drinking spiked hot wine. I had to say no to that - my days of staggering drunkenly around Berlin are over. My days of wolfing down bockwurst are not.

Yes, the bad puns get wurst.
I love wurst. Wurst of any sort: bockwurst, bratwurst, pflazer, bauernwurst, weisswurst, blut wurst, frankfurter, krakower... if it is meat in a tube I will adapt my sunny personality to it and absorb it into my Borg network of Bob-molecules. Except for currywurst. Currywurst is the Berlin junkfood that takes something perfectly good and pure - in this case, a regular good German wurst, either bock or brat - and perverts it into a chimera of nastiness that makes other junk food turn and run away screaming and retching and abandoning their children as they flee. Slathered with ketchup and a shake of curry powder, curry wurst can be eaten safely only at stands like the legendary Konnopke's in P-berg, and possibly at markets like this. I passed on the curry - and worked my way through bock, brat, and krakower wursts dressed only by delicious German mustard. Brought home a few jars of Löwensenf Extra sharp to boot.

You can not have these things at other times of the year. Really.
And instead of beigli... there is stollen cake. I was to carry home a whole Christmas stollen cake in my hand luggage for Fumie. Stollen is a Christmas seasonal cake made with candied fruits, marzipan, and sprinkled with powdered sugar to sugest a snowy landscape... it is quite rich and doesn't go stale quickly, due to the fact that it contains something like a quarter of its mass from butter! Not only that, but this cake was a major issue at the Vatican Council of Trent in 1545, at which time the Counter-reformation was imposed, condemning the doctrines of Protestantism and establishing the Catholic church as the supreme interpreter of scripture. Stollen were first noted in 1329 in Nurnberg, its shape symbolizing the Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. Butter was forbidden during the Advent season, and stollen cakes were considered "poor" and made with oil. In Dresden and the eastern German Saxony region, however, butter was cheaper than oil for baking. Prince Ernst of Saxony appealed to Pope Nicholas V in 1450 for an exception, which sat around Rome and was ignored or debated by four Popes and answered only in 1490 by Pope Innocent VIII - the guy who wore the Papal beanie just before the outrageous and profligate Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

Dude.... I know your're the pope, but maybe lay off the cake a bit, OK?
We chiefly remember the unwisely named Pope Innocent as responsible for naming Torquemada as Chief Inquisitor of Spain. Pope Innocent's communication became known as "The Butter Letter." (I am not making this up.) The Pope allowed the use of butter but only in exchange for a fee, which would be used to build churches. Once the Saxons found they could use butter in their Christmas cakes, it was only a matter of time before they and half of Europe all turned their backs on the Catholic Church and the raging Borgia maniacs in Rome. Martin Luther was a monk in Saxony when he nailed his 99 theses against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church to the door of the church in Wittenburg. This small act led, eventually to the profoundly unpronouncable Schmalkadic War and jump started the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Although a catalyst to centuries of devastating war, famine, and religious strife, stollen actually is a pretty tasty cake.

The cake that launched a religious war.
And so, with a dufflebag of newly purchased wurst of many varieties and a huge buttery anti-Catholic Christmas cake, I was on my Air Berlin flight and back in Budapest within 24 hours and ready for the holidays! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

More Ghetto than You!

So, we finally did it. We moved. A new flat... downtown. Our new home is smack dab in the middle of the historic Jewish Ghetto of Budapest, Klauzal tér Its almost overstepping the bounds of stereotype: Klezmer fiddler moves to Klauzal tér (tér means 'square' in Hungarian.) This area is one of the few historically identifiable Jewish neighborhoods left in eastern Europe. In 1944 the area was walled off to form the Budapest ghetto, and some 70,000 Jews were crammed into the buildings to await deportation to the German concentration camps, or, with luck, liberation by the Allied armies.

More ghetto than you!
Our house was once of the designated "Yellow Star houses" in which Jews were made to reside in 1944. But Jewish life is not all about what happened in the past. The Ghetto is still a center of local Jewish life with an Orthodox synagogue down the street, a kosher butcher shop offering the only beef hot dogs in Hungary two minutes away, and Hasids waddling the streets every Friday evening. I hear Yiddish spoken almost daily. We have Jewish bars (good!) and kosher restaurants (bad) and "Jewish style" unkosher restaurants, the best of which, Kadar Étkezde, is now just across the square, where the #2 tram used to run long, long ago.

No longer a convenient destination.
It is also the heart of the "bulinegyed" or Party zone of Budapest, based around the dozen or so "ruin bars" that sprang up squatting in abandoned houses but by now have grown into pricey drink-n-grope meccas for all our loud Australian tourist friends. I have always been connected by work to the Ghetto, but never lived in it. I am definitely going to miss Zuglo, and Fumie and I now consider ourselves proud members of the Zuglo diaspora. I will continue to go shopping at Bosnyak market when the weather permits a bike ride - the supermarkets downtown are all overpriced and pretty limited. I will miss the absurdly corrupt local politicians and the road signs in right-wing runic script. And I will miss watching the newly elected independent district Mayor Gergely Karacsony face off against implied threats of nastiness to come from the previous FIDESZ shitbird who held the post.

A life in boxes.
The actual act of moving our stuff was made easier by simply calling a company - in our case Tutiteher, which provided boxes and returned with three burly guys and a truck and got all our stuff transferred in about five hours for about the price of treating four people to a sushi dinner with beer. Suddenly, I was left in an empty flat, uncluttered with the material evidence of my existence, completely free of stuff. Stuffless. Its what the Buddha was all about!

Where once the happy sound of fiddles sang out... now silence abounds.
When you move, you toss out a lot of stuff. Yesterday's treasure, today's trash. I managed to toss about ten crates of crap. Old letters, old promo stuff from my band, English language magazines from the last century, books with no imaginable reader, cassettes of Albanian folk music bought in what was then still Yugoslavia, old floppy discs that can no longer be read by any machine, dead tape recorders, dead microphones, dead radios, leftover toys from when my son was a five year old, even unusable salt water fishing gear - Jeebus, what was I thinking... Hungary is landlocked!  We had a lot of stuff.

Be it ever so humble...
If any museum curators out there recognize my historical value and wish to accuse me of a crime against future scholars of Bob History, I gladly stand guilty as accused. And I was even more lucky than usual. Instead of worrying about where to put it all, I let Fumie decide. I made a promise to myself that I would not pipe up with any debate to any interior design decision made by her. If she wants to put the rug there, so be it. If she wants to get an Ikea shelf, well, how quickly can we get to Ikea. simple. No conflict. Effective! If you are a male, take my advice and never attempt to make a place look nice. It won't work. Men are, as is often observed nothing more than "bears with furniture."
our new space

We have one large room here which is basically unusable for anything except storage. Its got water stains on the ceiling, a huge antique couch, and art supplies from the landlady, and old furniture we won't be using stored in there. And I am going to attempt to excavate a private space out of that. Right now it is filled  some of our other unnecessary stuff, and most of my instruments. But soon I will make it into my own, my unlivable and unclean-able nook of bagpipe reed making, fly tying, bookbinding, and fiddle repair. It shall become my... Man-cave!

Its completely Boyash City across the way!
The view from the new flat isn't quite the forested vista we had in Zuglo, but at least we get a lot of south facing sun and there is no huge building blocking out the light. And for added delight, ours is the building that was the home of Vili in the 1989 Hungarian animated feature film "Vili a Veréb" - Willie the Sparrow, in which a little boy gets magically turned into a sparrow on Klauzal tér.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Long Story Short: I travel too much.

Borthers Nazaroff with Slava Farber, Moldova.
I am finally home. After months on the road I am sleeping on my own futon, eating from my own kitchen, rummaging through my own desk and reading my own books. I have been on tour since July, and it does get a bit weary after a while, travelling in tour buses, waiting in airport lounges, spending days looking forward to those few hours in a strange hotel where "home" consists of a shower and some free wifi (damn you, Germany!) Oh, and traveling on boats. Boats everywhere, upstream, downstream, to nowhere.

On the Danube somewhere. Somewhere.
I can't divulge the entirety of what I have been up to but I can show some of where I have been in the last month since I left the USA... OK. Careful readers of this blog will know that I flew to the USA in July and very abruptly traveled to Canada soon after. After communing with my Bronx roots and eating a lot of Chinese and Arab food in New Jersey for a couple of weeks I flew back to Budapest. I had less than a week at home in Budapest and then I was off with the Brothers Nazaroff to the Republic of Moldova. By bus. Across Romania.

Chisinau, the capitol city of Moldova, is remarkably vital and prospering city, made that way primarily from the money sent back home by Moldovan workers abroad. thrity percent of the Moldovan work force is abroad at any moment. Think about that. Those grapes you had for breakfast? Probably picked by a Moldovan, Those that stay home may be happier, but money is in short supply. We met up with Yiddish singer Slava Farber - perhaps the last Yiddish wedding singer left in East Europe - and that evening did a gig with him at the hip Propaganda Club. The next morning, with the small amount of free time we had I hit the Central Market and picked up some of the pickles and prunes I had fallen in love with on my first visit to Chisinau in 2009.

Pickles of the immortals.
Moldova has been hit by an economic boycott carried out by Russia, formerly its major market for wine and produce, which meant that there was more excellent wine and delicacies at rock bottom prices for the home market and also in Romania. Moldavian food is excellent: you would never expect such  a fantastic cuisine after eating Moldavian food across the border in Romania. the difference is huge. Moldovan wine has come a long way due to the influence of Moldovan winemakers learning modern techniques in France and Italy. Moldova is for fressers! After a few days in busy Chisinau we headed north to Edintets to check in with the brass band there - old friends led by Anatoli Ciobanu - who still maintain a body of updated Klezmer style tunes for brass band.

Jamming in Edinets
We jammed out in the Edinets city park, with me on cobza. We were in a rush and the weather hovered between cold and outright rainy, but we had a great time marching around the woods blasting tunes. After a slow lunch of bad mititei and pickles we had to get back on the road to make it to Botosani, Romania, in time for a concert at the Old Synagogue, organized by the Jewish community of Botosan and Jake S.-Ment.

Like so many of Romania's Jewish communities, the one in Botosani is small, but it seemed a relatively well off and tight knit community, and nearly everybody we met could speak Yiddish. Plus, the Hotel we stayed in had once been intended as Nicolae Ceaucescu's residence when staying in Botosani! We got tasteless fascist design pluswifi and a great breakfast included! Next stop: Maramures! A mere six hour drive west of Bukovina!

Casa Pop, Hoteni
We stayed at the eco-pension of Ioan Pop in the village of Hoteni, just south of Sighet. Ioan is a well-known musician and cultural organizer (and leader of the group Iza who has toured worldwide) who is, as he says "A peasant from Monday to Friday, and a musician on weekends." He and his wife are two of the nicest people I know in Romania, and if you are ever up in these parts, look into booking a room at their Pensiune.

Meyske, Jake, and Ion.
This was the first time Meyshke has been to Maramures, and he was taking full advantage of it: fiddling, singing, and adapting to the three times distilled horinca that folks knock back in these parts when in need of alcoholic refreshment. Ioan had told us that our old friend Nicolae was still alive and kicking so we went off to meet him. Me and Jake have been visiting Nicolae Covaci for years, enjoying both his music as well as his ever growing tall tales.

Nicolae and Vassile Covaci
Nicolae is one of the last of the real old style fiddlers in Maramures, unaffected by the more showy style that was ushered in by the Fratii Petreus in the 1960s.We were surprised when one of his younger brothers, Vassile showed up and started playing along. I though Nicolae was one of five brothers, but it seems that his father must have been a very busy and sleep-deprived man. There is nothing better than double fiddles, especially when played by siblings and this was some great music. Jake and Meyshke provided rhythm while I "stole" the tunes on video. OK, does this sound like  its time to pack it up and go home? that would seem logical, no? Well, no actually. We get back to Bpest, spend one night at home, and off to Paris. On Ryan Air. As in "Musicians do not fly Ryan Air." (That will be a full post in the future.) But at least we got to Paris. Paris, a city of culture and... amour... literature... and boats. And croissants. There is nothing quite like the croissants of Paris.

And croissants on boats. And a very grumpy me on fracking boats in rainy, nasty weather that is cramping my old bones and making me want to be back in Moldova. The grey mud of Maramures was still on my shoes as we sailed past the Cathedral of Notre Dame. But we got to float down the Seine in a real French bat-oh singing in Yiddish and occasionally in English (the theme song to Gilligan's Isle) and Russian. Because that is how we Nazaroffs roll. Our gig at night was in a funky trad folk club in eastern Paris near Belleville,

My new idea for a hat.
In Paris we didn't have much in the way of free time: no sighteseeing, no shopping, no browsing the international CDs at FNAC, no flea markets, no leisurely strolls through African neighborhoods. This may have been the briefest and busiest trip I have ever made to the City of Light but we were due in Berlin for gigs at the Maxim Gorki Theater's Studio R club celebrating the 20th year anniversary of Oriente Records, the Berlin music label that has supported Di Nayes, Painted Bird, Jake and now Meyshkye's new project with Julian Kytasty. Til at Oriente is dedicated to good music and entirely open and honest with his stable of musicians. Oriente may be the last stand for quality Jewish music among labels at this strange time when nobody seems to be buying Cds anymore, but he still plugs on, fighting the Good Fight. So there was no way we were going to miss the Oriente Anniversay Festival. Which meant an overnight train to Berlin for the evening accommodations. There is nothing stranger than travelling alone in a sleeper car.

It is a heck of a lot better than sleeping with strangers in a sleeper car, but also a bit like staying in prison for a night: a very clean and polite German prison where they let you bring in a bottle of wine and a salami and PC tablet full of movies and the entire season of "Rick and Morty." Up in the morning and we taken off to Alexanderplatz where our rather ritzy hotel promises us that if we avail ourselves of their facilities we are nearly guaranteed to have "successful meetings!" (I can't imagine that they would wish their guests "mediocre meetings" or say "We hope your meetings suck!")

We stay at atmospheric Alexander Platz, which is a square kilometer of cement, steel and glass so tastelessly and relentlessly East German that back in the early 1990s when Berlin was busy burying its past there was no way to do anything with A-platz except let it stand as a monument to a supremely badly designed East German future. Berlin is actually one of my favorite cities: it is butt-ugly and has wretchedly bad Thai food (and virtually no Chinese food at all: note that China does not have a developed sex tourism industry) but nevertheless, Berlin is friendly and affordable and more than makes up for its blemishes by being home to thousands of Turks and Kurds and Macedonians.

And to dedicated readers of this blog: I have been on the road so much this year that I haven't been updating regularly. This post is just a place holder for some more fun stories to come. I will be back soon with high definition pictures of the world's great Klezmer fiddlers eating brightly colored things with their bare hands! Stay tuned!

There's more where this came from!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Bronx: Voodoo Like You Do.

"If you grow up in the South Bronx today you quickly come to understand that you have been set apart and that there's no will in this society to bring you back into the mainstream."
Jonathan Kozol

"I don't need bodyguards. I'm from the South Bronx."
Al Pacino

"The Bronx? No Thonx!"
Ogden Nash, 1931

The beauty of the forgotten borough.
I grew up in the Bronx. at the Westchester Square end of East Tremont Ave, a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian with a sprinkling of Irish, Greek, Ukrainian, and old time New York German residents. Spanish meant Puerto Rican back then. Went to P.S. 71. After leaving the NYPD my Dad operated the first "multiracial" owned business in the Bronx, an Esso Gas and Service station on Webster Ave with a Puertoriqueño named Carlos. The Bronx is in my blood. Indelible. The Bronx is home to a million and a half New Yorkers, and remain the last borough to resist gentrification. The Hipsters do not colonize the Bronx as they have in Brooklyn and Queens. Not enough white people speaking English to make the Bronx feel comfortably hip. The Bronx does not appear in any tourist guide to New York. If it does at all, it is because of the Bronx zoo. We love zoos. We especially love great big green forests in the middle of the Bronx. It is the tail end of summer and we were set to enjoy it, even with the $15 entrance fees and the $5 add ons to get into the major enclosures. Go on Wednesday - known as "Ghetto Day" - if you want to get in for free and experience the crowds of low income Bronx families desperate for nature and fresh air.

"You paid how much to see me?"
The Zoo brought us back to the Bronx, or more accurately, Bob Godfried brought us to the Zoo. Bob, now a retired new York City shop teacher and New York's most knowledgeable accordion and free reed repairman,is my friend and guide to the intricacies of New York's ethnic music scenes. Bob was born and raised in and never left the Bronx when the great "white flight" to the suburbs happened in the 1960s, when the South and Central Bronx became the center for emigres from Puerto Rico, and later Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans, and even Garifuna - Black Caribs, Native American Afro-Indians - from Central America. The influence of Afro-Caribbean religious traditions such as Lucumi, Santeria, and Vodun remains strong in Bronx communities, which led us to the Original Botanica, New York's oldest and largest botanica shop.

All your occult hoodoo and Santeria needs since 1959
A Botanica is usually a tiny shop that sells the materials necessary to conduct, santeria or vodun ceremonies. New York is still full of them, in every borough, but Original is the biggest in NYThere is even a full service botanica nearby on Main Street in Hackensack NJ. These serve their communities the way mental health clinics do, but instead of paying thousands of dollars in co-pay to a shrink you go to a bruja and pay about $50 for some herbs and oils, and all your problems are fixed and you feel better.  Plus they probably speak Spanish or Haitian Creole. Santeria or Candomble followers are visible to other by the colored beads identifying the wearer as a follower of one of the many orishas, or Yoruba deities who personify forces of nature. 

The Yoruba were one of the last African nations to be sucked into the slave trade: just as the British were beginning their campaign to intercept shps carrying slaves off the coast of West Africa, the Kingdom of Oyo fell in 1817 to Fulani jihadis coming from the north. the resulting waves of refugee Oyo Yoruba were taken as slaves by neighboring Dahomey - speakers of the Fon language and former vassal of Oyo - and sold to Spanish and Brazilian slavers. Yoruba often arrived in the new world fully literate. In Brasil and Cuba they formed communities to continue their social and religious traditions - called candomble in Brasil and Santeria in Cuba. 

Elegua "Opens the Road"
Yoruba also maintained their language, which became known in Cuba as Lucumi, from the Yoruba words oluku mi - "my friend." The divination sytem at the heart of Yoruba religion is Ifa, which is the name of the orisha of knowledge and fate. In classic Yoruba divination a babalawo or Ifa priest uses cowrie shells ( or coconut shells in some New World Santeria communities) tossed into the air and onto a tray to assess a patient's problem: Ifa himself arranges the cowries in mid air so that the babalawo can read their pattern, which serves as a sort of ID code to a verse of Yoruba poetry called the Odu Ifa. The first orisha that each ceremony has to deal with is Eshu, also known as Elegua, the gate keeper who negotiates communications between the spirit world and ours. He is a handsome man, half white and half black. In Yoruba Eshu "opens the road."

Elegua, known as Eshu in Yoruba, Baron Samedi in Haiti, and in Louisiana, Papa LaBas.
The essence of Yoruba religion is a deep understanding of humanity: both its positive and its negative aspects. Humans are flawed: it is a reflection of the flaws in creation. The flaws in Creation were repaired, so how can we repair our flaws? By giving and getting. You want something from the spirit world, you better be ready to give in return. 

Like buying a candle and maybe perfuming some water in a scent deemed pleasing to the orisha being petitioned. But the intricate rituals of the Yoruba are not he only traditions practiced in the New World. At Original Botanica you can buy the nganga: iron kettles needed to prepare shrines from the Cuban Palo Mayombe tradition. 

Just add some black cat bone and expect instant results.
Mayomberos are sometimes considered dangerous: they are reputed to be expert on revenge curses and manipulative magic. Palo Mayombe reflects an older African tradition in the New World dating to the earlier years of African slave trade when millions of slaves were taken from the Bantu-speaking Congo regions to Cuba and the American South. These religious traditions transformed into the Petro side of the Haitian Vodoun Religion, the Voodoo of Louisiana, and in fully creolized form, into the Hoodoo tradition of the Black American South. 

Trouble is often caused by untidy bathrooms. Don't get caught by the law because of dirty toilets!
Hoodoo has always been present in American Black communities, but following emancipation the existence of African religion found strong resistance from the nascent Black churches and began to rebrand itself as a folk belief best known from old blues song lyrics. 

Muddy Waters sang "I got the black cat bone, got John the conqueroo, I'm gonna mess with you" High John the Conquerer was said to be an African Prince carried into slavery: a dried plant root carries his power. 

You can use some soap if you don't want to prepare the root. Ọr just cover all your bases with all-purpose Jinx Removal soap. Got problems in gambling? Black Cat Bone is what you need. Zora Neale Hurston, the anthroplogist/writer/ active during the Harlem Renaissance wrote about Hoodoo in her books "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "The Sanctified Church" before falling into poverty and obscurity in the 1930s. Urban Black intellectuals weren't  comfortable around Zora, who was an initiated Voodoo priestess from the tiny town of Palatka, Florida. Yes, you read that right.
Palatka, Florida

And if you have problems with the ladies, try lighting a candle: there are ladies'candles as well, in all races and sizes. There is something primal about magical solutions to daily problems. 
My boyfriend is a such a dick. What to do?
Maybe that is why people continue to be attracted to them. There were coyote skins for sale, Ifa divining plates, dried chameleons, herbs for cleansing ritual baths, ritual charms to help women get pregnant, herbs to defeat lawyers, to find a good job, to ensure safe travel, even to bring good luck specifically to Venezuelans (I am not making that one up, I swear.) 

Syncretism - a brokh!. 
The owners of the Original Botanica since 1959 are a family of Sephardic Jews, which makes fine business sense if you wanted to stay  in business in the Bronx all that time. They aren't followers of Santeria but respect the local need to keep a supply of... well, dried chameleons and stuff. Even during the most lawless "Fort Apache" days of the Bronx' decline in the 1970s, nobody, but nobody was going to fuck with a shop that serves the local Voodoo priests. I really doubt that this had any influence on me finding a set of mogen david stars on a series of votive candles. Bob, who is an authority on stuff like this, says that the design of the candles has become a lot simpler and less ornate that they used to be. They have also become more ecumenical. Basically, any path to god's ear is worth trying. 

When all else fails...

The candles you buy here are available at any botanica in the city. Visit Van Cortland Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn on any day celebrating an important Saint in the Santeria or Vodoun pantheon and you will find candles burning at crossroads or at the base of certain sacred trees. New York is not a spiritual wasteland, It is the home of thousands of people whose faith is inherited from centuries of slavery and resistance, of which Santeria,Vodoun, and Hoodoo are a part. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Loeser's Deli: An Old Time Deli in the Bronx. And also White Manna.

Nakhes fun kinder. Its true. Children are a source of joy, but unlike many other sources of joy they also need to be fed, and at the age of 21 they need to be fed a lot. Heck, you could feed a small army for the same amount that a 21 year boy old can eat. I planned my arrival in the USA to coincide with the last week of my son Aron's visit, and we had made plans to revisit some of the eateries that define Aron, ethnically, as a New Yorker. One of those things is pastrami. Aron loves Jewish food, deli and pastrami in particular. also, in no particular order, Jersey burgers, White Castle sliders, clams on the halfshell, and most Chinese food. Very New Yorker.

Sure, you can get pastrami in "delis" and diners all over the country, but New York pastrami is special, especially when it is cured and smoked in house. Simple advice: do not ever order a pastrami sandwich in a diner, especially in New Jersey. Just don't. Trust my advice on this. That packaged cold cut of salty, pink hammy stuff covered in peppercorns is not even close to pastrami. When in doubt in a diner always order the cheeseburger or the patty melt. I had read David Saxe's book (and blog) Save the Deli about the gradual disappearance and partial resurrection of the Jewish deli tradition, and there was still one deli I had overlooked: Loeser's in the Bronx.

Freddy Loeser: A real old school Deli Man.
Half a century ago, way up in the Bronx, a young man of just 17 named Freddy Loeser used some of his bar mitzvah savings to open up a kosher delicatessen. Back then, there were still hundreds of Jewish delis all over the Bronx, Today there are only two: Liebmann's and Loeser's. when I was growing up delis were everywhere, but that everywhere disappeared during the 1960s. In the 1940s New York Public Works commissioner Robert Fucking Moses ran the Cross Bronx expressway straight through the tight knit neighborhoods of the South Bronx, destroying the political power of the ward bosses and the sense of community that held people together. My grandparents lived in Parkchester, a neighborhood that still had Yiddish street signs into the 1960s, and I remember the delicious square potato knishes my Mom would buy for us kids when we went shopping. A knish with yellow mustard was my dream of "eating out." (Although the "Hamburger Express" diner on Westchester Square ran a model train system that delivered your burger to your table by toy train. That kind of thing sticks in your brain forever.)

Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish
Loeser's is located on a busy street just across a bridege from Manhatten and has the atmosphere of a real old time deli - which it is. Wooden walls. Formica tables.  My Dad - still chipper at 88 - ran my Son Aron and myself down for an exploration. One thing about Loeser's Deli: it doesn't depend on the tourist trade to stay in Business. Dad declared it a "real deli" and chatted with Freddy Loeser as Freddy came to our table to take orders. "Have I met you before?" Freddy asked my Dad, an ex-NYC cop and detective. "How many years have you been here?" my Dad replies. Freddy says "54 years." "Nah." says my Dad "You're too young.
Retired from the NYPD but can still kick my butt. Likes corned beef. 
Freddy disappeared behind the counter and returned with a plate of pickles and a bowl of Loeser's home made cole slaw, prepared fresh daily. I know cole slaw is supposed to be a side, but anybody who eats regularly at delis knows it is actually the appetizer. You shovel the stuff down while waiting for your sandwich or main course, by which point it is gone. Freddy knows this and offers to refill your dish of slaw. And they don't bother with ceramic plates. Paper takes up less space and labor, and since nobody who eats at Loeser's is a tourist, you don't complain. 

Loeser's Happy Meal!
Loeser's seems to survive on a knish and a prayer, but the NY Daily News declared their pastrami the best in town. Nobody argues with the Daily News. Is it actually the best in town? Hard to say. Loeser's is a classic, machine sliced sandwich, smaller than the gargantuan overstuffed mutants served at Carnegie  Deli or the hand cut piles of meat at Katz's (You think you will be hungry? Order the hand cut french fries. That's what they are for!). For one thing, it is a heck of a lot cheaper than any other deli in the NYC area, because they still serve a diverse Bronx customer base seeking out an affordable, filling, non-Dominican lunch. You can easily get there from Northern Manhatten by hopping on the #7 bus going north on Broadway and getting off at 231th Street soon after the bus crosses the small bridge from Manhattan. Or take the #1 subway from Manhattan and get off at 231st St. stop and walk a half a block. (Loeser's Deli. 214 West 231st St. Bronx.)

Aron with Grandpa. Standing on ancestral land: the Bronx.
Plus there is nothing nicer than dining out with Grandpa and grandson. Three generations of deli fressers passing on the knowledge of what makes a good deli sandwich. The french have wine, the British my know cheese, but we New Yorkers have the deli. We know its nuances, we can describe its aromas and flavors with a subtlety akin to poetry. Pastrami brine flows in our veins, and kasha stuffs the varnishkes of our souls. We New Yorkers are blessed with our delis, and it is our duty to patronize the remaining ones lest they go the way of the buffalo... and egg cream. We also have a few things that more recent emigrants have gifted us with, not the least of which is the Japanese Bakery in Fort Lee. Grandma loves Japanese bakeries. And Grandpa does too.

Grandma likes the strawberry Shortcake.
And then again, when raising a son to be a in a foreign, non-Jersey place, there is The White Manna. I haven't written about White Manna in a while. its nearby, I tend to take it for granted because when in the USA I do most of my market shopping at the amazing Giant Farmer's Market across the street, and the place has been around since as long as my clan has inhabited this part of Jersey, but White Manna has an honored place in the foodie saga of The Garden State. I only wish it could have been kosher so my kosher buddies could try it. But it ain't. All those cheeseburgers? They are mine!

This is our life.
This time we chose my brother Ron to act as accompanying DNA specimen. Uncle Ron is a master of Jersey foods. Hell, with my own naked eyeballs I have seen him eat an entire Subway sandwich and survive, so White manna is definitely a step up for him. He has his own set of boundary issues with food: he likes all food to be pasta. He likes salad to be pasta. Soup made from pasta. He eats meat but often encased in pasta, like Chinese dumplings. He makes a significant exception by eating burgers to broaden his dietary intake of vegetables.

Uncle Ron. He used to be such a cute little boy. Then the radioactive spider incident...
The prices at White Manna have risen slightly since I took these photos, but you get the idea. You order burgers in multiples: two is a snack, a light meal is three, and since this version of "fast food" is prepared as you watch, order four since it will take at least ten minutes to get another one if you change your mind. The tiny-bit-of-meat and large stack of steamed onions is a tradition that goes back to the Great Depression (the 1930s, for those of you who have already forgotten.) Burger shacks needed to find a way to stretch a small amount of meat into a meal, and onion was it. Oklahoma has a similar crushed onion burger tradtion, and the Mississippi slugburger follows in their burger extender vein.

You want this. Admit it. Even though they will kill you. 
They are good, they are cheap, they are filling, and no, they are not gourmet. those little "sliders" you see advertised on menus at bistros in Brooklyn? I won;t order them, they are not "sliders" they are tiny hamburgers in Yuppie restaurants. A slider has a potato bun, like at White Manna. A slider is slow steamed on top of a stack of onions. A slider has government welfare commodity cheese melted on it. It does not contain jalapeno, unless it is from White Castle (where it is allowed.) Also, a slider is cheap.

Photo taken around 2008. Double Cheeseburger is now 30 cents more expensive..
The White Manna is tiny and at lunchtime it fills up and gets crowded with people queuing up for take out (orders of "give me twenty hamburgers, fifteen cheeseburgers, and twelve double cheeseburgers" are not uncommon.) If dining at lunch time on a weekday you get a definite vibe of Clowns in a Volkswagen, but heck, it is not Peter Luger's Steakhouse we are tawkin' about, right? It is White Manna, ferchrissakes, and it is part of the Cohen Family Tradition of Eating in New Jersey.