Monday, October 25, 2010

Defying Nature in Palm Springs

I know what you're thinking: casinos, golf courses, and senior citizen conventions, right? Think again. Well sorta. OK, sure, the free city map has a large, conspicuous marker for the local social security office, hearing aid shops are readily abound, and just about all of the passengers on my plane were age 65 and above. But the Palm Springs of today has a new look. It’s been struck by hipsters and gay-boys, and in all the right ways.

I am slated to do a quick overnighter here because of the wedding of my longtime friend Kara. And I’ll be honest, knowing full well that she reads my blog--When she first announced Palm Springs many months ago as her matrimonial destination, my initial thoughts were something along the lines of, “You have got to be kidding me. I know we’re getting older, but isn’t this a little premature?” But, with Kara being my friend of 21 years now, Palm Springs-bound I was.

Stepping off the plane, I was pleasantly surprised: the airport architecture was comprised of modern concrete and angles, but elegant with its desert landscaping, set against a dry mountain backdrop sprinkled with palm trees jutting into a clear blue sky. Truly a sight for sore eyes. From there to the Ace Hotel, I saw a lot of mid-century motels, relics of a time far past, but in good condition.

After a short cab ride I arrive at my destination, the the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Formerly a Howard Johnson’s motel, it had since undergone major renovations and, as much as I usually detest modern-style architecture, and all its “sleek lines” (ask yourself, isn’t there a reason villains in movies always live in modern villas?), it worked here. In the rooms, the floors were polished concrete with exotic rugs on top, the linens a crisp clean off-white, and the walls and curtains were comprised of off-white canvas tarps, completing the desert theme. The furniture was sparse, mostly polished wood, with effective shelving. The larger suites had patios bedecked with cozy but tidy gas fireplaces. The entire expanse of the motel was landscaped with concrete and combed sand. And, unlike your standard Americana motel, instead of a huge parking lot in the middle, the Ace had a large pool and bar, a number of patios, and some smaller pools. A little hipster oasis in the desert.

Palm Springs has come a long way. Originally the stomping grounds of Native Americans, this former reservation was torn up by the U.S. federal government and distributed in checkerboard pieces to a railroad company in the 1870's. Later, with much irrigating and pumping in of water, and importing of date palm trees from Algiers, it was then developed as an agricultural center. By 1940's, all attempts at farming were almost completely replaced by the luxury resort strategy, with strong success. Desert casinos and high-end hotels popped up. Celebs like Frank Sinatra built second homes. Such predictably warm, arid weather served its patrons well, particularly the elderly ones, who bought homes and condominiums en masse. And that is how I identified Palm Springs growing up: I knew it as the home of my father's professional mentors and my mother's sponsors when she first immigrated. Those people were all senior citizens.

But in the last ten years, Palm Springs has broadened its demographic. Now a weekend stop for Los Angelinos, it is replete with restaurants and pool clubs for the boho yuppie set. Gay- friendly nightclubs and restaurants have also officially arrived, making it one of the top stops for members of the gay community. During my stay I was able to have lunch with an old grade-school buddy of mine, former high school football star turned multi-starred chef, who is opening up a new restaurant next to the Ace. His theme revolves around fresh, seasonal fare, targeting the new Palm Springs breeds--the younger, hipper, and gayer sets, with tastes for healthy and gourmet, and who have money to spare.

After a long evening of libations and post-banquet snacks by the various pools and fireplaces in honor of my my gal pal Kara and her new husband Gerry, I woke up the day after my arrival to go for a run. As I'm jogging under the stinging rays of the desert sun, I look around at the scorched mountains, covered by only the burliest of vegetation barely hovering over the ground. From the top of the mountains against a crystal blue sky, my eyes don't have to wander far before they fall on the many stuccoed spa clubs and hotels.

I am running in the middle of the desert for fun. In another era, such an activity would have been fairly stupid and life-threatening. But on this day, there is no sand in my teeth, and under my feet, there are smooth, almost polished, sidewalks. If I want to I can veer to the left and climb up true desert-mountain terrain. But, at any moment I can buy a bottle of mineral water long before I even begin to feel dehydrated. The irony of it all is a refreshing message to me, a resident of New Orleans, a city that critics all over the country and the world have suggested should have been left to fallow after its near destruction because of its seemingly impossible relationship with nature. But looking at the desert all around me on this jog, if nothing else, Palm Springs is proof that man has already and can work with, and maybe even defy nature, to create an oasis of human delights on scorched earth. Don't get me wrong here--unspoiled nature, like that of Alaska and other rare spots, is truly an amazing experience, and one that we as humans should preserve for as long as we can. But I'm not going to cry if someone has a cocktail ready for me when I get back to the hotel after this jog through a beautiful desert landscape.

By the time I return to my room, I feel a dry, intense heat emanating from my head. I grab a bottle of mineral water from my hotel fridge and thank god for the beautiful pool I'm about to plunge into. And I ask myself, has Kara whipped up those Bloody Mary's yet?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Random Pig Parts in Cajun Country

Boudin. Believe me when I tell you that pig parts, random pig parts, are delicious when combined with rice and packaged in intestine, and lovingly referred to in this part of the world as "boudin". Sounds like ordinary sausage to me, you might say. Well, if you're entering Cajun country and know what's good for you, do not utter such a heresy. Boudin is a thing of art here, so much so that the town of Lafayette hosts a boudin cookoff with 25 different artisan chefs disseminating their wares, in competition for a number of awards, any of which they will don with pride and distinction.

Like the ubiquitous fresh fruit stands in California, or po-boy stores in New Orleans, you will find the almighty boudin shop in Lafayette. Brought to Louisiana by the French, Cajun boudin is comprised of pig parts, including but not limited to heart meat and liver, and white rice cooked dirty with seasoning, blended, and cased in intestine, touched with a peppery Cajun kick you will not find in its European predecessor. Cajun boudin is typically boiled or simmered, sometimes smoked or grilled.

Despite its origins in the French culture, boudin and all things authentically cajun are not readily found in New Orleans. Like any true regional specialty, quality boudin can only be found in smaller towns like Lafayette, or for those in New Orleans, the nearby town of LaPlace.

And I, on my boudin quest, I took the road less traveled to Lafayette, drawn in large part by the annual boudin cook-off. There I had the good fortune of reconnecting with a long-lost former cousin-by-marriage, Vicky, and her Cajun husband Gene. Gene exemplifies one of the many reasons I have for many years connected with the cajun culture. Known for eating frog parts, alligator, liver sausage, and just about anything that moves and can survive in the region, while spicing it all up with red and black pepper, I've always felt that cajuns were the equivalent of white Asians. I have a theory that Cajun and Asian sauces are so exquisite in order to mask the strange and often pathetic creatures cooked in them.

It is a hot afternoon on cook-off day. A beer vendor is the first stand on the perimeter of the festival grounds in the middle of historic downtown Lafayette. "I don't know about you, but I like washing my boudin down with beer." I agree and we stroll down the boudin aisles with light beer in hand.

And so the noshing begins. We purchase $0.50 samples from a multitude of vendors, some of whom have held titles from the cook-off for years, some of whom are newcomers looking to make a name in the boudin world. Twenty-five vendors in all, I'm overwhelmed by the choices. Traditional cajun boudin, smoked boudin, grilled boudin, crawfish-stuffed boudin, boudin wrapped in bacon, deep-fried boudin balls. So many pig parts, so little time. Luckily, I have Gene's guidance.

By profession Gene works in the construction industry and comes from a family of tradesmen. But the seriousness with which he discusses our sample strategy, and the detail in which he analyzes the almighty boudin is reminiscent what I'd read from a food critic from a Michelin guide or New York Times culinary columnist. Immediately he scolds me for having accepted a free ice cream sandwich to start. "Now why would you contaminate your palate like that? I'll let it go because it's a local maker, but seriously..."

The boudin samples are delightful. A combination of seasoned rice and meat, boudin is like a complete meal in an edible wrapping. I'm enjoying just about every bite. But through Gene's lenses, I am learning the distinctions that only a true Cajun would notice at first blush. "See now, this maker hasn't processed the parts to my liking. The spicing is right, but the texture needs work. Chewy parts are unacceptable." At the next stand he points out, "See here, the liver flavor is more distinct, yet not overpowering. However, the casing is too thick and chewy." At another stand he barely finishes a bite before he observes in disgust, "My god, they've used minute-rice." After a few bites myself, I notice he is dead on with every call.

By the time we arrive, two hours into the festival, his favorite makers have sold out their product. But after ten generous samples from other vendors, I am somewhat relieved, and wondering if there is a cardiologist or a gastroenterologist on hand. By now I agree with his call on the ice cream sandwich.

We stay for the awards which have been swept away by Nunu's. I'm also pleased to see the charming newcomer family of redheads take the specialty award for their bacon-wrapped and smoked boudin.

Waddling back to the car, I contemplate buying some packages to take back to New Orleans; chock full of one of mother nature's most effective preservatives--pork fat--I have been told that boudin links store well. But with all the blood in my body struggling to process the contents of my rice and meat-stuffed stomach, and with the weight of my intestine-filled intestines, I cannot muster the strength to engage in what seems at the time like an exhausting transaction. But, I forgive myself, for, a mere two-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans, there is no doubt in my mind that I will be returning for this delicacy of random pig parts in Cajun country. I look forward to a future of deep fried boudin nuggets, and smoked boudin with bacon, and boudin with a seafood twist...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nighttime Gardens

After months of sweltering heat, I have taken up the horrid act of running. It's an activity that I dread, especially after having tasted the pleasures of hiking in the mountains of Alaska after a long day's work. But I'm left to my own devices in a land which lies mostly below sea level, and I have no intention of ending my war on aging and staying active. So, in addition to biking to and from work, I've resolved to run a couple miles after work a few times a week.

Tonight was perhaps the second evening in a row where temperatures have dropped below 80 degrees F. On this particular day, it is 7:00pm by the time I have finally found myself sitting at home. I look at my dog, and we agree that it's a good time to go for a run. For the first time since I moved here almost four months ago, I put on a long sleeved shirt. One of those micro-fiber numbers I'd wear to go cross-country skiing in Alaska. Except that on this night I have soccer shorts on instead of thermal underwear and ski pants. I laugh knowing that it has already started snowing in Alaska, yet here I am wearing soccer shorts to go outside.

In an effort to be gentle on my aging feet, we run on the streetcar tracks down the tree-lined St. Charles Avenue. The tracks are metal rails laid almost flesh against the grass, and also serve as a path for joggers in the area. Tonight is the first run in which both Milo and I are able to keep a brisk and steady gait, thanks to the cooler temperatures; it is only 68 degrees F tonight. After ten minutes of jogging, my mind relaxes into an endorphin-laden numbness.

And then, somewhere in between my house and Audobon Park, it hits us. Both me and the dog slow down to a stop and look up and around. Where is it coming from? All I can see are the arching boughs of the oak trees above, and short, flowerless bushes along the island separating the tracks. I can't see it, I don't know where it's coming from, but it's there; a sweetness that I have never before encountered in my life. It smells like someone is slicing peaches, giant peaches, floating in the air. Milo the dog is looking around and sniffing. I don't how long it was we stood, our heads turned up towards the cool, dark sky, soaking in the sweet scent, pondering its source.

And, just at that moment, only a couple feet from where we were standing on the tracks, a streetcar passes us, glowing in the night like a car from a child's antique train set. Quietly, it slides past us, filled with a handful of passengers sitting motionlessly, wind rustling their hair, as they ride home. Like a ghost gently tapping our shoulder telling us it's time to turn around.

I am filled with lightness by the time we get back to the apartment. I recall my arrival in New Orleans in June, how scary everything seemed, how different it all was. How hot and humid it was, how stinky it was with the stale air with an omnipresent scent of trash. It stuns me that the odor of garbage has been replaced with sweetness, and that my blood no longer feels like it is boiling. I vaguely recall my neighbors Matt and Amanda talking about how nice it is here except for summer, and I remember thinking at the time that they were feeding me outright lies. But now I believe they were telling the truth, even though part of me at this very moment wonders if it is all in my imagination, and I'm not quite sure which parts are from my imagination.

The scents are real. A mix of sweet olive trees, magnolia trees, and night blooming jasmine, it pervades most of St. Charles Avenue and has for years and years. It escorts me on my run like a loyal guardian. Considered by some an invasive weed, the ubiquitousness of night blooming jasmine is a remnant of a time far past where it was planted en masse in an attempt to mask the scents of a primitive sewage system.

I don't think it masks the sewage however. With this crisp cool air, I am convinced that the scents of this nighttime garden in fact has replaced the humid odors of detritus and waste.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: New Orleans was built for the night. Of course the whole world knows that the streets of the French Quarter come alive at night with music, drink, and merriment. But only those of us who live here know of the botanical garden that awakens from its summer-long slumber, after the seasons change and the heat has decided to end its blazing torture.

Tonight I am intoxicated by the adrenaline from cool, fragrance-filled air. I sip a glass of wine, write this blog entry, I will read a short story and doze off to bed, filled with the aromatherapy that only sweet olive, magnolia trees, and night blooming jasmine can give. How lucky I am to have this nighttime garden.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Entering Sainthood

"Every Saint Has a Past, Ever Sinner Has a Future"
- Oscar Wilde

I grew up a football-hater. This is because I went to a Catholic school with a huge football program. When I was a senior, the team won both state and national championships. We had days off if the team won certain games. We got the luxury of wearing our own clothes instead of uniforms on pep rally days. We skipped classes for those pep rallies, and priests led us in prayer for the team to win.

And I, well, I hated football; or maybe I just resented it. Though I had grade-school friends who ended up being stars on the team, to me the game seemed appropriate only for neanderthals--violent ones at that--and it puzzled me how it could be so celebrated by educators who went to college and who ostensibly were trying to make us better people. I found football uniforms excessive and ridiculous--these supposedly manly men wearing tight, shiny, capri pants. In college, I began to associate the game with boorish alcoholic frat boys, and later, lazy, alcoholic husbands of friends and cousins. Football hasn't held a warm place in my heart for a long time, even if I did occasionally enjoy the high school ritual of attending games on a Friday night.

But that ill will has changed as of late. To be accurate, it changed once I moved to New Orleans, a place in which it would be sacreligious not to believe in the power of Saints. But don't assume I regularly become a sports fan of any local team. Afterall, I hated the Yankees with a passion when I lived in New York City, frequently characterizing them in public as the big tobacco of baseball. But with the Saints, there's a runt flair about them--and about this town--that you gotta love.

Five years ago the New Orleans Saints finished a football season of three wins, and thirteen losses. It was the year of Hurricane Katrina--the year that their home stadium was used as an emergency hospital, a shelter, and a morgue, amongst other things. In 2009, they won the Superbowl.

The Saints were born in 1966. The team was a brainchild of back room dealings involving a sports entrepreneur, a Congressman, a Senator, and an NFL Commissioner, making a bunch of agreements to do things they probably weren't supposed to, with a certain Louisiana flair. One of the team's first majority stockholders was a Louisiana oilman, and by no coincidence the colors of black and gold were chosen to commemorate oil, the black gold of Louisiana. (An interesting choice of colors for a team whose hometown is a hot swamp.) On November 1st--All Saints' Day--the team was born and named in honor of the famed song "When the Saints Come Marching In." Supposedly the local Archbishop approved of their choice of name, saying that "the team was going to need all the help it could get."

Like true comeback kids, the Saints enjoy a noteworthy and lengthy past of defeats. They existed for two decades before celebrating their first winning season. In 1980, the team lost its first 14 games, and were dubbed the "Aints". Heartbroken fans were known to wear paper bags over their heads.

Even today, some of the current team's hotshots were far from NFL shining stars before becoming a Saint. By the time he finished college ball at Purdue, concerns about Drew Brees' relatively short stature (6'0") and supposed weak arm made him the second quarterback selected in the 2001 draft by the San Diego Chargers. Following a series of injuries, the Chargers dealt the final insult in his fifth year by offering a contract based on performance incentives. It was then that he turned to the Saints, and won the Superbowl just a few years later. But even after a stellar performance in his 2009 season, Brees is still known for working up to 14 hour days, some of which consist of him running plays by himself on an empty field.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey enjoys an equally infamous relationship with his NFL alma mater, the New York Giants. Despite his athletic abilities, the former high school honor student frequently mouthed off to coaches and other players, and generously shared his not-so-warm and fuzzy feelings with the media. After suffering a number of injuries, in 2008 the Giants finally traded him to the Saints for second and fifth-round picks in the 2009 draft.

In true New Orleans style, the Saints have persevered. And in true New Orleans style, the locals eagerly celebrate their people.

It was a sunny Friday afternoon when my co-worker and I met Clarence during lunchtime, sitting in his streetcar. Clarence, is a black man with a salt and pepper beard, neatly dressed in a starch white shirt and black vest. Now in his sixties, Clarence has been driving a streetcar for twenty-some years. Like everyone in New Orleans on this day, he is eager to exchange opinions on the upcoming Saints game. Clarence describes his new scoreboard system of tracking the Saints 2010 record. "I've attached 16 Saints flags to the outside of my truck. If the Saints lose a game, I'll take a flag down. Otherwise, they all stay up."

That same day, the public parking lot under the highway overpass near the Superdome is packed with tailgaters who have set up their grills and radios at 1pm on this game day. During away games, New Orleanians line the streets to welcome home their boys and an impromptu parade ensues. In the evenings of game days, the typically bustling streets of the Big Easy are empty, and the bars have tucked away the usual crowds of loiterers who instead are perched around televisions as if drawn there by a magnetic force. Heartbreaks and heart attacks were spared that night; the Saints have won.

As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate the few things in this world that are able to unite masses of people without hatred, even if I don't have a strong affinity for the thing itself. Soccer is one of those events. Mardi Gras is another. And now football. It almost seems like anything that can make so many people so happy, especially in a hard luck town like New Orleans, can't be all that bad, even if shiny capri pants are involved.

Though it's not my first choice of pastimes, like many things about a new place, it's one I strive to understand better in order to learn and respect this community in which I am a guest. And the Saints, with all their baggage, are lovable louts, playing hard for a damaged city. So now I watch football. When the Saints go marching in, how I long to be in the number.