Among detective novelists, Raymond Chandler was the king of the cocktail. Philip Marlowe without a drink is very nearly as unthinkable as Humphrey Bogart – who played Marlowe in "The Big Sleep" (1946) – without fedora, trench coat, and unfiltered cigarette. Chandler was very particular about his drinks and liked switching favorites from book to book. In "The Lady in the Lake" (1943), a "wizened waiter with evil eyes and a face like a gnawed bone" serves Marlowe a Bacardi cocktail – we'd probably call it a daiquiri (juice of one lime, two shots of rum, sugar). By the time of "Playback" (1958), Chandler's last book, Marlowe has begun to favor double Gibsons (gin and vermouth as in a Martini, but with a cocktail onion substituted for the olive or lemon twist).
Chandler liked gimlets so much he included a recipe in "The Long Goodbye" (1953). In the book Marlowe and his pal Terry Lennox make a habit of meeting at Victor's and drinking gimlets. "What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters," Terry Lennox says scornfully. "A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow." (He's right, though I’d go a little easier on the Rose’s and serve it on the rocks.) Yet even the flawed gimlets at Victor's do the trick. Says Terry Lennox, "I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar."
Well, tonight is my last blog for this week and a good discussion of Chinese cuisine simply wouldn't be complete without writing about noodles, dumplings and steamed buns. The Chinese meal almost always includes one of these starch dishes as a closing dish, just before the fruit is served, which signifies the banquet is near its end. Now the Chinese have a saying that goes like this: when you arrive you eat noodles, when we see you off you eat dumplings.
There are a variety of noodles in China, including the famed long noodles, which are the traditional noodles one eats at their birthday celebration. But my favorite noodles are called Dandang Noodles, the spicy noodles from Sichuan, and the best ones I know are the ones to be found at Chun Xia Qiu Dong in Shenyang, China. These noodles are served in a small bowl and are packed with a combination of peppers, pepper oil and other spices, and once you dig into this dish, it is very difficult to stop, other than washing the noodles down with a nice cold beer or a good shot of Bai Jiu. I almost always order this dish as a complement to my other favorite sichuan dishes, and a dish i always look forward to at the end of the meal.
The other famous dish of Northern China, and one of my favorites in the winter, is the famous chinese dumpling, or Jaozi. Now Jaozi come in many forms, the steamed, the pan fried and the boiled, and they come with many fillings, from meat to vegetables to combo meat and veggie or fruit dumplings. My favorite are the steamed dumplings that combine meat and vegetables. The best dumplings are the ones that are soft and moist and almost melt in your mouth and leave you with a full gamut of flavors. During the winter months in the Northeast when the temperatures can dip below minus 20 or 30 celsius, there is simply no better dish to warm you up and fill up your stomach with a delicious treat. In Shenyang the most famous and most revered dumpling place is called Lao Bian Jiaozi, and it is a mandatory for stop for any foreigner who really wants to sample the local cuisine and come away with a real dumpling adventure. The variety and quality of dumplings are simply without parallel with any other place I have run across in China; at last count i noted well over 60 different types of dumplings on their menu on a recent visit, and almost everyone one of them will impress you. I also like to order a few side dishes with the dumplings, like steamed eggplant, some boiled peanuts and a green vegetable dish, and wash it all down with a nice cold Snow Beer; you can't get much more Shenyang than this.
Now a description of the great starch foods of chinese cuisine would not be complete without a discussion of the famous Chinese steamed bun, or baozi. These are the true filler foods of China and can be filled with just about every cuisine you can imagine, from meat to vegetables to sweet pastes, especially a red bean paste. But the most famous steamed bun comes from the city of Tianjin, about 120 kilometers from Beijing, and a port city with a strong European influence and a population of about 10 million. The famous steamed bun here is called the Gou bu li baozi, or the dog doesn't pay attention steamed bun. Now there are many stories behind the name, but it really has nothing to do with dogs not liking to eat these steamed buns, which obviously wouldn't be a great recommendation for these delicious buns. No, the story probably goes something like this: long ago their was a steamed bun shop owner who was very successful and busy, and his nickname happened to be little doggie. Now little doggie was too busy to pay much attention to his steamed buns because he was too busy developing customers, so they came up with the name Gou bu li baozi, or the dog doesn't pay attention to the buns. Whatever the story, these buns, usually filled with a piping hot filling of beef or pork, are simply not to be missed. I have traveled out to Tianijin over ten times, and I always make a stop to one of the cities more famous bun shops mandatory. The buns are so soft and moist, warm and tasty, that you could easily stay there all night.
Well, it is time for me to say goodbye for this week. It has been a pleasure to talk with all of you about a very important part of the "China" experience, food and drink. If you have any questions or need any advice on your future China travel, please feel free to contact me. So for now, Zai Jian (Goodbye).
How do we know it's not matter that matters
but matter's absence, elegies of matter
like air between the columns of these trees:
not lines of wood but lines of air between
the trunks' sticks, the thin spaces that aren't wood,
clear stalks grown up beside the solid lines,
those breezy hollows filled with non-existence?
I've seen what happens to a body's absence:
grief fills up an arid space that grows
bleak, empty channels reaching for the light
then fading to a watery, sheer background
like the space between these trees night's
flimsy winds tilt slightly. -- Lines of air.
Maybe the real trees shouldn't matter
more than their surrounding stalks of air.
Let's see both trees and space for what they are:
a grove of roseate fading, dusky columns
showing us how wooden trunks defer
to lines of gray-pink, dimmed, dividing light
clear emptiness curves over. Who's to say
the mingled light and shadow stalks that grow
between trees as trees waver out of view
at dusk, aren't the best evidence of trees?
If things are always outlined by the space
around them, isn't absence what they are?
Shouldn't we treasure those sheer columns more?
– Lisa Williams
from Southwest Review, Spring 2008
Today is our discussion of Bai Jiu, that great and strong Chinese liquor that just the mention of will bring a smile to all Northern Chinese men - the ultimate male bonding drink in China. Most Bai Jiu is a sorghum-based liquor with anywhere from 80 to 120 proof. This drink is probably as old as Chinese civilization and is a staple of any great Chinese banquet. Usually it is consumed in small shot glasses with a toast and then the expression gan bei, literally meaning dry the glass or bottoms up. Like any good liquor the price and quality can vary vastly, from the high end a good bottle can set you back $3,000 to $4,000, but a good cheap bottle can cost as little as $10 or so. Generally, the older the better and more expensive.
It has to be said that any locality worth its salt in China, especially in Northern China, has its own brand of Bai Jiu, and usually they are pretty good. But the two most famous Chinese brands are Moutai and Wuliangye (or 5 grain bai jiu), and if you really want to impress a Chinese dinner guest, this is the liquor of choice. There is also a special government Moutai Baijiu, which is supposed to be the preferred drink of the Central government leadership and prviliged Party members, though I have consumed it several times with provincial Party leaders and businessmen, so I don't think it is as exclusive as it used to be. I have to say, I have probably tasted about 20 different types of Bai Jiu in my 4 years in China, and there really is a difference in quality between the local brew and the two national brands. Moutai is consistently strong and usually higher on the proof meter, though Wuliangye is smoother with perhaps a slightly lower alcohol content. At a certain point though it just seems like drinking rubbing alcohol, though Wuliangye and some of the local varieties can be a bit on the sweet and smooth side.
But the real point of drinking Bai Jiu is not the taste, it is the social bonding that goes on that is key. In the typical chinese banquet you have a lazy susan in the middle of the table and then the waiter will start to bring the ordered dishes to the table. They will put the dishes at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o'clock and at the same time start filling each person's small shot glass with bai jiu. When the fourth dish is placed on the lazy susan, that is the cue for the host to make the first toast, usually a welcoming of the guests and a short statement about friendship, etc. Depending on the occassion and the people, the banquet can quickly descend to a drinking frenzy, with rapid fire toasts offered by everyone at the table, one after another. When it is clear the dinner is coming to end it is also time for the host to make a toast thanking everyone for coming and sharing in the meal. As you can see, the Chinese meal and drinking etiquette, though becoming more and more informal, is still influenced greatly by tradition and formality. What is more important, the meal and drinking is hugely important in bonding and creating relationships and friendships. To operate effectively in China as a diplomat, a businessman, or a respectful tourist, it really is necessary to know this ritual and engage in it as much as you can (note: it is still possible to operate effectively in China without drinking, though it is much more difficult).
There is also another drink that is well-known in China, and not nearly packing the some kind of punch as bai jiu, and that is Huangjiu, or Yellow wine or Yellow liquor. This is a much sweeter alcohol than your typical Bai Jiu and is usually ony about 50-70 proof. It is hugely popular with the Japanese, in fact on occassions when I go down to the most famous area in China for Huangjiu, I will usually bring back a bottle for a Japanese friend in Shenyang and you should just see how his face lights up with happiness at just the sight of Haungjiu. Now the most famous place in China for HuangJiu is Shaoxing, a town just one hour from the beautiful city of Hangzhou. Since this is a literary web site, Shaoxing also has relevance as it is the home of China's most famous modern novelist, Lu Xun, and also the home of "Stinky Tofu", a delicacy of the town.
I also told you that every city usually has its own Bai Jiu, but I forgot to mention that many little villages also will brew their own "moonshine", or bai jiu. One of the most interesting meals I have had in the past few years was while taking a trip to rural Heilongjiang, about an hour outside of Harbin to eat a typical village meal. Much to my surprise as I was munching on tofu wraps with cucumbers, onions and a spicy sauce stuffed inside, the host brought in some very, very local BaiJiu. I was told the proof was about 150 and it was the strongest liquor on the planet in my estimation. Every drink was like drinking moonsine and it burned every part of my throat and body as the drink proceeded from my mouth to my stomach. It was a fascinating lunch, but I just thank God that I wasn't driving back to Harbin that day. Well, today I forgot to get the pictures of these bottles of Baijiu, like I did for the beer yesterday, but i promise to get some pictures for tomorrow's post. Take care.
I’ve just arrived at the Chateau de Lavigny. It’s near Lausanne, Switzerland — the nearest train station is Morges. The house is grand and marmoreal, with an atmosphere of beautifully worn luxury. Its terrace has white wrought-iron tables and chairs and a railing festooned with roses. Lake Geneva, about four miles away, floats in the magisterial distance, along with a blue outline of Alps. I’m one of six writers here, a mix of novelists, poets, playwrights, and translators. Our group includes a couple from Russia, Maria Galina and Arkady Stypel; Dilys Rose, from Scotland; Andrea Smith, from Atlanta; and Draga Potocnjak, from Slovenia.
The presence behind this colony is that of Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, a German publisher who was great friends with both Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov. The list of writers he published (and knew) includes Junichiro Tanizaki, Jorge Amado, James Baldwin, Robert Musil, John Barth, Tom Stoppard, and Ogden Nash. This year is the hundredth anniversary of his birth; he died in 1992. The foundation, which brings writers to the chateau, was founded by his (now late) wife, Jane Ledig-Rohwolt. There are five three-week residencies every summer—the application deadline for 2009 is March 1. For details on applying, go to the website, www.chateaudelavigny.ch
How I got here is a long story. It starts in 1987, when I saw a call for submissions in the back of POETS AND WRITERS from a Swiss journal (published in English) called 2PLUS2. I submitted prose poems and received an acceptance in record time, along with an invitation to lunch at the editor’s home, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Thus began my friendship with James Gill, who was born in Russia, moved with his family to Paris, then fled with them to the U.S. As Charles Simic has said of his family, Hitler was the Gill's travel agent. James was a young boy then, and the family (because of the treachery of French banks) penniless. James’s prescience about music took him from mailroom boy to executive at Capitol Records. After the assassinations of 1968, he moved to Switzerland, later starting 2PLUS2, a beautifully produced literary annual whose managing editor was Jamie Lehrer, daughter of PBS’s Jim Lehrer. Because of James Gills’ continued support of my work, I took part in the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam in 1989, and after it ended we had lunch in Lausanne, the first of several between then and 1994, when James died. Through him I met the American poet, non-fiction writer, and novelist Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, who lives in Parma and is a member of the board of the Chateau. A few months ago she encouraged me to apply for a residency, and I did. Though I had an “in,” I’m quite sure that’s not necessary. Since there are six spots for each of 6 sessions, chances of acceptance are good.
And it's wasn't for doing something uncouth like starting a food fight in the condiment aisle, not was it for misbehaving in a girls-gone-wild-ish manner by, say, untying my halter top in the produce section and hawking my own ripe melons.
Nope, it was for taking photos in the grocery store. Apparently, this is a no-no. Or is it, perhaps, a nein-nein (not the same as a sixty-nine, which as we all know is scads more fun than a trip to some crummy old market). I was tappity-tapped on the shoulder as I stood before the meat case by a scrawny, goateed Swiss who explained something to me about Sicherheit (security) and that the store didn't want me taking photos, especially photos that included prices. I tried to explain Best American Poetry Blog to him in my own halting German, but I lost him at "Eben, ich bin Dicheterin..." (Well, I'm a poet, see...). Security? Really? As in: If Jillie takes pictures of dumb Swiss food, the terrorists will win? Well, I don't think so, exactly. It has something to do with advertising and price wars and rules, rules, rules. Whatever. I still managed to snap these choice shots of inadvertently funny food-stuffs...
Now all that delicious food that I wrote about yesterday and on Monday has to be accompanied by a good drink or two, and today I will write a bit about Chinese beer as a great complement to the spicy food of Sichuan - tomorrow will be reserved for that all important drink that makes the eyes of every Chinese light up, Bai Jiu.
The first point about Chinese beer is that it really has ancient roots in China. There are records of the first beer-like drink being brewed in China in 7000 BC. It had its modern re-introduction via Europe in the late 19th century with the first modern brewery being opened in the Far North town of Harbin (a city with a population of about 7 to 8 million), by a Russian merchant to support the Russian workers working on the Trans-Manchurian Railway, connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow to Beijing and Vladivostok. The beer from Harbin is called HAPI, or Harbin Pijiu, and is a pilsner-like beer with a smooth taste, and just the type of drink to wash down a good, spicy Kung Pao chicken. I prefer the 1900 classic brand, which tries to recreate the initial beer the Russians brought to China in 1900. The Harbin Brewery is the fourth largest in China and is a fully-owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch, after a bitter take over bid battle with SAB Miller several years ago. Welcome to globalization! This beer is one of my favorites in China and has a reputation for a nice, smooth taste, and good variety of brands. There is nothing like drinking a big glass of this beer in a Harbin beer garden in the summer, but don't try it in the winter or you may end up frozen to your seat (temperatures in the winter there regularly dip to minus 30 celsius).
Of course, being from Shenyang and counting as my favorite restaurant the great Sichuan restaurant of Chun Xia Qiu Dong in Shenyang, I also have to make a pitch for the local Shenyang beer, Snow Beer. You will notice as you travel throughout China, there are few national beer brands, as locals are intensely loyal to their local brew and it is hard for outsiders to penetrate local distribution networks, though that is quickly changing. Snow Beer is also a Pilsner-like beer, and a bit more heavy-tasting than HAPI's 1900, which almost tastes like a light beer. This is just the type of beer to down some piping hot ribs or braised/grilled eggplant, the ones I discussed yesterday. Snow Beer is quickly becoming a national and international brand, as in my many travels around China over the past 4 years (42 cities), I keep seeing more and more of this ubiquitous beer, almost as much as the well-known China brand of Qingdao. I am told that Snow may well become the world's second largest brand soon, as this year it is projected to sell over 4 billion litres. Those foreign brewers certainly know a good deal and market when they see it, as the London-based beer company SAB-Miller, now owns Snow Beer, so little old Shenyang has now joined the big time of international beer battles.
Now, I have to confess I am not a real fan of big international brands when it comes to beer, so my third beer for tonight is a slightly obscure beer out of the port town of Yantai in Shandong province, the home of the mighty Qingdao brewery. Back in the states, my favorite beers are always local breweries, and my absolute favorite town for beer is Portland, Oregon and the Widmer Brothers great brews, especially their magical HefeWeizen. Well, Yantai produces this very nice dark beer (Hei Pijiu), which is somewhat of a rarity in China - although Qingdao also produces a very nice dark beer which I tasted a couple of years ago on a brewery tour, but I have yet to find this at any restaurants around China. Hei Sheng, the beer brand of Yantain brewery that I like, is not a heavy dark beer, and has a nice, robust, malty flavor that for me is the perfect complement for Sichuan food. This is not the kind of dark beer like Guiness, but more like a nice German dark beer and is a real versatile drink for both summer and winter weather, spicy and more hearty Northeast peasant cuisine. Alas, this small brewery has also not escaped the hands of foreign ownership, as the Japanese brewery of Asahi has a major ownership stake in Yantai.
That's it for tonight, but stay tuned for tomorrow and the discussion of the mother of all drinks - Bai Jiu and the chinese toasting ritual. Below is a picture of bottles of all the beers i discussed today.
Early summer in Heidelberg. A coldness unusual for the time. While my girlfriend finishes her exams I spend the afternoon reading Anne Carson's Decreation. The collection is vivid with thoughts of the sublime. Antonioni, Sappho, Simone Weil, Monica Vitti, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and good old Kant all make their appearances. Who wouldn't love such a motley ensemble? Carson the classicist, following Longinus, calls the sublime a "documentary technique", and her poems can be read as reports on awe and silence, sacrifice and absence; they are whimsical, strange, sad, moving, and sometimes so hermetically private as to be unintelligible. But the title betrays their final concern. What powers can unmake us? And how (literally) can the writer tell us anything about the experience of self-transcendence? Carson says that "to be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny, center of self from which the writing is given voice"—in other words, the writer constructs precisely what the sublime wipes out. To experience the sublime is to be rendered mute. What kind of documentation can we then expect? By pushing the objectivity of what overwhelms the self, Carson is in effect doing her own personal kind of theology. I love that she's a Catholic. In an interview with the Paris Review she moves gracefully from the personal—resurrecting early memories of going to Mass with her mother, resting her head on her mother's fake fur coat, the snow falling outside—to finer points of theory: God, she says, is not the kind of being who can fit into our structure of availability, but that's not the same thing as nonexistence. Quite. To believe is to take up a position, to cry out. We have a hard time doing this. In a poem called "Gnosticism VI", she writes:
Walking the wild mountain in a storm I saw the great trees throw their arms.
Ruin! they cried and seemed aware
the sublime is called a "science of anxiety."
What do men and women know of it?—at first
not even realizing they were naked!
The language knew.
Watch "naked" (arumim) flesh slide into "cunning" (arum) snake in the next
And suddenly a vacancy, a silence,
is somewhere inside the machine.
Anxiety, if you believe Lacan, is the only emotion that tells the truth. Perhaps the Genesis story is here to frame the idea that our anxiety, properly exposed, tells us that despite the darkness of our self-entrapment, the language knows where and what we are. If we can follow the snaking crawl of language we can find an emptiness within it, where the bottom drops out of the self and there is only the sound of a pounding heart. We can see where Carson's going by skipping ahead, to the essay from which the collection takes its title. "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God" is actually the preface to an opera (don't ask), and is more or less what it announces itself to be: an investigation into the tension between the dissolution of self (in love, in the love God) and the attempt to write about that experience, to help others along the way, to make an image of it…or whatever it is we do with words. Carson quotes Simone Weil on the desire to overcome oneself, to make the person perfectly transparent, so that the order of God and world is restored: "If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart." (the quote is taken from Weil's Gravity and Grace, p. 89 in the Wills translation) Carson celebrates Sappho for being able to record the beating of the heart—one's presence to oneself—by dreaming up its disappearance. This is no small thing. But Carson's own constructions, at their coldest and most venturesome, do something equally interesting: they capture what it's like to awaken from that dream, with the clarity still sharp but fading, the heartbeat returning. This is what makes some of the poems so personal, I think. Especially the ones in which her mother figures prominently. Some of the best mother (engenderer) poems around. If you haven't read them try them out, especially those from her earlier collection Glass, Irony and God. Even in her most obscure lines she sounds like nobody else. This one's called "Sleepchains", from Decreation:
Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
Cicatrice by cicatrice
all the links
rattle at once.
Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.
Greetings from Shenyang again. Shenyang is this city in Northeast China (the old Manchuria) with a population of over 9 million people and an expanding and interesting food scene. The jewel in the crown of that growing list of great restaurants is the restaurant I mentioned yesterday, Chun Xia Qiu Dong (Spring Summer Fall Winter), a Nouvelle Sichuan place. The place is always bustling, serving well over 1,000 guest a night and set to open its second restaurant in Shenyang in late July, just in time to welcome all the Olympic soccer fans who will descend on Shenyang for many of the Olympic soccer matches (Shenyang will play host to the semi-finals for Olympic soccer).
Well, tonight I want to steer slightly away from Sichuan cuisine which the restaurant does spectacularly well, with its coterie of around 50 Sichuan chefs. My other two favorite dishes at the restaurant, besides Kung Pao Chicken and Shui Ju Xia, are the barbecue ribs and the delectable grilled eggplant. I will post pictures of both dishes below. Being from Chicago, I am a big ribs fan, with a clear preference for the meaty, saucy ribs that many of Chicago's best rib places do. The ribs here are a bit on the dry side, that would ordinarily in my book be a strike against, but the chef manages to achieve a delicious rib nevertheless. The ribs are cooked with a healthy dose of green tea leaves baked into the ribs and a light but very tasty, though not spicy, sauce. The result is a soft meat that almost falls off the bone and melts in your mouth and tantalizes the senses with a mixture of barbecue sauce and green tea flavor. This is truly a remarkable rib, and with the green tea leaves one of the most unusual ways to cook ribs that I have come across. Is it any wonder Shenyang is Chicago's sister city, with ribs like these.
The other dish tonight is the grilled eggplant, a dish that is ubiquitous in China and is probably made more ways than any other dish across this vast country. I like the eggplant here because of the grilling on a thick black skillet that is brough to the table, so the eggplant is kept piping hot. But that is only the beginning of this feast. Stuffed inside each chunck of sliced eggplant is a healthy dose of pork meat (the meat of choice of China. Did you know there are over 500 million pigs in Sichuan province alone and that China is the only country in the world to have a strategic pork reserve. Boy, these people are serious about their pork). On top of the eggplant is a soft, thick sweet sauce sprinkled with some sliced onions and this dish literally is something you hate to swallow, because the flavors it generates in your mouth are so tremendous, you just want it to sit there for awhile and enjoy the moment. Well, there are plenty of more delicious dishes at this great restaurant, and I have only touched on some of my favorites. Suffice it to say, if you are planning a trip to Beijing anytime soon, and you want to try some really great Sichuan food, you really must take a detour up to Shenyang (only one hour flight from Beijing, almost straight North), and make the trek to Chun Xia Qiu Donng. The Chinese have a saying Sheng you Tiantan, Xia you SuHang (Above is Heaven, below is Suzhou and Hangzhou, two great and beatiful chinese cities). My saying is Above is Heaven and below is Chun Xia Qiu Dong.
Tomorrow, I'll write about some other favorite dishes up in the Northeast, including dumplings, steamed buns and saurkraut (I bet you didn't know that was a favorite staple of Northeast Chinese cuisine) and Dalian seafood (Dalian is really the best city in China, no other city even comes close to what this city has achieved). Also, I will describe some of my favorite Chinese beers and then later this week talk about that great Chinese drink, white lightening, or Bai Jiu. Cheers!