Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Madness: Part 2

"Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior; thus, the estrangement [is heightened] in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached." - Robert M. Pirsig

6) Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) "Sloop John B"

Good clean fun is ephemeral.  Even well-coiffed former quarterbacks that form seminal pop groups with their brothers can dabble in drugs and insanity. At one time the very archetype of the innocuous "boy-next-door", Wilson didn't only dabble in rock-star insanity, he helped re-write the book. Otherworldly vocal harmonies celebrating the nascent Southern California surf culture made his group instantly popular in the early Sixties, but by the mid-Sixties this musical savants' taste for the party had grown to epic proportions.  Like most addled leaders, he was reportedly an unyielding tyrant in the studio - it took him thirty-five years to fully realize and release Smile.  Wilson fell into inexorable depressive states, didn't wander too far from an expansive bedroom for years at a time, and was diagnosed with acute mental illness.  (Nota bene: I couldn't help but include the Beach Boys early take on the traditional "Sloop John B", with its prescient refrain - "This is the worst trip I've ever been on.")

7) Daniel Johnston "Impossible Love"

Another offering from the mad jewel of Texas, this quirky Austin singer-songwriter has been making off-kilter bedroom-rock tapes since the early Eighties.  Almost improbably, Johnston has slowly settled into his own beloved niche in the pantheon of music history while struggling with manic depression, bi-polarity, and what Nick Cave would basely christen the "No P*ssy Blues".  His introspective lyrics about everyday absurdities are delivered with an unparalleled childlike earnestness.  Innovative in a completely non-predisposed manner, it is worth delving into his rich catalog.  And if his minimalist Casio + guitar instrumentation doesn't suit you, there is a long line of musicians (Beck, Wilco, Sparklehorse, the Flaming Lips, etc.) that have reverently covered his tunes.

8) Lee "Scratch" Perry - "Dread Lion"

News flash: The godfather of dub reggae is also plumb crazy.  At a time when most Jamaican musicians fell neatly into two camps (thoughtfully withdrawn, philosophical Rastafarians or brash, boisterous dancehall "toasters"), Perry was a singularly strange and original personality that redefined the island's music in the Seventies. A sound production pioneer, Perry laid sheets of echoing overdubs and ominous chants over the top of traditional roots songs, effectively creating a new hybrid of organic/electronic music.  He also ingested copious amounts of cannabis and booze, referred to himself as "Pipecock Jackxon", and publicly participated in idiosyncratic activities such as fervently worshiping bananas and eating money.  The apotheosis of his eccentricity was reached when Perry apparently burned down his own studio (The Black Ark) in a psychotic rage.

Following a common trend in rock-star insanity, Perry has decidedly settled down in his twilight years.  He is still marvelously weird during interviews however.

9) Ian Dury - "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll"

The ebullient Ian Dury was never insane by any means, but the "English Punk-Poet Laureate" crafted a truly original and moving existence out of very humble origins.  Afflicted by polio at an early age, Dury spent much of his working-class childhood being ostracized for his awkward gait and frail countenance.  Luckily for the rest of humanity, he spent his adulthood fusing disparate styles of music (funk, pub rock, minimalist disco, etc.) with irreverently brilliant lyrical poetry spat out in a rich and often unintelligible Cockney accent.

"Spasticus Autisticus" is his unabashedly forthright ode to those that society has deemed mentally and physically disabled:
"So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin,
And thank the Creator you're not in the state I'm in,
So long have I been languishing on the shelf,
I must give all proceedings to myself."
Originally wrote as a sardonic response to the U.N.'s decision to designate 1981 as the "International Year of Disabled Persons", the BBC didn't accept Dury's uncompromising look at disabilities and refused air-play.

While a widely recognized and respected iconoclast in the UK, Dury never received a good deal of fame outside of the fair isle.  Was his subject matter too parochial for Americans or maybe his anti-aesthete sensibility turned us off?  Nonetheless, Dury was a superbly odd character that deserves to be lionized for his contributions.

10) Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band - "Moonlight in Vermont"

When the statement "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n bulbous, got me?" is posed during the introduction to "Pachuco Cadaver" (from the seminal Trout Mask Replica), one can't help but to sub-consciously answer "No, Captain. I don't get you."  Abstract, abrasive, and immensely gifted, Don Van Vliet emerged from the LSD-drenched California scrubland  and forever changed avant-garde music.  Rolling with our theme, he was supposedly a punch-drunk dictator in the studio that once kept a group of musicians under lock-and-key for eight months while recording an album.

Trying to describe Beefheart's thought-provoking music is futile, but here's my attempt for Trout Mask Replica:

Irascible revivalist-blues laden with proto-punk ferocity, deftly organized musical chaos, and stream-of-conscious bark-shouts. Basically, it is inaccessible to the majority of people on Earth who cherish melody and tonality in their music. But for those who like impossibly heady and cryptic songwriting coupled with angry instruments... 

Van Vliet consciously sought an existence out of the spotlight for many years until his passing just months ago.  His vast influence on contemporary music can never be understated and he was a bit of a kook, so he takes the final spot on this humble list.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Check out March Madness: Part 1 if you're interested in more strange fellows.  Also, thanks to the world wide web for providing all of the media.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hanoi: Old Propaganda Posters

Our trip to Hanoi centered around disposing of our dong as quickly as possible.  Irresponsible consumerism, retail therapy, or informed shopping... call it what you will.  Our booty from the trip included five massive lime-green varnished nesting bamboo bowls, a colorful money pouch to replace the one I unwillingly donated to Saigon thieves, a buffalo-horn pipe, hot-pink bamboo placemats, a new musical instrument (tơ-rưng), used books, and a new weather-proof tote bag for the monsoons looming on the horizon.

In fine dramatic form, we saved the largest indulgence for the final night of the trip.  Months ago, Gavin and I came across a book of wartime Vietnamese propaganda posters.  We became enthralled with the beautifully crafted silk-screened prints and the striking scenes they depicted: women toting sub-machine guns, foot soldiers with rifles aimed upwards at passing B-52's, avuncular Ho teaching children to read.  Most of them adorned with strange slogans imploring people to take up arms, embrace austerity in the name of the collective good, and ramp up food production. 

We vowed to buy a few original prints during our time in Hanoi. The Old Quarter has a couple of shops specializing in both original and reproduced posters.  After downing a few murky glasses of bia hơi, we wandered into the Old Propaganda Poster Shop, located at 122 Hang Bac, and proceeded to spend the next hour and a half pawing through hundreds of plastic-wrapped dusty originals.  It was an arduous, but eventually fruitful exercise in indecision and patience.

A couple of our favorites highlighting the need for increased food production:

"Five tons of rice and two pigs for every hectare!"

Many have a very macabre theme: celebrating US casualties.

After much debate, we opted for a vivid portrait of Ho Chi Minh surrounded by blooming lotus flowers and a modernist print celebrating the indefatigable fishermen of this proud country.

"Catch More Fish"
"Ho Chi Minh is a beautiful name"

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thai Hoa

 After my great finds at Veggy's, I consulted some of my pals about their shopping habits.  I was told there were bigger and cheaper alternatives.  We headed downtown to 60 Ham Nghi to peruse the two long aisles of canned goods, crackers, and baking essentials at Thai Hoa.  While nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing as some of Saigon's spacious modern markets, this cluttered store has treasures waiting to be discovered.  The dented cans and partially squished boxes are seemingly procured from shady merchants on oily docks and add to the excitement of combing through the merchandise.
My initial purchases included whole-wheat flour, canned black beans, (unfortunately stale) Wasa crackers, a rolling pin and spices.  I loaded up on seaweed and wasabi for homemade sushi, curry powder and cumin to throw a little exotica into my kitchen, and a rolling pin to finally make proportional tortillas.  While they are lacking in the produce, meat, and cheese departments, they make up for it in dried lentils, a fine mustard selection, and a multitude of exotic teas.  Since that first visit, Thai Hoa has become a monthly stop for my home cooking needs.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hanoi: KOTO

Everyone loves a non-profit with a solid business model.  How about a non-profit with a tasty business model?  A Lonely Planet and blogosphere darling,  KOTO (Know One, Teach One) is a vocational school/life-changing organization that trains disadvantaged teens to work in the service industry.  The chosen youth are enrolled in a rigorous 24-month course and concurrently work at a restaurant. Normally, I am skeptical about such ventures and would selfishly choose good food over a good cause, but after reading several outstanding online reviews and checking our itinerary, we decided to go.
The space is bright and modern and strikingly polished: the chairs comfortable, the menu diverse, the bathrooms unearthly clean.  The cute young staff is beyond friendly and very accommodating.  Gavin and I chose to sit in the downstairs dining area, but took a look at the tidy, unassuming cafe upstairs as well.
Since we were unaccustomed to the climate in Hanoi and had shivered our way through a day at Uncle Ho's tomb, we were starting to feel a bit under the weather.  For our beverages, we appropriately went for the house specialty: spicy lemongrass ginger tea with honey.  Our tea arrived scalding hot, thawing our petrified hands and cores as we carefully sipped from the porcelain.  From the delightful teas' fragrance and complex flavor, we assumed we were in for a real treat when our meals arrived.  After studying a menu split between classic Vietnamese dishes and Western favorites, I went for a falafel wrap and Gavin sheepishly ordered the cheeseburger, plus a bowl of the soup du jour - an unfortunately insipid, modest, and lukewarm cream of potato.
He handed it off to me at the halfway point.  I finished it, blaming the lack of flavor on Gavin for forgetting to add salt or pepper and that lack of warmth on... well, I guess the kitchen has to bear that cross.
When our lunches arrived we were excited to dig in.  Cold and weary, our deliberate comfort choices felt a little strange; in hindsight, we should have stuck with Vietnamese.  As for my wrap, the menu promised hearty falafel balls smothered in creamy tsatsiki and crammed in with veggies.  While the falafel itself was warm, it was surrounded in a meager amount of lettuce and cucumber, was wrapped in cold flatbread, and left my palate parched.  The mythical tsatsiki sauce went untasted or seen for the majority of the meal and the sad side-salad was covered in a viscous opal paste which nearly made me gag.
Gavin's decidedly average patty sat on a granite-cold sesame bun and was accompanied by a few slices of tomato and cucumber, a single leaf of lettuce, and a small side of ketchup.  And... the indignity of all indignities -  his french fries were cold.  They tasted as though they had been partying for a week straight - pale, pock-marked, greasy, and lifeless. 

A wonderful cause, a perfect location, a solid menu, and great service, but the food (at least the Western fare) was not well-executed.  I think we need an autocrat in the kitchen whipping these kids into shape.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hanoi: A Trip in Pictures

After three and a half jam-packed days and one excruciatingly sleepless night, we returned with runny noses and high spirits to Saigon.  Our trip was absolutely lovely - expect many posts to come about the glorious food we ate, the sights we took in, and the items we purchased.  Here is a short pictorial introduction to whet your appetite!

Through the looking glass - a quick respite from another infamous "Nellie Death March" around an unfamiliar city.

Pigment for dying fabric.

Kicking it with a cat at yet another shrine to the ubiquitous Emperor Lê Lợi.

Out and about on the town.

My first of many glasses of bia hơi.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi.

As usual, nose lodged firmly into some type of reading material.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nhà Hàng Ngon

After much deliberation and many choices weighed, Gavin and I decided to take our pal Ann to Nhà Hàng Ngon for her last dinner in town.  Located at 160 Pasteur, it is set within a gloriously remodeled French colonial villa and its atmospheric courtyard.  Massive trees towering over the outdoor dining area, a fountain gleefully bubbling inside, and long strings of luminous bulbs carefully draped over the vegetation all contribute to a splendid ambiance.

When we first arrived in Saigon, we visited this bustling spot a few times based on the high praise bestowed upon it by the all-knowing Lonely Planet .  I actually used their vast menu as a way to sample new items and discover the Vietnamese names for morsels I enjoyed in the States.  Alone in a strange new culinary world, Gavin and I enjoyed many a phở gà and Mì xào bò here. At this point, generally sticking to comfort foods and the occasional order of steamed snails stuffed with ginger and minced pork.

While we hadn't gone for a while as you can often replicate your meals here at less expensive joints dotted throughout the city, it is a perfect restaurant to take visitors.  The premise of the restaurant is that everything is made by local street vendors who set-up their booths around the dining area.  Each booth caters specifically do a different type of regional delicacy.  Upon ordering, it's your servers job to amble from booth to booth collecting your dishes.  After ordering a large amount of grub, Ann and I took a stroll around to visit the booths and see what was being offered this evening.

Gavin the Troglodyte was already tucked into our first course when we returned to our table.   Our feast included an anemic plate of vegetable fried rice and a sumptuous pork, shrimp, and veggie stuffed pancake (Bánh xèo).

Gavin and Ann each had a grilled chicken skewer.  Grunts of delight spilled out of their over-stuffed mouths.  "Tender", "juicy", and "celestial" were some of the descriptors carelessly tossed around the table.

We also shared a plate of fried tofu and Chinese-style dumplings.  I highly recommended both of these dishes.

We left sated and happy.