Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ketchup on a Hot Dog?

There are two types of people in this world as they say. 

The first group consists of people who believe that food is for enjoying, and regardless of what ingredients are thrown together to make a dish, if they like it, they go for it. The second group would no matter how much they are tempted, never, and I mean NEVER, put ketchup on a hot dog. 

If you're from Chicago as I am, you know what I mean. But really if you are part of any culture that takes its food seriously, you no doubt have one or perhaps a thousand similar rules about what goes with what, and more appropriately, what does not. I'm not talking here about restrictions based upon religious dietary laws. There's a deeply spiritual reason why religious Jewish people won't serve beef along with dairy products, why you won't find pork served in a devout Islamic family's home, or meat at all on Fridays during Lent on the table of a practicing Roman Catholic family. 

However there are no spiritual reasons I know of that makes a former colleague of mine from Belgium react with abject horror and disgust, (something we, her coworkers exploited at will), at the mere mention of combining chocolate and peanut butter. Or my Central European father's strongly negative reaction when I dared add a little allspice to his beloved Weiner Schnitzel. And I dare you to go to a restaurant in Italy, order a plate of fish, then ask the cameriere to put grated cheese on top of it, something they do with practically everything else they serve. Regardless of whether or not you're thrown out the door at the suggestion, I guarantee you will never again ask for cheese on fish in Italy, or perhaps anywhere, ever again.

OK while there are probably no spiritual reasons for these purely gastronomic rules, they are no less profound. Food next to language, perhaps even more so, is the most basic foundation of any culture, for reasons that probably don't need explaining. 

But in case you don't get it, perhaps this novelty song from 1961 will help: 

Just as we call our native language our "mother tongue", there's nothing quite like the food your mother, father, or if you're lucky enough to be Italian, your nonna used to make.

Which explains why so many of us are so protective of the recipes handed down from generations in our families. I can't tell you all the times I've asked folks to recommend a good restaurant that served the food of their culture only to be told there are none, at least any that compare to the food they had at home. 

Many of us don't share the experience of coming from a strong food culture. Like virtually everyone of her ethnicity and generation in the States, my mom all but rejected the cuisine of her Irish/American background, for good reason, in favor of a variety of recipes she found in magazines and old standbys like The Joy of Cooking. The only exception to that rule was the annual St. Patrick's Day corned beef and cabbage, which she still makes. 
My Czech father on the other hand, along with my German born surrogate grandfather, introduced me to the cuisine of Central Europe. Mostly we ate this type of food at restaurants but I must say my father made a pretty mean roast duck for the two of us as my mother couldn't stand it. 

Consequently Central European food, its taste, its smell, and the ambience of the restaurants that served it, hard to find these days stateside, takes me back to my childhood. For me it is the true definition of comfort food, a term I find overused and abused these days, as it is mostly used to describe anything that tastes good.  

As food can be so evocative of a time and place, many years after the schnitzel episode, I can truly understand why my dad reacted so unhappily to the unexpected flavor in his favorite dish. It would be like getting together with a beloved old friend who after many years of not seeing you. turned out to only be interested in selling you his time share in Florida.

This subject of food taboos caught my attention about a year ago while studying Spanish, reading about a TV cooking program that caused quite a ruckus in Spain. On that show, the famous TV chef Jamie Oliver made a paella into which he added chorizo. To the uninitiated, adding Spanish sausage to a Spanish dish, wouldn't seem like a big deal. The truth is that many Spaniards actually DO put chorizo in their paella.  

However we're talking about the national dish of Spain and I'm sure it already rubbed at least a few Spaniards the wrong way that it was being prepared (the wrong way) by a cheeky Englishman. To them it was tantamount to Jamie Oliver coming to their country and changing the words to their national anthem.  

On the other hand paella, which most people assume features seafood, originated in Valencia, where the primary protein was (and still is) rabbit meat. In fact, once upon a time you could put anything you had lying around into your paella, as it was originally a peasant dish created for its flexibility. 

Regardless, rather than the meat you put on top of it, as anyone who has ever prepared it knows, the heart and soul of paella is the pan it is cooked in (originally and sometimes today still, over an open fire), introduced by the Romans, and most important of all the rice, introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Arabs who also introduced paella's dominant flavor, saffron. 

The point is that there is no such thing as a pure recipe, the food we eat, much like the languages we speak, are mixtures of elements that come from many different sources. 

Take pizza, perhaps the most popular food on the planet at the moment. Practically every region you go in the world has its own method of preparing pizza, and more than likely its inhabitants claim theirs is the best, while all others are merely second rate if that. But unless you live in Naples where the dish as we know it more than likely originated, you have absolutely no bragging rights to pizza.

Pizza has a longer and more complicated history than paella, starting with flatbreads which go back at least to ancient Greece. The second most important ingredient without which it would hardly be pizza, (although some would beg to differ) is the tomato, which was first cultivated by Native Americas.   

There is no question that the Neopolitans took these diverse ingredients and made them their own. So I wouldn't have a problem with someone from Naples coming to Chicago, sampling a Chicago style deep dish pizza (invented in 1943), and saying our (like it or not) famous local dish is not pizza. But I would have a problem with someone from say New York, whose own pizza is hardly more recognizable to a Neopolitan, saying the same thing. 

Here is a hilarious video of an Italian YouTube chef and his take on another famous British TV cook, Gordon Ramsay, and his attempts to make the classic Roman dish, Spaghetti Carbonara, 

To be fair to Chef Vincenzo, he can dish it out but he can also take it. On his channel there is another video where he asks a chef from Bologna to critique his Bolognese sauce. That chef leaves no stone unturned in throwing poor Vincenzo's ragù under the bus.

Talk about a strong food culture. 

So do you have to be a nonna from Bologna, or at least a native of that city, to be able to cook an authentic Ragù alla Bolognese? 

I don't know. My godmother who is of Polish dissent, and is also an accomplished pianist, claims you have to be Polish in order to play Chopin properly. You may disagree but for my money the best interpreter of the composer was Artur Rubenstein, born and bred in Łódź.

Like music, food has a heart and soul that reflects the culture from which it comes. In order for those of us who are not part of that culture to properly interpret something, whether it be a piece of music or a recipe, we have to at the very least, understand and above all respect its culture. 

That's not to say we can't be inventive nor change things around at will, we just have to understand that by doing so, we're creating something new and different, certainly not a bad thing, but not the original. After all, you wouldn't throw a couple bars of an atonal Schoenberg piece into a Chopin nocturne and still call it Chopin. Or would you? 

That said, I don't know if the pressing issue of whether you can call something paella if it has chorizo in it will ever be resolved. I guess the bottom line is you can if you're from Spain and you can't if like me, you're not. 

I'm perfectly OK with that. 

But right now at this writing, as my own Ragù alla Bolognese is simmering away in the pot, I'm in a quandary over whether or not to add nutmeg which is something I've come to expect in the sauce, but not in the recipe I'm using from the master of Bologna. 

Oh wait a minute, the great Marcella Hazan has nutmeg in her recipe so I'm good to go, gotta run.

Ciao a tutti! 

Monday, February 22, 2021

A Silver Lining?

January 6, 2021, the day our government was attacked by American citizens bent on overturning a free and fair presidential election, will be a date that will forever live in infamy. Likewise for many, February 13, 2021, the day when the leader of that violent attack on the United States was acquitted by the U.S. Senate, will also be a day of infamy. But it won't be for me. I'll explain why shortly.  

I haven't hidden my disdain for the past president (from hereon referred to as exPOTUS) for the past five years. As a result, some would suggest that I fall prey to a certain "derangement syndrome" that prevents me from thinking objectively about him.

Perhaps that's true to a point.  

But let me assure you in no uncertain terms that if a president whom I admired, in order to remain in power, worked diligently to undermine our election system, then as a last act of desperation after exhausting every legal means of overturning the will of the people, willfully encouraged a mob to march on the Capitol Building to "Fight like hell" in order to prevent Congress from certifying that election, I would demand his banishment as well, at the very least.

It's not only so called sufferers of the syndrome who feel this way. From many sources I've read on both the left and the right, had the senators been able to vote in a secret ballot last Saturday, and not been held accountable, the result would have been much different and the exPOTUS would have been easily convicted. 

As it was, seven brave Republican senators broke ranks with their party in favor of their consciences, and voted to convict. That turns out to have been the most bi-partisan vote to convict an impeached president in history. OK we've only had four such votes and two involved the same president. Quite a legacy I'd say.

It would have taken ten more Republican senators to convict. It was not for lack of trying from the team of representatives handling the prosecution who have been universally lauded for the manner in which they presented their case. And it certainly was not the brilliance of exPOTUS's legal team who were castigated from all corners, including their client's, for their stumbling ineptitude. In their defense, theirs' was the more difficult job, they had the impossible task of having to defend the indefensible. 

I have no doubt that barely a handful of opinions were swayed by the arguments of either side. Let's face it, it didn't matter, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. I could have represented the exPOTUS, gotten up before the senators and said only four words, "he's guilty as hell", and I still would have gotten him an acquittal. 

It's taken for granted that the senators who voted against their conscience to acquit the exPOTUS, did so out of fear. Mostly it was fear of falling out of favor with their constituents, to whom they are answerable. The biggest fear of any incumbent politician is the threat of a serious challenge from members of their own party in a primary election. Supporters of the ex-president made it abundantly clear to their elected officials that they would not forget a vote against their man with the ridiculous hair and long red tie.

One could easily chalk up their reticence to doing the right thing to political cowardice, which it certainly was. 

But after the events of January 6th, we can add a much more serious threat to those elected officials, real violence against themselves and their families. The politician by far the most devoted of all to the exPOTUS these past four long years, the former vice president, was the main target of the mob who stormed the Capitol that fateful day. They chanted "Hang Mike Pence" and if anybody didn't get that message, even brought a makeshift gallows to the scene of the crime. What was Pence's offense? He was simply doing his job as proscribed by the constitution.  

The most damaging evidence against the exPOTUS came last Saturday when it was revealed that the leader of the House Republicans,  Kevin McCarthy, had a phone conversation with the then president about two hours into the attack on the Capitol. McCarthy desperately tried to convince the so called "commander-in-chief" that the situation was desperate and he needed to send in the National Guard immediately. The exPOTUS refused, telling McCarthy "Obviously they (the mob) are more concerned about the election (which they erroneously believed to have been stolen from exPOTUS) than you are." McCarthy told the president in that conversation that the vice president and other members of Congress were held up in the recesses of the building for their own safety, hiding from the rioters. A timeline of events showed that after the phone call, knowing Pence was in danger, the exPOTUS tweeted yet another disparaging remark about his vice president, no doubt in an attempt to further enrage the mob who was already looking to hang him. 

Nevertheless, as damning as this revelation was, 43 Republican senators were unmoved, at least as far as their votes were concerned, and after a brief debate on the issue and closing arguments from both sides, they voted to acquit.   

Following the lead of Mitch McConnell, the former Senate Majority Leader, their excuse was their opinion, rejected by a preponderance of constitutional scholars, that the Senate cannot convict a president who is no longer in office. 

Shortly after the vote to acquit was taken, McConnell delivered a scathing attack on the exPOTUS, but washing his hands, Pontius Pilate style, of being responsible for conviction, by noting the technicality.

It should be noted that it was McConnell himself who delayed the Senate trial on the articles of impeachment until after the swearing in of President Biden. That's kind of like a parent intentionally throwing a plate of cookies on the floor then telling the kids they can't eat the cookies because they've been on the floor.

Could it be that there was a method to this obvious cowardice and hypocrisy? Is it possible that McConnell's actions, like those of that metaphorical parent, were actually intended for the good of his party and dare I say, perhaps even the country? 

It's not a secret that McConnel has always despised the exPOTUS. I truly believe that McConnell knew the Republican Party was selling its soul to the devil when it went full tilt behind him. But there was little he could do, the exPOTUS democratically won the nomination of the party in 2016 despite the opposition of several high ranking Republicans running against him.  

The exPOTUS's 2016 victory in the general election was an unexpected yet unconventional gift to McConnell. He used that gift by making the proverbial lemonade out of the orange tinged lemon handed to him, by skillfully using exPOTUS to move forward and accomplish a staggering array of agendas near and dear to the hearts of right wing Republicans.  

The price to pay was that the president was a loose canon who cared more about himself and his own power than he did about the party. Never was that more obvious than after his defeat in the 2020 election, when his endless propagation of his made up claims of voter fraud dissuaded some Republican voters in Georgia from voting in two Senate runoff elections. It turns out those two seats which were won by the Democratic candidates both by a razor's edge, turned control of the Senate over to the Democrats, costing McConnell his coveted job as Majority Leader.  

The truth is that no one in Washington wants to see the exPOTUS gone more than Mitch McConnell. So why not vote to convict and be done with him for good?

Beyond the obvious fear of exPOTUS's very loyal base, McConell knows like anyone with half a brain, that a conviction by the Senate and banishment from further political office, would have made a martyr of the exPOTUS. His followers already believe he is a hero of biblical proportion and see themselves as the victims of a vast conspiracy to disenfranchise them. I have no doubt that for these people, conviction would have been tantamount to a crucifixion, and with famous one in the Bible in mind, they would be awaiting, and in some cases fighting violently for another resurrection. 

Even without the resurrection of exPOTUS, there are plenty of people as bad or worse willing to step into his shoes, two of his children immediately come to mind. With or without the exPOTUS being able to run for office again, the "movement" he described as he boarded Air Force One for the last time during his ignominious departure from Washington, would have been strengthened precipitously had he been convicted by the Senate. 

But without the solidified support behind the "movement" that a conviction would have made certain, the Republican Party today is fractured. The exPOTUS is now a toxic figure even among Republicans, many of whom like Mitch McConnell surely must hold him personally responsible not only for the violent attack on our country, but also for the staggering Republican defeat of 2020, losing not only the presidency but Congress. 

Most of the Democrats in Congress, at least those with their heads screwed on tight, all along knew the risks of impeaching the exPOTUS, twice. Both times his dangerous, disgraceful and illegal actions forced their hand and there was little they could do, lest they be viewed as themselves being accomplices to his crimes. Their fears were realized after his first impeachment one year ago which only strengthened his popular support. In that case it's plausible that his dealings with the president of Ukraine, unsavory as they were, to some minds fell within the scope actions that typically take place behind the closed doors of the White House.  

Not so with the insurrection where the whole world literally was watching. It shocked supporters of the exPOTUS as much as everyone else. You had to know they were appalled when as the event was taking place, they blamed the attack on left wing groups such as ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter. As soon as it became painfully obvious that that accusation was nonsense, they scrambled to muddy the waters in one attempt or other to make light of the event and clear exPOTUS of wrongdoing. 

However the prosecution's case at the impeachment trial was airtight. The only way anyone could not see that the exPOTUS was the architect behind the events of January 6, is if they were not paying attention. Several Republican senators did just that as they were observed doing everything at the trial they could except giving the presentation of the prosecution their undivided attention.

Despicable as all that is, here's the thing, not being banished from politics as would have been just, means that if and when he ever decides to run for public office, those horrific videos of a mob killing and maiming police officers and desecrating one of our nation's most sacred symbols will surface. As will his words to that mob telling them to go to the Capitol to "fight like hell", and no doubt the testimony of members of the mob who will claim  they were sent there by the president. 

Whenever the exPOTUS or a member of his family attempts to run for public office in the future, be it for president or dog catcher, their family name will be forever linked to that terrible act.

After all is said and done after the second impeachment of the exPOTUS, I truly believe everything worked out for the best. The Democrats did a marvelous job of presenting their case, and the names of a few individuals, namely representatives  Jamie Raskin, Joe Neguse and especially Stacey Plasket have come to the forefront and will certainly be heard from in the future. 

By distancing himself from the fracas, President Biden has wisely shown from the outset that unlike his predecessor, he has no interest in going after his political rivals, but rather is intent on doing the job he was elected to do, namely addressing the great challenges this nation faces. 

And the Democrats who prosecuted the case who could have called witnesses and delayed the process, wisely chose to let it stand rather than test the patience of the American public. They made their point and while it might have been a defeat for them in the court of the Senate, it was a victory in the court of public opinion. They made it crystal clear that it's time to move on and put the past four years behind us. 

Of course the Republicans are another story. They could after licking their wounds, try to rebuild by learning a lesson from history, both ancient and yesterday's, that populist demagogues with fascist tendencies tend to destroy a political party.

Or they could look at the the past four years as a great accomplishment which would have certainly continued under the command of a populist demagogue with fascist tendencies who also happened to be slightly competent. 

After my brilliant statements of five years ago that the man who would become exPOTUS didn't stand a chance of being nominated, let alone becoming president, I've given up trying to predict the future in American politics.

I'm just praying with all my heart and soul that it is the former of those two options.