Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup Series 2010: Mexico v. Uruguay

Reporting from Mundial Mania: Mexico. Yesterday morning I left my house ten minutes after the Mexico-Uruguay game had started. On every street corner, at every taco truck, the game was blaring from little TVs set out on the sidewalks. As I walked, the uninterrupted whine from the vuvuzuelas sounded like a swarm of cicadas had descended on Guadalajara.

Do you see the TV in the back by the tree? Without the game on, who is going to stop for their morning taco?

The general feeling was, Mexico had to beat Uruguay in order to advance and for their pride. World Cup fervor was in full-throttle after the unexpected win over France last week and the crowds were heading to La Minerva—a round-about the size of Big Ben, however instead of a clock in the middle, it has a huge statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, arts and war. Several bars ring the perimeter and a gigantic screen, compliments of Corona, shows important soccer matches to spectators gathered in the closed off streets.

Street sellers have traded in the bright rainbow colored dusters and mops for the more patriotic items of the day-- giant flags, mini flags for you car, sombreros, jerseys, jerseys and more jerseys.

It wouldn’t be a sports event in Mexico without the Corona hoochies.

It was actually not a super exciting game, but that did not stop the yelling and the screaming and the jumping. Nor did it deter the drinking on the street at 9am. The good thing about the third world is that lots of people get to make their own hours!

I do not remember specifically, but this picture was either taken when Chicharito (Little Pea - a Guadalajara native who at just 22 signed a 10 million Euro deal with Manchester United) almost scored in the second half, or when the Corona hoochies got in a cat fight with the Jose Cuervo mamacitas.

I was warned by friends to run like the wind if it looked like Mexico was going to lose. However, this guy made me feel pretty safe, so I stuck it out. There may have been more riot police in attendence than there were fans.

With the final seconds ticking away on the clock, AAANNNNnnddd….OOOOOWWWWW…. Uruguay wins 1-0!!!! So why was everyone so happy!? I had no idea, but I kept snapping away, and trying to position myself in the middle of traffic to photograph the mob of fans who were flooding the streets in delirium. I keep thinking, “WOW! Mexicans are so awesome! They lost and they are still celebrating!” My faith in all humanity was restored in that traffic charging moment.

As it turns out, there was reason to celebrate. France had lost to South Africa to complete their drama implosion, and although it wasn’t pretty, Mexico is advancing to the next round. VIVA MEXICO! We’ll be in Montana and something tells me the enthusiasm level for the Mexico-Argentina game will reach that of a dentist office. Regardless, this little cowboy is psyched

Monday, June 21, 2010

The World Cup 2010 Series: Deutschland v. Serbia

Venezia, local Italian deli run by a sweet Italian family with a loyal following. I have never gone by during an Italy game but I am guessing they have another store-front sized flag in red white and green.

Germany's second World Cup game kicked off at 1:30 last Friday afternoon and leider was not the dazzling spectacle nor the thrilling outcome that fans expected after their 4-0 win against Australia in the opening game. Germany's team captain Michael Ballack sprained his ankle in his final Champions League game with Chelsea, thereby effectively thwarting his plans to play in the World Cup, as well as seriously darkening the stimmung or mood and lowering expectations in the lead up to the games.

But Germany's opener changed all that. Suddenly everyone's singing Werden wir Weltmeister sein! and is a born again believer in Germany's quest for the cup. And this was evident on a Friday afternoon (doesn't anybody work around here?) everywhere you looked around Hamburg.

At Bacana, on the corner of our old street and still one of my favorite coffee roasteries in the city, where two large screens were set up for fans gathered outside.

Internet café and call shop turns sports bar! Just pull up a chair ... and then call your family in Serbia to talk smack about their weak midfielders.

Juli bar/café turned brat vendor! I love how these bars, cafés, shops, whoever will just set up a grill on the side walk in front of their establishment. TV. Check. Beer. Check. Bratwurst. CHECK! Because really, what's a German football game without a PORK PRODUCT?

The Schulterblatt - the main artery of the Schanzenviertel and when the weather is nice - read over 50 degrees and dry - its sidewalks are packed with beer drinkers, the unemployed, the creatively self-employed, the ultra hip self-important, and any other general merry-makers. And on game days, the Schulterblatt is packed with FANS. A seat is hard to come by unless you show up at least an hour in advance. Enough time to get a few-beer head start in anticipation - even at noon on a weekday.

For some fans, a football day is like any other. Jeans and a t-shirt will do. But for others, it's black, red and yellow all the way. And for a very small minority, its spray-paint-your-mohawk-national-colors day! Right ON!

What fans thought was the first goal of the game - the ref disagreed and the score remained 0-0.

 Serious fans looking for a serious crowd go to one of the public viewing spots in the city - Heiligengeistfeld is one such spot.

This public viewing area also has food vendors hawking local specialties from every one of the countries in the tournament. Here, Spain sits next to Switzerland - who embarrassingly beat them last week in their opener. As for the food, though it has the potential of an international food festival, the showing is abysmal. The American stand basically serves up McDonalds - or pathetic looking cheeseburgers, the French stand makes cliché crepes and the South African tent offers more of a generic pan-African buffet than real South African specialties. Stick with bratwurst and beer and try to find a spot where you can see the screen, i.e. not behind one of these guys....

Like I said, serious fans.

This couple with their German-flag capes and baby sort of reminded me of that famous shot of the couple wrapped in a blanket at Woodstock.

Fans in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's red light district gathered at the Herzblut, right next door to the SeXes porn theater and Pearls Table Dancing. Hookers are football fans too!

Sadly, this game did not turn out the way most fans, confidence bolstered after the initial win, had expected. Not hoped but expected. This loss seemed particularly bitter and now everyone is holding their breath and "pressing their thumbs" (rather than crossing their fingers) for the final group game this coming Wednesday night against Ghana.

Press your thumbs for Deutschland!!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Alinea: A Mind Bending Meal

Me and Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea in Chicago- rated #7 in the world and #1 in North America by Restaurant Magazine.

Here I am with my new hero and secret crush. Oh, I know even he can’t deny there was crazy chemistry between us. Ok, maybe not actually between us, but all around us… the kitchen, the dining room, in the pots and pans, and most spectacularly on the plates.

Grant Achatz, chef of the restaurant Alinea, is one of the most recognized and brilliant chefs of the uber-modern cuisine-- molecular gastronomy. Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes which occur while cooking. It seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of a culinary experience. Over the past decade this science, which is really just playing with food, has migrated from the laboratory to the kitchen, creating a sort of surrealist movement in the culinary arts.

You may be familiar with molecular gastronomy in its most popularized form: foam. Foam is a sauce that has been transformed into a light airy bubble bath-like froth by using a whipped cream canister and, in some cases, lecithin as a stabilizer. Whisks and spatulas have been replaced by centrifuges, desiccators, liquid nitrogen, lasers and eye droppers.

Uhhh… so… how does that translate into something I want to eat? Magically. With such an academic name and intimidating vocabulary, it is surprising how incredibly over-the-top FUN my introduction to this mystifying edible art form was. The dishes Achatz created were all built from familiar flavors-- shrimp stock, spring peas, Tabasco, potato and leek, which are reduced, to release their maximum impact. Essentially, food is manipulated in various ways to be the best it can be at that moment-- leaving the greatest impression possible on your senses. The effect is mind blowing, seriously mind blowing.

Upon making our reservation at Alinea, we were given the choice of a twelve course meal or a twenty-two course meal. With a bit of hesitation and wonder, “Can the human palate comprehend that many different flavors?” we ponyed-up and went for the full twenty-two course roller coaster ride. Wow!! Was that the right choice!

The restaurant is formal and modern, however, we were immediately put at ease by an infectious sense of anticipation—something amazing was about to take place and as diners we were going to not only experience it, but be a part of it. We had just fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole.

The first course was three different edible cocktails placed in a line on little white pedestals. The cocktails were in the form of beautiful jelly gum drops dressed up for a party. Pick it up and slurp it down . The intense, perfectly balanced flavor of a Romeo and Juliet as it was meant to taste, exploded in my mouth.

I pretty much stopped taking pics after the first course. I was waaaaay to into eating and discovering to be bothered. You will just have to go and see what levitating food looks like for yourself.

Over five hours passed, as we were amused and flabbergasted by a succession of one to five bite courses. The meal was not just about what we were tasting; Achatz explores how all of the senses play their own roles in our appreciation of food. He stimulates all of the senses to embellish and complete the experience. Our duck course was served on a pillow made of light linen and filled with lavender scented air. The weight of the plate caused the pillow to slowly deflate, releasing subtle floral wafts of air which became an accompanying ingredient to the dish.

The presentation, plating and service created a performance art happening at our table. The evening felt more like a night at the theater, rather than going out for a meal. After our first course, three small flags made of two sheets of transparent rice paper with herbs and edible flowers pressed between them, were placed at our table. The delicate flags hung from their poles displayed as a lovely centerpiece, creating mystery, anticipation and much conversation. A few courses in, our server brought us a plate that resembled a puzzle and instructed us how to put it together. Another server artfully placed seven tiny piles of powders, jellies, and shaved bits onto individual plates in front of each of us. She transferred the flags from their poles onto the stands we had assembled and spooned pork belly braised in a coconut broth onto the thin sheets and left the rest up to us. My cooking has never tasted so good!

For such precise endeavors, the dishes were whimsical, funny, philosophical, playful and all totally genius. Nothing was done for shock value. I was partly expecting ingredient combinations like peanut butter and sardines, freeze dried bacon served in the shape of an old shoe, or my food to vanish as I tried to bite into it-- dishes assembled just to be weird and in your face. But nothing about Achatz’s food was for novelty sake; it was all just awe-inspiring, mind bending food, flavors and phenomenon. It also made us giggle. A lot.

The ingredients that I brought to the table were Susan and Wylie, my lifelong friends. A meal at Alinea is an intimate experience; having all of your senses tickled and aroused in public, should not be done with strangers, this I assure you would be very awkward. We spent over five hours with Chef Atchtz’s brilliant brain, getting glimpses of his humor and trippy interpretations of food, gleefully being spun around and around by the multi-sensory experience he was enrapturing us in, dizzy with pleasure, in awe of his intellect. How could I not leave with a crush?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Georgian Series: The Capital

View from the Metekhi Church over the Mtkvari River

As I am not quite sure where to begin - I think I will just go chronologically and break it down into places, peoples, things to eat and perhaps another category or two. So let us begin at the beginning, shall we? Our story begins in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Old Soviet-style murals peeking out behind the overwhelming Coca-Cola billboard. Glasnost! Perestroyka! 

Tbilisi literally means "warm" referring to the hot springs that the area was known for. There are different versions of a similar story about King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli who was hunting in what is now the capital when he came upon the hot springs - one story has it that a pheasant he was hunting fell into the springs and was instantly cooked for dinner; another has it that a wounded dear fell into the springs and was miraculously healed. In any case, all of the explanations transmit a sense of the wondrous powers of the springs, honored in the capital's name.

The sulfur baths 
And what's a spring city with out baaaaaths. Tbilisi's famous sulfur baths, the Abanotubani, are centered around a loved little park that sits underneath the botanical garden and the Narikala Fortress. Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin both bathed here and the latter apparently raved about his bath as the best he'd ever had. With such a recommendation, I had to check it out. I stole an hour on my last day after returning to the capital following a 6 hour bus ride from the southern state of Samtskhe-Javakheti where I had been observing. A bath would be a perfect way to remove four days of dirt, SMOKE (so. much. smoke.), alcohol and general griminess from my skin. A friend of mine called ahead for me and I indulged in a private room complete with a sauna, hot pool and cold pool and it was diiivine even though the faint smell of an egg salad sandwiches wafted through the tiled room. I skipped the scrub and opted to use the last 20 minutes before the final briefing to buy a carpet because, well, I have a carpet addiction. That and I love the look on my husbands face when I bring home ANOTHER carpet. ("NOT ANOTHER ONE!!! They smell like dead camels and they hide the wooden floors!!! Ughhhh!)

Inside the bath

Ok, maybe this isn't going chronologically after all. Because the bath and carpet came at the end and what came first was Independence Day. As I mentioned before, flights in and out of Tbilisi come and go in the middle of the night. So by the time my head hit the pillow, the sun was coming up. Still, a few other observers I met in the hotel lobby and I decided to meet at 10:30 to head into town for the Independence Day parade. 

 On the way to the Independence Day parade at Freedom Square

We arrived at Freedom Square and were instantly absorbed into the mob jockeying for position. Babies sitting atop their fathers' shoulders, kids climbing up lampposts and grown men jostling for space on park benches. I stopped to take a few photos and promptly lost the entire group. Suddenly completely on my own, with no idea where I was or how to get back, I decided rather than panic I would let myself get swept up in it. The families enjoying a gorgeous spring day, the pomp and circumstance of the parade, the soldiers - rifles cast over shoulders, fatigues flawlessly pressed - running in perfect time. And then came the humvies and the tanks. And then the fighter planes and helicopters. And then the ice cream lady.

A tank rolls through Freedom Square...

After the parade wound up, I had an hour to kill before meeting Jacob for dumplings. Just me and my camera strolling through the old city.

Slowly crumbling but still reminiscent of what it once was

Although slowly crumbling in that post-Soviet way, it was still easy to see how gorgeous this city had once been - not that it isn't any more, but there is a desperate need for major restoration. In fact, a number of NGOs, and specifically the Norwegians have put a great deal of money into restoring crumbling facades and rebuilding damaged homes and buildings in the old city. And the results are stunning. Technicolor houses that jump out from the hillside next to a sagging shack.

Religious art and artifact stores on every corner in the old city

Christianity is the dominant religion here and most Georgians adhere to the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the predominantly Armenian south where I was observing elections, I was constantly reminded by proud Armenians that they were the first people in the world to convert to Christianity - or so they liked to tell me. The Armenian Apostolic Church dates back to 301 AD. 

Shops like the one picture above selling elaborate gold portraits of Jesus were quite common place. Especially near one of the numerous churches in the city.

Campaign posters plaster the walkways

The campaign was in full throttle when we arrived as mayoral candidates were to be directly elected for the first time on Sunday. Lots of shaking hands and kissing babies, cries of foul and threats to disrupt the parade from one of the main opposition parties and of course the ubiquitous campaign posters plaster every free wall and billboard in town.

Love these wooden balconies and the courtyards in between them

Tbilisi is an architecturally stunning, historically fascinating and geographically challenging city that is easy to get absorbed in as one wanders the streets of the old town. Winding up narrow alleyways toward the fortress, one is impressed by the skillfully carved wooden balconies, the 4th century Zoroastrian temple, the crumbling courtyards decked with lines of laundry. It's so charming, I was charmed. Pleased to meet you, Tbilisi. And after all this wandering up winding walking ways, serious sustenance is in order. Next in the Georgia series: the Fare. Monday! I promise!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The World Cup 2010 Series: Deutschland v. Australia

We interupt the regularly scheduled (Georgian) series and interject with the WORLD CUP 2010 SERIES!! I like soccer/football, but to be honest, I am no more of a soccer fan than I am a basketball or (American) football fan. That is to say, I enjoy watching a good game, I have the concepts down although some of the rules I still find confusing (Offsides?? Why? I still don't get it). But I loooove the World Cup. Soccer is the world's game and the World Cup is the world's tournament in a way that kicks the Olympic's ass. If you were to walk down the street in any German town last night from 8:30 - 10:30 p.m., you would find the streets barren and the sidewalks full. Every other front yard, bar, wine shop, kiosk, municipal building etc had a TV set up in front and a makeshift row of chairs arranged before it. There is a certain commaraderie of the World Cup that happens when Germany plays here that is infectious. And it's not only when Germany plays. In the Portuguese quarter when Portugal and Brazil play, in the Italian and Greek restaurants when Italy and Greece play, at the Ghanaian church when Ghana plays. And whether you are a fan of one of these teams or not, you might head over to one of these communities when their team is playing just to be part of that atmosphere. Just to drink whatever is being passed around and scream and blow on the ubiquitous vuvuzela (love them or hate them, they are as omnipresent in Germany as they are in South Africa).

So, to kick off Germany's first game of the tournament, we filled our front yard with fans and our table with meat and salads. I have to bow to Food 52 for the salad recipes: lemony green bean salad with feta, red onions and marjoram, the asparagus and radish salad with spring herb dressing and the BLT panzanella. I also whipped up some of my own American-style potato salad (i.e. with mayo, celery, green apple, hard-boiled egg and dill) and Judith fixed some German-style potato salad (i.e. with oil and gherkin). There were also green salads and crudité. And for dessert, everyone dug into Frauke's delicious strawberry quark (thick German yogurt) and Nicola's smashing rhubarb-strawberry rote grutze and a few handfuls of black, red and yellow gummi bärchen. 

And of course the centerpiece of any bar-be-que - the grill. In addition to the various shades of würsten, Susanne made her famous (at least in our house) miso lachs spies (salmon skewers marinated in a mixture of miso, mirin, sake and brown sugar - faaaabulous).

And I threw some American-style bauch rippen or ribs on the barbie, in the parlance of the team that Germany thrashed 4-0 in their World Cup opener. The bbq sauce is a work in progress and I hope to glean insight into the subtleties and nuances of the perfect sauce when we are in the States later this summer.

Well played and well fed - Germany's first World Cup game and our first World Cup cook-out were successes on both counts. SCHLAND!!!!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Georgian Series: An Introduction

The Narikala Fortress presiding over Tbilisi

After receiving word that I had been selected as a Short Term Observer (STO) with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) Election Observation Mission (EOM - so many acronyms, it's like a whole new language) to Georgia for the May 30th municipal elections, I beelined to the bookstore. I know there are people who prefer to go to a new country for the first time without any information, no preconceived notions, no "Best Of.." short list from the favorite guide book. But I am not one of them. I would only have a week in Georgia, a country I knew little to nothing about before this trip, and much of that time would be spent at pre-election briefings, mapping out an election day polling station route, observing voting, counting and the tabulation activities at the District Election Committee (DEC) and then sleeping at least a couple of hours after spending the entire election night (until 8 am) at the DEC. So, in order to maximize any free time we would be allotted, I picked up a guide book to alert me to Tbilisi's historic points of interests, a brief and incomplete primer on a few key words in Georgian and of course, information on what to eat and where.

A polling station in Samtshke Javakheti

And that is where my Georgian education began. Not with the guidebook. But with the search for the guidebook. Scanning the book store's shelves, which were divided into continents and then broken down again into smaller specialties, my eyes quickly passed over Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, .... wait.... Denmark, Fraaaannnnce aaaannnnd.... Hungary. A B C D E.... singing the song in my head... no, Georgia should be sitting between France and Hungary. A helpful sales woman noticed my perplexed stare and asked if she could help. "I am looking for a guide on Georgia," I explained. "Come with me," she replied. And then she lead me past "Europe", past "North" and "South America" and stopped in the "Asia" section. "Here it is," she pulled the last copy of the "Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan" Lonely Planet off the shelf. I smiled sheepishly and thanked her. Riiiiiiiiiiggghhhht. WRONG CONTINENT. First lesson: Georgia is in Asia. NOT EUROPE.

The Independence Day Military Parade coming down Rustaveli to Freedom Square

Or is it? According to Wikipedia (I know, the arbiter of truth), Georgia is in "Eurasia" straddling eastern Europe and western Asia. Current president Mikheil Saakashvilli is vying for entry into the European Union and NATO. But what's more, Georgia is a regular competitor in the EUROVISION SONG CONTEST - I mean, hello? Forget geopolitical issues and let EUROVISION be your guide. That MUST be why I looked in the Europe section at the bookstore. I guess the saleswoman is not a Eurovision fan otherwise DUH she would have stuck that guide firmly on another continent's shelf. In any case, tracking down the guide book was a humbling reminder of how little I know about Georgia and the Causcasus region in general.

Gorgeous carved wooden balconies in Tbilisi

We arrived at Tbilisi airport at 4 am. For some reason which no one has been able to explain to me, most international flights into and out of Tbilisi arrive and take off in the middle of the night. Our flight out of Munich arrived an hour later than scheduled which meant that by the time we got through customs, picked up our luggage and herded everyone onto the shuttles, it was nearly 5 am. It was still dark as we drove to our hotel and I relished that feeling of arriving in a new country for the first time. Everything being completely unfamiliar from the language and its script to the city landscape, the Soviet and Georgian architecture, and knowing that a week from right now I would be heading back to the airport on the same road but with the feeling that my surroundings had become somehow more commonplace.

"Beer Free on Weekends"

As this is a series and this post only the introduction, I will leave you hanging here with a promise of more on Thursday. More on the divine Georgian cuisine, the unparalleled Georgian and Armenian hospitality, the severe and striking scenery and tumultuous history of this fascinating country.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Memorable Meal - Prelude to the Georgian Series

This is Jacob. He is Joseph Stalin's great grandson. And he's teaching me how to eat khinkali without spilling all of the juice down my shirt. I just got back from a week in Georgia, the country. I spent the majority of the week in the predominantly Armenian south observing preparation, voting, counting and tabulation of the vote in the municipal elections that were held throughout the country on Sunday. And this snapshot is a prelude to a series - can't wait to tell you all about Georgia!