Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Sh*t From Hawaii: How I Invented the Poke Bowl



I am really pleased that Mainland folks with very little if any connection to Hawaii have embraced the poke bowl.  Like the Spirit of Aloha, surfing, and hula, all Hawaii residents should be proud to add the savory raw fish dish to the list of Hawaiian exports.  I for one can take personal pride in the feat, because, you see:  I.  Invented.  The poke bowl.

The first time I encountered poke was at my first ever luau, which I attended in the 1970s.  I forget the occasion, but it was a classic Hawaiian luau in a large field, where beneath large tarpaulin tents, hundreds of ohana and guests gathered.  There was hula and a steel guitar band.  As a nine year old at the time, this is the extent of detail I recall, save one other.  I remember the poke.  My 11 year old friend gave me a paper cup and grinned, "here, try this."  I put the purple, slimy morsel in my mouth and immediately gagged.  It was cold, clammy, and salty.  In retrospect, I'm surprised I didn't bother to ask or hesitate before popping it past my lips.  I thought I was being fed boogers.  It was my first ever experience with raw fish.  Luckily, in the ensuing years I quickly took to sashimi and sushi and ceviche and poisson cru and all things seafood, and my first ever encounter with the Hawaiian version of raw fish was but a footnote.

Fast forward to the Nineties, after seven years of college and law school, and I returned to Hawaii,  fully immersing myself in the outrigger paddling lifestyle.  Such a life involved canoe paddling on the beautiful blue-green water surrounding our islands almost every day from February to October, punctuated by almost weekly races.  My canoe club was a notorious party club.  We often found ourselves after these races reveling well into the night.  We enjoyed sharing coolers of beer, meats grilled on hibachis set up on the grass or sand, and plastic containers of poke, which we purchased from any number of supermarkets selling it as an item as unremarkable as apples or hot dogs.  The variety was endless, consisting of ahi tuna, octopus, marlin, even raw white crab.  Drizzle these with sesame oil, green onions, shoyu (soy sauce), and chili pepper flakes, and you have a basic poke.  But you might also find minced garlic, chopped kukui or macadamia nut, shredded ginger, even a Sriracha-mayonaise dressing to make it spicy.  All of this would be passed around amongst my paddling teammates and shared with endless beer after beer.  Mostly, we would pick the hunks of fish out of the containers with our fingers, or maybe chopsticks if we refused to be uncouth.  This was my Nineties.

Then one Sunday, I thought to myself, "this poke would be good with some hot rice."  I was thinking of the Japanese chirashi dishes that many sushi restaurants offered.  Rather than serving sashimi nigiri style, on bullets of rolled rice one at a time, chirashi was a large shallow bowl of warm sushi rice, upon which a layer of sashimi - ahi, hamachi, salmon, chutoro and otoro - was decoratively arranged for one to heartily dig into with chopsticks.  This is what I wanted for my poke, and no one had ever seen it served that way before.

Before my Hawaiian chirashi idea, poke was more an appetizer, to be served as I had experienced it 2 decades before; in a paper cup served on the side of a luau plate, little better than an afterthought to the entree of kalua pig, shoyu chicken, and rice.

By the end of that particular canoe season, my teammates were bringing portable rice cookers to the races, to enjoy with the poke that would inevitably be passed around.  I even introduced my new wife to it by instituting a Monday Night Football picnic, wherein I came home with poke from the store and cooked up a pot of rice, which we would enjoy sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the football game, eating from the Japanese bowls we got in our wedding.

Still, this particular style of serving poke was not seen in local eateries, much less in fancy Pacific Rim Fusion cuisine places like Roy's or Sam Choy's until a few years after our wedding.  The first "poke bowl" I noticed on a menu was at a small "plate lunch" restaurant.  Historians are convinced (OK, I, I am convinced) that that poke bowl can be traced backwards from paddler to paddler all the way back to my canoe club's tarp tent. 

In the ensuing years, I noticed poke bowls at Zippy's, the humble and ubiquitous Hawaiian diner franchise, and at Sam Choy's Breakfast Lunch & Crab on the high end.   To me, it reached local saturation when groceries offered a poke bowl option at their fresh fish counter.  I recognized it as a popular explosion when a friend of a friend, both of whom lived in the Mid-West, sheepishly asked me about poke bowls on Facebook, when she learned I was from Honolulu.

And to that, you can bet my first reply to her was "You know.  I. Invented. The poke bowl."

Friday, March 17, 2017

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY



On March 17, 1991, I was a little over halfway through with my year abroad in London as a 2nd year law student.  I was fully acclimated to this most familiar of foreign lands.  With troubles in Northern Ireland still a fresh wound for everyone in the UK, before coming, Notre Dame advised us to please refrain from wearing any "Fighting Irish" attire.

A fresh wound perhaps, but at least the yobs in London still felt it was appropriate to invite Belfast's own Stiff Little Fingers to play on St. Patrick's Day that year at the legendary Brixton Academy.  And the wee admonishment from Notre Dame about political sensitivity wasn't going to stop me from seeing them, one of my favorite punk bands.  I wouldn't even be deterred by the fact that I was in the midst of second term finals in this my most critical year of law school.

I set aside the books I had furiously been committing to memory and ventured off to Brixton alone.  No one else was stupid enough to endanger their grades for an incendiary Northern Irish band from 1977.  And so I found myself amongst like minded strangers in a boiling, ever-crashing slam dance with my heroes not twenty feet away playing music that taught me more about defiance and integrity and loyalty and passion than ten Sunday sermons.



One of their last songs was a searing reworking of Bob Marley's Johnny Was, about a boy killed in Belfast by an occupying army, a true favorite of mine in my personal top ten.  It was during that song, and in that pit of youth, that I lost my glasses after a particularly large surge of punks rolled my way.

I was blind without them on the tube ride back to school, where I was planning to immediately return to studies.  I had an exam in a few hours.  No matter.  To Jake, Ali, Henry, and Phin:  HANX!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What Do Hockey and Iconic Architecture Share in Common




By the 1930s, America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was in a slump.  He had disappeared to his singular home and school in Milwaukee, where Taliesin Fellows came to learn design from the Master, a refined philosophy of style that was acutely sensitive to its surroundings and also rejected the European old school that dominated the 19th Century.  In fact, despite being a leader in this design movement and building many structures from that century into the 1920s, Wright had stopped taking commissions, withdrawing perhaps out of burnout, but also because of a handful of personal challenges including scandal (believe it or not, a mass axe murder at Taliesin) and divorce.

By that point, one wonders if Wright himself thought he was finished.

He was almost 68 when in 1935 he was approached by one of his students, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the scion of a Pittsburgh, PA retail family, to design a summer retreat for his family near the Appalachian foothills.  They had long held a large, uneven parcel of land there with a lively stream called Bear Run coursing through it.  The rudimentary cabins the Kaufmanns maintained there had deteriorated and an upgrade of some kind was in order.

-- o O o --


This year, my son becomes a teenager.  No longer can I baby him or touch him gently or affectionately, at home much less in public.  The time has arrived for him to be treated like a man, so that, by the time he becomes one, the behaviors are already instinct.  At the same time, my life reaches a mid-century.  My 14 year law partnership is amicably -- but sadly -- dissolving as one partner is given a judgeship.  My neglected health needs attention, and I've been getting by on decades of invincibility.  I have been divorced for five years.


As a History major, I've always minded my past, treating it as an important touchstone.  So, it was with great joy that I received the response to this last minute status on Facebook.

"If any yinz wanna grab a cold, frosty Yuengling, I'm in Steeltown the resta da week, an'nat. "

My son plays violin at a near professional level, and his school orchestra was traveling to Pittsburgh to compete in the National Orchestra Festival.

In response to my Facebook post, my two best friends from Georgetown were going to drop everything to drive down to meet me.  Also, a law school classmate from Notre Dame, whom I knew mostly through Facebook, got a pass from her husband (who knows me not at all) to drive the two hours from Ohio to meet us.

To add to my luck, I learned that same day that, as part of the trip to Pittsburgh, my son's school arranged for a guided tour of nearby Fallingwater, possibly America's most celebrated private residential home.  Thinking they were mostly in Chicago and points west, I didn't even know any important Frank Lloyd Wright structures were in Pennsylvania, much less his greatest masterpiece.

-- o O o --

Kaufmann's Department store made the family who owned it reasonably wealthy.  Not as wealthy as Pittsburgh's steel magnates, like the Carnegies, but close enough.  When the family first showed the property to Wright, they pointed out a beloved waterfall where for years Kafmanns would play and sun and swim.  They hoped their new summer retreat would have a view of it.

The plans were finally revealed months later, in a classic surprise visit to Wisconsin by family patriarch Edgar Kaufmann Sr., in which Taliesin apprentices remember Wright calmly drawing the design he'd had in his head in the final two hours before his arrival.   Kaufmann Sr., who had to be persuaded by his son to commission Wright, was angered to discover that the architect had decided to situate the house atop the rocky waterfall.  During construction, conflict and disagreement continued when Wright subsequently learned that an independent engineering review of his cantilevered design was conducted behind his back at the behest of Kaufmann Sr.  Wright threatened to walk off the project and Kaufmann Sr. relented.  Apparently, to this day, legend has it that the engineering critique remains buried in a stone wall on the property.

Upon completion, the final cost of Fallingwater was $ 155,000.00 in 1937 dollars.  Built of Pittsburgh steel, concrete, and stone quarried on Bear Run land, the family lived and entertained there for the next thirty years.

It is unquestionably a masterpiece, nearly voted the Eighth Wonder of the World (losing to Macchu Pichu), or so the joke goes.  Embodying Wright's tenets of harmony with its environment, organic design, and Asian spatial aesthetics, no words can really describe a visit to Fallingwater without falling short. 


-- o O o --

When we fly out of Honolulu, my ex-wife drives my son and me.  We are friendly.  Supportive of each other.  We are family and always will be.  And yet I feel alone when there's no one to kiss goodbye.  It reminds me of that scene in When Harry Met Sally, where Harry sees Sally lovingly say goodbye to her lover at the airport and he observes, "You're obviously at the beginning of your relationship."

I find myself feeling that way a lot lately.  Ennui.  Cosmic ennui.

The perfect panacea for cosmic ennui, I hope, are the boys from Georgetown, the Jesuit and Thomas the Editor, and the person I shall call The Domer.  The plan is an afternoon of cocktails and laughter in a reasonably hospitable publican's establishment, followed by an Uber ride to the PPG Paints arena for a face off between the Penguins of Pittsburgh and the Lightning of Tampa Bay.



After days of attending orchestra events with my son, his classmates, and their way-too-intense-and-invested parents, Friday comes and I finally break away to meet my friends.  I'm just getting used to the feeling of my son so eagerly shooing me to walk off and leave him with his friends.

"I'm gonna head down to your lobby and mill around like Julia Roberts," the Domer messages on Facebook.  She has a way of being familiar and chummy, and yet she refuses to engage in cellphone texting with me and the Georgetown boys.  Too cozy.  I love that.  She and I were like ships passing in the night in Law School, sharing mutual drinking pals and seeing each other at every social event, yet probably never saying a single word to each other.  I was in the Slow Learner's class, as Notre Dame's Prof. Charlie Rice quipped, and she, not.  And yet, even then, I knew that she would be great fun to down beers and take in a hockey game with.  I was not wrong.

I knew that this cocktail of people would work, otherwise I never would've stirred it in the first place. I've already painted enough of a portrait of Thomas, but the Jesuit deserves a bit more attention.  As I've said before, he comes from the Eisenhower era.   Unchallenged as our spiritual and moral center, around which Thomas and I whizzed and sparked around like electrons.  The Jesuit was my guide through things literary and Catholic.  He came from Buffalo and had a major league throwing arm.  To that point in my life the Jesuit was probably the smartest person I knew.

And I was right.  The Domer fit right in.  Joke for joke, story for story,  entendre for entendre, we entertained each other, running our fingers over the sometimes-pebbled, sometimes-polished texture of our fifty year long lives. We compared child raising notes, even Thomas, who was later to the parenting game than even I was.  That night I went to a hockey game and a conversation broke out.

It was just what I needed.

-- oOo --


Over the years, people quipped that Wright and the Kaufmanns should have named the summer home Spreadingmildew.  I've read that when owners of Frank Lloyd Wright homes meet each other, the first thing they ask is "how many leaks does your roof have".  Walking through Fallingwater, especially as I did during the tour with my son's orchestra at the end of February, the spaces were cave-like and dank.  Spectacular views out, yes.  Beautiful built in furniture, yes.  But cozy?  Not exactly.

No matter, though.  Perfection needn't be perfect.


It was still the most sublime space I'd ever stood in.  Ample sunlight made for wonderful shadows everywhere.  Generous glimpses of the nature outside from every spot inside.  Rainfall shower heads in every bath, over a half-century before rainfall shower heads were even a thing.


In 1968, the Kaufmanns left the property in the hands of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, so that accomplished middle school string musicians could experience it for posterity.  In 1981, a comprehensive report was written by an expert museum auditor on what could be improved at Fallingwater.  This experienced curator recognized the pricelessness of the property and its contents (all of its furniture, after all, had been designed by Wright), and recommended numerous ways to improve preservation in the midst of daily tours.  The report was shared with Kaufmann Jr., then in his seventies.  Kaufmann, like Wright before him and the engineer's report, rejected it outright.  He commented to the WPC Director that Fallingwater was a summer retreat to his family, a place where his family sent discardable things too beloved to discard.  They felt no instinct to put these things behind glass.


-- oOo --

I tried to get Thomas and the Jesuit and the Domer on the list for that afternoon's private tour of Fallingwater, but there wasn't room.  The Domer would rise early the next morning after the hockey game to be home in time to find her husband embarking on yet another ambitious home improvement project.  No wonder she got the pass.  "Next time, mai tais in Waikiki," she said, and I'm pretty sure she meant it.

Thomas and the Jesuit were really interested in the house but they had roughly ten hours of driving between them to their respective homes in Brooklyn and Buffalo.

Our orchestra group jumped on the tour bus that had taken us around Pittsburgh all week and we set out for the foothills.  We enjoyed lunch in Ohiopyle, a speck of a town that existed only to guide river rafts in the summer and feed Fallingwater tourists.  On the final leg of our drive to Bear Run, the Juicy Lucy I ordered put me to sleep as I listened to Steely Dan's "My Old School" from a playlist I had created just for my reunion with those three.





-- oOo --

To gain an initial view of Fallingwater, one follows the original driveway several hundred yards downhill.  The house appears dramatically from within an obscuring thicket of trees.  As I was walking down this drive, I easily picked out Thomas and the Jesuit, who had decided to take an earlier tour, hoping also to catch me upon my arrival.

We exchanged brief comments about the tour and the house and the drive, laughing like we always do.  We hugged and I continued down the hill and they up.  It was less than three minutes.

Perfection need not always be perfect.





Thursday, August 4, 2016

Let's Do Something With Our Hands


  


Boy it's been a long time!  No, I haven't forsaken longer form writing for the 140 characters of Instagram or Twitter.  My life is just not that interesting.  In fact, after several years into the successful experiment that has been my divorce and BachelorDadHood, I fell into a comfortable rut.  A rut I felt I could only power my way out of with 750cc of vintage Japanese motorcycle engine.  I've said before that I would love to own and maintain a vintage cafe racer to zip around town on in the early mornings and late evenings, and to work on in the cool dusk of my garage.  Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

No motorcycle.  It certainly would've spelled the death of me.

So what to do.  I was still in a rut, remember?  Clearly, I needed a hobby other than sulking at home, listening to my vinyl records, or worse, chasing tourist skirts in Waikiki (especially since I was doing that so poorly, as well).  Then I discovered it while talking with another OnceWereBachelor friend, a good friend of mine since third grade, a father of three girls, and husband to a wonderful woman who had his life tuned to such a perfect pitch that he too went searching for a hobby.  Something to keep his hands busy at night.

Three words:  DIY Electric Guitar.  Okay, I know that's more like five words, but you get the idea.



I've always thought the quintessential rock n' roll guitar was embodied by the Flying V, originally built in the heady days of Sputnik by Gibson.  I've always wanted one.  However, their versions, even the most affordable of them, are laughably expensive.  I discovered a company in Australia that will mill one (in China) to one's preferred specifications.  After many weeks waiting, it will arrive unassembled and unadorned.  A moderate amount of woodworking skill is called for, and a like amount of painterly talent and soldering fearlessness, and, as the French say: voila!

 





 



I was going for mid-century American muscle, something evocative of tailfins and checkered flags and motor oil on rain puddles.  The center ornament is from an old Chevy Impala, since GM seems to have also gone with the flag motif (to the chagrin of this dyed-in-the-wool Ford guy).


My second guitar began shortly after the V was completed.  In fact, I believe I was still wrestling with electrical issues on my V, when I found this interesting guitar kit on eBay.  Unlike most Les Pauls, this model was routed for a single pick up.  Even more interestingly, it was fitted for a single-coil P90, as opposed to the more common (and more modern) humbucker pick up.  I fell in love with its unrepentant purity and simplicity, and I resolved to build it as the ultimate Punk Rock workhorse, but adorned not with stickers and graffiti, but with the most vintage of vintage paint schemes from Gibson, the venerable Goldtop.  Like the V, it would also have an unfinished neck, for hand speed, and a stinger headstock, where the paint job forms a point on the back of the neck.  I would throw out the cheap Chinese tuning pegs for vintage, snot-green Kluson-style tuners.


Because of the single pickup, it would have much simpler electronics involving only one tone and one volume knob. And for the pinnacle of simplicity, as well as vintage fidelity, it would have a one-piece wrap-around bridge, literally half the hardware of more modern guitars (and by modern, I mean post-1954).  It will take every ounce of self-discipline in me to refrain from stickering it up.







The last DIY guitar was a little different.  I had an old stratocaster-style guitar sitting in a closet, a $30 purchase off Craigslist as part of a punk rocker costume I wore for Halloween a few years ago.  After a little tweaking, I had already made it sound above average.  I decided I wanted an homage to one of the great icons of horror comic books, a rock n roll femme fatale if ever there was one, the voluptuous, the vexatious, the venereal, Vampirella.  For this "build," all I did was learn that old craft skill from the Seventies, decoupage.  I purchased a readily available pile of old Vampirella comics from the local nerd-store, and, (in Bela Lugosi voice) "Good Evening."








And that's what I've been doing for the past six-months, at night when my son is with his mom.  I think it's been well-spent, and it's much better than wrapping myself bodily around a streetlight off the back of a motorcycle.  But don't worry, other stupidity follows, and I also feel one of those Universal Theory posts bubbling up very soon.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vinyl Adventures in a Quieter Mode




I put together a second stereo for the OnceWereBachelor Pad.  This latest one is not as "totally awesome" as my first.  But in at least one way, it's particularly special to me, as it is partly comprised of my father's old sound system from his dark, solemn den in Manila.  While I found the Sansui 1000X receiver, manufactured in 1969, and the Kenwood KD-5077 turntable from the Seventies both on Craigslist (a place becoming for me more and more like an online heroin shooting gallery), the Standard Radio Corp. speakers in walnut and black and matte steel (very Bauhaus) were smuggled over from Tokyo by my dad in 1968 in a spare pilot's bag.  They are compact, well made, and absolutely beautiful.  They followed us over from the Philippines, along with my dad's own Sansui 5000x receiver and SD 7000 reel to reel.  The latter two pieces gave up the ghost in the Eighties, but my dear mom lovingly stored the surviving speakers away, for me to find decades later.


The whole system is not the powerhouse I have downstairs.  But I leave that for the punk rock.  This upstairs unit, just steps from my and my son's rooms, doesn't threaten the same wattage, but for things like Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie & his Orchestra, conducted by Quincy Jones, a record pressed in mono in 1966, it's perfect.  I like to think of my upstairs system as a spiritual successor to Don Draper's stereophonic console.