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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bacon Press's Southern-Fried Bar-B-Q Road Trip 2007

I've been practicing my Southern accent.

Sort of.

There are so many, but the one I'm practicing now is slightly twangy, not heavy, and for the most part generic. I'm also trying to speak more slowly, which is hard for me to do. I can't help it: I speak fast, eat fast, walk fast...and type a little too fast, which might explain why some of my past blog posts seem to ramble on and on without nary an end in sight.

In this respect, I am the king of Too Much Information.

I'm not sure what all of this is suppose to accomplish. I mean, whose good graces am I suppose to fall in to? My family loves me regardless of how I speak. And I stopped doing things to please my mother long, long before I left Asheville, North Carolina.

Heck, I can't walk past 10 people in downtown San Francisco without some of them looking at me like I ain't right, so you know I won't be blending in with the local Good Ol' Boys and them fine Southern ladies. I imagine they'll be casting a suspicious eye on me the second my foot hits the ground because, like Jesco White, I am the devil hisself, but with a hybrid California accent.


This is America and I don't have to blend in or conform to anyone's standards. Remember? "Rugged Individualism"? I'm gonna wear my white tube socks at dinner and my tight thrift store polyester blends and freak you out with the tattoos on my hands, arms, and legs – and I'm gonna talk fast with my worldly ways, cuss on Sunday and bulge my eyes, and if that gets your goat then it's been brought.

Kiss the goat, Dixie. I'm touring the South with a vengeance only a prodigal Southern freak can deliver. Bruce, with his full beard, olive skin, and that black cap he wears looking like a Muslim, is coming along and with him as my co-pilot it will be the Freak and the Muslim puttering from town to town in a fuel-efficient economy-sized car. Let's just hope we're not the inspiration for the sequel to Mississippi Burning.

First stop:

1. Hotlanta!

Nostalgic stop number one. I can't believe how many times, through snow, rain, and freezing temperatures, I drove to Atlanta when I was a lonely punk rock teenager in search of my people. I use to park my VW beetle behind some building in Little Five Points and attempt to sleep in the back (it's then, and only then, that one truly realizes how small these cars are). Many sore backs later, I never really found my people, but I did see a few great bands like the then-unknown Screeching Weasel (only 14 people showed up) and the Exploited. Jesus, there was so much Aqua Net Super Hold in the hair of that audience a stray match could've blown the building off its foundation.

The difference between then and now: my hair isn't green and Punk, actually, is Dead. Believe me - it is. The Internet killed it (I'm not lamenting this). Also, my eternal search for what makes me happy has shifted from my ears to my stomach.

It's there that the spirit of punk lives, menu locked in clenched fist – stage diving it's way from one meal to another, and often landing smack dab in the center of the pit. If punk had a menu, it might look something like what you'd find at The Varsity or the Silver Skillet – two of the places we're checking out for our brief first night in ATL.

"Whad'ya Have?", as they're fond of saying at the Varsity, is music to my ears and I'm liable to say "give me everything!" if I'm not careful. Chilli cheese dogs, slaw dogs, and the best onion rings in Atlanta are all to be found at the Varsity, and like any good punk rock club, it's open past midnight and it's all-ages. After being treated worse than a prisoner and a subhuman terrorist by the staff at SFO and the airline industry – a fact of life for any American who must travel by air in the United States – I'll need a slaw dog to take the edge off.

In the morning, the Silver Skillet; which I'm guessing will be one of those classic American coffee shops/breakfast joints. Judging by the photos I've seen on their website (luckily the Internet hasn't killed dives), it could pass for the Golden Coffee Shop.

And then we hit the road. We're taking a leisurely drive through the Peach state and passing through Augusta, where you'll find us experiencing the Southern/Soul goodness that is Hot Foods by Calvin for lunch.

After that:

2. Charleston

The civil war started in Charleston and South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States. There's a lot of tourism that revolves around plantations and the Confederacy here, but I'd rather skip those as we're here for only two nights and frankly I'm glad the Plantation Owners/Confederates were defeated, because slavery is fucked up. Nevertheless, the city of Charleston is much older than the Civil War and has a rich and diverse history, and of course is a hot bed of regional cuisine, notably Lowcountry and Gullah cuisine. Lots of food to try here but only a limited amount of time. Some of the food I'm hoping to try: She Crab Soup, Shrimp and Grits, Country Captain, Frogmore Stew, Boiled Peanuts, Oysters, Purloo, and other lowcountry goodies.

After Charleston, we head up the coast on Route 17, through the town of Georgetown, through Myrtle Beach, and eventually to Calabash where we're having lunch. Calabash is a big gastro-tourist destination, most notably for their fresh, fried shrimp, oysters, and other seafood. This is hushpuppy country. "Calabash-style" seafood is a big draw at the Fish Camp restaurants scattered throughout North Carolina, but here we're going to the source. I can't wait!

Next, we're off to:

3. Wilmington/Carolina Beach

Okay, the real reason we're here isn't the food. But it is about food. Actually, it's about plants that eat insects. We're headed to Carolina Beach State Park to see carnivorous plants in the wild. These plants include Venus Flytraps and Trumpet Pitcher Plants, which we've never viewed in the wild before (although we own and grow several species ourselves). Again, it's all about going to the source, and the last remaining native habitat for Dionaea muscipula is within 150 miles of Wilmington.

As well as being plant geeks for a day, we're going to enjoy the beach and swim in the ocean, which is something we can't do here in SF (too cold). I hope no one laughs at my he-breasts, aka man-maries; they're quite embarrassing.

There is a barbecue joint near where we're staying, but we may opt for seafood. We're leaving it up in the air at this point. Besides, we're going to be in hog heaven the very next day as we make our way from the Wilmington area up to Goldsboro for Eastern-style barbecue at Wilbur's. Wilbur's Barbecue is legendary for their "cue" and it would be a shame to be in this part of NC and not stop to enjoy one of the finest representatives of Eastern-style NC barbecue, which is known for it's spicy-tangy vinegar and hot pepper sauce.

It will be a real East Meets West challenge that day as we travel through the state, bypassing all major towns and cities in order to make our way to the capital of Western-style NC barbecue:

4. Lexington

There we will eat dinner at the famous Lexington Barbecue #1. Lexington is a real barbecue lovers town, so long as you prefer barbecue in the Lexington style – whole hog slowly roasted and smoked over wood, chopped and served with a ketchup-based barbecue sauce.

And yes, we are traveling here all the way from California just to eat Carolina barbecue. All else is secondary. We'll probably eat barbecue for breakfast, hit the road, and scoot on up to Winston-Salem to check out the old Moravian settlement and that cool-ass Shell station and then eat lunch at Bell and Sons Cafeteria, which supposedly serves the best fried chicken, beef stew, and banana pudding.

From here it's kind of up in the air whether we'll go through Mt. Airy (and check out Snappy Lunch), but we'll probably wind up somewhere in Virginia around Galax (one of the stops along the Crooked Road) before we head to where we're staying for the night:

5. Shatley Springs

Here, we'll be deep into the Appalachians and surrounded by the Mountain South culture. Besides the dirt-cheap accommodations and cool surroundings, we'll be enjoying the fantastic food at Shatley Springs Inn. We're talking country ham, biscuits and gravy, and a wide array of Southern home cooking. I think we're going to try and make the live bluegrass show up in Galax on Friday night and then check out the farmers' market in West Jefferson on Saturday morning. Expect ramps sightings!

For the next two days we'll be seeing my family down in:

6. Morganton

And I have these days marked on my calendar as two big black squares. Seriously though, I'll be glad to see my cousins and aunts/uncles and, oh yeah, my Mom and Dad. On Mother's Day I'll be in Hickory laying flowers on my grandmother's grave, and then probably eating barbecue somewhere later that night.

After the family stuff, we're headed up to

7. Asheville

Which is where I grew up.

Asheville's an anomaly in the South in that, being primarily a resort town for wealthy non-Southerners, academic transplants, and New Age hippy anglo detritis, it doesn’t have a regional cuisine in the way that Charleston, Calabash, Lexington, or even East Tennessee does. Sure, it sits in the mountains and is an urban Appalachian town, but it's never been known for it's Appalachian or Southern cuisine.

I grew up eating food from China Buffet, Pizza Hut, Wendys, Western Sizzlin' steakhouse, Long John Silver's and TGIF-type establishments. Ashevillains prefer chains, like the Olive Garden or Joe's Crab Shack, and thankfully for them these places have a smoking section because this is the fucking Tobacco State after all. Bucking North Carolina tradition, beef is favored over pork (I know: shocking; worse than being vegetarian). Those who don't prefer chains prefer what they ate before they moved from San Francisco or Raleigh or some other Vortex town: Burritos, "Irish pub" food, vegetarian con-Fusion, sushi, Thai, Vietnamese, and duck confit – all at San Francisco prices (there's even a restaurant called "Bouchon" – lame).

And yet, for a town busy boasting how "with it we are, Man", it is incredibly insular and small-towny, as evidenced by the membership requirements necessary to enter many of the nightclubs and bars. No one boasts of having the oldest restaurant, like a Tadich Grill or Fior d'Italia would, because A) they probably don't see that as a positive attribute, B) no one knows or cares, and C) there probably isn't one older than 50 years, despite the town being over 200 years old.

Like most of the South, many of the bars and restaurants are closed on the "Lord's Day" and a just a county or two over it's completely dry. Buying booze means succumbing to the hours of operation of the state-run liquor stores, instead of just moseying on in to Safeway whenever you feel like. And drug testing for jobs that don't require working with kids or operating heavy machinery is common (by the way, drug testing doesn't weed out the alcoholics.) Until the Supreme Court struck it down recently, certain kinds of sex between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own home was illegal in North Carolina (including such liberal bastions as Asheville and the Research Triangle) and those caught doing so were punished as first class felons. North Carolina was also dragged kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages by the Supreme Court when the high court ruled miscegenation laws were unconstitutional in 1967.

Only in the South can you have a population that professes to despise government interference but who live, breathe, and beg for it at every hour of every day.

And only in easy-breezey Asheville can you have such contradictions as being a liberal Red State town in the middle of the foodie South but without a regional cuisine to call your own. Land of The Contradictions: I once knew a melungeon who was a White Power skinhead. His girlfriend was Jewish.

Anyway, foodwise we're winging it here (no, not Buffalo Wings, although I'm sure at least one Asheville restaurant boasts of having the best). We aren't going to Asheville to eat. We're going there because it's a beautiful area and there are lots of things to see and do. Yeah, we'll do the Biltmore House (on whose land I was caught trespassing once) and we'll drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. The downtown is very walkable and they do have a few good antiques stores.

After Asheville, we're back to:

8. Atlanta

For half a day. There are a few bookstores we've been meaning to check out and I'd like to find a good lunch counter/pharmacy soda fountain before we leave.

We leave ATL at 7AM and are back at SFO at 9:30 AM.

At that point, I'm heading straight towards the first Chez Panisse glass of tap water, loaf of good bread, cup of dark coffee, plate of chow fun, or glass of unsweetened ice tea I see!


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Delta Blues, Part 2

I frickin' love the California Delta!

It reminds me of Florida and the laid back culture you often find there. Of course, like Florida, there are all kinds of subcultures at play in California. The Delta culture in California is also down-to-earth, slow, laid back, outdoorsy and just a little bit countrified and loose. Could you call it somewhat redneck?

Well, yeah.

Left: Not Redneck, Right: Oh. Hell. Yeah!

That's probably unfair to some since "redneck" has all sorts of negative connotations, like being as worthless as a broke dick dog. Sure, some folks in the delta are straight-up redneck from the bottoms of their soles to the back of their necks, and that's apparent from some of the floating trailerparks you see ever so often. However, many Delta denizens are neither redneck nor poor.

Take for instance Conrad Hilton, whose home we dropped anchor outside of and relaxed for a couple of hours a few weeks back. Surely this is one of his many homes – this one in particular is where he has a great spectacular bash every 4th of July which draws many a mullethead and coldneck from the 1,000 miles of waterways that make up the delta region.

Avoid Arrest

Or take for instance this guy. Your average Joe Schmoe couldn't afford a bitchin' boat like this – with the snazzy name on the back – working behind a register at the local Stop and Rob.

Sugar Daddies don't grow on trees, you know.

A Pussy Wagon on Water

Bruce's brother doesn't do bad neither. He also owns a boat, which he lives on. It's nice knowing someone who lives on a boat docked somewhere in the Delta. You can go fishing, swimming, or get really drunk and puke your brains out in the water. The best part of all three: minimal clean up.

Speaking of fishing, the Delta is a great place to cast a line if you're an angler. Right now, there are plenty of people fishing for Striper (no, not them). Striper, or striped bass, can be caught year round but the best time to fish is in the spring. You can fish for striper in the bay as well, although any striper over 35 inches shouldn't be eaten unless you want to seriously raise your mercury levels to life threatening levels. Striper and sturgeon are both great local fish to catch and eat, but you should only do so twice a month, or once a month for pregnant women and children (see Delta Advisory Sign).

The day we were in the Delta, we weren't there to fish, which meant no freshly-caught seafood for dinner. Instead, we ventured out in a smaller, single-engine boat to check out a couple of local dives. Boats, large and small, seem to be the preferred method of travel in these parts, and no matter where you go there's a boat hitch convenient to shopping and dining. People around here really live on the water.

The first place we checked out was Happy Harbor, which boasts of having the "best damn pizza in the West". Umm, yeah.

Pick Up Dog Poo

Something tells me that's probably an exageration, even for the Delta. Perhaps it could be that, besides a dirty dog and an even dirtier old drunk, the only other person in the restaurant was the waitress/bartender. Nothing on the menu (hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza) looked particularly good or interesting here (trust me – I'm not picky) so we left.

Since that was a bust, we hopped back on the boat and sped over the choppy delta waters to our next destination. It wasn't the most luxurious ride, especially when you have wind and water pummelling you and you're trying to hold on for dear life. However, it is the quickest way to get around and, sure, it's a little fun.

Our next stop was Moore's Riverboat. Moore's is a pretty large restaurant with both inside/outside (covered) seating and a bar. I'm sure the bar is a great place to do shots after a long day out on the water, and it seemed to have a regular crowd of Delta characters. If I still drank and lived close by, I'd probably hang out at Moore's on occasion (although, being an alcoholic, I'm not sure that's a good thing).

The restaurant had pretensions at being something fancier, but its delta charm (coasters propping up crooked tables) blew that right out of the water. That, and the dead bugs on the wind/spray shield which lines the perimeter of the deck. The bathrooms were clean, which made up for the sticky tabletops.

Our waitress was a cute little teenage girl who, bless her heart, just couldn't get anything right...but that's okay! I'm chillaxin' on the delta, so it's all good.

The one thing that was disappointing overall was the lack of fresh, local seafood both at Happy Harbor and Moore's. The fish and chips at Moore's is heavily breaded (and probably not fresh), while the Dungeness crab and shrimp in my crepe were unrecognizable after being drowned in an ocean of something close to a bechamel sauce. Plus, I've eaten plenty of frozen vegetables in my day, but this green stuff on my plate was just wrong.

Left: Crab and Shrimp Crepe, Right: Chicken "Cordonne Bleu" with Lasagne(?)

Considering the price of the entrees (most over $14), you should tie up your boat, jump in your car, and drive over to Al the Wops for a steak sandwich. After eating in so many city dives (and nicer restaurants), I can tell every single one of you out there reading this now that you CAN serve better food at these prices and still have a viable business. Besides, you know places like this make a killing on alcohol sales...skimping on the food is lame.

But whatever. The delta isn't a foodie destination (that I know of), but the fishing is great and if you know the right people, like the Hiltons, you can probably scrounge up a great meal.

I still love it though.

Definitely some of California's Gold (thank God I haven't run into Huell!)


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Slow Down Ahead


Like I just explained over at my other blog, things are getting hectic, busy, crazy, and just a little downright scary for my schedule lately. I'll post as much as I can, but it will likely slow down until I'm back from vacation in mid-May.

I'm working like hell to accomodate your reading pleasures, but I've got other stuff to do - stuff that pays the rent, stuff that doesn't require a keyboard, and stuff that makes people happy in other ways.

I'm scrambling to get "stuff" done all through April and then I take off the first weekend in May to the South. I'll try to check in while I'm on the road, but our Southern-Fried B-B-Q Road Trip is going to be a whirlwind tour of 4 (FOUR!) states.


Anyway, keep it locked for the next 2 months and I'll post when I can.



Thursday, April 05, 2007


Good news.

I got the zit to pop.

Let's talk food, shall we?

You know how, for a period, I was getting all Southern and countrified on your candy ass? Yeah, I guess we all get a little nostalgic for the place(s) we grew up every now and then. Trust me - I never thought I'd look back fondly on the place I left. I left for a reason...I hated it.

Okay, maybe hate isn't the right word. Basically, to use an analogy, I'm a tree. I'm a tree that was planted in a small pot, like a bonzai. I had to uproot myself and move to a bigger pot, and then actually to a wide-open field, in order to grow to my full size and be a happy tree. You know, like in a Bob Ross painting.

Some trees don't mind the small pots. In fact, some do better in confined conditions than they would out in the open. From the perspective of this tree, those smaller pots have a certain charm about them – but from the inside, it sure didn't seem that way.

BTW, I am a master at analogies.

Even though I grew up in the Mountain South, I never knew or appreciated the joys of ramps – aka wild leeks. However, I do have faded memories of pulling up wild onions from a field and eating them on the spot. If what I ate were ramps, I'll likely never know - since these are early memories of mine, memories that inhabit the same corner of my brain as knocking down sugarcane with my pal Douglas.

I'll be in the South next month, but unfortunately (due to my schedule) I'll be missing the ramp festivals that happen every Spring throughout Appalachia. But guess what?

We have ramps in Northern California!

Yeah, they grow wild. I found them for sale at Far West Fungi last Saturday. I think I surprised the manager, Ian Garrone, when I enquired about purchasing some. He must have been concerned with how quickly they'd move. According to him, the ramps are foraged in the wild around Arcata and Mendocino County. He also said they just started carrying them and that they should last for a couple of months.

Far West Fungi is one of my favorite places to shop in the Ferry Building. In my opinion, most of the shops in the Ferry Building are a bit pricey and unnecessary. However, there are several places I patronize that, while not cheap, are reasonably priced and well worth a visit by people who cook - namely, Prather Meat Co., Far West Fungi, Acme Bread, and sometimes Cowgirl Creamery. Oh, yeah – and the free chocolate samples at Recchiuti are always on my route.

Right now, ramps at Far West Fungi are priced at $20 per pound (I know, probably only worth it to you die-hard hillbilly transplants like me). However, as the season progresses, the price will fall to an average of $16 per pound – maybe less. Half a pound of ramps are enough for 2 people, especially if you serve them with eggs, fry them with bacon, and/or serve them with a side of pinto beans.

Ramps are a member of the onion family and they, as anyone who's ever eaten one or been around someone who has, are quite strong in flavor and aroma. If you love both garlic and onions, ramps are the perfect vegetable for you. The whole thing is edible, although the roots are usually discarded. They are usually dug up with a special instrument known as a "ramp hoe" who, when not harvesting ramps, is usually found in truck stop parking lots turning tricks.

Ramps are commonly fried in bacon grease and served with corn bread. They're also eaten with eggs. Ramps, cornbread, pinto beans, cured pork – this is traditional, American peasant food specific to the Appalachian Mountain region. This is the cuisine of my forbearers, which sadly is lost and unheard of to many members of my generation. My cousins, like myself, grew up with McDonalds, Hardees, and Burger King. We, like our parents, often eschewed cornbread and pinto beans for Sweet and Sour Pork, chimichangas, and stuffed-crust pizza – or the dominant pseudo-multiculture of American cuisine.

That is why, tonight, I'm cooking up these ramps with a vengeance. Indeed, the South shall rise again – only this time we prefer it does so covered with a sheen of bacon fat, and without exploiting and dividing poor whites and people of color for cheap labor...duh!

To prepare the ramps, wash under water very well. The leaves of the ramps often hide little grains of sand and dirt within them, so right when you think you've got them clean, wash once more. Afterwards, cut off the root ends. Next, cut the white parts of the ramps from the leafy green parts and then cut those into 2" pieces. Reserve to a glass or metal bowl.

Once those are prepared, fry up some bacon in a cast-iron skillet set on medium heat. It could be turkey bacon if you keep Kosher, Halal, or just don't like pork, but if you're vegetarian I suggest skipping this step altogether. I'm cooking up Wellshire Farms bacon bought from Whole Foods. This is a weird brand; their linguica is odd and overly smokey while their bacon has this black edge on it. Fortunately the bacon tastes good, but it's hard to tell when it's done or when it's just burnt.

Anyway, when the bacon is crisp, reserve to a paper towel lined plate. Once cool, cut the bacon into 2" strips and set aside.

Using the rendered bacon fat in the skillet, fry the white parts of the ramps. If you're vegetarian, you can substitute olive oil for the bacon fat. Once the ramps have softened up, toss them onto the leafy greens and then raise the heat to medium-high.

When the oil starts to smoke, remove from heat and spoon little by little onto the ramps to slightly wilt the leaves. In the other areas of the Appalachians – like the eastern part of Kentucky - they use lettuce in this recipe and call it Killed (or Kill't) Lettuce.

Using a pair of tongs, mix thoroughly and then season with a little salt and pepper. Mix in the bacon strips and then serve onto plates.

What an easy and quick dish to prepare! Once you get a taste of these, you'll see why they have such a strong following. It's surprising how flavorful and assertive this springtime vegetable can be. And it certainly has the ability to overshadow traditional, mild spring vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, celery, and fennel.

Perhaps the best part is you won't have to tell your friends and family that you just had big ol' plate of fried ramps.

They'll smell you coming.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Feeling Blah Today

I'm feeling a little under the weather today.

I don't know if it's because I'm really sick or it has to do with the bridge demolition happening next to where I live. After 70 odd years, part of the Bay Bridge is being torn down to make way for a more seismically safe structure. In one respect, it's interesting - in that history-in-the-making sort of way. In another, it's a major pain.

Who knows what toxic crap I'm breathing in day after day? Not only is this bridge demolition likely hazardous to my physical health, my mental health has been getting quite a work out. Pounding day in and day out has kept me in a constant state of agitation and the only thing that's helped has been staying away.

Oh yeah, and I've got this huge zit on my face that's deep under the skin. If it doesn't go away soon, I'll have to take off work, go to the doctor (and deal with his incompetent staff) and pay the visiting fee, only so I can go see a dermatologist, pay another visiting fee, and then who knows.

I'm crossing my fingers, washing my face, and moisturizing like hell.

In the meantime, I'm catching up on my reading.

Have you heard about the US Department of Agribusiness's new regulations regarding organic standards as it applies to small farmers in developing countries? Salon has a great article on it, basically saying the new regulations favor large plantations (gee, Republican-controlled USDA - go figure) and may discourage smaller growers from becoming certified organic. Basically I agree with the folks who say that the labeling is part of the problem and that cash-strapped coffee or banana growers should consider alternate labeling/marketing methods.

I buy my green coffee beans, which I roast at home, from Sweet Maria's - who has their own oversight process in determining who they buy coffee from. I still prefer to purchase organic when I can, but I understand that many farmers walk the organic walk, but can't afford to talk the talk.

One of the comments on the article led me to a great site about the USDA's mandatory ID tagging of all livestock and farm animals. Did you know about this?

Apparently, to satisfy the importers of American beef after Mad Cow was first detected, the USDA (working in concert with Big Meat...I just like to say that) now requires that all ranchers, homesteaders, and basically anyone who raises animals for food or as pets (just large animals like horses) must tag their animals with a radio-chip that can trace the farm of origin. The website, NoNAIS.org, is written by one of the farmers most affected by this new regulation and provides several examples of how the National Animal ID Program fails to safeguard food from contamination, does nothing to prevent Mad Cow Disease, and works to protect the profit of, ahem, Big Meat, while unfairly burdening the small farmer/rancher with needless costs and bureaucratic red tape.

There are bigger questions, however, to consider - which is the widespread dependence on "spychip" technology to solve common problems or for financial gain. One of the great things about our country is that the right to privacy against governmental intrusion is written into the Constitution (although it's not absolute). So is the right to be happy.

I've always liked that idea: that we have the right to be happy. And part of being happy is that the Man has no right to stick his nose into our affairs whenever it suits him.

Those rights we are born with, or gained through immigration and citizenship, are constantly being attacked by the powerful and greedy - or those who wish to be - in this country. It is our duty to protect our nation's physical health when it comes to food and water, but it is also our responsibility to protect our mental health and stand up against those who seek to subjugate us to further their personal ambitions.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Beautiful Atrocity

The sun is setting on Dago Mary's.

This old-school Italian restaurant sitting on the lonely edge of the Hunters Point Shipyard is at ground zero for one of the largest redevelopment projects in San Francisco apart from the UCSF campus at China Basin. Unless the restaurant, working in tandem with the developers, can find a way to incorporate itself into the overall scheme, single-family townhomes will stand where this historic landmark does now. And going in just down the street, the new 49ers stadium...maybe. That still remains a pipe dream for the city's establishment.

The land on which Dago Mary's sits has been owned by the Lennar corporation for over two years now, yet only recently has there been serious talk regarding Dago Mary's impending demise. However, things haven't been going so great for Lennar as the redevelopment of the Hunters Point shipyard appears to be one big, nasty boodoggle for any and everyone involved – except Dago Mary's. Much of the drama can be summed up in two words:

Superfund Site.

The problems associated with the redevelopment project are numerous. Compounded with the standard NIMBYism and opportunism disguised as "community oversight" – a trait which the citizens of the Bay Area have mastered - the site sits partially on and next to a brownfield contaminated with many decades of toxic materials; neither the current owner nor previous one willing to take full responsibility for it. The conversation follows:

"Are you going to clean it up?"
"No, I thought you were."
"I'm not going to clean it up."
"You made the mess."
"It's not my mess now. It's your mess."
"Well, how am I suppose to clean it up?"
"Got me."
"Well, what do you suggest I do?"
"For all I care, you could build a football stadium on it. Caveat emptor, homeboy. Caveat fucking emptor."

Until recently I'd never heard of Dago Mary's. I find this odd considering not too many restaurants are left which use ethnic slurs in their business name. I thought Al The Wop's in Locke was the only one left in California (other than the sole-survivor of the Sambo's chain in Santa Barbara). One would think everyone in San Francisco knew of Dago Mary's, but apparently it remains well under the radar of your average Yelpster – a creature too timid to venture beyond 3rd and Cesar Chavez, but whom feels qualified to be the 240th reviewer of an average sausage counter in the Lower Haight.

Dago Mary's began as Mary's Venetian Villa and was quite the swanky place in its day. The decade was the 1930s and "Mary" was Mary Ghiorzo. According to the current owner of Dago Mary's, Joe Ursino, the term "dago" in reference to Mary was one of fondness, rather than disrespect – which, as anyone who knows anything about American history can tell you, not only is likely but one of the peculiarities of multicultural America.

Mary was a grande dame and savvy restauranteur, and at the time everybody who was anybody was seen at Mary's. Politicians courted her and were courted by her. Diners would taxi out from the downtown for seven-course dinners that cost less than their cab ride ($1.35). Floor shows were common as bands serenaded the evening crowd. In essence, Mary was the American version of Louisa Trotter – only she was real.

That's Mary, in the center.

Mary gave the people of San Francisco everything they could ask for in a great place to eat, dance, drink, and hob-nob, and when the opportunity to spruce up the restaurant presented itself in the form of a Peninsula estate auction, she jumped on it. It just so happens that the fixtures she bought in that auction, fixtures which remain in the restaurant to this day, are just a few of what's left of the grand Linden Towers mansion, formerly in what is now Menlo Park.

Linden Towers was a mansion built by James C. Flood, dubbed one of the "Bonanza Kings" and who made millions off of the stock market during the height of the Gold Rush. No expenses were spared as Flood poured money into his white Victorian-era castle. As often is the case with New Money, tacky, gaudy, and overkill are always the new black. Flood's mansion was derided by his neighbors as a "beautiful atrocity", although that didn't prevent the Flood family from raising two generations of children there. Unfortunately for James, he died less than 12 years after Linden Towers was built.


Linden Towers

After awhile, the mansion fell into the hands of the James L. Flood, upon whose death in 1924 it stood empty and in 1936 its contents put up for public auction. Among the buyers was a feisty little woman from Hunters Point who smelled strangely of fennel sausage and marinara sauce, and who - I imagine - had a mouth on her that could make a sailor blush.

Mary embellished her establishment with many of the fixtures from the old Flood mansion (note: not the Flood Mansion on Nob Hill.) These fixtures include a carved marble mantle-piece and exquisite hand-carved wood panels which frame the wetbar, doors, entryways, and windows.

The dining room space is large and open, and suprisingly not too shabby. Despite the location and the unkempt exterior of the restaurant, the table settings and other small details (like the calla lillies) look as if someone has made an effort to make this a comfortable dining experience.

Perhaps that someone is the guy who waited on our table the night Bruce and I were there. This guy, whom we found out later is the cousin of the owner, began by saying that there was no menu per se, but that the menu was a "verbal" one. He then began to list off some of the dishes he could make for us, something like a sausage and pepper dish with pasta, or if we wanted he could whip us up something with poached salmon.

Now, come on: who wouldn't find that just a little bit charming – or at least funny? It was like having a personal chef; "by the way, while you're at it, could you throw in a few mushrooms and maybe some parsley?"

Better yet, this is exactly the same personal, makes-you-feel-at-home, service I'm sure Mary was famous for. It's nice that some things haven't changed.

However, some things have. Price for one thing – a plate of pasta and sausages was $15.50. That's quite a leap from the 1930s, but considering how much food there was, its hard to complain.

Not only was there a generous portion – perhaps too generous for your average person – but the food was exactly what you'd want in a comforting plate of pasta: freshly cooked rigatoni swimming in a thick ragu of sliced bell peppers, chunky tomato sauce, and large hunks of Italian sausage. The parmesan cheese sprinkled on topped wasn't really necessary; it was obviously that pre-shredded stuff. But I don't know...that probably adds to the home-cooked experience for some of y'all.

While Bruce drank ice tea, I had a glass of tap water...since it's free. Dago Mary's has always served customers water from the tap, which puts them lightyears ahead of Chez Panisse.

Besides a young Latino couple sitting behind us, Bruce and I were the only ones dining. It felt a little strange, sitting there in this virtually empty, old place surrounded by history (perhaps, about to be history), looking out through the window across the bay to the Port of Oakland – just underneath the restaurant land scraped and graded for new construction. Old baseball team photos of the San Francisco Seals hung on the wall by the restrooms; many of them brandishing the hurried scribbles of men who have long since passed away.

I asked our server if it was true that they were closing at the end of April. He gives me that facial expression – you know, the "what, me worry?" look – and then attempts to blow off the question. "Everything is still up in the air", he says.

"But we're not going down without a fight."

Somehow, I don't think Mary would either.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Who I Am: Revealed!

By the time I've posted this many of you will have already learned of my secret. It's been all the rage on those Hollywood gossip blogs and I think it's time for me to come clean.

You see, the truth is, all these years I've been hiding my identity out of fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of approval. Fear of reprisal. And just plain fear of the unknown.

My life is driven by the machine of industry. The industry of stardom. An industry that negates the soul and packages human beings as mere skin flash.

But there comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

That is why today, my friends - my loyal Bacon Press readers - I must reveal who I am.

I am....

Kevin Bacon.

Whew! That feels so good!

That's all for now, but I'll keep you posted on how this madness all sorts itself out.

Until then, yours truly...