Category Archives: Food

Istanbul: keep moving, slowly

While planning this trip, I didn’t notice that its east-west span covered almost the same territory as the former Ottoman Empire. I didn’t notice because I didn’t know. In school, we didn’t learn much about it—some ancient realm, it seemed. But the Ottoman Empire officially dissolved only about a hundred years ago.

Once you’re in this part of the world, you can feel, you can understand. There’s the presence of Islam, of course, the food, the languages, museums, and ruins, but there’s also an absence, a sense of where you’re not: this is someplace else.

But where? A gap remains. We didn’t go to Turkey proper. We spent four days in Istanbul, and none at all in the rest of the vast country, which is bigger than Texas. I imagine that is like going to New York City and nowhere else in America, or Venice/Italy—something like that. I saw the heart and the limbs of the old empire, but not what connects them. And barely the heart. You have not seen New York City after spending four days in it, and Istanbul is bigger than New York. We saw but a sliver.

Continue reading Istanbul: keep moving, slowly

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Isi Brisi, Tbilisi, or, Thanks seems to be the hardest word

First things first: I’ve run into all kinds of time-consuming headaches trying to upload my photos on the blog. Also, Heather’s pictures are far better than mine, and she takes far more of them than I do, so if you’d like to see as well as read about what we’re seeing, check out her Instagram feed.

If, as Ortega y Gasset wrote, “a translation is not the work itself, but a path towards the work,” then the transliteration of the Armenian for “thank you” is not the word itself, only a path toward the word, which is usually rendered shnorhakalutyun. You can use phonetics to sound that out, and after a handful of tries get close enough that an Armenian will correctly understand you rather than reply gesundheit, but you won’t quite have said thank you. That may be partly because the Armenian alphabet contains thirty-nine characters. There are a lot more sounds they can make with their mouths than we can with ours, and a handful of them seem to be required in saying shnorhakalutyun, because when we say it, we don’t sound like them when they say it.

We told our driver of our labors to say “thank you” in Armenian, and he was quick to reply: “It’s hard for us, too!” In fact, it’s so hard that Armenians will frequently say “merci” instead. Meanwhile, everybody twists their tongues around the native word, natives included.

I’ve often gone around thinking English is a difficult language: vexing inconsistencies in the grammatical rules; usage funhouses like there/their/they’re and its/it’s (which are actually really easy); silent e’s and all those other trickster letters and clusters of letters whose pronunciations are often only guessable from without; and by conventional measures the largest vocabulary among all languages—an abundance and variety that make English a wonderful language for writers, of course, but I wouldn’t want to try to learn it.

Except that it must not be that hard to learn, at least not the basics; otherwise, it wouldn’t be the international language. (I have no educated objection to the argument that it’s actually the international language of capital, not convenience, and that its spread owes to colonization, homogenization, etc.; but it would weary me to sit through this argument expounded on at length, as it will likely weary you to read all 4,000+ words of this post.) During our travels, Heather and I were told—by someone, I no longer remember whom; or maybe it was my Korean hiking pal, Lee—that English is actually comparatively easy. Nouns and verbs, we were reminded, are stable, and if you have the ones you need in your corral, you can pretty much get across what you mean in at least some rudimentary way. And for all that some elements of English can be slippery, it doesn’t generally, for example, change a word depending on its context or on who’s saying it, as other languages do; nor do we cram words and senses together to make more, really big words like shnorhakalutyun, thankyouverymuch. Despite its big vocabulary, English tends toward simplification. “They are” shrinks to “they’re,” that sort of thing.

Which takes me back to “thank you,” or even just “thanks.” Continue reading Isi Brisi, Tbilisi, or, Thanks seems to be the hardest word

Northern Greece: what you don’t know can hurt you

Paxos

We were in Ioannina, in northwestern Greece. This was after four nights on Paxos, one of those Greek islands you see in photos that make you roll your eyes: surely nowhere is that beautiful, and if anywhere is, surely no one you know has been there. But Paxos is, and you do.

James Salter is reported to have said that “one of the functions of a writer is to create envy in the reader—envy of the life that the writer is living.” I happen not to agree with that at all, although I do see where he’s coming from at the level of descriptive prose: it should give the reader the feeling of a vicariousness so voluptuous that the reader experiences that delicious expansion of awareness, familiar to anyone who has been captivated by a book, of being here, reading, while also there, where the book is unfolding. Perhaps the reader’s envy, in Salter’s sense, lies in the space perceived between these two worlds, one real and one conjured.

Continue reading Northern Greece: what you don’t know can hurt you

Georgia, or George

Heather and I were observing that we have reached a point in life when we no longer try not to act like tourists. We cheerfully announce it when the circumstances call for disclosure: “Tourist!” It used to be that I’d try to fit in, or simply not to be noticed. Whether this was because I thought it was “cooler” to seem like a “local” or because I was afraid of being ripped off or of missing out on “authentic” experience, or because I just didn’t want to be bothered by touts, I can’t quite say. Probably some of all of the above.

I don’t find any trouble in fending off most touts anymore—they tend to be even more obviously touts than I am a tourist; I can’t keep up with what’s cool and don’t have the energy to try to fake it; I have no illusions about being taken for a local (not even with my fit-in-anywhere complexion); and authentic experience is whatever experience you have, as long as you’re having it with all your senses engaged, whether it’s riding on the funicular in Baku, which is a sort of souvenir-in-motion, or riding a bus that breaks down in 105-degree heat on the road into the Azerbaijani hinterlands two days later.

For the last two days, Heather and I have been in K(Q)azbegi, Georgia, taking hikes of various distances up into the heights that reach toward the eponymous 17,000-foot mountain. We’ve seen hundreds, possibly actual thousands, of other hikers on the trails. Kazbegi might be the most touristy place in Georgia. But that doesn’t detract one bit from the authenticity of the beauty of the mountain, which is rising up spectacularly outside our hotel window as I write this, the Mount Rainier of the Caucasus (I just made that up, don’t Google it) and showing yet another of its personalities in this post-rain, half-clearing, cloud-wisped, late-afternoon light.

Equally authentic is the rashly overbuilt and rather cantankerous, grubby, oddly inhospitable town of Kazbegi, which has found a way to smash one identity into another and find a third; authentic, too, the strange swamp-gassy smell one gets occasional whiffs of, coming from somewhere down on the hotel’s lawn; and, to get us here from Tbilisi, the fraught minibus ride—actually two-minibus ride, because the first minibus broke down and had to be replaced by another (an hourlong roadside delay, our second in our last three bus rides). Authentic tourism is whatever you fully observe and sense. Like George.

Continue reading Georgia, or George

Albania 2: Shkodër to Theth

IMG_1514
Marubi’s camera.

Shkodër, or Shkodra—the rendering of Albanian nouns can evidently change with usage in ways I haven’t figured out. In fact, I find the language hard to get a grip on, and so far I’m still pretty proud of just being able to count to ten. Albanian is a language isolate, like Basque and Korean. Its grammar, rules, and even pronunciation are resistant to quick study. There seems to be a different way to say a pronoun in every kind of sentence in which it’s used.

Shkodër is a pleasant city in northwestern Albania and has clearly been on a development kick over the last few years. There’s a handsome central piazza and newly pedestrianized main avenue, lots of young restaurants, and a new museum (about which more soon). I spent two nights there, and on the last of them I chatted briefly with a couple of Americans, one of whom lives in Shkodër and the other, his friend, visiting him for the first time in four years. He told me that Shkodër’s growth and general act-cleaning-up was very apparent since his last visit. “People have more disposable income,” he said.

Continue reading Albania 2: Shkodër to Theth

An Open Letter to Scott Harmon

(Reprinted from the ABCDurham downtown listserv, in response to developer Scott Harmon’s “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” posted to the listserv on March 13, 2019.)

Dear Scott Harmon,

We don’t know each other, but we have at least four things in common: we both work in downtown Durham; we both care very much about the future, character, and quality of our city’s rapid growth; we both consider ourselves white progressives; and we’re both proponents of residential density in city centers. I admire Center Studio Architecture’s redevelopment of the 500 block of North Mangum Street, a previously characterless thoroughfare stretch that has not only gained housing but also aesthetic presence from your firm’s three condominium buildings: Mangum 506, Mangum Flats, and now Eleven Durham, the latter currently in its early phase of construction.

Your “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” (which I’ve copied below for those who haven’t read it or need refreshment) got and kept my attention ever since you posted it to the listserv a few weeks ago. No doubt that’s partly because I hear your voice, so to speak, every day. Before I continue, let me make an important disclosure, as you did in acknowledging (via Dawn Bland’s preface to your letter) that you are “a developer and architect in downtown Durham [who] has a vested interest.” I have a vested interest, too. In addition to working in downtown Durham, I also own and live in a house here too. It’s nearly adjacent to the Eleven Durham site; my bedroom is just a few dozen feet away from it. (There’s a fifth thing we have in common, or very nearly so: a property line.) The persistent beep-beep-beep of backhoes going backward, beginning daily at about 7:30 a.m., is a de facto alarm clock that gets me prematurely out of bed: I work nights and no longer get sufficient sleep on weekdays. It also, in a chorus with the downtown-wide beeping of heavy machinery and cherry pickers, heard like a soundtrack motif throughout the day, keeps me awake and alert to (not to say alarmed by) the full-throttle development I witness at street-level, with close observation, nearly every day: Eleven Durham’s daylong construction clangor and thunder often render my house uninhabitable for hours at a time, so I have to get out, and that takes me around and about downtown on foot.

Perhaps there is some world where people whose lives are upheaved and degraded by a construction project which deprives them of sleep and the basic comforts and tranquility of home are compensated in some way or another, or at least cautioned in advance of the project in case they should like to seek counteractive or protective measures. But I know full well that that world is not this one. The business of America is business, as the saying goes: hence it’s up to business to determine the activity, direction, and character of the country, or at least any given business’s part of the country. “Market forces,” as the euphemism puts it, answer our essential civic questions, either intentionally or incidentally: What is downtown Durham going to look like? What kind of place will it be to live and walk and work and experience, from any vantage point: that of the homeowner-resident or the tourist; the developer or the bartender; ground level or the parking deck roof; white or black?

You have, in other words, a heavy responsibility, and I genuinely appreciate the seriousness with which your open letter takes it. I suspect we agree that any city ought to strive to look, feel, and do good from whatever position and identity each of us occupies. In addressing you here, I’m trying to balance my public enthusiasm for seeing residential density increase with the personal inconvenience and stress I experience at Eleven Durham’s hands; and I’m also trying to reconcile my desire to see Durham keep thriving with my concerns about the nature of that thriving.

Continue reading An Open Letter to Scott Harmon

Headhunter Carignane 2012

IMG_0359I think the delight is in finding something no one seems to have found. It’s so hard to do that anymore, whether you’re trying to or not. One of the constant disappointments of the new world we live in, online and off, is how little unexplored territory remains. This isn’t just the romance of being the first one down the unknown river, although there is that. It’s wanting some privacy, places and things that aren’t poked and prodded until they’ve lost their shape, nor beset by noise. I’m writing a biography of a musician who has just published her own memoirs. It’s an enjoyable project and I’m seeing and saying things that I don’t think have been said about or by her, but part of me just wants to leave her alone. Facticity is our abiding condition, or factitiousness. I’m not sure.

On Friday, we were on our way up to Virginia to visit my wife’s family and stopped to get coffee in Richmond at a pleasant place my wife knows, not far off the interstate. It’s also a little grocery store—the kind, my wife points out, downtown Durham sorely needs—and they sell wine. We wanted to show up at the folks’ place with a bottle or two. Nothing fancy, just wine we could drink with dinner (which turned out to be steak and lobster, yikes). I picked out a wine from southern France whose producer I didn’t recognize. Part of the fun of traveling is that I find wines by importers whose wines don’t find their way to North Carolina, so there are hundreds of bottles I’ve never seen before. In our good but somewhat insular market, I see the same wines over and over again. The Roussillon was $12. I remember nothing else about it.

Then I passed the closeout bin and saw, amid the junky prosecco (prosecco being, in my opinion, pretty much inherently junky), a bottle with a funny-looking label bearing the name “Headhunter.” In our peculiar marketing era, a name like that (and a funny-looking label) can belong to a tiny handmade thing or to a mass-produced, assembly-line product, with equal likelihood, because we’re running out of names as surely as we’re running out of unexplored territory. Hence the spate of horrendous band names in recent years, even (or especially) around here: I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More The Fingers; I’ll stop there. (Actually, I won’t: we had a recent nano-dustup in Durham when a restaurateur announced that his new place would be called “Hattie Mae Called Me Captain.” People objected because Hattie Mae was apparently the black housekeeper or nanny who fed the white restaurateur scrambled-egg-and-jelly sandwiches when he was a tyke, but hardly anyone objected on the grounds that it was a terrible, terrible, unsightly, ungainly name no matter its provenance. He withdrew it, as he should have. Had he just called it Hattie Mae’s, or even Hattie’s, and kept his mouth shut about it, probably no one would have complained. But an ugly, pretentious name like that demanded an explanation, and it was the ugliness and its explanation that got his fingers hammered.)

I looked at the back of the bottle, where the real information is, and discovered that Headhunter was very much a tiny handmade thing. “100% Whole Cluster Old-Vine Carignane from Mendocino,” it says. “65 Cases Produced.” And not much else. Reading that, and “Alc. 13.0% by vol.,” I was sold. All of the above is code for: small-production wine, probably made by young people, using a light hand in the cellar. This description fits what Jon Bonne, the San Francisco wine writer, has called “the New California Wine,” and although there is plenty to quibble with, ideologically speaking, in what that term represents, there is mostly a lot to like and support. The wine, after closeout discounting, was $16. Sold.

You can look up whole-cluster and Carignane if you want to. I can even try to describe the Headhunter, but what could really be stupider than tasting notes? My sister-in-law did not like this wine at all. My sister-in-law doesn’t drink much wine and knows very little about it. When I told her there were 65 cases of Headhunter Carignane 2012, she asked me if that was a lot or a little. If you give the wine (not that you’re likely ever to find it) to someone who doesn’t drink much wine, be prepared for that person to dislike it. It isn’t oaky, or big and blowsy, or usual in any way. I’m not even sure I can say I liked it, although I drank it happily. The wine appeared to be more than merely unfiltered. Instead of a bunch of sediment at the bottom, it had tiny little particles floating all in it, which did not affect its drinkability (and also a lot of sediment at the bottom). It was not “green,” as is often said of “hipster” wine. It was very grapey, sort of foot-stomped and backyardy, in a way that made me want to drink it in a Berkeley backyard at about four in the afternoon. I believed the “old-vine” claim, because there was something about it that struck me as, how do I put this, mature meets immature: young winemakers making an early-career wine out of old fruit.

Well, what could be more pleasurable than turning out to be right? I discovered that Headhunter Carignane 2012, which we drank most of, was the very first vintage produced by a husband and wife team in northern California, and that the reason it was in a Richmond, Virginia wine shop despite having yielded just 65 cases is that the couple comes from Virginia. This made me very happy. I was also happy to discover that their other wine, an Albarino, was produced in a similarly tiny quantity. I was happy to learn that I was drinking the first vintage they ever made, out of the last bottle in a closeout bin in their home state—something far from home and also close to home, and about to vanish. It was the last of its kind, and here I am the first to say something about it. I’m so glad that I get to do this.

I’m looking forward to the next wines these people produce, although I am unlikely ever to see them. I doubt it’s sold in North Carolina. It will never make its way into the wine column I write for a mostly unread magazine in a small enclave of the state. But I’m so happy for the winemakers, and for me. And I find that even though I opened this bottle five days ago and there’s still a little wine left in it (that is too oxidized to drink by now), I can’t abide the idea of getting rid of the bottle. We drove it home from Virginia and it’s sitting on the kitchen counter, like a lucky charm.

Some Thoughts on Durham Co-op Market

In 2011, I interviewed a number of people involved in the efforts to open what was then known as Durham Central Market. The name reflected the organizers’ essential mission: to open a grocery in downtown Durham, which had none. The words “food desert” were often used in these interviews. A few of the board members lived in Old North Durham, so the impetus for the market was appealingly personal as well as public.

The interviews were conducted as part of an article I wrote for the Independent Weekly about the market, which was then in what was described to me as its fourth year of planning and development. The market board had an option to buy a parcel of land at Mangum and Broadway, and a goal to build the market on that land. The estimated cost of the project was $4.2 million.

That seemed like an awful lot of money to raise for a co-op startup, but I was inclined to be optimistic. I really wanted a grocery store I could walk to, and I live just three blocks from the location at Mangum and Broadway. I like co-ops generally, if they’re run well. I was a regular at Wheatsville in Austin when I lived there, and I tried my best to shop at the Durham Co-op (“The People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy”–apparently that was its actual registered name), even in its dying days, when the shelves were mostly empty and the produce largely rancid. A fair portion of the Durham Central Market organizers was composed of refugees from the doomed co-op.

I must say that I found the interviews tough to come away from with optimism. I got many vague answers, sometimes defensive ones, to very specific questions–none of which were especially pointed or doubtful–and evasive responses to my questions about fundraising and budgets. One of the board members (since departed) spoke at length about the “Slow Money” movement and a book on the subject. There was lots of theory, but indeterminate practice.

I was perplexed by the market’s proposed owner/investor system, which seemed–as I believe Ross Grady put it–“passive-aggressive.” It may be the way all co-ops work, but it seemed needlessly complicated, hard to wrap one’s brain around, and it had what struck me as unwieldy mechanisms for investment and return. I got the vague sense that the board was half hoping that Weaver Street Market would open a Durham branch and make all of their efforts unnecessary. Weaver Street was “what we want to be when we grow up,” project manager Don Moffitt told me. I thought, but didn’t ask, “Why don’t you want to be Durham Central Market when you grow up?”

I asked whether it was realistic to expect to raise $4.2 million for a co-op market–Weaver Street had launched on just $300,000-$400,000 in the late 1980s (yes, I know, inflation, economy collapse; but still)–and was told that it was realistic, especially if an angel donor would pony up an originating (and large) chunk of the money. That seemed like pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, but Don Moffitt and the three board members I interviewed sounded confident about someone swooping in and dropping a big check on the project. I asked if the board had looked into existing structures in and around Central Park (which was the specific part of downtown where they wanted to locate the market), rather than building new construction. I was told that they’d looked at every space in the area, and that none of them were suitable. They were also adamant that the location on Mangum, across from what is now Saltbox, was the right one. They’d hired a marketing consultant to evaluate the site and were convinced of its worthiness.

At the time of my interviews with the board and Moffitt, early in 2011, DCM had less than $500,000 in hand. The market was just about to have a fundraising “pep rally.” (The article I wrote was published to coincide with it.) The goal was to raise $1.5 million through an “owner investment campaign.” The timetable for the campaign was only about a month–another unrealistic goal, I thought, as was the projected opening date of August 2012; but, again, I wanted to be optimistic. These people’s hearts were, and are, always in the right place. Re-reading the article I wrote with four years of hindsight, I can practically hear the words coming out through clenched teeth as I try to spin the story positively (which my editor encouraged me to do). I wanted to buy in, despite my misgivings. Self-interest was operating along with my local-business commitments, since I really wanted that market near my house and had already become an owner via a $140 household buy-in.

But I wasn’t surprised that nothing much happened after that. The owner investment campaign didn’t yield much, no angel donor materialized, and the board let the option on the land at Mangum and Broadway lapse. A year after the original story ran, I contacted the board and did a few follow-up interviews for a potential update story for the Independent. The only news of note was that the board had started exploring sites outside of downtown, including up in North Durham. So I didn’t write a story. There was really nothing to report except bad news–which I found quite dismaying. The whole point of the market, as far as I was concerned, was that it was going to be downtown. Otherwise, to me it was just a pet project of people who just wanted another Weaver Street Market. Much as I like the idea of keeping the money in the local economy, I already do the vast majority of my grocery shopping at the Farmers Market (which is not as overpriced as some people misjudge it to be), and I can go to King’s Red & White for the rest if I want to. The market was going to put an anchor downtown, make the area more livable, and issue a strong statement about urban life.

I stopped paying much attention after that attempt to write a follow-up story. It seemed to me that the board wasn’t all that devoted to its efforts. They had been generally lax about responding to interview requests, not very forthcoming with information, and unskilled at marketing themselves or keeping their efforts on the general radar. When I heard that the Self-Help Ventures Fund had finally stepped in and offered to build the co-op a building–virtually right on the site of the old co-op, an old-hat-new-hat outcome–I wasn’t surprised, although I was also not excited. The name changed, subtly but importantly, from Durham Central Market to Durham Co-op Market. Gone was the notion that the market was centrally located, despite what some of its apologists say.

One of the quotes I really wanted to use in my 2011 story, but decided out of decorum not to, came from Lex Alexander, who knows from the grocery business. Lex was pessimistic about Durham Central Market, and had told them so, but quipped, “Maybe people are finally fed up with Whole Foods.” The co-op is only a mile from Whole Foods, which offers far more goods and at similar prices, and not really in the direction of downtown. It mostly serves Lakewood and Morehead Hill, along with Trinity Park and Forest Hills–neighborhoods that generally don’t need another market, can only dubiously be called “diverse” (as the Independent’s recent article does), and certainly aren’t in a “food desert.” Whole Foods is quite convenient, as is the massive Harris Teeter that opened in the mean time. It may no longer matter that people are fed up with Whole Foods, if they actually are.

There’s a hideous new prefab apartment complex on the other side of the freeway overpass from the co-op, and the souped-up University Apartments in the other direction. I lived in the latter for three years when it was still the funky, wonderful “old girl,” as its superintendent called it, that was home to a diverse population. We all got evacuated when the place was sold and gussied up, and now it’s a place for Duke kids (I guess) who have a co-op nearby. It seems appropriate that both University Apartments and the old co-op have been reconstituted right on site, at higher prices–the co-op is not cheap. Same same but different, as they say.

The co-op never claimed it would be cheap, of course–it’s a mistaken notion that food cost is a draw of co-ops, especially in the modern, corporate co-op model. They sell local-economy spending opportunity, which is significant, and lifestyle choice, which isn’t. The products are largely the same as you’ll find in most other co-ops, and the perfectly pleasant space feels more or less identical to co-ops I’ve been in in Carrboro, Hillsborough, Burlington and elsewhere–again, the modern, corporate co-op model at work. I’m glad the co-op finally opened, and I’m sure I’ll shop there some, but there’s no avoiding the fact that it abandoned its founding mission and that downtown Durham still doesn’t have a place where you can buy a gallon of milk or a bag of rice.