Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fasting in Schlarrafenland

No. Im not fasting here, exactly the opposite, but that's what Ive been researching at the library in Wolfenbüttel. Though I did fast this past Lent, purely for research purposes. A proper Medieval one, I now have confirmed. It's is pretty much vegan, with no meat, butter eggs or cheese, but includes fish. Go figure. But doesn't include alcohol. I can't even tell you how dreadful it is to go to a party, like say St. Patrick´s Day, and not touch a drop of the pure.

In any case, I never quite understood why I did it at the time, or what it meant, though it did give me some insight into the experience of people with serious food restrictions. Six weeks! Its also a power trip, strangely, a matter of control.

Anway, the recent insight I had, is that such a strange diet would perfetly odius in this place, the land of meat and beer. Schlarraffenland. Yes, meat does grow on the walls, and beer drips from the gutters. Exquisite ambrosial brews.

I now know why they did anything thay could to get out of it the Lenten fast, and eventually broke away from the universal church, I think over meat more than theology. And it is amazing stuff. Yesterday I made a cut of meat, called kasseler nacken. As far as I can tell a kassel is a cash register, and nack is neck. So it means Cashiers Necks. Sort of a cured ham-like thick shoulder chop of pork, but still raw. Maybe lighly smoked. The most unctuous and incredible piece of flesh I have ever put in my mouth. Browned in a pan. With noodles. I swoon.

Now I understand the Reformation. Who could go for six weeks without eating such things?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Leibte freunde, I can't tell you how difficult it was to post this in German, or how hard it is typing on this funkenwagen keyboard. But let me say, this is a beautiful little 17th c. half-timbered city, with canals and some serious food. Upon my arrival I found a wine shop that has huge glass vats of spirits, among which was absinthe, which of course I drank last night after arriving. I became befuddled at night, but even stranger I think I was hallucinating this morning during research. I don't know whether it was reading a Latin diatribe on fasting, wearing new glasses that don't quite work or serious jet lag, but I kept imagining that people were standing next to me and talking in other kinds of Babel. I don't think I dozed off, but that may have been it.

There are also gorgeous butchers everywhere, seriously stinky cheese, picklehäring from the North Sea, dark bread, and heady weissbier. And that was breakfast. I just came back from dinner, a kind of mixed grill of veal, beef, bacon, clove-laden weisswürst and speck-laden kartoffelnschmutz. I shall now burst asunder and did the Duke Of Brunswick (10 minutes away) who did surfet on strawberries, according to Thomas Moffet, in the 16th c.

Your Ken

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Deutsches Bahnfahrt

Leibe freunde, I have been remiss in updating you on all the lovely things happening: a wine makers diner among the Lodites, a lovely jamabalaying at Betty's house in Napa, and a singles' party - no not that kind, I mean 45s, dating exclusively from 1970-72 with wild ecstatic dancing until the wee hours, last night. I'm beginning to wonder what it's like not to wake up with a hangover.

Anyway, if you have interest, for the next month I will be posting bogs from Wolfenbuttel, (something you hope not to step in accidentally). No, a research trip. And seeing that I have only set foot on German soil once at age 17 for a few hours in Berchtesgaten, where we spotted an aged Eva Braun. I think it will be fun.

I am trying to channel the spirit of Frau von Mucke from whom I learned German one year in grad school, very quickly and efficiently (because she was stunningly beautiful and I hung on her every syllable), passed my reading proficiency exam and never looked at the language again. But I am sure words like Uberschallgeschwindigkeit will come in useful (supersonic speed) as well as Wortschatservieterung (word review?).

I have to admit the portmanteau words in German are thrilling, but they pale beside Russian, which I studied my freshman year in college. I have no idea how to write this in our alphabet, but imagine these sounds rolling off the tongue: Dostoprimachatchelnosti (sightseeing) or prepatavachelnitsa (female teacher). I can still speak a little Russian, perversely enough (U meenya yest yojik v'Yaltu: I have a hedgehog - in Yalta). Our teacher, Mrs. Miller, was a sweet but extremely tough woman. She made us stand up and sing "motion takes accusative" if you got it wrong. One bashful student refused and she waved her gorilla hands about and said, I quote, "you stand up and sing... or I kill you."

The strangest was learning Italian from a waiflike Polish woman one summer at Rutgers. No wonder no one understands what I'm saying there. But I honestly think it's reading 16th century Italian all the time and then expecting people will get it when it comes out of my mouth. "Pray wilst thou pass the butter my good man?" Italians always seem to understand what I say, but then they always grin from ear to ear and start giggling.

We shall see what monstrosoties issue from my mouth in Germany. Stay tuned.


Thursday, June 14, 2007


I just had to put these guys here. I was in the Mountains in Tennessee this past weekend, advising the Bush's Beans people, and they set up this trio on the last evening. Now if you can imagine a trickling creek in the background, skeeters hummin, indescribable amounts of good bourbon, and these three natural born comedians with the most outrageous accents and absolutely amazing bluegrass, not to mention some barbecue. Well, it worked for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I've been thinking about smoke lately, as a basic primary flavor along with salt, sweet, etc. I think we humans have an oddly hard-wired predilection for smoke which may have had some evolutionary advantage, perhaps as a preservative. Or maybe it was just cooking in general, done over fire, which gave some humans advantages over those who ate raw meat. Whatever the reason, smoke is one of those primal flavors many humans, including myself, crave. I know modern scientists link burnt food and smoke to cancer, but really, would we have gotten this far as a species if that were the case?
I've heard people argue that it takes many cumulative years of exposure, and wouldn't affect most people until after their child-bearing years, so ultimately it wouldn't have an effect on population growth, evolution, etc. But how could a carcinogenic substance come to be such a positive advantage? A craved flavor. Piffle.
So here's the smoker with which I thumbed my nose at modern scientists. Though, oddly, this was an experiment. One day last fall I had a sudden urge to tangle with smoked sausages. So I first bought an entire pig's-worth of intestines, along with some nice fatty pork butt. Second I bought a meat grinder. This proved to be not so simple as it ought to have been. The fat kept clogging the works. Maybe it should be shredded first by hand? Or maybe I was doing something dreadfully wrong. In any case, I used only a fraction of the casing, to make about 20 links with the entire butt. Maybe another cut would work better.
Then came this smoker pictured here. Chips and such were out ofthe question since I wanted a serious deep flavor without a lot of heat. Somethig like a cold smoke. So I lit a few oak and cherry logs, blew them out and let the sausages sit for several hours over the smouldering logs. the air vent kept the thing going, as you can see here, a nice steady light smoke.
When they came out, they were the most heavily smoked things I have ever tasted. Might work nicely in a cassoulet or chou croute but way too heavy to eat on their own. But they achieved the purpose. They tasted like camp fire. They made you want to throw off your clothes, dance ecstatically in a circle and bang sticks together. Primal.
So the experiments continued, and what you see here was a whole brined turkey, in which the smoke penetrated but was not so overwhelming. Only thing is, it was actually cold smoked. Firm, but still pink, so it gave many people the willies. So much more for me.
Next I think I will try a fresh ham, or maybe some ducks. It seems to be the one flavor I can't get enough of. The barbecue just doesn't suffice any more. (Though a handful of grape vine cuttings thrown in works wonders). Also on the TO DO list is smoking salt, which people have been doing for a long time. But then why not sugar? Or whole spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, which you could toss into a pot? Or tea, like Lapsang Souchoung? The possibilities are endless. As are the varieties of wood.
I shall report further anon.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


This is the north side of my kitchen, with racks that hold spice bottles I've thrown over the years. (There's a pottery studio directly below this space, with a beautiful kiln named St. Theresa and two wheels.) Most of these bottles are filled with something or another, though I also have an ingenious vertical spice drawer that slides out beneath the cuting board - holding even more bottles. I'm a spice freak, admitedly.

I was thinking about my kitchen lately, because it really is a wonderful space - it's where I spend practically all my time at home. And of course where company inevitably gathers. The structure itself was built in 1929 for the Alustasia family who owned a Basque restaurant here in Stockton. So it has really remarkable cooking vibes. Definitely a food house.

The wood and tiles were pictured here were added in the 80s by an investment banker, who I think went bust and sold it to a pilot, from whom I bought it about a decade ago. I've added a wine fridge, new oven and fridge and other things, but essentially it's been the same for the past 20 years.

What I like the most is that there is incredible counter space, it just wraps around the whole kitchen, so several people can be cutting at once without getting in each others' way. The tiles are a pain to clean, or at least the grout between them, but the very idea of changing it bugs me. Anway, I thought I'd share my favorite space. Now you're invited to stop by for a tipple and a bite to eat.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Someone asked me the other day if I have any collections. I suppose in the past I've had various odd ones - musical instruments, hats - both of which I still love and own many of. Now it's mostly books I buy. Though I do own many corkscrews I'm not one of those people who buys old antique corkscrews and such. But it dawned on me just now, that I do collect corks. In fact every single bottle of real champagne from the first I ever bought (or obtained) which I think was in 1980, through every major event - birthdays, graduations, books being published, holidays. They're all in a big paper shopping bag, and it really is nice every now and then to pull them out and see the very cork shared with an old girlfriend, or downed somewhere in Europe. (I write the date and event on the side.) They're sort of like relics, with the ability to conjur up the place and time long gone.

But even odder, is that I also save every cork, unmarked, of every bottle of wine I have ever opened. (Or at least for the past 25 years - I even moved with bagsful to California 15 years ago.) There are about 5 or 6 shopping bags of those stowed away. I never realized I had such a cork fetish before. Maybe it's some intution that someday they'll be obsolete and I'll be sitting on a gold mine. And it certainly is about the smell and texture of them, including cork trees - there are some in the park across from my house and next to my office. I toss the plastic ones. I've always had the ideas that I'd do something grandiose with them, like make a cork wall, or fashion some furniture out of cork somehow. Or maybe a little banquetting house in the garden.

If any of you have ideas for what to do with a monstrous mess of corks, please let me know.