A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Mighty Maus

When the graphic novel Maus first came out, I bought it without knowing anything about it because “Maus” was my German grandmother’s maiden name.  Of course I knew it wasn’t about my family, but upon reading it I was delighted.  No, not with the sad story (which is about a Polish, Jewish Holocaust survivor and his son), but with the art work.  Maus was a graphic novel for adults, not kids, thus changing the genre into an adult art form.

The Ur-Maus was a three-page strip that was printed in 1972 in Funny Animals, an underground comix published by Apex Novelties.  Art Spiegelman went on to lengthen the piece and published it serially in RAW magazine, a magazine he co-edited with Françoise Mouly, his wife.  Its final form was a two-volume graphic novel.  Volume I:  My Father Bleeds History was published in 1986, and Volume II:  And Here My Troubles Began was published in 1991.  Eventually Maus was published in a single volume, and also came out on CD-ROM.

Translated into 18 languages, Maus has been the subject of numerous essays, and one can find online college course syllabi that either focus on or include the work.  Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992, as well as many other prizes and nominations worldwide.

He studied art and philosophy at Harpur College in New York, and then went on to join the underground comix movement. Using various pseudonyms (Joe Cutrate, Al Flooglebuckle, and Skeeter Grant) he created the comix “Nervous Rex”, “Ace Hole, Midget Detective”, and others.  In 1975 he founded Arcade with Bill Griffith, a comix revue which featured artists such as Robert Crumb.

He was a creative consultant for Topps Candy from 1965-1986, famously designing “Garbage Pail Kids”.    He taught the history and aesthetics of comics from 1979-1986 at the School for Visual Arts in New York, before founding the acclaimed avant-garde comics magazine RAW in 1980.  He was a staff artist and writer for The New Yorker from 1993-2003, and published an anthology of his work there entitled Kisses from New York.  He and his wife created an exceptional cover for the magazine after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  He later used the image in a graphic novel about his experience of the attack, called In the Shadow of No Towers.  He later wrote a children’s book, Open Me…I’m a Dog.  Currently he is editor of a series of comics anthologies for children called Little Lit.

But he will always be remembered, honored, and respected for his audacious and (at the time) controversial use of the comics form to expand Holocaust literature.  This juxtaposition of a genre of humor with one of the most tragic stories of our time was inspired and daring.  Additionally it weaves two stories together – Holocaust survivor and a second generation survivor whom the Holocaust affected significantly even though he was not born during its occurrence – which distinguishes it greatly from other Holocaust narratives.

Some say that great art comes from great tragedy.  In the case of Maus, Spiegelman not only became the world’s most famous graphic artist, influencing generations to come, but retold one of the most horrendous stories of human suffering and devastation in a new way,  causing readers to look upon it differently.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some hashish, a bouzouki, and the blues...

By 1922, approximately two millions Greeks had come to Greece - Greeks who had never lived in Greece.  They came from Anatolia, where most had comfortable, if not rich, lives.  Many arrived in refugee settlements in Athens and Thessaloniki, with only what they could carry.  One of them was my grandmother.

Outcast, in a strange country where they were not particularly welcomed, they played music with lyrics that reflected their pain, poverty, political oppression, violence, drug abuse, and betrayal, along with the usual unrequited love and sorrows of everyday life.  This music was the music of the Greek underground, originating in the hashish dens of Athens and Thessaloniki, and eventually it merged with other strains of folk music.  It is rembetiko – the Greek blues.

Along with them these refugees brought Turkish traditions – hashish dens and tekedes, which were underground cafes.  The earliest rembetiko musicians were often itinerants, criminals, and ex-prisoners.  They would smoke from hookahs and improvise on their bouzoukia, a type of lute.  Eventually rembetiko moved from the slums into mainstream nightclubs and tavernas and became very popular. 

Because of the lyrics, rembetiko was repressed by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936, and hashish dens and bouzoukia were outlawed.  During the German occupation and the Greek Civil War all songs with references to disreputable or criminal activities, including drug use, were not recorded, but most likely still played.  The suppression seemed good for it, and when rembetiko came out of the closet afterward it was much stronger.  New innovations were added, notably by musician Manolis Chiotis.  He added foreign influences, and most importantly began using the new four-string bouzouki, instead of the traditional three-stringed instrument.

The bouzouki was perhaps the most universally important contribution to the music world.  Once introduced into Irish music, it became very popular.  It also indirectly influenced American guitar playing.  Dick Dale, arguably the father of surf music, played a staccato style on his electric guitar that he learned from his uncle, a bouzouki player.  Dale’s friend, Leo Fender, built an amplifier for Dale to augment the sound of his playing.  The rest, as they say, is electric guitar history.

In the 50s, rembetiko gave way to the laika style of music, a broader style of popular music that included songs with the bouzouki.  Around 1960, a rembetiko revival began as musicians sought to record some of the early songs.  Then, in the 70s, 78 rpm LPs were reissued and many are still available on CDs.  There was interest in recapturing the original stylings.  The songs’ associations with political conflict added to the public interest, as people were protesting and resisting the military dictatorship of the Junta years (1967-1974).  Rembetiko lyrics, though often not openly political, still smacked of subversion and rebellion.

Popular now internationally, rembetiko is currently the subject of research, and scholars and music historians are just beginning to publish works on it.  Below are words to one of the popular songs in English.  (Note:  a baglama is an instrument.):

O Kyr Thanos (Mr. Thanos) by Gigoris Bithikotsis

Mr. Thanos died grumbling,
At two o’clock at Hatzithomas’ tavern.
Lately he knew poverty, the poor man,
He even pawned his baglama.

His brother, the baglama,
Who used to cheer him up.
He pawned him, and died.

If anyone would’ve paid a few of his debts,
He would have his instrument,
He would be living.
But no one ever asked why he cries.
Nobody cares about another person’s pain.

His brother, the baglama,
Who used to cheer him up,
He pawned him, and died.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Vegan? Vegetarian? What's the dif?

It has become easier than ever to not eat meat.  There are more options at restaurants, grocery stores stock more selections, and there are a zillion cookbooks on the vegan/vegetarian diet.  As more and more news is published on the treatment of farm animals and the quality of animal products there is no better time to reconsider what you eat.  A diet without meat is not only greener, but healthier for you and definitely the animals you would otherwise consume.  

A confusion seems to exist about the differences in vegan and vegetarian diets. Either term refers to someone who chooses a plant-based diet, for the most part. There are several categories:

A vegan (pronounced "vee-gun") will not eat any products that come from fowl, seafood, fish or animals, including dairy, eggs, or honey. This diet subsists of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.

A lacto-vegetarian will eat dairy products.

An ovo-vegetarian will not eat dairy products but will eat eggs.

A lacto-ovo vegetarian will eat dairy products and eggs.

Any of the three above may eat honey.  Any cheese consumed would have to be made with vegetable rennet (as opposed to animal rennet which is extracted from the stomachs of unweaned calves during the production of veal.)>

A fruitarian will only eat produce from plants, the harvesting of which will not kill the plant. Hence an orange or a banana would be eaten, but not a radish, which would destroy the plant.

A pescetarian will additionally eat seafood and/or fish. Those on a macrobiotic diet are included in this category.

A semi-vegetarian will not eat red meat, but will eat fowl, seafood, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.

A flexitarian eats mostly a plant-based diet but will occasionally eat red meat, fowl, seafood, or fish.

The last three categories are often considered "pseudo-vegetarians".

Additionally, most vegetarians will eschew wearing or using products from animals, such as leather, fur, wool, silk, lanolin, feathers, bone, ivory, shell, etc., or any products tested on animals. 

The important thing to understand is that vegans/vegetarians do not eat the flesh of any critter including broths - beef, chicken, pork, or fish. Just because the meat isn't visible, don't assume that it is okay to serve such a dish to a vegetarian. The same goes for lard or other animal-based cooking fats.

There seems to be an ugly, IMHO, trend among some vegans who are starting to rail against vegetarians for eating any animal products, as the harvesting of these products harm the animals they come from.  Their righteous anger surprises as “do no harm”, to my mind at least, means acting kindly to all creatures, including humans.  This angry posturing also goes against the "peace and love" vibes that not eating meat are supposed to induce.  First of all, a major change in one’s eating lifestyle will be more successfully accomplished in baby steps.  It’s hard for anyone to make any change cold turkey and sustain it.  So rather than informing vegetarians that their commitment isn’t enough, vegetarians should be encouraged for taking that step.  

Secondly these vegans assume that it is impossible to consume any animal products without harming the animals.  I, myself, have bees.  In exchange for some of their honey, I offer them a sheltered hive, fresh water, plants they particularly like planted specifically for them, and protection.  There is a certain beauty to this relationship, which I think the bees agree with, or else they would fly off.  Likewise I get eggs from a friend who keeps chickens who are loose in her yard, produce infertile eggs since there are no roosters, and who are pets which climb in her lap and follow her around.  They lead a life far superior to being kept in a filthy and too small a cage with their beaks cut.

Whatever your dietary choices are, a blessing for the meal you are about to consume, and the entities that provided it, is a nice touch.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

...thank you for not making me a woman...

I have had several female friends who are Jewish, devout in their faith, keep kosher, and their lives are imbued with a contented purpose.  I am jealous of that, because no organized religion seems to do it for me.  Although I love the Jewish culture, and would convert if I could just take on the culture part, I have some problems with the religious part.  Actually, I have problems with the concept of  “God”, but I’m uncomfortable with the term “atheist”.  For “atheist” is literally NOT a “theist”, which means you have to acknowledge God before you can be anti-God.  And I firmly don’t believe in a personified holy guy, or woman for that matter.

To each their own, but the one thing I don’t understand is that these Jewish girlfriends of mine are strong, independent, smart, and assertive women, yet there is a morning prayer that Jewish men say that thanks God for not being made a woman.   What the….?

"Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman." 

So goes one blessing found in the Talmud that is performed in the course of awakening in the morning.  Actually that line is one of a sequence of three recited, the others giving thanks for not being made a gentile or a slave.  This so puzzles me – not that the blessing exists, but that my friends think nothing of it, nor can explain it – that I had to do some research.

Apparently that trinity of blessings has an ancient pedigree.  Hermippus in his Lives gives attribute to the Greek philosopher Thales a story often attributed to Socrates.  Thales was grateful to Fortune that first he was born a human and not a brute, next that he was born a man and not a woman, and last that he was born a Greek and not a barbarian.  Later as the Christian church branched out from Judaism, the apostle Paul stated (Galatians 3:28, KJV), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female:  for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”  This concept seems to both allude to the Jewish blessing, and divorce itself from it.

Conservative Judaism reworded the Jewish blessing by giving thanks that one is free, Jewish, and created in God’s image, which skirts the issue nicely.  One has to view any stated ideas in the context of their time and place.  Women did not have equality with men, so why would someone want to be one?  Despite the rewording by some groups within Judaism, why would others still choose to use it?  So what exactly is the status of women in Judaism?  Are they lesser than men?

I came across a number of writers (scholars and rabbis - some of both were women) who offered a rather apologetic explanation.  Simply stated, they say first of all that Judaism maintains that God is both masculine and feminine.  Since he has no corporal body, how could he be either?  God is referred to as a “he” as a convention.

Secondly, women have a greater degree of intelligence and understanding, and since they are spiritually superior they don’t have the obligations of men.  An example is that women did not worship the golden calf, thus were never idolaters.  This is seen as proof of their superiority in religious matters, hence they don’t have to work so hard at it.  So does that mean that men are glad to have the opportunity to engage in more rituals than women?  Sounds to me like women have the better deal, so one should be glad to be a woman!

Their third point is that women are exempt from some of the “thou shalt” (as opposed to the “thou shalt not”) commandments because their roles are related to housekeeping and childcare, and these important tasks cannot be interrupted to observe certain rituals.  Not that they cannot observe them, but they have more important tasks to do.  Thus they are not exempted from participating, but more value is placed on the home than the synagogue.

I offer my thoughts as a very cursory and surface treatment of the subject, as I have not had exposure to Torah learning.

When I shared this post with a couple of my Jewish girlfriends before publishing it, their reaction was along the lines of, “Hmmm, interesting.  I didn’t know that.”  It didn’t affect their faith one way or another.

I guess that’s the thing about true faith – the details don’t matter.  And I admit to being a bit jealous.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Beans Gone Bad

Curious about those packets of brown fluid that come with your Chinese takeout? For over two thousand years the Chinese have been fermenting soybeans. Two foods are derived from this fermentation: miso, which is a paste used in soups and sauces, and soy sauce. From China soy sauce spread all over Asia, and is known as "shoju" in Japan. There are many, many types of soy sauce today, and it has increased in popularity in the West. Despite the differences, true soy sauce has an earthy, salty taste, akin to what the Japanese call "umami."

Traditionally, soy sauce was fermented in huge urns in the sun, often for up to three years. It is then processed much like wine: filtered, blended, and aged. Now it is commercially prepared in machines. Cheaper brands of soy sauce use hydrolyzed soy protein instead of the brewing process, and are popular because of the price. In the West these brands are sometimes called liquid aminos (Bragg makes and sells bottles of this.) Some artificial soy sauces can be carcinogenic, so they should be avoided in general. Besides soybeans, the fermenting process includes yeast and sometimes a grain, most often wheat, barley, or rice.

Chinese soy sauce comes in basically two versions: light and dark. The light is from the first pressing of the soybeans, and is more expensive, just like the first pressing of olive oil, because of its superior taste. There are further delineations, but most soy sauces in this category are used to season dishes, because it is saltier but doesn't affect the color of the dish, or in dipping sauces. Dark soy sauce is aged and less salty but sweeter. It is used in cooking for its ability to color a dish as well as for taste.

Japanese soy sauce is thought to have been brought to Japan by Buddhist monks. Shoju is made of soybeans, wheat, brine, and a yeast, known as koji, which is also used to ferment sake. Shoju is found in five traditional categories and two newer ones, based on how they were made and the ingredients used. They cannot be used in place of each other because of their differences. The Japanese use wheat as a grain, which gives a sweeter taste, and sometimes they add alcohol. Koikuchi is a dark sauce made of half wheat and half soy. It is the most common Japanese soy sauce, and counts for most of their production. Tamari is darker and more flavorful and contains little or no wheat, so it is perfect for those with wheat intolerance. This is the closest to the original Chinese soy sauce. Shiro uses mostly wheat, which gives it a light taste and color. Saishikomi is twice brewed, which means koikuchi sauce is used instead of the normal brine. Finally, usukuchi is very salty and light in color, due to the use of a liquid made of fermented rice, called amazake, which also makes it taste sweet. Two newer types are amakuchi, a variant of koikuchi, which is also called Hawaiian soy sauce for its sweet flavor; and genen, which is lower in salt content.

The Japanese are very serious about soy sauce, and have special terms for both the quality of a sauce, and the method of production. There are three categories of quality: hyojun, or pasteurized; tokkyu or unpasteurized; and tokusen, the highest quality and limited quantity. There are two other terms used to describe soy sauce: chotokusen, which indicates the best; and hatsuakana refers to industrial grade sauce, mostly used for powders and flavoring.

Korean soy sauce is called joseon ganjang. Used very little by the Koreans, who seem to prefer Japanese soy sauces, it is thin and dark, made of soy and brine. The Taiwanese are renown for their black bean soy sauce, which takes longer to produce. They also produce a soybean and wheat sauce.

Other Asian countries produce soy sauces, but none are well known except for Malaysia, which makes kecap manis, a thick sauce sweetened with palm sugar, garlic, and anise.  Because of Malaysia's ties with Indonesia, they use the same name for their soy sauces - kecap, which is the basis for our word ketchup.   Kecap asin, kecap manis, and kecap manis sedang are all Indonesian soy sauces.  Kecap inggri, or "English sauce" is their name for Worcestershire sauce, and kecap ikan is fish sauce, although both of these are usually placed under the soy sauce category.

If you find a good Asian market with a knowledgeable proprietor or staff person, you can learn a lot, as I did.  But beware - you may end up with a collection of different sauces, as I did!