birdman eating

Mérida notebook: Super gay tamales

Posted in travel by birdmaneating on January 11, 2009


Suffused with green, grassy goodness

Suffused with a green, grassy tang

Maybe the sense of discovery that hangs about Mérida seeps from the very structure of the city: streets of the Yucatán capital city hemmed in with blank, low facades, with or without the twisty churrigueresque touches of colonial baroque built more or less on the cheap. Gaudy paint heavily flaked, ponderous bars at the windows: No telling what goes on behind those thick, pocked walls—except when someone like Robert tells you, in a gay cantina, over beers. And plates of some of the best tamales you’ve ever eaten.


Here’s how it started. Perry and I were staying in a guesthouse run by some sweet, doughy guy from the Midwest. He and his perennially absent boyfriend had bought houses on adjoining lots, turned one of them into an inn for queer North Americans. You know the kind of place: rickety wicker castoffs from the States, free wine in the afternoons to grease the wheels of social interaction—though there was really no one to mingle with, since the Bears (the only other lodgers—a burly bearded couple who wore white athletic socks and tropical-print shirts) kept to themselves. That left only Robert—and he wasn’t even a paying guest. More like a hanger-on: slept at his own house but spent most days here, with the doughy Midwesterner.

Tall. Sixtysomething, though he looked a good fifteen years younger. Long hands, gray sandpaper stubble, battered panama. Robert had retired to Mérida from Manhattan, bought a house with his partner, who still worked in NYC and visited Yucatán when he could. Robert exuded boredom, a busybody constantly needing fresh material. He locked on to Perry and me at once.

Did he fancy one or both of us? Did we promise fodder for gossip in Mérida’s queer expat ghetto (which, apparently, includes faded superchef Jeremiah Tower)? Couldn’t tell. I said  I wanted to taste authentic Yucatecan cooking. “Nothing overwrought, and not, like, the tourist kind of ‘authentic,”” I said. “Just the real thing.” You know—stuff a tourist says.

Clearly, Robert didn’t know the first thing about food—he’d recommended a place because the owner personally shopped for veggies at the local Costco, as if it were a guarantee of the food’s quality. Still, Perry and I agreed to let Robert be our guide next day. He’d take us to his friend, a guy, Robert said, who could lead us to the real shit. Cochinita pibil cooked in a hole in the earth. Shark and tortilla pie.

“You’ll have to get up early,” he warned. 

We got up early, slipped out to the sitting room half an hour before Robert had told us we’d need to be out the door. He was already there, wearing a CCCP tee, idly flipping through a magazine. “When do we go?” I asked. “Oh, we’re too late,” he said, barely looking up. 

Fuck. I looked at Perry; I could feel the cochinita pibil slipping through my fingers.

“We’ll go see my other friend,” he said. “He knows all the places. No rush.”

I won’t bore you. The day was a succession of long walks back and forth through Mérida’s hard, canyonlike streets, through blasting sun and sticky heat. Sunday, and Calle 60 was blocked to cars—young Mayans with traffic vests over flimsy shirts manned the street corners. Luminous black eyes; brown skin shiny, varnished with sweat.

We found the friend: an artist—a short, smiling Yucatecan who painted surrealist images of the Mayan cosmos, set out on the sidewalk to tempt the occasional norteño, Yankees-capped, in shorts that exposed pink, flabby legs. But after our long trek, the pint-size Yucatecan dished out a bogus recommendation: Los Almendros—even our Rough Guide listed it. Crap. No Mayans crowding around some courtyard pit, wrenching hunks of cochinita from a steaming, banana-leaf-wrapped heap of deliciousness. Los Almendros promised nothing better than tourist-authentic.

We set off back to Plaza Grande. Halfway there, Robert had an idea: we slipped into a botana  bar, a sprawling place, listless and deserted on a hot Sunday. We drank beer from the bottle; the waiter laid out ten botanas: fried tortillas, vinegared cucumbers, warm black beans, the ubiquitous Vienna sausages in tomato sauce, a searing chunky salsa of blackened habanero chiles and onion, and something unusual: hunks of fried beef heart and tomato, drenched with the juice of sour oranges. Declicious.

By now, Robert was opening up about the life of an idle homo expat. “Mexican men are so sexual,” he said. “Even the straight ones flirt with you. Sleep with you sometimes.” As if on cue, a waiter in a tight tee-shirt strode up to the table and shook Robert’s hand. “Nice to see you,” he said in English, like he was, well—making a move. When he left, Robert shrugged. “See what I mean?” he said. “Never even seen that guy before.” Damn. Perry and I went off to the men’s to take a piss. We had growing suspicions about our guide, and not just because our food trek was turning out to be a bust. I spotted the flirty waiter in the tight tee, laughing with the other waiters in an otherwise deserted patio out back. He glanced at me, slowly curled his mouth into a sneer. 

We worked back to the city center, on narrow sidewalks clogged with Sunday-afternoon throngs. “Here,” Robert said, and we ducked into a long, dim cantina, where a dozen guys sat on barstools or slouched at  tables against a wall half-clad with tiles in dirty shades of faded pink. “Hustlers may ask you to buy them drinks, but otherwise it’s okay here,” Robert said. He knew the smiling proprietor; they chatted briefly.

In the back, amid a jumble of empty tables, an aging butterfly of a thing was acting the coquette with a short, middle-aged guy sporting a skinny mustache and a crisply pressed shirt. You figure his wife ironed it for him, and here he was, spending the afternoon buying drinks for his worn-looking diva: bleached hair styled in a Liberace pompadour, wearing a flow-y, eyeshadow-blue pantsuit, scuffed white boots, and an expression of elegant detachment. You gotta love Mexico.

The beers loosened Robert’s tongue. He began spilling secrets—how he paid young Mayan guys to come to his house to give him massages and, um, you can imagine. He developed a regular thing with a particular one, but the poor kid was a cokehead. “Oh, he was beautiful,” Robert said, rolling his eyes up in his head. Whenever the kid needed money, he’d come by Robert’s casa, and perform what Robert called one of his special “Mayan massages.” He got strung out, skinny.

By now the flowing blue diva was dancing with her romeo, doing a merengue or something to whatever was pulsing out of the jukebox. The proprietor brought us a tamale—a Yucatecan chicken tamale, squat and slippery, glistening on the banana leaf it’d been steamed in, a spoonful of tomato sauce on top. We cut it up with a plastic fork as Robert talked, speared pieces of it with toothpicks. It was fantastic—corn masa strained smooth, with a coarse filling that tasted dark and frankly chickeny, all suffused with the green, grassy tang of fresh banana leaf. We asked the patron for a second one. 

“It was a weekend my partner was in town,” Robert was telling us. “We had friends form New York staying with us. One morning there was this pounding on the door. I knew who  it was.” The Mayan kid had gotten really bad; he was yelling for Robert, needed money for drugs. Robert didn’t want to go to the door; their guests were uneasy, asking if everything was okay. Robert’s partner looked at him: What the fuck? 

“I had to tell him everything. He went out and scared the kid away, told him he’d call the damn police if he didn’t go away. He never came over again.”

The tamale plates were smears of tomato sauce on banana leaves. Robert seemed tired of us as suddenly as he’d been interested. “I’ll walk you as far as the mercado,” he said, “and then you’re on your own.”

As we strolled through the mercado, with its almost overwhelming smells of overripe fruit and sweat, Perry said Robert had kind of creeped him out. Still, I thought, we’d managed to have a taste of something authentic.  —John Birdsall 




Alicante notebook: A bloodless kill

Posted in travel by birdmaneating on January 2, 2009
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Fucked, ultimately

Dead meat




Warm and sticky

At a bar in Alicante, Spain: facing a tapa of meaty cuttlefish (sepia) in a thick, sticky pool of its ink. Warm—it’s emerged from the microwave behind the bar—congealing slightly as it cools, deep with coppery saltiness, like the taste of blood. Per —my husband—doesn’t want more than a bite, and I admit, it’s a tad gory, too murky a concentration of flayed sea life for me to finish.


Later, in our hotel room, in a thick-walled arcade ringing the plaza in front of the ayuntamiente—the town hall—looking out onto a crude baroque clock tower, I flick on the TV before leaving for dinner—it’s a bullfight, a glimpse of the San Ysidor Festival, Spain’sWorld Series of matador-dom.

A boyish matador in tight turquoise pantaloons and a pink cape gaudy as paper roses: curly dark hair, handsome and sinuous, like gay guys we’d see around La Chueca in Madrid. Junk taped down, probably, like a drag queen’s—sexy and at the same time sexless. He’s ripe and precious, petulant as he prances gracefully in the ring.

Cutaway to an older torreador in a wide-brimmed hat, advancing with elaborate picks to stab the bull, already sprouting a plume of ribbons from where it’s been gored, taunted. Cutaway to the crowd in the stands: celebrities, politicians, the monied—in delicate straw hats, expensive-looking clothes and tans, a superhyped whiff of anticipation, the sleek turquoise ass of the boy matador, a delicious suspension in the load of ritualized violence about to drop. 

The bull—El Pelillo—is following a predictable trajectory of impulses; the announcer lauds the beast for its bigness, its magnificence and courage. Like a climax prolonged to amp up its pleasure, the grave-faced, handsome old torreador slowly advances to El Pelillo.

But the deck is stacked against El Pelillo. He’s fucked—it’s all been a distraction. A picador on horseback deftly advances from behind the pissed-off bull, makes a deep, fatal stick. El Pelillo turns, tries to gore the blinkered, well-padded horse. Now the old torreador is running, drawing the bull away from the horse, and tries to make another stab, picks fluttering white ribbons; they wobble in El Pelillo’s shoulder, heave, fall to the ring.

The matador advances, wields a curved sword like a ballet student executing a move, but the bull’s done: El Pelillo collapses, like a dog laying down in the heat. An then it’s over—the TV cuts to smiles on in the crowd, the finely molded beauty in the matador’s expressionless and yet triumphant face, then a cut to a commercial about toilet paper or chocolate biscuits or some shit. You don’t see the enormous, twitching black carcass dragged across the ring, the smear of blood in the dirt. 

As for Per and me, we’re off to dinner. Well, that’s Spain for you—like the sepia I can still taste, lurid reality shows up mainly on the plate.   —John Birdsall

Madrid notebook: Guidebooks are crap

Posted in travel by birdmaneating on January 2, 2009
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dscn1194Dog-ear your Frommer’s, read and re-read Lonely Planet till the pages turn as soft as chamois, steep yourself in the wonky elegance of that heavy-as-hell DK: Travel guidebooks lie. 
Spanish food writer Penelope Casas wrote one of the best—anyway, one of the most personal. Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide is a region-by-region guide to restaurants, food markets, hotels, and tourist sites. Casas knows her shit, especially food. She wrote The Foods and Wines of Spain, published in 1982. In Paella! (1999), her enthusiasm was so deep it sought expression in punctuation. But Discovering Spain is Casas’—I don’t know—A la recherche. More than a guidebook, it’s a book of opinions about Spain, a country she knows like most of us know the layout at Target. Trouble is, Discovering Spain is as persuasive as it is useless.
Which, despite what it sounds like, is no slam on Casas. She’s diligent. But preparing yourself for travel with a book is like prepping yourself for your first blowjob by reading literary porn.
That’s because nothing prepares you for the walk up the stairs of Madrid’s Gran Via Metro station on a Saturday afternoon, in the midst of a micro-scale simulacrum of Times Square, hoisting your suitcase when its wheels become useless on the steps. Nothing prepares you for the sidewalk, for the old man lurching forward on double canes, or the rich, delicious stink of burning diesel. Nothing prepares you for the sapped, sexy delivery kid with saggy pants and a dolly stacked with Coke, or the pair of women in hajafs—sheathed down to their feet—moving in graceful tandem.
Casas can’t prepare you for the traffic, for the glare of the sun, or the young guy flexing—paused at a stoplight at the entrance to La Chueca, Madrid’s gay ghetto—with stubble, tightass jeans, and a tee shirt that reads STORK, red letters on black, checking out the curve of his bicep in a window reflection.
Casas’ book doesn’t tell you about Madrid’s late-night porn channel, a continuous loop of jump cuts—nude women squirming, a shiny black dildo pressed up against skin, phone-sex numbers flashing on the screen. Instead, Casas gives you idyllic impressions of a decidedly more wholesome Madrid, circa summer 1962:
Evenings I would visit the Plaza Mayor, where outdoor cafes and tabernas spilled over with high-spirited Madrilenos, and from there I would descend to the gently curved Cava Baja, where I’d spend hours at cave like taverns called mesones. There was no need to purchase theater or movie tickets or have a specific place to go; singing, music and dance filled the streets, and one could join in; lively conversation was to be found everywhere.
Nothing in that description prepares you for the guy in stale club clothes outside Club XY, pissing in the street—without touching his penis—at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday, his girlfriend slouched against a car, lighting a smoke with a blank look. Or the bitchy-looking girl in caramel-yellow pleather, holding her counter space at the Mallorquina by force of a furious look that warns she’ll fuck you up if you try to elbow in for a coffee; or the Mallorquina’s counter man in black tie and short sleeves, hairy forearms splotchy with ancient bluish tattoos. Doesn’t prepare you for the old lady on the Metro, the one with a face of graceful collapse, like the skinned lambs’ heads displayed in the carnicerias.
No way Casas warns you about the stink of BO everywhere—like on the bus to Toledo, through a harsh Castilian landscape of umbrella pines and discount furniture centers, where it blends with the smell of onion-and-vinegar potato chips on the breath of the girls seated behind you, mingling with the ghosts of recently smoked cigs and orange-scented toilet water.
But it’s the funk where you find Spain—gorgeous, stinking, flickering—as surely as in the taste of anchovies doused in vinegar. It lingers on your fingertips.   —John Birdsall

Sydney notebook: Magic at billy kwong

Posted in travel by birdmaneating on January 2, 2009
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On fire

Kylie Kwong: On fire

The Desert Music, I think—that’s the place William Carlos Williams noted it’s the strange hours tourists happen onto stuff that makes even ordinary scenes seem, well, magical. And Alain de Botton says even a crummy sign in a foreign airport can seem steeped in the all the romance of travel, all the strangeness of new places—turned electric with anticipation you, the traveler, have juiced it up with. Like some foreign-current converter you pull from the bulging fanny pack of  your imagination.

It was a night that’d been drenched fitfully in rain. In a cab we hurtled through the dark, bent, eventually, for a late-ish meal at billy kwong, the mod-Cantonese place (originally co-owned with Bill Granger) by Sydney chef and author Kylie Kwong. Magical? It was, in a way so many restaurant experiences simply aren’t these days: a chain of advance bookings, the 5:30 seating you didn’t want, and anticipatory anxiety, leading ultimately to food that seems to wither on the plate under inspection, like a picked basil leaf under the 100-watt lightbulb of expectation.

Was it the drinks Perry and I had before we hit Kwong’s place? The murky glamour of some sleek, boozy Surry Hills hotel bar, where Aussie twentysomethings were sloppy celebrating the convergence of summer and Christmas. Wiry, handsome-ish guys in fauxhwaks or Rod Stewart rooster cuts; girl hotties in holiday-party sheath minis, some drunk as hell, tottering on the stairs down to the loo, in a dizzy spiral leading inevitably to vomit and remorse.

We walked the few blocks to billy kwong, me with an umbrella—a brittle claw of a thing stretched with nylon as flimsy as a popped balloon—cadged from the apartment we were renting. We’d read the warnings in any number of guidebooks: No reservations at Billy Kwong, only painful waits for the privilege of crowding with yahoos in a restaurant more than half a decade past hip, where the crispy duck with blood plum sauce could be either delicious or, well, not.
But just past a rainy 9:30, we were able to sit right down, after ditching my evil umbrella (one of its spines had already nicked a finger). No waiting, no pain: a small, dim room with black walls and an open door to the cooking line. Kwong herself was cooking—well, barking, standing at the central kitchen work table, calling out orders I think, clipping tickets to the clothesline-like wire that served as rail, clapping her hands, like Yul Brynner in The King and I, to summon a pickup.
What kind of crazy-ass universe do we inhabit, where a restaurant owner working in her own establishment can feel like grace? We ordered crispy duck with organic oranges. The bird’s joints looked nearly black, the skin furrowed and wizened like prunes—simultaneously delicate and husky, chewy, and dark-tasting, over flesh that managed to be both moist and well cooked. Its long platter was awash in thin sauce whose flavors balanced on a cleaver’s edge of salty, sweet, and tart. Sichuan peppery. Lapping against peeled orange rounds and long, papery twigs of cinnamon—a wonderful dish.
A stir-fry of bok choy, asparagus, and snow peas with oyster sauce was alright. Still, even with the duck, I felt we were missing the essential Kwong-ness of the place. I asked to re-examine the menu; the floor manager seemed to be anticipating a complaint.
Aussie-chirpy, blond, composed, slightly defensive:   “Can I help you choose something, sir?”
I think she got that I wanted to run my finger through the sap of the place; she pointed to the eggs. Fried eggs with scallion and chili. They came in a luscious puddle of oil: whites frizzled around the edges, like a nylon pot scrubby left too close to a burner. Bright, sloggy yolks. A jagged nest of julienne scallions and red chilies. The whites had absorbed the oil—it filled my mouth, left me with a luxurious sensation, gilded, unctuous, and slightly, wonderfully gross. Perry wasn’t sure about it—he didn’t like the feeling. But me? I loved it, the way, as a kid, I loved fried baloney sandwiches for Saturday lunch. Fiercely home style. Which, in this context, seemed really ballsy, as if Kwong were confident enough to float a dish at once intensely personal and exquisitely fusty. The kind of thing chefs list as guilty pleasures in silly Q&A-style magazine profiles.
Next came chicken livers, marinated (Shao hsing? Virgin peanut oil?) and fried, rosy and mashy. With a a cold heap of long-cooked yellow onion, sugary but still blond—no shitty French-onion-soup acridity from browning. A small gesture, but one that showed patience. Restraint. Virtuous and lovely. 
By now the kitchen was closing. Kwong took an empty table next to ours, sipped a glass of beer. Heaps of papers, a notebook, the blond floor manager. In her broad, authoritative Aussie voice, she dictated stuff to the manager. Okay, I was a tad starstruck. But Per leaned over to chat. “Duck was delicious … we’re visiting from San Francisco … this was the one place he [me] really wanted to eat.”
At mention of SF, Kwong brightened. “Oh, I love Chez Panisse, And Zuni Cafe. And Boulette’s Larder, in the Ferry Building.” Seemed strange to be so far away from, I don’t know, the throngs clutching Peets cups at the Saturday morning market, but have a Sydney chef conjure it as if it were across town. I said something stupid about Panisse. “Great local treasure.” She told us to go to Sean’s in North Bondi. “Sean’s,” she said in that broad, flat accent, spelling it out because, I assume, we seemed kind of dumbly fawning. “S. E. A. N. I love Italian cooking,” she said. “The inspiration for those chicken livers.”
The meal was over in what seemed like half an hour, but it had satisfied the way I’d forgotten restaurant meals could. Spontaneous. A few quick flashes of brilliance. An experience that took you closer to the satisfactions of home foods—a small frame around something quiet and personal, not some self-important gesture of an anonymous kitchen crew toiling in the satanic mills of the celeb-chef genre. Magical. 
We never made it to Sean’s. We didn’t have to—my imagination, anyway, was more spent than my shriveled umbrella.   —John Birdsall