Monthly Archives: July 2013

Central Asian Shashlyk

Shashlyk on the grill during the 237th American Independence Day. Note: photo does not show the eagles bursting through American flags just above this patio grill out.

Shashlyk on the grill during the 237th American Independence Day. Note: photo does not show the eagles bursting through American flags just above this patio grill out.

I want to do whatever I can to encourage the preparation and spread of shashlyk — Central Asian or former-Soviet state kebabs, the wikipedia link here — on the northern Great Plains. Considering how the landscape is infused with German-Russian and Levantine (among others) ethnicities, and considering how North Dakota was a frontline of the Cold War, a person could easily make an argument for themselves as to why they should be preparing shashlyk for their families and friends this weekend. So here are a couple photos of what I did for America’s Independence Day, July 4th (237 years and still kicking).

Last Wednesday I grabbed a half bottle of grapefruit juice from the fridge (this leftover from the Kingsley Amis-style salty dogs I prepared the week prior), dumped this in with olive oil and raw lamb chunks. To that I added a whole bunch of herbs and spices that dominate Central Asia and the former Ottoman Empire (I’m not going to list them all, but just think cumin and curry and paprika and rosemary and even a dash or two of ground cinnamon). Skewer these with the bamboo, and also add to that red bell peppers, onion, tomatoes and mushrooms.

For grilling: use a charcoal grill if you have one handy. If all you have is a propane hibachi (which is what I had at the time), then obviously that is what you’ll have to use. During the actual grilling process, douse or spritz the shashlyk skewers with some apple cider vinegar. This will enhance the end flavor, and also get everyone’s taste buds roaring from the smell. The important thing about shashlyk preparation: first, think about this at least 2 days prior, because you’ll need the prep time. Also, the citrus and/or vinegar as central to the overnight soak for the lamb meat.

Cultivating the Humanities

This morning I am sitting down to my usual coffee, and thinking about several responses to the latest report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter: Report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences,” that of which is linked to here. I was checking in with my buddy Bill Caraher’s blog today and I noticed he linked to a few responses to this report as well, here and here, and another Wall Street Journal piece here. While reading all of these, a sort of anxiety started building up in me, this resulting from the following thought: why not read a scholarly monograph or a novel instead of reports on whether or not the humanities and social sciences is in a fatalistic state of decline?

I also thought about how the humanities are everywhere, and then I wondered how people who complain about having gotten nothing out of college spent the majority of their time in said college. Were they doing keg-stands, or were they in the library stacks, perusing used book stores, reading-reading-reading, having coffee and conversation and beer and more conversation about interests with others, writing, re-writing and looking over the papers of one another or, once again, strictly doing keg-stands? Did their schooling look like this, as in Bluto from Animal House? Or did it look more like this, as in Max Fischer from Rushmore? (Max Fischer, of course, was in preparatory and private school, but the idea is there: he received mediocre marks, but he was involved in an endless amount of extracurricular activities).

I also wondered about the state of communities immediate to university campuses. For example, I stumbled into an undergraduate program (at the University of Minnesota in downtown Minneapolis-St. Paul) where the humanities (not even defined as such) were happening arguably more outside of the classroom and off campus than they were on campus. At least between 1999-2002, Dinkytown had two to three used book stores, at least two coffee shops (the Purple Onion was one of them), several hole-in-the-wall taverns, a used CD/record store with an endless selection of everything, a liquor store, pizza shops, an Afghanistan cafe, and so on. And this didn’t include the other stretch of coffee shops and cafes and taverns immediate to the intersection of Washington Avenue and Harvard Street. I did the majority of learning outside of class, and I figured out that you take these ideas into classroom discussions, at least those classrooms where professors allowed it (there are, of course, professors that command students to strictly focus on the required readings and nothing else, which is a different tangent all together).

What isn’t addressed in this Harvard-published work is how universities might work with their local community planning boards to develop an immediate off-campus culture(s) that allows students to explore said humanities on their own. Historic preservationists might get involved for sure, as this would require the renovation of those pre-WWII homes (please don’t tear them down for 2013 asphalt strip mall construction) just across the street from campuses to be converted into those excellent used book stores and coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall diners, local and ethnic. Make sure students can walk to these places rather than drive. If need be, use Dinkytown as a model or framework.

Also notice that the board of this Harvard report lacks students and graduate students. Every contributor to the board is some kind of established, high-powered professional. They are required to fatalistically bemoan the disappearance of the humanities and social sciences (I’m not big on fatalism, to be fair), and they should be doing this because that is what they see at their professional level. It’s important to keep that in mind. A future report would benefit from bringing more voices in from individuals who are in that liminal space between getting their undergrad and graduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences, and figuring out how to locate jobs or start entrepreneur-ing (not a word) themselves.

Ideas of Fermentation and Distilled History

On this 4th of July morning (which, in America, is a secular holiday, or holy day), I finally got around to one of my short reading lists that concerns the scholarly study, specifically, of beer, and broadly of fermentation, booze and alcohol (or what academics sometimes refer to as ethyl). The four books in front of me include The Oxford Companion to Beer (Oxford University Press, 2012), two monographs by Patrick McGovern including Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University Press, 2003) and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (University of California Press, 2009). The fourth work is The Archaeology of Alcohol and Drinking (University Press of Florida, 2008) by Frederick H. Smith, and this is perhaps the one that speaks most pointedly to the July 4, 2013 day since it is a part of The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective series.

Some booze studies scholarship.

Some booze studies scholarship.

Of all these books, the Oxford companion is put together like an encyclopedia rather than a narrative or anthology, and Oxford sensationalized it a bit by asking Tom Colicchio to write the short forward. Because I am in the dark on many facets of contemporary culture (it all moves and changes so fast, though; and Tom would have to Google our names as well), I had to Google Colicchio’s name, but when an image of his face appeared I recognized him immediately as one of those celebrity chefs. Tom noted how as he matured from his teens up to 2012, so did his appreciation toward beer. Of this work, though, I thought Oxford would have benefitted more to get a brew master to write the forward, or even a monk at a monastery that is renowned for beer. Tom works in the trade of acquiring James Beard Awards, culinary rage and sensationalism (which is how you make it in that business) whereas a monk devotes time to brewing, reflection, and self-reflection (in large part for humanity and the sustainability of the abbey or monastery). Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver drafted the preface to this work, and he speaks a bit more to the beer trade.

The Oxford companion is huge like an encyclopedia, numbering 919 pages, or around 2″ thick. I think the only way you’d go about using this book is to check up on a pointed question with the index, look at the topical features just after the preface, or to open it up to a random page. On page 674, the entry “public houses (pubs)” appears, noting that the institution of the pub did not have much renown outside of the U.K. until business owners decided to bring Irish Disneyland to the world with Irish-themed pubs (I suppose the idea was that not everyone can make it to Ireland to visit a pub, so might as well bring the Irish-themed pub to the non-Ireland world). It is moderately surprising to not see Kingsley Amis referenced in the index of this work, but I suppose if a person is building a scholarly library on beer and booze, they already know about it (Amis knew his booze, and he could be accused of being just as interested in its effect as he was the flavor and body of the stuff).

On the first page is the entry “abbey beers,” and this expands on the brewing expertise of the Belgian Trappist monks, and the established “appelation (controlee)” which lets everyone know where the monastic beer originated (time, space and chronology is important to the monastic tradition for many reasons). In reading and writing about this passage, for at least a couple years I have hoped that the monks of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, might at some point down the line consider brewing beer with North Dakota grains, barley and hops. And even better, sharing it (but that’s totally up to them).

As for the works by McGovern, I first came across his name in a popular history of booze put out by the Smithsonian in July-August 2011 (the great article linked to here). McGovern focused on fermentation in Western Civilization (the region of Mesopotamia is the cradle of fermentation), and he also made the case that we today are part of a long fermentation process (the long durée of beer drinking). In McGovern’s scholarship, he is a bit heavy-handed in his testimonies to the irrefutability of the archaeological record or the interpretation thereof (“There is no hidden bias lurking in a pottery sherd or a stone wall, as there might be in a written document.” [McGovern, 2003: 5]). But that sophomoric understanding of philosophy and theory is outweighed by a broad knowledge of the history of beer and wine.

German-produced Bartmann wine bottle from the British settlement site of Jamestown, Virginia. (Smith, 2008: 12)

German-produced Bartmann wine bottle from the British settlement site of Jamestown, Virginia. (Smith, 2008: 12)

Of the four books, the best on the subject is by Frederick H. Smith. And I define best in the sense that it is an academic treatment of the subject that tracks both the subject itself and what other scholars from the academy have said about it (like brewing, the origins of this tradition is monastic in and of itself). The first chapter to this work alludes to numerous scholars in alcohol studies (a kind of subfield in history and anthropology), and the subsequent chapters go on to discuss the Iberian storage vessels first used to transport the sauce throughout the Atlantic World, from the Old to the Jamestown colony in the New, and here to the production of alcohol to its trade and consumption and so on. By the 16th and 17th centuries, hand-blown glass bottles surpassed the ceramic vessels, and Smith notes that when these bottles are recovered, so is the booze. For example, an early 17th century glass bottle of wine was once recovered by marine archaeologists, and it turned out that the Dutch warship had wine at 10.6% alcohol content, this within the same range as the content of wine today.

The final chapter in Smith’s monograph stems from a 2005 study he did on the role alcohol played in the 1816 slave revolt in Barbados (four decades after elite Anglo-America got its start). These case studies are a more effective way to explore the social history of booze in all of its variety and nuance. Specific to this are the caves on Barbados, a place where self-liberated slaves could escape to on an island and carve out an underground existence. Without going too much further into these works, it seems that on July 4th it is important to acknowledge the philosophical substance of America’s Declaration of Independence, but more importantly to know that it was a document prepared by an elite minority on the backs of an enslaved majority.