Apr 28, 2009


i was walking back from the subway the other evening when i saw a cup of coffee on a sidewalk table with a perfect latte fern on top of it. the owner of said cup emerged from inside the building to inform me of the existence of a cafe with excellent coffee just around the corner, which is how i found tvålpalatset (trans. soap palace), located in the first-floor rooms of what used to be the meeting rooms of a boxing club. under the cafe is a labyrinth of skylighted, marble-floored echoing spaces carved out of rock. the owner, who looks like andy from the mv glassworks. now rents these out to conferences and his son runs the cafe and an espresso school. so i'm sitting in the second room, painted completely white with wide-plank scrubbed fir floors. the room is three times longer than it is wide, the ceiling is higher than the room is long, there are marble-topped tables and overstuffed red and blue (the shade you associate with gainsborough and the french monarchy) cut-velvet armchairs, and a large, cream-coloured swedish tile furnace stands in the corner.* they brew beans from åre coffee roasters, and i'm having good lattes for the first time in months.

* these look great and are also magnificently efficient. the masonry surrounding the firebox is designed to absorb heat from the heat source and then radiate it back slowly and evenly over many hours.

Apr 27, 2009


this is the only http 404 page i've ever enjoyed.

Apr 26, 2009


i got home later than my usual bedtime last night, after stopping in on detroit's third anniversary party (cake, beer, and nostalgic photographs in a bomb shelter under the vestertorp train station, south of stockholm city center). detroit is a shared studio space for emerging artists relatively close to odenplan; in a city as expensive as stockholm, it is a marvelous thing.

the weather in stockholm has been improbably good this week. for the fourth morning in a row, cloudless blue skies and brilliant sunlight. today, it bounced off the bright yellow buildings across the street and into the apartment, finally waking me up by 11am.

the warmth and light brought everyone out into the parks. we stopped for a coffee at a waterfront cafe in hornstull that has apparently been destroyed three times by radical political and religious right-wingers, then walked along the sodermalm waterfront until we got up into the neighbourhood south of folkungagatan where i got another latte and we sat in the park under the church and ate ice cream for a few hours in the sun while moa's friend's daughter harassed other park-goers under the guise of being friendly. after some discussion, the swedes decided that the ice cream known as hjortron (a tangy ice-cream with pale yellow preserves with large seeds swirled through it) is made of cloudberry, a berry prized across the far northern latitudes for its rarity. i woke up long enough to agree, then fell asleep again. in the spring, this city is easy to fall in love with.

Apr 22, 2009

keflavik, iceland

so here we are, on a long layover in keflavik, on our way to stockholm. the indignities of flight delays are mitigated by business class lounges, but only marginally. (side note: viking and thule are both beers brewed in iceland. they taste essentially the same.)

many years ago, i took a train from new haven to south station. it was a sunny day in spring, around this time of year. along the way, the train passed slowly through many small towns in new england, visible beyond the chainlink fence protecting people from the tracks. in many of these pass-throughs, i saw small children standing, hands on the fence, looking through to the trains rumbling past. living on an island is a lot like that.

Apr 19, 2009

the day of two breakfasts and baked good reciprocity

the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.* or so says robert burns.

  1. wednesday last week, the rumour mill is set afire with talk of a sunday morning blueberry pancake breakfast featuring fresh maple syrup at the clover food lab. expectations at an unreasonably high level, a small cadre plans an expedition.
  2. thursday, rucker emails from the big apple. she's in town for a signet shindig over the weekend. i suggest pancakes with fresh maple syrup on sunday morning. she counters with the signet's southern breakfast featuring creamed mushrooms, cheese grits, and allan benton's country ham (last seen at hungry mother), cooked under the supervision of matt lee. committed to pancakes and fresh syrup, i am foiled. the disappointment is crushing until i remember: fresh maple syrup!
  3. friday, word arrives from a trusted source that pancakes will be postponed on account of anticipated bad weather. the disappointment is crushing until i remember: ham brunch is now a go! does it matter that i am not a member of the signet?
  4. saturday, at the first backyard barbecue of the season, conversation turns to weekend breakfast and the S&S deli vs danny's diner. clearly, only empirical data will permit us to distinguish the superior candidate.
this is how it comes to pass that one eats two breakfasts on a bright and cloudless sunday in cambridge. my alarm failed to go off this morning at the appointed hour but the sun coming through the window woke me in plenty of time to make it to danny's diner at 8.30am. the eponymous danny has passed beyond the veil but his diner continues to put out magnificent, inexpensive breakfast: their corned beef hash is great and goes well with banana nut pancakes. tony's denver omelet and chocolate chip pancakes were also satisfying in ways that only diner omelets can be.

shortly later, i was in the signet, interloping with a mimosa and a plate loaded with grits from the old mill of guilford, creamed mushrooms, and thin-sliced country ham from allan benton. this ham bore no resemblance to the junk in bad sandwiches: it was dry-cured, salty, with fine-textured fibre, and dense, complex flavour. i bet almost anything that ham bone would make staggering soup.

then, to clear out the perishables in anticipation of a week away in sweden, i made an orange ginger olive-oil cake. not long after it went into the oven, i got an email asking if i would like some freshly-baked apple walnut olive-oil cake. does a dog have fleas? we arranged a ride-by exchange of baked goods on mass ave. with the benefit of a side-by-side tasting, i got the better end of the deal.

* this was significantly more apropos when i began writing this. now, not so much.

Apr 18, 2009


public service announcement: i have discovered the best thing on the planet. it is brown lentils with carrots and onions, charred kale, and rice, with feta and garlic yogurt. warm, spicy, slightly minty, round from the yogurt, earthy from the lentils, with a slight bitterness from the kale--it is a perfect dinner.

1/4 large white sweet onion
olive oil
dash each mint, cumin, cilantro, cayenne, fennel seed, mustard seed, dill, cinnamon
1 cup brown lentils
2 carrots
3 cloves garlic
black pepper
pomegranate molasses (dark honeys like buckwheat or tarweed are decent substitutes)

reduce the onion to a 1/2 inch dice. after doing so, in a heavy casserole on high heat, warm about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. add the spices. when the fennel and mustard begin to pop, add the onion and stir. a powerful and promising aroma will permeate your kitchen. reduce the heat to medium and let the onions do their thing. meanwhile, rinse your lentils and drain. bring the heat back up to high and add the drained lentils. stir again. the aroma will now be significantly less promising, and reminiscent of wet earth and pouring rain. add enough water to cover the lentils. when the mix comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium again and cover, leaving a slight gap for steam to escape. do not add salt or pepper yet.

peel and cut carrots into 1/4 inch half-rounds or whatever shape strikes your fancy; after this, peel and finely mince the garlic. after you have completed these onerous tasks, inspect the casserole again and top up with water to just cover the lentils. at this point, reduce the heat to medium-low and add all the garlic, then re-cover, again leaving the merest hint of a gap. when the lentils are softened but not yet tender, add the carrots. continue to cook until carrots are soft but still firm to the bite and lentils are soft but not mushy. (total cooking time can be anything from 25 to 60 minutes. dried pulses vary widely in cooking time, so keep on checking; it's an excuse to taste.) add about a teaspoon's worth of pomegranate molasses, stir to mix, then season with salt and fresh pepper, remembering that feta is a salty cheese.
i had this with steamed rice (jasmine, for preference) and chopped kale charred in a hot skillet with olive and walnut oil--both excellent in their own right. but what made the lentils into the stuff of myth was first the addition of the garlic and yogurt sauce from the zucchini pancakes, and then the sprinkling of feta over the top of everything.

Apr 16, 2009

the container for the thing contained

Whereas nation states have always distinguished themselves from others by means of a thick exterior boundary on the perimeter of a territorial 'container,' they have also maintained the illusion of an interor without borders, a national space kept open by the political public sphere where differences are subordinated by the constitutional state. With the rise of the contractualization of citizenship, an interior border now duplicates that of the exterior. Only those who have borne the burden of internal social exclusion for centuries--first from slavery, then through racial apartheid--are immune from the compensatory allure of the nation.
margaret somers, genealogies of citizenship
this makes me think of hugh of st. victor, quoted by edward said:
the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.

Apr 13, 2009


apparently, some people who cultivate the zucchini plant are overwhelmed by its plenitude, to the point where they creep up to porches in the dead of night to leave bags of the squash hanging, unwanted, from doors. i have never had this problem but, even if i did, zucchini pancakes are clearly the solution. the ny times recently had an article about zucchini pancakes but i found their version rubbery and insufficiently delightful. these i inflicted on the unsuspecting crowd at tory and elizabeth's easter dinner last night; happily, the modifications i made this morning (much less egg, much less flour) produced a truly transcendent version, delicate and crisp.

2 medium zucchini
1/4 cup onion
1 egg
1 tablespoon dry dill (or 2-3 if fresh)
handful crumbled feta (large lumps are sort of nice)
handful grated parmesan

after grating the zucchini and the onion, salt liberally and allow to drain for about 10 minutes, then wring as much water out as possible. wrapping the mass of shredded zucchini in a clean towel helps. zucchini shrinks dramatically when wrung out. this is normal. in a medium-ish bowl, mix the zucchini and onions with the egg, dill, feta, parmesan. the mixture should be an appealing spring green and be a slightly runny mass. proceed now to make the sauce.

5 hefty cloves garlic
dash each cayenne, dry mint, cumin, black pepper
1 cup whole milk yogurt (thick greek style is best)

peel and mince the garlic, combine with spices and yogurt, refrigerate. this stuff will also slay a good lamb burger.

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

after putting the sauce to bed, dust off your local cast iron skillet and heat a tablespoon of oil in it. add the flour and baking powder to the zucchini and eggs. resist the urge to overmix. drop about a tablespoonful of the batter into the hot skillet and flatten it out (3" diameter is a good size). an 8-inch skillet fits 3 of these at a time. allow one side to brown before flipping using a thin metal spatula. drain on wire rack on top of newsprint or paper towels, and serve with sauce. these deflate in a particularly dispiriting way when they are allowed to get cold.

Apr 12, 2009

hungry mother

if only every long, draining week ended like this one did. back in the semi-palmy days, mission exploration society used to meet mondays for dinner and conversation. we met for the first time in a year last night. halsey showed up from virginia on a smith-related boondoggle and drank hot beverages in the dining room for a couple of hours, then we walked over to hungry mother, which ami, tw, and diana have all recommended in the strongest terms. hammer joined us after the sun set and was served two fine glasses of grain-free, leaven-free wine, and a pity plate of toasted matzo with cinnamon sugar. last night's dinner at hungry mother has joined my very short list of perfect and nearly perfect meals.

country ham with small biscuits and red pepper jelly. the ham was so thin it was transparent, and the biscuits were small, warm, crisp, and tender.

braised beef tongue on a toasted slice of french bread, with gruyere and (the menu claims) dijon. savoury and velvety with collagen in the same manner as jackson fillmore's veal ragu, creamy from the gruyere, and with a hit of horseradish pungency from the dijon.

boudin balls with remoulade and cress. good boudin, but not spectacular. the remoulade though, a totally different story: i'd eat that on its own.

mussels with tasso ham and a barbeque broth (made with barbecue?). the mussels were purportedly wild-harvested from maine. marvelous: steamed to plumpness and no further. ham and shellfish is a combination that'll never go out of style.

gnocchi with mushrooms, pea tendrils, and shavings of parmesan. this was stunningly good, but in a completely humble way. this was the food manifestation of sprezzatura, the art that conceals art. i inhaled the entire bowl with immoderate rapidity.

cornmeal fried catfish with stewed pigeon peas, rice, chorizo. another dish full of powerful flavours and textures, joined by historical context so as to be completely unremarkable but somehow elevated here to their apotheosis. (if you hunger for more history about the variants of beans and rice, together with the social history of chronic undernutrition from pigeon pea protease inhibitors, consult john thorne's superb volume serious pig, p 288)

caramel chocolate tart with toasted benne seeds that came with a large glass of cold milk as the drink pairing. caramel and chocolate are unchallenging flavours for eaters since they are so easy to love (the best dessert i have ever had anywhere was at quince, a peach-leaf infused semifreddo with mulberry granita that had a flavour and texture so evanescent and difficult to place that everyone at the table fell involuntarily silent). even so, the tart was superbly executed and, in a strange way, one of the two most satisfying things about eating at hungry mother was seeing the tall glass of cold milk listed as a drink pairing in the dessert menu.

banana pudding. mild and filled with chunks of banana.
ami the drink snob praises the bartenders here and justifiably—we got some magnificent, simple drinks. halsey had a very subtle (and quite beautiful) vodka-based drink flavoured with grenadine (housemade) and rosemary water (in a martini glass, #42). i opted to submit to the whim of the bartender (#99), indicating only my preference for something herbaceous and citrusy. they came back with a martini glass filled with a cloudy and frosty plymouth gin-based marvel flavoured with lemon juice, yellow chartreuse, honey syrup, maraschino, and (the grace note) fennel-infused gin. drink #99 was the second thing that was most satisfying about hungry mother.

i have groused before about the absence of good espresso drinks in this city. confidence buoyed by the stellar meal now behind us, i ordered a latte. needless to say, the after-dinner caffeinated beverage was the sole blot on the experience, perhaps to prevent the universe from being snuffed out by an angry god on account of dining perfection. when george howell roasts coffee of stunning quality a mere 40 minutes away from cambridge, is it too much to ask for a well-made espresso drink, with properly microfoamed milk poured with care and art? is it fair that san francisco, a postage-stamp-sized city with far too many hills and the slowest public transit system on the continent, boasts not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR artisanal roasteries staffed with fixie-riding hipsters who will pour you a work of art in espresso and steamed milk with lip-biting concentration? is it any wonder that i've given up coffee since moving back to massachusetts?

Apr 8, 2009

commensuration and analogical reasoning

Commensuration transforms qualities into quantities, difference into magnitude ... Most quantification can be understood as commensuration because quantification creates relations between different entities through a common metric.
wendy espeland and mitchell stevens, "commensuration as a social process"
metrics and quantification happen to be the most obvious and easily-operationalized action frameworks for commensuration but they're not the only ones. semantic taxonomies perform the same function, such that systems of related meaning function as a way to filter the world of perceived objects into interpreted objects that are more-related or less-related to each other. the example i favour is that of the colour red, which is equivalent to a subjectively-variable domain of coordinates in the CMYK colorspace, another range of domains in the RGB colorspace, and yet another array of colour-words depending on language--what this example shows is that commensuration (the drawing of connections between conceptual or concrete entities) is not purely a process of relation, or purely a process of imposition, but may also be a process of analogical identity-creation.

the agenda espeland and stevens pursue partly explains the restricted set of commensuration action they include in their review article, but it might be fruitful to extend the conception of commensuration to analogical reasoning as well (instead of the purely transitive logic they describe). this enables the further analysis they offer (of institutions, movements, power dynamics, etc) to also inform those situations in which the similarity or difference between entities is an emergent property of interaction. enfolding analogy into the range of commensurative actions also permits us to acknowledge and address the frequent cases in which individuals commensurate objects in spirit while acknowledging their fundamental formal incommensurability. this is akin to the distinction weber draws between wertrationality (value-rationality) and zweckrationality (formal rationality)

Apr 2, 2009

data ecologies

almost three years ago now, i was able to get ed wilson, harold varmus, and jeff sachs to google to make a pitch for what we then called biosearch--a facility for biological information that would enable data from multiple fields to interact. not much came of that, though ed was one of the TED prizewinners for 2007, and his TED wish was the encyclopedia of life, now being built by the EOL consortium. this was our general architectural representation of biosearch:

i think it's a good general framework for thinking about what biological data management should look like. thoughts?

Apr 1, 2009

moving again; next stop, amsterdam!


cambridge has been awesome but only fools and the hard-of-hearing continue reading, oblivious, when opportunity comes knock, knock, knocking at their chamber door. when i idly mentioned, a few weeks back on the plane to sf, that i've always been interested in large-scale and monumental sculpture, i never dreamed that my flying companion was a dutch industrialist and art patron consigned to economy class by the vagaries of the american airlines reservation system. when he emailed me to ask if i might be interested in helping him set up a large-scale fine art foundry in amsterdam, you can imagine how quickly i leaped into action--amsterdam here i come!

so, if you're in the greater boston area and interested in some or all of my 15-box collection of diverse but interesting books, or my slightly-used horseshoe crab, or a freshly-reconditioned low-angle blockplane, drop me a note. and if you know someone with a 15,000 square-foot (more or less) heavy-industry-zoned warehouse space in the westpoort district of amsterdam, or a 500-cup induction smelter in the same general vicinity, definitely get in touch.