Saturday, February 11, 2017

God Bless the Bronx.

The Bronx, that most maligned bit of New York City, paradoxically marooned on the mainland of the United States, deserves a lot more respect than it is given. The Bronx was the birthplace of Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, Louis Farrakhan, the NY Yankees, hip-hop music, Ed Koch, and most importantly, me. The Bronx is where I grew up, and although my family moved to NJ when I was ten, they may as well have moved to an alternative universe - one filled with bike paths and football fields and parking lots and strange non-Catholic churches. As soon as I was able I rode the buses back across the GW Bridge to the Bronx, to drink its egg creams and buy reggae singles at Jamaican record shops.

The Bronx has a bad reputation for poverty, violence, and urban ugliness that is not entirely unearned, but not entirely of its own making either. Like a lot of New York’s outer boroughs, until the 1960s the Bronx functioned pretty well as a city unto itself, sharing services with the rest of NY but with its own political machine. Then came Robert Moses. Moses was an incredibly powerful, yet unelected politician appointed as “Master Builder” to spend Roosevelt’s New Deal money on bridges, tunnels, and most of all, highways to transport the suburban commuters of the future. He loved cities, but he hated people, especially people who were not white and rich. Annoyed at the power wielded by established neighborhood political machines in Brooklyn and the Bronx Robert Moses simply blasted massive highways through the neighborhoods, creating cement canyons that cut parts of the city into new, socially isolated mini districts. The Cross Bronx Expressway and Major Deegan Thruway may be a boon to commuters but they were a death sentence to the neighborhoods of the Bronx. 

By the 1970s many – including my family – had fled the Bronx as the city began shrinking services to the borough and – secretly – colluding with developers to buy up the rapidly devaluating property cheaply. Drugs fed on the hopelessness, and gang culture flourished on the drug trade. Landlords found it easier to burn down their buildings and collect insurance money than to rent them. By 1980s the Bronx had become the backdrop for films like Fort Apache The Bronx and The Warriors (actually based on XenophonAnabasis which portrayed the Bronx as a scorched earth zone of racist nightmares. 

The low point came in 1990 when an arson fire at the Happy Lands Social Club killed 87 people, mostly Garifuna (Black Carib) immigrants from Honduras. After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, it is the third largest loss of life by fire in US history. It also brought attention to the neglect of fire regulations in the Bronx and the growing demands of the immigrant communities to be treated on an equal footing by the New York municipal authorities.

What? Your subway metro system doesn't have live Mexican accordionists?
We passed the Happy lands site while driving around the Bronx with Bob Godfried – musician, researcher, accordion repair expert, social activist, High school shop teacher – who was born and bred in the Bronx and is a deep well of knowledge of all things Bronxian. Over the years we have done a lot of exploring in the Bronx and Jersey with Mr. Godfried, and he is not letting retirement slow him down at all. When the time comes for all the Jews in the Bronx to leave, Bob will be the one who turns off the light. 

Two feral Bronx Jews captured in the forests of central Bronx.
Luckily, that time won’t come soon. There are still quite a lot of us in the Bronx, along with Africans, Chaldeans, Irish, Albanian, Macedonian Gypsies, Dominicans, Jamaicans... you get the idea. Many of the New York traditional music scene folks I knew when I lived in the USA have moved out to the suburbs, especially to upstate New York and New Jersey. Not Bob. He stays local, fixing the oddball accordions of Mexican Norteno musicians, Irish box players, and most recently, the harmoniums of the Indian community. Not many harmonium tuners in New York competing with him. 

Bob Godfried in his natural element.
A day trip with Bob is basically an excuse to talk to somebody on my frequency: a normal conversation may start by discussing early minstrel banjo construction, then contemporary Iranian Kurdish cinema, the evil calumny of Robert Moses, and then winding up furiously linking the newer Hohner accordion reeds with the fall of civilization. Bob also knows all the Oaxacan and Puebla taco shops in the Bronx and exactly where to get a Donald Trump piñata for your next quinceñero party or bar mitzvah.

Trump piñatas are literally flying out of the shop.
The Trump piñata was found in a Mexican party supplies shop in Yonkers, about a mile north of the border with the Bronx but close enough for irredentism. Yonkers is home to a large immigrant community from Mexico, and so we stopped in for a lunch of tacos and tamales at Fonda de 5 Mayo

Carnitas tacos.
Across the street, we browsed a Botanica which specialized in a deeply orthodox Yoruba expression of Santeria. The North Bronx and Yonkers is the center of New York’s African born Yoruba community, but there are lots of Ghanaian, Malians, and Senegalese up here as well.  Just down the road was the last of the Puerto Rican “cultural centers” – the Taino Mayor Record Shop. 

Rincon Center (A bad pun if you are Japanese, a good pun if you are Boriqueño.)
The shop is more of a neighborhood hangout than a commercial concern. Guitars and drums lay around waiting to be picked up and played. An old guy wearing Puerto Rico shaped sunglasses stands outside making comments about everybody who passes by. Nobody spoke English, so Bob spoke in Spanish, which long ago replaced Yiddish as the second language of the Bronx. Stuffed to the ceilings with Puerto Rican flags, CDs, cuatros, guiros, Boriqueno key rings, and even tamborines with dancing Jews printed on them, I think they were surprised when I actually purchased a CD of plena music. Most of the Bronx Puerto Ricans have moved out of the city, assimilated, or moved back to the island.

Pathfinders in the Thain Forest
Most casual visitors to the Bronx are either there for jury duty or are headed to the Bronx Zoo. Good choice, but almost across the street is the Bronx Botanical Gardens. When I was a kid I never wanted to visit there. Why see a tree when you could see bison and screeching monkeys flinging poo. But I am older now, and Fumie wanted to see it, and guess what… it is an vast island of nature smack dab in the center of the Bronx. Not only that, but it is home to the last untouched forest in New York, never logged or farmed, a parcel known as the Thain Family Forest. It is also probably the only remaining virgin hardwood forest in New York that has its own gift shop.

For about ten years the forest was off limits to visitors in order to weed out invasive species and soften environmental impact, but now it has clear paths and for a moment you can stroll through an old growth Hickory forest convenient to a NY transit metro rail stop. It is an unworldly feeling to be surrounded by 200 year old hickory and oak trees while hearing a city bus farting to a stop a few yards away. Hidden deep in the woods there is even a rarely visited  waterfall on the Bronx River.

The Botanical Gardens are brought to you by... a rich corporation!
By this time it was time to find dinner, and Pere Godfried's interior cultural map of the Bronx did not fail us. After visiting an African grocery and inhaling the aromas of deeply smoked and salted goat meat for a while, we felt that something lighter might be in order. 

Jerome Ave, near Kingsbridge Station on the 4 line.
Back in the mid 1970s when the US was settling refugees from Vietnam, the decision was made to scatter the resettled South Vietnamese communities around the country so that none of them would grow into an enclave with enough local political power to effectively control politics, as had the Cuban refugee community in Florida. (Ever hear of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio?)  Thus, New York did not really receive many Vietnamese, and those that were sent here were plunked down in the Bronx, where Bob G. was teaching wood shop in the High Schools. That's where he met the kids whose family run the Com Tam Ninh KieuVietnamese Restaurant. The menu is split between noodle soups and rice plates.

Add your bad pho pun here.
This was some of the best pho I have had in the states. Not delicate, clear broth, but a hearty, packed soup with tripe, tendon, with a small botanical garden of its own served on the side. The Bronx: some of the best eats in New York, if you know where to look.

Monday, February 06, 2017

I Love New Jersey.

It's not that I'm universally loved. We know I'm not in New Jersey. But what they do say in New Jersey is, 'We like him, and we think he's telling us the truth.' I think we need to have that type of politics on the national level.
Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey

Ferry street, Ironbound district of Newark
I'll come straight out and say it: I love New Jersey. I wasn't born here, in fact, sometimes I think nobody was. New Jersey is the ultimate immigrant state: you move here, then you move away from here. Close enough to power but far enough away that you can afford to live there. New Jersey is Donald Trump's nighmare: it is here he ran his casinos into the ground, and it is here that one could find immigrant labor to staff them at the shit wages he paid. Without immigrants you wouldn't be able to eat, shop, or breathe in this state. Immigrants kept Trump's Atlantic City Casinos alive as busloads of Chinese waiters flushed their meager earnings into the septic maw of his bank accounts. 

New Jersey gained fame when Governor Chris Christie, blocked the entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge, taking gleeful vengeance against the people of Fort Lee for having the temerity to trust in democracy. Christie's defensive opera of lies in caught the eye of that most glib of Lying Assholes, the Trumpster his self, who then dragged Christie along the campaign trail only to dump the Governor when appointments were being handed out, reportedly because Trump didn't want any fat people in his cabinet. So where is the discarded Christie now? He hangs on as the acting Governor of New Jersey like a shriveled tumor on a dog's scrotum. But, looking on the positive side, that scrotum has amazing Columbian food, Beautiful beaches, the second largest waterfall east of the Missisppi, and plenty of free parking in the back! As we so often say: Ya gotta love new Jersey.

Yes, we moved here and I moved away, like everybody in New Jersey. But I do return, and it has taken years but I have come to love this grimy, absurdist corner of America. In fact New Jersey is the place that I have resided less than anywhere else in life, but it is where I spent my teen years and it made me into the proud, dumb asshole that I am. Jersey is not pretty, and we know it. Jersey is not smart, and we know it. New Jersey has long been a byword for political corruption - as my Dad says  "New Jersey has the best politicians that money can buy." 

New Jersey is known to much of the world through the TV series The Sopranos, which was filmed here and reveled in presenting new Jersey culture in all its corrupt, run down, big-haired glory. But the decades of uneven development - farmlands becoming industrial towns becoming slums and bordering brand new suburbs - has also made New Jersey a place where you can experience cultural and social diversity unlike anything you might find in, say New York's northern suburbs or out on Long Island. (New Jerseyites have always maintained a vicious sense of superiority towards Long Island. Long Island, as everybody knows, sucks.) 

Big Bazaar on Newark Ave in Jersey City
Immigrant diversity is the norm in Jersey. If I drive to the supermarket from my parent's home in Teaneck I would pass a 17th century Dutch Farmhouse down the road, then a Muslim Medrasseh, a Korean Church, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, a Swedish delicatessen, an Afghan and Pakistani neighborhood, an Italian neighborhood, a Filipino grocery, an Indian-Chinese Restaurant, and then finally find the Farmer's Market, a Korean owned, Mexican staffed market offering frozen guinea pig meat to the Peruvians, Mexican sausage, nearly inedible bony milkfish beloved of Bengalis, and Turkish flatbread. Dinner is served. Yesterday, dinner was served in Jersey City, at the Sapthagiri Indian Vegetarian Restaurant, which we first discovered a few years ago and it remains one of the best bargains for food in the state of New Jersey. 

South Indian, North Indian, Vegan, and Gluten-free thalis at Sapthagiri Jersey City, NJ.
Jersey City used to be a run down, forgotten armpit of a town, run into bankruptcy by corrupt mayor Frank Hague from 1917 to 1950. Lack of services and crime left it a low rent place that only the poorest immigrants would find themselves in, and of course, they improved the place. Today there are significant Indian, Filipino, and African communities there and Newark Avenue, near the PATH station to Manhattan, is the hub of the Indian community centered around India Square. Many come from South India, where vegetarian diets are more common. The Sapthagiri is unique in that it offers excellent dining for all kinds of diets: Jains (who don't eat onions) gluten free, vegan, and it also gained official kosher certification - a local rabbi actually comes in daily to light the oven pilot lights. There are all kinds of savory rice cakes - idly, uppadam, and dosas, which I love but the mixed platter thalis are such an amazing bargain that I can't help myself. 

Four or five different dishes, sauces, dessert, rice, chapati, and if you run out on a favorite the waiter comes and refills your bowl. Like much South Indian food, the cuisine is not particularly spicy hot: for that I ordered a plate of "cut mirchi", chili peppers deep fried in chick pea flour in a dry onion and tomato sauce. 

Not all Indian food is spicy: that is what the spiced achar pickles and peppery side dishes are for. I want to try some of the other Indian restaurants along Newark Ave, but the Sapthagiri is so good that it keeps drawing me back, and I am not a vegetarian by any means. You see a lot of packed vegetarian restaurants in this area. The food is simply that good. And not that far away was the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. By simply driving through Hamilton, NJ and crossing the lethally polluted Passaic River we got to the Ironbound and parked on Ferry Street. We arrived twenty minutes before the Super Bowl kickoff, and the streets were nearly deserted. We were here for Teixera's Bakery, home of the best Portuguese egg custard tarts in North America.

Pasteis de nata
This being Super bowl night, the bakery was doing a brisk business in boxing take out TV snacks and the pasteis de nata were flying out of the shop as fast as they could bake them. I grabbed the last dozen of one batch, a cup of coffee, and settled into one of the spacious tables. Pasteis de nata were introduced all over the Lusitanian world, including the Chinese colony of Macao, where the inspired the Hong Kong Chinese egg tart, but these are a world apart from the Chinese version. Light, with burned caramel custard on top, and crispy when fresh, nothing like the heavy, eggy yellow pastry that ends a dim sum meal. 
Teixera's Bakery, Newark
We usually go to the Ironbound for the Portuguese restaurants, usually Seabra's Seafood nearby, after which I can't usually muster the appetite for a dessert, so I was glad we made the pilgrimage right after our veggie lunch. This is the perfect immigrant neighborhood: Portuguese, Azoreans, Brazillians, Mexicans settled here because the Ironbound is almost like a village. You can find anything you might want - from a supermarket to a Baptism - within a twenty minute walk of home. On a summer evening the cafes and bakeries set out tables on the streets,futbol blasting from televisions, kids running in the alleys, and old ladies gossiping over coffees. There is probably no other neighborhood in the USA that feels more like a European city than this corner of Newark. If you are in New York and have an evening free, take the path train to Newark and walk south along Ferry Street from the station some evening. Its like entering another country. There is a lot more to Newark than an airport.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

恭喜发财 Chinese New Year in New York

Gong Hei Fat Choy! 
 Last week was the end of Chinese New Year, which may not mean much to many of you but for the thousands of Chinese Americans in the United States and their biggest fans - the New York Jews - it is a big deal. Yes, nobody admires the Chinese as much as the Jews. We New York Jews are famous for our love of Chinese - particularly Cantonese - food. For most of us, Chinese food was the portal that introduced us to the discovery of non-kosher food, and for a lot of otherwise observant New York Jews, it was enough. I have known families who kept fully kosher homes, refused to eat at the homes of relatives whose cutlery was suspiciously less than kosher, and even timed the hours between eating meat and milk. They would, however, drop all pretension when it came to going out to a Chinese restaurant. Shrimp suddenly became kosher, and although nobody ordered the pork, they didn't mind if it crept into the egg rolls chopped up into unrecognizable bits, or if their ginger chicken was sauteed in the same wok as the spicy pork. 

Peking Duck at Duck King, Edgewater, NJ. 
The academic study "Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food" notes that the fact that the Chinese staff didn't resemble any "Goy" that our forefathers had previously been beaten up by, and the fact that there was no milk on the menu added to the attraction. Over the years, every Jew in New York began to style themselves as an expert on Chinese food. This is, by now, an almost universal attribute. Everybody thinks that "their" Szechuan Palace or Hunan Empire is the real and authentic one that "Chinese people" would eat at if only there were any Chinese people nearby who would eat there... 

Dim Sum at Jing Fong
Recently, Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker editor and grand old man of American food writing penned a verse reflecting the obsession New Yorkers have with Chinese regional foods:

Have they run out of provinces yet?If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.Long ago, there was just Cantonese.(Long ago, we were easy to please.)But then food from Szechuan came our way,Making Cantonese strictly passé.Szechuanese was the song that we sung,Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.Then when Shanghainese got in the loopWe slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,Came along with its own style of chow.So we thought we were finished, and thenA new province arrived: Fukien.Then respect was a fraction of meagreFor those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame,Plus some others—too many to name.

Trillen got in a bit of trouble for that,  by the way. In his generation Chinese Restaurants were one of the few places where a Jew could exhibit racist behavior toward anybody: mocking the Chinese waiters or the names of food was part of the the spectacle. You sit there at a big round table nibbling on fried noodle sticks dipped in "duck sauce" that no self respecting Chinese person would ever eat with your uncles and cousins and anticipate the cringe as the bad jokes about sum dum goy take over the conversation. And no, we are not beyond that yet

New Jersey, in particular, is a wasteland when it comes to Chinese food, odd given its proximity to New York City and the large amount of Chinese who reside in its suburbs. Chinese families drive over to New York when they want to shop or celebrate. NJ boasts great Korean and Japanese restaurants, but most of the Chinese ones are either Fukien-staffed take-outs serving disgusting gleet or Panda Palaces spooning out pre-frozen egg rolls and Sweet and Sour Pork to aging suburbanites who dine with forks and spoons. There are a few exceptions: we went for Chinese New Year to Duck King in Edgewater, NJ for Peking Duck. Duck King has an English menu and a separate Chinese, and also, this being New Years, offered multi course family banquet menus. It was packed with Chinese families, and the waiters were a bit overwrought with the New Year Crush, but it was a fine night out nonetheless. 

Mom and Dad out for Peking Duck

We also met up with some Hungarian friends who were in NYC to perform with the Pinter Bela Company Theater at the Barishnikov Arts Center. Gabor and I go way back, and we took a long walk across southern Manhattan, crossing the Lower East Side into Chinatown and ending up in the West Village. For lunch we checked into the Jing Fong, an old school Cantonese dim sum palace we had previously always missed. It was a first experience of Dim Sum for the Hungarians, who left it to us to order and we stacked the table with dumplings, rice rolls, and shrimp from the carts. 

Eventually we took pity and got him a fork

It seems that the savviest Chinese know to demand seating near the kitchen in order to get dibs on the good stuff as it comes out on the carts. By the time the carts get to the foreign devils seated at tables near the center of the room there is nothing left except the most well known dishes - shiu mai, spring rolls, and har gow shrimp. The place was, as the Evil Clown in the White House would say, HUGE. One of our friends got lost on the way back to the bathroom.  

The Shiu Mai are good, but the chicken feet at Jing Fong stand out.
I'll be posting on and off while I am in the USA. Presently my camera is not working up to par: it works, but not as conveniently as it should, so I have had less to illustrate blog posts with. Don't worry: New York Jew Eating Chinese Food goes to Flushing soon...

Sunday, January 08, 2017

New York City: Skyscrapers and Everything.

Loeser's Deli, the Bronx. I'm home!

Happy New Year from New York City! I'm back! I'm home! It  seems like only a bit over six months since we were last here, and yet so much has changed. Most of the people - heck, all of the people I know are numb in shock over the "election" of a narcissist con-man to the US presidency, coupled with a year that seems to have reaped the souls of everybody who ever had a 1980s radio hit song. And Princess Leia, who at least inspired one of Paul Simon's albums. Personally, I dealt with the election results by watching cute kitten videos for two straight weeks, and no, I am not sucking it up and accepting Putin's Choice. But if you want political rants, you have to buy me a drink in person.

Obligatory Rockefeller Center Tree visit.
I will be in New York throughout the winter, hanging with my folks and friends. Lots of folks to see, lots of things to do, but my favorite activity is to simply wander the city, especially the older remnant neighborhoods of Old New York, and the resilient outlying zones of the Bronx and Brooklyn. New Yorkers always complain that the city is "not the same." It is what makes them New Yorkers.

$1 roast pork bun at Mei Li Wah
New York isn't a cheap place to visit, but if you know the ground, grew up in it, or even do a bit of homework, you can find something to eat that is both cheap and good, often world class. A fun day in the city for me consists of knowing where these places are and walking a few miles between them, working up an appetite and dropping in bookstores and guitar repair shops along the way. Chinatown abounds in treasures, such as the Mei Li Wah bakery Yes, they bake things there, such as the amazing, huge meat stuffed $1 baked or steamed pork buns, but basically Mei Li Wah is an a la carte dim sum house, perfect if you want cheap Cantonese snacks without the crowds and portions of a full blast dim sum restaurant.

Shrimp rice noodle roll and shiu mai.

The walls are covered with photos of obscure Guangzhou comfort foods and your wait staff probably doesn't speak a word of English: just point and wait. New York has several Chinatown neighborhoods, and the old one in Manhattan doesn't have a great food reputation compared to Flushing or Brooklyn Chinatowns, but it still serves the community as an important Grandma Shopping magnet. Where else can you get supermarket standards like this:
Now with zombie fungus extract!

I get the herbal medicinal soup angle of it, but with added cordyceps? The parasitic fungus that eats the brains of  wasps into them into zombie wasps? Is this something the Republican Party has been working on for years to foist on the American Working Class? Nothing is too bizarre in the world we live in today. According to the wikipedia link the target audience for medicinal zombie fungus is "Elderly populations, improved sexual drive and virility." Because the mushroom part of it looks kind of like a... penis, shall we say? Why are Chinese medicines always so literal?

Viet and French!

Around 30 years ago Manhattan's Chinatown expanded north and west of the original area around Mott Street, with the arrival of Fujianese taking over the east Broadway area and more Southeast Asian and Viet towads the Lower East side. Flushing is now the prime Chinatown for the city, with more mainland Chinese and less Cantonese influence than in Manhattan. I had arrived a bit early in the day so I had a banh mi for breakfast at the Paris Sandwich shop on Grand Street. Paris Sandwich may not have the best possible, absolutely perfect Banh mi in the city, but they do bake the light, crusty baguette, the sweet and tart Vietnamese salad toppings are great, and at $5.50 a meal, its a satisfying breakfast.

Roast Pork and Vietnamese pate. Questionably Kosher.
This far along, I had still to try two more things I had pined for in East Europe... a bowl of good Hong Kong style wonton noodle soup and, if I could find a place, an order of clay pot rice casserole. The legendary hole in the wall A-Wah has been closed down by the NYC health department (when will the Health Dept accept that mouse droppings are where the flavor comes from!) and I need to find a replacement for my favorite Teochow comfort dish closer than Brooklyn. And yet, deep in my reptilian brain, something said "Enough for the day." And so, having spent a total of about ten dollars on two meals, I called le fooding to a halt and spent the rest of the day walking it off. Did I find the best banh mi and Chinese breakfast nook in the city? Tell me in the comments...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Serbia: The Paradise Garden of Protein

Cevapcici... the Glory of Novi Sad

Where have I been for the last month? Where have any of us been, really? Glued to the news, and now that the news has resolved itself, and the US election is over, the Age of Facts and Truth is over and the Troll Brigade has conned the American people into electing an illiterate rapist as President and the alt-right baboons are doing their shitty monkey-assed victory dance for the next two months.... I have been boycotting any and all news sites and watching endless kitten videos on YouTube instead. In cases like this we all need to go on vacation. Fumie and I, although firmly in the Democratic voting bloc, went to Novi Sad, Serbia, a city which had the living shit bombed out of it in 1999 by Nato under the command of Bill Clinton. Oops.... need some kitten videos again...

Anybody out there know who bombed this bridge in Novi Sad?  (Hint: he was married to Hillary!) 
So we went to Serbia. A vacation in Serbia is not something you read about much in Conde Naste Traveler. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia earned itself a pretty bad international reputation, sort of as the Toughest Meanest Kid on the Balkan Block. You may also klnow Serbia as the country that produced all the Hollywood action film villains of the late 1990s (Serbian actors made a cottage industry out of pretending to hunt down and torture Bruce Willis. "Would you like to die fast... or slow?....") You may remember a genocidal gasbag named Milosevic, you may remember a war or two in the Balkans, all of which is very worth remembering. But Serbia today has calmed down, considerably. They have gone back to being easy going, approachable, friendly Balkanoid folks - maybe somebody found a couple of free duffel bags of Xanax in Niš or something. If you are in the neighborhood (anywhere east of Vienna and north of Athens, say) Serbia would be well worth a visit, if only for the meat.

Leskovac Pleskavica in Novi Sad. Yes, it is the size of a child's head. The baddest Balkan burger for $4.00. 
Serbs like meat. They like meat a lot. Particularly meat served with as little froofrah as possible: chunks of meat grilled over a fire is the cornerstone of Serb cuisine, and they are masters of it. At some point around 150,000 years ago, early man tamed fire and first grilled a bit of meat over an open flame. That was enough for the Serbs - they never seemed to bother with other techniques for applying heat to protein. There are grills - rostilj - on every street corner, and the savory smell of grilled meat bathes the nation in its hypnotic aroma. There may be a vegan or two in the country, but they seem quiet about it. Serbia is not a vegetarian paradise, although a visit to an open air market there is a trip to organic, non-genetically manipulated salad paradise. But in Serbia, vegetables know their place! Their place is next to meat!

Things that exist only to accompany meat are sold at Belgrade Market
Since the Serbian macroeconomy remains a bit... isolated, undeveloped, sad, pathetic, and perhaps, totally tanked, Serbians tend to shop and eat locally, and even their supermarkets seem to be stocked with local specialities that appear no place else on earth. If you are not earning your living inside of Serbia these products will appear to be surprisingly affordable, almost surrealistically so, inspiring thoughts of extending one's tourist visa for, perhaps, a five to ten year stay. Food and drink are cheap for outsiders: significantly less so if you are local. Serbia is the last bastion of local branding: you won't see the big Global brands and chains here, which is refreshing. And most of the locally produced stuff is surprisingly quite good - at least it is unlike anything you can find outside of Serbia.

It's Eurocrem, silly! Just smear it on everything!
When I am south of Hungary I go for the meat, preferably cevapcici (skinless ground meat wads) or pleskavica - the Balkan equivalent of a hamburger. Unlike a hamburger, pleskavica are made from special secret recipes for the ground meat mix (usually veal, lamb, and pork in various combos) and serious techniques for its preparation, such as freezing it before kneading the meat into a pastelike consistency. Pepper and eggplat ajvar, chopped onions, and a bit of salad are all this needs to complete a full meal. And don't forget to order your meat with a dollop of kajmak, a  sourish clotted cream product that combines the taste of cheese with the rich melting consistency of butter.

"Hamburger" doesn't begin to reflect on the meaty, testosterone inspiring magnificence of a well constructed pleskavica nestled in a soft, spongey balkan pocket bread known as somun. And while I - and quite a lot of Serbs and other Ex-Yugos, will agree that the best cevapi are those of Bosnia, either the small Sarajevo cylinders or the square Banja Luka style, Serbia remains the master of pleskavica. And since you simply can not get a decent hamburger in Europe, we have to accept the fact that pleskavica is not only the next best thing... it may be the best thing.

Pleskavica across the street from me at PolaPola.
I am lucky in Budapest, because just across the street from us on Klauzal ter in the 7th district is the PolaPola, a Serbian grill house that serves, perhaps, the best cevapi and pleskavica in Budapest, and bakes their own fresh and spongey somun bread as well. and they stay open until two AM and they have a huge glass container hanging from the ceiling FULL OF SERBIAN PLUM BRANDY waiting for anyone (such as me, Frank London of the Klezmatics, Mitia Khrantsov of Sankt Petersburg Klezmer band Dobranotch, and dance ethnographer Sue Foy) to signal for a refill of our glasses.

Frank London, Sue Foy, Mitia Kramtsov awaiting their slivovica at PolaPola.

When leaving Novi Sad, which is about a six hour train ride from Budapest, the last thing that you notice at the station are these signs advising against unsafe use of the trains: don't climb on the roofs where the electric wires can kill you, don't jump in front of the trains... do people really need to be told these things? In Serbia... Yes.

Safety comes first! (Novi Sad train station)

Don't try this!

Another fatally bad idea!

Don't say we didn't warn you! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trout Fishing in Serbia: the Gradac

We just finished off our summer with a brilliant fishing trip to the Gradac river in Serbia. I don't get out fishing as much as I used to, but a trip is to a wild, beautiful river like the Gradac in western Serbia, is well worth the wait. The Gradac is a world class trout stream, equal to any in Wyoming or Argentina, and although not as famous as other Balkan trout streams such as the Soča in Slovenia or the Gačka in Croatia, it doesn't get as crowded as they can. We usually fish for trout in Slovakia, so this was a great excuse to visit Serbia. Hungary is not a trout fishing paradise. The main target for fishermen here is carp. I do not do carp. I do not like carp. Carp are the Donald Trump of fishes - fat, rich, arrogant, dumb, piggish - but they do great in the polls among the uneducated. Carp grow huge in Hungary's weedy, shallow lakes and irrigation ditches. "Rough anglers" pay to fly in from the Netherlands, Britain and Italy to haul out a big, fat, Hungarian carp, take a snapshot, and release it to continue its life mucking about inhaling other fish' eggs. Although there actually are trout near Miskolc in the Garadna and Szinva creeks, they are hatchery cloned fish dumped in for the weekend crowds. And there is the Jósva, Hungary's only healthy limestone trout stream, right along the Slovak border - inside a National park basically closed to fishing. About fifteen years ago my buddy Claude and I were on a picnic with friends from the old Sixtus Kapolna Pub, and we sneaked off to fly fish the Jósva, which was off limits to all except dozens of local poachers who sold the trout to local restaurants. Claude - who is a lawyer and thus has no respect for the law - knows that poaching isn't just a way to cook fish, and so we each took our first Eastern European brown trout.

Representing La Belle France, Claude takes a Gradac brown trout.
Since then we have fished all over Slovenia and Slovakia, and since Claude now works in Serbia, he discovered the River Gradac near Valjevo in western Serbia, which is under the guardianship of host and fishing guide Saša "Roka" Bencun, the talented proprietor of Roka Fly. The Gradac is one of the most unspoiled rivers in Europe, protected by a steep, impenetrable limestone canyon. You can't drive a regular car down the canyon to the stream without a parachute.When Saša is not fishing, he works as a ski instructor. Saša drives you down the narrow canyon donkey path in his tiny four-wheel drive Jeep with all the skill of a champion slalom skier. The Jeep ride is an extreme sport experience in itself.

Saša Bencun runs a small fishing lodge near Lelić, which sits on a hillside two minutes walk from three great pools on the Gradac, and he has a lifetime of experience fishing the Gradac. He knows the fish and their habits intimately, and puts that into practice as a fly tier who has won international awards for his skill at tying hyper-realistic mayfly imitations that - he claims - actually catch fish. In reality, these are collector pieces, and most of the time Saša fishes classic flies from his own tying vise for the wild brown trout in the river.

Too pretty to fish, too small for an art gallery. 
In practice, Saša also ties practical flies that match the insects of the river perfectly. Typical of Balkan trout, the wild brown trout (and grayling) in the Gradac grow to huge sizes eating a diet of big food - minnows and leeches - and some of Saša's patterns were more like the flies used on big Western rivers in the USA than the delicate New England stuff I tie. Those big patterns are best when the river is flooded and the pools run fast and deep in the spring. We visited in late August - not the best season - and at that time of year the fish can afford to be picky eaters, and often ignore hatching insects to gorge on ants and grasshoppers and other land insects that accidentally fall into the river.

Balkan tiers love big streamers with heavy cone head weights to sink them into the deeper pools where big trout tend to hog the best feeding lanes. The largest flies I use are about half the size of Saša's Wooly Buggers seen above. I have been tying flies since I was a Boy Scout... and I still do. I tie because it has always been a compulsive hobby for me - I give most of my flies away for free to other fishermen. I probably have the largest secret stash of elk hair in Eastern Europe. I have two tying vises. I remember the puzzled face of my friend Yankl - an  Orthodox Jew - as he handed me a bag of furry tanned rabbit faces I had ordered from the USA for tying hares' ear nymphs. I can appreciate the perfectionism that Saša puts into his flies.

Master fly tier at work.
But my theory is a bit simpler: After tying dozens of different patterns I tend to to fish only a few: wingless Adams, Hare's Ear nymphs, tiny bead head pheasant tail nymphs, dry deer hair caddis, red tags, prince nymphs, ants, and muddlers. As John Gierach wrote  "If the fish looks up its an Adams, if it looks down its a Hare's Ear Nymph." I don't have time to fish a lot of different patterns: I think size and color are more important than exact imitation. Maybe I don't catch that many fish, but fly fishing isn't really about catching fish at all. It is about fishing. It is about being in beautiful, remote natural places while matching wits with an apex predator that has a brain the size of a lentil - and losing.

Fly fishing in paradise.
Just upstream from the cabin was one of the most picture perfect trout pools I have ever seen. All four of us fished it for the entire weekend without any luck. A rainy period had flushed a lot of insects into the river and the trout had been gorging all week. They were in the river but not hungry, and not interested in anything we threw at them. There are a lot of strategies one can use in these cases: dry fly casting, short line "Polish" nymphing, stripping streamers, or my favorite: throwing everything at the trout and waiting to see what sticks.

Frustrated by tiny animals.
It was easy to cast a fly line without getting tangled in the bushes - the grass banks along the Gradac are cut regularly with a weed-whacker - and I rarely had to wade the river more than ankle deep. Because I travel by train I usually don't carry waders when I fish - and I was perfectly comfortable stepping into the Gradac in sneakers and shorts. Fumie has her own unorthodox style of fly fishing. She isn't afraid to get wet, she isn't a great fly caster, she prefers to fish only two patterns of fly chosen for their "cuteness", and she still expects me to tie her leader knots, but she usually out-fishes me three to one. On this trip we each landed and released one fish each. Not exactly monsters by a long shot, but wild trout nonetheless.

Giant trout that attacked my fly with the ferocity of an alkaline AAA battery. 
The Gradac is a strict catch and release fishery - fly fishing only, no barbed hooks, no bait, and patrolled by a Fish Warden regularly who checks for licenses - which Saša provides for guests. Lucky for the fish, Saša's wife does all the cooking at the cabin, and we had great Serbian food: gibanica cheese pie for breakfast, stuffed grape leaves and meat in kajmak sauce for lunch and dinner. If I have been standing in a cold mountain river all day the last thing I want to eat at the end of the day is a fish. I'll blog a bit later about the rest of our trip through Serbia: Serbian food is one of my favorite cuisines.

Serbian lunch: nobody goes away hungry.
After lunch on Sunday Fumie hiked two km downstream with Claude's wife Mina, and their daughters Kali and Hani to visit a local "Skok po Skok Ecofarm" near one of the monasteries that dot the mountains throughout Serbia. This was the last trip of the summer for the amazingly multilingual Kali and Hani, who each already speak English, Romani, Romanian, Russian, Hebrew, Serbian, and French and began attending school in Belgrade right after we returned. The girls are still a bit small for fishing, but I have a feeling that pretty soon Claude will be investing a small fortune in graphite rods and custom waders. And I'll be tying a lot more flies.

Mina, Kali, and Hani: non fishing fun. 
Hopefully we'll be back next spring when conditions are better for feeding trout (Claude caught and released nine trout last June.) We returned to Belgrade, and then went on to Novi Sad - Serbia is one of the most unique travel destinations in Europe, with a character all its own - still local and regional, and not overrun by the big globalized shopping malls and brands that have made so much of Europe one big shopping mall. Serbia was just the trip we needed to end our summer, and we can't wait to return!