Thursday, February 21, 2019

Klezmer Pioneers Reunited

The View from here.
The last days of winter are on us in the New York area, it would seem. Time to head back to Budapest and watch the spring arrive. First we get the hovirag - tiny crocus flowers - popping up in Klauzal ter, and then, slowly, the arrival of baby cabbages coming in late march. Yes, I would forsake all the gaudy trappings of New York City for one tender Hungarian cabbage. I am a simple man. I haven't been into the NY Urban Megalopolis that much this trip - but we did go into the city to attend the Center for Traditional Music and Dance event at the YIVO Intitute for Jewish Research "Andy Statman and Zev Feldman: Klezmer Pioneers Reunited!" 

Statman and Feldman were among the first musicians to dig into the local roots of Yiddish music back in the 1970s, a period when performing Yiddish instrumental music was in deep decline. They did extensive research with clarinetist Dave Tarras while he was still in his prime, Statman essentially inheriting both the style and, eventually, the clarinets of the great musician. The experience led Zev to a career as a highly respected musicologist - his study of Ottoman classical music is the standard text for the field, while his recent "Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory" is really the most successful attempt to produce a history of the genre. I first knew Statman as a bluegrass mandolinist who would show up at the Eagle Tavern jam sessions on 14th street - he played with the legendary Wretched Refuse String Band. I had bumped into Zev via the Balkan Arts Center Friday dances at St. John the Divine Church near Columbia University. Zev and Andy had been studying Azeri Jewish music with Zebulon Avshalomov and performed at the Balkan Arts Center's 1975 festival.

In 1978 Zev and Andy recorded one of the first "klezmer" records released during the revival period, presenting a traditionalist arrangement of Andy's clarinet or mandolin backed by Zev on tsimbl (small cimbalom.) Only the Berkeley, CA based "The Klezmorim" had produced anything considered "Klezmer" music, and that was based on learning from old 78 rpm recordings. "Jewish Klezmer Music" by Zev and Andy sounded like two young virtuosos coached by living master musicians. The duo performed at a 1978 concert sponsored by the Balkan Arts Center, the predecessor of the modern CMTD at the Casa Galicia, an ethnic club for Spanish immigrants that subsequently became the rock club The Ritz. I was in the audience that day - sitting up on the balcony.

After their set, Tarras himself performed in a trio with accordion and drums. After the concert was over I approached Dave Tarras and told him how much I appreciated his music. He look at me, 19 years old... and said "Are you Jewish? OK.... See those drums? Take them out to the car." Yes, I did meet the legendary Dave Tarras, and yes, he treated me as a dumb kid. Par for the course. (Compare this to my backstage meeting in 1972 with Tom Robinson, a nonagenarian New Orleans trombone player who was the last surviving member of Buddy Bolden's Band. He gave me my first beer.)

I know that both Zev and Andy have busy careers and new musical directions, but it would be wonderful for these two to record a follow up album to Jewish Klezmer Music after nearly forty years. After a concert set on clarinet and tsimbl that some would describe as too fucking short, Prof Mark Slobin joined Statman and Feldman onstage for a discussion. One point they made is that before 1975, nobody used the term "klezmer" to refer to Yiddish instrumental music. Klezmer refers to the caste of professional musicians who play the music, not the musical genre itself, but since "Jewish Klezmer Music" was one of the very first LPs that anybody bought for Jewish music, the name stuck and for the next four decades the question of "what is klezmer music" inspired thousands of improvised and inaccurate answers until finally Zev published "Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory" (I think that now would be a proper time to address the fact that when Blogger spellchecks Klezmer it provides the alternative term "Kleenex" and so in the future all inquiries to me will be addressed regarding Kleenex Music.)

Upskirt view of some very hot pastrami.
Yiddish culture in New York lurks not only in the ears and heart, but also in the stomach. Before I leave New York I had to make the pilgrimage to Katz's Deli for a pastrami sandwich. Yes, I know it is crazy overpriced. You want a good sandwich at a decent price you go to Loesser's or Liebman's in the Bronx, or Hobby's in Newark. On the Anti side of the equation: the things are now $22 at Katz's. Twenty two fucking dollars for a sandwich. But on the pro side... it is a world class meal, worthy of the best restaurants, better than 97% of anything served at Peter Luger's Steak House... the finest cured meat you will find anywhere that is not located in "Montreal" and you will not walk out of the place hungry, which is more than you can say for most places where you are going to part with $25 for lunch.

Fumie just after shaking hands with Johnny Weir, figure skating champion. 
And now... my life. I don't drive. I used to drive, but I gave it up around the age of twenty, after sensing that The Lord would only allow me to continue living if I gave up automotive transportation. I was working hard to get through college while The Lord was frantically trying to reclaim me to his bosom by throwing other cars at mine, placing huge potholes in my car's way, slamming cars into me while I was parked, or even just crushing my fender often enough to empty my bank account, dooming me to starvation. So I stopped driving. I let my license lapse. I bought a bicycle. I am happy to report that I am still alive, the cars haven't killed me yet.

Why use a picture of a car? Really, we endorse Shake Shack burgers.
One result is that I tend to confine my life to cities. In Europe you can reach almost anywhere using affordable trains and buses, but New Jersey is defined by towns with no commercial center. There are vast,  rolling miles of suburbs that can only be navigated by car. So I decided to apply for a driver's license. I studied the New Jersey drivers manual, I took the online tests over and over again until I felt confident that I could identify driver blind spots or relate how to park a vehicle on an upward sloping street...

The only good reason to drive.
I failed. I failed miserably. And since I will be back in Hungary in a week I will probably not be able to take the test again until the summer, meaning I will have to go through the whole permit application process once again. And get my brother to drive me to the DMV center in Lodi at 7:30 in the AM to stand on line... all to be able to independently drive to get fresh bagels. I'll be spending the next few months with my drivers manual memorizing the reaction times for stopping on wet asphalt and the shape of Yield signs.... I will not fail again!

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Chinese New Year in New York

Happy Year of the Pig!
Gong Hao Fat Choy! Yes, its is time for the annual Chinese New Year's blog post. This is notable because a) I'm not Chinese, and b) this is a blog post. The first factoid should become apparent very soon, but the second merits discussion. I started writing this blog back in 2006 while spending a summer in Istanbul, mainly to show my friends and family the things I was eating.

Henan lamb noodles at Spicy Village near Grand St. subway.
I first read about this newfangled thing called blogging in an article in New Yorker Magazine around 2000. At the time, I had not been active in weekly journalism for a year and I saw blogging as a way to keep my writing chops in shape, push-ups in written form. This blog (purposely misspelled to its dialect form and named after a fiddler I know in Romania whose name means, essentially, 'The Lord' - he tells you what to do and you did it) began in Istanbul in 2006, ostensibly to share photos of food, travel, and music with my friends all over the globe. For a while blogs were the new kid on the internet block, and I was posting a lot, often getting over a thousand hits a day on some story about strange Romanian fiddles, what Turks put in their lamburgers or pizza in The Bronx.
Ioan Pop on vioara cu goarne, and no, I can't get you one.
Blogging was to HTML what the Beatles were to Lawrence Welk. For a couple of years bloggers were celebrities, and some managed to eke out book deals or monetize their blogs into a small fortune. Those days are now long gone... attention spans have shrunk down to Twitter and Instagram and even more imbecilic platforms (Snapchat!) which make blogging look like what it is: a home for aging blowhards to discuss weird ethnic fiddle construction, klezmer history, and Chinese food.
Hungarian-friendly kolbรกszos sticky rice lo mai gai from Shanghai in Ft. Lee, NJ. 
Which is fine with me. I may be posting a bit less than I used to, but I am not giving up the ghost just yet. My migration pattern often sees me spending a couple of months a year in the New York area - specifically, in Jersey, but close enough that a three dollar Spanish bus gets me into Manhattan and on the A train within a half hour of the old homestead. And after a week of nasty polar vortex during which Fumie dragged my nonathletic ass to watch... Johnny Weir, Olympic figure skating champion at the Bryant Park ice rink. I was very, very, very cold. Oh, the things I do for love.... this sub-antarctic survival test was preceded by a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant in the Bronx with Professor Emeritus Bob Godfried, the Man Who Knows the Bronx Better than Anybody.

Rice Pancake at Com Tan inh Kieu. 
Located along Jerome Avenue south of Kingsbridge, the Com Tan Ninh Kieu has upgraded itself from a cheap grubby local lunch space into a cheap and sleek restaurant that draws wary outsiders up the #4 subway to the Bronx for excellent Vietnamese pho and regional style Viet food. I love Vietnamese cuisine - and it is not that widespread in the New York area. I had a Vietnamese room mate in college... which very quickly grew to having 12 Vietnamese room mates in our two bed dorm room, so I know of what I speak. Chinatown is really the only part of Manhattan left that is of any interest to me, since the rest of the island seems to have turned into a Trump branded mall selling fashion sneakers and avocado toast to NYU students. While the city's main Chinese neighborhoods have migrated eastward to Flushing and Sunset Park, Manhattan's old neighborhood has remained staunchly Cantonese, and the old fashioned elaborate Chinese writing used in signage down here is nearly unintelligible to many mainland Mandarin speakers. And I like Cantonese food... it is what I grew up with, and when I was a wee teenager I was already familiar with the offerings of the Chinese tea shops down here, when I could stuff myself for a dollar on pork buns and rice rolls. My love for Cantonese wonton noodle soups leads me to systematically try every noodle shop in the city.

One of the last old time dim sum tea shop bakeries is the Mei Li Wah on Bayard street. For starters its cheap. And small. And dingy. It makes no concession to trendiness or, for that matter, hygiene. If authenticity is what you are after, yeah, it is authentic in an old New York meets Hong Kong way. If you want retro hipster old style Chinatown with a menu set up for non-Chinese, go to nearby Nom Wah. If you want to eat in an old Jackie Chan movie set, try Mei Li Wah. For starters their pork buns are the best in New York - huge, stuffed full of roasted pork and sauce, almost a full meal for a buck fifty.

There are crowds at the door buying the pork buns as fast as they came out of the kitchen, but we managed to grab a booth and enjoy a sit down meal. Buns to start, of course, but their shiu mai are also great (at least if you like big meaty noodly shiu mai) I like to come here for some of the items I usually only see in dim sum parlors, like cheung fan rice rolls. Here you can get a plate of them rolled into little carpets supporting a stew of beef navel (stomach) meat and ginger... lots of chewy tendon and and connecting tissue on fluffy rolled rice noodle. This is what I miss living in Europe...

Beef Navel Rice Roll... 
The Mei Li Wah has a short little menu, but the real dishes are displayed in photos taped around the walls of the room - this is how Fumie discovered the Sticky Rice Egg Thing. We know that is what you call it because that is what neighboring Chinese diners at Mei Li Wah called it when pointing at Fumie's plate asking to order that "Sticky Rice Egg Thing." When Chinese customers point at your plate for the waiter, you are doing something right.

The Egg Thing, however, reveals itself to be an edible Chinese style Clown Volkswagen: compressed inside a wad of sticky rice is a vast molten sea of meat, cabbage and Chinese chives.