23 November 2009
Personal Chef Journeys by Zeppelin
"You have gained quite a bit of weight," was my mother's first comment when I arrived to California in September. I thought that I had not been home for three years but it turned out to be five. And I have put on a few pounds since then.
Mom lives in a small town in Mendocino County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Even though she will be 84 in a few days, she is very independent and still lives alone, although under the watchful eye of my youngest sister. Her memory is still fantastic for everything that happened three days ago or longer, but her short-term memory is gone. ("Did we have lunch yet today?") I suppose that's where I am headed.
I spent two wonderful weeks as her personal chef, following my siblings' instructions to fatten the old girl up. And I enjoyed every minute of it. During "Indian Summer" the farmers' markets in Ukiah, Fort Bragg, Covelo and Potter Valley were selling bumper crops of fresh vegetables, wild blackberries, and sweet corn that had been picked just two hours earlier. The heirloom tomatoes alone were worth the trip.
This part of California is famous for its wines, so I consumed as much as I could, and often more. Mendocino County is perhaps more famous for its single biggest cash crop--cannabis. Drive through Ukiah during the hot, sticky days of September and you can smell it everywhere. Sometimes it seems that practically everyone has a tree or two, including a few little old ladies in their eighties. The local authorities know a good thing when they see it or, in this case, don't see it. Personally, I'll stick to pinot noir. After five years away it was a thrill to drink wine that came from a bottle rather than a box.
Eventually, I fled Ukiah, as I first did in 1968, for more exciting times in San Francisco, where I spent most of my life. I left Mom with six months of pre-cooked meals in her freezer.
I had wondered what it would be like to return after such a long absence to a place where I had spent thirty years. Arriving on a drizzly Sunday, my wonderful friends Brian and Johnny decided to celebrate my homecoming at The Eagle's Sunday Beer Bust. After two hours I realized that I had not seen a single person I knew. For the first time it became clear that I am no longer a part of San Francisco, which is sadly liberating.
San Franciscans disdain the city's "touristy" things. Since I was now merely a tourist I allowed myself to indulge liberally in cable car rides, shopping sprees around Union Square with my girlfriend Gloria, a long walk through Chinatown and a stop at Stella Pastry in North Beach for a cannolli. I took an electric bicycle trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and returned on the ferry. But the big thrill was a two-hour ride on the Zeppelin Airship Eureka, which everyone should do at least once. More about that in the next installment.
Since food figures pretty high on my list of things to do anywhere, and because food in Northern California is so stupendous, I arrived with a carefully prepared list of places to eat. There will be more about where to eat in San Francisco in the next episode.
Where to Eat in Ukiah
Inthe center of California's other wine country, this little town and its environs offer some interesting and often surprisingly wonderful opportunities for people who love great things to eat. If you plan a pit-stop here, ignore the restaurants mentioned on the big travel websites. They were written mostly people who simply pass through town. Forget the fast food (there is a lot of it). Forget the brew pub. And when you are astonished to see a tuktuk sputtering down State Street, forget Thai food (after all, the cook already has).
You will find Ukiah's best lunch at Schatt's, across the street from the county court house or El Azteca on North State Street. Schatt's has been a bakery since I was a toddler. They bake some of the world's best breads (try the cheese bread or the dark sourdough with walnuts and olives), which have become the foundation their lunch menu. A good choice for dinner is Patrona, on the opposite side of the court house, which was for most of my childhood Wildburger's Grocery.
If you enjoy a slab of red meat along with your red wine, The Broiler is the place you should not miss. You can find it easily near Highway 101 in Redwood Valley (the hamlet north of Ukiah). The Broiler is always a part of my visits home. The waitresses are ancient, the steaks thick and grilled over apple wood, which is aromatic and burns very hot, so you can get your steak the way I like 'em--black on the outside and red on the inside. Nobody leaves hungry.
Before you leave town, look for a bottle of Germain-Robin Alambic brandy, which is made in Ukiah with an ancient copper still that had been used by the proprietor's grandfather in Cognac. It is, hands down, the best brandy on the planet. It's served in the White House, many of America's most celebrated restaurants, and at my dinner table. I've been told that Ronald Reagan loved the stuff and made French Prime Ministers drink it, so he must not have been such an old fool after all.
Didn't Your Mother Tell You Never to Volunteer for Anything, Idiot?
In the last episode I promised to present my own side of the "demise" of Pride events in Thailand. You may recall that I took umbrage at a rather irresponsible story that appeared on Fridae.com. I was not alone.
Our pride events began for three different reasons:
The first reason was to have fun, although I have scratched this off my personal list with a very sharp knife since then.
Some of us thought Pride was a way to build community. Thailand's homosexuals are fractured into groups that are separated by class and age. We hoped that a parade, a fair in Lumpini Park and other related events would be a way to bring people together to do something in common, and to create what might someday be a sense of community.
Last, we hoped Pride would stimulate tourism that would benefit the many people here whose lives depend on it.
Despite our noble intentions, most Thai gays really have no interest in belonging to a larger community. Most of us in Bangkok had hoped tha the leadership of our Pride organization to be taken over by Thais. They were not interested. And like many all-volunteer gay groups, there were inevitable and ugly personality clashes and power struggles. Some of those who contributed the least wanted the most power, and occasionally those without power sought to spoil it for the rest of us.
Ultimately in Bangkok, the police made our parade impossible, Thais distanced themselves, and it became more trouble that it was worth for everyone involved.
Regardless of what was published in the Fridae.com story, Pride is still not dead in Thailand. Our cousins in Pattaya plan another memorable series of events next week. Organizers in Phuket are regrouping and plan yet another fun celebration in 2010. Although there are no plans being made for future Pride events in Bangkok, don't nail the lid of our coffin shut quite yet, Dougie.
We thought that our dreams had come true when a queer group in Chiang Mai began to form a Pride organization and put on a Thai-style parade. This ended badly when a well-known gay activist who was not part of the group threw a tantrum because he could not step in at the last minute to become the star and bask in the glow of event's success. Many believe he instigated the police and red shirt crack-down that spoiled the event and left some participants injured. He used to think he was the icon of the gay rights movement in Thailand, but he has turned out to be the poster child for selfishness and deceit. She will never enjoy Germain-Robin at my table again.
I am proud of the many people in Thailand who have worked so hard to help people out of their closets, encourage unity, demonstrate strength in numbers, fight HIV, and even have some fun.
Kill Your Television: Reason #179 Cable TV rarely pleases every viewer. True Corp., which has the monopoly in Bangkok, seems to make little effort. However, the recent crowd-pleaser is Lin Ping TV, a 24/7 live broadcast from the cage of a panda and her offspring. People here are enthralled and watch it for hours on end. Most of the time she sleeps but occasionally plays with her toys. Why replace the tired old movies if everyone is watching a sleeping animal?
Autumn arrived in Bangkok last Thursday. It came as fast as you can flip a calendar page. Suddenly the temperature has dropped ten degrees. Windows stay open day and night, and Thai people begin to bundle themselves up in turtle neck sweaters and down-filled ski jackets. It's my favorite time of the year.
You probably would not expect to see them here, but Christmas decorations began to appear just before Halloween. Lights are twinkling at practically every major intersection, and the lighting of gigantic fake trees at shopping malls are front page news in the local papers. Darika is baking cookies like mad.
If you happen to be in Bangkok over the holidays, the best decorations in the city are along Rachadamri Road. The best tree is always at the Peninsula Hotel, which gives you a the perfect excuse to drop by for high tea. This year's tree is an eighteen foot Nobile Pine that was flown to Bangkok from Oregon. If you have been away as long as I have, just a whiff of the tree's perfume will bring back plenty of childhood memories.
Soupy Sales died last month at the age of 83. If you did not grow up with black and white television in America in the early seventies it is probably impossible to understand Soupy's pie-in-the-face comedy that entertained children when TV was still pretty new. Soupy was one of the early pioneers of using television to replace babysitters.
While death is not usually considered a happy ending, Soupy lived to be eighty-three, and many of his fans now have grandchildren who might hear bedtime stories about White Fang, Pookie, and flying whipped cream. You can (and should) see clips from several of his shows on Youtube.
I just had a peek at a website that boldly predicts the deaths of celebrities. They have not been particularly accurate this year since Fidel Castro, Nancy Reagan and Zsa Zsa are still alive and kicking. (In href="http://www.clubsanook.com/newsletters/september07.htm" target=_blank>Zsa Zsa's case, "kicking" is probably a poor choice of words since her legs have been amputated thanks to years of diabetes.) Does it surprise you that enough people are so fascinated with this grim subject to support a website? Me neither. (June 2016: We found that this site had been taken down. No wonder.)
The real happy ending is, I suppose, that my name is absent from their list and that Jerry Falwell is still dead.