I’m watching television and, instead of studying repeat episodes of Live PD or Policewomen of Dallas as part of my ongoing investigation into oppression of the underclass, I have my set tuned to a “news” channel. The host discusses an interview with our current president, noting the number of lies our fearless leader tells per minute.
The chief executive outrages my liberal friends, but I like to remind them his behavior is not unusual. Most politicians of all stripes are grifters, hustlers in service to ready sources of money, nearly all of them bottom feeders and liars whose contrition when their cons are discovered issues not from a moral awakening, but is born in an attempt to conceal their frustration at being temporarily thwarted in their pursuit of funds, fame, and flings.
That said, there’s no denying the oaf in the Oval Office has set a standard that tinplate dictators, zealous ideologues, and oil-rich despots will be hard-pressed to top.
It’s like the time you hire an entertainer for Bitsy’s sixth birthday party. The doorbell rings, and you open it to find a grossly obese parolee in full clown makeup, drunk, vomiting in the flowerpot, and naked from the waist down but for a pair of grotesquely large shoes.
The saddest thing about our current leadership is that the clown at the door is an authentic reflection of the culture from which he springs. He is America — an America other people in the world know quite well, since it often shows up at their parties. When it does, it not only hurls its lunch into the petunias, but it is heavily armed, and eager for action. Drones fly, bombs drop, tanks roll, the fun is on!
I teeter on the edge of despair as I listen to the halfwit-in-chief and the news face exchange blabber and, since it is near my bedtime, I can’t soothe myself with a burrito stuffed with papas, a smattering of the leftover Anasazi beans I cranked out in the Instant Pot, and a flutter of shredded Asadero, the tantalizing tube afloat in pork-studded chile verde. Trust me, in other circumstances this is a sure cure.
So, I retreat to fantasy, to an interior dialogue, as I often do when confronted with nastiness like war, corrupt and functionally illiterate Republicans, global warming, cancer, and whatnot.
The dialogue unfolds. A fledgling feature writer hoping to get her piece published in Rolling Stone is interviewing me. She wears no makeup, and she has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Radcliffe. Whenever she farts under the bed covers, she chortles and asks, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
The working title of her piece is “Drain the Culture Reservoir: What Do We Discover?”
She discovers me, and begins.
So, Karl, for a number of decades you’ve made the bulk of what is laughingly called your “living” working as a writer and an editor. Granted, you’ve had numerous exhibits of paintings; you sold paintings, but it is primarily your labor as a word jockey that allows you to tote home the meager provisions you contribute to the larder.
As a veteran scribbler, you probably have tips, hints, prompts, to share with folks as simple-minded as you, those who wish to pursue a path similar to your own.
Most would-be writers — J School grads hoping to secure jobs at cheesy weeklies, or aesthetes seeking MFAs that will provide them entrée to work as a barista/poet, or as an adjunct “professor” at a community college — eventually face the problem known as “writer’s block” as they work late into the night on their bestseller. Your advice concerning a solution to this vexing dilemma is valuable.
Yes, I respond, it is a problem, and it is vexing. Well called. “Vexing” is a term I rarely hear voiced in the aisles at Wal Mart.
My advice, while hardly valuable, is nonetheless seasoned. I am most familiar with the block that plagues writers of what is now called “creative nonfiction” by those in the know at leading universities and boutique literary agencies.
After decades in the newspaper business, I am also acquainted with the fact that objective fruit bears creative seed, as well as with a companion verity: fiction feeds on lived experience. Your readers enrolled in an MFA program are encouraged to use some variation of this statement during their critiques. Toss in a few up-to-the-moment bits of post-structuralist gobbledy gook, and they’re on their way to Starbucks!
My advice for the creative non-fiction writer who suffers a block?
Don’t whine. Drink heavily, smoke a lot of weed or gulp down tinctures and edibles, make shit up, and the non-fiction falls into place once the fog burns off.
Most important: learn to cook, and determine to eat well, whenever possible.
This also goes for painters, sculptors, and conceptual artists (whatever that means, since intellectual depth is obviously not a requirement).
An aside: The art writer and critic Jerry Saltz created a list of recommendations for anyone pretentious and/or privileged enough to crave a “career” as a visual artiste. One of his suggestions was “Learn to write.” This is hilarious, given that most contemporary artistes, in particular those peopling graduate programs, barely know how to read (using the term “Kantian” in an unintelligible artist’s statement does not mean you’ve consumed The Critique of Pure Reason, and digested it). Given that these dweebs spend little to no time pursuing in-depth knowledge of art history, or of technique in their chosen field, mastery of the craft of writing as a sideline is out of the question. It’s easier to teach a hamster to drive a Maserati.
But, it’s possible for would-be writers, and wannabe visual artists, to develop rudimentary skills in the kitchen, and refined tastes at the table. Many of the best cookbooks produced these days include plenty of photographs. The novices can imitate what they see. They should be used to doing this by now.
Food and cooking invariably fire my noun cannon, and when they do, I need to make up very little, if anything, when I position my fat ass before the keyboard.
Locked and loaded, well fed and full of wine, the fog burns off, and I find inspiration and material in everyday occurrences.
Two nights before an appointment with an “interventional cardiologist,” I toss and turn in my little bed, wracked by anxiety, unable to sleep due to four or so triple vodka tonics.
I’m scheduled for an office session preliminary to an adventure in the cath lab, during which a device will be wiggled up an artery to the vicinity of my left ventricle. I expect the office prelim to be harsh, given my habits and the fact I can’t lie to the cardiologist. One look in a mirror when I am unclothed is evidence that deceit will prove ineffective. I anticipate that the doc is going to ream me, in more ways than one.
My fundamental concern, however, is not about a dressing down by a member of the medical profession, or a catheter invasion that could provoke a more drastic procedure. Not even about the cost, which Kathy mentions repeatedly, each time emphasizing her key role in keeping the two of us financially stable. She is a working musician and a teacher of piano; she makes money. I am a writer and painter.
No, I am anxious about pork shanks. Five of them.
I remain ruffled by worry the afternoon prior to my hospital adventure, when the doorbell rings. It’s the UPS man, harried and sweating through his threadbare, turd-brown uniform shirt. It’s the holiday season and these poor bastards would be better off suffering in the depths of a Chinese uranium mine, subsisting on two bowls of rice per 18-hour work day, holding to the false promise of promotion to above-ground work as a mule tender. (Another aside: My friend Ronnie informed me that a once prominent Chinese official, now a fishmonger in Vancouver, told him that most mules working in the Chongyi Mine in Shaanxi Province are born with at least two vestigial legs.)
The guy hustles back to his turd-brown truck. He slams the truck’s door, slumps behind the wheel, jams the vehicle into reverse, and skids out my driveway, screaming soundlessly behind the dirty windshield.
This, I think, is real stress. What’s a catheter or a heart attack compared to a job at UPS during December?
The driver leaves a white box on my front porch. The label on the box identifies its sender as, “DeBragga-New York’s Butcher, Serving Generations of Legendary Chefs … And You.”
It’s another gift of protein from Jim, my pal and one-time associate in a spectacularly scandalous enterprise. The man is endowed with exquisite taste regarding food and drink, and he is generous. Jim is not a writer and painter; after we parted ways some forty years ago, he achieved success in business as a creative entrepreneur, so he is neither destitute, nor prone to fantasy. He has provided this fantasy-bound writer and painter with some true gems in the past — an incredible slab of wagyu, a rare Japanese mackerel — and now, the pork.
Not just any pork, but the bone-in shanks from special hogs. An accomplished gourmand, Jim does not squander cash on flesh that is less than special.
According to the DeBragga website, the pork is raised by farmers in Iowa, belonging to the Niman Ranch program. The hogs are a cross of Duroc, Chester Whites, and Berkshire breeds that “express exceptional mothering abilities.” This is critical if a mammal is to be deemed special before its rendezvous with knife and fork.
The animals’ genetics are suited to an outdoor environment. Just as recess is important for kindergartners, a growing pig needs fresh air and exercise. The animals frolic in an ideal environment, “where they are able to express their natural instinctive behaviors, like rooting and roaming” — habits I indulge regularly, indoors, in the basement.
The sole drawback is the hogs are vegetarians. I prefer the free-rangers that greet heat on my stovetop gobble some flesh now and then, given that hogs are closer relatives to humans than Evangelicals or Hasidim are willing to admit. But, I am not one to quibble when the gift arrives.
My worry evaporates as I unload the meaty marvels, examine them, take a photo to send to Jim, and pack the shanks in the freezer. I have five reasons to live!
The next morning, I rise early, forbidden to eat or drink anything, yet buoyant and clear of thoughts of impending doom. I drive sixty miles from Siberia With a View to a regional hospital, turn the Kia over to Kathy so she can leave and scour the area’s Big Box stores for bargains, and I zip to the cardiologist’s office.
Following administrative and nursey nonsense such as verifications of insurance, blood pressure checks, and an EKG, I ponder ways to produce a memorable Shankapalooza. I consider potential ingredients in braising liquids, as well as desirable side dishes, until the exam room door opens, and in walks Cynthia Choi, Interventional Cardiologist.
When I asked my friend, personal physician, and culinary confidant, Wanda, to recommend the least arrogant cardiologist in the region, she immediately suggested Choi. Wanda and Choi are members of a secretive and powerful medical sisterhood, in which peers are nurtured and prize patients distributed amongst the elect like cards in a round of Texas Hold ‘Em. Wanda refuses to admit this is the case — further proof that the estrogen-heavy network exists.
Cynthia introduces herself and gives me a brief bio, noting she spent the early years of her career in Denver, the town of my birth and rearing. She leafs through several pages of records, reviews info on her laptop, appraises my midsection and triple chin, mentions problems revealed by a recent pharmacological stress test, then informs me of my options. She is decorous, hardly arrogant, and she lines out four paths forward, the first being my immediate departure from office and hospital, apocrine glands run amok, my bulky form reeking of fear. The other three options are pursuant to the afternoon’s heart catheter procedure.
- Medical management, in which case, should I have significant blockage and opt to swallow drugs that do nothing to alter my consciousness, I will almost certainly return in a year or two to beg the good doctor to “intervene” and correct a problem grown more severe.
- Angioplasty, or more likely a stent crammed into a blocked artery to allow for increased blood flow to the heart. A night’s stay in the hospital will follow. My comment about the lamentable quality of hospital food makes no impression on Choi.
- No further action, if the exam reveals no problems that require correction. I go home later in the day.
“Let’s do it, and see what we find,” I say, making a cavalier hand gesture I first saw used by Errol Flynn in a movie about pirates.
“Do you have any questions,?” asks Cynthia.
“Yes, I do,” I reply. “ I have one very important question concerning your qualifications.”
I fix Cynthia with an intense stare; she returns my unblinking gaze.
“What was your favorite restaurant in Denver?”
Choi tilts her head, closes her eyes for a moment or two, assesses alternatives, then takes a deep breath, exhales, smiles, and says: “Lao Wang Noodle House.”
Dear god, can this be?
My head feels like it’s about to explode. I stammer: “I … I can’t believe it, I… it’s… it’s…it’s one of my all-time favorite haunts. I first went there years ago, right after the old couple opened it. My brother and I dined there many times before he foolishly suffered heart failure and could no longer ingest massive amounts of salt; we went there with my nephew a bunch of times and ordered everything on the menu. My four-year-old grandson, Bodhi, ate an entire order of Xiao Long Bao there last spring. I…I…”
“Oh those two old folks,” says Choi, dropping the veneer crafted during her second year at cardiology school, “they’re a riot. I don’t know how much longer they’ll be able to stay with it; they have to be in their eighties.” She has an expression on her face like that of a devotee fondling the femur of a favorite saint.
“I went into the kitchen and watched the old man cook dumplings,” I say. “A master, deserving of a McArthur grant, his jeans had a patina of grease at least a quarter inch thick. Did the old lady ever yell at you?”
“All the time,” says Choi. “I’d finish my meal, and she’d come to the table and say, ‘You done, now you leave.’ One time I said, ‘But, I’m Asian.’ It didn’t matter; she rushed me out the door.”
At that moment, Choi and I realize how incredible it is that two of the three people in southwest Colorado who have eaten at Lao Wang Noodle House are in the same room, one of them about to jam a catheter up the other’s artery, all the way to his tiny, cold heart.
In short: we bond.
Choi can do anything to me she wants. Any thing, any time.
And, she does.
I am dispatched to the prep center. To take my mind off the process, I picture hogs romping in an Iowa field, the beasts engaging in brusque, but oddly erotic couplings, their shanks plumping with each new load of vegetarian feed. I imagine the smell in my kitchen three hours into a braise of said shanks. I consider wine options relative to the character of the braising liquid.
I ask one of the nurses, Trina, if she thinks a shank prepared in the style of osso buco is best paired with a decent Grenacha or a Sangiovese?
Her response of, “Huh?” precedes her work with a razor. She shaves my right wrist and the right side of my groin. She tries unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle when she pulls back the gown to expose the lower half of my body. She uses a large adhesive patch to remove debris from arm and groin, then marks several key points on my feet and ankles with a permanent marker. When the ghouls at the crematorium slide my cold form into the oven, they will notice these marks and make snide comments about my health history. Not all that long ago, their predecessors were too busy extracting gold crowns from corpses to make light of the dead, but I’ve been assured the practice is discouraged these days.
IV port in place, wrist and groin appropriately swabbed and de-germed, I’m wheeled to the lab where folks roll me around, and a guy tells me I am about to be shot up with a load of fentanyl and midazolam.
I recall reading about the first known cardiac catheterization of a human in 1929, when the noble but obviously goofy Werner Forssmann ran a catheter through his own antecubital vein to the right side of his heart. Being raised by and around doctors, I am not surprised that one of them would do this, in particular a German. Since Forssmann performed the procedure in 1929, it’s clear no prisoners served as lab rats prior to his experiment. When I ask the guy fiddling with my IV what anesthetic, if any, Forssmann used, I’m fired up and gone before there is a response.
I’m told I informed the staff several times that I didn’t feel any effect of the drugs, but I was unconscious, so I don’t recall saying it.
When I come around, there is a large video screen above me, and Choi is busy showing a disconnected me images of my heart, it’s arteries and veins alight with contrast medium, with no blockages in sight. It’s a fucking miracle!
“Do you have any questions?” asks my all-time favorite interventional cardiologist.
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I have five remarkable pork shanks waiting in the freezer at home. What do you think I should do with them?”
“Give them away as Christmas gifts.”
There are few things better than meeting an interventional cardiologist with a sense of humor.
I’m released several hours later, a splint on my wrist, indelible marks on my feet and ankles. I’m sent home with a list of post-procedure instructions labeled “Important.”
It’s quite a list so, suffering as I do from ADD, I read none of the possible negative complications, and only one of the general instructions: “Do not drink alcohol, including beer, for 24 hours.”
I realize I shouldn’t operate heavy machinery or fly a plane for a day or two, but no alcohol? Since I detest beer unless a beautiful bartender with gray eyes serves it at a Basque pinxto bar in Barcelona, this means no wine or spirits.
For god’s sake, I’ve experienced severe trauma, and a miracle! No wine? No gin?
Despite the good news following the cath lab process, I’m at risk of depression. My vessels require no modification, but I can’t celebrate with a glass or four of Cyprus Cuvée Cotes du Rhone? What do these fiends expect of me?
The answer comes quickly: I must boost my mood with an internet search for methods for preparing shanks from pigs that have been well mothered, and allowed to romp, root, fuck, and chow down on vegetarian fare.
At first, I’m drawn to an Italian classic, teased by the name of the dish — Stinco. There are versions made with and without tomato, though most do not include the acidic fruit. All require prosciutto, reconstituted porcini and the soaking liquid, as well as white wine and stock, vegetable matter, etc.
German recipes generally call for the shank from the hind leg (mine are front shanks) and make good use of the thick skin, crisping it for a crackling-like addition (mine are skinless, the skin worn away, I assume, during repeated couplings prior to a trip to the abattoir).
I will go with an approach that draws on my extensive knowledge of braising and flavors.
Hocks — dried thoroughly, tied with butcher’s string, the flesh seasoned with salt and black pepper.
Four or five rashers of bacon — chopped.
Porcini, as well as some morels gathered and dried by my sister and brother in-law in Oregon — soaked then chopped, the water strained and saved.
A rough mirepoix — a large yellow onion, a couple carrots and stalks of celery, chopped.
8-10 cloves of garlic — peeled, smashed, and minced. Maybe 12 cloves. Perhaps more.
Fresh thyme and rosemary, a couple bay leaves, the herbs tied in a bouquet.
White wine — something crisp, nothing sloppy. A flabby West Coast Chardonnay favored by realtors and financial advisors will not do the trick.
Chicken stock, amplified with some chicken base.
Olive oil into heavy enameled pot over medium high heat, hocks browned on all sides (two at a time so as not to crowd), meat removed to warm bowl.
Bacon into pot along with mirepoix, garlic, and mushrooms, cooked until vegetables are softened.
Pan deglazed with hefty measure of wine, fond scraped thoroughly from bottom and sides of pan. Wine boils, hocks go back in pot.
Stock and mushroom liquid into pan, until hocks are not quite covered.
Bundle of herbs, into the pot.
Bring to simmer, cover, put in 325 oven.
Half an hour in, rotate hocks. Half an hour later, rotate hocks. Half an hour later, rotate hocks. Cook 30 minutes more and test hocks to determine if meat is tender. If so, remove. If not, back they go until the deed is done.
Tender hocks go to warm plate and are covered with foil.
Herb bouquet comes out of liquid; sauce is defatted, then pulverized in a blender, in batches, if necessary.
Sauce goes back in pot over heat, reduced further, if needed, reseasoned. Hocks go back in for a couple minutes, a knob or two of butter added when the heat is turned off.
At this point, there are two options: go with the hocks as they are, or remove them, put them on a baking sheet, and roast them at 425 until they toast up a bit.
I’ll make the decision when the time comes, depending on how many cocktails I’ve consumed, and whether or not I think it’s safe to fiddle with high heat.
Shanks are plated; sauce is put in a boat.
I’ll make a hands-across-the-sea gesture and serve the pork and sauce with buttered spaetzle. Perhaps add a handful of grated cheese, a bit of microplaned garlic, and a splash of cream to the dumplings. Maybe a lot more than a handful and a splash. And some chopped parsley.
I need to contact Amazon in order to procure a new spaetzle maker — one of the snazzy, all-metal contraptions with the sliding box above the strainer. I’ll pay for three-day delivery.
I’ll cook the shanks and spaetzle, and invite a couple friends over, reminding them to bring wine. I’ll specify varietal and vintner in order to avoid the cheap products normally provided by dinner guests.
Oh, and I think I’ll hire a clown to provide some entertainment.