Saturday, July 12, 2014

Recipe: Spicy Baked Eggs with Refritos

An easy morning repast that is golden, fluffy, and spicy...

Those of you who have read my Huevodillas Recipe know that I have an affection for Mexican-inspired morning egg dishes. This baked egg concoction, which my wife and I discovered at a Wine Country Bed & Breakfast some years ago, is another good example of that. Because it's baked, it takes a bit longer to make than huevodillas, but you'll still have it in front of you in less than 40 minutes.

These are the ingredients, which like the huevodilla ingredients, are simple but flavor- and texture-rich:

  • Two large eggs
  • 1/2 cup of refried beans
  • Two tablespoons of your favorite salsa
  • 1/4 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Ingredients for Spicy Baked Eggs with Refritos
The very simple preparation involves layering all these ingredients into a 12-oz. ceramic baking crock, then sliding it all into the oven:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the eggs, season to taste, and set aside. (The eggs are the last thing to go into the crock.)

Spoon the refried beans into the crock and smooth them out evenly with a spoon.

Now spoon in the salsa, and again, smooth it out into an even layer.

Next drop in the shredded cheese and pat it into place.

Finally, pour the beaten eggs over the top of the entire concoction.

Slide the crock into the preheated oven for 35-45 minutes, until the eggs are thoroughly cooked.

As with any baked egg dish, this one will look spectacularly fluffy coming out of the oven, but will flatten out in the first minutes after it is taken out. No matter, the taste will be plenty scrumptious!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The King is Confused

How LeBron James failed to learn the one lesson he should have from the Heat's trip to the San Antonio woodshed. 

The news is old by now, but just as much as it was an ending to a great NBA season, it was also the thing the NBA loves the most: the beginning of a story that will keep the league in the news cycles, perhaps through the entirety of the off-season. The vaunted Mami Heat star LeBron James, fresh from having his ass handed to him by the more-disciplined and more experienced San Antionio Spurs, chose to opt out of his contract, become a free agent, and, should the long rows of zeroes fall into the right places, perhaps seek another city to host his dreams of many championships to come. The evidence of how completely insane this is comes from two directions: The first is the amazing success LeBron has enjoyed in his years with the Heat, and the second is the real lesson he should have learned from the San Antonio Spurs.

In just four years with Miami, LeBron has won, along with his usual complement of All-Star Game and All-Defensive Team appearances, two NBA titles, an NBA Most Valuable Player Award, two NBA Finals MVP Awards, and the AP Athlete of the Year, USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, Sporting News Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year awards. Has the man already wiped from his memory the seven years of exile he endured in Cleveland? 

Or perhaps LeBron learned a lesson from the San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps he learned that his Heat team is, in fact, just a tired old dog destined never to run again, or worse, just a loser outfit that has all this time been posing as an NBA Champion. If that's the case, certainly, it's time to move on. But the thing is, that most certainly is not the case, and if there's anyone who exemplifies that--and exemplifies what the Heat can become--it's the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs have won five titles over a 15-year period that started in 1999. During that time, under the tutelage of their Coach Gregg Popovich and the leadership of their star Tim Duncan, they have always been competitive, one of the class acts of the NBA, and often the envy of the rest of the league. They transitioned from the Twin Towers to the Big Three, continually reinvented themselves, and kept coming back for more titles. For that perseverance, if you're Duncan or Popovich, you got five championships out of the deal, if you're David Robinson, you got two, if you're Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli, you got four, and if you're Kawhi Leonard, you've got one and counting. Add to that the titles collected by the likes of Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, and others who brought their NBA Champion pedigrees with them to the Spurs, and what you have is the NBA dream: individual performances, yes, but more importantly, a franchise, nay, an institution whose name, like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Chicago Bulls before them, will forever embody the words NBA Champion. The lesson of the San Antonio Spurs is that, despite the prevailing view that the NBA has devolved into a place for superstars, highlight-reel slam dunks, and obscene-money contracts, there is still a place for the simple things like perseverance, give-and-go layups, and yes, team loyalty. And if you can put those things into a package, you might just walk away with not two, but four, five, ten NBA titles.

Amazingly, the Spurs have done this in an era when no one thought it could be done anymore. The double three-peats of the 1990s Chicago Bulls were supposed to be the last dynasty, but here we have an NBA institution that has just put an exclamation point on a 15-year run, not just by beating the Heat, but by embarrassing them. Still, there is no reason the Miami Heat of today cannot be a team like the San Antonio Spurs in five or ten years. In fact, I would challenge anyone to look around the league now and name another team that is more likely to achieve that kind of success over the next five or ten years. But opting for free agency and calling the whole team into question now is no way to start.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Results, Not Causes

Reflections on John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath

I took a bit of a John Steinbeck sojourn last weekend, traveling to the Salinas to visit the National Steinbeck Center museum, reading much about John Steinbeck’s life and career, and then retiring to our family cabin at Arroyo Seco for a brief and much needed writing retreat. I am also 200 or so pages into The Grapes of Wrath, the only Steinbeck I will have really read beyond the much shorter and more easily digested Of Mice and Men. On my trip, I learned for the first time (or perhaps had just forgotten) the degree to which Steinbeck was vilified not only for his politics, as encapsulated so clearly in The Grapes of Wrath, but also for the way he allowed these views to hijack his writing. Oklahoma state and Kern County officials protested loudly, as did many reviewers, against the content of The Grapes of Wrath, and critics the world over lambasted the Nobel Committee for granting Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in 1962. Such was the impact on the author that he never published another word of fiction in his life after 1962. (He died in 1968 at the age of 66.)

National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, CA
Steinbeck was obviously a great writer. One critic astutely observed that the Nobel Committee needed Steinbeck in 1962 much more than he needed them. In fact, asked the day after the prize was awarded whether he deserved it, Steinbeck himself answered, “Well, no.” But looking at the since released Nobel records showing who he was up against, you’ll come upon the names of four authors of the time you have likely never heard of, and most certainly have never heard from since. Steinbeck, in contrast, has been thrust in front of every high school and college certainly in the western states for decades and is the subject of the only museum in America dedicated to a single author.

Steinbeck is also a Northern Californian, a native son born in Salinas who set most of his work in and around the Monterey Bay Area. As such, I have an impulse to leap to his defense, particularly given that the world did experience the Great Depression, that the forces of commerce were largely responsible for it, and that social and government action were needed at the time, and were, in retrospect, incredibly successful. However, reading the pages of The Grapes of Wrath, I have to admit that the critics who have accused Steinbeck of crossing over from writing into preaching do have a point. Take for instance this passage from page 194 of my 1976 Penguin paperback edition:
One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution….This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results; if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”
I’d be surprised if one could find a clearer or more urgent call to collective action published anywhere in the world in the 1930s. Setting aside the fact that The Grapes of Wrath was such a wildly successful book, and that it was published at the height of both fascism in Europe and communism in Russia, the simple and observable fact is, Steinbeck is preaching an idea here. I personally believe it’s an idea that is not the sole purview of communism or socialism but can in fact be compatible with American capitalism, but that’s not the point. The point is, the fiction writer is most certainly becoming the social critic here, stepping outside the story to make a point—in fact, to preach a point. As great a writer as he was, the critics who accuse him of this have a leg on which to stand.

So what does all this mean to writers writing, as Steinbeck did, about work, family, and society in a time of tumultuous change—writers doing so, but doing so today, in a very different time?

The first thing to realize, of course, is that The Grapes of Wrath was written in a time of superlatives, a time when deprivation was so widespread that extremes could be convincingly portrayed in the black-and-white terms of good and evil. The work of a writer like Steinbeck, with its sermons and wistful descriptions of the great unwashed innocents, could find and sate an audience in 1930s America. Today, society’s trials are different. We live in a time of relative plenty, the country is populated largely with knowledge workers, not laborers, and the conflicts that touch our work lives—and thus our families and our society as a whole—are anything but superlative. They are subtle and confusing, offering no black-and-white, but only gray. Our characters, typically, will not be the downtrodden Joads of Oklahoma. In my case, in fact, since I was born in Silicon Valley and have lived here my entire life, I am often writing about characters who are the lucky ones, human beings placed by circumstance and personal initiative into the center of an aberration of good fortune. The question for characters like these is not, how does a man respond when pushed to the brink? The question is, how does a human being respond when the brass ring is there, but sacrifices must be made? An offering must be made, a series of choices, and it is in those choices, with all their complexities and hidden, even invisible elements, that the story lies.

Furthermore, The Grapes of Wrath was written in a time when American literature was accepting of sentimentality and melodrama—I think of them as the “pre-Salinger years”—when an author could simply write this about a character:
He had never been angry in his life. He looked in wonder at angry people, wonder and uneasiness, as normal people look at the insane.
It was a time before the great burden of ambiguity was heaped onto the shoulders of serious American writers by authors like Bellow and Updike, Carver and Cheever, Dee and Strout. Writing in a simpler time makes for simpler writing, and Steinbeck’s career is a good example of that, but you also have to recognize that this point in the endless drama where we 21st century writers have walked onto the stage also presents some great advantages. A fiction that needs ambiguity is a good fiction for the subtle and complex dramas of our complicated world. We are freed from portraying good guys and bad guys, and while we still need to create the tension that for millennia came from binary narratives of good vs. evil, we can place much of that work onto the reader: we can create active engagements with the characters, occasions to understand what’s going on (with little effort if we’re successful), and then choose a side and begin rooting (with much effort if we’re successful). A string of these dramas does not need to lead the reader to a political position, it just needs to lead them to a deeper understanding both of the particular drama we are portraying and similar dramas that unfold all over the world every day, and in the life experiences of everyone. A breach in the family occurs at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and there will often be breaches at the ends of our stories as well. But these breaches will not be sentimental and melodramatic endings to small stories with torches to carry. They will be common—almost universal—endings to stories that could happen at any time: today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"As long as we keep our heads down..."

Maserati Super Bowl Ad Exploits Working People to Sell to the 1%

Those of you who subject yourselves to my FB status updates are already aware of the visceral negative reaction I had on viewing the Maserati "Strike" ad that aired during the 2014 Super Bowl. The ad offended me deeply and immediately, and as I sit struggling to express this in a blog post, I find myself even more disturbed and upset than I was then.

The ad (linked below, all rights reserved), directed by David Gordon Green (George Washingtonand featuring Quvenzhan√© Wallis (The Beasts of the Southern Wild), juxtaposes working-man images with the narration of a "poem" by a young African-American girl who passes along gritty L.A. streets and into idyllic open spaces. The words speak of overcoming giants in schoolyards and alleys, of keeping your head down and trusting your heart, all so you can "walk out of the shadows / quietly walk out of the dark / and strike." Inspiring words indeed for the struggling America that the images portray, and all the more inspiring given the strength and determination that this America now requires of a fireman and a factory worker and a fisherman and a ballet dancer, workers whose wages have remained flat for a decade, workers in the bottom 90% of wage earners who for the first time earn less than 50% of the national income while the top 1% control over 20%, workers, in the case of the fireman, who have watched 750,000 public sector jobs like theirs disappear in the past 3 years.

Only this ad does not portend to inspire these people or anyone like them. This ad simply exploits them. This ad absconds with the grit and resilience and determination of these Americans and uses it to sell supercars to millionaires. At the moment Quvenzhan√© Wallis ominously whispers the word strike, a Maserati Ghibli, a car that sells for over $66,000 and hits a top speed of 177 mph, blasts onto the screen with a deafening roar. This is what "walks out of the shadows." This is what "quietly walks out of the dark." You workers we were just showing, you struggling gnomes whose salaries haven't risen in decades, you can just continue to "keep your heads down" please, and don't you ever, ever, ever think about a strike.

What's most depressing about this, worse in fact than the ad itself, is the reaction to it. The advertising industry, of course, loved it. LBBOnline called it "a poetic reflection about the spirit of Maserati as they step out of the shadows and onto the global stage to strike." And the LA Times pointed out how marvelously effective it was:
"By brand, searches for Maserati went up 700% on after the ad “Strike” aired in the first quarter of the game. By model, searches for the Ghibli that starred in that ad went up 4,250%, according to"
Even African-Americans, if one is to view Shadow and Act - Cinema of the African Disapora and The Urban Daily as representative samples, had virtually no reaction at all other than being "surprised" and
"touched" that an African-American had been chosen as a highly visible spokesperson.

And the New Yorker, though it thankfully placed the ad at the top of its "Worst" list of Super Bowl ads, had little to say in criticism beyond this:
"This was’t an ad for a plain, hardworking American sedan but for an Italian sports car, which has a base price of about sixty-six thousand dollars. “Beasts [of the Southern Wild]” was about society’s outcasts making do at the margins of society—connected to the forgotten people of Hurricane Katrina. The Ghibli is supposed to be a Maserati for a more “average” consumer—but it’s still a Maserati, not a jerry-rigged swamp boat.
"So the New Yorker's criticism, in short: It wasn't a very good ad.

All of which leaves me asking with some desperation, How stupid are we? Are we now so securely pinned under the thumb of the 1%, politicians purchased and in the bank, banks anointed and set free to rule, rules, regulations, workers—indeed, work itself—demonized to the point of impotence, that we cannot for even a moment recognize a blatant exploitation of the only things that haven't been taken from us: our pride and our self-respect?

Just think for a minute about the one word Maserati chose to define this ad: strike. And think about what that word used to mean to working people.

It is a very scary world we live in, and not because we can't afford Maseratis.