Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 18, 2021

It’s Sultry

In North America, it’s midsummer: the dog days. Heat and humidity … except here in the American southwest, where it’s dry beyond imagining. Farmers in California’s Central Valley, who supply some significant portion of the world’s produce, are making desperate decisions about how to use a diminishing supply of water. If the price of almonds, pistachios, tomatoes suddenly skyrocket, don’t blame the famers: They have no water.

Seasonal “monsoon” thunderstorms are sweeping across eastern Arizona and eastern New Mexico. If it doesn’t rain now, they won’t see precipitation again until midwinter brings a minimal amount of snow.

2,000 miles to the east of me, in the middle of the continent, where I grew up, it’s “sultry.”

“Sultry” is an interesting word.

It means “hot and humid.”

“Sultry” first shows up in English in the middle of the 1500s. It’s probably derived from an ancient word, sweltan, which has been with us since it appeared in one of the earliest versions of ancient Germanic, Gothic.

From sweltan, we have “swelter.” Originally, the word sweltan meant “to perish.”

The earliest recorded instance of the word in English is in good ol’ Beowulf, where it appears several times.

The best instance in Beowulf is at the end of the terrific battle that defines all conflict between man and the forces of the unknown: Beowulf is in the lair of the dragon, in utter darkness, illuminated only by the dragon’s fiery breath. Dragon-fire burns through Beowulf’s armor, while the dragon sinks its teeth into him. Burned and bitten, the mighty warrior strikes the dragon again and again, his massive sword (which only he could wield) glancing off the dragon’s scales.

Beowulf’s legendary sword, Naegling, which had never failed, shatters from the sheer force of the king’s hands as he pierces the dragon’s scales (in Old English, the dragon is a “wurm” as well as “draca“). The worm has received its death wound, and there’s blood everywhere. Beowulf, too, is at the point of death from uncountable injuries, and will not survive the conflict. This is the end of Beowulf’s epic.

The dragon (familiar as Smaug to Tolkien fans) has been terrorizing the kingdom, piling up a hoard of gold in his lair. Beowulf, the king, knows he must go and kill this dragon that’s terrorizing his realm, even though he (correctly) foresees it’s his fate to die in the attempt.

The passage below ends with the line containing today’s word: “he morthre swealt.” Literally, something like, “It through murder perished,” which our translator, Heaney, has as “Had been mowed down.” In the language of the time, “murdered” did not carry our contemporary implied judgment of guilt or wrongdoing: it meant simply “killed.”

I’ll let Seamus Heaney translate, since he won the Nobel prize, and did an admirable job with the epic.

“… Already the blade

of the old king’s sharp killing-sword

had done its worst: the one who had for long

minded the hoard, hovering over gold,

unleashing fire, surging forth

midnight after midnight, had been mowed down.”

A good word, “sultry.” Here, under western skies, we’re sweltering.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Citation from Beowulf, a New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000, copyright Seamus Heaney. Also consulted, Oxford English Dictionary Compact Edition, Oxford University Press, 1971. Gloss on “murdered” courtesy E. Talbot Donaldson, 1974, then visiting professor emeritus at University of Michigan, recorded during his lecture in my worn copy of Beowulf. His translation is Beowulf, A Prose Translation, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2002, 1975.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 2, 2021

2020: Looking Bakewards

I’d resolved that one thing the world did not need was another retrospective examination of annus horribilus, 2020.

Yet, on the afternoon of the final day of the year, I was in the Under Western Skies kitchen, baking bread. There, it occurred to me, was an aspect of the passing year worth recalling.

By the end of March, 2020, as the pandemic gained momentum, grocery shelves here in Los Angeles (and elsewhere around the world) were denuded of paper products, bread, pasta, most frozen vegetables and any product labeled with the term “sanitizer.” In common with the rest of the world, lines outside stores became a part of daily life.

One section of the grocery stores hit hard by either panic buying or hoarding (you choose) was baking products, especially flour, but including yeast packets, baking powder, etc. — conditions that prevailed in countries all over the globe.

Who’s Baking?

I wonder how many of my fellow citizens who carted home 5- and 10 pound sacks of flour actually baked them into bread, cakes, pies, rolls or other staples of life. Or are some tons of flour still sitting in cupboards, pantries and refrigerators “against the day?”

To the Point: Baking

Here in the UWS kitchen, these long, somewhat indistinguishably similar days of semi-isolation have provided opportunity and motivation to hone some home baking skills.

That is my retrospective angle for 2020: looking backwards: bakewards.

My point is that I’m not an accomplished or practiced baker. With one exception (executed not by me, but the more experienced Counselor), these recipes are doable by anyone with only moderate familiarity with a kitchen, and access to the ingredients.

This post will cover primarily simple baked goods amateur cooks like me can bake, and excludes a significant number of tasty goodies produced by The Counselor, year-round.

Not All Flour Gets Baked

Before we fire up the oven, it bears mentioning that flour goes into more than baked goods. A staple in American breakfasts is pancakes or flapjacks, but most cultures have some equivalent, some of them closely aligned with proud tradition.

Here, two whole-wheat pancakes, maple syrup and strawberries standing by, coffee already in my cup.

Staff of Life

While bread, at its most basic, consists of flour and water, yielding “flat bread,” we baked a few varieties of leavened bread, meaning dough that contains yeast and rises. Leavened bread needs some form of sugar to feed the yeast that makes the bread rise. In addition, recipes typically call for butter or oil. In the UWS kitchen, olive oil is the choice.

To start with the basics, a simple bread from unbleached all purpose flour, water, salt, sugar, oil and nothing else.

A slight shift in the recipe, using a combination of all purpose and whole wheat flour, yields “sandwich bread.”

Despite its name, the texture and crust of this bread won’t exactly resemble the sliced “sandwich bread” you buy in the grocery. It has a looser body, slightly more crumbly than commercial bread, but should taste better, and contains no preservatives or dough conditioners the commercial bakers use.

Elaborating only by moving entirely to white whole wheat flour, plus the addition of 1/4 cup of molasses, yields a darker, slightly denser loaf.

Another recipe requiring only all purpose flour (although you can substitute up to half of it with whole wheat), also uses 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. The result: English Muffin Toasting Bread. One appealing aspect of making this recipe is that it requires only one rising, in the same pan you’ll bake it.

Yes, it’s perfect for toasting, as advertised.

Baking With an Italian Accent

Not in the amateur baking category, but worth mentioning admidst 2020’s baking highlights were bracciatelle, reflecting The Counselor’s Italian heritage.

The word means “bracelets” in Italian. The photo below suggests why they merit that name. Americans call that a donut shape, but bracciatelle are anise-flavored savory bread, neither sweet nor iced, more like a bagel than a donut. In addition to standard ingredients, the recipe calls for an egg. It’s traditionally served during a couple of holiday seasons in Italy, including the feast of St. Anthony, January 17, so it’s a good time to think about baking some.

Let There Be Pizza

With indoor dining nonexistent, and unwilling to rely on takeout or delivery, we relied on making our own pizza.

If you’ve never tried it, pizza crust is simpler to make than you may think.

The dough requires flour, salt, sugar, yeast and the patience to let it rise.

No, you don’t need to be able to twirl the dough over your head, pizzeria-style. Once it’s risen (your recipe will direct you), it will look something like this (here, our recipe yielded two pizza crusts):

You can roll out your dough or shape it with your hands. Like this:

The critical question — whether you get it from a restaurant or make it yourself: What will go on it? It’s up to you. Here were our choices for one we made.

Spread ’em out, bake, eat pizza.

Here’s a gallery of 2020 pizzas we made, including both pre- and post-baking (click on a photo to enlarge):

With ten months elapsed since we went to a restaurant or ate take-out food — cooking all meals here — baking was not only an activity we could share, but gave us some sense that we exercise some control over a situation that has millions of people around the world feeling beleaguered.

A healthy and happier 2021, everyone.

© Brad Nixon 2021. Some photos © M. Vincent 2021, used by kind permission.

I haven’t included recipes. There are tens of thousands of recipes available. One reliable resource for baking recipes and tips is https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/recipes. I have no affiliation with the company, but they’re a go-to source here at Under Western Skies. Versions of most bread recipes in this post are available there.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 20, 2020

Mon Ami, Marcel, et Mois, Chez Swann

Now, the funny (or odd, I suppose you would say,) thing (were you inclined to say either funny or odd things, whether or not they involved parenthenses, which this sentence obviously does, which is likely neither funny nor odd, although one might claim it is) is that saying something is odd is not nearly or in any way — when you consider it, which I have, and I invite you to consider it here, too — not nearly the same thing as saying something is funny, because while something that strikes one as odd may, indeed, invoke laughter, but that’s not quite the same thing as invoking humor, because then — as Marcel and I often observed on those endlessly long afternoons at Mme. Swann’s “at homes” — there was very little laughter (there being little wit on display in the room, despite Odette’s admiration for what she called, in that peculiar way she had of using English words, including “wit,” even if Bergotte, already long past his prime, and relegated to imitating himself attempted to be “witty”) however it long it was it seemed we spent in the luxuriously appointed rooms M. Swann had outfitted in which Mme Swann could entertain those of us who spent those uncountable hours, hoping only for a glimpse of Gilberte, despite the fact we knew she’d departed before her mother’s visiting hours, and was walking along the Champs-Élysées with some young man who was going to steal her attention not only from Marcel, who thought he was in love with her (and had filled several journals in that terrible handwriting of his with speculation about whether Gilberte was or was not in love with him, which he’d insisted I read, and — despite my advice to the contrary — insisted on including in possibly the most boring portion of that endless book of his) but from me, as well, and distract not only Marcel but me from writing the world’s longest sentence — that being the thing we’d both agreed would be our lifelong quest — although while I was simply amused by the notion of Swann and Odette’s daughter strolling under the trees in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées with a young man who’d go on to spend an undistinguished career as a chartered accountant, I knew Marcel was writhing in agony with the notion of it, and only endured those endless and “witless” (had it occurred to Odette to come up with an original thought of her own and call them that) afternoons, still hoping at least one of those afternoons in Mme Swann’s salon might actually be the place and time (ah, Marcel, you did have this fascination with “time,” did you not?) in which one could realize the dream of not only writing but — and here I must step aside from being a writer to playing the alternate role of critic — at least one phrase that conveys the sense of being in a place in which Gilberte was not present, because she, herself, was somewhere else, almost certainly laughing in that way she had, at something some other young man had said (which was probably more “odd” than “humorous,” which is where I think I began), walking under the trees in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées, and would, herself, be supplanted by Albertine (who I really must confess, again parenthetically, was extraordinarily attractive, which Marcel, himself, figured out in a heartbeat, and named the entire book he wrote about encountering her, “The Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower,” even though about half the book is actually about him agonizing about breaking things off with Gilberte, which had never amounted to all that much, but I could never convince him to delete those hundred pages or so he’d written about her) but Albertine, (and I met her one day on the beach at Cabourge), really was extraordinarily attractive, and it’s no wonder Marcel was fascinated by her.

That’s one sentence. A clever trick you can learn if you read about 1.26 million words from Monsieur Proust.

I’ve been thinking about M. Proust and his generation during this time of pandemic distress.

Proust was born in Paris on July 10th, 1870. At that time, Paris was in the final stages of the siege and famine that had gripped the city, following the assault from Prussia. There were no horses, cats, dogs or rats alive in Paris, all of them having been eaten for food. The artist Edouard Manet was one of innumerable Parisiens standing guard on the barricades. In his home, like many Parisiens, Manet had burnt much of his furniture to provide heat during the previous winter. Charmingly, M. Manet loved the big “artillery coat” he’d been issued.

Marcel’s father, Adrien Proust, an eminently acknowledged and highly praised physician, was in the field with the French army, working in tent hospitals, in a day before there were antibiotics, when anaesthesia was rare, and hard to come by.

M. Proust died in 1922, at the age of 51, having also survived the First War, and I think we owe it to ourselves to remember that one can still write, even when things don’t look all that cheery, as they currently do not.

And he wrote an extremely good book, by the way, although it takes a long time to read. I hope you enjoyed attending Mme. Swann’s “at home” with Marcel as much as I did.

© Brad Nixon 2020, with a nod to the master, Monsieur Proust.

There’s always a risk, opening that drawer: the one containing the old gadgets. I never know if I’ll find what I’m looking for. I’m just as likely to find something I’d forgotten I owned and used, or even that such an item ever existed.

This time, what I was looking for was not only there, but still in working order, once I’d installed a couple of new batteries.

Miniature, remote controlled flying saucer, you ask? Radiation detector? Compact waffle maker?

Ah, memory — like technology — is fleeting.

In a day before music was streamed through the cybersphere, humans used to encode it onto physical media in a variety of “form factors” (viz: shape and size), which required dedicated devices to produce sound. The item above is a portable version of something known as a compact disc player.

Here’s a depiction of its size, along with a compact disc. Inches top, centimeters at bottom.

Always a late adopter of technology, I still have a considerable collection of compact discs, which those of us who remember call “CDs.”

I do have a CD player attached to the living room stereo. But with both computers in the house no longer equipped with disc players, that portable device is a simple means to play music I haven’t captured into digital form.

At the Interface: Buttons?

We all know that “delivery” media evolve: from handwritten manuscripts, to moveable type, to photographs, motion film, audio recordings, etc. What interests me about this player is not the evolution of digital media, but how radically our way of using it has changed in the 17 years or so since that player entered my life.

Instead of touch-sensitive icons or swipes on the screen of a phone, there are physical buttons and other bits of Jurassic analog technology.

Let’s start by inserting a compact disc. This act, alone, is from an earlier era.

Physically slide a release on the side of the player, and the lid pops open, “clamshell” style.

Set your CD into the player, close the lid, and you’re ready to take your music with you.

If you’re not familiar with this technology, CDs are what’s long been referred to as “rotating memory.” The player spins the disc, and an optical reader picks up the information encoded in a spiral track, then turns it into sound waves.

As it happens, this is more or less the way we’ve played audio “information” from the very dawn of sound technology. Beginning in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and others developed a means to record audio signals on hollow wax cylinders that spun on a mandrel, the audio signal transferred via a stylus to a crude amplifier. There’s a long, detailed history of these “graphophone” or “phonograph” records, which I’ll spare you.

The cylinders became enormously popular. Here are the boxes for some Edison cylinders.

By about 1910, pressed disc records won out in the marketplace over cylinders, but the core technology wasn’t all that different.

The advent of flash memory is bringing the era of rotating memory to an end, but every computer once relied on it. Computer hard drives used digitally encoded data “read” by magnetic or optical readers, but they were once essential in all their bulky, noisy, heat-producing, prone-to-fail glory. The signals had moved from analog to digital, but still relied on spinning discs: rotating memory.

Going Mobile

“Portable” music, though, was impractical for those analog cylinders and discs through much of the 20th century. In my childhood, there were portable phonograph players, but one had to carry them to a stationary spot before playing.

The advent of the transistor radio made broadcast music portable, but not recorded music.

In 1982, encoding digital information yielded the compact disc format.

Eventually, CDs and players like the one in this article, engineered to minimize the shock of carrying the device, allowed more or less steady play, on the go.

Details From Another Era, Not Long Ago

The liquid crystal display is dim, difficult to photograph, but provides track and time info, as well as how much battery life remains.

Buttons are play/pause, stop, and forward or backward, one track at a time. On the side of the unit are buttons for volume, and another button — advanced technology here — that let you “bookmark” only tracks you wanted to play. Other buttons adjust treble/bass and play modes like “shuffle.”

There’s no speaker. You needed the latest in headphone technology.

The device even had a remote control. That is to say, it was as “remote” so far as the 30 inch wire would reach: no wifi.

Simplifying?

I do have the advanced skills to acquire a new disc player, connect it to my laptop, and — one by one — work through whatever portion of my CDs I want to “rip.” Then, upload the files to the Cloud and do something more or less confusing to download them to my mobile device.

In all honesty, I’m just fine with technology already in my possession that works, without all the doodling.

What say you? Abandoned all your physical media for The Cloud yet? I’ll award a special bonus point if you actually recognize the album I placed in the player. Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Sony and other names on the player and accessories are registered trademarks of Sony Corporation. Edison cylinder collection photo copyright Steve Goldstein, used by kind permission. “No Other” compact disc design and contents copyright Collector’s Choice Music 2002 and/or Electra Entertainment Group and/or Rhino Entertainment Company.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2020

On a Junket to a Junk

On two memorable occasions, more than a dozen years apart, I traveled to Hong Kong on business. Pictured below, during the second, in 2005, cinematographer Laurie is working to get a shot of the iconic Star Ferry from the Kowloon, or mainland, side of Victoria Harbor.

Here’s the Star Ferry

I was there to shoot video interviews and supporting footage for my employer’s HK operations. The metropolis is a fascinating place to photograph, whether or not you have a professional camera crew. Late that same day, we were high on a peak on the island, across the harbor, to get a shot of the city as lights came on.

I can do my best to assure you this trip involved a great deal of hard work during long days, hauling people and gear all over Hong Kong, in and out of offices to set up, shoot interviews and depict the work done there. Still, the picturesque scenes above make it look like I was on a fairly cushy junket.

That’s an interesting word. Before I get to “junket,” I’ll go back down to Victoria Harbor.

There, another waterborne icon of Hong Kong, featured in uncountable travelogues and tourism brochures, is the last of its kind: a traditional sailboat known as a junk. I’ve seen it, but never with an opportunity to photograph it, so I’ll rely on a news image.

According to bbc.com at this link, Hong Kong’s junk, named Dukling, long a popular tourist attraction, is the victim of a severe downturn in travel, due to the double jeopardy of pandemic and certain political events, about which I will avoid comment. Dukling’s future is at risk.

Why Is a Boat a “Junk?”

According to BBC, the word comes from Dutch jonk and Spanish junco, terms for sailing vessels in the Colonial period.

That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story.

Before the Dutch, Portuguese (who also have junco) and Spanish began to establish trading operations in China, they were in Java and the Malay Peninsula. There, in the 16th century, they encountered the Javanese term djong and Malay adjong, both generic terms for larger boats.

The association of those words with large sailboats (Dukling is 18 meters/59 feet long), was already well established, at least as early as the 13th century, before Europeans adopted the words into their languages.

All that Other Junk

The more common use of “junk” in English, which denotes … well … “stuff” or “trash” or … any number of other things, including slang for heroin, is unrelated to the term for the sailboat, with a separate etymology.

Coincidentally, it also has a nautical origin.

In Middle English, jonk was the term for old or worn rope or cable aboard ships. That “junk” would be put to a number of uses, including “fenders” alongside a boat, to prevent rubbing against docks or other ships, caulking leaks, and other purposes.

Over time, the term was applied to any cast-off material. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary hilariously note that there are myriad uses of the word junk, perhaps because the world is so full of it.

Junket?

I was on a junket on those trips to Hong Kong, in one sense of the word. It can mean a trip or tour for some purpose, whether business, politics, etc.

Before that definition of junket arose, there was a prior meaning, denoting a party or banquet. Even earlier in the language, the first definition provided in some dictionaries tells us that junket is a creamy cheese or dessert. From dessert to party to trip: interesting.

That gets us back to the near edge of Middle Ages and Middle English.

Before that, though, some cream cheese was made or molded in woven rush baskets. Those rushes and baskets made from them were both referred to in a variety of spellings too numerous to list in a short piece, all resembling “junk.” Among them are jonk or jonc and jonket, jonkette and others.

The source of those words in Middle English, around 1400, may have been Old French, Old Norman, Italian or … even the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were uncertain.

Speakers of English are accustomed to the notion that words that look and sound alike may have completely different meanings, and even have distinctive etymologies. “Junk,” meaning rushes or old rope, and “junket,” meaning either a basket or the cheese made in it are examples. OED doesn’t think their first definition of “junk” — rush — and the second — old rope — are directly related: They’re two words that look and sound alike, with no indication they share a historical relationship.

If you’re reading from Hong Kong (should you still have Internet access), I hope you get an occasional look at Dukling, maybe while you ride the Star Ferry. I hope to return to your amazing city, whether or not I’m on a junket. I wish you well there.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Star Ferry photo by mailer_diablo – Self-taken (Unmodified), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=440683. BBC article cited above retrieved on November 20, 2020. Junk photo is the property of BBC. Dictionaries cited are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin; Boston, New York, 2000 and Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 10, 2020

National Chili Month: Post-Election Melting Pot Chili

Here in the United States, it’s time to mark the conclusion of our recent national election. Not all results are in, but — once again — our republic has voted.

Whatever the outcome, there may be no better way to celebrate our heritage of inclusive democracy than with one of our iconic, native dishes: chili.

Celebrating National Chili Month is a years-long tradition here at Under Western Skies, so let us make chili.

A Quick Review

One ingredient defines a dish as chili: It must contain some variety of the plant genus Capsicum — the chile or pepper. There are scores or hundreds of varieties of chiles, grown worldwide. They’re native to the Americas, cultivated here for thousands of years. All other chiles, everywhere, originated here.

With such a general description, chili accommodates all diets, from vegan to carnivore and in between. Debate ranges amongst chili aficionados regarding ingredients. A simple online search for “chili recipe” yields 760 million results.

The Melting Pot

As a native food, preternaturally adaptable, chili seems to be the perfect vehicle with which Americans can celebrate our range of heritages and traditions as we look forward to a continuation of our republic.

Not So Much a Recipe ….

In that spirit, this chili will differ from the dozen or more recipes I’ve featured at UWS over the past 11 years. It’s not so much a recipe as a frame of mind: a way of demonstrating our confidence that the longstanding claim that America’s a “melting pot” still holds true.

Simple, but Eminently Adaptable

I’ll make a basic chili from which you can extemporize.

Select a chile of whatever variety, level of heat or color. There are red, yellow, green, purple, orange and any number of other-colored peppers to choose from.

Tonight’s recipe uses chipotle, which is a smoked jalapeño pepper — common in the American southwest.

I’ll dice up that pepper, sizzle it with some diced onions (your choice: red, white, green, yellow) in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, along with some other spices that, in this non-recipe-recipe, are entirely up to you and your taste buds.

I dithered between the red and yellow/brown onion we had on hand, and chose the yellow one. Ultimately, it’s simply a matter of taste and preference.

The UWS kitchen is primarily vegetarian. You can add meat, or — dare I suggest — tofu, if you want more protein. They and any veggies go in to cook after the chile, onion and spices have sizzled on low heat for a few minutes.

Here, the world lies before you, as chili demonstrates its almost universal flexibility. If you want your chili to represent a particular cultural, ethnic or geographic perspective, your choice of ingredients can produce Greek, Thai, Spanish, Indian or Scandinavian chili. All-inclusive, welcoming to all, a dish that originated in pre-Columbian prehistory is now not only the American food, but the world’s.

You are, according to your taste and inclination, going to build a multi-colored, multi-flavored chili that reflects the essential nature of the American melting pot. Your chili may include any number of vegetables, whether green, red, yellow, orange or purple (eggplant, anyone?), not to mention the option of tomatoes in a spectrum of colors and flavors.

Potatoes? Some chilis have them, whether (again) white, red, yellow, purple. Another product of the Americas, unknown anywhere else in the pre-Columbian world, potatoes are a native food, and … well, you’re getting the point.

I’m going to add beans. There are those who maintain that beans aren’t an essential chili ingredient. In a vegetarian kitchen, they provide not only flavor and texture, but protein. Most of the beans I commonly use are varieties of Phaseolus, and include kidney, black, garbanzo, navy or others).

Again, the point is that there are white, black, red, yellow … countless colors and flavors of beans.

Perhaps you see a pattern taking shape.

Simmer everything together for 10, 20, 30 minutes. Simmering is good. Don’t let them burn. Maybe the only rule that applies here.

Serve your chili with rice, lentils (endless colors available), polenta, cornbread, fresh-baked or bakery bread, tortillas or just with a simple salad from any corner of the globe.

What made it to the table here at Rancho Retro was the most basic of chilis, accompanied by a crisp green salad (although, to belabor a point, salads can be of almost any color) and a wedge of toasted pita bread.

You’re a sophisticated audience. I don’t have to draw you a chart or tell you how to compose your chili. You get the point I’m making.

Chiles, vegetables, spices may be red, white, orange, black, brown, purple, yellow or any shade in between. So are we.

However you accomplish it, in whatever combination of ingredients, flavors, colors, textures, seasoned with chile peppers, you’ve made one of probably one billion possible chilis, with more to be discovered.

Let us eat chili. Let’s celebrate the renewal of the republic, the world’s melting pot. We, like chili, come in all colors, but at least we have things in common.

For more Under Western Skies chili recipes, click on “Food” in the “Categories” column in the right-hand navigation bar. Happy cooking.

© Brad Nixon 2020

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 4, 2020

Eleven Years at Under Western Skies

Today is the 11th anniversary of Under Western Skies.

It’s my annual opportunity to thank you for reading. I thank you.

We’ve been to a number of places in these years, from the deserts of southwestern America to Shanghai.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai

2020 has proven to be the year in which I’ve been challenged to demonstrate my longstanding assertion that one doesn’t have to travel far to find sites of interest. Although I think I live in an interesting place, so do you. As I’ve said for 11 years (and as the pandemic has emphasized), we have to LOOK.

Driving along streets in nearby San Pedro, California, for example, I can find survivors from another era of architecture: bungalow courts:

Not exactly the Taj Mahal or Milan Cathedral, but I can’t go to those places now. Were I to get on a plane, I might not be allowed to disembark.

Instead, just a mile from my house, this very evening, I stopped to see the venerable Warner Grand Theater, which opened in 1931, doing its civic duty as a polling place for the 2020 election

Like you, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I haven’t been far from home. There is nothing entertaining or amusing about the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

There’s irony — not particularly amusing — in the fact that my U.S. passport, which once gave me carte blanche (although U.S. passports are blue) to travel almost anywhere on the planet, now marks me as someone to be sent promptly home, should I be so bold as to board a plane and fly — almost anywhere.

The vague notion I had in November 2009 as I began, was that writing a blog might connect me to some number of people around the globe I wouldn’t otherwise meet.

That has proven to be the case. You’re one of them. I’m pleased to meet you.

Eleven years ago, I couldn’t foresee that a pandemic would transform the world into a locked-down palimpsest of its former self, in which most interactions happen virtually, via technologies that were nascent or nonexistent then.

Today, I more or less take it for granted that I can connect with anyone, planet-wide, not only via email, but in-person, online, as I did earlier this year with my onetime bandmates, across the globe, as we prepared to participate in a collaborative performance of a musical number.

A world I couldn’t have imagined: friends from Europe, Asia, North and South America, all together. We put together a music performance, edited into a single piece. Gratifying in its way, but not like standing together onstage.

Like me, you’re wondering, “Where will I go next?”

If you’re like me, the answer is, “I don’t know: somewhere.”

I didn’t know where Under Western Skies would take me all those years ago, but I hope you’ll continue to go with me. And I look forward to seeing where it is you go, too.

Stay safe, and let’s look forward to whatever there is to see. Thank you for these eleven years. Let’s have many more years together. Let some of those encounters be face-to-face again. Keep looking. There are interesting things, everywhere.

© Brad Nixon 2020

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 3, 2020

Election Day 2020

As I write, it’s a few hours until Election Day dawns in the United States on November 3rd.

Perhaps you’ve seen it mentioned in the news.

As a native-born American citizen, I suppose I ought to at least acknowledge that I’m aware a critically important event is reaching its climax.

As it happens, that date will mark the completion of my 11th year of blogging, which began November 4th, 2009.

When I began Under Western Skies, the social media cyberscape was radically different. Facebook, Twitter and Google existed, but with nothing like the all-encompassing sway they exert now. Uncountable other online entities — now frequented by billions of people — were years away from their debut. I was by no means in the first or second wave of worldwide bloggers. Still, the number of people one could reach in 2009 was vastly smaller than the several billion potential readers now online, everywhere, 24×7.

Although my approach to the blog has shifted over the past decade-plus, the nascent social media world was already replete with commenters, pundits and observers of the entire range of human life. Even then, I assumed no one on the planet needed one more voice added to the “current affairs” cacophony.

My “About” page still features a version of my initial approach:

“Politics and religion are not favored subjects.”

The ensuing 11 years seem to’ve borne me out. The online noise level’s risen, the constant battering by voices from every conceivable — and sometimes incomprehensible — perspective has grown more voluminous and omnipresent.

I, meanwhile, have continued to write about interesting places to visit in the American west, books, language, architecture, and that little place in Los Angeles no visitor will ever see. To the outside observer, it’s as if I’ve never noticed that maelstrom of social media swirling around me.

Not so. It’s a choice I’ve made.

Throughout these 11 years, nothing has tested my resolve to avoid diving into the socio-political drama more than the current state of affairs in the U.S.

I remain convinced that if Under Western Skies is to distinguish itself in even the slightest manner, it won’t be by campaigning for freedom of speech, access to healthcare, the inherent rights of all citizens, or the protection of natural resources, wild lands, and the compelling struggle to hold back the looming tide of global warming. It’s not why my readers are here, and it’s not my beat: at least not directly. Others have it covered, from innumerable angles. I hope I suggest my mindset in my writing. If not, then I can only hope the articles are interesting, in and of themselves.

I do wish that, by some means, social media had remained what I thought then it might become: a way to connect. It’s been that for me. This blog has expanded my world. I’ve met innumerable people — virtually — from almost every nation on the planet, with only a literal handful of exceptions.

Since you’re reading, that includes you. Thank you, again, for visiting.

I fear, though, that cyberscape is sorting us into bubbles, smaller and smaller, less-inclusive spheres of interest, erecting walls instead of leaping over them.

I’ve written — for example — about efforts in the U.S. to preserve wild lands and native species. As a result, I’ve met bloggers in the U.K., Poland, Kenya, the Philippines … almost everywhere, who share that interest. I could never have imagined it in 2009.

My blog has crossed borders that I still cannot cross in person without a visa and special permission from a U.S. Consulate. It’s crossed other borders that were once — literally — iron-clad, that have fallen in my lifetime.

Although I have not commented here, I know this election may be the defining moment for — at least — my generation of U.S. citizens. I’ve maintained that I’m not writing here about my personal life and convictions, nor did I set out to write one of the countless number of blogs that are posed that way.

I’ll keep reading, writing about what I read, continue looking up and recounting interesting word etymologies. Once the pandemic recedes some time in 2021, The Counselor and I will travel again, and hope you’ll be interested in seeing what it is we see.

I’ll be interested in what you’re seeing, too, once we can move about.

Although I didn’t foresee it in 2009, writing about etymology has become a recurring theme here, since it’s one of my interests. Here’s a bit of word talk, just so this post has some substance, and not mere chatter.

dem-a-gogue: n. A leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace.”

From two Greek terms for “leader” and “people,” although now freighted with connotation.

Here at the end of this blog post, I’m hard up against my self-imposed 1,000 word limit, but find I need to say something more. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, perhaps the following will serve.

Typically, here, I show a photo of some vast landscape under a western sky.

This is a western scene, but I’m in a city, not hiking or exploring, but stating what I believe to be the case. I made the rule, and I get to break it, too. I haven’t lived 69 years to regard this as just another Election Day.

That’s what I say.

Happy Election Day. I’ll see you tomorrow for the 11th anniversary of Under Western Skies.

© Brad Nixon 2020. “Demagogue” definition from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, © Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2000. Photo © M. Vincent 2020 used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 28, 2020

Toward a Universal Pizza Theorem. First, Make Pizza!

In times of stress, one food sustains us: pizza.

Not everyone on the planet likes pizza. In my opinion, those who don’t like it have simply never been exposed to the infinite adaptability of pizza to whatever stress or strain occupies an ordinary life … especially in these extraordinary times of global warfare and pandemic.

Before we get to positing some universal theorem, let us make pizza. No, we will not pick up the phone and ORDER pizza. Not everyone has that luxury, nor — during a pandemic — doth everyone wish to have pizza delivered by a stranger.

Let us make pizza, from the ground (flour) up.

Take between 3 and 4 cups of flour (your choice of grain), a tablespoon of oil, a teaspoon of salt, 3 cups of warm water, 2 teaspoons of yeast, and blend them together. After 8 or so minutes of mixing or — if you’re dedicated to hand-work, kneading — you’ll divide the resulting dough into two hand-shaped “boules,” like this:

Already, you feel better. You are now in charge of the universe. No one can tell you what sort of pizza you will make, nor can they prohibit you from making pizza. To my knowledge, no legislature on earth has yet outlawed the production of pizza dough. If they try, prepare for the onslaught of popular uprising.

Cover those boules lightly with a damp cloth or towel, place them somewhere warm, and let them rise for between 45 minutes and an hour. If your place is cool or drafty, set ’em in some enclosed place (an oven or a cupboard is good) next to a few cups of hot water, to get the ambient temperature up a few degrees.

After that, they should look about doubled in size. Any bread dough will tell you if it’s done rising if you poke a finger into it, and the resulting holes don’t close up, like this:

Meanwhile, during the time that dough’s been rising, you’ll be busy, preparing what will go ON the pizza.

A Pizza for Everyone

What makes pizza the universal food is that there is — so far as I know — no diet preference that cannot be accommodated by pizza. Even during times (like now) during which an uncountable number of things threaten to divide us and splinter us into haves/have-nots, reds/blues, greens/blacks, pizza can encompass us all.

It is, after all, just bread: Staff of life, the sustainer of life for the 10,000 or so years of human existence that’s preceded us, pizza is an opportunity to turn mere bread into precisely whatever we want to eat.

Here at the Under Western Skies kitchen, pizza is — like all food — pescatarian. You may wish to add ingredients not on the menu here, but here we have the following:

This would be a good time to get your oven heating to as hot as it can get. The UWS oven goes to 500 degrees, and we give it 30 minutes to get there, with a pizza stone in it, on which we’ll cook our creation. If you have one of those designer ovens that can get to 600, 800 degrees, go for it.

Unless you’re making two pizzas, you can put one of those boules into a sealed container or bag and freeze it for up to a month. We’re going to make one pizza here. With hands covered with olive oil, shape one boule into a compact ball and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Once you’re ready, oil up your hands, and set to work: On a board or clean surface, press the dough gradually, working it into any shape you want (circle, rectangle, whatever) about 1/4 of an inch in thickness (devotees of “Chicago Pizza” will go for half an inch, but they’re outliers, and will use all this dough to make one thick pizza. All due respect, Chicago, I love you, but I’m a “thin crust” guy).

Brush or smear some olive oil on the dough.

Now: The magic begins. Every aesthetic and culinary art you possess comes into play. This is the moment. No legislature or politician will gainsay you. You alone are the arbiter here. Array your ingredients — from mozzarella to parmigiano cheese, from Roma to Beefsteak tomatoes, anchovy to pepperoni: Spread ’em out.

Oven heated, pizza dressed, the moment of truth arrives. Carefully move that creation by whatever means onto the cooking surface in the oven. Not for the faint of heart, but what must be done. We rely here on a large “peel,” covered with cornmeal, to slide it onto the stone in the oven, as in the photo above.

If your oven’s at 800 degrees, it might take from 2 to 5 minutes. At 500, the UWS oven needs 7 minutes.

And then, let there be pizza.

The Universal Pizza Theorem: Where Is the World’s Greatest Pizza?

I’d like to state that I know precisely where one can find the greatest pizza on earth. If I knew, I’d tell you. I’d be famous as the travel writer who’d studied the pizzas of the world and found The Best. Believe me, I’ve tried. Anthony Bourdain, himself, probably never attained that Everest, strive however he might.

I might tell you that a long-ago spot in some Midwestern college town, or maybe an unheard-of storefront in Manhattan, or — yeah — that iconic place on Rush Street in Chicago, had the best-ever pizza.

But I’d be wrong.

The best pizza you’ll ever have depends on who’s there to share it with you. At this moment, I could book a flight to Rome, get on a tram to the Trastevere neighborhood, sit down and order what I think is the most excellent pizza I’ve ever tasted. I know that place. Come with me, I’ll take you there.

But, if I were by myself, it wouldn’t be the same. Pizza’s just bread dough covered with one or more ingredients. What makes it remarkable is who’s there to share it with you.

THAT’s what distinguishes good pizza from great: Who eats pizza with you.

Or, I advise, don’t fly to Rome. Make it at home with someone important to you, and have it together. Without someone else, pizza is simply bread dough cooked with toppings. In a time of global disaster, a pizza shared is the definition of togetherness.

Make pizza. We might be locked down. We’re not locked out. And whether you make pizza or not, hold on to one another.

© Brad Nixon 2020. One photograph © Executive Chef M. Vincent, 2020, used by kind permission

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 17, 2020

Who Says Wear a Mask? Smilin’ Jack! That’s Who.

I’ve written before about a longtime fixture of the Halloween season that appears every year at — of all places — an oil refinery near the Port of Los Angeles.

That’s Smilin’ Jack, the world’s largest jack o’ lantern, painted each year on a petroleum storage tank.

That gap-toothed smile has been supervising the scary season every year since 1952, almost unchanged. After Halloween, Jack’s painted over until time for his next incarnation.

In this pandemic year, Jack is mindful that things are different, and we all have to hew to new precautions. Here he is, looking out from his accustomed spot, mindful that everyone — especially 68 year-olds — have to be careful. He’s rocking a new look.

The masks that cover Jack’s twin faces — which look roughly north and west — are eighty feet wide.

In a year in which the petroleum industry’s been hit hard by a downturn in economies, with traffic in the port drastically reduced, the company’s gone forward not only with the investment in community good will, but added a timely message.

Refinery employees will again hand out treats to kids who show up in a long line of cars, so long as everyone in the car wears a mask — just like Jack.

This year’s event will be 6 to 9 p.m., October 30.

Jack is visible near the intersection of W Anaheim St and N Gaffey St in Wilmington, south of Los Angeles, on the northern edge of San Pedro. The official address of the sprawling facility is 1660 W Anaheim St., Wilmington California.

To get in line for treats, you’ll enter the refinery from eastbound Anaheim. Expect a line. Kids who showed up for the tradition in its early days are grandparents now, introducing another generation to a happy side of Halloween, during a season when here, at least, there’ll be little or no door-to-door trick or treating.

And wear your mask, over your nose. As Jack does. Beneath it, I assume he’s still smiling.

Caution: There are few places along busy Anaheim and Gaffey to safely pull over for a photo of Jack. Even walking along Anaheim, as I did to capture some of my photos above, is not recommended: no sidewalk. My view of masked Jack is from a hard-to-find local street with no legal parking, requiring a rather long walk to a viewpoint. Be prudent.

A happy and safe Halloween to all.

Photos © Brad Nixon 2020. Smilin’ Jack image is the property of Philips 66 Company and may not be used for commercial purposes without permission.

Older Posts »

Categories