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Neapolitan Flounder

It is my birthday this week and, to celebrate, I wanted to share some special posts with you.  Unfortunately my schedule is not obliging to help me finish the larger philosophical piece I have been writing, so instead I am going to share a sculpture which I just finished (I was going to save it for later, but, sigh, life is short so let’s look at it now) .  This is “Neapolitan Flounder” a sculpture made of wood, bone, and plastic toys.  It is one of the extensive flatfish series of artworks which I have been working on, however, unlike the drawings which take a more expansive view of ecology and human history, “Neapolitan Flatfish” examines the prevailing ethos of the time which is to capture people’s money by providing them with exactly what they want (in this case the empty calories of airy frozen confections).  Of course these aren’t actually delicious soft serve ice cream cones, they are really plastic junk from the dollar store.  Yet given my unhappy history with making plastic toys, and given the ever growing burden of plastic detritus building up in the wild places of Planet Earth, perhaps the message becomes even more germane.  The flounder is a predator and a prey animal–the “middle class of the ocean” although serious overfishing is leading to a precipitous decline of populations around the world (which matters little to Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, who would not be unhappy if everything and everyone died five minutes after he concludes his own earthly existence as a master of crooked insider deals).  Ahem…anyway, sometimes it is a bit unclear who is fishing and who is being fished, but what could be more delightful than the unexpected charm of three different flavors (and different colors) which compliment each other perfectly being placed next to each other in one simple Rothko-like package?  Please ignore the bone hook and the glittering blue predatory eyes and get ready for some birthday fun here at Ferrebeekeeper.

Also, don’t forget to ask the Great Flounder some of your own questions.

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Back when I first moved to New York, I didn’t know how to cook very well, so my roommates and I ended up ordering out almost every night.  The profusion of infinite restaurants featuring delicious cuisine from everywhere in the world seemed like one of the city’s great features back then.  My favorite sort of take-out cuisine is Chinese, so we would order Chinese from New Panda Garden or Szechuan Delight at least once a week (and sometimes more).

Then one day, my roommate came back with a menu for a new place: Uncle Liao.  We had immense fun saying the name (which you should try) and we started ordering their sour pork cabbage delight—which was magically delightful. Coincidentally, according to a Chinese-speaking friend, “Liao” means “old” in Chinese—so their name was something like “Uncle Old” or maybe “Venerable Courtesy Relative.”  We ordered Uncle Liao all the time and poor Panda Garden closed (and Szechuan Delight was relegated only for the occasions when we had to have sweet and sour chicken, which they did really well).  But then a funny thing happened: the novelty faded from Uncle Liao and the food stopped seeming so delicious.  After a while my roommate picked up a “Red Hot” menu and soon Uncle Liao dropped out of the rotation.

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It is possible, of course, that their food became less good over time (indeed the internet tells me they closed a decade ago for gross health code violations), however I believe the whole cycle was illustrative of the human need for novelty.  After a while the most delicious food loses its special savor, and the most gorgeous ornaments look stale next to newer baubles.  We have an insatiable appetite for novelty–and it is this taste (not the need for sour pork-cabbage delight) which drives more of human activity and purpose than I ever would have credited.  Lately I see Uncle Liao scenarios everywhere: in media, in politics, in relationships, especially in the arts (which are afflicted by a real weakness for novelty even if the new work is stupid or inane)…yet even science and academia are prone to the “good because it is new” phenomenon.  I suppose this itself is good, since it drives change and innovation, but it is alarming too…our collective hunger which can never be sated which draws us to new things even if they are stupid or tasteless (or kind of too salty with too much MSG).   I don’t propose not trying new things (far from it), but we should be aware that they tend to overperform on the curve and most of them are destined for the back of the folder…or the landfill…or the “CLOSED” tab on the menu finder.

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

The common onion (Allium cepa) is one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables: indeed, the onion goes so far back that now Allium cepa is known only as a cultivated vegetable. As with the cow, the actual wild version of this organism has been lost (although there are other edible allium species around the world which go by the name “wild onion”). Common onions probably originated in Central Asia: the oldest archaeological evidence we have of onion farming puts the vegetables in Ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago, in India and China 5,000 years ago, and in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, however it is likely that they were grown as a crop long before then. Onions are in the most ancient Chinese and Indian texts and likewise they are in the oldest chapters of the Bible. The classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were heavily dependent on onion cultivation. When Rome fell, onions became a staple of the medieval diet. Emmer wheat, bitter vetch, and bottle gourds have come and gone from fashion, but the onion is more popular today than ever. There is a huge bowl of them in my kitchen right now (and I cook them into pretty much every savory dish).

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Onions are easy to grow in many different types of soil in many different ecosystems. They are also easy to store all winter and plant from seeds or bulbs. They can be dried or pickled for long term storage. They can be cooked in every conceivable way, or just eaten raw. Clearly humankind has an ancient relationship with onions and they have kept us alive in many a jam (myself definitely included).

An onion field...hmm, not much to see here...

An onion field…hmm, not much to see here…

Indeed, onions are such a bedrock part of human culture, that we don’t too have much to say about them aside from boilerplate comments about their tear-inducing properties (which are caused by sulfenic acids released when onion cells are damaged). The ancient Egyptians thought of onions as sacred, and made them a part of funeral ritual and a symbol of the cosmos, but subsequent generations have become distracted by flashier vegetables, and pay the ancient onion little tribute (although I suppose there are arguments that onion domes, my favorite architectural flourish, are a sort of homage).

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

I was hoping to feature some onion-themed deities or deep and troubling myths about these edible bulbs, but I haven’t really been able to find too many (although the satirical website is messing up my ability to search for material). So, instead of citing ancient literature or art, here is my own tribute to Allium cepa. This is a small oil painting which I made back in 2002. It pays tribute to the modest but very real visual beauty of onions. I painted the three main colors commonly available (after looking through all the bins for the right subjects for my still life like a crazy person). The painting makes me smile and it reminds me fondly of all the chili, curry, Chinese food, pasta, and porridge I have eaten which would have been thin and bland without this amazing vegetable. Hooray for onions!

Dried Shredded Squid

Dried Shredded Squid

So, I grew up in the middle of the United States (and sometimes along the East Coast) and salty snack foods were invariably cheese doodles, chips, or pretzels—or maybe peanuts or corn chips if you were somewhere fancy). This is why it was a huge revelation when my Korean-American friend introduced me to dried shredded squid—a favored bar food in Japan and Korea.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, dried shredded squid consists of squid which has been shredded, dried, and salted (although sometimes the dried cephalopod is actually cuttlefish). The flesh comes away in little strings which one then pops into ones mouth with mayonnaise or hot sauce (particularly at a bar or while drinking pre-dinner drinks like whiskey or beer). None of this sounds especially appealing—and indeed, at first glance, the salted dried squid does not inspire the casual snack enthusiast with much hope. Squid and cuttlefish dry to an unappealing color somewhere between bone, mummy, and woodear, while the aroma bears a faint hint of decaying estuaries (with perhaps a touch of Cthulhu).

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Yet, when one actually eats the dried shredded squid, it goes through a wonderful metamorphosis: it is exactly the right combination of chewy, salty, and umami. In Japan, shredded dried squid is known as “atarime” and is considered a otsumami (a bar food) whereas in Korea it is regarded as a bar food or sometimes a banchan (a small side dish). Whatever the case, it is excellent as a before dinner snack (especially with a beer) and I heartily recommend it to everyone—even if you are a bit wary of eating dessicated sea creatures.  Furthermore, the packaging tends to be very droll with all sorts of cute cartoon squids (as you can sea in some of these photos).

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Turkey with Fast Food (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, watercolor on paper)

Turkey with Fast Food (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, watercolor on paper)

We are quickly coming up to Thanksgiving and it is time to celebrate those magnificent birds, the turkeys.  Native only to the New World, turkeys are large fowl of the hugely important order Galliformes (which includes chickens, pheasants, quail, partridges, grouse, peacocks, and guineafowl).  Although there were once many taxonomic varieties of turkeys, today there are only two species remaining in the wild: the ocellated turkeys (Meleagris ocellata), and the wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo).

Turkeys were originally domesticated by the great civilizations of Mesoamerica and they became an important part of the agricultural base of Mayan and Aztec society.  When the Spanish conquered the great Central American civilizations with smallpox and war, the conquistadors also conquered the domesticated turkeys, which they took back to Spain in chains (probably).  Spanish farmers then further domesticated the birds, which were then reimported back to the Americas.  Today’s turkeys are descendants of Spanish turkeys (with some wild turkey genes mixed in by 18th, 19th, and 20th century farmers).

To celebrate this heritage, I have painted a small watercolor artwork of a domesticated Bronze Turkey visiting a Mesoamerican step pyramid.  The turkey’s splendid plumage fits in quite well with the vibrant colors of Central America, but peril looms! Will the Tom turkey learn in time that our Western continents are lands of unrestrained appetite?  To help him understand, I have scattered the ground with some of humankind’s favorite contemporary treats (which also prove appealing to an obstreperous little shrew).  There is probably some sort of parable here for hungry modern humans, but I will leave it to the viewers to tease it out (hopefully over a delicious holiday dinner).

Pomelos and Mooncakes

Once again it is the mid-autumn festival (also known as the mooncake festival), one of the most important festivals of the Chinese calendar.   I hope you and your friends get together to drink rice wine while looking at the jade rabbit who mixes magic herbs on the moon!

Last year Ferrebeekeeper explored the mid-autumn festival through poetry but this year we will concentrate instead on food. The quintessential foodstuff of the mooncake festival is the mooncake, a cake which is crafted to look like the moon [Ed. this is some fine work you’re doing here], however an equally lunar-looking foodstuff is nearly as important for celebrating the holiday.  The pomelo is a beloved citrus fruit which has come to be integrally associated with the mid-autumn festival. The fruit is like a giant green or chartreuse grapefruit with a yellow-white or pinkish-red interior (depending on the variety).  Pomelos can be quite large with a diameter that runs between 15 and 30 centimeters (6 to 12 inches) and they can weigh up to 2 kilograms (about 4 and a half pounds). The fruit is segmented like that of an orange (albeit with a great deal more pith) and tastes like a mild sweet grapefruit.  In some varieties of southern Chinese cooking, the pomelo skin is used as an ingredient in its own right.

Pomelo

Because of its shape, its harvesting schedule, and its delightful taste, the pomelo is a mainstay of the mid-autumn moon festival. To quote gochengdoo.com, a Chines culture blog:

In Mandarin, pomelos are called 柚子 (you zi), a homophone for words that mean “prayer for a son.” Therefore, eating pomelos and putting their rinds on the head signify a prayer for the youth in the family. In addition, the Chinese believe that by placing pomelo rinds on their heads, the moon goddess Chang’e will see them and respond to their prayers when she looks down from the moon.

Aww!

The pomelo has long been cultivated in China: the first allusions to the fruit date to 100 BC, but cultivation may go back further.  Many of the citrus fruits we are most familiar with, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, are the end result of centuries—or even millennia–of hybridization and selective breeding. Pomelos are an exception. Native to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, the pomelo is one of the ancestral citrus fruit and the pretty trees grow wild in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the first sweet oranges were probably a hybridization of pomelos and mandarins. Grapefruits are probably a descendant (it is hard to tell what the exact relations are since citrus trees hybridize so readily). What is certain is that the pomelo fruit is lovely and sweet and will enhance your ability to appreciate the moon tonight!

Pomelos on the Tree

Happy lunar viewing!

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