Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dave's Faves: Tasty Tunes, Deviled Eggs, and a Heartwarming Surprise

As a fledgling West Coast jazz fan, I've learned a few things.

1) West Coast jazz is more dependent on arrangements, whereas "East Coast" or "the rest of the country" is known for more improv and jams.

2) Being in the Golden State of Mind leads naturally - or unnaturally - to Hollywood.

3) Shakespeare rightfully described music as "the food of love," but that being said, boys and girls gotta eat.

All this was taken into consideration at a Celebration of Life for the late Dave Pell, who was instrumental (rim shot here) in creating the cool and sunny West Coast sound in the 1950s. (Amazing interview with Dave by Marc Myers on his blog, JazzWax, here.

Borrowed from JazzWax
What does this have to do with Girl Meets Soup? At the event, which was held at the AFM Local 47, the Musicians Union Hall on Vine Street in Hollywood there was a fabulous spread of sweets and savories, which at a typical memorial event, would salve the loss of a loved one and friend. In this case, however, the band playing Pell favorites like "Mountain Greenery" was the main course. As such, I missed out on the last deviled egg at the buffet, but made up for it at The Oinkster across the street afterward with a strawberry milkshake and an arugula salad.

There were three sheet cakes, decorated respectively with little plastic saxophones, music notes, and edible photocopies of Pell's album covers. A handwritten sign, propped up by a platter of dill pickles, olives, and crudités, proclaimed that, "These are a few of Dave's Favorite Things."

The band, which sought to commemorate the Dave Pell Octet, actually had nine musicians - ten if you counted the arrival of the imitable Jack Sheldon. Those who may not recognize his name would surely recognize his vocal work in the iconic "Schoolhouse Rock" series. Jack's was the voice of "I'm Just a Bill" and "Conjunction Junction," among others. The jazz community shakes its head in sadness today, remembering the robust, often bawdy trumpet player, who is now a shadow of himself after a massive stroke. He is now wheeled about by a caretaker, no less respected and loved.

Sheldon arrived at the Pell memorial amid a buzz of recognition, and gamely took the mike to eulogize his late friend and colleague as so many did after the band's first set - unfortunately, his speech was unintelligible. When the group - led by Carl Saunders, Pell's nephew and a monster trumpet player in his own right - resumed playing, Sheldon pulled out his trumpet, aided by his caregiver. Tentatively at first, he began to join in, playing his horn with one hand.

It should have been enough to just be standing there spellbound, as we witnessed this poignant sight. But in keeping with today's social media-crazy environment, we all groped for our phones - yes, the older people too - and began to video record and snap Instagram shots of Mr. Sheldon.

I could not help but think about the irony of it all. Friends of Pell's had created several continually looping slide shows of personal photos, album covers, ticket stubs, newspaper ads, and other memorabilia from Dave's distinguished and long career. He lives on in his ebullient arrangements of chestnuts from the Great American Songbook, played that day by the musicians from crumbling yellowed sheet music. He lives on in the family and friends who lovingly and joyously remembered him in tributes and through each other. Even an incapacitated friend and colleague was able to honor him with the highest tribute one musician can probably give another - interpreting his music.

Yet, these stories are disappearing daily. AFM 47 is actually re-locating to Burbank this month, the fate of the historic (at least, in my opinion) building, unknown. AFM 47 also faces another shrine of L.A. music history, Stein on Vine (moving story by Steve Lopez in the LA Times, here). The tiny hallway that leads to the union hall's restrooms is lined with photos of artists, many of whom enjoyed their greatest fame during my 1970s childhood and earlier, including Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Wilson, and Andre Previn.

You may be still wondering what this is all about.

Carl Saunders (on trumpet) and Scott Whitfield
(on trombone) pay tribute to Dave Pell at the
AFM Local 47 in Hollywood on June 24.
I have recently embarked on a new literary endeavor - a book about the contributions of jazz to television in during the 1960s and 70s. Through the rose-colored lenses of my own personal nostalgia, I regard as the art form's (TV, that is) Golden Age. Armed with my love of music, my husband's extensive library of books and CDs, and even an adult school class on West Coast jazz taught by a former jazz DJ and UCLA doctor, I have gone where no Gen X-er has dared to go: into the living archive of "America's classical music."

I'll still be here at GMS - I am looking forward to my second year of Foodista's International Food Blogger Conference in September, and a trip to Chicago this month, with the requisite foodie fun! But I will also be establishing a new blog as the working "sketchbook" (a really hip sketch of the band that day by my friend and artist extraordinaire Shiho Nakaza), for my TV-and-tunes tome - please stay tuned!

© MMXVII Joanie Harmon

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

To Market, To Market: Albertson's Re-Opens in San Pedro

San Pedro is like Mayberry or Peyton Place. It is similarly endowed with a unique combination of folksy charm and community rancor - both of which came into play when Albertsons reopened its doors on Western Avenue on March 1.

In 2014, Albertsons was purchased by Haggen, a grocery chain based in the Pacific Northwest. A little over a year later, Haggen filed Chapter 11, closing its Southern California outposts and laying off any former Albertsons employees who remained to work for the new company.

Albertsons' grand opening included a packed parking lot
and a brass band, courtesy of San Pedro High School.
Haggen was not successful at any of its locations in Southern California. However, its usurping of that particular Albertsons location - one of the established hubs of San Pedro on both a material and an emotional level - was met with the vehement disapproval of a community that is fiercely loyal to people and institutions that treat them well.

The lights in the store space had been inexplicably turned on for months, but I did not know about the reopening of Albertsons until a few weeks ago. While at the shopping center on Western, I finally noticed a sign on the door stating that the store would reopen at 9 a.m. on March 1 and that the first 100 shoppers would receive a free basket of groceries. I pictured something out of a "Laverne and Shirley" episode where madcap shoppers would be plowing through the market, frantically filling their shopping carts to the brim. Then I realized that "basket" probably meant those small plastic baskets that sit at the entrance. Not as much comedic potential, and I wondered if any homeless people would get in line to pick up free food.

The red carpet at Albertsons was strewn with flowers
and bargains.
Later, I learned that the store was opened at 8 a.m. due to the eagerness of early bird shoppers. I never saw the first 100 as I sauntered over from Starbucks at 8:45 with my camera in one hand and an Americano in the other - indeed, there seemed to be a number of people already walking out with their purchases and freebies.

As I neared the entrance to Albertsons, the sound of a marching band blared triumphantly across the parking lot. The San Pedro High School marching band was there to kick off the event, with parents, members of the community, and kids from Dana Middle School looking on. Speeches were made by Albertsons management and by representatives of the store's parent company, and a certificate was presented to Albertsons by the City of Los Angeles.

Rick says "cheese" - literally. The former Albertsons
employee has returned to share his expertise
in formaggio.
Unlike the other big "red carpet" event a few days prior, the reopening of Albertsons went off without a hitch. And unlike the controversies that have surrounded the former event, the celebration of the supermarket's return to a very diverse community reflected its immigrant roots. Nearly all of the department managers at Albertsons boasted Latino surnames and the high school band was a veritable spectrum of skin tones - although there were no female participatnts (except for the director!). The aisles were stocked with a global feast of exotic produce, gourmet cheeses and meats, a tempting bakery and all the other ingredients needed to honor one's Slavic/Italian/Hispanic/Nordic/Asian culinary heritage.

A number of former Albertsons/Haggen employees have returned to Albertsons on Western Avenue. I met Rick, who was preparing bite-sized samples of Parmigiano Reggiano with pear paste and serving them in the revamped deli department.

Chester Cheetah greets shoppers in the snack food aisle.
"There are a lot of new products, a lot more sanitary measures," said Rick, who was wearing a sort of snood over his full beard. "There is a lot more of high quality products that look really good - it gets you hungry."

Rick moved to Northern California for a year, then moved back to the area before Albertsons offered him a job in his former store. Some of his former co-workers were hired at Vons Pavilions or Ralphs markets in the Palos Verdes area; a number of them chose to stay at their new jobs. Still, there were many familiar faces when Rick came back to Albertsons.

"It was like coming back to school after summer break," he said. "You get to see a lot of new and old faces, everyone hugging and saying hi, catching up on what they've been doing for the last year."

Rick is the cheese specialist in the Albertsons deli, a new position for the store.

My go-to item was always the salt and vinegar chicken wings.
"We want to educate customers and introduce them to more gourmet cheeses," he said. "We're going to try that out and see if it works."

While San Pedro is known for its deep love of history, as was shown with Albertsons' closing nearly two years ago, nothing should be considered forever. Still, Rick is optimistic. 

"I like to learn things so anything I learn from this experience I can take somewhere else, or stay in this company and move forward," he said.

Another Haggen in Lomita that closed last year is now being turned into an international market, with food from Asia and the Middle East. When I was growing up, my parents had to go all the way to Gardena to buy our huge bag of rice, dried anchovies, Kikkoman soy sauce, and other Asian-y staples. So it's great that there are more ethnic markets popping up in the South Bay. But we still need that friendly neighborhood market where everyone shops and where we can celebrate the good old U.S. of A. - with chicken wings, tabouli, Italian cookies, nopales, and fig spread, all under one
fluorescen-lighted sky.

The L.A. Business Journal

The Daily Breeze

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Spice Girl: The Gingerbread Manifesto

When I first heard this song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, I assumed that it was called, "Gingy," after the character in "Shrek." After all, why wouldn't anyone write an ode to a hysterical cookie man with a high-pitched voice?

Gingerbread men from Whole Foods: Crunchy
mini-mes by Nikki's Cookies with a long and tall
from Jacqueline's Cookies.
Gingerbread in representational shapes dates back to Queen Elizabeth I, who ordered biscuits made in the likeness of visiting dignitaries to her court. While gingerbread people, houses, and other shapes have become synonymous with the Christmas season, the cookie was sold at fairs in colonial America and baked into "funeral biscuits" and served at wakes in the 17th and 18th Century New England and Pennsylvania Dutch country. Caraway or tansy seeds enhanced the now familiar flavor of "hard gingerbread," which is still sweetened with molasses.

The New York Times recently ran an article on pierniki, a specialty of Torun, Poland, that dates back to 1380. The name comes from the Polish word pieprz, or pierny, meaning a peppery flavor. Modern gingerbread recipes consistently include a mixture of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg - black pepper is not as frequently included although it is part of the authentic pierniki formula.

Boiled honey and candied orange zest give leckerli their
sunny flavor base despite their wintry appeal.
Gingerbread's Swiss cousin, leckerli, is made similarly to pierniki, with a boiled syrup of honey and spirits, as well as almonds, hazelnuts, and candied orange peel. Dorie Greenspan's recipe, reprinted on Food 52, was surprisingly easy - despite the cement-like consistency of a sticky dough - and yielded a huge supply of chewy and fragrant cookie bars.

And to satisfy my urge to roll and cut dough in festive shaped, I found a recipe on the blog, Pecan Pies & Tomato Tarts for honey spice cut-outs. The recipe allows for either molasses or honey to be used to sweeten the rich dough. I opted for molasses, which yielded a chewy cookie that was easy to roll and shape, with a great aroma that improves with age.

Unicorns are my new deer: Honey spice cut-outs await
the oven.
The term, "gingerbread" also refers to fanciful and ornate architecture in the late 19th Century, in the United States and in Haiti. Building houses and other structures of gingerbread has become an art unto itself. I didn't attempt it this year, but have acquired a Nordic Ware pan that bakes muffins or cakes in the shape of tiny houses. I'm looking forward to using it to try out this toothsome recipe for Gramercy Tavern's gingerbread, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen.

Finally, when the need for a gingerbread fix arises,
Gingerbread man from Peet's
Coffee and Tea adds nostalgia
to the coffee break.
there are many store-bought versions that are very good. Peet's Coffee and Tea serves a gingerbread man that is soft and chewy, with strong notes of clove. Nikki's Cookies, which are sold at Whole Foods, has cute and crispy mini-gingys, accented with black pepper. And Baked in the Sun created a gingerbread man that found its way into my Nordstrom shopping bag, decked out in red icing buttons and a friendly smile. This one was dense and chewy, and reminded me of the first time I ever baked gingerbread.

There must be a reason that the melange of spices used to flavor gingerbread and other holiday resurface every year for the winter palate. Cinnamon is said to have cognitive and psychological benefits - I actually
give my morning Americano a good sprinkle of it every day. Although a very subtle spice, nutmeg is helpful to circulation and reducing insomnia. Among many other qualities, ginger is the only source of gingerol, a known anti-inflammatory aid and antioxidant. And cloves aid digestion, control blood sugar levels (how it does this in a cookie, I don't know), and boosts immunity.

Obviously, there is some physiological draw to foods that warm up us or cool us down, depending on the weather. But during the holidays or any other festive occasion, there is a psychological attraction to the creature comforts that take us back to a simpler time. All the rushing about at the holidays is worth it when you can revisit childhood and recall happy times by just baking - or eating - a cookie.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a wondrous New Year to you! Thank you for reading GMS!

Other Sources:

Weaver, William Woys. "America Eats: Forms of Edible Folk Art" (New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print)