In the former Soviet Union, cognac was the expensive booze of choice, while whiskey was relatively unknown. Technically, you can only call cognac the brandy from Cognac in France, but the Soviets did not care much about that, already abusing Appellation d’Origine ContrÃ´lÃ©e with Soviet Champagne.
In any case, high end Armenian brandy was considered the ultimate drink. Armenians were one of the first to invent the alcohol distilling technology, and Armenian brandy, by the way was the very same drink that Odysseus used to knock out the Cyclops.
The reason I remembered all this, is because two news articles reminded me of a Russian saying: to a pessimist cognac smells like bedbugs, to an optimist – bedbugs smell like cognac. Good cognac has a rather peculiar smell, and some say that it smells exactly like squashed bedbugs. Although I smelled cognac often enough, I’ve never smelled squashed bedbugs. Thus I can’t really say if the saying is true, or just an artifact of crappy Soviet cognac.
Consider the contrasts:
“Twelve-year-old Beatrice returns from the fields with small animals she’s caught for dinner.
Her mother, Elizabeth, prepares the meat and cooks it on a grill made of three stones supporting a wood fire. It’s just enough food, she says, to feed her starving family of six.
Tonight, they dine on rats.
“Look what we’ve been reduced to eating?” she said. “How can my children eat rats in a country that used to export food? This is a tragedy.””
Zimbabwe’s ambassador to United States, Machivenyika Mapuranga, told CNN on Tuesday that reports of people eating rats unfairly represented the situation, adding that at times while he grew up his family ate rodents.
“The eating of the field mice — Zimbabweans do that. It is a delicacy,” he said. “It is misleading to portray the eating of field mice as an act of desperation. It is not.” “
It’s hard to be optimistic about rat eating, but I guess it’s not as difficult for Mr. Mapuranga.
On the other hand, it’s probably pretty hard to be pessimistic about gourmet food served in some Manhattan soup kitchens:
“The multicourse lunch that Michael Ennes cooked in the basement of Broadway Presbyterian Church last week started with a light soup of savoy and napa cabbages. The endive salad was dressed with basil vinaigrette. For the main course, Mr. Ennes simmered New Jersey bison in wine and stock flavored with fennel and thickened with olive oil roux.
But some diners thought the bison was a little tough, and the menu discordant.
“He’s good, but sometimes I think the experimentation gets in the way of good taste,” said Jose Terrero, 54. Last year, Mr. Terrero made a series of what he called inappropriate financial decisions, including not paying his rent. He now sleeps at a shelter. He has eaten at several New York City soup kitchens, and highly recommends Mr. Ennesâ€™s food.”
The gourmet soup kitchen chef is an optimist though:
“Despite the care he puts into his cooking, he doesnâ€™t mind a little criticism.
“They’re still customers, whether theyâ€™re paying $100 a plate or nothing,” Mr. Ennes said. “One thing we do here is listen to people and let them complain. Where else can a homeless person get someone to listen to them?” “
I grew up with the Soviet media feeding me horror stories about life in America, and I know that indeed, looking at the world through the eyes of reporters is “looking through a glass darkly“. I trust the CNN reporter over the Zimbabwian politician because the latter has a much keener interest in misrepresenting the reality. But on the other hand, the efforts of the New York Times reporter to find the several homeless critiquing the free gourmet cuisine seem a little artificial. I bet 99% of them were rather grateful for tasty meals. But then, I don’t doubt that the New York City homeless can be rather picky — I’ve seen some refusing and even throwing offered food at the would be Good Samaritans.
There’s one piece of Americana that I do not like. Lawns. Suburban grass lawns. Keeping a good looking lawn is difficult and expensive. The amount of watering and cutting and fertilizing is mind boggling, considering that you are simply growing grass. Lawns do have a nice, neat appearance, but in my opinion they are way too sterile.
Of course, I am not alone in lawn-hating. Various hippies are also unhappy with vast water-hogging expenses of grass they can’t smoke. They propose various solutions, such as replacing grass with clover, wild flowers, etc. I actually very like one solution I’ve seen somewhere (can’t find the link) – they’ve replaced the lawn with a vegetable garden. It’s not as neat and sterile, but still green most of the year. And you get your own organic berries and vegetables.
Oh, and I got to mention this, my wife always liked this black grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus, I think) that grown across from the waterlily pond in Brooklyn Botanical. Now, that would make one nice gothy lawn.
In any case, my McMansion-owning friends can have their humongous lawns and tractor lawnmowers. Living in an apartment, all I can operate with is a windowsill.
Speaking about windowsills. I grew up in a very old apartment in Odessa, Ukraine. The windowsills there were huge – you could sleep on those things. Some of the newer houses in America don’t even have windowsills – they have picture frame moulding around them. The older, Art Deco era apartment where I live now has decently sized windowsills. They are big enough for a couple of cats to sleep on.
In any case, there’s a lot of super cool stuff you can grow on your windowsill. I, for one have a couple of real pineapple plants.
For the longest time I thought that pineapples grew on palm trees, like bananas and coconuts. Well, I just found out that bananas also don’t grow on palm trees and are technically herbs. Live and learn.
Anyway, pineapples grow low on the ground, kind of like corn. The first pineapple plant that I grew on my windowsill I got from Brooklyn Botanical Garden gift shop. It already had the small fruit and cost me about $30 bucks. That was years ago. It has proven to be amazingly resilient – I generally have a brown thumb, and frequently forgot to water it. It survived a cold New York winter, and finally I ended up eating the slightly bigger pineapple. It was small, but very pineapply.
The plant that you see in the picture is one of the two that I picked up from Ikea in Elizabeth, NJ. They set me back only 20 bucks, together. Thank you, Ingvar.
I bet there are other cool plants that I could grow. Various dwarf citrus plants – lemons, oranges, kumquats, etc. Coffee tree. Maybe even a dwarf banana. The trick, of course if finding plants that already have fruit on them (if you know a good supplier, please let me know) – growing something from a seed is a huge pain in the ass.