So I’ve been in New York for three weeks now. This means that for every eight miles I’ve walked I’ve probably ingested three pounds of crispy pork belly. Good thing my new coat is a cape, or I would have had to start shopping for maternity wear. Best meals? Worst?
A sublime dinner—Berkshire piggy with fromage blanc spaetzle, guanciale and escarole—at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill followed Marco Canora’s genial, generous cooking at Hearth, courtesy of Carlisha. The pizzas at Otto were delicious (not to mention the creamy olive-oil ice cream), if somewhat hampered by the Cheesecake Factory corral-type atmosphere—Lupa, where I shared a late-night porky feast with Saxelby, was much mellower. Momofuku’s gets mixed reviews; it’s good, I think, but ultimately overrated (Jables and Freakock, whose Momofuku’s came back up after it went down, were nonplussed). Café Leon, on the under hand: totally underrated! They toss a mean salad. Boqueria: tasty but banal. Fatty Crab: fatty indeed, but no less delicious, who knew watermelon married crispy pork so well? Mexican and margaritas on Houston, empanadas on first, David’s Bagels on thirteenth, woo woo wee wee woo!
The best things I ate weren’t always in restaurants. When John and Judy came home from lunch at Peter Luger’s they had a doggie-bag steak that we ate cold in the wee hours, rending the flesh apart like…dogs, kinda. Ferris Bueller and I stank up one smart apt with the smells of Tennessee bacon swizzled with eggs. And I’ve munched a few ideal bagels on the subway.
MY GOD this is quite the list. No wonder that every time I reach my fifth-floor apartment door I can barely breathe. Or is there something else I should blame that on? Let’s save that one for our next discussion. Or never.
Despite the fact that I’ve now moved out of my car and into a bedroom, I still can’t seem to stop driving. Miami’s temperatures have glided gracefully down to where we like them best: the sun keeps us ever so slightly salty, and the gentle breezes of the moon wick off the sweat, blowing at once coolness and warmth, like a lover's whisper. Outside at midnight, in shirtsleeves and sundresses, we count ourselves lucky to live in the tropics in November.
I drove up to Ft. Lauderdale to meet my friend Tom for a drink tonight and then followed him to Plantation’s only authentic Irish pub (!), where Fire in the Kitchen was playing. The band consists of a Chinese fiddler called ShaSha, an Irish keyboardist previously of Dexy’s Midnight Runners (“Come on Eileen”), and a fat man who, throughout the course of the evening, put on and took off a little Irish mandolin, a fiddle, a drum, an Elvis mask, a knit Rasta cap with attached dreads, and a plaid Fat Bastard beret. The less-than-likely trio serenaded and whiplashed, mulled and marched, all to Celtic melodies. They were remarkably...effective. Affective.
Who says I’ve stopped traveling? The Paul Theroux quote above underscores how adventure will only be defined by state of mind; an odyssey can self-contain itself inside one's own backyard.
My last six months have been set to music. Whether you’d call them self-employment or unemployment, the truth is I was often my own boss and only company, and it meant I chose the soundtrack, or it chose me.
The beginning, after I’d just left London, was heavy on the pretentiously indie electronica. Still in a strung-out state of mind, not really, in my head, having left yet, I listened to Aavikko and Emir Kusturica and chain-smoked the toxins out of my system. A few weeks later, I’d mellowed. Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin had rolled by, green, robust and wholesome, and mostly I listened to the folksy twanging of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, indulged in a little Matchbox 20 even. I was thinking about a lot of things.
In France my cousins uploaded me a bunch of French music. But once they’d left there were weeks I wouldn’t see a single person I knew other than the grocer, and the music was constantly, continuously on. The soothing invariability of noise was like having another person there, I guess. I ate lentils, leeks, poached eggs, baguettes and nutella every day, in some new configuration—it became like a game to figure out new relationships for them. Those days I’d just press ‘random’ and a thousand songs could defile between tea or bathroom breaks without my ever focusing on one. Once, I listed to the first four hundred or so, in alphabetical order. A lot of work got done.
After a brief and perplexing, acid-house pop back into London, I got to Cork, where there was too much to do for music to play constantly. When the day ended, though, I’d retreat into a world of headphones, rizla paper and literature. It was the first occasion I’d had in years to read as much as I wanted to, and it lasted for weeks. The music became backdrop then. Baroque, acoustic, ambient, world. It didn’t really matter; I wasn’t really listening.
Vickie doesn’t drive, so she DJed instead, and I discovered music I owned that I’d never paid attention to before: Röyksopp, Tricycle, Lemon Jelly. The accordion in the music of La Rue Kétanou made us manic; we swerved in hilarity, circumventing sheep and old men.
There is a point in every teenager’s life when the components of their growing bodies—noses, limbs, ears—lose the harmonic symmetry they displayed as children and spend some time in awkward disarray before eventually, if they’re lucky, realigning.
The city of Miami is currently enduring its phase as a graceless teenager. Signs of maturity can be spotted, haphazardly strewn around the city’s body, in the elegant cheekbones of the new half-billion-dollar opera house complex downtown, the debaucherous weeklong contemporary art festival that draws collectors from around the world, and the greening of several important corporate offices. Other aspects of Miami’s coming into itself, however, lag behind.
Its upscale food scene, for instance—surprising in a city so replete with world-class hotels. It’s hard to blame anyone; the food in Miami often serves as backdrop, just for show (in a cocaine-fueled city of supermodels, who eats?). There’s Bed, a restaurant where the food is served, of course, in bed. There’s the new “beautritional cuisine,” served at Afterglo, where you can buy a “Beauty Pill” made of salmon, mango and broccoli sprouts. And now the hottest gimmick of the moment—sustainable—has finally come to town.
“It’s like that song, you know it?” asks Shaheed Harris, who is wearing a black Trix are for Kids T-shirt and New Balance sneakers. “We was country before country was cool.” His soft voice peals with laughter.
Boy, is he right. Shaheed’s family, the first farmers in South Carolina to become organically certified, turned back to work the land at a time when doing so was nearly unheard of, and less than recommended.
The decision was made out of necessity more than any conscious choice. Shaheed’s father Azeez Mustafa, who’d worked at DuPont doing assembly-line work, was laid off right before Shaheed was born. “My job title was ‘Group II,’” he recalls. “Back in the 70s, DuPont was the highest-paying job around. Actually, it was the only job around. Either you got a job at DuPont, or you went north. Farming would no longer support a family.”
When Azeez was laid off, the family lost their house, their car, their everything. He built a trailer house out of a box, and the family moved into it. They lived by lamplight, wood fires and a kerosene stove, and became strict vegetarians, often eating raw or Dumpster-salvaged food. “Stress of mind brings expansion of mind,” says Azeez, shrugging.
Todd Meade, world-traveling fiddle player, tucks into his barbecued pork with gusto. “I grew up listening to my great-grandpa Uncle Charlie fiddle,” he says in his gentle, dimpled drawl. “He lived to be 101, but died when I was seven, and I started playing after that. Here, try this barbecue sauce. I’m so glad you drink and smoke!”
Todd began fiddling during weekly Tuesday lessons with teacher Scott Gould, and after five years had learnt nearly 200 songs—he can read music, but prefers to pick up tunes by listening. He attended Tuesday-night jam sessions in Bristol, the alleged birthplace of country, Friday-night jams in Bluntville, and raise-the-rafters Saturday-night jams at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons. “Back when I was growing up, it was just me and a bunch of old men,” he reminisces. “Now, there’s a lot more interest in roots music.”
In high school, Todd was asked to put a band together to fundraise for the National Honor Society (“I wasn’t in the honor society,” he specifies, grinning). The band, Twin Springs, composed of classmates and relatives, was such a success that they recorded a CD. It wasn’t long before bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, one-half of the duo often credited with inventing modern bluegrass music, came knocking. Devotees speak of Stanley, who with his brother Carter made a series of seminal bluegrass recordings between 1949 and 1952, in hallowed tones, citing him as the best banjo picker in bluegrass music. The Library of Congress has named Stanley a Living Legend, and he was the first recipient of the Traditional Music Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Although his brother died in 1966, Stanley, who is now in his late seventies, has continued to tour the country nearly 200 days a year for the past half-century, and appeared on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2000 smash cinema hit O Brother, Where Art Thou? Needless to say, when, shortly after Todd’s eighteenth birthday, he handed over Todd twelve CDs and said, “Learn these,” Todd hastened to.
“The first time I played with him was in front of a thousand people and a bunch of cameras,” Todd recalls. “I was so nervous; he’s such a legend.” Shortly after, however, scenes like these became old hat. “We were away for 250 days that year. The first week I was on the job, he said, ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to California for two weeks tomorrow.’ It was my first time ever on an airplane.” Traveling became old hat, too. “I’ve been to every state in the continental U.S.; if I haven’t played there, I’ve driven through it.” But he adds, wistfully, “We didn’t do much other than play, though. I didn’t see states so much as interstates…”
The rural South has long been a tangle of contradictions and inequities. Kindnesses and loyalties run deep; so does tension. Old-fashioned values still preside, but they are slowly sinking into the swamps as young people flee to the cities, desperate for a living wage. Change may happen slower down here than it does in other parts, but if the southern 20th century has seen one overarching theme, perhaps it’s been the sluggish, painful giving up: of land, of traditions, of hope. Rural poverty is at a twenty-year peak, and black farm ownership has plummeted from 15 million acres at the turn of the century to 4 million today, from one million farmers to a minority of 50,000. “I think things are changing,” says Amadou Diop, his lilting voice optimistic. “The KKK still has a presence in the next town over, but now it has a black female mayor!”
Amadou started his walk into the woods in Senegal, where he was born and raised on a small farm. He studied agricultural science in Tunisia, then did his first master’s in animal science in Montpellier, France. After a few years back home running the family business, he came to the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama for a second master’s, this time in agricultural and resource economics. Along the way, he’s picked up Arabic, French, English, Spanish, Wolof, Pular, Mandingo and Serere. If only a few of those come in handy in the rural South, his other skills, luckily, seem to come in multiples too.