Like a lot of people, my love affair with Ramen began when I started living in a dorm. Hot pots were the appliance of choice, the work horses of our shared kitchen and a guarantee of something salty and caloric within minutes. My gateway noodle was pretty standard: Maruchan ramen, chicken flavor. But soon I was running with some serious instant ramen connoisseurs. I eventually moved on to everything from kim chi ramen to miso ramen to the unknown pleasures of chili oil and freeze-dried beef packets. I consumed a lifetime's worth of sodium in four years, but I was in paradise.
I became aware of ramen as a rich and complex culinary tradition much later in life, but after my first bowl of chashu ramen with hand-pulled noodles, I was hooked. I've become as obsessed with the methods as I am with the food, and I've been hitting the books trying to create the perfect bowl in my own kitchen.
There is no shortage of ramen-related cookbooks out there. In the past year or two, the market seems to have become saturated. At one end of the spectrum is David Chang, whose Momofuku is probably in the vanguard of haute cuisine's take on Japanese street food. Chang is a fascinating personality, and a brilliant chef, but for a home cook, I found that a lot of his recipes bordered on absurdity. I felt like the poor woman in the movie Tampopo, getting things wrong over and over again with catastrophic results. I like Chang better in his role on Mind of a Chef. His digressions into different variations and techniques (an entire episode is devoted to the egg) are a source of endless inspiration.
One of Chang's guests on Mind of a Chef was Ivan Orkin, an American chef in Tokyo who uses an aromatic, high-protein flour blend for his noodles and a fatty, chicken-based broth for the soup. His new book Ivan Ramen is written in painstaking detail, but home cooks are very much the intended audience.
So far, I've actually gotten some of the best results from Tadashi Ono's and Harris Salat's Japanese Soul Cooking. Their recipes are simple, but they are easy to play with once you've got the basics down and they yield big, intense flavors.
And what about the noodles, the most important part for many Ramen fans? Orkin definitely wins points for providing a clear chemical explanation for his alkaline noodle dough. He came to his recipe empirically and walks through things so that you could probably repeat the recipe without the book the second or third time. Tadashi and Ono just recommend finding good fresh-frozen noodles to build around. My kitchen recently became gluten-free so I'm still trying to crack the code with some different flour blends. I've found some brown rice ramen noodles that make a good vehicle and in a pinch a great soup base can dress up a packet of instant noodles pretty nicely.
One of my favorite albums of 2013 was recorded at the bottom of a well on the same three-track used to record the first 13th Floor Elevators songs. The tapes were buried in New Zealand for 30 years, thrown in a lake, dried on top of a space heater, then released as an album. I don't think any of that is actually true, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra's II always sounds like it's traveled great time and distance. The sounds are instantly familiar, but never derivative. This is more difficult than it sounds with some of psychedelia's cliches pretty well entrenched in a lot of the past decade's garden-variety indie pop.
As with all great records, the more I listen to it, the more I'm immersed in its atmosphere, unable to stop humming the hooks, and reminded that some of the best pop music draws unapologetically on other sources to create something unique. This is the perfect record for a claustrophobic Colorado winter and its sometimes surreal periods of thaw ("Swim and Sleep Like a Shark" is right up there with George Harrison at his most melancholic), and almost every song on the album is a different point of departure. When I'm not wearing out II, these are some of the records it's sent me back to:
T-Rex: Electric Warrior - Singer Ruban Nielson often channels Marc Bolan pretty convincingly, albeit in a more lo-fi mode. "So Good at Being in Trouble" has more than a few things in common with "Cosmic Dancer." "No Need for a Leader" wouldn't be out of place alongside a track like "Jeepster."
The Clientele: Suburban Light - The Clientele's early output hits the perfect equilibrium between songwriting and sonics. The intentionally reverb-drenched sound of these early singles makes the songs sound timeless, like forgotten Donovan or Nuggets-era one-offs blaring out of a transistor radio.
Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information - Otis gives these songs a sense of huge scale, despite the fact that much of it was recorded at home with him playing all of the instruments. It's worth a listen not only for the endlessly soloing guitars of the famous "Strawberry Letter 23," but also for some truly weird experiments with an early drum machine.
Jean-Michel Jarre: Oxygene - I enjoy "Dawn," a brief synthesizer piece towards the end of II, more than I should, perhaps because I have a soft spot for the self-indulgence the instrument has encouraged in everyone from Genesis to Daft Punk. Jarre was one of the best at making moody pieces that take themselves a little too seriously, a vein that's still mined pretty heavily by the likes of Daniel Lopatin. In this case, it comes at just the right time and sticks around just long enough to set the stage for the standout "Faded in the Morning."
Ty Segall: Goodbye Bread - Garage Rock. Plain and simple. And as on many of UMO's more upbeat tracks, Ty Segall's band get as much out of the formula as they can. "My head explodes"could be a description of the sublime, or a just a mission statement.
Some traditions continue for longer than they should. Take New Year’s resolutions, for instance. You get some poor sod, already tired and penniless from the holidays, and catch him at his weakest moment, when he’s least like himself. Then you make him resolve something. It’s like a mean-spirited joke.
The farce is completed by the fact that New Year’s resolutions are made, but are rarely kept. Whatever you’re giving up (be it booze or desserts) or taking up (whether fresh vegetables or regular exercise) rest assured that no one expects you to be doing it come March. New Year’s resolutions are a hypocrite’s delight.
I don’t usually go for resolutions, but this year, I’ve broken with custom and decided to make a vow of my own. My resolution happened spontaneously, last Sunday, as I was watching the series premiere of Downton Abbey with my partner. At the precise moment that Lady Edith’s profile dissolved into a commercial for unsalted butter, my wife looked at me and posed the fateful question that plagues viewers everywhere; namely, why does Downton Abbey suck so badly? And better still, why on earth are we watching it?
All excellent questions. Why indeed? Based on three seasons of careful viewing, let’s sum up what we know about Downton Abbey. Well, for starters: every day on the Grantham estate is like New Year’s Day, and the dialogue is like being stuck inside a greeting card. Set in a historical period that no living person can remember, Downton indulges genteel stereotypes about the British class system as benign paternal order, where accidents of birth carry the weight of fate, and your place as lord or servant is no less inevitable than tradition itself. In the drawing room, the men are self-important and the women are bored. Downstairs, the staff is courteous, hard-working and self-doubting, the “noble poor.” Every now and again, the writers put a curt phrase in Maggie Smith’s mouth, and we laugh, as we are meant to. It’s all so familiar. After all, she played this exact role in Gosford Park and Tea with Mussolini.
Traditions are meant to give us comfort. We watch transatlantic costume dramas and see a mannered and preternatural calm that passes for life, one that gives us the sense of an unchanging world. The years go by without anyone having aged a single day. The years go by without anyone having changed his mind. Someone takes tea. Someone’s title is passed to his offspring. Someone is born. There’s another commercial for unsalted butter. Another why are we still watching this?
In the end, nothing is forever, not even Downton Abbey. I read the other day that next season, Downton Abbey’s fifth, will be its last. When it comes to television, I’ve always admired the British ability to know when enough’s enough. If Downton Abbey were an American show, it would not be permitted to die. It would limp along like a grotesque Vegas lounge act, crapping out gold ingots for ten, fifteen, even twenty seasons.
But me, I'm going to get a head start on Downton's demise by stopping my subscription now. Whatever else the new year needs, it simply must have better television. Check with me in March, when New Year’s resolutions will be nothing but a distant memory. I’ll probably be watching Glee, and wishing it was January, so that I could make myself another promise.
Irony happens. Just after writing about the possible mafia-related history of my house, I came home to find I'd been burglarized. It ranks among the top five scariest experiences of my life. I left work around 8:15 pm, stopped off for some groceries, and then walked through the front door. Nothing seemed odd until I entered the kitchen. The light in the adjoining laundry room was on. Then, after staring for a few moments, I saw the debris on the floor and realized the side door which leads to my deck was wide open.
It had been kicked in.
You’re not alone in this house.
I heard this thought as if spoken to me by another person, and I ran like hell to the front yard and called the cops. Thornton’s finest showed up a few minutes later and we re-entered the house.
“Damn, they really trashed this place,” the lead officer said as we went room to room. He was referring to the clothes, dishes and junk mail scattered everywhere. I blushed. I live alone and sometimes my housekeeping skills go a little . . . unused. So I grunted in agreement rather than explain the mess was mine. If anything, the untidy state of affairs probably caused the burglars to work extra fast, fearing they’d catch cholera if they loitered too long.
In the end, only one thing was stolen—my 50” plasma TV. I have little else of value, and often joke that thieves breaking into my place would actually leave me stuff, along with a note promising to return when I’m better off.
I doubt I’ll ever make that joke again.
I spent the night in the house, though it was the last place I wanted to be. I couldn’t leave because the ruined door was impossible to secure. I stayed up pondering the situation. Why was I targeted? Was it a crime of opportunity? Had someone been studying my schedule? Creepy.
By dawn, fear turned to anger. I resolved to upgrade my home security. I’d been stupid. I have a fence with two gates and hadn’t locked either. The door that was kicked in had a protective storm door, but it never locked or closed properly. I knew it was a problem, but I never bothered to fix it. After living in the house for five years without incident, I ignored how easy a target I’d become.
Hardening my defenses has now become a fetish—50 Shades of Home Security. Monitoring system installed? I’m aroused. Tall, firm locked gates? You turn me on. Motion detection lights and security cameras? Yeah, baby, let’s make a home movie. Reinforced steel entry doors? You make me want to shoop!
But these are just conventional improvements. I want barb wire. I want land mines and remote controlled gun turrets. Over the holidays, I watched Home Alone ten times in a row. Let me tell you something: you can’t watch Home Alone and not learn a little something about innovative home security. Hey, burglars, make sure to step on the third kitchen tile. It’ll be a real treat when the ceramic snaps and plunges your foot into a bed of spikes!
I want mutated grey wolves patrolling the perimeter. I want DNA-altered bottle-nosed dolphins that can walk on land and paralyze thieves with sonar blasts. When not walking on land, they’ll hang out in the moat. Did I mention the moat? Having one really increases the value of your home. Of course, these upgrades are pretty costly. It’ll be decades before I can afford a replacement TV all the additional security measures will one day protect. But like I said, irony happens.