April 26, 2009

One of the Imponderables: Propane or Wood/Charcoal

The origins of the act of Barbecue are impossible to trace… let’s face it, when the first cave dwellers lit a fire and a neighbor walked over with a piece of meat to see what was going on, dropping it into the fire by mistake… that was a barbecue.

I’m sure that butter-fingered hominid was later regarded as the smartest most important knuckle-walker around: the Bill Gates of his age.

Even the the word Barbecue has obscure, questionable origins. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first recorded use of “Barbecue” in English by the British buccaneer William Dampier in 1697. Etymologists maintain that Barbecue comes from the word “Barbacoa” from the language of the Taíno people of the Caribbean: the ancestors, along with the Spanish conquistadors and African slaves of today’s Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. These original Taínos were relatives of the Arawaka peoples of South America. In 1492, Columbus encountered five Taíno kingdoms on Hispaniola, now the modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti. The kingdoms are of course long gone, but “Barbacoa,” translated loosely as "sacred pit of fire" remained and evolved along with the hybrid cultures of the new world that would world forge much of the history of the next centuries in the Western Hemisphere.

There are hundreds of regional species of Barbecue around the world, from the American Southwest, Midwest, North and South to Hawaii, to Japan to the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, to scores of variations in South America.
All of them are awesome in my opinion, but there is a line of division that parses these fire cooked meat traditions made possible by advances in technology: Propane/Gas versus Wood/Charcoal.

As anyone who has watched any episiodes of Mike Judge’s King of the Hill knows, this is no cut and dry matter. I’m going to sidestep the Beef versus Pork strictures that divide so many Americans across the Mason Dixon line and from East to West and every direction in between. I’m also going to sidestep slow smoking versus high heat grilling or this post will never end.

Some people feel that the smoked “char” from wood chips or charcoal bricks is an integral part of the desired flavor of open fire cooked meat. Others have long wanted a way to get that primal taste of fire cooking, without the carbons and coal tar making their way on to their steaks and chops.
That’s not to imply that Gas or Propane Barbecue methods don’t also create particular tastes that don’t divide propane cooking supporters. Propane and Gas produce what some call "wet” heat, -vapors and steam are created that can change the texture of the meat which opponents have called rubbery or “too consistent.” But conversely, all agree this "wet" heat prevents grilled meats from drying out too fast.

So: Propane or Wood/Charcoal?

I don’t know. I just like to eat.

Just invite me over so we can keep the mouth-watering argument going. I hope I never find out the answer, and that we all get to talk it over in each other’s company, in ever annoying detail, everywhere, across the world, for as many summers as our mortal lives allow.

All hail summer.

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April 20, 2009

Reflections on a Cinematic Pioneer

Oscar Micheaux is regarded by many as the first African-American feature filmmaker, and the most prominent producer of so-called “Race Films” in the early decades of American cinema. Micheaux wrote and directed forty-four feature-length films between 1919 and 1948, a staggering body of work for any director in any time period. In my mind he has always stood apart as one of the very first Independent filmmakers as I understand the term today: (An auteur, generally a writer/director who is telling stories and operating independent of the marketing concerns, branding mandates and political and social establishmentarianist postures of a given studio system in a given era.)

Micheaux was one of eleven children of former slaves. This direct connection to the nightmare of American Slavery marks him as unique among all other filmmakers in history, and makes him no less special and remarkable though this distinction was purely an accident of birth. This observation has been the subject of many unresolved arguments concerning the greatness, historical importance (or lack thereof) ascribed to Oscar Micheaux’s films. This has more to do with the issue of race itself in our society, than with anything else. After all, what made DW Griffith unique was his own perspective, made possible by his own luck at being born who he was; where he was; when he was: if indeed we can call any of this luck at all in his case, or Mr. Micheaux’s. I find it hard not to think both of these men simultaneously, as one readily invokes the other in my imagination. I try to envision their conversations, what they would say, (to themselves and to each other) if they could see today’s world, its people, its culture -and especially its media.

Oscar Micheaux was first and foremost a writer, and somewhat of an anomaly as he was a novelist in an era when the theatre was the most common and logical path to filmmaking. At a time when most African-Americans owned nothing, and certainly had no means to create media or mass-distributed images of themselves to counteract the popular racist myths being put forth as fact about them in America, Oscar Micheaux formed his own movie production company. In 1919 he completed his very first film. He wrote, directed and produced a silent motion picture called The Homesteader starring Evelyn Preer. The Homesteader was based on a largely autobiographical novel of his own that recounted his experiences settling a piece of land in a predominantly White region of South Dakota. His first “talkie,” The Exile, revisited what would become increasingly prominent themes of entrepreneurship and the importance of self reliance in the face of adversity: be it racial oppression or a poorly chosen tract of uncooperative land. In 1924, Micheaux made one of his most important contributions to cinema history by introducing audiences to Paul Robeson, in the motion picture Body and Soul.

Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates, was a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It is often relegated to the realm of novelty by historians and critics who repeatedly point out that as a polemic, it would not exist without the object of its criticism. The implication here is one of “unoriginality.” I can’t argue with an intentionally narrowed judgment such as this: but I disagree with the critical focus on the film’s inspiration as its sole aspect that determines its significance or worth. I instead insist on pointing out that Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone and even Woody Allen owe many of the polemical possibilities of their cinema to Oscar Micheaux for using film (specifically in the case of Within Our Gates) as the vehicle for a larger conversation about culture, reality and the truth. Micheaux was the first to make a film in direct response to another film, by another filmmaker.

Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, often said that in the last years of his career, Micheaux was a desperate figure, often simply changing picture frames and moving props around on a set, rather than dress the scene differently or even change a camera angle lest he lose light: therein he presages Ed Wood, and every other independent filmmaker who ever ran out of money. Therein he presages me as well.

For what it’s worth, if there were a “Cooperstown” for independent filmmakers and American pioneers in cinema, at 44 films, Oscar Micheaux gets in on the first round.

Micheaux’s significance as a pioneer and innovator requires the nuanced consideration often lavished on his contemporaries and peers, but strangely absent from most conversations about his legacy.



J.G. Ballard, a giant among storytellers, has left Earth.

For Crash, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise and Empire of the Sun, I am eternally grateful.

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