Tag Archives: African-Americans

A reader from New York writes, on “No hay cama pa’ tanta gente”….

17 Mar

“What do you mean? The Coronavirus? Homelessness? Or the sadistic refugee disaster [in the Mediterranean]?” [my emphasis]

Smart question. I guess I mean in the “End Times”. Never know. Pack a bag.

No hay cama pa’ tanta gente is one of the Gran Combo‘s — perhaps the most famous salsa band of all time — greatest hits. “No hay cama pa’ tanta gente” there aren’t enough beds for all these people!

The song is about a party where so many people show up that they trash your house — a Hispanic or Mediterranean problem; white folks need not worry. And anyway, a mob of guests inviting themselves to your house is a bracha.* Things can be replaced; shit happens; and, of course, you’ve made more food than any amount of people could possibly eat, so open-door to every-any-body: queens and publicans and rich, young princes and harlots. It is Christ’s b-day after all.

And the opening line is the moving: “En Navidad fui invitado a la casa de David…” “This Christmas I was invited into the House of David for a tremendous feast…” If you don’t know what the “House of David” means, I don’t have time just now; sorry; you’re not invited. :)

The song though is a plena, not salsa. Plena (“fullness”) was a purely percussive genre — like the Cuban rumba was in its beginnings — in that way that Africans can make stupendous walls of sound and music out of just percussion — from the very Black southern Puerto Rican city of Ponce, from the very Black barrio, even more specifically, of San Anton. In the 50s and 60s it had started moving from a folk genre into a big band, orchestrated style and commercial, vinyl world. But the form’s development got cut off by the tsunami of New York salsa that wiped everything else away in the 60s.** (Like crappy too-fast-to-dance-to merengue and the shitty vallenato out of Colombia later did in the late 80s — one of New York’s richest vernacular cultural traditions destroyed.)

SALSA IS FROM NEW YORK. Let me say this again: SALSA IS A MUSICAL GENRE CREATED IN NEW YORK CITY; and easily defined, in fact: an amalgam of Cuban genres, son and mambo and guaracha especially, combined with American jazz big band and nascent be-bop orchestration, formed and played by PUERTO RICANS in New York, and danced to in a particular style by the first load of New-York-born children of Eastern European Jews — only in New York. And don’t let anyone else tell you any different.

The two songs I posted into this piece about A0C’s comments on “bootstraps” were very famous socialist-minded plenas, a good example of the wry, socio-economic content of much plena. Here again; sorry; you can look up and post translations for us:

But at Christmas, Puerto Ricans like to remember their folk past, so plena is heard more often and everywhere to the point that it has come to be considered, like “No hay cama…” Christmas music for Puerto Ricans; though their other Christmas megahit and the PR Christmas national anthem is salsaLa Fiesta de Pilito and its piercing, austerely spiritual lyrics:

“A comer pastel***, a comer lechón, arroz con gandules, y a beber ron, que venga morcilla, venga de to’, y que se chave to’ compay, olvidemos to’ ok…”

“Let’s eat pasteles***, let’s eat roast pig, rice and pigeon peas, and drink rum, bring on the blood sausage, bring it all on!!! And fuck the rest, my man, forget about it all, ok?”

It’s not Christmas. Quite the opposite, in fact, or in tone, it’s Lent. But the Gran Combo’s tone seems more apposite in these times of panic we seem to relish falling into. So deja que se chave to’ compay… Please.


* bracha: Yiddish/Hebrew for “blessing” — probably the same root as Barack, Mubarak, Akbar. (I think…)

** The chicken-or-the-egg dilemma between salsa and the hustle is an interesting one, given how they both came to popularity in New York culture at around the same time, perhaps with the hustle at a slight delay between the two, and with the conduit between the forms being Hispanics, African-Americans and gay guys. I don’t know if there’s any work been written on the subject. Somebody look it up.

Ha, see. Wiki says:

Early hustle was a 5-step count with no turns, created by Puerto Rican teenagers in late 1972 as a direct result of Puerto Rican Elders objecting to young teenagers doing a grinding slow dance known as the 500. Created in the South Bronx among Puerto Rican teens it was originally done at house parties, hooky gigs and basements club dances in the South Bronx.

(And Jesus was of the House of David, in case you didn’t know.)

*** “Pasteles” are like Mexican tamales, except that instead of cornmeal, they’re made of mashed guineos (a type of unripe plátano), filled with peas and salt pork and chunks of chicken and green and red peppers and olives…and not as spicy as Mexican tamales can be. They’re yummy and can be eaten any time of the year, but for PR-ans, they are practically synonymous with Christmass, like an English plum pudding is for a Brit, and really delicious. And not necessarily with the Royal Copenhagen porcelain shown in the pic.

Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com .

NYer: “Can Babies Learn to Love Vegetables?”

19 Nov

Full article from Burkhard Bilger.

191125_r35463On any given day, American children are more likely to eat dessert than plants. Makers of baby food face a conundrum: If it sells, it’s probably not best for babies. If it’s best for babies, it probably won’t sell.  Photo illustration by Horacio Salinas for The New Yorker

Yeah, and anything else for that fact. Just make them eat what’s on the table with no options. Watch how they’ll start to love their broccoli once that’s all there is. We’re the first civilization in history which has made such a fuss about what children like or don’t like, and have created a civilization full of adults who still eat like 10yr olds.

And in the process we’re destroying centuries of ancient culinary traditions.  See one of my first ever posts from this blog:  Chitterlings…and mageiritsa


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Michael Eric Dayson: “Facing this unadorned hate tears open wounds from atrocities that we have confronted throughout our history.”

14 Aug

In a truly disturbing op-ed piece in the TimesCharlottesville and the Bigotocracy“, Dayson makes the same point I made in Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion“.

dyson-master768White nationalists and neo-Nazis demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. Credit: Edu Bayer for The New York Times

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt. When black folk and others point that out, white bigots are aggrieved. They are especially offended when it is argued that slavery changed clothes during Reconstruction and got dressed up as freedom, only to keep menacing black folk as it did during Jim Crow. The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin. And yet they remain depressingly and purposefully ignorant of what slavery was, how it happened, what it did to us, how it shaped race and the air and space between white and black folk, and the life and arc of white and black cultures.

“They [white supremacists] cling to a faded Southern aristocracy whose benefits — of alleged white superiority, and moral and intellectual supremacy — trickled down to ordinary whites. If they couldn’t drink from the cup of economic advantage that white elites tasted, at least they could sip what was left of a hateful ideology: at least they weren’t black. [my emphasis] The renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called this alleged sense of superiority the psychic wages of whiteness. President Lyndon Baines Johnson once argued, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.””

From my post:

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the contemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.”

But since we’re talking about the dangerous, delusional myths people need to believe, I might as well take this moment and take one tiny issue with one point in Dyson’s piece:

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt.”

People might not like me saying this, or at least think it’s the wrong time.  Oh well…  Of course African slaves were made “to toil for no wages in American dirt.”  But they were not “stolen” from their African homeland; they were bought from other Africans.

Am I blaming the victim?  No.  But if that’s what it seems like, like a lot of people think I’m anti-semitically blaming the victim if I say that the idea that there’s only one God and everybody else’s is false, and on top of it that one God loves you more than anybody else, is bound to get you kinna disliked by those around you sooner or later, then that’s cool.  (Another favorite idea of mine: if Christianity makes Jews so uncomfortable, they shouldn’t have invented it.)

I wrote my M.A. thesis in Latin American Studies on Cuba, particularly on abolition, and the complex interaction between the Cuban wars of independence from Spain, a vicious struggle that lasted three decades from 1868 to 1898 when the United States stepped in and annexed all of Spain’s remaining colonies, and the abolitionist struggle to end both the slave trade and slavery itself (the Spanish slave trade ended in 1868, and slavery itself wasn’t abolished, and then only gradually, until 1886).  In brief, and with clear echoes in the American South, a creole class in Cuba was ambivalent about independence because they were afraid of being over-run by the Black Cuban majority, while a bourgeois pro-independence class didn’t think Cuba could be a democratic republic while so many Cubans were enslaved.  In the end they did what most ex-slave societies did: free the salves and import indentured workers from the English-speaking Caribbean and immigrants from Galicia, marginalizing native Black Cubans, so that all groups together could be kept in a state of seasonal semi-employment which kept wages depressed and created enmity between the ethnic groups that should have felt some socioeconomic solidarity.  Let’s not forget that the “Danza de los millones” — “the Dance of the Millions” — when sugar generated unprecedented wealth for Cuban planters, surpassing anything the nineteenth-century slave economy could produce, and made Cuba one of the richest countries in Latin America, when the beautiful Havana we now see was largely constructed — happened in the 1910s and 20s, decades after abolition.

My thesis involved a heavy dose from my advisor of reading in West African history.  So any one who knows something about that history knows that almost none to absolutely none of the Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere during the slave trade — by some estimates 12 million human beings — were hunted down by slave-hunters Kunta-Kinte-style; it would have been logistically impossible to carry so many people across the Atlantic by that method.  African slaves were bought in huge numbers, in en masse cargo-loads by European slave traders, from West African kingdoms who had enslaved them in the course of warfare between those kingdoms.  There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the European slave trade made warfare between those kingdoms so profitable that conflict between West African states became endemic.  Doesn’t absolve anybody though, not Africans, not Yankee do-gooders, who didn’t need slaves anymore because they had already gotten rich off the trade (as that great song from the musical “1776” points out: “Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?” — see below) and could afford to get moral on the rest of us, not Protestants or Catholics or any Christians, or Muslims for that matter.

Here’s some other un-fun truths:

* Black slavery in the Muslim world never and nowhere reached the scale that it did in the Christian Western Hemisphere, but that may simply and largely be because the agro-industrial infrastructure was not present, not because Islam was more enlightened on the idea of slavery generally.  East Africa supplied the Muslim eastern Mediterranean and Arabian peninsula with plentiful slaves for centuries.  I don’t remember when the Ottomans abolished slavery, but I think it wasn’t even during the Tanzimat, but at some point in the 1908 constitutional revolution, i.e. early twentieth century.  I’m always amused at “religion of peace” Islam apologists who try and make us understand how many passages there are in Muslim scripture that deal with the fair and “humane” way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement, and I wanna think: “gee, if there are so many passages that deal with the right or wrong way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement then those things must be mighty important to this religion of peace.”

NO monotheism is innocent; let’s get that through our heads once and for all.

* I hate to burst the bubble of Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X’s souls, or that of the wacked Nation of Islam, but Islam was not the religion of your African ancestors.  (They may not have been called Cassius Clay, but it’s for sure that they weren’t called Muhammad Ali either.)  Islam took a while to penetrate as far south as the coastal regions of West Africa.  And actually, your ancestors almost certainly were the still polytheist inhabitants of the coast who might have been sold to European slave-traders by the newly Muslim kingdoms of the Sahel (currently Boko Haram country), the belt between the Sahara and the coastal jungle/savanna.  If Afro-Americans anywhere in the Western Hemisphere are at all interested in the religion of their ancestors, they should look to Cuban Santería or Brazilian Candomblé or Haitian Voudon to re-establish a historical connection; when I was researching Santería in the 90s in Brooklyn, there was a real culture war between those Black Americans who were attracted to the Cuban religion of Yoruba origins — an amazingly relaxed, open-minded group, since polytheism is an open system, where you got to experience great music and dance, once you got past the practice’s defensive boundaries — and those Black Americans who were recent converts to Islam: puritanical pains-in-the-ass, like most converts, who had learned enough Arabic to call everybody else Kafirs, and who irritated the Senegalese and Malian immigrants in New York to no end.

And Black Southern Baptist or Pentecostalist  Christianity may have originally been the “slaveowner’s religion,” but its “getting the spirit” is a purely African phenomenon that has its emotional-devotional roots in the same parts of West Africa as Santería/Candomblé/Vodoun.  Read the second to last chapter of James Baldwin‘s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which takes place in 1930s (I think) Harlem and then the last chapter of Maya Deren‘s Divine Horsemen on Haitian Vodoun.  They mirror each other totally and both pieces still blow me away whenever I read them with the closest possible artistic representation of deity possession, the most impressive discursive capturing of a completely non-discursive, intangible experience, that I know of.

Divine Horsemen

* Another bubble to burst is the “Kwaanza-ism” bubble. No African-American before President Obama had any connection to East Africa, Kenya, or Swahili.  Another geographical term — Africa — turned into a completely artificial cultural construct, as if anything that happens on the African continent is somehow connected to African-Americans.  The BBC is currently running a series on “The History of Africa” — so modest those folks over there — that, as had become common-place but I thought we had moved on from (turns out we haven’t), lumps together Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco into one “African” history instead of placing them in the history of the Greco-Roman-Christian-Arab-Muslim zone.  (Does anyone remember the height of this absurd argument: the Newsweek magazine cover with the picture of an Egyptian relief and the screaming caption: “Was Cleopatra Black?”  To Newsweek‘s credit, however, the article didn’t take its own title seriously and after going into an analysis of the African-American kulturkampf that gave rise to this question, ended simply with: “And Cleopatra?  She was Greek.”)

And does anybody still celebrate Kwaanza?

I always chuckle when people call Constantinople the city on two continents, as if the quarter-mile crossing of the Bosporus into “Asia” is some kind of massive, marked civilizational change, like the people in Kadiköy are Chinese or something because it’s in “Asia.”

Newsweek Cleopatra

This was a real train-of-thought, free-association post — many think that everything I write is — so thanks for sticking with me.  Below are some videos selections based on my continued free association process:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a real shayne Yid (beautiful Jew) if there ever was one.  Read the NPR story on him that I’ve linked to.  He also adopted the Rosenbergs‘ children, Robert and Michael, after that closetted scumbag Roy Cohn (a real self-hating Jew and queen if there ever was one) had their parents electrocuted.

6-abel-meeropol-robert-michael-with-train-set-1954-_wide-3cb2d45bee8bab3d344570df91679295419dbb20-s800-c85Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set. Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

And Maya Deren’s beautiful documentary footage of Haitian Vodoun:

See also Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s beautiful documentary, Ilé Aiyé on Bahian Candomblé.  It’s the best introductory “text” I know.  In reference to the dancing, drumming and singing, and animal sacrifice, food, alcohol and tobacco offerings that are meant to bring the god (or orisha in Yoruba) down into possession of his or her devotee, the narration includes the precious line: “They threw a party for the gods — and the gods came.”

And — on a lighter note — the great Celia Cruz below singing “Guantanamera” (you have to watch her move…wasn’t it great when women were allowed to have bodies like that? and if you have any idea what those silly kids who appear at the end are doing, please share) a song based on a poem of José Martí‘s, Cuba’s national poet and a man revered by Cubans of every color and political stripe anywhere.  In the end, Black Cubans played a significant part in the Cuban struggle, personified most in the person of Antonio MaceoAs Celia sings: “Freedom was a trophy won for us by the mambí [largely Black guerilla fighters], with the words of Martí, and the machete of Maceo.”  Yikes.  The Cuban Wars of Independence were truly brutal, often really fought with machetes, the symbol of Afro-Cubans’ cane-cutting bondage become an instrument of rebellion, but Spain’s imperial ego simply did not want to let go of “la siempre fiel” — “the always loyal” — and extremely profitable island.  1898, the year Spain had to give in, was a year that became a byword for disaster for Spaniards, and Cuba was the most lamented loss; there’s still a common expression in Spain: “Más se perdió en Cuba” — “There was more lost in Cuba” — when you want to say that “oh well, things aren’t so bad, not, at least, compared to the loss of Cuba.”  Ironically, Cuban independence was followed by a massive wave of migration to the island from Spain, largely from Galicia and Asturias, so in a weird way Cuba is the most connected to Spain of Latin American countries; a great, very unresearched musicological subject is the reciprocal exchange of musical influences from Cuba to southern Spain, especially for the gypsies of Seville and Cádiz, both port cities that were gateways to the Americas or “the Indies”, the flamenco genre “rumba” being just one indicator.

Celia was an initiated Santería priestess of the Yoruba male fertility deity Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name or you see lightning); her performances often contained dance moves associated with Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name); whether she was “mounted” by him at the time — which is the expression used to indicate deity possession, de allí Maya Deren’s reference to “horsemen” — is something only she can have known, though mostly devotees have no memory of their trance after they come out of it.  Most salsa singers since have been initiates — have to stay competitive and you only can if the gods are helping you — and the improv vocabulary and dance gestures of salsa performances are heavily derived from Yoruba Santería.   There’s one video of her singing “Quimbara” (below) where I think it’s really happening — the bending down and touching of the floor especially.


Finally, a NikoBakos memory.  Mambí was a chain of 24-hour Cuban restaurants, Mambí #1, Mambí #2 — I think there were five of them all over once heavily Cuban Washington Heights and Inwood — that used to provide me and friends with some early morning, post-salsa sustenance.  The food, like the neighborhoods, had become pretty Dominican by then, but they still made a mean Cuban sandwich.  All the Cuban restaurants I knew as a kid in New York are now gone, in Manhattan and Brooklyn replaced by Dominican plantain places, and in Queens, by one more mediocre Colombian bakery.  Schiller’s on Rivington Street still makes a good Cuban sandwich, but it’s $18.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” — John F. Kennedy

30 May

Or just basic facts.  Or as Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona says: “Le sobran opiniones y le faltan argumentos.”  “He suffers from an excess of opinions and a lack of arguments.”  Which Greeks might want to put on their flag in gold embroidery across one of the horizontal white bars.

I write on May 19th: “…how I’ve been wasting my time engaged in a running war with everyone in Athens to prove basic things like the fact that Albanians are a tall, extremely attractive people.”

And a reader writes back:

“I know, why is that?  I had the same experience in Greece.  I worked for an NGO in Kosovo for a year and then hitchhiked through Albania to Greece and found Albanians in both places to be very good-looking I thought.  When I would say that in Greece people would laugh at me.  I guess politics just gets in the way.”

No, they’re just idiots.

And I have to apologize to readers if this blog has taken on an increasingly polemic or nasty tone in regards to certain issues.  But I wrote in an early post: “In the 1990′s, when Albanians flooded Greece and Greeks were faced with the horrifying realization that their northern border hadn’t really been with Austria all that time, many of them predictably behaved like racist jerks…” and nothing has changed, that’s all, and my trip to several Balkan countries has opened this toxic can of worms from all sides that I should probably just ignore, but can’t.  Whenever almost anyone has asked me where I’ve been — if they know enough to ask about these places, their neighbors — the question always has that snickering Athenian sub-tone, that smart-ass “ξέρω εγώ…” half-grin that expects tales of backwardsness or καφροσίνη or just unspoken baseline disbelief that I went and that I found it fascinating and I can’t abide it.  Others are just angry.  Because…like…why should you go there?  Aren’t they the enemy?

It’s not politics.  If anything it’s purer socio-economics and what that does to perceptions of the Other in a monocultural world, or rather one where the Other is just invisible.  And I mean social economics on two levels: one, where you really don’t see, because you’re not trained to see or to care, the real effects that economic conditions have on the physical body of a human being — Hoxha’s Albania was the only country in late twentieth-century Europe, where, like the Kims’ North Korea till this day, people suffered from literal, physical, stunting malnutriton — and two, that once that perception or non-perception is established, it becomes frozen.


How many people in New York, especially people like me who have worked in the restaurant industry a lot and get chummy with owners and managers, have not had this experience?  You’re sitting at the bar and through the kitchen door you can see a young Mexican kid who’s just started.  And the poor kid looks like hell.  He’s probably new here, so he’s probably just risked his life several times to get to New York in ways in which we would not consider risking ours even once.  He works at least six days a week for probably over twelve hours and for shit money.  He lives in a studio that’s an hour-and-a-half subway ride from where he works, with three or four other guys like him, and to escape both the claustrophobia and loneliness of his life he probably goes out a few nights a week and, with whatever money he doesn’t send home to his family, gets drunk, so lots of days he comes in hungover.  But he always does his job anyway, not only diligently and efficiently, but with a certain perverse pride that he probably needs to maintain to keep himself from feeling like an animal.  He rarely speaks and if for any reason he needs to it’s always with unfailing courtesy and politeness.

“Γλυκοχαράζουν τα βουνά, και οι όμορφες κοιμούνται, τα παλληκάρια τα καλά στα ξένα τυρανιούντε.  Tους τρώει η λέρα το κορμί και η ψείρα το κεφάλι. Ανάθεμά σε ξενιτιά, κ’εσύ και τα καλά σου.”

“Dawn breaks along the peaks, with the young beauties still asleep, and our best boys are off suffering in a stranger’s land.  Their bodies covered in filth, their heads full of lice.  May you be damned foreign lands, you and all your riches.”

an Epirotiko folk song

But he’s smart, this Mexican kid, like our grandparents were before him.  And he watches and he asks questions and he learns about the restaurant’s wines and foods and about New Yorkers and their often insufferable particularities, and what they like and what they don’t like.  And the owner notices and makes him a busboy, and then a runner, and then a waiter.  And he gets a few days off.  AND HE GETS TO SLEEP.  And he’s making a little bit more money, so he buys himself some clothes and can afford to take a girl out on his night off.  And he’s completely transformed.  And one night you say to the owner: “Who’s that hot Mexican kid you put out on the floor?”

Κι’έτσι προκόβουν τα ‘παλληκάρια τα καλά’ της Πουέμπλας και της Çoλούλας…


This is not a possible scenario in Greece.  Or one that the average Athenian is capable of noticing.  For one, Greeks have forgotten that just until two generations ago hundreds of thousands of their own went off to live initially hellish lives in other parts of the world like this Mexican kid does — or the Albanian migrant worker anywhere in Europe today does.  Two, the Greek is not trained to watch others or care, the way every New Yorker is an amateur anthropologist.  So the change occurs right before his eyes and he doesn’t even see it.  Because other than the parts of the world that can confer some kind of ersatz glamour on him — Europe or certain  limited aspects and places of the United States — the rest of the planet is just not on the average Neo-Greek’s radar.  I can’t put it any clearer than that.  To know the reputation that we, Greeks, have as an ethnic group in New York: that we’re open, friendly, curious, eager to learn about others and their countries, learn at least some pidgin form of others’ languages faster than they can learn English, are willing to try any food or any drink, will invite their Mexican waiter to their kids’ christenings — and then to come to Greece and see this completely shut-off from the world society, is startling.

When I came to Greece in 2010 I hadn’t been there in eight years and the gruff middle-aged waiters or relatives of the owners that served in most restaurants and tavernas had been replaced by these nice-looking polite kids and I asked who they were, since it seemed strange to me that usually cossetted Athenians kids had suddenly condescended to wait tables.  And I was told: “Oh, they’re Albanians.”  These same people now laugh if I say anything positive about those same Albanians.  Even my own people, relatives, Greeks in Albania, said to me on several occasions: Όχι, είναι ωραίος λαός…   “They’re a good-looking people.”  Like, let’s tell the truth where we should.  And then come to Athens and have people stare at you incredulously…

I don’t know why this particular issue has ticked me off so badly.

A lot of Americans once thought that all Blacks were ugly too.  I guess I’ll leave it at that.


And Philopomeon adds:

“We always need to put ourselves in a status-race with others… we can’t be as good as the Frangoi, but surely we are more advanced/richer/better looking/more cultured than the Alvanoi.

“To add to that, as you know, the Albanians were noted as “poor dressers” when they crossed the border in the 90’s. They had to take hand-me downs from charity, hence the Greek insult to a poor dresser ” You look Albanian.”

“But I agree, in general, Albanians are good-looking folk. Especially Kosovar girls.. hehe.”

Kosovaroi — of both genders — were real stunners, P., you’re right.  They have even gently nudged Afghans out of their first place position for me — no mean accomplishment.  I really couldn’t believe it when I was there; you didn’t know where to proto-look. (click)




And what I should’ve done from the beginning is put these pictures together with all the pictures of the young Derviçiotes I have in photos and videos and asked a random group of thirty-something  Athenian Concrete-Cave-dwellers to tell me which ones are the Greeks and which the “ugly” Albanians.  And see the results…

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Chitterlings…and mageiritsa

12 Apr

What are chitterlings, or chitterlins, or chit’lins?  They’re pig intestines, which people eat all over the world wherever they eat pigs.  (Where they don’t, they eat lamb intestines.)  Unfortunately, in the United States, the only people with the sensory refinement to appreciate them are African-Americans.  (And yes, girlfriend, the casing on that $25 a pound artisanal Calabrian soppressata you get at Whole Foods…pig gut.)

“Mageiritsa” is a Greek soup made of lamb offal that is made at – and only at – Easter.  It’s an incredibly time-consuming and labor- intensive production, which is probably why.  First comes the all-day or over-night simmering of the lamb’s heads and feet, to get the appropriately kelle paça type broth necessary.  (Kaleh pacheh seems to be a Friday after-prayer tradition in Afghanistan, so starting Thursday morning in front of all the butcher shops in Kabul, usually collected on one street, and by shacks along roads leading out of the city that seem to open just for that purpose, one sees giant piles of recently severed, bloody heads next to piles of bloody feet, both still in their fur, swarming with flies.  It’s a beautiful sight and one that, like so many other things in Afghanistan, I didn’t get a photo of while there because I thought I would embarrass people by taking pictures of things that I was afraid they would think I thought backwards.)  Then comes the cleaning out of faeces from about a football field’s length of lamb intestines (below), which is not that bad because they come from young animals that only eat grass anyway so it’s kind of the texture of baby poop.  (The European Union Daddy-State tried to ban the sale of intestines a few years ago and the Greeks to their credit, which I don’t grant them often, got into an uproar and Brussels backed down.  I actually have a theory that the intestine issue was the behind-the-scenes deal-breaker between the EU and Turkey, and rightly so; make me bend over backwards about how I run my country, make me reorganize my economy to enrich you and impoverish myself, treat me like an unwanted guest because I’m Muslim, but I’ll be damned if you take away my kokoreç.*)  Then you braise the intestines, and the sweetbreads (thymus glands) and hearts and kidneys in the broth (some people use liver or spleen and testicles too, but I don’t ‘cause the liver and spleen can get bitter and the testicles retain an unpleasant spongy texture when boiled which they don’t when grilled, or when sautéed with oil and a ton of garlic like they do with the bull’s balls in Spain after a bullfight — talk about sympathetic magic – and are quite yummy — see bottom.)  Then they’re all minced up, browned in a healthy amount of butter, added to the broth with lots of scallions and dill, some rice, and, just before serving, terbiye-d** with eggs and lemon.


It’s generally acknowledged that I make the best mageiritsa in the world.  You can get pretty good mageiritsa lots of places, but mine is the best…in the world.  When I serve it at Easter, some people can’t get enough of it and some people politely decline.  Others, unfortunately – and tellingly, it’s usually younger Greek-American family – have always felt they have license to grimace and make faces of disgust and revulsion.

Mageiritsa — the finished product (click)

It’s bad enough that so much art and time and work on my part should be met with that kid of rudeness.  Then I have to listen to the anthropology tes poutsas about how people only used to eat that stuff because they were poor and they had to eat everything available, like eating intestines were the equivalent of the dirt-eating that tragically occurs in third world countries under famine conditions.  No they didn’t; they ate those things because they taste good.  Organ meats perform more complex biochemical functions in our and other animals’ bodies than muscle does; joints: feet and hocks, are complexly interconnected with tendons and cartilage of various kinds.  They therefore have more varied textures, mineral content and other elements, which gives them a richer and more varied taste than regular flesh has.  As mentioned in this brilliant book Nourshing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon, when a carnivorous animal (which we are, by the way; ignore false, scientifically faulty Vegan and Buddhist propaganda) kills another animal in the wild, the first thing it goes for are the guts because it instinctively knows they’re the most nutritious part.  Instead of teaching their kids the value and variety of our traditions or pointing out the beautiful economy with which our ancestors made use of every part of the animal, or their respect for and intimate knowledge of the world, the plants, and the animals which fed them, as opposed to our obscene wastefulness and complete alienation from any food which actually looks like food or reminds us of where it comes from, these people stupidly and condescendingly put it down to their poverty.

I never, ever heard anyone in older generations reminisce about the breast of any chicken or the dry, grey boti meat of a traditionally over-cooked Greek leg of lamb.  My mother used to wax nostalgic about an aunt’s Sunday pacha or the street kokoretsi they sold down by the lake in Jiannena next to the Karagöz puppet box (you’d get slices of it on wax paper, that or a cone of pumpkin seeds or a stick-full of pişmaniye and sit and watch Karagöz and Hacivat’s brilliant antics; I can’t be grateful enough that all these survived until I myself was a child.)  If a whole animal were roasted, the kids would fight over the head and its brains, tongue and the delicious, gelatinous cheek flesh.  And pig feet and andouillete are enjoyed in the best Parisian bistros, not just in supposedly impoverished Balkan or South American villages.

It’s a growing ecological disaster – a cultural one – and that’s what depresses me most.  We’re tangling ourselves (like most things modern, it starts in America but is spreading throughout the world) in such a neurotic, kosher-like web of food anxieties and hysteria that we’ll have soon lost access to half the things humanity used to enjoy at the table if we haven’t already.  I truly believe that it’s a phenomenon connected to the disappearance of other forms of diversity:

“All these seemingly disconnected events are the symptoms, you could say, of a global epidemic of sameness. It has no precise parameters, but wherever its shadow falls, it leaves the landscape monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous. Even before we’ve been able to take stock of the enormous diversity that today exists — from undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues — this epidemic carries away an entire human language every two weeks, destroys a domesticated food-crop variety every six hours, and kills off an entire species every few minutes. The fallout isn’t merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs.”  — “In Defense of Differerence.”

“Oh, this is so salty.  Oh, this is so fatty.  Oh, this is so oily.  Oh, this must have so much cholesterol; I can feel my arteries clogging.  Eeew, this has liver in it.  It’s what?! Made with blooood?!”  (You can’t imagine how many people I’ve known who had heard of blood sausage but thought it was a metaphor.)  “Ugh, this is so sweet – I can’t take a second bite.”  We think we’re so sophisticated but are pretty much as incapable of thinking comparatively or relatively as an Amazonian tribe shooting arrows at airplanes.  It never occurs to us that fattiness, or cloying sweetness, or fishiness or gumminess were and are qualities that people enjoy.  One of the most interesting pieces of etymology that I’ve ever learned is that the word “funky” – one of the few African words to have passed into American English usage – actually means “stinky” in whatever West African language it comes from.  But it’s telling that it’s come to mean what it means for us: weirdly, pleasantly off-beat.  Cool — in a way you can’t put your finger on — ‘cause it’s off.  Get it?  Like certain French cheeses when they’re good and ripe and smell like your boyfriend’s unwashed underwear, or the obviously slimy texture and smell – the obviously slimy look even, with all its erotic overtones — of oysters or other raw seafood.  Funky.  Yum.

Even in foodie paradise New York — where curious Brooklyn Heights ladies are taking butchery classes and where you’ve started seeing more and more of the kind of tastes and smells I’m talking about on restaurant menus: tripe and boudin and fatback (and if that’s a good thing to you because you love good food, you’re indebted more than you know for that to one man: one of my best beloved heroes, Anthony Bourdain***, who wrote in his first best-seller, Kitchen Confidential: “My body is not a temple; it’s a playground.”) – try going out to dinner with a group of friends.  It’ll take several hours of conference calling before everybody’s food concerns and quirks are taken into consideration and then, if the night’s not over, you’ve ended up at a least common denominator restaurant where one of your group is still bound to torment a busy waiter with a barrage of anxious questions, requests for substitutions, no peanut oil, “light on the butter” or the resounding, echoing sound of “sauce on the side.”  This is most often a white girl who doesn’t cook (“sauce” is usually a fundamental component of a dish produced by the entire, holistic process of preparing it; you can’t put it on the “side;” it’s not the jarred tomato sauce you grew up eating, babe; you can’t make a blanquette de veau with the sauce on the ‘side,’ or a mole poblano with the mole on the side!) or it’s someone who has never worked in that business and has no idea what a tightly organized military operation a good New York restaurant is and what chaos that behavior throws both the floor and kitchen staff into, not to mention the offense to the chef himself and his line, who might not just be doing their jobs, but might actually be proud of the carefully conceived and prepared dishes they’re trying to put out.

I understand people have different tastes and that they even have different biochemical make-ups that might make certain tastes seriously unpleasant to them.  I mean, even Tom Colicchio doesn’t like okra, which I love, but I don’t hold it against him.  (I just know that he hasn’t eaten them properly prepared).  But the preparation and sharing of food is such a fundamental part of most human socializing and it’s become almost impossible to conduct in any civilized form through this thicket of prohibitions and fears. Which brings me to my final point: the social aspect, which includes issues of hospitality, personal pride, and what Greeks call philotimo, all heavily weighted and codified issues in ‘our parts.’

But my intestines need cleaning, so I’ll have to tackle the rest of this issue in another post.

*Kokoreç (shown below) is basically the same ingredients as mageiritsa but spitted and roasted.  The organ meats are spitted and the whole thing is wrapped around with the intestines like a giant andouillette.  In Greece, they cut it in slices and serve it like that, which I prefer.  In Turkey they usually mince it all up with red pepper after roasting and put it in a sandwich, which is delicious but doesn’t allow the texture of each constituent organ meat to be appreciated as much.

** Terbiye, what Greeks call augolemono, is supposed to be an egg-lemon liaison sauce used in many dishes or to thicken soups and is the greatest culinary hoax ever perpetrated on the peoples of the Near East.  Very simply, the recipe, as usually given, does not work, and does not produce a thickened sauce but a watery, sour mess.  When you make a béarnaise or a hollandaise you use minimal acid (vinegar or lemon respectively) only the egg yolks and pure butter, ideally clarified.  It’s impossible to scramble some whole eggs with lemon, pour some watery liquid out of a pot of cabbage sarma into it and expect that it will produce something comparable.  If you’ve ever seen a truly smooth, thick terbiye, some kind of extra binder (corn or regular flour) was added to it, and if the cook tells you otherwise she’s lying.  Never underestimate the tactics a Turkish or Greek woman (especially one from Istanbul) will resort to in order to protect her recipes and ensure no one else’s version is as good; lying is the least of it.

***Anthony Bourdain

My man Bourdain — get all his books here.

International Meats in Astoria, staffed almost entirely by Mexicans, who speak perfect Greek and know every detail of innards terminology in not only Greek, but Serbian and some Roumanian.  A Queens insituton.

Bull balls at International, with liver to the left, kidneys on the right, spleen on bottom left, hearts on bottom right.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Corn Bread, Hog Maw and Chitterlin’

9 Apr

I’ve been reading so much about the Balkans lately (I’m on my third consecutive read of Milovan Djilas’ Land Without Justice) that I’ve developed an intense craving for cornbread — serious, hard, Balkan cornbread, what they call “bobota” in Epiros or “proja” in Serbia and Montenegro; I don’t know if they do so anywhere else.  I also miss a kind of cornbread burek they used to make – “bliatsaria” they used to call it – which was two layers of cornbread with a burek filling in between: spinach, leeks, feta, maybe eggs.  Corn was the poor man’s wheat; it yields far greater amounts of grain per acre than wheat does and will grow almost anywhere, like in my mother’s village, where after two feet you hit bedrock.

Does anybody have a recipe?  Somebody from the Epiros-Albania-Montenegro-Sandjak axis, or someone of Pontio-Karadenizli background is most likely to know.  The sweet, cake-like recipes  that people have posted in this recent New York Times article definitely won’t produce the dry, nearly unswallowable texture I’m looking for.

The next day, when it became truly rock hard (kids would use it in slingshots my mom used to say), they used to break it up into chunks and dump it into buttermilk (xynogalo, ayran, lassi) to make it edible.  I know that traditional cornbread in the American South used to be like that too because once in a conversation about food with a fifty-ish Black woman here in New York, I mentioned the buttermilk practice and she doubled over laughing, then smiled and snorted with that great look of feigned embarrassment and homey joy that Black Americans make when they’re talking about something – a guilty pleasure usually – that’s too down-home or too ghetto to own up to.  She couldn’t believe that people half way round the world used to eat stale cornbread mush with buttermilk the way they used to.

And tell the folks in the comments that lard is good for you and that, yes, it’s time to talk about chitterlings.  Easter’s coming up, innit?

Here’s Joe Cuba’s 1966 boogaloo classic “Bang Bang” which I used to think was called “Cornbread, Hog Maw and Chitterlins” because those are the only real lyrics.  What’s boogaloo?  “…the first Nuyorican music”: Boogaloo

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“He got up walking like a natural man…”

7 Apr

Today, the day before Palm Sunday (Orthodox Easter is April 28th this year) is known as the Saturday of Lazarus in the Orthodox Church, the day that commemorates Christ’s raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead, prefiguring his own Resurrection.

The Resurrection of Lazarus, Guercino

And here’s Aretha Franklin’s incomparable rendition of the old gospel song: “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which commemorates the story of Lazarus and the Passover story as well.  Below are the lyrics (“If you hadda been here, my brother woudna died…” always kills me) and the history of this spiritual which dates from before the Civil War, as its moving conflation of the two tales of redemption would indicate:


(Choir) Oh oh mary (x8)
(Soloist) Mmm don’t moan
Listen Mary

(Choir) Oh Mary don’t you weep
Oh Martha don’t you moan
Oh Mary don’t you weep
(Soloist) Tell your sister to don’t moan
(Choir) Oh Martha don’t you moan

(Soloist) Pharaohs Army
(Choir) Pharaohs army
(Soloist) All of them men got drowned in the sea one day
(Choir) Drown in the Red Sea
(Soloist) Yes they did

(Soloist) Now if I could
(Choir) If I could
(Soloist) If I could I surly would
(Choir) Surely would
(Soloist) I’d stand right up on the rock
(Choir) Stand on the rock
(Soloist) I’d stand right where moses stood
(Choir) Moses stood
(Soloist) Yes I would

(Soloist) Pharaohs army
(Choir) Pharaohs army
(Soloist) I know you know that story of
how they got drowned in the sea one day, oh yeah
(Choir) Drown in the Red Sea

(Soloist Lazarus Story Ad-lib)

We gonna review the story of two sisters
Called mary and martha
They had a brother
Named Lazarus
One day while Jesus was away
Their dear ol’ brother died, yeah yeah
Well now Mary went running to Jesus
She said, “Master,
My sweet lord!”
“Oh if you had’ve been here my brother wouldn’t have died!”
Oh yes she did.
Jesus said, “come on and show me, show
me where you, show me where you buried
him, show me where you laid him down!”
And when he got there, Jesus said,
“For the benefit of you who don’t believe,
Who don’t believe in me this evening!
I’m gone call this creature, oh yes I am!
He said “Lazarus, Mmm Lazarus,
Hear my Hear my voice! Lazarus!
Oh yeah!”
He got up walking like a natural man,
oh yes he did! Jesus said,
“Now now now,
Mary, Mary don’t you weep!”
Mmm Oh mary don’t you weep
Go on home and don’t you and your sister moan. Don’t moan.
Tell martha not to moan

(Choir) Pharaohs army
(Soloist) Because you see Pharaohs army,
(Choir) Drown in the red sea
(Soloist) they got drowned in the Red Sea

(Soloist) Oh Mary don’t weep
(Choir) Oh Mary don’t you weep (x3)
(Soloist) Mary dont weep
(Choir) Oh Mary don’t you weep
(Soloist) Mary don’t weep
(Together) Tell Martha don’t you moan


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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