The Pok-a-Dot and other attractions of Batavia, NY

We’ve fallen into the habit of spending the night in Batavia on our drives East.  It mostly just happens to fall at a good spot for us to break for the night, but we also kind of like it.

We have a big soft spot for a popular Greek diner-type 24-hour restaurant called Sport of Kings (named for the nearby seedy-looking racetrack) where you can get a really good chicken Souvlaki plenty big enough for two to share for $10.99.  Tip: get it with the sweet potatoes.  Sport of Kings is a great place to settle into for some comfort food (fantastic rice pudding, too) after driving for 9 1/2 hours (no beer, though, unfortunately).

This visit, though, we discovered what is now my favorite establishment in Batavia, the Pok-a-Dot diner, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

photoAmazing place, no?  [What is a Beef on Weck, you ask?  Well, I still have never eaten one, but it is a central element of the distinctive Western New York state regional cuisine, a kind of sliced roast beef sandwich on a kosher-salt-topped roll, dipped in “au jus.”  Here’s a fuller explanation.]

Here’s the inside.

photo copy 2As someone commented in a posting, it feels a bit like a slightly amplified food truck.  One pregnant woman complained/ commented that she had trouble fitting into the bathroom, and it’s true that it’s quite a squeeze– feels like you’re on a boat, with a wooden sliding door!

The Pok-a-Dot was apparently a favorite of Batavia’s most famous native son author, John Gardner– best known for his Beowulf retelling Grendel, and nowhere near as prominent now, I don’t think, as he was in his heyday in the 60s and 70s… but perhaps ripe for a revival, I don’t know.  The John Gardner society holds their annual readings at the Pok-a-Dot because it’s mentioned in his 1972 novel set in a fantastical Batavia, the Sunlight Dialogues, which (wiki) “follows Batavia police chief Fred Clumly in his pursuit of a magician known as the Sunlight Man, a champion of existential freedom and pre-biblical Babylonian philosophy. As Clumly believes in absolute law, order, justice and a Judeo-Christian world view, the two butt their ideological heads in a number of dialogues, all recorded on audiocassette by Clumly.”

Here’s a little plaque the John Gardner society had erected outside the Pok-a-Dot:

photo copy

Breakfast was pretty great. We ordered as much as we thought we could possibly eat, for four, with coffees, etc, and the total was something like $19.60.  Sarah and I each had the eggs-with-peppers– you can choose Hot or Sweet or Mixed, and I got the latter.  Delicious, filled with tomatoes too, and accompanied by a buttery hard roll toasted on the grill.  I was kind of hoping I’d get a “weck” (see above) but it did not have the salt so was I guess simply a hard roll.

Before concluding my guide to Batavia, I will mention the place we’ve stayed for our last couple visits, the Sunset Motel.  I kind of like this place though can’t really give it an all-out recommendation.  It is a bit shabby and really could use some fixing up.  It is clean, however, and the place has some charms.  It has a large field in back which is great for taking the dog and kids on a little run, and features some spooky cow and deer figurines:

photo copy 4And, remarkably, the interior back wall of the motel features a worn/fading mural featuring an accurate rendering of the motel’s proprietor holding a glass of wine (very debonair!) and accompanied by a Shih-Tzu (he currently has two of these) and two Dobermans.

photo copy 3As I said, this place could definitely use a renovation– for example, it was rather difficult to get our motel room door shut — you had to put a shoulder to it.  But I give it a lot of credit for the wacky mural and the uncanny deer.

Are you punk enough for our soy latte?: Soundtracks of the Cafes of Bloomington, IN

20120919-223190-college-tours-where-to-eat-near-indiana-university-somaSoma cafe, Bloomington; photo from Seriouseats.com

I find it interesting/ amusing that if you were placed blindfolded in one of the main downtown cafes of Bloomington, you could likely tell which one it was by hearing 20 seconds of the soundtrack.

The Scholars Inn Bakehouse (on the square): something very mainstream.  I’m here right now, and it’s been total classic hits of the corniest/ most old-school variety.  Sam Cooke’s “She was Only 16,” something by Linda Ronstadt, a Steely Dan song, “Shake Your Booty,” Creedence, etc. Absolutely zero gestures towards contemporary hipness of any kind.  It’s as if they’re aiming for visiting parents or even grandparents of IU students.  I have to admit I’m finding the bland medley somewhat soothing and non-distracting as I read, however.  (Right now, I kid you not, Seals and Crofts’ “Diamond Girl”!)

Soma.  In the back room, attempted deathly, library-like silence that can become very uncomfortable if someone actually has the temerity to have a conversation.  (I have to admit that I once participated in a conversation about Derrida (!) here as 15 people tried to work; it was kind of excruciating.)  In the front room, something very- to ridiculously hip/hipster.  Old Sonic Youth, say.  Usually great stuff, although once in a while it feels to me as if they’re trying too hard, and/or the music just gets too grating and distracting, and I wish for just a touch of Bakehouse-style corniness/ background tuneage.  A friend once characterized Soma’s vibe as: “are you punk rock enough for our soy latte?”

Starbucks.  You know what they play there.  Interestingly, this is likely to be much “hipper” than what you’ll be hearing in the (local, non-corporate) Bakehouse.  Something NPR-approved, the Shins or Neko Case or some such, perhaps.  (I generally like it.)  In case you needed to be reminded of the degree to which corporate America has adopted the signifiers of hip.

The Pourhouse.  This is perhaps the most interesting case.  The Pourhouse soundtrack seems to me to tend to cluster in a Venn Diagram overlap where “hipster/ indie/ alternative” overlaps with Christian rock.  Or, let’s say, indie-alt music that would be potentially palatable to someone who likes Christian rock.  Sufjean Stevens would be an obvious example. I find the Pourhouse overall a very pleasant place to work, and it used to be my go-to cafe, but lately I’ve cut back so thoroughly on post-breakfast caffeine that I get through the afternoons on peppermint tea, which they do not stock.

I realize I’m forgetting Rachael’s Cafe.  I haven’t been there for a while and I can’t recall offhand what they’re usually playing.

I tease out of love, cafes of Bloomington.  Rock on!

Rat’s/ Fresh Clams/ Mussels/ Cherry Stones

I have been amused/ disturbed by this sign, on route 102 on Mt Desert Island (Maine) as you approach Town Hill, for years.  The sign used to be weirder before they added the quotation marks, and maybe the apostrophe too– I swear that it used to just be straight-up Rats/ Fresh Clams, but then they finally added the quotation marks to clarify.

Anyway — the punch line is that Rat’s is fantastic!!!  Great lobsters and steamers and the people are lovely.  “Rat” is the guy’s first name, I do not know what it is short for.  They have a nice chicken coop too (thus the eggs).

Highly recommended…

*Cedar Rapids,* Eliot Coleman, and the Midwestern greenhouse dream

[image: http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/urban-gardening/backyard-gardening/small-scale-greenhouse.aspx%5D

We watched the El Helms movie Cedar Rapids: Ed Helms is Tim Lippe, a modest, upstanding, nerdy small-town Iowa insurance salesman who is sent to a conference in the glittering fleshpots of Cedar Rapids, IA, which functions (often wittily) in the movie as a very tame/toned-down version of Las Vegas in The Hangover.  “Sometimes a girl just needs to go somewhere where she can be someone else,” a character comments; what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids.  It’s not bad… Helms and his roommate, similarly modest/upstanding/pious salesman Isiah Whitlock Jr., are both very amusing in their shocked disapproval of the wild goings-on (swearing, drinking shots, swimming in the hotel pool after hours) at the conference, embodied in their other crass roommate played by a good John C. Reilly.  There’s a funny running meta-joke about Isiah Whitlock’s nerdy (African-American) character, who is “a fan of the HBO series The Wire” and at one point puts on his best ghetto Omar imitation for purposes of intimidation; Whitlock played corrupt State Senator Clay Davis in The Wire.

Ultimately I’d categorize this as one of those movies that if you stumbled upon, you’d be pleasantly surprised; not exactly a must-see, though.  Sadly these days that probably makes it one of only a small handful of decent recent Hollywood comedies?  Sarah made a good point that the movie would make more sense if the characters were teenagers, and that it’s probably (a la Hot Tub Time Machine) intended for 40-somethings with fond memories of 1980s teen movies; I immediately could see the whole thing taking place at a senior class trip or some such.

Anyway… we were both amused when the Anne Heche character asks Helms to tell her about his dreams and fantasies, and he starts explaining his desire to build a small backyard season-extending greenhouse.  “A greenhouse?  Come on…” she says, meaning, “I want to hear about major life fantasies, not little DIY backyard projects,” but Helms says, “no, really, it can be quite affordable if you build it yourself.”

This was funny to us and hit a bit close to home because Sarah has been obsessed with this very possibility even since our friend Judith offered us her quite-awesome built-in greenhouse which she does not use.  Of course, the question is whether it would be remotely practical to move the fragile, glass-filled thing the 7 blocks to our yard, but Sarah has been scheming about it and dreaming of December fresh lettuce and greens.

I’m reading & enjoying that Melissa Coleman memoir about her upbringing on her father Eliot Coleman’s famous Maine organic Four Seasons Farm (which we visited last month; Sarah even managed to schmooze with Coleman himself a bit), THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone… Elliot Coleman was an innovator in popularizing organic farming techniques that allow for vegetables throughout the winter– greenhouses and root cellars playing a key role.  Sarah would also like a root cellar of course.

In a way, that a character in this kind of Hollywood comedy would be dreaming about a backyard greenhouse can be understood as a sign of how far the influence of Eliot Coleman and his ilk has spread in the U.S., far beyond the counterculture.  Next all Tim Lippe needs are some chickens.

Montreal: Bagels, Otto Dix

So, I am not going to write about my entire trip to Montreal now, just two details.

  • Montreal Bagels.  I learned about the Montreal Bagel phenomenon a month or two ago when I read a review of a new “Montreal-style” bagel place in NYC.  Hmm, cannot seem to find that review now but here is a 2009 article about Montreal vs NYC bagels.  We were at a gathering in the Mile End neighborhood and our host Jesse said we could get some at midnight nearby.  I think he recommended Fairmount but we accidentally ended up at St. Viateur instead (I believe they’re within a block or so of one another).  We got a dozen, all four of us had one fresh from the brick oven, and then John and I had the rest for snacking in our hotel room.  I have to say, in some ways it feels that the Montreal bagel is simply a bad, imitation bagel: not boiled but baked, and a bit sweet, it has some qualities in common with a generic mass-produced bagel from Einstein Brothers or the like.  And yet, I did really like the St. Viateur bagel.  It’s thinner, sesame (for some reason sesame is the standard; St. Viateur said they order some absurdly large amount of sesame seeds per day, I forget the amount), and straight from the oven it was really delicious; not very sweet but with a hint of pastry taste.
  • Otto Dix show at the museum.  This blew me away, especially the Der Kreig [War] series of prints he made in response to his experience in the trenches in WWI, modeled after Goya’s “Disasters of War” series.  These are devastating and just amazing.  A body in pieces found in the ground; soldiers in various scenes with prostitutes; wounded soldiers with faces distorted and ravaged; soldiers advancing in gas masks looking like frightening ghosts; a soldier in the trenches eating a meal, oblivious to the skeleton next to him.

The show has the complete set (I think?) on display and it was amazing to walk through the entire sequence.  The sections of his work on prostitutes and “sex murders” were also gripping and quite disturbing.  Especially creepy was one painting of Dix himself walking in a predatory manner after a prostitute.

After 1933 he moved to a house on a lake and of necessity began focusing on landscapes and other less confrontational or challenging kinds of work.  I found those paintings sad, because not very interesting to me; they felt entirely compromised, although maybe there are other ways to think about them.

Julie and Julia as indictment of 21st century life

I finally got around to watching Julie and Julia.  Thought it was a strangely bifurcated movie.  Meryl Streep was fabulous, Stanley Tucci excellent too, and the whole Julia Child narrative very enjoyable overall.  Amy Adams on the other hand was irritating and off-putting, the character Julie a narcissistic whiner, her husband deeply unappealing.  Was this part of the movie filmed by a different director?

The movie felt to me like a bitter satire on the glib hollowness of contemporary life.

According to the movie, Julia and her husband’s 1950s expatriate experience is characterized by great beauty and charm, human connection, leisurely, unpretentious daily life, pleasure in friends and lovers, laughter, commitment to craft & cultural tradition, rewarding hard work.  And, at a meta-level, by fantastic acting and fine film-making: Paris looks wonderful, Julia Child’s marriage is loving and playful, and Streep a total delight.

21st century Queens/NYC, on the other hand, is sort of a nightmare — of fake friends, narcissism, empty careers, soul-crushing architecture, and irritating, mannered acting.  The Julie character has her contrived obsession with Julia Child, which feels mirrored or multiplied by Amy Adams’ over-perky portrayal of the character.  I just found it depressing.  It’s a totally unfair comparison, of course, apples and oranges: on the one hand, a major figure of 20th century American and international life; on the other, this self-involved would-be writer in Queens trying to promote her blog.

It feels so… sad, is if this is the choice (not that we have a choice):

Vibrant creativity, pleasure, friendship, beauty and sensual delight, immersion in complex and sustaining cultural traditions, passionate work performed for its own sake, and brilliant originality (Julia/ mid-century) vs.

Blogging and self-promotion — life lived as a PR stunt — in an apartment above a pizzeria in Queens (Julie/ contemporary life).  Julie can be read as a figure for post-9/11 NYC and America: surrounded by reminders of the trauma (she works for the city taking calls from 9/11 victims) and doing anything she can to forget, to sublimate or repress, to withdraw into manic private activities and little projects of self-making.  (At the risk of being humorless about it, there’s something off-putting about the way Julie completely tunes out the voices of the 9/11 victims in order to submerge herself completely in her foodie-Francophile fantasy.)

I liked that the movie admitted that Julia Child herself hated Julie’s blog.  This felt surprisingly honest because it works against the broader parallel the movie tries to put in place — with Julie getting her book contract for her blog (ludicrously) posited as equivalent to Julia’s publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  I wonder if this was contractual — if Julia or her people would only allow the film to go forward with this proviso of Julia’s disapproval?

The meaning of a “book” seems so different in the two contexts.  For both Julia and Julie, the book contract is a personal fulfillment, a career goal, and a vindication.  For Julia, though, the book is a summing up of an extended immersion into rich cultural traditions; an expression of her own love of food and French culture; a pedagogical tool to teach others to learn the same pleasures.  For Julie, the book is a media event — the key moment is when she gets a write-up by Amanda Hesser in the Dining section of the New York Times and the agents start calling.

From “Julia” to “Julie“: the supplemental “e” trivializes, empties out substance, so food becomes the plaything of “foodies.”

Maybe the movie is actually deeply clever and sly?   All this is intentional, and the movie is itself about the ways culture and creativity have now been reduced to shameless plagiarism of the past and narcissistic PR projects in personal branding.

p.s.  Sarah once sat next to Julia Child at a hair salon in Cambridge; Julia complimented her hair.

p.p.s.  Since I’m (partially) knocking Nora Ephron’s movie, I’ll also mention that I thought her recent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo parody in the New Yorker was hilarious.

p.p.s. Thinking more about it, I’m probably too hard on Amy Adams above; she probably did about as well as she could with this material & character.

Recent movies: Bird & Magic, Redford and Dunaway, etc.

Our t.v. died a month or so ago — just stopped working.  Sarah’s dad had bought it for us at Best Buy for $500 in 2002 or so.  It was a 27″ and/but seemed huge — very bulky and room-dominating.  After some research on the Consumer Reports site I bought this 32″ flatscreen for $380 — it showed up in the mail, a lithe rectangle weighing maybe 20% of what our last one did, and basically just needed to be plugged in.

See?  Things may seem pretty messed up in the world, but at least t.v.s have improved.  We can watch the oil plume in brilliantly H.D. flat-screen detail.

Some of the movies we’ve watched recently:

Three Days of the Condor.  We’ve been using Netflix on-demand a bit lately.  Sarah wanted to see some sort of fun/ not too challenging thriller (no subtitles) and this is what we came up with.  She’d seen it years ago but it turned out literally only remembered the romance scenes between Redford and Faye Dunaway in her apartment — which have a somewhat creepy Stockholm Syndrome enjoying-your-abduction element, by the way.  (Redford carjacks Dunaway and makes her take him to her Brooklyn apartment, ties her up, and they sleep together shortly thereafter).  As the plot developed it started feeling more predictable, but I really enjoyed the first half, especially the depiction of 1975 NYC.  The movie has a funny Bovaryism theme with Redford as a C.I.A operative analyzing mystery novels, in a phony publishing-house front, for clues of international espionage.

The movie ends in front of the New York Times building with Redford telling the baddie that he’s given the whole story to the Times and so it should be in the next day’s paper.  The basic faith in the power of the mainstream press as a force for transparency and reform felt very foreign.

Mulholland Drive. I watched this a while ago but just had to mention how much it blew me away.  I’d seen it back when it came out but did not altogether remember how strange, scary, and amazing it is.  It topped some best of the decade lists — somewhat telling, maybe, that the most critically acclaimed film of the 21st century started out as a rejected t.v. network pilot.  (After the pilot was turned down, Lynch went back and added a second hour, which turns the movie into a kind of Mobius strip, folding back on itself.)

The Borrowers.  Am reading the Borrowers series to the girls (we’re into The Borrowers Afield now).  I’m trying to work out an argument that it’s an allegory of the mid-20th-century British welfare state.  Fascinating on class, with this miniature family of working-class Cockney types living in the floorboards of the grand house.  Anyway, I picked up the 1973 American t.v. version, a Hallmark Hall of Fame t.v. special, at the library.  I just watched a bit of this with the girls while reading the paper, but it seemed kind of creepy/spooky to me — the music reminded me of Rosemary’s Baby.

Very excited to learn, btw, that a Studio Ghibli anime version of the Borrowers is due out later this year!!

Step-Brothers.  Part of the Judd Apatow empire (he produced), with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as the 40 year old children of newlyweds Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen (both excellent).  This movie is surprisingly funny, possibly underrated.  It’s kind of one-joke but a good joke: Ferrell and Reilly both act exactly like 4th grade boys; you get the feeling they did some real research for these roles.  A sequel to the 40-Year-old Virgin in spirit — more male arrested development.  (Btw, I just checked and Steenburgen is 56 years old, which makes her kind of a stretch as a 40 y.o. Will Ferrell’s mother.)

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (HBO).  Loved this!  I was an avid Celtics fan in the 80s — went to a couple games every year in the years when the Celtics never, ever lost at home.  Bird was a poor working-class kid living next to the railroad tracks in a small nowhere town in Southern Indiana.  I’d forgotten that he actually enrolled at I.U. — left after a month or two, alienated and freaked out — went back home to French Lick to work in a grocery store.  His dad committed suicide soon after.  Larry obviously was/is a pretty weird individual.  Very private, prickly and socially awkward, the Hick from French Lick for real, unbelievably gifted and competitive.  Magic grew up in Lansing MI — incredible smile and charisma, a star from a young age.  He radiates happiness & pleasure in life whereas Bird seems to be trying to hold everything at arms’ length away from him.  When they met for the NCAA finals, Magic tried to seek him out to say hello and Bird totally snubbed him, refused to shake his hand.  “I probably did snub him,” Bird says now.  “I’m not into that lovey-dovey stuff.  I was there to win” (something like that).

The movie makes a good case that they became doppelgangers, rivals and enemies and eventually friends.   Bird says that the day he heard about Magic’ H.I.V. diagnosis was the worst day since his father’s suicide.  There’s an eerie shot of Bird playing the next day — he does a behind-the-back pass that the movie suggests was a secret homage to Magic.

The racial politics of the rivalry are complex and sad.  Bird does seem genuinely race-blind.  But as a Celtics player in racist Boston and the Great White Hope of the NBA trying to attract white fans, he’s enlisted in a racial drama not of his own making.  Cedric Maxwell comments of black basketball fans in Boston who’d root for L.A. — it was very hard to be a black Celtics fan in those days.

Bird mowed his own suburban Boston lawn every weekend: fans showed up to watch (he ignores them).  He eventually messes up his back installing his mother’s driveway in Indiana and suffers through in the final years of his career in agony.  Now he’s President of Basketball Operations for the Indiana Pacers and an NBA elder statesmen; I kind of enjoyed the recent ad in which he steals LeBron and Dwight Howard’s hamburgers and they have no idea who he is (extending the longtime meme of Bird as a white star in a black man’s game).  [*btw how can professional athletes live with themselves for promoting McDonalds???]

It’s been nice to see Magic’s halftime commentary during the NBA playoffs this month — good to see his enormous smile and that he seems to be doing well.

We Live in Public. Interesting documentary about a semi-forgotten internet pioneer of the 1990s, Josh Harris, who became a symbol of the excesses of the tech bubble of the era.  His hubris culminated in a couple of different Truman Show-esque experiments in living under total surveillance — first with dozens of volunteers in a giant loft in NYC, then just with his girlfriend.  He eventually loses everything and more or less disappears.  I found him to be a very creepy guy and was somewhat under-impressed by his supposed prescient innovations (as Sarah commented, what’s here that Philip K. Dick didn’t come up with years ago?) but it’s an compelling movie.

Food Inc. Finally got around to watching this last night (again, Netflix on demand).  Excellent doc.  Very well done, turns the rise of industrial food into a kind of thriller/horror movie with scary music.  Most infuriating part involves Monsanto’s copyrighted soybeans.  The beans are copyrighted intellectual property of Monsanto; our corrupt government, entirely in the pocket of Big Food, allows the transnational behemoth to behave like Disney with Mickey Mouse — no farmer is too small to be sued for doing what farmers have done for thousands of years with their crops.  If you are still in the habit of eating industrial meat regularly, watch this movie (although it does not rely much on total gross-out images of slaughterhouses and the like; it’s more about building a sustained argument).  [Btw this 2009 NYT article about “pink slime” in hamburger meat is what convinced me to never, ever eat another McDonald’s burger.]