January 2012

Language Moments

It struck me last year that i’ve had some language moments that some people might find entertaining, especially if i don’t go on and on about them and just use them as interludes to lighten the tone.

The first of these moments was in June of 1955 when i was thirteen and my family was visiting my aunt and uncle in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At that point in my life i had not been out of Texas, and even though i had noticed that my aunt and uncle talked funny, the idea that i might be described as having an accent had never occurred to me. As a Texas friend of mine remarked to me after i returned home in 1966 upon completion of a two year tour of duty in Germany, “Ah doun’t haeuv an akseyunt”.

So there we were in Pittsburgh, and my uncle gave me a quarter and suggested that i take my sister off to the drugstore a few blocks away for a soda. Innocently, i set out, clutching the coin in one hand and my sister in the other.

We found the drugstore, went in, and sat down at the fountain. When the waitress came around, i ordered a coke for Becky and a Dr Pepper for me, but we were immediately surrounded by a crowd of grinning, funny talking people who sounded just like our uncle but who were delighted by our performance, never having seen two little kids who could effortlessly sound exactly like Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara.

And they got a full performance as i tried to get the waitress to understand that i wanted a Dr Pepper, unaware that Dr Pepper would not reach Pennsylvania for two or three decades. Well, if it ever did. Cincinnati friends in 1970 tried it and called it “fly spray”, so i’m thinking you have to be born in Texas to like it.

[For my foreign friends, here’s a wonderful description that captures the essence of the largely vanished American drugstore. It’s on a Roman Catholic propaganda website, so parental discretion is advised. Wouldn’t want my loyal readers to fall prey and be struck with an uncontrollable urge to kiss His Holiness’ red slippers.]

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Farmers’ Market Discovery

I went out yesterday morning to the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market to pick up some kiwis from Glenn Tanimoto so i could make another batch of the pepper-flavored kiwi jam, and as i glided in noticed a new vendor. I came very close to dismissing them as purveyors of horribly expensive snack foods but luckily caught out of the corner of my eye an arresting sight.

So i skidded to a stop long enough for the cunning vendor to thrust a sample at me. Silly me, i took it. I mean, i’m an experienced farmers’ marketeer and know very well not to take samples. After all, they wouldn’t be offering it if the damn thing weren’t delicious, would they? So once you put it in your mouth, the only question is how much of it you’re going to buy.

The okra was just superb – light, flavorful, and crispy – and once she had the hook set, she kept offering me samples of their other items. The beet slices are divine and make a nice color/flavor contrast with the okra. I went online at Gourmet Snackers to see their full line and couldn’t help noticing that they also sell the stuff in larger quantities at an enormous price break.

And yes, you read about this here, first, before that pig Mark discovered it.

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We all remember our parents trying to teach us some manners. And i think most of us can recall realizing even at the height of our rebelliousness that there was some good common sense behind the manners. I mean, how stupid does a kid have to be not to understand that a nice thank-you note for a gift not only fulfills the etiquette requirement and keeps your mother happy but also might very well maintain the foundation for future gifts.

Pretty basic, really, and i had that one down early. On the other hand, there were some social conventions that simply didn’t come up for a middle-class kid in the oil fields of West Texas in the fifties. And one of these marked a major turning point in my life.

Sometimes as a child you were invited to eat a meal with the family of one of your friends, and the first time this occurred, your mother sat you down and made it clear that you would eat everything you were served and you would either like it or very convincingly pretend that you liked it. Furthermore, you would be using your very best table manners and at the end of the meal you would tell tell the hostess how delicious everything was and you would thank both host and hostess for inviting you. Any violation of this policy would be punished by immediate and permanent banishment. No no, from your house.

So we followed these rules, and they served us well. What they did not do is prepare us for contact with the upper classes.

In the spring of 1970 i was living in Cincinnati. At that point i was still desperately trying to make myself straight, and i’d dated a young woman named Ann a few times and remained friends with her after we broke up and she took up with a man named Ethan. I socialized with them some, as i was a budding foodie and Ethan was deeply involved since his parents were John and Marion Becker. Yes, that Marion Becker, Marion Rombauer Becker, author of Joy of Cooking.

And then Mrs. Becker invited Ethan and Ann to dinner and suggested they might bring a friend.

I accepted with alacrity.

I should have realized i was getting in over my head when Ethan drove us out to a suburban part of greater Cincinnati i’d never seen and pulled off the road onto a gravel drive that wound through what looked like an immaculately groomed botanical garden until we crunched to a stop in front of a Bauhaus jewel. As we walked to the door, i heard someone playing a Haydn sonata on the piano, not professionally but competently. Turns out, it was his father, an architect who had designed the house and who was not at all displeased when i asked if it hadn’t been Haydn he’d been playing.

Ethan’s mother was equally charming, and i just loved them both instantly.

Before dinner Mrs. Becker led me from the kitchen through French doors to the herb garden, where she identified everything for me and encouraged me to pinch off leaves to smell them. Up to then, the only herb i’d ever seen alive was mint, and all those i’d cooked with had come from bottles.

Dinner was simple, focused on a baked chicken breast dish from the cookbook, and as it progressed, i grew to like the Beckers more and more. After dinner, they proposed that we play a word game that had been invented by a friend of theirs about the same time as Scrabble and involved making words out of randomly drawn letters but, unlike Scrabble, had never gone into full production.

Nor did it involve building words off of existing words, so it was really only a test of vocabulary at which i naturally crushed them all. It was a splendid evening, and not just for me.

Two days later in my morning mail there was a note from Mrs. Becker saying that they’d found me delightful and looked forward to seeing me again.

I sat there stunned. I had known to write a thank-you note, but i had not realized that it needed to be done the next morning so that it would cross in the mail any note from the host. That my host might write me was not a consideration that my mother had prepared me for.

By not acting quickly, i’d exposed myself as either a worthless ingrate or someone of insurmountably miserable upbringing. Racing out to the post office with a thank-you note was not an option i could imagine, since it would be obvious that i’d already received Mrs. Becker’s note.

There were no good options.

Lacking the courage to commit seppuku and being too distraught to stay in town and face friends or even tell anyone about my disgrace, i jumped in my car and drove off to see my friend Peter in St. Louis, who was gracious about my imprompu visit even though i never told him what had sparked it. Sorry it took me over forty years to own up, Peter.

Not too long after that, i left Cincinnati, thrashing around desperately and sending out resumes while it gradually became clear that the window of opportunity for community college jobs had slammed shut owing to there now being a surplus of folks like me who wanted to teach in them. Missed it by one year.

And as that horror sank in i realized that if i had had the sense to properly cultivate the Beckers, i might have somehow with their help been able to make a career in culinary writing. But i had slammed that window on my own fingers.

On the other hand, it taught me a lesson. And i probably would never have made anything of myself anyhow.

And yes, of course i understand that my change-direction-and-try-something-else syndrome when i’ve done something stupid sure has stopped me all my life from salvaging partial successes.

blasted ruinNot, of course, that my life turned into a totally blasted ruin. It could have been worse:

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Eat Here

I read where Wall Street has been negotiating this deal with the Obama Administration where the banksters will all line up and get their wrists slapped and then, having been punished will be protected from further attack by a populace bled white by their rapacity.

“Them that has, gits,” i thought, in this paradise of free enterprise where only for a period that roughly corresponded to the first half of my life did we have a tax structure in which the rich paid their fair share. It took the Great Depression to spark that, and it’s with a wave of nostalgia that i listen to an Andrews Sisters song from 1946 that reveals the popular sentiment of those days.

And then i look at contemporary San Francisco, still smeared by the right as a socialistic cesspool, when in actuality it’s anything but. Yes, average residential real estate prices dropped a bit at the pit of our recent recession, and they’re still somewhat down over in the southeast corner where the less expensive stuff is. But in Pacific Heights the market is again booming at the over $3 million level, where sellers are ending up settling for more than they’d asked owing to lots of bidding.

And i haven’t done an actual scientific survey, but it sure does look to me like i’m seeing new businesses opening in storefronts that had been dark for a few years. And certainly a couple of construction sites on Market that had been stalled at the empty pit level are again enjoying a frenzy of activity with workers scurrying like ants and huge machines gouging and roaring, most especially at that place at the corner of Noe and 16th and Market formerly occupied by a Methodist church that God smote with a great fire thirty-five years ago as a reflection of His disagreement with the Church’s hatred of gays. Should smite more of ’em, if you ask me.

And upscale restaurants! They’re sprouting like weeds. Well of course, even while it’s slashing services to the less fortunate, the city is showering high tech industry with tax breaks, the favorite being a commitment not to tax the avalanche of stock that will bury to the nostrils the better paid employees when the companies go public. Ah yes, tax breaks for young millionaires while the neighborhood health centers go unfunded. Look, i understand and support the idea of certain tax breaks to attract companies with lots of employees, but tax breaks aimed at young millionaires???? Oh please.

Still, i don’t really mind having all these delicious new restaurants available for young techies even though for me they’ll have to be rare luxuries. One’s opening soon just down on Market Street, and it’s already showing potential. Last week they had a sign up, “Jake’s. Everything you always wanted in The Castro, except with clothes on”. Here’s this week’s:

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Early May

Pachypodium brevicauleMy beloved Pachypodium brevicaule has been behaving strangely for months. Back in September it declared Winter and dropped its leaves, and then around Thanksgiving started getting them back, months ahead of schedule. And then the other day i was scratching around its ears and noticed, omigod, inflorescences! Well, hell, maybe it’s May in Madagascar or something, but normally this time of year it doesn’t even have leaves. Look at this. Each inflorescence has several buds and there’s a fifth inflorescence hidden on the far side. It has never bloomed so vigorously for me.


Oh, and speaking of the sun, we’re not complaining about its absence. No indeed. Here it is the end of January and the snowpack, upon which we depend for our water, is measurable over most of the Sierra in millimeters, so we took my friend CK’s advice and started doing our snow dance last week. It worked, as much of the Sierra got two feet of snow yesterday. Alas, we need between fifty and a hundred feet, depending on the location.

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Matte went black yesterday in solidarity with all those other sites protesting against the draconian “anti-piracy” legislation pending in Congress. Then this morning i ran the analytics and discovered that nobody had noticed.

magnoliaOn the other hand, our magnolias are looking pretty good:

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Field Trip

My friend Mark called my attention to the Here Be Dragons exhibition at the Intersection for the Arts, so i suggested that we take a look at it and combine this with lunch at the Rib Whip truck, which i had determined was going to be parked today four blocks down Mission. Mark is a fellow food truckie, but by delicious chance he’d not eaten from the Rib Whip truck, so we made a field trip (his description, dammit).

Damn, but it’s hard to take good photos of food, and my miserable attempt to capture the soul of the Rib Whip’s sublime pulled pork sandwich was so dreadful that i won’t use it. Mark had the pulled pork sandwich, too, and approves. Try it for yourself although in the interests of taxonomic precision i must warn you that the pork, while eminently pullable, is served unpulled. Here’s the Rib Whip’s Facebook page, which gives their schedule.

After gorging, we regrouped at the Intersection, which gave me an opportunity to demonstrate that a Segway is a far faster vehicle in downtown gridlock than Mark’s motorscooter owing to my ability to use bike lanes, marked or not. I also nearly demonstrated my terminal display of vehicular virtuosity, as i was very nearly taken out by an impatient SUV that elected to join me in the bike lane while i was right beside him. Gasp.

If you haven’t been to the Intersection for the Arts, do so. It fairly sizzles with artistic creativity. And if you haven’t seen the Here Be Dragons exhibition, i recommend it highly. It supplements Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City. Perhaps my favorite work was Jenny Odell’s exquisitely minimalistic bird’s-eye portrait of Dolores Park formed entirely of little specks representing the people (and nothing else) in the park on a sunny afternoon, thus defining the park by its users. I loved the whole thing so much i’m gonna swing by again.

On the way home i dropped in on Clarion Alley to see what was new and found this slightly defaced tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, arguably the initiator of the Arab Spring revolts that swept North Africa in 2011:

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A Low Cloud

Here’s a low cloud that was hanging over the valley to my west the other morning:

low cloud


And actually, there’s been rather a low cloud over my life recently, as i came down with a cold shortly after Christmas, and it is hanging on with uncommon persistence. But now that i’ve complained, i’ve had some good news, too.

First, all that poking around under the hood with sharp objects seems to have worked, and i’m ecstatic to announce that your beloved Matte Gray website is once again being found by Google searches. Better yet, all those unwanted hits on the defunct Matte Gray blog on Blogsite are no longer appearing, that stake through its heart apparently having done the job.

But there’s more. I decided this morning that i could put it off no longer and returned to the gym for a light reintroductory workout. Jumped on the scale and discovered the fringe benefit of being sick for two weeks….i’d lost three pounds and am now finally back into the 150’s. Was gonna go rushing out to the bakery to celebrate but held myself back.

Here’s a Segway gang, the Balanced Angels, showing their colors while interviewing a prospective mama in Golden Gate Park:

Balanced Angels

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Patriotic Movies

A bit of entertainment went around on the Internet recently asking people to post a clip of the song that was at the top of the charts the week they were born. I found this interesting enough that i went digging and discovered that although i could not pin down the top song the week of my birth, i could get close enough with this clip of the Andrews Sisters, which made me reflect on the changes i’ve seen.

When i was born, we were a profoundly nationalistic but also deeply isolationist country. As the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was playing across America in July of 1941, the war in Europe had been going on for nearly two years while we sat watching. In the summer of 1941 Hitler was launching Operation Barabarossa, the Nazi march on Moscow that would ultimately be brought to a halt literally within sight of Moscow on 5 December, just two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States finally entered the war.

What strikes me most about the Andrews Sisters clip above is the propaganda aspect. The Roosevelt administration had started a peacetime draft in preparation for war in 1940, but it needed popular support and Hollywood was eager to do its part. Buck Privates was the first of three service comedies that Abbot and Costello made before Pearl Harbor, soft core propaganda to supplement the more blatant stuff.

As a student i was taught that the Nazis, the Russians, and the Chinese bombarded their citizens with propaganda, and i knew from tuning in Radio Free Europe on my little Hallicrafters in the late fifties that we were bombarding the Soviet block, but it wasn’t until the Great Disillusionment of the sixties that i realized that we Americans were also being bombarded by our own government.

Now, of course, Herr Gauleiter Goebbels turns in his grave in envy of the heights to which Fox News has taken this fine art, and even as i write this the neocons are using to drum up support for an attack on Iran, the same specious arguments they used to justify our invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, our Secretary of Defense has unequivocally stated that Iran is NOT building nuclear weapons, not of course that this will get in the way of our impending attack.

We certainly are living in interesting times.

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Welcome to 2012

Let’s start the year out right with some recognition of those American patriots who are taking issue with the willingness of our President and Congress to grant the Administration the power to jail indefinitely any American citizen that they even suspect might somehow be involved in terrorism.  Indefinitely.  With no charges.  And meanwhile, our Homeland Security folks have taken it on themselves to branch out from our airports and conduct random examinations of citizens in public transit systems and on our highways.  I ask you to join the few of us who have begun to stand our ground against the intrusion of these examiners:

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