Poor old Saddo Abroad has been neglected while I've focussed on writing features for Sinfini that are related specifically to the art of being a singer. And when I say "art" I don't mean that in an arty way, I mean it in an artful way. Like The Artful Dodger.
Anyway, unfettered by the constraints of writing for other people, I thought it was about time I dusted off my inner Saddo and wrote about things outside the realms of opera and the music business, which is why I started this blog in the first place. Somewhere along the line I got sidetracked and started venting my spleen about some popera singer or other. This got me lots of hits (my thing about Katherine Jenkins a while back still accounts for a lot of traffic) and I got lured into devoting too much attention to writing for a certain audience. Well, I now get paid to do that elsewhere, so I can keep Saddo Abroad for what it was meant to be: a place where I share my ramblings on travelling abroad as a middle-aged, occasionally grumpy git. Besides, a year later than I planned, I think I've finally finished my second book which uses a fair amount of stuff I've written here. I feel duty-bound to breathe some life back into my blog, given that I've just ripped out so many of its vital organs.
I'm in Chicago where we have a small apartment, north of the city centre and 7 minutes (not 6 or 8) from the lake. We (my wife Lucy and I) try to spend at least two months here every year, usually for a chunk near Christmas and another in the summer. Slowly but surely I am getting used to the extremes of weather and even more slowly I am learning to be an American (or "Muhrrcin" as it often sounds to my Anglo-Saxon ears).
I'll never go the whole hog. I resist any Muhrrcinisation of my accent or the language I use. This sometimes means I could be speaking Bulgarian when, say at the hardware store, I get The Blank Look, when it is quite clear that my interlocutor (I once heard Bernstein use that word on a TV lecture and I've finally found my opportunity to use it, hurrah!) isn't listening to what I'm saying; he's just trying to figure out where the hell I'm from. Mind you, given I've just called what we might call in England an ironmonger's a hardware store, I may not be managing my resistance as well as I fancy. And often I'll ask a Muhrrcin if they're standing in line rather than confuse them by using "queueing", so don't take my grandstanding too seriously.
Sometimes the English accent works to good effect. A woman in our local ice-cream café asked me to repeat my order just so she could listen to my accent. She went as gooey as a scoop of her frozen chocolate custard. And sometimes it doesn't, as when, yesterday, I asked if I could pay for our lunch with a credit card and the waitress thought I wanted to pay with "a greyhound".
There are two areas where I'm doing my best to assimilate myself and they seem to be absioutely fundamental to Muhrrcin male life. They are DIY and Barbecue.
I do a lot of DIY at home in England, so it's not as if I'm a stranger to the beast; it's just so very different over here. First there's the language thing, again. Paints are a minefield. What we Brits call "oil gloss paint" is called Enamel. I don't know what they call what we call Enamel. Emulsion is called Acrylic and varnish, Polyurethane. White spirit, Spec Thinners... Everything is a little bit different and seems to dry very quickly, no matter what it's based on. Anything electrical is very different from home. I'm guessing it's something to do with the puny voltage but everything seems to be much more flimsy and, frankly, dangerous.
Then there's the plumbing. Radiators don't fill with hot water; they fill with steam which comes via huge pipes from a vast furnace in the basement. As the steam doesn't circulate, each radiator has to have a steam release valve, the size of a salt cellar, which hisses and pops when it's doing its job. I've changed all those.
This afternoon I'm going to fit an air gap. This is a gizmo that sits next to the taps on the kitchen sink into which you plumb the waste pipe from the dishwasher. It stops dirty water going back into the dishwasher and is a legal requirement, though the girl who owned our place before us never had one, naughty naughty.
Despite all these differences, and in tools and equipment, going to our local hardware store is a joy. I avoid the warehouse stores, like Home Depot and Lowes, as they're soulless and overwhelming. I go to Clark and Devon Hardware, which occupies a smallish old cinema and which is staffed by lovely old guys who know what they're talking about. My usual opening line is "As you can probably tell, I'm not from around these parts" before I launch into a query about, say, how to replace a storm window. There's banter, there's idle chat and there's always good advice.
If Muhrrcin man takes his DIY seriously, it's nothing compared to the way he thinks about barbecuing. Now, when I was growing up my dad used to make what we called a barbecue out of an old biscuit tin punched with a few holes and a bit of chicken wire over the top. While this would garner some respect from a Muhrrcin for its ingenuity, it's not what he would call a barbecue. He would call it a grill. No, a barbecue is a totally different beast. For starters a Muhrrcin barbecue is usually the size of a car and its function is not to cook quickly, but very, very slowly with hot smoke. This is something of a surprising paradox. Nearly all other Muhrrcin cooking is about speed and convenience whereas proper barbecuing is laborious and time-consuming.
If you have any experience of cooking Muhrrcin-style you'll know that they like their thermometers. I saw some tortelloni the other day that needed 8 minutes boiling "until they have reached an internal temperature of 185 degrees". I'm sorry, but what kind of nutter is going to stick a thermometer into a tiny tortellono?
The Muhrrcin male barbecuer is obsessed with temperatures. They modify their smoking machines until they're covered with the things and I'm finally beginning to see why. Ten or twenty degrees too low over several hours can make the difference between spareribs that are tough and chewy and ribs that are giving and succulent.
I did some St Louis cut ribs the other day. There's a whole blog that could be written - and I've no doubt many have - on the difference between the various cuts of spareribs. Suffice it to say that St Louis ribs are medium length and fleshy. First I smeared them with mustard then added a dry rub that I'd cobbled together from paprika, cayenne, black pepper and a bit of sugar and salt. Too much salt and you end up with bacon.
My charcoal smoker is small and the shape of a vertical barrel, with a charcoal basket at the base, above that a water basin and above that two grills, topped with a domed lid. I popped the ribs onto the top grill and left them smoking for two hours without peeking, adding hickory chips to the coals from time to time through a little door in the side.
The smoker has one rather vague thermometer on the dome lid, where I aim to keep the dial at the e of Ideal but sometimes I wish I had some old-fashioned bellows to encourage the coals. Lucy's hair dryer though is a reasonable substitute and she's thrilled when I use it.
After two hours I sprinkled the ribs with apple juice then shut the lid again. Another hour and I took the ribs out, sploshed on more apple juice and wrapped them in foil before putting them back in the smoker. Another hour of that, then the ribs were out of the foil and now brushed with barbecue sauce (Trader Joe's) for a final hour of smoking. Five hours in all.
They were good, but they could be better and I think I need to do more to raise the temperature a few degrees. It looks like Lucy's hair dryer will be busy. Or perhaps I can find some bellows somewhere and pay for them with my greyhound.