Babylon Berlin: Our World through the Rear-View Mirror

Binge-watching Netflix seems to be an acceptable pastime for once. Not only do we have more time on our couches (now that we’re not commuting for an hour or going out after work) but we all need to escape the grim reality, at least for a few hours.

Offering plenty of scandal, sex and adrenaline-rushing escapes, Babylon Berlin is a show designed for binge watching, and (for better or worse) ironically foretells our current predicament.

The show is set in Berlin in the “Golden Twenties”, a zeitgeist by both political instability and cultural hedonism and progressivism.

It is a world where cross-dressing nightclub singers moonlight as Soviet-employed assassins. Where nudist lake outings and police massacres of left-wing protesters occur simultaneously. And where a shell-shocked grizzled army veteran produces illicit lewd films.

Violent May Day Rally. Source: Santa Barbara Independent
Nightclub Dancing. Copyright X Filme

Into this melange steps Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne who has been temporarily summoned to Berlin under surreptitious circumstances. Although ostensibly working with the vice squad, Rath ends up being drawn into a homicide investigation that unravels a complex web of conspiracies (I haven’t reached the end yet, so I can’t reveal how it unfolds) involving mutinous Reichswehr (army) officers, pro-Trotsky communists, a mafiosi nightclub mogul, a trove of gold and even Rath’s police department colleagues.

Rath and Charlotte Ritter, his partner on the case. Copyright X Filme

The plot and cinematography are so furtively adroit, revealing major backstories and side plots-in pieces-through a glimpse of binoculars or a brief flashback, as to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. The fact that nearly every character has some fishy doppelganger heightens the suspense.

And yet, the most powerful part of the series is the strange hindsight it offers in our current predicament.

Only a-month-and-a-half ago I was frequenting gay nightclubs on a weekly basis. The West Hollywood nightlife-almost as libertine as Weimar Berlin’s-carried on with full force despite the ominous illness seeping into the country.

Abbey nightclub on February 22, 2018. Courtesy of author.

Like the Berlin of Babylon, our republic was in a precarious state. Politicians routinely flouted democratic norms and connived with foreign powers. Inequality ran rampant. Gun violence was a part of daily life.

But if you were part of the middling urban bourgeoisie, with just enough of a paycheck to indulge in cocktails or pour-over coffee on the weekend, you could rationalize everything away, or forget it even existed.

Until the economy stopped…

Anyone with a basic knowledge of European history knows what will happen next in the Babylon story: the 1929 Stock Market Crash will lead to totalitarianism, which will lead to the bloodiest war in Germany’s history.

We’re past the crash phase now. Which is why watching Babylon arouses such a strong feeling of nostalgia.

Life is short. History is long.

The long road of history. Source: Pexels.com

When will I be able to frequent nightclubs again without the risk of contracting a terrifying illness? Where will our turbulent geopolitics take us?

These thoughts don’t usually linger. I am always too giddy to move on to the next episode.

And even when they do, my feelings ultimately move from despair to contemplation.

One discreet message I pick up from Babylon:

A corrupt society is probably not worth retaining, regardless of its temptations.

Best Bravas Sauce

Part of Home Bar: Food and Drink Tips to Survive Social Distancing.

The Spanish word brava literally translates to English as “brave” or “rough.”

And yet, while Spain’s bravas sauce often (but not always) has a spicy kick to it, the flavor is not as stringent as the name implies.

Usually incorporating a hefty dose of Paprika, chicken broth and tomato sauce, bravas is simultaneously pungent and delicate. It is intensely fragrant, and rich in flavor, without overpowering the taste buds. If condiments were paintings, bravas would be the Mona Lisa.

In Spain, restaurants only serve bravas with potatoes, as part of a tapas plate.

But I’ve found it goes equally well on rice, pasta and (Mexican) tortilla chips.

Here is my recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 large Garlic Clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons of unseasoned Tomato Sauce
  • 1-2 tablespoons of Olive Oil
  • 2 1/2 Teaspoons of Paprika*
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Black Pepper**
  • 1/3 cup Chicken Broth

Directions

Cooking Time: 5 minutes. Makes enough for two servings of Patatas Bravas + two servings of Pasta

  1. Heat Olive Oil in a small saucepan. Add minced Garlic and saute for 1 minute.
  2. Add Tomato Sauce and Paprika and stir for 30 seconds.
  3. Add Chicken Broth and stir. Let simmer for three minutes.
  4. After this you have two options:
    1. To make Patatas Bravas: Pour sauce over roasted or fried potatoes. Mix 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise with 1/2 teaspoon of minced garlic to make a garlic aioli. Add aioli to the potatoes with sauce, toss and serve.
    2. For other uses: Pour over rice, pasta, chips or whatever else serves your fancy…!

Don’t Let Small Talk Kill Us

I had a busy social calendar in February. I went out to bars and coffeeshops every weekend, where I chatted and flirted with both friends and strangers. I kind of miss those days.

Nor surprisingly, COVID-19 was rarely mentioned in these conversations. 

Americans are notorious for shying away from unpleasant topics in conversations. As the saying goes, “never talk about politics, religion and death.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vox’s David Roberts, notes how “small talk” in conversations between strangers or at social events serves a purpose of social bonding, rather than conveying information. Thus, small topic focuses on “topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.”

However, as my past life experience shows, keeping our conversations light and cushy prevents us from confronting issues of grave importance.  

Imagine if we had talked about COVID-19 at the bar. We might have thought about social distancing earlier or even demanded answers from officials hesitant to tell the truth. 

Source: Wallpaper Flare

In the long run, Climate change poses an even greater threat to our existence, but is still considered too awkward and “nerdy” for the cocktail party

By neglecting such topics of social importance, we fail our civic duty as citizens of a democracy to stay informed on the issues we vote on. 

Some might argue that you can only have a good conversation with a person who is knowledgeable of the subject at hand. Yet, conversations about the weather are a core part of small talk, and we aren’t all meteorologists…

This is not to degrade small talk’s role in facilitating social bonding. A certain exchange of niceties at the beginning of a conversation is psychologically needed to initiate contact. This opening small talk should be differentiated from the dominance of superficial yet agreeable topics in many conversations. 

Indeed, American small talk’s aversion to uncomfortable topics discourages people from opening up about their personal troubles or struggles. By foregoing topics that make them vulnerable, participants in a conversation lose an opportunity to establish a deep connection. By pushing discomfort, pain and anguish under the rug, conversational norms further a harmful stigmatization of mental health. 

Having struggled with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s traits for much of my life, I can vouch for the last point being far from trivial. 

Much of the pain and depression I have experienced in my adult life might have been assuaged if I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings with others.


In the current crisis, let’s resist the urge to deflect conversations and shame “negativity” or geekiness. 

Source: Flickr

Let’s give ourselves (and others) space to share and listen, to love and to learn.

And to support.  

Source: PickPik

Steak and Ale Pie

Part of Home Bar: Food and Drink Tips to Survive Social Distancing.

When I need a rush of grease and carbs, nothing screams louder than British pub food. My favorite pub dish is Steak and Ale Pie.

Ironically, I discovered the dish as I was leaving England last summer. I arrived at Gatwick airport with some time to spare, so I headed to a fast-casual “pub-style” restaurant. I decided to break from my routine “fish-and-chips” (usually a wise choice, but one that was starting to become tiresome), and the “steak-and ale pie” was a featured item.

Airport Pub Pie

You know how they say terminal food can never quite match that elsewhere? While, this came close. I recall the crust being a tad rubbery, but the steak filling’s rich umami flavor–a tad smokey and a tad sweet–amazed me.

“I have to make this someday!” I thought to myself.

I had my first opportunity in November. I had collected pie crust ingredients before Thanksgiving but ended up buying pies for the holiday. So I resolved to make a savory pie the following weekend.

My steak-and-ale pie was inspired by an Allrecipes recipe I found online (using SeriousEat’s Old-fashioned Flaky Pie Dough). However, I made a few tweaks in the ingredients (e.g. substituting soy sauce and sherry for Worcestershire sauce) and process. The stew flavors came out even better than I had experienced in the pub, topped off by the melt-in-my-mouth crust, though the meat (generically-labeled “stew meat” from the supermarket) was tough.

This past Sunday, I gave the pie a second try. I used cut-to-order chuck meat and Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout for the beer.

I think I might have perfected this. Recipe below.

Okay. It doesn’t look pretty. But the crust is heavenly, and the rich stew (peaking its head out from underneath) divine.

Ingredients

  • Crust
    • Serious Eats’ Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough Recipe, courtesy of Stella Parks. Omit the sugar. You about throw in about a teaspoon of cheddar cheese, if you’d like, to enrich the flavor.
  • Meats and Veggies
    • 2 pounds of Chuck Meat, diced
    • About 1 cup of Diced Onion (1/2 to 3/4 of a large Onion)
    • One large clove of Garlic, minced
    • 3/4 to 1 cup sliced Mushrooms
    • 1/4 Cup unseasoned Tomato Sauce or Diced Tomato (approx a whole average tomato)
    • Diced Carrots (optional)
    • Diced Potatoes (optional)
  • Seasonings and Stock
    • 1 1/2 Cups Dark Beer, Stout and English-Style Brown Ale both work well (based on experience)
    • 1 Cup Beef Stock
    • 2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
    • 1 Tablespoon Cream Sherry
    • 1/2 teaspoon Thyme
    • 1/2 teaspoon Pepper
    • 1/2 teaspoon Salt

Instructions

  1. Make the Pie Crust following instructions in the linked recipe. When done mixing and kneading, divide the dough into two portions and refrigerate for at least two hours.
  2. Cube the beef and coat in flour. In a large pot, heat oil and drop in beef chunks. Cook on each side for 2-3 minutes, until browned. Remove the beef from the pot, leaving fat and drippings at the bottom.
  3. Heat one tablespoon of butter in the pot in which you cooked the beef. When sizzling, drop in the onion. Cook for 3-4 minutes (until translucent) and then add the garlic and mushrooms. Cook for another 1-2 minutes.
  4. Slowly pour in 1/2 cup of the beer. Stir for 2 minutes so that the beer deglazes the pan (dilutes the beef drippings to absorb their flavor). Then add the remaining cup of beer, soy sauce and sherry.
  5. Re-introduce the beef, along with the thyme, pepper and salt. Then pour in the beef broth. Cover the pot and let simmer for an hour and a half (beef should be very tender when done).
  6. While the beef is simmering, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Take out the two portions of pie dough. Roll out one portion with a rolling pin (making sure the dough stays slightly below room temperature-between 68 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit*). Grease the bottom of a 10-inch pie pan. Line the pan with the rolled-out portion of dough and weigh down with dried beans. Place in the oven for 15 minutes.
  7. Roll out the second portion of dough. Take the bottom pie crust out of the onion and remove the dried beans. Spoon the stewed beef over the partially-baked pie crust. When done, cover up the stew with the second dough portion. Join the top and bottom dough portions at the edges and crimp with a fork.
  8. Place the pie in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  9. Take pie out of the oven (dough should be crisp) and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

ENJOY!

*You can ensure the pie dough remains at a cooler temperature than the room by refrigerating the rolling pin or placing a bag of ice cubes on the rolling surface.

If We are Serious about Fighting Climate Change, We should not Bail-out the Airlines

The COVID-19 outbreak has crippled the US airline industry. A precipitous decline in travel demand has forced carriers to cut flights by 40 percent. A temporary national shutdown of air travel may be the only way for the aviation industry to stop hemorraghing money.

In the grandest of (American) corporate traditions, the airlines are now lobbying the federal government for money, a “bail-out” to put it bluntly.

With Democrats and Republicans apparently nearing a deal on the Coronavirus stimulus package, it looks like the airlines’ request will be granted (an exact amount has not been specified yet).

The airlines’ collapse has taken a tremendous economic toll across the country. At Philadelphia International Airport, more than 1,000 workers have been laid off since last Wednesday. A total shutdown would put as many as 750,000 airline employees out of work.

And yet, helping aviation workers is not the same as helping airlines.

Its not just that airlines have squandered the last decade’s profits on stock buybacks and executive bonuses (rather than improving worker pay). Airlines have a hefty carbon footprint.

Air travel is by far the most polluting means of transport. According to the BBC, a short-haul flight emits 154 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, triple the emissions per passenger traveling in a four-person vehicle. Collectively, commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018, more than the sixth-heaviest polluting nation, Germany.

Almost one-quarter of global aviation emissions came from flights originating in the United States (two-thirds of which came from domestic flights).

The Democratic draft bill circulating in the House would require airlines to reduce Carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050–and have the government buy out old, less fuel-efficient jets–as a precondition for $50 billion aid.

Yet with much of the planet having burned the last few years (and countries obligated to limit temperature increases under the Paris Climate Accord), even this target seems to modest.

The airline industry’s failure provides a once-in-a-life-time to go big for the planet. Emulating Greta Thunberg, we can take radical steps to support airline industry workers while phasing out jet-fueled aviation technology once and for all.

The federal government can do this through the following steps:

  1. Let the airlines collapse. The government could potentially buy up the aircraft.
  2. Provide a separate stimulus package for airline industry workers (could also carry over to cruise industry) by paying pre-layoff monthly wages, up to $60-75K per year.
  3. Invest stimulus money in development of a National High-Speed Rail Network.
  4. Also invest in research into sustainable aviation technology (e.g. electric aircraft) and long-distance maritime travel (e.g. hydrofoils).
  5. Give airline workers priority in hiring for new high-speed rail or sustainable long-distance air/sea travel services.
Navy Hydrofoil or Hovercraft. Hydrofoils “float” above the water, reducing drag and increasing speeds relative to conventional boats.

When the economy recovers, companies might regroup, or the government could (if it bought up aircraft) establish its own airline. But an interconnected high-speed rail network would reduce air travel demand on short-haul domestic routes, where air travel is the least carbon efficient. Airlines would be compelled to focus on long-haul international routes, whose higher fuel costs would increase the incentive to develop sustainable technology.

Democracy in a Time of Crisis: Part II

Nearly a month ago, I pondered whether democratic governments could respond to COVID-19 as effectively as authoritarian China. I hypothesized that democratic governments are better equipped to handle COVID-19 due to public feedback mechanisms (like voting and free speech) and their prioritization of public welfare, but may still be handicapped by public misinformation and interest group politics.

Now, with much of the world shut down by the virus, my hypothesis seems to be bearing out.

The US and European democracies have largely failed to contain the outbreaks. Underestimation of the virus’ risk (by politicians as much as the general public) and misinformation by right-wing partisans (following President Trump’s talking points) led “western” leaders to ignore the virus’ spread within their borders, until it was too late to contain or mitigate an outbreak.

By contrast, East Asian industrial democracies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have led the way in preventing or containing the virus’ spread.

In stark contrast to the authoritarian mainland, Democratic Taiwan swiftly took action following the first reports of the virus in Wuhan.

In December 2019, Taiwan authorities began screening passengers on every flight arriving from Wuhan. Taiwan soon followed up by enforcing two-week quarantines of passengers arriving from infected countries using mobile tracking devices. Partitions in schools and cafeterias and universal mask-wearing ensured that social distancing was maintained without shutting down the economy. The government nationalized private factories to ramp up mask production, while simultaneously rationing distribution, to ensure an adequate supply for the nation’s citizenry.

Taiwan currently has only 169 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while the US has over 24,000.

Taiwan Metro Commuters wearing face masks. Source: ChannelNewsAsia

Unlike Taiwan, South Korea, had a large outbreak of COVID-19 in February, with more than 8,000 cases by the end of the month. But through aggressive testing and quarantine measures, the country brought the outbreak under control, with little growth in cases in the last two weeks. Like Taiwan, South Korea has used cell phone tracking to monitor the movement and location of confirmed COVID-19 patients.

In both countries, governments have fought COVID-19 by partially infringing on certain citizens’ privacy and property rights. But they have done so in a trustworthy manner (e.g. Taiwan’s cell phone monitoring program is authorized solely for public health purposes) and with the support of their populations.

At the same time, Taiwanese authorities have been remarkably open in sharing case data with the public. Coherent messaging and $100K fines on fake news facilitate public trust in the authorities.

Democracies do respond swiftly to crises-when citizenry are willing to make a few sacrifices for the common good, and when governments earn citizens’ trust through honest and effective communication.

A democratic government with the capacity and desire to maintain its citizens’ safety will contain the crisis and marshal popular support.

Contrast that with the response of President Trump, the first true “authoritarian” president of the United States.

First he denied the pandemic, then he downplayed it (hoping to preserve a facade of stock market growth), and finally–once it was too problematic to ignore–he declared war, while blatantly lying about the previous cover-up.

Source: Flickr

Authoritarian states can’t protect us. They only give a &#@ck about their own survival.

Coronavirus Lockdown Menu

Part of HomeBar: Food and Drink Tips to Survive Social Distancing.

Two days ago, Governor Newsom issued a “stay-at-home” order to combat the COVID 19 epidemic here in California. Similar orders have been issued in Illinois, New York and Connecticut and will likely come to other states soon.

These orders have forced all “non-essential” businesses, including dine-in restaurants and bars, to close.

While grocery stores are exempt, their supply chains are squeezed to the limit on many staple foodstuffs. Plus, crowded grocery stores are great places to get infected.

As the outbreak worsens over the next few months, I will try to avoid grocery shopping as much as possible.

To that extent, I have come up with a weekly menus to ensure the food in my pantry lasts for about three months.

I conducted an inventory of my fridge, freezer and pantry last Sunday, after I completed my final round of grocery shopping. I revised the inventory earlier today to account for some deliveries my family received this week. The following food items were in abundant supply:

  • Proteins
    • 10 (14 oz) Tofu blocks
    • 10 (15 oz) cans of Kidney Beans
    • 10 (15 oz) cans of Black Beans
    • 5 lbs of Chuck Meat
    • 3 (14 oz) “meatless” soy meat
    • Four packages of deli-style sliced Turkey (9 slices per package)
    • Four cartons of (12) eggs
    • 5 cans (5 oz), tuna
    • 5 cans (5 oz), salmon
  • Starches
    • 9 (1 lb) boxes of pasta
    • 1 1/2 (2 lb) bags of basmati rice
    • 1/2 (10 lb) bag of Botan short-grained rice
    • 3 (8 oz) boxes of couscous
    • 1 1/2 (1 lb) bags of quinoa
    • 17 whole Sweet potatoes (12-13 lbs)
    • 12 Yukon Gold Potatoes
    • 3 large Russet Potatoes
    • 2 packages of tortillas (1 large,1 medium)
  • Vegetables
    • 12 (16 to 24 oz) bags of frozen vegetables
    • 17 (15 oz) cans of canned vegetables
  • Other:
    • Cereal and Yogurt
    • About 10 packages of Cheese: 2 large (32 oz), 1 medium (16 oz) and the rest small (8 oz)
    • Sauces:
      • 2 pasta sauces
      • 2 Salsas (about 15 servings each)
      • 2.5 cans of coconut milk
      • 1 Tikka Masala Sauce
      • 1 Soy Sauce
    • Spices
    • Baking essentials (e.g. flour, butter, sugar)
    • 7 frozen meals
Cans in my kitchen:)

I will be feeding my mother and myself with these staples.

Based on personal experience, my supplies of black beans, kidney beans, meatless meat, and tofu, will each give me 10 main courses.

The pasta supports more than 10 meals (1 box=1.5 to 2 meals, so about 15 to 20 meals), and the rice supports a little less (One 2 pound bag of basmati rice yields about 4 cups or 6 meals give or take. It looks that there is about 1 meal worth in the partially-open basmati bag and three meals worth in the short-grain rice container). The couscous and quinoa (about 5 to 6 meals each) extend the number of side dishes I can cook. The copious potatoes can feature in both side dishes and main courses.

As for vegetables, a 16-ounce bag of frozen peas can currently complement as many as 10 meals, so I might be able to make ’em last me a year.

Accordingly, I can forego shopping/deliveries for 10 weeks by sticking to the following menu.

  • Monday
    • Lunch: Open-faced tuna, salmon or turkey/chicken (2 slices) melt sandwich
    • Pasta with tomato or cream sauce, and vegetables
  • Tuesday
    • Lunch: Open-faced fish/turkey melt (2 slices) or pan-fried vegetables+”meatless meat” with left-over pasta
    • Dinner: Kidney Bean/vegetable stew with quinoa/couscous/rice* or sweet potatoes (Start with former and move on to latter as supplies dwindle)
  • Wednesday:
    • Lunch: Black Bean Patties for hump day!
    • Dinner: Leftover stew (tends to make more food) with a new side (quinoa, couscous, rice or potato)
  • Thursday:
    • Lunch: Second day of black bean patties.
    • Dinner: Vegetable Stew/Curry with either Tofu or Potato (Tikka Masala Sauce/Spices and Coconut Milk or Salsa: make enough for two)
  • Friday
    • Lunch: Treat yourself! Toaster oven pizza, frozen meal
    • Dinner: Round 2 on Thursday’s dinner
  • Saturday
    • Lunch: Weekend lunches are kinda TBD. Might push out breakfasts later to reduce consumption (bread slice with peanut butter+cereal+yogurt)
    • Dinner: Meatless Meat Quesadillas (1 large tortilla or 2 medium tortillas per person) with rice/potato as side.
  • Sunday
    • Lunch: See above
    • Dinner: Pasta (same options as Monday)

For weekday breakfasts, I’m sticking to yogurt (have about 6 weeks supply right now) and cereal (1 year’s supply).

I haven’t started the menu yet (I had takeout earlier this week, with leftovers lasting a few days). I will likely change up the days on which I cook particular dishes (e.g. black bean patties earlier in the week and deli meat later), based on my work schedule, how I’m feeling, etc. But I intend to primarily revolve among the set of dishes laid out above.

I will keep everyone posted on how it goes.

How are you planning to conserve food throughout the COVID 19 lockdowns?

Share your menu/recipe suggestions below!

*My mother doesn’t eat quinoa, so I would have to make a second side to accompany the main course.

Lockdown Reads

With the country on shutdown for the next few weeks or more, this blog is shifting gears a bit. I am going to publish two series of articles (in weekly episodic installments). The first, Viral Nation, discusses how our country and social norms got us into this clusterf*#k (re: pandemic), and what we can learn for dealing with future crises. The second, HomeBar, will introduce drinks you can make (with ingredients easily available!) while locked up at home. Stay tuned for new articles:)

And remember. At Entrepot, no topic is off the table (provide I have the time and means to research).

So….let me know if you have any questions or ideas!