A savory brioche french toast to feed your feelings
“[In western democracy] People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in such post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing citizens from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex foci of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analysed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself.”
-Václav Havel, THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS
I made a database for all my reading on Airtable, there are so many cool ways to organize and tag information. I have already sunk way too much time into this and I now intend to enter my entire library this winter.
Crispy Crust Pizza, Autumn Edition
One of my summer variations of this recipe is available in The Awakening post.
Here, the crust is the same: work 2 tbs of olive oil into 1 1/3 c flour with your fingers, then knead in 1/2 c water, roll out to 1/4″ thick, and brush with olive oil. This time, I’ve used delicata squash rounds, brussels sprouts, thick-cut bacon, and ricotta as my topping. Oil up those veggies as well with some S&P, I also added a little cumin and paprika to the sprouts.
Bake at 400 F for 30 min.
Minty Melon Juice
You shouldn’t make this now. In late September this was a last gasp of summer treat, but everything is well and truly out of season now (because I waited to post this), sorry!
Trust me, I, too, wish sugar cube cantaloupe and tiny, bowling ball-sized watermelons were populating the farmers market. I blended both melons and a fat cucumber with 1 c water, then strained it through a mesh sieve back into the blender, where I added 1/3 c of mint and blended again.
For a short week or two I had the taste of a summer sunset jarred in my refridgerator.
Cheddar Chive Sourdough Popovers
The base recipe for this was sourced from the King Arthur Flour website, but I will take credit for adding cheese: you are welcome.
Warm 1 c of milk until warm to the touch, combine with 3 large eggs, 1/2 sourdough starter, and 3/4 tsp salt. Sift in 1 c of flour last and be careful not to over mix.*
Heat your muffin or popover pan in the oven while it preheats to 450 F, carefully remove and grease before quickly pouring the batter in (fill to the top for muffin pan and nearly to the top for popover) leaving a few empty so the popovers have room to expand.
Top with grated cheddar and chopped chives, bake for 15 min, then reduce heat to 375 F and bake another 15-20.
*They say a few small lumps are okay, but after previous tries of this recipe, I can attest they are gross and will come out as little, dry, dusty pockets).
Cucumber Yogurt Gazpacho (Smitten Kitchen Everyday, Knopf)
Honestly, I was underwhelmed by this lemon-crusted salmon and brussels sprout hash recipe; it was the first time the Short Stack has well and truly let me down. So instead I’m going to focus on my new favorite soup.
Reading the list of ingredients for this a real trip, so I’ll walk you through.
The 2 large cucumbers are seeded, but not necessarily peeled, then chunked and tossed into the blender with 1 c of plain greek yogurt. Then, 1/2 c buttermilk, which takes the previous two ingredients and warps the flavor profile like a tangy funhouse mirror. 2 tbs of white wine vinegar and 1 raw shallot push this tang to its limits, giving it a kind of briny element that really hits the nose. 1/4 c olive oil, 1/4 c mint leaves, and 1/2 tsp of salt moderate and sweeten the forcefulness of the raw shallot, and then right at the end Deb Perelman hits us with the “cayenne, to taste” line: the heat of the spice truly brings this soup together into the hearty, dynamic, and satisfying blend you see before you.
As Deb says, this soup can be stored overnight and the flavor profile will develop, which I love. She dresses and serves more beautifully than I, with slivered almonds and fresh green chiles (which I didn’t have), but I substituted pepitas, shredded more mint and drizzled more olive oil on top, and can attest that the bright pop of green grapes transforms this spicy snack soup into an experience.
“Pizza Beans” with Cauliflower (Smitten Kitchen Everyday)
Another reason to love Deb: bless her for disguising vegetables for the little kid in all of us. I followed this recipe pretty closely, substituting kale for spinach and giant white beans for a measly can of normal-sized cannellini beans. To make up for the difference in volume, I broke down and added half a head of cauliflower, which could have used a little pre-cook perhaps, since they came out a little more structurally intact than anticipated.
Fried Scallops with Spicy Beans, Tomatillo, and Citrus (Nothing Fancy)
A number of other folks have already typed this recipe up, I’m just going to save myself the time.
I am, begrudgingly, a member of the cult of young Brooklynites worshiping at the stovetop of Alison Roman. I’m in the back, rolling my eyes. And my grumpiness is 100% my problem… but I’m still about to indulge it.
Listen, I’m just a Leo trying to learn some fucking modesty, and the fact that even the pros are out here with directions like, “…until the beans have soaked up all that scallop-y business (pictured, left) and are looking impossibly tasty,” makes it damn hard not to be voicey and pandering in my own recipes. Also, I have really grown to hate how some of her recipes are simply titled “The…” whatever. THE dip, THE stew, THE cookies: just because all of your friends know what’s in this already doesn’t mean I enjoy being peer pressured into eating something mysterious, Alison! …Even if it is reliably delicious!
All of this to say, even though I didn’t get a good sear on the scallops and we had lemons instead of limes (not great), it’s just as impossibly tasty as all of her other recipes.
Savory Brioche French Toast with Mushrooms and Spicy Yogurt
I’m obsessed Molly Yeh’s savory french toast from her Short Stack on yogurt – sumac yogurt, pickled red onions, delish – and wanted to try some other flavor profiles for a dish that is, essentially, bread steak for breakfast.
Here, I soaked 2 extremely stale pieces of brioche in 2 eggs and a little cream, sprinkling aged gouda lightly on each side while in the pan over medium heat so that it browns into a crispy cheese shell.
The mushrooms I prepared per Lucy Knisley’s excellent and simple directions in her foodie graphic novel, Relish, fried with equal parts olive oil and butter “until they squeeeak,” I added onion, garlic, about 1 tbs of fresh sage to the pan as well.
Add 1 tbs paprika and 1 tsp cayenne to 1/2 c of plain greek yogurt and garnish with more fresh sage.
The result was a extremely rich and a little greasy, but warming and cheesy enough to make it quality comfort food, the sage and mushrooms giving it the illusion of fanciness.
I imagine there were many white immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, like my Czech grandfather, spoke a variety of European languages they refused pass along to their children or grandchildren in the name of assimilation. Grandpa Masaryk wanted his kids to be McDonalds-eating, road-tripping, cow-tipping Americans; and, so, now, am I.
I’m lucky, many Slovak and Slovene descendents in the midwest maintain some funhouse mirror version of the culinary and cultural traditions of our heritage. Recently, I was salivating over Amy Thielen’s description of the various kinds of Midwestern sausages – bratwurst, especially, I love – in her cookbook The New Midwestern Table. We have a family tradition of attending Polka Night at the Prosperity Social Club in Cleveland the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Frankly, I make more of an effort to be home for their “ethnic platter” of one (1) potato pancake, pierogi, and stuffed cabbage roll (Hungarian or Ukrainian style, your choice) than I do for the turkey, pumpkin pie, etc.
Satiated, perhaps, by the strong culinary presence of our Eastern European culture in my daily life, I’ve never thought much about pursuing the literary tact towards this aspect of my heritage. Still, I’m aware of some thematic consistencies with my own style: a dark senses of humor and world-weary subversiveness. I read Kafka for various school assignments – The Metamorphosis, The Hunger Artist, The Trial – and while my appreciation for him as a writer has grown… my enjoyment has stayed at about the same level of disgruntled recognition. Sometimes it is nice to feel seen when we read; usually though, I prefer a glimpse into other ways of being.
And it is this for which I turned to Václav Havel in this year of our lord 2020.
Published illegally in 1979, Havel’s THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS first circulated the Soviet-controlled Czech Republic in pamphlet form. In it, a hypothetical grocer hangs a sign in his shop window saying “Workers of the World, Unite!” He does not necessarily agree with or even think about this distinctly socialist statement, but passively participating in the cultural and psychosocial milieu of totalitarianism makes it feel easier to endure. Greases the wheels, just a little.
Thus, he perpetuates the “automatism” of a post-totalitarian society. In this case, that society is governed by Soviet socialism. Havel hangs the rest of his dramatic hypotheses and deeply humanist arguments on his definition of this term, “post-totalitarian.” Importantly, post-totalitarian society requires the fearful, passive, anxious, or even nihilistic participation of a majority population in a governmentally enforced status quo that oppresses any individual’s right to “live within the truth.”
He starts with how the success of the Bolshevik revolution has ingrained the gestures and slogans of socialism so deeply into their identity that it became “ideology.” And ideology brooks no skeptics. “Let us take note:” Havel fires off succinctly, “if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth.”
The bitter, weary tone Havel reserves for Marxists contorting themselves into alignment with the soviet state resonates with me as well:
“If living within the truth in the post-totalitarian system becomes the chief breeding ground for independent, alternative political ideas, then all considerations about the nature and future prospects of these ideas must necessarily reflect this moral dimension as a political phenomenon. (And if the revolutionary Marxist belief about morality as a product of the ‘superstructure’ inhibits any of our friends from realizing the full significance of this dimension and, in one way or another, from including it in their view of the world, it is to their own detriment: an anxious fidelity to the postulates of that world view prevents them from properly understanding the mechanisms of their own political influence, thus paradoxically making them what they, as Marxists, so often suspect others of being – victims of a ‘false consciousness.’)”
Considering how much American conservatives hate socialists, I find it grimly funny how similar are the lengths to which they’ll go to protect the narratives they’ve crafted for themselves. Equally, I find the prescriptiveness of white liberals and even leftists patronizing and participatory. Havel, too, is frustrated by this spectrum of hypocrisy.
There are so many moments throughout this essay that feel like they could be written about the Scooby-Doo unmasking of American fascism in 2020: the system’s dependence on the “demoralization” of the populace, the dysfunction of remodeling or reforming old modes, the ode Havel gives to the spirit of dissent. “One thing, however, seems clear,” he says, “the attempt at political reform was not the cause of society’s reawakening, but rather the final outcome of that reawakening.”
The parallels between Havel’s definitions of post-totalitarian oppressions and how they differ from those of classical dictatorship may not seem applicable to American democracy (if you’re white), but I would confidently posit that the “broken” American system of democracy is so deeply, fundamentally built on white supremacy that it qualifies as ideology. While finishing up THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS, I was also working my way through Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s FROM #BLACKLIVESMATTER TO BLACK LIBERATION. Taylor brilliantly and patiently traces the ever-changing face and names of American racism from chattel slavery through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, the war on drugs, up to the current state of the American prison industrial complex.
In the quote at the beginning of this post, Havel characterizes western democracies’ brand of manipulation as “subtle.” Suddenly, the system doesn’t seem so subtle.
The explicit, demented brutality of white supremacy has been forced by colonizing white folks on black and indigenous communities for longer than America has been a thing. It’s only now (as Will Smith famously said) that the media machine can no longer deny the magic mirror quality of social media. People treat the truth subjectively, but a video of a black man being gunned down in front of his keening mother forces all of us who see it to live within the bloody, awful truth BIPOC Americans have borne at our hands the last four hundred-some years. The dysfunction is so evident, neutrality is a choice: in this way, the technological revolution has made greengrocers of us all.
American post-totalitarianism – in which both major political parties have all their stickiest fingers – uses political rhetoric as propaganda to convince white liberals and conservatives that black rights have progressed, while the system still abuses and exploits BIPOC under a new name, slogan, and pearly-white politician’s grin. This helps the liberals sleep better at night and stirs fear amongst the conservatives (especially the white poor) that their interests are falling by the wayside, further stoking racism and exacerbating the cultural divide in our country. Either way, the “automatism” that perpetuates American post-totalitarianism is people of privilege (but particularly white people) buying into the lie of American equality.
It’s not that America is trotting out some shiny new brand of fascism, it’s the same old empty promise from rich white folks to poor white folks, the shine has just worn off enough that not as many of us are buying.
Though it’s readily available on the internet, I wanted a hard copy of POWER OF THE POWERLESS. Just in case… (the US slips farther into open fascism and our internet starts getting restricted… or something). Unfortunately, the only readily available copy on Bookshop.org, Indiebound.com, and Barnes & Noble is $57.95, the digital version not much better. I am conflicted (but not ashamed… I think) to say I bought this $5.47 UK paperback copy from Amazon.
Regardless, you should read it. May it bring you, too, comfort the next time you feel powerless.
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