The Caliphate of Méxifornia

The name — to echo our politicians for a moment — of the Great State of California was invented in the early 1500’s by a Spanish author named García Ordóñez de Montalvo.  This fictional California was an island off the coast of Asia; the setting for his popular “gentlemen’s novel” Las Sergas de Esplandián (pub. 1510).  As in modern-day rap videos, Montalvo’s California was populated exclusively by nubile black women possessed of “beautiful and robust bodies” who wield lots of gold weapons and accessories.  It’s name combined the exotic concept of a middle eastern caliphate (خلافة) with, rather unsubtly, sexual gratification (-fornia).  “En toda la isla,” he wrote, “no había otro metal que el oro!” (“On all the island there was no other metal than gold!”).

The Island of California (1638)

The Island of California (1638)

It was such fabulous rumors of gold — and of similarly inclined women — that drove Spanish explorers Hernán Cortés and Francisco de Ulloa to sail the western edge of the American continent in 1530.  The Viceroyalty of New Spain planned to find (and loot) what it hoped would be the Seven Cities of Cibola. In a PR move equal to modern venture capital, the Viceroyalty optimistically named the land it found after the island in Montalvo’s then-familiar book. California, now our “Golden State,” is the only US state whose name derives from fiction.

And so it began: California as the provider of fables and fictions for the Western world.  Westward migrations came in waves: gold rushes, a great drought, and so many individual dreams.  Each changed the complexion of the state.  Through it all, the usual folks managed to hold power, and Hollywood told their stories.  Those tales rendered each decade mostly in white, and always in English.  But California’s future, like the fantasy that gave it birth, promises, finally, to be a fabulous tale told in Spanish.

Today, on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco (the epicenter, if you will, of America’s food culture, and an export factory for hipster trends), the State name has evolved.  Various neologisms, each rich with meaning, and with factional adherents, challenge the past and predict the future of the state: “Mexifornia”, “Calexico”, “Amexica”, and, above all, a celebrated new meta-region emblazoned on t-shirts, graffiti-muraled walls, and flung, often, like a challenge: “Califaztlán.”

Califaztlán is a portmanteau in the literal sense, packed with meanings and syllables.  The idea is that a pre-Colombian Aztec(ish) empire had encompassed what is now California, Arizona, Texas, and México.  Tlán is the Aztec-language word for “place of,” and the usual suffix of Aztec city names.  “Califaztlán” packs in the idea that present-day northward migration of Mexican culture, itself a mix of the Spanish and pre-Columbian, is accomplishing a re-colonization the United States.

califaztlanThe far — and it has been alleged, race-baiting — political right originally came up with the words “Mexifornia” and “Amexica” in an attempt to entrance listeners, in the way Nancy Grace might with stories of an innocent girl’s kidnap and murder.  But Californians have made carne asada out of red talk-radio meat, embracing the x-words and featuring them on menus, clothing, cocktails, and in everyday conversation.  (As earlier gay activists did to defuse terms like “queer”)  The newfound banality of, say, “Mexifornia,” is encouraging the more fabulous constructions like Califaztlán and the handier “Aztlán” — both too high-concept a mouthful to rile the God-and-guns set.  So right-wing pundits have fallen back, of late, to another odd-sounding name that also packages immediacy, geography, and listener-fear in a few neat syllables:  NAFTA.

It is this inexorability of free movement that scares (or delights).  Imbalances no longer hold up the way they used to.  The mechanisms of information have become too accessible, fluid, transparent.  And so into the controlled vacuum of the North, a delicious chaos rushes in.  The social internet reveals much, and informs the otherwise excluded.  It offers alternatives to the tropes that have flowed from media formula-factories.  Real people appear on YouTube and Facebook, living real lives.  They now appear on the other and long-curated screens:  coupled, well-adjusted gays; unaccented latinos; blacks that do not so oddly live in Brooklyn Heights or Bel-Air.  (And, the downside: exploitative scripted-“reality” shows that conflate new transparency and old stereotypes.)

106555101_route-66-authentic-sign--mexifornia-us-1-18-gauge-steel-The fact is that the energy of California that is now, to be charitable to its traditional custodians, at least bi-lingual, radiates in every color.  The transparency we have achieved (technologically, socially) has made that impossible to hide, and so, difficult to misrepresent.  The team that won this years World Series is as much Los Gigantes as The San Francisco Giants, Los Niners (as they are known here) seem poised to win the nation’s Super Bowl.  The state’s nearly $2 trillion annual economy accounts for about 13 percent of US the economic activity.  And 75% of California’s infants are non-white.

As anyone with a catalytic converter might realize, there is, by now, some acknowledgement that what happens in California is inevitable for the rest of the nation.  And so we see the national rush to include those who, in California, are already included.  The elite who plan to thrive in the new United States are leading the charge.  In other groups, we see the resolve to entrench, to resist: the ex-New Yorker McMansion retirement communities of Arizona; the patrician networks of Boston; Wall Street; those for whom aspirational and racial are linked.  There is, of course, no future in such isolationism.  But these groups don’t care.  They hope to preserve wealth and privilege for their expected life, and they underestimate the speed of change.

In the meantime, the West roars ahead with advances in culture, technology, automotives, music, medicine, politics, film, cuisine, and, above all, social structure.  The Califaztlán, if you will, of the future is not multicultural — that old saw of a term that meant static groups co-existing in harmony — but rather a single fast-moving culture-liquid into which various traditions flow.  African-American Oaklanders may not speak Spanish (yet), but they unconsciously roll the ‘r’ in taquería as, well, everyone will.  Asian mayors have become common.  Gay shibboleths are out of closet and on late-night comedy shows.

The fluidity of this cultural recombination amounts to real intellectual capital, and it contributes the the quirky innovations that characterize the west coast: internet startups, self-driving electric cars, a dazzling culinary scene.

The traditional economy used to be dictated by financial capital.  It took lots of money to get a random idea built into a product/service/movie, and then lots more marketing money to bombard people with ads to get them to buy the often lousy result.  (This is the system that gave us the processed food of the 1990s, AOL, and Donald Trump.)

LouDobbsFinancial centers in New York and Boston pushed this scheme to ever more exotic abstractions, products became utterly divorced from utility, until finally, the finance system itself imploded in 2008.  Today, product launches are modest, sales and social media say yay-or-nay, and failures are caught early.  The West Coast is used to this model — they’ve been producing software for decades.  And people here are poised to create products and set the trends for a changing American demographic.  They are living in the place where demography already changed.  Ideas spring from a culture with less bias and more meritocracy.  Yes, some initial money is necessary, so crowdsourced alternatives like Kickstarter are steping in, kicking the traditional moneymen out of the innovation temple.

For all the marvelous glitter of the West, much of it also turns out to be gold.  There is an energy and and magic to life out here, as perhaps there always has been.  It seems obvious, as it did to Cortés and Ulloa, that the future, the treasure, and the best of life will be here — whatever you call the land.  And it is, at last, spreading East.

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On Chicken Piccata


Bucatini is a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a tiny hole in the center.

There are lots of ways to ruin (or just complicate) chicken piccata: garlic, white wine, or peperoncino (red pepper flakes) to name a few.

The word piccata in Italian means an irritation or offense, and such ingredients can do just that to this subtle dish. Nowadays in Italy, the word piccata has also come to reference the dish, there usually made with veal.   To me the most appealing of the word’s purported origins is as an Italianization of the French piqué, meaning something like “stung” in English, a possible reference to the unexpected (and delightful) bite of the lemon when the dish is made properly.

It is part of the magic of a blog that when readers write in, you can add to the post and blithely fail to credit the commenter (sorry Stephen M.).  So it goes in this paragraph, where I now (and newly) mention the occasionally served menu-pun “chicken peccata mundi,” a dish so good it purports to take away the sins of the world.  It apparently does at Angelina’s Restaurant in West Seattle.  Yes Angel-ina’s.   Hopefully there is never a lamb version.

As for the secular chicken piccata, here’s how to do it right.  I developed this recipe from my mother’s version, which involves few measurements but is, of course, excellent.

Recipe: Chicken Piccata with Bucatini

Summary: The best version of an Italian-American classic.


  • 1 pound organic, boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded to 1/2 inch flat
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup capers (preferably nonpareil), rinsed
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon corn starch
  • 1/2 pound imported Italian bucatini (pasta)
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper, freshly ground
  • Semolina flour (sufficient to dredge chicken)


  1. Cook the bucatini in plenty of salted water, about 10 minutes (or as directed on the package). Set aside.
  2. Salt and pepper the flattened chicken thighs to taste, and dredge in semolina flour.
  3. Heat the olive oil and butter a large, deep skillet (say, 14 inches x 3 inches) over medium high heat until the butter has melted.
  4. Place the chicken thighs in the pan, and cook 3 minutes or until one side is brown. Lower the heat to medium high.
  5. Turn the chicken in the pan, and brown the other side (about 3 minutes).
  6. Remove the chicken, and set aside.
  7. Pour half the liquid (chicken stock and lemon juice) into the pan. Deglaze (scrape all the browned bits into the liquid) for one minute.
  8. Add the rest of the liquid, the cherry tomatoes, and the capers. Reduce the liquid for about 5 minutes, until somewhat thick.  Add a bit of the corn starch for thickness if desired.
  9. Turn the heat up to high.  Add the pasta to the pan, and stir or toss with tongs for 3 minutes.
  10. Turn off the heat, add the parsley and give a quick stir.  Serve with a good, dry white wine.

Preparation time: 15 minutesCooking time: 15 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 3

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

The latest zombie books

George Calderon's "Tahiti"

The opening page of the 1921 printing

George Calderon, a respected author and translator of the day, was already in his forties when World War One broke out.  He volunteered to fight for England anyway because, as (modern day) Boston University professor James Anderson Winn wrote he had a “strong sense of obligation”.  The numerous elegies written by his contemporaries seem to indicate he was also a pretty popular guy in scholarly and other circles.  As you read the elegies, some, to modern ears, seem to verge on adoration.

Calderon was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.  He left behind a book he had nearly finished — a brilliant narrative detailing his visit to Tahiti (the book is out of copyright, and can be downloaded is various formats).  For at least five years, I have been looking for an actual copy of the book, out of print since, I think, the 1920s.

Copies of “Tahiti” showed up occasionally on eBay and book sites for around $350, often in only fair condition.  I created various search agents to notify me should the price drop.  And, recently, boy did it.  Amazon, Powell’s, basically everyone suddenly had copies at around $15.  Lots of copies.  Of course I bought one without asking any questions.

The copy of the book is truly a copy. The so-called “print on demand” version.

When the book arrived, I (carefully) tore open the packing to find a simulacrum of the book.  The typeface is old, the drawings faded, the cover image imperfect.  But the paper is perfect: brilliant white, utterly new and undamaged.  The book is a bound photocopy.  The cover, all the images, and the “printed” pages are all from scans (uncorrected scans, many are too-light) of one of the $350 copies I thought I was getting at a bargain.

Even the size of the book is off.  It’s obviously taller and wider than Calderon’s “Tahiti”, and each page sits surrounded by a moat a while space.  The blank books, before they are printed, are apparently designed to accommodate images of books up to a certain size.

Various “print-on-demand” companies are now specializing in creating these ghosts of books past.  At some book stores, such as the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a print-on-demand machine is there waiting for your order.  If the book it “out of stock”, as it would be if it were last printed in 1922, you can have it print you a copy.

The odd and feeling of holding such a book in your hand makes an e-reader seem warm and fuzzy.  The book was obviously scanned by machine, does not fit well on its too-new paper, and is stiffer than you would expect even from a new hardcover.

Worse, it plays with your expectations.  In this case, I expected an actual book, not some zombie-resurrection of Calderon.  But even in the case where you are prepared for the xeroxbook, it serves only as a constant reminder, with each page, that it is not the book.

At least the e-reader doesn’t pretend.  It’s not trying to be a book.  And now I appreciate that all the more.

Aldo Buzzi, l’Imprevisto

His writing is something to savor and enjoy, paragraph by paragraph, as you move from the subject he is ostensibly writing about, to all manner of related history, personal asides, and truths of life and culture.

Aldo Buzzi (pronounced “Boot-see”) is an urbane raconteur whose slim, brilliant volumes are mostly available only in Italian.  His books are sometimes classified — as booksellers and marketers are wont to do — as “food writing” or “travel writing”, but the brilliance of the prose — witty, arch, breezily erudite, and very funny — winds up transcending these genres.

Three have been translated into English: The Perfect Egg in 2005, (L’uovo alla kok, 1979), Journey to the Land of the Flies in 1996 (Viaggio in Terra de mosche e altri viaggi, 1994), and A Weakness for Almost Everything in 2006 (Un debole per quasi tutto, 2006) .

Oddly, and inspirationally, Buzzi’s wrote his first book, Quando la pantera rugge, at age 62.  He was first published in English when the New Yorker magazine ran his (long) short story Chekov in Sondrio in 1992.  Buzzi was then 82.

For the first 60 years of his life, Buzzi was set designer, costume designer, and, occasionally, on the scriptwriting team for various movies, mostly with director Alberto Latuada, and, early on, with Federico Fellini.  Trying to find the rather obscure films on which he has writing credit, most notably (if you are an Italian film buff) L’imprevisto (The Unexpected, 1961), is impossible in the US.

The reportedly quirky documentary he directed and co-wrote, America Pagana (1995) promises “a mystical journey to the land of the feathered serpent” — Mayan Mexico.  [If any reader has access to a copy of this documentary, please e-mail me.]

Aldo Buzzi passed away last October (2009) at age 99.  In Parliamo d’Altro he wrote:

“Quello che si prova a 95 anni è quello che si provava anni fa a 85. E quello che si proverà, fra un po’ d’anni, a 105”

“What we try to do at age 95, is what we tried to do at age 85, and what we will be trying to do, a few years later, at age 105.”

Along with a body of marvelous writing, a memorable lesson:  Success is no impediment to trying again.

Adieu LOLCats. Hello “F*** You, Penguin.”

There’s a bit less smiling going on these days, and it seems our taste for cuteness has also gone sour.

Fluffy and playful, the internet’s LOLCats spent the holidays posing for staged photos on the living room floor, mangling toilet paper rolls and the English language. Now copies of the doe-eyed holiday book I Can Haz Cheeseburger fills Borders bargain-bin at $1.98 begging you to it home.

Stocks are down, and we’re taking it out on the kitty. Enter Fuck You, Penguin. A site that unleashes accusatory vitriol on animals we used to think were cute.

Gazelles are “desperate for affection”, the endangered booby a “blue-footed sleaze”, and “overhyped” cranes are “the mortgage-backed securities of the animal world”. In general these animals all conspire to use mindless cuteness to annoy and endanger humans “hop by excruciating hop.”

The creator of the site, a Boston writer who goes by the name of bza, tells me he is under contract to Random House to produce a “F*** You, Penguin” book, using mostly material from the web site, for publication in Fall 2009. If two points make a line, then Cute Overload makes it a trend. Cute Overload tries to be sick of fluffy kitties, F-U-P succeeds — and is much funnier.

Both sites are becoming hugely popular. As of today, F-U Penguin has 11,700 fans on Facebook, about 5000 Twitter followers, and shows strong page visit growth in Alexa.

Look for the book to be a recession best-seller this Christmas.

There will be references

It takes blood, machismo, and a bit of a snarl. Then you have a movie catchphrase that men can rally around. The title of the 2007 Oscar-winning movie “There Will Be Blood” is turning out to be the “Say hello to my little friend” of this decade.

This newish favorite macho-meme assigns a hardcore intensity and cruel severity reminiscent of the ruthless main character, oilman Daniel Plainview, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Let’s take a look at some recent usage just in the New York Times:

Straight usage:

There Will Be Blood” Maureen Dowd on nomination battles between Clinton and Obama (Feb 2008)
There Will Be Blood” Steven Davidoff on ominous signs of an impending financial meltdown (Sept 2008)
There Will Be Blood” Nicholas Kristoff on the ongoing armed conflict in Sudan (Mar 2008)
Extended usage:
There Will Be Blood and Musical Chairs” Stu Hackel’s NYT hockey blog “Slap Shot”
Turn of phrase:
There Will Be Floods” Alex Prud’homme on continuing levee breaches in the New Orleans area.
There Will Be Extravagance” Janet Maslin on Bryan Burrough’s book about Texas oil money (Feb 2009)
There Will Be Bagels” Jennifer Lee in the New York Times on the availability of bagels in Utah.

Jews Kill Yet Another Children’s Show Host in Gaza?

The most popular children’s show in Gaza has a bouncy xylophone-driven soundtrack, but bunnies and other fluffy-fun lead-characters are dying more gruesomely and frequently than on the Sopranos.

The latest casualty is Assud the Bunny, a six-foot-tall smiling pink rabbit with big ears and a dancy gait who wants to “finish off the Jews and eat them“. After a year of teaching numbers, the alphabet, and a bit of debatable Middle East history, Assud the Bunny threw himself in front of an Israeli missile in his final episode yesterday. On his deathbed he invited a little girl in a headscarf to “remember him as a martyr.”

Assud the Bunny is no stranger to tragedy. He took over as host of “Tomorrow’s Pioneers” from his cousin, Nahoul the Bee, who was martyred in February 2008 by starving himself to death in front of millions of adoring viewers and his improbably human on-screen family.

Nahoul the Bee hosted the show for seven months, teaching children, among other things, how to annoy cats by swinging them around by the tail and letting go, and how to rile lions in the Gaza zoo by pelting them with stones.

The first host of the show was Farfour the Mouse, who encouraged children to drink milk and listen to their parents. Farfour also led youngsters on the show in songs about the AK-47 and led in an accompanying dance that included shouldering and firing motions with imaginary rifles.

In his final episode (June 2007), Farfour the Mouse was quite graphically punched/stabbed by actors playing Israeli officials. A young teenage girl appears afterwards and gives a martyr’s eulogy that is part teen-fan and part peer-encouragement.

But its not all fun and games at Gaza children’s television.

After “Tommorrow’s Pioneers,” a stark panel discussion is on. The “panel” is of children ages 9 to 13, and the show is hosted by a calm and smiling adult questioner. He asks questions of the children:

Host:“Do you think its natural to … blow your self up?”
Sabrine (age 17, by phone):“Yes! It’s our right!”

Host:“Martyrdom. Do you think it’s a beautiful thing?”
Walla (age 11, at table):“Yes it’s a beautiful thing. Who wouldn’t yearn for paradise?”

Host:“Would you agree with that?”
Yussra (age 11, at table):“Palestinian youth are not like other youth … they choose martyrdom.”

The children respond in a uniformly excited smiling manner, eager to please the questioner.

Even Fatah (the Palestinian party that control the West Bank of Palestine) has condemned these programs — especially the latter talk show (if parroting dogma can be called talking) that is so obviously and explicitly designed to cause children to believe life is simply an opportunity for a useful death.

Useful to Hamas, that is.