kansas city

Flash Fiction: My First Noir

Fiction — writing fiction, that is — has never worked very well for me. This year I’ve been making another run at it. In the crevices around the larger project and a few smaller ones I’ve managed to turn out one story still in progress, one story that felt done enough to submit just recently, and a piece of flash fiction that editors at Akashic Books were kind enough to include the other day in their online series Mondays Are Murder. Akashic is the house that published Kansas City Noir, the fiction collection I edited featuring 14 writers, in 2012. My story here (follow the link) is in Akashic’s Noir anthology style, set in a specific place (Midtown Kansas City). Locals may well recognize the opening setting, daytime in Milton’s Tap Room. And squeamish readers might be aware there’s a NSFW moment near the, uh, climax.

http://www.akashicbooks.com/blue-is-the-color-of-night-by-steve-paul/

From the Archives: Checking Out of Reality TV and Into a Folk Alliance Weekend

The Folk Alliance International conference is coming up again in Kansas City. For four glorious days in February I plan to immerse myself in a mind-blowing kaleidoscope of musical experiences. This will be the fifth and last (for now) KC conference, and I can hardly wait. I was poking around in search for something this morning when I came across the following, a quasi-political column that I wrote on the verge of Folk Alliance in 2016 and as that horrendous presidential campaign year was unfolding. I don't think I knew at the time that I'd be retiring just a month or so later. This column first appeared at kansascity.com and The Kansas City Star on Feb. 19-20, 2016. Sorry if it takes you back to a scary place.

"Steve Paul: To quote a sage, this land is your land"

By the time you read this I expect to be in the midst of a lost weekend. Yes, I suffer from an uncontrollable addiction — to music — a condition that has been exacerbated by the annual influx of song slingers and guitar players who gather at the Crown Center hotels in Kansas City for the Folk Alliance International conference.

I’ll spare you some of the high points of lyrical heartbreak, dextrous finger-picking and free-form, nocturnal goings-on of the “folk tribe” to which I pay tribute.

But I will thank the organizers for providing a timely and immersive break from that other tribal ritual consuming so much air space these days. Most of the music-making has taken place out of range of any 24/7 news coverage of the presidential campaign, and I’m happy even to give up glancing at my Twitter feed for at least an hour or two at a time.

That’s not to say this presidential campaign has unfolded without a certain entertainment value. But, Donald Trump in a pissing match with the pope? Who could have seen that coming?

Speaking of torture, the results from two more contests will be flowing into our screens this weekend. It has been difficult to sense any shift from recent trends in momentum, which has the leading candidates of both parties locked in unexpectedly close and death-to-the-finish battles.

If we’re lucky, the Republicans could lose a candidate or two after this weekend’s results. (When exactly will Ben Carson get the message that, aside from not having a clue, he doesn’t have a chance?)

As the GOP field narrows, it won’t be quite so easy for Trump to dominate in the race for committed convention delegates. With fewer candidates in the mix, runners up will have a better chance to reach voting thresholds (often 15 or 20 percent) that will allow them to land apportioned delegates.

So the acid-drenched battle, primarily between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for second and even third place will mean more as the race churns through the Super Tuesday contests (March 1), Michigan (March 8) and a group of meaningful primaries in the middle of March.

Among the Democrats, it’s fair to ask the Hillary Clinton camp exactly when and where did they miss the signal that Bernie Sanders was riding forth on an express train.

Did anyone expect that Nevada, with its large Latino and union factions, would wind up neck and neck? It’s quite reasonable to suggest that Sanders’ message of income inequality resonates in a place that is so much defined by the haves and have nots and so largely populated by those who toil to serve the wealthy.

Clinton’s baggage remains heavy, though a majority of Democrats still view her as the party’s best chance to defeat whichever contorted Republican survives his party’s offensive demolition derby because, of course, no candidate is ever perfect and no politician is ever an angel.

Sanders’ appeal to the idealism and rebellion of youth (and many of their feel-the-Bern elders) will be a strong storyline when the history of this presidential campaign is written. So will the utterly surreal and weirdly American story of Trump, no matter what happens in the coming months.

I’m looking forward to dropping out for a couple of days. It might feel something like having a real life, not a constant loop of polling updates, attack ads, verbal inanities and solemn dissection of all of the above. I’ll miss the Sunday morning shows. I’ll take the news in small doses.

Maybe I will think a bit about Nevada this weekend, given that I’ll be holed up inside a hotel where time will stand still and machinations of the outside world will hardly penetrate. Just like Vegas, that is. But for this weekend at least I’m hanging my hat with the music makers. And if there’s any justice in this world, they are the ones who will inherit the earth.

This food thing: A sweet and melancholy affair

I have a large appetite. Food is not just nutrition but celebration. And life is too short to eat boring food, just as it’s too short to drink unremarkable wine. So I splurge sometimes. I cook with focus, adventure and a kind of subdued passion. I go for new tastes.

Yet, lately, I tend to eat less. Call it diabetes discipline. That’s optimistic. The numbers are good, though my liver would tend to disagree. Still, if tempted with a whole roasted fish or an oozing burrata with smoked trout roe, I’m all over it, at least for a few bites. Turns out that a heaping plate of crispy beef from a local, old-reliable Chinese restaurant can remain the centerpiece of four leftover lunches. I mean, why stuff yourself?

These thoughts began arising as I read a new collection of the late Jim Harrison’s food-and-life essays. The book’s title, A Really Big Lunch, refers to a spectacularly excessive, 37-course feast (or was it 42?) put on by a French chef and friend of Harrison’s. Even Harrison, whose appetites clearly were larger than mine, felt overwhelmed, almost defeated at one point. Harrison holds nothing back as a writer, and some readers might be turned off by his lecherous confessions and old-school impropriety (the essays reach as far back as the 1970s). But looking past all that, which, in the current sexual-harassment environment, becomes admittedly harder to do, he has wise and entertaining things to say about food and wine. I plan to cherry-pick some of Harrison’s wine writing for a paper I’m planning to give at a Hemingway conference, in Paris, in 2018. And imagine my surprise when I realized recently that in my modest collection of bottles I’ve got a Domaine Tempier Bandol from a few years back, which apparently was Harrison’s favorite wine in the world.

So, food, wine and cooking. From time to time I pay attention to the appetites.

On a fall Saturday, with nothing much else going on, I turned some of the last of our yard tomatoes into a marinara. They were not lovely orbs. They weren’t even deeply red, but they would do for a kitchen improvisation. It took a while in boiling water to loosen their skins, but when that was done I set them aside to cool. Chopped onions and garlic and the last of some baby carrots in the fridge. I was hoping to add tomato paste to the simmering stew, to add some color and heft, but alas I could find none on the shelf. Here’s a suitable substitute: a small jar of prepared tapenade; hmm, red peppers, some kind of cheese, why not? The tapenade turned the marinara a bit orange, but with salt, pepper and dried herbs, it all tasted pretty fine nearly two hours later when I turned off the burner. I put some of the marinara in a bag to freeze, and held out a good portion to eat the next day.

One Sunday, we found some frozen lamb chops in the freezer. I chopped onion and garlic. I opened a red wine (a mass market red Zinfandel) and a jar of vegetable stock I’d made around Thanksgiving. Ta da: braised lamb, with little potatoes and carrots. We ate lamb chops for days.

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As a onetime restaurant critic, my radar remains fairly well tuned when we go out to eat. Yet, I failed myself on a recent trip to Toronto. Though I managed to sample a decent variety of tastes in a couple of days – pub food, tapas at a trendy Sherry bar -- I missed the hugely important world of alluring Asian cuisines that seem to define dining in that capital of cultural diversity. Next time, for sure. A recent trip to Atlanta gave us a sampling of that city’s burgeoning fine-dining scene, though we barely scratched the surface. In Boston this fall, at the Neptune Oyster Bar (pictured), I managed to consume some of the finest oysters on the half shell I’d ever met. In Kansas City, I’ve sampled a couple of promising new restaurants lately and always find pleasure and creativity when returning to old favorites (Novel, the Rieger, the Antler Room, to name just three). And I had one of the best meals of the year when birthday splurging in Corvino’s Tasting Room (details in a previous blog). But I always have to remind myself that some of the other best meals of the year occurred in domestic settings: A humbly generous and bustling family meal around an extended kitchen table at the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico; an intimate and poignant Thanksgiving tribute with family members of a close friend who had died just the week before.

With the holidays in full swing, I expect much feasting ahead, some of it happy, some, so it goes, melancholy. The warmth of the kitchen, the clink of glasses, all that love on our plates – sure, we can’t help but feel grateful for what we have.

What's that wine in your glass?

Doug Frost is a bona fide treasure in the wine world. As a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier -- that's an extremely rare combination of achievements -- he's got highly developed senses and a brilliant way of teaching the intricacies and boosting the pleasures of this life-affirming liquid. On Monday he joined the Gang of Pour group of Kansas City somms and restaurateurs (and somewhat educated observer-participants such as me) for a session on blind tasting. In blind tastings, of course, wine bottles remain in brown paper bags or otherwise hidden and tasters try to figure out what's in the glass. It ain't easy, but Doug has a way of making it logical and breaking it down to the elements that help you learn your way.

The Gang of Pour sessions now meet every two weeks at the lovely Ca Va bubbles spot in Westport and are open to KC bar professionals. This one was illuminating, exhilarating and rather difficult. Future sessions, led by a variety of wine pros, promise to be equally enjoyable.

Doug follows a consistent procedure, tied to the grid sheets used in sommelier certification exams. So we go through a fairly specific list of wine characteristics (color, hue, intensity, aromas, tastes, structural qualities) in order to get to a logical place in identifying each wine. Describe the floral and vegetal notes. Is this a warm climate wine or a cool climate wine? And why? How do you describe the levels of acid, tannin, and alcohol -- low, moderate, moderate-plus or high?

Doug spent a good part of the first hour of the session walking through each incremental step as it applied to a certain white wine. Then my classmates (about 20 of us) and I blasted through five more wines -- a second white and four reds -- having about four minutes each to make our IDs. For the record, I was mostly humbled, though I felt fairly good about some of my sensory responses, especially in analyzing structure. In the end, I did nail two of the six wines: an Australian Shiraz and a New World Pinot Noir (it was from New Zealand, but I couldn't get past New World, though probably would have landed on Oregon instead).

I've been learning from Doug for more than 20 years. He is not only incredibly on top of everything, he's got a great sense of humor, he's brutally frank, and he's totally committed to making wine drinking both fun and rewarding.