Wednesday, December 12, 2007

He brought the Delta blues to players,
audiences here
Jerry Ricks, 67, a Philadelphia-born guitarist whose expert finger-picking was a direct link to the Delta blues, died Monday in a clinic in Croatia.

His death was announced by the Croatian Music Union, according to an Associated Press report. He had been living in the Balkan nation since early summer.

In August, Mr. Ricks went to a hospital, complaining of headaches and dizziness. Doctors determined that he had a brain tumor. He underwent repeated surgeries for removal of the nonmalignant growth and for a subsequent infection, his partner of 17 years, Nancy Klein, told The Inquirer in October. At the time, he was making a slow but steady recovery.

Mr. Ricks learned to play guitar from some of the greats as they came through Philadelphia clubs in the 1960s: Josh White, Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGhee, the Rev. Gary Davis, and Skip James. He in turn taught an authentic style of country blues to legions of guitar students in Philadelphia.

"Jerry was not just a wonderful musician - and he was a terrific guitarist - but he was basically a folklorist and a scholar," said the folk singer Mike Miller. "He just became involved in the history of the music and the people who made it."

Over the years, Mr. Ricks moved in and out of Philadelphia to find work, living in the Mississippi Delta, the Jersey Shore and most recently the Croatian coast.

When he recorded, he went by "Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks to distinguish himself from another musician.

Friends of Mr. Ricks' gathered in October to raise money for his medical expenses. The show, which included performances by Shemekia Copeland, David Bromberg and many friends from the Philadelphia folk revival, brought in more than $10,000, organizers said.

"A lot of people at the benefit said they took their first guitar lessons with Jerry," said the folk singer Saul Brody. "There was quite a range - blues bands, many of whom had studied with Jerry and felt he was one of their original influences, and folkies like myself, who were part of that scene and felt a lot of affection for him."

In a 2000 interview with The Inquirer, Mr. Ricks said of his music: "I never tried to walk in my mentors' footsteps. And nobody ever asked me to carry on their legacy after they were gone. I just had an honest relationship with these people and their music, and I followed my nose around."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lynda's "Jersey-Fresh" Latke Recipe

It started when Pearl informed me that she was accepting my invite to our impromptu First Night latke celebration, which has become a part of our life here in Teaneck. 

Before I continue, I want to point out that in this picture I am standing with Sarah, proprietor of Le Sabon (locations in Manhattan and Teaneck), who gave me this adorable Koogle apron. She joined Pearl and me and our tribes for the gathering.

Having clarified all this, let's continue:

Around noon on the first day of Chanuka (which I always forget) I invite the neighbours. It separates the men from the boys in the sense that not everyone is as spontaneous as those of us who show up to the house. We had a pretty decent crowd last night, and there was lots of laughter, music, mass consumption and some imbibement.

Okay, so back to Pearl. She can't eat wheat. So sometime in the recent past I made a special batch of latkes for her that had no flour in them. I made two kinds -- sweet potato, and also the standard 2-cent plain variety. Hers had the taste and consistency of a really nice, homey hash brown. 

This year we decided to forego the flour and only make latkes from local Jersey farm-fresh produce. And voila, the Jersey latke for you to try at home:

5 lb. bag of white or yellow potatoes
3 lb bag of yellow onions
2 tsps. iodized salt per batch
12 eggs
1 bottle of olive oil (preferably extra virgin, and the greener the better)
Three or four large bowls
One roll of paper towels
Spatula and/or kitchen forceps

Turn on NPR and put on your rubber gloves. Lay a large dish towel on the floor in front of your stove. You MUST wear shoes that cover your toes, and do not wear drapey clothes as the spattering oil is a real fire hazard. No joke.
Get out your old grater and one large bowl.
In the sink, fill a second large bowl with warm water, and plop in around 5 lb. of potatoes.
When you are certain they are nice and clean, start grating everything, including the skins. Make sure to turn your potatoes so that the skin gets grated and does not stick to the potato. Five pounds will fit nicely into a large bowl. Optional: dump the grated potatoes into a colander and let it drain in the sink to get the potato juice out. 

Peel three or four onions and slice them in half. Dice into tiny pieces and place in a bowl.

Get out your favourite iron frying pan. Throw out your teflon...did you know that the fumes of your burning teflon pan can kill your canaries and even make you sick? Pour in the olive oil and watch the heat level (I recommend medium high) since this is a heavier oil than the generic crap they've been passing off as vegetable oil down at the supermarket. 

In a separate bowl, take two handfuls of potato gratings and a small handful of onions. Break two eggs into the mess and mix. Cup your hand and throw in enough salt to taste - between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. Do not fear the salt shaker -- that Weight Watchers frozen entree you had today at lunch had at least three times as much salt. When it's all mixed together and a bit wet, take a tablespoon and drop the batter into the hot oil.

Brown both sides well until crispy. Be careful of the spatter. That is why I suggest draining the potatoes. It helps keep spatter to a minimum, but you cannot be careful enough.

Meantime you will take a large plate and cover it with two sheets of paper towels. After you take your latkes out of the pan, you will lay them down on the paper towels just to pat them dry a bit. Make sure to change the towels when they get too greasy and soggy. Serve as they come out. There's nothing worse than a lukewarm or cold latke.

Latkes are best enjoyed with sour cream or that delicious home-made apple sauce that you had prepared earlier in the day. Do I need to tell you how to do that, too? I'll save that for another time.

Tzim gezint! Bon appetite!

Season's Greetings!
Thanks to Paysach Olson for sending this to me. It was too good not to share!

Monday, December 03, 2007

“If you don’t take an interest in politics,
politics will take an interest in you."

Trumped by Traffic Jams

None of my friends knows what to do about the upcoming State Duma elections. Some think that it would be wrong to vote for United Russia since it has turned the campaign into a Soviet-style farce. Others understand that the ruling party’s platform is vague, but they believe that the policies of other parties are even worse. Almost all of my friends who previously voted for Yabloko or the Union of Right Forces are now disappointed by those parties’ leaders and consider them to be marginalized or outright clowns. Some want to vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, either because they are entertained by his scandalous statements or simply because they want to avoid voting for United Russia. Many die-hard anti-Communists are even planning to vote for the Communist Party as a protest vote against United Russia. Still others are planning to deface their ballots or tear them up.

Many people are sick of the elections, perhaps even nauseous. And these are not the people who are typically apolitical in other countries — the poorest and least educated segment of society. In Russia, political indifference is widespread and even fashionable among wealthy people as well as the so-called middle class.

During my call-in radio show, I often wonder whether it makes sense to talk with callers about the elections and politics in general. They find politics boring no matter how it is presented. I have reached the conclusion that they don’t want to hear anything at all except updates on traffic jams.

I think that the sociological phenomenon of Russia’s voting patterns is worth studying because it overturns many assumptions. For example, according to various surveys, about 60 percent of voters believe that the Duma elections will not be conducted fairly, but about the same percentage of people nevertheless plan to vote — despite knowing almost nothing about the platforms of the major parties. Voters don’t know what Putin’s Plan is, nor do they want to find out more about it. As expected, few people found the campaign’s televised political debates interesting.

Even though it has been 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would seem that Russians don’t react negatively to modern-day versions of Soviet propaganda. Nobody gets upset when local authorities round people up to participate in pro-government meetings or when students — usually known for their love of freedom and independence — attend mass rallies to avoid getting bad grades from their professors.

It is as if the last 15 years have had no impact whatsoever on the country. The old Soviet mentality is alive and well, and people are returning to their former ways. They believe this is what constitutes the much longed-for “stability” that the authorities constantly claim has arrived. They refuse to see the connection between the fact that they spend hours stuck in horrendous traffic jams and their complete indifference to the political process and elections.

These traffic jams and the vast problems of everyday life all stem from the fact that Russia is badly managed and that governmental institutions do not function properly.

Yet, Russians are unable to acknowledge their own responsibility for the country’s poor governance — that governmental institutions are substandard because the people themselves allow them to be so bad. To make matters worse, many Russians take pride in their lack of interest in politics. Perhaps there is some truth to the much-quoted saying that every nation deserves the type of government that it has.

There is another expression that is pertinent to this issue: “If you don’t take an interest in politics, politics will take an interest in you.” It was true back then and it is true today.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City FM.