Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Censorship is alive and well.

Picked this up from Neatorama. It's good to see that good old-fashioned American book banning is alive and well in the early aughts... Surf through the various efforts made to safeguard us and our children from the danger of ideas... How sad.

View Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2009 in a larger map

Tuesday absurdities!

Via Boing Boing, this just demanded to be posted. It's a dancing pig burlesque piece from 1907. Brilliant!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The epidemic of OK.

I've been pondering the conundrum of restaurants around Richmond for a while now. L's description of her lunch yesterday at Balliceaux, the new hotspot, put a fine point on it. It was just "Okay." The falafel was overdone. The flatbread store quality. The ahi tuna on the salad cooked rather than seared. And her companion's rice/beans/pork plate piled as though it came from a cafeteria. All this from a restaurant that opened to stellar reviews just a month ago. It would be one thing if this was not the second "down" experience with the place.

On our first visit, we enjoyed a few small plates and a bottle of wine. It seemed a little pricey at $50 + tip, but not that much more than other places in town. (This is part of the problem, and I'll get back to it.) Still the crab cakes and cheese plate were excellent, and the service was good at the bar so we were willing to roll with it. Fast forward, however, a couple of weeks to our next visit. We sat at the bar again and skipped the bottle of wine, opting instead for a couple glasses apiece and entrees to follow our cheese plate. My pork belly was superb, but L's mussels were undistinguished at best. We got dessert for a friend for her birthday — a mini red velvet cake. With tax and tip, we had spent just north of $120.

Mind you, I don't intend to tear down Balliceaux. I like what they're trying to do, but it needs to be consistent from lunch to dinner. It also shouldn't feel like we're being gouged. No item on our orders was more than $17, and yet we walked away having severely nicked the month's eating-out budget. The problem is that this sort of thing — food that veers from great to just decent to downright bad and prices that jump rapidly — has become the norm in Richmond restaurants.

One of my favorite things about living in New York years ago was the abundance of little neighborhood restaurants. Often barely noticed by Zagat and other reviewers, these were the sorts of places where you could get a good meal and a bottle of wine and walk out for fifty bucks. You could spend a little more if you headed into the few higher-priced items on the menus, but still it was possible to eat well and inexpensively.

Richmond has only a few places like this. Sticking to the pastas and no appetizer, you can get out of Mamma Zu's or Edo's for that kind of money. Sharing a paella and a salad, you can almost get out of Kuba Kuba for that kind of money. A carafe and a couple of small plates at Can Can and you're still okay. And you'll eat well in any of these places. Try getting out of most other restaurants in that tier for a decent price, and it's almost impossible — unless you want to order a burger or pizza. Worse yet is the obsessive duplication of menu items around town. Worst is the fact that it's okay to be just okay. Our choices veer from glorified bar food (and, yes, there is a specific group of restaurants I'm thinking of here) to uninspired retreads of the same idea (another group of restaurants). Simply put, there's a surplus of places where you can eat middling food and get fair service and very few places where you can get great food and great service — without breaking the bank. (If price is no object and you're not looking for someplace kid-friendly, the options are wide open.)

What really bothers me, however, is that people seem to have accepted this as the norm. Richmond diners seem to have become so accustomed to fair food and Richmond restauranteurs so willing to oblige that there is little incentive for places to become better and/or introduce more reasonably priced menus.

A while back, I started to take two approaches to eating out. The first was to try things on the menu that should be consistent and good — a well-cooked steak, for instance, or crab cakes. The second approach was to order things that I would not — for whatever reason — cook for myself. If the results were good in either case, a return trip was merited. Unfortunately, I have been so often disappointed — and spent a great deal to be disappointed — that I've practically given up on the whole endeavor. After all, why spend the money if I can do better for less in my own kitchen?

It's sad, though, because I enjoy eating out. I enjoy breaking bread and being part of the community. I enjoy being given a meal that is prepared with care. Now if only we could have a few more little neighborhood joints with great and reasonably-priced food (that is not straight out of a Sysco truck), I'd be happy to put this screed aside. Food should be always be more than just okay.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


We learned recently that a seven-year old friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer is reportedly aggressive and advanced to Stage 4. It is currently inoperable and being treated with chemo.

As one friend put it, "No child should ever have to know what cancer is." As another said, "Certainly puts things in perspective, doesn't it?" I have very little to add to these apt statements. There are so many feelings — full of fears and hopes — that rattle around. In the meantime, I'll give Buttercup another hug and say a prayer for a family that really needs it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Random thought...

I rarely watch TV. Maybe a baseball game, The Daily Show, Mad Men, and random shows on the Food Channel and MSNBC. Beyond that, not much. When I do watch TV, I marvel over the ads.

I've been in advertising and marketing in one way shape or form for almost 20 years. This means i know the tricks and lies. The strategies are transparent, and yet I'm still amazed by what advertising turns into in a pure mass-market medium. The strategies used to make unhealthy food sound healthy are simply stunning. The ways in which we are sold a vision of what our day-to-day lives should be gives me the willies.

I'll say more later. After The Daily Show.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Public Option

This week, Buttercup started second grade. This week, we also had a dual "controversy" of Obama speaking to students starting school and speaking to the country about health care reform. The "controversies" came off the conservative fear that Obama might indoctrinate our children into doing well and might indoctrinate the rest of us into believing that national health care might be a good thing. What I still can't get past is the idea that there are people (conservatives, they call themselves) who argue that there is a problem with the president speaking to school children or that there is something wrong with offering health care to anyone who needs it.

To those who argue that national health care suggests entitlement and welfare and is simply a burden on people who deserve to keep their money, I ask whether it's wrong that Buttercup is healthy. Why? Simple: she was born with the assistance of Medicaid.

As a grad student, I couldn't afford reasonable health insurance. My monthly payments plus my payments under a deductible didn't make sense for a healthy man. When Buttercup's mother became pregnant, no one would extend coverage to us. Pregnancy is, after all, considered a pre-existing condition. My family offered some help, but Buttercup's mom suggested the idea of using Medicaid, or at least the Arkansas version of it. I had a slight pride issue to get past.

In the end, the experience couldn't have been better. We had the choice of care providers. We had the choice of hospitals. Buttercup had excellent pre- and post-natal care. There were no bureaucratic hiccups. Nobody managed our care besides us. The government didn't get "in the way." Ever.

The reality is we birthed Buttercup under a public option. Based on our experience, I challenge anyone to suggest that public options are a problem. I challenge any "conservative" who dislikes the idea of a society caring for itself to look at the picture of the girl walking into her second grad classroom — healthy, happy, and part of a middle class family now — and to tell me that a public option is a problem for our society.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

a few notes and a brief cooking note

First, the notes.

Note 1: I began using a chimney this summer to start my grill. I love it, but I haven't gauged the fires properly yet. Between the chimney and the hardwood charcoal (not briquettes!) that I've been using, I get amazingly hot fires. Too hot, really. I've had a devil of a time figuring out timing and heat, as a result.

Note 2: I need to branch out while at the farmers market. I bring home a nice harvest and prepare it well (usually!), but I don't change up my game nearly enough. I don't buy many new ingredients. I don't challenge myself to stretch my wings beyond some of my tried and true preparations. If all goes well, we will take part in a winter CSA, and I will expand my cooking repertoire.

Now a cooking note:

In midsummer, I found myself with locally raised lamb steaks, corn, and peaches. I'd also snagged a loaf of parmaggiano and red pepper bread. The lamb went in with a chili-, sage-, and rosemary-spiked rub. The peaches were drizzled with a good balsamic. The corn was soaked (in husks) in salt water. The bread was sliced and drizzled with good olive oil. We were using my neighbor's gas grill. The corn went on first. It roasted for close to half an hour on the upper rack with a low convection fire. The fire was brought up and the lamb and peaches went on the grill. The peaches were to the side and the lamb spent 4 minutes on either side. The bread went on for the second half. The ingredients were stacked — bread first, lamb second, peach on top. We pulled an arugula salad with shaved parmaggiano on the side and called it dinner.

The flavors mixed beautifully. The lamb was perfectly medium rare and its juices infused the bread. The sweet and caramel of the balsamic-drizzled peaches countered the chili and spice of the other ingredients. With the salad and the corn, the meal was a damn-near perfect explosion of local, summer flavors.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Brief Pop Culture Notes

We're sitting on the couch watching the Food Network. Chopped just wrapped up. What comes to mind is how similar every one of these reality/competition shows has become. They all work on the same formula. The music seems canned and common across the whole genre. The edits and cuts seemed canned as well. When it comes to the food "reality" shows, watching is still fun because I end up thinking about techniques and approaches I've never considered. Still, from Chopped to Top Chef, the shows have gotten so formulaic that it doesn't matter which one you watch. They're basically the same.

Feel free to argue another side in the comments.