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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Gas Prices and Reality

America has known that sooner of later we would have to change our lifestyle of total dependence on the automobile. In my entire life I can't ever remember a time when this wasn't something that was being ardently discussed. Granted, we never acted on any of these discussions and Americans generally have changed their driving habits very little in 50 years. So why are people surprised, shocked, and angry that gas prices are at or near $5 a gallon? People are still commuting fantastically long distances to and from work every day. Lots of people are still driving gas-guzzlers. Most people don't even know what public transportation is let alone bother to use it. They want to blame the President, others lash out at the oil producing nations, and some fault the big oil companies. I made the move many, many years ago to limit the intrusion of the automobile in my life. I have probably driven less than 50,000 miles in the last 20 years. In the last five years I haven't driven once. As far as my personal transportation needs I couldn't give a fuck if gas were $100 a cup.

As a nation we're like children who cry about having a mouthful of cavities after being warned since childhood to stay away from candy. Without a doubt, gas prices will miraculously go down again and people will act as if nothing ever happened. Perhaps a few people will have learned their lesson but most folks will never abandon their bad habits. History doesn't repeat itself; it's on a damn loop.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Corporate Media Moguls Create "Internet Sensation" Over Review of Crappy Restaurant

Strip Mall Cuisine
I'm probably at least 24 hours behind the zeitgeist as far as the internet goes so I noticed just today this completely self-serving, self-fulfilling load of shit: 85 Year Old Woman's Review of (shitty Italian food-inspired restaurant) is Internet Sensation. I saw that someone on Facebook had linked the article on Yahoo News. Instead of going to Yahoo via FB and allowing yet another creepy company access to my vital information I queried the story on Google. It became instantly clear as to why this story had gone "viral." Why would anyone care what an old woman in some town in North Dakota wrote in her hick newspaper about a completely mediocre chain restaurant? Answer: they wouldn't. It is in the interests of corporate America to hold up evidence that someone, somewhere thinks that their faux Italian restaurants are worthwhile. Who knows how much this franchise spends on advertising but I'm sure that Yahoo News, CNN, Fox News, and every other corporate media outlet knows the exact figure. These "news" organizations picked up on this turd of a non-story and ran it into the end zone in a win-win situation for crappy news and worse corporate food.

I couldn’t find any evidence that this story had “gone viral” except that it has been repeated by all of the news agencies who pretty much dominate the internet. I have written before about movie reviews in the New Yorker and how most caustic reviews are reserved for independent films (movies that don’t spend a lot on advertising) while reviewers will bend over backwards to say something nice about even the biggest piece of shit in movie history if it's from a big studio. You're allowed to have a voice in America but only if you play by the rules laid out by the people who run the show.

These soul-smothering franchise restaurants have run family-owned places out of most small communities in America to the point where most folks have no choice when eating out but to go to a McShittly's or an O'What-the-Fuck's-It-Called? or some such thing. Now the news outlets are manipulating the country into actually believing that these places have food worth eating as they make this unsuspecting woman the patron saint of mediocrity. These franchises suck the life out of communities and give back minimum wage jobs and strip malls. They usually don't buy anything local as everything in the kitchen is shipped from thousands of miles away.  Don't buy into their manipulation. I'd rather eat out of a dumpster every night rather than be caught dead in one of these horrible excuses for a restaurant.

Here is the original review and I don’t think I’m being the least bit “snarky” when I say that it deserves zero attention. It's exactly what you would expect of a small town newspaper and nothing more. However, it has just what corporations require: an unstintingly bland and uncontroversial message that couldn’t possibly offend or excite anyone—sort of like the food at this mediocre eatery.

I’m sure that since its inception the restaurant has been scanning the universe—Cosmos style—in search of a favorable review.  And then it happened. I imagine that the call came in to their battered public relations department bunker at 3 am.

“We got it!  We finally fucking got it!  A half-assed, not-at-all-insulting review,” the caller breathlessly, tearfully exclaims.
“Who? Where?”
“Some old gal writing in some hick shopping flier out in...(pauses as he reads the location)…in Grand Forks, North Dakota.”
"Where the fuck is that?”
"Who the fuck cares? Just get on it ASAP!”

And so the public relations department calls the “news” agencies and tells them to blow the thing sky high. And of course they do because reporting stupid shit like this is a lot easier than doing actual journalism—not that any of them even know what journalism is at this juncture in television news.

Call it the Applebee-ification of American dining out, where your every eating desire is being examined on a PowerPoint presentation at a corporate headquarters a thousand miles from your home.

After a lengthy wait for Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, the lines were long in February. The novelty is slowly wearing off, but the steady following attests the warm welcome.

My first visit to Olive Garden was during midafternoon, so I could be sure to get in. After a late breakfast, I figured a late lunch would be fashionable.

The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting.

My booth was near the kitchen, and I watched the waiters in white shirts, ties, black trousers and aprons adorned with gold-colored towels. They were busy at midday, punching in orders and carrying out bread and pasta.

It had been a few years since I ate at the older Olive Garden in Fargo, so I studied the two manageable menus offering appetizers, soups and salads, grilled sandwiches, pizza, classic dishes, chicken and seafood and filled pastas.

At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water.

She first brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes — several black olives. Along with it came a plate with two long, warm breadsticks.

The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.

As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor.

Olive Garden has an attractive bar area to the right of the entryway. The restaurant has a full liquor license and a wine list offering a wide selection to complement Italian meals. Nonalcoholic beverages include coolers, specialty coffees and hot teas.

On a hot summer day, I will try the raspberry lemonade that was recommended.

There’s a homemade soup, salad and breadstick lunch available until 4 p.m. daily for $6.95.

An olive branch on menu items signified low-fat entrees. There is a Garden Fare Nutrition Guide available for customers seeking gluten-free food. And for those with food allergies, Olive Garden has an Allergen Information Guide.

All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here.

Olive Garden is part of the Darden chain of restaurants that also operates Red Lobster. There are about 700 restaurants, including four Olive Gardens in North Dakota’s major cities.

Olive Garden has gained a following since 1982 with its ample portions and relaxed ambiance. It’s known for its classic lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo and chicken Parmigiana.

                                                      Source: Grand Forks Herald

Not exactly Tolstoy and completely undeserving of notice by anyone but a handful of quasi-literate folks out in North Dakota.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Under Six Feet of Cold Dirt

Books like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence—among many others*—are missing the whole point about what is best about living in Europe. You don’t go to Europe to find some better way to live in the suburbs—the worst idea of civilization in 5,000 years; you go to find the perfect life in the city, the place where people live and have been living happily. Why do people think that what they really need, what will make everything better in their lives is to “get away from it all?” Do you want “to get away from it all?” I sure as hell don’t. What do I look like? The Unibomber? It's like people just want to retire and fart around the garden until check-out time.

*although the other books weren’t as obscenely popular as these two and don’t deserve the any harsh criticism.  Somewhere South of Tuscany by Diana Armstrong, Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater just to name a few along the same lines.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Abuela Project

I was explaining my process of integrating new recipes into my repertoire to someone at a party the other day and more recently here in my comments section.  It’s not exactly ground-breaking but I thought that I would flesh it out a little here simply because I think it is a good idea (and perhaps I don’t have anything else to write about in my current brain-dead state during Fallas).  When I am looking to try a new classic dish for the first time or if I want to improve upon my existing idea of how that recipe should be prepared I go to YouTube. Nothing new there; everyone uses YouTube for cooking instructions. I search out videos in the original language from where the dish hails even if I don’t speak that language or only speak it a bit (I can get by in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Greek).  Then I try to find a video made by a very old woman.  I use this video as my starting point.

If I have learned one thing about cooking the food of Valencia it’s that you really should respect tradition. If you want to learn how to make paella you should begin with the most traditional form of this hallowed Valencian dish before you start breaking out into improvisation.  I doubt there is a more rigid standard in all of European cooking that what most people here consider to be a paella.  Most of the other dishes I set out to conquer don’t have recipes as jealously guarded as the one seemingly written in stone for paella but I have learned my lesson and always seek out the most traditional form of a dish.  Learning a new recipe can be like the children’s game of Telephone and the farther you are from the source the more garbled will be your message.

It seems only logical that if you are trying to learn how to make an Italian dish you should look at some recipes prepared by Italians. This isn’t to say that just because a cook shares nationalities with the dish being prepared they will automatically make it better, like there is something in their DNA but I think it’s a good idea to begin at the beginning.  And, of course, a foreigner can cook traditional dishes as well as native born chefs.

Whenever a friend brags about their grandmother’s cooking I tell them that they should be making videos of her staple dishes. The same goes for grandfathers.  Get it on film.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How to Make Pasta Putanesca

One of my absolute favorite pasta sauces using ingredients that make up the heart of Mediterranean cooking.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Un Carajillo, Por Favor.

A carajillo is simply an espresso coffee with a bit of either Spanish brandy, whiskey, or rum added in. Another amazing contribution to world civilization thanks to the Spanish. This should come with a twist of lemon but most places don't bother with that tiny extravagance. ¡Salud!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How Thinking about Cuttlefish Turned into 5 Liters of Tomato Sauce

I have been thinking about making sepia a la plancha for a while now. I was trying to pair it with some sort of pasta and I decided on spaghetti putanesca. Putanesca sauce calls for a couple of cups of tomato sauce. I don’t have any of my tomato sauce left from the last batch I made and subsequently froze in small containers (but I did find some tortilla soup while rooting in the freezer). The idea of using a canned tomato sauce for the dish just didn’t sit well with me so I just finished making another batch of tomato sauce.

The recipe for sepia couldn't be easier:

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Chinese Downhill

At the end of the very forgettable 1984 ski movie, Hot Dog, the protagonists decide to settle their quarrels by competing in a “Chinese Downhill.” In one of the movie’s few jokes, an Asian companion of the heroes—who has heretofore not uttered a word of English—asks, “What the fuck is a Chinese Downhill?” Allow me to answer that question. A Chinese Downhill is any movie ending that—lacking any shred of originality, purpose, or reason—simply devolves into a chaotic and completely stupid string of car chases, mindless violence, death, and mayhem.  This boring cliché is to be expected of a low-rent mess of a movie like Hot Dog but some viewers expect something a little more sophisticated in big-budget productions, many of which make Hot Dog look like Citizen Kane. A paroxysm of bomb blasts and gunfire is a pretty lousy substitute for good writing, it’s not even a substitute for really bad writing.

I have said before that if the trailer for a movie has more than one explosion you can almost bank on the fact that the film will be a complete piece of shit, and you can double-down on that if the actors are shown diving away from a bomb blast going at the speed of sound as if they are dodging a lazily tossed beach ball. If the end of the movie has a host of explosions and people diving out of the way it means that the writers (bad movies almost always have lots of writers) had nothing in the way of ideas on how to bring their story to a close.

Another Sunday, Another Paella

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bar Casa Morrut

A corner bar like no other in Valencia. Great food and very inexpensive. Pepe makes traditional Spanish food as well as anyone. Great sandwiches (bocadillos) of all sorts but you really need to try his tortilla de patatas. The more I go here the less I feel like cooking at home.His morro is the best I've ever had and I try it everywhere.

At the front of this photo you can see batter-fried artichokes, then there is a bit of fried squid, croquetas de bacalao, a tortilla, and chicken wings. He makes his mayonnaise with milk instead of eggs as Spanish health code forbids the use of raw eggs.

Bar Casa Morrut
Carrer del Maestro José Serrano, 4
46005 Valencia
Barrio: Russafa
963 743 609

Horas de apertura:
lunes-viernes 09.00 - 16.00
lunes-viernes 18.00 - 23.00
sábado 18.00 - 23.30

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Mexican Food for Beginners

As a forward to this, if you haven't tried corn tortillas fried in lard then you haven't lived. The lard here in Spain (manteca) is great for cooking. I wouldn't recommend using it every day but once in a while won't kill you (at least it won't kill me).

Besides family and friends, what I miss the most about the United States is Mexican food. The basic ingredients for a lot of Mexican dishes are a little hard to find in Spain, or at least here in Valencia. The chile peppers are different but you can find some that are a little spicy at most of the Pakistani green grocers as they eat spicy food in their part of the world. I buy a lot of my Mexican products, including corn and flour tortillas, at Bodega Portal Latino, 45 Calle Cadiz.

Monday, March 05, 2012

2 Hour Bike Ride with Little to Show for It

The first tower is in Paterna, a few kilometers outside of Valencia. I bushwhacked to get there through some sort of Army reservation. The other two towers are in Valencia.

The music is nice. Bach's Cello Suite in G Major on a dulcimer, I believe. I found it while searching for unlicensed music so I won't have YouTube hounding me every time I post a video. So go fuck yourselves, big music industry assholes. All of the best music is in the public domain. Good luck trying to get me to buy Lady Ga Ga or some other awful trash.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Bikes, People, and Cars: Chaos = Cooperation

In Denmark, the town of Christianfield stripped the traffic signs and signals from its major intersection and cut the number of serious or fatal accidents a year from three to zero. In England, towns in Suffolk and Wiltshire have removed lane lines from secondary roads in an effort to slow traffic - experts call it "psychological traffic calming." A dozen other towns in the UK are looking to do the same. A study of center-line removal in Wiltshire, conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory, a UK transportation consultancy, found that drivers with no center line to guide them drove more safely and had a 35 percent decrease in the number of accidents.

In the US, traffic engineers are beginning to rethink the dictum that the car is king and pedestrians are well advised to get the hell off the road. In West Palm Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact. The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times. "I think the future of transportation in our cities is slowing down the roads," says Ian Lockwood, the transportation manager for West Palm Beach during the project and now a transportation and design consultant. "When you try to speed things up, the system tends to fail, and then you're stuck with a design that moves traffic inefficiently and is hostile to pedestrians and human exchange."

The common thread in the new approach to traffic engineering is a recognition that the way you build a road affects far more than the movement of vehicles. It determines how drivers behave on it, whether pedestrians feel safe to walk alongside it, what kinds of businesses and housing spring up along it. "A wide road with a lot of signs is telling a story," Monderman says. "It's saying, go ahead, don't worry, go as fast as you want, there's no need to pay attention to your surroundings. And that's a very dangerous message."

How to Build a Better Intersection

1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road - not signs and signals - dictates traffic flow.
2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.
3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.
4. Do it in the road: Cafés extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.
5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.
6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.