Monday, December 28, 2009

Incredible Tangerines at Whole Foods

Whole Foods is presently selling tangerines with stems and leaves attached, and they're by far the best I've ever tasted. Worth a special trip to pick some up.

[Mrmainstreet, yes, it's me]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar

I caught Avatar, in 3-D IMAX (on a large screen IMAX, not one of the puny mini-IMAXes), and don't have much new to say. I agree with the hordes who were delighted and inspired by the visuals and repelled and disgusted by the formulaic story and dialog. Leonard Maltin did a good job of describing the extreme ambivalence.

The simple, formulaic story is easily explained. As with Star Wars, Cameron's model in this enterprise - he wanted to tell an archetypal tale, and archetypes are nothing if not predictable. But it's hard to understand how a labor-of-love project,
twelve years in the gestation, could be so rankly amateurish in its dialog, which sounded like it never got out of first draft.

But there's an aspect critics have missed. The first half of the film was actually admirable in its writing. It managed to deliver copious back story with streamlined economy. We were up to speed and out into Pandora's jungle in a jiffy, without feeling rushed. And there was even subtle understatement in how some key story points were delivered in the early moments. I agree with this comment from
Alan Sepinwall's blog (don't worry, it's not a spoiler) about the scene where wheelchair-bound Skully first operates his avatar:
"I was actually surprised that Cameron had enough restraint to not throw in clunky "I can't believe I'm walking!" dialogue; but merely contrasting the chair-bound existence with the athleticism of the avatar is enough to emphasize the new physical freedom Skully feels. Watching him squish Pandoran dirt through his toes tells the whole story."
So Avatar isn't just two films, in terms of visuals versus writing. It's also two films in terms of its first half versus its second half. Many critics have suggested that a script doctor was crucially needed on this project. I obviously don't know the back story, but, to my eye, parts were indeed doctored and polished. Alas, not the entirety.

Still a must-see, however!

Great Granola and Iffy Nutrition

I tried some BOLA Granola. It's almondy/addictive, and achieves the deft balance of salty/sweet shown by the best brands in my recent granola tasting. Roasting's dead-on perfect, too. Great stuff. It also runs 280 calories per serving (lots of almonds, lots of brown sugar), with a serving size defined as half a cup. My 3 oz sample package - the size of a sleek, tiny Razr phone - somehow constituted 1.5 servings!

Udi's Hawaiian Granola, one of the favorites from the tasting, states a serving size of half even
that: a ludicrous 1/4-cup (a deep whiff would ingest the better part of that via nasal osmosis). This allows them to declare a prim 120 calories per serving.

Finally, a nutritional mystery: How is it possible that a single, small, unadorned
Dunkin Donuts poppyseed bagel has 370 calories? And one third your RDA of sodium? And a huge 15 grams of protein?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Account Cancellation: Score!

A while back, I wrote about the hell corporations put you through when you try to close accounts with them:
One doesn't simply cancel a wireless account. You must call a special phone number and speak to specialist personnel chosen for their psychopathic inability to register expressions of rejection. You will be asked to explain and defend your foolish decision. You will be offered things. You will be cajoled and niggled. After many minutes of spiel, deal, and distraction, your request will eventually be granted, but only after you've uttered the word "no" more times than JD Salinger's publicist.
I've tried telling them I was headed to prison for arson. I've tried telling them I had Lou Gehrigs disease. Nothing could prevent me from being run through the full epic script, cajoled with carrots and whacked with sharp sticks.

But today I may have found the answer; a gambit that had my credit card account shut down, neat and tidy, within thirty seconds. Granted, it's easier to close credit cards than mobile accounts, but I think I may have a winner here:
"I'm moving to Zimbabwe and joining the Peace Corp".
As a bonus, the rep admired my life decision so much that she voluntarily reversed the $60 annual fee which I'd been late in addressing and which I might otherwise have been stuck with. She felt good, I felt good....win-win!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Great Soba Noodles

These organic soba noodles are absolutely dynamite. They're a bit pricy, but you get eight packages, containing three servings each. And, trust me, you'll go through them rapidly.

You boil the noodles for only three minutes, then add to any juicy stir fry (boil four minutes if you're serving them right out of the pot). So delicious, it really tastes like a special occasion. And soba's made from buckwheat, a high protein, high fiber,
low-glycemic carb. Three minutes...delicious...healthy. You really can't beat it!

Here's one method: sauté chopped onion in a saucepan until soft, then add equal parts apple cider, olive oil, and water, plus, mixed in and liquified, a half teaspoon of miso paste (I like the lighter varieties from
South River Miso). Also a dash of tamari or Filipino preserved lemon soy sauce. Add some chopped broccolini, carrots, and leeks (sugarsnap peas are good, too), and cook, covered, on medium low heat for 5 minutes. Add raw slices of wild salmon and cook till done. Then stir in the noodles and a bit of their cooking water. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My DVD Collection

Here's the latest catalog of my DVD collection.

Slog Links:
My alternative to Netflix
Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of
$29 Swiss Army Knife DVD Player

External Links:
MovieLens - extraordinarily accurate predictions of how you'll enjoy a given movie (once you train it)
The Movie Review Query Engine - lists reviews for all movies, including older classics (e.g. the original 1941 NY Times review of Citizen Kane)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Matzoh Brei

My recipe for Matzoh Brei.

Busyness Postscript

Speaking of overextension (see the entry beneath this one), the following anecdote offers a glimpse into an entirely different level of crazy saturation.

I'd long been friendly with one of Manhattan's top corporate lawyers, who I'd bump into at food and wine events. He was a kindred spirit, with an earnest, chowhoundish appreciation for good stuff. We'd talk about getting together someday for a bite, but it had never happened.

One day, Chowhound needed legal help for something, and I contacted him. He told me he was too busy to take on the task, but could hand it to an associate, and perhaps we could get together to discuss this, killing two birds with one meatloaf, over dinner somewhere. I agreed, and he told me he'd pass me to his scheduling secretary. Just before leaving the line, he muttered something like "good luck". I wasn't sure if he was still talking to me, or if I'd just caught the beginning of his next conversation.

A sympathetic-sounding woman got on the line. It was mid-November. She told me that the next open dinner slot was on February 5th. I replied "No, no....I'm actually a friend, and this is just mostly about getting together for a bite." Her reply: "If you weren't a friend, the wait would actually be a lot longer."

That is "busy"!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Short Guide to Overextension

Here's a golden oldie; something I wrote during nine years of hundred hour work weeks slogging away on Chowhound (as described in my "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" saga).

I'm more overextended than junior high cafeteria meatloaf. I'm not sure how it happened, but I've become the circus performer spinning 75 plates on sticks; the only thing missing is the band frantically playing Sabre Dance. I believe George Jetson said it best: "Jane, stop this crazy thing!"

But I'm not complaining (that's a no-no....see #8, below). I'm explaining that I'm an expert in being busy, overwhelmed, inundated, overextended, burnt, etc. Eskimos have myriad terms for snow, but we modern urbanites have endless descriptors for the state of being worn out. I'd like to share what I've learned about remaining relatively sane in spite of mega-harriedness.

First, a test. Nearly everyone considers themselves busy to the point of overwhelmed, but few truly are at that point. The following is a test question to see how close you are.

You're in the midst of a horrendously busy day, driving to complete an errand. As you go around a curve, you see that the road far ahead has been closed and a solid mile of immobile vehicles is hopelessly backed up. There's no chance of escaping a delay of an hour or two (and: you have no cell phone).

In this situation, your response is to:
A. Fret, curse, sweat, and squirm, or...
B. Recline back your seat, smile a beatific smile, and feel a profound sense of joyful well-being wash over you

Most people would answer A. Such people have not yet reached the breaking point. For the truly under-the-gun, traffic jams and post office customer lines are Cancun. If you've been there (the breaking point, not Mexico), you understand.

The following are ten survival tricks for the massively inundated...and preventative measures for everyone else. I'm no exemplar: I don't follow them all religiously myself. But I'm of the very firm opinion that the best people to seek out for weight loss advice are the chronically overweight.

1. Don't Keep Reinventing Wheels
It's easy to get so caught up in the flow of tasks that you never take time to evaluate the big picture and rig up short-cuts for recurring issues. Devise templated email responses. Create macros to automate oft-repeated computer activities. Write up thoughtful manuals for subordinates (to avert Delegation Fallacy Syndrome, where the people helping you manage tasks become, themselves, tasks to manage). Time so invested is wisely spent.

2. Change Venue
Don't get "stuck". Bring your laptop to a cafe. Take your cellphone to a park. Edit writing on a subway (this one works
really well for some reason). Just move around. Diners make swell offices.

3. Prioritize Fun
Day after day, the tasks at hand may fill all gaps like liquid cement. Before you know it, you've become a lifeless zombie (witness the average CEO). The trick is to make fun a high-priority task. A movie isn't just something you squeeze into your down time when you
have no down time. You must aggressively clear your schedule to catch a movie or show, take a drive or a walk, hang out in a sake bar...if for no other reason than to heighten your ability to get more done (at much higher quality) after the refresher.

4. Return Emails ASAP
It's essential to prevent the accumulation of various Scary Mountains. Email's one of the worst. If you receive a few dozen emails per day and defer answering half of them, you'll face a queue of a hundred to-replies within a week. Answer as they arrive to stay on top of the flow. Learn the fine art of being terse without projecting brusqueness.

5. Stay Up Late
It's obviously impossible for those who work 9-5, but freelancers and self-employed should consider that late nights are quiet and devoid of real-life distractions, email and phone calls. If you can stave off fatigue, you'll find that you can get far more done at 3 am (and in a more relaxed frame of mind) than at 3pm while life is blasting at you.

6. Buy Time
Don't blindly follow patterns of thriftiness when time's a greater factor than money. Everything's relative, of course. A CEO might rent a helicopter to fly to a friend's wedding rather than lose a few hours of productivity while driving. The rest of us, who'd normally circle rather than pay for a parking garage, might consider whether, in certain instances, delay and stress cost more, in the end, than the twenty bucks.

7. Exercise
The busier you are, the more necessary daily workouts become. Neutralize stress. Increase your body's ability to sit in an office chair or withstand whatever other repetitive punishment you throw at it. Lose weight which can strain movement and pride (physical and mental stress!). Plus there's the reinvigoration tactic of evacuating to the gym whenever you're too glazed and dopey/useless to work effectively. This beats napping (both are addictive, and I always try to choose the positive addiction).

8. Don't Ever Complain
Everyone
thinks they're overwhelmed. Merely busy people don't understand how deeply overwhelmed it's possible to get, and tend to grow angry and competitive at the suggestion anyone can be busier than they are - even if they watch the national average of four hours of TV per day and spend their weekends bedding-and-breakfasting. This pride-in-overwork meme stems from some weird twisted puritanism I don't fully understand. In any case, complaining always backfires, so suck it up.

Corollary: Don't use inundation as an excuse - for being late, turning down invitations, etc. It won't wash. You think you're so busy? Hey, everyone is busy! I'm busy! So...what's your real excuse?? Worse, the phrase "I'm busy" has evolved into a widely-acknowledged expression of brushing-off. If that's not what you intend, then find some other excuse.

9. Don't Stop Getting Into New Things And Meeting New People
"I don't need new hobbies, I don't need new friends." This is a trap busy people get into. Such people slowly ossify. If you lose your curiosity - if you allow yourself to crystallize and block off all possible tangents - you lose the value of life. And nothing's worth that.

10. Be a Chowhound
A wonderful bite on the way to a meeting or errand makes all the difference in the world.

A Rare Window Into Tiger's Soul

You cannot escape Tiger Woods and his sex life. Not even here. Sorry.

Untitillated by the sordid revelations, I'd been avoiding the uproar, but randomly ran into a photo which stopped me in my tracks. This sex scandal stuff seemed so discordant with Tiger Woods' affable, bland, nerdy image. But some uncredited photographer managed to pierce through it and capture the guy's withered soul. A Dorian Gray catch-up moment.

Prepare to have the life force sucked straight out of you (you've been warned)...and click here.

Don't stare at the eyes too long.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't Opt Out...Just "Correct"

I'm not sure if this tip is completely obvious (i.e. coming from my moron side) or ingenious (i.e. coming from my resourceful side). But here goes.

I made the mistake of ordering something from luggage.com (fwiw, this Eagle Creek suitcase). I've since gotten several pieces of junk email from them. I went to their site to dutifully opt out, and they offered a sensible page for doing so (it would have been nice if I'd been offered this option at check-out, though).

But I found no way to opt out my snail mail address or phone number. And their privacy policy stated:
"We collect your contact information, including, but not limited to, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and financial information. Collected information is used for the benefit of Luggage.com to send information to customers about orders, about our company, to send promotional material from some of our partners and in some cases may be shared with our partners."
So I "updated" my address, my email address, and my phone number (to the personal information for Herman Munster - yep, 1313 Mockingbird Lane). And I think I'll do likewise in lieu of opting out in other sites, as soon as my order's gone through, since my guess is that updates are paid much swifter attention than opt outs.

Or, better yet, I'll be even more hesitant about being lured away from my cozy relationship with Amazon...and my much-loved Amazon Prime account.

UPDATE: it's more work, but more green to change your info and then also opt out. If your opt out request is ignored, great, you won't see the resultant junk mail. But if your request is respected, that will mean a lot less paper and transportation waste!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SIGA Update

Ugh, there will be yet another delay on the long path to wild success for SIGA Technologies.

We've been waiting for announcement of a huge (possibly $500M to $1B) contract with the government to stockpile SIGA's smallpox drug. Its been due any day. But Friday, Health and Human Services posted an amendment to the deal, which will delay the award, probably for months (see below for further explanation). The stock plunged to the fives, from a high of ten a few days ago, as a result.

Nothing fundamental has changed; the company's future is just as assured. It will just take a few more months to get there. The contract will eventually be awarded, FDA approval is still likely for mid-year, and negotiations continue with Europe, Israel, India, Canada, and anyone else with an interest in defending against weaponized smallpox (i.e. everybody). Plus, there's reason to believe that progress has been made with SIGA's pipeline (which I've written about
previously), but the company may have been waiting for the contract announcement to speak about that.

SIGA also issued a shelf offering worth $20M the day before the government announced the contract delay, presumably to ensure they have capital to continue their work in the interim. The result is, unfortunately, dilution for stockholders, but nothing egregious. And, as a final piece of bad - but not critically bad - news, it appears that the contract will be split between SIGA and a competing company, whose drug isn't as safe (it has a nasty tendency to kill monkeys in safety trials). The government is prudent in stockpiling both, however. In the event of a smallpox attack, it's smart to have more than one agent on hand, in case of unforeseen problems.

SIGA will be updating their situation via a
conference call Monday at 8:30 am, eastern. If you've bought this stock, my suggestion is to hold it and forget it. We pee-ons have had a remarkable opportunity to get in early and cheaply, and the trade-off is the necessity of parking that money in a fraught waiting game. You even may want to consider parking a little extra, especially if the stock price falls any further. Again, the science, the product, and the prospects remain unaffected by last weeks news and market tumult.

Here's what happened, in more detail. Kathleen Sebelius, HHHS Secretary, has decided to reconsider all terrorism countermeasure contract proposals (as reported in
Washington Post). They cancelled the sketchy ones, and amended the good ones. That's what happened here. This was likely a political move, and is awfully risky re: the country's security. It's also likely to discourage upstart pharmas from going into this sector in the future.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Great Mother-Gibleting Technology

For some unfathomable reason, my iPhone auto-corrects the word "fucker" to "giblets".


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Protecting Your Email Address from Spambots

It hasn't worked since about 1994 or so, but people still think they're being extra prudent by cloaking their email addresses like this to try to foil the spambots:
Contact me at: jim leff ny ...AT!....gmail (dotcom)
There are geekier methods that can be employed, but most yield similarly weak and annoying results.

Here's the best solution I've seen lately: hide it in a PDF file.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Magic Shoes

Just in time for the holiday season, Rockport is making great shoes for a great price.

These Rockport shoes are, to my taste, wonderfully good-looking (it's a poor photo; that stripe is much less apparent and there is no visible yellowish highlighting). They are so comfortable that I've been staying up late because I don't want to take them off. And they cost all of eighty bucks. Note that they also come in black - the ultimate dressy black "sneakers".
The strange thing is that shoes rarely fit me...which should, of course, mean that shoes which fit me shouldn't fit anyone else. Yet, somehow, everyone finds these comfortable. They are like the Rosetta Shoes.


Here's another by Rockport. I love how they look, they're also real comfortable, and are waterproof. They're like the world's sharpest work shoes - the shoes to wear if you're installing kitchen cabinets at Salma Hayek's house. Also good for hiking and outdoorsy stuff. $45!!




Finally, also by Rockport, I find these unusual brown shoes with olive highlights hip looking, though I recognize they're not to everyone's taste. Really comfortable, and available on eBay only, for under $30!
All the above come only in "D" width, and while I'm normally a "wide, these somehow fit. It's magic.



Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 15

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


Due Diligence Postscript and Explanation

In the previous installment, I concocted a melodramatic fantasy about the process of "due diligence" (whereby big fish companies inspect smaller fish companies prior to the actual meal). I depicted events through a warped funhouse mirror in order to convey the surreality of it all. By wildly exaggerating the facts of the process, I hoped to capture some emotional truth, and I suspect other entrepreneurs would nod their heads in sympathy.

But I failed to fully explain the daunting stakes - the actual basis for all the stress. While it's true that our deal would not have been undone even if we had closet skeletons galore, there were nonetheless three main perils:

1. In the tech world, due diligence is sometimes used in the same way as a house inspection report: as an excuse for a buyer to chip away at his offer price.

2. We were locked down tightly during this period. CNET could have altered or even cancelled the offer at their sole discretion, but we were prohibited from making overtures to other parties. And the problem is that with bubbles one never knows when the window of opportunity will close. If CNET blew us off, or slashed their offer, they'd have informed us toward the end of our lengthy lock-out period, by which point it might have been too late to do anything but summarily shut down the site.

3. The plan was to complete due diligence and close our deal by December 15. If the process hit a snag, that would mean a three week holiday hiatus, during which sentiments might cool, bubbles might burst, personnel might change, etc.

Also, consider that our tech was about to explode (we'd disclosed this to CNET, but, still....). And our biz dev contact, who I've called "Clay", was looking more and more twitchy/paranoid. And we'd had a gazillion moments of great expectation for Chowhound over the years, so there was a lingering suspicion Lucy might once again snatch away the football as we reluctantly agreed to kick.

So that's why due diligence, in our case, felt so airless and fraught. Plus, Bob and I were pretty exhausted and bedgraggled to begin with.

Read the next installment (#16)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Nice Weather, Dicey Language

The weather's been lovely here in NYC for the past few days. Indian summer has arrived right on schedule!

Did you know, by the way, that "Indian summer" is a disparaging phrase, with the same noxious origin as "Indian giver"?

It's an interesting predicament when a disparaging phrase has so thoroughly entered the language that it can't be avoided - because there is no alternative means of expression. "White Trash Cuisine", for example, describes a certain style of cooking in a way no other phrase can (author Ernest M. Mickler "took back" the expression with his legendary White Trash Cookbook", but that only left the rest of us in a linguistical lurch!). "Kaffir lime" derives from an ethnic slur...but there's no other widely-accepted way to describe the fruit. I guess most of us don't say "gypped" much anymore, but that's been helped by the existence of so many alternative terms.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Psalm 109:9

If my warnings about parallels between modern day America and Spain just prior to its Civil War (here and here) struck you as overblown, have a look at this.

Whichever side of the cliff you're on, the most helpful thing you can do is to consider the ways you - in your thinking, speaking, and actions - disrespect, dehumanize, and fail to generally empathize with the other side. Different people with different views need to live with each other and recognize that America can be both of us. Our empathy muscles grow flabby as our outrage muscles hypertrophy. At this point, feeding your outrage further will do nothing. All that's left is to redevelop our empathy.

The unimaginably bloody Spanish civil war began with a symmetrical impression that the other side was not really Spain. Lately, the American right has been talking more and more about "the real America" (as opposed to the supposedly "socialist" left), much to the offense of the left, who brands their supposedly fascistic instincts "anti-American". Few spot the symmetry, and fewer still have noticed the (shockingly similar) parallels to pre-war Spain. Worst of all, the dehumanization - on both sides - is reaching a scary point.

We all need to understand that bloodshed in the streets is truly possible, even if not directly imminent, and that the conditions for this have been fostered evenly by both sides. There comes a point (e.g. Israelis/Palestinians) where neither can back down. Hopefully some conciliation will arise before we reach that point.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Granola Tasting

Just a few of the 25 granolas sampled

I broached this culinary ordeal with vivid memories of a long-ago soy sauce tasting from which I'd emerged with comically useless notes reading "Salty!" "Very Salty!" "Salty!" and "A little less salty!". A massive tasting of granolas seemed likely to evoke a wash of similarly undifferentiated impressions - this time, of endless roasty/toasty/raisiny/nuttiness. But I forged on, curious to investigate my theory that granola is in the midst of a renaissance, evolving from insipid health food cliché into something more resembling luxury food.

For one thing, there are the prices, which have skyrocketed since the days when granola was a generic commodity careening into sturdy paper bags in the back of dank, sanctimonious natural foods stores. The most expensive granola at our tasting, the preciously wrapped E.A.T. Original Granola by Eli Zabar, sells for a mind-boggling fifteen bucks per small one pound package. Many of the rest cost $7 or $8 (plus another $5-7 for shipping; mail order's the only way to score most of these brands).

My attention was first captured by obscure Ola! Granola. I'd ordinarily hesitate to pay $6 for 9 ounces of roasted grain, but upon cracking open the package I found myself powerless to stop munching. I scarfed nearly the whole bag, dry, in a violent spate of rapid-fire ingestion, leaving a light wake of oaty dregs on the floor under my frantically shoveling hand. Not that it was so sublimely delicious. It was, to be sure, damned good granola, but it was more addictive than aesthetically perfect. I'd never before encountered an addictive granola.

Then I stumbled upon Early Bird Granola, which was downright torrid. This product is so assertively sweetened that it'd be nearly inedible if not for all the mitigating fat and salt and intense flavor blooming this into something eons more richly bodacious than would ever be expected of prim, earnest granola. It's nearly too much for me. But not quite.

There's still plenty of old-school granola (few surprises or nuances) being sold, but pressure from all the upstarts seems to be sharpening everyone's game. Quality is skyrocketing. And I smell a burgeoning trend. It was time for a survey.

So I gathered 25 products from 15 companies for a gigunda taste-off. Rather than try to match the unmatchable, I accepted that this undertaking would pit apples against oranges (and pecans, cranberries, and crunchy spelt clusters), and embraced the variation.

All granolas were tasted "blind" by a panel of twelve tasters. Special thanks to Ray Deter and the staff of Manhattan's DBA Bar (fun fact: hard cider is the optimal accompanying beverage for a granola tasting). Thanks also to Pat, Paul, Dave, Peter, Layne, Vaughn, Sari, Jon, and Lucy, whose palates were keen, opinions insightful, and patience (and eating capacity) plentiful. One of the best tasting groups ever!

Opinions and ratings from panel tastings are normally all over the map. But this time, five brands were clear favorites.



KILLER!

Love Grown Foods (Aspen, CO)
Made to Crave (Tucson AZ)
Early Bird (Brooklyn, NY)
Udi's Natural Artisan Granola (Denver CO)
Ola! Granola (Redding, CT)


Love Grown Foods: "Sweet Cranberry Pecan"
(Toasted oats, agave, honey, dried cranberries, pecans, etc.)
~The most darkly-roasted granola we tried. Old-school, but awesome finesse. So rich and hearty. Surprisingly tart cranberries!








Made to Crave: "Maple Pecan Granola" (gluten free)
(Oats, pecans, maple syrup, brown sugar, canola oil, organic crispy brown rice, salt, vanilla extract)
~Toasty, and the only granola with a really long, seductive aftertaste. Another flavor-packed oily/salty/sweet granola, but not as decadent as Early Bird's. High quality nuts. One of only two granolas with serious depth.






Early Bird: "Farmhand's Choice"
(Organic rolled oats, toasted organic coconut, organic pepitas, sunflower seeds, fancy pecans, Vermont maple syrup, extra-virgin olive oil, organic brown sugar, salt)
~This is the granola whose recipe the NY Times published - an instant classic. It's a voluptuary experience; sweet, salty, flavor-packed, and so glisteningly greasy that it almost tastes fried! Not for the first time, the panel was moved to ponder how, exactly, one defines "granola".
I'd like to have tasted their Aloha (mango and macadamia) and Jubilee (cherry and pistachio) flavors, both of which have their devotees, but was unable to find any.


Udi's: "Hawaiian"
(Thick-cut rolled oats, wildflower honey, canola oil, dried pineapple, ginger toasted macadamia nuts, coconut)
~Another deep, three-dimensional granola, and a particularly beautiful balance between cereal and add-ins, all of which (especially the sheets of dried coconut and terrific hit of ginger) are of exemplary quality.







Udi's: "Original"
(Thick-cut rolled oats, wildflower honey, canola oil, raisins, banana chips, walnuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios)
~Great texture, very adult, dry flavor and aroma (smells like Korean barley tea). Very crisp yet not greasy. High quality nuts - though it could use more of them.







Love Grown Foods: "Cinnamon Apple Walnut"
(Toasted oats, agave, honey, dried apples, and walnuts, etc.)
~Has the aroma of a crusty old Vermont health food store. Classic old-school granola, slightly cloying yet ascetic. The panel loved the spicy/sweet flavor, but some found the bits of dried apple overly chewy.




Made to Crave: "Old Fashioned Granola" (gluten free)
(Oats, honey, brown sugar, canola oil, organic crispy brown rice, salt, cinnamon, vanilla extract)
~Granola-as-Rice-Krispies-treats. Luxurious buttery aroma; refined and restrained grain flavor, optimal salty/sweet balance. This one should probably be eaten dry.







Ola!: "Vanilla Almond"
(Whole grain oats, almonds, whole wheat flour, wheat bran, pure maple syrup, canola oil, pure vanilla extract, cinnamon, sea salt)
~Good quality cinnamon in perfect proportion. The sweetness is equally calibrated, as is the almost subliminally salty undercurrent. Nothing fancy, but highly enjoyable.






Ola!: "Cranberry Orange Pecan"
(Whole grain oats, pecans, sweetened dried cranberries (cranberries, sugar) pure maple syrup, whole wheat flour, wheat bran, orange juice, canola oil, pure vanilla extract, cinnamon, sea salt)
~Not as perfectly balanced as the Vanilla Almond; this one's flavor is a bit mamby-pamby, and the texture was a tad too chewy/sticky for some. Still, two tasters voted it among their top three.




Honorable Mention:

Back to Nature (Madison, WI): "Sunflower And Pumpkin Seed Granola" Available at Whole Foods
(Whole grain rolled oats, evaporated cane juice, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, brown rice syrup, brown rice flour, expeller pressed safflower oil, molasses, salt, etc.)
~True vanilla flavor, and a warmly vibrant sweetness skillfully balanced by salt and lots of earthy seeds. This old school granola, made with a knowing touch, didn't rate particularly well, but it suffered unfairly because we'd only sampled this oddball flavor - and the gripe was that it had so many seeds. I'm betting Back to Nature's more conventional flavors would have showed better.



ECCENTRIC

Bakery on Main (Glastonberry, CT)


Bakery on Main: "Extreme Fruit and Nut Granola" (Gluten Free)
(Corn flour, evaporated cane juice, rice flour, rice bran, raisin juice concentrate, honey, canola oil, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, raisins, sesame seed, coconut, walnut, hazelnut, almonds, cranberry, pecans, apricot, brazil nuts, vanilla. etc.)
~Stretches the definition of granola. Really, it more resembles those squiggly, crunchy Indian snack melanges, with weirdly shaped flakes, seeds, and any number of unidentifiable add-ins. The simple sweetness and the fake butter flavor turned off several tasters (one dismissed this as "Buttery Pebbles").


Bakery on Main: "Nutty Cranberry Maple Granola" (Gluten Free)
(Corn flour, evaporated cane juice, rice flour, rice bran, raisin juice concentrate, honey, cranberry (sugar), canola oil, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, almonds, sesame seed, pecans, vanilla, maple, etc.)
~A bit less sweet, but still pretty whacky!




Les Blank's Granola (homemade)
Divisive! This is a phenomenally quirky granola, with tons and tons of bee pollen, and an almost overwhelmingly complex meaty flavor that delighted some and perturbed others. Unfortunately, it did not survive shipping well, and was reduced almost enitrely to powder. I think this granola would have been more widely admired if its texture was in the proper condition, though a few deemed it irredeemably bitter from the bee pollen and generally overstuffed with non-harmonious ingredients. Still, it was the favorite of one taster, who beamingly insisted that it had "utterly broke through my preconceptions of granola."

Here's the recipe!



LESS KILLER

Bear Naked (La Jolla, CA)
Eli Zabar (NY, NY)
Galaxy Granola (San Rafael CA) available at Whole Foods
Trader Joe's
Udi's, an otherwise exemplary producer, makes one variety which failed to make the top grade.


Bear Naked: "Fruit and Nut"
(Oats, honey, canola oil, almonds, raisins, sweetened dried cranberries, coconut, walnuts, pecans, maple syrup, sesame seeds, etc.)
~A classic, clean-tasting old-school granola that's not too sweet or extreme in any way. Excellent balance. No negatives, just not very interesting.





Eli Zabar: "E.A.T. Granola"
(Rolled oats, bran, sliced almonds, pecans, raisins, honey, canola oil, treasury bonds, etc.)
~Lacks flavor and warmth, especially in the finish, and the dark-hued cereal is surprisingly short on roasted grain flavor. This, the most expensive granola, was favored by no one.



Udi's: "Nuggets"
(Granola chunks with cashews, almonds, and sunflower seeds, etc.)
~Nice aroma of quality wildflower honey, but a bit dull. One taster really disliked it, comparing it to "a stale vegan monstrosity cookie from a health food store."








Galaxy Granola: "Not Sweet Vanilla"
(Organic Whole Grain Rolled Oats, Organic Crisp Brown Rice, Organic Whole Rolled Spelt Flakes, Organic Whole Rolled Barley Flakes, Apples, Pear Juice Concentrate, Organic Oat Bran, Vanilla Extract, Soy Milk Powder, etc.)
~Good balance, but a vaguely prim, spelt-y vibe.








Galaxy Granola: "Vanilla Almond Munch"
(Organic whole grain rolled oats, organic crisp brown rice, organic whole rolled spelt flakes, organic whole rolled barley flakes, apples, whole natural almonds, wildflower honey, organic dehydrated cane juice, organic blackstrap molasses, organic oat bran, vanilla extract, all natural almond flavoring, soy milk powder, etc.)
~Overpowering marzipan flavor and aroma, like Italian Christmas granola from some alternative universe. We loved the high quality little almonds.






Trader Joe's: "Pecan Praline granola"
~Raisiny, simple, little grain flavor, hard yet uncrunchy.






Note: everything's relative. The following are actually pretty good, but couldn't compare to some of the more extraordinary products. In fact, while "The Baker" was unanimously voted down, two of our panelists had long deemed them their favorite producer.


Chappaqua Crunch: "Original"
(Organic rolled oats, roasted almonds, raisins, evaporated cane juice, sunflower seeds, canola oil, maple syrup, honey & spices)
~Terrific quality raisins, but the cereal's dull and rather chalky/dusty








Chappaqua Crunch: "Blueberries & Bananas"
(Organic rolled oats, evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, honey, puffed millet, puffed rice, freeze-dried bananas, freeze-dried wild blueberries, canola oil & spices)
~Again, dull, chalky, and dusty...plus we really disliked the perfumed-up banana chips.







Dorset Cereals: "Fruit, Nut, and Fiber"
(Toasted and malted wheat flakes, Chilean flame raisins, toasted and malted oat flakes, dates, sunflower seeds, toasted coconut, dried apricots, roasted hazelnuts)
~Dull and austere ("When I get hypertension, this is the sort of thing my doctor makes me eat," said one taster)







Raspberry Fields Forever: "Raspberry Granola"
(Organic rolled oats, crisp rice, organic flax seeds, sunflower seeds, organic coconut, whole dried raspberries, walnuts, clover honey, unbleached flour, evaporated cane juice, canola oil, cinnamon and vanilla)
~The group agreed that this tasted like weirdly soggy hippy pie crust made with marshmallows and cod oil. Not that anyone's actually ever tasted such a thing, of course.






The Baker: "Original Pecan"
(Rolled oats, pecans, walnuts, coconut, sunflower seeds, maple syrup, honey)
~Medicinal, scorched flavor.








The Baker: "Honey Oat with Almonds"
(Rolled oats, coconut, honey, maple syrup, Almonds, water, cinnamon)
~Overly sweet and undistinguished. Didn't love the chewy texture.










ARRIVED TOO LATE TO INCLUDE


La Campagne (Milwaukee, WI)
Best chewy granola I've tried. Beautiful harmony, love the ultra-tart cranberries. Flavor like a great oatmeal cookie. Ironically, they also sell oatmeal cookies - which are merely ok!





Granola Jo (Oswego, NY)
(Rolled oats, honey, canola oil, cashews, raisins, almonds and walnuts.)
~Crumbly/chewy, and that's good because there's something about this granola's flavor, with its deep, dark, honeyed tones, that would be lost with a crunchier texture. You want to spend time slowly working on it, extracting and appreciating the wonderful balance.





Busy Bee Granola (Inverness, CA)
(Oats, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, brown sugar, sugar, cinnamon, honey, etc.)
~Unappealing soggy/soft texture, a bit over-sweetened (and the chewiness concentrates that sweetness on one's palate), and an unsubtle wallop of cinnamon.


I unfortunately couldn't get my hands on any Lizi's Granola from UK.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sentences I Can't Believe I Actually Spoke

About fifteen years ago:
"Put the gun down, man. C'mon, just put it down!"

2 minutes later that same night:
"Excellency, we need to leave right now."

Sometime last summer (followed immediately by anguished remorse):
"...too many potatoes."

Yesterday:
"Lady, if seeing lots of naked dudes makes you uptight, you probably shouldn't be wandering into the men's locker room..."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kali/Palin: The Goddess of Chaos

Observing this latest coming of Sarah Palin, I can only watch mesmerized as she demonstrates her unprecedented talent for division. She's a better wedge than flag burning or gay marriage.

Liberals, of course, hate her, and a certain stripe of conservative would lay down lives for her, but she also drives some neocons and intellectual Republicans crazy (David Brooks said this weekend "She's a joke. I can't take her seriously"). She also turns off independents.

If the left could create a cylon perfectly designed to divide the right, she would look a lot like Sarah Palin (if, that is, the left could ever cease its own in-fighting long enough to actually build something). So, as the usual undulations of turmoil and dissension are effortlessly  conjured up in the wake of this Alaska-born avatar of Kali (goddess of chaos), the Dems, who did poorly in the last election, may be feeling a sense of relief. She can never win the presidency, and, meanwhile, she'll tidily fragment her own party. Just wind her up and let her go! Sure, Palin heats up all the divides, but the country couldn't possibly suffer more from heated division than it already has been for the past decade, right?. 

Wrong. You know what they say about people who ignore history?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Death and Magic

I hope you won't think me macabre for once again directing you to the Economist's obituary column. It's one of my favorite sources of great reading, fascinating information, and skillful writing.

This week, the dead guy is Alan Peters, a renowned British furniture maker. Whoever writes the column takes special pleasure in eulogizing lesser-known, almost banal-seeming people, and coaxing the reader to deem them as fascinating and noble as the great figures more often appearing on this page.

Note how your attention is captured and your mood's altered by the following paragraph:
"Smoothness was essential. He could not understand people who made drawers, or any other piece of furniture, with sharp edges. They had to be planed, rubbed with fine sandpaper, polished with paste wax, to a soft and glowing evenness. He himself could not keep his hands off wood. Reading a book, he would stroke the table beside it. Looking at a chair, his hands would be all over the rails and the struts. Picking up some stray offcut, he would begin to smile. Wood, like a warm and living thing, had to be respected and loved."
I love to dissect evocative, transportive passages like this and pinpoint the word choices underpinning the magic. Take a look for yourself; I'll wait!


It's "begin to smile". There's no reason, per se, for the construction. "He would smile" would have been far more economical, and express the gist of the point. But the rhythm, the elegantly flipped direction of narrative motion, the carefully placed bit of indulgence by an otherwise succinct writer all create an effect. Most of all, there's such emotional intimacy conjured up from the image of Rose languidly beginning to smile! We are suddenly witnesses to a dynamic, living scene rather than a flat portrait.

We come away feeling that we've shared a subtle, secret truth - one which is, ironically, mere whimsical conjecture on the writer's part. A lie! But as Werner Herzog often says, sometimes only lying can convey the greatest truth.

Lies or no, tiny decisions like this, and the care behind them, are what invest writing - or any other creative pursuit - with magic.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Repeating Lessons

"We grow through investigation, and to investigate we need experience. We tend to repeat what we have not understood." -- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, from "I Am That"

By the way,
Buddhists love the movie Groundhog Day.

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