Top Chef All Stars Season 8: It’s finally over!

Let’s put it this way: if this had gone the other way, I’d just have posted “I don’t want to talk about it” and that’d be that. In fact, I’m tempted to just post “Whew!” and let it go at that, seeing as this season ran about two episodes too long, but I suppose I should close out the season properly.

Tom and Padma meet with Blais and Isabella to deliver the final challenge: “Create the restaurant of your dreams.” Blais gets goosebumps. They must each create a four-course tasting menu for seventy diners plus the judges. This is a little different from the usual “cook the best meal of your life” and it’s the first time they’ve had to serve a restaurant instead of a single table of judges. So it’s like Restaurant Wars all over again, except only one person’s head is on the line. They go home to fret overnight until the next morning when they’ll get the details. They fight over who gets to be the underdog. Blais, you may not be the favorite given Isabella’s sudden momentum, but you are Our Final Hope.

The Choosing of the Sous Chefs.

Isabella and Blais huddle by themselves and compare who they do and do not want as sous chefs. Isabella doesn’t want Jamie because she’s slow. He doesn’t want Marcel, having worked with him in Restaurant Wars. He wants Jen because they’re good friends and she’s a beast in the kitchen. I like Jen less and less as time goes on, you know? Not just for this. I didn’t like her attitude when she was cut. Though she was extremely classy in the media afterwards. Richard wants someone who wants to work and will listen. He’d love Dale Talde, Angelo, or Jen, because they’d have his back. I suppose it has nothing to do with the fact that they can cook.

But as it turns out, they have to pick dishes, not sous chefs. Everyone from the season has prepared an amuse in 30 minutes, and Blais and Isabella go tasting and alternately select three each.

Blais can’t match dishes to chefs, and he sure can’t taste who wants to work (though I suppose someone who didn’t want to do it might make a lousy dish on purpose) or who will listen, so he just goes on flavor profiles. First pick squid ceviche, which happens to be attached to Spike. Spike had jet ski reservations. Spike does not look thrilled to be chosen. Blais is concerned. Will his head be in the game? Then he picks chicken wings which earn him Angelo’s services. Blais calls him a thoroughbred; he is happy. He then selects an egg which turns out to be Antonia. He thought that was a possibility, and he’s fine with Antonia except she just got cut, so her head might be in a bad place.

Isabella picks yogurt curry, and it’s by Tiffany Faisson. He acknowledges her pedigree is top notch even though she can be difficult to work with. I smirked. He should’ve known her in Season One. Then he gets Jamie and her pork tenderloin, which is not good news: she’s been cranky and tough to deal with all season, he says. I smirked again. Though I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. He picks tropical salsa, and I’m hoping like hell it’s Marcel, but it’s Carla. He says he’s got three women, his “Angels.” Shut up, Isabella.

They get one hour to plan today (sounds like Spike will make his jet ski lesson after all), and tomorrow, five hours to cook.

Isabella will call his restaurant “Iz.” Which is kinda cute, I have to admit. He’s talking about mozzarella and panchetta since he’s inspired by the things he grew up with. Which, until the Family Tree challenge a few months before, he hadn’t had any interest in for thirty years. He’s talking about dessert and all three sous chefs offer suggestions, but he shoots them down and says no, it’s his dessert and he’s going to do what he’s planned. I have no problem with this, actually. In fact, I hope Carla is paying attention. Tiffany will do the fish station, Jamie gets the cold station, and Carla has dessert and front of house.

Blais names his restaurant ‘Tongue & Cheek”, to indicate whimsy and a duality of meaning. I’m wondering if he knows the actual expression is “tongue in cheek” and if he’s going to serve tongue and/or cheek, which would help the pun make actual sense. But no. Maybe if it was a real restaurant he would, but if he only has four dishes, he isn’t going to waste them on beef tongue (Antonia or no) and veal cheeks (which might be hard to find in the Bahamas). Other than his amuse, there isn’t much duality of meaning in his dishes. Angelo will handle the first course, Spike will do desert and FOH, and Antonia is handling the veggies. He plans Cap’n Crunch ice cream for dessert. Cap’n Crunch? I’m worried. He wants to serve things chefs like to eat. Chefs like to eat Cap’n Crunch? He has a burger restaurant but this is his chance to serve “his” food to people who will get it.

Blais says Isabella’s strengths are confidence and swagger, and his weaknesses are the same thing, confidence and swagger. I’ll agree with the second half of that.

Time for a commercial message, and to show the LA Party hosted by Padma and featuring Fabio and Antonia. Padma seems a little hysterical, but it might be she can’t hear. Nothing of any importance gets said.

It’s time for the Retrospectoscope. Isabella admits the Las Vegas version of him wasn’t mature enough to handle this big a challenge. Blais recognizes he tried to tell too much of a story, and this time he’s going to just cook tasty food over creativity for creativity’s sake. He feels he’s a better leader and team player now, and his failures have served him well. He’s a little concerned because he’s put multiple proteins on every dish. Maybe too much going on. Angelo demos cleaning oysters to, I don’t know, servers? Do servers shuck oysters? Seems like an important thing to leave to someone who has to be shown how to do it.

Blais is also concerned about dessert, and changes from Cap’n Crunch to foie gras ice cream. Now that’s a change. I mean, he leaped over quite a few levels there, in terms of taste, texture, and sophistication. Wow. Just because he had six lobes of foie gras sitting around, the first thing he thought of was to make ice cream out of it? Hey, Blais, remember that thing about creativity for creativity’s sake, that thing you weren’t going to do this time?

Tom does his sniff and sneer – Isabella mutters he’s in the weeds. Tom points out he hasn’t been through this before, and confides, “I don’t know if anyone pictured you being here.” Isabella says, “I did.” If I didn’t hate the little bastard I’d think that was cute.

Tom goes to Blais and asks how he’s dealing with pressure. Blais does the whole “Hopefully I don’t blow it this time” thing, and declares that running a restaurant is about managing mistakes.

Tom says Richard knows about the pressure, Isabella has plenty of time, and organization is key. This challenge is a true test of what a chef’s job is, not just making dishes but leading a team. Chef means boss (actually it means “chief” but I’ll give him “boss”).

Blais likes that his sous chefs are being “ultra-collaborative” and are improving his dishes. He thinks about pulling the amuse, because the oysters don’t look good (well, you have servers prepping them instead of someone who actually has done it before, isn’t that kind of stupid?). He’s been waiting two and a half years, but he doesn’t know if he can do it; maybe he’s destined to be one of those people who is always a bridesmaid. I’m getting tired of this constant reminder about The Heartbreak of Poor Blais. I also feel bad for Stephanie, who by all accounts is running an amazingly successful budding food empire in Chicago and is being disrespected every time Blais runs into his “I blew it last time” routine.

And it’s time. Spike lets folks into Tongue & Cheek. Spike is wearing his dopey hat and an untucked plaid shirt. It looks woefully out of place, but no one says anything about it.

And it’s time for a suspenseful commercial break so Gail can check in from her party in Chicago where she’s hovering over Carla and one of the Housewives. I won’t go into my deep loathing for all things Housewife here. Not actual housewives, you realize; just Real Housewives. I hate them, every one, in every city.

We come back to the action. The judges are: Lidia Bastianich, the Italian grandma who wanted roast chicken for her last meal; Hubert Keller; Alfred Portale, and Bill Terlato (which is why they’re serving Terlato wines).

Blais serves his amuse bouche, which is not part of the four courses. In his blog, Tom says this amuse was not considered in judging because it wasn’t part of the challenge. He also assures viewers it’s not in any way similar to Thomas Keller’s Oyster and pearls dish, which is a sabayon with tapioca and caviar. It’s the oyster which at the last moment he decides is ok since he can put together enough decent looking ones for the judges, with frozen crème fraiche pearls and salsa verde. Hubert says the amuse is refreshing. Blais has “Crafty” Spike wandering around (looking awfully conspicuous for a spy considering he’s still wearing his hat and plaid shirt and looks rather like the gardener wandered in to wash his hands and can’t find his way out) listening to the comments. He tells Blais the judges like the amuse. Spike does a very good job throughout in interpreting the judges’ reactions to dishes so as to keep Richard calm.
T&C First course, raw hamachi with veal sweetbreads, garlic mayonnaise and pickled celery. Blais planned to start with explosive flavors.
T&C, second course is pork belly, black cod, bone marrow, beets, celery root horseradish puree (actually, this last may be on the third course, I got a little mixed up here). Alfred says great job. Blais seems to be worried that the plates aren’t cleaned, Spike says, they loved the dish, concentrate. Spike’s pretty good at this, much to my surprise.
T&C, Third Course is beef short ribs with mushrooms, red cabbage. Alfred says it’s not highly creative, but execution is great, and it’s delicious. Bill Terlato sees personality in the dish. Spike reports he showed “restraint” on short ribs, which is a very artful dodge.
T&C, Fourth course is foie gras ice cream, cornbread with whipped mango. The ice cream has a crumbly texture. Lydia says foie gras doesn’t add a lot. Spike reports back that it was “controversial” and they should make another batch for the next service with more cream. I have to say again, as much as it hurts me, that I’m really impressed with how Spike is conveying info to Blais.

Isabella serves the other judges first: Gail, Art Smith, Curtis Stone, and Tom.
Iz, First course is beet salad with, mozzarella, truffle, and chocolate vinaigrette. Curtis says it’s a good composed dish. Tom says he’s off to a good start. But there’s a delay before the second course, as they note.
Iz, Second course is steamed halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree and panchetta bread crumbs. Tom says the fish is the best fish he’s tasted on the show.
Iz, Third Course is braised pork shoulder, pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage and turnips. It’s his “Tom” dish since Tom is always harping on braised meats not being glazed enough. Curtis says it’s a nice plate of food, Art says good, Tom says it’s as good as anybody’s food in the finale.
Iz, Fourth course is rosemary caramel custard. Tom says it was cooked too hot and for too long, Art says flavor is good but doesn’t like the way it feels.

The judges switch restaurants and they do it all over again, but faster and with fewer comments and details. The only negative comments are for the desserts.

And there’s the usual dithering. I’m really over Richard’s redemption arc. I still want him to win but I’m sick of hearing about redemption. It’s a contest, not religion.

Judges’ Table, the last one. Finally.

Padma says they both did wonderful job. Tom says it was the best food of any finale. Gail says Iz had a subtlety, femininity, really delivered. Fish was strongest dish. Tom says it was great. Gail says the pepperoni sauce was crazy and a stroke of genius. Hubert says shoulder was great. Tom says custard was cooked too high too fast, had bubbles. Blais: Gail praised the intense flavor, course after course. Hubert says it was great, the amuse was terrific. Tom says flavors were strong and clean, successful. Padma says black cod was flawless, Tom says beef dish was safe but perfectly done.

They go away to stew room, and their families show up – Isabella’s wife, mom, and sister, and Blais’ uncle, since his wife is very pregnant. Isabella’s wife looks really sweet. I wonder what’s wrong with her.

The judges debate. Tom says something odd, that Isabella’s first dish, the salad, was the weakest. He said at the time he was off to a good start. Maybe that means the dishes that followed were so good, the salad was weak in comparison? But the custard wasn’t made correctly, was the salad worse than that? I don’t quite get it.
Tom admits he said Isabella’s halibut dish was the best fish he’d tasted, but that was before he had Blais’ fish.
For the braised courses, Gail says nothing in Blais’ that blew her away, where Isabella gave her pepperoni sauce, and it was both elegant and comforting. They talk about the difference between the foie gras ice cream in the first and second seatings. It was softer the second time around. I think this reflects well on Blais, the ability to adjust, to react to mistakes which is what he said in the beginning. They finally give the first two courses to Blais, second two to Isabella, so it’s a question of by how much. Gail would go to Iz during week and T&C on the weekend.

Blais wins! Of course Isabella has to be a jerk and say he beat him, he just didn’t get the prize. But I guess that’s a step up from the guy who wouldn’t cook Italian food for 30 years because his grandmother died.

Andy Cohen does his stupid show from the New York party with Blais and Isabella. Fan fave is to be announced which is the only reason I’m watching. He brings up the Reunion which has already been taped, and shows a clip of Elia being raked over the coals for her criticism of Tom after she was eliminated. I can’t wait to see this. Both guys say it was uncomfortable, and it apparently went on quite a while. Mike gives kudos to Jamie. A fan asks who should’ve gone home sooner, which is an awful question; Blais wisely demurs but Isabella says “Dale and Angelo should’ve gone further and Tiffany not so far” which is his typical sexist attitude – except that I pretty much agree. Not that they should have, but that I would’ve expected it to be different. I also would’ve expected Jamie to go much, much earlier than she did, like the first time she didn’t cook.

Jen is yelling in the background about Elia and about Tiffany. At least, Andy says it’s Jen yelling in the background. I think Jen might have a problem. Seriously.
Harold appears to announce the Fan Favorite, either Fabio (who is in LA but can’t hear) or Carla (who’s in Chicago and can). Harold looks pregnant.
Carla is fan favorite, yay! She gets $10,000.

According to Andy’s poll, 82% said the right person won. I’m sure it’s pleasant for Isabella to be sitting there while this is announced. But it sounds low to me.

Smokelong makes me a very happy Zin!

Happy Zin

Happy Happy Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I have more exciting news! The new issue of Smokelong (31) is up, and my flash, “The Mystery of Water” is in it! And an Interview! I am very happy!

The other stories in the issue are wonderful! Smokelong has a sign-up where you get a new flash from the upcoming issue about every week, so I already had read maybe half the stories. I have added some of them to my “Online Stories etc. To Read And Love” page (which has been sadly neglected and needs attention!):

Kapha by Joanne Avallon.
We Walk Away The Three Of Us by Tracy Gonzalez (and be sure to read her Interview!)
The Man With the Ridiculously Huge Coupon by Rolli
The Way We Speak Now by Angi Becker Stevens

BASS 2010: “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht

I didn’t so much read this story as wrestle it to the ground, so my enjoyment level wasn’t as high as it could have been. I had a hard time with the opening paragraphs, figuring out who was who, and it wasn’t until several pages in that I realized that Femi was not a child. That happens sometimes, and I’m inclined to think it has more to do with my mindset at the time than with the complexity of the story.

Because this story, once I got it into a full nelson, isn’t all that complex. Roland, freshly widowed, and friend Neal. Who knew what, when? Who did what on purpose, and what was just coincidence? It takes some doing to unravel the details – wildebeests, hyenas, (the story is set in Africa), hot-air balloons, unloaded rifles. It’s quite beautiful, actually, dark and heavy and slow (I don’t mean that as a criticism, those are all appropriate for the story), hot and smelly, returning to the hot-air balloon a few times before we find out, almost at the end, its significance, and the significance of the title.

You can read the story at the Atlantic where it was first published, as well as an interview with the astonishingly young (24 at the time it was published) and unfairly beautiful (ok, yes, I am being petty, but really, would it be too much to ask to spread the gifts around a little more evenly?) author, who arrived at Cornell at the age of 12 via Yugoslavia and Egypt.

More stories accepted!

Hello, I am Zin!

Hello, I am Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I am very happy – I have had another story accepted! No, that is not quite right, it is two pieces and they are not stories they are more poems, little things, prose poems maybe? They were accepted by The Delinquent which is a magazine in England. They have beautiful covers! Maybe you can not tell a book by its cover but it is nice to have good art anyway! One is my Maples story and the other is The Man In The Crisp Suit. Both are very short, under 100 words.

In the meantime my other story, Yarn, is not going so well, boo hiss. It was the top story in the Flash section of Zoetrope for March I found out, which surprised me, because it did not get such high scores. I have had stories with higher scores that did not get on the top three list at all! But I suppose that is how it goes some times. And it has been rejected several times, maybe five? So I think maybe that ranking system has a few bugs in it! I am still undecided about how to send things out. I rewrite all the time (when The Delinquent told me they accepted my Maples piece I told them I had a rewrite if they wanted it) and I try to figure out what is not working, but I am not sure what to do, should I just keep submitting it to places that are easier to get into. See, I think, if really good magazines do not want the piece, I do not want it out there at all! I already have one piece I do not like in a cat webzine and I keep hoping no one will ever find it!

And what about my “nates” story, that did quite well in the Flash Factory, but I am not sure it is something I want to see published, I am not sure I am proud of it! I think there may be a couple of places that might like it (it is very dark and mean) so maybe I will see if they like it and if not I will just let it sit until I know better what I am doing.

But anyway I am very happy about The Delinquent. They seem a little bit crazy so that is perfect for me!

BASS 2010: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” from McSweeeney’s

Oh, I love this story about a father and son who write “truish stories about fathers and sons.” From the beginning there’s a quality – vulnerability? Honesty? – that had me close to tears throughout. It’s constructed perfectly, with Harry Hodget, the son’s writing mentor, playing the part of wise outsider. His key line: “Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories.” And so this father and son write stories, based on real-life events, to say what is worth saying to each other. It’s a remarkable story.

Of course, it’s a story about writers and writing, and I always enjoy those, even though they’re anathema to most journal editors. But I take away some writing advice from stories like these. I don’t know if the advice in the story is sincere or satirical, but a lot of it resonates with me.

First we have the “Six Rules of Writing” which of course the story breaks one after the other:

Never dramatize a dream.
Never use more than one exclamation point per story.
Never write about writing.
Never dramatize phone conversations. Put them in the same room, see what they do when they can’t hang up.
Never dramatize a funeral or a trip to the cemetery.
Never end your story with a character realizing something. Characters shouldn’t realize something, readers should.

This last one is key to me. I’ve put it in my “craft folder”. Along with: “Find a time for your characters when things might’ve turned out differently. Find the moment a choice was made that made other choices impossible. Readers like to see characters making choices.” And the comforting, “You’ll never earn a living writing stories, not if you’re any good at it.”

The mentor is an interesting character, a secondary father to the narrator. He asks, instead of “How are you,” “What are you pretending to be today?” When Frederick, the first-person narrator and the “son” of the primary father-son pair, complains about not having written for a month, the mentor spits out his father once tried to staple a dead squirrel to his scrotum, so stop whining. Yeah.

And there’s the element of competition, as Father starts writing stories that get published right next to Son’s. I understand how this feels to Son. But I also understand how it feels to Father, trying to communicate with a Son who isn’t really hearing, hasn’t been for some time. This effect is exaggerated as Father and Son have the same name.

Frederick (son) works as a remedial writing teacher at a community college. There’s a lot of complaining about too many stories about academics (hey, it’s what writers know) but this isn’t academia by any stretch. Frederick seems to be quite cynical about his class of literary underachievers, until a bag of Cheetos moves him to tears. I’m calling it a secondary father-son relationship, in which he’s the father all of a sudden. He doesn’t have a son of his own. He will someday. And won’t that be fun.

There are many stories told within this setup. Some are factually true; some are factual adaptations to serve truth. They are all beautiful, and it’s amazing to see what father and son are telling each other in these stories, these interpretations of real life events. There’s humor (Son calls to find out where baby carrots come from, then tries to write a story based on “babies are adults cut down to size”). There’s heartbreak. There’s not a false note throughout. Like I said, masterful. Read it – and you can, it’s available – free! – online from McSweeney’s on Googledocs.

Addendum 3/27/12: I’m so excited to see Moffett’s collection, with this as the title story, is now available.

Top Chef All Stars Season 8 Episode 15: Last Supper

Now you want to talk about last meals... (see end of post)

Shit.

Normally I watch all repeats of any given Top Chef episode – if they run it twice, I watch it twice. They’ve been running them three times lately, and tonight they’re running it four times (it’s still going over my shoulder as I’m typing). But tonight I turned on an old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode after the first run (the Data-is-a-toaster/slavery episode, one of my favorites) because, well, I was just depressed after the results were announced.

So, here’s what happened:

Pre-credits, Antonia notes that being with Blais and Isabella is like the Boys Club, they’re just expecting to dominate (that’s what men do, especially these men) but that’s not gonna happen. Pronouncements like that make me nervous.

Quickfire:

Wolfgang Puck is waiting for them in the kitchen, along with Padma. Isabella interviews that Puck is the only chef he knew when he was a kid. How many kids know chefs, beyond Chef Boyardee?

Padma promises today will be different from anything they’ve had before. She reminds them of seven classic Quickfires from past seasons: we see “potatoes” and “tacos” and “one pot”. They will assign each other from these classic Quickfires. Blais wants tacos because he won that one. Isabella, as winner of the last elimination challenge, assigns first. He gives Antonia canned goods, which she whines is the hardest thing. She’s probably right. Though blue-box mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Antonia assigns hot dogs to Blais, who says Wolfgang must feel positively towards hot dogs since he’s Austrian. I think he’s making a joke. I hope he’s making a joke. Blais assigns one-pot to Isabella, because he remembers his wanting a lot of sauté pans at one point. Antonia interviews this wasn’t really a great idea, since it gives Isabella access to everything in the kitchen, and they cut to a shot of Blais looking like he’s having big doubts. But of course they could’ve filmed that any time. It was cute editing, though. They have 45 minutes. Go!

Antonia grabs anything that will incorporate into coconut curry soup. Isabella decides to do a spin on pork and beans using a pressure cooker as his one pot, figuring it will cook in 45 minutes instead of 3 hours. Blais would love to make fresh hot dog but has to use store bought. At this point I flash back to Top Chef Just Desserts and the guy – oh, what was his name – who wanted to make his own ice cream for a sundae Quickfire and became so disturbed when he was told he couldn’t he started muttering, “Weak sauce, weak sauce” and scared people, then ended up having a screaming meemie fit, stomping off camera, having a panic attack, being carted away by EMTs, and getting himself kicked out of the competition. But Blais, he’s high-strung but he isn’t crazy. So he can’t make hot dogs, he makes bread instead, which is pretty cool. And he makes a ketchup sauce by sautéing chopped up hot dogs in ketchup, fennel, and peppers.

Padma comes back before the 45 minutes are up. Uh oh. Everyone knows what that means. It’s Twist time! She has three prior “twists” with her – using one hand, not using any utensils or tools, and cooking with a partner in a double apron – at which point Carla appears as part of the twist! Now that’s a twist I can get behind! It seems to me that twist is kind of a bonus rather than an obstacle. Antonia slumps over a little and interviews that she CAN NOT get stuck with the no-utensils twist, since she has cans to open. She’s got a point there. But they go in reverse order, so Blais assigns first. He remembers doing the one-handed challenge and hopes he won’t have to do that, but he gives Isabella the no-utensils twist. Isabella doesn’t really care, he’s already cut up his cabbage and he can pierce his limes on shelving and squeeze the juice out. Yeah, I’m thinking Blais is giving Isabella breaks here. Antonia chooses next and she assigns the one-hand thing to Blais so she can have Carla. Ooops, Blais.

Isabella seems to have nothing to do while his pressure cooker is cooking, so he hangs around cousin Antonia and Carla and giggles at them like the ass he is. Blais interviews that he make a mistake giving Isabella the no utensils since he has little to do. Blais chases a lime around the cutting board but eventually gets it sliced. Carla thinks Antonia’s curry tastes raw (I’m not sure how curry can taste raw), and suggests lime zest and acid, but Antonia points out her limitations. Isabella is nervous because his meat isn’t quite cooked. Blais thinks his flavors are molded together. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, he doesn’t sound happy about it. It’s the last Quickfire of his Top Chef career (oh, come on, Richard, they’ll do All Stars II or Rematch or something some day) so he wants to win.

Antonia presents her curry coconut soup with shrimp and sausage (canned versions). Wolfgang Puck says it’s strong, and has good balance, a little too concentrated.
Richard serves his hot dogs on handmade roti with ketchup sauce. He calls it curry wurst. Wolfgang says he would feed to his kids, they love sausage and ketchup. “All in all a very nice sandwich if you want to call it that.” Uh oh, that doesn’t sound good.
Mike puts up his pork shoulder with black beans. Wolfgang likes the balance, the pork could’ve been cooked a little more but all in all nice job. He is declared the winner as the dish was eye appealing and had great flavor. He gets $5000. Blais acknowledges in interview that Isabella, “the kid” is on fire.

I may start drinking soon.

Elimination Challenge

Padma tells them to go to The Cloisters Ocean Club and see what’s waiting for them there. Looks like flowers and statues. Blais thinks it could be aliens or rock stars.

And it’s rock stars. Culinary rock stars. Morimoto, Wolfgang Puck, and Michelle Bernstein. Isabella graciously says she’s one of the top women chefs in the country. I love how he qualifies that. Antonia says Morimoto’s and Iron Chef, he’s scary, a Japanese Warrior. Yeah, he’s a little scary I think. But most chefs are. Especially if they’re Japanese and you don’t make Japanese food regularly.

The challenge is to make the last supper these three icons dream of.

Isabella, as winner of the Quickfire, picks Michelle Bernstein. He says it’s because she was a Vegas judge, and told him he overseasoned something, so wants a second shot. I call bullshit. I’m not sure if he’s reassured by her American-ness or if he figures a woman chef, even one of the top women chefs in the country, won’t come up with anything too difficult. He assigns other chefs to his fellow competitors: Antonia gets Morimoto, and Blais gets Wolfgang Puck. Wow, Isabella is really sticking it to cousin Antonia. He interviews he wants to compete against Blais in finals because Blais is the best. Again, I call bullshit. I think he’s not willing to risk losing to a girl. Padma waves an envelope and assures them there’s a final surprise in there, but they’ll get it later.

Wolfgang Puck asks Blais for goulash, spaetzle, and Apple Strudel, which reminds him of his childhood. He talks about his mom, how she put a lot of butter on strudel, she made pastries a lot. Blais doesn’t have a recipe for strudel. Now wait a minute – they assigned a team on Top Chef Just Desserts an apple strudel, and they had to stretch the dough, it was really complicated – and Blais is supposed to make this? Without a recipe?

Michelle wants fried chicken, biscuits and gravy – the antithesis of her Latin-Jewish background, it seemed exotic to her as a kid. Isabella isn’t worried about fried chicken, but is worried about his take on fried chicken, it won’t be what she is used to seeing. I wonder if Isabella knows how to make fried chicken. Because he had trouble with eggs Florentine, another simple dish most people know. I think Isabella has a lot of holes in his culinary experience. Hell, I could make fried chicken with biscuits and gravy. But he frets that he’s never made biscuits. He does cook, doesn’t he?

Morimoto tells Antonia he wants miso soup, sashimi, and pickles. He tells a story of his mother sorting each grain of rice individually to match them, and she’d feed him when he came in from playing baseball. Antonia thinks of Morimoto as superhuman. I think of his mother as superhuman, pawing through that rice. There was a guy who engraved poetry, Koran verses, and praises to education on grains of rice. That’s pretty superhuman, too. I hang out with a lot of flash writers who have stories and prose poems on coffee mugs, post cards, t-shirts and things, but no rice. But enough about rice.

They go back to the apartment and demonstrate how crazy they are. Isabella clams he never made a biscuit in his life, he’s going to do an empanada. Blais says he isn’t going traditional either, if he blows it he blows it. Blais tells Isabella he’s got a good gig with fried chicken and biscuits. Isabella is really trying to push that he has the hardest assignment. Antonia calls bullshit. At least that’s what I assume she calls, since Bravo bleeped it. Good for her. Isabella is feeling stressed, doesn’t think he’s ever been this stressed. Antonia has jags of nervous laughter. Isabella tells Blais, Wolfgang called, he asked how the goulash is coming. Blais says, if I tried I definitely could throw up. I believe you – but why would you try? Are you becoming bulimic now? Isabella bitches that Michelle serves fired chicken every Wednesday. Antonia has to worry about the fish being sliced properly, is the miso soup spiced right, is the rice correct. Blais whines “for some reason I’ve been dealt difficult cards” and he’s never done strudel before. I kind of agree, I would’ve though Morimoto would have the hardest thing, but strudel, that’s tough.

They get to work. Isabella makes an empanada with an egg in it, an egg yolk. Tom comes by to check on them and sees he’s sous vide-ing the chicken, Tom questions that. Michelle said to have fun with it is Isabella’s excuse. Tom comments later that Isabella’s won two challenges in a row, and he has the easiest dish.

Blais admits Mike’s on a roll, has momentum, so though he is the one who got to the finale last time he doesn’t have an advantage. Tom looks at what he’s doing, and later interviews that he understands the challenge and breaks it down, so he’ll have an easier time.

Antonia tells Tom about Morimoto’s meal, how stressed she is about the rice, repeats the mother story. Tom nods and interviews it’s her chance for redemption.

Antonia gets hamachi from the cooler, which is always nice for raw preparation. She tastes it and it tastes awful, it’s about to go rancid. She uses tuna instead, though she knows it’s less flavorful. Good move, Antonia, because rancid hamachi is the flavorful you don’t want. Blais is struggling to unlock pressure cooker. He feels the pressure of people telling him, “hey, remember when you chocked in your finale.” I give him permission to slap anyone who says that to him. I suspect no one says that to him. Except him. So slap yourself, Blais. And if you refer to that once more I’m gonna slap you. With a dead trout. Isabella says he doesn’t want to live in Blais’ brain because the guy’s crazy and is going to have a heart attack. I hate to agree with Isabella, but yeah.

The guest judge is Melanie Dunea, photographer and author of book My Last Supper.

Antonia serves tuna, rice, miso soup, and pickled daikon, mushrooms, eggplant, and Asian pear. Gail is impressed with the rice. Morimoto says the miso is too salty but he doesn’t dislike it. Gail coughs when she eats the tuna, it’s much too hot, with Scotch bonnet peppers on it (yeah, they aren’t really Japanese, are they). Tom’s favorite element is the eggplant. He says there’s nothing subtle about the meal, and Japanese food is all about subtlety. Uh oh. In her blog (the only blog up right now since Tom had another baby yesterday and he isn’t up to blogging yet), Gail says the miso had an off flavor and was overseasoned, the tuna was way overspiced, and her pickled veggies were wonderful, especially the Asian pear.

Isabella serves sous-vide then fried chicken with egg-stuffed empanadas, pea puree (I am incapable of hearing the words “pea puree” without flashing back to – oh, you know), pea salad, and mustard gravy. Wolfgang says it’s an elegant version of fried chicken. Michelle says she told him to take a lot of leeway; she’s blown away that he put an egg in an empanada and called it a biscuit; she hates when her mom tries to sneak an egg in there. Is this common, to put eggs in empanadas? I thought it was meat and veggies. But I’m very limited in my knowledge of Tex-Mex and Latin food. Morimoto says the white meat is dry. Gail says the batter of her fried chicken slid off. Tom agrees, the batter doesn’t adhere to sous vide chicken, but it’s still a nice dish. Michelle says it’s not what she would have done, but she loves that. Gail’s blog points out how smart it was to sneak in something in honor of Michelle’s Latin roots, and to use mustard seeds which are ubiquitous in Bahamian cuisine. But she doesn’t get why he didn’t do normal fried chicken, to get that nice crunchy skin.

Blais brings out his goulash, spaetzle with frozen sour cream, and apple strudel with tarragon cream. Padma asks Morimoto if he’s ready to move to Austria. Wolfgang says in his childhood goulash was a special event meal with a tiny bit of meat. Tom thinks the onion is undercooked and wishes the dish was hotter. Gail loves the strudel. Michelle loves that he did Blais touches but kept the integrity of the dish. Puck says even his mother would approve, and he hopes this is not actually his last meal. In her blog Gail talks more about how he used dehydrated sour cream and how nice the tarragon was, and says the strudel dough wasn’t really strudel but close enough (I’m amazed he did anything at all, it looked like strudel dough and I wondered if he picked up some filo or something).

They sit and talk for a minute sans chefs. Michelle says Isabella grasped a lot of what she told him and was super creative. Wolfgang says over-creative, not like mother would make. Gail says she could see where Antonia tried to be delicate. Morimoto appreciated the challenge but she isn’t the best. Yep, we get that. Puck says the goulash was great, a balance between Blais’ modernism and Mom’s goulash.

They have the chefs come out to do Judges Table right away.

Michelle tells Isabella the chicken had to be juicy and crispy – it was not so juicy, only sort of crispy, and what crisp there was in the breading was falling off.
Puck says Blais got the flavor right, but spaetzel was tough.
Morimoto thanks Antonia, it was a little different from what he expected, the miso soup a little salty, but interesting. Oh no. “Interesting” is the kiss of death.

Tom announces Richard is the winner and will be going to the finale. Wolfgang’s mother is smiling down and says, “Yes you can cook in Austria one day.” I just saw an Anthony Bourdain show about Austria the other night. My ex husband had an obsession with Austria. Music, mostly, but also food. I’ve had enough Austria for one week. Sorry, Wolfgang.

Antonia and Mike, only one will be moving on. Padma brings out the envelope. And to ratchet up the suspense, cut to commercial. I’m pretty good at remembering things from prior seasons, given I’ve seen them all so many times, but I don’t recall this envelope business.

The Obligatory Interstitial At The 40-Minute Mark: Wow, that was a disappointing interstitial. “Do you remember this envelope?” which no one does. How tense they are. Blais is glad he isn’t in their shoes. Antonia is nervous. Nobody knows what’s going on. I would’ve rather seen a commercial, I think. Especially that Fage yogurt commercial. I think they have a second one running but I’ve only seen a few seconds of it, something about an arched back. I blogged about the commercial, interviewed the copywriter, and for the past three weeks I’ve had more hits on that page of my blog than anything else. So I’m a little sick of it. But it still would’ve been better than that interstitial.

Antonia opens the Envelope: there will be one more challenge to determine who claims the last spot. She and Isabella have 45 minutes to make one bite. Seven bites, one for each (oh, so that’s why they had Judge’s Table right away). Make it perfect. Whoever wins gets the last spot.

Isabella says he wants to do something amazing with texture, something no one else will ever do, and blow them out of the water with creativity: tenderloin tartar and lobster tails. Huh? That’s super-creative? I think the egg empanada was more creative. He makes tempura lobster over beef tartar on red chili potatoes with black olive caramel sauce and chimichurri sauce with all the garlic, parsley and chili. Gail hated the olive sauce on its own but it worked well in the dish. Michelle says the lobster didn’t wow her but the olive sauce drew her in. Melanie says she was shocked at the difference in colors but then again she’s visual.

Antonia wants to do an aggressive dish to show the judges what she’s capable of. She serves seared grouper on a curry relish of yam, apple, and dill pollen, peanuts, and cilantro. They like the curry (didn’t she just make a curry? What’s with the curry all of a sudden?) but it’s very powerful. Gail likes the idea, very bright, local, but maybe too powerful. Morimoto thinks the grouper is simple, he wants a bigger piece.

Gail, Michelle, and Tom choose Isabella.
Morimoto, Padma, and Melanie choose Antonia.
So it’s all up to Wolfgang Puck, who says Antonia’s flavor is better but Isabella’s tartar is perfect, so he’s picking….Isabella.

Like I said before. Shit.

It’s all up to you, Blais. No pressure or anything. But you were one of my original picks for winners. And that guy you’re up against was one of my original picks for Get Off My TV Now. But like I said, no pressure.

And next week is absolutely positively really honestly the final episode of this season. Except for the reunion.

Now, you want to know about last meals… read about former French president Mitterrand’s last meal. It included the consumption of an orlaton, a tiny bird which is traditionally drowned in Armagnac, roasted then eaten whole while the face is covered with a napkin. If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or for that matter if you’ve read Laurie Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds”, one of 2010′s Best American Short Stories. French presidents, now they know how to chow down at the end.

BASS 2010 – PS by Jill McCorkle

I confess, I did not like this story. I will give some reasons, but the main reason, I think, is that I just didn’t care for it. I happen to be something of an expert on marriage counseling (from the counselee’s point of view) and this just felt ho-hum. Jerry, well into his marriage to Hannah, suddenly becomes a born-again Christian and keeps trying to save her. Yes, this is annoying. It’s probably a good reason to leave him, since it probably masks a deeper problem. She has trouble finding a suitable marriage counselor, finally arriving at the office of $200-an-hour Dr. Love, whose name is a deal-breaker for me. Some details of their marriage are revealed, none of which are that interesting. It’s more interesting that she hides in the bathroom of the doctor’s office reading People magazine. It’s very interesting she confesses to an affair with the plumber which never happened, then takes offense that Jerry would believe her. She has recovered from her bad marriage, and it’s interesting she’s letting the doctor know that. But it’s just not a story I care about, it’s not a character I care about, and while I find some of the incidents funny or bittersweet (the Chihuahua trying to hump the Labrador reminds her of Dudley Moore and Susan Anton, and of her own relationship with Jerry, who is shorter than she is; the opposite of love is apathy, not hate) it just never went beyond Redbook fiction for me. Back when there was Redbook fiction. Which I understand no longer exists, though I haven’t seen an issue of Redbook in a few decades.

However, I’m not fool enough to think my judgment is superior to that of Richard Russo, The Atlantic (where the story was first published and in whose archives it can be read in its entirety), or Jill McCorkle (who in her Atlantic interview describes it as a woman’s journey to come out the other side). So I’ll just say my experiences got in the way and I wasn’t able to appreciate the story. Which is the sort of thing a decade of marriage counseling will teach you to say. See, I told you I was an expert.

p.s. It is indeed the p.s. of the story that carries it, which may be part of my annoyance at having to read through all that to get to the Space Needle imagery: we get tossed around, we get scared, and we immediately get in line to have another turn. And we no longer look like shit on a stick.

Fun with Search Terms!

wordle

Wordle

[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! Since I am new to blogging, I have fun with strange things, like statistics. WordPress provides many fun statistics, most of which I do not understand. But I love looking at “Search Engine Terms” because some of them are so strange, I do not know how they ended up on this blog at all! And sometimes they are just strange. Or they ask questions that are funny. Or questions I want to answer. Or questions I want to learn the answer to! So I am going to tell you about my favorite Search Phrases from the past month or so. Most I have taken verbatim, so there are typos and strange grammar. And Greek! Some are search terms that do not quite fit or are funny; some are questions I can answer but I do not know who has asked them; some are questions I can not answer, some are questions that have shown up many many times (most of these are about Top Chef), and some are English students trying to do their homework without actually reading the story! Silly Students! Do your homework, read the story! It is not that hard! And many of the stories are wonderful!

Search phrases that do not quite fit:

overtime recompense – sorry, different recompense.
récompense cpa – ditto.
silence exercises for kids – is this the thing where you see who can stay silent for longest? I am not sure what post it led to.
idiom-if a man can’t tell his pancetta from his pecorino, he is inadequate – I would say this is absolutely true, since pancetta is a meat and pecorino is a cheese. But I have not been able to find an actual quote like this, maybe it is in Italian? That would be cool!
as if she were a huge fish and we were fishermen I am very disappointed that I could not find anything that closely matched this, because I think it is wonderful! I have no idea how it led to our blog.
magician pulling out fashion models I love this image! But it led to the Rao Top Chef episode which had nothing to do with magicians or fashion models but did contain the words (and she did refer to Blais praising Fabio as a magician pulling something out of his hat at the last moment, which is better than pulling something out of his ass).
the whores child by richard russo – this is an actual story and author, but the wording could get Richard Russo into a lot of trouble!
songs with the word guilty in it- 2010 – someone needs to learn how to google.
tree – About 492,000,000 results found. I am surprised. I would think it would be much more.
100% – About 6,420,000,000 results found. And I will bet s/he still did not find what s/he wanted.
επεισοδιο παρτυ 15 μαρτιου 2011 – The best I can do is “episode party 15 March 2011″ but I do not know what that means! And I do not know how this could possibly lead someone to my blog – it is in Greek! I do not type Greek! I do not know Greek! Could it have something to do with that damn yogurt commercial?

Questions I can answer but nobody is there:

what does a chef use for putting his serve of soup into a dish that starts with l I am yelling “LADLE! LADLE!” but you can not hear me!
im greedy for his calls what doset mean – it means you will end up crying.
can you buy baby artichokes in supermarket – No, the hardware store. Ok, I am sorry, I am being mean. Yes, you can, but they are not always available especially if you live outside of artichoke country. You might do better at a farm stand but it depends on where you are. I found them (once) in my supermarket and I hope they come back because they are wonderful, all the artichoke fun and none of the hassle!
how do i know if i should quit online poker because i am greedy – I think the question contains its own answer.
when does the tiny wife kaufman come out – It is out! It is out! See Madras Press! Buy it! It is wonderful!
what knife does curtis stone use in his shows? – Curtis Stone is a fool. He and Gordon Ramsey should be thrown into the sea.
the twins off social networks real name – In Real Life the Twins are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Yes, that is their real name on court documents as I understand it. In the movie they were once referred to as the Winklevii which is very cute but they probably do not think so. They were played by one actor in the film, Armie Hammer, sort of: there was a stand in, Josh Pence, and Armie was superimposed later saying the lines if both twins were in one scene. I suppose that is easier than finding twins who fit the bill.
are you going for a beer – No, Robert Coover already went for one.

Questions I can not answer

+reason for a donkey to die ( suden death) – I suppose this showed up on this site because of the Steve Almond story review “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” which involves no donkeys but poker players. If you have lost an animal and want to know why, try a veterinarian, or a veterinary web site. The best I can find is colic and cardiomyopathy but both of those have to do with horses not donkeys and I am not sure if there is a big difference in medical terms. After all, people and pigs are similar, similar enough to use pig parts to repair human heart valves and other organs. If you are doing research for a story, a veterinarian is even more important!
aimee bender’s email address – Try her web site, which comes complete with guest book which you can sign and if you leave your email address. And just because it is a cute web site. And Aimee Bender is a delightful writer! Try “The Third Elevator” if you do not believe me!
was there a episode of paula deen that she used five pound of butter – Was there an episode in which she did not? For those who do not know, Paula Deen is a TV cook and specializes in Southern food. She makes the French look health conscious. A pound of butter is like a pinch of salt to her. I find her very annoying. But I would probably love her food!
a dog goes swimming at the beach and then shakes himself all over to get dry. what principle of physics aids in the drying process? – Do not confuse us with a Physics website, even if this collection of words does, somehow, call up our What If? writing exercises. But there are Physics websites out there that answer this! Hint: centripital force and surface tension might be some of it. But do not take that as an answer!
antonia on top chef what restaurant in beverly hills did her family own – I do not know, it was not stated in the show and I could not find it doing a quick search. And I am not interested enough to look for a 20 year old restaurant. But I am sure someone was interested enough and if you look hard enough you will find it!
tell me how to put mustard on fish and fry it. i’ve heard of it but i don’t know how? I have never heard of it, but I do not like mustard. It seems you can add prepared mustard to the egg/milk you dip the fish in before breading, or you can add powdered mustard seed to the breading itself. But find a recipe site from someone who has actually cooked this way.

Things a lot of people wanted to know: Some of these I can answer. Some I can not. But a LOT of people wanted to know:

(Top Chef) Didn’t Tiffany get married? Tiffany (from Beaumont!) talked a lot on Season 7 about how she was about to get married as soon as she went back home after the contest. Then on Season 8 there was a family episode and her mother came instead of her husband. I thought this was odd too, but I figured it out! The family episode was about making the family tree for the chef, and her mother would be much more helpful than her husband to do that. Or, it could be that her husband did not want to come or could not get time from work or something. I do not know. This was not addressed on the show. It is possible it will be addressed on the Reunion episode, since so many people (really, I think there were maybe 100 versions of this question over the past month on my blog alone!) want to know!
(Top Chef) Did tiffany get a divorce – See, now this is how rumors get started!
(Top Chef) What was padma wearing in any given episode, and/or who designed it – I mention her clothing when it is striking or she looks unusually beautiful or dumpy (she looked dumpy once, yes, she did, in Season 7, towards the end, she wore a green terrycloth towel wrapped around her and pretended it was a dress and she had flab popping out over the top, it was awful! And then there was the awful green pants she wore in an episode in Season 6 but that was just the ugly color). But I am not interested enough to figure out who made it. She said in a very early season that she wore her own clothing. If you really want to know, pay close attention to the credits and see if there is something like her wardrobe furnished by X. I do not think so, though.
(Top Chef) What is the recipe for pea salt – I have not seen an actual recipe, but on Jimmy Fallon after her win, Carla took dehydrated peas, some kosher salt, and whirred them around in a spice grinder for a few seconds.
(Top Chef) Why did Antonia not win the Paula Deen quickfire? You were not paying attention, you twenty people who asked this! She did not win because the assignment was to make two plates and she only made one! They always always make at least two plates, one beauty plate that can sit under hot lights and putrefy but look nice for the camera, and one to eat. Pay attention next time!
Who is speaking in / who wrote / who did the music for the fage yogurt comercial I eventually answered all these questions in the post or the comments. Willem Dafoe is the voice over actor. Brian Tierney of Mullen Advertising in Boston wrote the copy (and was creative director for the spot) and Guy Amitai wrote the music. Now can we move on past the yogurt commercial? Yes, it is cool, we have all seen it now and I have been answering questions about it for two weeks and I am tired of it now so let us get on with our lives.

Students trying to avoid reading the book/story

write 3 questions about the story axis by, alice munro that don’t alow the anwser to simply be a “yes” or “no” anwser – I will give you five questions: 1) What or who is the axis of the title? 2) What does the dream mean? 3) What happens to Grace after the embarrassing intrusion? 4) Why is Royce such a meanie to Avie on the bus? 5) Would it not be easier to just read the story and make a list of the questions? It is not that long! And there is sex in it!
the hollow lasdun theme questions – I am thinking there is a teacher out there telling students to come up with questions for all these stories. Or maybe more than one teacher? Themes of “The Hollow” aka “Oh Death” include man vs nature, suburbanization extinguishing rural life, the differences and similarities between us, and reading the story for yourself instead of googling for your homework assignment.
cousins charles baxter criticism comments, what is the main idea of the cousins by baxter, interpretation “the cousins” charles baxterDamned if I know. And I had a whole writing workshop commenting on it! But it is a good story!
what is the symbol in the paranoia by said sayrafiezadeh? You mean there is only one?

Thank you for coming, I enjoy seeing people visit! By the way, I got a PROMOTION! I am no longer a Contributor, I am an Author on this blog! But it is not because I did such a wonderful job, it is only because it is easier!

Ben Marcus – “Rollingwood” from The New Yorker, March 21, 2011

Rollingwood

New Yorker art by Jamie Grill/Alamy

In high school, I had my first experience with Depression, the capital-D kind. At the time, my English class was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I couldn’t finish it; that novel became the synonym for depression for me. Then we read The Scarlet Letter which also depressed me immensely (all these novels about single mothers doomed by society while the men who impregnated them went merrily on their way…). And to round out the trifecta, I discovered Hermann Hesse. Beneath the Wheel. Every depressed high schooler reads Hesse, but I had a whole collection. Demian. Steppenwolf. And one other, I think… Because The Bell Jar just wasn’t depressing enough.

This story is so depressing, it brought me back to those days. Poor Mather, who runs into obstacles at every turn, who never runs into anyone who says “Yes” or “I can help you with that” or “Sure”. His baby is sick. His carpool is callous. His daycare is closed for no reason. His boss is inaccessible, and his boss’s secretary sabotages a message to make it seem he’s quit his job. Busses run a minute early and he misses them. His ex-wife takes off and leaves him with the baby for an unspecified period of time, then gripes that he’s left the baby with a stranger – a baby sitter who protects the child when the ex-wife shows up. And he has no recourse. It’s just too much. I love to wallow in misery as much as the next person, but this was too much. There was no point, other than describing suffering. Ok, there is a slight uptick at the end, with Mather looking again towards Rollingwoods, that far-off place from long-ago, and is inspired to build a train table for his son. In his interview with The New Yorker, Marcus says: ” What seems sad to me at the end is Mather’s apparent hopefulness.” And he’s got a point there. But isn’t that the point of the piece? The hopefulness that arises, out of refusal to accept reality or just stubbornness and insistance that there must, there must be something good somewhere? No? Ok. Let’s go back to unremitting misery. And foolish hopefulness as a symptom.

I read another story from Ben Marcus recently, “The Moors” from Tin House which was reprinted in one of the Madras Press series 2 books. Alienated man goes to office coffee cart for a danish. It takes him thirty pages to get there. I gave up twelve pages in. That isn’t to say there wasn’t some good stuff in there, though I can’t remember any of it now. It didn’t work for me. His forthcoming book, The Flame Alphabet, sounds amazing – the central premise is the toxicity of language, how irresistable is that. He claims the book has a straightforward narrative line, a single clear plot, and is less “experimental” than his other longer fiction. But he considers “The Moors” to be pretty traditional narrative. Hmmm. I have until next January to decide. For now, I think Ben Marcus is way out of my league.

Top Chef All Stars Season 8 Episode 14: Island Fever

Kasimir Malevich - White on White, 1918

The pre-credit postmortem is mostly Isabella being very pleased with himself and it makes me sick so I’m going to skip it. Shut up, Isabella. Though he does say something about Carla being everyone’s mother. I’m warning you, Isabella, shut up. That’s Carla you’re talking about.

The Quickfire challenge takes place in whatever kitchen they’re using. The chefs walk in and find Padma and Lorena Garcia (from The Next Great American Restaurant) and large stacks of plates. The Quickfire is about consistency and precision. Padma declares: Anyone can get lucky just once. [Oh?] A great chef makes a dish the same way every time. Blais agrees in interview, consistency is an important part of a great restaurant so people can come back and get the same dish they loved last time. See, that’s why I think being a restaurant chef would be boring, you make the same damn thing every night. The challenge is to make 100 identical dishes in one hour. Padma and Lorena will chose two at random (the plates are numbered) and choose a winner based on consistency. The winning team gets $5000. I guess they split it, though it isn’t spelled out.

Padma tells them to divide into pairs. Isabella doesn’t want cousin Antonia, she’s the Black Hammer. But the real reason is he likes to ride on male coattails and that’s Blais. They divide into Boys and Girls. Antonia says she would’ve selected Tiffany anyway, she’s calm and collected and has great technique. Isabella says the girls know they (the Boys) are better. Shut up, Isabella. Blais says the important thing is the same amount of food on each plate. He has a bead of sweat hanging off the tip of his nose and it’s making me very nervous.

The Boys make pork Bolognese with fresh macaroni and pecorino cheese. That’s Beefaroni, right? Or Porkaroni. Or, as they call it in New England, American chop suey. Isabella is going to make pasta from scratch. Hmm, didn’t he get into trouble doing that last time? Actually, if I didn’t despise him I’d think it was pretty cool he was going back to do it right. Blais interviews he’s disappointed he didn’t win last challenge but so far he’s had four wins and hasn’t been in the bottom yet. They made one batch of everything so the taste would be the same. They use a serving spoon to apportion the glop. Blais thinks it’s delicious and the plates look the same so he’s happy.

The Girls make seared tenderloin salad with lentils and celery leaves, cilantro, mint, and basil. And chimichuri. I’m not sure all of that made it onto the plate, but that’s what they kept saying. They have four components, so consistent plating will take time. They also make one batch of everything to help with consistency. Making a cold dish was part of their strategy.

Blais thinks he’s more ambitious. “When you don’t know what to do, sear tuna or beef on a salad.” Blais, what’s getting into you? You’ve been pretty snide in the Bahamas. It’s not becoming. Isabella says he could’ve done what the Girls did by himself and sent Richard out for beer. Shut up, Isabella. Antonia thinks fresh pasta in an hour is a feat, but plating four components is more difficult than scooping Bolognese onto a plate. Can you just hear a producer in the background saying, “So, what do you think of their dish, it’s not as hard, is it?” to both of them.

Padma and Lorena pick numbers. Padma picks 02 20, the birthday of baby daughter Krishna. They both felt the dishes looked and tasted consistent, but they pick the Girls as winners. Antonia says Blais and Isabella are “sour grapes salty losers.” At least I think that’s what she said. Salty? Isabella says, Whatever. Shut up, Isabella. Tiffany says it was an in your face moment. I know Isabella’s misogyny was done to death in his season, and everyone from his wife to Jen denied it, but he really is an ass. And a misogynist. Has he ever had anything good to say about a female chef?

Now for the Elimination Challenge:

The Commodore of the Nassau Yacht Club is having a lunch to celebrate the club’s 80th anniversary, and the chefs are cooking. The theme is “deserted island”. They must use conch, a popular ingredient in the Bahamas. Blais starts mumbling about catching a wild boar. Last week it was a goat. I think he wants to go hunting. Well, he’s sorta kind gonna get his chance. Isabella says he’s been practicing, it’s a difficult product to work with. If he’s really been practicing, that’s a good thing, everyone should’ve been practicing because it is a common Caribbean ingredient. Blais has to thread the needle just right to make it to the finals. He’s been baking bread, he’s grown a beard, all the things you should do to prepare for a finale. That’s my Blais! Tiffany says she’s made it past where she ended her season and goes into her Small Town Girl routine again.

They go to the dock to catch their boat to the island and Padma is wearing her much-heralded bikini and stringy sarong skirt. She does look good. I guess she wanted everyone to know that. Captain Andy, who Isabella calls Sammy Hagar’s twin brother, is going to take them to the island where they’ll cook. They have three and a half hours from when they hit the beach. They wonder what equipment they’ll have. Isabella assumes they won’t have to clean the conch.

They get to the beach and there’s a bunch of crates with all manner of food in them: beautiful produce, spiny lobster, grouper, snapper. The conch box has snorkels, goggles, and little pickaxes. Uh oh. It’s not hunting goat or boar, Blais, but it’s hunting of a sort. Right? Tiffany’s never gone snorkeling. “There’s sharks out there I’m pretty sure,” she interviews, it’s really cute. Blais doesn’t want to see Isabella topless- “and you don’t either.” No, I could’ve done without that. I guess the producers told them to be prepared for swimming, since everyone has swimwear under their clothes. You know, Antonia looks pretty good, much better than you would’ve thought from her Jimmy Fallon appearance where she looked awful. She rocks her tankini.

I think the conches were planted; they’re pretty easy, in maybe 8 feet of water. Antonia can swim quite well, says she used to swim a lot. The hard part is putting the conch in the net while treading water. Tiffany thinks she needs ten conch. Blais says the first conch he sees is too deep for his swimming skills, he can’t reach it. It’s fun to watch him try. I grew up in Florida so I did a lot of swimming, but I guess if you’ve never swum much you might have trouble. Tiffany realizes “the snorkeling thing isn’t working out for me,” takes the snorkel off and holds her breath. I think that’s what Antonia did too. She starts having fun with it. It takes them about a half hour to snorkel for conch.

Antonia has never worked with conch before and doesn’t know how much meat she will get out of each. I recall it’s hard to get out. Blais calls it survivalist cooking: no electricity, no toys, just a wood fire grill, pots and pans, and a table. And bottled water. Antonia worries about the sand. Blais plans to break open the shell with the little pickaxe hammer thing. Good – see, I think that’s why those were supplied, Blais. He doesn’t have a lot of experience, has never done this before since he can’t get conch in the shell back home. He does a cute riff of the orchestra of conch shell shucking, bam bam bam, click click click. I think the editors left in way too much footage of conch shell smashing. We get the idea.

Tiffany has never worked with conch either. It’s taking longer than she expected to get them out. This could be a disaster if she continues to struggle the way she’s struggling. I just noticed her chyron says “Private Social, Executive Chef” instead of Go Fish: Aha, Go Fish closed last November, and Private Social, a new restaurant with a double identity (part upscale, part downscale so rich and poor can go out to dinner together – huh?) took her on as exec, very cool. It sounds kind of screwy to me. The owners are “wedding industry” people, not restauranteurs, so it’s all on her shoulders. I hope it goes well for her.

Antonia feels the opposite of last time, this is a dish she likes, conch tartar, lobster nage, fresh and bright. I have discovered “a la nage” literally means “swimming” and more or less means a French technique of cooking lobster in an herbal broth with wine. She’s worked in many different restaurants, and the wood burning grill is most challenging station she’s ever worked. The flame is dying down as the wind whips up but she gets it going again.

Tiffany wants to push herself and do something different. She’s making conch and coconut chowder, with conch ceviche on top, so she’s making conch two ways. She wants the coconut to stand out, will include coconut cream. Tiffany is surprised by mild flavor of conch. She enjoys soups with a cool finish, so she’s putting ceviche on top of the soup to combine two temperatures. Seems to me it’ll heat up the ceviche pretty damn quick, but what do I know. She plates a little early and her soup sits out for a couple of minutes, with the high wind blowing. Maybe heating up the ceviche isn’t what she needs to worry about after all.

Blais is exhausted, dehydrated, feels 70 years old. It has been a workout, hasn’t it. He does a play on linguini and clams – Linguini and conch, because conch is to the Bahamas what clams are to the northeast. He sees how beautiful the inside of shell is, like a sweet potato, so he’s going to use sweet potato to mimic linguini. Sweet potato noodles. That sounds awesome. I’ve seen zucchini noodles but this sounds better. I’m going to have to find the directions. He interviews that he feels added pressure because he lost his season. He knows the gravity of this. Richard, honey, everyone lost. That’s the point. I think he means he was actually in the finals, and he’s the only one left who made it to the very last episode. Still, it’s a stupid comment. Why is Richard being stupid all of a sudden? Is it the tropical air? Just as he’s getting ready to serve, he looks around and notices everyone else has made Caribbean dishes, and he’s made a Hamptons-inspired dish. He missed the memo! Padma said use conch, not make a Caribbean lunch! Oh no!

Isabella is making banana-leaf wrapped grouper with a warm conch vinaigrette, and he’s going to cook the sweetness out of some pineapple so it’s savory. He interviews that he doesn’t pay attention to what other people are doing, doesn’t care. Then he says he thinks Antonia is masking flavor of conch, and she makes the same food no matter what. So I guess he is paying attention. Shut up, Isabella. He remembers the Vegas camp challenge where they cooked over fire pits. In Interview he sneers at Elia being sent home in the first episode for her banana-leaf wrapped fish but assures that he took it to the next level, it’s a refined but peasant dish. I don’t think he’s even listening to what he’s saying.

Another boat pulls up with their guests. Everyone is in white. Padma in one shoulder white of course. Everything is very white. The chuppah (ok, cabana? Some white gauze over a frame to provide shelter from sun), the clothes, the people. Mighty white. Thierry Huguenin, the Commodore, is a Swiss national with that French-German accent some Swiss have living in the Bahamas. And the servers are all black. The Nassau Yacht Club has 475 members. Do you think they’re all white? Gail is wearing one of Padma’s necklaces. Padma isn’t wearing any necklace. The ex-commodore is a guest, too. They discuss the term limits for Commodores and compare them to NY Mayor. The consensus is, it’s easier for the Mayor of New York to change the law so he can run again, than it is to change the rules of the yacht club. I believe that. I’ve served on church committees where opening a window can take three weeks. Someone points out the Commodore is a three time World Champion in Sailfish class. I’m not sure what Sailfish class is, but everyone seems impressed. Gail tells a story about sailing boxes in Canada on the Great Lakes. Not Sailfish class, I don’t think. Is Gail Canadian? I didn’t know that.

And the tasting:

Blais made Long Island sweet potato linguine with conch and spiny lobster. Lorena’s lobster is undercooked; Gail agrees, Lorena’s is undercooked but apparently everyone else’s is fine. One of the Yacht Club women says they don’t cook conch in the Bahamas but it’s good. Tom is surprised he made pasta from sweet potatoes, they actually try to figure out if it’s pasta or sweet potatoes. They’re very surprised, amazing. The Commodore likes the mushrooms. Addendum: And regarding the sweet potato linguine: the recipe is available now on Bravo. The tricky part seems to be the “Japanese Sheeting Mandolin” which translates, for real people, to a spiral vegetable slicer and can cost from $22 to $719. After that, it’s just a matter of heating the “noodles” in chicken broth until al dente. Pretty cool.

Antonia serves seared snapper with conch tartar and lobster nage. The ceviche has a punch, Lorena loves it, Gail gasps and drinks some wine. I think that means it’s spicy. Others describe her food as great and delicious. Tom says the conch is cut too small so it gets lost, his fish was overcooked, and someone else’s was overcooked.

Tiffany brings her coconut chowder with sweet potatoes and conch ceviche, garnished with coconut cream. The chowder is not hot. Lorena says she likes it because the ceviche is on top, someone likes the mango and sweet potato, but it’s too sweet. Tom says the flavor hasn’t been developed enough.

Isabella serves banana leaf wrapped grouper, braised pineapple and warm conch vinaigrette. One diner says the fish overwhelmed by pineapple. Tom says it didn’t need butter, the fish is rich already. Gail loves what Isabella did, the pineapple is savory and sour, not sweet.

And the now-traditional Interstitial at 40 minutes: They cast themselves in Gilligan’s Island. Blais volunteers to be the Professor, which fits. Isabella is the Skipper since he’s big and old (I don’t see him as old, actually, and until he took his shirt off I didn’t realize he was big) Tiffany would be Ginger. Tiffany doesn’t think she’s Ginger. She doesn’t know why she ends up in that role, she doesn’t wear evening gowns. Cut to her pounding on a conch shell with a hammer. I love you, Tiffany. You’re so yourself. Carla was Gilligan. I’ll buy that. I used to have a crush on Gilligan. They say they can see the real Gilligan’s Island the series pilot was filmed in Hawaii and then the series was filmed on studio sets, and The Real Gilligan’s Island from 2005 was filmed on an island off Florida and while the Bahamas are off Florida I don’t think it went that far. But I could be wrong. And don’t all small tropical islands look alike anyway?

An important announcement: Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen starts March 22 on the SyFy channel. That’s cool. It’s odd that it’s on the SyFy channel, but I’m glad it’s not Food Network, since they’d make him stop using real cooking terms and cook dinner in thirty minutes or for ten dollars.

In stew:
Isabella: “Did you taste my conch?”
Antonia: “I did taste your conch, Mikey.”
Ok, I can put aside my dislike for Isabella long enough to giggle at that.
Tiffany is happy with her dish, it’s exactly what she wanted to make. Blais never feels good, he did something in a different direction, classic. “Yeah,” says Antonia, “potato noodles are super classic, what’s wrong with you?”

They all go out to JT. Padma doesn’t come get them, they just go. Maybe there was a silent whistle only chefs can here. Tom was impressed there wasn’t any sand in any dish.

Antonia felt giving this was a direct reflection of being out there, where her mind went. I’m not sure what that means, maybe I typed it wrong. I think it means she liked her dish. Lorena found a nice balance, sweet and spicy. Tom wished the conch was cut a little bigger, to get more flavor; it was lost in the brunoise. He liked the amount of sear on the fish but the doneness was inconsistent. Padma didn’t like the conventionality, it was the most predictable dish. Antonia says, that’s my style of food.

Blais had a sense of authorship and uniqueness. Padma says the pasta is unusual, Tom says pasta was really good, he thought it was real pasta. Gail says didn’t associate some of the ingredients, mushrooms and fennel seed, with Caribbean food, but it worked. Lorena says the conch was perfectly cooked, but her lobster was undercooked. Back in Stew, Blais says he doesn’t believe it’s possible the lobster was undercooked.

Tiffany says everything today made sense. Lorena says everything was cooked perfectly, and the cilantro did it for her. I don’t understand, is cilantro that unusual? Gail pins her down on the soup being cold. Toms says the flavors were there, the basil and cilantro were nice, but it was a little on the sweet side.

Isabella felt he embraced the challenge and used local ingredients. Gail thought pineapple was amazing, Tom enjoyed banana leaf, which gave a smokiness, and mysterious flavor. The only thing Tom didn’t like was the butter.

Back in Stew, Isabella says something that you think you’re doing well and then you get a smack in the face. What smack? “Now I know why you’re stressed before judges table every time” to Blais. What is he talking about? Shut up, Isabella.

And the winner is Isabella. Ewwww. This is not good. But they felt he showcased the conch in the most unique way. He starts crowing: “I’m showing Blais I can compete with him and beat him.”

Tiffany’s out. She’s very gracious. She admits she was out-cooked.

Next week: another Last Supper. Antonia has a brace on her wrist. And something tastes rancid.

BASS 2010: Brendan Mathews – “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer”

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

Hello, I am Zin! I now have my own account! I am officially a Contributor to A Just Recompense! I am very happy about this! I want a T-shirt too but I will settle for a Gravatar. We took all day to figure out how to do this and I hope this post works. We will have to figure out who does what stories but for now we agreed whoever liked the story best gets it so I am doing “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” by Brendan Mathews – because how can you not love a story with a title like that?

It is not easy to write a story about unrequited love without getting all sappy and stupid and trite, so making the love triangle about a lion tamer, an aerialist, and a clown certainly helps avoid those things! I thought maybe Mathews worked in a circus for a while, but no, he was a nuclear weapons journalist before he went for his MFA. I did not even know that was a job! In his contributor notes (hey, he is a contributor too, just like me! But I think his contributorship is a lot more prestigious than mine) he said it took him five years to go from draft to story, with several major changes including the idea to put the “you” in there. I am still interested in the “you”. It is an unusual approach for a story and I think it works very well here, which is surprising, it could go bad very quickly but it does not. It makes me want to read more by this writer!

I love that this story is both surreal and very down-to-earth. I love the first line: “He wasn’t even a good lion tamer, not before you showed up.” Hah, I remember that writing exercise about first lines, and this one is a doozy. It sets up the situation, creates interest, and introduces the three characters. And all three characters are people I cared about very much! I knew from the beginning something would happen to the lion tamer of course, and I figured it would be bad, so it was not really surprising but somehow it was satisfying in terms of resolution. As usual the ending is not nailed down – this is something I need to work on, because I do not know that I could leave it literally up in the air like that, about the aerialist, but that is what fiction is now and I must learn to do this.

Richard Russo said on an NPR interview that he loved the story because of its whimsy and how well Mathews created a circus world. You can also read an excerpt from the beginning of the story in that same interview.

Thank you for reading my first review as a Contributor! Please let me know if you like it or not, so I can improve!

~ zin

Kevin Brockmeier – “Ryan Shifrin” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010

Fractal Art

Illumination - Fractal Art by Vicky Brago-Mitchell

I subscribed to Tin House this year (I try to rotate my subscriptions through several journals, since there’s no way anyone can read them all) partly because of two of the entries in BASS 2010, and partly because of their “buy a book from a local bookstore” push last year. By the way, the journal smells wonderful. If that makes me sound a little crazy, well… I picked a great time to jump in, since the first story I read in Tin House was “Ryan Shifrin.”

It’s one of those stories that makes you sit for a few hours with a stupid look on your face, just thinking about it. No, not even thinking about it – feeling it, letting it reverberate fully through all the emotional nooks and crannies. Then you think about it. And re-read it. And look up reviews to see if you’re nuts or if someone else thought so, too. And when you finally sit down to write something about it, you can’t, because, well, it’s one of those stories. A story that makes you want to throw away your own scribblings because someone else has written what needs to be written, and written it more beautifully, more interestingly, more readably than you’ll ever manage. And leaves you angry because you haven’t written anything like that, haven’t even tried, never realized it was possible.

It’s actually a chapter from a book, The Illumination, which consists of six chapters about people affected by The Illumination – a mysterious process whereby pain became light, and shone forth from wounds visible and invisible. No more pretending your trick ankle is acting up – it’d glow if it were, get out there and play tennis. No more hiding the bruises from the weekend’s beating, they glow through the makeup, scarves, clothes. No more secret cancers, everything’s out there. This reminds me of Ken Kalfus’ “The Moment They Were Waiting For” from Three Stories (published by Madras Press) where everyone becomes aware of the date of his death. I felt there was a missed opportunity there to look at how that would affect society. In some ways, Brockmeier takes on this task, using various characters to do so. Of course, he had a lot more space to play with the overall idea.

Each chapter concerns one person who sees the Illumination from a particular point of view. “Ryan Shifrin,” the chapter in Tin House is about one man who has never had much pain himself, outside of a rash and an abscessed tooth, but he seems to be a magnet for catastrophe. Death, natural disaster, violence follow him around but always spare him. His sister dies; she was “a Christian by constitution; whereas Ryan was merely a Christian by inertia” except for an occasional moment of wonder. At the heartless, cruelly phrased suggestion of his pastor, he takes up missionary work after his sister’s death (which occurred before the Illumination began) and watches victims of fire bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, building collapses, tornados strewn about with wounds glowing: “He felt like a man from some ancient tribal legend who had angered the gods and been doomed to walk the constellations.” He does a lot of thinking about pain, beauty, and God. “If the trials of Job could be a sign of God’s favor, then couldn’t Ryan’s good fortune be a sign of God’s hostility?” And why does God make the wounds glow, is that because God enjoys the light show? “If it was our suffering that made us beautiful to God, and if that was why He allowed it to continue, then how dare He, how dare He, and why, why, why, why, why?” The last four or five pages are full of these thoughts, from one idea of God to another, as Ryan’s life moves quicker and quicker until he is in his eighties and the subject of an honorary church service, almost a memorial for the living, at which he comes up with a final few lines I won’t quote here – you have to read it in context – that had me sobbing helplessly on the couch.

His religious questioning goes deep with me, due to what I sometimes refer to my “misspent youth as a fundamentalist.” As a tween and teen, I was into church. I was really into choir, music, singing, but it was all in church so I was into church. I got over it, but it’s like an accent, it’s something you never quite get rid of entirely, and when I run into a text like this, it feels like something I should’ve written. Or at least tried.

Shelfari at Amazon does an interesting interview with Brockmeier that includes his influences for the book.

Etgar Keret – “Surprise Party” from One Story, issue 146 3/15/2011

stock image

Three guys, a banker, an insurance agent, and a dentist, go to a surprise party…No, it isn’t a joke, it’s the beginning of “Surprise Party.” They never get names; they’re identified by physical characteristics. The bank manager becomes Mustache, the insurance agent, Band-Aid (which brings to mind the Mayhem guy from those car insurance commercials), and Eyebrows is the dentist. They meet each other at the elevator to Avner and Pnina’s penthouse. They’ve been invited to a surprise birthday party for Avner, which is a surprise to them because they never knew they were his friends. Turns out Pnina invited everyone in his BlackBerry, all 300 names, and they are the only three who showed up, which tells you all you need to know about Avner and Pnina, I suppose.

From there, they react differently to the waiting room: Mustache finds Pnina attractive, Band-Aid doesn’t want to go home to his depressed wife and smelly child and is aching for some excitement, and Eyebrows can’t wait to get home. There’s a phone call, a trip to Avner’s office, a rumor about a gun, a swoon, a kiss, a slap, and everyone goes home. That’s about it. We never meet Avner. We never find out what happened to him. We see a little into the three gentlemen’s worlds and a very little bit into Pnina’s.

I kept thinking, maybe this is some kind of heavily symbolic Jewish tale, what with the three guys having different roles and attitudes. Or maybe it’s some kind of heavy-duty literary style that I’m not capable of grasping. But in the interview with Etgar Keret at One Story, I found out that it was conceived as a paean to writer’s block, which, he says, is like waiting for an honored guest to show up: all the energy is there with no place to go. And the shift in POV from the men to Pnina towards the end is the development of the story in lieu of a plot twist. I’m not sure I understand this. In fact, I’m sure I don’t – the POV shifts happen throughout, and I didn’t see the shift to Pnina as different from that of the gentlemen. We still don’t learn much about where Avner is, or why he is out, or why he does not have friends; at first I thought maybe he was dead, but surely between them his banker, insurance agent, and dentist would know that. Is he having an affair? Has he told Pnina he wants a divorce and this party is a last-ditch effort on her part to woo him back? Or is the separateness of their relationship, her loneliness and isolation from her own husband, the point? I’m not sure.

So this went by me. But that’s ok, I’m broadening my horizons. And it was an interesting read, if ultimately a less than satisfying one for me.

This story was translated from the original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.

Jill Ciment: Heroic Measures (Pantheon, 2009)

Heroic Measures

A fellow WordPress blogger, Jeanie from 2manybooks2littletime, recommended this book to me. I saw it was from Oprah’s “Summer Reading List” and had little hope for it. In fact, I was quite sulky about it when I started reading. It’s a small book, fewer than 200 pages with lots of white space, so I went ahead with it anyway. I’m very glad I did. Jill Ciment is from Montreal and teaches at the University of Florida, but she did a great job with New York. Her interview with Oprah (including the origins of this book in a Lost Cat poster on a telephone pole that was covered up by Missing People posters after 9/11, the importance of Chekhov, and how her first draft didn’t contain the real estate element) is available in transcript online.

The novel covers an extended weekend and is divided into chapters:
Friday Night: The Lady With The Pet Dog
Saturday Morning: The Invasion
Saturday Afternoon: The War
Saturday Evening: Ceasefire
Sunday: Queen for a Day
Sunday Evening: Fountain of Youth
Monday Morning: Animal Sense

It’s set in the period immediately following 9/11, though the time isn’t nailed down exactly. The main characters are Alex and Ruth, an elderly couple living in a fifth-floor walkup condo in Manhattan. Their realtor, Lily, figures the asking price as nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, and this figure – millionaires! Images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! – entices them to put the apartment on the market even though they’ve lived there for forty-five years, figuring they could get another apartment, one with an elevator, for a million dollars.

The story opens with Friday Night: The Lady with the Pet Dog. Dorothy, their twelve-year-old dachshund, develops an ailment which has her incontinent and partly paralyzed. Dorothy is part of the third-person narration here, experiencing fiery and icy pain as she is carried down the stairs on a cutting board to the animal hospital. This almost did me in, as I had a cat who woke up paralyzed and I’m familiar with the incontinence of older dogs. I have to admit, I was sulking here. I don’t like the dog having narration.

Getting Dorothy to the animal hospital isn’t as simple as it sounds, since there are helicopters and fire trucks and sirens and standstill traffic. Alex and Ruth hear rumors from Mr. Rahim, their neighbor and falafel stand owner, and from the cab driver, an Indian with a large cross hanging from the rearview mirror, who isn’t paid to think, or answer questions: there’s a fire in the tunnel, a fuel truck is stuck, etc etc. They get out of the cab and walk, in freezing cold, to the animal hospital, where they have to get through a metal detector (Dorothy’s collar keeps setting it off even after they’ve taken off their watches and Ruth’s purse has been examined) and show picture ID. Finally they are told Dorothy has a ruptured disc and while steroids may work, she may need surgery, and she may never walk again.

At this point, I’m thinking I’m not going to make it. Is it just hitting too close to home? My cat, Lucy, is having another spell of I-don’t-eat-I-don’t-pee-don’t-bother-me. I’m still recovering (hah – I’ve finished recovering, what I’m left with is what I’ve got) from disc problems in my neck that cause chronic pain and arm numbness and weakness. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t be reading this book right now. But there’s some great stuff here. The Indian cab driver with a cross, and the metal detector at the animal hospital, these things are pretty cool, actually, they speak volumes. And Alex and Ruth are discussing helping Dorothy with her eliminative functions (dog and cat owners, as well as parents of small children, talk about such things quite easily, but I don’t know who might be reading here) and she says, “I don’t mind helping her.” He replies, “She might mind.” And I wonder if we’re still talking about Dorothy.

There’s another Dorothy-pov narration, which I really dislike. It isn’t exactly anthropomorphisation, but it bothers me. Saying a dog whimpers is one thing. Saying it knows pain differently since the orange flash earlier that evening is another.

They return home, leaving Dorothy in medical care. Mr. Rahim at the falafel stand tells them the Midtown tunnel is still stuck, and a robot has been sent in to investigate; they inform him of Dorothy’s medical state. We discover Alex is not enthusiastic about this move. He is an artist, and his studio is something he has arranged very precisely; it isn’t as simple as re-arranging it in the same way in a new space. He’s currently working on an illuminated manuscript, the manuscript being Ruth’s FBI file. Her mother was a Russian Jewish immigrant, and Ruth has been on the left of everything her whole life. I think this is terrific. I wish I had an FBI file to illuminate. Who knows, maybe I do. But I doubt it. The idea of illuminating an FBI file actually came from Ciment’s husband, Arnold Mesches, who did such a thing with his own files in The FBI Files: A Collage Series. You can see some of it as exhibited at the Witherspoon Gallery at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. You can even buy a book of the art. I love this.

There’s mention that Lily, the realtor, is selling the studio as a nursery. There’s also mention of Ruth being relieved, and trying to be disappointed, by her lack of gestation early in her marriage as her friends moved to the suburbs and started families. Lily calls, and tells them she has a potential buyer coming at 8:30 a.m. Ruth is surprised, since she didn’t think anyone would be out house-hunting with a fuel truck stuck in the tunnel. “I closed on a Tribeca loft the day after Nine Eleven,” Lily reassures her. I’m beginning to love this. And to realize something: it’s funny.

Ruth finds her eyeglasses behind the microwave and wonders how they got there. This raises a red flag for me – it’s a classic Alzheimer’s thing, putting things in strange places and not remembering. But I don’t know if that’s what it’s supposed to mean; Ruth hasn’t exhibited any other behavior like that. Ruth recalls her life by eyeglass frames. That’s interesting, I could probably do the same. Alex and Ruth go to bed; he sees the remote in her hand “like a morphine pump” which, now that I think of it, is pretty accurate in terms of the function of a TV remote control. Alex can’t really hear – he’s had his hearing aids out all day – but he sees the “LIVE” banner on the TV screen and tells her that means something is up. Ruth corrects him. “They’re onto LIVE. They know all about LIVE. Nowadays, all LIVE means is that the newscaster isn’t dead.” That’s pretty good. And very accurate. “Breaking News” can be twelve hours old, and it’s still a magnet.

The hospital calls and tells them a test, plus surgery, will be needed, as the steroids are not doing much and Dorothy is losing sensation. They approve the procedures, which will commence at 7 a.m.

I am still not enjoying this book, and I still do not know why. But now we move on to Saturday Morning: The Invasion, and I start enjoying the book immensely.

Little Dog Dorothy is having surgery; the realtor brings in people for the open house; news reports are covering the escape of the fuel truck driver. Bidding starts just as the truck driver breaks into someone’s apartment to escape, and she offers him meth. Yes, it’s as bizarre as it sounds. The bids seem to be affected by the news, by Pamir (the truck driver-terrorist, we’ve seen so much of him on the news, we’re on a first-name basis with him now), by a similar incident in Baltimore which turns out to be a seagull flying into the windshield rather than terrorism. The realtor invokes the Mugging Principle; if only your block is dangerous, prices go down, but if everywhere is dangerous, prices go up. Crazy people show up to see the condo – one woman lies on their bed to see the view, another brings her dog, and they all track in snow.

On Saturday Afternoon: The War starts – the bidding war. Ruth gets calls from the animal hospital interspersed with the bids to inform them Dorothy has opened her eyes, has taken water, has wagged her tail. And the woman who was held hostage in her own apartment tells the news reporter how she offered him meth. It’s hilarious. Ruth gets fed up with herself: “I changed. I couldn’t wait to take advantage of Baltimore’s troubles. When an accident there affects real estate here, when a dead seagull can elicit such terror in us, everything’s changed.” Still, the bids are going up, up, up, and it would be so nice to have an elevator AND a doorman… They start ducking the realtor’s calls.

On Saturday Evening: Ceasefire: There’s a scene with Alex and Ruth and their much wealthier friends Rudolph and May having dinner in a “pan-equatorial” restaurant – one of those “coffin-width” places with ten tables you find in NYC. It’s hilarious, the waiter putting on airs and describing the food by atoll, the diners fussing with their over- and under-dressed salads or the overly-quick delivery of the entrée. Seriously, you have to read it. Pan-equatorial? Well, makes about as much sense as “Pacific Rim” which inspired a number of chic eateries in the 90′s. The cheesecake, however, is from Passaic, just in case you were wondering.

On Sunday: Queen for a Day Ruth and Alex go condo shopping and find themselves on the other side of the looking glass. They make an offer, and will drop off a deposit later. I have to admit I got a little lost in the real estate transactions, and I’m not really sure whose calls they’ve been ducking or why. Then they visit Dorothy in the animal hospital; they’ll take her home tomorrow. The news on Pamir has shifted to Bed Bath and Beyond (there’s a lot of play with the word “Beyond” as he has taken hostages there. His mother is talking to him from outside, trying to get him to surrender. A forensic psychologist (you know who you are) is interviewed, and declares the connection between food and culture is why Pamir has chosen to take his hostages in the kitchenware section of Bed Bath and Beyond. This all has a Wag the Dog quality to it – everything is being said and done very seriously but it’s hilarious. I hope someone makes a movie of this. It’s hilarious only, of course, because we aren’t there experiencing it. Alex and Ruth continue to duck the realtor’s calls. Rudolph and May call from their beach house, where their TV is out so Ruth gives them a blow-by-blow on TV as Pamir surrenders and is forced to strip naked (because he might have a suicide bomb on him) with all the important parts tastefully blurred out for TV news. Alex and Ruth go down to the condo they want to buy to give their deposit: now that the crisis is over, they can make decisions. Alex is a little surprised there aren’t people celebrating in the streets. “Everyone in New York is on a cell phone,” he says to Ruth. “Maybe they don’t want to celebrate alone,” she says. This touches me deeply. I know exactly what they both mean.

Sunday Evening: Fountain of Youth is in sight, but then, an elevator isn’t really a fountain of youth. Alex and Ruth debate (over Chinese Shrimp by the light of a Yahrzeit candle) the offers they’ve had on their apartment: the women with the Labrador, who turns out to be a seeing-eye dog in training and would love to be near the dog park a block away, and the woman with clients who turns out to be some kind of chiropractor and has no pets but has the slightly higher bid: enough to pay for moving Alex’s art. Alex takes a Viagra just in case. Ruth realizes this just in time.

Monday Morning: Animal Sense

I admit, I was disappointed with the ending, but I frequently am since vague and nebulous endings are so in vogue these days. But it was a very worthwhile read, with many details that ran through the book that haven’t been adequately presented here. I just wish Dorothy didn’t have narrated scenes.

Robert Coover: “Going for a Beer” from The New Yorker, 3/15/11

"Harold Angel" by Davis & Davis

"Harold Angel" by Davis & Davis

Time loops and spins in this very short story, available online, which begins: “He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one.” I love this sort of thing.

In his interview, the author admits “sometimes anticipation follows event” – (aha! The Twin Photons of Geneva and subsequent experiments where effect preceded cause, and now anticipation follows event, quantum mechanics brought to life! [please do not confuse me with someone who knows what she is talking about when it comes to quantum theory, I only understand the broadest strokes and even them very vaguely]) and that “The play with time”‘s the thing. He also declines to discuss the story – “To expand on a story shaped by such contraction is to undo the story itself, not explain or clarify it, so I pass. But, yes, all our lives can (and mostly do) shrink to a few words. Ask anyone on his or her deathbed: How did I get here so fast? I’ve only just begun!” – and I’m wondering about such churlish interviews. Though I can see his point: this story is simple. As he says later, “It’s not the joke, but how you tell it.”

The story itself is very simple: engaged man picks up Kewpie Doll lover in a bar, marries her, endures some discomfort at work where his first fiancee also worked, has children, gets old, dies. I think it might’ve helped if this “joke” was a little more interesting, but how he told it is pretty good. I enjoy time paradoxes, folded-over timelines (as long as they are deliberate and not mistakes), obscured sequences, a la Heinlein, Asimov, and even Ishiguro (I still say The Unconsoled was a life-flashing-before-his-eyes deathbed scene, but I’ve been shouted down and outright laughed at for my naivete on that one).

The fun here is in how we think about something, we know it’s probably not a good idea, and we do it anyway. Sometimes it works out, though you can’t remember if you enjoyed the orgasm or not. Sometimes you end up surrounded by beheaded and dismembered kewpie dolls. Either way, you die in the end. Because that’s what we all do – remember that amazing early-on flash, “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood? “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” Others have recalled Cheever’s “The Swimmer” though I can’t think of that without bringing on nightmares about Burt Lancaster, thanks to a high school teacher who foolishly decided that students would respond more favorably to a movie than to actual words on a page. A later high school teacher thought the same thing about True Grit, ignoring the truism that when you throw John Wayne and Glen Campbell into the mix, you end up with something totally different from what you started with.

But back to “Going For a Beer.” I seem to have trouble staying on track; it’s a story that has to be read, because that’s where the fun is, not in a summary or analysis. It was a fun read. I enjoyed it. If it had been twice as long, I would’ve enjoyed it half as much.

New Entries to “Cool Sites for Writers and Readers”

[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! I have added three new entries to my “Cool Sites for Writers and Readers” page! I learned about all three on Zoetrope, the online writing workshop I have been using for the past year.

First is “Over the Transom” which is a blog of tips about submitting work to publishers (stories to journals, novel manuscripts to publishers). It just started last week so there are only a few posts. If you are a writer, especially if you are new to submitting for publication, this is a funny, entertaining place! So far I have not read anything that is astonishing, but these are things I would not have known about if I did not hang out on Zoetrope where people talk about these things a lot. The person who told me about this site says it is from the editor of Camera Obscura (which is a pretty good journal, relatively new, they have published some very good stories), but there is nothing on the site that says so, and nothing on the Camera Obscura site that says so either, so I am not sure. But it is nice anyway.

Second is the site TJ Forester keeps. TJ is a writer on Zoetrope, he has a book just out called Miracles, Inc. which is about a televangelist now on Death Row looking back at how he got there. Now, I do not know TJ very well, but he seems like a very nice guy. And he is going to hike the Appalachian Trail starting in a few days, from Georgia to New York, and blog about it! I think that is very cool! But the very coolest thing is that he is going to hike all the way to New York and get on the Stephen Colbert show! I am not sure how he thinks this will work, and he does not seem sure, but he is going to try and he would like some company on his walk, so follow his blog and see how he does! I think this is sort of like getting Betty White on Saturday Night Live, except TJ is not famous, he is just a guy and it is such a cool idea that I want to support him any way I can! And all he has asked for – not money, not even to buy his book (though I am sure he would love that and it is on my list) is for people from Zoetrope to link to his blog, so I can do that for him!

Several weeks ago I added a site, “The Coward’s Journey” and I forgot to post the addition here so I will tell you about it now. It is by Vanessa Gebbie, a British author (she is also on Zoetrope where I heard about this) and she is tracing the publication of her book, The Coward’s Tale from acceptance by Bloomsbury to release. She has so far talked about the contract, editing, and the creation of the cover, and it is very interesting to watch this process, which I will probably never see first hand!

Thank you!

Top Chef All-Stars Season 8 Episode 13: Fit for a King

Welcome to the first of what I’ve heard (but do not promise) will be four Bahamas episodes. And possibly the worst night of Top Chef I’ve seen since LeeAnn was sent home in 2006. I’m not disagreeing with any decisions. I’m just, well, completely miserable how things turned out. Then again, LeeAnn’s done pretty well for herself, hasn’t she?

The five contestants gather, and the only one who really looks different is Blais. His hair is… normal. What, they wouldn’t let him bring hair gel with him on the plane? And he’s grown a bit of a beard. Enthusiastic stubble, really. His daughter Embry Lotus` is due any day now (at the time of filming in January. SPOILER: Embry was born in early February).

Eric Ripert is back as judge, since Jen is long gone and they had time to plan in the weeks between the main season and the Bahamas episodes (which can’t really be called the finale, not yet).

For the Quickfire, they find the winning chefs from their original seasons waiting for them:
Kevin Sbraga from Season 7 for Tiffany,
Michael Voltaggio from Season 6 for Isabella,
Hootie-Who? Hosea Rosenberg from Season 5 for Carla, and
Stephanie Izard from Season 4 for Blais and Antonia.

Isabella immediately thinks he wants to pair up with Michael Volt if they’re doing teams since MV is awesome (which is true), showing once again how sleazy he is in hiding behind more talented chefs. Damn, I hate Isabella. (for the record: I’ve never met him, he may be a very nice guy, but on both his Top Chef appearances with the exception of a few clips from last week, he’s been a total ass on camera). But his evil scheme won’t work: they are to compete against the chef from their original season in cooking an ingredient chosen for them by Tom, and the winner of each season will win $10,000.

Blais thinks, wow, now’s my chance to win where I choked. Hosea wants to prove to “the haters” that he deserved to win. Michael Volt wants to preserve his “somewhat” perfect record.

Season 4: Blais, Antonia, and Stephanie have a rack of veal to cook.
Antonia makes roasted veal with a leek and almond puree and a sauté of mushrooms, arugula and raisins. Her induction burner keeps going out on her while she’s cooking. Eric thinks her veal is way too dry. Tom thinks her veal is very tough though her flavors are pretty good so he picks her as winning over Stephanie kind of as the best of the worst; Antonia groans that it’s a great way to win.
Stephanie makes veal scaloppini with tapenade and a poached egg; tom thinks her veal is cooked well but she has too much going on; Eric is confused by the egg but her veal is cooked well so he picks her. Padma breaks the tie by choosing her as well, then she competes against Blais:
Blais makes veal two ways, a braised veal cap and seared loin, Tom says it’s a good play on salty and sweet, Eric concurs, he’s the hands down winner of the Season 4 group.

Season 5: Carla and Hosea have a rack of lamb.
Carla decides her soups and stews have been well-received so she’ll try that, but her induction burner keeps going off, as did Antonia’s, and she puts the rice in with her stew. She knows it’s a big mistake as soon as she does it. The rice doesn’t cook. She knows Hosea has to mess up totally for her to win, and she tells him she just gave him $10,000.
Hosea makes braised leg of lamb and wins unanimously over Carla’s undercooked rice.

Season 6: Isabella and Michael V have a whole duck. Isabella decides he’ll make MV do the butchering, to trip him up, but the tape clearly shows MV saying he’ll take care of the butchering, probably because he wants it done right. Did I mention Isabella is an ass? He sneers at MV for using a smoke gun, an immersion circulator, and a pressure cooker. I don’t know that MV used all those things. I certainly wouldn’t take Isabella’s word for it.
MV makes duck leg in bacon, duck breast, something about citrus and I could swear coffee pesto was in there somewhere, it kind of whizzed by me. Padma chooses his as the best dish.
Isabella makes cashew-dusted spiced duck breast with mushroom jus. Eric and Tom choose Isabella and he wins the Season 6 group. Which really depresses me.

Season 7: Tiffany and Kevin have pork, what looks like a suckling pig. Tiffany thinks, ok, I can do this, blow them away with flavor.
Tiffany makes stewed pork with potatoes, peppers, citrus, allspice. Tom says they’re both really good but he prefers Tiffany, and Eric agrees. Tiffany wins Season 7 group.
Kevin makes barbecued pork with cilantro and celery.

Elimination challenge They’ll be cooking for Bahamian royalty.

They have two and a half hours prep time with all the ingredients available in the kitchen (I’m not sure which kitchen, maybe the hotel?) and then they’ll have an hour too cook on site, which is… somewhere, they don’t know yet.

Isabella thinks of royalty as people who’ve eaten everything and traveled the world. Tiffany says she’s going to cook like she would for anyone else. Bless her. Blais interviews he’s cooked every fish found 100 mi of the Bahamas as training, and is prepared to hunt down a goat, kill it and cook it if need be. I believe him. Blais is making spiny lobster with pulled pork and pickled turnips. Antonia prepares lamb with bacon, Brussels sprouts, blue cheese, and hazelnut butter. Carla worked in the Bahamas, and wants to use that experience. She makes pork medallions and apple chips. Mentally she needs to get over being on the bottom for the QF, get rid of the self-doubt. She talks to Antonia and says she does better when she’s underestimated, because she’s afraid of failing when she thinks she’s got it. She’s cooking for everyone who’s ever been underestimated (aww, thanks, Carla, cooking for me!), and she starts to tear up. So do I. Nowhere near as much as I’m going to, though.

Isabella goes into ass mode. He thinks everyone is playing it safe. For him it’s not an honor to be there, it’s an honor to win and he’s going to fight. I’d like to remind you, Isabella, that Robin beat you in your season. Yeah, buddy, chew on that while you’re proclaiming yourself king of the world.

They pack up and a police escort arrives: police on motorcycles, and a huge Hummer type thing for the five of them. They head to their mysterious destination where royalty awaits. Isabella says every time I’ve had a police escort it’s because I’m going to jail, thank god those days are over (I call bullshit, I don’t think he’s ever been anywhere near a jail) and now I’m being escorted to royalty.

It’s a street festival of some kind, lots of colorful costumes, feathers, trumpets, drums, dancing. They get out of the Hummer thing and do some dancing. Isabella says he does the NJ Two Step, it has two steps, to his right and to his left. Carla dances it up. Tom comes out and introduces the King of Junkanoo, Yola. Carla says how could that have escaped me. They explain Junkanoo is a celebration like Carnival or Mardi gras. Which is true, except, well, it’s held on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. But since the episode aired the day after Mardi Gras, I guess they left that out. And since this was filmed in January, not during Christmas week, they had an extra Junkanoo celebration just for Top Chef. This has Fake written all over it – since this particular Junkanoo parade is only happening in one place instead of all over the island as it would at its proper time.

So the challenge is to cook for 50 people including the King of Junkanoo, which means it isn’t really royalty. It’s like cooking for the Queen of the Homecoming Parade. At the local Friendly’s. Tiffany is happy, because her dish is for these people. Antonia thinks her dish won’t be good here. The kitchen is not what they were expecting. They have deep fat fryers, a microwave, and flattops instead of convection ovens and high-BTU burners. Isabella says he’ll make it work.

Antonia puts plantain chips in the fryer, and the fryer next to it is smoking. She says several times someone should be told about the fryer – I don’t know what the responsibility of the camera guys is at that point, or if there’s a producer around, but Carla’s trying to turn the thermostat down and the thing bursts into flames. So now they have, as Blais puts it, 35 gallons of oil on fire. And they’re still milling around trying to figure out what to do, worrying about covering their food instead of GETTING THE HELL OUT OF THE KITCHEN THAT ‘S ON FIRE. Eventually they do leave. I seem to recall a kitchen fire on that stupid Rocco DiSpirito show and no one really batted an eye even when it went into the wall, maybe kitchens are like that, fires are to be expected. But I wouldn’t hang around.

They go off someplace to wait for the fire to be put out. Isabella asks Antonia what she did, and again I want to smack him. Blais says he thinks he’s in Antonia’s head, intentionally, because it’s a competition after all and she’s known for coming up with good dishes so if he can psych her out, maybe she’ll make a mistake. Blais! WTF? You’re better than that, man. You should be ashamed of yourself. Anyway, I don’t think Antonia needs anyone in her head, she says she’s in a bad space, having done poorly on the QF. And I don’t imagine being accused of starting a fire is helping matters.

Tom comes in and tells them the fire protection system contaminated everything with chemicals, the food has to be thrown away and the kitchen scrubbed down, and they will be starting over. Approximately the same food will be available; they can change their dish if they want. Tiffany isn’t happy; she had one up on everyone because she went simple. I agree with her; now the element of surprise, of adaptation, is gone. But it’s been replaced by a new element: fatigue, fire nerves, and general chaos.

They start over. Blais chooses to do a new dish because that’s the spirit of Top Chef, not to just crank out recipes you’ve memorized, and it doesn’t hurt that he knows what kind of place he’ll be finishing in. He’s going to make cannelloni filled with pickled turnip and braised lamb instead of spiny lobster and pulled pork with pickled turnip. I guess he really wanted to do pickled turnip. Antonia also changes her dish, from lamb with hazelnut butter, bacon and Brussels sprouts to shrimp and pork-infused grits, which is less formal and more traditional. Carla changes the apple chips she was making in some way but I’m not sure what it is, because they were wilting. But she’s still doing pork medallions. Everyone else pretty much stays the same. They’re provided with countertop fryers instead of the built-in ones. Carla decides to cook entire pork tenderloin in the fryer, not something she’d normally do but thinks it will cook more evenly. More evenly than what? I don’t know what other option she had since there is no oven in the venue. I don’t understand why she did this. It kind of sounds wonderful, actually, but the center is raw and she has to “McGuyver it,” so she slices the medallions and cooks them on the flattop. Uh oh. That doesn’t usually work on Chopped, and it’s the sort of thing that makes Alex Guarnaschelli groan. Isabella thinks it’s easier to prep the second time around, and that his execution is better than anyone else’s. Ass. Tiffany isn’t there for a Bahamas vacation, she wants to win. She feels good about her food. Antonia doesn’t t think her dish came from her. That reminds me of several stories I’ve read about women, usually teenage girls, who give birth and wonder where the baby came from. Well, where do you think it came from? Carla puts a “smear” of sweet potato on her plate, and she says she’s going to catch it for is smearing; her folks are going to accuse her of going over to the dark side. I think it’s a sign she’s lost herself again. Why not sous vide the pork, Carla, make it really elegant?

Something is off here. Tom describes the dishes at the table – why not the chefs? It’s like this was filmed at another time and they faked eating or something. Something’s fishy. Speaking of fishy – in her Bravo blog, Gail claims they didn’t understand the King of Junkanoo wasn’t real royalty either, they never realized it was a regular guy until they sat down with him. And these are people who’ve traveled the world? What’s wrong with them? That’s pretty stupid.

Carla serves fried pork medallions, sweet potatoes, and apple chips. Eric thinks it’s close to a desert, much too sweet. Gale’s pork is raw. Oh, no. Carla, honey, you don’t recover from raw pork. Eric’s is cooked perfectly, however, and he thinks Tom is just jealous.

Antonia makes crispy shrimp with pork grits and slaw. Eric thinks the shrimp are seriously overcooked. Gale says meat is buried, with no distinct flavor at all. Tom sneers at the shredded carrot on top: “Howard Johnson’s called, he wants his garnish back.” He doesn’t understand the pork in the grits. Padma says it looks like mystery meat from school cafeterias everywhere. Tom says it turns the grits from creamy grits to stringy meat and grits. Ouch.

Isabella makes Sous Vide Chicken, mushroom, yams, and lobster hash. Eric thinks the elements all make sense, Padma thinks the sauce is good, Tom likes all the surprises. Gale thought the white meat was dry but the dark meat in the hash was good.

Blais serves lamb, roasted loin and malted braised leg with pickled turnip cannelloni and mustard. The King says lamb is great. Eric says it’s delicate, not pungent, and the cannelloni is a little overcooked (I thought he said undercooked but then he says it’s too soft). Tom thinks the cannelloni is the best part of the dish. Blais is upset in the kitchen, convinced he screwed up.

Tiffany makes roasted pork tenderloin, dirty rice, tomato relish, and curried slaw. Gale enjoyed it, but it’s not exciting. Tom says it’s nice but simple. Eric says it’s not cooking for royalty, and it needs a sauce to keep it from being dry. Gale wanted more ginger tomato jam (that does sound good), and the curry slaw wasn’t very curry-ish; Tiffany admits she shouldn’t have called it that; she lost focus. Eric calls it street food, which from him is a big insult; remember the baseball challenge when he got all snooty about chicken skewers?

Traditional Hilarious Interstitial: Blais has a theory of nuts as music genres. Peanuts are rock and roll; walnuts are almost the same, sort of like British rock; almonds are ballet or classical music (I guess he doesn’t know much about classical music). Hazelnuts are hippie nuts; someone calls out “pistachios” and he decides pistachios are pop. Then they get into “Brazilian nuts” and Carla wonders if anyone actually eats them, they’re just in nut mixes because they’re big and they take up a lot of space (yes, people eat them, in fact an entire episode of House revolved around a spy being poisoned by eating too many Brazil nuts). The Nut theory of music. Ok.

In Stew, Blais says he hates everything he’s done. Carla says if there’s no difference between how you feel when you do well and when you don’t, how do you distinguish between them? She’s got a point, but I understand Blais since I never do anything well. Even if 99 people tell me it’s terrific, I’ll cling to the one who goes, “Meh.” I’m surprised Blais is that way, though. I don’t actually think he is, I think he just needs some stroking right now.

Padma calls all of them to Judges’ Table. She does a lot of one-shoulder things with ruffles, doesn’t she? This one is peach. Or maybe beige or pink. On my TV it looks peach-ish. She announces the meal as a whole missed the mark, and one chef will be going home. Tom admits it was tough with the fire and restart (ya think?), but that’s how it is.

Isabella wins. I’m going to throw up. Blais is also safe. But he’s disappointed, since second place sucks.

Carla goes home. Yeah, she had to, raw pork demands it. But I’m so sad. This is really the worst week ever, with Isabella on top and Carla cut. I don’t disagree with those decisions – the comments supported the results. But I’m still very disappointed.

They’re dragging this Padma-in-a-bikini thing out another week. And she’s wearing a sarong over it, so it’s more like a half a bikini. That’s probably even more enticing, isn’t it?

David Foster Wallace: “Backbone” from The New Yorker, 03/07/11

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

I have a very brief and very strange history with David Foster Wallace. No, I never met him, it’s not that. But I checked Infinite Jest out of the library on the recommendation of a friend (a story in itself, but I’m not going there) and when I was on Page 6, news of his suicide broke. I didn’t read any further; I just couldn’t, though I always figured I’d pick it up again sometime. But time passed and that didn’t happen. A couple of years later, I was sitting on the bench outside the supermarket with my organic herb salad and my multigrain bread and my Betty Crocker Milk Chocolate Frosting-in-a-Can (because a foolish consistency and all that) reading New Sudden Fiction and happened upon “Incarnations of Burned Children” which had me sobbing, other bus patrons asking if I needed help, and I just shook my head and tried to think about baseball. I’ve been afraid of him, and in awe of him, ever since.

So this week’s New Yorker story, “Backbone,” had me nervous. I read it anyway. It’s another excerpt from the forthcoming “The Pale King” and is available online. And in fact you can hear David Foster Wallace read it as two fragments, separated by the fragment about Leonard’s 11th Birthday Blowout Bash which I swear I’ve read somewhere but can’t remember where, at the Lannan Foundation website (click on “Reading December 6 2006″). Along with… “Incarnations of Burned Children.” This recording was astonishing to me for several reasons. First, he sounds so normal. I always thought of him as a raving madman, a sort of literary Charlie Sheen, or maybe more accurately Mozart from Amadeus on a bad day. But he sounds exactly like any articulate, young writer might sound. This just made me feel sadder, somehow. I was also surprised as the audience chuckled and laughed as he read the “Backbone” fragments (it plays from minute 1 to 13, then again after Leonard’s birthday from minute 24 to 30; the short story, which he prefaces with warnings about how disturbing it is, takes up the last six minutes). I thought of “Backbone” as strange and, of course there’s a humorous element, but it isn’t something I’d laugh at, it’s more of a sad humor.

The plot is stated in the opening paragraph: Boy wants to be able to press his lips to every part of his body. Why? Shrug. Maybe something about being totally accessible to himself. He injures himself during an early attempt to reach his lateral malleolus, and gets some helpful information from the friendly neighborhood chiropractor. His father is absorbed in his own affairs – literally, since he has an aversion to breaking off an affair once started, but grows bored rather quickly, so he amasses many paramours.

Mother is never directly mentioned; I am not sure if she exists or not, if she died, left, or is just there and is completely ignored. Father married at age 20 and became stifled by fidelity, and thus began his affairs. But whether Mother puts up with this, doesn’t know about it (perhaps she has her contortionist abilities as well, and has her head firmly up her ass), or has died or left, we do not know. “The family home” is referred to, as well as the father’s frequent absences (he sells motivational tapes, how interesting, since his son is highly motivated) but there’s no reference to anyone caring for the boy in his absence. How interesting.

And, what is most interesting to me, none of these people have names. Only the chiropractor has a name. The boy and his father do not. I find that interesting. There’s a lot of historical and arcane medical information sandwiched in, about pain, about contortionism, about stigmata; being a medical junkie, I appreciate that. But mostly it’s the story of this kid’s efforts to increase the reach of his lips (to 10.4 cm, which is quite a pucker – measure it!) and the flexibility of his spine and joints, so that he can accomplish this task. We travel with him until puberty at which time the excerpt ends, and we just assume there is a reason for all this – and wonder, what does he look like, how does he function physically (and emotionally and socially) as an adult? His father just figured he was very limber and took spinal hygiene seriously, the result of his early injury – how does Dad feel later on? And of course, the primary question – does the boy finally kiss his eyelids, his forehead, the top of his head? If so, how? And if not, what does that do to him?

But I guess we’ll just have to buy the book to find out. Good thing it’s coming out next month. I wonder where he’ll take me next.

Ken Kalfus – A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006)

I read this book by accident. No, I didn’t fall, it was like this: After reading Ken Kalfus’ Three Stories from Madras Press, I ordered Thirst, his first collection of short stories recently re-released. At least, I thought I did. Turns out, I ordered this novel instead (I’ve been focusing my attention on short stories lately so I was not looking for a novel). At least I think that’s what happened. Maybe I deliberately ordered it because I knew it used 9/11 as a take-off point (though that would be more likely to disincent me), maybe I thought it was a collection, maybe I hit the wrong button, maybe I don’t know. Anyway, this book arrived, I ordered Thirst (which I’ve already talked about), and now I’m reading this, because, well, it’s here. And the New York Times review sounded interesting.

I am not a fan of 9/11 literature. Or 9/11 songs. Movies. Whatever. I have no particular moral stance on this, I didn’t even think about it until recently. It’s too soon. But, as I said, the book was here, so I am reading. And I’m commenting as I go, though I won’t post this until I’m done. The overall story concerns a couple, Joyce and Marshall, whose divorce corresponds to the immediate post-9/11 period.

Chapter One, titled “September”: On 9/11, Joyce is supposed to fly to San Francisco on the flight that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania, but at the last second the meeting is cancelled and she returns to her office in time to see the towers, in which Marshall works, burn. Both think the other has been killed. Both are happy the other has been killed. Both are wrong. Marshall helps another guy, Lloyd, as he escapes from the Tower, only to see Lloyd’s head split by falling debris. It reads like many of the survivor accounts we’ve all read. This is my problem with 9/11 literature. I don’t want to read fiction when there’s an abundance of history and biography that need to be heard. I guess I resent it. I don’t quite understand why, since I don’t resent fictional accounts of other disasters. Like I said, maybe it’s too soon. But the first chapter is good, if you don’t have my hang-up. Excellent, in fact. Their marriage, from amiable failure to war, is chronicled; “It was in a previous decade, another century, that this had started out civilly, as an agreement reached almost affectionately that their marriage was not as warm as it had been. In the six months of therapy in which they were encouraged to break down the barriers that prevented them from speaking frankly, Joyce and Marshall discovered that they hated each other.” Now that’s successful therapy. Then they move on to arbitration, and finally to cutthroat lawyers.

There are children, as there usually are. Viola, four, poops “willfully” in the park. Joyce leaves Vic unattended (in a New York park) to get her cleaned up, and this becomes custody fodder. Joyce muses: “The force of Marshall’s hatred was nearly self-validating: after all, how could a man believe with such fervor and be wrong?” Of course, such a man can be wrong, as we all learned and will review later on.

As Marshall works his way out of the crumbling Tower, he realizes “…in these moments of peril, decision, and action… something was being revealed. He could discern hope. He could, at this instant, glimpse a vision of the man he could yet be.” I understand this. So did Chekhov when he said, “Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s the day to day living that wears you out.”

“October”: We learn about terror sex. Joyce isn’t having any (she’s having terror Cherry Garcia), but a lot of her friends are: “She had come up out of the station, Dora said, and had absentmindedly looked for the towers to orient herself, but they weren’t there and the man was and he understood her confusion at once.” Joyce and Marshall are still living together separately, still not communicating except in minimal phrases about who picks up the kids today. Then Joyce’s building gets an envelope containing a white powder. Gee, I’d forgotten about the post-9/11 Anthrax. “The mail had become another kind of unsafe sex.” It’s a hoax, but Joyce thinks the handwriting on the envelope looks a lot like Marshall’s, so she goes for an interview with the FBI, gives them his name, and finds an incriminating bottle of baby powder in her bathroom. In a panic she emails the FBI agent, who flubs Reply (he hasn’t had his training yet… how much training does an FBI agent need to reply to an email?) but finally tells her they’ve located the hoaxter, at which point Joyce hits on him, all this while Marshall is pounding on the bathroom door demanding equal access as stipulated in their separation agreement. You have to read it to appreciate it. It’s good.

In “November”, the war proceeds in Afghanistan and in a certain Manhattan apartment. The baby powder turns out to be a remedy for a rash Marshall experienced. Joyce becomes enthralled with all things Afghan, including restaurants, jewelry, and “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and all the permutations thereof. And the term “high-strung” becomes important. It’s applied to Joyce, per Marshall’s doctor. To Amanda, Joyce’s mother. And to sister Flora, who is getting married, when Marshall calls fiancé Neal and gets invited to his bachelor party. He also acquires a device that allows him to listen in on Joyce’s phone calls. Joyce calls up Roger (though apparently not while Marshall is listening), half of a former-friend-couple, to return a photo album which she forgets, requiring that he return to the apartment where they get it on in Marshall’s bedroom. At which point he reveals that he has some gripe against wife Linda, and he takes Joyce’s Afghan ankle bracelet as a trophy: “…she knew she had not seduced Roger at all. He had his own reasons for making love to her, something to do with Linda….. Every human relationship was a conspiracy.”

The bachelor party, plus wedding, happens in “December” along with some very clever psychological warfare on Marshall’s part during the bachelor party to plant seeds of anti-Semitism in the Jewish groom-to-be and his Jewish friends which then spread to the bride-to-be and her family as more and more Jewish elements are added to the wedding, including a chuppah which turns out to be very complicated and is the calling card by which Marshall announces his deceit. I still don’t quite understand why. To humiliate Joyce, the bride’s sister? To prevent the marriage, any marriage (this one being the one he has some connection with) from happening at all? Just to be a mean son-of-a-bitch? It’s quite stunning in execution in that way that I never understand, since I’ve never understood how this kind of manipulation really works. A key moment is when the children “play 9/11″ by jumping from the porch.

We then jump to “May” and the third-person narration shifts to Viola. The kids learn their parents are getting divorced. They know all about divorce. I’m thinking it isn’t realistic to think they’ve been living in this – they see a child counselor and spend time with their parents on alternate weekends, so they’re already experiencing shared custody, what, they never overhear anything? Are they slow? I’m being mean, but it doesn’t ring true. Kids usually know what’s going on, or at least they know something’s going on. I’m not crazy about the shift in POV of this chapter, though I suppose it’s necessary to show how Viola processes knowledge of the divorce.

In “July” we see the divorce from Marshall’s eyes: does he know his wife well enough to decide if she’s bluffing or if she’s confident? He discovers her 401k, which he guesses she’s forgotten about since it hasn’t been touched. And it’s outperformed his dismal efforts by a factor of 10. She buys an espresso machine which infuriates him. He sets out to destroy her 401k, and discovers at last he’s got the Midas touch. He earns her $300,000 in a couple of days. And Joyce appears, while he’s wrestling with Victor’s shoe, looking wonderful, and before he knows it, he’s said, “Wow. You look nice.” This is Against the Rules: they have maintained strict silence, neutral tones, custody of the eyes, for this entire period and he blew it. She swears at him, and Viola, just graduated from day care with a 30 year old soul, explains it to him. And then the boom falls: his company dies, he is jobless, and he knows the Midas touch is gone.

“August” finds Marshall jobless after his company collapses, and he becomes psychically united with the victims of a pizzeria bombing in Tel Aviv as he constructs his own suicide bomb. It does not work, although Joyce tries her best to help him check the wiring.

The final chapter, lots of months, becomes surreal. Marshall goes to a bizarre party which seems to include an Abu Ghraib guard conducting an interrogation. The divorce is finalized, and neither Joyce nor Marshall is happy, of course, which means it’s the fairest possible settlement. The war in Iraq proceeds, is won in record time (here is where I got confused – what?), WMDs are discovered (now wait a minute), Saddam is hung and T-shirts with the image of his hanging become a worldwide rage (huh?), Syria becomes a democracy (now wait a minute…), Osama is found (oh, ok, now I see, it’s a fantasy! A “clean” war to contrast to the “dirty” divorce?) and Joyce and Marshall find themselves thrown together at a street celebration.

It’s funny how time changes things, to look through the retrospectroscope, and yet, it is cool to document things in the heat of the moment. The paranoia. The confusion – what if Bush is right, what if there are WMDs? How we sold our birthright for a mess of potage. How we might never get it back.

A book worth reading.

I am obsessed with… a yogurt commercial??

It’s Dr. Seuss meets Joni Mitchell. It’s Alan Ginsberg goes Chiat/Day. WTF, LOL, OMG and all those acronyms.

I am obsessed with… a yogurt commercial??

First, let me state: I hate yogurt. Oh, I try it every once in a while to make sure I still hate it. And maybe once in a while when I get an urge to be “healthy” because I like the idea of yogurt – and herbal tea – but it always makes me gag unless I get the kind with all the artificial flavors and colors and preservatives and that kind of defeats the purpose of “healthy”. So, I am not a yogurt fan.

I am, however, a huge fan of this yogurt commercial. Not since the Old Spice guy announced he was on a horse have I paid this kind of attention to a commercial. And not since “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” – and you know how long ago that was, I was in high school – have I wanted to memorize a commercial.

You must, must see this. You do not, of course, have to buy the yogurt.

Plain was the same as it ever was the same.
Plainly plain…
Samely same…
But then…someone lit the flame.
Plain rode away on lion’s mane.
Where plain met fruits with strangely names.
Such wonderful things they did contain.
A shot of life to a hungry vein.
The captive beast who broke the chain.
And there upon that fruited plane,
is where plain became what plain became.
So much more than more than plain.
Plain will never be the same.

The ad is by Mullen Advertising of Boston (and Winston-Salem NC, NYC, and a few other places). Tell them what you think of it.

Addendum 3/9/11: Today I was lucky enough to talk to Brian Tierney, SVP/Creative Director at Mullen Advertising in Boston and copywriter for this ad. Thank you, Brian, for taking the time to speak with me! Here’s the overall process he described:

The client, FAGE, is a family company very familiar in Greece but this was their first venture into North American markets. They were looking for some way to define “Plain Extraordinary” – something different to distinguish them from all the other yogurts out there, especially the new influx of Greek style yogurts (those of us who watch cooking shows have known about Greek yogurt for decades, but until recently it’s been a specialty item often mimicked by draining unflavored yogurt overnight through a coffee filter). Brian was glad to have a client who wanted to do something beyond someone eating a spoonful of yogurt and smiling, so he started with a journey from Plainly Plain to Plain Extraordinary. A major influence was “The Rowing Song” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (not Dr. Seuss as I’d supposed), since it involved both a trip and a playful cadence and an acceleration, like a galloping horse or a train picking up speed (Brian’s formal background may be in business, journalism and advertising, but there’s a poet in there). Visuals were then added (they gave the directors some idea of what they wanted, but also some freedom to match image with script) and the spot was born. Brian’s very happy with the spot, and he’s gotten a lot of feedback.

Have sales increased? Who knows. But it’s a lot better than Jamie Lee Curtis.