Fractured Zin!

Cover Art: "Examined Repetition" Image 43 by Wendy Wolf

Hello, I am Zin, and I have been Fractured in Scotland!

One of my flash stories, “Above It All” has been published in Fractured West, Issue #3 – “the pull of distance”! It is such a lovely teeny-tiny book, just the right size to put in your rucksack or your pocketbook and carry with you, full of teeny-tiny stories to entertain you while you are waiting for your lunch or to calm you while you are on Hold with The Man From The Insurance Company (or whoever you are On Hold with).

The cover is beautiful, featuring “Examined Repetition Image 43″ by Wendy Wolf from Philadelphia, shown above. She calls it her form of poetry, and I agree! It makes a very sharp-looking cover! All the art on her website is beautiful!

I am so excited to be in an issue with Greg Dybec, editor of Fix It Broken, and Joe Kapitan, and so many other writers I have seen in so many wonderful places! The stories are terrific – a two-sentence wonder, “Dissection” by Annie Hartnett leading off the volume, “Avoidance Behavior” by Lam Pham, “Olivia and the Bulletins and the Leaving Sadness” by Peter Kispert, and you can read a few of the stories online at the website!

My story, “Above It All” was written in the Flash Factory at Zoetrope earlier this year. The prompt was set by Randall Brown; we were to write a story inspired by the Robert Frost poem, “Birches.” I kept reading words like “arching” and “bending” and I pictured a man arching his back so far he bent over backwards! So I wrote a story about him! He became a giant who protects the town that way, but things go awry as things usually do in stories! It was a fun story to write!

And I am reminded that I have not written any stories lately! I try to do something about that every once in a while but so far those efforts have not ended well. I think I am in hibernation or something! But I am so happy to have this little book to remind me that it is possible to write something! Thank you to Kirsty Logan and Helen Sedgwick for producing this lovely little magazine!

The Sing-Off 2011 Episode 11: Top 3 Finalists – the Season Finale

Hello, I am Zin, and I am very happy that Pentatonix has won The Sing Off! The drawing above is a “work in progress” by na de regen on tumblr (the tumblr is gone, but the art is now at Deviant Art), is this not incredibly cool? The completed full-color pic can be found by clicking on the link, but since I like black and white I included the sketch. It is so wonderful! How happy it makes me that someone is drawing Pentatonix, and so well!

Now, to back up a little! It seems Ben Folds was caught up in a Twitterverse Nightmare after his decision last week, to go with Dartmouth Aires and cut Afro-Blue. He made a post earlier today on his Sing-Off blog reacting to that. I have to admit I am perplexed by his vote, but I still admire Ben Folds very much and I still love this show and I think there was enough room for a reasonable and honest difference of opinion.

Back to tonight! What happened – it was a terrific show, really! The Top 10 groups were there! As an opening number the Top 3 did “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson, which was really nice! Then we follow the Top 3 in a visit to a service organization where they help out and sing a little, and then they perform on stage and the judges give some final thoughts. Later they will sing a number with one of the judges (except Nick will stand in for Shawn), and Afro-Blue will be included in that, singing with Smokey Robinson! That is a very nice consolation prize! And all the women will sing, and all the men. So it is a concert before the results are revealed.

Pentatonix visits The Trevor Project which does crisis intervention with LGBTQ kids to help them deal with bullying and prevent teen suicide (and shame on whoever made the decision to turn it into a support group for tall girls). They listen to kids talk and Avi talks about having trouble in school because he is Jewish, and Mitch was ridiculed because of his voice (which is now a huge asset) which is at least a little closer to the issues the kids in question are actually facing. They tape a PSA and sing “Dog Days Are Over” for the teens. Back on the show, they perform “Without You” by David Guetta featuring Usher. They were not at their best at first, but came together by the end. The earlier performances were taped, remember, and could be remixed a little bit, but this is live. Sara calls them daredevils. Ben praises the surprises and the Avi-Kevin combo. Shawn gives props to the soloists. They will come back later and perform with Nick.

And Vocal Point sings a clip from “Just The Way You Look Tonight” into the commercial break from their box. It is nice that everyone gets to sing a little bit!

Urban Method goes to the Sickle Cell Disease Foundation in LA. Kim has a sister with sickle cell, and Myk has a cousin, so it has meaning to them. They sing “Airplanes” for the people, then perform “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes featuring Adam Levine. Again, it is not their best. Shawn credits them with creating hiphopapella. Sara gives props to the ladies for growing so much; Ben praises their massive sound and credits Tony with great production methods. Sara will sing with them in a little bit.

Dartmouth Aires visit Saving Strokes, which provides rehabilitation via golf for stroke survivors. Michael talks about how his mother had a stroke last Spring and how she struggled with rehab. Back on the show, they perform “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” By Meat Loaf; Amy from Delilah joins them for the female part, and she does a really good job of seeming to be surprised! I was fooled until I realized she had rehearsed this! I am one of those people who thinks you do not mess with this song; they did a fine job but still, the original is pretty iconic. Ben says they stand out from many energetic college groups because they have a theatrical edge, and Michael is an unmistakable lead. Shawn likes that they never hold back. Sara loves the way they have fun with every performance. Ben will sing with them later.

Pentatonix sings “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)” with Nick Lachey. Kevin was a 98 Degrees groupie. Scottie loves having a sixth member. Nick is worried about the dancing, they were the boy group that did not really dance. Nick and Kirstie flirt. She flirts really well in Spanish. Terrific job!

Deltones sing to break, “Edge of Glory” excerpt.

Urban Method sing “Gonna Get Over You” with Sara Bareilles. I know nothing about Sara as a singer. Katie is honored to perform with her. – “Never Get Over You.’ Katie is honored to perform with her. They are very 50s, leather jackets and purple circle skirts with Sara in a beige sparkly dress! Kara Saun has outdone herself! It was nice, not my favorite.

Afro-Blue sings “Put Your Records On” to break.

Dartmouth Aires sings “Not the Same,” with Ben Folds. He has the audience do a sing-along in three parts. It reminds me of a very old concert Peter Paul and Mary did with Rock My Soul, the same kind of audience participation. I do not get the song, but everyone seemed to have a good time.

Yellow Jackets sing to break, “Waving Flag.”

The Women of the Sing Off 2011 Top 10 Groups get together and sing “Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. They call it a sexy, strong, girl statement. Ruby is back! I still do not like her voice no matter what Ben Folds says! She cut her hair. I do not know who it was that was blasting out the high notes, Amy from Delilah? It was fantastic! Oh they were doing so well, really terrific, until the last measure! They sang it just fine, I did not like the arrangement. But overall, terrific job!

North Shore sings “Lazy Song” into break.

The Men of the Sing Off 2011 Top 10 do “Born to Run by” Bruce Springsteen. Someone explains earnestly, “It is a song that came out in the 70s.” I love that they feel they have to explain that! I am such an old fart! One guy says it is easier to learn the song without any girls to distract them! Sure, blame the women! The Queen vs The Boss. Yeah, and three times as many people! The Boss needs three times the voices to measure up to The Queen! Michael is not at his best in this. Nice motorcycle at the end! It was good but I thought the girls were better.

Delilah does “Grenade” into break.

Smokey Robinson sings “You Really Got A Hold on Me” with Afro-Blue –This is terrific! Great job! I hope they are happy with their consolation prize!

The Collective sings “I Will Survive” into break.

There is one more pass at the judges giving encouragement and praise to the top 3. And then they start announcing the results. The last half hour of this two-hour episode is basically stretching, I wish they would have more singing, at least rebroadcast the best performances of the three groups.

Urban Method is third. After everyone not knowing if it is ok to hug them, a hugfest breaks out and Nick tries to get things moving again! They do their swan song, “Coming Home” by Ditty-Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey.

Pentatonix Wins! What a relief, I do not think I could have taken it otherwise! They sing “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. Dartmouth Aires do not get to do a swan song! That is too bad! They just disappear from the stage!

But wait! There is more! Next Week: a Christmas show that will include Nota and Committed as well as Season 3 Groups! Cool!

The Next Iron Chef Super Chefs – Episode 5: New York on a Plate

Hello, I am Zin, and I actually liked this episode!

The Chefs have moved to New York City to continue their battle. Geoffrey Zakarian says it means they are halfway to being the Next Iron Chef. Michael Chiarello says Marcus Samuelsson is a force to be reckoned with but he came to be the Next Iron Chef, too! Alex Guarnaschelli says Anne Burrell and Elizabeth Falkner are the toughest competition. Zakarian says Falkner is very clever and inventive. Anne feels a different energy; tensions are close to the surface though it is masked with big smiles! And as she says that they show a picture of all the chefs, and she has the biggest smile! I do wish they would stop telling me how tense things are, because things do not really look that tense other than them all constantly insisting they are tense!

Alton Brown meets them at Grand Central Terminal, which he says is the world’s largest train station (it must depend on how you measure it, since Nagoya, Japan thinks they have the largest train station). The challenge is: Storytelling. Zakarian does a pimp spot about how the Next Iron Chef has to be a profound storyteller because he gets to tell his story only once with no rehearsal. I do not know, if I had to list five things the Next Iron Chef must be, I do not think Storyteller would be in the list. But the Food Network LOVES stories! All those poor Food Network Star contestants have to make up stories for every dish, it is hilarious sometimes how they make stuff up and drag all their dead relatives into it! Anyway, Marcus is happy, he loves storytelling.

Alton has six postcards, each with a New York location. The chefs must come up with a dish and a story both inspired by the location on the card. Chiarello was the last winner, so he gets the advantage of… choosing last! Aha! Twist! Someone must have been up for hours dreaming up that one! Because really, picking random cards when you do not know what the cards are, there is no advantage to going first. Chiarello wonders what the advantage to going last will be.

Anne picks first, and she gets Central Park. Alex interviews that is good, because it has grasses, birds, and flowers; I think that would be a pretty strange meal, but I suppose trained chefs might think differently.
Falkner picks the Statue of Liberty. Marcus says that is good because it is the most iconic.
Marcus picks Broadway. Alex says that is a tough one to put into food. Tears!
Alex gets the Empire State Building. Anne says you could do something tall, or something romantic, or something with bananas – because of King Kong. That is a bit of a stretch, I think! Anne is a little bit nuts. But I think her storytelling ability is exactly what the Food Network loves!
Zakarian gets Times Square. Falkner says that is a crazy wild place and could go in lots of fun directions.
Chiarello can take one of the locations already given out, or he can take the last card which is still unknown. He did so many reports on the Statue of Liberty, he wants that, so Falkner gets the last card which is the Brooklyn Bridge. She is happy, she likes where it is located and what is on either side.

They have twenty-five minutes to shop at this huge market at Grand Central Station (yes, I know, technically it is Grand Central Terminal but how many people besides Alton Brown really call it that, and he probably only calls it that on TV when writers correct him). Wow, there is a whole supermarket there, and a very upscale one! That is pretty cool! They will have forty-five minutes to cook at the restaurant Charlie Palmer has there. So they will be stuck in Grand Central all day! And they will be cooking for six, the three judges, Alton, and two special guests! Aha, suspense! You can just feel the suspense crackle! (Not). The judges turn out to be Marc Forgione (the Hidden Iron Chef) and Charlie Palmer, who deserves a meal since they are using his restaurant.

Service:

Anne gets cornish game hens (to mimic the pigeons in Central Park) and chicken livers (because fried chicken livers remind her of Tuscany) Her story is her journey to New York City. She is nervous going into judging. She tells them she grew up in a small town in NY State, spent a year in Italy, then moved to the city, and Central Park is her escape from the city, it is like the green hills of her home town and Tuscany. Judy likes the fun description, it shows off her personality, wit on the plate. Forgione says it was successful. Simon Majumadar thinks the dish is gorgeous. Charlie loved the crunchy liver. Michael Symon thought everything was cooked perfectly and he enjoyed it a lot.

Zakarian gets caviar; for Times Square, he is thinking of a midnight New Years Eve celebration. He will need to make more than one dish, which they keep saying not to do, but he is not afraid and he must do it that way, to take it through all the steps from luxury and celebration to cleansing. Cleansing? That is scary! Alex says he must have been the kid who never colored within the lines. Alex, the kids who colored within the lines are not those who go bankrupt. They are not on TV either, but they did not leave all their employees stranded while they lit the four fireplaces in their house and embarked on a television career. Take it from me, the ones who colored within the lines are pretty boring. He says what do you have in the fridge after celebrating? A New Years Eve breakfast feast, heavy to less heavy to clean. Black and White eggs with truffles and white asparagus, smoked fish and caviar, salmon tartar with vinaigrette and Moroccan souffle blinis, and for cleansing a superfood soup with pomegranate, papaya, fig and lychee and balsamic sugar. He thinks he is the only one who hit it out of the park. He tells the judges about indulgence and renewal and forgiveness at Midnight. I do not get the forgiveness thing! Michael Symon says everything is perfect, and a perfect egg is a tough job. Forgione did not get it, he had to eat scrambled eggs twice. Poor Forgione, maybe that is why he is the Hidden Iron Chef. Judy says it all works.

Alex buys pork chops. She has the Empire State Building, which was built on land that was originally a farm so she is making pork chops, brussels sprouts, and potatoes. As a preview type of thing, not exactly an appetizer but a sensory prompt, she is charring red peanuts and chestnuts to create an aroma like what they sell on the street. Anne says Alex is a great storyteller. Alex roasts her potatoes but knocks them in the sink! With 25 minutes to go she bums a potato off someone else and makes more. She is freaked out. “I can not think of any place I do not want to be more in the universe than here right now.” Oh, Alex, I just saw a 60 Minutes story about a 15 year old girl who is living in a truck with her little brother and her unemployed father, they look for a safe place to park every night where the cops will not get them and put the kids in foster care but no one will rob them either; I think there are many places you would not want to be more than there right now. She explains the bag is the beginning of understanding the enormity of the building, they should just smell it, not eat the peanuts which are burned. She used to walk past the building every day on her way to her first job as a cook, and smelled the roasted nuts. Forgione felt he was walking by the building. Charlie thinks it is an interesting way to start a dish. Judy says it is very clever, but you should be able to eat everything that comes to the table, she did not have to burn them but could have served roasted nuts. Simon says it was the least favorite of her dishes, the potatoes were soft; he loved the story but not the dish. She is very upset and hopes the story is enough to keep her in.

Falkner gets pork tenderloins to tell her story about the Brooklyn Bridge. The architect was German, so she is making a pork schnitzel with fennel and apple. And she is including rhubarb raspberry mustard. There is a lot of fun bridging going on. Michael Simon wonders if he is supposed to go side to side and eat in order? Judy likes how she separated the cooked compote on one side, the raw fruit on the other, it is fantastically executed. Charlie Palmer loves the dish but the storytelling itself was not enthusiastic. Michael Simon says the dish is good, but whatever you are selling, you need to really sell it, and she did not deliver the story well. Hah! This is classic Food Network crap!

Marcus gets wagyu beef. This is some market in the train station; New York is funny like that. Our train station here in Portland has some vending machines and that is about it. He thinks Broadway is about big dreams, coming to america, his dream and heritage and the diversity of New York City in one dish. I think he has gone a little overboard. That seems like many many stories. And every dish he makes is about his journey to America, which is fine, it is an interesting story, but it has nothing to do with Broadway. He will make hot smoked salmon with hot paprika in it to blend Sweden and Africa, a steak salad of bok choy and peanuts with little pieces of steak since someone new to America would not be able to afford a whole steak dinner. That is kind of funny, his idea of what someone new to America would want. It would depend on where they were from, silly! The judges have warned him before not to do too much, but he has done well so far so he is not worried. Forgione says the steak portion is the best dish he has had. Judy does not understand two dishes on the same plate, the salmon is strong and competes with the steak. Simon thinks the story does not make sense, he shoehorned what he does into the story. Charlie Palmer thinks it is a convoluted story. Marcus is not pleased.

Chiarello gets rabbits because when the Statue of Liberty was built, there were a lot of wild English rabbits running around amidst the cherry trees.. He is making he rabbits porchetta style, wrapped in panchetta, with a cherry agrodolce, because the goddess being depicted is based on a Roman goddess. And he cooked it via mock sous vide because the statue came from France, where sous vide was invented. Simon says it is a good story, two hundred and fifty years in the making and almost as long in the telling. Simon is a grump. What is it with the English anyway, are they still sore about the whole Revolution thing? Judy did not like the plating but it tasted phenomenal.

Judgment

The best of the day:
Anne: Michael Simon says she is finding her footing, though she needs to push the envelope harder. Her food was tasty and she had a good story.
Chiarello: Judy disses his beige on beige dish but says it was delicious.
Alton says they enjoyed the story Anne told better, so Anne wins!

Alex: Simon says we know you can tell a story but the potatoes were soft. Alton tells her the story kept her in, she is safe. She is feeling ferocious about the next challenge!
Zakarian: too many notes, clouded the story. But the food was brilliant, and he is in.

That leaves:
Marcus: Alton says they never got the story. Marcus will cook his way out of this.
Falkner: She had a good dish, but the story lacked passion and bogged the dish down. She is angry and disappointed.

Secret Ingredient Showdown:

They have thirty minutes to cook: Bagels! No, they are not making bagels, they have bagels and have to do something with them.

Falkner decides to make “a bagel with the works” which means toasted bagel and cream cheese ice cream, smoked salmon with eggplant and olive smear and bagel croutons. She is grilling the bagels and wants them charred, blackened for the ice cream, and Alex keeps reminding her she has them on the grill until she finally tells her she knows what she is doing! Hah! Take that, Alex! She blends the burned bagels with buttermilk, sour cream and cream cheese in an immersion blender and throws it in the ice cream machine. That sounds pretty awful. Michael Symon loves the bagel flavors she kept, it was well executed, thoughtful, and great use of the ingredient. Simon says these kinds of weird ice creams are usually more interesting than successful and that is the case here. Hah, someone finally said it! But he appreciates the many uses of the bagel to good effect. Judy likes how she interpreted the bagel, kept it real, captured the heart. I do not think that means anything!

Marcus makes his version of lox and bagels. He pickles some trout, and makes bagel dumplings with hoisin sauce. Then he makes gazpacho from coconut milk, peanuts, bagels, cucumber and grapes. This sounds pretty awful, too. Simon thinks he brought the dishes together very well, they were elegantly composed and well executed; it was the most focused of his dishes so far. Michael Symon liked the pickled fish, but the gazpacho muddled the bagel flavor. Judy thought it was a beautifully elegant dish, the bagel came through and kept the flavor profile true.

The judges talk behind their backs. Simon strongly prefers Marcus; he had better technique and the dish was more enjoyable. Judy says Falkner used lots of techniques; Michael Symon points out she made ice cream (which always impresses people, why, I am not sure). Marcus pickled his own fish, Falkner made ice cream, but Falkner was slightly more creative and the bagels were more prominent.

And the verdict is: Marcus is out, Falkner is safe.

Wow, Michael Symon has pull. I guess they had to get rid of the Top Chef Master even if he is the best chef there. He is a little grumpy, so they probably were not looking forward to having him on the team. But it was clearly rigged. They do not want really good chefs, they want people who will do what they are told. Marcus looks shocked. Say hello to Ming Tsai on your way out, Marcus!

They go through the whole “who is your biggest competition” – Falkner -> Chiarello -> Zakarian -> Falkner. And Anne and Alex are just out of luck. I was thinking Anne was most likely, but Elizabeth is pretty cool, too. But her lack of enthusiastic story-telling might do her in. And I do not think they will let an outsider win, no matter what they have to choke down.

Next week they play Name that Tune with lobster: I can cook that ingredient in 35 minutes. They call it an auction. They keep mixing their metaphors on this show. And Anne Burrell wants to throw up. Delightful.

BASS 2011: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Soldier of Fortune” from Glimmer Train

It was the year the president denied trading arms for hostages in Iran and the space shuttle Challenger exploded and Halley’s Comet scorched through the sky. It was the year I loved a reckless girl, the year being around my best friend made me lonely.

This is a very sweet and well-told coming-of-age tale that Johnston admits he hardly remembers writing. While it is extremely well-paced and well-written – the paragraphs and sections end with perfect cadences – it’s also quite predictable, and I have a feeling I’ll hardly remember reading it a year from now.

Josh is fourteen and a freshman; Holly, his neighbor and crush, is eighteen and a senior. She’s lived across the street for all his life, except for those two years when her family went to Florida, but they’ve been back a year now. Her little brother Sam, three years old and born when they were away, has a tragic kitchen accident and is severely scalded; Josh is enlisted to feed the dog while her family is occupied. He spends a lot of time in Holly’s bedroom, making aborted phone calls from her phone, and admiring a picture of her and Sam in an orange grove. He and his best friend Matt have been collecting war trinkets – ninja stars, blank bullets, MREs – for years, but Josh has lost interest lately and has packed up the stuff for Matt to pick up.

Josh does a lot of growing up in those few days, aided by Holly’s surreptitious return from the hospital. He learns about secrets. He learns the oranges in the picture were frozen. He learns what you’d expect him to learn in a sweet, well-told coming-of-age tale.

It’s told in that “memoir voice,” an adult looking back. In this case, he’s looking back from twenty years hence: “Now I think of 1986 as the year my life pivoted away from what it had been, maybe the year when all of our lives pivoted.” Holly joined the Coast Guard (and later the Army) right as Josh lost interest in military matters, and made quite a career for herself over twenty years. His mother emailed him the obituary. He wonders if he can find the picture he stole, of Holly and Sam in the orange grove.

Oddly, we never find out whether or not Sam survived his accident. A lot of interesting family dynamics are hinted at, but not directly exposed. We find out a lot about rumors, and about how slippery truth can be.

I wish I could work up more enthusiasm for the story, because it truly is exquisitely crafted. But I can’t, because it was so familiar. There was nothing in it that surprised or excited or even interested me, other than the skill level. Except maybe the oranges. But from a “best” story, I expect more. Still, if you’re fond of the Bildungsroman genre, this is a great example.

ETA: Oops, my bad – this story is in the Pushcart XXXVI (2012) volume. I’m a little surprised, but I guess I need to read it again and figure out what I missed (hints from readers are welcome). And, oddly, this makes two “scalding” stories in XXXVI.

Seth Fried – The Great Frustration: Stories

Channeling Steven Millhauser by way of George Saunders, The Great Frustration is a sparkling debut, equal parts fable and wry satire. Seth Fried balances the dark—a town besieged, a yearly massacre, the harem of a pathological king—with moments of sweet optimism—researchers unexpectedly inspired by discovery, the triumph of a doomed monkey, the big implications found in a series of tiny creatures. – Soft Skull Press listing

I’m crazy about Seth Fried. Or at least his stories. He combines a very cool sense of humor with a way of getting to the heart of important matters. He likes first person plural. I’m so new to this voice, I don’t always recognize it; I think of it as “reportorial” style. This was true when I read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To The End and it’s just as true now; I had to be told some of these stories were “we” stories, because it isn’t, to me at least, always obvious. I’m going to sic Zin on first person plural. [note: Zin refuses to be sic’d, beyond citing Brian Richardson’s claim that first person plural is often used by members of minority or underappreciated classes, and manages to be first-person and third-person simultaneously, as opposed to second person which sometimes vacillates between the two].

I’ve already discussed “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” that terrific story in the 2011 Pushcart volume that goaded me to get this collection. He’s been compared to George Saunders, and I think there’s also a bit of Steve Almond in there (or maybe I just think so because I just read Almond’s new collection). In a great interview at TheBarking.com, he cites his influences as Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Rainer Rilke, and Woody Allen. He’s got an amusing blog and he’s been making trailers for this book, he’s got a brand-new flash on the brand-new Tin House blog’s Flash Fridays, and some other things. I’m obsessed with all things Seth Fried. Can you tell?

It’s a great collection. Wacky. Heartbreaking. Smooth reads with unusual situations, occasional technical tricks, and great emotional payoff. Characters who are confused because they feel things they don’t think they should feel. Funny-sad in that way that makes you jump up and down and say, “Yes, I’m so glad someone gets it!” and then makes you want to be the change you want to see in the world. Astute observations about relationships, current events, and human behavior. Every time I read a story I had the impulse to run around blathering about it. I’ve restrained myself since I knew I’d be doing a post about the collection. So now I can blather. Damn, you’ve got to read this book. (And no, I don’t get commissions)

In the interview mentioned above, he talks about how he combines urgency and concept:

If a story is all concept and no urgency, I think that’s when you run the risk of shallowness and/or gimmickry. Conversely, if a story is all urgency with no concept to make it compelling, you can start to run the risk of sentimentality and/or preachiness. What works for me is to decide first what urgent thing I’m hoping to express, and then to come up with a concept/scenario that suits that urgent thing. Of course, both the urgent thing and the concept can change radically throughout the writing of a given story. What’s important is that there be a strong relationship between the two.

These stories are great examples of this. The other thing he does so well is come up with details about a situation. I mentioned this in my comments on “Massacre” – the methods of massacre. In each story, there are little samples that are inspired, from the way scientists’ behaviors change in “Loeka” to methods of hazing in “Plaid” to how each animal experiences paradise in “Frustration.”

I loved “Massacre,” and I loved the rest of the stories in this book. I read it mostly in public, on busses and in waiting rooms, and I discovered something: while it’s embarrassing to cry in public, as I have over so many stories, it’s even worse to giggle.

Loeka Discovered” (originally published in The Missouri Review and available online, along with an introduction and study questions):

Occasionally some small reminder will make us cringe. The outline of a tooth on a dentist’s window. A picture of a mountain. A small man on the street with a pained look on his face. Though just as often, we’ll see the stars at night and wonder once again how they might have looked to Loeka. We’ll try to remind ourselves that despite everything, we had believed in something. And what was the matter with that?

A group of scientists work on a prehistoric body they’ve named Loeka. They’re thrilled to pieces, to the point where one is writing poems to a young intern (his briefcase bulging) and work is flying along at breakneck pace. Then another prehistoric body, Big Man, is discovered, and the mood changes; the briefcase deflates, work becomes tedious. When the arrowhead is found, the mood changes yet again. And the press all along has a role to play, as well. Oh, it’s hilarious, but it also has something to say about science and faith and truth and belief, about the press, and about group dynamics (which is why first person plural is a good choice). Go ahead, read the story. Seriously, aren’t you curious about the briefcase?

Life in the Harem” (originally published in Tin House):

The scale itself ranged from one penis to roughly thirty.

You want to read this story now, don’t you? A young man is placed in a harem (in an undefined time and place where such kings and such harems exist) after the king hears him moan while looking out the window. He fears the worst, but finds out he had no idea. And he learns a great deal about the nature of desire (and a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman). The crazy details amaze me. Penises instead of stars in the king’s little black book? A chart of women by missing or extra body part? How does anyone come up with this stuff?

Those Of Us In Plaid” (originally published in McSweeney’s):

Still, regardless of everything experience had taught us, we hoped that one day we’d deliver the beaker filled with strange liquid to the testing facility so promptly and so without incident, or paint the numbers on the capsule so perfectly and so without dribbles, that we would somehow win them over. That we’d begin receiving invitations to their famed barbecues, or to a raucous birthday party at the nudie bar near the airport…
The only problem was that as we grew closer to the monkey, the idea of dropping him into a volcano and then blowing him up seemed, more and more, to be unbearably cruel.

“Thrills! Moral Imperatives! Perturbations of the Human Spirit! And a Monkey!” says the trailer for the story (at least I think it does; videos make my computer burp and fart so I avoid them). Barbecue sauce, too. Pay attention to the barbecue sauce, it’s highly symbolic. Another first person plural story, and again I didn’t realize it until I was done. The grunts, low men on the totem pole in plaid coveralls, endure a lot of bullying from those in more desirable coveralls. Hornet pheremones in the hand sanitizer? Monistat in the coffee? Maybe I’ve just been hanging around boring people all my life. The story goes exactly where you expect it to go, but it’s so well done, I was happy to go there.

The Misery of the Conquistador” (originally published in Story Quarterly):

Practically speaking, my purpose is not to collect gold, but to collect gold with violence. After all, unless it is gathered in a way that requires as many men and resources as possible, gold itself is useless. If gold is to be worth anything, then the act of collecting it needs to involve shipbuilders, arms makers. It needs to involve the men who grind the gunpowder, the men who pour that powder into barrels, the porters who load those barrels onto a ship. It needs to involve men who rent those porters rooms, the men who sell those porters bread. It needs to involve the men who bake that bread, the men who grind that wheat. It needs to involve the farmers who stand grimly at the edges of those wheat fields, drenched in sweat. Gold is arbitrary. What is significant is the way in which it is seized and toward what end it drives the toil of many.

I’ve always been bothered (well, not always, but over the last couple of decades when I’ve been paying slightly more attention to that dumbfounding craziness known as “the economy”) by the idea that the economy must be “growing” in order to be considered “good.” At some point, when the earth is saturated with people (like, um, now), maybe we should think about a new model which makes a stable economy the goal. If for no other reason than because we’re running out of things to put advertising on. I had a brainstorm a few years ago while attending a Christmas pageant at a local church, noting all the thank-yous in the program to those who’d donated costumes or props or whatever: “Welcome to the Hannaford Christmas Pageant!” or “the Paul’s Market Veteran’s Day Parade” and eventually, “A Maine Savings Bank Funeral.” I suspect somewhere there’s already a “Vera Wang Wedding.” But I missed the obvious: “Operation Desert Thunder, brought to you by Haliburton.”

That isn’t even the main point of this story, however. The title conquistador has killed a native woman. He keeps replaying it in his mind, changing it a little each time, to provide different motivations or outcomes. His primary concern is to not look weak in front of his men, which means he has to violate his sensibilities over and over again. The story reminded me a lot of Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Maybe a little too much, though the concerns of the conquistador are different from those of the Viking. And maybe it’s more of a meditation than a story. But it’s still damn good reading.

The Great Frustration

Near a small pond, the penguin waves the dull blades of its arms up at the sky, as if already protesting the existence of a dense and impractical God.

It’s Paradise, and the animals in the Garden of Eden deal with it. I don’t want to say more, because it’s such a perfectly written story, it needs to unfold in its own way. On first read I was left with the sense that it’s all exposition, no plot. And it sort of is. But I think it’s supposed to be; I think that is the point, which the last paragraph makes clear: we know the plot already, and this is the exposition that makes sense of it. It’s also a story you can’t help smiling and laughing over as you read, while shaking your head in sad recognition.

The Siege” (originally published in The Missouri Review)

The question now is: When will the enemy make their final escalade over the walls? This question seems to resonate within a larger question, which is: Why have they not already made their final escalade over the walls?

I have the same sense with this story as with the previous one: it’s exposition (though there is some backstory). And again, I think that’s deliberate, because the plot is the waiting, the dread. And, of course, how it came to this. For me this was one of the less-terrific stories, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; there’s still tremendous power in the acceptance of responsibility for their plight: “But maybe if we had fallen asleep with our arms draped lovingly across our wives, their leaving would have woken us, allowing us to say something, even if it were only good-bye. Maybe if we knew our children better, it would have been easier to turn eating a rat into a kind of game.” And I began wondering about different types of courage along with the story (again, written in first person plural, making the responsibility and the pondering on courage a community affair). I think I just had a similar reaction as I had to some of Jim Shepard’s stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, that while they’re great stories, I really don’t want to suffer that much. And of course the fact that the story causes me to suffer is a testimony to its power.

The Frenchman

When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through?

A memoir of a major faux pas of his childhood: the narrator appeared, enthusiastically, in a play written by his gym teacher (that’s what I love about these stories; even the tiny details amuse and/or resonate). He didn’t realize at the time it espoused a “shockingly intolerant worldview” full of stereotypes about every race and nationality. He was a seventh grader, after all. And pretty soon, an outcast himself. It’s hilarious, and it leads to the larger question above. And it smacked me in the head. In one of my school choral events, we performed a similarly shocking piece about Christmas Around the World – “jing-ee-ber, jing-ee-ber, ah-mond-coo-keee” followed by Santa and his Mexican reindeer Pablo, among other things. Riots would ensue if the piece were performed today. At the time (before the 60s became the 60s), it was what passed for multiculturalism.

This is the story most recently written. That surprises me, since it’s my least favorite story in the collection. Which is ok, it’s the middle of the collection, it’s where writers and editors always stick the least-favorite stories. It’s not a bad story, I just don’t think the concept was worked in that effectively. But it’s still fun to read, and, for some of us, embarrassing, just as a memoirish tale.

Lie Down and Die” (originally published in McSweeney’s)

My family was full of stories like that: dubious suicides, sudden disappearances, the police always suspecting foul play….It was as if our family tree had been written in invisible ink, names and branches disappearing as quickly as they were written.

This is the oldest story in the collection, written when Seth was 20. It kind of went by me. It’s very short – flash length – so it was over before I felt like I was struggling. And again, it’s not that it’s bad. A lot of it’s great – again the details he comes up with to illustrate the unlucky nature of his family show flair. And I’m not one to argue with McSweeney’s. But I just didn’t get it. Sorry. No, I’m not sorry, at least I’m pretty sure I’m not just swept away and handing out praise randomly; the stories do have to earn it, individually. If I’d read this on a flash site, I’d probably love it. But for me, it didn’t reach the level of the rest of the work here.

The Scribes’ Lament

We copied manuscripts with a keen understanding, one word leading logically into the next. Great lovers of language, we recognized the same look of fulfillment in one another’s faces as we worked, an abiding gratitude to the Lord for having given us access to the world of words, their firm and apprehensible meaning. After all, wasn’t that the foundation of our faith? It was the word of God that we followed. It was the word of God that instructed us and which propagated all goodness in the world.

Superb. This is that perfect blending of concept and urgency. The foundations of religion, what better concept? And there’s a little writers’ workshop thrown in, though that might go by anyone who’s never been in one. And of course it’s first person plural again. It has to be. Throw in Beowulf, and it’s the perfect story (I spent a semester as an undergrad obsessed with Beowulf). The story follows this group of scribes writing down the epic under the direction of Ælfric, with the unwilling assistance of Wigbert in the role of hapless victim. I don’t even want to try to summarize. It’s hilarious. But all the time, there’s the element of the scribes writing, describing, and collaborating to produce a cohesive narrative – and the difficulties they have doing that. The implications of same. Like I said, superb. And it earns it.

Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” (portions published in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and JMWW)

However, before you allow this skepticism to taint your research, keep in mind that your own vision manipulates reality more than any microscope ever could. Far less distortion takes place between the objective lens and eyepiece of a microscope than takes place in your own mind when you stare at your feet in the bath.

This is a collection of fifteen descriptive essays about various critters, plus one overall essay about observation. [Addendum: this story is contained in the Pushcart 2013 Prize Anthology, which makes it the second story from this collection to win the honor] The critters are, of course, unlike any you may have encountered or read about. The kessel has a lifespan of a few one-hundred-millionths of a second. The dawson is beautiful. And the bartlett cannot be observed at all. Each essay starts with a description of the critter, followed by the implications. For example, the peregite, who live in rings orbiting the earth, are the first creatures to adapt to life in space; it is they, not people, who have stepped out of the oceans and onto dry land, so to speak: “On one hand, we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.” One of these tales – about the delicious bastrom, which becomes even more delicious when frightened or in pain (can you tell where this is going?) – is available online at JMWW, thank whatever. As much as I tried to anticipate what kind of critters would crop up once I read a few sections, the directions these essays go constantly surprise and, while fanciful, again, left me laughing, or shaking my head in dismayed agreement.

But it goes further, I think. The bastrom is perhaps about addiction – or maybe just the need of people to feel something, anything, no matter what the cost; pain is preferable to numbness. The dawson is about the impossibility of love. The kessel is about making the most of what time we have, whether it’s 70 years or four one-hundred-millionths of a second. The lasar is about war. And the sonitum affects me most of all, the organisms that “increase in size when confronted with noise” because I connect it to writing:

…[H]uman thought is not unlike the sonita in the sense that, once agitated, it grow and grows. Stirred by discourse, thought begins to swell…..
Can you see it yet, in the dish? Keep shouting.

You bet I will.

Pushcart 2011: Susan Perabo, “Shelter” from The Iowa Review, Spring 2009

I’ve gotten through a lot by not over-thinking things, by being able to keep certain matters out of my mind. You busy yourself with living, however it is you choose to busy yourself – dogs or kids or broken cars or numbers in a book – and you might well forget that after a year of anticipation your father decided not to move the family to Florida after all, or that the man you almost married had a change of heart at the last minute and traded you in for another. My sister, who lives down in Boston, thinks all the time about everything and as a result takes a half-dozen pills every morning. Last year I watched her suffer every detail of her daughter’s wedding and I thought: you can have it.

This story is available online. It’s not very long, and it’s easy to read.

One of the things this first-person narrator (a 62-year-old woman who takes in unwanted dogs and places them with families who want them) has not thought about is the acorn-sized lump she found one day in the shower. She doesn’t want to get sucked into the medical machinery, so she focuses on placing the nineteen dogs she has waiting for homes, as quickly as possible. She thinks she has enough time for that.

It’s a dance of intimacy without intimacy between the narrator and Jerry, who wants a dog. They are both careful to stay distant. And yet, they end up perhaps closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives. While the characters aren’t sentimental at all (“I did not want there to be a single sentimental moment with a dog in this story, because neither character would tolerate such a thing.” Perabo says in an interview with The Iowa Review), it’s a story that’s quite sentimental about how non-sentimental they are.

It’s another story that took a long time to take shape:

It grew (as my stories often do) from the collision of two separate stories that had been knocking around in my head for some time: the story of a lonely woman doing “home visits” to place stray dogs, and the story of the strange old man in Cornish. Even after I realized these two stories were actually one, it took me probably three years to complete the piece, and I gave up on it numerous times….
Winning [a Pushcart prize] for a story like “Shelter,” which was so long in coming, confirms my belief that the stories you really care about – even when you give them up for dead, and abandon them for months and years at a time — are always worth returning to.

While it didn’t astound me the way some of the other stories in this volume did, it’s a truly interesting approach to these two people, and I enjoyed it very much.

Top Chef Texas: Episode 4, Red Hot Chili Cook-Off

Sorry, Texas, it's actually bigger in India

Some of these chefs are, um, interesting people. Considering they did what appeared to be a legitimate cooking competition for the sixteen spots, they sure got a fair number of characters.

Lindsey and Sarah agree they didn’t turn against each other. No, they certainly didn’t. They turned towards each other, and as a united block turned against Keith. Nyesha says true colors are coming out. I knew that girl could throw salt.

They head to the Top Chef kitchen where Padma is waiting with the Two Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (who will see their Border Grill partnership played out on ABC in an upcoming series, Working Together; I’d rather see them than actors playing them). I love them! Sarah says this is why she is on Top Chef, to cook for chefs like these. That’s nice, Sarah. You made a lousy dish last week too, remember? And you can’t blame everything on the shrimp.

There’s a table of chili peppers with graphics indicating Scoville units and a dollar value, from $500 for the lowly Anaheim to $20,000 for the ghost pepper. Rachel Maddow just did a thing about ghost peppers and the Scoville scale as part of her discussion of the pepper spray attacks by police on peaceful protesters at UC/Davis. Come on, did you see those guys? They looked like they were spray painting kids sitting on the ground. Wait, focus, Top Chef.

Padma speaks of the confidence to take risks. Their assignment is to create a dish highlighting one of the chili peppers. The hotter the pepper, the more money they can win. Susan points out the judges will be eating fifteen dishes, so begs them to please be careful.

Paul is the only one to take the ghost chili; he wants to impress the judges (or kill them, depending on how it works out). He serves chilled coconut soup with kaffir lime and ghost pepper relish. Padma asks if he chose the ghost pepper for the money; he says yes, but also to show his skill. The judges give him no feedback, so he’s worried. But he wins. The dish was delicious, and they love that he went for the ghost pepper. He wins $20,000 and immunity.
Grayson is also using habaneros, cooking them in syrup to harness the heat. She serves habanero stuffed with cheddar with a chili lime sauce. Susan says it has a kick. She’s top three; they were excited to see a whole habanero served as a dish.
Heather wants immunity even more than the money; she’s making date and pistachio couscous with thai chili and pickled cucumber and red onions. The Tamales say she brought the heat, it’s exactly the kind of food they love. Top three.
ChrisJ has digestive issues with spicy. He goes for the Manzano, worth $7500. That buys a lot of diapers, he says. ChrisJ has a baby? That’s interesting information. He makes seared chicken (essentially Buffalo wings) with manzano vinaigrette. The real problem is: he’s wearing glasses, and he has sunglasses on his head. I do not understand. It’s Guy Fieri territory, and why would anyone want to evoke that comparison?
ChrisC (I still have him on my snake alert, because he told Keith to buy the cooked shrimp then claimed it was all Keith’s fault; he said later in the media he wasn’t really paying attention in the store) makes coconut soup with thai chili.
Sarah makes seared salmon belly with fresno chili relish.
Nyesha‘s mom has a Korean background so she grew up eating spicy (hey, Beverly’s mom has a Korean background, too, but she picked the tamest pepper there). But Nyesha goes for the bold and spicy habanero; she’ll triple blanch it to keep the flavor but remove some of the spice. Her dish is baby fennel and rock shrimp salad with orange habanero marinade and queso fresco.
Chuy likes spice (duh!) and the habanero is his favorite. In addition to being the Goatslayer, as a child he played with the fifty kinds of habaneros his parents grew in the back yard. And he owes the IRS so the higher reward is fine, too. He makes sautéed scallop with achiote; Padma asks if he used fresh tomatoes, he admits he used canned. Susan says it’s smart composition. But he’s in the bottom, because the canned tomatoes overpowered everything. He feels awful since his family invented the Habanero and all.
Richie makes fresno slaw with pineapple curd and a sweet and hot glaze on bay scallops. It’s not as spicy as he thought it would be. Susan says his presentation is great, but it’s sweet on sweet, and lost the power of the chili. He’s in the bottom. I’m beginning to wonder if Richie has a palate at all.
Beverly is working for the best-tasting dish, not the money, so she picks the Anaheim chili, worth $500. She makes chili crudites with ssamjang sauce to focus on presenting the freshness of the pepper, but realizes she’s the only one who didn’t cook the pepper, and that might stand out in a bad way. And it does: she’s in the bottom; she didn’t do anything to her pepper to highlight it or change it in any way.

Elimination Challenge: Chili Cook-off at the Tejas Rodeo. They’ll cook at their house; no clock, they just have to show up at 7pm the next evening with food for two hundred people. The cowboys and rodeo fans will decide the winner.

They get into five teams of three:
Black: Richie, Beverly, and Nyesha. Nyesha is concerned she’ll have to carry the team on her back (hey, Nyesha, you’ve been an exec for how long, a week?), since Richie has been in the bottom in both QFs and Beverly seems meek. Meek? She’s Godzilla at the meat counter.
White: Grayson, Lindsey, Ty.
Red: ChrisJ, Dakota, and the elusive Whitney who hasn’t been seen since she qualified.
Blue: Edward, Paul, and Heather.
Green: ChrisC, Sarah, and Chuy. ChrisC is worried about Sarah since she cut Keith’s balls off last time and broke the team apart. You didn’t do such a bad job of that yourself, guy. Yeah, yeah, I know, you weren’t paying attention. You were probably admiring some hot butcher.

Sarah declares herself team rodeo expert: she was born in Houston, her dad was a bull rider, she’s been to lots of rodeos. She wants lots of meat in the chili, and cornbread. ChrisC thinks she’s bitchy. I think she is, too, but not in this case: she has relevant qualifications and she’s taking charge. Shut up and cook, ChrisC. Heather makes a lot of cold-weather chili. I’m not sure that’s the same as Texas chili.

At the meat counter, they run out of Brisket before Dakota gets her 30 pounds. Everyone asked for 30 pounds of brisket. What, is 30 pounds the standard for 200 servings? Dakota gets short ribs to make up the difference. Beverly plays commando again, though it’s dialed back a little: “Is there any other butcher who can help me?” with a little giggle at the end. It’s the giggle that makes it inspired. She should give classes.

They get back to the house, and Ed worries they don’t have enough food. The Black team executes their coordinated plan: Richie grabs equipment, Beverly gets produce (I don’t understand, didn’t they just buy produce?), and Nyesha commandeers all the beer. I’m not sure if that’s for cooking or drinking, and I don’t know how much beer it takes to make 200 servings of chili, but she’s juggling armfuls of sixpacks. I’ve heard reports that someone yelled, “Don’t take my breast milk!” but I didn’t hear it myself. I’m guessing it’s Beverly, shipping it home to her baby. Now there’s an additional stress for ya. They work out grill and fireplace space. And for a second, Chuy dancing with his hat on reminds me of Mondo. Probably just wishful thinking. That’s ok, Mondo’s coming soon.

We finally hear from Whitney! She does exist! She just says the Red team is making braised brisket and shortrib chili, which isn’t exactly startling information.
Nyesha and the Black team are making mole chili with cornbread; Richie says it’s something a little different. It’ll have chocolate and cinnamon in it. I’m not sure different is a good thing in this particular venue.

Tom does a walk-through. He’s wearing chef’s whites, which strikes me as unusual. Did he always wear chef’s whites? Hmmm… no, he wore a black or navy chef’s coat, that’s why it’s different. I guess he dresses like a chef on walk-throughs because it scares the chefs more. Heather talks about the pickled peaches the Blue team is making. Tom asks if they’re in the chili; no, she says, a side dish. He looks at her. She starts second-guessing the peaches.

And as the night goes on, they get tired, they go swimming, and stuff like that. Chuy tells them of his muscular exploits: “I had muscles in places where I didn’t even have places yet.” In high school he weighed 110 and was all muscle. 110 doesn’t sound like a lot, even for a short guy. There’s a hilarious shot of ChrisJ in a lawn chair saying, “Look at that gigantic star” in a way anyone who’s ever been around stoners will recognize. You will never convince me he didn’t sneak in a couple of joints, based on that shot. It was classic. Otherwise, there’s some confusion about whether the beer is for drinking or cooking. ChrisJ says chili is an all-nighter. Now, I know nothing about chili. I’ve only had it three or four times when I couldn’t avoid it. As I recall, it took a few hours to make. But that wasn’t Top Chef chili, and that wasn’t in Texas. Here in New England, we do chili a little differently. We spend our time on the cornbread.

Nyesha loves her chili; it’s special, a rainy-day chili. I’m a little worried, because what works on a rainy day might not be what rodeo fans are looking for. Grayson tries to figure out just what a rodeo is: “Do they ride stallions?” Sarah says they Armor-all the steers’ coats. That should get a rise out of PETA. If PETA is legal in Texas; there’s probably a law banning them.

At the rodeo, Gail joins the panel. Gail asks Tom to open her beer for her, since she doesn’t have any feeling in that finger (which is an interesting statement all by itself. Think about it. Turns out, it isn’t all that interesting after all – in her Bravo blog, she explains she cut the nerve slicing a bagel when she was in eighth grade). Tom can’t get the bottle open, so Padma takes over and twists the cap right off. Susan says, “Never send a man to do a woman’s job.” Slam dunk, Susan! But no one laughs. The Green team puts Sarah in front since she has cowboy experience. And, as ChrisC says, it’s good to have a girl to flirt with the cowboys. I’m not sure Sarah and flirting go in the same sentence. But she probably is the best choice.

Ty is having a blast; he’s worked in street fairs all over the world, crowds are no problem for him. “Save a horse, ride a cowboy” he calls out. I just heard that song on The Sing-Off and hope to never hear it again. He tells Lindsey, “I’m about to get a bottle of that hot sauce and pour it down your throat if you don’t start smiling, Missy.” If I were her, I’d get a restraining order right now. People are always telling me to smile. Fuck ‘em.

Whitney is concerned about the heat level in the Red team’s chili. Chuy notes these guys are real Texans. Everyone is screaming how beans in chili are just wrong. I don’t understand Texas chili at all. To me, chili is beans. Nyesha worries that their flavors in the Black team chili might be to complex for this group (ouch, Nyesha, dial back the condescension, please, especially since you admitted to Tom you don’t have a whole lot of chili experience), but she hopes the judges will see they didn’t play it safe.

And they present:

Black: Richie, Beverly, and Nyesha. Mole chili (including chocolate and cinnamon) with cornbread. Susan says the cornbread is really moist; Tom says that would be great if this were a cornbread challenge. Mary Sue thinks they should’ve focused on making chili. Padma defends them: they intended to make a chili that’s reminiscent of a mole, and that’s exactly what it is. Dubious looks all around. Tom thinks it’s too sweet; Gail wanted more heat.

White: Grayson, Lindsey, Ty. Three bean and beef chili with poblano cornbread. Gail wishes the pickled veggies weren’t in the chili but on the side; Susan disagrees, she likes the acid. No one complains about the beans. They do mind that it was flat and didn’t have any heat at all.

Red: ChrisJ, Dakota, Whitney. Brisket and short rib chili. Gail says it’s got subtle smokiness, and just the right amount of heat. Tom likes the amount of acid. Mary Sue thinks the meat is a little stringy. Tom agrees; the flavor was great, but not the shredded meat. I guess that’s what happens when they run out of brisket, though I’d think the brisket would be stringier than short rib. Mary Sue says it was the one she least wanted another bite of.

Blue: Edward, Paul, and Heather.Smoked brisket chili with summer pickles (peaches, haricot vert) and pork rinds. Gail decides that pickled peaches are now her favorite thing to go with chili. Tom loves everything but the chili itself.

Green: ChrisC, Sarah, and Chuy. Chili with roasted corn, onion, avocado, lime salt, cilantro. Mary Sue loves the depth. Tom says it grows as you eat it, gets better with each bite. Gail wishes she had some kind of bread to soak it up; Mary Sue agrees, she wants a tortilla or something.

Mary Sue is surprised; she’d expected all the chilis to taste pretty much alike, but they were all different.

They all watch the rodeo. Beverly starts crying because she wishes her husband was here. I can see this is going to be a pattern: at every challenge, Beverly is going to be sad because someone else is happy and it reminds her of something lacking in her life. Nyesha gets a little condescending again: she’s used to hard-core chefs and “there’s no crying in cooking.” I’m getting tired of everyone on the planet using that line for whatever their arena happens to be. And by the way, non-cryers do not get to set the rules. Shut up, Nyesha. I do agree Beverly is strange, though. But in a very interesting way.

Padma rides into the rodeo ring on a horse. ChrisC yammers, “Padma on a horse is like looking at Fabio on the cover of one of his romance novels with his hair blowing in the wind. Pure beauty.” I’m not sure Padma would appreciate the comparison. And I’m finding ChrisC’s pansexuality to be creepy, but more and more interesting as well. Did someone tell him to keep finding people hot as a way of staying on the show?

The cowboys choose the Green team as winners, Sarah, Chuy, and ChrisC. Sarah is proud to be a Texan. Again, no single winner is declared.

The Black team – Nyesha, Beverly, and Richie – is the least favorite. Instead of the usual “who did what” to generate more bus metaphors, they have a cook-off. The three of them have a half hour to transform the chili into a winning dish.

Beverly is tired and sick to her stomach. They have been going for a couple of days now. Richie is confident and focused.ChrisJ is very concerned about Richie: “he’s my best little buddy.” He tells the other chefs Richie is the kind of guy who, if you said you needed a kidney, he’d reach in and pull his out and hand it to you, and he’s strange enough to do that. Actually, ChrisJ says he’s strong enough to do that, but I think “strange” covers it, too. While they’re waiting for the verdict, ChrisJ goes over to Richie and whispers, “Emotions Kill.” I think he knows Richie is out of his depth here. I love these guys. I really do. I think it’s ChrisJ I love more, he’s really taken the role of protector, big brother, or… whatever. I get the impression Richie is a little kid, and I wonder how he got through the qualifying round since he doesn’t seem to have a palate.

I don’t want any of these three to go home. I still have hope for Nyesha in spite of her snobbery this week (and I make some allowances for the crap a black woman would have to put up with along the way), and Beverly is too fascinating to lose. I wish the white team had lost.

There’s a less-than-candid interstitial featuring the judges sitting around waiting for the losing team to finish their cook-off. Padma says they were so deflated, and we’re making them cook again. Gail says, “We’re assholes.” There’s something about the Midwest. Tom chimes in, “God, we’re assholes.” Reality TV moves closer to scripted TV all the time. But it was funny.

Nyesha makes a Frito-crusted black tiger shrimp, a salsa of roasted corn and a reduction of the mole. She worries she didn’t put enough sauce on the plate. Gail says the shrimp was great but needed sauce. Tom didn’t care for the salsa, it was just corn shaved off the cob. May Sue says Nyesha acted ashamed of the chili and avoided it.
Richie makes a Frito-crusted pork tenderloin with Yukon gold potato hash and something to do with ricotta cheese and the leftover chili. Susan is disappointed with the seasoning; Tom says it’s one-note, no brightness.
Beverly makes seared tuna with chili spices, using the strained chili as a sauce, and adds habanero creamed corn. The judges say she changed the flavor profile and was the only one not embarrassed by the sauce from the chili.

Beverly has the best dish and is safe; she fixed the flaws in the chili. Nyesha didn’t go far enough; Richie had a great idea but it never came together, and there was no acid and no spice.

Richie is out. Even though he made the cornbread, the only component of his team’s dish the judges really liked. Awwww… I think it makes sense, though, he doesn’t seem to know what his dishes taste like when he’s done with them. I’m just really sad. ChrisJ is really sad, too. They hug, and at one point they’re looking into each others’ eyes with their foreheads pressed together and if these guys aren’t a couple, I feel sorry for whoever they are hooked up with, because they love each other.

There’s a rundown of the Fan Favorite count so far – and ChrisC is in the lead. Wait, ChrisC? Pretty Boy Snake? You’ve got to be kidding me. Why, because he comes up with new ways to declare Padma hot? Maybe I read it wrong, and it’s really ChrisJ, which I think I’d agree with. ChrisC? WTF?

Last Chance Kitchen:
Richie and Keith tackle Thanksgiving leftovers. They must use three components. Richie is a bit unnerved; his elimination came because he couldn’t repurpose chili. They both decline trash talking. Thank you! Richie makes cornbread puree (which sounds awful to me) but slips when adding salt, and way too much goes in. Maybe that’s why he thinks he has a salty palate: what he’s really got is a clumsy hand and not enough foresight to measure it in his palm first.
Keith thinks Richie’s dish is avant garde whereas his own is more homestyle; Richie thinks his is restaurant ready. Just from the sound of them, I prefer Keith’s hands down.
Keith: Grilled turkey and sweet corn hash, and a fritter made from stuffing, bleu cheese, and ham. Tom could’ve done without the pumpkin pie smear.
Richie: Cranberry Mousse Noodle made with liquid nitrogen, dark meat and greeen beans sautéed together, corn bread puree (which sounds awful), crispy mac and cheese. Tom says the cornbread sauce is a little salty, but all together it’s fine. And while it looks crazy, it really isn’t that inventive. Except, I suppose, for the cranberry mousse noodle, which I can’t even begin to figure out, except it was made with liquid nitro so it must be cold.
Keith wins, so Richie is irrevocably out. Unless they have another twist coming up.

Next week, they go to Dallas. I hope that means regular food. John Besh meets them in a field. And guess who thinks he’s hot.

Steven Millhauser: “Miracle Polish” from The New Yorker, 11/14/11

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

But the image in the mirror was unmistakably me – not young, not good-looking, not anything in particular, a little slumped, heavy at the waist, pouchy under the eyes, not the sort of man that anyone would ever choose to be. And yet he looked back at me in a way I hadn’t seen for a long time, a way that made the other things all right. He looked back at me – the thought sprang to mind – like a man who believed in things.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking it was a perfect Twilight Zone story – the original series with black-and-white Rod grimacing at the camera, explaining in the intro right after a brief introductory scene where the salesman appears on the guy’s doorstep, that he is not just buying a salesman’s wares, he’s buying a one-way ticket into The Twilight Zone.Yeah. I can see it, hear it. Maybe because of the salesman. Salesmen, as well as the disheartened and the defeated, were a staple of Rod Serling’s series. As were things such as slightly magical mirror polishes.

The story is available online.

Our unnamed narrator buys a bottle of Miracle Polish from a door-to-door salesman. That’s the first thing that’s off about the story (I don’t mean the story is written incorrectly, I mean it’s a story about offness). Why not just tell the guy to go? Or not answer the door at all? But the narrator maybe sees a kinship with the salesman, with “the lines of dirt in the black shoe creases, the worn-down heels, the shine on the jacket sleeves, the glint of desperation in his eyes.” At any rate, though he knows he shouldn’t, he invites him in, and then listens to the opening of the pitch for Miracle Polish, all the while wondering:

I tried not to imagine what would drive a man to go from house to house in a neighborhood like this one, with porches and old maples and kids playing basketball in driveways, a neighborhood where Girl Scouts sold you cookies and the woman across the street asked you to contribute to the leukemia drive, but no strangers with broken-down shoes and desperate eyes came tramping from door to door lugging heavy cases full of brown bottles called Miracle Polish.

That’s the next thing that’s off. He tries not to imagine, which implies he does, in fact, imagine, leading the reader to imagine. We have no idea, however, and won’t until further along in the story.

The narrator buys a bottle. Not two – he rebuffs the salesman’s attempts to double the purchase, and the guy knows when to pack it in. The narrator watches him as he’s leaving; he glances back at the house, grins, then frowns, then goes. I’m not sure why the grin and frown – perhaps he caught his reflection in a window and was not pleased? – but I’m sure it’s important.

He tosses the bottle in a drawer with: flashlight batteries, light bulbs, and an unused photo album. Another off detail. All things to do with light. And why is the photo album unused? These are the tiny details that fascinate me.

A week or so later, the narrator notices a smudge on the mirror in his hallway, and gets out the Miracle Polish. It removes the smudge easily, but the rest of the mirror looks dingy now, so he cleans the entire surface. He notices he looks better in the mirror; nothing that dramatic, he isn’t younger or handsome or anything, but he looks fresher, with a glow, like “a man who expected things of life.”

He ponders this. Maybe the mirror had really needed cleaning. He tries the polish on other mirrors, and the same effect occurs. And it isn’t just him: the walls seem brighter, the wood of the door seems richer, and the next morning his pajamas seem jaunty, the towels fuller.

He needs another opinion – “It was Monica who would set me straight, Monica who would know – Monica, who looked at the world through large, kind, skeptical eyes, darkened by many disappointments.” The way he continues to describe Monica, who arrives “twice a week after work, once on Tuesdays and once, with her overnight bag, on Fridays,” had me wondering if Monica was a girlfriend or a housekeeper. She’s the girlfriend, of course:

Sometimes, in a certain light, when she held her body a certain way, I would see her as a woman for whom things had not worked out as she had hoped, a woman sinking slowly into defeat. Then a burst of fellow feeling would come over me, for I knew how difficult it was, waiting for something better, waiting for something that was never going to happen.

Another off thing: he only sees this sometimes, only in a certain light. His earlier description of her seemed to indicate this was a permanent condition. But no matter; he has a bond with her, their disappointed eyes.

Monica sees a difference in herself, too. But they don’t seem to discuss much. In fact – off again – she says nothing at all in the story, though presumably she has something to say when she sees an image of herself that glows, in clothes that are understated and restrained instead of drab. But we don’t get to hear that; it’s just suddenly the next day.

The narrator starts buying mirrors. He fills the house with them, a new-born Narcissus. He feels happy when he sees his vitalized self. As Monica visits and sees the mirrors multiplying, she’s not pleased. She thinks he prefers her reflection to her. He starts looking directly at her more, all the while aware how much better she looks in the mirrors that now cover the walls of his house. Apparently Monica isn’t as concerned with the improvement in his reflection. Or she doesn’t care. Or perhaps she misses the kinship they had based on their real selves, and does not want to trade it for a kinship in reflection.

At this point I start to go bonkers, like I do when I’m watching one of those PBS specials on string theory: there’s always a place when I can no longer pin the ideas down and just have to let them whirl around and use faith or Zen or instinct and go with it. Does a person who sees himself as vibrant, actually become more vibrant? Does a person who sees how she would look if she were not covered by a film of disappointment begin to hate the contrast? Is it an act of betrayal to improve oneself if one’s partner is left behind?

The two go on a Saturday picnic at the lake. In the bright sunlight, Monica has the same glowing look. Is it the light? How the light reflects off the water and the sky? Any photographer knows reflected light is always more flattering than direct. But there is no Miracle Polish at work. I’m perplexed. And wait, there’s more: the narrator had difficulties with the day: “In the course of the afternoon an uneasiness had begun to creep into me.” The glare hurt his eyes, everything seemed sluggish, they seemed like actors playing a part. Perhaps this is the unease Monica feels in his house? Though that connection is not made here; I may be grasping at straws.

He buys more mirrors, and in time, Monica gets fed up. She demands that he choose between her, and her image. He tries to convince himself that the mirrors help him see the real Monica; it’s not a falsification, it’s a revelation.

Here I began to connect the mirrors with the idea of loving someone for their money, their fame, their success; it isn’t the same as loving them. And of course there’s loving the idealized version of a person. This is where so much love goes bad right off the bat: we see someone and imagine they are perfect, and as we get to know them better we discover they are not. In a loving relationship, we accept those things. But if instead we insist they change, or dislike the parts we overlooked at first, doom results. Trust me. Oh, wait, you don’t have to – you’ve been there, too, right? Probably on both sides of that formula, as have I.

The narrator pours the Miracle Polish down the sink, sets up the mirrors in the back yard and breaks them in front of Monica. He does this in such an aggressive way, it repels her. It certainly repelled me. His resentment crashed through every mirror. She leaves. And he is left with no more illusions, only the mournful memory of his mirrors, and the hope that the salesman will return some day with more Miracle Polish:

One of these days the stranger is bound to come again. He’ll walk toward my house with his heavy case tugging him to one side…. I’ll tell him that I want every bottle, every last one. When I close my eyes, I can see the look of suspicion on his face, along with a touch of slyness, a shadow of contempt, and the beginnings of unbearable hope.

Now there’s a change. There was no look of hope mentioned in the first encounter; has the narrator now learned to find hope where there is none? Or does he recognize hope that he previously overlooked? Or does he just imagine there will be hope, separate from whether or not that is a reasonable expectation? Perhaps the effect of the Miracle Polish has altered his perception so that he sees hope that is truly there, just buried under desperation.

It’s all a little jumbled to me. I’m not sure I liked this story. I wanted to go through it in detail because I keep hearing how terrific Steven Millhauser is. I just recently discovered he’s one of Seth Fried’s go-to guys, for heaven’s sake, so he’s someone I want to know more about. But this story, while amusing on the Twilight Zone level, didn’t quite connect for me. I’m willing to accept that it’s my problem, that I’m not sophisticated enough to connect something that’s “off” in as many places as this is.

It was a good read, and I’m interested in some of the concepts. But as a whole it remains out of my grasp, without the tantalizing glimmer that makes me eager for more. Maybe I need some Miracle Polish.

Addendum: This story appeared in BASS 2012; on re-read, I had some additional thoughts, posted here.

BASS 2011 – Caitlin Horrocks, “The Sleep” from Atlantic Fiction for Kindle

Al Rasmussen had wintered in Eden, we thought. We started to feel a little like suckers.

Though I never heard of her until recently, this is the third Caitlin Horrocks story I’ve read in the past few months: “Sun City” and “Steal Small” were the others, both excellent. This is the first one with a touch of goofiness. I live for goofiness.

Al Rasmussen’s had a tough time. His wife was killed by a kid driving drunk. The economy’s terrible. The town is pretty much withering. So he decides to sleep through the winter. He calls the town – the very small town of Bounty – to his house to explain what he and his kids are going to do. They think of various objections, but he’s considered everything. They’re going to hibernate through January and February. See you in March.

It works out so well (he has some wonderful dreams and misses a number of unfortunate events), other people think about doing the same thing. Over the years, more and more people join in. A lot of it is economic: far lower heating bills and food costs, no gas to buy. And if they hibernate the whole winter, no Christmas presents. But it’s more than that. Winter is not kind (presumably they’re in North Dakota or thereabouts). And the dreams… who wouldn’t rather dream than shovel snow? One chubby teen went to sleep in braces and woke slender and straight-toothed. “How easily, they thought, so much of the hard work of growing up had happened while they were asleep, while no one could make fun of them for it.”

Pretty soon most of the town is sleeping; they start sleeping in communal groups, in fact, to reduce heating costs even further. The librarian stays up to light the Christ Candle in the Lutheran Church on Christmas eve, and… well, you’ll have to read the story to see what happens to her. It’s available for Kindle (which I don’t really understand, so you’ll have to go find it yourself) and if you’re really careful and/or lucky, you might find it on GoogleBooks.

Eventually the media finds out about it, and lots of fuss gets made, which is pretty hilarious, all the more so because it’s so exactly what would happen. That’s why it’s so great a story: except for the idea that people can sleep for two or four or six months, everything in this story is perfectly logical. And, to rural people in the northern reaches, maybe not such a bad idea. In fact, according to the Contributor Notes, Horrocks got the idea of the story from an article “about historical sleep patterns, including alleged winter hibernation” and found herself curious, and a little jealous. As another Maine winter approaches, I can understand that.

It’s written in first person plural, and I’m pretty proud of myself that I realized that (thanks to reading a lot of Seth Fried stories lately that have sensitised me to it). The whole town is the “we” with various individuals in the spotlight throughout. Perfect use for it, too. The town is the protagonist, a town that is perhaps dying. Is the sleep curative, or the final descent? Are they adapting, or giving up? That seems to me the central question, and I still can’t decide. But maybe that’s because I’m dealing with some loss of my own, the economy’s terrible, and winter is coming.

The Sing Off 2011: Episode 10 – America Votes: Group Mastermixes and Judge’s Choice

Hello, I am Zin, and I am sad this season is almost over! I have to say that tonight I forgot to feed my cat at 9:30 pm, I was so involved in the show! That is pretty rare! (My cat needs medications with her evening food so it is a little more involved than just throwing kibble in a bowl).

Tonight they will do two songs: a mashup and a judges choice.

They do a group mashup of Gwen Stefani, Kati Perry, and The Who (Teenage Wasteland; I do not know the other songs because I am an old fart!).

Pentatonix – Ceelo “Forget You” and Kelly Clarkson “Since You’ve Been Gone” – Kirstie says they are having trouble jumping from song to song.
Me: Great percussion! Not my favorite performance of theirs, but they are so good, it worked anyway!
Ben: seamless, non-sequiturs were entertaining. Again with the rhythm section. They are like a tight touring band that has been doing it for years. They always have a trick. They were out of tune at one point, for the first time in the series.
Sara: Sher loved that they were telling a story with motion on stage.
Shawn: Did not do the usual breakdowns and still enjoyed it. Fluid. Avi and Kevin are now named Meat and Potatoes. They made it work, stayed constant.

Urban Method – Nelly “Hot in Herre” and Peggy Lee “Fever.” Katie was going to do Fever but she did not think it was working in her voice so they switched to Liz. They have to combine sultry and sexy with fun and carefree. The trick is fusing the two moods. They want to make a statement.
Me: Great saxophone. Liz is very good on solo, best I have heard her! Good mix of the songs. I like them even if no one else does (hello elroberto!).
Sara: Sexy. Smart way to meld. Fever is restrained and seductive; Hot in Herre is the opposite. Successful. Sweet spot.
Shawn: loved it, Liz did a sexy lead, raspy alto. So much going on in a good way. Eye and ear candy. Best arrangement, showed so many characteristics in the group.
Ben: engaging arrangement, dynamically right. Right on to Richard and the saxophone. Last transition was really effective.

Afro-Blue – R Kelley “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Fly” by Nicki Minaj. They feel connected to the message. Mariah is not sure about rapping.
Me: I love the opening… That was terrific! The rap was not my favorite but it was good enough. Maybe because I like “I Believe I Can Fly.” This was so far my favorite of their performances!
Shawn: nice blend of Afro-Blue style and gospel. Mariah may not rap but fooled him! They have grown, shown some beauty tonight.
Ben: used complex harmonies, allowed two distinct melodies to flow back and forth. Mariah, good, don’t not hear many rappers that end with the way you sang that. Wished accompaniement behind the rap had held back or even dropped out. Nice job.
Sara: So much heart and courage, powerhouses. Liked the theme that came out of the combination, empowerment and believing in yourself.

Dartmouth Aires – Lady Gaga “Born This Way” and Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil.” Brendan is nervous about trying to pull off Mick. Originally Ethan was going to do lead on Born This Way but they went with the safer choice of Michael since he has been successful and they are comfy singing behind him. There is no room for error at this point. Ethan looks sad, and they keep patting his shoulder, which only emphasizes that he feels bad.
Me: I liked the arrangement. Really good! Loved the cheesy opening choreography with the feather fans!
Ben: a lot to take in, they split into two parts, two theaters going on, great concept, both gave it hell. Bass out of tune a little bit, but in those parts it was most entertaining. Jagger lead was not overly Jagger, Brendan was cool. Michael is always great.
Sara: agrees so much is happening. Fell off a little bit. They chose perfect leads. Passion and conviction.
Shawn: They have a flair for the dramatic. Enjoyable. Not his favorite performance but the mixing of the songs was good, he loved the battle between good and evil. Always entertaining.

Judge’s Choice:

Pentatonix – Sara says everyone in the group packs a punch; they could be competitive in the music industry, they are innovative, fusing pop and a capella into a cool thing. Shawn praises their risky arrangements like the skip in Radio Star; he hopes they do not get too far ahead of the original record. Sara explains the pick, for their innovative syle, to reimagine a song with a lot going on, a powerful lead and lots of percussion, Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days are Over.” I am only vaguely familiar with this song.
Me: I love Mitch’s solo! Wow! I think they got it exactly right! But I do not know the song. And I am biased.
Shawn: Audio drama. Mitch has a really pretty voice. So many elements, horse hooves, choo choo trains, breakdown to Mitch, ingenious to give Mitch his moment.
Sara: Riveting. They know how to use their instrument. Scott, Kirstie, and Mitch are all only nineteen. Fantastic.
Ben: They always give one or two surprises, this week was Mitch, not just his beautiful voice but how they set it up. So focused. Avi did not want to let go after song was done. He thoroughly enjoyed it. Nice work.

Urban Method – Shawn says they have a distinct style because of the hip hop element; Myk has swag but it is not a group based around Myk. Ben says they are taking things they know about the studio and applying it to live performance. Sara says they had a couple of bad weeks because the girls were not stepping up; they have vacillated between amazing and really good, so they have to be stellar with the competition they are up against. Shawn is glad they took the advice they were given. Shawn picked something to do their hip hop thing, Kanye West, “All of the Lights” featuring Rihanna.
Me: Love the thing with the mikes! Nice horns. Not sure about Katie rapping. Not my favorite but that may be because I do not know song at all.
Shawn: exciting. Standout in Katie, she came out of nowhere, evolved.
Ben: Great build, great arrangement, mature way of hanging on, keeping it exciting. Middle harmonies were shimmering. His favorite performance of theirs this season.
Sara: they have blossomed into another entity. They show confidence on stage, are exciting to watch. She liked the mike trick, has not seen that before, cool. She likes that it lingered, they are thinking about arrangement and making it stretch.

Afro-Blue – Sara says they are the cool kids of jazz, they make it accessible; they cracked code with Need You Now. Ben loved them from the second they took the stage, relates to them because they are students of music. Shawn, his favorite was American Boy; what stops them is themselves, they ovethink; they have to understand every song does not need a jazz chord, it just needs heart. Ben picks, they are masters of traditional jazz sound, Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Me: Love the gospel at end, and Kristie is terrific! Great string bass. Really really nice. Very moving. It is a song that brings its own emotional experience, and they lived up to it.
Ben: Really happy for them. Kristie killed it. They just made a record. They were in the zone.
Sara: she is emotional. Maybe the judges confused them along the way (yes, I think they did!). The backup was one voice, she is proud of them.
Shawn: Soul-stirring. Took us to church. Honest, melancholy, everything the Sam Cooke song originally was. He can hear it on radio or live or on video. Best performance they did in the series.

Dartmouth Aires – Ben says they are rooted in university a capella, with a theatrical edge; Michael was God-like when closing the Queen medley. Shawn says they are the most explosive of the groups; Queen was his most memorable; they have to show they are more than entertainers on stage, that they can be recording artists. Sara says they blend humor and high energy with emotional sensibility. Sara says they chose a song for theatricality and heart, to bring a party to stage: Isely Brothers, “Shout.” Wow, that is an on-stage performance song if there ever was one, not a recording artist song. But it is a happy song, too.
Me: Love the rhythm change! Michael is terrific! I love Clark in the background! Love the splits and rising from them. Love that he plays with the judges. Here is the question: could they have pulled that off without Michael?
Sara: Michael looks like he has been doing this for thirty five years, he walks on the stage like we have come to his home and it is his birthday. Pitch problems when they were jumping for the rafters.
Shawn: Instant Party, just add water. Michael is a superstar. A little flarp, but they were doing jumps and summersalts.
Ben: he grew up on these kinds of records, Michael is a classic singer, he has not heard a singer do this convincingly since he was a kid. Group is working together. Pitch train wrecks, when you have a group that big that is what happens.

I think it is between Urban Method and Dartmouth Aires, but Dartmouth Aires had the worst review in terms of technicality; they were so much fun, though.

Wow, Urban Method is safe first, interesting. But no one ever said they are called in rank order.
Pentatonix is in. Duh!
Afro-Blue definitely has more recording possibility thatn DA, but DA is more fun.

They have to do a sing-off, reprise their best song of the season. I assume everyone was prepared for this possibility. They do scaled-down versions:
Afro-Blue does American Boy.
Dartmouth Aires does Somebody To Love: wow, Michael stars off a little shaky. He holds that note forever, two backups break which is not a good thing. It is a Michael showcase song. And they use a director. I do not think they did it.

And the judges vote:
Sara: Dartmouth Aires. Always had an emotional reaction.
Shawn: Afro-Blue, though not always consistent, they can have a career.
Ben: Dartmouth Aires. They were connecting most consistently over the season. I am most surprised by that; I have always counted on Ben to be the cerebral one. He discusses his decision on his blog, though mostly he just praises Afro-Blue but never really says why he chose Dartmouth Aires over them! In fact he admits that the judges were wrong in telling Afro-Blue to “dumb it down” and that may have resulted in less than great performances along the way.

Wow. I am very surprised! And afraid! There are more students at Dartmouth than there are a capella fans in Austin. And viewers are left with a fresh impression of Michael with nothing from Pentatonix! I do not think I can bear another reality-show-gone-wrong right now, especially this one, which has always been so good. Poor Afro-Blue, that is what happens when you are too smart. I still think Dartmouth Aires is Michael and the back ups. But you can always sell jumping around and making people smile; it is very hard to sell making people think. And I have not particularly liked Afro-Blue all along; I just do not care for their jazz style, but I recognize how good they are at it!

Swan Song: “We’ve Only Just Begun” which is a pretty cool choice.

Next week the winner is announced! Judges will perform, and groups from the season will be back.

The Next Iron Chef Super Chefs: Episode 4 – Food is Funny

In a blatant rip-off from Top Chef, they go to the Improv where Kevin Nealon (remember him?) greets them and a fake audience. The challenge is all about improvisation, so this makes sense!

Alton lays out the structure. There are four food groups: protein, carb, fruits, and random. Obviously they did not pay attention in Health Class when the Four Food Groups were taught (though most of us modified them to fit our own tastes. For example, my Four Food Groups are Chocolate, Bread, Fizzy Sugar-Free Drinks, and… did I mention chocolate? Well, I only have three food groups then).

The audience will call out items to fit in each group, and Kevin will write them down (Kevin Nealon is a key player in this process, I see) and then he will pick one from each group (oh, I see, they do have something for him to actually do) and that will be what the chefs have to cook with. It is sort of like Chopped. For all I know, this is how they pick the ingredients on Chopped. Except I doubt many people have ever heard of violet mustard and jew’s mallow.

Back to this show! For proteins, audience members suggest rabbit, beef jerky, and octopus. For carbs, they call out tortillas, challah, and corn nuts. The fruits are kiwi, goji berry, kumquat, and lychee, and Random things are mayonnaise, prune juice, cheese puffs, and marshmallow (not at all related to jew’s mallow which is similar to spinach).

Kevin picks octopus, tortillas, kumquats, and marshmallows as the ingredients they must feature. They go back to the Kitchen where they have 45 minutes and whatever is in the pantry. Falkner won the last challenge so she gets an extra five minutes. Chiarello thinks five minutes is not that big a deal for a one hour challenge, but for a 45 minute challenge it is a huge deal. I think he needs a step between “not a big deal” and “huge deal”. It is miraculous that the kitchen is stocked not only with a variety of tortillas (blue corn, for example) but with a variety of octopus, from big ones to tiny babies. I am sure it is perfectly legitimate; maybe Alton called someone in the kitchen as soon as the random audience called out their off-the-cuff ideas and Kevin Nealon picked what he thought would be fun, and someone ran to the fish store and bought all kinds of octopus.

It is a battle of the pressure cookers!

Alex regrets that she made too much stuff last time and did not pay attention to individual components. Her reaction to kumquats is, they have a lot of pits, and they have a lot of pith. At least I think that is what she said. I tried kumquats once at the suggestion of my writer friend Melissa (hi, Melissa!) and I did not think they had either pith or pits. Maybe it was something other than kumquats. Zakarian is going to make brunch. Falkner and Chiarello are going to Spain, but I do not think they are going together. Anne is going to change the form of the octopus. Chiarello learned from the last challenge to nail the candy element first since it is hardest to figure out.

Marcus will tell the story of his life, from Africa and Sweden. That is going to be tricky, I think, using those ingredients. I am somewhat Swedish, and I do not think octopus and tortillas and marshmallows and kumquats play a big part in Scandinavian cuisine. Or, for that matter, Ethiopian. Though he says marshmallows are from Africa. I do not believe him. Possibly there is a mallow plant from Africa that marshmallows mimic, but marshmallows are gelatin and corn syrup. And I read somewhere that only Japan, Greece, Spain, and Mexico use octopus in their traditional cuisines. But I could be misremembering!

And so we have:

Alex: she puts the octopus in a pressure cooker and another one in a saute pan and she will see which one works better. She will candy the kumquats. In the end, the pressure cooker octopus is better so she goes with that. She makes octopus marinated with dill, a nappa cabbage puree, sweet and sour red cabbage with marshmallow and burned marshmallow to give a campfire flavor, because campfires taste so good! Michael Symon says the octopus is perfectly cooked; he likes the chiles, a very successful dish. Simon thinks it is outstanding, he is very pleased with the cabbage; he licked his plate. Seriously, he holds it up to show her he licked it clean. Except he must have done that when the camera was on someone else because we did not see any licking. His plate is clean, though he could have done that with a napkin and thrown it on the floor! Judy likes the crunch of the tortillas and the marshmallows.

Zakarian serves blackened tortilla and octopus polenta with scrambled egg and frotp li,qiat/ <S. pme mpte bit gppd/ Su,pm. That is what my notes say! I think my fingers slipped over one letter on the keyboard! Anyway, Simon complains about the black mushrooms making the whole dish muddy.

Falkner snapped up sherry vinegar from the pantry in her head start time, and got her octopus in the pressure cooker right away. She wants to make a romesco that includes cocoa nibs for their familiar bitter nuttiness. Hey! A familiar bitter nuttiness! I like that! It sounds like me! She serves red wine braised octopus with tortilla chip romesco and creamy kumquat vinaigrette, with a sprinkle of marshmallow ash on the plate. Marshmallow ash is burned marshmallow! MS loves the romesco, and the octopus is cooked well. Judy thiniks the marhsmallow ash is clever. Simon thinks her technique is terrific but he is not sure about the plating. Judy sees order in the chaos of the plating.

Chiarello grills some baby octopus, and it is rubbery so he hopes he can pressure cook some to be better, but he keeps opening the pressure cooker because he does not want it to turn to mush! Opening a pressure cooker takes time! Octopus is usually tough, not mushy! Alex hears him opening it for the final time with just three minutes to go and thinks, “Bold!” I think, “Does not know how to cook octopus.” He makes a Spanish tortilla (which is like a big omelette in a pan, not like a Mexican tortilla) with octopus, paprika, serrano ham, and kalamata olives, with a marshmallow aeoli. MS says the flavors are balanced and the aeoli is brilliant. Judy loves that the pungent octopus is dampened with olives. Simon says it is a well considered dish beautifully executed.

Beau considers the marshmallow to be the most difficult ingredient (duh!) and makes a brule, which means he torches the marshmallows. He grills the octopus but it is tough so he poaches it as well. He has charred baby octopus with black bean hoisin marinade, blue corn tortilla fritter, and bruled marshmallow. MS found the octopus to be tough. Judy thought it was a pretty plate but the flavors were not married together. Simon says the tortilla fritter is dry, but he likes the marshmallow and the use of miso, but questions putting it together. Judy agreees, it is all kung foo fighting in her mouth. Beau thinks they are nuts, it was balanced to him.

Anne decides to puree her octopus, so she makes braised octopus ravioli in sauce topped with marhsmallow candied kumquats and chiles. Simon loves the use of champagne vinegar, it is a smart dish and surprising because it looks very simple. MS notices the technique needed to make the dish. Judy does not like the texture of the octopus; it is rubbery even though it is pureed. Eww.

Marcus makes kumquat pickled octopus, toasted tortilla gazpacho with burned marshmallow sauce. MS thinks the octopus is tender but cutesy; I do not know what that means, if it is a criticism or a compliment. Alton says he does not know what it is. Simon says he is ok with the presentation, so shut up Alton. Judy scolds him for making soup on a plate for the second time.

Judgment

Four chefs were successful:
Chiarello: MS says he used the ingredients wisely.
Falkner: Judy thought the octopus was cooked perfectly and it was clever. You know, I think Falkner, who is known as a pastry chef, understood how to cook octopus better than anyone!
Anne: Alton says she had a unique approach to integrate octopus and marshmallow.
Alex: Simon again insists he licked his plate clean.

Chiarello is the winner! Falkner is surprised. And Alex makes a face when it is announced, though who knows when she made that face, it could have been three days ago. One thing I have learned about reality tv, never trust the editing.

The disappointments were:
Zakarian: Simon says the mushrooms were too dominant.
Marcus: MS says the elements were not mixed on the plate.
Beau: Judy tells him it was disjointed, conflicting, and disappointing. Wow. That means it was not good, right?

Alton says, “Marcus, it was a mess, but it was tasty” so he is safe. Beau and Zakarian do the Secret Ingredient Showdown.

And the Secret Ingredient is: coconut! They have 30 Minutes!

Beau is happy since Asian is his specialty. Zakarian thinks there is no advantage because it can be approached from the French angle as well. Yes, French coconut dishes are very popular! Thing is, any ingredient can be approached from the French angle: make a mire poire, get some butter and cream, spend three hours making a sauce, and voila, French!

Zakarian is thinking big flavors, since his dish was criticized as one-note. He fillets a halibut and everyone applauds. He thinks a piece of fish overcooked, but it will be all right. I do not understand why he did not have enough fish to use another one! He had a whole halibut! A halibut is only four fillets? I guess it is if you trim them. That is why expensive restaurants are so expensive, they cut big fish into tiny squares and waste a lot (though they use the meat in other things, but not fillets). He serves lentil and coconut coated halibut over sunchokes with raisin lime puree, and a coconut halibut crudo in a tiny shot glass. Alex worries about doing a duo. Yeah, they reamed Marcus for that weeks ago, what is this, this is the second time someone else has done a duo! That rule is only for Ethiopian Swedes? Alton tells him they have been warned repeatedly about the dangers of multiple components. Yeah, yeah, he says. Alton asks, why halibut? Zakarian says, it is white! Of course! Color coordinated with the coconut! He wanted it clean with a slight Caribbean flavor and French lightness. MS loves the sunchokes (they were cooked in coconut water and then had coconut cream added). Simon had an overcooked fillet; everyone else had perfectly cooked fish. Delicious flavors, suprisingly poor execution. Judy says the duo worked.

Beau is driving Alex nuts by rushing back and forth to the pantry to get things over and over. He goes to grill pineapple and everyone groans. Why? Grilled pineapple is delicious! They say it is old school. Well, so what, it is good! He makes coconut curry stew. MS likes the broth for its depth of flavor. He does not love the pineapple. Judy did not mind the pineapple, the shellfish was beautifully cooked, she would have liked more jalapeno, a different chile would have brought it together. Simon thinks it is one of the best dishes he has made in the competition, a thoughtful and splendid dish. I guess he likes grilled pineapple too! Beau says he put a Beauman element in your face, rich buttery clams in broth. Ok.

The Decision:

Alton says it was not unanimous, but they all did agree that one bite was terrific, and that was the crudo Zakarian made, so Zakarian is in. Beau is out! Alton tells him he did not have a bad day in the kitchen, he had a good day, but Zakarian had a better day. It is strange, when I was looking at the opening credits, I was thinking he would be next to go, just based on who is important to Food Network. Actually I thought Chuck Hughes would be next because I completely forgot he already went! That is how much attention I am paying to this show! Everyone left either is a Food Network bigshot or has genuine cachet as a chef. I will guess Falkner will be out next. Unless they decide to make an example of a Top Chef Master and get rid of Marcus!

Anne points out none of the women have been in the bottom yet. I did not realize that!

Next week they go to New York, and the challenge is storytelling. Yay, storytelling! That I know something about! Though I am not sure how it applies to food. Maybe they will ask them to make four courses that reflect their first food memory, the dish that made them want to be a chef, their first signature dish, and their future direction! ;)

Pushcart 2011: Jess Row, “Sheep May Safely Graze” from The Threepenny Review #117

Klas Herbert typographic poster

Portion of typographic poster by Klas Herbert created for this story

I should say – by way of disclaimer? of apology? – that I’ve never held particularly strong political beliefs. In this I take after my father, the postmaster of Sheffield, Connecticut…. I shared with him a special appreciation for the beauty of the impersonal gesture. An old woman in Topeka receives her Social Security check every month not because anyone loves her or even remembers her name. The crossing guard stopping traffic in front of the elementary school need not recognize a single child that scampers past. One’s human inadequacies are not the point. Efficiency, permanence, and careful design, I would have said, are the basis of real human charity and kindness.

Here is another astonishingly good story. And I don’t think I know the half of it. At the most straightforward level, it’s a portrait of a man devastated by loss, without realizing the extent of his devastation until twenty years later. It’s about what any of us might do under the right circumstances. Guilt, innocence, forgiveness. Detachment. Safety. And coming apart. It’s about a lot of things. Including Wittgenstein, an area in which I am very deficient.

The unnamed first person narrator runs the publishing office of the NSA in DC. He’s not a spy, but he deals with highly sensitive information and has “come to appreciate that behind every word on a sheet of paper is a vulnerable human body.” His eight-year-old daughter is killed in a boating accident in 1984 and becomes the focus of the media for a while, until something else happened, he doesn’t remember what: “…the world was full of unexpected calamities. Mercifully, we were forgotten.”

He briefly tries therapy, and approaches it with an intellectual analytic precision that I recognize. Wittgenstein is invoked. I did a quick look at Wittgenstein (logic, language – he revoked his earlier treatise later in life); I think I might find additional depths to this story if I understood Wittgenstein better. Not that I don’t find enough in it as it is. The narrator finds he must always be listening to music. He buys a Walkman, which he wears most of the time, forcing his secretary to slide notes in front of him at work: “It was as if, by degrees, without noticing, I’d become deaf, and everyone around me was too polite to point it out.”

A year and a half later, while Charles Ives plays on the radio, he hears a news report about a homeless man who froze to death on the street.

“I began to think about procedures, systems, chains of command. Whose job it was, for example, to write the rules that dictated to the Capitol Police when they should and should not patrol the streets for the sleeping homeless. I never doubted that there was such a policy. We are extremely good at writing policies in this city.”

He has a vision of faces hiding in the walls of his house, screaming in pain: “If I were given to hyperbole I might say that I had looked through a window into the world’s wounded soul.” But of course he is not. The music shifts to Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze“: “Someone is responsible, I thought. Someone knows why this has happened, and I will punish him.”

He brings some canned goods to a homeless shelter, and watches a girl unpack the items: “Her expressionless competence. Someone had told her that the world could be saved this way.” He asks the director what can be done, and learns about a bill to include funding for homeless shelters in the HUD budget. The Secretary, an Idaho Republican named Frank Murphy, is against it, though, so it’s a lost cause, but he can write a letter if he’d like. This is 1985. Reagonomics. If you’ve read And The Band Played On, you know how the CDC, trying to pinpoint the cause of what would become the AIDS epidemic, couldn’t afford a virology textbook or a simple centrifuge. Don’t get me started on Morning in America.

He comes up with a plan. He buys a gun, and waits for Frank Morris outside his home. He’ll shoot him; if he’s caught, he won’t resist, he won’t plead innocence. This scene is terrific. It’s a combination of goofiness and suspense and tragedy that’s stunning. As a way of getting closer to Morris, he says he’s looking for his dog, makes up a name, and they start calling out, “Trixie! Trixie!” Morris extends a handshake, and the narrator accidentally knocks his gun out of his waistband. Morris keeps his cool, advising him that DC is not the place to carry a concealed weapon. The narrator leaves without consummating his plan. “I drove away feeling, for the first time, defeated, and relieved, by the world’s sheer unrelenting ugliness.” This line is one of the many things I’m unable to fully parse in this story, but it’s tantalizing and beautiful nonetheless.

Flash forward twenty years. Our narrator has retired, and his wife, Rachel, formerly an art librarian, has become in demand as a museum consultant. She’s in Berlin, helping plan the Unification Museum. They talk on the phone.

It’s possible, when you’ve been married for twenty-five or thirty years, when your children have grown up and moved away, to keep coming across the tail ends of conversations you started in a different decade, and to realize that whole areas of existence have lain dormant all that time, like seeds in an envelope.

Rachel tells of walking in Berlin and suddenly thinking, Sorbibor, and bursting into tears in the middle of the city.

Maybe it happens all the time here. Maybe Berliners are used to seeing strangers sobbing on street corners….I just didn’t understand how they do it, how they can look around and not feel everything just steeped in blood.

She tells him a story a colleague told her, about someone whose uncle was in the SS and how he was relieved when the man died. He told her, “It’s a terrible thing, to think of yourself always as innocent. Because you see the world, as it were, from the air. You can’t help it. There are the innocent like you, and then there are the others, the terribly, terribly guilty.”

Rachel tells her husband she was grateful the man didn’t invoke more recent and American outrages, and that of course, she didn’t tell him what her husband had done for a living. He thinks of Wittgenstein again. And again, I wish I understood more. Rachel goes on: “Innocent people commit the most terrible crimes, she said. Sometimes without even lifting a finger. Don’t say you don’t know what I mean. You know exactly what I mean.”

I don’t know what she means. His work, which included publishing reports on El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola? Or is she referring to the abandoned murder? Or even the death of their daughter, and the withdrawal he experienced afterwards? I’m not sure. But the idea of “none of us are truly innocent” resonates with me tremendously. Everyone demands lower taxes – and homeless shelters (public health, arts and sports in schools, etc etc) go unfunded; news stories about childhood obesity abound while schools invite McDonald’s in to make up budget shortfalls, and the Frozen Food Council gets legislation proposed to make pizza a vegetable. Sally Struthers, as annoying as she is, was right – we’d rather have a latte venti than feed a child in some far-off country; the scary thing is, we’d rather have an iPhone4 than fund real food for school lunches. Where do we draw the line? Probably where our own houses and cars and the lifestyles fall, and everyone with a better house-car-lifestyle is greedy. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Seth Fried lately. Or maybe I haven’t been reading enough until now. And I’m ranting.

None of that is really the narrator’s problem, though. It’s a lot more real than that.

But given the right circumstances, I thought, in those same months, I could have done almost anything. Set off a car bomb. Worn a dynamite belt. I had been, in my own small way, a fanatic….It was one aspect of my life that had evaded all suspicion.

None of us are truly innocent. What would any of us do to protect our child?

He thinks this is the time to tell his wife about the gun, but he’s got a pizza in the oven and a drink poured and she’s half a world away.

This was the converse of history, I thought, the secret unwritten history, of men yawning late at night, too ashamed to tell their wives who said what about the nuclear test or the planned assassination of the prime minister, and dying fo a stroke the next day.

Then comes a little coda I don’t understand. I consulted Ann Graham, who commented on this story, but I still don’t feel like I’ve “got” it. He takes a framed photograph of his daughter, slices open the paper backing with a razor blade, takes out the glass “so no one will be injured,” and throws it away. I’m not even sure what he throws away – the picture? The glass? The frame and paper and mat? I have no idea. I don’t understand why he does this. I get the symbolism of the razor blade, especially since he repeats it. And I think I mostly get the last sentence:

In my life I have been the shepherd from the air, praying, don’t look up, don’t let me see your faces, for who knows what I’ll do to the world if I lose you.

Sort of ties the whole thing together, doesn’t it? The emotional distance, the photograph, the near-shooting, the faces in the walls, the lyrics from “Sheep May Safely Graze” (which might not be what you think; while “the good shepherd” has religious overtones, it’s a secular aria from Bach’s “The Hunt Cantata” and praises the Duke for protecting his constituents). I hope I someday learn enough to fully understand it.

But that may never happen. After all, he had a multi-layered story in mind all along. His comments on the Random House blog (publisher of the PEN/O.Henry volume for which this story was also selected), he explains how the story was conceived and written:

I was in the car, looking for a parking space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I began to consciously make up a story, piece by piece—something I’ve never done before. The premise was so strange and outrageous that it didn’t seem like something I would ever bring to the page. And I still think the story, though its tone is so sober and controlled, is deeply, deeply odd. Its layers came together by accretion, over several years, and it was a tremendous effort to find an ending that would cut through and expose all those layers. (If I’ve in fact succeeded in doing that).

I’m always surprised to discover many of these stories were written over years; sometimes failed drafts were tucked away and reworked much later, and other times, as with this, it just took that long to gather all the elements together and find a way to make them work. It gives me hope. Even though I haven’t written fiction for some time, maybe there’s still a chance something will click some day, and I’ll be able to bring an abandoned draft or failed story back to life. In the meantime I keep reading.

Reading stories like this one makes the meantime astonishingly good.

Tessa Hadley: “The Stain” from The New Yorker 11/7/11

New Yorker art by Annette Marnat

When she was a child, this house from the outside, with its tall façade and many blind-looking windows, had seemed to stand for all the grandeur and beauty she could imagine. In reality, inside it was dingy and half-furnished and needed a coat of paint.

This story has some elements I really enjoyed, but overall I found it rather uninteresting and somewhat contrived. I’m having trouble even formulating anything to say about it without being snide. When I photocopied the story in the library, I omitted the title page so I didn’t realize it was by Tessa Hadley until after I’d read it, at which point I wondered, seeing as she’s had three stories in The New Yorker this year, if she’s got pictures of Deborah Treisman with goats or something. If they’re going to print three stories by someone, I’d think it would be someone else. See what I mean by snide? Maybe it’s just that I’ve been awash in soul-burning tear-stained gut-busting worldview-changing stories lately, and I don’t have patience with the merely adequate.

The story, which I actually liked better than the two earlier stories (“Clever Girl” and “Honor“), is about Marina, a bit of a misfit in her village, who goes to work for an aged man of means. He’s retired to the village from South Africa, and won’t talk about it. I’m not sure if Marina doesn’t make the connection, or doesn’t want to, but her surprise at the end is not believable to me. The “abduction” she undergoes at the end of the story feels similarly false. And the old man’s death is timed with the precision of a Harlequin romance.

I can appreciate a lot of the themes Hadley mentions in her Book Bench interview: how a community might “collaborate, for better and for worse, to establish a consensus, and to sustain it through disapproval and gossip;” and especially, “how that secret stain would contaminate what was around him.” I found more of both in the old man’s family than in the actual village. Marina played the role of the outsider upsetting the status quo of the family.

I’m going to have to accept that I don’t care for this particular author. I’m sure it’s my loss.

Top Chef Texas – Episode 3: Quinceañera

Shrimpgate!

For those of us who need crib notes, here’s a reminder of who’s left, along with my first impressions (based more on their personal presentation and comments than their cooking):

Nyesha Arrington: Food & Wine Rising Star nominee; she’s worked for Josiah Citrin and Joel Robuchon. I saw her on Chef Hunter where she just got her first exec position; and I still love the way she throws salt. The judges loved her Tex-Mex ravioli. Four stars.
Keith Rhodes: James Beard nominee; specialties are seafood and Southern; ex-con. I have no idea what he was like when he was dealing drugs, but he seems like a teddy bear now. He got dealt rabbit instead of seafood, and handled it fine without whining; plus he made a joke at Judges’ Table. The judges loved his rabbit tenderloin and chicken fried rabbit with Yukon Gold hash. Four stars.
Ed Lee: James Beard nominee; specialties are Asian-Southern fusion. He undercooked his butter-poached rabbit in the first round and got Bubbled; he cut his hand in the Bubble Round and cooked one-handed while the medics bandaged it, but the judges appreciated his bbq duck with sweet Asian custard, pickled corn and candied bacon; four stars.
Chris Jones: Hugh’s blog refered to him and Richie as the Moto Boys; I’m going to borrow that. They have a child-like glee about them which is very appealing; it reminds me of when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the writing Oscar for Good Will Hunting. And a shoutout-thanks to backformore from TWoP for pegging him as Skippy from Family Ties. The judges liked his pork belly in a caramel apple with candied peanuts. Four stars.
Richie Farina: The junior Moto Boy. Same as above; I worry about his salty palate, but I like his self-awareness about it. His braised and crispy pig’s ears and onion soup worked. Four stars.
Lindsey Autry: Pretty blonde, but there’s something about her appearance I find odd. I love that she ran away rather than deal with Tom in the kitchen. She works for Michelle Bernstein. The judges were crazy about her braised veal over polenta.
Sarah Grueneberg: Protégé of Tony from TCM; specialty is Italian. She was intimidated by all the accolades during Show & Tell, but Heather was impressed by her. She didn’t get all that much screen time; the judges liked her pig skin ravioli with roasted corn, tomato and pepito salsa and gave her props for bringing it with a difficult ingredient.
Heather Terhune: I read an interview with her in which she was all aglow about having trained under a female chef, but has no female chefs working for her (out of 30) because she can’t find any. This bothers me. But she seems very straightforward. The judges liked her maple glazed baby back ribs with bleu cheese grits.
Grayson Schmitz: of butchered tenderloin fame, and the hilarious “I’m fifteen, all I want to do is drink” remark. I think she got off to a bad start (delegated the butchering job, lots of whining) and she wasn’t that articulate about why she combined shrimp, bacon and figs; Tom had to pretty much explain it to her. I think I love her, but I’m not sure.
Chuy Valencia: Rick Bayless’ protégé so I assume his specialty is Mexican. Every time they say “chewie” I think of Chewbacca. Any friend of Rick Bayless gets some credit. His rabbit loin with cashew pipian and grilled zucchini went over big.
Paul Qui: James Beard nominee, Rising Star; food truck guy, an Austin star. Judges loved his grilled trout.
Whitney Otawka: Hugh was her mentor when she started; I’m wondering how that’s going to fly. Other than that, I don’t remember anything about her. From the Ep1 post, her rabbit sugo went over just fine. ETA: I just realized – I don’t think she was in this episode at all. I’ll have to look more closely when I see it again.
Dakota Weiss: Newscaster pretty. Seems like she can cook, since her roasted rabbit saddle crepinette with leeks, mushrooms and bulgar wheat worked for the judges.
Beverly Kim: I Can I Must I Will. I’m not sure how smart it was to take octopus when her restaurant only uses it pre-cooked; maybe it was gutsy. But she pulled it off. Tom characterized her dish as “craziness.” I love that She seems really sweet but I wonder if she has a grasp on how to play.
Chris Crary: He opened the season with “Padma’s hot.” Self-described style similar to Blais and MVolt. Too pretty. Rabbit leg confit and tenderloin over carrot polenta got him in on the first try.
Ty-lör Boring: I’m not going to fuss with the umlaut all season. Doesn’t look like I’ll have to; apparently everyone’s calling him Ty. I like his background (worked in Thailand and Denmark) but he looks kind of mean. And his name is just stupid; you can’t convince me he was born with it. The judges were impressed with his confit of rabbit leg marinated in fish sauce with pickled veggies. He worked for Heather for a few years.
Andrew: He’s in the Last Chance Kitchen, where he probably won’t last very long. He seems pretty cool; I was on Team Janine but I’m ok with him, and when I read a blog refer to him as Yukon Cornelius, I realized he’s benefiting from a vague resemblance to beloved Kevin of the Season Mirabilis.

Ok, so we’re ready to get started. Whew. It’s been a long season already.

Open on Beverly putting up a note: “Congratulations, Top Chef Beverly Kim.” This is the “I Can I Must I Will” girl. It worked last time, and it sounds better than “coulda woulda shoulda.”

Quickfire:

Padma and Johnny Hernandez, chef and wild game expert, wait in the kitchen, next to an aquarium containing a snake. The phobic chorus begins. Everyone’s afraid of snakes. I can sympathize. My ex had a serious thing about snakes, and seeing them on TV made him scream, which would scare the hell out of me. As a result when I see snakes on TV, even though I’m not phobic about snakes, I jump a little. Still. And it’s been 15 years.

And of course, they’re cooking rattlesnake. Johnny tells them – several times during the QF – how delicate the meat is, and how it can take spice but it requires a gentle touch. I dunno, if I were cooking rattlesnake, I’d take the same approach I use with eggs and everything else that makes me nervous: cook the hell out of it, cover it with ketchup, and mash it up so it can be swallowed without chewing or tasting. But the goal of the Quickfire is to showcase the rattlesnake, not hide it.

Padma tells them: “Your ingredient is in the box in front of you.” The box is a big wood thing, leading everyone to assume they will have to dispatch, skin, and butcher their own snakes. But it’s ok; as Ty points out, the snake is already skinned and dead. Hopefully not in that order. “I’d better see some motherf#&in’ snakes on some motherF*%(#in’ plates.” This is the second time they’ve used Snakes on a Plane. It must be one of Tom’s favorite movies. They have one hour. The winner gets $5000 and immunity.

Dakota: In her restaurant they make goat liver and barracuda, but this is freaking her out. She takes the anything-fried approach: beer-battered tempura rattlesnake with zucchini almond gazpacho. She wins – maybe she’ll add rattlesnake to her menu. Because come on, it can’t be as bad as goat liver.
Sarah: Her Italian approach is more simple than the fun and whimsy thing she sees in Richie (who she knows from Chicago). She presents flash-fried rattlesnake with a little minced lemon zest, and brown butter with shallots and capers. She’s one of the best; the zest highlighted the snake.
Beverly: She worries that her rattlesnake has some chew to it, but some things are supposed to be like that and she isn’t sure whether or not this is one of them; she goes with nigiri with thai basil aeoli, and damn if those signs don’t work, she’s one of the best.
Chuy: He isn’t afraid of snakes, he slaughtered animals on his farm when he was growing up “between California and Mexico” which I assume means he spent time in both places, seeing as there is no in-between CA and Mexico. He goes with adobo rattlesnake with pasilla balsamic barbecue sauce. Sounds like a lot of flavor for a delicate meat.
ChrisC: He makes rattlesnake nicoise with olive oil pudding and olive panko. Johnny says it’s got good texture.
ChrisJ: He tries cumin breaded rattlesnake with bacon, lime and a touch of bbq sauce.
Keith: Cooking saved his life so he’s going for it with sweet corn rattlesnake griddle cake, and a tequila poblano queso fondue dip.
Paul: He has to represent Texas, and does so with barbecue rattlesnake with Asian slaw. Johnny saw the color and technique, but the flavor of the rattlesnake got lost. That’s Texas for ya. Bottom three.
Nyesha: She makes braised rattlesnake with tequilla, citrus and jalapeno. She’s in the bottom three; Johnny says it’s one-dimensional and the snake is overcooked.
Richie: He’s never worked with snake; Sarah tells him to cut it into sections small enough to work with, which he does. She knows him from Chicago, says his style is fun and whimsy, which kind of fits. He and ChrisJ consult. He makes grilled snake with roasted corn. He’s one of the least favorites; all Johnny could taste was citrus.

Elimination Challenge:

They draw knives and separate into the pink and the green team. I like two things already: they don’t spend a lot of time on silliness like showing everyone picking a knife and saying, “Pink,” and the teams are colors besides red and blue. Oh, that reminds me, I like the dark chef jackets too. Much better than the white ones. I guess they liked them on All Stars so much, they decided to continue.

Blanca comes in. No one knows who she is; Ed wonders if she’s a Mexican rock star. Turns out she’s the one having her fifteenth birthday, hence the title of the episode. Chuy explains how a Quinceañera is a big deal for girls, like a Sweet Sixteen party, but boys don’t get much of a party, they just go kill a goat. And they spend the rest of their lives making the girls pay for that inequity, Chuy. Anyway, the chefs have to prepare elegant Mexican cuisine for a hundred guests, including a cake. They can talk to Blanca to get her likes and dislikes, and plan the menu for 30 minutes.

The green team asks her if she likes spicy food. No, but she likes ceviche. And goat. And tres leche cake. And boys. Heather used to be a pastry chef until she got bored with it, so she’s got the cake. Chuy is psyched that she likes goat, he’s all about goat.

The pink team asks the same kinds of questions. Lindsey lived in Mexico for a couple of years when she was helping Michelle Bernstein open a restaurant there, so she’s comfy with the cuisine. There’s something about cabbage leaves, mincemeat, and consomme.

The teams go shopping, leading to two events of interest. Keith says he’s going to buy cooked shrimp instead of fresh, and ChrisC says, “Whatever, go ahead, get it.” Now, at the time, I thought this was odd. I always thought cooked shrimp was evil, a Sandra Lee thing. But here this James Beard nominated chef proposes getting it, and another pretty good chef says fine. And a third is standing right there and doesn’t say, “What, are you crazy?” Of course, this will come back to haunt them.

Second, Beverly kind of throws a “pay attention to me I am the most important person in the universe I know everyone feels that way but I really am I need a butcher NOW” fit at the meat counter. It was really amazing. She wasn’t hostile or aggressive; she seemed nervous in fact; it’s really strange how she pulled that off. I wonder if this will come back to haunt her at some point down the line. Maybe I Can I Must I Will has her wound pretty tight.

Oh, and they all buy pre-made tortillas, which also seems kind of stupid. But it’s not in the same league as cooked shrimp.

Back in the kitchen they start their three hours prep. Lindsey and Sarah freak out over the cooked shrimp. Ah, finally; so I’m not crazy. Keith feels alone (cue the violins). That night, he says he wants to wash the day away and start over tomorrow and win the contest. Oh, man, it ain’t gonna happen, you are deep under the bus already. And, as much as I like you, it was an indefensible mistake. As was ChrisC’s agreement (and ChrisC conveniently forgets, saying it was all Keith; note to myself: ChrisC is a snake), but that doesn’t let you off the hook. It throws them off because Ty can’t make the shrimp cocktail now. Keith also cuts the pork loin too thick. Keith’s having a really bad day.

Service

Blanca enters, wearing a very pretty strapless white dress with red embroidery and trim and a fluffy skirt. I wonder how they chose her, did they put an ad in the paper, or is she a friend of someone on the crew? [ETA: seek and ye shall find: she applied via Facebook; her favorite dish wasn’t even mentioned on the show; her least favorite was Keith’s enchilada; and she had her real quinceañera a week later – featuring chicken cordon bleu and green beans with almonds!]. It must be a thrill for her. She’s just slightly shy, which is nice.

Hugh Acheson joins Tom and Padma.

Passed appetizers make their way around:
Pink team:
Ty – fire roasted summer fritter with avocado mousse. Bianca says she can’t taste avocado. Tom says it’s dry. Hugh calls it a hush puppy.
Keith and Lindsey: pork tenderloin huarache. Padma has trouble eating it. Johnny says they’re struggling with execution and presentation. Not a great start for Team Pink.
Green Team:
Richie – tapioca chicharron with pork carnitas. Bianca says the middle is soggy. Tom says she’s good at this. Maybe they’ll make her a permanent judge.
Paul – Shrimp yuzu ceviche with corn salsa and yucca chip. Tom likes it; it has more flavor.

The buffet starts:
Pink team:
Nyesha – Tilapia ceviche with crispy plantain chips and spiced popcorn. Good texture.
ChrisCchoclo con chile. Padma’s favorite dish is the corn.
Keith – Enchilladas salsa verde. He used a flour tortilla instead of corn, so it’s soggy and doughy; Hugh says like it or not, Keith made a burrito. Ouch. Keith, honey, what happened to you?
Ty – carne asada. Padma and Tom both like it.
Sarah and Lindseycochinita pibil, salsa negra. Tom’s pretty indignant about the store-bought tortillas.

Green team:
Edward – tomatillo gazpacho with chicarone and dried plantains. The gazpacho is good, but the chicarone on top got lost.
ChrisJ – Green chile, mushroom, oaxaca cheese empanada. Tom likes it, dough is flaky and light.
Chuy – braised goat birria, steamed nappa cabbage, queso fresco. Tom likes the goat but isn’t sure about the cabbage.
Beverly – beef short rib asada and Mexican kimchi. Johnny likes it.
Grayson – Chicken in ancho mole, sour cream, pickled onions, grilled corn tortillas; Tom thinks the cinnamon is too strong (so does Blanca; damn, the kid is good) but at least they grilled the store-bought tortillas.

Cake:
Pink team:
Dakota – strawberry and pineapple cake. Blanca likes the pineapple filling, but it has too much frosting.
Heather – Tres Leches cake. It’s slanting. Heather says it looks like an Easter basket gone bad. Blanca likes it better than the other cake, because it’s not as sweet. Good girl.

The dining over, Blanca does a dance with her father. Beverly gets all teary; she wants her dad to be proud, to prove she can do as much as a son would do. Wow, that sounds interesting. In fact, Beverly gets more interesting all the time.

Tom announces the Green Team wins. Uh oh, that means Keith is gone. He’s anxious. He foresees being thrown under the bus. Ya think?

Padma calls Ty, Sarah, Lindsey and Keith to Judges’ Table as the least favorite dishes on the losing team. Dakota would’ve joined them for the over-frosted cake, but she has immunity. Tom tells them they did a good job, but the other team did a better job. I call bullshit on the “good job” part of that.

Sarah and Lindsey dither a little about leadership, as in, there wasn’t any. Which is pretty funny, since Nyesha saw them as the leaders, and Sarah said something about being nervous because she’d taken a leadership role. Sarah let it slip that they were going to serve shrimp cocktail but couldn’t (oops) and Keith gets spanked for buying cooked shrimp which never made it to the table (probably a good decision). Hugh says, “If you brought that shrimp to me, I’d be yelling at you, too.” Sigh. Thing is – if Sarah hadn’t mentioned it, the judges never would’ve known about it. I’m sure she didn’t think of that at all.

They all get called out for the dishes that did make it to the judges. Ty‘s fritter lacked flavor and was dry. He tries the “it was Keith’s fault” (he was going to make shrimp cocktail) but Tom says, rather sternly, “So that’s why it was dry?” He reminds me of Judge Judy: “So it’s the bathtub’s fault?” Don’t ask. Ty mans up and says, “No, sir, that was a cooking failure.” He gets a half a point for that. He’d get a whole point if he didn’t do the “Keith made me do it” first.
Sarah and Lindsey used store-bought tortillas, and they weren’t good tortillas at that. Lindsey‘s cochinita lacked authentic flavor, especially surprising since she lived in Mexico.
And Keith‘s enchilladas were made with flour tortillas; he seems to really think they’re supposed to be that way. Johnny and Hugh both tell him it has to be corn, because it won’t get doughy like flour does. Sarah knows a good thing when she sees it and rides the Anti-Keith wave and chimes in she never uses flour tortillas for enchilladas, but Padma stops her with: “So did you say that to him?” Smack! And Sarah parries back: “I’m not here to boss people around.” Pow! Keith delivers his own shot: “You love driving the bus hitting people.” Ka-Boom!

I think Lindsay and Sarah were annoyed with Keith over the shrimp and over the thick cutting of the pork, so they weren’t about to help him by telling him about the tortillas, and they were more than happy to make sure his mistakes were spotlighted. It’s not nice; it’s kind of ganging up on him. But he did make those three mistakes. Was he supposed to know how thick the pork should be cut? I don’t know. Would he have bought cooked shrimp if he’d been making shrimp cocktail? Based on his reasoning, and his checking with other people in the store, I can’t see that this was anything but a mistake on his part, and I do think he would’ve done the same thing if he’d been dealing with shrimp cocktail. Which raises the issue: why wasn’t he doing seafood? He’s a seafood chef. But the bottom line is, he made some very poor decisions in this episode.

The contestants go back to the stew room. The judges talk. Tom lists the awards and qualifications they have, concluding: “But it was a mess.” Hugh worries about Keith if he needs advice on enchilladas and cooked shrimp. Johnny thinks it’s odd that Lindsay lived in Mexico and delivered a dish that needed a lot more flavor. The fritter was just, not.

In the end, Keith is out, and as sad as that makes me, it’s really the only decision that makes sense. All that bickering for nothing. Keith was toast the minute he bought that shrimp. I don’t care if everyone on the team said it was ok. He could’ve gotten away with it if his team hadn’t mentioned it at Judges’ Table, but hey, that’s how it goes. Using the wrong tortilla for the enchilladas made it a no-brainer.

Last Chance Kitchen:

There’s an extended “bye, Keith” (he’s playing the “I was thrown under the bus” card, which he kinda was, but he did buy the shrimp and he did use the wrong tortillas and enchilladas aren’t on the same level as birria or cochinita pibil, it’s the coastal North Carolina view of Mexican food) and a review of Andrew.

Keith walks into the kitchen to find Tom and Andrew standing there; he’s confused. Apparently the chefs weren’t told about this. Which is interesting. This convinces me that all these LCKs were shot after the competition was over, before the finale, in the same day. Logistically that makes sense, and if we’re talking about springing a surprise on people, it’s really the only way they could do it. I wonder if there’s some contractual prohibition on radical appearance changes (like shaved heads) to keep up the pretense.

Back to cooking: the challenge is: prep as much as possible of a set of given ingredients – onions, clams, etc – in ten minutes; then make a dish with whatever they’ve prepped. It incorporates basic skills along with cooking. It seems like they both prep everything that’s available. Yeah, I think the basic skills were screened pretty well already.
Andrew goes Mediterranean: clams with grilled raddichio and peperonata.
Keith does clams two ways to represent “what we do on the NC coast”: ceviche with lemon zest and minced sofrito, and steamed clams with champagne butter and panchetta.
Tom likes both dishes. But because he showcased the clams better, Keith wins.
I think maybe what this LCK does is give us a buffer to get over a favorite being knifed. By the end of the show next week, I’ll have forgotten about Keith, and I’ll probably be more attached to whoever gets knifed then (because I’m fickle, but hey, I’ve known Keith for a total of six minutes through edited footage, just how attached and I supposed to be), just like this week I was kind of hoping he’d would pull it off over Andrew. It’s a very interesting psychological design aimed more at the viewers than the chefs, I think. I wonder who thought this up. Props.

Special props: I continue to be very impressed by Hugh Acheson’s blog. He’s funny. He’s blunt. He’s subtle. And no one is safe.

Next week, it’s time for the rodeo. And Padma rides a horse. Whooooa!

BASS 2011: Ehud Havazelet, “Gurov in Manhattan” from TriQuarterly #137

Photograph by Linda Ball

Nothing had cut him so deeply in years: Sokolov, Old World conqueror, who had held the gaze of every woman in his novels class, who had wooed dozens just by a line from Herzen or a pose struck thoughtfully looking out a window, who had slept with half the humanities faculty at Lehman, knew all at once age, irrelevance, invisibility. And standing there with a five-dollar bill in his hand, for the first time since the terrifying clap of mortality when the doctor pronounced the diagnosis, felt the brush of the dark angel’s wings on his neck.
And since, he had returned daily to verify the sensation, rage, and concede and quietly wonder at the many ways we pass into insubstantiality. An old fool in love.

Sokolov is an aging academic (aha, another taboo that made it through three rounds of selection) walking Lermontov, his intestinally-blocked wolfhound, in the hopes of working something loose; otherwise Lermontov, who is a ripe old 13, will find himself the recipient of a humanely-delivered lethal injection. The dog used to belong to Kelly, his grad-student girlfriend. He’d met Kelly by invoking Chekhov’s “The Lady and the Dog” in his flirtations; after they’d been together three years, on a trip to Key West, he has “the brittle realization they were sullen, disconsolate, exhausted.”

But at that moment Fate delivered its own blow, and Sokolov was diagnosed with cancer. After treatment and four clean biopsies, Kelly headed for warmer climes and a better professional opportunity, leaving only Lermontov behind.

Of late, Sokolov has become enrapt by another cute young thing, Amity, a waitress in a café who pays him no attention whatsoever. This is a new experience, and he’s trying to adjust to it.

In his BASS Contributor Notes, Havazelet says he was trying to emulate Chekhov’s “The Lady And The Dog” by capturing “a moment where nothing at all seems to happen and yet everything has changed.” I’m pretty sure he was successful, in that on reading the passage above, I immediately identified with similar moments I’ve experienced. I re-read the Chekhov story, and there are similarities and frequent references, but this story stands alone just fine, I think.

It’s a nice read – the prose is a bit more lush than usual – and I appreciate the Chekhov reference. In an interview with TriQuarterly, the author admits to having an experience very similar to the turning point, involving a sweet young waitress who took little notice of him; and, like Sokolov, he returned to the café to get used to the idea that he was no longer an object of admiration to young ladies. I like the elements he chose to add to make this moment a story, including the Chekhov reference, the dog’s intestinal blockage (which is part of the “everything” that changes; it’s a terrific use of symbolism), the illness, the departed lover.

A quiet, thoughtful story, low on action; I’m glad to see it included here.

Pushcart 2011: Tony Earley, “Mr. Tall” from The Southern Review Spring 2009

Southern Review Cover Art by Tanja Softiç

Because Dillsboro lay on a riverbank in a wide, fertile valley, the mountains Plutina had grown up knowing stood politely some distance away from where she had viewed them. These new peaks, however, pressed in on her like rude strangers.

I’m afraid I missed the point of this story. Oh, I get that it’s about Depression-era Appalachia and intimacy and closeness and how loneliness changes the perception of distance. But I felt like it ended in the middle, leaving me with a lot of loose ends and the question, “So, what happened then?”

The story follows Plutina, who at sixteen marries Charlie. She leaves behind her father and older sister Henrietta who will now have to care for their stroke-disabled mother by themselves. They aren’t too happy about that; Henrietta doesn’t even attend the brief wedding in the house. But these people disappear from the story and aren’t heard from again. It seems odd to create such an interesting setup, complete with this teaser –

Plutina’s thoughtless relegation of Henrietta to a life of servitude (Henrietta’s view) and Henrietta’s unforgivably bad manners on the happiest day of Plutina’s life (Plutina’s version) provided yeast for the grievances and recriminations and snits that would intermittently bubble up between the sisters for the better part of the next seventy years.

- and then just abandon it.

But the remainder of the story focuses on Plutina’s life exclusively. Charlie takes her to his house some distance away, in the mountains that crowd her so rudely. Then he takes a job in another town, meaning he leaves on Monday and returns Friday. She tends the farm in the meantime, deals with her fears, tells herself stories out loud, and lives with loneliness, occasionally wondering about the elusive “Mr. Tall” who is her only neighbor about a mile away. She’s never seen him, or his farm. All she knows about him is that he lost his wife and baby in an accident, and that he makes apple brandy (which would still be illegal in 1931). She makes up an entire world for him, complete with dark images and dangerous signs.

A couple of years later, she becomes pregnant; she keeps it a secret from Charlie for a while. It strikes me as odd that it takes so long for her to become pregnant, and that neither she nor Charlie voice any concerns. Or, for that matter, relief, because she doesn’t seem all that thrilled about her pregnancy. She seeks out Mr. Tall’s farm, which turns out not to be dark and dangerous as she’d imagined but quite lovely and well-kept. Intrigued, and lonely, and scared, she eventually meets him, resulting in a moderately dramatic approach-avoidance conflict for both of them. Their loneliness overcomes their fear. She acts like a child playing hide-and-seek, and he’s disturbed to see her, as any good hermit would be, but he treats her rather kindly if stiffly once he determines she’s not trying to steal from him. They seem to be heading towards coexisting as friendly neighbors, but she oversteps by commenting on his dead wife and child. He lashes out quite nastily, accusing her of sexual motivations and wishing her baby dead, and leaves. She is sad.

End of story. Like I said, it left me with loose ends. The climax isn’t that climactic; her family is still dangling from the first paragraphs; and she’s still pregnant. I get the dance of intimacy vs loneliness, in this case just neighborliness vs serious isolation. And as vicious as it is, I get his reaction to her kindly-intentioned mention of his family tragedy; it might be necessary to pick at a wound to get it to heal, but it’s painful, and apparently he isn’t up to it, at least not then or with her. But it’s too brief a scene to have that much impact on me. It’s almost like this is a chapter from a book, with this disruption in their relationship being an early chapter, but I can’t find anything to indicate that.

I’m not sure why it’s Pushcart-worthy. The few raves I’ve found have been non-specific: it’s true to the time and place, it’s a detailed character portrayal, and that’s all true, but still, doesn’t it have to go somewhere? And I can’t overlook the possibility that I just wasn’t interested. The whole “Southern literature” thing usually goes by me; it’s a flavor I can’t really taste. If someone can fill me on on the merits, I’d be happy to learn something.

The Sing Off 2011 Episode 9: The Rhythm & Blues Revue

And tonight is R&B night! Since there are only five groups and two hours of show, each group will do two numbers. First will be a current R&B hit (meaning I will not know any of them), and then they will do a round of classics (songs I know).

The opening medley included “I Feel Good” by James Brown and “ABC” by the Jackson 5.

Dartmouth Aires – “Ignition (Remix)” They want to dial it back a little; they do not do sexy, they do high energy, so it takes work. They had a rough rehearsal, too many ideas.
Me: I love the “bounce bounce.” I love Clark being sexy. It was chaotic, with a lot going on, but I think if I was more familiar with it I might love it, it all clicked.
Sara: charming, entertaining. Xavier, fantastic on stage, nice to see you rub your ass on national tv. Clark, awesome. Enjoyed.
Shawn: So many “uncomfortable” moments. Never seen them like that before. They did sexy in a playful way, strategic, could have been more bounce in drums. Looking for dimension and layers, but was fun.
Ben: always entertaining. Bottom end, bass and drums, has not been their strength.
Sounds like they may be on the low side.

Urban Method: “Knock me Down” by Keri Hilson. Mike is happy to rap Kanye West. Katie is feeling pressure. They want to show versatility.
Me: I think there was a little melt down before the refrain. I like the beeps. I love the build on the rap section!
Shawn: Proud of them growing. Katie, happy for her, Mike, gives raps his own style.
Ben: always in good hands. Richard, great beatboxer. Best on show. Lot of low end, never question groove. Like Liz doing tick-tick-tick. A little trouble with straight ahs, couple of swells unlocked with three dynamics at once.
Sara: Little Engine that Could. Loved playing with arrangement. Creating suspense in arrangements, smart.

Vocal Point – “Every Little Step” by Bobby Brown. They admit, when you think of Vocal Point the first word probably is not “soul.” They were struggling with choreography in rehearsal.
Me: Percussion is very strong, too strong? I do not like the oooohs. Half and half, to me, half too white boy, half pretty good. Nice little touches though! Nick says, “That took me back to my parachute pants days.” Hah!
Ben: “I am wearing them under the desk.” (parachute pants.) It was all Tanner for a second, singing, dancing, beat box, wow. Impressive. Thumbs aloft.
Sara: Jaw was on the floor. Enormous choreography in addition to delivering vocals really well. McKay, you do have soul. .Couple of fleeting moments of tuning issues on chorus.
Shawn: Impressive. Robert, low voice talking, he knows how that goes. Same thing in his group, he was singing his head off and all the other guy had to do was say “Yeah, you know what I mean?” Truly impressive.

Afro Blue – They started out doing “Closer” by NeYo but changed to “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey. Christie is nervous about remembering all the words.
Me: Start of chorus sounded bad. And again at the end, it just fell apart. Or maybe I just do not get it!
Sara: Christie great job on lead. Tough lead. Initially up in her head but soaring by end. Bryan, percussion, shout out. Reggie on bass, insane.
Ben: Getting somewhere now, using things they know how to do. Bell tones coming down on seconds, shimmer. When the song is coming out that clearly, they can put in some of the special stuff they do.
Shawn: they are starting to understand the method behind arranging, Lock it in. Let everyone enjoy the ride. Good job.

Pentatonix – “OMG” by Usher. Electronic clubbie vibe. Kevin has a problem with explicit lyrics because of his religious faith.
Me: I do not get the song but they did the same great sound. Loved the end.
Shawn: He is tired of saying that they are good. Avi does something with his voice that they really should need a studio to do. Smooth ride until the end. Rolled with it, arrangement is smart. Accent strengths. Kevin and Avi are freaks of nature. Can not say anything bad.
Sara: She says, “I did not like it at all” then everyone laughs; “You know it is good when everyone laughs.” They inject personality into arrangements. Exciting. Locked in.
Ben: Smart arranging. Really interesting chords. Delays and backward cymbals in percussion track, really good.

Second Round – classics

Dartmouth Aires – they have not been in the bottom all season, which I did not realize. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Me: They change it to “girl” Too choral for me. It is kind of a choral song, but not this choral. The chorus is too loud. It is all one dynamic level. Not my favorite.
Ben: working together really well to support Michael who has timeless style. Nice work on low end. Pitch a little unglued at times.
Shawn: Michael, sometimes emotion overrides perfection; he believed it. Moments when he shared it with everyone else.
Sara: Beautiful. Restraint in arrangement, paid attention to song. Michael, delight. Backup was committed. Could have used more dynamics especially at beginning. Blend great.

Urban Method – “It’s your Thing” by the Isely Brothers.
Me: Love them playing horns on mikes at beginning. Kristie lost it for a second but covered well. Goofy, but ok. Never really peaked.
Shawn: Wanted it to keep going. Ahead of their time. The next step for hip hop, they are pioneers.
Ben: Only two chords in song; reharmonized some of it, smart, featured bass and percussion, insane at end. Kim, came closest to capturing feeling of song. Were just getting warmed up.
Sara: Loved the bongo breakdown, Troy great on upright bass. Kim awesome.

Vocal Point – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by the Temptations
Me: I do not like the “bada bap bas.” Not bad, but not my favorite Subdued. The whole white boy thing is getting a little old.
Sara: Sweet. Ben, great lead vocal. Felt like he was trying, could not lose herself in performance. Felt disjointed. But always good.
Shawn: Tanner and Robert kept the groove. Ben, beautiful voice, but the original was not beautiful. Wanted to feel begging. They always sound good but need other things.
Ben: Agrees with Shawn, always on it, love what they do, want to see some risk taking like they did in the beginning of the competition, they have been playing it safe for a little while. [I think they are tired, they are commuting to school once a week!] Step up dynamics.

Afro Blue – “Best of my Love” by the Emotions.
Me: Meh. I did not recognize the song; in fact I think maybe I do not know this song after all!
Ben: Danielle, great singer. Holes in chorus. Maybe it should not be so staccato. But a lot of fun. Upholding American tradition and the original American music form.
Sara: Danielle is a bright shiny star on stage. Missing a little of what Ben was talking about.
Shawn: In spots it came undone, but overall felt good. But they know how to deliver. Props to Reggie.

Pentatonix – “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye
Me: Love the sax. Great lead.
Shawn: Can not express enough how incredible that was. Marvin Gaye is his favorite singer of all time and they did great.
Ben: There will be a suspicious bump in the birth rate in nine months, and they will all be named Scott and Kirstie.
Sara: Incredibly professional, polished, joy to hear them perform every week.

I do not want anyone to go! All I know is Pentatonix are safe and I think Urban Method is safe.

Safe: Pentatonix and Urban Method.
Dartmouth Aires are in.
That leaves Afro Blue and Vocal Point.
Afro Blue is in, Vocal Point is out.
I enjoyed them completely all season and I will miss them! Swan Song: “Home” by Michael Buble.

Next week is the last week! After the show viewers will vote. The four groups will perform several songs including a Judge’s Choice number!
Sounds like Afro Blue does Sam Cooke, which is very cool. I suspect that is a Judge’s Choice!
I am just sorry it is almost over! But I still hope they move it back to Christmas next year. It just felt more special some how.

Next Iron Chef Super Chefs, Episode 3: Let’s All Go to the Lobby

Wake me when it is over!

Hello, I am Zin! It is time for more Next Iron Chef! More inappropriate ingredients! More challenges that have nothing to do with Iron Chef! And for theatrics, what could be better than:

The Challenge:
The contestants gather at the very ornate Orpheum Theater in LA which could be very interesting but they do not bother much with it because they have a film of the Chairman doing calisthenics with his left eyebrow instead. Alton reveals the challenge:

They have one hour to make one savory dish and one sweet dish using concessions! Candy and popcorn! The theme is ingenuity. Themes seem especially arbitrary this season!

Alex Guarnaschelli gets to pick her ingredient first since she won last week, and she also gets to assign ingredients to the other chefs. She takes chocolate covered raisins.
Elizabeth Falkner is assigned malt balls, because Alex thinks they have an inherently dull flavor (oh come on, they are delicious – the best things I have ever tasted were coffee malted milk balls but I can not find them any more, and it is a good thing because they are quite expensive and they are pure sugar!) and are hard to work with. But Falkner was first a pastry chef so she will have and advantage for dessert. And she might know a thing or two about malt.
Chuck Hughes gets popcorn; Alex explains how trivial he is: “Who knows what he is and is not comfortable with.” That is what happens when you end up on The Cooking Channel! Sorry Chuck!
Michael Chiarello is given gummi bears to work with! My writing friend Marko (Hello Marko!) has a running joke going on Zoetrope about gummi bears! I will have to tell him about this episode! Alex gave them to Chiarello because she is pretty sure they do not have gummi bears in Napa Valley. I would bet they do, in fact, if there is a gas station or a convenience store anywhere, but I doubt Chiarello has ever encountered any.
Geoffrey Zakarian ends up with cinnamon candies. Alex thinks they are hard to work with, and that he gulped a little. I think cinnamon is an easy flavor for all sorts of things!
Anne Burrell gets root beer candies. Alex pronounces her name with the extra sound, like “bee-urell” which I think is not right. She says it twice so she thinks it is right. Maybe she does not know how her name is pronounced. Or maybe she is jealous that Anne has so many shows so she mispronounces it on purpose. Or maybe it is pronounced that way and I just do not know it! She says she thought it would be a good ingredient for her, as though she is doing her a favor. Root Beer is a pretty good flavor for many meats.
Marcus Samuelsson is assigned chocolate covered caramels.
Beau MacMillan has sour sugar candies, those gelled fruit things.

Cooking and Judgment:

Anne: she serves quail stuffed with sausage and fennell and root beer candies over an agrodolce (Italian sweet and sour sauce) with braised kabocha squash. For dessert she makes chocolate root beer spice cake with root beer caramel sauce and a bourbon root beer float. She is worried, because she was lucky to get root beer candy and if she does not do well she will be laughed at or something! But they love her dishes. They do sound good.

Falkner: she has made a lot of malty things (hey, my father was named Malte!) but has never used malted milk balls candy! Well duh! That is why it is called a challenge! She thinks of fish and chips which uses malt, and sticks with pub food. She makes fish and chips with malted milk ball and stout batter; Simon says it is successful, Judy thinks it is fantastic and loves how she used the malted milk balls. I am not so sure, because they have chocolate on the malted milk balls, yes? Which I do not think would work for fish batter. Maybe she melted off the chocolate. Or maybe it is just her turn to be in the spotlight so they say it is good no matter what. For dessert she has chiffon crunch cake and barley ice cream (malt comes from barley, that is smart) which is made with malted milk ball infused milk. Judy says the chiffon cake is beautiful, the ice cream is the best thing she has had yet. Michael Symon says he typically does not like malt balls but he loved her food.

Marcus: He makes seared salt-cured duck breast with chocolate covered caramels and cocoa nibs. Judy thought the char was too dark but she likes the bitter notes (that is because Marcus knows what he is doing, you twit). His dessert is chocolate caramel cake with buttermilk sorbet and fruit. Simon thinks the inside is delicious but the outside is a little tough. He thinks there is a slight problem with the execution of the cake but the concept was strong.

Hughes: he gives an unnecessary lecture about an Iron Chef should be able to make a delicious meal out of anything; ingenuity is touched by genius. He wants to be playful and witty, to use popcorn in as many ways as possible, and to use many techniques. He grinds some of his popcorn into flour and makes popcorn shrimp with a popcorn and seafood cream and spicy bacon popcorn wilted greens. Simon says the concept is great but the dish is a train wreck, the popcorn is not edible; Judy says she has stuff stuck in her teeth. That is what popcorn is all about! For desert, he makes vanilla popcorn pudding. Michael Symon enjoys the flavor; Simon agrees it is much more enjoyable. It looks awful.

Chiarello: He plans panna cotta using the gummi bears instead of gelatin; Alton looks dubious! Panna cotta! No, no, no! Panna Cotta is doom! He admits he does not know if it will work. Sheesh! His main dish is a lamb chop agrodolce (I have never heard that term before and now I have heard it twice in ten minutes!) meaning it was marinated in gummi bears, olive oil, vinegar and rosemary! That is pretty much the idea for how to use candy, make something that needs sugar! Michael Symon gives a great quote: “Nothing says rustic Italian like gummi bears!” Very successful dish! Judy says it is succulent with nice flavor. His orange gummi panna cotta, not so much. Nobody likes the texture; Simon calls it “a funeral in my mouth,” too dense. Chiarello says, “If I am in the bottom of this challenge it is because I am an idiot.” I agree! If anyone is giving lessons on winning cooking competitions, rule #1 is: no panna cotta!

Beau: Alton tells him he got hosed by getting sour sugar candy. He does Asian food, so he thinks in sweet and sour terms. He makes sweet and sour snapper ceviche with the zest of lemon and lime, replicating the flavors from the candy – hey, wait, no, you have to use the candy! That is not right! They call him on it and he says “I feel like I am in court here.” Alton says, “You are!” He says he used the candy in the granita. What granita? Was that part of the savory dish? For dessert, he made sweet melon coconut soup. Judy thinks there is a lot going on but it has a nice creaminess. Michael Symon did not think it worked, he had enough after two bites. Beau is surprised because he was sure his food was great. Hey, buster, it does not matter, you cheated!

Zakarian: he starts melting the cinnamon candies in cheesecloth, and he struggles with the food processor for a while before he realizes he has the cover on backwards! He makes a cinnamon and vinegar chicken with sherry, ginger, and olives. That is a lot of stuff. Judy thinks it is perfect though, and Simon says it is phenomenal. He makes cinnamon orange oeufs a la nage for dessert, which is floating island, dollops of meringue over sweet soup, but if you are a bankrupt restauranteur you want to call it by the French term so you can charge more for it and keep your four fireplaces stoked. Simon says it is fantastic, it is like asking Mozart to play the kazoo in a marching band, and he can play the kazoo. I wish he would stop with these silly comments! He must have a whole repertoire of stupid analogies!

Alex: she is pretty sure she overchurned her ice cream but there is nothing she can do but add some liquid, mix in her chocolate covered raisins, and hope! She makes lamb loin caponata, and chocolate raisin sauce with anchovy. They like the anchovy how it picked up on the chocolate, the salty against the sweet. Her sweet dish is a golden raisin biscuit with cardamom and star anise ice cream. They do not like the texture of the ice cream at all though the flavor is good; it is grainy and curdled.

The best dishes are: Anne, Falkner, and Zakarian.
Falkner wins! Judy congratulates her on providing her first foodgasm of the competition. Falkner blushes. You judge one sex shop dessert challenge on Top Chef, and it follows you for life!

In the middle are Marcus and Chiarello, they are safe.

That leaves Alex, Hughes, and Beau in the bottom. Alex is scolded for messing up the ice cream but she is safe because she embraced the ingredient.

So the Secret Ingredient Showdown will be between Hughes (who used too many ingredients) and Beau (who did not embrace the ingredient. Did not embrace it, hell, he just did not use it!)

The Secret Ingredient is…Tofu! Eww. Alex says tofu is like popcorn, it is easy to put in a dish but it is hard to make a dish about tofu. I think most of Asia would disagree with you there, Alex. Beau is happy because, well, he is an Asian specialist, and Tofu adapts to many flavors since it does not taste like anything at all. Hughes decides to go head to head Asian against Beau, and to keep it simple.

Hughes: crispy silken tofu battered in rice flour and panko and deep fried, served with a dipping sauce of sriracha, soy, ginger, and lime. A one-bite wonder. Judy thinks there is too much in the sauce, it overpowers the delicate tofu; he put all of Asia into the sauce. Well, it is dipping sauce! But he served it plopped in the middle of the sauce, which was stupid! Every Asian sauce has soy, ginger and chiles, so what is the big deal? Michael Symon appreciates that he wanted to provide a big impression with one bite, and he did.

Beau: Trilogy of Tofu. Marinated silken tofu; tempura teriyaki tofu with morrell mushroom; tofu veggie roll. Judy thinks there are too many ingredients. Michael Symon liked it, is impressed with how his mind works. Simon thinks he respected each type of tofu, nothing was wrong with any of them and the tempura was standout; he understands Asia. Hey, how come Marcus gets scolded when he does multiple dishes for one challenge but it is ok when Beau does it?

Hughes is out because he caused confusion. This seems strange to me – Beau cheated by not using the candy! But they probably have the order of elimination set before the show starts, and it is just a matter of coming up with rationalizations each week for why a particular person should be out.

They all praise each other. Somebody has to.

Next week they go to a comedy club and an aging Kevin Nealon does the improv thing where he asks for a protein (and presumably other things). They are blatantly copying Top Chef! I guess they want to show how their Super Chefs can do things better! Except they do not! And they have probably run out of ideas! They are just making fools of themselves.

I am still very bored by this show. I have made the commitment to recap and I will honor it. But I will not like it! That is ok, tonight is the Sing Off which makes up for it!

Oobleck

No, not the Dr. Seuss stuff – though that’s how this mixture of cornstarch and water got its name.

I have a habit of dropping in on the Discovery:Science channel (in spite of the fact that it’s tucked in the most obscure section of the cable channel spectrum). The other day, I found a couple of geeks talking about walking on water. They mixed cornstarch and water in a cement truck (do they rent cement trucks out for things like that?) and poured it in a large vat, then walked right across it. As long as they moved quickly, slapping the surface of the oobleck with their feet at each step, they could walk on it. And when they rolled a ball of oobleck between their palms, it was solid; as soon as they stopped rolling, it became a liquid and poured right through their fingers.

How cool is this? Check out more at the Science Café, where they explain it a lot better than I do. And they include video of the whole walking on water thing. And for more coolness, if you put a bowl of the stuff on a bass woofer, the vibration will make it grow and dance (which is what it’s doing in the picture above; the green is just food coloring).

It seems oobleck is a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning it changes in viscosity depending on how much pressure is applied to it. Turns out, it’s the same as quicksand. When I was a kid, quicksand was explained to us as sucking you down if you struggled, and the trick was to move slowly. Now I’ve learned that’s because it’s a non-Newtonian fluid. Boy, does that sound smarter than “it sucks you down.”

Ketchup is the opposite kind of non-Newtonian fluid: when agitated, it becomes less viscous, which is why we all shake the ketchup bottle. To me, that’s what happens to any relatively thick liquid sitting in a bottle. But what do I know? Maybe they’re all non-Newtonian fluids.

The really interesting thing I’ve learned through all this is that those under about 20 years of age, and parents with kids under that age, know all about this. Teachers have been doing oobleck demonstrations in grade school for decades. Hey, I feel cheated – we never got to do stuff like this. Can I go back to elementary school and catch up on the fun stuff?

George Saunders: “Tenth of December” from The New Yorker, 10/31/11

New Yorker art by Riitta Päiväläinen - from her "Vestige" series

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Clean.
Cleanly.

I had a lot of trouble with this story. In fact, I only read parts of it, skipping over the fantasy sections looking for whatever was happening in the here-and-now, assuming Eber was mentally ill or drunk. That’s what I get for skimming. I only became interested enough to read it through when I found out what it was actually about after I’d read the terrific Book Bench interview with George Saunders, and comments by other bloggers, most notably Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes (always a go-to source when I’m struggling with a story). Trevor had a hard time with it, too, yet he led me right to it. So thanks, Trevor!

Still, it’s not an easy read. YMMV. It’s available online.

The principles are two:

Robin, a ten-year-old boy who’s escaping grade-school teasing by doing battle with a world of Netherlanders who live in a rock wall and “talk like that guy in ‘Mary Poppins’.” His companion, in his mind, is the lovely Suzanne from homeroom, to whom he is a hero, though in real life she doesn’t know his name. Oh, come on, don’t tell me you didn’t have similar fantasies.

And Don Eber, who is not at all mentally ill but has a brain tumor already affecting his word choice. He’s got a cast of characters in his head, too, though they’re real, if no longer alive. His dad and Kip, who abandoned him for California when he was a kid. Allen, his stepfather, who was a terrific guy until he got sick:

Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.

Again, let me thank Trevor: I would’ve missed this entirely if I hadn’t been directed back to the story, and this was worth whatever struggles I endured.

So we have a boy with Nethers in his head trying to be a hero, and a man with Dad, Kip and Allen in his head, trying to die before he becomes a burden to his current family, in the same woods. What are the odds.

Eber has left his coat near the mostly-frozen pond, as he’s decided freezing to death is the easiest way to go. Robin finds the coat and, since it’s ten degrees, decides to rescue whoever lost it. Unfortunately, he never saw the PSAs about how dangerous it is to trust ice early in the season, so he cuts across the pond rather than taking the long way around. It’s a terrific scene, both before and after he falls in. The pacing slows down to inch-by-inch action, which is perfect.

From there, it’s a matter of interaction, and it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of guilt and rescue. As the story proceeded, once I’d actually read it instead of skimming, it raised all sorts of feelings from me. The ending is slightly hokey, but it earns it.

The magic of this story, though, is the integration of internality and action, the very thing that so put me off at first. Per Saunders’ interview:

Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.”

….Robin’s internal dialogues were sort of voluntary—they’re little scenes that he’s consciously enacting in his mind, like when someone imagines being interviewed on a talk show, or gives himself a do-over with someone who’s insulted him. Robin is picturing Suzanne walking beside him; he’s actually “hearing” her say those words (those words that he’s giving her to say). Eber’s dialogues are more non-verbal, if you will. That is, I assign his father and Kip lines of dialogue, but I would imagine that in Eber’s mind these exchanges occur more as vague rushes of feeling that, if we could take them apart, would be attributable to long-standing and very deep archetypes in his mind. (I, for example, have a small group of inner nuns who appear now and then—also known as a “swarm” or a “mottle” of nuns.

As Trevor (thanks again) points out – this all takes place in an extremely close third person narration, which I didn’t even realize. It reads very naturally. There’s no intrusion of “he thought” or “he imagined,” it’s just a stream of consciousness of these two characters.

I’m glad I finally read this as it was meant to be read. There’s a lesson there for me.

Another interesting note: the art appearing in The New Yorker (and above) is supplied by photographer Riitta Päiväläinen from her “Vestige” series, featuring clothing from second-hand stores placed in landscapes: “By freezing the garment or letting the wind fill it with air, I am able to create a sculptural space, which reminds me of its former user. This ‘Imaginary Meeting’ represents, for me, the subtle distinction between absence and presence.” It’s so perfect for this story, I’m amazed the story and the art were created independently.

# # #

Addendum: I re-read this as part of BASS 2012, and had a few additional thoughts.

Even though I’d read it before and knew what to expect (and the payoff), it was again a hard story to get into. The reader is plopped right down in the middle of a boy’s fantasy play, complete with imaginary creatures called Nethers and the fantasy version of Suzanne, whom he’s rescuing. So it makes no sense. Then you meet Eber, who is likewise lost in thought. As Perotta says in his Introduction, their “inner lives are fully accessible to the reader” which is cool, but takes some persistence to follow. It’s worth it.

I also picked up on something else: each of them was ineffectually trying to rescue himself initially, the boy by becoming a hero in his fantasy and rescuing Suzanne, the man by killing himself before the tumor in his brain could take away his capacity to do so. Yet, it isn’t until each rescues the other that actual rescue takes place: the boy becomes a hero in fact, the man realizes suicide would be a terrible thing to do to his beloved Molly. There’s something here like the old thing about helping others being the best way to forget about your own troubles, but in praxis. When the kid sees the old man’s coat and goes to get it, he thinks, “It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.” Exactly – except by trying to rescue the man, he’s rescuing himself.