Jodi Angel – “A Good Deuce” from Tin House, Summer 2011


It was Christy who’d found her, and I wished it was me – not because I wanted to spare Christy the sight of what she’d seen, but for the rest of Christy’s life she could fuck up or give up or not show up, and nobody would hold it against her because Jesus Christ you know her mother died, and she was the one who found the body. Christy had a free ticket to minimum. I came in when Christy called for me, but when your mother dies, there is no prize for coming in second. No one was ever going to keep some slack in my rope. The one who comes in second is the one who is supposed to spend the rest of his life cleaning up the mess.

Yep, I should’ve started reading this Tin House from the beginning, instead of picking stories at random.

I can hear the workshop voices now: the writing is too careful, not troubled teenage boy at all, “it takes me out of the story.” You know what? It’s amazing writing. It’s beautiful. There are sentences, paragraphs, metaphors, images that touch the face of God. And they’re bitching about taking them out of the story? Deal with it! This is gorgeous, a wonderful read, another example of everything happening being inevitable yet surprising, little things being dropped in so casually there’s no sign of their importance until they become important, and all of it works together to illuminate the heart of a scared kid. Don’t blame her if you’re distracted by exquisite emotion.

So this is about Roy. It’s first person, and for the first half of the story I thought the narrator was female. I’m not sure why, there were plenty of clues. As in the quote above: “the rest of his life”, I even noticed that, thought it was sad that a girl would switch the pronoun because “he” is typically used to include both sexes. And the ticket to the army recruiting station, I didn’t find it odd at all that a girl would be given such a thing, after all, girls join the army these days. And Phillip the best friend – well, girls have male best friends now, too, right? The Robert Redford movies helped. After all, why would boys watch Robert Redford movies? Even when Phillip was described as “six months older, four inches taller, and thirty pounds heavier, with shoulders broad from the football he thought he might someday play” I read that as in comparison to a girl. It wasn’t until they discussed which one would get Veronica, and which one would get Candy, that I realized the narrator was a guy. I kind of wish the name Roy had been dropped in a little earlier. But I liked the way I read it, too. I don’t know why I clung to the female narrator for so long, maybe because the author is Jodi-with-an-I-female? I’ve become interested in gender perception in fiction lately, so maybe it’s something I just did to amuse myself.

Anyway, Roy’s mom just died of an overdose. Just, as is yesterday. Apparently it wasn’t the first overdose but it was the first time she died. Little sister Christy, 13, gets taken away by Grandma Hannah. Roy does not, perhaps because he said some cruel things to her when he was eleven and maybe saw a Nazi armband in grampa’s closet, or maybe that never happened, or maybe he saw something and thought it was a swastika. Anyway, Roy gets the ticket to the Army. Best friend Phillip – the one who has a nice home and two stable parents but comes over to see what it’s like not to sometimes then goes back to his world, leaving Roy both grateful and resentful – comes over and they watch Robert Redford movies for nineteen hours. I’m guessing The Sting, Jeremiah Johnson, maybe the ski movie or Sneakers, not The Way We Were or The Horse Whisperer (sigh). Then they decide to go out for a beer, because Phillip knows a place that doesn’t card. “We got out of the car and stretched and kicked at the gravel for a minute. Neither of us wanted to be the first one through the door, and even though Phillip had been positive that we could drink here without a hassle, I could tell that he wasn’t so sure now, and maybe he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth back at the house and we were still watching movies in the dark and debating over a pizza, because when push meets shove, it’s a lot of responsibility to have an idea.” This is so perfect, that cockiness-uncertainty that teenagers have, and the final phrase is gasp-worthy in a story about being lost and adrift and getting slack and free tickets to minimum.

Candy and Veronica pick the boys up, though Roy doesn’t realize much of what’s going on (he gets lost in a memory of his grandma Hannah making him drown kittens that spotlights differences between him and Phillip, between Candy and Veronica; I think I actually did hold my breath for a couple of paragraphs there) until Phillip asks him which one he wants, the ugly one or the fat one. The climax is coming-of-age-in-the-face-of-tragedy-predictable, perhaps, but it’s highlighted by a few twists that make it special. And even though it’s a dog that’s barking, I swear I could hear kittens screaming.

Here’s my problem: I don’t know what “a good deuce” means. Is it something obscene? Hey, I’m still trying to figure out… well, never mind, just know that I’m not really up on all the x-rated lingo. Does it mean she weighs 200 pounds? Or she’s a good egg? A good lay? I’ve seen scatalogical references, but I don’t see how that’s relevant. Maybe Phillip means one, then it morphs into another? I don’t know. It feels important. But it’s out of my reach.

While I’m at it: there’s a typo in the story: the last paragraph on page 26, “mouthif” – I’m all for linguistic variance but I can’t believe that’s intentional. Shame on Tin House! And the online story graphic has the title misspelled, another huge disappointment. As disappointments go, not that huge, really, but noticeable. I used it anyway. 😉

What counts: The story is awesome. Read it.

[ETA: when the issue was current, the story was available online. It’s not any more. The good news: the typos are now moot. Moral: does every cloud have a silver lining, or does every silver lining have a cloud?] [Oh, stop complaining, sometimes a moral is a question.]


Food Network Star 2011 Episode 4: Cougar Town and Paula Deen

Hello, I am Zin!

If the title does not scare you, nothing will!

Melissa D’Arabian is waiting for the contestants in the kitchen to introduce the Camera Challenge. Mary Beth interviews that Melissa is the quintessential Food Network success story, and that is who she wants to be. I think Mary Beth is sucking up; too bad, they skip over her in this part of the episode! They have to make a sophisticated bite-sized hors d’oeuvres for a guest arriving in 45 minutes; they will do the usual one minute camera presentation which has to include them eating the food and conveying how it tastes.. They must use one of many of the product placement items – cereals and crackers – spread on the table in little boxes on a tabletop little boxes made of ticky tack. They are assigned items so they do not have a choice. The surprise guest turns out to be Michael Simon.

Jyll finds Rice Krispies under her cloche. She is fine with hors d’oeuvres because she makes a lot of finger food. She is going to use the cereal as a binder in a crab cake with spicy chili aioli. Melissa loves the information about using cereal as binder – now she has a strategy! (oh come on). Michael says the spicy aioli counters the crab perfectly. In the Evaluation time Michael tells her she lights up the room and her dish was fantastic, so she is the winner! She says she has won two camera challenges in a row so she is a force to be reckoned with!
Chris will use his corn flakes to make chicken nugget lollipops! I think there are a lot of lollipops going around here, I am not sure that is a good thing. Anyway, he is chopping on his cutting board and calls out, “If this board’s a rockin’ don’t come knockin'” which he probably thinks is clever. He is, however, wrong. For his presentation he goes on about his childhood history with corn flakes and chicken nuggets. He gets down to five seconds and still has not taken a bite so he stuffs two chicken nugget lollipops in his mouth and waves goodbye. The scary thing is, this is actually an improvement for him. Bob says it is his best performance so far. In Evaluation Bob says he is full of personality and he took chicken nuggets to a new level. It is sad that chicken nuggets can be taken to a new level. But Chris comes in second for this challenge.
Penny gets flatbread crisps and she is happy with that. She crusts mahi mahi and serves with curry aioli. Melissa says everything was in the lower middle of the pack. Michael does not like it either. Bob says he was expecting warm and rich curry but it was sharp and sour and he reminds everyone she has made some wonderful dishes.
JustinD does not know what to do with his crispix cereal, and farts around for fifteen minutes thinking about breading but not getting any good ideas. He finally breads ham (breads ham?) and serves with Caribbean black bean puree. His presentation starts with his new POV, the Flavor Factory, highlighting flavors and textures. Would it not then be the Flavor and Texture Factory? He forgets to look at the time cards so he ends up ending early and stands around looking stupid for six seconds, which is a very long time on tv and in bull riding. Bob asks what he said, it tastes like human? JustinD is surprised to hear that – he interviews, “What am I, the Next Food Network Cannibal?” That was pretty funny, he should have said that! No, he said cumin, but no one tasted cumin. Bob points out he did not talk about flavor or texture. Michael says if you say a dish tastes like something you have to be sure the flavor actually is there. Oh, sure, like Giada never gushed over how delicious her pasta is when she forgot to salt it! JustinD feels like a failure. No, dear, the Cannibal line was the best one of the night!
Whitney has to use Pop Tarts so makes a parmesan cracker topped with goat cheese and pop tart. This sounds pretty stupid! She explains about the four taste buds (she leaves out umami which is probably too controversial since some physiologists say it does not exist as an actual taste) and how the bite includes crunch and creamy and sweet and salty. Melissa keeps glaring at Whitney through her presentation and finally says the pop tart is not the star of the dish. Bob thinks it is intelligent use of the product on a savory dish, even though the pop tart was not spotlighted. Uh oh. Calling someone intelligent on this show is not a good thing. But maybe that explains why Melissa was glaring. It is strange that what to me is the dumbest idea gets her labelled intelligent.
Vic gets shortbread pecan cookies and crusts a scallop with it. Michael likes his look (since I suppose they have similar looks) and says it is important for a man with cave man good looks to smile a lot
Susie uses Town House Flipsides as crumbs with ground pork and basil in some kind of lettuce wrap. Melissa points out that in her presentation she gets the name of the product wrong. This is the biggest sin on The Food Network, even worse than intelligence. Michael says it is the tastiest bite so far, but she got lost in the middle of her presentation.
Jeff has bran cereal. He is making a carrot ginger soup and a pork tenderloin dusted with bran. He makes some kind of joke about the obvious property of bran – his mission is to make the Iron Chef laugh – and boy do they let him have it! First Bob tells him not to make jokes about medicinal properties when the point is taste (see, product placement people do not pay for their products to be made fun of), and then Michael says he was ok until the joke. I am not sure if they cut the joke (he does not really say anything, just hints). Wow, they would not like Andrea from the first Top Chef, every meal she was talking about bowel movements, just ask Ted Allen. Jeff is in the bottom two. That is what happens when you invoke bowel function on The Food Network! But he is ok, it is his first real bomb, at least he thinks so.
JustinB gets cheeze-its which makes him very happy! He introduces himself as Big J from Atlanta which scares me! He makes mac and cheese and says, “Shiitake that is good” and I am not sure if the dish has shiitake mushrooms or if this is a new expression that is almost swearing. I think it is much too close to swearing for the Food Network. Bob loves the dish and says his culinary skill is not in question but his presentation is awful, he said very little of consequence. They ask what is in the dish and he goes on about Fontina cheese and drunken goat and bechamel which he never bothered to say on camera. Melissa tells him he is lovely when he smiles. But alas he is one of the bottom two. Hmm. Both of the bottom two were a little off color, I think others should pay attention! Funny is good as long as it is little kids with curly hair, not bowels and shiitake.

The STAR Challenge: They will cook lunch for the cast and crew of Cougar Town. Penny loves Cougar town, “being a cougar myself I relate.” Most people do not brag about such things. I do not think this is being strong or empowered, I think it is being flashy and cheap and obnoxious. It is one thing to accept yourself and another to flaunt your tawdry side. They will work in pairs (one trio) for different types of workers, Cast, Art, Vanities, Crew, and Writers. Paula Deen is the extra annoyance. She counsels the cooks not to edit themselves, that is what the editing room floor is for. Paula, you have not seen these people. Some of them need a lot of editing.

Mary Beth and Penny will cook for the Crew. They are advised to make something hearty for people who drag things around. Mary Beth interviews she is worried about working with Penny since she does not trust her. Penny is not so delicate in her interview: “Oh, no, I can not believe I am working with her. I am going to be nauseous.” I just read two short stories recently (“Ice” by Lily Tuck in PEN/O.Henry 2011, and “Familiar Music” by Walter Mosley in Tin House; this is a lot of nauseating for one weekend) that properly used “nauseated” instead of “nauseous” and I am sad to encounter the incorrect usage again. Orchid notes these two had a run-in over boxes in the last challenge. Mary Beth says she can work with anyone. They do some kissy kissy stuff that is over the top. I am getting a little nauseated myself because they are nauseous! Penny hates working with someone who is so square; Mary Beth is fake and phony (which she is, actually). Boy are they giving her the bitch edit, in spite of how supportive they are, I think she is going to piss someone off soon and she will be cast into eternal darkness. But then they show everyone in the house talking about Penny and she is sitting in the other room listening and it is pretty sad and mean of them to talk about her behind her back like that. And this is where she says she does not trust anyone and can not make friends, which seemed so out of place last week – I think they stuck it in the wrong week! Anyway, food: Mary Beth is making sweet and spicy glazed beef/pork meatloaf made with buttermilk and panko. Penny is making mac and cheese. At some point in the cooking time someone says something is burning and Penny assures everyone it is not her mac and cheese. She is wrong, however. No one is eating her mac and cheese, and the judges and cast say it tastes burned. They love the meat loaf Mary Beth made, and Paula wants to start using buttermilk and panko in her meat loaf. Penny is stunned that the mac and cheese tasted burned. At evaluation time Chris gets into the act (for no obvious reason) and she tells him, firmly but appropriately, to can it. That was kind of impressive actually. But how could she not tell her cheese was burned when everyone knew it – people walking by the table knew it, that is why they did not take any! I am puzzled, she has shown she can cook but she does not recognize burned cheese smell? They loved the meat loaf on the other hand, and Bob says she is like a suburban mom with a sideways sense of humor. I have liked Mary Beth from the start but the kissy kissy with Penny was over the top, then talking about her behind her back was mean. I can understand it, but it takes her out of the Wow category for me. Or what passes for a Wow category on Food Network Star. Still, I have a soft spot for writers.

Orchid and Chris will cook for the Writers, who are used to working eighteen hour days and eating takeout (tell me about it!), so they have to make something that does not look like it came in a little paper carton. Orchid says Chris means well but he has to keep it under control, so her mission is to make sure he is focused and they win. They have a code – Code Blue – and if she thinks Chris is going bonkers she will say Code Blue and that is his signal to calm down and think. Chris is making apple cider rosemary braised lamb shanks. The lamb is frozen in the store but he says it will thaw by the next day. You know it will still be frozen, right? And it is, but he cooks it anyway and it turns out rubbery. Orchid makes dirty rice and collard greens. When they do their table presentation, Orchid suddenly gets star struck and does not know what to say. Chris takes over. Nice teamwork! Giada says they need to know who Orchid is. But her dish was wonderful, even Paula, Queen of the South, loved the collard greens. Giada did not like the lamb shank because it was like bubble gum – I do not know if that means chewy or sweet. Paula wanted it more savory. Bobby says at least he did not do anything ridiculous. When that is what people say about you, is that really a good thing? Paula loves Orchid and her sweet Southern personality. I still do not get the Orchid love. She is ok but I do not see the magic they are always talking about.

Jyll and Vic are assigned “the Vanities” meaning hair and make up artists, who are commonly vegetarian, so they will make Vegetarian dishes. I think they made that up, maybe it is different in Hollywood but I do not know any hairdressers who are vegetarian! As it happens Vic has his father the hairdresser and whether he is a vegetarian or not is not disclosed, but Vic does think vegetarians get robbed so he is going to make roasted veggies and baked potato (I think he said potato, maybe it was penne) with pistachio pesto. Jyll makes a salad with pumpkin seed hummus. Bob calls it a vegetarian nightmare, just lettuce. Bobby thought Vic did well with food, especially the pistachio pesto. Bob says he is moving up in the pack. Paula thinks Jyll is polished but is not someone she would want to watch.

Whitney, JustinD, and Susie will serve dishes designed for the Cast, and are advised to keep it nice and light. Whitney wants to make a Mediterranean roasted vegetable platter (roasted carrots, pickled green beans, and other things) that uses many different veggies and a variety of techniques. Susie wants to use quinoa. Whitney is worried because Justin can get spacey. JustinD goes to the warehouse store to get bulk supplies, and Susie tells him, both in person in the kitchen and over the phone, she needs ten boxes of quinoa. He hears two, not ten. They are feeding 150 people, so Susie has to redesign her chicken and quinoa stuffed peppers. JustinD is looking for five ingredients for his dish: fennel, endive, and raddichio, for example, but he can not find them. He is lost. JustinD is having a terrible week. I think JustinD needs some Prozac. He makes poached salmon salad with celery and red cabbage. It is not the dish he wants to make but he has to make something. All anyone remembered about JustinD was his glasses. Ouch. At evaluation Bob asks Justin what is wrong, and he says he dropped out of high school and is insecure and emotional, and Bobby says he too dropped out of school, in ninth grade (that is nice of him to tell him that on camera) but here those who do, do, and those who do not, go home. That is profound for someone who dropped out in ninth grade. Giada tells Susie that the actress licked her plate it was so good. The Mediterranean platter Whitney made felt like a snack (hey, they told them to keep it light!), and her presentation is cool and precise but misses magic. Paula calls Susie a spitfire. She says Whitney is sweet but needs some sparkle. Food Network people think unless there are sparklers hanging out of your ears you need more sparkle.

Jeff and JustinB cook for the Art Department. Jeff plans thai basil chicken lettuce cups, which will appeal to art people with green lettuce and red bell peppers, but he can not find ground chicken or turkey, so he gets tofu! JustinB groans. Not tofu! But Jeff thinks by being outrageous he will either die or rise to the top. He will cook the tofu to dry it out, which sounds odd to me, but I have never cooked with tofu and only eat it under extreme duress. JustinB makes seared tuna over couscous and says it is important everyone take everything together in one bite because couscous has no flavor. Well, that is why you cook it with seasoning and broth and spices and minced veggies and interesting things, right? You can not order your customers to eat a certain way! Jeff sells the hell out of his tofu dish – it has ancient spices! It has delicious things in it! – and it turns out to be very good which surprises everyone especially Paula Deen! Jeff does a presentation that is very funny – trust a big Italian from Chicago to make tofu! Bob likes the presentation. The tuna does not go over well, it is very bland, though Justin serves white balsamic tableside. Bobby wants to like him but there is an awkwardness to him that makes everyone uncomfortable. He was like a waiter reciting the special of the day, and they are disappointed because when the camera is not on him he has personality. Both Justins are having a bad week.

There is a weird interstitial (they are copying every aspect of Top Chef, yes?) where Chris finds a raccoon in the back yard and chases it with a broom, and while he is focused on the raccoon, Vic throws a pool float at his back and scares him. I think I have become very old.

About this point I begin to realize that the cable TV directory thing lied when it said this was an hour episode. They have not gone before the Inquisition Board yet! Some of the comments I have put in above have not happened yet! It is another hour and a half show! Do they not realize people make plans? I will have to see the Glee project another time! I think people who use recorders are going to really be mad because I guess that means they did not get one third of the show. Good move, Food Network! Or Time Warner Cable, whichever screwed up.

The judges pick a winner from each team: Jeff, Orchid, Mary Beth, Susie, Vic. That means JustinB, JustinD, Chris, Penny, Whitney, and Jyll are at risk. They talk about them and draw it out for maximum suspense (not!) and finally JustinB is out. He is very surprised. He looks surprised. He says he is surprised. I am not surprised. If he was improving in his camera appearance his food could keep him around for a while but he has not, he is as bad as in the beginning.

Next week it looks like Guy Fieri will be celebrating the Fourth of July with them. Oh goody.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: “Ice” by Lily Tuck, from The American Scholar

Hello, I am Zin, and I am cold!

Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the channel; already there does not look to be room for people. Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omen – the ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.

Maud and Peter take a cruise to Antarctica. I did not know you could take a cruise to Antarctica! But then, I do not pay much attention to cruises at all. It is an interesting story to read. I think it tried a little too hard on the symbolism thing, and spent a lot of time harping on one not-so-new thing (a woman clings to a cold marriage; her husband flirts) but I liked it! I can not say it touched my heart or made me jump up and down or want to tell everyone to read it, but it was a good story.

Maud and Peter are older, married 40 years, and they do not seem very happy together but Maud still does not want to lose Peter! We do not know exactly how Peter feels since the third person narrator stays with Maud. We follow along on their cruise. Everything is loaded with significance, from the whales (whales! Why do so many stories have whales? Is it a Moby Dick thing, something left over from Freshman Lit, that whales are significant? Or a leftover 60s thing about ecology?) to the icebergs to the saloon. And the seals who are dangerous, and wallow in blood on the ice. And the story of the lady who almost got left behind because she hid when it was time to go – and Maude wonders why she would do that. And the “darkly handsome” French first officer! They both have something to do with him, Maud and Peter do. First, Maud notices him, in a sea of Norwegians! She does not flirt or anything even close. But she notices! Peter notices the “much younger” (it is the “much” that makes it significant) wife of a forgotten college classmate, and starts flirting with her. But Maud realizes the much-younger-wife is at the same time flirting with the French first officer across the room! Poor Peter. Then Peter gets lost that night, and Maud wakes up and he is just gone! She goes looking for him and ends up in the control room, where everyone ignores her because they are steering around an iceberg. Yes, this is very loaded with significance! Danger! Ice! Blood! Seals! Being ignored! Young women and French first officers! Steering through safely!

But the key is the last few paragraphs, where his “bantering tone” returns – meaning he is depressed or hiding something from her. She told us this earlier. I think he is not hiding it very well, but it does not matter because she is observant and knows about the much-younger-wife. And of course he can not complain that the much-younger wife preferred the darkly-handsome French first officer to him! At least not to his wife!

This is literary chick lit, I think. High-end, very literary chick-lit, about how a woman feels when she is married to a flirt for 40 years. In the Contributor Notes, the author says she took a cruise where some of the things in the story actually happened.

Nalini Jones: “Tiger” from One Story, #150 5/26/2011

…Essie found she could not express the full sweep of her thoughts. Each memory had eight or ten more at its back – a dozen, a hundred – too many to record so that anyone would understand how quickly and powerfully they came upon her. She could write and write, letters enough to span the globe; she imagined the lines of longitude and latitude in her own handwriting, floating gently over green and blue. And still it would not be enough to record the longings of even a single moment. Everything she hoped for was connected to everything she remembered and everything she had lost – a web spreading in all directions. Words moved in single file.

Passages like this one make me want to jump up and down and yell, “YES! That’s it exactly!” I, too, try to include the entire web of associations in writing, which is why I’m always digressing.

But I digress.

I enjoyed this story of Essie, an Indian Catholic matriarch (her husband Francis has a very limited role here) whose daughter Marian, now married to an American and with children of her own, is concluding a visit. Just before they return to the States, two things happen: the children find a stray mother cat and two kittens, and Essie finds a lump in her breast. Essie does not want the cats anywhere near her house (or near the children, for that matter), but kids have a way of collecting strays. At one heartbreaking point I realized Essie is willing to have cancer to keep her daughter close to her. I understand that. I was once willing to have a routine test come back positive so I could get out of a job I hated. My boss was very hurt when I told him that. But I digress again. I told you.

This is the heart of the story: Essie’s deep wish for her daughter’s presence and concern and love, a mother who can’t let go, to the point of obsession. It seems a bit extreme to me, and I’m left wondering why, though she has a husband and two sons, though Marian has lived in the States for some time now, this separation is so difficult for her to accept. And I wonder if there’s something wrong with me that it seems so extreme. But imagine children who are desperately attached to stray kittens they’ve just found but don’t turn a hair at leaving Grandma a half a world behind; now imagine how Grandma might feel about that. This feels absolutely true: it’s exactly how kids would react. Somehow they always assume Grandma will be there, but the cats are ephemeral. But it has to sting. Motherhood has many angles in this piece.

It’s an engrossing story with a lot of wonderful details, including a charming story line about Gopi, the coconut harvester whose anticipated and delayed arrival frames the story. I have to admit I’m not crazy about the aesthetic of the prose itself, though it doesn’t get to the point where I have trouble reading. It’s just not a style I particularly like, though I find it appropriate for the story and setting.

I was a bit confused about the mention, in her One Story Q&A, of her story collection about this family set in this same Catholic enclave of Bombay. What You Call Winter was published in 2007; at first I got the impression the story was from the collection, which would not make sense (One Story would not print an already published story from four years ago), and then on rereading the interview, realized the story was left out of the collection (then resurrected and rewritten for One Story) because it was overrun with cats: ” The cats were everywhere. It was all about the cats. The editor of my story collection gently suggested that the world might not need a story in which the cats are more memorable than the people.… The cats twined through everything. It was all so discouraging that I introduced a dog into the novel to bark fiercely at any cat intruders. Then an editor at One Story made a brilliant suggestion.” I wish I knew what the suggestion was. And I’m afraid to admit this – I wish I could read the original story, too; I might like a story overrun with cats. But mostly this points out the value of One Story Q&A’s: they actually inform the reader and add to the enjoyment of the stories.

I’ve ordered the collection because I’m interested in this family, in this community, and I’d like to read more about them. My “To Be Read” shelf is sagging badly, but there’s always room for one more book, right? ADDENDUM: My comments on What You Call Winter here.

Walter Mosley: “Familiar Music” from Tin House, Summer 2011

We talked like that from the beginning, in a meandering way that had a kind of circuitous logic. There was a weave to the conversation, a crossing over and then returning, skipping over and reaching past, then back again.

Bill Laughton works for Craighton’s Cartons. But it’s ok, by the end he learns to think outside the box.

The story starts with a very detailed minute-by-minute account of the afternoon on which he quits, and then we go back from there to learn about his relationship with Portia Liand, the temp, and Annabelle Lee, his neighbor and sometimes sex partner. There has to be something going on with the names here. Annabelle Lee? Portia? Hawthorne? I’m just not clever enough to pick up a pattern. Then there’s the title. That’s kind of my problem with the story in general: it’s a good read, but I’m pretty sure there’s something I’m just not getting. But it’s not the story’s fault I’m stupid.

Portia and Annabelle are in some ways opposites, in some ways the same. He knows Portia only from work, Annabelle only from his apartment building. They’re both younger than he is. Portia is a dark-skinned black woman, a dancer who doesn’t like choreography; Annabelle is white, with a seven-year-old son, and a much older man who pays her rent. Bill himself is a light-skinned black man, 45. When I start recounting demographics about characters, I know I’ve lost the essence of the story, but it really was a better read than that. I loved the conversations Portia and Bill had, the kind of looping around referred to in the above quote. There’s some symbolism, I’m thinking, involved in a necklace with three opals. He bought it for Annabelle but she can’t take it because of her sugar daddy. He tries to give it to Portia but she doesn’t want it. He tries to marry both of them, but both say no. He spends a couple of days drinking. And when Portia’s temp assignment is up and Virginia Hawthorne returns to glare at him for coming back late from lunch, he quits his job.

I feel bad that I missed the story. I have to say I’m delighted to see someone use “nauseated” instead of “nauseous” but, like character descriptions, that’s hardly a glowing recommendation. I’m worried about this Summer Reading 2011 issue. So far I’m not doing too well with it. I’ve been picking stories at random; maybe I should’ve started at the beginning and read through like I usually do.

Alice Munro: “Gravel” from The New Yorker, 6/27/11

Photograph: Tierney Gearon, “Untitled” (1999 )

In this new house, which was really a trailer, my sister, Caro, and I had narrow cots, stacked one above the other. When we first moved there, Caro talked to me a lot about our old house, trying to get me to remember this or that. It was when we were in bed that she talked like this, and generally the conversation ended with me failing to remember and her getting cross. Sometimes I thought I did remember, but out of contrariness or fear of getting things wrong I pretended not to.

This story (available online) snuck up on me. Several times, in fact. I love the way things were revealed. We’re given the fact that Neal is an actor and a few sentences later that Mom liked to usher and we know it’s just a matter of time before we found out about the baby. Then we have a lot of stuff about Caro and the dog – Blitzee hunting hedgehogs, her taking him back to her old house – before we get to the main event at the gravel pit. Still, I was surprised how it played out; I didn’t know Caro was dead until the narrator talks about what she may or may not have done at the time (if Caro had been alive, she would’ve found out before now). Partner Ruthann is likewise a surprise, as is Neal getting back in touch, but it makes sense. I think this is what they’re talking about when they say that every step of a plot must be surprising but seem inevitable at the same time.

I get the narrator’s patchy memory. Confused child narrators are a favorite thing of mine – though I tend to stick to teenagers who are confronted with events they don’t think are quite normal but can’t ask anyone about without looking stupid (they think). I have a patchy memory myself (I’ve tried to convince many therapists I wasn’t abused, I just had a confusing childhood with lots of moves and changes and parents who believed that no explanation was the best explanation). So it’s easy for me to see how this little girl might have missed a few things. And of course the day of the drowning, she had a lot going on in her head. And there’s the monster-under-the-bed theory, that preference to not look too closely at something that is probably dark and slimy. She’s been taught avoidance all her life, though she’s convinced she’s being pretty honest. And I believe her – as far as she has the volition.

I like the title, too. “Gravel” of course refers to the gravel pit where the central action of the story takes place. It’s a word that contains a lot of other words. “Grave,” for instance. And “gavel,” a little symbol of judgment. And “ravel,” which happens when the warp and woof come undone and loose ends turn into a mess. I’m probably over-reading here. Chances are it’s just a gravel pit.

I’ve always been a little leery of Alice Munro, but this is the second New Yorker story I’ve enjoyed. Maybe it’s time to give her another chance.

Addendum (before the fact addendum, since I have not published this yet but it has been “cooking” for a couple of days): I just read a wonderful article by Marko Fong on the use of first person past tense in fiction and how it can effectively use a memoir voice to keep the timeline straight – by acknowledging two characters in two different time periods. As soon as I read his article, I thought of this story, as well as Tessa Hadley’s “Clever Girl“, Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table” to name just a couple of recent reads. In fact, the Ondaatje story starts out in third person, with even the first person narrator regarding him as another character, illustrating Marko’s point exactly.

Gary Lutz: “Divorcer” from Tin House, Summer 2011

Photo by Arina Sergei

I’m sorry, but they had a different way of talking about subtraction back when I was in school. It wasn’t “Take this away from that”; it was never a matter of minus. It was “Find the difference of.” E.g., “Find the difference of fifty-four and thirty-one.” So go ahead. Find the difference of her and me.

This is my first experience with Gary Lutz. By coincidence, I happened to have recently stumbled across his “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” in The Believer (from a speech he gave at Columbia) and was astonished: here I’ve been beating myself up about character development and everyone must want something and narrative distance and here this guy is talking about sentences and assonance and stressed syllables, the things I love dearly. And I’ve been brainwashed to believe “writing” (which I adore) is secondary to “storytelling” (which is some mysterious process I do not understand). Can I switch sides?

I fear it may be too late for me, because I was lost in this story. It struck me as a collection of wonderful aphorisms and anecdotes. The girl who keeps going back to her exes to get her stuff, but never actually gets her stuff. “The book was the kind whose pages couldn’t be tamed to lie flat. The thing kept shutting itself.” “She would always start off a new notebook on the fifth or seventh page. The hope was that what came to her later would be good enough for the front.” (I used to do the same thing, back in the days when I could write with a pen on notebooks, before my hands curled permanently into keyboard-ready position). His job writing pamphlets which must use other terms for “spouse.” The narrator’s nephew: there is no I in team, but there is an M and an E and that would be ME (I love this so much I want to tattoo it to my forehead) – oh, yeah, the tattoos, too. The neighbors that are “teeming out of their apartment and into the hall.” The supermarket. The urinals at work. “And the different ways I was hated by different people!” The paperwork. “‘Gone through’ = impaled.”

I have no idea what this story is about (other than a marriage and divorce) but it sure was fun to read. And I have a lot to learn.

Food Network Star 2011: Episode 3, Dueling Desserts

Hello, I am Zin, and I have had too much dessert!

We start with Chris putting on his pants! It is a new dawn, a new day, a new life and he is feeling gooooood!!! JustinB is over Chris. Penny says something I do not understand: “I realized after the last challenge there is no making friends in this house, you’re just going to get screwed over.” What?!? She is the one who tried to screw people over! She was very frank that she wanted Orchid to fail! And she was superior to Katy! So what is this, projection? Her comment was an interview so she could have said it at some other point and the brilliant film editors thought it would make a better story here, but it does not make sense! She has not tried to make friends! And I defended her for her strategy, I still think it is expected to put strong people into difficult teams, but you can not complain then that nobody likes you!

JustinD is glad Jeff has a headband, since he was sweating in his spring rolls last time! Jeff says, “When a man sweats, he is losing some of his mojo, and the headband recollects the mojo and redistributes it through the epidermis so I feel great.” That is nice. Arnie Becker went through his phase of semen retention in LA Law. But that was a long time ago. As long as Jeff keeps his sweat, and his mojo, out of the food, I think he will be much better off!

Giada meets them in the kitchen and tells them the Camera Challenge is making dinner from dessert. They will get random selections of product-placement chocolate candy from the vending machine and they have an hour to make a savory dish using that particular candy. They will have a minute to present on camera.

Jyll gets almond joy and goes with battered coconut shrimp, which makes sense. Giada loves the shrimp. Bob loves the shrimp and her performance. Jyll wins! But they do not waste much screen time on her. I think that means something.

Vic has some kind of milk chocolate. He makes filet mignon and mozzarella caprese over chocolate stuffing, but he wants to add a Vegas twist to it so he sautes some asparagus and dips it in melted chocolate which seems awful to me. He says his grandmother is coming down from heaven on this one. She is probably smacking him upside the head for doing something so stupid. He says he does not want to overcomplicate things but it is time to kick some butt. If he thinks chocolate covered asparagus will kick butt, he is seriously mistaken. Bob says the chocolate asparagus was just as bad as it sounded. Giada says he had a warmer presentation which is a good thing, but his dish was too complicated. Vic is one of the two worst dishes. Hint: When you kick butt, it is not your own butt you should be kicking. He says he has to change his ways and it is time to listen to what they are saying.

Alicia makes eggplant rollups with sweet filling including chocolate drops. Her presentation includes a childhood spent in pursuit of candy, but she gets lost and sounds nervous. Bob says he did not trust her info because of her demeanor. Giada says the dish is much too sweet and tasted like a dessert. Alicia is feeling beat up. She is one of the two worst dishes. I think she is feeling beat up because she is being beat up, but that is part of the gig. If you do not cook and you seem nervous and frantic, you will get beat up on Food Network Star! Stay home if you do not want this to happen!

Chris got peppermint patties, so he makes rack of lamb with a mint pesto sauce. Not a bad idea. He says he is using Dover Sole which, well, I do not think he needs it, lamb is good on its own, but he wants to do surf and turf. My main question is: the Food Network has Dover sole sitting around for them to use in this dopey challenge? Dover sole is really expensive! It is imported and has to be flown in very fresh. It is probably flounder they are calling Dover sole because there is no law about what you call fish, but Chris should know better! Dover sole, hah! Maybe it was left over from some Iron Chef thing. He writes notes on his hand for his camera presentation (this is Chris taking this seriously). Orchid interviews it is one of her pet peeves. I do not think it is any of her business, but I suppose there is a producer in a little room asking them “What did you think of Chris writing notes on his hand?” and she answered. It makes her sound petty. Anyway, Chris waves his hands all around during his presentation about how Hershey Park inspired him and Giada notices the writing on his hand. It looks dirty! When someone is cooking you something, you do not want them to have dirty hands! He does not seem to look at his hand at all so it backfires on him. And his lamb was raw. Bob says he is like a kid trying to impress his parents. Chris is not really getting to a good start on his new dawn new day new life thing. But he is getting more screen time than anyone, so I wonder if he is going to be one of the Adam Gertler types.

Mary Beth says she has been thinking about putting chocolate in her peanut sauce for a while now so this is a great opportunity. Her presentation is all about the day after Halloween: you can have a two-week sugar high or you can get creative. She does a good job on presentation though they do not really talk about her dish.

JustinB has caramel kisses, so he makes pork chops with a whole grain mustard crust. Penny interviews that he is so wooden, the only reason he is still around is because he is a great chef. Well, DUH Penny! Cooking counts! I am trying to be lenient with Penny but she is so mean! She is a very good cook, they like her on camera, I do not see what her problem is, JustinB is no threat to her. JustinB has horrible camera presence and I do not see him getting any better, but he is a good cook and they are giving him a chance. Bob gives him Dance, Ten, Looks, Three. Oh, wait, no, that is from A Chorus Line, Bob gives him ten for food and three for presentation. Unfortunately he can not get personality implants to help.

Jeff says something about his grandma. Bob says he found a creative way to use chocolate kisses. I did not register his dish at all.

Orchid talks a lot about Hersheys Chocolate which earns her brownie points for product placement. She makes chili with her chocolate. Bob loves her smile, it lights up the whole LA valley. There is an LA valley? I know there is a San Fernando valley.

Whitney makes glazed tenderloin with chocolate fettucini. Giada says Whitney has charm on camera.

Time for The Star Challenge! That sounds so dramatic. Duff and the Impossible guy show up. Robert Irvine. The Star Challenge is all about dessert. In two teams of six, they will make dessert for 150 people; each team member must make a dessert, and each team must make two collaborative desserts. Team Irvine will do impossible flavor combinations so he can get his “impossible” in there; Team Duff will do sophisticated desserts a six-year-old would love. They will have $2,000 and six hours. Alicia interviews she went to pastry school .That is nice, Alicia. When I see that, I think, this is foreshadowing, yes?

Since Jyll was the winner of the Camera Challenge, she gets to pick which team she wants to be on. She picks Duff. Apparently Irvine has a reputation as a bully. Then she gets to pick her whole team which makes her very happy. She picks all the girls except Penny: Alicia, Orchid, Mary Beth, Whitney, Susie. I am not sure about Alicia (even if she did go to pastry school) or Susie. Maybe the Justins instead? But she is going for no drama. Chris interviews she picks the dream team and he is on the side with the chubbier kids who got left out. You know what is going to happen, right? Ever since Top Chef had the Dream Team and the Bad News Bears for Restaurant Wars. It is ordained. And Chris, most of the people on both teams are pretty chubby. Vic talks about the Bakers vs Fakers. There are a lot of comments about the Pastry Girls, which just goes to show you again how sexist professional chefs are: pastry chefs are girls, Jacques Torres be damned. Penny is upset that she was not chosen, but of course she would be. She goes out of her way to assure everyone she is happier this way. That is nice, Penny. You just remember that you are unlikeable and no one unlikeable ever gets a Food Network show. Kelsey was a ditz and she has a show. Adam was a goof and he has a show. Whats-his –name was the JustinB of his season and he has a show. You will not, Penny, unless they do Bitch in the Kitchen, and they will not because they already have Bitchin’ Kitchen (which is kind of cute sometimes in very small doses).

Chris makes a lot of noise about being mature, and to be mature, you take a leadership role, so he will be team leader. JustinB interviews yeah, yeah, sure and tunes him out. Alicia interviews that Jyll was supposed to take the reins but did not. Whitney takes charge because – she dips her head and gives a self-deprecating smile – she is a control freak. If you did not recognize disaster brewing before, you do now, right? If you had any doubt, cut to Alicia moaning that she can not totally remember one of her recipes. Alicia took pastry cooking! She runs a cupcake company! She sells cupcakes! She can not remember her cupcake recipe! Mary Beth soothes her, telling her it comes to you when you relax. I do not think so.

In the store Penny is guarding boxes. She is going to use them for the display table. She is patting herself on the back for thinking of this. Mary Beth comes by and tries to take a box and Penny cuts her with a razor. No, she just tells her to fuck off. Jeff interviews, “Penny, being the pit bull that she is, does not give up one box, God love her.” Yes, God love her. Because she will not be on The Food Network. And I think she was perfectly justified in not giving up the box, but I do not like her anyway!

There is some other stuff, like Vic boxing with a light bulb. That sums up my opinion of Vic right there. And Penny insisting they are challenging her. Give it a rest, we already know your team is going to win. Chris is instructing Vic on beating eggs. He is telling Penny about flaky dough, which is interesting since Penny is not making dough. Chris makes two batches of chocolate cakes and neither one works. The boys are a mess at first, then Irvine comes in and tells them they are a mess, Chris gets demoted and JustinB becomes team leader. Chris drops a tray of pies then asks for burn cream. I wish I was like that. I would have just gone back to my room, packed my stuff and left. Mary Beth says it is like living next door to a bowling alley. Of course the girls started out great but now they are falling apart. Mary Beth has cookies that ran together on the sheet pan because her butter was too warm. Susie was going to make churros (because she is so proud of her Mexican heritage which she wanted to avoid completely until they told her she had to cook Mexican food if she wanted to be on The Food Network) but forgot to get oil to fry them in so she will make pancakes though the batter is way too thick; she says she will add sugar and egg (no, no, no, pancakes I understand, you add milk, silly!). Alicia keeps saying she thinks she remembered the cupcake recipe. They are using it for one of the group dishes. Does anyone think maybe this is not a good idea?

Eventually they get all set up – Penny thinks the room looks great, since she had the idea of the boxes; JustinB says the other team looks very good. Chris says he is amazing in public, he has to pull himself together and bring it, no use crying over spilled pies. The people come in; Whitney says it is like the guests have not eaten for days. Jyll laughs because a bunch of girls are hanging around Chris and he is giving out his email. Chris interviews that even JustinB is into it, tossing the popcorn. JustinB says Jeff and Vic are really interacting with people. All the girls are having fun.

Team Irvine (Boys plus Penny)
Penny made saffron and rice pudding with candied lime zest and pistachios; for her it is what Grandma makes on Friday night. I do not care for Penny (less every time she speaks) but this sounds like a terrific dish. Duff says it is beautiful; Irvine says it is five star. Bob loves it, it is a trip to Middle East (yes, and you have to be careful about that, because you can go some places and enjoy exotic spices and beautiful scenery and amazing history, and you can go some places and get shot). Bobby loves her attitude. I do not think he has seen the tapes. Bob says she can get across her sense of power with more joy. Last summer, there was a girl who inspired TWoP to name her imaginary show, “Cooking with Disdain” since she hated a lot of the challenges (kids, fried chicken). I think this is the same thing. “Cook Like You Want To Kill Someone.” Bobby says she is Game On since she was not picked by Jyll. I think she is The Contestant You Love To Hate this season and she will be on the show until just about the end. But there is no way they will put her on the network with the edit she is getting. They would have given her a kinder edit.
Jeff the Sandwich Guy makes whoopie pie with cream cheese filling, macadamia nuts, cherries, and smoked salt on top. That sounds pretty good, too. He says the whoopie pie is the new cupcake. Irvine says it is bland, with no smokiness; Duff says the cookie is not a whoopie pie but he likes it anyway. Bob says Jeff and his cooking need to be more memorable.
JustinB makes kettle corn with, it sounds like he said white truffle butter – really? And honey. Chris sneers at this in an interview since it is easy to make. Yes, but, white truffle butter might elevate it a bit. But Bob says it is simple and elegant but what did he do with the other five hours and fifty nine minutes. Bob says he sees his passion when he is cooking but not when he is talking. Bobby says he did not sell the ice cream, and they are waiting for him to come out of his shell, is that what he wants to do? Which is one of those questions like when the doctor says, “Do you want to prevent a heart attack?” and then tells you all you have to do is eat nothing but oat bran and lettuce for the rest of your life and work out six hours a day.
JustinD brings corn and basil pudding. Irvine tries to get him to put the actual corn into the dish (he has strained it out after cooking) but he does not, he thought it would be too funky. Irvine says he could have made a relish, and JustinD says yes, that would have been good. Irvine and Bob both like the flavors, though. Fogs says she sees a meek personality; Bob says he should not lose the braininess, but must give more expression.
Chris makes a French apple tart. He says it does not look as good as he had hoped. Well, it did fall on the floor, dude. He is explaining the dish and looking only at Bobby, talking only to Bobby. Fogs points out, “There are five of us here.” Oops. They were offended. I think he was just talking to whoever asked the first question. Irvine says his dish looks like raw chicken. Yes, it did, it was kind of pinkish. Bobby says it was least favorite of desserts at table. He reminds them of a one year old horse that needs to be broken (which is an awful metaphor); he needs to focus his energy.
Vic makes a cream puff with lime tequila filling. Irvine says it is a great concept and agreat dish, Bobby loves the flavor, Bob says he did a great job. Fogs says it is the most sophisticated thing there, and he had authority for the first time.
Collaborative Dish (Team Irvine) spiced chocolate covered bacon skewer. Sounds good again, though it has been done. But most things have been done. The Food Network is not known for innovation, unless you count acorns on Kwaanza cakes. Then JustinB announces their fennel and orange ice cream. It was an afterthought after Chris failed on his two chocolate cakes, because someone had leftover oranges and someone had leftover fennel. He says it is Just A Vanilla Anglais base which of course is a terrible way to describe anything. Irvine says it has a great classic flavor combination.

Team Duff (Girls)
Whitney is making raspberry cream puffs, which turn out great, and makes a croque en bouche. Duff says when she told him that was what she was planning, it was like Babe Ruth pointing at the rafters. It looks good! Spun sugar and all. I am impressed! Fogs says she has personality but it pales in comparison to the others. Well, you see, that is because the Food Network is obsessed with clowns and fools. Bobby says the cream puffs are perfect. Bob says she is fluent and calm, but they want to see her get to next level, star level, which is not fluent and calm, I guess. People: She made a croque en bouche! Are you not paying attention?
Orchid makes cheesecake chocolate chip pecan pies with graham cracker and bacon crust. Apparently some part of this is something Duff is famous for liking because he recognizes it. Smart girl, Orchid. Irvine says she never stops smiling. Bob says it is so natural for her. I do not get it. She is ok, but I do not see this epitome of charm they keep ranting about. Maybe I am still wary from Debbie the Asian-Southern Liar. That is not fair to Orchid who has done no lying at all (yet). Bob loved her pecan pie, and he hates pecan pie. Fogs says it was awesome, they can check off every box, but she is not growing. See, this is what they do. She comes in doing everything right, and she is not growing! In two weeks she has not grown! I think they have already given her the job but they want to wring some suspense out of it. Fogs tells her she needs to find groove and keep evolving.
Jyll makes chocolate soup with a caramelized banana sandwich. It is delicious, and Bob says it is the dream of every six-year-old.
Alicia makes a vanilla bean cupcake with cookie inside, with a fondant star on top. They are not good; one girl says they taste like cornbread, someone says they are bland, another spits it out. Penny picks up a trash can and pulls out almost-whole cupcakes to display how awful they are. Yes, Penny is going through the garbage. Duff says this is a cupcake made by someone who does not bake, so he is surprised she bakes for a living. He can not find the cookie in his.
Mary Beth makes a Grand Marnier milkshake with cookie crumbs on top. I do not think I would want cookie crumbs in my milk shake. But when her cookies ran together she had to break them up. Bob asks if she was concerned about the visual when making a milkshake. She says Yes. That is all, just Yes. Visual? What, because it sticks to the side? That is what a milkshake does. Turns out the visual is the least of her problems. The milkshake is very thin; Bobby says it is flavored milk. And the cookie crumbs get stuck in the straw. Fogs says she has a sense of humor but they did not see it. Bob tells her they could see she was having trouble, she carried her problems into the room. Fogs says she must bring charm and grace regardless of what happens to your cookies.
Susie brings her pancake with chocolate sauce. She feels bad that it is hard. A guest agrees it is very chewy and spits it out. Duff says it was super dense. Irvine says it tastes like toothpaste. Bobby says she left her comfort zone. Apparently she does not explain about forgetting the cooking oil. Fogs agrees it is a horrible dish but she is the life of the party.
Collaborative Dish (Team Duff): Whitney says it is just a brownie sundae with mint ice cream and boy do they jump over the “just”. But as bobby points out they could have done better. Seems it was Just a Brownie and they were being truthful, not something the Food Network appreciates (right, Irvine?). They also have their lemon lollipop which they think is wonderful, but actually is seriously underbaked. Alicia is shocked to hear this. Did she not taste them?

In the end, Irvine says his team hit a home run. Duff says his team was having a blast but forgot to make food that tastes good. Bobby tells him, “Duff, I am sorry, you will not be the next Food Network Star.”

It is no surprise to anyone that Team Irvine wins. They are all safe. Chris is very lucky. Penny interviews “They thought, we are going to stick her with the boys, guaranteed failure.” No, dear Penny, that is what you thought last week. That is what you said, explicitly. Projecting again?

The judges spend a lot of time talking about nonsense. In the end Alicia is out and it is about time. She is disappointed and embarrassed but hopes it is a stepping block (that should be stepping stone, but my stone is her block) and something good will come out of it. I am relieved, she was the Dzzz Dzzz of this season. Chris is happy because he gets another new dawn, new day, new life.

Next week, Paula Deen makes her appearance. I kept thinking they were saying they were going to Cooperstown and I was thinking baseball but I finally figured out they were saying Cougar Town. Oh. You know what I have to say about that, right?

Lauren Groff: “Above and Below” from The New Yorker, 6/13-20/11

Karine Laval, "Yellow Screen" (Los Angeles, 2010)

Goodbye to the glass mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath. Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice. Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.

I confess I started this story with a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t care for Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds” when I read BASS 2010; I resented that she used an existing character (Martha Gelhorn), and an existing plot (Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”), and while I was thrilled to recognize the ortolan ritual, I felt it was incongruously placed.

Yet, I wanted to like this story; it embodies a theme I am highly sensitive to. Few people realize how easy it is to slide down the ladder of success. Most of us feel there is something in us that makes us superior to the people lining up at the local soup kitchen – even those who feel compassionate, perhaps work there, still find it unthinkable that they could end up on the other side of the counter some dinner time. Maybe this is the case. But maybe it isn’t. Connections, family, luck, these all play a role. Sure, someone who works hard to build safety nets for their lives might be less likely to hit the ground. But it happens. And I wanted to like this story that gives the guided tour of such a fall.

The unnamed main character of this story doesn’t really resist the slide. She’s an academic who just lost her funding and can’t afford to keep her apartment now that she’s only a TA and now that her boyfriend has moved out. Her mother isn’t in any position to help. The woman has options – she could get another job, move to a smaller place, get a roommate – but, possibly because of depression from all the losses, she gives up, packs a crate of books in her car, and drives off to live on the beach.

Things go downhill from there, and we take a tour with her of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the hopeless. She has some relationships – a man named Euclid that gives her a job helping him clean clubs, enabling her to get a motel room; a homeless mother who shares her tent and food in exchange for child care while she works (yes, a homeless woman works, it happens). We visit tent cities and a squat house. We never see anything really horrifying – she is never in real danger, she never experiences violence, drugs and alcohol are not really factors, which is not realistic. There’s a lot of deus ex machina in this.

And that’s my gripe. When we get to the squat house, the last location in the story, the story suddenly flash forwards to her having a baby daughter and the connection between them, evoking the less-than-ideal relationship she had with her mother, and possibly hinting there’s another cycle starting here. But we don’t really know, because the information is withheld. We don’t know how she climbs out of the hole she spent at least a year in. We don’t know if her life is more satisfactory than her mother’s. It’s a sort of “let’s just skip all the hard stuff and pretend” ending. It’s unbalanced – the ending is too brief for the story, as if she just got tired of writing so wrapped it up real quick. I’m not satisfied with that. Either skip it, or give it the weight and importance it deserves.

In her New Yorker interview, Groff says she thought of the story as a dark fairy tale. Maybe that’s where the “and she lived happily ever after” fast forward comes in. I think, as she did in “Delicate Edible Birds”, Groff took small pieces of something she saw or knew (her husband’s parents used to own a prairie house, she says in her New Yorker interview, she’s seen the desperately poor in her town) and wrote a story that’s not so much bad as superficial, that doesn’t really work, that misses the underlying thrum that says, “This is real, it’s important, listen.”

But, I admit, I had an attitude going in. And I’m not the one in BASS 2010.

Top Chef Masters Season 3: Finale

The short version: They cooked. The winner got a jacket. The best part of the night was Sue Feniger and Jonathan Waxman as guests at the final meal.

You still want the blow-by-blow? Ok, you got it.

Mary Sue, Traci and Floyd enter the set to find Curtis, James, Gael, and Ruth in the dining room. The knife block is out.

Their assignment: Cook a three course meal of a lifetime.

The first course will be their earliest food memory (does this sound familiar?). Mary Sue remembers steak tartare, which seems like an odd first food memory for a kid. But her mom was from a German family, Steak Tartare was a Christmas eve thing, and she loved it; her mother’s face lit up when she asked for seconds and thirds. Traci remembers her grandfather from Louisiana, an avid cook who made shrimp creole, so that’s where she’s going. Floyd remembers upma, a semolina porridge often served for breakfast; he’s going to jazz it up with stock and veggies, but he knows it’s a risk, as it’s simple and a discerning palate is needed to “get” it.

The second course represents the culinary experience that led to their decision to become chefs. Mary Sue remembers when her mentor, Chicago chef Greg Duda, made shrimp cocktail right in front of her in fifteen seconds. He died a year ago at age 54, so she wants to make dish to honor him. Traci, at age sixteen, went to Zola in San Francisco, which was more cozy than the stuffy French restaurants at the time, and had a memorable quail salad, so she’ll riff on that. At age sixteen the fanciest restaurant I went to was the Stagecoach Inn, a steak house. Floyd recalls his father taking him out to dinner in Bombay when he was a teenager; it was his first experience with all the forks and knives laid out, and he had delicious steamed white fish and first realized eating could be a ceremony.

The third course – switchup – will be judge’s choice, hence the knife block. Floyd gets James, who wants Indonesian rendang, beef in spicy coconut sauce, remembered from his first trip to Southeast Asia when he was nineteen as everything food could be with layers of flavor. Floyd says it’s a reverse braise; I’m not sure what that means (simmer then brown?), but he has to cook it slowly. Mary Sue picks Ruth, who still remembers a magic lemon souffle from a childhood trip to Paris. Traci will cook Gael’s dish: of all the things she experienced on her honeymoon in France, Gael still remembers a lightly breaded fried duck with béarnaise sauce and a snappy mustard flavor. Must’ve been a great honeymoon.

There will be twelve guests. They have until 10pm that day to shop and prep, then they have time the next day to cook and serve. They get their sous chefs, various execs from their restaurants.

They shop. Since they have eight hours for shopping and prep and cook, they can go anywhere, and they each have their own driver and car. What they also have is rain. Floyd needs oxtail, so he heads for a farmer’s market where all the oxen are. He needs a lot of specialty ingredients so he has to go to a lot of places. Traffic’s really bad, so he doesn’t get back to the kitchen until seven, leaving him only three hours. This freaks him out, since his braise takes longer than that, but he perseveres. Floyd freaked out is calmer than I am when I’m meditating. Mary Sue goes to Whole Foods, which doesn’t have the lobster she needs. She debates going to the fish market, an hour away, or getting shrimp and getting back to cook sooner. She knows LA traffic, and she knows it’s raining, so she goes the shrimp route. Traci will be making duck in two preparations, so she goes duck hunting. In supermarkets. And she gets crème fraiche. I’m sure she gets more than that, but that’s all we see.

Prep: They all have some problems. Floyd is most stressed over time since he was so late getting back, but his fish is also a mess; the filets are broken and it isn’t scaled. The editors wisely never name the shop he went to, because he’s pretty critical of them. He’s going to have to interrupt his oxtail and short rib braise, which can be tricky. He wants to make a subtle tomato and fennel broth for the snapper, but he’s pressed for time. He remembers he was always second to Mary Sue all season long. Traci isn’t happy with the duck she got, and she’s not sure she wants to do a duo; she hopes an interpretation of Gael’s requested dish will work. Mary Sue seems to be having the best prep: she tests out her lemon souffle, and she’s very confident with the results.

The next morning they are driven to Hollywood Hills instead of the kitchen. They worry they’re cooking elsewhere, or they have to do some other challenge; Mary Sue says she just won’t. Curtis meets them at some house, either his or a house meant to appear to be his. “After all this, you guys need someone to cook for you.” I see – this is how Curtis proves he can cook. It took eight seasons for Tom Colicchio to cook on Top Chef, and Curtis is eight times the publicity whore. He makes hamachi and a sunchoke soup, and we are all assured he’s a wonderful chef.

Back to real cooking. Mary Sue is worried about her ice cream; she has to make it with liquid nitrogen which she’s never done. Floyd is worried he’s not getting flavor in his polenta.

Out in the dining room, it’s a Top Chef Masters reunion! Sue Feniger, Jody Adams, Jonathan Waxman, Rick Moonen, and Susur Lee are there, yay! Danyelle and Alan get to return to eat though they can’t judge. Tom puts in his presence; he’s said numerous times he wouldn’t be able to judge these guys, but he’s happy to eat.

The chefs serve their first courses:
Floyd’s upma polenta with wild mushrooms, kokum and coconut milk goes over well; Ruth likes the flavor richochet, or maybe she wants the flavor to ricochet, she kind of mumbles; Jonathan loves its simplicity. Gael thinks it isn’t complex enough. Jonathan points out you don’t have to hit people over the head with every dish; Gael says for this competition, yes, you do. I think they don’t have the discerning palate Floyd was talking about. Mary Sue serves her Asian steak tartare with Asian pear. Tom wants more soy or sesame or something. They like the tartare but it doesn’t go far enough. Susan Feniger admits she can only be positive for Mary Sue; they met in Chicago thirty years ago, rode together on a bicycle to work. I love Susan Feniger. Traci brings out her grandfather’s shrimp creole, modernized. James says it’s ambitious. Jonathan says it’s deconstructed. Tom says the creole spice isn’t what he’s getting.

Second course:
Floyd serves rice flaked salmon with tomato-fennel broth. Curtis likes the spice of the broth. Gael thinks the fish is overcooked; Jonathan disagrees. I think Jonathan is going to disagree with anything Gael says. I’m beginning to love Jonathan. Mary Sue brings her duo of shrimp dish, shrimp plus shrimp and chervil mousse stuffed rigatoni. James admires her staying true the the aesthetic. They don’t get the two shrimp dishes, but they love her exuberance for her mentor even if the rigatoni is just odd. Danyelle finds the sauce too heavy, wishes it had been drizzled. Traci presents her roasted quail salad with sweetbreads and mushrooms. Jonathan asks Gael about the sweetbreads, saying she is the sweetbreads expert. She queries that, and he points out she criticized his sweetbreads a long time ago. It’s official: I love Jonathan. Susan says Traci takes a fussy dish and makes it down to earth.

And now the best part: The third course starts with a hug. Before the chefs explain their dishes, Susan runs over and hugs Mary Sue. Mary Sue interviews that Susan was on TCM2; she tries things out, then Mary Sue does them. Like the husband; Susan tried him out, then Mary Sue married him. I love these two. Bring back Two Hot Tamales! But only Mary Sue gets a hug. Floyd complains! “How about a hug for me?” Traci pipes up, “Yeah” kind of weakly. Jonathan hugs them both. I love Jonathan. This was the best three minutes of the show.

Third course is served:
Floyd brings out the rendang James requested, two ways, oxtail and short rib, with tapioca pilaf, diced potatoes and peanuts. He held back on the spices. James wanted spice, but there are other diners. See, that’s Floyd, he considers everyone. James says it’s salt of the earth food but elevated. Alan asks if this version would’ve stayed with him like the original did; James wavers, “it’s hard to say,” then says he feels the love. He changes his tune in his blog. James is a liar. He should be a political speech writer, he can spin it any way he has to. Traci serves her duo of duck crisp duck béarnaise and duck leg salad. Curtis says she did very well. Gael says the béarnaise sauce brings her back, but one piece of duck was wonderful and the other was hard and overcooked. Tom asks if she would’ve become a food writer based on this dish: she says no, she’d still be writing silly articles for Cosmo about keeping your man on the way up. I think maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Mary Sue presents her lemon souffle with rhubarb compote plus lemon hazelnut meringue and lemon ice cream. And somewhere there’s a financier with a lemon slice on top. Maybe that’s the meringue? She made the souffle batter too early and it seemed like a crisis, but it was one of those manufactured-for-TV crises, everyone pitches in to plate her souffles, and all is fine. Everyone pretty much agrees the souffle is the best thing they’ve had all night. Ruth, who requested it, proclaims it to be heaven. Jody asks Ruth, would you be inspired by this dish as you were by the original? Ruth answers, oh, yes, definitely.

The chefs reflect in the W(h)ine Room. Traci liked her meal, it was technically correct and executed according to her vision. Floyd is happy, he put his soul into it. Mary Sue is tired and thinks everyone did great work.

Critics’ table. Ruth loves that Mary Sue‘s mother fed her tartare, and she liked the texture with the pear and the spice. Gael thought it needed more oomph. James didn’t understand the rigatoni, thought it was an odd pairing; “they didn’t speak to each other”. Gael thought the rigatoni was just weird. The Lemon souffle gets great praise. Floyd, Ruth says, was brave to do upma, a dish that simple. James had a problem with snapper, the puffed rice crust was hard; but he loved the broth, thought it was astonishing, and well spiced. But the rendang was delicious, his soul went into dish. Ruth wished it had sung with spice. Traci‘s shrimp creole didn’t have that creole flavor thought the rice cake was delicious; Curtis was more favorable. Curtis thought she nailed the quail. James didn’t like her version of Gael’s food memory; Gael says one part of duck was great, other was dry and tough. And it was disappointing because it didn’t have that crunchy coating, and there was no mustard zing. Ruth says the béarnaise was gorgeous.

Final shots: Gael: Traci showed the depth of classical training. Uh oh, that doesn’t sound good.
James: Floyd cooked a meal tha was deeply skilled and very, very memorable.”
Ruth: Mary Sue showed what a great chef can do, exciting and delicious, pushed the envelope.

Floyd wins. Ruth says in her blog that when they started out, each judge thought a different chef won, but they finally came around to Floyd. I don’t care enough to make a joke about how a penis is necessary kitchen equipment. He has won a total of $110,000 for the Young Scientists Cancer Research Fund which I still think is a very strange charity, more about helping young scientists than curing cancer. He gets a Top Chef Master jacket. Say it with me: “I did this whole show and all I got was this lousy jacket!”

Jeffrey Eugenides: “Asleep in the Lord” from The New Yorker, 6/13-20/11

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Claude Floch

New Yorker Illustration by Jean-Claude Floch

“Man,” Mike said, “I’m starting to feel sorry for myself. You’ve got the Bhagwan, Herbie. Mitchell’s got Mother Teresa. Who do I have? Nobody.”

Whether or not Mitchell’s “got” Mother Teresa is more or less the story here. I find the overarching need to “have” somebody – something, some belief, something to belong to, an identity for yourself – a fascinating insight into the human mind. Whether it plays into the story or not depends on subsequent chapters; yes, this is another novel excerpt.

Mitchell, recent college grad, is in India for a short while trying to firm up his belief in William James via Mother Teresa. He’s not having an easy time of it. He’s volunteering at one the Home for the Dying Destitutes, and can do some things – give out medications, massage aching heads – but is terrified of the day he will have to bathe a patient – or worse. Like most people, Mitchell has a good heart, and truly wants to help the needy, but doesn’t want to get too close to them in certain specific ways. By the end, he discovers he is a sinner. It’s analagous to Socrates discovering he is not wise.

Along the way, there’s some fascinating scenery. The Home doesn’t seem to do much for the dying destitute other than provide a bed and an occasional bath. The medications are usually the wrong ones – drug companies donate whatever is about to expire for the tax write-off, so they have lots of antihypertensives and few antibiotics. I’m a little puzzled by this: tetracycline is pretty cheap, why isn’t it available? The patients are bathed whether they want to be or not. There’s a truly grim picture of a nearly comatose man being dragged around to the bath room, and you wonder if he’d be better off lying in a gutter somewhere. Some hints of organizational corruption are plain: Mother Teresa is friends with Pinochet for fund-raising purposes, yet we see no evidence of funds.

Mitchell goes to a mass to meet Mother Teresa, and as she kneels before the altar, he sees the soles of her bare feet: “They were cracked and yellow – an old woman’s feet – but they seemed invested with the utmost significance.” I wonder if he meant to imply “feet of clay” or if I’m just cynical. Anyone who’s been involved with a religious organization beyond showing up for holiday services once a year knows every church, temple, whatever, has some degree of vanity, corruption, greed, and arrogance lurking beneath the surface. Many times it’s simply a deacon who cheats on his taxes (rather than a governor supporting a secret second family or a congressman sexting), but occasionally it’s more, a la Jim Jones. This is nothing new. You put two people together, eventually they’re going to butt heads over something, and you put three people together and two are going to keep a secret from the third. That it happens in the Catholic church is something Mitchell doesn’t yet understand.

The supporting cast is interesting: a beekeeper from New Mexico who works in the Home, a variety of roommates and fellow travellers from the Salvation Army house where Mitchell is staying. Mitchell finds Herb, of the Bhangwan, particularly irritating as he defends the orgies they are rumored to have: “It’s not the acts in themselves that are good or evil. It’s the intention of the acts. For a lot of people, it’s best to keep things simple. Sex is bad. Sex is a no-no. But for other people, who have, let’s say, attained a higher level of enlightenment, the categories of good and evil pass away.” Uh huh. No wonder Mitchell is irritated. “If Mitchell was ever to become a good Christian, he would have to stop disliking people so intensely. But it was maybe asking too much to begin with Herb.”

That’s exactly what Mitchell is doing at the Home, though – he’s starting on a path of Christian compassion at the hardest point, rather than easing into it. And if I may digress (and who’s going to stop me, that’s why I started blogging, so I could say what I wanted), a lot of people do this, or the variation of forgiving a lifetime of sins by a weekend in a leper colony. Why not start with being compassionate to the lady who’s cutting in front of you in line at the grocery store? Or the guy at work who wears too much after-shave? Or the DMV clerk who’s moving veee-rrrr-y sloooow-llly while processing your license renewal? That’s the hardest compassion of all. If you can do that, giving a bath to a guy with a tumor on his scrotum will be a snap.

The title “Asleep in the Lord” is a euphemism for death, though I think it can also be taken as a kind of stupor, and possibly, drawing on Herb’s psychobabble about orgies, the kind of pink-cloud devotion someone new to a belief system can feel when everything seems incredibly wise, before the little inconsistencies, hypocrisies and double-talk comes in. A hypnotic state, perhaps.The volunteers at the Home often seem to be in this kind of hypnosis, doing tasks like bathing or shaving without taking in what’s actually going on, what the patient actually needs at the moment – medicine, rest, a bedpan. Their busyness is their task, not actually easing suffering, and some go about it like little robots.

I consider this a very successful story because I felt Mitchell’s naiveté and earnestness throughout. I felt sorry for him when he encountered the man about to defecate in his bed, and couldn’t measure up to his own standards. And when I read in the author interview that this is yet another excerpt from another novel, I felt cheated, not because the story felt incomplete (it does, but not painfully so) but because it is, in fact, incomplete: I haven’t heard Mitchell’s story yet, I don’t know what he does with this experience. And that’s, perhaps, where the real story lies.

George Saunders: “Home” from The New Yorker, June 13-20, 2011-06-12

Illustration by Maximilian Bode

Illustration by Maximilian Bode

At that point, I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted.

I’ve been trying to find a way to approach a discussion of this story for a couple of days now. I can’t seem to do it justice. You can (and should) read it yourself: it’s available online. And then you can read an interview with George Saunders about the story, which is almost as powerful as the story itself. The best I can do is say if Michael Moore wrote fiction, this is the story he would write. I wish he’d make a movie of this story. Someone should.

Across the river the castles got smaller. By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts. Inside one peasant hut were five kids standing perfectly still on the back of a couch. Then they all leapt off at once and their dogs went crazy.

It didn’t make sense in the beginning. I read the first couple of columns three or four times, thinking I’d missed a character somewhere. I wrote down the character’s names (something I do often, anyway): Ma, Mikey (son, returning home from… somewhere?), Harris (Ma’s boyfriend), Alberto (ex-boyfriend, who is completely unimportant).

Mommy, let me kneel at your feet and tell you what me and Smelton and Ricky G did at Al-Raz, and then you can stroke my hair and tell me anybody would’ve done the exact same thing.

I just decided to go on reading. Good idea. Renee, Mikey’s sister, married to Ryan. A hilarious discussion of planeloads of Russian babies with harelips which is actually a dissertation on wealth and philanthropy. We learn Mikey may have done something. Aha, Mikey was a soldier.

It was like either: (A) I was a terrible guy who was knowingly doing this rotten thing over and over, or (B) it wasn’t so rotten, really, just normal, and the way to confirm that it was normal was to keep doing it over and over.

Then Mikey’s ex-wife (and her new husband) and his child come into the picture. And, well, it goes on like that. Learning new things that make the hairs stand on end. Giggle-fests. Tears.

What are you going to stop me with? Your girth? Your good intentions? Your Target jeans? Your years of living off the fat of the land? Your belief that anything and everything can be fixed with talk, talk, endless yapping, hopeful talk?

What’s killing me is that I just went on a rant, in my latest Top Chef recap, about these phony “cooking for our troops” shows they pull, and how I hope the producers who think of this and the chefs who get so emotional about these episodes – “Thank you for your service” – vote for increased funding for VA programs and other veteran support services, and for candidates who advocate same, instead of tax-cutting bills.

I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking, O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.

I love this story. Just don’t ask me to explain it.

Food Network Star 2011 Episode 2: In The Line of Fire

Hello, I am Zin!

The second day/week begins! Vic (the bald guy who has yet to present a complete dish) is going to start his comeback; Mary Beth (Patron Saint of mediocrities) is not going to accept mediocrity, she insists for the seventh or eight time.

Giada greets them in the kitchen for the Camera Challenge: it is pizza day! They have one hour to make a pizza that reflects culinary style. Now, for me, I think pizza is pizza: dough, tomato, cheese, maybe some basil or other veggies – I will even accept ham and pineapple hawaiian pizza – but still pizza. I think it has become the case, however, that anything on a round flat piece of any kind of bread is now called pizza. We will see what they do. Vic is happy. Vic is Italian, yes? Giada says they must make it personal, and on the camera part of the challenge, they must tell a story that relates to the pizza. The winner will be featured in Food Network magazine. There is a magazine? Really? Does anyone read it? And someone will go home, which is more grim. This is the first time in history they have done it this way. They must have miscalculated the number of contestants.

Chris (Frat Boy, WhasUpWhasUpWhasUp) says he is pumped up, and he has a lot to do. He drops a sausage on Mary Beth, right on her head. Yes, while he is getting sausage out of the fridge. He thinks this is quite funny. I am sure Mary Beth is not quite as amused. Susie (who has newly embraced her Mexican roots after Foge told her to) brags about her biceps from rolling pizza dough. Vic says he is going back to his roots: “If you cut my arm open I will bleed marinara, if you squeeze me I will ooze cheese.” I think that is scary! Juba (the incoherent simple complex) says most important part is sauce, so he is making tomato sauce from scratch. Apparently he thinks this is a novel idea, but JustinB (the earring guy) is already making his own tomato sauce and I would hope others are too. Mary Beth is making three cheese bitter greens pizza, because her son loves it, and she needs to show them who she really is. Juba drops his pizza. “I can’t serve it,” he says. I am grateful a potential Food Network star realizes that. He has to start over. When the time is over, his pizza isn’t browned, and it worries him.

They present their pizzas to the three judges and get one minute to tape a segment.

Juba is incoherent again. He calls his pizza the triple holy trinity because he used three peppers, toasted pine nuts, clam juice and white wine. The poor guy can not say a complete sentence clearly. He goes “Um” a lot. I mean, a lot. He starts a sentence then starts over again and never really completes it. Afterwards, he says, “I know I stumbled here and there.” Poor Juba. Bobby says the dough is undercooked, Juba agrees. But the topping is good, Bobby adds.
Katy (of so many passions) says she wants to present new options: luscious and light, so she has put less cheese on half her pizza. Then she starts talking about a Chinese worker who stayed with her a couple of weeks ago and how they made pizza, and I am wondering, what the hell is a Chinese worker? I mean, of course, it is a Chinese person who works, but is this some kind of immigrant exchange program? Or temporary domestic help who happens to be Asian? I do not understand. I have a terrible picture in my head of some little guy with a pigtail holding a pickaxe and trying to build railroad tracks in her front yard. My Asian friends will never forgive me for being so politically incorrect! Bob asks if she really had a Chinese worker stay with her and she says yes; Bobby laughs. I think they are wondering what the hell a Chinese worker is, too! Bob says when she does the morning talk show host thing she seems insincere. I think she is just very confused. Maybe she can hire a Chinese worker to help with that.
Alicia (of the accents and tears) makes truffled potato pizza. It is inspired from a first date. It was the first time she’d ever had truffles, and she was glad the food was good because the guy was a nightmare: “The moral is, I guess it does take a pig to find truffles.” That was funny! I am skeptical; I bet she read that in a book somewhere. Bobby praises her delivery. They do not say anything about her pizza. She did seem pretty good on camera.
JustinB starts his personal story, then stops and says almost nothing for almost 30 seconds. He describes his thin hand stretched pizza, yellow tomato sauce, shaved fennel, chili flakes, and tries to give his personal story, about when he started at a new kitchen and wanted to impress the guys, but he gets lost again and time is up. FAIL, he says. He is right. Bob says he had new confidence and energy when he came out, what happened? JustinB says he is a perfectionist. Foge says, “Perfectionism has no place here” which is the slogan of The Food Network. Bobby and Giada love the pizza, it is juicy and crunchy.
Jyll (Jyllicious) makes “my husband is out of town pizza.” That sounds strange, is it really good because her husband does not deserve pizza? Or really simple because she does not feel she is someone she wants to bother cooking for? See, it could go either way. Or is it really sexy because she is having an affair with the pool guy? Someone tells her she was fun. They pretty much skip over her. I guess she was perfect.
Orchid (winner of both challenges last week) talks about slowing it down for pizza tonight. Bob says she has a flair for stories. Everyone smiles but we do not see much. I guess she was perfect, too. Or she got too much screen time last week.
Jeff talks about the best bite of your life, “tasting a little bit of me and my home town of Chicago.” They skip over him, too, other than Giada says she liked his pizza. I do not remember anything about him from last week, except that a lot of other blogs picked him as a potential winner.
Mary Beth gets very perky: “Who doesn’t love pizza?” I did not like pizza until I was in my 20s. I was a late bloomer in a lot of areas, including pizza. She used chunky tomato sauce, taleggio cheese, bitter greens, “not that I’m bitter” ha ha. Bobby says it is good looking he likes the crust and toppings, and it is nicely seasoned. She interviews that Bobby liking her pizza changes the game for her. Maybe she will shut up about her mediocrity now. That is not nice, is it? I like Mary Beth, she is one of my favorites! This is what reality TV does to me!
Chris has cherished memories of his dad cooking. He sounds like he is reading a speech about fire safety. Bob says he has made great strides since last week but needs to interject some fun back into it. Just wait, it gets better in the next challenge – these people are hard to please!
Penny interviews that stilettos are out and motherhood is in, though she is wearing a strapless top. She is now the Middle Eastern Mom, it is her new POV since they didn’t like all the sex. So here is another one who came in, knowing exactly who she was and did a u-turn on a dime to give them what they want. In her case it is an improvement. Her pizza has feta and eggplant. Bobby likes the mint and cumin, Giada says the flavors are there. She has good energy on camera.
Susie trips over a camera cable on the way in but she does not drop her pizza! She says it is Latin flair with an Italian concept. She does understand where “Latin” comes from, yes? She says something about hot sauce. Then: “Next time you go to a football game” – Bob does a double take, and she realizes if you are going to a football game you will not be bringing pizza – “or have a football game at your house…” Decent recovery. Bob says she has energy to burn but can she focus.
Vic says his show is “Mamma showed me right” and he is proud of his pizza. He is lost for words at 30 seconds of his 1 minute video. He says so. “I am lost for words.” He says it again. He interviews he has defeated himself one more time. Bobby says why did you stop talking? Vic blames his dead mother. “No excuses, when I talk about my mother it affects me that way.” I think he is full of crap. But his pizza is good. And it is a good thing, since it is the first dish they have had from him.
I seem to have lost Whitney (the engineer) and JustinD (who I can not remember) along the way. Maybe some others. Or maybe they just did not bother to show them.
Penny wins. I am disappointed.
Juba, Vic and JustinB are bottom three.

[There is a Hungry Girl commercial in which she is very proud of reducing the calories in pineapple upside down cake by using no-sugar applesauce and pineapple packed in water instead of syrup. This is the level of genius they are looking for.]

Bob says Juba is a likeable guy and good cook, but needs more authority. Authority? No, he needs to be able to speak in sentences.
JustinB: Foge says he overthinks performances.
Vic: Bobby says this is the third time he has come up short, he has to be able to deliver.
But it is Juba who goes home. He looks surprised. “I’m too nervous in front of the cameras, either you have it or you don’t.” I am sad because he is likeable, but he really is unintelligible and showed no sign of improving.

And we move to the Star Challenge.
Bobby says all kinds of people watch the Food Network from pro chefs to untrained cooks. If pro chefs watch the Food Network, they must be looking for comic relief. This challenge is to make restaurant food accessible, easy to make, but keep the high quality. Contestants will be in three groups, but not teams; each group will compete within the group on one dish. First is a time consuming dish, red wine braised short ribs. Second is a dish with expensive ingredients, abalone with caviar and beurre blanc. Third is a technically difficult dish, sweet soy glazed pork belly with scallion pancakes. I do not understand pork belly. Bacon, I get, but pork belly just seems like a slimy fatty mess.

As winner of the Camera Challenge, Penny gets to assign the groups. Well, you can guess what is coming! She interviews that she has a strategy. Of course she does, she will give the most serious threat (Orchid) the most difficult assignment, and will compete against the weakest people. Alicia and Chris seem to think this is very aggressive. Orchid takes it in stride. This is pretty standard reality-competition stuff, it is not shocking and I do not think it is particularly mean. It might be hurtful to people who find out they are considered weak, but as much as I do not like Penny, I can not hold this against her. Well, maybe just a little bit. 😉

The Abalone group is Orchid, JustinB, Vic, and Chris. Penny knows Orchid will fail. It is the hardest ingredient and the guys are all crazy so she will be dealing with crazy people in the kitchen. Orchid interviews she has never heard of abalone. I find that very odd for someone who wants to be on TV to bring Asian flavors to barbecue. It is very popular in Asian food, though I am not sure how much it is used in Filipino cooking. And I think it was illegal in the US (it is very regulated now), so I am not at all surprised she has never worked with it, but I would think she has heard of it. I have heard of it, and I am neither Asian nor a chef. Orchid is worried. The pork belly group is Whitney, Jeff, Jyll, JustinD, and Alicia. Penny gives Alicia pork belly because it is very complicated and she will freak out – but, wait, she is not going to cook pork belly, that is the whole idea! Both Jeff and Alicia seem to understand what is involved for pork belly. But they are not cooking pork belly! What is wrong with these people?
The short rib group is Penny herself, Mary Beth, Susie, and Katy. She knows Katy does not have much in the way of culinary skill and she will be in the bottom. I think she assumes she will beat the others as well.

They go to the store to shop. JustinB uses calamari steak as an abalone substitute, which makes a lot of sense. Orchid sees her team mates getting a lot of stuff, and thinks she had better get more. The seafood department is out of fresh oysters, so she gets canned oysters. Chris thinks that is a disgusting thing. I would guess she has never had canned oysters. Katy has three baskets of ingredients, far more than other people.

When they get to the kitchen, the panel has grown to include Scott Conant, Anne Burrell, and the Neeleys; they are in Scott Conant’s restaurant Scarpetta. I wonder, did they notice they were going into Scarpettas? I used to read the Patricia Cornwell novels about Kay Scarpetta, who does a lot of Italian cooking at home, but apparently there is no connection. Bobby says a Star must be able to cook and talk at the same time so the panel will ask questions. I am wondering about this kitchen, this is the Scarpetta kitchen? It is big enough for the chefs and for a big table for the judges? I thought NY restaurant kitchens were very small!

The Short Rib group starts cooking. Mary Beth wants to show more Mary Beth, so she sets up at the front station right by the judges. Scott asks, what are you building? She tells him roasted grape sauce with a marrow bone; she asked if they would give it to her for free but they charged her a dollar. She interviews you can buy a marrow bone and throw it into sauce for richness. Now, see, this is pretty cool, that is not something I have heard of, it is much more sophisticated than using water-packed pineapple. Bobby asks Katy, what are you making, and she tells him gorgonzola mashed potatoes and apple-walnut compote and mustard cream sauce; Anne asks if she is worried she is using too much stuff, but she say no. Penny interviews that Katy is using way too many components, but I wonder why Penny gets to make these pronouncements? She is probably right, though. Scott asks Katy if she has looked at a pan that is boiling merrily away; he thinks she does not understand the heat of commercial burners. She ignores him, then pours red wine into the pan and it burst into flames. Penny interviews, “Mission accomplished, the girl has no culinary skills.” Penny is not the authority here! And if they give her a show after she has shown herself to be such a smug ass, they are foolish! They are using her to be the villain, and that is kind of too bad. But it is not as though she is resisting the role.

The Short Rib group presents their dishes.
Penny serves a sandwich: steak marinated in garlic, thyme, and peppercorns on flatbread, with a creamy aeoli and curried potato chips. Mrs. Neely says it has great flavor, and met the challenge. Foge likes the Middle Eastern Mom thing; the dish is “ok.” That does not sound like overwhelming enthusiasm.
Mary Beth serves rib eye with wine sauce reduced with a marrow bone. Bob says she succeeded brilliantly in getting rich concentrated flavor in 45 minutes. Anne enjoyed watching her cook, she was very comfortable. Penny is nervous that they love Mary Beth.
Susie makes beef stew from chuck roast cooked with bell peppers and tomatoes over chayote puree. Mr. Neely enjoyed it. Foge is happy she has adopted her POV in a beautiful way, it is delicious.
Katy offers short ribs, mashed potatoes, mustard cream sauce, and an apple walnut compote. She took the bone out of the short ribs, chopped them and dredged the “to stay together” which I do not understand – why would dredging make them stay together? And why is that desirable? Scott goes over a list of a dozen ingredients. Too much, he says. Giada says it is too many steps, too much to do, the idea was to simplify. She likes the apple walnut compute but does not see where it fits in. Anne says she did not feel comfortable, she had a smile pasted on, looked like a deer in headlights. Katy interviews “don’t cry, keep smiling” and she does.

The Pork Belly group cooks.
Jeff thanks Scott for allowing them to destroy his beautiful kitchen. Ann calls out to Justin D, says she likes his glasses, what is he making? He says he is going to blanch his meat balls in water. The panel seems shocked, so he realizes that is not a good thing to do and puts them in the oven instead! Good move, JustinD. They ask Jyll what she is doing (beer brats) and then Ann asks Whitney. Whitney interviews she is used to working in a closed kitchen. Mr. Neely says he can see her tasting but her expression does not change and he is worried; she says it is all good. Jeff is sweating. Sweat is dripping from his nose, one, two drops, right in the spring rolls he is wrapping, the spring rolls he is going to serve the judges. Giada tells him to wipe his face. She does not want to eat his sweat! I do not blame her! Though that sort of thing happens all the time, though. He says he usually wears a headband but his hair might be all he has going for him and they laugh. It is a decent save. But I still would not want to eat those spring rolls! They talk to Alicia, and she says first she is making twenty seven pancakes, then decides maybe not, maybe only enough for one for each judge. They say she seems nervous. She interviews that people watching her is throwing her off. Hello? You are signing up to be on television with people watching you all the time! Do you understand that? Anne says Alicia is making her nervous.

The Pork Belly group presents their dishes.
Jeff made a BLT spring roll, with glazed bacon, nappa cabbage, and julienned tomatoes. Anne says he was fun to watch and entertaining, but the dish fell short; he did not wrap it well. And do not sweat in the food! Mrs. Neely says she likes the dish. Bobby looks at her funny. Maybe she got the one without the sweat.
Jyll serves her Wisconsin beer brats. Which is too bad, I am not feeling very warmly towards Wisconsin these days. She goes on about her family and Packer games, which is Food Network gold. Bob tells her she is grounded in a sense of place, and the dish did not disappoint.
Whitney presents biscuits and gravy: orange ginger biscuit with pork sausage gravy. This is a complete dish? I once had a discussion with someone from England about biscuits and gravy, he thought it was a disgusting idea, but then the English think of biscuits as cookies. I am off topic again! Mr. Neely thinks it is a delicious dish, he should take it back to the south. Bobby says she is confident, but she needs to be more friendly to be a star.
Justin D serves his pancake battered meatball with tangerine soy glaze. It is the first challenge he felt like himself. He thought it would be whimsical and entertaining. Giada likes the crunch, but she is concerned with his confidence level: they shouldn’t be able to derail him from what he’s doing. I think anything that stops him from boiling meatballs is a good thing.
Alicia brings her scallop wrapped in bacon with water chestnuts. Bacon is her favorite guilty pleasure. Scott felt she was stressed out; she did not look like she was having fun, and the frenzy shows on the plate. The scallop is overcooked. Anne says she make her nervous, and if you are making people nervous they will tun the channel in a second. Yes! This is why I can not watch Melissa, who they made a Star a couple of years ago! Back in the green room Alicia cries to Mary Beth, “This is so much harder than you think it is going to be!” Do these people not watch the show before they apply? Do they not practice? Do they not understand what is required? It is hard! And there are many very good cooks who can not do it, which is why there are so many mediocre cooks on TV.

The Abalone group cooks.
Orchid sets up, and Mr. Neely asks her why she is all the way over there by herself in the corner? She says, “You will see!” and indeed he does see once the boys get going. Foge asks Chris what he is doing; he is making a seafood stew. He likes to have fun in the kitchen. He throws some alcohol in a pan and it burns very high: “A little flame never hurt anyone.” Bobby asks what he would tell the home cook about that kind of high flame, and he admits he would not do it at home, so Bobby asks why he did it here, and there is really no reason. He was playing! Now you see why Orchid is as far away as she can get! Chris can not find vermouth so he uses Pernod instead because he can find it. He does not know what Pernod is. The judges keep asking him to describe it and he keeps evading the question. Giada wonders why he does not just take a swig of it. It should be ok, as long as he does not mind licorice. Bobby asks Vic if he has worked with abalone before, and Vic says no; Bobby asks him about it, and Vic describes it as a crazy creature in a shell that sits there on the ocean floor. Bobby says that is a good description! Bobby asks Orchid about the canned oysters he sees her use; she defends it as something a home cook might need to use.

The Abalone group serves.
Vic serves his seared scallops with beurre blanc and baby octopus crostini. Anne likes the of the octopus snuggled in the clam (what clam? Did I get something wrong?), but the scallop is cooked to death. Giada say Vic has a tough exterior but is actually very sweet. He is the Herb for this year, I guess! I did not get Herb and I do not get Vic.
JustinB made pan fried calamari steak with clams. He included the calamari for sweetness and the clams for the chew of abalone, which seems like a very intelligent thing to do. It is too bad he can not make it through a camera presentation without getting lost. Scott says something about being cerebral but needing to make sense. I do not think Scott made sense on that one. Foge thinks it is delicious, crispy and light.
Orchid brings out her fried seafood platter. Anne tells Orchid she is bubbly and cute but the canned oyster looks like a hairball. Giada asks how she got assigned to this group. The consensus is: “Penny is a smart girl.” Mr Neely tells her she has what it takes but she must put energy into the dish. I am not sure what that means, but I think it includes not serving canned oysters.
Chris serves stufato, a mixed seafood stew and beurre blanc with Pernod. Scott says potential luxury ingredients should have been treated with more care. Anne say he was putting on a show, he should calm down and treat food with respect because people feel that. See, here we go: now he is having too much fun!

The judges line up all the contestants and shoot at them. Verbally!

Judging for the Pork Belly group: Giada tells Alicia she was nervous, Foge says fragility is the opposite of the power they want to see. Giada says that is what being a star is, eyeballs on you. Ewwww. I remember reading something about Giada not wanting to do her show until Bob let her set it up in her own kitchen and do filming her way (she cooks everything twice so she does not have to worry about all this talking and cooking). And we have all seen the tapes of Bobby and Mario when they started. So ease up, people! Still, Alicia is not long for this competition. Bobby chides Jeff for sweating again, but admits the one thing he has going for him is his clever response about his hair. The beer brats by Jyll were a hit, they loved that she put an Asian dish into Wisconsin vernacular. I do not think there is much similarity between pork belly and brats, but that is me. They liked the pancake coated meatballs JustinD served, and Giada says she might do it herself. Foge says he is emerging with a specific style. Bob loves the PeeWee Herman meets Elvis Costello meets Alton Brown vibe JustinD is putting out. Wow, I think I would love that too, so I will remember that! But, Bob says, it is going to be hard for you if you do not know who you are. I do not know what that means. Are they still upset that he abandoned the blanching of his meatballs? Get over it! Bob likes Whitney for her engineer calm and likes how her mind works, but hopes they will see more of the passionate cook along with the methodical engineer.
The winner is Whitney. JustinD, Jyll and Jeff, all the Js, are safe. Alicia is up for elimination. Everyone else goes back to little room, Alicia steps to side to wait.

Now they grade the Short Rib group: Bobby tells Penny her dish was ok, she achieved what she wanted, and it is ok to be aggressive but it has to be friendly. I think it is too late for Penny. Bobby loved the stew Susie made and Giada loves her youthfulness. Giada loved seeing Mary Beth open up, and Bobby says it was an innovative dish. Bobby tells Katy there was too much on her plate, and it was muddled. Foge says while she has a sunny disposition, she does not understand what she wants to be or why she is there. Katy argues: she is not cooking all day, she can not be penned in, she loves fitness and fashion and many things. Fogs tells her it is a cooking show and that has to be th focus.
Mary Beth wins! Yay! I may hate her in a few weeks but I like her now. Susie and Penny are safe, and Penny does not look happy. Katy is up for elimination and goes over with Alicia while the others get to leave.

Finally they evaluate the Abalone group: Bobby gives Chris two out of four stars; he took a beating over the Pernod, needs to be a bit more serious. But he was serious in the Camera Challenge and they said he needed to bring more fun in! Now do you see what a tough gig this is? There is this sweet spot and only the judges know where it is! Bobby scolds him for hotdogging in the kitchen with the flames and for not knowing his ingredients. JustinB gets a lot of praise from Bobby for the squid, it was the best thing he ate. Giada agrees. Bobby says he has to come out of his shell. If he can not do that, he can not have a show. Vic did a great job of plating, and Giada wants him to succeed; he was intimidating at first but he is a sweetheart. I do not quite get the sweetheart thing. I think they are setting him up for the finals, telling the viewers what they see. Bobby wants to eat more of his food. Foge says Orchid was spooked by the challenge and it showed.. Bobby says she is one of the front runners, but they want to see her move forwards and she went backwards. This is Aarti all over again! Bobby says no one in the group excelled but they picked the best food. JustinB wins. Vic and Orchid are safe. Chris is up for elimination and joins Alicia and Katy. I think Scott is just mad that he could have burned down his Scarpetta kitchen.

The judges talk for a while. Giada thinks Alicia is in over her head (I do not think that would require very deep water) but Bob says she was very funny and real for the Camera Challenge and he was impressed. They find Chris likeable, but he gets in his own way and he may not have the aptitude. Foge does not like the rah-rah attitude Katy insists on putting forward. Bobby says she has a long list of things she wants to do. Bob gives her credit for maintaining her composure under criticism.

In the end, Katy is out. Interesting. Do not ruin the pans of Scott Conant or he will get you! So they eliminated the guy who could not cook first, then the guy who could not talk, and now the multiple POV. “No one can steal my smile” she says. That is nice, now run along.

Next week, Duff and the Impossible guy who got suspended for padding his resume then got a second show are guest judges.

And a shout out Minx Eats! I read her entry on Episode One and realized, they have renamed the series! It is no longer The Next Food Network Star, it is now just Food Network Star. Thank you, Minx! She runs the All Top Chef website where A Just Recompense recaps are included in the Monday-Tuesday Roundup of Top Chef episodes. And her blog on Food Network Star is very funny!

Tessa Hadley: “Clever Girl” from The New Yorker, June 6, 2011

Vee Speers, "Untitled #12" from Birthday Party (2007)

If I knew him now as he was then, what would I think of him? I can imagine watching him.…His judgment – not of abstractions like immigration and taxes but knowing how to hold himself, when to be still – is unexpectedly delicate and true.; I can see it now, from this distance.

This story is the third in a series of six stories (as of now; see the author interview) about Stella, a British child growing up in the 1960s. The first, “Honor“, in which Stella was about eight years old, was published in The New Yorker last January.

Stella is now about fifteen but narrates from a distance of time and upon considerable reflection. The story is very effective at conveying her emotional reality as she adjusts to a series of major changes in her life. I do have an issue with elements being artlessly dropped from the story after they’ve served some temporary purpose. Also, the events in the story don’t really lead to one another, they’re just chronologically linked and have been chosen because they illustrate the given theme. And I have the same problem I had with her earlier story, “Honor”, in that due to the “looking back” voice, it just doesn’t seem like a complete story but a scene in a longer work (which, in a sense, it is, though it’s written as a complete story, albeit one in a series). I felt Stella the narrator was incomplete, because I didn’t know what had happened to her in the intervening years that might have altered her perception of these events. Did she find happiness as an adult? Or was she scarred by these events? But there’s an emotional core here, and it feels very true.

Stella’s mother has just married Nor. We don’t know what happened to her father, but he’s been gone since she was a baby and she doesn’t remember him. The new family moves into a brand-new house complete with stickers still on the windows and fresh-cut tree stumps marking rectangles that will be gardens. As it happens, I moved into a similar brand-new house, albeit in Florida, when I was about ten, so I understand the starkness of a new development. It’s clean and new but it’s also empty and barren. And a new family might feel the same way. This was very effective.

Stella has a doll, presumably a Barbie-type doll, at the beginning of the story. There’s a truly wonderful paragraph about the doll:

My belief in my dolls, at that point, was in a delicate balance. I knew that they were inert plastic and could be tumbled without consequences upside down and half naked in the toy box. At the same time, I seemed to feel the complex sensibility of each one, like an extra skin stretched taut and responsive, both in my mind and quite outside of me.

The doll disappears completely from the story. Stella meets Madeleine, her new neighbor, and they become friends of convenience. They begin a cult of the beech trees which were cut down so the development could be built. Madeleine, as Stella sees her, is an interesting character: “Her oblivion seemed so extreme that it had to be disingenuous…. You never got to the bottom of what she actually knew or didn’t know.” Madeleine fades from the story as well, though not as suddenly or as completely as the doll.

The doll, and Madeleine, reinforce the real trope of the piece: duality. Things that are one way and another at the same time. Things that might be or might not be at the same time. A new house much bigger than the old apartment but that seems crowded because stepfather Nor is there. A stepfather who is not a father but is trying his best to be. A stepfather who, in spite of his occasional impatience is about as good and decent and caring as any father could be, is still regarded with suspicion. A mother who, in becoming pregnant, displays an interest in babies that Stella never knew existed. And trees which are there even though they have been cut down.

The final incident – indeed, the only real incident of the rather thin plot – is quite wonderful in a quiet way. Mum is in the hospital for the last weeks of her pregnancy. Stella is trying to figure out a math problem, and Nor tries to help. She realizes he just might be able to help, since he is an account keeper and works with numbers all day. Of course, accounting and physics are very different things, and the problem eludes him. He insists the teacher must have explained how to solve the problem. Then somehow Stella’s coffee gets spilled. “Spilled milk was one of the things Nor and Mum dreaded above all else; if you failed to eradicate every trace, the smell as it soured came back to haunt you.” And Stella, as she’s saving her homework book from the mess, has a brainstorm and comprehends the previously incomprehensible equations involving distance, velocity, and acceleration. It doesn’t sound like much, but it works in the story. Stella explains it to us: “….he hated his failure to know more than I did, be cleverer than I was.” And she begins to understand the duality that has been underlying the entire piece.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived” by Tamas Dobozy, from One Story Issue 128

And all that time Laszlo had been tormented by Tibor Kalman’s villa – it was like the place was imagining him rather than the other way around – it sometimes appeared in place of what he was running from, and Laszlo had to stop himself from leaping into a burning apartment, a metro tunnel, or a garden under shelling, thinking: this is it, finally, I’ve made it.

Hello, I am Zin!

I did not think I would like this story. I started reading it in the waiting room of my dentist (I was very early), so it was not the best of circumstances for reading. I was discouraged by the time and setting (1944-1947 Hungary) and it is a war story. I am glad I started over later. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

It is a very interesting story. Now, “interesting” is often used as a euphemism for “yuck” but not in this case! I liked this story very much, and the best description of how I liked it is “interesting”. It is not really what I would call a beautiful story. There are passages that knocked the wind out of me, but their power is not beautiful prose but meaning. It was a story that kept tumbling. I was interested. I was interested in the character and the story of course, or I would not be able to say I liked it! But I was interested in the world it described. I have read quite a bit about WWII but not much about Hungary or the Siege of Budapest (to be honest I had never heard of it) or how Hungary went from being a Nazi captive to a Soviet captive overnight (which I knew about but was pretty vague on the details and certainly had no grasp of the human situation). So I found the story an interesting way into learning a little about those events. And I found it very interesting how the villa in the title is a character in the story. And how the title is so very important.

The story follows Laszlo, a very young Hungarian soldier. It is quite complicated. I started to outline it, but there are many details and every one of them is important, so my outline got very long. Laszlo is dealing with a lot of guilt, and he hungers for safety which becomes personified by Timor Kalman’s villa, where he can get documents that will allow him to escape Eastern Europe entirely. He commits several betrayals to get himself into the villa. He longs for absolution but that is not going to happen. In the end the villa is restored, but it is not a physical restoration. In spite of Laszlo’s sins, I felt a lot of compassion for him.

I am glad this One Story piece made it into the collection; One Story has become one of my favorite publications! The author wrote this story as part of a novel of linked stories generated from his research into the Siege of Budapest. He did not complete the novel, but ended up with four stories. He visited a villa that became the inspiration for the one in the story. You can read his Q&A with One Story editor Pei-Ling Lue; I found it very interesting (that word again! But it is!). Most authors will decline to speculate on the future of their characters beyond the end of a story or novel, but he knows (and tells!) what happens to Laszlo because he wrote another story about him! And I thought his answer to “what is the best writing advice you’ve ever received” was funny, and maybe I should think about it a bit!

Google’s Really Got A Hold On Me

Is anyone else wasting enormous stretches of time playing with the Google doodle of Les Paul’s guitar?

I think I spent an hour yesterday morning with it when I first saw it. I didn’t mean to, the time just flew by while I strummed and plucked. Then last night Rachel Maddow did a segment on it for her “Best New Thing” closing piece (she played the Presidential candidates’ first names, using the keyboard feature, to see which would work best. Does it come as a surprise to anyone that “Barack” was the most melodious?) which you can watch if you can sit through the 15-second commercial that precedes the segment on the video (grrrrr…).

I played with the Google Guitar again last night for a good hour or so, since it would only be there for a day. And this morning – it’s still there! Oh no! It’s so popular, they’ve left it up another day! I’m going to get nothing done! And HuffPo has a complete tutorial! Just what I need, another time sink.

I think everyone in the US, maybe the western world, goes through a guitar stage. Whether we grew up with Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, or for that matter with Andres Segovia playing on the phonograph or stereo or iPod, everyone seems to at one point or another pick up a guitar and noodle around with it. I had my own style back in the 60s and 70s (it was Paul Simon, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Don McLean for me); because of my stubby fat fingers, I couldn’t quite reach much more than a handful of chords and so I only played the simplest songs. Still, about once a decade I get another guitar to see if I still can’t play. I just did this a couple of years ago – my first venture onto Ebay, a ¾ sized guitar which I thought would be better since my fingers, now arthritic, wouldn’t have to stretch as far. Nope. So I donated it to a teen center after a few months.

In eight or ten years, I’ll try again. In the meantime – there’s always Google! Gotta go now…

Make some music today!

Top Chef Masters Season 3 Episode 9: A Soldier’s Story

Only four chefs left: Floyd, Mary Sue, Naomi, and Traci. This is the last regular challenge; next week is the final, in which three of these chefs will compete.

The Quickfire: This was a terrific QF! I’ve been very critical of the QF challenges (and Elimination challenges, for that matter) this season, but I have to give credit where credit is due: this one hit all the right notes. The chefs had to think fast, consider many possibilities and unknowns, and there was the surprise at the end. Bravo!

Curtis explains it as a communications test. The stations are set up in pairs with a divider creating two work stations for each chef. They will have a mystery teammate, and the chefs will have to explain to their teammate how to make the same dish they are making. They will not be able to see the teammate or what is happening with the food; they’ll have to rely on what is said only. The goal is to produce two identical delicious dishes.They will be judged on how the dishes taste, and on how similar they are.

This is pretty cool. Naomi interviews she is worried if the teammate will be able to do what she asks them to do. Mary Sue points out, “We don’t know if they’re cooking school instructors or children.” Yeah, good point. Turns out, they’re the chef’s brothers, sisters, father. Awesome!

Traci, unknown to her, is working with her brother Mitch. She’s yelling, “Chiffonade!” and he says, “I don’t know what that term means.” She interviews that he must not be a cooking student. She tells him to mince, which he understands, so she minces hers to make it the same. He asks how he can tell when the asparagus is done, and she tells him to taste it. This is great, really. She’s making sautéed halibut with asparagus in brown butter vinaigrette. She tells him to take the fish out with tongs, not to pour the butter onto the plate, because now they’re going to add vinegar. It’s a “magic” brown butter vinaigrette sauce she makes from time to time and she’s taught it before. That sounds like a great idea. I can use that. When it’s time to reveal her little brother teammate, she’s surprised, she didn’t recognize the voice at all. I guess it’s because the kitchen is noisy with four pairs of people shouting. They do not usually cook together. Curtis says their plates look exactly alike except the fish is cut slightly differently. He says he can’t tell which one he likes better, but he appreciates the acidity and the “vivaciousness” of the asparagus. I never thought of asparagus as vivacious. Traci gives Mitch credit for knowing her brain. Curtis says the dishes could have come out of the same kitchen, and Traci wins. She gets $5000 for La Cucina.

Naomi is unknowingly working with her father, Toby. This is pure gold. She’s yelling at him all the way. She interviews, “I don’t know what’s going on with this guy, he’s a quiet talker. I find myself getting irritated.” She screams at him. Part of it is that he can’t hear her, but part is just that she’s annoyed and wants him to do it right. She tells him to crack an egg into boiling water (to poach), and she interviews, “Most people can crack an egg. I’m not getting disqualified because he can’t crack an egg.” He doesn’t know what a shallot is, and she’s stunned. He tells her the egg is a little runny, and she tells him it should be. All along she’s calling him “Dude,” as in “Dude, we have to plate.” The other chefs are all hearing this. Floyd interviews, “the more Naomi screamed, the less I wanted to do the same to my guest.” Traci interviews, “She’s been yelling at her dad the whole day.” When his identity is revealed to Naomi, she’s surprised of course, but he says she talked to him like she always does, she was like that at breakfast time, so she runs the kitchen now. And Traci says, “Yeah, and we know how.” This is hilarious. But in Naomi’s defense, she wasn’t vicious or nasty, she didn’t even seem angry, she was just frustrated trying to get something done, and I think a lot of it really was just a problem hearing across the divider. But it was really funny that she has this reputation of being bossy and pushy and it came home to roost here. She makes a fricassee of mushrooms, bacon, and shallots with a poached egg. Curtis says they look identical and the eggs are cooked just right. The seasonings are a little different but the flavors are very similar. She comes in second.

Floyd is teamed with his sister, Debra Furtado. He thinks she’s got “a slight Indian accent” so, he says, “they got me an indian woman who’s going to make my life hard.” At least I think that’s what he said. I’m surprised he didn’t get an inkling of what was up. He makes a shrimp, mushroom, and asparagus stir fry. When he finds out who his partner is, he says he could’ve done something more “aggressive” because she’s a bad-ass cook (I think that’s what he said. I’m having trouble hearing, too). Thing is, his sister doesn’t cut the asparagus, so it’s sticking up from the bowl. Curtis points out her asparagus looks like it’s been growing for four months so the dishes don’t look similar. He loves the crunch of the asparagus and the depth from the mushrooms, but the difference in appearance puts them in the bottom two.

Mary Sue works with her sister, Chris DeWitt. They make spinach salad with shredded chicken and avocado. When her sister, who is from Omaha, is revealed, Mary Sue says she came a long way just to make a chicken salad. Come on, it isn’t all that far. Curtis says the avocado is very different on one dish, they’re both messy dishes, and he wishes they would’ve done something a little more difficult. They’re also one of his least favorite dishes.

Elimination Challenge: since the Quickfire was awesome, the Elimination Challenge has to be awful. It’s the obligatory Support Our Troops show, which means two things: it’s rife with sentimentality, and short on cooking. It’s going to be an off-site buffet which means reheated mediocre food at best. And it’s food for “the masses” meaning stuff I can make. I’m sorry to be a curmudgeon about this, but if they want to support the troops, they should vote for increasing funding for the VA, vote to bring troops home, and donate to veteran’s-related organizations at least for this show. Otherwise it’s all for show. Some of it makes a pretty good show, I have to admit, but I’m tired of “let’s drag out the firefighters and army guys and be really soulful.” I’d rather see really good cooking. Why not, make an extraordinary meal for these families, instead of catering to a hundred people in an American Legion hall? It’s cheap schlock.

Ok, I’m done ranting.

The chefs draw knives and each gets a branch of the service: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force. I guess the Coast Guard doesn’t count.

They are to team up with the family member of a returning serviceman (they keep saying “men and women of the armed forces” but they’re all men, so come on, it’s ok, you can say servicemen when you’re dealing with service men; I won’t even complain that you couldn’t find one returning service woman to put on). They are to plan a meal – an entrée, two sides, and a dessert – for the serviceman based on his favorite dishes, and they’ll serve it buffet style to 100 people at the aforementioned American Legion hall, which is as depressing a place as has ever been. Couldn’t they have rented a hotel ballroom and put up a bunch of flags there? Or was the American Legion really proprietary about it? That could be it. I just think it would’ve been nice to have made the setting a little more pleasant.

Oh, dear, I’m ranting again.

The critics for this episode are James Osleland, Ruth Reichl, and Danyelle Freeman. The Grocery Store Relay Race is not shown on this episode; we don’t know how much they get to spend. I hope it’s a lot. They get four hours to prep and cook in the kitchen, then go to the American Legion hall where they have an hour to set up and finish.

Mary Sue will be cooking for Marine corporal Marlon, and she talks to his brother. It’s actually an interesting story (yeah, I know, in spite of myself). Marlon and his family are from Guatemala and Marlon became a naturalized US citizen while he was serving in Iraq. Mary Sue loves the challenge. She’s in her element. Marlon’s brother says he likes spice, chili, and barbecued ribs. Mary Sue feels comfortable with the flavors (as well she should, boy did she luck out) and feels he is easy to please. Mary Sue makes ribs with spicy tomatillo bbq sauce, avocado corn relish, potato and rajas (sautéed chilis), and apple and cream cheese bread pudding with crema. Marlon is very happy with his meal. James asks him how it stacks up against Mom’s cooking, and he wisely says, “No comment.”

Naomi gives the military history of her family. Seems like everyone’s been in the service except her. She’s cooking for Bruce, a Captain in the Air Force who’s been in Afghanistan. He delayed his retirement from the service to do another tour. Ok, that’s impressive. He’s originally from Hawaii so he loves pork and comfort food and he wrote his kids that it was hard to get good seafood in Afghanistan. At the actual banquet, he says the bread he had there was some of the best he’d ever had, but the rest was meh and it was the same food over and over. Naomi makes glazed pork, shrimp fried rice served chilled (it’s also called shrimp rice salad), poke salad with raw tuna, and panna cotta with caramelized pineapple. She interviews that while she likes a relaxed atmosphere so doesn’t usually wear a chef’s jacket, she did so this time to honor the servicemen. Ruth asks Colonel Bruce about the food in Afghanistan, and here we learn the bread was really great. What he missed the most, and he hedges a little before saying it, is Spam. They really like the food, though. Ruth isn’t sure about the fried rice, and someone at the table says it’s different. Someone at another table isn’t sure about the poke: “We cook our food” which, while I agree with the sentiment, is kind of a snotty thing to say.

Traci meets with the wife of Navy submariner Philip, who likes really simple American comfort food. Meat loaf. Mashed potatoes. Peach cobbler. Tracy interviews, in dismay, that she didn’t grow up with food like that, and she can make fancy French dishes easier than she can make a meat loaf. Philip has been away for months and has returned to learn he is about to be a father for the second time. I’m assuming he wasn’t away for THAT long. I mean, that could’ve gotten messy right there. Traci makes what she calls a French version of meat loaf, more like a terrine, plus a Caesar salad, mashed potatoes, and peach cobbler. Curtis is hosting at submariner Philip’s table. He asks, “How is it being back from Afghanistan?” You know, just once, I wish someone would respond to this idiotic question (equivalent to, “How does it feel to be 10 years old” or “How do you like being married?”) with something different: “Damn, I miss sleeping on a cot in a tent with twenty other guys in desert temperatures and eating goat from questionable sources and constantly checking for snipers and mines and incoming mortars and planes dropping bombs. Yeah, I wish I was there right now, because this being home with my family and having professionally cooked food really sucks.” He likes the meatloaf. One of the guys is looking for ketchup because in the military you need ketchup on meatloaf. I think they were making a joke.

Floyd is worried because he hasn’t done a buffet in a long time. He’ll be cooking for Army captain Eric who just got home from Afghanistan. The wife tells him Eric has simple tastes; “Is American a cuisine?” He’s not a fan of spice, so Floyd rules out peppers, mustard, wasabi, and horseradish. Eric likes clam chowder and spinach salad. I don’t think I’ve ever known a man who would list spinach salad as one of his big likes. Floyd is positive he wants to make something for Eric, not the judges. Floyd became a US citizen fifteen years ago, so he’s very happy to do something here to honor servicemen. He makes a roast tenderloin with mushroom jus, spinach salad with walnuts and pomegranates, garlic smashed red potatoes with bacon, and clam chowder. And a tamarind marguerita. I don’t know what counts as dessert. Maybe I got that wrong. Eric and his family love it all; Eric is crazy about the steak. After service, Eric gives Floyd a coin; it’s a military tradition to trade coins when you feel gratitude. It’s a specialized coin, like a big token. Floyd is verklempt, or whatever the Indian version of verklempt is. As anti-sentimentality as I am, I have to admit it was quite a nice moment. I was also thinking, Floyd is toast. In fact, I put it in my notes: “Floyd is toast.”

The winner is announced at the banquet: Mary Sue. Her meal certainly sounded like the best, and she was the closest to her comfort zone. Didn’t someone a few episodes back say something like Mary Sue didn’t have the cooking skills needed to prevail here? Either that person was being a blowhard, or her cooking skills are just fine. Or down-home cooking is the new black.

All the military families get passes to Universal Studios. What??? That’s pretty cheesy. Though I suppose they got nice hotel accommodations for a couple of days at least. It just seems like an awfully paltry gift.

Critics table:

Since Mary Sue already won, they’re debating which of the remaining three to send home.

Ruth loved Naomi‘s poke and iceberg wedge, but many of her shrimp were undercooked. Naomi later comments that if shrimp are curled and hard, they’re overcooked, so she doesn’t agree. I think there’s some room between undercooked and curled and hard. But what do I know. Ruth has eaten a few shrimp in her time. They also think Naomi was all over the place, conceptually – as in, what was the panna cotta doing there?

Traci: Curtis says they enjoyed the dish. Ruth says the family was very happy with mashed potatoes. James asks Traci if she uses some unusual salt, because his meat loaf was salty. She’s surprised to hear that.

Floyd: Danyelle says Eric loved it. Still, she wonders why he didn’t do more with meat; it was well coooked but didn’t do much. Floyd says the wife was specific, that Eric wanted plain food and he cooked to please Eric. This is why I hate these challenges. And why Danyelle is the Sarah Palin of the culinary world: she had to say something even if it was idiotic. James says “the riddle was the salad”, which had spinach, broccoli, walnuts, and pomegranate seeds. The riddle for me is, what’s wrong with that? Floyd defends himself by saying you can’t just put spinach on a plate, and he couldn’t do heat or spice, because he did want his guy wanted. Take that, critics. If you’re going to tell someone to cook to someone’s tastes, don’t blame them when they do so. Floyd shows them the coin Eric gave him and says he won. I’m really glad he had the last word.

The chefs go back to the W(h)ine room and the critics continue to display their lack of understanding of the challenge.

Curtis says Floyd should’ve taken a different piece of steak. That’s because Curtis doesn’t understand that to Middle America, filet mignon is the ultimate steak, even though chefs prefer rib eye or even sirloin because of its marbling. It doesn’t matter: give your average guy tenderloin, and he’ll feel well-treated. Ruth says he took exactly what Eric wanted and gave him better than expected. See? Now Ruth gets it, what’s wrong with the rest of you? James says, was it worthy of final round? James, honey, if you wanted fancy food, why didn’t you find a gourmet, or at least a gourmand, and ask Floyd to cook for him?

Curtis doesn’t think Naomi understood the challenge, which baffles me. Ruth says the family loved it. Danyelle says it was a puzzle, pannacotta with poke. Oh come on, it’s like poi except it’s less gluey. And she put pineapple on it. Curtis says Naomi is never safe. That’s supposed to be a good thing, right? Hey, if the family loved it, she did her job. I wonder, though: did anyone mention Spam?

Danyelle its torn about Traci‘s dish, she did exactly what he asked for, but she could’ve done something more. Yep, Sarah Palin right there. Curtis wanted to see something more than you could get in any home. Ruth says you wouldn’t get those potatoes in any home. James didn’t like saltiness of the meatloaf.

They bring the chefs back out for the Last Word:

Floyd: James says his sincerity is fabulous but the salad was bizarre. I think James needs to get out more. If he wants to see bizarre, I’ll show him bizarre.
Naomi: Ruth tells her the shrimp were indeed undercooked, and the dishes didn’t go together.
Traci: Danyelle says she served something safe.

Naomi is out which is a shock to me. Traci and Floyd are going to finale with Mary Sue. I’m very surprised.

Naomi interviews that she’s impressed with how Traci and Mary Sue have designed their lives to spend times with their families too. That’s kind of sweet. I don’t really see her doing that, though. I think she’s got a lot of chops and I’d like to see more of her.

Next week is the final. It looks like Susur Lee, Tom, and Gael Greene will be there. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. I’ve finally identified what I don’t like about food critics as judges: they say things that make them sound clever rather than that communicate about the food. Ruth Reichl seems to be an exception to this, but I may be biased. James, Danyelle, and Gael do it in spades. So does Nigella, for that matter: I’m still traumatized by her comment about panna cotta needing to quiver like the inner thigh of a seventeeth-century courtesan. I wish I’d been there (I don’t even remember what season it was). How does the inner thigh of a seventeenth-century courtesan differ from the inner thigh of an eighteenth-century courtesan? Or from the inner thigh of a twenty-buck Times Square whore? Or from that of a nun? And how much research has she done on thigh quivering, and just how has she determined exactly how much a seventeenth-century courtesan’s thigh quivers? Yeah, Nigella does it in spades.

Hmmm, I guess I’m ranting again, must be time to stop.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Kenneth Calhoun, “Nightblooming” from The Paris Review #189, Summer 2009

My dad didn’t talk much. In the time I knew him, he only said one religious thing. He said, You know why people like beats? Because they tell you what’s going to happen next. I’ve thought about that a lot. I think he was talking about patterns, about loops. And it’s true that once you hear a measure or two of the beat, you know what’s going to happen next and what to do when it happens. And the part that makes me think everything still has a chance – always had a chance – to work out is that you never know when the beat has completed a full cycle. This means everything in life that seems so random could actually be part of a beat. We just don’t know yet. The full measure hasn’t been played.

Hello, I am Zin!

I loved this story! It is sort of a reverse of the old man who feels young and invigorated by hanging out with children or young people – it is a young man who feels comfortable and at home hanging out with old people, and I like that switch. There is something wonderful on every page! And the best news is, you can read it online! Or listen to it being read! [no, you cannot, I am sorry but this link does not work any more, the website is gone! That is too bad! It was nice while it lasted] I remember Kenneth Calhoun from his weird (in a good way) story “Then” in Tin House and I am happy to read more by him, I think I will keep an eye out for him!

Tristan is a 22-year-old drummer who gets a gig playing with the Nightblooming Jazzmen (cute!) and becomes Stanley complete with handlebar mustache. “It was just as good a gig as any. Better in some ways because there’s nowhere to hide in this kind of sound.” I can sympathize! I love what used to be called “parlor songs” and they are very old fashioned. And of course folk music which no one likes any more!

Tristan/Stanley seems out of sync with the world – “You can’t tell people about your loneliness without adding to it” – and he remembers his father, who was a welder who played drums and seems to have lived a rather poor life. He seems to feel more comfy with these elderly people: he thinks the bar kit is great, he likes the brushes on the cymbals (“I do all the stuff I never get to do – that no one plays anymore. Stuff I learned from my dad.”), he is charmed by the dance custom of “cutting in” which is completely unknown to him, and he finds he likes old-fashioned box step dancing with an old woman rubbing his back, not a sexual thing at all. Then he pushes her on a tire swing – I was so worried the rope would break or she would fall or whatever but it was fine – and it is as if they are both children again. All the while the older people are recalling their youth, while Tristan/Stanley is living his youth, and he will remember this one day. I felt an element that the present is not much fun until it is remembered as the past. Then it becomes nostalgic. “Why couldn’t I have met them a long time ago, and played their music and eaten their cheese and crackers and drank their gin? But they didn’t exist a long time ago, I know. Not as they are now.”

The ending is sad, as Stanley again becomes Tristan and is distanced from these people. It really works, and it is heartbreaking.

The heart of the piece is the idea of the beat. I do not know how this works for people who are not familiar with music, but it really resonated with me! The quote above gave me goosebumps! It is like pi, mathematicians are still looking for pi to turn into a rational number* by going through millions of digits and they still think they will eventually find a pattern! And all this is religion! And I heard it somewhere else, in a simpler Hallmark form: “Everything will be ok in the end. If it is not ok, then it is not the end!” Kenneth Calhoun expressed it in a much more artistic way and I am very glad I read this story!

*Addendum: I have been told that pi has been mathematically proven to be irrational and the digits will never repeat. I am dealing with my disappointment! But the principle remains. I just need a better example!

The Next Food Network Star 2011: Episode 1

Hello, I am Zin! I will be your guide for The Next Food Network Star if I can last the course. This first episode was very painful. There are some really nasty people on this show! I do not understand nastiness, or lying, or tripping people up, it was painful for me to watch, why do they not just cook and do their camera appearances and let the best one win, why do some of them have to drag others down so they can get by? Do they not realize in the end the Food Network is not going to put the back end of a horse on TV? I am not going to do recaps like the Top Chef ones, that would be too long, this is a two hour show! But today I will give a brief overview of what the competition involved, introduce all the contestants and let you know what they did on the show. I have looked at The Next Food Network Star website for bios (I have not viewed videos since they are hard to play on my computer), as well as a very funny site, Food Network Humor, which I will quote because it is quite hilarious, if mean! Some day I have to think about why it is ok to be mean to reality show contestants on blogs, but not in the competition.

Susie Fogelson and Bob Tushman are there, of course, as well as Bobby Flay and Giada DiLaurentis. Because there is a contestant named Susie, I am afraid we will have to refer to Susie by another name. I pick Foge. You can invent your own pronunciation. Bob and Bobby are ok to tell apart. And Giada, well, we all know about her. Bob still claims her as his discovery. I think that is sad.

I will not do the blow-by-blow we have done for Top Chef because it is a long show! It is two hours long! So I will describe the challenges and then discuss each contestant (fifteen!) in turn, how they did, and maybe what I think of them.

The first challenge, the “camera challenge” as they call it, required them to make breakfast that is “who you are on a plate.” Then they do a 45 second promo to camera explaining the dish.

The second challenge is more complicated. In groups of three they go with Alton Brown (my hero, although he is kind of nasty here) to tape promos, so the idea is they will work together so they pass along to the next person in one block. The thing is they can only do four takes so if the first person screws up three times, the other people only get one take! And of course that is exactly what they want, because Alton calls cut some times when he did not really have to, because a fish is not held high enough or there are too many props – he gives the first people much more time to work out their kinks which seems unfair. Then in those groups of three they have to make a four-course tasting menu, each person has one course and there is an additional group course, and they serve it to media people. I did not quite catch who the media people are – InStyle and Entertainment Weekly, and Mario Lopez who seems to be famous.

Chris Nirschel, the first contestant we meet, says he went to the French Culinary Institute, alma mater to Bobby Flay, and has god given talent. His TNFNS bio says he is at 28 a culinary bad boy and does not use recipes. The FNH site quotes his video: “People like to be around me. People work harder when they’re around me because they want to impress me.” That makes me laugh. He does not look or act like someone I would care about impressing. FNH: “But sorry, pal. The ‘douche with overinflated ego’ position has already been filled tenfold on the Food Network.” (I told you it was a funny site) I do not think he lived up to that introduction, he was not mean. In the breakfast challenge, he tried to make a frittata with seared chicken, he says he cooks chicken every day, no problem. But there is a problem, of course! His chicken is pink! So he serves a frittata with a roasted tomato. He is upset. He gives a weird presentation about how he loves frittatas, start every meal with a frittata, it is versatile, he likes to be versatile. The feedback is, he was so upset about his chicken, he blew the presentation, so he needs to get over himself and be more of an adult. In the second challenge, he works with Katy and Susie, and he does a very strange “Whas-up-whas-up-whas-up” lead in that does not fit, and calls his show Pressure Cooker and talks like a pressure cooker, it is not very inviting. On his first take he says something about throwing the ball, and throws a ball at Alton. Alton tells him, “You lose automatically for hitting me with a football” which is funny. And appropriate! When they go shopping for ingredients for dinner, he wants to buy a sixpack of beer (for drinking, not cooking) and is angry that Suzie and Katy will not let him, that Katy wants to buy more expensive chocolate for her dish instead. He was going to share it with the boys, so I think his thing about people working harder around him might be true – they work harder to make up for him drinking beer and cooking drunk! In the group cook he makes steak with chimichurri sauce and is worried because Susie has made a red pepper chipotle sauce, Chris thinks it is too spicy and does not want to serve it but she insists, and it turns out it is the best part of the dish, so I think he must have a very bland palate. His cooking is meh. His camera skills are meh. But he is safe. He could be like Tom who was pretty meh for a while last year. Or he could just be too young to get serious.

Jyll Everman says she is a performer first and a chef second, uh oh. That sounds right for The Food Network! On her TNFNS bio: 31 years old and makes comfort food, teaches monthly classes. Seems she is a caterer as well. FNHumor: “All you need to know about this woman is that she spells her name JYLL. And she owns a catering company called JYLLICIOUS COOKING… she seems to have all the lame qualities the Food Network wants in their tv-ready hosts: an annoying laugh, cheesy stories about her family’s accent, and a cutsey cooking concept that will be able to sell a lot of useless shit to idiotic consumers.” I love Food Network Humor. I have bookmarked their site to go there daily. And it is true, I did not catch what her breakfast dish was, but they said she had a great way of talking! But Jyll has an interesting role on this episode as Victim. For the triple promo, Howie declares she will go last, and since she is a team player, she agrees. I think Howie knows exactly what he is doing because he is a radio guy who blows three of the four takes. So Jill only gets one take. She tries to explain this later but he is oblivious. For her take she wants the teleprompter; Alton keeps telling her no, it is not a good idea because she will not be looking at the camera, but she insists so he gives it to her and she indeed does not look at the camera. For the second challenge, she does not finish her dish because she is acting as Howie’s assistant, which is foolish of her, and then she knocks into Vic and his calamari goes all over the floor. She had a really really bad day, but mostly because she is being a helpful woman and she was zeroed in on by a sly predator (Howie, who I will discuss at length later). She is safe, but just barely, her team loses and she is third from last. She has learned a lesson, her dish will come first from now on. I agree with FNH that she is everything FN wants (cute name, merchandising experience), minus the excitement.

Penny Davidi shows up in very high heeled leopard platform sandals. She says, “I know how to market myself.” Immediately I think she has been marketing herself on a street corner somewhere for a long time. TNFNS Bio: 39, from LA,. mother of two teenagers. FNH: “A private chef and shopping instructor (whatever the hell that is) , with an unhealthy love of wifebeater tank tops… She also loves exposing her cleavage whilst leaning over pots of sauteing garlic.” Penny takes an immediate dislike – hatred, even – to Alicia, apparently because Alicia is “this skinny waif and I’m a voluptuous Middle Eastern woman.” I am not sure what a Middle Eastern woman is. I found elsewhere on the Internet that she is “Iranian-American of Jewish ancestry.” That sounds pretty complicated so I will give her some leeway. But she is so mean! She jumps all over Alicia from the beginning for no reason that is clear, other than Alicia’s thinness and waifness. It is quite possible Alicia said something to bring it on (she does seem a little annoying, but everyone here does), but we do not see it. When they are planning the promos, Penny shoots down everything Alicia says with a buzzer sound, which is awful. In every interview cutaway, she bashes Alicia. When Alicia suggests poached pears as a group dish, Penny sneers about it being old people food and then lets the pears boil though she has been told to keep them low. It is like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick! For her breakfast dish she makes French toast challah with dried fruit marmalade, grilled steak, and a honey yogurt drizzle, which sounds terrific and the judges like it a lot, so why does she need to attack? Can she really believe The Food Network will make her a star when she has been so incredibly mean? Her promo is “Stilettos in the kitchen, bring Sexy back, making dishes more sexy.” She tries to turn away from the camera and look back over her shoulder in what she thinks is a sexy pose but it looks like she has somewhere to go, it is not sexy, and Alton tells her to cut it out. While they are discussing her sexiness, there is a chocolate covered banana sign in the shot, and it is a hilarious visual, I do not believe it was accidental. To the judges she explains fennel is a very sexy vegetable, just the shape of it. I have never thought of fennel as sexy, but when I mentioned this to my friend Marko Fong, he said, “I think there’s a famous picture of Marilyn Monroe in a set of fennel pajamas.” [Digression: Marko is a terrific writer I know from the Zoetrope online writing workshop; one of his stories, “My Father’s Paradox” is on my Online Fiction Etc. To Read And Love page! I could put more of his stories there (“Tears for the River God” or “The Amnesia Academy” for example) but there is a rule that an author can only appear once on that page! He also writes very funny things on Zoetrope about gruel. And now fennel! End digression] “So we have sensuality, sexuality, intimacy, romance.” Does she need to get laid or what? One of the media guys tells her to lose the sexy thing. YAY! And she backtracks and suddenly she is cooking in stilettos with her children and it is all very wholesome. It is amazing how fast she did that turn around. She left streaks on the floor! Foge thinks she is “an empowered woman.” I do not know how bad taste became empowered. I think she is mean, and I do not think she needs to be mean or to pop her boobs out of her tight knit top because she made a good dish! Maybe she will be a redemption story! I do not think so, in the coming attractions someone says, “Penny is coming for you.” She is my second least favorite right now. I do not like her at all. I am sorry.

Alicia Sanchez introduces herself by saying she was a model and then she went to culinary school. Maybe that is why Penny hates her? TNFNS bio: 33, from NY, culinary school, owns a bakery, teaches class for young adults. FNH: “She also has one of the most annoying voices in the history of voices.” I do not really hear it, but everyone comments on it, the Valley Girl accent, though she is from Missouri. She makes fried crepe with guanchile filling for breakfast. She is running around saying “Never leave a crepe never leave a crepe” though she has obviously left her crepe but it is ok. Then she goes, “Can somebody help me?” which sounds pathetic. They criticize her accent severely. I just hear giggly nervous girl. For the triple promo, she is first, and her first take she speaks so softly we can not hear her! Alton cuts and tells her to project and she starts to cry and tell him about her accent (“I have to talk low and slow” like she is barbecuing her words) and Missouri and Valley Girl and apparently she takes 20 minutes to do all this. Ok, I agree, she is annoying, but Penny hated her before she knew anything other than she was skinny. Her promo is “Summer has never been hotter” and “Guilty pleasures.” She only wastes that one take. At judging, Alton loves the balsamic glazed rib she made and says “If she cooks like this she can cry all she wants” and it is nice to know that someone still thinks of cooking as the most important thing (Bobby does too, I have to give him that, he has been the culinary standard bearer for several years now). Bob says the process is difficult but she has to find her confidence. Her group is second to last but she is safe. She could go either way, with her cooking skills if she can stop crying and speak up she might work. But I do not think so, I think she will be out pretty soon.

Whitney Chen tells us she quit her job as an engineer and went to culinary school. TNFNS bio: 28, from NY. FNH: “…she seems nice and non-offensive. I’m already predicting she’ll be around until at least the final 3.” I am not so sure. Nice does not really cut it. She reminds me so much of someone but I can not remember who! Low hairline, very pretty, distinctive looking. For breakfast she makes eggs benedict with hollandaise. I did not catch comments on her tape or dish. While taping the promo, she tells Justin, her teammate, to smile, and Alton tells her not to direct him; she recoils. Because Justin screws up three times, Whitney only gets one take, and it is pretty good, something about fresh fun four star meal. For the tasting menu she makes a carrot salad and says she used a lot of techniques; I think they cut her off there and edited out her explanation of what techniques she used because you would not want to actually convey information on the Food Network, especially if it is more complicated than sauteing onions. The judges love the look and taste of her carrot salad. Foge says she looked good on camera and organizes her thoughts well. I think she is too boring for them. But I agree with FNH, she will be around a while.

Justin Davis calls himself a Food blogger. Hey! Am I a food blogger? No! I do not know if food blogging is his job or if he just does it. He loves all food. He names some ethnic cuisines. TNFNS bio: 31, from Minneapolis, a stay-at-home-dad who does rustic cooking, with no recipes. FNH: “Blogger, father, boring. Monotone voice. Dull. Will have nothing to talk about after his 3 stories have been told. And he “hates other peoples food” because he “loves his food” so much.” Maybe that is why he said he loves all food, to counteract that? I think the stay-at-home-dad thing is Food Network gold. But then he does his promo about date night! I smell a change of POV coming! I did not get what he did for breakfast or what he cooked with Alicia and Penny, they stole the show! In the promo, he is behind the butcher counter with a tomato and Alton asks why; he does not know. The judges later ask why, he still does not know. I do not think Justin D is long for this. Unless he pulls out the stay-at-home-dad card.

Juba Kali is here because a lot of people told him he would be good on tv. TNFNS bio: 29, From New Orleans. He is a research chef at a spice company, which sounds like an interesting job, and a new father, which is probably more interesting to TFN than to me. FNH says he looks like a young Barack Obama. Which means he is black and thin with a long face, I guess, because he does not look like Barack Obama to me. But I have trouble recognizing people, I can not tell half the contestants apart, like Jyll and Alicia or most of the guys. For breakfast Juba makes ribs and eggs with maque chou, which he pronounces “mach chow” instead of “mach chew.” I am not sure if this was part of his stumbling speech or if it is just the way he assumes it is pronounced (in which case, he is wrong!). His camera squib is incoherent. But his food is great. For the promo, he does the final leg of the triple, and he is again incoherent, talking about simple complex. I do not know if he has a problem with language or if he has a problem with stage fright. He seems to speak ok when talking to people one on one, but still he can not explain his concept, which seems to be what FNH calls “the black Alton Brown,” with lots of science. In the end he does something about senses and heart and science and cuisine made simply. Or simple. I do not think he knows which he wants, he just wants to stop talking, and I do too! So much for the Barack Obama comparisons. When they are shopping he buys lecithin and agar so I am thinking molecular gastronomy but his dish seems a pretty standard shrimp roll. At judging he jumps in and tries to explain the group dish, which was que lime pie (they could not find key limes so made it with regular limes and used que as spanish “what” and because of the mexican flavors in the pie, which is pretty clever, but he could not explain it at all). At the final lineup his team wins, and he gets a special mention for best dish though his on camera performance is awful. It is not just on camera, he could not explain to the chefs. It still could be nerves. But I am afraid he just is not a language person. At least not a speaker (I can not speak at all but I can write). I am very sad because he is such a good cook and I like the science angle but I do not see him pulling it off. I think it goes deeper than nerves.

Katy Clark tells us right off the bat she has lots of POVs and is not sure which to go with. Uh oh. This is not good. This is not good at all. This is send-her-home-right-away territory. Pick one, Katy, and if they do not like it, pick another, but pick one. Fast. TNFNS bio: 34, from CA, runs food and fitness company, mother of three. FNH: “… it’s clear she’s going to be one of the most annoying chefs to appear on NFNS in years. She’s a soccer mom and a “life coach” (insert eye roll here), and she’s one of those hyperactive obnoxious energetic people who jumps around talking 900 million miles per hour because she can’t sit still. Also, she goes by “FIT CHEF KATY”. Um, I think she is going to be a big hit based on this. Except there is still that multiple POVs thing…she is just blessed with so much to say, I guess. For breakfast she makes steak, eggs, and toast with Hollandaise for French flair. Bobby asks if France is her POV, she says no, it is every day food but all dressed up, she is a life coach and that is her passion, and children, and she has other POVs… and Tush says she has too many POVs. No kidding. I think they liked her food. They did not hate it at least. For the triple promo, when they get props, she of course gets all kinds of things: shoes, pepper grinder, weights, a whole basket of stuff. Then she knocks something off the counter by jumping over it. Something milky. And she sits like she just had hemorrhoid surgery, on one cheek. She twirls a pan and says there are two sides to every recipe. Alton tells her to get rid of some props. “This food star stuff is not easy,” she says. For the tasting menu she makes all-grown-up smores which are very good. The judges think Katy seemed force, Giada wants to see if she gets comfy with who she is and what she wants to do. I think she is very comfy with the many whos she is and the many things she wants to do. Bob thinks she has attractive energy but she is all over the place and needs to focus. I am not sure she will be able to do this, it is very hard if you are a scatterbrain to do one thing because you do many things to distract yourself from something. She does not need to distract herself from her food, her cooking is good.

Orchid Paulmeier TNFNS bio: 38, from South Carolina, mother of three, barbecue specialist. My first thought is, another Southern-Asian fusion woman? What is this, Debbie the Liar Part II? I wonder if she will get caught lying. At first I was thinking she was Hawaiian, partly because of her name and partly because she looks only part Asian, but it turns out she is Filipina. FNH: A BBQ restaurant owner from South Carolina. All I can say about her is that “real chefs” will cringe at how she holds her knife.” I have never understood the whole knife-holding mantra. I put my finger on top of the blade too, how else can you push down on it? But it seems people who are taught correctly do not do this. For breakfast she makes something with masa, a tortilla and sriracha. She wins this challenge. Giada says she is warm and charismatic and the camera loves her. I don’t really get it, but she’s fine. They love her food. She does fine in the triple promo, and makes pork skewers over rice vinegar slaw which is great. She wins the second challenge, too. I think she is the Chosen One. If she doesn’t turn into a Lying Liar who Lies, she has a great shot. But of course they loved Aria at the beginning of last season, until they changed her POV and had her not knowing what she was supposed to be doing. I do not think that will happen with Orchid, she has a POV. I do not see the amazing and wonderful camera presence and warmth they keep yammering about.

Justin Balmes (the Justin with earrings) tells us he is a fishmonger, butcher, and cook. His biggest challenge? “I’m a perfectionist and I won’t be perfect right away.” Aww. TNFNS bio: 32, from GA. Cyclist. Restaurant experience to exec. FNH: This guy is a high school dropout who currently earns a living working in the fish department at Whole Foods. In his interview video, he said: “some would say I’m funny and easy on the eyes. Just saying.” I lost his breakfast. I have no idea what he made or said. Sorry! Too many Justins! For the triple promo, he chooses to pick up a fish, and talk about getting to know this porgy. Alton cuts, tells him to hold it higher so it will be in the shot. I do not know if this is a real fish or a plastic one. He gets indignant when Whitney tells him to smile: “Whitney is trying to pull Alpha on this challenge.” He is right (Alton tells her to stop) but it seems unnecessarily snide. He messes up all four times, his last take has a long freeze in it. For the meal he makes a Zinfandel braised lamb shank (everyone thinks my name is short for Zinfandel but it is not, it has nothing to do with Zinfandel!) which is very good so they are happy he can cook. He says he could do better with his promo. They want to know who Justin is. I do not. I think it is impressive he can butcher and fillet and cook if he really can do those things.

Susie Jimenez introduces herself as owner of a catering business and private chef in Aspen. TNFNS bio: 31, from Aspen, her Mexican parents were fruit pickers. FNH: “According to her audition tape, she earns a living “working for a guy, cooking for him, chauffeuring for him, and housekeeping.” Sounds… lucrative.” I do not know where her catering business fits in with all this. For breakfast she makes egg crepes stuffed with chicken with mushroom sauce, and talks on tape about how it is a good plate-your-own brunch dish, do not forget the mimosas! Then she interviews, “Just because I’m Mexican everyone thinks I’m going to cook Mexican food but I can do many things.” This sounds like a fine attitude, unless you have seen TNFNS before. Giada gets very upset. She asks what her background is. I thought she meant cooking background, but Susie says she is Mexican. “How does this dish represent you?” asks Giada, because if you are Mexican you must cook Mexican food and only Mexican food. Susie, bless her, she says she likes making other things. BobTush says no, go Mexican, and Foge says she is running from what makes her herself or some such thing. Here is where I get pissed off. To me it is pretty prejudiced to declare that a FN star who is Mexican must cook Mexican food. But Susie wants her show, so she says her comfort zone is masa and tortillas and she will cook Mexican. Oh, Susie! What have they done to you? For the triple promo, she grabs a guitar, maybe the most Mexican thing she can find. She does not know how to hold a guitar, as she shows by first pointing it one way and then another for a better camera angle. She strums random awful sounds which makes Alton wince, and starts shouting “What are you doing tonight, it is easy to incorporate Latin flavors!” Alton stops her, tells her to ditch the guitar, and, she interviews, a light bulb goes off. Another one, apparently, besides the one that she had to cook Mexican food. She is a bit more contained on her next takes. For the dinner, she makes ceviche (of course). She gets a lot of praise for her triple promo – she is very attractive being herself. Giada is happy with the ceviche and says she can be strong when she draws upon what she grew up with. She was the most natural and relaxed of the group. I do not think so. I do not think she is attractive at all, I think she is a toad who would cook puppies if they told her to. But that is probably harsh. There is a word I am thinking of but I can not find it! Not a toad – someone who will do anything to get their show. Oh. A whore. Yes, that is the word. I can not call a perfectly nice lady a whore, though. Toad will have to do. Even that is not fair. I just wish she had stood up for herself and said, “I do Aspen brunch and I love it and you can go to your racist hell.” But she is doing what they want and that will do well for her.

Jeff Mauro is a comedian, and plans a show about sandwiches. He makes hundreds of sandwiches a day as a corporate chef. Sandwiches? You can do a cooking show about sandwiches? It sounds weird at first, but I am thinking now it might be cool. There are hot sandwiches that are more like meals than lunches. And breakfast sandwiches. And the famous New England sandwich – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce – which is Thanksgiving dinner on bread! TNFNS bio: 32, from LA. FNH: “A chef for a mortgage company. The good news is he seems to know a lot about food. The bad news is that his video was as interesting as watching paint dry.” Mortgage companies have corporate chefs? For breakfast he makes a steak and egg sandwich with chipotle dressing. I do not know what the reaction was to his dish or his video. When he does the triple promo with Orchid, he mispronounces her name the first time. In the store he can not find brioche so he gets chiapatta bread, knowing it is dry and might not work. And it does not, they let him have it, his sandwich with marmalade is good except for the bread and a Sandwich King can not make mistakes with bread, he is only a Sandwich Prince! How clever. But his team won so how bad could it have been?

Mary Beth Albright tells us she is a lawyer turned food critic. Just like Jeffrey Steingarten! She says if Ina Garten and Alton Brown had a love child it would be her. I do not want to think about Ina Garten and Alton Brown making a love child. Or any child. TNFNS bio: 38, from DC. FNH: “She’s from DC, where she is a ‘food writer’ and ‘food critic’ – which means she’s probably going to be really annoying to watch and listen to (come on, aren’t all food critics annoying to watch and listen to?!).” She is very intelligent and reasonable looking, which is not really what TFN likes, I do not think. For breakfast she makes chicken hash and carrots and calls it “food so good you gotta sit down.” I do not know what that means but I think it is a slogan. When they are talking to the whole crew after the breakfast challenge, she is singled out: there is hope but she needs to step it up. I do not know why they tell her that, maybe it is a good sign, she was close to being really good? She is upset at being called mediocre because of a quote by John Steinbeck she used in her high school yearbook: “Only mediocrity escapes criticism.” That is a good quote for writing, too! When they film the triple promo, she does four takes perfectly! I am impressed! But the judges are not, Bob says she is “confident, clear, and concise, which is different from being interesting.” Oh. Yes, that sounds like TFN. Bring on Guy Fieri! They say they are seeing a food writer, not a food STAR! People do not want to see a star with information and a rational, intelligent manner, they want to see a freak show with cool stories about children! This is why I hate TFN. Except for Alton Brown and if he keeps doing this cranky old man routine on TNFNS I am not going to like him much more. Her creamy caramelized onion soup with hand-torn croutons got mixed reviews, but Giada liked it.

Vic Moea, who likes to be called Vic Vegas, enters; his Italian.mother taught him how to roll a meatball before he rode a bicycle. TNFNS bio: 35, lives in Vegas, grew up in Brooklyn, has restaurant experience. FNH: “One word: DOUCHEBAGGGGGG. Or is that two words? He apparently has a restaurant in Vegas, and his mission in life is to “beat everybody.” Yeah, let us know how that works out for you, bro.” (note: comments on the blog say the tape actually says “feed everybody” which is a totally different thing. I have not heard the tape but I am not sure “beat everybody” in this context is that bad a thing, it is the same thing as win. But “feed everybody” is much nicer). For breakfast he wants to do glitz and glam: country fried lobster slider. He wants to make a great first impression by setting the bar high. But he loses his lobster! How can you lose lobster tails? He serves what looks like a piece of bun with some gravy. His intro video says he made garlic country gravy and next week he will make lasagna stuffed meatballs, better known as ballsagna. Oh, no, another Ball man! We just got rid of Saucy Balls! What is it with Italian men and Balls? He goes into something about how great it would have been but Bobby points out the lobster did not show up and he will be penalized for that. But after he leaves Bobby says he likes him, and Giada finds him warm. He has tattoos all over his arms, a shaved head, and he is warm? Giada needs to get out more. Then again she is Italian.

Howie Drummond I have left for last because he is The Devil. At least I think so. Evil personified. He says he is a radio personality, they pay him for this already, but cooking is not his greatest strength, and I wonder what he is doing there. I know they are big on personality but they do expect people to cook! TNFNS bio: 40, from CO, has done restaurant work (he has?), won a radio show. FNH: “He’s a morning radio DJ from Colorado, so he’s used to running his mouth and telling corny jokes. He seems like a nice enough guy.” No, he is not! He is the Devil! But I said that already. I found out on the internet that he cooked at Bennington’s which is not haute cuisine but is cooking, and he has a public access cable cooking show, so what is this that cooking is not his strength? Is he trying to reduce expectations? For breakfast he makes basic French toast which is a basic dish and basically wants to get into the kitchen. He says Basic seven or eight times in his 45 seconds. He calls himself “a bit of a novice” so Bobby says, why would people watch him? I agree! In the triple promo he messes up two takes (he is going to throw a bash) and then delivers the third one, and I think he did it on purpose to screw up his teammates but maybe not. I would not think about it if he did not continue on in the cooking part being devious and sneaky. He keeps asking Jyll for stuff – salt and pepper, oil his pans (and she does it, boy is she stupid), how is my reduction, where is the ice and she has to find it for him, she washes out a bowl for him, he keeps nagging at her until she stops what she is doing and takes care of him. He makes lemon gnocchi and it is pretty terrible. Giada says it is not gnocchi. One of the media guys says it is like lemon glue. When they only plate his dish and the group dish, he gets very indignant that Jyll thinks she did a lot of work for him because it was only 15 seconds. It was constant harassment! She should have told him she was busy so it is her fault too, but he denies it! To her face! She tries to talk to him privately and he still denies it! He is evil! So he goes home for his gluey gnocchi – I think his was the only dish that was really bad – and I am glad. The Devil does not belong on television – oh, what am I saying, that is where the Devil lives nowadays!

That is the first episode. Orchid seems to be out in front early. Mary Beth appeals to me. Penny is mean but she is also sad somehow, with all the sex stuff, I do not see her as empowered but as desperate and cheap, like a low-budged Giada. But who knows, it is much to early to say anything about anyone.

PEN/O.Henry 2011: Judy Doenges, “Melinda” from Kenyon Review, Fall 2009

Wisconsin Historical Society, Harry E. Dankoler collection

Wisconsin Historical Society, Harry E. Dankoler collection

When I first met James, I was Melinda Renee von Muehldorfer and I lived at 145 South Poplar. My grandma told me once that von mean my ancestors were German royalty. James says, You’re out of your castle now, babe. After I graduated, ruined my parents’ credit rating, sold everything I had except my ice skates, and moved in with James at the farm, I was Fritzie, no last name, just a girl good at asking for things.

Hello, I am Zin! I have read many stories about people in lives I do not understand, children living in drainage pipes, astronaut adventurers in faraway galaxies, people from the distant past, people who live lives of incredible wealth and luxury. And just as perplexing are the people in the meth house I read about in this story.

Our narrator is Fritzie, fallen angel from the middle class. James is the boss and kingpin, married with a wife who shows up now and then with his child; he no longer does meth, because he sees what it does to people and he is the CEO now: “You can’t run a business and do its work at the same time.” It is interesting there is an attempt to make it sound like a business. They each have jobs. Fritzie gets promoted to a supervisory position over the other two who work there. That would be RJ who is the chief floor sweeper, and that is about all he can do. He drives very slowly, and talks nonsense most of the time, “like a CD you can’t turn off.” And there is Little Fry, who spends all day piecing together scraps of paper from dumpsters to come up with credit card receipts, bank statements, and in this case, an overdue book notice from the library, anything with a name and address or if possible more information. But we will see the library notice is enough. If nothing else this story will scare me into being more careful with my trash. Because while their main business is meth, they have a nice sideline of identity theft.

Little Fry tapes together a name and address from the library notice: Richard von Behren, a few blocks away from where Fritzie used to live. Little Fry points out the name is similar to the name Fritzie used to have. We go with Fritzie on some other business, a trip to the store in town for provisions for instance, and we see her sexual relationship with James is not unpleasant. But the main event is her visit to Richard von Behren. She hitchhikes, then knocks on his door and says she is lost and her car broke down a few blocks away. Like a fool he lets her in. Do these people not know better? What is wrong with them? You are not supposed to ever let someone in no matter how pathetic and safe they look! But he does, and she meets his dog and his wife and while he is getting a telephone and a map she swipes a coin collection and as she leaves she takes the mail in his mailbox, which just happens to be a bank statement. That is a little too coincidental, I think. But there is something else (I will not tell you so you can experience it yourself) that is slipped in so quietly I did not notice until it became important at the end, and I was impressed by that!

While she is doing this, she tells them lies about herself: she played glockenspiel in the school band, she has a horse, she played soccer. She is making it up as she goes along. She makes a few mistakes, like she knows their last name, but before they can get suspicious she goes on, lying with ease. “Whose life am I telling? This one belongs to another kid – the kind of kid I never talked to.” There is nothing in the scene, no word or sentence at all, to show she feels regret that this is not her life, that she wishes she still lived in this neighborhood and played Eliza Doolittle and had teachers encouraging her, but I felt that very strongly, which I think is the strength of the piece. Maybe it is just me, because she does not seem like a bad person but one who has fallen off a cliff and I want her to long for her old life back.

So she goes back to the meth house and puts on her skates and skates around the pond while the others slide and fall because they can not skate. She took lessons for years so she does “an arabesque and a single axel.” I think this is a little cheesy, but it does strengthen the feeling that she regrets the direction her life has taken even if she feels powerless to change it now.

I enjoyed this story, as much as you can enjoy watching a human train wreck. The author wrote it after learning some details about the meth industry in Colorado.