Saturday, February 11, 2012

Things to Get Me Through the Winter

Here are a list of things helping me get through the winter:

The NBA. In particular, at least this month, Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin are helping me get through the winter. These two guys add to a plethora of point guard talent in the current NBA, but they have also revived the “loosey-goosey” style of play popularized by the likes of Steve Nash and Pete Maravich. Their game is so awkward that a lot of defenders don't know how to play against them. They're like the Aubrey Plaza of the NBA right now. Additionally, Rubio and Lin are the kind of guys whose enthusiastic approach to the game is refreshing and that enthusiasm is infectious.

On a related note, playing a little ball is helping me get through the winter. Winter is not an active time for me (I eat a lot of Harold's Fried Chicken), but a little exercise can keep my muscles from complete atrophy. So now that my calf is feeling good enough to play basketball again, I guess it’s time for me to get in some pick-up games and surpass some low expectations (people rarely think I can hang #huskyboyzcanballtoo).

Music, and in particular my record player/receiver/speaker set-up, is helping me get through the winter. The vintage receiver and speakers that I recently copped possess an “oak-y worn-in” look, giving them a nice patina that makes my living room both look and sound warm. Now time to look for new music. Record shops be prepared, Ricky’s bank account beware.

Coffee is most certainly helping me get through the winter. It especially helps when I haven't talked to another human being for a couple of days and I need a social lubricant that does not contain alcohol. I've also added a new coffee tool. I recently purchased a French Press and the quality of coffee it puts out makes it harder and harder for me to add milk and sugar. I know, I know. But some habits die slow, while others just need to be modified. There’s a time and a place for both cream-n-sugar coffee, and my ABE coffee (“all black everything…”).

TV is helping me get through the winter. I'm enjoying Parks and Rec, Justified and the NBA. I'm also looking forward to Madmen (March 25th ) and Game of Thrones (April 1) coming back. In Chicago ,“winter is [indeed] coming” so I might need these shows to get me through the cold nights. Both shows have kept me thinking about them over their long hiatus and I am excited to see what is coming in each of the show’s next seasons. Watch out Geoffrey, Don Draper might just up and marrying Sansa if you’re not careful.

Lastly hibernating helps me get through winter. Everybody reacts differently to the cold and snow. I tend to hibernate. For me, this means staying at home a lot more than in the Fall, Spring, or Summer. In order to hibernate, I usually have to stock up on beer, coffee, frozen meat, good music, and lots of TV (NBA is a godsend). These items allow me to spend lots of time in my apartment and just chill. For a long time, I thought hibernating was a problem because I felt less productive. But I don’t think that anymore. I realized that you have to embrace this time and take stock of your world. What needs to get done? What do you need to survive? For me, I don’t need much. But these things that I've mentioned help me get by and the winter is all about getting by.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beer Wars

When I was in first grade I lived in McAllen, Texas and attended an elementary school named Wilson. Near Wilson Elementary school was a candy store where me and the other students would get free candy if we did well on in school. Every semester we would bring our report cards to the store's owner and he would hand out red licorice for A's and black licorice for B's. The red licorice was great. It tasted like fruit; it had a nice texture; and it was even a cool color:red. The black licorice on the other hand was awful. For me, it tasted like candy gone wrong and it left your teeth black. Just dreadful. Well, I don't know if it was that I didn't like the taste of black licorice, or if I just a little "over-achiever" and didn't like B's,* but from that point on I always remember associating black licorice with something bad. In fact even today, when forced into taking shots of Jagermeister, all I can think of is that stupid store's demeaning "black-licorice-for-B's" policy.**

(*)Which I would have plenty of over the course of my academic career.
(**) It seems like no matter how hard I try, there will inevitably be someone I'm near that wants to do a shot of Jäger.

It's funny how a bad taste can stay in your mouth from one small association in life. That's why every time someone tells me they don't like a certain food, liquor or beer, I always wonder if there is an association to go along with this dislike. These associations are what I couldn't help but think of as I was watching Beer Wars, a documentary which chronicles the battle between beer's big breweries and micro breweries for real-estate in the U.S's collective beer gut.

The premise of the movie seemed to be that if micro-breweries could just show the average "American style lager drinking people" (think Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light) how much better tasting a micro-brewery beer is, then the people's taste would be converted and brought away from the dark (licorice) side. However, as I learned early on in life, there is much more to taste than just taste.

Unfortunately, taste is never really discussed in this documentary, at least not in any nuanced sort of way, rather Beer Wars seems to just take it for granted that most people would agree that the taste of micro-breweries is better than the big breweries.*

(*)Although for the most point I tend to agree with this point.

Despite the absence of the subject of taste, a point which we'll come back to later, Beer Wars did prove to be somewhat entertaining as a movie and extremely informative as a history on the subject of beer in the U.S. The director/producer/writer and sometimes narrator of this documentary, Anat Boran, was the former head of Mike's Hard Lemonade.* Her previous position at Mike's gave her the "street cred" to gain access to a wide variety of different events, such as the Great American Beer Festival as well as access to people in the industry such as higher ups at Anheuser Busch, Sam Adams, Dogfish Head and Odell.

(*)Now this background on Boran was given early enough in the movie that it did not prove distracting, however I found it odd that Boran never discusses the disconnect between Mike's Hard Lemonade and the other craft beers she seems to be championing. And maybe I'm wrong, but I still can't take Mike's Hard Lemonade as a serious option for a beer drinker. I see how it can be relevant for someone who likes/D(?) Zima, or wine coolers, but not to a person who drinks beer.

Unfortunately, Boran's presence in the film sometimes seemed sudden and illogical. As the viewer starts to become interested in some of the people she follows such as the head of Dogfish Head, Sam Caligione and the former VP of Sam Adams, Rhonda Kallman, Boran's voice comes out of nowhere as voiceover as if to belabor the point that she's involved in the project.

While I thought Boran's voiceover was one of the weaker parts of the film, the stronger aspects came through the movie's history lessons on beer distributing such as the segment on the "three tier system." This system was originally set-up to protect the consumer from "bad brewer practices" by adding a third party: the distributor. However, the documentary is quick to explain how the distributor, once a safeguard, is now used as a device for the big brewing companies to create monopolies. It was subjects like the "three tier system" that kept me interested in watching this documentary.

When the documentary was finished, I couldn't help but come back to the subject of "taste," because it is a subject that I believe is so often wrongly explored. Now don't get me wrong, I don't have the palette of a great chef, or a sommelier, however, I don't think the "Chef" and "Somm" represent the average consumer. Moreover, I do not think anyone can ever taste anything in isololation. Your favorite margaritas are more than likely at your favorite Mexican restaurant where you've probably had a lot of good times. Your favorite food may be your mom's King Casserole, not because of the balance of flavors, but more likely because you associate "the King" with a certain time in your life. And no matter how much you hate the big breweries and their--in my opinion-- crappy beer, they try hard to be everywhere that you might be having a good time. So in the end, I think in order for micro-breweries to be successful (sell enough to make profit) they are going to not only have to make good beer, but also to promote an experience that will go along with their good beer. In other words they need to be the red licorice, not the black.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Death of a Showman?

On Sunday night the 53rd Annual Grammys aired on CBS. As a buddy and I texted back and forth about performances and Cee Lo's outfit we both noticed a bandwagon that the Grammys jumped on this year: good music. We were both pleased that a lot of good artists not only were nominated, but actually won i.e. Arcade Fire, Esperanza Spalding etc.

But I don't care about the winners, so much as I care about the performances. And one performance in particular struck me as telling. This performance was the B.o.B, Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe collaboration. This collaboration worked for me in theory because I mostly like all three of these artists and they all showed off their musical chops by both singing/rapping and playing instruments. But, it was surprisingly Bruno Mars who I thought had setup an excellent platform for which to wow the audience, and ended up falling short. Here is the link to the performance on youtube.

Bruno Mars, B.o.B, Janelle Monae - Medley Live... by wonderful-life1989

I was pumped for Bruno's rendition of Grenade which was laced with Motown/Stax characteristics like backup singers doing call and response and smooth group choreography. Showmanship, what a novel idea. Unfortunately Bruno Mars didn't have the voice to impress. But I liked the effort.

But Bruno's performance got me thinking, now that Michael is gone are we now headed into a world where the next generation will be looking up to Usher and Lady Gaga as their pillars of performance? Is Showmanship slowly dying? I hope not.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fatima- Love Lost

This is a blog about food, but since I have few to zero readers, I'm sure I won't disappoint anyone when I stray from my main subject matter. For me, today, I want to talk about Fatima.

Fatima is a song by the Somali artist K'naan off of his album Troubador. This song was named after a young girl K'naan fell in love with when he was 12 years old. I will never again be able to hear the name Fatima without thinking about this song and this young girl's story. I'm also sure that I will never be able to hear this song and not think of the beauty of love lost.

Yes, the beauty of love lost. I believe this song is able to create this contradictory sentiment by being both a picture and a mirror throughout the track.

The picture we first get is of a boy falling in love.

"And after school we studied the lessons
I ask God to slow down the seconds"

(later in the track)

"If beauty was in the eyes of the beholder,
how come everyone hushed when she walked by?
How come girls would look just to scold her?

Through these lyrics, K'naan has not only painted a picture of his young love, but he has also allowed us, the listeners, to see the reflection of our own lives. Through this song, we can see ourselves standing there in school, with butterflies in our stomachs, trying to talk to the girl we liked. We can feel the rush of excitement when we had our first kiss. It all seems so familiar. But, unfortunately the song quickly becomes more difficult to relate to when we learn that as a young girl Fatima was killed by gunmen in Somalia.

"Fatima, what did the young man say, before he took you away, on that fateful day?

At this point I know that I should not be able to see this song as a mirror any further. Nothing about my life can reflect the feeling of losing a love to violence in Somalia. But I couldn't help it. Through this song, I kept seeing the moments in my life when I felt the pain of losing someone. Maybe this reflection was not clear like a mirror, but rather faint like a window. A window that I could look through and see the outside world, yet at the same time, in some lights, see a faint reflection of my life.

I must admit that this made me feel ashamed. It seems so petty to think that I could relate having my heart broken, or having a relative pass away with losing a childhood love to violence. But I did. And I think I did this because when a love goes away, it is gone. It does not matter if that loved one was a grandmother who died of natural causes, a woman who decided she never wanted to talk to you again, or a girl you loved as a child who was killed in a War. In all of these cases, in that moment, when they leave, they are gone. And I believe it is very difficult for the heart to tell the difference.

I'll be the first to admit that I may be wrong. Maybe we all have experiences that are so unique that we can't possibly begin to understand what another person is feeling. But, if within this song I was able to get a glimpse into the love K'naan had for Fatima, while at the same time see the reflection of all the loves I've ever had and lost, then I think the world becomes a little smaller. And for me, a smaller world means that people are closer and can relate to each other more easily. And if it takes the feeling of lost love to help people relate to each other more easily, then I think love lost can be beautiful.

I posted a youtube link to the song. I hope you enjoy.

Fatima with lyrics

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Usually Prefer Brunettes, But Blonde's Are Fun Too

Since moving back to Houston, I have been rediscovering the city I grew up in. You know, looking at Houston through a different lens. Where I once saw Houston as everything that I needed to escape from, I now am able to give it more of a chance. What I have found from this new vantage point, is the ability to see the city with all its hidden treasures and one of these treasures has been Southern Star Brewery.

Southern Star Brewery is a beer producer located in Conroe, Texas (which I pretty much consider Houston). From an earlier point of view I would have shunned the idea of Conroe producing good beer. In my mind, I used to think that Austin was the only city in Texas that would be able to produce a the kind of beer that I would normally drink. That is because Austin represented what I thought was "cool." It made more sense that Austin, not Houston would have the environment to produce "cool," local breweries.

I saw Houston on the other hand as being a city that would only cater to the business, no non-sense crowd that normally drank from the kegs of large mega-breweries and their un-creativeness.* But low and behold Southern Star Brewery is making a case for itself right here in what I mistakenly thought was a flavorless city, Houston, Texas.

I would put Southern Star's Bombshell Blonde against any of the other beers that are being produced in Texas right now.** Austin's Real Ale and Independence haven't produced anything like Bombshell Blonde that is both drinkable and tasty (sorry Fireman's Four).

*To be fair I am always impressed with how the big companies like Miller Light constantly find new way to present themselves: 1) Widemouth 2)Vortex 3) Aluminum Bottles.

**In second place I would put St. Arnold's Lawnmower, but that will have to wait until another post.

Bombshell Blonde is a Blonde beer with a great flavor that makes it both drinkable and pleasing to the palette. There are hints of vanilla, orange, something bitter and most of all it is creamy without being so creamy that it disagrees with it's environment. Moreover, the fact that it comes in a bright blue can makes it both cool and trendy. No longer do you hipsters have to drink Pabst and Lonestar to make a statement while having to sacrifice on taste. Don't get me wrong, I prefer those two beers over any of the "lights" the bigger breweries are doing. But let's be real, the taste is only slightly above passable. Bombshell Blonde on the other hand has it all.

I got to thinking about why Houston was able to get it so right, despite a reputation for being un-creative. Here's a small bit of reasoning as to why I believe Houston produced a good beer. Whereas other places in Texas like Austin and Dallas are obsessed with their image (Keep Austin Weird, Dallas... i don't know, but it's something) Houston doesn't give a shit. It's always been known as this concrete city with no culture, so in a way it doesn't have to care about certain things. like normal rules of making craft beer. Southern Star made a product that fit the city, put it in a can and didn't go out of their way to try and make it elite. The end product is a delicious beer.

I wonder if this theory could expand to other things. In a way I am starting to feel that Houston, with it's "I don't give a shit" attitude might start being the new cool. At least for beer anyway. Let's see what happens. Until then.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The H?

Have you ever ordered a dish with an expectation of how the dish will look and taste, only to find that it is completelydifferent than what you had imagined? Well, that is kind of what has happened in my life. I ordered the "live in Chicago for the upcoming year" special and received a large helping of "Houston, Texas" surprise. No need to go into the reasons why this change occurred which would only be interesting to the author of this blog, myself, when it is enough to say that this year instead of exploring Chicago's midwestern culture, I'll be hittin up the the "the third coast," Houston, Texas.

Now, Houston is not completely new to me. Houston was my home for 10 years during my younger (8-18) years. Consequently, I know the city, but due to my age at the time I lived here, I really don't KNOW the city. So I am excited to explore the place I grew up in with an older more sophisticated (read pretentious) eye.

Moreover, Houston has been given an amazing makeover that has produced new areas to hangout since I lived here such as Midtown, Washington Street and the Heights. I do not know the city well enough to comment on any of these areas yet, but give me time and I will have an opinion. This opinion will include commentary on not just food, but bars, nightlife, sports culture and people. I look forward to writing about it. Until then, take care.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's Going on North of the Border?

After having traversed Mexico City for a month and a half I’d like to talk about Taco Bell (cue all my Mexican friends saying “te dije.”)

Now the question is: why has a guy, just coming back from the capitol of Mexican culture, Mexico City, want to all of a sudden write about Taco Bell? I'll admit it is peculiar, especially since I just spent a month and a half trying to convince people in Mexico that the U.S. doesn’t even consider Taco Bell Mexican food. You see this is how a lot of my conversations went:

Me: You know, the U.S. has a lot of good Mexican food.

Mexican friend: (No mames guey) No way dude, all you guys have over there is Taco Bell.

Me: Sigh (then I usually had to listen to a long explanation about how real Mexican food is different than Taco Bell)

So by writing about Taco Bell I have now just given all my friends in Mexico reason to say “I told you so” or more likely “te dije.” But hear me out.

You see I’m visiting my mom for a couple of weeks and being at her house means that I’m watching “regular” T.V. for the first time in a long while. Don’t get me wrong. I watch a lot of T.V. in Chicago, my current hometown. However, the T.V. I watch in Chicago is online and consequently has no commercials. So, being at home and watching “regular” T.V. has allowed me to see a lot of new commercials like the one for Taco Bell’s new ”cantina tacos.”

These new “cantina tacos” are very different from anything Taco Bell has done in the past. These tacos are filled with diced meat, topped with chopped onion and cilantro, wrapped around not one, but two corn tortillas then finished with a lime wedge for both presentation and use.

This style of taco may seem new to some, but to anyone that has eaten Mexican food (on either side of the border) from a street, stand or trailer* this is not new but in fact the norm. I know this is the norm for sure in Mexico City because I just came from there, but I’ve also had similar tacos on Southmost in Brownsville, Riverside in Austin and Hilcroft in Houston.** Now, I don’t like using the A word, but I’ll do it in this case because I’m pretty sure it’s what Taco Bell is going for: Taco Bell is trying to be more Authentic.

During this past two decades Mexican restaurant owners have come to know the word authentic very intimately. That is because authenticity became a top priority when judging Mexican food and consequently became synonymous with “good quality.” I have yet to read a review or hear a comment where someone said or wrote that the Mexican food they tasted was extremely authentic but absolutely disgusting. This can happen. I have had experiences that have necessitated this response.*** Nonetheless, it seems that even fast food restaurants like Taco Bell, have begun to buckle under the pressure that is authenticity.

What has surprised me though, is that I didn’t think places like Taco Bell would ever care about such a nuanced quality. I believe in calling things the way they are. As the famed intellectual Dr. Phil says, “Don’t pee on my back and tell me it’s raining.” Or in this case, don’t put your product in a corn tortilla then serve it with a lime and tell me it’s Mexican food. I thought Taco Bell stopped caring about being Mexican a long time ago, why do they all of a sudden care? Their “bread and butter” has always been making crazy menu items like the Enchurrito and the Double Decker Taco. These items attract the people who are not in the mood for authenticity and it works.

Whereas Taco Bell seems to be chasing an impossible standard, KFC has gone in a different direction with their famed Double Down. For a whole two months in 2009 I can remember hearing friends talk about how the Double Down sandwich was “so ridiculous.” This sandwich put cheese and bacon in between two slices of fried chicken. I thought it was genius and although I have not tried one yet, I would sure as heck do that before I ever tried the “cantinas tacos.”

But that’s the thing with the business of food, you never quite no what will work and what won’t. As I’m writing this, lines all over the country may be forming outside of every Taco Bell across the nation with people screaming for “cantina tacos.” Taco Bell may become the single largest employer in all the U.S. from all the people they need to help make these new tacos because they are in such demand. In fact, Taco Bell may bring us out of the economic slump we’re in and then get awarded medals for their contribution to the U.S. market and culture. All this may happen. But if it does, I just hope to hell none of my friends in Mexico see it happen because I know they’ll all happily look at me and say “te dije.”

*Some of the new Mexican restaurants in Austin such as Garrido’s and Condesa feature (very expensive) versions of what I’ve just outlined. There’s probably a lot of restaurants that do this too, however I think it is much more typical in the street, stand, trailer category.

**These are all streets not eating places. The actual names of the places have probably changed because they were stands and trailers. I don’t remember what the place on Southmost was called, but the one on Hilcroft was called Tacos Porky and the one on Riverside I believe was called Al Pastor.

*** Pulque is one of the items that I tried in Mexico that I thought needed tinkering to be good. I had one at a nice restaurant that had been filtered and it was o.k. Then I had one that made it more traditionally, and I thought it was less than o.k. In this case I thought the more authentic pulque got, the less palatable it became. However, this is just an opinion.