Friday, June 29, 2007

Top Chef: Miami Recap, Episode 3: Comfort frauds!

OK, first of all, I just realized this season is called "Top Chef: Miami." I knew it took place in Miami but I didn't know they had renamed the show. Next we'll be subjected to Top Chef: Criminal Intent.

This episode was really weird. I just didn't think either the quickfire or elimination challenges were well explained. We start with the quickfire: the chefs go to the Miami Aquarium, where they use one of those vending machine claws to grab shellfish out of a tank while trying to avoid being eaten by sharks.

Actually they are just pulling shellfish out of a tank with a net. Why? It doesn't really add to the excitement or show any particular skill. Padma has told them they get thirty seconds to grab as much as they can but for some reason the chefs take that to mean they have to get all they can in one scoop. They aren't trying to get specific types of shellfish; they're just scooping up everything they can. So why not just give them a big bowl of shellfish to start with? The whole exercise seems pointless.

Hung goes nuts in the tank and drops something on the floor:

Lia: "Don't just leave it there, Hung."

Wow, what a drama queen! Everything always has to be all about Lia!

Lia: "What? I just thought Hung could pick it up."

Oh, my god! Lia is such a source of tension on this show! She always has to butt into everyone's business!

Lia: "I don't understand. What did I do?"

Geez, will you just stop talking for a second and let someone else get a word in?

Anyway, if I could get back to the recap without Lia constantly interrupting me! The chefs all end up with the same stupid shellfish and they are all making the same stupid recipe of shellfish in white wine:

Hung: "My monkey could do this."

CJ: "This is totally unfair! Hung is getting assistance from his monkey!"

Tom: "I didn't even know Hung had a monkey. Get that thing out of here!"

Hung: "This monkey was trained in Paris! He's a better chef than any of you will ever be! Can't you people stop being so closed-minded and let this monkey have a chance to fulfill his dream of creating gourmet food?"

Many of the chefs are working with conch. Micah can't get the meat out of the shell even though she's claimed to be an expert on cooking with conch. She tries running over it with her car. She tries shooting it out of a cannon. She tries singing a really, really high note to try to crack the shell. Finally she just makes a conchless conch salad. It doesn't go over well.

Brian makes conch toast. Yuck. He wins immunity in the elimination challenge.

Then Padma wheels out a bunch of revolting food:

Padma: "This is the entire menu from T.G.I. Friday's! Please try not to vomit in the new kitchen. Thank you. Your job will be to take one of these old-fashioned, unhealthy dishes and update it to something lower in cholesterol."

Tom: "We think the challenge is pretty straightforward."

Really? Because it isn't. The chefs don't seem to understand. Are they supposed to make a really healthy dish or just something healthi-er than what they are starting with; because that wouldn't take much. Is the dish supposed to be lower in calories and fat or just lower in cholesterol? Why is Casey avoiding olive oil? It's high in calories but it's not unhealthy. And again, is it supposed to be low in cholesterol, or just low-er? Are they supposed to completely reinvent the dish or are they supposed to update the dish simply by making it healthier? The chefs really don't seem to understand.

Tom: "Well, I thought it was straightforward."

The chefs go through and pick their dishes:

Dale: "I eat every one of these dishes every day. But I'm picking chicken and dumplings."

Micah: "I've never heard of 'meat loaf' but I'm going to give it a try."

Peter Brady: "I'm taking pork chops and apple sauce!"

Hung: "Comfort food to me is steamed fish."

Well, excuse me! Just because I grew up eating Hamburger Helper and Shake-n-Bake doesn't mean you're better than me! Waaaah!

At the grocery store Dale buys a rotisserie chicken and instant mashed potatoes:

CJ: "That is a personal assault to my senses!"

Oh, get over it!

Cheesy Sara has problems with the oven. She thought the oven was on when she put in her chicken but when she checks, it has been turned off. Hung says he didn't turn it off but then tells the camera that he did. What isn't clear is whether Sara's chicken was in the oven when Hung took his food out or if he turned the oven off before she put it in and she just assumed it was still on. Bravo obviously doesn't want us to know because this way we can think Hung is a villain. But I suspect Sara saw that the oven was heating up and then when she went to put her chicken in Hung had already taken his food out and didn't know anyone else needed the oven. He probably should have asked before he did that because they are sharing a kitchen and he also shouldn't have lied about it but Sara also should have checked to see if it was still on. I think they both made a mistake.

Hung: "So am I an asshole yet?"

You're getting there but you'll have to try a bit harder.

The chefs serve the food to the members of the Miami Elks Club in one of the ugliest dining rooms I've ever seen. I imagine it's what the dining hall in a prison would look like. I hope Bravo turns it into a design project for the next highly unanticipated season of Top Design (Top Design: Miami, anyone? Or maybe Top Design: Special Victim's Unit?)

We take a break so the chefs can tell us that if you've ruined a dish you can fix it by adding butter or getting really, really drunk.

OK, did everyone get that advertisement for California? Was it helpful? Was there a lack of awareness of the state of California? Is there someone in Colorado saying, "Oh, yeah; I totally forgot that California existed; I'm glad I saw that advertisement"? I mean, it's not like we're West Virginia. No offense intended.

130 per cent of viewers think Howie is more talented than Joey.

One last thing: the first seventeen thousand times I saw that Hey Paula promo I found it totally annoying but this last one magically made me want to watch the show.

So, the judges hate most of the food. It looks really revolting. CJ's looks like cat food. Lia tries to get texture by serving uncooked lentils. The best response Padma could muster for Tre's dish was, "Well, it didn't make me want to take my own life." And those were some of the better ones!

Howie and Dale are the top two. Howie's seared pork was cooked perfectly and his apple slaw was fresh and delicious, while still managing to evoke the original dish of pork chops and apple sauce. Dale's version of chicken and dumplings was also a big hit. Howie wins some books and the vague opportunity to do something at the Gotham Bar & Grill in New York. Congratulations, Howie!

Padma: "Could you send in the bottom chefs?"

Howie: "Which ones?"

Padma: "All of them."

OK, actually it was just Micah, Cheesy Sara, Brian, CJ, and Lia.

Brian was safe but the judges wanted to point out that he was a dick for serving lobster as a lower cholesterol version of stuffed cabbage.

Micah's meatloaf dish seemed conceptually fine but everyone hated it; apparently it was inedible.

Sara's didn't evoke the emotional response that chicken a la king was supposed to. This was a little unfair since she had no idea was it was. She tried to use similar ingredients but apparently she didn't know what aspect of the dish was the one that would evoke the right memories:

Tom: "You were supposed to update the dish without actually changing it. And it should have had peas."

Whatever. Actually, I did a quick search for chicken a la king recipes and none of the ones I found had peas in them.

Lia just didn't do anything. She just boiled some sausages.

Padma: "What's wrong with that."

Tom: "Do I have to remind you again that this is a cooking show?"

Padma: "Oh, yeah."

Anyway, they get rid of Micah. I think they should have sent Lia home but obviously the producers wouldn't let them. Lia brings so much drama to the show, while Micah is so stable and quiet the producers had to get rid of her.

Lia: "I don't understand what I did to offend you."

Oh, please! Don't play all innocent. You are always starting fights with everyone and arguing with the judges. You're just trying to skate by on your outrageous behavior instead of real talent.

Lia: "I don't know what you're talking about."

Well, I just hope the Bravo producers stop keeping people around just for their drama value. That's all I'm saying.*

*Eric Three Thousand is being sarcastic.
All-American Presidential Forum Recap!

OK, the title of this forum was not very descriptive. It was actually a forum for Democratic presidential candidates to discuss how much they care about the African American community. Because they can't take the African American community for granted. Yeah, right. Anyway, it was alright. I don't know if we learned anything but it confirmed that some candidates are good speakers and others are completely nuts.

Here are some of the highlights (as usual with my posts, the quotes are fake):

Tavis Smiley: "Thank you all for coming. The candidate who mentions my book The Covenant In Action, available from, the most times will win the debate."

Then we get a shot of the audience reading his book. Come on people, don't read it now; we're here to listen to the candidates.

Throughout the forum we get shots of Cornel West, who looks very excited. He's like the Jack Nicholson of this event.

Hillary Clinton: "I just want to remind you that my husband was the first black president of the United States!"

Bill Richardson: "Well, I'd just like to remind you that I'm the first Latino to run for president. Jimmy Smits was just a character on a television show."

Oh, yeah; I keep forgetting that the West Wing wasn't real.

Mike Gravel: "The other candidates all suck! I just want to point out that I know you black people love the drugs. So I want to end the war on drugs!"

Cheering from the crowd.

Gravel: "I also want to get rid of income tax!"

Crowd realizes he's insane.

Joe Biden: "Barack Obama and I went to get HIV tests."

Barack Obama: "I just want to make it clear that I am not in a homosexual relationship with Joe Biden. If I were going to go gay it would obviously be for John Edwards."

Bill Richardson: "Blah, blah, blah ..."

Tavis Smiley: "I'm going to have to ask you to shut up, Governor."

Dennis Kucinich: "They keep telling you all to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and then they steal your boots! I worked on that line all day!"

The candidates tried to one-up each other about education: one would say we need universal preschool and then the next would say we need to start earlier and the next would say education needs to start at conception.

They talked about the Supreme Court decision to bring segregation back to public schools.

They talked a little bit about Katrina and the Iraq War.

They talked about HIV. Nobody really took on the problem of putting so much energy into the completely ineffective program of simply telling people not to have sex. One candidate touched on it, but I really think it should be a major point.

They all seemed to repeat the point about getting rid of the legal difference between powdered and crack cocaine, which is important in helping to get rid of the racial inequality in drug offenses, though Gravel was the only one to point out the stupidity of the whole war on drugs in the first place. Too bad he's insane.

So, again, nothing too exciting but it was good to see some of them talking. It confirmed that some of them are good candidates and others are really just wasting our time.

Other Eric: "There's only one person up there who seems presidential."

Me: "Tavis Smiley?"

Other Eric: "No; Hillary Clinton."

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout. Yeah, Obama and Edwards are pretty good but Clinton is a real professional. She should wear higher heels, though; taller candidates do better.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Please, sir, may I have some more?: or As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!

Could you live on $28 a week for food? Well, you would have to if you were on food stamps. Now, some people on food stamps actually have jobs (they just don't pay enough to lift them above the poverty level) so they presumably have a little money to supplement the amount they spend on groceries. But apparently a person is theoretically supposed to be able to buy a week's worth of groceries for $28. I couldn't do it.

I remember when I first moved to Los Angeles for college around 1988. For some reason I remember my grocery bills; I went to the store every week and I always spent about $40. I think that included cold cereal, milk, bread, peanut butter, jelly, cheese, pasta, pasta sauce, orange juice, soda, and potato chips. I didn't eat any fruit or vegetables. I had cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner. Every day for two years. Oh, yeah, and a multi-vitamin. I don't know how I survived.

The point is, even with that horrible diet, I still would have gone way over my budget if I were on food stamps. And that was almost 20 years ago; those same groceries would cost a lot more today!

You may have read recently about Eric Gioia, a councilman from Queens, NY, who took the food stamp challenge and tried living on $28 worth of food. He made it through the week but he felt like shit, he was always hungry, and he actually gained 2 pounds because he was mainly eating bread and pasta.

Anyway, this post isn't really about the worthiness of the food stamp program because I don't actually know that much about it. I just found the idea of trying to live on $28 a week for food to be frightening. Do you think you could do it? Do you have experience living on this kind of budget?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Top Chef Recap, Season Three, Episode 2: Sunny D.: or This episode is like putting lipstick on a pig!

We start the show as the chefs are waking up at the "Fountain Blue" hotel:

Micah: "Boy, I am not a morning person. I just can't even function until I've had my first cup of coffee. You know what I'm saying? Who's with me?"

[Sound of crickets]

Micah: "Wow; tough crowd."

The quickfire challenge is brought to you today by the Florida Citrus Council. The guest judge is Norman Van Aken.

Eric Three Thousand: "I've prepared for you half a grapefruit, sprinkled with a little granulated sugar, and garnished with a Maraschino cherry in the center."

Padma: "It's ostentatiously pedestrian! That takes real confidence!"

Norman Van Aken: "It's simple, classic, and elegant! The flavors are perfectly balanced! Most people would have tried to show off but you really took a risk by just focusing on the grapefruit!

Well, it was flattering to be in the top three but Hung ends up winning the quickfire. And he deserves it. He's such a nice guy!

Hung: "No, I'm not! I'm an asshole!"

The elimination challenge is brought to you by Kingsford charcoal and the Los Angeles Times, voted the best newspaper for starting fires since 1893. The chefs have to create an elegant gourmet barbecue. They have $200 to shop.

Micah: "When we got there, everyone went straight to the meat counter."

Well, duh!

Micah: "So I just wandered around the produce section thinking about how much my daughter loves produce. Then I went over to the meat counter and I was all, 'what do you have left,' and they were all, 'well, we have this discounted leg of lamb,' and I was all, 'whatever.'"

Asian Sara almost buys too much meat but Hung saves her.

Asian Sara: "That Hung is such a nice guy! He's always looking out for everyone else! Everyone loves him!"

Hung: "For crying out loud! Why doesn't anyone believe that I'm an asshole?!"

Micah is still whining about missing her daughter:

Micah: "This is the first time I've ever been separated from her. Boo hoo."

Hung: "Oh, don't use your daughter as an excuse for crying."

Wow, what an asshole.

Hung: "SEE! SEE! I told you!"

I'm just joking. Everyone was thinking the same thing. It will take more than that to convince me that you are an asshole."

Hung: "Son of a bitch."

So the chefs have two hours to prepare the food in the kitchen before taking it out to the beach the next day. Tom Collicchio comments on Sandee:

Tom: "It's like putting lipstick on a pig."

Well, that's just rude! It's true she could use a little help with her makeup, but still ...

Tom: "No, I was talking about her dish. She's over-seasoning her lobster and it's just not barbecue."

Oh. Sorry. I'm still not sure I understand the metaphor, though. Lobster is like a pig?

The chefs finish their prep:

Asian Sara: "Ow, ow, ow! Holy crap, these are hot!"

What's wrong?

Asian Sara: "I bought the wrong damn peppers. You would not believe how freaking hot they are! The judges' heads are going to explode tomorrow. God, I'm such an idiot."

Oh, I'm sure it will be fine.

The host of the party is someone named Lee Shrager. Apparently he is famous for his celebrity-filled barbecues. As usual, the chefs pretend to know who he is.

The judges show up. Padma is wearing a cute dress and Gail has enormous knockers. Then Shrager and a bunch of his total-nobody guests show up. Howie has over-cooked his pork. Joey has made some boring chicken legs. Sandee hasn't actually barbecued anything. Brian makes fish sausage.

Padma: "Hey, Chris, that's a nice sausage you have there."

Chris: "No, Brian's the one who made the sausage."

Padma: "I know."

Oooh, Padma, that's so naughty!

Joey accuses Hung of stealing his idea for a watermelon drink. For the quickfire, Joey had served a completely different drink of watermelon juice and Grand Marnier because, as everyone knows, watermelon is a very popular citrus fruit. Hung, on the other hand, made the bizarre association of watermelon with barbecue and mixed some watermelon juice with Champagne. Joey threatens to give Hung some knee pants. Does anyone have any idea what that means? This was Hung's perfect opportunity to be an asshole but instead he defends himself and says he didn't know Joey had taken out the patent on watermelon juice. All the other chefs support Hung. They decide Joey is the asshole.

Hung: "God, I really suck at being an asshole."

Anyway, Brian wins! He wins nothing? The judges have to decide whether it is worse to make barbecue that is not upscale or upscale food that is not barbecue. That's a tough call. To settle it, the judges ask Joey who should go home. Well, obviously, he would be the authority.

Joey: "Howie should go home."

Howie: "Yo momma!"

Joey: "No, yo momma!"

Tom: "Thank you. That has helped us reach our decision."

Padma: "Sandee, please pack your knives and go."

Tune in next week to see if some of the chefs' breasts can be used as flotation devices.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Now for a really controversial post!

Really controversial with Other Eric, that is!

I refuse to see License to Wed! I have my limits!

I lived through Monster in Law and I actually enjoyed Music and Lyrics but there are some romantic "comedies" I simply refuse to watch, even to satisfy a loved one. Yes, Mandy Moore is adorable and John Krasinski is super-cute but I don't think that can make up for Robin Williams and farting robot babies.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Warning: Divisive Post Ahead!

I know this will be a divisive issue so, as usual, I'm going to request that you be polite in your comments. I'm not pretending to be an expert on anything or to have all the answers. I'm just writing about issues that are on my mind and you are welcome to disagree.

The topic today is immigration. I know! Scary!

It's funny because I was thinking about writing this post for a couple of weeks and then I just got off the phone with my grandfather and he brought it up. We were having a perfectly pleasant Father's Day chat (for instance, I learned that his first car cost $25!) and then out of the blue:

Grandfather: "So, what do you think about what's going on down at the border?"

Me: "I don't know; what is going on down at the border?"

Grandfather: "All these illegal immigrants are sneaking across."

OK, to be fair, we actually had a pretty reasonable discussion about it. I disagree with my grandfather about almost everything but he's generally pretty open to listening to other people's opinions.

A fellow blogger Big Ass Belle had a post recently about how her politics are completely different from those of her family. I was raised by liberal parents thousands of miles away from my conservative extended family in rural Illinois (several thousand miles; I was raised in Hawaii)and I don't actually have a great deal of contact with them so I don't have to worry about it too much. But it does make the occasional family reunion awkward. For instance, at my father's memorial service a couple of years ago I somehow ended up in an argument with my uncle about gun control. That was really the last thing I needed right then. I finally just said, "Fine, all schoolchildren should be given hand guns. Then we'll all be safe. Whatever."

Anyway, back to illegal immigrants. My grandfather pointed out two of the non-facts that are often brought up: that we have pay to educate their children and that they are a major cause unemployment. First of all, most illegal immigrants actually pay taxes. I'm sure people will dispute this and I don't have exact figure on it, but from what I understand most illegal immigrants either have payroll taxes deducted because they've provided a false social security number, or (and I just learned about this recently) they voluntarily pay taxes by setting up IRS accounts that don't require social security numbers. Illegal immigrants do this because it will look good if they eventually apply for citizenship. The IRS does this because their job is to collect taxes and not do the work of the INS. And, obviously, illegal immigrants also pay sales tax. You can argue that they don't pay their fair share (I would argue that many US citizens don't pay their fair share) and I don't know whether they do or not; like I said, I don't have the exact figures; But the point is, you can't argue that they pay no taxes.

Secondly, the United States has very low unemployment compared to most of the world, anyway. But most of the unemployment we have is probably due to outsourcing of technology jobs to India and manufacturing jobs to China. Most unemployment in this country is not caused by Mexican immigrants coming into this country to pick strawberries. Now, I'm using generalizations here; I know there are illegal immigrants who are taking some construction and manufacturing jobs that US citizens might want. But there are many manual labor jobs in this country that US citizens don't want and there are people risking their lives coming to this country in order to do them. There are some growers, for instance, who have crops rotting in their orchards because they can't find enough workers. Some argue that these growers would be forced to pay higher wages that would attract US citizens if it weren't for illegal immigrants who are willing to work so cheap. But if field workers got $15 an hour and full benefits, consumers wouldn't be able to afford to buy American fruit. Obviously, this is a complicated issue because I think people should be paid a living wage; but I also know that if wages are too high, the jobs will simply go to other countries.

Let me add here a quick discussion on security: terrorism is, of course, another issue brought up when it comes to illegal immigration. But, as far as I know, we don't have a major problem with Islamic terrorists illegally crossing the border from Mexico. Most terrorists have no problem getting valid visas and flying right into JFK. Spending trillions of dollars on a stupid border wall would not stop terrorists from getting into the country. So I think the security argument is a ruse.

The major issue seems to be economic. It's apparently based on the previously mentioned ideas that illegal immigrants cost us so much money because they take our jobs and we have to pay to educate their children. As I've already pointed out, I think these ideas are questionable if not completely false. But let's assume for a moment that they are valid points. Then my question is this:

If we are so concerned about how much illegal immigrants cost us by coming into this country, why are we willing to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to keep them out?

That just doesn't make economic sense to me. We could actually use some of that money to try to improve people's lives instead of wasting it trying to keep people from taking jobs that need to be done. Since opposition to immigrant workers doesn't make financial sense, what is the real motivation? My first instinct is to think that it's racism or the irrational fear that soon we will all be forced to speak Spanish as our primary language. But, of course, that probably isn't it. I actually think it's just one of those wedge issues, like flag burning and gay marriage, that is used to distract the American people from the real problems in this country.

So, again, I don't have a simple solution; just writing down my thoughts. I'm not theoretically opposed to a guest worker program, though I think it could cause a bureaucratic nightmare and I don't know if it would actually solve any problems. I was surprised to hear that many Republicans who opposed Bush's immigration bill actually think we should use a point system for allowing immigrants into the country. Apparently other countries use a system that awards points to an immigration application based on how skilled or educated the worker is. This seems like a particularly strange suggestion coming from the same people who are supposedly worried about immigrants taking all the good jobs. I don't get it.

Several months ago I heard an interview with a man who studies immigration patterns. He said that in situations where countries have more open border policies, workers cross temporarily and then move back after a few years. A closed border actually creates a situation where workers cross a border and then try to stay permanently because they don't want to risk leaving. This certainly makes sense. We've created our own immigration problem; by trying to keep people out we actually keep them in.

So one radical solution is simply to open the border (while maintaining security, of course). It's just a wild suggestion, but one that needs to be seriously discussed. Think of all the good things we could do with all the money we save by not building a wall around the country. Think of how much more secure we would be if all the energy put into catching illegal immigrants (and also recreational drug users) was instead put into catching terrorists and other real criminals.

After I started writing this post I read an interesting financial page in the New Yorker about the current guest worker bill (James Surowiecki, "Be our guest!" New Yorker, 11-18 June 2007). First of all, it recommends the bill as an imperfect but good solution. It points out that we already have small-scale guest worker programs and most of the immigrants involved do not overstay their visas, which is one of the concerns. What I found most surprising in the article was that there is very little evidence to suggest that immigrant workers actually drive down wages. The article cites a recent study by the economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, who found that "between 1990 and 2004 immigration actually boosted the wages of most American workers." The explanation is that immigrant and native worker skills actually compliment each other instead of being in direct competition. The article also reiterates the point I mentioned above about the fact that most immigrant workers would actually prefer to work a job for a few years and then return home. They don't all want to stay here permanently.

Again, I welcome intelligent discussion; I just don't welcome insults and rants. Thank you!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Top Chef Three, Episode One: Supersize me!

Me: "Does it seem like this episode is going on forever?"

Other Eric: "Let me look ... OK, Apparently it's an hour and fifteen minutes."

Me: "Oh, good; I thought maybe this show was actually slowing the passage of time."

The chefs are in Miami. As usual, they will be competing for a subscription to Food and Wine Magazine, some bottled water, and $100,000 worth of Glad wrap. They meet up for a typical Bravo "party." The chefs seem to have missed the secret that all Bravo viewers know: Bravo's definition of "party" is getting the contestants drunk and then expecting them to perform really difficult tasks.

Padma: "Dance for me, monkeys!"

Padma introduces us to head judge and all-around grouch Tom Colicchio:

Tom: "OK, everyone, listen up! I'm not Tim Gunn! I'm not here to hold your hand and babysit you! I'm here to complain about your food! Don't piss me off!"

They are at the home of the late Gianni Versace. Wow, that place is classy!

Padma: "You have to make an amuse bouche from whatever leftovers you find in Versace's refrigerator. Let's go into the house. Oh, look, everyone; it's the lovely and talented Donatella Versace having a bologna sandwich and vodka!"

Donatella Versace: "You know, Padma, that dress is very Isaac Mizrahi ... FOR TARGET! GET OUT!!!"

Padma: "OK, everyone; change of plans: you'll be making an amuse bouche from the leftovers of the party food out in the courtyard. You know, that's a better idea anyway."

First of all, Padma is wearing a perfectly acceptable dress. Secondly, I think she finally learned how to pronounce amuse bouche. This is a vast improvement.

There are too many damn chefs! I'm too lazy to do much outside research on these shows so I always have a hard time at the beginning. I did, however, spend ten minutes this time looking at pictures of the chefs so I might remember some of their names. Bravo needs to do a better job of finding people who look really different from each other. This group of chefs just looks like a bunch of girls with long, brown hair and a bunch of bald guys. I'll try to describe them:

Camille has long, brown hair.
Clay has a goatee and is from the South. He doesn't think Southern cooking has been represented on Top Chef. He has apparently forgotten about Mia. He also thinks he has a good shot at winning because he didn't go to culinary school. He has apparently forgotten about the fact that people without professional training do not make it very far on these shows.
Casey has long, blondish hair. Hopefully she'll keep wearing that scarf so I can remember who she is.
Tre is the black guy. I think I can remember that. Thank you, Bravo.
Howie is kind of chunky and has a shaved head.
Joey is another chunky guy. I am going to get him confused with Howie. White guys all look the same to me.
Chris is really easy to recognize because he has an artificial testicle.
Sandee Birdsong is another one who will not blend in to the crowd.
Lia has long, brown hair. But it's kind of curly. She also looks really, really young, though she isn't.
There are two Saras: cheesy Sara and Asian Sara. One of them had better get eliminated quickly because I don't have the energy to keep using initials.
Sara M. is the cheese-maker, which is a fancy way of saying she's a fromagier.
Sara N. is the Asian one.
Dale is the guy with the mohawk.
Micah has long, brown hair. I think she'll be easy to remember, though, because apparently she's going to annoy the shit out of everyone.
Hung is the Asian guy. He keeps telling us that he's an asshole. I'm not buying it. A real asshole wouldn't need to work so hard to convince us.
Brian Malarkey's last name is Malarkey. That's actually funnier than Birdsong.

Micah wins the quickfire challenge and has immunity in the elimination challenge. The chefs are staying at the Fontainebleau, which everyone pronounces "fountain blue." I looked it up and apparently even the people who work there pronounce it that way. Weird.

For the elimination challenge, they will be creating "surf and turf" dishes with a bunch of fucked-up ingredients: elephant scrotum soufflé, anyone? Uh, no, thanks.

The closest thing we have to a fight is at the grocery store, where Micah is trying to calm down Clay:

Micah: "Clay, relax, honey. Do the breathing exercises I taught you. If the great spirit intends for you to find your ingredients, you'll find them. Now, let's hold hands and chant."

Joey: "If that bitch tries to tell me to calm the fuck down, I'm going to punch her right in the chakras!"

Both Hung and Sara M. are making dishes with black chicken and something called geoduck, which is apparently pronounced "gooey duck." At first I couldn't figure out how chicken and duck could be surf and turf and I also freaked out when I thought Hung was popping raw duck in his mouth. I had to watch the episode a second time to learn that geoduck is actually some sort of mussel.

OK, it's a little difficult to describe all the dishes. Just know they're weird. At least now I know how to prepare all that snake meat I'm always bringing home from Trader Joe's. Someone made kangaroo tartare. Excuse me while I go hurl ...

The guest judge is Anthony Bourdain. Here are the highlights of the judging:

Brian deep-fries the eel. Padma says it tastes like that time she got shipwrecked and was forced to eat her own toes. Anthony Bourdain says he wishes he were drunk. Sandee's and Lia's are both good. Hung's is excellent and in the top two. But Tre makes rare ostrich steak, which just doesn't sound like a good idea to me but the judges love it. He wins!

Anthony Bourdain: "Here, have some books I scribbled in while I was high. You've also won the opportunity to go out on a date with me! We'll get stinking drunk and hire some prostitutes!"

He is so cool! The bottom four chefs are Brian, Dale, Howie, and Clay. Dale's alligator wasn't cooked very well:

Nina Garcia: "I question his taste level."

Brian kind of screwed up with his eel and snake but it wasn't really that bad so I don't even know why he's there.

Howie didn't get his frog legs plated so only served half a dish. The half he served was really good, though.

Anthony Bourdain: "You forgot the first rule of being a chef: serve the food on time, no matter how shitty it is."

Howie: "If it pleases the court, I'd like to draw your attention to exhibit A: chapter three, paragraph four of Anthony Bourdain's book Ecuadorian line cooks I have known, which reads, "Ecuadorian line cooks only serve food when it's good. They also know where to get the best cocaine."

Anthony Bourdain: "I think I love you."

Clay's dish was completely inedible and he's out. Too bad; I liked him. I'm sure he's a good cook but if he wants to be a chef he should probably go to culinary school.

OK, so this episode was fun! The people are interesting and talented and the Bravo producers are concentrating on the cooking instead of trying to create conflict. Tune in next week when all that changes!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Who do I have to screw to get a normal bag of chips?

OK, I just wanted a bag of chips to go with my sandwich for lunch today. That doesn't sound like too much to ask, does it? Where I work we have a cafeteria and lots of vending machines with dozens of different kinds of chips. None of them are chip-flavored! I'm not that picky; I would have taken anything even remotely normal: cheddar cheese, salt and vinegar, even barbecue flavor! Or I would have taken normal Doritos, Cheetos, or Fritos!

But all they have is crazy flavors like Key-lime Pie Cheetos, or Extreeeeeme Blue Cheese Chicken Wing Doritos, or Extra Salty Jalapeno and Crab Baked Lay's! I swear to you: NOT ONE NORMAL BAG OF CHIPS! Why are they doing this to me? Do they make more money on weird flavors? I don't get it.

Will the madness never end?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

OK, I admit it, I'm a thief!

I'm a horrible hypocrite and I should be locked up! I drive around in my little Honda Civic, looking all innocent, all the while hiding a terrible, dark secret! I've been stealing almost every day for several years! This is worse than that time I skipped a school board election just because I don't have children and had no idea who to vote for. So, what did I do that could be so bad, you ask?

I've been listening to NPR and I let my membership lapse. I know! I feel terrible about it! OK, here's what happened:

I used to contribute years ago and I actually gave quite a bit because I would take the expensive premiums, like tickets to concerts and things like that. But several years ago I was having major financial problems and I could barely pay my bills. I don't want to act like I was living in poverty or anything; I was just going through a brief period where I had no money.

My only entertainment was watching public television, using an antenna (OMG, no cable?!). So I maintained my very reasonable $40 annual contribution to my local PBS station. But I had to let my public radio subscription lapse. I wasn't actually listening to the radio very much, anyway. After a few years, though, while I still didn't have much money, I probably could have afforded to start contributing again.

But I didn't. Here's the problem: When I first looked into trying to make a minimum donation to KPCC, our station in Pasadena, it looked like the minimum amount they wanted was $89. The 89 corresponds to the number on the dial (89.3) and I know I could have given less but I felt like I wouldn't have been a real member. I was just shocked that they wanted over twice as much as my public television station; I think it's much more expensive to produce television. The second problem is that I actually listen to two stations (the other is KCRW, 89.9) and I couldn't decide which to give to and I didn't feel like I could afford both. And I just kept putting it off and then completely forgot about it. Every once in a while, as I was quickly turning off a pledge drive, I would say to myself, "Self, you really need to make a contribution. You can afford it now."

So I finally did it! I just contributed to both stations. By the way, KCRW only demands $25 from you for a basic membership, which is very reasonable.

One more thing: you know how they always say how important it is to contribute, no matter how small the amount? Well, I think that's bullshit. I think they probably lose money on small contributions because if you donate anything they end up bombarding you with mailings pleading for more money. And those mailings must be expensive! I'm reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from a few years ago by Matthew Diffee where a guy opens a letter and it reads, "Your generous donation will help pay for these solicitations."

That's my rant of the day: coming out of the closet as a longtime public radio thief and telling the tale of my courage and generosity in taking 30 second out of my day to go online and contribute the absolute smallest amount I could comfortably get away with. Does that make me a hero? Maybe; but I'm not doing this for the glory. Hearing Carl Kassell's voice every day is all the thanks I need. If you don't listen to public radio, you should; it's very good! And if you can't afford to donate any money, don't worry about it; I've got you covered. Don't let them make you feel guilty! I'd rather you were listening to public radio and not contributing than have you not listen at all!

But if you can afford it, send them some cash! It doesn't matter how small the amount. every little bit helps. Really.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Top Chef Special Recap: Seeing Stars!

Padma: "This will be an episode unlike any other."

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Padma: "Well, for starters, I'm dressed a little better."

Oh my god, you're right. I didn't even notice what you were wearing. And that's a good thing. Anything else?

Padma: "No one will be winning a Kenmore Pro kitchen?"

That's it? I thought this was supposed to be special.

Padma: "Well, we'll be bringing back the chefs who made it almost to the end on the first two seasons of Top Chef."

So it will be like watching the third to the last episode of the regular show. That does sound exciting. Oh, alright, it's pretty cool. Season One will be going up against Season Two and competing for $20,000 for Charity:

Charity: "Damn, y'all, I really wanted a new car."

Those are the breaks. So anyway, we have Dave, Tiffani, Stephen, and Harold from season one and Ilan, Sam, Elia, and Marcel from season two. Lee Anne works on the show now so she isn't participating in the challenge. The quickfire will determine the team leaders and which team will get an extra $100 to waste on wine. The chefs have to make an egg dish, something so easy they could do it gagged and blindfolded and chained to Samuel L. Jackson's radiator. And, Oh my god, that's exactly what the challenge is!

Samuel L. Jackson: "I'm only doing this because I care so deeply about eggs. You'll thank me later."

Well, it seems a little exploitative; for instance, I don't know why the chefs have to be half-naked. But I'm sure Mr. Jackson knows what he's doing. So, Stephen creates a boiled egg:

Tom: "It's a very simple idea but he executed it perfectly!"

Marcel creates egg foam:

Other Eric: "Fucking Foam!"

That's right: Fucking Foam. Stephen and Marcel are the team leaders.

Other chefs: "Would someone please kill us?"

I'm with the other chefs. Could there be worse team leaders? The charities they will be competing for are the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research (season one) and Share our Strength (season two).

Marcel: "I put saffron in my egg foam! Is that the biggest smackdown of all time, or what?!"

Yep, that's one for the record books.

My name's Marcel and I'm taking you on.
I'm making all my dishes with lots of saffron.
I'm hip and I'm cool and the kids call my homey.
I keep my raps real and make my food foamy.

Oh, god. Please make it stop.

Tom: "Ilan and Marcel, have you two buried the hatchet yet?"

Marcel: "Is that like hiding the the salami? Because, yeah, I think Ilan wanted to. He kept calling me up and saying we should get together and I was all, 'dude, that's really flattering but I'm not into guys.'"

Tom: "Um, no ... I was asking whether you two had made up or are still fighting."

Marcel: "Oh, right. Yeah, we're totally cool."

So, the chefs will be serving dueling courses of scallops, lobster, duck, and Kobe beef.

Marcel: "Ilan, since you know nothing about cooking duck, you can take that course."

Ilan: "Oh, sorry, I accidentally spilled your hair gel all over the floor."

Other than Dave, who is acting like everyone's bitch, nobody does anything very interesting. Tom decides to create some fake drama:

Tom: "Stephen, I hear you're serving wine."

Stephen: "That's right."

Tom: [just keeps staring at Stephen like a mental patient]

Stephen: "Did you have a point you were trying to make, Tom?"

Tom: "Both teams' dishes will be served together ..."

Stephen: "Uh-huh ..."

Tom: "What if the wine goes better with the other team's dishes?"

Stephen commits hara-kiri.

The chefs will be serving their dishes to the season three contestants.

Season one and two chefs: "What gives those little assholes the right to judge us? It's not like they've ever eaten food before. I remember when we were that young and innocent. Now that we are so mature and professional, it's embarrassing to think about."

So Ilan uses so much electricity shaving stupid shapes into the side of his head that he causes global temperatures to rise by five degrees, which melts Marcel's gelée and foam:

Marcel: "That bastard!"

Then Ilan drops Marcel's mango on the floor, causing Sam to slip and knock the refrigerator over, smashing into the work top and pushing all the duck onto the floor. This startles Tiffani, who accidentally changes the temperature on all the appliances and sets Elia's hair on fire. Sam is throwing olive oil everywhere trying to put out Elia's hair but she is finally put out with a canister of lobster foam. Dave sobs uncontrollably. Unfortunately the entire kitchen burns down and the only thing they can do is call Betty and see if she'll make some soup."

Ilan: "Oops."

Don't worry about it, Ilan. Accidents happen.

Ilan: "I didn't do it on purpose."

No one said you did. You seem a little defensive, though.

Anyway, season one wins, as predicted!

Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research: "Woohoo! Suck it, Share our Strength!"

Monday, June 04, 2007

Solar power: it's not just for the Amish!

Obviously the Amish are well known for embracing new technology but you may be surprised to learn that they are the next big market for solar power. The use of solar has given them the benefit of electric lighting without using generators that would compromise their ban on motors (I'm not exactly clear on the details of their rules on technology but it's something like that).

This is not a new debate, of course, but I thought I'd bring it up after hearing the Amish solar story on NPR and recently watching a PBS program on solar power (NOVA, Saved by the sun). The consensus has been that solar power is nice and it's clean and some cute hippies may use it to power their electric bongs but it's far too expensive to ever be in widespread use.

But this is a myth. We have the technology to use it right now for a large portion of our energy needs.

One argument I remember hearing about solar is that, to provide enough power for the United States, you would need to cover the entire state of Iowa with solar panels. First of all, I have no problem with that. (JUST KIDDING! I love Iowa! Big fan!) But seriously, it wouldn't take that much space and obviously all the panels do not have to be bunched together. Most low-rise buildings have enough roof space for panels that would provide enough electricity for that building during the day. Some buildings would actually produce extra power that would go back to the grid and could be used by high-rise office buildings. (And people could plug in their electric cars during the day. OK; I'm getting ahead of myself there.) At night we would need another source of power. One thing that probably is true is that we don't have the technology yet for cheap battery storage of solar power for use at night. But much more power is used during the day so, even if it didn't provide all the power we needed, it would provide a lot of it.

There is a good example for demonstrating that the technology not only exists already but is profitable. A private company is installing solar panels on the roofs of some Whole Foods markets (Sorry I don't have the details. The Whole Foods site mentions several companies so I'm not sure which one was being discussed on the NOVA program). The company pays to install the panels in exchange for a long-term contract selling the electricity to Whole Foods. The panels should last 40 years and the solar company can collect money that whole time. Whole Foods gets a long term contract for inexpensive power without a major investment. Everybody wins. It's obviously economical or this private company wouldn't be doing it.

So why isn't this widespread?

I think it's because this method doesn't really work for the larger consumer market. We should all have panels on our roofs. We would save a fortune over the life of the panels. The panels to power a typical house would cost about $20,000. How much would you spend on electricity over 40 years? $100,000? $200,000? I'm not sure, but I can tell you the panels would be well worth it. The problem is that most people don't have $20,000 to spend on it. Actually, they could probably include the expense in their mortgage and save money on the monthly power bill, but the point is most people aren't going to do that. It just seems too expensive to most people, even with state incentive programs.

And the company that is putting panels on the Whole Foods isn't going to put panels on your house because they need a long-term contract that most homeowners can't give them. (can you guarantee you won't move?) I don't think small solar companies can do this on their own. And I don't think big power companies have any interest in doing it.

I think that's because the long term profits just aren't there. The oil companies control the power industry. The oil companies can theoretically switch some of their holdings over to bio-fuels and continue to make money the same way they do now with oil. But with solar there is the initial purchase of the equipment and then that's basically it. How are the oil companies supposed to make money that way? They can't. They have no long-term plan for dealing with with a move away from fuel-based energy. The problem with solar is not that the technology isn't good enough; the problem is that it's too good.

I think this is why there is so much more talk about bio-fuels. Bio-fuels look good to oil and power companies because they will work much the same way as the currest energy market. Bio-fuels are certainly better than coal or oil but they come with their own set of problems. While there are people starving all over the world, we will be growing crops in order to burn them for energy. It just doesn't seem like the best plan to me. I'm not opposed to bio-fuels, I just don't think they are as good as solar. (Wind farms are also good but they kill birds and take up lots of space.)

Solar technology, of course, could get much better. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday about new solar panels that look like roof tiles, for people who want something more aesthetically pleasing (thanks to desertwind for the link). They are more expensive but will still save you lots of money on power bills. Scientists are also working on ways to bring solar-collecting properties to house paint (and I'm sure they'll eventually figure out how to make solar-collecting windows) so that the entire exterior of buildings will be producing energy. And, like I said, we still need a better way to store the energy for use at night. But the point is we have the technology right now for cost-effective solar power that could fill much of our energy need.

I don't have a solution for getting more people to use solar. State incentive programs help but there is just so much promotion of bio-fuels that I'm afraid people are convinced solar was an idea that has come and gone. I can bring up a broader argument about monopolies. I joke about being a communist but the reality is that I have no problem with private ownership and I think that a free-market system provides important incentives for innovation. The problem I have is that I don't believe there is any free-market in monopolies like power companies. A consumer can't choose his or her power company. You're either on the grid or you aren't on the grid. The power companies are under some regulation but certainly not enough to provide the pressures of a true free market. My point is that, since power companies are monopolies and have very little free-market pressure to innovate or satisfy consumer needs, they may as well be state-owned. I know that will totally freak some people out. It's just a suggestion. Calm down. Our elected officials would then have some pressure to provide innovation to the consumer and could provide the option of solar panels without the concern of reduced profits that a private power company would have.

I know: I'm a communist freak! I can't help it!

Oh, by the way, we rent our apartment so have no way to use solar. And our landlord doesn't pay our electric bill so he has no reason to put solar panels on the roof of our building. This is another example of how the current system of depending on consumers to expand the use of solar doesn't work very well. There needs to be more government action.

Again, your comments are welcome as long as they are polite. Thanks!