Sunday, June 30, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Dates

     Dates are the fruit of various types of palm trees.  They can be eaten in several ways.  Some people eat them fresh, or dried, and they’re sometimes made into a spreadable paste, a syrup, and can even be made into a wine.  In parts of Spain, the local tradition is to wrap them in bacon, and then lightly fry them.
     They are an ancient food, having been cultivated for at least 4,000 to 5,000 years, and perhaps longer.  Dates are thought to have originated in what is now Iraq, but they’ve long been a staple food throughout the Middle East.  And since then they’ve been successfully cultivated in other warmer climate areas, like Northern Africa, Southern Europe, and parts of North America.
     A date species also holds the record for the oldest mature seed to be germinated.  Excavations in Herod the Great’s Palace ruins in Masada, Israel, recovered some seeds from the Judean date palm, a species that’s been extinct for about 1800 years.  Scientists were able to grow one of these 2,000 year old seeds into a date palm plant, a male they nicknamed “Methuselah.”  So kind of like a “Jurassic Park,” situation, only instead of reborn extinct species that can kill and eat people it was a plant that poses no danger to anyone or anything.  If you’re concerned that Methuselah might be lonely, being the only one of his kind on earth, rest assured that his creators are trying to cross breed him with a related cousin date palm species.  (And to use another movie comparison, hopefully this attempt works out better than for Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride.)  And if you’re interested, a Russian scientific team has recently (2012) announced a germination that would make Methuselah look like an infant.  They claim that they were able to grow a narrow-leafed campion from immature seeds found in an animal burrow buried under permafrost in Siberia.  These seeds were dated as being about 32,000 years old!  This claim is controversial though, and hasn’t been independently verified at this time.
     I only had dates very recently, within the past six months, but I’ve quickly become a huge fan.  I had them dried, and pitted.  The expression “Nature’s Candy” is bandied about a lot, usually as a way for parents to trick kids into eating healthier snacks.  And let’s face it, usually these claims are lies, or at least wild exaggerations—very few people would say that an apple or raisin is equal in taste to say, a chocolate bar.  Well, dates aren’t tastier than my favorite candies, but as far as fruits go they do come the closest.  Several of my friends don’t like them because they find them too sweet, but to my lazy, immature palate that’s a plus.
     Therefore, I highly recommend dates as a great tasting snack.  But, as a word of warning, take a tip from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and if you’re currently being stalked and harassed by Nazis, let an evil monkey taste test your dates prior to you trying them, to lessen the chances of being poisoned to death.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Goats

     As usual, I’ll start with a digression about the animal/food in question, and get to my opinion about how it tasted toward the end.  Goats, of course, are one of the oldest domesticated animals, as folks did so about 10,000 years ago, according to the latest archaeological/DNA evidence.  It’s not hard to see why they were picked, as they’re useful for meat, milk (an average adult female goat can produce over two liters a day), bones (for tool making), hides (their hair is good for making warm clothing, and their skin was sometimes used as parchment), and sinew.  In the barnyard they’re considered the second smartest animal, after the pig (granted, their competitors are such non-geniuses as the chicken, cow, sheep, and horse, but still).  Sometimes, this is a downside for the farmer, as their intelligence, climbing ability, balance, and curiosity means they’re Houdini-like in escaping enclosures (they’re even capable of climbing low-angled trees).
     One myth about goats is that they pretty much eat anything, including tin cans.  Alas, cartoons and fairy tales have misled us, as this isn’t true.  Being natural browsers, they do eat a wide range of things, but only of the plant variety.  This myth probably came about because of goat’s penchant for investigating objects with their mouths.  But checking something out and actually consuming it are clearly two different things.  Goats might be attracted to the food smells still inside a can, or by the paper label (and adhesive glue), but they are not inclined to, or are able to bite off chunks of metal and digest them.
     During the Middle Ages, goats had a bad reputation, at least in Europe.  Perhaps because of their horns and lusty demeanor during mating times, they were often associated with evil, and sin in general.  Depictions of Satan often had him possessing goat parts, and the pentagram is thought to possibly be a rough rendering of a goat’s head.  Even regular goats were thought to tempt and torment saints by whispering dirty things in their ears.
     One amusing subspecies is the Tennessee Fainting Goat, a breed especially prized for its meat.  This title is true, in a way.  These goats have a condition called myotonia congenita, which means when they’re surprised and/or afraid some of their muscles freeze for about ten seconds.  This often results in them falling over in a very comical manner.  Technically it’s not a faint, as the goats don’t lose consciousness, but it sure looks this way.  Older members of this group typically learn to stand in a spread position, or to lean against something, meaning they don’t fall over as often.  If they start to run while experiencing the affliction their gait is necessarily weird and stiff, which is why alternate names for them are wooden-leg goats, or stiff-leg goats.  I was intrigued to learn that this condition is also (rarely, obviously) found in humans.
     A fairly recent expression involves goats, sort of.  “GOAT” or sometimes, “G.O.A.T.” is an acronym for “Greatest of All Time,” usually said to have been inspired by boxer Muhammad Ali’s boasting (but arguably reasonable) comments about himself.  This has been claimed by rappers (LL Cool J, Eminem) and athletes (sprinter Maurice Green) and said by others for folks like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, etc.  This seems weird to me, as in sports the “goat” (no periods, written in lowercase letters) typically means (or used to, anyway) the person who’s most responsible for a loss (probably derived from “scapegoat”).  Personally I would have originated an acronym that was less easy to misinterpret, like B.E., or BE, for “Best Ever,” or something.
     My job frequently involves working adjacent to, or actually inside agricultural fields or pasture areas.  Usually it’s cows or horses, but on a few occasions I’ve been around goats.  I’ve seen firsthand how they’re inquisitive and agile—they were able to easily get through fences to come over and see what the archaeologists were doing.  One in particular climbed up into our SUV (we were tempted to take it with us) and later attempted to mount a guy who was sitting on the ground.  Their eyes are very bizarre, and kind of creepy looking, with their horizontal slit-shaped pupils.  I later found out that other common animals, like horses and deer, also have pupils like this, but since their irises, unlike goats, are darker in color this isn’t as noticeable.
     I’ve eaten goat on a couple of occasions, both times at an Indian restaurant.  And I came away unimpressed.  Texturally it was similar to lamb, but it had none of lamb’s savory taste.  It was bland, and rather bony.  It’s possible that it was the restaurants’ fault, or it was a poor cut of meat, lackluster sauce, etc, so I’d be willing to try it again.  But I have to say I’m doubtful that I’ll change my opinion.
     On the other hand, I’ve had goat cheeses (including another blog post entry, gjetost) and enjoyed these.  This is to be expected, though.  Readers of previous posts may remember my stance on cheese, which essentially is that all kinds of cheese are, to borrow a compound word used by Van Morrison, fantabulous (or, to be more vulgar, like pizza and sex, even “bad” cheeses are still pretty good).
     Finally, I was amused to see that goats are becoming a choice for unusual pets, a la ferrets and pot bellied pigs, I guess.  They seem to have decent dispositions, so I could see that working out.  However, if those Middle Ages Europeans were right, owners might be risking either attacks of hysterical laughter, or sexual harassment, depending on your feelings about hearing obscene comments from your pet.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Underrated Horror Movie Gems--"Deranged" (Also Ed Gein info)

     “Deranged” is a 1974 low budget movie based on real life killer Ed Gein.  Before I get into the movie, a short biography of Gein is probably in order.
     Ed Gein was born in 1906 to George and Augusta Gein.  Their family, which also included an older brother Henry, was extremely dysfunctional and unhappy.  George was a weak willed alcoholic, while Augusta was a fanatically religious, controlling, hateful woman.  Augusta had a dim view of humanity in general, and of women in particular.  When Ed was still a boy Augusta had saved enough money to buy an isolated farm in the tiny Wisconsin town of Plainfield.  Except for school, the boys were forbidden to leave the farm, and friendships and especially relationships with girls were expressly forbidden.  After George died in 1940 the boys became handymen to help pay the bills, and Ed excelled at babysitting, being rather childlike himself.  Older brother Henry began to stand up to Augusta a little, while Ed remained properly cowed by her.  In 1944, while fighting a fire that threatened to reach the house, Henry was found dead.  His body’s condition was somewhat suspicious, but the police didn’t suspect foul play.  Augusta succumbed to a series of strokes in late 1945, leaving Ed alone, without his only real friend and love.
     Ed’s reaction to his mother’s death was strange.  He boarded up the upstairs and the downstairs parlor and living room, and lived in the house’s kitchen and one small room off of it.  He continued to read the magazines and books he was fascinated with, which dealt with morbid subject matter like the Nazis, South Sea headhunters, and human anatomy.  Ed also continued to do odd jobs and babysitting around town, where he was regarded as weird but decent, and trustworthy.  A shrunken head shown to a local boy, and jokes about having human remains were laughed off as being examples of his odd sense of humor. 
     Starting in about 1947, Ed began to visit and rob from graves, and also bring back human body parts.  A series of missing persons cases in the Plainfield area in the late 1940’s and 1950’s baffled police.  Finally, in 1957, after the disappearance of hardware store owner Bernice Worden, police investigated the Gein home.  There they found the remains of Worden, 1954 disappearance victim Mary Hogan, and at least ten other women.  The remains had been tanned and preserved, and some were made into things—a skull cap bowl, human skin lampshades and an armchair, a belt made from nipples, and human skin masks and a suit.
     Gein was found to be not guilty due to insanity, and confined to a mental institution.  In 1968 he was declared mentally competent, and initially found guilty of Worden’s murder.  However, eventually he was found not guilty because he was judged insane when he committed the murder, so he was returned to the mental hospital.  While there he was considered an ideal patient—friendly, happy, and nonviolent.  He died from conditions related to cancer in 1984, aged 77.
     Ed became one of the most infamous killers of all time.  Partly due to the time period—he was caught before many of the more notorious killers from the 1970’s and beyond, like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc.  And part of it probably is due to the nature of his crimes, since he killed and did such disturbing things with human body parts.  He was one of the early examples of hybristophilia, meaning many women were sexually attracted to him after his exploits were known, and proposed marriage, etc.  He also fostered a cottage industry of “Geiners,” morbidly bad taste jokes.  (Examples—“Why won’t anyone play poker with Ed Gein?  He might come up with a good hand.”  And, “Why did they keep the heat on in Ed Gein’s house?  So the furniture wouldn’t get goose bumps.”)
     It’s odd that one of the more known killers isn’t even technically a “serial” killer, since he’s “only” been proven to have killed two people (Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan).  He was, of course, suspected in the disappearances of others (and of killing his brother), but no firm evidence for these could be found.  Finally, while he denied being a cannibal, he may have been, and even one by proxy—he was known to have delivered “venison” to neighbors, but later denied ever hunting deer.
     Many famous movies have been inspired, at least in part, by Ed’s story.  Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960), (based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name) keeps many of the details accurate, while changing “Ed” (Norman Bates) into a hotel owner, and eliminating most of the grave robbing/body part usage.  “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), borrows the grave robbing/body part usage details while changing the solitary villain into a three generation cannibal family who prefers using chainsaws instead of Ed’s bullets.  “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), mixes details of several real life killer (Gary Heidnik, Ted Bundy) while including a Gein-like killer fascinated with “becoming” a woman by making a suit made from women’s preserved skin.
     Which leads, finally, to “Deranged.”  This movie’s story sticks much closer to the real events than those other films.  Ed Gein becomes “Ezra Cobb,” his mother Augusta becomes “Amanda,” and Plainfield is renamed “Woodside,” but most of the other details are pretty realistic.  The most notable changes are a couple of Ezra’s victims are pretty and young, instead of being the unattractive middle-aged or old women that Ed preferred, since they were better stand-ins for his mother.  (This was probably a financial decision, as the audience would surely be more interested in seeing hot, younger women in various states of undress.)  The movie is low budget, and this shows, but as in other movies of this type, this seems to help, as it seems more realistic and thus more unsettling than a slick, polished production would be.  The special effects, though obviously done on the cheap, were nevertheless well done and quite appropriately disgusting.
     (SPOILERS AHEAD)  “Deranged” has an effective disturbing feel to it throughout.  Early on, Ezra announces his intention to rob graves for body parts in front of his friend Harlan’s family.  They’re amused, and assume he’s just making one of his bizarre jokes, but the audience can guess he was being quite sincere.  The circumstances surrounding Ezra’s first murder are pathetically eerie, too.  The one woman his mother said wasn’t a “slut, money-stealing bitch,” “Filled with diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis” (evidently a point in her favor is that’s she fat) is Maureen Selby.  Alas, Maureen’s now a lonely widow, and when contacted by Ezra she sets her romantic sights on him.  She channels the voice of her deceased husband in a séance, and “he” implores Ezra to have sex with Maureen.  Ezra begins to comply, but, predictably, he remembers his mother’s position on sex, and instead he ends up shooting her.
     His murder of barmaid Mary Ransom is similarly darkly compelling.  He tricks her back to his home by flattening her tire, and then he ties her up and announces she’s to be his wife.  She sees the extent of his grave robbing activities—a violin strung with human gut, a human skin drum and human bone drumstick, masks and suits made from human skin, and the other guests at the dinner party are preserved corpses.  When she tries to escape he beats her to death with a human bone.
     And finally, there’s the death of poor Sally, girlfriend of his friend Harlan’s son Brad.  After he shoots her (knocking her out, and wounding her) at her workplace, he then drives her toward his home.  Along the way, she comes to, and jumps out of his truck, coincidently near where her boyfriend and his father are hunting deer.  By further irony, instead of the animals they were targeting, the snare the hunters set catches the fleeing Sally, and enables Ezra to kill her and get her home.  The hunters and the police arrive in time to view her gutted, hanging corpse.
     Obviously, “Deranged” is pretty grim stuff, so the filmmakers wisely injected a few light hearted moments.  For example, when he’s caught speeding with his mother’s decaying corpse in his vehicle, Ezra explains the odor to the cop by saying that he had a butchered hog in there, for which he later apologizes to his mother’s body.  Also, Ezra has doubts about Maureen’s mental stability, even says she’s “not all there upstairs.”  However, since he’s saying this in a conversation with his mother’s preserved corpse, it’s darkly humorous.  And finally, while Maureen is channeling her husband, Ezra addresses the voice as “Yes Sir,” then, “Yes Ma’am,” unsure of the etiquette of a woman talking in a (dead) man’s voice.
     One weird part of the movie’s structure itself is the outside narrator.  Most movies have the narrator either be a central character talking over the action, or if shown, in scenes before and after, or at least separated from the story.  “Deranged” narrator, “Tom Simms,” is actually in the scenes—at one point he’s actually sitting in the bedroom while Ezra is “fixing” his dead mother’s decayed face(!).  It’s jarringly surreal, and kind of detracts from the suspension of disbelief needed when watching a movie.
     (END SPOILERS)  Acting in low budget horror films is often mediocre at best, and crappy at worst.  But those in “Deranged” do a decent job.  Most of the supporting actors aren’t required to do much more than act oblivious and/or scream as they’re being brutalized, but they do this competently, I thought.  But Ezra’s portrayer (Roberts Blossom), is quite good.  He’s quite believable.  Oddly sympathetic, in that he’s rather childlike and innocent in some ways, but then terrifying when he’s single mindedly stalking his prey.
     Of the filmmakers, co-director Jeff Gillen’s career was mostly that of a supporting actor, as he appeared in “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” (1972), “Deathdream” (1974), “Absence of Malice” (1981), and as Santa in “A Christmas Story” (1983), among others.  The other co-director, Alan Ormsby, was better known as a makeup effects artist and writer, doing, among others, “Shock Waves” (1977), “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” (1972), and “Deathdream” (1974) for the former, and “My Bodyguard” (1980), “The Substitute” (1996), “Mulan” (1998, co-writer), as well as TV’s “Nash Bridges” for the latter.  Both were frequent collaborators with Bob Clark, known for his horror movies like “Deathdream,” “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” “Black Christmas” (1974), as well as the teen sex comedy series “Porky’s” (1982 and beyond), and family fare like “A Christmas Story.”
     Star Roberts Blossom was busy, acting in, among others, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979), “Christine” (1983), and probably most notably as Old Man Marley in “Home Alone” (1990).  Leslie Carlson (Tom Simms) acted in movies like “Black Christmas” (1974), “Videodrome” (1983), “The Fly” (1986), and the X Files, among others.  Most of the other actors had brief, supporting actor-only careers.  Famous actor Harvey Keitel unsuccessfully auditioned for the Ezra Cobb role.
     Two further movies have since been made about Ed Gein, (and presumably are fairly accurate), “In the Light of the Moon” (2000) and “Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield” (2007).  I haven’t seen them, but have read mediocre to bad reviews of them.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--English Soft Drinks

     Today I’d like to talk about two English soft drinks—Vimto and Fiery Ginger Beer.  Vimto is a fruit flavored beverage while the other, as the name suggests, is ginger flavored, similar to what many call a “ginger ale.”  Both of these are tough to find in the States—I’ve only found them in the magnificent Wegmans grocery chain in the Northeast and the slightly less awesome but still very good Publix in the Southeast.
     But before I go into their respective charms I want to digress and discuss regional names for soft drinks in the U.S.  Growing up in the Northeast (NJ), while these types of beverages might occasionally be called, generically, “soft drinks” or “soda pop,” the overwhelming amount of the time they were called “soda.”  Therefore, it seemed strange when I discovered that most people from the Midwest refer to these same drinks as “pop.”  But things got even weirder—people from the South call all such beverages a “Coke,” which is of course a popular brand name.  So in the South a waitress might ask, in all seriousness, if you want a “Pepsi Coke,” which seems absurd and bizarre to me, since it mixes two distinct, bitter rivals, into one.  That seems akin to a car dealer asking if you want a “Ford Chevrolet,” or a bartender inquiring if you want a “Yuengling Budweiser.”  (Friends from the South defend this by pointing out that calling something by a brand name isn’t that uncommon, like calling all copiers a “Xerox,” or all facial tissues a “Kleenex.”  While this is true I maintain it just isn’t the same, as I don’t think many people have passionate feelings about copiers or snot rags, but they often do have them about their drinks.)  There are other regional food/beverage name differences, of course, such as the “hoagie” versus “sub” versus “grinder” sandwich debate, but for some reason I find the soft drink one particularly annoying, even though I know intellectually that these differences are stupid and trivial.  I looked up a soft drink name national map, and the boundaries of the various names are fairly distinct.  The Northeast, the Southwest, and Hawaii call it “soda,” the rest of the South call it “Coke,” and the Northwest, Midwest, and Alaska call it “pop.”
     Anyway, back to the topic of the post, Vimto is an old soft drink, dating back to 1908.  It started out as a health tonic, but was quickly rebilled as a non-medicinal beverage shortly thereafter, and has flourished ever since.  Unlike many/most U.S. soft drinks, it does contain a small amount of fruit juice—3% is blackcurrant, raspberry, and grape juices.  In addition to its home country, it’s become popular in Gambia, Senegal, and especially the Arabian Peninsula.  I found it to be very good.  Sweet but not cloyingly so, and with a pleasant fruit flavor, apparently helped by the presence of actual real fruit in it.
     The Fiery Ginger Beer, made by Idris, was a real show stopper for me.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of ginger ales, so I had low expectations going in.  I’m happy to report that the Ginger Beer is excellent.  It had a strong ginger taste, and quite a nice spicy “bite” to it.
     So, to sum up, Vimto is very good, and Fiery Ginger Beer is top notch, one of my very favorite beverages.  I’ll definitely have both again, whenever I can locate them.  I heartily recommend both to anyone who likes fruit or ginger flavored drinks.  Just don’t call them “Cokes” or “pops.”

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Fiddleheads

     I first heard of fiddleheads in 2003.  At the time I was working with a friend from Maine (Hi Jane), and she often raved about them.  (Incidentally, a fun term for those who hail from that state is “Maineiac” (sp?).  Furthermore, the more insulting, but amusing slang term for a Massachusetts native is “Masshole.”)  She brought back a jar from home, and several of us gave them a go.
     Fiddleheads are the furled fronds of the young fern plant.  They are commonly eaten in Asia, Northern France, Canada, and in the New England states, especially Maine.  Tide Head, New Brunswick, Canada, bills itself as the “Fiddlehead Capital of the World.”  They are sometimes eaten alone as snacks, mixed in with other dishes, or as a side.  Some of the species eaten are bracken, ostrich, cinnamon (or buckthorn), zenmai (flowering), vegetable, and royal.
     Nutritionally, the good news is that fiddleheads are high in fiber, potassium, and iron, and low in sodium.  The bad news, unfortunately, is rather extensive.  Some fern species contain thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine, meaning a person who eats a lot of fiddleheads could develop the vitamin deficiency condition beriberi.  (Cooking the fiddleheads seems to help avoid this, though.)  Also, the bracken species of fern, and perhaps the ostrich variant, appear to be carcinogenic.  Higher incidences of stomach cancer in parts of Japan are tentatively linked to fiddlehead consumption.
     I’m not sure what species I ate, but hopefully it was one of the safer kinds.  They were pickled, and had been purchased from a grocery store.  Normally I’m a big fan of pickling, so this boded well.  Alas, I thought fiddleheads were pretty revolting.  I found the texture to be unpleasant, as it was sort of slimy.  And the taste was awful—strong, and rather bitter.  Not appetizing at all.  It could be a regional thing—maybe if I’d grown up eating them as a child I would be fond of them, but I didn’t, and I’m not.  And given how negative an experience it was, I have no plans to try fiddleheads again.