Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Unusual Eggs

     Eggs have always been fascinating to me.  This is largely due to their "forbidden fruit" status caused by my faulty immune system.  As an adolescent I was allergic to egg yolks (and chocolate, which is another whole story).  And, as any cook can tell you, egg yolk is in many recipes.  Dessert food especially--just about every cake and pastry contains this taboo ingredient.  My only options were angel food cake (made with egg whites only) and certain prepackaged yolk-less substitutes, like Egg Beaters, for scrambled eggs.  Both of these were okay, but I was anxious to try the delicious-looking doughnuts, birthday cakes, etc., that my peers regularly ate.  Alas, my allergy was no joke--not being able to breathe was a powerful deterrent.
     Fortunately, this all changed during puberty.  This period of innumerable chemical changes sometimes has the side effect of causing people to gain or lose allergies.  Luckily for me, my food allergies disappeared, and I've been making up for lost time ever since.  I've mostly had the regular chicken eggs, of course, but I have been able to try a few unusual ones, like salmon, flying fish, lumpfish, and quail.
     Salmons' sense of smell is incredible--they are able to make the arduous trek from the ocean all the way back to the fresh water rivers or lakes where they were born, to mate, based on "scent memory."  I've had their eggs in Japanese restaurants, as sushi.  The eggs are about as big as peas, and are orange in color.  They're delicious--they're nicely (but not overly) salty, and they pop in your mouth in a pleasing way.  I highly recommend them.
     Flying fish are wonderfully weird creatures.  What an awesome defense strategy they have.  A predator is chasing a tasty-looking fish, and then, Wham!--it leaves the water and is gone.  "Flying" is  a bit of an exaggeration, as it's really a glide, but their trips are pretty impressive.  they average about 160 feet, and reach heights of 20 feet above the water, and speeds of 43 miles per hour.  One Japanese team filmed one flying for a record 45 seconds!  Their eggs are tiny, about the size of large grains of sand.  Naturally orange, they're sometimes colored black (using squid ink), or green (using wasabi).  They're very good.  I would rank them below salmon, as they're slightly blander, but still well worth it.  They're much more common, too, as many sushi rolls use them as a garnish, coating the outsides of the rolls with them.  In a typical sushi meal it's probably hard not to eat some.
     Finally, the last exotic egg I've had in a sushi restaurant is quail.  Befitting the birds' size, their eggs are probably about one-third as big as a chicken egg.  I had them raw (I think), atop a bed of rice, enclosed by seaweed.  They're very good as well.  Although, like the salmon eggs, sometimes hard to find on an average sushi menu.  Quail eggs are pretty common fare in many parts of the world.  In Venezuela and Columbia hard boiled ones top off hamburgers and hot dogs.  The Vietnamese boil them as bar snacks.  In the Philippines they soft boil them and then fry them.  In South Korea and Indonesia, they're a typical street vendor offering.
     Lumpfish eggs I see occasionally in grocery stores.  And I encourage readers to look up photos of this animal, as it's bizarre and accurately-named.  They're roundish, fat, and sometimes have gross wart-like growths all over their skin.  They're also called lumpsuckers, as their modified fins are adhesive, allowing them to stick to rocks and other objects.  Their flesh is a common item in Scandinavian cuisine.  Anyway, I was excited to try this roe, as they were billed as "caviar," and were correspondingly slightly expensive (as memory serves, it was about $6-8 for a tiny jar).  The upshot was, unfortunately, that they were terrible.  Plain or on crackers they were like eating a mouthful of salt.  I couldn't even finish the minuscule serving--totally revolting.
     I'll end with mentioning some unusual eggs on my "to try" list.  First off is caviar, the actual sturgeon kind seen in James Bond movies and the like.  Since genuine caviar from the Caspian and Black Seas is about $2500 a pound (!), though, I'll have to sell way more books to eventually hope to afford this.  More realistically, I'd like to sample some ostrich and emu eggs.  Ostrich eggs, obviously, are giant (20 times heavier than a chicken egg), and reportedly make a nice, gargantuan omelet.  Emu eggs are nearly as big, supposedly good, yet have a weird appearance, resembling avocados.  With the increase in ostrich and emu farms in the U.S. in the past few decades (for meat and hides), maybe I'll have a chance to try their eggs in the near future.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

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

     Last week I tackled an Italian cheese (the delicious water buffalo mozzarella), and today I’ll be discussing some of the country’s soft drinks.  I’d never seen any of these for sale before, but the special Market Place version of the Giant Eagle grocery had a more extensive foreign foods section, so I snapped some up.  Three of the choices were made by Baladin, and one was produced by a company called Lurisia.
     I’ll go worst to best.  On that note, first up was Selezione Baladin Ginger.  I really disliked this one.  It wasn’t gingery at all.  Instead it was unpleasantly bitter, and kind of chalky.  I had trouble finishing it.  Later I consulted the company website and discovered that they proudly proclaim that it’s not a ginger ale, and there’s no ginger in it.  It’s flavored with bitter oranges, (non-ginger) spices, and vanilla.  It’s actually named for the famous actress/dancer Ginger Rogers, although this information, or her photo/likeness, or even her last name isn’t printed on the bottle’s label.  This seems bizarrely confusing.  If I was marketing, say a butterscotch pudding, I wouldn’t call it Chili Pepper Pudding because I was a fan of the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers, or if I did, I’d include a prominent explanation of all this.  So, a misleading name for this selection, and a drink I don’t want to have again.
     Next up is Baladin’s Spuma Nera.  I found this beverage drinkable, but bland.  I couldn’t place the flavor, either.  Again, the website revealed it’s made from an orange zest infusion and rhubarb.  Really.  I’ve heard of eating rhubarb pie, or more rarely, pickled rhubarb, but this is the first time I’ve heard of it used to make a drink.  While it was better than the Ginger type, I still wouldn’t try it again.
     The offering from Lurisia was Il Nostro Chinotto.  It had a weird, sweetish taste.  Okay, but not great.  Evidently Chinotto is a popular Italian soft drink type, as it’s made from a local small bitter orange.
     Finally, there was the Baladin Cedrata.  This was by far the most familiar tasting soda, and perhaps because of this I liked it the best.  It was nice, very lemony and citrus-y.  Unlike the others, I would be willing to buy this one again.
     The bottle sizes for all of these were a little odd, too.  Most American single serving size sodas are 12 ounces.  Of the European beverages I’d had (including beer), they usually are 330 milliliters, or 11.16 ounces, roughly the same size as the U.S. ones.  These Italian soft drinks were markedly smaller, though—the Baladins were 8.45 ounces, and the Lurisia 9.3.
     Don’t mean to be too harsh on these soft drinks, as I recognize that certain tastes and flavors are culturally-bound.  If I’d grown up regularly consuming the local fruits, and the foods flavored with them, perhaps I’d feel differently.  But I didn’t, and I’m not much of fan.  Also, it’s possible that there are Italian sodas that I’d really enjoy, but they’re not exported as much.  So I’d certainly be willing to try some different ones, just as long as they’re not the lackluster selections I’ve mentioned above.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Water Buffalo Cheese

     Yesterday I was wandering through the cheese section of the local Giant Eagle, a decent supermarket chain in the Midwest and Mid Atlantic.  This grocery has an amusing visual aid—they have little placards with the name, brief description, and then a picture of the milk-producing animal for all of their selections.  Most, of course, are little cow silhouettes, broken up by the occasional goat or sheep.  But one had a totally different one, of a buffalo.  It was Mozzarella Di Bufala, from Sorella, imported from Italy.
     I was a little surprised to learn that the water buffalo has quite a history in Italy (and throughout Europe, South America, Australia, and North America).  They were introduced in about 600 A.D., and have been used as a work animal, and been utilized for their meat, bones and hide (for jewelry and leather goods), and milk.  Mozzarella cheese (from the Italian word mozzare, “to cut,” as its production includes spinning and cutting the cheese (pun not intended)) was, in fact, traditionally made from water buffalo milk.  It’s only in fairly recent times that it’s been made from regular cow’s milk.
     Water buffalo originate from Asia, namely the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.  They’ve been domesticated for thousands of years, and are an integral part of the cultures of the people in these areas.  They’ve been called the “living tractors of the East,” as they are excellent for laboring in flooded rice paddy fields.  Water buffalo races are held in many countries (and less nicely, fights of the male animals are staged, too).  Wild ones even have ecological uses, as their browsing of water plants help keep channels open for other animals, and river traffic.
     As far as cheese types go, mozzarella has to be among the world’s most popular, up there with cheddar, gouda, and feta, I guess.  That’s because of the explosion of pizza in the 20th century, which uses a type of mozzarella.
     Long story short, water buffalo mozzarella cheese was delicious.  Granted, I love pretty much all cheeses, and have consumed thousands of pizzas, so there wasn’t a whole lot of drama going in.  I was able to detect a slight difference in water buffalo mozzarella cheese versus cow mozzarella cheese, though.  The buffalo variant was slightly richer, and a tad sweeter and creamier.  Since water buffalo milk is higher in fat and protein content than cow’s, this makes sense.  I had it fresh, and by itself, so I’d like to try it cooked into a pizza, or sample other cheese types (ricotta, stracchino, etc.) made with it, too.  Really, the only down side was it was tough to get (this is the only time I’ve seen it sold in a grocery) and it was a little expensive (which is also not shocking, since it is rare, and was imported).
     I’ll close with a quote from the movie “Fletch,” because I love this film and it’s the only one I can think of which references the topic of this post.  “Can I borrow your towel for a sec?  My car just hit a water buffalo.”

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Expression/Term Explanations: Part 1

     Today I’d like to discuss several expressions that are based on the names of real people or places.  I’ve certainly heard, and used these expressions, but I wasn’t very familiar with the actual personalities involved in them.  So I thought it might be interesting to include brief historical backgrounds of these folks.  Some would have been obscure without the expressions, and others were otherwise notable, but are best remembered for the expressions (perhaps in a way they wouldn’t have liked).

1)      Pyrrhic victory.  This is a case when someone technically wins something, but it comes at such a high cost that it has the effect of a loss.  Or it can be a temporary victory which directly results in a later, more profound loss.  A sports example might be if a team wins a game, but in doing so they lose several key players to serious injury, dooming the rest of their season.
           This expression comes from the king Pyrrhus, who ruled the Greek kingdom of Epirus in ancient times.  In 280 B.C. he was asked for military aid by the Italian city-state of Tarentum against the Romans.  He and his forces were victorious in the battles at Heraclea (in 280 B.C.) and Asculum (279 B.C.).  However, in doing so he lost a huge portion of his army, several key friends, and most of his main commanders.  He was said to have remarked, “If we are victorious in one more such battle with the Romans we shall be utterly ruined.”  The final straw for his side was (an actual loss this time) in 275 B.C. at a town which, to celebrate the Roman win, changed its name from Maleventum (“bad event”) to Beneventum (“good event”).  Pyrrhus retreated to Greece, and this helped allow the Romans to become a major power.  Pyrrhus died a few years later, in 272 B.C. at Argos, Greece.  Rumor had it that he was dropped from his horse to be killed by an Argive soldier after being stunned by a woman hitting him in the head with a thrown roofing tile.  The Pyrrhic Wars also demonstrated the disadvantages of using elephants in battle—once the Romans learned how to effectively wound them the elephants had the tendency to panic, and they often trampled their own troops in these rampages.

2)      Stockholm Syndrome.  This is the name of the condition wherein hostages go through a bizarre transference and begin to sympathize and identify with their captors, and sometimes even actively defend them.  The FBI has calculated that this happens to about 27% of hostages.  It’s similar to the conditions that some abused spouses/children demonstrate, and (in a less serious way) to the bonding between members created by some fraternity hazing.
            This gets its name from an incident at the Kreditbanken in Norrmalmsstorg, Stockholm, Sweden during August 23-28, 1973.  A Jan-Erik Olsson tried to rob this bank, and in doing so he shot and wounded a police officer, and then he took four hostages.  During the standoff he requested that a friend of his, Clark Olofsson (who also had a history of robberies and arrests) be brought to him, which the police allowed.  For the next several days the six people remained holed up in a bank vault.  Olsson demanded money, guns, defensive equipment, and an escape car.  At one point Olsson was put through on the phone to the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, and he threatened to kill the hostages.  It became a large media event, as updates and even photos were shown live on Swedish television.  Finally the police used gas attacks, and were able to arrest Olsson and Olofsson, and free the hostages without any serious injuries.  Olsson and Olofsson were both tried and convicted.  However, some of the hostages testified on behalf of Olofsson, bolstering his claim that he wasn’t an active participant in the robbery attempt, and that he was trying to save the hostages and calm the situation.  The jury agreed, and Olofsson’s conviction was overturned.  Olsson served a ten year sentence, then was released.  He returned to crime, and eventually turned himself in to authorities.  Oddly, they informed him that they had stopped pursuing him for these new crimes.  He wrote an autobiography, and now he lives in Thailand with his family.  Olofsson visited with at least one of the hostages, and their families became friends.
     What I found most fascinating is the theory that the Stockholm Syndrome hostages might not have demonstrated “Stockholm Syndrome” at all.  Critics point out that the hostages did help Olofsson, but he wasn’t directly threatening to them, and may have been, as he said, a quasi-bystander in the situation.  Tellingly, the hostages didn’t help or appear to identify with the undisputed captor, Olsson.  Theorists claim that the hostages’ disapproval of the methods used by the police to free them were misinterpreted as support for their captor.  (The hostages were evidently afraid that the police’s efforts were too violent and confrontational, and might get them killed by Olsson, or directly by accident.)
     Some false rumors persist.  Notably, while Olsson received fan letters from women while in prison, and was even engaged to one, neither he nor Olofsson were ever married or romantically linked to any of the hostages.  And this condition has sometimes been erroneously referred to as “Helsinki Syndrome” (including, if memory serves, in the movie “Die Hard.”)

3)      M’Naghten rules.  These are often mentioned in cases involving crimes committed by an allegedly insane person.  They have varied from country to country, and over time, but the basic premise is that a person is not considered guilty of the crime if they didn’t realize what they were doing at the time, or if they didn’t realize that this action was considered wrong by their society.
            This is based on Daniel M’Naghten (some claim his surname was really spelled McNaughton, McNaughten, or McNaughtan) who in 1843 shot Edward Drummond, who was British Prime Minister Robert Peel’s secretary.  Drummond died five days later.  It was thought that Daniel mistook Drummond for Peel.  Daniel was a Scottish-born woodturner who complained that he was being followed and persecuted by Tories (a British political party).  During his trial both sides conceded that he suffered from this Tory delusion, but the prosecutor contended that he knew right from wrong, and so was guilty.  However, the defense countered this with several doctors’ testimonies, while the prosecution didn’t produce any doctors of their own.  The judge in charge, Chief Justice Tondal, instructed the jury that if they did find M’Naghten not guilty by reason of insanity that he’d be properly cared for (and so not out on the streets).  The jury then did so, and Daniel spent the rest of his 21 years in Bethlem Hospital and Broadmoor Asylum.  He was reportedly a model patient, but he refused to talk about the attack on Drummond.
              Two controversial theories abound about this case.  One is that Drummond would have survived his wound if the doctors hadn’t removed the bullet (in the unknowingly unsanitary surgical conditions of that day) and “bled” him, as was the practice of that time.  (This is similar to the theory about assassinated U.S. President James Garfield, and, in fact, is rather plausible.)  The other, more fanciful theory is that M’Naghten was a political assassin sent by Peel’s enemies, and that he was instructed to fake insanity to get off.  They point to his apparent sanity before and after the event, and that he had a check for 750 pounds (worth about the equivalent of $60,000 modern U.S. dollars figuring in inflation) on him when he was arrested, which was suspiciously huge for a modest woodturner to have saved.
             Also, it’s probably worth noting that, despite its reputation, especially in TV shows and movies, the insanity plea is very rarely used, and rarely successful.  I’ve read that studies show that it’s a poor strategy for fakers looking to get a easier sentence, too.  This is because even “successful” insanity claimants on average end up serving more years than they would have if convicted.  Regular prisoners have a sentence determined by a set number of years (assuming they didn’t get life sentences, obviously) while mental hospital patients are only freed when they’re considered cured, or at least not a danger anymore, which usually takes much longer to decide. (Clearly, this time would be in a mental hospital rather than jail, it’s true, but maximum security asylums are surely no picnic, either.)