Friday, March 28, 2014
I'm happy to report that I have another article out in the current (April 2014) issue of InD'Tale Magazine. This one's about funny and/or strange magazine and book publisher guidelines. Other features in the same issue are articles about screenwriting, taxes, fairy tales' dirty little secrets, and plenty of book reviews and author interviews. The address is: http://www.indtale.com
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Just got a chance to try mangosteens, which are considered a world class fruit. Some refer to it as, “Queen of All Fruits”, and others as, “The Food of the Gods.” The “Queen” moniker comes from
supposedly offered either 100 pounds sterling (if I'm doing the inflation/conversion right, that's roughly $15,000 current U.S. dollars), and/or a knighthood to the first
(male, evidently) person to provide her with a fresh mangosteen specimen. (Since there’s only one source for this
story, historians consider this tale apocryphal.) New York Times editor/writer R.W. Apple, Jr.,
had this to say about mangosteens: “No
other fruit, for me, is so thrillingly, intoxicatingly luscious. I’d rather eat one than a hot fudge
sundae.” The label on the package I
bought said it was, “a tropical fruit explosion that melts in your mouth.”
Then there are the purported health benefits. Like a lot of exotic foods, mangosteens are supposed to treat or cure various diseases and ailments, such as skin infections, urinary tract infections, dysentery, or even cancer. Some claim these benefits are from eating the rind, and/or the fruit. Its juice, sometimes called, “Xango juice,” is also promoted as a healthy drink.
Probably contributing to mangosteen’s popularity, at least with some folks, is its rarity. It’s very sensitive, climate wise—it needs a strictly tropical environment. It then takes a while to grow, and start producing fruit. Finally, even its seeds are delicate. Despite this, it has spread across the globe. Starting from probably the Sunda Islands or the Moluccas, it’s now cultivated across other tropical areas of Southeast Asia, as well as parts of South America, India, Puerto Rico, and even southern Florida. But that’s another issue. The
U.S. didn’t permit importation of
it until very recently, because it apparently attracts a very destructive type
of fruit fly. Now importation is
allowed, provided the fruit is irradiated or fumigated for the insect
pest. Back in 2007, just to illustrate,
mangosteens went for up to $45 a pound!
Luckily my local Shop Rite had them today, so I snapped up a package. They were still very expensive ($13 for 4, or $4 per pound) but not as absurd as in 2007. Mine were from
so assuming my supermarket isn’t trafficking in illegal goods, they were
presumably fumigated or irradiated.
Mangosteens are a little weird looking.
To me they resemble brownish plums.
They were about 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter. Getting through the rind to the fruit was
surprisingly difficult. I started off with
a regular steak knife and was quickly thwarted.
Next I found a heavier duty, sharper knife, one which also had teeth on
one side of the blade. It was then I
said a sentence I’ve never uttered before, when someone tried to talk to me—“I
can’t hear you, I’m sawing open my fruit.”
No exaggeration, mangosteens are like mini-coconuts. It took me several minutes to cut each one
The fruit inside was 5-7 sections, which looked like tiny, whitish-pink orange sections. The package said their flavor was “indescribable.” Rebel that I am, I’ll give it a try, anyway. The taste was………underwhelming. It was decent—mild and pleasantly sweet, but not dazzlingly so. Given what I’d heard about them, and what they cost, and how tough they are to acquire (and peel), they were very disappointing. I can think of many fruit types that I like better—oranges, most grapes, kiwi, or just about any kind of berry. Or sticking with fruits I’ve blogged about, kumquats, starfruit, ackees, pummelo, and especially dates are all as good or better. And to say that they’re better than a sundae, as Mr. Apple did, is just ludicrous, in my opinion.
Their overrated-ness goes even further. Despite the many claims, to date there is no scientific evidence that mangosteens have any of their alleged medical benefits. The American Cancer Society has emphatically stated their lack of effectiveness against any form of cancer, for example. They do have some nutrients, like Vitamin B’s, C, calcium, and potassium, but only in low to moderate amounts by fruit standards.
In conclusion, then, while their taste was okay, mangosteens weren’t worth their relatively expensive price. In my eyes, they’re only the “
of Fruit,” or, “The Occasional
Snack Food of Demi-Gods When They Want a Change of Pace.” Oh, and in case you were wondering, the
similarity in name is just a coincidence—they’re not related to mangoes. County Baroness
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Sweetbreads have to be among the most significant food misnomers ever, along with “head cheese” (see my April 27th, 2013 post). I’m guessing that most of the people who viewed this post’s title probably thought they’d see a discussion about some sort of dessert-like pastry. Like a cinnamon roll, or pumpkin bread. Nope—sweetbreads are actually meat. In fact, they’re actually organs. And not even commonly eaten organs. Here are the five organs that are usually called sweetbreads:
1) The thymus.
2) The pancreas.
3) The parotid gland
4) The sublingual gland.
Confused, like I was? From what I could learn, linguists aren’t exactly sure how the term came about, which it did sometime in the 16th century. There are a couple reasonable explanations, though. “Sweet” evidently meant about what it means today, and the thought was the thymus was considered to have a sweet flavor. The “bread” part is posited to be an approximation of “brede,” which meant “roasted meat,” or else of “braed” which in Olde English meant “meat” or “flesh.” It’s strange how significantly word definitions can change over time. Did something like “maet” or “mete” mean “bread” back then? Did “peach” mean “pork loin”?
Anyway, in case you were wondering, and forget your biology/anatomy classes in school, the parotid gland makes saliva. The sublingual gland is smaller than the parotid, but also contributes in making saliva. The pancreas produces insulin, other hormones, and digestive enzymes. Vitally important, it’s one of those organs that you can’t live without. It’s also, unfortunately, pretty much the worst type of cancer to get. The thymus is kind of an odd organ, in that it’s largest and most active during childhood and adolescence. Its major function is producing T cells for the immune system. After puberty the thymus shrinks considerably (in humans, from between 20-37 grams to about 6 grams in an average 75 year old), becomes fatty, and is difficult to even pick out from other fatty chest tissue. And I’m going to hope and assume that every reader knows what testicles do.
Recently I visited a friend who lives in
(Hi Keith), and I decided to
research restaurants that serve unusual foods.
Alas, the one rumored to serve “lamb fries” (lamb testicles, to return to
that topic) had apparently changed the menu.
(Or else maybe “meadow oysters” are the opposite of their water-living,
mollusk cousins, and are only safe to eat in months without an “R” in their
name.) Luckily, several places had
sweetbreads on their menus. Zaytinya
(which means “olive oil” in Turkish) seemed to be the best bet—it’s a
Greek/Turkish/Lebanese restaurant located at Washington,
D.C. 701 9th Street NW in D.C. It’s a little tonier than the restaurants I
usually frequent, and its chef/owner, Jose Andres, is world renowned. The restaurant’s dining style involves mezze,
or many small, appetizer-sized food dishes, similar to Greek tapas-style. I had the imam beyildi (roasted eggplant),
kibbeh nayeh (a raw beef dish), lamb’s tongue souvlaki, and the veal sweetbreads. And, I was really blown away—the best
restaurant meal I’ve had in a long time.
The eggplant and beef tartar dishes were very good. The lamb tongue was absolutely phenomenal—I
can’t rave about it enough. And the
topic of this post, the sweetbreads?
They were the weakest part of the meal, but still good. Plus, to reiterate, their competition was
quite fierce. The sweetbreads looked
like several small (maybe an inch or two in diameter) brown pieces of meat,
which were very tender. They didn’t have
a really strong taste. Oh, and since
they listed this on the menu, they were prepared with, “cumin, sumac, marash
peppers, yogurt, crispy pita, tomato, and onion.” So still good, worth having again, but not
spectacular (like the tongue, etc.).
Since “sweetbreads” is an umbrella term, and the appearance and texture
of the meat I ate was fairly uniform, I don’t know which of the five candidate
organs I had exactly. However, it seems
like thymus and pancreas are the most common sweetbread organs, so probably one
or both of these, at least. Also, as you
can probably already guess, I highly recommend Zaytinya, for both your regular
and gland appetites. It totally lived up
to the hype. But, be forewarned, all
that deliciousness comes at a price.
Expect to pay at least $40-50 per person if you decide to go. So special occasions, unless you’re quite
I’ll close with a personal story, about another food misnomer—Grape Nuts cereal. In college, I was on a Grape Nuts kick—I ate them semi-obsessively for about a year. My friends and I wondered about the name, since they contain neither grapes nor nuts. One day we noticed that there was a toll free phone number on the box for questions or comments. (I’m sure now there’s a website, but I’m old, so this was well before the internet was widely available.) Inspired, I rang them up, and asked our question. The person who answered explained that Grape Nuts used dextrose (glucose), which they said was called “grape sugar” at one time. As for the second part of the name, the inventor, C.W. Post, thought his concoction had a “nutty” flavor. The Grape Nuts operator then asked for my name and mailing address, which I freely gave. I of course figured I’d get a free box of Grape Nuts, or a Grape Nuts t-shirt, or at least a coupon for them. (Another friend had told me his father had contacted a potato chip company, asking them if they’d sell bags of burnt chips, which he loved. The company politely replied that they didn’t think there’d be a market for this, but they thanked him for his interest, and then sent him an entire case of burnt potato chips!) But alas, nothing ever came in the mail. My friends’ theory was that my name and address went right to some government watchdog agency, like the FBI or CIA, in their files for “Weirdos Who Call Their Breakfast Cereal Companies.”
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Like my post about “Seven,” (see December 26, 2013 post), this one is about a movie that’s anything but obscure. “Scarface” wasn’t a hit, critically or at the box office when it came out in December of 1983, but it quickly became a cultish success in the following years, especially when it came out on video (and later, DVD). Even folks who haven’t seen it all the way through, or even liked it, are probably familiar with it, and some of its (in)famous quotes—“Don’t get high on your own supply,” “Never underestimate the greed of the other guy,” and “Say hello to my little friend!” Some viewers saw it as a cautionary, anti-drug tale, while others thought it glamorized crime, and was almost a how-to manual on how to be a gangster. But, thirty years later, people still avidly watch it, and discuss its themes, more so than they probably do for other early 1980’s films (that were successful and acclaimed at the time) like say, “Flashdance,” “Octopussy,” and “Ordinary People.”
(SPOILERS AHEAD) Before I get into more detail, I’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot for those who haven’t seen it in a while. Tony Montana and his friend Manny are Cuban immigrants who were part of the controversial 1980 Mariel Boatlift (when 125,000 Cubans were allowed by Castro to leave their country and go to
including an estimated 25,000 of Cuba’s worst criminals). Broke and with few legitimate options, they
quickly resume their criminal ways and start working with a local crime boss,
Frank Lopez. Tony, in particular, shows
real leadership, and rapidly rises through the ranks. When Frank tries to kill his overly ambitious
protégé, Tony turns the table on him. He
has Frank killed, and takes control of Lopez’s empire and his girlfriend
Elvira. Once in charge, Tony grows even
more rich and powerful, due largely to his partnership with a Bolivian cocaine
producer, Sosa. However, things spiral
out of control. Problems with the
police, a botched political assassination, disputes with his now wife Elvira,
tension with Tony’s family (his mother and sister Gina) and friend Manny, along
with his own drug addiction lead to Tony’s downfall, as his enemies
dramatically gun him down.
Obviously, the reasons for Tony’s demise are many, since he’s a top level drug lord, who’s a major target for the local police, world governments, the IRS, his gangland competitors, and even his own mother. But I think the major reason, the first domino that starts the disaster, is Tony’s greed. Elvira at one point complains that Tony only ever talks about money, and in a lot of ways she’s right. Tony is incensed that his bank (Tri-American City Bank) takes too much of a percentage of his cash to launder it. (There’s a funny moment during a montage that depicts Tony’s employees carrying in seemingly endless duffle bags of cash to the bank. And for those interested in the trivia, the banker, Jerry, quotes a 10% take on the first 12 million for $20 bills, and then 8% on $10 bills, and 6% on $5’s.) Meanwhile, Manny has a lead on a banking competitor, Seidelbaum, who will only take 4% at most. As it turns out, Seidelbaum’s deal is too good to be true—he’s a police officer /DEA agent who arrests Tony. Among the charges are racketeering, conspiracy, and tax evasion, and even Tony’s excellent (and correspondingly expensive) lawyer predicts his client will serve at least 3-5 years in jail. With his impending trial looming over him, Tony visits Sosa in
Bolivia. Sosa says he can fix Tony’s legal matters,
and he won’t serve any jail time, as long as he assists in assassinating a
Bolivian politician/journalist who’s about to implicate Sosa, Tony, and their
drug cartel associates in a speech to the U.N., a spot on “Sixty Minutes,” and
on various other news shows worldwide.
Sosa’s hit man, Alberto, is an expert killer, but his lack of knowledge
about New York City,
and inability to speak English, means he needs someone like Tony to help him
Alas for Tony, things go awry. Their assassination target unexpectedly brings his wife and young children in the car that Alberto has rigged with a bomb. Tony’s morality precludes killing an innocent woman and kids, so he kills Alberto before the hit man can set off the bomb. Sosa doesn’t take this insubordination well, and he sends the small army of gunmen, who eventually slaughter Tony and his remaining henchmen.
So, in effect, if Tony had just sucked it up and paid his regular bank’s rates, he might have made it okay. Or, at least, for a while longer. This isn’t certain—Sosa may have asked and convinced him to help out Alberto even if Tony wasn’t in legal trouble, so it might have gone sour in the same manner, anyway. But, without the prison sentence awaiting Tony he might have been able to refuse the assignment, yet not piss off Sosa. (Surely the world traveled, bilingual Sosa could have found another helper for Alberto, after all. And yes, I realize that this was a plot contrivance, but I’m just trying to stay within the logic of the story.) It’s also true that the other tragedies of Tony’s life might still have happened, too, even without the prison problem/assassination issues. Elvira may very well have left anyway, and let’s face it—it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Tony accepts Manny and Gina’s romantic relationship/marriage, and doesn’t kill Manny in a creepily incestuous, jealous rage. Finally, there were other serious problems on the horizon—Tony would have still had a ridiculous cocaine addiction (his scenes where he make gigantic lines—walls, really, of cocaine to snort are darkly comic, and over the top), and he still would have been a huge drug lord, with many enemies (the DEA, the IRS, the Bolivian government, and his drug competitors like the Diaz Brothers and Gaspar Gomez to name just some). But, staying with Tri-American City Bank would have ultimately helped Tony out, and at least lessened some of the potent stresses in his life.
Tony Montana is, undoubtedly, a reprehensible character. In addition to being a vicious, murderous, drug dealer, he’s also greedy, joyless, tedious, and saddled with a psychotic temper. And yet, I think one of the reasons the movie endures is that he’s undeniably (to me, anyway, and clearly many others) likable. Aside from Oliver Stone’s script, much of the credit goes to Tony portrayer, Al Pacino. As with his Michael Corleone character in the “Godfather” movie series, he projects a sympathetic humanity to Tony, even with the character’s many, serious flaws. Or like another crime lord, James Gandolfini (RIP)’s Tony Soprano character.
an anti-hero who you still find yourself rooting for. Pacino’s been relentlessly mocked for his
Tony Montana performance—critics often call his acting impossibly hammy and
overdone, and they also make fun of his attempts at a Cuban accent. In a sense I agree with their criticism, sort
of. The performance is over the top, and
bordering on the cartoony……which is exactly what this character, and what the
movie needs. A restrained, measured,
taciturn Tony Montana wouldn’t seem to make much sense for the story, and
definitely wouldn’t have been as much fun to watch, and rewatch.
“Scarface” is overall pretty grim, with all its violence, drama, and tragedy. But it has a few comic moments scattered throughout it. Some of these are unintentional—like the dated fashions, cheesy 80’s disco music, and Pacino’s horrendous dancing. But some are intentional, and in the script. Manny publically tongue-pantomiming his oral sex technique to a potential date in front of an amused Tony and some kids is a funny moment. As is Tony’s clowning with Elvira in his car, when he puts on her girly hat (one of the very few moments in the movie when Elvira isn’t wearing a vacant, drug-addled expression, or her usual jaded and angry look). But I think my favorite lighter scene is right after Tony and Manny have shot Lopez and corrupt cop Mel Bernstein. Tony turns to leave, and then Manny points out that one of Lopez’s henchman, Ernie, is still just standing there. There’s a long, awkward pause, and you assume that Ernie will be brutally shot, too. Instead, Tony breaks the silence by offering Ernie a job. A sweating, terrified Ernie accepts this offer in relief, and the others congratulate him. Another humorous moment is the altered lines for the network television airing of “Scarface” (which, seriously, with all the violence, drug use, and profanity must have been cut down to like half an hour long!). I’ll keep this clean, but anyone who’s over the age of about ten and can rhyme can figure it out. Tony’s graphic line is slightly changed to, “This town is like a great big chicken just waiting to be plucked.” It’s kind of reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski” television line change to, “This is what happens when you meet a stranger in the
Alps!” over the original’s
much more profane wording.
(END SPOILERS) Aside from Pacino, many of the actors in “Scarface,” even some of the supporting cast, went on to big careers. Michelle Pfeiffer, who played Elvira, obviously went on to become a huge, multiple Oscar nominated movie star. Robert Loggia, who was Frank Lopez, continued with his busy but mostly character actor status, appearing in “The Jagged Edge” (1985), “Big” (1988), “Independence Day” (1996), and “
Lost Highway” (1997) among others. Alas, Stephen Bauer (Manny) although he’s kept
very busy, has mostly had small roles in major movies or starring roles in
small, obscure ones. Mary Elizabeth
Mastrantonio (Gina) was big for a while, starring in “The Color of Money”
(1986), “The Abyss” (1989), and “Robin Hood” (1991), but hasn’t done much since
2000’s “The Perfect Storm.” Poor F.
Murray Abraham (Lopez’s #1 henchman, Omar) seems to be a victim of the
so-called Oscar Curse, as after his Best Actor win for 1984’s “Amadeus,” has
mostly slipped into small roles, and minor releases. I was surprised to learn that the actor who
played slimy hitman Alberto, Mark Mogolis, has had a long and active career,
appearing in “Glory” (1989), “Ace Venture: Pet Detective” (1994), “Requiem For
a Dream” (2000), “The Wrestler” (2008), and cable television’s “Breaking Bad,”
among others. Some other notables had
tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments in “Scarface.” Comedian and actor Richard Belzer (“Homicide:
Life in the Streets” and several “Law and Orders”), is the comedian doing stand
up right before Tony is almost killed by Frank’s hitmen. And tragically, Hollywood
bit player and C Movie actress Lana Clarkson (best known for being the
frequently nude star of cheesy sci-fi/fantasy films like 1983’s “Deathstalker”
and 1985’s “Barbarian Queen,”) was the unfortunate shooting victim of
legendary, but crazypants record producer Phil Spector. (She’s on screen in “Scarface” for like two
seconds, as she’s dancing with Manny at the Babylon Club.) And on an even more obscure note, Elizabeth (E.G.) Daily sang
two songs in Scarface (“Shake It Up” and “I’m Hot Tonight.”) Some fans may know her as a prolific voice
actress for cartoons and non-human characters, as she did roles in “Rugrats,”
“The Powerpuff Girls,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” I remember her mainly for playing the singer
at the dance in probably my favorite movie ever, “Better Off Dead” (1985).
Finally, it’s kind of funny and strange that Tony’s personal motto, “The World is Yours,” emblazoned on the globe statue in his foyee, is taken from a (apparently fictitious) Pan American Airline advertisement on the blimp he sees right after killing Lopez and Bernstein, and beginning his life as the gangster crime leader. Was it all timing—would any slogan have become his life philosophy? I decided to look up some other airline slogans. One of Pacific Southwest Airlines’ was “Catch our Smile.” Would Tony have been a happier, beaming gangster if he’d seen this instead? Or one of Continental Airlines’ taglines was, “The Proud Bird with the Golden Tail.” What would Tony have done with this? Ordered custom suits with feathers and yellowish tints for the pants’ backsides? Or maybe he would have been more literal, and his poor chained up pet tiger would have had a spray-painted emu neighbor, or something.
P.S. One more bit of trivia. Actress Miriam Colon played Tony’s mother, even though she’s really only four years older than Pacino!
Thursday, March 6, 2014
This one is another post which barely fits into my food and beverage qualifications. Because bacon and sausage are anything but exotic to the typical person, and are only considered disgusting to a select minority of folks, along with staunch vegetarians and members of some religions.
So why write about it? Because The Bacon Explosion takes the usual and turns it into something extreme by virtue of its excesses. It’s a ridiculous, over the top tribute to the two most common pork products. Even Ted Nugent on the Atkins Diet would probably think it was a little much.
Unlike most of my food posts, The Bacon Explosion isn’t thousands, or hundreds, or even dozens of years old. In fact, if it were a living person, it wouldn’t even be in first grade yet. It was developed in December 2008 by Jason Day and Aaron Chronister. Although they based it partially on other recipes, they are credited with this particular creation, and as such they own the official trademark. Their dish quickly, well, exploded on the internet, and became popular across the
U.S., the U.K., The Netherlands, and Germany,
especially. It won the “Savory Dish”
award at the 2013 Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, and the duo’s 2010 book “BBQ
Makes Everything Better” (which featured The Bacon Explosion prominently) won
the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in the “Best Barbecue Book” category.
I first heard about it from my friend B.C., who enjoys cooking in general, and cooking out/barbecuing in particular. In spring of 2009 he broke out his smoker and a whole bunch of pork products. Since it’s readily available all over the internet, I’ll assume fair use, and include the actual recipe.
Ingredients: 2 pounds of thick cut bacon.
2 pounds of Italian sausage.
1 jar of your favorite barbecue sauce.
1 jar of your favorite barbecue rub/seasoning.
Directions: Make 5 by 5 bacon weave, like you were making a basket made out of meat. Add the barbecue seasoning to the top of this square. Then, take the 2 pounds of sausage and layer it on top of the weave. Press it down into the outer edges. Next, take the remaining bacon and fry it up separately, to desired texture (I prefer more undercooked/soft and meaty, but that’s just me). Then crumble/shred this into small pieces and put over sausage layer. Drizzle barbecue sauce onto the bacon, and then more barbecue seasoning.
Separate the front edge of the sausage layer from the bacon weave, and then roll this backward, so everything but the weave is rolled up. Keep this roll as tight as possible. When fully rolled back pinch the ends to seal them. Then roll it back forward to wrap it up completely in the bacon weave. Keep the seams on the bottom, and keep sealed. The resulting mass should resemble a football (and since footballs are sometimes called “pigskins,” this comparison is particularly apt). Then sprinkle barbecue seasoning on the outside.
Place this mass into the smoker, @ 225 degrees (F), until the Thermopen registers internal temperatures of 165 degrees (F). This takes approximately one hour for every inch of the Explosion’s thickness. Since an average Explosion is about 2.5 inches, a typical cooking time would be about 2.5 hours. When finished give the entire mass a barbecue sauce coating, and then cut it into quarter to a half inch thick sections, and eat. (Note: The Eplosion can also be baked, but I didn’t see the specific cooking times/temps for this.)
As for the taste, there really wasn’t any surprise. It was very good. I enjoy bacon, and really like sausage, and together with the barbecue seasoning/sauce was a winning combination. The group I ate it with told a lot of jokes about this absurd meal, but there was no denying the very positive results. This reaction was rather like my impressions of other exaggerated, wild sounding foods, like chicken fried steak, or fried Oreos. Unhealthy foods tend to taste good. Which is why they’re so tempting, I guess.
So make no mistake. I completely recommend The Bacon Explosion based on its flavor and taste, but it probably goes without saying that I think it would be foolhardy to eat it more than very occasionally. The typical Explosion is about 5000 calories, and 500 grams of fat. A usual serving (about 8 ounces), is about 900 calories and 60 grams of fat. Conspiracy theorists could make a case that the Explosion was secretly developed by an evil cardiologist who was unethically trying to drum up more business. So proceed with caution, obviously. But if you want to get a jump start on that triple bypass, and simultaneously piss off your friends in PETA, I’m having trouble thinking of a more elaborate and delicious way to do this.