Saturday, November 29, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Yerba Mate

     We're heading back to South America for this post.  Yerba mate is a plant whose leaves are used to make a stimulating beverage.  It's believed that this drink was first discovered and developed by people living in southern Brazil, although now it's popular throughout most of the continent, as well as Syria.  It's also making inroads into the U.S. and Europe.
     The traditional manner of preparing the beverage is fairly rough and rustic.  The leaves (and sometimes the twigs) are put in a hollow gourd, and hot water is poured in.  Sometimes cold water is used, and occasionally sugar is added as well.  Another common way of using the yerba mate is to mix an infusion of it with cold water, and sometimes combine this with fruit juices.  This is called, terere.
     As with many of the exotics I've discussed, there are many health claims for yerba mate.  Some assert it's good for combatting allergies, boosting the immune system, preventing diabetes, suppressing the appetite, and improving mental energy and mood.  However, these claims haven't been scientifically proven as of yet.  Conversely, there are evidently health problems from consuming this drink.  It appears that long term use can significantly increase the chances of getting oral cancer, as well as causing high blood pressure.  Less dramatically, many drinkers report that it gives the energy of coffee, but without coffee's negative "jittery" effect, and later dramatic "crash."  I was unable to find out if yerba mate has less or more caffeine in it than coffee--it seems this can vary.
     Clearly I didn't try yerba mate in the traditional way.  I saw it, pre-bottled and pre-canned, in Whole Foods.  I usually try to sample a variety of companies and brands, but here I was stymied.  Guayaki appears to have a stranglehold of the yerba mate, a monopoly, at least in in the Albany, NY area.  I bought the traditional terere, the citrus terere, and the sparkling cranberry pomegranate flavor.  Each container also listed the relative energy, as measured by its caffeine content, from a low of "light," up through "bright," "lifted," "glowing," and "mighty."  Both the tereres were "glowing," while the cranberry pomegranate was "lifted."
     I began with the traditional terere.  It tasted like weak tea.  It finished kind of weird.  In short, I wasn't a big fan.  The citrus terere was essentially the same as its plain cousin--I couldn't really discern a citrus-y flavor.  Finally, the cranberry pomegranate was by far the pick of the litter.  It was still tea-ish, but the cranberry tint really helped.  I don't think I have these again--maybe the cranberry pomegranate one for an occasional change of pace.
     As for the energy boost, I didn't notice any.  But, as I've stated in previous posts, caffeine doesn't seem to affect me very much.  And because I despise coffee, I can't really compare and contrast yerba mate vs. java.    

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Sea Cucumbers

     After learning a bit about sea cucumbers, I came away quite impressed.  What a wonderfully bizarre creature!  In fact, I think the platypus may have some serious competition for the title of World's Weirdest Animal.
     As their name suggests, while there is variety amongst the species, most look like a cucumber that lives on the ocean floor.  However, despite their moniker, they aren't plants, but are marine animals. They're echinoderms, related to starfish and sea urchins, although they don't resemble either of these.
     So what's odd about them?  Pretty much everything.  Let's start with the brains.  Oh wait, we can't--they don't have any.  They do have a ring of neural tissue that helps them decide when to feed, when to move, when to fight, etc., but even this isn't that important.  If this neural ring is removed, they carry on just fine.  Then there's the way that sea cucumbers breathe.  They lack lungs, or even gills.  They extract oxygen using "respiratory trees."  These organs are located inside their rear end.  They intake water through the anus, and it then gets to the respiratory trees.  So they breathe through their asses.  But we're not done.  When their fellow sea creatures try to attack and eat them, they have a strange but effective defense strategy.  They expel internal organs at the would be predators, sometimes through their butt, sometimes through a tear in their abdominal wall.  These projected innards are often sticky, and occasionally even toxic to the attacker.  You might be wondering the obvious question, mainly, how does the sea cucumber then function without these organs?  Just fine, as it turns out.  They're regenerated within a few weeks.
     Sizewise, again there is quite a bit of variation.  They range from 3 millimeters in length to 3 meters (about 10 feet) long.  Although the average size is, not shockingly, about the size of a cucumber (10-20 centimeters long).  They can also live in extremely deep, pressure packed environments, as they've been found at depths of over 10,000 meters.
     Sea cucumbers are mainly an Asian culinary staple, and that's where I had them.  Specifically, at A La Shanghai, in Latham, NY (Thanks to Pat for the recommendation).  The appearance was, predictably, strange.  At first glance it resembled chunks of eggplant, but if one looked closer, you could see a blackish outer skin which had a circular pattern on it.  The texture was mostly soft and chewy, although every so often there was a slight crunch at the end.  Initially I found it mediocre, but it really grew on me.  The more I had, the more I enjoyed it.  I would definitely have this again, although I realize opportunities to do so will be limited.  For the record, the other dishes at A La Shanghai were very good as well.  My friends and I particularly liked the dumplings filled with soup.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Cherimoya

     It probably goes without saying that small towns usually have less diverse choices of food than large towns, or cities.  But every so often one will surprise you.  The tiny Pennsylvania town Wysox (population of less than 2000 people) did so recently.  Their local grocery store, Tops, had an exotic or two hidden away.  And thanks also to Alix (aka Panther) for alerting me to this food's presence, and serving it to the crew.
     Cherimoya is a fruit of slightly questionable heritage.  Some scientists claim it's South American in origin, specifically in the Andes region, while others point out it's closely related to several Central American varieties.  But whatever New World area it originally came from, it's since spread in popularity.  It's also now grown in South Asia, California and Florida, Portugal, and Italy.
     To be frank, it's not an attractive looking fruit.  It's a green color, with occasional black markings, and has diamond shaped dimples all over it.  It's fairly large, being a little bigger than a grapefruit.  The interior pulp is whitish, with about 20-30 black seeds.
     The cherimoya tree is fraught with danger.  The seeds, young fruit, and leaves serve as insecticides to certain insect species.  The sap is irritating, and can injure people's eyes.  A chemical in the bark can be used to induce paralysis, (at least in toads).  Finally, the seeds are poisonous.  Luckily, since it's fairly easy to accidently consume one, they can safely pass through a person's digestive system--they're only hazardous if the seed is broken up.
     Cherimoya certainly has its fans.  Famous author Mark Twain claimed it was the "most delicious fruit known to men."  Others compare its taste to a blend of pineapples, papaya, bananas, strawberries, and peaches.  It's also known as the "custard apple" because of its flavor.
     I had it twice.  The first time it was presumably not as ripe, since the texture was rather firm.  It was okay, but it did have a weird chalky tint.  The second time I let it sit for a few day before I ate it.  This aged fruit was much softer--I was able to scoop it from the rind with a spoon.  I liked it much better this way--it was mild, sweetish, and pretty good.  Although it did give me a mild stomach ache afterward--evidently it was a tad overripe.  I didn't notice all the blended fruit flavors mentioned earlier, but maybe my palate isn't sophisticated enough, due to years of canned pasta, gas station beef jerky, and White Castle burgers.
     Anyway, to sum up, I don't quite agree with Mr. Twain's assessment, but cherimoya was good when it was aged a bit.  I would have it again.  Finally, like many fruits, it's nutritious, having significant amounts of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin B-6, and several antioxidants.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Coming Back" Now Available

     I'm delighted to announce that "Coming Back" is now available from Thirteen O'clock Press.  This horror anthology includes a short story of mine, entitled "Next to Godliness."  This book is 180 pages, was edited by Dorothy Davies, and has stories from Evan Purcell, Ken Goldman, Shawna Rand, Michael B. Fletcher, Thomas M. Malafarina, and many others.

     Here's the official blurb: 
        Coming back from--that's the point at which the authors in this varied and fascinating anthology take off in all directions.
        Zombies through to returning parents, coming back proves to mean many different things to many people.
        Coming back to Thirteen O'clock Publications' premier authors and sample some dark, dark stories.

     My story is about a weird group which investigates and celebrates existence in all of its forms, and what happens when one of these searches goes horribly awry.
     You can find out more, and order this book at the following address:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Coffin Hop Results and Farewell

     Well, Coffin Hop 2014 is dead.  But much like a horror movie monster, it will never stay that way--we'll just have to wait until next year.
      As always, thanks to Axel for orchestrating this theater of the morbid.  And thanks to all the other writers and artists who participated.  Finally, thanks to everyone else who took the time to stop by all of our blogs.  I'm sure we all learned about some interesting books, poetry, artwork, and films.  I hope everyone had as much eerie fun as I did.
     The winner of my blog contest was Julia Floyd, for her knowledge of horror movie trivia.  Congrats, Julia!  Just decide which of my ebooks you'd like to receive a free copy of ("Dead Reckoning" or "Kaishaku," info on both was posted on October 27th and October 31st), and drop me an email at:    and we'll make the arrangements.