Monday, June 28, 2010

Independence Day

July 4th, Independence Day, ranks as one of my very favorite holidays. It is a time when family and loved ones gather for food and for ignoring all the fire-safety rules that we have spent our lives learning. We set barbecues ablaze, we crimp the Piccolo Petes until they explode like little sticks of whistling dynamite and, in short, we have fun.

We sometimes get up the gumption to hit the Carmichael 4th of July parade, sponsored for many years by the Elks Lodge. The parade has better years and not-so-good years, but it is always fun. I remember back in 1976 the local air base sent out a pair of fighter jets to do a fly-over of the parade route, which was truly spectacular.

In the evening I head over to my dear old friends', the Brownells, and they handle the ice cream churning and the barbecue duties, and I mostly sit around and think, "What a terrific life I have!" Later on we light the various fireworks-booth variety of fireworks and after that we eat some more and socialize. We make stern promises to not let it be a year until the next time we see one another, and then we part ways for the year.

It is a wonderful time. Yes, it is in honor of the founding of our great nation, but it is also much more than that. It is another time when we can reacquaint ourselves with those whom we love the most.

Happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Re-reinventing the Vampire

Though it seems like Twilight came out three months ago, it has, in fact, been two years. And, to compound the confusion, the third movie in Stephanie Meyers' series of Emo inspired, angst-ridden vampire stories is coming out in theaters next week.

What I find particularly sad about this is that while vampires in the Bram Stoker mold are  frightening and darkly beautiful creatures of the night, writers like Stephanie Meyers have reduced them to poorly written, poorly bred, self absorbed teenagers. When Anne Rice reinvented the vampire in a more humanistic manner, it was a fairly creative move. Her vampires did not turn into bats and religious icons did not repel them. Some of them had their own angst. When she did this she had two things working for her:

  1. When she did it, it was still fairly, though not completely, original
  2. In her early novels, when she had stronger editors, she was a pretty good writer.
Stephanie Meyers has neither of these working in her favor.

Now I am not saying that vampires all need to adhere to the foundations laid out by our dear, perverted Victorian friend, Stoker. After all, Dracula, whilst based on Romanian lore, was his own reinterpretation of it. The original Vlad Dracula Tepes was rumored to be able to turn into a wolf or a rat, rather than a bat, but Bram felt that bats were more romantic images than rats, so his abilities changed.

What makes Dracula so formidable, however, is the fact that he can do all kinds of great stuff despite the fact that he has a relative slough of weaknesses. Old Vlad, by the Victorian era, was able to navigate during daylight hours quite well due to his age, strength and experience. Iconography of the Catholic Church, however, bodes ill for him. Things like crucifixi, holy water and, most notably, the Blessed Sacrament are all poison to him. The reason for this is that Dracula is related, in some sense, to Satan. The word Dracula means "Son of the Dragon", the dragon being a common mediaeval reference for the devil. I suspect that the trend away from this is due to the general cultural, or, at least, popular drift away from religious faith.

Without going into too much history, the original Impaler was a very successful and cruel military man. He handled his enemies roughly, often impaling them on stakes and allowing their bodies to molder whilst hung by the side of the road. In that era, in popular belief, bodies that were not buried in sacred ground doomed the souls that had once occupied those bodies to wander the earth. So old Vlad was a guy whom the peasants did not want to cross – not only would he kill you, but he would condemn your immortal soul as well.

I love vampire stories. I would love to see some new, well crafted and good ones. I want a vampire, however, who is a badass despite his shortcomings. I want a Dracula. My beloved wife is not a fan of the 1992 Dracula movie, but I, for one, think that it is about the best one ever made. Another fine entry is the 1972 Great Performances made for television entry starring the suave Louis Jourdan as the old count. These guys were charming and seductive and they were tough. They did not get all moody about teen-aged girls. I look forward to the day when real vampires come back to pop literature and the movies.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Flambé Pan

As we all know that the Internet is a never-ending source of misinformation, but one site that does more than its share of spreading witless half-truths is

I have found this site to be a nearly bottomless pit of wrong material, and it came up again this evening when I was searching for an old, gently used copper flambé pan. The wise geek, whoever he or she may be, offered a collection of characteristics that were, in essence, the properties of a skillet.

In truth, and in contradiction of the geek, a flambé pan may have straight, angled and sloped or curved sides and the handle is generally fairly short in relationship to the size of the pan so that the cook may have more direct control of the pan. The only characteristic that separates a flambé pan from a sauté is its breadth. Flambé pans have a very wide surface area and low sides, so that the sauce being flambéed is spread thinly, thereby allowing it to flame quickly and be finished. You do not want your flambé to go on any longer than necessary as it is a moderately dangerous exercise. You want to do it, get the "oohs" and "ahs" from the audience, and move on.

One final note regarding the wrongness of the geek in this case, he or she stated that the flambé function "adds the liqueur flavor to the dish without adding the harshness of alcohol." This is, of course, entirely incorrect. Whilst the flambé will burn off a percentage of the alcohol, you can never burn off all of the alcohol of the dish. The alcohol will be minimized, and for most purposes you may consider the dish to be alcohol free, but if you have a guest who has an alcohol allergy, the dish will not be suitable for him or her. Further, if you have guests who have a moral or religious aversion to alcohol, you should avoid the beauty of the flambéed dish and offer them something less dramatic.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Refined Sugar

So, the truth of the matter is that high fructose corn syrup is a product of the infernal corn fields of hell whereas white sucrose is the dandruff of angels. But why?

Before you go any further, take five minutes to read this article: Is Corn Syrup Worse Than Sugar? by Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.

So, whilst scientific and medical professionals get oogie feelings about high fructose corn syrup, there is actually no proof that it is in any way worse, or, in fact, significantly different for your body than good old white sugar. So why are people getting fatter since the 1970s, when corn syrup started to become more prevalent in packaged prepared foods? Obviously it must be the presence of the corn syrup, right?

Fortunately we were able to leverage our staff of nutritionists, nutritional anthropologists and analytical chemists at Walker Nutritional Laboratories to perform our own studies. There are two significant factors at work here, damning the corn syrup:

  1. We have become more sedentary as a culture – Since the early 70s, it seems, there has been a growing prevalence of televisions in households. Since the late 1980s, computers have appeared in nearly every home and often every room of the house. Entertainment that used to involve a game of tag or Capture the Flag is now handled by a few hours of World of Warcraft. Evening strolls around the neighborhood have been replaced by catching Lost every Tuesday.
  2. Corn syrup is the sweetener of choice in inexpensive snack foods – Twinkies, Coke, Little Debbies – they all employ High Fructose corn syrup. Why? Because it is cheap and it lends to long shelf life. This doesn't mean that corn syrup is bad, it just means that the people eating it tend to eat more of it than they might of sucrose sweetened pastries from the local bakery. Because they eat more of them, whilst sedentarily playing World of Warcraft, they are gaining weight.

I am very sorry if I sound as though I have a chip on my shoulder about this, but corn syrup is a wholesome ingredient that does not need to be vilified in the name of the national trend towards weight gain. If you want to vilify a product, why not make it big-screen televisions? Or computers? They are much closer to the root of the cause of our national obesity than corn syrup.