Saturday five, 3/28/15.

My Insider posts this week covered:

* Masahiro Tanaka, Rafael Montero, and Mike Foltynewicz
* Potential #1 overall pick Dillon Tate

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up as well.

saturdayfiveI’ve read a few books lately that I just won’t have the time or patience to review in full, but this seems like as good a place as any to mention them. I was very disappointed in Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, which takes a very narrow look at its topic and lacks enough prescriptive measures for readers who want to correct their own biases. The authors focus on implicit biases, truly just subconscious prejudices based on race, gender, or age, without expanding in any way to discuss such unknown (to ourselves) biases in all aspects of our lives. While I understand that their research was limited to those interpersonal prejudices, the cognitive processes behind those and behind other biases – entrenched opinions on groups or classes that skew the decisions we make – are probably related, if not identical, and I would have appreciated a broader take on how to identify and correct biases in my own thinking.

I also read two anthologies in the last few weeks, one of which I recommend highly: The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014, edited by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). The book runs the gamut of writing, from essays to short stories to poetry (most of it terrible) to comics, with many of the works amazing and creative and unlikely to have come across my desk (or lap) in any other form. My favorite piece was Nathaniel Rich’s “The Man Who Saves You From Yourself,” about cult deprogrammer David Sullivan, who died one day after the piece was first published in Harper’s. The anthology also includes a superb interview with Mona Eltahawy, a clever and haunting short story from Pulitzer Prize-winner Adam Johnson, and the delightful comic “Have Tea and Cake with Your Demons” from Yumi Sakaguwa.

I was less entertained by The Best American Travel Writing 2014, which included far too many ponderous pieces that put the author ahead of the subject or the destination. The two standouts were Amanda Lindhout’s Twelve Minutes of Freedom” and Gary Shteyngart’s “Maximum Mumbai,” the first harrowing and emotional, the second witty and charming.

Lots of links this week and this wasn’t even everything, just what I remembered to post:

  • A mother in Australia describes the “Agony of seeing my girl fight for life after contracting whooping cough.”
  • Meanwhile, some real science on the causes of autism: It’s not vaccines or GMOs or circumcision, but your genes.
  • Thanks to some added rainfall, Costa Rica filled all its power needs for 75 days using only renewable energy sources. That’s not a poor country using tiny amounts of energy, either.
  • Fans of The Wire will want to watch this conversation between show creator David Simon and President Obama about the drug war and the vicious cycle of incarcerating drug users.
  • Six tips for using your slow cooker via Tasting Table. The yogurt-making idea definitely appealed to me, given how much of the stuff I eat.
  • Following on my Paleofantasy review, here’s a similar op ed from the Guardian that calls the “paleo” diet a dangerous ideology. This is the money quote:

    The paleo diet is premised on a false image of stasis and harmony projected from an entirely arbitrary point in the long history of human evolution.

    When you also add in that the arbitrary point isn’t even historically accurate, you’ve got a weak foundation for massive dietary changes.

  • Related: Eating whole grains may help you live longer. I hope so, since I consume a lot of oats and oat products.
  • Andrew Zimmern interviewed chef John Mirabella on eating the invasive lionfish.
  • A beautiful post from Smithsonian on Via Margutta in Rome, a tiny street that’s appeared in numerous films.
  • I doubt the University of North Georgia meant for their 2015 catalog to reinforce how women and minorities still come up short in business. White Privilege Studies, anyone?
  • Want to know why the “religious freedom restoration” acts aren’t really just about religious freedom? The site RFRA Perils tells you why, and how those laws go well beyond the First Amendment protections for freedom of worship. These laws were always bad policy, but it’s even more egregious today.
  • The language here is very NSFW, and if you’re a gun owner you might not appreciate it, but I laughed often and loudly at Jim Jefferies’ routine on gun rights in America.

Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster.

Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam tells the story of con man J.R. Brinkley, the forerunner to today’s “FoodBabe” and “HealthRanger,” a man whose scams were so successful (at extracting money) and popular that he nearly won an election to become governor of Kansas. He helped create the modern radio industry, launched the first real “border blaster” from just over the border with Mexico, and spent about twenty years evading the pursuit of the American Medical Association’s lead investigator Morris Fishbein before finally coming to justice. It is so bizarre and so extreme that it defies belief, both that anyone could get away with a scam so brazen and that his name isn’t that well known today.

Brinkley’s main con was to pass himself off as a surgeon (despite a lack of any medical degree other than honorary ones he received later) who invented an operation where he would implant the glands from goat testicles into the scrotum of a human to give the latter added virility. In other words, he was selling penis pills before Al Gore invented the Internet. And it worked – the con, that is, not the operation, which was complete bullshit and left many patients maimed or worse. Brinkley built a huge practice in the backwater town of Milford, Kansas, in part by also constructing one of the country’s first radio stations and using it to promote his own business. He also filled much of the station’s airtime with country music, spreading the popularity of that genre and thus further building the audience for his promotion of his own business.

When the authorities in Kansas eventually forced him to stop killing people with scrotal operations, Brinkley first staged a write-in campaign for governor that, in just five weeks, may have garnered him enough votes to win, only to have a back-room deal invalidate thousands of those votes and hand the election to one of his rivals. Brinkley later decamped for Del Rio, Texas, opening a new surgery and setting up a half-million watt radio station just over the border that was so powerful there were days the signal could reportedly reach Canada. That station, XERA, introduced mexican and “tex-mex” music to the broader public and later gave us the outsized personality known as Wolfman Jack. Brinkley was a ruthless, sociopathic confidence man, but he was also quite brilliant and kept ahead of his enemies and adversaries for so long because he was a visionary. He saw potential in radio before anyone else did, and rewrote the rules of political campaigns, and also found a fine new way to part gullible people from their money, whether they had it to give him or not.

Fishbein enters frequently into the story as a secondary character, giving the story some narrative greed as he and Brinkley collide several times before the final denouement at a trial where Brinkley was actually the plaintiff, suing Fishbein for libel for calling the fake doctor a charlatan. Whether Brinkley actually believed his “operation” – which barely qualified as such – helped the patients is never clear, as he may simply have been convinced of his own invincibility regardless of the truth. He succeeded for nearly twenty years, running variations of the same scam, frequently upping the ante after he had to pull up stakes in one location, amassing enormous wealth and political power before his ultimate downfall.

That power in particular reminded me of the recent efforts by the soi-disant “FoodBabe” Vani Hari, a woman with no scientific or medical training (and no evident knowledge of either) who has used social media to run protests against specific ingredients in processed foods while encouraging people to do stupid things like take useless “natural herbs” or buy her book. Her post on staying healthy while flying is legendary for its ignorance (such as her beliefs on the chemical composition of air), and she fosters the same kind of anti-science sentiment that encourages vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, and 9/11 “truthers.” Her effort is hardly the only one of its kind; look at NaturalNews, another anti-science site run by a mountebank who peddles misinformation like claiming a raw food diet can cure cancer and fibromyalgia in what amounts to one giant appeal to nature. (Prepare to be shocked: Mike Adams, the self-styled “Health Ranger” who runs Natural News, is a vaccine denier and an all-around quack.) So while it’s easy to read Charlatan and convince yourself that such a sham could never happen today, in reality the fraudsters have just moved online.

Next up: I read S.S. Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, The Benson Murder Case (just $1.99 for Kindle), on the flight yesterday, and will start Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum later today.

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2015 edition.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. This is now my fourth edition of the dining guide, and my second since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but I’m aware I’m likely falling behind. Nothing’s new in the structure and I’ve left the list of places in downtown Phoenix that aren’t close to any ballpark at the end. A lot of the text is unchanged from last year, so don’t be shocked if it seems familiar.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Virtu Honest Craft: Award-winning, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country, with reason, as this might be the best restaurant in all of Arizona. Virtu is only a 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium and offers inventive, attractive, and most importantly delicious food that plays with textures and flavors in unexpected ways. I went there in October and wrote up the meal in depth.

* Citizen Public House: This was my birthday dinner spot each of the last two years we were out there, if that gives you some sense of how much I liked it. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well as well as the best negroni I’ve ever had.

* FnB/Cafe Baratin: One restaurant with two concepts, a minimalist lunch, where the menu comprises just six items (one salad, one sandwich, one starter, one veg, one potted/pickled item, and one dessert), with more open-ended haute cuisine at dinner. They appear to have retired the Baratin name and merged the two concepts into one space and under one name, FnB. I’ve had lunch and dinner here and never been disappointed at all.

* Pig and Pickle: Just outside of Old Town, and only open since November, they do things with pig and with pickles, like the braised pork belly, yam puree, and brussels sprouts slaw starter that was pretty special, as well as a great selection of cocktails.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was like molten lead. I haven’t been here since the makeover, however.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

* Defalco’s Italian Market is a great spot to grab an authentic Italian (specifically New York-Italian) sandwich while you’re on your way to a game anywhere in Scottsdale. I prefer it to Andreoli’s, which offers a similar menu and is much closer to Salt River Fields.

* I should mention Franco’s Italian Caffe, right on Scottsdale Road, as it’s very highly regarded by locals, but I was very disappointed. Authentic Italian cuisine is light, focused on simple recipes with big flavors but rarely heavy, while Franco’s menu skews toward what I think of as New York-Italian cuisine, with heavier dishes including lots of heavy cream and salt. It’s not my thing, but I won’t judge you if it’s yours. I also tried The Upton, a new small-plates-and-cocktails kind of place just off Scottsdale road south of Camelback, but their execution was very uneven (e.g., the fried oysters’ batter was inedibly salty) and the service was just kind of weird.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit. I’ve gotten pad see ew as a takeout item from here a few times and it was always excellent, full of that crunchy bitter brassica (similar to rapini), and smoking hot.

* Il Bosco: Wood-fired pizzas, cooked around 750 degrees, at a nice midpoint between the ultra-thin almost cracker-like Italian style and the slightly doughier New York style I grew up eating. Their salads are also outstanding and they source a lot of ingredients locally, including olives and EVOO from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. I’ve met the owner and talked to him several times, and he was kind enough to give my daughter a little tour behind the counter and let her pour her own water from their filtration machine, which she loved.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: This location is in the same shopping center as Soi4, with others in downtown Phoenix and out in Gilbert. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but in the running for the second-best pizza in Arizona along with cibo. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* True Food Kitchen: I’ve been to a TFK in Newport Beach and enjoyed the menu’s emphasis on fresh produce, not always healthful per se but more like healthful twists on familiar dishes. There are two in the Valley now, one downtown, and one located at the heart of a shopping center on the east side of Scottsdale Road, just north of Greenway and across from the Kierland mall. The same complex includes Tanzy, a Mediterranean (mostly regional Italian) restaurant and cocktail bar that gets strong reviews for its lengthy menu of salads, sandwiches, and pricier dinner entrees, although I just don’t think it’s good value for the cost.

* Press: In that same shopping center is a small coffee shop where they roast their own beans and will make you a cup of coffee using your method of choice (vacuum, French press, pour-over), as well as the usual run of espresso-based options. There’s apparently also a location at Sky Harbor in Terminal 4 by the B gates (USAirways), although I haven’t visited that one.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you like a basic diner and want good pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* Sweet Republic: I actually find this place to be a little overrated, but if you prefer traditional New York ice cream to gelato or custard, then it’s a good bet, and not far north of the park, just east of the 101 on Shea.

* Andreoli’s Italian Market is a decent spot for New York-Italian sandwiches, although I prefer Defalco’s in south Scottsdale.

* Perk Eatery: West of Scottsdale road and the Kierland mall, on Greenway, probably stretching the definition of what’s near Salt River Fields, but Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of good breakfast spots and this is one of the few. It’s a diner by another name, open for breakfast and lunch, with a slow-roasted pork option along with the regular array of breakfast meats, and rosemary potatoes that are a must with any egg dish.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Crepe Bar: Amazing savory and sweet crepes, and expertly pulled espresso shots using beans from heart coffee roasters, one of the best micro-roasters I’ve come across. They use a lot of local ingredients, including produce from Agritopia Farms (which also hosts Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Douche), and bake their own brioche if you’re not in the mood for a regular or buckwheat crepe.

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ and A’s parks and is bigger with more parking.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of our best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Among the best coffee roasters in the Valley, and now in an expanded place that doesn’t feel so much like a fly-by-night operation. They’re also in the C wing of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

* I didn’t get to try Umami, the new ramen place near ASU, but I’ve read nothing but great things.

* A tentative recommendation: I went to The Revival in October, before the menu changed to modern Mexican and Chef Kelly Fletcher departed, so while everything I had was excellent I have no idea if it measures up. UPDATE: Several of you weighed in to say that it’s still top-notch despite the switch.

Mesa (Cubs):

Most of the places I suggested for Tempe are also quite close to here, including Crepe Bar, Cartel, and the Revival.

* The best smoked brisket I’ve ever had outside of Franklin BBQ in Austin is at Little Miss BBQ on University Avenue in Tempe, right near the airport. If you’ve been to Franklin or read about it, you know what to expect: Get in line by 10:30 or so if you want to eat before 1 pm; they start serving at 11 and they stop when they sell out of meat; and don’t expect a lot of variety. The menu is short but amazing, with all meats smoked over oak and pecan. The brisket is amazing, the sausage is excellent, but everything’s good, and it’s a great place to go with a group because you can only order some items – like the occasionally available smoked lamb neck – by the pound.

* Urban Picnic: In downtown Mesa, south and slightly west of the ballpark, and my favorite spot near the Cubs’ facility. They do a small selection of sandwiches on some of the best crunchy French bread you’ll find out this way, with the Caprese sandwich (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil) and the roast beef with horseradish my two favorites. I will say that while the lavender lemonade might sound intriguing, it tastes like perfume.

* Republica Empanada offers outstanding empanadas, small plates, a few entrees, and beer. I loved everything I tried here but particularly recommend a side of maduros.

* Chou’s Kitchen: Just over the line in Chandler, at the intersection of Alma School (north-south) and Ray (east-west), this hole-in-the-wall place does dongbei cai, the cuisine of northeastern China – what we used to call Manchuria – which is heavy on dumplings, mostly fried and generally delicious, with large portions designed for sharing and vinegar on the table for dipping. I also love their lao hu cai or “tiger salad,” a vinegary mix of shredded vegetables, scallions, cilantro, jalapenos, and peanuts.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10.

* Thai Spices: In a strip mall of Asian restaurants, Thai Spices is among the best Thai places I’ve found around here, just doing a great job with the basics of Thai (or perhaps Americanized Thai) cuisine. I really loved their soups, both tom yum (clear, sour/spicy soup with lemongrass) and tom ka (sweeter, with coconut milk, and also lemongrass), as well as the green curry.

* Rancho de Tia Rosa: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa has a large, upscale yet family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a smaller take-out taqueria located on-site as well. I wouldn’t call it high-end, but it’s expensive relative to the typical crappy chain faux-Mex restaurants that seem to be everywhere out here (Macayo’s, Arriba, Garcia’s … avoid all of those).

* On my to-do list: Beaver Choice, a Swedish-Polish comfort food joint that, despite the comical name (“The turkey? Thanks, I just had it stuffed”) gets great reviews and even offers a gluten-free menu. Schnitzels, pierogis, gravlax … you’re speaking my language.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Be careful when you go to a game here, as you might accidentally have to pick up the remainder of the Brewers’ lease.

* I did get a text from a scout last night suggesting Ta’Carbon, which isn’t too far from Maryvale and specializes in carne asada. So lock your doors and try it.

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Ground Control. In the Avondale/Litchfield Park area, but kind of between Goodyear and Glendale, this coffee-shop has upgraded its menu so it’s now a craft-beer paradise and upscale sandwich shop and coffee bar and even gelateria. I’ve been twice; the service can be a little spacey but the food is very good and I even liked the coffee. They do breakfast as well. This place should be so much more popular than it is, given the paucity of quality non-chain options in the area.

* Raul and Theresa’s: Very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game, since there isn’t much else out here that isn’t a bad chain.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

* If you’re headed here or even to Goodyear, swing by Tortas Paquime in Avondale. They do traditional Mexican sandwiches, with the torta ahogada – literally a “drowned” sandwich – covered in a slightly spicy red sauce, although that was a little over-the-top heavy for me. Solid aguas frescas here as well.

* For finer dining and good cocktails, try Cuff right in downtown Glendale, which does very unpretentious but fresh, high-quality food, including burgers, sandwiches, and salads that use much better inputs than most places that try that sort of menu. I’m underselling it a bit – it’s basic food, but done exceedingly well.

* You might also try Siam Thai, which is in Glendale on Northern but is at least 15 minutes away from the park, heading east. It is, however, superlative Thai food, perhaps the highest-rated Thai place in the Valley.

* I’ve never been to La Piazza Al Forno, which offers thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are reportedly good but not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s, just because the timing’s never worked out and there’s often a wait out front.


* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best options I know are both very good local chains, Grimaldi’s and Blu Burger. The latter is a family favorite of ours, since there’s something for the picky eaters of the family (hint: not me), and there’s a Blu Burger very close to our house; they offer several kinds of burgers with an impressive list of build-your-own options. My daughter loves their grilled cheese and zucchini fries.


* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

These places are no longer near any ballpark other than Phoenix Muni, which now houses Arizona State but no spring training teams.

* Pizzeria Bianco: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage. There’s now a second, larger location just off route 51 in the Town and Country shopping center, serving a few pasta items as well as the signature pizzas.

* Welcome Chicken and Donuts: Located in a former KFC location, this spinoff of the Welcome Diner serves “Asian” fried chicken, lots of donuts, and not a whole lot else. You can get one of three sauces on the chicken; I don’t recommend the Vietnamese option unless you really love fish sauce. I thought the chicken was plus and the donuts were Hall of Fame-worthy.

* Barrio Cafe: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too. There’s now a location at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4, past security near the D gates.

* The Grind: The best burger I’ve had out here, far superior to the nearby Delux, which is overrated for reasons I don’t quite fathom. (Maybe people just love getting their fries in miniature shopping carts.) The Grind cooks its burgers in a 1000-degree coal oven, so you get an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even if it’s just rare inside. Their macaroni and cheese got very high marks from my daughter, a fairly tough critic. They have photos of local dignitaries on the wall, including Jan Brewer and Mark Grace, which might cause you to lose your appetite.

* Chelsea’s Kitchen: I’ve only been to the airport location, in the center of Terminal 4 before security, where the food was excellent but the service a little confused. The short rib taco plate would feed two adults – that has to be at least ¾ of a pound of meat. Their kale-quinoa salad sounds disgustingly healthy, but is delicious despite that. Both this and The Grind (and North Fattoria, an Italian restaurant from the Culinary Dropout people) are near Camelback and 40th, about 6 miles/13 minutes west of Scottsdale Stadium.

* crudo: There isn’t much high-end cuisine in Phoenix – I think that’s our one real deficiency – but Chef Cullen Campbell does a great job of filling that void here with a simple menu that has four parts: crudo dishes, raw fish Italian-style, emphasis on tuna; fresh mozzarella dishes, including the ever-popular burrata; small pasta dishes, like last fall’s wonderful squash dumplings with pork belly ragout; and larger entrees, with four to five items in each sections. The desserts, like so many in the Valley, are from Tracy Dempsey, the premier pastry chef in the area. Like the previous two spots, it’s about 12-13 minutes west of the Giants’ ballpark. This is now my go-to rec when someone wants a splurge meal in Phoenix or wants more adventurous cuisine.

* Zinburger: Not the top burger around here but a damn good one, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries and above-average milkshakes. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz. Try the salted caramel shake if you go. There are also two locations in Tucson, and two in New Jersey that are licensed but independently owned and operated.

* cibo: Maybe the second-best pizzas in town, with more options than Bianco offers, along with a broad menu of phenomenal salads and antipasti, including cured meats, roasted vegetables, and (when available) a superb burrata.

* Pane Bianco: Sandwiches from the Bianco mini-empire, just a few options, served on focaccia made with the same dough used to make the pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. My one experience here was disappointing, mostly due to the bread being a little dry, but the cult following here is tremendous and I may have just caught them on a bad day.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco (which is now closed) has a new place, with a very simple menu – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. There’s a bit more focus on local fare here, and the guacamole is my favorite in the Valley.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Owned by the same guy, located a few blocks apart, but not otherwise connected as Matt’s doesn’t use Giant’s coffee. Matt’s is the best pure-breakfast place in the Valley, and one major reason is that they use the black-pepper bacon from Queen Creek’s The Pork Shop. Everything here is good, but my veteran move was breakfast at Matt’s with espresso afterwards at Giant. (Matt’s uses ROC, from Cave Creek, a popular roaster with Valley restaurants but nowhere near Giant’s quality.) Giant uses direct-trade beans for its espresso and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs.

* Federal Pizza. Federal’s was the best Brussels sprout pizza I’d ever tried until I found Motorino in NYC, and even then it was close. I’ve tried a few of their pizzas and their roasted vegetable board, loving everything, and their crust is a great compromise for folks who want more chew and less of the cracker-thin crust of a place like Bianco.

* The Gladly. The second location from the folks behind Citizen Public House, the Gladly’s location and menu are built more around the alcohol – I think the atmosphere they’re going for is cocktail party, or upscale happy-hour, with smart food to go with the booze. I had a mixed experience in my one meal there, loving the chicken-liver pate starter but finding less success with the duck ramen (which I’m told is a dish they frequently tweak). Given their track record at CPH, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

* Blue Hound. Another great cocktail bar that happens to offer good food, mostly sandwiches and other items you’d expect at a quality bar, although I’ve only been here for drinks and bar snacks (like the tater tots, which I highly recommend).

* Frost Gelato. Located at the Biltmore, right by Zinburger, Frost has the best gelato or ice cream anywhere in Phoenix. The sea salt caramel is their top seller; I suggest you pair it with the dark chocolate. They also have locations in Gilbert and Tucson.

* nocawich. Their downtown restaurant is closed, but there’s still a nocawich at the Phoenix Airport in Terminal 4, where you can get the Dolly, a fried chicken sandwich that is so good I’ve scheduled layovers at this airport just to eat it. (I’ve done the same to get coffee at Cartel, too.) A new location is coming in Tempe near ASU as well.

Other places that I’ve read or heard great things about, but haven’t tried yet, all in Phoenix or Scottsdale unless otherwise noted: Bink’s Midtown (high-end/experimental cuisine), O.H.S.O. Eatery and nanoBrewery, El Chullo (Peruvian food in downtown Phoenix), Carolina’s, Nobuo at Teeter House, Atlas Bistro (tried to eat at the latter two on my latest trip but both were closed those nights).

Feel free to offer your own suggestions for places I haven’t listed or tried in the comments below. I believe everything I’ve listed here is still open, but if you know that one of these restaurants has shut its doors, again, please let me know.

Saturday five, 3/21/15.

My ESPN Insider content from the last week:

* My breakout player picks for 2015.
* A suggested rule change to cover the Kris Byrant situation, plus Jonathan Gray, Tyler Matzek, Yasmany Tomas, and Yoan Lopez
* Javier Baez, Brandon Finnegan, Danny Duffy, Kyle Schwarber
* Carlos Rodon and Tyler Danish
* Taijuan Walker and Rubby de la Rosa
* A draft blog post on Arizona infielders Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery

I’ll be on the ESPN game broadcasts on Tuesday (Phillies at Atlanta) and Friday (Red Sox at Atlanta), as well as some postgame content to be determined.

And now, this week’s links…

  • There’s been a rash of suicides and attempts in Palo Alto, prompting this sound and accessible piece on how parents can try to help decrease the risks in their own children.
  • This week in terrifying food science news: Antibiotic use at pork farms is soaring, and it’s not just in the United States. Of course, we can’t expect other countries to ban the practice if we refuse to do it ourselves.
  • A Virginia middle school suspended a sixth-grader and referred him for substance-abuse counseling because he brought a leaf to school. No, not a marijuana leaf, or any other kind of illicit drug. This is zero-tolerance policy run completely amok, benefiting no one.
  • It’s made the rounds, but just in case you haven’t seen it, Ashley Judd is seriously sick of your misogynistic bullshit. Death threats are illegal, so why aren’t rape threats? More importantly, why does Twitter persistently refuse to do anything about it?
  • Making busy intersections safer. I imagine the initial reluctance to accept these new designs would be huge – never change anything, anywhere – but they’re fascinating to me as someone who used to love road maps and seeing different streets and intersections as a kid, but also to me as someone who drives all the time and worries a lot about getting in or even causing an accident. Although the skateboarder I nearly brained on San Diego Avenue on Thursday shouldn’t have been in the middle of the car lane, even at midnight.
  • “Hands up, don’t shoot” was built on a lie. Or maybe it wasn’t. Hell if I know.
  • Finally, Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel co-authored a math paper titled “A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector.” Are we praising him for being brilliant, or are we all just relieved that he’s not a wife-beater or a serial rapist? Regardless, graph theory is heady stuff, beyond anything I ever studied in school or on my own; I remember encountering the Königsberg Bridge Problem, a precursor to modern graph theory, but don’t recall learning its (dis)proof.


My list of breakout player picks for 2015 is up for Insiders. There’s no chat this week due to travel (I’m leaving Arizona this morning), but I’ve got several other posts up and two more coming this week:

* Javier Baez and Brandon Finnegan
* Taijuan Walker and some Dbacks
* Carlos Rodon, Tyler Danish, and Robbie Ray
* University of Arizona infielders Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery

Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live takes no prisoners in its assault on that trendy diet fad, one that is based on both bad science and bad history in concluding that we should eat a diet of mostly meat and vegetables, without grains, dairy, or sugar. You can certainly eat whatever you want, but the charlatans pushing this diet and lifestyle are using a deft blend of myth and outright bullshit to convince people to give up huge swaths of their diet, perhaps with dangerous consequences.

Zuk’s emphasis in the book is more on human evolution than “paleo” idiocy; the latter is more of a hook to get readers into what could have been a dry history of the portions of our genes that determine what foods we can (and thus do) eat. Zuk organizes her narrative around the activity or food that paleo hucksters claim we should eschew, but within each section delves into the evolutionary history and evidence that tell us why, in essence, we eat what we eat and we do what we do. Along the way, she sneaks in some broader attacks on those who believe evolution isn’t true, or misunderstand it (deliberately or otherwise) to draw erroneous conclusions. Foremost among them is that evolution is not goal-directed, and does not have a conclusion or an apex. We are not the end, we are still evolving, and whatever you may believe about the meaning of our existence, we’re not the peak of some lengthy process.

Her greatest assaults, however, are on the codswallop tossed about by paleo authors and enthusiasts who claim, in short, that we have switched to a diet to which we are ill-suited from an evolutionary perspective. Zuk explains, with copious evidence, that humans have continued to evolve since the Paleolithic era, and thus have digestive and metabolic capabilities that we didn’t have during the so-called paleo era. Her leading example is a big one for me: lactase persistence, the genetic ability to continue to produce the lactase enzyme past childhood, most prominent in the Lapp populations of northern Scandinavia and in some sub-Saharan African groups. Such genes have only started to spread, but Zuk argues that if this is an evolutionary advantageous development (as it appears to be), it will likely spread through natural selection over a long enough period of time. She uses similar examples to discuss how we can get nutrition and energy from grains that may not have been as bio-available to us tens of thousands of years ago.

She also explains in a similarly comprehensive fashion that paleo peeps weren’t the good ol’ boys that they’re claimed to have been, and that the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture didn’t therefore rob us of some essential dietary attributes or destroy our metabolisms. She puts the claim that cancer is a modern ailment to the test, and shows that the lack of evidence for cancer in, say, ancient Egyptians, is a case where we can’t conclude that there’s evidence of absence because cancer cells decay quickly and would rarely leave any sign in bones and other hard matter in the corpse. The idea that obesity, cancer, diabetes and other “modern” diseases are entirely the result of a sedentary, agriculture-based diet and lifestyle – and can be prevented or cured via a paleo diet – is just so much bunk. It’s not supported by the historical evidence, and it relies on the evolutionary myth that we were or will ever be perfectly adapted to our environment. Our environment changes, we change in response to it, but there’s no steady state at the end of the line. (Well, maybe after the sun swallows the earth, but that’s beyond the scope of this book.)

Zuk relies heavily on evidence, as any debunking tome should, but her writing is also very clear without oversimplifying, and she does an excellent job of presenting arguments that appeal to our logic or reason without relying on that alone to convince us. She explains why certain genes or blocks of genes might have first spread within human populations, based on certain advantages they conferred – even genes that simultaneously confer some disadvantage. Cystic fibrosis is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, meaning that you have to receive copies of the defective gene from both of your parents to get the disease; if you get just one copy, you’re a “carrier” but won’t get CF. You will, however, have some degree of immunity to cholera, one of the thousands or perhaps millions of tradeoffs and compromises that constitute our genetic makeup, a point to which Zuk returns frequently to hammer home her argument that there is no “perfect” in evolution, or even a clear positive direction. (Zuk never broaches religion, but it’s evident that she rejects the notion of evolution as a guided process, or as Francis Collins’ concept of evolution as the divine way of “delivering upgrades.”)

Paleofantasy may not be the book to convince your creationist friends that they’re out to lunch, although Zuk does present her fair share of evidence to support the theory of evolution; it is, however, the book to give that paleo friend of yours who won’t shut up about gluten and lactose. Eat what you want, of course, but wouldn’t you rather choose your diet based on facts rather than frauds?

Next up: A reader suggestion – Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.

Saturday five, 3/14/15.

Happy π day! May all your infinite series converge.

My Insider content this week included a post on Danny Salazar, Kendall Graveman, and others from a Cleveland/Oakland spring tilt, and a draft blog post on Kolby Allard, Lucas Herbert, and Kyle Molnar. My weekly Klawchat transcript is up.

My latest boardgame review over at Paste covered the Kennerspiel des Jahres-nominated strategy game Rococo, where players run haberdasher/dressmaking firms in a game that combines deckbuilding, resource management, and worker placement mechanics.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • If you’re interested in eating parakeet, muskrat, or pigeon, head to Amsterdam, where the The Kitchen Of The Unwanted Animal food truck serves up all kinds of non-traditional meats, including a horse burger called the My Little Pony.
  • A study published in Molecular and Cellular Oncology found that oleocanthol, a phenol compound found in extra virgin olive oil, killed cancer cells by breaking down their membranes, yet left neighboring non-cancer cells alone.
  • The New Jersey Senate is moving to tighten the “religious exemptions” to vaccination requirements. These exemptions are bogus, unenforceable, and unnecessary even under the First Amendment (you retain the option to home-school your children if you’re still too ignorant to vaccinate). My only issue with this piece is that the writer, Susan Livio, didn’t qualify or question the claim of one mother who said her child was injured by a vaccine – and Livio got huffy with me on Twitter when I pointed this lack of verification (kind of a big deal in journalism) out.
  • More vaccine stuff: A strong overview of the scientific evidence that vaccines do not (and can not) cause autism, passed along by former big leaguer Chuckie Fick.
  • The evolutionary case for how man ate his way to “world dominance.”
  • This Man Legislates, a new Tumblr dedicated to elected officials who saw or do horrible things – racist/sexist remarks, spousal abuse, giving away an adopted child to a man who later molested her. You know, the kind of behavior we’ve come to expect from the people who write our laws.
  • A famous Hillary Clinton quote was never actually uttered by the former First Lady; it’s from Erin Gloria Ryan, writing about Hillary for Jezebel in 2012. (And her main point, that a woman’s looks should not be part of any discussion of her policies or her suitability for office, remains true no matter who said it.)

Two math anthologies.

My latest Insider post covered scouting notes on Danny Salazar, Kendall Graveman, and others from that same game. My weekly Klawchat transcript is up, and I have a new boardgame review over at Paste for the Kennerspiel des Jahres-nominated strategy game Rococo.

My friend Steve is quite familiar with my affinity for just about all things math – we first met in math class in seventh grade – and for Christmas this year bought me a pair of popular math texts, one new and one classic. (I bought him a lot of tea, as he consumes it even faster than I do.) Both were collections of short pieces, with the unevenness that comes with such an anthology, but with high points making both books well worth reading.

The new title was The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014, a book that opens with a sort of dry exhortation on the apparently declining interest in math among students, a theme revisited later in the book, although I think a large part of that is a function of how we teach math in the United States – something that is in and of itself the subject of a separate essay. The separation of abstract math from its practical uses will only sit well with students who are naturally able to deal with math’s abstractions, to hear the music in numbers and formulas, to understand topics like calculus on an intuitive level; modern American instruction tends to make the majority of students, those who don’t grasp this material as quickly, feel less able or competent in the subject. Math anxiety, the subject of so-and-so’s column, isn’t an innate medical condition like anxiety disorder; it is created by teachers and curricula that quickly tell students they’re just not good enough at this stuff.

I enjoy abstract math – one of the best books I’ve ever read was on the highly abstruse Riemann Hypothesis, called Prime Obsession, one of the great unsolved problems in mathematics and one without any apparent practical applications. Yet I also enjoy writing on the pervasive uses of math in other fields, from physics to probability. One of the best essays in the book, and unfortunately one of the shortest, is from game designer and engineer Soren Johnson, who discusses the uses of probability and controlled randomness in creating successful games, specifically citing the random component in Settlers of Catan that has diminished its standing among the most hardcore boardgaming segment that prefers the less random and more complex style of games like Puerto Rico or Agricola. (My issue with Settlers isn’t the randomness but the length of the games. It’s still a classic and one of the best light-strategy games ever created.)

There are several pieces built around randomness, including a high-level essay from Charles Seife (author of Zero, which I enjoyed, as well as Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers, which is on my to-be-read shelf) on the nature of randomness and our inability to understand it, and another essay on the power of the random in musical compositions. The essay by Prakash Gorrochum titled “Errors of Probability in Historical Context” should be required reading for journalists everywhere, covering the gambler’s fallacy, reasoning on the mean, and misunderstanding statistical independence (Bayes’ theorem). One essay tackles the problem of the Jordan Curve – defined a simple closed curve in a plane or planar region, dividing it into exactly two parts, thus never crossing itself – and its applicability to some amazing works of art. I alluded to the closing essay on Twitter the other day; it discusses the proposed solution to the abc problem, for which the alleged solver had to invent a whole new kind of mathematics, which means that only a few dozen people in the world might be able to interpret his proof, let alone test or critique it.

The selection of titles seems idiosyncratic, as some have very little to do with math proper, such as the dreadful essay on various ancient tools and devices used for mathematical calculations, or the too-lengthy chapter disproving the contention that ancient Celts in modern-day Scotland knew and understood the features of the five regular polyhedra a millennium before anyone else seemed to catch on. The collection ends on several high notes, however, including Gorrochum’s essay (which you can read in its entirety online) and that abc problem/solution story, the latter of which is almost creepy because of how bizarre the whole backstory is. I’d never heard of this series before Steve bought me this book but the handful of strong essays in it made it a great read.

The other book Steve bought for me was Martin Gardner’s collection Hexaflexagons, Probability Paradoxes, and the Tower of Hanoi, which is the first in the series of books anthologizing Gardner’s many essays on popular math from his long-running column in Scientific American. Gardner’s writing exudes his sheer joy in math itself, yet most of these essays explore tangible questions even when they’re as useless as the hexaflexagons of the book’s title. Those peculiar shapes are formed by folding one or more strips of paper according to prescribed patterns to form regular polygons, in this specific case hexagons, that can be pushed and folded to reveal hidden sides and features, a chance discovery explored by some very famous names from math and science (Richard Feynman was among their earliest practicioners). A similar vein runs through his essays on the games Hex, invented independently by Nobel Prize-winning game theorist John Nash and Danish polymath Piet Hein, a totally nonrandom game of tile placement on a rhomboid board of hexagonal spaces where each player is trying to complete an unbroken chain from one of his sides to the side facing it. The game can’t end in a draw, and on smaller boards there are unbeatable strategies for whichever player goes first, inspiring much mathematical hand-wringing over the search for algorithms to predict perfect plays.

Other essays pose specific logic and math puzzles to the reader, many of which can be worked out in your head (and are much worse if you start putting pencil to paper). He explores the history of the “boss puzzle,” also known as the 15-14 puzzle, where the player is presented with a 4×4 grid with 15 numbered tiles on it, all in ordered rows but with the final row going 13-15-14. The player is told to use the single open space to move tiles around to get all fifteen tiles into the proper order. (The puzzle is unsolvable because it has a parity of one, meaning there’s a single tile displacement.) He also discusses several popular math and logic paradoxes, such as the division of a rectangle into several triangular pieces, then the reassembly that makes it appear that some surface area has disappeared. (It hasn’t.) They’re fun to puzzle over for their own sake, but the sleights of math used here or in the card tricks Gardner describes in another chapter expose holes in our critical thinking processes – ways we can miss obvious fallacies because something looks or sounds “right” on its face.

The chapter that might be most familiar to readers in subject matter discusses the Birthday Paradox. Given a group of 24 people selected at random, what are the odds that at least two members of the group have the same birthday? The answer is better than one half, which seems at first rather hard to believe as there are 365 days in the calendar. The odds that the first two people don’t have the same birthday are 364/365; the odds that the third person added to the group won’t have the same birthday as either of the first two are 363/365; and so on. The probability that n people won’t have the same birthday is thus a product of all of these individual probabilities (the formula is here); the 23rd person added to the group drops the probability that there is no birthday match under 0.5. It seems intuitively incorrect that just 23* people could suffice to raise the odds of a match over 50% when the number of dates is 365, and there are many methods of figuring these odds incorrectly, such as multiplying the apparent odds of a match (2/365 * 3/365 * 4/365…) or adding up the same fractions. Gardner’s explanations of such paradoxes were both clear and a pleasure to read, which is why so much of his work remains in print a half-century after he started writing. The chapter doesn’t discuss the Monty Hall problem, but describes a similar question around hands of cards that might illuminate that more famous question if you’ve struggled to understand its explanation.

* Gardner’s chapter uses 24 as the threshold, but I’m pretty sure it’s 23, using both methods to calculate the odds. If anyone can show the magic number is 24, please post it in the comments, because then I’ve got this wrong too.

Gardner also discusses magic squares, which seem to me to be the logical ancestors of the much simpler sudoku; the Tower of Hanoi problem; and some topological oddities that arise from manipulations of a Mobius strip (or two of them together). He gets a little ahead of himself, perhaps a function of the space limitations of the print world, in the chapter on fallacies by presenting two pure math fallacies without explaining exactly why they fail. Both revolve around attempts to prove that two unequal entities are equal; one fails through a disguised attempt to divide by zero, the other by treating i as a real (rather than imaginary) number, but I wouldn’t assume either fallacy was obvious by the way Gardner presents them.

I first encountered Gardner’s work in junior high school through his now out-of-print Aha! Gotcha! book, which took a similar approach to math tricks and paradoxes but was aimed at a younger audience; Hexaflexagons is the more grown-up version, aimed at math-loving kids like me who just refused to grow up.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Andrew Lawler’s brand-new book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization doesn’t quite measure up to the bravado of its subtitle – it’s neither epic nor is it a saga – but it is full of fascinating anecdotes on the history and near-future of the bird that is the most important source of animal protein in the world.

Lawler’s story repeatedly takes us back to the modern domesticated chicken’s (Gallus gallus domesticus) ancestral roots in south and southeast Asia, where its distant relative, the red jungle fowl, still lives in remote areas but is under threat from deforestation and human predation. The story of its evolution – yep, I said it – into the tame, flavorless, fast-growing and productive egg-laying creatures we consume today is the strongest narrative thread in the book, as Lawler traces the bird’s move across land and sea, through several crazes of breeding and development, into an industrial revolution that have made chicken popular and cheap. Along the way, however, it’s lost most of its taste and been bred into a bird that suffers greatly during its short life, often unable to stand under the weight of its enormous breasts (stop snickering), as its musculoskeletal system doesn’t grow fast enough to support it by the time it’s shipped off for slaughter.

While the history of the bird was interesting, it’s Lawler’s notes on the present state of the chicken and the issues in the near future of poultry farming that formed the book’s most compelling passages. In a chapter that reminded me of Vice’s tremendous mini-documentary on foie gras, Lawler visits a traditional French chicken farm where the birds are raised as they were a century and a half ago, resulting in meat that’s much more flavorful and tender, but at a much higher cost. That ties into interwoven discussions (little in the book is linear) about animal rights and what might constitute cruelty to birds that appear to be much more intelligent than we typically assume; Lawler writes, “Chickens are excluded from US laws regulating humane treatment of animals raised as food, and there are no international regulations,” although he mentions that the EU bans battery cages and refuses to import US-grown poultry for health and safety reasons.

These digressions lead to the most horrifying aspect of the book – Lawler’s descriptions of the conditions of factory-farmed chicken, and how recent changes may not even be as positive as they seem on the surface. Dr. Janice Siegford at the Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science says that her preliminary research indicates that “cage-free” may not be that much better for the birds than the old-style battery cages that (rightly) earned the ire of animal-rights activists. Cage-free birds are typically reared indoors, in giant aviaries that still keep the birds out of direct sunlight and away from their natural diet, all in the name of encouraging them to lay as many eggs as possible before they wear out after a year or so. Research into hen behavior in various settings seems to point to enhanced cages that grant more room to each bird while still giving them some of the privacy they seem to want while avoiding the violent behavior often exhibited by chickens in close quarters, even in the open environment of the aviary. (Irony alert: Michigan banned homeowners from raising chickens or any livestock in their yards. Gotta protect Big Egg, I guess.)

Lawler’s focus on telling the story leads to some unfortunate choices and mistakes along the way. He gives physical descriptions of the various experts, farmers, and executives he meets – I can’t think of anything less relevant to this story than a description of a professor’s haircut – but then refers to an unnamed paper by “two academics.” He botches an amusing tangent on the myth of the basilisk, which was supposedly born from an egg laid by a rooster (not a biological impossibility, as he later explains), by placing the creature’s appearance in the wrong Harry Potter book, and later misplaces Mali in sub-Saharan Africa when more than half the country is within that desert. The details themselves are unimportant to the whole narrative, but it’s a distraction that, when I’m reading any non-fiction book, makes me worry there are other mistakes I won’t catch.

In all fairness to Lawler, I wonder to what extent a narrative was pushed on him by his editors, as these food-history books don’t typically lend themselves well to that kind of structure; Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt were both very well-received by critics and food-industry folk, but neither has anything resembling a narrative. Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World has an actual narrative – the fight between man and fungus – but he had the benefit of working with one of the few foodstuffs that has no genetic diversity whatsoever. Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi is one of the best food books I’ve ever read, but he wove a separate narrative of a session at a sushi-chef school around his story, allowing him to tie together chapters on different fish or sushi-making traditions that otherwise would have been separate essays connected only by theme. Lawler’s book stands up much better in that light, as a series of diverse commentaries and histories connected by a common subject without a unifying thread. It probably doesn’t need one, given how important the chicken and its eggs are to feeding the world, and if anything Lawler could probably write a Pollan-esque sequel expanding on the last few chapters on the future of poultry farming, explaining where that part of the industry needs to go to remain productive while improving the welfare of the birds themselves.

Next up: Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

Tenth of December.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of American short story writer George Saunders until a friend of mine here in Delaware (the father of one of my daughter’s classmates) recommended Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, which won the 2013 Story Prize and the inaugural Folio Prize, while it was shortlisted for the National Book Award (along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), losing to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Saunders has a clear gift for speaking in tongues, using wildly different narrative voices from story to story, sometimes to the detriment of the story, while the vignettes themselves capture dark emotions through the eyes of ordinary (if a bit off-kilter) narrators.

The title story closes the book, and tells of a chance encounter between an adult man who intends to kill himself by allowing himself to freeze to death, and a teenaged boy who believes or is merely fantasizing that the girl on whom he has a crush has been abducted by the first man. When the boy falls into a frozen lake, the man is forced to abandon his plan if he wants to save the boy, while the reader hears his internal monologue explaining why he wants to take his own life. It takes a while to get going, which is true of most of the stories in the volume, but the pace accelerates once all of the critical elements are in place.

The real centerpiece of the book, both the most complex story and the one with the most irritating narration, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” written by a suburban father who’s struggling to provide a middle-class upbringing for his daughters. The story is told as a series of journal or diary entries from the father, who often dispenses with grammatical niceties like subjects, so the whole thing reads like it was written by a three-year-old (with a big vocabulary) or by Cookie Monster. The father has a Willy Loman-esque quality to his yearnings for more material trappings for his kids, especially his oldest daughter, who’s feeling the social impact of being one of the least affluent students in her school, while he and his wife (who don’t seem to be any too sharp with money) slowly rack up strangling consumer debt. An unexpected windfall allows him to splurge on a gift for his daughter, the Semplica Girls, whose plight – I won’t spoil it – should open his eyes to what real poverty and hopelessness are like, but don’t because he’s so caught up in his own internal rat race.

Saunders gets some comparisons to Vonnegut, although I think the latter was more wry and cynical where Saunders finds far more humanity in his characters and shows more empathy for them. “Escape from Spiderhead” describes the experiences of a convict in an experimental prison where the prisoners end up test subjects for a variety of drugs used to stimulate or repress feelings of love and lust. It’s a Vonnegut-esque view of the future, but where Vonnegut would have used the setting as a commentary on our increasing reliance on the pharmaceutical industry or the dangerous intersection of technology and the human condition, Saunders instead uses it as mere backdrop for the central character’s inner conflict when the warden/director administers a drug that delivers horrible mental and emotional pain to another patient while he’s forced to watch.

As in any collection, fiction or essays, one author or many, the quality within Tenth of December fluctuates. “Victory Lap,” the opener, takes a disturbingly distant, antiseptic view of one young boy, whose parents are strict to the point of abusive, facing an internal struggle whether to stop the potential rape of his young neighbor, a girl who appears to have thrown him overboard as a friend as she became more popular and his parents restricted him from any kind of socializing. “Home” may be a highly effective story of a young veteran returning from Iraq, struggling to deal with his own emotional trauma while he encounters an absolute mess in every aspect of his home life, but the story left me thinking I lacked the life experience (as in, I never served) to appreciate or evaluate what Saunders was trying to tell me. The ending of “Puppy” didn’t click with me at all, as it seemed like Marie would have made the opposite choice when confronted with the horrifying detail that turns her away.

Saunders’ facility with language, not so much his vocabulary but his ear for syntax, affect, the sound of words whether spoken or thought, was by far the strongest aspect of Tenth of December, making it easy for me to get lost in a story even if I didn’t find the plot itself terribly compelling. And the fact that he has empathy for most of his characters (aside, perhaps, from the two leads in “Victory Lap”) made it an emotional read as well, given his ability to get the reader into a character’s mind. When Saunders’ stories are more just stories and less with A Point, Tenth of December can match any anthology I’ve read.

If you’re intrigued and want to read a bit of his writing, Saunders’ nonfiction essay “Manifesto: A press release from People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction,” which appeared in Slate in 2004, is a marvelous read.

Next up: Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, which uses the word “cock” more often than any book I’ve ever read.

Saturday five, 3/7/15.

I’ve had two draft blog posts in the last week, one on Kyler Murray and one on UF shortstop Richie Martin, with some other players included in each piece. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday, my last before heading off to spring training, which will make chat times irregular for the rest of the month.

The University of Chicago Press has published a new edition of the essential baseball book The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics, with a foreword by … oh, hey, that’s me. The original came out in 1984, which I know is before many of you were born, but it remains one of the great gateways into understanding the sport on a rational level. I own a copy of the original, but I’m thrilled to get and to be part of this update.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Dr. Paul Offit, who invented the rotavirus vaccine and is one of the most ardent and erudite advocates for universal vaccination, on how the modern vaccine-denial movement is putting our children at risk.
  • Meanwhile, Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, who chairs a House science subcommittee, didn’t get his kids vaccinated. There’s no justification for having him anywhere near a science policy-making body, and he just feeds right into the whole children-as-property fallacy with his comments.
  • From the New York Times: Is most of our DNA just junk? It turns out the question of whether noncoding DNA serves any useful purposes is tied up in debates over genetics research and has even drawn in the cranks who push creation “science.”
  • Speaking of creationism, the irreducible complexity fallacy gets a good slap upside the head at the National Center for Science Education’s blog in a post tearing up that misconception. Evolution doesn’t favor increasing complexity, and, as the post asks, what exactly do you mean by “complexity” in the first place?
  • Radley Balko, who keeps churning out great investigative pieces, on as bad a case of police and DA corruption as you’ll see. A process server who served papers to a police officer ended up arrested and charged with assaulting the officer, with seven corroborating witnesses, most or all cops, backing it up … but the alleged assault never happened. And as far as I can tell, none of those cops has been charged or suspended in the case.
  • The man credited with bringing farm-to-table to Dallas long before that was even a term passed away last week at 58. Tom Spicer supplied produce to many of the Metroplex’s finest restaurants.
  • What purpose is served by a law that prevents a woman whose baby is almost certainly nonviable from terminating the pregnancy? That’s the very real case of a North Carolina woman, Whitney, who had to head two states away to have an abortion because North Carolina has banned all abortions past twenty weeks. This seems to me to be a medical issue, not a right-to-life vs. reproductive rights question, and therefore one best determined by the patient and her doctor.